What Should MLB's Award Season Look Like in 5 Years?

Zachary D. RymerNovember 17, 2021

MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN - SEPTEMBER 26: Josh Hader #71 of the Milwaukee Brewers celebrates winning the Central Division title after the game against the New York Mets at American Family Field on September 26, 2021 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Brewers defeated the Mets 8-4. (Photo by John Fisher/Getty Images)
John Fisher/Getty Images

Consider this a conversation starter for how Major League Baseball's award season might and perhaps should change in the coming years. The next five years, specifically.

We're not opening this door because we think awards season is broken. It's fine! And if you're Jonathan India, Randy Arozarena, Kevin Cash, Gabe Kapler or one of the as-yet-unnamed Cy Young Award and MVP winners for 2021, it's better than fine.

Rather, the idea here is to acknowledge and play on how the standards for awards and even the awards themselves do change over time.

Even the five major awards haven't always been part of the game. The MVP didn't become a thing until 1931, when Major League Baseball was already decades old. The Rookie of the Year, Cy Young Award and Manager of the Year didn't arrive until 1947, 1956 and 1983, respectively. Most recently, the Comeback Player of the Year was introduced in 2005.

It was even more recently that the MVP award might as well have been the RBI award. Now it's pretty much the WAR award, so much so that none of the six finalists for the National League and American League MVP even played on a team that made the playoffs in 2021.

So in the interest of what-the-heckery, we put our thinking caps on to conjure ideas for updated standards for one award, an overdue reassessment of another and two entirely new awards that don't exist but should.

Relievers, the Cy Young Award Awaits Your Return

It wasn't exactly common, but nor did it used to be uncommon for a relief pitcher to win a Cy Young Award. Starting with Mike Marshall (R.I.P.) and ending with Eric Gagne, nine relievers took home the highest honor for pitchers between 1974 and 2003.

These days are not only over but indeed have been over for a while now.

You have to go all the way back to when Francisco Rodriguez set a new single-season record with 62 saves in 2008 to find the last time a reliever finished in the top three for the American League or National League Cy Young Award. A couple of firemen (i.e., Zack Britton in 2016 and Kenley Jansen in 2017) have crept into the top five since then, but no further.

As Nate Silver wrote for FiveThirtyEight in 2017, those within MLB have simply come around to what sabermetricians had been saying for years: Saves are dumb. Thus has the currency that used to afford relievers Cy Young attention been thoroughly devalued, dooming even the best relievers to a sort of honorable-mention purgatory in the voting.

Though the win admittedly has also been devalued in recent years, that's helped refocus attention on the parts of a starter's job that really matter. Namely, get outs and prevent runs. Hence why starters have come to dominate Cy Young voting even as 20-game winners have become endangered, with Felix Hernandez walking in 2010 so Jacob deGrom could run in 2018 and 2019.

There is, however, a cloud on the horizon that looks vaguely like a line graph with two lines on a collision course:

Data courtesy of Baseball Reference

To summarize, the rumors you heard in October about the death of starting pitching weren't exaggerated. And in five years' time, it's possible that the innings split between starters and relievers will be 50/50 or perhaps even skewed in favor of relievers.

In the meantime, there's already something to be said about how the standard reliever is tasked with handling more high-stress innings than the standard starter, and increasingly so.

When Gagne won the NL Cy Young in 2003, he was one of only six relievers among the top 20 in the National League alone for the most batters faced in high-leverage spots, or moments within a game that the leverage index rates as pivotal. In 2021, that same leaderboard featured 11 relievers in the 20 spots, including eight of the top nine.

Because a similar phenomenon also unfolded in the American League, it's no great surprise that relief pitchers reclaimed the win probability added—that is, the extent to which a player changes his team's win expectancy—throne in 2021. With Jordan Romano in the AL and Josh Hader in the NL, the WPA charts were topped by two relievers for the first time since 2007.

Simply put, what's been the de facto valuation gap between starters and relievers for the better part of the 21st century is cracking. The bigger the cracks get, the more likely we should be to see the league's best firemen welcomed back into the Cy Young conversation.

It's Time to Rethink the Manager of the Year Award

We can debate all the livelong day about what qualifications a Cy Young Award winner should have, but there ought to be no debate that the award itself is a good idea. 

Now, the Manager of the Year on the other hand...

Because somebody has to run the show in the clubhouse, in the dugout and on the field, we're not saying the manager's job isn't important. Yet attaching an actual award to the position suggests the quality of a manager's work is somehow quantifiable. This has never been true. A manager can set a lineup and choose his pitchers, but his decisions are ultimately only as good as the players' execution.

