- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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Halfway through another baseball season, here's what we're wondering:
Is Jonathan Papelbon going to give up fewer runs all season than Eddie Guardado gave up in his first inning of the season (three)? Are we really about to see a catcher (the amazing Joe Mauer) do a Ted Williams? And if Jim Leyland wins another World Series, will the Tigers promise not to trade all his players by Halloween?
Yep, it's been fun so far, all right. So let's mull the best of the best, and the worst of the worst, and start doling out our annual midseason awards.
AL MVP of the half-year
Jim Thome, White Sox: It's one of those years in the AL. You could cast an MVP vote for Mauer, David Ortiz, Papelbon, Vernon Wells, Derek Jeter, Jermaine Dye or B.J. Ryan and justify it to any reasonable human. And if the Indians were even remotely in this race, Travis Hafner might top everybody's leaderboard. But we keep coming back to this: The White Sox were ninth in the league in runs scored last year. Not only do they rank first this year -- but only the Indians and Yankees were even within 40 of them through Wednesday. And what's the biggest difference in this team between then and now? Jim Thome. No World Series champ in history has been able to add a 40-homer thumper in the next offseason. But Thome is on pace for a stunning 57-homer, 148-RBI, 132-run, .648 slugging season. You know how many American Leaguers have ever matched those numbers for a full season? Two: Jimmie Foxx and George H. Bambino Ruth.
Apologies to: Ortiz, Papelbon, Wells, Jeter, Dye, Wells, Ryan, Hafner and Jason Giambi.
NL MVP of the half-year
Albert Pujols, Cardinals: Where would the Cardinals be without Sir Albert, huh? We know they'd be holding off the Pirates. And probably the Cubs. But would they be any better than the Brewers, Reds or Astros? How, exactly? Even after disappearing into DL limbo for 2½ weeks, Pujols still has accounted for a higher percentage of the Cardinals' runs than David Wright has of the Mets' runs. Even after all that time off, he is still on pace for the third 60-homer, 158-RBI, .700-slugging season in history -- joining only Sammy Sosa (2001) and the Babe (1927). He's the best there is. Any more questions?
AL LVP (Least Valuable Player) of the half-year
Rondell White-Tony Batista, Twins tag team: Just when we thought the Twins never make a bad decision (non-Big Papi Division), along came these two guys to prove that anybody can make a mistake. Or two. The Twins went bat shopping last winter and noticed that Johnny Damon and Paul Konerko were slightly out of their price range. So for $4.5 million, they signed White and Batista. Oops. White is a lovable guy who had an .837 OPS last year. But he has accumulated more at-bats without a home run (181) than any player in the American League this year. And Batista had more errors (six) than homers (five) when the Twins booted him out the old escape hatch last month. Since the last time the two of them started the same game (June 11), the Twins' record is 18-3. Aw, probably just a coincidence.
NL LVP of the half-year
Kaz Matsui, Mets (and Colorado Springs Sky Sox): For three straight years since he crossed the Pacific, Matsui has hit a home run in his first at-bat of the season. Unfortunately, all of those seasons then kept on going. And as disappointing as Matsui's first two seasons in Flushing were, he outdid himself this year. By the time the Mets dumped him off on the Rockies, he had the worst OPS (.504), the worst on-base percentage (.235) and the worst slugging percentage (.269) in the National League among all players who have batted as many times as he has. According to Lee Sinins' Complete Baseball Encyclopedia, a team of nine Kaz Matsuis would be scoring 2.25 runs per game this year. Which happens to be a full run less per game than a team full of Livan Hernandezes. Not a real good buy for 8 million bucks a year. Wouldn't you say?
Sighs of relief for: Juan Pierre and Clint Barmes.
AL Cy Young of the half-year
Johan Santana, Twins: One of these days, the world is going to catch on that Santana is more Pedro-esque these days than even the real Pedro is. Think about it: Three unhittable pitches. A great feel for his craft. And nonstop charisma, on and off the mound. Roy Halladay (11-2) may have a more picturesque record than Santana (9-4). But take wins out of the argument, and it's just about impossible not to nudge Santana ahead of Halladay and everyone else. Santana is first or second in his league in ERA, strikeouts, innings pitched, fewest baserunners per nine innings, best strikeout ratio and most microscopic opponents' batting average. The only reason he doesn't have 12 wins by now is that his run support is about a run per game lower than Curt Schilling's, two runs lower than Jose Contreras' and three lower than Randy Johnson's. (Not to mention a run and a half lower than Halladay's.)
NL Cy Young of the half-year
Brandon Webb, Diamondbacks: So who has the best ground game in Arizona -- Edgerrin James or Brandon Webb? We'd vote for Webb, a one-if-by-land machine who is inducing around four times as many ground balls as fly balls for the second straight season. This NL Cy Young race is a total free-for-all. But if interleague play had never entered Brandon Webb's life, we wouldn't have much to debate. (Webb is 8-1 with a 2.06 ERA against his own league, but a messy 1-2, 5.20 against the AL.) OK, so all those games count. But Webb (9-3, 2.72) has more quality starts (15, in 18 starts) than Bronson Arroyo or Jason Schmidt, and the second-lowest ERA in his league. Plus, that 30-inning donut streak he put up earlier in the year was the most dominating stretch by any NL starter all season.
AL Cy Yuk of the half-year
Josh Towers, Blue Jays: The heck with Cy Yuk awards. When we get around to voting on Worst Season of Modern Times, where will Towers rank, with his 1-9 record and the most apropos ERA of the year (9.11)? If he never returns this year, that 9.11 ERA won't be the highest ever for a guy who pitched more than 50 innings. Since 1900, Steve Blass (9.83 in 1973) and Andy Larkin (9.64 in 1998) have him beat. But if you toss in that .100 winning percentage, only good old Charlie Stecher of the 1890 Philadelphia Athletics (0-10, 10.32) compares. If the Blue Jays don't make the playoffs, they'll be having nightmares about Towers' debacle of a season -- considering they're 18 games over .500 when anybody else starts.
Cys of relief for: Bruce Chen, Jason Johnson, Jeff Weaver and Rodrigo Lopez.
NL Cy Yuk of the half-year
Oliver Perez, Pirates: Opening Day starters who pitch their way back to the minor leagues by the Fourth of July have a special place in Cy Yuk-dom. And that's the story of Perez's gruesome year. By the time he headed for Indianapolis last week, he was 2-10 with a 6.63 ERA. The Pirates lost 13 of his 15 starts. He had five starts in which he never made it through the fourth inning. And the on-base percentage against him in the first inning was a mind-warping .461. Not even Brian (Last 20-Game Loser of the 20th Century) Kingman can recall another Pirates Opening Day starter in the last half-century to lose 10 games before July -- because Perez is the only guy in that exclusive club.
Cys of relief for: Glendon Rusch, Jorge Sosa and Chris Reitsma.
AL Rookie of the half-year
Jonathan Papelbon, Red Sox: So how are we supposed to sort this award out? Verlander might win 20 games and finish in the top five in the league in ERA -- and he wasn't even our second choice. Francisco Liriano is the most electrifying rookie pitcher we've seen in a decade -- and we didn't hand him this award, either. In the end, we just couldn't figure out how not to pick a pitcher whose ERA is an impossible 0.42 (which would be the lowest by any closer in history if he can keep it that low). A pitcher whose opponents' on-base percentage is a ridiculous .192. A pitcher who has given up two runs all season. A pitcher who has faced 156 hitters -- and allowed only six extra-base hits (five doubles and a homer off the Pesky Pole). A pitcher with more saves (25) than hits allowed (22). A pitcher who has stepped into one of the most insane jobs in sports (closer, Boston Red Sox) and turned into Dennis Eckersley reincarnate. We still can't believe we're not voting for those other guys. But somebody had to do it.
Apologies to: Liriano, Verlander, Joel Zumaya, Kenji Johjima and Ian Kinsler.
