I Think I Love This NL All-Star Outfield

Bryce Harper, Matt Kemp and Nick Markakis walk into a bar and… [squints at notes]… will be the starting outfield for the NL in the 2018 All-Star Game.

That’s not a joke. Nor is it a travesty, or justice served, or the result of any single organizing principle beyond their simultaneous eligibility for the honor. Barring any scratch due to injury, it’s a reality, one that demonstrates the potential strangeness that can occur when fans get to vote to choose the starting lineups for both leagues. Those lineups, along with the reserves and Final Vote participants, were announced on Sunday evening.

We go though this every year, and across this vast country, there’s no doubt some complaining about who’s worthy or unworthy of selection. If you care enough, you can probably find an egregious snub, a player whose omission will spike your blood pressure and cost you followers on Twitter when you surround your 280-character case for the guy with enough expletives. Me, I don’t vote for All-Star teams anymore and generally dread writing about the selections, but this trio is different. Seldom does a single unit – one league’s infield or another league’s outfield or a bullpen or whatever — shine a light on the fundamental conflicts that come into play when choosing a team.

Even once you acknowledge that the game is first and foremost an exhibition for the fans, who, after all, are the ones responsible for the vote, you run up against the question of criteria. Are the selections simply supposed to represent the hottest players over the first 80-something games of the season? The most accomplished players from around the league? The biggest stars on the most successful teams? Or the players whose true talent level over a large sample size suggests that they’re actually the best? You could go any one of those ways and get different answers — or find fault with any of them, as well.

Of the three starting NL outfielders, Harper was the easiest to predict, whether you measure from the moment in April 2015 when MLB officially anointed the Nationals to host the game — just before the 22-year-old fourth-year veteran set the Senior Circuit ablaze en route to an MVP award — or this spring, when the 25-year-old began the year by homering six times in Washington’s first nine games. While the performance gap between him and Mike Trout continues to grow, Harper is the one of the pair with more public exposure thanks to things as varied as the Sports Illustrated cover at age 16 and the Nationals’ four trips to the playoffs during his short career. He’s the one with the more outsized public persona, the wild hairdos, and the higher total of jerseys sold, at least as of last October.

I hate the handwringing over MLB’s perceived lack of a transcendent national star on par with LeBron James or Tom Brady — the “The Face of Baseball” conversation, in other words — as much as anyone, but Harper is about as Face of Baseball as you can get in 2018. And that’s not “even when he’s hitting .218,” that’s “especially when he’s hitting .218,” because beyond whatever advantages Harper has in name recognition among fans, there’s the growing understanding that .218 doesn’t represent the quality of Harper’s 2018 season, or his true ability.

No, Harper’s not having his best year by any stretch of the imagination, and yes, he’s been caught in a prolonged slump, making less frequent contact with pitches inside the zone than ever (76.6%, compared to a career mark of 84.3%) and getting eaten alive by infield shifts (40 wRC+ on contact, down from 107 last year and 81 for his career). Thanks to his 21 homers (second in the league) and 76 walks (first), though, he’s still got a .374 on-base percentage (15th in the NL), a .472 slugging percentage (26th), a 122 wRC+ (also 26th), and 1.5 WAR. In other words, he’s still a very productive hitter even in a down year, and over a larger timeframe — from the start of 2017 until now, for example — he’s still one of the game’s top dozen hitters by wRC+ — and the only one among that dozen who’s eligible to play the outfield for the NL this year:

MLB wRC+ Leaders, 2017-2018
Rk Player Team PA HR AVG OBP SLG wRC+
1 Mike Trout Angels 908 58 .309 .448 .628 186
2 J.D. Martinez – – – 856 72 .314 .383 .671 171
3 Aaron Judge Yankees 1064 77 .283 .414 .607 169
4 Jose Altuve Astros 1068 33 .343 .408 .525 156
5 Joey Votto Reds 1100 44 .310 .444 .527 155
6 Jose Ramirez Indians 1035 53 .309 .382 .586 154
7 Freddie Freeman Braves 913 44 .310 .404 .567 152
8 Nelson Cruz Mariners 964 61 .281 .370 .549 148
9 Giancarlo Stanton – – – 1073 80 .276 .363 .588 147
10 Paul Goldschmidt D-backs 1059 56 .291 .398 .554 144
11 Carlos Correa Astros 796 37 .297 .376 .522 143
12T Bryce Harper Nationals 880 50 .277 .395 .544 141
12T Kris Bryant Cubs 976 38 .290 .401 .519 141
14 Anthony Rendon Nationals 902 37 .294 .385 .526 137
15 Mookie Betts Red Sox 1036 46 .288 .372 .524 135

In other words, Harper is a damn solid choice to start the 2018 All-Star Game, warts and all. Besides, did you think they were gonna play the game in DC without him?

