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Gonzalez heads first-half awards class

Sometime this week, every team in baseball will play its 81st game. At the halfway point of the 2011 season, we've learned a few things.

Runs are down significantly again. (From 4.61 per game in 2009 to 4.38 last year to 4.18 this year, the lowest number since 1992.)
Last year needs a new nickname, because this is the real Year of the Pitcher. (Currently 23 starters who qualify for the ERA title are under 3.00, the most in 30 years and nearly twice as many as last season.)
In that vein, little has changed. (Five of the eight playoff teams from last year would make it again were the season to end today.)
You can be destitute and own one of baseball's signature franchises. (This breakdown of Frank McCourt's destruction of the Los Angeles Dodgers covers that swindle pretty well. The Wilpon family practically mortgaged the New York Mets to a hedge-fund manager, funny considering its dealing with another one, Bernie Madoff, is prompting a trustee for his victims to seek $1 billion from the Wilpons.)
Old is new. (See: McKeon, Jack. Also see: Johnson, Davey.)

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Adrian Gonzalez(notes) connects for one of his 16 home runs on the season.
(AP)

Any milepost, real or manufactured, presents a good time to hand out awards, too. Since every league needs an MVP, Cy Young, Rookie of the Year, Manager of the Year and Comeback Player of the Year, we're going to need a bonus degree to bring things full circle. Because the way he has performed over the last 10 weeks …

1. Adrian Gonzalez deserves an extra degree. Since the Boston Red Sox started 2-10, Gonzalez leads baseball with a .381 batting average and 64 RBIs – 11 more than the next closest, Prince Fielder(notes). His .646 slugging percentage ranks second, his .431 on-base percentage fourth and the UZR metric ranks him the best defensive first baseman in the game by a significant margin. Gonzalez, long regarded as even unlikelier to steal a base than a Molina, even swiped a bag earlier this season.

So while Jose Bautista's(notes) numbers look better and Miguel Cabrera(notes) has made Jim Leyland look like a soothsayer by putting up an unseemly on-base percentage, Gonzalez is relishing his new league, new ballpark and new team to squeeze a kung-fu grip on the AL MVP reins.

He has proven correct the notion – espoused here, among other places – that his all-fields style of hitting would translate immediately to Fenway Park. One glance at his spray chart at home shows as many singles to left and center fields as right, nine of his 10 doubles to left and left-center and more home runs to the opposite field than his pull side.

Gonzalez clearly is the Red Sox's heart, something they needed to complement Dustin Pedroia's(notes) moxie and Jon Lester's(notes) work ethic and Jonathan Papelbon's(notes) quirks and the attitude …

2. Josh Beckett(notes) rediscovered sometime between the end of last year and the beginning of this season. His ascent back to the game's pitching elite makes him the shoo-in AL Comeback Player of the Year in the first half and among the top challengers for the Cy Young as well.

The debate over whether Beckett's rebound is due to better stuff or luck continues to rage as his ERA stands below 2.00 with two starts remaining before the All-Star break. While his velocity remains down from his peak, heat maps show Beckett is spotting his fastball significantly better this year. At the same time, he's stranding an AL-best 84.3 percent of baserunners and his .217 batting average on balls in play is second in the AL only to …

3. Justin Verlander, he of the 100-mph late-inning fastball. A theory about fireballers – essentially, that their arms break down because of the strain of throwing so hard – has not applied to Verlander over the first 1,193 innings of his career, 128 2/3 of which have come in his AL Cy Young-worthy first half.

In addition to one no-hitter and another near-no-no, Verlander so thoroughly dominates hitters that they can't even luck their way on base. If the season ended today, his 5.67 hits per nine innings would be the ninth-lowest in history. A few are bound to drop, and that number will go up, but Verlander's peripherals (124-to-27 strikeout-to-walk ratio) and innings count (an AL-best) give him the nod over Beckett, among others.

Verlander's stuff is so different from any starter that his harnessing of it was certain to unleash pestilence. Thus far this season, pitchers have thrown 87 fastballs in excess of 100 mph. Forty-six came from Aroldis Chapman(notes) and 22 from Henry Rodriguez(notes). Next on the list is Verlander's six. The latest a reliever's came was on Jeremy Jeffress'(notes) 37th pitch in an April game, a 100.4-mph steamer. Verlander's have come on his 79th, 81st, 82nd, 91st, 94th and 125th pitches. The moral: He really does have better stuff as a game progresses.

