Are baseball midseason awards a cliché and a sportswriter gimmick? Yes, of course they are.
Now – on to the awards!
No, wait, first: These are a little bit different from the usual midseason awards. These usually are given to the players based entirely on their performance in the first half. But these awards are predictions of who will win the awards at the END OF THE YEAR, using the first half as a guide. So, while, say, Milwaukee’s Carlos Gomez might have been the best player in the National League in the first half, that doesn’t necessarily mean he will be the MVP here (spoiler alert: he will not be).
OK, seriously, now – on to the awards!*
(And, as a bonus, we have special guest star awards from Red Sox advisor and all-around legend Bill James).
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American League MVP: Miguel Cabrera
(In the running: Chris Davis, Manny Machado, Dustin Pedroia, Mike Trout, Evan Longoria)
Prediction: We are going to have another advanced vs. traditional statistics fight at the end of this year, just like we did with Cabrera and Trout last year. Miguel Cabrera is very clearly the best hitter in baseball at the moment. His at-bats are qualitatively different from anybody else’s. He hits the ball harder than anybody.
But, once again, the supermajority of his contribution comes from his power and skill as a hitter. He can’t run. His defense is subpar. An advanced statistic like Wins Above Replacement tries to estimate a player’s entire game. Last year, Cabrera won the Triple Crown, but the advanced statistics said that Mike Trout was clearly the superior overall player. The MVP voters chose Cabrera in a landslide.
This year, by the end of the year, Trout may again have the higher WAR. Baltimore’s Manny Machado – who is playing a brilliant third base in addition to being on record pace with 38 doubles – may have the higher WAR. Someone else, like Evan Longoria or Robbie Cano or Dustin Pedroia, may pass Cabrera in WAR. I don’t think it will matter. Cabrera is on pace for more than 160 RBIs, he’s hitting .368, he has a shot at 50 homers, he will win the MVP.
Midseason award from special guest star Bill James: Dustin Pedroia
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National League MVP: Andrew McCutchen
(In the running: Buster Posey, Carlos Gomez, David Wright, Yadier Molina, Paul Goldschmidt)
McCutchen was probably not the best overall player in the first half – that was Gomez or Posey or Molina – but he was right there with the best, and after a rough first month he has really found his rhythm the last two months. McCutchen had a very strong case as league MVP last year when he hit .327/.400/.553 with 31 homers, 20 steals and 107 runs scored. He coughed to the finish line, though, as pitchers stopped throwing him strikes. I think he’s made the adjustment. I think he has a big second half this time around and takes the MVP.
Bill James’ MVP is Yadier Molina, who really is a wonder. Molina has been the best defensive catcher in the game for eight or nine seasons. With his remarkable arm, his steadiness, his ease behind the plate, he is making a strong case as the greatest defensive catcher in baseball history. But nobody thought he’d ever hit much. Through 2010, his career splits were .268/.327/.361. Even when he hit .304 in 2008, it was an empty number – he managed just 25 extra-base hits and scored only 37 runs. He was in the mold of Bob Boone or Jim Sundberg – geniuses defensively, game but often overmatched offensively.
Molina just kept working on his hitting, mostly with his good friend Albert Pujols. In 2011, he took a huge step forward, hitting .305 but with a slugging percentage more than 100 points above his career average. Last year, he was even better. This year, he’s leading the league in batting average and doubles. This is a self-made superstar.
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American League Cy Young: Felix Hernandez
(In the running: Max Scherzer, Chris Sale, Clay Buchholz, Yu Darvish)
I suspect most people are giving their midseason Cy Young to Max Scherzer, who is 12-0, but I don’t see how that lasts. Scherzer has pitched brilliantly, no question, but he’s been very hit lucky. The league’s batting average on balls in play is an absurdly low .251. Consider that the league’s BABIP against his teammate Justin Verlander, who throws a pretty hard-to-hit ball, is .344. Point is, against Scherzer so far, guys are hitting into a lot of bad luck, and that’s not likely to last.
Scherzer is also a great example of how temperamental and essentially pointless the win statistic is. His best-pitched game might have been at Seattle when he struck out 12, walked one, and allowed one run. He got a no-decision. Meanwhile, three times he has given up four or more runs and gotten a victory. Scherzer is having a breakthrough season, but I don’t think he will win the Cy Young.
Felix Hernandez already won a Cy Young with just 13 victories. This year’s Seattle team is once again dreadful offensively and so the wins will continue to be difficult to collect. Three times already this year, he has given up one run in his start and gotten a no-decision. King Felix at 27 is a master – he has kicked up his command even higher so that his strikeout-to-walk ratio of 5.56 is the best of his career.
Bill James Cy Young winner: Felix Hernandez.
