Timing concern keeps pitchers off ASG ballot
Danger of picking hurlers on short rest is at issue
Every spring, quite literally millions of fans sit down and punch out a ballot or go online and vote for All-Stars. They vote for their favorite players, or the best players, or the players having the best years. But it's only players -- it's never pitchers.
And in all the arguing over who deserves to go and whether the fans got things right in any given year, that quirk is a topic that rarely comes to the forefront. The starting lineups for the 2009 Midsummer Classic, to be played July 14 in St. Louis, will be settled by fan voting. The pitchers get a separate press release, relegated to a list of "pitchers and reserves." If pitching is such a huge part of the game, surely it's odd that fans don't have a say on which hurlers pitch on that star-studded Tuesday night in July.
According to Major League Baseball media relations, the reasoning is actually fairly simple. The fear is that fan balloting, which begins well in advance of the All-Star break, might yield a pitching staff full of guys who start on the Sunday before the All-Star Game. From the re-institution of fan balloting in 1970 through 2002, the All-Star manager and the league office selected a group of pitchers who not only were enjoying good years but who were sure to be available to pitch.
Since 2003, though, the equation has been different. In '03, a player ballot became part of the selection process -- and is every bit as susceptible to the same problem as the fan ballot. Players don't always know the order of their own teams' rotation, never mind that of rival clubs. So the problem that MLB worried about has become an issue after all.
Some pitchers like it the way it is, regardless.
"I like to leave it up to the managers," said Cubs closer Kevin Gregg. "He'll talk to the other managers and coaches, because if he has a guy who's bothered by something, you don't want to send that guy to the All-Star Game. Sometimes it's not the best thing for them or the organization."
Gregg is the perfect example of the kind of player fan balloting seems to benefit. He's a high-profile player on a high-profile team, enjoying a solid but not great year. Whereas San Diego's Heath Bell will very likely be selected via player vote or a manager's choice, Gregg probably will not. But he doesn't have a complaint.
The Mets' Francisco Rodriguez, on the other hand, would like to hear the fans' voice. "K-Rod" would be a shoo-in by virtually any method, owing to his brilliant numbers in the nation's biggest market.
"If the fans pick the position players," Rodriguez asked, "why not give them the chance to pick the relievers and starters? That would be nice. That would be a lot better. It should be fair for everybody. It would be [fairer] if the fans had a chance to pick. The bottom line is that we put on a show for them. They're the ones that go through a line and support us all season long to see us play. It would be nice if we gave them a chance to give their opinion, too."
A lot of it comes down to how one views the All-Star Game. Someone like Rodriguez, who sees an exhibition, sees the argument for a fan ballot. A more hard-edged view of the game, as a competition with high stakes, would likely lead to a different conclusion. See Twins reliever Joe Nathan, another pitcher who will be hard for players to leave off but might slip through the cracks in a fan vote.
"I think the voting is, to be honest, I think sometimes it's a joke," Nathan said. "It becomes almost like high school, where it's a popularity contest as opposed to who is having an All-Star year. That's what it is supposed to be all about -- who is having a good season, who is having the best season and who deserves to be starting in that game. There are times they get it right but I think more times than not it becomes a popularity contest and a lot of times the right guy isn't out there. It's the way it is. The game is for the fans but at the same time it means something now. So if they are going to make this thing mean something, to have the fans pick the starting lineup is kind of weird."
Nathan and his brethren in the bullpen do have one advantage, though -- the choices have tilted more and more towards relievers in recent years. The occasional setup man has even managed to sneak onto the roster as managers look for tactical options with their selections. That also gets around the Sunday-starter issue, as a reliever who pitches on the last day before the break is still available to pitch on the day of the game.
Even that's not always enough for the skippers, though. Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, a five-time All-Star manager and a member of this year's National League coaching staff, expressed frustration that the player balloting sometimes yields an unavailable starting pitcher.
"That was the criterion when I managed, that's no longer true," he said. "Because now the players can vote you in, and you have to go with it. If a guy pitches on Sunday, he shouldn't be picked. Unless you're a reliever. If you pitched on Sunday, unless you're a reliever, you shouldn't pitch on Tuesday. They've been allowing Sunday pitchers to be on the squad, and then you go there and you've got, 'I'll pitch if I have to, but I really don't need to pitch.' It's not good."
In part to allay concerns like that, rosters have gotten bigger in recent years. Still, there's not a lot of subtlety. Players pick the pitchers with the gaudy numbers -- microscopic ERAs and/or flashy win totals. Managers pick pitchers from teams that haven't been represented, or sometimes tactical weapons. In the end, the results probably aren't that much different from what a fan vote might yield, with occasional exceptions.
So at least one pitcher wouldn't mind if they flipped it.
"I've never understood why," said Dodgers starter Randy Wolf. "If the argument is only household names will get voted in, that's what happens with position players. That's why pitcher is the hardest position to make the All-Star team. You have to have a good year, you can't just get in on your name. You have to have a lot of wins."
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.