The lineups in Tuesday night’s MLB All-Star Game feature the man who hit more home runs than any rookie in the history of the game; a generational talent and performer whose most accurate statistical comparisons are to Frank Robinson, Ken Griffey Jr. and Mickey Mantle; and a former bowling ace whose current on-base-plus-slugging percentage (1.139) is the highest since Barry Bonds’s PED-laden body was in the midst of statistically mocking the game more than a dozen years ago.
The Midsummer Classic’s best of the best? Sure. But that’s also just the American League’s starting outfield of Aaron Judge, Mike Trout and Mookie Betts.
As Washington’s first All-Star Game in nearly half a century approaches, we will hear — and I have written — about so many of baseball’s problems. These are real and must be dealt with, because we live in an ADD world, so capturing the minds and bodies of this generation and the next can’t come without some action. Shoot, put modern society aside. Regardless of the era, the current brand of baseball needs a jolt of excitement between the lines.
But as we frame the discourse about the issues with the current game and the potential solutions that must follow, let’s also make sure we find what’s worth celebrating — namely, the players. The game might be ailing. But the players are awesome.
Problem: The single is dying. Balls are put in play infrequently. Players don’t produce hits. Strikeouts have set records annually for the past decade and will again this year.
Solution: Jose Altuve. The Houston Astros second baseman is headed toward his fifth straight 200-hit season, with more than 2 1 / 2 hits for every one of his strikeouts over his career. He’s taking the torch from Ichiro Suzuki and Wade Boggs (albeit from the right side) and filling each at-bat with potential.
Problem: The front-office strategy of losing in the near-term to win in the (sometimes distant) future is causing fan disinterest in too many markets. There will be no relevant baseball played, for instance, by the Baltimore Orioles or Chicago White Sox or San Diego Padres or Miami Marlins or Kansas City Royals after the break, and that’s too bad.
Solution: Manny Machado. Though it’s dubious to suggest the Orioles’ current plight is by design, it’s unarguable that the American League’s starting shortstop is among the game’s best attractions. His appearance in Washington in the only uniform he has ever known only fuels discussion of where he’ll end up later this summer. Philadelphia, anyone? That would make the regular tenants of Nationals Park rather anxious.
Problem: The league doesn’t have enough marketable stars and does a poor job pushing forward those it has. Everyone knows LeBron James. No one knows Mike Trout.
Solution: Bryce Harper. He and his .214 batting average are a walking conversation. He’ll be a free agent in the offseason. He’s struggling in many aspects at the plate in the midst of this season, though lots of players would like to “struggle” by leading the league in walks and posting 23 bombs at the break. Make what you will of him — and that discussion will be among the most fascinating of the week — but he’s the one with T-Mobile and Under Armour and Gatorade following him around.
Baseball nerds — raises own hand — will always find reason to love whoever’s participating in the All-Star Game and the skills they wield. Please, baseball gods, allow there to be a stolen base attempt by the American League so we can see the art of the tag as orchestrated by Chicago Cubs glove wizard Javier Baez. He is so sublime on defense that I’d pay to see Baez play second, short or third. He’ll start for the National League at second? Good enough for me. His free-swinging appearance in Monday night’s Home Run Derby is merely a bonus.
But to get the subtleties of the game across to the masses — nuances on which a real appreciation of baseball is built — MLB must swing open the front door and pay carnival barkers to wear sandwich boards extolling the best the game has to offer. And the best the game has to offer is pretty darn good.
Take Max Scherzer, who was named by Manager Dave Roberts as the NL’s starting pitcher for the second consecutive year. Traditionalists and would-be new fans may bemoan the prominence of the strikeout, and as an offensive data point that’s true. But Scherzer is the best baseball has to offer on the other side. If and when he gets two strikes on a batter Tuesday night, the buildup in the ballpark will be fun. Look at it this way: In the 2010s, Scherzer leads all of baseball with 2,091 strikeouts. The only pitcher with more in the 2000s: Randy Johnson (2,182). The only pitchers with more in the 1990s: Johnson (2,538) and Roger Clemens (2,101). In the 1980s: Nolan Ryan (2,167). In the ’70s: Ryan (2,678) and Tom Seaver (2,304).
You get the point. Heady company, a future Hall of Famer in the flesh. Maybe the strikeout is the scourge of the game offensively. But every time Scherzer takes the mound, he is capable of producing overpowering artistry, pitching in a manner that would translate to any decade and any style.
So, then, Scherzer facing Betts, Altuve, Trout, Judge, Machado and J.D. Martinez, Boston’s 29-homer, 80-RBI man? Yes, please. Don’t miss first pitch.
The All-Star Game is meaningless now because it no longer impacts home-field advantage in the World Series. That’s a good thing. But it is meaningful in assessing the health of the game as the season heads to the second half, the trade deadline and the pennant races beyond.
In taking that assessment this week, we should consider and discuss solutions to the issues that ail the on-field product. But more than that, we should take a breath, look out onto the specially mowed lawn at Nationals Park and appreciate the players gliding over the turf.
Baseball has problems. The players aren’t among them. Not close.
For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.