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Tuesday, May 22, 2012
Updated: May 25, 9:37 AM ET
Handing out the quarter-mark awards

By Jayson Stark
ESPN.com

Forget LeBron. The heck with those Los Angeles Kings. And please -- no, make that double-please -- spare us any more rehashes of the Carolina Panthers' 2012 draft. It's time for your baseball alarm clock to start ringing. It's officially time to start paying attention.

One of my mottoes in life is that you should be wary of anything that goes on in baseball before every team has played at least 40 games. But guess what? We're there. Now, all 30 teams have passed the quarter pole.

Which means it's no longer permissible for anybody to say, "It's early." But it IS permissible to take a step back and try to assess where we are and who has risen above the rubble after 40-plus games. So, ready? Here goes:

NL MVP at the quarter pole

David Wright, Mets

Two weeks ago, it would have been inconceivable to think that anyone but Matt Kemp would have been the name atop this paragraph. But Kemp is hitting .212 in May with zero homers, two extra-base hits and a .644 OPS in 41 plate appearances. And now he's on the disabled list. Meanwhile, the Mets have been one of baseball's best stories. And Wright has been, by far, the best offensive player in the National League. Bet you didn't know he's only the third National Leaguer in the past 40 years to wake up on May 22 with a batting average over .400, an on-base percentage over .500 and a slugging percentage over .600. The others: Todd Helton (.418/.503/.809) in 2000 and Barry Bonds in 1993 (.411/.530/.776).

AL MVP at the quarter pole

Josh Hamilton, Rangers

What the heck. You were expecting to see maybe Adam Lind in this spot? Uh, 'fraid not, because it isn't every year you find a guy hitting .379/.432/.765 with 18 homers and 47 RBIs through his first 40 games, you know. In fact, NOBODY has matched or beaten those numbers since Mickey Mantle (.430/.520/.879/19/48) in 1956. The Rangers are baseball's best team. Hamilton is baseball's most talented human. And he's officially having One of Those Years.

NL Cy Young at the quarter pole

Brandon Beachy, Braves

It's the year of the pitcher. (Yeah, again.) So it was practically impossible to separate Beachy from Clayton Kershaw, Johnny Cueto, Gio Gonzalez, Stephen Strasburg and at least a half-dozen others with a legit quarter-Cy argument. But it's hard to argue with honoring a man who has a 1.33 ERA, has ripped off eight straight starts allowing two earned runs or fewer, has given up one home run all season (to Kemp), has averaged nearly seven innings per start and has allowed the lowest opponent OPS (.456) of any pitcher in baseball. Beachy's low strikeout rate (6.54 K/9) and .214 BABIP suggest he might not keep this up all year. But as I've said and written many times before, this is a performance award. So don't look at the spreadsheet and tell me what should have happened. Let's look at the field and go by what actually HAS happened.

AL Cy Young at the quarter pole

Justin Verlander, Tigers

Jake Peavy has been tremendous. Yu Darvish might be the greatest Japanese import ever. But it's just ridiculous how good Cy Verlander is. This might sound familiar, but once again, Verlander leads his league in, well, everything: WHIP (0.80), ERA (2.14), opponent average (.168), opponent OPS (.468) and every sabermetric category your laptop can spit out at you. Now, just so you're ready for the trivia to come, only three other pitchers have won back-to-back AL Cy Youngs: Jim Palmer (1975-76), Roger Clemens (1997-98) and Pedro Martinez (1999-2000). Give me one good reason to think Kate Upton's favorite Tiger won't become the fourth.

NL rookie at the quarter pole

Wade Miley, Diamondbacks

First, this important announcement: Bryan LaHair doesn't qualify as a rookie. Neither does Lance Lynn. So it hasn't been a star-studded year for rookies in the NL, all that Bryce Harper ballyhoo-age not withstanding. But out in the desert, Miley has been more than just a pleasant surprise. He has turned out to be the most reliable starter in what was supposed to be one of the best rotations in baseball. Who knew? In case you hadn't noticed, this fellow has a 2.14 ERA. He's made six starts since moving into the rotation -- and has given up one run or none in four of them. He, Verlander, Gonzalez and Matt Cain are the only starters in baseball who have had back-to-back starts in which they've allowed no more than two hits. And it's tough not to mention that, at the plate, Miley has hit more like Wade Boggs. He already has had a six-game hitting streak this year (one that's still alive, incidentally) -- which is more than we can say for Ichiro, Justin Upton and a cast of hundreds. So for now, Miley beats out the likes of Harper, Kirk Nieuwenhuis, Yonder Alonso, Matt Carpenter and Freddy Galvis. But why do I have a feeling this race is a long way from over?

AL rookie at the quarter pole

Mike Trout, Angels

Trout hasn't even been in the big leagues for a month. So it was tough to make a case for him over Darvish. But I'm doing it anyway. Since this guy arrived in Anaheim on April 28, he's been just about the most productive hitter in the entire American League (non-Hamiltonian Division). He ranks fourth in OPS (1.013), fifth in on-base percentage (.413), fourth in batting average (.350) and fourth in slugging (.600) since then. And the only player who has beaten his numbers in all those categories is (who else?) Josh Hamilton. Meanwhile, just two players in the league have reached base more times in that span than Trout has (38). And the only AL hitter with as many three-hit games as Trout since then (four) is Nelson Cruz. Ohbytheway, have I mentioned that, at 20, he's the youngest player in the entire American League? What a special talent.

