Saturday, July 12, 2008
Honoring the very best (and worst) of the first half
By Jayson Stark
We've reached the midpoint of another sensational baseball season. And we know what you're thinking:
Has Hank Steinbrenner finished memorizing that rulebook from "the 1800s" yet?
If it's Helmet Night, does that mean Manny Ramirez was unable to get his full ticket allotment?
And, of course, is it a felony or a misdemeanor to mispronounce Fukudome?
Well, even if you weren't actually thinking about any of that, it's still been one of the most stupendous, unpredictable baseball seasons in eons. So grab a lemonade and follow along as we present our midseason awards:
Most Valuable Players
NL MVP of the half year: Albert Pujols, Cardinals
If the Astros weren't in the midst of a six-week plummet to the bottom of the NL Central, we'd hand this award to Lance Berkman without blinking. But if we're talking "valuable," we invite you to take a look at that Cardinals lineup sometime and then explain why those opposing pitchers ever throw a pitch over the plate to Albert Pujols. Well, now that we mention it, they don't. Or they're throwing as few strikes as possible, anyway.
Last year, more than half the pitches thrown Pujols' way were in the strike zone. This year, that figure is down to 42 percent. And he's still on pace to hit .350, with 33 homers and a .610 slugging percentage (not to mention 38 intentional walks). That may look like just another standard old year in the life of Sir Albert. But it's not -- because of what he means to an offense that surrounds him largely with reclamation projects and overachievers.
Think it's any accident the Cardinals are 7-10 in games he doesn't start, but 45-32 when he does? Think it's a coincidence that when he was on the disabled list last month, Ryan Ludwick hit .188 and the Cardinals scored two runs or fewer five times in 13 games? There are great cases to be made for Chase Utley, Hanley Ramirez and Chipper Jones.
But nobody has done more, with less around him, than Pujols.
Apologies to: Utley, Ramirez, Jones, Berkman, Dan Uggla, Matt Holliday.
AL MVP of the half year: Ian Kinsler, Rangers
If you're one of those folks who hasn't paid much attention to Ian Kinsler -- which at least puts you in a group that includes just about everyone in America except Mrs. Kinsler -- it would probably come as a shock to hear he's even the MVP of his own team. But while Josh Hamilton is a more charismatic story and Milton Bradley's 1.033 OPS makes him a sabermetric hero, it's Kinsler who has really been the centerpiece of one of the best offenses in baseball.
You'll undoubtedly be stunned to learn that Kinsler leads the league in batting, hits, runs, total bases, extra-base hits and multihit games. He's in the top five in the league in nine major offensive categories. He has stolen 23 bases in 24 tries (with the only caught stealing on a pickoff). He's hitting .397 with men in scoring position. Only three of his 14 homers have been hit in that Texas home run paradise. He has run off separate hitting streaks of 23 and 19 games just since mid-May. And he has reached base in every game but one since May 16.
The only arguments against him come down to defense (16 errors) and the fact that his team hasn't been closer to first place than six games since June 1. But the Rangers actually have more wins since April 24 (42) than the White Sox (41), Angels (41) and Red Sox (40). So every number on Kinsler's stat sheet is relevant to his club's revival. And that's good enough for us.
Apologies to: Hamilton, Bradley, Alex Rodriguez, Carlos Quentin, Kevin Youkilis, Joe Mauer, J.D. Drew.
Least Valuable Players
NL LVP of the half year: Andruw Jones, Dodgers
Sheez, what happened to this man? If Andruw Jones's second half resembles his first half, he's potentially heading for (ready for this?) the Worst Offensive Season in Baseball History. At this rate, he'd finish with a .172 average, .261 slugging percentage, five homers, 21 RBIs, 125 strikeouts and only 64 hits. And you shouldn't be flabbergasted to learn that the all-time list of players who have had numbers that gruesome consists of, well, nobody. Heck, only three other players in history have even had twice as many strikeouts as hits (in a season of 100 or more whiffs): Rob Deer (175-80 in 1991), Dave Nicholson (126-60 in 1964) and Mark McGwire (118-56 in 2001). But at least those fellows made a few home run trots, or finished over the Mendoza Line.
