In any other year, the disappearance of pennant races could have turned September into a boring, aimless slog toward the end of a baseball season that already stretches on interminably. Instead, the most interesting MVP battles in years materialized, offering a chance to focus on the individuals in a sport that rarely emphasizes them and a good test for voters to again attempt at defining value.
Here, value is not abstract. It is eminently quantifiable. It is based almost strictly on production. It does not penalize those saddled with a poor team nor does it reward those who happen to be surrounded by achievers. It appreciates those who get on base, because to win games, a team needs to score runs, and to score runs, a team needs players on base. It loves home runs, but only so much, because home runs are in greater supply than ever, and their proliferation can’t exist in a vacuum. It factors in RBIs, but only through the context of opportunity, because to lend credence to a counting stat without understanding the factors that make it possible is just lazy. It recognizes and respects the import of great defense while not trusting the current defensive metrics to assess it with anywhere near the same degree of certainty it does offensive production. It includes pitchers, because pitchers are baseball players, too, and every baseball player has value of some kind or another. More than anything, it abides by the following principle: Determine those who produced the most for their teams, order 1 through 10.
And perhaps the greatest personification of that belief is the choice of …
1. Joey Votto as National League MVP. The whole ballot:
Let’s get this out of the way: Giancarlo Stanton is probably going to win NL MVP. Chances are a few votes from writers who cover the NL West may be siphoned away by Nolan Arenado, and Votto is likely to get support from those who fawn over his .454 on-base percentage, but 59 home runs is a spectacular number, regardless of era, and it makes Stanton the favorite. There’s no quibbling with that here. It’s close enough that a perfectly reasonable argument can be made on Stanton’s behalf.
Thing is, that on-base percentage. And in case OBP is scary or off-putting to those who have some kind of aversion to decimal points, let’s do this. Joey Votto reached base 321 times this season. The next-highest total: 288. Stanton’s total: 260. That is damning. If the objective of baseball is to score runs and scoring runs entails getting on base, Joey Votto is staggeringly better at it than everyone else who played in 2017. Oh, and he slugged .578, which isn’t Stanton’s .631 but was good enough for sixth in the league.
Does the value of Stanton’s glove and baserunning narrow the on-base gap? Of course. Does it erase the difference? Not from this perspective. It may seem odd, then, to call …
2. Aaron Judge, the American League equivalent of Stanton, AL MVP. The reasoning, though, is sound. The whole ballot:
While it’s fair to compare Judge and Stanton – both enormous men who hit balls harder and farther than anyone today and among the hardest and farthest of anyone in history – Judge was simply a better player this season. Their slugging percentages are practically identical. Judge’s on-base percentage, on the other hand, was nearly 40 points higher.
Judge vs. Altuve vs. Ramirez vs. Trout, on the other hand, makes for one hell of an MVP conundrum. They were clearly the four best players in the AL. Even though Trout was the best of them, he played nearly 40 fewer games than the other three, and his excellence couldn’t overcome that gap. Correa and Donaldson both missed large chunks of time, too, preventing this from becoming an even more crowded race.
Ramirez’s versatility added a significant amount of value to someone whose bat already made him among the most dangerous players in the game. The offensive production of Judge and Altuve, though, positioned them in the top two positions. As with the NL, a vote for either of the top two is perfectly acceptable, and valuing Altuve’s consistency is entirely understandable. Judge disappeared for more than six weeks in the second half.
Those other 4½ months were transcendent. As great as the 52 home runs were, Judge – the entire package – beats Altuve on the merits of his game writ large. Altuve may have won the batting title, but Judge still got on base 15 more times than him. And between that and a slugging lead of more than 80 points, Judge and his solid glove in right field just nick Altuve’s positional advantage and baserunning prowess. It’s close, like …
3. Corey Kluber taking the Cy Young in the American League, but the difference is tangible enough not to second-guess. The whole ballot:
Kluber’s second Cy Young may well look like his first, in which he took a close vote over Felix Hernandez. Sale’s bona fides are obvious. He struck out 308 in a league-leading 214 1/3 innings and walked just 43. His home run rate is a tick worse than Kluber’s. Most years, he runs away with it.
