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Baker's Dozen: Who are the award-winners?

7/26/2003

Things to consider the rest of the way.

We have had our first team cross the 100-game
threshold, so it is safe to say that the end is in
sight. Not that I'm wishing the season would be over,
mind you. I just bring this up to point out that it's
time to stop thinking in terms of "half-way points"
and look to what the end of the season might bring.

1. The National League MVP Race
When speculating about MVP races, there are two
separate questions that need to be asked:

Who should win the award?

Who will win the award?

To answer the first question, you state your case as
to whom you think should get the hardware. The second
question is answered by playing psychic and trying to
figure out what the voters are going to do. This
practice is based largely on an attempt to gauge what
is in the air; that is, what is being written and said
by those have a vote.

With the latter in mind, my gut instinct is that
Albert Pujols is the frontrunner. Three weeks ago, I
wrote that the award was probably Pujols' to win
because he and Bonds were more comparable than they
were a year ago and voters might well be in the mood
to put a new name at the top of their ballots. Bonds
is still having the better season, but I think that if
the vote were held today, Pujols would win it.

2. The National League Home Run Race
The leader, Bonds, has three main pursuers in Jim
Edmonds, Mike Lowell and Pujols. A dark horse
candidate might come from the next group of Richie
Sexson, Adam Dunn, Jim Thome or Andruw Jones, but they
have a lot of ground to cover and too many people to
leapfrog.

As an addendum to the MVP discussion, should Pujols
beat the odds and cop the Triple Crown, he will not
only win the award, he'll be a unanimous choice. This
would be in spite of the fact that two of the three
points on the crown are slowly but surely losing their
hold on the public imagination. Personally, I don't
care much about RBI, but for those of you who do,
there is an interesting note on what Barry Bonds is doing. If he continues at his current pace, he will
hit 53 home runs while driving in 109. This RBI count
would mark the lowest total ever for somebody who hit
50 or more home runs breaking Brady Anderson's "record" of 110 in 1996. (Of course, Anderson spent a
lot of time batting leadoff. 41 of 50 his homers came
in that mode).

Fewest RBI by 50-homer men:

109: Bonds, 2003 (projected)
110: Anderson, 1996
112: Willie Mays, 1965
113: Mark McGwire, 1996

Among 50-plus homer men, Bonds already holds the
record for the ratio of fewest RBI per home run:

1.88: Bonds, 2001
2.06: Bonds, 2003 (projected)
2.10: McGwire, 1998
2.12: McGwire, 1997

(Jimmie Foxx had the highest rate of 3.50 in 1938 when
he drove in 175 on 50 round trippers.) At 56, Bonds
could also break the record for fewest RBI minus home
runs among 50-homer men currently held by Anderson and
Mays with 60.

3. The American League MVP Race
Fact: Carlos Delgado is having the best season in the league.

Fact: The Blue Jays are not going to the postseason.

Fact: MVP voters prefer their candidates to play in games that "matter."

Voters like RBI, however, and Delgado certainly has
his share of those. He is projecting to 164 which
would be the second-highest total since Foxx's
aforementioned 175 in 1938. On the other hand, the
man who logged the highest total since Foxx was
Manny Ramirez in 1999 and he finished third in the MVP
voting in a very close race.

Speaking of Ramirez, he is one of the quartet of
players who the voters would look to should they
decide not to reward the very best season. The others
are Bret Boone of Seattle and Jason Giambi and Alfonso
Soriano of the Yankees. As of this moment, there
isn't a whole lot separating them, and they all play on
teams that figure to be in the hunt until near the
very end at the least.

4. Will the Seniors continue to dominate?
When the Marlins failed to follow minority hiring
practices in the process of hiring Jack McKeon, much
negative ado was made about his "advanced" age of 72.

I thought this was deeply hypocritical in terms of
considering diversity of hiring practices. Shouldn't
there be diversity in terms of age as well? The truth
is, the older managers are doing better this year than
their younger counterparts. In fact, Jeff Torborg --
the man McKeon replaced -- is the only manager over the
age of 60 who has had a losing record in 2003 so far.
Felipe Alou, Bobby Cox, Joe Torre, Frank Robinson and
McKeon all have their teams playing over .500. This
makes them the most successful managerial demographic:

Managers records by age (through Saturday)

60-plus: .588
50-59: .496
Under 50: .470

The 60-plus number is bound to drop a little after
August 28. That is the day Lou Piniella turns 60 and
his Devil Rays' 31 remaining games from that point are
thrown into the mix.

5. The ageless wonder that is Rickey Henderson
Speaking of age, how is it that a society that it is
eating its way into diabetic oblivion has produced
Rickey Henderson? As was once written about Dorian
Gray and Dick Clark, somewhere there is a painting of
him aging away (although in this case it might be a
statue rather than a painting because he still looks
chiseled).

