So what do we know about the first half of the 2021 MLB season?
First and foremost, the commissioner wasn’t kidding about his crackdown involving the sticky-substance abuse in the sport. Aside from Shohei Ohtani’s historic brilliance (more on that later) and the heinous allegations made against Trevor Bauer (the investigation remains ongoing), Rob Manfred’s daily targeting of pitchers through the umpire’s stringent policing dominated the pre-break landscape.
Technically, all Manfred is doing is enforcing rules already on the books, and we have no problem with the examination of pitchers on the foul lines. For as often as MLB has been criticized for its lack of transparency in other areas, this on-field scrutiny — staged in front of both teams and a stadium full of witnesses — couldn’t be more out in the open.
What isn’t so clear, however, is the long-term impact of this leaguewide cleanup effort. With some elite pitchers now appearing not-so-elite, how do we now judge their performance, past, present and future? It’s already messing with a few of these midseason awards, as offensive production should continue to climb and former Cy Youngs will have to figure things out in a post-sticky stuff world.
The evidence points to pitchers going cold turkey at the start of June, and as of Friday, batting average had climbed from .236 to .240 in just over a month, runs per game jumping to 4.46 from 4.36. On the flip side, spin rates are down, the anticipated casualty of doing away with super-grip substances such as Spider Tack.
So maybe the Year of the Pitcher, Part II, is only going to be a 3 1/2-month phenomenon — for everyone but Jacob deGrom apparently. With that as a backdrop, here are my midseason award selections (with the preseason picks included for accountability’s sake).
Shohei Ohtani, Angels. Have to admit, I sort of overlooked Ohtani, due to his bumpy return from Tommy John surgery a year ago, and figured that all the two-way hype would eventually crumble under the weight of the physical demands associated with attempting to be the next Babe Ruth. But that thinking could not have been more wrong. Ohtani isn’t the second coming of Ruth. He’s his own legend in the making, smashing 33 homers through his first 82 games while pitching to a 3.49 ERA with an 11.7 K/9 ratio in 13 starts. He’s also taken over for the injured three-time MVP, Mike Trout, in keeping the fourth-place Angels in the wild-card hunt.
Preseason pick: Jose Ramirez, Cleveland.
Lance Lynn, White Sox. Not the name I expected to be typing here a month ago. Then again, few truly believed that MLB would get this serious in removing the sticky substances, and that appears to be what sidetracked a few of the presumed favorites for this trophy. Lynn has competition on his own staff from Carlos Rodon (2.31 ERA) but his 1.99 ERA leaps off the page, to go with a 10.4 K/9 rate, .189 OBA and 1.04 WHIP. The Rays’ Tyler Glasnow (2.66 ERA, 12.58 K/9) also seemed poised to make a serious run at this award before being knocked out by an elbow injury that he blamed on Manfred’s crackdown. As for Gerrit Cole, he had a 5.24 ERA in six starts from June 3 to July 4, allowing 2.62 HR/9 with a 9.96 K/9.
Preseason pick: Gerrit Cole, Yankees.
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
Adolis Garcia, Rangers. After Randy Arozarena’s brilliant October, when he slashed 377/.442/.831 with 10 homers, 19 runs and 14 RBIs in 20 games, the ROY race for 2021 figured to be over before the next spring training even began. Now, we’re again ready to give it to a Cuban outfielder, only this one is Garcia, the twice DFA’d slugger showing ridiculous power this season. After Garcia went hitless in his only six ABs for Texas last year, he’s already crushed 21 homers through his first 78 games while hitting .274 and slugging .528, good enough to be named an All-Star.
Preseason pick: Randy Arozarena, Rays.
MANAGER OF THE YEAR
Alex Cora, Red Sox. Cora’s task was twofold in 2021. he entered this season with a reputation to repair after the one-year suspension for his significant role in the Astros’ cheating scandal, and Cora was fortunate to have many fans in the Sox hierarchy who never wanted to let him go in the first place. The 2018 championship helped, of course, but Cora inherited a Sox team in disarray coming off a last-place finish that felt like the rubble left behind from the seismic Mookie Betts trade to the Dodgers. There was talent, however. It just needed the right spark, and Cora is proving himself to be an elite manager (again) by leading the Sox to the top of the AL East (including 6-0 against the Yankees).
Preseason pick: Charlie Montoyo, Blue Jays.
Fernando Tatis Jr. Padres. This is one of the tighter battles on the ballot, with a number of deserving candidates. And in the second half, could come down to who does more in September to get their team into the playoffs. For now, Tatis gets the nod, bouncing back from the shoulder scare and restoring the Padres’ faith in that $340 million contract with NL-best 28 homers and 1.049 OPS through his first 72 games. Tatis is the life of the Padres’ party and the caliber of player who could swing a packed division race in the second half. Ronald Acuna Jr., Trea Turner and Nick Castellanos are right up there, too.
Preseason pick: Francisco Lindor, Mets.
Jacob deGrom, Mets. Pretty sure this one doesn’t need much explaining. If deGrom stays healthy — and that was challenging for him at times in the first half — a third Cy Young (in four years) seems virtually guaranteed. He’s ascended to a level where merely giving up a run is shocking and it took 15 starts for his ERA to finally creep over one (1.08) by the end of his day’s work. Always a fiery competitor, deGrom looks to be on a mission this season, throwing harder than ever, more often, at a frequency the rest of the league can’t touch. His 14.28 K/9 is tops in MLB among starters, along with a microscopic WHIP (0.54) and .126 OBA. All he’s missing is the no-hitter, and can that really be far behind?
Preseason pick: Yu Darvish, Padres.
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
Trevor Rogers, Marlins. It takes a special pitcher to outshine his position-player colleagues for this award, but Rogers putting himself firmly in the Cy Young hunt (for second place anyway) is the kind of performance that does just that. Through 17 starts (not counting Saturday), his 2.22 ERA ranked fourth in the NL, with 118 strikeouts in 97 1/3 innings, and he earned NL rookie of the month for April and May leading up to his selection for Tuesday’s All-Star Game at age 23.
Preseason pick: Ke’Bryan Hayes, Pirates
MANAGER OF THE YEAR
Tie: Luis Rojas, Mets and Gabe Kapler, Giants. Just like system QBs, these are system managers, the field arm of the all-controlling front office. But that does’t mean they’re not difference-makers, and give credit to both for making big leaps on the learning curve. The even-keel Rojas has helped stabilize a turbulent first half for a fractured Mets’ roster that had as many as 17 players on the IL at its peak. He’s also deftly handled the media in his second season, no small feat in NYC. As for Kapler, his hiring by the Giants certainly raised eyebrows, but now he’s raising expectations, finding a chemistry with MLB’s oldest roster (30.7 years) that’s propelled them to the best record (56-32) in the sport. Nobody’s talking about Kapler spitting out ice cream anymore.
Preseason pick: Jayce Tingler, Padres