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July 11, 2006

Prospectus Today

Looking Back at the First Half

by Joe Sheehan

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For a true seamhead, the All-Star Game isn't the midsummer classic: it's just the only game in a brutal three-day stretch that seems to last three months. The break is a welcome one for travel-weary players, but a cruel trick of the calendar for those of us attuned to the game's daily rhythm, whose bodies rise and fall not on a Circadian cycle by a Cirstadium one.

So nods to the hosiery boys, who spent most of Sunday trying to stave off the abyss, and to the Cardinals and Astros who extended the first half of the 2006 season deep into the Houston night. Eventually Rudy Seanez and Brad Lidge got involved and pushed each game to a conclusion, leaving us with nothing but some random TiVo'd games-like the alcoholic with a bottle hidden in the closet-to get us through to Thursday evening. Or is that just me?

As we reach the break, 22 teams are within seven games of a playoff spot, a tribute to the complete lack of a second impressive team in the National League and the AL West as a whole. We'll look at which of those 22 are most likely to play into October on Thursday; for now, here's a look back, unimaginative-format style, at a very eventful first half:

First-half MVPs

AL

  1. Travis Hafner, Indians
  2. Joe Mauer, Twins
  3. Derek Jeter, Yankees
  4. Johan Santana, Twins
  5. Francisco Liriano, Twins
I have a bias towards players who play up-the-middle positions when it comes to this kind of thing, but Hafner has been so much better a hitter than anyone else in the league-by about a win according to VORP-he takes the crown. His unintentional walk rate, walk-to-strikeout ratio and isolated power have all spiked, indications that this is actual improvement, not a first-half fluke. Hafner has no chance at all of winning a BBWAA award, but it would be nice if people noted that the best hitter in baseball isn't going to Pittsburgh this week.

Is it actually possible that three of the five most valuable players in the league are on a team that is nine games out of a playoff spot? The Twins wasted a month playing some very bad players, and are caught competing with two juggernauts. Nevertheless, the work of Mauer, Santana and Liriano has been exceptional, and more than warrants their status here. Jeter is having his best season since 1999, the second-best of his career.

The AL is loaded with MVP-caliber performances, with Grady Sizemore, Manny Ramirez, Vernon Wells, Jermaine Dye and Jim Thome all having big years as well.

NL

  1. Albert Pujols, Cardinals
  2. Carlos Beltran, Mets
  3. Brandon Webb, Diamondbacks
  4. Miguel Cabrera, Marlins
  5. David Wright, Mets
It's an easier call in the NL, where Pujols spotted the competition two weeks and still has a substantial lead. The surprise here is Webb, who has been the best pitcher in the game by at least one measure and has the peripheral data to support the label. He actually leads the NL in VORP; I've slotted him third here because his edge over Pujols is primarily those two weeks Pujols missed, and Beltran's defensive value bumps him up.

Like it did last year, the NL actually has a number of starting pitchers who show up high among the league's most valuable players. A ballot that included Jason Schmidt or Bronson Arroyo wouldn't be unreasonable.

First-half Cy Youngs

AL

  1. Johan Santana, Twins
  2. Francisco Liriano, Twins
  3. Roy Halladay, Blue Jays
Liriano has been superior to everyone by rate, but the five weeks he spent in the bullpen keep his overall value down slightly below that of Santana and Halladay. The gap between these three and the next group, which includes rookies Justin Verlander and Jonathan Papelbon, is significant.

Has anyone noticed how stable the top of the AL pitching pool has been? Santana and Halladay have been the two best pitchers in the league for nearly four years now. Halladay's injuries have hidden that fact, but it's nonetheless true.

NL

  1. Brandon Webb, Diamondbacks
  2. Jason Schmidt, Giants
  3. Bronson Arroyo, Reds
I really enjoy this list, because it includes two pitchers who have been among my favorites for some time. Arroyo's peripherals have been all over the place the last couple of years, and I wasn't quite sure if the deal would work out for the Reds. It has, in spades, and represents the biggest feather in Wayne Krivsky's crowded cap. Chris Capuano, who just misses this list, has better peripherals than all of these guys and could steal the award by the end of the year. The Richie Sexson deal just keeps on giving.

First-half Rookies of the Year

AL

  1. Francisco Liriano, Twins
  2. Justin Verlander, Tigers
  3. Jonathan Papelbon, Red Sox
Liriano has been so good that I can comfortably place him ahead of Papelbon and his 0.59 ERA. If you want to argue that the leverage of Papelbon's 46 innings and his better peripherals should place him ahead of Verlander (110 IP, 3.01 ERA), I wouldn't argue with you. It's a terrific debate, and if not for Liriano, one that would likely occupy our time for a good chunk of the second half.

