So I’ve been writing this column for a while, and I had this whole paragraph written out. Talked about how there were a lot of deserving guys in the N.L. About how Joey Votto had his name etched in this imaginary award as of three weeks ago. Well, with apologies to a lot of great players (Votto, CarGo, Wright, Beltran, and even Nats shortstop Ian Desmond) they’re all trying in vain to catch the man in the dreadlocks right now. I didn’t keep Andrew McCutchen as one of my fantasy baseball keepers this year, and he’s making me look awfully stupid right now, mainly because he’s far and away the best player in baseball at the All-Star break. He’s done everything outside of swab the poop deck for the Bucco’s to keep the good people serial puppy killers in Pittsburgh happy (sorry, forgot my audience for a minute). In an offense that could otherwise probably be outperformed by a crew of actual drunken Pirates (no other player was hitting over .260 until the very end of June), the only player that opposing teams need to worry about is McCutchen. And yet, for some reason, they choose to keep pitching to him and he responds accordingly: by smacking the ball all over and occasionally out of the ballpark.
McCutchen and Joey Votto are the only two players in baseball ranking in the top 5 in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage. The tiebreaker for me is that McCutchen’s counting numbers are better than Votto in plenty of categories (HR, RBI, 3B, SB) and his gold glove defense is just the cherry on top. What’s crazy to think about is the guy didn’t even hit his first home run until May 8th (since that first home run, he’s hitting a cool .391). His stats at the break are more impressive than both Ryan Braun (last year’s MVP) and Matt Kemp (should’ve been last year’s MVP). Considering his crash and burn act in the 2nd half of 2011 (he dropped from .291 in the 1st half to .216 in the 2nd. It’s the reason I didn’t keep him for my fantasy team…I’m an idiot by the way, why do you guys read this), it’s entirely possible he could plummet back to earth down the stretch. But if he’s here to stay like I think he is, he could end up with a pretty unbelievable season. By year’s end, he could be sitting at a VIP table in the 30/30 club with Ellis Burks and Larry Walker. He would join them as the only players in MLB history ever to hit .350 in a 30/30 year (and the only one to do it without the assistance of a pre-humidor Coors Field).
There’s one name here that’s overshadowed everyone. It completely wipes out a career year from the best offensive second baseman I’ve ever seen, as well as an eye popping rookie campaign. What’s so crazy about Josh Hamilton is that he’s been spinning his tires in the mud for a month now (.214/.319/.436 SLG, 16 BB, 37 K since June 1st), and he’s STILL the MVP. He’s had 16 RBI’s in the past month…and he still has 10 more than anyone else in baseball. He was so good that a terrible slump that would get a lesser player removed from the lineup has taken him from Triple Crown favorite to Triple Crown contender, which is just outlandish. Orioles fans got a birds eye view of Hamilton at the peak of his powers with his ridiculous 4 home run game in Camden Yards. That was in the middle of a 6 game stretch where Hamilton was 12 for 25 with 9 home runs and a 2.152 OPS! Major League pitchers didn’t even worry about keeping Hamilton off the bases because they couldn’t keep him in the ballpark. There are two things I look at for MVP: what the numbers say and what moments I remember. When I think of last year, I think of Justin Verlander no-hitter watches every five days. Josh Hamilton has provided the most memorable moments this year (the 6 game homer binge, the farthest home run I’ve seen hit to right field in Fenway). And the numbers – Hamilton is on pace for a 50 home run, 150 RBI, 1.000 OPS season. There have been 8 of those in baseball history. The names on that list are Ruth, Foxx, Hack Wilson, Sosa, and Rodriguez. If there’s a Hamilton on it by October, it will be one of the most impressive MVP seasons in the last century.
NL Cy Young:
The race here definitely has gotten closer in the past week. I had Dickey here in pen about a week ago, but two rough outings in the past three means Cain, Cueto, and Washington’s two aces are definitely back in the discussion. Still, based on his month plus of dominance R.A. Dickey is still the pick here. Despite one of the more impressive games I’ve ever seen (Cain’s perfect game had the feel of a foregone conclusion by the 6th inning), give me Dickey’s 5 consecutive scoreless starts. At a time when the Mets needed someone to step up during Santana’s no-hit hangover, Dickey kept the bullpen on the bench (where they’ve been most effective) and flirted with two no-hitters of his own due to a knuckleball that produced some of the worst swings I’ve seen this year.
