It’s that time of year again, when the calendar turns from regular season to postseason. Bronx to Bushville’s patron member of the IBWAA submits his awards ballot for the 2019 season.
This has been a wild season, one that came and went far too quickly.
The trees are already turning? The sun is setting before the kids’ bedtime? It’s award season? What happened?
Part of what appeals to me about baseball is that it is set to its own cadence. The pastime forces someone like me to slow down to its pace, to detach myself from the hectic, spasmodic pace of life and take in a nine-inning game. Baseball becomes a form of zen practice; a way of life that centers around separation from the immediate context and taking in the experience of the game. In person, it appeals to the five senses: the smell of fresh-cut grass and grilled meats, roasted nuts and stale beer. The vibrant green, the yellow foul poles, all set against a streaking white spheroid. The sound of the ball snapping a glove, the crack of the bat, the oohs and ahhs of a crowd in a shared moment of ecstasy or agony. The touch of a home run or foul ball, a glove on the hand, waiting for the moment one might head one’s way. The taste of concessions you wouldn’t dare eat anywhere else.
To be involved in the game is to elevate life to a different level. And when it ends, we start longing for February, when the love affair starts anew.
I want my kids to intuit this, so that they don’t come late to the party as I did. This is the best game on earth, and Major League Baseball, for all its current warts and flaws, is the best version of the best game. I want them to see baseball as a participant in the experience, and not just a game watched on a screen. It’s not football or basketball, where the parameters of the game are commanded by time. It plays itself out in its own way, uncompromised by a culture consumed with the tyranny of the urgent.
My three children aren’t getting any younger. Life isn’t getting any less busy. Baseball is neither the past nor the future: it is there, for nine months alongside life itself, as a timeless counterbalance to a world that has prostituted itself to football and its unwavering commitment to human sacrifice. One can not unreasonably view football as the perfect metaphor for a world gone completely off the rails.
People complain that baseball is boring. Strip away the trappings and constant distractions of a football telecast; you’re looking at guys hopped up on painkillers trying to find the best way to harm without causing permanent injury whilst unaware of how much damage they do to themselves in the process. This crap caters too well to a troll culture, to be able to abuse freely and without real consequence. Frankly, football debases us and caters to our lesser nature.
Baseball is better, because baseball is better. And baseball’s best deserve the accolades afforded them. In a season of tremendous accomplishments, with the looming shadow of corporate meddling, CBA woes and a Yankees-Astros ALCS, let’s stop and pay tribute to the best of the season.
AL MVP: MIKE TROUT
Honorable Mentions: Alex Bregman, Marcus Semien
They’re going to have to rename this award the Trout Award by the time he hangs it up.
Seriously, we compare players today great all-timers, Hall of Famers, but very seldom do we honestly, truthfully talk about today’s players next to the immortals. Mike Trout is continuing to do his Mickey Mantle thing, but he’s turning into something even more than that: he’s beginning to look positively Ruthian.
He’s barely 28 years old with a bWAR of 72.6, amassing an MVP-grade 8.3 this season before a foot procedure ended it. With no signs of slowing down, Barry Bonds and Babe Ruth may need to move over on the all-time list. Granting the benefit of good health, certainly not a guarantee, Trout could conceivably hit a 140-160 bWAR before his career is over.
On a dreadful Angels team, Trout’s continued dominance is remarkable. Would that they put a team around him that is worthy of his greatness. Perish the thought of this Angels club without him: they’re the Orioles or Tigers (look at their September and see for yourself.)
It’s the honorable mentions that stand out in contrast: Bregman pulled in an 8.2 bWAR while slashing .295/.421/.591, a feared cog in a line full of feared cogs. Where Trout has the Ohtani hype train and the aged wonder Albert Pujols, Bregman has George Springer, a rejuvenated Michael Brantley, the emerging Yordan Alvarez, Jose Altuve, Yuli Gurriel…
Bregman’s season would be MVP caliber in a non-Trout league. He takes a buttload of walks, leading the AL with 117, while also hitting for power (37 doubles, 41 HRs entering play Sunday) and hitting around .300. He’s a good defender, a clubhouse leader and is only 25 years old. What he looks like in two or three years should terrify the AL West.
I had Matt Chapman in this position last season, and apparently overlooked Oakland A’s belong here. Chapman regressed some this season, and Marcus Semien went off for a .285/.370/.523 while hitting 43 doubles, 33 homers and showing good BB/K numbers and playing in every game this season and leading the league in plate appearances.
I don’t know that his performance is an indicator of things to come — he’s about 160 points above his prior career-best OPS — but Semien has enjoyed a banner campaign and deserves recognition for helping propel the A’s from mediocrity to another postseason berth.
NL MVP: CHRISTIAN YELICH
Honorable Mentions: Cody Bellinger, Ketel Marte
The question I floated to the BtB staff when Yelich went down for the season with a fractured kneecap was what constituted an MVP.
