Bryce Harper, Cricketer

My good friend Stu over at How Do I Baseball called attention to Bryce Harper’s extreme front-foot batting mechanics in this post today. Go over and read it.

The upshot: “orthodox” baseball batting technique will tell you that Harper, by taking his back foot off the ground, is somehow over-committing and giving up power. As Dave Nichols said:

But, as Stu pointed out, the extreme front-foot batting mechanics aren’t unheard of. Frank Thomas did the same thing from the right handed batter’s box–and nobody ever said The Big Hurt wasn’t a good power hitter.

After comparing Harper to Frank Thomas, Stu went on to wonder:

It will be interesting to see how far Harper can take his unorthodox hitting mechanics, and how much success can be obtained with them. While many would believe that this front foot approach would make a hitter susceptible to offspeed pitches, if Harper’s two HR’s off of Marlins starter Ricky Nolasco are any indication- both were hit off of offspeed offerings – he has made the proper adjustments to make him fall victim to offspeed and breaking pitches less frequently in 2013 than he did in 2012, using these hitting mechanics.

What struck me, when looking at Harper’s home runs on Monday, was how familiar they seemed–not to baseball players and fans, but to devotees of the other great ball-and-bat sport on this planet: Cricket. To answer Stu’s question directly, the body of cricket scholarship suggests that Harper can be very successful indeed with his “unorthodox” mechanics–because, at least as they presented themselves on Monday, they were perfectly orthodox cricket batting mechanics.

Such extreme front-foot batting technique isn’t unusual in cricket–in fact, it’s extremely orthodox. Have a look at the BBC’s cricket skills pages, and you’ll see this batting technique:

The straight drive in cricket, as played by a right-handed batsman. Notice: the right (rear) foot is practically off the ground, just like Harper batting

This shot is the straight drive. Now let’s look at Harper’s home run swing [UPDATE: I erroneously ID'd the following photo as having been from Monday. Analysis still holds, but if anyone has a photo of Harper's HR swings from Monday, post it in the comments]:

Harper’s home run stroke, shamelessly ganked from Stu’s post at HDIB. Notice the similarity to the cricket shot?

Harper’s head is over the front knee–aided by the extreme unweighting of his back foot. As England Test Captain Michael Vaughn explains here:

The most important thing for me is to get your head over [your] front leg…now if your head stays mid-centre, the ball has to go square of the wicket.

[In baseball terms: if you're trying to hit off the front foot, but try to keep your head back, the ball will be pulled foul on your pull side]. Vaughn goes on to explain the role of the back foot in maintaining proper head/body alignment: unweighting the back leg forces the head to go forward naturally, putting the head over the front leg and enabling the player to hit, as we would say in baseball, a line drive only moderately to his pull side.

Notice also that Harper’s bat is surprisingly vertical when he makes contact with the ball–which recalls the orthodox cricketing advice to “show the [bat] maker’s name” as one drives through the ball.

Now, not every shot in cricket is played this way. One of the basic skills of a cricket batsman is selecting which shot to play depending on the delivery of the ball. Again, the BBC’s cricket skill pages demonstrate:

How to pick which shot to play in cricket. We are interested in the drive shots: the “off drive,” “straight drive,” and “on drive.” These are played off the front foot.

Now let’s reverse-engineer Harper’s home run swings in a cricket context. Here’s Harper’s Opening Day spray chart, from TexasLeaguers:

Both home runs land in right-center field. In cricketing terms, they would be “on drives”–driven on the batters’ side. Now, orthodox cricket shot selection doctrine says:

If you get a half volley on leg stump, you hit it back towards mid on with the full face of the bat.

Translated to baseball terms: if you get a ball on the inner third of home plate [and low: cricket balls are bouncing up from the ground], drive it to right-center field [if you, like Harper, are left-handed].

So, where were those pitches that Harper hit to right center for home runs?

Here’s the first one, a home run in the first inning: it’s number 2, obviously:

Hey, would you look at that. It’s low and on the inside third of the plate. A cricketer sees a half-volley on leg stump! How about the second one?

It’s the one marked “in play (runs),” obviously. And again, it’s on the inner third, and low. Yup, another half-volley on leg stump.

Bryce Harper’s front foot hitting mechanics may look strange to baseball fans, but he is behaving exactly like a well-taught cricket batsman would behave when confronted with balls located in that location. He judged the position of the delivery of the ball well. He selected the shot he wanted to play (the drive off the front foot). He executed his plan, and did it powerfully, scoring runs for his team in the process.

