Welcome to the MLB All-Star break, a necessary pause during the grueling baseball campaign, and also the most boring time of the season for many fans. Since I’ve already said my piece on the yawnfest, let’s turn our attention to something way more interesting: midseason awards and predictions!
While we’re more than halfway through the 2014 slate in terms of strict game totals, the All-Star break presents a natural divide, so here are my picks for the players who fared the best in the first “half” and the teams that look poised to dominate down the stretch.1
AL MVP: Mike Trout
Voters chose Miguel Cabrera over Trout in 2012 and 2013, arguing that Cabrera’s bat trumped Trout’s all-around game, and that Cabrera’s value to a playoff team surpassed Trout’s value to a third-place team. Well, those arguments no longer hold. While the Angels are currently only the second-best team in their own division, they’re also the second-best team in all of baseball by record, run differential, and many other measures, and are well on their way to making the playoffs. What’s more, RBI fetishists can no longer ding Trout, as he’s tied for third in the majors in that category with 73, just two behind the league-leading Cabrera.
In fact, Trout is a better hitter in nearly every respect this year. He’s on pace for career highs in traditional stats like home runs (he’s fourth in the AL, with 22) and slugging percentage (second in the AL, at .606) as well as advanced stats like wRC+ (first at 181, meaning he’s been 81 percent more productive than the average MLB hitter this year). Trout’s the best hitter in baseball, he brings good (albeit no longer quite elite) baserunning and defensive value, and he uses some sort of pixie dust to make Garrett Richards and other teammates better. In other words, he’s the clear choice for AL MVP.
Also considered: Felix Hernandez
NL MVP: Troy Tulowitzki
OK, this is where those who believe that baseball is like basketball and that an “MVP” should be able to single-handedly lead his team to the playoffs will jump off the train. After a hot start to the season, the Rockies have been the worst club in the majors since May 7, posting an awful 18-41 record during that span. Coincidentally, May 7 is also the day that Grantland ran a big piece on Tulowitzki, who was hitting an impossible .421/.522/.794 at the time. Though Tulo has unsurprisingly failed to keep up that pace, the .307/.389/.523 line he has posted since isn’t too shabby and puts him at .345/.435/.613 overall. He’s also delivering Gold Glove–caliber defense, ranking fourth among major league shortstops this year in Baseball Info Solutions’ Defensive Runs Saved stat. The Rockies started losing despite Tulo’s otherworldly output, not because he failed to produce.
Also considered: Jonathan Lucroy, Andrew McCutchen, Adam Wainwright, Clayton Kershaw
AL Cy Young: Felix Hernandez
What more is there to say about King Felix? He leads the AL in ERA (2.12) and FIP (2.04), and he ranks second in innings pitched (144.1) and strikeouts (154).2 His consistent greatness and the career-best numbers he’s currently posting make him the AL’s true monarch, especially with Justin Verlander in decline.
I could stop there, but I feel morally obligated to share my favorite current Felix Fact, courtesy of ESPN Stats & Info: In 2009, Hernandez relied heavily on his fastball, throwing his changeup on just 10.3 percent of pitches; this year, he has thrown his change a career-high 29.4 percent of the time. No qualifying right-handed pitcher throws his change more often than Hernandez.3 Hernandez leads the AL in strikeout rate on changeups by more than 7 percent, and it’s easy to see why: When he gets to two strikes on a hitter, he knows how to use the plummeting changeup of death:
If things go right for Felix, he could ride that change to another Cy Young … and to the first postseason appearance of his career.
NL Cy Young: Adam Wainwright
Clayton Kershaw is the best pitcher on earth, and on a per-start basis, he has blown every other major leaguer out of the water this year. In fact, we might not have seen anyone this dominant since Pedro Martinez’s heyday. However, Kershaw also spent more than a month on the disabled list after delivering a season-opening win in Australia, leaving him five starts and 41.2 innings behind Wainwright, who’s been consistently excellent this year despite not throwing any impossibly great no-hitters or ripping off any insane scoreless streaks.4 So Wainwright’s 138 innings pitched (second in the NL to Johnny Cueto, who’s no. 3 on my NL Cy Young list), 1.83 ERA (best in the NL among qualified pitchers, with Kershaw just barely lacking the innings to qualify), and 2.52 FIP (also best in the NL) give him the edge for now. By season’s end, however, this will likely be Kershaw’s award to lose.
Also considered: Clayton Kershaw, Johnny Cueto
AL Rookie of the Year: Jose Abreu
At the break, AL rookies Abreu and Masahiro Tanaka sit in a dead heat in WAR, having each generated 3.2 wins for their club. Tanaka suffered a potential season-ending elbow injury last week, however, and will miss a minimum of six weeks even if he avoids Tommy John surgery. That leaves the White Sox’s young slugger with ample time to create distance from his main competition.
