Ever since the end of my childhood (this occurred around 2000), I’ve watched Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game with less awe and more conviction. My interest in the game has become more self-righteous as I root for the game’s more overrated players to fail and the under-appreciated stars to succeed; or, in last year’s case, I root for the game to end. Not all inclinations are based on my ongoing quest for the accurate evaluation and perception of players. Yankees receive cheers no matter what, Red Sox remain vilified – that goes for any Met not named Carlos Beltran, too.
I find the All-Star selection process much more interesting than the game itself. Fans, players, and managers contribute to varying degrees in setting the 33-man roster. Each group – much like any group – has its idiots, its intelligent voters, and a group that falls somewhere between the two. Ultimately, the final rosters provide a useful glimpse into which players embody the intersection of popularity and skill. As you might expect, I prefer that the selectors look at the latter almost to the total exclusion of the former. More difficult is the question of which player is more deserving: the one-half wonder, or the (probably) more talented player with a consistent track record? I lean more towards the established player, although certain cases allow for the rewarding of an incredible first half, even if it is unlikely or unsustainable. There’s a fair argument on both sides.
Now that I’ve bored you with my philosophical musings, I’d like to share my picks for the American League’s 33-man roster. The actual roster can be found here, although they do not yet include the winner of the Final Vote. I’m loosely following the prescribed format: eight starting position players, 13 pitchers (distributed arbitrarily between starters and relievers), and 12 bench players (with a backup at each position). The National League will follow in the coming days. Here we go:
C: Joe Mauer, Twins
This is probably the easiest pick of any position in both leagues. Mauer is having an unbelievable year. He’s legitimately flirting with hitting .400 – and his line drive rate is lower than his career norms. His power has caught everyone off-guard, as he’s on pace to more than double his single-season high in home runs. And also, he’s doing all this as a catcher. This is your first half AL MVP.
1B: Kevin Youkilis, Red Sox
He’s whiny, he’s a punk, and he has never, ever struck out looking on an actual strike, but he’s been the best first baseman in the AL this year. A superb defender, Youkilis has an OBP well into the .400s. He complements his outstanding eye with good power (14 HRs, .548 SLG). He faced stiff competition from Mark Teixeira and Justin Morneau, but ultimately, Youkilis’ non-existent home/away splits (with half his games in Fenway Park!) earned him this spot. Congratulations, Kevin. Shave your beard.
2B: Ian Kinsler, Rangers
Look, Dustin Pedroia had an incredible year in 2008 and totally deserved his MVP award. But there is no way that he deserves to start at second base for this year’s team. He’s not even the best second baseman in the AL East, although he does have a monopoly on the “angriest midget” distinction. Kinsler has slugged 20 home runs (Pedroia: 3), has stolen 17/19 bases (Pedroia: 14/19), and has played comparably good defense. Kinsler’s palm-to-forehead-inducing home/away splits are more than outweighed by his ongoing Judaism, making him the clear choice for this spot.
SS: Jason Bartlett, Rays
I find myself paralyzed by how unremarkable Bartlett is, so I’ll just say this: AL shortstops aren’t very good, Bartlett can now field and hit (almost definitely a fluke), and Derek Jeter has been only slightly worse than his Rays counterpart. Nevertheless, the fans voted in Jeter and his high fade. So it goes.
3B: Evan Longoria, Rays
You could make a case for Brandon Inge as the AL’s best third baseman so far. His .266/.361/.503 line matches up well with Longoria’s .284/.362/.534, including typically superior defense. It is, however, painfully clear to Yankees fans the league that this position is Longoria’s to lose for the next decade or so. His combination of power, patience, and defense make the 23-year-old one of the game’s youngest and brightest stars. Strong first half showings from Inge, Michael Young, Scott Rolen, and Chone Figgins simply can’t change that.
OF: Torii Hunter, Angels
What a strange reversal for Hunter. The Angels signed Hunter to a 5-year, $90 million deal prior to last season expecting to get exemplary defense and average offense from the former Twin. Now he’s tearing the cover off the ball to the tune of a .305/.380/.558 line and playing mediocre defense. Players generally don’t peak at age 33, so I’m not optimistic about the permanence of Hunter’s offensive prowess. But given his past accomplishments and his current production, he deserves to start in center field. He’s just keeping it warm for Adam Jones anyway.
