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July 6, 2009

Prospectus Today

The All-Star Selections

by Joe Sheehan

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I'm pretty critical of MLB's practices, so I should mention how much I like that they've turned the announcement of the All-Star teams into an event. Becoming an All-Star is actually more significant than anything a player might do in the game-it's an honor being selected, whether by the fans, the players, or the managers, and the highlight is that moment. If anything, I'd take this off Sunday and TBS and try to get ESPN to run it before a Monday night game in prime time.

MLB is definitely making a push for the balloting to become an event in itself as well, with near-constant updates on it down the stretch. That I think we can live without, if for no other reason than the balloting doesn't reflect changes in the thinking of voters so much as which teams had a homestand last week. The idea that it's a horse race along the lines of a presidential election or the like is wrong; there are macro-level reasons why players get their votes, and when they get their votes. I was asked about the in-process voting a couple of times last week, and I had to punt; I wasn't tracking who was in the lead, who was making a run, and who was in danger of losing their spot. It didn't seem to matter.

The voters did a respectable job, with some notable exceptions. I don't think Raul Ibañez is necessarily an All-Star-caliber outfielder, but he was having a great season before he got hurt, and he plays for a team that is selling out its ballpark in the wake of a championship. That's a recipe for votes. The National League outfield pool, so incredibly deep just a few years ago, has been thinned by age, by position changes, and by league switches. Manny Ramirez is the obvious third choice, but it appears that some combination of his absence and the reasons for his absence dampened his vote totals, both among the fans and the players. It's not easy to determine how much weight to give those factors, given that time and again current-season performance seems to carry so much weight with the voters. After Ramirez, you get to Adam Dunn, who actually isn't matching Ibañez's numbers, then a pool of players who would be just as much single-season phenomenons as All-Stars as Ibañez is. Yadier Molina isn't better than Brian McCann by any stretch of the imagination, and his election seems simply to be a case of more votes coming from one precinct than another. It's not right, but it's OK.

Over in the AL it's a bit softer, as Josh Hamilton finds his way onto the roster despite combining Ramirez's playing time with Clete Thomas' performance. Ichiro Suzuki's slot is permanent, and Jason Bay benefits from the popularity of the Red Sox while certainly being a qualified candidate. Hamilton, however, is a clear mistake; his status as an All-Star essentially being carried by a strong first half in 2008 and one memorable night at Yankee Stadium. He remains a great story; he also remains a player who seems incapable of staying in the lineup and playing effectively over a full season. Any number of AL outfielders-I'd go with Torii Hunter or Jermaine Dye-were more qualified based on their bodies of work. Also, the fans ignored the guy who has been the best or second-best player in baseball since 1998 or so-Alex Rodriguez-in favor of Evan Longoria. Nothing against Longoria, who is having a strong season and is off to an excellent start to his career. At some point, though, you have to get the best players in baseball to the All-Star Game.

The player selections were once again hampered by the rule that requires their second choice be elected when they and the fans agree, so their selections always look a bit weaker. The players don't seem to bring any specialized knowledge to their picks; they seem to be, by and large, to be voting on batting averages and RBI totals in the current season, and if there's a defensive component or anything else being considered, it's certainly not apparent from the results. In some cases, this means you land on the right answer-McCann, Adrian Gonzalez-and in some cases it means you get Hunter Pence and Ryan Zimmerman. Pence was probably the sixth outfielder in the player voting, and the three bench outfielders (with Pence joined by Justin Upton and Brad Hawpe) were all alternate player picks after they and the fans agreed on the starters. Zimmerman instead of Chipper Jones is just a mistake. In these cases, the All-Star process would be better served by turning the roster slots back to the managers. You'd get the same answers in many cases, but better ones in some.

The AL player picks were also all about 2009 performance, with the most egregious miss being Rodriguez's absence from the team. Longoria won the fan vote and Michael Young the player vote, so the inner-circle Hall of Famer with the .412 OBP and .523 SLG stays home. Again, if the players are just going to emphasize eight weeks of stats in such a way that leaves an all-time great player out of the All-Star Game when he's not having a bad year-look past batting average, for heaven's sake!-then it's not clear why they need to be part of the process. We're not getting anything from them we wouldn't get by giving Sully from Brookline all the power. Other than Young over Rodriguez, though, the players' picks were all mostly defensible. Aaron Hill versus Ian Kinsler is the closest call, especially once you look back further than Opening Day. Again, though, the players didn't do this, and don't. For the players, apparently nothing you do outside of April 1 to June 15 of the current season gets you onto the All-Star team.

