"You're working too hard."
That was Jose Fernandez, one of the last times I saw him. Spring Training, in the picnic area just outside the Marlins' clubhouse in Jupiter, Fla., I was hammering away at whatever column du jour, and Jose, fresh off a workout, dripping with sweat, looked like the one who was doing actual work. But he gave me a hard time for sitting in the shade with my laptop when I could have been basking in the sun, then he went back to preparing for his first full season since his incredible rookie year.
At that moment, on a sun-splashed Florida morn at the dawn of a new year, it was impossible to imagine that Fernandez was preparing for his final season.
Jose Fernandez was the American dream personified. He was a young man who risked everything to get here, and, once here, brought so much unmitigated joy to baseball and its fans.
Now, Fernandez's sudden death has sapped so much joy out of the final playoff push. This loss is incomprehensible, and every other baseball topic drastically pales in comparison. But the game must trudge on, and what follows are a few of the topics shaping the final week of the regular season.
I'm still working, Jose, and I'm doing so with a truly heavy heart.
1. You make me want to Trout
If two players are both having extraordinary seasons legitimately worthy of the MVP Award, but one of them is October-bound and the other is not, by all means, feel free to use the postseason as a tiebreaker.
But in the American League in 2016, THERE IS NO TIE. Mike Trout is the league's best player, its most valuable player, its most outstanding player. Period. And I don't particularly care that his Halos are horrible.
Trout entered the final week…
- With the league lead in Wins Above Replacement (10.3 to Mookie Betts' 9.5). The only other player to lead his league in WAR five straight years, as Tout is about to do? Babe Ruth.
- With an OPS (.997) second only to that of David Ortiz (and no DH has ever won the AL MVP Award).
- With the Major League lead in OPS+ (175), which adjusts for park factors (Big Hint: Mike Trout plays 81 games in a pitcher-friendly park not named Fenway).
- With the Major League lead in runs created (134) and weighted runs created plus (172), which also adjusts for park factors.
- With the Majors' best on-base percentage (.440) and the AL's third-highest slugging percentage (.556, second only to that of Ortiz and Brian Dozier).
Care more for the traditional measures? Trout will finish with an average above .300 and at least 120 runs scored, 110 walks and 25 stolen bases. Only five players in history have done this: Ty Cobb (1915), Lenny Dykstra ('93), Barry Bonds ('93, '96 and '98), Jeff Bagwell ('99) and the 2013 installment of Mike Trout.
I come here not to condemn the candidacies of Betts or Ortiz or Josh Donaldson or Manny Machado or Jose Altuve or whoever else you might want to put on the plate. My only goal is to celebrate that which ought to be obvious but, for a very strange reason,* is not: Mike Trout is the league's best player. That was true before 2016 started, and it's true now that it's wrapping up.
To deny Trout yet another AL MVP Award because of issues with club construction is to somehow assert that in between impacting ballgames with his bat, glove and legs, Trout should have done a better job being the GM (Very Important Note: Trout's not the GM). The fact that Trout has done what he's done for a team going nowhere takes none of his value away. Take him off the Angels, and they're a 100-loss club. Isn't there some value in avoiding that ignominy?
And furthermore, isn't it fundamentally more difficult to have the season Trout's having on a lousy club than it is to have the season Betts is having in a loaded lineup?
Bottom line: Mike Trout is the game's best player.
You'd think there would be some kind of trophy for that.
2. Chaos theory
Every division is decided, effectively if not officially. That means the Wild Card pursuits take center stage in this final week. Eight teams are alive (some more than others), and this is what they have ahead of them.
Blue Jays (+1.5): vs. NYY (1), vs. BAL (3), @ BOS (3)
Orioles (--): @ TOR (3), @ NYY (3)
Tigers (-1.5): vs. CLE (4), @ ATL (3)
Mariners (-2.5): @HOU (3), vs. OAK (4)
Astros (-3): vs. SEA (3), @ LAA (3)
Mets (+1): @ MIA (3), @ PHI (3)
Giants (--): vs. COL (3), vs. LAD (3)
Cardinals (-0.5): vs. CIN (4), vs. PIT (3)
Want (realistic) chaos? I know you do.
