Awards week preview: Top honors ahead for best moundsmen
Two pitchers -- Jeremy Hellickson, Craig Kimbrel -- are likely Rookies of the Year
Justin Verlander should be the unanimous winner of the AL Cy Young award
Clayton Kershaw's triple crown season will earn him the NL Cy Young award
The Baseball Writers Association of America will announce the winners of baseball's major awards over the next week and a half, starting with the Rookies of the Year on Monday and continuing through the league Most Valuable Players the following Monday and Tuesday. Since it has been more than six weeks since the last installation of my Awards Watch column, here's one final look at who is likely to win awards that will be announced next week -- the Rookies of the Year, Managers of the Year and Cy Youngs. Next Friday, I'll preview the two Most Valuable Player awards, which won't be announced until Nov. 21 (AL) and 22 (NL).
I'll have reactions to the actual results immediately following the announcements, each of which is scheduled for 2 p.m. Eastern Standard Time on the day listed below. Remember that votes were submitted prior to the playoffs on the day after the regular season ended, so postseason performance is not a factor in these awards.
NOTE: League leaders in bold, major league leaders in bold and italics. Rookies are players who, prior to the current season, had fewer than 130 at-bats or 50 innings pitched in the majors or spent fewer than 45 days on the active roster prior to rosters expanding on Sept. 1.
To Be Announced: Monday, Nov. 14
Expected Winner: Jeremy Hellickson, SP, Rays (13-10, 2.95 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 5.6 K/9, 1.63 K/BB, 2 CG, 1 SHO)
Deserving Winner: Hellickson
There's an argument to be made that Mariners righty Michael Pineda pitched better than Hellickson this year. Pineda had a huge advantage in strikeout rate (9.1 K/9 to Hellickson's 5.6) as well as a superior walk rate (2.9 to 3.4). Both allowed home runs and hits at comparable rates, but because he walked men less often, Pineda had a better WHIP (1.10 to 1.15), and Hellickson derived far more benefit from his defense and/or luck.
Beyond even the strikeouts, that last is the core of the argument for Pineda. Hellickson's opponents hit just .224 on balls in play, by far the lowest mark among the 93 qualified pitchers in the majors this season (the median for that group was .292, and the league average for all pitchers was .295). However, Pineda's .261 BABIP was the ninth-lowest among qualifiers, and despite that good fortune on balls in play, his vastly superior strikeout rate, and the fact that both pitched their home games in pitcher-friendly ballparks, Pineda still posted an ERA more than three-quarters of a run higher than Hellickson's. Consider the nature of the other ballparks in their divisions and the relative strength of the lineups that play in those ballparks (in both cases only Texas from the AL West compares to Boston, New York and even Toronto in the East), and Pineda's case gets even weaker.
The final blow is Pineda's workload. It's not his fault. The Mariners were careful with him, as well they should have been, particularly given that, unlike Hellickson's Rays, they were never in the playoff hunt. Still, both men spent the entire year in their team's rotation, but Hellickson made one more start and threw 18 more innings, averaging 6.5 innings per start to Pineda's 6.1, and turned in the only complete game by either pitcher. Pineda pitched into the eighth inning just twice. Hellickson did it six times. Hellickson also pitched into the sixth inning in all but three of his starts, while Pineda failed to reach the sixth five times.
There is also the matter of more traditional metrics like won-loss record and team performance. Last year's AL Cy Young results proved that voters are less swayed by a pitcher's wins total than ever before, but even though Pineda's Seattle teammate Felix Hernandez won that award with a 13-12 record for a 101-loss team, don't expect Pineda (9-10, 3.74) to win this one with a 9-10 mark for a 95-loss squad. In fact, Pineda may not even finish second given that the Yankees' Ivan Nova (16-4, 3.70) had superficially superior traditional stats and even less luck on balls in play (.284 BABIP) while pitching in a hitter's park in Hellickson's division.
Hellickson was the preseason favorite for this award and while he didn't pitch quite as well as expected, he will still be a deserving winner.
To Be Announced: Monday, Nov. 14
Expected Winner: Craig Kimbrel, RP, Braves (2.10 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 14.8 K/9, 3.97 K/BB, 46 SVs
Deserving Winner: Kimbrel
Kimbrel broke the one-year-old rookie saves record of 40 set by last year's AL Rookie of the Year, Neftali Feliz. He also posted the fifth-best strikeout rate for a pitcher with at least 70 innings pitched in the history of baseball (fourth-best if you up the minimum to 75 innings pitched). That alone should earn him this award as he was not only the best rookie in the National League this year but legitimately had one of the great relief-pitching season's in the game's history.
That is provided you are willing to overlook his final three weeks. On September 8, Kimbrel struck out two Mets in a scoreless ninth inning while recording his 43rd of the season. After that outing, his season ERA stood at 1.55 and he had not allowed a run, inherited or otherwise, since June 11, a span of 38 appearances and 37 2/3 innings pitched. Over that stretch, he had allowed just 14 hits and 26 baserunners (0.69 BR/9 IP, 0.66 WHIP if you leave out his one hit batsman). However, he had also already made 71 appearances by then (by comparison, career saves leader Mariano Rivera of the Yankees has reached that mark just thrice in his 17-year career and surpassed it only once).
Kimbrel was nearly spent. In his next appearance he allowed his first runs since June 11 and blew his first save since June 8. After three more dominant outings, he was fully spent. Kimbrel had allowed just one home run in his first 100 major league appearances (including the 2010 postseason, but on September 18 and 19, he allowed home runs in consecutive games, yielding three runs in 1 2/3 innings in those two outings and blowing another save in the latter. Then, on the final day of the season, with the Braves clinging to a one-run ninth-inning lead that would force a one-game playoff against the Cardinals for the NL wild card, Kimbrel faced six men, gave up a single, three walks, and a sac fly to blow yet another save and got hooked mid-inning for the first time since April 30.
Some of the voters who sent in their ballots the next day might have found it hard to vote for a pitcher who had just blown a save that cost his team its season (though the Braves didn't actually lose that game until the 13th inning), but I'm guessing that most had enough perspective to realize that Kimbrel's failure in Game 162 was largely the fault of Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez, who had so overworked his 23-year-old stud prior to that point. It surely helped that Kimbrel had effectively run away with this award before those final three weeks. This could have been unanimous. It won't be -- his teammate, first baseman Freddie Freeman, could get a few first-place votes after hitting 21 home runs, tied for the most by an NL rookie, and driving in 76 runs, highest by all NL first-year players -- but Kimbrel should still win it easily.
To Be Announced: Tuesday, Nov. 15
Expected Winner: Justin Verlander, RHP, Tigers (24-5, 250 Ks, 2.40 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, 9.0 K/9, 4.39 K/BB, 4 CG, 2 SHO)
Deserving Winner: Verlander
Now this will be unanimous. Add to the numbers above the fact that Verlander led the majors in innings pitched (a career-high 251, an average of more than 7 1/3 innings per start), quality starts (28, tied with likely runner-up Jered Weaver, who made 33 total starts to Verlander's 34) and ERA+ (170). His WHIP was also the 16th best of the liveball era (since 1920), and if you eliminate the big-strikezone/high-mound era from 1963 to 1968, it jumps up to eighth-best since 1920. Yes, he had the second-lowest BABIP (.237) among major league qualifiers behind Hellickson, but he was so dominant, even the voters who noticed likely didn't care, in part because his closest rivals for this award were right behind him (Weaver was fifth at .252, and James Shields was eighth at .260).
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