Welcome to the final 2016 edition of The Lineup! This has been a weekly column that examines — you guessed it — nine topics from the world of baseball in numbered order.
With only five days left in the season, it’s time to get elbows-deep in MVP and Cy Young chatter. Since I last looked at this two months ago, certain races have gotten a lot less interesting, but we’ve also become aware of Gary Sánchez, among other things. Let’s give out our end-of-the-year awards.
1 AL MVP: Mike Trout
Trout was the pick at midseason, but then — and even as recently as a month ago — this was shaping up to be a very exciting race. Josh Donaldson was pushing Trout through most of the summer, and while he’s hit .250/.389/.488 since August 1 — which is great — Trout’s hit .331/.476/.600 in that span. And a part of me was rooting for José Altuve to drag the Astros kicking and screaming back to the playoffs. But both Altuve and the Astros have cooled off in September, leaving Trout alone atop the statistical leaderboards and Altuve without his big narrative kicker.
There’s simply no objective case for anyone except Trout to win MVP, but just for kicks, let’s compare Trout to his closest competitor, Boston right fielder Mookie Betts: Baseball-Reference has Trout at 10.5 WAR, with Betts at 9.3; FanGraphs has Trout at 9.2, Betts at 7.7; Baseball Prospectus rates Trout at 8.6, Betts at 6.8, third in the AL behind Kyle Seager. Defensive metrics being what they are (plagued by a slow stream of data and, sometimes, coding issues, which makes them slow to stabilize), a one-win lead is hardly conclusive, so you could argue that Betts and Trout are actually in a statistical dead heat.
Here’s why that’s bullshit: First, Trout’s got a massive lead in offensive value, which we can measure relatively precisely: a wRC+ lead of 173 to 137 and a lead in TAv of .357 to .297. Betts is having a great year, equal to Trout’s in many respects, except one: a 75-point deficit in OBP, which is a huge difference in the most important rate stat. Second, Betts makes up between one and three wins over Trout in all three defensive metrics, despite playing an easier position. Even if you believe Trout couldn’t play right field as well as Betts does, Betts’s numbers are so big it’s far more likely that statistical noise favors him over Trout.
So, sure, it’s possible that there’s a persistent statistical bias toward Trout, but it’s far more likely that Trout’s just that much better. This is like a series of polls with a margin of error of plus- or minus-3 percent, where one candidate is consistently exactly six points behind the other. We don’t have to be dense just because we’re not certain.
2 NL MVP: Kris Bryant
It’s much the same story in the National League. Bryant’s having a stereotypical MVP season: .295/.389/.564, with 39 home runs. All three flavors of WAR put Bryant at least 0.9 wins over his nearest NL competitor, and WARP thinks he’s the best player in either league this year. Plus it’s a nice narrative for the best player on the best team in baseball to win MVP, to say nothing of validating Bryant’s rapid ascent to superstardom.
They’re not going to win, but two guys got relatively close to Bryant despite not being in the discussion in July: Atlanta first baseman Freddie Freeman and Colorado third baseman Nolan Arenado.
Freeman, long a high-average line drive hitter with 20-homer power, has turned into a monster this year, hitting .305 and notching career highs in OBP (.402), slugging percentage (.570), and home runs (32).
Arenado is leading the National League in home runs (40) for the second straight year, plays plus defense at third, and nearly doubled his walk rate from 2015 to 2016, which bumped up his OBP by almost 40 points. Freeman and Arenado are second and third among NL batters in bWAR, but have flown under the radar because the Braves are really bad and the Rockies play in the middle of nowhere.
Playing on the most obsessed-over team in baseball, Bryant gets a lot more press — and he should win. But both Freeman and Arenado deserve some down-ballot recognition.
3 AL Cy Young: Corey Kluber
Kluber, who left Monday’s start after 60 pitches with tightness in his right groin, is my leader in a pretty tight race with Chicago’s Chris Sale. In fact, it might be tight enough that if Kluber misses his last start, Sale could tip the scales with a strong final outing.
