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MLB all-star game 2013: What makes an all-star?

A re-visitation of the concept of "true talent."

Fifth in fan voting.
Fifth in fan voting.
The Star-Ledger-USA TODAY Sports

We're already well into fan voting season for the 2013 all-star game, and it doesn't appear that any Rays will make it in that way. Which is fine. Fan voting is fun, even if, like major league baseball, it's always going be stacked against the Rays. Still, we get to talk about selections. Over the next week or so, we will make cases for or against the Rays players with an argument. Below are the three (four) ways that players get chosen (two wrong, one right).

It's the all-STAR game!

This is the oft-repeated mantra of prominent media figures, usually from the northeast or Los Angeles, who don't know the league very well. They see a player they don't know, and conclude that he's not very good. If he were, the Yankees or Red Sox would have bought him by now. These commentators are not always dumb. Sometimes they're very cable football or basketball analysts who are just out of their depth. But mostly they have bad ideas about multiple sports. In 2005 they thought that Peyton Manning was a seriously flawed quarterback. In 2007, they thought that Lebron James passed too much. Four games ago, if they knew who Jozy Altidore and Chris Wondolowski were, they probably thought that Wondo should replace Jozy, because "Altidore just can't score on the international stage."

As you might be able to tell, I have little patience for this point of view. It's the BASEBALL all-star game. Let's make baseball decisions about who gets to play, not name recognition decisions. If you can't do that, Grant Balfour might have something to say to you.

We don't give participation trophies in the big leagues.

There's a corollary point of view to the one above, and it's a bit more difficult. Every team is guaranteed one all-star representative. It's a participation trophy for the bad teams, and it annoys people. I happen to love it. Nine out of the fifteen years they've been in existence, the Rays have been a single-rep team. I don't know if all of those were charity picks or not, but I can say that without them, I wouldn't have cared about the all-star game one bit. Almost every bad team has good players. When your team has no chance of gaining respect through winning, the best you can do is hope for the rest of the country to admire your good players.

I doubt I was the only person staying up late just to see Carl Crawford's at bats. One great catch, one line drive over a brick wall, and 142 million Boston dollars say he was a deserving all-star.

Of course sometimes you send Lance Carter or Danys Baez, which doesn't do much for the Rays fan. But then again, sometimes you send Lance Carter and Danys Baez, and they bring you back Edwin Jackson, who brings you back Matt Joyce, all-star.

The hot streak

So what am I advocating, if I don't want to see a collection of stars with established names? Do I want Jim Leyland to pick every local hero with a high BABIP? No. Glancing over the mid-season fWAR leader-boards isn't the best way to fill out a roster. That gets you Dionner Navarro batting four times, and no one wants that. There's a middle ground.

True talent

There's a concept we like to talk about in the stats-analysis world called "true talent." It's the idea that under all the noise of results there is a player of a certain skill. We can estimate this skill by combining our knowledge of past results, present results, aging and development curves, and scouting information. The best prediction of what a player will do tomorrow is a good estimation of his true talent today. Reverse that, and you have the idea that the best estimation of a player's true talent today is your high-quality prediction of what a player will do tomorrow. To give a visual sense of the relationship between performance and true talent, here are some graphs of true talent over time from Sal Baxamusa in 2008, using Marcel projections.

You don't have to use Marcel. There are many ways to make a prediction. Rest-of-season projections from ZiPS and Steamer are available on FanGraphs, and the FanGraphs depths charts section actually combines both of those with defensive and baserunning data to make holistic rest-of-season WAR projections. If you disdain WAR or statistical projections entirely, fine. Use your own method. The concept still holds. The all-star game isn't a right of the established star or the hitter on a hot streak. It should feature the best players in the game now, since you may have heard, this time it counts.