Wednesday, July 13, 2011


No doubt about it--five mini All-Star games in one night would have beaten the barely engaging game played last evening between a pair of teams who couldn't quite be bothered to put all of their best players on the field. Another manifestation of the cataclysmic moral vacuum that's existed in the Age of Budzilla...the escalating "you scratch my back" ethos that comes from selling one too many used cars.

But in the midst of it, we found ourselves gravitating over to the usual completist mania so often found at Forman et fils, where there is a page that lists the entire roster of All-Star batters and their stats. This list, as you'll see when you peruse for yourself, contains 1577 players (though that should increase a bit sometime soon, as the 2011 All-Stars have yet to be added).

A nifty feature in that data is the number of All-Star games in which the player was selected to play (regardless of whether they started--there's a separate column for that, even niftier--or whether they even got into the game at all).

That got me wondering. All All-Stars are not created equal: from an off-and-on examination of the WAR tables in the Forman et fils listings, it's clear that some guys on the squad don't even come close to measuring up to the method's back-of-the-envelope rule-of-thumb than an All-Star should bring at least five wins above replacement to the park in order to be on the squad.

The only good jerk is a "knee jerk"...
But rather than list all of that discrepancy--though it's a tempting side-project, there's literally no time for such an effort in the foreseeable future--we thought it might be just as entertaining to look for what the title colorfully calls the "knee-jerk" All-Stars. (Insert your own "onanistic" reference here.)

These are the guys put on the All-Star team year after year, in a reflex action, kind of like a dog with fleas scratching himself.

It's doubtful that there are many "knee-jerk" All-Stars to be found in present-day baseball. There are way too many teams that need to be represented for this to happen--but back when there were only 16-20 teams, it's possible that a certain class of player (probably over on the left side of the defensive spectrum) who'd established a name for himself would get named as the "extra player" at a particular position simply due to name recognition.

How do we measure this? Simple. We take a player's number of All-Star games, and divide it into his career WAR figure. Given that few players are good enough to make the squad every year, the value that's created--career WAR per number of All-Star Game selections--is still generous enough to produce a robust number.
Mel Ott: finally, a "knee jerk" that actually works!!

Unless, of course, you are a "knee-jerk" All-Star.

The type of player we're looking for is someone who has very few actual starts in the ASG, but gets named to a lot of ASG squads. We're talking position players here, of course, as pitchers just don't get the nod to start the ASG all that often.

Looking at that data, though, it's kind of surprising to note that Mel Ott actually started only four ASG out of his total of twelve ASG appearances. In the case of Frank Robinson (just 6 starts out of 14 times on the squad) this is understandable--Willie Mays and Hank Aaron were dominating the starting lineup--but just who was keeping Ott on the bench? We'll have to look that up sometime.

Anyway--that formula for knee-jerkiness again is: (Career WAR/# of ASG squads). As a fun benchmark, Yogi Berra (61.8/18) grades out at 3.44--but the Yoge's total is distorted a bit by the fact that baseball had two All-Star games in the same year for awhile there. (Proof that Budzilla does not have a stranglehold on all the questionable ideas....)

Let's look at some of the players that we find below Yogi's KJA ("Knee-Jerk Average").

GEORGE KELL 33.6/10 = 3.36

One drawback at Forman et fils is that while they tell you how many games a player started in the ASG, there's no way to tell which games they are. Still, we'll report a few facts associated with this data as best we can.

Kell started six games. His seasonal WAR for the years he was selected to the ASG squad: 4.2, 0.6, 5.0, 4.4, 3.1, 2.4, 3.5, 0.3, 1.3, 1.3.

That's four out of ten years where his WAR was below 1.5, three in a row at the tail end of his career.

Can a Hall of Famer be a "knee-jerk king"?

Fear not, we are going much, much lower.

NELLIE FOX 44.4/15 = 2.96

To be fair, Nellie wouldn't be on this list if not for the ASG double-whammy in the late 50s/early 60s. But he racked up two ASG appearances in '61 with a -0.4 WAR for the season. So let's consider him an honorary member.

BILL MAZEROSKI 26.9/10 = 2.69
See what we meant about the left side of the defensive spectrum? Maz is another guy whose totals are inflated by those extra ASGs, but he did have an All-Star appearance in a year (1959) when his total WAR was -0.5.

