Handing out the hardware

I didn’t make my awards picks until November last year, but my intentions this year were to get them done as early into the postseason, just as the sportswriters who vote on the awards actually do. Granted, the voters have about 44 hours from the end of Sunday’s games until the start of the first Division Series games — or perhaps less time — to get their votes in.

Last year, I was pretty accurate. Eight-for-eight, though it wasn’t too hard. The races weren’t all that close, with the exception of NL ROY. I hedged, but went with Jason Bay in the end in the closest voting of all the players’ awards, with Khalil Greene getting seven first-place votes and finishing 38 points behind Bay. Only AL Manager of the Year was a closer vote, with Ron Gardenhire getting 11 first-place votes and finishing 10 points behind Buck Showalter; and only Randy Johnson’s eight first-place votes in the NL Cy Young race were more than Greene’s among second-place players. But Roger Clemens still won the award by 43 points over Johnson.

This year, we’ve got a few clear winners, but certainly more close races sure to cause debate. Let’s get the easy ones out of the way.

There was a bit of a late-season push for Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano, but he might not even make the top three. It could be a close race among Cano (.297, 78 R, 34 2B, 14 HR, 62 RBI), Tampa Bay’s Jonny Gomes (.282, 61 R, 13 2B, 6 3B, 21 HR, 54 RBI) and Chicago’s Tadahito Iguchi (.278, 74 R, 25 2B, 6 3B, 15 HR, 71 RBI, 15 SB) — for second place.

I think A’s closer Huston Street (5-1, 1.72 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 23 SV, 72:26 SO:BB ratio, .194 BAA) continues Oakland’s hold on AL ROY awards. Street stepped in and performed like a veteran closer — something that even veteran relievers can have trouble doing. He blew just four saves (all before the All-Star break, and he got the win after one of them) and lost his only game way back on April 20. As the closer, he was out there on his own and came through. This one should be set, but something tells me that because I decided to list these in order of debate and put this one first, it will be the first to prove me wrong.

The winner of this one didn’t even occur to me until a friend told me who his pick was. Then I looked at the numbers, and it became clear. First off, there are no pitchers who can win. Zach Duke’s 14 starts (8-2, 1.81 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 58:23 K:BB ratio, .253 BAA) are probably about six short of what could have earned him serious attention. Among the hitters, third baseman Garret Atkins (.287, 61 R, 31 2B, 13 HR, 89 RBI) moved ahead of shortstop Clint Barmes (.289, 55 R, 19 2B, 10 HR, 46 RBI, 6 SB in just 81 G and 350 AB) as the Rockies’ potential winner. Washington’s Ryan Church (.287, 41 R, 15 2B, 9 HR, 42 RBI) was one of my preseason candidates, but injuries and then Preston Wilson ate into his playing time.

Atlanta’s Jeff Francoeur (.300, 41 R, 20 2B, 14 HR, 45 RBI in 257 AB in 70 G, not to mention 13 assists) was getting a lot of press for the award in August and had a solid start to his career, but I think he comes in second. Houston leadoff hitter Willy Taveras (.291, 82 R, 13 2B, 4 3B, 3 HR, 29 RBI, 34 SB) will be up there, but it will be a mid-season callup who will take home the hardware. In just 310 at bats in 88 games, Philadelphia’s Ryan Howard hit .288 with 52 R, 17 2B, 2 3B, 22 HR and 63 RBI. He led all rookies with those home runs, 10 of which came in September — a rookie record for the month — and brought the Phillies back into the race after losing slugging first baseman Jim Thome for the season.

It’s not like Bobby Cox has won 14 straight division titles with the same team. Maybe those first four or five in the 90s all came with the nucleus of Smoltz-Maddux-Glavine-Chipper-Lopez, but there were often other key cogs that were changed (David Justice, Terry Pendleton, Kenny Lofton, Walt Weiss, etc.). And he certainly hasn’t done it with the payrolls of the Yankees, Red Sox, Mets or Dodgers.

So until some team knocks the Braves out of the top spot in the NL East — or even out of the playoffs — this award is probably his. And when the Braves are dethroned, that team’s manager will probably inherit the hardware. The true test is picking second place, which should go to Phil Garner. Houston was dreadful the first 45 games (15-30) without Lance Berkman for 22 of them and with a still-hobbled, .179-hitting Berkman for the other half of them. But Garner guided the ‘Stros back to the playoffs, the first back-to-back wild-card winners in the NL since the 1999-2000 Mets.

