Most teams passed the halfway mark of the season over the weekend, which means it's time for first-half awards. Let's dig in to the good stuff, starting with the easiest award to bestow, the …
1. American League MVP. Unlike the last two full-season awards, both of which have gone to Miguel Cabrera when they should have been someone else's, the first-half MVP of 2014 is a runaway.
1. Mike Trout
2. Jose Bautista
3. Victor Martinez
4. Felix Hernandez
5. Masahiro Tanaka
6. Edwin Encarnacion
7. Jose Abreu
8. Nelson Cruz
9. Michael Brantley
10. Miguel Cabrera
At this juncture, it is fair to say no rational baseball fan believes anybody other than Trout is the best player in the world. The argument on behalf of Cabrera's MVP candidacy always centered on extraneous factors (the success of his team), narrative silliness (Triple Crown = MVP) and expert straw-grasping (he changed positions, thus helping the Tigers). Cabrera always was an incredible player; he just wasn't the best, and value distilled to its essence is who is best, because who is best provides the most, no matter how good, bad or, in the Angels' case, mediocre a team.
Trout is having his best first half yet, hitting .315/.406/.612. His 1.018 OPS beats his .964 and .959 totals the last two seasons and it dwarfs the AL's next-best, Martinez, by more than 40 points. While Trout's stolen bases have lessened (he's 10 for 10) and his strikeouts have jumped (he's at 79, though he's whiffing at a far lower rate these days), he remains an excellent baserunner and plays center field, the third most important position in the field outside of shortstop and catcher.
Bautista has been an offensive marvel, slipping ahead of Martinez because of the value playing in the field. None of the 25-homer trio (Encarnacion, Abreu, Cruz) comes close to Trout, either, nor does Miguel Cabrera, who has plenty of time to turn this into another two-man race like the …
2. National League MVP has shaped up thus far. It was a runaway early, and even after the leading candidate regressed to the mean – and his team cratered miserably – he built enough of an advantage to hold on.
1. Troy Tulowitzki
2. Giancarlo Stanton
3. Andrew McCutchen
4. Jonathan Lucroy
5. Yasiel Puig
6. Carlos Gomez
7. Paul Goldschmidt
8. Anthony Rizzo
9. Todd Frazier
10. Freddie Freeman
Tulowitzki still leads the NL in all three triple-slash categories (.348/.442/.618) while playing elite-level shortstop no less. Certainly the Coors Field factor should be taken into account – Tulo is hitting .447/.529/.780 (!) there, compared to .252/.360/.459 on the road – and perhaps as they flatten out over the rest of the season his advantage will winnow away.
For now, the home-field advantage isn't big enough to strip him of the award, not when his best competition, Stanton, has gained about 30 points of OBP on intentional walks. He's wonderful, the easy choice for second place. He's just not better than Tulo, not yet, a close race similar to what the …
3. NL Cy Young offered in the first half. Lots of excellent. Greatness in spurts. No can't-miss candidate. Consider this, then, a grain-of-salt list that could well change before the All-Star break and certainly will before the end of the season.
1. Adam Wainwright
2. Johnny Cueto
3. Clayton Kershaw
4. Madison Bumgarner
5. Julio Teheran
The ideal Cy Young candidate fulfills the following qualities: high strikeout rate, low walk rate, high groundball rate, low home run rate. Wainwright is the closest to satisfying all four groups, and along with his 2.01 ERA resting just above Cueto's 1.88, it proved enough for an endorsement.
Had he not thrown 52 innings fewer than Cueto and 44 less than Wainwright, Kershaw would be the easy choice. Bumgarner and Teheran edged out Josh Beckett, who sports a 2.11 ERA despite peripherals (lots of homers, high strand rate, super-low average on balls in play) that don't exactly scream dominance. Nevertheless, choosing Beckett as …
4. Comeback Player of the Year in the NL is a nice consolation prize, especially with Tim Hudson spending most of the first half pitching like that award was his and only his. Beckett's consistency – not to mention his no-hitter – following a 2013 season lost to thoracic outlet syndrome more than qualifies him.
The AL award isn't nearly as easy. Rangers closer Joakim Soria returned for 26 games last season following Tommy John surgery and looked OK. This year, he's got 36 strikeouts and three unintentional walks in 26 2/3 innings and looks like an exceedingly valuable trade candidate for the struggling Rangers.
The truest comeback belongs to Twins starter Phil Hughes, coming off a 4-14 season with a 5.19 ERA for the Yankees. Reborn as a control artiste worthy of that superfluous 'E,' Hughes has walked 10 batters in 103 innings and sports an 8-4 record with a 3.58 ERA for Minnesota. There's a slight chance it gets him a look for an All-Star roster spot, though considering how deep and close the …
5. AL Cy Young candidates are, it's tough to imagine. The top two in particular are so excruciatingly close, either is a perfectly fair, representative and understandable pick.
