So. Aaron Judge lived up to his notices in the Home Run Derby Monday, inspiring speculation on whether he’ll take Max Scherzer over the fence in the All-Star Game tonight. (My call: Don’t bet against it too heavily.) At long last the All-Star Game isn’t going to determine World Series home field advantage. But I find myself transfixed on a remarkable article at FiveThirtyEight whose sub-headline is more arresting than the main one: “Cal Ripken made too many All-Star teams, Keith Hernandez not enough.”
The Game, writes FiveThirtyEight‘s Neil Paine, “is supposed to be a celebration of the best ballplayers in the world collected in the same place for a few days a year.”
But it’s also a salute to fan favorites and other sentimental picks, even if the stats say they haven’t played up to snuff. This is to be expected, because the fans vote to determine the starting position players; the casual fan is less likely to be scrutinizing the (batting average on balls in play) of every National League shortstop than he or she is to just pick the person with the familiar name.
What, Paine asks, would tonight’s game resemble “if the stat geeks had full control over who played? Which players have consistently been voted into the All-Star Game despite weak stats? Are the rosters at least getting better over time?”
In 2011, I wrote about Derek Jeter being voted an American League All-Star starter despite his a) being on the disabled list at the time (a right calf strain) and starting a rehab assignment at the Yankees’ Trenton farm; and, b) Asdrubal Cabrera, then with the Indians, having the best season to that point by any American League shortstop.
Jeter isn’t the first player who’s going to the starting lineup as a legacy candidate. Reality check: Jeter got the votes because of what he’s been, not who he is now. ”So what if he’s been a shadow of his formerly formidable self?” his voters seemed to be saying. He’s Derek Freaking Jeter! He’s been the Yankees all these years! He’s going to get that three freaking thousandth freaking hit! Maybe within a week or so. By Gawd that makes him . . .”
A Hall of Famer in waiting.
Not a valid 2011 All-Star starter.
Fan voting often goes to such peculiarities. Before he tore thumb ligaments sliding into base near the end of May, Mike Trout (Angels) was doing pretty much his usual: performing as the best all-around player in the game. He still hasn’t made it back, but the fans voted him a starter anyway. It would have been his fifth straight All-Star start and he’d have deserved it, though it’s not going to diminish the game if the overall top vote getter—Washington’s Bryce Harper—tees off on American League starting pitcher Chris Sale (Red Sox).
But I digress, and Paine sifts the data to discover just how true it was that Ripken, a no questions asked Hall of Famer, got voted to seventeen All-Star Games and deserved to be in the starting lineup of a mere nine, while Hernandez—arguably the greatest defensive first baseman ever to play the game, and an above-average all-around hitter before injuries and age began to grind him down—was voted to one and deserved to start seven more.
According to Paine, if you go by wins above a replacement-level player, Ripken is the leader among the undeserving starting All-Stars since the fans were given back the vote in 1970, but:
* Eight Hall of Famers have four or more undeserving starting All-Star berths: Reggie Jackson (four), Tony Gwynn (four), Mike Piazza (four), Rod Carew (five), George Brett (five), Ivan Rodriguez (five), Dave Winfield (seven), and Ripken (eight).
* Four Hall of Famers have three or more deserving but denied starting All-Star berths: Robin Yount, Mike Schmidt, Eddie Murray, and Jeff Bagwell. (And who’s to say that, aside from injuries grinding into him slightly before his time, Keith Hernandez’s Hall of Fame case might not have been boosted if he made all the All-Star starting lineups he should have made?)
* Nine players who were never voted onto an All-Star starting lineup deserved to be in three at least: Devon White (three), Tim Wallach (three), Chris Hoiles (three), Jesse Barfield (three), Grady Sizemore (three), Chuck Knoblauch (three), Andruw Jones (three), Ian Kinsler (four), and Robin Ventura (five).
* Three players who were voted to ten or more All-Star starting lineups didn’t deserve to be in four or more: Piazza, Rodriguez, and Ripken.
* One player who was voted to eleven All-Star starting lineups deserved to be in fifteen: Barry Bonds.
* The men whom the fans helped Ripken keep out of those eight undeserving All-Star starting slots of his: Alan Trammell (1987), Omar Vizquel (1993), John Valentin (1995-96), Jeff Cirillo (1997), Robin Ventura (1998), Tony Fernandez (1999), and Alex Rodriguez (2001).
* The men whom the fans helped keep Hernandez out of those seven deserving All-Star starts: Steve Garvey (1979, 1980, 1984, 1985), Pete Rose (1981), Al Oliver (1983), and Jack Clark (1987).
Today, Ryan Zimmerman (Nationals) gets the National League’s start at first base despite Paul Goldschmidt (Diamondbacks) leading the league’s first basemen in WAR this season and for the last four.
At this writing, the National League’s leading WARriors among position players are, in descending order, Goldschmidt, Justin Turner (Dodgers), Joey Votto (Reds), Anthony Rendon (Nationals), Nolan Arenado (Rockies), Harper, Corey Seager (Dodgers), Marcell Ozuna (Marlins), Jedd Gyorko (Cardinals), and Travis Shaw (Brewers).
The American League’s leading such WARriors: Judge, Carlos Correa (Astros), Jose Altuve (Astros), Mookie Betts (Red Sox), George Springer (Astros), Andrelton Simmons (Angels), Jose Ramirez (Indians), Trout, Justin Upton (Tigers), and Logan Morrison (Rays). (It’s kind of easy to feel for Morrison here: he’s a top ten AL WARrior and an outfielder by trade but crowded out by Judge, Betts, Springer, the disabled Trout, and Upton.)
Obviously, the fans still don’t look too deeply into the players’ full games. How else would Zack Cozart (Reds) get the start over Seager? They also don’t pay attention to the disabled list, either, else Trout—who probably would have been the American League’s WAR leader today had he not been injured—wouldn’t have been voted a starter over Betts.
From the look of it, though, the voters this year got most of the starters right. As for the rest of the All-Star rosters, Simmons is a huge snub; he remains the league’s finest defensive shortstop and if Trout is disabled the Angels should have been able to send him to the Game. And Gyorko and Shaw simply got crowded out because of a crowd of above-average National League third basemen.
Whether any of this year’s All-Stars go forth to become the next Cal Ripken or Keith Hernandez in terms of All-Star deservedness or non-deservedness is, of course, open to speculation. But at least this year there isn’t an All-Star starter who’s strictly a legacy pick, either.