Commentary

Handicapping the major award races

With a month to go, it's Votto over Pujols in NL MVP and King Felix for AL Cy

Updated: September 3, 2010, 10:35 AM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

It's September, and you know what that means.

Time to buy those 75 back-to-school notebooks. Time to determine whether there's room on your fantasy football roster for Legedu Naanee. And time, of course, for the baseball season to turn up the fun meter.

Now the bad news is, we're not quite overflowing with playoff races. But the good news is, picking a winner for the major individual awards has never been tougher. So Rumblings is here to gallop to the rescue, to handicap those award races with a month left 'til the finish line.

You don't have to burn out many brain cells to make a case for Joey Votto. He rolled into September in position to become just the ninth winner in the past half-century of the modern Triple Crown (batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage). But he also leads the league in RBIs. He's tied for third in homers. He's No. 1 in most of the major sabermetric categories (OPS+, offensive win percentage, win probability added, etc.) And his team is stampeding away with the National League Central.

NL MVP

But unfortunately for him -- and for the MVP voters -- the season will keep on going for another month. And that's where this gets hairy. Albert Pujols and Carlos Gonzalez also sit right there in the top five in all three traditional Triple Crown categories. And friends, that's a lot rarer than a solar eclipse.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, you have to go all the way back to 1966 to find the last time three players in the same league finished in the top five in all three Triple Crown departments (with Frank Robinson, Boog Powell and Harmon Killebrew doing the honors in the American League back then).

But at least in '66, Robinson made it easy on those MVP voters. He won the Triple Crown, and his team had the best record in baseball. But what happens this year if Pujols or Gonzalez wins the trifecta but his team doesn't make the postseason? Who's the MVP then? And if this race is tight, how do the voters make sense of Gonzalez's dramatic home/road splits (.386/.431/.781 at Coors, .275/.296/.437 at sea level)?

And then there's one more fundamental question, which NL MVP voters have to wrestle with every darned year: Is any player really more valuable than Sir Albert?

"Without Albert Pujols, the Cardinals are done -- but you could say that every year," one NL scout said. "So what you've got to decide is if anybody else has truly superseded him."

That's never a fun call to make. But if the Cardinals keep fading, it could turn out to be easier than usual. Or not.

NL Cy Young

Good luck to anybody who has to figure out how to vote for this award. Heck, if we can't find room for Mat Latos, Chris Carpenter or Johan Santana on our five-name ballot, you know it's impossible.

Roy Halladay, Adam Wainwright, Tim Hudson and Josh Johnson are all within six-hundredths of a run of one another in ERA. And then there's Jimenez, who has had a magical year, has to pitch at Coors Field, leads the league in road ERA and has held opposing hitters to a piddling .200 average and .280 slugging percentage in his six losses. So have fun sorting this one out.

But for now, this feels like Halladay's trophy to lose. He's within one win and three ERA points of winning the pitchers' Triple Crown (wins, ERA, strikeouts). He leads the league in virtually all the big sabermetric indicators (WARP, adjusted pitcher wins, adjusted pitcher runs, win probability added, ERA+).

Halladay is on pace to become just the third pitcher in the live-ball era to lead his league in most strikeouts and fewest walks per nine innings in the same year (joining Urban Shocker in 1922 and Robin Roberts in 1954). And maybe the biggest factor of all is that he's the ultimate bullpen saver. This guy has faced 37 more hitters than any other pitcher in his league, and only three other starters are even within 80 of him.

"Roy Halladay is just a special guy," the same NL scout said. "Remember, the expectations on this guy coming in were huge. And he's met all those expectations and performed. And he just keeps doing it, pitching deep in games and saving his bullpen. He's like Greg Maddux used to be. You get into September, and you realize you've got two or three relievers who are a little fresher because of what that guy has done for five months."

NL Rookie of the Year

Help! We have to cast an NL Rookie of the Year ballot ourselves in a few weeks. And there are way too many right answers in play to think we'll be able to fill out our way-too-short three-man ballot and feel good about it.

For one thing, Gaby Sanchez, Starlin Castro, Ike Davis, Jon Jay, Chris Johnson, Tyler Colvin, Neil Walker, Mike Stanton, Jonny Venters, Mike Leake, Jonathon Niese and Stephen Strasburg didn't even make that top three we just listed. That's a mess right there.

And then how do you separate the guys who made that top three?

Jaime Garcia has a lower ERA (2.33) after 25 starts than any rookie pitcher since Mark Fidrych, and he has done it all in the middle of a pennant race.