Sighs of relief for: Troy Tulowitzki, Freddy Sanchez, Jeff Francoeur, Khalil Greene.
AL LVP of the half year: Richie Sexson, Mariners
One of our general principles in life is not to pick on the unemployed. But considering that this particular unemployed guy will continue to be the 20th-highest-paid player in baseball (at $15.5 million) even though the Mariners just released him, we'll make an exception in Richie Sexson's case. Heck, they may have done this man a favor. Had he kept on going out there, he had a chance to become the first player in history to whiff 150 times without getting to 20 homers or 20 doubles. (He was on pace for 148 SO, 21 HR, 16 2B when the gong sounded.)
Sexson also gets extra LVP credit for being the only Mariner to openly defy an edict by his former GM, Bill Bavasi, that all players must stand at their lockers and explain to the media why they'd turned this season into such a debacle. And getting released for "body language" sealed his spot on the LVP medal stand.
Sighs of relief for: Edgar Renteria, Jose Vidro, Kenji Johjima, Robinson Cano.
NL Cy Young of the half year: Tim Lincecum, Giants
In a league with many more great Cy Young candidates than great teams, it's almost impossible to pick somebody who doesn't deserve this award. But as much as we see the case for Edinson Volquez, Brandon Webb, Carlos Zambrano and Ben Sheets, nobody is having a more special year than Tim Lincecum.
The Giants' 5-foot-11, 170-pound contortion artist is leading the league in strikeouts (126) and is tied for second in quality starts (15). He's 10-2, with the second-best ERA in the league (2.66), while striking out 9.32 hitters per nine innings. And over the past 20 years, we could find only two National League pitchers who could match those numbers at this stage in any season: Randy Johnson in 2000 and Jason Schmidt in 2004. Not to mention that Lincecum is 10-2 for a team that is 26-49 when anybody else starts. Or that he's 7-1 on the road, 9-1 after a Giants loss and flat-out untouchable with runners in scoring position (40 strikeouts, only 18 hits allowed all season).
So you think all those teams that passed on him at the top of the 2006 draft would like a mulligan?
Apologies to: Volquez, Webb, Sheets, Zambrano, Dan Haren, Brad Lidge.
AL Cy Young of the half year: Mariano Rivera, Yankees
The history of Cy Young voting shows that it's normally a starting pitcher's award. But it's time to make an exception for the greatest pitcher of modern times who has never won any BBWAA award. Yeah, Justin Duchscherer has a photogenic ERA (1.78). Granted, Cliff Lee has a fabulous record (12-2). And you're right, Francisco Rodriguez has more saves. But not only has Mariano Rivera not blown any of his 23 save opportunities, he hadn't even allowed one stinking run in any of those save situations until last weekend.
So his ERA this year, when a save is on the line, is an absurd 0.37 (one earned run in 24 1/3 IP). And if he keeps up this pace, that would be the second-lowest save-situation ERA in history by any reliever who saved 30 games or more, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Only Eric Gagne, in his unconscious 2003 season, ever beat that (with 0.32). And whaddayaknow, he won a Cy Young that year.
Rivera also has a superhuman 0.64 WHIP and 12.5-1 strikeout-walk ratio this year (50 K's, 4 BB). And the only closer ever to better those numbers -- Dennis Eckersley -- also won a Cy Young. So when a closer is having this historic a season, the starters need just as historic credentials to beat him. And so far, that ain't happening.
Apologies to: Duchscherer, Lee, Roy Halladay, Joe Saunders, K-Rod, John Danks.
NL Cy Yuk of the half year: Brett Myers, Phillies
It isn't easy to steal an award like this when (A) there's a $126 million pitcher in your very own league (some guy named Zito) who's 4-12 at the break, and (B) you were the Opening Day starter on a team that has spent the past 42 consecutive days in first place. But despite those formidable obstacles, Brett Myers has earned this place in Yukdom. By winning just one of his past 13 starts. By pitching his way onto the Lehigh Valley IronPigs by midseason. Because he freely admitted his heart wasn't into starting after discovering the "rock star" joys of bullpen duty last year. Because his team has gone 1-11 since April 23 when he started -- but 39-22 when anybody else started. And because he's allowed 24 homers, 30 doubles, a .551 slugging percentage and a .907 OPS.
