July 7, 2008
The All-Star rosters were announced Sunday, accompanied by the usual wailing and gnashing of teeth. I'm as big a complainer about the picks as anyone, even though I know it's a controversy that lasts about half of a news cycle. No one will care, by Wednesday, that Jason Bay or Johan Santana or John Lackey got jobbed.
Still, I think it's worthwhile to go through the process, which is much more complex than it needs to be, to see which of the three selecting entities did a good job, and which may have dropped the ball. In some years, everyone does well; in others, such as this one, it becomes pretty clear where the system breaks down and creates undeserving All-Stars while keeping deserving ones on the sidelines.
For all the kvetching about the All-Star starters, the fans once again did a perfectly reasonable job with their assignment. If they didn't necessarily alight on the best 17 players, they didn't make any egregiously bad choices, especially when you consider the biases towards certain national brands and, as always, players off to good starts. As I have stated repeatedly, I would like to see a greater emphasis on pre-2007 performance, and on being an established star, because that's my vision of the All-Star Game. The fans' patterns are clear: the Yankees, Red Sox, and Cubs nabbed nine of the 17 slots, none of them particularly undeserved. Two Japanese veterans (one a Cub) were voted in, no doubt helped along by international online balloting. The other fan All-Stars were largely the players with the best traditional stats as of June 1 or so: Josh Hamilton, Lance Berkman, Hanley Ramirez, and Chase Utley all fit that bill. While there's a perception that the fans rewarded young players, it seems to me that it was more about young players fitting into one of the pre-existing categories than a sea change in the process.
The players staked a claim to a piece of the selection process a few years ago, and continued to invite the question of why they bothered. It's not clear what specialized knowledge they're adding to the process; their selections are barely different from what you might get if you showed the leaders in the six triple crown categories to a reasonably savvy nine-year-old. Where they do differ doesn't make an argument against the fourth grader.
What's aggravating is that the players insist on weighting current-season performance so heavily. Virtually all of the All-Stars who are on the team thanks to the best three months of their lives are there because the players put them there. Ryan Ludwick, Nate McLouth, Ryan Dempster, Brian Wilson, and others-apparently, the NL voters think time began on March 30-are the kinds of "All-Stars" I've been railing against for years, the kind who had no case on April 15 and will probably have no case on August 15. Nevertheless, the players, who pick half the roster (and admittedly have the very best players taken away by the fan vote), continue to reward short-term performance over long-term. It makes for an All-Star Game populated not by "rising stars" but by players going nova for three months.
The most controversial player selection was probably Jason Varitek, who was elected in the worst season of his career: .218/.300/.358. While this provides a big target, when you look at the available options, Varitek's selection is almost understandable. Joe Mauer is the best catcher in the league. The candidates, other than Varitek, are Jorge Posada, who missed most of the first half, and Victor Martinez, who played nearly as badly as Varitek did. Other than Mauer, no AL catcher has put up a 15.0 VORP. I'm not sure selecting the adequate bounceback seasons of A.J. Pierzynski or Ivan Rodriguez would have been that much of an improvement on Varitek. I love Dioner Navarro (Bandwagon!), and he was a manager's pick, but he's from the great-first-half category of All-Stars. Varitek is here basically because he was the choice of a plurality of people who didn't vote for Mauer. That's not a ringing endorsement-it's just something that happened.
No, the problems with the players' selections are the glorification of the last 90 days and their backwards emphasis on wins and saves. No Cole Hamels or Johan Santana, but Ryan Dempster and Brandon Webb. Joe Saunders over John Lackey. Brian Wilson over 25 other guys.
I've made this point before, but I want to reiterate it as the players' selections provide a teaching moment. It's very important, and if it comes off as arrogant, well, I'll live with that.
The skills required to be one of the very best baseball players in the world have very little to do with the skills required to evaluate the performance and the value of baseball players. I might even argue that the ability to do the former makes you less likely to be able to do the latter. Regardless of how much playing experience is valued by people hiring within the game, by the media that covers the game, and by a lot of fans, all of the evidence we have at our disposal indicates that players by and large do not understand what drives run scoring and run prevention, and are therefore ill-suited to grading the work of their peers.
This should not be a controversial statement. Baseball players are not selected for their ability to understand the game at a macro level, but their ability to play it on a micro level. Nate Silver can't do what Derek Jeter can do, and Jeter's skills are more valuable and more easily identified, but Jeter can't do what Silver can do, and Silver's skills are valuable, tangible and important to the understanding of baseball and the effective evaluation of baseball players. Jeter is better at being an All-Star; Silver is better at choosing the players who should join him. All it takes is one look at the NL All-Star roster to get that. Albert Pujols, who is no worse than the third-best player in baseball, has needed managers' selections to make the team in each of the past two seasons. Johan Santana, a top-five starter in the NL this season and by any standard one of the three or four best in the game, isn't on the team this year. The players are screwing up the process, just as they screwed up the Veterans Committee process.
With the fan voting, player selections, and the ridiculous 12-pitcher rule, the managers' hands are mostly tied. Terry Francona had six slots, four of which had to be used on pitchers, and four of which had to go to representatives from four teams. He took three closers and Justin Duchscherer to fill out his staff and be three of their teams' reps; he picked Carlos Guillen to represent the Tigers-actually a nice tactical pick, as Guillen can play a few positions-and Navarro as a third catcher. The idiocy of the 12-pitcher rule cost Nick Markakis or Brian Roberts a deserved slot; they, along with Jermaine Dye, were the best players left off of the AL team.
Clint Hurdle indulged a little hometown favoritism by adding Aaron Cook to the NL roster, which already had a Rockie in Matt Holliday. Cook has wins, but hasn't pitched nearly as well as Santana or Hamels, and his selection speaks poorly for Hurdle. His other choices-Cristian Guzman and Billy Wagner as their team reps, and Pujols, Dan Haren, and Brian McCann on merit-were all defensible. The best National Leaguers not on the team, other than aforementioned starting pitchers, are Jose Reyes and David Wright (either of whom would have been a better choice than Wagner but for the need to have 12 pitchers for a nine-inning game), Pat Burrell, and Jason Bay. For a team in New York, the Mets sure didn't get a whole lot of help this year-you could argue that the three biggest snubs were all Mets, and all among the 20 best players in the league this year.
Once again, the fans get to pick one last All-Star in the wildly overhyped "Final Vote" process. The AL ballot includes arguably the worst player to ever be part of this, Jose Guillen, a corner outfielder/DH with a .297 OBP. He's not one of the 100 best players in the AL this year, and having him on the ballot rather than Markakis or 50 other guys is a joke. Of the candidates worth mentioning, you can't really go wrong voting for Dye, Roberts, or Evan Longoria. I'd probably vote for Roberts, who's having a fantastic year for the Orioles. In the NL, Wright and Burrell are light-years ahead of Corey Hart, Carlos Lee, and Aaron Rowand. It's inexplicable to me how Jose Reyes and Jason Bay are completely ignored in this process.
The process of picking players for the All-Star Game always offends someone, but the current one is as flawed as any in memory. You can fix it with two changes: get the players out of the room, and stop making managers take 12 pitchers. Until those things happen, you're going to have silliness such as Brian Wilson and Ryan Ludwick taking a bow, while Johan Santana and Jose Reyes stay home. That's not what they had in mind 75 years ago.