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June 1, 2004

Prospectus Today

NL All-Star Ballot

by Joe Sheehan

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I kicked off a mostly lazy Memorial Day weekend by catching the Dodgers and Diamondbacks Friday night at Dodger Stadium.

Normally, I'd throw together a game report, but it was more a social event than a working night for me. Sophia and I were there with our friends Shelly and E.J., and unfortunately, the vagaries of L.A. traffic kept everyone from getting in before the bottom of the second. Without a scorecard, and with a lot of conversation about an adorable one-year-old (not ours), an impending move to Arizona (also not ours), and a retirement (no, again), I don't have nearly the remembrance of detail to provide a good report. Randy Johnson was dominant for five innings, Cesar Izturis made a great grab to start a double play, and Bob Brenly pulled some head-scratching moves with his relievers.

While at the game I did pick up, and fill out, an All-Star ballot. Like reading box scores, the practice of punching out chads while sitting in Row J has fallen victim to the Internet Age. Now, you can log on at MLB.com and ballot-stuff to your heart's content. For some reason, Internet ballots are capped at 25 per person, while any season-ticket holder with an awl and some free time can pop out a couple thousand during the balloting period. I'm not advocating either, but I don't think some guy with a man crush on Raul Ibanez does any more damage to the process than the entire nation of Japan getting second-tier outfielders into the AL's starting lineup.

I mean, the process of becoming an All-Star has been screwy for my entire lifetime. There are basically three paths to the label:

  1. Popularity. This makes you attractive to the voters, and doesn't exactly have to come with performance attached. Some guys get elected every year, like Barry Bonds, because they're insanely great, but mostly, it's the really popular guys, even if they're not the best player at their position. This is why Steve Garvey (10) has more All-Star appearances than Fred McGriff (five) and Rafael Palmeiro (four) combined.

  2. A good first half. This is how 80% of the reserves and pitchers are selected. How you perform in April, May and June means about 30 times as much in getting picked as what you do after that. It makes as much sense as it sounds, but it's a completely entrenched way of selecting All-Stars.

  3. Lousy teammates. This is how the rest of the reserves and pitchers make the team, by being the best player on a bad team. Well, not always. Sometimes, they're the second- or sixth-best player, but they fit whatever roster spot happens to be available. With the new rules requiring 12 pitchers on a staff, this can lead to some laughable selections, as was the case last year, when Mike Williams and his astronomical ERA were named to the NL squad, because it needed a Pirate and a pitcher.

I'll spare you more railing at the system. I just hope that when future baseball fans are debating the merits of players from the late 20th and early 21st century, they give "All-Star appearances" the appropriate level of consideration.

Anyway, I filled out my ballot last week using the criteria that I've laid out each year in this space. To me, the All-Stars are the best players in baseball at their respective positions. That doesn't mean the guy having the best first eight weeks, and it doesn't mean the guy who's had the best career to date. It just means--and I've tried to articulate this for years--the guy at the position who I'd most like to have on my team.

Here are the guys with a hole next to their name. NL today, AL tomorrow.

First Base: Albert Pujols, Cardinals. It's tough when one of the 10-15 best players in the game moves to your position, but that's what Jim Thome and Todd Helton are dealing with this year. Pujols is just better than they are. Sean Casey will get the "great eight weeks" vote.

Second Base: Jeff Kent, Astros. The best of a weak field, especially with heir apparent Marcus Giles out with a broken clavicle. I can't imagine who else will go...Mark Loretta? Luis Castillo? Maybe Todd Walker?

Shortstop: Edgar Renteria, Cardinals. Another weak field; perhaps we could just let the AL supply the infielders and the NL supply the outfielders. Renteria is, objectively, the best shortstop in the league. He's also hitting .262/.305/.361. The guys atop the VORP list are Jack Wilson and Royce Clayton, neither of whom fits any definition of All-Star beyond "best early-season stats."

Kazuo Matsui is third in VORP, and you can make a case for him ahead of Renteria based on his stellar Japanese career and the gap in '04 performance. He's certainly going to win the balloting.

Third Base: Scott Rolen, Cardinals. If you want to make a case for Mike Lowell, I'll understand, but Rolen has a longer track record of being a better player, despite trailing Lowell a bit in 2004 performance. This position starts to look deeper now that two slow-developing players, Adrian Beltre and Aramis Ramirez reach their peak and have their best seasons.

Catcher: Mike Piazza, Mets. Hey, this is where he's listed, and I don't see any reason to vote for anyone else as long as that's the case. He's still raking (.312/.408/.545). The choices to back him up are many, but if Paul Lo Duca's batting average stays above .340, he'll make it over Michael Barrett and Johnny Estrada.

Outfield, No Arguments Division: Barry Bonds. I have a wacky notion that a .621 OBP, even if it's larded with low-leverage walks, makes you an All-Star.

Outfield, Arguments Division: Jim Edmonds and Luis Gonzalez. OK, here's the thing about filling out your ballot at the park: you don't have data. In scanning the 48 names listed in the outfield, it often comes down to what names trigger a response, because there's no scanning the VORP lists to check against your memory about who's having a good year.

I'm a big believer in balancing out the All-Star outfield, so after choosing Bonds, I wanted to get one real center fielder. That's why I chose Edmonds. He's been the best in the league since coming over from the Angels in 2000. There's a clutch of center fielders atop the NL VORP list, but Edmonds has a better track record or plays better defense than every one of them. On the other hand, if you don't care so much about balance, there are definitely corner outfielders with impressive credentials who you might select ahead of Edmonds.

That brings me to Gonzalez. I think I just whiffed on that one. He's a perfectly good player, on season six of the Paul O'Neill phase of his career. He's not hitting for average (.242), but he is drawing walks and hitting the ball a long way (.353 OBP, .521 SLG). In scanning the names from Aisle 9, I narrowed it down to Gonzalez and Lance Berkman, choosing Gonzalez based on his better 2003 season.

I think that I made a couple of errors. One was in missing just how great Berkman has been this year (.350/.495/.699), weighing '03 too highly in my choosing between the two. The other was in glossing over some other names, such as Adam Dunn, Steve Finley, Bobby Abreu and Brian Giles. This is the way the brain works; a list of four, six, even 10 names can be sorted through fairly easily. A list of 48 is far too much too handle, and can lead to exactly the kind of response I had, which was to latch on to someone I knew was a reasonable candidate, without judging him in the context of the better ones. (California residents may remember a similar argument being made during last year's gubernatorial recall vote.) It's kind of the performance analysis argument writ small; the mind can only do so much, which is why it needs collective data--statistics--to make evaluations.

So I think I screwed up one vote. I'd still happily place Edmonds on my ballot, because he's a great player. For the third outfield slot, I'd probably go with Abreu or Giles, two underrated players who are among my favorites, while trying real hard to not look Berkman in the eye.

So...where is that voting Web page again?

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

Related Content:  The Who,  The Process,  All-star Weekend,  Names,  Best

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