NL Rookie of the half-year
Ryan Zimmerman, Nationals: A week ago, we were all set to type the name, "Prince Fielder," in this space. Except then the Prince went off on a 3-for-33 cliff dive, and Zimmerman started knocking in the game-winning run every day whether he needed to or not. And next thing we knew, he was our pick. In truth, it's almost impossible to separate Zimmerman, Fielder or Florida's energetic Dan Uggla in this derby. (And Andre Ethier, Hanley Ramirez and Josh Johnson aren't exactly candidates to get sent back to the New York-Penn League, either.) But there is something special and polished about Zimmerman, a guy who hadn't even played 20 professional games this time a year ago. He has a chance to become the first rookie since 1929 to smoke 50 doubles. He has gotten more hits with runners in scoring position (35) than any player -- rookie or 86-year veteran -- in the entire National League. And he's already one of the great third base leatherworkers alive. If we had 50 bucks for every time we've heard the term, "Rolen-esque," to describe this man, we could buy the Nationals. Oh wait, they were already bought.
Apologies to: Uggla, Fielder, Ethier, Johnson and Ramirez.
Box score lines of the half-year
Third prize (read the fine print division):
• If you just read his pitching line, you'd have thought Padres rookie Clay Hensley had the best day of his career in a May 14 start against the Cubs:
9 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 2 K
OK, now the rest of the story. Check out his hitting line:
5 AB, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 RBI and 5 (yep 5) strikeouts
Factoid of the day: Retrosheet's Dave Smith reports that Hensley was the first pitcher in the last 50 seasons to whiff five times in a game while throwing a shutout.
Second prize (half dozen of the other division):
• Texas' R.A. Dickey made it to the mound with his newfound knuckleball one time this season (April 7 vs. the Tigers). And the record book will never forget it:
3 1/3 IP, 8 H, 7 R, 7 ER, 1 BB, 1 K and 6 (count 'em, 6) HR
Factoids of the day: (A) Dickey tied the modern record for gopherballs in one game, which had been equaled only once in the previous 66 years (by Tim Wakefield in 2004). (B) Those six homers are more than Mariano Rivera has served up in his last 188 trips to the mound, covering 220 innings, dating all the way back to Aug. 18, 2003. (C) If Dickey never returns this year, he'll become the first pitcher in history to allow six homers or more in a season in which he got 10 outs or fewer. And (D) no pitcher has given up more home runs in one game since Charlie Sweeney got mugged for seven on June 12, 1886 -- a year that practically equaled Dickey's ERA (18.90).
First prize (take one for the team division):
• With the Cardinals' bullpen shredded after a 20-6 loss to the White Sox the night before, Jason Marquis stayed out there long enough on June 21 to unfurl a line with more crooked numbers than the Dow Jones ticker:
5 IP, 14 H, 13 R, 13 ER, 1 BB, 3 K, 3 HR, 8 extra-base hits.
Factoid of the day: The Elias Sports Bureau reports that Marquis is the only pitcher in the last 60 years to give up at least 13 earned runs, 14 hits and eight extra-base hits in the same game.
Minor leaguers of the half-year
Get out your periscopes. It's time to look beneath the surface at some minor league numbers that will give you vertigo:
• The race for 200 whiffs
Charlton Jimerson (Astros), Round Rock (PCL), 126 strikeouts in his first 324 at-bats
Corey Ragsdale (Mets), Binghamton (Eastern League), 121 K, just 50 hits, in 274 at-bats
• 100-stolen-base alert
Eric Young Jr. (Rockies), Asheville (South Atlantic League), 58 stolen bases in his first 78 games
• Pitchers you don't want to face
Paul Estrada (Astros), Corpus Christi (Texas League), 96 K, just 43 H in 58 1/3 IP
Kyle Jackson (Red Sox), Wilmington (South Atlantic League) and Portland (Eastern League), only 29 H, 70 K in 48 IP
Kevin Slowey (Twins), Fort Myers (Florida State League) and New Britain (Eastern League), 109-10 strikeout-walk ratio, 65 H in 102 1/3 IP
Slump of the half-year
The always-entertaining Brad Ausmus got a hit Wednesday to break the fourth 0-for-40 out-fest (or worse) by a non-pitcher since 1990.
