“Doubt is an uncomfortable condition, but certainty is a ridiculous one.” — Voltaire.
I have doubt. I know I am not supposed to admit it — not in this age, when screaming the loudest with the most self-assurance is a currency.
I have doubts when it comes to voting for the major awards. Doing it for more than three decades has filled me with information and context, but also indecision and conflict.
I have doubts about Wins Above Replacement (WAR), even as I use it as a tool because of the attempt to better appreciate the whole player.
Let’s see, however, if I can use Joey Gallo as an example to explain my reluctance to be a voter who honors that stat above all others. Gallo was a 4.1 WAR (Baseball Reference) player as a Ranger this year and, had he never been traded, I am pretty sure he would have stayed on that 1 WAR-a-month pace and gotten to about 6 WAR. And there would have been plenty of folks arguing that it is not his fault he played with a losing team and deserved to be a top-10 AL MVP finisher, maybe even top-five.
But he was traded into a pennant race and has been worth 0.4 WAR in his nearly two months as a Yankee. It is harder to succeed when the games have greater meaning. Note the word “meaning.” I know that a win has the same worth in April or September. But they do not have the same meaning. No one is counting magic numbers in April. The whole team is not on the top step of the dugout living and dying with each pitch in May. Losing a game to a dreadful opponent like the Orioles is a gnat bite in June and a two-by-four across the skull in September.
That gives me greater belief that MVPs should get a boost if they thrive in a winning, pressurized atmosphere. And yet …
Shohei Ohtani, Angels
I have a lot of doubt. But not about this one. Ohtani isn’t just the MVP of the AL. He is the MVP of the whole sport. This is the MVP season of this century.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. has had a brilliant season. But I have seen seasons like this before. Heck, I am not even sure Guerrero is the MVP of the Blue Jays over Marcus Semien.
It is almost like we got too used to Ohtani both hitting and pitching that it has lost some of its “holy crap” element. But we have one human who pitched 130 ¹/₃ major league innings and also took more than 600 plate appearances. One person. If the results were No. 4 starter and seventh-place hitter, that would be amazing.
But this person had the third-most homers hit in the majors, the most triples and the seventh-most stolen bases while also striking out 29.3 percent of the batters he faced and carrying a 3.18 ERA.
All of it is stunning, yet I went hunting for something that would blow me away even more, and this is what I came up with: In 141 plate appearances with runners in scoring position, Ohtani had a 1.158 OPS, which is behind only Juan Soto and Fernando Tatis Jr. (minimum 100 plate appearances), who are — you know — two of the best players walking this planet.
In 106 plate appearances against him with runners in scoring position, Ohtani had allowed a .380 OPS. That was the best (minimum 100 plate appearances) in the game. And not by a little. Milwaukee’s Brandon Woodruff at .419 was second. The next best in the AL was the White Sox’s Carlos Rodon at .488.
The batting average against Ohtani with runners in scoring position was .122 — major league pitchers hit .110 as a group. But you can’t expect pitchers to be able to hit much.
Except one. Ohtani is a unicorn, so he certainly is the AL MVP.
The runners-up: 2. Guerrero. 3. Semien. 4. Carlos Correa, Astros. 5. Aaron Judge, Yankees.
Bryce Harper, Phillies
Soto is the best hitter in the game. No doubt. There is a Bonds-ian quality to what the Washington star does, in that he is incredibly selective, is treated like hitting plutonium and avoided constantly and yet on the few delectable pitches he sees, Soto is always ready to pounce.
But I can’t give him the MVP because, let me return to winning being important. Maybe this Nationals team was too flawed to ever contend, even in a mediocre NL East. But they weren’t going to contend without Soto being great. And in the first half, he was merely good (.851 OPS). That convinced the Nats to sell pretty much everything good around Soto. That he had so little protection and still put up a 1.196 OPS second half is a credit to him, but his 86 second-half walks reflect not only a premier hitting eye, but also that smart opponents recognized there was no one else in the lineup who could consistently produce damage.
Harper did an awful lot of second-half carrying of a flawed team (Philadelphia) that fell short in a way that Tatis failed to mimic to the same extent with his flawed Padres. It is a separator in my mind.
The runners-up: 2. Tatis. 3. Soto. 4. Brandon Crawford, Giants. 5. Paul Goldschmidt, Cardinals.
Jarred Kelenic, Mariners
He actually has rebounded from a nightmarish season to hit seven September homers with an .854 OPS and helped Seattle’s late postseason push. But he was overwhelmed (.178 overall batting average) for much of his age-21 season.
