Best (and worst) of the first half
With the All-Star break upon us, it's time to hand out some midseason hardware
Here we are, about to roar into the All-Star break of another fabulous baseball season. And as always, we know what you're thinking:
Does Miguel Cabrera ever make an out?
Has medical science developed a cure for Pirates Fever?
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Has Angel Hernandez inspired any more affectionate Chipper Jones tweets in the past 10 minutes?
Yeah, yeah, we know. You actually weren't thinking any of that. But you were thinking: Who would win every major baseball award known to mankind if the season were to end right now (which, fortunately, is highly unlikely)?
Well, luckily for you, we have all those answers:
NL MVP: Yadier Molina
The linguists in our midst owe a great debt to the MVP award -- because every darned year, it forces us to grapple with the true meaning of the word "valuable." So if you're a WAR kind of person, you'd be making a case about now for why Carlos Gomez or David Wright or Paul Goldschmidt or even Clayton Kershaw ought to be the MVP of the National League this year. And why not? They've all been awesome.
But as much as I've come to appreciate, and even rely on, WAR as one of the most accurate, all-encompassing statistical concepts ever devised, can we agree that there's something about the Wins Above Replacement formula that somehow doesn't properly assess the real value of Yadier Molina? If WAR is telling us that this guy isn't one of the top 10 defensive players in the National League, or that someone like Justin Ruggiano is more defensively "valuable" than Yadier Molina, sorry. That's just a sure sign that WAR doesn't truly evaluate what catchers like this man do for a living.
So on that note, here's why I think Molina is the MVP of this league. Not just because he's on track to become the second catcher to win an NL batting title in the past 70 years. (The other, you might recall, was the fellow who won it last year, Buster Posey.) Not just because only six NL catchers since 1900 have finished any season (of at least 400 PA) with as high a batting average (.339) and on-base percentage (.383) as Molina has now. Not just because he's threatening to become the second catcher in the past 40 years to lead his league in doubles. Not just because he's on the road to throwing out more than 40 percent of opposing base stealers for the eighth time in his career. It's because Yadier Molina defines "valuable" -- to me, at least. And to others way smarter than me.
"He's the most important player in baseball," said one scout. "Take him off that team, and they're not the St. Louis Cardinals. Offensively, defensively, emotionally, psychologically, he's the glue that holds that team together. I ask other scouts all the time, 'If you could pick one player in the National League to start your team with, who would it be?' They all pick Yadier Molina. And nobody even hesitates." So feel free to explain what "valuable" means to you in any old terminology you'd like. But for me, it means "Yadier Molina." Period.
AL MVP: Miguel Cabrera
In almost any other year, in any other league, I would be using this space to spin an eloquent tale of the incredible saga of Chris Davis in Baltimore. But unfortunately for him, he had a first half for the ages at the same time that the great Miguel Cabrera was reminding us once again that he is one of the most special bat artistes any of us have ever laid eyes on. So take a deep breath and behold this man's first-half stat line through the first 90 games:
.366/.457/.682/1.139/30 HR/94 RBIs
C'mon. Seriously? This is the 81st season to include an entity known as the "All-Star break." Would you believe that no one, in those 81 years, has ever matched that stat line at the break? And yes, I said no one. Way back when, in pre-All-Star-break history, Lou Gehrig had a .397/.484/.839/1.313/29/102 "first half" in 1927 that would have included 31 homers and 114 RBIs if we counted his first 90 games, according to baseball-reference.com. And Jimmie Foxx had a .375/.475/.769/1.244/30/93 "first half" in 1932. But in actual modern times, we've never seen anything like this. Did you know the list of men who never had 29 homers or 93 RBIs in any season includes Pete Rose, Lou Brock, Craig Biggio, Mark Grace and Wade Boggs (not to mention many, many others)?
But Miguel Cabrera has already reached those levels (along with that amazing slash line to go with it) by the All-Star break? You know, I could keep going here. I haven't even gotten into the fact that this man is hitting .452/.561/.923 with runners in scoring position, or that he's hitting a mind-warping .487/.630/1.026 with runners in scoring position and two outs. But basically, there's no need to keep piling on stats or accolades. I know what greatness looks like when I see it. And it looks just like the guy who plays third base in Detroit.
