As hard as it is to believe, this week marks the conclusion of the 2012 MLB regular season. Without question, it has been one of the craziest seasons in recent memory, with the likes of multiple perfect games, historic rookie impacts, colossal trades, spectacular individual accomplishments and unexpected team performances.
Writers Greg Kaplan, Joe Binckes and Vinny Ginardi have come together to hand out some hardware and identify the best and the worst of the 2012 season.
Biggest Surprise of 2012
Joe Binckes- If there’s a bigger surprise than the season being put together by the Baltimore Orioles, I can’t think of it. I’d have been a skeptic if you told me in the preseason that they were going to finish ahead of the Blue Jays for fourth place in the American League East. Instead, they finished the year with 93 wins en route to clinching their first playoff berth since 1997, and it took until the last day of the season to be sure they wouldn’t win the division over the New York Yankees. It’s unbelievable. In particular, this pitching staff has exceeded expectations at every turn. There’s something inexplicable at work with this team, and although their roster doesn’t seem all that formidable, I’d still be afraid to see them come playoff time.
Who knew that flipping Jeremy Guthrie for Jason Hammel would be one of the best acquisitions last offseason? Between the Angels, Tigers, and Marlins throwing around money like it was going out of style, this almost got lost in the fray. Adam Jones has continued taking steps towards becoming a bona-fide superstar. Top shortstop prospect Manny Machado came up to the majors at age 19 and has done nothing but impress, filling in the void that Baltimore had at third base in a seamless transition from one position to another. Closer Jim Johnson has set a club record with 51 saves, and there are still three games to play at the time of this writing.
Now, you may be thinking “Oh, this all seems pretty plausible. Sure, they looked mediocre-to-bad according to preseason expectations, but they’ve had guys play up to their potential and they’re winning games. What a story!” No. There’s something strange going on here. The 2012 Baltimore Orioles are 16-2 in extra inning games, including victories in each of their last 16. They are 29-9 in one-run games. With three games to play, they shared the lead in the American League East with the Yankees, with less than half of the payroll (and, as far as we believed before the season, talent). I don’t even know what to make of it, will be watching intently come playoff time to see if this team can prove themselves when it matters most.
Vinny Ginardi: I completely with everything that Joe said, but I think we also need to give the Oakland Athletics some love here too. While we didn’t expect much from Baltimore this season, we knew they had some players who could swing the bat (Adam Jones, Mark Reynolds, etc.). The A’s? They only have one player who has higher than a 2.7 offensive Win Above Replacement (Yoenis Cespedes) and rank 15th or worse in runs, batting average, on base percentage, and slugging percentage. But the pitching has been dominant. The A’s have the second best earned run average in the American League. The names may not be as big but Oakland reminds me a little bit of the San Francisco Giants team that won it all two years ago.
JB: Great call Vinny, the A’s were definitely near the top of my list too. One of the most amazing things about how strong they finished out the season is the fact that they’ve done it with a starting rotation comprised entirely of rookies! After Brandon McCarthy’s terrifying head injury and a muscle strain sidelined the resurgent Brett Anderson, Jarrod Parker was left to anchor a staff that was mostly unknown quantities before the start of the season.
Greg Kaplan: Clearly, I’m in fully agreement with both Binckes and Vinny. However, I’m going to take a very different approach to determining who is the biggest surprise in baseball this year. I’m going to individualize it. I have a feeling I’m not going to be the first person to mention this guy, but I’m positive I’ll be the only one to do it in the surprise section.
Regardless of how talented we all knew he was in the Minors, or how high he was ranked on prospect rankings, nobody, and I mean nobody, could have told me back in February Mike Trout was about to do everything he accomplished this season. There’s just no way. He is the first rookie in Major League Baseball history to hit 30+ home runs, steal 45+ bases and score 125+ runs. Not to mention, he’s also hitting a svelt .325/.398/.564, maintains a WAR (Wins Above Replacement) of 10.9, has robbed at least two home runs that I know of and just celebrated his 21st birthday in August.
