Hard to believe, but this is it. We've reached the finish line of another regular season. And you know what that means: It's time to hand out those major -- and not-so-major -- end-of-season awards. I'm crushed to learn that apparently, I've been rejected again in my quest to have Seth Meyers, Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin present this prestigious hardware. So I'll just have to handle this myself. The envelopes please
American League MVP
Justin Verlander, RHP, Tigers
Can't wait to see how this election turns out, and you know why? Because it will say as much about the voters as the guy they end up voting for. That's why. For the folks who think this is the best-player award, period, there's Jose Bautista. Believe it or not, other than Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig and Barry Bonds, there has been only one player in history (uh, Jason Giambi, in 2000?) who has had a season that matched or beat Bautista in homers (43), on-base percentage (.449), walks (131) and batting average (.304). But I'm guessing too many voters will devalue that season because Bautista's team hasn't been within nine games of any playoff spot since June 29.
For the voters looking for the best position player on a contender, it's tough to beat Jacoby Ellsbury. Besides his game-changing defensive skills, you know how many players in the history of the American League have hit 30-plus homers, stolen 30-plus bases, batted .322 and thumped 211 hits and 46 doubles, as Ellsbury has? That would be none.
But in the end, I still think the correct answer to this fascinating riddle is the Tigers' just-about-unbeatable ace -- even though Justin Verlander is (gasp) a pitcher. I explained all my reasoning in a Rumblings column last week. But let me say this one more time: The creation of the Cy Young Award was not intended to disqualify pitchers from winning an MVP award. If that had been the intent, why did starting pitchers (Don Newcombe and Sal Maglie) finish 1-2 in the NL MVP voting the year the Cy Young was invented (1956)? And if that had been the intent, why did 23 different starting pitchers collect first-place MVP votes over the next 29 seasons? The answer, of course, is that was never the intent. And if we're supposed to be considering all players, how can Verlander not be the MVP?
If the essential question is, "Which player has done more to change the face of his team's championship season than this man has?" the answer, for me, is: Nobody. Yeah, it may be true that if the Tigers didn't have him, they'd have some other ace. But as their GM, Dave Dombrowski, said, "I've had other aces. But they never had the year Justin Verlander has had."
National League MVP
Ryan Braun, LF, Brewers
Filling out these MVP ballots is tougher than it looks -- especially this one. The NL MVP debate isn't just academic for me because I have to fill out an actual ballot in the next 48 hours. So I've agonized over this one for weeks, waiting for a beam of light to shoot out of the heavens and tell me the right answer. Uhh, still waiting, I'm afraid.
I appreciate that there are so many folks out there trying to tell me how I'm supposed to vote -- and how I'm supposed to think, for that matter. But this is about how I define "valuable," not how anyone else defines it. So for all the people who are sure Matt Kemp is the MVP, I don't blame you. He's had an awesome season. He's the most talented player in the National League, and he's finally played like it from start to finish. Any player who practically wins a Triple Crown, nearly joins the 40-40 club, leads the league in WAR and does it in a lineup that offers him zero protection has an overwhelming MVP case. And it's one that has literally kept me up nights considering its merits.
But so has Justin Upton, the most important presence in a Diamondbacks lineup that one scout I know likes to describe as "Upton and seven utility guys." Bet you didn't know, though, that Upton leads all outfielders in the big leagues in errors, even though the defensive metrics will tell you he's a star out there. Now, that doesn't gong him from consideration. After all, his manager (Kirk Gibson) also led NL outfielders in errors the year he won the MVP award (1988). On the other hand, no MVP has led outright at any position since. And so many of Upton's errors are lack-of-concentration glitches; that's an even bigger issue. He's an MVP award waiting to happen -- but not this year.
So that brings me to Braun. He could wind up leading the league in hitting, slugging, OPS and extra-base hits. He's going to land in the top five in runs, total bases, on-base percentage, RBIs, doubles and average with men in scoring position. And he's tossed in 30-30 club bonus points for our voting enjoyment. When you add it all together, what do you get? An incredible offensive season. That's what. How many guys hit .335, slug .601, and go 30-30 in the same season? The only two players who have done it are Larry Walker and Ellis Burks, both of whom pulled it off for the pre-humidor Rockies. So don't try to tell us Braun's year pales against Kemp's, OK?
