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Where did all the stars go? MLB's brightest lights are out for the playoffs

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Shohei Ohtani is just the second baseball player to be named to Time magazine’s list of the top 100 most influential people in the world. He was called an icon, alongside the likes of Dolly Parton, Britney Spears and the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. The other athletes on the list are names you might know from watching them compete and win on international stages — Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka, Allyson Felix.

Unlike them, though, you won’t see Ohtani if you watch his sport’s premier event. The Los Angeles Angels finished fourth for the fourth consecutive year despite his historic season. A six-month storyline about Ohtani as the emerging Face Of Baseball will give way to a month-long tournament to crown a champion that doesn’t involve him at all. Ohtani’s global influence, then, is significantly greater than the influence he has over the Angels’ record.

In a world where Mike Trout also plays for the Angels and can spend every October back home in Millville, New Jersey, we already know that the best player in baseball doesn’t always get to play in the biggest games. But this year provides a particularly stark testament to that feature of the sport. (Or is it a bug?) Not only will Ohtani miss the postseason, virtually all the candidates who have been in MVP conversations this season will as well.

(Trea Turner’s trade to the Dodgers and subsequent surge in production makes this slightly less absolute.)

When Ohtani wins AL MVP, some people will say that Vladimir Guerrero Jr., whose 48 home runs this season is tied for first in baseball and the most in MLB history by a 22-year-old, was robbed. His Toronto Blue Jays played meaningful baseball until the last day of the season, but ultimately fell a game short of the second AL wild card. Which means that even if his chronically underrated teammate Marcus Semien — who was second among position players in WAR this season and led baseball in extra-base hits — were to win (again, he won’t: Ohtani will, as he should) the AL MVP would miss the postseason.

In the National League, Fernando Tatis Jr. had a season worthy of being on the cover of "MLB the Show" and having his name on the back of the second most popular jersey sold this summer even as the San Diego Padres collapsed around him. In between injury setbacks and despite an increasingly volatile clubhouse, Tatis accumulated the highest offensive WAR this season. Bryce Harper almost dragged an undeserving Philadelphia Phillies team into playoff contention down the stretch with baseball’s best wRC+ (a park-adjusted measure of offensive production) and yet still the team finished with a negative run differential. Juan Soto made taking pitches practically a sport unto itself while still hitting for power on a Washington Nationals team that was never really in the race and folded at the trade deadline.

If you pay attention to baseball, none of this is new or news. MLB is not a star-centric league like the NBA. Starting pitchers might be the quarterbacks for the day, but even the best sit in the dugout something like 80 percent of the time. "Moneyball" was an inflection point. The Tampa Bay Rays exist. In a six-month season, depth is king.

And yet, when we talk about all the ways the sport needs to change to save itself — and boy do we talk and write and pontificate about that — the limited impact of even the best players isn’t on the list. Games are too long, too slow. The league is too stodgy, too old school, deploys too many shifts and the pitchers are too good. But when it comes to the undeniable exciting talent in the game, the popular take is to blame bad marketing as if the basic facts aren’t working against them.

Maybe MLB isn’t coming up with the right commercials to turn Ohtani, Tatis, Harper and Guerrero into household names. Or maybe they’ve never played in a World Series.

ANAHEIM, CALIFORNIA - AUGUST 10: Shohei Ohtani #17 of the Los Angeles Angels and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. #27 of the Toronto Blue Jays react while on first base during the sixth inning of game one of a doubleheader at Angel Stadium of Anaheim on August 10, 2021 in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images)
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Shohei Ohtani will be the AL's main MVP contenders, but their teams are not in MLB's postseason. (Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images)

If the sport is already in the throes of an existential crisis — or at least sweating its place in a popularity contest — it seems reasonable to wonder: Is this bad for baseball?

“No, I don't think it's bad for baseball. I don’t. Baseball is a team game,” says Joe Maddon, Angels manager and man with a vested interest in seeing Ohtani and Trout play in October. “I know everybody wants to see LeBron, everybody wants Tiger — I get all that. But, first, don’t you just want to see good baseball?”

Maddon name-checked his former organization, the Rays, as an exemplar of team play that does “not get bogged down in any particular area” — which is both the point and what many people would say is actually wrong with modern baseball. And then he talked about box scores and being a purist and how he hopes OPS never replaces batting average on the big video boards at ballparks. He used the word “newfangled” and said he looks forward to baseball being America’s pastime again.

It’s the sort of sentiment people mock on Twitter. But it reflects a take that has long nagged at me as a baseball viewer. It’s just not the one Maddon was trying to make.

I often get the paranoid feeling that the stories we tell about a baseball season or a particular team are semi-fictional narratives layered on top of the far less interesting front-office machinations, injury flukes and fringe performers that actually determine a team’s standing. The stars we tune in to see and hear from, the ones whose careers we follow and stories we seek out, aren’t determining the outcome of a season — at least not as directly as savvy roster construction around the edges is.

The data to have a more informed sense of it all is available — and there’s plenty of smart writing and accurate projections based on underlying analytics. I’m just not sure that really is how fans do or should engage with the vast, if waning, cultural force that is baseball. Sports and stars go together because that’s how so many people like to experience professional athletics: Like dramas determined by heroes, or at least main characters.

You see, OPS is a better metric for evaluating a player than batting average — which MVP voters clearly recognize. But telling stories about the on-field importance of franchise cornerstones or hyping All-Star offseason acquisitions for their ability to turn their team’s fortunes around has become as quaint and delusional as citing batting average as the definitive stat.

I don’t know how or even if you could shift baseball to be more responsive to singular feats of excellence. And a request to talk to visionary and presumptive partial architect of the sport’s future, Theo Epstein, was politely declined. That it makes the sport susceptible to teams cheaping out on name-brand fan favorites and still making the postseason is another problem. (Or is it a feature?)

All the MVP candidates are deserving of recognition for the joy that they bring to fans. It’s not their fault they play in a sport that isn’t designed to kowtow to stars. Maybe Maddon is right and that’s the beauty of America’s pastime, the way it refuses to reward individual glory. But I’ll miss them this month in the postseason. And if other people do too, that’s bad for baseball.

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