Thursday, August 28, 2014
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Hitters, pitchers, the Phillies and Temple

Why Justin Verlander should sweep the board in baseball's individual awards; and why you won't read the Phillies prediction in this space.

Hitters, pitchers, the Phillies and Temple

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Baseball awards, why you won't read a Phillies prediction here and a quick look at college football.

There are two serious debates in major league baseball on the season's final day.

One is whether Justin Verlander of Detroit should win both the AL Cy Young and MVP awards, a feat not accomplished in 20 years.

The other is whether to give a season-long non-contender the two major NL awards.

But first, let's clear up any local partisanship.  Most of you reading this probably agree that the National League's most valuable player is the Phillies starting rotation.  No other entity in the league comes close.  But these are individual awards, so Roy and Cliff and Cole and (yes) Vance will have to be content with winning the World Series.

In the real world of Cy Youngs and MVPs, the vote here will be Verlander for both AL awards.   That's partly based on the righthander winning the pitchers' Triple Crown (wins, strikeouts and ERA).  Since the award was instituted in 1956, every pitcher who won the Triple has also won the Cy Young Award, which is why Clayton Kershaw of the also ran Dodgers will be honored in the National League.

Verlander also should win the AL's MVP award, although that is much less likely.  No pitcher has won an MVP since Dennis Eckersly took both trophies home to Oakland in 1992.   But Verlander's total dominance, plus Detroit's rise to the top of the AL Central -- the Tigers were 14 games ahead entering the season's final day, the biggest lead of any divisional champion -- makes him an easy choice.

The other strong candidate is New York's Curtis Granderson, who has provided the type of power and run-production Yankee outfielders made famous.  Would the Bombers have made the post-season without him?  Perhaps not.  But there's no such indecision on Verlander -- without him Detroit would not be a significant factor.  A lot of fans will write off the Tigers when the playoffs start Friday night, but no team in baseball wants to face Verlander twice in a five-game series and three times in a seven-gamer.  No one.

The NL awards are perplexing and get more so the deeper into it you go.  Applying the same logic regarding pitching Triple Crown winners, Kershaw should be close to a unanimous vote.   And that's no dis-respect to Ian Kennedy, Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee or Cole Hamels.  

But Kershaw's impending coronation makes the NL MVP choice even more difficult.  In a lot of seasons his Los Angeles teammate Matt Kemp would be the winner,  as he was a strong contender for the batting Triple Crown until the season's final weekend.

But no team has won both awards without making an official post-season appearance  since (ironically) the Dodgers' Maury Wills and Sandy Koufax took home the trophies in 1962.  And even then, they made it to a three-game playoff with San Francisco for the right to go to the World Series.   (Playoffs required to enter official post-season play are considered part of the regular season). 

And it's especially difficult to give both awards to players on a team that has not contended since Opening Day.    If Kemp had actually won the Triple Crown, there would be no debate, since it has become nearly as rare as a .400 batting average.

But without such an accomplishment, the NL award centers on Milwaukee.   Burly first baseman Prince Fielder entered play on Wednesday hitting .299, with 38 home runs (tied with Kemp for the league lead) and 120 RBIs (four fewer than Kemp).  He also has walked 106 times, three fewer than Cincinnati's 2010 MVP, Joey Votto.

Brewers leftfielder Ryan Braun entered the final-regular season game hitting .335, one point behind the Mets' Jose Reyes. Braun has 33 homers and 111 RBIs.  He also has 32 stolen bases, a good number for a big slugger.  (The amazing Kemp has 40 swipes, second to perennial league leader Michael Bourn.)  Braun has scored 109 runs, second to Kemp's 114.

It takes a strong stomach to vote against Kemp, whose season is one for the ages.  But most valuable connotes more than just statistics and what Braun and Fielder have done in Milwaukee edges the Dodger star.

The vote here is Braun, by a narrow margin, based on his contributions on the bases and in left.   If you want to vote for Fielder, I won't say you're wrong.

WHY NOT TWO AWARDS? The Braun-Fielder debate brings up another topic: whether baseball should add a Player of the Year award.  That could be awarded purely on numbers and this year's POY would surely be Kemp.  The Most Valuable Player award then could be based on total contributions and on team achievements.

WHY NO PHILLIES PICK?  Because the Phillies are impossible to define right now, beyond the obvious greatness of the rotation.  The hitting is so brutally inconsisent, it's impossible to make a valid prediction.  The hitters could go instantly cold on Saturday and let, say, Ian Kennedy put them in an immediate hole.

There also is the recent shakiness in the bullpen, meaning Michael Stutes and Antonio Bastardo.  Neither can be counted upon in a critical situation against another good team.  And whether Ryan Madson can close in such situations also is impossible to predict.

In another era, the Phillies still would be overwhelming favorites, because managers up through the 1970s would send out Halladay, Lee, Hamels and Roy Oswalt and let 'em go nine.  No fuss, no muss.  And they'd almost certainly win it. 

But given the intrusion of pitch counts, closers, set up men and one-out specialists, that reliance on the great starting arms seems unlikely.

Hopefully ultra-patient Charlie Manuel, who sat stolidly in the dugout last October and allowed his choking hitters to flail away unsuccessfully without making a move or blinking an eye, will give his starting pitchers the same courtesy this time around.

Could the Phillies storm to the world championship by going 11-3 again, ala 2008?  Absolutely.  But could they also fall silent and lose critical games 2-1 or 1-0?  Yes they could.

Find out which Phillies team shows up in October is why they play the games.

FAST FACTS:  Chase Utley's post-season batting average is .243 (including .186 against the Giants last October);  Jimmy Rollins' is .226; Ryan Howard's is a respectible .278.  (Most fans would be shocked to know that Ryan hit a sturdy .318 against the Giants last fall; all they recall is his 12 strikeouts).  Raul Ibanez has hit .247 in the post-season with the Phillies (.211 against San Francisco). Placido Polanco, a career .301 hitter, batted .206 last October, his only post-season with the Phillies;  his career post-season average is .273, including an incomprehensible 0 for 17 with the Tigers in the 2006 World Series.  Irreplacable catcher Carlos Ruiz has batted a solid .280 in four post-season trips, but was just .167 against the Giants last year).

So without a single accomplished post-season hitter (Hunter Pence has never made it), the Phillies' starters have their work cut out for them.

Right about now, Chase Utley fans have steam spurting out of their ears and are screaming "what about the 2009 World Series -- he hit five homers in that one, pal!"  But anyone who thinks the oft-injured second baseman still has that kind of power hasn't been watching for a couple of years.   Utley has had one post-season homer since, and had just one lonely RBI in the six games against San Francisco last October.

QUICK PIX:  Toledo 21, Temple 17; Penn State 23, Indiana 22; Eagles 27, 49ers 24.

Contact Don McKee at dmckee@phillynews.com

 

 

 

 

Don McKee Inquirer Sports Writer
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About this blog
Don McKee arrived at the white Inquirer building the same month (August of 1974) that Richard Nixon departed the White House, but claims no connection. He has covered Penn State football, the Flyers of Fred Shero, the Eagles of Dick Vermeil and backed up several beats. After 25 years covering high school sports in three cities and two states, he says the only teams he is allowed to root for are Conrad Weiser High School and Penn State, his two alma maters. LIKES: Straight talk. HATES: Spin doctoring and mindless devotion to conventional wisdom. Reach Don at dmckee@phillynews.com.

Don McKee
Don McKee Inquirer Sports Writer
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