– Bill Annechino
By the time you read this column, the MLB will have handed out its Rookie of the Year and Cy Young Awards, with the Most Valuable Player to follow. As is always the case with awards, some people will think the committee nailed it, while others will take issue with some, or all, of the selections. My goal here is to take an unbiased look at the candidates and winners, and try to figure out where the selection committee was right, and where they fell short. All statistics for this column come courtesy of Fangraphs, unless otherwise noted.
National League Rookie of the Year
The Winner: Corey Seager
My Pick: Corey Seager
There isn’t much criticism I can levy about a unanimous pick for Rookie of the Year when the kid is also up for the NL MVP Award. It bears mentioning that Trea Turner, the runner-up, had 3.3 WAR while Seager had 7.5. Let’s just move on, shall we?
American League Rookie of the Year
The Winner: Michael Fulmer
My Pick: Gary Sanchez
There’s a great case to be made for Gary Sanchez, who lead all rookies (NL and AL) in wRC+ and wOBA by significant margins. In fact, I’m making that case here. Sanchez actually edged Fulmer with 3.2 WAR compared to Fulmer’s 3.0. The fact that Sanchez only played in 53 games is probably what I would point to if you asked me what swung the voters’ opinions, but I would counter by saying that it doesn’t really matter how many games a player appeared in if he was a better player. It is true that Fulmer faced almost 650 batters and Sanchez only had 229 plate appearances. The advanced stats actually say that Fulmer was somewhat worse than his ERA would indicate, having posted a 3.06 ERA, but a 3.95 xFIP. This debate comes down to whether you value extreme production and quality over a shorter period of time, or somewhat above average production over an extended period of time. I personally trend towards the highest quality available, but the BBWAA picked Fulmer and his much-larger workload. For what it’s worth, I have Fulmer as my runner-up, so I do not have a major problem with this pick.
National League Cy Young
The Winner: Max Scherzer
My Pick: Jose Fernandez
This is my first major disagreement of the awards cycle. The three finalists for this award were Scherzer, Kyle Hendricks and Jon Lester. Scherzer finished third in WAR, Hendricks finished 13th and Lester was 14th among NL pitchers. Note that these numbers all use the Fangraphs WAR stat, which is greatly different from the Baseball-Reference version that I suspect the voters used. On that list, Scherzer was first in the NL. Jose Fernandez finished second in the fWAR rankings, behind Noah Syndergaard, but put up some video game statistics. Fernandez led all of baseball with a 2.56 xFIP. For comparison, Syndergaard was second with 2.67, Michael Pineda was third at 3.30 (shout out to that terrible Yankees’ defense), and Scherzer was fourth, with 3.37. Look at the gap in quality between the second and third guys on that list. Fernandez also struck out 12.49 batters per 9 innings, whereas Scherzer stood at 11.19. It should be noted that Fernandez led baseball in that category by more than full strikeout over the second-place finisher (Robbie Ray of the Diamondbacks, if you must know). The only categories that Scherzer led Fernandez in were raw strikeouts, which is to be expected when Scherzer pitched 46 more innings than Fernandez, and wins. The last people to understand that wins are a team statistic and not indicative of a pitcher’s success seem to be the BBWAA, because we’re going to revisit this idea in the AL Cy Young discussion. Sabermetrics has come up with so many more descriptive and accurate ways to gauge a pitcher’s success, and here we are handing awards to a clearly inferior pitcher because he played for a better team. There’s also the point to be made that Fernandez died during the season, so a posthumous award would have been a feel-good moment, but Jose Fernandez’s 2016 season didn’t need any external qualifiers like his untimely death to be worthy of the Cy Young Award. If you were wondering, I had Syndergaard as the runner-up, and Scherzer as the third-place finisher, although you could have talked me into Johnny Cueto for that third-place vote.
American League Cy Young
The Winner: Rick Porcello
My Pick: Zach Britton
So at this point, you’ve probably read Kate Upton’s tweet in which she contended that the BBWAA came into her territory when they “fucked” her fiancée, Justin Verlander, in the Cy Young voting. In less-eloquent terms than Kate Upton used, I do believe that a more-deserving pitcher was passed over, but I do not believe that it was Verlander. The field for the American League’s Cy Young voting was an uninspired one this year, but I believe that Britton was the best pitcher in his league. Win Probability is an area of statistics that a lot of people are probably not familiar with, but the Win Probability Added (WPA) stat attempts to answer the question of how much a player’s actions contributed to their team’s chances of winning a baseball game (or games). In both leagues, four players scored about a 3.00 in this statistic, and two scored above a 4.00. If I explained that this was a category that does favor relievers, due to their propensity for being called into high-leverage situations, I’m sure most of you would (accurately) guess that Andrew Miller was one of those two pitchers who was about 4 in WPA, with a 4.79. 4.79 is a fantastic season, as noted by the fact that the next man on this list finished with 3.57. I’m just going to bludgeon you with this statistic by telling you, bluntly, that Zach Britton finished with 6.14. Britton also notched a 0.54 ERA over 67 innings pitched. Miller was second in the league with a 1.45 ERA. If traditional stats are more your thing, Britton was a perfect 47 out of 47 save opportunities. Look, I said before that this wasn’t a great year for picking a Cy Young winner in the AL, but Zach Britton had one of the all-time great years for a reliever and I believe that should set him apart from a bunch of pitchers who had good, but not great, seasons. I would have stuck Porcello second, and Verlander third. How cool is it to see Verlander overcome the issues that plagued him the last few seasons to reinvent himself as, once again, one of the most effective pitchers in baseball, albeit with a much different approach than before.
