On this week's Poscast -- which, I think (can't promise, but think), actually recorded well enough that you will be able to hear both participants -- Parks and Recreation czar Michael Schur and I talk a lot about what's wrong with the All-Star Game. If you don't have time to listen to the whole thing,* I can probably sum up the many problems with one word: Everything.
*Though, there could be prizes involved. I'm just saying.
The biggest issue, we both think, is that the All-Star Game isn't about anything anymore. It's an exhibition that claims to count. Or it's a game that counts except that nobody who participates in it cares. The All-Star Game knew what it was once -- it was an exhibition game featuring the best players as voted by the fans. It didn't mean anything, no, but it DID mean something because in the All-Star Game's best days America still had an enthusiasm for meaningless but interesting events. Match races. Battle of the sexes. Battle of the Network Stars. Non-championship bouts. Grudge matches. That sort of thing. The All-Star Game was an event because, well, when else were you going to see the best players in the world?
That was then. Now if you have the baseball package, or you just watch Baseball Tonight, you can see the best players in the world EVERY SINGLE NIGHT. We are overloaded. Our attention must be wooed and recruited and captured. The idea that our nation would be riveted by a consolation game, much less an exhibition game for nothing at all, seems as quaint and old fashioned as the rotary phone.
Baseball has changed too: With Interleague play, and with free agency such a part of the game, the specialness of a one-time battle between leagues is gone. It used to be that the only time you would see Pete Rose face Jim Palmer or Reggie Jackson against Steve Carlton was in the All-Star game or, if the season rolled right, the World Series. The game sparked the imagination the way blockbuster movies with many different stars like Towering Inferno* sparked the imagination.
*Steve McQueen! Paul Newman! Bill Holden! Fred Astaire (huh?)! O.J. Simpson! Robert Wagner! Faye Dunaway! Richard Chamberlain! What happens when you put them all in the same building and set the building on fire? Magic, that's what.
Well, the imagination doesn't exactly soar when wondering how New York's Derek Jeter will do against Philadelphia's Roy Halladay. They have faced each other 104 times already. Even such seemingly distant players like Tim Lincecum and Jose Bautista have already faced each other in real games (Bautista is one-for-three with two strikeouts).
There's something else too: The All-Star Game process is now so convoluted that you don't even know who to blame. And, in my mind, blame has always been one of the core joys of the All-Star Game experience. Think about this: Every year for as long as I can remember, the weeks leading into the All-Star Game overflowed with dueling newspaper columns:
1. How could the fans be so dumb as to vote for Player X?
2. The All-Star Game is for the fans and so if they want Player X he is the right choice.
I happen fall on the side of argument 2, but that's just me. The way I see it, if the fans vote for Charlie Sheen to start in the outfield, Michele Bachmann at short and Rupaul at first base, then baseball should do its best to make that happen. I think the game is for the fans, completely and entirely, and I wish they would have fans vote DURING THE GAME on who to pinch-hit, who to bring in from the pen, when to hit and run and so on. The complaint I've heard that the fans should have voted Jhonny Peralta over Derek Jeter at shortstop because he had a much better first half feels to me like arguing that a kid should serve broccoli at a birthday party instead of cake because broccoli is s better for you. Jhonny Peralta has been a mostly dreadful player for three years. It's wonderful he had a great 76 games this year. But why does that obligate me to vote him into the All-Star game? Arguing that fans were somehow misguided for choosing the most popular player of the generation to start at shortstop over Jhonny Peralta seems to me like an anti-argument, like arguing that the All-Star Game should not be fun at all.
The trouble is, the All-Star players are not picked by the fans. Not really. The fans pick the starters, yes. But then there's this elaborate player-picking system that involves the players themselves, the managers of last year's World Series teams, the managers of the players themselves, the "every team has to have a representative" rule, various mathematical formulas, three Tibetan monks, a baseball card dealer in Wisconsin, five corpulent porpoises and Jaye P. Morgan from the Gong Show. For instance, this year I actually have a major gripe: I cannot believe that Andrew McCutchen was not selected for the All-Star Game. It seems to me the most remarkable snub I can ever remember.
And I have no idea who to blame for this. I don't know who to call. I don't know where to file my complaint.
First, I think if I were listing my 10 essential players for this year's All-Star game -- and these are just the players who I think would make the game fun -- I might choose these:
1. Jose Bautista
2. Jose Reyes
3. Andrew McCutchen
4. Justin Verlander
5. Roy Halladay
6. Matt Kemp
7. Adrian Gonzalez
8. Jered Weaver
9. Mariano Rivera
10. Craig Kimbrel
Obviously, if you asked me in 10 minutes my list would be somewhat different. But I would choose Bautista because his at-bats are hold-your-breath moments. Reyes is the most exciting player in the game. Verlander is an event now -- like Pedro was in his prime or Dwight Gooden in '85 -- and Halladay is the best pitcher going and thrilling to watch in a very different way. Kemp is awesome and soon might find his paycheck bouncing so I'd like to get him to the All-Star Game. Gonzalez was one of the five best players in the game for a couple of years and nobody noticed because he played his home games in a ballpark roughly the size and dimensions of Alcatraz. Jered Weaver is having a stunningly good year again and nobody is noticing again. And, while I have often ranted about the use of closers in the regular season, the All-Star Game seems to me the place where they are most vivid. I want to see The Great Rivera facing the best hitters in the National League to close out the game in the ninth (though, of course, that's not how it works since the best players have long been benched). And Atlanta's Craig Kimbrel is my favorite young closer at the moment because he's a wonderful freak show, a high-octane, strike-em-out, walk-em, never-allow-a-homer thrill ride.
