Saturday, January 16, 2010

The 5th Annual Whiz Kid Awards

With pitchers and catchers reporting to Spring Training within a month (YEEHA), it’s time for me to publish my final articles on the 2009 season.  If time permits, a team-by-team postmortem is forthcoming, but that may not be feasible.  So I thought I’d go ahead with the 5th Annual (!) Whiz Kid Awards.
The Whiz Kid Awards began back in 2005 as my contribution to the year-end awards discussion.  I also added in a few unique categories to add my own stamp to things.  I may be late to the party with this, but you’re never too late to stir the stool, so to speak.


The Mauer-for-MVP discussion was just the latest episode of the so-called Moneyball debate.  Mark Teixeira made an early bid for the AL honor by piling up HR and RBI on the AL Champions.  But on the same team, Derek Jeter was having one of the best seasons of his career.  This prompted many Jeter fan-boys to plead his case for the MVP as a “lifetime achievement” award.
I hate and despise lifetime achievement awards unless they are clearly labeled as such and nothing more.  It may be that they’ve never merited the award in any one season, but just deserve it based on their career.  Or they’re meant to honor someone who, for various reasons, didn’t get the honor when they should have … perhaps because somebody else was getting a lifetime achievement award.  That’s the crux of the matter; if we give Jeter a bogus MVP award this year, are we going to have to do the same for Mauer in ten years?  And which deserving young superstar will that screw over?
That aside, the biggest (and most substantive) objection to Mauer’s MVP case is that he lost about a month to injury at the start of the season.  The implication is that you can’t miss a month and be the MVP.  And I would usually agree with that.  It would take a phenomenal performance by a player to be the league’s best player with such a handicap.

And that’s exactly what Mauer did.  He really was more valuable in five months than everyone else was in six.  I heard some fans complain that the voters were “blaming” Chris Carpenter for missing time (he lost the NL Cy Young in a close vote), but not “blaming” Mauer for missing time.  This argument is just a set of bizarre and irrelevant absolutes.  “Blame” isn’t involved at all.  Missing a large amount of time is a problem, but it’s not an absolute yes-or-no question.  It’s all a matter of degree and circumstance.  Carpenter, good though he was, wasn’t good enough to overcome the loss of playing time.  Mauer was.
And really, the fact that we’re having to jump through all these hoops just to confirm the greatness of Joe Mauer is silly.  We should be giving him even more credit for putting together one of the best seasons ever by a catcher.  If he had played the full six months, I really think his 2009 would go down as one of the best single-season performances EVER by a major-league catcher.

Here are the numbers, in case you’re wondering (bold indicates league leader):
Joe Mauer:  .365 BA, .444 OBP, .587 SLG, .346 EQA (Equivalent Average), 91.0 VORP
Putting that in perspective:
  • Mauer’s .365 batting average ranks 2nd among catchers in a single season in the modern era.  Babe Phelps hit .367 with Brooklyn in 1936.
  • His .444 OBP is the 3rd-best mark by a catcher of the modern era.  Mickey Cochrane’s .459 mark in 1933 holds the record. 
  • His .587 SLG is the 9th-best single season mark for a catcher since 1900.  The record is .651, set by Rudy York in 1937. 
We’re talking about one the best seasons ever by a catcher.  Just to be fair, though, let’s take a look at the other front-runners:

J. Mauer
D. Jeter
M. Teixeira
B. Zobrist
I. Suzuki

There’s really nothing here to dispute Mauer’s claim to the MVP.  All those numbers get a boost, by the way, when you consider that Mauer is a catcher (and catchers who hit like this are valuable).  He’s also a good defensive catcher, if the cake needs any more icing.
In my opinion, the best challengers to Mauer’s supremacy were pitchers.  I’ll discuss them more below, but for the purposes of the MVP I didn’t see any clear evidence that they were more valuable than Mauer.
My AL MVP Ballot:
  1. Joe Mauer (C), Twins
  2. Zack Greinke (P), Royals
  3. Roy Halladay (P), Blue Jays
  4. Ben Zobrist (IF/OF), Rays
  5. Felix Hernandez (P), Mariners
  6. Evan Longoria (3B), Rays
  7. Derek Jeter (SS), Yankees
  8. Justin Verlander (P), Tigers
  9. Shin-Soo Choo (RF), Indians
  10. Mark Teixeira (1B), Yankees


