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July 4, 2006

Prospectus Today

The Breakdown

by Joe Sheehan

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Last Friday's Ballpark Feed at San Diego's Petco Park featured attendees from as far away as Oregon and Texas. They, as well as the San Diegans in the room, got to pepper Padres' CEO Sandy Alderson for an hour on his approach to the game, the Pads' chances in 2006 and his 25-year career in baseball. Afterwards, the crowd watched a terrific game, as the Pads battled back from 4-0 to win the game in the bottom of the ninth.

The lesson, of course ($1, Simmons), is that if you're within a thousand miles of a BP event, you should go, because you'll have a great time.

I want to say thanks to Alderson, who was charming, informative and funny, as well as the Pads' Luis Garcia and George McDoniel, for all their help in making the event a success.

Sunday night, 96.9% of the 2006 All-Star teams were announced, leading to a series of protests about players put on and left off. Actually, this article used to be a lot easier to write. You could just complain about the manager and his associated lieutenants making bad decisions, and how it seemed no one would ever realize how great Player A was when Player B had a lifetime exemption from the fans.

Now that the players get a vote, the fans get a second and there are 30 teams in baseball, assembly of an All-Star roster is governed by so many rules that the managers make very few decisions. Their actions are generally restricted to identifying the best player on the worst teams in the league. On top of that, the fans have been doing a pretty good job of selecting the All-Star starters, and the player vote tends to act as a safety net when they don't.

So let's break down the roster assembly not by league or by position, but by decisionmaker. How did the fans, the players and the managers do?

The Fans

The fans may not always make the best choices, but they very rarely make an unreasonable one. The most common mistake is naming a player who has been a frequent All-Star in the past but whose skills have deteriorated. On occasion, you'll also see a player get a start who plays for a popular team at a weak position, garnering the benefit of hometown voting.

We have one of each this season in the AL, although neither is a bad pick. Ivan Rodriguez is the starter behind the plate. It's not an unreasonable choice, given that the bulk of the voting occurred before Joe Mauer turned into Ty Cobb, and the other top catchers in the AL have been aging over the past few years. Rodriguez doesn't hit the way he used to, but he does still control the running game, and he is one of just two Tigers on the team.

Mark Loretta beat out a weak crop of AL second baseman, no doubt helped by the Red Sox' strong attendance and rabid fan base. He's not the best 2B in the league, although he's a good player who was the best in his circuit as recently as 2003 and 2004. On the whole, the AL All-Star starters are a reasonable group.

Over in the NL, though…I mentioned the popular-team/weak-position combination. When it generates a Mark Loretta, you can live with it. When it coughs up a Paul Lo Duca, you have to cringe a little. Lo Duca's popularity far outstrips his performance, and he's entered the Erstad Zone, where he's assumed to bring so many intangible qualities that what he does on the field is simply not evaluated objectively.

Outside of 2001, when he had a career year, he's never been the best catcher in the league, or even close to it. This year, in a weird year for NL catchers, he's 11th in VORP. Some of the guys ahead of him weren't on the ballot, and a handful of other players are young ones with low profiles, but established, superior veterans such as Michael Barrett, Mike Piazza and Johnny Estrada all would be better choices. Lo Duca is a very, very weak All-Star, the fans' biggest mistake in some time.

Give NL voters credit for recognizing the emerging talents at third base and in the outfield; David Wright and Jason Bay were each elected for their first starting assignment. Both picks are arguable-the NL is incredibly deep at both spots, and in fact, the depth of individual talent at various positions is one of arguments against the idea that the AL is clearly superior-but there's no question that the two players are All-Star caliber.

The one pick I'd question is that of Alfonso Soriano. Soriano has had a quality season by his lights, showing good power and speed with improved, but not good, OBP. As much attention as he's received, he's not the player that Bobby Abreu or Andruw Jones is; and it's hard to separate him from a gaggle of left fielders having good years.

Lo Duca was a clear error, and you can argue the merits of three or four other fan picks. Overall, though, the fans did their usual competent job.

The Players

Over three seasons, the players have established that they are going to vote for the guy having the best season, or as I prefer to put it, having the best two, two-and-a-half months. That's their prerogative, but it does mean I'm going to disagree with their choices on occasion. (It also, to me, indicates that the players themselves are using stats to fill out their ballot, which is mildly interesting.) The player selections are how the Alexis Rioses and Dan Ugglas, who never would have been considered on April 2, find their way onto the team.

The other problem is that the rules are structured so that where the fans and the players agree on their first choice, the players' #2 is awarded the spot. I understand the rationale-so that the players have a selection on the team-but I don't know that it's best way to fill out an All-Star team. As an example, let's assume that the vast majority of players voted for Albert Pujols at first base in the NL. That means Ryan Howard's second-place standing is the result of 1) the Cardinals' vote (you can't vote for teammates) and 2) opposing players not quite bright enough to vote for Pujols.

