- Albert Pujols, Cardinals
- Miguel Cabrera, Marlins
- Carlos Beltran, Mets
- Ryan Howard, Phillies
- Lance Berkman, Astros
- David Wright, Mets
- Chase Utley, Phillies
- Roy Oswalt, Astros
- Chris Carpenter, Cardinals
- Garrett Atkins, Rockies
American League MVP: Derek Jeter
Once again I am, much to my surprise, right with the mainstream. Jeter is one of two main candidates for the AL MVP honors, along with Minnesota's Justin Morneau. This is silly; Morneau is the same story as Ryan Howard -- the whole "carrying the team" B.S. But Morneau actually had a poorer year than Howard, and wasn't even the best player on his own team.
But all that in good time. Let's start with Jeter. The most amazing thing about Jeter is that he has, for the third year in a row, provided decent defense. This is after ten years or so of dreadful defense at shortstop. It's been going on long enough and is corroborated by enough stats that we can't dismiss it as a fluke. Some have suggested it's due to better positioning; some think it's due to the presence of A-Rod to Jeter's right, since Jeter's first turnaround season was also his first with A-Rod at third. Whatever the reason, Jeter's defense is no longer a millstone around the neck of his MVP argument. He doesn't deserve any Gold Gloves, but he plays defense well enough that we can call him an asset at the position and focus on his offense.
Jeter does not hit for a lot of power. His secret to success is working some walks, making contact, and generally getting on base like a madman. Lots of people think Jeter isn't a true "leadoff man," and that the Yankees were better off with Johnny Damon in the role. I don't know what the hell about Jeter is bad for a leadoff man. He strikes out, yes (102 times this year), but he also takes some walks and generally works a pitcher, which is one duty of a leadoff man. He doesn't steal a ton of bases, but he steals enough, and very efficiently at that (34-for-39 this year). He actually stole more bases, and at a better success rate, than Johnny Damon (25-for-35) this year -- the same Damon who's supposed to be a true "leadoff man," whereas Jeter is not.
But I digress. Jeter's strength is his ability to hit for a high average (.344 this year, just missing the batting title) and throwing in enough walks for a good OBP (.417). Jeter's final hitting line is 344/417/483. That may not sound like an MVP -- and in most years it wouldn't be -- but when you consider Jeter's prime defensive position (which he plays surprisingly well) and his extra credit for stolen bases, he's a very good candidate after all.
I mentioned before that Justin Morneau was Jeter's chief rival for the award. In fact, my guess is that Morneau will win. Let's dismiss that right now, shall we?
Morneau hit 321/375/559, while playing first base (adequately) for the Twins (in the hitter-friendly MetroDome). In my opinion, he's an easy dismissal; his extra power is no match for Jeter's better on-base skills and much higher defensive value. But the argument for Morneau centers not just on the "carrying the team" silliness, but on his 34 HR and especially his 130 RBI.
If I could set fire to two baseball statistics, it would be a pitcher's Win-Loss record and the RBI. Because they still somehow have the power to fool otherwise intelligent baseball commentators into accepting the baseball equivalent of the Flat-Earth Theory. I've expounded before about the uselessness of RBIs as compared to other offensive statistics, so I won't belabor the point here. But baseball writers are just as clueless as they ever were (being perhaps the most resistant breed to change, much moreso even than General Managers), and this cluelessness will likely win Morneau an undeserved MVP, just as it did for George Bell, Juan Gonzalez, and countless others. Good as Morneau was (and don't mistake me, he was very good), he wasn't even the best player on his own team.
That was catcher Joe Mauer, and considering the otherwise great reviews he's gotten this year, it's amazing to me that no one's pushing his name ahead of Morneau's. First of all, Mauer hit 347/429/507. Again, not nearly as powerful as Morneau, but more valuable due to his OBP. Mauer also became the first catcher to win the AL batting title -- ever. This is a bit trivial, but it does illustrate a more important point: it's damn hard to find a catcher who hits this well. This, of course, increases Mauer's value exponentially. Add in that he's a very good defensive catcher, and it all comes tumbling down in his favor. Mauer was so good, in fact, that he sometimes makes me reconsider my vote for Jeter. I'm sticking with Derek, but Mauer could make me change my mind. I wouldn't be too upset if either man won.
Another Twin getting a lot of support in the MVP race is Johan Santana. I said before that it was a bit of a slow year for AL MVPs; there were a lot of great seasons, but nobody had a really great season (it happens). It's years like this when a really dominant pitcher can emerge and win the MVP. Can Johan Santana do that?
