BY BOB KLAPISCH
Alex Rodriguez is bidding for AL Comeback Player of the Year and maybe more with his incredible first half for the Yankees.
The first half ended on a high note for both the Yankees and Mets and we’ll be the first to cop to being surprised by the standings. The Bombers in first place? A race in Flushing? Nope, never saw it coming.
Then again, what’s summer without a little shock value. You may love Alex Rodriguez or shake your fist at the cosmos as he keeps smoking one home run after another. But, come on, who really knew he had a comeback season like this still in him?
There were compelling story lines throughout the industry, too. The Astros were finally caught by the Angels in the AL West, but their success over the first three months nevertheless cemented the axiom that intelligent drafting and player development trumps bloated, mindless budgets. The same goes for the Pirates, who took three of four from the Cardinals this weekend and continue to make them sweat.
We loved Max Scherzer walking the walk for the Nationals, and were impressed — OK, awed — by Chris Sale’s strikeout-per-nine-inning ratio. Mike Trout is a latter day Mickey Mantle and Joe Maddon is a man of his word; he promised the Cubs would be relevant again. And they are. Still, it’s hard to pass over Mike Matheny, a billboard of consistency in St. Louis.
The narratives are incomplete, of course, but that doesn’t mean we can’t take stock of who excelled (and who didn’t) in the first half, and take a semi-educated guess about what to look for in the weeks ahead.
AL CY YOUNG: Chris Sale, White Sox
We could’ve easily picked Houston’s Dallas Keuchel and perhaps should have. But Sale’s arsenal, along with that asymmetrical delivery, is just toxic to hitters. He leads the AL in strikeouts and WHIP. No one wants to face him.
NL CY YOUNG: Max Scherzer, Nationals
The right-hander has lived up to every expectation and then some, practically carrying the Nationals to first place. The 0.78 WHIP says it all: It’s nearly impossible to get on base against Scherzer, let alone mount a meaningful rally. Zack Greinke’s 1.39 ERA is other-worldly, but Scherzer is the more dominant of the two.
AL MVP: Mike Trout, Angels
Just like with the Cy Young vote, we were tempted to go in another direction – specifically toward Toronto’s Josh Donaldson – but the Angels would’ve never caught the Astros this past week without Trout’s sustained brilliance. No need to recite the long list of stats, although here’s one: He leads the AL with a .614 slugging percentage. Trout is simply at another level.
NL MVP: Bryce Harper, Nationals
Harper is the NL’s equivalent of Trout, and maybe then some. The Nats’ slugger is already at a career high in homers and his 1.168 OPS leads the majors. The only player in this century who’s finished with a higher OPS is Barry Bonds. Incredibly, Harper is only 22 – younger, in fact, than any of the candidates for NL Rookie of the Year.
AL ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: Carlos Correa, Astros
Arguably the league’s best shortstop at age 20, one of the reasons the Astros were so successful until recently. Correa has been on the major league roster for only a month, but his impact has been extraordinary. Just watch: If the Astros make it to the postseason, Correa will be a legitimate MVP candidate.
NL ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: Joc Pederson, Dodgers
This would’ve been an easier pick a month ago before Pederson dipped into a severe slump. He’s batted only .118 in July, dropping to .230 for the season. Prior to that, Pederson was a strong choice ahead of the Cubs’ Kris Bryant, although he, too, has fallen off a bit. Chances are both will rebound in the second half.
AL MANAGER OF THE YEAR: A.J. Hinch, Astros
Outstanding job in making the Astros the AL’s most successful team until the recent six-game losing streak cost them first place. The culture change in Houston has occurred at every level and is likely to remain that way. With a core of talented rookies, including Correa, the Astros will be a force for years.
NL MANAGER OF THE YEAR: Mike Matheny, Cardinals
Adam Wainwright, Matt Adams, Jon Jay and Matt Holliday are all on the disabled list, yet the Cardinals have the majors’ best record and best run-differential. That’s no small miracle by Matheny, who is smart, well-spoken and well-respected in his own clubhouse.
AL COMEBACK PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Alex Rodriguez, Yankees
We’ve discussed this a million times; we know the lines by heart. You either think A-Rod is clean and deserving of redemption or on some new super-PED that’s turned him into Charles Atlas. We’re picking Door No. 1.
NL COMEBACK PLAYER OF THE YEAR: A.J. Burnett, Pirates
The right-hander’s ERA is less than half the 4.59 he posted with the Phillies in 2014 when he led the majors with 18 losses. Burnett is 7-3 this year and pitching like he’s decades younger than someone in his age-38 season.
YANKEES PLAYER TO WATCH: Jacoby Ellsbury
If Ellsbury can stay healthy, watch out, the Bombers might just run away in the East. He’s the best athlete on the roster by far, and changes the Yankees’ entire offensive profile when he’s in the lineup.
METS PLAYER TO WATCH: Steven Matz
Loved his debut – who didn’t? – but the torn lat muscle is a red flag. We’ll find out if Matz is a future star or just star-crossed and prone to chronic breakdowns.
AL MANAGER ON THE HOT SEAT: Bob Melvin, A’s
Hard to believe a Billy Beane-constructed team has the worst record in the AL. The A’s were supposed to be October-bound after several radical moves in the off-season. Someone will have to pay.
NL MANAGER ON THE HOT SEAT: Bryan Price, Reds
Just an awful, going-nowhere team run by an unimaginative man in the dugout.