*I realize, though, that some are not as enthralled by the shaky save.
In any version of my list, Andrew McCutchen would be in the Top 5. First off, he might be having the best season in the National League. If you combine Fangraphs WAR and Baseball Reference WAR, the Top 5 looks like this:
1. Andrew McCutchen, 9.8
2. Jose Reyes, 9.5
(tie) Matt Kemp, 9.5
4. Ryan Braun, 8.3
5. Shane Victorino, 7.7
Obviously, WAR is not everything. But McCutchen is in the Top 10 in: On-base percentage, walks, doubles, extra bases hits and stolen bases. His defensive numbers are fabulous. As an all-around player, at the moment he's about as good as it gets. The midseason award concept is goofy (though Michael and I do our midseason awards this week) but McCutchen is about as worthy as anybody in the league for MVP, I think.
Thing is: As a STORY he's even better. McCutchen was one of the best young players in baseball before the year began, though I suspect few across the country knew it since he plays in Pittsburgh. Now, though, the Pirates are shocking everybody by actually winning games. They are a couple of games over .500, and as you know the Pirates have not finished above .500 since Charles and Diana separated. They are in actual contention in the National League Central. Maybe it's a fluke. Maybe it won't last. But maybe it will, and this is the very height of baseball happiness, a great and long suffering baseball town is finally in it, led by a brilliantly gifted 24-year-old centerfielder who can do everything. If the All-Star Game doesn't celebrate that, well, why even HAVE the All-Star Game.
But McCutchen is not in the game. The fans didn't vote for him -- OK, I get that, and you could argue that Matt Kemp is every bit as deserving as a centerfielder.
But then the players voted and ... huh? Excuse me? They voted for Jay Bruce, Matt Holliday and Hunter Pence.
Baseball Reference has Jay Bruce with an 0.2 WAR (Fangraphs is kinder and gives him a 1.4 WAR). This means that they calculate he is roughly two-tenths of a win better than a replacement level player. They rank him so low because they estimate that he has been a dreadful right-fielder in 2011 (after being an excellent fielder in 2010). I don't know if that's right. Look, Bruce is a fine player. But McCutchen is better. He's been better over the last two seasons. And he's a lot better this year. McCutchen's on-base percentage is 60 points higher, he has a higher slugging percentage even though Bruce plays half his games in the Great American Bandbox, he's much faster, he plays a most important defensive position and he plays it better. I tweeted that with the players choosing Bruce over McCutchen might give us a hint about the quality of the next generation's color commentators. Michael might want to keep the Fire Joe Morgan template nearby.
Pence and Holliday were moderately less egregious choices -- they are better offensive seasons than Bruce. But neither one is having as good a year as McCutchen either. And neither one is a central figure in one of baseball's best stories.
So, in my mind, the players completely whiffed. I can blame them. But, wait: Manager Bruce Bochy had an outfield spot. He could have chosen McCutchen. And instead he chose Carlos Beltran. Wow, this is a tough one for me. I LOVE Carlos Beltran. Anyone who reads this site knows that. My appreciation for Carlos is more or less boundless, and every night I check in on the Mets at least once to see how he's doing. His comeback year has given me almost as much joy as good report cards from my own children.
Still, I have no early idea how a manager could look at the year Carlos Beltran is having and the year Andrew McCutchen is having and choose Beltran. I just don't. There is, best I can tell, nothing that Carlos at this point in his career does as well as McCutchen. In fact, McCutchen at 24 reminds me quite a lot of Beltran at 24, which was 10 years and a dozen injuries ago.
The All-Star Game is lacking one of the most exciting players in the game, a blossoming superstar, a player who had as big an impact on the first half as anyone ... and I'm not even sure how it happened. And that's the point. When I tweeted about the absurdity of the players' choices, the thoughtful and most excellent pitcher Brandon McCarthy agreed but pointed out that the players tend to vote quickly and without easy access to stats. That rings true for me. The managers decisions, meanwhile, are the confused mess that the game is -- managers are not looking for the most exciting players, the most popular players, the most fun players but instead for the players who might fill a role in case the game goes awry. This is because, as you know, this time it counts.*
*That's why the Royals All-Star selection this year is Aaron Crow -- a rookie middle reliever who has been hit-lucky in the first half and so has a 1.37 ERA over 39 innings, an ERA that almost certainly will not sustain. He is also zero-for-two in save opportunities. You know, I'm all for every team having a representative, but not if managers are going to take rookie middle relievers who are probably having fluky half season. That doesn't add one ounce of interest to the game, not even for the local fans. Plus, Crow reaching the All-Star Game will probably convince the Royals to keep him in the pen even though they already have a closer, and even though they took him in the first round two years ago and paid him a lot of money on the hope that he might become a high-end starter.
Andrew McCutchen isn't in the All-Star Game and I can't even say why. Michael says it best: It feels like a clerical error or something. Clerical errors are no fun at all ... which gets us back to the All-Star Game problem in the first place.