- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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Well, we're halfway through another baseball season, and, amazingly, we know precisely what questions are bouncing around your mind right now:
Has anyone thrown a no-hitter in the past 15 minutes? Is it true the Red Sox just placed Ted Williams and Carl Yastrzemski on the disabled list? And, of course, how come Stephen Strasburg wasn't featured on that LeBron James special?
OK, so maybe those aren't the exact questions on your mind. But if they were, we wouldn't blame you, because it's been another one of those years in this sport -- and who among us saw all this stuff coming? So we interrupt your never-ending reflections on LeBron's choice of moving vans to present our 2010 midseason baseball awards:
National League MVP of the Half-Year: Joey Votto, Reds
We're betting most Americans have heard and read more about Joey Votto in just the past week than they had in his entire career before now. But here at the Worldwide Leader, we can assure you that it isn't because we're trying to recruit him to star in a new reality show or anything. It's because he's the best player in baseball who'd managed to avoid nearly every radar screen in America before this. But Votto is more than merely the most deserving player left off the original All-Star rosters. He's also the most valuable player in his whole league so far. You want numbers? How 'bout these numbers: The guy leads the league in homers (22), on-base percentage (.417), slugging (.595) and OPS (1.012). And the more important the situation, the better he's been: .351 with men on base, .395 in the late innings of tight games, .379 from the seventh inning on, with 16 homers that have either tied games, put his team ahead, brought his team within a run or broken open a one-run game. But put those numbers aside for a second. The biggest reason this guy ekes out a tight MVP duel with Albert Pujols? Votto has been a culture changer for a team that hasn't won a postseason game in 20 years. "He comes to play," Braves manager Bobby Cox told Half-Year in Review. "He's a dirt player. He's a tough out. He's really grown on me." And, all of a sudden, he's been growing on the rest of the hemisphere, too.
American League MVP of the Half-Year: Miguel Cabrera, Tigers
If this election were held today, not even The Mentalist could tell you whether Robinson Cano, Justin Morneau or Cabrera would win one of the most dead-even MVP battles we can remember. It's almost impossible to separate those three guys, because they've all had tremendous, not to mention invaluable, years for teams that have spent every second of the season in some kind of race. But after mulling this until our heads exploded, our vote goes to Cabrera. For one thing, if he'd been able to figure out a way to have the season end after Tuesday, he would have become the first Triple Crown winner since Carl Yastrzemski, plus the league leader in slugging and OPS. (Alas, Jose Bautista now leads him in the homer race by two.) But all your prominent MVP historians, like us for instance, can tell you that you don't just check the stat sheets when you vote on this award. You also measure "value." And as Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski told us, if you took all these MVP candidates off their teams, the Tigers would have the biggest drop off in run production. We agree. Cabrera is a Pujols-esque offensive figure who has produced a higher percentage of his team's runs than any other player in the AL, even though he has batted with nearly the identical number of runners on base (254) as Morneau (251) and Cano (250). Cabrera has hit almost half of his homers (10 of 21) from the seventh inning on. Thirteen of those homers have either tied games, given the Tigers a lead or brought his team within a run. And while this might not be fair, we're giving him extra credit for getting sober, taking the game seriously again and committing himself to becoming the great player and leader he ought to be. But if anyone wants to argue for Morneau or Cano -- or even Kevin Youkilis or Josh Hamilton -- all we can say is: There are no wrong answers in that group.
NL LVP (Least Valuable Player) of the Half-Year: Aramis Ramirez, Cubs
You build a baseball team around certain basic assumptions. The first: The guys in the middle of your order will hit. Of course they'll hit. They've always hit. They always will. Because that's what they do. But it sure hasn't worked that way in those friendly confines this year. The Cubs' Opening Day 3-hole hitter, Derrek Lee, is hitting .230, with a lower OPS (.694) than Jamey Carroll. But Lee is Joe DiMaggio compared to the Opening Day cleanup hitter, Ramirez. Here's how ugly this guy's season has been: Even after a little hot streak this week, he's on pace to hit just .195, with a .254 on-base percentage, a .350 slugging percentage and a .604 OPS in 517 at-bats. You know how many men in the live-ball era have unfurled numbers that low in all those categories in a season with that many at-bats? How about none? The previous ugliest stat line, according to Lee Sinins' Complete Baseball Encyclopedia, belongs to a luminary named Jim Levey of the late, great 1933 St. Louis Browns (.195/.237/.240/.477). But it's a real good bet the Browns weren't paying Levey nearly $17 million a year, seeing as how he was a 154-pound, No. 8 hitter and free agency was still four decades away. The Cubs, on the other hand, are dealing with a guy who is their second-highest-paid position player, largely because he'd slugged .500-plus six years in a row. So how he's plummeted this far this fast is the biggest mystery since how Mrs. O'Leary's cow got ahold of that lantern.
