Whoa. Is that the checkered flag already? How'd that happen? Seems like only yesterday the Cardinals and Marlins were teeing it up on opening night in The House That Giancarlo Stanton Built.
Well, if this is the end of another unforgettable baseball season, that must mean it's time to hand out another edition of my annual end-of-season awards.
As usual, Billy Crystal, Tina Fey and Zooey Deschanel couldn't make it to my awards ceremony. So I'll just have to present these lovely honors myself. The envelopes, please ...
AL MVP: Mike Trout
It's been bizarre to sit back and watch the American League MVP debate unfold. There has never been anything like it. Has there? Maybe it started out as a debate over the credentials of Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera. But now it's erupted into your basic civil war between new-age and old-age thinkers. On one side, you hear the self-appointed enlightened minds of a new millennium screaming, "The Triple Crown is meaningless." On the other side, you hear the Carl Yastrzemski Fan Club roaring, "WAR is just a bunch of sabermetric baloney."
But here's the deal: Both sides are wrong. If Miguel Cabrera pulls off this triple crown, it's NOT meaningless. It might not mean what it meant when, say, Joe Medwick won it. But there's a tradition, a dash of folklore and a certain romance in play here. And ohbytheway, if NONE of the great hitters who have passed through the old batter's box in the past 45 years have found a way to win this thing, it must be pretty frigging hard to do, right?
So we're allowed to celebrate this Triple Crown if Miguel Cabrera wins it. And anybody who refuses to celebrate it, based on some sort of condescending principle, has lost touch with a part of baseball that separates it from every other sport on earth. BUT, now that I've got that preamble out of the way, I have to admit: I missed the memo that says, "If you hit this trifecta, you should automatically win yourself a shiny, new MVP trophy." That, to me, seems just as absurd.
The reason Mike Trout should win this award is that he's been the best -- and most valuable -- baseball player on this continent. That's not a new-age concept. It's as old-fashioned as it gets. And those of us who believe that don't believe it because we worship WAR, or because we see that Trout has accumulated more wins above replacement than Cabrera or anyone else.
We just understand that Trout's insane 10.5 WAR are one more clear indication that he's a better baseball player than even one of the greatest hitters of our lifetimes. I've often said that if I had to pick one hitter to send to home plate with a big game riding on it, I'd pick Cabrera. But that doesn't mean he's been a better baseball player than Mike Trout. And remember, that Triple Crown isn't the only historic achievement that belongs in this argument. Trout is the first player EVER to hit 30 homers, steal 45 bases and score 125 runs in one season.
If you want to toss in his slash line, his 62 extra-base hits, his 92.3 percent stolen-base success rate or any other item on his stat sheet, you'll find that no player in the history of baseball has combined this much excellence in so many areas in the same season. Again, that phrase was "no player in the history of baseball."
Now, his 10.5 WAR aren't unprecedented. But only 13 position players in history have reached that plateau -- and they're all Hall of Famers. The last center fielder to reach it? Willie Mays, in 1964. And then there's this: When Mike Trout walked through the Angels' clubhouse door for the first time on April 28, they were 6-14 and tied for the second-worst record in baseball. Since that day, they own the BEST record in the American League (82-57). That's not a coincidence. That's what happens when an MVP is allowed to do his thing.
My AL MVP ballot
NL MVP: Buster Posey
I'm amazed by how many people seem to think Buster Posey is such an easy choice for this award, it requires less homework than your kindergartener has done this month. Really? Those people are clearly watching a different season than I'm watching.
Andrew McCutchen might have had a rough finish (.242/.346/.418 since Aug. 10), for a team that plummeted off Mount Washington in the last 50 games. But he still leads the league in WAR. ... Ryan Braun has had an almost identical year to his MVP season of last year -- except that (A) he's hit EIGHT more homers, (B) he's had the eyeballs of the planet on his back (guess why), and (C) he's done it all without Prince Fielder hitting behind him (ballooning his intentional-walk count from two to 15). ... And Yadier Molina has had the best offensive season of his life (.317/.377/.506), has thrown out 47 percent of the knuckleheads who tried stealing on him and has propelled himself right into the middle of this debate.
But now that I've got all that covered, I STILL think Posey tops this list. OK, so he isn't the defensive catcher Molina is. Who the heck is? But catching and leading that staff in San Francisco is still a major responsibility. And on the other side of the ball, Posey has had a second half for the ages, putting up a .389/.462/.644 line (with 13 homers and 57 RBIs) since the All-Star break.
