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Jim Allen

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THE HOT CORNER: Why is this guy an All-Star?

by Jim Allen (Jul 21, 2011)

Although not recognized as his league's top starting pitcher by either fans or players, or later added by Pacific League manager Koji Akiyama, Yuki Saito is, nevertheless, an All-Star.

Fans selected 12 players to the PL roster, while four others made the grade by getting the most votes at their position from the players.

Saito, the popular rookie right-hander with the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, finished fifth in the fan vote for PL starting pitchers, but was not among the top three in the players' vote.

Fans and players alike named Yu Darvish No. 1. The Fighters ace outpolled the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles' Masahiro Tanaka by 41,000 votes in the fan ballot and won the players' poll in a landslide.

Akiyama, who earned the PL job by virtue of Fukuoka SoftBank's pennant last season, was then tasked with naming 15 more players for a total of 31. The skipper picked one outfielder, one infielder, two catchers and 11 pitchers, but Saito was nowhere to be seen.

The pitcher formerly known as the Handkerchief Prince has been hurt much of this season. He's pitched seven games with a 3-2 record and a 3.18 ERA, but has given up 4.76 runs per nine innings--not what one thinks of as All-Star numbers.

Saito's popularity, stemming from his heroics as Waseda Jitsugyo High School's ace at Koshien Stadium, and from his success at Waseda University, however, was enough to get him into the All-Star game--barely--through the final phase of the voting.

Since 2010, Nippon Professional Baseball has held its Plus One campaign, mimicking Major League Baseball's Last Man promotion, which allows fans a few days to select one more player to each league's All-Star roster.

This was the back door that allowed Saito and Yomiuri Giants rookie Hirokazu Sawamura to make this weekend's three-game All-Star series.

In voting that ran from July 5 to July 11, Saito "earned" the PL's last spot by being named on 5,885 ballots. Sawamura, with a 5-7 record and a respectable 2.22 ERA, led the CL vote with 4,067.

Saito is easily the least qualified of the four Plus One All-Stars so far. Last year, fans picked two players having monster seasons: Hanshin Tigers first baseman Craig Brazell and Fighters second baseman Kensuke Tanaka.

Is Saito an All-Star?

Because a format was set up that allowed him to earn a spot with the most votes--regardless how small the total--he is an All-Star, no "ifs," "ands" or "buts."

But is he the best choice?

That depends on what we want. Saito was easily the most popular player not on the roster, and like it or not, part of being an All-Star is popularity. Yet, don't we want players who have the game to go with the fame? That is the question about Saito.

And what about the size of the poll? When only 55,846 ballots are submitted on the Internet, it's hardly impressive. The fans didn't pick Saito No. 1, nor did the players. The PL manager selected 11 pitchers other than Saito, but being named on 5,885 ballots made the rookie an All-Star.

Saito may be an All-Star, but clearly a lot of people who care about these things would be perfectly happy if he weren't.

This system is a good idea. It gives fans one more way to get involved, but it needs to grow and develop. Contrast the size of the Plus One vote with the millions of submissions MLB's Last Man attracts.

Perhaps NPB could tighten up its system. A player is now eligible for the Plus One spot if he is not already on an All-Star roster, had been active prior to May 31 and is either a pitcher with five games or 10 innings, or a position player with 10 games or 20 plate appearances.

By making hundreds eligible, Japan's system spreads the vote so thin that individual totals can look ridiculous. MLB, on the other hand, asks each manager to nominate five players for its vote.

If Japan's All-Star managers each nominate a single candidate from each team in his league, it could lend the ballot more focus, interest and legitimacy.

Had that format been used this season, and if Saito had still managed to win the last roster spot, at least he'd go onto the roster with a more respectable vote total.


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