Stephen Strasburg Has Belonged In The All Star Game From Day One

ATLANTA - JUNE 28: Starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg #37 of the Washington Nationals pitches in the third inning against the Atlanta Braves at Turner Field on June 28, 2010 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

As the debate rages on over whether or not Stephen Strasburg belongs in July 13th's 2010 MLB All Star Game, it's worth examining the very purpose of the game itself, and just who it's intended to please. All images courtesy of Getty and Associated Press.

The 2010 Major League Baseball All Star Game is scheduled for July 13th, at Angel Stadium. Stephen Strasburg, as of this writing, has made five starts in the bigs, allowing nine runs while striking out 48. The debate practically writes itself.

It isn't just raging in local circles. I mean, it is raging in local circles, but it isn't limited. Much like Stephen Strasburg the draft pick and Stephen Strasburg the minor leaguer, this is a story of national interest, having come up on the MLB Network and ESPN.

For an idea of how pervasive this topic of conversation has become, I was watching the Mariners play the Brewers over the weekend, and play-by-play announcers Dave Sims and Dave Niehaus asked color guy Mike Blowers what he thought about Strasburg being an All Star on consecutive days. He's just that much of a phenomenon. The Mariners don't share a division with the Nationals - they don't share a league, either, and they haven't even met for two years - but Strasburg transcends all that. He's compelling. No matter your rooting interest, you are interested in Stephen Strasburg.

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This is a debate that's raging precisely because there are arguments to be made on both sides. Good arguments. This isn't like arguing the merits of Rafael Palmeiro or Derek Jeter winning a Gold Glove. Each side is defensible, and each side is convinced that it's in the right. Like Louis C.K.'s closing joke on The Daily Show, there are really only two kinds of people in the world - people who feel strongly that Stephen Strasburg belongs in the All Star Game, and people who feel strongly that he doesn't.

The people in support point out, before anything else, Strasburg's numbers. He's been terrific, and there's no questioning his talent level. He's clearly one of the best pitchers in baseball. Does that not make him a star? Does that not make him one of the biggest stars in the league? He's flashy, he's popular, he's virtually unhittable - the only argument against Strasburg, they say, is that he hasn't been in the Majors very long, but he's made the most of his brief opportunity, and for that he's deserving of entry.

Additionally, there's the matter of the All Star Game determining home-field advantage in the World Series. The All Star Game actually means something important, and in a game with actual significant implications, each league should want its best players playing. Strasburg, it follows, is one of the National League's best pitchers.

The people against Strasburg's inclusion will, to a man, focus on his low innings total. Thirty-one rookie pitchers have made the All Star Game in the past, but none of them had played as little as Strasburg has, meaning this would set a precedent. Invite Strasburg and you open the door for any rookie to come up and get invited after having a hot month. And inviting someone with so short a track record means you leave out someone who might've worked a little harder. Who might've worked a little longer. There are currently 12 starters in the National League who have made at least 15 starts, and have an ERA under 3. There are 12 other NL starters with ERAs between 3 and 3.5. Invite Strasburg and you leave out one of those guys who would've otherwise made it. Is that fair? The people in opposition say that, no, that isn't fair.

It's interesting to read the different viewpoints and see where they're coming from. The pro-Strasburg party seems composed primarily of fans (and, naturally, Nationals officials), while the anti-Strasburg contingent is made up mostly of players, both past and present. A sample of anti-Strasburg sentiment:

Mitch Williams:

"I don't care if two of his first four starts were no-hitters, there is no way you can put this kid on the All-Star team after five starts."

Al Leiter:

"I don't think he deserves it...You have to have a body of work. Each of these guys are up to 13, 14, 15 starts, 16 starts in some cases. Look, it's the first half, it's not the best month."

Ryan Franklin:

"No chance. No chance. You can't be an all-star if you've pitched six games. It just ain't right."

Adam Wainwright:

"I'm typically not a guy who puts my name behind something, but he has only pitched in five games."

And there was Mike Blowers, from the Mariners broadcast, who said the same thing. This is not a complete list. This is just a representative number of samples, all of them from former players, all of them saying the same thing: Stephen Strasburg does not deserve to go to the All Star Game, because he hasn't pitched enough, and inviting him would exclude someone who has succeeded for longer.

The veterans treat an All Star Game invitation as an honor. Which it is. Getting to participate in the midsummer classic - or at least getting to go and sit on the bench - is an honor, and one of those things that becomes a descriptive and flattering adjective. First-time All Star Dontrelle Willis. 15-time All Star Ozzie Smith. Getting selected to go to the All Star Game is reflective of a high level of talent and an impressive track record of success.

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But here's the thing - nowhere does it say that the honor can only be awarded to those with a sufficiently broad body of work. That's the way it always happens, of course, but just because that's how it happens doesn't mean that's how it has to happen. And Major League Baseball isn't often confronted with a phenomenon that quite measures up to Stephen Strasburg, and everything that comes along with him.

