Well, here we are, halfway through another magical baseball season. And we know what you're thinking:
Does Clayton Kershaw serve more doughnuts than Krispy Kreme?
Does Giancarlo Stanton launch more rockets than NASA?
Would people in, say, Kansas recognize a single member of the best team in baseball, the Oakland A's, if they all sat next to them at a breakfast buffet?
Well, we won't be answering any of those questions in this sparkling column, which we know you all look forward to so much. But we will be handing out our annual midseason awards, honoring the good, the bad and the ugly of a fascinating half-season. So ... the envelopes please:
I can't tell you how close I came to presenting this prestigious half-trophy to Andrew McCutchen, a guy you'd feel good about including in any MVP discussion in just about any season. And there's an excellent case to be made for Troy Tulowitzki, although his crazy home/road splits (.433/.514/.767/1.281 home versus .265/.367/.463/.830 road) represent a mile-high counterargument I wish I didn't have to consider. But this, to me, is the Year of Giancarlo. Or at least the Half-Year of Giancarlo. "It started from day one of spring training," said his GM, Dan Jennings. "It felt like he came in and said, 'OK boys, it's my club, and I'm going to lead by example.' And he's done that, on both sides of the ball." No kidding. Here's the onslaught Stanton has inflicted since: seven home runs of 440 feet-plus; three of 460 feet-plus; 10 of 420-plus. Ridiculous. He leads the league in home runs (21), home run ratio (one every 16.2 at-bats), most homers with runners on base (13), RBIs (63) and a couple of our sabermetric favorites -- secondary average and win probability added. The wins above replacement calculators tell us that he and Tulo are the only five-win position players in the league. And you name the significant offensive category, you're pretty much guaranteed to find Stanton ranked in the top five. He's even swiped eight bases without being thrown out, putting him in position to become the first player since caught-stealing became an official stat to hit 35 homers and steal at least a dozen bases in a season without being caught. And he's done all this in a season in which he not only leads the league in intentional walks (15) but has drawn almost twice as many as anyone else. "I know it sounds like I'm being a homer," Jennings said, "but he ought to be the MVP, the starting right fielder in the All-Star Game, and he should win a Gold Glove." Well, I can't control most of that. But I can give this guy an MVP of the half-year award anyway. And that'll have to do.
Finally. After two years of debating Trout versus Miggy, new school versus old school, WAR versus the Triple Crown, the PDT versus the EDT, etc., etc., #pleasemakeitstop, we have arrived at this point in baseball time. The best player alive is, without any real debate necessary, the half-year MVP. What a concept. Even in a year when he absorbed -- then climbed out of -- the worst slump of his career, our man Mike Trout leads the American League in OPS, adjusted OPS, runs created, extra-base hits, most times reaching base and, of course, WAR. He's going to be the only player in baseball with at least 20 homers and double-figure steals at the break. He's threatening to become the seventh man in history to have a .300/.400/.600/40 HR/20 SB season. Baseball-reference.com's offensive winning percentage stat tells us that a team of nine Mike Trouts would go 131-31 over a full season. And ... aw, you get the idea. He's doing what Mike Trout does -- and he's done it in a season in which his team has the second-best record in baseball and the second-best run differential. And how 'bout this: If he does go on to win this MVP award, he'll be by far the youngest player ever to register three straight top-two MVP finishes -- and just the third AL position player ever to do it (joining only Yogi Berra and Mickey Mantle). "He's one of the best baseball players that I've seen in my playing career and coaching career," said Angels interim hitting coach Dave Hansen. "I'd just like to have his power, play the field like he does and run that fast -- just once." OK, that's another wish I can't grant. But first-half MVP? I can gladly grant that one.
I was speaking with a longtime National League executive this week when Brown's name came up. The first word that came out of his mouth was "awful." Hard to disagree. A year ago, Brown was heading for his first All-Star Game. Twelve months later, he symbolizes everything that has gone wrong in Philadelphia since the glory days. He was the one prospect in the Phillies' system they didn't trade away in the fervid pursuit of another shower of confetti. He was the reason they let Jayson Werth sail off on the Free Agent Luxury Liner. He was the one young position player they decided would be the centerpiece of their next generation. So he's been shown incredible faith and even more incredible patience. But here is how he's rewarded that faith and patience so far: His .599 OPS ranks 156th of 161 big leaguers who qualify for the batting title. His .325 slugging percentage ranks 153rd. His .275 on-base percentage is 155th. Among all big league position players who have 250 plate appearances, he ranks dead last in WAR at minus-1.6. He's hit .180 with a .548 OPS in a home park that was supposed to be made for him. And when he puts on a glove, FanGraphs ranks him as the worst regular left fielder in the National League. So if Brown makes it through this season without being sent back to Farm Land or being traded for somebody else's favorite underachiever, there can be only one explanation: The Phillies can't find a single outfielder anywhere to replace him.
