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.

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Pitchers & Catchers Report!

Nats pitchers and catchers officially report to Viera today!

Of course, many of their teammates have already been in Viera for quite some time, getting extra work in before the official start to spring training.

Notably, however, a few Nats have been doing a lot more with their winter vacations than that. Henry Rodriguez, along with his fellow Venezuelans Jesús Flores and Wilson Ramos, spent the winter playing in the Venezuelan League. However many off-season workouts you can do, I imagine it’s very different to be able to work on your skills in a situation where real games are on the line, in front of stadiums packed with thousands of adoring fans.

While beat writers will be busy asking other ballplayers what they did on their winter vacation–and while those other ballplayers will reply with endless variations on “I worked really hard; I’m in the best shape of my life now,” the Nationals’ three Venezuelan ballplayers can get on with their business and let their records speak for themselves. Well, what do those records say?

First, a note about the Venezuelan League season. There is a 63-game regular season, followed by a 16-game round-robin “semifinal” that determines the two teams that face each other in the final championship series. I’m only looking at regular-season statistics here. After all, that’s all I look at when I look at a player’s MLB statistics. The Round-robin and championship series phases are “post-season,” and so won’t be counted. Besides,as I said yesterday, I’m lazy. Getting proper offensive statistics would require more data entry than I have time or inclination to do.

Henry Rodriguez: Tan Capaz de Ser Feo como Fenómeno

A few days ago, I tweeted that Henry Rodriguez was going to be someone I’ll be watching carefully over the course of the 2012 season. In his time with the Nats so far, he has shown himself capable of unbelievable feats of relief pitching dominance. But to say he had some issues getting his considerable power under control might be something of an understatement:

According to SB Nation, the 10th-worst Pitch of 2011. I still cringe just thinking about this.

The Hot Rod’s 2011 season with the Nationals split the difference between those two extremes. In 59 appearances and 65.2 innings pitched, the Hot Rod recorded an ERA of 3.56, a FIP of 3.24, and a WHIP of 1.51. On average, in any given nine-inning stretch, you could have expected him to strike out 9.59 batters, and walk 6.17 of them–and give up a measly 0.14 home runs.

How did he do in Venezuela this winter? In 23 appearances and 23.2 innings pitched, he recorded an ERA of 3.80, a FIP of 3.88, and a WHIP of 1.39. On average, in any given nine-inning stretch, you could have expected him to strike out 9.39 batters, walk 6.46, and give up 0.38 home runs.

The one thing that kills Rodriguez is his walks. His walk rate crept up during the 2011 Venezuelan league regular season, and that’s not something Nats fans wanted to see. The 1.39 WHIP is lower than his 2011 MLB WHIP of 1.51, despite an increase in walk rate and decrease in strikeout rate, so it looks like Venezuelan-league batters had a harder time reaching base safely after making contact. I can’t verify this without better information, but I’m betting the sheer speed of his pitches leaves hitters making weak, late contact–they must not have been catching up to the fastball. Of course, when they do time him, they can do serious damage. Witness the increase in home run rates (although I wonder if that’s just bad luck, rather than bad pitching).

In many ways, the 2011 Venezuelan regular season has been a disappointment for Hot Rod, because in the 2010 Venezuelan league regular season, he put up dominant numbers. The numbers speak for themselves. In 21.1 IP over 18 appearances, Hot Rod posted absolutely Strasburg-like stats: 1.69 ERA, 1.84 FIP, 0.94 WHIP. Strikeouts per 9 innings? 14.00. And, most importantly of all: 3.80 walks per 9 innings. Oh, and zero home runs.

When Henry Rodriguez is locked-in, as he was in Venezuela in 2010, he’s one of the most fearsome relievers in the game, capable of totally destroying opposing batting. But when he’s not locked-in, he puts up performances that are, well, not nearly so dominant. We saw that in DC all last summer, and fans in Venezuela saw it this winter. It will be interesting to see whether Nats pitching coach Steve McCatty can work with Henry to get his fearsome power under control. If the 2010 Venezuelan League model of the Hot Rod rolls out of the bullpen for the 2012 Nats, the National League is in for a nasty surprise. But if the 2011 Hot Rod coughs and sputters to life, fans seated behind home plate should, for their safety, carefully inspect the netting, and maybe consider buying a half-smoke while Henry goes to work.

Ramos y Flores

Let’s move on to the Nats’ two botanically-surnamed catchers. In Venezuela this winter, one of them batted .332/.369/.516, with 16 doubles and 8 home runs, posting a wRC of 27. The other batted .216/.274/.273, with 2 doubles and 1 home run, with a wRC of 11. Which is which?

If you guessed that the flourishing catcher was Jesús Flores, you are right. Flores didn’t see much action with the Nats in 2011, and we had pretty much forgotten about him in DC after he was hurt in 2009. The last good look we’d gotten at Flores was in 2008, when he batted .256/.296/.402 with 18 doubles, a triple, and 8 home runs. If his Venezuelan league offensive figures are any indication of his readiness for the 2012 MLB season, I think the Nats can expect very good things from Flores. If Flores bats in 2012 the way that he did in Venezuela, we can project him to have a wRC of 34 in 2012–4 more runs than we would have expected from his recent past.

Ramos’s Venezuelan season got off to the worst possible start–he was kidnapped at gunpoint by masked men, and the freed in what was supposed to have been a fierce gunfight. Only he can know how he was affected, but his offensive production, at first glance, looks to have dropped off considerably. If Ramos bats as well in 2012 for the Nats as he did in Venezuela, I’d project him to post a wRC of 46–3 runs fewer than I have him projected this year.