We have no evidence that Harper ever played any cricket at all. But, at least when confronted with the ball on the inside third of the plate and low, Harper seems to have solved that particular batting problem in exactly the same way that generations of cricket batsmen before him have solved it. How classic is Harper’s approach? Here’s the great Australian cricketer Don Bradman [the Ted Williams of Cricket, who actually met Babe Ruth oncedemonstrating the “orthodox” shots for British newsreels in 1930. Look at how powerfully he is able to drive the ball off his front foot at 2:36 or so. Look again as Bradman demonstrates the drive shots off the front foot, starting at 3:36. See how little weight he puts on his back foot?

And, if you don’t think this shot can be played for any power at all, here’s a supercut of the great West Indian batsman Sir Viv Richards absolutely killing a lot of cricket balls--many of the driven off the front foot in exactly the same way that Harper hits baseballs.

This, to me, is a fascinating case of the convergent evolution of two closely-related bat-and-ball games, baseball and cricket.

This has implications for the way baseball players look at batting mechanics and batting technique. There has been a huge body of scholarship built up around cricket batting over the years, and nobody has yet seen fit to study it and see what insights might be useful to baseball players. Most interestingly, there seems to be at least some movement to use quantitative optimization models to teach batsmen to get the bat to the ball as quickly as possible. I am not aware of any similar work being done in baseball–and it might not be a bad idea for a progressive baseball organization to start investigating this sort of thing.

Projecting the 2013 Nationals: Extra Innings

When I projected that the 2013 Nats were going to win 94 games, I did so with a bit of trepidation. Not only did this mean that I was projecting a performance so good that it would have been literally unbelievable only a few years before, but because I have certain doubts about the construction of my model.

As you might have gathered from the title of this post, I think my model has been systematically under-counting playing time for pitchers and hitters. In the spirit of Top of the Inning/Bottom of the Inning nature of the Natstradamus projections, I’ll deal with the pitching issues first, and then the batting problems in the bottom of the inning.

EDIT: Astute readers noted that I should have reduced relief pitcher innings by as much as I increased starting pitching innings. I have amended the relevant analysis. This results in a 98-win total.

Executive Summary for the TL;DR Crowd: Our earlier projection wasn’t as accurate as it should have been in counting playing time: A slight adjustment in innings pitched for starters–with a corresponding reduction in relief pitching innings– yielded a decrease in runs scored by 2—but a better/more nuanced look at plate appearances by the starting line-up yielded an astonishing increase in runs scored, from 692 to 725. This revises our win projection for the 2013 Nats to 98 wins.

Innings, Limits, and Other Stuff to Tear Your Hair Out With

First, pitching. If you look back at the projected innings pitched column in my pitching runs allowed projections, you will notice that I assume that pitchers in the starting rotation will pitch about 190 innings each, with Strasburg pitching only 180. How does that stack up with reality?

• Gio Gonzalez (199.1 IP);
• Jordan Zimmermann (195.2 IP)
• Edwin Jackson (189.2 IP).

Looking at things like this, it’s starting to look like our 180-inning starting rotation baseline is off by a little bit. Is it really, though? None of the top three for the Braves (Minor, Hudson, Hanson) pitched over 180 innings last year. The Phillies had Hamels (215.1) and Lee (211.0), then a sharp drop-off (injuries). The Mets had Dickey (232.2) and Niese (190.1), and then a precipitous dropoff to Santana (117.0).

Things get a bit better when we look at the Reds, whose top five were remarkably consistent as far as innings, with Cueto (217), Latos (209.1), Bailey (208), Arroyo (202) , and Leake (179).  Likewise, the Giants got a lot of innings out of their starters, with Cain (219.1), Bumgarner (208.1), Vogelsong (189.2), Lincecum (186), and Zito (184.1).

In fact, it’s the rare National League team that gets more than 180 innings from all of its top five starters–only the Giants managed this in 2012, and we all know how that worked out for them, right?

Anyway, returning to our projections: is there a better way we can match the innings expectations for Nationals starting pitchers? Maybe we can. During the height of the Strasburg Shutdown hysteria last year, I wrote that the organization has a general innings-limiting principle:

The Nats have a policy–and a remarkably enlightened one, at that–of limiting starting-pitcher workloads to 120% of the innings a pitcher had pitched the previous year, wherever those innings happened (whether as an amateur, the minor leagues, or the majors). For pitchers returning from major injuries, the innings limit seems to be about 120% of the pitcher’s previous single-season career high total innings pitched.