1. Felix Hernandez
2. Masahiro Tanaka
3. Yu Darvish
4. Dallas Keuchel
5. Garrett Richards
Again: Tanaka is a perfectly viable choice. The big advantage in adjusted ERA alone makes it viable. The nine-homer difference and 10-percentage-point gap in groundball rate, though, differentiated them on this ballot, which left of plenty of worthy candidates, from Mark Buehrle to Jon Lester to Corey Kluber to Max Scherzer to David Price, who very easily could win the thing if he stays in the AL after his impending trade.
The only deeper voting pool than AL Cy Young is for …
6. AL Rookie of the Year, which boasts a historically deep class fortified by two not-really-rookies atop the ballot.
1. Masahiro Tanaka
2. Jose Abreu
3. George Springer
Well, at least it's a consolation prize for Tanaka, who benefits from Abreu's two flaws – a low on-base percentage and non-impact position – to fritter away the advantage of his major league-leading 25 home runs, despite a stint on the disabled list.
Those not listed on the ballot who certainly warrant mention: pitchers Yordano Ventura, Dellin Betances, Collin McHugh, Jake Odorizzi, Roenis Elias and Matt Shoemaker, and hitters Xander Bogaerts, Brock Holt, Yangervis Solarte and Rougned Odor. All could appear on the final ballot, like the …
7. NL Rookie of the Year almost surely will include Pittsburgh's Gregory Polanco. Had the Pirates called him up in April like they should've, he'd stand alongside his division mate in this particular race like their teams are in the NL Central standings.
1. Billy Hamilton
2. Chris Owings
3. Neil Ramirez
Hamilton is the runaway winner thanks to his better-than-advertised glove in center field, his much-better-than-advertised power and his as-advertised speed. He's an absolute force. Owings is the only other everyday rookie worth much in the NL (with Atlanta's Tommy La Stella perhaps making a second-half run), and without a starting pitcher to speak of, Ramirez beats out Washington's Aaron Barrett and Blake Treinen and the Mets' Jeurys Familia for the downballot middle-relief slot.
Putting a guy who gets holds as a Rookie of the Year candidate is like voting for …
8. NL Manager of the Year every season: It really doesn't feel right. Because truth is, much of what a manager does – put out fires inside the clubhouse, deal with the media, implement the ideas his front office sends down and tells him to implement – remains shrouded in secrecy, and the award ends up going to the manager with the best record.
1. Ron Roenicke
2. Bruce Bochy
3. Bryan Price
Granted, Roenicke has shown some chops as a manager worth regarding. The Brewers' front office has hamstrung him with Rule 5 pick Wei-Chung Wang spending the year on the active roster despite an inability to contribute at the major league level, leaving Roenicke to deal with a short bullpen or short bench, depending on the day. He has done well limiting his three bullpen aces, Francisco Rodriguez, Will Smith and Zach Duke, to a reasonable workload, and Milwaukee's NL-best record shows he helped wash away any lingering resentment from the Ryan Braun drama of 2013.
Roenicke benefits from a milquetoast group of tacticians in his league, same as the …
9. AL Manager of the Year faces in his. This one is easy.
1. Bob Melvin
2. Mike Scioscia
3. Buck Showalter
Melvin plays matchups better than anyone. He traffics in platoons like no other manager. He handles his bullpen with aplomb, evidenced by his $10 million closer, Jim Johnson, blowing up, and his handing the job to Sean Doolittle, whose strikeout-to-walk ratio is a mere 56-to-1. It's the single most impressive number of the first half, though …
10. Mike Trout has a chance to do something by the end of this year that is the territory of only the greatest players of all-time: three consecutive seasons of 10 or more Wins Above Replacement.
Now, WAR is far from the be-all, end-all of statistics. The AL MVP vote reflects as much; the Nos. 2 and 3 players in the AL in FanGraphs' version of WAR, Alex Gordon and Josh Donaldson, don't appear on the ballot. While Gordon and Donaldson are indeed elite fielders, the defensive numbers that make up much of their supposed value simply aren't reliable enough to allow them to carry such heavy weight in what's supposed to be an overall valuation of a player.
Still, WAR does a good enough job of measuring best-of-the-best seasons, all of which show up in a search of 10-plus-WAR years. Dating back to 1900, there have been 50. Plenty of incredible players managed two straight. Honus Wagner. Ty Cobb. Rogers Hornsby. Ted Williams. Mickey Mantle. Willie Mays. Best of the best, for real.
Just two did it at least three straight seasons: Babe Ruth, from 1926-28, and Barry Bonds, from 2001-04. And just one wasn't loaded on steroids.
In his first full season, Trout put up 10 WAR on the dot. Last year, he finished with 10.4. Through the Angels' first 79 games this season, he was at 5.4 WAR.
Let's remember: Trout is still just 22. This is at the start of his career. The modern sports society loves to perpetuate hyperbole, and that's all well and good, but know that the following is the furthest thing from it: Nobody in baseball history has started his career as well as Mike Trout, and the most exciting part is that it's still just beginning.
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