More than halfway through the 2018 season, executives still aren’t quite sure what to make of the National League. Only one team is playing .600 baseball. No teams are under .400, the accepted threshold of a very bad baseball team. The two biggest bats in the league, Bryce Harper and Kris Bryant, haven’t hit for average or power, respectively. The MVP race is a muddled, jumbled mess with no clear-cut favorite.
On the other hand, there are 10 teams at .500 or better, opening the gate for one whale of a trade season and pennant chase. Plus, early MVP coronations are boring. And how about this: After 14 consecutive seasons in which the American League wrecked the NL in interleague play, the NL this season is 91-76 with a +51 run differential. Not only has the star-studded AL been inferior, it has been decidedly so.
Come October, the World Series favorites will reside in the AL, a league with four playoff teams ostensibly set and the final spot not a particularly close race, either. The Houston Astros, New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, in some order, will be pegged the best teams. Should they run the AL gauntlet, the Cleveland Indians’ on-paper talent matches up with the best the NL offers in that regard: the Chicago Cubs, Los Angeles Dodgers and Washington Nationals, all of whom at one point or another this season have reminded that paper means nothing.
On paper, for example, is Yahoo Sports’ first-half NL MVP ballot, which includes 10 players from 10 teams, a perfect illustration of the league. That there are no Cubs, one Dodger and one National, and while …
1. Max Scherzer is the furthest thing from an obvious choice, he is the right one. No position player in the NL has distinguished himself clearly enough to separate from Scherzer. There’s a fair argument to be made that the only person to have a better half than Scherzer was another pitcher, Jacob deGrom.
The NL MVP ballot:
- Max Scherzer
- Nolan Arenado
- Jacob deGrom
- Freddie Freeman
- J.T. Realmuto
- Max Muncy
- Aaron Nola
- Lorenzo Cain
- Eugenio Suarez
- Paul Goldschmidt
Arenado’s detractors point to an OPS 300 points higher at Coors Field than on the road. It’s a fair point. The truth is, his first half isn’t all that distinguishable from any of the players in the top 10 – or those left on the outside, like Ozzie Albies and Javier Baez (the .320-something on-base percentages are killers) or Trea Turner.
Want to argue someone different than …
2. Max Scherzer for NL MVP? Fine. Want to argue against him for NL Cy Young? Well, there’s a decent-enough case there, too.
It comes down to a pair of questions: How does one value innings pitched against peripheral numbers? Admittedly, both have pretty spectacular peripherals. Scherzer is striking out 12.48 batters per nine innings – a pace that, if he pitches his typical 220 innings, would leave him with more than 300 strikeouts this year. DeGrom isn’t far behind at 11.08 per nine. Their walk rates are identical: 2.26 per nine. Scherzer has allowed nearly twice as many home runs (13) as deGrom (seven), though, and that difference is significant.
So is the one between Scherzer’s 127 2/3 innings and deGrom’s 115 1/3. While a dozen innings doesn’t seem like a lot, in a race this close, it’s an extra 37 outs – an extra 37 opportunities that deGrom did not have, meaning those outs needed to be made by a lesser pitcher. Part of pitching excellence is the ability to sustain it, and Scherzer’s wins the day.
The NL Cy Young ballot:
- Max Scherzer
- Jacob deGrom
- Aaron Nola
- Patrick Corbin
- Josh Hader
Hader more than deserves his inclusion. While I rarely acknowledge relievers against their significantly more valuable peers in rotations, Hader’s malleable role, combined with his sheer dominance, plus a big drop-off after Corbin among NL starters, made it a gimme. If only the choice of …
3. Chris Sale as first-half AL Cy Young was so easy. I’ve got one of the 30 AL Cy Young ballots at the end of the season, and if it’s anything like this, it’s going to be painful to fill out. At first, I had Luis Severino. Then I had Trevor Bauer. Then I decided to make a formula to emphasize what I felt were the most important characteristics, and most applicable metrics, and the results were different than I expected.
The AL Cy Young ballot:
- Chris Sale
- Justin Verlander
- Trevor Bauer
- Luis Severino
- Gerrit Cole
Here’s how I came to that conclusion. I took seven pitchers – the five above, plus Cleveland’s Corey Kluber and Tampa Bay’s Blake Snell – and ranked them in 10 categories: innings per start, strikeout rate, walk rate, home run rate, ERA, batting average on balls in play, defensive efficiency of their team, batting average against, OPS against and DRA, which is Baseball Prospectus’ Deserved Run Average metric.
Each of these was weighted. I believe strikeout rate and home run rate are the two most important, so the best pitcher in each was given seven points for being in first, then had that number multiplied by three. Walk rate was rated 2.5x. ERA, DRA and IP/GS were 2x. Batting average and OPS against were 1x. And BABIP and a team’s ability to turn batted balls into outs were .5x.
