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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

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

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So "it is what it is, everyone just shut up and accept it." Great. Accept the new norm no matter how many opportunities exist to improve the product--there's too much of that going on nowadays.

Jul 16, 2012 04:27 AM
rating: -3

I think it's more that there is no real way to make it better, because both clubs and players don't think it's important compared to real baseball.

Jul 16, 2012 08:21 AM
rating: 8

You are unclear on the article's premise. Re-read the 5th sentence.

Jul 16, 2012 10:58 AM
rating: 4

Pragmatic assessment, Matthew. Well done.

Jul 16, 2012 04:49 AM
rating: 3
BP staff member Matt Kory
BP staff


Jul 16, 2012 09:11 AM

Literally the only time I hate reading articles on BP is when they talk about the All Star Game because I actually, I dunno, ENJOY it. Thanks for a sane article.

Jul 16, 2012 05:21 AM
rating: 4
BP staff member Matt Kory
BP staff

I used to enjoy the All Star game when I was younger. Now it's harder to get excited about a game that doesn't matter in the middle of a bunch of games that do.

Thanks for reading and for the kind words.

Jul 16, 2012 10:53 AM

It's all that Louie you've been watching, Matt. That comment sounds just like something he'd say!

Jul 18, 2012 00:50 AM
rating: 2
BP staff member Russell A. Carleton
BP staff

A few thoughts come to mind:

1) Players wear their own team's uniform, suggesting that the game is supposed to be a collection of individuals. If baseball wants the idea that teams should take pride in themselves, perhaps they should wear those batting practice jerseys that they do at the Home Run Derby?

2) On snubs, people will point out the big ones (Michael Bourn), but what percentage of the roster would get say 75% approval that "yeah, he belongs there." 90%?

Jul 16, 2012 06:52 AM
BP staff member Matt Kory
BP staff

Agree, Russell. I had a paragraph about some of the design-oriented parts of the game that make it feel more impermanent and that was in it. Ultimately though I'm not sure changing their uniforms is going to incentivize the players to play harder and care more.

On the whole, the process for choosing players is convoluted but works most times. It's kinda like the umpiring to be honest. Most of the time it works perfectly, but sometimes it doesn't and those times seem to be the most glaring.

Jul 16, 2012 10:56 AM

Almost my entire interest in the ASG is to see who DID get selected versus who I think -- in my vast, amorphous wisdom and experience -- SHOULD have been selected. (Put less kindly: How dumb are the [other] fans, especially when they are incented to ballot-stuff?)

I suspect I'm not alone in that, were it not for the fillip of home-field advantage in the World Series -- meaningless though it might be to everybody on the field -- I wouldn't pay attention to the actual game at all.

Jul 16, 2012 07:21 AM
rating: 1

My favorite part of the All-Star game is the pre-game introductions. After that, I usually tune in and out, whether the game is close or a blowout because all I am watching is individuals.

Jul 16, 2012 08:26 AM
rating: 0

Why is awarding HFA in the World Series through the All-Star Game any worse than the complete alternating randomness of previous seasons? This completely baffles me.

In our sim league we voted to base HFA on three factors -- how the leagues did in interleague, All-Star Game result, and best overall W-L between the two participants. That's great for a group of 30 involved owners, not so much for a population of 30 million baseball fans. Simple is better there. And to me, almost anything is better than random.

Jul 16, 2012 08:43 AM
rating: 1

Best W/L record gets home advantage?

Jul 16, 2012 09:01 AM
rating: 3

I think Selig has ruled that out because they need to be able to plan ahead for the accommodations and such for the WS. I guess knowing which league will host game 1 & 2 narrows it down to two cities while the LCS is going on? If they went by team's W/L, they'd have to plan for three?

I guess it must be a legit reason or else they would just go with best record, but I think the NBA and NHL manage to go that route. And it used to be that MLB just alternated leagues every year.

Jul 16, 2012 15:14 PM
rating: 0
BP staff member Matt Kory
BP staff

I see your point. I'd argue that attaching Home Field Advantage to the All Star game is essentially random, as it has nothing to do with the teams who will eventually participate in the World Series.

The article is about the All Star game, so I tried to not try to solve this problem, but I think the advantage should clearly go to the team with the best record with the tie going to the team from the best record in inter-league play. That seems the most equitable way to do things. (A balanced schedule would help increase the equality quotient.)

Jul 16, 2012 09:03 AM

This has become such a canard in the 21st century: "A balanced schedule will help."

While it might help this issue, rest assured that many more things would be hurt by a balanced schedule than helped.

Jul 17, 2012 13:11 PM
rating: 0
BP staff member Matt Kory
BP staff

I think it would help this issue, which is what I said. There are obvious travel implications, but beyond that I don't see where a balanced schedule would hurt anything. What am I missing?

