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 DJ LeMahieu the first-half AL MVP? See what David Lennon has to say on that award and more

DJ LeMahieu #26 of the New York Yankees

DJ LeMahieu #26 of the New York Yankees follows through on a fourth inning two run home run against the Toronto Blue Jays at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday, June 26, 2019 in the Bronx borough of New York City. Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac

CLEVELAND — To anyone that actually figured out how the balloting for this year’s All-Star Game worked, congratulations. We can’t help but long for the days of those ballpark-distributed punch cards, when you could grab a giant stack and poke through the boxes with some kind of pointy device of your own choosing or design.

This year’s Midsummer Classic will go off Tuesday at Progressive Field without Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, two players worth a combined 10 All-Star appearances and $630 million. That’s probably the biggest upset of the first half, along with the slugging Twins being in control of the AL Central and the NL East turning out to be an underachieving dog pile of mediocrity.

And lest we forgot, the real MVP: the juiced baseball, which has been flying out of stadiums like a Titleist to this point. Commissioner Rob Manfred has pretty much acknowledged the ball — due to the nuances of handmade manufacturing — is more aerodynamic now, while a study done by The Athletic (conducted by an astrophysicist) found that this year’s version is smaller, wound tighter and with a smoother cover.

Something clearly is up, as the monthly home-run records are falling each time the calendar flips, and through Friday, MLB was on pace for 6,661 homers, a total that would blow away the yearly mark of 6,105, set in 2017. But if you’re still craving more dingers during the break, don’t forget to tune in Monday for the Home Run Derby.

Anyway, here’s a look at how my preseason predictions fared in relation to the leading candidates at the season’s official midway point. It also seems like my World Series pick of Yankees over Dodgers appears to be on the money.   

AMERICAN LEAGUE

MVP

Preseason pick: Aaron Judge, Yankees

Can’t really blame me for this one. When healthy, Judge is the heartbeat of the Yankees, and one of the sport’s most destructive hitters. Problem is, for the second straight year, he’s had trouble staying on the field, playing only 31 games through Friday because of a strained oblique. Over that period, Judge was hitting .291 with a .974 OPS, but he may not crack the top five as MVP on his own team.  

First half: DJ LeMahieu, Yankees

It would be easy to just give this to Mike Trout. Again. Over and over. For as long Trout puts on a uniform, he’ll probably be considered the game’s best player. But if we’re examining the intrinsic value to a championship contender, the pick is LeMahieu, who was hitting an uncanny .486 (36-for-74) with runners in scoring position as well as .520 (12-for-25) in what Fangraphs defines as high-leverage situation. He also was leading the AL with a .337 batting average through Friday and has played three different positions to help the Yankees flourish during their injury-ravaged first half. 

CY YOUNG

Preseason pick: Chris Sale, Red Sox

This is shaping up to be a huge whiff on my part. The thought process was that the hyper-competitive Sale would be raring to go after finishing last season on fumes, and aiming to show he’s worth the five-year, $145 million extension with the defending world champs. But Sale has been a major disappointment at 3-8 with a 4.04 ERA through his first 18 starts, calling his season so far “absolutely embarrassing.”  

First half: Justin Verlander, Astros

Verlander got edged out by the Rays’ Blake Snell last year, but at age 36, he’s shown no signs of slowing down in the role of Astros’ ace. Verlander (10-3) leads in the AL in both WHIP (0.79) and opponents batting average (.161). He’s second in innings (119 2/3) and fifth in ERA (2.86) and K/BB ratio (5.65). Hard to believe he’s only won this award once, in 2011, when he also earned the MVP.

MANAGER OF THE YEAR

Preseason pick: Rocco Baldelli, Twins

Finally, I came close to getting one right, or at least in the top two. And it usually pays off going with a product of the Rays’ system. Baldelli, in his first year, has proven to be the perfect managerial blend of analytics and former-player experience, a solid bridge between the Twins’ front office and the dugout. He’s helped guide them to surprising 23 games over .500 (54-32) through Friday and 6 1/2-game lead over the Indians.    

First half: Aaron Boone, Yankees

Boone is in a neck-and-neck race with Baldelli, but the odds are against him since a Yankees’ manager hasn’t won this award since Joe Torre in 1998. He probably didn’t get enough credit for the 100-win season in his first year, but you can’t discount his prominent role in keeping the Bronx machine running smooth despite having 22 players on the injured list at different points in the first half. 

