I know you're kind of busy right now. Trying to figure out whether to binge-watch "Mad Men" or "Game of Thrones" this weekend. Stressing over whether to start Fozzy Whittaker or Javorius Allen as your emergency flex play Sunday. Wondering if Matt Damon would really make it as a Martian. But ...
This just in: Another stupendous baseball season is at the finish line. So we interrupt your other important plans to announce the time has arrived again for our annual end-of-the-season awards. Which, as usual, will not be handed out by Rob Riggle, Rob Dibble, Rob Lowe, Derek Lowe, J-Lo, Jay Leno, Jay-Z, Jay Bruce, Bruce Springsteen or any members of the one and only E Street Band. So I guess I'll just have to give them out myself. The envelopes, please!
NL MVP: Bryce Harper, Washington Nationals
Joey Votto apparently had some advice for Bryce Harper after Harper was hit by a pitch: http://t.co/JO3Nvmqqy0— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) May 30, 2015
But this MVP debate isn't about whether Harper rubs some people the wrong way. Here's what it's about: What would the Nationals' record have been without him? Well, only the Amazing Kreskin could answer that one for sure. But if wins above replacement is any measure, it tells us Harper is the only player in the major leagues who was worth approximately 10 wins all by himself this season. And, oh by the way, he's 22 years old! Which is incredible, since exactly two other players in the live-ball era had a 10-win season at this age or younger, according to baseball-reference.com's fabulous Play Index: Ted Williams and Mike Trout. But let's keep going. If Harper leads the league in hitting, on-base and slugging, he'd join just Williams and Ty Cobb as the only three players aged 22 or younger ever to win what Joe Posnanski has dubbed the "Modern Triple Crown."
If Harper maintains his .646 slugging percentage and 1.107 OPS, it would be the highest in NL history by a player this young. And his 15 intentional walks? Already the most ever for a 22-year-old. But let's put age aside. Let's forget the likely MVP in this league is nine months younger than the likely rookie of the year (Kris Bryant). Instead, let's remind ourselves that Harper has had one of the great seasons of all time. Here's your complete list of hitters who have matched or beaten his slash line, homer total (41), 117 runs scored and 124 walks in any season, at any age: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Ted Williams, Barry Bonds and Norm Cash. Even with all that greatness, the Nationals were one of the most disappointing teams of this millennium. But without it? They'd have been lucky to win 75 games.
Players I considered*: Paul Goldschmidt, Anthony Rizzo, Joey Votto, Andrew McCutchen, Buster Posey, Nolan Arenado, Yoenis Cespedes, A.J. Pollock, Kris Bryant, Matt Carpenter, Jake Arrieta, Zack Greinke, Clayton Kershaw, Madison Bumgarner, Max Scherzer.
(* -- As a voter, I'm not permitted to reveal my ballot until November. Sorry.)
AL MVP: Josh Donaldson, Toronto Blue Jays
Not everything about picking an MVP is rational. Or quantifiable. Can we all agree on that? OK, we can't, I guess, since some people think everything is quantifiable. But when I went about trying to decide who the real American League MVP was -- Josh Donaldson or Mike Trout -- I plead guilty to concluding, in the end, there was more to this than leaderboards and spreadsheets. Their raw numbers are really close. And Trout's are slightly better when you adjust for ballparks and surrounding cast. But over the past two months, when the Blue Jays were turning into the 1998 Yankees (and just in time), Donaldson was a monster: .310/.406/.631/1.037*, with 16 homers, 50 RBIs and 50 runs scored. I get that Trout played much of that time with a bad wrist. Nevertheless, his numbers aren't in the same zip code: .260/.385/.480/.865, 9 HR, 22 RBIs, 25 runs.
But now let's crumple up the stat sheet and talk about how Donaldson helped transform baseball in Toronto. His general manager, Alex Anthopoulos, is careful to say there are many reasons for the Blue Jays' success. But he also says, "Josh has brought an intensity and focus to our club every day. His passion, energy and the way he goes about his business has set the tone for our club." Well, guess what? That's exactly what he was brought there to do. And bingo, he has delivered more energy than Toronto Electric. Look, Trout is awesome. He could win this award every year. But I don't see any player on any team (in any country) who has had a more franchise-altering presence than Donaldson.
My "ballot": (1) Donaldson, (2) Trout, (3) Lorenzo Cain, (4) Dallas Keuchel, (5) Manny Machado, (6) Miguel Cabrera, (7) Nelson Cruz, (8) Jose Bautista, (9) David Price, (10) Prince Fielder. (And I easily could have gone 20 deep.)
