Omar Infante(notes) made the National League All-Star team Sunday. At first, it seemed like a funny trick pulled by Major League Baseball. Ha, ha! You got us, guys! Mediocre utilityman on the All-Star team! Good one!
Then none of the analysts on the selection show laughed. So it must've been a problem with hanging chads. Presidential elections have been botched by bad ballots. Surely MLB could plead pulp-based-product malfeasance.
Nope. This was the choice of one man, Philadelphia Phillies manager Charlie Manuel, who did something remarkable: delivered baseball its worst All-Star ever on his own volition.
It's not as if Manuel was forced to choose Infante because he was the best player on a bad team. There have been some bad All-Stars before, guys like Ken Harvey and Mike Williams and Mark Redman(notes), who fulfilled MLB's everyone-gets-a-trophy rule. The 2010 Atlanta Braves have four other All-Stars.
Nor was Manuel satisfying some sort of positional need. He's got Brandon Phillips(notes) to back up Martin Prado(notes) at second base and Jose Reyes(notes) to spell Hanley Ramirez(notes) at shortstop. And, thanks to a new rule, one designated player who leaves the game can re-enter – and Prado, a former utilityman who has played every position but center field and catcher, could fill that role.
This was, at its most plain and simple, a boneheaded choice. Infante has 176 plate appearances this season, an average of 2.17 per game – nearly an entire plate appearance lower than the threshold simply to qualify for the batting title. If there weren't deterrent enough, of NL players with at least 176 plate appearances, Infante's on-base-plus-slugging of .721 ranks 88th of 128.
Hey, if Charlie Manuel, keeper of World Series home-field advantage for the NL, wanted to make Omar Infante's year, well, he did it. And his reasons seem tied to a single at-bat June 2. With the Braves and Phillies knotted 1-1 in the eighth inning, up stepped Infante. He had replaced Chipper Jones(notes) earlier in the game and was facing Jose Contreras(notes). Infante lashed an RBI single to right field, and the Braves won 2-1. Manuel reamed his team after the game for having "a whole lot of cockiness and big-headedness and complacency."
You wonder if that loss stuck with Manuel, and if …
1. Omar Infante, the man who personified it, is an All-Star due to one memorable swing. Because otherwise, it's not as if Infante starred against the Phillies. He sat out the Braves' first two games against them, then pinch hit, walked and scored a run in the third game. He followed with a pair of hitless games and finished the second series with a 3-for-5 game, which the Phillies won.
In the last series, Infante had finished with three hits and a pair of RBIs, ones he received simply because Jones so often gets hurt. It's one thing to pick a super-utility player because he forces himself into the lineup around the diamond on a daily basis. It's another to pick a backup.
Manuel had plenty better choices among utilitymen. Juan Uribe(notes) is a plus fielder at second and third base, plays shortstop if necessary and is a far better hitter than Infante, whose .367 average with runners in scoring position is gaudy – and almost certainly a small-sample-size anomaly. Dan Uggla(notes) can play second and third base. Same with Casey McGehee(notes). The permutations are almost limitless.
All of it ends with this, though: Omar Infante made the NL All-Star team …
2. Ahead of Joey Votto. However you assess baseball, it is unfathomable to deny Votto a spot on the team. He aces the traditional-counting-statistics set with a .313 average (fourth in NL), 19 home runs (second) and 57 RBIs (fifth). He makes basic-number crunchers swoon (.414 on-base percentage is second, as is his .574 slugging percentage).
Sabermetricians send him valentines (3.6 Wins Above Replacement, according to FanGraphs, second best among NL hitters). And for those who skip numbers altogether, he passes the old-fashioned Eyeball Test with honors.
3. Conspicuously missing the name of Stephen Strasburg(notes). Which we should have anticipated, because only MLB would take its biggest attraction and sideline it for its most visible pre-October game. For the last two weeks, the debate has raged: Does Strasburg, with six major league starts, deserve an All-Star spot? The answer was, quite clearly, yes.
One can look at the All-Star Game in two ways. The first is as a showcase for the fans, which is supported by MLB allowing them to vote the starters. No player drives fan interest today like Strasburg. Bring him on board – or, better yet, allow the fans to vote him in – and watch ratings for the game and interest in it soar. The second is as a game with real implications: World Series home field. Managers should, then, pick the best players for their teams. Only in Manuel's world, where Omar Infante deserves an All-Star bid, Arthur Rhodes(notes) and Evan Meek(notes) are better equipped to help the NL win than Strasburg.
