Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 19, 2021

Hoopla And Hype, As A Deadline Looms

Years from now, when fans look back on the end of the 2021 baseball season, it is likely that the event they will focus on will not be Atlanta’s Freddie Freeman catching shortstop Dansby Swanson’s throw for the final out of the World Series, though that is the true marker of the campaign’s end.  Fans will instead probably think of December 1, when the current Collective Bargaining Agreement expires, replaced in all likelihood by the acrimony and uncertainty of an owner-imposed lockout of players, as the unhappy endpoint to the season.

With no indication of significant movement in the ongoing negotiations for a new CBA, and the reality that the constant references to a quarter-century free of open conflict between owners and players gloss over the extreme amount of recent labor tension, that outcome now seems unavoidable.  But with the deadline for a deal still nearly two weeks off, at least a few minutes can be spared for Awards Week, during which the winners of the Great Game’s major individual honors, Rookie of the Year, Manager of the Year, Cy Young and MVP awards in both leagues are dribbled out day by day, MLB milking the simple process of announcing eight names for everything it can. 

It is easy to dismiss the manufactured drama surrounding the announcements as so much phony hoopla.  The winner of each is decided by a very select group of sportswriters, just two from the BBWAA chapter in each city that is home to one of that league’s teams.  The awards also celebrate solitary achievement in a team sport.  But fans, especially those who have a local favorite in the running for one of the honors, eagerly await the announcements while avidly offering their personal analyses of the contenders on social media and sports talk radio. 

This year much of that chatter centered on the factors that the tiny electorate for each honor should consider.  The debate is not new, but it has grown more intense in the last decade or two with the mushrooming popularity of advanced player performance metrics.  That occasionally contentious discussion was brought into sharp focus last week, when the three finalists for the various awards were revealed.  Balloting takes place at the end of the regular season, with the names of the top three vote-getters in each category unveiled in advance of the official announcements of the winners, like a starting gun going off to signal all concerned that it’s time to start furiously tweeting one’s opinion.

Once upon a simpler time, the Dodgers’ Julio Urias would have been a favorite for the National League Cy Young Award, simply based on his 20-3 record.  Indeed, as the sole 20-game winner in the majors, Urias would have been ceded the prize by many old-school analysts.  But one of the earlier lessons of sabermetrics was that a pitcher’s record is not a sure indicator of his worth.  Run support from a hurler’s offense directly impacts wins and losses, as does the quality of the defense arrayed behind him. 

More than a decade ago, Felix Hernandez of the Mariners captured the 2010 AL Cy Young despite finishing the season with a decidedly middling mark of 13-12.  King Felix’s recognition was hotly debated at the time, even though he led the league in ERA and WAR.  But by 2018 and 2019, when Jacob deGrom won back-to-back NL Cy Youngs with similarly indifferent records but next to no run support from his Mets teammates, all but one of the thirty ballots in both years had deGrom in first place.  So once one moved away from the immediate vicinity of Chavez Ravine, there was neither great surprise nor much debate when Urias was not among the National League finalists.  In fact, when the full voting was revealed Wednesday, fans learned the L.A. stalwart finished in a tie for seventh place, having garnered bottom of the list mentions on just three ballots.

A less settled debate was highlighted by the six MVP finalists, as for the first time ever not one of the top three vote-getters in either league played for a franchise that made it to the postseason.  The list included Shohei Ohtani of the Angels, Blue Jays teammates Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Marcus Semien, the Phillies’ Bryce Harper, Nationals’ Juan Soto and Padres’ Fernando Tatis Jr., all great players whose seasons ended after game 162.  The question, which of course has no definitive answer, is how one defines “most valuable.” 

Over the long history of the Great Game and these awards, the term has usually incorporated team as well as individual performance.  Eight decades ago, Ted Williams batted .406, but finished second in the MVP balloting to Joe DiMaggio.  In fairness to Joltin’ Joe, his 1941 season was pretty good in its own right, with a .357 average, a league-leading 125 RBI’s, and, oh yes, that 56-game hitting streak.  But the fact that the Yankees headed to that year’s World Series while the Red Sox finished 17 games behind New York in the American League standings undoubtedly influenced the scribes who voted.

Plenty of players whose teams did not make the postseason have won the MVP award, but the baseball writers placing no playoff-bound individual in either league within the top three led many pundits to proclaim the honor is now simply for the best individual player.  That’s a bit simplistic.  A swing of three down-ballot votes in the NL or four in the AL would have squelched the entire discussion by placing the Giants’ Brandon Belt or the Yankees’ Aaron Judge among the finalists, and as significant as this year’s voting results were, next season’s could easily see multiple players from the World Series contestants.  The debate, like so many in sports, will go on.  Assuming, of course, that the Great Game has a next season.

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