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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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Bryce Harper will compete in Home Run Derby, but only on one condition

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USA Today Sports

Bryce Harper will compete in Home Run Derby, but only on one condition

It’s happening.

When the 2018 All-Star Weekend comes to Washington, D.C. in the middle of July, Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper will compete in the 2018 Home Run Derby, but only on one condition: He has to be a member of the 2018 National League All-Star Team.

Though Harper is having a down year, only hitting .213 thus far, he leads the NL in home runs with 19.

In the June 18 update of All-Star game voting, Harper sat second among all outfielders with just north of 1,000,000 votes.

That means he’s not only going to make the All-Star team, but he’ll likely start in the outfield.

Harper, a five-time All-Star, competed in the Home Run Derby once before. He was the runner-up to Yoenis Cespedes in 2013, losing by just one long ball, 9-8.

The 2018 Home Run Derby will take place on July 16 at Nationals Park.

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It's time to start paying attention to Trea Turner's sneaky-great season

It's time to start paying attention to Trea Turner's sneaky-great season

Remember when the Nationals put Trea Turner in centerfield so they could keep Danny Espinosa at shortstop?

Two years later it's Turner who leads all N.L. shortstops in fWAR, as you surely know if you follow the Nationals on literally any social media platform. 

So while Juan Soto and Bryce Harper continue to dominate all of The Takes, it's Turner who's been the Nats' best position player this season. 

We'll start with some basics: 

Did you know that Trea Turner leads all N.L. shortstops in fWAR? He's currently sitting at 2.4 WAR, above the likes of Brandon Crawford, Addison Russell, and Trevor Story, to name a few. (We'll ignore the fact that the top six shortstops in the A.L. all have a better fWAR.) He's a top-10 shortstop in baseball during one of the strongest eras in the position's history.

Even after a dreadfully slow start, Turner's still on pace to have the best season of his career. He posted a WAR of 2.9 last year and -- barring injury -- will realistically eclipse that by the All-Star game. 

At the plate, two stats jump off the page in regards to explaining Turner's stellar season. 

First, Turner is drawing a *bunch* of walks. His current BB% clip (10.6 percent) would be far and away the best of his career and up four percentage points from last year. It's a factor that helps explain - partially, at least - why his on-base percentage has risen and his BABIP has dropped. More walks mean fewer swings, fewer swings mean less contact, less contact means lower BABIP, etc. It's not the whole picture, but it's a big part of it. 

Secondly, Turner is making impressive contact on pitches out of the strike zone. FanGraphs calculates out-of-zone contact using a statistic titled O-Contact, which is a blessing considering some of the titles they choose to give their other stats. 

The average O-Contact across MLB in 2018 is 64.7 percent. Trea Turner's career O-Contact is 62.4 percent (although realistically it's closer to the high-50's - a small-sample-size from his abbreviated first season mucks up the number a bit). 

This season, Turner's posted an O-Contact of 69.3 percent. Not only is that 10 percentage points higher than his O-Contact from last season, but a top-50 clip in all of baseball. He's one spot ahead of Mike Trout!  Put both of these together with some encouraging Statcast numbers (rise in HardHit%, already matched his total 'barrels' from last season) and you can see why Turner's been thriving at the plate. 

Defensively, he's improved across the board as well. His UZR and DRS - considered the two most reliable fielding statistics, if such a thing exists - are both up from last year. He has the 10th-best UZR of all major league shortstops and ranks 1st in DRS. 

Last season, he finished 17th in both UZR and DRS (of all shortstops with at least 800 innings; Turner didn't log enough innings to be considered a qualified fielder). He ended the season with both numbers in the negative. 

You may be skeptical of defensive stats, which is fine. But if nothing else, the fact that Turner is turning literal negative stats into positive ones is encouraging. 

Lastly, Turner continues to be an elite baserunner. At this point in his career, his speed is arguably his best tool:

You'll note that purple dot allllllllllll the way on the right. That's Turner! Now, let's take a look at how his speed compares across all positions:

Essentially, Turner is faster than like, 98 percent of baseball. In fact, by Sprint Speed, he's the 6th-fastest player in the game. He also ranks 2nd across all of baseball in FanGraphs "Baserunning" measurements, only behind fellow teammate and mindbogglingly good baserunner Michael A. Taylor. 

So, Trea Turner an elite baserunner (maybe the best if you combine his raw speed with his baserunning stats), a top-5 shortstop in the field, and an All-Star at the plate. 

Juan Soto's been great and Bryce Harper is still extremely talented, but this year, Trea Turner has been the Nationals' best player. 

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