- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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And now the September Awards Watch crew takes a look at the brewing American League drama as we head down the stretch:
AL Cy Young
This week's plotline: Will the real big-game pitcher stand up?
Ever since I made a recent case in Rumblings and Grumblings for why America's most dominating 11-game winner, Felix Hernandez, deserves this award, I've gotten bombarded by e-mails from Yankees and Red Sox fans, who have tried their best to explain why King Felix can't possibly win this thing over CC Sabathia or Clay Buchholz.
As loyal reader Jeffrey Wright put it, "Felix has pitched with absolutely no pressure this year" -- essentially because the Mariners were mathematically eliminated on, what, Mother's Day? Well, I can't argue with how bad his team has been. But I can make the point that Felix has still been a big-game pitcher.
He has made a total of 12 starts against five first-place teams this year. He's 6-5 with a 2.71 ERA in those starts. And in eight starts against the Yankees, Twins, Padres and Reds (i.e., everyone but Texas), he's 6-2 with a (ready for this?) 1.37 ERA.
So how does that stack up with, say, CC? Verrry favorably. Sabathia has made only five starts against teams that would make the playoffs if they started today. And he's 3-1 with a 2.62 ERA in those starts against the Rays, Rangers and Phillies.
Want to increase the sample size? Add in the Red Sox, White Sox and Tigers, and he's 6-2 with a 3.86 ERA in 11 starts against "contenders." So has he pitched all that much better against the best teams in baseball? You decide.
OK, you want more? According to Baseball Prospectus, Sabathia has been the "luckiest" pitcher in baseball this year, while Felix has been the "unluckiest." So Sabathia's "support neutral" record should be 17.2-12.8, while Felix's should be 19.5-11.5. In other words, theoretically, if they were pitching the same way for the same team, Hernandez should actually have more wins than CC, not eight fewer.
So does that mean the King -- with 13 or 14 wins -- is really going to win the Cy Young over a guy who wins 20-plus for a first-place team and has, by any measure, had a phenomenal year? I'll believe it when I see it, to be honest. But who should win? We'll be kicking that one around for weeks, for months, maybe even years.
This week's plotline: What happens if Josh Hamilton doesn't get healthy?
Just when it seemed as if this race was over, Hamilton had to go plow into a fence in Minnesota. Now we haven't seen Hamilton on the field in a week and a half. And we have no idea when his aching ribs will stop throbbing.
So here's the question du jour: If Hamilton misses virtually the entire month of September -- which isn't probable, but is certainly possible -- can he still win the MVP award?
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, no position player in history has won an MVP in a non-strike year without playing at least 10 games from Sept. 1 on. And all but Dick Groat (10 games and 35 plate appearances in 1960) played at least 15 games.
Well, at this point, it's looking less and less likely that Hamilton will play 15 games after August this year. At the moment, his entire September body of work consists of two games and six plate appearances. So maybe he still deserves the MVP whether he makes an impact the rest of the way or not. But if he doesn't, well, then who?
Clearly, Miguel Cabrera would win the Prettiest Stats Award. He ranks in the top three in all the Triple Crown categories, leads in OBP and OPS, and has a great shot to break the AL record for intentional walks. (At 30, he's three away.) But his team hasn't been closer than nine games out of any playoff spot in five weeks.
So if we look just at contenders, there's Paul Konerko (top five in a bunch of categories, and having a monster September). And there's Joe Mauer (hitting .370 with a .448 OBP since the break). And there's Evan Longoria (top three in the league, ahead of even Cabrera, in WAR). And there's Robinson Cano (fifth in VORP and OPS-plus), who has been by far the most consistent force on the league's best team, the Yankees.
For the moment, I'm still casting my vote for Hamilton. But if he doesn't show up in a single box score over the next two weeks, get back to me.
My ballot today: (1) Hamilton, (2) Cabrera, (3) Cano, (4) Konerko, (5) Mauer.
AL Rookie of the Year
This week's plotline: Is a great closer more deserving than a great position player?
In Texas, the spectacular Neftali Feliz now stands one save away from tying the hallowed rookie saves record, held by uh, does anybody remember, really?
Correct answer: Kazuhiro Sasaki set that record for the 2000 Mariners. And he was rewarded for it with an AL Rookie of the Year trophy.
But does that mean Feliz deserves one of those trophies himself? Fascinating topic.
There's no doubt he's a great candidate. If you look beyond the saves column, as you should with any relief pitcher, you find a guy who has held opposing hitters to just a .185 batting average, .284 slugging percentage and .542 OPS. And only three relievers in the league -- Mariano Rivera, Joaquin Benoit and Daniel Bard -- beat him in all three categories.
But the problem the voters have to wrestle with is not whether Feliz is deserving. It's whether he's more deserving than an impact position player -- someone like the Tigers' Austin Jackson, for example.
Jackson is on pace to hit .305, score 107 runs, steal 25 bases and get 188 hits. The only player in history to have a year like that in his rookie season was Ichiro Suzuki, back in 2001. And ohbytheway, on the other side of the ball, the Fielding Bible also ranks Jackson as the No. 1 defensive center fielder in baseball.
So who should win? Well, seven different closers have won a Rookie of the Year award, including three in the past decade (Sasaki, Huston Street and Andrew Bailey). But I couldn't find any years in which a closer beat out a position player who played a full season and hit over .300. (Closest call: 2005, when Street topped the .297-hitting Cano.)
There's no rule, of course, that history has to be our guide in this, or any other, awards race. But it sure does provide some intriguing perspective as we head for the finish line. Feel free to absorb every ounce of that perspective -- or toss it in the nearest Dumpster. Just trying to help, if anybody is interested. But as always, stay tuned.
My ballot today: (1) Jackson, (2) Feliz, (3) Wade Davis.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.
Felix Hernandez has "only" 11 wins, but the numbers point to him being the best big-game pitcher in the American League.