Jul 17, 2012 13:17 PM

Travel implications are a larger concern than most people think, because it isn't just travel that's affected. Teams want the travel to remain as local as possible as often as possible because it costs the teams a lot less money. Players like it as well, because fewer cross-country flights mean fewer middle-of-the-night arrival times...which doesn't get the players run down as much, and greatly reduces the temptation to get "extra help" to combat the cumulative fatigue.

There's also the more far-reaching issues for TV. Local cable and over-the-air networks can't charge as much for ad rates the more often games are broadcast at off-peak hours in different time zones. All that increases dramatically with a balanced schedule. None of that is good for anybody who has a fiduciary interest in the game, which definitely includes all of the parties listed above.

However--as important as those concerns are to the clubs, players, and the broadcast partners--in my view they are decidedly secondary to the most urgent issue tied to a balanced schedule...competitive balance. Right now the unbalanced schedule is the biggest ally of the small-market, small-revenue teams although many of them have not capitalized on it.

Very few people have noticed, but to a fair degree the teams are grouped into divisions with somewhat similar-sized POTENTIAL markets. (That is a key distinction.) In each league, the East division generally has larger potential markets and typically outspends the other divisions, with the Centrals usually bringing up the rear and the West normally somewhere in the middle.

The absolute best advantage long-downtrodden organizations like KC and Pittsburgh have is that they're competing more often against reasonably like-positioned rivals. If you suddenly delete a dozen games against the Twins and Indians from the KC schedule and the corresponding increase is more games against the Yankees and Red Sox, then you're REALLY going to have competitive balance problems way worse than what anybody has seen before. That isn't going to be good for anybody, neither the haves nor the have-nots.

Another smaller, but nevertheless relevant problem is that if you go to a balanced schedule then you might as well not have divisions at all. Believe me, in the long run that would be the outcome.

The reason the clubs don't want that is marketing. Quite likely you can't sell as many "2012 Playoffs" T-shirts in the team store as you can "2012 Division Champions." Nobody is going to run "Playoff Participant" banners up their flagpole, and chances are it also doesn't carry as much clout on season-ticket renewal forms. Of course this is a more ancillary issue, but once again it's primarily the smaller clubs who are the biggest beneficiaries and stand to lose the most if it's eliminated.

There may even be other potential problems of which I am unaware, but certainly expenses, drugs, revenues, competitive balance, and marketing are all vital places to start and easily outweigh whatever alleged problems a balanced schedule will "solve."

Jul 17, 2012 16:33 PM
rating: 0

I like the different uniforms. It makes the game unique and pretty. I think the league uniforms for the home run derby are articial -- there's no sense of teamness created by them and they are just an excuse to try to hawk more MLB-licensed clothing.

I think most of the uncompetitiveness comes from how the games are managed and that can be fixed if the Commissioner wanted to do so.

Jul 16, 2012 08:56 AM
rating: 1
Shaun P.

I agree that the Commish could up the competitiveness by fixing the managing, as you suggest, if he wanted to. But I'm not sure he does.

The way things are now, (almost) every player gets into the game, making fans of the teams with only 1 representative happy. Forcing the managers to play the starters longer, for example, might attract some viewers because the game is more competitive (presuming the fans really do elect the best at every position). However, it would probably lose some viewers, too, who's main reason for watching is to see their favorite team's player play, not because the game is competitive.

The other issue is pitching. No team is going to agree to let the ASG managers have their starting pitcher pitch for very long. Yet limiting starters to just an inning or two can lead to un-competitive results.

Something tells me, as Matt suggests, we're stuck with what we have right now, and I'm not sure that's a bad thing.

Jul 16, 2012 11:50 AM
rating: 2

Do you think that if you were a fan of a currently weak team, you'd be happier watching whichever one of your relievers has failed to suck badly pitch an inning so that you can feel included, or would watching a more competitive game with the best players in MLB actually be more interesting? It's a genuine question, although I think the idea that everyone must be represented is a significant weakness that could be resolved.

Jul 17, 2012 03:56 AM
rating: 0

What is not clear to me--and this article didn't address this--is what has changed in the last 20 or so years in the player's psych. In the 60 and 70's the All Star game mattered a lot. They had a smaller rosters, but they did take a player from every team and they wore their regular team's uniforms.

Jul 16, 2012 10:25 AM
rating: 0
BP staff member Matt Kory
BP staff

I tried to address that issue, at least on the margins. I believe the difference is financial. Back when very good players made $60,000 a year, a $10,000 was something to play hard for [I haven't researched these numbers, but I believe they're in the ballpark], but now when just about every All Star is a millionaire multiple times over, the money doesn't matter. Health and convenience matter far more. Also, the game is managed differently now than it was forty years ago.

