162 games have been played by each team since the Dodgers and Diamondbacks kicked off the season in Australia while the rest of the country was absorbed with March Madness. Players, managers, executives, and fans have endured one of the craziest baseball seasons in recent memory. The Brewers were the best team in baseball – until July. The sequel to Moneyball was in the bag – until the A’s barely made the playoffs. At the end of the season, only ten get to play more games than the other twenty. Half of the teams that made the playoffs in 2013 – the defending champions from Boston, the Rays, Indians, Reds, and Braves – are not among the representatives for this year’s playoff field. Now, it’s time to take a look at the best players from 2014.
National League MVP AND Cy Young – Clayton Kershaw, P – Los Angeles Dodgers
Undoubtedly the best pitcher and arguably the best player in the game, Kershaw was the difference for the Dodgers, who will face the Cardinals in the first round of the playoffs, a re-match of last year’s NLCS which St. Louis captured in six games. Kershaw led all of baseball in wins, and he also led both leagues in ERA for the fourth straight year, a feat never before done. He was 21-3 with an ERA of 1.77, threw two shutouts, including a 15 strikeout no-hitter in June. He threw 41 consecutive scoreless innings, the longest since Brandon Webb’s 42 inning streak in 2007. It’s hard to judge how much a player who appears in a game only once in five games is valuable to his team, but the Dodgers were 23-4 (.852 winning percentage) in games he started. For those too lazy to do the math, the Dodgers were 71-64 (.526%) in games he didn’t start. Andrew McCutchen, the 2013 recipient, and his teammate Josh Harrison both deserve consideration, but Kershaw’s year was better than Justin Verlander’s when he won the MVP in 2011.
AL MVP – Mike Trout, CF – Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
It’s tough to choose between Trout and Nelson Cruz of Baltimore, but after finishing as the runner-up to Miguel Cabrera in his rookie and sophomore season, it’s finally Trout’s time. The 22 year old led the league in runs scored and RBIs, blasted 35 home runs, and finally took his team to the playoffs. Two of his home runs ended the game, five of them came in late-and-close situations where Trout had an OPS of .998. He did it with his glove – the second most putouts for an AL center fielder, and only three errors. Nelson Cruz led all of baseball in home runs, and did it in a year where offensive numbers were putrid. However, let’s not forget Cruz’s 60 game suspension for being linked to Biogenesis in 2013. Trout is everything you want a baseball player to be, and in a year when the face of baseball hung them up for good, it’s appropriate that Mike Trout cement his place as the brightest star in the sport.
AL Cy Young Award – Chris Sale, P – Chicago White Sox
It’s unfortunate that Garrett Richards season came to an untimely end, because it would have set up an intriguing three-man race for the award. Instead, to me it is between Sale and the Mariners’ Felix Hernandez. Sale led the American League with a 2.17 ERA, and did it in a division where three quarters of his opponents finished with a winning record. There wasn’t much to say about the White Sox season except that Chris Sale (and Jose Abreu) was the only thing that kept them from being abysmal. Sale was 12-4 for the White Sox, and had ten no decisions. In those ten decisions, Sale left the game with his team either in the lead or tied. If the White Sox had any sort of bullpen at all – they had the 3rd worst by ERA – Sale’s season might look a little more like Hernandez’s, who finished with 14 wins. Corey Kluber deserves recognition for his 18 win, 2.44 ERA campaign, but a much worse WHIP than Sale or King Felix (roughly a .15 difference). I think it should be Sale who takes home the hardware, but don’t be surprised if the professionals award it to either of the other two.
National League Rookie of the Year – Jacob deGrom, P – New York Mets
The talk about the Mets in 2014 was about 2015. With no Matt Harvey, New York’s National League team needed something to excite the fans, and they found it on one cool May night when deGrom started and pitched brilliantly against the New York Yankees. deGrom went 9-6 with a 2.69 ERA for the offensively challenged Mets (21st in runs scored). Most impressively, he struck out 144 batters in 140 1/3 innings, including a record-tying eight consecutive to start off a September game against the Marlins. His 9 wins was tied with Arizona’s Chase Anderson, but with an ERA that is 1.5 runs less than Anderson’s, deGrom is the clear cut winner.
American League Rookie of the Year – Jose Abreu – OF, Chicago White Sox
Jose Abreu will garner some attention for the MVP award, despite the White Sox irrelevancy. The Cuban import was the best offensive rookie in baseball this season, posting a .317 batting average, 36 home runs, and 107 RBIs. Those are numbers that rival and -in the case of homers and average – surpass Mike Trout’s. His defense was just as good, posting the best range factor of all AL first basemen, and the 4th best fielding percentage. Abreu’s only real competition is Dellin Betances, the fireballing relieve from the Yankees who wen 5-0 with an ERA that even Sherlock Holmes would have trouble observing at 1.40. He also struck out pretty much everyone. In 90 innings, he struck out 135 batters. That’s 7th among American League rookies, and all of the players ahead of him are starters with over 135 innings under their belt. However, it was a year where offense was scarce, so I expect the voters to credit Abreu for putting up numbers that go against the grain.
National League Manager of the Year – Mike Matheny, St. Louis Cardinals
Very quietly, the Cards are division champions for the second year in a row, and are making their fourth straight trip to October baseball. Matheny has been the skipper for the past three seasons, and has only taken them to the NLCS and World Series in his first two. A division championship this year seems unreal. Michael Wacha, last year’s playoff hero, pitched to a 2.79 ERA before missing significant time from June until September with a shoulder injury. Since returning on September 4th, his ERA has nearly doubled to 5.40. Yadier Molina played in only 110 games and had his worst season since 2010, a stark contrast to his MVP-caliber seasons the past two years. Yes, Adam Wainright had a year that would be good enough to easily win a Cy Young if he weren’t in the same league as Clayton Kershaw, but the Cardinals rotation went only three men deep for most of the season. There were no MVP candidates in the line-up, like who Clint Hurdle had with his Pirates team that finished as the division’s runner-up. It’s time that baseball recognize how good Matheny is at winning games, and hand the trophy to him.