The conventional wisdom is that this limit may not apply to pitchers like Gio Gonzalez (age 27) and Dan Haren (age 32). Jordan Zimmermann (age 26) might have arguably “aged out” of this system, too, since he pitched 195.2 innings last year. Detwiler (age 26) might have aged out, as well, but last year’s 164.1 IP represented his professional maximum, so let’s assume we’re stretching him out more carefully and put him on the limit. Strasburg (age 24), it should go without saying, is probably under this silent limit as well.

Applying those limits, and looking at last year’s performances, we get the following:

• Stephen Strasburg. 120% of last year’s innings for Strasburg works out to 190.2 innings for Strasburg. Plugging that into our model, that works out to 54.23 runs allowed, an increase of 3.03 runs.
• Jordan Zimmermann. JZ pitched 195.2 innings. It would be foolish to assume he would pitch any more. Let’s assume he pitches 195 innings, then. That works out to 80.38 runs allowed, an increase of 2.06 runs.
• Gio Gonzalez. 199 innings is a lot, but he pitched over 200 innings in the two preceding years, so I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to give Gio 200 innings in 2013. Ten more innings of Gio than in our initial model yields 84.67 runs, an increase of 4.24 runs.
• Ross Detwiler. Detwiler’s 151 innings in 2012 was a career high for him. Increasing that by 120% yields 181 innings. Fortunately, the old model pegged him at 180 innings to begin with. We’ll leave well enough alone, then.
• Dan Haren. Haren’s a little harder to judge. He only pitched 176.2 innings in 2012, but before his back got balky, he pitched well in excess of 200 innings for seven consecutive seasons. Various projections have him pitching as many as 218 innings and as few as 170. Let’s say he recovers form and pitches 190 innings–which is what we had in the original model. Great.

After adjusting for an increase in innings pitched, we see that the Nats give up a few more runs– 9.33 runs. That’s enough to cost them one full game in the Natstradamus projection–so that leaves them with 93 wins, instead.

Not so fast. You will notice that we’ve increased Gio’s innings by 10, Strasburg’s innings by 10, and Zimmermann’s innings by 5. That means we need to reduce relief pitcher innings accordingly. If we reduce Craig Stammen’s 110 innings to 95 innings (-6.6 runs allowed) and Zach Duke’s innings from 90 to 80 (-4.8 runs allowed), we actually end up saving about 2 runs. That keeps us steady at 94 wins for now. But how about the hitting?

Batters: Up.

The crude assumption built into the model was that every one of the starting position players got 600 plate appearances each. This is, of course, false. The ever-astute David Huzzard reminded me that the number of plate appearances varies with position in the batting order. Fortunately, Baseball Reference lets us look at exactly how many plate appearances, on average, each batting order position got in the National League in 2012. As you can see, the lead-off batter gets, on average 750 plate appearances–125% more than our model assumed! What does it look like?

750
732
716
699
684
666
647
625
606
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 2/18/2013.

In fact, we see that in the NL, the only batting average position that gets even close to 600 plate appearances is the number 9 batter–which is usually the pitcher’s spot! Safe to say, then, that the model is broken as far as runs scored. To fix it, we need to figure out what the batting order is going to be and award plate appearances in proportion to that player’s spot in the batting order. To keep things consistent with our defensive statistics, we’ll assume that each “every day” position player appears in 150 games. With that in mind, let’s assign some plate appearances to a hypothetical order:

695
678
663
647
633
617
599
579
561

That leaves us with some 453 plate appearances to distribute among the other bench players. Let’s assume, crudely, that we distribute them evenly among Tracy, Moore, Lombardozzi, and Bernadina, giving them 113 plate appearances each. Let’s also further assume that the “Pitchers” spots are evenly distributed among all the starting pitchers, giving each of the starting five 112 plate appearances each.

