Wednesday, November 25, 2009

MLB Awards in Brief

The baseball fan in me can't help but remark on a stunning turn of events in this year's MLB awards. If you follow baseball, you are aware that the two biggest awards given to individual players at the end of a season are the MVP and Cy Young awards. Traditionally the MVP is given to a position player - though there have been a few exceptional cases where a pitcher wins the award - while the Cy Young is by definition granted to the best pitcher.

If you follow baseball, you are probably also aware that there is endless wrangling over what the "valuable" in Most Valuable Player means. Because of that term, many voters - pooled from the Baseball Writers Association of America - refuse to vote for a player from a losing team. Likewise, many voters will only vote for players who collect a lot of meaningless, contextual counting statistics like Runs Batted In, which is a poor measure of a player's value, at best.

Historically, however, the player with the most RBI on a playoff team is a virtual lock to win the MVP. This season, Mark Teixeira of the World Champion Yankees led the American League in RBI, but the near unanimous choice for MVP was Minnesota's Joe Mauer. While this is not the stunning turn of events I mentioned at the outset, this remains notable, primarily because Mauer is a catcher who "only" hit 28 Home Runs and "only" had 96 RBI.

Of course, the more important statistics - as baseball fans, analysts, front office, and finally, it seems, writers have come to realize - are on-base percentage and slugging percentage. Mauer led the league in both of those statistics (and also led the league in batting average for what some people are calling the "modern triple crown"), and played catcher on top of that. While that may seem unimportant - everyone on the field has to hit - it is actually astounding that Mauer has been as successful as he has at this point in his career as a catcher. Simply put, catchers are almost never good hitters, and yet Mauer is one of the best in all of baseball.

The actual shockers, however, in this year's awards come in the Cy Young department. Mauer and Pujols (the NL MVP) were virtual shoo-ins by season's end, especially since both the Twins and Cardinals made the playoffs. Much more surprising was the victory of Zack Greinke and Tim Lincecum in the Cy Young balloting.

Greinke had a phenomenal season, and if you read Joe Posnanski (just look at my links to find him), you've probably heard all about it. Greinke, however, pitches for the Kansas City Royals, who were laughably bad this season, and who left Greinke with only 16 wins. The Cy Young Award may go, in theory, to the best pitcher in the league, but most voters believe that good pitchers collect wins regardless of their team's ability. That is, of course, a fallacy, but it is a pervasive viewpoint.

Or it has been. In a year where Felix Hernandez of the Mariners was almost as good a Greinke, and won 19 games, Greinke's 16 was enough for the Cy Young. That is a radical reversal of the history of Cy Young voting, reflected even in Bill James's Cy Young predictor. The Cy Young predictor, as you might guess, predicts who will win the Cy Young based upon historical voting patterns, and this year it had Hernandez solidly over Greinke, mainly because of the difference in wins between them. Greinke, however, won the award, because apparently voters have started to realize that assigning pitchers wins and losses is a silly exercise.

More evidence for this change in approach is apparent in the NL Cy Young voting, where Tim Lincecum won the award with only 15 wins. As in the AL, there was a 19-game-winner in Adam Wainwright of the Cardinals, and another 17-game-winner - Chris Carpenter - from the same team. Many thought Carpenter and Wainwright would finish first and second, but in a very close race, Lincecum beat out Carpenter for the award. I won't argue why that was the correct choice, but I believe it was. More importantly, however, it reflects the slow-but-steady transformation of the BBWAA into a more reasonable and logical organization. There's little doubt, of course, that if Wainwright had won one more game he would have run away with the award, and so there hasn't been a total paradigm shift, but the days of the total dominance of the "win" as a measure of pitcher effectiveness are coming to an end.

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