Only about half the teams in the American League still employ a creature that used to roam the AL earth back in prehistoric baseball times. We know that creature as "the DH," the proud descendants of Dave Kingman and Rico Carty, of Don Baylor and Hal McRae, of Edgar Martinez and Harold Baines -- men who never had to worry about stuffing anything but their bats into their equipment bags. Until this year, Butler pretty much fit right into that species. Over the first seven seasons and 4,200 plate appearances of his career, he averaged 35 doubles, 17 homers and a .298/.364/.459/.823 slash line per season. He was no Edgar. He was no McRae. But by Royals standards, he was definitely productive enough to keep around. Then came this season. A year that has made us ask, pretty much daily: What the heck? More than 360 plate appearances into his season, Butler has hit three home runs. Three. Eugenio Suarez hit three homers in his first eight games in the big leagues. Butler has hit three all year. Two years ago, he slugged .510. This year, he's slugging .353. In the 42-season history of DHing, there hasn't been a single "regular" DH (i.e., a guy who DHed in 75 percent of his games) who was given 500 plate appearances without hitting at least five home runs and slugging at least .350. But that's where Butler is heading -- toward a season in which he reaches neither of those pedestrian plateaus. At age 28. For a team that sure could use the offense it once received from an artist formerly known as Billy Butler. So let's all ask again the only question that makes any sense at a time like this: What the heck?
You think it's fun being an awards voter? You think it's easy writing columns like this and inviting the enjoyable tweets and emails you're about to start typing, all because I was dopey and misguided enough not to pick Clayton Kershaw or Johnny Cueto as my official half-Cy? Yeah, that's a dream come true, all right. But in the end, when you vote or when you write these columns, you have to pick somebody, right? So this came down to figuring out how to look at a multiple-choice quiz with no wrong answers and choose just one of the above. An impossible job -- but somebody had to do it! All right, so why not Kershaw, a man with a 1.78 ERA? I concede he's the best pitcher in baseball. And I'm awestruck that he could go out and hang 41 consecutive zeroes on the scoreboard. He's also, somehow, given up a total of just eight runs in his last 10 starts put together, which is absurd. But this isn't a career achievement award. It's a 2014 award. And Adam Wainwright has thrown 24.2 more innings than he has. So us half-Cy voters have to factor in stuff like that, especially when so many of their other numbers are equal. OK, so why not Cueto, a guy whose ERA had, amazingly, rested below 2.00 after 15 starts in a row before it "soared" to 2.03 this week? Only because, on my personal half-Cy scorecard, Wainwright has had more A.S. (awesome starts) than Cueto -- or anyone else. Take away Wainwright's only two clunkers (seven runs against the Giants, six against the Cubs), and he has made 16 other starts. He's allowed 13 runs in those 16 trips to the mound combined. And in nine of them, he gave up zero runs and went at least seven innings -- a feat the Elias Sports Bureau tells us has been achieved by no pitcher, over his first 18 starts, in the history of baseball. (Heck, even Bob Gibson only did it seven times in 1968 on the way to his fabled 1.12 ERA.) So I cast this half-Cy vote for Adam Wainwright. Start typing those tweets in 3-2-1. ...