You see, Wisconsin has been ground zero for MVPs for the last year. Between Yelich putting the team on his back a year ago and Giannis Antetokounmpo’s ascendence with the Milwaukee Bucks, and the shadow of Aaron Rodgers over both, the state is in the unfamiliar spot of having elite players in all three major pro sports at the same time.
Should the MVP be the best player on the best team, or is it the best individual player regardless of team record? The argument for Antetokounmpo’s candidacy that most Bucks fans embraced was that Giannis was the best player on the best team, open and shut case. But that logic didn’t cross over to Yelich, whose team largely floundered before a September that catapulted them back into October baseball in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1981-82.
The best player on the best team is the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Cody Bellinger.
The Most Valuable Player in the National League is Yelich. And for that, he can thank Mike Trout. If Trout played out the season, the rationale for Bellinger would have swayed me his way. But Trout’s injury forces us into the position to consider that a player’s body of work in 80% of the season might yet be good enough to warrant the MVP.
And where Trout was dominating the AL, Yelich wasn’t far behind in the senior circuit: he’s going to finish the season as a back-to-back batting champion, while also posting a beefy .429 OBP and .671 slugging percentage. He was on his way to hitting the 50 home runs he promised in a early-season spot for MLB. Yelich swiped 30 bags, hit 29 doubles and likely would have gone 50/35/35, possibly 50/40/40.
Where Trout is Mantle, Yelich’s effortless swing reminds of Ted Williams. He’s fast becoming a generational player and isn’t undeserving of consecutive MVP awards.
Bellinger’s case is hampered by falling back over the last month, but still compelling, hitting .303 with 47 dongs entering Sunday with a gaudy 8.9 bWAR and 1.024 OPS. He’s also supremely protected in a vaunted Dodgers lineup, whereas Yelich’s protection was Ryan Braun, who struggled most of this season until streaking in September, Jesus Aguilar, who is no longer in Milwaukee, and Lorenzo Cain, whose nagging injuries and lack of production moved him down the lineup card. Bellinger had a really, really good 2019. Yelich did more with less. The corollary doesn’t crossover.
Ketel Marte erupted in his age-25 season with a .329 average, hitting 32 home runs and 36 doubles and a .981 OPS. A Diamondbacks squad many left for dead, surged into postseason conversation until late in September, and a lot of that is credit to Marte’s last month of play, approaching a 1.200 OPS and hitting .390 in his last 16 games. Like Yelich and Trout, injuries cut short a mammoth campaign.
Like Semien, there isn’t much in his past to indicate that this is who Marte is going to be, but it’s a great season for a promising guy on a ballclub in need of some hope in their post-Goldschmidt era.
AL CY YOUNG: JUSTIN VERLANDER
Honorable Mentions: Gerrit Cole, Mike Minor
I’ll get to Verlander in a moment, but first, I really, really want Gerrit Cole to embrace this:
If we can’t make this a thing, the terrorists have won.
21-6. 300 strikeouts in 223 innings pitched. A 0.80 WHIP. 42 walks all season.
Cole’s credentials are as good, and perhaps better: 19-5, 316 Ks in 207.1 IP. 46 walks in 2019. League leader in ERA and FIP, indicating he’s every bit as good as billed.
Whatever dark magic is at work in Houston, it’s making damn good pitchers.
Why Verlander? Cole is an entirely defensible choice, and he will almost certainly win, but Verlander’s been on his game his entire career and has only one Cy to show for it. This is a capstone award, and Verlander’s career is showing no signs of slowing down. Time to reward the man with Cy Young #2.
Mike Minor had a great season on a crappy Rangers team, saddled in a division with Oakland and Houston and Mike Trout. This is about as much as needs to be said.
NL CY YOUNG: JACOB DEGROM
Honorable Mentions: Hyun-Jin Ryu, Jack Flaherty
deGrom did it again, and much more stealthily than his breakout 2018.
In 204 IP, he produced a 0.97 WHIP, a microscopic ERA to FIP ratio (-0.25 differential, indicating by this metric that he was as effective as his ERA says he was), yielded only 19 home runs, all while throwing a glorified whitewashed tennis ball. 55 earned runs all season. 44 walks. How was this campaign so unheralded?
Ryu is the traditionalist’s NL favorite, an NL-best 2.32 ERA (while barely getting over the qualifying mark) and 24 walks against 163 strikeouts in 182.2 innings’ work. His WHIP was just a tick over a flat 1, and FIP doesn’t look so kindly upon groundballs or a HR per 9 uncomfortably close to even. Still a great campaign for a guy in one of the more formidable rotations in the league.
Jack Flaherty poured it on in the second half, bringing him into Cy Young conversation late. Opposing hitters are scarcely mustering a .600 OPS against and piling up 225 Ks against 133 hits in 189 innings pitched before Sunday action.
At 23, Flaherty is only beginning to show what he can do, and that should terrify the NL Central at large.
AL RELIEVER OF THE YEAR: Roberto Osuna
Honorable Mentions: Brad Hand, Aroldis Chapman
I hate this. Osuna is a dirtbag, but he was the best reliever in the American League.
Chapman, too, is a dirtbag.