And in tougher situations. With the bases empty, Verlander throws his fastball an average of 94.8 mph. With men on, it sits at 95.9. Runners in scoring position, he ramps up to 96.7. And for giggles, he adds some oomph – 97.1 mph – with guys in scoring position and two outs.

The dominance Verlander unleashes is, in a primal way, delicious to watch, like a man feasting on inferior things. The deception and delusion …

4. Roy Halladay(notes) causes in his outings carry a different sort of aesthetic value. He is fine art to Verlander's angsty rage, the perfect pitcher for the wine-and-cheese set. Or, as is his case, the steak-and-cheese set.

Halladay twirled his fifth complete game of the season Sunday, induced ground balls on 17 outs and dropped his ERA to 2.40. He has struck out 123 this season and walked 16. He leads the NL in victories with 10. And he is the clear frontrunner to win his second consecutive NL Cy Young.

At 34, Halladay is better than ever, his dominance stretching nearly a decade now and ensuring him a spot in the Hall of Fame. Unrevealing as win-loss record may be, Halladay's 179-89 record translates to the sixth-highest winning percentage in history, behind Sam Leever, Whitey Ford, Pedro Martinez(notes), Lefty Grove and Christy Mathewson. Heady company.

He's doing it with fewer fastballs than ever, throwing them just 23.9 percent of the time, the lowest of any non-knuckleball starter, a near-opposite tack to …

5. Michael Pineda and his blistering gas. Earlier this season, Seattle pitching coach Carl Willis compared the 6-foot-7, 260-pound Pineda to CC Sabathia(notes) because of their similar size and repertoires early in their careers. While Pineda doesn't have Sabathia's changeup, his fastball and slider are harder – and perhaps better.

After arm troubles stunted Pineda in 2009, he cruised through Double-A and up to Triple-A last season and arrived this year less touted than a handful of other rookies. Now he and Felix Hernandez(notes) represent one of the best No. 1-2 duos in baseball – even if Pineda isn't technically Seattle's No. 2 – and he has clearly separated himself from the crowd in the race for AL Rookie of the Year.

His 2.45 ERA ranks near the top of the league, as does his strikeout rate of nearly one an inning. Pineda harnesses his unorthodox mechanics to command the ball tremendously for a big man with so many moving pieces and parts. The only question: Is the Mariners' intended innings limit going to park him on the bench the last month of the season, leaving him an out-of-sight, out-of-mind candidate with voters?

In all likelihood, he'll have made a strong enough impression with his performances, much like …

6. Craig Kimbrel(notes) is doing with his. Lots and lots and lots of them.

Kimbrel is the most-used closer in the major leagues, just like teammate Jonny Venters(notes) is the most-used setup man, and it seems as though Joe Torre's mantel as foremost bullpen abuser is in good hands with Fredi Gonzalez. When a manager finds a reliever in whom he can trust, he uses him like a security blanket: any stressful situation and on he comes. Kimbrel's been worthy of such treatment, with 58 strikeouts in 38 innings.

And Rookie of the Year voters love saves, which makes him the NL favorite for now, even ahead of Washington second baseman Danny Espinosa(notes), whose candidacy is sabotaged for now by his .242 batting average. Espinosa did belt his 14th home run of the season Sunday, and if a middle infielder can manage to reach 30, it's going to be difficult to ignore his candidacy. At the same time, he doesn't get on base a lot and does strike out quite a bit. It's not like he's the second coming of …

7. Jose Reyes, NL MVP. What, the Mets are in fourth? Yeah, and they're .500 despite losing player after player, Reyes the engine that keeps the rest of the jalopy churning.

Prefer Matt Kemp(notes)? His defense is mediocre and his team worse than the Mets. Prince Fielder? Sure, but Ryan Braun(notes) and Rickie Weeks(notes) have been nearly as important, and he plays a laggard's position.