You know how many players have equaled or bettered those numbers in the past 50 years? Exactly three: Barry Bonds (2002), Larry Walker (1999) and George Brett (1980). Because of that incredible stretch, this guy's team blew away its division. And Posey is in line both to join Joe Mauer as the only two catchers to win a batting title in the past 70 years and to become the first catcher to lead the National League in on-base percentage in 100 years (since John "Chief" Myers did it in 1912). Think back on what you expected from Posey six months ago. Now ask yourself which seemed more likely -- that he'd win an MVP or that he'd spend about half the season on the disabled list? When viewed through that prism, this hasn't merely been an amazing year. It's been an MVP year.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Since I'll be casting an official vote for this award, I'm not permitted to give my full ballot. So let's just say the group that I considered includes Posey, Braun, Molina, McCutchen, David Wright, Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, Chase Headley, Matt Holliday, Ian Desmond, Adam LaRoche, Carlos Ruiz, Clayton Kershaw, R.A. Dickey, Craig Kimbrel and Chipper Jones.
AL LVP (LEAST VALUBLE PLAYER): Yunel Escobar
It's now 27 months since the Blue Jays made the Braves' day by trading for the talented but troubled Yunel Escobar. Well, it seemed like a brilliant idea at the time. In fact, it even seemed like a brilliant idea as recently as 12 months ago, after Escobar had finished hitting .290 with a .782 OPS and the best on-base percentage (.369) of any shortstop in the whole darned American League. But that was last year. This year? Yikes.
Guess who has had the worst OPS (.644) of any qualifying AL shortstop? Right you are. Yunel Escobar. And guess who has had the fewest extra-base hits (32) and created the fewest runs in that group? Yep, same guy. But this is one LVP candidacy that's bigger and uglier than any numbers. Ask the people around this club who grumble that "Yunel Escobar finds a way to do something stupid every game." Ask the scouts who use words such as "disgusting" to describe his daily lack of focus and commitment. Ask the baseball man who says: "I think he actually enjoys ticking people off with the things he does. He knows he ticks them off, and he does it anyway." Or ask all the people he offended when he etched a homophobic slur into his eye black -- and then acted as if he hadn't done anything particularly offensive. So what we have here is a guy who has hit the LVP daily double: He's been a lousy baseball player -- and a worse act.
NL LVP: The Miami Marlins
Normally, this is an individual award. Normally. But since nothing about the Marlins' bizarre season could be described as "normal," it's time to make an exception in their case.
Wow, did ANYTHING go right this year -- other than Giancarlo Stanton, Mark Buehrle, that ultra-cool, new-ballpark ambiance and possibly Justin Ruggiano? Hanley Ramirez went from "Face of the Franchise" to "Scapegoat." Gaby Sanchez went from All-Star to minor leaguer to adios. "Professional hitter" Carlos Lee came to town and "slugged" .329. Logan Morrison was never healthy and hit .230. Jose Reyes had his moments and at least stayed on the field. But his batting average also dropped 52 points from last year, his OPS was down 99 points and, in one stretch in June, he went 23 straight games without even attempting a stolen base -- for the first time.
They pumped the payroll north of $100 million and actually lost more games than the year before (when they had a $56 million payroll). And heck, we haven't even mentioned the manager (Oswaldo Guillen) or the deposed closer (Heath Bell) yet. It was the most important season in the history of the Marlins franchise -- and it was a bigger disaster than "Land of the Lost." So for that, it's time to bring the entire cast onstage, hand them all the first group LVP award and say, "Better luck next year."
My NL LVP ballot
AL CY YOUNG: Justin Verlander
All right, so it isn't last year anymore. I've noticed that. So Justin Verlander hasn't been quite as Gibson-Koufax-Christy Mathewson-esque as he was last year. I've noticed that, too. But that doesn't mean this man still hasn't been the best pitcher in the sport, the ultimate ace and the most deserving winner of this award. It just means it hasn't been anywhere near as clear-cut. David Price is 20-5 and leads the league in ERA. Jered Weaver is 20-4 and leads the league in WHIP. I expect both of them to get lots of votes. Chris Sale, Felix Hernandez and the bullpen monster known as Fernando Rodney (he of the 0.61 ERA) have been terrific. I expect all three of them to show up on many, many ballots. But who's the best pitcher alive? It's still Justin Verlander.
Did you know that he didn't allow a single home run to an opposing cleanup hitter all season? (They slugged .297 against him.) Did you know that in his 13 starts against teams that appear bound for the postseason, plus the White Sox, he went 8-1, with a 1.81 ERA? Did you know that he actually gets more unhittable in the last three innings of a game (.194/.251/.265) than he is in the first three innings (.216/.271/.345)? All 100 percent true facts, ladies and gentlemen.
