The fourth of July is just around the corner, and after that is the All-Star Break. It's almost midseason already; by the end of the week, some teams will have played more than 81 games. With midseason, of course, come midseason awards. As useful as they can be, these half-recollection, half-prediction pieces, they can also get a bit stale if limited to just the awards that will actually be handed out at the end of the season. So in addition to the MVP, Cy Young and Rookie of the Year Awards, we've decided to hand out some of our own. (All statistics prior to Tuesday's games.)
Most Valuable Player
Mike Trout, CF, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
319 PA, .306/.395/.593 (.988), 179 OPS+, 19 2B, 5 3B, 16 HR
When a player is as consistently otherworldly as Mike Trout has been the past few years, one almost runs out of good things to say about him; a sort of exhaustion sets in, and his complete and total excellence becomes the only lens through which to view him. Case in point: multiple analysts have, with utterly straight faces, suggested that in order to get Trout out, pitchers should try pitching up in the zone. On purpose. Because that's the only place left to go. Barring injury, this should be the year that Trout takes home his first AL MVP award.
Troy Tulowitzki, SS, Colorado Rockies
299 PA, .355/.445/.637 (1.082), 181 OPS+, 15 2B, 1 3B, 18 HR
There's a lot of people who really want to put Giancarlo Stanton or Andrew McCutchen's names here, and it's an understandable impulse: the Rockies are a comfortable eight games below .500 and Troy Tulowitzki is well overdue for a trip to the 15 Day DL. But until he takes that trip, the MVP race is Tulo's to lose: he's not only undisputedly the best hitter in his league in 2014, but he's also a top-five defensive player in the NL as well. Hold Coors against him all you like -- Tulowitzki's road OPS (.820) is still better than the season line of every shortstop qualified for the batting title other than the Dodgers' Hanley Ramirez (.823).
Masahiro Tanaka, SP, New York Yankees
106.2 IP, 2.11 ERA, 191 ERA+, 119 K, 17 BB (7.00 K/BB), 11 HR
The AL Cy Young picture would be absolutely riveting at the All-Star Break if not for Masahiro Tanaka. The other four members of the AL's top five starters in the first half are Dallas Keuchel (HOU), Mark Buehrle (TOR), Felix Hernandez (SEA) and Scott Kazmir (OAK), with Yu Darvish (TEX) and Chris Sale (CHW) knocking on the door. Kazmir's ERA is actually lower, but Tanaka pitches in a hitter's park, has thrown more innings and has been precisely as dominant as his strikeout-to-walk ratio would indicate. Tanaka has been worth every bit of the $22 million the Yankees are paying him this year, and is arguably the reason why the AL East is a three-team race at the top instead of a three-team race at the bottom.
Johnny Cueto, SP, Cincinnati Reds
116.0 IP, 1.86 ERA, 197 ERA+, 119K, 27 BB (4.41 K/BB), 9 HR
There's an argument to be made that Adam Wainwright's name should be here instead, but Cueto's got the Cardinals ace beat in innings pitched, ERA and adjusted ERA. With starter Mat Latos only just back from the disabled list and recently-extended Homer Bailey failing to live up to his 2012-2013 performances so far this season, Cueto's one of the main reasons this Reds team is even treading .500 at the moment (Devin Mesoraco, Todd Frazier and Alfredo Simon have also helped). The biggest concern with Cueto is his right shoulder: he missed time in both 2011 and 2013 with shoulder issues stemming from his right latissimus dorsi muscle, and it's no guarantee he be able to pitch a full season at this level of performance without it acting up again. At the end of the year, this might very well belong to Clayton Kershaw, but since he spent more than a month on the disabled list, he hasn't pitched enough to win the half-season award.
Rookie of the Year
Tanaka. Obviously, if he's the choice for Cy Young as well. Sorry, Jose Abreu.
Chris Owings, SS, Arizona Diamondbacks
250 PA, .282/.319/.466 (.784), 115 OPS+, 15 2B, 5 3B, 6 HR
Pirates rookie Gregory Polanco is getting the national media spotlight at the moment, but the best rookie on the field so far in the National League this year has been and likely will continue to be Chris Owings. Owings is not only hitting well for a rookie, he's hitting well period; his .784 OPS makes him the fifth-best bat this year among qualified shortstops, and unlike some of the guys above him -- Ramirez and Starlin Castro, to name names -- he is a positive contributor in the field.
