In two Tuesdays, Major League Baseball will present, to its adoring fans and loyal lemmings, a wonderful spectacle called the All-Star Game, which has been a feature of the midsummer since the early 1930s. All major USA sports have them (the NFL has its game after the season). Baseball was once so enthralled with the concept that, for a short time in the early 1960s, it actually had two All-Star Games. The idea didn't last.
Let me dwell, though, on process.
Recent games (although this year's, with the new process, is a bit better), like pretty much every other one, have suffered, sometimes partially, sometimes mightily, from a disparity between the generally accepted "best players" at each position, and the ones who will, in fact, be representing the Leagues. The reason is quite simple.
The selection process is a steaming pile of elk dung.
That "process", such as it is, consists of online and in-stadium voting by so-called "fans", wherein they're given a list of predetermined candidates at each position and select one of them for as many positions as the voter chooses, but only one of each.
Now, I can't tell you how many times I've written that if the process -- on whatever topic -- isn't designed best to reach the desired end state, you've got a recipe for failure. I don't know what your end state is, and I'm really not sure what Baseball's end state is, but I'd really like to think that we could collectively agree that we would be happy if the end state were this:
The best players at each position start the All-Star Game.
Yep, that's it. That simple. Now, we can kick around whether "best players" means the best over the current (half) season, or the best in the year since the last All-Star Game. We can kick around how much value is placed to offense vs. defense, or whether that varies by position (maybe catchers and shortstops have defense weighed more). We can kick a lot of things around.
But we want the best players. We all know that even an imperfect system that tries to deliver the best players is one that would beat one that is not designed that way. Yet, sure enough, Baseball, in its inimitable way, has a system that places zero value on competence.
You see, the fans vote.
Yes, the "fans" vote. And not "vote", in the sense that you go to the polls on Election Day, validate your right to cast a ballot, and cast it -- one time. No, in baseball-speak, "vote" means check a box, and check a box, and check a box ..., ad nauseam. What rocket scientist decided that Baseball would get a good lineup of the best players by asking fans who those players are, and then allowing them to vote as often as they wanted, or at least more than once? That was going to get the best players?
Let us remember this:
(1) Fans typically see their own team constantly, but others only rarely if at all -- so they can't possibly be familiar with the entire league and all the players
(2) There are far more fans of teams in large metropolitan areas than of teams in smaller places -- so there is an innate bias in the voting bloc that requires shenanigans (like the 2015 Kansas City ballot stuffing) which, in turn, is exacerbated by the fact that ...
(3) Multiple voting by individual fans completely skews the equation toward those teams, and their players, supported by certain fans who are willing to sit and vote hundreds of times, or create hacking tools to vote in huge numbers.
All of those are characteristics of the current system. Each characteristic has in common the fact that it mitigates against selection of the best performer, and toward the player with the uniform favored by the voting fan. And the teams just dive in, with their "Vote for your favorite Tiger/Padre/Astro/Red Sox ..." campaigns, when it is in everyone's interest not to do that at all.
Now, if there were indeed a best way to do the selection, it would already be in place. OK, that's just a joke, but I don't see how Baseball loses by trying to home in on better ways.
After all, there actually are people in a position to evaluate player performance fairly -- the baseball press, for example; the general managers who are constantly evaluating talent and performance as part of their job; and the managers, coaches and other players (who suffer from problem (1) as much as the fans do, but at least in preparing to play those other teams, have to evaluate them as well).
There's also room in the selection for team statisticians, or for some incorporation of an analytical component to the selection, as is now finally done with Gold Gloves. I really like that, not just because I'm an MIT grad with an appreciation for unbiased analysis, but because it removes prejudices -- with good numbers, we have a brake against just assuming something contrary to fact (which, for example, made fans think Derek Jeter could actually field his position), and are forced to recognize outstanding performances from far less-heralded players, perhaps on losing teams.
I mean, if "Dancing with the Stars" can actually offset their own fan vote by giving equal weight to the scores of expert dance judges (at least when they don't use knowledge-free guest judges), then can't Baseball see the need?
Baseball commissioners and others have, in the past, used an inane argument that, in their words, "The game is for the fans" as a rationale for using fan voting. That, Mr. Retired Commissioner Bud Selig, and Mr. Current Commissioner Rob Manfred, is also a steaming pile of elk dung.
Not that the game is not "for the fans"; in fact, it is.
But there is zero connection between whom the game is for, and what the people the game is for actually deserve to see. In other words, fan voting not only does not produce a game that is "for the fans", it actually works in conflict with producing the game that the fans want to see!
I truly hate the multiple-vote concept that has permeated our society. "Vote early, vote often", whether it is for ballplayers or dancers or America's Got Talent contestants. Now, I am a Southern Baptist, and we have only five core principles in our faith -- one of which is "one man, one vote" in our churches. So maybe I've got a built-in bias where voting is concerned. But as far as I'm concerned, on any issue up for a vote, you get a vote. A vote. Not ten votes.
Before this year, there was added a second fan ballot, this time to add the last player to the All-Star team roster for each league. I went online a couple years back to try it out and cast a vote. The screen then asked if I wanted to vote again just by typing in one of those five-digit "Captcha" codes. I did. Then I did it again. I could have voted dozens of times -- in fact, I did, just to see how long it took to get tired of it, which kicked in at about 50-60 votes or so.
Do you think that the decision as to whether Xander Bogaerts more deserves to be on the team than other AL shortstops, should be affected by how long my addled brain can keep typing Captcha codes?
No, me t'either.
Six years ago, Baseball barely avoided having a starting lineup almost entirely made up of Kansas City Royals, based on a well-organized ballot-stuffing program out there in the Heartland. There is a lesson to be learned, but it remains to be seen if Baseball is simply too stupid to see it.
You want the best players on the team. The fans want that. They want an All-Star Game played by actual All-Stars, the best players in the two leagues.
Figure it out -- and leave voting to Novembers and Baptist churches.