Freeman wins NL All-Star Final Vote but Puig's absence a missed opportunity
Thanks in part to an odd alliance in which the Blue Jays' and Braves' fan bases submitted votes for each other's candidates, Toronto reliever Steve Delabar and Atlanta first baseman Freddie Freeman have won the 2013 All-Star Game Final Vote and will be added to the rosters of their respective leagues for next Tuesday's contest. Just as notable as who won, however, is who didn't: Dodgers rookie sensation Yasiel Puig, whose brief stint in the majors has led to a weeks-long debate about the merits of his All-Star worthiness, finished second in the NL vote and now, barring an unforeseen development, will not take part in the Midsummer Classic.
Freeman collected a record 19.7 million votes to finish ahead of Puig, who got more votes than any player in Final Vote history except for Freeman. The 23-year-old Braves first baseman, who is in his third full major-league season, is off to the best start of his young career, hitting .307/.388/.470 with nine homers. Those numbers, which have helped propel Atlanta into first place in the NL East, make him a reasonable if not clear-cut choice for his first All-Star team.
Still, this feels like a missed opportunity for baseball to capitalize on the sudden burst of popularity for Puig, one of the game's most electrifying young players. He didn't make his major-league debut until June 3 but he then collected more hits in his first month than any player since Joe DiMaggio in 1936, and became the first player in the 56-year history of the award to win Player of the Month honors in his first month in the majors. So far, he's gotten hits in 30 of 35 games, and is batting .394/.428/.634 with eight homers in 152 plate appearances. Puig has also helped Los Angeles turn its season around and probably saved manager Don Mattingly's job in the process. The Dodgers were eight games below .500 when he debuted, and 12 games below .500 through June 21, but since then they've gone 15-3 and clawed their way back to .500 at 45-45, and within 1 1/2 games of first place in the NL West.
Even with his late start, Puig's 2.6 Wins Above Replacement ranks just 0.1 behind Freeman, who has played in more than twice as many games. It's also ninth among NL outfielders despite the fact that Puig didn't debut until the season was two months old. According to an MLB report, Puig is also 10th in the majors in jersey sales, on a list that includes Buster Posey, Mariano Rivera, Yadier Molina, David Wright, Matt Harvey, Bryce Harper, Derek Jeter, Manny Machado and Mike Trout. Freeman isn't even in the top 20.
Puig's late start was viewed as a point against him by NL manager Bruce Bochy and by vocal critics such as Phillies closer Jonathan Papelbon, who won't be part of Tuesday's festivities either. The 22-year-old Cuban defector's aggressive style of play has occasionally rankled opponents, particularly the Diamondbacks, whose Ian Kennedy hit him in the face with a pitch on June 11, setting the stage for a bench-clearing brawl later in the game. During L.A.'s three-game sweep of Arizona this week, Arizona catcher Miguel Montero — who was in the midst of that brawl — ripped Puig on Wednesday, saying among other things, "He's creating a bad reputation around the league."
Despite the brevity of Puig's career, I've spent the past few weeks arguing in this space and elsewhere that he was a defensible choice for the All-Star Game given its dual roles as an exhibition for the people and a competitive means of deciding homefield advantage in the World Series. A sizable contingent of fans — though apparently not a plurality — wanted to see him there, and there’s little doubt that he could have helped the NL's chances at winning, even in a bench role. One swing of the bat, trip around the bases, or throw of his could change a game. Freeman may provide some power off the bench, but he's nowhere near as complete a player as Puig, nor is he as dynamic a presence. Insistence that he's "paid his dues" while Puig has not is the kind of traditional thinking that players may care about but fans don't. What's more, with the television ratings continuing to decline in the wake of attaching homefield advantage to the process, it can be argued that MLB should be emphasizing fresh faces in this context.
There's still a slight possibility Puig could make the cut if another player opts out due to injury. Bochy could choose him as an injury replacement for either a fan-elected starter or for one of his own previous choices. The Rockies' Carlos Gonzalez, who was elected to the starting lineup, pulled out of the Home Run Derby because of a hand injury, though it isn't yet known if he'll recuse himself from the All-Star Game as well. If a participant elected via the player vote opts out, the replacement is based upon vote totals from that process.
As for Delabar, it's very difficult to get worked up about a vote that involved five relievers. All of them began the year as setup men, though the Tigers' Joaquin Benoit and the Red Sox's Koji Uehara were recently pressed into closer duty due to injuries and ineffectiveness by their predecessors. Delabar is having a very good season, with a 1.74 ERA and 12.4 strikeouts per nine in 41 1/3 innings, but his 1.2 WAR is lower than those of the Rangers' Tanner Scheppers (1.8) and Benoit (1.7), and he doesn't have nearly the track record of Benoit or the Yankees' David Robertson. It's doubtful that voters stuffing the virtual ballot box consulted such numbers, or any numbers. But the people have spoken given the means supplied to them, and they'll now get to see Delabar and Freeman make their cameos — if they bother to tune in, and stick around until the late innings, of course.