The ideal 25-man National League All-Star roster
- DId the fans get it right after all? They chose a good list, but this is the roster that would give the National League the best chance at winning the All-Star Game.
When it comes to the All-Star Game, one increasingly common refrain in recent years has centered around the oversized rosters. Even as Major League Baseball attached real stakes to the exhibition in the wake of the infamous 2002 tie, granting home-field advantage in the World Series to the winning league's representative, the rosters ballooned to the point of spring training-level ridiculousness due to the requirement that each team be represented and the pressure on each manager to try to play everybody. The 2014 game featured a record 62 players but was merely one of four times in the last six years that at least 60 have played.
From 1933, the year of the inaugural All-Star Game, through '97, roster sizes for each league never topped 28 men. The 1998 expansion to 30 teams increased rosters accordingly, and they grew to 32 in 2003, 33 in '09 and 34 in '10. Thankfully, the Collective Bargaining Agreement agreed to last December not only removed the World Series tie-in but trimmed roster sizes back to 32, a small step in the right direction. Still, by the time injured and ineligible players are replaced, roughly 10% of all 25-man rosters will have been designated All-Stars, watering down the honor considerably.
With that in mind, Gabriel Baumgaertner and I have constructed 25-man rosters for each league with the following setup: eight starting position players, one designated hitter, one backup catcher, three backup infielders, two backup outfielders, six starting pitchers and four relievers. Not every team is required to have a representative. Instead, we're focused on fielding the best possible teams right now, focused primarily but not entirely on 2017 performance; players’ established levels beyond the past half-season were used in making tough choices (though less so than if I were left to my own devices). What follows here is my National League squad; Gabriel's picks for the AL are here. All statistics are through July 5, and unless otherwise noted, all WAR figures cited are from Baseball-Reference.com.
C - Buster Posey, San Francisco Giants
Season Stats: .331/.413/.510 (146 OPS+), 10 HR, 35 RBI, 2.9 WAR
The NL's elected starter has rebounded from an off-only-by-his-standards season with the bat and is the clear choice here, with an 0.8 WAR advantage over Yasmani Grandal in both flavors of 2017 WAR, and a 0.8 bWAR/1.2 fWAR advantage over Willson Contreras. Since the start of last year, his 7.5 bWAR is at least 50% higher than any other catcher in baseball.
1B - Joey Votto, Cincinnati Reds
Season Stats: .316/.426/.625 (170 OPS+) 24 HR, 61 RBI, 4.0 WAR
With apologies to the resurgent Ryan Zimmerman, whom the fans elected to start, the Senior Circuit is too jam-packed at this position to go with a player whose last three months were preceded by a miserable slog through the 2016 season. To these eyes, it's a four-horse race between Votto, Freddie Freeman, Paul Goldschmidt and Anthony Rizzo (last year's choice here as well as the actual NL starter). Goldschmidt (4.2 bWAR) has a slight edge over Votto in that department, but the latter leads the league in OPS+ and shares the lead in homers with rookie Cody Bellinger. What's more, Votto hit a blistering .352/.451/.631 over the past calendar year, and while Freeman's .322/.437/.663 over that span is in the same ballpark, Fab Freddie's recent seven-week absence due to a fractured left wrist looms large enough to provide separation.
2B - Daniel Murphy, Washington Nationals
Season Stats: .341/.395/.575 (148 OPS+), 14 HR, 60 RBI, 1.7 WAR
It's tough to argue with the voters here, even if Murphy's defense (-12 DRS, which holds the above WAR down, and -5 UZR) is rather unsightly. The Murph has been carrying on at roughly this clip (.344/.392/.588/153 OPS+) since leaving the Mets for the Nationals in December 2015. He’s particularly terrorized his former team, batting .405/.451/.711 with eight homers and 34 RBI in 31 games since departing, helping to give the Nationals a 21–10 record (including 9–3 this year) against their division rivals.
SS - Corey Seager, Los Angeles Dodgers
Season Stats: .300/.397/.512 (140 OPS+), 13 HR, 42 RBIs, 3.4 WAR
Starter Zack Cozart, a 31-year-old defensive whiz having his first good season with the bat, has put up comparable offensive numbers to Seager this year. But even while averaging 12 DRS per 1,200 innings during his career, his pre-2017 OPS+ of 82 isn't in the ballpark of Seager's total package. The 23-year-old phenom has picked up where he left off when winning NL Rookie of the Year honors and finishing among the top three in last year's MVP voting.
