By Ken Napzok
THE BIG HIT
It’s the baseball award season! So gather ‘round, friends, and let’s get ready to crown the legends of 2019 and lock them away forever. All votes are in (and have been since the regular season ended), so let’s start looking at the players currently clearing space on the shelves of their dens.
By the time this column falls into your digital lap several awards will have been announced, but this time around, let’s dive into the Jackie Robinson Rookie of the Year award and the Cy Young Award. (At what point was decided that we just stick with calling the Cy Young and not the Pitcher of the Year. For that matter, how come saying it’s The Jackie Robinson sounds awkward? Why don’t we call — ok. I’ll stop.)
The New Kids in town…
The Rookie of the Year award is my personal favorite. It has always represented the dawn of a new age lead by a can’t miss future star. These are the Princes Turned Kings and the awards never lie.
Well… maybe a bit…
For every year like 2012 in which Mike Trout and Bryce Harper were named the Rookies of the Year or 2001 with Pujols and Ichiro or… hold on, hold on… scanning for a good deep cut reference… AH HERE’S ONE… 1967 with Tom Seaver and Rod Carew, there are years like 2009 in which Chris Coghlan and Andrew Bailey were handed the hardware and didn’t exactly fail after that, but didn’t make the long term impact that the award’s legacy seems to demand you have.
And that’s actually why I like the award. I’m not here to celebrate the careers that zigged instead of zagged, but I am always fascinated with that players that showed up strong so early, got officially recognized for being the best of the new class, and then faded away. There is Royals slugger Bob Hamelin in 1994 or Brewer’s speedster Pat Listach in 1991. Guys that came, made a mark, and left. The most (in)famous of these is the 1980s shooting star of Joe Charboneau. Came out of nowhere to bat .289 with 23 homers and 89 RBI for Cleveland. Due to back injuries, the very popular talk of the town only had 194 more at-bats in the majors over ‘81 and ‘82 and was retired by 1984.
You just never know.
2019’s winners had two very different paths to the awards and neither path will help you predict the future, so let’s enjoy the now and celebrate what these guys accomplished this season.
Yordan Alvarez – American League
Yordan Alvarez did not join the Houston Astros until June 9th. 315 at-bats later he finished with 27 home runs, a 1.067 OPS, and all the buzz in the junior circuit. In the World Series — which, again, doesn’t factor into the award voting — Alvarez broke out of an ALCS slump in a big way. The world was watching and him winning this was not a surprise. He was straight fire.
At 22, Alvarez came out of nowhere and that has me really wondering what next season will bring. Oh, sure, Astros fans will tell this in the works, and he’s built for the long term, but that’s easy to say now. However, Alvarez’s rapid rise could lead to a bigger crash come 2020. Forget Rookie of the Year winners. His season reminds of Kevin Maas’ 1990 campaign.
Donnie Baseball himself got hurt and the Yankees called up the Columbus Clipper left-handed slugger. In only 254 at-bats, Maas his 21 home runs, put up a .902 OPS, and had a lot of Yankee fans thinking about where they were going to be when Maas passed Hank Aaron on the all-time home run list. (Sandy Alomar Jr won the AL ROY that season — so I guess the voters weren’t as gullible as me.) By 1995, Maas was a Minnesota Twin… and done.
Will Yordan Alvarez surpass Kevin Maas? Calm down, baring injuries, he will. I’m truly here to celebrate this award and Alvarez is looking pretty darn real at this point in time. That swing is solid and, though this was an offensive heavy season, Alvarez put up very well-rounded numbers. Average, Slugging, on-base percentage, 26 doubles (Maas had 9), and the feeling that with every pitcher in the league trying to figure him out — he kept smashing and the result was clear: The unanimous American League Rookie of the Year. The future looks bright down in Houston.
