- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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It's time for the weekly ESPN.com awards update, and I've been asked to weigh in with some observations even though I exhausted all my credibility by mentioning Alex Rodriguez's RBI total in a recent column. Citing the RBI as a relevant stat is the baseball analyst's equivalent of admitting that I still use a landline at home.
Which players are in the lead, and which awards are still up for grabs as the final week of the regular season begins? Let's give it a whirl.
National League MVP
This week's plotline: Joey Votto has weathered "Rocktember."
Troy Tulowitzki couldn't afford any letdowns if he planned on winning the MVP, and that 2-for-16 stretch during Colorado's recent road trip did a number on his candidacy. Carlos Gonzalez fared better on the trip (8-for-23, .348), but the Rockies' late fold has put a major crimp in the CarGo-Tulo MVP momentum.
Is there any way Votto doesn't have this thing salted away? He leads the league with a 1.033 OPS, and he's been a monument to consistency for a team that's about to clinch its first postseason berth in 15 years. Since a .275 April, Votto has monthly averages of .344, .314, .362, .333 and .311 from May through September. Entering Sunday's game in San Diego, Votto had 18 homers and 54 RBIs at home and 18 homers and 54 RBIs on the road. He homered and drove in three runs in a blowout victory over the Padres to put his road production in the lead.
Votto's candidacy will receive a nice peripheral bump in the next day or two when the Reds wrap up the NL Central title and his teammates pay tribute to him for leading the way. In November, he should join Larry Walker and Justin Morneau as the third Canadian-born ballplayer to win an MVP.
NL Cy Young
This week's plotline: Has Doc locked it up?
Adam Wainwright led the National League with 19 wins last season and finished third in the Cy Young balloting behind Tim Lincecum and teammate Chris Carpenter. This year, he could very well run into a 6-foot, 6-inch Roy Halladay buzz saw.
Halladay and Wainwright were the league's first two 20-game winners, and the comparisons are similar almost across the board. They each have 213 strikeouts, and it's almost a dead heat in quality starts and WHIP. Halladay has a slight lead in innings pitched, and Wainwright has allowed fewer hits but almost twice as many walks. Finally, Halladay should get some bonus points for that perfect game in May.
Despite St. Louis' well-documented offensive issues, the Cardinals have been relatively productive with Wainwright on the mound. They've averaged 6.21 runs per nine innings while Wainwright was the pitcher of record. The Phillies, in contrast, have averaged only 5.14 runs behind Halladay.
This vote ultimately could come down to perception. There's a huge downer vibe in St. Louis, and although that's no fault of Wainwright's, it's unlikely to benefit the Cardinals in postseason awards balloting. Halladay was the overwhelming Cy Young favorite entering the season, and he has done nothing to dispel that perception.
As an aside, want to know which starting pitcher leads the National League in WHIP? It's Philadelphia's Roy Oswalt, at 1.03. If the Phils had acquired Little Roy a month earlier, we might be talking about him as a leading Cy Young candidate.
NL Rookie of the Year
This week's plotline: Can Jason Heyward help bring it home for Bobby Cox?
Catcher Buster Posey wins big points for putting up an .882 OPS while overseeing a high-profile pitching staff in a pennant race in San Francisco. If you need evidence of how difficult those dual responsibilities are, consider Matt Wieters' learning curve for a losing team in Baltimore.
Conversely, Posey loses points in the rookie of the year race for a decision that was beyond his scope: He didn't arrive from Triple-A Fresno until late May, and Atlanta right fielder Jason Heyward and several other players had a major head start by that point.
Heyward took the lead with a monster two weeks in late August, but the pendulum might be shifting back toward the Bay Area. Posey has six home runs in 76 at-bats in September, and Heyward, like several other Braves, is going cold at the wrong time. He's hitting .138 (4-for-29) with no extra-base hits and no RBIs in Atlanta's past eight games. The Braves, 10-14 in September, will have to sweat it out at home against Florida and Philadelphia this week to outlast San Francisco or San Diego for the wild card.
Heyward, an exceptional baserunner and defender, is probably still the favorite because he's been around since Opening Day. But in a race this close, a big final week could significantly alter the equation.
My ballot today: (1) Heyward, (2) Posey, (3) Neil Walker.