In fact, if "Opposing Hitters Facing Brett Myers" were one person, that guy would be third in the NL in homers, second in doubles, 10th in slugging and 12th in OPS -- and would be leading Ryan Braun in all four categories. Amazing.
Sighs of relief for: Zito, Bronson Arroyo, Tom Gorzelanny, Eric Gagne.
AL Cy Yuk of the half year: Carlos Silva, Mariners
Picking against a pitcher (Livan Hernandez) who's on pace to become the first man in almost 30 years to give up 304 hits in a season was as tough a call as our Cy Yuk panel has ever made. But at least Livan wins a game now and then. In fact, four of his nine wins are against teams in first place.
So let's bestow this honor on a pitcher who raked in the biggest free-agent pitcher contract of the winter ($48 million for four years), who hasn't beaten an American League team since April 17 (0-10 in 13 starts), who is supposed to be a ground-ball specialist, but has still allowed his opponents to slug .491 against him in a pitchers' park, who helped get his manager and GM fired, who even directed a thinly veiled public rip at Ichiro Suzuki. True, there are still 3½ long years left on Carlos Silva's contract. But he has sure positioned himself to rank as one of the massive free-agent busts of all time.
Sighs of relief for: Hernandez, Joe Blanton, Boof Bonser, Miguel Batista and that Phil Hughes/Ian Kennedy tag team.
NL Rookie of the half year: Geovany Soto, Cubs
Rookies don't start the All-Star Game every year, you know. And rookie catchers aren't supposed to start an All-Star Game in any year. So Soto has carved out a cool little slice of history already. He's the NL's first rookie catcher ever to start this game. He's the second rookie catcher in history to start (joining Sandy Alomar Jr. in 1990). He's the first Cubs catcher to start an All-Star Game since Gabby Hartnett in 1937. And he's the NL's first non-Japanese rookie to start an All-Star Game at any position other than pitcher since Eddie Kazak in 1949. But that's not merely because this fellow won the popularity contest.
Geovany Soto is the real deal. His 16 first-half homers are the most by any rookie catcher since Mike Piazza in 1993. And he has a shot to become the first catcher in history -- rookie or otherwise -- to roll up 30 homers, 40 doubles and 100 RBIs in the same season. "He's a rookie," says one NL executive, "who isn't a rookie." And that's the highest praise you can heap on any rookie.
Apologies to: Joey Votto, Blake DeWitt, Jair Jurrjens, Manny Parra, Kosuke Fukudome.
AL Rookie of the half year: Evan Longoria, Rays
Rookies like Evan Longoria don't come along every year, you know. He has been the best player on his team practically since the first day he showed up -- which is pretty amazing, considering he didn't even make his team in spring training. He's only the third AL rookie in the past 70 years (joining Fred Lynn in 1975 and Devon White in 1987) to take at least 50 RBIs, 15 homers and 20 doubles into the All-Star break. He was the first rookie in 79 years to string together three straight games of at least three hits and at least one homer. And his team's willingness to sign him through 2016 -- six days into his big league career -- tells you all you need to know about his dependability.
He's been so good, in fact, we even kicked his name around in our first-half MVP discussions. And how many rookies have come along who inspired anybody to do that?
Apologies to: Jacoby Ellsbury, David Murphy, Greg Smith, Joba Chamberlain, Nick Blackburn, Jim Johnson, Alexei Ramirez.
Managers of the half year: Tony La Russa (Cardinals), Joe Maddon (Rays)
OK, how many folks out there thought these two teams would win 150 games between them this season? Right. Thought so. But La Russa and Maddon are two men who never limit their brain cells to operate within the bounds of traditional thinking. And this has been the year when it all paid off. La Russa has mixed, matched and inspired his hardworking band of overperformers to the most unexpected 50-plus-win first half in recent Cardinals history. And Maddon's unconventional blend of innovation, motivation and articulation has helped transform the group mind-set of a franchise that seemed as if it might be stuck in 65-win-a-year purgatory forever.
