All-Star voting: enough is enough already

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at Philadelphia Phillies

Pat Neshek—the Phillies’ reliever isn’t anywhere near the only one who thinks baseball’s All-Star Game system is broken.

Major league baseball’s All-Star Game began as an exhibition tied to the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair during that city’s centennial. Chicago’s fathers thought it was one way to help cheer up a nation rent by the Great Depression. Now the All-Star Game and its selection process are depressing.

“It’s kind of a broken system,” says Phillies reliever Pat Neshek about the All-Star Game vote, with a reported laugh, “but it’s always going to be a mess to get everybody involved.” Unfortunately, it isn’t very funny anymore, and it hasn’t been for long enough.

I’m going to admit it: I didn’t vote in this year’s All-Star primary round. I refused to be part of the farce. When you’re allowed to vote five times in a 24-hour period over several weeks, it’s only slightly less of a joke than the political open primary in which you can vote for anyone regardless of your actual party preference and possibly be responsible for a party fielding candidates they didn’t exactly want to field.

Rays outfielder Tommy Pham thinks the vote is allowed to be skewed too heavily to the larger market players regardless of how they’re actually playing. Orioles reliever Richard Bleier thinks players hitting the injured list, out of the top ten in “some” category (he didn’t say which), or having been designated for assignment shouldn’t be kept on All-Star ballots. (The DFA who stayed on the primary ballot? The Orioles’ Joey Rickard.)

Prowl around and you might discover the only non-controversial All-Star votes may be Mike Trout, the Angels’ best all-around player in the game since practically the day he came to the Show to stay; and, Cody Bellinger, the Dodger who’s having not a breakout but a blow-it-up season, leading the fan vote after round one of this year’s vote.

But the primary round didn’t make allowance for Anthony Rendon, the Nationals’ third baseman, unfortunately. The National League’s leading third baseman in on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS, and wins above a replacement-level player, ended up on the outside and off the final starters’ election that begins this coming Wednesday for a 28-hour period.

“They changed the broken system to another system that’s broken,” says Red Sox pitcher David Price. “(The) All-Star Game is about how big of a name you got and not how deserving you are.” Yes, the popularity contest angle has been discussed, protested, and denounced for a long enough time. But never, apparently, as it’s been this season. And never by so many of those who actually play baseball.

Call it baseball’s version of a political primary election, but round one determined the top three finishers at all positions. And if you think as Pham does that it was skewed almost exclusively toward the larger market players, ponder if you will that Pete Alonso, the Mets’ first baseman who’s making a powerful Rookie of the Year case, didn’t make the final cut but Josh Bell, the impressive enough Pirate who isn’t in the league’s top ten WAR (Alonso is), did.

Or, skewed toward the popular players no matter what and even where. Tommy Pham to one side, there are players with big enough name recognition outside New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington.

But how on earth did Aaron Judge end up among the outfield finalists when he’s only just returned from the injured list where he’d been since 21 April? Sure, he opened the season at All-Star level, and it wasn’t his fault he strained an oblique, but it can’t be only big market bias that has him making the coming Starters’ Election round while, for example, Tim Anderson, the White Sox shortstop, didn’t quite make it.

When you’re allowed to vote “only” five times per 24-hour period, it’s the kind of thing politicians looking for election edges only drool about in even the least corrupt precincts. Now, marry that to previous suspicions of ballot box stuffing. (The Royals a few years ago? The Giants a couple of years before that? The Cincinnati ballot box stuffing scandal of 1957—if Reds fans had their way that year, the starting lineup would have included only one non-Red non-pitcher, Hall of Famer Stan Musial—that cost the fans the All-Star vote for a decade in the first place?) The Price is right. From one broken system to another.

The bad news for all you actual or aspiring ballot box stuffers: You won’t get to have as much fun for the Starters’ Election as you could have had during the primary. You can only vote once during the Starters’ Election’s 28-hour time frame. But I’m willing to bet that if the geniuses who devised this year’s vote system thought about one vote, one time during the primary period, too, the aforesaid and other ridiculous results (how did Kyle Schwarber and his .794 OPS make the National League’s outfield cut?) would have been very different.

Once a mid-season showcase that allowed fans of one league to get a good gander at the other half, it’s been a plaything for too long, possibly except for players who, as Pham noted, have incentives for making All-Star teams in their contracts. The only good news around the All-Star Game in recent years was the day it finally stopped being the means by which World Series postseason advantage was awarded, as it was for a few too many years.

Baseball’s government never seems able to fix what really might be broken while it scrambles to bring things that aren’t in disrepair to the repair shop. It’s coming to the point where baseball’s governors may have only a couple of choices, repair the All-Star vote once and for all, or do away with either in-season interleague play or the All-Star Game itself.

