Best, worst and weirdest of the first half
Most and Least Valuable Players; Cy Youngs and Yuks; the very, very odd
Well, we're halfway through another spectacular baseball season. And we know what you're thinking:
Isn't this the time of month when Manny Ramirez gets a little moody?
AN UN-BEE-LIEVABLE FIRST HALF
Has PETGD (People for the Ethical Treatment of Gatorade Dispensers) organized its first march on Wrigley Field yet?
And, of course, which was higher last night -- the Nationals' win total or attendance total?
Well, even if you weren't actually thinking any of that, we've still got a totally fun, thoroughly mesmerizing little baseball season on our hands. So stretch out in that beach chair and feel free to read aloud as we present our 2009 midseason awards:
NL MVP of the half-year: Albert Pujols, Cardinals
Is it our imagination, or do we hand out this half a trophy to Sir Albert every July? Sure seems like it. But when you're the best player in the universe, you can get in those kinds of ruts. How does this man do it, anyway?
He's not just positioned to win the triple crown. He's positioned to win the sextuple crown. He leads the league in homers, RBIs, runs scored, slugging and on-base percentage. And he's only 16 points off the league lead in batting average. Which is downright nuts. If Pujols keeps this up, he's on pace to have one of those humdrum, run-of-the-mill .332, 58-homer, 155-RBI, 127-run, .458 OBP, .723 SLG years.
Now it's not as if nobody in history has ever had a year like that. Why, Babe Ruth had two of them -- about eight decades ago (1921 and '27). Jimmie Foxx had one 77 years ago. And who else has had one since? Well, nobody, actually. Of course, the Babe had that Lou Gehrig dude hitting behind him. And the guys hitting cleanup behind Albert are batting (seriously) .225. So we ask again: How does he do it? How does he not get intentionally walked 400 times a year? How does he even see enough strikes to have a year like this? But the Cardinals are sure grateful he does. When he drives in a run this year, they're 30-10. And when he doesn't, they're 17-30. Coincidence? Uh, no. MVP? Uh, yes.
AL MVP of the half-year: Justin Morneau, Twins
We can hear all the e-mailers clattering away now. How can you pick Justin Morneau as MVP of the league when he isn't even MVP of his own team? Hey, excellent question. We've agonized over it ourselves. Trust us. You don't need to explain to us what an amazing all-around baseball player Joe Mauer is. Shockingly, we've noticed that.
And if the season had started on May 1, which is when Mauer's season started, he'd be an easy MVP pick. We repeat: Easy. But as Sparky Anderson once said when a writer told him his club had the best record in baseball since (pick a date), "I thought the season started in April." And it did this year, too.
Which is why Morneau gets those extra-credit points for propping up his team through an incredibly difficult month when Mauer wasn't around. The Twins went 11-11 in their Mauer-less April -- the same winning percentage they've had since he came back (32-32).
So it's a difference-making factor, for us, that Morneau has been to the plate 105 more times than Mauer. And because he's logged so much more playing time than his favorite No. 3 hitter (not to mention quite a bit more than the other compelling MVP contender, Rays lifesaver Ben Zobrist), it's actually Morneau who leads the league in runs created.
Yeah, we know that if you average out all the numbers per game, Mauer has been the best player in the league since he came back, and that he leads the AL in VORP (Value Over Replacement Player) and lots of other state-of-the-art numbers. But we actually think Mauer's presence causes way too many people to devalue Morneau, who happens to be the only player in the American League who ranks in the top six in on-base percentage, slugging, average, homers and RBIs.
And just so you know, if Morneau winds up with the .313, 40-homer, 131-RBI, .390 OBP, .582 SLG stat line he's on pace for, he would be the first Twin in history to do that.
So we have no trouble -- none -- justifying this pick. Want to clatter in disagreement? Cool. Clatter away.
NL LVP (Least Valuable Player) of the half-year: Jimmy Rollins, Phillies
It's never fun to hand out these LVP awards. It's even less fun to bestow them on one of our favorite people in the whole sport. But if Jimmy Rollins -- the Phillies' turbocharged leadoff man -- were having a year that even approached his career norms, his team might be winning the NL East by 12 games.
