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First-half fantasy studs, duds and surprises

After 1,283 games and 87,188 at-bats, big league hitters entered the 2012 All-Star break with a collective batting average of .254. In total, 658 men have thus far managed to tally at least one hit.

To the uninitiated, 658 may not mean much. But by comparison, how many foresaw Albert Pujols with fewer first-half homers (14) than the man he was paid handsomely to replace at first base (Mark Trumbo, 22)? Or that another first baseman (Chris Davis) would have as many victories as one of the game's greatest pitchers (Cliff Lee)? Or that the Mets would be in a playoff race with a 37-year-old ace in the midst of a season for the ages?

With all due respect to those who hit for a living, consistently predicting player performance is oh-so-much tougher. Often times, however, people look to the past in order to forecast the future.

With that in mind, let's review the season's first half from a fantasy baseball perspective.

Ground rules: Before we begin, a few things to cover:

First off, players will be judged solely by their pre-All-Star break performances and using the standard 5x5 categories. So runs, home runs, RBIs, stolen bases and batting average for the hitters; wins, ERA, WHIP, strikeouts and saves for the pitchers.

Secondly, age and value to an actual Major League franchise matter not.

And lastly, players will not be penalized for seasons hampered by injury. We know you have really missed Matt Kemp, Mariano Rivera, Troy Tulowitzki and Roy Halladay, but this is the last time their names will be mentioned in this piece.

So without further ado, included below are fantasy baseball's superlative first-half studs, duds and surprises:

Most Valuable Player: Andrew McCutchen

The Pirates outfielder is enjoying an elite age-25 season, starting with a big league-best .362 batting average that is nine points higher than the field. Cutch-22's fantasy owners have not only benefited from the center fielder's hot hitting, but from the means through which he has reached base. With 18 first-half homers, McCutchen has been one of the sport's top sluggers thus far. Additionally, he's recorded 60 RBIs, scored 58 times and stolen 14 bases. Want to guess how many others have as many ribbies, runs and swipes? Try zero. This National Leaguer has been baseball's brightest star, and that is why he is your first-half fantasy MVP.

With an MLB-high-tying 27 homers and more RBIs (75) than anyone in the sport, Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton has been the American League's top dog. The slugger recorded most of his monster stats during April and May, batting .368 with a big league-best 21 long balls and 57 RBIs during the early going. Hamilton fell into a June swoon, however, hitting .223 with four dingers during the month. And the slide did not stop when the calendar flipped, as the 31-year-old entered the All-Star break with a .174 July clip.

The outfielder's fantasy owners should not be panicking, however. Remember when Hamilton belted nine long balls and recorded 15 RBIs during a six-game stretch from May 7-12? Don't be surprised if he goes on a similar tear at some point this season en route to winning his second AL MVP.

Also considered: Robinson Cano, Mike Trout, Carlos Gonzalez, Ryan Braun, Joey Votto.

First-half fantasy Cy Young: R.A. Dickey

Dickey is tied for the MLB lead with 12 wins and ranks second with a superb 0.93 WHIP, fourth with 123 strikeouts and seventh with a 2.40 ERA. The Mets knuckleballer has excelled while defying science, which states that more is less when throwing the fluttering pitch. In other words, the faster a knuckleball floats, the less movement it should have. As an outlier, however, Dickey is the owner of a dancing knuckler (77 mph in 2012) that's nearly 3 mph quicker than the average career fastball of former Red Sox knuckleballer Tim Wakefield (74.1 mph). (Credit:

The apex of Dickey's dominance came during a 44 2/3-inning streak sans an earned run from late May to late June. For those unimpressed by more than a month of shutdown ball, the Mets' top starter spun a pair of one-hitters during the span for good measure. Despite his superlative statistics, Dickey has not dazzled each and every time out. In fact, he has suffered through three subpar starts -- including two of his past three outings -- turning an airtight argument into something worth debating.

White Sox left-hander Chris Sale merited strong consideration, as well, having surrendered more than three runs just once this year.

In his age-23 season, Sale owns the sport's third-best ERA (2.19) and fourth-lowest WHIP (0.9545), with a sparkling 10-2 record. Dickey ultimately bested the southpaw ace, however, because of advantages in victories (12 to 10) and K's (123 to 98).

