I usually don't pay much attention to the All-Star Game. In fact, the All-Star break is about the only time between March and November that I'm not thinking about baseball. But for some reason this year I care. Maybe it's that the media blitz here in New York has actually gotten to me (local sports radio is covering the final season at Yankee Stadium with the fervor of the OJ car chase and the Britney head-shaving incident combined) . Maybe it's because there's enough parity this year that there aren't really any teams who can't provide a legitimate All-Star to represent their city (No James Baldwins or Ken Harveys this year!) . Or maybe I'm just psyched to see how the fans at Yankee Stadium will react when Varitek, whose batting average is dangerously close to the Mendoza line, is announced into the lineup.
For whatever reason, I have thought about this year's game, and, given the Varitek selection, how this team should be composed. Picking the best players for the All-Star team wil never happen as long as the patchwork process of fan voting (which is hopelessly biased towards popular teams), player voting (which rewards the most popular players) and the "1 all-star per team rule" (which handcuffs the manger in his selections) remain in effect. All of which would be fine if the All-Star game were just an exhibition and not the method for determining home-field advantage in the World Series. So, for whatever it's worth, here's how I would have picked the teams if my vote were the only one that mattered.
Starters (with fan vote in parentheses)
AL: Joe Mauer (MIN) .322/.418/.455 (Mauer)- This isn't really close. I guess the next in line is Navarro, but any of a few other guys could make that claim, and none of them are serious contenders for the top spot.
NL: Brian McCann (ATL) .302/.377/.563 (Soto)- Soto's numbers are close (.288/.369/.522), but McCann has him beaten in almost every category (Soto has a slight edge in RBI).
AL: Kevin Youkilis (BOS) .314/.381/.552 (Youkilis)- Very tough call. I wouldn't fault anyone for choosing Morneau (.323/.391/.512). I went with Youkilis because of his Gold Glove fielding and his edge in slugging percentage.
NL: Lance Berkman (HOU) .347/.443./.653(!) (Berkman)- It's hard to believe that Pujols wouldn't be the top choice with a .350/.466./.608 line, but Berkman has 20 points of OPS on him, and has 15 SB (he has never had more than 9 SB in a season before in his career). Just an amazing first half of the season for Berkman. Derrek Lee makes an adequate back-up, as Pujols fills the DH spot.
AL: Ian Kinsler (TEX) .337/.397/.548 (Pedroia)- Kinsler has Pedroia and Brian Roberts beat in almost every category this year. The only justification for Pedroia is that he was a hair better than Kinsler in his ROY campaign last year, and that he had a strong performance throughout the 2007 playoffs (.283/.348/.483). The case for Roberts is mostly based on his better SB numbers, but he also gets caught more than Kinsler and had a weaker 2007 at the plate than both Kinsler and Pedroia. Kinsler is the right choice here, with Pedroia and Roberts (the ideal pinch runner) on the bench.
NL: Chase Utley (PHI) .291/.372/.582 (Utley)- Utley or Uggla, Uggla or Utley. I waffled on this one like a politician a week before the polls close. Uggla has actually been a shade better than Utley so far this year (by 23 points of OPS). But given how close it was I can't ignore what Utley did last year (.332/.410/.566). At the same time Utley was putting up those monster numbers, Uggla was batting .245/.326/.479. With 2007 in consideration, Utley is the right call.
AL: Michael Young (TEX) .302/.350/.427 (Jeter)- I know, it's the last All-Star game at Yankee Stadium, blah, blah, blah. The truth is that Jeter isn't the best SS in the AL this year. In fact, he's not even the second best (Peralta's power numbers give him that distinction), and Orlando Cabrera could even make a case for the number three spot based on his stolen base advantage. Gone are the days of the Big Three AL shortstops, but Young is having a decent season and deserves the start. Peralta gets the bench spot, and the Bronx riots.
NL: Hanley Ramirez (FLO) .311/.391/.566 (Ramirez)- If the Red Sox hadn't won it all last year with the help of Beckett and Lowell GM Theo Epstein might have some pangs of regret about letting Hanley go. It is stunning how quickly he has risen to become a perennial MVP candidate and a no-brainer as the starting NL Shortstop. In the coming year you can expect to see him marquee on several more All-Star teams, though hopefully in the outfield sooner rather than later. He gives back some of the runs he gains at the plate when he puts on the glove. Reyes is his only real competition, and this year, at least, it hasn't been much of a competition.
AL: Alex Rodriguez (NYY) .312/.392/.581 (ARod)- Ho-Hum. Another year, another MVP season from Arod. Even boinking Madonna (THAT's the celebrity you choose for your fling when you have the pick of the litter?!) and getting divorced can't distract him. Even after missing significant time, ARod has no peer when it comes to AL third-sackers.
NL: Chipper Jones (ATL) .376/.472/.614 (Jones)- It's hard to compete with those numbers, and third baseman in the NL can. Wright and Aramis Ramirez are having good seasons, but they are on a completely different tier so far in 2008. They'll help to fill out a strong NL bench.
AL: Manny Ramirez (BOS) .293/.389/.518 (Ramirez)- After last year's power outage many predicted that Manny was facing a sharp decline. So far in 2008 he's just 2 homeruns shy of his 2007 total of 20, and he's looking like the Manny of old, leading AL left-fielders in OPS. Former top-prospect Carlos Quentin is right on his heels, and has the potential to have a Manny-like career if this season is any indication.
NL: Matt Holliday (COL) .337/.421/.553 (Holliday)- Holliday and Burrell are neck and neck, with Burrell showing more power, but Holliday showing more speed. In all likelihood I would have gone with Holliday either way, but it helps that he is the only Rockie that truly deserves an All-Star bid. At any rate, we can just slide Burrell over to right field, and plug Jason Bay (.287/.387/.531) in as Holliday's back-up.
AL: Grady Sizemore (CLE) .273/.374/.539 (Hamilton)- If not for Hamilton's ridiculous RBI pace (95 so far) and the general public's familiarity with batting average (he's at .310) rather than on base percentage, Grady would look like the easy choice. Grady sports the better OBP, more HR, and has 15 more SB, all in fewer at bats than Hamilton. An argument could be made that Hamilton's preference for swinging rather than taking a walk has led to all of those RBI, but you can hardly fault Grady for having a good batting eye as a lead off hitter. Plus, many of his walks turn into "doubles" after he's swiped second base. Add in Sizemore's defensive prowess, and it's a close call, but I'll take Grady.
P.S.- With one more bench spot open, and Detroit still needing a representative, I put Granderson on the bench, choosing an able fielder and pinch runner, with a little pop, over Pudge as the third catcher, or seeing Miguel Cabrera trying to fill in anywhere on the field except first base. Couldn't you have chosen a Detroit pitcher?, you ask. Well these days Kenny Rogers is more succesful roastng chicken than throwing the baseball, and the only palatable choice at all was Armando Galarraga, who, according to his minor league track record, is due to turn into a pumpkin any moment now.
NL: Nate McLouth (PIT) .281/.357/.542 (Fukudome)- Fan voting doesn't differentiate between center field and left field. I believe that the defensive demands of center field should be appreciated. After all, this game counts for something. Do you really want a corner guy in center when World Series home field advantage is on the line? McLouth makes the decision easy, as he has been sparkling with the bat so far this year. Who knows if he can keep it up, but he's hitting his prime, and he's held things together over 367 AB so far. If Beltran's power was at its usual level he'd get the nod. As it is he'll have to settle for the bench.
AL: J.D. Drew (BOS) .302/.412/.572- After a disappointing first year Red Sox fans feared that the team had spent 14 million dollars a year on one timely grand slam. Given the outcome of last season, they might have settled for that. But after David Ortiz went down in June with a wrist injury Drew moved into the 3 spot in the batting order and came alive. Drew did his best Papi impersonation, batting .337/.462/.848 in the month of June, and distanced himself from the competition for the RF spot in the All-Star Game, namely Markakis. Markakis has shown power, speed, on-base skills and solid defense in the first few years of his career. I have a feeling we'll be seeing him in many more summer classics.
NL: Pat Burrell (PHI) .275/.404/.575 (Braun)- Could Pat the Bat finally be reverting to his 2002 form? Phillis fans hope so. He's always had the talent. If he can just avoid the long slumps he's prone to his ever-present power and improving batting eye could bring him up to the superstar level. Of course, at age 31, his natural peak years are almost over. The two Ryans (Braun and Ludwick) will make able bench players.
AL: Milton Bradley (TEX) .316/.440/.610 (Bradley)- Milton Bradley spent so many years wallowing in immaturity that we hardly noticed how old he was until he got his act together this year, posted career numbers, and promptly became so brittle that he could no longer effectively play the outfield without injuring himself. Good thing the sixth team he landed on, after making himself unwelcome at the first five, happened to be in the AL, where he could just slide over to the DH spot. Having finally found his comfort zone, Bradley has been crushing the ball this year, and Texas fans hope that he has finally found a home. Dye will make a fine backup, even if his numbers are a bit inflated by his home field.
NL: Albert Pujols (STL) .350/.466/.608- Utter no-brainer. And folks at my fantasy draft were worried about his elbow. What a complete stud! He has never been anything short of excellent from day one in the majors. Carlos Lee gets the nod to come off the bench.
Starting Pitchers (ERA in parentheses)
AL: Cliff Lee (2.31) Roy Halladay (2.71), Justin Duchscherer (1.82), John Danks (2.67), John Lackey (2.46), Felix Hernandez (2.95), and Daisuke Matsuzaka (2.65).
In contrast with the player and manager selections, I excluded Kazmir (3.04), Ervin Santana (3.34), and Saunders (3.07), and included Lackey, Hernandez, Danks and Daisuke.
What it comes down to for me is preferring stats pitchers have greater control over (WHIP, ERA, K/9) over something somewhat random, like wins and losses. Does anyone really believe that Saunders or Santana is better than Lackey?
In fact, of the 60 or so pitchers who have pitched more than 80 innings this year, Saunders (10th, .724 OPS) and Santana (13th, .729) ranked near the top of the list for lightest hitting batters faced (based on average OPS). Hernandez faced some of the toughest hitters (.757 OPS), and Daisuke and Lackey faced near-average hitters. Not surprisingly, Lee faced the easiest hitters overall (the average hitter he's faced this year had an OPS of .715), though this merely means that his ridiculous numbers of 2008 might have only been slightly less ridiculous with a tougher schedule.
I just have to say here, Halladay has been such a horse this year. Seven complete games so far. That's absurd.
NL: Tim Lincecum (2.57), Dan Haren (2.72), Edinson Volquez (2.29), Ben Sheets (2.85), Johan Santana (2.84), Jake Peavy (2.47), Carlos Zambrano (2.84).
In contrast with the player and manager selections, I excluded Cook, Webb and Dempster, and included Peavy and Johan Santana.
Seriously, who would actually have Cook and Dempster in an important game over Santana and Peavy. It's not even like the latter are having bad seasons. They've just gotten unlucky with wins. I don't even need to find numbers to justify this argument, that's how obvious it is to anyone who knows these guys. Just wait until the end of the season and see how Dempster and Cook's numbers look. They may be decent, but I'm willing to bet they won't be All-Star worthy.
AL: Mariano Rivera (1.06), Joe Nathan (1.13), Francisco Rodriguez (2.36), Jonathan Papelbon (2.43), and Joakim Soria (1.47) (all of whom were selected for the actual team).
In contrast with Francona, I left off Sherrill (4.08).
The only surprise here is Soria, who has slammed the door on opponents whenever KC has given him the chance . The rest of these guys are among the most dominant closers the game has ever seen, pure and simple.
NL: Brad Lidge (1.13), Billy Wagner (2.31), Takashi Saito (2.18), Francisco Cordero (2.30), Jon Rauch (2.85)
I left off Brian Wilson (4.58) and Carlos Marmol (4.13), and added Saito, Cordero and Rauch.
Rauch was about the best Washington could offer, and looks especially good when Cristian Guzman is the alternative (that one will look pretty silly in September, I think). Lidge is finally back to where he was several years ago, which is bad news for the rest of the NL East. Wagner, Saito, and Cordero are top flight closers, though not one of them, except maybe Wagner, rises to the level of dominance Rivera, Nathan or Papelbon has shown. When it comes to closers the AL definitely has the edge.
So who would have the edge overall? After reviewing these rosters I have to think the NL would take it. But then again, if the AL manages to keep it close late into the game I've got to think the momentum would swing.
Rosters at a glance:
1B K. Youkilis, J. Morneau L. Berkman, D. Lee
2B I. Kinsler, D. Pedroia, B. Roberts C. Utley, D. Uggla
SS M. Young, J. Peralta H. Ramirez, J. Reyes
3B A. Rodriguez, M. Lowell C. Jones, D. Wright, A. Ramirez
LF M. Ramirez, C. Quentin M. Holliday, J. Bay
CF G. Sizemore, J. Hamilton N. McLouth, C. Beltran
RF J. Drew, N. Markakis P. Burrell, R. Braun, R. Ludwick
DH M. Bradley, J. Dye A. Pujols, C. Lee
SP C. Lee T Lincecum
R Halladay D. Haren
J. Duchscherer E. Volquez
J. Danks B. Sheets
J. Lackey J. Santana
F. Hernandez J. Peavy
D. Matsuzaka C. Zambrano
RP M. Rivera B. Lidge
J. Nathan B. Wagner
F. Rodriguez T. Saito
J. Papelbon F. Cordero
J. Soria J. Rauch