Award season starts Monday, with the Baseball Writers Association of America handing out the Rookies of the Year. Tuesday reveals Managers of the Year, Wednesday the Cy Young Award winners and Thursday the MVPs. Since the regular season ended six weeks ago, allow these ballots for each to serve as a refresher in anticipation.
1. Mookie Betts
2. Mike Trout
3. Alex Bregman
4. Jose Ramirez
5. J.D. Martinez
6. Francisco Lindor
7. Matt Chapman
8. Justin Verlander
9. Blake Snell
10. Aaron Judge
Just missed: Andrelton Simmons, Jose Altuve, Aaron Hicks, Khris Davis, Chris Sale
No, that is not a typo. The last time Mike Trout played a near-full season and I didn’t vote him first in the American League MVP balloting was … never. Did it in 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016. He was the best player in the league each of those years. Ergo, he was the MVP, because best and most valuable are interchangeable.
I still believe Trout is the best player in baseball, and I think there is a perfectly good argument to be made that he was the best player in the 2018 season. Over the course of those six months, I just happen to believe Betts was ever so slightly better.
Their offensive numbers are practical mirrors. Distinguishing between the two offensively would take an electron microscope, and even then the pathology of Betts and Trout would remain near-indistinguishable. What it comes down to, then, is baserunning and fielding, which brings us into difficult territory.
I’ve long thought publicly available defensive metrics are not good. The creators’ admission that they can take anywhere from a year to three years’ worth of data to really understand a player’s defensive value doesn’t exactly instill confidence in the single-year numbers. And for the many whose votes reflect Wins Above Replacement numbers that rely upon these metrics whose one-year numbers are at best fairly reflective, at worst suspect, then what does it say about the current state of WAR?
All of this is a preface to saying that if Betts and Trout are tied offensively – and they pretty much are – then defense will be the separator. And after talking with a half-dozen teams with robust analytics departments serving as think tanks and dispensing their own defensive ratings, I’m fairly confident Betts was the better fielder this season, even as Trout played a harder position (centerfield to Betts’ right).
And in this case, where the bat and the legs are practically equal, and where Betts may have a slight advantage with his glove, the vote goes to him. It feels odd to say – Mike Trout, the guy who OPS’d 1.156 in the second half, second only to the man whose name you’re about to read atop the NL MVP ballot, second also in AL MVP voting – but it’s right.
Long before he won a championship – the postseason isn’t factored into any BBWAA award voting – Mookie Betts was the AL MVP.
1. Christian Yelich
2. Jacob deGrom
3. Max Scherzer
4. Nolan Arenado
5. Javier Baez
6. Lorenzo Cain
7. Paul Goldschmidt
8. Freddie Freeman
9. Anthony Rendon
10. Trevor Story
Just missed: Max Muncy, Matt Carpenter, Aaron Nola, Eugenio Suarez, J.T. Realmuto
For most of the second half, I was not just conducting the deGrom-for-Cy Young train. I’d commissioned the deGrom-for-MVP plane. And then came the final month-and-change of the season.
In which deGrom pitched wonderfully, it should be noted. From Aug. 22 on, he made seven starts, threw 49 innings, struck out 65, put up a 1.65 ERA and allowed opponents to hit .162/.206/.216. That is fairly ridiculous. Certainly MVP-worthy.
Except in that time, Yelich went .388/.500/.868 himself. That is five Bondsian weeks. That is taking an All-Star-caliber .308/.371/.519 line and finishing the season at .326/.402/.598. That’s going from excellent to MVP.
No, this doesn’t have anything to do with deGrom’s record (10-9) or Yelich’s team, the Milwaukee Brewers, winning their division. The former is indicative of nothing and the latter not a consideration in my MVP conversation. It’s not about pitchers having less of a right to the MVP than hitters; clearly, based on their appearance on both ballots, that isn’t the case. A vote for deGrom is perfectly understandable and logical. This one, for Yelich, is as much about that everyday excellence, particularly compared to his peers.
AL Cy Young
1. Justin Verlander
2. Blake Snell
3. Chris Sale
4. Trevor Bauer
5. Gerrit Cole
Just missed: Corey Kluber, Luis Severino, Carlos Carrasco
This might be the most difficult year to fill out a full complement of ballots that I can remember, and the AL Cy Young may be the toughest of the six.
Let’s start with two names not on the ballot: Edwin Diaz and Blake Treinen. Both were amazing this season. In a different year, they might merit a spot. As baseball shifts to a relief-heavier game, they might merit a spot. Not this season. Not with this complement of starting pitchers, who are throwing at least twice as many innings as relievers.
Used to be three times as many, which made the anti-reliever argument a lot easier. What this vote came down to was balancing the importance of innings thrown with the dominance of those who may have thrown fewer. Verlander finished second in the league with 214 innings, one behind the leader. He also led the league in strikeouts and finished second in walk rate. He was, by any account, incredible.
Snell was pretty incredible, too. How about this: In the second half, he threw 61 2/3 innings, allowed 32 hits, walked 17, struck out 87, put up a 1.17 ERA and went 9-0. Yes, ERA can be fairly misleading. Yes, win-loss record stinks. But even the most ardent sabermetric adherent would look at 9-0 with a 1.17 and say: Damn, that guy’s pretty good.
The issue with Snell concerns volume: He’s a full 33 1/3 innings behind Verlander – and when dealing with something like the Cy Young, that’s a long play. Even though over those extra innings Verlander allowed 22 more earned runs than Snell, the ability for the Astros to rest their bullpen and necessity for the Rays to use theirs more factors in to what a pitcher brings.
