We’re just past the quarter pole in the major league baseball season and that means it’s time to see where we stand in the race for the All-Star spots and the major awards. Today, TheSportsNotebook’s MLB coverage will focus on the American League.
A few notes of procedure before we dive in. TheSportsNotebook’s rules for team selection are as follows…
- This is set up as a true team—a five-man starting rotation, and two setup relievers are picked, to go along with the closer and the regular everyday lineup.
- As a true team, one of the outfielders must either be a centerfielder, or at least reasonably able to fill the position’s defensive requirements.
- I place an inordinate value on defensive range at the middle infield spots, while offense tends to take priority most everywhere else.
- Finally—and this is a minor point—I view this as a starting point for a debate that should take place all the way to the end of the season, not just to the All-Star Game at Citi Field in New York this July. Baseball is alone among the major sports in not having season-ending All-Star selection.
With all that out of the way, here are the choices, based solely on performance in 2013…
C: Carlos Santana (Cleveland): The young Tribe catcher is leading the way as his team’s offense has bashed them to the top of the AL Central. Santana has a stat line of .403 on-base percentage/.548 slugging percentage. I like that his OBP is balanced between walks and hits, suggesting he can continue to contribute even when his bat hits the inevitable slump.
Minnesota’s Joe Mauer is in hot pursuit, at .411/.478. Mauer’s home run power is gone, as he’s only hit two, but 17 doubles are keeping his slugging percentage up. Further off the pace is Boston’s Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who’s OBP has improved, and combined with his good power, could set him up for a summer run. Baltimore’s Matt Wieters is off to a slow start, but can’t be discounted.
1B: Chris Davis (Baltimore): His 13 home runs are tied for the American League lead, and with a .411 OBP to go along with it, Davis is a lot more than just the thunder of the home run. His slugging percentage is in the stratosphere at .675.
Mitch Moreland in Texas is having a surprising year, at .345/.577. While defense is not a priority at this spot, Moreland’s range and glove work could give him an edge if his hitting numbers get close. The same goes for Minnesota’s Justin Morneau, who’s further off the pace. And a nod to Prince Fielder, at .406/.523 in a tough park to hit in Detroit. Fielder will be in this conversation all year long and is the most likely candidate to challenge Davis as his slugging percentage comes down to earth.
2B: Jose Altuve (Houston): I know this pick is going to raise an eyebrow, with Robinson Cano and Dustin Pedroia having excellent offensive seasons for the Yankees and Red Sox. Cano has the power, with 13 home runs, and Pedroia is constantly on base, with a .429 OBP. But they grade out as the worst of defensive second baseman when it comes to range factor. I know Yankee and Red Sox partisans (I’m in the latter category) will find this hard to believe, but there’s more to good defense than having a smooth athletic style (Cano) or bringing scrappy hustle to the park every day (Pedroia). In the end, it’s about getting to more balls and making more plays, and the range factor stat on ESPN.com says both are well below average.
Altuve is an excellent defensive second baseman, and he’s also hitting .327. Whether he can hit well enough to keep this spot as the season wears on is a fair question, but he’s been a good young bat in an otherwise disastrous situation in Houston for a couple years now. Don’t hold his team against him. Another good choice at this spot as the year wears on will be Ian Kinsler in Texas, but after a .369/.500 start he hit the disabled list.
3B: Miguel Cabrera (Detroit): There’s no reason to tilt at any windmills here. Cabrera is at .457/.659 and soaring above the pack. Right now, Tampa Bay’s Evan Longoria, along with Manny Machado in Baltimore are just playing to get further up an MVP ballot that Cabrera quite obviously leads.
Although we should note that both Longoria and Machado are much better defenders than Cabrera. The Detroit third baseman has soft hands and makes the plays he should, but as a converted first baseman, the range just isn’t there. But this is another spot where offense matters most, so the Tampa and Baltimore third basemen need to hope Cabrera comes down to earth.
SS: Jhonny Peralta (Detroit): American League shortstops have been mediocre for several years now, saved only by the presence of Derek Jeter and the occasional outbreaks by Asdrubal Cabrera in Cleveland. But Jeter’s hurt and Cabrera is off to a poor start. Peralta is a solid .381/.467 and in the upper part of the rankings on range factor.
I suppose I don’t have an issue with Peralta as a legit All-Star—he compiles his numbers in a tough park to hit and does the job defensively—but it’s a big dropoff after that, unless Cabrera, Elvis Andrus or J.J. Hardy can start hitting. Or if you think Jed Lowrie in Oakland, with his .373/.439 start, can hit that way all year.
CF: Adam Jones (Baltimore): This is another pick I’m not entirely thrilled with—Jones is having a good year, at .354/.492, but he’s not nearly as good defensively as I would like to see in center. And though it’s kind of nitpicky, if offense is going to put an outfielder on this team, I’d like to see the slugging get over .500.