Among the seven, Sale was the clear winner. So I excised Kluber and Snell, the bottom two, and ran it again. The results were the same. Sale in first on the strength of his big strikeout numbers, tiny walk rate, reasonable home run rate and the pure inability of hitters to square him up. Verlander was closer in the second iteration, with Bauer faring well in the rate categories but worst in average and OPS against – perhaps on account of a BABIP that 55 points higher than the average of the others. Should that come down, he could have an even bigger second half than he did first and make the real vote even harder than this faux version.
One decidedly easier vote was …
4. Mike Trout as AL MVP.
The AL MVP ballot:
- Mike Trout
- Mookie Betts
- Jose Ramirez
- Francisco Lindor
- Aaron Judge
- J.D. Martinez
- Chris Sale
- Justin Verlander
- Trevor Bauer
- Jose Altuve
There’s not a whole lot to say. Mike Trout is the best player of his generation, and he’s having the best year of his career. Lindor would be the runaway MVP in the NL right now, and he’s not within sniffing distance of Trout. The fact that Betts and Ramirez are speaks to their incredible seasons – and as I said in my All-Star pick column, Ramirez, like his teammate Bauer, has a poor BABIP. If his luck evens out, look out. He might even make …
5. Max Muncy look like a slouch. And yes. It’s true. Max freaking Muncy has a better on-base percentage (.407 to .395) and slugging percentage (.610 to .590) than Jose Ramirez.
No, this category is not Rookie of the Year. Muncy exhausted his eligibility in 2015. This is Most Improved Player – one of my replacements for the worst award the Baseball Writers Association of America hands out, Manager of the Year. This is not to say managers deserve no recognition. They do. I’ve always just found it difficult to objectively measure managers, and I think my writing brethren would agree. What does one measure against? Personal expectations … which might’ve been wildly wrong or misinformed to begin with? In-game strategy … which may be dictated by circumstances that are unknown publicly?
This does not make managers beyond reproach; on the contrary, it’s a sign that more light can be shone on the difficulty of managers’ jobs. They are not button-pushing automatons. They also are not the free-wheeling strongmen of years past. There’s an in-between that I’d like to know more about – and an analytical element that tends to be overlooked by a community that treats managers as pawns.
Highlighting the most improved player, on the other hand, is far easier – and Muncy, who for my money was an even more egregious All-Star snub than Snell, earns it easily.
The Most Improved Player ballot:
- Max Muncy
- Blake Snell
- Blake Treinen
- Mitch Haniger
- Albert Almora
- Ross Stripling
- Kyle Schwarber
- Mike Foltynewicz
- Kyle Freeland
- Eugenio Suarez
A few words on Snell, too. It is true that he belongs in the All-Star Game. I had him on my team. However, some of the measures being used don’t exactly line up with what we know about the game today. I could not care less that Snell’s 12 wins are tied for second in the league. Pitcher wins over half a season indicate nothing other than a guy pitched well and his team scored runs. Was Snell better than Sale or Verlander, each of whom has won nine games? No.
Now, Snell’s 2.09 ERA is the best in the league, and that counts for a lot. It’s why his agent, Tripper Johnson, was absolutely on point when he told Yahoo Sports: “This is a guy that certainly deserves to be there. I might be a little biased. He’s putting together an incredible year. There’s a strong argument he should be starting the game.” The pitcher with the best ERA in the league certainly does warrant consideration.
If nothing else, the inclusion of Bauer – whose near-snub would’ve been even worse and who made the team after Verlander was yanked because he’s expected to pitch Sunday – only helps Snell. Bauer, too, is slated to pitch Sunday, which leaves an opportunity for Snell to fill the void.
Here’s the thing: The criticism from Snell’s teammate, Chris Archer, about players needing to do a better job selecting, while well-intentioned, overlooked the fact that the starting pitchers chosen by the players were: Sale, Verlander, Severino, Kluber and Cole. Which is pretty spot-on. Kluber finished well ahead of Snell for sixth in my Cy Young ballot earlier.
Where it went wrong was the league’s choices. It filled out the pitching staff with Toronto’s J.A. Happ, Minnesota’s Jose Berrios, Detroit’s Joe Jimenez and Oakland’s Blake Treinen. Anyone who says the first three deserve an All-Star bid over Snell should be tested for something or laughed out of the room. Happ got his spot because the Blue Jays are a mess, and Berrios and Jimenez were chosen because the Texas Rangers needed someone to make the team, and Shin-Soo Choo was given the outfield spot that deserved to go to the Twins’ Eddie Rosario or Tigers’ Nick Castellanos.
Really, the villain is the every-team-gets-a-representative rule. It exists to serve the underserved franchises of the baseball world, to ensure every fan feels represented, even if that representation comes in the form of a guy who doesn’t exactly fulfill the “Star” part of All-Star.
Hey, at least they’re still major leaguers, which is more than …
6. Miguel Sano can say. Sano’s demotion by the Minnesota Twins put him right at the front of another new category: Most Disappointing Player.
