Midseason Awards: Who was the Royals’ MVP during the first half?

Kansas City Royals center fielder Lorenzo Cain.
Kansas City Royals center fielder Lorenzo Cain. jsleezer@kcstar.com

The Royals will open the second half of the season on Friday against the Texas Rangers at Kauffman Stadium. Despite ending the first half with three straight losses at Dodger Stadium, they sit at 44-43 overall, just 1  1/2 games out of both wild-card spots and three games behind first-place Cleveland in the American League Central.

After three games against Texas, they will continue a 10-game home stand with four games against Detroit and three against Chicago. In the meantime, let’s hand out some first-half awards.

The Most Valuable Royal: Lorenzo Cain

With sincere apologies to Salvador Perez, who has now played in five straight All-Star Games; Mike Moustakas, who is going to shatter Steve Balboni’s record; and Eric Hosmer, who has been hitting like Joey Votto since May 1, the Royals’ most consistent and important two-way piece has been Cain, a Gold Glove outfielder who has been snubbed of the award, an offensive run producer whose torrid June helped his team back into the American League playoff picture.

Cain is batting .274/.346/.435 with 11 homers, 15 stolen bases and 49 runs scored, tied with Hosmer for the most on the team. It’s solid enough production, good enough for 106 weighted runs created plus. But his overall value comes into focus when you add in his defense in center field and the base running.

Cain leads the Royals with 2.3 Wins Above Replacement (according to the FanGraphs version of the stat), is first with 5.7 Defensive Runs Above average, and third with 5.1 Offensive Runs Above (which takes into account base running), behind Hosmer (7.7) and Moustakas (5.6).

He has also played in 84 games at a taxing position, allowing the Royals to field a 25-man roster without a natural backup in center.

In truth, this is a tough call. I posted a Twitter poll on Tuesday, asking Royals fans to vote for their team MVP choice, and Moustakas was the winner, with Perez slightly behind. As of Wednesday morning, Hosmer and Cain had received less than 10 percent of the vote, respectively.

A couple of things: I think people are slightly hung up on Moustakas’ gaudy home-run total. Dingers are great and very valuable. But according to most advanced metrics, Hosmer has been a more valuable offensive player this season. (More on that below). That’s not to say there isn’t a case for Moustakas and his 25 homers. Just that it’s pretty close.

On Twitter, there were also many write-in votes for Whit Merrifield, who has been a solid piece at second base. He ranks tied with Hosmer for fourth on the team in WAR — mostly because the defensive metrics still underrate Hosmer at first base. Merrifield has been a league-average offensive weapon at second base, hitting .281/.319/.449. He should have been on the opening-day roster.

Among major-league second baseman, Merrifield ranks 11th in Weighted Runs Created Plus. And I’m not sure he’s more valuable than the center fielder who leads the team in WAR or the third baseman with 25 homers. But, yeah, perhaps after years of wasteland production at second, it’s hard to ignore the lift he’s provided.

In the end, you could make a case for four or five players here and you would have a solid argument. But I believe that Cain, when healthy, has been this group’s most valuable player for the last three seasons. You saw what happened last July when he was out of the lineup.

After Whit Merrifield drove in pinch runner Ramon Torres in the seventh and Lorenzo Cain gave the Royals some insurance, manager Ned Yost was confident in his bullpen's ability to maintain a 4-2 lead over the Boston Red Sox in the Royals' return t

The Most Valuable Arm: Jason Vargas

This one is somewhat easy. Vargas, a first-time All-Star, leads Royals starters in ERA (2.62), WAR (2.0), wins (12), innings (106 1/3) and is second behind Danny Duffy in FIP (3.72).

The Royals are 13-4 when he starts. They are 31-39 when he doesn’t.

The Most Likely to Break Balboni: Mike Moustakas

Let’s take a moment to acknowledge the first half from Moustakas, the newly elected Mayor of Dong Town. He entered the All-Star break with 25 homers — the most ever by a Royals hitter in the first half. He is on pace to hit 47 homers, and, barring an injury or power outage, could sail past Steve Balboni’s club record of 36 homers at some point in late August or early September.

His ultra-aggressive approach has resulted in a lower on-base percentage (.304), which in turn has limited his overall offensive value. Still, it’s been a worthy trade-off.

The Most Valuable Rebound from a Slow Start: Eric Hosmer

Hosmer’s overall value has been a persistent muse for the statistical community for years now. But there’s little debate about how good the Royals’ first baseman has been since May 1. In the two-plus months since a sluggish April, Hosmer is batting .352/.407/.566 with 11 homers.

His .973 OPS during that span is tied for the 20th best in the major leagues. His .352 batting average is fifth, behind Justin Turner, Carlos Correa, Jean Segura and Jose Altuve.

As home run totals spike across the league, Hosmer has yet to see a major power increase. Yet it’s worth pointing out: According Weighted Runs Created Plus, an advanced metric that measures total offensive value, Hosmer has been a better hitter than Moustakas this season. He entered the All-Star break with 129 wRC+; Moustakas posted 120.

The Biggest Letdown: The Royals’ designated hitter

Whether it’s been Brandon Moss, Jorge Soler or somebody else, the Royals are getting close to nothing from their designated-hitter spot.

For the season, the club’s DH position is batting .182/.261/.357. The production ranks last in the American League.

Moss, of course, is the chief culprit. When he signed with the Royals in the offseason, he appeared a cheaper alternative to Kendrys Morales, who received a three-year, $33 million deal from the Toronto. The length of the contract surely scared off the Royals, and they instead opted for a two-year, $12 million deal with Moss, hoping to tap into a track record of power and getting on base.

It hasn’t quite worked. Moss is batting .193/.265/.392 with 10 homers and 68 strikeouts in 200 plate appearances. Soler, meanwhile, is still trying to settle in at the major-league level after a successful stint at Class AAA Omaha.

Maybe somebody will finally get hot. But if the Royals wish to make the postseason for a third time in four seasons, they could use some more production from the spot in the second half.

The Biggest Surprise That Really Wasn’t: Mike Minor

Last September, the Royals began toying with the idea of using Minor, a left-hander, in the bullpen in 2017. He had spent most of the 2016 season rehabbing from shoulder surgery in 2015. His arm and body were not cooperating. A former starter with the Braves, Minor would experience fatigue and some discomfort after three to four innings. After signing Minor to a two-year deal before the 2016 season, the Royals believed he would be better suited in the bullpen.

And that is how the Royals turned another flawed starter (this one by injury) into a valuable reliever. Minor has posted a 1.87 ERA and 46 strikeouts in 43  1/3 innings. Among relievers, he ranks ninth in the majors in WAR and 17th in Win Probability Added. His performance has been key for a rebuilt bullpen. Yet considering the Royals’ track record, perhaps we should have expected this.