But look again. During the 2010 Venezuelan season, he batted .322/.390/.567 with 17 doubles and 9 home runs, posting a wRC of 23. But, crucially, Ramos got 200 plate appearances in 2010, as opposed to only 95 in 2011. If we give him 200 plate appearances in 2011, he ends up with a wRC of… yup, 23!

How can that be? My guess: one of the components of wRC is the league average wOBA. In 2010, when Ramos put up the gaudy Venezuelan numbers, The league average wOBA was .283. In 2011, that average dropped to .275. Perhaps Ramos’s numbers (and scaled numbers) are down because the whole league’s numbers are down. Perhaps Venezuelan league pitching improved as a whole. Either way, Nats fans can be comforted by the fact that, even after everything that’s happened to him, Wilson Ramos is the same ballplayer he’s always been.

What Nats fans should look forward to this spring, however, is an emerging Catcher Controversy. Flores did very well with the Navegantes de Magallanes–look at those offensive stats! If Flores can continue to build on his Venezuelan League successes while in the Grapefruit League this spring, we might find that it is Flores, not Ramos, who ends up as the Nats’ opening-day catcher.

Baseball Eve!

The Boys Are Back in Town!

No real insights for you today on the day before Pitchers & Catchers report to Viera. Federal Baseball already has some early photographic evidence of baseball returning to Viera. Highlights include Jordan Zimmermann and Drew Storen rocking the quasi-official Beastmode T-Shirt introduced to the ’11 Nats by Ian Desmond and made famous by Michael Morse. But who’s that shaking hands with Tyler Clippard? The #tigerbeatbaseball girls want to know. (It’s not Ryan Tatusko, though. I checked that already.)

Two statistically-related things that I’ve been thinking about lately, though:

Lost in Translation

Given the number of major league players and prospects who play in the Latin American winter-ball leagues in Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico, it’s remarkable to me how hard it is to get reliable statistical information out of those leagues. The leagues have their own stats pages, to be sure. For instance, the Venezuelan League’s stats pages are pretty comprehensive. But it’s not exactly easy to find the player you’re looking for. Moreover, calculating advanced statistics like wOBA and wRC is pretty much impossible. The worst has got to be wRC, because it depends on calculating a league average wOBA. To do that for the Venezuelan league, I’d have to key in all the data for all players into another spreadsheet and run the calculations from there. The calculating isn’t too bad, but the data entry will take more time than I’m willing to commit (it’s not like sabermetrics is my job, y’know–and if it were, I’d be pretty terrible at it).

As an aside: reading statistical tables and box scores in Spanish reminded me that my Spanish isn’t as good as it ought to be. Baseball stats are cryptic enough in English, but they can be pretty opaque in Spanish. Glossaries do exist, but I’ve had to bring in an outside consultant for help with a few.

If you’re at all interested in Latin American baseball stats, PuraPelota has the most complete database I’ve been able to find, but they can be a bit slow on the update cycle. I haven’t been able to find anything nearly as complete or helpful for any of the Asian leagues (Japan, Korea, Taiwan). I can’t understand why that would be so–surely the Sabermetric revolution has spread all across the baseball world? Nothing makes you appreciate the excellent work that Baseball Reference and Fangraphs do quite like dealing with the sparse data available for foreign baseball leagues.

Eye in the Sky

I’ve already written about this post at Línea de Fair, but I can’t help but take a closer look at one of the author’s objections to UZR:

…UZR, the measure employed to determine whether a fielder has more range than his teammates, and whether, on the whole, he can prevent opponents from from creating more runs. Joey Cora used to remind me how an infielder could be better depending on which pitcher was on the mound. This was due not only to the pitches, but also to the control the pitcher has over them. “What happens if a catcher calls for a sinker inside,” Cora asked. The shortstop moves a little, almost imperceptibly, towards the hole if the batter is right-handed. But if the pitcher leaves the ball outside, the roller could go up the middle of the infield. Result? A higher probability that the batted ball goes up the middle of the field and finds the shortstop further away from it–thus raising his UZR.

My initial reaction is that complaining that UZR may not describe that particular defensive alignment and situation like this is like complaining that the Ideal Gas Law won’t tell you exactly where to look for one particular carbon dioxide molecule in a tank full of compressed air.

Part of the problem, I think, is that UZR is the one baseball statistic in (quasi-) common use that is flat-out impossible to derive from other published statistics. As far as I can tell, the whole process depends on individual human beings watching game footage, noting where fielders are positioned, and noting where the fielder meets (or doesn’t meet) the ball.

Because I’m lazy, I figure that there must be a better way to do things–or at least one that isn’t so unbearbly tedious. We already have fairly sophisticated software that can track the location of, say, baseballs and baseball gloves as they move across a camera’s field of view. It should be a fairly simple matter to fix a wide-angle camera (or several) across a baseball field, record the whole game, and only have human intervention whenever the ball strikes the bat. An observer might tap one button when he sees the impact of the ball on the bat, and then tap another when the ball comes to rest (either in the glove of the fielder, or out of play). The end result might look something like the FlipFlopFlyball‘s defensive positioning infographic.

The genius of computing, however, would allow us to track each defensive move as a vector, with an origin point at wherever the defender started when the ball was put in play, and an endpoint at wherever he was standing when the play was over. I’m not so great at mathematics, but I imagine the resulting graphical representations (and statistical inferences!) that could be made from those data would be extremely useful in evaluating the range of any individual defender. Heck, maybe it wouldn’t be too hard to explain– if I only had a brain!

[Something I didn’t notice when I first saw that video in high school: MC 900ft Jesus is wearing a 1926 Washington Senators cap!]