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Picking the midseason awards for the American League

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Another baseball season, another round of surprising awards races. I mean, who actually had Mike Trout and Josh Donaldson in a fight for the Most Valuable Player award? Be honest, now.

Machado was very, very close, don't email me.
Machado was very, very close, don't email me.
Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

We’re more than halfway through the 2016 baseball season. How did that happen? Where are we? Are the Mariners, Yankees and Royals in first place, like I predicted? Is Sonny Gray leading the Cy Young race, making me look smart? How could we have possibly played 80+ baseball games already? Those things take a long time.

Baseball seasons happen fast, even though the games themselves happen slowly. Scientists call this phenomenon "Schoendienst’s Paradox." And now that the season is more than half over, and we’re at the traditional halfway point of the season, it’s time to hand out some fake awards. Who would win the four major individual awards in the American League if the season ended today?

MVP - Mike Trout

Oh, come on. This isn’t interesting. The worst part is that if it’s not Trout, it’s Josh Donaldson, who is becoming as predictably excellent. If there’s one thing that jams my narrative musket, it’s predictably excellent. Where are all the surprises?

But, no, it’s Trout again, considering he’s hitting, running and fielding as well as he ever has, which is saying an awful lot. He’s already passed Tim Salmon and David Justice in career WAR, and he’ll probably pass George Foster, Jim Rice and Lou Brock by the end of the year.

Trout will turn 25 next month.

We’re not handing out career awards here, though, so we’ll have to make the argument that Trout is the best choice for 2016. He’s leading in both rWAR and fWAR, of course, even if the lead is slim in both categories. But he’s playing for a lousy team that’s out of the race, which means that if the vote really were held today, Donaldson would probably win in a landslide. As the hypothetical question goes, how valuable can a player be to a team that’s not fighting for a postseason spot?

Very valuable, you nincompoops. Anyone who has to ask that question has never followed a bad team. It’s ludicrously valuable. Trout is making Angels fans care about baseball. Just as he always does. He does it better than just about anyone alive, and this is important to a franchise, regardless if they’re winning or losing 90 games.

Donaldson would also be a reasonable choice, of course. We’re talking about a .1 or .2 WAR difference, which is a mathematical belch. If these results hold for the rest of the year, it will mean that Trout will have one MVP award over his first five full seasons, even though he could arguably have five in a row. That’s ridiculous enough to put Trout over the top for me.

Here, Mike. It’s an SB Nation Midseason MVP Award. Treasure this certificate always, and remember that some of us appreciate what you do.

Rookie of the Year - Michael Fulmer

Even though he’s thrown just 76⅔ innings, Fulmer is the easy pick here, and he would also pick up Cy Young votes if the season ended today. There are reasons to be skeptical that he’ll continue preventing runs quite like this — he’s stranding runners on base at an unsustainable rate, for one — but nothing that would make you think he won’t continue to be the favorite for Rookie of the Year.

The Mets are happy with Yoenis Cespedes. The Tigers are happy with Fulmer. This is how all deadline trades should work out.

Runners up include Ryan Dull, Nomar Mazara, Tyler Paquin, Hyun-soo Kim, Dae-ho Lee and Cheslor Cuthbert in the conservatory with a candlestick.

Cy Young - Danny Salazar

I’m biased toward Chris Sale, if only because his delivery reminds me of a model train derailing in zero gravity. And I do enjoy that so. So now that I have my conclusion, let’s see if I can find some stats that support it. I’m told that most journalism works this way.

rWAR
Salazar, 1st (3.8)
Sale, 13th (2.6)

That’s a substantial difference. I have interns working on a way to send this top-10 list back in time to 2014:

So many questions. Where are all the normal Cy Young candidates? How did Trevor Bauer conquer his control demons? Isn’t Colby Lewis almost 40 by 2016? What’s a Michael Fulmer? And isn’t it weird that there’s a young pitcher with the same name as that ex-Cubs lefty who’s been out of the game for years?

fWAR
Sale, 4th (2.6)
Salazar, 7th (2.4)

Again, that’s basically a rounding error, so let’s call it a tie. The difference between the two WARs is that FanGraphs attempts to eliminate the defense from the metric, using FIP, which focuses on strikeouts, walks, innings pitched and home runs. Baseball-Reference’s metric uses runs allowed, regardless of what might have happened to the balls the pitcher allows in play. The right answer is probably somewhere in the middle.

These two are just ahead of all the other competitors for a host of reasons. Salazar leads the AL in ERA and adjusted ERA. Sale leads the AL in innings pitched, throwing roughly three starts more than Salazar (in terms of innings), and at least one start more than any other competitor, other than Corey Kluber.

Also, Kluber leads the AL in fWAR and FIP, complicating this whole mess. It wasn’t so complicated before Sale ran into the vaunted Braves buzzsaw over the weekend, boosting his ERA by almost a half-run. Still, Kluber has had five starts with five earned runs or more, which is a big reason the Indians are just 9-9 in his starts.

The gulf between Chris Tillman’s ERA and FIP weirds me out. Michael Fulmer hasn’t thrown enough innings, and neither have Bauer, Colby Lewis, or Rich Hill. Steven Wright leads the AL in ERA, but he also has 15 unearned runs, and we know that unearned runs don’t mean a heckuva lot less than earned runs. Masahiro Tanaka and Jose Quintana are close, but I’ll still take Salazar or Sale for the reasons listed above. And there are still about five to 10 candidates who aren’t even getting a mention, even if they deserve it.

This is a messy race. So for now, give me Salazar over all the above because of that full win he has over almost everyone according to Baseball-Reference’s WAR, the league-leading ERA and ERA+, and as a general nod to the entire Indians’ rotation, which has been stunning. This is a close enough race to be completely different in two weeks, and I hope for sanity’s sake that someone pulls ahead by the end of the season. I don’t want to read a million opinions on what’s basically a multi-sided coin flip.

Manager of the Year - A.J. Hinch

I want to do the lazy thing, where I look at the preseason predictions, look at the standings, and figure out which manager is leading the most surprising thing. Buck Showalter probably is the best manager in the AL, you know. The laziest award in baseball might get the right answer after all.

But in this case, I’ll give the award to the manager who had every reason to steer the flaming bandwagon into the tar pits after a rough start, who could have buried some of his stars having miserable years, but showed a steady, consistent leadership with a minimum amount of panic. The Astros were 8-18 at one point, seven games back after just a month of baseball. That could have been one toxic, fetid clubhouse.

Instead, they’re fine! Mostly fine. They’re still in the AL West race, and they’re just two back in the wild card standings. Hinch has weathered all kinds of storms, from Dallas Keuchel stinking to Ken Giles stinking to Carlos Gomez stinking, and he’s done so without overreacting.

Gomez has hit .250/.318/.417 since the start of June — not great, but certainly enough to keep him in the starting lineup. I’ll guess that it would have been far easier for Hinch, at least when it came to PR and fan frustration, to limit Gomez’s at-bats until he stumbled into some sort of hot streak. Instead, Gomez was his old self in June, and the Astros were, not coincidentally, 18-8 in the month. Hinch gets credit for that, just as he gets partial credit for turning around one of the most disappointing teams in baseball.

There are three more months of baseball to ruin all of these awards, of course. For now, though, it’s Trout, Salazar, Fulmer and Hinch. You were expecting only one of those names at the start of the season, which is why this is all so much fun. Remind me in eight months that none of us should never, ever make another prediction again.