Four points of award voting


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.

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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.

2018 Preview: Texas Rangers

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2018 season. Next up: The Texas Rangers.

The Texas Rangers had been, more or less, the class of the AL West for several years, but that came to an end last year. Injuries, a bad bullpen and underachievement doomed them early and before all the leaves were on the trees the Astros had all but locked up the division. There were some bright spots — Adrian Beltre notched his 3,000th hit and Joey Gallo emerged as the 40-homer threat many have long thought he might be — but otherwise it was a bad year for the Rangers.

Will it be another bad year? Hard to say no, though there is a lot more upside with this club than with a lot of other sub-80 win teams from 2017. For that upside to pay off, however, the Rangers are going to have to win a lot of bets.

The outfield is a good place to begin looking for that upside. Nomar Mazara has not yet put it together over the course of a whole season, but he has shown some promise and could be poised for a breakout. Delino DeShields may not be what many thought he might be a few years back, but he’s got wheels and can get on base. Left field is being kept warm for top prospect Willie Calhoun who came over in the Yu Darvish trade and is having his service time manipulated, but he’ll be up soon. He’s expected to rake. Whether he can hold the position or, rather, will have to take at-bats away from Shin-Soo Choo at DH is an open question.

The infield needs a couple of fairly attainable things to happen for the lineup to really be a plus. First, it needs Adrian Beltre to be healthy and to show that he has at least some gas left in the tank. I have learned over the past 20 years to not bet against Adrian Beltre, ever, so Father Time will have to prove me wrong. It also needs Rougned Odor to snap back into shape after a lost-in-the-woods 2017. I hate the phrase “he’s better than that,” but he really is better than that. Elvis Andrus is Elvis Andrus and that’s fine. If Gallo can cut down on the K’s even a little bit and mix in a couple of more base hits to go with all of that power he could be an MVP candidate. In order of likelihood, I put it (1) Beltre being Beltre; (b) Odor bouncing back; and (c) Gallo cutting down on strikeouts, but if just two of those things happen the Rangers lineup will be in good shape.

There are a lot of question marks with the starting pitching and a couple of lottery tickets. Yu Darvish is long gone, but Cole Hamels remains at the top of the rotation. The problem is that Hamels had his worst full season in several years last year and it may be that all of the miles on his odometer are catching up with him. The biggest offseason pickup for Texas was Mike Minor, who had a monster comeback season with the Royals after multiple years lost due to arm injuries. That monster year came out of the bullpen, though, so it remains to be seen if he can move back to the rotation and remain both impressive and durable. He’s one of the lottery tickets, although one with much better odds than, say, the Powerball. He’s like a scratch-off with some risk but a decent shot at some winnings.

A longer shot is Matt “Mega Millions” Moore. The one time top prospect of the Tampa Bay Rays is still somehow just 28, but he’s coming off a lousy year in San Francisco, in which he led the NL in both losses and earned runs while plying his trade in a pitcher’s park. I guess you can be a silver-lining guy and say he’s durable again or you could do that thing where people look at a one-time phenom and imagine that he has at least one full-promise year in him, but it’s not super likely either. Martin Perez and Doug Fister round things out. You basically know what you’re getting out of those two at this point: competence, but not necessarily any shot at greatness. Bartolo Colon is knocking around and he’ll likely get some starts at some point. He always gets starts.

The bullpen was a mess last year. It’s not clear that it’ll be better this year, but it’ll certainly be more interesting, as Jon Daniels went out and signed Tim Lincecum and gave him a big league deal from which to launch his comeback. He may challenge for the closer role, though Alex Claudio has it for now. Matt Bush will look to recapture 2016 form as a setup guy. Jake Diekman should be back to full strength after a mostly lost 2017 due to colon surgery. Not a great group, truth be told, even if they will be fun to watch at times.

Overall, I think the Rangers are better than bad but the pitching is a big problem and they need too many things to go their way to count on being good. If everyone stays healthy and more than half of the guys who struggled last year return to form or fulfill potential, hey, it’s a pretty interesting group of players. A group which, while not good enough to challenge Houston, could be in the mix with the Angels and the Mariners to be a Wild Card representative.

If most of those bets don’t pay off, though, it’s gonna be a long year. I’m a risk averse gambler, so I’m going to hope to be pleasantly surprised, but I predict that the upside will remain out of reach.

Prediction: Fourth Place, AL West