Tuesday, July 10, 2012

NL All-Star team ... uh, can we try this again?

The National League All-Star team playing Tuesday night in Kansas City is, at least measured by WAR, not very good. In fact, if we were to pick a team of NL WAR Stars and compare it with the real team of NL All-Stars, we would end up with only ten players in common.

By BILL PETERSON
Big Leagues in Los Angeles


Our task here is to produce a National League 25-man All-Star team based on WAR (wins above a replacement-level player) as calculated by baseball-reference.com.

We'll jump right into it. For a rationale about why this might be worth doing, as well as the American League version of our WAR All-Star teams, check here.

To begin, we will make up a 25-man National League All-Star team based mainly on WAR, deviating only to fill every starting position and make sure each team is represented by at least one player. After that, we will add five players (three position players and two pitchers) for a 30-man roster, then four more players for a 34-man roster, which brings us up to the roster length that will be in action Tuesday night in Kansas City.

Here is the 10-man pitching staff for the 25-man NL WAR team. The pitcher's WAR so far in 2012 follows his name:

Johnny Cueto, Cincinnati (3.6), R.A. Dickey, New York (3.6), Jordan Zimmerman, Washington (3.1), Mark Buehrle, Miami (2.9), James McDonald, Pittsburgh (2.8), Gio Gonzalez, Washington (2.7), Ryan Vogelsong, San Francisco (2.7), Matt Belisle, Colorado (2.6), Ryan Dempster (2.6), and Kyle Lohse, St. Louis (2.6).

Unlike the American League, for which the starting pitchers on the real All-Star team lock step with WAR all the way through, the NL pitching staff diverges widely from a staff that would be picked by WAR.

The most glaring example is Cueto, tied with Dickey as the NL's best pitcher this year by WAR. Retired St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa, managing the NL All-Stars, left Cueto completely off the All-Star team, which can only be described as a farcical, petty omission. It goes back to the rivalry between the Cardinals and the Reds, which has gotten nasty through the years. This move by LaRussa, snubbing a foe like this after retirement, shows just how nasty that rivalry turned.

But maybe we're too harsh here, because Cueto isn't the only WAR warrior left off the team in Kansas City. Indeed, it you believe and support WAR (what a terrible acronym), then you are fuming about this NL All-Star pitching staff going to Kansas City, because it is terrible. The NL has included only one of its top 10 pitchers by WAR, which would be Dickey. Further down the list, we find only six of the top 20. So, we have a very low performing All-Star pitching staff relative to the right now.

Now watch them throw a combined no-hitter against the American League in Kansas City.

Here, now, is the starting lineup, and the batting order, for the NL WAR Stars:

Leading off is our right fielder, Atlanta outfielder Michael Bourn (3.9), fifth in NL WAR among position players. Following Bourn is Pittsburgh center fielder Andrew McCutchen, third in the league with his 4.4 WAR. Batting third is the great Cincinnati first baseman Joey Votto, second in the league at 4.5. Cleaning up for the NL is New York third baseman David Wright, who leads the NL at 4.7 WAR.

Whew. And this lineup doesn't quit. Batting fifth is the reigning NL MVP and the most booed player in the game right now, Milwaukee left fielder Ryan Braun, eighth in the NL at 3.6. The No. 6 batter is the designated hitter, St. Louis left fielder Matt Holliday, sixth in the NL at 3.7. Batting seventh is Philadelphia catcher Carlos Ruiz, fourth in the NL at 4.0. The No. 8 hitter is Chicago shortstop Starlin Castro, 11th in the NL at 3.0. And the No. 9 hitter, Chicago second baseman Darwin Barney, seventh in the league at 3.6.

Surprising, eh? Who would have thought that the last-place Chicago Cubs could put three players just on the WAR pitching staff and starting lineup? That's an awful lot of talent for such a terrible team. It tells us that Cubs general manager Theo Epstein has a nice building block in his double-play combination, and that he has an awful lot more work to do.