But with good defensive centerfielders like Jacoby Ellsbury in Boston and Austin Jackson in Detroit way too subpar with the bat to be chosen, I have to overlook the eight points Jones is short of the .500 mark. Another option I really looked closely at was Lorenzo Cain in Kansas City. He ranked fourth for range among AL centerfielders—Jones was ninth—and had a .370 OBP. But what swung me is that the gap between Cain and Jones on the defensive rankings was tighter than the gap between Cain and the #2 spot on the list. Essentially, Jones threaded the needle in every possible way to get on this team.
OF: Alex Gordon (Kansas City)/Alex Rios (ChiSox): Gordon has arrived as an All-Star leftfielder. He’s put up a .373/.531 stat line and easily the most productive player among the candidates here. Rios is at .366/.554 and doing it in a lineup that isn’t very good. I’ll be surprised if he’s still in this spot when we revisit everything in July, but this selection is based exclusively on the season to date.
The player with the biggest gripe is Mike Trout. He’s got .363/.517 numbers, but that’s narrowly behind both Gordon and Rios, and Trout has more support in the lineup than either one. Even though Trout is playing left in Los Angeles this year, I gave thought to slotting him in center, since we know he can play that spot. For now, Jones has the benefit of the doubt, but if Trout can open up some more room on their offensive numbers, I can easily change my mind.
DH: Lance Berkman (Texas): Wasn’t this guy supposed to be retired? Berkman is instead putting up .423/.463 numbers, apparently wanting to atone to the good people of Texas for breaking their hearts in the 2011 World Series (Berkman delivered one of two different Game 6 hits for St. Louis when the Rangers were a strike from clinching).
Berkman is leading a good crop of AL designated hitters, and it’s only the missed playing time early for David Ortiz that has the Red Sox slugger on the outside looking in. Ortiz is lighting it up at .402/.647, and as his at-bat totals climb, his credibility as a pick for this position will as well. Travis Hafner is having a comeback season in New York, and Toronto’s Adam Lind is a quiet dark horse. At .396/.465, he’s definitely not the pick today, but he’s in striking distance.
THE STARTING ROTATION
SP: Hiroki Kuroda (NY Yankees)
SP: Felix Hernandez (Seattle)
SP: Clay Bucholz (Boston)
SP: Matt Moore (Tampa Bay)
SP: Justin Masterson (Cleveland)
Kuroda, Fernandez, Bucholz and Moore are the top four in American League starters in ERA. I also look seriously at innings pitched, and wins (yes, I’m a traditionalist on this one, I still think it matters, albeit third in line among pitching stats). Bucholz is 6-0, Kuroda has a 1.99 ERA in one of the game’s most hitter-friendly parks. Hernandez is second in the league in innings pitched, while Moore is a blazing 8-0.
Masterson was the outlier, with a 2.83 ERA that had him well outside the top five. But it’s still pretty good and I like the fact his 70 innings pitched are the most in the American League. I’d rather give up a few more runs and keep the bullpen rested. James Shields is also a horse in Kansas City, but at 2-4, I want to see a few more wins. And Fernandez’s teammate in Seattle, Hisashi Iwakuma is fifth in the league in ERA, with a 5-1 record and can easily move into the starting group.
RP: Jesse Crain (ChiSox)
RP: Tanner Scheppers (Texas)
CL: Mariano Rivera (NY Yankees)
All of these choices were easy. Crain and Scheppers combine sub-1.00 ERAs with over twenty innings pitched, the only two with such a combo of workload and dominance. And Rivera is merely 17-of-17 on save opportunities with a 1.47 ERA.
MVP: Miguel Cabrera (Detroit)
Cy Young: Hiroki Kuroda (NY Yanks)
Manager of the Year: Terry Francona (Cleveland)
With Cleveland leading the AL Central, Francona is an easy pick, as is Cabrera for the MVP. One thing we should note on the latter though, is that the same could be said for Josh Hamilton at this time last year. By year’s end, Hamilton was nowhere near the MVP discussion, left Texas on bad terms and is now a poster boy for an overpaid and underachieving team in Anaheim. I’m not predicting Cabrera’s heading down that route, but it does bear in mind that saying a vote is obvious in May is entirely different from saying it will be obvious in the first few days of October.
Kuroda was a tougher call, and given my Red Sox sympathies, I’d hope Bucholz would actually win it if the choice really ends up this way at season’s end. Bucholz does have a better ERA (1.78 to 1.99) a few more innings (65-58) and better winning percentage (6-0 to 6-2). But Kuroda is close enough across the board, and I really believe Yankee Stadium is a much harder to pitch in than Fenway, especially for a right hander. Boston’s park has that spacious area in right center where long fly balls go to die. New York has no such safety net for a pitcher, and that’s why I might root for Bucholz to win the award, but based on current numbers, I’d have to give a vote to Kuroda.
Tomorrow we’ll take at the National League, and we’ll update both leagues again before the All-Star break.