The Tigers' Justin Verlander also opened 2012 with three terrific months. Tied for the MLB lead with 128 whiffs and the owner of the third-best WHIP (0.9497), the 2011 AL MVP Award winner fell to third in this race because of his 9-5 record. Wins are often the result of luck or lack thereof (just ask the Phillies' Lee), but they nonetheless matter a lot in the fantasy realm.

Also considered: Jered Weaver, Stephen Strasburg.

Most pleasant surprise, hitters: Carlos Ruiz

The Phillies catcher entered 2012 with a lifetime .265 average and nary a season with double-digit dingers. Since then, Chooch has done nothing but captivate the baseball world with a .350 clip, 13 homers, 46 RBIs and 41 runs scored. To put that into perspective, Mike Piazza is the only other NL backstop to accomplish the aforementioned first-half feat since 1933, the first season with a Midsummer Classic.

Oh, and by the way, Ruiz has also swiped three bags. But those are just icing on a very delicious cake.

Also considered: Edwin Encarnacion, Trumbo, Josh Reddick, Jason Kipnis, Trevor Plouffe.

Most pleasant surprise, pitchers: Dickey. Who else? (See Cy Young argument.)

Also considered: James McDonald, Fernando Rodney, Chris Capuano, Jason Hammel, Jake Peavy.

MDP (Most disappointing pitcher): Tim Lincecum

A Cy Young Award winner in 2008 and 2009, Lincecum allowed more earned runs in the first half (69) than he did all of last year (66), his third-best season in the big leagues.

The enigmatic Lincecum "leads" qualifying pitchers with a 6.42 ERA after suffering through a perfect first-half storm of bad luck and poor performance. In addition to his self-created problems (e.g., 4.66 BB/9, fifth worst among qualifiers), Lincecum is the unfortunate owner of a career-high BABIP (.333) and homer-to-fly-ball rate (12.4 percent), and a career-low strand rate (59.2 percent). All things considered, the right-hander's xFIP comes out to a reasonable 3.84 -- way too good for someone receiving such negative recognition. With a strong 9.68 K/9 rate -- higher than 2011's, go figure -- Lincecum is probably due for a second-half regression. He has to be. There is nowhere to go but up.

Also considered: Jonathan Sanchez, Heath Bell, Lee and his lone win.

MDPP (Most disappointing position player): Rickie Weeks

Rewind back to this time in 2011 -- Rickie Weeks was a Midsummer Classic second baseman and a Home Run Derby participant. Entering All-Star week 2012, Milwaukee's keystone man has already whiffed 100 times with a batting average below the Mendoza Line (.199). Factor in his uninspiring production numbers (eight homers, 29 RBIs, .343 slugging percentage), and owners are left with a very weak Weeks.

Since 1933, only two hitters have entered the break with an average at or below .199, a slugging percentage at or below .343 and triple-digit strikeout totals: Weeks in 2012 and Adam Dunn's epic failure of 2011. That's a lonely list.

Also considered: Justin Upton, Eric Hosmer, Gaby Sanchez, Carlos Santana.

Rookie of the Year: Trout

Trout's keeper-league owners should rejoice, as they might very well possess baseball's superlative five-category star for seasons to come.

The 20-year-old has been terrific since his recall on April 28, leading the sport with 57 runs scored and 26 stolen bases during the span. Overall, Trout has 12 homers, 40 RBIs and an AL-best .341 batting average.

Honorable mention goes to the Nationals' Bryce Harper, who, like Trout, played his way into the 2012 Midsummer Classic at Kansas City's Kauffman Stadium. The 19-year-old outfielder is hitting .282 with eight homers, 25 RBIs, 43 runs scored and 10 stolen bases.

Also like Trout, Washington's young star spent most of the season's first month on the farm. In fact, both men were called up on the same late-April afternoon. And now, both are here to stay.

Also considered: Yu Darvish, Wade Miley, Jarrod Parker, Will Middlebrooks.

R.A. Dickey, Josh Hamilton, Tim Lincecum, Andrew McCutchen, Mike Trout, Rickie Weeks