FanGraphs tells us he's hit better than Kemp, been a more productive baserunner than Kemp and actually compiled a better ultimate zone rating in the outfield than Kemp. So a big chunk of the reason Kemp leads him in wins above replacement is an adjustment for the importance of the positions they play. I understand that thinking. And I understand that Braun has Prince Fielder hitting behind him. But I also understand this: Kemp's team basically got eliminated from any kind of contention by Father's Day. So if I'm looking at two players who have had very, very, very similar seasons -- and one of them has done what he's done in an atmosphere where every single game mattered -- that's a difference-making ingredient for me. That's how I define "valuable." So that's how I'll vote. But I finally did figure out why that beam of light never arrived with the right answer. Because in this debate, there's no wrong answer. Just different opinions.
AL Least Valuable Player (LVP)
Adam Dunn, DH, White Sox
Good thing I'm not a gambling kind of guy, because if I was, I might have blown my entire 401K betting that one of my favorite people, Adam Dunn, would hit 40 home runs this year -- possibly by the All-Star break. So who knew there would be a time when I wasn't sure he'd even get 40 hits this year?
Chicago White Sox
You know, ordinarily, there is more that goes into these LVP awards than just ugly numbers. But in this case, I'm making an exception because this is no ordinary outbreak of ugliness. No, sir. I'm hereby pronouncing this The Ugliest Season in Baseball History. And obviously, it doesn't behoove me to bestow honors like that without massive documentation. So here goes: Dunn is hitting .159. Not only is that the lowest batting average in history by a man who visited the batter's box 500 times in one season, but the previous champ, the great Rob Deer (.179 in 1991), never even had to sweat this out. Dunn's average hasn't been out of the .160s at the end of any game since the Fourth of July -- and spent only seven days above the Mendoza Line after April 16.
But that average wasn't the only ugliness here. With 177 whiffs and only 66 hits, Dunn also joined Mark Reynolds (211 K's, 99 hits in 2010) as the only guys in history with 100 more strikeouts than hits. And Reynolds used to be the only player ever to have a higher strikeout total than batting average before Dunn moved into that neighborhood. The Big Donkey also is a scary 6-for-94 (.064) against left-handed pitchers this year -- by far the worst batting average in history among guys with 100 plate appearances. And he's got more walks (75) than hits (66). And had more trips to the plate where he hasn't put a ball in play (256) than trips where he has (240). And 52 multi-strikeout games to (yikes) 12 multi-hit games. And he's launched fewer long balls all season (11) than he once hit in a month (July) three years ago.
So does that sound like an LVP season to you? It sounds like the all-time LVP season to me.
Hanley Ramirez, SS, Marlins
There were other excellent candidates for this much-uncoveted National League LVP award. But none of them is as talented as Hanley Ramirez. And none of them is -- or was -- the face of his franchise, the way this man is -- or was -- for the Marlins. Which means none of them could possibly have been as big a disappointment as Ramirez was this year.
Yeah, sure, he picked it up in the month and a half between his shoulder injury and the day Jack McKeon stomped in and benched him in his first day on the job. But if you look at the totality of Ramirez's season, the same word keeps coming up: "disappointment." Ramirez showed up in spring training talking the talk -- about maturity, about leadership. Then he went out and hit under .200 for 2½ months, helped shove his former manager (Edwin Rodriguez) out the door, had to be lectured on tardiness and responsibility by 23-year-old sage Logan Morrison and played such uninspired defense that, among NL shortstops who started as many games as he did, Ramirez wound up last in the league in fielding percentage, range factor and revised range factor.
So how the heck does that happen to a man this talented? How? "To me, he's hands-down the least valuable," said one scout who covers the Marlins. "Just ask all those people who took him in the top three or four players in their fantasy draft."
AL Cy Young
Justin Verlander, RHP, Tigers
There's that name again. Unless you're looking at this race from a very different scenic overlook than I am, there's not much need to spell out Justin Verlander's Cy Young credentials. But here goes: He leads the league in, well, everything. Not only is he your pitching triple crown winner, but he also leads in WHIP, opponent average, opponent OPS, innings pitched, pitches thrown, most starts allowing three hits or fewer and about 97 other categories.
Verlander is the first AL pitcher in 40 years with 24 wins and 250 strikeouts. His ERA in his losses (3.38) is lower than Felix Hernandez's ERA for the season (3.47). He's 14-1 against his division. He pitched a no-hitter and almost threw two more. He's 22-2 since April with a 2.15 ERA and 0.8996 WHIP. He's 16-3 after a Tigers loss -- the most losing streaks stopped by any pitcher on any first-place team since Sandy Koufax in 1966. Opposing leadoff men are hitting .186 against this man. Opposing cleanup hitters are hitting .224 with only three homers. Even though he's faced a staggering 969 hitters, he has held the entire sport to a .192 opponent average and .242 on-base percentage -- two crazy numbers that no other AL pitchers in the entire DH era have matched when they had to duel that many hitters. And on and on and on and on.
