Posted by: mdegeorge | July 14, 2011

National League Midseason Diagnosis

The All-Star Game is in the books, the divots left by Heath Bell’s rotund sliding entry in Chase Field have been filled and Major Leaguers are ready to get back at it after a brief hiatus in the grind that is the season.

But before the second half of the season and the stretch drive to the playoffs kicks off, we’ve got some awards to hand out from the opening 90 or so games.

Pittsburgh's Andrew McCutchen. (Courtesy of Creative Commons)

First up, the senior circuit:

MVP: Andrew McCutchen. If we’re going for straight value to a team, than it has to be the Pirates young centerfielder. McCutchen ranks third in baseball with a Wins Above Replacement Player (WAR) of 5.1; the next closest Pirate is at 1.3 (Neil Walker). He’s hitting .291 with a .390 on-base percentage, 14 homers and 54 RBIs as the heartbeat of the surprise story of the season. He’s also among the best defensive outfielders in baseball with an Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) of 8.3, sixth in the bigs and third among outfielders. He’s the player who is the most valuable to any of the NL contenders.

Honorable mention: Prince Fielder (the chic choice and All-Star Game MVP isn’t even the clear team MVP – he’s actually third on Milwaukee in WAR behind Rickie Weeks and the guy I’ll mention in a moment – despite his .297 average, 22 homers, 72 RBIs); Matt Kemp (despite playing for a last-place team, Kemp has started to realize some of his great promise with great number of .313/22/67 plus a big’s fourth-best total of 27 stolen bases in 30 attempts); Ryan Howard (though not an All-Star much to the ire of some, Howard is tied for the NL lead in RBIs with Fielder to go along with 18 homers while facing the second lowest percentage of fastballs in the bigs and being force to pace an otherwise faltering and injury-riddled Phillies offense); Ryan Braun (equally as impressive as Fielder has been Braun, who lags behind Fielder in his power numbers – 16 homers and 62 RBIs – largely due to nine fewer games played; he has a higher WAR – 4.1 to Fielder’s 3.7 – plus a .310 average and the 12th-highest stolen base total in the bigs with 19); Jose Reyes (though he’s on the DL with a bad hamstring, he’s largely responsible for the Mets being a game over .500 through an tumultuous first half in a division that boasts two of the three best teams in baseball; he’s hitting .354 with 65 runs scored, an MLB-high 15 triples and 30 stolen bases, second-most in baseball).

LVP: Jayson Werth. Sure, the Washington outfielder’s numbers are slightly better than those of some of the runners-up. But none of them come with a $126-million price tags and the hopes of bringing legitimacy to a long-struggling franchise. Instead he’s brought a mere 10 home runs, 31 RBIs and a .215 BA to an otherwise overachieving Nats team. Add in sub-par defense, strikeouts in 22.8 of his plate appearances and very public spats with now-departed manager Jim Riggleman, and you’ve got a disaster in the nation’s capital.

Dishonorable mention: Dan Uggla (despite belting 15 homers, the big-money second baseman is hitting well under the Mendoza line at .185, has just 34 RBIs and is firmly entrenched as one of the position’s biggest defensive liabilites); Raul Ibanez (the 39-year-old has the third-worst WAR in the bigs at -1.1, a .241 batting average that includes two brutal 0-fer stretches and a Fielding Runs Above Replacement (RAR) of -16.1 runs); Casey McGehee (Brewers third baseman has a negative WAR, .223 average, only five homers and 36 RBIs in 358 plate appearances); Kosuke Fukudome (lowest on the WAR scale of many struggling Cubs, Fukudome has a mere 12 RBIs in over 300 plate appearances while also contributing the 10th-worst fielding WAR in baseball).

Cy Young: Roy Halladay. Jair Jurrjens has more wins, and Cole Hamels has a lower ERA. But Halladay is the ace of the Phillies staff and deserves the edge halfway home. He’s 11-3 with a 2.45 ERA, a 1.02 walks-per-innings-pitched ratio (WHIP) and 143.1 innings pitched, the fourth-highest total in the league but highest among those making 19 starts. His WAR value of 5.1 leads baseball; the next closest NL pitcher is Hamels at 4.1. He’s had to battle more on the mound this year, often grinding out starts against the opposing team’s front-end guys; he hasn’t always been dominant, but he’s always been impressive for his ability to fight through. And it helps that teammate and fellow candidate Hamels has gotten almost an extra run of support per game (79 to 64 in 19 starts each).

