With the BBWAA announcing its awards winners this week, I decided to make my picks for who should win. I picked a top three for MVP, Cy Young, and Rookie of the Year in each league, followed by an explanation for each. To clarify, these are who I would pick for the awards if I had a vote, not who I think will win them.
1. Mike Trout
2. Miguel Cabrera
3. Robinson Cano
The American League MVP race has been one of the most hotly contested debates since September. To dumb it down, “traditionalists” tend to be in favor of Cabrera, while “stat geeks” argue for Trout. Both have had tremendous years, and I am not diminishing anything the Cabrera has done this season by saying I would vote for Trout. I simply believe Trout provided more value to his team over the course of the season. Because of the attention given to this race, I will go more in depth with my explanation that any of the other awards.
First, consider the offense of each of these candidates. Trout hit .326/.399/.564 (AVG/OBP/SLG) while Cabrera hit .330/.393/.606. These are very similar batting lines, with Trout’s slight edge in OBP erased by Cabrera’s significant lead in slugging. However, Comerica Park is a better park for hitters than Angel Stadium, which should be considered. Trout and Cabrera both have a wRC+ of 166, which is an overall measure of offensive production that adjusts for the park and league a player is in. All things considered, Trout and Cabrera performed so similarly on offense that it is hard to argue that one was significantly better than the other.
However, offense is not the only part of baseball. Trout plays, by most accounts, above-average to excellent defense in center field, while Cabrera plays below average defense at third base. While these positions require different skills, they are pretty similar in terms of difficulty to play, with center field being slightly more difficult. Thus, Trout gains a significant advantage over Cabrera in the value they provide on defense.
Value can also be added through base running, and Trout has a clear advantage in this area. Trout stole 49 bases in 54 attempts, and Cabrera was just 4 for 5. In addition, Trout’s speed allowed him to advance extra bases, such as going first to third on a single or scoring from first on a double. While base running is not as important as hitting or defense, Trout distanced himself from Cabrera enough on the basepaths to provide a significant amount of extra value.
Another important factor in contributing value is playing time. Cabrera obviously wins here, as Trout was not even in the major leagues until the end of April and only played in 139 games to Cabrera’s 161. The main issue here is how much each individual thinks this matters. Personally, I believe that the additional value Trout provided on the bases and in the field while playing an up-the-middle position more than makes up for the 58 additional plate appearances Cabrera amassed. Others may not agree, and they are entitled to their opinions, but Trout provided a huge amount of additional value through other facets of the game.
I also have trouble finding any merit to some of the arguments Cabrera supporters use. It is very impressive that he won the Triple Crown, but in reality, that is just an arbitrary set of three statistics (of which RBI is not even very useful, and batting average has its limitations, too). It ignores many more important factors, including defense, base running, ability to get on base through walks, and the additional value that doubles and triples have over singles. Just because it is rare does not mean it is automatically deserving of an MVP. Trout accomplished some incredibly rare feats this year as well. And, of course, Ted Williams twice won the Triple Crown without winning the MVP, so it is not even something that has stood true in the past. Plain and simple, Mike Trout provided more value to his team this year than Miguel Cabrera or anyone else in the American League.
AL Cy Young
1. Justin Verlander
2. Felix Hernandez
3. David Price
Verlander should repeat as the Cy Young winner in the American League in my mind. He led the league in innings, was third in K/9, and was second in both ERA (behind Price) and FIP (behind Hernandez). Felix and Price both have great numbers as well, but taken as a whole, Verlander’s are slightly better than Felix’s, and his 27 inning advantage over Price mean he provided a lot more value to his team, even if some of Price’s numbers were slightly better. In addition, Verlander did this pitching in a park that slightly favors hitters, while Hernandez and Price both throw in pitcher-friendly parks.
