Where there’s Smoak, there’s fire

In the wake of the American League Champion Kansas City Royals ultimately getting only four starters in the All-Star Game — as voted by you, the baseball fans of the Internet! — I was of course amused by the reactions of the baseball writers and fans of the Internet. All that worrying we did about EIGHT ROYALS. Or NINE! It was all for nothing, right?

Well, maybe not. But just to get things rolling …

I know I pick on Jeff more than I should, but that’s only because his tweets are so pithy; he’s got great pith. And just to prove he’s not alone …

Joe did call this one, on the JABO podcast a few weeks ago. At that point, I think there were still seven Royals atop their position voting, and I believe Joe predicted that only four of them would actually finish that way. Four or five. I thought he was a tad pessimistic about their chances, but of course he was right.

But you know, he could have been wrong. Kendrys Morales finished right behind Nelson Cruz, Omar Infante wasn’t far from Jose Altuve, and Mike Moustakas didn’t finish all that far behind Josh Donaldson. Anybody who predicted only four Royals does look pretty smart today … but not that much smarter than someone who predicted six. Or seven.

I’m not picking on Joe, either! Or this fine fellow …

Well, now we’re getting closer to the truth, I think. Remember that Jeff Passan referred to the Royals’ four starters as “pretty well-deserving?” Well, that depends a great deal on your definition of well-deserving. If it means the player is among the very best at his position this season, then Escobar and Perez clearly aren’t well-deserving, because Perez has been the American League’s fourth-best catcher, and Escobar’s No. 3 (at best) among the shortstops. If it means the player is among the very best in a more fundamental way, then you can make good cases for Perez and Alex Gordon, but not Escobar and maybe not Cain.

Flat-out question: If you’re building two teams for the rest of the season and you get two of everything including six outfielders, how many Royals are you choosing?

You know what? I think Gordon and Cain actually make my team, perhaps even as starters! With Perez backing up Russell Martin. So, yes —with the exception of Escobar, the Royals’ starters are pretty well-deserving. By the arbitrary (yet reasonable!) standard that I’ve just invented, anyway.

Well done! Good job, Major League Baseball and All-Star Internet voters!

Still, I can’t quite get rid of this nagging little thought in the back of my mind that whatever the results might suggest, THE PROCESS IS ROYALLY FAKAKTA.

What else, after all, are we to make of a system that might, with just a couple of nudges from the Fates, have given us seven or eight Kansas City Royals in the starting lineup, including Omar Infante?

What else are we to make of a system suggesting that Justin Smoak is more popular than Albert Pujols?*

* I mean, seriously, folks. This column will be on the site for about six seconds before someone tweets at me, “Don’t you know it’s a popularity contest, idiot!” Yeah, I do. I also know that Albert Pujols is more popular than Justin Smoak, by literally ANY OTHER MEASURE designed by man or beast.

What else are we to make of a system in which Manny Machado, an exciting young player having a tremendous season, finishes with one-fifth as many votes as Mike Moustakas (granted, a fine player in his own right).

Must I continue? OK, if you insist: Devin Mesoraco finished ahead of Yasmani Grandal and … you’re seriously not going to believe this one … Nori Aoki finished ahead of Andrew McCutchen, Joc Pederson, and all but three other National League outfielders (one of whom hasn’t played in nearly a month; if Matt Holliday had been injured a week earlier, Aoki might well be starting in Cincinnati next week).

I mean, I’m just real skeptical when somebody tells me that “the fans” actually would rather watch Aoki than McCutchen or Pederson. That just doesn’t pass any sort of reasonable, even half-witted sniff test.

Of course, as everyone loves to tell me when I bring these things up, the process has always been fakakta.

Which is absolutely, inarguably true. The system used to be rigged, however unintentionally, for the famous veterans. This was not a good thing. I loved Rod Carew when I was a kid, but even I knew he shouldn’t have been starting the All-Star Game in ’84 instead of Don Mattingly or Kent Hrbek. Back then, if you went to the ballpark you voted, and since a) most of the people in the ballpark were (and are, today) casual fans, you wound up with b) most of the votes going to the most famous players, no matter how far over the hill.

Now all that’s changed. Back then, there was a deficit of information. Now, thanks almost entirely to the Internet, we’ve got a surplus of information. Which can be a good thing! People know that David Ortiz isn’t a great hitter any more! It’s not that we know too much about the players; it’s that we know too much about the voting. Now, you can’t really win the voting unless you’re a) Mike Trout, or b) have a campaign in your favor. This year, literally every Royal (Alex Rios!) benefited from a collective campaign … but then, when it became apparent just how many great, deserving players were going to get caught in the wake of the USS Royalanica, the supporters of Miguel Cabrera and Josh Donaldson and Nelson Cruz were motivated enough to push them over the top (if just barely).

Well, that’s not really a great way to wind up with the best players. Obviously. But it’s not even the best way to wind up with the most popular players — the players that people actually want to see when they turn on their televisions. Remember when the whole point of THIS TIME IT COUNTS was to make the All-Star Game more interesting for people watching on television? How does Alcides Escobar instead of Xander Bogaerts or Jose Iglesias fit in there?

It doesn’t bother me that Major League Baseball’s never come up with a great way to populate the All-Star Game, and especially the starting lineups. What bothers me is that they’ve never even tried. At least not since I started paying attention. Which was kind of a long time ago. The system used to be rigged against anybody who wasn’t a superstar (as measured by name recognition), and good riddance. But now it’s rigged against anybody who doesn’t show up near the top after the first voting results are released. So why bias the process by trumpeting the early results?

Well, if you want to know what drives the All-Star process, almost completely, here’s a pretty good hint:    

You see, this is the overwhelming goal: to pile up the votes. For the same reason that Willie Sutton robbed banks: It’s where the money is. In the short term, this makes all the sense in the world. Why turn down free money! But in the long term, it puts the lie to the notion that MLB prioritizes the artistic and commercial success of the All-Star Game over short-term, sponsor-driven financial gain. Same as it ever was.

Hey, I’ll be watching the All-Star Game. You probably will, too. I sincerely hope so. But if McCutchen doesn’t grab the starting spot vacated by Holliday, I sure wouldn’t blame a Pirates fan for tuning out. Not to mention all the casual fans who just want to see the best players in the world in the first inning of the sport’s showcase event.