Apologies to: Lou Piniella, Charlie Manuel, Fredi Gonzalez, Dave Trembley, Ron Gardenhire, Ozzie Guillen.
Injuries of the half year
• First prize: Tigers super-utility dervish Brandon Inge reached over in bed last month to move a pillow under his 3-year-old's head. Oops. He aggravated an oblique strain, landed on the disabled list and hasn't even gotten a Temper-Pedic commercial deal out of it. "Well," said Jim Leyland, "that's a first."
• Second prize: Giants reliever Keiichi Yabu missed two games in April when he was attacked by his very own elastic exercise band. He attached it to the clothes hook in his locker. But the band slithered off the hook, zapped him in the eye and knocked his vision out of whack for a couple of days. When Yabu got to his locker the next day, he found the exercise band tied up and attached to a note from the trainer that read: "NO!"
• Third prize: Poor Mark Mulder flew all the way to Memphis for a rehab start -- but never made it out of baggage claim, let alone to the mound. He reached over in the airport to pick up his duffle bag, strained his shoulder and was sent right back to St. Louis.
• Honorable mention: Royals pitcher John Bale punched a door in the team hotel and broke his pitching hand.
Troy Tulowitzki slammed his bat down in frustration after exiting in a double switch, broke it and slashed up his hand.
Padres pitcher Shawn Estes broke his hand when he fell down the stairs in the tunnel on his way from the clubhouse to the field.
Box score lines of the half year
Double Trouble division
• Thrill of victory dept.: Andy Pettitte, June 7 vs. Kansas City: 6 2/3 IP, 10 H, 10 R, 10 ER, 2 BB, 3 K, 2 HR.
Pettitte's claim to fame: Somehow, he unfurled that ugliness in a game the Yankees won. They're the first team to win a home game in which their starting pitcher gave up 10 earned runs since Vic Johnson did it for the Red Sox on Sept. 19, 1945, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
• Life after 10 dept.: The Rockies' Mark Redman, April 26 in Dodger Stadium: 6 IP, 7 H, 10 R, 10 ER, 5 BB, 1 K, 1 WP, 1 HBP, 1 grand slam to Matt Kemp.
Redman's claim to fame: He gave up all 10 runs in the first inning, but, amazingly, was allowed to stick around and go six. Not one other pitcher in modern history has ever given up 10 runs in the first inning and thrown another pitch beyond that inning, let alone another five innings.
• Amnesia dept.: The Reds' Bronson Arroyo, June 24 versus the Blue Jays: 1 IP, 11 H, 10 R, 10 ER, 1 BB, 1 K, 3 HR, 1 WP.
Arroyo's claim to fame: He was the first pitcher since 1900 to give up 11 hits, 10 earned runs and three homers in a game in which he got only three outs. Asked afterward if he could forget this game, Arroyo deadpanned: "Can I forget it? I forgot it three hours ago."
Mystery Man division
• Lost cause dept.: It wasn't the line (1 IP, 1 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, O K, 1 very wild pitch) that made Mariners catcher Jamie Burke's 15th-inning July 6 journey to the mound such a memorable adventure. It was the portion of the box score that went: "Burke (LP, 0-1)."
Burke's claim to fame: He's the first catcher to wind up as the losing pitcher in any game since Hall of Famer Roger Bresnahan pulled it off for the 1901 Baltimore Orioles.
• Hit and run dept.: Thanks to some mad-genius lineup-maneuvering by Ron Gardenhire, Twins pitcher Bobby Korecky showed up in the "wrong" half of the box score in a crazy May 19 game against Texas -- and came out of it with this historic line: 1 AB, 0 R, 1 H, 0 RBI.
Korecky's claim to fame: He was just the third AL pitcher in the DH era to get his first hit and first win in the same American League game. And you can only imagine what a thrill that was. "I started running, and I was saying, 'Wow, this is great,'" he said. "Then I realized the right fielder could throw me out if I didn't hurry up. I never would have heard the end of that."