Which allows a moment of reflection. In February, it was revealed subsequently fired Mariners president Kevin Mather had told a group of Mariners fans that Kelenic had refused a long-term contract before ever playing in the majors and, thus, would not make the Opening Day roster. It was out loud what was understood — that there is a lot of service manipulation in the game. The union rightfully should fight ferociously to stop the practice — no one who deserves to play major league baseball should be deprived of that to restrict service time.
But not everyone who seems ready is actually ready, which is why proving the manipulation can be so difficult. Kelenic became a recent example.
Also, though Kelenic might still haunt the Mets moving forward, the organization probably should also be asking how they failed to maximize Chris Flexen and Paul Sewald, who have been arguably the Mariners’ best starter and reliever, respectively.
The runners-up: 2. Justin Upton, Angels. 3. Anthony Rendon, Angels. 4. Andrelton Simmons, Twins. 5. Gleyber Torres, Yankees.
Cody Bellinger, Dodgers
In the 2019 NL MVP vote, Cody Bellinger edged Milwaukee’s Christian Yelich, who had won the year before. Since then both have fallen precipitously. Bellinger began the final weekend of the regular season with 344 plate appearances and a 45 OPS-plus in 2021. In the wild-card era (since 1995), that’s the 12th-worst for anyone who has batted that often. The worst is actually Yelich’s teammate this year, Jackie Bradley Jr., at 34. But Bradley is not falling from as high a peak as Bellinger.
Bellinger’s Dodgers team was so good it overcame his plummet. The same was not true for the failure with the Mets and Phillies. So in this category, I want to cite the Mets’ underachievers (Michael Conforto, Francisco Lindor, James McCann, Jeff McNeil and Dom Smith) and the Phillies’ infield left side (Didi Gregorius/Alec Bohm) and center field collective (.687 OPS).
And I included Devin Williams fifth in this category. The Brewers reliever had another terrific year, but you get on this list by — in his account — having a few too many drinks after Milwaukee clinched the NL Central title, punching a wall, breaking your hand and harming your team’s chance to win a championship with your vital postseason absence.
2. The runners-up: Bradley. 3. Mets collective. 4. Phillies collective. 5. Williams.
AL CY YOUNG
Robbie Ray, Blue Jays
I wonder if Gerrit Cole is on the Mike Mussina arc — a cerebral righty who was close to Cy Youngs, championships and perfect games, but never got them even after taking the big money to be the Yankees’ ace. Mussina had nine top-six AL Cy finishes, including a second, without ever winning. Cole is looking at a fifth top-five finish and — if he is the runner-up — a second second-place finish.
There is not a lot of separation between Ray and Cole — Ray threw more innings and had a better ERA-plus by a not insignificant margin while having similar walk/strikeout percentages as Cole.
The runners-up: 2. Cole. 3. Nathan Eovaldi, Red Sox. 4. Carlos Rodon, White Sox. 5. Lance Lynn, White Sox.
NL CY YOUNG
Zack Wheeler, Phillies
Here is another place in which I would put up a sign: “beWARe.” Because you know who is fifth in the NL in pitching WAR (Fangraphs)? That would be Jacob deGrom, who pitched as many second-half 2021 innings as Jerry Koosman.
DeGrom’s high WAR is part of what I will call “Rate World,” where the percentage performance is the star. And in “Rate World,” Milwaukee’s Corbin Burnes is the NL Cy Young winner. Maybe the real world, too. This is one of those places I have doubt. Because Burnes’ performance over 165 innings is brilliant. As my friend, Jayson Stark of The Athletic, pointed out in his award picks: Burnes leads the league in strikeout, walk and homer rates, something never previously accomplished.
But I have a core belief that formed from 1989-95 covering a baseball team (the Yankees) daily as a beat guy: Managers value few things more than availability, durability and dependability. Part of the word “player” is “play,” and it is hard to translate even elite skills fully without attendance.
Managers annually fret about how they will cover 1,400-plus innings, never more so than in a season after they had to cover 500-plus and there was no minor league campaign to better prep organizational arm depth.
I already thought the bulk excellence of Justin Verlander should have won the 2018 AL Cy Young over the rate excellence of eventual winner Blake Snell when there was a 33 ¹/₃-inning differential. And that was when 162-game season followed another.
So I favor Wheeler here with 48 ¹/₃ extra innings following the pandemic-shortened campaign. That is the equivalent of eight extra six-inning starts. And you know who didn’t have the luxury of throwing six innings because he lacked the kind of terrific bullpen and big division lead — not to mention top defense — that Burnes had? That would be Wheeler, who went beyond six innings 20 times this year — three more than anyone else in the majors. Burnes did it eight times.
