BY BRIAN HIGHT
This happens in every American city with a Major League Baseball team (and one Canadian). It’s not just Seattle. The pleas of the local broadcasting team to vote for the hometown boys is echoed across four time zones almost nightly in June and intensify in the run up to the voting deadline, which is mercifully the day after the national fireworks holiday – July 5th.
Viewers of ROOT Sports in the Pacific Northwest have been subject to the nightly urgings of Angie Mentink or Jen Mueller to vote for Seattle Mariners, most often Mitch Haniger or Jean Segura, but occasionally Nelson Cruz. After all, they have been the M’s best offensive players in 2018, so naturally they must be all-stars, right?
Don’t’ get me wrong, Haniger and Segura, and Cruz have been really good. So, it says a lot about the young talent in the American League and across baseball that they not only aren’t leading in the all-star voting, they aren’t even close, and it’s not a slight by any means.
The Case for (or against) Mitch Haniger
Mitch Haniger, once considered a throw-in in the Taijuan Walker for Jean Segura trade two off-seasons ago, has been awesome in right field and leads the Mariners in fWAR with 2.6. The glossary at Fangraphs describes a 4-5 WAR player, the pace Haniger is on, as an all-star caliber player. Only in 2018, it’s not.
While Mitch Haniger is slashing .272/.355/.497 with 17 HR, 62 RBI, and putting up a 135 wRC+, that pales in comparison to possibly the greatest single season in the history of baseball – Mike Trout’s 2018 campaign, a rebound season that traditionalists love because it invokes the “triple crown” – the one Mookie Betts is having, and one very large human being – All Rise Aaron Judge.
Trout, who is working on his third MVP although it probably should be his fifth, currently has 6.3 of Fangraphs’ version of WAR. But if you prefer Baseball Reference’s version, he has 6.8 WAR. With 86 games this season under his belt, a little over half way, Trout is on pace to put up the second most WAR by a position player in the history of the game. Five of the seven best seasons in baseball history are claimed by one George Herman “Babe” Ruth. The 12.9 rWAR recorded by Ruth in 1921 seems likely to tumble, barring an injury to Trout, and the 14.1 rWAR crushed by the Babe in 1923 is in serious jeopardy.
To see what that kind of production looks like, in 1923 Ruth hit .393/.545/.764 with 41 HR, 130 RBI, and 151 R. That led the league in OBP, SLG, OPS (1,309), HR, RBI, R, and OPS+ (239). Oh, and he led the league in walks with 170 and remarkably didn’t lead the league in BA. That distinction is owed to an often-overlooked star of the time, Harry Heilmann of the Detroit Tigers who in 1923 hit .403. And don’t worry, he’s not that overlooked. He was a four-time batting champion and is in the Hall of Fame.
By comparison, Trout currently leads the AL in walks with 74 and OBP .456. Considering the huge difference in eras, Trout is demonstrating similar patience to Ruth and is garnering similar respect from opposing pitchers. The Angel’s outfielder is slashing .313/.456/.633 with 24 HR, 49 RBI, 66 R, and 13 SB. At Baseball Reference, 6.0 of his WAR is attributable to offense, while 0.9 of his WAR is because of his glove, a skill that it’s hard to know if Ruth had beyond the crude box scores of the day. The old Yankees Stadium didn’t have Statcast. Trout’s OPS+ is 201, or roughly twice as good as a league average hitter. Twice. Absolutely Ruthian.
But as great as Trout has been this season, he has some serious competition clear across the country in Bean Town. Mookie Betts of the Boston Red Sox currently leads the AL in BA, SLG, and OPS with a .339/.430/.673 slash line and 20 homers of his own to go along with 15 SB. Hitting at the top of the Red Sox lineup to prove that rookie manager Alex Cora is “stat savvy,” Betts only has 41 RBI but has scored 64 runs. Fangraphs has Betts with 5.0 WAR, while Baseball Reference has him with 4.8.
And, finally in third place on the leaderboard in AL OF voting is the New York Yankees giant – Aaron Judge. Judge with 4.4 rWAR and 4.2 fWAR, is currently hitting .279/.396/.565 with 22 HR, 55 RBI, and 57 R through 79 games. Early rainouts leave the Yankees having played four or five fewer games than the rest of the league. Oh, and never fear, while not leading the league, Judge is on pace to break his league leading strike out total from last season’s 208 with 109 so far. And did I mention that Joe DiMaggio struck out an average of 36 times per 162 games in his 13-year career and the seasons only lasted 154 games back then? It was a much different game in the 30’s and 40’s.
So, yea. Mitch Haniger is having a really good season. But, Trout, Betts, and Judge deserve to start the All-Star Game for the AL. And, as a testament to the power of large market voting blocks, the man from Boston leads with 2,337,514 votes. The man who loves to talk about the weather and is ever underrated, Trout, is second with 1,989,649 votes. And the slackers in the Bronx could only get their boy to 1,557,109 votes. No other outfielder in the AL has a million votes. While the coffee drinkers and IPA lovers of the Emerald City have Haniger is 9th place with 487.150 votes, a few spots lower than he probably deserves, but in line to represent the team in the nation’s capital.