His ERA, though, is 2.90, and that’s with arguably the best defense in the major leagues behind him. Cleveland’s gloves are excellent, too, and contributed to Kluber’s 2.25 ERA, but he did plenty of work himself. In 203 2/3 innings, he punched out 265 and walked just 36. And though playing the arbitrary-endpoints game doesn’t mean much, seeing as every game is as valuable as the other, Kluber’s post-disabled list, June 1-to-the-end-of-the-season numbers are too insane not to note: 166 1/3 innings, 224 strikeouts, 23 walks, 1.62 ERA, .175/.213/.283 opponent slash.
It’s the sort of line that makes …
4. Max Scherzer’s season pale in comparison, though his year is good enough for his second consecutive NL Cy Young, his third overall and should punch his ticket to the Hall of Fame. The whole ballot:
Kershaw almost certainly will get some first-place votes, and his season warrants them. Although he threw 25 fewer innings than Scherzer, Kershaw did finish with an NL-best 2.31 ERA and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of nearly 7 to 1. Scherzer certainly acquit himself with a 2.51 ERA and a league-leading 268 strikeouts in 200 2/3 innings. He was harder to hit than ever, too, with a season-long .178/.247/.319 line against him.
It’s been a long time since baseball’s pitching Mount Rushmore was as clear as it is: Scherzer, Kershaw, Kluber and Sale. The gap between those four and the rest of the league is significant. There the comers, like Severino and Strasburg and Ray and Jacob deGrom and, if he can stay healthy, Noah Syndergaard, and the classics, like Verlander and Greinke and Madison Bumgarner, and even …
5. Gio Gonzalez, who this year reminded everyone that he may not have the big fastball or flashy strikeout rate but can prevent runs with the best of ’em. He and Mike Moustakas are the Comeback Players of the Year, Gonzalez from his mess of a performance in 2016 and Moustakas from a torn ACL.
Gonzalez walked in lockstep with Scherzer and Strasburg almost all season, giving the Nationals a dazzling top of the rotation that should suit them even better come October than it did during the regular season. Even though a messy September bumped Gonzalez’s ERA to 2.96, he threw 201 innings in a rotation that especially needed them, what with a bullpen that until August was trying to redefine dumpster fire.
Not only did Moustakas shake off the effects of his knee injury to play a solid third base, he broke the saddest record in baseball: Kansas City’s single-season home run mark. Coming into the season, good ol’ Steve Balboni – who since that 1985 season had spent his life digitized, gobbling mushrooms and fire flowers and trying to defeat that dastardly Bowser – held the record with 36. Moustakas whacked 38 home runs and set himself up for a nice free-agent payday in the process.
In time, we’ll likely look back on 2017 as a home run anomaly, the same way we do 1987 and 2000. The idea that it’s going to take anything away from …
6. Cody Bellinger is unlikely. He is the easy choice for NL Rookie of the Year and the unquestioned star-to-be from the class. The whole ballot:
Apologies to Rhys Hoskins, who in most other years would have made it. Bell and DeJong simply produced longer and more than Hoskins managed to in a transcendent 50 games during which he hit 18 home runs and put up an OPS over 1.000.
For a good while, Bellinger was there, too, and it didn’t dip below .900 after the second day of June. He and Bell are proof there is such a thing as a first-base prospect, and the fact that he’s barely 22 portends awfully well for a Dodgers team that returns Corey Seager and Justin Turner and Yasiel Puig and Austin Barnes and Kershaw and Rich Hill and Kenley Jansen and, yeah, pretty much all of its 104-win roster. The same thing, of course, can be said for …
7. Aaron Judge and the Yankees. It’s amazing to think Judge is just a rookie, and an even more obvious choice for AL Rookie of the Year. The whole ballot:
Back for the Yankees are an overloaded outfield (Judge, Brett Gardner, Aaron Hicks, Jacoby Ellsbury, Clint Frazier), an infield that already looks good (Didi Gregorius and Starlin Castro) and adds arguably the best prospect in baseball (Gleyber Torres) and the catcher who was first-team All-MLB (Gary Sanchez). Add in a dynamic bullpen (Aroldis Chapman, Chad Green, Dellin Betances, Tommy Kahnle and David Robertson), and if the Yankees get any semblance of starting pitching – or, gulp, Shohei Ohtani – this is a 100-win team waiting to happen.