Kluber’s got a 1.5-bWAR lead on Sale, who leads Kluber by 0.8 WARP, while fWAR has Sale up by 0.1. They’ve thrown about the same number of innings, and their ERAs are separated by less than a tenth of a run. Kluber’s got a slight edge in strikeout rate, while Sale’s got a slight edge in walk rate. Kluber gets more ground balls, while Sale gets more pop-ups, and in each case, the difference between the two is beyond trivial — often fractions of a percentage point. But I’m picking Kluber, because I’ve got to pick one.
If Kluber does win the Cy Young this year, it will be his second, which raises an interesting question: Would he be the worst pitcher to win two Cy Youngs? Currently, Tim Lincecum’s career bWAR total is 21.4, about 15 of which came in his two Cy Young seasons. He was one of the best pitchers in baseball through age 27, then completely fell apart. Kluber, meanwhile, is up to 18.9 career bWAR at age 30, but his first above-average season was 2014, when he won the Cy Young at age 28. If Kluber starts declining on opening day next year, but declines at a normal rate and doesn’t toss batting practice for five years after his arm’s shot like Lincecum did, he’ll outstrip Lincecum’s career output easily.
Just for fun, let’s put Lincecum and Kluber’s careers together, with Lincecum’s stats counting from age 23 to 27 and Kluber’s counting from 28 to 30. They’d have 43.7 WAR, which would make Torey Lincekluber one of only 10 pitchers since the strike to get to 40 WAR by age 30. Here’s how they’d stack up:
(*Due to a quirk of the cutoff in the Play Index search, Pedro Martínez’s stats from 1992 to 1994 aren’t included here, but he was so good you could cut off his first two-plus seasons in the majors and he’d still be five wins better than anyone in his era through age 30.)
So at this point, Lincekluber would be considered on the same kind of Hall of Fame track Clayton Kershaw and Félix Hernández are on — almost 2,000 strikeouts and 43.7 WAR by age 30, with at least three Cy Youngs in the bag in the first half.
The point is that lots of guys put it together for a few seasons, maybe even four or five, but it’s nearly impossible to avoid injury or emotional burnout, let alone staying ahead of hitters, for that long. The true all-time greats — Pedro, Kershaw, and Félix — can keep it going for a decade or more.
4 NL Cy Young: Max Scherzer
I didn’t even talk about this award in the midseason recap because Clayton Kershaw was so far ahead of the field. And even now, Kershaw’s fourth in WARP among NL pitchers, in a virtual tie for second in bWAR, and — because his FIP is an unfathomable 1.67 — first in fWAR.
But you wouldn’t know that last bit because FanGraphs’ leaderboard defaults to show only pitchers who have qualified for the ERA title, and Kershaw’s going to end up 15 innings short of the 162-inning threshold. In other words, Kershaw got hurt in the middle of the season, stayed hurt long enough to go on the 60-day DL, and is still among the top pitchers in baseball by aggregate value. What Kershaw’s done on a rate basis is nearly unprecedented — almost 17 strikeouts for every walk, which would blow away the MLB record, and what would be the third-lowest FIP (after Pedro Martínez in 1999 and 2001) and sixth-best ERA+ since integration if he could qualify for the ERA title.
Scherzer’s been great, too. He’s fifth in the NL in ERA+, third in strikeout rate, first in strikeout-to-walk rate (since Kershaw won’t qualify), and second in innings pitched. That last part is the key, because if he had, say, a 30-inning edge on Kershaw, we could talk, but he’s going to wind up in the neighborhood of 70 innings up on Kershaw, and that’s just a huge gap in quantity, particularly when, unlike the just-for-the-sake-of-argument case for Zach Britton, Kershaw’s not beating up the field on leverage-dependent stats.
