Tom Verducci offers a fix to the All-Star Game voting format, thoughts on Max Scherzer's lost perfect game and the rise of hit-by-pitches, and how Miguel Cabrera stacks up with Alex Rodriguez.
I’ve got two words for you for the simple fix to the controversial all-online All-Star Game voting: Election Night.
Imagine the day and night of July 6, eight days before the All-Star Game. Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. in each time zone, except you don’t have to go to a polling station, just to your favorite electronic device. You still get to vote up to 35 times for your favorite players.
Results are tabulated in real time, so you’re watching a dynamic process unfold, the same as in a political election. MLB Network, Fox Sports 1 and ESPN all can cover the election, just as the major networks all cover a political election. Imagine, for instance, a close race between Buster Posey of San Francisco and Yadier Molina of St. Louis for the National League starting catcher spot. Molina is the early leader, but … the West Coast votes are open until 9 p.m. Eastern time. Will the San Francisco vote carry Posey to the top? Stay tuned …
MLB Network host Greg Amsinger deserves credit for coming up with the idea (perhaps imagining himself at an interactive map of the country going all Wolf Blitzer on us as he declares that Missouri has gone for Matt Carpenter). I like it because of its timeliness. Ask yourself this: If All-Star voting were invented today, with the speed in which information now travels, would you invent a slow, inert process that takes weeks to unfold? No; we do it that way because that’s the way it’s always been, which is not a good enough reason.
• The Strike Zone Podcast: Will MLB take All-Star voting away from fans?
Major League Baseball moved to all-electronic voting for the first time this year. Nobody trusts the process, not when Omar Infante (.237 OBP) and the Royals rule the voting. I have great respect for Royals fans. They’ve created an energy and intensity at Kauffman Stadium that is matched only by AT&T Park, and they’ve fallen head over heels for an exciting, emotional and athletic team. I get it. But we’re still talking about a team that is 10th among the 30 major league teams in merchandising. I don’t trust a national process in which more people vote for Salvador Perez than Mike Trout, or a process in which one out of every five votes have been thrown out as invalid.
The goals of All-Star voting are to get the best players to the game, get the fans involved, and promote baseball and the All-Star Game itself. What MLB places a premium on are the two months of constant salesmanship of the voting process. But in an all-electronic voting world, the rules have changed. And here’s why Election Night works:
1. An event-oriented society. The Oscars. The Super Bowl. World Series Game 7. The Caitlyn Jenner interview. The things that move the audience meter are one-off events. Baseball’s drawing power in another, slower-paced time was its reliable unfolding, like serial novels by great writers that ran in newspapers a century ago. The season is a string of series and the postseason is a series of games. Narratives build. Fortunes rise and fall. We filled the space in between with anticipation.
Now audiences have too many distractions to have their attention held that long. What takes time to unfold—novels, newspapers, albums, soap operas, test cricket, Clay Buchholz pitching with runners on base—are losing appeal. Events sell. They move social media and trigger watch parties. Baseball’s problem is that it has so few events.
Game 7? You don’t know you’re getting one until late the evening before it’s played. How can you plan a party around that?
Baseball could do better here. Opening Night should be a flex schedule game; this year, for instance, should have been Clayton Kershaw against Madison Bumgarner in San Francisco, not Cubs vs. Cardinals. The All-Star Home Run Derby, meanwhile, should be scheduled with fixed brackets that people can fill out days before the event.
The Thursday after the All-Star Game, as I have suggested long ago, should be an event called The Summer Game in which instead of going dark (during the one time when baseball has the sports stage to itself) baseball schedules one game at a non-MLB venue in a non-MLB city that is an iconic American spot. First year: Cardinals vs. Cubs at the Field of Dreams site in Dyersville, Iowa. Future years: Twins vs. White Sox at a field built near the Black Hills of South Dakota with Mount Rushmore in the background; Tigers vs. Indians at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Mich.; Phillies vs. Pirates at Beaver Stadium in University Park, Pa.; etc.
The two Wild Card games have helped: They jumpstart the postseason with two guaranteed double-elimination games. The uniform finish line on the last day of the season (every game on Oct. 4 begins at 3:05 p.m. Eastern time) also will help. All-Star Election Night would give baseball another real event—a dedicated date on the sports calendar it owns.
