The Phenomenal, Forsaken Heisman Defense of Lamar Jackson

Alton Strupp/The Courier-Journal

What if I told you the sequel could be even better than the original?

There is a college football player who has been his team’s starting quarterback for the past three seasons. His past two years, though, have been some of the best in the sport.

Here are his numbers from 2016 and 2017, respectively. Before I show you this table, I am obligated to tell you that the player started all 13 games for his team last season and has only gotten to play in 11 games this year.

YEAR COMP% PASS YARDS TD INT RUSH YARDS RUSH TD
2016 56.2 3,543 30 9 1,571 21
2017 59.8 3,273 23 6 1,287 17

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that those numbers are ridiculous. It also doesn’t take a genius to figure out that, in many respects, this individual is having a better season this year as opposed to his 2016 campaign.

And, unless you don’t believe in reading headlines because they contain spoilers, you’ve already figured out that the player I’m talking about is 2016 Heisman Trophy winner and Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson. And again, he very well may be having a better season this year than last year. Oh, snap!

Jackson won the Heisman Trophy a season ago due to a profound lack of other award-worthy options. The alternatives to Jackson last season were Clemson quarterback DeShaun Watson (15 interceptions), Michigan defensive back Jabrill Peppers (no legitimately great stats), Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield, who put up exorbitant numbers in a conference that, as a general rule, does not play defense, and Oklahoma wide receiver Dede Westbrook, who had a great season that largely piggybacked on his quarterback’s success. Jackson faded down the stretch a season ago, as he barely averaged over 200 yards passing in the final five games of the year (Louisville lost its final three contests last season). Despite Jackson’s rough November and December, he was still able to bring home the hardware, and his Heisman victory was particularly impressive when you consider that he led the race from week three on.

This year, Jackson is having a better statistical year but has not received the same amount of attention or respect. Why is this? The answer is twofold.

First, Jackson was already fighting an uphill battle as a defending Heisman winner. Out of the 82 Heisman Trophy winners since 1935 (and yes, that includes Reggie Bush), only 26 were underclassmen when they won the award. Furthermore, just 13 of these players returned to college to defend their title, with some of the most recent examples being Johnny Manziel, Jameis Winston, and Tim Tebow. Only one returnee, Ohio State running back Archie Griffin, won the award in back-to-back seasons (1974-1975). Jackson would have done well to simply make it back to New York as a finalist for this year’s Heisman. but the numbers he’s put up this year should put him back in the conversation for the award in most circumstances. This, though, is not a regular situation.

The other, major negative for Jackson’s 2017 Heisman candidacy is the lack of success his team has had in spite of his absolute brilliance. While you may think that a great player would be able to overcome his team’s ineptitude and win a major award like this, that is not necessarily the case. Louisville currently finds itself at 7-4 with their annual rivalry game against Kentucky to close out the season tomorrow. The last Heisman winner to take home the hardware on a four-loss team was Oklahoma fullback Steve Owens in 1969. In those 48 years, college football has evolved so much that many offenses have simply gotten rid of the fullback. And let’s say that, hypothetically, Kentucky defeats the Cardinals tomorrow, as they did last year (you probably forgot about that because you were too busy watching this at the exact same time). If you want to find a Heisman winner on a five-loss team, you would have to go all the way back to 1956, where you will find Notre Dame and Packers legend Paul Hornung, who starred on the 2-8 Fighting Irish that season. The Heisman Trophy is, rightly or wrongly, one of the most team-centric awards in sports. While that may not be fair, this precedent is not on the side of a Jackson repeat.

This, of course, is not to say that the Louisville junior should take home the hardware. Baker Mayfield has thrown for 543 more yards this year on 49 fewer pass attempts and should be the clear favorite for the award, in spite of his profanity and, well, Michael Jackson-esque gesture toward the Kansas sideline last week. But if Heisman voters view Mayfield’s actions as a disqualification for giving him the award, Jackson should be next in line to win. That’s how good he has been this season.

This is also not the first time a Heisman Trophy winner has come back to have a better year the season after. Johnny Manziel put up better numbers in 2013 than he did in 2012 only to finish fifth in the Heisman voting that season. Manziel had the best overall numbers of the four quarterbacks (Jameis Winston, A.J. McCarron, Jordan Lynch) but his Texas A&M Aggies finished just 8-4 that season. If there is a precedent for the season Jackson is having after being college football’s best player a season ago, it belongs to Johnny Football, and it’s a bad sign for the Louisville star’s candidacy.

Lamar Jackson, barring unforeseen circumstances, will be heading to New York for the Heisman Trophy presentation. He won’t get the award, but you should appreciate him just for completing the long road back from last year’s victory.