AL LVP of the Half-Year: Chone Figgins, Mariners
This sure is one unpredictable sport. Please don't go back and read all the stuff we wrote this past winter when the Mariners signed Chone Figgins. Seemed like such a good idea at the time. But one thing you learn about baseball after a while is that even great ideas, funded by 36 million well-meaning dollars, can go wrong. And so far, it's hard to comprehend just how wrong this one has gone. Of the 83 AL hitters who qualify for the batting title right now, Figgins ranks 81st in OPS (.609) and dead last in slugging (.274). And only Juan Pierre has fewer extra-base hits (11). Figgins' on-base percentage (.335) is down 60 points from last year. And he's on pace to become the first player in history to strike out 123 times and make zero home run trots in the same season. Yikes. Now, the good news is Figgins is a caring, conscientious guy who can't possibly play this badly for the rest of his contract. Plus, as our buddy Jim Caple pointed out this week, our LVP has somehow scored more runs this year (36) than Ichiro Suzuki (34). But for now, this guy still has had an LVP kind of year for a team that's been done in by the ugly demise of its offense.
NL Cy Young of the Half-Year: Josh Johnson, Marlins
A month ago, it would have been unimaginable to hand this prestigious half-trophy to anyone other than Ubaldo Jimenez. Heck, it would have been unimaginable as recently as a week and a half ago. But then Jimenez had to go and turn human on us. And Johnson just keeps churning out one masterpiece after another. Now here we are at midseason, and Johnson leads Jimenez in ERA, WHIP, quality starts, quality-start percentage, opponent slugging, opponent on-base percentage, opponent OPS and average game score. Also, keep this in mind: Johnson is 9-3, would have three more wins if not for his shaky bullpen, and has left his only three losses trailing 1-0 once and 2-1 twice. What makes this tricky is the Coors factor. Johnson has a 1.52 ERA in his pitcher-friendly home park. Jimenez is at 3.52 (with two of his three non-quality starts) in his mile-high, pitcher-unfriendly home park. So it's tough to know how to factor that into this equation. But what put us over the top is this: Johnson already has made 12 starts in which he gave up one run or none. If he keeps up this pace, it would be the most starts like that since Bob Gibson's 24 in his fabled 1.12 ERA season in 1968. And that's a Cy Young kind of feat if we've ever heard one.
AL Cy Young of the Half-Year: Cliff Lee, Rumor Central All-Stars
It isn't easy to win a Cy Young when you win zero games in April. In fact, only two starting pitchers (Halladay in 2003 and Mike McCormick in 1967) have ever done it. But now that we know Lee is going to finish this season in the same league he started it in, he's right on track to join that club. His season didn't even start until April 30. And he didn't win a game until May 11. But once he got rolling, he's been ridiculous. He leads his league in ERA (2.34), WHIP (0.95), complete games (five), quality-start percentage (85.0), opponent on-base percentage (.240), opponent OPS (.572) and most starts of eight innings or more (nine of 13). He's beaten five first-place teams (Yankees, Tigers, Rangers, Padres, Reds), plus the Angels. And then there's that strikeout-walk ratio, currently resting at an incomprehensible 89-to-6. Dontrelle Willis had two starts this year in which he spewed out six walks in a span of 12 hitters. Meanwhile, Lee has walked six all season (while facing 408 hitters). That 14.83 K/BB ratio wouldn't be just the greatest in history if he keeps it up. It would be almost four whiffs better than the next-best ratio (Bret Saberhagen's 11.00 in 1994). Amazing. Gee, somebody ought to trade for this guy.
NL Cy Yuk of the Half-Year: Carlos Zambrano, Cubs
Once upon a time, historians tell us, Zambrano was an actual ace. A 200-inning, 200-strikeout, keep-the-ball-in-the-yard machine who kept life on the North Side more entertaining than a night out with Mike Ditka. But this just in: That term, "actual ace," wouldn't describe this guy anymore. "Loose cannon" is more like it. It's messy enough that Zambrano has the sixth-worst ERA (5.66) and third-worst WHIP (1.69) among all NL pitchers who have thrown as many innings as he has. But then the guy had to go act like that was somehow everybody else's fault and try to explain that theory via a scary dugout tantrum that would have made Milton Bradley embarrassed. So now the "Big Z" is suspended and heading for life as a $17 million mop-up man for the rest of the year. And if that doesn't make him Cy Yuk material, what does?
