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OC Register: Cody Bellinger, Mike Trout setting pace one-third of the way into 2019 MLB season

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If the weather cooperates, every major league team will play its 54th game this week, one-third of the way to the regular–season finish line. The standings have a familiar look. It’s a good time to take stock of who’s done what.

Think of these not as “midseason awards,” but as a measuring stick of who’s leading the pack in each category – the major Baseball Writers’ Association of America awards, and a few more for good measure.

Most Valuable Players: Cody Bellinger, Dodgers (NL) and Mike Trout, Angels (AL)

Wins Above Replacement might have existed as a concept 100 years ago, but it was not a mathematically defined metric. As it exists today, WAR rates Babe Ruth’s 1923 season as the best ever (14.1). Walter Johnson’s 1913 season is the best ever by a pitcher (15.1). That makes intuitive sense; when the game was still in its nascent stage, the gap between the best and worst player should have been higher than it is today.

Bellinger is on pace for 15.5 WAR through the first third of the season. There will be a time to debate whether he or Trout is the sport’s best player. The question for 2019 is whether Bellinger is having the best season ever, by anyone, and the answer so far is yes. He entered Wednesday with a .382 batting average, 20 home runs, 51 runs batted in and seven stolen bases. He’s the first player to swat 19 home runs and record seven outfield assists in his team’s first 52 games since … Babe Ruth in 1932. The race for NL MVP is not close.

The race for AL MVP is always close, with Trout a fixture in each race since 2012. It is a testament to Trout’s greatness that his swing can be “off” and still track for a 36-homer, 90-RBI season. His counting stats would be higher if opposing pitchers weren’t content to walk Trout nearly one out of every four at-bats. His baserunning and center field defense are elite. For now, the gap between Trout and the second-best player in the AL is large enough to make this an easy call.

The races for second place: George Springer and Alex Bregman, Astros; Joey Gallo, Rangers; Byron Buxton and Jorge Polanco, Twins; Christian Yelich, Brewers; Paul deJong, Cardinals; Anthony Rendon, Nationals; Josh Bell, Pirates

Cy Young Award: Dallas Keuchel, free agent (AL) and Craig Kimbrel, free agent (NL)

It’s amazing what the two pitchers have been able to accomplish without throwing a single pitch in 2019.

Keuchel is undefeated in games started by allegedly inferior starting pitchers. He is the muse of every fan’s imagination, the first stone cast at every general manager who “scrimped” on starting pitching in the offseason. Why didn’t the (insert team here) sign Dallas Keuchel? Keuchel’s stainless record invalidates every rebuttal.

Kimbrel is perfect in save opportunities blown by allegedly inferior relief pitchers. He is the reason – all by himself – the average reliever carried a 4.68 earned-run average through Tuesday, up from 4.45 a year ago. Why didn’t the (insert every team here) sign Craig Kimbrel? Fire (every general manager)!

Fear not, gentle reader. Teams are able to sign Keuchel and Kimbrel after 9 p.m. PT on Sunday without the penalty of surrendering a pick in next week’s draft.

If I must choose winners from the ranks of the employed: Justin Verlander, Astros (AL) and Stephen Strasburg, Nationals (NL). Not far behind: Blake Snell and Tyler Glasnow, Rays; Mike Minor, Rangers; Jake Odorizzi, Twins; Max Scherzer, Nationals; Chris Paddack, Padres; Hyun-Jin Ryu, Dodgers; Jacob deGrom, Mets; Luis Castillo, Reds

Rookies of the Year: Brandon Lowe, Rays (AL) and Chris Paddack, Padres (NL)

Lowe – pronounced LAU – has been a catalyst for the upstart Rays, with 11 home runs and 30 RBIs in 47 games. That puts him on pace to break the record for most home runs by a rookie second baseman, set by Dan Uggla (27) in 2006. Publicly available metrics like UZR and DRS offer strong endorsements of his defense. It’s early, but the six-year, $24 million contract extension Lowe signed with the Rays in March is looking like a bargain for the team.

The National League rookie field is packed. Paddack’s innings limit could work against him in the long run, but he’s shown what he can do on an every-fifth day routine. The 23-year-old right-hander has a 1.93 ERA that would rank second in the National League if he had enough innings to qualify for the title. Not bad for a kid with only seven games of experience above the single-A level prior to this year.

Not far behind: Michael Chavis, Red Sox; Yusei Kikuchi, Mariners; Mike Soroka, Braves; Alex Verdugo, Dodgers; Pete Alonso, Mets

Comeback players of the year: Lucas Giolito, White Sox (AL) and Pablo Sandoval, Giants (NL)

Giolito was arguably the worst pitcher in the American League last year (10-13, with a league-high 6.13 ERA and 90 walks). This year he’s among the best (7-1, 2.85, 20 walks in 60 innings). The former top prospect from Harvard-Westlake who came to Chicago in the Adam Eaton trade is throwing harder and with better command, a lethal combination. Giolito is still only 24 years old. Perhaps he’s arriving right on time.

Sandoval, still Boston’s fourth-highest paid player, is the most (only?) entertaining member of a Giants team that’s been tough to watch. He’s batting .299 and is on pace for 21 homers – numbers in line with his early-2010s peak. Sandoval even pitched a scoreless inning in a blowout for a team that promises many mop-up innings to come.

Not far behind: Tim Anderson, White Sox; Frankie Montas, A’s; Minor, Rangers; Luis Castillo, Reds

Most disappointing team: Washington Nationals

After winning 82 games last year, the Nationals are on pace for 68 wins in 2019. More than disappointing, they might simply be bad. Start with the bullpen: Nationals relievers have blown more saves (11) than they have converted (10). They have allowed more inherited runners to score (40) than any team in baseball. Throw in a subpar lineup (35-year-old Howie Kendrick is their second-best hitter) and it’s silly to consider that Washington has a starting rotation built to dominate the playoffs. As Jim Mora once asked: “Playoffs?”

Most surprising team: Minnesota Twins

The 2016 Astros were projected by many to contend for a playoff berth, culminating a historic rebuild. Instead, they slipped from second to third in the AL West, injecting some pessimism into their youth movement. A year later the Astros won the World Series. The Twins’ rebuild is suddenly on a similar course: after capturing a wild-card berth two years ago, Minnesota fell below .500 in 2018, fired Manager Paul Molitor, and now is on a 111-win pace. The Twins’ young players (Buxton, Max Kepler, Eddie Rosario, Polanco, Jose Berrios, Miguel Sano) are leading the way behind a young manager (Rocco Baldelli). It’s been fun to watch.

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I do.

He's first or second in a slew of context dependent stats in addition to WAR, OBP, OPS+

I'm guessing Jorge Polanco won't be in the conversation at the end of the year. 

Cody Bellinger is, what, the 7th player in MLB history  to be annointed the next "best player in baseball after Mike Trout".  It'll happen someday, but I'd pump the brakes. He's had a great two months.  Really, he had an amazing first month and a very good second.

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35 minutes ago, ScottT said:

I do.

He's first or second in a slew of context dependent stats in addition to WAR, OBP, OPS+

I'm guessing Jorge Polanco won't be in the conversation at the end of the year. 

Cody Bellinger is, what, the 7th player in MLB history  to be annointed the next "best player in baseball after Mike Trout".  It'll happen someday, but I'd pump the brakes. He's had a great two months.  Really, he had an amazing first month and a very good second.

Yep.

So far we've had Cabrera, Harper, Donaldson, Betts, and now Bellinger. Next year it will be someone else. 

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If people are saying Bellinger is the best player in baseball, I haven't heard that or read that.  If anyone is comparing him to Mike Trout, I haven't heard or read that either.  I'm not saying that's not happening - just I haven't experienced either.  He's having a monster year.  It could be historic - or maybe it won't be.  I think he's a special player - he can do a lot of things, play a couple positions really well and is extremely athletic.  AND... he's only 23. Baseball is full of great, young stars right now.  It's awesome. 

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