Monday, July 11, 2011

Too Many All Stars? Maybe Not Enough

By The Common Man and Bill

There’s been a lot of hand-wringing about the sheer number of players who are considered All Stars this year. There were 84 at last count according to Hardball Talk. And, indeed, that number is staggering. Thanks to injuries, players who cannot attend for personal reasons, and pitchers who were used yesterday (and are therefore ineligible to play), it’s the most players who have ever been named All Stars in any given season. So we at The Platoon Advantage sympathize with Matthew Pouliot, who yesterday opined that “By the time the day ends, you and I might be All-Stars,” especially after he had to write update after update yesterday as the rosters changed. And we understand the concern of a shocked Morgan Ensberg, who asked, “Is my math wrong or is 10% of the league an All Star?”

Indeed, Ensberg isn’t wrong. According to our calculations, 12.3% of the Major Leaguers who have tallied more than 100 plate appearances or pitched more than 20 innings are All Stars this year. That does, indeed, seem like a lot.

However, the truth is that that’s not out of line with where the All Star Game has been in the past. After all, there are almost twice as many teams playing today as there were in 1933, when the All Star Game debuted. Rosters are larger, and the changing nature of the bullpen means that more pitchers have been deemed worthy All Stars. We looked on Baseball into every All Star Game from 1933-2010, to see exactly how much the term “all star” gets devalued when 84 players are so honored in 2011.  If you want to see the data as it was crunched, please click here.

The first All Star Game took place in 1933, when there were 301 players who either topped 40 innings pitched or 200 plate appearances.* Of these players, 36 (12.0%) made the All Star team., including such immortals as Woody English, Oral Hildebrand, Jimmy Dykes, and NL starting pitcher Wild Bill Hallahan. Because of the popularity of the game, and the honor of being selected, Al l Star rosters quickly expanded, and players too injured to attend were still counted on the overall roster. By 1938, 48 of the 300 MLB players (16%) made the team. These players included four National League catchers (Ernie Lombardy, Gabby Hartnett, Babe Phelps and Harry Danning) and an unheard of eight AL pitchers. The NL made room for Hersh Martin and Hank Leiber, while the AL took on Vern Kennedy and his 4.54 1st half ERA.

*We use these figures as our cutoff points throughout the All Star era (with the exceptions of the strike shortened 1981, 1994 and 1995 seasons) to represent players who, with a decent half-season, could have been considered All Stars. So when we talk about the percentage of MLB players who were All Stars in a given season, we are talking about the percentage of players who got more than 200 PAs or 40 IP.

Click to embiggen
And all the while, the rosters kept getting bigger, as you can see in the chart on the right. In 1944, 54 of 302 players (17.9%) made the club, including Red Munger, who was injured and replaced, rookie shortstop Frankie Zak, perennial All Star Eddie Miller (who was hitting .223/.266/.293 in the first half), and Orval Grove. By the end of the 1950s, the All Star Game was so popular that the leagues played two of them. In the second game of 1959, 63 of 322 players, or 19.6% of the league, were named to the squad. If you had a pulse you could make the All Star team in 1959, especially as a 1B in the AL, where five of the eight regular first basemen made the club.

That would prove to be the peak participation for the All Star Game. That said, there have been several years since that have rivaled or exceeded the 2011’s participation rate. In 1972, the American League apparently needed 5 shortstops, including Bobby Grich, Luis Aparicio, Bert Campaneris, Toby Harrah, and Freddie Patek. They also took care to include the immortal Richie Scheinblum. As a result, 62 players were selected, a new record.

After that, however, the All Star roster size stabilized, while the number of players in the league continued to go up due to expansion. From 1977-1991, the number hovered between 10-11% of the league. Starting in 1992, just before the 1993 expansion that brought in the Rockies and Marlins, it dropped again, down to around 9-10% of the league’s players. Finally, when rosters expanded in 2009 and again in 2010, we started to see more players truly opting out of the game. In 2010, 82 players out of 709 players (11.6%) were listed as All Stars, even though rosters were limited to 34 players.

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This year, we’re at 84 and counting. Assuming the number of players is around 720 (the average over the last five years has been 721.2), we’re looking at 11.7% of the league listed as an All Star. That would rank 40th in the 78 years that there have been All Star Games, though it would be the highest level of participation since 1972. This is because the expansion of the All Star rosters (much like the expansion of the Hall of Fame) has not kept pace with the expansion of the game itself. See the chart to the right, which documents how the number of MLB players has more than doubled since 1933, while the number of All Stars has stayed relatively stable.

Therefore, the idea of what constitutes an All Star in 2011 actually compares very favorably to what was considered an All Star in 1933, when 20 of the 36 players eventually made the Hall of Fame, and is much more exclusive than it was during the supposed “Golden Age” of Major League Baseball in the 1950s and 1960s. So maybe we should all stop being so curmudgeonly. 84 players or not, it’s still a tough club to get into.


CSJ said...

This is 200 PAs and 40 IP over the entire season, right? So this wouldn't take into account the number of eligible players from just the first half.

The Common Man said...

Right, because to our knowledge, there's no searchable database for half-season data. That said, we're looking at All Stars compared to the whole of the league, which is basically how everyone is looking at it when they freak out about how a tenth of the league is an All Star.

CSJ said...

Right, I was thinking maybe you had found this half-season searchable database and wanted to know where. B-R has half season splits, but they're not searchable.

Bryan said...

Brilliant study. Love the graphs. A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man.

Anonymous said...

A smaller league, you would assume better competition, and also assume that the players are more talented. This math only makes sense if you assume that the pool these "all stars" are picked from are equal. The fact of the matter is, MLB already does a good job of identifying the best baseball players in the general population, so the ones that ARE in the league are the best of the best. If that is true, it is the actual total number of all-stars, not as a % of the league, that we should worry about. The more you allow in, the quality of the teams and the game suffers.

Bill said...

"A smaller league, you would assume better competition, and also assume that the players are more talented."

No. Why on earth would I assume that? I think it's pretty clear just the opposite is true.

The Common Man said...


No, because we're talking about games that happened 50 years ago, when the population of this country and the player pool from around the world was much, much smaller. Today, there are far more players of comparable ability to those that played in the 1930s, '40s, and '50s.

Also, let's be clear, we're not talking about the quality of the game here. Yes, if you actually expanded the rosters to 42 players per team, that would be excessive and the game would (probably) suffer somewhat. However, a) it's barely a quality baseball game as it is and b) the only point we're making is that it's perfectly reasonable to name 84 All Stars