Buster Posey is hitting .329, leading all NL rookies in slugging (.503) and has a chance to be just the fourth rookie since baseball defined "rookies" in 1957 (joining only Pujols in 2001, Fred Lynn in 1975 and Rico Carty in 1964) to reach both those levels in a season of 400 plate appearances or more.

And how about Jason Heyward? His .392 on-base percentage has been matched or beaten over a full season by exactly five other players this young in the live-ball era. See if you recognize the other five: Mel Ott, Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Alex Rodriguez and Al Kaline. Yikes.

So try to pick a winner among those three. They haven't merely been great. They've been historically great.

"The one area where Heyward stands out is he can beat you every way a player can beat you -- power, speed, defense, arm," the same NL scout said. "He's the guy I most don't want to face, because he can change the game in both halves of the inning."

But then the same scout laughed and told us: "All I can say is, I'm glad you're voting and not me."

AL MVP

There are compelling cases to be made for Miguel Cabrera and Robinson Cano, who have both had spectacular years for teams that wouldn't have been the same without them.

But right now, this is Josh Hamilton's award to lose.

If Hamilton keeps pounding at his current rate, he has an excellent shot at hitting .360 with 40 homers and 50 doubles. And you know how many men in American League history have had a season like that? How about one -- Lou Gehrig, in 1927.

Maybe Hamilton's knee issues will screw up that quest and reopen the MVP discussion. But he's clearly put himself in position to become the sixth No. 1 overall pick in history to collect an MVP trophy. (The others: Joe Mauer, Alex Rodriguez, Chipper Jones, Ken Griffey Jr. and Jeff Burroughs.)

AL Cy Young

If there has ever been an award race that loomed as a referendum on where we stand on New Age versus Old Time award values, this is it. We're about to find out exactly how sabermetrified our trusty Cy Young electorate has become.

If this were 1963, or even 2003, there's no doubt who would win this Cy Young. That would be Sabathia, a big-time ace who is 19-5, has gone 15-2 since the beginning of June, just ripped off a streak of 16 straight quality starts and has a shot to become the AL's first 24-game winner in two decades.

So for voters fixated on the old win column, Sabathia currently owns eight more wins than King Felix. And it wouldn't shock anyone, given the state of their two teams, if that gap inflated to nine, or 10 or 11 wins by the end of the season.

OK, so then what?

It's one thing for the voters to hand a Cy Young to 15- and 16-game winners over a 19-game winner, the way they did last year for Tim Lincecum and Zack Greinke. It's another thing to deliver a Cy Young to a 13-game winner over, say, a 22-game winner.

But remember, this is a performance award, period. And King Felix leads the league in every meaningful sabermetric pitching stat on Earth except adjusted ERA+ (where Buchholz is No. 1 -- and Sabathia ranks ninth).

Even if you compare more traditional numbers, though, Hernandez has an ERA that's three-quarters of a run lower than Sabathia's, an opponent OPS that's 74 points lower, more innings pitched, a better strikeout rate and a better WHIP.

So if you truly analyze the big picture, Buchholz (your ERA leader) and Wilson (whose team is 15-2 in his past 17 starts) should rank ahead of Sabathia in this race. But are voters really ready to ignore that win column completely? We'll find out. Won't we?

AL Rookie of the Year

This AL rookie donnybrook isn't quite as insane as the NL tussle. But we still find ourselves leaving the likes of Sergio Santos, Brennan Boesch, Carlos Santana, John Jaso and Danny Valencia out of this top three. So it's still a heck of a field.

Neftali Feliz has been fabulous in a critical bullpen gig for the Rangers and Wade Davis has done well as a starting pitcher for the Rays. But Austin Jackson has had the most impact on his team of any rookie in his league during the season's first five months.

If he just keeps doing what he's been doing, he'll hit .300, get 190 hits, score 100 runs and steal 25 bases. And the only other rookie who has done all that in the official rookie era is Ichiro Suzuki. But of course, Ichiro had actually been doing that stuff for years on the other side of the Pacific. Jackson is doing it at age 23 in his first year in a new organization (Detroit).

"Plus, he's played an unbelievable center field," one scout said. "And unlike the pitchers, it's been everyday production -- and he's maintained it."

Then again, Jackson is also on course to lead the league in strikeouts, which isn't exactly an ideal trait for a leadoff man. And if his contact issues worsen, the course of September events still could rewrite his rookie of the year script.

But that's why they play. And that's why nobody has to vote for five more weeks. And that's why we'll be watching September verrrrry closely no matter what happens in a standings column near you.

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.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com