ROOKIE OF THE YEAR

Preseason pick: Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Blue Jays

With the big name, and bigger hype, Guerrero was the chalk pick for this award, I must admit. Through 58 games, Guerrero has eight homers and 25 RBIs with a .740 OPS while showing off his awesome power with tape-measure blasts. That should be fun in Monday’s Derby, but he has some catching up to do in the award race.

First half: Brandon Lowe, Rays

Lowe signed a six-year, $24 million extension in spring training, and he’s making the Rays look smart — again — by earning an All-Star nod in the first half. His 2.5 WAR was tied with Gleyber Torres and behind only DJ LeMahieu among AL second baseman, with 16 homers and 49 RBIs.

NATIONAL LEAGUE

MVP

Preseason pick: Nolan Arenado, Rockies

There’s a reason the Rockies locked up Arenado with an eight-year, $260 million extension before this season began, and that’s because a perennial MVP contender deserves such a deal. Arenado is once again the complete package, hitting .318 through Friday with 20 homers, 67 RBIs and a .956 OPS while heading for his seventh Gold Glove. The guy in L.A., however, has the inside track so far.

First half: Cody Bellinger, Dodgers

Bellinger, 23, is doing it all for the Dodgers, who are on pace for 110 wins, as he’s at or near the top in every offensive category — and edging the Brewers’ own superman Christian Yelich for first-half MVP. Through his first 86 games, Bellinger is hitting for power (30 HRs, .707 SLG) and average (.344 -- a few points behind the Mets’ Jeff McNeil) with nearly identical run scored (70) and driven in (71).

CY YOUNG

Preseason pick: Max Scherzer, Nationals

You can never go wrong picking Scherzer, a three-time winner who finished second to Jacob deGrom’s historic performance a year ago. And Scherzer (8-5) appears to be on pace for No. 4 despite the Nats’ sketchy first half, as he’s ranked first with a 12.51 K/9, second with 0.66 HR/9 and fourth in both ERA (2.43) and WHIP (1.00). Scherzer also was leading the majors with 122 1/3 innings through 18 starts. 

First half: Hyun-jin Ryu, Dodgers

Ryu appeared to be in Cy Young contention last season, but missed nearly three months in the middle with a groin injury, and now he’s picked up where he left off with a brilliant first half. Ryu (10-2) ranked first in ERA (1.73), K/BB (9.90) and WHIP (0.91) through his first 17 starts despite another groin injury in April — his eighth trip to the IL in six seasons with the Dodgers. 

MANAGER OF THE YEAR

Preseason pick: Dave Martinez, Nationals

When the Nationals fired pitching coach Derek Lilliquist on May 2, it seemed to be only a matter of time before Martinez followed him out the door, given the club’s underachieving ways. But after sitting at 12 games under .500 (19-31) on May 23, the Nats surged to 45-41 before playing Friday and were in possession of a wild card spot. Quite a rebound for Martinez, who has benefited from the roster getting healthy and the bullpen improving significantly.  

First half: Brian Snitker, Braves

No manager has won this award in back-to-back seasons since the Braves’ Bobby Cox (2004-05) but Snitker may do it again for Atlanta. The defending NL East champs are back atop the division again and padding their lead. The Braves are middle of the pack age-wise in the majors, but they’re propelled by young superstars Ronald Acuna Jr., Ozzie Albies and Mike Soroka, so Snitker seems to be the right hand on the wheel.

ROOKIE OF THE YEAR

Preseason pick: Pete Alonso, Mets

The Alonso pick was based on video-game numbers in the minors last season as well as an impressive Grapefruit League campaign, and he’s proven both to be no fluke as one of the few things to go right for the Mets. Alonso had 29 homers through 87 games — nearly double the nearest NL rookie (15) — and his 3.4 WAR was comfortably ahead of the much-hyped Fernando Tatis Jr. (2.7). He’s also performed better defensively at first base than his own team gave him credit for. 

First half: Alonso

Sticking with Alonso here, though I expect Tatis Jr. to make a run at him in the second half. It also will be interesting to see how the Mets’ first baseman adjusts to the league trying to exploit any discernible weaknesses after the break.

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