- Buster Olney, Senior Writer, ESPN Insider
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I recently bumped into a longtime evaluator who offered an interesting handicap on the National League Most Valuable Player race. "Right now," he said, "Yadier Molina is the league MVP, hands down."
Over the next week to 10 days, every team will play its 81st game and reach the midpoint of the season, and the races for the major awards are starting to take form.
It’s possible to win the MVP or the Cy Young Award with a mad finish, like Vladimir Guerrero did in 2004, but as the use of statistical analysis deepens, the more the broad, season-long view of performance will be weighted -- not only by teams, but also by the writers who vote, who have demonstrated they will pick and choose. We saw this in 2010, when voters ignored Felix Hernandez's 13-12 record and gave him the AL Cy Young Award. Of course, the same electorate ignored WAR and leaned on traditional numbers to select Miguel Cabrera over Mike Trout last year.
NL MVP: Yadier Molina, Cardinals
He leads the NL batting race, with a .353 average, and among catchers he has the highest OPS. Remember, his offensive production is regarded as a complementary part of what he provides. He is renowned for his ability to handle a pitching staff -- and the Cardinals’ work has been excellent this season -- and for positioning the defense, and for shutting down the running games of opposing teams.
Think about this number, which isn’t necessarily related to Molina’s MVP candidacy in 2013 but demonstrates the impact of his presence in a game. Since the start of 2006, these are the fewest stolen-base attempts against major league teams:
1. Cardinals: 645
2. Twins: 860
3. Reds: 863
4. Mets: 877
5. Diamondbacks: 889
6. Astros: 901
7. Mariners: 951
8. Brewers: 955
9. Nationals: 960
10. Orioles: 960
It’s hard to measure exactly what a great catcher provides, but there’s more than enough to support the scout’s view that as of now, Molina’s the front-runner.
The others in the conversation:
2. Paul Goldschmidt, Diamondbacks
3. Carlos Gonzalez, Rockies
4. David Wright, Mets
5. Joey Votto, Reds
AL MVP: Miguel Cabrera, Tigers
The guy is hitting .370, without the benefit of infield hits or being able to swing from the left side of the plate. And, by the way, he currently leads the AL in WAR.
2. Chris Davis, Orioles
3. Evan Longoria, Rays
4. Manny Machado, Orioles (second in AL in WAR)
5. Mike Trout, Angels
NL Cy Young Award: Matt Harvey, Mets
He’s got a 2.05 ERA, which is second best in the NL behind Jeff Locke, and he leads in WHIP and in strikeouts.
2. Adam Wainwright, Cardinals (leads NL pitchers in WAR)
3. Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers (career 2.42 ERA in the second half)
AL Cy Young Award: Max Scherzer, Tigers
He’s second in the league in WHIP, and in strikeouts. And he seems to be getting better as the season rolls along.
2. Yu Darvish, Rangers
3. Clay Buchholz, Red Sox (although he is drifting back because of his time on the disabled list)
Around the league
From ESPN Stats & Info, how Hellickson ended Toronto's winning streak:
A) Hellickson induced a career-high 14 outs on his changeup without allowing a hit. The 14 changeup outs are tied for the second most by any pitcher on changeups this season (John Danks, 16).
B) Hellickson started 19 of 24 hitters with a first-pitch strike (79 percent), his highest percentage in more than two years. He didn’t go to a single 2-0 count for the first time this season.
C) Hellickson threw 66 percent of his fastballs down in the zone, his highest percentage since his rookie season in 2010. He induced 10 groundouts, tied for his second most in the past two seasons.
There are more adjustments to come from opposing pitchers, given Puig’s hyper-aggression at the plate. His rate of swinging at pitches outside of the strike zone is over 40 percent, which is very high, but not at the rate of hitters like Pablo Sandoval and A.J. Pierzynski.
When the pitch is inside the strike zone, his rate of swinging is the highest in the majors.
And as the pitchers try to adjust, so, too, will Puig.
From ESPN Stats & Info: Two of Puig’s three hits Monday, including his go-ahead HR in the first and his go-ahead single in the eighth, came early in the at-bat, something Puig has made a habit out of this season. All of his extra-base hits and homers have come within the first three pitches of a plate appearance. He’s hitting "only" .286 after the plate appearance reaches four pitches, including .214 with two strikes.
Other assorted Puig notes:
1) He’s hitting .688 (11-for-16) in the first inning this season.
2) Five of his seven homers have been to right field; no other righty has more than three such homers since Puig’s MLB debut.
3) Puig leads all of baseball in batting average (.442) and hits (34) and ranks second in slugging (.753) since his debut on June 3.
4) The Dodgers are now 5-1 in games in which Puig has homered this season.
• We are re-learning this summer that even with the advances of modern medicine and the remarkable understanding doctors have of how the body works, what they present remains an educated guess, because of all the variables involved.
The belief was that Mark Teixeira would be able to play sometime in early May, and instead he took longer than that. Now, after coming back, he’s still apparently not right and could be headed for season-ending wrist surgery.
• There’s nothing new happening in the contract talks of Robinson Cano, he said, after first saying he’ll be a free agent at the end of the season.
Moves, deals and decisions
The baseball industry has managed young arms carefully in recent years, the most notable case being the Nationals' controversial decision to shut down Stephen Strasburg after their ace reached a predetermined innings limit last season despite the Nationals being in the midst of a postseason chase.
Does Cole face a similar innings cap if he remains with the Pirates?
Neal Huntington declined to answer Monday when asked if a specific innings cap for Cole exists, but the Pirates' GM indicated Cole is a considerable distance from reaching his workload limit.
"Part of our development plan is to build guys accordingly so that when they get to the big leagues, they are hopefully in a position to be able to log the innings without the media attention that some have gotten," Huntington said. "If he ever gets to his workload limit, we'll let you know."
One lesson that the rest of the industry gleaned from the Strasburg debate last year: Don’t talk about innings limitations.
2. The Indians called up a reliever.
3. The Reds’ next stretch of games could impact the deadline talks.
5. Mike Kickham was called up to be part of the Giants’ rotation.
1. Jonathan Papelbon blew another save chance. It’s worth repeating: The Phillies are crazy if they don’t at least field offers and consider trading him right now, when there’s a lack of available closers in the market and they have a chance to step away from the back end of his contract.
From Ryan Lawrence’s story:
Papelbon, who had converted 13 straight save chances to begin the season, has blown 4 of his last 5 save opportunities. "He’s in a little funk," manager Charlie Manuel said. "Things aren’t going his way right now."
"It's not any tougher than any other situation I've been in," Papelbon said of his sudden cold spell. "I've been in this situation a million times before. I don't really carry previous ballgames into the next day. It's just not what I do. If you're a closer or relief pitcher or starter, if you take stuff into the next day, it gets out of hand."
2. The Indians are gathering momentum: they won again.
Dings and dents
5. Carlos Gomez avoided major injury the other day.
• Atlanta GM Frank Wren believes his offense will eventually click.
• Jeff Locke’s parents don’t watch him pitch, because they don’t have the baseball package, while living in their little New England town. Nice piece by Michael Sanserino.
• It’s the Cubs’ time in the spotlight.
• Arizona starts a stretch in which it’ll play 20 games in 20 days, writes Steve Gilbert.
• The Padres continue to push toward the top of the NL West.
• Colorado’s bullpen could soon get a boost.
• The Astros are set to face a whole lot of contenders.
• Last fall, executives spoke of how the shift of the Astros to the AL West would affect pennant races, and Benjamin Hoffman details how that is playing out.
And today will be better than yesterday.