Maybe it’s the history. Maybe it’s the nostalgia for small-town Americana. Maybe it’s simply the fact that “baseball’s the perfect sport for nerds.” (I can relate.) Whatever the reason, politicians, their staffers, and other dwellers of “the swamp” have always been in love with baseball. Though politics and baseball are more intertwined than you might think, the most explicit crossover has always been the annual Congressional Baseball Game, played June 14th, which last year raised $1.5 million for charity.
Even though the game pits Democrats against Republicans, the Congressional Baseball Game is regarded as one of the few events that still promotes bipartisan camaraderie in Washington. Its participants—actual U.S. senators and congressmen (and three congresswomen)—practice months in advance. They play through injuries and even assassination attempts like last year’s shooting at a Republican practice. In the game itself, they take the field at an actual major-league stadium (Nationals Park) and pitch overhand at speeds of up to 80 miles per hour.
Clearly, Congress treats the game as seriously as if it were the major leagues—so I figured we at FanGraphs should too. For years, the game’s scorekeepers have kept track of each player’s basic stats; I’ve taken their work one step further and made a FanGraphs Leaderboard out of them. Yes, we now have a way to sabermetrically judge the baseball skills of our elected officials. I calculated all stats, from FIP− to wOBA to WAR, the same way FanGraphs does; there are even different sections for Standard, Advanced, and Value stats (unfortunately, there’s no batted-ball, Pitch Info, or Inside Edge Fielding data for congressional contests—get on that, guys). The overwhelming conclusion? Democrats are much better at the national pastime than Republicans; in fact, they’ve won the Congressional Baseball Game in eight of the last nine years (as far back as these stats go). To see if a blue wave is going to wash over the diamond again this year, let’s dive into the starting lineups:
|2B Raul Ruiz||.188/.278/.250||58|
|CF Pete Aguilar||.429/.556/.429||126|
|P Cedric Richmond||.650/.750/1.000||211|
|SS Tim Ryan||.474/.524/.632||142|
|DH Jared Polis||.429/.480/.571||126|
|C Chris Murphy||.261/.346/.304||76|
|RF Jimmy Panetta||NA/1.000/NA||219|
|1B Joe Donnelly||.250/.400/.300||88|
|3B Tom Suozzi||.000/.000/.000||-25|
|LF Hakeem Jeffries||.200/.200/.200||35|
|RHP Cedric Richmond||2.38||4.61||10.6%||27.5%|
Democrats can boast five of the seven best congressional baseball players by WAR, and four of them anchor a lineup that has averaged 12.7 runs per game since 2009. (The fifth is speedy pinch-runner Eric Swalwell, who is a perfect nine for nine in stolen base attempts and leads the league with 1.8 wSB, or stolen base runs above average.) Tim Ryan, who is rumored to be running for president in 2020, is a rare combination of speed (a 15.0 speed score) and power (.632 slugging percentage). Jared Polis leads the league in RBIs with 13 and has never struck out in 25 plate appearances, but unfortunately for Team Blue, he’s retiring from Congress this year. And look for singles hitter Pete Aguilar to earn a promotion to the top of the order this year thanks to his .429 average and 22.2% walk rate, perhaps displacing Democrats’ usual leadoff hitter, Raúl Ruiz, who is mired in a slump (a .528 OPS) but has gotten unlucky (a .214 BABIP).
But the real star of the Congressional Baseball Game is the Democrats’ own Shohei Ohtani: pitcher/slugger Cedric Richmond. It’s impossible to overstate how good Richmond is: he has 13 hits and 11 runs scored in just seven games. He has power (.350 ISO), speed (six for seven in stolen bases), and patience (a 28.6% walk rate). On the mound, the former Morehouse College pitcher has 57 strikeouts in 47 innings (including six complete games) and a 39 ERA−. Between his hitting and pitching, he has amassed 2.3 WAR—eight times that of the game’s second-best player, Ryan.
In the late innings, expect Linda Sánchez to pinch-hit for Democrats. The game’s longest-tenured female player is both a crowd favorite and a tough out with a .444/.500/.444 slash line in 10 plate appearances. And keep an eye on sophomore right fielder Jimmy Panetta, whose father Leon played in the Congressional Baseball Game back in the 1970s. Scouting reports of the younger Panetta are off the charts, but he was hit by a pitch and reached on catcher’s interference in his two plate appearances last year, so he couldn’t show off what he could do.
|SS Ryan Costello||.167/.400/.333||87|
|CF Jeff Flake||.318/.348/.455||92|
|DH Kevin Brady||.417/.517/.500||127|
|2B Steve Scalise||.500/.750/.500||166|
|RF Mike Bishop||.200/.333/.200||64|
|1B Tom Rooney||.200/.200/.250||41|
|C Rodney Davis||.375/.444/.375||102|
|LF Rand Paul||.273/.273/.273||56|
|3B Trent Kelly||.000/.667/.000||130|
|DH Barry Loudermilk||.375/.375/.375||87|
|RHP Mark Walker||5.37||7.89||13.3%||8.0%|
Mark Walker has been a godsend for a Republican team that long struggled with run prevention, but his pitching defies the sabermetric odds. Walker lives up to his name with poor control (10 walks and six HBPs in 14.1 innings) and strikeout numbers (six), but he has a solid 89 ERA−. A .283 BABIP in a league whose fielders don’t exactly cover a lot of ground suggests he’s been very lucky, but Democratic batters complain that his offspeed pitches are just very hard to get good swings on. If Walker runs into trouble, expect the GOP to turn to John Shimkus, who used to be their starting pitcher in the mid-2000s. Shimkus is Walker’s opposite as a pitcher: he has a below-average 6.89 ERA, but he is more of a strike-thrower (224 of his 358 pitches since 2009 have been strikes) and therefore has a 97 FIP−.
Ryan Costello and Jeff Flake constitute a potent one-two punch at the top of the lineup, and the fact that they are both retiring from Congress this year is a gut punch to Republicans’ future chances. Costello is a better player than his .167 average suggests. A great 30% walk rate has elevated his OBP to .400, and he’s been very unlucky with a .200 BABIP. He’s also got decent pop (.167 ISO) and is the GOP’s slickest fielder, manning shortstop every year since 2015. And Flake has been a constant presence on the Republican team since 2001 but is leaving office amid his feud with President Trump. Flake could stand to take more pitches (4.3% walk percentage) but he’s one of the few Republican hitters with power (a .455 slugging percentage).
The GOP’s best hitter by far is ageless wonder Kevin Brady, who first played in the Congressional Baseball Game in 1997 at the age of 42. Our statistics don’t go back that far, but he has amazingly posted a .451 wOBA from his age-54 through age-62 seasons. Although he’s not in the starting lineup, Chuck Fleischmann is Republicans’ second-most-valuable position player. He’s another pinch-running weapon off the bench, leading his team with four stolen bases (and no caught stealings) and a 26.4 speed score.
The biggest question mark of the night is whether Steve Scalise, the House majority whip who was shot in the leg at last year’s shooting and remained in critical condition for several days thereafter, will be able to man his old position at second base. Although it was once feared that he may never walk again, Scalise told Fox News this week that “being able to walk out on to that field Thursday night is going to be a special, special moment.” Even if he just gets one at-bat, it will be to his team’s advantage: known even before the shooting as one of the GOP’s hardest-working players, Scalise has gotten on base in three of his four career plate appearances. He’s also scored more runs (five) than anyone else on his team, although that’s more an indictment of a Republican offense that’s averaged only 4.4 runs per game since 2009. Only if they improve on that number, and if Walker continues his sleight of hand on the mound, do Republicans have a shot at winning this year.