From 1933—the year of the first major league All-Star Game—through '97, the roster sizes for each side in the Midsummer Classic never topped 28 men. Starting in '98, when MLB’s latest round of expansion increased the number of teams to 30, the size of the All-Star squad began to balloon: to 30 that year, 32 in 2003, 33 in '09 and 34 in '10.
The result has been a game filled with more and more players who don’t deserve to be called All-Stars. Starters and reserves for this year’s game, which will be held at Petco Park in San Diego, were announced Tuesday, and the Final Vote results will be revealed next week. We already know some players—like injured pitchers Clayton Kershaw for the NL and Wade Davis in the AL—will need to be replaced, so by the time of the game on July 15, there will be at least 70 men who are officially designated All-Stars this season. Last year, the final total was 76 All-Stars, more than 10% of all players in the majors.
With that in mind, Jay Jaffe and I have decided to slim down the All-Star Game by constructing 25-man rosters for each league with the following setup: eight starting position players, one designated hitter, one backup catcher, three backup infielders, two backup outfielders, six starting pitchers and four relievers. Not every team is required to have a representative (sorry Rays, Twins and A’s). Instead, both Jay and I focused on fielding the best possible team right now, though there are cases where a player's established levels beyond the past half-season were used to make tough choices. Here are the players I chose to comprise the American League's squad; Jay's choices for the NL are here.
All stats are as of Tuesday, July 5. League leaders are in bold; major league leaders are in bold and italics.
1B: Miguel Cabrera, Tigers
Season Stats: .297/.377/.525 (141 OPS+), 18 HR, 51 RBIs
Cabrera just barely edges out Chris Davis for this spot, doing so as much because of his career accomplishments and status as a future first-ballot Hall of Famer (he’s already above the JAWS standard at first base for both peak and career) as his performance this year. Despite Davis’s superior counting stats (21 HR, 56 RBIs), Cabrera has clearly been the more productive bat this season (141 OPS+ to Davis’s 119, with just 60 strikeouts to Davis’s major-league leading 115). Davis closes that gap with his superior fielding, but Cabrera’s career accomplishments break the tie in his favor.
2B: Jose Altuve, Astros
Season Stats: .352/.423/.564 (165 OPS+), 14 HR, 49 RBIs, 116 H, 22 SB (88%)
Seattle's Robinson Cano and Detroit's Ian Kinsler, both frequent All-Star Game participants, are having impressive seasons, but neither is close to Altuve, who has been by far the best second baseman in the AL this year.
SS: Manny Machado, Orioles
Season Stats: .324/.380/.590 (151 OPS+), 19 HR, 53 RBIs
This might seem like cheating, but Machado has started more games at shortstop (43) than third base (36) this season, filling in at the position while J.J. Hardy was out with a fractured left foot. He has also been one of the four best players in the American League, pitchers included, according to Baseball Reference’s Wins Above Replacement. Cleveland's Francisco Lindor and Boston's Xander Bogaerts have both been excellent, but the AL's best starting lineup has to include Machado.
3B: Josh Donaldson, Blue Jays
Season Stats: .304/.415/.602 (168 OPS+), 22 HR, 60 RBIs, 77 R, 57 BB
The need to shoehorn Machado in at shortstop is borne from the fact that Donaldson edges him at third base. The defending AL MVP has been blazing hot over the last month, hitting .427/.524/.835 since June 8, and he now leads Machado in every statistic shown above except batting average. Given that both are elite defenders, it’s easy to let Donaldson’s hitting numbers carry the day and give him the start.
C: Salvador Perez, Royals
Season Stats: .273/.307/.476 (101 OPS+), 12 HR, 37 RBIs
There’s not much to choose from here. Only three AL catchers qualify for the batting title—Perez, Oakland's Stephen Vogt and Toronto's Russell Martin—and of those three, Perez is the only one with a three-digit OPS+. Drop the minimum requirement to 200 plate appearances and the field expands to eight catchers, six of whom are below average offensively, as measured by OPS+. Perez is a sub-par pitch framer, but he has thrown out 55% of attempting base stealers this year, making him second-best in the AL behind Detroit’s James McCann, who has faced 18 fewer attempts.
LF: Ian Desmond, Rangers
Season Stats: .319/.372/.521 (130 OPS+), 15 HR, 52 RBIs, 15 SB (83%)
Desmond may be the Rangers’ centerfielder now, but he started the year in left, making 27 starts there before moving to center full-time. His transition from shortstop to the outfield has been nothing short of remarkable: Desmond has not only proven viable in the outfield, but he has also been outstanding in the field and is enjoying his best season at the plate. A year ago, he was a shortstop in decline heading into his 30s. Now he’s a five-tool centerfielder and a deserving All-Star starter, at least on my team.