AL Cy Young:
In my eyes, the Cy Young and the MVP have a similar definition: namely, if you were to take a pitcher away from their team, what team would it have the biggest impact on. By that definition, the answer here is easy. In a first half where the Tigers have done all they could to freefall from contention, Justin Verlander has been holding them up with his right arm the entire time. His 132.2 IP are by far the most in baseball, and he’s thrown 6+ innings in every start this year. In fact, the last time he didn’t throw 6 innings was August 17, 2010: I was still in college and Tim Tebow still wasn’t a thing yet (simpler times). The more impressive numbers belong to Jered Weaver and Chris Sale, but Weaver missed some time on the D.L. and Sale has a rotation mate in Jake Peavy who has been almost equally impressive. The Tigers are 40-42 despite a mostly putrid starting rotation and a lineup that ranks 10th in the AL in home runs despite the presence of Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera. Verlander deserves the recognition here for keeping the Tigers in the race.
The “Best Rookie Season I’ve ever seen” Award:
If Mike Trout is doing any of what I did when I was 20, he’s even better than I thought. Leading the American League in batting average (.343) stolen bases (26) and making one of the three best catches I’ve ever seen? Moderately impressive. But can he do it while drinking 5 days a week and shoving balloons up your shirt so they look like giant boobs? He probably can.
Aside from Ichiro, who wasn’t really a rookie when he came over from Japan, Trout’s .342 average is 1st among rookies since 1940 by a full 10 points. The only player close to him is Fred Lynn (who oh by the way won Rookie of the Year and MVP in 1975, something that Trout could definitely do this season) He just keeps hitting, stealing, and providing the best centerfield defense (according to UZR) in baseball for the Angels who looked stagnant before they had a shot of Trout adrenaline jammed into their ribcage. Watching Bryce Harper, I’m constantly in awe of all of the miraculous things he can do in a baseball field. With Trout, I’m no longer in awe, I just expect it. He’s been that good.
The “Where the f*ck did you come from?” award
Obviously Jason Hammel got strong consideration for this, but just like with the MVP, position players are at the front of the line. And this year, Ian Desmond has somehow morphed from a good defensive shortstop chock full of steals and little else into undoubtedly the best all-around shortstop in the majors.
Desmond has always been built like a Tony Stark prototype: a tall, strong shortstop with great range, a rocket arm, and middle of the lineup firepower. But for his entire career, he’d never been greater than the sum of his parts. This year, something clicked. I think it’s partly due to being moved out of the leadoff spot (where he was horribly miscast) and partly because this is the first playoff caliber team he’s played on.
Whatever the case, Desmond is absolutely detonating National League pitching, and is providing gaudy power numbers from the shortstop position (he leads all SS in HR, RBI, 2B, and XBH). In fact, in the period directly after LaRoche started struggling and before Zimmerman’s bat woke up, there was a time where Ian Desmond carried the Nationals offense, something even the most ardent Nats fan probably never foresaw. Whether his free-swinging ways will continue to serve him well in the second half is an interesting questions, but one thing is for sure: Ian Desmond made himself a lot of money by playing like an MVP before the break.
3 Predictions and Thoughts on the 2nd half
The Mets will make the playoffs:
It’s HOMER TIME!!! But really, in the National League where pitching trumps all, the Mets have a five-man rotation that few other teams can equal. In team rankings, the Mets are 3rd in starters ERA (3.55), 3rd in starters strikeouts (465), and 5th in opponents’ batting average (.244). The only starter in the Mets rotation with an ERA over 4 (Dillon Gee – 4.10) threw 8 innings of one run ball in his last start. How many teams can get a start like that from one of their bottom two guys? Those numbers, coupled with a robust team OBP (.328 – 4th in N.L.), and a MVP-like season from David Wright have the Mets shockingly in contention at the All-Star break. They only have one very noticeable flaw (an abysmal bullpen) that is eminently fixable for a small price at the trade deadline. With a Ramon Hernandez here or a Grant Balfour there, the Mets look like a team that is going to compete for the entire season. I enjoyed writing that a lot.