In an off-season during which the Angels made huge moves by bringing in Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson, it’s Trout that is the clear cut team MVP. He resurrected this team after their slow start out of the gates and, while they still failed to meet pre-season expectations, few people are classifying the year as a failure. If Trout doesn’t win MVP, he’ll finish no lower than second. Yeah, I’d call Trout my biggest surprise of 2012.
Biggest Disappointment of 2012
JB- Disclaimer: I’m a Yankees fan, and I’ve loved every minute of this season. Because for every time the Yanks went into a mini-skid, or even when it looked like there was a real chance they might not make the playoffs, the Boston Red Sox were always down near the bottom of the standings.
Trying to put my bias aside, it’s baffling what the Red Sox have turned into this year. Before the year started, this team was thought to be in the upper echelon of contending teams. Things were looking up! Veteran manager Bobby Valentine would keep things in check in the clubhouse, Carl Crawford was due for a bounce-back year, Jacoby Ellsbury would strike fear into opposing pitchers from the leadoff spot every night, only to be driven in by Dustin Pedroia and Adrian Gonzalez, Jon Lester and Josh Beckett would anchor a staff that could hand the ball off to newly acquired late-inning relievers Marc Melancon and Andrew Bailey, and all would be right in Boston again.
Except none of that happened. Valentine wasn’t leading the team, and in the face of adversity it looked like dissension rose in the clubhouse. Crawford never got back from injury, instead tacking on another injury and eventually Tommy John surgery. Ellsbury lost half his season to a shoulder injury, and hasn’t been even close to the MVP-calibur player we saw in 2011 since his return. Gonzalez slumped for half the year, and even Pedroia hasn’t played up to the level we expect from him. The pitching staff has been pretty horrendous from top to bottom, whether it was Beckett and Lester underperforming or the above mentioned bullpen arms going missing (Bailey to injury, Melancon to the minors due to ineffectiveness). The terrible season was capped off with the Los Angeles Dodgers taking on the huge contracts of Crawford, Gonzalez, and Beckett and leaving the Red Sox roster we expected to see come October decimated, a shell of its former self. There was huge potential here, and the table seemed set for redemption after last year’s epic collapse. Instead, we find the Red Sox in the cellar of the AL East, with the third worst record in the AL, and once again left on the outside looking in at playoff baseball.
Greg’s pick of Mike Trout as his biggest surprise also got me thinking about how disappointing Matt Kemp’s season has been. I was really looking forward to watching him try to live up to his vow to achieve a 50/50 season, and while I didn’t think it would happen there was definitely a part of me that believe he could pull it off.
VG: A lot of potential suitors here, but I am going with the Los Angeles Angels, even though they had a decent record and with the offense ranking in the top five in several offensive categories. The pitching though, isn’t as good as advertised. Outside of Jered Weaver (2.73 ERA) the starting pitching has been a disappointment. On paper, the Angels were a World Series talent, but they didn’t even make the postseason.
GK: I’ll admit, I suppose there is a certain level of bias in my selection. To me, the obvious selection outside of the Boston Red Sox this year had to be the Miami Marlins. Think of all the factors the team had going into this year that they felt made them not only contenders in the East, but World Series contenders:
They opened up a brand new, state-of-the-art ballpark in Miami. They hired Ozzie Guillen to be their new manager. They signed the likes of Jose Reyes, Mark Buerhle and Heath Bell to push their payroll to over $100 million. They even changed their team name from “Florida” to “Miami” to try and reinforce their “new look” approach. Not to mention, they already had the likes of Giancarlo Stanton, Josh Johnson and Hanley Ramirez in house to make this team star-loaded.
Now, consider everything that happened to them this year. Everything seemed to spiral once Guillen made his now-notorious pro-Fidel Castro comments in what is probably the largest anti-Castro city in America. Heath Bell first couldn’t finish off any game he entered, then proceeded to throw everyone in the organization under the team’s bus. After spending millions and saying this team’s direction was much different than in years past, even trading for Carlos Lee before the deadline, the team turned heel and quickly started shedding payroll when things seemed to be at their darkest. They traded Ramirez, Omar Infante, Anibal Sanchez, Gaby Sanchez and basically begged people to take Lee off their hands, too. Oh, and they’ve finished in dead last in the National League East. And have I mentioned that the new stadium, believed to be the key to bringing more people to the games in South Florida, didn’t draw much more than in previous years?
