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Wait. We're at the finish line already? How'd that happen? Wasn't it just Opening Day about five minutes ago?
I'm sure you all recall how I predicted back in April that Dioner Navarro and Juan Uribe would both bash three home runs in a game … that a Giants pitcher would throw 8 2/3 perfect innings -- and it would be Yusmeiro Petit … that Reid Brignac would play as many games for the Yankees as Derek Jeter … and that Cubs pitchers would hit as many home runs as Lance Berkman (six).
OK, so I forgot to predict any of that. But what the heck. Did I ever claim to be Nostradamus or something?
Well, one thing I've learned over the years is: It's always easier to look back than to look forward. So it's time once again to hand out my annual end-of-season awards in a ceremony that, as always, will not be hosted by Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Neil Patrick Harris or even Lenny Harris. Ready? The envelopes, please …
Oh boy. Here we go again. A year ago, in this very space, I did my darndest to explain why Mike Trout deserved this award, even over a real, live Triple Crown winner. And it came down to this: Miguel Cabrera may have had an offensive season for the ages, but Trout was a better baseball player. So why, a year later, am I about to brand myself as an official flip-flop artist and argue for why Cabrera ought to be the MVP? Yeah, yeah. I'm aware this comes down to basically the same conversation. But the context isn't the same -- because not every season presents us with the same set of circumstances. Now maybe you don't see it that way. A lot of really smart people don't. And I'm not here to say they're wrong, because face it: There is no wrong answer here. I wrote just last week about the greatness of Mike Trout. So no need to lecture me on that front. But can we stop for a moment to admire the brilliance of the other guy in this debate? Would that be OK? Cool. Because here are Miguel Cabrera's numbers, as of Friday morning:
You know how many hitters have matched or beaten those numbers since World War II? Exactly three: Barry Bonds, Mickey Mantle and Larry (Yes, He Played at Coors) Walker. And if we include RBIs (with Cabrera at 137 as we speak), nobody else has done it. You know the last right-handed hitter to put up that slash line, with that many home runs? That would be Jimmie Foxx. In 1938. And the only other men who have ever matched or beaten those stats in any era are Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Hack Wilson. Period. So this just in: Miguel Cabrera isn't just a really good hitter having a really good year. He's one of the greatest hitters who ever dug into a batter's box. And he's having a historically insane year, even as he plays through a groin/abdomen injury that has sapped him of his thunder (.246 in September, with just two extra-base hits). So what this debate comes down to, one more time, is how we define "valuable."
If there are bright people out there who believe the only definition of "valuable" is "value above a replacement player," they're allowed to see it that way. Or any way. But they don't have the right to demean anyone who sees this differently. The MVP conversation has always involved differentiating the most "valuable" player in the league from the most "outstanding" player. So I don't understand the logic that, apparently, we're no longer allowed to even contemplate the question, "Could this team possibly have won or contended if Player X hadn't been around to do his thing?" The fact is, while it's clearly not Trout's fault that the Angels have spent one day all season above .500, that's the cold reality. His team last played a meaningful game when? About Memorial Day? That wasn't the case last year. The Angels actually won more games than the Tigers. They weren't eliminated until the final weekend of the season. But this year has been a whole different deal. And if you don't believe it's more meaningful, and more pressure-packed, to be a difference-making player -- let alone a historically difference-making player -- on a team that has to grind for six months to win something, ask any player who has ever been there, done that. They know. And they don't need any decimal points to tell them. So this vote, one year later, goes to Miguel Cabrera. Not because I don't understand how special Mike Trout is. Because, after thinking this through long and hard, I'm allowed to come to a different conclusion after a very different season.
But meanwhile, over in the National League, there's nothing to fight about -- because Andrew McCutchen is an MVP for every constituency (other than possibly those renegade constituencies in places like St. Louis and Atlanta). For the traditionalists who love a guy with a big smile, pretty numbers and a great story line, McCutchen is right up their power alley. Hanging with the league leaders in all sorts of time-honored stat columns -- hits, runs, doubles, steals, walks and, of course, the batting race. Having a monster second half (.342/.442/.558) for a team that needs all the offense it can dredge up. And, with 38 doubles, in position to potentially join Mike Trout as the only players in baseball with 20 homers, 20 steals and 40 doubles. But get out your spreadsheets, because McCutchen is also a sabermetrician's dream. Leads all NL position players in the offensive component of wins above replacement (7.3). Second in adjusted OPS. Superior baserunner. Plus defender. Lights up the power/speed number column. Neck and neck with Joey Votto for the league lead in a FanGraphs stat you probably never heard of, called WPA/Li, which measures what a player contributes to his team's win expectancy and factors it by how he plays in high-leverage game situations.
