Finding meaning (again) in the All-Star Game
CINCINNATI – Beginning in 1963, the National League won 19 of 20 All-Star Games; the Junior Circuit’s lone victory came in 1971, when three A.L. sluggers – including Reggie Jackson, famously – hit two-run homers. But surely all this was without meaning, no?
Well, no. Through most of those years, the National League probably was the better league. The National League’s players were probably a little better, their front offices a little smarter. Especially in Los Angeles and Cincinnati and, for a while anyway, in St. Louis.
Fast-forward a few decades: In the last 19 years, the Americans have gone 15-3-1 against the Nationals. Through most of those years, the American League probably was the better le— actually, there’s no probably about it. We know the American League was the better league, because the A.L. dominated interleague games (and no, it’s not because of the Designated Hitter). Actually, the A.L. continues to beat the stuffing out of the N.L. almost every season. Doing it again this season, too.
So let’s not say the All-Star Games don’t tell us anything about the relative quality of the leagues. Because it hardly seems a coincidence that when one of the leagues seems significantly better than the other, it also happens to win the great majority of the All-Star Games.
No, we don’t learn much from the All-Star Game about the relative strength of the leagues, but we do learn something. And while I believe I’ve demonstrated that home-field advantage in the World Series doesn’t mean much, either, can’t one find some justification for tying the home field in the Series to the relative quality of the leagues? Doesn’t the winner of the better league deserve the home field, if anyone can be said to “deserve” it?
Yes, of course interleague results would serve as a far better proxy. And there’s really no good reason, that I can see anyway, for not simply giving the home field to the league with the better record in interleague games. But you have to admit, considering the American League’s dominance in the All-Star Games, that’s how it’s usually worked out anyway.
Having said all that, we should acknowledge the role of chance in these affairs. I don’t care how good the National League was in the 1960s and ‘70s, 19-1 was crazy. I don’t have the math handy, but if we assume the N.L. was 10 percent better than the A.L. – which is probably way high – a more reasonable result in those 20 games would have been 12-8 or something. Same thing lately; the A.L. certainly hasn’t been that much better. Strange things just happen. It’s the nature of sports, and particularly of this sport.
And the National League’s latest loss is just another terribly fine example. Zack Greinke entered his start with a scoreless streak of 35 innings, and had walked just one batter in his last three starts.
So what happened? Of course! Mike Trout led off with a rare opposite-field home run, and then Greinke walked Josh Donaldson. Almost as if Greinke had forgotten how to pitch. Before remembering, and retiring the next six American Leaguers he faced (including four by strikeout).
Clayton Kershaw’s still arguably the best pitcher on the planet. He came on for the fifth inning, and seemed to be cruising. But with two outs and pinch-hitter Prince Fielder on deck, Kershaw walked Albert Pujols, pushing Trout to second base.
But Fielder bats left-handed. He’s not particularly good against left-handed pitchers like Kershaw, and of course Kershaw’s generally devastating against left-handed hitters who aren’t nicknamed “Big City.”
So what happened? Of course! Fielder lined an RBI single into left field, and Lorenzo Cain followed with a run-scoring double. That made the score 3-1, and the American League had all the runs it would need (but they tacked on a few more later).
The point to all this? I don’t know. One great thing about baseball is that you can find meaning where you care to find it. I find some meaning in the American League’s long run of All-Star dominance, while I find very little meaning in Greinke’s and Kershaw’s momentary struggles. But then, the latter struggles lasted for about three minutes in human time, while the Americans have been killing the Nationals for this entire millennium.
Bottom line? I’ll still take the Dodgers in a short series, but I’ll still take the American League in a single game that counts, let alone six months of them. Oh, and Aroldis Chapman’s not fair.