All we’ve learned about the Marlins this year and moving forward is that regardless of what they want us to believe, they’ll always be the same exact team. And that, more than anything else that has happened this year, is both sad and disappointing.
NL Most Valuable Player
JB: Ryan Braun is essentially repeating his 2011 MVP season, with a triple slash of .320/.392/.598, 41 homeruns, 30 steals, 118 RBIs and 107 runs scored. The biggest differences come in a lower batting average (.320 to .333) and a noticeable uptick in the power department (last year’s 30 homers have jumped to 41). I don’t believe that Braun will win the award, mostly because of the offseason controversy he had due to his suspension-but-not-really and somewhat because the Brewers have missed the postseason. Setting that aside, Braun is having an incredible offensive year in all facets. I’d be perfectly fine with several other candidates, but if I had to pick one I’d go for Braun.
VG: I agree with you Binckes. I think Braun is most deserving of the award as he has had the best season of any MVP candidate, but his link to steroids is fresh in the minds of voters and will play a significant role in how he is viewed.
Because of that, Buster Posey will win the 2012 MVP award. He finished with a batting average of .336, the highest in MLB, and tied Braun for the National League lead with a WAR of 8.0. He also hit 24 home runs and drove in 103 while excelling at the most difficult position in baseball to play. While I’m not as big on a player’s team success as an indicator of how valuable a player actually is (one player can only have so much of an impact on the team in baseball), I’m sure it doesn’t hurt Posey’s case that the San Francisco Giants won the NL West while the Milwaukee Brewers failed to make the playoffs.
GK: The debate for MVP always comes down to which player do you deem more valuable, or which player do you think had a better season. This is why I’m going to stray away from Ryan Braun and pick Buster Posey as my MVP.
First, let’s take a peek at the numbers Posey has thrown up this season all while playing the most demanding position defensively. For starters, Posey (kind of) won the National League batting title with his .336 average, and backed that up with a .408 on-base (second to Joey Votto’s injury-shortened .474), .549 slugging percentage (fourth) and a National League-best 7.2 WAR. He’s also the anchor of the Giants pitching staff. After Matt Cain’s perfect game, Cain was very quick to give tons of credit to Posey and his game calling ability.
Another reason why Posey should be MVP over Braun specifically comes down to the age-old debate regarding whether someone should win MVP if his team doesn’t make the playoffs. The argument tends to be “How can a player be deemed so valuable if his team as a whole isn’t valuable?” Is it a fair argument? Can we go on for hours debating what is more important, individual stats or team performance? Absolutely on both counts. And you would find me on the side of the debate that says team performance is a huge determining factor in deciding who should win MVP.
Buster Posey arguably had a better season than Braun, while playing a more demanding defensive position and playing it well. He didn’t hit as many home runs or drive in as many runs, but Posey’s play was more valuable and important to a division-winning Giants attack. Take Posey off the Giants, and they don’t make the playoffs. Take Braun off the Brewers, and they still don’t make the playoffs. Would the Brewers be worse off without Braun? Yes, no question. But, they weren’t a playoff caliber team with Braun. The Giants aren’t likely a playoff team without Posey. With Posey, they are. That’s most valuable.
NL Cy Young
GK: Its R.A. Dickey. And it bothers me that there is such a debate about this. The numbers indicate it should be Dickey. He led the National League in starts (33), complete games (5), shutouts (3), innings pitched (233.2), and strikeouts (230). He won 20 games (second in the league) and finished with a 2.73 ERA (second) and 1.05 WHIP. More impressively, while the strikeout numbers are nice, Dickey also posted a remarkable 2.1 BB/9 while throwing his knuckleball around 80% of the time.
