September is always an exciting time for baseball fans as teams fight for a playoff berth. The 2011 MLB season proved to be no exception. There were many meaningful games left going into the final day with the possibility of two additional games being necessary to determine the wild card teams in both the American League and the National League. When the last game finished on Wednesday those games were no longer needed. The playoff roster is complete.
The St. Louis Cardinals clinched the wild card spot in the NL when they won their final game while The Atlanta Braves continued their late-season swoon by losing their last game. The same scenario played out in the AL with Tampa Bay claiming the wild card with a victory over the NY Yankees while the Boston Red Sox finished off a miserable September performance with a ninth inning loss to the last place Baltimore Orioles.
The playoff schedule was still uncertain until the Texas Rangers won their game against the Angels. That win gave Texas the second seed in the AL. They will open the playoffs at home against Tampa while the Detroit Tigers travel to New York to take on the Yankees. In the NL, the wild card team, St Louis, will travel to Pennsylvania to take on the Phillies while the Arizona Diamondbacks head to Milwaukee to play the Brewers.
October baseball should provide a lot of excitement. Both wild card teams enter the playoffs with a lot of momentum. They will need to be at the top of their game, because every divisional winner can field a strong team. There are no weak teams in these playoffs.
Now that the regular season is finished we can look at the candidates for the regular season awards for outstanding performance.
The AL Cy Young winner for best pitcher is a lock. Justin Verlander won the triple crown of pitching in the AL with a 24-5 record., a league leading 2.40 ERA and a league leading 250 strikeouts. No other AL pitcher reached 20 wins. He also led in several other categories for starting pitchers – innings pitched, lowest opponent batting average, and lowest WHIP. There are really no other likely candidates in the AL.
The NL Cy Young race turned out surprisingly similar to the AL race. Clayton Kershaw of the LA Dodgers was tied for the lead in wins at 21-5 with a league-leading 2.28 ERA and a league-leading 248 strikeouts. The only knock on Kershaw is that he plays for a team that did not make the playoffs, but his league-leading 0.98 WHIP to go along with all of his other top stats should make that a non-factor. And, to tell the truth, being on a non-playoff team is not as big a negative for the Cy Young award as it is for the MVP award. If Kershaw is penalized for playing on a non-competitive team then look to Ian Kennedy of the Arizona Diamondbacks (21 wins / 2.88 ERA / 198 SOs) or Roy Hallady of the Phillies (19 wins / 2.35 ERA / 220 Sos) to claim the award.
While the Cy Young winners in both leagues are fairly easy to pick, the Most Valuable Player awards in both leagues are tougher choices.
The Cy Young winners and league MVPs are chosen by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. The BBWAA publishes voter guidelines for their voting members. None of those guidelines say anything about giving extra weight to being on a playoff contender nor do they exclude pitchers from the MVP award, although there is an obvious bias in the voting based on both of those conditions.
Although pitchers used to win the MVP on a regular basis, no pitcher has won the MVP in the AL since Dennis Eckersley in 1992. You have to go back to Bob Gibson in 1968 to find the last winner in the NL. That anti-pitcher bias pretty much rules out any chance for Justin Verlander to win the MVP even though his numbers are slightly better than those posted by Roger Clemens when he won the award in 1986. It is very likely that Justin will have to settle for the Cy Young award when the winners are announced in January.
Predicting the MVP winner is pretty much a crap shoot. Politics plays a big part in the process, as does player likeability. Although statistics play a huge role in baseball, there are years when the numbers seem to mean nothing to the voters. One year will see the home run leader winning the award even though another player has a much higher batting average and might lead in several other categories. Another year will see a winner who doesn’t lead in any single category.
Some of the choices over the years have been truly nonsensical. Take 1942 when Ted Williams led in every meaningful hitting category, including winning the triple crown, and yet finished behind Joe Gordon in the MVP voting. Gordon led in only one category – stolen bases. Johnny Bench’s win in 1972, with his .270 BA, is another outlier. Going strictly by the numbers, Billy Williams of the Chicago Cubs should have won the MVP that year. The only way to make sense of that selection is that the voters gave a lot of weight to Bench’s play as a catcher and his membership on the powerhouse Big Red Machine.
Even with pitchers out of the mix there are a lot of candidates left in both leagues. There are at least a half-dozen viable contenders in both leagues. Some just happen to be more viable than others.
The NL has a clear leader for the award in Matt Kemp of the LA Dodgers. Kemp is first in home runs with 39, first in RBIs and runs scored with 126 RBI and 115 Rs, 3rd in batting average with .324, and second in OPS (on-base plus slugging) at .986 OPS. Kemp finished tied for 2nd in stolen bases with 40. Unfortunately for Kemp, the Dodgers finished in 3rd place 11.5 games out in their division and 7.5 games behind in the wild card race. Can a player really be considered the most valuable in the league if he can’t even get his team to the playoffs?