Because they get first choice, the player picks for the pitching staff tend to look solid. Nevertheless, the NL players managed to leave Dan Haren off of their own roster, even though he's been the best pitcher in the league and has a three-year track record of All-Star performance. Again, I ask: What are these guys bringing to the table if they can't see past win-loss records? In the AL, the players put Josh Beckett on the team ahead of Kevin Millwood, which is a rare case of them looking past current-season performance to a body of work. I suspect Beckett was helped by having a strong run during the player balloting period. Other than those hiccups, though, the players got the pitchers correct.

An actual conversation I had this morning:

Friend: Am I taking crazy pills or did Jason Marquis make the All-Star team?
Me: And Alex Rodriguez didn't."

Carrying 13 pitchers for a single game is stupid. There's no other word for it. Bud Selig is the all-time master of solving the last problem and doing it poorly. So we get an All-Star roster that encourages managers to handle their personnel in a silly manner, as opposed to one that encourages them to run a real ballgame. We also get one where the last couple of pitchers are going to be head-scratchers. Charlie Manuel put Marquis and his run support on the team. I get that there's some room for disagreement, but can we all get behind the idea that if you have more runs allowed than strikeouts, you're not an All-Star? Please? The Rockies already had Hawpe, so they were represented, and the list of pitchers more qualified than Marquis includes Yovani Gallardo, Johnny Cueto, Adam Wainwright, and 40 percent of the Braves rotation. Maybe 60 percent. Two of his teammates had better cases, three if you include Huston Street.

Charlie Manuel took Ryan Howard over at least four other worthy first basemen, including the overqualified Lance Berkman, and he took a bunch of saves (Ryan Franklin) instead of good relievers (Mike Gonzalez, Rafael Soriano). Simply taking Joey Votto and Yovani Gallardo instead of Prince Fielder and Francisco Cordero would have made this a better team, although Fielder does deserve his slot. (Confession: I had no idea how big a year he was having.)

None of those rate as the dumbest decision of the year, however. No, that goes to Joe Maddon, who ignored everything we know about Ben Zobrist and put him on the All-Star team because he timed his career peak exceptionally well. Maddon took Zobrist ahead of A-Rod, only one of the best baseball players alive. He took him over Jermaine Dye, having about as valuable a season and, you know, somebody with something on his resumé prior to May 1. He took Zobrist over Carlos Peña, who isn't having quite as good a year with the bat, but is a Gold Glove-caliber first baseman and, you know, someone who had something on his resumé prior to May 1. This was a homer decision, one of the worst I've ever seen, and I lived through the Joe Torre Era in New York. Ben Zobrist has no business being placed on the All-Star team, and Maddon putting him there is an embarrassment to the process.

Maddon's pitching selections were less than inspired, too. I'm not sure how you can weight current-season performance in a way that gets Ben Zobrist onto the team while leaving Kevin Millwood off of it, but he did. Brian Fuentes is on instead of Jeff Weaver, which seems to be a tactical choice; Cliff Lee missed the team, as did a whole bunch of guys so that Maddon could take Tim Wakefield. Wakefield is having a nice season, and it makes a good story, but the list of AL pitchers more qualified for the honor is very, very long. Maddon's failure to select Jermaine Dye also led to Mark Buehrle's selection. Lee and Dye, rather than Zobrist and Buehrle, would make more sense and give the White Sox their representative. Actually, leaving Wakefield off for Buehrle in that case would be optimal. As with Marquis in the NL, Wakefield in the AL is a curious choice that invites the question: How many pitcher slots would you need to actually get the job done correctly?

The fans did a passable job, the players made a couple of bad misses, and the managers pretty much failed. The fans get one more shot, of course. If I were voting-and I'm not-I would add Carlos Peña in the AL. I might leave the NL ballot blank in protest of Joey Votto's absence, and I'm still wondering where the hell Chipper Jones fits in all of this. Gun at my head, give me Pablo Sandoval, who's just kind of fun to watch.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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