Another season of Major League Baseball is in full swing, and the voting for the 83rd annual All-Star Game is open both online and in all 30 ballparks across North America. Fans can vote online a maximum of 25 times per e-mail address until June 28 for starting position players, a system one MLB.com columnist deems “an exercise in global, participatory democracy” with an “enormous” electorate. Beyond the nine starting position players, the players themselves vote for backup All-Star players and team managers select several players of their choosing to ensure that at least one player from each team is represented for parity reasons.
Some may say, “Who cares? The All-Star Game doesn’t even matter.” On the surface, the statement has some merit—the MLB All-Star Game merely determines which league will claim home field advantage in the World Series in October and is largely hoopla and fanfare. Delve a bit deeper, however, and it becomes clear the All-Star Game is critical at the individual player level. Simply being named to the All-Star roster is a defining characteristic of a player and a sticking point in future contract negotiations.
To put it plainly, All-Star nominations translate to higher player salaries in the long run by demarcating expertise—be it in salary arbitration hearings or free agent contract negotiations (or even marginal salary bonuses of hundreds of thousands of dollars for some). Just ask agent Scott Boras how convenient it is to tack that little tidbit onto his clients’ résumés when seeking another gargantuan contract. By extension, therefore, All-Star Game nominations have at least an indirect impact on the labor market structure of MLB and it is worthwhile to look at alternatives to make player selections more democratic in a modern sense.
Though MLB grants 25 votes per individual in an attempt to offset the innate inequities between large-market and small-market fan bases, the inequities persist. No matter how one reads it, large-market teams tend to boast more players on a league’s starting roster because of their larger fan base and wider name recognition. Just take a look at the 2011 starting lineup for the American League—Boston and New York position players alone took six of the nine spots. Sure, Boston and New York could simply have comparatively better players at given positions, but given the subpar years of Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter before the All-Star break last year, fans seem to have been ill-informed when casting their ballots.
How can MLB rectify this starting position player ballot dilemma? A two-pronged approach would help. First, list the position players on the ballot in order of sortable stats ranging from batting average to slugging percentage; the current ballot structure requires fans to actively seek out stats and assumes that all have adequate knowledge.
Secondly, and more importantly, the structure of voting should be changed so that fans are incentivized to vote for players that aren’t on their favorite team’s roster. The current structure makes a mockery of the equality of impact that is supposed to define our modern democracy by allowing some particularly avid fans to hijack the system and dilute the votes of casual fans. Instead, the voting system should use a two-step process that occurs over two weeks in late June, with each position category divided in half by lottery to create localized, intra-position voting competition. The winners of each local race the first week face their positional counterpart in a final vote to determine the starting slot, with the second-place winner starting as backup (eliminating the need for player selections).
For example, let’s take first basemen in the American League this year and run their names through a lottery. The random number generator pits the following against each other in Pool One: Adrian Gonzalez, Albert Pujols, Adam Lind, Carlos Pena, Justin Smoak, Eric Hosmer, and Daric Barton. The remaining first basemen in the AL face off against each other in Pool Two. The individuals with a plurality of votes in each pool move on to face each other in the second week. While the first week may be more based on team allegiance, the second round invites fans of all teams to cast ballots to construct the best team to put out on the field against the opposing league. Thus, the voting process eliminates many biases intrinsic to the current arrangement and does not drag on forever.
What about the pitchers? Players have as much a right as any other to vote on the pitchers worthy of a nod since they are the ones facing them daily, but giving them sole control is a bit unfair to many fans whose favorite players take the mound every five days. Here is a more reasonable alternative: have players nominate the top 50 pitchers (starters and relievers) in each league, then have fans vote for the top 10 starting pitchers and top five relief pitchers of that group using the current system during the last week of voting. That should get fans disappointed in their previously futile vote to run back to the online ballot box for a shot at redemption. For parity’s sake, the managers can fill out the remaining roster spots due to injury or non-participation or vacancy if necessary and choose the starting pitcher who will begin the game.
Under this arrangement, the All-Star Game’s impact on the labor market structure remains the same, but the players who can call themselves “All-Stars” (and earn the bigger payday) will have had to earn it through a more democratic system.
Baseball is America’s pastime, so it should try to act like it a bit more.
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