But for this brief moment — as we unveil our picks for first-half awards — let’s look at the other side. Let’s see what hitters can accomplish when, rather than shrugging off strikeouts as a natural byproduct of home runs, they consciously seek to make more frequent (and better) contact. Let’s ponder whether, even in this era of juiced balls and launch angle, the game could swing back to a point where making contact was at a premium.
(And let’s ponder, for that matter, whether it’s already happening. After all, in 2017, the Houston Astros won the World Series following a regular season in which their hitters posted the lowest strikeout rate, 17.3 percent of all plate appearances, in the majors. And a year later, the Boston Red Sox won the title after ranking third at 19.9 percent.)
In 2019, the trend, if we’re ready to call it that, looks like this: Your first-half MVPs are Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels in the American League and Cody Bellinger of the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League. Their batting profiles share one trait: Both have significantly reduced their strikeout rates and upped their contact rates.
Trout, 27 and in his eighth full big league season, has lowered his strikeout rate from 20.4 percent in 2018, when he was the MVP runner-up, to 18.0 percent this season entering Friday’s games — the latest piece of evidence that the consensus best player on the planet is still getting better. As a result, his contact rate of 85.4 percent is the highest of his career — and he’s making better contact, with his hard-contact rate of 44.4 percent of all batted balls being the best of his career.
Bellinger’s improvement is even more dramatic. Just 24 and in his third season, Bellinger has dropped his strikeout rate from 23.9 percent in 2018 — when the Dodgers regularly benched him against lefties — to 14.8 percent in 2019, which ranks among the top 30 batters in the majors. He has also pushed his contact rate from 72.4 percent to 78.6 percent while increasing his percentage of hard contact to 52.5. In boosting his contact rates, he hasn’t sacrificed power: Bellinger’s 30 homers and .711 slugging percentage rank second in the majors.
Here is a closer look at those MVP races and the rest of the first-half awards:
AL MVP: Trout. By now, there’s nothing left to say about the player we will be telling our kids and grandkids we saw play in person, the same way our parents and grandparents told us they saw Mantle and Mays. As measured in FanGraphs wins above replacement (5.8), he has been worth more than two more wins than anyone else in the AL. Runners-up: DJ LeMahieu (Yankees), Matt Chapman (Athletics)
NL MVP: Bellinger. This is a virtual tie between Bellinger and Milwaukee’s Christian Yelich. Their offensive numbers are strikingly similar, but Bellinger is the higher-rated defender and has a sizable lead in WAR. Yelich may get some support for the way he has carried an otherwise ordinary Brewers offense in the heat of a playoff race, but Bellinger shouldn’t be penalized for how great this Dodgers team appears. Runners-up: Yelich, Nolan Arenado (Rockies)
AL Cy Young: Justin Verlander, Astros. We could tell you Verlander, at 36, is on pace for 19 wins, a 2.86 ERA, 223 innings and 274 strikeouts. But what truly stands out is his microscopic 0.794 WHIP (wins plus hits per inning pitched), which would be the fourth-lowest of all time for a qualified pitcher and the lowest since Pedro Martinez posted a 0.737 in 2000. Runners-up: Lucas Giolito (White Sox), Charlie Morton (Rays)
NL Cy Young: Max Scherzer, Nationals. We’re past the point, aren’t we, where win-loss record and ERA hold sway? By those measures, you probably would pick the Dodgers’ Hyun-Jin Ryu. But Scherzer has far more strikeouts, a lower fielding-independent pitching (FIP), more WAR and about three extra starts’ worth of innings. And that’s not even mentioning the Broken Nose Game. Runners-up: Ryu, Josh Hader (Brewers)
AL rookie of the year: Brandon Lowe, Rays. While uber-prospects Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Eloy Jimenez have yet to produce as expected, Lowe, who barely snuck into Baseball America’s top 100 prospects this year at No. 93, has raked to the tune of 16 homers, 49 RBI and an .862 on-base-plus-slugging percentage while starting at four positions for the wild card-leading Rays. Runners-up: Michael Chavis (Red Sox), John Means (Orioles)
NL rookie of the year: Pete Alonso, Mets. In a loaded field, Alonso gets the nod — by a comfortable margin — for his prodigious power (28 home runs, .623 slugging) and the fact he has played in all but one of the Mets’ games. We suspect by the end of the season, Fernando Tatis Jr., San Diego’s phenom shortstop, will have zoomed past Alonso. But for now, with Tatis having played 34 fewer games, it’s Alonso. Runners-up: Mike Soroka (Braves), Tatis
AL manager of the year: Aaron Boone, Yankees. We get it — the Yankees’ huge payroll, you would argue, is the biggest reason they have stayed on a 107-win pace despite one of the most horrific runs of injuries anyone has ever seen. But that view ignores Boone’s expert, calming guidance of a squad that was regularly using its third- or fourth-best options at some positions for weeks at a time. We would have no issues with Kevin Cash (Rays), Rocco Baldelli (Twins), Terry Francona (Indians) or Chris Woodward (Rangers) getting the nod, but we will stick with Boone. Runners-up: Baldelli, Cash
NL manager of the year: Brian Snitker, Braves. The Braves have three everyday players (Ronald Acuna Jr., Ozzie Albies and Austin Riley) and one front-line starting pitcher (Soroka) who are 22 or younger, which should give you insight into why Snitker, with his easygoing charm and player-development chops, is the perfect skipper for this squad. Runners-up: Craig Counsell (Brewers), Dave Roberts (Dodgers)