The Most Disappointing Player ballot:
- Miguel Sano
- Dexter Fowler
- Robinson Cano
- Orlando Arcia
- Greg Holland
- Lucas Giolito
- Amed Rosario
- Luis Castillo
- Trey Mancini
- Jonathan Schoop
For all those clamoring to see Bryce Harper on this list: Toss aside the batting average for a moment and look at the next two triple-slash numbers: .374 and .472. Those are well above average on-base and slugging percentages, and while they’re disappointing vis-à-vis what Harper has done, they’re not bad enough to get him banished to the minors, like a number of players on this list, or get them called out by the team’s GM, like Fowler. There’s disappointment of all kinds here – prospects who didn’t pan out, live arms that can’t get guys out and, as is the case with most bad baseball lists, at least a couple Orioles. And yet none of it matches up to what a 22-year-old named …
7. Gareth Morgan has done in the low reaches of the minor leagues this season. Morgan is a monster athlete, 6-foot-4, 220 pounds, rangy enough to play center field. He’s got big power, enough that the Seattle Mariners drafted him 74th overall in 2014.
What Morgan has done is so incredible it supersedes that of every major league accomplishment to earn the Most Amazing Number of the first half. Actually, it’s quite a few numbers. The first: Morgan has struck out in all 66 games he has played this season. The second, even better: In 235 at-bats this season, he has punched out 154 times. And actually, for those who care to include his final six games last season, the streak is at 72 games with 166 strikeouts in 260 at-bats.
The Most Amazing Number ballot:
- Gareth Morgan strikes out in 65.5 percent of his at-bats.
- The Baltimore Orioles are on pace to go 44-118 and the Kansas City Royals 46-116.
- Going into Sunday, MLB teams this season had combined for 22,313 hits and 22,619 strikeouts.
- The sport is on pace to lose 4.15 million in attendance from last season, the largest year-over-year drop since the financial crisis hit in 2008.
- Mariners 2B/OF Dee Gordon is walking in 1.7 percent of his plate appearances, which would be the lowest rate since 1997 and fifth-lowest in the last century.
The palindromic walk rate of 7.1 percent owned by …
8. Gleyber Torres is only part of what makes him special. Really, it’s more the power, and that shows up in spades among AL Rookie of the Year candidates.
The AL Rookie of the Year ballot:
- Gleyber Torres
- Miguel Andujar
- Shohei Ohtani
It was difficult – well, difficult as far as picking mid-ballot Rookie of the Year candidates goes, which isn’t altogether difficult, you whiner – to exclude good ol’ Max Stassi, if only to highlight the fact that he has been a major league player every year since 2013 and is still a rookie. Stassi is like the guy who keeps going back to college and never graduating … and then all of a sudden he’s super smart and taking advanced courses and threatening to make the AL All-Star team.
Torres did make it as a player pick despite spending the first three weeks of the season in the minor leagues. Since then, it’s been rather obvious: Torres, even on this Yankees team threatening to break the all-time home run record, is a star. To say the same of …
9. Brian Anderson would be an exaggeration, and even though it’s obvious that the player behind him in my NL Rookie of the Year choice is a superior player, he simply hasn’t contributed as much as Anderson in the first half.
The NL Rookie of the Year ballot:
- Brian Anderson
- Juan Soto
- Harrison Bader
Anderson is a good player. Soto is a great one. Anderson is approaching 400 plate appearances. Soto hasn’t even logged 200. So while I fully expect Soto’s name to be engraved into this award by the end of the season, these are the first-half awards, and the volume of Anderson’s contributions outweigh the splendor of Soto’s. Which is all well and good to …
10. Max Scherzer, seeing as he gets to watch them and enjoy them on a daily basis. Scherzer sees ridiculous amounts of talent all around him. Anthony Rendon, at third base, is among the game’s purest hitters. Trea Turner, so exciting and deserving of an All-Star spot, is a dynamo at shortstop. Daniel Murphy, once he gets back to full health, is such a tough out at second. Adam Eaton in center. Harper in right. Soto in left. Ryan Zimmerman or Matt Adams or Mark Reynolds, who just had 10 RBIs in a game over the weekend, can patrol first base. And that’s not even talking about the rotation and bullpen depth.
That the Nationals are merely 45-44 after Sunday’s loss to the Marlins is so 2018 NL. No one’s great. No one’s awful. It’s all just one big meh.
Though it must be remembered: Meh isn’t always bad. This is baseball. Meh wins games. Meh wins championships. Baseball is a slog that turns into a sprint, which means even the most meh team can get hot at the right time and win a ring. It makes the next few weeks of wheeling and dealing that much more important and only adds to the excitement of the two months after that. In the middle of it will be Scherzer and Harper and Bryant and all of the others who care to lay supremacy in a National League with a pennant and MVP up for grabs.
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