"I've been 0-for-40 before," Ausmus told the Houston Chronicle's Richard Justice. "Just not consecutively."
Radar man of the half-year
If your stadium radar-gun board doesn't reach triple digits, you'd better hope the Tigers don't come to town -- because rookie infernoballer Joel Zumaya hits triple figures on the MPH board about as regularly as Jeff Gordon.
Just in one May 30 outing against the Yankees, he threw five pitches at 100 MPH and five more at 101. But the best description of what it's like to face him came from Royals first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz, after having to hit off him in the shadows during a day game:
"He was throwing 100 mph in the dark," Mientkiewicz told the Kansas City Star's Joe Posnanski. "All you can do is swing early and use Jedi mind tricks."
He hit a baseball May 31 (off the Royals' Joel Peralta) that actually came down on the other side of the fence. About 3 inches on the other side of the fence. But it counted.
Asked his reaction when that ball landed, A's manager Ken Macha chuckled: "I don't know. I think they were resuscitating me.''
Trifecta of the half-year
The Royals turned one of the goofiest triple plays of all time against Tampa Bay on June 11 -- an 8-1-6-5 extravaganza complete with a wild throw to the plate, a run scoring and then un-scoring, and the third out coming on a dubious leave-third-too-soon appeals-play call.
"I guess if you look through the record book," Devil Rays manager Joe Maddon told the St. Petersburg Times' Marc Topkin, "that combination of numbers in a triple play has probably never existed -- outside of Altmiller playground."
So where the heck is Altmiller playground? In exotic Hazleton, Pa. (where else?) -- boyhood home of one Joe Maddon, who was pretty sure he'd seen this before.
"Honus hit a ball to Jonesy, and he threw it to Frankie, and he threw it over to Ron, and at that point I think we created a triple play like that one," Maddon said. "It was circa 1965, I would believe. So it's the second time I've seen it happen."
Epilog: Two weeks later, the Devil Rays arrived in Philadelphia, and a busload of Hazleton residents roared into town to watch Maddon manage. Asked by the Midseason Awards crew if any of them would remember that triple play, Maddon quipped:
"You know, I think after a couple of beers, they might."
Homer-nappings of the half-year
In a three-week span in June and July, the Red Sox managed to have two different homers swallowed up by the weirdest stadiums in baseball -- the Metrodome in Minneapolis and the Trop in St. Petersburg.
"I ain't the only one that catches homers in the Metrodome. Speakers do, too."
-- Torii Hunter, Twins CF
The first was a June 15 rocket by David Ortiz that looked as if it might clear the upper deck in right-center -- until it clanked off a brilliantly placed Metrodome speaker and plopped into short center field for a mere single.
"I ain't the only one that catches homers in the Metrodome," Twins center fielder Torii Hunter joked afterward. "Speakers do, too."
That may have seemed like a once-in-a-summer event at the time. But just 20 days later, Kevin Youkilis squashed a ball that clattered off one of the Trop's most endearing features -- a catwalk dangling from the roof in left field.
But instead of turning into the home run it would have been in the great outdoors, this ball caromed back toward the rest of civilization -- and was caught by Carl Crawford for an out. (Score that one catwalk-to-7 on your card.)
So what was the reaction of huge dome fan Terry Francona to that development?
"This putt-putt [stuff] has to go," he said.
All-Star hosts of the half-year
Finally, is there any doubt that the All Star extravaganza will be the baseball highlight of the year in Pittsburgh -- where the Pirates just lost 13 games in a row for the first time since 1890?
You know you're having a rough year when you start making regular appearances on the wrong end of Jay Leno's shooting range. So here they come, Leno's best Pirates quips of the year:
• "Things are not looking good for the Pittsburgh Pirates. They've now lost 11 games in a row. To give you an idea how bad they're doing, today they got beat by Ghana."
• "The sequel to the 'Pirates of the Caribbean' opens next week. You watch these movies and the pirates always win, you ever notice that? You want to see the Pirates lose? Move to Pittsburgh"
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.