Which brings us to the most impressive characteristic about Dickey’s unbelievable 2012 performance. He made the most unpredictable pitch in baseball history predictably unhittable. We’ve seen knuckleball pitchers have significant success in baseball before. After all, Phil Neikro and Hoyt Wilhelm find themselves in Cooperstown. However, nobody has dominated the pitch in the same way Dickey did this season. He kept hitters off balance not by throwing it, but throwing it for strikes and throwing a staggering three variations of the same pitch. Dickey flashed a traditional, 75-78MPH knuckler, a “hard” knuckler that topped out at 83MPH and the super slo-mo that dipped down into the low 60s. Oh, you know a knuckler is coming? That’s nice. Good luck figuring out A) where it’s going and B) how fast it’s coming.
The numbers reflect Dickey’s dominance, but it’s also important to remember that there was a stretch to Dickey’s season where he was flat out untouchable. The Dickey had a stretch in the beginning of the summer where he didn’t give up a run for 30+ innings, struck out more than 10 batters in each of his starts during the stretch, walked fewer than 5 batters and even had a 12-inning hitless stretch that spanned from the first inning of a game in Tampa Bay through his next appearance. He was a slow B.J. Upton bleeder and clean bare-hand David Wright pick at third from a perfect game.
Also, unlike with the MVP awards, Cy Youngs are individual and don’t involve team success at all. In fact, isn’t it more impressive that Dickey won 20 games with the Mets, a team that only won 74 as a whole? Isn’t that more impressive than the 21 Gio Gonzalez won when his team finished with the best record in baseball? Isn’t that a clear point in Dickey’s favor that he prospered without the help of his team behind him? I’d say so.
Call it me being a homer for a New York Met. Call it a biased opinion. It shouldn’t matter. There wasn’t a better story or a better pitcher in 2012. It’s R.A. Dickey’s award. The media should rightfully give it to him. Plain and simple.
JB: I do think this award should go to R.A. Dickey, but doing that write-up and robbing Greg of a chance to gush would’ve been wrong so I’ll defer and take a look at Clayton Kershaw’s candidacy. Kershaw is everything you want in a Cy Young candidate. He’s made 32 starts (only missing one due to a hip issue), has thrown 219.2 innings and struck out 221 batters while walking only 60. His ERA sits at a National League-leading 2.53, and his WHIP at a 1.02. The stuff is absolutely nasty, and there’s the feeling that any night he takes the mound he could blank whatever team has the misfortune to stand against him. His 14-9 record may hold him back (before you cite Felix in 2010, realize that his ratios and innings count were noticeably better than the runners up, and he threw six complete games that year), and I feel like the narrative behind Dickey will really just push him over the top.
I do want to take a moment to mention that Craig Kimbrel is a MADMAN. I can’t see giving him the award over these big time starters, but his stat line needs to get noticed. 1.02 ERA, 0.78 WHIP, and 113 strikeouts in 61.2 innings pitched. That’s a rate of roughly 16.7 strikeouts per nine innings, the highest ever among pitchers who have thrown at least 50 innings in a given season. To break down the ratios a bit more, he allowed seven runs and 27 hits in to the 231 batters he faced this season. Yes, that does mean he struck out more than half of the guys who came up to the plate against him. Incredible.
VG: While I think that Dickey will win the award because his dominance was a story for much of the summer, I actually think he ranks behind Kershaw, Gio Gonzalez and Kimbrel (in that order). As Binckes mentioned, Kershaw led the league in ERA, and also beat out Dickey in K/9, WHIP, FIP, and BAA. Gonzalez actually leads Kershaw in a few of these categories, and has a much better record (21-8), but I think his ERA is a little too high to make up the difference (2.89)
NL Rookie of the Year
JB: This is the most interesting of the awards for me, because I honestly am not sure how it’s going to go. I’ll choose Bryce Harper here, and I think he will take home the prize not only because the year he’s having merits strong consideration but also because he’s on the team with the best record in baseball and we’ve been reading about what a monster he would become practically since he started high school.
Harper, age 19 (!!) got his first taste of the majors this year, and has had some ups and downs throughout the season. Joining the team in late April, Harper started off strong before hitting an extended slump for a few months, though he accumulated some decent counting stats across the board all year. However, Harper’s .330 average since the start of September that helped his team clinch their first playoff berth since moving from Montreal to Washington, and heralding in a new era of Nationals baseball. On the year, he’s managed to maintain a respectable .270/.340/.477 line, with 22 home runs and 18 steals, and finishing just short of 100 runs scored. He’s had his share of gaffs in the outfield, but growing pains are allowed for a 19 year old who is walking into a pre-revved hype machine on a surprising division winner.
