MVP, Cy Young races coming down to the wire in both AL and NL
In the NL, Buster Posey has a small lead on three other contenders for MVP
In the AL, Mike Trout is trying to hold off Triple Crown hopeful Miguel Cabrera
R.A. Dickey and Justin Verlander have narrow edges for Cy Young awards
Barring tie-breaker games, there is less than one week remaining in the 2012 regular season, and the majority of the major player awards remain unsettled. The races for the Rookie of the Year awards have been over for a while, but the Most Valuable Player and Cy Young awards in the National League are too close to call heading into the final week, and while I have a clear preference for who I think should win those two awards in the American League, there is a strong possibility that the vote by the members of the Baseball Writers Association of America (of which I am not one) will go in a different direction.
This is the final Awards Watch of the regular season, but it will return in November with predictions and reactions. In the meantime, the awards should provide some added drama to the season's final week and plenty of grist for the mill in the months that follow.
Note: 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. The number in parentheses after each player's name reflects his rank on the previous list. All stats are through Wednesday, September 26. League leaders are in bold, major league leaders in bold italics.
1. Buster Posey, C, Giants (1)
Season Stats: .331/.405/.539, 23 HR, 100 RBI, 74 R
2. Ryan Braun, LF, Brewers (3)
Season Stats: .318/.391/.603, 41 HR, 110 RBI, 103 R, 29 SB
3. Andrew McCutchen, CF, Pirates (2)
Season Stats: .334/.406/.562, 30 HR, 93 RBI, 106 R, 19 SB
4. Yadier Molina, C, Cardinals (N/A)
Season Stats: .320/.377/.507, 21 HR, 72 RBI, 61 R, 12 SB
I'm going to break my own rules right off the bat here and list not three but four candidates for the NL MVP award, because this is really a four-man race. I could make an argument for any one of these four to top the list. Molina has clearly been the least productive at the plate, but he is also clearly the most valuable in the field both in terms of where he plays and how well he plays there. Posey also gets graded on a big curve for being a catcher, but doesn't need as much of a boost as Molina, which is largely why he remains at the top of my list. Braun has impressive counting numbers and all-around skills (one more steal would give him a second consecutive 30/30 season, and those first 29 steals have come at an 81 percent success rate). McCutchen leads the league in on-base percentage and runs, would lead in batting average if you eliminated Melky Cabrera (which will happen at season's end), and plays centerfield, not left like Braun.
When the writers take to their ballots, I expect that the closeness of the race will allow them to pass over McCutchen (because of the Pirates' collapse and his role in it) and Braun (because the Brewers, who enter Thursday with an elimination number of four, will likely wind up missing the playoffs). Another factor against Braun could be any remaining suspicions over his overturned positive drug test this past offseason. I don't agree with any of that, but that doesn't mean such a result would be an injustice, either.
For me, Putting Posey ahead of Molina is a simple apples-to-apples comparison. Yes, Molina's superior defense makes it close, but Posey is no slouch behind the plate and clearly the more productive hitter. Putting Posey ahead of McCutchen is easy given the similarity of their numbers, the fact that McCutchen's steals have come at a lousy 63 percent success rate, and the fact that Posey is a catcher.
The tough call is Posey vs. Braun. Braun has 64 points of slugging and nearly 20 home runs on Posey, but then Posey has a higher batting average and on-base percentage, more doubles, more walks, fewer strikeouts. Oh yeah, he's also a catcher while Braun is a leftfielder, opposite ends of the defensive spectrum.
1. Mike Trout, CF, Angels (1)
Season Stats: .323/.395/.551, 28 HR, 78 RBI, 124 R, 47 SB>
2. Miguel Cabrera, 3B, Tigers (2)
Season Stats: .327/.392/.605, 42 HR, 133 RBI, 106 R
Anyone read any good articles recently? It seems you can't check a score without stumbling across a piece about the MVP merits of Cabrera, who is threatening to win the Triple Crown (Josh Hamilton leads him in home runs by one), and Trout, who is the consensus pick among more progressive analysts such as myself. With the Tigers moving into sole possession of first place in the AL Central on Wednesday night, this has only gotten more muddled. Those who would tend to favor Cabrera because of his Triple Crown stats are the same as those who would prefer their MVP come from a playoff team. Those who look past those three categories to see Trout's all-around greatness this season are, for the most part, the same as those who believe that player value should be measured independent of team performance.
It's impossible to say how this will turn out, though it's likely if Cabrera wins the Triple Crown and the Tigers make the playoffs, Trout's one-time lock on this award will have been picked and Cabrera, who has finished in the top five in the voting five times, will finally have his first MVP award. If Cabrera or the Tigers fall short and the Angels pull off an upset of the A's for the final wild-card spot, well then Trout will get the right result but perhaps for the wrong reason.
