A fierce political free-for-all will be waged on Wednesday night — but it has nothing to do with the Democratic presidential debate.
Under the lights at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C., Republican and Democratic members of Congress will don their uniforms and take the field to play in the annual Congressional Baseball Game. The event may be for a good cause, but it’s also a serious athletic contest: Bones have been broken in past games, and pitches have been clocked as high as 80 miles per hour. This year, Republican congressmen got up at 6 a.m. two to three times a week to train for the game under the tutelage of former pros including Darrell Evans. (It was at such a practice two years ago that a gunman opened fire on the Republican team, injuring then-Majority Whip Steve Scalise and three others.)
The Republicans may be practicing extra hard this year in an effort to catch up to the dominance of the Democratic team, which has won nine of the past 10 matchups. That’s thanks largely to the fact that Democrats have the seven players with the most wins above replacement over that span.
That’s right — the sabermetric revolution has reached the halls of Congress. Using the game’s official box scores, I’ve calculated advanced stats for all members of Congress to play in the game since 2009.1 That includes on-base plus slugging, adjusted earned run average, batting average on balls in play … and, yes, WAR, the sabermetric statistic of choice for totaling up a player’s value on all sides of the ball. And while most players haven’t played enough to accrue a significant number of WAR, some players’ talent does shine through.
Rep. Cedric Richmond is such a talent. The Democrat from Louisiana has amassed 2.5 WAR in just eight games. That would work out to 50 WAR in a 162-game season; in other words, Richmond is like Mike Trout combined with Max Scherzer — if Scherzer pitched every single game. Richmond was the starting pitcher for the Dems in all eight games he’s played, finishing seven of them2 and striking out 25.4 percent of batters. He has a 2.20 ERA and a 35 ERA-minus (i.e., his ERA is 65 percent better than league average). But he is also the best hitter in the game, with a .652/.758/1.087 slash line and the game’s only home run in the past 10 years.
Democrats also claim most of the game’s next-best players, although several of them will not be on the active roster for this year’s game. Former Rep. Joe Baca (0.4 WAR in 14 innings pitched and seven plate appearances) was ousted from Congress by fellow Democrat Gloria Negrete McLeod in 2012 after his California district was redrawn in 2011; former Rep. Tim Bishop (.500/.684/.583) lost his seat on Long Island to Republican Lee Zeldin in 2014.
The Democrats’ best active players, other than Richmond, are probably Reps. Pete Aguilar and Jimmy Panetta of California. They are far behind Richmond in WAR (0.2 and 0.1, respectively), but they’ve also had a fraction of his plate appearances. Their OPS marks of 1.470 and 1.5503 suggest that they are in his league talent-wise.
Rep. Linda Sánchez, who owns a .944 OPS, is both one of the Democrats’ best players and one of only two women on the 2019 roster.4 A handful of women have played in the Congressional Baseball Game since 1993, when Reps. Maria Cantwell, Blanche Lambert and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen together broke the game’s gender barrier, but the Congressional Women’s Softball Game is more popular with female legislators. Last week, the press team defeated the congressional team in the 11th iteration of the CWSG.5
The best Republican baseball player has been Texas Rep. Kevin Brady. The 64-year-old is the game’s grizzled veteran, having played since 1997, his first year in Congress. In the past 10 contests, he has put up a .996 OPS and 0.2 WAR. An honorable mention goes to North Carolina Rep. Mark Walker, the GOP’s starting pitcher in the past four games. He has just a 6.46 ERA, but that’s actually about average (104 ERA-minus) in the high-scoring run environment of the Congressional Baseball Game.
But because my stats are only for past games, they obviously don’t measure rookie talent. And Republicans think they can level the playing field a bit this year with freshman Rep. Anthony Gonzalez — that’s the same Anthony Gonzalez who played five years for the Indianapolis Colts. However, Democrats will trot out a secret weapon of their own: freshman Rep. Colin Allred, who played four years for the Tennessee Titans and was a star baseball player in high school.
Gonzalez and Allred will be far from the only former pros to play in the Congressional Baseball Game. The game was founded in 1909 by former Republican Rep. John Tener, who pitched in the majors from 1888 to 1890. In 1986, Republicans thought they scored a coup when now-Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Bunning was elected to Congress, but he gave up seven runs in two innings in the next year’s game; his nonathlete catcher couldn’t glove his curveball, and the 55-year-old’s fastball lacked its prior zip. Former Rep. Steve Largent, the football Hall of Famer, was far more effective for the GOP; he went 5-1 with a 2.44 ERA in six starts from 1995 to 2001.
Some big political names have played in the game as well. Before the 2017 shooting, Scalise, one of the highest-ranking members to ever play the game, had reached base in three of his four career plate appearances and stolen two bases; he returned to the game briefly last year, throwing a runner out from second base on the first play of the game and being mobbed by his teammates. In 2015, Sen. Rand Paul became the first active presidential candidate ever to play in the game; he’s got a .615 OPS for his career. (Rand plays in the game as a tribute to his father, Ron, who in 1979 hit one of the only over-the-fence home runs in Congressional Baseball Game history.) Even former Rep. Anthony Weiner took one at-bat back in 2009; as he did at politics, he struck out.
Finally, it turns out there’s a ton of baseball talent in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary field. Jay Inslee, Beto O’Rourke, Tim Ryan and Eric Swalwell all played during their congressional careers — and most of them played well.
In fact, the presidential bids of Ryan and Swalwell have been big blows to the Democratic baseball team. Both are still in Congress, and Ryan’s bat and Swalwell’s speed have been big assets to Democrats in the past several games. But with the first Democratic primary debates scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday in Miami, they are both apparently skipping the bout this year.