Baseball’s Broken All-Star Game

(published July 11, 2011)

The All-Star Game is broken, and Bud Selig broke it.

Of course, he had help.  Time and technology have undermined the whole concept of the game.  It used to be thrilling to see baseball’s best all at once in one place.  Today it happens every day in the places called SportsCenter, MLB Network and the internet.

The American and National Leagues once had distinct identities, but free agency, interleague play, and the consolidation of umpiring crews and administrations have obliterated them.  Selig was responsible for two of those three.  What differences still exist stem from the DH rule and the oppressive financial presence of the Yankees and Red Sox.

But his actions regarding the All-Star Game itself – mostly in reaction to the embarrassment of the 2002 tie game — have made a joke of the one-time Midsummer Classic.

Letting the result determine home field advantage in the World Series is stupid when compared to giving it to the team with a better record.  But that wasn’t the method it replaced; home field had alternated between the American and National Leagues.  Using the All-Star Game may be dumb, but it isn’t dumber than that.  Still, making a change that is seen universally as silly does little to enhance the game.

The selection process used to be straightforward:  Fans voted for the starters; last year’s World Series managers chose the pitchers and reserves.

Now it’s a wacky hybrid of fan balloting (starting position players), player voting (along with the managers and coaches, the players vote for eight pitchers – five starters and three relievers – and a player for each position; if the player and fan selections are the same, the second-place finisher in player voting is selected), manager selection (the rest of the roster up to 33 players, making sure there’s a representative of every team), and a final fan vote for one player in each league, conducted on the internet, from a list of five players chosen by the manager and the Commissioner’s office.

Honk if you stayed awake through that paragraph.

Then there are the replacements.  Chosen players might be injured, or might get injured after they’re selected.  They have to be replaced.  Starting pitchers who worked on Sunday can’t be expected to pitch in a game on Tuesday, so they’re replaced, too.

Last year, including injury replacements and Sunday pitcher adjustments, 82 players achieved designation as All-Stars.  That’s a lot of All-Stars.

If we assume an All-Star has to be someone who starts for his team, or is one of his team’s top three starting pitchers or two top relievers (two relievers is generous, but allows for the rare starting staffs with more than three excellent pitchers), the field of possible All-Stars has 404 players.  In 2010, more than 20% of the group made the All-Star team.

That’s an absurdly generous definition of “star.”

The managers treat the game as though it’s tee-ball and everybody has to play.  They’ve each used an average of nine pitchers per game over the last ten years.  In the decade from 1971 to 1980, the average was 5.25.  Not coincidentally, the time of game has increased from 2:39 to 3:03 over those two periods (2:51 if we leave out the 290-minute marathon in 2008).

The game may “count,” but the players on the field at the end of it are nearly always substitutes.

Can anything fix this mess?

I assume Major League Baseball doesn’t want to eliminate the game altogether, because that would turn off the sponsorship spigot that pays for the voting, the telecast, and anything else onto which it can plaster a logo.  But here are a few tweaks that can help.  A little.

Make up your mind. Is the game an exhibition giving the fans a chance to see everyone together, or is it a game that matters?  If it’s the latter, tell the managers they are not responsible for handing out participation points.  Play to win.

Managers manage.  Someone else selects. San Francisco (and NL All-Stars) manager Bruce Bochy laid it bare.  “Look, you’re going to take players from your own team, you’re going to be biased,” he said after choosing three of his own starting pitchers with his five pitching selections.  “That’s only natural…  Isn’t part of winning the World Series that you get to reward some of your players?  Sure it is.  And why not?”

That may be what it’s been, but it’s not what the game’s about.

Let the fans pick the starters, let the players have their vote, and use the commissioner’s advisory panel (without active managers) to choose the rest.  Keep the “all teams must be represented” rule.  With 33 or 34 players per squad, is it really such a burden?

Injured players must be injured. If you can go 5-for-5 against David Price et al., you’re not hurt enough to skip the game.  If you’re not on the disabled list, you go and suit up (without replacement) or you’re ineligible for your team’s next two games.

Straight-up defenses. No overshifts, no second basemen playing right-field rover.  It’s a game for the players, not the scouts and coaches.

One at-bat per DH. Of course pitchers shouldn’t bat in the All-Star Game, so of course the DH should be in effect for both teams every year.  Use it as a pinch-hitting spot to get more players into the game without excessive disruption.

No situational relievers. They’re All-Stars, right?  So they should be effective against more than one type of player.  A pitcher entering the game must face no fewer than three batters.

No intentional walks. The best hitters are facing the best pitchers.  Why allow the manager to circumvent the exact situation we came to see?  To prevent “semi-intentional” walks, give a batter walked on four straight pitches the option to remain at the plate with a fresh count; if the pitcher walks him again, he gets two bases.

In my heart of hearts, I suspect the whole spectacle is beyond redemption, but adopting these changes would make it marginally more legitimate and entertaining.







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