With our American League tiebreaker now tiebroken, we’re almost set to start the playoffs. Just one more item to cross off the list: handing out our 2013 MLB awards.
As we did last year, we’ll leave Manager of the Year alone. Much of a manager’s value comes from difficult-to-quantify measures, and I’m not particularly convinced that the quality of a manager’s performance vacillates much from year to year the way player performances can. Pointing to a team’s record, then yelling, “See, good managing!” isn’t a great way to start a debate either.
For Most Valuable Player, Cy Young, and Rookie of the Year, though, we’ve got you covered. The envelopes, please …
AL MVP: Mike Trout
In discussing the Trout vs. Miguel Cabrera MVP debate last year, we vowed not to invoke Wins Above Replacement. If you want to know what WAR is good for (and what its limitations are), read this primer. For the second year in a row, Trout should win the American League Most Valuable Player award. And once again, we won’t use Wins Above Replacement to frame the debate.
When comparing Trout’s 2013 résumé to Cabrera’s, there’s a widespread belief that Cabrera has a huge edge in offense, and that the debate boils down to whether Trout’s other contributions are enough to make up that gap. (Well, that and the idea that Cabrera’s team is going to the playoffs and Trout’s isn’t. We’ll get to that in a bit.) If the only stats you glanced at were batting average, home runs, and runs batted in, sure, it’s easy to get that impression. Cabrera won the batting title with ease, hitting .348 (Trout finished third at .323). The Tigers third baseman finished second in the league with 44 homers (Trout hit 27) and just missed winning the league RBI crown with 137 (Trout managed 97).
Thing is, we needn’t limit ourselves to those Triple Crown stats when evaluating a player’s offense, and we don’t even necessarily need advanced stats to make the point. Trout led Cabrera in doubles (39 to 26), triples (nine to one), and walks (110 to 90). Meanwhile, Cabrera hit into 19 double plays, compared to eight for Trout; lest you think that was just a case of Cabrera coming to bat in more double-play situations, Cabrera was still one of the more prolific double-play victims in the league even after accounting for opportunities, while Trout was the second-best hitter in baseball at avoiding double plays, even after mixing in that context.
Figuring out how to value Cabrera’s advantages (he also leads Trout in slugging .636 to .557, and on-base percentage .442 to .432) vs. Trout’s edges poses a challenge, one in which advanced stats might help us shed more light on the situation. Going by Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+), a stat that adjusts for park and league effects, Cabrera holds a 192-to-176 edge, meaning he created 92 percent more runs than a league-average hitter, compared to 76 percent for Trout. On the other hand, Trout has stayed healthier than Cabrera this year, appearing in nine more games and logging 64 more plate appearances. That edge in playing time has allowed Trout to lead Cabrera in runs created; in fact, Trout leads the majors in runs created compared to league average. If you still want to argue that Cabrera provided more value with his bat this year than did Trout, that’s fine. But at the very least, the numbers tell us the gap is much closer than the Triple Crown stats might suggest.
And just like he did last year, Trout annihilates Cabrera with his legs and his glove. Trout didn’t steal as many bases as he did in 2012, but he still managed 33 swipes in 40 tries; Cabrera stole just three bags. Trout ranked fourth in the majors in Baserunning Runs (a stat that accounts for a baserunner’s ability to take the extra base and also avoid getting thrown out), netting about eight runs for his team; Cabrera was the 14th-worst baserunner in the game, costing his team about four runs on the basepaths. We won’t get into an extended debate about advanced defensive metrics here. Suffice it to say Trout beats Cabrera handily in defensive value, whether you’re measuring by Defensive Runs Saved or Ultimate Zone Rating … even if Trout’s glove hasn’t been quite as dominant this year as it was last.
The counterargument here is that Cabrera’s Tigers won the AL Central, while Trout’s Angels failed to make the playoffs or even finish above .500. This gets into a subjective discussion about what the word “valuable” means in baseball terms. Many of Cabrera’s supporters (and Trout’s detractors) argue that only players on winning teams can be truly valuable, and that a losing team would’ve lost with or without its star player’s contributions.
There are two problems with this line of thinking. The first is the notion that a player like Cabrera (or, say, Oakland’s Josh Donaldson, who has also had a terrific season playing on a winning team, but still hasn’t been as good as Trout) should get extra credit because Dave Dombrowski did a better job of building a roster than other general managers did.
The second directly addresses the matter of team performance and its place in MVP voting. Here, from the Baseball Writers’ Association of America FAQ page, are the instructions sent out to voters who decide on the award.
There is no clear-cut definition of what Most Valuable means. It is up to the individual voter to decide who was the Most Valuable Player in each league to his team. The MVP need not come from a division winner or other playoff qualifier.
