As pro baseball's regular season winds down, a look at the players who've made the biggest contributions
Every week, our panel of sports fans discusses a topic of the moment. For today's conversation, Hampton Stevens (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), Jake Simpson (writer, The Atlantic), and Patrick Hruby (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic) discuss the most exciting part of baseball season.
This lover is cruel. She comes each spring to seduce, whispering sweet hints of October glory. But she might break your heart a dozen times before June. She has expensive tastes, with her $15 beers, $50 parking passes, and $5 million shortstops. She craves the bright lights.This year she's been flirting with Pittsburgh and Milwaukee, but will probably end up with New York or San Francisco yet again.
She's smug, too, acting like she's still the only game in town. She will make you wait, of course, boring you to tears by endlessly fussing with her gloves and hat, despite mid-August heat. She will always, inescapably, finally make you spend long, bitter months alone, longing for her touch the way you miss the heat of a vanished sun.
But you'll forgive her everything, because she can give you autumn.
When the equinox passes, the timelessness of summer is gone. Life restarts with a jolt. We rush forward again, adoring the fall, but we also hear the roar of winter beyond, and the knowledge of that impending storm injects a giddy urgency into human affairs.
MORE ON BASEBALL
The baseball season, she also snaps to life. The lover who once felt so eternally young now knows that her beauty too must inevitably fade, and the wisdom makes her focused. She turns from the cute but too coquettish girl you dated in midsummer to the intelligent, graceful, utterly absorbing woman you'd take home to mom. Then she can give you moments like last day of the 2011 regular season, when Baltimore beat Boston in the 9th, Tampa beat the Yankees in the 12th, and Philly beat the Braves in the 13th inning for maybe the single most exciting day in the whole dang history of the sport.
It's enough to make you overlook anything. Even her drug problem. Sure, it's not as bad as a few years ago, but it can still flare up at very, very embarrassing times. Which brings us to the races Most Valuable Player. Last year, you'll recall, the National League's MVP Ryan Braun failed an October drug test. Yes, Bruan avoided suspension when an arbiter overturned the test results, but some MVP voters might not be so quick to forget and give him another trophy this year.
Anyway, the NL MVP is still Buster Posey's to lose, isn't it? Especially since the Giants catcher has his club safely ensconced atop the NL West, while Braun's Brewers are still double-digits back in the Central. If Milwaukee can't at least nab one of the three wildcard slots up for grabs this year, Ryan's MVP hopes could be hoist on the same petard he used last year on Matt Kemp. Ditto for the dreadlocked Pirate, Andrew McCutchen, whose sweet swing hasn't been enough to save Pittsburgh from a September slide.
In the AL race for MVP, Tigers manager Jim Leyland this week won the Capt. Louis Renault Award claiming he would be "shocked" if his man Miguel Cabrera wasn't named MVP. Mike Trout would be. The 21-year old Angel rookie spent the first 20 games of this year in the minors, yet still could lead the league in batting average and stolen bases.
How about it, guys? This cruel mistress baseball is going to name her two favorites. Are Mike Trout and Buster Posey locks? Or will you really be all that "shocked, shocked" if Josh Hamilton hits .400 for the next two weeks and steals some hardware?
I don't think I can adequately follow up your sensual, epic metaphor, but I can agree with your MVP picks. The NL race is getting more cut and dried by the day as Posey leaves McCutchen and his dreadlocks in the rear-view mirror. Since the All-Star Break, Posey has put up a nearly incomprehensible slash line of .388/.466/.650 (batting average/OBP/slugging) with 12 home runs and 50 RBIs, AS A CATCHER. The Giants have risen with their young catcher, posting a 39-23 record since the break to take an 8.5-game lead in the NL West. Meanwhile, McCutchen struggled in August, hitting just .252/.347/.346, and is batting under .300 for September. Unsurprisingly, the Pirates have slowly collapsed over the past six weeks, going 11-27 since August 8. It's a powerful example of what makes a player Most Valuable, and Posey should be a shoo-in for the award after leading the Giants to a division title.
In the American League, Trout and Cabrera are both great choices and would have crushed best-of-a-bad-year MVP winner Justin Verlander (the first pitcher to win the MVP in either league since 1992) last season. The hitting numbers point to Miggy, who has a .333/.396/.612 slash line with 40 home runs and 129 RBIs with 15 games to go in the season. A homer-happy finish by Cabrera, who's currently two longballs behind Josh Hamilton for the AL lead, could give him baseball's first Triple Crown since 1967. In the understatement of the column, that would probably merit an MVP award.
And yet... if Cabrera falls even one home run or batting average point short of the Triple Crown, it's hard to see him beating out the Angels' 20-year old phenom. Trout did spend most of April in the minors, yet he leads the AL in runs (118) and stolen bases (46). Factor in his Ken Griffey Jr.-esque fielding (check out this catch, or this one), and Trout's Wins Above Replacement Player (WAR) of 10.3 far outstrips Cabrera's 6.3 total. If it's true that wins are the most valuable asset a team can accumulate (and it is), then Trout has to win the MVP, because he has truly been most valuable to his team.
You agree with us, Patrick?
First of all, Hampton's metaphor makes perfect sense. Let's remember: Our esteemed colleague is a Kansas City Royals fan, which is pretty much like being a Chicago Cubs fan, only without the Boston Red Sox-shaming beautiful loser mythos and the adult theme park that is Wrigleyville.
In other words, being a Royals fan is painful. Inescapably, irredeemably bleak. Sadomasochistic, in fact. So I'm not surprised by Hampton's 50 Shades of October reverie. Losing baseball does funny things to a man.
But yeah, let's talk MVP picks. For once, I find myself agreeing with both of you. Well, with a few quibbles.
Unlike Jake, I don't think Andrew McCutchen's second-half slowdown should be held against him, no more more than Buster Posey's late charge should carry extra weight. It's a long, punishing season—almost like a six-month spanking session, and thank goodness for that, right, Hampton?—and games played in April and May count as much as those played in August and September. That said, Posey almost certainly will be the choice. Team success always seems to matter when it comes to individual end-of-season honors, even in an intensely individualistic, near-Randian "team" sport like baseball.
(Hey, I don't make the rules, and definitely don't pretend to make sense of them).
As for the American League? Detroit pitcher Justin Verlander says it would be "bull[expletive]" if teammate Miguel Cabrera becomes the first Triple Crown winner since Carl Yastrzemski and fails to capture the MVP award. Maybe so. But this is baseball. Bull[expletive] comes with the territory. (Exhibit A: Roger Clemens, Sugarland Skeeter; Exhibit B: Jose Canseco, the complete Twitter Sessions; ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the prosecution rests). Me? I like Mike Trout. Not just because his Wins Above Replacement metric is compelling—Jake and Herman Edwards are right, you play to win the game—or because he has played in 21 fewer games than Cabrera, or because (according to the good people at Fangraphs) Trout's base running is way better than Cabrera's. (I know, shocker).
No, I'm going with Trout because so much of what he has accomplished is both unexpected and unprecedented, a reminder that even in our hyper-analyzed, post-Moneyball era, baseball can still surprise and delight in totally irrational ways, producing a season so remarkable we may never see the likes of it again. Like a summer love affair, I suppose, burning bright before burning out.
See? I told you Hampton made sense.