But what gives him just the slightest edge over Price and Weaver, for me, is this: Their ERAs, WHIPs and Opponent OPS numbers are almost inseparable. But Verlander has compiled his stats with a much heavier workload. He's faced 120 more hitters than Price and 224 more than Weaver. He's had to reach back to throw 436 more pitches than Price and 936 more than Weaver. And that, friends, is what Cy Youngs do. They take on the responsibility of acehood in a way other pitchers don't. They save their bullpens. They get better as the moments get bigger. They reach for the sky when other pitchers are reaching for the shower knobs.
It's what Justin Verlander does better than any starter on the planet. And it's what ought to make him, from this vantage point, the first AL pitcher to win back-to-back Cy Youngs since Pedro Martinez (in 1999-2000).
My AL Cy Young ballot
NL CY YOUNG: Craig Kimbrel
For more than a week now, I've been laying out the case for Craig Kimbrel as the National League Cy Young winner. And every time I've written about it, tweeted about it or talked about it, I get the same reaction: Can't consider him. He's a closer. Doesn't pitch enough innings. Well, here's my answer: Not his fault. As long as the Baseball Writers' Association of America continues to defy logic and lump starters and relievers into the same competition, they make that convenient apples-and-oranges/not-enough-innings argument officially irrelevant.
So if this is going to be about who has pitched the best, in whatever role, the answer is Craig Kimbrel. Period. He's faced 227 hitters this year -- and has come within one K of striking out HALF of them (113). No pitcher in history has ever done that. Of those 227 hitters, only 26 of them have gotten a hit -- giving him the lowest opponent batting average (.123) ever (min. 50 IP). The OPS of those hitters? A microscopic .356 -- also a record for the six decades or so for which that OPS data is available. His 0.65 WHIP? The lowest by any NL reliever in history. His strikeout ratio of 16.5 per nine innings? Best of all time.
Now before you start typing your outraged emails, yeah, I know I extolled the importance of workload in my Justin Verlander argument. But that was in the context of trying to separate three STARTING pitchers who were most deserving of that AL Cy Young. But over in the NL, I find it impossible to just dismiss the historic season of a man who can't help that his job description isn't the same as the starters in this field. We're talking about an unparalleled level of domination, folks. Unparalleled.
So as much as I admire the seasons of Clayton Kershaw, R.A. Dickey, Gio Gonzalez and all the excellent rotation candidates, what about their seasons can be described as "unparalleled" or "historic?" Nothing that compares with all the stuff Kimbrel has done that no pitcher has ever done before. So if you don't like this choice, address those complaints to the BBWAA. I tried proposing a separate award for relievers. They said no thanks -- and told me to vote for a reliever if I thought one deserved it. So just following orders -- and voting for a guy who deserves it as much as any reliever who has ever won this thing.
My NL Cy Young ballot
5. Johnny Cueto
AL CY YUK: Ricky Romero
A year ago this time, if you could have bought stock in one young left-handed starter in the entire American League, there's a good chance you'd have invested in Ricky Romero, Inc. And what if you had? Ummmm, you'd be wishing about now that you'd bought Facebook. That's what.
Because a funny thing happened to Romero this year on his way to acehood: The league figured him out. It doesn't do much good to have one of the great changeups on earth if you never get ahead with any of your other stuff. And that's been the story of Romero's shockingly disastrous season. He owns the worst walk-to-strikeout ratio (105 walks, 124 whiffs) of any qualifying starter in baseball. (In fact, it's the third-worst ratio in the past 15 seasons among AL starters with 100 or more strikeouts.) He also owns the highest ERA (5.77) and WHIP (1.67) of any qualifying starter in baseball. And that wouldn't be good no matter what the heck was happening around him. But in Romero's case, what was happening was that about 46 other Blue Jays pitchers were heading for the disabled list.
And just when they needed him most, to keep the season from capsizing, he managed to go 15 consecutive starts without a win -- and couldn't even claim bad luck, considering he went 0-13 with a 7.42 ERA and .898 opponent OPS in that stretch. He lost 13 times in 14 trips to the mound at one point. And you want to know how tough that is? Only one other AL starter in the 52-season expansion era has ever done that (Mike Parrott, of the 1980 Mariners). So it ain't easy. With this guy's ability, he could easily get himself back on the CNBC "Buy" list by next year this time. And who knows? Maybe, after he wins his first Cy Young, he'll even attribute it to everything he learned from this horrifying outbreak of Cy Yukkiness.
