Five All-Star games in one!

The evolution of postseason play has created some blemishes in baseball’s complexion, and it is going in only one direction (an extra round of playoffs once expansion brings the total number of teams to 32.) Back in 1996, in The Big Bad Baseball Annual, I argued for a non-traditionalist approach to the postseason that would allow for teams in the same league to wind up facing each other in the Fall Classic. In 2008, with the AL possessing four out of the top five winning percentages in the game, it seems unfair that only one of these teams can actually get to the World Series.

But, good grief, I’m digressing right off the bat—a narrative strategy that really works only in film noir, not in essays—and especially not in essays about baseball (where, as we all know, “linearity is king”). We’re supposed to be talking about the All-Star Game, for Crissakes.

So what’s to talk about? Let’s face it: it’s a boring game, even with the wan gimmick of “home field advantage” for the winning league. The length and structure of the contest is poorly proportioned to what is, after all, merely an exhibition: it doesn’t allow enough of the available players to make a significant on-field contribution.

Is there a solution? Sure, but it’s radical and non-traditional. (And these are the polite terms that many of you will use to describe this proposal as it unfolds.) As always, though, I remain undaunted.

Here’s what we do to have some actual mid-summer excitement:

Create division-based All-Star squads.

Every year there are approximately two dozen deserving players left off each All-Star squad. If we create divisional squads with roster sizes of 19 players each, we have solved this problem. We’ve also created a big enough roster to get through a series of short-inning exhibitions (see below).

Have them play a three-inning round-robin exhibition to determine a champ.

Now here is where things get a bit baroque. First, remember that an eventual “division” champ is also a “league” champ, so you tradition freaks can still “grandfather” the results into the old model.

Three innings will allow a squad to use a starter for two innings, and a closer in the third, and whatever else is needed in case the game goes further. A 19-man roster will probably have 8-9 pitchers, so there will be enough starters and closers from each division to cover a maximum total of three three-inning games. There’d still be 2-3 more pitchers available for “extra innings.” (See my take on “divisional All-Star squads” for 2008 at the end of the article.)

Here’s how it works. The two divisions in each league with the best winning percentage (this year, that’d be the AL East and the NL Central) get a “bye” in the first round. So take a look at how this new “All-Star Exhibition” might play out.

First round:

AL West 2, NL West 1 (4 innings). Ichiro Suzuki singles in Chone Figgins (who doesn’t make the AL squad under the old selection rules) after Rich Harden follows Felix Hernandez and strikes out five in two innings.
NL East 4, AL Central 0. Cliff Lee, ace of the AL Central squad, has a bad first inning and his mates can’t solve Cole Hamels and Billy Wagner.

Second round:

AL West 1, NL Central 0. Justin Duchsherer (saved for “Game Two” by savvy AL West manager Mike Scioscia) and Frank Rodriguez don’t allow a hit and Vlad Guerrero homers.
AL East 6, NL East 5. Dice-K is wild and gives up four in the first, but Johan Santana gives up a three-run homer in the second and Washington’s Jon Rauch does the same in the bottom of the third (to Brian Roberts, who also doesn’t make the AL squad under the old rules.)

As you can see, the AL will “win” the “All-Star game” this year, via two division squads facing off in the final round for “bragging rights.”

Championship round:

AL West 1, AL East 0. Joe Saunders and Brandon Morrow (two more guys who might’ve been left off the AL squad under the old rules) give up just one hit, and Josh Hamilton hits a homer leading off the second inning. It’s been a long night for the AL Westies, but they get to do some sweet finger-wagging.

So are five All-Star games better than one?

Make up your own mind. But the advantages seem obvious. It can’t be stressed too strongly that what we’re dealing with here is an exhibition, not a “real game”—so objections that “we’re not playing nine innings” are moot. In fact, the at-bats in these three-inning games will be fraught with heightened meaning, given that we’re in what amounts to a “do-or-die scenario.”

More players get to actually play, not just sit around. Starters and closers get to make consistently meaningful appearances. Managers have to decide how to deploy their pitchers as if the game were starting in the seventh inning, which will make for interesting choices and a lot more morning-after second-guessing than what happens at present.

What’s the weakness? Games where the pitchers rack up zeroes, creating the possibility of too many extra innings. John Rickert crunched the numbers, and about 15% of all games are scoreless after three innings. As a result, what you’ll see in these games is increased usage of “little ball” strategies—base stealing, hit-and-run, sacrifices—to try to tack on an early run.

As noted earlier, teams will carry at least eight pitchers, so they should have two extra men to cover any “extra-inning” scenarios.

There will be a lot more strategy in these games, and it will force certain kinds of decisions in a compressed way that will be unique to the game.

And that will make this new version of the All-Star Game into a fascinating contrast with the traditional ballgame structure.

I predict that if this approach were implemented, the fans would love it. Some of them—some of you—will hate it, to be sure. But the vast majority of you will come around to it quickly when you realize that you’re getting “Five All-Star Games In One Night!!!”.