That Ryan Howard happens to be a perfectly good choice for the All-Star team isn't the point. Shea Hillenbrand made the team this way a couple of years ago, and the potential exists for choices in that vein each year, where a guy wins with nine votes from a superstar's teammates. The National League players were in complete agreement with the fan vote, so all of their position-player choices are runners-up.

I would change this policy, although I'm not entirely sure how I would do so. I'm just not thrilled with the idea of taking the second-place finisher in an election and calling him an All-Star, especially when the #2 guy at a position could be determined by very few votes. Perhaps the #2 guy would have to have a certain percentage of votes to automatically be awarded a spot, or be the only player on his team to be named an All-Star through the fan/player balloting. Players who didn't meet these criteria would be strongly considered, but not guaranteed a slot.

The player preference for current-season performance shows up most clearly on the All-Star pitching staffs, which hew closely to the win, save and ERA leaderboards. There are a couple of clunkers-Kenny Rogers in the AL, Derrick Turnbow in the NL-that can be attributed to the same overemphasis on particular stats as we see in the mainstream media. Recent past performance seems to carry some weight, but not much, and then only if you're also playing well this year: no Andy Pettitte or Dontrelle Willis to be found.

The Managers

One reason I'd like to see the rules on player selections changed is to allow All-Star managers more leeway in filling out their rosters. As it stands, they are handed seven slots, four of which have to be given to pitchers-another stupid rule, stemming from a complete misunderstanding of what happened in 2002-and usually three to six of which have to be used on players from specific teams. By not automatically granting all of the players' #2 choices, the managers would have a bit more flexibility to honor players, especially in seasons when some positions are much deeper than others.

Even with very few decisions to make, managers can screw them up, especially when they allow personal loyaties to get involved. Ozzie Guillen had to find at least one Oriole, one Indian, one Athletic and one Royal with his seven picks; he did exactly that. He then filled the other three spots with members of his own team, ignoring more qualified players, including the best pitcher and best hitter in the league. Selecting Paul Konerko over Travis Hafner, who has been the best hitter in the AL since Opening Day 2004 and is the best this season, is criminal. Adding Bobby Jenks to the roster is valid, but choosing Mark Buehrle over Francisco Liriano…that can only be explained by favoritism. I'll concede that Liriano has only been in the league for about five months and that Buehrle has been a very good pitcher for a while now. Still, there's just so little precedent for performance outside of the current season being considered in choosing pitchers, and such a large gap between the 2006 work of the two left-handers, that this decision is irrational.

Guillen didn't overlook two good players in favor of two of his guys. He overlooked two of the very best players in favor of two guys at the same positions whose body of work is inferior. Someone should have prevented this.

Garner's hands were similarly tied: he had to pick guys from four teams with his seven selections, four of which had to be pitchers. He was fortunate in that he didn't have to choose a Royal, of course-there's no one remotely as bad as Mark Redman on the NL team-and while he picked one of his guys with a discretionary pick, it's hard to argue with Lance Berkman's qualifications. Garner used two other spots on third basemen, which was mildly surprising given how deep the outfield pool is in the NL. Taking Freddy Sanchez, a decent player on a hot streak, instead of Bobby Abreu or Adam Dunn or, god forbid, Barry Bonds, strikes me as implementing a short-sighted definition of "All-Star."

Still, the best players in the NL are on the team; there's no one as good as Hafner or Liriano on the outside looking in.

The Fans, Again

The clamor for marketing dollars has given us another voting opportunity for fans, who select the 32nd member of each All-Star team through online balloting. There are five AL candidates, but the only one that matters is Hafner. As mentioned, he's the best hitter in the league, and has been for some time now. That both he and Liriano are in this pool, and not already making travel plans for next week, is just wrong.

The NL "Final Vote" ballot is a bit more interesting, with Abreu, the rejuvenated Nomar Garciaparra, top closer Billy Wagner (who deserved Turnbow's spot) and two low-profile, high-productivity young starters in Chris Capuano and Chris Young. I don't know that there's a bad choice in this group; I'd pick Abreu, because I think he's terminally underrated, but both starting pitchers are fairly deserving and Wagner has as good a track record as anyone not already named to the team.

It's worth mentioning: in a week, no one is going to care about any of this. I think it's interesting to break the rosters down this way, though, because not all All-Star selections are created equally, although we tend to forget that as the years pass. We'll be looking back at these guys in 20 years and evaluating their careers, in part, by the number of times they played in the All-Star Game. Given how convoluted the path to that honor is, maybe we should take it a lot less seriously than we do.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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