I’ll do my best to make that my last month-long hiatus from this blog for a while. Something about writing about baseball when you can’t play it…
Anyway, I meant to use this space to say something nice about the Phillies in honor of my one loyal reader and commenter, Nick, and Liz, who said she might read this blog if I wrote something positive about her team. That’s still coming, but it seems a little less bold to predict another division title for a team 1 1/2 games out than it would’ve if I’d made the same call three weeks ago.
Instead, let’s talk about the postseason awards. ESPN’s stats & info blog weighed in this morning, about 70% through the season, but focused more on teams’ droughts between MVPs and Cy Youngs than who would actually win if the season ended today. Off the top of my head, I’d guess that half (or maybe a little more than half) of all MVPs and Cy Youngs were already favored to take home their awards by this point in the season, so it doesn’t seem too ridiculous to speculate now.
There are probably hundreds of ways to determine which players are most valuable, but I’ll stick to three methods, in ascending order of reasonability.
Some voters and pundits like to start their MVP candidate search by identifying the teams who best used their best players’ value. I’d rather not deny the best candidate because his teammates had a bad year, but this method is likely to produce good candidates, simply because the teams with the best players win more. In the AL, the Yankees, Rays, and Rangers seem like locks for the playoffs, with the White Sox and Twins in the running and the Red Sox likely to win a futile 90-95 games. From that group, we can single out Robinson Cano, Carl Crawford, Josh Hamilton, Alex Rios, Justin Morneau, and Adrian Beltre as the best position players on the best teams. Rios aside, I think we’ve got good candidates. Cano is the best player on the best team, and would be a perfectly defensible choice for MVP.
In the NL, the Braves, Phillies, Reds, Cardinals, Padres, and Giants look like contenders (though I wouldn’t count out the Rockies). That gives us Brian McCann, Jayson Werth, Joey Votto, Albert Pujols, Adrian Gonzalez, and Andres Torres. Not a stellar group, but the two best candidates are in there. San Diego has the league’s best record, but it would be hard to justify giving the MVP to Gonzalez, the league’s third-best first baseman, even if he does have 20 intentional walks and 22 homers despite playing half his games in cavernous Petco Park.
A second method to determine the MVPs would be to simply choose the guy with the highest WAR, a single stat reflecting a player’s contributions to his team at the plate, in the field, on the bases, in the clubhouse, at the steakhouse, and in the shower (note: statheads are still working on incporporating the last three elements). WAR likes Josh Hamilton (5.8) and Joey Votto (5.4), with Cano (5.5) and Ryan Zimmerman (5.0) second in their respective leagues. Again, very reasonable choices. Roy Halladay (5.9) actually has more WAR than any position player this season, while Cliff Lee (of course) and Francisco Liriano (a surprise to those who haven’t been following WAR this year) are tied for the AL Cy Young lead at 5.5 WAR.
I would be perfectly comfortable letting WAR determine this year’s winners, but I don’t think it should be as simple as one number every season. My preferred method, since I’m not entirely convinced that the defensive metrics buried in the WAR formula accuately measure defensive value, is to start with offensive value, either by looking at OPS or wOBA, then consider which candidates near the top of the list play premium defensive positions and which add value on the basepaths. A player’s team should have minimal impact on award voting, but if two players had similar seasons, the one whose value led to a playoff appearance should probably get the nod.
