The people have spoken: Ryan Braun is completely forgiven.
OK, that may not be entirely accurate. But the once-tarnished Braun, coming off a suspension as a result of the Biogenesis scandal, hasn't seen his popularity dip too badly in the wake of his punishment. The Brewers' outfielder and former National League MVP is in line for a starting spot for the NL's All-Star team. There are a few other surprises elsewhere in the early voting, results of which were revealed on Wednesday, most notably the top vote-getter in the outfield.
Most of the infield results to date won't shock anyone. The Cardinals' Yadier Molina, who has made the last five All-Star teams, has a comfortable lead of more than 200,000 votes on the Giants' Buster Posey at catcher. Molina lapping the field despite not being the most productive catcher in the league or even his own division is a little disappointing, as is the paltry showing for the NL's best catcher to date, Milwaukee's Jonathan Lucroy, who is running a distant fourth in the voting.
The same is true at first base, where the Dodgers' Adrian Gonzalez is ahead of the likes of Freddie Freeman (second), Justin Morneau (third) and Paul Goldschmidt (fifth). After a torrid month of April, a weak May has lowered Gonzalez's OPS+ to 139, behind Freeman's 153 and tied with Goldschmidt. However, Gonzalez's advantage over Freeman is a mere 41,000 votes (349,762 to 308,961) and likely a result of that brilliant first month of play for Gonzalez. A good June from Freeman could close that gap in a hurry.
The selections at second base and shortstop make much more sense: The Phillies' Chase Utley and the Rockies' Troy Tulowitzki have commanding and deserved leads at their respective positions. Utley, who is easily ahead of the Dodgers' Dee Gordon at second, is in the midst of one of his best seasons, slashing .333/.389/.546 as he tries to make his first All-Star team since 2010. Tulowitzki's brilliant season, meanwhile, doesn't need much in the way of explanation; let's simply note that his 4.7 WAR and 205 OPS+ are the best marks not only in the NL but also in all of baseball. Unsurprisingly, Tulowitzki is also the NL's leading vote-getter at 745,823, beating Molina by over 100,000 votes, and is routing the rest of the shortstop field, with the Giants' Brandon Crawford more than a half a million votes behind him.
Third base is where things start to get strange. Colorado's Nolan Arenado has the lead at that position, thanks in large part to his red-hot start to the season and the 28-game hitting streak that propelled him into the public eye. Arenado has benefited from a weak field as well; he and Cincinnati's Todd Frazier are the only third basemen in the NL with an OPS above .800. Accordingly, Arenado's lead at third is slim, as he's beating the Brewers' Aramis Ramirez by just 29,000 votes and has the lowest vote total of any of the nine starters. But Arenado is unlikely to hold onto that lead much longer, as a broken finger will keep him out for all of June and likely for part of July. Whether Ramirez should get his spot instead is worth questioning; his 92 OPS+ is his worst mark since 2010, and his .699 OPS would be only sixth among third basemen in the NL if he had enough plate appearances to qualify. On top of that, Ramirez has been sidelined since May 12 with a hamstring injury. The smart money here is to bet on David Wright, Juan Uribe or Pablo Sandoval to seize the lead at third by the time the next results are released.
Then there's the outfield, which boasts a starter no one saw coming: Charlie Blackmon. Yes, the Rockies' outfielder is one of three projected starters along with Braun and the Pirates' Andrew McCutchen; he's also the third-leading vote-getter on the ballot, with an outfield-best 549,394 votes. Like his teammate Arenado, Blackmon is benefiting largely from a scorching start to the season, as he hit .374/.418/.616 in March and April. But as expected, regression has hit Blackmon hard, with the outfielder slashing just .261/.286/.420 since May 1. He's also been helped massively by Coors Field, with an 1.117 OPS at home and a .662 mark on the road. As the league catches up to Blackmon and his hot April fades from memory, he's likely to lose his hold on a starting spot, though his massive vote total will probably keep him floating near the top for at least a little while longer.
As for the rest of the outfield, McCutchen, the league's reigning MVP, is an easy choice thanks to his .310/.434/.462 line and 155 OPS+ this season. Braun's position is likely more name-based, as he's missed a slew of games already due to injuries to his thumb and oblique, but he has hit well when he's been on the field, with an .890 OPS and nine homers through 35 games.
The real surprise, aside from Blackmon's early lead, is the disappointing performance of Yasiel Puig. The Dodgers' dynamic outfielder is one of baseball's most popular and visible players, but that hasn't been reflected on the ballots so far, as he's fifth in outfield votes, trailing the starting three and the Marlins' Giancarlo Stanton. What's worse is that Puig is fifth despite some gaudy offensive numbers. Overall, he's hit .346/.445/.615 on the season, and his 197 OPS+ is the second-highest mark in all of baseball. And as good as that stat line is, he's been even better in May, hitting .367/.457/.606 on the month. The low showing may be a result of Puig fatigue on the voters' parts or negative backlash to his hyperactive style of play. But given his performance, he deserves a starting spot on this year's squad. The same is true of Stanton, who has been one of the NL's most productive outfielders to date.
The problem for the NL is that, in an outfield where McCutchen, Braun, Puig, Stanton, Justin Upton and Carlos Gomez are all options, multiple deserving players will miss out on a starting nod. However, between injuries and other considerations, there'll likely be room for most if not all of them, and with the All-Star Game in Minnesota, one of those listed will likely be the starting DH. As of now, the only weak link in what looks to be a loaded NL lineup will be at third base, compared to an AL lineup that for now looks like it'll be worse than its Senior Circuit counterpart at catcher, second base and (especially) shortstop.
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