More than two years ago, when Abreu was still playing in Cuba, I called him “the best hitter you’ve never heard of”; now he’s a household name, leading the majors in homers (29) and slugging (.630) despite spending two weeks on the DL himself. Abreu is a central figure in the Cuban boom that has energized Major League Baseball, and in addition to being the eventual AL Rookie of the Year, he could be one of the biggest reasons why salaries start to surge for Cuban free agents.
NL Rookie of the Year: Billy Hamilton
We knew about Hamilton’s blistering speed. We could even predict his rangy goodness in center field, safely assuming that his burst and athleticism would trump his inexperience. But we had no idea he could hit like this. After batting a buck-forty with a .387 OPS in his first 12 games of the season, Hamilton has found his stroke, subsequently hitting .307/.340/.455 with 18 doubles, five triples, five homers, and 36 steals in 78 games (68 of them starts). Hamilton’s emergence has softened the blow the Reds sustained by losing plunk-master and OBP hound Shin-Soo Choo, and has kept Cincy in the race despite Joey Votto’s rough year. Unlike the AL Rookie of the Year race, this one’s not close: Hamilton’s running away with it.
Also considered: N/A
1. Baltimore Orioles
2. Tampa Bay Rays
3. Toronto Blue Jays
4. New York Yankees
5. Boston Red Sox
I took a long look at the AL East earlier this week in The 30, but I’ll reiterate a few key points. For starters: Take every preseason division prediction you can find and light it on fire. The reigning World Series champions are in last place, and will likely trade away Jake Peavy and possibly another veteran or two while gearing up for a 2015 turnaround effort. The Yankees have been living on borrowed time while fielding an injury-riddled rotation and shaky infield, and might have lost Tanaka, their best current player, for the year. The former first-place Blue Jays have fallen off a cliff, and the calls for GM Alex Anthopoulos to make a deal should probably subside now that Adam Lind, Edwin Encarnacion, and Brett Lawrie are hurt and the pitching lacks the depth of a true contender. The Rays also suffered crippling injuries, but now that they’re getting healthy, it’s no longer hard to imagine them climbing back above .500 and finishing with a respectable record. Joe Maddon’s team has been one of the best in baseball over the past month, going 20-11, and may not want to deal away ace David Price after all.
While Price could help lift the Rays to a second-place finish in one of the weakest AL East races we’ve seen in decades, it won’t be enough to catch the surging Orioles. Baltimore has parlayed big performances from 23-year-old starter Kevin Gausman, converted closer Zach Britton, jackpot free-agent signing Nelson Cruz, and the recently invigorated Manny Machado into the third-biggest division lead at the break, and GM Dan Duquette’s penchant for deals means reinforcements could soon arrive.
1. Detroit Tigers
2. Kansas City Royals (wild card)
3. Cleveland Indians
4. Chicago White Sox
5. Minnesota Twins
There’s not much intrigue at no. 1, as the Tigers are almost certainly on their way to a fourth consecutive division crown thanks to superstars like J.D. Martinez and no-name contributors like Miguel Cabrera. The division should provide another interesting race, however: for second place in the Central and one of the AL’s two wild-card spots.
The Royals led the division less than a month ago after ripping off a 10-game winning streak that boded well for their playoff chances, and though they’ve struggled since, the ingredients for a second-half surge remain: a steady rotation led by pennant race–tested James Shields and young righty-lefty combo Yordano Ventura and Danny Duffy; a bullpen with two lethal weapons to close out games in Wade Davis and Greg Holland; and a lineup that’s finally starting to click now that Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas have shaken off terrible starts. With Shields a couple of months away from free agency and ownership apparently willing to add payroll for a playoff push, acquiring a mashing corner outfielder could be in the cards. This might be the clincher, though: 52 of KC’s final 68 games come against teams with .500 records or worse. At the beginning of the season, I picked the Royals to make the playoffs and end their 29-year drought, so after seeing that stat, I might as well stick with it.
1. Los Angeles Angels
2. Oakland A’s (wild card)
3. Seattle Mariners
4. Texas Rangers
5. Houston Astros
Call this one a hunch. The Angels are the hottest team in baseball, having won 27 of their last 37 games. Their biggest weakness had been the bullpen, but that’s the easiest area for a contender to address, and address it they have, acquiring a pair of relievers over the past three weeks. Though Joe Smith is handling closing duties at the moment, new acquisition Jason Grilli already looks like a big upgrade over highly flammable former closer Ernesto Frieri, and fellow addition Joe Thatcher has been one of the most effective lefty setup men in the game this year. Moreover, the A’s have already made their big deal by acquiring Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel, while the Angels have stuck to incremental moves thus far. With a much larger war chest at their disposal, and with rumors linking the Halos to Ian Kennedy, Huston Street, and others, it looks like the Angels could pull off a blockbuster deal of their own soon. While both Anaheim and Oakland look like playoff locks, the battle for AL West bragging rights could be fierce … and could very well go to the Angels.
