It seems like an eternity ago, but Game 5 of the 2016 NLDS ended in a dramatic fashion.
Of course, the main storyline was the fact that Clayton Kershaw came out of the bullpen to close out the Dodgers' 4-3 win. Flashing back to the 7th inning, though, is where the Nationals--and Dusty Baker--fell apart.
To open up the inning, Dodgers' center fielder Joc Pederson hit a first-pitch home run off of Max Scherzer, tying the game at one apiece. With Scherzer at 99 pitches, Baker decided that he would be done for the evening and turned to his bullpen.
Madness ensued. After Scherzer, it took five relievers to get the three outs in the inning. Four runs scored, and the Nationals' postseason hopes went down the drain as quickly as they began.
Where did Baker make his mistake? Bullpen management. If Dusty Baker's name was Terry Francona, it would not have been Marc Rzepczynski coming in to relieve Scherzer. Rather, it would have been Mark Melancon, who pitched the final four outs despite his team being down a run instead of tied.
Of course, hindsight is 20-20, and Baker could not have known that his bullpen was going to give up four runs with the bases empty and nobody out. At the very least, Melancon should have been in the game after Charlie Culberson struck out against Blake Treinen to make the first out of the inning. Two runners were on base, and it was obviously the biggest moment of the Nationals' season. Instead, 28-year-old Sammy Solis, who had just a career 62.1 regular season innings pitched, came into the game and promptly gave up the go-ahead runs.
We've seen this a lot, especially in the past few postseasons. Good bullpen management wins postseason baseball games. In the 2014 World Series, it was Madison Bumgarner who pitched five innings of relief in Game 7 to lead the Giants to the crown.
In 2015, it was the Kansas City Royals' entire bullpen to lead them to the championship. That year, it was less of Ned Yost having good bullpen management than it was the Royals' bullpen being so dominant. It just did not matter.
This year, however, it's more about the management than anything else.
Andrew Miller, the Indians' relief ace, won the ALCS MVP award, and he only technically made one "save." (And it wasn't even the traditional three out, ninth-inning-only type save.) In the series, Miller came into the game in the seventh, seventh, eighth, and sixth innings during his four appearances.
As a Yankee for the first half of this season, Miller pitched in the seventh inning once. He came into the game in the seventh more during the American League Championship Series than he did during the entire first half of the season.
And that speaks volumes about the riskiness of Indians manager Terry Francona, who, before this World Series, had never lost a single World Series game. There's a reason for that. Francona is willing to take the risks to be a successful manager that few others are. Francona pitches his best relievers in the most dire situations. That is one of the reasons why he is on the fast track to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
While Cubs manager Joe Maddon is not given the same praise for his bullpen usage as Terry Francona, he's done a nice job this postseason, too.
No, he is not using Aroldis Chapman in the fourth inning. But he does manage to use the right relievers in the right situations, including the use of--yes--Chapman in Game 6 of the NLCS for the final five outs.
The 2016 World Series is seeing two great managers go at it. And this year, perhaps more than ever, is truly changing the game and how bullpens will be viewed going forward.
No matter who wins, baseball will get something more out of it than just a long-term drought coming to an end. Baseball is going to get a change in philosophy. The best pitchers are going to finally be pitching in the situations they are needed most.
Who can forget it?
Last postseason, Daniel Murphy took the league by storm as a member of the New York Mets, swatting seven home runs in his first nine games, including home runs six games in a row.
It's hard to know exactly how much his postseason improved his free agent stock, though Murphy cashed in quite nicely, inking a three-year, $37.5 million deal with the Nationals. And he has completely lived up to expectations.
So, who is Murphy-ing this postseason so far?
Edwin Encarnacion, Toronto Blue Jays
Easily the best example of Murphy-ing this postseason is Blue Jays' slugger Edwin Encarnacion, who has had a phenomenal postseason thus far, having six hits in his first 16 at bats, including three home runs and seven RBI.
Encarnacion was likely going to get a big contract this offseason regardless. However, his great performance in the postseason thus far will only increase the likelihood of him getting a large payday. Some concerns may surround Encarnacion's age, given that he is 33 years old. Despite this, he still played 600 innings at first base during the season, perhaps allowing him to market himself to both American and National League teams.
Middle-of-the-order bats are hard to come by, and Encarnacion is solidifying himself as a great option for teams looking for extra pop in their lineup going forward. He might just get a "clutch" player tag, too, which obviously helps him.
Jose Bautista, Toronto Blue Jays
Like his aforementioned Blue Jays teammate, Bautista will hit the free agent market this offseason at the conclusion of a six-year, $78 million contract. I can't imagine anyone but Toronto keeping Bautista, but an extension has not been worked out, and it still seems like he is open to hitting free agency.
Bautista has not been nearly as good as Encarnacion this postseason, yet he has still hit two very important home runs, one of which came in a do-or-die American League Wild Card game. Bautista cooled off during the ALDS, collecting just two hits over the three games, but a strong postseason the rest of the way could make his bat in even more demand than it already projects to be.