The results are shocking:

 Player Name 4-year total PA 4-year total wRC 4-yr moving avg wRC/PA Projected PA Projected wRC Team Total wRC Jayson Werth 2803 425 0.151623260792009 678 102.80 Ryan Zimmerman 2844 426 0.149789029535865 633 94.82 Tyler Moore 171 26 0.152046783625731 113 17.18 Bryce Harper 597 86 0.144053601340034 663 95.51 Adam LaRoche 2622 361 0.13768115942029 647 89.08 Denard Span 2671 334 0.125046798951703 695 86.91 Wilson Ramos 613 76 0.123980424143556 290 35.95 Ian Desmond 1849 214 0.115738236884803 617 71.41 Danny Espinosa 1428 164 0.11484593837535 599 68.79 Roger Bernadina 1150 121 0.105217391304348 113 11.89 Chad Tracy 845 85 0.100591715976331 113 11.37 Kurt Suzuki 2703 274 0.101368849426563 290 29.40 Steve Lombardozzi 448 42 0.09375 113 10.59 Stephen Strasburg 83 3 0.036144578313253 112 4.05 Drew Storen 2 0 0 0 0.00 Dan Haren 240 19 0.079166666666667 112 8.87 Craig Stammen 90 3 0.033333333333333 30 1.00 Jordan Zimmermann 166 4 0.024096385542169 112 2.70 Zach Duke 226 1 0.004424778761062 0.00 Tyler Clippard 14 0 0 0 0.00 Gio Gonzalez 84 -5 -0.05952380952381 112 -6.67 Ross Detwiler 97 -9 -0.092783505154639 112 -10.39 Ryan Mattheus 1 0 0 0 0.00 Rafael Soriano 0 0 0 0 0.00 Bill Bray 0 0 0 0 0.00 725.252999244993

That’s a huge jump in runs scored, from 692 up to 725!

Putting it Together

Having adjusted our playing-time expectations somewhat, our revised projection has the 2013 Nats allowing 600 runs, while scoring 725 runs. Running that through the Pythagorean Win Expectation Formula gives us a revised win projection for the 2013 season of 98 wins, or four more than we had initially projected. The vast undercount of offensive plate appearances made a huge difference in terms of runs scored, and added two whole wins. The increase in starting pitching at the expense of middle relief yields two more wins.

There are a few caveats, of course. Naturally, this all assumes that every player involved will stay healthy all year, and that they all perform according to their four-year trailing average performances. A realignment of the batting order will affect runs scored in very real ways: this is particularly true in the case of Bryce Harper. The current line up puts two left-handed power hitters, Harper and LaRoche, back-to-back, which may be suboptimal in matchup situations. But moving Harper down in the order will deprive him of plate appearances and run-creating chances.

Projecting the 2013 Nationals, Part 3: Offense

Now we come to the fun part of the inning: how many runs does the home team score? The model projects that the 2013 Nationals will score 693 runs.

Assuming that an everyday position player will get about 600 plate appearances, and assuming that the plate appearances of the two catchers, Suzuki and Ramos, are divided evenly, we end up with a table that looks something like this:

 Player Name 4-year total PA 4-year total wRC 4-yr moving avg wRC/PA Projected PA Projected wRC Team Total wRC Jayson Werth 2803 425 0.151623260792009 600 90.97 Ryan Zimmerman 2844 426 0.149789029535865 600 89.87 Tyler Moore 171 26 0.152046783625731 150 22.81 Bryce Harper 597 86 0.144053601340034 600 86.43 Adam LaRoche 2622 361 0.13768115942029 600 82.61 Denard Span 2671 334 0.125046798951703 600 75.03 Wilson Ramos 613 76 0.123980424143556 300 37.19 Ian Desmond 1849 214 0.115738236884803 600 69.44 Danny Espinosa 1428 164 0.11484593837535 600 68.91 Roger Bernadina 1150 121 0.105217391304348 150 15.78 Chad Tracy 845 85 0.100591715976331 100 10.06 Kurt Suzuki 2703 274 0.101368849426563 300 30.41 Steve Lombardozzi 448 42 0.09375 150 14.06 Stephen Strasburg 83 3 0.036144578313253 150 5.42 Drew Storen 2 0 0 0 0.00 Dan Haren 240 19 0.079166666666667 150 11.88 Craig Stammen 90 3 0.033333333333333 30 1.00 Jordan Zimmermann 166 4 0.024096385542169 150 3.61 Zach Duke 226 1 0.004424778761062 30 0.13 Tyler Clippard 14 0 0 0 0.00 Gio Gonzalez 84 -5 -0.05952380952381 150 -8.93 Ross Detwiler 97 -9 -0.092783505154639 150 -13.92 Ryan Mattheus 1 0 0 0 0.00 Rafael Soriano 0 0 0 0 0.00 Bill Bray 0 0 0 0 0.00 692.7806858275

As excited as we’ll all be to follow Bryce Harper in his quest to beat Mike Trout’s insane age-20 season, it’s instructive to look at this table. Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman are projected to get 91 and 90 wRC respectively. Harper is expected to do great things–86 wRC–but it’s worth noting just how much a healthy Werth and Zimmerman mean to the Nationals line-up.