Well, that’s that. So much for the “easy” ones. Now, in ascending order of debate, as I see them …

I think despite Chicago’s collapse from a 15-game lead on Aug. 1 to a 1 1/2-game lead in mid-September, Ozzie Guillen still wins it. He got the White Sox off to a fast start and the team never had to look back. They were in control the whole way, and despite some headwinds, forged on to finish the job. Cleveland’s Eric Wedge — whose team made the White Sox faithful sweat — deserves it too, but there were a lot of people who predicted the Indians would make a run this year with their young nucleus. I can’t go back and look at everyone’s preseason predictions, but I’d guess there were even a few more pundits in favor of the Indians being competitive than there were calling for the White Sox to unseat the Twins. After 99 wins and being the frontrunner all season, Guillen wins it.

Well, your ERA leader was Kevin Millwood (2.86), but he went 9-11. Last year’s winner, Johan Santana, was second (2.87, plus 0.97 WHIP, 16-7 record, 238:45 K:BB ratio, .210 BAA) followed by Mark Buehrle (3.12, 1.18 WHIP, 16-8, 149:40). At the All-Star break, it was Buehrle’s to lose (10-3, 2.58 ERA), and I think he did. We know the voters are stat-heads, and this award isn’t for most valuable pitcher (otherwise, Mariano Rivera’s got a much stronger case; however, I’m sure some voters look at it as MVP, with the “p” standing for “pitcher”). So after ERA, if we turn to strikeouts, Santana led the league with only Randy Johnson (211) also breaking 200. But with a 3.79 ERA and 17-8 record, his case isn’t stronger than Santana’s.

Then there are wins, and in leading the league with 21, Bartolo Colon had three more than any other starter (Jon Garland and Cliff Lee). Three more wins over 33 starts is close to winning the 100-meter dash by a full second — it’s a runaway. Colon went 21-8 with a 3.48 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, .254 BAA and 157:43 SO:BB ratio.

For the first time since 1999, it won’t be a San Francisco Giant winning this award. Before Barry Bonds and Victor Conte won the award from 2001-2004, Jeff Kent won it. In ’99, Chipper Jones’ stellar September clinched it for him as the Braves pulled away from the Mets. The same thing could happen, and Chipper could play a part, only September wasn’t the month that Andruw Jones may have clinched the award. It was June.

First, let’s look at the numbers between Jones and his only competition, Albert Pujols. Since 2001, when Pujols won Rookie of the Year and finished fourth in the MVP voting, he’s finished second, second and third (to Bonds and Adrian Beltre) up through last year. With Bonds out of the picture, this looked like Albert’s opportunity. The only thing I see keeping it from him this time is that the Cardinals were too good. Certainly better than the Braves. Head-to-head, the numbers look like this:

AVERAGE: Pujols .330-.263
HITS: Pujols 195-154
RUNS: Pujols 129-95
EXTRA-BASE HITS: Pujols 81-77
HOME RUNS: Jones 51-41
RBI: Jones 128-117
OPS: Pujols 1.039-.922

In my heart, I want Pujols to win it. He’s been so good for four years and finished second twice to a big-headed freak and his team of trainers and crooks. With the injuries to Larry Walker, Reggie Sanders and especially Scott Rolen, the lineup in St. Louis wasn’t as formidable as it was expected to be. This isn’t Alex Rodriguez in the Yankees’ lineup or David Ortiz in Boston. Take Pujols out of the Cardinals’ lineup this year, and I don’t know if they do win that division. But the Cardinals also had a strong pitching staff with a Cy Young candidate and built a big lead early in the summer. That wasn’t the case in Atlanta, which lost Chipper Jones and three starting pitchers in June — which also happened to be Andruw Jones’ best month (.317, 18 R, 13 HR, 26 RBI, 1.151 OPS) as the Braves made their run. Three starters out, no Chipper, a host of rookies and Andruw carried Atlanta. It kills me to say it, but I think that’s what the voters will remember. Andruw wins it.

Wooo, doggie. This debate has been raging since July, with each of three pitchers considered the front-runner. Two of them led their teams to the playoffs; the other led his to the brink. But how to sort them out? First, the overall stats:

CHRIS CARPENTER, STL: 21-5, 2.83 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, .231 BAA, 4.18 SO:BB
ROGER CLEMENS, HOU: 13-8, 1.87 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, .198 BAA, 2.76 SO:BB
DONTRELLE WILLIS, FLA: 22-10, 2.63 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, .243 BAA, 2.93 SO:BB

But will the voters look at the overall numbers, or remember what happened more recently? Over the last month of the season, they looked like this:

CHRIS CARPENTER, STL: 1-1, 6.91 ERA, 1.60 WHIP, .328 BAA, 3.14 SO:BB in only 28 2/3 innings
ROGER CLEMENS, HOU: 2-2, 4.50 ERA, 1.73 WHIP, .303 BAA, 1.14 SO:BB in 22 innings
DONTRELLE WILLIS, FLA: 3-2, 3.00 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, .244 BAA, 3.00 SO:BB in a league-leading 42 innings

Well, Willis certainly had the best finish to the season, when his team needed him the most. The Astros needed Clemens too, and he faltered, first with a hamstring tweak, then — and no one can fault him for this — dealing with the death of his mother (though he pitched that night and pitched superbly). Carpenter had the benefit of pitching with the Cardinals comfortably ahead, and then after they’d clinched as a tune-up for the playoffs.