Sure, they’re bite-sized. But in our “Age of Attention-Deficit Disorder” and “100-Calorie Snack Packs,” this may be just what the doctor ordered.

So what is the relevance of such an All-Star game revision to the post-season—you remember that opening digression, now, don’t you? Well, simply put, if the public decides that they can stomach the idea of two divisions in the same league fighting for the bragging rights to the All-Star Game per the above scenario, this might set the stage for something analogous to occur in the postseason. Such a hope may be subversive, or merely deluded; but if there is truly post-partisanship in our future, can a post-league postseason be far behind?

DIVISIONAL ALL-STAR SQUADS 2008

AL East
SP: Jon Lester, Daisuke Matsuzaka, BOS; James Shields, Scott Kazmir, TB; Roy Halladay, TOR
RP: Jonathan Papelbon, BOS; Mariano Rivera, NYY; B.J. Ryan, TOR
C: Jorge Posada, NYY; Dioner Navarro, TB
IF: Brian Roberts, BAL; Kevin Youkilis, BOS; Jason Giambi, Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, NYY; Scott Rolen, TOR
OF: Nick Markakis, BAL; J.D. Drew, BOS; B.J. Upton, TB
Injury reserves: Luke Scott, BAL; Dustin Pedroia, BOS; David Eckstein, TOR

AL Central
SP: John Danks, Gavin Floyd, CHW; Cliff Lee, C.C. Sabathia, CLE; Zach Greinke, KC
RP: Bobby Jenks, CHW; Joakim Soria, KC; Joe Nathan, MIN
C: A.J. Pierzynski, CHW; Joe Mauer, MIN
IF: Joe Crede, CHW, Johnny Peralta, CLE; Placido Polanco, Marcus Thames, DET; Justin Morneau, MIN
OF: Carlos Quentin, CHW; Grady Sizemore, CLE; Magglio Ordonez, DET; David DeJesus, KC
Injury reserves: Jermaine Dye, CHW; Edgar Renteria, DET; Mark Grudzielanek, KC

AL West
SP: John Lackey, Joe Saunders, LAA; Justin Duchsherer, Rich Harden, OAK; Felix Hernandez, SEA; Vicente Padilla, TEX
RP: Francisco Rodriguez, LAA; Brandon Morrow, SEA
C: Kurt Suzuki, OAK; Gerald Laird, TEX
IF: Chone Figgins, Casey Kotchman, LAA; Jose Lopez, SEA; Ian Kinsler, Michael Young, TEX
OF: Vladimir Guerrero, LAA; Ichiro Suzuki, SEA; Milton Bradley, Josh Hamilton, TEX
Injury reserves: Mark Ellis, OAK, Adrian Beltre, SEA

NL East
SP: Tim Hudson, Jair Jurrjens, ATL; Scott Glenn, FLA; Johan Santana, NYM; Cole Hamels, PHI
RP: Billy Wagner, NYM; Brad Lidge; PHI; Jon Rauch, WAS
C: Brian McCann, ATL
IF: Chipper Jones, Mark Teixeira, ATL; Hanley Ramirez, Dan Uggla, FLA; Jose Reyes, David Wright, NYM; Chase Utley, PHI;
OF: Josh Willingham, FLA; Carlos Beltran, NYM, Pat Burrell, PHI
Injury reserves: Matt Treanor, FLA; Ryan Church, NYM; Cristian Guzman, WAS

NL Central
SP: Ryan Dempster, Carlos Zambrano, CHC; Edison Volquez, CIN; Wandy Rodriguez, HOU; Ben Sheets, MIL; Kyle Lohse, STL
RP: Kerry Wood, CHC; Francisco Cordero, CIN
C: Geovany Soto, CHC; Yadier Molina, STL
IF: Mark DeRosa, Aramis Ramirez, Ryan Theriot, CHC; Lance Berkman, HOU; Albert Pujols, STL
OF: Ryan Braun, MIL, Jason Bay, Xavier Nady, PIT; Ryan Ludwick, STL
Injury reserves: Derek Lee, CHC; Brandon Phillips; CIN, Jack Wilson, PIT

NL West
SP: Danny Haren, Brandon Webb, ARZ; Aaron Cook, COL; Chad Billingsley, LA; Tim Lincecum, Jonathan Sanchez, SF
RP: Taylor Buchholz, COL; Takashi Saito, LA
C: Russell Martin, LA; Benji Molina, SF
IF: Stephen Drew, Orlando Hudson, Conor Jackson, ARZ; Garrett Atkins, COL; Adrian Gonzalez, SD; Ray Durham, SF
OF: Matt Holliday, COL; Matt Kemp or Andre Ethier, LA; Brian Giles, SD; Aaron Rowand, SF
Injury reserves: James Loney, LA; Clint Barmes, COL; Khalil Greene, SD

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