If there’s one thing in baseball on which few agree, it’s the criteria
for the Most Valuable Player and Cy Young awards. Why this is so
puzzles me, but the awards always seem to end up on the mantle of the
player with the most RBI or the pitcher with the most wins, or the
player or pitcher doing the best for a team that wasn’t expected to win
but did. It’s hard enough to judge who was the best without bringing
extraneous considerations into the picture.
This year, at the least in the National League, there is no such debate — the best player is clearly Chicago first baseman Derrek Lee. His first half was so impressive that entering the second half with a legitimate shot at the Triple Crown might be the least of his accomplishments. Lee ranks first in the league in batting average (.378), on-base average (.452), slugging (.733), and home runs (27). He’s second in both runs and RBI — the latter achievement being all the more impressive considering that the two men most often hitting ahead of him in the lineup are Neifi Perez, who sports a .287 OBA, and Corey Patterson, whose .270 mark got him sent to the minors. On a team that’s been riddled by injuries, poor performances, and bad managing, Lee has more or less single-handedly kept the Cubs within a hot streak of the wild card with big hit after big hit, 10 steals, and Gold Glove defense.
In the American League, where there are at least five candidates for whom a serious case could be made, the question is a bit dicier. Right off, I think designated hitters David Ortiz and Travis Hafner can be passed over. No matter how impressive their hitting statistics — Hafner ranks first in the league in OPS, Ortiz fourth, and both have consistently come through with huge hits to help propel their teams into contention — neither contributes at all in the field, and so they suffer when compared to several players at key defensive positions.
As good as Alex Rodriguez has been with the bat, his uncharacteristically stone-handed play in the field — he’s made 10 errors this year, as compared to 13 last year, and seems to have lost more than a bit of range — removes him from consideration when two players at more difficult defensive positions can match his .317 AVG/.417 OBA/.582 SLG batting line.
That leaves the Orioles’ middle infield — Miguel Tejada and Brian Roberts. This is a question of relative advantages. Roberts’s .416 OBA is 43 points higher than Tejada’s, and he’s stolen 18 bases while equaling his teammate’s power hitting. Per at bat, he’s definitely been the better hitter. Tejada, though, has played 87 games to Roberts’s 80; being in the lineup for two extra series carries a good deal of weight. He also plays shortstop — the more difficult defensive position — and plays it well. On the whole, I think Tejada’s durability and reputed leadership tip the scales his way.
Just as you have to squint pretty hard to figure the difference between the AL MVP contenders, it’s difficult to separate the throng of NL pitchers having remarkable years. Roger Clemens’s ridiculous 1.48 ERA is around a run lower than anyone else’s — but then, Pedro Martinez is allowing one less baserunner per nine innings than Clemens, and when you adjust for bullpen support and other incidental factors, he may be pitching even better than the Rocket.
Then you have to consider Houston’s Roy Oswalt (12–7) and Florida’s Dontrelle Willis (13–4) — both of whom have 2.39 ERAs — as well as Atlanta’s John Smoltz (9–5, 2.81), and the man who started last night’s All-Star Game, St. Louis’s Chris Carpenter (13–4,2.51).All of these pitchers are durable, throwing between 122 and 135 innings.
In the end, I think Clemens has been the best pitcher in the league this year. Besides giving up half as many runs as Martinez, he’s given up one run on the road all year long, and two or fewer runs in 16 of 18 starts. Clemens is still the man, and at this point seems to have a shot at winning consecutive Cy Youngs in a third decade.
While the NL has at least six pitchers with a claim to have been the best in the league in the first half, the AL has but four: Mariano Rivera, Texas’s Kenny Rogers, Toronto’s Roy Halladay, and Chicago’s Mark Buehrle. While Rivera (1.01 ERA, .156 BAA) and Rogers (10–4, 2.54) have been excellent, neither has thrown enough innings to be mentioned with the other two — Rivera because that’s his role and Rogers because he simply isn’t as durable.
As it turns out, the two best pitchers in the league also happen to be the two most entertaining ones. Halladay is a flamethrowing righty and Buerhle a soft-tossing lefty, but otherwise they’re pretty much the same pitcher, racking up huge innings totals simply by working really quickly, keeping the ball down, and not walking anyone. (The two have combined to walk 39 men in 277 2 /3 innings this year; the Mets’ Kazuhisa Ishii has walked 36 in 74 1 /3.) Halladay has thrown 101 pitches or less in three different complete games this year, while Buerhle tossed a game this season that was over in 93 minutes.
Seemingly, this is another case of minor advantages. Halladay’s ERA is better — 2.41 to 2.58 — and he’s done it in a few more innings — 141 2 /3 to 136. He’s also much more of a strikeout pitcher, having set down 23 more men, and has thrown five complete games to Buehrle’s two. On the other hand, Buehrle pitches in a more hitter-friendly park. The tiebreaker — and it isn’t a small one — is that Halladay has given up one unearned run, while Buehrle has given up 10. Unearned runs are partly the fault of the defense, but the end result is that Halladay’s team has had to score fewer runs to win when he starts.
Halladay, who will miss at least a month after having his leg broken by a batted ball last week, will probably not end up in the running for the award at year’s end, but through the first three months he was the league’s best pitcher.
The real winners, though, given the rate at which success is imitated in the big leagues, are the fans. Should pitchers stop trying to blow everyone away and start emulating the efficient approach of Halladay and Buehrle, the result will be quicker games featuring fewer 3–2 counts and fewer relievers — something everyone would like to see.