It's entirely possible that Polanco manages to parlay his hype and strong initial performance into a successful Rookie of the Year campaign in the second half while Owings languishes on a Diamondbacks team that's going nowhere, but if the season ended tomorrow, Owings should take home the hardware. Polanco isn't the only contender Owings has to fend off, though: Cincinnati's Billy Hamilton has hit .326/.350/.505 over the last month. Another couple weeks of that, and it'll be Hamilton in the driver's seat.
Fernando Rodney Award for Excellence in Stat-Busting
Jean Machi, RP, San Francisco Giants
31.1 IP, 0.29 ERA, 1189 ERA+, 23 K, 7 BB (3.29 K/BB), 0 HR
No, there's not an extra 1 in that ERA+; Giants reliever Jean Machi really does have a 1189 ERA+ . Machi isn't the first guy to break ERA+ over his knee like this in a half-season sample; just last year, Colorado's Rex Brothers had a 0.27 ERA (1381 ERA+) from the beginning of the season through June 27th. The idea behind ERA+ is to express a pitcher's ERA as a percentage better than or worse than league average, and while Machi's results have been far better an average pitcher's, they haven't been exponentially so.
These things generally take care of themselves, after a fashion: Brothers finished 2013 with a 1.74 ERA, which was good for an ERA+ of "only" 255. Should Machi actually finish the season with an ERA under 0.30, this award will immediately be renamed in his honor; Fernando Rodney's 641 ERA+ during his bizarre, magical stint as closer for the 2012 Tampa Bay Rays is the modern record by a reliever with over 60 IP.
Dan Quisenberry Award for Exceptional Relief
Dellin Betances, RP, New York Yankees
42.0 IP, 1.50 ERA, 271 ERA+, 70 K, 11 BB (6.36 K/BB), 1 HR
Take a breath, fans of Craig Kimbrel, Aroldis Chapman and Greg Holland. We all know your preferred closer is great. This time, we're going to recognize a newcomer to the scene, Dellin Betances. The young Yankee is on pace to throw 91 innings in his rookie season for the Yankees, and should he sustain that pace through the end of the season he'll become just the third rookie since 2000 to throw over 90 innings in relief. The other two? Justin Duchscherer (2004) and Peter Moylan (2007). Hopefully his arm fares better than theirs did. It's worth noting that neither pitcher had anywhere near the dominant strikeout numbers that Betances has put up during his first half.
Given the state of the Yankees' rotation at the moment, there's likely to be a strong temptation to move Betances from relief into the rotation since he came up as a starter; given Betances's inconsistent mechanics -- which are only magnified by his 6-foot-8 frame -- it would be best for both him and the Yankees if they resist that temptation. Elite relievers that can consistently go more than one inning an appearance on consecutive days don't exactly grow on trees.
Jose Valverde Memorial Trophy
Joe Nathan, RP, Detroit Tigers
27.2 IP, 6.18 ERA, 68 ERA+, 28 K, 13 BB (2.15 K/BB), 4 HR, 15 SV, 5 BS
The early frontrunner for the Jose Valverde Memorial Trophy in 2014 was none other than the man himself, but then the New York Mets fired him on a national holiday and he sadly lost his eligibility. His spirit and inability to get hitters out lives on, however, in the Tigers bullpen, where Joe Nathan is doing his very best to top Valverde's brief, disastrous stint as closer for Detroit in 2013.
It's possible this is just a rough patch that Nathan will work through -- after all, Nathan had one of the better years of his career last season in Texas -- but it's also possible that at age 39, he's just no longer able to regularly pitch quality innings at the MLB level. Either way, we're going to find out; Nathan is making $9 million this year to close, and the only other effective options Detroit has are Al Alburquerque, who still has a career BB/9 north of 5, and Joba Chamberlain.
Most Watchable Fielding Award
Yoenis Cespedes, LF, Oakland Athletics (tie)
Yasiel Puig, RF, Los Angeles Dodgers (tie)
If anyone ever asks you why scouts consider a player's arm a separate tool distinct from the rest of their defensive package, you don't need to say anything; all you need to do is load up the highlights of Yoenis Cespedes's spectacular outfield assists this June. Note: they're "spectacular." They're not "good." A number of Yasiel Puig's highlights require that distinction as well; while it's great entertainment to watch either man get his team into and then out of trouble in the field, it is not, strictly speaking, good defense.
Good defense generally involves not having to dive or stretch or juggle or fumble or make up for all of the above by firing the ball to third base at just below escape velocity. A lot of the time, good defense is boring. It would be a shame if either Cespedes or Puig ever learned to play good defense. What they're up to right now is much more fun.