Many others have failed in their defense of the Heisman Trophy. Lamar Jackson has been a smashing success.

The 2017 MLB Awards

Bob Levey/Getty Images

The baseball season is over, but the intrigue is not.

Every year, the Baseball Writers Association of America votes on Major League Baseball’s Most Valuable Player, Cy Young, Rookie of the Year, and Manager of the Year awards. Every voter has a different methods for choosing his or her winners; some voters are more sabermetrically inclined, others are very old-school, and others vote in a more random fashion; if you don’t believe me, the same people vote on Hall of Fame enshrinement and three of them don’t think Ken Griffey, Jr. deserves to be in Cooperstown. Yeah, I don’t know, either.

Anyway, about those methods: I’m trying a new one this year. I’ve gone back and forth over the past few years on the value of sabermetrics, but I’ve recently decided that they are essential to understanding why certain players and teams are successful and why others aren’t. That relates to this discussion because I’ll mainly be using a sabermetric, analytically-inclined system to determine who I would give baseball’s major awards to this year (except for Manager of the Year) instead of picking the winners randomly, which is what I had always done in the past.

I actually rolled out some of the winners near the end of September to great Twitter fanfare; things went so well that the proceedings ended with me commencing quite possibly the largest Easter Egg hunt in my young Twitter existence. Anyway, I’ve even tinkered with my system since then, and I have finally come to what I feel like is a fair and understandable structure for handicapping the awards. And these adjustments have changed some of the victors since that time, even though many players’ statistics did not.

Here’s how this will work: there will be nine metrics used to measure player performance. If the player ranks first in his league in batting average, for example, he gets one point. The player’s rank in each of the categories is added up and divided by the number of statistics used (nine). The player who comes out with the lowest number after that process wins the award. These are the statistics I used for position players and pitchers:

Position Players

Pitchers

For pitchers in the MVP discussion, I only used WAR and WPA for their final results and divided that number by two. And if a position player did not play enough innings at one position (e.g. the Indians’ Jose Ramirez), then DRS was removed from his final total and that individual’s DRS would not be considered. The same was true for the Mariners’ Nelson Cruz, the only full-time designated hitter considered for the American League MVP. Finally, if a closer was included in Cy Young consideration, his rank in all categories except for RA9-WAR and WPA would be among closers. In the two aforementioned figures, he would be ranked along with all other qualified pitchers in his league. The point in doing this was to tilt the playing field ever so slightly toward starting pitchers, as they throw at least 100 innings more than their ninth-inning counterparts, while still leaving the opportunity for a dominant closer to take home the hardware. Basically, this provision would leave the door open for a Zach Britton-esque season to still receive the recognition it deserves.

If this explanation is insufficient, the charts I used to calculate the MVP and Cy Young for both leagues can be found here and here (WARNING: Both links contain spoilers). While I’ve tried to explain this as best I can, I am, like many of you, a visual learner, and seeing the calculations that went into this process may help you better understand what I’m doing and why I’m doing it.

One last thing: I’m going to list several honorable mentions with the award winners. They are listed in the order they finished in my calculations.

So, hopefully, that explanation suffices. Here now are my 2017 MLB Award Winners. If you’re on the internet, please don’t judge me.


National League MVP

Winner: Joey Votto, 1B/Cincinnati Reds

Stats

AVG OBP SLG OPS RE24 wRC+ DRS (1B) WAR WPA
.320  .454  .578  1.032  69.12  165  11  6.6  4.96 

Put simply, Joey Votto is the best hitter in baseball.

He has been for some time, actually, but this year he solidified that label even further.  In 2017, Votto’s statistics were at or near career highs in home runs, runs scored, on-base percentage (.454 is the highest mark in the league in two years), batting average, wins above replacement, slugging percentage, and OPS. There is no other hitter in the game that compares to Votto. The Reds star first baseman finished first in the league in on-base percentage, OPS, RE24, wRC+, and Defensive Runs Saved. And in every other category, Votto finished no lower than sixth, which is where he finished in slugging percentage, behind  Giancarlo Stanton, Charlie Blackmon, Cody Bellinger, Freddie Freeman, and Nolan Arenado.

But there is no hitter as consistently good and diversely talented as Votto. And before you come in with the argument that the MVP has to come from a winning team, remember that the Cincinnati Reds won 68 games with Votto in the lineup every day. No, seriously. Every. Day. Don’t blame the best player on the team for his organization’s incompetence.