NL CY YUK: Heath Bell
Luckily for everyone reading this, I'm not going to clog up cyberspace by trying to list any more of the prime suspects who lit the fuse that detonated the Marlins' season. But if Bell isn't the first or second item on your list, you might have been downing too many mojitos in April and May.
He blew four of his first seven save opportunities. He gave up runs (either his own or inherited) in 10 of his first 21 trips to the mound. He didn't get his ERA under 10.00 until the middle of May. He's allowed 54 baserunners in 34 innings in his increasingly limited save situations. And he's been quite the upbeat radio guest, too, you might say. As his favorite manager (Ozzie Guillen) said last week, "I've got people calling me names every time he's on the mound -- in Spanish and English." Well, now there's another name that fits: Cy Yuk.
AL ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: Mike Trout
Not so long ago, ESPN Stats & Info guru Jeremy Lundblad asked a question you could ponder all week: Is Mike Trout having the greatest season ever by a rookie in ANY sport? Hmmm. Sounds like a claim to fame that Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain, Magic Johnson, Eric Dickerson, Cam Newton, Teemu Selanne and many others would be thrilled to dispute, I'm sure. But the fact that Trout is even in the argument tells you all you need to know.
He's scored more runs (127) than any rookie of the year in history, despite missing almost a month of the season. He's about to become the first 30-homer, 40-steal rookie of the year in history -- if not the first 30-50 rookie of the year in history. Just three ROYs (Albert Pujols, Tony Oliva and Fred Lynn) have ever equaled or beaten Trout's .321/.395/.557 slash line. And when you turn to the Sabermetric categories, that pretty much settles the baseball portion of this argument once and for all. The highest WAR by any ROY position player in history? That was 8.5, by Dick Allen in 1964. Trout, as I think I've mentioned a few hundred times, is at 10.5. The best Offensive Winning Percentage by any ROY ever? That, according to Lee Sinins' Complete Baseball Encyclopedia, was .761, by Mark McGwire in 1987. Trout beats that by 50 points. So is it safe to say, one more time, there has never been a rookie quite like him? Repeat after me: Y-E-S.
NL ROY: Bryce Harper
If you'd asked me to make this pick a month ago, I'm not sure Bryce Harper even would have made my top three. But that was before Harper's spectacular September (.330/.398/.651) shoved him right back into the thick of this debate -- at the same time Todd Frazier (.181/.241/.264/.504) and Wade Miley (2-2, 5.90, with a 1.72 WHIP) were having their roughest months of the season.
So now, as we look upon the total picture of these guys' rookie seasons, what do we find? We find, first off, that Harper and Miley have separated themselves from Frazier, Wilin Rosario, Norichika Aoki and the rest of the field. And that leaves us with a job that's about as impossible as award decisions ever get -- trying to compare a position player with a pitcher. Miley has had a tremendous season (16-11, 3.32, with a 1.198 WHIP) by any measuring stick you'd like to use.
But since WAR is one of the few tools that compares pitchers to position players, it's notable that Baseball-Reference.com says he's been worth 3.2 Wins Above Replacement. Harper, meanwhile, has joined Mel Ott and Tony Conigliaro in the Greatest Teenage Seasons In History annals (.269/.339/.476 with 22 homers). Now add in his often-spectacular baserunning and his quest to turn himself into an above-average defender at a premium defensive position (center field), and Baseball-Reference.com says Harper has been worth 4.8 Wins Above Replacement.
But I still felt a need to put those numbers in better perspective. So I looked back over the previous 30 years. I found six rookie pitchers who made at least 28 starts in a season and wound up with a WHIP and WAR as good as Miley's. Only three of them -- Dwight Gooden (1984), Hideo Nomo (1995) and Jeremy Hellickson (2011) -- won the ROY. The other three -- fellow D-back Brandon Webb (2003), Armando Galarraga (2008) and Rodrigo Lopez (2002) -- finished third, fourth and second, respectively.
But when I stacked up Harper's OPS, home run total and WAR against rookie position players from the same period, the verdict wasn't nearly that mixed. I found seven players with numbers that good in their rookie seasons -- and all but one of them won the award. That group: Albert Pujols (2001), Nomar Garciaparra (1997), Mike Piazza (1993), Tim Salmon (1993), Mark McGwire (1987) and Alvin Davis (1984). The only exception was Troy Tulowitzki (2007), who finished second to Ryan Braun in one of the closest ROY races ever. So what should that research tell us? It doesn't mean Harper is an automatic winner. But it should tell us this: He's had a special season amid incredible pressures, especially for a player his age.
And EVERY recent rookie position player who's had a season like it has either won, or deserved to win, this award. You know, it's amazing that no teenage position player in history has ever been a rookie of the year. But apparently, Bryce Harper thinks it's about time for that to change.
