When I was a kid, I loved the annual awards column that would run in the local newspaper. It does not really matter WHICH local paper I’m talking about now because some version of that column ran in every newspaper in the United States. The columns always picked the writers’ baseball award winners and, along the way, made more or less same four basic points:
1. “Most valuable “means something other than “best.”
2. The best pitchers win the most games.
3. The best managers had lousy teams last year.
4. Always remember this about good players on bad teams: “We could have finished last without ya.”
Let me say up front: I firmly and vehemently disagree with all four points. But, I will admit, over the years hundreds of columns with those points had a sort of numbing effect on the senses. And they are still kicking around in the brain, begging to be heard. Hey, what about Max Scherzer’s won-loss record? Hey, you know Andrew McCutchen’s Pirates made the playoffs while Carlos Gomez’s Brewers did not, right? Um, don’t forget that Clayton Kershaw only won 16 games. And so on.
This year, I have an actual American League MVP vote and the Baseball Writers’ Association of America asks us not to reveal our vote before the announcement in November. So, I’ll skip over that one while going through those four points of award voting.
Point 1 I disagree with: “Most valuable” means something other than “best.”
No, actually, I think “most valuable” and “best” are just about perfect baseball synonyms. The most valuable player is the best player. The best player is the most valuable one. Sure, I have read countless times about “valuable” being a magical word imbued with intangibles and leadership qualities and heart and grit and all sorts of other things that “best” simply does not cover. I believed them too. Heck, in my early days as a columnist, I probably even wrote some of those columns. I don’t buy it now.
Funny thing, even four or five years ago, I got into a mild argument with Bill James about what “valuable” really means. Bill had used a poker analogy — his point was that in basic Texas hold ‘em poker the ace of spades is ALWAYS more valuable than the seven of diamonds. Always. The seven never wins when matched up with the ace. Two sevens loses to two aces. An ace-high straight or flush always beats a seven-high straight or flush. If you and someone else have the same two pair, a fifth card ace beats a fifth-card seven every single time.
Bill was making the point that we know — absolutely know — that an ace is more valuable than a seven. And yet sometimes, because of the arrangement of the cards, a seven of diamonds may SEEM more valuable than an ace of spades. Let’s say the seven of diamonds comes in as the last card and it completes a winning straight or finishes a victorious flush. That’s a huge moment. The winner celebrates. The loser complains to bored spectators for the rest of his or her life. And you would think the seven was the most valuable card in the deck.
But Bill’s point was that the ace of spades is still more valuable than the seven. It just happened to be in a losing hand.
Well, back then I mostly agreed with Bill, but a small part of me could not escape the hypnotic powers of ALL THOSE COLUMNS telling me that valuable was something other than best. I said, OK, the overall point is true, but could you not argue that for THAT ONE HAND the seven of diamonds is more valuable than the ace? After all, the ace would not have finished the straight or the flush. So the seven, in that one hand, is more valuable.
And he responded with something that still makes sense to me: If the seven completes a straight or a flush then it is no more valuable than any other card in that hand. It’s only an illusion of timing — the seven of diamonds coming as the last card — that makes it seem more valuable. And no matter how you dress it up or how many good cards you put around it, the seven of diamonds still ain’t an ace of spades.
Point 2 I disagree with: The best pitchers win the most games.
With pal Brian Kenny walking the country like Johnny Killdawin, I don’t really need to get into this one much. But I’ve been looking for a good analogy to describe how silly it is to judge pitchers by their win-loss record. James had a pretty good one — he said it was like watching the first 30 minutes of a movie and then writing your review about it. I heard an even better one the other day — I”m not even sure where I heard it.
Judging a pitcher by his win-loss record is like appraising a person’s net worth by counting how much money they happen to have on them at the time.
I like that. How much money a person happens to be carrying at any time is not exactly meaningless when trying to determine their value. But it always tells an incomplete story, sometimes tells a false story, and it really doesn’t make a lot of sense.
In my mind, Clayton Kershaw, pretty clearly, was the best pitcher in the National League again this year. He once again led the league in strikeouts and ERA. He led the league in WHIP for the third straight season. The league hit .195 against him. He pitches half his games in a pitcher’s paradise, and sure, he had a 1.54 ERA at Dodger Stadium along with a 128-22 strikeout-to-walk ratio. But his 2.14 road ERA was plenty good too. He was the best pitcher in the NL.
It’s also true that Matt Harvey got hurt — if Harvey had stayed healthy and pitched the same way for the rest of the season, the Cy Young would have been a very hard call.
I can’t help but feel a bit of disappointment for St. Louis’ Adam Wainwright. Again, this comes back to my inability to let go of what people said again and again in my childhood. Adam Wainwright led the league in wins again this year, second time. He’s won 20 another time. But he can’t get a Cy Young Award, and I’m pretty sure he won’t get it over Kershaw this year. That’s kind of a bummer for him. Wrong time. If he had pitched like this in the 1970s, he’d have two or three Cy Young Awards by now. And he’s a great guy, he has a terrific comeback story — I wouldn’t vote him Cy Young, but I do feel he’s worth a paragraph here.*
*For those looking for a sabermetric reason to vote for Wainwright, xFIP could be your friend. xFIP can be a little bit tough to explain. FIP, you might know, stands for Fielding Independent Ptiching, and it measures a pitcher based on the three things we KNOW a pitcher can control: Strikeouts, walks and home runs allowed.
