CHOOSING A BETTER WAY TO CHOOSE SIDES: A CALL FOR A NEW ALL-STAR RIVALRY

August 1, 2015
Nicholas Patrick

On the Scale of Self-Assuredness (where 0 = Just Spitballin’ and 10 = I’ve Got It!), writer rates this idea as a 9.

For generations, our most popular and successful team sports leagues have organized All-Star Games in some form, and for good reason – the concept of a game featuring only the best of the best is simple, beautiful, and worthwhile. But identifying the most deserving players, though tricky in itself to an extent, is the easy part. The tougher challenge is dividing those players into teams toward which they feel, and fans feel, a sense of allegiance strong enough to give the game meaning.

Some leagues rightly acknowledge they haven’t identified the best approach to choosing sides, as evidenced by ongoing tinkering. The NHL has primarily used an East vs. West format for All-Star Games, but most recently has adopted a pick-up-game-style format, where two captains (not necessarily representing a conference, nationality, etc.) draft players for their respective teams. Over the years, the NHL has also pitted the league’s defending champion vs the best players from the remaining teams; the best players from American NHL teams vs. the best players from Canadian NHL teams; the best NHL players from North America vs. the best NHL players from other parts of the world; and has foregone the All-Star Game all together in recent Olympic years, when its best players are temporarily committed elsewhere.

Major League Soccer has also used an East vs. West format in the past, but most often and most recently has used a format that places all of the league’s best players on one team, to face an established team completely separate from MLS (whether a team from the English Premier League, Serie A, Bundesliga, or a national team). The league also once used a format that pitted the best American MLS players vs. the best MLS players from other nations.

Even the NFL has changed the way it chooses sides for the Pro Bowl. After the AFL-NFL merger was completed leading up to the 1970 season, the Pro Bowl immediately adopted an AFC vs. NFC format. This made sense in the beginning, as enough pre-merger hostility lingered to maintain the strength of the rivalry for some time. But with that fire long since extinguished, the NFL stole a page from the NHL’s book, and has used a pick-up-game format since the Pro Bowl played in January 2014.

The NHL and NFL have effectively spiced up the means (of selecting respective All-Star rosters) to an end (of playing an entertaining and meaningful game), but not the end itself. Players and fans still feel little, if any, allegiance to the teams. And now, we can’t even pretend that the outcome of the All-Star Game/Pro Bowl transcends the game itself (that it provides evidence that one conference is superior to another, or evidence that players from a certain part of the world are superior to players from another part, etc.). I highly doubt either league is finished tinkering.

At least one league has never had a great approach for choosing sides, but doesn’t seem too worried about it. The NBA has always used an East vs. West format, since its first All-Star Game in 1951. Ugh. Remember that while the NFL’s AFC/NFC rivalry (and MLB’s AL/NL rivalry, as I’ll discuss) has all but disappeared, at least we know it once existed! Whereas teams from each football conference (and baseball league) represented former rival leagues that tried to put the other out of business, the teams in the NBA’s East and West conferences were partners from the start (with few exceptions). The NHL and MLS, faced with a similar dilemma as it pertains to the All-Star Game, have recognized this problem and attempted to address it. I believe we’ll eventually see the NBA do some experimenting of its own.

At least one league rightly acknowledges its once-perfect approach for choosing sides is now far from perfect, but it’s tinkering in a misguided way. Unlike football’s AFL-NFL merger, Major League Baseball’s merger (between the American League and National League) has been much more nebulous and gradual, spanning an entire century or more. And over that span, the rivalry between the American League and National League has gradually dissipated. (Many baseball fans lament this, in part because MLB inexplicably insists – through marketing and certain rules/policies, etc. – that such a rivalry must exist. Instead, we should simply and positively regard the faded rivalry as the inevitable residual effect of a successful merger.) But when baseball’s first All-Star Game was played in 1933, the AL/NL rivalry still had strength to spare, providing an obvious best approach for choosing sides that would inspire allegiance from players and fans.