Notice also that the line-up is remarkably deep. Let’s look at it from the point of view of a possible batting order:

1. Denard Span, wRC 75.03
2. Jayson Werth, wRC 90.97
3. Bryce Harper, wRC 86.43
5. Ryan Zimmerman, wRC 89.87
6. Ian Desmond, wRC 69.44
7. Danny Espinosa, wRC 68.91
8. Wilson Ramos, wRC 37.19; plus Kurt Suzuki, wRC 30.41

Those first five batters, however you order them, are pretty impressive. That should make for a much deeper line-up than we’re used to seeing here in DC.

So, what does this all mean? Tune in next time as we discuss how this all fits together in Part 4.

Offseason Blues (part 1 in a bazillion) UPDATE: NOW WITH MORE DC SPORTS AWESOMENESS

As I went home after Black Friday, I calculated that, without baseball, I suddenly had something like twenty-four hours a week that I didn’t know what to do with–that figure being a conservative estimate of the number of hours I spent watching baseball in person or on television, or the Internet, or listening to Charlie Slowes and Dave Jaegler call a game on the radio, plus the hours spent going to, hanging out at, or coming from the ballpark.

I don’t think I’m all that unusual, and I haven’t really found anything to fill those hours.

So it’s somewhat comforting that former teen phenom (and future perennial superstar) Bryce Harper is also having a hard time figuring out what to do with his time. Harp’s turned his mind to sartorial matters lately, it seems:

(Just to clear up any ambiguity, I think he’s referring to his own personal “swag,” rather than his ever-faithful dog, Swag)

This takes a delightful turn, though, when he asks another youthful DC sporting hero for style help:

Even more delightfully, RGIII seems ready to oblige:

UPDATE: It appears that John Wall wants in on this particular conversation. This is like a perfect storm of youthful, off-the-field DC sporting exuberance. Hat tip and huzzah for Dave Huzzard, who alerted me to this :

(And, yeah, I know this is really more Nats Enquirer’s beat, but what can I say? I’m bored, too. When’s spring training?)

UPDATED UPDATE:The Great Wall is getting socks, too. Somebody needs to take a group picture.

Nats fans are all too well acquainted with the dreaded Sun Monster that ate up both Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth during a Sunday afternoon horror show against the Brewers at Nats park on September 23. (Of course, this creature already has its own twitter account.)

Well, the Nats will travel to Saint Louis to play the Cardinals in the National League Division series. Because television is run by media elites who write idiotic hit pieces about DC, the Nats will play at 3:00 P.M, Eastern time. Thanks to the New York DamnYankees and their stranglehold on prime-time television scheduling, the Nats will have to play an afternoon game for the benefit of the legions of unemployed television-viewing baseball fans everywhere who would otherwise be numbing their pain with vicodin and bourbon cocktails while watching Dr. Phil.

This also means that Harper, Werth, and possibly Morse might have to contend with a Saint Louis Sun Monster. James Wagner of the Post has already written a fairly good piece on the difficulties of the sun in Saint Louis. I commend that piece to you if you want to read about how players felt about the sun.

But here at Natstradamus, we like verifiable phenomena where we can find them. So the question is: when is the worst sun field time at New Busch Stadium in Saint Louis?

If you don’t want to be blinded with science here’s your short answer: the Sun Monster is going to gobble up whoever is standing in center field at 4:02 P.M. Central Time (5:02 Eastern).

Let’s start with the ballpark orientation. You should all bookmark this diagram by the brilliant FlipFlopFlyBall. That’s a graphical representation of the direction a batter faces in all MLB ballparks, relative to True North.

Let’s assume that a center fielder in straight-away center field lines up so that he could stare at the batter directly in the eyes–that is, they would be on the same line, facing each other. (I know this isn’t how real defensive alignment works, but go with me on this, OK?) That means that the center fielder would have to be facing 180 degrees opposite the batter’s facing.

