Despite only a 60-game sample size, there’s plenty of drama to go around as baseball honors the best of 2020.
Welcome to Complaint Week. The annual major awards from the Baseball Writers Association of America will be handed out this week, the spot on the baseball calendar that triggers healthy kvetching. People keep arguing, for instance, about the definition of “most valuable.” How in the world do you define the manager of the year? It is part of the analog beauty of the awards in a game that has gone heavily digital.
Monday: Jackie Robinson Rookie of the Year Award
Tuesday: Manager of the Year Award
Wednesday: Cy Young Award
Thursday: Most Valuable Player Award
The MVP awards are re-designed this year. No longer will they feature the name and dour mug of Kennesaw Mountain Landis, as they did since 1944. BBWAA members voted to remove Landis’ name. Landis served as baseball commissioner from 1920 to his death in 1944, overseeing an all-white game. It was not until three years later that Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier.
Two writers from each league city vote on each award. I was selected as a voter for the National League Manager of the Year Award. As a condition of my vote, I am not permitted to reveal how I voted until after the announcement.
Here I will give you my virtual ballots for the seven other awards. There is plenty of drama this year. Can Mookie Betts join Frank Robinson as the only players to win an MVP in each league? Do Freddie Freeman and Jose Abreu become the first pair of MVP first basemen since Justin Morneau and Ryan Howard in 2006?
Both rookie races give voters the difficult choice of measuring position players against a pitcher. Shane Bieber is a lock for AL Cy Young, but can Jacob deGrom overtake Trevor Bauer in the NL by virtue of facing stiffer competition? And considering how the World Series ended, is Kevin Cash really going to be honored as the AL’s best manager?
Ladies and gentlemen, start your agita.
AL Manager of the Year
1. Kevin Cash, Rays
2. Charlie Montoyo, Blue Jays
3. Rick Renteria, White Sox
Power hitting is expensive to buy, so Tampa Bay built a team designed to leverage run prevention into winning baseball. It worked. The Rays won more games than any team in the league despite batting .238, striking out more than any team in baseball and using 59 lineups in 60 games. Cash was masterful at deploying bullpen resources. Twelve pitchers recorded a save. The starting pitchers completed six innings only nine times, tied for the fewest in baseball.
Okay, I know what you’re thinking: Cash pulled one of the worst World Series blunders in memory when he removed a dominant Blake Snell for a struggling Nick Anderson in Game 6. In the heat of the moment he tossed common sense aside and blindly followed the Third-Time-Around theorem. But votes for this award are submitted before postseason play. Cash earned it.
The Money Stat
Cash’s team was the best in baseball in one-run games (14-5) and against winning teams (21-9).
AL Rookie of the Year
1. Kyle Lewis, Mariners
2. Cristian Javier, Astros
3. Luis Robert, White Sox
No MLB rookie had more runs (37), walks (34), total bases (90) or home runs (11) than Lewis. But he did hit .147 over his last 28 games, opening the door for Javier to win the award. Javier (5-2, 3.48 in 12 games, including 10 starts) held batters to a .188 batting average, seventh best in MLB. His slider was almost unhittable (.075, just four hits all season).
The Money Stat
According to Inside Edge, Lewis, a center fielder, made 97.8% of “possible defensive plays.” It was the best such rate in the majors.
NL Rookie of the Year
1. Jake Cronenworth, Padres
2. Devin Williams, Brewers
3. Alec Bohm, Phillies
This is a classic case of picking between a position player and a pitcher. Williams was amazing, especially with his unique changeup. He posted a .033 ERA. But he pitched only 27 innings and would be the first pitcher to win Rookie of the Year without starting or saving a game. Cronenworth played all four infield positions, posted the third best OPS of any MLB second baseman (.831) and led all NL rookies in extra-base hits (22) and WAR (1.4).
The Money Stat
Cronenworth had 49 hits: 15 to the pull field, 17 up the middle, and 17 to the opposite field.
AL Cy Young
1. Shane Bieber, Indians
2. Kenta Maeda, Twins
3. Dallas Keuchel, White Sox
4. Hyun Jin Ryu, Blue Jays
5. Gerrit Cole, Yankees
This one is unanimous. Bieber joined Johan Santana (2006) and Dwight Gooden (1985) as the only pitchers to win the MLB Triple Crown since the mound was lowered in 1969.
