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What if the All-Star starters were based on merit?

Perhaps this shouldn’t be a popularity contest.

Detroit Tigers v Los Angeles Angels Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

The All-Star Game is an imperfect but entertaining best-of-show for the MLB midseason break. Ostensibly, the game and its surrounding activities like the Home Run Derby and Futures Game are meant to spotlight the best and brightest MLB has to offer. It’s an opportunity to feature the players who are, in theory, at the top of their respective positions across both leagues.

It’s easy to scoff at the All-Star Game, which is an exhibition and has no bearing on the season, and also no longer counts for home-field advantage in the World Series. It is, truly, meaningless, but it’s also a wonderfully fun way to introduce new fans to the game and highlight the players whose names everyone should know in a season.

We also tend to pull All-Star appearance numbers when mentioning the overall quality of a player’s career, as if saying “look how often he was one of the best in baseball.” But what gets lost in this, often, is just how All-Star starters are selected, and that’s by popular fan vote.

This year MLB teamed up with Google, making it even easier for fans to vote. This time around, all they had to do was search for a popular player and they could cast their vote for him to go to the ASG. In 2015 the Kansas City Royals proved why popular voting was an imperfect conduit for selecting All-Stars when eight of their position players led the popular vote for a considerable run, as fans figured out how to manipulate the voting system.

Popular voting, while a great way to pick out fun players that local fans like, may not actually represent the best players in each league, which begs the question: if we’re not displaying the best players, is it really an All-Star Game?

Back in 2019, Tommy Pham, then with the Tampa Bay Rays, insisted that three things should be a metric for selecting All-Stars: games played, wRC+, and WAR. Pham pointed out that since All-Star participation matters in arbitration cases, there should be a more fair measure for who gets to be an All-Star. He told DRaysBay, “Those three things should determine the position-player All-Stars. wRC+ is an important stat offensively and neutralizes park factors. WAR is your overall contribution. I think those three things should be the determining factors which determine All-Stars.”

Pham might have been ahead of his time with the suggestion, but he’s not wrong. All-Star status isn’t meaningless to players, even if the game has no bearing on the season, and as such selecting All-Stars shouldn’t fall to fan frivolity.

Wanting to see what the lineups would look like using Pham’s method, we looked at the positional leaders in the AL and NL, with a minimum 200 plate appearances in the 2021 season, and compared the popular vote leaders to the wRC+ and WAR leaders to see where things differed.

Here’s a look at how the American League lineup would look if it was merit-based.

American League Stats Leaders

American League Popular Vote wRC+ Leaders WAR Leaders
American League Popular Vote wRC+ Leaders WAR Leaders
Catcher Salvador Perez Yasmani Grandal Sean Murphy
1B Vald Guerrero Jr Vlad Guerrero Jr Vlad Guerro Jr
2B Marcus Semien Jose Altuve Marcus Semien
3B Rafael Devers Rafael Devers Rafael Devers
SS Xander Bogaerts Carlos Correa Carlos Correa
OF Mike Trout Cedric Mullins II Cedric Mullins II
OF Aaron Judge Michael Brantley Joey Gallo
OF Teoscar Hernandez Aaron Judge Aaron Judge
DH Shohei Ohtani Shohei Ohtani Shohei Ohtani

Obviously, some of the popular choices made sense. Vlad Guerrero Jr. is on pace to have an MVP-worthy season, and the stats agree with the voters here. Rafael Devers, likewise, is the vote leader for a reason. But Carlos Correa was a clear snub, and the inclusion of Mike Trout who has been injured and on the 60-day IL is a blatant case of popularity over logic. Yes, Mike Trout is one of the best players in modern baseball history, but he has played in only 36 games this season, and his inclusion was at the expense of other more deserving players for the season.

Excluding Trout, all the players who won the popular vote were in the top 10 of their respective positions for both wRC+ and WAR, but often not exactly close to the top. Salvador Perez is 9th overall for catcher wRC+ and WAR. Mike Zunino, who was selected to the reserve team, ranked 5th in catcher WAR and 6th in wRC+.

And here’s how the National League would shape up.

National League Stats Leaders

National League Popular Vote wRC+ Leaders WAR Leaders
National League Popular Vote wRC+ Leaders WAR Leaders
Catcher Buster Posey Buster Posey Buster Posey
1B Freddie Freeman Max Muncy Max Muncy
2B Adam Frazier Adam Frazier Jake Cronenworth
3B Nolan Arenado Justin Turner Manny Machado
SS Fernando Tatis Jr Fernando Tatis Jr Fernando Tatis Jr
OF Ronald Acuna Jr Nick Castellanos Ronald Acuna Jr
OF Nick Castellanos Ronald Acuna Jr Nick Castellanos
OF Jesse Winker Jesse Winker Bryan Reynolds

It should be noted on the above table that technically Max Muncy was the wRC+ and WAR leader for both first and second base, but we opted to include him only for first base, where he has spent the majority of his games in 2021.

Again, some things here just make sense. Obviously, Buster Posey has led in his position, though he is currently dealing with a thumb injury, so it’s unlikely he will start in the ASG. Fernando Tatis Jr, also, is leading across all categories, not just popular vote, though Washington Nationals fans might like to argue for Trea Turner (who is on the reserve team).

I think what we can glean from this is that the popular voting system is not a perfect medium for choosing All-Stars, though popularity often coincides with talent. While it’s unlikely we’ll see anything change with All-Star selection, if teams are going to continue to use it as a part of arbitration discussions then perhaps it’s time to take a good long look at how we are choosing those players.

The All-Star Game might not matter in terms of season standings, or even where the World Series is played, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter at all.