A number of events have blurred the lines between the AL and NL: the initial agreement in 1903 for each league’s champion to compete head-to-head (a little thing known as the World Series), individual players switching leagues, entire teams switching leagues (from the early 1900s to much more recent examples like the Milwaukee Brewers and Houston Astros), the introduction of periodic interleague play in 1997 (and eventually daily interleague play beginning in 2013), and the profoundly quiet formal dissolution of the American League and National League as legal entities in 2000, along with the elimination of both league president positions, and the elimination of the distinction between AL and NL umpires. Other practices like spring training scheduling, draft order determination, etc. are also more indicative of a single unified league.

Only a few league distinctions (some, maybe all, outdated) remain:

  • waiver claim priority rules
  • the designated hitter rule
  • individual statistics and awards (and many team statistical rankings)
  • regular-season scheduling (with the overwhelming majority of each team’s games being played against teams in its own league)
  • the requirement that MLB’s playoffs pit teams against others within their own league, and that the World Series include one representative from each league
  • the fundamental concept and existence of sub-leagues (like the AL and NL) within a broader unified league (like MLB)

Oh yeah, and the approach for choosing sides in the All-Star Game! MLB (like any other league) needs its players and fans to feel a strong allegiance to their All-Star teams. Acknowledging that the AL/NL rivalry (and such allegiance) had faded greatly, MLB boldly moved to base World Series home-field advantage on the outcome of the All-Star Game, beginning in 2003. I kinda liked the idea in the beginning (and I still don’t think it’s any worse than MLB’s previous practice of alternating World Series home-field advantage year to year between the AL and NL). But I don’t like it much, if at all, now. I now see that MLB shouldn’t try to strengthen allegiance by raising the stakes of the game (at least not with such an indirect and delayed payoff). It should (and can) strengthen the allegiance of players and fans instead by finding a new way to choose sides (the NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLS could also benefit from the same fresh approach).

Major League Baseball should choose sides for the All-Star Game based on experience*, pitting its young Rising Stars against established, veteran Superstars.

*Since publishing this article, writer now favors chronological age as the basis for choosing sides for the All-Star Game (rather than date of MLB debut).

In so many realms in life, we ponder and debate the relative power of youth and experience. Such a timeless and universal debate might just provide the blueprint to strengthen All-Star allegiance among players (Rising Stars eager to seize their spot, individually or collectively, on top of the baseball world; Superstars not nearly ready to relinquish their spot – certainly not to the youngest players in the league). And such an All-Star Game would also strengthen fans’ allegiance, as it would allow us to pretend the outcome transcends the game itself.

A few considerations:
How would MLB separate the Rising Stars from the Superstars?
A number of options exist. They could separate them based on:

  • Number of previous All-Star selections (my least favorite)
  • Annual salary (which is strongly, but not too strongly, correlated to experience)
  • Age
  • Major League service time (or, closely related, year in which player was eligible for Rookie of the Year Award)
  • Date of MLB debut (my favorite, in part because of its simplicity)

I think evenly-matched teams could be formed for an All-Star Game in Year X if the Rising Stars included All-Stars who debuted Opening Day of Year X-6 or later, and if the Superstars included All-Stars who debuted before the end of Year X-7. (For example, the 2016 All-Star Game would pit players who debuted Opening Day 2010 or later against players who debuted before the end of the 2009 season.) The six-year mark already provides a significant milestone in MLB tenure, as for many players it coincides with their initial free agent status.

This particular approach would introduce the interesting concept of debut classes to MLB. All-Star player introductions (with everyone lined up along the first and third baselines) could be done in order of debut class (maybe even going all the way by sprinkling the starting players among the rest, standing alongside their peers from the same debut class), drawing a loud ovation to start (for the baby or babies of the game) and an even louder ovation to end (for the grizzled ol’ captain(s) of the Superstars, whoever it might be). And every year, it would be cool to see which players “graduate” from Rising Stars to Superstars – MLB might even call on those graduates to begin considering themselves more than just players, but ambassadors of the game.

