Unpopular Argument Alert: Defending Tony La Russa


When the All-Star rosters were announced Sunday afternoon, the list of Reds who didn’t make the game was more interesting than the list of those who did.

To no one’s surprise, Joey Votto will start at first base, after receiving the third most votes of any National Leaguer. Joining him in Kansas City will be right fielder Jay Bruce and closer Aroldis Chapman. Meanwhile, deserving players (in our opinion) Brandon Phillips and Johny Cueto will watch the game with the rest of us.

Immediately after the rosters were unveiled, furious local fans aimed their anger at Tony La Russa, who despite retiring in the offseason will return to manage the National League squad as his reward for winning the pennant last year. (I know, that still pains me to type.) Even Dusty Baker was enraged, openly blasting La Russa and implying that Phillips and Cueto were punished unfairly for something that happened two years ago.

La Russa, as you may recall, was still the Cardinals manager when St. Louis and Cincinnati got into a benches-clearing brawl in 2010. The two Reds who played the most prominent parts in that fight? Phillips, who raised tensions by criticizing the Cardinals before the series began, and Cueto, who kicked Cardinals catcher (and long-time Red) Jason LaRue in the head. Now, the logic goes, La Russa is getting his revenge. Phillips leads all second basemen in RBIs and routinely makes spectacular plays in the field, while Cueto has nine wins and a lower ERA than six of the seven starting pitchers on the NL roster, including Cardinals starter Lance Lynn, whose ERA ranks 26th in the league. What other reason could La Russa have for leaving them off the team?

Unfortunately for conspiracy theorists, there are some holes in that argument. While I’m certainly not excusing La Russa, who played a role in the snubs, the bigger problem is the overly complex way the All-Star roster is selected, and some of the arcane rules that govern the process.

First, let’s review how the roster is created. Since 2010, MLB has used a four-step system, which is only slightly less complicated than solving the National Debt.

1. Fans vote online and in stadiums for the eight starting position players from each league, as well as the American League’s designated hitter. This is how Votto was chosen to start.

2. Players and managers vote for 16 additional players: eight pitchers (five starters and three relievers) and a backup at each position. This is how Chapman and Lynn made the team.

3. The All-Star manager—in this case La Russa—chooses the remaining nine players. This is how Bruce was selected.

4. The commissioner chooses five additional players from each league to be entered into a “Final Vote,” where fans vote online for one player to make the team.

In addition, at least one player from every team is required to be on the roster. This rule hurt the Reds this year, but helped them in years past. For instance, from 2001 to 2009, the Reds had just one All-Star in eight of nine seasons and arguably deserved none at least once or twice.

So La Russa only got to choose nine players. Of those, three were required to come from Arizona, San Diego, and Miami, who did not have any other players on the team. That means La Russa really only had to choose the final six players. Maybe Cueto and Phillips should have been in that group, but there really weren’t any horrible choices among Tony’s picks. (Certainly, the pitchers he picked were all deserving; you could argue that Phillips should have been chosen over Ian Desmond, but it’s a close call.) And he chose Bruce as his last outfielder over the more deserving Matt Holliday from the Cardinals, throwing another wrench in the conspiracy theories.

The problem for Phillips was really the fan balloting, which at this point, is an age-old part of the game. The fans, who have had a say in the starting eight since 1970, chose Dan Uggla over Phillips. The Reds second baseman might be having a better year than Uggla, with a higher average, more RBIs, and superior defense, but Braves fans got out the vote and Phillips gregarious personality doesn’t exactly engender admiration outside the Queen City.

Phillips was also hurt by the fact that most of the voting was done early in the season, when he got off to a slow start and Uggla was providing better statistics for a better Braves team. By the time Phillips started to heat up, the gap was too large to overcome. He was passed over by his fellow players, too, who chose Jose Altuve as the back-up second baseman. Altuve is having a very good year for a very bad Astros team and clearly should have been the requisite Astro to appear. Can’t complain about that choice.

Likewise, Cueto was hurt not by La Russa but by his fellow players, who voted for Lynn. Again, look at the timing. The player voted two weeks ago, when Lynn was 10-2 with a 2.42 ERA, while Cueto was 7-3 with a 2.46 ERA. Sure, Lynn has struggled since then, losing his last two decisions while raising his ERA to 3.62, but the players didn’t know that at the time.

I am as big a La Russa supporter as any other Reds fan (meaning I would rather cheer for Lord Voldemort than Tony), but even I find it hard to blame him in this situation. Sure, Cueto and Phillips deserve to be All-Stars. But there are a lot of good players in the National League, and it is hard to narrow 16 teams of 25 players down to a 34-man team.

The bigger problem is that baseball needs to pick a simpler system for picking players, one with fewer cooks in the kitchen. Is the game a popularity contest featuring the most exciting players? In that case, let the fans select the entire roster. Do you let the managers pick whatever team they want? That might encourage managers to pick a bevy of their own players, as Ron Washington did this year by helping put eight Rangers on the American League team. Or is it truly a game between the best players in each league? In that case, do you reward someone for a great half-season or is it a career achievement award? Until baseball decides what it wants the All-Star Game to be, it will continue to run into the same problems it did this year.

Or the Reds could just win the World Series this season, allowing Dusty Baker to name as many Reds to next year’s team as he wants. That would stop the whining, at least until he benches Todd Frazier.

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