Final Awards Picks

The regular season ended today with four meaningful baseball games, one of which went into extra innings (though the Rays had clinched the division by the end of the ninth), another of which was decided by one run (with the Braves’ bullpen doing their best to blow Bobby Cox’s last season and a strong start from Tim Hudson), and a third carried extra drama because both teams were playing for a division title (which the Giants would win resoundingly, beating the Padres, 3-0). Major award ballots are due tomorrow, as voters have seen all they need to see to determine who were the best hitters, pitchers, rookies, and managers, so I’ll present here the ballots I would send in if I were an actual baseball writer.

I’ll quickly dispense with managers and rookies, neither of which I feel qualified to pick. The Manager of the Year award tends to go to a manager whose team exceeded expectations, and in the National League, that really can’t be anyone other than Bud Black. Those who were highest on the Padres before the season predicted them holding off the Diamondbacks for fourth place in the NL West, but the Dads somehow won 90 games and came within one win of a one-game playoff to determine the NL West winner. Someone else (Charlie Manuel? Bruce Bochy?) may have done a better job, but it’s hard to deny that someone or something inspired an uninspiring Padres roster to play beyond their means for most of the season, and it just may have been Bud Black.

In the AL, Terry Francona overcame one of the more ridiculous series of major injuries to star players a baseball fan will ever see to win 89 games, but the Red Sox are supposed to win 90+ every year, regardless of personnel. Ron Washington overcame the potential controversy of the news of his past cocaine use and the meddling of a front office demanding that he buck conventional wisdom regarding pitch counts, and won 90 games and the AL West. If winning this year’s AL West were more of an accomplishment, Washington would be a strong candidate. The real frontrunner, though, has to be Ron Gardenhire, who managed a new-look Twins team to a 94-win season in a sometimes-contested AL Central despite losing closer Joe Nathan for the whole season and one-time MVP candidate Justin Morneau for almost half.

Both Rookie of the Year races are hotly contested and depend heavily on one’s interpretation of the definition of the award. If the Rookie of the Year is the most impressive rookie with the highest potential, a relief pitcher has to win in the AL. Neftali Feliz saved 40 games with a 2.73 ERA and a 0.88 WHIP, striking out 71 and walking 18 in 69 1/3 innings. Daniel Bard had a slightly better ERA (1.94) and a higher WHIP (1.01), with just a few more Ks (76) and many more walks (30) in 74 1/3 innings. But if the Rookie of the Year is about value, we don’t have to split hairs between Feliz and Bard, since Austin Jackson was the league’s most valuable rookie. Jackson hit .295/.347/.402 (batting average/on base/slugging), while capably manning centerfield for the Tigers, accumulating 3.7 WAR (per fangraphs) in the process, three full wins ahead of the next rookie position player (Brennan Boesch’s .7). Feliz and Bard, in contrast, contributed 1.8 and 1.5 more wins, respectively, than a replacement player would have contributed.

The National League had several great rookies this season, including Pittsburgh’s Neil Walker and St. Louis’s Jaime Garcia, but the award comes down to Jason Heyward’s season-long greatness vs. Buster Posey’s phenomenal second half, without which it’s quite unlikely the Giants would still be suiting up later this week. Heyward won 4.7 games for the Braves by hitting .275/.392/.452 with 18 homers and a remarkable 90 walks. Posey, after being called up from the minors on May 29, hit .306/.358/.500, accumulating 3.6 WAR and carrying the Giants pitching staff through a torrid run in which they allowed just 60 runs after September 1 (hat tip to Rob Neyer for that fact). A catcher’s effect on the success of his pitching staff might be overrated, but it’s something of value that doesn’t show up in even the most advanced value statistics. While that edge is nearly enough to catapult Posey to the top of my list, it’s hard to ignore what Jason Heyward did as a 20 (and later 21)-year-old, destroying the league in April and May, struggling with midseason injuries, and returning to walk 90 times and hit 51 extra base hits in 618 plate appearances. Heyward is my pick.

That brings us to the big awards. The AL Cy Young has been, and will continue to be, a topic of much controversy, as the voters must decide whether the award should go to the best pitcher (Felix Hernandez, by most measures), or the guy who won the most games for a playoff team (CC Sabathia, with 21). The two keepers of Wins Above Replacement disagree on what pitcher was the league’s most valuable, but neither argues for Sabathia. Fangraphs has Cliff Lee with 7.1 WAR, .7 ahead of Hernandez, who narrowly edged out Justin Verlander for second place. Baseball-Reference gives it to King Felix, with 6 WAR, half a win ahead of Sabathia and Jered Weaver. This tells us, of course, that WAR can’t be the sole determinant of a player’s value, and that we should look a little deeper. The more layers we peel back, the more we like Hernandez, who led the league in innings pitched (with 249 2/3) and ERA (2.27), and was within one strikeout of Weaver’s league-leading 233. Lee looks better in terms of strikeout-to-walk ratio (a ridiculous 185/18, compared to Hernandez’s 232/70 and Sabathia’s 197/74). xFIP, which excludes factors out of a pitcher’s control like defense and balls finding gaps, puts Lee and Francisco Liriano ahead of Hernandez. The bottom line, to me, is that the guy whose season was the best from a volume standpoint (innings pitched) was also the best at run prevention (ERA). The top line on the ballot is much easier to decide than the next four.

