Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 17, 2016

The Usual Awards, Plus An Especially Well Deserved One

A NOTE TO READERS: On Sports and Life will be traveling on Sunday, so there will be no post this weekend. The regular schedule resumes this time next week. Thanks as always for your loyalty and support.

The announcements began with the Dodgers’ Corey Seager being named National League Rookie of the Year Monday evening. They ended with the Cubs’ Kris Bryant being tapped as the NL Most Valuable Player a little over 48 hours later. In between Detroit’s Michael Fulmer joined Seager by winning the AL Rookie award, Cleveland’s Terry Francona and L.A.’s Dave Roberts took home the hardware as the top managers in each league, Rick Porcello and Max Scherzer won the Cy Young Awards, and the Angels’ Mike Trout won his second MVP title as the top player in the American League. The eight awards conferred annually by the Baseball Writers Association of America, the major individual honors in the Great Game, have been announced and the annual debate about the misguided voting by the scribes can now begin.

Actually when compared to some prior seasons, this year’s results should generate relatively little heat, allowing fans to turn their attention to the more important matter of offseason free agent signings and trades. Seager won all thirty first place votes in the NL Rookie contest, easily outdistancing Trea Turner of the Washington Nationals. The 22-year old L.A. shortstop batted .308 with 26 homers and 72 RBIs while playing solid defense. His WAR rating of 7.5 ranked fifth, not just among rookies or in the National League, but in all of major league baseball.

The American League rookie balloting was closer with Fulmer, whose sparkling first half on the mound kept the Tigers in the playoff race, outpacing Gary Sanchez of the Yankees. But Sanchez wasn’t called up until early August, and while New York fans may have been dreaming of their new franchise catcher winning the award, it was never likely that most of the voting writers would weight his partial season heroics more heavily than Fulmer’s complete body of work.

In the MVP voting Bryant was nearly unanimous, missing out on only one first place ballot. Chicago’s third baseman, who fielded the final out of the World Series, is just the fourth player to be named MVP one year after winning Rookie of the Year. Trout, who took home his first MVP honor two years ago, is the first player ever to finish in the top two in the voting in each of his first five major league seasons.

In his first season managing at any level, L.A.’s Roberts beat out Joe Maddon of the champion Cubs and the National’s Dusty Baker to win the prize as the senior circuit’s top skipper. He’s the first manager of the Dodgers to be so honored since Tommy Lasorda in 1988. The fact that Los Angeles captured the NL West crown while topping the majors with 28 players placed on the disabled list over the course of the season, including an extended absence by superstar left-hander Clayton Kershaw, obviously spoke powerfully to the BBWAA’s small elite electorate about Roberts’s ability to get everything possible out of his roster.

If the Dodgers’ manager was a likely choice in the National League, then Cleveland’s Francona was the obvious one in the AL. With 22 first place votes and as the only manager to be named on all 30 ballots, the 57-year old Francona was a runaway winner over Jeff Bannister of the Rangers and Buck Showalter of the Orioles. The Cleveland franchise was nearly as beat up as the Dodgers, and unlike L.A. was not a popular preseason choice to contend. But Francona led his charges to a 94-win season, good for an eight game margin over the Tigers in the AL Central. He produced that result even after losing two members of his starting rotation for the stretch run. After winning a pair of World Series in Boston, Francona took home his third AL crown this year. Among active managers, only the Giants’ Bruce Bochy and the Nationals’ Dusty Baker have more playoff appearances, and only Bochy has more pennants and World Series titles.

Wednesday’s announcements of the Cy Young Award winners brought the closest thing to genuine controversy. Washington’s Scherzer won the NL award in a vote that wasn’t as close as expected. The 32-year old twenty-game winner, who won the AL award with Detroit in 2013, led the league in wins, starts, innings and strikeouts. He tied the Major League mark of twenty strikeouts in a nine inning game in a contest against his former team in May. But he had only one more win than Chicago’s Jon Lester, and Lester’s 2.44 ERA was more than half a run better than Scherzer’s. In turn, Lester’s mark was only good for runner-up status in that statistic, because teammate Kyle Hendricks led the league with a 2.13 ERA. Hendricks also topped all NL hurlers in opponents’ OPS. In the end the surprise wasn’t so much that the Nationals’ ace won, but that he ran away from two other worthy contenders.

Then there was the voting for the AL Cy Young, in which Boston’s Rick Porcello edged Detroit’s Justin Verlander. The Tigers’ star looked washed up two seasons ago when he struggled with injuries. But he rebounded this season to lead the league in strikeouts while finishing second in ERA and innings pitched. He also led in first place votes by the writers, taking 14 out of 30. But while nearly half of the voters picked Verlander as the best pitcher in the league, only two ranked him second and two of them didn’t put him in their top five, leaving him off the ballot entirely. That odd voting pattern allowed Porcello to claim the trophy despite being named first on only eight ballots. While it’s not unheard of for a player with the most first place votes to come up short in the overall tally, Verlander now holds the dubious distinction of having the largest edge in votes for first while failing to win.

Of course the main lesson of the annual rollout of the Great Game’s individual award winners is that baseball remains a team sport. Balloting is conducted before the playoffs begin, but just two winners, the Cubs new MVP Bryant and Cleveland skipper Francona, were involved in the World Series. Among all the names mentioned here, the Angel’s Trout is the most recognized in terms of these awards, with a Rookie of the Year, two MVP awards, and three second place MVP finishes in the past five years. But in that same time the Angels have been to the postseason only one time. In 2014 they were swept out of the ALDS in three games by the Royals.

So perhaps baseball’s most meaningful individual award announcement this week was that President Obama has decided to present the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, to Vin Scully, who just ended his long and glorious career as the voice of the Dodgers. Fans have probably seen the video of Scully reacting during a phone call from White House press secretary Josh Earnest. “Oh my gosh. No! Are you sure?” says Scully, before adding with his characteristic modesty, “I’m just an old baseball announcer.” More like the voice of the Great Game. Scully’s new honor is one award that no fan will second guess.

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