Among all players who would qualify for the batting title right now, Rollins ranks 162nd in on-base percentage (.281) -- ahead of only three other players in baseball. He went 19 straight games at one point without a walk. And according to his plate-discipline data at fangraphs.com, he's seeing fewer strikes -- and chasing more non-strikes -- than at just about any time in his career.
But none of that really begins to measure what Rollins means to his team. This does: When Rollins has scored a run this year, his team is 32-8 (meaning it wins 80 percent of the time). And when he hasn't, the Phillies are 13-30 (meaning they win only 30 percent of the time). Over the last three years, the Phillies are 85 games over .500 (141-56) when Rollins crosses home plate -- and 40 games under (85-125) when he doesn't.
Get the picture? He's paid to be the man who revs their engine. But until the last week or so (.438 average, .538 OBP since July 2), he's allowed that motor to clank along without him more than any self-respecting ex-MVP ever should.
AL LVP of the half-year: Magglio Ordonez, Tigers
There's always feverish competition for the most ludicrous Scott Boras quote of the year. But if we're considering only the non-Stephen Strasburg portion of that verbiage, we'd go with this: Last month, the Tigers had just committed the heinous offense of giving Magglio Ordonez a four-game vacation from the lineup, following his (yikes) 38th homerless game in a row. Whereupon his trusty agent accused the Tigers of making a "myopic decision." Myopic, huh?
Considering that the Tigers are paying this man 18 million bucks this year, we'd call it downright merciful. Heck, he's lucky he didn't get sentenced to 40 games on the bench, not four. Apparently, Mr. Ph.D. in Myopia hasn't noticed his man has fewer homers (four) than Ramon Castro. And fewer extra-base hits (14) than Joe Thurston. And a lower slugging percentage (.344) than Luis Valbuena -- and lower than every other everyday player in the entire American League except for Orlando Cabrera (.332), for that matter.
We're still not sure what's happened to a guy who used to be one of the most dangerous hitters alive. But if the Tigers bench Magglio again -- or release him -- that won't be their myopic fault. That will be his.
NL Cy Young of the half-year: Tim Lincecum, Giants
Anybody want to take a shot at the only three back-to-back Cy Young winners in NL history? Think about it, and we'll let you know later.
What was much harder for us to think through was how to distinguish Tim Lincecum's sizzling first half from the brilliance of Arizona's Dan Haren, for a team that is 26-43 when anybody else starts. It isn't easy.
Their ERAs (2.16 for Haren, 2.33 for Lincecum) are almost identical. Haren leads in WHIP and VORP. Lincecum has a big lead in strikeouts (149-119). And we're not even considering wins, since Haren's run support (5 Criminally Unsupported Starts) is a farce. So how did we separate these two? By comparing their respective number of "dominating" starts. Lincecum has had seven starts with a game score of 75 or higher, to Haren's five. Lincecum has had five starts of seven or more innings, no runs allowed, to Haren's one. Lincecum has had 11 starts with more strikeouts than innings, to Haren's six. We don't know whether that's a fair standard, but it seemed reasonably sane to us.
AL Cy Young of the half-year: Zack Greinke, Royals
He carried a sub-2.00 ERA into July, and still (at 2.12) leads both Halladay and Hernandez by almost a half a run. He has allowed one run or none in half of his 18 starts. He has served up exactly four long balls all season. His 6.32 strikeout-to-walk ratio would be the greatest, by far, in franchise history. And in Greinke's five losses, the Royals have scored a total of three runs while he was in the game. Plus, there's now an aura about this guy that numbers can't define.
For a fellow who once didn't know whether he wanted to keep pitching for a living, he sure looks like he's exactly where he's always belonged.
NL Cy Yuk of the half-year: Daniel Cabrera, Nationals/Jobseekers.org
Like millions of hard-working citizens, Daniel Cabrera is out of work these days. Unlike all those other citizens, though, Cabrera got the boot from a boss so exasperated by his work that GM Mike Rizzo actually announced to the Washington Post, right out loud, that he had to dump this guy because "I was tired of watching him."
Now we haven't even mentioned that Cabrera also threw 10 wild pitches (including four in one game April 30) -- a number that still leads the league, almost two months after he last threw a pitch. But luckily, we're prohibited by the laws of Cy Yuk Nation from counting this guy's offensive ineptitude (0 for 11 with 9 whiffs this year, 0 for 25 with 23 K's lifetime) against him.