NL LEAST VALUABLE PLAYER (LVP): Jonathan Papelbon, Washington Nationals
Some people just have that special knack in life. They check into their hotel, and the elevators are out of order. They order a steak, and the kitchen just ran out. They pull onto the highway, and the construction crews appear out of nowhere. I'm guessing Jonathan Papelbon must be one of those people. Consider his past five seasons. He was the closer on the 2011 Red Sox team that made a nine-game lead disappear in September. Then he headed for Philadelphia, where a team that had won five straight division titles went 56 games under .500 while he was in town. Next stop: D.C., where the Nationals had a three-game lead in the NL East after he saved his first game -- and then lost 12 games in the standings in the next two months.
To be fair, very little of that was his fault, although giving up five runs in his final outing and choking the face of the franchise, all in a span of about 14 minutes, was definitely the stuff LVPs are made of. But if this not-so-prestigious award epitomizes the opposite of "valuable," I think Papelbon is our man. He just has that knack.
AL LVP: Hanley Ramirez, Boston Red Sox
So, on the day the Red Sox signed Hanley Ramirez to be their favorite new patroller of the Green Monster District, maybe you asked yourself: What could possibly go wrong? Oops! Ramirez then spent most of this summer demonstrating there was pretty much no limit to what could go wrong. They sent him out to play left field 82 times. Um, that went well.
According to Fangraphs, he wound up with a UZR/150 of minus-31.0 -- worst by any major league left fielder since Manny Ramirez racked up a minus-34.0 in 2006 on the same turf. And, as the Boston Globe's Alex Speier has documented, the Red Sox have gone 21-12 since they had the sense to ban this man from all future left-field adventures. Meanwhile, Hanley spent much of that time putting on a bunch of prodigious batting practice shows but was never available to pinch hit or DH, then got sent home (to "rehab") before the final road trip of the season. If that doesn't sum up the essence of "really, really not valuable," I'm not sure what does.
NL Cy Young: Zack Greinke, Los Angeles Dodgers
You probably think this is a fun job, right? Getting paid to write baseball award columns? Well, here's where the fun ends and my worst nightmare arrives. I have two historic seasons to somehow compare -- Greinke's season-long brilliance versus Jake Arrieta's astonishing second half -- plus Clayton Kershaw's regularly scheduled insane dominance. I have only one award I'm allowed to hand out. And I'm stuck with a deadline that forces me to pick one of these men before they make their final start of the year in a race that's so close those final starts could change everything.
If this isn't a formula designed to allow me to set a new ESPN.com record for hate mail, I don't know what is. But since I'm not going to wimp out and pick co-winners, here we go. Face it; this is essentially a tie (with Kershaw just a hair behind on my scorecard). And if all we had to do was pick the best pitcher in the sport at this particular moment, I think even Greinke would vote for Arrieta. But the season didn't start Aug. 1, or June 21, or whatever date you think Arrieta morphed into Christy Mathewson. It started in April. And over this entire season, Greinke is the man with the slightly better ERA, adjusted ERA, WHIP and opponent OPS. Can we keep in mind that Greinke's 1.68 ERA would be the best since Greg Maddux's 1.63 masterpiece 20 years ago? That Greinke's 0.85 WHIP would be one of the five best in the live-ball era? That his ERA has never started with a "2" after any start all season? Just passing that along for everyone who thinks there's no way anyone but Arrieta should possibly win. Got it? Great. Now start typing those emails.
My "ballot": (1) Greinke, (2) Arrieta, (3) Kershaw, (4) Jacob deGrom, (5) Max Scherzer.
AL Cy Young: Dallas Keuchel, Houston Astros
Hey, that "other" Cy Young race is kinda tight, too, by the way. A week ago, I had Price winning. Three days from now, I could have him winning again. Dallas Keuchel still has to make one more humongous start against the Diamondbacks -- on the road, where he has gone 4-8 with a 3.82 ERA this season (as opposed to 15-0, 1.46 in Houston). And I have to admit, for a while there, I wasn't sure I could pick a man with those home/road splits to win this award.