And we should really appreciate Votto’s greatness while we still can. The superstar turned 34 last month and history has shown us that most hitters rapidly decline around their 35th birthday. If this was Joey Votto’s last season among baseball’s elite, he’ll go down as one of the greatest hitters of all-time. If you don’t believe me, the proof is in the pudding.

This may seem like a far-fetched analogy, but think of Joey Votto like Slash. You already know that he’s great at his craft, but then you hear that song, and that solo, and come to think of it, you realize that he’s one of the all-time greats. Joey Votto transcends any particular award or single season, and he’s undoubtedly the best player in the National League right now.

Honorable Mentions: Charlie Blackmon, Giancarlo Stanton, Max Scherzer, Nolan Arenado, Justin Turner, Paul Goldschmidt, Anthony Rendon, Kris Bryant

American League MVP

Winner: Mike Trout, CF/Los Angeles Angels

Stats

AVG OBP SLG OPS RE24 wRC+ DRS (CF) WAR WPA
.306  .442  .629  1.071  55.95  181  -6  6.9  5.58 

Let me ask you a question: if you knew someone was clearly the best player in the game for several years running and he just had possibly the best year of his career, why would you deny him his just due?

Mike Trout just posted career highs in OPS, OBP, slugging percentage, and OPS, to say nothing of the fact that he set a career low for strikeout percentage over a full season. And did I mention that he played just 114 games this year after suffering a UCL tear in his thumb at the end of May and cleared the threshold for stat qualification by just four plate appearances?

This was no bother for the best player in the league. While many were distracted by the exploits of Aaron Judge and Jose Altuve this year (don’t get me wrong, they were fantastic), Trout led the American League in RE24 and he led the entire league in Win Probability Added. The best part about this is both of those measures are cumulative statistics that are very dependent on how many plate appearances a hitter gets in a season. Trout, with over 150 fewer plate appearances less than Judge and Altuve, matched or, in many ways, exceeded their value.

A counterargument for Trout’s MVP case would be that the Angels went 19-20 during his midseason absence and, despite his post-All-Star break return, finished the season at 80-82. That may seem fair, but other players actually stepped up when Trout was sidelined, and those pieces did not perform quite as well after the All-Star break. Also, Trout’s only support in the Angels’ lineup, aside from August acquisition Justin Upton, was Andrelton Simmons and the living, breathing, worst player in baseball. Denying Trout the award this year would be like refusing to give the country’s best nurse Doctor of the Year because she didn’t get the chance to save someone’s life.

You have no idea where the Halos would be without him. Just thinking about it frightens me.

Honorable Mentions: Corey Kluber, Jose Altuve, Chris Sale, Aaron Judge, Nelson Cruz, Justin Upton, Jose Ramirez, George Springer

National League Cy Young

Winner: Max Scherzer, SP/Washington Nationals

Stats

ERA WHIP K/9 FIP SIERA RE24 K/BB RA9-WAR WPA
2.51  0.91  12.02  2.90  2.98  41.82  4.87  7.1  4.14 

Unlike the American League (more on them shortly), the National League’s Cy Young race was fairly clear-cut for most of the season.

The award came down to the Nationals’ Max Scherzer and the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw, with Los Angeles closer Kenley Jansen trying to kick down the door to no avail in the latter stages of the year. Scherzer has the modest advantage here, though, after finishing no lower than third in any of the nine statistics used to measure a pitcher’s effectiveness in this exercise. That consistency catapulted him over Kershaw for the award, as the Dodgers’ lefty was a full point behind Scherzer on average.

In my Utopian baseball universe, this would be Scherzer’s third career Cy Young Award, which would make him just the tenth pitcher to achieve that milestone. The other nine pitchers to accomplish this feat either are, should be, or will be in the Hall of Fame. It’s hard to deny Scherzer the hardware this time around considering that he just had the best year of a remarkable and legendary career.

We are blessed with great pitching in baseball nowadays. We should make sure Max Scherzer doesn’t slip through the cracks, and that starts with giving him the 2017 National League Cy Young Award.

Honorable Mentions: Clayton Kershaw, Kenley Jansen, Stephen Strasburg, Zack Grienke

American League Cy Young

Winner: Corey Kluber, SP/Cleveland Indians

Stats

ERA WHIP K/9 FIP SIERA RE24 K/BB RA9-WAR WPA
2.25  0.87  11.71  2.50  2.68  48.32  7.36  8.5  4.26 

Corey Kluber trailed Red Sox pitcher Chris Sale in this race for most of the season. He began to pull ahead of the Sox ace, however, with a second half in which he gave up three or more earned runs in just three of his fifteen starts.