That innings gap is really an insurmountable obstacle. Since they started giving out the Cy Young, only four starting pitchers have won without breaking 200 innings: Kershaw in 2014, when he missed six starts and still threw 198.1 innings; David Cone in 1994 and Fernando Valenzuela in 1981, who both had their seasons cut short by work stoppages; and Rick Sutcliffe, who switched leagues midseason in 1984 and so was technically only credited with 150.1 National League innings, though he threw 244.2 overall. If Kershaw ends up short of 150, I really just don’t see a path for him to win it.
Scherzer’s not the only candidate, though. Kyle Hendricks has an ERA below 2.00 and an ERA+ above 200, and Madison Bumgarner’s right there with Scherzer in ERA and innings pitched. With so many options, the vote could get split to a point where we could see something even more unusual than Kershaw’s season: José Fernández could win the award posthumously. Fernández is still leading all qualified starters in strikeout rate and FIP, and he’s got almost a full win’s lead on Scherzer in WARP. He’s got a legitimate case on statistical merit, and when you factor in how profoundly his death has affected the baseball community, it starts to feel right.
There’s no precedent in baseball for this; the closest I can think of in sports is Jochen Rindt, who won the Formula One world championship in 1970 after he died in a crash during practice. Every generation has a pitcher you had to be there to truly understand, and a posthumous Cy Young for Fernández would introduce future generations to ours.
5 AL Rookie of the Year: Michael Fulmer
This is the hardest race to call, even days before season’s end, just because it comes down to one player with an entirely conventional Rookie of the Year case and one player who’s doing the baseball equivalent of the thing where you take all the shortcuts in Super Mario Bros. and beat the game in eight minutes.
Fulmer’s thrown 155.2 innings, with a 141 ERA+ and 7.5 K/9 for 5.0 bWAR. That’s a good season. Yankee catcher Gary Sánchez has 19 home runs and 3.0 bWAR, which are awesome numbers for a full-season rookie catcher, but he’s done it in only 209 plate appearances. It’s a pretty clear victory for Fulmer on the aggregate value front, but Sánchez is also hitting .315/.388/.690 as a catcher, and it’s not like he was on vacation for the first half of the season; it was the Yankees’ decision not to promote him.
If you think that’s enough to put Sánchez over Fulmer, that’s a perfectly reasonable position, one I imagine many voters will share. But it’s not for me, and here’s why.
Several years ago, I went to Montreal for five days, and had an amazing time. I loved everything about the city and the people I met there. I’ve probably had more total fun in Philadelphia, where I’ve spent more time than any other major city, but I don’t know that any five-day stretch in particular matches my time in Montreal.
But I also went to Montreal in the middle of summer, when it was sunny and beautiful, stayed in a nice hotel, and did fun touristy things. My best Philadelphia memories are also tempered by memories of standing outside a food truck in the dark while it was 30 degrees and sleeting, trying to cram dinner into a 15-minute break between two classes I was tearing my hair out trying to pass. I don’t have bad memories of Montreal, though I’m sure if I’d actually lived there I would.
Sánchez is like going to Montreal on vacation — we’ve only seen the best of him. Maybe he’ll be better than Fulmer, but maybe after a while he’ll start to show warts. And having not seen those warts, we’ve only got good memories. It’d be difficult for Sánchez’s next 400 plate appearances to be so bad that they’d drag his first 200 down past the level of Fulmer’s full season, but we don’t know for sure. It hasn’t happened yet, and as a matter of personal philosophy, I wouldn’t vote for awards based on hypotheticals.
Forget I said all of this if Sánchez hits six more home runs this weekend.
6 NL Rookie of the Year: Corey Seager
Trea Turner’s having a great year. But Seager, who’s hitting .313/.371/.523 as a 22-year-old shortstop in a pitcher’s park, has absolutely blown away the field. This isn’t Sánchez vs. Fulmer: Seager and Turner are about even in OPS+ (141 for Seager, 140 for Turner), but Seager’s got more than twice as many plate appearances. He’s way closer to winning MVP than losing Rookie of the Year. I expect Seager to be a unanimous choice.
