Time to stop making MLB All-Star Game ‘count’

By Michael Dixon
Jul 14, 2015; Cincinnati, OH, USA; American League outfielder Brett Gardner (11) of the New York Yankees celebrates with teammates after defeating the National League in the 2015 MLB All Star Game at Great American Ball Park. The American League all stars won 6-3. Mandatory Credit: Frank Victores-USA TODAY Sports

The MLB All-Star Game is the best mid-season showcase of all the major sports. That may not be saying much, as the NBA and NHL All-Star Games are just glorified scrimmages. As for the Pro Bowl, the NFL can make whatever changes they want, but it’s still just putting lipstick on a pig.

With the exception of 1945, MLB has played the All-Star Game every year since the inaugural game in 1933. It was so popular that for a brief four-season period (1959-1962), two games were played in each season.

But despite the superiority it has over the other All-Star Games, MLB’s version also has a problem that no other All-Star contest has. As great as the MLB All-Star Game is, it’s not a game that should matter. For 13 years, Major League Baseball has mistaken it for a game that does.

We can’t do anything about 2016. The winning league in 2016 will get home field advantage in the 2016 World Series and that’s that. But 2016 should be the end of the line and there are plenty of reasons why that’s the case.

Unfair advantage

We start with really the biggest issue here.

Baseball should follow the lead of the NBA and NHL and reward home field advantage to the team with the better record. If that’s a tie and the two teams didn’t compete in interleague play (or if they split the games), then lean towards the team with the better run differential.

For reasons I can’t quite put my finger on, baseball has never embraced this concept. Even in the previous playoff rounds, home field advantage was awarded on a rotating East-West (then East-West-Central-Wild Card with postseason expansion) basis until 1998. Starting in 1998, they finally caved to common sense and began rewarding home field advantage in the league playoffs based on record.

It’s hard to completely understand why they have not followed suit in the World Series over the last decade-plus.

Granted, even when we factor in interleague play, baseball has by far the fewest percentage of games against the other league. Roughly 12 percent of an MLB team’s games will come in interleague play. In the NHL, that number is either 39 (Western Conference) or 34 (Eastern Conference) percent. In the NBA, interconference games are about 37 percent of the schedule, while AFC vs. NFC games make up 25 percent of the NFL’s slate.

With that in mind, it’s fair to say that a regular season win-loss record is not the best indication of which team is better between rivals from opposite leagues.

Still, it seems like a better indicator than just letting one of the teams leach onto their league’s performance in one All-Star Game, does it not? It’s also better than the alternating year system that was in place through 2002 (more on that year later).

Now, to be fair, while MLB can’t be credited for something that’s really only a matter of luck, the system in place has actually worked out pretty well.

Since Major League Baseball went to its current method of determining home field advantage in the World Series, 10 of the 13 teams to have home field advantage in the Fall Classic also had the better record. In one of those three outlier seasons (2013), the two teams were tied.

The other two times — 2004 and 2011 — both featured the St. Louis Cardinals. In 2004, they ended up on the short end of the stick and were forced to open the World Series at Fenway Park against the Boston Red Sox. In 2011, the baseball gods evened things out for the Cardinals, as they had home field advantage in their seven-game victory over the Texas Rangers.

Now, would those results have been different? We’ll never now. Frankly, it’s unlikely that 2004 would have been different. The 2011 World Series is a much bigger question. Still, even if we knew that both Fall Classics would have ended up exactly the same, the current system would still not be equitable.

Also, just because home field worked out pretty well for MLB over the last 13 seasons doesn’t mean that it will continue to over the next 13.

The 2002 problems haven’t been fixed

In case you’ve forgotten, the 2002 All-Star Game ended in a tie. This was embarrassing for a few reasons.

One, the All-Star Game is a showcase event. Given that one of baseball’s best qualities is that the games never tie, a showcase game ending in a tie was bound to make few faces turn red.

Two, the game was in Milwaukee, the hometown of then commissioner Bud Selig, being played at a stadium he helped get built. One can only wonder what would have happened had that game been played in one of baseball’s other 29 parks. We also can’t help but wonder what would have happened had that game produced a winner.

We can wonder, but we’ll never know.

The reason that game ended in a tie is that both sides ran out of pitchers. That can still happen.

