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Handicapping the awards in the American League

As we head down the September stretch, it's time to handicap who will win the MVP, Cy Young, and Rookie of the Year votes in the American League? Who should win? Players have just one month left to win hearts and minds.

Jim McIsaac

On Tuesday, we took a look at the awards races in the National League, predicting who was going to win. We also noted that there was going to be a bloody saber fight between the WAR fetishists and the old-school fans, with us moderates sitting on the side, eating pretzels and laughing. This is true for the American League as well, but without one of the usual suspects.

There's a month left in the season, and here are the players in line for a major award, along with a guess at the winner and my future (fake) vote.


Oh, how the worm has turned. If you love WAR so much, Mike Trout fans, why don't you marry it? Huh?

/slaps books out of the hands of Trout fans
/shoves Trout fans against locker

For the last two offseasons, Trout supporters have had a nice, tidy way to describe why he was the best player in baseball. The long answer was that he hit baseballs, ran around the bases, and caught baseballs better than everyone else, especially when you considered how much of a pitcher's park Angels Stadium has become. The short answer was to look at the WAR, silly. Miguel Cabrera finally isn't an overbearing presence on the award chatter, and the Angels are contending. Everything seems to be set up well for our hero.

Yet Trout isn't blowing away the world in WAR. He's not even the leader, according to Baseball-Reference, who has Josh Donaldson ahead. If Trout were repeating his unrepeatable seasons from the last two years, we would have already moved onto the Cy Young discussion, where Trout would also be the favorite, just because. He's having a merely great season, though. He's only the best player in baseball, nothing more.

Josh Donaldson

Josh Donaldson on the fielding job (Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports).

He still has my (fake) vote. If you're comfortable with a particular set of defensive statistics, you might be partial to Donaldson or Alex Gordon, both of whom are having under-appreciated offensive seasons buttressed by otherworldly defensive stats. Both of them pass the eyeball test, too. They probably are that good in the field or close to it. Still, I start with the argument that Mike Trout helps the Angels win more games than any other player helps his team. It's almost a truism when you put it like that, and it's not going to be challenged by .7 WAR here and .4 WAR there.

Donaldson is having another brilliant season, but like Heyward in the National League, there's no way he gets support. The traditional stats (and newer, somewhat-friendly stats like on-base and slugging percentage) just aren't gaudy enough. You have to give him exceptional credit for his ballpark and defense, more than voters like to give in either case. A hot month to help the A's overtake the Angels? Then maybe he's a contender. Right now, though, I'll guess he finishes lower than he should.

Gordon is in the same boat, with a substantial chunk of his value coming from his superlative defense, but he doesn't have the hurdle of the Oakland Coliseum. People will want to vote for a Royal if they make the playoffs, but it takes some serious trust in defensive metrics to vote for a left fielder hitting .280/.356/.456 with fewer than 30 homers. He'll finish in the top five, but he won't win without a freaky September.

Someone who won't get enough credit because his team isn't contending: Adrian Beltre. It's absurd. As if there isn't value in helping a team avoid 100 losses, as if there isn't value in being the one consistently amazing thing in the most disappointing season in franchise history. As if value in baseball is measured by the injuries that didn't happen around you.

I'm all fired up. Maybe I'll fake vote for him after all.

All of those words, and we haven't got to the player who just might win. The Mariners signed Robinson Cano because they were incapable of turning their prospect straw into lineup gold, save for Kyle Seager, and Cano rewarded them with a brilliant, Safeco-defining season. He's not immune to park effects -- his raw numbers are down -- but he's immune to the Safeco death-fog. If the Mariners make the playoffs for the first time since last decade, the voters might a rush to reward someone. Cano is a familiar name, and he'll be waiting.

My pick: Mike Trout
My guess at the BBWAA pick: Robinson Cano

AL Cy Young

What a mess.