But this isn’t dirtbag of the year, it’s reliever of the year, and Osuna dipped himself in the cauldron and became the best baseball player version of himself. 38 saves, a 0.877 WHIP, 73 strikeouts in 65 innings of work and was basically the closer the Astros didn’t have last season. Perhaps a reinvention of the closer in that he wasn’t necessarily getting a ton of strikeouts (10 per 9 ain’t bad, though) but inducing a lot of bad contact. In this era, a hitter not being able to barrel up (94th percentile for hard hit % per Statcast) might be more frustrating than striking out.
Chapman had a great season as the Yankees’ closer and, like Cole, I wouldn’t be surprised if he won the award. 37 saves with a near flat ERA to FIP (2.25 to 2.31.) 84 strikeouts in 56 innings while only giving up three home runs.
Brad Hand basically had Chapman’s season without being an awful person. (Maybe he is. Who knows?)
NL RELIEVER OF THE YEAR: KIRBY YATES
Honorable Mentions: Josh Hader, Will Smith
The Padres were all sorts of bad. Kirby Yates was all sorts of good.
The National League leader with 41 saves, Yates dominated the late innings with 101 Ks in just over 60 innings a 1.30 FIP against his 1.19 ERA. Two home runs allowed all season. Less than two walks per nine innings pitched. It’s baffling he was hung with five losses; the guy was unhittable. At 32, he’s only gotten better with every season, and there’s no reason to believe he can’t sustain this going forward. It’s just too bad he was saddled with an underachieving Padres club with outsized talent.
Josh Hader followed up his breakout 2018 with a 2019 that was, on the face of it, a better sequel. He did as much damage with fewer innings (138 K, 75.2 IP) and a microscopic 0.80 WHIP, amassing 37 saves as the Brewers de facto closer. The problem was pitch selection: he got too reliant on his fastball and hitters began timing it up and attacking it in early counts. 15 taters in 75.2 innings is horrifying, and as soon as he began mixing his slider back into the arsenal, he settled back into his usual, dominant self.
We’ll see how he develops in year three, hopefully not as the Brewers closer, but they may not have a choice.
In a season of few bright spots, Will Smith’s emergence as the Giants closer is one less thing for the Giants to worry about. That brings the list down to, well, just about everything else.
AL ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: Yordan Alvarez
Honorable Mentions: Brandon Lowe, Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
Are we sure Yordan Alvarez is a rookie?
The 22-year-old (…) unleashed 3.8 bWAR in 86 games. He hit 27 homers along with a .317 batting average, showing an otherworldly .415 OBP for a rookie and an OPS well over 1.000. The Dodgers traded him away in 2016 for Josh Fields. Straight up. Like Trout’s MVP candidacy, this is about as sure of a lock as there can be.
Brandon Lowe had a great rookie year. So did Vlad 2.0. But let’s talk about this. We have very few full-year rookies anymore. Pete Alonso, mentioned below, is the exception to the rule now. Rookies seldom, if ever, play a full rookie season anymore in the name of service time and team control. Unless something changes with the CBA, it’s only going to get worse. (Let’s be clear: it’s going to get worse.)
As such the Rookie of the Year award may well need to be retooled before long to account for the shift in the service time landscape.
NL ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: Bryan Reynolds
Honorable Mentions: Pete Alonso, Fernando Tatis Jr.
I’m under no illusions that Alonso isn’t running away with this award. But what Bryan Reynolds did while mired on an underachieving Pittsburgh Pirates ballclub is remarkable. In 134 games, Reynolds slashed .314/.377/.503 with 16 home runs. For most rookies, that’s pretty good, especially considering that the Pirates faded hard in the second half and his home park is a pitcher’s paradise.
Reynolds, along with Kevin Newman and Josh Bell and a respectable pitching core, provide suffering Pirates fans a glimmer of hope for the future. Let’s see how Neal Huntington screws this up.
AL MANAGER OF THE YEAR: Kevin Cash
Honorable Mentions: Bob Melvin, Rocco Baldelli
Tampa did it again, this time without a old crank who did weird things in the field and a penchant for odd team-building activities. If you had Tampa Bay in the postseason in the spring, raise your hand. Tampa was considerably better than most of us realized coming into 2019, and they fed on a bottom-feeder-heavy April and May (around here, we call this the un-Brewers Spring) and lept out to a surprising AL East lead until the Yankees remembered they were the Yankees and asserted their control over the rest of the division.
Still, Kevin Cash did a tremendous job with a plucky squad in a crappy stadium in a crappy town with a crappy fanbase and a division of haves and have nots.
NL MANAGER OF THE YEAR: CRAIG COUNSELL
Honorable Mentions: Torey Lovullo, Brian Snitker
I’m not being a homer; Craig Counsell absolutely deserves to win this award. He survived a crazy season and got his team into gear at the right time. Lovullo did the same thing, but couldn’t get his left-for-dead team over the hump. Great management to even drag that Diamondbacks team as far as he could, but Counsell, who could have reasonably won it last season as well, should get the nod here.
Brent Sirvio is a co-founder of Bronx to Bushville.