But you know what? In McCutchen's case, what he means to the Pirates can't be summed up by any number, new-age or old-age. What this guy is, above all, is a special player who has come along at a special moment in time in the life of his franchise. And he meets the classic MVP definition of any era. "If you look at any of the playoff teams," says his GM, Neal Huntington, "and ask, 'If you took one player out of their lineup, what kind of impact would it make,' I can't see how any player in baseball could possibly be more important to his team than Andrew McCutchen. If you took him out of our lineup, I honestly don't know if we're still a playoff team." Well, let's answer that question for him. Of course they're not. A playoff team? They might not even be a .500 team without him. So what is there to debate? This case is officially closed.
Six months ago, I picked Josh Johnson to win the AL Cy Young Award. I picked the Blue Jays to win the AL East. I thought their monster trade with the Marlins was a stroke of genius. I even thought Melky Cabrera was a decent roll of the Ontario dice. So it's safe to say I'm in no position to dump on this team and its ultra-thoughtful GM, Alex Anthopoulos, for all the stuff that went wrong this year. But holy crappola.
This outfit produced so many deserving LVP candidates, I had to let them share in this award. Johnson went 2-8 in 16 starts, made his fifth and sixth trips to the disabled list in the past seven seasons, killed the rotation, destroyed his free-agent marketability and became the second starter in the history of the franchise (joining Dave Lemanczyk) with an ERA (6.20) and WHIP (1.66) this ugly in this many innings. Melky had a .682 OPS, got four extra-base hits after May and then headed off for back surgery. Emilio Bonifacio and Maicer Izturis both had a sub-.600 OPS and combined for more errors (17) than steals (13). J.P. Arencibia hit .194, with a .229 OBP and 56 more strikeouts (147) than hits (91), and apparently wasn't real happy his broadcast team decided to mention that. He also helped the Jays become just the fourth team in the past 40 years to have three different catchers (Arencibia, Josh Thole, Henry Blanco) hit below the Mendoza Line (in 40-plus PA). And a rotation that was supposed to be their backbone wound up ranking 29th in the big leagues in ERA (4.80) and innings per start (5.57).
Normally, the LVP award is an individual achievement. But these Blue Jays remind us that every once in a while, we need to pick out an entire group and ask: "What the heck just happened?"
It would make perfect baseball sense if B.J. Upton goes out there this October and hits like .700, with 12 homers, 18 steals and 25 Web Gems -- because one of these days, or weeks, or centuries, a guy with this much talent has to do something productive. Right? But so far? Wow. One season into a five-year, $75.25 million contract, all the highest-paid player in Braves history has done is put himself in contention to become the biggest free-agent debacle of all time.
I don't use words like "debacle" lightly, either. But boy, do they apply to a fellow who has (got the Advil handy?) … a .184 batting average, the second-lowest average in the entire sport among players with at least 400 plate appearances (beating out only his own teammate, that .181-hitting Dan Uggla) … a .289 slugging percentage, a lower percentage than -- no kidding -- Juan Pierre, Adeiny Hechavarria and Ben (Still Homerless in my 1,304-AB Career) Revere … gone 0 for the entire season (0-for-28, 18 strikeouts) with runners on third base … hit .157/.227/.222 against left-handed pitching … a mind-boggling .108 batting average (10-for-93, with 42 strikeouts) with runners in scoring position … gone an even more mind-boggling 4-for-54 (.074), with 27 strikeouts and no homers, with two outs and runners in scoring position … and has hit .106 so far in September, including 1 for his last 36, with 19 whiffs.
