Thursday, November 5, 2009

Another Season's Baseball Awards

Now that the Yankees have won their 27th franchise World Series and the baseball season has come to a sad close, it's time to start thinking about the awards. Sure, CC Sabathia was the American League Championship Series MVP, Ryan Howard his counterpart in the NLCS, and now Hideki Matsui has been named the 2009 World Series MVP, but those are the tip of the iceberg in terms of this season's awards.

The Hank Aaron Award has already been handed out to the National League's Albert Pujols and the American League's Derek Jeter, both legendary hitters in their own right, though the American League's Joe Mauer may have been more deserving. The Roberto Clemente Award, an award given to a player who has notable off-the-field contributions, was awarded to Derek Jeter (quite the year for the Yankees captain who adds a fifth world championship ring to his collection). And the Gold Glove winners for both leagues will be announced in the coming weeks.

But the one award that the fans have a chance to vote on, something similar to the voting for the all-star game, are MLB.com's This Year In Baseball Awards. What is great about these awards is that you're not simply voting for the best at each position or even based on the best statistics, you're voting on the best hitters, period, the best pitchers, period, and the greatest (and strangest) plays of the season. This kind of voting is for fans who have watched a great number of games, seen hundreds of hits and plays, and really have had the dedication all season to vote for these awards. Fans like me. So, here are my picks for MLB.com's This Year In Baseball Awards:

Hitter: Hanley Ramirez, Florida Marlins
(.324 average, 106 RBIs, 24 homers, 27 stolen bases)

Now, you may be wondering why in a category with Ryan Howard, Prince Fielder, Derek Jeter, Joe Mauer and Albert Pujols, I would pick the relatively young and unknown Ramirez, but the truth of the matter is, if Hanley Ramirez played for either New York team, for Philly, Boston, or out in L.A., he'd be just as big and well known as any of the top-tier hitters in today's game. Playing for a team that is more often than not the spoiler in the National League East, but not a contender (at least not since they traded away Josh Beckett, A.J. Burnett, Miguel Cabrera and Dontrell Willis), Ramirez is a standout. There may not have been that many fans in the seats at Land Shark Stadium when he hit .342 this season, but that doesn't make Hanley Ramirez any less of a hitter. And he is a superb shortstop in a division heavy on talent in that position (he more than stacks up against Jimmy Rollins, Jose Reyes, and Yunel Escobar).

Starter: (Tie) Chris Carpenter, St. Louis Cardinals/Javier Vazquez, Atlanta Braves

Because This Year In Baseball Awards don't have a "comeback player of the year" category, I am tossing Chris Carpenter into this tie for starting pitcher. Carpenter had been out of the game for nearly two full seasons and underwent two surgeries in that time. Nobody expected Carpenter to come back to the show this year and pitch as phenomenally as he did. Not even Chris Carpenter expected it. His 17-4, 2.24 ERA can't go unnoticed here.

I don't just say this as a Braves fan--Javier Vazquez is one of the forgotten talents of the game. When Frank Wren and the Braves brought Derek Lowe to Atlanta, it was an unspoken belief that he would settle in as Atlanta's ace. What the Braves' front office and Braves' fans in general hadn't anticipated was that Javier Vazquez would return to his world champion form. Vazquez not only won 15 of his starts, a 15-10 record, his ERA led the Braves starters at 2.87 (that's almost 2 whole runs higher than Derek Lowe who finished the season also with 15-10, but with a 4.67 ERA). Something else amazing happened when Vazquez came to Atlanta--he became a veteran voice among the pitching staff. He may have made his debut in the big leagues a year after Derek Lowe, but that hasn't stopped him from teaching young Tommy Hanson and Kris Medlen a thing or two about how you pitch to major league hitters. This guy finished 12-16 with an ERA of 4.67 last season with the White Sox and then comes to Atlanta to put down these solid numbers? I guess both my picks here are somewhat comeback player material.

Rookie: (Tie) J.A. Happ, Philadelphia Phillies/Tommy Hanson, Atlanta Braves

Being a rookie pitcher is a tough job. Not a lot of rookie pitchers come up to the majors with a clear idea of what role they'll be playing for any given franchise. These days pitchers are considered bullpen pitchers until they're not. Unless you're a strong, proven starter like Stephen Strasburg, it might take awhile for a team to figure out where you fit. Both the Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies wasted no time with their rookie starters. J.A. Happ was thrown in as a starting pitcher due to the injury of Brett Myers and he proved his worth. Happ finished 12-4, something like 7-0 in his first 7 starts, and went to the bullpen near the end of the season (once the Phillies had Pedro Martinez and Cliff Lee in their lineup) to throw some excellent games there. And he pitched in the World Series...not too bad for a rookie. Matching him nearly identically in numbers, Tommy Hanson had a great rookie year as well. The difference? The Phillies won the NL East and went to the post season so more people saw Happ. Otherwise, Hanson is just as stellar.