2. A better vote outcome. Really, why is anybody voting for All-Stars in the early days of May? Lorenzo Cain was hitting .339 on May 9; he is hitting .259 since. Let’s allow a larger sample before we start handing out All-Star starting spots.
3. Promotion. The fear is that you’re forfeiting two months of salesmanship. But you could set up All-Star vote “primary” elections. You can still have two months of fan voting—but use it to help determine the final ballot. Take the voting results from the fans (say the top three or four players at each position) and from the players to forge a Final Ballot for Election Night.
The Final Ballot candidates are announced seven to 10 days before Election Night. Each club can then knock itself out running campaigns for their players up to and including the day of the election.
The idea is that on July 6 you are voting from among only the very best candidates after half the season has been played. No Omar Infantes. No voting for nine guys from your favorite team.
4. Buzz. No other sport has an Election Night. Baseball can get out front in terms of cool factor. It can own another night on the sports calendar and around the water cooler.
Of course, to make this work you’d need an All-Star I.T. team to guarantee reliability. You know how savvy are those Kansas City fans.
A dent in the armor
Max Scherzer lost his perfect game because of body armor. One strike away from his perfecto on Saturday, the Nationals' ace threw a slider that backed up on him, hitting Pittsburgh pinch hitter Jose Tabata on the left elbow. Wait: not just the elbow, but the elbow pad. I’ve been saying for years that such body armor gives the hitter an unfair advantage. Hitters use the elbow pad not just for protection, but also as an offensive tool.
Tabata dipped his elbow into the pitch, a maneuver he is not likely to make if he were not wearing armor. Why reward hitters for wearing armor? I would not outlaw armor, but I would impose a rule that if a hitter is hit with a pitch on body armor he is not awarded first base. The pitch simply is recorded as a ball (assuming it’s not in the strike zone) and we play on. You get protection, but you don’t get an advantage.
No one used body armor and the loose-fitting uniform as an offensive tool better than Craig Biggio, who is going into the Hall of Fame in small part because he learned this skill midway through his career. Through age 28, Biggio was hit by pitches once every 106 plate appearances. But everything changed in 1995. He led the league with 22 HBP. Starting from that season, Biggio tripled his rate of HBP (one every 35 plate appearances). If Biggio had maintained his usual rate of HBP, he would have finished his career with a .356 on-base percentage. Instead, his learned skill of getting hit by pitches boosted his OBP to .363.
Speaking of hit by pitches, the next time somebody tries to tell you the 1960s were the epitome of tough-minded pitchers throwing at hitters with impunity, you can tell them that this era is the golden era of the HBP. In the Live Ball Era (since 1920), the 23 seasons with the highest rate of HBP per game all have occurred in the past 23 years. The rate of hit batters per game today (0.32) is double what it was in 1980 (0.16) and 60% higher than what it was in 1960 (0.20).
Miggy vs. A-Rod
On the night Alex Rodriguez reached 3,000 hits, Miguel Cabrera completed his 12th calendar year in the big leagues. Cabrera made his debut on June 20, 2003, and in the 12 years since he took his first at-bat, he has collected 2,268 hits and 405 home runs. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, no player in major league history has had both as many hits and home runs as Cabrera within 12 years of his first game.
Here is how Cabrera compares to Rodriguez through the same number of games played (1,885):
For the first time in his career, Cabrera this year has more hits to the opposite field (19) than to the pull field (eight). He is hitting .345 when he goes the other way and .267 when he pulls the ball. What’s going on?
“Last year I couldn’t hit the ball that way [to rightfield],” Cabrera said. “I just wasn’t comfortable. This year, I feel like this is the way I want to hit. I want the pitcher to pitch me in. I want to hit that pitch the other way. When they pitch me away, of course I’m going to hit that ball to rightfield. But when they come in, even if it’s off the plate, I feel like the umpire can call it a strike so I swing. And when I swing I can still hit it the other way.”
While Cabrera is on track for 3,000 hits, Ichiro Suzuki (2,886), Adrian Beltre (2,657) and Albert Pujols (2,588) are next in line. If Suzuki reaches 3,000, he will break a strange and extraordinary streak: Every player who debuted since 1968 and reached 3,000 hits got to the milestone with the help of a hit off Jamie Moyer. From Robin Yount to Rodriguez, the past 13 hitters to reach 3,000 did so with the help of Moyer, whose 25-year MLB career ended in 2012 at age 49. Suzuki played with Moyer in Seattle for six seasons, but never faced him.