My ballot:
1. Felix Hernandez
2. Cliff Lee
3. Jered Weaver
4. CC Sabathia
5. David Price

In the National League, what looked like a great five- or six-way race just a month ago was put to bed quietly when Roy Halladay finished the year with five straight wins, culminating with his ninth complete game and fourth shutout. Halladay led the league in WAR per fangraphs and was within a tenth of a win of Ubaldo Jimenez in Baseball-Reference’s list, likely due to the latter’s more extreme park factors. In my mind, if we’re going to consider the thin Coors Field air in Jimenez’s argument, we need to factor in the bandbox in which Halladay pitches as well. Halladay’s 219 strikeouts and 30 walks rivaled Cliff Lee’s remarkable efficiency, and his 250 2/3 innings pitched exceeded even Hernandez’s. Again, the 2 through 5 spots are harder to pick than the top line.

My ballot:
1. Roy Halladay
2. Adam Wainwright
3. Ubaldo Jimenez
4. Josh Johnson
5. Roy Oswalt

And now, the MVPs. Before Josh Hamilton got hurt, the AL MVP was shaping up to be a no-brainer. Since Hamilton’s injury, which took him out for most of September, it’s turned into a free-for-all. Raw hitting stats say Miguel Cabrera was the best in the league, his OPS (1.042) nearly the same as Hamilton’s league-leading 1.046 despite 81 more plate appearances. Fangraphs’ WAR had Hamilton so far ahead at the time of his injury that most of a month off couldn’t help anyone catch him, as Adrian Beltre finished .9 wins behind. Baseball-Reference likes Evan Longoria, with Shin Soo-Choo the only player within half a win of his 7.6. Old-school stats prefer Jose Bautista, whose 54 home runs led the league by a head, shoulders, and most of an abdomen, and whose 124 RBI were second to Cabrera’s 126. It would be foolish to stop here, as we also saw excellent lines from a catcher (Joe Mauer’s .327/.402/.467), a second baseman (Robinson Cano’s .320/.382/.535), another gold glove-caliber third baseman (Beltre’s .321/.365/.553), and a first baseman (Paul Konerko’s .310/.392/.583) with a better glove than Cabrera’s.

It’s hard enough to separate these nine guys without considering whether King Felix’s pitching numbers were better than any hitter’s, so let’s keep Hernandez and his 101-loss Mariners out of the conversation for now. Bautista had remarkable power numbers, but was more one-dimensional than most of the players we’ve named above, so he’s out. Both WAR measures prefer Cabrera to Konerko, so we’ll eliminate the second-best first baseman. Choo’s value is mostly defense-based, and is somewhat contested by fangraphs. Besides, if he’s in the conversation, we have to consider Carl Crawford, and we’re looking to eliminate candidates, not to add them. Mauer’s numbers were nearly as phenomenal as last year’s MVP numbers, but he’s about 100 plate appearances behind most of the remaining contenders.

That leaves Beltre, Cabrera, Cano, Hamilton, and Longoria. At this point, we’re picking nits, because any of these guys may well have been the league’s best player, but I didn’t start a blog to declare a five-way tie. We’ve got two third basemen left, so one must go. Longoria’s .294/.372/.507 line is just a few on-base points ahead of Beltre’s and nearly 50 slugging percentage points behind, but it’s possible that Longoria could’ve made up those 50 points with the Green Monster turning flyouts into doubles in half of his games. Beltre’s Ultimate Zone Rating of 11.8 leads Beltre’s 11.0, but Baseball-Reference credits Longoria with 1.4 defensive WAR, compared to Beltre’s .6. Beltre outhomered Longoria, 28-22, and while he walked much less (72-40), he also struck out many fewer times (124-82). Here come the nits: Beltre grounded into ten more double plays than Longoria did, while stealing 13 fewer bases. By the slightest of margins, I’ll take Evan Longoria as the best third baseman in the AL. After that debate, it gets easier to dismiss Cano, whose OPS was nearly identical to Beltre’s in a similar park, but whose defense (-.6 UZR, 0 dWAR) lags far behind either third baseman. Cabrera’s defense (-6.2 UZR, -.5 dWAR) is much worse than Cano’s, and with his offense not too far ahead of Hamilton’s, I think it’s time to dismiss his candidacy as well. That leaves Hamilton and Longoria. Various metrics are split about Hamilton’s defense, while Longoria is unanimously excellent. Hamilton clearly hit better, but in 94 fewer plate appearances and in a much more hitter-friendly ballpark. So, as satisfied as I’d be with anyone on the ballot below winning this year’s AL MVP, here’s my final ballot:

