My award picks for 2011 season
It's rare that pitchers win the MVP but Justin Verlander deserves it this season
He should also win the Cy Young, as should Clayton Kershaw in the NL
Jeremy Hellickson and Craig Kimbrel look like surefire Rookies of the Year
The wild card races aren't the only ones that went right down to the wire this season. The MVP races in the National and American Leagues, which will be announced on Nov. 22 and 23, respectively, had great suspense. Three players have a real shot at it in the NL and four in the AL.
This year's MVP debates raised a couple interesting questions. One is how seriously a pitcher should be considered. The other is how much, if any, should it count against a player if he played on a non-playoff team or even a non-contender.
No starting pitcher has won an MVP since Roger Clemens in 1986, although in retrospect Pedro Martinez should have won in 1999 when he was absolutely dominant and no position player had nearly as memorable or productive a year. (Pedro was omitted from the ballot by one rogue voter, costing him the award.) It is preferable to have a position player as MVP since pitchers have their own award, but there is plenty of precedent to suggest they must be seriously considered when appropriate.
While great position players Jacoby Ellsbury, Curtis Granderson and Jose Bautista all have worthy MVP candidacies, I am going with Tigers ace pitcher Justin Verlander. He won the pitching Triple Crown (league-leading totals for wins, strikeouts and ERA), and also won every game for a long time when the Tigers still had competition in the AL Central. Verlander had a once-in-a-decade year and was more consistently dominant than anyone else on a playoff team.
Which brings us to the question about whether a player on a non-playoff team or even also-ran should win. As with the pitchers, there is precedent for players from non-playoff teams winning the award, so I'm willing to consider it under extraordinary circumstances. For me that means when no players on playoff teams are worthy or when a player on a non-playoff team stands so far apart that he can't be ignored.
The issue is the word "valuable.'' The award suggests to me that a player's achievements led to something meaningful, namely a date in October. Even in the days when only one team qualified for the postseason, the award usually went to someone on the pennant-winning team. And that makes sense. Raw numbers do not equal value or impact.
There are those who argue that "value'' could mean value to a player's own team, but that argument, made often by the numbers-driven guys, seems like a way to justify picking the guy with the best numbers. Numbers don't always tell the whole story. There is no perfect number, anyway. Even WAR depends on the valuations placed on different core stats.
In any case, it is the American and National League MVP, after all, not a team MVP. I wouldn't go to the extreme voters went to in 1934, when Detroit's catcher-manager Mickey Cochrane won the award after hitting .320 with two home runs and 76 RBIs for the pennant-winning Tigers and the Yankees' Lou Gehrig hit .363 with 49 home runs and 165 RBIs. But an extra few home runs or RBIs for a non-playoff team isn't going to make the difference for me.
Ellsbury was one Red Sox who played consistently well in September and certainly makes a strong case. But Verlander had a year that was at least as good (Ellsbury led the league in one category, extra-base hits, while Verlander led in every major pitching category), and all his exploits helped lead to a playoff spot. Jose Bautista had the best season among position players in the AL but his Blue Jays team, while game, was an also-ran from start to finish thanks to the strength of the AL East.
Matt Kemp became a similar case to Bautista in my mind. He had the best season statistically of any player in the NL (though not that much better than my pick, the Brewers' Ryan Braun, who led in the ever-important OPS) but his Dodgers team, while certainly very resilient, was a non-contender. He didn't play in any games in the second half with the sort of pressure faced by Braun and Prince Fielder, as his team was out of the race by then. And that's when his numbers really began to pile up. It was a terrific year by Kemp, just not so much better than Braun or Fielder that I could justify voting for him first.
This is all an inexact science and very subjective, and if someone values pitchers slightly less than I do (or more for that matter), I understand it. And if someone wants to make the case that players on also rans should be given greater consideration, I understand that, too. There are voters more numbers-oriented and less wins-oriented who will tell me my votes are idiotic, that Kemp and Bautista should be higher than third and fifth, respectively. That's OK, the individual numbers have become more prominent in recent years. But I am still here to remind folks that the ultimate goal is to win. And Verlander and Braun did enough to help their teams win.
