Is it That Time of Year Already?

I swung by MLB.com today, and was surprised at the site greeting me with large banners announcing the 2004 All-Star Balloting. Quickly checking my calendar, I confirmed that it is still in fact April, and that no team has yet played even 10% of its schedule.

I don’t think I’m the only person to notice the balloting’s early start. Indeed, I expect to hear pundits complain that the balloting is starting way too early: “How can fans possibly choose All-Stars based on only 15 games?” (Note: it’s happening already).

Well, they won’t. Despite their hot starts, I doubt Matt Lawton or Ron Belliard will take the early voting lead. The fans tend to vote for their favorite players, who are usually the biggest stars. Writers (and even other fans) often complain that the fans ignore the current season and vote players in based on past reputation. Indeed, some have even suggested that fans should not vote on All-Stars because they aren’t competent enough to vote.

The problem with this argument is that it assumes certain criteria for choosing All-Stars. However, there are no explicit criteria. I carefully read MLB’s on-line ballot, including all the fine print; while there were plenty of rules about the actual balloting process and even a Terms of Use agreement and a privacy policy, there were no definitions or instructions or rules for choosing the actual All-Stars.

So, if there are no explicit standards, how can people blame the electorate for making poor choices? Fans are free to vote as they choose, without any guidelines; how does one rationally argue with those choices? (OK, that question is not fair, as lack of a rational argument rarely stops most writers anyway.)

Despite the hand-wringing, the fans do consistently select the very best players to start the All-Star Game: players like Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez and Albert Pujols are never left waiting for the announcements of reserves. Fans often do select their old favorites as well, such as Cal Ripken in 2000. And they sometimes make quirky picks, due to balloting oddities or big stories. And despite the balloting starting so early, the fans do recognize young players enjoying breakout seasons (most recently, Edgar Renteria and Marcus Giles).

There really is no pattern to the vote; the fan voting isn’t overweighted in any single direction. In some years, a certain team will dominate the voting, but those variations tend to even out over time. About the only group ignored by the fans are the average players having fluke seasons — but the managers and league office have historically made up for that “oversight” with the reserve selections. In short, the fans choose the players they want to see most, and that includes big stars, old favorites and exciting stories.

And that’s really best for everyone, isn’t it? By definition, the most number of fans are satisfied with the starters (OK, that’s not completely true, if fans vote in disproportionate numbers; but it’s close enough, especially since any fan who cares is welcome to vote more often at MLB.com). If MLB’s goal is to maximize interest in the All-Star Game specifically and in MLB in general, then wouldn’t the recipe for that include the very best players, the fading future Hall-of-Famers, the exciting young players, and the stirring stories? Some writers may not be happy with the starters, but then they get to write a column complaining about the situation, so their needs are met. The only constituency missing out is those players who don’t get voted in.

For many years, the league offices and All-Star managers have selected the reserves and pitching staffs. They have noticeably different criteria from fans, as they lean towards players playing well in the current season (leading to the All-Star berths for such luminaries as Ed Sprague and Greg “The Catcher, not the Closer” Olson). The managers often use their influence over the roster to repay their own players.

Additionally, they are bound by the rule requiring one All-Star per team. This rule is oft criticized, yet it does throw a bone to fans of the weakest teams. Many people believe the All-Star Game is enjoyed most by younger fans, and I remember the excitement of watching my team’s lone representative introduced before the game and then appearing in the game itself. Growing up watching a bad team, I fear I would’ve sometimes missed out on that thrill without the rule.

In 2003, MLB players had a significant role in the All-Star voting. By including the players, MLB demonstrated that they are willing to change the system, even dramatically. However, the poorly-designed player vote last year demonstrates the law of unintended consequences. Each player voted for a starter at each position in his league; the leader at each position would be guaranteed a spot on the team. The problem arose in situations where the fans and players agreed on the starter for a position, in which case the players’ second-place finisher would receive a reserve berth on the team.

Anybody who has studied voting systems could immediately recognize the shortcoming; when the ballot is one-deep, you can’t draw any meaningful conclusions about the rankings beyond the first-place finisher. In other words, the 70% of players who voted for Edgar Martinez essentially had their ballots ignored, because the fans had already voted Martinez into the starting lineup. Instead, the 30% of players ignorant enough to vote for another DH chose the reserve. There’s a simple solution to this problem, which is to allow players to designate a second choice on their ballots.

While it’s too early to draw any conclusions about what kind of selections the players will make (especially since last year’s implementation was botched), that group will bring their own set of biases to the table. Combining all the different sources of All-Star selections, the rosters are invariably a blend of various criteria and types of players. Nobody is completely happy with the rosters, but everybody has a say, and everybody’s own standards figure into the final rosters.

Some people still lobby MLB to de-emphasize the fan vote (or can it completely), yet they have the mistaken belief that their standards are more valid than others’. The 2003 system can use some tweaking, but the involvement of fans is the least of MLB’s concerns. Given that MLB doesn’t take the competitiveness of the game seriously (seeing it instead as a celebration of baseball and its brightest stars), the fan vote serves its purpose perfectly.

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