Surprise, surprise: Runs Above Replacement shows Pujols as baseball's best through June

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Another month is in the books, so it’s time to take a look at the most valuable players in baseball according to Fan Graphs
tremendous Runs Above Replacement (RAR) stat that combines offensive
and defensive contributions while comparing everyone to
“replacement-level” players at the same position.

For example, how many runs would the Cardinals lose if they had to
replace Albert Pujols with a random, freely available first baseman
called up from the minors? RAR has the answer, and while not perfect is
an excellent way to examine all-around contributions that can be used
to determine the top MVP candidates based strictly on their
between-the-lines performance.

Here are each league’s RAR leaders through three months:

AMERICAN LEAGUE        RAR          NATIONAL LEAGUE        RAR
Ben Zobrist 41.2 Albert Pujols 45.2
Joe Mauer 38.1 Chase Utley 40.4
Evan Longoria 37.9 Hanley Ramirez 38.3
Jason Bartlett 33.3 Matt Kemp 36.6
Kevin Youkilis 32.6 Adrian Gonzalez 36.1
Ian Kinsler 31.7 Justin Upton 33.9
Ichiro Suzuki 31.6 Ryan Zimmerman 33.8
Brandon Inge 31.1 Ryan Braun 31.1
Carl Crawford 30.6 David Wright 31.1
Marco Sctuaro 29.5 Raul Ibanez 30.9

Pujols takes his rightful place as the NL leader after the bum ranked just third through April and second through May. He finished June by launching a pair of homers
off Randy Johnson to become the seventh player in baseball history with
30 long balls before July 1. The other six are Babe Ruth (twice), Sammy
Sosa (twice), Ken Griffey Jr. (twice), Barry Bonds, Luis Gonzalez, and
Mark McGwire, with all but Ruth’s seasons coming since 1994.

No big surprises in the NL, as the cream has risen to the top with
the usual suspects like Chase Utley, Hanley Ramirez, Adrian Gonzalez,
Ryan Braun, and David Wright. Justin Upton is having one of the best
seasons ever by a 21-year-old, hitting .320/.399/.576 with 14 homers
and 37 total extra-base hits in 72 games after being benched by a since-fired manager
on Opening Day. Matt Kemp has been one of the league’s best players,
yet has batted higher than sixth in the Dodgers’ lineup just 10 times.

Ben Zobrist is the surprise RAR leader in the AL, although as I wrote about last week
he’s actually been putting up big numbers since last season. Tampa
Bay’s infield accounts for three of the four most valuable players in
the league, with Zobrist leading the pack, Evan Longoria ranking third
after being No. 1 through both April and May, and Jason Bartlett
returning from the disabled list to claim the fourth spot. Toss in Carl
Crawford at No. 9 and it’s easy to see why they lead the league in
runs.

In between all the Rays’ infielders is Joe Mauer, who while still
lacking enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title after
sitting out all of April has been nearly 40 runs better than a
replacement-level catcher in just 54 games. Hitting .383 with a .455
on-base percentage and .662 slugging percentage while playing the
least-offensive position in baseball tends to rack up RAR in a hurry.

At the other end of the RAR spectrum, the least valuable player in baseball has been Brian Giles at 16.2 runs below
replacement level, followed by Delmon Young (-15.2), Vernon Wells
(-13.6), Alexi Casilla (-10.8), and Gary Matthews Jr. (-10.4). Wells is
the big shocker on that list, as he never produced a negative RAR while
being a combined 204.4 runs above replacement level from 2002-2008.

Shapiro, Murray defend Dellin Betances after arbitration feud

SAN DIEGO, CA - JULY 12:  Dellin Betances #68 of the New York Yankees and the American League pitches against the National League during the 87th Annual MLB All-Star Game at PETCO Park on July 12, 2016 in San Diego, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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The dust hasn’t quite settled after right-hander Dellin Betances‘ arbitration hearing with the Yankees on Saturday. The case was decided in the team’s favor, awarding Betances with a $3 million salary for the 2017 season instead of the $5 million he initially requested. Yankees’ president Randy Levine held a press conference to voice his outrage over the figure presented by Betances and his agency, saying it had “no bearings in reality” since Betances does not have the elite closer status required for a salary bump of that magnitude.

Needless to say, the comments caused some consternation within Betances’ camp. The reliever publicly addressed the outburst, telling the press that he was prepared to put his differences with the team aside until he heard what Levine had to say. Via MLB.com’s Bryan Hoch:

Players union executive Rick Shapiro and Betances’ agent, Jim Murray, also spoke out in the right-hander’s favor. Shapiro presented Betances’ case during the hearing on Saturday and called Levine’s comments “an absolute disgrace to the arbitration process and to all of Major League Baseball.” In a report from FOX Sports’ Ken Rosenthal, Shapiro added: “The only thing that has been unprecedented in the last 36 hours is that a club official, after winning a case, called a news conference to effectively gloat about his victory – that’s unprecedented.”

Murray spoke exclusively to Rosenthal, accusing the president of effectively bullying the 28-year-old during the arbitration process and claiming that Levine had both mispronounced Betances’ name throughout the hearing and blamed the reliever for “declining ticket sales and their lack of playoff history.” Like Betances, Murray said that the agency was ready to accept the arbiter’s decision and move on before Levine’s decision to air his grievances to the media. “The only person overreaching in this entire situation is Randy,” Murray told Rosenthal. “He might as well be an astronaut because nobody on earth would agree with what he is saying. Even the others in the room would disagree with him.”

Royals will experiment with Alex Gordon in all three outfield spots this year

CLEVELAND, OH -  MAY 7: Alex Gordon #4 of the Kansas City Royals reacts to a fan while on first base during the sixth inning against the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field on May 7, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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Royals’ manager Ned Yost is shaking things up in 2017, starting with left fielder Alex Gordon. Yost told MLB.com’s Jeffrey Flanagan that “every scenario is open,” and expects to utilize Gordon in right and center field this spring while he figures out where to position Jorge Soler and Brandon Moss.

Gordon, 33, hasn’t manned right field since a three-game experiment with the Royals back in 2010 and has yet to play center field during any regular season to date. The focus, however, isn’t on Gordon’s capabilities. Among the three outfielders, he carries the best defensive profile and appears to be the most versatile of the bunch.

According to Flanagan, Soler and Moss are average on defense and will continue working closely with Royals’ coach Rusty Kuntz as the season approaches. One arrangement could see Gordon in center field, flanked by Soler in right field and Moss in left, though Yost foresees Soler taking some reps at DH if his defensive chops aren’t up to snuff.

While Moss is prepared to see starts at either outfield corner, Yost appears to be set on keeping Soler in right field, at least for the time being. The club is hoping for a bounce-back season from the 24-year-old outfielder, who was acquired from the Cubs in December after batting a lackluster .238/.333/.436 and sustaining a slew of minor injuries throughout the 2016 season.