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July 9, 2010

All-Star Discontents

Less Than Zero, or More Than Some?

by Christina Kahrl

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I'll admit, I've been an All-Star skeptic for a long, long, long time. When I was blessed with the absolute certainty of youth, I would derisively laugh off the All-Star Game as merely a baseball-flavored entertainment. I haven't watched any portion of an All-Star Game since seeing Bo Jackson turn Rick Reuschel into the All-Star Game's answer to Craig Ehlo back in 1989*, usually treating the break as just that, a time to relax and review, what had happened and what could be coming, both before and after the launch of Baseball Prospectus for 1996.

That didn't change even now that the contest “counts,” a product of Czarist pique and union tractability after the embarrassment of the tie of 2002. It's not a worse idea than the previous method of letting World Series home-field advantage be alternated annually, but as someone who figures that home-field advantage should simply belong to the team with the best record—especially if we're going to have interleague play—it isn't exactly the sort of thing that makes you settle into your seat, intent on the outcome because of what's at stake.

But now I'm back in California—which I know with a certainty born of the observation that the gas stations advertise they pump cappuccino as well as gas—and it's for the express purpose of seeing my first All-Star Game ever in Anaheim. I'm coming into the contest with a few decades of reflexive, knowing indifference, but attendance requires some measure of reflection instead of reflex. Is the indifference of youth still my considered opinion?

It's easy to write off the All-Star Game as MLB's variation on another triple-named oxymoron: the Holy Roman Empire. If, as Voltaire once quipped, the old Empire was neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire, the problem with the All-Star Game is that it might not fulfill any one of its three elements. Because of the selection process, the rosters aren't comprised solely of “stars,” let alone “all” of them, and as to whether or not it's a real “game” in which baseball gets played, we get hung up on whether or not it's an exhibition and a promotional tool, or a game played to a serious purpose by two teams, with victory as its objective.

To take the last first, well, sure, baseball action happens in an All-Star Game, so it has to be baseball and not just baseball-flavored, right? Sort of, but as 2002's debacle illustrated, one problem has been a bit too much of Little League-style in-game usage patterns to make sure that everybody gets to play. That might seem but childish, but it's also an inescapable bit of industry politics and real-world considerations. Given a choice between a few days off or another road trip, you can understand how few are the people who really might be “just happy to be here.” The game may count, it may be an entertainment extravaganza for the industry, and it might now have all of the appended bells and whistles and attached programming to elevate it beyond the sports wallpaper that too much of the season gets consigned to, but the players honored by the invitation understandably expect the honor taking the field for their troubles.

That has led to tweaking over time in terms of how players get used, a form of specialized rules for the All-Star Game alone that let the two team's skippers bring back an already-employed catcher in an emergency, for example. Creeping roster expansion moved the tally of All-Stars to 33 last season (20 position players, 13 pitchers), and moves up to 34 this season with the addition of another hitter, in part because we're happily be spared the spectacle of pitchers hitting in the All-Star Game now that the DH has been agreed to as a formal feature of the contest. That makes for the oddity of an All-Star DH starting for the league that doesn't have full-time designated hitters, but it does make for a better offensive spectacle, as well as limit the chances for injury to the always-precious commodity of quality pitching. And even if both squads have available all 13 pitchers, and limit their moundsmen to an inning apiece, they ought to be able to take a tie through a 13th inning, a longer stay of execution that 2002's 11-inning bit of fruitlessness that should spare baseball from something like a post-game shootout, World Cup-style, to determine the outcome.

With an eye towards preventing either club from being short-handed or risking someone seriously out of position while playing a game to its conclusion, this year's contest includes an additional wrinkle: a rule that allows one pre-selected player to be brought back into the ballgame in case of injury. Since a manager might empty out his roster out of the sense of obligation that most of the team should play, you can see how this rule might encourage one of the selecting skippers to pick a multi-positional supersub, with an eye towards being covered in any eventuality. It's a minor adaptation, but one with an eye towards preventing something really silly that might risk a star at one of the corner positions trying to play up the middle because it's a game that (supposedly) needs to be played to its conclusion.

I'm not sure that I share that concern, at least not in the abstract. It was a major-league team—Bud Selig's major-league team—that put Paul Molitor on the 1988 ballot as a second baseman, after all, and Molitor hadn't played second with any regularity since 1979. That was a travesty, but one where the fans dutifully collaborated in that silliness, and elected him, so while it would be easy to suggest this was another feature of Bud Selig's true manta—“Whatever Lola wants, Lola gets,” perhaps—let's face it, that was just another instance of Selig's signal skill: forging a coalition of the willing.

However, kidding aside, these seem like tweaks that should help make the All-Star Game that much more of a contest, reconciling its mission for promoting the game with showcasing its stars. However, as ever, the selection process has produced its share of outrage, this year as with any other. The voters don't have anything Molitor-sized to apologize for, however. In the AL, quibbling over Derek Jeter winning the ballot would be just that; it seems like a fair-minded bit of doubt over Alex Gonzalez's entertaining first-half hitting. Similarly, Ichiro Suzuki deserves credit for his past. In the NL, Jason Heyward clearly won by virtue of an off-the-charts Q factor built on pre-season buzz and early production, but they also favored Ryan Braun's established status; you can fidget over Matt Holliday's lot, or Josh Willingham's, but outside of Heyward, there were no injustices meted out by the electorate.

