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November 16, 2009
In the excitement of the Twins/Tigers finish to the season and the quick run-up to the playoffs, I never published my Internet Baseball Awards ballots. Despite the late date-the BBWAA awards will be announced between now and Thanksgiving-these ballots do reflect only regular-season performance.
Most Valuable Player
In ranking players for MVP, I use Runs Above Replacement Player, Value Over Replacement Player, pitcher rates, and the defensive statistics Plus/Minus (from Bill James Online) and Ultimate Zone Rating (from FanGraphs). In very close cases, I will consider the relevance of a player's season to a pennant race; this was not a factor in the 2009 balloting.
Mauer didn't have the fantastic defensive season he did a couple of years ago, but he didn't need to to be the league's most valuable player. He was the best hitter in the circuit, leading in OBP, SLG, EqA, and RARP, and missing the EqR crown by just a few runs, all while playing 138 games and catching 109 of them. He was so much better than Jeter that he swamped the playing-time argument, leading the AL in VORP by nearly 20 runs. Only Greinke came close to Mauer's value, and he fell short by a few runs.
The better question is how the Rays could have two of the top five, and three of the top nine-most of their infield!-and four of the top dozen players in the year, and nevertheless be so disappointing in the final standings. I didn't believe Ben Zobrist's numbers would hold up, but they did: third in VORP, second in RARP, and he was one of the best defensive second basemen in the league when he played there. I slid him below Jeter because the metrics are probably overcrediting him as a "second baseman" when he made just 81 starts there. Longoria moves up on defense, just as he did a year ago. Gutierrez jumps onto the ballot thanks to his glove as well; he was the best defensive player in baseball, coaches and managers be damned. You can throw everyone else into a hat; Bartlett was fifth in RARP, to my surprise.
I tried to conjure up a rationalization for Utley, and had he had the ridiculously good defensive season of 2007, perhaps he could have caught Pujols. In 2009, he slots in below both the best player in baseball and a possible heir to the throne. Ramirez is developing in a fairly normal fashion, with more power and less speed, and he's improved his defense enough at shortstop for him to stay there for a while. I believe these three players have been the top three in the league for three years running, which seems like a level of consistency in that category we don't usually see.
The three starting pitchers belong in those spots, and could go in most any order. Zimmerman and Tulowitzki slide up onto my ballot on the basis of defense, which is the same reason why Braun doesn't make the top ten; he was terrible this year. Kemp's metrics were surprisingly unimpressive given how much we talked about him this season, and his defense didn't make up for that. Really, after Utley, you can throw a lot of players into a pile.
Cy Young Award
Greinke was just that much better than the next two guys, and the fact that he did it with absolutely disgusting defensive support is the biggest tertiary factor here. Halladay slides ahead of Hernandez by virtue of the competition he faced and the defense behind the two pitchers; they're essentially tied by the metrics, and Halladay deserves a bump for an AL East schedule and not having Franklin Gutierrez et al behind him. Verlander is a clear fourth-best choice, and Lester over Sabathia is a pure strikeouts play.
Sometimes there are lots of right answers, and this is one of those times. The top three pitchers in the league are basically tied in value, and you can find reasons to order them in just about any way. I went with Lincecum's strikeouts and then Wainwright's innings, and I'm not going to argue with anyone who concludes differently. With all due respect to the other names mentioned above, however, a ballot that includes anyone but those three guys in the top three is in error.
Rookie of the Year Award
The Rookie of the Year awards are based on performance, not potential, even on the margins.
One BP staffer, Christina Kahrl, had a BBWAA ballot for this award this season, and when she called me to talk about it, I pushed pretty hard for Beckham. In retrospect, I feel that was a mistake. Bailey and the starters, as well as unnamed guys like Bergesen and Romero, had more VORP, by 10 runs, than the position players did. Beckham was worth about two wins with the bat and much less with the glove. Andrus' glove pushes him atop a crowded list, Bailey was the one pitcher who had a truly great season, and Porcello is basically a stand-in for a field of fourth starters. No one stands out strongly from this crowd, and as many as nine or 10 players might get BBWAA love.
Happ was far and away the best rookie in the league by value, with the next four guys being close. Had McCutchen shown good defensive numbers, he could have edged out one of the starting pitchers instead of winding up fourth on my virtual ballot. Coghlan's poor start and fish-out-of-water defense hurt him. Perhaps the real surprise is that Wells was just as valuable as Hanson. Voting for Happ and Wells ahead of McCutchen and Coghlan is illustrative of the main point above, however, that Rookie of the Year voting has nothing to do with future upside potential.
Manager of the Year
The criteria for this award are murky at best. For my part, I like to see some evidence that the manager had some effect on the team's play, and wasn't actively hurting the club.
Scioscia managed around roster turnover, injuries, and aging, not to mention the death of his fourth starter. This was a different Angels team, by personnel, but Scioscia handled it deftly. There's an argument for giving him this award every year, but in 2009 he was clearly the most deserving guy. Washington was nearly fired in 2008, but he gets credit this time around for what may simply be a player-development bump. Girardi is something of a default third choice; he sifted through a lot of relievers to get to the good ones, and his team won 103 games. It's him or Ron Gardenhire, whose contributions to the Twins seem largely mythical. Don Wakamatsu may deserve some credit, although Seattle too looks more like a front-office success. There are a number of good managers in the AL, but few had good years.
The Braves had an astonishingly weak collection of position players, yet they won 86 games and were probably one of the five best teams in baseball on the day the season ended. Cox played the hand he was dealt. Given the success of Jurrjens, Vazquez, the relievers, it's worth asking if all of the credit we long gave Leo Mazzone shouldn't be at least in part shared by Cox. Cox squeezed a lot of value from his position players, and while some people felt he overworked his top three relievers, he did get an awful lot of value from them. Similarly, La Russa leveraged the best player in baseball and four other contributors to a division title, with a comparable question of how to divide credit between the manager and pitching coach. Tracy presided over four months of great baseball and made some lineup decisions that helped it along. He gets docked here for the partial season and for regular-season-not postseason-tactical missteps. Like the Yankees under Girardi, the Rockies sometimes won games in spite of their skipper.
I'm comfortable with both of my selections atop each league's ballot. After that, I'm flailing a bit.
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