Whether Harper’s stats are better than the other top candidates for this award is surely debatable, but when all is said and done, Harper will be the one that defines the 2012 rookie class in the National League. To me, his solid performance combined with that fact make him the top candidate to take home the prize.
VG: How can it not be Wade Miley? I know Harper has the name recognition, but Miley ranked 10th overall in pitching WAR (4.8), finished with a 16-11 record and an ERA of 3.33 (10th best in the NL). Harper doesn’t rank in the top 10 in any important category. Hey, maybe Bryce Harper ends up being one of the best players in league history, but this award isn’t given out based on potential.
GK: I’m with Vinny. I don’t want to underscore how amazing a year Bryce Harper has had as a teenager. The headlines he has gotten throughout the season are justifiable. But, Wade Miley has simply been the better rookie. The Diamondbacks under-performed all season long, and for a long time Miley was the only bright spot. He was dominant in the first half, even throwing his name into the conversation to receive All-Star Game starting consideration.
With that said, you could even make a solid argument that Harper isn’t the only rookie enjoying a breakout season. A lot of people don’t even consider Todd Frazier from Cincinnati when talking about this award. But, let’s take a peak at the two offensive lines of Harper and Frazier.
Harper: 139 games, 144 hits, .270/.340/.477, 22 HR, 59 RBI, 18 SB, 98 runs, 119 OPS+
Frazier: 128 games, 115 hits, .273/.331/.498, 19 HR, 67 RBI, 3 SB, 55 runs, 115 OPS+
You probably give the edge to Harper at the end of the day, but the numbers are strikingly similar. More similar than casual baseball fans would’ve realized. Nevertheless, the point becomes moot when you consider Miley. It should be his award, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see Harper walk away with the honors.
AL Most Valuable Player
JB: Ah, the highly contentious topic of AL MVP. It’s clearly a two man race at this point, with the ever-consistent Miguel Cabrera putting up a career year in offensive statistics en route to the Triple Crown since 1967 as one candidate and wunderkind Mike Trout presenting an indisputably brilliant season of his own. Both are incredible talents having incredible years, but I truly believe Mike Trout should take home the award this year. Greg detailed his absolutely baffling stat line in the Biggest Surprise section, so I won’t rehash the numbers down here (though I do urge you to read it again and just revel in amazement). The Angels’ final game of the season is going on as I write this, and with one steal tonight Trout will have capped off a 30 homerun, 50 steal season. On top of all that, Trout plays a Gold Glove-calibur center field, an extremely premium position.
Let’s even set aside Trout’s age, because although it adds to the unbelievable nature of the season, he shouldn’t get a boost for being young. This is a matter of who was the most valuable player, after all, not the “Most Impresive Player (All Things Considered)” award. His rookie status does have some impact, however- one thing Greg failed to mention is that Trout has logged these absolutely tremendous offensive statistics while spending the first 20 games of the year in the minor leagues. At that point, the Angels were 7-13. Though they still fell short of the playoffs, since that point the Angels have gone 82-61.
It seems to me that Mike Trout has done everything you could possibly want a player to do in order to improve his team’s chances of winning, and that’s what I consider to be the spirit of the award. Miguel Cabrera will go down in history as a Triple Crown winner, but I believe the MVP is its own distinct award. Should the voters believe that Cabrera’s edge in the offensive categories makes up for Trout’s impact on the basepaths and undoubtably superior impact on defense, I will understand but will not agree.
VG: I’m actually going to agree with Binckes here. I fully expect Cabrera to win the MVP award, and while his triple crown achievement is remarkable, I still think Trout had the better season.
I’m not one to always take someone’s WAR to mean they are more valuable, but it has to be noted that Trout’s is more than three wins higher (10.4 to 7.2). The difference, as Binckes pointed out, is that even though Cabrera had one of the best offensive seasons we’ve ever seen, he’s a below average fielder and below average base runner, while Trout finished as a top-level guy in each. Cabrera advocates can point to the fact that the Tigers made the playoffs and the Angels didn’t, but Los Angeles actually finished with a better record of the two teams.