NL manager at the quarter pole

Don Mattingly, Dodgers

I'd actually like to divvy up this award and give half of it to Terry Collins, a fellow who has infused the Mets with an energy and sense of purpose that has gotten way too little acclaim. But because I can choose only one manager of the quarter-year, how can it not be Mattingly, the fearless leader of a team with the best record in the major leagues? I went back and looked at our ESPN preseason predictions. I counted 49 of us who prognosticated. Exactly one of those 49 (ESPN New York's Andrew Marchand) picked the Dodgers to win the NL West. So is there a team out there that has maxed out its talent better than this one? The Dodgers have lost their center fielder (Kemp), third baseman (Juan Uribe), second baseman (Mark Ellis) and left fielder (Juan Rivera). They've had to change closers and nurture a shortstop (Dee Gordon) who has a .244 on-base percentage and leads the big leagues in errors (10). And none of that has slowed them down, thanks to a man who has quickly grown into one of the best managers in the business.

AL manager at the quarter pole

Buck Showalter, Orioles

On that same ESPN predictions page, you'll be hard-pressed to find evidence that our resident baseball know-it-alls were even aware that the Orioles still planned to field a team. Not one of us predicted the Orioles would win the division, the wild card, the second wild card or even a Fourth of July hot-dog-eating contest. But, as always, we underestimated the managerial genius of Showalter. It's Showalter's second full season in Baltimore. And, as has been his history, he has begun to put his stamp on the most surprising team in baseball in a million ways -- piecing together a rebuilt bullpen, pushing Adam Jones and Matt Wieters toward long-predicted stardom and unleashing his unparalleled attention to detail on every crevice of the franchise. Is there a better manager alive who has never won a World Series than Showalter? Not in my lifetime.

Best free agent

Carlos Beltran, Cardinals

Only days after the Cardinals waved sayonara to Albert Pujols, they called Pujols' agent, Dan Lozano, to make sure it was cool to pursue another of his clients, Beltran, as Albert's de facto replacement. Little did they know they'd look up in the third week of May and find Beltran leading the league in homers (13). He already has had a six-RBI game and a seven-RBI game, had multihomer games hitting left-handed and right-handed, and put up a 1.000-plus OPS from each side of the plate. A pretty good two-year, $26 million investment so far. Wouldn't you say?

Best trade

Gio Gonzalez, Nationals

Four teams made eye-popping trades for starting pitchers this past winter -- the Reds (Mat Latos), Yankees (Michael Pineda), Diamondbacks (Trevor Cahill) and Nationals (Gonzalez). But no team made a better deal than Washington. Gonzalez has outwon those other three starters combined (6-4), leads the National League in strikeout ratio (11.4 per nine innings) and has held those poor hitters who have to face him to a .167 batting average, best in the National League. Meanwhile, the A's have no complaints about the package they got back, especially when you consider that one guy in this deal (Tommy Milone) has six wins himself. But the Nationals now own a 26-year-old swing-and-miss left-hander who's under control through 2018. And that's precisely what they set out to trade for in December.

Most disappointing team

The Angels

Of those 49 ESPN geniuses who made preseason predictions, 45 of them told you the Angels were heading for the postseason. Oops. They're seven games under .500 (18-25), they're eight games behind Texas and they've won precisely three series all season -- two of them against the team with the worst record in baseball, the Twins. But if the Angels are looking for reasons to feel better, the Elias Sports Bureau reports that to find the last AL team that was this far out after 40 games and made the postseason, you have to go back only to 2007, when the Yankees were 10 games back of Boston in the AL East and 6½ out in the wild-card race. These Angels, after 40 games, were in much better shape (7 out in the West, 4 back of the second wild-card spot).

Most disappointing player

Albert Pujols, Angels

The Angels were worried that Albert wouldn't hit -- in 2018, '19 and '20. But it never occurred to them that in Year 1 of their seemingly beautiful marriage, their $240 million man would reach the quarter pole with a lower OPS (.573) than Jamey Carroll (.579), fewer extra-base hits (12) than Jose Altuve (13) and a lower on-base percentage (.256) than Freddy Galvis (.268). "Albert has always been a guy who relied on his incredible knowledge of pitchers and teams, and how they'd try to pitch him," says one ex-teammate. "So now, moving to a new league, I don't think he ever realized how hard it would be for him not to have all that knowledge in his head. Now he has to relearn just about everyone and everything, and he's feeling it. But c'mon. You know he'll hit eventually. He's Albert."

Best news for the Red Sox, Tigers and Angels

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, 20 teams in the 17-season wild-card era have had a losing record after 40 games and gone on to make the postseason -- including the Diamondbacks (17-23) and Brewers (19-21) just last year.

Best news for the Orioles

According to baseball-reference.com, 29 teams in the wild-card era have started a season by going 27-14 or better in their first 41 games. Of those 29 teams, 22 made the postseason and all but two (1995 Phillies and 2009 Blue Jays) finished with a winning record. One more tidbit: Of the seven AL East teams in that span that started 27-14 or better, five made the postseason.

Five mind-boggling stats at the quarter pole

1. Aroldis Chapman has faced 84 hitters -- and struck out 39 of them.
2. Starlin Castro has twice as many errors (eight) as walks (four).
3. Brendan Ryan has more runs (20) than hits (19).
4. Asdrubal Cabrera has as many doubles (12) as strikeouts.
5. Carlos Pena, who is hitting .209, has reached base more times (66) than Andrew McCutchen (64), who is hitting .340.