No, he can't, and I don't think he should.
Santana only won 19 games. Admittedly, writers are getting better at ignoring W-L records, but a 19-win pitcher is a tough bet for the Cy Young. Pitchers who win the MVP simply have to put up big numbers: 25+ wins, a lot of saves, or an astronomically low ERA. Santana has none of these things.
What he has done is have himself a great season, though. It's your typical Johan Santana season, which is to say that it was amazing and great. Santana is the best pitcher in baseball, and he proved it again this year: 2.77 ERA (the 2nd-best in the league was Roy Halladay's 3.19), 245 strikeouts (Jeremy Bonderman was second with 202) and a league-leading 233.2 IP. Santana is a shoo-in for the Cy Young Award (as I'll discuss later), but he's just not the MVP. But I still give him good credit.
There are also the fifty-leven DHs to consider in this race. This was a good year for DHs, with several people posting great numbers and fighting their way into the MVP race regardless of their zero defensive value.
The most popular is David Ortiz. Ortiz hit a very strong 287/413/636. He does play in Boston and contribute nothing defensively, but that's still enough to make the Top 10. Ortiz was a candidate for first-place votes, until two things happened: one, the Red Sox collapsed and fell out of the running; two, Ortiz went public in saying that an MVP shouldn't have to come from a contending team. I agree, but Ortiz was of course talking about himself, and the uncharacteristically self-centered remarks only hurt his already slim chances. The public now percieves Ortiz pretty accurately: one of the best hitters in baseball, but something less than the reincarnation of Christ.
There's also the Comeback Player of the Year winner, Jim Thome. Thome hit 288/416/598 with the White Sox, a pretty amazing feat. It's not quite as good as Ortiz, and Thome's home ballpark helps a bit more than Fenway does for Ortiz. Still, a batting line like that deserves respect.
The man who really should have been voted Comeback Player of the Year is DH Frank Thomas. Thomas hit 270/382/545 for Oakland in his first healthy season in years. But although his position as the guy who "carried" Oakland has gotten him some mild MVP support, he hasn't really earned it. Thomas is probably the 5th-best DH in the league, coming in just behind Jason Giambi, who also had a fine year.
But the best DH in the AL this year might have been the same guy who missed the last month of the season: Travis Hafner. Hafner, hitting 308/439/659, was really the best player in the league through August; better even than Jeter. He ended up leading the league in both OBP and SLG. But since his injury limited him to just 454 ABs, he fell out of the running. But it's amazing enough that he still ended up one of the 10 best players overall.
The only other player to get serious support as the MVP was Jermaine Dye of the White Sox. Dye did have a career year (315/385/622), but not only did the White Sox's collapse end his candidacy (he and Ortiz can commiserate), his candidacy doesn't really hold water. His numbers are great, but he plays in a fine hitter's park in Chicago. He's also a right fielder, which doesn't help his case against guys like Jeter and Mauer.
A quick word on the two names on my list that may be a surprise (at least as far as how high I rated them).
The first is Grady Sizemore. Sizemore is no secret; after last season, Ozzie Guillen called him the best player in the AL Central, and he was mostly correct. In short, Sizemore is Carlos Beltran with lesser defensive skills. He steals some bases (though not as well as Beltran), but hits just as well as his NL counterpart (290/375/533 this year). At age 24, Sizemore will likely grow into one of the best all-around players in baseball, period.
The one who might come as a real surprise is Carlos Guillen. Keith Law's scouting report calls Guillen "one of the best players in baseball," and I'm thrilled that he's finally getting recognition as such. For several years, Guillen has been one of the best-hitting shortstops in baseball -- and that includes Jeter, Tejada, and others. But he never stayed healthy for a full season, so we were never really sure if he was for real. I had begun thinking we would never see a full season's worth of Carlos. Well, in 2006, he obliged and proved that he was for real. He's no wizard at shortstop, but again, the fact that he can hold down the position makes his hitting that much more valuable. Said hitting amounted to an amazing 320/400/519 this year, surprising for roomy Comerica Park. Guillen's probably not really this good; his career batting line is 289/358/440, and he's 31 years old. But even so, he's one of the best shortstops out there, and his career year in 2006 was enough to get him on the Top 10 List.
