Editor’s All-Star Introduction: The All-Star ballots have appeared at major league stadiums across the country, and TheSportsNotebook is ready to weigh in with the first of what will be three installments of tracking the All-Star race over the course of the season. The second update will come at the break itself and the third will come at the end of the season—why baseball, alone among major sports, completely ignores a complete All-Star vote at the end of the season, is beyond me.
Now a few notes about the way TheSportsNotebook sets up its ballot. It doesn’t mimic the one given out at MLB stadiums. I select a complete team—five starting two pitchers, two setup men and a closer. When outfielders are chosen, at least one has to be a legitimate centerfielder. Furthermore, the same criteria that is used for MVP selection—assessing a player’s value to his team, not just raw stats—are given the same consideration in this process, which I view as the first step in narrowing everything down to an MVP. Finally, what you see here is based strictly on production compiled to date. It’s not necessarily who I’d vote for to be in Kansas City in mid-July—I want more than six good weeks out of someone before I choose to watch them in the All-Star game. But, as mentioned at the top, I view this ballot as the first of a three-part show in choosing a season-ending All-Star team & MVP.
TheSportsNotebook’s choices for the early lead in the American League. Click here for the National League ballot.
C: Matt Wieters (Baltimore): An easy choice. Wieters is already the best offensive catcher in the American League, hitting .275 with eight home runs and showing solid discipline at the plate, while being the best everyday player for a team that would shock the world if the season ended today with them still tied for first. Candidates to watch as the season progresses include Carlos Santana in Cleveland and a familiar face in Minnesota’s Joe Mauer. Both are getting on base at proficient rates, but need to match Wieters in power.
1B: Paul Konerko (ChiSox): This one’s not even close. With an on-base percentage over. 400, a slugging percentage over .,500 and the status as the one reliable hitter in a shaky lineup, Konerko’s putting together an MVP season. His All-Star candidacy is made easier by the fact Mark Teixeira and Adrian Gonzalez have been in the tank, while Prince Fielder has been good, but not great.
2B: Dustin Pedroia (Boston): The offensive numbers are impressive enough–.378 on-base percentage and .517 slugging, but for the middle infield spots I give a greater weight to defensive range and the statistical metrics give Pedroia a substantial edge over Texas’ Ian Kinsler—an edge that’s been consistent throughout their careers—along with Cleveland’s Jason Kipnis. And even though Pedroia’s team is faring worse, by a measurement of true value he ranks higher—its offense that’s kept Boston even marginally afloat thus far and with Gonzalez slumping, and other key players hurt, a greater weight has fallen on Pedroia. He’s answered. And then there’s that whole thing about me being a Red Sox fan and liking him too, but I believe his candidacy would stand on its merits to an objective observer.
3B: Miguel Cabrera (Detroit): Cabrera’s offensive numbers trail Kansas City’s Mike Moustakas by a hair, and I can see this one going either way. Moustakas is also slightly higher on the defensive metrics—but believe it or not, Cabrera grades out well there, third among American League third basemen. I’m giving the Tiger player the edge though because he’s in a much more difficult park to hit and along with Prince Fielder he’s kept Detroit afloat in the early part of the season. If Moustakas can help key a Royal run to .500—something that would be the equivalent of Cabrera helping the Tigers make the playoffs—I can see flipping the order later on.
SS: Asdrubal Cabrera (Cleveland): Yes, I know Yankee fans are screaming bias that I passed over Derek Jeter. But look at the case for the Indian shortstop. He’s got a slightly higher OBP (.414 to .411), isn’t that far behind in slugging (.500 to .527) and is decisively better on defensive range. It’s the latter, Jeter’s big weakness over his career that spells the difference at a position where range means everything. Oh, and Cleveland’s a surprising first-place team at this writing, while New York’s a mildly disappointing third. Could this change over the course of a week? Sure. But I’m basing it on what’s true right now.
OF: Josh Hamilton (Texas): The man’s hitting .400 with 18 home runs. This is where I save on the word count in this article and trust that it’s self-explanatory.
OF: Austin Jackson (Detroit): In terms of raw numbers, there are others who are better, but given the difficulties of Detroit’s park to hit in and how much Jackson meant to the Detroit offense early, being the only one who could support Fielder and Cabrera and doing it to the tune of a .403 on-base percentage and solid power to the alleys (10 doubles and a .504 slugging) I think he deserves this spot over worthy candidates like Adam Jones in Baltimore and Josh Willingham in Minnesota.
OF: Curtis Granderson (NY Yanks): I hesitated a little bit because of how easy Yankee Stadium is to hit home runs in, but Granderson’s still got 12, and along with Jeter’s he’s carried the load on an offense where a good chunk of the lineup is still in a funk. Solid plate discipline makes up for a pedestrian .257 batting average—the walks elevate his OBP almost 100 points over that, the mark of a very selective hitter. So both ends of the offseason trade in 2009 between New York and Detroit—Jackson and Granderson—are early front-runners in the All-Star race.
DH: Edwin Encarcion (Toronto): Purely on the numbers, both David Ortiz in Boston and Adam Dunn in Chicago are better and quite honestly that’s who I expect to end up battling for this spot by season’s end. But based on value to an offense right now, Encarcion has hit 11 home runs and slugged over .500 at a time when Jose Bautista has been in a slump and Encarcion’s bat has kept Toronto competitive in the rugged AL East. That’s a good definition of the most valuable criteria that animates our selection process at all levels.
Felix Hernandez (Seattle)
Justin Verlander (Detroit)
Jake Peavy (ChiSox)
Brandon Morrow (Toronto)
Jered Weaver (LA Angeles)
All the pitchers chosen have at least 50 innings under their belt and the lack of innings was the reason I left off solid candidates like Detroit’s Drew Smyly and Baltimore’s Wei Yin-Chen, both of whom have the ERAs to make a run at the top line at this position. King Feliz’s 59 innings are also the reason I’d list him as the top choice even though Peavy’s ERA is the best in the league. Verlander’s right behind at 58, but also a little bit higher ERA. Weaver’s 54 innings vaulted him past six other pitchers with lower ERAs. By the same token I was not prepared to consider pitchers with ERAs over 3, hence the exclusion of arms like Jason Vargas (Seattle), Ricky Romero (Toronto), James Shields (Tampa) and C.C. Sabathia (NY Yanks). But as the season wears on and the standard for ERA becomes a little lower I’d expect some in this group—particularly Sabathia—to end up in serious consideration for a spot.
Setup: Ryan Cook (Oakland) & Alexi Ogando (Texas)
Closer: Jim Johnson (Baltimore)
All Cook has done is pitch 17 innings without giving up a run. Ogando’s gone 18 innings with a 0.48 ERA. For short relievers this is very good inning volume and the sparkling ERAs made setup among the easiest picks on the board. And it’s really a new era in the American League at closer. Mariano’s out for the year and possibly for good. Jonathan Papelbon, a likely heir apparent is now in Philadelphia. So it’s anybody’s ballgame. Johnson’s 11 saves are second-best in the AL, but unlike save leader Chris Perez in Seattle, Johnson hasn’t blown an opportunity and his ERA of 0.57 is substantially better. Fernando Rodney, just one save back of Johnson and an 0.54 ERA with Tampa is a candidate for this spot as well.
Early MVP Leader: Josh Hamilton—I’d like to have an anti-consensus choice, but I’m not going to do it when the consensus is so clearly the best. Over the long haul I would factor in against Hamilton that the lineup he hits in is absolutely stacked, a contrast to other worthy candidates like Konerko. But right now the Texas outfielder’s production is so mind-boggling that there is no other choice.