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July 11, 2007

Prospectus Today

Midsummer Classic Highlights

by Joe Sheehan

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Last night's All-Star Game was the most entertaining in years, from a well-crafted celebration of Willie Mays to an inside-the-park home run, and finishing up with a thwarted ninth-inning comeback that even yielded a bit of controversy. Let's work backwards, bullet-point style:

  • Albert Pujols was quite unhappy that he didn't get into the game, and you can understand his frustration. The role of emergency pinch-hitter is generally left to an All-Star who is either inexperienced or fringe, rather than one of the two or three best players in baseball. As a veteran, Pujols certainly would have expected to get in the game, and is justifiably annoyed to have traveled to San Francisco just to watch.

    With that said, Tony La Russa's decision to not use Pujols in the ninth inning, instead allowing Aaron Rowand to make the game's final out, is defensible. There was a decent chance that the game would extend to the tenth inning, and Pujols was La Russa's last available position player. He would be needed to bat for the pitcher in the tenth. Pujols is athletic enough to play an outfield corner or the infield (even second base, as he did in the 2001 All-Star Game), making him a good option for the bench's last man, offering maximum double-switch flexibility.

    La Russa has been around long enough to remember the ridicule that Jim Frey endured in 1981. Frey ran himself out of hitters in that year's All-Star Game, and was forced to let Dave Stieb bat with the game on the line. There are those of us, even here at BP, who frequently bring that up as an example of tactical incompetence. La Russa was correctly avoiding such a scenario, where someone like Jose Valverde would be forced to hit against Francisco Rodriguez with two outs and two on.

    If you want to criticize La Russa for not using Pujols before the ninth inning, that's fine. It is a little silly that a player of his stature wouldn't play at all in the All-Star Game. Derrek Lee is a fine player, but you could have switched the roles he and Pujols played in this game without getting any argument. Having made Pujols his last hitter, though, La Russa couldn't use him to hit for another position player. He had to save him to hit for a pitcher in the tenth.

  • La Russa's refusal to use Pujols came about because the AL had a rare late-inning meltdown in the ninth, turning a 5-2 game into a 5-4 game. During their most recent stretch of All-Star dominance, the AL bullpen has been very tough to beat, generally closing out games in which it held a lead, and keeping the others close to enable late-inning AL comebacks. Last night, however, J.J. Putz allowed an infield single and a home run to shave two runs off of the lead, and then he and Rodriguez combined to walk the bases loaded before Rodriguez retired Rowand on a fly to right to end the game. It was a surprising end; AL closers had been lights-out in save situations in the All-Star Game going back a decade, while NL closers-even the best ones such as Trevor Hoffman and Eric Gagne-have been All-Star goats. Putz's brief ineffectiveness didn't change the outcome, but it was an unusual sight to see.
  • The positive story of the game was Ichiro Suzuki. As the news was breaking that he was close to signing a five-year contract extension, he was roping three hits, including the All-Star Game's first-ever inside-the-park home run, to win the game's MVP award. Watch the video-there's no way Ichiro was running at top speed, and he still scored standing up. Blame a bad bounce, blame AT&T Park's quirky configuration, but Ichiro gave us the best All-Star moment perhaps since the 1979 game.
  • Ken Griffey Jr. was victimized by the bad bounce off of the right-field wall, but it was the only down moment in what was a nice day for him. He had an RBI single in the first and a baserunner kill in the fourth, the game's two pre-Ichiro highlights. If not for the bounce Ichiro's ball took, he might have won the MVP award.

    More notable was how he was treated, being made a big part of Fox's pregame and the national media coverage in the day's leading up to the game. Thanks in part to his own good year and in part to the circumstances around him, Griffey has emerged with a bit of a halo following a mid-career stretch in which injuries, outsized expectations, and some backlash dimmed his star. However, the perception that he is one of the "clean" players-and however dubious all labels are, he has that one-is giving him a second life as a star.

    I'm on record as saying that I think Griffey, left alone in a corner outfield or even DH spot, is going to put one heck of a coda on his career. Seven hundred home runs is not nearly out of the question for him, and in fact, I would make an even-money bet that he finishes his career, five or more years from now, above that number.

  • I think one of my favorite parts of the game was Johan Santana's seventh-inning appearance. For one, it's pretty high comedy to see the best pitcher in baseball, by far, coming into the game in the seventh. But Santana was just on, retiring three hitters on 10 pitches, nine thrown for strikes. On a night filled with entertaining and electric performances, Santana's seventh inning was an underrated moment.
  • I've spent a lot of electrons over the years criticizing FOX's coverage of baseball. In just the first hour, last night's broadcast showed the problem they have with the game--they just don't seem willing to let the game speak for itself, or get out of their own way when they can.

    First, there was the overwrought open, all about the history and the game and its dignity, followed by a shot of Eric Byrnes in a kayak with his dog. That's FOX, in a nutshell. (Side note: if you're a Diamondbacks fan, wouldn't you rather see Byrnes, who always collapses in the second half, take three days off?)

    Then there was the Willie Mays/Derek Jeter/Griffey thing, which was a fairly nice idea, except it looked vaguely staged and insincere. I was thinking about that Sports Illustrated piece from the 1980s, when Don Mattingly and Wade Boggs talked hitting with Ted Williams, which is one of my favorite pieces of sportswriting ever. This was the same basic structure, but it just felt off. Or maybe this is what happens when you take a great concept and FOXify it. The first-pitch ceremony, with Mays walking in from center field followed by all the All-Stars, was very well done, although it didn't rise to the level of the Ted Williams game.

    The whole first hour was like that. Good baseball ideas intermingled with a three-minute Taco Bell ad and an ink drawing voiced by someone talking about baseball. Yeah, commerce is king, but you can't have it both ways without looking ridiculous, not to mention that it pushed the game's first pitch close to 9 p.m. on the East Coast, ensuring that the game wouldn't end until midnight or later. I don't necessarily mind that, but is it worth doing so for such little gain in the first hour?

I am definitely not as passionate about the All-Star Game as I've been in the past, but this was a night that could give the Game a boost. The lack of separation between the leagues is the biggest barrier to making it relevant again, though, and that's not going to change. An interconference All-Star Game, which is what this is now, isn't the same as what baseball had prior to the Selig Era.

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

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