Back in April, I put together an all-MLB team for the 2013 season, projecting which players would be the best at their positions this year. Now that we're halfway through, let's take a different tack: an all-MLB team for the first half, based solely on what the players have done so far this year. Keeping in mind that things like defense and ballpark matter -- and things like RBIs and W-L record don't -- here's my all-MLB team through the All-Star break.
Molina is having the best offensive season of his career -- .341/.386/.489, for a 142 OPS+ -- and combining it with his usual shutdown of the running game. Just 29 players have even tried to run on Molina, and he's gunned down 13 of them. Posey, on the other hand, has allowed 47 steals in 59 attempts, the highest raw total in the league, and Molina has caught 10% more innings than Posey has. I'll take the stronger defense and the extra playing time behind the plate to make up the difference in the batter's box.
Honorable Mention: Buster Posey, Giants
Jason Grilli and Buster Posey grace covers of Sports Illustrated this week
Well, duh. Davis is the story of the first half, with 37 home runs and a .315/.392/.717 line at the break. It's a mix of improved skills -- he's making more contact, chasing less, hitting more fly balls -- and some good fortune: a 35.6% rate of home runs on fly balls, a figure that has nowhere to go but down. There's some reason to be concerned as well: Davis has a 60/7 K/UIBB since the start of June, a sign that old habits are leaking into his game.
It's worth nothing that by Baseball-Reference.com's version of WAR, Paul Goldschmidt has outplayed Davis so far, thanks to being 20 runs better with the glove. That's using Baseball Info Solutions' measurement, which is my go-to tool. Given the vagaries of defensive metrics over full seasons, much less 90 games, I'll keep Davis and his .700 SLG in this spot.
There are three pretty good candidates for this slot, and depending on how you evaluate defense you might come to a different answer. The key for me, just like at catcher, is innings. Matt Carpenter has played 606 innings at second base, 75% of the what Cano and the Dustin Pedroia have played at the keystone, knocking him down a peg.
Between Cano and Pedroia, well, it's very close. Cano is having pretty much the same year he has every year -- .302/.386/.531, sweetened by an AL-leading 14 intentional walks -- while Pedroia is matching his 2007 MVP performance at the plate (.316/.396/.436) on the bases (13/17 stealing) and in the field (a plus defender in all systems). In a very close call, Pedroia's extreme home/road splits -- he's a .268/.336/.337 hitter away from Fenway Park -- are enough to swing my vote to Cano.
You have to go back to Barry Bonds' late peak to find a candidate for the best player in baseball who had as little defensive value as Cabrera has. That's also the last comp for this kind of extended greatness with a bat in hand. A year after winning the Triple Crown, Cabrera is making a serious run at repeating, an unheard-of feat. Cabrera leads the AL in batting average (.365) and RBIs (95) while trailing Chris Davis in homers by seven (30). He leads the AL in OBP by more than 50 points (.458). Oh, he's also three-for-three stealing bases. So he gives away 10 runs by being a poor third baseman -- he's still a beast.
Honorable Mention: Manny Machado, Orioles
Tulo is so good that he spent on the disabled list with a broken rib and is still the choice. He combines on-base skills, power and defense into a package that makes him the best shortstop in baseball. Even adjusting for the inflationary power of Coors Field, Tulowitzki's .332/.400/.608 line results in him being the game's most productive shortstop. Throw in reliably plus defense built around a strong throwing arm, and he merits a very slight edge over Ian Desmond, Jean Segura and Everth Cabrera. This would have been a more interesting debate had Reyes not beaten Tulowitzki to the DL and stayed there twice as long as Tulo did.
As I did in April, I'll pick one outfielder at each spot, rather than three outfielders regardless of position.
My most controversial preseason pick was having Bryce Harper in this spot. That was the product of believing in Harper's upside and a Trout regression. Harper has held up his end of the bargain when he's played, but a knee injury cost him 30 games and he hasn't hit for average: just .264, but with lots of walks and power. Trout, meanwhile, has been exactly as good a hitter as he was a year ago -- .322/.399/.565, a dead ringer for his 2012 line -- even improving his walk rate and K/BB. Pay no attention to the downturn in his defensive statistics. Trout is, right now, not just the best leftfielder in the game; he's the best player in baseball. I'm cheating a little bit by listing him in left field; because of Peter Bourjos' various injuries, Trout has played more than 60% of his innings in center.