My NL ROY ballot
MANAGERS OF THE YEAR: Buck Showalter (AL) & Davey Johnson (NL)
It isn't every year the two winners of this award work about as far apart as the distance traveled by an Adam Jones home run. But Buck Showalter and Davey Johnson share more than just a familiarity with traffic patterns on the Beltway. Both of them have won everywhere they've ever managed. Both were missing from the dugout for way too long. And both have spent 2012 reminding us why they're so good at what they do.
It was nearly impossible to separate Showalter's work from the fantastic job done by Bob Melvin in Oakland. But you think just any old manager could have made the Octoberfest with an Orioles team that hasn't had a winning season in 15 years, has used 52 players and 25 pitchers, has needed 178 roster moves to get through the season, has had exactly one starter (Wei-Yin Chen) make 20 starts, has zero .300 hitters on the payroll, has rolled out an offense that's 23rd in the big leagues in on-base percentage and was still being outscored for the season by its opponents as recently as Friday? I'll vote no on that. So let's hand Showalter his second manager-of-the-year trophy.
Meanwhile, Johnson has put his stamp on yet another team that was the perfect fit for his innate feel for baseball and people. Amid massive injuries, zero winning seasons in his town since 1969 and the never-ending Strasburg Debate, he kept the Nationals focused on greatness, from the day they showed up in exotic Viera, Fla., until the day they clinched the East. Fabulous work.
My AL Manager of the Year ballot
3. Robin Ventura
My NL Manager of the Year ballot
2. Bruce Bochy
3. Mike Matheny
EXECUTIVES OF THE YEAR: Billy Beane (AL) & Mike Rizzo (NL)
COMEBACK PLAYERS OF THE YEAR: Adam Dunn (AL) & Buster Posey (NL)
And finally, the injuries of the year ...
Fifth prize: So which is more dangerous, loosening up while you're on deck or running out somebody else's home run trot? Ryan Howard and David Ortiz could kick around that question -- if it didn't hurt so much to kick anything right now. Howard was minding his own business in the on-deck circle last week, when he accidentally dropped an iron pipe on his foot -- and broke it, knocking him out for the year. But at least he only had six games left to miss. Ortiz, on the other hand, missed 71 of the Red Sox's final 72 games after a mishap that's nearly impossible: He was innocently rounding second base in July after an Adrian Gonzalez homer, landed funny on his Achilles and wound up playing exactly one game the rest of the season. Ouch!
Fourth prize: Why do we have a feeling that the next time Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy misplaces a sock, he'll just go with the flip-flops? Back in May, he was wriggling under his hotel bed, trying to retrieve a runaway sock, when his wife dropped a suitcase on his favorite metacarpal bone in his hand. The only good news was, he didn't have to dodge any suitcases for a long time -- because he didn't play another game for two months.
Third prize: Only Josh Hamilton could stroll into Starbucks and wind up with ocular keratitis. Right? He missed five games in September thanks to dried corneas, which he got by sucking in slightly more caffeine than his corneas apparently had in mind. As he so eloquently put it when he got back to work: "Guys, it's me. It's Josh. It's going to be something weird."
Second prize: It takes a creative guy to make this list two years in a row -- and do it without leaving the house. So here's to Giants reliever Jeremy Affeldt. In 2011, he made our all-injury team when he stabbed himself in the hand while trying to separate frozen burger patties with a knife. Then this year, he came home from a game in April, scrunched down to gather in a running hug from his 4-year-old son and didn't quite stick the landing. He sprained a knee ligament and spent the next 15 days embracing the disabled list. This guy needs to spend more time at the ballpark!
First prize: Finally, we ask: What's the down side to having seven no-hitters thrown in the same season? Easy. That's seven raucous celebrations busting out after the final out, and that can be more hazardous than a Bryce Harper takeout slide. So naturally, twice in 12 days in June, no-hitters were directly responsible for sending players to the disabled list, just not the guys who pitched them.
First, it was Mets reliever Ramon Ramirez who charged out of the bullpen so enthusiastically after the final out of Johan Santana's no-hitter that he blew out his hamstring and was out for almost a month. Then, a week and a half later, it was Aubrey Huff's turn. The Giants first baseman was looking for the quickest route to the on-field delirium after Matt Cain's perfect game, tried hurdling the dugout railing and didn't exactly have his Lolo Jones impression down. He managed to sprain his knee -- and played only two games in the next two months. Boy, no wonder nobody in the dugout wants to talk to these pitchers in the middle of their no-hitters.