Bieber will be the first unanimous Cy Young Award winner since Clayton Kershaw in 2014. But Bieber is not the MVP, not with his good-but-not-great volume. He pitched six innings or less in the majority of his starts (seven of 12). He also pitched with five days of rest in the same majority split of his starts. He faced only 29 batters after the sixth inning. (Kershaw faced 158 in 2014, or 59 prorated to a 60-game season.)
The Money Stat
So expert was Bieber at making his strikes look like balls that he obtained 162 swings and misses on pitches out of the zone–31% more than anybody else in baseball (Jacob deGrom was second at 124).
NL Cy Young
1. Trevor Bauer, Reds
2. Jacob deGrom, Mets
3. Yu Darvish, Cubs
4. Dinelson Lamet, Padres
5. Devin Williams, Brewers
Can you win the Cy Young Award by beating a winning team only once? Bauer made eight of his 11 starts against losing teams and dominated them (4-2, 1.53). Against winning teams, he was 1-2 with a 2.25 ERA in only three starts. deGrom made eight of his 12 starts against winning teams, going 3-2 with a 1.69 ERA. He faced much tougher competition.
But if the main goal of a pitcher is to win the batter-by-batter matchups that most determine the outcome of games, nobody was better at dominating hitters than Bauer. He had the best ERA, the lowest WHIP and the fewest hits per nine innings.
The Money Stat
Bauer tweeted in 2018, “My fastball [spin rate] is about 2250 rpm on average. I know for a fact I can add 400 rpm to it by using pine tar. Look how much better I would be if I didn’t have morals.” This year his four-seam spin rate suddenly shot up 364 rpm, from 2,412 last year to 2,776 this year–from 133rd in MLB to first.
1. José Abreu, White Sox
2. DJ LeMahieu, Yankees
3. José Ramírez, Indians
4. Mike Trout, Angels
5. Nelson Cruz, Twins
6. Brandon Lowe, Rays
7. Shane Bieber, Indians
8. Luke Voit, Yankees
9. Tim Anderson, White Sox
10. Teoscar Hernández, Blue Jays
Rule out Ramírez. He was hitting .245 on Sept. 10 and was nobody’s idea of a strong MVP candidate. You can’t win the MVP on a 16-game hot streak.
Abreu played in 10 more games than LeMahieu. In a normal season that would be inconsequential. In a 60-game season, that’s 17% of the season. Voters have become too hung up on rate stats. Volume is still king. Abreu had more hits, doubles, homers, RBI, total bases and runs than LeMahieu. The gap in total bases, for instance, was huge: 33 more total bases, or 29% more for Abreu.
Looking at Win Probability Added, Abreu ranked third. LeMahieu was neither in the top 10 or the leader on his own team (Gio Urshela).
First basemen had received zero of the past 120 first-place MVP votes. No first baseman has won the award since Joey Votto in 2010.
The Money Stat
Abreu is only the fourth player to lead the AL in hits and RBI, joining Lou Gehrig (1931), Carl Yastrzemski (1967) and Jim Rice (1978).
1. Freddie Freeman, Braves
2. Mookie Betts, Dodgers
3. Manny Machado, Padres
4. Mike Yastrzemski, Giants
5. Fernando Tatis Jr., Padres
6. Marcell Ozuna, Braves
7. Trea Turner, Nationals
8. Juan Soto, Nationals
9. Corey Seager, Dodgers
10. Dom Smith, Mets
This is a two-man race. If you over-rely on WAR for your vote, Betts is your winner. His defensive and baserunning stats are superior to those of Freeman. But as a right fielder, Betts handled just 118 chances in 52 games, or just about two per game. He had more errors (four) than assists (one). Yes, part of the job is limiting extra bases by charging hits and taking proper routes. Betts does that. But the defensive component for a corner outfielder in a swing-and-miss game is nothing like the impact in the batter’s box–and that’s where Freeman runs away.
The gaps between Freeman and Betts are huge in adjusted OPS (186-149), times on base (121-90), OBP (.462-.366) and slugging (.640-.562). Freeman had more runs, total bases, doubles, hits and RBI and was better with runners in scoring position.
The Money Stat
Freeman was a game-changer. He not only hit .423 with runners in scoring position, he also slugged .885 in those situations. Only Barry Bonds, Mickey Mantle and Babe Ruth ever slugged higher with RISP (min. one RISP AB for every two team games).
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