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August 24, 2009

Prospectus Today

AL Awards Quandary

by Joe Sheehan

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You've probably read in any number of places about the split in opinion over who should be the frontrunner for the American League MVP Award. I've stayed out of it, and I've done so for exceptionally arrogant reasons. The idea that anyone other than Joe Mauer is the most valuable player in the league is a joke. Mauer leads the league in OBP and SLG, and also leads in VORP and EQR despite missing nearly a month, and he does all these things while being one of the best defensive catchers in the game. It's not that Mauer is the best player in the league; it's that he's so far and away the best player in the league, dominating the field in a way we haven't seen since the early-2000s versions of Barry Bonds. The arguments for anyone else, from legitimate runner-ups like Ben Zobrist and Derek Jeter to the quixotic attempt to call Mark Teixeira the most deserving, are all laughable. Joe Mauer is the AL MVP, and I fully expect the voters to get there by October 6.

The more interesting race to me is for AL Cy Young, where we could see history made. No American League starting pitcher has ever won the Cy Young Award in a full season with less than 18 victories. Pedro Martinez, Roger Clemens, and Pete Vuckovich all took down the honor in years when they were credited with 18 wins, which is the low mark.

With five weeks and about seven starts left, none of the top contenders for the award in the AL have more than 13 wins. Just two pitchers have more than that number at all, Josh Beckett, who isn't a candidate, and CC Sabathia, who rates as about the sixth- or seventh-best starter in the league by the value metrics. If there's going to be an off-the-board choice this year, it will probably be Sabathia, who has a good chance to lead the league in wins and innings pitched and could end up as the only pitcher to reach 20 wins, which is always a good way to steal a Cy Young Award.

By the metrics, it's clear who the best pitchers in the league have been, and just as clear who the most deserving candidate for the hardware is:


Pitcher             ERA     VORP      SNLVAR
Zack Greinke       2.44     60.2         6.7
Roy Halladay       2.78     54.7         5.0
Felix Hernandez    2.73     51.4         6.1
Edwin Jackson      2.86     49.9         5.9

The line starts at Greinke, who also leads the group in strikeouts and strikeout rate. However, by dint of playing for an awful Royals team, he has just 11 wins. Hernandez has 12, Jackson 10, and Halladay is the leader of the pack at 13. Only Jackson seems likely to get above-average support from his teammates the rest of the way, and he's both last among the group on merit and coming from the furthest back in the W column.

While not as dominant as Joe Mauer as a position player, Greinke has been the best pitcher in the league, and is the most deserving candidate for the Cy Young Award. The gap between him and Halladay and Hernandez is small enough that it could be closed in the next seven starts, but given how unlikely it is that any of these pitchers will rack up a lot of wins-Greinke is 1-5 in his last nine starts, six of which have been quality starts and some of which have been excellent-the AL Cy Young voters are going to be tested. They've failed this test, and very recently. Go back to 2005, when Johan Santana was far and away the best pitcher in the league; that year, the voting pool couldn't tear itself away from wins and voted Bartolo Colon and his 21-8 record as the best hurler in the league.

It's not the AL MVP Award that's in danger of going to an undeserving player who happens to have great teammates bolstering his context stats. No, I think it's the AL Cy Young, where the best candidates for the award all have low wins totals and there's a good-not-great starter who has been supported by his lineup and bullpen all season long. If the voters overlook the actual greatness of Greinke, Halladay, and Hernandez and support the single-number candidacy of Sabathia, it will be a significant error in judgment. The voters eventually have to recognize that wins are an outdated, now useless, way of evaluating pitching performance, and 2009 is a very good time to do so.

---

I'm putting a streak on the line today, and I have very little chance of seeing it hold up. Home teams are 11-0 this year when I'm at the park, and 15-0 dating back to Game Two of the 2008 World Series. That seems likely to end today when I head to Shea… just kidding... CitiField to watch Cliff Lee, who has bitch-slapped the National League, take on the desiccated remnants of the 2009 Mets. Even if the Phillies play a getaway-day lineup behind Lee, that will be a better collection of talent than what the Mets run out there, with a Triple-A roster of still-standing position players. Baseball is not football-no one is ever better than maybe a 2-1 favorite to win a game-so we'll get on the 7 train and see what happens. It's day baseball-there's no outcome that won't make for a fun afternoon. If the Mets can somehow steal today's game, I can extend the streak to 17 Wednesday night at Wrigley Field, where the Cubs will be taking on the Nationals behind Rich Harden.

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

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