Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The End-of-August Awards: AL and NL Cy Young and MVP

In our new place in Carolina, we have a giant picture window in the bedroom that looks out on the rest of our complex. You can see a few other buildings, the entrance road, and a parking lot. I absolutely love it. I stand in front, arms on my hips, surveying the whole scene like I'm a Roman Emperor gazing at the splendors of his land. I know what you're thinking: am I naked when I do this? Yes.

I also love the window when I'm sleeping. There are a few lights coming from the pool area about a hundred yards away, and a few street lamps closer. I don't mind this at all. I can't sleep well anyway, and the openness makes me feel connected to the world at large. Plus, I hate blinds. My girlfriend, on the other hand, can't stand it. She's normally an extremely deep sleeper, but all the ambient light throws her off her game. I woke up in the middle of the night a couple weeks ago and found her lying face down, with a pillow pulled violently over her head. She looked like an angry teenager. "What are you doing?" I asked. "This light is killing me," she said. It was probably the most dramatic performance of her life. She really poured it on, and for a moment I almost felt guilty.

But if she expected me to close the blinds, she vastly underestimated my selfishness. The dissatisfaction raged on until yesterday, when she came home with a sleeping mask. It wasn't one of the soothing gel ones, with a solid color and a streamline look. Instead, it's thin and bulbous, with a green floral pattern. She put it on, and all I could think of was a terrifying giant fly like the kind you see in B-movies. She looked like a pretty girl who had been infected with a rare disease called "insect eyes."

Right away, I understood that my future now includes a terrifying middle-of-the-night incident where I mistake her for a giant buzzing intruder who has decided to take a rest in my bed. I survived unscathed yesterday, but I guarantee that some night soon I'll wake up, look over, and shit my pants. The Insect Girlfriend will get us all!

Okey Doke. August is almost done, and I thought it'd be fun to take a look at where we stand in the MLB awards race. Here are my picks, with the usual caveat that a lot can change in a month. I'll only be doing MVP and Cy Young today, but I'll try to get to the Gold Gloves tomorrows.


National League

Albert Pujols, St. Louis

On the face of it, this looks like a no-brainer. He has a great chance to become the first triple crown winner since Yastrzemski in '67, which almost says it all. He has 35 home runs, 95 RBI, and a .318 average. Those first two numbers are best in the league, and the last is a close third. For a power hitter, his strike-out rate is incredibly low at 12%, and his walk rate doesn't suffer (14%). He leads the league in slugging, and is second in OBP, OPS and wOBA, my favorite stat.

But as good as those numbers are, this race is almost a dead heat. The reason? Joey Votto. The Cincinnati Red is batting .325, only one point off the league lead. He leads the league in wOBA (.438), OPS (1.021), and On-base percentage (.421). Those are three incredibly important measures of offensive ability, and he's beating Pujols in every one. His slugging % is an excellent .600, just two points behind King Albert. Even looking at more traditional stats, he's damn close. Besides leading in average, he trails Pujols by only 3 home runs and 1 RBI. He actually has a fantastic chance to win the triple crown himself.

This race is the most exciting one on the docket. Pujols has won the last two MVP awards, so it's entirely possible that the writers will be looking for an excuse to unseat him. To be honest, I would have an incredibly difficult time voting if I were part of the process. At this point in the season, you might as well flip a coin. Things will probably shake out in the next month, and unless Carlos Gonzalez from Colorado plays spoiler, we'll probably be looking at a triple crown winner.

(Quickly, since it should be mentioned, here's the defensive breakdown: Votto is rated fourth among NL first basemen in UZR, while Pujols is sixth. Looking at fielding percentage, Pujols is at .998 while Votto stands at .996. Not enough, either way, to sway the argument.)

