Over the last month of the season, the most exciting player in either of the Major Leagues is the young Dodgers outfielder, Yasiel Puig. At this moment, the 22 year old has played in 35 games and is hitting .394 with 8 doubles, 1 triple, 8 home runs and 19 runs batted in. He is also 5 for 8 in stolen base attempts. I almost feel bad pointing out that at his current pace, he will strike out more than 175 times in a full season.
There is certainly a lot to like about Yasiel Puig. In addition to his production, he plays the game hard, much as last year’s phenom from Washington, Bryce Harper. He runs, he hits, he makes good defensive plays. In a recent game in Denver, he ran hard into a wall, shook it off, and continued playing. In a word, Puig plays the game the “right” way. An occasional bat flip may rub fans the wrong way, but the biggest thing leading to Puig fatigue is a ridiculous preoccupation by the national media. It does make one wonder if Puig would even be noticed if he were playing in Kansas City, Houston or Minnesota. Maybe not. We certainly would not be getting scrolling Puig updates on the national broadcasts.
So why was there so much controversy when he was included in the last player voting for the 2013 All Star Game ?
That is a very good question. To answer that, we need to ask ourselves what we think the All Star Game is today.
Is the All Star Game an exhibition game or competitive ?
The All Star Game began 80 years ago as a mid-season exhibition game where fans could see all of the great players of the day in one place, on one diamond, playing in the same game. That was long before the Internet and cable TV, where you can now watch not only every major league game played, but all AA and AAA games as well. On some nights, you can even enjoy live broadcasts from lower levels of the minors as well as some international leagues. Today, there is no mystique in watching Albert Pujols or Miguel Cabrera play, we can see them whenever we want.
The game is no longer a pure exhibition game either. Hoping to prevent another debacle like in game in 2002, which ended in a tie when both teams ran out of pitchers, it now decides home field advantage in the World Series. The idea is both teams will have some incentive to win the game, thus producing a more exciting game for the fans to watch.
Is an All Star Game invitation based on best performance ?
That is an answer left to each individual voter, and there is no rule here. Some will sort the players by position, in order of increasing WAR, and then argue endlessly on whether oWAR or dWAR should be used to break ties, or even if WAR is a useful metric in the first place. Edwin Starr had something to say about that, but he was hardly a baseball statistician.
When taken in the aggregate, you are left with no other conclusion than an invitation is purely a popularity contest. You hope that at least the players and manager are using some reasoning, but 15 minutes on Twitter or Facebook will tell you that a lot of fans vote just for players on their favorite team, names they have heard before, or the player with the best hair or booty.
Does that make it wrong that it is a popularity contest ? Absolutely not. But fans getting upset that their player wasn’t selected or is a backup should really chill out. All that says is the other guy is more popular. Nothing more, and nothing less.
Should it be based on the first half performance alone or career ?
There are no hard rules about this either. You would hope that first half performance in the current season would have a significant impact on how fans cast their votes, but what about the final year of a future hall of famer like Ozzie Smith or Ken Griffey, Jr ? Over the course of the All Star Game history, many players have earned their invitations because of a long and dignified career.
Perhaps a good example of this is second base for the National League between Matt Carpenter and Brandon Phillips. Some of my Cardinals buddies will probably take exception to the dignified part of the comparison, but let’s carry on anyway.
Phillips is currently hitting .264 with 12 home runs and 67 RBIs. That is actually pretty close to his career average. Carpenter, on the other hand, is hitting .322 with 9 home runs and 42 RBIs (mostly from the top of the batting order). Carpenter also leads the league with 70 runs scored and 27 doubles. His .322 batting average is currently fifth in the National League. Phillips does not lead the league in any offensive category.
If you are a fan of WAR, Phillips is sitting at 1.6, where Carpenter is eighth among National League position players at 3.8. The only Cardinals with a higher WAR is not Yadier Molina (3.7), but Adam Wainwright (4.6).
Yet, Phillips won the fan vote and will be starting at second base. Is that wrong ? Not necessarily, as long as you remember this is a popularity contest and don’t take it too seriously. Phillips is 3 time gold glove winner and now a 3 time All Star. The media also loves him because of his controversial behavior. But he is not the best second baseman in the National League. That would be Matt Carpenter, and not by just a little bit. Phillips has the advantage of his years in the game, and that beat Carpenter’s outstanding performance.
The same thing happened in the National League outfield. Carlos Gomez and Andrew McCutchen are having far better seasons than any of the other outfielders, but will both play backup. Carlos Beltran, while having an excellent 2013, has the benefit of playing in several markets (New York, Houston, St. Louis, Kansas City, and maybe San Francisco – not so sure Frisco helps him here). Bryce Harper has the benefit of the national media pounding his name in our heads at every opportunity, yet Starling Marte is having a much better season and won’t even be invited to the game.
Again, none of this is wrong. It just points out that popular opinion does not always agree with the attempts at objectively analyzing the game.
So what does this have to do with Yasiel Puig ?
The answers to the three questions above should tell you exactly how you feel about whether or not Puig should be invited to the All Star Game. Instead of trying to argue one way or the other, let me suggest that there is a very simple solution to this dilemma.
The game itself has become something of a yawner, not quite as comical as the NHL All Star Game, but it is far from engaging baseball. It used to be in the days before free agency, but not today. The last player vote was thrown in as a way to keep fans salivating over a process that has also become a giant yawner. Major League Baseball has embraced social media and now included votes from Twitter hashtags. Really ? OK.
Am I the only one shaking my head at this absurdity ?
Let’s turn that last player voting into something different. Instead of a random set of overlooked players (who chooses them anyway), why not pick from a list of first year players that have been called up since the start of the season ? This would have been perfect for Puig this year and Bryce Harper in 2012. Openly acknowledge and embrace the idea that each team will have a future star on the roster, some young player that has captured our imagination in some way, but doesn’t have the season long credentials to warrant consideration in the first voting.
We have the futures game, but that is different. Those rosters are made up from a random set of players from all over the minor leagues. Instead of a futures game, and All Rookie All Star Game would be awesome, but lets take baby steps first and start here.
If the league would consider this for future games, there would be no more controversy over whether Yasiel Puig or Bryce Harper “deserve” to be in the game – there would be a place specifically for players like them. And maybe they can spice up a game that has become more bland than the oatmeal I used to eat for breakfast as a kid.