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July 14, 2010

Ahead in the Count

Three Eras of All-Star Voting

by Matt Swartz

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In America’s pastime, as in its politics, democracy is a wonderful but fragile thing.  Ten years after Major League Baseball first gave its fans the option to vote for the starting lineups in the All-Star Game, Commissioner Ford Frick took it away again after 1957, when Cincinnati fans stuffed the ballot boxes to elect all but one Reds' starter. This was not even a spontaneous upsurge of local pride: through the late spring, the Cincinnati Enquirer had printed ballots to distribute them easily to fans, and local bars even required customers to fill out ballots before they would be served.  Not until 1970 were the fans put back in charge of picking the starters, but it’s been in their hands ever since—even surviving another sabotage attempt when Massachusetts hacker Chris Nandor was able to create a program that voted for Nomar Garciaparra nearly 40,000 times to edge out Derek Jeter

But while the fans have held the All-Star franchise for 40 years, the ways in which they experience and understand the game have undergone revolutionary change over that time—with consequences that show up in their All-Star choices.  In 1979, what the average fan knew about players on other teams was limited to seeing who was on the relatively few nationally broadcast games, a handful of games each year against the hometown club, and box scores and leader boards in the local newspaper or weekly in The Sporting News.  By 1994, that fan probably had cable TV, which showed a few games a week and hours of sports news offering highlights and recaps of every game.  Fast-forward to the present, and the same fan—or his/her children or grandchildren—almost certainly is on the Internet.  I don’t need to tell you the effect that the Internet had on the game—you wouldn’t be reading this article right now without it. This informational tool has provided fans with a vast array of information and entertainment, whenever they want it—from archived footage of every game, to current and historical statistics cut in an endless number of ways.  Among other things, the Internet has allowed fans to vote for players with statistics right in front of them, follow teams far from their current location, and exposed them to different strains of thinking about how to evaluate players and teams in general.

I decided to parse the last 40 years of fan voting into three eras: the Early Era, the Cable Era, and the Internet Era.  Since ESPN began broadcasting in late 1979, I classified the period between 1970-79 as the Early Era, and designated 1980 as the dawn of the Cable Era.  Since fans were first allowed to cast All-Star ballots online in 1996, I considered that year the beginning of the Internet Era.  (This is a rough designation, as any changes in fan voting patterns should be observable from the start dates but not in full effect until some years later: cable TV wasn’t nearly as widespread in 1980 as it would be by 1995, nor was online access in 1996—not to mention connection speed—anything like what it is today.)  A look at the starting lineups for every All-Star game revealed several large shifts in voting tendencies that took place during these eras.

IT’S ALL CONNECTED: THE INTERNET & “BETTER” ALL-STAR VOTING

With less information in the earlier years of All-Star voting, we might expect that fans would simply elect the players with whom they were already familiar.  Especially before the Internet Era, that is exactly what happened: carryover All-Star voting from one year to the next was stronger the farther back we look.  In the Early Era, 51 percent of All-Star starters had also started the previous year; the figure dipped a bit through the Cable Era, with an average repeat starter rate of 47 percent.  By the Internet Era, only 39 percent of All-Star starters earned starts again a year later, which is a statistically significant drop.  The drop off in persistence suggests that fans were learning about new players having good years and voting them in rather than simply poking the hole next to the name of the player who they voted for the year before.  If a player underperforms what he did the year before, it is easier for fans to see their statistics and change their vote accordingly. 

The Internet also enabled fans to learn about good players sooner.  Through the Early Era, only 6 percent of All-Star starters selected had made their major league debut within the previous three years.  During the Internet Era, the figure more than doubled to 13 percent, a statistically significant difference.

At least by one measure, fans’ decisions didn’t just change over the 40 years, they improved.  The average VORP of All-Star starters for the full season in which they were selected was 43.4 in the Early Era and 41.6 in the Cable Era, but jumped to 59.2 during the Internet Era.  The caliber of All-Stars also rose in relative as well as absolute terms. During the Early Era, 47 percent of All-Star starters led their positions in VORP at the end of the year (for outfielders, this was defined as top three in outfield VORP), and that dropped to 42 percent of All-Star starters during the Cable Era (for designated hitters, I considered leading the position as having the highest VORP among players at their position who were not All-Star starters).  Again, the Internet Era saw a great leap forward: 55 percent of All-Star starters went on to lead their position in VORP that season, another statistically significant jump.

SNARLED UP IN THE CABLE

A truism of decision making is that faulty information can be worse than none at all.  Perhaps this explains why the advent of cable TV not only failed to improve fans’ abilities to send deserving players to the Midsummer Classic but seemed to make them worse. Recall that both by absolute and relative VORP, All-Star starter quality dipped from the Early Era and the Cable Era. 

