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June 30, 2010

Manufactured Runs

Who's an All-Star?

by Colin Wyers

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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:

Charlie (Bethesda): Is it just me or is it insane that Adam Dunn has been to only one All-Star game? Are people just undervaluing his production?

Colin Wyers: I think it's good to ask—what's the point of the All-Star Game? And what I keep coming back to—it's a chance for fans to see the players they like watching. Now, I like watching Adam Dunn. And I do think fans underrate his bat. But it's hard to say he's one of the three most exciting outfielders to watch in the NL most years. And I mean - as an analyst it's one thing to say, "so-and-so is the player who helps you win the most." And when you call an award "Most Valuable Player" you're talking about value. But for an All-Star? I don't know that I would or should tell fans who they want to see play in a meaningless exhibition.

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?

Colin Wyers is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Colin's other articles. You can contact Colin by clicking here

Related Content:  Fans,  All-Star Game,  The Who,  Rosters,  All-Star Vote,  All Star Game

13 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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Tom Pfister

There aren't many in the NL I'd rather see in a Home Run Derby than Adam Dunn.

Jun 30, 2010 07:41 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Colin Wyers
BP staff

There aren't many, no. But last year they picked Pujols, Fielder, Howard and Adrian Gonzalez. That actually sounds like a pretty good list to me.

Jun 30, 2010 08:18 AM
 
TheRealNeal

Interleague play has removed the luster from the ASG. I have to agree that my interest in it, when my team is not in position for a playoff run is about the same as my interest in the HRD - which is almost 0 if there aren't any Cubs in it.

I've already seen all the AL players, and we can be reasonably sure then AL is the better league again this year. The magic of the Langston versus Gwynn matchup is gone, because it happened twice already this year.

If they would have the sense to move interleague games after the ASG, that would at least make it a little more interesting.

Jun 30, 2010 07:52 AM
rating: -1
 
BP staff member Colin Wyers
BP staff

Even if it wasn't for interleague play - there's still Sportscenter, MLB Network, Extra Innings, MLB.tv, and so on. Your devoted baseball fan isn't lacking for opportunity to see the "other" league's top players every night.

Jun 30, 2010 12:33 PM
 
TheRealNeal

That's part of it, but the matchups and the "which league is better" arguments would still make the game compelling. It's no coincidence that the game became a farce at the same time they instituted inter league play.

Jun 30, 2010 16:56 PM
rating: 0
 
Tank
(989)

Colin, really enjoyed your chat the other day (particularly the DnD lineup, though I'd put the fighter at 1B).

Small criticism: weird ending of the article...feels like you were cut off, and you weren't finished. Yep, today I'm That Guy.

Jun 30, 2010 08:34 AM
rating: 2
 
Clonod

I thought the same thing. Just sort of . . . stopped.

Fun read nonetheless.

Jun 30, 2010 14:47 PM
rating: 0
 
craigburley

Hear, hear Colin. That's exactly the attitude I think is healthiest towards the All-Star Game (and I say this as a dedicated voter who grabs ballots every time I'm at the park and makes sure that everyone with me votes) and it's the one I try to adopt myself.

It's an exhibition of great, fun ballplayers, with a few extra players thrown in to make sure that everyone gets one of their own. I don't really see anything wrong with it.

Jun 30, 2010 08:46 AM
rating: 0
 
lonechicken

Now, we're in the era of "I don't want to participate in the Home Run Derby for some reason or another having nothing to do with injury."

Jun 30, 2010 09:09 AM
rating: 3
 
cdmyers

Has anyone at BP every done an analysis of what gets a player All Star votes? Obviously market size has got to be a huge factor, but it would be interesting to see what kinds of performance voters reward (presumably HRs, RBIs, and so on) and what kinds they don't.

Jun 30, 2010 10:08 AM
rating: 0
 
awayish

the short story seems to be that there are a number of standards at work here, because the asg has taken on significance within different groups.

for players, it's a sign of accomplishment.

for fans, it is a sign of talent/status.

the fans, at the end of the day, want to be entertained. while the players and maybe management see the game as something more serious.

hence the disparate attitude toward strasburg and the asg.

Jun 30, 2010 11:14 AM
rating: 0
 
cggarb

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?

Really? It's laughable to insist on >3 quality starts (or one game score >75) before putting someone on the all-star roster?

I'd have "fun" watching Nolan Ryan return to the mound. Or better, Tommy Lasorda. That would be fun. How about a reprise of Kruk vs. Johnson?

Jun 30, 2010 12:43 PM
rating: 2
 
awayish

i have no idea why baseball's marketing is so fail.

Jun 30, 2010 15:27 PM
rating: -1
 
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