So what's the word for it that the Braves are still going to manage to win their division by 10 games or so, even though their biggest acquisition of the offseason has just had a year that disastrous? Well, you might pick "miracle" to describe it. But I'll go with "historic." Before this, no team had finished in first place, while running out a regular position player (i.e., one with 400-plus PA) with a batting average below .190, since the 1906 White Sox did it with their own .183 hitter (Lee Tannehill) playing third base. And now the Braves are about to finish first with two regulars (Upton and Uggla) who meet that description. Amazing.
You should know, right off the top, that if, by some miracle, the voters agree with me on these picks, the Tigers will become just the ninth AL team ever to produce an MVP/Cy Young duo in the same season. (Last to do it, according to Fox Sports Detroit's Steve Kornacki: the 2006 Twins, with Justin Morneau and Johan Santana.) But that isn't all that connects Max Scherzer and Miguel Cabrera these days.
Like Cabrera, Scherzer's Cy Young candidacy is also under assault by a lot of very bright people. And while they're making compelling cases for the likes of Chris Sale and Yu Darvish, what many of them are really trying to do is remind us that the once-exalted "Win" is actually the most overrated stat since the "Hold." Well, the fact is, I'm with them in concept. If you still think "Wins" mean what they did in, like, 1922, you need to take a long, hard look at, say, Jeremy Hellickson's stat line (12-9, 5.16). He's living proof that "Wins," in a vacuum, are overrated.
But now that we've got that out there, I actually think Max Scherzer's season has been underrated, at least by all the people whose mission in life is to ban "Wins" from a stat sheet near you. It isn't easy to ignore the won-lost record of a pitcher who is 21-3. But let's do that. What you'll find is that Scherzer leads the league in adjusted ERA and WHIP. And both the on-base percentage and OPS of the poor hitters who have to face him are the lowest in his league. But let's keep rolling. Scherzer also ranks in the top three in the AL in strikeouts, strikeout ratio, FIP, WAR for pitchers, opponent batting average, quality starts and quality-start percentage.
So let me ask you: Who else in this Cy Young field can say that? Correct answer: Nobody. So would I admit that that picturesque 21-3 record he's piled up is a product, to some degree, of his gigantic run support (third-best in the AL)? Indubitably. And does he owe a huge thank-you gift to his bullpen, which has allowed no more than one run after he left the game in 25 of his 31 starts? Of course he does. But please don't tell me that only a "Win" worshipper would cast a Cy Young vote for a guy with a sub-1.00 WHIP and 10 punchouts per nine innings. This vote goes to Max Scherzer for one reason only: He's earned it.
There's a lot of stuff in baseball I don't totally comprehend. But can somebody, anybody, please explain why Clayton Kershaw isn't universally celebrated as the official Best Pitcher in Baseball, in a Verlander-esque kind of way? Did you know he's about to become the fifth pitcher ever to lead his league in ERA three seasons in a row? The others: Greg Maddux, Roger Clemens, Sandy Koufax and Lefty Grove. Whoever they are. And that's not all.
Did you know Kershaw is also about to become the seventh pitcher in history to lead his league in WHIP three seasons in a row? The others: Maddux, Koufax and Grove, plus Johan Santana, Carl Hubbell and Babe Adams. And did you know that if you'll look past Puig-mania, pool parties and other wacky Dodgers plot lines, you'll find that Kershaw is having a season that's so dominating, if you measure it by ERA (1.88), WHIP (0.92) and opponent average (.195), that, since the mound was lowered in 1969, only Pedro Martinez (in 2000) has ever matched or beaten those numbers?
All this brilliance has been going on right before your eyes, ladies and gentlemen, courtesy of a fellow who is still only 25 years old, pitches for one of America's most storied franchises and has no reason not to be one of the most buzzed-about baseball players alive. So why is he so underappreciated? I don't get it. But the good news is: This guy will get it -- another Cy Young trophy, I mean, barring one of the all-time miscarriages of baseball justice.
So many Cy Yuk contenders. Such a tough call. I've already saluted Josh Johnson's excellent work in assuring that my Cy Young prediction would go down as possibly the dumbest in baseball history. I could easily have handed this award to the first-half winner, Joe Blanton (2-14, 6.04). Wade Davis (with his eyeball-popping 1.70 WHIP) worked his way into this argument. And thanks to Jim Johnson's nine blown saves (in which he allowed an incredible 19 runs in seven innings), we almost saw our first-ever instance of a pitcher leading the league in saves and winning a Cy Yuk in the same year. But frankly, none of them out-Yukked Phil Hughes.