You know all that stuff I just wrote about the NL half-Cy award? Um, here we go again. Until the last couple of days, there was no good way to separate King Felix, Chris Sale and Masahiro Tanaka in this AL half-Cy derby. They've all been outrageously good. Their numbers were almost indistinguishable. And their teams would be floating on life rafts on some remote sea, waiting for the rescue boats, without them. So I found myself thinking: Throw a dart. Play rock, paper, scissors. Bring on the penalty-kick shootout. They all deserve this award. But as great as Sale has been, he's thrown way fewer innings than Felix and Tanaka. So that bumped him down the list. Then Tanaka went out and gave up 10 hits and five runs in Cleveland on Tuesday, before heading for an MRI machine, the disabled list and a long, disheartening confinement in the trainer's room. And that created just enough space between him and Felix that it makes this choice way more clear-cut than it seemed a week ago. Look, I can't tell you how blown away I've been by the brilliance of Tanaka, especially in a year in which he had the weight of two nations (Japan and Yankee) hanging between his shoulder blades. But then there's Felix, whose relentless excellence never ceases to dazzle all of us who can't wait for him to get back to the mound every five days. Ten straight starts of seven innings or more, two runs or fewer? Who does that? Nobody. Well, nobody (within the same season) since Mike Scott in 1986, anyway. Opposing cleanup men are hitting .164 with no homers and a .218 slugging percentage against this guy. Insane. Then there's this: At this rate, the King would finish this season with a WHIP of 0.89, an opponent batting average of .201, and 264 whiffs in 248.1 innings (which comes to 9.57 K/9 IP). And you know how many AL starters in history have ever matched or beaten that WHIP, opponent average and strikeout ratio over that many innings? Correct answer: None. So with all due respect to the great Tanaka, is there any pitcher in this league who is better than Felix Hernandez right now? Nope. Not. A. Soul.
Back in spring training, I heard these words of wisdom from a general manager who understood them all too well: "When your closer stinks," he said, "your team stinks." Well, Sergio Romo's stinkage attack might not be the only explanation for how the Giants made a 9.5-game lead in the NL West disappear in a little over three weeks. But the stunning self-destruction of their closer in that time wasn't exactly an unrelated development. As recently as June 12, the Giants were 43-24 and still 8.5 games up. The next two days, Romo took leads into the ninth against the Rockies and didn't just blow two crushing save opportunities. He allowed seven runs -- in a span of 11 hitters. And the Giants have been feeling the tremors on their personal Richter scales ever since. Romo's troubles had actually already begun. He has a 9.42 ERA dating to May 20. He's been scored on seven times in his last 16 trips to the mound. And most ominous of all, his once-unhittable slider keeps coming down in somebody's popcorn box. Last year, according to TruMedia, Romo allowed zero home runs and a .191 slugging percentage with that slider. This year, he's served up six home runs and a .521 slugging percentage on the very same pitch. And he's almost reached the point where he should never face a left-handed hitter. They're hitting .462 and slugging 1.231 against his one dominating out pitch. Last year's numbers: .219 and .313. Now maybe Romo will find his way out of this. But then again, his strikeout rate the last four seasons has plummeted from 13.1 per nine innings to 10.2, to 8.7, to 7.8 this year. So maybe not. In the meantime, the Giants are the latest example of my new favorite baseball maxim: When your closer stinks, your team stinks. There's a song in there someplace.
It seemed like such a beautiful story back in February, when Ubaldo Jimenez rolled into the Orioles' camp, delighted owner of a new four-year, $50 million contract. He was thrilled to be an Oriole. His new bosses were thrilled about what a likable fellow he seemed to be. His mother was moving to Baltimore to cook for him. His team needed a top-of-the-rotation arm. It couldn't have lined up more perfectly for him. But in retrospect, maybe he and Buck Showalter weren't a match made in baseball heaven after all. The manager is a big fan of a concept we like to refer to as "strikes." Jimenez, on the other hand, arrived in Baltimore with the second-worst career walk rate of any active pitcher who had toiled as many innings as he had (trailing only Jamey Wright). And let's just say nothing has changed. Guess who has issued the most walks (60 in 99.2 innings) of any pitcher in baseball this season? Yup. And it's led to another frustrating year in the life of Jimenez: 3-8 with a 4.52 ERA and the third-highest WHIP (1.54) among the 95 pitchers who qualify for the ERA title -- ahead of just two pitchers who are now on the disabled list ( Ricky Nolasco and Justin Masterson). The good news: Jimenez did have an attractive 1.82 ERA after the All-Star break last year for the Indians. The bad news: It isn't last year anymore.