The killer is the guys who aren't listed above. Ian Kinsler and Mike Napoli are each among the top 20 hitters in the AL by rate, but can't even get a sniff. Joel Zumaya may be just as important to the Tigers as Verlander, but is nowhere to be found. It's a terrific year for AL rookies; being sixth in this group is no insult.

NL

  1. Dan Uggla, Marlins
  2. Joshua Johnson, Marlins
  3. Hanley Ramirez, Marlins
Want more? I could argue for Ricky Nolasco and Mike Jacobs for the #4 and #5 slots as well, although they'd likely lose out to Andre Ethier, Ryan Zimmerman and Takashi Saito. The Marlins, in part because they're playing more rookies than any two teams, have the top three Rookie of the Year candidates. Uggla would probably be a down-ballot MVP guy if not for his missed time-he's also posted 16 fielding runs above replacement-while Ramirez fought through a long slump without losing his job, in part because he's been solid defensively.

With the official awards out of the way, let's look at some other first-half leaders.

Best Story

The Detroit Tigers arrived at least a year early in much the same way that the 2005 White Sox did: good pitching, exceptional defense, and a ton of power. We already know that this formula can succeed, and I would argue that the Tigers, spot for spot, look more sturdy than the Sox did at this point a year ago if you don't consider health. That's the big question: can a team with so many players prone to missing time stay healthy long enough to lock up their postseason spot? They don't have the offensive depth to withstand an injury to any of their up-the-middle players; An injury to Curtis Granderson, who's been so critical to their defensive upgrade, would be devastating.

The White Sox are better than they were a year ago, in part due to Jermaine Dye's performance. Dye was a bargain for the Sox last season, when he hit .274/.333/.512 with average defense. This season, he's putting up career highs in everything, the first time since his knee injury that he's looked like a star. The long road back from that 2002 playoff debacle, when Dye fouled a ball off of his kneecap and was reduced to a shell of himself at 29, has ended in an All-Star, and arguably MVP-candidate, season.

Also worth mentioning: Jose Reyes' development as a hitter, and his role in the Mets' best start in years.

Best Surprise

The Tigers could fit in here as well, since no one pegged them for the best record in baseball at the All-Star break. There's also the Twins' resurgence, which coincided with the insertion of Liriano into the rotation, Mauer's hot streak and the replacment of terrible veteran players with productive younger ones. (Josh Byrnes, you getting any of this?) The Mets were expected to contend in the NL East, but certainly not to run away with it. There's the emergence of so many terrific young players, with a number of those having huge impacts on pennant races-picture the AL standings without Papelbon and Verlander and Kinsler.

Biggest Disappointment

I had the A's winning 100 games and running away with the AL West, and while that was an extreme opinion, most analysts thought they'd comfortably win the division. Not only are they in a dogfight, but according to the Adjusted Standings, they've actually been the worst team in the division. They have the worst run differential in the group. That's due to a disappointing performance by what was supposed to be a strength-the rotation-and the same inability to hit as we've seen for the past couple of seasons. The A's are batting .243, which drags their OBP down to .323 despite good walk rates. Save for Nick Swisher, none of their homegrown players is having a good year. I should do an entire column on the naked emperor that is Bobby Crosby. The A's can still salvage their year, but there's not much chance they'll run away with the division crown.

The Braves and Phillies have underachieved in the NL East, helping the Mets run away and hide. I think the Phillies are a complete mystery; even with so-so pitching, they should outscore their opponents on enough nights to at least make them a wild-card favorite. There may be something wrong with the alignment of talent; I wonder if being so left-handed makes it easier for teams to go after them in the late innings. I certainly perceive the Phillies to have trouble when trailing late in games, but that's based on observation, not analysis.

Biggest Secret

The Indians will have to write off 2006, in part because the Tigers and White Sox have been so good, but they're not nearly as bad as their 40-47 record. They've outscored their opponents by 45 runs while playing one of the tougher schedules in the game. Some of the gap between those figures is due to a poor bullpen performance at the start of the year, but this is still a good baseball team. They need to tweak around the edges rather than start over, and could well win this division in 2007. Quite frankly, the AL Central is about to be one very big nightmare.

--

I'll be doing a live diary of today's All-Star game, starting at 5 p.m. Pacific time. Click the "Prospectus Today" link on the front page for updates throughout the game. I promise to do no interviews of fake ballplayers and stage no advertising gimmicks disguised as fan signage. That alone should put reading me well ahead of the actual game broadcast.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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