And this is not just an attendance award, though Wheeler’s 213 ¹/₃ innings led the majors. He had a 2.78 ERA, struck out 29.1 percent of those he faced while walking just 5.4 percent and held hitters to a. 586 OPS.
The runners-up: 2. Burnes. 3. Walker Buehler, Dodgers. 4. Max Scherzer, Nationals/Dodgers. 5. Brandon Woodruff, Brewers.
Brad Hand, Nationals/Blue Jays/Mets
Normally, I have both an AL and NL Anti-Cy Young. But I knew I would be going a different way when my colleague and pal, Mike Vaccaro, tweeted this on Sept. 21: “Brand Hand has done some serious sabotage to three different teams this year. That’s hard to do. #Mets #BlueJays #Nationals”
Hand had blown saves for three different teams in two different countries and — most important to this — two different leagues. It made me delve into the pitchers who worked for more than one employer this year, and did you know 111 guys pitched for at least two teams. Some did it with distinction, such as Scherzer and Jose Berrios and, heck, even Luis Cessa.
But for this year, I wanted to limit the category to those who hurt (at least) two teams regardless of league.
The runners-up: 2. Jake Arrieta, Cubs/Padres. 3. Andrew Heaney, Angels/Yankees. 4. Vince Velasquez, Phillies/Padres. 5. Jesus Luzardo, A’s/Marlins.
AL ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
Randy Arozarena, Rays
Talk about doubt. This is a category in which good cases could be made for at least a half-dozen candidates. I think Boston’s Garrett Whitlock was the most valuable rookie in the AL — his presence so key to the Red Sox’s surprising success — and yet he did not even make my top five. Neither did other deserving candidates such as Detroit’s Casey Mize and Toronto’s Alek Manoah.
Arozarena followed a starry 2020 postseason by retaining his rookie status and dismissing any notion he was a fluke. And if Rays shortstop Wander Franco had played the full season, he probably wins this award easily. And Tampa Bay received 42 percent of its starts from rookies this year. The team that won the AL title last year with a rotation headed by Snell, Tyler Glasnow and Charlie Morton rebuilt on the fly this year, and you can expect to see rookies Shane Baz, Shane McClanahan, Luis Patino and Drew Rasmussen in October either as starters or throwing bulk innings.
The runners-up: 2. Luis Garcia, Astros. 3. Adolis Garcia, Rangers. 4. Ryan Mountcastle, Orioles. 5. Emmanuel Clase, Indians.
NL ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
Jonathan India, Reds
Played all year. Hit. Hit for power. Got hit (a NL-high 22 times). Got on base. Ran the bases well. Defended admirably at second. Played with an edge. In a league in which the rookie product was not quite as deep and strong as the AL, India stood out.
The runners-up: 2. Trevor Rogers, Marlins. 3. Ian Anderson, Braves. 4. Dylan Carlson, Cardinals. 5. Patrick Wisdom, Cubs.
AL MANAGER OF THE YEAR
Dusty Baker, Astros
Want to play the game of doubt some more? Excellence cases can be made for Tampa Bay’s Kevin Cash, Boston’s Alex Cora, Detroit’s A.J. Hinch, Toronto’s Charlie Montoyo and Seattle’s Scott Servais. The Blue Jays having to play in three different homes — Dunedin, Fla.; Buffalo; and Toronto — made me dwell on Montoyo, in particular. But, with fans returning to games in 2021, Baker helped navigate the Astros through another key post-sign-stealing scandal moment. The Astros were without ace Verlander all year and got half a season from Alex Bregman.
I wonder if Baker is the Billy Beane of managing — great regular-season work clouded by postseason failures. Division titles follow him.
The runners-up: 2. Montoyo. 3. Servais. 4. Cora. 5. Cash.
NL MANAGER OF THE YEAR
Gabe Kapler, Giants
I think Milwaukee’s Craig Counsell is the NL’s best manager, and if you picked him, got it. The styles of his teams change, but not the success rate.
But Kapler left Philadelphia with his reputation in shambles. His hiring in San Francisco was not received well and cast questions on the front office. In 2021, the Phillies endured their 10th straight playoff-less season while Kapler led the Giants to their first postseason since 2016 by helping to maximize just about every piece of the roster. Ten of the 12 most often used hitters had a better than league average OPS. The top 15 pitchers used all had a better than league average ERA. And the Giants won their most games since moving to San Francisco.
The runners-up: 2. Counsell. 3. Mike Shildt, Cardinals. 4. Brian Snitker, Braves. 5. Dave Roberts, Dodgers.
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