Kluber and Sale ranked first or second in the American League in every statistical measure used here except WPA, where Sale finished fourth. Kluber gained the slight edge, though, by finishing first in ERA, WHIP, and strikeout-to-walk ratio, as well as RA9-WAR, where he held a 1.2-win advantage over Sale. It is crazy to consider that the first pitcher to finish a season with 300 strikeouts since 2002 would finish a clear second in the Cy Young race, but here we are.

And after one of the best seasons by two different pitchers in the same league, Corey Kluber comes out on top, playoff performance notwithstanding. His staggering second half is enough to get him my vote for AL Cy Young.

Honorable Mentions: Chris Sale, Craig Kimbrel, Carlos Carrasco, Luis Severino, Justin Verlander

National League Rookie of the Year

Winner: Cody Bellinger, OF/Los Angeles Dodgers

Cody Bellinger

Stats

AVG OBP SLG OPS RE24 wRC+ DRS (1B) WAR WPA
.267 .352 .581 .933 35.97 138 2 4.0 4.30

I’m not here to reinvent the wheel.

Bellinger broke the National League rookie record for home runs in a season (39) and was clearly the best rookie on the National League side. There was no one else even approaching Bellinger’s value this season, and he clearly had the National League’s best freshman effort, even if some of his broken records are less auspicious than others.

Honorable Mentions: Paul DeJong, Austin Barnes, Rhys Hoskins

American League Rookie of the Year

Winner: Aaron Judge, RF/New York Yankees

Stats

AVG OBP SLG OPS RE24 wRC+ DRS (RF) WAR WPA
.284  .422  .627  1.049  54.83  172  8.2  2.38 

Again, I’m not here to insult your intelligence.

Aaron Judge is a contender for the American League MVP, let alone Rookie of the Year. He broke the league’s rookie home run and walk records, and despite his league-leading 208 strikeouts, there isn’t another rookie in the American League who approaches Judge’s value. This is proven, too: Judge led the league in Wins Above Replacement (8.2) this season.

All rise.

Honorable Mentions: Matt Chapman, Andrew Benintendi, Mitch Haniger

National League Manager of the Year

Winner: Torey Lovullo, Arizona Diamondbacks

In his first season as manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks, Torey Lovullo quite literally engineered a 180° turnaround in the desert.

Last season, the D-Backs were 69-93 and finished just one game ahead of the San Diego Padres, the worst team in the National League. Arizona’s fan base had one of the best players in the game and absolutely nothing else to cheer for. Worst of all, the team traded future All-Star Ender Inciarte and top prospect Dansby Swanson the season before for Shelby Miller; you don’t need me to tell you how that went.

Fast forward a year later, though, and the Diamondbacks were one of the best teams in the league. Despite an abrupt playoff exit at the hands of the Dodgers, Arizona won 93 games and Lovullo’s arrival is no small reason why. While most of the Diamondbacks’ resurgence centered around improved performances from pitchers Zack Greinke and Robbie Ray, in addition to the presence of A.J. Pollock in center field and the midseason acquisition of Tigers outfielder J.D. Martinez, Lovullo deserves credit for his leadership in guiding the Diamondbacks to their first playoff appearance since 2011.

Honorable Mentions: Craig Counsell, Dave Roberts, Bud Black

American League Manager of the Year

Winner: Paul Molitor, Minnesota Twins

Last year, the Minnesota Twins were baseball’s worst team at 59-103 and did not appear to have any hope of being a contender this season. Enter Paul Molitor.

Molitor has managed the Twins since 2015 and has had the team in contention in two of his three seasons at the helm; this year, though, marked his first playoff appearance. How the Twins got there, however, is what makes the job Molitor did all the more impressive.

At the trade deadline, the Twins found themselves at 50-53 and five games back of the second wild card spot. Thinking that the team’s chances of reaching the playoffs were fading with two months to play, GM Thad Levine shipped closer Brandon Kintzler to the Nationals and sent Jaime Garcia, after one start and three days with the Twins organization, to the Yankees. Many, including myself, counted Minnesota out of the race.

Instead, the team finished the year 35-24 and reached the playoffs for the first time since 2010. To add to that, they gave the Yankees, a team that was later one win away from the World Series, an honest-to-goodness fight in the AL Wild Card game. The emergence of young stars such as Miguel Sano, Eddie Rosario, and Byron Buxton is a great sign for Minnesota, and hopefully they can keep Molitor on the top step of the dugout for the foreseeable future. It’s worked out well so far.

Honorable Mentions: Joe Girardi, A.J. Hinch, Kevin Cash


How did I do? Let me know in the comments section or debate me on Twitter, but please be ready to back up your arguments.