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Praise all around for Nats All-Stars

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Praise all around for Nats All-Stars

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- First came Sunday night's flight from Washington on Ted Lerner's private jet, with Stephen Strasburg's pet yorkie Bentley doing tricks on command for teammates Gio Gonzalez and Bryce Harper and members of the owner's family.

Then came the whirlwind that is All-Star Workout Day, from press conferences that featured plenty of clown questions to batting practice before a full house at Kauffman Stadium to front-row seats for the Home Run Derby.

Throw in Tuesday's actual Midsummer Classic, during which all three players could see action in a game that could wind up giving them home-field advantage for the World Series three months from now, and perhaps Strasburg summed it best.

"It's fun to be a National right now," the right-hander said.

Tough to dispute that notion, not as the Nationals' three-man All-Star crew relishes the attention and adulation that is being thrust upon the NL's best team at the season's midway point.

These are uncharted waters for the Nats, who aren't used at all to being the center of attention at a national event but are growing more comfortable with the spotlight each passing day.

It helps that there are three players here stealing attention from each other.

"It's a little different than for guys who came here when the team was in last place, being the only guy voted in," Strasburg said. "To come here with a group, it's something you can enjoy and know you've got a couple of days to just enjoy it and soak it all in."

Strasburg and Harper were among the most-sought-after players on All-Star Monday, whether during the 45-minute NL player media availability session or on the field during batting practice as fans and fellow All-Stars alike tried to get the attention of the guys with the curly W logo on their right sleeves.

What stood out perhaps more than anything else was the praise being heaped upon them from other All-Stars who have come to appreciate what this previously downtrodden franchise has accomplished and could continue to accomplish over the remainder of the season.

"They've got what it takes. They've got what it takes to make a long run," said Pirates closer Joel Hanrahan, a National during their 100-loss seasons in 2008-09. "And they've got the city excited. It's fun to watch. Now that we've already played them twice, it's fun to watch them and see the success."

Nobody in a Nationals uniform has impressed the rest of the league like Harper, who arrived in the big leagues with a reputation as a cocksure 19-year-old but who immediately won over fellow players with his talent and hustle.

"I didn't really know much about him," Hanrahan said. "The first game, he hits the double and flips his helmet off, and I'm thinking: 'That's a clown move, bro.' But I got a chance to talk to him today, and he seems like a really good kid. I don't know if he's matured a lot or the guys have helped him out, but he seems like a really good kid and he's going to be around for a long time."

Praise for Harper even came from the guy who two months ago admitted he intentionally plunked him with a pitch, then watched as the rookie stole home off him.

"The most impressive thing I've seen," Phillies left-hander Cole Hamels said. "It definitely shows you what he's all about. And it definitely taught me something about how to push harder and play harder. I can thank him for it."

Though he's making his first appearance in MLB's All-Star Game -- the youngest position player ever to do it -- Harper is no stranger to events like this. He's been appearing in various All-Star games since he first burst onto the scene as a precocious teenager from Las Vegas.

So Harper is comfortable in this setting, even if his performance on the field hasn't lived up to it. He recalled going 0-for-5 with four strikeouts in the Aflac All-American high school showcase. Same thing at an Under Armor exhibition game. And the same thing at last summer's All-Star Futures Game in Phoenix.

Given that dubious track record, Harper is setting no expectations for himself this time.

"I'm just going to try to come out here and have fun," he said. "And if I go 0-fer, I really don't care. It's just a time to enjoy myself and a time to just be around the best guys in baseball. It's my first one, so I'm going to take it all in."

Strasburg, too, was taking it all in Monday, with a companion by his side at nearly all times: Gonzalez.

The two pitchers were inseparable, the bubbly Gonzalez shaking hands with everybody in sight while the reserved Strasburg picked and chose his introductions.

They're an unlikely pair, but the Nationals' two aces have formed a strong bond since becoming teammates in February.

"He's the polar opposite of me, and I think it's worked out really well," Strasburg said. "I've learned so much from the guy already. And I think he's learned a thing or two from me."

Gonzalez, of course, loves anybody and everybody who wears a Nationals uniform.

"If it was up to me, I'd bring the whole team with us," he said. "Every single one of those guys deserves to be here."

For this year, at least, three Nats at the All-Star Game will have to be enough.

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Explaining my National League ROY ballot

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USA Today Sports

Explaining my National League ROY ballot

This was tight. Really tight. A category for the Braves’ Ronald Acuna Jr. A category for the Nationals’ Juan Soto.

Sorting through 16 categories showed Acuna and Soto should have split the National League Rookie of the Year award. It also showed me a narrow advantage for Soto, which is why I voted him first, Acuna second and Dodgers starter Walker Buehler third. Once the votes from other members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America were added, Acuna won, Soto was second and Buehler was third. It wasn’t close. It should have been.

