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Houstonian Hardware: Astros whose first halves give them arguments for awards season

How the Astros’ stars of the first half are stacking up in the nascent awards discussions

MLB: All Star Game-National League at American League Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Despite how it might have felt at some points, the Astros currently have the second best record in the American League, sitting just a game behind the Yankees at 57-33 and on pace for their third straight season of over 100 wins. And you don’t get to that position without some strong individual performances. So with that, here’s a look at the players who have had the best first halves, and what it would take for them to seal the deal on a major award at the year’s end.

MVP: Alex Bregman

The case so far:

Bregman has followed up his breakout 2018 campaign, which saw him finish in fifth place in MVP voting, with a season that might even be an improvement. He’s tied for fourth in the AL in homers at 23, his .393 OBP is tied for third, and he’s top ten in slugging percentage. That all has him tied with Carlos Santana for second in wRC+ at 149, which is even more impressive when you factor in that Santana is a first baseman while Alex is playing a strong third base and filling in at shortstop in Carlos Correa’s absence. All in all, few other players can combine Bregman’s level of play with his quantity of playing time, which is why he’s second in the AL in WAR according to Fangraphs (3.8) and narrowly in fourth according to Baseball-Reference (4.2, 0.2 behind Matt Chapman and 0.1 behind Jorge Polanco).

What would it take for him to win the award?

Unfortunately, Bregman still plays in the same league as Mike Trout, who’s having another Troutian season and seems to be poised to take home his third MVP. Trout leads the AL in all of Bregman’s best categories: homers (31), OBP (.453), slugging (.646), and wRC+ (186). And he’s done that while playing a strong center field. Bregman won’t even be able to peel off more traditional voters, given that Trout also leads the league in RBI at 67 and has an average over .300 (Bregman’s respective 56 and .265 marks are fine, but still lower). Unless Alex unleashes his inner Trout or Mike misses significant time in the second half, we’ll probably have to be content with a strong second place showing here.

Cy Young: Gerrit Cole

The case so far:

Speaking of following up breakout 2018 seasons, Gerrit Cole may be positioning himself for a run at the Cy Young. Cole currently leads the AL in both strikeouts (170) and strikeout rate (36.7%), and he has a strong lead in xFIP (2.67, over a third of a run better than runner-up Shane Bieber) as well. FIP likes him as well, with his 3.00 mark in a close third place. He even does well in more traditional stats, like wins (9, tied eighth), ERA (3.09, sixth), opponent average (.206), WHIP (1.02, only 0.02 behind second place), and innings (116.2, 0.1 behind a tie for third). And of course, with stats like those, he clearly does well in both versions of WAR, with Fangraphs having him in a tie for second (3.4) and Baseball-Reference putting him ninth (2.6).

Of course, he’s not the only Astro pitching his way into the Cy Young conversation...

Cy Young: Justin Verlander

The case so far:

Recent All-Star Game starter Justin Verlander might even have the inside track on Cole as he searches for what would be somehow just his second career Cy Young Award (despite three runner-up finishes). He’s tied with Chris Sale for second place in the strikeout race, and trails only Trevor Bauer in innings pitched (132.0 to 126.2), although that combination means he’s a little further behind in the strikeout rate race (31.5%, fifth). His lower walk rate (5.6%, eighth) is also good, although his freakishly high home run rate (1.85/9, fourth-worst in the AL) means that his FIP looks a lot worse (4.19, seventeenth), although it’s balanced out a little by his xFIP (3.67, sixth). Baseball-Reference’s WAR has him in fourth with 3.7 (just 0.2 out of second place), although Fangraph’s FIP-based calculation likes him less (2.2, eleventh).

Of course, he might be able to pick up more “traditional” award voters than Cole, thanks to his 10 wins (one behind Lucas Giolito and Lance Lynn), a .167 opponent average (first), and sub-3.00 ERA (2.98, fourth in the AL and set to move up to third once recently-suspended Frankie Montas drops below the innings qualification). And then, there’s his WHIP, which at a league-leading 0.813, has been historic; there have only been a dozen or so pitcher-seasons with 100 innings in the first half and a lower mark.