It was his free-agent year. He made 29 starts for a team that knew it was going to need a big year from its rotation. And Hughes then went out there and went 4-14, with a 5.19 ERA -- in a season that started out messily and just got worse: 3-12, 5.69 after May 4 … 1-10, 5.51 after June 6 … 0-7, 6.26, with a .322/.364/.546/.910 slash line, in his final 14 starts (in which he only got through the fifth inning four times) … and 0-1, 9.00 in September, averaging six outs a start. All told, he made 11 starts against the AL East -- and won none of them. And he went an unfathomable 1-10, 6.32 at Yankee Stadium -- which not only broke the all-time franchise record for worst home ERA in a season (of 15 or more starts) but made him just the second pitcher in the history of any franchise to make at least 15 home starts in a season and not win at least two of them. (The other: Phil Huffman, for the Blue Jays, in 1979.) So kids, you have to admit it. Cy Yukkery doesn't get much uglier than that.
It's great that Barry Zito got one more win, and one more warm and fuzzy moment, in his Giants finale Wednesday night. The guy may have spent the past seven years forgetting to turn himself into Carl Hubbell. But he really did handle a lot of potential ugliness and embarrassment with amazing professionalism. So he deserved a better ending than the award we're about to bestow on him. Zito has won the Cy Yuk award before. And I really didn't want to pile on one more time. But yikes. This was one of those seasons that had Cy Yuk written all over it.
The hitters who faced him batted .319 this year, with a .385 on-base percentage and .875 OPS. No pitcher in the history of the Giants -- not in the Polo Grounds, not by the Golden Gate Bridge -- had ever gotten mugged for an average or OPS that high. Heck, Willie Mays had a career batting average, as a Giant, that was 15 points lower than that (.304), and an identical OBP (.385). So if you've turned every hitter who marches up there into Willie Mays, um, that's not good. But along the way, Zito also allowed 40 more hits (173) than he twirled innings (133). No Giants pitcher had ever done that since the opening of AT&T Park (although Livan Hernandez did miss by just two-thirds of an inning one year).
And when Zito ventured away from AT&T, that's when his bullet train really veered off the tracks. Last October, you might recall, he beat the Cardinals in St. Louis in Game 5 of the NLCS, in a heroic performance that saved the Giants' season. It was quite a night. Who knew he would never win another game on the road as a Giant. He went 0-9 with a 9.56 ERA in road games this year -- and his team went 0-11 in those starts. Only seven other pitchers in the live-ball era had ever gone 0-9 or worse in that many road starts in one season. But none of them had an ERA even remotely near Zito's 9.56 stratosphere. (Closest anyone came: George Murray, 0-10, 6.75, for the 1923 Red Sox.)
Now there's no reason to feel sorry for Barry Zito. He slurped up 126 million bucks of the Giants' bankroll over the past seven years. But now he also gets this lovely parting gift -- one last Cy Yuk award.
Wil Myers didn't play a game in the big leagues this year until the 70th game of the Rays' season. Good thing he stopped by! His team got swept in a doubleheader in Boston that day to drop to 36-35, barely ahead of Toronto in the AL East basement race. But from that day on, the Rays went 54-34, best record in the American League, second-best record in the whole sport (behind the L.A. Puigs). That wasn't all Myers' doing, obviously. But three months later, he's second on their team, behind some guy named Longoria, in slugging (.476) and OPS (.829). So they sure couldn't have done it without him.
It's also a good thing for the AL Rookie of the Year race that Wil Myers stopped by, though, because it was a pretty pedestrian crew. Now he leads all AL rookies in slugging, OPS and RBIs. And if he catches Oswaldo Arcia, who is one home run ahead of him (14-13), Myers is going to become the first player ever to lead all AL rookies in homers and RBIs without even playing 90 games.
And that tells you exactly what kind of year for rookies it's been in this league. Myers might finish about 10th in the rookie-of-the-year balloting if he played in the National League. But in the league he's lucky enough to be toiling in, nobody has been better.
