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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.

By Adam Kilgore  |  June 30, 2010; 1:35 PM ET
 
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Comments

I've been doing my bit for Willingham by voting for him twice on every ballot. Here's how: The ballot allows you to choose three outfielders from the prepared list, but also allows a write-in vote. So I vote for Josh under the prepared list and I leave one of the other OF spots blank. Then I use my write-in vote for Josh. Voila! Two Willingham votes for the price of one.

Posted by: nunof1 | June 30, 2010 1:39 PM | Report abuse

The Hammer has been an impressive player for us. He tolerated initial part-time status last year like a pro, and then made himself un-benchable when he got in. This year he has been a pleasure to watch in the outfield, which has been a surprise.

So I guess we will trade him as well as Dunn rather than pay them what they are worth, all in the name of building a contender, then sign mediocrity in their places. I wish I trusted this ownership to do the right thing, but I do not.

Posted by: NatsFly | June 30, 2010 1:43 PM | Report abuse

Nunof1,

What I'm pretty sure you've done is invalidated every single All-star vote you've made. I'm pretty sure in the rules it states that what you've done will cancel out the whole ballot.

Posted by: rnkorby | June 30, 2010 1:51 PM | Report abuse

@NatsFly--my guess/hope is that Adam Dunn will sign a 2 yr contract with the Nats over the All Star Break and the Hammer will sign a multi-year contract before the arbitration deadline this winter.

The absurdity of the All Star ballot is that it gets printed before the season even starts! They ought to go on-line only and start polling no earlier than May 1st.

Posted by: ramgut | June 30, 2010 1:56 PM | Report abuse

I'd agree with JWilly for the Nat's All-Star spot. I think he edges out Dunn on the basis of defense (not because there are too many first basemen -- I don't care how many people are stacked at a particular position; the best players should go).

It's bugged me for a while that nats.com has "Vote Dunn/Zimm/Pudge" at the top of the home page with no reference to Willingham.

Posted by: joebleux | June 30, 2010 2:00 PM | Report abuse

While think Willingham is a good/great choice, I'm still betting we see Pudge or Zimmerman get the nod. I had actually mentioned to my spouse that I thought a National (likely one of the ones listed above) would be part of the "final player" fan vote.

Posted by: LurkerNowPoster | June 30, 2010 2:16 PM | Report abuse

"-my guess/hope is that Adam Dunn will sign a 2 yr contract with the Nats over the All Star Break and the Hammer will sign a multi-year contract before the arbitration deadline this winter."---From your blog to the Lerner/Rizzo ears, ramgut!

I did all 25 ballots on line, and voted for Zim, Dunn, Josh and Pudge and nobody else. Seemed to me that these 4 were out bona fide candidates this year.

Posted by: NatsFly | June 30, 2010 2:22 PM | Report abuse

Adam,

The problem here is you are trying to use logic with regards to the All-Star game. This is really a popularity contest, one which I would be surprised to hear that Josh will win. I hope so, but don't count on it.

Posted by: Dougmacintyre | June 30, 2010 2:25 PM | Report abuse

Atta boy, Hammer! (blows virtual kiss at monitor)

Posted by: natsfan1a1 | June 30, 2010 2:35 PM | Report abuse

(Yeah, I'm a homer. Deal with it. :-))

Posted by: natsfan1a1 | June 30, 2010 2:53 PM | Report abuse

Adam: Nice work on laying out the case for the Alabama Hammer! Josh is a great guy and one of my favorite Nats, it would be great to see him represent us at the All-Star game!

Posted by: markfd | June 30, 2010 2:58 PM | Report abuse

Oh, stewardess, I speak Dibblish. Markfd say "Kilgore! Layin' down the smack 'em yack 'em for the Alabama Hammer!"

Posted by: joebleux | June 30, 2010 3:20 PM | Report abuse

There are 4 phases of All Star selection:

1 - Fan voting, 8 postion players, no Nationals will be represented.

2 - Players, coaches and managers vote and select 16 more players, one backup for each field position, 5 SP's and 3 RP's.
The only National with a chance here would be Zimmerman, based on his reputation and his Gold Glove.

3 - Manager and League select 9 more players, and at this point there must be one player from every team. There's a chance here that Zimmerman and / or Pudge will be taken. They will want 3 catchers, and Pudge seems like a fairly good bet.

4 - Fan balloting for the final spot.
If Strasburg makes the team, it will be this way. It would be just like MLB to pick him for the final NL on line ballot, just to increase interest and internet clicks. There's no other National that would win this balloting if selected for this phase.

Willingham is deserving, but Dougmacintyre is dead on when he refers to this as a popularity contest.

My guess is we have Pudge, Zimmerman and Strasburg by fan voting (which I thnk is silly, no way should he be on the All Star team).

Posted by: Sunderland | June 30, 2010 4:46 PM | Report abuse

J-Will has about as much chance of being an all-star as Nyjer Morgan has of being benched for a game. Zilch.

Posted by: dovelevine | June 30, 2010 5:01 PM | Report abuse

The point here should be that you have to look at esoteric stats, that 99% of fans have never heard of, to come up with an argument that even one National deserves consideration for the All-Star game.

Clearly it will only be because of the stupid rule that every team must have at least one representative that the Nationals will be sending anyone other than Stephen Strasburg to this game.

While I like Josh Willingham as a player, he is no All-Star. His batting average in the .270's and his very limited range in the outfield simply do not make for All-Star material. But you're probably correct. He's the closest thing the Nats have.

Kevin Olson
Manassas, VA

Posted by: noslok | June 30, 2010 5:19 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

 
 
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