There is no perfect way to sort this out. You like WAR for pitchers? Felix Hernandez is your guy, but there's a half-win difference separating about five or six guys, regards of which version you use. David Price is leading the world in innings. Chris Sale is leading the league in ERA. Max Scherzer is tied for the lead in wins. Corey Kluber is right behind all of those guys in almost every category.

I understand how park effects are calculated, and they make sense. Most of the stats worth a damn factor in some kind of adjustment, so when you see Hernandez leading everyone in ERA+ or ERA- or WAR, that's already been factored in. I still look at the hitters over the years who have been swallowed by Safeco and digested for a thousand years and wonder if we're underrating how much of a pitcher's park it is.

Safeco Field

Safeco Field in Seattle, the Hitter's Damnation (Getty).

I'm reminded of the Giants over the last three years, who have been one of the best offensive teams in the NL for three years running according to park-adjusted OPS. To which I respond: Shut up, numbers. I can't shake the feeling that when it comes to extreme parks, some genius is going to figure out that we all forgot to carry the three, and we'll all have a lot better idea of how these parks work.

Of course, that point contradicts the idea that we're underrating pitcher's parks, but at this point I'm rambling because I don't know how to separate these pitchers. I'll probably do something pithy to support my argument, like note that Hernandez has fewer complete games than Roenis Elias (1) and move on.

The other contenders, though. They don't compel me, not enough to act on the suspicious and biases up there. Sale hasn't pitched enough; even accounting for the differences in Comiskey and Safeco, I can't buy into the argument that Chris Sale + 50 innings of a spot starter is preferable to a full season from Felix Hernandez, not like I can with Kershaw in the NL. He's out for me, and I think the trusty voters would agree. Max Scherzer's ERA is almost a full run higher than Hernandez's, which means less to me, but probably means a lot to those same voters.

There are some dark horses like Price and Jon Lester, but the only other realistic contender is Kluber. He's matched Hernandez on almost every front, from innings to run prevention to strikeout/walk ratio, except he doesn't pitch in Safeco. It's tempting, so tempting...

...Except, to be consistent with the Trout business up there, when you start with the truism that Hernandez is the best pitcher in the league, I'm not going to let half-baked suspicions about park effects steer me away. I think the voters will agree (possibly because some of them haven't heard of Kluber).

One of these guys is going to have a six earned-run game over the next three weeks and remove himself from consideration. I hope so, at least. Otherwise, we're going to read a lot of impassioned arguments about a coin flip.

I say *heads* is better, you idiot, and I will fight you to the death if you disagree.

My pick: Felix Hernandez
My guess at the BBWAA pick: Felix Hernandez


Mitch Hedberg, who has been gone for almost a decade now, had a joke that applies here:

I wish I could play Little League now. I'd kick some ******* ass.

It's how I feel about players in their mid- to late-20s or 30s who come from an established professional league and win the Rookie of the Year. They've already gone through the gauntlet of doubt, that moment where they're 22 and not sure where they fit in this crazy world. They're fully developed and at their peak.

They're still rookies, though. They qualify for the award. Jose Abreu will win it, even if he's an established slugger more than a bright-eyed rookie. Them's the rules. It's just always bugged me from an aesthetic standpoint. At least for a while, we got to have Abreu vs. Masahiro Tanaka arguments.

Something that bugs me more than the idea of an older international player winning the award: When a rookie wins after a midseason call up, getting no more than 300 or 400 at-bats. This is just me being finicky -- I get that Kevin Kiermaier has been outstanding for the Rays, just as Danny Santana has been for the Twins. The Wil Myers-type half-season award-winners have always bothered me, for whatever reason. I say, if a rookie plays in fewer than 108 games, he shouldn't be considered.

If I had to choose between an international player and a half-season player -- aesthetically, I mean -- I'll go with the former. When it comes to the actual award, we already know what's going to happen.

My pick: Jose Abreu
My guess at the BBWAA pick: Jose Abreu