The NL ballot did not require much deliberation.  I agreed with the voters and supported Albert Pujols.
Pujols seemingly defies the laws of baseball by establishing a new baseline of brilliance.  At first, it seemed like he had some great years in him, but would then settle down to a level more befitting a mere mortal.  Instead, it’s become clear that his phenomenal play is the baseline for his career.  He’s been as consistently brilliant as any player over the past 20 years not named Bonds or A-Rod.
So 2009 was just another MVP-caliber year.  Albert hit 327/443/658 (with the latter two numbers leading the league), and he also paced the senior circuit with a .365 Equivalent Average.  Only two other players in the league did better than .325.
Albert’s fabulous defense is the icing on the cake, as is his nearly 2:1 BB:K ratio (115:64).  Not only that, but he led the team back into the postseason only to fall to the Dodgers in the NLDS.
Albert’s performance was so blindingly good that I have to ask myself if anyone else came close to his level of production.  While I don’t really think anyone did, there are two guys in particular that are a lot closer than you think.  They’re also the two most underrated players in baseball today:  Chase Utley and Hanley Ramirez.

A. Pujols, STL
H. Ramirez, FLA
C. Utley, PHI

At first glance it looks as though Ramirez and Utley – while fantastic – weren’t up to Albert’s level.  But VORP doesn’t really consider defense.  It gives players credit for playing more demanding positions on the field, but it doesn’t account for how well they play.  This wouldn’t give the less-than-glovely Ramirez much of a boost, but Utley’s golden hands would boost him much closer to the top.
All told, I do believe that Albert deserved the MVP.  But I don’t think it was the mismatch it was made out to be.  And I was disappointed that Utley and Ramirez were left out of the discussion once again.
My NL MVP Ballot:
  1. Albert Pujols (1B), Cardinals
  2. Hanley Ramirez (SS), Marlins
  3. Chase Utley (2B), Phillies
  4. Adrian Gonzalez (1B), Padres
  5. Tim Lincecum (P), Giants
  6. Adam Wainwright (P), Cardinals
  7. Prince Fielder (1B), Brewers
  8. Chris Carpenter (P), Cardinals
  9. Pablo Sandoval (3B), Giants
  10. Ryan Braun (OF), Brewers


As with the NL MVP, there is one clear winner in the AL Cy Young race, as I see it.  However, there were two pitchers close enough to challenge even Greinke’s status as top pitcher in the league.
Here’s how they stack up:

Greinke, KC
Halladay, TOR
Hernandez, SEA

With the big edge and ERA and strikeouts, I have to pick Greinke ahead of the other two.  I have heard arguments on behalf of Halladay and Hernandez, and while the certainly have merit they’ve not been enough to change my mind about Greinke.
My AL Cy Young Ballot:
  1. Zach Greinke, Royals
  2. Roy Halladay, Blue Jays
  3. Felix Hernandez, Mariners
  4. Justin Verlander, Tigers
  5. Jon Lester, Red Sox
  6. C.C. Sabathia, Yankees
  7. Josh Beckett, Red Sox
  8. Jered Weaver, Angels
  9. Edwin Jackson, Tigers
  10. John Danks, White Sox


With apologies to Javier Vazquez and Dan Haren, I see the NL Cy Young race as a three-way contest:

Lincecum, SF
Wainwright, STL
Carpenter, STL

I agree with VORP that this is very close.  I wouldn’t begrudge someone a vote for Carpenter or Wainwright.  Carpenter didn’t pitch as much as Lincecum, but he did pitch better (although that’s a pretty low K total).  Whereas Wainwright pitched as much as Lincecum, but not quite as well.  Put together, though, Lincecum is better than the two of them, with the clincher being all those strikeouts.
My NL Cy Young Ballot:
  1. Tim Lincecum, Giants
  2. Adam Wainwright, Cardinals
  3. Chris Carpenter, Cardinals
  4. Javier Vazquez, Braves
  5. Dan Haren, Diamondbacks
  6. Matt Cain, Giants
  7. Jair Jurrjens, Braves
  8. Cliff Lee, Phillies
  9. Ubaldo Jimenez, Rockies
  10. Josh Johnson, Marlins