I debated who was better between Hernandez and Price for a while, and looking over the rate stats, I favored Price. Price’s 2.56 ERA led the league and was a half a run lower than Hernandez’s. King Felix led the league with a 2.84 FIP, but Price was not far behind at 3.05. Overall, they are extremely close and I tend to favor Price’s ERA advantage, giving him credit for limiting hits on balls in play and stranding runners, even though there is probably some noise there. However, Hernandez threw an extra 21 innings, and this separates them more than anything else. The additional innings that Felix threw provided extra value while also letting the Mariners’ bullpen (consisting of generally worse pitchers than Felix) rest more or avoiding a spot start from a triple-A call-up. The added value provided by Verlander and Hernandez was the separating factor for my Cy Young rankings.
AL Rookie of the Year
1. Mike Trout
2. Yu Darvish
3. Jarrod Parker
Trout is a pretty obvious choice here for the reasons illustrated in the MVP explanation. Darvish struggled with his control for much of the first half of the season and did not look to be the pitcher people expected him to be. However, he settled down and was lights out at the end of the year, including a 2.21 ERA in September and October. He eliminated his walk problems and was able to keep the ball in the park, so the great stuff he had been showcasing all year became incredibly effective. Darvish’s 10.40 K/9 was second among qualified pitchers in the AL behind only Max Scherzer, and his FIP, which is an ERA estimator that looks at only what the pitcher can control and ignores defense, was sixth. Darvish had a good year overall and an especially great final month and a half.
Parker also had an impressive rookie campaign on a young Oakland pitching staff. Among qualified starters, he had the lowest ERA and second-lowest FIP behind only Darvish. Darvish threw an extra 10 innings and pitched in a much more hitter-friendly park than Parker, which is why I ranked Darvish ahead of Parker. Yoennis Cespedes would have been fourth on the list.
1. Buster Posey
2. Andrew McCutchen
3. Ryan Braun
Buster Posey had one of the best offensive seasons in the National League this year while playing the toughest position in baseball. He had a .336/.408/.549 line and a wRC+ of 162, which tied him for the NL lead with Ryan Braun. In addition to his outstanding offensive numbers, Posey is a good defender behind the plate, a position where offensive production is not expected. It takes a special player to put up the numbers he did while catching, and his defensive advantage is why I chose him for the NL MVP.
Andrew McCutchen and Braun both had fantastic seasons and could easily be argued for the top spot on this list. McCutchen hit .327/.400/.553 while Braun hit .319/.391/.595 with 41 home runs and 30 steals. Their offensive value is very similar, so the main separator is on defense. McCutchen plays an up-the-middle position and plays it well, while Braun is probably an average defender at best in left field. The additional value McCutchen provides with his glove is enough for me to put him over Braun, despite Braun’s slightly better offensive line.
NL Cy Young
1. R.A. Dickey
2. Clayton Kershaw
3. Johnny Cueto
How can you not love R.A. Dickey? What he has done this year as a 38-year-old knuckleballer is nothing short of unbelievable. He struck people out, didn’t walk people, and somehow exhibited inordinate control over a pitch that goes wherever it wants to. He led the league in innings pitched and was second in ERA behind only Clayton Kershaw. Knuckleballers are rare, and even rarer are ones who succeed as much as Dickey did this year, and the difference in style from all other pitchers makes it hard to compare what Dickey has done to everyone else. Advanced stats do not really work well with knuckleball pitchers because of the extremity of them, so in a close race, I’m going with my gut on this one.
Kershaw had a fantastic year also, and I considered putting him first. He led the league in ERA, WAR, and RA-9 wins, which is similar to WAR but also assumes a pitcher has control over balls in play and stranding base runners. He was also second in FIP, behind Gio Gonzalez, and innings. Cueto also had a tremendous season with a 2.78 ERA that ranked third in the NL and the fifth-most innings, all while pitching in a very hitter-friendly ballpark. Kershaw’s numbers were better across the board though, so Cueto is relegated to third on my theoretical ballot.
NL Rookie of the Year
1. Bryce Harper
2. Wade Miley
3. Todd Frazier
Bryce Harper was one of the most highly touted prospects in the history of the sport, and he certainly had an impressive season for a kid who should have been a freshman in college. He hit 22 home runs and stole 18 bases despite not getting called up to the majors until the end of April. He played above average defense while playing center and right field while showcasing the all-around game that made him such a highly-anticipated prospect. Harper put up some pretty good numbers for a typical player; the fact that he is only 19 makes this even more impressive and makes him my pick for rookie of the year.