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National League Cy Young: Clayton Kershaw
(In the running: Adam Wainwright, Cliff Lee, Matt Harvey, Jordan Zimmermann)
It’s hard for me to believe that a power lefty pitching for the Los Angeles Dodgers could be underrated … but I think Clayton Kershaw is underrated. Tuesday night was a good example. Homer Bailey rightfully won the headlines by throwing his second career no-hitter, this one against the Giants. At the same time, Kershaw might have been even better, throwing a four-hit shutout IN COLORADO. It is one of the best-pitched games ever at Coors Field and it dropped Kershaw’s ERA to 1.93.
It’s likely that no one will ever do what Sandy Koufax did in the mid 1960s because (1) No manager will ever again let a pitcher throw 335 innings in a season; (2) The pitching mound will never again be that high; (3) Offense around baseball will likely never again sink to that level. With that in mind, Kershaw at 25 is now becoming something of a modern day Koufax. He is leading the National League in ERA for the third straight year, the league hits .189 against him, he’s second in strikeouts to the phenom Matt Harvey. He is the best pitcher in baseball.
That is not to take away from the joy of watching Matt Harvey pitch, by the way. He’s a phenomenon, and he should have four more wins at least – the Mets do him no favors. But here’s something that may blow your mind. Harvey is only one year younger (almost to the day) than Kershaw.
Bill James’ Cy Young: Clayton Kershaw
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American League Rookie of the Year: Jose Iglesias
(In the running: David Lough, Oswaldo Arcia, Nick Franklin)
Iglesias’ hitting has been a shocker. Listen to this from the authoritative Baseball America Prospect Handbook before this season: “Iglesias may be the best defensive shortstop prospect in the game. … The problem is that Iglasias has hit .251/.302/.287 in Triple-A and looked helpless at the plate with Boston.”
Well, now Iglesias is playing the expected graceful shortstop, but he is also hitting .415. Yes, that’s .415. Obviously that won’t last, but he looks like a guy with an idea at the plate. And here’s the best part: Do you know who he worked out with during the offseason? Yep: Manny Ramirez. So MannyBManny still paying off for the Boston Red Sox.
A quick word for Kansas City’s David Lough. He is 27 and has spent the last eight or nine years slowly and methodically making his way to the major leagues. He was an 11th-round pick out of Mercyhurst College and was never seriously considered much of a prospect. He just kept hitting -- .320 in Wilmington, .331 in Northwest Arkansas – and playing steady defense. Then he just kept going back to Class AAA Omaha. Every year, he ranked as the Royals’ 20th or so best prospect. The best thing anyone ever called him was a possible fourth outfielder.
This year – because the Royals traded uber prospect Wil Myers and because right fielder Jeff Francoeur completely shut down – Kansas City brought up Lough, and he’s been hitting ever since. He’s hitting .312 and the other day became the first Royals player in more than a decade to get four extra-base hits in a game. It’s good to see the strivers have some success.
Bill James’ Rookie of the year: Jose Iglesias
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National League Rookie of the Year: Yusiel Puig
(In the running: Shelby Miller, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Julio Teheran, Nolan Arenado)
My brain says that at the end of the day the Rookie of the Year will be Miller, who is pitching brilliantly for the Cardinals – 8-6 record, 2.79 ERA, 101 strikeouts, 22 walks.
But my heart says Puig. It isn’t just the incredible start he’s had -- .443 average, .745 slugging percentage – but also the joy he brings to watching baseball. There’s nothing quite like watching something new, and Puig feels new with the way he stands so still at the plate, the all-out way he runs, the way he unleashes those throws from the outfield.
Numerous people have pointed out the similarities between Puig’s amazing start and Jeff Francoeur’s amazing start in 2005, when he made the cover of Sports Illustrated. There are similarities, certainly. Both struck out a lot. Neither walked. Both were hit lucky. Francoeur cooled off considerably. Will Puig? Well, do you know what Puig’s batting average on balls in play is? Take a guess. No, higher. Higher. It’s .513. So, yeah, my mind tells me that Puig will cool off considerably and by the end of the year the more solid Miller will win the award.
I’m going with my heart anyway.
And so is Bill James, who also chooses Puig.
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American League’s biggest disappointment: Josh Hamilton
(In the running: Paul Konerko, Victor Martinez, Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez)
A lot of people thought the Angels were ridiculous for signing Hamilton, but I don’t know that anybody thought it would get this bad, this quickly. He’s hitting .223, slugging less than .400 and playing some uninspiring defense in right field.
It isn’t just that Hamilton has struggled so much, it is that he has looked like he has no idea what to do now. Hamilton is older than you think – he’s 32 already – and that’s the scary part of all this. It might not get much better.
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National League’s biggest disappointment: Starlin Castro
(In the running: Dan Haren, B.J. Upton, Roy Halladay, Tim Lincecum)
I must admit – I never understood exactly why everyone was quite so psyched about Starlin Castro. When he was put on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 2011, I had several fairly involved arguments about him. When Bobby Valentine said on TV that Castro could be as good as Ernie Banks, I reacted negatively.