Doing away with in-season interleague play would probably be the better option, anyway—especially since, as Dayn Perry of CBS Sports notes, the National League dominates it now in large part because of enough American League teams honestly in the tank. Bad enough: The American League ruled the interleague roost from 2004-2017. Just as bad: The National League out-did the American League in interleague play last year, 158-142 and has this year’s edge, 71-56.

Regular season interleague play was never a great idea to begin with. Married to the postseason’s expanded wild-card rounds and it cheapened the impact of the World Series even if we’ve had a bunch of Series that went to extraterrestrial levels since both began before the turn of the century. And we’ve heard of how often fans might be suffering postseason saturation with the wild card games and seven postseason rounds?

With the All-Star Game reduced now to a sad gag, maybe baseball’s governors would be willing at last to ponder a few fixes that really should be made:

1) Why not let the statisticians from the Elias Sports Bureau, STATS, Inc., FanGraphs, and Baseball-Reference determine a five candidate per position All-Star ballot? There’s something wrong when an extremely deserving Anthony Rendon, and a few too many others in the top ten at their positions, don’t make the final Starters’ Election slate. The All-Star Game should be about excellence, not bias. The starting lineup and the rosters should be chosen from the best.

2) Revamp the All-Star vote entirely. Keep it online only. Make it one vote, one time for fans and don’t make the vote available at the local library or anyplace else Joe and Jane Fan can access computers not their own. (I can’t think of any way to enforce one vote, one time at the ballparks.) And combine that fan vote with votes from the people who, you know, actually know and play the game: the players, the coaches, the managers. Make the All-Star Game as close to a full showcase for the best in the game as possible without making it a lifetime achievement award.

(That was how many All-Star Games to which Hall of Famer Cal Ripken, Jr. was voted by the fans whether or not he actually deserved the honour in given seasons? The answer: seventeen. Ripken actually deserved All-Star honours eight times while going to nineteen games. Keith Hernandez, arguably the greatest defensive first baseman who ever played the game, went to five All-Star Games, was voted a starter once, and probably deserved to start seven Games.)

3) Get rid of the Home Run Derby. As I wrote earlier this year, the Derby has a 50-50 chance of leaving its participants weaker after the Derby than they were going into it. Judge himself is right about the Derby: it’s a lot more important that your team wins on the season and has a shot at the postseason than whether you or any teammates join or win a Derby. Even when (as with this year’s model) you stand to win $1 million if you win it.

Joe and Jane Fan get a big bang out of watching the Derby. So does the television camera. And, so do enough writers. But guess who’s going to be the first to kvetch when the Derby winner or the other Derby swingers come up lesser in the second half of, you know, the actual season, especially if and when their teams are in a pennant race and they might be the ones who need to deliver the big game-or-race-changing hit or play?

3) Start planning to do away with in-season interleague play. There are times enough when a bad interleague matchup can and even does make a difference in one or the other team’s pennant race standings. The proper place for interleague play is, was, and will always be the World Series. The gimmick has outlived its actual usefulness, assuming it had any beyond then-commissioner Bud Selig’s imagination or lack thereof.

And let’s face it. Any Cubs-White Sox, Dodgers-Angels, or Yankee-Met rivalry may be fun for the moment but nothing like the Cubs-Cardinals, Dodgers-Giants, Yankees-Red Sox, or other budding in-league/in-division rivalries.

If baseball has to expand to do it, making sixteen-team leagues instead of the current fifteen, well, would it be so terrible to invite Montreal back to the National League party, assuming owners can be found who are willing to build a decent ballpark without trying to soak Montreal’s taxpayers?  (It would beat the living daylights out of the ridiculous idea of having the Rays play half their season in Tampa Bay and half in Montreal, for one thing.) And would it be so terrible to award Portland, Oregon an American League team? Think about that. The National League has three West Coast teams; the American League has two. An AL team in Portland would even that out.

And, once the leagues are back to an even number of teams . . .

4) Get thee behind me, wild card system. Sixteen-team leagues can be divided into even-numbered conferences of eight teams each. Call them the Casey Stengel and Connie Mack conferences in the American League; call them the Happy Chandler and Branch Rickey conferences in the National League. (Time’s way overdue to re-honour the men who decided once and for all that baseball’s segregation was a crime that needed to end post haste.)

5) Now, make the whole postseason mean something again. The conference champions would play a best-of-five League Championship Series, just the way it was played from 1969-85, and the World Series will remain its best-of-seven self. Voila! Goodbye, postseason saturation. Goodbye to all the thrills and chills attached to seeing who’s going to come out of an arduous stretch drive . . . in second place. Let the NBA and the NHL keep their joke playoff systems to themselves. Let baseball show the way to real championship one more time, for all time.

Somehow I had a feeling I couldn’t go an entire season without addressing most of those ideas again. And, somehow, those who know me won’t necessarily be surprised.

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