American League Manager of the Year – Ned Yost, Kansas City Royals
No middle-of-the-road team had more pressure to win this year than the Royals. Two years ago, the traded away Wil Myers to the Rays in order to acquire “Big Game” James Shields. After having a respectable season in 2013, they still had no big games for Shields to pitch in. That changes tonight, as he will try and beat the Oakland A’s and lead the Royals to a series with Los Angeles. Like with Matheny’s Cardinals, there is no offensive superstar for Kansas City. No one hit 20 home runs, hit higher than .301, or drove in more than 74 runs. However, they can pitch. Especially late in the game. Three relievers with over 60 innings pitched have an ERA under 1.50. Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, and Greg Holland shorten the game to six innings. 64 times out of 69 they led after six innings and won the game. Yost deserves credit for managing his bullpen well enough so that they were dominant without being overworked. It’s led KC to the playoffs, now will it lead them through to the ALDS?
National League Comeback Player of the Year – Casey McGehee, 3B – Miami Marlins
Casey McGehee once drove in over 100 runs while playing with Milwaukee, but after not spending all of 2013 playing in Japan, he was an afterthought when the Marlins signed him last December. But McGehee ended up being a huge contributor to a Marlins line-up that surprisingly played meaningful baseball games until September. McGehee missed only two games, and posted a .287 average, his personal best since hitting .301 in half as many at bats in 2009. He only hit 4 home runs, but hit 29 doubles and drove in 76 runs. Not bad for a guy who was teammates with Andruw Jones, Kazuo Matsui, and Masahiro Tanaka a season ago.
American League Comeback Player of the Year – Albert Pujols, 1B/DH – Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Pujols spent the final two months of 2013 on the disabled list with a foot injury. Really, it was a coup de grace for his season, which set career lows across the board for the three-time MVP. While Pujols didn’t return to MVP form, 2014 was a solid season given that Pujols is starting to age. He appeared in all but three games, hit .272 with 29 homers, and drove in over 100 runs. He fielded his position as well as he did when he won his two Gold Gloves, even if his range is significantly less than it used to be. This time last year, Pujols was the poster child for why you don’t hand out 10 year contracts to players over the age of 30. There’s still a long time left on his contract, but he’s managed to brush away talk about that with a solid 2014 campaign.
Best Surprise – Buctober and Bucktober
The Pirates and Orioles are both back in the postseason, and that’s great for baseball. The Pirates were an embarrassment for twenty years until they began to turn things around at the start of this decade. They did it without Andrew McCutchen for a good portion of the season, and without much of the same drama as 2013. Again, they get to host a Wild Card game in front of their raucous fan base against the Giants tomorrow night.
The Orioles are division champions for the first time since 1997. They made the playoffs in 2012, and were a Raul Ibanez away from advancing to the ALCS, but had a disappointing end to their 2013 season. Buck Showalter has created an offensive juggernaut in a time when those are incredibly rare. Nelson Cruz thrived inside of Camden Yards (and perhaps because of other reasons), Adam Jones continues to quietly be one of the best center fielders in the game, and their pitching, particularly their bullpen, has been lights out. Now if only the people that attend their games could start to root for them instead of the Yankees or the Red Sox.
Worst Surprise – Bronx Bummers
The Yankees spent major money in the off-season in order to resurrect a lifeless offense that kept them from making the playoffs in 2013. Instead, Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran and, to a lesser extent, Jacoby Ellsbury failed to take New York to the playoffs. McCann never looked comfortable with the elaborate shifts that were used against him, and he hit .232, just two points higher than when fans wanted to run him out of Atlanta for hitting .230. Beltran struggled with age and injuries, and wanted to play in the outfield despite the fact that there were much more defensively sound players. Ellsbury managed to stay healthy, but his average was down 20 points from his career .291.
The knock on the Yankees was that they lost four-fifths of their starting rotation for significant lengths of time, but given that the Yankees starting rotation still posted an ERA that was at the league average, it’s not the reason they missed the playoffs. It’s a contrast to when the Yankees exited early from the playoffs in the mid-2000s because they had no pitching. Pitching may win championships, but offense wins games.
What I’m Looking Forward to the Off-season is…
Where will Troy Tulowitzki go? The Rockies shortstop is signed through 2020, but was very vocal about the direction of the organization this past season. Rumors swirled around him near the trade deadline, but he was injured for the remainder of the season on July 19th. Tulo’s appearance at Yankee Stadium in late July, and his admiration for Derek Jeter have made it easy to talk about him replacing his idol in New York. However, the Yankees are working with a very limited farm system, and probably do not have the personnel to make a trade worthwhile for Colorado. Additionally, there are Tulo’s numbers away from Coors Field, where he bats roughly 50 points less than he does in the thin Rocky Mountain air. The Mets need a shortstop, badly, and they have one of the sport’s most talent-rich farm systems. But if Colorado demanded that the Mets pay most or all of his $19.7 million per year contract, would the traditionally gun-shy Mets be willing to spend it? Then there’s the fact that Tulowitzski has compiled more than 500 at-bats in only three of his eight seasons. He is often injured, and not with freak injuries, but with tweaks and pulls that last for months. When he healthy, he’s one of the best players in the game, and a solid defender at his position, but is it worth the risk?