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November 13, 2014

Skewed Left

Fixing Awards Season

by Zachary Levine

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It’s probably more this year than most years, but every time an award comes out this awards season, we’re realizing more and more that we’ve entered disclaimer season.

Don’t misinterpret this; it’s preferred that the votes were done before the playoffs. As I said on Twitter this week, if voters voted after the playoffs, I would have just about zero trust that we’d do anything other than basically vote on who won the playoffs. The Manager of the Year would almost always be just whose team won the pennant unless that team was a really heavy favorite. Madison Bumgarner probably would have won Cy Young, which would have been great, but then why have the award? Ned Yost would have steadied his wobbly chair with a Manager of the Year plaque under the wheel.

But that’s three major newspaper writers and one major magazine writer forced to tell you that this was a professional driver on a closed course or that past performance doesn’t guarantee that this mutual fund will beat its 10-year Lipper Average.

Maybe there’s no fix to the non-celebratory feel we get after an award whose recipient was bounced from the playoffs—in Matt Williams’ and Clayton Kershaw’s case with some degree of small-sample shame attached to it and in winner and runner-up Buck Showalter’s and Mike Scioscia’s case, at the hands of their bronze medalist who swept both of them. Maybe it’s not a problem at all. After all, we aren’t that good at celebrating. We’re really good at complaining. Not that good at celebrating.

But after I sent that tweet, I got a reply that made me wonder if there weren’t a way to avoid the awkwardness and still vote on a 162-game award.

Right after the season could be an issue. Even though the votes are due on the day that the season ends—whether that’s the final Sunday or the day of a necessary makeup or 163rd regular season game—the BBWAA (of which I am a proud member) still puts a lot of work into preparing the trophies, conference calls, and now the televised presentations.

But baseball isn’t the only sport that puts such care into its awards season, and the mention the other night made me want to look at how other sports handle their revelations. The idea of baseball moving up the ceremony isn’t new. There is a feeling of just trying to extend the news cycle, which is the usual intent for calls to move it up. In looking at whether Major League Baseball’s assigned voting group could learn anything from its peers and asking some two-sport experts, it was centered more around when regular awards make the most sense to reveal from a relevance standpoint.

What can Major League Baseball take from…

The NBA method?

This daily tricking out of the awards during the postseason is also the NFL method, but Major League Baseball shares much more with the NBA given the daily happening of postseason games, whereas the NFL has natural five-day breaks in the news cycle every week to put its off-the-field news.

Andrew Koo, Baseball Prospectus’ resident NBA expert, finds that weaving the awards season into the playoff schedule makes some sense.

I've never felt the awards overshadowing anything in the NBA. It sort of keeps the news cycle going, I find—announcement in the day, games at night. It works out. Major award winners tend to be obvious, so no one gets up in arms about them from playoff play.

Baseball has a few more day games in its early rounds than basketball does, but given that this would probably take until the later rounds for the awards to be ready, it wouldn’t be much of an issue. Basketball has a much better failsafe against a Kershaw situation, though.

“The elite tend to show up during the playoffs anyway,” Koo wrote, “Slumps are simply less likely in the NBA, compared to MLB.”

Sure it would look bad if a player collects his MVP one day and then whiffs three times or gives up eight runs that night. But you’d have much less of a chance of your lasting memory of the player or manager being a failure in giving them during the playoffs.

…The NHL method?

Given the timing restraints of the BBWAA and the desire to extend the news cycle, the NHL awards format is an interesting one to consider as something from which baseball could learn. The league, which wraps up its Finals in mid-June, has an awards gala a couple weeks later in Las Vegas. They do viewings of the Stanley Cup in a few of the hotel lobbies, and the whole league gathers one night to bang out all of their awards, usually with a very lame musical guest.

I asked the afore-quoted Jesse Spector, national baseball writer and former national hockey writer for the Sporting News, about the issue baseball and hockey face and also how the gala is received.

Hockey faces the exact same problem with its awards being voted on at the conclusion of the regular season and presented after the playoffs, if you want to call it a problem, which I don't. I don't like it in the other leagues, where you see the MVP named during the playoffs, and wind up with narrative—true or not—about added pressure/something to prove/etc. More importantly, the award is overshadowed by the games still going on, and presenting in the early days of the offseason provides a chance to extend the conversation about the actual season before delving fully into hot stove.

I love the awards gala idea, even if the show is generally unwatchable. The finalists get to have a night to celebrate their achievements, and that's cooler than a week of conference calls or whatever. Baseball does have the New York BBWAA dinner, but it's in January and doesn't get nearly the same exposure because, obviously, everyone knows the winners. Adam Wainwright and Johnny Cueto won't win the Cy Young, but they at least deserve a free trip to Vegas or someplace to put on a tux and recognize that they were awesome this year.

Someplace doesn’t have to be Vegas, although someplace should always be Vegas. And sometime doesn’t always have to be two weeks after the postseason ends. Hockey’s college version does their award show on the eve of the national final, and baseball already has these days built in as media days. Whether it’s at the home team site before Game One of the World Series or on the travel day before Game Three, this might also be the way to meet Scott Boras in the middle with creating a national event without having to play neutral-site games. This awards interlude is in fact part of his proposal.

Neither is a perfect system, but they both have things to consider if baseball’s powers that be are ever thinking of shaking it up. Plus, next year, Yasiel Puig in a tuxedo.

Zachary Levine is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Zachary's other articles. You can contact Zachary by clicking here

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