Tuesday, October 6, 2015

AL Award Race Preview

The All-Star teammates are now going head-to-head for AL MVP (Bleacher Report)
On this tense day leading up to tonight's American League wild card game, we might as well lighten the mood by handing out some hardware to this year's top performers. Today I'll tackle the AL races before previewing the NL field tomorrow.

Let me just say that I don't envy the voters this year. This season's award races were some of the closest I can recall, with the AL awards all virtual toss-ups and there being no easy answer to the NL Cy Young conundrum. While I've spilled many words in this space criticizing poor BBWAA choices throughout the years, there will be no such backlash from me this year. I could stare at the numbers until I go blind and I still don't think I could give a definitive answer, so I certainly won't blast a writer for going with his gut on this one.

Anyways, on to the awards:

Last year Trout won in a landslide (unanimously, actually), but if he wins again this year it will be by the skin of his teeth--even though this season was superior to last's by almost every conceivable metric. Although he led all American Leaguers in WAR (both B-R and FanGraphs versions) and posted the league's highest OPS (and OPS+, and slugging percentage), he's once again at a disadvantage because his team failed to make the playoffs. Trout nearly dragged them there, though, keeping the Angels in contention until the season's final day. After a dreadful August slump by him and teammates, he recovered in September to post a 1.078 OPS over the season's final five weeks. It's not Trout's fault LA's bullpen imploded during Game 162, or that nobody besides him and Albert Pujols made a peep against Cole Hamels. One guy can only do so much in baseball (see Joey Votto), and in the end it just wasn't enough.

I won't hold that against Trout, but others might. One of the reasons Trout finished behind Miguel Cabrera in the hotly contested MVP races of 2012 and 2013 was that Cabrera's team made the playoffs while Trout's didn't. When he finally won last year, the Angels winning 98 games and the AL West was definitely a factor. This year they really had no business being in contention after their awful August, but like I said Trout nearly willed them to October.

For those seeking to reward the best player on a playoff team, they'll find few legitimate MVP candidates on the Yankees, Astros, Rangers, and Royals. That leaves the Blue Jays, who are loaded with them. Votes will undoubtedly be cast for big boppers Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion as well as staff ace David Price, but the team's top player this year was clearly Josh Donaldson, a slick-fielding third baseman who also paced the Junior Circuit in runs, RBI, total bases, and extra base hits.

Already an MVP-caliber player his last few years in Oakland, Donaldson exploded his first year in Toronto. Many credit him for helping an underachieving Blue Jays squad snap its 22 year playoff drought--the longest in professional American sports. Not only was he the best hitter in a stacked lineup, but he also played a demanding defensive position and played it well.

So did Trout, which makes this such a close call. Their offensive numbers are eerily similar and they both play tough positions. Up until about three weeks ago I would have said Donaldson, but his late-season slump and Trout's strong finish was enough to sway me back to Team Trout. I think Toronto still makes the playoffs without Donaldson (though probably doesn't win the division), while Los Angeles is a losing team without its star center fielder.

Furthermore, Trout was simply the better player this year. He was a better hitter, especially after accounting for their ballparks (Trout's OPS and OPS+ led the AL). Donaldson played half his games in the Rogers Centre, a launching pad that significantly inflated his statistics. He hit three-fifths of his doubles and home runs there, batted 67 points higher there, and slugged 160 points higher there. It was a given that the move from the Coliseum's suffocating offensive environment to a more generous one in Toronto would boost his numbers, but no one could have foreseen him taking such extreme advantage of his home park.

Trout, however, did not enjoy the same home field boost. Anaheim is a better park for pitchers than hitters, which is evident in Trout's splits. He batted 35 points higher and increased his slugging percentage by almost 70 points on the road. He also had more home runs, more RBI, and nearly twice as many doubles on the road as he did in Anaheim. Had he played in even a neutral park, his numbers would look considerably better. That he still equaled Donaldson's dinger total and led the league in slugging percentage, then, is very impressive.

Bottom line: Donaldson had a great season, but Trout was just a little bit better.
Price positioned himself to win another Cy with his huge second half (Fox Sports)
AL Cy Young award
This one's another tough call. Sonny Gray was the frontrunner for much of the season with a 2.13 ERA and sub-1 WHIP through the end of August, only to falter in September by allowing 20 earned runs over his final five starts. His ERA ballooned more than half a run, costing him the ERA title that may have netted him his first Cy.