Bautista has a natural flare for the dramatic, so I would not be shocked if his price tag is increased due to his ability to carry a team when it matters.
Aroldis Chapman, Chicago Cubs
Every time they watch him pitch, all 29 other Major League teams must wish they have Aroldis Chapman on their team. Chapman, famous for his fastball that easily reaches velocities in excess of 100 mph on the daily, has had a strong showing this postseason that should make him a rich man in a few months.
Granted, Chapman blew a save in NLDS Game 3, but in his other three appearances, he's been lights out, pitching three innings and striking out six. In Game 4, with a chance to clinch the series, Chapman set the Giants down in order by striking out the side. The games will get more important, and Chapman will continue to prove to be a very valuable piece out of the Cubs' bullpen. His value on the free agent market will continue to skyrocket past what already appears to be a record-breaking reliever contract in the making.
Chapman is 28 years old and is set to become a free agent for the first time. He was suspended at the beginning of this season due to a domestic violence incident, which could be a major downfall when negotiating his next deal.
In all, these three players have--to an extent--done this postseason what Daniel Murphy did last postseason. With all the talk that surrounds "contract years," it could just be "contract postseasons" that begin to make all the difference in years to come.
The 2016 season has come to a close, which is unfortunate in some respects. But it appears we are going to have an exciting postseason ahead of us--we always do, honestly--perhaps adding a little bit of sunshine on the overall sadness that another year has gone by.
But, with every 2,430 games that come in a single baseball season, some players (and managers), stand out above the rest. Thus, we honor them, and I’ll do my best here to provide my selections for both leagues’ top awards. Without further ado, my MVP picks and choices for the rest of the major awards. . .
National League Most Valuable Player: Kris Bryant, Chicago Cubs (8.4 fWAR)
It’s still hard to think that Bryant was a rookie just last year, but the former No. 2 overall pick has proven why he was one of the most hyped prospects since Bryce Harper and Mike Trout. Bryant, this season, hit for a .292/.385/.554 slash, popping 39 home runs and driving in 102 RBI. He’s been by far the best player on by far the best team in baseball, making the MVP award almost a lock for him.
Worth nothing: The Cubs as a whole have four of the top-15 players in OBP this season, and they’re all right near each other, at Nos. 11, 13, and two tied for 14 (Bryant is here). Bryant, even with the fourth-best isolated power in the NL, still manages to be a top-15 player at getting on-base. That’s a lethal combination right there.
Runner Up: Daniel Murphy, Washington Nationals (5.5 fWAR)
American League Most Valuable Player: Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels (9.4 fWAR)
I’ve ranted a lot on Twitter about Trout being the American League MVP, including the usage of the #TeamTrout hashtag, which may or may not actually exist elsewhere. But, the debate about whether we should name an MVP based on whether a player is playing a pennant race is appalling. Sure, “valuable” and “best” are definitely different words, and I think most (if not all) would agree that Trout is the best player in the American League. But even still, as Dave Cameron of FanGraphs said it best, by naming an MVP on a contending team, we’re basically rewarding a player for having good teammates.
Maybe if the race was closer, I’d consider looking elsewhere. It’s harder to play better under the stress of a pennant race, so guys like Mookie Betts, Josh Donaldson and Manny Machado should get some credit, but they are so far behind Trout it really isn’t fair to the Millville Meteor, as he is often called. This season, Trout hit for a .315/.441/.550 slash and sat on 29 home runs, 100 RBI and 30 steals, all while playing solid defense in center.
Runner Up: Mookie Betts, Boston Red Sox (7.7 fWAR)
National League Cy Young: Jose Fernandez, Miami Marlins (6.2 fWAR)
What happened to Fernandez is obviously upsetting to everyone in the baseball community, and it’s hard to say that I did not take that into account when making this selection. The National League featured lots of good pitchers this season, but no one pitcher really took the spotlight this year, as Clayton Kershaw often does. This, then, leads me to Fernandez, who definitely comes with his array qualifications to get the nod, tragedy aside. But honestly, there’s not a better way to honor Fernandez then by giving him an award he was likely to get at some point during his career.
Looking at the conventional stats, Fernandez posted a 2.86 ERA this season, ranking 7th in the National League. His 16 wins tie him for fifth. But his 182 ⅓ innings put him down at 19th, and if there’s a reason as to why he won’t win the award, this is likely it. But Fernandez really shines in the advanced metrics, with only one pitcher, Noah Syndergaard, having a better FIP and no pitcher having a better xFIP. Fernandez also struck out batters at the highest rate in the NL, with his K-BB% also ranking first. In a wide-open field, Fernandez could capture the NL Cy Young award this year.