Yes, rosters have been expanded and managers are usually a little more focused on leaving a few pitchers back just in case, but the game can always go extra innings.

In 2008, disaster nearly struck. The game went 15 innings and each team was down to its final pitcher. Michael Young drove in Justin Morneau with a sacrifice fly to win the game for the American League, but Morneau was not safe by much. If he was out, the game would have gone to the 16th inning and created a nightmare for both managers.

Option one would have been that they each would have been forced to stick with their final pitchers, potentially burning their arms out (and risking injury) in an exhibition game. We can’t imagine the teams signing those pitcher’s paychecks would have been thrilled with that prospect.

Option two would have been having position players pitch and risk injury by doing something they’re not used to doing. Additionally, while injury is something of a concern, the bigger issue there is how a fan would feel watching his/her team play Game 7 of the World Series on the road because some outfielder made a bad pitch.

Option three would have been ending the game in a tie. Intriguing, no doubt, and certainly the most sensible option when we remember all but one thing. The matter of home field advantage in the World Series would still be unsettled.

The reality is that, while the All-Star Game ending in a tie is embarrassing, it’s not a problem that requires such a drastic fix. It’s only happened twice in 86 games, so this isn’t exactly an epidemic. If a game should end in a tie, as 2008 should have, it shouldn’t have so much riding on it that a tie simply can’t happen.

When it does, it’s time to go back to the drawing board. Really, this should have happened no later than right after the 2008 game, but better late than never.

Streaks

Going back to 1988, the American League is 21-6-1 in the All-Star Game. That seems like a pretty darn good run, right? Yes, but going all the way back to the first All-Star Game in 1933, long runs have been commonplace.

It’s very difficult to explain why this has happened. Charlie Hustle’s 1970 collision into Ray Fosse notwithstanding, the All-Star Game has always been an exhibition. When an exhibition features essentially half of the league’s best players against the other half of the league’s best players, the results should be about 50-50.

Now, the 43-41-2 record is fine. But the fact is that the game has never been a game that’s been consistently won by the American League one year, the National League the next, etc. The All-Star Game has always been one of massive streaks that run for more than a decade at a time.

With that, runs like we’ve had since 2003 — where National League teams have had home field advantage in the World Series only three times (2010-2012) — are more prone to happen.

Trades

Just for fun, let’s say that the National League will win the 2016 All-Star Game on a big hit from Milwaukee Brewers star Ryan Braun, coughed up by Fernando Abad of the Minnesota Twins.

Now, let’s fast-forward to the World Series, and imagine that you’re a fan of the American League champion forced to play Game 7 on the road.

If you do think back to the All-Star Game, you probably won’t be all that happy that two players from non-contenders had such a huge hand in determining where Game 7 is being played. Certainly, knowing that road teams are 1-9 in the last 10 World Series Game 7’s won’t help cool you down, either.

But there’s another potential wrinkle in that scenario. Both men may find themselves in the other league (and possibly on the league champions) by the time the World Series rolls around. Remember, the All-Star Game happens before the trade deadline. Given that a bad trade won’t be so costly, it’s also significantly easier to trade outside of your own league.

So, in that not unrealistic hypothetical situation, Abad may end up being happy that he mad a bad pitch, while Braun may be upset that he didn’t pop it up.

Best of the rest

Ballot stuffing shouldn’t be such a huge deal. But when the game is meaningful and ballot stuffing results in non-worthy players not only making the team, but starting, it almost seems scandalous.

Likewise, the rule that each team must have an All-Star shouldn’t be such a huge problem. The game is supposed to be entertaining for all fans, after all. Why shouldn’t some fan (especially a kid) of a bad team get to enjoy watching one of his/her favorite players go against the likes of Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, or Clayton Kershaw for an at-bat? That shouldn’t be a problem at all. But when the game means something, it seems like a problem.

Additionally, people like to see hitter’s hit in the All-Star Game.

Pitchers know that and usually accommodate by challenging them with fastballs. If the All-Star Game was a true exhibition, none of that would matter. In a meaningful game, grooving pitches is a bigger issue.

The All-Star Game should simply be an exhibition. Placing value on it might have seemed right at the time it happened, given the embarrassment of the 2002 game. But in reality, that experiment should have ended within a few short years.

Now, 13 years later, the experiment has failed and it’s time to make another change and remove any meaning from the MLB All-Star Game.