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An ideal of fairness: MLB All-Star selection and the democratic process

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Let's call a Constitutional Convention and fix the All-Star Game voting process.

Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

It is a truth universally held that All-Star Game selections for every sport is awful. The event has no real meaning, yet real adults, largely, will not only spend real hours voting to boost their slate of players, but will also spend real hours being mad about the process.

It's a no-win situation, really. Let the fans pick and you get teams that are all Kansas City Royals and some bum. Let the writers or some other version of Calvinist Elect, and you're putting your trust in a group, coaches or writers, that have little motivation to take it seriously.

How one even determines who the best players is another matter entirely, though beyond the scope of today's exercise.

Let's not be interested in the Platonic Form of an All-Star player, and instead focus on creating a process that works in a more equitable manner.

On Fairness

Sporting institutions are intrinsically, if superficially, concerned with fairness. In a closed system that acts effectively as a cartel, questions on fairness abound: how are the rules enforced uniformly; how are resources fairly distributed; how can the validity of the result be guaranteed? Sports must maintain this illusion of equality, because their customers demand this narrative. Virtually every question in sports on an institutional level goes back to the question: is this fair? That the answer is often "no" misses the point, it the attempt that matters.

So, too, does the All-Star process asks itself what is fair. Which players deserve to go? How can it be ensured that every team is represented? How can the customers feel like they've participated? Like most elections, the answers to these questions are irrelevant, because the answers have no real meaning. Which player deserves to go? How is a good player determined, and what does it mean? Is the value determined by the half year performance, or the previous year, or the career? Or is it who is most marketable?

In examining the fairness of the All-Star Game selection process, let's first analyze the current system, and then put it on a spectrum of definable fairness. This spectrum will go between Machine Fairness, or the measurable legitimacy of a player, and Organic Fairness, or the participatory nature of the selection. A second dimension is the source of the selection: the Elect, or the baseball elite, and the People, or everyone else. An exploration of these different systems will be in the second section.

The current All-Star process involves multiple tiers of selection, reflecting the compromised nature of the American political spirit. The first step is for the fans, with some restrictions, to vote for the players directly. Next, the players vote for their peers. Third, the manager of each team picks players. The fans are given a last vote to select the last player on each roster. At this point one might think the process is done, but then a final round of manager/commissioner selections is enacted as injury/player replacements.

What this results in is different interlocking cogs, some of which represent a degree of fairness through the voting process. As Lyndon Johnson knew when he pushed for equal voting rights, it's through elections and the democratic process that equality lives. By providing people the means to participate, you enable them to change things on an institutional level. Both steps of voting for the All-Star Game are clearly examples of Organic Fairness, in that it requires the participation of people to make the selection. They differ, however, by the people doing the voting. The player voting is done by elites within the business of baseball who should, in theory, understand the game better than outsiders, i.e., the fans. This sets up a false dichotomy, however, because it implies that insider presence also comes with both exclusive knowledge, and that the insiders will vote rationally, or vote in-line with their exclusive knowledge. Likewise, fan voting also can suffer from non-rational voting.

The manager and commissioner office selections are also on the Elect side of the spectrum, but are closer to the center between Machine and Organic Fairness. The manager effectively makes a vote, but has no counterbalance to ensure legitimacy. Instead, these selections engage in traditional authority instead of legal, where the legitimacy of the action is rooted in the tradition of managers selecting players, and the assumption that their elite position allows them extraordinary insight into the value of players.

As it is currently structured, there is no true Machine Fairness process for selecting players. For the sake of comparison, this system would use some kind of criteria that would be sorted from most to least. The assumption might be that such a process would have to automatically be on the Elect end of the spectrum, but a sortable system could be created not completely dissimilar to the fan scouting that Tango runs after every season. Of course, the easiest and possibly most efficient way would be to just use the direct statistics of performance, and sort it from there.

The problem with Machine Fairness is that might represent a kind of pure fairness, but it does not represent practical fairness. Pure fairness has logical and ridge structure, where nature conforms to the rules and things are ordered accordingly in a form of utilitarian joy. As anyone who has tried to create concrete rules for abstract concepts would recognize, though, is that humans rarely do well with something neatly ordered. Machine Fairness returns to one of the original questions of this piece: which player is deserving? Pure fairness needs to define this in rigid manner, and assign concrete values to each variable. Practical fairness, however, doesn't seek the same goal because it's answering the question in a different manner. Pure fairness defines deserving based on its algorithm, practical fairness defines deserving on a sliding scale where the presence of new variables changes how the other variables are weighted.

Americans generally like things decided in one of three ways: by ability, by luck, or by voting. Observe virtually any level of collective decision making and you'll see one of these methods enacted. Each has a dimension of practical fairness that is easy to accept, even if the outcome isn't ideal to each person. Choosing by ability makes people feel like they've earned something, but this has the same problem as the All-Star Game: how do you measure and rank performance? Choosing by luck lets everyone feel they've had an equal chance, but it also reduces individual feeling of agency. Voting isn't perfect, but it comes naturally to Americans.