I've voted for many awards in my day. Always love doing it. But I've never been happier not to have a vote, for any major award, than I am this year to find myself watching other people fry their brains trying to figure out which three names belong on the National League Rookie of the Year ballot. That ballot has only three spaces -- but it needs about 12.
I count 10 NL rookies who have racked up at least as many wins above replacement, according to FanGraphs, as the AL rookie WAR leader, Wil Myers (who is at 2.1). And that list doesn't even include two guys I'd be looking at long and hard at if they played in the AL: Evan Gattis and Jedd Gyorko.
So figuring out how to fill out the bottom of this ballot is impossible. But even sorting out the top two spots is a nightmare. You have no idea how hard it is not to cast a first-place vote for Yasiel Puig -- unless you think rookies with a .936 OPS come along every darned year. (Just for future reference, the only other NL rookies since World War II with an OPS that high, in this many trips to the plate, are Albert Pujols, Ryan Braun, Lance Berkman and -- of course! -- Bernie Carbo.)
But I still can't vote for Puig ahead of Jose Fernandez, a guy who just had possibly the greatest rookie season of any starting pitcher in modern times. Yeah, really. Throw any name you want at me: Gooden, Valenzuela, Nomo, Wood, Fidrych, Darvish. They did not have a better rookie year across the board than Fernandez just had. His season ranks No. 1 in the live-ball era in adjusted ERA (177), opponent average (.182), opponent slugging (.265) and opponent OPS (.533). You can look that up. But there's more. He went 9-0, with a 1.19 ERA, in the psychedelic Fish Tank in Miami this year -- a home record matched only by Orel Hershiser (9-0, 1.08) among NL starters in the live-ball era.
Fernandez's team went 18-10 when he pitched -- and a gruesome 41-90 when anyone else started. He was the first rookie starter with a WHIP under 1.00 (0.98) since baseball lowered the mound in 1969. And then there's this: The guy actually had a higher average when he batted (.220) than when the other teams' hitters batted against him (.182). Once upon a time, when Fernandez jumped all the way from Class A ball to make the team in spring training, at age 20, we were wondering what he was doing in the big leagues. By September, we were wondering where he belonged on our Cy Young ballots.
You thought he was crazy, right? Leaving the (ahem) cushy world of ESPN to go manage a team that just lost 94 games, with a minus-178 run differential. What two-time World Series-winning, curse-busting managerial genius would ever do that? Well, Terry Francona. That's who. In a season in which an incredible number of his AL managerial peers (John Farrell, Joe Girardi, Bob Melvin, Joe Maddon, etc.) have worked some remarkable magic of their own, it's still the guy who went to Cleveland who has managed his way to the top of this mountain.
Terry Francona runs a game, and gets his team prepared to play, as well as anyone in baseball. But beyond that, there may not be a manager in the sport who can match his off-the-chart people skills. He "cares so deeply," said his GM, Chris Antonetti, "about each player, and works tirelessly to put them in a position to be successful." And the standings tell you everything you need to know about how well that's worked. The Indians have more talent than people seem to give them credit for. But none of this would have been possible without the manager's never-ending flow of positive energy.
And speaking of positive energy, if you've ever listened to Clint Hurdle speak, you know the sort of upbeat, inspirational thoughts that flow out of him, practically nonstop, in deep, emphatic and often poetic torrents. There's something that's both evangelical and volcanic about this man. He doesn't just enunciate his thoughts. He erupts. And when he speaks, it's impossible not to listen -- even if you're across town, minding your own business, chomping on a Primanti Brothers sandwich.
And what franchise could possibly be a better match for Hurdle's effusive persona than the Pirates -- a team with two decades of bad memories to erase, not to mention two consecutive devastating second-half collapses to grapple with? Well, the manager wouldn't allow any scars to linger from the way 2011 and 2012 ended. And as a once-bright young star who learned how to cope with failure, he could relate to his troops on every level, after where they've come from. You're seeing the results this season before your very eyes. Maybe this team would be headed for the Octoberfest with or without him. But from the moment he pulled on his black and gold jersey, he has felt like the right man in the right place at the right time.