It isn’t that I was down on Castro, exactly. My point was that Castro might BECOME a very good player, but he wasn’t one yet. Yes, he hit .300 and had excellent bat speed, but he didn’t walk and didn’t hit with much power. Yes, he played shortstop, but not especially well. Yes, he was up in the big leagues at 20, but that was no guarantee that he would make big strides. It seemed to me too many people were just assuming that he would improve by leaps and bounds, and that’s never a certainty.
Last year, Castro did make a few strides, most of them defensively, but his offense went backward. This year at 23 it has all fallen apart for him. He’s hitting an astonishingly awful .232/.265/.326. The Cubs are preaching patience at the plate, and he doesn’t have it. One National League scout told me his defense has gone backward again – and some advanced defensive numbers confirm the point.
And we’re back to this: Castro’s only 23. There’s still time for him to become the big star so many expected. But he’s not aiming in the right direction right now.
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Will the Yankees make the playoffs?
I say no. Based on the way they’ve played this year, and based on the anemic nature of their lineup, they are lucky to be five games over .500, and there’s only so much that Robbie Cano can do. Of course, Parks and Recreation executive producer Michael Schur says that I’m crazy and that the Yankees magic is much more powerful than all of us.
Bill James, because of his ties with the Red Sox, abstains from the question.
Will the Nationals make the playoffs?
I say yes. They have been the biggest disappointment in baseball so far, but they are still over .500, which means one hot streak gets them into contention. With that pitching staff of Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez, Stephen Strasburg and Ross Detwiler, I tend to believe that the winning streak is coming.
That said, Bill James says: No.
Will the Indians make the playoffs?
No, probably not. But they’ve been a great story so far this season. They have no business staying with Detroit in the American League Central, based on the talent differences, but they’re actually in first place by a half-game at the moment. Second baseman Jason Kipnis might be the most underrated player in the league – he’s having an MVP-quality season so far – and the Indians are a ridiculous 18-7 in one-run games. Can that last? The odds say no, but it did last for Baltimore last year.
Bill James says: No way. They’ll finish 75-87.
Will the Pirates make the playoffs?
Yes. They will. I’m feigning as much confidence as I have to muster because, of course, the Pirates have collapsed down the stretch each of the last two seasons – not only missing the playoffs, but finishing below .500 each year. But this year’s different. Why? I don’t really know why. I just think it is. I think Andrew McCutchen has a huge second half, young pitchers Jeff Locke and Gerrit Cole pitch well, and they squeeze into the playoffs.
Bill James says: No.
Will Manny Machado break the doubles record?
Earl Webb’s doubles record of 67 has been on the books since 1931. Manny Machado has 38 doubles through his first 84 games, which puts him on pace to smash the record.
Will he? Well, people have challenged the record before. In 1996, Edgar Martinez had 42 doubles through his first 85 games — he hit just 10 doubles in his last 54 games and finished with 52.
In 1999, Craig Biggio had 37 doubles in his first 85 games. He hit just 19 the rest of the way – just four in September – to finish with an amazing but not record-setting 56 doubles.
Doubles are hard to come by in the second half. Even Webb himself slowed in the second half. I’d like to see Machado challenge the record, but I don’t think he will.
Bill James says: No.
Will Yasiel Puig hit .400?
I only recently learned about Betteridge's Law, which states that any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered with the word: No.
No, Puig will not hit .400. But it would be great to see him challenge the mark. It has been too long since we’ve had a serious run at .400.
Bill James says: No.
Will Miguel Cabrera win the Triple Crown again?
I think he just might. At this point, he’s leading in batting average by almost 40 points, and he’s led the league in hitting the last two seasons. I think he’s almost a lock for the batting title.
Meanwhile, he’s five home runs behind Baltimore’s Chris Davis and five RBIs ahead of him. Now, I love this Chris Davis story as much as anybody. It is great to see him - after so many up-and-down years – emerge into one of the best power hitters in the game. I don’t think it’s a fluke. I think he will hit all year long.
But, that said, if I had to bet on who will have the better second half, Miguel Cabrera or Chris Davis, yeah, until proven otherwise I’m going to go with Cabrera. I’m picking him to win the Triple Crown again.
Bill James says: No.
Will Philadelphia start shipping off pieces?
Yes, I think they will. It feels like the whole Philadelphia experience has run its course. In 2007, they had that crazy end-of-the-season comeback to beat the Mets and make the playoffs. In 2008, they won the city’s first championship in a quarter-century. In 2009, they lost the World Series to the resurgent Yankees.
They had developed these great players – Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Cole Hamels – and in that moment they went for history. They went out and got Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee and Roy Oswalt and tried to build the greatest pitching staff the world had ever seen. They won 102 games but lost to the Cardinals in the playoffs. The Cardinals went on to win the World Series.
And then, over one offseason, just about everybody in Philadelphia got old and hurt, and the Phillies finished .500. The regrettable Ryan Howard contract kicked in just as he went into severe decline, Halladay’s body and consistency broke down, Utley could not stay healthy, Rollins aged. This year, the Phillies are four games under .500 despite a $171 million payroll, so, yes, I think they will start a going-out-of-business sale anytime now.
Bill James says: Yes. Big pieces.