Refer again to that diagram and look for Busch Stadium. If you plug Busch Stadium into Google Earth and measure the angle from home plate to straight away center field, you will see that the batter faces about 68 degrees from true North. The Center Fielder, then, would have to be facing the other direction (180 degrees opposite!) so the Center Fielder’s facing is about 248 degrees from true North.

Thanks to the hard work of scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the general public has access to an excellent Solar position calculator. The value we’re looking for is the Solar Azimuth: the position of the sun in degrees clockwise from north.

At the start of the game (2:00 P.M. Central Time, 3:00 P.M. Eastern), we can already see that the solar azimuth is at 221.94 degrees. Things get progressively worse as the afternoon goes on, however. At about 4:02 local time, things are at their worst: the solar azimuth reaches the dreaded 248.06 degrees: right into the eyes of the center fielder.

Yikes. How about a shadow? That’s going to need a bit of trigonometry.

At the start of the game, the solar elevation (the angle of the sun, measured from the horizon) is 36.06 degrees. I don’t have good measurements of the height of the stands at Busch Stadium, so I’m going to assume the stands are about 100 feet tall at their highest point. We’ll also imagine that the center fielder is playing about medium depth (start of the inning, no basenners, no defensive shifts on) which puts him maybe 375 feet from home plate. I don’t know the measurement of the foul ground between the plate and the backstop. Let’s assume it’s 12 feet.

The length of the shadow at any given time, then, assuming that the sun is shining directly behind home plate, is the long side of a right triangle formed by the base of the backstop (A), the top of the stands (B), and the position of the center fielder (C). If that value is equal to or greater than 387 (375+12), the center fielder is in the shadow; if less, the Sun Monster has him.

So how long will the shadow be at 4:02 PM central time? well, that’ll be

$\tan{\theta} = \frac{\text{height of stands}}{\text{distance from backstop}}$

Which means

$\text{Length of shadow} = \frac{\text{height of stands}}{\tan \theta}$

Where

$\theta = \text{angle of elevation}$

With an angle of elevation of 16.51 degrees at 4:02 PM local time,

$\text{Length of shadow} = \frac{\text{100 feet}}{\tan 16.51^\circ} = 337 \text{feet}$

Our center fielder will get no help from the shadows, then. If he stands 375 feet from the plate, he’s 387 feet from the backstop, and in the full sun. Fifty feet ahead of him (in what would now doubtless be infield-fly territory), the relief of the shadows beckons. But he must live with the full sun.

At the start of the game, by the way, the shadows are much shorter–a mere 137 feet–so even if the sun isn’t directly in the center fielder’s eyes, pretty much the whole outfield is in direct sunlight.

There you have it, Nats fans. We had better hope that there are no fly balls hit to Nats outfielders tomorrow.

Touched by an Angel

Called strikes: Angel Hernandez on Bryce Harper, Aug. 8, 2012. Note the red dots outside the box.

All of Nats town is about ready to kill umpire Angel Hernandez for his lousy officiating of last night’s Nats v. Astros game.

Thanks to the magic of Pitch/FX and the most excellent Texasleaguers Pitch/FX Database, I present to you, without further comment, a plot of pitches that Angel Hernandez called strikes on Bryce Harper.

The scene in Section 104 at Nats Park on Tuesday featured a couple of clowns…asking Bryce Harper some questions.

As they walked to their seats, I quipped: “That’s a clown outfit, bro.” A bicycle horn honked in acknowledgment.

Is Bryce Harper an All-Star?

Is Bryce Harper an All-Star? I know what you’re thinking: “That’s a clown question, bro–of course Harper should be an All-Star!” But it’s a much trickier question than it seems.

Just so we get this out of the way: I, personally, am using my write-in vote to vote for Bryce Harper as an All-Star.

Let’s assume you’re a perfectly rational All-Star Game Voter.

(I know there is no such animal as a rational All-Star voter, but stay with me. I promise I’ll get to the irrational part of the All-Star calculus later.)

Since you only get three votes for All-Star outfielders, then the rational choice would be to select the three “best” outfielders, based on their performance so far. That would give you a good shot at assembling the “best” possible All-Star roster to beat the hated American League.

Looking at the All-Star Ballot.. We can eliminate a number of players from consideration immediately.Marlon Byrd is out–can’t be an All-Star if you can’t stay in the Major Leagues. Emilio Bonifacio, Jayson Werth, Michael Morse, Jon Jay, and Matt Kemp are all out. These players are currently on the DL, or have been on the DL and have played so little that it isn’t remotely fair to include them in consideration.