The rules of the voting remain the same as they were written on the first ballot in 1931:
1. Actual value of a player to his team, that is, strength of offense and defense.
2. Number of games played.
3. General character, disposition, loyalty and effort.
4. Former winners are eligible.
5. Members of the committee may vote for more than one member of a team.
So not only is team performance not mentioned anywhere in the five voting criteria, it’s explicitly outlined that the MVP need not come from a playoff team.
“Most valuable” equals best. Mike Trout, for the second year in a row, was the best player in the American League. He is thus the league’s Most Valuable Player.
AL MVP Ballot
1. Mike Trout
2. Miguel Cabrera
3. Josh Donaldson
4. Chris Davis
5. Robinson Cano
6. Adrian Beltre
7. Evan Longoria
8. Felix Hernandez
9. Max Scherzer
10. Chris Sale
NL MVP: Andrew McCutchen
Another note on MVP voting, from the BBWAA website:
Keep in mind that all players are eligible for MVP, including pitchers and designated hitters.
That means we have to consider Clayton Kershaw. The Dodgers ace added to his growing legend this season, pitching masterfully during both the Dodgers’ early-season catastrophe and their second-half blitzkrieg. The season-ending numbers are huge: 236 innings pitched (second in NL), 232 strikeouts (first), 2.39 FIP (second), and 1.83 ERA (first, as well as the first Dodgers starter to post a sub-2.00 ERA since Sandy Koufax and just the third NL starter ever to win three straight ERA titles, following Koufax and Greg Maddux).
Leaving aside the idea that a pitcher shouldn’t or can’t win MVP because there’s already an award for pitchers (again, there’s nothing in the voting rules that says he can’t win both), some anti-pitcher-for-MVP advocates claim that starting pitchers only appear every five games, and thus can’t stack up to everyday players. This is also terribly wrong. A starting pitcher exerts more control on a given game than your typical position player will. Moreover, an elite and durable starter will face gobs of batters over the course of a season. Kershaw faced 908 batters this year; by comparison, Joey Votto led the NL in plate appearances with 726. You can argue Kershaw’s worthiness as an MVP candidate (I also included Cardinals workhorse Adam Wainwright and Mets phenom Matt Harvey on my ballot) without having to throw in any caveats or apologize because he’s a pitcher.
I’m still backing Andrew McCutchen, by a very slight margin. The Pirates center fielder ranked fourth among qualified (and very tightly bunched) NL hitters, generating runs at a rate 55 percent better than league average. As with Trout, playing time counts: McCutchen playing 157 games and taking 674 plate appearances meant the Pirates very rarely had to rely on scrubby replacements when their All-Star starter couldn’t go. In fact, if you combine McCutchen’s durability with his offensive numbers and a positional adjustment, he rates as the most impactful offensive player in the NL this year. Now throw in his excellent defense and superior baserunning and you’ve got a worthy MVP pick, even if you ignore McCutchen leading the Pirates to their first playoff berth in 21 years (we did not consider team performance for this or any other award).
Comparing position players to pitchers is tricky, and Kershaw makes a fine pick, if you swing that way. But if we stack up McCutchen against Matt Carpenter, Paul Goldschmidt, Joey Votto, Yadier Molina, and other excellent National League position players, Cutch is the choice for 2013.
NL MVP Ballot
1. Andrew McCutchen
2. Clayton Kershaw
3. Matt Carpenter
4. Paul Goldschmidt
5. Joey Votto
6. Adam Wainwright
7. Yadier Molina
8. Matt Harvey
9. Carlos Gomez
10. Troy Tulowitzki
AL Cy Young: Felix Hernandez
Let’s begin here: I put absolutely zero stock in wins or win-loss record when evaluating pitcher performance. We simply have too many vastly superior tools at our disposal to care about a stat that’s heavily dependent on everything from run support to team defense, manager usage, even dumb luck. Max Scherzer could be 21-3 or 3-21 and it wouldn’t make a lick of difference in my calculus.
Thing is, Scherzer has an excellent Cy Young case even if you ignore those 21 wins. He finished second in the league in strikeout rate, fifth in ERA, tied for fifth in innings pitched, and third in FIP. He was consistent and dependable, giving up three runs or fewer in 21 of his final 24 starts, grabbing the staff ace mantle from Justin Verlander when the former Cy Young winner had merely a very good season instead of a spectacular one. Whether you want to lean on the terribly flawed wins stat or use other methods to make your case, you’re not going to get many complaints if you pick Scherzer.