Cabrera will win the award because we haven’t had a triple crown winner since 1967, but really, is he that much more valuable because he finished with one more home run that Josh Hamilton than one less? I don’t think so. Both players had outstanding seasons, but if I had to choose, I’d go Trout (sorry, Dad).
GK: Mike Trout not only had a remarkable season. He had a season we have never seen before, from a player so young, in his first full season in the Major Leagues. We’ve seen Triple Crowns before. In fact, did you know that four of the last nine players that finished the season as Triple Crown winners didn’t win their respective league MVPs? I bet you didn’t. There, you learned something new today.
Even with all that said, again, it goes back to MVP not being an award given to the player who had the best season. It goes to the guy that was most valuable to his team while having a superior season. Miguel Cabrera stepped up when the Detroit Tigers were at their lowest point in the season and put the team on his back. Does it help that he had players like Justin Verlander, last year’s Cy Young and MVP, and Prince Fielder? Absolutely. But, Mike Trout played with what should’ve been the best pitching staff in baseball and arguably the best player the game has ever seen in Albert Pujols.
Miguel Cabrera became the first player in Major League baseball history to win the Triple Crown while playing in 160+ games. One of the most compelling arguments I’ve heard for why Cabrera’s Triple Crown is truly special is because Cabrera simply had to play in more games than players from previous generations. Anything could’ve happened to derail Miggy’s incredible season, including injuries, more 0-fers, you name it. He surged through, led his team to the top of the American League Central and did so at a pace we haven’t seen in 45 years.
Trout had the best year, but Miguel Cabrera was the MVP. That sounds and looks weird, but it’s the hard truth.
AL Cy Young
JB: This is a tough decision, and I think it comes down to the Tigers’ Justin Verlander and the Rays’ David Price. Both are having absolutely impeccable years, but I’m going to lean Verlander for this one. While Price has the edge in earned run average and win-loss record, Verlander’s WHIP and strikeout numbers tip the scale in his direction. Verlander has a fairly substantial lead in innings pitched, and on top of giving his team a great chance to win every time he takes the mound, he’s an absolute workhorse. He’s only failed to complete six innings twice this year, and one of those occasions was due to a rainout after the fifth. I could talk myself into choosing either of them, but when push comes to shove I’ll take Verlander.
Similar to how I mentioned Kimbrel above as a guy who shouldn’t win the award but merits some lauding, Fernando Rodney is the AL equivalent. He managed to finish the year with a 0.60 ERA. Fernando Rodney?! Really?! He doesn’t have Kimbrel’s staggering strikeout totals, and his WHIP is slightly worse, but it feels wrong not to at least mention him.
It’s funny how Verlander was all anybody talked about last year, but sort of disappeared from the media’s spotlight this season despite putting up similar numbers:
2011: 24-5, 8.96 K/9, 2.40 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, 7.0 WAR, 2.99 FIP
2012: 17-8, 9.03 K/9, 2.64 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 6.8 WAR, 2.94 FIP
Yes, 2011 Verlander was a little bit better, but he wasn’t that much better. At this point, it’s basically down to Verlander and David Price, and Verlander has Price topped in virtually every category outside of record (Price is 20-5), which is the one category the pitcher has least control over.
GK: Hard-hitting analysis alert: Justin Verlander is really, really good. See all the reasons above and know that I agree with all of them.
Also, he’s apparently dating Kate Upton. That clinches it.
AL Rookie of the Year
JB: It almost seems silly to even have this discussion here. It’s Mike Trout, and it’s not close. I’m not going to bother putting the stats here to back it up, because it’s ridiculous to even question it. If not for Trout, I’d probably give the nod to the Athletics’ Yoenis Cespedes, who is the offensive leader on an ever-surprising Oakland team that has somehow managed to wrestle the AL West title from the Texas Rangers with his .290/.352/.506 triple slashes, 23 homeruns and 83 runs batted in.
VG: I already picked him for MVP…
GK: Yu Darvish. I’m kidding.