I‘ve always had a quirky relationship with baseball’s All-Star game. It’s premise is to bring together the best players from both leagues (the “all stars”) to play a game against one another. From 1935 – 1946, the team managers selected the players who would be all-stars. From 1947 and on (for the most part) fans selected most of the players. The problem becomes obvious pretty quickly. Popular players, good overall, but perhaps not the best performers of the current season, get picked because they are popular players. This can lead to a game in which popular players play while lesser known players are excluded.
This does not mean the popular players aren’t also All-Star quality players. It doesn’t necessarily mean that lesser-known players are not All-Star quality. The game is called the “All Star” game, implying that all of the “stars” will plays. Stars, by definition, are popular players.
Growing up, however, I always felt (intuited, perhaps) that the All Star games contained the best performing players. I remember with a great deal of pride the first time I made my Little League All-Star team. I think I was playing for Scungio Oil in the Appanaugh Little League in Warwick, Rhode Island. I played first base, and I made the All Star team. It felt great to be considered good enough to make the team.
But, looking back on it, maybe everyone made the all-star team. My memory isn’t good enough to recall this clearly. Maybe I somehow simply intuited that the best players make the all-star team, and that being part of the team meant I was one of the best players. But being a “star” does not necessarily imply quality.
What surprises me most of all is that the statistics that form the foundation of modern baseball are good enough to make selections to the team an objective no-brainer. I’m not even talking about old school stats like batting average and ERA. I’m talking about newer stats like runs created or runs saved or wins above replacement. It should be fairly straight-forward for someone with the knowledge to generate two teams, an American League team and a National League team, based on an amalgam of advanced baseball stats that indicate who the best players really are. It would be interest to see such a list compared to fan picks.
In some respects, baseball is lucky. There are objective measures that can be used to judge relative quality, performance, value added (or taken away) in just about every area of the game. It is far more difficult in other areas, where the relationship between popularity and quality is less certain, and for which no real objective measure are available to make comparisons.
Sure, fans stuff the ballots for the All Star games, and big market teams are better represented than smaller market teams. But I have to constantly remind myself that it is not the players I come to see at the All Star game. It’s their performance together that I enjoy, and I enjoy it regardless of who happens to be on the field. Can this particular infield combination work well together? What happens when you have two league leading hitters in the #4 and #5 spots in your lineup? I can’t speak for all fans of baseball, but I certainly feel that performance trumps personality . And so while I occasionally grumble at the system in place to select baseball’s All-Stars, I still tend to marvel at the performance when the players hit the field.