But in another tight race, I’m giving Felix Hernandez the nod. The surface numbers are very close. Scherzer has Hernandez beat in ERA (2.90 to 3.04), while Hernandez holds the edge in FIP (2.61 to 2.74). Scherzer made one more start and threw 10 more innings. Scherzer allowed far fewer hits than Hernandez did, but that’s largely due to a gigantic gap in batting average on balls in play (.259 for Scherzer vs. .304 for Hernandez). There’s nothing in these two pitchers’ track records to suggest Scherzer is inherently better at preventing hits on balls in play, not when he holds a .302 lifetime BABIP compared to Hernandez’s .300. You can probably chalk up most of it to luck, then, and to a Mariners defense that was easily the worst in baseball, trumping even Detroit’s shaky group by a big margin.
So here’s the tiebreaker: strength of competition. Elias Sports Bureau ran the numbers on some of the top MVP and Cy Young candidates from both leagues, measuring opponents’ weighted ERA for hitters and opponents’ weighted OPS for pitchers to see what kind of competition each candidate had to face. Here’s what we got for AL Cy Young:
AL Cy Young candidates’ weighted opponents’ OPS
Anibal Sanchez: .730
Max Scherzer: .731
Yu Darvish: .745
Chris Sale: .747
Hisashi Iwakuma: .751
Felix Hernandez: .751
In a race this close, that gap was enough to tip the scales to Hernandez.
AL Cy Young Ballot
1. Felix Hernandez
2. Max Scherzer
3. Chris Sale
4. Yu Darvish
5. Anibal Sanchez
NL Cy Young: Clayton Kershaw
We already made the case for Kershaw in the MVP section. Going further down the ballot, Wainwright probably didn’t get enough credit this year for tossing a league-leading 241⅔ terrific innings; using fielding-independent stats, Wainwright’s a lot closer to Kershaw this year than the ERA gap (1.83 vs. 2.94) would suggest. Matt Harvey probably had no chance of beating Kershaw given the Dodgers ace’s far superior win total and sub-2.00 ERA, but it would have been interesting to see how much support Harvey would’ve nabbed had he stayed healthy and overcome that late-August speed bump. The Phillies went nowhere this year but you can’t blame that on Cliff Lee, who struck out 54 batters and walked just one in September, which shouldn’t be humanly possible. Jose Fernandez is freaking electric, and could provide a worthy adversary for Kershaw in future battles for pitching supremacy.
NL Cy Young Ballot
1. Clayton Kershaw
2. Adam Wainwright
3. Matt Harvey
4. Cliff Lee
5. Jose Fernandez
AL Rookie of the Year: Wil Myers
Wil Myers might end up having a spectacular career, one that includes multiple All-Star appearances, maybe even an MVP or two. But he was merely good, not great, this year, his numbers limited by the Rays’ predictable refusal to call him up until Myers was clear of Super Two arbitration status (he played in only 87 games, not counting Game 163) and by him getting adjusted to playing every day in the big leagues (a .295/.353/.482 line through Sunday was strong, but we’ll probably see better numbers as Myers matures).
Still, that performance was good enough to warrant Rookie of the Year honors in a weak class. Jose Iglesias probably didn’t get the defensive credit he deserved going by advanced metrics; not all his plays were this incredible, but he was still very good. Not known for his offense, Iglesias did hit .303 in about the same number of plate appearances as Myers. But he predictably showed little to no extra-base power. Martin Perez provided a big lift to a Texas starting rotation that was hit hard early by injuries, but his defense-independent numbers (4.21 FIP, not counting Game 163) weren’t particularly impressive.
AL Rookie of the Year Ballot
1. Wil Myers
2. Jose Iglesias
3. Martin Perez
NL Rookie of the Year: Jose Fernandez
As strong a rookie season as Yasiel Puig had, picking him as National League Rookie of the Year is in some ways a vote for narrative. The Dodgers stunk before Puig cracked the lineup. He got called up, and they started rolling. But as we discussed last week, the Dodgers had a million things go right for them that coincided with Puig’s promotion. Notably, Andre Ethier started hitting, Zack Greinke started pitching like the $147 million man the Dodgers expected, and Hanley Ramirez actually put up better numbers than Puig did. In many other seasons, Puig would be the pick here.
But not in the year of Jose Fernandez. The Marlins right-hander proved to be nearly unhittable for much of his debut season, spinning masterful performance after masterful performance. As with Harvey, it would have been nice to see what Fernandez could’ve done had his season not ended a bit early. But 172⅔ innings with a 2.19 ERA and 2.73 FIP was enough to merit down-ballot Cy Young consideration, let alone Rookie of the Year status. Again, acknowledging that comparing pitchers to position players can be tough, Fernandez was as dominant as Puig (or more), and he did it for longer in 2013, cracking the rotation right from the start of the season. With apologies to Hyun-Jin Ryu, Shelby Miller, several other intriguing candidates, and Puig, Fernandez wins.
NL Rookie of the Year Ballot
1. Jose Fernandez
2. Yasiel Puig
3. Hyun-Jin Ryu