The All-Star case for Josh Willingham
Baseball will announce the all-star teams Sunday, and the primary question surrounding the Nationals - and, increasingly, the rest of the baseball world - is whether Stephen Strasburg will be on the National League team. The hunch here is that if Strasburg makes it, he'll do it through the "final player" fan vote. If that's the case, then the Nationals will have a non-Strasburgian representative Sunday. Who will it be?
The Nationals have a few fringe candidates who, while having strong first halves, stand scant chance of becoming all stars. Livan Hernandez has a sparkling 3.10 ERA, but this season that gets you 15th in the NL. Matt Capps leads the league with 22 saves, but his save percentage ranks seventh and his 3.48 ERA ranks 40th among NL relievers. Adam Dunn is tied for fourth in the National League in home runs, but he happens to play the same position as Joey Votto, Albert Pujols and Adrian Gonzalez, three players who could all make a case for being the first-half NL MVP.
Ryan Zimmerman would be a pretty clear choice at third base most seasons. But David Wright and Scott Rolen are having excellent years for contending teams. Both have higher OPSes and more home runs than Zimmerman. Zimmerman's defense may give him an edge over both, especially Rolen. Zimmerman, the defending Gold Glove and Silver Slugger winner, would be a deserving all-star. But it's not hard to envision the National League going with Wright and Rolen and Zimmerman getting snubbed if, as happened last year, the NL selects just two third baseman.
The Nationals' best All-Star candidate, given his performance and how he stacks up against his position, may be the most overlooked of the Nationals' 3-4-5 hitters: Josh Willingham.
Willingham's game last night, when he went 2 for 4 with a home run robbed a hit with a diving catch in left field, served as a reminder that Willingham this season has been one of the most productive outfielders in the league. Last year, there were seven outfielders on the NL all-star roster, and it would be hard to question Willingham's status as one of the top seven outfielders in the NL for the first half of this year.
Start with his production at the plate, the most obvious way he helps the Nationals. Here's how he ranks in four key statistical categories:
On-base percentage, .407: 3rd overall, 1st among outfielders
Slugging percentage, 498: 16th overall, sixth among outfielders
OPS, .905: 11th overall, 3rd among outfielders
OPS+, 146: 8th overall, 3rd among outfielders
Home runs, 14: t-15th overall, 3rd among outfielders
The other areas of his game only help Willingham's case. Despite average speed, Willingham has become an outstanding base runner. He's stolen seven bases without being caught; only Jason Bay (10) and Adam Kennedy (nine) have at least seven steals without an out. He's taken the extra base - scored from first on a double, scored from second on a single or gone from first to third on a single - 47 percent of the time. The league average is 40 percent.
His defense, which used to be a blemish, has become close to a strength. His UZR/150, according to FanGraphs.com, is 3.7, fourth best among qualifying NL left fielders. Put that together with offensive production, and his 2.8 WAR - a formula by FanGraphs that measures wins above a replacement player - ties him with Andres Torres for third among National League outfielders, behind only Matt Holliday and Marlon Byrd.
Willingham may get help from a recently thinned field. Ryan Braun, Jason Heyward and Andre Ethier are currently winning the fan vote. Heyward, though, has said he will not play because of a thumb injury, opening up an extra spot for a NL outfielder.
Willingham rarely is mentioned as one of the best outfielders in the league. For the first half of this season, by advanced and standard measures, he has played like it. Willingham deserves to represent the Nationals and make his first All-Star team.
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