First, a thought about the general process here: Writers take this seriously. Once assignments for the awards are distributed, we start to talk about them in the Nationals Park press box. Even non-voters hop in on the conversation. Sympathies are relayed to those who have an extremely tight choice, as I did this season and last when I voted for MVP (I’m big in Cincinnati thanks to my Joey Votto selection).

I outline specific categories, talk to opposing players and managers and watch as much as possible in order to come to a conclusion. The only thing easy about voting for ROY this season was the chance to see the leading candidates often since one played here and the other is in the division.

I used 16 categories to largely determine my vote. They were as follows: OPS, OPS+, Baseball Reference WAR, Fangraphs WAR, Baseball Prospectus WARP, OBP, WRC+, SB, HR, late-and-close OPS, 2 outs RISP OPS, BB:K ratio, WPA, “Clutch”, WOBA, and an overall defensive mark.

There’s no perfect formula here. But, when looking through those, Soto took nine, Acuna six and one, Fangraphs WAR, was even. That, coupled with Soto doing this in his age-19 season as the league’s youngest player (Acuna was just 20, so, like everything else the leader’s advantage here is slight), and talking to others in the league, prompted me to vote for Soto.

Again, the gaps were minute. Baseball Reference’s WAR formula favored Acuna. Fangraphs had them even. Baseball Prospectus put Soto clearly ahead. Soto was significantly better in late-and-close situations. Acuna was better with two outs and runners in scoring position.

If Soto had a distinct lead anywhere, it was via command of the strike zone, which is currently his premier talent. His walk and strikeout rates were both superior to Acuna. When asked about Soto, opponents and teammates alike brought it up.

However, Acuna is the better defender and baserunner. Points back to his favor.

Soto was intentionally walked 10 times signifying what opponents thought of dealing with him. Acuna was intentionally walked just twice (though his spot in the order has some influence there).

This ping-ponging of qualifications could go on.

What the National League East has is two of the best players in baseball. Not just young players at this stunningly low age, but two of the best. Soto was fourth in on-base percentage and seventh in OPS in the National League when adjusted to be among the qualified leaders (an explanation from Baseball Reference: In order to rank the player, the necessary number of hitless at bats were added to the player's season total.). Acuna was eighth in slugging under the same adjustment.

The 2019 All-Star Game is in Cleveland. Expect both to be there and this to be just the beginning of them being measured against each other.

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Nationals' phenom Juan Soto finishes as NL Rookie of the Year runner-up to Braves' Ronald Acuña Jr.

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USA TODAY Sports

Nationals' phenom Juan Soto finishes as NL Rookie of the Year runner-up to Braves' Ronald Acuña Jr.

Despite a surprising, impressive and historic start to Juan Soto's career in Major League Baseball, the Washington Nationals' young star finished as the runner-up in the National League Rookie of the Year voting behind winner Ronald Acuña Jr. and ahead of finalist Walker Buehler, the league announced Monday.

For the Nationals' rising star who didn't shed his teenager status until after Washington's season ended, finishing second behind another similarly impressive player doesn't diminish his record-breaking accomplishments throughout the 2018 season -- so many of them related to being a 19-year-old rookie.

After the Nats called Soto up in the spring, he made his debut in the majors on May 20, quickly becoming famous for both his power and consistency and drawing countless comparisons to teammate Bryce Harper. He broke or tied too many records to list here -- but you can find them on NBC Sports Washington -- so we're highlighting the biggest.

He finished his rookie year with a .292 batting average, slugging at .517 and racking up 22 home runs, 70 RBI and 79 walks -- the most by a teenager in MLB history which also made him the only teenager with more than 60 walks in a single season.

Both the highest for a teenager in MLB history, Soto finished with a .406 OBP -- he's also the only teenager to break .400 -- and a .923 OPS, which put him second and third, respectively, among all NL hitters. He became the first teenager to finish with a slash line of at least .290/.400/.500 and the first rookie since Albert Pujols in 2001 to do it, according to MLB.com.

His three multi-home run games are the most by a teenager in MLB history, as are his multi-walk games (16). Soto also racked up 22 home runs this season, which tied Harper for second by a teenager, behind Tony Conigliaro with 24.

Soto started the 2018 season with the Class A Hagerstown Suns before getting bumped up to the Potomac Nationals (Class A-Advanced) and the Harrisburg Senators (Double-A) on his way to the majors.

With the Braves playing in the postseason before losing to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLDS, 20-year-old Acuña finished his rookie year with a slash line of .293/.366/.552, having a slight advantage over Soto in both batting average and slugging percentage. He also had the edge over the Nats rookie in home runs (26) and hits (127 vs. 121).

Winning the NLCS with the Dodgers before falling the World Series to the Boston Red Sox, Buehler was the lone pitcher in the NL Rookie of the Year race. The 24-year-old right-hander finished his first season with a 2.62 ERA on an 8-5 record. He struck out 151 batters and gave up 12 home runs.

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