Here are my ballots:
1. Justin Verlander, Tigers. Not only did he lead the league in wins (24), ERA (2.40) and strikeouts (250), he also led in innings (251), WHIP (0.92, Jered Weaver was second best at 1.01), opponents' OPS (.555, Weaver was next at .598). He also won 12 straight starts from July 21 to Sept. 18, which is the day after the Tigers became the first AL team to clinch their division.
2. Jacoby Ellsbury, Red Sox. He was simply superb with 32 home runs (out of nowhere), 39 stolen bases, 105 RBIs, a league-leading 81 extra-base hit and a .321 batting average, and he was not infected by the Sox' September swoon, hitting .358 with eight home runs in the month of despair. Won't argue too strongly if someone makes his case, but ultimately, he didn't have the best year among positions players (that would be Bautista) nor did his team make the playoffs.
3. Curtis Granderson, Yankees. Here's one of Granderson's most incredible stats: He led the A.L. with 119 RBIs despite predominantly batting second (438 at-bats out of 583 came in the No. 2 spot). Beyond that he led the league in runs with 136, which isn't some fluke since he had 10 triples and 25 stolen bases to go with all those home runs. Although, it is hard to do while batting .262, which was good for 45th place among qualifiers. Easily the best Yankee.
4. Miguel Cabrera, Tigers. Cabrera himself endorsed Verlander, which was kind of him. He has a case, too, what with a league-leading .344 batting average and league-leading .448 on-base percentage to go with a second-best .586 slugging percentage and 1.033 OPS. Didn't start strong with his drunken-driving episode on way to spring training, but overcame it.
5. Jose Bautista, Blue Jays. A personal favorite. He led the league with 43 home runs, a .608 slugging percentage and 1.056 OPS. Plays several positions well and even runs the bases well. A real credit in the clubhouse, too.
6. Robinson Cano, Yankees. His 81 extra-base hits were second and so were his 118 RBIs. He finished with 28 home runs to go with a .302 batting average but his .882 OPS was good for only 10th. Very nice year, but he was a bit better in 2010.
7. Adrian Gonzalez, Red Sox. Terrific first year in Boston, but he was hampered by a hurt shoulder in September. Didn't hit quite as many home runs as expected but hit for a higher average and generally lived up to extraordinary expectations. Still, he was there for the September collapse.
8. Michael Young, Rangers. He was jostled around a bit in winter, when he lost his position and was nearly traded to the Rockies. But he came back to have one of his best years, hitting .338 with 106 RBIs and justifying his contract. Played all around the infield, and did fine at third base when Adrian Beltre was out for six weeks.
9. Evan Longoria, Rays. He might not have the stats to be this high, but he led the Rays to their improbable playoff spot, hitting home runs that enabled them to make this season a memorable one. A terrific defender at third base, and better than his .244 batting average.
10. Adrian Beltre, Rangers. Monster first year in Texas that could have been good enough to be a true MVP contender if not for the six missed weeks with a hamstring issue. His $80-million contract looks good now (he's one of the few who justified big winter deals this year), and he showed he doesn't have to be playing for a contract to be great.
AL LVP (Least Valuable Player): Vernon Wells, Angels. He hit just .218 with a .248 OBP in his first year in Anaheim. How the Angels were talked into taking all but $5 million of the $86 million is beyond me. Great job, again, by Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos and the Jays.
1. Ryan Braun, Brewers. A superb all-around player, he led the league with a .994 OPS (even higher than Kemp's .986) and .597 slugging percentage, though he lost the batting crown thanks to Jose Reyes' strategic bunt and his final-day 0-for-4. Also had 33 home runs and 33 steals, showing great symmetry. A very good leftfielder, as well, who can run and throw.