Come to think of it, Henderson is very much
a product of our processed sugar-driven society in
that he says he must eat ice cream or something sweet
every night before bed. What sets him apart from the
rest of us -- the baseball skills aside -- is all the
exercise he does. The countless push-ups and sit-ups,
the running, the stretching -- for him it keeps his
career alive. For the rest of us, it could mean the
difference between life and death.

While his batting average has gone completely to ruin,
it is interesting to note that Henderson's power
numbers are actually better between the ages of 42-44
(.133 isolated power) than 20-22 (.095).

His return with the Dodgers means he could soon join the
exclusive 300 HR/1,400 SB Club. (Let that bit of
silliness be the final word on number clubs.) How safe
is Henderson's stolen base record? Consider that the
closest active player under the age of 30 is Luis
Castillo with 243. We have learned not to call records
unbreakable, but Henderson's stolen base record will
remain unassailable until such time as baseball
undergoes an earth-shaking change in how the game is
played.

6. Detroit's date with infamy
The Tigers are not going to finish with a worse record
than the '62 Mets or the '35 Braves or the '16 A's. In
order to do that they would have to play even worse
than they already have and I just don't see how that
is possible. They are, however, going to get closer
than any team has in a long time. In order for them to
escape the ignominy of a sub-.300 winning percentage,
they are going to have to jump through some hoops --
hoops that have proven to be unjumpable for them to
this point.

I think it's safe to say that avoiding 100 losses is
out of the question. In order to do so, they would
have win 36 of their last 65 games. Those in business
know the best way to motivate someone is to set
reasonable, achievable goals. What would this be for
the Tigers? I would say finishing with a plus-.300
record. In order to do this they must win one of every three games for the remainder of the season,
going 22-43 in the process.

Why is this an important goal? Because, apart from
those Mets and the 1952 Pirates, teams just don't lose
more than 70 percent of their games anymore. It's one thing to be a
laughing stock, it's another to be an anachronism.

7. The National League Cy Young Award
For the first time in a long time, a Cy Young Award
might be handed to a reliever. What is more
surprising, the reliever might actually deserve it. No
starting pitchers in the National League have struck a
clear and free claim on the award yet and into that
vacuum have moved John Smoltz of the Braves and Eric Gagne of the Dodgers.

Jason Schmidt very much deserved his starting All-Star
Game gig because he has been the best pitcher in his
league so far this year -- as was his starting
opponent, Esteban Loaiza. The trouble is, Schmidt is a
little short on the key ingredient that Cy Young
voters like: wins. He's on pace to win about 17 or 18
games. There is a very similar season that did garner
the Cy Young for a pitcher, Randy Johnson in 1999:

2003 Schmidt: 17-7, 2.41 ERA, .98 WHIP (projected)
1999 Johnson: 17-9, 2.48 ERA, 1.02 WHIP

Oh, there is the little matter of Johnson's 364
strikeouts. Schmidt will fall about 110-120 shy of
that at his current pace. If the voters' thirst for
wins or strikeouts cannot be slaked by Schmidt, the
starters on pace to win 20 or more could move into
consideration. The trouble is, Woody Williams of the
Cardinals and Russ Ortiz of the Braves have ERAs a run
higher than Schmidt and Kevin Brown of the Dodgers,
another candidate. If we write off the minus-20 win
crowd and the plus-3.00 ERA group, we might end up
with a null set. It is this lack of a pitcher taking
control of the race to this point that might pave the
way for Smoltz (or Gagne should Smoltz falter) to
become the first reliever since Dennis Eckersley in
1992 to win the award and the first National League reliever
since Mark Davis in 1989.

Smoltz has demonstrated an intolerance for opponent
scoring that has him projecting to break the all-time
saves record -- one that has lasted a surprising 13
years. That, combined with a sub-1.00 ERA and the lack
of a dominant starting candidate, gives him an
excellent chance.

8. The American League Cy Young Award
The implied requirement that the winner come from a
champion is far more stringent in the MVP voting than
it is in the Cy Young Award -- especially in the
American League over the past eight seasons. Each of
the past eight AL MVPs have played for first-place
clubs while only three of the Cy Young Award winners
have.

Team finishes for the major awards, 1995-2002:

AL MVP: 1st: 8
NL Cy Young: 1st: 6; 2nd: 0, 3rd: 1; 4th: 1
NL MVP: 1st: 4; 2nd: 3; 3rd: 1
AL Cy Young: 1st: 3; 2nd: 2; 3rd: 1; 4th: 1, 5th: 1

If past experience is any indication, this is good
news for Esteban Loaiza, the pitcher having the best
season to date, but who plays for a team that could
finish as low as third place. Roy Halladay of the Blue
Jays could finish with a serious amount of victories
and has a WHIP comparable to that of Loaiza's, but he gets a full three runs more per game in support
than does Esteban.