Counting on Judge for another 1.000-plus OPS season may not be fair, and seeing as how pitchers figured him out for a portion of the year, they may well prey on another weakness. Still, he is a talented enough hitter to adjust, and if ever he can learn to make more contact, Judge is capable of delivering Bonds-level damage. If he’s not on the hitters’ Mount Rushmore already, he’s close.
In the managers’ version …
8. Terry Francona is front and center, a future Hall of Famer who took an Indians team that hovered around .500 for too long and helped it find its inner juggernaut. He won’t win AL Manager of the Year, but he’s the choice here. The whole ballot:
1. Terry Francona
2. A.J. Hinch
3. Paul Molitor
Molitor is going to win the award going away. It might be unanimous. And he certainly deserves credit for the 103-loss Twins of a year ago turning into a playoff team this season. Manager of the Year voting tends to follow a pattern, though – vote for the guy whose team exceeds preseason expectations, even if those expectations were based on false premises by media that doesn’t know any better – and Molitor’s in-game decisions don’t, by any means, scream managerial genius.
Francona isn’t just a master in-game button pusher. His management of the Indians’ clubhouse is nonpareil, and after guiding Cleveland to 102 wins, their highest total since 1954, he deserves the award for the second consecutive season. To see him and his protégé …
9. Torey Lovullo win in the same year would be something, and unlike Francona, Lovullo is the favorite to nab NL Manager of the Year. The whole ballot:
1. Torey Lovullo
2. Craig Counsell
3. Dusty Baker
Anyone who prefers Counsell, who shepherded the surprise Milwaukee Brewers to the cusp of a playoff spot: cool. His keen hand took the talent delivered by general manager David Stearns and molded it into a team that pushed the defending champion Chicago Cubs until the end of September, and considering Milwaukee lost ace Jimmy Nelson and acquired all of one player at the deadline – the surprisingly excellent Anthony Swarzak – that’s a job worth lauding.
Lovullo did his best Francona impersonation, balancing the on-field and interpersonal aspects of managing to force an organizational realignment of expectations. Heading into the season, opposing executives expected the Diamondbacks to play the year out and then go into full rebuild mode, dealing Paul Goldschmidt, A.J. Pollock – really, anyone of value. Then they cruised to the first NL wild card, buoyed by the game’s deepest rotation, and the notion of the Diamondbacks tearing down anytime soon is folly. Not only are they here, but with Mike Hazen and crew at the helm, they’re not going anywhere. They have a process. It’s smart. It works. Sounds like how …
10. Joey Votto approaches the game. Coming into this season, Votto said he wanted to strike out less. This seemed … unlikely. Now 34, Votto is reaching the age where swings can slow. Never before in a full season had he struck out fewer than 100 times. Pitchers throw harder than ever. Their breaking stuff is nastier. Strikeouts are simply part of the game now.
What’d Votto do? He walked almost as much as ever – 134 times, nearly 20 percent of his plate appearances – and struck out 83 times in 707 plate appearances. It was the ninth-lowest rate in baseball – lower than Altuve, lower than Daniel Murphy, lower than Robinson Cano, lower than Anthony Rizzo. Joey Votto was one of the best hitters in baseball. And then he got much, much better.
That’s not why he’s MVP. He deserves the award because he was the best player in the National League. But it illustrates the depth of his excellence. He is a power hitter who walks a ton and barely ever strikes out. Build a hitter from scratch, and that’s exactly what he looks like: The 2017 version of Joey Votto, better than ever, better than even the guy who hit 59 home runs.
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