If Kemp loses votes because of his team’s poor finish, the obvious beneficiary will be Ryan Braun of Milwaukee Brewers. Braun won the NL batting title with a .332 BA. He also finished first in OPS with a respectable .994. His 33 home-runs were good for 6th in the NL, his 111 RBIs were good for 4th, and his 109 runs was good for 2nd in that category. Braun also demonstrated his speed on the basepaths with 33 stolen bases. The one thing that hurts Braun’s chances is the presence of Prince Fielder on the Brewers. Braun had the advantage of hitting in front of one of the more feared hitters in the NL. It could be argued that his numbers were inflated by that situation.
Prince Fielder is a candidate for the MVP in his own right. He hit more home runs and had more RBIs than Braun, but trailed in all of the other categories, including batting average. It could be argued that Fielder’s RBI totals were inflated by having Braun’s excellent on-base percentage provide more opportunities to drive in a run.
Unfortunately for Fielder and Braun, having two strong contenders on the same team tends to split their votes. If Kemp loses out because of playing for the Dodgers and Fielder and Braun pull votes from each other that opens the door for a sentimental favorite to take the award, even if he has inferior numbers. That will be the case if Albert Pujols of St Louis wins this year. This may be one of those years.
If anything, the AL race is even more clouded. There were several candidates for MVP at the start of September that have lost standing on the list of potential MVP winners. The one that has dropped the most is Adrian Gonzalez of the Boston Red Sox. His .299 BA in his last 30 games took cost him the AL batting title and his 1 home run and 6 RBIs in his last 10 games had a lot to do with his teams losing 3-7 finish. His teammate, Jacob Ellsbury, actually strengthened his candidacy by having a strong final month, but it wasn’t enough to keep his team from one of the biggest September swoons of all time.
If Justin Verlander loses out because of being a starting pitcher and Boston’s atrocious late season performance hurts Ellsbury and Gonzalez then the field comes down to 3 play
ers – Jose Bautista of the Toronto Blue Jays, Curtis Granderson of the NY Yankees, and Miguel Cabrera of the Detroit Tigers.
Bautista’s claim on the award is based on his league-leading 43 home runs, .608 slugging percentage and 1.056 OPS. Those numbers combined with his .302 BA might be good enough to win in most years, but Toronto’s 4th place divisional standing the outstanding performances by Granderson and Cabrera will probably put Bautista down the list when it is finally released in January.
At the beginning of September, Miguel Cabrera wasn’t even mentioned more than passingly as an MVP candidate. The outstanding performance of Justin Verlander, the numbers posted by Gonzalez and Ellsbury, and the career year of Curtis Granderson got all of the attention. That had all changed by the end of September. Cabrera hit at a torrid pace over the last 30 games – .424 BA, 6 home runs, 21 RBIs, 25 runs scored, and an amazing 1.258 OPS. That late surge propelled Cabrera to the AL batting crown with a .344 BA. The Tigers late-season run to the top of the AL Central, which coincided with Cabrera’s late-season heroics only adds to Cabrera’s MVP status.
What hurts Cabrera’s chances of winning the MVP is the presence of Justin Verlander on the Tigers. While the BBWAA anti-pitcher bias in the voting will more than likely keep Verlander from winning the award there are enough Midwest voters who might have voted for Cabrera who will give their votes to Verlander and thus keep Cabrera from winning the award.
That really only leaves one real candidate in Curtis Granderson. His run production is far and away the best in the AL. He leads in both RBIs and runs scored for a whopping 255 combined. His next closest competitor in those categories, Adrian Gonzalez of Boston, has a combined total of 225. In addition to his league-leading 119 RBIs, Granderson finished the season with 41 home runs, second only to Bautista of Toronto, and 25 stolen bases. What hurts Granderson is his rather mediocre .262 BA and his 17th best standing in on-base percentage. No player has ever won the MVP with a batting average below .270.
While, as a Tigers fan, I can make an argument for Cabrera based on the numbers, it is impossible to ignore the total run production of Granderson. After all, a team has to outscore their opponents to win a game. The player who helps his team score more runs has to get serious consideration as most valuable to his team. But numbers can be tricky as noted by Aaron Levenstein – “Statistics are like bikinis. What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital.”
While Granderson had more RBIs than Cabrera, their contributions to their teams were the same. The Yankees, as a team, had more RBIs than the Tigers. As a result, Granderson and Cabrera each contributed 14% of their respective teams RBIs. Granderson does hold the edge when it comes to runs scored. He contributed 15.7% of his team’s runs while Cabrera contributed 14.1% of the Tigers’ runs.
Looking at the other categories, Granderson’s 41 home runs tops Cabrera’s 30, but they don’t add enough to Granderson’s stats to top Cabrera’s slugging percentage. And when you add Cabrera’s higher on-base percentage to his slugging percentage he leads Granderson with a 1.033 OPS vs .916. Cabrera’s league-leading .344 BA tops Granderson’s by 82 points. Once you look at all of the statistics, Granderson isn’t such a clear leader for the MVP.
Predicting the eventual MVP winner may be very difficult, but there is one prediction about the MVP voting that is very easy to get right. No matter who wins the award there will be millions of fans who are sure their favorite player got robbed.