Meanwhile, David Price continued mowing down batters in Toronto, putting the finishing touches on what could be his second Cy in four years. His numbers were stellar across the board; first in ERA and fWAR, second in FIP, bWAR, and ERA+; third in innings pitched, fourth in strikeouts,, and fifth in WHIP--all while spending time in two of the tougher parks for pitchers.

He wasn't the American League's best pitcher this year, though; that would be Houston's Dallas Keuchel. The AL's lone 20-game winner finished a close second to Price in raw ERA but led the loop in ERA+. He was also tops in pitcher bWAR, WHIP, and innings pitched. Considering their run-prevention skills were dead-even, the tiebreaker goes to Keuchel for tossing an additional dozen innings--or roughly two extra starts' worth. That was huge for the Astros, who won the second wild card by one game over the Angels.
Both were part of compelling narratives after helping pitch their respective teams into the postseason, though obviously Houston misses the playoffs without Keuchel while Toronto probably still makes it in. Price is the bigger name but Keuchel's numbers are a touch better. He deserves to win by the slimmest of margins, so expect a repeat of last year's photo finish between Corey Kluber and Felix Hernandez (neither of whom are serious contenders again this year, by the way).

AL Rookie of the Year Award
What's interesting about the American League race is none of the best candidates played full seasons. Promoted throughout the summer, their campaigns were abbreviated, which makes these comparisons both easier and more difficult. They are easier in the sense that their playing time was roughly even, but more difficult due to their numbers being awfully close.

Carlos Correa's counting numbers--22 home runs, 68 RBI, 14 stolen bases, 4.1 bWAR--would have been phenomenal for a full season, but they're borderline insane considering he played barely three-fifths of one. We can only wonder what he could have accomplished had he debuted before June 8th. His full season numbers project to 36 home runs, 112 RBI, and 23 steals, which for a rookie shortstop is simply ridiculous. Even more ridiculous is that he just became old enough to legally buy a drink two weeks ago.
Correa's already earning comparisons to Alex Rodriguez (News Locker)
But wait, not so fast. What about the other wunderkind shortstop who played 99 games this year? Just 10 months older than Correa, Francisco Lindor was equally spectacular for the Indians, batting .313/.353/.482 (128 wRC+) with a dozen homers and steals. While his bat wasn't quite as potent, it was nearly so, and he was a considerably better defender. They were about even as baserunners, with the slight edge going to Correa. Baseball-Reference has them within half a win of each other in WAR, but FanGraphs gives Lindor a significant edge of more than one win.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Minnesota's Miguel Sano, who quietly enjoyed a monster season with the Twins. He was unquestionably the American League's best-hitting rookie, what with his .269/.385/.530 batting line, 151 wRC+, and .392 wOBA--not to mention his 18 home runs and 52 RBI in 80 games. Extrapolate his numbers over a full season and they're nearly identical to Correa's, But whereas Correa plays the most important non-catching position on the diamond, Sano hardly plays the field at all as a DH, making his production far less valuable. Had he played all year and amassed upwards of 30 homers and 100 RBI this would be a different conversation, but there's no reasonable explanation for choosing him over Correa or Lindor.

On the pitching side, Correa's teammate Lance McCullers made a good impression with a 3.22 ERA (80 ERA-), 3.26 FIP (79 FIP-), and over a strikeout per inning. Had he logged a full season, that performance might have merited the trophy, but it covered 22 starts and 125 innings. Two-thirds of a season is only slightly more than the three-fifths that Correa and Lindor played. Both were more dominant relative to their peers, as good-hitting shortstops are once again a rare commodity. In today's offensive environment, I bet most GMs would rather have the shortstop capable of hitting .300 with 20/20 potential rather than a midrotation starter.

So it comes down to Correa and Lindor. Lindor's the better all-around player at this point, but Correa is already showing Troy Tulowitzki-like prowess at the plate. With the margin between them so minute, I'm leaning towards the guy with the better offensive numbers. I think Correa made a little more of an impact in the games he played, and it also helps that he sparked his team to the postseason. Without him, the Astros are watching from home this year, so I think his outstanding performance in the heat of a pennant race deserves to be recognized.

When you get down to it, all of these awards are essentially two-horse races. Trout and Donaldson, Price and Keuchel, and Correa vs. Lindor. They're all so evenly matched you really can't go wrong with any of them. If it was me, I might just skip the analysis-induced headaches and flip three coins.

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