2. Prince Fielder, Brewers. It's true Kemp's numbers are a bit better but his .981 OPS is close and his 38 home runs were only one behind Kemp. Fielder provided great protection for Braun and was intentionally walked 32 times, most in the majors. Some Brewers people think he should be MVP for that and also for being the team's leader, even on his way out of town (even he said he's likely to leave as a free agent after the year). His .415 on-base percentage was second and so were his 120 RBIs. Second here, too, though I suspect he'll be third in the vote.
3. Matt Kemp, Dodgers. He came close to the Triple Crown, leading the league with 39 home runs and 126 RBIs while falling 13 points short with his .324 batting average despite playing in a pitchers' park with virtually no lineup protection (he was intentionally walked 24 times). Throw in 40 stolen bases in 51 attempts plus above average defense in centerfield and it's fair to say he was the league's best player. But the question will be: How much better was he than Braun and Fielder?
4. Justin Upton, Diamondbacks. He is the face of one of the most improbable stories in recent memory, making GM Kevin Towers' decision to not trade him last offseason look wise by hitting 31 home runs, stealing 21 bases and posting an .898 OPS.
5. Albert Pujols, Cardinals. The defining moment, other than the Cardinals unreal September comeback, was him returning after breaking his wrist in a ridiculous 2 ˝ weeks. He didn't have his usual statistical season, and though he did finish second with 37 home runs he didn't crack the 100 mark for RBIs (he had 99) or bat .300 (he finished at .299) after 10 straight years of 30 homers, 100 RBIs and a .300 batting average. His .366 on-base percentage was also well below his career norm. While he didn't make a case for anyone to pay him Alex Rodriguez money, he made it harder for the Cardinals to let him walk away by helping them to the playoffs.
6. Lance Berkman, Cardinals. They've already rewarded him by bringing him back for $12 million for 2012, and he earned every penny of that. His .959 OPS was fourth best and his .412 on-base percentage was third. Carried the Cardinals early.
7. Roy Halladay, Phillies. While Clayton Kershaw will get the nod for Cy Young by beating Halladay in the three main stat categories, he was the best player on the best team. The Phillies won it with pitching, and Halladay was his usual brilliant self
8. Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies. He is Cal Ripken, with better defense. Had 30 homers, 105 RBIs and a .302 batting average. His .916 OPS was sixth best, not bad for one of the two best-fielding shortstops in the league.
9. Joey Votto, Reds. Cincinnati's disappointing season didn't hurt Votto, as he finished first in on-base percentage (.416) and fifth in OPS (.947).
10. Shane Victorino, Phillies. Little guy played superb defense in center and did a lot of positive things, including posting an .847 OPS, hitting 17 home runs and 16 triples. Very positive force on the best team in baseball, and outdid bigger names Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins this year. Cliff Lee was my 11th man.
NL LVP: Hanley Ramirez, Marlins. One of the most talented players in baseball was one of the most mediocre. Was nothing short of atrocious through June and finished at .243, 57 points below his average last season.
1. Verlander. If this isn't unanimous, a recount is in order.
2. Jered Weaver, Angels. Was second best in just about everything, including ERA (2.41), WHIP (1.01) and opponents OPS (.598).
3. James Shields, Rays. The complete-game machine (11) pitched well all year long.
AL Cy Old: Brian Matusz, Orioles. One of the worst performances in recent memory. He just simply lost it, going 1-9 with a 10.69 ERA.
1. Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers. Won the pitching Triple Crown. Probably won't be unanimous because he pitches in a stark pitchers' park, but that's hard to ignore. Simply brilliant throughout, especially in the second half.
2. Halladay, Phillies. His numbers were just a tad short of Kershaw, and a case can be built for him since he pitched in a hitters' park and under a bit more pressure (though the Phillies had things pretty well wrapped up by mid-year)
3. Lee, Phillies. Did everything they expected when they bestowed the $120 million, five-year deal on him, except he struck out a few more batters than expected, finishing with 238, 53 more than his previous career best.
NL Cy Old: Aaron Cook, Rockies. Was dreadful from start to finish, ending up with a 3-10 record ad 6.03 ERA. The humidor didn't help.