CF: Mike Trout, Angels
Season Stats: .324/.436/.569 (170 OPS+), 17 HR, 54 RBIs, 13 SB (93%)
RF: Jackie Bradley Jr., Red Sox
Season Stats: .293/.378/.551 (140 OPS+), 14 HR, 54 RBIs, 6 3B
Bradley has played centerfield exclusively this year, but, like Machado, he’s just been too good to leave out of my starting lineup. For what it’s worth, he did start 28 games for the Red Sox in rightfield last year. For anyone still concerned that the 26-year-old Bradley might be a fluke, he has now hit .274/.359/.528 with 24 home runs and 97 RBIs in 153 games since the start of the 2015 season. The owner of the longest hitting streak in the majors since 2013 (29 games), Bradley is also an outstanding fielder and better than his cumulative WAR numbers might suggest, as his plate appearances have been suppressed by his batting in the bottom half of the Red Sox' order for much of the season.
DH: David Ortiz, Red Sox
Season Stats: .337/.429/.670 (183 OPS+), 19 HR, 66 RBI, 34 2B
This is not a sentimental pick honoring the great career of a retiring player. This is a player at a hitting-only position leading the major leagues in on-base percentage, slugging and OPS+.
IF: Robinson Cano, 2B, Mariners
Cano is the best everyday player in the AL who didn’t make my starting nine. Altuve has him beat solidly for the start at second base, but Cano has been too good this season, and throughout his career, not to be included here.
IF: Francisco Lindor, SS, Indians
Lindor’s play in the field is what puts him over the top for this place on the roster, but what put him in the running for it is that there is nothing he doesn’t do well on the diamond. That sort of broad-based skill-set (with his glove as his most elite tool) makes Lindor underrated, as we saw in last year’s Rookie of the Year voting (which he should have won). He’s the best player on the team with the second-best record in the league and arguably the best full-time shortstop in the AL.
IF: Xander Bogaerts, SS, Red Sox
Bogaerts gets my final infield spot because of how well he compares to his fellow shortstops. There’s a sizeable gap between the top two second basemen, Altuve and Cano, and Ian Kinsler and Dustin Pedroia. That gap is even larger at third base between Machado and Kyle Seager. Bogaerts is very close in value to Lindor, however, having clearly out-hit him (126 OPS+ to 107), and he has been comparable on the bases (11 of 13 in steal attempts to Lindor’s 13 for 16). Lindor’s glove more than makes up the difference, but Bogaerts deserves inclusion here, and his ability to play third base helps round out my bench.
OF: Mookie Betts, RF, Red Sox
OF: George Springer, RF, Astros
Springer and Betts are young, athletic third-year players who moved to rightfield from center, resulting in both being superlative defenders in the corner position. They have also been very productive at the plate, giving them value on both sides of the ball that their rivals for these final two spots—39-year-old Carlos Beltran, post-surgery Michael Saunders, should-be DH Mark Trumbo and slap-hitting Adam Eaton—lack.
C: Brian McCann, Yankees
McCann is that other catcher with at least 200 plate appearances and a three-digit OPS+ (255 PA and a 106 OPS+ to be exact). He’s been better both at the plate and behind it than the two reserve catchers on the actual AL roster, Vogt and Baltimore's Matt Wieters, the former of whom made the team as the Athletics' lone representative.
Starting Pitchers (6)
LHP: Chris Sale, White Sox
RHP: Danny Salazar, Indians
RHP: Steven Wright, Red Sox
LHP: Cole Hamels, Rangers
RHP: Aaron Sanchez, Blue Jays
RHP: Michael Fulmer, Tigers
The top four men above have been the most effective pitchers in the AL this season. Sale gets the start because he has pitched the best out of that quartet, based on his peripherals and the number of innings he has eaten, and because of his career accomplishments. Sanchez gets the nod over rotation-mate Marco Estrada in part because Estrada has been coping with some back pain and seems unlikely to be available even if he does wind up making his pushed-back start on Friday. Tigers rookie Fulmer makes it despite his late debut and early struggles because his last eight starts—a total of three runs allowed with a since-broken streak of 33 1/3 scoreless innings that was the longest by a rookie starter since 1981—have been historic in proportion and one of the best stories of the first half of this season.
Relief Pitchers (4)
LHP: Zach Britton, Orioles
LHP: Andrew Miller, Yankees
RHP: Kelvin Herrera, Royals
RHP: Will Harris, Astros
The actual AL roster includes a whopping nine relief pitchers, only one of whom, Tampa Bay’s Alex Colome, is there as his team’s lone representative. That’s an indication of the lack of outstanding starting pitching performances in the Junior Circuit this year. To my eye, five of those relievers deserve inclusion, but for our purposes here, I had to cut one. That was a nearly impossible task, but the axe ultimately came down on Baltimore’s Brad Brach, who has thrown more innings than any of the others but has the lowest strikeout-to-walk ratio, the second lowest strikeout-rate (after Harris), the least name recognition and a teammate who had already made the cut in Britton.