We’ll add Harper to the “Outfield” category, even though he didn’t make the official ballot (since he was called up after the start of the season).

So, the rational choice would be to pick the three “best” outfielders from the remaining available selections. But who’s the best outfielder?

Is it by WAR? If that’s your criterion, then Harper shouldn’t even be in the conversation. In 41 games an 177 plate appearances, Bryce Harper has accumulated 1.2 WAR–enough to rank him 21st out of 44. The top 3? Michael Bourn (ATL; 3.7 WAR), Ryan Braun (MIL; 3.0 WAR), and Martin Prado (ATL: 2.9 WAR).

WAR, however, is a “counting” stat–the more you play, the more WAR you accumulate. Harper hasn’t been in the league a long time. Maybe his rate stats would land him in the top three? He hasn’t had enough plate appearances yet to qualify for any of the league rate-stat leaderboards, so let’s arbitrarily set the minimum at 170 plate appearances, so that Harper only just “qualifies”. That drops the pool down to 30 possible candidates.

Well, let’s see. Harper’s slash line as of this writing is .303/.384/.548. That ranks him 8th in Batting Average, Tied at 3rd in On-Base Percentage, and 6th in slugging.

Harper’s wOBA is .395–enough to rank him 6th.

This doesn’t look good for Harper. Given our selection criteria, he’d only barely merit consideration on the basis of his high OBP. But in no other statistical category would Harper be one of the three “best” outfielders.

But you know what? I’m voting Harper anyway. The All-Star Game is an exhibition–a spectacle. No matter how much the Commissioner wants me to believe that “This one counts,” I can’t get myself worked-up about it nearly as much as I do as for a regular, midweek Nats game.

Harper as spectacle is another thing entirely. It is tough to deny the immediate, visceral appeal of his monstrous home-run power, his disciplined batting approach, his astonishing speed, his old-school hustle. He is, in any given game, fun to watch.

I want to have fun as I watch the All-Star Game. I’m voting for Bryce Harper. We’ll leave the serious ballots for NL Rookie of the Year–and that isn’t something I’ll have to worry about for quite some time.

John Lannan Is Not Cole Hamels or Jordan Zimmermann

I have been too upset about the continuing ugliness between the Nats and the Phillies to weigh on the beanball war that Cole Hamels started on Sunday. (I have tweeted about it, though). But it seems that many people in the City of Brotherly Love are upset at the slap-on-the-wrist five-game suspension Hamels must serve. Of course, the Phillies won’t be too hurt by the suspension–Hamels won’t even miss a start–so why are the Phans so upset?

Apparently, they cry fraud because John Lannan was not suspended for allegedly beaning Chase Utley and Ryan Howard on July 26, 2007–earning the Syracuse Chiefs lefty the dubious distinction for having been the first pitcher to have been ejected during his major league debut.

Let’s set aside the fact that Hamels freely admitted that he beaned Bryce Harper on purpose–supposedly in the service of “old-school” prestige.  Even without Hamels’ boasting, we could have easily surmised that Hamels beaned Harper intentionally. Lannan was not suspended because, in all probablity, he had no idea where those balls were going when they left his hand.

Indulge me in a little statistical thought experiment. Let’s assume we can use a pitchers’ walks-per-9-innings-pitched rate (BB/9) and his number of wild pitches as very rough proxies of that pitcher’s ability to control where the baseball is going. If that’s true, then a pitcher with poor control will issue, on average, more walks and more wild pitches. A pitcher with excellent control will issue fewer walks, and fewer wild pitches.

OK, fine. According to Fangraphs John Lannan has a career  BB/9 of 3.38 and recorded 15 wild pitches over 751 innings pitched.

It should come as absolutely no surprise that Cole Hamels has better command: his career BB/9 stands at an impressive 2.23. He has issued a scant 15 wild pitches over 1,201.2 innings pitched.

It should be blindingly obvious to anyone now that 2012 Syracuse Chief John Lannan is not as good at putting the baseball where he wants it as 2008 World Series MVP Cole Hamels is. It gets even more obvious when you consider that 2007 John Lannan–whose specter has now returned to whip up the Phans’ warped persecution complexes–was even wilder than his career figures. In 2007 alone, Lannan’s BB/9 was an astonishing 4.41–and he issued 1 wild pitch in a scant 34.2 innings of work!