So why did I pick him anyway? Because when you look at the entire season -- without overthinking it, without convincing yourself that some stuff matters and some stuff doesn't -- I came to the conclusion that the ace of the Astros has pitched better from start to finish than the ace of the Tigers/Blue Jays. Microscopically, maybe, but here's why: Keuchel leads Price in WHIP, opponent average, opponent slugging, opponent OPS, average game score, quality-start percentage and wins above replacement. Price barely leads in ERA (2.45 to 2.47), but Keuchel leads in adjusted ERA. So do Price's strikeout rate (9.2 per nine innings), FIP and fantastic finish for the Blue Jays (a CC Sabathia-esque 9-1, 2.30) trump Keuchel's start-to-finish brilliance for a team that depended on him every step of the journey? My honest answer: A week ago, I thought they did. Then Price gave up five runs to the Rays, Keuchel dominated the Rangers in his biggest start of the year, and I changed my mind. But that's how close this is. One messy inning, or one more spectacular start by Keuchel, could wind up deciding who gets to prop up this cool trophy in his den. That's crazy, I know. But that's the deal.
NL Cy Yuk: Mat Latos, Miami Marlins/Los Angeles Dodgers
I'm not handing Mat Latos this much-uncoveted "honor" merely because he left that second "T" out of his first name. I'm not even handing it to him because of stats alone. Not that 4-10, with a 4.95 ERA, are the kind of picturesque numbers he's likely to frame over his kitchen table. No, Cy Yuks are about more than that. They're about epic underachievement. Or, as one NL scout put it, this is because "so much was expected of this guy -- and so little produced."
Two NL teams with big dreams traded for this man, thinking he might be some sort of answer. Both of them couldn't wait to move on in pretty much record time. And shockingly, that's something us Cy Yuk voters tend to notice. From the moment Latos coughed up seven runs in his first inning as a Marlin, he felt like a disaster waiting to happen. But at least he was resourceful enough to (A) get hit on the foot by a foul ball while sitting in the dugout so he could avoid pitching against his old team, the Reds, and (B) put together three decent starts in July that inspired the Dodgers to trade for him. Except that the Dodgers were so delighted with his work that, after five starts, a 6.56 ERA and some endearing grumbling about Don Mattingly's "quick hooks," they flat-out released him. It's funny, but for some reason, I have the feeling somebody will sign Latos this winter and rave about his "peripheral numbers" or something. But the Marlins and Dodgers could attest there was nothing real peripheral about him.
AL Cy Yuk: Jeff Samardzija, Chicago White Sox
And that brings us to another fellow whose season turned out to be slightly exasperating for a team that made him the centerpiece of a big, six-player deal last winter. Except that Jeff Samardzija remains one of those guys who looks awesome to have around in theory, but not always so awesome when you actually run them out there 33 times. Did you notice Samardzija did something this season that has been done only one other time in the past 75 years? He made three different starts in which he gave up at least nine earned runs. Three. Only Jamie Navarro (for the 1997 White Sox) joins him in that pantheon.
Samardzija was also the only pitcher in baseball to have four games this year in which he gave up eight runs or more, and six in which he gave up seven or more. And yet, he was also the only pitcher in baseball to throw a complete-game shutout against the Blue Jays. And he just twirled an 88-pitch one-hitter against the Tigers (six days after giving up 10 runs against the A's). So he could be phenomenal on any given day. Or he could give up 31 runs in the first inning (most in baseball). Or go 1-6 with a 7.50 ERA against the Royals, Yankees, Rangers, Angels, Cubs and Pirates (with the only win coming this week against the Royals, after they'd clinched). So we find ourselves asking the same question about him that 30 teams will be asking this winter as they mull what he's worth in free agency: Who -- or what -- is this guy, anyway? He was far from the worst pitcher in baseball this season. But nobody cost himself more dinero.
NL Rookie of the Year: Kris Bryant, Chicago Cubs
Remember back in spring training when it looked as if Kris Bryant might hit 50 homers -- before Opening Day? If that's all you thought he was, a big, strong dude with monster power, you might actually think his rookie season was disappointing just because he "only" hit 26 home runs. Well, it's a good thing this column showed up to set you straight.
You know how many rookies in the expansion era (i.e., the past 55 seasons) have had a season like this -- 26 trots, 99 RBIs, a .369 on-base percentage, .495 slugging percentage and 86 runs scored? Here's the complete list: Albert Pujols in 2001, Mark McGwire in 1987 and Fred Lynn in 1975. And that's all. Guess which prestigious award they got out of it? No, not the Golden Globe for best male actor in a TV variety series. It was a rookie of the year award, of course. And you'll be adding Bryant's name to this list shortly. One thing that distinguishes Bryant from the rest of that group: None of those other guys played five positions the year they won it. But Bryant has. And here's another thing that distinguishes him from all but the most special players in this game: The more the Cubs need him, the better he gets. He has hit .321, with a .982 OPS, against the other NL playoff teams. He's .316, with a 1.009 OPS, with runners on base. He's .356, with a 1.056 OPS, with two outs and runners in scoring position. And he has gotten better as the season has gone along (.333/.403/.589 since the end of July). He already has "superduperstar" written all over him. And his best is yet to come.