OF: Ichiro Suzuki, Mariners
This was a difficult decision for me. As a dedicated “AL guy,” I have a furious love affair with home runs and slugging percentage. Apathy towards defense has emerged from this affinity, largely because the type of player that wallops tons of homers is not good defensively. So it is with a heavy heart that I eschew Jermaine Dye and his 20 home runs in favor of Ichiro and his paltry six. It’s clearly the right choice though. Even with an inferior walk rate, Ichiro’s OBP currently sits at .386. He hits enough doubles (16) and steals enough bases (17) to make up for his lack of raw power. And please, let’s not forget that he remains one of the finest defensive right fielders in baseball. Ichiro’s inclusion virtually guarantees a compensatory Adam Dunn appearance in my National League selections.
OF: Carl Crawford, Rays
Yet another choice that goes totally against my love of home runs. Crawford is fourth in OPS amongst AL left fielders, trailing Johnny Damon, Jason Bay, and Juan Rivera in the recently-emerging statistic. All three competitors have double-digit home runs and higher slugging percentages, but Crawford’s speed makes him the choice. I’m not talking about the useless kind of speed that Juan Pierre and Joey Gathright possess (you can’t steal first, as they say), but about real, game-changing celerity. Crawford has made use of his .371 OBP and stolen 41 bases, which is more than eight teams have stolen. This sort of speed also translates to the outfield, where Crawford is an excellent defender. I can’t believe I just wrote a paragraph exalting a player for his speed. What’s happening to me?
P: Zack Greinke, Royals
Greinke has been quite good for two years now. This year, he’s been nearly unhittable. In 121 innings, he’s struck out 120 and walked 19 (that’s a 6.32 K/BB ratio) on his way to a 2.00 ERA. He’s given up four home runs. Opposing hitters are posting a .242/.273/.347 line against him, which means that he reduces almost everyone to Jeff Francoeur levels of production. I could go on and on, but he’s the clear choice over the similarly potent Felix Hernandez. I hope you’ll root for him as ardently as I will.
C: Jorge Posada, Yankees
Posada barely beats Victor Martinez because of the latter’s splitting time between catcher and first base. Posada has also been known to occasionally throw out a baserunner, a feeling with which Martinez remains unfamiliar.
1B: Justin Morneau, Twins
I admit that I hold an unwarranted personal grudge against Morneau for winning the 2006 AL MVP over Derek Jeter (seriously, compare their years and tell me Morneau deserved it). But he’s been wonderful this season (.320/.396/.595), making my terrible urge to replace him with Mark Teixeira totally unjustified.
2B: Aaron Hill, Blue Jays
A .335 OBP isn’t all that great, even from the light-hitting second base position. Twenty home runs and good defense can do a lot to sway a man’s opinion though, making him my backup second baseman.
SS: Derek Jeter, Yankees
My friends, family, and probably neighborhood doormen are aware of my tempestuous relationship (can one-way, theoretical interactions be considered “relationships”?) with the Yankees shortstop. I loved him when I was young and when he was in his prime, but soured on him as my immersion in sabermetrics and his decline coincided. Despite this shift, Jeter unquestionably deserves a (backup) spot on this year’s team. Perhaps his troubling 2008 season overstated the immediacy of his erosion. Right around the corner: the expiration of his contract in 2010, and the fascinating negotiations that will follow.
3B: Scott Rolen, Blue Jays
None of the non-Longoria candidates jumped out at me. Michael Young has great offensive numbers, but loses points for awful defense and being a baby about changing positions prior to this season. Chone Figgins is a nice player, but doesn’t have the power necessary for an All-Star selection. Brandon Inge’s boost in OBP reeks of an outlier (yes, I ignored this with Jason Bartlett, but Inge is 32 and Bartlett is 29). Alex Rodriguez missed a little too much time for me to consider him seriously. So, Rolen’s .325/.386/.480 line and above-average defense give him the nod.
OF: Adam Jones, Orioles
I’d be willing to bet that this is the last year for a long, long time that Jones doesn’t make an All-Star team. 23-year-old center fielders with power, patience, speed, and defense don’t exactly grow on trees. Enjoy Erik Bedard, Seattle.
OF: Shin-Soo Choo, Indians
Because his defense is slightly less terrible than Jermaine Dye’s.
OF: Jason Bay, Red Sox
Because his defense is slightly less terrible than Johnny Damon’s.