One last argument for Trout. Note that he leads Cabrera in on-base percentage and is right there with him in batting average. The only real difference between the two at the plate is Cabrera's extra power, and Trout's baserunning largely closes that gap. My colleague Tom Verducci had some effective math on that front on Tuesday. Add total bases, walks, hit-by-pitches, steals and extra bases taken, then subtract times caught stealing and other outs on the bases and double plays, and, through Monday's action, Cabrera had 424 bases and Trout had 435. As run-producing weapons they're actually in a dead heat. Factor in Trout's defense in centerfield, and the choice is clear. Or so it would seem.
3. Robinson Cano, 2B, Yankees (3)
Season Stats: .297/.367/.523, 30 HR, 82 RBI, 96 R
Josh Hamilton has the impressive counting stats (a major league leading 43 homers and second-best 124 RBIs), but his battling line (.286/.359/.588) reveals a much closer race with Cano, and when you factor in Hamilton's more extreme home ballpark and Cano's superior defense, Cano gets the edge.
I also have a hard time getting behind an MVP candidate who hit .203/.278/.381 for a third of the season as Hamilton did from June 1 to Aug. 6. Hamilton's Texas teammate Adrian Beltre provides more competition for Cano here, but again Cano has the advantage due to his edge in on-base percentage (Beltre's at .352) and with a nod toward the fielding metrics that suggest that Beltre isn't playing up to his usual standard at the hot corner this year.
1. Justin Verlander, RHP, Tigers (1)
Season Stats: 16-8, 2.72 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 9.0 K/9 (231 K), 3.98 K/BB, 7.2 IP/GS, 6 CG, 1 SHO, 153 ERA+
Remaining start: Saturday at Minnesota
This has been a close race all season, but I've had Verlander in the top spot for most of it, and with his last start coming against a weak team in a pitcher's park while his rivals both face contenders, it's hard to believe that I won't feel the same a week from now.
Verlander leads the majors in innings and ERA+, which practically sews the award up by itself as it says that no pitcher has been more effective at preventing runs or eating innings, the two most important things a starting pitcher can do. Of course, Verlander has the impressive peripherals as well. He's second in the league in WHIP, has struck out one man per inning, leading the majors in strikeouts, and has the third-best strikeout-to-walk ratio in the league to boot. That's not to mention his major league best six complete games. One of those was a cheat, five innings in a rain-shortened game, but the baseball gods made good on it when, four turns later, Verlander allowed just two runs and struck out 12 over nine innings but failed to get a win or a complete game as the contest wound up going 11 innings (the Tigers won).
2. David Price, LHP, Rays (3)
Season Stats: 19-5, 2.56 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 8.9 K/9 (201 K), 3.53 K/BB, 6.8 IP/GS, 2 CG, 1 SHO, 149 ERA+
Remaining start: Sunday at Chicago
Price, the league leader in wins (tied with Jered Weaver, who would rank fifth, behind Chris Sale, if this list went that deep) and ERA could steal this award from Verlander if the voters fail to look past the pitching triple crown stats. Consider this comparison:
Verlander: 16-8, 231 K, 2.72 ERA
D. Price: 19-5, 201 K, 2.56 ERA
Price looks like the better pitcher through that keyhole, and will even moreso if he picks up his 20th win on Sunday, but closer inspection reveals that Verlander has clearly been better. In general the Cy Young voting has been much improved over the last several years, so there's reason to believe that the voters will get it right, but with Verlander having won last year and Price having both more wins and a lower ERA, there's a very good chance they won't.
3. Felix Hernandez, RHP, Mariners (N/A)
Season Stats: 13-8, 2.86 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 8.6 K/9 (216 K), 4.07 K/BB, 7.1 IP/GS, 5 SHO, 130 ERA+
Remaining start: Monday vs. Angels
Hernandez and Chris Sale have the same ERA and WHIP and very similar strikeout and K/BB rates, which given the fact that Hernandez pitches in a far friendlier ballpark, would seem to give Sale the edge. Indeed, Sale has a big advantage in ERA+ (153 to Felix's 130), but it's hard to get past the fact that Hernandez has thrown nearly 40 more innings (226 2/3 to 188 2/3, a full fifth more frames for King Felix), nor those major league best five shutouts. Hernandez has lacked his usual consistency this season, but in the aggregate, his season is almost as impressive as Verlander's and deserves to be listed ahead of those of Sale, Weaver and the Rangers' Matt Harrison.
Out of the Top 3: Chris Sale (2)
NEXT: NL Cy Young and Rookies of the Year
NHL playoff preview: Boston Bruins vs. Detroit Red Wings
NHL playoff preview: Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Columbus Blue Jackets