By this method, we get the following list of AL MVP candidates:
-Justin Morneau, 1st in wOBA, 2nd in OPS
-Miguel Cabrera, 2nd in wOBA, 1st in OPS
-Josh Hamilton, 3rd in both
-Kevin Youkilis, 4th in both
-Robinson Cano, 7th in both, tops among middle infielders
-Adrian Beltre, 8th in both, tops among third basemen
Let’s start by eliminating Morneau and Youkilis, both of who are injured and will have little effect on their teams’ playoff pushes. That leaves Cabrera, the best hitter, Hamilton, the best outfielder, Cano, the best middle infielder, and Beltre, the best hitter among players with superior defensive reputations. Beltre’s probably the next to go, as his numbers are a hair short of Cano’s across the board and his team is six games behind. Hamilton’s been the best on the basepaths, stealing seven bases in eight attempts, but that’s hardly enough to swing the scales. Cabrera is a triple crown threat, with 26 homers and a .341 average. If he continues to pull away from the field in terms of OBP (.429) and SLG (.632), he’s got a great case, but a poor fielding first baseman needs to be the best hitter by a wide margin to be the most valuable player in his league. Here’s my ballot as of today:
5. Morneau now, probably Crawford or Evan Longoria by the end of the season.
In the NL, it’s a little less muddled at the top. The candidates:
-Joey Votto, 1st in wOBA, 1st in OPS, by a good margin
-Albert Pujols, 2nd in both, also by a fair margin
-Carlos Gonzalez, 4th in both, tops among outfielders
-Ryan Zimmerman, 6th in OPS, 7th in wOBA, tops among third basemen
-Brian McCann, 17th in wOBA, 18th in OPS, tops among catchers
Dismal fielder Dan Uggla has been the best-hitting middle infielder, so I’m comfortable ignoring him and his ilk in this discussion. Gonzalez is an interesting candidate, a slick centerfielder with speed (18 steals in 23 attempts), but I think we’ve got something exciting going on if we ignore him for now. Two central teams are within one game of each other. Two slugging first basemen lead these two teams, far outpacing the rest of the league in terms of getting on base and hitting for power. Both are solid defenders with some speed (though Votto shouldn’t be stealing bases if his 67% success rate represents his true talent). At the moment, Votto has practically identical raw stats (28 HR and 66 BB, to Pujols’s 28 and 67), while leading Pujols in all three slash stats (320/422/603 to 311/406/579). Unless Pujols or Gonzalez charges to the finish, carrying his team to a division title with a flourish of offense, the award has to goto Votto. My ballot:
3. Carlos Gonzalez
4. Josh Johnson
The AL Cy Young is an easy one. Cliff Lee has a 2.44 ERA (which almost perfectly matches his fielding independent ERA), a .92 WHIP, and a staggering 14.0 strikeout to walk ratio. He’s walked 9 guys all year. We can take a look at Liriano’s 2.14 FIP (vs. a seriously unlucky 3.33 ERA), Jered Weaver’s 171 strikeouts, Felix Hernandez’s 174 1/3 innings pitched, or even David Price’s 15 wins, if that’s how you roll, but we’re not going to find a pitcher who’s done what Lee has done this year. My ballot:
5. Jon Lester
The National League, as the Beastie Boys might say, has more Cy Young candidates than
JD had Salinger. Before the season started, Roy Halladay was the obvious choice, having dominated the AL and moved to the softer league. Halladay’s been for real, with a league-leading 7.64 K/BB ratio. For half a season, Ubaldo Jimenez was so dominant that it was hard to see this award going to anyone else. At the moment, Josh Johnson’s numbers (1.97 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 4.33 K/BB) are so breathtaking that he seems like the obvious choice, but even beyond these three, there are great candidates.
Adam Wainwright has held opponents to a .210 batting average. His ERA is down to 2.07 and he’s run his won-loss record to 16-6. Tim Hudson is 13-5 with a 2.24 ERA. Mat Latos is 12-5, 2.36. Chris Carpenter is 13-3 and Yovani Gallardo has added 4 wins to the Brewers. And we haven’t even talked about past Cy Youngs Tim Lincecum and Johan Santana, both of whom boast numbers that would have warranted Cy Young consideration in the early 2000s.
I’ll make two calls here. At this point in the season, Josh Johnson, by the smallest of margins, has been the most valuable pitcher in the National League. But if you’re looking for a prediction, I think Adam Wainwright will win 5 or 6 more games with dominant starts down the stretch and steal the Cy Young, even if Ubaldo Jimenez wins 25 games.
My current ballot: