“This time it counts!”
That’s the BS line that has been shoveled into our ears by Major League Baseball for the past 14 years. In a move best described as an unnecessary reaction to one of Bud Selig’s many regrettable moments — the 7-7 tie in the 2002 MLB All-Star Game — the All-Star Game was inexplicably made the deciding factor for home field advantage in the World Series. This was done in an effort to provide an incentive to win and to make the game more interesting for fans to watch. While it was initially a temporary experiment, it was officially adopted in the 2006 CBA. Somehow, it has remained this way for almost 15 years.
Recently, as news of a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) was leaking, one shining beacon that emerged from the pile of owner-enriching status quo was that MLB grabbed the proverbial shotgun, walked the “This time it counts” idea out behind the barn, and put it out of its misery. Going forward, the World Series will, for the first time, be sensibly tied to the records of the teams involved.
Prior to 2003, home field advantage for the fall classic alternated from year to year between the National and American Leagues. While there were arguably better ways to decide home field, this wasn’t that horrible of a system. Major League Baseball could do worse than employing this method, but when given the opportunity, worse is what they did.
Now that sensible minds have prevailed and we no longer depend on a single exhibition game in July to determine home field advantage for the league championship, I’d like to take a look back at the last 13 years and evaluate this one of many of Bud Selig’s bad decisions. Did it really create an incentive to win and change the overall attitude of the game from pure exhibition to something more important? Did it achieve the purported goal of making the All-Star Game more interesting to the average fan?
The first All-Star Game was created by a sports editor named Arch Ward. It was intended as an exhibition to accompany the 1933 World’s Fair, which was being held in Chicago. Fans were given the opportunity to vote on which players made the roster. The event was such a success it became a yearly occurrence that continued in the same manner for decades. In fact, the All-Star Game went virtually unchanged until 2003, when the league decided it wasn’t just going to be for funsies anymore.
With the All-Star Game becoming a “more serious” affair, one might assume some other changes would accompany it. Now, managers were being asked to win a game that had something of import hinging upon it’s outcome. With this in mind, one might think they would be given some amount of control over the selection of their starting rosters. At the very least, you would think that it would not rely so heavily on the whims of a broad audience who could base their decisions on anything from a player’s OPS to the fact that they like a guy’s walk up music.
Well, you would be wrong. There were no other major changes to the selection of teams or the playing of the game. As a result, we had the great blue scare of 2015.
It was mid-June. With the All-Star Game just around the corner, Kansas City Royals fans had devised a plan that combined an aggressive voting campaign with some questionable computer-related stuff, and we ended up with the potential of an American League lineup that would be starting no fewer than eight Royals. Some of them were deserving. Others were a little more questionable. One of them was Omar Infante, arguably the worst hitter in the league at the time.
The Royals ended up with four guys in the starting lineup when all was said and done. While they were a defensible four, the outcome isn’t really the point. It’s the idea that the league had a flawed system that was potentially susceptible to some base-level hacking and an onslaught of voting humanity in a fanbase suddenly fueled by their team ceasing to be abjectly terrible for the first time in decades. Royals fans are the larger representatives here, but what they represent is the idea that when voting for the All-Star roster, the average fan was not considering the greater implications that the league tried to impose on the game.
How about the players? Did they stride into the new era of the All-Star game with the earnestness of men tasked with an important duty? The evidence out there says no, not exactly. There’s Adam Wainwright admitting he grooved a pitch to Derek Jeter in 2014, or Jose Fernandez talking about how he was going to give David Ortiz pitches to hit in 2016 (and afterwards, admitting that he gave him the first one).
It’s not just pitchers grooving pitches either. Watch Zach Britton get the final outs of the American League’ 4-2 win in 2016. Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado showed minimal interest in beating out a game-ending double play.
When you’re getting down the line slower than Victor Martinez, it’s an indicator that you probably don’t care too much. In Arenado’s case, why should he? He plays for the Rockies. They aren’t going anywhere near the playoffs.
These are a few examples, and certainly not indicative of the effort of all involved players, I’m sure. But, you’re not going to convince me that the rule change in 2003 did anything to make the players take the game more seriously.
I wanted to take a look at some numbers to evaluate what, if anything, changed about how the game was actually played. This proved kind of difficult to quantify. The best thing I could think to do that would give me measurable numbers without taking all winter to calculate. In an effort to get an idea if managers changed their approach to the game from the pre- to post-rule change I looked at the 14 All-Star games leading up to the rule change and compared them to the 14 games that occurred after. Prior to the rule change, I figure managers were acting in a manner that was most aligned with the attitude that the game was an exhibition. I looked at position players used, and when the manager started subbing new guys in, and did the same for pitching.
|Years||Average number of position players used (inning a position player was first subbed in)||Average number of pitchers used (inning a pitcher player was first subbed in)|
|1989-2002||37.3 (average first sub: 3.6 innings)||15.7 (3rd inning for 11 years, 2nd inning for 3 years)|
|2003-2016||38.8 (average first sub: 3.2 innings)||18.1 (3rd inning for 6 years 2nd inning for 8 years)|
These usage numbers are pretty close, and the increase in both numbers could easily be contributed to the recent roster expansions allowing one extra pitcher (2009) and position player (2010) per team. Additionally, subbing habits didn’t really change regarding how long a pitcher was used or when the managers started subbing in position players. Pitching substitutions always occurred in the second or third inning, and the subbing of position players, on average, started at some point in the third inning both before and after the rule change.
Having created a situation where a game that few (if any) players took as seriously as the league may have intended, the league should have at least achieved the second prong of their goal, which was a desire to attract more fans to the game. Luckily, this is easier to quantify. Let’s take a gander at the television ratings for the All-Star Game from 1989 to the present.
Welp. The shot in the arm that the 2003 rule change was intended appears to have created a temporary flatline, followed by the continuation of a lot of people choosing to watch something more entertaining, like C-Span or Bones reruns.
What the league intended to do with the “This time it counts” gambit was pump some sorely needed interest and excitement back into the All-Star Game. What the league did was fail spectacularly, instituting a rule that went over about as well as a concrete kite. The All-Star Game was created to be an exhibition, a fun few days where players and fans gather to see the best players in the game show off their skills. There are a variety of ways to make the game more interesting. Tying home field advantage to the outcome of the game wasn’t one of them.
I guess I should be thankful it only took 14 years to figure that out.