Five things to watch for (aside from runs) at sports' best All-Star Game
If history and this season's trend holds, there won't be many runs scored tonight
Brian McCann is making his sixth straight All-Star appearnce and first start
Several of the highest-paid players and last year's top free-agents didn't make it
The baseball All-Star Game is still the best all-star show in sports. What sets it apart from other sports is its rich history, something about the pageantry of players wearing their regular jerseys rather than a gimmicky league jersey and, most of all, it's the only one in which the players play the same kind of defense they would play in a "real" game. And given the depressed run-scoring environment of today's game, run prevention might be the star of the show tonight.
The first half of the baseball season didn't just confirm that 2010 was the Year of the Pitcher. It also raised the idea that we have entered the Era of the Pitcher. The Major League ERA has dipped below 4.00 for the first time in 20 seasons, shutouts have not been this common since the DH was instituted in 1973, and the strikeout-to-walk rate (2.22) is the greatest in the 118 years since the pitching distance was set at 60 feet, six inches.
Many of the biggest stars of baseball are pitchers, such as Tim Lincecum, Roy Halladay, Justin Verlander, CC Sabathia and Brian Wilson. Perennial hitting stalwarts such as Albert Pujols, Ichiro Suzuki, Joe Mauer, Ryan Howard, Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter will not even be playing tonight.
The All-Star Game is the ultimate small sample, so anything is possible, especially with the way the ball jumps at Chase Field in Phoenix. But keep this in mind as you watch a parade of great pitchers take the mound tonight: Neither the NL or AL has scored more than five runs in five straight All-Star Games. If the pattern continues tonight, it will tie the all-time All-Star record of six straight such years, set in the last period of a depressed run-scoring environment, 1986-91.
In between the strikeouts, here is what to look for in the All-Star Game tonight:
Only one player in the game tonight will have appeared in the past six All-Star Games. No, it's not Jeter, Suzuki or David Wright, whose streaks end tonight. (Jeter was named to the team but is sitting out to take the rest.) It's Brian McCann, the Atlanta catcher who was the MVP of last year's game but gets his first starting assignment tonight.
McCann (.310, 15 HRs, 50 RBIs) is 10th in the National League in OPS and has carried an otherwise weak-hitting Braves team to the fourth-best record in baseball. He has put himself into the MVP discussion. He's made the All-Star team in every one of his six full big league seasons and is still only 27 years old.
Just how underappreciated is McCann? With Mauer breaking down this year, McCann is the best hitting catcher in baseball. Moreover, with 834 games under his belt, his career is starting to look a little like that of Yogi Berra, one of the best catchers of all time. Check out the similarities between McCann and Berra after the first 834 games of their careers, keeping in mind that McCann reached that point one year younger than Berra:
Imagine a team with a $259.6 million payroll and no All-Stars. No need to imagine it; it's true. It's the 2011 Non-Star Team. Even though 85 players have been named as All-Stars, many of the most expensive players in the game won't be in Phoenix tonight.
Here is the list of the most expensive Non-Stars -- one at each position, five starting pitchers and one closer - and where they rank at their position according to average annual value of their contract. And remember, this team doesn't even include Pujols.
When was the last time you saw a baseball game in which there was one lefthanded reliever between the two teams? That's what you will get tonight in the All-Star Game. Only one true lefty reliever made either the AL or NL team: Johnny Venters of the Braves.
NL manager Bruce Bochy does have two lefthanded starters who also will be in his bullpen, Cliff Lee and Clayton Kershaw, but they will need more time to warm than a typical reliever and are not likely to be rushed into the middle of an inning.
AL manager Ron Washington has no true lefthanded relievers and three lefthanded starters he can use out of his pen: Gio Gonzalez, Ricky Romero and C.J. Wilson.
Where have all the shutdown lefthanded relievers gone? Billy Wagner retired. None of the four lefty relievers who made the All-Star Game last year made it back (Wagner, Hong-Chih Kuo, Arthur Rhodes, Matt Thornton.)
The lefty with the most saves this year is Brian Fuentes of Oakland, who has 12 to go with his 4.82 ERA. Otherwise, no other lefty has more than five saves, though Antonio Bastardo (0.82 ERA, .103 batting average against) has been a great revelation for the Phillies after three previous closers went down with injuries (Brad Lidge, Jose Contreras and Ryan Madson).
Mariano Rivera has more All-Star saves (four) than every other active pitcher combined. (Only Jonathan Broxton and Francisco Rodriguez have an All-Star save among other active pitchers.) But Washington cannot give the ball to Rivera to save this one, with Rivera resting a tender triceps. Instead, if the AL has a lead, Washington will give the ball to Jose Valverde, who has become one of those classic expressive closers in the mold of Al Hrabosky.
Valverde, who already has lead the league in saves twice, has the most saves (24-for-24) despite questionable control (career-high walk rate of 5.2 per nine innings.) He tends to put too many runners on base and has some trouble against lefthanded batters, but he dominates righthanders (.172, one extra-base hit) and has a knack for getting out of jams. The drama he can create only serves to increase the intensity of his whoops and dances when he nails down the last out.
Valverde is a long way from Rivera. He is more of the typically pampered modern closer. He has entered a game with runners on only twice this year and has yet to get four outs in an appearance this season. His post-save celebrations have grown increasingly entertaining, so keep an eye on Papa Grande if he happens to get the last out of this game.
You would think you'd be buying a virtually guaranteed All-Star when you spend big money on the free agent market, especially considering that 85 players eventually are picked as All-Stars. But changing teams as a high-profile free agent adds pressure on a player that can turn his game for the worse.
The most expensive free agents from last winter, Carl Crawford and Jayson Werth, will be at home. Nothing new there. Over the past three off-seasons, 23 players changed teams as a free agent by signing contracts worth $20 million or more. Only four of those 23 big-ticket players made the All-Star team in the subsequent season (Cliff Lee, Adrian Beltre, Mark Teixeira and Francisco Rodriguez).
So tonight you can forget about watching Crawford, Werth, Adam Dunn, Victor Martinez, Rafael Soriano and Juan Uribe. And you still won't see the five biggest free agents who changed teams last year and sat out that game as well: John Lackey, Jason Bay, Chone Figgins, Aroldis Chapman and Randy Wolf.