Cy Young Award: Roy Halladay, Philadelphia

I heard two commentators on the MLB network discussing this award the other day, and the debate was entirely between Adam Wainwright and Ubaldo Jimenez. This made no sense to me. Sure, Ubaldo was lights-out to start the season, but his ERA has slipped to 8th in the league. There's a cluster of 5 guys with ERAs between 2.20 and 2.30, and in my mind Ubaldo's 2.71 takes him out of the running. Among the top 5, Wainwright has the most wins with 17. Hudson has the best ERA at 2.24. And Mat Latos, from San Diego, has the lowest WHIP at 0.98.

But Halladay is second in every one of those categories. With 16 wins, a 2.24 ERA, and a 1.04 WHIP, he's the best candidate even if you just consider those stats. But when you throw in his league-leading 190 strikeouts, his absurdly low rate of 1.09 walks per nine innings (best in the NL), and the fact that he goes deeper into games than any of his competitors (214 innings in 28 outings, an average of 7 2/3 innings per start), Halladay is the obvious choice. He also leads in expected Fielder Independent Pitching, a sabermetric stat I haven't really studied, but which I imagine is a pretty great indicator of ability.

As of now, Roy is the clear winner. I don't expect he'll get the award, since it's a bit of a boring choice, but he certainly deserves it.

American League

Miguel Cabrera, Detroit

Here's what this one comes down to: is Josh Hamilton's amazing .359 average, 17 points higher than Cabrera, his nearest competition, good enough to overcome Cabrera's superiority in every other stat?

Absolutely not. First off, here are the categories in which Cabrera leads the AL: RBI, OBP, OPS, Slugging. He's second to Jose Bautista in home runs and walks, second to Evan Longoria in doubles, and second to Joe Mauer in BB/K ratio. He's slightly behind Hamiltion in wOBA, but he leads him in another fun sabermetric category, runs created.

Also, let's take a look at Hamilton's average. .359. Amazing, right? Yes, but it's also worth looking at his average on balls in play. Since 2001, 5 players have managed to go through an entire season and end up with a BABIP (batting average on balls in play) over .390. It's incredibly rare, and even for great players, it requires a lucky season with a lot of infield singles. Right now, Hamilton's BABIP is .395. That's incredible. And it could absolutely stay right where it is, or even improve, for the rest of the season. But smart money says it's going to come down. To give a comparison, his rate of ground balls, line drives, and pop flies was almost identical in 2009, and that year his BABIP was .319. And he actually has fewer infield hits this season!

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that in the final month, Hamilton should regress to the mean. He's had a very lucky season, and when luck combines with skill, it makes for some gaudy numbers. But Miguel Cabrera has been better, and will likely continue to be better. While there's some ambiguity in the MVP race at this stage, I think it'll be a lot more obvious at the end of September.

(Again, token defensive analysis: Hamilton has had a competent, but not great season in center, while Cabrera is generally considered below average at first. He also cost Galarraga a perfect game, in combination with the ump, by chasing a grounder into the second baseman's turf. Still, I don't think we see anything here to tip the balance.)

Cy Young Award: CC Sabathia, New York Yankees

Just kidding. It goes to:

Clay Buchholz, Boston.

This wasn't real easy, but ERA stole the day. In baseball's best division, Clay is rocking a 2.21 ERA, best in the league by quite a bit. The only one in shouting distance is Felix Hernandez. He's had a great year for Seattle, with a 2.47 ERA and 192 strikeouts, second in the league. But his record is a paltry 10-10, which is not his fault but which is also not good enough, at the moment, to earn him consideration for a major award.

Clay missed part of the season, so he has about 5 starts fewer than most other contenders. His strikeout totals are a bit diminished, his IP is low at 146, and he only has 15 wins to CC's 18, but along with Lester he leads the league in opponent batting average (.222), and his WHIP is in the top 10.

This is the least clear-cut award of them all, and the one where we really need more time and more numbers to judge. It's worth watching CC and Felix's win total, Cliff Lee's ERA and wins, and Price and Cahill's ERA over the last month. The strange thing about the AL Cy Young is that although I'd give it to Buchholz if I had to decide today, my guess is that when the season ends, he won't be the deserving winner.

That's it for today, Gold Gloves on the schedule for tomorrow.

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