AL Cy Yuk of the Half-Year: Rich Harden, Rangers
There's always somebody willing to buy into the Rich Harden dream: This is going to be the year. The year he gets healthy and stays healthy. The year he throws strikes, pitches deep into games, makes 35 starts. OK, we'd take even 25. Well, guess what? This hasn't been the year. Instead, here's what the Rangers have gotten so far for their $7.5 million roll of the dice: three wins in 13 starts. Just three quality starts. Nearly 16 baserunners for every nine innings Harden has been out there. Exactly four starts in which Harden got more than 16 outs. Two starts in which it took him 90-plus pitches to stagger through 3 2/3 innings. And, of course, this poor guy's regularly scheduled eighth trip to the disabled list in the past six seasons. It's a shame, too, because Harden really does try hard and mean well. But just think what the Rangers' rotation might have looked like if this dream had come true. Instead, they got a guy who "drives me bonkers," one scout said. "Everybody's gonna fix it. Everybody's gonna make him be better. It's not gonna happen." So what did happen? A half-season Cy Yuk. That's what.
NL Rookie of the Half-Year: Jaime Garcia, Cardinals
We all knew in April this was going to be Jason Heyward's award. Or Alcides Escobar's award. Or, if they got called up in time, Stephen Strasburg's or Buster Posey's award. But nobody forwarded that memo to Jaime Garcia's in-box, obviously. So as Heyward got hurt, Escobar scuffled and Strasburg and Posey spent two months in Farm Land, it turned out to be the Cardinals' fifth starter who rose to the top of this first-half heap. It's hard to remember now that, heading into spring training, Garcia was coming off Tommy John surgery and was nowhere to be found on Keith Law's top 100 prospects list. But he's ridden some of the nastiest offspeed stuff on Earth to the second-lowest ERA (2.17) in the whole sport. He's also tied (with Josh Johnson) for the major league lead in starts in which two earned runs or fewer were allowed (15). And he was the first starter, since the invention of earned runs, to allow no more than three earned runs in every one of the first 13 starts of his rookie season. So for now, Garcia is the rookie leader in the clubhouse, over Heyward, Gaby Sanchez, Mike Leake and Ike Davis, among others. But can he hold off Strasburg, Posey and the rest of the June Call-Up All-Stars? Stay tuned.
Apologies to: Heyward, Sanchez, Leake, Davis.
AL Rookie of the Half-Year: Brennan Boesch, Tigers
You must have missed it in spring training when we forecast that in the Year of the Phenom, the best rookie masher in this whole land would not be Heyward, Posey, Mike Stanton, Austin Jackson, Carlos Santana or Starlin Castro. No, no, no. Clearly, it was going to be a guy who didn't make a single top-100-prospects list, didn't make Law's top 10 Tigers prospects list and got fewer spring training at-bats (18) than Brent Dlugach. It was, of course, going to be Brennan Boesch, a man who might not quite have come out of Nowhere but sure knows how to find Nowhere on his iPhone app. Who knows what might have become of this fellow if Carlos Guillen hadn't popped a hamstring in April? But that doesn't matter now. Three months later, Boesch has more homers (12) than Ryan Braun, a higher slugging percentage (.595) than Pujols and a higher batting average (.341) than Ichiro. And those are the kinds of credentials that rookies of the half-year are made of.
Managers of the Half-Year: Bud Black, Padres/Terry Francona, Red Sox
OK, everyone out there who predicted the Padres would have the best record in the NL on the Fourth of July, raise your hands. Hmmm, we count two hands, and they're both from the Hairston brothers. Well, when a guy manages the most surprising team in baseball, he deserves to have these manager-of-the-half-year accolades bestowed on him. And Black has done an incredible job of setting up his bullpen, preparing his pitching staff, believing in young players, motivating a bunch of grinders who play their fish tacos off every day and creating an environment that has made winning feel not just possible but expected. Meanwhile, Francona has done maybe his best managing job yet. Somehow, his team has survived a disastrous start, lingering soap operas swirling around David Ortiz and Mike Lowell, and -- in case we haven't mentioned this in the past five minutes -- a trainer's room that's more overcrowded than Faneuil Hall. And without the manager's unshakable stability, preparation and feel for the human beings he's leading, that wouldn't have been possible.
Apologies to: Bobby Cox, Dusty Baker, Tony La Russa, Mike Scioscia, Ron Washington, Jim Leyland.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.
14hMichael C. Wright