I know there are people who might quibble with his xFIP or BABIP. Whatever. If you don't recognize that this has been a special Cy Young kind of season, you don't know a Cy Young when you see one.
NL Cy Young
Clayton Kershaw, LHP, Dodgers
Cliff Lee has been tremendous. As always. Roy Halladay has been dazzling. What else is new? But neither of them is about to add a new Cy Young Award to the old memorabilia collection. That's because, amazingly, they both just got outpitched this year by baseball's latest, greatest shooting star -- Clayton Kershaw.
Like Verlander, Kershaw leads the league in the pitchers' triple crown categories and in WHIP. And since the invention of the Cy Young in 1956, no pitcher has led in all those categories and not gotten a trophy out of it. But what's been so cool about watching Kershaw this year is that, when this season began, he was just a talented 23-year-old with big dreams and a big arm -- and by the time he reached the finish line, he'd figured it out.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Since baseball lowered the mound in 1969, here are the only three men who have had a better second-half ERA than the insane 1.31 ERA Kershaw put up after the All-Star break, according to the Elias Sports Bureau: Roger Clemens (0.97 in 1990), Tom Seaver (1.10 in 1971) and Johan Santana (1.21 in 2004). Nice group. Then there's the complete list of left-handed pitchers in history with 20-plus wins and 240-plus strikeouts before age 24: Kershaw and Vida Blue (1971). And that's a wrap.
I've heard people try to downplay some of that brilliance with observations like: "Look at that division he pitches in." But check a little closer. This guy dominated everybody. He was 12-3, 1.93 against teams that were .500 or better. (Halladay was only 4-4, 3.08.) Opposing cleanup hitters batted .147 against him. Yeah, .147. He went head-to-head against Tim Lincecum four times -- and went 4-0 with a 0.30 ERA. And this guy allowed one earned run or none 18 times -- most by a Dodgers left-hander since Sandy Koufax in 1966. And you know what? It's a good thing he did every bit of that, because Kershaw had no choice but to be great if he wanted to outduel this Cy Young field. But make no mistake about it: He did it.
AL Cy Yuk
John Lackey, RHP, Red Sox
This isn't about John Lackey's media-relations skills. This isn't about Lackey's everybody's-out-to-get-me body language. This isn't even about an $82.5 million contract that is starting to look like about as sound an investment as Enron stock. So let's get that straight, OK? This is just about Cy Yukkery on the mound, pure and simple. The Cy Yuk awards committee has more than enough to work with here without dragging in all this man's peripheral baggage.
Boston Red Sox
This is simply about a guy with the worst single-season ERA (6.41) in the history of the Red Sox -- among pitchers who started as many games (28) as Lackey did, at least. So that means worse than Al Nipper or Mike Torrez or John Dopson. And it isn't even a contest. No one else in franchise history is within even three-quarters of a run! But hang on. If you combine ERA with WHIP (a gruesome 1.62), this becomes one of the four worst seasons in the history of the entire American League.
So on that note, we're just piling on to add that Lackey also has become the first AL pitcher in nine years to give up eight runs or more in four different starts. Or to tell you that, of the 95 pitchers in the big leagues who qualify for the ERA title, not one of them has allowed a worse opponent batting average (.306), on-base percentage (.375) or OPS (.852) than this fellow.
So no need to focus on that Lackey sideshow. Whatever has been going on inside the man's head these past six months has been a mystery. But what's been going on out there on the pitcher's mound has had Cy Yukiness written all over it.
NL Cy Yuk
Edinson Volquez, RHP, Reds
It would have been soooooo easy to dump this award in the lap of Carlos Zambrano, just because he's the most convenient target out there. But I keep asking people what went wrong with the Reds this year. And that answer is ... starting pitching. If you then ask who the most disappointing player was on one of the most disappointing teams in baseball, that answer is even easier: Edinson Volquez.
You know, there's a reason that teams pick certain pitchers to start on Opening Day. And there's a reason that teams choose certain pitchers to start Game 1 of the postseason. So that tells you exactly what the Reds thought Volquez had a chance to be -- because they bestowed both of those honors on him within the past 12 months. And boy, did he let them down. No Opening Day starter in the big leagues won fewer games than he did (five). No Opening Day starter in the big leagues had a worse ERA than he had (5.84). In fact, among pitchers who stayed healthy enough to go out there as many times as this guy (19), the last Opening Day starter for any National League team, in any season, who won fewer games and had an ERA this messy was Oliver Perez (3-13, 6.55) in 2006. And isn't that spectacular company?
