“Fixing” the All-Star selection system

Today over at Baseball Prospectus, Nate Silver takes a look at voting patterns for the All-Star game.  (Subscription needed.)  Nate finds that some players get a little bump just from wearing the uniform of certain teams (*cough*Yankees*cough*) and suffer for being a member of one of the non-cool teams.  MLB will reveal the winners of the balloting soon, and then the reserves will be named, and then for about a week, you can count on the usual yearly spate of columns about how to “fix” a system that so unjustly excluded (insert player name here) from being an All-Star.  Mind you, we don’t see columns about fixing the Presidential election system, but why would we?  After all, the All-Star Game is serious business.
The usual arguments trotted out go something like this:

  1. “The fans are morons and have no idea what makes for a good player so we should abolish the fan ballot” vs. “It’s the fans’ game, so let the morons have their say.”
  2. “The one-player-per-team rule ensures that everyone’s watching because they have someone to root for” vs. “Ron Coomer can put on his resume that he was once an All-Star due to this rule”
  3. “Closers, home run hitters, players from winning teams and big cities, and guys who were good five years ago get in while set up guys, high average guys, players from ‘mid-market’ and losing teams, and up-and-coming stars having breakthrough years get shafted” vs. “Yeah, so?”
  4. “The respective league’s managers pick their own players at the expense more deserving players from other teams” vs. “They won the LCS last year.  Did you?  Didn’t think so.”
  5. “The singing of the Canadian National Anthem at the All-Star Game is the single best 2 minutes of awkward television of the year” vs. “Yeah, you’re right.  Get someone who’s vaguely Canadian (Avril Lavigne!) to sing the song and watch while the camera crew struggles to find anything to focus on that’s vaguely Canadian.  (The two Blue Jays who are there, even though they’re from the Dominican Republic?  Justin Morneau?  Jason Bay?  The Canadian flag in center field that was brought out of storage just for this event because the Expos moved out of the NL?  Some random fan?)”

Argument #1 is a tough one to resolve.  If it’s just the fans’ game, then perhaps the fans should just vote for all 64 players in the game?  They already get to pick sixteen of them through balloting for the starters, why not let the fans pick the backups too?  Let’s see if the fans really are morons.  Here’s the top two vote-getters at each position (six for the outfield), and how they rank in their league at their position in win probability added and VORP (subscription needed for VORP)
AL Catchers: Pudge (32nd WPA, 10th VORP), Posada (2nd WPA, 1st VORP)
AL 1B: Big Papi (1st WPA*), Morneau (2nd WPA*, 5th VORP)
AL 2B: Polanco (1st WPA, 4th VORP), Robinson Cano (25th, which is actually last in WPA among AL 2B, 15th VORP)
AL 3B: A-Rod (1st in both), Lowell (6th WPA, 2nd VORP)
AL SS: Jeter (1st in both), Carlos Guillen (2nd in both)
AL OF: Vlad (2nd in WPA and VORP for RF), Ordonez (1st in WPA and VORP for RF), Ichiro (4th WPA, 1st in VORP for CF), Manny (16th WPA, 2nd in VORP for LF), Hunter (9th WPA, 4th in VORP for CF), Sheffield (12th in WPA*)
*-I pretended that David Ortiz actually was a 1B for WPA.  His 1.54 WPA would put him 1st among all 1B, ahead of the current leader among actual first basemen, Morneau.  Same for Sheffield in the OF.  Ortiz and Sheffield are 1-2 in VORP among DH’s.
Not bad, with the exception of Pudge.  The voters got the starters right with the exception of Grady Sizemore and Victor Martinez (as an Indians fan, I am not bitter… repeat, I am not bitter…).  The backups aren’t all that bad a lot, although I’m guessing that Cano and to some extent Manny got votes for being associated with the only two teams in MLB of which ESPN appears to be aware.  Cano should be B.J. Upton (2nd WPA, 3rd VORP) or Brian Roberts (3rd WPA, 2nd VORP), but other than that, can you say that any of these are horrible choices?
NL, please?
NL Catchers: Russell Martin (1st in both), Lo Duca (32nd in WPA, 7th VORP)
NL 1B: Fielder (2nd WPA, 1st VORP ), Pujols (1st in WPA, 3rd VORP)
NL 2B: Utley (1st in both), Kent (29th WPA, 8th VORP)
NL 3B: Wright (5th WPA, 3rd VORP), Cabrera (1st in both)
NL SS: Reyes (5th WPA, 2nd VORP), Hardy (7th WPA, 5th VORP)
NL OF: Beltran (74th WPA among OF, 3rd in VORP for CF) , Griffey (11th WPA, 1st in VORP for RF), Soriano (22nd WPA, 4th in VORP for LF), Bonds (1st WPA, 1st in VORP for LF), Andruw Jones (100th WPA, 18th in VORP for CF), Matt Holliday (2nd WPA, 2nd in VORP for LF)
Not great, but not all that bad.  Lo Duca, Kent, and Andruw Jones don’t belong in the same ball park as the All-Stars this year, and Beltran and Soriano really aren’t the best choices either, but get in based on buzz factor.  Lo Duca should be replaced by one of the Atlanta catchers (McCann or Salta… Sala… ah, you know whom I mean) and Kent should be someone like Kelly Johnson (3rd WPA, 4th VORP).  I don’t know what Aaron Rowand (4th WPA, 1st in VORP for CF) or Brad Hawpe  (3rd WPA, 3rd in VORP for RF) have to do to get noticed in the outfield.  Neither broke the Top 15 in the fan voting.
So, yeah, the fans have/would make some rather questionable decisions based on past reputations.  But, not too bad…
For argument #2, the at-least-one-player-per-team rule has always been one of my least favorites.  There are some teams that can’t even draw in their own stadiums, so the idea the hometown fans would all flock to the TV to see their one guy pinch hit is laughable.  The Nationals have two players who have contributed more than one win to the team from a WPA perspective (pitchers Jesus Colome and Sean Bergman).  Among the hitters, their top three in WPA and VORP are Dmitri Young (13th in WPA among NL 1B, 4th VORP), Ryan Church (17th WPA, 11th VORP in LF) and Christian Guzman (out for the season, so it doesn’t matter anyway).  Maybe Tony LaRussa should name Guzman to the team to fulfill his obligation and spare the rest of us having to watch the Nats. 
The Royals will probably send Joakim Soria or Gil Meche (who hasn’t been awful… just not a star.)  The Royals are averaging 19,000 a night (next to last in baseball controlling for stadium size).  You’re telling me that people in Kansas City would rather see an inning of Meche than an inning of Dice-K or John Lackey or C. C. Sabbathia?  I’m biased on this one and I know that this is done for marketing to keep interest up for all 30 teams, but if you’re going to complain about the fans for voting for some truly mediocre players, why not complain about the rule that allows even more mediocre players into the game?
In argument #3, I agree that closers (save accumulators) and big city folk are unfairly over-represented.  I’m not a fan of the save, and I encourage you to take a look at this chart for AL relievers sorted by WPA and the matching NL chart.  Of the top ten in each league, 11 out of the 20 are not their team’s “closer.”  I’m doubting that any of the set up men will go.  Big city folk get their undue share of votes, which Nate covers well in his column.  Under the current system there are and will always be one or two players who aren’t really stars any more, are past their prime, and are in because of their past record (Griffey, Pudge) and as a result, there’s usually a snubbed player who really should be there.  Last year, Travis Hafner, led the league in VORP at the time of the All-Star Game… he was not invited.  Again, not bitter.
Home run hitters are probably over-selected, but then again, they don’t have an on-base percentage derby.
The fact that winning teams (and dovetailing with argument #4, playoff contenders) usually have plenty of players selected doesn’t bother me.  Why?  Because good teams are generally made up of good players.  Does the manager occasionally pick one of his players over a more deserving alternate?  Yeah, probably.  Occasionally though, you’ll see pennant contenders with only the requisite single All-Star, sometimes with one of its deserving stars bumped to make room for whomever Tampa Bay plans to send this year.  That’s some reward for being on a winning team!
So, here’s my system for fixing the broken parts. 

