By Martin Kleinbard

I’m not exactly breaking the Internet by proclaiming that the Kansas City Royals are a very good team. They won the American League pennant last year, have its second best record so far this year, and sport a roster full of young studs. Plenty of people would gladly take the Royals up against any other team in baseball.

But how many would take the Royals (albeit along with Mike Trout) against the best of the entire National League in a game to decide home field advantage in the World Series?

That’s nearly exactly what happened in next week’s All Star Game in Cincinnati. Through June 22, the fans had Royals atop a preposterous eight of the nine starting spots, including one player (Omar Infante) who had a negative Wins Above Replacement (WAR) on the season.

Only a series of last minute ballot-stuffings prevented the KC plus Trouters from facing off against the best of the entire NL. Jose Altuve replaced Infante at second, Josh Donaldson took over for Mike Moustakas at third, Nelson Cruz slipped past Kendrys Morales at DH, and Miguel Cabrera overtook Eric Hosmer at first (though Albert Pujols will start in place of the injured Cabrera).

Clearly, those four moves made the AL lineup better—but how much better? To measure this effect, I created a pair of metrics that together capture the two most cited justifications for an All Star selection: as a reward for a standout season, and as recognition for an extraordinary career.

  • Season WAR: The player’s WAR in the All Star season in question (prorated to a season’s worth for this year, full season numbers for all previous years)
  • Career WAR: The average of the player’s career WAR through his All Star season divided by the number of seasons he’s played up to that point.

 

First, let’s take a look at the before and after shots of the lineups on June 22 versus what you’ll actually see next Tuesday (positions that changed are highlighted)[1]:

all star votingClick the image to expand

By swapping out that quartet of Royals, the average lineup spot improved by 0.9 wins in terms of this season’s production and 1.2 wins in terms of career performance. Not sure what to make of those numbers? If this were an actual team, it would have improved by somewhere between 8 and 9 wins—i.e. enough to go from .500 to playoff contender.

How do these two squads stack up on a historic level? Here are the average Season and Career WAR figures for the starting lineups from each All Star team since 1995, with this year’s AL given two slots (one for the June 22 iteration, one for the final version):

all star voting 2Click the image to expand

Turns out all of you who were wondering in mid-June whether this year’s American League starting lineup would be the worst in recent memory were onto something. At least by the average of their Season and Career WAR, the Trout + 8 Royals gang was by far the worst in the last two decades. Thanks to Pujols, Altuve, Donaldson, and Cruz, the lineup went from a snoozefest to reasonably compelling.

The only team that would have come close to challenging the June 22 AL squad for the honor of Faintest All Stars was the 2010 NL, but that lineup still featured Hanley Ramirez, Pujols, Ryan Howard, David Wright, Ryan Braun, and Yadier Molina. Even with some of them having down years, those guys looked like Murderer’s Row in comparison to the June 22nd top six of Trout, Gordon, Cain, Perez, Moustakas, and Hosmer.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t briefly mention the top starting lineup of the Wild Card era: the 2001 National League. Rather than bloviate for a paragraph or two, I’ll just list out the names and let you enjoy: Luis Gonzalez, Todd Helton, Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Larry Walker, Mike Piazza, Chipper Jones, Jeff Kent, and Rich Aurilia. Feel free to insert your steroid jokes here, but I’ll just marvel at that collection of talent. As fate would have it, the NL team as a whole mustered up just 3 hits and 1 run (driven in by none other than Ryan Klesko) in a 4-1 loss.

Lastly, what’s the impact of those roster changes on the AL’s chances of winning next week’s game? Believe it or not, the correlation between both Season and Career WAR and the outcome of the All Star game were negative (i.e. better starting lineups were more likely to lose). Of course, this is just a result of randomness rather than some weird reverse causality (à la “Maybe the better players don’t try as hard because they have less to prove…”) — don’t forget that the starters only play a couple of innings, and we haven’t even looked at the reserves or pitchers. Oh, and it’s a sample size of all 19 games (I excluded the infamous tie game of 2002).

That being said, at least we know that having an inferior starting lineup isn’t an automatic ticket to forgoing home field advantage in the World Series. Maybe Omar Infante should’ve made it after all.
Then again, maybe not.

***

Martin Kleinbard is a fan of the Yankees, Nets, Islanders, and Raiders. He looks forward to telling his grandkids about the last time the Raiders had a winning record. Martin is also co-founder of The Bandwagn, a newsletter/website that allows non-sports diehards the chance to join the sports conversation. He can be reached at martin.kleinbard@gmail.com.

References:

[1]These lineups do not account for Alex Gordon’s injury on Wednesday night.