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Midseason Awards: Lucroy, Trout, Cueto, Hernandez earn honors

Jonathan Lucroy has been the NL's first-half MVP, but his catching duties could have a negative impact on his bat in the second half. Photo: Gene J. Puskar/AP

Jonathan Lucroy has been the NL's first-half MVP, but his catching duties could have a negative impact on his bat in the second half.

Half a season has been played and just 12 teams, including the defending world champions, have been eliminated. Of course, nobody around the Boston Red Sox or other 11 teams buried in the standings after 81 games will concede anything. And feel free to believe that the bottom third of teams has a miracle run somewhere in it. Hey, it could happen, right? But understand this: If it does, it will be a comeback of a scale never before seen in the 20 seasons of the Wild Card Era.

The fact is that a bad team after 81 games tends to remain a bad team, even with the expanded playoffs lowering the bar for postseason entry. No team in the Wild Card Era ever made the playoffs after playing the first half more than five games worse than .500.

Here are the worst teams through 81 games in the Wild Card Era that wound up in the playoffs:

 
Year Team 81G record Final record
2013 Dodgers 38-43 92-70
2008 Dodgers 38-43 84-78

The American League has been especially unforgiving to bad first-half teams: No AL club in the Wild Card Era made the playoffs after being worse than 39-42 after its first 81 games.

What about those two biggest second-half comebacks? The 2013 Dodgers put together a historic 42-8 run. The '08 Dodgers were 65-70 as late as Aug. 29 and parlayed a modest 18-5 stretch to finish first in a bad NL West with only 84 wins. So there are your two roads to a comeback -- either get historically hot or hope your entire division plays lousy baseball.

If you believe in that history, say goodbye to the White Sox, Rangers, Red Sox, Twins and Mets (7 games worse than .500 after 81 games), Phillies (-9), Rockies, Astros and Cubs (-11), Padres (-13), Diamondbacks and Rays (-15).     

The good news is we still have 18 teams competing for 10 spots, including the four teams with the longest postseason droughts. In the past eight seasons, 26 of the 30 franchises have played postseason baseball. Here are the four teams that have been absent the longest, and their percentage chance of making the playoffs, as calculated by Fangraphs:

 
Team Last in playoff chances
Kansas City Royals 1985 27.0
Toronto Blue Jays 1993 60.1
Seattle Mariners 2001 45.8
Miami Marlins 2003 1.9

It’s been a very strange first half of the season, one marked by a continued downturn in offense and such rampant mediocrity that even the bad teams think they still have a chance. This week began with only 13 of the 30 teams posting a positive run differential – including only three of the 10 teams in the two East divisions.

Such bunching of teams could mean crowded races – both for playoff spots and for the major awards. To help make some sense of a jumbled first half, here are my First Half Awards and All-Stars. These are not predictions, but judgments based on first-half performance only.

NL Most Valuable Player

1. Jonathan Lucroy, Brewers
2. Giancarlo Stanton, Marlins
3. Andrew McCutchen, Pirates
4. Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies
5. Yasiel Puig, Dodgers
6. Paul Goldschmidt, Diamondbacks
7. Carlos Gomez, Brewers
8. Adam LaRoche, Nationals
9. Todd Frazier, Reds
10. Anthony Rizzo, Cubs

​Lucroy has been the most valuable player on the best team in the league, hitting .413 in high leverage spots and posting as many walks as strikeouts. Like most catchers, though, Lucroy tends to wear down as the season grinds on. He is a career .302 hitter in the first half and a .270 hitter in the second half. The race remains wide open, though Tulowitzki’s home/road splits (.447/.264) and Stanton’s team teetering on the edge of a race also bear watching in the second half.

AL Most Valuable Player

1. Mike Trout, Angels
2. Jose Bautista, Blue Jays
3. Josh Donaldson, Athletics
4. Victor Martinez, Tigers
5. Edwin Encarnacion, Blue Jays
6. Miguel Cabrera, Tigers
7. Jose Abreu, White Sox
8. Robinson Cano, Mariners
9. Jose Altuve, Astros
10. Michael Brantley, Indians

Trout just keeps getting better, especially when it comes to his slugging. Most people alive never have seen a player this good this young. Only Ted Williams had a better adjusted OPS through age 22 (182-169) and only Rogers Hornsby had a better success rate stealing bases (95%-89%) through their age-22 seasons. It’s crazy to think that the same guy who this year hit a 489-foot home run is 10-for-10 on stolen base attempts.