Pete Alonso – National League
Let’s start with the surprising part. Alonso was not the unanimous winner. Despite setting the record for most home runs by a boot, winning the home run derby, driving 120 runs on his way to becoming the de facto team leader, and pulling off all the uniforms he could get his hands while making headlines and highlight reels every damn night, Pete Alonso did not get all of the first place votes for the National League Rookie of the Year.
And I love that.
That means that Pete was such a sure thing. That the Polar Bear made that much of a mark. That he was so the choice… that a baseball writer figured they’d stick to their guns and let history record that Atlanta hurler Mike Soroka had a great season too. (And he did.)
They’ll be talking about this season for a long time. Whereas Alvarez’s rookie season has that feel of a sudden thunderstorm that just might end as fast as it started. Something we’ve seen before. Alonso’s season was a storm you can track from afar. The type of rookie campaign we all see coming and then it exceeds expectations. Aaron Judge’s 2017 become that very early on as did Pujol’s rookie season, but McGwire’s 1987 effort and Doc Gooden’s 1984 are more in line with this type of season. The conversation’s start way back in the off-season, the pressure is on, and they deliver with record setting performances or next level fame.
If the surprising part was the vote for Soroka (who, again, pitched really, really well and probably would be the winner in any other season.), then the unsurprising part is that Alonso won the award with each at-bat, game, week, and month. He started early and with each home run, Alonso cemented his status as a true star. Is there a worry that this could all be a big first chapter of a shorter than planned story? Sure. Life happens. I think I just pulled my neck muscles sneezing. However, everything about Pete Alonso’s season seemed to say that this is just the start of something grand.
Congratulations to Pete Alonso and Yordan Alvarez.
Big game pitchers, big time votes…
Well turns out Gerrit Cole is human after all!
I guess leading the league in ERA and strikeouts while getting ready to cash in on a big contract is not even to get noticed these days!
Or… you know… 36-year-old Justin Verlander absolutely pitched his heart out on the way to a Major League leading 21 wins and the lowest WHIP in the game while tossing another his third career no-hitter. He also crossed the 3000 career strikeout mark. All of this NINE seasons after his first Cy Young Award for the 2011 Tigers. I mean… you’ll be telling some younger future members of your family that you saw Justin Verlander pitch back in the day just like your Uncle keeps calling you over at the family reunion BBQ to say, “You know, I once saw Don Drysdale in person at a steakhouse in Studio City back in 1964.” Yeah, Verlander is steakhouse story great.
The voting was close. As it should have been. Cole’s season was worth every vote as it will be worth every cent he receives this offseason. Verlander received 17 first place votes to Cole’s 13. It was the first time in the American League’s history that teammates finished 1 and 2 in the Cy Young voting. In any other season, Cole would have been the runaway winner. Toward the end of the campaign, his name just kept popping up in all the right conversations. He was the ‘it’ pitcher of the year no doubt and that has nipped Verlander’s past Cy Young runs. In 2012 and 2016 he lost close votes to buzz worthy hurlers David Price and Rick Porcello respectively, but, this time, Verlander could not be denied.
Last season, Jacob deGrom won the N.L. Cy Young Award in a cake walk due to his unheard of for this millennium ERA of 1.70. This season the Mets star’s stats weren’t as unearthly. They were merely racing around in the upper atmosphere above the rest of the mortals slinging fastballs around this planet. After a rough start, he rebounded with a 1.89 ERA over his last 23 starts. It’s as if he was rewarded this time for recovering from his early season sins and, though it might not seem as big of voting win, it was. deGrom again received 29 of 30 possible first place votes.
deGrom is the perfect poster child for big time pitching in this ERA of new stats and ways of measuring performances. Wins don’t really matter we’re told. (Ok. I know it’s not that direct, but tell that to Cy Young and his 511 career wins!) With 10 last season and 11 this year, deGrom is proving that even with Edwin Diaz on your team, you can still come up big during award season.
Was that harsh?
Sorry. It might have been harsh, but my buddy Corey and I had Diaz on our fantasy team all season and I’ve broken at least three items in my house over his season.