Manager: Mike Scioscia, L.A. Angels of Anaheim

Mike Scioscia did something no manager ever wants to have to do--he lost a player to tragedy and held the rest of the team together in the wake of that tragedy. I don't think enough can be said about Mike Scioscia and the way he has managed the Angels. The Angels have had a great run since 2000 when Mike Scioscia took over. They play more like a National League team, the running game and all. Since he took over as manager, the Angels have won their division 5 times, won the World Series once, and an American League pennant. All of those numbers say nothing to the way Scioscia has kept the team together, focused and on track since the loss of Nick Adenhart. Scioscia should win MLB's award for Manager of the Year as well.

Closer: Mariano Rivera, New York Yankees

I'm no fan of the Yankees, but even I can see greatness when it is in front of me. Rivera deserves to win for his performance in the postseason as well as for the milestone of 500 career saves. There's a place in Cooperstown for Mo Rivera. And if you can't see that, you're just not a fan of the game.

Setup: N/A

Defense: Yadier Molina, St. Louis Cardinals

There are great defensive players throughout the game that deserve to be recognized for their defense and will be when the gold glove awards are rolled out, but the one player who is always noted for his defense is the youngest of the catching Molina brothers, Yadier. If you've ever seen Yadier stop a slider in the dirt, throw around a lefthanded batter and pick off a runner at first, you know exactly what I'm talking about. If you've never seen Yadier Molina in action, you're missing one of the great talents in the game.

Performance & Play: Mark Buehrle & Dwayne Wise, Chicago White Sox

Because I picked them both, these two awards are combined as far as I'm concerned. Mark Buerhle pitched a perfect game this season and deserves to be recognized for it. The fact that the feat of a perfect game has only been achieved 18 times in the entire history of baseball speaks volumes to the magical day Mark Buehrle had in July against Tampa Bay. And one very big part of that magical day was Dwayne Wise and the stunning catch he made to preserve perfection. The stars must have aligned that day and it truly couldn't have happened to a more decent, deserving pitcher.

Moment: Pudge Rodriguez, Houston Astros/Texas Rangers

There were some great moments this season and each of those on the ballot this year are deserving. It was touching when the Angels trotted out to the outfield wall where their departed teammate's picture reminded them of all they had overcome this season. It was nothing short of spectacular to watch Jacobi Ellsbury steal home off Andy Pettitte. There were great moments all around, but for me, a fan of Pudge Rodriquez for as long as I can remember, it was really awesome the day Pudge dawned the catching gear and took to the field surpassing the record of another Pudge, Carlton "Pudge" Fisk, and becoming the man to hold the record for all-time games caught.

Oddity: Teddy gets wiped out at Nationals Stadium

Sure there are other stadiums with mascot races and other unusual antics to entertain the fans during pitching changes and between innings, but one of the great races happens every home game at Nationals Stadium between four poor fools who put on the costumes of our nation's greatest presidents. Teddy Roosevelt being wiped out by a pirogi takes the prize for being not only one of the stranger things to ever happen at a baseball game, but one of the funniest. Make sure to watch the clip a couple of times, I swear it gets funnier every time I see it!

Executive: N/A

Unsung Star: Ben Zobrist, Tampa Bay Rays

Jayson Werth of the Philadelphia Phillies got his due--two consecutive years as a starting outfielder in the World Series. So without Werth, my allegiances fall to Ben Zobrist of the Rays mainly because he carried my fantasy baseball team this year, but also because his numbers are unreal. Had the Rays not won the ALCS last year, the televised games I caught this year wouldn't have included the Rays as often as they did and I wouldn't have even known who Ben Zobrist was. All those televised weekend games with the Rays and all those touch 'em all appearances on Baseball Tonight caught my attention and Zobrist, playing for the Rays' injured second baseman, was the sole reason I didn't finish in last place this season. Fantasy baseball teams have to factor in somehow, right?

So we say goodbye to another baseball season and hello to a long winter of trades, talks and limited happenings. Until next year when spring training begins and we do it all over again. Happily, though hopefully with a little less pirogi.

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