1. Jeremy Hellickson, Rays. His 13-10 record and 2.98 ERA should carry him. Very nice initial campaign.
2. Ivan Nova, Yankees. He didn't lose the last three months, helping the Yankees to the AL East title while earning the No. 2 spot in their playoff rotation.
3. Mark Trumbo, Angels. A big 29 home runs for the local kid who exceeded expectations was a very nice story.
1. Craig Kimbrel, Braves. Didn't allow a run for two months as the Braves built their big wild-card lead (that they would eventually squander).
2. Freddie Freeman, Braves. With two rookies this high, and so many other great players, you'd have thought the Braves would make it to October. Very nice season for Freeman.
3. Vance Worley, Phillies. He actually outpitched Roy Oswalt, though the veteran is expected to get the postseason rotation nod.
1. Joe Maddon, Rays. There's no debate after Tampa Bay's fantastic finish.
2. Jim Leyland, Tigers. A division that was supposed to be close never was. He earned that extension.
3. Joe Girardi, Yankees. Handled the bullpen beautifully as the Yankees surprised folks by running away from the Red Sox.
Maury Wills Award (Worst Manager): Ron Gardenhire, Twins. Long considered one of the game's best, it's not really fair, as his team was beset by injuries, bad health and bad luck and had to rely on kids.
1. Kirk Gibson, Diamondbacks. This will be unanimous. Absolutely the right man for the young team. Kudos to team president Derrick Hall for making this call.
2. Ron Roenicke, Brewers. Calmly guided a young team with some interesting personalities (including K-Rod and Nyjer Morgan, aka "Tony Plush"). Another Mike Scioscia disciple makes good.
3. Tony La Russa, Cardinals. Out of nowhere, La Russa's team made it to October. Hall of Famer looks like a candidate to go to the White Sox if he wants.
Bud Harrelson Award (Worst Manager): Brad Mills, Astros. Also not fair. His team stunk. Think he actually deserves another year since last year was pretty good.
1. Dave Dombrowski, Tigers. Doug Fister was easily the best pitching pickup at the trade deadline. And the other moves worked, too. Victor Martinez was that rare big free-agent signing that worked, Jose Valverde was a bargain yet again and even Joaquin Benoit looked OK by the end. Very good job all around.
2. Jon Daniels, Rangers. Mike Napoli was the maybe the best trade acquisition of the winter and a case could be made that Beltre was the best free-agent pickup. They've done everything right, starting with the Mark Teixeira trade that rebuilt the team. They also have the two best reliever-to-starter conversions the past couple years, with C.J. Wilson and Alexi Ogando, and that's due in part to their fine pitching coach Mike Maddux.
3. Brian Cashman, Yankees; Andrew Friedman, Rays. Cashman added a lot of great bargain pickups to the game's high payroll, including Freddy Garcia, Russell Martin, Eric Chavez and Bartolo Colon (and gets bonus points for not wanting Rafael Soriano, who wasn't worth it)
Hawk Harrelson Award (Worst GM): Bill Smith, Twins. It all fell apart for the Twins. Not sure it was the anonymous Smith's doing, but he is ostensibly in charge.
1. Kevin Towers, Diamondbacks. Made small move after small move (that's all they could afford), and it paid off with an unreal division title. Signing J.J. Putz was the biggest addition, and he closed 44 of 47 games coming off an injury year, but so many more acquisitions paid dividends, too.
2. Ruben Amaro, Phillies. He got the big fish this winter (Lee) and also this summer (Hunter Pence) and the result was the best team in baseball.
3. Doug Melvin, Brewers. He made the tight call to sacrifice the farm to turn a suspect rotation into a very fine one by acquiring Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum. Trading Brett Lawrie looks like a smart move for both sides as the Blue Jays got a possible future star, but Melvin gave the Royals a lot less than the Nationals reputedly would have (they were considering sending Danny Espinosa, Drew Storen and Jordan Zimmerman to Kansas City but Greinke refused to go to Washington). Excellent job.
Ed Wade Award (Worst GM): Wade, Astros. Feel bad giving his own award to him but those 105 defeats are hard to ignore.