Humans almost intuitively seem to distrust  Machine Fairness, though that has changed over the years as we collectively become more familiar with computers and information theory. As such, the only thing left is Organic Fairness, which then has different trade-offs between central control from the Elect and participation from the People. The method remains the same, though: selection through a voting (democratic or not) process.

Towards a Fairer Selection Process

Most of the focus, and ire, towards the All-Star Game selection is on two parts: the fan voting for the starters, and the manager selections. The fan voting seems less legitimate because fans naturally choose their favorite players, and their favorite players are likely to be on the team the fan primarily follows. The manager selections seem less legitimate because it is perceived that the manager will stick with "his" guys, usually stacking the roster with players from his own team. In both cases voters act in a completely rational way, if we were to define rationality solely by self-interest.

But fans are also interested in larger, systemic legitimacy, where the whole of the team represents the truly best of the league. It might seem fair to Royals fans that nearly all of the starting positions on the AL team will be from Kansas City, but it seems unlikely they truly have the best player at 8 of the 9 starting positions. It's an issue that usually only affects a few positions a year, like Derek Jeter's dynastic reign as the Once and Future Shortstop for the American League, but every so often a city will vote the slate. The Reds famously had 8 starters voted for by fans in 1957 as well.

Normally voting helps the larger fanbases; if the Yankees have a larger pool to pull from, it makes sense that they usually should expect to have a larger amount of starters. Smaller fanbases need to counter this with coordinated efforts, which sometimes works, like with the Royals or with the Diamondbacks getting Goldschmidt to the top of NL first basemen.

Outlier years like the current aside, it seems more likely that smaller fanbases will have to work harder to overcome the numbers game, because voting is at its essence a game of counting. To improve on the current system, a balance needs to be made between protecting smaller fanbases, but also ensuring that the rights of larger fanbases aren't significantly encumbered. The focus of improvement will be on the fan voting, and the manager selections. The player selections to fill out rosters is likely largely legitimate, or at least is acceptable because it is peer selection. The manager selection should instead become more player selections, or if replacements needed, a larger coaching/front-office voting system could be used.

For fan voting, however, some significant overhauls are needed. We can't rely on what Hamilton recommends in Federalist Paper No. 6, as the fanbases have little incentive to work together. The Royals could easily be defeated through the current system if even a few fanbases had coordinated an effort to vote the same slate of players, or even just a few of the same players, but instead each fanbase acts independently, and from its own self-interest. There is not recognition that voting for Mark Trumbo is likely wasted vote, especially as the voting takes shape. As the candidates become clearer for each position, fans should rally to least worst option. The current system isn't a first-past-the-post system in that voters have the opportunity to cast a new vote as the candidate slate takes shape. Even if you love Trumbo, as vote tallies are released you can recast a vote for one of the top picks, thereby ensuring your vote counts.

The behavior described in the prior paragraph goes against basic fan behavior. Someone who likes Trumbo is probably just going to vote for Trumbo, backing a winner be damned. Fans cannot be relied on to coordinate and vote strategically. The system itself should provide the shape and force fairness.

Luckily, MLB already has a model in balancing the needs of the large and small fanbases in the US Constitution. If fairness is MLB's ultimate goal with All-Star Game selection, which it should be, then the league should embrace the following process: instead of having separate AL and NL teams, have two mixed league teams with slightly different voting processes. One will be proportional to the size of the fanbase, which will be measured by season ticket base. The other team will have a representative from each team.

Under this system each team will have at least one player selected, and the other will ensure that incredibly small teams can't dominate discourse, yet still have some say. As now, a truly coordinated Royals fanbase could still outvote some of the larger fanbases, but it will require more work.

Of course, the game itself needs retooling to ensure fairness as well and to provide that balance between large and small fanbases. When the teams first arrive in the host city, they should meet and arrange themselves for business. For the proportionally-voted team, this means selecting a captain, or a "speaker," but also giving him a wide range of powers to introduce new business and control the follow of legislation, as well as the power to select the chairs of various committees needed to conduct business. The other players should then be divided into these committees, arranged by seniority and ability.

The other team with one representative per team should arrange itself in a similar manner, however the captain, or "leader," should have less explicit power, instead choosing the order of the business on the calender, but not having power over the committee chairs. This team should also then divide up the remaining members into committees that more or less correspond with similar committees with the other team.

Instead of playing baseball, the two teams could instead attend the greater matters of the day, such as fWAR or bWAR, which should be our legal standard? Because of the larger and more fluid nature of the proportional team, it should expect to quickly work through issues to be sent on to the second team for consideration. It is of great importance, however, that the second team act as the saucer that cools the hot tea.To the end, the second team should allow a batter to follow off as many pitches as he wants, in contrast to the proportionally selected team's rule that you can only foul off three before they count as strikes. This ensures that the second team won't come to any hasty decisions.

If the second team agrees with the first, and there are no differences of opinion, this agreement should then be sent on to the Commissioner of baseball for his signature. If there are differences, however, between the two teams but a similar agreement in the general shape (ie, yes we should use WAR as an important measuring tool, but which version should we use) then a committee should be selected from each team to meet and rectify any differences before passing along to the Commissioner.

This is the path to a fairer future. It ensures that teams and fans have representation, but also that no one games the system too much. The All-Star Game is a treasure that should be protected, and the above process does the job.