All-Star Game rosters feature plenty of youth and even more power
- Aaron Judge and Cody Bellinger are just two of the young, powerful players that highlight the first, but not final, edition of the 2017 All-Star rosters.
On Sunday evening, MLB revealed the rosters for the 2017 All-Star Game, which will be played on July 11 at Marlins Park. You can find the complete versions of the 32-man rosters—for which the fans elected the starting lineups and the players and league selected the reserves—here. What follows here are my five thoughts about the rosters and the process.
So if it doesn't count … then what?
Via the Collective Bargaining Agreement announced last December, the link between the All-Star Game and the World Series—with the winning league's pennant winner getting home field advantage in the Fall Classic, as had been the case since the infamous 2002 tie in Milwaukee—is gone. It was always an uneasy marriage because of an irreducible tension between two incompatible positions: first, that the game is supposed to be a fierce competition, and thus each league should put the responsibility of securing home-field advantage for its representative in the hands of the best possible team; and second, the reality that the players (and their respective teams) treat this as an exhibition. Many choose (or, in the case of several pitchers, are forced) to forego the action in order to get a crucial extra few days of rest while managers are expected to take a Little League-type approach to ensure maximum participation from within their bloated rosters.
For all of the complaints about that linkage, the 2003–16 period produced a fairly interesting and competitive slate of games even if the 11–3 tilt towards the AL was lopsided. Five of the 14 games were decided by one run, four more by two runs, and only three by four or more runs; the average margin of victory in that span was 2.6 runs. By comparison, in the 14 games from 1988–2001—of which the AL won 11, by the way—seven were decided by one or two runs, four by four or more runs, and the average margin of victory was 3.1 runs. By those measures, we got a better brand of All-Star Game with the since-discarded format.
But if the detachment from home field advantage allows the game to return to being merely an exhibition, that still doesn't solve its other main issue: whether the selections by fans and managers focus on recognizing the best first-half performances—several of which appear to be completely disconnected from years upon years of less distinguished scuffling that preceded them—or should it they attempt to identify the truly elite players at their positions, regardless of what small sample sizes tell us? Since All-Star selections become a historical record that inevitably plays into Hall of Fame voting—with the low appearance totals used an excuse to bypass voting for, say, Jeff Bagwell (four All-Star appearances) or Larry Walker (five)—I gravitate towards the latter view. Turning it into the All-Unprecedented First Half team means that the players who have similarly sizzling second halves, many of them in the heat of playoff races, never get similar due unless they wind up impressing awards voters to the extent of stealing MVP, Cy Young or Rookie of the Year honors away from hot first-half performers.
I’d bet a paycheck that a year from now that the snubbed Anthony Rizzo will be having a better season than Mark Reynolds, whose last seven and a half seasons have produced all of 3.5 WAR, but right now it’s the latter who gets the limelight. Yes, this is all very meta, but it's a philosophical quandary I struggle with every time I'm asked to evaluate All-Star rosters.
The kids are alright
Before getting to the inevitable nitpicking, it's worth recognizing what a remarkable collection of young talent is represented by the two rosters—and by and large, the right players were selected. Among position players in their age-25 seasons or younger, nine of the top 11 in terms of Baseball-Reference's version of WAR are on the two teams, namely the Yankees' Aaron Judge (4.8, tops in the league at any age), the Red Sox's Mookie Betts (4.2), the Astros' Carlos Correa (4.2), the Angels' Mike Trout (3.4 despite being out since May 28 due to a torn ligament in his left thumb), the Nationals' Bryce Harper (3.1), the Dodgers' Corey Seager (3.1), the Indians' Jose Ramirez (2.9), the Mets' Michael Conforto (2.4) and the Dodgers' Cody Bellinger (2.2).
The exceptions from among that 11 are the Cubs' Kris Bryant (2.4 WAR, tied for eighth) and the Reds' Eugenio Suarez (2.3, 10th). The former is among the NL's Final Vote candidates, as is the Red Sox's Xander Bogaerts (2.0, 13th) for the AL slate. Four more 25-or-under players from among that group's top 30 in WAR—the Yankees' Gary Sanchez, the Twins' Miguel Sano, the Orioles' Jonathan Schoop, the Indians' Francisco Lindor—are also on rosters.
On the pitching side, it's six of the top seven under-25s: the Diamondbacks' Robbie Ray (3.2), the Tigers' Michael Fulmer (2.7), the Cardinals' Carlos Martinez (2.5), the Yankees' Luis Severino (2.4), the Brewers' Corey Knebel (2.3), and the Astros' Lance McCullers Jr. (2.3). The Rockies' Kyle Freeland (2.5 WAR, tied for third) is the exception. The counter to the handwringing about baseball lacking a central "face of the game" star akin to LeBron James is the sheer breadth of talent and diversity that this aforementioned group represents. It’s a slate of great youngsters set up to captivate current fans and bring new ones in for many years to come.