One thing to remember about a Cy Young bid: it can go
astray much faster than its MVP counterpart. Three or
four bad outings can really derail a candidacy in a
way that it would take a prolonged slump for a
position player to experience the same downturn in
fortune. Let us not forget Curt Schilling in 2002 who,
at one time, seemed like a lock to either win the
award or come very close to dethroning Randy Johnson.

If Loaiza reverts, Halladay, Mark Mulder and Tim
Hudson are loitering near the vacuum that would
create. There is this to consider, too: somebody like
Pedro Martinez could win 10 of his last 13 starts and
finish at 17-4 or 17-5 with the best ERA in the
league, further clouding the picture.

9. The American League most-likely-to-succeed award
I first considered that there should be an official award
with this title when Barry Bonds broke in with the
Pirates in 1986 and did not quite set the world on
fire. The writers were not entirely unreasonable when
they voted him the sixth-best rookie in the National
League that year behind Todd Worrell, Robby Thompson,
Kevin Mitchell, Charlie Kerfeld (!) and Will Clark.
The mandate for the Rookie of the Year Award is this:
name that player who had the best rookie season. In
1986, that was clearly Worrell.

Now, a different question is this one: which rookie
looks like he has the most promise and will have the
best career? In other words, who gets that old high
school yearbook title of "most likely to succeed?" In
1986, I thought that player had to have been Bonds,
given all the hype he was generating and the flashes
of brilliance he showed. As it turns out, by the time
he is done, his career Bill James Win Shares will
exceed those of the five players combined who finished ahead of
him in the ROY balloting.

So, then, while Hideki Matsui, a mid-career
professional, is on his way to wrapping up the
American League Rookie of the Year Award, what rookie
deserves the ML2S Trophy? Rocco Baldelli? Mark Teixeira? Francisco Rodriguez? Rich Harden?

The thing about this award is that one does not have
to excel in order to cop it. One only has to have the
promise of a great future to get it. Hence, a player
like Harden can be included for consideration even if
he only makes five or six starts.

10. The National League most likely to succeed award
The ML2S can also function as a consolation prize for
a player who did not win the ROY -- provided the player
is young enough. Brandon Webb is having a nice time of
it with the Diamondbacks, but is going to be
hard-pressed to beat out the careening bandwagon of
Dontrelle Willis at voting time. He'd be a perfect
candidate for the ML2S, although at 24, he's about the
upper age limit of what you're looking for in
predicting a nice career. This award would be better
for players like Jose Reyes of the Mets or Miguel Cabrera of the Marlins.

11. The Bonds pursuit of Hank Aaron's all-time home run record
Recent protestations to the contrary on the part of
the pursuer, I think Hank Aaron's all-time home run
record of 755 is toast. Here's an unscientific, but
interesting notion: what if Barry Bonds' home run
totals ebbed and flowed exactly as Hank Aaron's did at
the same age on a percentage basis? Would he break
Aaron's record?

Yes, he would, hitting about 150 home runs from this
point forward so that he approaches 800 when done.
Let's drop that 62 to a more realistic 40. He still
gets it with room to spare. Given the advances in
body shaping since Aaron's time, 150 more home runs
for Bonds is nothing like a stretch. Barring a
catastrophic injury (an "incident" injury like a
collision or disastrous slide), the record is his for
the taking. That is, unless he truly doesn't want it.
Frankly, it seems hard to believe that he would walk
away from the game with such a proposition still on
the table.

12. The American League batting title race
There will come a time within the next decade that
batting average will take its final step backward away
from its status as the stat of first choice when
describing a player. Currently, box scores list an
update on players' batting averages. Of course, this
tells us about a third of the story of how productive
they are. A much better shorthand number to install in
a box score would be OPS (on base average plus
slugging average) or some derivation of that stat that
redresses the importance of OBP over SA.

Until that time comes, however, batting average keeps
its tenuous hold on the popular imagination. Ichiro
Suzuki is looking very solid to win his second batting
title as it is likely that Melvin Mora will not be
able to sustain his out-of-body, 80-points-higher-than-career .345 mark. Nobody else is
even close at this point and those that are remotely in the picture (Trot Nixon and Bill Mueller among them) would have to
seriously outperform themselves to get to the .350 or
so it's going to take to top Ichiro.

Jim Baker writes Monday through Friday for ESPN Insider. He can be reached at jimbakerespn@yahoo.com.