Jacon deGrom is now a back-to-back Cy Young award winner, the 11th pitcher in history to do so, and that absolutely puts him into a special level. And, hey, for it’s worth, that’s two award winners for the New York Mets! So, something’s going good out there, right Brodie?
The Arizona Diamondbacks and San Diego Padres are the first teams to announce to the world a new look for a new decade. Major League fashion is key and it’s actually quite important to note these two fresh sets of laundry because MLB uniforms often go through a league-wide switch in trends. This could very well be a preview of the next half decade of styles.
Don’t believe me? Look at the early seventies.
Charlie Finley helped usher in bright, bright colors while the uniforms around the league left the old, classic, bulky, and long since archaic feel that had been present for decades. While the simple style and logo choices of those specific decades will always have that classic feel (that teams often try to capture) the look always seemed to say, “this worked for Jimmy Foxx and Hank Greenberg so let’s keep it.” But the 1970s brought different (space age) materials and a tighter fit which meant we could now see Pete Rose’s curves. (Yeah?)
It’s not that this was a great era of uniforms. The point is the seismic shift that took place. It seemed to happen again in the early 1980s when a large percentage of teams seemed to make all of their road jersey’s that cyan-like color that was popular on load up screens on Commodore 64s. The 1982 World Series between the Cardinals and Brewers just seemed to be a battle between which team could try less when if came to designing compelling unique uniforms.
1987 saw another shift with teams like the Twins, A’s and Padres moving away from the bland and bulky designs that plagued the decade and heading toward a more modern mix of new style and classic feel. I still dig those TwinStripes uniforms. The Orioles matched the feel with their modern take on the ole’ classics with uniforms AND stadiums thanks to Oriole Park at Camden Yards (Say it. Say ALL of the title). All seemed pretty good in uniforms until the mid-1990s.
I hated the mid-90s.
While most of the teams started to mix in a new round of fancy colors and schemes for a new era and looked good doing it, (The Padres navy blue and orange comes to mind) a weird trend started in which teams just started wearing solid color tops. This was not new, of course. Those 1970s A’s helped make that a viable option, but, it seemed that suddenly teams like the Blue Jays, Royals, and, gasp, even for a time, the Dodgers were taking the field in their batting practice uniforms. I know this is still going on today and it’s called the “alternate” uniform, but, nope, don’t like it. It reminds me of that scene from an old episode of HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm in which Larry’s lawyer believes in casual Friday, but potential client walks out of his office upon seeing his new legal counsel dressed in jeans.
I just don’t like Casual Friday baseball.
However, all of this is to drive home the point that uniforms and uniforms trend are part of the game’s tradition, representative of the eras of the game, and often can bring about a newfound identity and success for a team.
Which bring us to the San Diego Padres.
Brown is back!
And brown is the talk of the league.
The San Diego Padres do seem to be on the verge of putting together something grand. High priced superstars, up and coming future stars, and the best weather in the game are already part of the mix. Now they just need some key acquisitions and their new manager to prove his worth. Sure, questions still linger, but these new uniforms are exactly what they need.
Now — I’ll be the grumpy old guy in the corner and admit that at first I didn’t fall in love with these like a good portion of Baseball Twitter did. Road pinstripes aren’t my favorite thing and the home uniform logo seemed to come from the mind of a social media manager that says the word ‘branding’ a lot.
Yet the excitement of the unveil event and the passion that seemed to be flowing into the Brown is back statement was just too damn inspiring to remain locked in my grumpy shell forever. The fans are buying it. The players are buying it. The legends are buying it.
This is a perfect use of a uniform switch. It is serving as a lighting of sage to clear out the old demons that have haunted you. And if this is a sign of the styles to come, even the most stubborn, grumpy, old timer baseballs should love this new look of classic styles with a post-millennium sensibility. Even the Diamondbacks new uniforms have a great feel to them.
