At least Jim Leyland has one easy decision with his American League All-Star pitching staff: Mariano Rivera — leading the league with 23 saves in the final year of his historic career — is as close to a no-brainer pick as one could imagine.
Leyland won’t have Rivera start the game as a tribute, as has been suggested by some. He would, however, like Rivera to get the ball with a ninth-inning lead July 16 at Citi Field in the MLB All-Star Game on FOX. Given the success of that strategy over the past 17 years — including four All-Star saves — it’s hard to argue with him.
Anyhow, Leyland is lucky to have one stress-free selection. He’s certain to face a number of pitching predicaments, with less than one month before the July 7 roster announcement.
One obvious dilemma: Leyland’s Detroit Tigers have four of the league’s top eight starters, according to the pitching WAR rankings on FanGraphs.com. Will Leyland have room for each of Detroit’s (new) Four Tops, given that every AL team must be represented by an All-Star? Or will he make the agonizing decision to leave one of his deserving starters home?
“I hope I sneak in there,” said Justin Verlander, the AL starter in last year’s Midsummer Classic.
And he wasn’t joking.
To have four All-Star starters from the same team would be unprecedented in the Expansion Era. The 1942 Cincinnati Reds were the last team to do it, according to STATS LLC. That happened only after Paul Derringer replaced Ray Starr on the National League roster.
But Verlander believes the Tigers could have “three, maybe four” starters on this year’s All-Star team, and I agree. Verlander concurred with my assessment that Anibal Sanchez (first in pitching WAR) and Max Scherzer (third) should be locks if the team were selected today.
That leaves Verlander (fourth in WAR) and Doug Fister (eighth) in limbo.
“I know that, dealing with Jim, he plays who deserves it,” said Fister, 23-14 with a 3.03 ERA in 49 games since arriving in a July 2011 trade with Seattle. “That’s a great attribute: He takes care of any guy in baseball who deserves it.
“If it comes to that day and I deserve it, I’ll be ecstatic and very honored. If not, I’ll be cheering on my teammates and ex-teammates and wishing well for them all.”
When Leyland last managed the All-Star Game in 2007, he prioritized that season’s performance over career résumés. And he relied heavily on the results of player balloting in making the few manager’s selections he was afforded.
Verlander actually ranks fourth among Detroit starters with a 3.71 ERA, behind Sanchez (2.65), Scherzer (3.24) and Fister (3.27). After Sanchez’s last start, Scherzer said, “To me, right now, he’s the best pitcher in the American League.”
Verlander has made five All-Star teams. His fellow starters have made none. If their 2013 statistics are almost equal, would Leyland give one of his starters the recognition of becoming a first-time All-Star — at the expense of Verlander, his Game 1 starter in two World Series and the planet’s highest-paid pitcher?
“It wouldn’t be hurt feelings,” Verlander said. “Obviously, I want to go. I’ve enjoyed every time I’ve been. It’s a lot of fun. At the same time, I’d be extremely happy for my teammates. I don’t think any of them have ever been.
“I’m not saying you take anything for granted. It’s an unbelievable experience. I want to experience it every time I possibly can during the course of my career. But if I’m not there, I’ll be cheering on my teammates like heck.”
If you think that sounds like a concession, well, it wasn’t. Verlander also said this: “Hopefully I can go out and have a couple dominant starts and make it a non-issue.”
It could be weeks before Leyland knows how much flexibility he has to pick the team. He must carry a minimum of 13 pitchers. The player ballot elects eight — five starters, three relievers — leaving five picks to the manager. But Leyland won’t have complete autonomy over those picks, if certain teams don’t have an All-Star position player and must be represented by a pitcher.
Chicago (Chris Sale/Jesse Crain), Cleveland (Justin Masterson), Houston (Bud Norris), Kansas City (James Shields) and Seattle (Felix Hernandez/Hisashi Iwakuma) could match that description.
Another consideration: Because of a rule change last year, pitchers who start on the Sunday before the All-Star Game aren’t automatically disqualified from the active roster. For those pitchers to become eligible, though, the All-Star manager must agree on a one-inning limit or pitch count with the pitcher’s team.
To put it another way: Leyland would need to get clearance from … uh … Leyland for Sanchez/Scherzer/Fister/Verlander to pitch in the All-Star Game if one of them starts on the final Sunday of the first half. Leyland could deny himself that permission — and replace a Tiger with a Tiger — if he wants to maximize the number of Detroit pitchers in New York. But it’s a little early to start plotting out those scenarios, especially with Sanchez missing his most recent start due to a tight shoulder muscle.
While having four Tigers starters on an All-Star team would be historically significant, National League manager Bruce Bochy took four of his San Francisco pitchers back in 2011. The difference then was one (Brian Wilson) was a reliever, along with starters Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum and Ryan Vogelsong.
Bochy probably won’t have a Giant-laden staff this time around. Madison Bumgarner is the only San Francisco starter with an ERA below 4.00, although Sergio Romo (16-for-18 in saves) is a candidate out of the bullpen.
After so much theorizing, I might as well say how I would select the All-Star staffs today, with two conditions: I’m limiting myself to 14 pitchers per league — assuming one injury or Sunday replacement — and I’m not abiding by the universal representation dictate (Leyland and Bochy won’t be as fortunate).
Starters (10): Clay Buchholz, Boston; Anibal Sanchez, Detroit; Max Scherzer, Detroit; Justin Verlander, Detroit; Felix Hernandez, Seattle; Yu Darvish, Texas; Derek Holland, Texas; Hiroki Kuroda, New York; James Shields, Kansas City; Doug Fister, Detroit.
Relievers (4): Mariano Rivera, New York; Joe Nathan, Texas; Jesse Crain, Chicago; Glen Perkins, Minnesota.
Starters (9): Adam Wainwright, St. Louis; Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles; Matt Harvey, New York; Cliff Lee, Philadelphia; Shelby Miller, St. Louis; Patrick Corbin, Arizona; Mike Minor, Atlanta; Jordan Zimmermann, Washington; Jeff Samardzija, Chicago.
Relievers (5): Jason Grilli, Pittsburgh; Edward Mujica, St. Louis; Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta; Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati; Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia.