To better understand how the expanded playoff format works, not to mention the wackiness of this season, pretend the season ended last night. The playoffs would begin with back-to-back wild card knockout games: the Orioles at the Angels and the Dodgers at the Pirates.
Wait. The Orioles? The Pirates? What is this, 1979? The Orioles-Angels winner would advance to play the Rangers. The Dodgers-Pirates winner would move on to play the Nationals. That's right: a postseason game in Washington. Now we're talking 1933 vintage.
That Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Washington -- total playoff appearances in 42 combined seasons since 1998: zero -- are sitting in playoff position halfway through the season tells you this truly has been a half-baked year. As teams reach their 81st game this week, and with the All-Star Game a week from today in Kansas City, it's time to take stock of how we arrived here by taking a look at the major award winners for the first half.
And yes, a Pittsburgh Pirate figures prominently on my MVP ballot. Over the past three years, baseball writers have filled in 1,440 places on NL MVP ballots. None of them have included a Pirate. The last Pittsburgh player to be named on a ballot was Nate McLouth, who received one 10th place vote in 2008. The times are indeed changing.
1. Robinson Cano, Yankees
2. Josh Hamilton, Rangers
3. Mike Trout, Angels
4. Adam Jones, Orioles
5. Mark Trumbo, Angels
6. Paul Konerko, White Sox
7. Adrian Beltre, Rangers
8. Miguel Cabrera, Tigers
9. Jose Bautista, Blue Jays
10. David Ortiz, Red Sox
The reason: I like to see volume, not just the pretty rate stats, because durability and dependability have increased value in this testing era. Cano and Hamilton are a flip of a coin -- separated by only one single in total bases, ahead of the rest of the league. Hamilton, even with a quiet June, and with better home/road splits, is just as deserving. I gave Cano the nod because he gets it done at second base, a higher premium defensive position, with Gold Glove quality.
The snubs: Austin Jackson of Detroit and Josh Willingham of Minnesota quietly are having big seasons.
The crazy stat: Cano could make a run at the all-time record for home runs by a second baseman (43, Davey Johnson, 1973) as well as become only the third second baseman with 90 extra-base hits (Rogers Hornsby, Alfonso Soriano) or more than 360 total bases (Hornsby, Soriano).
1. Joey Votto, Reds
2. Andrew McCutchen, Pirates
3. David Wright, Mets
4. Ryan Braun, Brewers
5. Melky Cabrera, Giants
6. Carlos Ruiz, Phillies
7. Carlos Beltran, Cardinals
8. Carlos Gonzalez, Rockies
9. Giancarlo Stanton, Marlins
10. R.A. Dickey, Mets
The reason: It doesn't get any easier than picking Votto: the best hitter in the league (tops in on-base and slugging percentages) getting it done for a first place team without much of a supporting cast. (David Wright has hit with 30 more runners on base than has Votto.)
The snubs: In a strong year for NL catchers, there is no room for Yadier Molina and Buster Posey, while Matt Holliday also merits a mention.
The crazy stat: The record for doubles has stood since 1931, when otherwise non-descript Earl Webb gerrymandered his way to 67 of them. (He never hit more than 30 otherwise.) Votto, with 33 two-baggers already, could break one of the oldest records in the game -- and one of the few hitting records to survive The Steroid Era.
1. Justin Verlander, Tigers
2. Jake Peavy, White Sox
3. David Price, Rays
4. Chris Sale, White Sox
5. Jered Weaver, Angels
The reason: Verlander leads the league in innings, strikeouts and complete game, is third in WHIP and fourth in ERA. He is the definition of an ace. In the mold of Nolan Ryan, Verlander is a workhorse at an elite level.
The snubs: Felix Hernandez of Seattle, Matt Harrison of Texas and C.J. Wilson of Los Angeles belong in the discussion.
The crazy stat: Verlander has made 59 straight starts in which he pitched at least six innings, the longest streak since a 69-game stretch by Steve Carlton ended 30 years ago.
1. R.A. Dickey, Mets
2. Matt Cain, Giants
3. Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers
4. Johnny Cueto, Reds
5. Gio Gonzalez, Nationals
The reason: Dickey leads the league in wins, WHIP, WAR, complete games and shutouts and in ERA trails only two injured pitchers (Brandon Beachy and Ryan Dempster) and in strikeouts trails only a pitcher who will be shut down in September (Stephen Strasburg). You just might be looking at the most improbable pitching triple crown in history.
The snubs: Strasburg, James McDonald, Madison Bumgarner, Zack Greinke and Cole Hamels all have an argument to be on the ballot.
The crazy stat: Dickey, 37, was 41-50 with a 4.34 ERA coming into this season. Want something from this year? Dickey is such a control freak he has thrown only one wild pitch, allowed no stolen bases and walked only three of the 116 batters to lead off an inning against him.
1. Mike Trout, Angels
2. Yu Darvish, Rangers
3. Will Middlebrooks, Red Sox
The reason: Seriously? Trout looks like a once in a generation player -- and shades of Fred Lynn in 1975, when Lynn led the league in runs, doubles and slugging and won the MVP, ROY and Gold Glove awards while playing centerfield. Lynn was 23 then -- three years older than is Trout.
The snubs: They are numerous: Wei-Yin Chen, Jarrod Parker, Ryan Cook, Tommy Milone, Robby Ross, Tom Wilhemson, Yoenis Cespedes.
The crazy stat: Trout, 20, has a .938 OPS. Only five players finished with an OPS that high at such a young age: Alex Rodriguez, Al Kaline, Ted Williams, Mel Ott and Jimmie Foxx. From that elite group, Foxx wound up with the fewest career hits (2,646) and Kaline the fewest home runs (399).
1. Bryce Harper, Nationals
2. Wade Miley, Diamondbacks
3. Andrelton Simmons, Braves
The reason: Harper is one the most prominent drawing cards in baseball -- and that's without showcasing much of his touted light-tower power. It's his baseball savvy and non-stop turbo engine that makes him must-see viewing.
The snubs: Kirk Nieuwenhuis, Norichika Aoki, Wilin Rosario, Zack Cosart and Yonder Alonso are having nice seasons, but nothing ROY-worthy.
The crazy stat: Harper has posted an OPS+ of 123 as a teenager -- something that's been done just twice in the history of baseball in a qualified season: by Ty Cobb in 1906 and Mel Ott in 1928.
1. Buck Showalter, Orioles
2. Robin Ventura, White Sox
3. Ron Washington, Rangers
The reason: It's been 15 years since the Orioles fielded a winning team, so what's happening in Baltimore is special. No team has a better record in one-run games (14-6), only the Yankees have more wins against teams .500 and above (32) and no team is better prepared.
The snubs: Joe Girardi of New York and John Farrell of Toronto have been deft at juggling injury-riddled pitching staffs.
The crazy stat: The Orioles -- yes, the Orioles -- have the best bullpen in baseball: 16-5 with a 2.66 ERA. Now that's crazy. (Last year they ranked 27th: 23-21, 4.18.)
1. Clint Hurdle, Pirates
2. Davey Johnson, Nationals
3. Terry Collins, Mets
The reason: The Pirates are a poor (but improving) offensive club, but Hurdle plays aggressive baseball on the bases and has made the most out of a pitching staff filled with veteran castoffs, with particular success with his bullpen usage.
The snubs: Dusty Baker of Cincinnati, Bruce Bochy of San Francisco and Don Mattingly of Los Angeles deserve mention.
The crazy stat: No Pirates team has hit worse than this one (.241) since the 1952 outfit that lost 112 games, and yet halfway through the season Pittsburgh is a legitimate contender.