NL Least Valuable Player (LVP): B.J. Upton
We'll never know exactly what the Braves thought they were buying when they promised to deposit $75.25 million in B.J. Upton's checking account (the biggest contract in franchise history, by the way) over the next five years.
But we know this: They sure didn't think they were buying a fellow who was about to go out and … hit .177, the lowest batting average by any qualifying major league regular so far this year … slug .300, the sixth-lowest slugging percentage by any qualifying major league regular (lower than Adeiny Hechavarria, Jose Altuve and Ben "Never Homered In My Career" Revere!) … hit .164/.235/.233 against left-handed pitching … hit .103, with a .176 slugging percentage, with runners in scoring position … go 0-for-the-season (0-for-21) with runners on third base … go 1-for-38 (.026) with runners in scoring position and two outs … go 51 consecutive games without stealing a base in one stretch (and 33 games in a row without even attempting to steal a base) … and rack up a defensive rating in center field of minus-three runs saved.
It has been so painful to watch that one scout who covers the Braves said recently, "He makes me not enjoy watching baseball." If you were looking for a way to put into words what LVP-hood is all about, um, I'd say that about covers it.
AL LVP: Josh Hamilton
Did Josh Hamilton wake up one morning and decide it was some kind of brilliant idea to start taking a whack at basically every pitch he saw? That's never a real sound plan, but it pretty much describes his approach at the plate for most of this season. And look where it has carried him -- right to the LVP medal stand.
He did a lot of this last year, too, but what the heck. He was trying to hit home runs, put up numbers and get rich. But this year, with $125 million worth of paydays guaranteed to keep on coming for the next five seasons, Hamilton just kept on waving at a ridiculous 55.9 percent of all pitches he saw, and an even more absurd 40.6 percent of non-strikes he saw. Well, holy schmoly, that hasn't worked out so hot.
Until his recent awakening from the offensively comatose (18 for his past 52, with four homers, in his past 14 games), he had the 17th-lowest OPS in the big leagues (.640). And even including that streak, he has swung and missed more (16.8 percent) than any hitter in the American League. He's hitting .149 with runners in scoring position, with two extra-base hits and more than twice as many strikeouts (21) as hits (10). And he's 0-for-Anaheim (0-for-27 as an Angel, with 17 whiffs) against left-handed relievers! Maybe he didn't single-handedly dig the Angels into an inescapable ditch over the first 2½ months of this season. But he was sure right in the middle of the ditch-digging.
For that, he gets all the LVP glory we can bestow. But luckily for him and his team, there's still half a season left for both of them to leave their ditch dwelling behind.
NL Cy Young: Clayton Kershaw
I'll be honest. I went into this process leaning toward casting this vote for the phenomenal Matt Harvey. But hard as I tried, I couldn't get past one slight inconvenient fact: Clayton Kershaw remains the Best Pitcher in Baseball. I know it's not we-interrupt-this-program news anymore to report that this guy is leading his league in ERA and WHIP, because he did that last year. And the year before that.
But just so you know, he's leading the entire sport in both categories again (1.89 ERA, 0.90 WHIP) -- and in opponent average (.186), OBP (.240) and slugging (.269). Not to mention shutouts (two), average game score (67) and Adjusted ERA-Plus (192). He devours innings (going seven or more in 15 of his 19 starts). He's had zero "ugly starts" (fewer than five innings, five or more earned runs). He became the second active visiting pitcher ever to throw a shutout at Coors Field. He dominates left-handed hitters (who are "slugging" .156, with zero homers, against him) and right-handed hitters (hitting .201, with a .297 SLG, against him).
So he's The Best. Get the picture? "Some guys have reach-back stuff," said one NL scout. "But Kershaw's got reach-back 'pitch-ability.' If one of his teammates makes a mistake -- if, say, Puig misplays a ball into a double in a 1-0 game, he can get out of that inning with no damage because he's so tough." If this was a Best Pure Un-frigging-hittable Stuff in Baseball award, I'd still vote Matt Harvey. But as sensational as Harvey might be, he's not Clayton Kershaw. Not yet, at least.