GEORGE McQUINN 18.6/7 = 2.66

Our first first baseman. Good player, but got a couple of ASG nods as a token pick for the Browns (1940, 1942, and even 1944, the year the Browns won). His selection in 1948 (after his trade to the Yanks the year before) was odd: he was hot in May but began to fade sharply and by the ASG he was in free-fall: he was benched shortly after the ASG, never recovered his old form, and was released at the end of the year.

HARVEY KUENN 24.3/10 = 2.43

Two extra ASG here as well, but WAR really doesn't like Kuenn's defense. In his ROY season in '53, his defense at short is purportedly so poor it almost cancels out his hitting. In 1957 and 1958, however, Kuenn was in KJ territory, averaging 1.5 WAR over those two years and plunked on the squad anyway.

DEL CRANDALL 26.7/11 = 2.43

Again, Del's average is deflated for the reason already noted. In his case, though, it's clear that despite just middling offensive production in a number of his ASG years, he was simply the best hitter at his position anyway, as evidenced by the fact that he was the starter in eight of those games.

FRANKIE HAYES 14.2/6 = 2.37

Back on the ASG in 1944 and 1946, for no discernable reason...except for the Crandall scenario above. That would explain '44, but not '46.

ELSTON HOWARD 28.2/12 = 2.35

Ellie's first year on an ASG squad is inexplicable unless there was an injury--he's got a whopping -0.9 WAR to show for that year (1957). 1958 was a legit year, but then he was grandfathered in for the next two years despite mediocre totals. Things stay kosher from 1961-64, but in '65 he's on the squad despite hitting just .221 in the first half of the year and winding up at 0.7 WAR for the year.

"No, no, Thurman, I don't want to come fly with you..."
Interestingly, despite having a number of really good years, Howard only started once out of the twelve times he was named to the squad. Another research project to see who was keeping him on the bench in those years.

Fear not, we're not close to the bottom of the barrel...

SANDY ALOMAR 13.2/6 = 2.20

There's a noticeable pattern in catchers--they have a good hitting year or two and they seem to get lumped into the ASG pool automatically no matter what they hit. Oddly, though, Sandy's first ASG selection came in a year when he didn't hit all that well--it wasn't until the next year that he actually got his act together with the bat (though that didn't last, fitting in with the pattern).

Malzone: poser or poseur? Dust or lint? Wop or
spaghetti-bender?? Epithet or slur???
FRANK MALZONE 14.5/8 = 1.81

Malzone made his first ASG in '57 because of a hot first half (he hit .327), and he had a bit of a run as the top third baseman because Brooks Robinson was not quite ready for his close-up. Odd fact: in 1963, Malzone was the starter at third base, and he batted cleanup in the ASG. Some of these starting lineups for the ASG (check out the 1963 box score) will definitely give you pause.

Now to the really good stuff....

DON KESSINGER 5.0/6 = 0.83

"You mean I'm supposed to take the
donut off before I hit??"
Kessinger played in six All-Star games. Selected for the first time in 1968, he started for the NL despite winding up with a 67 OPS+. He actually had a good year in '69 and was the starter again. After that they just kept putting him on the team, despite several years with negative WAR totals. This is where a look at a player's WAR during the actual years he was on the ASG might be of some contextual value...but the key word there is "might," as Don's total WAR for those six years is only 8.2. Clearly he had some very bad years, including a few where he didn't make the All-Star team...

At least it's not on velvet...
And, finally, the "Knee-Jerk" king hisself....


Bobby is actually lowered by that duelling ASG thang, but we won't let that get in our way. Bobby had two passable hitting seasons which accounted for all of his career WAR--the rest of his career grades out almost exactly at what those of us with a callous heart and a penchant for arcane jargon like to call "replacement level." How Bobby got on the 1957 All-Star team is probably something for a mystery novelist to tackle--or a French farceur. But it all seems to be strangely related to Elston Howard...

Is a knee-jerk reaction
positive...or negative?
Meh, it was probably Dr. Norman Vincent Peale stuffing the ballot box...

...but the good news is that Bobby only started one ASG. It happened at the New York World's, actually, it happened in Shea Stadium on July 7, 1964. And, to show you how much positivity had worn off on Ralph Houk after so much exposure to the pious soon-to-be-Reverend Richardson, the Major actually batted Bobby seventh, ahead of Elston Howard in the AL batting order.

Hey, Bobby got a hit...and Elston didn't.