And what a great batting order. Sadly, that is not the batting order, or even the lineup, that will appear for the NL in Kansas City. Among the players in our lineup, the fans selected only Votto. Then, the NL decision makers initially left Bourn, Holliday and Barney off the real NL All-Star team completely. Bourn and Holliday have since been added as replacement players, but Barney has not.

As we fill out the 25-man NL team with reserves, we will pass over some better players by WAR because we need to represent every club. The list here includes are San Francisco outfielder Melky Cabrera (ninth among NL hitters at 3.4), St. Louis catcher Yadier Molina (2.9, 13th), Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis (2.4, 17th), San Diego third baseman Chase Headley (2.3, tied for 18th), Arizona first baseman Paul Goldschmidt (2.2, tied for 20th) and Houston shortstop Jed Lowrie (2.1, tied for 25th).

There, we have it, our best 25-man NL team by WAR, complete with three catchers and at least one player from every team. None of our WAR reserves was named to the real NL All-Star team. Thus, out of 25 players on the NL WAR stars, only eight are on the real NL 34-man All-Star team.

Adding five more players for a 30-man roster, we start with two outfielders, Atlanta's Martin Prado (3.2) and Miami's Giancarlo Stanton (3.0). We should add an infielder to this mix, and now comes a hard case. Atlanta rookie shortstop Andrelton Simmons has played in only 33 games, and we should rightly argue that 33 games isn't enough to make an All-Star team. But his production is off the charts. Much as we ooh and ahh about the Angels' Mike Trout and his 4.6 WAR in 64 games, Simmons is sitting on 2.5 WAR in 33 games. Going by WAR, we have to include Simmons. The two additional pitchers are Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers and Matt Cain of the Giants, who are tied for 11th among NL pitchers at 2.4 WAR.

Kershaw, Cain and Stanton all were named to the real NL All-Star team, but Simmons and Prado were not. Stanton has since been scratched due to injury.

Four more players get us to 34. Going down the list, we pick Carlos Beltran of St. Louis and Jason Heyward of Atlanta, both tied for 14th in the NL with Simmons at 2.5. The additional pitchers are Washington's Stephen Strasburg and Milwaukee’s Zack Greinke at 2.4 WAR, tied with Cain and Kershaw. Beltran is in the real NL starting lineup, Strasburg is on the real NL staff, and Heyward isn't on the real team at all.

The real originally named NL All-Star team and the 34-man NL WAR team have only 10 players in common -- Votto, Beltran, Cain, Dickey, Kershaw, Strasburg, Bourn, Braun, Castro and Cabrara. Add in Holliday, a replacement, and it gets up to 11.

Rather amazing how much disparity we have, even as the new metrics have crept into the front offices, between what the real NL roster says and what WAR says. 

The real NL roster includes four relief pitchers -- Cincinnati's Aroldis Chapman, Atlanta's Craig Kimbrel, Colorado's Houston Street and Pittsburgh's Joel Hanrahan -- with a combined WAR of 4.9. Again, managers love relief specialists, and WAR does not.

The rest of the real NL team, according to WAR, includes such howlers as Chicago's Bryan LaHair and San Francisco's Pablo Sandoval, both wandering around at 0.9 WAR. Other real NL All-Stars include such weak WARriors as Rafael Furcal of the Cardinals (1.1) and Cincinnati's Jay Bruce (1.3).

The combined WAR for the NL WAR Stars is 103.3. The combined WAR for the real NL All-Star team is 70.2. Naturally, we should expect a team selected on the basis of WAR to have a higher WAR than a team that isn't. But the difference here is hard to swallow. We're looking at a difference of 30 games in a period of a half season.

Somebody didn't pick the right team here. If WAR didn't pick the right team, it means WAR is deeply flawed. If the fans and LaRussa didn't pick the right team, then they are, at least in this respect.

Our hunch is that the NL team playing in Kansas City Tuesday night  isn't nearly as good as it could be. Then again, neither is the AL team.

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