American League MVP
This week's plotline: "Paging Josh Hamilton "
Texas outfielder Josh Hamilton hopes to return this week in advance of the Rangers' first postseason appearance in 11 years. A few more plate appearances also might give voters something to remember other than Hamilton riding a stationary bike and taking swings in the cage. That's basically all he has done since he went down with two fractured ribs three weeks ago.
Even though Hamilton has appeared in only 130 games, his "counting" numbers have held up surprisingly well. He still has four more hits than Miguel Cabrera, and he ranks among the league's top 10 in runs (94), doubles (40) and home runs (31). Hamilton is first in the AL in batting at .361 and in OPS at 1.049, and FanGraphs gives him a WAR (wins above replacement) number of 8.0. That's the best in baseball.
Although voters might be hesitant to give the MVP to a player who has missed most of September, they're even less inclined to honor players from also-ran teams. Alex Rodriguez of the 2003 Rangers is the only MVP winner in the past decade who played for a club that failed to finish first or second in its division. It happened only twice in the previous decade, when Larry Walker of the 1997 Colorado Rockies and Cal Ripken Jr. of the 1991 Baltimore Orioles won the award. That precedent doesn't bode well for Cabrera's candidacy.
AL Cy Young
This week's plotline: It might be Felix Hernandez's award to lose now.
I talked to former Seattle manager Don Wakamatsu last week, and he expressed amazement at Hernandez's personal and professional growth this season. "He's elevated his game tenfold over the last year and a half," Wakamatsu said. "The workload and his tenacity to want to finish ballgames are awfully special for such a young pitcher."
King Felix actually might have benefited, perceptionwise, from the loss that dropped his record to 12-12. While the electorate was at rapt attention, he gave up a first-inning homer to Jose Bautista and lost 1-0 to Toronto despite a complete-game two-hitter. In Hernandez's 12 losses this season, the Mariners have scored a total of seven runs while he was in the game. The more people see him pitch, the better chance he has of garnering the sympathy vote.
Hernandez leads the American League with 227 strikeouts and a 2.31 ERA. In the past 20 seasons, a total of 13 pitchers have led the league in those two categories, and 12 have won the Cy Young. The only exception was Pedro Martinez in 2002, when he lost out to Barry Zito.
Hernandez will have another high-profile start Tuesday when he takes on Cliff Lee and the Rangers in Arlington. He'll go again in the season finale against Oakland, and a 14-12 record would look a heck of a lot better than 12-14.
Meanwhile, CC Sabathia will try to bounce back from a rough outing against Tampa Bay and go into the playoffs on a high note. As great as Sabathia has been, he might not even be Hernandez's principal competition anymore. Clay Buchholz is the only AL starter whose ERA is within a half-point of Hernandez's, but his innings total will be his undoing. Jon Lester has 19 wins, 220 strikeouts and a 2.96 ERA. Jered Weaver has quietly had an amazing season, and David Price, Justin Verlander and Trevor Cahill all merit a place in the conversation.
My ballot today: (1) Hernandez, (2) Sabathia, (3) Lester, (4) Price, (5) Weaver.
AL Rookie of the Year
This week's plotline: It's still a two-man race.
Austin Jackson still leads the major leagues with a .403 batting average on balls in play -- a tick or two ahead of Josh Hamilton, Carlos Gonzalez and Joey Votto. Yes, we know he's been fortunate to find a lot of holes. Jackson also has 163 strikeouts and is a lock to lead the American League in that category.
But Jackson deserves a lot of credit for maintaining his production through fatigue, scouting reports, and two or three trips around the league. He also covers an inordinate amount of ground in a spacious center field at Comerica Park, and The Fielding Bible ranks him first in the majors in runs saved at the position.
So whom do you like -- the athletic kid who's so quickly coming into his own with Detroit, or the petrol-throwing closer in Texas? All things considered, we'd usually take the regular over the reliever, but Neftali Feliz has been awfully good for the Rangers. He has a 1.65 ERA in 27 appearances since the All-Star break, and opponents are hitting .090 against him on the road. Could that be enough to help Feliz join Kazuhiro Sasaki, Huston Street and Andrew Bailey as the fourth closer since 2000 to win the AL's top rookie award?
My ballot today: (1) Feliz, (2) Jackson, (3) Wade Davis.
Josh Hamilton and Joey Votto remain the top MVP candidates heading into the final week of the regular season, but there are still some close calls in most of the awards races.