In some ways, Markakis is the anti-Harper, a 34-year-old player who’s in his 13th big-league season. While he’s taken home a pair of Gold Glove awards, he’s never before sniffed an All-Star team, though he probably deserved it in 2008 based on a first half with a 138 wRC+ and 3.6 WAR, fourth in the league. He, too, has actually been on the cover of an issue of Sports Illustrated, jumping in the air to celebrate a victory along with fellow Orioles outfielders Endy Chavez and Adam Jones for an October 1, 2012 cover story written by David Simon of Homicide and The Wire fame, but unless you’re an Orioles or Braves fan, you probably couldn’t pick him out of a police lineup unless he was wearing his jersey. Hell, a late-season broken thumb cost him a playoff appearance in 2012, though he did hit a big two-run homer off Justin Verlander in Game Two of the 2014 Division Series.

After nine years with the Orioles, Markakis signed a four-year, $44 million contract with the Braves in December 2014, a deal that was greeted with reactions ranging from “Huh?” to “What?” especially because the team had just traded away the more talented Justin Upton and Jason Heyward amid their rebuilding effort. For the first three years of the deal, he served as little more than a durable (but apparently not fully healthy) placeholder, averaging 158 games, a 100 wRC+ (.280/.357/.386), and 1.1 WAR a year for a team that averaged 69 wins. Yet when the Braves were ready to turn the corner towards contention, Markakis stepped up and joined Freddie Freeman and Ozzie Albies as a middle-of-the-order force. He’s handling breaking pitches better than he has in years. His average exit velocity is up 3.1 mph over last year, to 91.4 mph, good for 34th out of 292 qualifiers, and his .391 xwOBA is 61 points higher than last year and 48 higher than in any other year since Statcast was unveiled.

Overall, Markakis is hitting .322/.389/.490 for a 135 wRC+; his 113 hits ranks first in the league, his batting average third, his on-base percentage sixth, his wRC+ tied for 12th, and his 2.5 WAR tied for 18th and tied for third among NL outfielders:

NL Outfield WAR Leaders, 2018
1 Lorenzo Cain Brewers 317 8 .290 .394 .435 127 3.4
2 Kyle Schwarber Cubs 307 17 .249 .376 .498 129 2.6
3T Nick Markakis Braves 398 10 .322 .389 .490 135 2.5
3T Brandon Nimmo Mets 280 12 .262 .386 .515 148 2.5
5 Ben Zobrist Cubs 271 6 .294 .387 .429 123 2.3
6 A.J. Pollock D-backs 186 11 .289 .355 .590 147 2.3
7T David Peralta D-backs 356 15 .291 .354 .508 130 2.2
7T Starling Marte Pirates 317 10 .278 .328 .457 112 2.2
7T Christian Yelich Brewers 318 11 .285 .362 .459 120 2.2
10 Matt Kemp Dodgers 297 15 .319 .360 .549 146 2.0
11T Chris Taylor Dodgers 361 10 .257 .338 .461 119 1.8
11T Brian Anderson Marlins 395 6 .282 .359 .407 113 1.8
11T Cody Bellinger Dodgers 359 17 .234 .320 .475 116 1.8
11T Odubel Herrera Phillies 365 15 .281 .335 .469 117 1.8
15 Albert Almora Jr. Cubs 283 4 .326 .365 .452 120 1.7
16T Jason Heyward Cubs 283 5 .280 .339 .421 104 1.5
16T Kiké Hernandez Dodgers 247 15 .230 .313 .475 113 1.5
16T Corey Dickerson Pirates 317 6 .308 .341 .458 114 1.5
16T Bryce Harper Nationals 388 21 .218 .374 .472 122 1.5
20T 8 players 1.4

If you’re going by a larger timeframe than just the past three-and-a-half months, there’s no justifiable logic by which Markakis could be an All-Star, but as a hot hand on what might be the NL’s biggest surprise team (unless it’s the Phillies, who are actually tied with the Braves atop the NL East), he’s the type of selection that fans often make. And while he takes a back seat to 46-year-old Satchel Paige, 42-year-old Tim Wakefield, 40-year-old Jamie Moyer, and other older first-time All-Stars, there’s something endearing and cool about Markakis making it, particularly given that until his selection, he ranked second in career hits (2,164) among players who had never made an All-Star team and began their careers after 1933, the year of the first All-Star Game. If Nick Markakis can persevere that long before becoming an All-Star, then buck up, Buttercup, because good things are in store for you, as well.