AL Cy Young: Max Scherzer
Let's get this straight right from the top. This choice is not just about wins and losses. But that doesn't mean I have to ignore wins and losses, either. My stance on this is, essentially: As life-altering baseball statistics go, "wins" are overrated. Way overrated. But they're not meaningless.
Obviously, a big reason Max Scherzer is 13-0 is that he leads the major leagues in run support. And his bullpen has pitched great for him, allowing no more than one run after he left the game in 14 of his 18 starts.
I get all that. But I also get this: Max Scherzer has been tremendous, at a time when his team needed him to be tremendous, because The Ace, Justin Verlander, has been shockingly mortal (for him). The Tigers are 15-3 when Scherzer pitches -- and two games under .500 when anybody else pitches. That's not meaningless.
He has given them big innings, pitching into the seventh (or beyond) in 13 of his past 16 starts. That's not meaningless. In the eight starts he's made following a Tigers loss since mid-May, they're 7-1 (thanks to one blown save), with Scherzer allowing just 32 hits (with 60 whiffs) and 15 earned runs (a 2.37 ERA) in 57 innings. That's not meaningless, either. There are excellent cases to be made here for Felix Hernandez, Chris Sale, Yu Darvish, Bartolo Colon and Hisashi Iwakuma. But Scherzer ranks in the top three in the AL in WHIP, strikeouts, strikeout ratio, FIP, opponent average, on-base, slugging and OPS. None of the other starters in this argument can make that claim.
So I'm not casting this vote just because Max Scherzer is 13-0. But I'm sure as heck not going to penalize him for it, either.
NL Cy Yuk: Ian Kennedy
I almost handed this prestigious non-trophy to the portion of the Giants' rotation not known as "Madison Bumgarner," since, at last look, that group had somehow run up an incomprehensible 5.15 ERA. But in the end, I decided this was just a bunch of guys with a championship track record who were paying the unfortunate cost of winning in an age where October has turned into a max-effort, four-week marathon. So I've turned instead to Kennedy, for all sorts of reasons.
Because his 5.31 ERA isn't real ace-like for a team in first place, but is the third-highest among all qualifying NL starters. … Because he has allowed a .789 opponents OPS, the fifth-highest among NL starters. … Because he's let opposing pitchers hit .281 against him. (They hit .107 against the rest of civilization.) … Because he has a 7.34 ERA against teams that are currently .500 or better. … Because he has gone 0-2, with a 6.63 ERA, in three starts against the club his team most lives to beat, the Dodgers. … And, speaking of the Dodgers, shouldn't this guy get extra Cy Yuk points for setting off the ugliest brawl of the season by firing that pitch at Zack Greinke's noggin, no matter how justified he might have thought it was at the time? Our committee said yes, he should. So there ya go.
AL Cy Yuk: Joe Blanton
I'll never forget the day at last December's winter meetings when the Angels abandoned their efforts to re-sign Zack Greinke and handed a two-year, $15 million contract to Joe Blanton. Let's just say the expression "stroke of genius" never came up.
Now, in his defense, Angels general manager Jerry Dipoto made it clear from the start that he valued Blanton for the innings he was going to eat, not for the run at a Cy Young award that no one expected the guy to make. And the good news is, hey, the Angels have gotten those innings. (Blanton has taken them into the sixth in 13 of his past 17 starts.) The bad news is, here's what those innings have produced: The most home runs (22) served up by any pitcher in the big leagues, even though the Angels' home park is the seventh-toughest in baseball to go deep in … the most hits (143, in 108.1 IP) and extra-base hits (56) allowed by any pitcher in the big leagues … a .312/.346/.534 slash line that essentially means he has turned all the opposing hitters he has faced into Carlos Gonzalez … zero base stealers caught (in 12 attempts) … a 5.40 ERA (which ranks 92nd among the 93 major league starters who qualify for the ERA title) … and a 2-11 win-loss record despite all those innings and better run support than CC Sabathia, Justin Masterson or Madison Bumgarner (not to mention an offense that has gotten Blanton off the hook in three other starts in which he left while trailing).
Sounds like a Cy Yuk body of work to this awards committee. How 'bout you?