Runner Up: Max Scherzer, Washington Nationals (5.6 fWAR)
American League Cy Young: Chris Sale, Chicago White Sox (5.2 fWAR)
Asking me to pick an American League Cy Young is like asking me to choose between a glazed or a sprinkled doughnut. Yes, I like doughnuts. But if Boston Creme isn’t an option, I could take it or leave it. The American League Cy Young race lacks a Boston Creme, and it’s filled with glazed and sprinkled (with maybe a jelly-filled in there somewhere). Due to the lack of a true “Cy qualified” candidate, many writers have found themselves choosing Zach Britton, something I cannot get myself behind, purely due to his lack of innings pitched. So, this leads me to the White Sox’ Sale.
Sale tied Rick Porcello and Justin Verlander on the fWAR leaderboard, with 5.2 wins above replacement, but Porcello got over six-and-a-half runs per game in run support (ranking first in the Majors), obviously making his job much easier. Sale received 4.47 runs of support per game, ranking 32nd of 74 qualified starters. Sale didn’t rank 1st in the AL in FIP (3nd) or xFIP (7th), but sometimes it’s a combination of results and dominance, which is where Sale finds himself. His K-BB% is the 2nd highest in the league, and his overall 17-9 record with a 3.21 ERA isn’t shabby either. Sale has the chocolate sprinkles in this race, which are obviously better than rainbow.
Runner Up: Rick Porcello, Boston Red Sox (5.2 fWAR)
National League Rookie of the Year: Corey Seager, Los Angeles Dodgers (7.5 fWAR)
Seager is not just a Rookie of the Year candidate. He’s also an MVP candidate and should easily finish in the top 5 of the voting. The 22-year-old hit like a big league veteran this season, slashing .308/.365/.512 with 26 home runs and 72 RBI, providing stellar defense at the game’s hardest position, shortstop. In terms of fAWR, Seager more than doubles second-place Trea Turner, who may have made this a closer race had he played more than 73 games.
Seager’s dominance in this race does not need much more backing, perhaps outside of the fact that he was the second-most valuable player (fWAR) in the NL this season, period.
Runner Up: Trea Turner, Washington Nationals (3.2 fWAR)
American League Rookie of the Year: Gary Sanchez, New York Yankees (3.1 fWAR)
In the AL, you’ve got a ridiculously close race between two well-worthy candidates: Gary Sanchez, Yankees’ catcher; and Michael Fulmer, Tigers’ starting pitcher. Both, believe it or not, were worth almost exactly the same amount of fWAR, but I’m going with Sanchez here.
My reasoning for this pick is quite simple, actually: Sanchez made history, whereas Fulmer was good. Good usually wins this award, but when you have history, I think you have to side with that. Sanchez hit 20 home runs this season while playing just 53 games. It may be hard to give a player who played just two months of the season this award, but Fulmer himself only made 26 starts, raising the question of who truly had a larger impact. Sanchez plays a premium position defensively, and he’s pretty good at it, catching 11 of 30 runners stealing among other things. He also slashed .299/.376/.657 this year, which speaks by itself.
Runner Up: Michael Fulmer, Detroit Tigers (3.0 fWAR)
National League Manager of the Year: Dusty Baker, Washington Nationals
The Nationals effectively ended their 2015 season with Bryce Harper being choked by Jonathan Papelbon in a dugout skirmish that ex-manager Matt Williams apparently did not see. Somehow, Baker managed Papelbon and Harper together (more just Papelbon by himself), and it appeared that no problems arose. The Nationals moved quite smoothly up until Papelbon was released (more due to performance than anything else) and continued to steamroll right along through the rest of the season.
If I told you at the beginning of the season that Harper was going to hit .243 this season with “just” an .814 OPS, and asked you to predict the Nationals’ record, many of you would have likely predicted them to win about 85 games, or perhaps even less. The Nationals went on to win 95 games this year and run away with the NL East. It’s true, not all of the credit should be attributed to Baker; Wilson Ramos had a phenomenal year behind the plate, Trea Turner provided a spark plug during the second half of the season; and the back-end of the rotation more than picked up the slack for the loss of Stephen Strasburg for extended amounts of time. Baker did a very nice job in his first season as Nationals’ manager, and thus, he’s my pick for NL Manager of the Year.
Runner Up: Joe Maddon, Chicago Cubs
American League Manager of the Year: Terry Francona, Cleveland Indians
Francona has been a phenomenal manager throughout his entire career, leading both the Red Sox and the Indians to success (though his tenure with the Phillies from 1997 to 2000 is often forgotten, for obvious reasons).
In 2016, Francona showed excellent bullpen management especially. What really stood out to me in particular was his willingness to use Andrew Miller in roles outside of the 9th inning, taking the advice to use your best pitcher in the most important situations to heart. Miller made at least one appearance in the sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth innings with Cleveland. It’s also important to note that the Indians ran away with the AL Central and finished with the second-best record in the league.
Runner Up: Jeff Banister, Texas Rangers