Posted June 28, 2012

Who should start the All-Star Game: NL edition

All-Star Game, National League

Carlos Ruiz has been one of the few offensive bright spots for the Phillies this year. (Landov)

With the All-Star balloting set to end at 11:59 PM ET tonight, yesterday I compared the American League vote leaders at each position with my own take on the players most worthy of starting. At heart, the voting is merely a popularity contest, and hardly democratic, given that an individual can cast 25 ballots for a player online, to say nothing of bulk balloting at the ballpark, but then again “most deserving” is itself a subjective call, one that depends upon the extent to which one weighs this year’s accomplishments against prior years.

In assembling my squad, I didn’t simply go by 2012 statistics. I incorporated last year as well in an attempt to get a sense for which players are legitimately the best in the league at their positions now, with this year’s numbers serving as something of a tiebreaker. I’m not going to claim that my first base choice in the AL, Paul Konerko, is definitively a better player than Prince Fielder or Albert Pujols, but to the extent that he’s a very good player having a great season while the other two are great players who have momentarily taken steps back, an All-Star start is fitting recognition.

As you’d expect, my decisions were largely influenced by advanced metrics such as True Average (runs per plate appearance adjusted for park and league scoring levels and expressed on a batting average scale, with .300 good, .260 average, .230 replacement level) and Wins Above Replacement Player, albeit with a skeptical eye cast towards the defensive side given small sample sizes. What I found in compiling the AL team was that the voters hadn’t done such a bad job, and the same is largely true for the NL, though I take greater issue with a couple of the voters’ selections.

CATCHER: Carlos Ruiz, Phillies (.364.430.59, .360 True Average, 3.7 WARP)
Vote leader: Buster Posey, Giants

Back from a leg injury that cost him most of last season, Posey is having a very good year in a tough hitting environment (.300/.366/.483, .322 True Average). However, Ruiz is having a monster season, one in which he ranks third in the league in WARP and first in True Average. “Chooch” has been an above-average catcher with both the stick and the mitt for awhile now, topping 3.0 WARP in both 2010 and 2011; the only other catcher who did so during that span is the Braves’ Brian McCann, who’s in a funk (.234/.305/.396, .244 True Average). This is exactly the kind of year that deserves recognition with an All-Star start; without Ruiz, the Phillies might be below Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in the standings.

FIRST BASE: Joey Votto, Reds (.353/.478/.643, .359 True Average, 3.8 WARP)
Vote leader: Votto

Best hitter in baseball? Best hitter in baseball (at least as far as I’m concerned). Votto leads the NL in slugging percentage and leads all major league hitters in on-base percentage; he has already led the NL in the latter category in each of the last two seasons. He’s helped by playing half his games in Great American Ballpark, but even after adjusting for that, True Average shows him virtually tied with Ruiz over 27 percent more plate appearances. Given that no other NL first baseman is within two wins of him this year (Adam LaRoche of the Nationals has a 1.6 WARP that ranks second) this is the easiest call in either lineup, and one the fans have gotten right.

SECOND BASE: Jose Altuve (.309/.351/.453, .288 True Average, 2.9 WARP)
Vote leader: Dan Uggla, Braves

In Robinson Cano, Dustin Pedroia and Ian Kinsler, the AL has a wealth of top-flight second basemen. The NL’s situation is much murkier, with Chase Utley injured (he returned Wednesday night, and homered in his first at-bat), Brandon Phillips having an off year (.289/.330/.452, for a .259 True Average)  and Rickie Weeks absolutely cratering (.185/.30/.312). Aaron Hill’s .292 True Average (on a .297/.361/.500 line) leads NL second basemen. Hill, though, is coming back from two years in the wilderness, with a combined WARP of −0.1, and neither Uggla nor Infante — traded for one another in November 2010, incidentally — are having remarkable seasons. Both have hit for .280ish True Averages and compiled 1.9 WARP via defensive ratings that other systems call into question. In the absence of any great consensus, I’m going to score this one for the little guy. The 5-foot-5 Altuve is a cult favorite who provides the best reason to watch the rebuilding Astros. His .309/.351/.453 is a big step forward from last year’s rookie showing (.276/.297/.357), and while his lead among NL second basemen is founded on a defensive ranking that’s unsupported by other systems as well, I’m calling this one in favor of the underdog.

THIRD BASE: David Wright, Mets (.357/.449/.559, .352 TAv, 4.1 WARP)
Vote leader: Wright

Like Votto, this one’s a gimme that the fans have gotten correct. After missing two months of last season with a stress fracture in his back, Wright leads the majors in WARP and is fifth in True Average. At a time when there’s a dearth of healthy and productive third basemen in the Senior Circuit, his WARP is higher than those of the three NL third basemen — Chase Headley, Pedro Alvarez and Pablo Sandoval — immediately below him in the rankings combined. Sandoval has had two strong partial seasons with the stick (.306/.360/.459, .301 TAv this year), but he has played even fewer games than Wright over the past two season, 174 to 158.

SHORTSTOP: Starlin Castro, Cubs (.301/.318/.437, .272 True Average, 2.2 WARP), replacing injured Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies (.287/.360/.486, .272 True Average, 1.0 WARP)
Vote leader: Rafael Furcal, Cardinals

Tulowitzki owns the rights to the title of the game’s best shortstop, but he’s been limited to 47 games by a groin injury that required surgery to repair scar tissue. Furcal has stayed healthy this year after averaging just 102 games over the previous five seasons, but his performance hasn’t been remarkable (.283/.347/.380, .263 TAv, 1.9 WARP), and the same can be said for Jimmy Rollins (.269/.320/.421, .275 TAv, 1.5 WARP). Castro’s production is very batting average-driven, and his 54/8 strikeout-to-walk ratio is downright appalling; he’s a flawed but exciting player who gets the nod over the Astros’ Jed Lowrie, who’s having a strong, healthy season for the first time in memory (.266/.355/.500, .297 TAv, 2.5 WARP).

OUTFIELD: Andrew McCutchen, Pirates (.342/.397/.586, .342 True Average, 3.3 WARP), Ryan Braun, Brewers (.311/.392/.596, .333 True Average, 3.1 WARP), Carlos Beltran, Cardinals (.312/.400/.582, .343 True Average, 2.7 WARP) replacing Matt Kemp, Dodgers (.355/.444/.719, .399 True Average, 2.4 WARP)
Vote leaders: Kemp, Beltran, Braun

Even with the extra spot created by the injury to Kemp — a player who looked as though he might exceed last year’s MVP-caliber season until he returned to the disabled list — it’s impossible to recognize all of the worthy NL outfielders without snubbing at least one deserving player. Five of the top league’s top 10 in WARP are outfielders, all coming off strong 2011 showings as well. In the end, a lack of consensus on the defense of the Giants’ little engine that could, Melky Cabrera (.351/.391/.520, .337 True Average, 3.3 WARP), was enough to rule him out, and I picked against the Marlins’ Giancarlo Stanton (.274/.355/.538, .311 True Average, 2.2 WARP) because of his relatively low on-base percentage. Since all All-Star games now include a DH — a ruling handed down by MLB in 2010 — let’s call the Melkman my DH choice. Stanton deserves to be among the reserves, as does the Nationals’ phenom, Bryce Harper (.281/.358 /.483, .295 True Average, 2.0 WARP).

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