Where managers undeniably can make a difference is in how they handle their players, but even in that regard, there have historically been a variety of ways to go about it.

Whereas Sparky Anderson valued keeping his players "in the right frame of mind," Earl Weaver maintained that a manager "should stay as far away as possible from his players." Though polar opposites, both approaches eventually led Anderson and Weaver to the Hall of Fame.

To be fair, one of the more interesting recent developments within baseball concerns how front offices have sided pretty much en masse with Anderson's style. The catch, though, is that a modern manager's daily communication requirements extend far beyond the players.

As Bruce Bochy, a future Hall of Famer in his own right, told Jayson Stark of The Athletic in 2019:

“You always had collaboration. That’s always been there. But now you’re looking at daily collaboration with a lot of people. Your baseball analysts, general manager, president—with ideas and lineups, how to use your pitching, your starter and your relievers. So no question the game has changed. And it’s a different job.”

Because of this, crediting a manager for how a team is run on a day-to-day basis is not unlike crediting a single pitcher with the win or the loss for that day's game. There's simply too much going on to trace it all back to one person.

But while we're tempted to propose simply doing away with the Manager of the Year, it's a little late to put the genie back in the bottle. Besides, we're not so cynical that we don't think there should be any recognition for the people who have to bridge the gap between the imagineers in the front office and the foot soldiers on the field.

So, how about rebranding the Manager of the Year into the Coaching Staff of the Year?

In considering such an award, voters could see the manager as just one piece of the puzzle. Other pieces would include a team's hitting and pitching coaches, as well as lesser-hyped coaches in charge of the bench, the bases and even strength and conditioning.

There would still be an element of impossibility in drilling down to the exact quality of a team's coaching. But whereas a manager can only be judged according to his communication and strategy skills—both of which are nebulous even in the best of times—there would be more tangible evidence of good work by other coaches.

CLEVELAND, OH - MAY 31, 2021: Pitching coach Ethan Katz #52 of the Chicago White Sox talks to pitcher Carlos Rodon #55 in the sixth inning of game one of a doubleheader against the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field on May 31, 2021 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by: 2021 George Kubas/Diamond Images via Getty Images)
Photo by: 2021 George Kubas/Diamond Images via Getty Images

Think, for example, how Chicago White Sox pitching coach Ethan Katz turned Carlos Rodon into an ace by overseeing his mechanical overhaul. Or how the San Francisco Giants' three-headed hitting coach squeezed more out of a veteran-laden lineup than anyone thought possible. Or how, under the watch of strength and conditioning coach Edgar Barreto, the Boston Red Sox lost fewer days to the injured list than any other team.

If nothing else, this is one for the "Take it under advisement" file. And in there with it can go these next two ideas.

A Modest Proposal for Two New Awards: Entertainer and Veteran of the Year

You know what's fun? Baseball.

You know what's just now realizing that it's fun? Also baseball.

Seriously, it's remarkable how much baseball's perception and presentation of itself has shifted of late. It wasn't even 10 years ago that Shane Victorino was apologizing for showing emotion after one of the biggest grand slams in baseball history. Now, the league wants players to wear their personalities and emotions on their sleeves.

Quite literally, in the case of players' getups during the league's annual Players' Weekend. Otherwise, acts like bat flips and other home run celebrations and pitchers performing "K struts" have gone from behaviors that might get someone drilled to behaviors that are liable to land someone on the cover of MLB The Show.

So since baseball is already leaning into itself as an entertainment product, it might as well lean a little further by introducing a new award: Entertainer of the Year.

We're thinking of the Tim Andersons, Fernando Tatis Jr.s, Juan Sotos and Marcus Stromans of the league. You know, guys who play the game with a certain flair that makes it impossible to look away and whom MLB should want the unaffiliated to see for themselves.

While we're pulling new awards out of thin air, let's also pluck one out that would honor an otherwise neglected demographic: Veteran of the Year.

After all, it's perhaps never been harder to age gracefully as a Major League Baseball player. Just take a look at how the output for 35-and-older hitters and pitchers has evolved since the league expanded to 30 teams in 1998:

Data courtesy of FanGraphs

In this context, the seasons that guys like Max Scherzer, Adam Wainwright, Joey Votto and Justin Turner had in 2021 weren't just impressive. They were practically superhuman, and thus should not be so easily lost to history.

Of course, you might argue that the last thing baseball needs is more awards. As it is, MLB already requires pretty much the entirety of November to get through its awards announcements. That's a lotta awards.

But, hey, as long as it's well-intentioned and well-earned, there's nothing wrong with giving credit where it's due.

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs.