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The Strike Zone

Who should start the All-Star Game: AL edition

Still just 20, Mike Trout is leading the American League in batting average (.335) and stolen bases (21). (Robert Beck/SI)

All-Star balloting ends at 11:59 PM ET on Thursday and the results will be revealed on Sunday afternoon, so we'll soon learn which players have been voted into the starting lineups by the fans. At heart, the voting is merely a popularity contest, and hardly a democratic one — an individual can cast 25 ballots for a player online, to say nothing of bulk balloting at the ballpark — and the results don't always mesh with which player at each position is the most deserving. Then again "most deserving" is itself a subjective call, one that depends not only upon the statistics one relies upon, but also the extent to which one weights this year's accomplishments against those of prior years.

What follows here is my own effort to decide which players at each position are the most worthy to start for their respective squads. As you'd expect if you've been following along in this space, my taste in statistics runs towards advanced metrics such as Wins Above Replacement Player and True Average (runs per plate appearance adjusted for park and league scoring levels and expressed on a batting average scale, with .300 good, .260 average, .230 replacement level). I'm not simply relying upon 2012 statistics; past accomplishments matter, particularly the recent past, and I'm not going to reward an out-of-context three months if the rest of the available evidence suggests a player is nothing special. That said, I'm not discounting this year's numbers entirely either, and by bypassing a player having a strong year either at the plate or the ballot box, I'm not declaring his unfitness for a reserve spot.

What's apparent from this exercise is that at least in the case of the AL, the voters haven't done a bad job at all, at least if the current results hold. There are no facepalm-worthy choices, just a few quibbles here and there. On with the show...

CATCHER: Mike Napoli, Rangers (.242/.347/.460, .282 True Average, 1.2 WARP)

Vote leader: Napoli

Baltimore's Matt Wieters (.255/.338/.444) has taken a big step forward over the past two seasons, and on both the offensive and defensive sides, he's one of the players to whom the Orioles owe their surprising start. That said, his 2012 performance is basically even with that of Napoli, who's coming off a monster year (including a .360 True Average) in which he helped the Rangers to a pennant, and he's been a big part of their success this year as well. No beef with the fans' choice here.

FIRST BASE: Paul Konerko, White Sox (.333/.412/.549, .327 TAv, 1.7 WARP)

Vote leader: Prince Fielder, Tigers (.306/.379/.507, .305 TAv, 1.2 WARP)

This is a particularly tough call, with two big sluggers, Fielder and Albert Pujols, changing leagues this past winter and putting up less impressive raw numbers than in the past. In the case of the former, much of that has to do with the move from hitter-friendly Miller Park to pitcher-friendly Comerica (though his True Average has dropped from .325 to .305), while in the case of the latter, a horrific start to the season has been offset by a more typical month. Amid that argument, one can't ignore the quiet work of Konerko, who has spent most of his career in the shadows of more popular first basemen yet put up outstanding numbers himself; his True Average has been above .317 in each of the past three years. The fans' choice wouldn't be a bad one, but the nod here goes to Konerko.

SECOND BASE: Robinson Cano, Yankees (.301/.367/.567, .314 TAv, 2.7 WARP)

Vote leader: Cano

Cano is clinging to a narrow lead in the voting over the Rangers' Ian Kinsler, who has been one of the league's most underrated players in years past but who's hitting a less impressive .270/.333/.438 (.261 True Average) this season. A healthy Dustin Pedroia certainly belongs in the discussion for best AL second baseman, but his thumb injury has taken a significant bite out of this year's stats (.272/.331/.406, for a .264 True Average). We'll stick with the voters' choice, who started slowly (267/.323/.389 in April) but has hit an outstanding .318/.388/.651 with 16 homers in May and June.

THIRD BASE: Adrian Beltre, Rangers (.328/.361/.533, .318 TAv, 1.8 WARP)

Vote leader: Beltre, Rangers

Again, the voters are making a good call. The Tigers' Miguel Cabrera has certainly held his own with the bat (.304/.363/.528, for a .296 True Average, and 1.7 WARP), and has hardly embarrassed himself with the glove in his move across the diamond from first base to third. To the extent that a partial season of fielding metrics means anything — ideally, it takes about three seasons' worth of data to get a true read — the most pessimistic estimate has him around six runs below average, a drop in the bucket compared to the 20 or even 30 runs some thought he would cost the Tigers. Still, Beltre has outhit him even after you adjust for ballpark, and the consensus of fielding metrics —to say nothing of past history at the hot corner — gives him the edge as well.

SHORTSTOP: Elvis Andrus, Rangers (.301/.378/.409, .272 TAv, 1.9 WARP)

Vote leader: Derek Jeter, Yankees

Though he has a commanding lead in the voting, Jeter (.305/.354/.412) has cooled off drastically following a torrid April; his .263 True Average suggests that in the balance, his offensive production has been rather ordinary, and the defensive metrics cut into his value as well. The Indians' Asdrubal Cabrera (.291/.376/.474, for a .300 TAv) has become the league's top masher at the position, but his defense is suspect as well, as even the Indians' top brass will concede. Andrus has improved his offensive game in each of the past two seasons, becoming an above-average table-setter, and the balance between his offense and above-average defense earns the nod here.

OUTFIELD: Josh Hamilton, Rangers (.317/.378/.656, .343 TAv, 3.2 WARP), Adam Jones, Orioles (.298/.344/.555, .310 TAv, 3.2 WARP), Mike Trout, Angels (.335/.395/.528, .350 TAv, 3.2 WARP)

Vote leaders: Hamilton, Curtis Granderson, Yankees, Jose Bautista, Blue Jays

Even with a rough June related to a strength-sapping intestinal virus, Hamilton leads the AL in slugging percentage, is tied with Bautista for the lead in homers (24), and is tied with Trout and Jones for the lead in WARP. Jones, who took a big step forward as a hitter last year, has been the upstart Orioles' biggest star, while the rookie Trout has electrified the Angels since his April 28 callup; in addition to the remarkable feat of catching two players with a three-week head start in the WARP rankings, he's second in True Average, and has to be considered an MVP candidate even at the tender age of 20.

Alas, these choices mean painful snubs from the starting lineup. Mark Trumbo (.320/.373/.622) has undergone a remarkable evolution in terms of his command of the strike zone. His .363 True Average actually leads the league, and his versatility — 22 starts in rightfield, 20 in left, eight at third base and four at first  — has allowed manager Mike Scioscia to juggle his lineup as needed. Bautista (.233/.353/.530) can tell Trumbo all about mid-career evolution, though his .313 True Average is a significant step down from last year's league-leading .365. As for Granderson, beyond his 21 homers, his line is rather ordinary compared to this crowd (.243/.343/.500, .291 TAv), and as with last year, his defensive numbers are in the red.

DESIGNATED HITTER: David Ortiz, Red Sox (.307/.393/.618, .337 TAv, 2.3 WARP)

Vote leader: Ortiz

Big Papi has remade himself as a hitter over the past couple of years, becoming more contact friendly (38 strikeouts in 308 PA) and less pull-happy in his mid-30s, en route to his best numbers since 2007. He's fourth in the league in True Average, a couple whiskers ahead of another DH, the Blue Jays' Edwin Encarnacion (.286/.361/.572, .333 TAv). The latter has the edge on Ortiz in home runs, 21-20, but not the track record.

On the whole, I've taken issue with only four of nine spots, an outcome that surprises even this noted contrarian. We'll see how the NL measures up tomorrow.

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