On All-Star arguments

Sometimes, over at ESPN, I contribute to a thing called “Triple Play.” Last night, I wrote three answers to questions about the All-Star Game, and today, along with the responses from Christina Kahrl and Logan Burdine, they published them. I bring this up entirely as a matter of self-promotion and as a demand that you go read everything I write.

Ok, no, actually, I bring this up because there are aspects of the comments that bug me. Not the calling me or Christina or Logan a moron (especially the latter two—they’re as far from morons as someone could be). Not the impassioned belief that because R.A. Dickey has the best ERA, he’s the best pitcher. Not even the completely insane idea that Mike Napoli is less deserving of an All-Star slot than Jim Johnson (or Ryan Cook, for that matter).

No, the part that bugs me is the idea that there is only one way to choose an All-Star (or an All-Star starting pitcher once the roster of pitchers has been set). You’ve read me on this subject before—one of my early posts here was about the question of how you choose an MVP and what different theories of value might be available to you. The All-Star roster, if anything, presents a harder problem.

Should you choose the 47 (or whatever the number is these days) most valuable players from each league, with wiggle room for the fact that you need to fill the various positions and also meet the one-player-from-each-team requirement? Should you choose the players with the best true talent at each position? How do you weight offense (which is surely what people tune into the All-Star Game to see, right?) vs. defensive skill and value? Obviously, each of these issues presents sub-issues of measurement: how do you define value?; which value metrics do you use?; how do you define true talent?; how do you quantify defense?

The two main ways that people decide who to vote and argue for seem to be these:

  1. Pick the best players. This is essentially about true talent. The goal here is to pick rosters that are most likely to have the best players in the league, to provide the best talent-bang for your buck. I think a subsidiary goal, for what it’s worth, is to create rosters that won’t embarrass us when we look back 15 years from now. “Hold on, JIM JOHNSON was an All-Star? Really?”
  2. Pick the players who have played the best. This is about value over the first few months. (Though not necessarily strictly about cumulative value, because sometimes we want a dominant player who’s missed some time with injuries to get in.) The goal, at least from the only honest defense I’ve read of this method, is to reward players for playing well. Not a superstar, but you hit 20 homers in the first half? You get to go to the All-Star Game, meet a bunch of superstars, be on national TV, get your All-Star bonus, etc.

(As an aside, the weird thing about the All-Star Game “counting” these days is that the managers still seem to pick their reserves by method #2, even though arguably method #1 creates a better team, gives them a better shot to win, and thus gives their club a better chance at home-field advantage in the World Series, should they make it that far. Of course, as I believe I’ve seen Joe Sheehan argue, if we’re serious about “this counts,” then the Game shouldn’t be managed by “everybody plays” Little League rules—the starting pitcher should start and pitch as deep as possible and the bullpen should be filled with tactical options, not just the pitchers who have had the best season. There’s no reason to have eight starting pitchers on a roster that only exists to win one game. But this is all just in the way of further illustration of the absurdity of the All-Star Game.)

Thoughtful people have considered which of the two above methods (or what kind of blend of those methods) they prefer. People who yell on the Internet, by contrast, tend to simply assume that #2 is The Way and that any deviation from The Way is wrong. And makes you a moron. It will not surprise you to learn that people who call other people morons on the internet because of baseball have frequently not interrogated their own beliefs and reasoning to determine the bases for said things.

Take the NL last-man race: I chose Bryce Harper over Michael Bourn because Harper is a 19-year-old with tools out the wazoo, baseball skills to match, and a shocking amount of hustle, drive, #want, or whatever else you like to call it. Has Michael Bourn had a great year? Yes. Has he had a better year than Harper? Not really, but let’s just pretend for the sake of argument that he’s been a bit better overall. Is Michael Bourn, right now, a better player than Bryce Harper? I’m not sure. I think you’d be entirely justified in taking Harper over Bourn for the second half of this season even before you consider contract, free agency, or anything else besides pure on-field talent. You’d also be entirely justified in taking Bourn! But I think Harper is better right now, so I took him, because that’s my theory of how the All-Star Game should work. If you have a different theory, and your choice follows from your theory, that’s cool! That can happen! It’s allowed! But let’s not pretend that we’re arguing about the same thing.

I’d be dishonest if I didn’t point out the third perspective I brought to the debate, though. While I do lean toward Method #1 in picking players, I also believe, more and more as I grow older, in excitement and aesthetics and joy. On these grounds, I think the Harper pick is cemented. I want to watch this guy play. I want to watch him hit, I want to watch him throw, I want to watch him run. Michael Bourn is also fun to watch run and field, but Harper is more fun to me. And thus I vote for him, just the same way I vote for entertaining teams for NBA Fan Night on NBATV. Similarly, the idea of a Justin Verlander–Stephen Strasburg starting-pitcher matchup makes me insanely excited. I don’t particularly care whether Verlander has been the best or the second-best or the third-best pitcher in the league this year or the same for Strasburg, and in any case, the odds that my idea of pitcher valuation might not match up with yours. What I want is two triple-digit arms who are at worst among the top ten pitchers in baseball to face off against the very best hitters on the other side (and against each other).

There’s just as reasonable an argument to be made for R.A. Dickey on these grounds, by the way! He’s a knuckleballer, after all, which everyone loves and which provides a hilarious stylstic contrast to Verlander, and it’s not like he hasn’t pitched well enough to deserve it. I just find myself more compelled to roll the other way, and I don’t care whether Dickey or Strasburg has been better. That simply is not the criterion I’m using to choose between the two. (Or the three, because Zack Greinke, poor ignored Zack Greinke, really ought to be in this conversation.)

The thing that I think is incumbent on people in an argument is to argue from the same grounds. It is reasonable to say “R.A. Dickey is more fun to watch than Stephen Strasburg.” It is also reasonable to say “choosing your All-Star starter based on aesthetics is stupid,” because I have to be able to defend my criteria just as much as I have to defend my choices under those criteria. The thing that is not reasonable is, after I argue that Strasburg is more fun, to respond, “But Dickey is better.” These apples, they are different from these oranges. We cannot engage this way.