Pouliot’s 2014 National League awards picks

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There companion to yesterday’s entry on the AL awards winners, here are my choices in the National League.

NL MVP

It’s one thing to vote for a pitcher for MVP. I have no problem doing that. But a pitcher who missed a month of the season? That makes things pretty difficult. Let’s look at the hitters first.

.952 – Andrew McCutchen: .314/.410/.542, 25 HR, 18 SB in 146 games
.950 – Giancarlo Stanton..: .288/.395/.555, 37 HR, 13 SB in 145 games
.931 – Corey Dickerson…..: .312/.364/.567, 24 HR, 8 SB in 131 games
.913 – Anthony Rizzo…….: .286/.386/.527, 32 HR, 5 SB in 140 games
.863 – Yasiel Puig…………: .296/.382/.480, 16 HR, 11 SB in 148 games
.860 – Justin Morneau… : .319/.364/.396, 17 HR, 0 SB in 135 games
.852 – Matt Kemp………….: .287/.346/.506, 25 HR, 8 SB in 150 games

That’s everyone with an .850 OPS and 120+ games played. But let’s add in the catchers:

.893 – Devin Mesoraco: .273/.359/.534, 25 HR, 1 SB in 114 games
.848 – Buster Posey…..: .310/.363/.484, 21 HR, 0 SB in 146 games
.837 – Jonathan Lucroy: .310/.373/.465, 13 HR, 4 SB in 153 games
.832 – Russell Martin… : .290/.402/.430, 11 HR, 4 SB in 111 games

And three other guys worth considering:

.837 – Josh Harrison…..: .315/.347/.490, 13 HR, 18 SB in 143 games
.833 – Carlos Gomez…..: .284/.356/.477, 23 HR, 34 SB in 148 games
.824 – Anthony Rendon: .287/.351/.473, 21 HR, 17 SB in 153 games

That’s the offensive field, in my opinion. I know Jason Heyward and Jhonny Peralta crack the top 10 in WAR because of their exceptional defensive ratings. I’m skeptical in both cases. Adrian Gonzalez led the NL in RBI and thus will be named on several ballots. He’s not one of the NL’s 20 best players, though.

Strangely, McCutchen hasn’t had the narrative on his side this year, even though he’s hit better than he did on his way to MVP honors last year. In 2013, he ranked sixth in the NL with a .911 OPS. This year, he finished first at .952. He doesn’t have big RBI numbers, but then, he didn’t finish in the top 10 in the NL in RBI last year, either. This year, he probably would have had he not missed 16 games. As is, he finished 13th.

Instead, the narrative belonged to Stanton until he was drilled in the head by a Mike Fiers pitch, costing him the final two weeks. Had Stanton ended up playing 15 more games than McCutchen, perhaps one could justify giving him the nod. However, in the end, they both had the same OPS in the same amount of playing time. McCutchen is the more valuable defender and had the better OBP, making the best argument for Stanton being that he played in a gigantic cavern of a ballpark. However, McCutchen’s home in Pittsburgh is just as tough of a home run park for right-handed hitters and has been a worse park for run scoring overall. Advantage McCutchen.

So, that leaves me McCutchen versus the catchers. I favor Lucroy as the best of the bunch. I think he’s the better defender than Posey, and he caught an extra 24 games (Lucroy started 133 games at catcher and 16 at first, Posey started 109 games at catcher and 30 at first). That makes up for Posey’s advantage offensively (though it is greater than OPS suggests, considering the difference in ballparks). Martin was terrific defensively and one of the very few players this year to post a .400 OBP, but missing 50 games makes him a bottom-of-the-ballot option at best.

For what it’s worth, Baseball-reference WAR has Lucroy at 6.6 wins, followed by McCutchen, Stanton and Rendon all at 6.5. That’s a wash. Fangraphs WAR has McCutchen at 6.9, Rendon at 6.6, Lucroy at 6.3 and Stanton at 6.1.

With all due respect to Rendon (it was a terrific season, but it’s still an .824 OPS from a guy who played third base the vast majority of the time), McCutchen and Lucroy are my favorite candidates; the best hitter versus an excellent hitter and excellent defensive catcher. Lucroy ended up eighth in the NL in OBP and 10th in OPS. He hit 53 doubles. He played in seven more games than McCutchen despite doing all of that catching. Only Miguel Montero, at 130 games, rivaled Lucroy in workload behind the plate. No one else started more than 110 games.

But then there’s Clayton Kershaw. Despite not pitching in April, he lapped the field in rWAR, coming in at 8.0. fWAR was closer, as he finished at 7.2 to 6.9 for McCutchen. Kershaw’s 1.77 ERA is historic. He won 21 of his 27 starts, with a 239/31 K/BB ratio and just nine homers allowed in 198 1/3 innings.