Whichever team gets Zack Greinke is going to get to the playoffs:
Just to be clear, Greinke’s trade value did not take ANY hit (in my mind) the other day when he was unfairly ejected for spiking a ball into the ground after a play at first base. Spare me with the general anxiety disorder comments, or that he might not be the greatest teammate in the world. Bob Gibson wasn’t exactly a big teddy bear (just ask Tim McCarver), and he seemed to get by just fine on his unbelievable pitching ability. It’s nice to get a guy who’s great in the clubhouse, it’s better to get an extremely talented baseball player. Greinke is in the latter camp. His 3.32 ERA looks great on the surface and his FIP (a league leading 2.48), means it should only get better in the second half. His resume has some spots on it, but they’re kind of tough to see behind the 2009 A.L. Cy Young. I think if the Orioles are serious about making a playoff push this season, they should move everything short of Heaven and Earth (read: Bundy and Machado) to get half a season and maybe more from one of the top 15 pitchers in baseball.
If they figure out the right way to rest Strasburg, the Nationals will be in the World Series:
The National League doesn’t have one overwhelmingly dominant team this year. The Phillies may be able to put something together in the second half, but they’ll have to hurry before Amaro decides to take everything apart. Tim Lincecum would be a candidate for demotion if he wasn’t Tim Lincecum. The Cardinals no longer have Dave Duncan to work his magic on subpar pitchers and have run into injury problems. The Braves lost their number one starter, and essentially their 8th inning guy with Jonny Venters having a terrible year. The league is sitting there for somebody to take, and my best guess right now would be the Nationals.
In my eyes, they have the best pitching rotation in baseball at the break, and one of the top 5 bullpens. With Ryan Zimmerman finally looking like himself, and Michael Morse back from injury, their 2-6 hitters are all capable of carrying the offense for at least a few games at a time. The components are there for the Nationals to be playing well into the fall, with the possible exception of one: their number one starter and resident ace Stephen Strasburg.
For the record, it’s a good idea to cap Strasburg’s innings. Not even a World Series is worth risking the long-term health of one of the best pitching prospects in decades. But the Nats do need to have him available for the playoffs, and because of their current position in the standings (a 4 game lead on Atlanta) they have the luxury of being able to rest him for the stretch run. Washington does play 5 out of 6 interdivisional series out of the break, so if they can keep beating up on their neighbors (14-6 vs. N.L. East), they could be 7 or 8 games up by the beginning of an August west coast trip. Shelving Stras for those two weeks, plus maybe one or two more afterwards would keep his innings low for when the team really needs him; in October.
Lastly, what I think the Orioles should do
What this really comes down to is whether you believe the Orioles are a mirage or a reality: can they actually make a run at the playoffs? I think so. I think the A.L. has three great teams this season (New York, Texas, LA) with someone having to win the Central (I still think it’ll be the Tigers),that leaves one more wildcard spot open. I’m not sold on the Red Sox starting pitching. Felix Doubront still has the lowest ERA at 4.41, Clay Buchholz (who can’t sustain it) has been their best pitcher since June 1st . The Rays can’t produce any sort of offense, and have no timetable for an Evan Longoria return. Those teams are not usually down like they are this year, and they won’t stay down for long. Which is why this is the year for Baltimore to make a push.
I would exhaust all reasonable possibilities for Greinke, and put a “For Sale” tag on everything besides Machado and Bundy. If the Brewers don’t bite, open up the lines to Chicago and go get Ryan Dempster. He might come more expensive than he should, but his floor is a 3rd starter in the American League, which is exactly what the Orioles need. At this point, the O’s are going to win more often than not when Hammel and Chen start, and lose more often than not the other 3 days. Dempster can be someone to flip that ratio (for the record, I don’t believe that Garza or Wandy Rodriguez could flip it enough).
There’s no guarantees the Orioles will be this good next year, but there’s a very good chance the Rays and the Red Sox won’t be this bad. Time to strike when the iron’s hot Dan Duquette.