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July 6, 2004

Prospectus Today

Breaking Down the All-Star Picks

by Joe Sheehan

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Sunday evening, the All-Star teams were announced in one fell swoop. I liked the way it was done for most of my life, actually, in which the starters were announced on one day, and then the pitchers and reserves announced a day later. It allowed more time for speculation and debate, and lord knows, baseball fans love speculation and debate.

Now, of course, there's both less time and less reason for speculation and debate. With player voting accounting for half of the roster spots, and the requirements that every MLB team have a representative and 12 pitchers be on each team, the All-Star managers don't have much say in filling out the roster. It's hard to get worked up over a decision to take this third baseman having a good year over that one, or this closer-on-a-bad-team over the other. The All-Star rosters are now assembled by a formula, not discretion.

That said, let's taking each league one at a time and see what we can see.

The fans did their usual reasonable job in the AL. For all the complaints about fan voting over the years, it's rare that they make a ridiculous choice, the latter stages of Cal Ripken Jr.'s career notwithstanding. The fans rarely elect the mediocrity having a good three months, and the questionable picks they make tend to be along the lines of choosing the established star having an off year, an approach I don't have a problem with.

At first base, Jason Giambi is having an injury-plagued, decline-phase season, and is still only about a win worse than the league leader in VORP, Paul Konerko. (This ignores Frank Thomas, who has played just four games at first base this year, all in interleague play. I didn't vote for Thomas for that reason, but I can see the argument for doing so, given his solid offensive production.) The other first basemen having good years all have slender resumes as compared to Giambi. It's an established-value pick in a weird year.

The other marginal call in the AL is Ichiro Suzuki, but I think we have to get used to this one. He's not a bad player, and in an AL that has just two outfielders with a VORP outside the 20s. Ichiro gets a boost from online voting and from a fiercely loyal crowd. With Carlos Beltran no longer an option--more on him below--Ichiro is as good a third outfielder as any.

The player picks reflected one trend that I think will continue: players like batting average and RBIs. The All-Stars selected by the players have these in spades for the second year running.

That's not to say the players did a bad job. Given that All-Star reserves under either the old system or the new one are selected based on who's having a good year, the players identified those guys, at least in the AL. It makes for a roster light on star power, but there's no one selected by the players who's worse than fifth or sixth at his position this year, and most of these guys are in the top four or five. Carl Crawford was the worst choice, statistically, and he's got a 21.3 VORP that fits in the same range as a bunch of All-Stars. The players did a fine job selecting pitchers, even correctly recognizing Francisco Rodriguez as deserving despite his lack of saves.

With seven slots to fill, Joe Torre had to select reps from the Orioles, Blue Jays, White Sox, Twins and Royals, and take at least four pitchers. Taking Miguel Tejada ahead of Melvin Mora has drawn some criticism, but Mora had been fighting a strained foot. As it turns out, Mora went on the DL yesterday with a pulled hamstring suffered Friday night. I'm inclined to believe that Torre knew that Mora's status was in doubt when he made his choice.

Taking Ted Lilly from the Jays was an odd pick. On the surface, he, Roy Halladay and Miguel Batista have comparable numbers, but Lilly trails the other two in Support-Neutral stats and in VORP. Certainly, Halladay's Cy Young Award would seem to give him a leg up on the other two. Halladay will even start furthest from the game; he goes this Friday, while Lilly starts Saturday and Batista Sunday (which would seem to have eliminated him as a candidate).

With Beltran no longer eligible, Ken Harvey was the only remotely viable Royal. Picking him is likely what kept Frank Thomas off the team, as there's an upper bound on the number of DHs a manager wants on hand in a no-DH game. With Thomas out, Torre took the second-best pitcher on the White Sox, Esteban Loaiza. Loaiza is, however, more likely to be available on July 13 than Mark Buehrle is, given the Sox rotation this week. Torre took Joe Nathan of the Twins, a reasonable pick given the right-hander's 1.19 ERA.

Torre basically made two picks on his own. With one, he added Tom Gordon to the team as the 12th pitcher. One of the standing criticisms of Torre's reserve picks under the old system was that he favored his own players, often stuffing the bench and bullpen with Yankees. This time, however, Torre identified the best reliever in baseball as worthy of a slot.

With his other discretionary pick, Torre added Carlos Guillen to the team. Almost as if Keith Woolner was consulting, Torre singled out the best player in the AL by VORP who was not already selected, and put him on the team.