How would players be selected?
Sure, the voting/selection process would have to change, but that’s not such a bad thing. After all, an All-Star Game should never have to accommodate its voting process – rather, the voting process should be adjusted to serve the interests of the game. For what it’s worth, I happen to love the requirement that each team is represented, and I’d like to see this requirement preserved.

As we know, the current All-Star selection process begins with fans voting for starting position players, using a ballot categorized by position and league. That won’t work for an experience-based All-Star Game. One possible alternative (out of countless others):

  • The All-Star ballot is categorized only by regular team (all of Arizona’s pitchers and position players lumped into a single category, all of Atlanta’s pitchers and position players lumped into another category, and so on); it would make for a hefty ballot, but this is feasible in the online ballot era
  • Fans vote for one representative from each team (30 of the All-Stars would be selected this way; some, but not necessarily exactly half, of those players would be placed on the Rising Stars based on the date of their MLB debut; the rest would be placed on the Superstars; none would be guaranteed a starting spot)
  • The rest of the rosters would be filled by players selected by the All-Star managers (MLB could also continue to allow players to be selected by their peers; I’m lukewarm about this practice)
  • The managers would select the starters from among the All-Stars (it wouldn’t matter whether a player was voted in by fans or some other way)

So who would manage the All-Star teams?
MLB could continue a pretty cool tradition by allowing the previous year’s World Series managers to manage the All-Star teams. (Maybe the less-experienced manager could lead the Rising Stars, and the more-experienced manager could lead the Superstars.)

Or, MLB could really shake things up and allow fans to vote on the managers themselves. (Maybe add one category on the ballot that includes the newest half of managers, and another category that includes the remaining managers.) The voting window for managers would probably have to end a little earlier than the voting window for players, to allow the selected managers to prepare for the game.

Who would be the home and away team?
MLB would need to foster a sort of champion vs. challenger (between Superstars and Rising Stars, respectively) atmosphere with this format. As a nod to the Superstars, I would prefer to see them as the home team, regardless of where the game is played or who is on each team. Each Superstar would wear the home (white) version of his respective regular team’s jersey, and each Rising Star would wear the road (gray) version of his respective regular team’s jersey.

Wouldn’t some regular teammates be placed on opposing All-Star teams?
Yep, and it would be really cool.

Would an experience-based format have any significant effect on the Home Run Derby and/or Futures Game?
Nah, but MLB would probably have to replace the rarely-worn American and National All-Star batting practice jerseys with just-as-rarely-worn Rising Stars and Superstars batting practice jerseys.

How would MLB determine home-field advantage for the World Series?
For better or worse, it could no longer do so based on the outcome of the All-Star Game. Many fans suggest granting home-field advantage to the pennant winner with the superior regular-season record (similar to the NBA’s approach for The Finals), but AL and NL teams play such different schedules that I really don’t think MLB can declare, say, a 95-win NL team better than, say, a 94-win AL team, and act like it’s being scientific about the matter.

The spirit of MLB’s current approach – granting World Series home-field advantage to the champion of the superior league – makes some sense, but we can all agree the All-Star Game is an awfully suspect way to identify the superior league. I favor using overall record from the hundreds of interleague games played each MLB season as a better approach to identifying the superior league and granting World Series home-field advantage (that is, as long as the concept of leagues continues to exist – a discussion for another day), and to spice up interleague play (by tracking the AL vs. NL tally throughout the season) in the process.