Let's make one thing clear. Perhaps the most important thing. The All Star Game, though awarded to players and played by players, is not the players' game. It would be easy for them to feel like it is, since they're the ones doing all the work, but the instant Major League Baseball put voting in the hands of the fans, it became the fans' game more than anything else. The fans are the people determining both starting lineups. I know that players and coaches are responsible for filling out the rest of the roster, but the starting lineups are the most visible aspect of the game. When the fans are choosing who starts in each infield and outfield, they're the ones being catered to. They're the reason the game exists. I don't know if that's how Major League Baseball would put it, but that's the implication. When you put starter selection entirely in the hands of the seats, the message that sends is that the All Star Game should feature players the fans most want to watch.

Most of the time, there's considerable overlap between who people want to see, and who is most deserving. Bad players rarely make the All Star Game, and great players seldom get left out. In a situation like Strasburg's, though, I think this is the great decider. If the fans think he belongs - which they do - and the players think he doesn't belong - which they do - ultimately, you side with the fans. They're the ones who have the biggest say, so in the event of a tie, you side with the audience.

Which means who is and isn't deserving of entry should be left up to the standards of the fans, not the players.

It would be one thing if the fans were instructed on the ballot to vote for the players they feel have had the most success since the start of the season. That would set grounds for arguing that having a large body of work is of critical importance. Instead, here are the instructions found on the ballot handed out at stadiums across the country:

In each league, select one player for each position and three outfielders. Punch out the circle before each selection. Too many votes will void vote for that position. Write-in votes may be printed in the area provided. Mass-punched ballots will be voided. Tabulation is conducted by TMC Group, Miami, FL, an independent judging agency. The Office of the Commissioner of Baseball will have final decision on all balloting matters.

And that's it. Those are the instructions. The online ballot says the same thing. The fan in possession of the ballot is instructed only to pick the correct number of players, and the identity of that player is entirely up to the fan's discretion. While the commissioner rule in there at the end is interesting, that's presumably intended to prevent joke box-stuffing from getting guys like Yuniesky Betancourt or Taylor Teagarden into the game. The commissioner isn't there to scrutinize every pick. He's just there to make sure the picks aren't outlandish and embarrassing for the sport.

The fans, then, are instructed to select whoever they want. Which makes sense, doesn't it? They're the ones who're watching. They should get to watch whoever they want to watch. Even in the controversial event of heavy East Coast bias, that doesn't mean there's something wrong with the process. If the Red Sox and Yankees have a ton of fans, and their players end up getting a bunch of spots, then that means those same players received a plurality of the votes at their respective positions, which means they were selected by the highest number of fans. In what really is, at its heart, an exhibition for the fans, there's nothing wrong with leaving it up to a popularity contest. A popularity contest ensures that the players selected are popular.

If the starters in the All Star Game are selected according to fan discretion, then it seems to me the rest of the roster should be selected in consistent fashion by the players and coaches. And while I don't expect them to poll the fans for every single one of their picks, it's relevant here, because it's a tiebreaker. If the fans want to see Stephen Strasburg, then you have to pick him. You have to. You can satisfy the hundreds, or you can satisfy the millions. Baseball should satisfy the millions.

There is, of course, no doubting that the fans want to see Strasburg in the game. Just in case you weren't sure - and that must be some rock you're under - the following chart shows attendance before, during, and after each one of Strasburg's five starts so far:

Date

Before

Game

After

6/8, vs. PIT

-

40,315

18,876

6/13, @CLE

19,484

32,876

12,882

6/18, vs. CHW

-

40,325

36,487

6/23, vs. KCR

21,168

31,913

-

6/28, @ ATL

26,034

42,889

19,045


There's a clear bump. This isn't really news, though. People are interested in Strasburg. People everywhere are interested in Strasburg. People everywhere just want to watch Strasburg pitch, because Stephen Strasburg is one of the most talented pitchers the game has seen in some time.

The fans want to see Strasburg pitch, so Strasburg should be selected to pitch on what would be the biggest stage of his early career. If that means that someone like Carlos Silva or Livan Hernandez gets left off the roster, then that's too bad for them, because they're running really low ERAs, but is that it? Precedent aside - since this sort of thing isn't likely to come up very much - is the biggest reason to leave Strasburg off that some other guy like Silva or Hernandez should make it instead, because he's started more games? No offense to the Silvas and Hernandezes and Mike Pelfreys of the world, but they're not Stephen Strasburg. The only thing they have is a bigger body of work, but they don't have anywhere close to the talent, nor do they have anywhere close to the popularity.

On July 13th, many of the best players in baseball will come together to compete in the 2010 MLB All Star Game. Stephen Strasburg's been a star since he stepped on the field, and all he's done since is proven his ability. I understand and am sympathetic to the views of the veterans, who value experience and track record over everything else, but Stephen Strasburg doesn't need 15 starts to prove that he belongs in the game. He didn't need two.  

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