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Sizing up the 2012 awards races

8/16/2012

As we approach what you might call the quarter pole of the baseball season, the races for the major postseason player awards are starting to narrow to fairly small lists of candidates, with one and possibly two already all but decided. If the season ended today, here is how I would vote on the two MVP awards, the two Cy Young awards, and the AL Rookie of the Year award, with brief explanations for each. I'm voting on the NL Rookie of the Year award this year, so I will not discuss that award again until the results of the balloting are revealed in November.

AL MVP

1. Mike Trout

2. Robinson Cano

3. Justin Verlander

4. Austin Jackson

5. Felix Hernandez

Trout has the performance and the narrative in his favor right now; if he maintains this crazy level of performance, the only argument against him would be if the Angels miss the playoffs, and claiming that an individual player's value is somehow tied to the performance of his teammates is just flat-earth thinking.

One of the most popular questions I've gotten recently is whether Miguel Cabrera will win the AL MVP award. I don't presume to know what the voters will do, but I know that as it stands right now, he shouldn't appear in the top three spots on any ballot. Cabrera's offensive performance has been solid, but he's a major negative on defense at third base, so a player like Cano, a good defender at a position (second base) where offensive levels are lower, is more valuable overall even though Cabrera has slightly higher raw rate stats. Cabrera is the third-most valuable player on his own team, behind Verlander and Jackson, the latter of whom has completely transformed himself at the plate this year and is a plus defender in center.

NL MVP

1. Andrew McCutchen

2. David Wright

3. Buster Posey

4. Ryan Braun

5. Chase Headley

McCutchen leads the NL in both the Baseball Reference and FanGraphs versions of wins above replacement despite a strongly negative defensive number, one I find rather hard to believe and that may be a function of PNC Park's odd dimensions, as McCutchen -- by visual evaluation a good defender in center -- has always scored poorly in UZR and in Baseball Reference's defensive runs saved.

Like Trout, McCutchen may suffer with some voters if his team misses the playoffs, although any rational voter might consider what the Pirates' record would be like without his offensive contributions before dismissing his value. Posey's case may also be tied to whether his team makes the playoffs or not, and his defensive numbers aren't helping his statistical case; I think he's a better defensive catcher than those metrics indicate, and he shouldn't be penalized for playing a handful of games out of position. I may be unfairly omitting Michael Bourn, but so much of his value this year comes from huge numbers in the advanced defensive metrics, with which I'm less comfortable than I am with advanced offensive numbers.

AL Cy Young

1. Justin Verlander

2. Felix Hernandez

3. Jake Peavy

4. CC Sabathia

5. Chris Sale

It's a two-man race right now, with Verlander enjoying a comfortable lead over King Felix, even if you normalize Verlander's stats upward to reflect his low batting average on balls in play -- and Verlander's BABIP has been quite low for over two years now, raising the question of whether he might have slightly more skill than other pitchers in limiting hits on balls in play. Sale has been nearly as effective this year as Verlander on a per-inning basis, but he's already skipped starts twice this year and the White Sox seem inclined to back off his workload now to keep him available in October, which will hurt his candidacy.

As for AL ERA leader Jered Weaver, he's nearly 40 innings behind Verlander, and has had remarkable luck/defensive help on balls in play -- .225 BABIP, by far a career low -- as an extreme fly-ball pitcher with Superman in the outfield behind him.

NL Cy Young

1. R.A. Dickey

2. Johnny Cueto

3. Clayton Kershaw

4. Gio Gonzalez

5. Stephen Strasburg

The most interesting thing about Dickey's stat line this year is that among NL pitchers he's essentially tied with the other four pitchers listed above for the league lead in FanGraphs' WAR even though that statistic, which normalizes a pitcher's performance by using a league-average BABIP, may in fact handle his performance unfairly, as knuckleballers do seem to be able to reduce the rate of hits allowed on balls in play more so than "conventional" pitchers.

Cueto pitches in a harder home environment and has faced at least as difficult a slate of opposing offenses as Dickey has, so he has a reasonable case to be first overall even without considering irrelevant variables like pitching in a pennant race. Strasburg's placement on ballots will be fascinating; no starting pitcher has ever won the Cy Young Award in a full, non-strike-shortened season with under 200 innings (Pedro Martinez's 213 1/3 IP in 1999 were the fewest), but Strasburg has pitched well enough that he might have a case for a few fifth-place votes even with his soon-to-be-truncated workload.

As for Aroldis Chapman and Craig Kimbrel, while both are having spectacular years in relief, neither is as valuable as what a good full-time starter can provide in three to four times as many innings. Chapman might be in the midst of the best relief season ever, and yet ranks just 12th in the NL among pitchers in FanGraphs' WAR because he doesn't pitch enough -- he's retired more than three batters in one appearance just once since Memorial Day. There's a lot of lost value in the practice of limiting relievers to one inning per outing, and until more teams realize this, you're not going to see relievers on my Cy Young ballots.

AL Rookie of the Year

1. Mike Trout

2. Yu Darvish

3. Jarrod Parker

First place here isn't remotely a conversation; I had Trout as the best prospect in the minors for the last two years and he has even exceeded my own expectations for him. His FanGraphs' WAR is more than twice that of any other rookie, hitter or pitcher, in either league. He is ridiculously good, performing so well that he could skip the rest of the season and still win this award.

Darvish's season, on the other hand, has been a significant disappointment relative to expectations, primarily due to one thing -- his lack of control. Darvish has walked 79 batters in 140 2/3 innings this year; he never walked more than 49 batters in any season in Japan, and walked 83 batters combined in his last two years in 434 innings. His stuff has been outstanding and his strikeout rates are excellent, but the consensus approach to facing Darvish is to let him fall behind in the count, and when he does that, he tends to work outside the zone to get hitters to chase, which by and large they're not doing.

If he were a prospect with a history of poor walk rates, I'd be very bearish on him, but his entire NPB experience contradicts the four months we've seen from him here. I think this is more a question of changing his plan, getting him to attack the zone when he falls behind, than resigning ourselves to chronically awful walk rates.