Wade Miley had a very good season for the Diamondbacks, posting a 3.33 ERA and a 3.15 FIP in over 190 innings. His success was predicated on his excellent control, as he posted a BB% of just 4.6% (MLB average is about 8%). Frazier finally had a successful rookie campaign after being stuck in triple-A for years. He provided good power as a corner infielder, mainly playing third base but filling in at first some when Joey Votto was injured. A poor September brought down his numbers, leaving him a notch below Harper and Miley.
Last weekend, a bright, young pitcher was shut down for the rest of the season, and no, I’m not referring to Stephen Strasburg. Jeff Samardzija made his last start of the season Saturday, capping off a great first year as a major league starter with an outstanding complete game effort. Samardzija was an inconsistent reliever in the big leagues for parts of four years before 2012, but a diligent off-season workout plan and an opening in the Cubs’ weak rotation provided him an opportunity to start this year, and he took advantage. Let’s look at how Samardzija was able to make such a turnaround so quickly.
Samardzija always had an electric fastball, and that has continued to help him since joining the rotation. His fastball, per FanGraphs’ Pitch F/X data, averages 95.1 mph, which is the third-highest in the major leagues (behind Strasburg and David Price, and just ahead of Justin Verlander). However, he did a much better job of commanding it this year. He threw a higher percentage of strikes with it, and when he did throw strikes, they seemed to be located better than some of the meatballs he was throwing in past years. He also got a higher percentage swings and misses with the pitch this year than he did in any previous season, which could be evidence of this improved location or also his improved off-speed pitches keeping hitters off balance. Samardzija threw fastballs 67% of the time, so his improvements with the fastball were key for him to do well as a starter. With the velocity and movement he has on the pitch, he can be very successful if he can continue to control it.
Samardzija also throws a slider that averages 85 mph and breaks both down and across slightly. It is a solid weapon against right-handed batters. Opposing hitters hit just .206/.257/.321 against his slider and swung and missed at it almost 15% of the time. It’s an above-average pitch that is certainly effective, but it’s probably his third-best pitch.
The biggest reason for Samardzija’s success, though, is his splitter. Thrown at about 85-86 mph, it moves in on righties and drops harder than a dubstep song. It acts similarly to a change-up with more movement because of the 10 mph velocity drop-off from his fastball. It is an extremely effective weapon against both righties and lefties, as hitters posted a .128/.150/.243 line against the pitch. Batters swung and missed at it 24% of the time he threw it and chased it out of the zone 45% of the time, which is remarkable. Samardzija’s splitter has been one of the best in the major leagues and has been a key factor in his success as a starter this season.
Jeff Samardzija went from an easier role in the bullpen to a more difficult role as a starter and improved his numbers. Whether it was his off-season work or something else, he improved in many areas, throwing more strikes, locating his fastball better, and getting more swinging strikes with his off-speed pitches. He didn’t go without struggles, as June saw him scuffle a bit and he is still prone to the home run ball, but if he can continue to improve upon a successful first season as a starting pitcher, he can be a solid piece in the Cubs’ rotation going forward, and he might be the only pitcher currently on their staff that is still around on the next successful Cubs team.
On Monday night, two exciting young pitchers who were recently called up to the major leagues started. Tyler Skaggs, who turned twenty-one in July, made his second career start for the Arizona Diamondbacks. Skaggs is a 6-4, 180 pound lefty who was sent from the Angels to Arizona in the Dan Haren trade. He was a supplemental round pick (40th overall) in the 2009 draft.
Skaggs sits at 88-91 with his fastball, and did a pretty good job locating it in his second game, although he did lose it at times during his first start in which he walked five hitters. He is deceptive enough that he can generate some swinging strikes with it, although he has given up two homeruns on mistake fastballs that were grooved, including one to Bronson Arroyo after a surprisingly good at bat. Arroyo fouled off a couple fastballs after working a full count and got one down the middle that he just barely pulled out near the left field line. It looked like once Skaggs got to the full count, he was simply trying to throw fastballs over the plate to avoid walking him and hoped Arroyo would get himself out (which makes sense), so I wouldn’t read too much into it even though it was not a good pitch.