A.L. ROOKIE OF THE YEAR:  Andrew Bailey

There was no great rookie seasons in the AL last year, so we have to sort through a half-dozen really good rookie seasons to select a winner.  And it seemed to me that every article I read endorsed a different candidate.
It may be a surprise that a stat-head such as myself didn’t pick the internet darling, Rangers shortstop Elvis Andrus.  It really depends upon how much weight you give to defense, because Andrus’s offensive production was bad.  Not wretched, but not award-winning either.  He hit 267/329/373 in one of the best hitter’s parks in the league.  You’d have to be Ozzie Smith to win an award with numbers like that, unless the field of candidates is barren.
It wasn’t barren, as indicated by the presence of White Sox 3B Gordon Beckham, the darling of the rest of the internet (mixed metaphors are my life).  Beckham fared better at the plate (270/347/460) and was solid if unspectacular on defense.  Now, one could argue that Andrus’s defense at shortstop closes the gap between them, but I don’t buy it.  The best argument for Andrus is that he piled up about 100 ABs more than Beckham.
The best rookie starting pitcher was probably Jeff Niemann of Tampa Bay.  Niemann posted a 3.94 ERA in 180.2 innings.  He walked 59 and struck out 125 while allowing 17 HR.  Nothing spectacular there, but it’s a full season of strong work, which moves him (barely) past fellow rookies Ricky Romero and Rick Porcello.
But Oakland closer Andrew Bailey is my pick.  I hesitate to give such and award to a relief pitcher when there are qualified candidates among everyday players.  In most years, in fact, Bailey wouldn’t make my top three.  But I think he was dominant enough to emerge as the leading candidate.  The key arguments for Bailey weren’t just his 1.84 ERA, but his innings pitched (83.1) and strikeouts (91).  I’ll take that kind of dominance over half-seasons of decent play any time.
My AL Rookie of the Year Ballot:
  1. Andrew Bailey (RP), A’s
  2. Jeff Niemann (SP), Rays
  3. Ricky Romero (SP), Blue Jays


This field of candidates was even sorrier than the AL’s.  But Happ’s accomplishments as a rookie paced the league, if not by much.
The Phillies fell in love with Happ based on his wins, 12 of them.  I was more partial to his ERA (2.93) and his innings pitched (166).  His BB:K ratio wasn’t great (56:119), and may indicate that there’s a correction in store.  However, I’m of the opinion that the Rookie of the Year Award should go to the top rookie, regardless of whether or not we think they’re really that good.  If you do, however, see things that way, I can understand supporting Atlanta’s Tommy Hanson.  Hanson was qualitatively better than Happ, and he also has a brighter future as a prospect.  But he wasn’t that much better; not enough to offset a near-40 inning deficit.
The darling of the internet in the NL was Pittsburgh’s Andrew McCutchen.  As with Andrus in the AL, your opinion of McCutchen depends largely upon your opinion of his defense.
Just by holding down center field, McCutchen gets credit for his work at a more demanding position.  But when it comes down to giving him credit for his actual efforts with the glove, it doesn’t look as promising.  McCutchen finished the season with –18 FRAA (Fielding Runs Above Average), the second-worst mark in the league.  I don’t really think he’s that much of a liability, but neither can I ignore it.  (Of course, all of this depends on what defensive metric or metrics you prefer.  But that’s a discussion for another day).
Oddly enough, the actual awards went to none of these guys, but to Chris Coghlan of the Marlins.  Coghlan did out-hit McCutchen (321/390/460 to 286/365/471), but the bar is set higher for him as a corner outfielder.  Coghlan also performed poorly on defense but unlike McCutchen, there’s every reason to believe that the numbers have him pegged pretty well.  I’m not upset that Coghlan won, especially considering that he had more playing time than McCutchen.  But I can’t say as I agree with it.
My NL Rookie of the Year Ballot:
  1. J.A. Happ (SP), Phillies
  2. Tommy Hanson (SP), Braves
  3. Andrew McCutchen (CF), Pirates

A.L. MANAGER OF THE YEAR:  Mike Scioscia

Mike Scioscia had much less to work with in Anaheim this year.  His pitching staff suffered through injuries (Lackey), slumps (Santana, Fuentes) and tragedy (Adenhart).  Still, Scioscia managed to forge a pretty productive staff.  When Brian Fuentes wasn’t getting the job done at closer, Scioscia ably handled the crisis without causing a big disruption.  As for the starters, they rebounded nicely, helped by the late-season acquisition of Scott Kazmir from Tampa Bay.
But it was the Angel offense that proved to be the biggest surprise.  The team went from scraping across runs with small-ball to presenting an effective, well-rounded offensive attack.  Team OBP, long a nagging weakness, shot up with help from Bobby Abreu and Chone Figgins.  The team’s power numbers were still dampened by the decline of Vladimir Guerrero, but first baseman Kendry Morales finally stepped up and took his spot.
It’s always hard for me to determine what, exactly, a manager can be credited for (or blamed for).  To pick this award, then, I go by what factors I can observe and make the best choice I can.  That choice is Scioscia.
Runners-Up:  Terry Francona, Joe Maddon

N.L. MANAGER OF THE YEAR:  Charlie Manuel

Even though the Phillies didn’t repeat as World Series Champions, they did a pretty darn good job with what they had.  Their pitching staff was significantly worse than in 2008 – notably Brad Lidge and Cole Hamels – and yet they still made it within two wins of repeating.  Manuel did a fine job of managing his pitching staff and also continuing to support his core sluggers despite having relatively little to work with.
Runner-Up:  Tony LaRussa

Soon to come:  Our 2010 season preview.  In which I once again marvel at this creature called the Giants.

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