Lowest first half WHIP, min. 100 IP

Rk Player Year G WHIP IP
Rk Player Year G WHIP IP
1 Clayton Kershaw 2016 16 0.727 121
2 Pete Alexander 1915 22 0.747 198
3 Christy Mathewson 1909 18 0.75 128
4 Reb Russell 1916 33 0.755 139
5 Mordecai Brown 1908 21 0.767 131.2
6 Pedro Martinez 2000 14 0.774 106
7 Greg Maddux 1995 14 0.776 104.1
8 Max Scherzer 2017 18 0.779 128.1
9 Max Scherzer 2015 18 0.78 132
10 Juan Marichal 1966 20 0.802 172
11 Dan Haren 2009 18 0.808 130
12 Cy Young 1908 19 0.809 162
13 Justin Verlander 2019 19 0.813 126.2
14 Eddie Cicotte 1917 26 0.817 178.2
15 Harry Krause 1909 13 0.821 102.1
16 Walter Johnson 1913 25 0.822 185
17 Dave McNally 1968 16 0.826 121
18 Denny McLain 1968 21 0.831 172
19 Sandy Koufax 1963 20 0.832 156.1
20 Justin Verlander 2018 21 0.835 137.2
From Baseball-Reference’s Play Index, dating back to 1908

What would it take for one of them to win the award?

No one has really asserted themselves in the Cy Young race so far they way Mike Trout has in the MVP race. Really, just repeating their first half stats should get them into the conversation. It feels like having a strong narrative behind your case has helped push some winners over the line in some recent years’ close races as well, so a strong stretch push into the playoffs from either should also help both of them, as well as leading the league in flashy categories like strikeouts or WHIP. Verlander’s long hunt for another award may also play into a narrative for his case, although that feels like it won’t be a huge bump for his chances.

The biggest catch for one of them specifically is Verlander’s luck on balls in play and with runners on; he’s currently maintaining a BABIP of .181 and a strand rate of 90.7%, both of which will be very difficult to uphold over a full season. Of course, if those get worse, it might be offset in part by a drop in his home runs allowed as well, further complicating matters.

Rookie of the Year: Yordan Álvarez

The case so far:

Sure, he hasn’t been in the majors that long yet, with under 20 games to his name, but we’re all pretty aware of the majesty that is Yordan at this point. 19 games played, 7 doubles and home runs, a .342/.415/.726 batting line, and a 198 wRC+. Both versions of WAR have him at 1.0 or more WAR already.

What would it take for him to win the award?

The biggest thing in Álvarez’s favor so far is that no one in the AL Rookie race has jumped out to an early lead the way that Pete Alonso or Fernando Tatis, Jr. have in the NL. Some drop-off from these heights is inevitable for Yordan, but he’s not so far behind that he’ll need to keep up an otherworldly 200 wRC+ over 100 games to close the gap.

All-Star John Means of the Orioles (2.93 ERA in 82.2 IP) or Spencer Turnbull of the Tigers (3.31 ERA in 89.2 IP) might stand out to some voters, but both have a noticeably higher FIP (3.93 each), so we may see some regression there in the second half. Rays All-Star second baseman Brandon Lowe is probably the stiffest competition he’ll face, but he’s also a very different player as a middle infielder with a 128 wRC+ who will have played most of the season (57 more games played), which makes it hard to compare them specifically without knowing the specifics yet. Yordan getting some eye-popping batting totals to go with those rate stats might help sway voters to him. And if he can stay healthy, he can get close to 100 games played to keep the gap between their playing times relatively minimal, and maybe even make things look somewhat like the Shohei Ohtani-Miguel Andujar race last year.

Manager of the Year: A.J. Hinch

The case so far:

It’s somewhat shocking that Hinch hasn’t won this award yet, but Houston is on pace to become just the sixth team ever to win 100 games three years in a row, so this could be a good time to recognize him for his team’s run. That he’s doing this in a year where the Astros have had to work around so many injuries and integrate so many minor leaguers into the core roster just makes it more impressive.

What would it take for him to win the award?

It’s a long shot. I’ve long thought that it’s kind of silly that the Manager of the Year just goes to the most surprising team with no real attempt to separate out how much of that surprise is due to the manager himself, but it is what it is at this point. Under that logic, it’s probably going to be hard to beat Chris Woodword of the Rangers or Rocco Baldelli of the Twins, both of whom are rookie skippers who have righted their teams after their prior mismanagement.

It sounds weird to phrase it this way, but the Astros have just been too good for too long for them to be surprising, so Hinch will have to continue to go unrecognized. His window was 2015, but he finished second that year to Rangers manager Jeff Bannister. Or maybe 2017, but he finished third that year behind winning Twins manager Paul Molitor. And on a less bitterly sarcastic note, the “held the team together through injuries” argument could probably also be applied to Aaron Boone, making things more complicated here.