Would the All-Star Game be promoted any differently?
MLB could go hog wild with the transcendence of Youth vs. Experience:

  • Promos leading up to the All-Star Game with prominent figures and celebrities declaring their allegiance to the Rising Stars or Superstars (based on their level of experience in their own walk of life)
  • Incorporating the theme into the Celebrity Softball Game and All-Star Concert
  • Clips of Rising Stars expressing their admiration for certain Superstars – how they followed them as a kid
  • Replaying footage of Superstars from the days when they were Rising Stars themselves
  • Playful hazing (good-natured, of course!) of Rising Stars by Superstars
  • Marketing MLB’s young stars (Critics often question MLB’s approach to marketing its young stars; well, with this format, a casual fan wouldn’t have to hunt for such players scattered between the two All-Star teams – they would all be gathered in one dugout)
  • Continuing the practice of honoring everyday heroes of all ages before each All-Star Game, with children, teenagers, and 20-somethings escorted/accompanied by Rising Stars, and all others escorted/accompanied by Superstars
  • Instead of promoting the game as an event to watch from a sports bar (which I enjoy just as much as the next fan), promoting it as an event for the family to watch while gathered around the TV, with the kids rooting for the Rising Stars and the grown-ups rooting for the Superstars

Under this format, what might the 2016 All-Star rosters look like?
I’m sure others could build better rosters than I can, but a matchup featuring the players listed below (based on the current All-Star roster size of 34 players, which I happen to think is too many) would be awfully enticing. (Note: players who debut in 2016 would be eligible to play in the 2016 All-Star Game, but I didn’t happen to choose any for this purpose, in no small part because we don’t know who those players are yet!)

RISING STARS
2015
Miguel Sano DH MIN
Kyle Schwarber C CHC
Byron Buxton OF MIN
Carlos Correa SS HOU
Kris Bryant 3B CHC

2014
Maikel Franco 3B PHI
Joc Pederson OF LAD
Jacob deGrom SP NYM
George Springer OF HOU
Jose Abreu 1B CHW

2013
Sonny Gray SP OAK
Gerrit Cole SP PIT
Yasiel Puig OF LAD
Jose Fernandez SP MIA

2012
Manny Machado 3B BAL
Matt Harvey SP NYM
Chris Archer SP TBY
Andrelton Simmons SS ATL
Bryce Harper OF WAS
Yoenis Cespedes OF NYM

2011
Salvador Perez C KCY
Paul Goldschmidt 1B ARZ
Jason Kipnis 2B CLE
Jose Altuve 2B HOU
Mike Trout OF LAA
Anthony Rizzo 1B CHC
Dee Gordon 2B MIA

2010 (these players would serve as co-captains of the Rising Stars)
Freddie Freeman 1B ATL
Aroldis Chapman RP CIN
Chris Sale SP CHW
Giancarlo Stanton OF MIA
Stephen Strasburg SP WSH
Craig Kimbrel RP SDP
Josh Donaldson 3B TOR

SUPERSTARS
2009 (these players would finally “graduate” from Rising Stars to Superstars)
Buster Posey C SFG
Madison Bumgarner SP SFG
Andrew McCutchen OF PIT

2008
David Price SP TOR
Clayton Kershaw SP LAD
Max Scherzer SP WSH
Evan Longoria 3B TBY
Johnny Cueto SP KCY

2007
Joey Votto 1B CIN
Justin Upton OF SDP
Ryan Braun OF MIL
Carlos Gomez OF HOU
Josh Hamilton OF TEX

2006
Troy Tulowitzki SS TOR
Dustin Pedroia 2B BOS
Adam Jones OF BAL
Cole Hamels SP TEX

2005
Adam Wainwright SP STL
Felix Hernandez SP SEA
Jonathan Papelbon RP WSH
Prince Fielder DH TEX
Robinson Cano 2B SEA

2004
David Wright 3B NYM
Yadier Molina C STL
Zack Greinke SP LAD
Adrian Gonzalez 1B LAD
Matt Holliday OF STL
Jose Bautista OF TOR

2003
Miguel Cabrera 1B DET
Jose Reyes SS COL

2001
Albert Pujols 1B LAA

1999
David Ortiz DH BOS

1998
Adrian Beltre 3B TEX

1994 (this player would serve as captain of the Superstars – in this case, providing the new format with its first awkward moment!)
Alex Rodriguez DH NYY

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