The other team to watch here is Seattle. The Mariners currently hold the AL’s second wild-card spot, buoyed by the elite 1-2 combination of Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma on the mound and the potent duo of Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager in the infield. They’ve also gotten by thanks to smoke and mirrors, with Endy Chavez leading off and Chris Young coaxing a 3.15 ERA out of the ether. Their ability to maintain their wild-card position could depend on luck: While the M’s have been baseball’s most fortunate team as measured by hit sequencing, the Royals are also way up there, at no. 3. And while Seattle has struggled in one-run games (11-14), it hasn’t performed as poorly as KC, which surprisingly owns the worst one-run record (10-18) in the game. Unlike the Royals, though, the M’s could have a tougher road ahead, with 38 of their final 67 games coming against above-.500 teams. Seattle should stay relevant in what’s sure to be a tumultuous playoff race, but it might not have enough to end its decade-plus playoff drought.
1. Washington Nationals
2. Atlanta Braves (wild card)
3. New York Mets
4. Miami Marlins
5. Philadelphia Phillies
The projection systems have favored the Nationals for a few seasons, and the actual numbers are starting to back that up, with Washington owning an NL-best plus-61 run differential. Bryce Harper and his teammates are getting healthy, the rotation is arguably the deepest in the league, and even the bench features quality players capable of stepping in and succeeding when needed.
Of course, the Braves defied the odds last year, too, and they’re threatening to do so again in 2014. They’ve survived Tommy John surgeries for two of their best pitchers as well as multiple injuries to key position players; they’ve withstood another year of brutal performances from Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton; and they’ve somehow turned Aaron Harang back into a viable starter. Uggla’s now out of a starting job, and Atlanta’s only pressing needs at the moment are getting Evan Gattis back and healthy (which could happen in a week) and adding a quality lefty reliever by the deadline (which usually isn’t hard).
Get ready for a barn burner.
1. St. Louis Cardinals
2. Milwaukee Brewers
3. Pittsburgh Pirates
4. Cincinnati Reds
5. Chicago Cubs
I’m sticking with my preseason prediction for now, but there’s no way to know how this crazy division will unfold. Injuries have ravaged the Cards, with star catcher Yadier Molina potentially out for the rest of the regular season following thumb surgery, lefty hurler Jaime Garcia definitely out for the year, and young starter Michael Wacha’s future uncertain amid shoulder soreness. The good news is that the Cardinals came into this season with more overall depth than any other team, which has enabled them to slot Carlos Martinez and Joe Kelly into the rotation, and to use Oscar Taveras to make up for Allen Craig’s mysteriously terrible season. Molina is irreplaceable, but the hope is that the newly acquired George Kottaras can team with Tony Cruz to form a capable-enough tandem. If the Cards find a way to make it to October and then get Yadi back in the fold, I wouldn’t bet against them returning to the World Series.
Before they can make it to October, however, they’ll be severely tested. While the Brewers saw their division lead evaporate to one game after a 2-11 stretch and are playing short-handed following the tragic death of Jean Segura’s 9-month-old son, there’s a lot of talent in Milwaukee, and owner Mark Attanasio has shown he’s not afraid to go after premium talent at the deadline.6
The Reds and Pirates should also remain in the race. Cincinnati could be without Votto for a while, but breakout seasons from Devin Mesoraco, Todd Frazier, and Hamilton and a career year for Cueto will keep the Reds in the division and wild-card hunt. The Pirates, meanwhile, face the longest odds, with a depleted rotation looking shaky and 2013 rock Francisco Liriano struggling. Adding Gregory Polanco has helped, however, and Andrew McCutchen is the hottest (and maybe the best) player in the National League. Like some of his divisional peers, GM Neal Huntington has shown a willingness to wheel and deal despite a limited payroll, so Pittsburgh should try to stay alive.
1. Los Angeles Dodgers
2. San Francisco Giants (wild card)
3. San Diego Padres
4. Colorado Rockies
5. Arizona Diamondbacks
The Dodgers were the most talented team in the division (and probably in the entire National League) before the season started, they remained the most talented team in the division as the Giants built a 9.5-game lead, and they’re still the most talented team in the division now that they’ve reclaimed control of first place. They could also snap their fingers and acquire Price or another big gun if they’re willing to offer up some combination of Joc Pederson, Corey Seager, and Julio Urias.
The Giants, meanwhile, have gone 10-22 since peaking on June 8, as their early luck ran out. Conversely, they’ve solved their closer problem by having Santiago Casilla take over for Sergio Romo, they’re getting much better pitching lately from Tim Lincecum, they have Brandon Belt back from the DL, and they also have the pieces to make a deal. Plus, their second-half schedule looks like a cakewalk. Expect to see both the Dodgers and the Giants playing in October.