AL Cy Yuk of the half-year: Daisuke Matsuzaka, Red Sox
There's nothing America loves more than a riveting Yankees-Red Sox duel -- for just about anything. But this is the first time we can remember one that involved a Cy Yuk Award.
On one hand, we have Chien-Ming Wang. It took him 10 starts just to lower his ERA below 10.00 -- and even at its lowest point all year, that would still be the highest single-season ERA (9.64) by any Yankees pitcher in history with this many innings pitched. Even Hideki Irabu and Kei Igawa aren't within a subway stop of that ERA, believe it or not.
On the other hand, there's Daisuke Matsuzaka. He's on pace to have the worst WHIP (2.20) and the worst opponent batting average (.378) by any Red Sox pitcher in history with 35 or more innings in a season. Yep, that means he's been worse than Dana Kiecker. Worse than Eric Hetzel. Even worse than Gar Finnvold and Hipolito Pichardo.
So this award is a tough, tough call. But we've spent all year piling on Chien-Ming. So it's time to give Dice-K his due. Or at least it's time to give him half a Cy Yuk, anyway.
Cys of relief for: Wang, Fausto Carmona.
NL Rookie of the half-year: Colby Rasmus, Cardinals
Fun fact No. 1: Did you know that, at 22 years, 11 months old, Colby Rasmus is the third-youngest everyday position player in the National League (i.e., 200 at-bats or more already), behind only Justin Upton and Jay Bruce?
Fun fact No. 2: Did you know that it's actually a tie for third, because Rasmus and Pablo Sandoval were born on the same day (Aug. 11, 1986)?
Fun fact No. 3: Did you know that, since June 1, when his light bulb clearly went on, Rasmus has hit .345, the fourth-highest average in the entire National League among players with as many at-bats as he's had (behind only Hanley Ramirez and Prince Fielder)?
Fun fact No. 4: Did you know that Rasmus is the only rookie in either league who has made it to double figures in home runs this year (with 11)? Well, you know it now. And that, gang, is what a rookie of the half-year looks like.
AL rookie of the half-year: Andrew Bailey, Athletics
You'll find Andrew Bailey on that team, though. And granted, that's partly because Selig's Law requires that somebody from Oakland has to be an All-Star. But if you think that's the only reason, you'd better take notes on these next few sentences.
First off, we love Andrew Bailey's whole saga. A year ago this time, he was 1-8 with a 6.18 ERA as a starter in Double-A. Then the A's moved him to short relief, and an official bullpen monster was born. He had an ERA under 1.00 the rest of the year in Midland, Texas.
Now he's the actual answer to these two cool trivia questions: What pitcher leads all AL relievers in strikeouts this year? No, not Jonathan Papelbon or Mariano Rivera. It's Bailey, with 57 (in only 48 2/3 innings). And which AL reliever has had the most outings this year with multiple strikeouts? Nah, not Joe Nathan or J.P. Howell. It's Bailey again (22 multi-whiff games in 37 outings). So hand this half-trophy to the pride of Voorhees, N.J.
Managers of the half-year
Tony La Russa, Cardinals, and Don Wakamatsu, Mariners
It's only fitting that these awards go to one of the most visible managers alive (Tony La Russa) and one of the least visible (Don Wakamatsu), because managing can be that kind of gig.
This is La Russa's 31st year managing in the big leagues. And he's still as prepared, inventive and intense now as he was when he was hanging out in the dugout of the '79 White Sox. "Tony gets more out of his roster," one scout said recently, "than any manager in baseball -- bar none."
Wakamatsu, meanwhile, has done an amazing job, with pretty much zero hoopla -- and not just because his team has a better record (44-41) than the Mets, Cubs or Braves. He has helped transform one of the worst clubhouses in baseball into one of the best. And he's a player's manager who is still tough enough that he might have turned around Felix Hernandez's whole season with a very public mid-May lecture on why just being "gifted" isn't enough to make you a great pitcher. Wakamatsu also has helped resurrect the career of Russell Branyan. He's turned the once slo-mo Mariners into one of the most aggressive teams in the league. And face it -- no manager of the year in history has ever had a cooler name than Don Wakamatsu.
Apologies to: Bruce Bochy, Ken Macha, Jim Leyland, Ron Washington.
