As part of the All-Star festivities this week, the Javits Center hosted the 2008 DHL All-Star FanFest, which sounded like a marketing horror but was in fact inordinately fun. Along with the sight of Commissioner Bud Selig being completely ignored by thousands of people while doing an interview and a Hall of Fame exhibit filled with such holy relics as a game-worn Rogers Hornsby jersey, one of the highlights was a Tiffany display of baseball trophies given to the winners of the sport's various awards. Absurd as their selection criteria may sometimes be, no American sport gives awards so meaningful or so drenched in history. With the All-Star break over, it's as fine a time as any to check in on who ought to be making space on their rec room walls for some heavy new plaques.
National League MVP
Albert Pujols, St. Louis (.350 AVG/.466 OBA/.608 SLG)
Like his great predecessor Stan Musial, Pujols is a victim of his own consistency. Atlanta's Chipper Jones spent most of the first half hitting .400, and Houston's Lance Berkman hit .471 for an entire month while killing the ball, as usual, the rest of the time. Neither has a batting line better than Pujols, who's doing nothing more than what he always does, including spectacular defense not reflected in the line above.
Pujols's greatest achievement this year is St. Louis's improbable place atop the wild card standings. Other than him, this team basically consists of Rick Ankiel, various fourth outfielders, and middle relievers. The very greatest hitters — the likes of Musial, Barry Bonds, and Hank Aaron — basically never play for losing teams, because their presence alone is enough to make a lousy team decent. This year as much as any other, Pujols is showing why he'll rate right along with them by the time his career is over.
American League MVP
Josh Hamilton, Texas (.310/.367/.552)
It might seem merely sentimental to pick Hamilton as the MVP when he has the third-best batting line on his own team, but it's really nothing of the sort; the man is a beast. Milton Bradley has been the best hitter in the league, but he doesn't play the field, while Hamilton plays in center. Second baseman Ian Kinsler, meanwhile, has a slightly better line, but he isn't much at defense.
Meanwhile, not only is Hamilton putting up numbers like Ken Griffey Jr. in his prime, but he's been spectacular in the clutch. According to Win Probability Added, a statistic available at FanGraphs.com that measures hitting according to its value within game contexts, Hamilton ranks behind only notoriously indifferent left fielder Manny Ramirez with the bat this year. This is one case where RBI totals (Hamilton has a staggering 95 and is on pace to drive in the most in 71 years) actually are pretty telling.
National League Cy Young
Edinson Volquez, Cincinnati (2.29 ERA, 117.1 IP, 126/56 K/BB)If Volquez wins the Cy Young while Hamilton wins the MVP, and both do so in losing causes, the trade that saw them exchanged for one another last winter will go down as one of the sport's all-time trivia answers. Volquez's preposterous season is largely driven by his being freakishly hard to drive — he's given up just five home runs all year despite pitching his home games in a good park for power hitters — and by some straight luck, as he's allowed a .212 batting average despite playing in front of an occasionally horrific defense. Still, the sight of a 24-year-old pairing an exploding fastball with a dead-fish change is terrifying, and the combination tells good things for his immediate future. Not being as reliant on arm-twisting breaking balls as you'd expect given his strikeout rate, he may be less prone to his arm imploding than you'd expect given his manager.
American League Cy Young
Roy Halladay, Toronto (2.71 ERA, 146.1 IP, 121/21 K/BB)As usual, the key number for Halladay is innings pitched. Qualitatively, he's one of the very best in baseball — he leads the AL in fewest walks allowed and K/BB ratio, ranks second in baserunners per 9, and ranks fifth in earned run average — but quantitatively he blows the field away. He's pitched more than four complete games' worth of baseball above what ERA leader Justin Duchscherer has tossed, and he's far less reliant on a flukishly low opponent batting average as well. All-Star Game starter Cliff Lee and Mariano Rivera, who's struck out nearly twice as many men as he's allowed to reach base, both deserve mention, but Halladay takes the prize with sheer volume. His seven complete games are more than any other two pitchers have between them, and when you consider that he's exceeded 115 pitches all of three times this season, it's clear that he ought to be the model for every young pitcher in the game in the age of pitch counts. [email protected]