The lasting memory of the 2011 baseball season for this sports fan will be the unbelievable drama that unfolded Wednesday night as the final playoff spots were decided. I was lucky enough to be in a sports bar with fans from every team involved with the races. The emotional swings were epic, and really, something you can only get in baseball, due mainly to the structure of the game. There is no time limit. You get 27 outs each, however long that takes. In the Rays’ case, maybe even a few more in their historical comeback victory. Sox fans screaming that the Yankees threw the game so Boston would be eliminated. Braves fans reliving all of their ‘oh, so close’ moments; despondent with Michael Bourn getting thrown out at third just before Dan Uggla hits a homerun, then Uggla later getting gunned down with a laser thrown by Hunter Pence in rightfield. All while Chris Carpenter throws a gem for the Cardinals, polishing off a resurgent September comeback. There have been two instances in baseball history when a team has squandered at least an eight game lead in September and failed to make the playoffs. The 2011 Atlanta Braves and the 2011 Boston Red Sox. What a month!
Baseball, however is a long season, so I am going to take a little time to acknowledge some of what has transpired over the past six months along with handing out my regular season awards. So, without further ado…
The winner of the American League MVP is…Jose Bautista! Bautista had an incredible offensive season. Led the league in homeruns, walks, slugging percentage, and OPS. The numbers he achieved in those categories along with a .304 batting average puts him in rarified air. Only five players in the history of the game have had seasons in which they reached those marks. Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig, Barry Bonds, and Jason Giambi. He was the Bluejays’ only real offensive threat, as evidenced by his league-leading 24 intentional walks. His defense was questionable at times, but I give him a pass on that, since he moved from 3B to RF in the middle of the season. In baseball much more then any other sport, I discount team success when speaking about awards, since baseball is really a series of independent matchups. Bautista deserves the award.
The American League Cy Young Award goes to…Justin Verlander! I know, about as surprising as the sun rising, but there is no argument. I would be shocked if he doesn’t win unanimously, but then again, baseball writers are a little ‘out there’ sometimes. He led the league in, well, everything: wins, ERA, strikeouts, WHIP, opponents’ batting average, opponents’ OPS, innings pitched, and just about every other stat that there is. But I’ll put it in more poignant terms. He is the first AL pitcher in 40 years with 24 wins and 250 strikeouts. He was 14-1 against his division. He was 22-2 since April. He was 16-3 following a Tigers’ loss. In total, Verlander faced 969 hitters this season. They ended up with a .192 batting average and .242 on-base percentage. No pitcher has ever achieved those numbers in the DH era. Case closed.
The winner of the American League Rookie of the Year is…Jeremy Hellickson, I guess. I say that because, although this year’s rookie crop was deep with the likes of Dustin Ackley, Eric Hosmer, Michael Pineda, Ivan Nova, etc, no one jumped off the screen to me. Maybe I am a little biased, since I saw Hellickson pitch a few times in triple-A, and he looked great. He had by far the lowest batting average against on balls in play in baseball. Basically, what that says to me, is that his defense helped him out quite a bit. But, it’s hard to hold that against him. His 2.95 ERA is the best by a rookie in the AL in 20 years. In the history of the league, only five rookie starters have finished a season with an opponents’ batting average and ERA as low as Hellickson’s. The last one was in 1964.
Congratulations to the American League Manager of the Year…Joe Maddon! Maybe the guy really is the incarnation of Norman Dale, besides looking exactly like him. But, just as Gene Hackman in Hoosiers, Maddon did more with less then anyone. Matt Garza, gone. Carl Crawford, gone. Carlos Pena, gone. A $41 payroll. About the same as the top two players on alot of teams. They started the season 0-6, and 1-8. Neither hole has a team ever climbed out of to make the playoffs. Oh yeah, and they were 9 games back one month ago. He is the most creative manager in the sport and his players love him. Those things go a long way in baseball.
Now on the National League, and the MVP there is…Matt Kemp! I give Kemp the nod over Ryan Braun for a couple reasons. The numbers on both sides are impressive, as Kemp had a shot at the triple crown down the stretch. He also led the league in runs scored, and did so on a team that offered him almost no offensive protection. Also, he has turned into a pretty damn good centerfielder. I don’t know if the Dodgers win 60 games without Kemp.
And joining Mr. Kemp on stage, receiving the National League Cy Young Award, is Kemp’s teammate Clayton Kershaw! Yeah, I know, Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay are great and you could toss in a couple other names, but I don’t even think this one is as close as one may realize. Kershaw won the NL pitching triple crown, leading the league in wins, strikeouts, and ERA. He also lead in WHIP. No pitcher in history has done that and not won the award. Two final stats to validate my choice. Kershaw had 18 outings in which he allowed zero or one runs. He was 12-3 against teams with winning records, posting a 1.93 ERA. He needed to have an awesome season to beat the loaded NL field for this award, and he did it. At age 23, the sky is the limit for Kershaw. One of two lefties in history with 20+ wins and 240+ strikeouts before age 24. Yikes.
The National League Rookie of the Year is…Craig Kimbrel! Although there are some talented guys in the NL, this one ain’t close, folks. Yeah, he may have run out of gas a little towards the end of the year, but he pitched in 78 games. More then anyone else in baseball. Ready? 76+ innings, 126 strikeouts, 47 hits. Wow. Wait, wait, wait, there’s more. His 126 strikeouts were more then eight opening day starters. And now for my final blow. Kimbrel had 38 consecutive appearances without allowing a run. 38! You know how many pitchers have done that in the history of professional baseball. Zero.
And our final award for National League Manager of the Year goes to…Kirk Gibson! I can’t think of Kirk Gibson without recalling the single most memorable sports moment I have ever seen live, when he hobbled off the bench and blasted the homerun off of Dennis Eckersley to win game one of the 1988 World Series. That grit and fire has been infectious to the Diamondbacks. Arizona lost 97 games last year, finishing 27 out of first. They then started the season 15-22. Gibson never waivered and his team followed in rank. He was able to mold Justin Upton from a phenomenal athlete playing baseball into a baseball player, and an MVP candidate. We use the phrase “change the culture” often in sports, and Kirk Gibson is an example as to just how big an impact a change like that can have. Gibson was asked during the 1988 Series if he was going to cut his hair and maybe shave since there would be so much attention paid to him in the series. Gibson replied, “I’m not here to win a beauty contest. I’m here to win baseball games.” Gotta love it.
So those are my major award winners. Congratulations to all the winners and nominees. A “thank you” to all our presenters tonight, and our host, Affion Crockett. Afterparty’s at Zuckerberg’s!