Honorable mention: Cole Hamels (has been terrific as the Phillies third starter, going 11-4 with a 2.32 ERA and a microscopic WHIP of 0.93); Jair Jurrjens (leads the NL in wins with 12 despite making only 16 stars and carries an NL-best 1.87 ERA; his WAR though is low at 2.3 and his tERA, an projection of ERA that seeks to eliminate the influence of defense, is much higher at 3.76, suggesting a lot of his success this year is attributable to the team behind him); Joel Hanrahan (26 for 26 in save opportunities with a 1.34 ERA and a 0.92 WHIP is pretty darn impressive).

Cy Youch: J.A. Happ. The kid has talent and is a promising young pitcher. But it’s just not happening so far in 2011. He has the second-highest ERA in the bigs among pitchers eligible for the title at 5.76. He’s 3-11 with the woeful Astros and is averaging barely five innings per outing. He’s also averaging a dubious 4.77 walks per nine innings, the highest among pitchers qualifying for the ERA title, which contributes to an inflated WHIP of 1.57, again the worst in the bigs.

Dishonorable mention: Brett Myers (at least Happ makes Myers’ numbers – 3-9, 4.88 ERA, 1.37 WHIP – look better, though there’s cushioning the blow of the 23 long balls he’s served up); Javier Vazquez (the Marlins’ acquisition has been a major disappointment, going 5-8 with a 5.23 ERA on a team that can seem to do nothing right); Bronson Arroyo (though he is 7-7, Arroyo sports the third-worst ERA in baseball at 5.58, a WHIP of 1.40 and an MLB-wort 25 homers allowed; the worse news is that his tERA is even worse at 6.01); Ryan Franklin (at least the others are still employed unlike Franklin, who was first booted from the Cardinals’ closer’s role before being given his outright release in a season which he allowed 27 runs in 27.2 innings pitched, blowing four of five save chances, picking up four losses and toting a WHIP of 1.84).

Story of the first half: Pittsburgh Pirates. Sept. 7 was the day the Pirates won their 47th game in 2010; they have that already in 2011 and are four games over .500, the latest they’ve been at that mark in almost two decades. They’re very much in the thick of the NL Central race just a half game off the pace surrounded by several teams unable or unwilling to make a move. Andrew McCutchen has led a number of maturing players like Jose Tabata and Neil Walker. There have been several renaissances in the pitching staff, including Jeff Karstens (7-4, 2.55 ERA), Charlie Morton (7-5, 3.80) and a great pick-up in Kevin Correia (11-7, 4.01) to complement the lights-out closing of Joel Hanrahan (26-26 in saves with a 1.34 ERA).

Comeback Player: Lance Berkman. Berkman’s numbers last season split between the final tumultuous months with his decade-long home of Houston and the Bronx read thus: .248, 14 HRs, 58 RBIs, 48 runs scored. Through the first half of 2011, he’s hit .290 with an NL-leading 24 homers, 63 RBIs and 54 runs scored. He was hampered by injuries and a contentious relationship with the Astros front office, who labeled him a quitter for not trying to recover from injuries fast enough and dealt him in an effort to dump salary and pick up prospects. With a fresh start in St. Louis, Berkman has had a rebirth, a classic late-career renaissance beneath the Gateway Arch, and has been one of the main reasons why the oft-injured Cardinals are in contention in the division.

Manager of the First Half: Clint Hurdle. The Pirates manager has done an excellent job keeping his young team together. He’s managed a pitching staff that contains very few proven commodities, and he has struck an interesting balance between young players like McCutchen, Tabata and Walker with veterans like Lyle Overbay and Matt Diaz (only four players have enough at bats to qualify for the batting title, a testament to Hurdle’s platooning and maneuvering). Most importantly, Hurdle has helped make baseball relevant for a highly disillusioned fanbase in the Steel City.

Honorable mention: Charlie Manuel (injuries to Chase Utley, Shane Victorino, Placido Polanco, Roy Oswalt, Brad Lidge, Jose Contreras and Ryan Madson have made Manuel’s feat of piloting the best team in the bigs at the break far more than just penciling an ace on the bottom line of his scorecard every day); Terry Collins (without ace Johan Sanatana having toed the rubber yet, 2010 No. 1 starter Mike Pelfrey struggling mightily, and injuries to Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran and David Wright, not to mention questions swirling over the team’s finances and ownership situation, Collins deserves much of the credit for the Mets’ .500 record in a very tough division).

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