But Volquez's failures went way beyond his unsightly numbers. He let the Reds down in so many ways, they had to send him to the minor leagues twice to try to inspire him to get his act together -- which isn't something you saw happen with, say, Justin Verlander. And in those 19 big league starts Volquez was allowed to make, he managed to walk one of every 7.2 hitters he faced -- a feat no regular starter in the big leagues has pulled off in the past 35 years.
Let's just say there's a term for a season like that. And you know it well: Cy Yuk.
AL Rookie of the Year
Jeremy Hellickson, RHP, Rays
He may look about 15 years old -- but not when he holds the baseball in his hands. In the first three starts Jeremy Hellickson made in the big leagues, he allowed three hits in every one of them. And we should have known right there this guy was about to do something special.
Tampa Bay Rays
Those three starts came in 2010, but 2011 has been no different. Opposing hitters are hitting .210/.287/.373 against him. His 2.95 ERA would be the lowest by a rookie starter in the American League in more than two decades (since Kevin Appier, 1991). And in the history of the American League, only five rookie starters have finished a season with an opponent average and an ERA as low as Hellickson's. The most recent was Wally Bunker, whose rookie season (1964) was nearly 50 years ago.
I understand that, because of Hellickson's .222 average on balls in play, there are people trying to minimize his success as a product of luck and tremendous defensive support. But we're not here to look at spreadsheets and make judgments based on what the numbers say should have happened. We're here to make judgments based on what actually took place, in real life, in games that mattered to this guy and the team he works for. And what actually took place was a spectacular season that should turn Hellickson into the rookie of the year despite intense competition.
NL Rookie of the Year
Craig Kimbrel, RHP, Braves
So maybe he showed signs of running out of premium unleaded in September. Hard to fault Craig Kimbrel for that, considering it sometimes felt as though the guy appeared in more games than Chipper Jones.
Last we looked, Kimbrel had marched into 78 games, more than any other closer in baseball. And he's still achieved a level of domination that was downright ridiculous.
Kimbrel ran off 38 consecutive appearances without allowing a run -- the most by any reliever who ever lived. He struck out more hitters (126) than eight Opening Day starters. And it's a shame that Johnny Cueto lost his grip on the ERA title -- else we would have had a year when a closer struck out more hitters than the ERA champ. But to properly appreciate Kimbrel's season, just peruse the most eye-popping columns on his stat sheet: 76.1 innings, 126 strikeouts, 47 hits, 0.99 WHIP. In the history of modern relief pitching, you know how many closers have ever had a strikeout rate that insane (14.9) and a WHIP that low? Exactly two -- Eric Gagne in 2003 and Brad Lidge in 2004.
But Kimbrel has unfurled that kind of dominance as a rookie -- at age 23, for a team that built its whole mojo around its bullpen. And that's what elevates him above the rest of an excellent rookie crop, right into the rookie-of-the-year winner's circle.
Managers of the Year
AL: Joe Maddon, Rays
NL: Kirk Gibson, Diamondbacks
You tell me how Joe Maddon's and Kirk Gibson's teams got to this astounding place they're in. You tell me how this would have been possible without two managers who leave their mark on everything around them in their unique ways.
The Rays made Maddon's entire bullpen disappear, traded away Matt Garza and let Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena go get rich someplace else. Then they kicked off this season by starting 0-6 and 1-8, two canyons no team in history has climbed out of. Yet here they are, with their $41 million payroll, alive and breathing -- two months after trailing the Red Sox by 11½ games. Couldn't have done that without the most creative manager in baseball rewriting time-honored baseball truisms as regularly as he rewrites his lineup card.
Meanwhile, you might recall that the Diamondbacks lost 97 games last year, finishing 27 games behind the World Series champs, then started out 15-22 this year. Luckily for them, they have a manager who doesn't look at failure as an acceptable outcome. We throw around phrases like "changed the culture" way too casually in sports. But not in this case. Kirk Gibson infused everyone on his roster with a certain grit, energy and mindset that trace directly back to the manager and one of baseball's most star-studded coaching staffs ever. I'm still pretty sure there are millions of Americans who couldn't name six Diamondbacks -- but they know exactly who the manager is.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in a new paperback edition in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.
Follow Jayson Stark on Twitter: @jaysonst