Honorable Mention: Carlos Gonzalez, Rockies.
Gomez's strong second half last season made him a favored target of fantasy players coming into 2013. He's been both a fantasy stud and a real one, running a .296/.338/.534 line with 14 homers and 21 steals. Always a top-notch defensive player, Gomez has been one of the best centerfielders in the game this year, which has made him an NL MVP candidate. Of the players on this team, Gomez is the one most likely to fall off the pace in the second half, as his lack of plate discipline continues to catch up to him. His 84/14 K/UIBB is very poor, and since a huge April (.360/.415/.616) Gomez is batting .272/.310/.504 with 69 strikeouts and nine unintentional walks. That makes him a good player, but not a great one.
Honorable Mention: Jacoby Ellsbury, Red Sox
Yeah, I lied. I was supposed to pick one outfielder at each spot, but I cheated on that with Trout and I'm throwing it out here because I can't choose Carlos Beltran, however great he has been at the plate, over McCutchen. The Pirates' centerfielder is a pretty good comp for a young Beltran, consistently applying five tools and seven skills to be one of the best players in baseball while getting 25% less credit for all of it than he deserves. McCutchen may be the Eddie Murray of centerfielders when all is said and done, having great seasons year after year and watching as other players take home award hardware for putting up the sort of numbers he does every year. McCutchen is hitting .302/.376/.471 and you get the sense he hasn't really gotten started. As good a candidate as any for second-half NL MVP.
Honorable Mention: Carlos Beltran, Cardinals
Most AL teams have moved to platoons or even rotations at DH, leaving few everyday DHs -- just seven men have played at least 50 games at the spot. Ortiz is the best of the group, missing a couple of weeks in April and still comfortably outplaying any two of the other six guys.
Honorable Mention: The Blue Jays' Edwin Encarnacion, I guess, but he's played just 31 games at DH. No one else is worth honoring or mentioning.
Righthanded Starting Pitcher
Innings make the difference here, as among the four candidates who have all pitched comparably well, Wainwright leads the group with 146 innings, more than two starts clear of Matt Harvey and Max Scherzer and one start ahead of Felix Hernandez. Wainwright's conversion into peak Greg Maddux, with 130 strikeouts against 13 unintentional walks, gives him the edge over Hernandez. There's more dispute over what we should be looking at with pitching stats, even among self-described statheads, but when the metrics are close -- and they are -- you look at who's pitched more.
Lefthanded Starting Pitcher
Kershaw lost his deserved All-Star Game start nearly a decade ago, when outgoing mayor Rudy Giuliani gifted the New York Mets, who were once thought of as a successful, well-managed business, a huge cut of New York taxpayer dollars to build a new ballpark. That sure seems like a fair tiebreaker. Kershaw has been fantastic, an MVP candidate who leads the NL in ERA, ERA+, shutouts and fewest baserunners per nine innings. Like Wainwright, Kershaw's edge is in the innings he pitches, 145 1/3, just 1 1/3 behind the Cards' righty. You can throw Kershaw in with the rest of the debate about what stats best reflect pitching performance; the further you get from raw ERA, the less standing he has among his peers.
Preseason pick: None
Midseason pick: Drew Smyly, Tigers
Smyly has carried a relief workload out of the 1990s, pitching 56 2/3 innings out of the bullpen over 36 games. He's carried it well, too: a 1.91 ERA, a 26% strikeout rate and 58/13 K/UIBB in those outings. Tigers manager Jim Leyland is trying to cut down Smyly's workload, which seems prudent in the long term -- 100-inning relievers have a terrible track record over the past 20 years -- but self-immolating in the short term. You have a poor bullpen and a reliever who can throw two innings at a time and get both lefties and righties out. Let him do his job.
Honorable Mention: Rex Brothers, Rockies
Ranking closers is difficult because the best ones tend to put up fairly similar stat lines in a half-season, and if you argue for Grant Balfour or Mariano Rivera or Greg Holland or Jason Grilli, there's not much I can do but nod quietly. Nathan has a 1.36 ERA and a 28.5% strikeout rate while pitching for a team that plays in a good hitters' park. There are a lot of right answers here, and he's mine.