Which brings us to Kemp, whose two previous All-Star appearances, in 2011 and -12, date back to when he was the toast of Tinseltown. In the first of those years, Kemp was voted the NL’s starting center fielder during a season in which he wound up one homer short of becoming just the fifth player in history to go 40/40 in homers and steals; as it was, he led the NL in homers (39), RBIs (126), total bases (353), and WAR (8.3) while ranking second in wRC+ (168). He won a Gold Glove, and while he finished second to Ryan Braun in the NL MVP voting, he landed an eight-year, $160 million dollar extension, setting a record for an NL player. While he got off to a sizzling start the following year, back-to-back left hamstring strains limited him to five plate appearances in a two-month span and forced him to the sidelines for the Midsummer Classic.

Thus began a string of increasingly frustrating seasons during which Kemp’s production on both sides of the ball sank; the Dodgers traded him to the Padres in December 2014, eating $32 million of the $107 million remaining on his deal. On July 30, 2016, the Padres sent him to the Braves along with $10.5 million in exchange for infielder Hector Olivera, who was under suspension for a domestic-violence incident, owed $28.5 million for 2017-20 once he was reinstated, and immediately released upon completion of the deal. As I noted in late April, the trail of bad paper attached to Kemp came full circle this past December, when the Braves dealt him back to the Dodgers for Charlie Culberson, Adrian Gonzalez, Scott Kazmir, Brandon McCarthy (collectively owed more than $50 million for 2018) and another $4.5 million, a move designed to help the Dodgers get under the competitive balance tax threshold.

Though Kemp had homered 77 times from 2015 to -17, he hit just .269/.310/.470 (107 wRC+), posted the majors’ worst outfield defense by UZR (-33) and DRS (-50), and produced a net of 1.4 WAR for his $64.5 million salary. The Dodgers, with an outfield logjam, weren’t even expected to roster him come Opening Day, presumed instead to have plans of trading him to a DH-friendly team or releasing him. Nonetheless, Kemp showed up to camp having lost a reported 40 pounds, played well during spring training, and became the beneficiary when Justin Turner’s broken wrist opened up time for Kiké Hernandez in the infield.

Improbably, Kemp proceeded to hit for a 144 wRC+ during the Dodgers’ otherwise dismal April and is now batting .319/.360/.549 with 15 homers and a 146 wRC+, which ranks seventh in the league, second among the league’s outfielders (sorry, Nimmo), and second on the Dodgers, who would be closer to Triple-A Oklahoma City than NL West-leading Arizona if not for his unlikely resurgence. No, his defense isn’t great (-1 UZR, -3 DRS), but it’s not gut-shot bleeding awful the way it was during his first round of stardom. His 2.0 WAR may rank just ninth among NL outfielders, but I don’t see any more compelling redemption stories of his caliber above him.

Perennials, first-timers, redemption stories… let’s face it, All-Star selections aren’t just about choosing the best in the league, and they probably never were. Sure, the unlikely trio’s AL counterparts — namely Trout, Mookie Betts, and Aaron Judge rank as the majors’ top three outfielders by WAR not just over the 2018 season but including 2017, as well. Still, with something on the order of 70 roster spots between the two teams once the dust settles on injuries and inactives, it helps to have some variety, a few guys here and there who check the various narrative boxes that release the different neurotransmitters during the game’s pitching changes.

Grieve if you want to over the slight of Cain, whose fourth-ranked WAR merely netted him a reserve role. Bemoan the fate of Nimmo, who’s already suffered the indignity of being a 2018 Met, for being left off not just the NL roster but the Final Vote ballot, as well. Scream all you want about the unfairness of the process, the need to reform this bloated affair because the unwashed masses can stuff the electronic ballot boxes, or because there are too many rebuilding teams that mandate automatic recognition, or because collectively these guys can’t hold a candle to a Frank RobinsonWillie MaysHank Aaron starting trio. I’m happy for Harper, Markakis, Kemp and the fans who chose them. For once, I’m seeing this particular 24-ounce cup of overpriced ballpark beer as half-full instead of half-empty, and my day is better for it.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
5 years ago

I think J.D. Martinez is missing from the wRC+ chart above, perhaps due to a bug in the FG code. Not Jay’s fault – for some reason if you look up wRC+ leaders from 2017-2018 with the number of PA set to “qualified”, he simply doesn’t show up, despite more games and PA (204 and 856, respectively) than Correa.

5 years ago
Reply to  Ryan

Maybe you have to be “qualified” in both years, and perhaps he was not “qualified” last year with only 489 PA? Or maybe it has something to do with playing in two separate leagues?

5 years ago
Reply to  Ryan

I’d bet it’s related to the name highlighting bug that’s been around for years, which renders JD Martinez but links to “J D Martin” whenever Martinez is mentioned in articles.