1. Evan Longoria
2. Josh Hamilton
3. Adrian Beltre
4. Robinson Cano
5. Miguel Cabrera
6. Joe Mauer
7. Jose Bautista
8. Felix Hernandez
9. Paul Konerko
10. Shin Soo-Choo

The NL MVP field is not quite as deep. Joey Votto seems to have wrapped up the actual vote, but to consider his Pujols-like numbers (1.021 OPS, 37 HR) without considering the context of the park in which he plays half of his games and the fact that the original Albert Pujols has a 1.013 OPS and 42 homers would be shortsighted. Both are good, but not great, fielders, capably playing the least demanding position on the diamond, which opens the conversation to better fielders, like Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki in Colorado, but no one else’s offensive numbers quite match Joey’s or Albert’s. Here’s my final ballot:

1. Albert Pujols
2. Joey Votto
3. Adrian Gonzalez
4. Roy Halladay
5. Troy Tulowitzki
6. Carlos Gonzalez
7. Ryan Zimmerman
8. Brian McCann
9. Adam Wainwright
10. Ubaldo Jimenez

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2 Responses to Final Awards Picks

  1. Ryan says:

    Think I’d have to go with Hamilton and Votto for MVP. Mauer ran away with it last year despite missing a month, and Hamilton should do the same. His WAR is nearly a full run higher than anyone else in the AL, and could have been a lot higher. I think you have to account for both cumulative value and value when healthy…. as for Votto, I think he had a better year hitting than Pujols even when adjusting for ballpark – plus he was probably a slightly better fielder, and everything else that shouldn’t really matter (Pujols already has 3; Reds won the division, etc) swings it Votto’s way. Funny to think he almost didn’t make the all-star team, eh?

    As for Cy Young, I agree with Halladay but might lean toward Cliff Lee for the AL CY. Not that I’d mind giving it to a superior pitcher despite a losing record, but Lee had the better season by most sabermetric measures… better component ERA, DIPS, etc. Felix’s innings accumulation alone doesn’t really do much for me (see Hamilton argument above) but it does tell me that he almost never gets yanked early. Almost every start is a QS and he’s just about as solid a pitcher as you’ll find, which is probably the best argument for him… all you have to do is score 4 runs behind him to win – alas, those Mariners offense ain’t the Rangers or Yankees or Rays. Playoffs should be fun.

    • Bryan says:

      Ryan, thanks for commenting. I can’t disagree with Hamilton or Votto, but I’ll disagree with your point about not being impressed by quantity (plate appearances/innings pitched). Predictive value is probably best measured using rate stats, but the retrospective value of a player to his team (which is what we’re really looking at here) is measured in quantity of contributions. Sure, you can make a case that Hamilton did more in 131 games than Longoria did in 152 (forgive me for not looking up the actual figures, but I looked at them yesterday), but Hamilton’s absence meant that the Rangers had to put a less capable player in left field for a whole month and had to add another salary to round out the roster. It helps his case that the team had basically wrapped up the division by the time he got hurt, and that the September callup that took his spot on the 40-man roster might have been called up anyway, but in looking at value, if someone played at an MVP level for the whole season, I’d rather have had him on my team than the guy who was slightly better for 80% of the year. I don’t love the Mauer comparison because (1) catchers are expected to rest 15-30 games, injured or otherwise, and (2) Mauer put up numbers similar to Hamilton’s while playing a much more demanding defensive position. Hamilton’s a great choice, but he’s not obviously the best one.

      Cliff Lee, as you mention, makes a great case if you consider only controllable outcomes, but again, controllable outcomes weren’t the only outcomes that affected his teams’ success this season. He has a case for the most talented pitcher in the AL, but his results this year were not the best. Dave Cameron of fangraphs wrote a piece today definding his use of FIP in calculating WAR and ended up conceding that using adjusted RA (E and unE), as Baseball-Refenence does, is just as legitimate. Baseball-Reference takes all those balls in play that Lee and his defense and the Arlington weather turned into hits and considers him the 9th (I believe) most valuable pitcher in the AL this year. I think we have to consider the merits of both systems and go with the guy who was dominant by any measure. This paragraph could jsut as easily have justified my leaving Francisco Liriano out of my top five, by the way.

      As for Votto, I expected to vote for him all along, until I looked at his final numbers and Pujols’s and realized that the only real difference between them was geography and its corresponding geometry. Baseball-Reference seems to do a better job of adjusting WAR for park effects, and it shows in their preference of Pujols to Votto. Of course, I never looked at WPA until today, when I saw that Votto’s value has increased his team’s win expectancy by more than anyone in either league. I don’t like to play the “this guy was more valuable because his team made the playoffs” card, but that might speak to the Reds having won the division in large part due to Votto’s play. Perhaps a revision is due.

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