As a proud member of the Baseball Bloggers Alliance, I get the privilege of voting for certain awards similar to, but not affiliated with, MLB’s postseason awards. The first two awards on the docket are the Connie Mack Award, given to the top manager in each league, and the Willie Mays Award, which goes to the best rookie.
I’ve never felt qualified to evaluate the performance of a manager, but because I write about WAR and the Hall of Fame a few times a week, my opinion has been sought. I don’t follow every team closely enough to comment on bullpen use, platoon situations, or other strategic moves, so I’ll base my picks on my subjective assessment of each team’s talent compared to their actual results.
National League Connie Mack Award
1. Kirk Gibson, Diamondbacks – I don’t think there’s any way Gibson can lose this award. He probably had more talent on the roster than we thought at the beginning of the season. Justin Upton is a budding superstar. Miguel Montero and Chris Young have developed into very useful players, while Ryan Roberts and Gerardo Parra came out of nowhere to contribute in 2011. Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson have blown away expectations, while Josh Collmenter’s effectiveness in his rookie season was even more surprising. They play in a weak division, but no one expected the Snakes to win 90 plus games and contend down to the wire for home field advantage in a playoff series. Gibson has to have influenced some of these wins.
2. Tony LaRussa, Cardinals – The Cardinals seem to contend every year, so their position in the Wild Card race may not surprise everyone, but this team lost ace Adam Wainwright for the whole year, weathered an ineffective Albert Pujols in the spring, and got surprising contributions from underwhelming players like and Kyle Lohse, John Jay, and the skeleton of Lance Berkman.
3. Bruce Bochy, Giants – Sure, the Giants won the World Series last season, but one look at their 2011 roster makes an over .500 season seem like a small miracle. No offensive player other than Pablo Sandoval was worth more than 2 WAR, and Sandoval missed over 40 games with injuries. The rotation was great again, but with Jonathan Sanchez offering nothing, Brian Wilson struggling on and off, and runs rarer than level-headed Giants fans, Bochy had to work hard for every win.
American League Connie Mack Award
1. Joe Maddon, Rays – It’s easy to attribute the Rays’ likely playoff berth to the historic collapse of the Red Sox or to a confluence of great starting pitchers blossoming at the same time, but Maddon has proven over the last four years that he’s one of the game’s great managers. Maddon lost Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena, Rafael Soriano, Joaquin Benoit, and Matt Garza to free agency. Then the front office gave him Manny Ramirez for about a week and a patchwork bullpen anchored by the notoriously volatile Kyle Farnsworth. They left Desmond Jennings and Matt Moore in the minor leagues for way too long, trying to stop gaps with Sam Fuld and Alex Cobb. But Maddon masterfully played the hand he was dealt and is now chasing his 90th win for the third time in four years.
2. Ron Washington, Rangers – The Rangers were expected to win the AL West from day one. They had the pitching, even before converted reliever Alexi Ogando turned to gold, and the hitting, even before Mike Napoli landed in Washington’s lap like a gift from God (and by “God”, I mean the bumbling Tony Reagins). The Rangers crushed the Red Sox out of the gate and built a big lead, as expected. But then Josh Hamilton got hurt. And Nelson Cruz got hurt. And Adrian Beltre got hurt. All the while, Ogando and Derek Holland ventured into innings pitched territory beyond their experience. And the Angels came charging, nearly overtaking the Rangers in August. Through it all, Washington kept his team playing hard, put the right players on the field at the right time, and ran away with the division. A lesser manager may have had the same result with this team, but we’ll never know.
3. Manny Acta, Indians – The Indians finished within two games of last place each of the past two seasons and their biggest offseason acquisition was the rotting corpse of Orlando Cabrera. The Tigers and White Sox looked loaded, the Twins always win, and the talk of the division was the Royals’ farm system coming of age. Yet for most of the first five months of the 2011 season, the Indians led the AL Central. Manny Acta got the most out of a young core, headed by Asdrubal Cabrera and Justin Masterson, while veterans Travis Hafner and Grady Sizemore shuffled in and out of the trainer’s room. Shin-soo Choo also went down early in the season, Acta had to use ten different starting pitchers, and Carlos Santana, a catcher, led the team in games played, but they hung tough all year and have a chance to finish above .500 for the first time since 2007.
The Rookie of the Year award is as open to interpretation as some people think the MVP award is. Should the award go to the best player, regardless of playing time? Should it go to the player who offered the most value throughout the year? Or should it go to the player who shows the most potential in his first shot at the big leagues? The only guidance we get from the BBA in voting for the Willie Mays Award is that it recognizes “the top rookie in each league”. I’ll do my best.
National League Willie Mays Award
1. Craig Kimbrel, Braves – I don’t like giving relievers rewards that could go to everyday players or starting pitchers, but in this case, it’s hard to deny what Kimbrel did in his fisrt big league season. His 2.00 ERA is supported by a 1.42 FIP. He gave up just three home runs in over 76 innings. All I should need to say to give Kimbrel this award, though, is that he struck out 14.86 batters per nine innings. Only four pitchers in baseball history have ever accomplished that feat (though they all did it in the last 12 years).
2. Wilson Ramos, Nationals – Ramos stands less than half an fWAR behind teammate Danny Espinosa for the NL lead among rookie position players. Amazingly, he did it in just 112 games, and may have been ever more valuable, considering the aspects of catcher defense that fWAR ignores.
3. Danny Espinosa, Nationals – I can’t decide between three great rookie pitchers- Brandon Beachy, Vance Worley, and Josh Collmenter- so I’ll go with the guy with the highest fWAR. Most of that value comes from Espinosa’s defense, but defense counts, and Espinosa did add 21 home runs and 17 stolen bases.
American League Willie Mays Award
1. Brett Lawrie, Blue Jays – Lawrie has played in just 43 games, so it would be easy to ignore his contributions and reward a player like Eric Hosmer or Mark Trumbo who was up for most of the season. But in 43 games, Lawrie brought more value to the Blue Jays than either of the aforementioned first basemen brought to their teams all year. He hit .293/.373/.580. He hit 9 home runs and stole 7 bases (it may be reasonable to multiply those numbers by four to get an idea of what a full season would look like). And while it’s dangerous to trust fielding statistics using a small sample size, Lawrie saved almost six runs above average with his glove, according to UZR. We don’t know how his numbers would translate over a grueling 162-game campaign, but how many rookies come into the league with power, speed, patience, and defensive ability?
2. Michael Pineda, Mariners – Jeremy Hellickson had the pretty ERA (2.90), Ivan Nova had the stunning won-loss record (16-4), but Pineda was the most impressive rookie pitcher in the league. In 171 innings, he struck out a preposterous 173 batters, while walking a reasonable 55.
3. Desmond Jennings, Rays – Like Lawrie, Jennings was called up too late to win a bunch of games for the Rays, but he made his brief presence felt. In 275 plate appearances, he hit .271/.368/.470, stealing 19 bases and playing above average defense for the late-charging Rays. This spot could have gone to Dustin Ackley or one of the pitchers or first basemen mentioned above, but Jennings demonstrated big league skills while affecting a pennant race, and that’s hard to ignore.
More awards to come.