NL Rookie: Shelby Miller
I've been a rookie of the year voter many times. But I feel for anyone who has to cast an NL Rookie of the Year vote this season, because there are only three spots on this ballot -- and there are like 12 guys who deserve to occupy one of them. So get ready for the first eight-way tie for third place! But when you size up this glittering field, there's nobody I'd rank above Shelby Miller for pure start-to-finish excellence (so far, at least). Anybody else having trouble comprehending that a year ago this time, this guy was throwing 88 miles an hour and had an ERA over 6.00 in Memphis?
But watching him now -- going 9-6, 2.92, for the winningest team in his league, with the third-best strikeout ratio (9.63 per 9 IP) in the National League -- those struggles of 2012 might have been the most fortuitous development of his career. It caused him to get in shape, gain 20 pounds, add 5 mph on his fastball, rediscover his curve and changeup, retool his delivery and develop into the most polished rookie pitcher in baseball.
And that's not a line I'm throwing out there casually, not when Jose Fernandez (opponent slash line: .194/.276/.342), Hyun-Jin Ryu (7-3, 3.09, with 14 quality starts) and Julio Teheran (2.36 ERA over his past 14 starts) are in this mix. Eventually, the burgeoning legend of Yasiel Puig could dwarf all of these guys. But get back to us on that in three months.
AL Rookie: Jose Iglesias
It's almost hilarious to look back a few months and recall the two tenets of the "popular wisdom" about Jose Iglesias coming into this season: (A) Could play the heck out of shortstop; and (B) couldn't hit a lick.
So now here we are, in the second week of July, and what is Jose Iglesias now? A sweet-swinging third baseman. What else? It's an incredible tale, how Iglesias turned himself into That Guy. It's part happenstance (Will Middlebrooks' back issues) and part good fortune (an amazing 19 infield hits). But it's also a testament to what can happen when a talented player puts in the time and work to fix the portion of his game that everybody thought was broken except him.
After an offseason spent working on his swing and approach, Iglesias has done nothing but hit since the day he showed up for spring training. He was the first AL rookie to get 43 hits in his first 100 at-bats of the season since Tony Oliva in 1964. Even more astounding, he became just the third Red Sox player ever to get 60 hits in his first 150 at-bats. The others: Ted Williams and Manny Ramirez.
(Now take a second to think about all the storied Boston mashers who never did that.)
All right, so given the competition in this AL Rookie of the Year derby, Iglesias didn't have to imitate Ted Williams or reenact the Mike Trout Story to earn this nomination. But he earned it all the same. And everybody who thinks that in the second half someone like Wil Myers or Jurickson Profar will whoosh in and steal the real trophy away, based solely on where they rank on your favorite prospects list, might want to think again.
NL Manager: Clint Hurdle
Believe it or not, this is the third straight season that I've anointed Clint Hurdle as the manager of the half-year. Now, you don't need to be a descendant of Bill Mazeroski to know how the past two seasons turned out.
But the fact that Hurdle is back in this space for a third straight year isn't just a reflection of his team's recent history of messy first-half/second-half split personalities. It's also a reflection of the manager's powerful ability to erase just about any sort of ugly hangovers with his relentless positivity.
"Clint has a short memory," said one longtime friend of Hurdle. "I don't think he lives much at all in the past. But he doesn't only have the ability to [put the past behind him] with himself. He has the ability to do it with his players, too."
Apologies to: Mike Matheny, Walt Weiss, Kirk Gibson.
AL Manager: John Farrell
One baseball man we know had the perfect description for John Farrell's managerial mission in Boston this season: He didn't merely have to change the Red Sox's culture; he "had to clean up a toxic waste dump." So true.
The most amazing part of this team's journey to first place isn't the production it has gotten from 37-year-old David Ortiz, or the emergence of guys such as Daniel Nava and Iglesias, or the brilliance of Clay Buchholz (when healthy), or the bullpen-rescuing of closer No. 3, Koji Uehara. It's that, when you're around the Red Sox, it feels as though last year never happened.
That's a tribute to the leadership of Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia. It's a reflection of the excellent job GM Ben Cherington did in bringing in players of exceptional character. But no one should minimize the manager's many contributions -- from reviving his pitching staff to finding a way to get 12 different players at least 140 plate appearances to, above all, restoring the Red Sox vibe that was all he once knew, back in happier times.
Apologies to: Terry Francona, Bob Melvin, Buck Showalter.
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