But xFIP goes one step further. Some believe that even home runs are at least somewhat out of a pitcher’s control — that there’s luck involved and so on. So, xFIP estimates, based on a pitcher’s quality, how many home runs he SHOULD have allowed. Like I say, it’s controversial … I’ve heard some people complete dismiss it and others embrace it. Anyway, Wainwright did have a better xFIP than Kershaw.
In the American League, I expect Max Scherzer will win because of his 21-3 record. I would vote for Scherzer too, though not because of the record. I think, in a very close race, he was the best pitcher. He led the league in WHIP, was third in FIP, second in HIP (hits per inning pitched), second in SIP (strikeouts per inning pitched), he took no lip, he left a good tip, all those good ip things. He also was fifth in the league in ERA, and a strong case could be made for those ahead of him, particularly Seattle’s Hisashi Iwakuma.
But when you throw everything in there — Scherzer struck out more batters and gave up fewer home runs than Iwakuma — I’d give Max the nod. He would make the third straight Tigers’ pitcher I would have voted for — I actually did vote for Justin Verlander in 2011 and 2012.
* * *
Point 3 I disagree with: The best managers had lousy teams last year.
Look, I get it: if you’re going to have a Manager of the Year Award, you need SOME criteria. And picking the manager whose team most clearly over-performs our expectations is as good as any, I suppose. Still, the BBWAA has been giving out manager of the year awards since 1983 and any look at that list makes you shake your head. Here are two charts that demonstrate it pretty well.
Here are your American League managers of the year from 1999-2007:
1999: Jimy Williams, Boston
2000: Jerry Manuel, White Sox
2001: Lou Piniella, Mariners
2002: Mike Scioscia, Angels
2003: Tony Pena, Royals
2004: Buck Showalter, Rangers
2005: Ozzie Guillen, White Sox
2006: Jim Leyland, Tigers
2007: Eric Wedge, Indians
OK, here’s an abridged list of American League managers who DID NOT win the award from 1999-2007:
— Joe Torre, Yankees
— Terry Francona, Red Sox
So … there it is. It’s funny that Terry Francona will probably win the Manager of the Year Award for the first time, and it will be for the Cleveland Indians. I’m guessing Clint Hurdle will win it for Pittsburgh in the National League. I’m sure Boston’s John Farrell and Los Angeles’ Don Mattingly will get some support too. Even Yankees manager Joe Girardi, who guided the Yankees to their worst record in 21 years despite having a $236 million payroll, will get some votes. It’s a weird award.
Who would I vote for? Like I say, I don’t know that I have a better idea. I tend to think Joe Maddon is the best manager in baseball. People don’t go to their games, there isn’t much money to go around, they play in a dismal park, their talent shifts quite a bit … and they’ve won 90 games five of the last six years and 86 games the other season. I think he knows how to manage talent, how to run a bullpen, how to keep players focused and interested throughout a season, how to come out of bad spells, how to stay grounded through good ones. I’d like to play for that guy.
* * *
Point 4 I disagree with: “We could have finished last without ya.”
That is one of the most famous baseball quotes — it is supposedly what Branch Rickey told Ralph Kiner after the 1950 season, when Kiner went in for his contract discussion. Kiner had led the National League in homers for the fifth straight season with 47. He had scored 112 runs, driven in 118, posted a .408 on-base percentage and slugged .590. He even finished fifth in the MVP balloting.
The quote is both colorful and, in its own limited way, true. The Pirates did finish last. And you can’t finish lower than last. Trouble is, when you dig just a little bit deeper into the quote, you realize just how absurd and infuriating it is. At that negotiating table, which of the two men was MORE responsible for the Pirates finishing last, Ralph Kiner who led the league in homers, or Branch Rickey who put together that obscenely bad team? I think Kiner’s response should have been: “We could have finished FIRST without YOU!”
When looking at the National League MVP race, I think the best two everyday players were Andrew McCutchen and Carlos Gomez. There are others — Paul Goldschmidt, Matt Carpenter, Joey Votto, Yadi Molina — who had terrific, MVP type seasons. But let’s focus on the two: McCutchen and Gomez. The first played for a winning Pirates team. The second played for the 88-loss Brewers’ team. That might prove decisive in the voting.
But, I think that’s ridiculous. Andrew McCutchen played on a Pirates team that was third in the NL in ERA. Carlos Gomez played on a Brewers team that was ninth in the NL in ERA. That’s beyond the scope of either player — heck, if anything, Gomez played better defense. Gomez is a defensive genius. Using their team performances isn’t just unfair, it’s unreasonable.
In the end, my MVP is McCutchen, but it has nothing to do with the team’s records. The comparison with Gomez is surprisingly close. Gomez has more triples, homers, stolen bases, almost exactly the same slugging percentage and is a phenomenal center fielder. McCutchen has more singles, doubles, walks and is a very good center fielder. The key for me is on-base percentage. McCutchen has a fantastic .404 OBP; Gomes’s OBP of .338 is only 20 or so points above league average. The combination of McCutchen’s plate discipline and higher batting average, for me, puts him just over the top for me.