Did cable have a distorting effect?  Maybe.  As it turned out, fans started to value different kinds of players during the Cable Era—perhaps reflecting the difference between what’s impressive in a box score and what’s memorable in a TV highlight.  As an example, remember that as late as 1996—the eve of widespread Internet access—supposedly informed fans in New York debated which rookie shortstop had the brighter future: Derek Jeter, or Rey Ordonez, whose offensive game was nonexistent but whose glove work got him almost nightly attention on “SportsCenter.” 

One striking trend of All-Star voting in the Cable Era was a lessened emphasis on the long ball.  Home run rates changes a lot in general over the last 40 years, so instead of using raw totals, I adjusted the home run totals of every All-Star in every year by that year’s overall HR rate relative to 2008.  With this measure, I counted up the number of All-Stars that had hit the equivalent of 30 “2008 home runs” during their All-Star campaign.  Throughout the Early Era, 48 percent of All-Star starters hit the equivalent of 30 homers today; during the current Internet Era, 46 percent of All-Star starters did.  However, only 37 percent of All-Star starters hit the equivalent of 30 home runs during the Cable Era.

If the sluggers weren’t seeing their three-day vacations interrupted for the All-Star Game, who was?  Some of the more prominent power hitters were replaced by speed demons, but not all that many.  The Early Era featured 23.8 percent of players who had 20 stolen bases or more, and during the Cable Era, that rose to 26.5 percent. However, this number has remained high (27.1 percent) during the Internet Era.  These differences are not statistically significant—though the home run difference in the Cable Era is.

There did seem to be an increase in fan valuation of patient hitters during the Internet Era.  The difference between OBP and AVG was .102 during the Early Era, .110 during the Cable Era, and .149 during the Internet Era.  It seems that the valuation of walks did start to take hold at the same time the Internet did, although there was an even larger difference in OBP and AVG during the Internet Era before Moneyball was published in 2003 than afterwards.

I was curious if fans learned to account for park factors better during the Internet Era, but apparently they already had been doing so.  My suspicion was that All-Star starters before the Internet Era would have larger home park factors as fans looked at raw batting numbers, but the average park factor of All-Star starters was right around 100 (average) throughout the last 40 years (100.7, to be exact).

VOTE, VOTE, VOTE FOR THE HOME TEAM

Of course, the Internet doesn’t only give fans information to make better-informed decisions, it also provides the tools to increase the impact of their uninformed decisions, potentially rendering every online fan base the digital equivalent of Cincinnati in 1957.  Short of organized vote stuffing on a mass scale, however—and remember, we’re not talking about the Final Vote here for the last player on both teams' roster—the other big factor driving Internet voting is the same one that drives attendance (and, thus, paper voting): how the team is doing.  During the Internet Era, there was a huge, statistically significant spike in All-Star representation from teams that sat in first place during the All-Star break.  In the Early Era, just 28.8 percent of All-Star starters hailed from division leaders, and only 30.7 percent of All-Star starters did so during the Cable Era.  Since the start of Internet voting in 1996, however, 40 percent of All-Star starters could look forward to rejoining first place clubs to start the second half.

Speaking of attendance, its importance as a driver of All-Star voting has held changed over time.  During the Early Era, the average All-Star starter played for a team with attendance that was 28 percent above the league average, and during the Cable Era, the average All-Star starter played for a team with 18 percent above average attendance.  During the Internet Era, factoring in online voting, the average All-Star starter had home attendance 23 percent above average. 

The real shift was around the middle of the Internet Era, as more fans from big cities learned that they could move the vote themselves.  Only 35 percent of All-Star starters came from Boston, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Houston, or Los Angeles (including all of the various Angels’ “locations”) before 2002, but from then on, 52 percent of them came from those cities.  Stadium capacity no longer could serve as an equalizer to limit big cities’ voting potential.

Finally, fans have always rewarded players who have led them to pennants and championships the previous year with All-Star selections, but this has become less of a factor since the Early Era.  Twenty-four percent of All-Star starters played for teams that had won the pennant the year before during the Early Era, as compared with 15 percent and 17 percent during the Cable and Internet Eras.  During the Early Era, 11 percent of All-Star starters played for teams that had won World Series championships the year beforehand, compared to 7 percent during the Cable Era and 8 percent during the Internet Era.

WHAT IT MEANS

New technology has always changed how we experience and value baseball players.  This is especially apparent in All-Star voting.  Fans have changed how they value players for better or worse over time, and the All-Star Game is an excellent way to see that.

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

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