Injuries of the half-year
First prize: Another great moment in Cub-dom: Pitcher Ryan Dempster tried to hop over the dugout fence to go high-five it up after a win, broke his toe and stumbled right onto the disabled list. Dempster's best line (to the Chicago Sun-Times' Gordon Wittenmyer): "I guess it's what I get for making fun of the guys who go on the DL for burning their faces in the suntan booth."
Second prize: Reds outfielder Chris Dickerson knocked himself out of the lineup -- literally -- when he went mano-a-skullo with a revolving glass door at the team hotel in Pittsburgh. And lost. "My real story," he quipped, "is I hit my head on the rim during a celebrity slam-dunk contest."
Third prize: How did Blue Jays pitcher Ricky Romero land on the DL in April? He hipped and he hopped and he strained his oblique -- by sneezing while listening to rap music.
Honorable mention: Royals reliever Kyle Farnsworth needed stitches in his hand after getting cut trying to break up a fight between his two bulldogs. Pirates second baseman Freddy Sanchez strained his back getting out of a cab -- and missed six straight games. And Phillies reliever Scott Eyre proved once and for all that running from the bullpen to the mound is overrated. He strained a calf muscle on the way -- and wound up on the disabled list. Tell that to the speed-up-the-game police!
Box-score lines of the half-year
Where There's a Willis There's a Way Dept.
Dontrelle Willis made only seven starts for the Tigers after coming off the DL, but two of them seemed as if they were humanly, or even mathematically, impossible.
• June 4 vs. the Red Sox: 2 1/3 IP, 0 H, 5 R, 5 ER, 5 BB, 3 K, 1 HBP.
• June 14 at Pittsburgh: 3 2/3 IP, 6 H, 6 R, 6 ER, 8 BB, 1 K.
Dontrelle's claims to fame: In that first start, Willis became the fifth pitcher in the last 55 years to give up no hits but still cough up five runs. In the second start, he became only the second pitcher (and first since '85) to cram at least eight walks and six hits into a start that short. Hard to do.
Gloves Optional Dept.
Rich Harden's all-time classic April 15 start versus Colorado: 3 IP, 5 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 4 BB, 8 K.
Harden's claim to fame: His fielders could have gone out for deep dish -- because none of them (except the catcher) was involved in a single out. Harden faced 17 hitters, and every one of them either struck out, walked or got a hit, making him the first pitcher in the last 80 seasons to pull that off in a start that long.
What Starts Well May Not End Well Dept.
Milwaukee's Manny Parra struck out the first three hitters he faced in his June 2 start in Florida. Little did he know all that swinging and missing would lead to this: 4 IP, 11 H, 10 R, 10 ER, 2 BB, 5 K, 2 HR, 2 WP.
Parra's claim to fame: The Elias Sports Bureau reports that Parra was the first pitcher to whiff the side in the first inning and then allow at least 10 runs since the Twins' Rick Reed did it, and then gave up 11, on April 21, 2003.
Cloud 9 Dept.
Reds pitcher Bronson Arroyo on May 6 against the Brewers: 1 IP, 7 H, 9 R, 9 ER, 3 BB, 0 K, 2 HR.
Arroyo's claim to fame: Arroyo also allowed 10 earned runs in an inning last year, making him the only pitcher since 1900 to allow nine runs or more in two different starts of three outs or shorter.
Minor Miracle Dept.
The craziest game of the year -- Lake Elsinore Storm 33, High Desert Mavericks 18, on June 28 in the California League -- produced so many wacky lines, we have no choice but to combine them.
The first three High Desert hurlers -- Nathan Adcock, Juan Zapata and Natividad Dilone -- teamed up for this insane line: 4 IP, 19 H, 22 R, 21 ER, 8 BB, 6 K, 1 HR, 6 doubles, 2 triples, 2 WP.
And we can't overlook this line by High Desert's Jose Yepez -- because he's a catcher: 1/3 IP, 5 H, 5 R, 5 ER, 0 BB, 0 K and 4 HR. Yep, you read that right. He faced six hitters -- and four of them took him deep.
Mariano The Great Dept.
Just when you thought the great Mariano Rivera had done it all, he actually headed for home plate with a bat in his hand June 28 to face Francisco Rodriguez -- and did this: 0 AB, 0 R, 0 H, 1 RBI, 1 bases-loaded walk.