NL Cy Young

1. Johnny Cueto, Reds
2. Adam Wainwright, Cardinals
3. Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers
4. Julio Teheran, Braves
5. Josh Beckett, Dodgers

Cueto leads the league in ERA, WHIP, innings, batters faced, adjusted ERA, complete games, batting average against and adjusted OPS against. What does it mean going forward? He has thrown 200 innings in a season only once, has a career second half ERA nearly a run higher than the first (3.92, or +0.89). Kershaw, meanwhile, has 10 times as many strikeouts as walks and will soon post enough innings to qualify for the ERA title, which he has won the past three seasons.

AL Cy Young

1. Felix Hernandez, Mariners
2. Masahiro Tanaka, Yankees
3. Yu Darvish, Rangers
4. Mark Buehrle, Blue Jays
5. Scott Kazmir, Athletics

While Hernandez and Tanaka have identical ERAs (2.10), Hernandez has more innings, fewer walks, more strikeouts, more starts, a lower WHIP and a lower batting average against. Hernandez has allowed only four home runs in 18 starts. No one has made at least 32 starts without giving up more than eight home runs since Kevin Brown in 1998.

NL Rookie of the Year

1. Billy Hamilton, Reds
2. Chris Owings, Diamondbacks
3. Gregory Polanco, Pirates
4. Tommy Kahnle, Rockies
5. Jeurys Familia, Mets

Hamilton is developing the way he runs: very fast. He is having a breakout month in June (.330/.351/.509) and is running away from an otherwise thin crop of top rookies in the league.

AL Rookie of the Year

1. Masahiro Tanaka, Yankees
2. Jose Abreu, White Sox
3. George Springer, Astros
4. Yordano Ventura, Royals
5. Dellin Betances, Yankees

Abreu leads the league in homers and slugging, but Tanaka has been so good that he gets the nod here. Batters are hitting .120 off his splitter – but .311 off his straight four-seamer. So why did he throw Mike Napoli a 1-and-2 fastball with two outs in the ninth inning Saturday? Napoli hit it into the rightfield stands to give the Red Sox a 2-1 win and couldn't believe his good fortune to get a pitch that was less than Tanaka's best.

NL Manager of the Year

1. Ron Roenicke, Brewers
2. Don Mattingly, Dodgers
3. Mike Redmond, Marlins

At 51-33, the Brewers can play .500 baseball the rest of the way and still get to 90 wins. Roenicke’s team has the best road record in the league (27-15).

AL Manager of the Year

1. John Gibbons, Blue Jays
2. Lloyd McClendon, Mariners
3. Mike Scioscia, Angels

Somehow Toronto has held first place in the AL East since May 21 despite a thoroughly mediocre bullpen – just the kind of flaw that can make a manager look bad. Toronto's relievers rank 13th in ERA, 14th in WHIP and have walked the third-most batters in the league.

All-Star Starters

NL

C: Jonathan Lucroy, Brewers
1B: Paul Goldschmidt, Diamondbacks
2B: Chase Utley, Phillies
SS: Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies
3B: Todd Frazier, Reds
LF: Justin Upton, Braves
CF: Andrew McCutchen, Pirates
RF: Giancarlo Stanton, Marlins
SP: Johnny Cueto, Reds
RP: Huston Street, Padres

AL

C: Salvador Perez, Royals
1B: Edwin Encarnacion, Blue Jays
2B: Jose Altuve, Astros
SS: Erick Aybar, Angels
3B: Josh Donaldson, Athletics
LF: Michael Brantley, Indians
CF: Mike Trout, Angels
RF: Jose Bautista, Blue Jays
DH: Victor Martinez, Tigers
SP: Felix Hernandez, Mariners
RP: Koji Uehara, Red Sox

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