I still don’t like declaring a sub-200 inning starter as the MVP, but whether I like it or not, the numbers back it up. And it’s not as if luck factored into Kershaw’s performance; he was simply that dominant. I can’t bypass him.

1. Kershaw
2. McCutchen
3. Lucroy
4. Stanton
5. Posey
6. Rendon
7. Rizzo
8. Gomez
9. Harrison
10. Martin

NL Cy Young

After Kershaw, both Johnny Cueto and Adam Wainwright ended up with identical 20-9 records. Cueto edged Wainwright for second place in ERA, 2.25 to 2.38. Cueto also struck out 242 batters in 243 2/3 innings, compared to 179 in 227 innings for Wainwright. FIP will say Cueto was lucky to give up so few hits, but Cueto has always been that “lucky.” He’s No. 2 for me.

I’m not sure Jordan Zimmermann would have taken fourth on my ballot prior to Sunday’s no-hitter, but he might have. Afterwards, it was an easy call. That leaves the last spot for either Zack Greinke or Cole Hamels. Hamels beat Greinke in ERA 2.46 to 2.71. They threw the same number of innings. Greinke had an extra nine strikeouts and 16 fewer walks, but he gave up five more homers. Greinke also allowed an extra four unearned runs. Hamels gets the nod.

1. Kershaw
2. Cueto
3. Wainwright
4. Zimmermann
5. Hamels

NL Rookie of the Year

The American League got most of this year’s rookie talent, much like the NL’s big advantage with the Puig-Jose Fernandez class last year.

1. Jacob deGrom
2. Billy Hamilton
3. Ken Giles

This was Hamilton’s award to lose all year long, but he gave it away by hitting .200/.254/.257 after the All-Star break. DeGrom made just 22 starts, but he was terrific in them, posting a 2.69 ERA and striking out 144 in 140 1/3 innings.

The third spot goes to either Giles or Arizona’s Ender Inciarte, a superb defender who hit .278/.318/.359 in 418 at-bats while playing center and left. Giles, meanwhile, did a nice Dellin Betances impression once he got his chance, finishing with a 1.18 ERA and 64 strikeouts in 45 2/3 innings.

Mike Trout says Harper and Machado’s free agency experience sent up “red flags”

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Mike Trout signed a record-setting contract extension last week, agreeing to ten more years tacked on to his existing deal at $35.45 million a year. It’s certainly nothing to sneeze at and, I’m quite sure, Trout will not lose any sleep over financial matters for the rest of his days.

One wonders, though, what he might’ve commanded had he hit free agency. If he had been bid on by more than one team. Sure, there is some upward limit to how much even a guy of Trout’s caliber might get, but you have to assume that if a couple more teams were able to get in on that action that that $35.45 million a year could’ve been topped.

Did he give any thoughts to testing the market? Maybe not serious ones, but he certainly observed the market this past winter and didn’t much care for what he saw. He said this to Fabiran Ardaya of The Athletic last night:

“I kind of saw what Bryce and Manny went through and it drew a red flag for me. I talked to Manny and Bryce. It was a tough couple months in the offseason. They put it perspective in my mind.”

He added, “I obviously want to be an Angel for life. That was a big key,” so it’s not like this was purely some matter of Trout being scared off the market. But it’s also the case that the market has become fraught for even the best players in the game and has influenced their decision making to a considerable degree. Part of Mike Trout’s decision to sign that deal was how unwelcoming the free agent market looked like it’d be even for him.

And it’s not just Trout. To see how unpalatable free agency has become one need merely look at the bevy of contract extensions agreed to over the past week or two. Each one of those, however lucrative they may be, represent a player foregoing the open market in favor of negotiating with a single bidder with greater leverage as a result. While some of those choices, like Trout’s, do not cost the players much more than, perhaps, some rounding error on his ultimate contract, others, like pre-arbitration players, are likely foregoing tens of millions of dollars in order to make a deal now instead of a few years later. And, of course, each team that signs a player to an extension is less likely to be active in an upcoming free agency period, reducing the number of bidders and thus applying downward pressure on salaries for those players who do hit the open market.

For the first century or so of baseball history the Reserve Clause ruled baseball economics. Under that system, a team which possessed the rights to a player could not be deprived of that player’s services if it did not want to be. When it came time to decide what to pay a player only one team could bid, giving it all the leverage. Then free agency came. Owners fought like hell against its implementation. They lost that battle and then attempted to roll it back as much as they could, even employing illegal tactics at times in an effort to do so, but they didn’t have much luck.

In the past two or three years, however, they have done what decades of efforts could not do: they have effectively taken away a full and open free market for players and have returned the game to a state in which the team which holds a players’ rights is, effectively, the only bidder for his services and has the power to retain him on favorable terms.

It’s not the restoration of the old reserve clause, exactly, but when the best player in baseball since Willie Mays is wary of the open market, you have to admit that it’s far, far closer to it than anyone thought the owners would ever get.