Rivera's claim to fame: Bet you didn't know Rivera was the first AL reliever to draw a bases-loaded walk since the Tigers' Fred Scherman worked one against Pete Richert on June 28, 1971 -- 38 years earlier to the day.
Mystery Man Division
Normally, when a position player takes the old pitcher's mound, it's just a fun little diversion once or twice a year. But not this year. This year, it's practically a cottage industry. Consider this:
We've had eight pitching appearances already this season by position players -- the most since 2004 (when there were 10), according to the Elias Sports Bureau. That puts us on pace to break the record for any season in the expansion era, which was 15 in 1964.
The Rays have already faced three mystery pitchers just by themselves -- Nick Swisher (Yankees), Jonathan Van Every (Red Sox) and Ross Gload (Marlins). They're the first team to face three mystery guests in one year, according to Elias, since the 1979 Royals were invaded by three Brewers position players in one game: Sal Bando, Jim Gantner and Buck Martinez.
The Phillies have also faced two position players already: Cody Ross (Marlins) and Paul Janish (Reds). So that makes this the first season in 20 years in which two different teams got to hit against position players more than once in the same season. The Astros and Pirates did it in 1989.
And things got so goofy that the Yankees and Red Sox both used mystery pitchers in the same month (April): Swisher on April 13, Van Every on April 30. The last time the Yankees and Red Sox sent position players to the mound that close together, according to Elias, was in 1991 (Steve Lyons for Boston, Alvaro Espinoza for New York).
Ah, but now it's time for the stars of our show
Just Joshin' Dept.: Josh Wilson didn't set out to enter the Mystery Pitcher Hall of Fame. But he's now a first-ballot inductee -- after pitching for and against the Diamondbacks in the same season. He threw a shutout inning against the Reds on May 11. But his encore performance, after he'd moved along to the Padres, didn't have quite as happy an ending. Wilson strolled in to face his old pals, the D-backs, in the 18th inning June 7 and gave up a game-winning three-run homer to Mark Reynolds.
Wilson's two amazing claims to fame: First off, in that 18-inning game, Wilson became the fourth position player in the division-play era to somehow turn into a losing pitcher. Just as impressive, he also became the first position player to pitch for two different teams in one year since Willie Smith, who was really a pitcher-utility man, did it for the Cubs and Indians in 1968.
The Big Red Machinist: It takes a special mystery pitcher to make Josh Wilson the second most historic pitchin' magician of the year. But here's to Reds infielder Paul Janish. His two trips to the mound this year have definitely kept those scoreboard operators awake.
• May 6 vs. Milwaukee: 1 IP, 5 H, 5 R, 5 ER, 0 BB, 2 K, 1 HR (to Prince Fielder).
• July 6 vs. Philadelphia: 1 IP, 4 H, 6 R, 6 ER, 2 BB, 1 K, 1 grand slam (to Jayson Werth).
Janish's claims to fame: He's the first position player to give up 11 runs in the same season since the aforementioned Willie Smith did it 45 years ago -- except it took Willie 11 appearances. And Janish was the first position player to give up five runs or more in two different outings in the same season, according to Elias, since Johnny Lindell (another pitcher-utility man) did it in 1953 -- but over 32 appearances, not two.
The Janish Quip Book
Being the magnanimous guy he is, Janish was cool enough to review his pitching exploits with Half-Year in Review.
• On roaring into the books alongside Johnny Lindell: "You know, records are made to be broken. And I'm definitely breaking records. They're just the wrong damn records."
• On his picturesque delivery (as a former college closer): "Yeah, it's smooth, all right. But apparently, 88-89 [mph] on a string is not going to work."
• On his ERA (45.00 after his first outing, 49.50 after his second): "When I came in there, I figured, well, the good thing is, at least I'll bring my ERA down. It started at 45.00, so it would be tough to go up -- but I found a way."
• On whether he thought he could now pitch 31 straight shutout innings and get his ERA down into the 3.00s: "I think I'm out of luck. What I really need to do is talk to my agent to see if we can bring this up in arbitration: multi-faceted player."
• On his proudest achievement as a pitcher: "Well, I did get a standing O in Philly. And not many visiting players can say that."
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new 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.