Don't Try This At Home division
• Burglary does not pay dept.: Colorado's Willy Taveras, June 14 vs. the White Sox: 5 stolen bases, 0 runs.
Taveras' claim to fame: He's the first player in the last half-century to swipe five bases in one game and not get to cross home plate once.
• Hitless wonder dept.: Detroit's Ramon Santiago, April 23 vs. Texas: 3 runs, 2 RBIs, 0 hits.
Santiago's claim to fame: He's the third player in the past 50 years to score that many runs and drive in that many runs in a game in which he never got a hit.
• Another hitless wonder dept.: Cubs reliever Carlos Marmol, June 19 vs. Tampa Bay: 0 IP, 0 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 2 BB, 0 K, 2 HBP.
Marmol's claim to fame: Marmol has been unhittable all year, but a lot of good it did him in this game. He was the first pitcher in the past 53 seasons to give up no hits and only two walks in a game, but still allow four earned runs -- thanks to a Carl Crawford grand slam on the second pitch after Marmol departed, off a reliever (Scott Eyre) who hadn't allowed a home run in more than a year.
Quotes of the half year
• Third prize: From Heath Bell of the Padres, a team that has played a 22-inning game, an 18-inning game and three 13-inning games already: "If we got paid overtime, we'd get millions." (Wait a second. They get millions anyway, don't they?)
• Second prize: From Jay Payton of the Orioles, a team that has lost on 13 straight Sundays, the longest Sunday losing streak by any club since the '78 Mets: "Maybe we need to cut the head off a monkey or something to switch it up. I think it's usually a chicken, but I'm thinking maybe a monkey would work. But that's animal cruelty. I wouldn't do that." (Good thing!)
• First prize: From ever-erudite Royals pitcher Brian Bannister, after a game in which it took him 90 pitches to get through three innings: "I like walks about as much as I like high gas prices."
We now present the best quotations of the half year from the only manager in baseball who requires you to carry a dictionary with you at all times, Tampa Bay's Joe Maddon (courtesy of the St. Petersburg Times' Marc Topkin):
• Third prize: On the inner turmoil of pitcher Matt Garza: "He's kind of like a recovering emotionalist."
• Second prize: On the wild June road trip in which the Rays brawled with the Red Sox and then fought with each other in Texas: "We bonded very nicely on this trip. It was a Kumbaya trip of some sorts."
• First prize: On an (ahem) interesting day of umpiring by plate ump James Hoye: "The strike zone was slightly amorphic today."
Is this Ozzie Guillen classic one quote, three quotes or 73 quotes? We're not sure. But it's a bleeping lot of bleeping bleeps. We know that:
"That's what ticks me off about Chicago fans and Chicago media -- they forget pretty quick. A couple of days ago we were the [bleeping] best [bleep] in town, now we're [bleep]. Because maybe the manager is [bleep]. We won it a couple years ago, and we're horse[bleep], The Cubs haven't won in 120 years, and they're the [bleeping] best. [Bleep] it, we're good. [Bleep] everybody. We're horse[bleep], and we're going to be horse[bleep] the rest of our lives, no matter how many World Series we win. We are the [bleep] of Chicago. We're the Chicago [bleep]. We have the worst owner -- the guy's got seven [bleeping] rings, and he's the [bleeping] horse[bleep] owner.''
Hey, if there was a bleeping ring for bleeping, he'd bleeping get that, too.
• Third prize: From David Letterman, on the Pope's trip to New York this spring: "Since the Pope is at Yankee Stadium, he's going to be let Billy Crystal be a bishop for a day."
• Second prize: Also from Letterman, also on the Pope's visit to The Stadium: "People are saying it was a great mass. As a matter of fact, afterward the Yankees retired Roman numeral XVI."
• First prize: From Jay Leno, on A-Rod's alleged new favorite girl, Madonna: "How old is Madonna? Instead of A-Rod, maybe they should call him AARP-Rod."
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.