AL Rookie of the Year: Carlos Correa, Houston Astros
When was the last time we had two shortstops like Carlos Correa and Cleveland's Francisco Lindor, who hit the big leagues at the same time and were this good, this young? The answer might be: never. If we use baseball-reference.com's version of wins above replacement, then we've never seen two "four-win" rookie shortstops, age 25 and under, arrive in the same season. And only once, in 1996 (Derek Jeter, Edgar Renteria) have we even seen two three-win rookie shortstops that young come up together.
So which one is the rookie of the year? Throw a dart. Play rock-paper-scissors. They're almost impossible to separate. So here's how I did it: Lindor is a great player. But Correa is a historically great player. He just turned 21 years old 10 days ago. He hasn't played 100 games in his career yet. But he's already up to 21 homers and 43 extra-base hits. And only six players this young in history ever hit more home runs in their first 100 games. Six. Only 10 had more extra-base hits. That's 10. And how many shortstops have ever matched or beaten those numbers in their first 100 games? That would be none. Yes, none. I love watching Lindor play. And if you want to argue he has been slightly better, well, maybe he has. But Correa is special. "I think Lindor will be a perennial All-Star," one scout who loves them both said. "But if Correa stays healthy, he's a slam-dunk Hall of Famer." Which means he's a spectacular choice for rookie of the year. Don't you think?
NL Manager of the Year: Joe Maddon, Chicago Cubs
I almost feel guilty about not handing this award to Mike Matheny, or Clint Hurdle, or Terry Collins. Anyone who votes for any of them has sound reasons to cast that vote. And I get it. But I keep coming back to this: I honestly believe there isn't another manager in baseball besides Joe Maddon who could have won 94 games with these Chicago Cubs. Right man. Right place. Right time. Right feel for when to call in the magicians and the zoologists. Right blend of new-age methodology and old-fashioned people skills. Right sense of how to create a clubhouse vibe that allowed a bunch of 21-to-25-year-olds to do their thing on a wild, big league stage without ever feeling the type of pressure to perform you'd expect. And let me tell you something. That's hard. Harder than Maddon made it look.
The Cubs are the 21st team in the wild-card era to let six players 25 and younger go to the plate at least 200 times in a season. Only two of the previous 20 had a winning record. The other 18 averaged 95 losses. But Maddon knew, from the minute he took the job, this group wasn't going to lose 95 games. He just had to make sure his phenoms knew it, too. "The big thing when you're around a young group like this," Cubs catcher David Ross said, "is they don't know how good they are compared with the rest of the league. But that's what Joe does best -- just keep reminding them, 'We belong.'" Yeah, they belong, all right -- in the "who's the best team in baseball" conversation -- thanks to the astounding work of the best manager in baseball.
My "ballot": (1) Maddon, (2) Matheny, (3) Collins, (4) Hurdle, (5) Don Mattingly.
AL Manager of the Year: A.J. Hinch, Houston Astros
You know all that stuff I just said about Joe Maddon? A lot of it holds true for A.J. Hinch, too. I'd love to go back in time, slap a lie detector on everyone reading this and ask you all: Are the Houston Astros ready to win -- like this year, in 2015? What percent of you would have said yes? Ten percent? Four percent? Zero percent? I know I wouldn't have. I never expected this team to lead the AL West for 139 days. Or to be in position to play in the wild-card game with three days left in the season. A lot of things had to happen to make that possible. But the work of the manager is right at the top of that list.
To manage the Astros, you need to be able to absorb more data than the CEO of Intel. But you also need to balance that with a feel for the human beings who are asked to make that data come to life on a baseball field. And, as one exec who knows Hinch well put it earlier this year, this particular manager is a "great balance of baseball and analytics, in that order." So as seriously as I thought about casting this vote for Jeff Banister, Paul Molitor, Ned Yost, Joe Girardi and John Gibbons, none of them changed their culture -- or their baseball team -- more than Hinch did.
My "ballot": (1) Hinch, (2) Banister, (3) Molitor, (4) Yost, (5) Girardi.