We can do this. We're just 51,000 away from a cool million:
November means different things to different people. Family. Turkey. Leaves changing color. For me, though, November is all about strangers arguing with each other on the Internet about statistics and baseball awards. I'll tell my kids where I was during the Mike Trout/Miguel Cabrera donnybrook of '12, but I'll refrain from telling them about '13. It was too ugly. Not until they're older.
As we head down the September stretch, it's time to handicap the awards races in both the American and National League, picking the likely winners and the winners I'm expecting to support, starting with the NL. Conditions look perfect for another WAR war.
The final month
Another WAR war, you say? Indeed. Check out the top 10 players in the NL by Baseball-Reference's wins above replacement:
- Clayton Kershaw, 7
- Jason Heyward, 6
- Giancarlo Stanton, 6
- Jonathan Lucroy, 6
- Johnny Cueto, 6
- Jhonny Peralta, 6
- Troy Tulowitzki, 6
- Juan Lagares, 5
- Cole Hamels, 5
- Andrew McCutchen, 5
My word. Look at all those stupid arguments up there, just waiting for people to make them. There's the "pitchers shouldn't count" argument. There are three players who have wildly inflated defensive numbers boosting their overall numbers. We have players on teams that aren't contending. We have a catcher whose pitch-framing brilliance and generalship might not be properly celebrated by this statistic.
You'll notice that those numbers are rounded. That's because I can't tell the difference between a 6.3 WAR and a 6.1 WAR, and you can't either. There's a lot less harm to be done in rounding up or down, giving you a general sense of what an imprecise stat is telling us.
This race is close, so close. Some ground rules:
- Pitchers are definitely considered
- The most valuable player in baseball can include a player who turns a 50-win team into a 60-win team
- I'm still not used to "Jhonny"
- Gaudy single-season defensive numbers freak me out, and I'm going to err on the side of caution
Take Jason Heyward, who is hitting .273/.353/.392 at the time of this writing, with 11 home runs. Those are numbers you might have expected from Felipe Lopez in 2006 or Andre Ethier in 2011, not the MVP of 2014. Unless you believe in the defensive numbers. Unless you believe that Heyward has been twice as good in the field this year than he ever was in his career, unless you believe that he's Roberto Clemente with Spider-Man webbing.
My issue isn't with the idea that defensive numbers are subject to small-sample gremlins even worse than batting average. No, if Heyward is really worth three wins in the field, that counts, even if he isn't likely to do it again next year. My issue is that the numbers are imperfect and disputable. DRS has something different from UZR, which is different from revised zone rating. I know that 30 hits and 10 walks is a .400 on-base percentage. I don't have the capacity to pick a favorite defensive stat and pretend it puts someone 0.3 wins over the next player.
So Heyward, Peralta, and Legares are out. If one of them were having a fantastic season at the plate, I'm comfortable using the defensive numbers to push them over the top.
Kershaw has been the most valuable player in the league according to both FanGraphs and Baseball Reference, even though he missed three weeks of the season. The Dodgers are 18-4 in his starts -- a remarkable record, even by Cy Young-winning standards. The last time Kershaw threw fewer than seven innings was in a five-inning complete game on June 8. He's had exactly one bad start out of 22 this year, and that was the only time he didn't make a quality start.
On the other hand, Stanton hits dingers.
On the other other hand, Jonathan Lucroy is probably responsible for a good deal of the Brewers' success on the mound this year. He already gets a lot of credit for his defense, but there's no way to get a catcher into Lagares/Heyward territory with defensive bonuses, which seems off.
On the other other other hand, Andrew McCutchen is Andrew McCutchen.
I dunno. Get back to me in a month for the more strident arguments. For now, I'll just guess:
My pick: Clayton Kershaw
My guess at the BBWAA pick: Andrew McCutchen
Andrew McCutchen and Josh Harrison do the MVP dance (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports).
NL Cy Young
Clayton Kershaw will win the National League Cy Young.
My pick: Clayton Kershaw
My guess at the BBWAA pick: Clayton Kershaw
NL Rookie of the Year
There aren't a lot of great ...
Whoa, whoa, whoa, poindexter, we have questions about that last one. The Cy Young thing. Get back here.
Fine. We'll entertain some dissent from the innings-pitched wonks, a club that usually considers me a member. The argument, in brief: Johnny Cueto has thrown 45 more innings than Kershaw. That's a reasonable argument.
It's an argument I usually agree with, but in this case Kershaw has allowed 28 fewer runs than Cueto. The argument is that every inning Cueto pitches is an inning that a bullpen scrub doesn't have to. Add those projected bullpen-scrub numbers to Kershaw's season, give him an extra 45 innings of Jamey Wright numbers, and you still have a better pitcher. That's how dominant he's been, and the innings gap is probably going to close over the next month, too.
There is a month of baseball left, enough for a pair of seven-run outings that do mean things to Kershaw's shiny numbers. But it's hard to oversell Kershaw's dominance this year.
NL Rookie of the Year
There aren't a lot of great options in the National League this year, increasing the odds that this will be a Chris Coghlan season, in which we look back and wonder how in the heck that guy won it.
Billy Hamilton is streaky and confusing, but his defense and baserunning have remained ridiculous. According to FanGraphs, the race isn't close on those counts. According to Baseball-Reference, Ender Inciarte has done more in limited time with his glove, despite being a swashbuckling adventurer and not a baseball player. All the stuff above about erring on the side of caution with extreme defensive numbers applies to both Hamilton and Inciarte.
At some point, though, you have to use the defensive numbers to get a half-decent candidate. There aren't any rookie pitchers who started the season in the rotation and racked up enough innings to earn a closer look. There aren't any rookie closers with distracting save totals. There isn't a rookie hitting .300, and there are only three rookies with more than 10 home runs, and they all have OBPs under .300.
Unless there's a September surge of some note -- Joe Panik hitting .400 with eight home runs! -- it's going to be Hamilton by default.
My pick: Billy Hamilton
My guess at the BBWAA pick: Billy Hamilton