3B - Justin Turner, Los Angeles Dodgers
Season Stats: .384/.473/.571 (176 OPS+), 8 HR, 33 RBI, 3.9 WAR
Here's an incredibly tight race that casts aside the reigning NL MVP, Kris Bryant, like he's the fourth wheel of a tricycle (which is to say, still pretty darn useful). Though a three-week absence due to a hamstring injury has left him eight plate appearance short of the 261 (3.1 per team game played) needed to qualify for the batting title, Turner leads the league in both average on on-base percentage via the phantom rule, which means that even if an 0-for-8 is tacked on, he outdistances the second-ranked Murphy (.341 AVG) and Goldschmidt (.433 OBP). He leads all third baseman in both flavors of WAR (3.9 in FanGraphs' version, too), edging Anthony Rendon (3.7 in each) and Nolan Arenado (3.5 bWAR, 2.7 fWAR ). Using FanGraphs' handy Past Calendar Year split, his 7.2 fWAR and 159 wRC+* both rank fourth in the majors since July 5, 2016, with Mike Trout and Votto ahead of him in both categories, Mookie Betts in WAR and Freeman in wRC+. On Thursday, Turner was announced as the winner of the NL Final Vote. In choosing the Heavy Metal Amish Leprechaun, the fans made the right call.
* I prefer not to mix-and-match OPS+ and wRC+ within the same piece, but in general they’re nearly identical; FanGraphs’ use of them in calculating splits such as the one above is why I’ve cited the stat here here.
LF - Marcell Ozuna, Miami Marlins
Season Stats: .315/.372/.576 (150 OPS+), 23 HR, 64 RBI, 3.4 WAR
Admit it: you and everybody else were so busy admiring Giancarlo Stanton's moonshots that you didn't notice the Marlins pulled a switcheroo elsewhere in the outfield, with Christian Yelich moving from leftfield to center and Ozuna from center (where he started last year's All-Star Game) to left. The move has particularly benefited the 26-year-old Ozuna, who has matched his career high in homers and set new ones in all three slash stats and OPS+. He's fifth in the league in the last category, and seventh in WAR.
CF - Charlie Blackmon, Rockies
Season Stats: .311/.365/.571 (126 OPS+), 18 HR, 59 RBI, 2.1 WAR
There's nothing wrong with the voters' choice here, but it's worth noting that this is a comparatively weak position in the NL right now due to the 2017 struggles of Dexter Fowler and Odubel Herrera, Trea Turner's move back to the infield, and Ender Inciarte's superficial offense (a 99 OPS+ despite a .305 batting average). Blackmon's offensive numbers get a boost from Colorado, while his defensive numbers (-7 DRS, -5 UZR) suggest he's stretched in centerfield. Still, he's the league leader at the position in WAR both this season and since the start of 2016 (even including Ozuna).
RF - Bryce Harper, Washington Nationals
Season Stats: .324/.431/.600 (165 OPS+), 20 HR, 64 RBI, 3.4 WAR
Score it a clean sweep for the voters in the outfield. It's fair to say that both the Nationals and their 24-year-old superstar are coasting; Harper has hit "only" .273/.369/.466 since May 17, compared to .388/.503/.767 prior. Still, he leads his position by more than a win via either version of WAR.
DH - Paul Goldschmidt, Arizona Diamondbacks
Here's where I'm thankful for that extra hitter spot. Goldy's WAR leads the league, as do (yawn) his RBI and runs (72) totals. He gets the starting nod over Freeman, who I can squeeze onto the team as the backup third—I mean first—baseman.
C: Tyler Flowers, Braves
Season Stats: .319/.412/.459 (129 OPS+), 6 HR, 28 RBI, 1.7 WAR
Yadier Molina is amid a down season, and after Posey, Yasmani Grandal has the highest WAR both this year and over the last 365 days. Via Baseball Prospectus' framing stats, he has the majors' second-best pitch-framing numbers. That combination makes him a tempting choice here, but with my roster already awash in Dodgers, I can’t resist turning to Flowers, who’s suddenly blossoming (sorry) at 31 years old. Not only has he ranked among the top six in framing even amid limited playing time in each of the past three seasons, he’s improved dramatically as a hitter during that span. Even in 56 fewer PA than Grandal, I can’t resist picking him here.
1B: Freddie Freeman, Braves
Season Stats: .343/457/.727 (204 OPS+), 14 HR, 25 RBI, 2.6 WAR
3B: Nolan Arenado, Rockies
Season Stats: .298/.349/.540 (115 OPS+), 15 HR, 63 RBI, 3.5 WAR
3B: Anthony Rendon, Nationals
Season Stats: .297/.398/.549 (143 OPS+), 16 HR, 51 RBI, 3.7 WAR
Freeman's eye-opening numbers sit atop 2016 career highs WAR (6.5) OPS+ (157) and homers (34); he has to be here, but the cost is elsewhere in the infield. In the end, I went with the two third basemen, both in the league’s top five in WAR, which means snubbing Cozart, whose track record as a decent hitter is short, and whoever the league's second-best second baseman is (Josh Harrison?). From an in-game standpoint this would be fine, as both Turner and Rendon have plenty of second base work on their resumés, and Seager is certainly capable of playing nine innings at short.