7 Manager of the Year: Jeff Banister and Joe Maddon
As outside observers, we know absolutely fuck-all about what makes managers work. We used to deride Kansas City’s Ned Yost, but now that he’s won two pennants and a World Series, he’s a miracle worker. So take all this for what it’s worth.
Maddon’s bona fides are well-established, and in addition to his role in making the Cubs what they’ve been this year, it’s nice to see how hands-off he is with his players. As Dan Haren told us on The Ringer MLB Show, Maddon gives his players a lot of rope on trivial things like dress code or arrival time with the expectation that, in return, they’ll show up and hustle when it’s important. Too often it feels like we expect coaches and managers to be martinets, the only thing holding unruly man-children back from anarchy, but Maddon gives lie to the myth of the disciplinarian, and he’s been rewarded with a 100-win season.
Banister is a more traditional candidate for an award that usually goes to whoever is in charge of the team that most outperformed either its preseason projections or run differential, and the Rangers have outperformed their run differential by a staggering 13 games. But Banister’s also integrated young players into his lineup to a degree many other managers (I’m looking at you, Terry Collins and Dusty Baker) haven’t, and he’s navigated some difficult situations, like Prince Fielder’s unexpected retirement and what the hell you do when one of your best relievers is only recently out of prison for nearly killing a man while driving drunk. Nevertheless, despite all those potential flash points and big personalities, the Rangers have been conspicuously successful and conspicuously fun this year, and Banister deserves credit for his role in that.
8 Rolaids Relief Man Award: Kenley Jansen and Zach Britton
So, since we can’t give Britton the MVP or Cy Young, we’ve got to give him this once totally real award that was handed out by an antacid company. The original Rolaids Relief Man Award was based on a points system that I do not care about enough to replicate, so here it’ll be completely subjective.
Britton fell off a little since the midseason hysteria — by which I mean he allowed another run — but he still leads all relievers in bWAR and WPA, and leads the American League in saves. Jansen, meanwhile, is second in the NL in K/9 ratio, and has been Dave Roberts’s rock in an often tumultuous sea of Adam Liberatores and Pedro Báezes. Jansen has also recorded 47 saves, second in the NL, though that total does not count a save he picked up last week when he stepped in to keep Yasiel Puig from getting the shit beat out of him by a red mist–intoxicated Madison Bumgarner.
9 Lovely Parting Gift of the Year: The Baltimore Orioles’ bullpen phone
Listen, I get it. David Ortiz is a beloved and iconic player, and it’s nice that teams are marking his last spin around the league by giving him gifts, but I’m not sure how much use he has for a lot of these gifts. Like, he’s made more than $143 million in his career, plus God knows how much more in endorsements, so it’s not like he’s going to get a lot of mileage out of a free dinner for two at Sebastian’s Schnitzelhaus of Milwaukee. And he’s probably up to his immaculately trimmed beard in tchotchkes and memorabilia, so if you’re going to get him a gift, it’s got to be a good one, like the rocking chair made of broken bats that the Twins got Mariano Rivera when he retired.
(Plus a $10,000 donation in Ortiz’s name to the World Pediatric Project to combat childhood illness in Ortiz’s native Dominican Republic, so it’s not like the Orioles cheaped out and just got him some trash on a shelf.)
It’s disappointing, if not entirely surprising, that Ortiz bristled when the Orioles showed the phone-breaking incident on the jumbotron at Camden Yards. Not only because this is a hilarious gift, but because if Ortiz were a little more open to self-deprecation, the Orioles could’ve been meaner:
The best gifts aren’t grand or expensive — they’re personal, recalling a specific moment the giver and recipient shared. The phone is a great conversation piece, a reminder to look back at the past and smile.
All stats are current through Tuesday afternoon.