- David Schoenfield, SweetSpot blogger
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I've written before how certain seasons become identifiable with one player, or maybe a couple of players.
Last season, for example, clearly belonged to Justin Verlander. You can debate the historic nature of his season, but it just felt like his year, with the 24 wins, the no-hitter, the 100-mph fastballs in the ninth inning of starts and, eventually, the Cy Young and MVP trophies.
I'm not sure if 2012 will end up being one of those seasons; it's too early to know, plus the postseason can come into play -- 1988 turned into Orel Hershiser's year instead of Jose Canseco's when the Los Angeles Dodgers beat the Oakland A's in the World Series.
But if I had to pick a face of the first half it's Andrew McCutchen, the 25-year-old center fielder of the first-place Pittsburgh Pirates. Yes, first-place Pirates. McCutchen had another huge game on Sunday in Pittsburgh's 13-2 victory over San Francisco, going 3-for-5 with two home runs, three runs and four RBIs. His two-run homer off Tim Lincecum in the first inning staked the Pirates to an early lead. He's now hitting .362/.414/.625, leads the major leagues in batting average and total bases, leads the NL in slugging percentage, ranks second to Joey Votto in OPS, and is among NL leaders with 18 home runs, 60 RBIs and 58 runs scored.
Jayson Stark gave his first-half NL MVP honors to McCutchen, and I'm inclined to agree. The Pirates keep winning, and McCutchen keeps delivering big hits.
Over his past nine games, McCutchen is scorching hot at 21-for-38 (.553) with 15 runs scored. But this stretch of dominance goes back to early June. McCutchen had helped keep the Pirates afloat the first two months, when the offense struggled to generate runs. The Pirates hit .228 in April and averaged just 2.6 runs per game. They weren't much better in May, hitting .210 and scoring 3.2 runs per game. Without McCutchen's .331/.389/.541 line through May, the Pirates wouldn't have been 25-25. On June 8 and 9, McCutchen went hitless in consecutive games for the only time this season. Since June 10, he's hitting .443 with 27 RBIs in the 26 games he's played. And since June 1, the Pirates are 23-12. If you want to go back a bit further, the Pirates are 34-19 since May 12, tied with the Angels and Yankees for the best record since that date.
McCutchen hasn't been a one-man show. Neil Walker had five hits on Sunday. A.J. Burnett won his ninth consecutive decision. Pedro Alvarez has been blasting some home runs and the bullpen has been terrific. The Pirates -- with 19 consecutive losing seasons -- are in first place at the All-Star break for the first time since 1997. It's the feel-good story of the first half.
"I am not going up to bat to hit home runs," McCutchen said after Sunday's game. "I am just trying to put good swings on balls and when I do that, depending on where the pitch is and how my swing is, some balls go out."
We've seen plenty of those good swings so far.
My other top-five faces of the first half:
2. Mike Trout and Bryce Harper
Youth, energy, excitement and, best of all, talent ooze from every pore of their body. Not since Alex Rodriguez and Ken Griffey Jr. broke in with the Mariners have we seen players of this ability at this age, where we can realistically say "There is no limit to their potential."
Let's start with Trout. Stark gave his first-half AL MVP to Trout -- and once again I agree. It's time to stop looking for holes in his game. He doesn't have any. The 20-year-old rookie outfielder, who spent the first 20 games of the season at Triple-A, hit his 12th home run in the Angels' 6-0 shutout over the Orioles on Sunday. Simply put, he's having one of the greatest rookie seasons of all time and one of the greatest seasons ever by a 20-year-old. He's hitting .341/.397/.562 and leads the AL in batting average and stolen bases while ranking fourth in OPS. Entering Sunday, his Baseball-Reference WAR (wins above replacement level) was an astonishing 4.6 in just 63 games.
We ran this list earlier in the season, but here are the players since 1901 who had a 5.0 WAR season since 1901:
Ty Cobb, Tigers, 1907: 6.6
Mel Ott, Giants, 1929: 7.3
Ted Williams, Red Sox, 1939: 6.6
Mickey Mantle, Yankees, 1952: 6.3
Al Kaline, Tigers, 1955: 8.0
Frank Robinson, Reds, 1956: 6.2
Vada Pinson, Reds, 1959: 6.3
Ken Griffey Jr., Mariners, 1990: 5.0
Alex Rodriguez, Mariners, 1996: 9.2
Jason Heyward, Braves, 2010: 6.3
As for Harper, he's younger than Trout and is hitting .282/.354/.472. Like Trout, he's an impressive blend of power and speed. Most impressively for a 19-year-old, he's held his own against left-handers after struggling against them in his brief sojourn through the minors. Maybe nobody is surprised by this since Harper's future stardom was projected ever since he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a 16-year-old with anecdotes of his Ruthian feats at the plate.
Still, he's 19. Most kids his age are in Class A or rookie ball. Harper currently owns an .826 OPS. The only two 19-year-olds to post an .800 OPS were Ott and Tony Conigliaro. Maybe pitchers will find holes in their swings in the second half. Maybe the long grind of 162 games will wear them out. Or, scary thought, maybe they'll get better.
3. R.A. Dickey
The Mets are a surprising 46-40, and their 37-year-old knuckleballer is a huge reason why with his 12-1, 2.40 first half. He's allowed one run or no runs in 10 of his 17 starts and opponents are hitting .203 off him. No pitcher who employed the knuckleball as his primary pitch has ever won the Cy Young Award. I have a feeling Dickey will be in that discussion come season's end.
4. Josh Hamilton
In a season of perfect games, no-hitters and other pitching gems, Hamilton's four-homer game on May 8 in Baltimore stands out. So do his 27 home runs and 75 RBIs -- and that's despite a June slump that saw him hit .223 with four home runs. It will be interesting to see if Hamilton or Jose Bautista -- also with 27 home runs -- can chase down Roger Maris' 61 home runs. No, that's not the single-season record, but let's just say it will be interesting to see how everyone reacts if that number is approached.
5. Joey Votto
Votto's 14 home runs and 48 RBIs may not impress you, but hopefully his .348/.471/.617 line does. That on-base percentage is 90 points higher than Hamilton's and Votto actually raises his numbers with runners in scoring position (.377/.535/.836). With 35 doubles in the Reds' first 85 games, Votto is on pace for 67, which would tie Earl Webb's record set in 1931. It's an obscure record, but it will be a fun chase if Votto gets close.
It's been a wild ride in the first half. I can't wait for the second half.
PHOTO OF THE DAY
I've written before how certain seasons become identifiable with one player, or maybe a couple of players.Last season, for example, clearly belonged to Justin Verlander.