And here they are:
- Derek Jeter, Yankees
- Joe Mauer, Twins
- Johan Santana, Twins
- David Ortiz, Red Sox
- Travis Hafner, Indians
- Grady Sizemore, Indians
- Carlos Guillen, Tigers
- Manny Ramirez, Red Sox
- Jermaine Dye, White Sox
- Roy Halladay, Blue Jays
National League Cy Young: Roy Oswalt
I mentioned in a previous column that just because there's no true candidate for an award doesn't mean they call it off. The NL Cy Young Award this year is a great example. There were several pitchers who had good seasons, and about four or five that had really good seasons. But there wasn't a great season to be found among NL pitchers this year. And so we were never sure who the favorites were, with this race literally coming down to the final weekend, with Oswalt emerging at the fore. Of all the awards, this is the most up-in-the-air.
I picked Oswalt by a paper-thin margin over Chris Carpenter and Brandon Webb. Oswalt finished the season with the best ERA, 2.98. This isn't a huge lead, though, over Carpenter (3.09) and Webb (3.10). Oswalt (166) didn't strike out as many men as Carpenter (184) or Webb (178), but his 38 walks were the fewest of the three. Oswalt allowed more homers than Webb, but less than Carpenter. He also pitched fewer innings than both men, though not by much at all.
That's a pretty damn even three-horse race. It basically comes down to my preference for ERA (and FRA*, which Oswalt leads as well) and BB:K ratio. Oswalt leads all three pitchers in VORP by a fair margin, but is tied for second in Win Shares behind Webb.
Again, this could go either way, and I don't have 100% confidence in my choice. But if I had to pick, I'd pick Oswalt.
With the dearth of starting pitching candidates, some writers have suggested that it may be the year for a relief pitcher to win the award. This has some merit; this happened in 2003, when there were no dominant starters, and Eric Gagne's terrific year as closer won him the Cy Young. So, did anyone have an Eric Gagne-esque year? A year that was so good that it puts them on the board with the starters in the Cy Young race?
Not by a mile. Trevor Hoffman led the league with 46 saves. But then he also led the league with 51 save opportunities, and you already know how I feel about using saves as a measuring stick. Hoffman's ERA was 2.14, which isn't bad at all. But it's only marginally better than Oswalt's 2.98, and you have to have a much bigger difference than that to make up for the fact that Oswalt notched 220.2 IP, while the lightweight Hoffman went 63. Some have suggested that this could be a "lifetime achievement" award for Hoffman. That idea enrages me to the point that I spit in the general direction of anyone who suggests it. These aren't the f***ing Academy Awards. This is baseball, and we should take it seriously. If you want to start a Glee Club start it somewhere else.
Another argument has been put forth for Billy Wagner, the Mets' closer. But Wagner wasn't significantly better than Hoffman (2.24 ERA, but with more innings and strikeouts). The best reliever in the NL was probably L.A.'s Takashi Saito. Saito posted a 2.07 ERA in 78.1 IP (more than Hoffman or Wagner) and allowed only 3 HR (fewer than Hoffman and Wagner) and struck out 101 (more than Hoffman and Wagner). But because Saito didn't start the season as L.A.'s closer, he only managed 24 saves (in 26 chances). Although it should be noted that WXRL, a statistic that measures how much a reliever improved his team's odds of winning (in short**), doesn't give Wagner or Hoffman a big edge over Saito. You'd think that since both Wagner and Hoffman saved 40 games, they'd had a much bigger effect on their team's odds of winning than Saito, who spent half the season in middle relief. But their edge is marginal; about 5.9 to Saito's 5.4. So the edge in saves isn't a big deal, and saves themselves aren't really a big deal, for that matter.
- Roy Oswalt, Astros
- Chris Carpenter, Cardinals
- Brandon Webb, Diamondbacks
- Bronson Arroyo, Reds
- John Smoltz, Braves
- Aaron Harang, Reds
- Jason Schmidt, Giants
- Carlos Zambrano, Cubs
- Jason Jennings, Rockies
- Derek Lowe, Dodgers
* -- FRA is "Fair Run Average." Unlike ERA, it accounts differently for runners left and runners inherited. With ERA, a starting pitcher is given full credit for any runner that scores, even after he leaves the game. Fair Run Average splits the difference; it parcels out some blame to the starting pitcher who left the runners on the mound, and some to the reliever who let them score. A runner left on first that later scores would be more the reliever's fault than the starter's; the opposite would be true for a runner left at third. This is a fairer and more accurate measure than ERA, which gives ALL the blame to the starting pitcher who leaves the runners. This doesn't usually make a big difference. But if you're a starter with a bad bullpen behind you, you're going to see your ERA go up as more of your "bequeathed" runners score. Whereas the exact same pitcher with great bullpen help would have a lower ERA, because his relievers stranded those runners on base.
