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Bryce Harper named NL MVP after historic season


Bryce Harper named NL MVP after historic season

Bryce Harper's historic season officially was recognized Thursday evening when the young Nationals star was unanimously selected as Most Valuable Player of the National League, the sport's highest honor for single-season performance.

Harper received first-place votes on all 30 ballots submitted by members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America, making the dynamic right fielder only the 18th unanimous MVP since writers began voting for the award in 1931. Diamondbacks first baseman Paul Goldschmidt finished a distant second, with Reds first baseman Joey Votto in third place.

Thursday's announcement caught no one by surprise; Harper had been widely expected to win since votes were submitted at the end of the regular season. But his runaway victory elevated his 2015 performance to another level.

Harper led the majors in on-base percentage (.460), slugging percentage (.649) and OPS (1.109) while leading the NL in runs (118), tying Colorado's Nolan Arenado for the league lead in homers (42) and finishing second to Miami's Dee Gordon for the batting title (.330). His 9.9 WAR, according to Baseball-Reference, led all big leaguers and was baseball's highest mark since the Angels' Mike Trout in 2012.

"It was awesome," teammate Jayson Werth said on the final day of the season. "I'm really proud of him. He had a great season. MVP-caliber season."

With those numbers, Harper clearly was the NL's best player in 2015, but his performance stacks up with some of the best in baseball history. Only eight others had ever hit .330 with 42 homers and a .460 on-base percentage in a single season, and most of the names on that list (Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmy Foxx, Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Barry Bonds, Todd Helton and Jason Giambi) stand as the greatest hitters the game has ever known.

That Harper now joins that group is impressive enough. That he did it at age 22, with a full career still ahead of him, only adds to the significance. He's the fourth-youngest MVP ever, bested only by Vida Blue (1971), Johnny Bench (1970) and Stan Musial (1943).

Harper has dealt with raised expectations from the day the then-16-year-old was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated, leaving the entire sports world keenly aware of his immense potential. When the Nationals made him the No. 1 pick of the 2010 draft, the pressure was on to live up to the hype.

Harper's path to the big leagues was swift — he debuted for the Nationals in April 2012, appearing in only 130 minor-league games prior to his promotion — and he made an immediate impact, helping his team to its first-ever division title and earning NL Rookie of the Year honors.

Harper continued to develop over the next two seasons, but injuries to both his knee (2013) and thumb (2014) left him less than 100 percent healthy and (he believed) left him unable to put his entire game together over the long haul. Finally healthy this season, he reached new heights, combining elite power with bat control and unwavering patience that allowed him to draw a club-record 124 walks and not chase pitches out of the zone the way he had in the past.

"That really shows the maturity that he's come around this year," first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said in September following 4-walk, 4-run game by his teammate. "It's hard to take those pitches, because everyone wants to get hits and everyone wants to drive in runs. Walks are good, but obviously it takes a lot of patience and discipline to do what he's doing. I'm proud of him for that."

Along the way, the rest of baseball couldn't help but take notice and recognize what Harper had become. Voted by fellow big leaguers as the sport's "Most Overrated Player" in a spring training poll by ESPN, he wound up being named "NL Outstanding Player" by those same peers in the season-ending Players Choice Awards.

Harper's performance was historic throughout his sport; his MVP selection was historic throughout the town he has played in the last four seasons. He's only the fourth Washington baseball player to win an MVP award, the first since Senators shortstop Roger Peckinpaugh in 1925. Hall of Fame pitcher Walter Johnson twice was honored (1913, 1924).

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5 things you should know about new Nationals pitcher Kelvin Herrera


5 things you should know about new Nationals pitcher Kelvin Herrera

The Nationals traded for Royals' pitcher Kelvin Herrera this evening. 

Not only did the Nationals trade for Kelvin Herrera, but they did so without losing Juan Soto, Victor Robles, or Andrew Stevenson. The first two were never in any real danger of being traded for a relief pitcher who will be a free agent at year's end, but the Nats escaped only giving up their 10th and 11th ranked prospects:

On the surface, this deal looks exceptional for the Nationals. Herrera is another back-of-the-bullpen type that only further deepens the Nats' options in that department. Here are a handful of things you should know about the Nationals' newest pitcher:

1. Herrera's strikeout "issue" is complicated 

Herrera, like many other closers over the last half-decade, has made his name in strikeouts. He topped out at a 30.4 percent strikeout rate in 2016, and has a 23.4 percent clip for his career. His K% this season sits at 23.2 percent, which is both higher than last season and lower than his career average. 

People will look at his dramatic K/9 drop as a red flag, but "per/9" stats are flawed and not generally a worthwhile stat to build an argument around. A pitcher who gets knocked around for five runs in an inning -- but gets three strikeouts -- can have the same K/9 of a different (much more efficient) pitcher who strikes out the side in order. 

2. Herrera has basically stopped walking batters 

His career BB% sits at 7.1 percent. His highest clip is nine percent (2014, 2015) and his lowest was a shade over four percent (2016). 

This season, he's walking batters at a two percent  rate. In 27 games this season, he's walked two batters. Two! 

3. The jury seems to still be out on how good of a year he's had so far

Analytics are frustrating. On one hand, they can serve wonderfully as tools to help peel back the curtains and tell a deeper story - or dispel lazy narratives. On the other hand, they can be contradictory, confusing, and at times downright misleading. 

Take, for instance, Herrera's baseline pitching stats. His ERA sits at 1.05, while his FIP sits at 2.62. On their own, both numbers are impressive. On their own, both numbers are All-Star level stats. 

When you stack them against each other, however, the picture turns negative. While ERA is the more common stat, it's widely accepted that FIP more accurately represents a pitcher's true value (ERA's calculation makes the same per/9 mistakes that were mentioned above). 

More often than not, when a pitcher's ERA is lower than his FIP, that indicates said pitcher has benefited from luck. 

Throw in a 3.51 xFIP (which is the same as FIP, but park-adjusted) and we suddenly have a real mess on our hands. Is he the pitcher with the great ERA, the pitcher with the Very Good FIP, or the pitcher with the medicore xFIP? 

4. He was a fastball pitcher, and then he wasn't, and now he is again

Take a look at Herrera's pitch usage over his career in Kansas City:

In only three years, he's gone from throwing a sinker 31 percent of the time to completely giving up on the pitch. That's pretty wild. 

Since 2014, he's gone to the slider more and more in every year. 

His current fastball usage would be the highest of his career. He only appeared in two games during the 2011 season, so those numbers aren't reliable. Going away from the sinker probably helps explain why his Ground Ball rate has dropped 10 percentage points, too. 

5. The Nats finally have the bullpen they've been dreaming about for years

Doolittle, Herrera, Kintzler, and Madson is about as deep and talented as any bullpen in baseball.

Justin Miller, Sammy Solis, and Wander Suero all have flashed serious potential at points throughout the year. Austin Voth is waiting for roster expansion in September. 

The Nats have been trying to build this type of bullpen for the better part of the last decade. Health obviously remains an important factor, but Rizzo's got the deepest pen of his time in D.C. 


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Nationals trade for Royals' closer Kelvin Herrera


Nationals trade for Royals' closer Kelvin Herrera

The Nationals made the first major trade of the season this evening. 

Midway through their Monday night game against the Yankees, the team announced that they had completed a trade for Royals' relief pitcher Kelvin Herrera:

Herrera's a major acquisition for the Nationals, as the pitcher is in the middle of a career year. He's currently pitched 25 innings so far, posting a 1.05 FIP, 2.62 ERA and 0.82 WHIP. His 2.1 percent walk rate this season is a career low.