What About the Jean Segura Argument?
Man, has Jean Segura had a great season? As of July 2nd, he’s hitting .335/.363/.474 with 59 runs and 14 stolen bases. After a career high 20 HR in 2016 with the Arizona Diamondbacks, the shortstop that was the centerpiece of the Taijuan Walker trade has regressed a bit in the power department, knocking 11 out in 125 games last season with the Mariners and another 6 so far this season in 78 games. But, traditionally power from the center of the infield has been a bonus.
Segura currently has 3.1 fWAR and projects to accumulate another 1.0 to 1.3 depending on the projections system. At Baseball Reference, his WAR total is slightly higher at 3.2. As with Haniger, a solid 4 to 5-win player, worthy of all-star consideration most years. Unfortunately for Segura, we are living in the second golden age of shortstops. Not since Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Nomar Garciaparra, and Miguel Tejeda patrolled the center of the diamond in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s has there been so many quality shortstops as now.
Manny Machado of the Baltimore Orioles (for now), is currently leading the voting with 960,628 ballots cast, leading over Carlos Correa of the Houston Astros at 793,087 and Didi Gregorius of the Yankees with 639,630. The player who probably should be the starter but won’t be, Francisco Lindor of the Cleveland Indians, is in fourth place with 619,112, followed by Segura in fifth with 504,985.
On the SS WAR leaderboard in the AL, Fangraphs has Lindor first with 4.9, Andrelton Simmons of the Los Angeles Angles second with 3.5, Segura third at 3.1, Machado fourth with 2.9, and Correa fifth at 2.4. It’s worth noting that Machado’s insistence on moving from third to short has actually decreased his value as Machado was a very good 3B in the field but is below average at SS. Conversely, Simmons derives almost half his value in the field, as he is arguably the second coming of Ozzie Smith.
Any one of these choices is defensible. Lindor is hitting .296/.372/.564 with 21 HR and 10 SB, a wRC+ of 153 and 9 defensive runs saved for just half a season. Simmons, while a defensive wiz, is no slouch at the plate these days. He’s hitting .319/.380/.440 with a 4.6% K rate, unheard of these days, and a 130 wRC+. Last season Simmons had 38 DRS, which is worth about 4 wins. This season, he has 10 through the half way mark. Machado is the offensive monster at the position and let’s face it, all-star voting is mostly about the bat. The trade deadline super-prize is hitting .310/.377/.564 with 21 HR, 59 RBI, and a wRC+ of 153.
The offensive numbers between Lindor and Machado are almost identical. The superior glove of Lindor places him higher on the WAR leaderboard, but the media hype over Machado and the trade deadline and impending free agency is the difference in the all-star voting. Again, Jean Segura is really good. He’s just not this season’s all-star at shortstop.
A Word About Nelson Cruz and the DH
As with his teammates, Mitch Haniger and Jean Segura, Nelson Cruz is having a spectacular season. Somewhat surprisingly, the four-year deal the Mariners signed Cruz to in 2015 at age 34 has been worth every penny of the $54MM, even into his age 38 season. You could even argue that $13+ mil per is a bargain in today’s market. Cruz is currently hitting .288/.375/.549 with 21 HR, 51 RBI, and a wRC+ of 152. Even without any contribution in the field as the DH, Cruz has provided the Mariners with 1.9 fWAR and an identical 1.9 rWAR. The only problem? Yet another ridiculous DH in Fenway.
In his first season with the Red Sox, J.D. Martinez is hitting .324/.391/.634 while leading the majors in HR with 25 and in RBI with 67. Atop the HR and RBI leaderboard, and within .015 points of his teammate, Betts, in BA, old school announcers are drooling at the possibility of the mythical Triple Crown. For the more sabermetrically minded, Martinez’s 3.4 rWAR as just a hitter is proof enough that he is the rightful starting DH for the AL.
The voting bears that out as well. J.D. Martinez has 1,675,492 votes, as of the last public update, and is almost a million votes clear of the not really a DH, Giancarlo Stanton of the Yankees. Cruz sits in fifth in voting and could overcome the 30,000 or so vote deficit behind Shohei Ohtani, who awed fans with his pitching and hitting prowess before he went on the DL. Cruz probably deserves to be a little higher, but Martinez is clearly the right choice for 2018.
No Disrespect Intended
Nothing here was intended as a slight to this really exciting and surprising Mariners team. Barring an epic collapse of almost biblical proportions, the 2018 Seattle Mariners are set to relinquish the crown of most futile major sports teams and coronate the Cleveland Browns with that dubious honor. And there are many good to great players on this year’s team, Haniger, Segura, and Cruz among them. One of them, or possibly their exquisite pitching comrade, James Paxton, will be in D.C. on the 17th of this month representing the M’s, as every team gets a representative. They have played great baseball. Just not historically great baseball.