Reyes leads the NL with a .341 batting average, ranks second with 28 stolen bases and is getting on base (.385) and slugging (.514) at career-high clips. After spending the first eight years of his career hacking away, he has become a paragon of contact, striking out in just eight percent of his at-bats, the fourth-lowest figure in baseball.

Throw in strong defense at shortstop and the Mets should be able to extract a fortune for Reyes within the next five weeks. He is the sort of player who can carry a team to a championship and, with days like his 4-for-5 Sunday, is looking likelier to fulfill the prophecy of an agent who a few weeks ago told us he sees Reyes getting seven years for $145 million this offseason.

Among the defense, the speed and the dynamism, Reyes is everything …

8. Lance Berkman(notes) isn't, and that's fine by him. Three years ago he ran well enough to steal 18 bases. Not anymore. He once played a competent outfield. He's happy to fill in for Albert Pujols(notes) at first base now. Berkman's got two dynamic qualities left: his mouth and his bat.

To call what Berkman's doing a comeback doesn't do justice to his return, at 35, to an elite level. He's already got four more home runs than he hit last year, and in 172 fewer at-bats. He's about to exceed his RBI total on the season. Not even in his best season with Houston did Berkman put up an OPS that exceeded the league average by 77 percent, as his currently does.

With the injuries to Pujols and Matt Holliday(notes), St. Louis manager Tony La Russa has relied on Berkman to provide stability in a ravaged lineup. La Russa believed in Berkman when others had lost faith, and his dexterity with lineup after makeshift lineup would make him a much more attractive NL Manager of the Year candidate if …

Kirk Gibson

9. Kirk Gibson didn't have the Arizona Diamondbacks on the cusp of first place in the NL West. With his mish-mash of strong core pieces (Justin Upton(notes), Miguel Montero(notes), Ian Kennedy(notes) and Daniel Hudson(notes)), a good bullpen (J.J. Putz(notes) and David Hernandez(notes)), and surprises (Josh Collmenter(notes), Ryan Roberts(notes) and even Wily Mo Pena(notes)), Gibson has massaged a down-in-the-dumps team into a winner.

Part of it is the honesty that players appreciate (and sometimes don't, like during spring training, when he said it may take years for them to figure out some baserunning precepts). Another is the years of grooming as a player and coach that prepared him for this gig, his first as a manager. And when a handful of players break out like some Diamondbacks have, it always reflects well on the manager.

If the Diamondbacks can keep up with first-place San Francisco, this is an easy call, even with Clint Hurdle keeping Pittsburgh over .500 for the first time in at least 172 years. Finding candidates in the AL isn't nearly as easy, with …

10. Manny Acta in Cleveland the best of a mediocre group. Joe Girardi is doing a good job with the Yankees, as is Joe Maddon, under far more difficult circumstances, with the Rays. Jim Leyland has the Tigers back in first place, and Eric Wedge has taken a Seattle team from the doldrums to mediocrity, which, technically, is a nice improvement.

Cleveland was supposed to be brutal, of course, so even if Acta's team is just 20-28 after a 20-8 start, those first 28 games haven't disappeared. Remember, these are the first-half awards. Acta may not be a candidate by the end of the season, not if the Indians keep playing like they did in getting swept by San Francisco. The default could go to the manager of the best team, and since their miserable start, the Red Sox's Terry Francona seems like a viable candidate.

Strong, yes, but not in the lead like …

11. Adrian Gonzalez at the front of the MVP race. Francona appreciates not just Gonzalez's numbers and presence but his selflessness. The two spoke last week of Gonzalez playing right field this week as the Red Sox head out for a week of games in NL parks.

Gonzalez was up for it, even if it's been six years since he played the lone game of outfield in his career. (He committed an error, by the way.) It's foolish, of course. Forget that the Red Sox have dipped into a second-place tie with Tampa Bay. Never mind that it would allow David Ortiz(notes) to play first and put his bat in the lineup.

It's six games. Let Gonzalez rest one. Even two. Don't put him at risk, not when he's going this well, not when he's proving himself worth every bit of talent Boston gave up to get him and money they yielded to sign him for the next 6½ years, not when the first-half MVP can add the full-season variety to his resume.

No need to self-inflict a heart attack.