June 30, 2010
Who's an All-Star?
I recently completed my first live chat here at the site (great fun, by the way) and I really, really want to expand upon one of the exchanges:
By the time this makes the site, you should have about a day and change to vote for the All-Star rosters. The announcement will be Sunday—live, on TV! And of course there will be some additional selections to round out the rosters, fill the pitching staffs, and make sure that all teams are represented.
The last part really sums up the All-Star experience, doesn’t it? Every team has to have at least one representative on the All-Star teams. You are, to borrow a phrase, “defining excellence down.”
Now, I have a confession to make. I am half-apathetic about the All-Star Game. I mean, I watch the All-Star Game—it’s fun. But, despite the surreal insistence that the game “counts,” it doesn’t. And so I find it hard to be too concerned about the results of the voting. Of course, I’m a hypocrite about this, in that I deeply care about the rosters for the Home Run Derby, which is probably even more of a meaningless exhibition than the game itself. (More on this in a moment.)
But let’s take the premise of both events at face value—they’re both about spectacle, not a serious test of baseball skill. That’s why you see the guys from the Wheaties boxes and the “feel good” stories make the All-Star team over players who are perhaps more gifted and give you better results.
So what you get from looking at the All-Star ballots is a sense of who the fans think they enjoy watching, not necessarily who is good at baseball. Now you see a lot of overlap, because all else being equal, fans like watching players who are good at baseball.
But all else isn’t equal, of course. People like watching players from “their” team, which is why you see players from big markets represented perhaps more than their talents alone would dictate. And fans seem to prefer certain styles of hitting—it seems that, all else equal, fans prefer hitters who put the ball in play over ones that don’t.
A really good case study of this is the right side of the Phillies’ infield. I don’t know that there’s a single serious baseball analyst that will tell you that Ryan Howard is better than Chase Utley. (In fact, I think that’s a pretty good litmus test as to whether or not someone is a serious baseball analyst.) Utley is a much better defender at a tougher defensive position, while honestly being roughly Howard’s equal as a hitter—some years one is better than the other, but typically by a slim amount. But Howard beats Utley in one key aspect—the bathroom test.
OK, stick with me a second here. You and a bunch of friends are out at a sports bar, and you’ve been consuming your favored libation prodigiously over the course of the evening. You, frankly, have to go to the bathroom—and so you excuse yourself from the table and start walking. But you hear the announcer saying, “coming up to the plate, so-and-so.” Do you wait to see that at-bat?
And Howard rates higher in that test, I think, than Utley. And part of it is due to Utley, of course—if Howard didn’t have as many baserunners on ahead of him, he wouldn’t be as exciting to watch at the plate. This is the narrative bias that we hold when it comes to watching baseball. And if you want to talk about, say, the Most Valuable Player awards—the word “valuable” has a pretty clear meaning to it, and I don’t think that meaning covers the bathroom test.
But when it comes to this sort of popularity contest—fans are going to vote for the exciting players, not necessarily the best ones. And the All-Star Game voting is set up to cater to those tastes. MLB’s balloting procedures are designed to encourage involvement and excitement, not a reasoned debate of the merit of each and every player. And you know what? I’m fine with that, I really am. (I just wish that more people would keep that in mind when it came to looking back at a player’s career and counting All-Star appearances, but you can’t have everything.)
This is why I get a big chuckle out of the debate over whether or not Stephen Strasburg should make the All-Star team. Really? There are so many starting pitchers in the NL that are so much fun to watch that we can conceive of leaving Strasburg off the roster?
So, about that Home Run Derby. Let’s apply the same standard to it—it’s basically glorified batting practice. Now, let me assert—there is nothing wrong with glorified batting practice! I love watching the Home Run Derby. Absolutely love it. But let’s be frank—it’s called the Home Run Derby. You’re looking to see someone take a batting practice fastball and just wallop it.
So can someone explain to me what Brandon Inge was doing there last year? If I asked a representative sample of Tigers fans last year, “Name the four hitters in the American League you’d most like to see taking BP, who would they be?” how many of them would even list Inge? Expand the list to 10—would any of them list Inge then?