Jul 16, 2012 10:51 AM
Shaun P.

I'm not sure it has anything to do with psych, but rather the economic incentives that Matt did address. "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."

Putting some numbers to the game:
Average MLB salary, 1970: $29,303 (would be about $175K in 2012 dollars)
Average MLB salary, 2012: $3,440,000
Average salary of 2012 All-Stars: $7,834,135 (thanks, Cot's!)

I couldn't find the bonus amounts for winning the 1970 ASG, but let's presume it was $5000, a nice round number. (For reference, the winner's share for winning the World Series in 1970 was about $18000, so $5K sounds reasonable.) That was a sixth of the average ballplayer's salary.

To get the equivalent amount in 2012, each player would have to receive a bonus of $573K (based on the average MLB salary) or $1.306M (based on the average All-Star's salary). I didn't do an exhaustive study, but A-Rod's current contract calls for a bonus of just $100K for making the All-Star team.

So yeah, I don't think it has anything to do with pysch, I think it has everything to do with ballplayers - particularly All Stars - being paid a hell of a lot more since free agency began, as they should be.

Jul 16, 2012 11:31 AM
rating: 6
BP staff member Matt Kory
BP staff

Excellent. Thanks, Shaun, for adding some numbers to the discussion.

Jul 16, 2012 11:34 AM
Shaun P.

Just to follow up, since I gathered the data: of the 74 players on the 2012 MLB ASG rosters, only 17 were making less than $1M, because they haven't hit arbitration yet.

Take those 17 players out, and the average salary of the remaining 57 players was over $10M ($10,018,772.95 to be precise; blame Papelbon's ridiculous 2012 salary for the strange number). A sixth of that is ~$1.67M. If the bonus was $10K in 1970, as Matt reasonably posits (i.e., a third of the average MLB salary), then today the equivalent bonus would be ~$3.34M - greater than the average MLB salary!

You know the funny thing? Before Matt's article, I had never considered that the financial incentives have radically changed since the 60s and early 70s. I don't recall ever reading anything about how the ASG is different now that even made that point, yet, I think its a perfect explanation.

Jul 16, 2012 11:39 AM
rating: 2

Another factor: The American and National leagues used to be genuine rivals. They had separate presidents and separate business offices. They hired separate umpiring crews with separate ways of doing things. (National League umps wore inside chest protectors while AL umps used the outside "balloon" protector, for example.) Being traded between leagues (the only way a player could change teams in pre-free agency days) was somewhat unusual and was remarked on in press coverage of such deals. Players and managers, and certainly executives and team owners, tended to be either National League guys or American League guys. There was no Major League Baseball in today's capitalized, corporate sense, just a commissioner who was reactive (dealing with controversies as they came up but otherwise letting each league run itself) rather than proactive (a la Bud).
Interleague play took place on only two occasions: the All-Star Game and the World Series. The win-one-for-our-side ethos was stronger in the latter, of course, but still present in the former. I remember reading stories of league presidents giving pregame locker-room pep talks, trying to fire up their teams to uphold the honor of their leagues.
Was it better back then? I dunno. It was smaller. Baseball was smaller. The world was smaller. The All-Star Game was a midsummer diversion created by a go-getter sports editor to boost the game of baseball during the Depression and sell some newspapers. It outlasted the Depression, outlasted any meaningful distinction between the two major leagues, and will probably outlast newspapers. Whatever else you think of it, that's pretty impressive.

Jul 17, 2012 21:19 PM
rating: 1

Hometown fans booed David Ortiz because it meant they didn't get to see Billy Butler hit in that inning. I don't think anybody really cares who wins, just as long as they can see some remarkable and popular favorite players up against others.

That's what counts.

Jul 16, 2012 16:27 PM
rating: 0

Papi don't give a [expletive].

Jul 18, 2012 00:51 AM
rating: 0

Has anyone addressed whether 'home field' advantage exists in the Series? Is there a great advantage to playing 1,2,6 & 7 at home instead of the middle three.

Isn't baseball the one major sport in which 'home field' matters the least?

I haven't run the numbers, so please feel free to correct me, but as a fan who can recall every series since '69, I never recall that there was a great disadvantage to hosting the middle set of the Series.

I'd say we've all fallen a little under the spell of the Fox Marketing 'It's for Real' BS

Jul 19, 2012 17:13 PM
rating: 0
BP staff member Matt Kory
BP staff

I actually wrote about that very thing at my old site a few years ago. I'll see if I can dig up the link, though I might not be able to, it's been a few years since I've written there. Will post it here if I can find it.

Jul 26, 2012 15:57 PM
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