OF: Giancarlo Stanton, Marlins
Season Stats: .271/.353/.545 (137 OPS+), 23 HR, 54 RBI, 2.1 WAR
OF: Cody Bellinger, Dodgers
Season Stats: .258/.333/.613 (144 OPS+), 24 HR, 56 RBI, 2.2 WAR
Eight outfielders besides Blackmon are bunched between 1.8 and 2.6 WAR for 2017. The top four—Tommy Pham, Michael Conforto, Chris Taylor and Bellinger—all have short-to-nonexistent track records as top-shelf players coming into this year, and less playing time this season than the other four (Stanton, David Peralta, Adam Duvall and Inciarte). The 10 DRS props up Pham's group-high 2.6 WAR, which looks fluky given the sample size, and his modest 4 UZR. In the end, my choices for outfield backup were driven by the longball. Who wouldn't want to see these guys take a shot at setting off the Dinger Machine?
RHP: Max Scherzer, Nationals (10–5, 1.94 ERA, 2.62 FIP, 12.2 K/9, 4.6 WAR)
LHP: Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers (13–2, 2.19 ERA, 3.11 FIP, 10.7 K/9, 3.7 WAR)
RHP: Carlos Martinez, Cardinals (6–7, 3.15 ERA, 3.54 FIP, 10.0 K/9, 2.5 WAR)
RHP: Stephen Strasburg, Nationals (9–2, 3.28 ERA, 3.08 FIP, 10.5 K/9, 2.8 WAR)
LHP: Alex Wood, Dodgers (10–0, 1.67 ERA, 2.04 FIP, 10.8 K/9, 3.0 WAR)
RHP: Zack Greinke, Diamondbacks (3.05 ERA, 3.27 FIP, 10/2 K/9. 3.1 WAR)
The first two are easy; I dissected their cases earlier this week, finding the extension of Scherzer's 2016 Cy Young-winning dominance into 2017 enough to tilt the balance towards anointing him the starter even before the Dodgers finalized their decision to start Kershaw Sunday, making him ineligible for the actual game, but not here. Those two are so far ahead of the pack, and the collapse of the Cubs’ and Mets’ rotations—which produced four All-Stars and the top three ERA finishers last year—so drastic that it's tough to figure out where to turn next.
Six of the next seven pitchers on the ERA leaderboard—Gio Gonzalez, Chase Anderson, Zack Greinke, Robbie Ray, Mike Leake and Jimmy Nelson—all had ERAs of 4.37 or higher last year, to pick just one point of reference, and Martinez is the only other holdover from last year’s top 10 besides Scherzer (Kershaw fell 13 innings short of qualifying). Martinez is compiling his third straight strong season, and Strasburg has been excellent when available in that span, so they make the cut.
Wood is 6 1/3 innings short of qualifying for the ERA title but has put up Kershaw-esque numbers since moving out of the bullpen early in the year. Over his last 11 starts, he has a 1.34 ERA with one homer and 83 strikeouts in 67 innings, and overall, he's seventh in WAR. For the sixth spot, Greinke gets the nod for a bounce-back season that has him in the top six in ERA, FIP and WAR, the only NL starter besides Scherzer and Kershaw who can say that.
RHP: Kenley Jansen, Dodgers (20 Sv, 1.01 ERA, 1.00 FIP, 14.1 K/9, 1.7 WAR)
RHP: Greg Holland, Rockies (28 Sv, 1.39 ERA, 2.29 FIP, 12.0 K/9, 2.1 WAR)
RHP Wade Davis, Cubs (16 Sv, 1.86 ERA, 1.95 FIP, 13.0 K/9, 0.9 WAR)
RHP: Corey Knebel, Brewers (13 Sv, 1.11 ERA, 2.00 FIP, 15.7 K/9, 2.3 WAR)
Jansen has put up unearthly numbers this year, striking out 51 of the first 112 hitters he faced before issuing a walk, that in his 33rd inning of work. He's converted all 20 of his save chances, nine of which have been for four outs or more. Holland has returned to elite status after missing all of last season due to Tommy John surgery and has blown just one save this year. Davis has given the Cubs something they lacked for the first two-thirds of last season, a lights-out closer, and while the opportunities haven't been abundant during their season-long slump, he's converted every one he's gotten and is now in his fourth straight season with an ERA of 1.87 or lower. Knebel didn't take over closer duties until mid-May, but he's dominated all season, and is the only NL reliever striking out a higher percentage of hitters than Jansen (43.3% to 43.1%).