Honoring the best

The trophy season rolls on. The major leagues are in the midst of their postseason celebration, handing out a series of prestigious honors this week. And I’m continuing to announce the winners of my own 2022 awards.

The tributes dispensed by this newsletter aren’t of the same caliber as the Most Valuable Player Award or the Cy Young Award — not even close — though they do have the same aim. They reward outstanding performances over the recently completed 2022 schedule.

I started my version of awards season last week, announcing the winners of three honors, each named after a baseball immortal who epitomized a specific skill. Let’s quickly recap.

There was a certain sameness, you’d have to admit, to last week’s list of winners in the American League:

  • Ted Williams Award (batting): Aaron Judge, Yankees

  • Lou Gehrig Award (scoring): Aaron Judge, Yankees

  • Babe Ruth Award (power): Aaron Judge, Yankees

The National League had a more diverse group of honorees:

This week’s three honors follow the same template. Each award carries the name of a Hall of Famer from the post-World War II era, and each is given for superior achievement in a specific category. Winners are named in both leagues.

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Nellie Fox Award (contact)

Nellie Fox played second base, primarily for the White Sox, from 1947 to 1965. He peaked in 1959, when he won the American League’s MVP Award and led the Sox to their first pennant in 40 years.

Fox was astoundingly good at putting his bat on the ball. He struck out just 216 times in 9,232 at-bats, yielding a contract rate of .977, far and away the best for any postwar Hall of Famer. (Contact rate is the percentage of at-bats not ending in strikeouts.)

Luis Arraez, an infielder for the Minnesota Twins, was the only big leaguer (with at least 502 plate appearances) who posted a contact rate higher than .900 in 2022. It was perhaps no coincidence that he also won the American League’s batting title.

Arraez struck out just 43 times in 547 at-bats, giving him a contact rate of .921. That makes him the easy winner of the AL’s version of the Nellie Fox Award for contact.

Jeff McNeil’s .886 rate earns him the National League’s honor. He, too, was his league’s batting champion. There’s a lesson there, I think.

These are the top five contact hitters in each league:

American League

National League

Rickey Henderson Award (batting eye)

Rickey Henderson was a great batter, of course, with a lifetime total of 3,055 hits. And everybody knows he was an outstanding baserunner, with 1,406 stolen bases, easily the most of any player in big-league history.

Henderson had a third skill that was equally amazing, yet was not as widely acknowledged. He received a total of 2,129 unintentional walks, yielding a batting eye rate (abbreviated as EY) of .160, a career figure unmatched by anybody who played after 1970. (EY is calculated by dividing unintentional walks by the number of plate appearances after intentional walks have been subtracted.)

That’s why the annual honor for best batting eye is called the Rickey Henderson Award. This year’s versions go to Juan Soto in the National League and Jesse Winker of the Seattle Mariners in the AL.

Soto, who split his season between the Washington Nationals and San Diego Padres, drew 129 unintentional walks this season, giving him an impressively high EY of .196. Winker’s rate was .152. Here are the leaders in both leagues, all with at least 502 plate appearances:

American League

  • Jesse Winker, Mariners, .152

  • Carlos Santana, Royals-Mariners, .137

  • Yandy Diaz, Rays, .137

  • Aaron Judge, Yankees, .136

  • Alex Bregman, Astros, .131

National League

  • Juan Soto, Nationals-Padres, .196

  • Max Muncy, Dodgers, .158

  • Christian Yelich, Brewers, .125

  • Kyle Schwarber, Phillies, .125

  • Paul Goldschmidt, Cardinals, .120

  • Josh Bell, Nationals-Padres, .120

Willie Mays Award (fielding-batting combination)

Willie Mays hit for average (.302 lifetime) and power (660 homers). He was an outstanding baserunner (338 stolen bases). He was an amazing fielder (12 Gold Gloves). He had no flaws.

That last number, as high as it is, doesn’t really reflect his excellence. His 12 Gold Gloves tie Mays with Roberto Clemente for the most ever won by an outfielder, yet the award wasn’t introduced until 1957, his sixth season with the Giants. If they had been giving out Gold Gloves his entire career, he certainly would have won more.

Only 18 players are eligible in a given season for the Willie Mays Award, which recognizes the year’s greatest blend of fielding and batting skill. The first requirement is that a player must win a Gold Glove, and only nine of those are handed out to position players in each league. Those fielding honorees are then ranked by bases per out (BPO), the best measure of batting ability.

The winners of the 2022 Willie Mays Awards are Andres Gimenez, second baseman for the Cleveland Guardians, and Mookie Betts, right fielder for the Los Angeles Dodgers. They led their leagues’ Gold Glove winners in BPO with respective rates of .865 and .889.

Here are the top five qualifiers on each side:

American League

National League

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