  1. To be very honest, the snob in me wants to say “Take away the fan ballot for the starters.”  After all, Robinson Cano came entirely too close to starting because he’s a Yankee.  But, let me introduce something to correct for Park factors (attendance, size of home market): Voting for the home team is illegal.  This is entirely impractical, I understand, but why not, in theory?  Or maybe, you can only vote for the opposite league (which has the added benefit of making sure that people in New York can’t vote… although I live in Chicago… hmmmm, I need to rethink this).  The problem is that after the players on their own home team, what other players can the average fan name?  The ones who are always on TV.  Guess who’s always on TV? 
  2. Come to think of it, just take the top VORP guys at each position as starters.  That’s whom the fans usually elect, and when they don’t, it’s really annoying.  Does that make me a statistical snob?  Oh yeah.
  3. The manager can pick the pitching staff and the reserves, but he no longer needs to take one player per team.  Instead, MLB will have a cutoff date (June 30th?).  The six division leaders and two would-be wild card leaders are guaranteed two All-Stars from their teams (these can be starters or reserves).  Then, all other teams over .500 are guaranteed at least one All-Star.  The manager has discretion to pick the rest up to 29 players, although probably with the restriction that he have X number of pitchers, and at least one of every infield position in reserve.
  4. Four guys maximum per team.  It would probably shut someone out who really deserved it, but it would clamp down on the All-Star Game looking like a Spring Training game between the World Series participants of the previous year.  Plus, we have to throw a bone to those who want everyone represented.  Although I’d hate to be the manager who had five deserving guys on his team and had to pick between them.  It’s like picking between your kids.
  5. The home team always gets an All-Star.  Even if it’s in Tampa Bay.  Heartfelt standing ovations are always good TV.
  6. Since I’ve taken away the fan vote, here’s my solution to “but the fans really want him in the game!”  After the reserves are named, there will be voting, sorta like there is now.  But, instead of five names per league actually being provided by MLB (which leads to endless carping about snubs from that list), the ballot will be completely open.  Anyone on a Major League roster is eligible.  One pitcher, one infielder, and one outfielder are elected per league, and it’s a free-for-all.  Want to organize a drive to put Craig Biggio into the game on one last sentimental ride?  Go ahead!  Think Pat Neshek is being hosed by not being included?  Vote him in!  Will you pee your pants if Corey Hart doesn’t make it to San Francisco?  Get on line or start micturating.  Sure, we’ll probably end up with the baseball version of Vote for the Worst, but the game is supposed to be fun.

4 Responses to “Fixing” the All-Star selection system

  1. Samuel Lam says:

    Pretty nice ideas… I like voting for the other league and not your own team’s players.
    I just think that there should be an IQ test done if fans should vote
    but it’s just a fun game… people want to just have fun
    The HR derby is more exciting to me

  2. Doug Gray says:

    Hold on, Griffey is not who he used to be (who was though?) but he is going to be in the game because of what he has done on the field and not because of his name. The guy is having an incredible season. He hit 1 HR in April and despite that he is on pace for over 40 home runs this season and currently 3rd in the league in HR.
    As far as right fielders go, here is where he ranks among qualified players:
    AVG – .290 (2nd)
    OBP – .388 (2nd)
    SLG – .569 (1st)
    HR – 21 (1st)
    RBI – 50 (2nd)
    Runs – 43 (2nd)
    OPS – .949 (1st)
    So how does he not really deserve to go to the game again?

  3. Pizza Cutter says:

    Griffey actually is first in VORP as well among RF, so he’s not a horrible choice, statistically. But, he’s getting a lot of “I’ve always voted for Griffey” votes. Bonds (yes, Bonds) and Holliday are having better years. I can understand people not wanting to vote for Bonds for ethical reasons, but why not Holliday instead?

  4. Doug Gray says:

    Nothing wrong with Holliday other than Griffey is having a better season.

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