Like Manuel said, he'll make plenty of All-Star teams going forward, and so will …
4. Mat Latos(notes), but that isn't the point. Manuel chose two middle relievers, Rhodes and Meek, because of their gaudy statistics in limited innings, and yet he left Latos off the roster when he's been nearly as dominant throwing more than three times the innings of Rhodes?
In 176 at-bats, left-handers are hitting .188 with a .223 on-base percentage and .273 slugging percentage against Latos. Rhodes, a left-handed specialist, is at .182/.174/.250 in 44 at-bats against lefties.
Against right-handers, Latos is .199/.277/.328, while Meek is .185/.230/.283. Meek's numbers are even better against lefties, and he has thrown 47 innings this season, so his inclusion isn't as egregious as Rhodes'. And numbers say Meek isn't close to the best middle reliever in the NL: not as good as San Diego's Luke Gregerson(notes) or Mike Adams(notes), Colorado's Matt Belisle(notes) and Chicago's Sean Marshall(notes).
5. Can construct quite as persuasive an argument as the American League strikeout leader, Los Angeles Angels starter Jered Weaver(notes), whose home stadium hosts this year's game. So it's likely that AL manager Joe Girardi will find some way to finagle him onto the roster, perhaps with the spot CC Sabathia(notes) will vacate because he pitches the Sunday before the game.
Girardi may choose his own Andy Pettitte(notes) instead, and while it wouldn't be his worst choice, overlooking Weaver would be an unwarranted snub. Hitters can't find his fastball, his changeup is as overpowering as ever and he's striking out 10.3 hitters per nine innings, a rate unseen in the AL since 2007. His walk rate is ninth lowest in the AL, too, and with an 8-3 record …
6. His numbers look even gaudier than those of Francisco Liriano(notes), even if advanced metrics contend he's been the best pitcher not just in the AL but all of baseball. The metrics weigh three numbers heavily: strikeouts, walks and home runs allowed. And in 105 2/3 innings this year, Liriano has 116 strikeouts, 28 walks and two homers.
His record is 6-6 because of mediocre run support and his ERA 3.30 because he has given up 101 hits, though another number better explains those hits: .352. That's hitters' batting average on balls in play against Liriano – the second highest in baseball – and it speaks to a considerable amount of bad luck for the Twins left-hander.
Luck is on his side, too, as only 2.5 percent of fly balls against him have gone for home runs while the league average is around 10 percent. And yet we've taken Liriano's dominance for granted. No pitcher generates a greater percentage of swings and misses, as batters whiff nearly once every eight Liriano pitches. His resurgence is one of the great stories of the season …
7. Though Alex Rios(notes) probably makes a better case as AL Comeback Player of the Year. When the Chicago White Sox claimed him off waivers last season and took on the last five years and $58.7 million of his contract, the ridicule was palpable. White Sox general manager Kenny Williams saw something. So did manager Ozzie Guillen.
And that's a 6-foot-5, 205-pound, fleet-of-foot center fielder who, at 29 is back to his mashing, basestealing, plenty-of-ground-patrolling self. Rios is hitting .307, slugging .516, has stolen 22 bases and ranks second in baseball with 56 defensive plays outside of his zone, according to Baseball Info Solutions. His snub from Girardi was as much a numbers crunch as anything, though he and …
8. White Sox teammate Paul Konerko(notes) deserved to be there ahead of Alex Rodriguez(notes). So did Kevin Youkilis(notes) and Brennan Boesch(notes) and a few others, but Girardi needed to do one of his Yankees a solid. Manuel did the same with Ryan Howard(notes), which not only led to the snub of Votto …
9. But left Ryan Zimmerman and Colby Rasmus(notes) and Jayson Werth(notes) and Carlos Gonzalez and Josh Willingham(notes) and Andrew McCutchen(notes) and a whole mess of other deserving NL positional players off the initial roster. One of the final five players, all outfielders, would replace Jason Heyward(notes), the voted-in rookie, if he must miss the game with an injury. And fans have a chance to choose Zimmerman.
He plays in the infield, after all, and has nearly twice as many plate appearances, RBIs and runs, 14 times as many home runs, and an OPS 150 points higher than …
10. The man of the hour, Omar Infante. For whom, actually, we feel quite bad. He doesn't deserve scorn because a manager was foolish enough to select him over others. Baseball is a funny game. Infante could very well be the guy who comes through with the late-inning hit that gives the NL an All-Star Game victory for the first time since 1996.
Here's the thing: Omar Infante is a nice player, ideal for a club like Atlanta with an injury-prone infield. Every team needs someone like him.
Except the All-Star team.