Dingers as the Driver
Even in a year that's featuring record home run rates (1.26 per team per game)—perhaps due in part to juiced baseballs and a philosophical shift in hitting styles—it's great the two rookie surprises who are topping the home run leaderboards recognized with roster spots. Neither Judge, who has 27 homers and is dominating the leaderboards with league highs in WAR (4.8), OPS+ (193), runs (70), RBIs (62), walks (58), on-base percentage (448), slugging percentage (.687), nor Bellinger, who despite not debuting until April 25 has 24 homers and is hitting .260/.332/.624 with a league-high slugging percentage as well, have lengthy track records in the major leagues. But both have quickly converted their promise as top prospects to dominance at the major league level; Judge has the year's longest homer (495 feet) and the fastest home run exit velocity measured by Statcast (121 mph), while Bellinger keeps setting records for fastest player to reach X home runs. Both are on pace to demolish their respective leagues' rookie home run records (49 by Mark McGwire in 1987, 38 by Frank Robinson in 1956.
Elsewhere among the current upper echelon of longballers—a cast that includes some other unfamiliar faces—six of the majors' top nine are going, with George Springer, Joey Votto, Marcell Ozuna and Justin Smoak rounding out the cast. Also from within that top nine are a pair of AL Final Vote candidates, the Rays' Logan Morrison and the Royals' Mike Moustakas. Among the 32 major leaguers with at least 17 homers, 21 are either on the All-Star rosters or the Final Vote ballots. That Smoak, Morrison, Reynolds and Yonder Alonso are among the picks that I’d take issue with is beside the point; we’re in The Year of the Homer, and the All-Star Game will reflect that.
Jansen's jibe off base
Dodges' closer Kenley Jansen re-signed with the team as a free agent this past winter via an $80 milion deal and has so far delivered an amazing season (0.79 ERA, 53-to-1 K/BB ratio, 18-for-18 insaves) that's been everything the team and its fans could hope for. Even so, he went a bridge too far with his reaction to the team with the NL's best record not having a single starter in the All-Star lineup.
Via the Los Angeles Times' Bill Shaikin, he said, “I’ll say it loud and clear again … It’s the Dodger fans’ fault.” Jansen was particularly angry that Seager, who did make the team, lost out Zack Cozart for the starting shortstop spot and that Justin Turner was consigned to the Final Vote process. Seager has followed up an NL Rookie of the Year award-winning campaign with another one that deserves MVP consideration (.305/.404/.520 with 13 homers and 3.1 WAR, seventh in the league), while Cozart is a 31-year-old defensive whiz suddenly having his first great year with the bat. Turner, who missed three weeks due to a hamstring strain, is hitting .382/.472/.557, with the first two of those figures leading the league via the the phantom rule; if an 0-for-10 is added to his line in order for him to reach the 3.1 plate appearances per team game needed to qualify for the batting title, he still leads the league.
Jansen's quibbles aren’t unfair, but his anger, while understandable, is misdirected. Yes, the Dodgers play in the majors' second-biggest media market and in theory could produce the kind of rabid response that resulted in four Royals being elected as AL starters in 2015, but it's on the team to encourage that kind of ballot box-stuffing; that year, the reigning AL champions, whose players at one point led the voting at eight positions, put "Vote Royals" on the field behind home plate.
The larger issue, as Molly Knight, the author of the Dodgers-focused The Best Team that Money Can Buy, pointed out, is the ownership's failure to hammer out a local television deal. In a series of tweets, she noted on Sunday, "Half the homes in LA are blacked out from watching the Dodgers … Dodgers lead MLB in attendance again this season despite not having won a title in thirty years. Their fans just took over Anaheim and [San Diego] … But their TV audience is tiny, and that's where fans see reminders and instructions to vote. This won't change until blackout lifts."
Indeed. After the Guggenheim Group bought out Frank McCourt, the new ownership inked a record-setting $8.35 billion, 25-year television deal with Time Warner Cable in 2013, but the exorbitant carriage fees that TWC—and now Charter Communications, which bought them—have attempted to charge customers have resulted in other carriers not picking up SportsNet LA, the network that carries Dodger games. The rises of Seager and Turner have taken place during this blacked-out era, so one can understand why casual fans aren't rushing to vote.
Whither the Cubs … and other snubs
That Bryant, the reigning NL MVP of the reigning world champions, has to go through the Final Vote process to secure a roster spot is a bit of a shock. He's not having a monster year, but it's still a very good one (.263/.391/.511 with a 136 OPS+and 16 homers). Rizzo (.258/.386/.507 with a 134 OPS+ and 19 homers), is also having a fine season, and he was left off the roster entirely. Closer Wade Davis is the team's only current representative on the 32-man roster, which seems extreme even given the team's 41–41 record to date.
Still, by the time the Final Vote and the replacements for injured players and ineligible pitchers happen, most of the egregious snubs will be resolved.
So forgive me for not getting too flustered about, say, the current omission of the Dodgers' Alex Wood (9-0, 1.83 ERA), who seems like an obvious choice to replace Clayton Kershaw assuming the latter pitches next Sunday and is thus ineligible to participate on Tuesday. The Rangers' Yu Darvish and the Royals' Jason Vargas are also on Kershaw's schedule, lined up to pitch this Tuesday and then again on Sunday. Their respective teams can afford even less to skip their turns if they want to make the playoffs than Kershaw’s so they'll likely yield to replacements (last year alone, four NL pitchers bowed out). So too for injured Mets outfielder Michael Conforto, Astros ace Dallas Keuchel and Trout (Mookie Betts will start in his place, according to MLB, since he had the most votes from his fellow players of any AL non-starting outfielder). Sore hammies, elbows and throats, whether real or imagined, will open up more slots. I’ll keep my blood pressure in line until I see the final rosters.