OF: Adam Lind, Blue Jays
Lind has shown signs flashes of greatness over the last two seasons, but his regular insertion into the lineup has allowed him to blossom. Only 25, .300/.380/.520 isn’t an unreasonable expectation for the next five years, especially if he improves only slightly against lefties.
UT: Ben Zobrist, Rays
Zobrist has played second base, right field, and shortstop this year – versatility that relegates him to my bench because of an undefined position. Make no mistake about it though: Zobrist is having a phenomenal year. His .282/.404/.595 line plays at any position, and when it’s in the infield, it’s MVP-level production.
C: Victor Martinez, Indians
Oh fine, Martinez can come too. I suppose I was a little hard on a .299/.378/.500 line that splits time between catcher and first base, even if he is really bad at controlling the running game.
SP: Felix Hernandez, Mariners
The sky is the limit for the 23-year-old Venezuelan. He’s striking out nearly a batter an inning, inducing more ground balls than ever, and allowing fewer home runs. His 2.62 ERA first-half is just another step towards what should be one of the most frenzied bidding wars ever for a free agent.
SP: Roy Halladay, Blue Jays
I’m not sure how much longer he can keep this up. Halladay is coming off seasons in which he pitched 220, 225, and 246 innings. At 32, he isn’t getting any younger, but then again, his statistics aren’t getting any worse either. In any case, a 2.79 ERA and only a baserunner an inning warrants a spot on the team, especially since that’s been his standard performance since 2005.
SP: Edwin Jackson, Tigers
Die-hards must feel like Jackson has been around forever. He was 19 years old when he debuted for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2003, hyped as a fireballing righty with electric stuff. Now an ancient 25, Jackson has posted a 2.59 ERA with solid command since leaving Tampa Bay. He doesn’t strike out enough batters to maintain this performance, but for the time being, he’s one of the best starters in the AL.
SP: Justin Verlander, Tigers
141 strikeouts in 115 innings? Your spot awaits, Mr. Verlander. His stuff is so good that his 3.59 is a striking disappointment.
SP: Josh Beckett, Red Sox
He’s a jerk, but he can pitch. His command has fallen off a bit so far this year, but his strikeouts remain strong and he’s actually inducing more grounders than ever. When he returns to his 2007-2008 levels of command, his already impressive 3.62 ERA should drop.
SP: Jered Weaver, Angels
This could be the best we’ll ever see Weaver pitch. He’s got good but not great control, average stuff, and strong flyball tendencies. As a result, his success will often depend on his defense and his ballpark. Nevertheless, it’s hard to argue with a 3.15 ERA in 114 innings, no matter how tenuous their hold may be.
SP: Matt Garza, Rays
It’s a small sample, but Garza has been startlingly consistent since 2007. He had a 3.69 ERA that year, followed by 3.70 in 2008. His ERA right now? 3.70. Garza doesn’t do one thing superbly, but he does many things well. He strikes out nearly eight batters per nine innings, induces a fair number of ground balls, and generally throws strikes. He’s not spectacular, but he’s quite good. Given my general distaste for relievers, that’s enough to make this team.
RP: Andrew Bailey, Athletics
Because saves are an incredibly useless statistic, my selection of relievers is based almost entirely on high strikeouts and an acceptable number of walks. Bailey generally fits this description. He’s got 57 strikeouts in 49 innings, and while his 19 walks are a little high, his ability to miss bats makes him an easy pick.
RP: Joe Nathan, Twins
Nathan’s 22 appealed to the traditional crowd enough to put him on the actual team. I chose him for different but obvious reasons. 43 strikeouts in 33 innings – along with seven walks – is plenty good enough for inclusion.
RP: Mariano Rivera, Yankees
As both a fan and a blogger, I’m choosing to ignore Rivera’s disconcerting five home runs already allowed. Instead, I choose to focus on his career-best 10.90 K/9 and his ridiculous three walks surrendered in 34 innings.
RP: JP Howell, Rays
Howell’s selection is mostly a function of my total distrust of David Aardsma, Octavio Dotel, and Jonathan Papelbon’s walk rates. His value isn’t so much in his ability to strike batters out (although he does that well), but in his durability, low home run-rate, and aptitude at getting out both lefties and righties.
If you’ve made it this far, I salute you. I’d love for you to leave a comment offering reasoned dissent or useful enlightenment.
National League picks are forthcoming.