Sunday, July 7, 2013
All-Star roster surprises and snubs
By Keith Law
This year's All-Star rosters are surprisingly good. In most years, this exercise is hard to finish because there are so many dubious selections and glaring omissions, but this year, there are only a few of each, and most of the problems either come from an obsession with relievers or from glaring shortages at specific positions.
My philosophy on the All-Star Game is simple: The point of the game is to showcase the game's stars, not the best performers for the first 70-80 games of the current season. It's a single night to market the sport and the league around the world in an event that casual fans will watch. They expect to see some names they recognize, and most of the game's most talented players. We shouldn't give them Jack Armstrong just because he got a bunch of wins in the first half. We should give them the best the majors have to offer, because that's how we'll convince them to be more than just casual fans in the future.
The big omission here is Evan Longoria, who is one of the best all-around players in the league when healthy, which he is this year. The roster has just two third basemen, Miguel Cabrera and Manny Machado, but Longoria's a better choice than Machado, who could also sub in at shortstop, which is the AL's weakest position right now, allowing us to get all three players in the game (the ideal solution).
The other omission that people are buzzing about is Oakland's Josh Donaldson, currently sixth in the league in FanGraphs' version of WAR and fifth in wOBA. Players who have huge first halves -- really, huge April-May periods -- are selected for the game more often than not, even though that wasn't the original purpose of the game and does little to help promote the sport the way selecting the actual stars would. Donaldson has no résumé whatsoever to support his case beyond 2013, with a .241/.289/.398 line in 2012, his only other significant chunk of playing time in the big leagues, and there's no way I would take him over the three third basemen I cited above.
Orioles fans stuffed the ballot box to get three players into the starting lineup, with Chris Davis a deserving chioce and J.J. Hardy qualifying almost by default -- the AL shortstop crop isn't strong this year, with the best all-around player, Elvis Andrus, in the midst of a miserable season. I would have given the nod to Jhonny Peralta, a strong hitter and mediocre defender, but Hardy's not a bad option.
Adam Jones would have been an adequate bench choice, although I don't think he's one of the top six outfielders in the league, and the fact that his OBP ranks him eighth from the bottom among AL outfielders should count heavily against him. Jacoby Ellsbury and Austin Jackson would have been better choices for that spot -- and for the one taken by Torii Hunter, who ranks 24th among AL outfielders in Fangraphs' WAR this year and whose reputation has exceeded his performance for most of his career.
But by far the worst aspect of the AL roster is the inclusion of five short relievers -- not that long relievers exist any more, other than Arizona's Josh Collmenter -- among the 14 pitchers on the AL's roster. (Do you think that's enough, guys? Why don't you just invite every pitcher in the league, just to be safe?) Mariano Rivera was a no-brainer, on career record and because it's his final season, and Joe Nathan has a long track record and is in the midst of a strong season as well. But Jesse Crain, who has never had a year like this in his career? Or Brett Cecil, who was nearly designated for assignment out of spring training, and had a 5.72 ERA last year?
Including those guys over very good starters who have been more valuable this year, like Kansas City's James Shields (please ignore his won-lost record ... and everyone else's, while we're at it) or the Yankees' Hiroki Kuroda, perverts the original purpose of the game while also recognizing the wrong guys. And if we're all reliever-happy, why exclude Royals reliever Greg Holland, who boasts the league's best strikeout rate and has pitched at a very high level since the start of 2011?
Of course, the AL's "final vote" ballot includes ... five more relievers. We should all write in "a pack of Marlboros," which is likely to be more useful to manager Jim Leyland than another reliever, anyway.
Stephen Strasburg (2.24 ERA) was an odd omission from the National League roster.
The NL squad is better all around -- a better team on paper, and better representative of the league's best players. I would have liked to have seen Carlos Gomez, quietly emerging as one of the NL's top outfielders over the last 12 months, starting over Carlos Beltran, but at least Gomez is on the team.
I would have taken Dexter Fowler, a better all-around player, rather than Michael Cuddyer, whose 2013 performance is fluky and who is a brutal defender, with Shin-Soo Choo also deserving a spot thanks to his very high OBP. (I also think MLB has, or should have, some interest in maximizing the diversity of the rosters too; including a deserving player of Korean origin would likely help boost ratings and interest in the game in South Korea.)
I was surprised to see Russell Martin omitted -- both he and Brian McCann are deserving, but the NL roster currently has just two catchers on it, although a spot may open up if Yadier Molina's knee injury is serious enough to cause him to skip the game.
The most questionable decision on the position-player side was the players' choice of Pedro Alvarez, a poor defender at third whose high homer total obscures that .306 OBP, over longtime star Ryan Zimmerman, whose massive throwing problems this year shouldn't mask his superior hitting ability and better range.
I've said before that I think including half-season outliers like Matt Carpenter goes against the purpose of the game, but the second base crop in the NL is so weak that excluding him (as well as Marco Scutaro) just on principle would leave the team with no good options at the position, and Carpenter could fill in at third base if needed.
The pitching staff is also solid, with a few omissions of note but nothing too glaring. Seeing neither Homer Bailey nor Mat Latos is something of a surprise, and the same is true for Shelby Miller.
I don't know if the Nationals discouraged Bruce Bochy and the league from taking Stephen Strasburg -- who belongs on merit, and on star power -- because they'd rather have him rest for those three days. I'd take any of those four pitchers over Jeff Locke, whose 2.12 ERA is bursting with good fortune, from the league's third-lowest BABIP to its highest strand rate, and who has never pitched like this before and is unlikely to do so in the second half. The same could be said of Travis Wood, who isn't even the most deserving starter on his own staff.
As for the question of the week, I come down in favor of including Yasiel Puig in the All-Star Game, despite his scant time in the majors. The purpose of this event is to market the sport to a wider audience, and I've argued for a long time that doing so should mean including one or two young/rising stars in each league who may not qualify until we take their age or potential into consideration.
Even if you think Jose Fernandez is a bit of a reach this year, he's a strong choice because he's a rising star, just 20 years old and one of the top 15-20 starters in the league already. Puig won't hit .400 the rest of the year, of course, but he's showing a ton of ability, he's an exciting player, and he's already got all of baseball -- including the casual fans MLB is trying to hook further through this game -- talking about him.
Adding Puig to the NL roster to join Fernandez while putting a top rookie, such as Oswaldo Arcia (hitting .283/.347/.451 at age 22 this year for Minnesota), on the AL roster alongside emerging star Machado would help broaden the game's interest while showcasing part of the next generation of MLB superstars. After all, it only counts if people watch.