Skaggs best pitch is his curveball, which is, quite simply, filthy. He throws it in the low 70s, and it breaks down a ton with some horizontal movement. He is able to throw it as a get-me-over pitch for a strike early in the count and as a strikeout pitch that falls through the zone, and he did an impressive job of throwing each one when he needed to. He did throw a few that got away from him and were nowhere near the zone, showing either some early nerves, inexperience, or both, but for the most part he located it well and had batters fooled with it.
He also throws a change up in the upper 70s, but it is clearly his third pitch, and he used it only 8% of the time in his first start (compared to 66% fastballs and 26% curveballs). He still needs to develop it more, but considering he is only twenty-one, he still has plenty of time to work on it.
Skaggs struggled with control at times in his first start, walking five batters, but he has not shown many control problems in the minors so I don’t believe this will be a major issue for him going forward. He only walked two in his second start, and he threw a much higher percentage of strikes. Trading Joe Saunders to the Orioles opened up a rotation spot for Skaggs, so it appears that he will continue to pitch in the starting rotation for the rest of the year. Skaggs clearly still has some things to work on, but given his youth and how advanced he is already, he has a bright future ahead of him and should be near the top of Arizona’s rotation for a while.
Video of Tyler Skaggs: http://mlb.mlb.com/video/play.jsp?content_id=24124995&c_id=mlb&topic_id=vtp_star_of_the_game
Some items of note: some good fastballs at 0:04 and 0:38, and some unhittable curves at 0:30 and 0:33.
Casey Kelly, a 6-3 and 195 pound right-hander, made his major league debut on Monday night. Kelly was drafted in the first round of the 2008 draft by the Boston Red Sox and was one of the prized prospects, along with Anthony Rizzo, in the package sent to San Diego in the Adrian Gonzalez trade. Kelly was an interesting case out of the draft: while many people liked him better on the mound, he wanted to try to make it as a shortstop, so the Red Sox let him play half of the season at shortstop and half as a pitcher in his first year in the minors. However, it became clear that his future was on the mound, and he was converted into a full-time pitcher. Kelly missed much of the 2012 season with elbow inflammation, and the twenty-two year old made just eight minor league starts this season before getting called up.
Kelly’s fastball sat at 90-93 mph for most of the night and touched 95 in the first inning, although he lost a little velocity in his last inning of work (pure speculation: this could possibly be because he’s still building up stamina since his return from injury). His 2-seamer has a lot of movement on it and will induce a lot of ground balls when he keeps it down in the zone. He showed the ability to command it to both sides of the plate at the bottom of the strike zone, and if he can do this consistently, he will have success at the big league level.
He has a sharp, 12-6 curveball which he was able to spot on the corner early in the count and throw it out of the zone with two strikes on the batter. His curve was mostly 78-82, and is a very good weapon that he used when he wasn’t behind in the count. He also threw a handful of changeups, his best one coming in a 2-1 count that fooled Chipper Jones. Kelly’s changeup was 83-86 and looks like a good weapon against left-handed hitters if he can throw it for low strikes, which he didn’t always do Monday night.
Kelly is also an excellent athlete, which allows him to have a clean, repeatable delivery and field his position well. He turned a tricky comebacker into an easy double play, looking very natural coming off the mound to field a short hop. With his athletic ability and background as a shortstop, maybe he can even avoid being the automatic out at the plate that most pitchers are; he hit a solid ground ball up the middle for a base hit in his second at bat.
Video of Casey Kelly: http://mlb.mlb.com/video/play.jsp?content_id=24274653&c_id=mlb&topic_id=vtp_jiffy_lube
Some items of note: you can see his curveball at 0:11, 0:19, and 0:36, his changeup and impressive double play at 0:29, and a 2-seam fastball at 0:43.
Both of these pitchers were impressive in their first start or two, but they also showed that they still have plenty of areas in their games that they can improve, including consistency with location and further developing their changeups. They are both young and have time to develop, so I am excited to continue watching them and see if they can live up to the strong potential that they have shown so far.