Will Leyland Regret His Decision to Pitch Verlander Before the All-Star Break?

Ever since Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig announced in 2003 that the winning league of the All-Star Game would gain homefield advantage in the World Series, experts have debated whether he made the right decision. That decision has led to other intriguing dilemmas for big league managers, too.

At what point do managers have a responsibility to ensure that their best pitchers are available for the Midsummer Classic? Is there a difference if a team is hopelessly out of contention, as opposed to being a title contender? Afterall, couldn’t a manager be shooting himself in his own foot by not making his ace available to face the other league in the All-Star Game?

First, let’s check the historical ledger to see whether the homefield advantage really is an advantage at all. Since division play began in 1969, teams that have home field advantage in the World Series have won 25 of 41 Fall Classics. When the Series has gone to a deciding seventh game, the home teams are 9-4 since 1969. There there hasn’t been a Game Seven since Selig’s rule change in 2003, but the records indicate that the home team has a decided advantage, winning 60% of the time, and if it goes to a seventh game they win nearly 70% of the time.

Selig’s move to award homefield to the winning league of the ASG could potentially have a huge impact on the outcome of the World Series. MLB is faced with the very real possibility that a Game Seven will be played in the home park of a team because of the result of an exhibition game played more than two months earlier and decided by players not even on the field come October.

That just doesn’t seem right. So far Selig has dodged a bullet, so to speak. Since his ruling, the league with the homefield advantage is 4-4 in Fall Classic play. But eventually, given enough seasons and the right circumstances (remember how no one thought an ASG would end in a tie), egg will splatter on the Commissioner’s face when a home team wins a seventh game (or maybe Games Six and Seven) based on the ASG result.

Further complicating the matter are the All-Star Game rosters themselves. Currently, every team is required to be represented. This results in a roster that doesn’t reflect the best players available. Many times the better teams have players left off because of this ridiculous rule. MLB claims it keeps fans in cities like Pittsburgh and Kansas City interested in the All-Star Game. But how many Royals fans are tuning in to see if their lone representative will get to pinch-hit in the late innings?

A better rule would be to allow the ASG manager to select his reserve roster unfettered. If the host team (this year Arizona) does not still have a representative after that selection process, expand the rosters by one to allow that team to have a player on the squad. That player could trot out and tip his cap to appease the home crowd.

Pitchers can often dominate the ASG, especially since batters from the other league are less familiar with them (though admittedly that’s less an issue with interleague play and the movement of players between leagues via free agency). Still, pitchers can have a huge impact in the All-Star Game. Do managers (and the league) have a responsibility to select starting pitchers who are available to pitch in the game? If a pitcher has started on Sunday before the ASG (played on Tuesday) he is unavailable to pitch.

This year, arguably the American League’s best starting pitcher has been Justin Verlander of the Detroit Tigers. Verlander was 6-0 in June with a 0.92 ERA. In May he tossed his second career no-hitter, and in his next start he went nearly six innings before surrendering a hit. He has magical stuff: a 100+ MPH fastball and a curveball that’s been compared to that of Sandy Koufax. Verlander would normally be the starter for the AL in the Fall Classic.

But Tigers manager Jim Leyland has stuck to his regular schedule and plans to pitch Verlander on Sunday against the Royals. Thus, Verlander will go to Phoenix for the All-Star Game as a spectator. He’ll wave his cap but he will be unable to help the American League win the game. Is this the right thing to do?

Leyland’s Tigers are scratching and clawing near the top of the AL Central, and with Verlander and other All-Stars like Miguel Cabrera, catcher Alex Avila, and closer Jose Valverde, they have the talent to get to the post-season and contend for the pennant. If they do, and if they fail to have homefield advantage in the Fall Classic, will Leyland kick himself for not haveing his ace lined up to start or pitch in the All-Star Game?

Further, do Leyland and other managers have a responsibility to make their best pitchers available for the ASG, considering it could make the difference between their league winning or losing the World Series? These are the questions that Selig’s decision has created. Few players have given it much thought, still treating the ASG as a vacation.

“The All-Star Game is a show, more or less,” Verlander said. “I know it means homefield advantage for the World Series, but it’s still not treated that way by Major League Baseball, with the way they do the fan voting. It’s not taken seriously.”

Verlander is right. Fan voting often results in playes being selected for their reputation, it rarely produces the best at each position. This year, Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter will start even though he just came back from the disabled list and is having his worst season. If MLB really wants fans to take seriously the notion that “This time it counts”, the inequities in fan voting would be addressed.

It’s clear to me that the rule requiring a representative from each team is silly and should be abandoned. If MLB is going to insist that the ASG, an exhibition game that’s managed as such for at least six innings, is going to decide the homefield of the World Series, managers should be cognizant of their starting rotations and adjust appropriately to help their league put the best players on the field for the Midsummer Classic. Otherwise, Selig should rescind the rule.

There are certainly better alternatives. Homefield could be awarded on an alternating basis, as it was prior to 2003. Or the league that has the superior record in overall interlague play could get homefield. Since there are a few hundred interlague games, that’s better than having one game decide it. That’s my favorite choice. You could also award the homefield to the pennant winner with the better overall record or record in interleague play, but that can be skewed by one league being weaker or stronger.

The fact is that tehse alternatives make much more sense, but they don’t address the reason Selig actually made his decision to award homefield to the winning league in All-Star Game play: the game had become a yawn. All-Star Game managers and players started to lose interest in the competitiveness of the game starting in the 1980s. There was a time, in the 1970s and 1960s, when the game was taken seriously. Hall of Famers Joe Morgan and Frank Robinson have both told the story of how when they were playing the game for the NL, veteran players would give a pep talk prior to the game, charging up the Senior Circuit to defeat what they thought was an inferior American League. By the 1990s, that sort of zest was gone, and it was obvious to close observers of the game that eventually a team might run out of players in an All-Star Game. When that embarrassment occured in 2002, with cameras aimed at Selig as he conferred with his representatives and ruled the game a tie, it led to his knee-jerk reaction to change the rules.

It’s time for MLB to look at the All-Star Game again. If the Tigers (or another team) lose the World Series after holding a 3-2 lead in part because they have to go on the road to play Games Six and Seven, it will be more of a farce than that tie game. Let’s hope Verlander’s unavailability in this year’s All-Star Game doesn’t swing homefield to the NL and have an unintended impact of determining the World Series winner.