So, on that fateful day in 2007, when John Lannan hit two helpless Philadelphia batsmen in quick succession, it’s pretty safe to say that he had no idea where the baseball was going.

Conversely, on a cool May evening in DC, when Cole Hamels appointed himself the guardian of the old school, there can be absolutely no doubt that Hamels intended to harm his target. Like Elvis Costello, his aim is true.

And what about the other protagonist in Sunday’s beanbag war–Jordan Zimmermann? He hit Hamels in the shin, but has continued to maintain his innocence. The stat sheet should make us doubt that claim, as well. He has a career BB/9 that rivals Hamels at 2.15, and only 3 wild pitches in 323 innings of work. I don’t think anybody can doubt that he knew where he put that fastball.

So, in sum: Hamels, by his own confession, is guilty of an intentional beaning. Zimmermann, in all probability, is guilty of intentionally retaliating.

John Lannan is guilty of nothing more than being a mediocre pitcher at best–a crime for which Nationals fans have suffered on many occasions.

Quit whining, Phans.

Harp-ocalypse Now.

I watched a snail…crawlin’ on the edge…of a straight razor. That’s my dream. That’s my nightmare. Crawling, slithering…along the edge…of a straight…razor…and surviving.

Truer words were never said about the Nats’ (lack of) offense.

Nats town is reeling. In the midst of a two-game losing streak (this is what passes for a catastrophe for the 2012 Nationals), the Nats place Ryan Zimmerman on the 15-day Disabled List for a shoulder injury. But Nats fans scarcely had any time to react, because the next news item was even more shocking:

Bryce Harper was called up from Syracuse. He will make his big-league debut tonight at Dodger Stadium, batting seventh, and playing left field.

Am I surprised? Yes. I had guessed that Harper would make his debut much later–at home against the Rays on June 19th.

Some might think that this is a desperation move by the Nats. That might be part of the story. The Nats score only 3.55 runs per game–and, if you take away the two occasions where they scored 7 runs, the Nats would only score 3.16 runs per game. Current Nationals left fielders (Bernadina, Nady, DeRosa, and Lombardozzi),  are batting a combined .161 this year–positively Matt Stairs-like! Even though Harper is only batting .250/.333/.375 so far at AAA Syracuse, almost anything is an improvement over what the Nats have now.

And, realistically who else could it have been? Let’s go through the Nats’ 40-man roster, shall we?

Zimmerman is out on the DL. So if you were looking for a one-for-one replacement, you’d want someone in the system who can play third base, who might have some offense. Anthony Rendon? Well, even if he were ready (remember, he’s only at high-A Potomac), he’s not available because of that awful ankle injury. That leaves Syracuse Chiefs third baseman Carlos Rivero, who has not exactly been crushing International League pitching (.236/.250/.309). Your best bet for a third baseman is probably someone already on the big-league roster. From what I saw last night, Lombo can play a pretty decent third base. So can Chad Tracy, if necessary.

OK, so now we can bring up an outfielder. Who’s available? Other than Harper, the only available outfielder on the 40-man roster is AA Harrisburg’s Eury Perez, who’s got some speed and pop. But so far he’s batting .225/.266/.247 in the Eastern League–not exactly what the Nats would be looking for in terms of big-league offense.

That leaves Harper, batting an underwhelming .250/.333/.375 at AAA Syracuse–that suspiciously low SLG number is not very reassuring, although there is some evidence that he’s feeling a bit more hitterish lately.

Many in Nats town–myself included–were wondering whether this was the moment we would see Tyler Moore, renowned murderer of International League baseballs, get the call. There were reports that Moore had been spending some time in left field to prepare him for this possibility. Moore is actually hitting better than Harper at the moment: .278/.354/.556.

But although Harper hasn’t been an outfielder for very long, he has at least been playing left field a lot more than Moore has. That, to me, would give Harper a very slight advantage in terms of getting called up.

Assuming Zimmerman’s DL stint is not an eerie repeat of 2011 Adam LaRoche (which began with a brave face, then a trip to the disabled list, then season-ending surgery), the Harper call-up is ominous for the members of Nats bench–the “Goon Squad.”

Because of the injury to Michael Morse, left field has been Goon Squad turf all season thus far. The offensive production hasn’t been pretty. If Zim comes back, and Harper is at least halfway competent, one of the goons is going to be terminated. With extreme prejudice.