Instead, things got funkier with selecting the rest of the rosters, with signal oversights. In the AL, beyond Jered Weaver as the truly boggling absence, you've got the problem of too many Blue Jays, and not necessarily the right ones. At shortstop, selecting Texas' Elvis Andrus over Alex Gonzalez seems like a reasonable choice, as Gonzo would have been a Blue Jay too far after porting over both Jose Bautista and Vernon Wells, but carrying two Blue Jay outfielders leaves no space for the better Blue Jay outfielder (of recent vintage): the White Sox' Alex Rios. Ricky Romero has been more valuable than either Jays outfielder, and the outfield crowd not only boxed out Rios, but perhaps contributed to the mistake of selecting Ty Wigginton over Nick Markakis, which left you with the “final ballot” choice between Nick Swisher and Kevin Youkilis—two more guys you'd rather have than the Jays' outfielders or Wiggy.

It's also a bit incongruous to wrap a brainpan around the suggestion of “John Buck, All-Star,” but between Victor Martinez's injury, Jorge Posada's recent return from the DL, and Kurt Suzuki's relatively recent vintage and merely solid hitting, they had to pick somebody. Selecting Suzuki as the token Athletic would have made space for Weaver, however, not that Trevor Cahill hasn't had a fine season as well, but then you've opened up a spot for Weaver while also leaving room for the token Royal (Joakim Soria) and token Indian (Fausto Carmona). Matt Thornton's presence as the designated White Sox All-Star is a nice gesture for a long-serving non-closer, but his presence instead of John Danks, let alone Rios or Paul Konerko, makes him another ill-considered token.

In the NL, the oversights are slightly more subtle, but keep in mind, it's a tougher task, because you have just as many roster spots as the AL, but two more teams that you have to select at least one player from.

However, the signature feature appears to be the furor over Omar Infante. Infante is a super-utility player I've promoted for his virtues in the past, but is he really an All-Star? We already have Braves on the roster, so what is Charlie Manuel doing? Here, I'd suggest he's gaming the system—since the rules are now set up to let you have a designated recyled guy who can come back in case of injury, if this means the skipper could bring back an Albert Pujols or an Adrian Gonzalez anywhere in the lineup because he has Infante ready and able to play any of the non-pitching positions late in a tight game. This strikes me as a gambit made with an eye towards late-game tactics from a manager with two pennants under his belt and a stake in improving his shot at a second World Series win by acquiring home-field advantage by trying to win the All-Star Game, not a thoughtless travesty. It's a choice that can help put the “game” back in the All-Star Game. Absent a supersub of Tony Phillips' caliber, it's not a bad idea, not unless you're hung up on “All-Star status,” at which point I might remind you about John Buck, All-Star.

Instead, you've got oversights that involve young pitchers being spared—the Padres' Mat Latos, or the Cards' Jaime Garcia, for example. Ideally, they'll get second bites at this apple in their careers, but sparing them this dignity seems like a case of doing the kids a favor as far as their workloads. Aubrey Huff's big first half didn't get him the honor, which seems a shame, because if it won't be for this season, he'll probably never earn the privilege. The worst oversight among the position players is the absence of Rafael Furcal, an error not likely to be corrected even with Troy Tulowitzki's absence in llight of the selection of Jose Reyes.

For long service as well as performance this season—you know, trying to put the stars back in All-Star—I'd certainly argue that Billy Wagner belongs in this game, but the pen is a bit crowded because you've already got Matt Capps and Evan Meek as the tokens from Washington and Pittsburgh. Capps could have been replaced by Livan Hernandez—which doesn't make room for Wagner—or more appropriately with Josh Willingham or Adam Dunn instead of the Brewers' Corey Hart, which would. As impossible a task as picking a Pirate might be, however, credit Manuel with taking Meek, as an example of a quality set-up man inheriting his due; per WARP, he's the best the Pirates had to offer.

Selecting a Snake, on the other hand, was a lot less clear-cut. Chris Young over the equally inconsistent Kelly Johnson, I can buy. Young over Dan Haren? Over Mark Reynolds? Well, maybe not so much, but in fashioning a roster, I can understand picking a backup center fielder. Except that Young isn't the only one on the bench, because you also have Marlon Byrd, token Cub, and Michael Bourn, token Astro. Which brings us to the other serious problem: Bourn should not be the token Astro, Roy Oswalt should be, and it isn't close to being a subject of debate given the two players' performances.

Leaving aside the Infante issue, de-selecting Hart, Bourn, Jonathan Broxton, and Capps to make room for Oswalt, Wagner, and two of Willingham, Furcal, Dan Uggla of the Marlins, and Jayson Werth from the Phillies would have worked out a lot better in terms of roster construction, as well as keeping up the wattage on the starry side of things. Naturally, I expect your mileage will vary.

So how will this work out? That we'll have to see. I'm looking forward to the pre-game festivities before first pitch on Tuesday, a swath of programming that kicks off on Sunday with the Futures Game, and I figure I'll steel myself for putting in the time to attend the marathon of the Home Run Derby on Monday. Who knows, if it's all good fun, I may even be able to set aside my age-old discontents with the All-Star Game, or have them confirmed. But if you want to take the time to talk about it with John Perrotto and I beforehand, I know that we'll very much look forward to meeting you tomorrow night at BJ's, per Stephani Bee's reminder from earlier today. I hope you can make it, since we invariably enjoy the company of baseball fans with as much passion for the game as we possess.

*: In retrospect, it seems as if 1989 was a year of pasty patsies. Reuschel, Ehlo, Storm Davis in the postseason (or not), the Politburo...

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

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