As good as Clemens’ peripheral stats were, I think the writers will go with Carpenter. It’s going to be a close one, a tough one, but that’s my guess.

It’s not just that this is a tight debate, a close race, a heated argument about two sluggers — it’s, yet again, Red Sox and Yankees. The numbers are tight, and those in the Alex Rodriguez camp say the fact that he plays defense puts him over the top, which is fine. It’s hard to defend Ortiz’s case when all he does is hit and sit on the bench. Again, we’ll start with the season stats:

GAMES: A-Rod 162-159
AVERAGE: A-Rod .321-.300
HITS: A-Rod 194-180
RUNS: A-Rod 124-119
EXTRA-BASE HITS: Ortiz 88-78
HR: A-Rod 48-47
RBI: Ortiz 148-130
WALKS (Intentional): Ortiz 102 (9)-91 (8)
STRIKEOUTS: Ortiz 124-139
OPS: A-Rod 1.031-1.001

But let’s look at some splits. A-Rod led the AL in at bats with runners in scoring position, with 186; Ortiz had 162. Ortiz hit .352 to A-Rod’s .290, getting three more hits (57-54) and four more extra-base hits (22-18) in 24 fewer at bats. Big Papi drove in 92 runs to A-Rod’s 77 and walked 40 times while striking out just 23 while A-Rod walked 34 times and whiffed 52.

Paring it down even more, we turn to each player’s performance in the late innings of close games. Ortiz came to bat 56 such times to A-Rod’s 47, which worked out well for Boston because he came through. He delivered 12 extra-base hits (3 2B, 9 HR) to A-Rod’s 6 (4 2B, 2 HR) and 20 RBI to A-Rod’s 7. Papi hit .286 to Rodriguez’s .255 and had a decided OPS margin of 1.224-.814. Ortiz also evened out his walks and strikeouts (11 each) while Rodriguez fanned twice as often (14) as he tossed the bat and jogged to first (six).

[Some more numbers were just brought to my attention by the aforementioned — though not named — friend, Will, who happens to be a Yankee fan: A-Rod’s OPS splits with the bases empty/ runners on/ RISP are 1.106/.957/.894. Ortiz’s are .993/1.006/1.043. With runners in scoring position and two outs, A-Rod’s OPS is .940; Ortiz’s 1.226.]

As for self-promotion — or at least “company” promotion — Boston’s game notes for Sunday’s finale pointed out that: 19 of Papi’s HR came in the seventh inning or later; he hit 22 HR in his last 50 (then 51, after the finale) games and 16 HR in his last 35 (36); and slugged a club-record 11 in September.

Finally, 20 of Ortiz’s 47 home runs either tied the game or gave Boston the lead. That’s clutch. That’s valuable. Take Ortiz out of Boston’s lineup, and it’s significantly deflated despite Johnny Damon, Manny Ramirez and Jason Varitek. Lose Rodriguez from the Yankees’? You’ve still got Derek Jeter, Gary Sheffield, Hideki Matsui, Jorge Posada and, to a lesser extent, a resurgent Jason Giambi.

Some will say that A-Rod wasn’t the most valuable player on his team (Mariano Rivera was more important) while others will counter with Ortiz’s mere 10 games in the field. I think the voters will take into account Rodriguez’s fielding — and perhaps base stealing — and name him the MVP. But because of the splits, my vote would go to Ortiz. It remains to be seen if the voters looked that deeply into the numbers.

* * *

Not that it will mean anything, but some may find this interesting: The last time three Yankees eclipsed 110 RBI in the same season was 1938 when Joe DiMaggio (140), Bill Dickey (115) and Lou Gehrig (114) did so. Following A-Rod’s 130 this year were Sheffield’s 123 and Matsui’s 116. In 1938, none of those three Yankees won the MVP. Dickey finished second with three first-place votes and 196 points, 109 behind the winner. DiMaggio was sixth in the voting and Gehrig 19th.

The winner in ’38? Boston’s Jimmie Foxx.

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