So root for the Blue Jays to lose to the Yankees on Monday, then drop two of three in succession to the Orioles and Red Sox. Root for the O's to take that series from the Jays, then drop two of three to the Yanks. And finally, root for the Tigers to split with the Tribe, then sweep the Braves. That'll get everybody to 88 wins.
In the NL, it's even more realistic. Let's have the Mets win four of six, the Giants win five of six and the Cardinals win six of seven.
That would give us two three-team tiebreakers. In a three-team tiebreaker, teams get A, B and C designations. B plays at A, then the loser of that game plays at C. The two winners then play each other in the Wild Card Game proper.
In the AL, the Blue Jays and Orioles both have the season edge over the Tigers, and Toronto would have it over Baltimore. So the Jays would get first choice of designation and the O's second. In the NL, the Cards and Mets both have the head-to-head edge over the Giants and split their season set with each other. St. Louis would get first choice of A, B or C designation thanks to its superior intradivision record, followed by the Mets.
Four play-in games over two days (next Monday and Tuesday), followed by the two actual Wild Card games.
This can happen, people! The first step is believing it can.
3. Heading for home
The Red Sox have steamrolled their way through what was arguably baseball's toughest September schedule among contenders -- 19 games against winning ballclubs and only 10 games at home. Having picked a pretty freaking good time to win 11 in a row, they've put themselves within a half a game of Texas' lead for home-field advantage throughout October.
While the effects of such an advantage sometimes prove to be overblown, there's no mistaking the Fenway mystique, particularly in Big Papi's final year. Boston is scoring an even six runs per game at home, second only to the Rockies (6.37) in that category and nearly a full run higher than its average road output. Ortiz is no slouch in any facility, with a .276/.388/.462 slash in 188 postseason plate appearance on the road. But it's his .317/.432/.655 slash in 169 postseason plate appearances at Fenway that has made him a true October icon.
Meanwhile, the Indians and Rangers are both have pretty pedestrian road records (Cleveland is .500 on the road, while Texas is three games above .500).
So this race matters, too.
4. Rook, line and sinker
Despite my passionate ramblings above, I don't have an AL MVP Award vote this year. But I do have one for the AL Rookie of the Year Award. And Gary Sanchez, bless his heart, has taken what was once the Michael Fulmer Express Lane to the ballot box and instead made it a preposterously laborious road to a decision.
Sanchez has been on the Major League club for like six minutes, yet he's one home run away from tying Rangers outfielder Nomar Mazara, who came up the second week of the season, for the lead among AL rookies. That's silly. And Sanchez is already third in WAR among all MLB catchers, trailing only Buster Posey and Jonathan Lucroy. That's ludicrous.
But then Fulmer, who appeared to be (understandably) hitting a wall late in the year, twirled a gem against the Royals over the weekend, just as myself and others started to beat the Sanchez drum hard. Fulmer has put himself in position to potentially be the first rookie to win his league's ERA title since another Detroit pitcher -- Mark "The Bird" Fidrych in 1976.
Part of the Sanchez allure was that he was making history, the fastest ever to 19 homers. But Fulmer is doing something incredibly rare, too. And apparently, if you publicly tout Sanchez over Fulmer, Justin Verlander will come at you on Twitter:
Rookie of the.......... wait for it......... YEAR. Year I believe is a key word there. @dkurtenbach- Justin Verlander (@JustinVerlander) September 23, 2016
So yeah, a lot to think about here.
There's so much going on. The playoff pushes, the record chases, the Cy Young Award races that I haven't even harped on here, the Cubs on the cusp of No. 100, Vin Scully's final games, the jockeying for Draft pick positioning, etc., etc.
But if you'll excuse me, right now I'm just going to spend some time thinking good thoughts for the people in this video:
Anthony Castrovince is a Sports on Earth contributor, MLB.com columnist and MLB Network contributor. Follow him on Twitter @Castrovince.