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July 16, 2012

Out of Left Field

Not Fixing the All-Star Game

by Matthew Kory

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Every year around this time, we get deluged with people arguing that 1) The All-Star Game has all sorts of problems and needs to be fixed and, hoo boy, I happen to have the prescription to fix everything right here, or 2) The All-Star Game is awful/past its prime/straight up smelly and should be junked. 

I’m not here to argue any of that. Instead I’m here to say this: It’s time to stop trying to fix the All-Star Game. Not because a better All-Star Game isn’t desirable, but because it isn’t achievable.

The All-Star Game is, and has always been, an exhibition. Exhibitions are excuses to show off (in a good way) (usually) and, going back to 1933, that’s exactly what the All-Star Game has been. It still is, and there is nothing particularly wrong with that.

By adding home-field advantage in the World Series as a prize, baseball is trying to bring back a time when winning the All-Star Game mattered. Back when players were paid the same amount as a retail clerk, the checks they received as participants made a difference to their financial well-being, and the winning team making more than the losing team was the incentive that led to players actively trying to win. And, as we probably all agree, when winning matters, the quality and intensity of play rises, and that makes the event fun and exciting to watch.

Things are different now. Players make enough that the checks they receive from winning the All-Star Game don’t matter. There is no incentive for a player to bust his butt beyond what he might do in a spring training game, and that shows on the field.

Seeing that, Bud Selig reared his head and came up with the idea that the winning league gets home-field advantage in the World Series. First, it’s just strange. What does one have to do with the other? But, for the purposes of this article, the more pertinent issue is that the prize is so utterly disconnected from the players that it doesn’t change their behavior. This topic has been beat to death, and I’m not helping, so I won’t continue in this vein except to say that the tactic hasn’t worked. The players still treat it like the exhibition it is instead of the seventh game of the World Series, like Selig and the owners would prefer.

Peter Abraham of the Boston Globe passed on the following tidbit after the most recent All-Star Game:  

At one point in the first inning, Prince Fielder yelled out that he wanted to see 101 m.p.h. and Verlander threw the next pitch exactly that speed. Pretty cool.

This, among numerous other examples, shows that, despite Selig’s edict from on high, that the All-Star Game is now Super Serious, the players don't see it that way. Why not? I’ll argue that the flaw is in the design.

There's this thing in traffic planning. I’ll call it implied design, not because that’s its name, but because my brain is addled by 3-year-olds and I can’t remember what it’s actually called. Anyway, it goes like this: Picture a road. It has four lanes, limited traffic lights, a substantial median, and sound walls along side that block of views of the surrounding areas. How fast should you drive on that road? Pretty fast, right? Now, if a 30 mph speed limit sign is posted, how fast will people drive? The answer is still pretty fast. Why? Because that is the speed that has been communicated through the design.

Conversely, if you post a 50 mph speed limit on a curvy residential street in a neighborhood with kids, sidewalks, and stop signs, people will drive much slower than that posted limit. Sure, some idiots will barrel through at top speed, but most people will see their surroundings and let that dictate their driving style rather than a sign.

We take our cues on how to behave from our surroundings. If our surroundings suggest we act a certain way, most of the time we’ll see that and act accordingly. So it is with the All-Star Game.

The design of the All-Star Game communicates a complete lack of importance. Each franchise gets at least one player on the team, while the fans vote on the starting lineup. The rules guarantee the two teams won't be composed of the very best players available.

Then there is the way the game is managed. Starting players are removed and replaced with inferior players well before the outcome is decided. The best guys get a couple of at-bats and then do an in-game TV interview. Players see that at the same time they hear MLB yelling, "This time it's for reeeeeeeeeal" like it's some sort of All-World Wrestling thing and Joey Votto is supposed to hit Justin Verlander with a folding chair. Those two messages don’t line up. On one hand, MLB is repeating how much the games matter ad nauseam, but on the other hand, the game is being organized and run like a softball game at a company picnic, which says loud and clear that the real intent is entirely different.

Those issues could conceivably all be changed to some degree, and that would likely have some impact on the way the game is played. But even that wouldn’t fix the biggest, most glaring problem of all.

The outcome of the game has precisely no impact on the remainder of the season for every single player involved. There is no way to infer from the game’s outcome that a single player or franchise is any better off than they were before the All-Star Game was played. Plainly put, winning the game doesn’t matter for any player. At all. It doesn’t impact them financially, it doesn’t impact them professionally, and it doesn’t impact them personally. The only potentially important consequence of the All-Star Game is an injury, which is something a player can help to avoid through less aggressive play, not more.

I’m not arguing against the All-Star Game. It’s fine. In the words of a great American, it is what it is. I don’t care for it. Others might. Doesn’t matter. Like it or dislike it, it’s an exhibition, not a real major-league game. Altering the rules on the margins isn’t going to change the way the game is played, just as putting a bizarre prize on the game hasn’t changed the way the game is played. It’s an exhibition either way, and both the players and the fans know that. They know it doesn’t matter, and they treat that way. That’s fine. So enjoy the All-Star Game for what it is, or use the evening to get current on episodes of Louis. Either decision will have the same impact on the end of the baseball season, and try as they might, there isn’t anything the fans, writers, or Major League Baseball can do about it.

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

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