** -- WXRL is Wins Expected Above Replacement Level, Lineup Adjusted. It tallies how many wins a reliever notched above what a replacement-level reliever would have totalled. The number is adjusted for the quality of hitters a pitcher faced.
The wins themselves are determined by "Win Expectancy." If you plug in the state of a baseball game into the computer, including every facet of the situation, including who is at bat, who's on deck, etc. you can find an likelihood (in percentage form) of winning the game. By taking these factors into account, we could say that the Padres, in the 7th inning of Game 4 of the NLDS, had a 23% chance of winning the game. We get that number because the computer runs the simulated game a million times, and it showed the Padres winning 23% of the time.
Every play of a game, then, changes a team's Win Expectancy. If the first Padre batter makes an out, that decreases the Win Expectancy to, say, 20% (I'm estimating, here). So we would give that hitter credit for -.03 wins (he decreased his team's chance of winning by 3%). If he homers, though, it could increase his team's win expectancy to 40%. That would credit him for +.17 wins.
Both teams start out around 50% (not exactly, because the home team has an inherent advantage) and go from there. As things move on into the later innings, each play becomes more important. This is also true in a close game. If your team is down 4-1 in the 9th with 2 out and the bases loaded, we'll guess that your Win Expectancy is 15%. If you hit a grand slam to win the game, your win expectancy is 100%. In that game alone, the batter gets credited .85 wins (along with what he did in his other at-bats). Win Expectancy is biased toward opportunity -- if you get to bat a lot in the late innings in "clutch" situations, you have an unfair advantage over someone who doesn't.
But WX is great for measuring relief pitching. It lets us know not just saves and strikeouts, but how much each one meant to the team. It lets us know if a pitcher's 40 saves were all easy saves (a 3-run, 9th-inning lead where your team already has a WX of about 95%) or tough ones (bases loaded, one out in the 8th, ahead by one run -- WX of about 52%). We can see how many wins a reliever added over replacement level, bearing in mind that opportunity is still an inherent bias (if you're a 6th-inning middle reliever, you're screwed).
Does your brain hurt yet?
American League Cy Young: Johan Santana
This one's easy! Santana will win and should win. Everything else is just academic.
I mentioned earlier Santana's dominance over the rest of the AL pitchers, so it remains only to justify any controversial picks in my Top 10. Some might be surprised to see me rank Francisco Liriano #3, considering that he pitched just 121 innings. And I did puzzle long and hard over that one. But I think (and the stats agree) that Liriano was so good in his 121 innings that he was more valuable than most of the guys who threw 200. Liriano posted a 2.16 ERA (remember, Santana's league-best total was 2.77) with a 32:144 BB:K ratio and just 9 HR allowed. VORP ranks Liriano as the third-best pitcher in the AL, and I'm not inclined to disagree.
There nothing else really surprising about this list. C.C. Sabathia had a surprisingly good year, as did Curt Schilling and John Lackey, but few people noticed. I rated Mike Mussina ahead of Chien-Ming Wang with some hesitation; but as I've said before, a pitcher that succeeds with a below-average strikeout rate is likely benefitting from luck moreso than skill.
The only reliever that cracks the list is Jon Papelbon of the Red Sox. Papelbon was so good, in fact, that he was rivalling even Santana and Halladay in the early race for the Cy Young. But a September lost to injury relegated him to the bottom of the list. Still, he managed a 0.92 ERA (with an amazing 0.81 FRA), notching 75 strikeouts in 68.1 IP against just 13 walks and 3 HR allowed. Papelbon saved 35 games in 41 chances. His WXRL was second-best among AL closers, implying that his saves weren't generally cheap ones, but ones that "made a difference" for his team.
- Johan Santana, Twins
- Roy Halladay, Blue Jays
- Francisco Liriano, Twins
- Curt Schilling, Red Sox
- C.C. Sabathia, Indians
- Mike Mussina, Yankees
- Jonathan Papelbon, Red Sox
- John Lackey, Angels
- Barry Zito, Athletics
- Justin Verlander, Tigers
I'll be back later to finish up the awards for this year.