If there were a Most Fun NL Rookie to Watch award, Hamilton wouldn't just be sprinting away with it; he'd be handing out lollipops and chocolate bars to every voter. "Everything he does is fun to watch," said one scout. "I love just watching him run down the line on a three-hopper to the second baseman, because I'm thinking, 'You'd better hurry.'" But what we're learning with every game he plays is that there's so much more to Hamilton than his supersonic wheels. Did you know that less than two years after the Reds converted him from shortstop, he's leading all regular big league center fielders in pretty much every defensive metric on earth? Did you know he's also figuring it out at the plate -- to the point where his batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage have all jumped by at least 20 points in every full month of the season? Did you know that since June 10, he's hit .333/.365/.550, with more home runs (three) than Miguel Cabrera (two)? And did you know that if he can bounce back from that sore hamstring and steal three more bases this weekend, he'll be only the fourth rookie in history to swipe 40 or more before the All-Star break? [The rest of that relay team: Vince Coleman (63), Tim Raines (50) and Juan Samuel (40)]. Now, maybe in three months, Gregory Polanco will be making this decision a lot more complicated. But halfway through a highly entertaining season, Billy Hamilton is (what else?) running away with this award.
Don't we need more than one rookie of the year award in modern baseball these days -- one for the traditional rookies and one for international sensations like Abreu and Tanaka? "Both of those guys are great," said one scout of Abreu and Tanaka. "But they're not really rookies." Excellent point, when you consider all the baseball they've played and where they've played it. But we'll save that debate for some other time. The rules say they're rookies. And it's arbitrary and discriminatory to pretend they're not rookies. Hence we have no choice but to compare them to the George Springers of the world. So sorry, George. I'd love to give you some kind of half-trophy. But in this system, this comes down to Abreu versus Tanaka, two guys who have been more than great. They've been historically great. Sensational as Abreu has been, this was Tanaka's award to lose two weeks ago. Oops. He's 1-3 with a 4.25 ERA in four starts since then. So we're turning back to Abreu, a breathtaking masher who keeps breaking some sort of record every few days, whether he needs to or not. It took him just 75 games in the big leagues to hit 27 home runs. And who else has done that in the history of the sport? Oh, nobody. Of course. He also reached double figures in home runs in each of his first two healthy months in the big leagues, with at least 20 RBIs in each. Among the players who haven't had two months like that in their whole careers: Nelson Cruz, Robinson Cano, Evan Longoria, Troy Tulowitzki, Carlos Gonzalez, David Wright and even Mike Trout. So if that's how Jose Abreu's first two healthy months went, I can't wait to see how his next decade or so goes. How about you?
Apologies to: Tanaka, Springer.
All right, raise your hand if you were pretty much certain three months ago that those Milwaukee Brewers would have the best record in the National League right now. Yeah, sure you did. Go take a look at the preseason predictions from our panel of ESPN baseball geniuses. Not one picked the Brewers to win their division, sneak into the wild-card game or parade through the streets of Milwaukee on Halloween. Not one. But the Brewers didn't get that memo. Despite their almost inexplicable 1-9 funk over the last week and a half, they've held at least a share of first place every day since April 5. And the manager has been a huge part of that. However surprised (or not surprised) you are by this team, it hasn't been an easy group to manage. Roenicke made the bold decision to change closers (from Jim Henderson to Francisco Rodriguez) the day before the season. How'd that work out? This guy has also had to do enough creative lineup juggling, around injuries and other challenges, that you can never be too sure from week to week whether Carlos Gomez is hitting leadoff or cleanup. But he (and they) managed to pull that off, too. There are, as always, many distinguished candidates for this honor. But for the moment, we're shipping this prestigious half-trophy to Bernie Brewer's favorite manager in the big leagues.
Apologies to: Mike Redmond, Bruce Bochy.
We don't usually deliver a lot of manager of the year glory to guys whose teams were predicted to win. But this is different -- because this team is different. Managing the Oakland A's is a juggle-fest. And Bob Melvin is such a master juggler, he ought to join up with Barnum and Bailey. It isn't often you find a first-place team where 13 players have already logged 100 plate appearances by the All-Star break. It isn't often you find a first-place team that has only four positions where the presumed "regular" has started even two-thirds of the games so far. It isn't often you find a first-place team that has already used 10 starting pitchers by the break -- after losing arguably its two best starters for the year in spring training. It isn't often you find a first-place team that's had six relievers save at least one game -- after having its anointed closer ( Jim Johnson) blow up like Mount Vesuvius before the season was even a week old. But Bob Melvin keeps proving he's one of the great mixers and matchers in this sport. And he's mixed and matched this fascinating group into the best team in baseball.
Apologies to: Lloyd McClendon, Joe Girardi.