All of this would’ve been moot had Sale thrown more than 158 innings. He was clearly the favorite until his shoulder started barking. Then it was Bauer, until a line drive broke a bone in his leg. Ultimately it landed on Verlander because he was there, he was healthy and he was great, and in a game that may be phasing out volume starters, he was a classic workhorse, just the kind Houston needed.
NL Cy Young
1. Jacob deGrom
2. Max Scherzer
3. Aaron Nola
4. Patrick Corbin
5. Kyle Freeland
Just missed: Miles Mikolas, Mike Foltynewicz, Zack Wheeler, German Marquez
At one point, I figured stumping for deGrom was going to take a lot of work. In the end, this was the single easiest first-place vote of the eight awards. If deGrom doesn’t win unanimously, it’s only because the voter cares about win-loss records, because there is simply no statistical case to be made for anyone other than deGrom.
His ERA was more than a half-run lower than the next-best starter. His FIP was almost a half-run better. He had the second-best strikeout rate, the third-best walk rate and the best home-run rate. He lost the innings crown by 3 2/3 to Scherzer, who also won the strikeout title. Those data points are literally the only two working in his favor.
And Scherzer was really good! One can make a very good case, in fact, that he was better this year than each of the last two years – and he won Cy Youngs in 2016 and 2017. DeGrom was just that much better this year. He’ll be rewarded accordingly and set a record for fewest wins by a Cy Young Award-winning starter.
AL Rookie of the Year
I had a ballot, which I am not allowed to reveal. I will update this once the announcement is live.
In the meantime, there were a number of excellent candidates: Miguel Andujar, Jaime Barria, Shane Bieber, Brad Keller, Ramon Laureano, Shohei Ohtani, Gleyber Torres, Joey Wendle and others. Andujar, Ohtani and Torres were the finalists. I’ll say this much: My three-person ballot did not include all three. And I didn’t find settling on a first-place choice to be nearly as difficult as other awards.
NL Rookie of the Year
1. Ronald Acuña Jr.
2. Juan Soto
3. Walker Buehler
Just missed: Jack Flaherty, Harrison Bader, Brian Anderson, Dereck Rodriguez, Jeff McNeil
Another incredibly hard one. Soto did things we haven’t ever seen teenagers do. A .292/.406/.517 line after playing the entire season as a 19-year-old? It’s obscene. If he winds up being the best hitter in the NL for the next half-decade, it will be no surprise at all. His pure left-handed stroke combined with truly elite plate discipline makes him a cornerstone for the Washington Nationals, even if Bryce Harper does leave.
Acuña, though. When one scout said he believes Acuña is the heir apparent to Trout and may be as good as him by next season, he swears he is not engaging in hyperbole. He believes second-half Acuña – .322/.403/.625 with 19 home runs in 68 games – is the kind of Acuña we could see all year.
Remember, while Soto was 19, Acuña was only 20. And while age doesn’t matter – the differentiator, in this case, was more Acuña’s speed and glove slightly edging out Soto’s minuscule advantage with the bat – it does allow us to appreciate what a special group this was. When Walker Buehler, who at some point is going to start an All-Star Game for the National League, gets only one line in a piece about rookies, it shows the strength of the top of the class.
AL Manager of the Year
1. Alex Cora
2. Bob Melvin
3. Kevin Cash
All three deserve to win. In his first year managing in Boston, Cora led the Red Sox to 108 wins. Melvin took a ragtag bunch of Oakland A’s – seriously, does this look like a pitching staff that should have won 97 games? – to a completely unexpected playoff spot. Cash coordinated the introduction of perhaps the most radical pitching-use plan ever hatched – and it totally worked en route to 90 wins.
Cora being first feels cheap. He had far and away the most talent and the highest payroll. He also won 108 games. And, look, if you’re talking about manager, the desire is to win and you have somebody who guided one of the dozen winningest teams ever, well, you take the ragtag or the radical. I’ll have the guy who won 108 games.
NL Manager of the Year
1. Craig Counsell
2. Brian Snitker
3. Bud Black
At the BBWAA meeting next month, there is going to be a debate over the Manager of the Year Award. One writer wants it to vanish and plans to bring it up for discussion. I’m of similar mind. Not because I think managers don’t deserve their own award. On the contrary. More than ever I appreciate managers and the difficulty of their jobs. I just find baseball writers exceedingly poorly equipped to judge the best manager.
Almost always the Manager of the Year fits one of two qualifications: He runs a ridiculously good team (see: Cora) or one that far exceeded the expectations of the writers (see: Snitker). The former is fine; it’s also quite simple. The latter is problematic. Because a bunch of sportswriters didn’t appreciate a particular team, that team’s manager deserves an award? It’s not quite that linear, but it lives down the street.
Truth is, for all the good things I have heard about Counsell or Snitker or Black or any manager, I’ve heard some negative, too. At least with players, voters can inform themselves with statistics or objective information. That is incredibly difficult to come by with managers. And modern managing is such a people game – placating egos, massaging transactions, media sessions – that trying to quantify it doesn’t work.
Perhaps others feel as though they’ve got a better grip – that I’m oversimplifying this and writers are as well-equipped as anyone to vote on the award. Maybe so. I just know that every year I sit in front of a Manager of the Year ballot, either for this column or in real life, I dread making the choices, not because they’re so difficult but because unlike the others, I do so with no conviction.
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