National League Most Valuable Player
Who I’m Assuming Will Win: Kris Bryant
Who I Would Pick: Kris Bryant
Let’s see here… Kris Bryant was the best player in the National League this year. His team also won the World Series for the first time in 108 years (did you hear about this?). He’s also a young star whose skill and looks will probably make him the face of the game. He also plays multiple positions. I don’t think this is a tough choice, and I’m guessing that Bryant will win unanimously, or close to it. The other finalists are Daniel Murphy and Corey Seager. Murphy had a fantastic season, but the majority of his claim is that he hit for a .347 average, which is nothing to be easily dismissed. However, he was only sixth in WAR (again, this is according to Fangraphs) and the two guys ahead of him on this list were 1-2 in that category. Seager is a fantastic player who plays above-average defense at a premium position. His 7.5 WAR reflect all of these things. In a lot of seasons, he would win this award. But put all the external factors together, and then realize that Bryant truly was the best player in his league, and I think you will agree with me when I say that he will run away with this award. I have Seager as my runner-up, and Freddie Freeman and his 6.1 WAR in third. Sorry, but I’m not sorry.
American League Most Valuable Player
Who I’m Assuming Will Win: Mike Trout
Who I Would Pick: Mike Trout
Believe me when I say that this is the hardest of the awards to forecast. The advanced statistics absolutely love the season Trout had. He racked up 9.4 WAR, which is absolutely insane, and 1.6 WAR above the next closest player (Mookie Betts). Despite having led the majors in four of his first five seasons, Trout has only one MVP to show for it (from 2014). Trout’s first two seasons were both 10+ WAR seasons, which is unbelievable. He even racked up 10.3 WAR in 2012, even though he only played in 139 games. By his third season, there was enough of a “Mike Trout is getting screwed” sentiment that the BBWAA handed him the MVP, despite having his worst season as a pro. For further proof that Mike Trout is not a human, please note that his worst season as a pro was a 7.9 WAR season. I can’t figure out if there is a legitimate under-appreciation for Trout’s talents, or if the BBWAA just gets carried away with narratives and punishes Trout for playing on a bad team. To that end, there’s a certain contingent that argues that the MVP shouldn’t come from a team that doesn’t make the playoffs. That might carry some weight in the NBA or NFL, where a single player can influence a game to a far greater extent, but baseball is a different animal. If enough voters feel this way, Mookie Betts is going to win MVP, because the other finalist is Jose Altuve and the Astros also missed the playoffs. This year even feels like a “lost” season for Trout because the Angels were so bad for most of the season (mostly due to having terrible pitching), that his feats weren’t exactly on the national radar. There’s also the narrative that Trout lost some power, but I don’t think that’s the case. When Trout came into the league, he was a 30/50 guy (OK, he only stole 49 bases his rookie season, but just acknowledge that if he had played in the 20 games that he missed, he would have stolen at least one more base). From there, he had a 27/33 sophomore season, before sacrificing some average for power. He ratcheted up his home run total to 36 in 2014 (still with a .287 average because, again, he isn’t human) and peaked with 41 in 2015 (this time with a .299 average). The steals faded, though, as Trout notched 16 in 2014 and 11 in 2015. This season, he hit .315 with 29 home runs and 30 steals, essentially a 30/30 season to me. The mere fact that a player can be selective in terms of which elite skill he wants to focus on is amazing in and of itself, but I think that this 30/30 version of Trout is the player that he most wants to be going forward. He focused more on making contact, posting the second-lowest K-rate of his career (20.1%) and had his best baserunning season since his rookie year (posting a 9.3 BsR). If you feel that a player should be held to the successes of their team, then Mookie is your pick, and he is a fine player. If you truly want to recognize the Most Valuable Player, then you’re going to go with Trout, as I am. I just can’t figure out if the voters are going to hold the Angels’ failures against Trout. Tomorrow, we get a definitive answer on that ages-old debate. If Trout wins, it will be another major victory for the advanced-statistics community, in that the voting body looked past a player’s poor team performance to realize the degree to which he was better than anyone else in the league. If Betts wins, we will know that the BBWAA voters still feel that “most valuable” means “played for a team that made the playoffs”. If Jose Altuve wins, I’m not sure what the hell happened.
– Bill Annechino (Twitter)