Time to hand out annual MLB midseason awards

Published on Thursday, 13 July 2017 23:17 - Written by BOB KLAPISCH, Tribune News Service

Not a summer goes by without some baseball story-line shaking out those can’t-miss picks and replacing them with real shockers. Be honest, did you think the Astros would be this good? Or that the Mets would be catastrophically bad? And that Aaron Judge could make a clean sweep of a prestigious trifecta - Rookie of the First Half, MVP and the game’s most popular player?

It’s all part of what’s been a dynamic few months for the sport, highlighted largely by Judge and the over-performance of the Astros and Dodgers and superstars like Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer. There’s also been home runs, a million of them, and games that are (still) running too long. Nevertheless the second half promises plenty of compelling theater. Here are the first-half awards and a peek at what’s around the corner.

Just don’t ask for any other can’t-miss predictions. We had the Mets winning the wild card in the preseason, which is why our crystal ball is currently being hawked on eBay.

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AL Cy Young: Chris Sale, Red Sox

There’s hardly any suspense in this pick. The Sox’ ace has recorded at least nine strikeouts in 14 of his 17 starts, which would explain why he’s leading the league in WHIP (0.91) as well as hits and strikeouts per nine innings (6.6, 12.5 respectively).

The numbers are breathtaking on their own, but Sale is destroying hitters in a tough market that historically devours under-performers (see: David Price). Sale has lived up expectations and then some.

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NL Cy Young: Max Scherzer, Nationals

This is a much closer race than in the AL, as Clayton Kershaw is 14-2 with a 2.18 ERA, steamrolling his way to what could be a 25-win season. In his last four games, the Dodgers’ ace has registered 44 strikeouts while allowing just five walks and three runs.

Scherzer, however, is has been a notch better, leading the NL in ERA and strikeouts. The right-hander is allowing only 5.12 hits per nine innings, which would be the fewest by a qualified starter in major league history.

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AL Most Valuable Player: Aaron Judge, Yankees

It’s hard to believe this is the same player who batted .179 in a 27-game audition last year, striking out in half his at-bats. Judge went home and turned himself into an other-worldly force, currently leading or near the top of the Triple Crown categories. Where would the Yankees be without him?

Judge hasn’t entirely shaken off the penchant for whiffs - he’s K’d 109 times in 301 at-bats - but there’s no way the Yankees would want him to shorten that swing and risk throttling back on his HR power.

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NL Most Valuable Player: Paul Goldschmidt, Diamondbacks

The race is actually wide open, with candidates like Bryce Harper, Corey Seager and Daniel Murphy all worth a long look. So do Nolan Arenado and Justin Turner. But Goldschmidt is having his best season while the D-Backs are in the thick of things in the West. With a .314 average, 19 HRs, 66 RBIs and a 1.009 OPS, it’s hard to argue against him.

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AL Rookie of the Year: Aaron Judge, Yankees

You can cut and paste Judge’s MVP resume here and the election would be over. But it’s worth noting in this space how effortlessly Judge has handled the pressure in the sport’s biggest market – not just once, but a second time after having struggled in 2016. Judge had to prove he could hit major league pitching, that he hadn’t picked the wrong sport and that being a Yankee wouldn’t overwhelm him. He’s checked all three boxes while roaring past Joe DiMaggio’s record for home runs by a Yankee rookie.

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NL Rookie of the year: Cody Bellinger, Dodgers

The Dodgers have won 44 of 61 since Bellinger was called up from the minors. All the kid has done is crush home runs - 25 in just 257 at-bats. That’s not just a terrific pace, it’s otherwise impossible unless you’re on the way to Cooperstown.

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AL Manager of the Year: A.J. Hinch, Astros

All due respect to Paul Molitor, who’s turned the Twins into bona fide contenders after losing 103 games last year. But the Astros are an incredible 16.5 games ahead of the pack in the West, truly the AL’s best team. Hinch is exactly the kind of manager a young team requires - upbeat and communicative. The first half of his mission, getting the Astros to the post-season, is practically locked up.

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NL Manager of the Year, Torey Lovullo, Diamondbacks

You could make a case for the Dodgers’ Dave Roberts, but who’s really surprised at LA’s run in the first half? It’s the Diamondbacks who’ve opened eyes, as they’re on a pace to improve by 26 games in Lovullo’s first year as manager there. An impressive body of work - so far.

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AL Biggest Disappointment: Orioles

The Mariners and Blue Jay belong in this category, too, but we picked the O’s because they typically find a way to remain relevant despite their mid-market payroll. It doesn’t look like it’s happening this year, however, as Baltimore’s pitching is last in the AL and they’re fighting to stay out of the cellar in the East. Buck Showalter’s contract expires after 2018 and you get the distinct feeling that’ll be it for him.

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NL Biggest Disappointment: Cubs

The Cubs aren’t the first team to experience a championship hangover, so maybe we shouldn’t be shocked by their sub-.500 record. But we also figured if anyone could come up with an antidote it’d be Joe Maddon, the prime minister of cool. Instead of heading off the malaise, however, the Cubs haven’t been more than four games over .500 all year.

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AL Team to Watch: Rays

They ended the first half by taking 3-of-4 from the Red Sox and pulling to within 3 1/2 games of first place. Tampa Bay has the second-lowest ERA in the league and have actually hit more HRs than the Yankees.

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NL Team to Watch: Dodgers

They’re going into the second half on a superhuman hot streak, having won 51-of- 68 after starting out 10-12. Like the Astros, the Dodgers are on a pace to be record-breakers, with 110 wins in their sights and the fourth-largest run-differential at the break (plus-163) in baseball history.

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AL Manager on the Hot Seat: Bob Melvin, A’s

Melvin has failed to get the A’s beyond 68 wins in the last two seasons, and they’re on a long, flat road to nowhere in 2017 as well - 21 games out of first place with the league’s lowest winning percentage. Melvin won’t be going into the off-season with much corporate momentum.

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NL Manager on the Hot Seat: Terry Collins, Mets

No one blames Collins for the slew of injuries and it’s certainly not his fault that ownership left the bullpen so barren last winter. Very little of the Mets’ failure this summer is on Collins, but it’s a near-certainty he’ll be gone before 2018. Get ready for the era of Bob Geren or Dick Scott.

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Story Line to Watch, Yankees: Dellin Betances

No Yankee pitcher was this conflicted in the first half - talented but terribly out of sync. Betances has electric stuff but a long delivery with lots of moving parts. Think of him as the anti-Mariano Rivera, who was a billboard of economy. Betances, who’s walked 10 in his last 2.2 innings, needs to be fixed. Soon.

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Story Line to Watch, Mets: Tim Tebow

You better believe he’s coming. The further the Mets fall out of contention, the sooner he’ll be in Flushing. Get ready for the circus.

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Story Line to Watch, MLB: Home runs

If you love the long ball, it’s been a summer to remember - there are 24 players who’ve hit more than 20 HRs at the break. As ESPN recently noted, 42 percent of the game’s runs have come via home runs, a record pace. Baseball is on a pace for a 6125 HR season, breaking the previous record (5693 set in 2000) by 10 percent. And that was at the height the steroid era. So what gives?

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Best Team Money Could Buy: Brewers

Milwaukee started the season last in the big leagues with a mere $78 million payroll, yet they’re atop a 5.5-game lead in the Central. That’s called a serious return on investment.

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Worst Team Money Could Buy: Mets

Couldn’t resist.