Thursday, June 2, 2011

The All-Star Game: Three Simple Fixes

By Bill

I actually like the All-Star Game, still, kind of. I take an interest in who gets named to the team and who doesn't. I watch the game, though I pay a lot less attention to it than I used to, and I generally take in at least some of the Home Run Derby and other festivities. It's three days in the middle of summer when everyone can just celebrate baseball, without worrying about where your team is in the standings or what new and exciting way the Twins will find to lose today. There's really no reason it shouldn't just be a blast.

But while I do like it, it's really just not what it should be. Here are some things that I think they could do that would bring it a little closer to being that thing that I wish it was:

1. Stop treating outfield positions as interchangeable. When the NL's initial voting returns were announced on Tuesday, the outfield leaders were Matt Holliday, Ryan Braun and Lance Berkman: three players who play exclusively the corner outfield positions, and two of which are generally considered to be kind of awful at it (Holliday doesn't have a great reputation either, but he generally grades out pretty well). In 2010, the senior circuit's outfield was Braun, Andre Ethier and Corey Hart, which left Ethier, who is legitimately one of the worst defensive players in baseball, to man center.

If you're going to select three "outfielders" without recognizing that center field is just a much different, much harder position than the other two, you might as well also do away with the second base and shortstop positions and pick two middle infielders. It makes no sense. Any left fielder can play right, any right fielder can play left, any center fielder can play right or left...but almost no right or left fielder can play center.

So make the fans vote for one center fielder and two corner outfielders. Or, make them vote for between one and three center fielders, and then enough corner outfielders to make the total number three. An All-Star team with a tree stump trying to cover the largest field area kind of goes against the whole idea of what the All-Star team is supposed to be (that is, a team that plays particularly good baseball). Ethier in center needs very badly to never happen again.

2. Take most of the power to select reserves out of the manager's hands. Last season, Phillies manager Charlie Manuel made a fool of himself by naming average first baseman (and just coincidentally Philadelphia Phillie) Ryan Howard to the team as a reserve (and ultimately starting him at DH) over first-half and eventual full-season MVP Joey Votto. Back in 1988, Twins manager Tom Kelly named five of his own to the team. There's just no reason to put the power to select most of the position players and all the pitchers into the hands of the one guy whose team happened to go to the Series last year.

I'm not one of those that has a problem with the fan vote. Yeah, the results of the votes are dumb, but ultimately, the game is about the fans, and I think that whoever the fans want to start the game should start the game, period, no matter how undeserving those players' performances might be. If the fans want to see Derek Jeter take the field rather than Asdrubal Cabrera, who can blame them? But the rest of the team, since it's not being selected by the fans, should be merit-based. I'd actually like to see computers do it. The manager can decide how he wants to construct his roster -- how many players at each position, how many starters and relievers -- and then a formula can fill that roster in with the most deserving players. The formula doesn't have to be WAR or anything quite that complicated, just something that's easy to apply and that tries to do the work of making sure the best players in baseball that season are involved in this game.

So rather than have millions of yokels picking the starters and then one clearly biased yokel picking the rest, now you've got millions of yokels picking the starters and then an objective, unbiased process picking the rest. That sounds to me like a good mix -- you please the fans, and you get (most of) the right players in there.

3. Make it either a contest or an exhibition -- stop trying to ride the fence. This certainly isn't a new idea. In fact, the infuriating thing about it is that it's so incredibly straightforward and obvious, but is being entirely ignored by Selig and his friends. You've got an interesting dichotomy: the brass and the marketing campaigns tell us that the game counts, because the winning league gets home field advantage for the World Series, while on the other hand, the players skip the game for the most dubious of reasons, while the managers manage toward getting everyone in the game first, avoiding injuries second and winning a very distant third, and it just couldn't be clearer that in their minds this one doesn't count, or doesn't count enough to make it worth sticking one's neck out in any way at all. You play this exhibition game, and risk injury and serious damage to your season and career, and the payoff is that if your teammates play just as hard and your team wins, you've got roughly a 1-in-14 or 1-in-16 chance of getting to the World Series and realizing the slightly increased chance of winning that you and your All-Star teammates have fought for. One wonders how Bud ever thought that would motivate anybody, but regardless, now we've got about eight years of data proving that it won't.

I tend to think the All-Star Game is the most fun when it's a true exhibition, when the players just go out to have fun and kind of casually show what they can do (like in the NBA version, when players do each other the favor of forgetting to play defense), when there's no Pete Rose ruining some catcher's career. It's just a frivolous little diversion, and I don't see a reason to try to make it any more than that.

If you're going to insist on trying, though, I think you need to go all the way. Players need a signed letter from a third-party doctor to justify skipping the game; the best players stay in the game a lot longer than their two plate appearances; players are used as the situation calls for it, not with the aim of just getting everybody in, like it was on your little league team. You make it, in short, a real game, not just an exhibition with a prize at the end that nobody seems to want much. Go to one extreme or the other. This straddling of the middle just isn't getting the job done.

There are more, of course, but those are the three things I really want to see change. What say you?


Derek said...

I read somewhere (probably ESPN) a suggestion of using the fan vote to determine who FINISHES the game. No one wants to see Omar Infante at crunch time of the All Star game (and I am a Braves fan). Maybe the fan vote determines who plays the field beginning with the 5th inning, or 6th, pitchers excepted- the "starter" shouldn't pitch 4 innings or more if extras played.

TwinsRube said...

I love all three ideas! I hope they get implemented by the time the game reaches Target Field in 2014 or so.

Vidor said...

4. End interleague play. One of the things that made the ASG interesting was that it was the only time we got to see these big AL and NL stars face each other. That's no longer the case.

Theo said...

I don't know if there's a rule per se that you can add to it, but I remember last year the Managers mentioning that they had to pick "utility guys" like Ty Wigginton and Omar Infante so that, should the game go to extras, the managers wouldn't run out of players. I still think it's a stupid idea. It's one game-surely, one or two players can try a different position for an inning or two if it comes to it. Joe Posnanski wrote something similar last year about picking Infante over Ryan Zimmerman, ie; one of the best fielding third basemen in the game can't handle shortstop or second if it comes to that?

Bryan said...

On number three, your basic idea makes sense, but I'm not sure I have a problem with the way the game is. It absolutely should be an exhibition, but what's wrong with a slight incentive to win? Managers should manage the game to get everyone in and avoid injuries, but they should also keep a guy or two in the bullpen capable of giving you 2 or 3 innings if the game goes to extra innings. Even if you don't care who wins, nobody likes a tie.

Besides, with all the World Series sweeps and five-gamers we've seen lately, does home field really make a difference?

The game may have 99 problems, but motivation ain't one.