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And the First-Half MLB Awards Go To . . .

July 13, 2011

With the Major League Baseball season just past the halfway point and currently on its all-star break, now’s the perfect time to take a look at the key standouts from the first three-plus months.  Here, with a sabermetrics slant (stats courtesy of FanGraphs), we’ll discuss MVPs, Cy Young-caliber pitchers, rookies of the year, and the premier managers of 2011.  Let’s get to it. . .

American League MVP

Jose Bautista, OF, Toronto: Bautista spent several years as the quintessential journeyman who bounced around a slew of different organizations (including four in 2004) as an inconsequential figure. That all changed in 2010, though, with Bautista’s stunning 54-home run season north of the border. Many were sure it was a fluke – and those same people laughed when Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos signed Bautista to a big-money, long-term contract in the winter – but the 31-year-old’s encore has thus far been even more dazzling than his breakout. In fact, he ranks first in the AL in homers (31), on-base percentage (.468), slugging percentage (.702), walk rate (19.7 percent) and wins above replacement (6.6), and his .334 batting average is “only” good for second. Simply put, Bautista has fled the world of anonymity and irrelevance to become the preeminent player in baseball, silencing scores of doubters along the way. And, assuming his current play continues, the man called “Joey Bats” will have an MVP award to show for it by season’s end.

Great Uniform, Greater Player

AL Cy Young

Jered Weaver, Los Angeles: This is an extremely tough one to pick because Weaver, CC Sabathia, Justin Verlander and James Shields are all having glorious seasons. The ace of the Angels is atop the pack in ERA (1.86) and fielding-independent pitching (2.39), so we’ll hesitantly give him the nod. Weaver’s 4.7 WAR is a hair behind Sabathia’s pace-setting 4.8 and he’s fifth in innings pitched (140.2).

AL Rookie of the Year

Michael Pineda, SP, Seattle: As if Felix Hernandez wasn’t enough for opposing hitters to deal with, Pineda has burst on the scene at the tender age of 22 and given the Mariners another top-of-the-rotation pitcher. The all-star leads AL starters in strikeouts per nine innings (9.0), has shown good control (2.87 BB/9), and boasts a terrific ERA/FIP/xFIP triple slash line of 3.03/3.17/3.50. That 2.4 WAR is awfully solid as well.

AL Manager of the Year

Manny Acta, Cleveland: With the White Sox, Tigers and perennially playoff-bound Twins in front of them, the question entering the season was whether the Indians or Royals would finish last in the AL Central. However, the young upstarts from Cleveland are five games above .500 and trail division-leading Detroit by merely half a game. At least some of the credit can go to the forward-thinking Acta, a sabermetrics-minded manager who insists he expected the formerly cellar-dwelling Indians to turn heads this year. So far, so good.

National League MVP

Andrew McCutchen, OF, Pittsburgh: The last time the Pirates had a player of this caliber, Barry Bonds was roaming the outfield at Three Rivers Stadium in the early 1990s. McCutchen is a third-year pro who had back-to-back excellent seasons to begin his career, but 2011 has truly been his coming-out party. “Cutch-22,” as he’s known, is the face of the resurgent Pirates, having put together a BA/OBP/SLG triple slash line of .291/.390/.505 with 14 HRs, 15 steals, and a second-place WAR ranking (5.1). McCutchen is also enjoying an elite defensive season. He ranks third in the NL in ultimate zone rating (8.3), seventh in UZR/150 (14.4) and tied for 12th in defensive runs saved (six). Pittsburgh has been searching for a true franchise player since Bonds signed with San Francisco in ’93, and it has found one in this 24-year-old center fielder. He’s gonna need a pretty big trophy case to house all the oncoming awards.

NL Cy Young

Roy Halladay, Philadelphia: Excuse the hyperbole, but Halladay is so unbelievably good that you’d almost be crazy to suggest he isn’t the foremost pitcher in the sport. The ace of aces is in the midst of another phenomenal season with an ERA/FIP/xFIP triple slash of 2.45/2.16/2.51. He leads the NL in FIP, xFIP, tERA (2.24), pitcher WAR (5.1), BB/9 (1.07) and K/BB (8.12).  Just to give you an idea of how far ahead of the pack Halladay is in K/BB, second place is 5.04. At age 34, Halladay is well on his way to his third Cy Young – not to mention Cooperstown.

NL Rookie of the Year

Danny Espinosa, 2B, Washington: While his .242 average isn’t impressive, Espinosa more than makes up for it in other areas. Among NL second basemen, Espinosa ranks second in home runs (16), slugging percentage (.460) and WAR (3.3). He leads at his position in steals (12) and has been a solidly above-average defender (3.3 UZR). The only 2B better in the NL this year has been Brewers all-star Rickie Weeks.

NL Manager of the Year

Clint Hurdle, Pittsburgh: Maybe the apocalypse really is near. What other explanation can there be for the fact that the Pirates are 47-43 through 90 games? But seriously, in a division with St. Louis, Milwaukee and Cincinnati, absolutely no one expected the Bucs to be just a game back of first place at the all-star break. Like the Indians’ Acta, Hurdle (who previously went to a World Series as Colorado’s manager) should get some credit. Good for him and the Pirates, whose last playoff appearance came in 1992. Their résumé of awfulness also includes six straight last-place finishes in the NL Central and 18 consecutive sub-.500 campaigns. For now at least, Steel City fans can dream of October for Hurdle’s Pirates.

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