The Toast of '98
Here's to the folks who distinguished themselves this season
If there was one thing voters weren't confused about at the All-Star break, it was whom to back in the National League Cy Young race. The real question was whether to rename the award in Greg Maddux's honor. With a 12-2 record and a microscopic 1.54 ERA in early July, the Braves righthander appeared to have a lock on an unprecedented fifth Cy Young. Since then, however, Maddux has been mortal: 6-7 with a 3.18 ERA.
Meanwhile, several other starters have done passable impersonations of vintage Maddux, most notably Atlanta teammates Tom Glavine (20-6, 2.47) and John Smoltz (17-3, 2.90), the Padres' Kevin Brown (18-7, 2.38, 257 strikeouts) and the Mets' Al Leiter (17-6,2.47). Nevertheless, we're going to the bullpen, picking righthanded closer Trevor Hoffman of San Diego. For the season, the pitcher with the game's nastiest changeup converted 53 of 54 save opportunities, anchoring the bullpen for a team that hasn't lost a game it led after eight innings since July 24, 1996. Hoffman became just the fourth man to save 50 games in a season and the first to do so with just one blown save. He allowed 7.8 base runners per nine innings—the best ratio in the majors since 1995—and if the sun isn't still shining when you face him, you might as well stay in the dugout. In 50? innings of nocturnal pitching, Hoffman allowed one earned run, for an ERA of 0.18. Not too shabby for a guy who was drafted as a shortstop by the Reds in '89.
Here are the rest of our award winners. (All statistics are through the end of the regular season.)
American League Cy Young
Roger Clemens, Blue Jays. Looks as if the Rocket, not Maddux, will become the first to win five Cy Youngs. Entering September, he was one of four strong candidates, along with the Red Sox' Pedro Martinez (who finished 19-7, 2.89,251 strikeouts) and Yankees teammates David Wells (18-4, 3.49, perfect game) and David Cone (20-7, 3.55). But in the season's final month, Martinez was 1-3 with a 4.15 ERA, Cone was 2-3, and Wells (left) went 2-2 with a 4.05 ERA. Clemens, meanwhile, stretched his winning streak to 15—his last loss was on May 29—and wrapped up the league's pitching Triple Crown with 20 wins (tied with Cone and Texas's Rick Helling), a 2.65 ERA and 271 strikeouts. The 36-year-old Clemens thus became the first American League pitcher to lead the circuit in all three categories in consecutive seasons since Lefty Grove of the A's did it in 1930 and '31.
Morganna Award (Butt of the Year)
Jay Bell, Diamondbacks. Thirty-four million bucks over five years should buy something better than a .251 average and 66 RBIs. Bell (right) noses out last year's biggest bust, righthander Jaime Navarro, who, in the second year of a $20 million contract with the White Sox, upped his losses from 14 last season to 16 and his ERA from 5.79 to 6.36.
Baywatch Award (Group Bust of the Year)
The Tigers. Huge improvement last year raised '98 hopes a little too high in Motown. But no way should this team (65-97) be as bad as the Devil Rays (63-99).
American League MVP
Nomar Garciaparra, Red Sox. Singling out any one Yankee is impossible. Their best hitter, Bernie Williams, missed 31 straight games in June and July with a bad knee, and the Bombers didn't miss a beat, going 21-10 without him. Good? Yes. Invaluable? Not on that team. On the other hand, playing for sub-.500 teams rules out league home run king Ken Griffey Jr. of the Mariners (56) and Triple Crown threat Albert Belle of the White Sox (.328, 49 homers, 152 RBIs). That leaves Garciaparra and the Rangers' Juan Gonzalez.
Each has a strong case. Gonzalez drove in a league-high 157 runs and hit .368 over the final two months to raise his average to .318. Garciaparra finished with a .323 average, 35 home runs and 122 RBIs, and actually hit more homers and drove in more runs in the second half of the season than Gonzalez (22 homers and 66 RBIs to 19 and 56). Boston wasn't the same team without him. In the 16 games Garciaparra missed with a shoulder injury in May, the Red Sox scored 3.81 runs a game and hit .253, compared with 5.58 runs and a .283 average the rest of the year. What clinches it for the 25-year-old Garciaparra are his defense, his joie de game and his versatility. He had more than 140 at bats in the leadoff spot, in the number 3 hole and at cleanup, and he hit better than .300 in all three roles.