So who was snubbed? Frank Thomas certainly has a case, although his absence has as much to do with the Beltran trade as any weakness in his argument. Had Beltran been available to represent the Royals, Harvey could have been left off the team, and Thomas would have been a better fit. The next names on the VORP list who will be staying home next week are Javy Lopez, who is actually having a slightly better year than Victor Martinez; Paul Konerko, who pales next to teammate Thomas, and Jermaine Dye, who has a strong argument ahead of Crawford and Matt Lawton.

There aren't many pitching arguments. Freddy Garcia and Brad Radke have statistical cases, although both start next weekend before the game, and might well have been left off for that reason. Eddie Guardado is having a great year without the saves, which is how you get left off the All-Star team.

With respect to Beltran, I think MLB made the only decision it could, especially in the "This Time it Counts" era. Me, I would have allowed Beltran, who was voted onto the team by the AL players, to suit up in a Royals uni one last time. It's an honor he's earned.

Over in the NL, the fans did a great job. Sure, there are some outfielders with more value than Ken Griffey Jr. or Sammy Sosa, but how can you argue with an All-Star lineup than includes three 500-homer guys having good years? The All-Star Game is about moments like this, not making sure the three-month flukes trigger their bonus clauses.

As mentioned, the players like batting average and RBIs. Hello, Johnny Estrada, Sean Casey, Jack Wilson and Mark Loretta. That's probably too critical; three of those guys lead the NL in VORP at their position, and Casey is in the top three along with two other All-Stars. Still, two years in, I think it's clear that the players are going to pick their compatriots much the same way as the managers did in the years prior to 2003. The players did a good job identifying the best pitchers in the league, with only their snub of Ben Sheets standing out.

Jack McKeon was left with just slightly more flexibility than Torre was, needing a Phillie, an Expo, a Brewer and a Rockie. Three of those choices were fairly obvious: Jim Thome and Todd Helton have been among the best players in the league this year. Sheets, of course, is one of the best pitchers in baseball. The Expos' brutal year has been highlighted by another good performance by Livan Hernandez, who makes a fine All-Star.

That left McKeon with three elective spots, two for pitchers. He added his own Carl Pavano, like Gordon a homer choice who actually deserves the spot. He chose Dan Kolb, who hasn't given up a run since May 31 and who, with a GB/FB ratio that exceeds his strikeout rate (4.06 to 3.09), is one of the best stories in the game this year.

It was McKeon's last choice that was the most controversial decision of the process this year, adding Barry Larkin to the team. Larkin wasn't best infielder or even the best Cincinnati Red available. He was arguably not the best shortstop, although none of the others ahead of him on the list are lighting up the scoreboard. Larkin is having his best season since 2000, and is a Hall of Famer--in my eyes, anyway--playing in what might be his last season.

Larkin's presence on the team has supporters of many players, especially those of Adrian Beltre, up in arms. There was no external reason--team or position considerations--to prefer Larkin, and Beltre is having a career year, hitting .318/.355/.578. I can't get worked up over it. Conceding that Beltre had a better three months than Larkin did, have we really lost anything by not having him on the All-Star team? Larkin is an all-time great, while Beltre has been letting people down for most of his career. That he finally put together three good months is a credit to him, but those months stand out from the rest of his career. I know that I'd rather see Larkin, long underrated and underappreciated, get one more night on the big stage than worry about Adrian Beltre's status.

And with all that said...McKeon made a mistake. Pull back from Beltre for a second and look at the rest of the field. McKeon chose Larkin over Bobby Abreu, a reasonable MVP candidate in a world that just gives Barry Bonds the lifetime achievement award. He chose Larkin over J.D. Drew, who's one of the only reasons to watch the Braves this year. Lyle Overbay appears on a lot of "snubbed" lists, and although I can forgive McKeon for not adding a fourth first baseman or third Brewer, Overbay clearly belongs ahead of Larkin.

As does Beltre. Regardless of whether I'd rather see the veteran I like over the disappointment I have no attachment to, choosing Barry Larkin over any or all of these players is a mistake. Based on the established criteria, and even giving Larkin credit for his long and distinguished career, I can't see snubbing players like Beltre and Abreu in favor of Larkin.

Still, the All-Star selection process has become a paint-by-numbers one, as the player selections and the various roster requirements fill out the teams without requiring much input from the managers. Maybe we should be thankful to McKeon for adding some spice to the process.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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