Those are nice new snake skins, but it’s not seeming as much of an event because I think the Diamondbacks have had over one hundred different uniforms since debuting in 1998. (Hello, Purple!) They’re like that one friend that keeps changing girlfriends every three months. It’s hard to get too excited for the new one. But I like them. I like what the Padres have done and here’s to a new era of Major League baseball uniforms… and to the New York Yankees.
This week in baseball history…
… Bob Gibson was rewarded for one of the most legendary seasons ever.
On November 13th, 1968 the St. Louis Cardinals right hander was named the Most Valuable Player of the National League. He was also the unanimous winner of the Cy Young Award. It remains one of the best seasons of played baseball ever. And it deserves a constant nod of respect from all baseball fans.
This was one of the seasons you grew up — or should have grown up — reading about. Glaring down from the once standard 15 inch pitcher’s mound, Gibson simply sat down every one in the National League time and time again. 22 wins, 28 — 28 —- complete games, 13 shutouts, and a league leading 268 strike outs. And I haven’t even looked up the new stats that will probably show his dominance in even more clarity. But, in truth, you don’t need those stats to tell the story. He was nearly unstoppable and carried with him a menacing aura that transcended his performances.
I was afraid of him when I first watched highlights of his career and, quite frankly, I still am.
His season — certainly alongside Tiger’s 31 game winner Denny McClain — almost single handedly changed a very fundamental building block of the game. For the 1969 season, the mound went from 15 inches high — a measurement that had stood since 1903 — to 10 inches. However you measure it, though, one thing is certain:Bob Gibson always stood taller than all the rest.
A Note On Cheating
As this column was being prepared and submitted before I left town to perform stand-up comedy in Washington, D.C., word started to break that the 2017 Houston Astros might have used some Sci-Fi level methods to steal signs — correction — almost predict signs and pitches instantaneously. They are investigating. More stories and claims started to emerge that they are not alone and that baseball might have a new kind of scandal on their hands. Did you live through the Steroid Era? Well now we might be in the A.I. Computer Algorithm Cheating Era.
Imagine those Hall of Fame votes!
Hell, just vote in the computer programs!
Let’s see where this goes first before we dive head first into the muck, but it is absolutely concerning and worth watching closely. Baseball and cheating have an odd relationship. Unlike every other sport — where a gathering of advantages are most definitely present — getting an unfair leg up on the ballplayers across the diamond from you is almost built into the storied history of the game. It’s almost downright treated as a romantic notion.
From scuffed balls and spitballs to stealing signs from second base or with binoculars or telescopes from the centerfield like the 1951 New York Giants, cheating in baseball has an interesting place. You learn about it growing up as a fan and it just seems like part of the greater story. You giggle when a bat breaks and a bunch of superballs come bouncing out. You’re amused by Joe Niekro trying to toss out a nail file from his back pocket as an umpire catches eye of it in mid-flight. You’re almost taught to just smirk and laugh as Gaylord Perry touches every corner of his face to make you wonder where he’s getting the vaseline for his next out pitch.
Gaylord Perry is in the Hall of Fame. None of those stats accumulated with superballs were erased. The 1951 New York Giants still get credit for one of the greatest in-season comebacks ever that culminated with an absolutely historic home run that might have been hit on a pitch that Bobby Thompson knew was coming.
But this seems different. Just as it seemed different when players started showing up to spring training complexes around the league with pounds and pounds of added muscle on them. There is gamesmanship. There is sneaking a peak. And there is a real concerted effort to take away your opponents’ advantage or get a leg up (and bicep and tricep and chest) on the others playing with you and against you.
“If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying.”
We’ve all heard it. We’ve all laughed at it. But when new technologies are used in elaborate schemes to give real time advantages to your players and the results are so clear… well… the laughter just might have died down.
Walk Off Quote
“The trouble with baseball is that it is not played the year round.” — Gaylord Perry, Hall of Fame Spitballer