For one hot summer night, baseball owns the nation's sports consciousness with the All-Star Game. The die-hard and the casual fan will check out the Midsummer Classic from Kansas City, and they'll want to see baseball's brightest stars.
No pitching star in baseball burns brighter than Stephen Strasburg, and that's why the Washington right-hander should start the game for the National League. He's the hardest-throwing starting pitcher in the game, the most exciting starter in baseball and quite possibly the best pitcher in the NL to boot.
The All-Star Game walks the difficult line of being both an exhibition and a competition, and that can create challenges for coaches and managers. Fortunately, in this case, both goals are served with the same decision. Want to put on the best show? Start Strasburg. Want the best chance to win? Start Strasburg.
R.A. Dickey, another other leading candidate, is a very good pitcher having a great year. He's the best story in baseball this year, and it will be no outrage if he starts the game. This is a 1-and-1A situation. Dickey is fun to watch and he's an interesting person. He leads the league in wins and strikeouts (but no longer in ERA).
But the best show would be Strasburg. And the better pitcher is also Strasburg.
The greatest difference between the two pitchers this year is simply innings. On a per-inning basis, no one has dominated like Strasburg has. He leads the Major Leagues in strikeouts per nine innings. He and Dickey are neck-and-neck (sixth and fifth, respectively) in strikeout-to-walk ratio, and Strasburg is fifth in the NL (ahead of Dickey, who's eighth) in home runs per nine innings. For one at-bat or one or two innings, nobody's tougher to hit than Strasburg. The Nationals have handled him carefully, or his counting stats would be higher as well.
Strasburg is also tougher on left-handed hitters. The American League lineup features five lefties, and Strasburg has dominated right- and left-handed hitters with equal malevolence this year. He has virtually no platoon split, while Dickey has allowed lefties some success (.230 average, .299 on-base percentage, .366 slugging percentage and five homers in 191 at-bats).
Besides, manager Tony La Russa has already indicated he has some hesitation to give Dickey the ball in the early innings, thanks to a relatively unproven defensive catcher starting the game. Buster Posey has handled some of the game's best hurlers with aplomb, but he's never caught a knuckleballer.
It's not that Carlos Ruiz or Yadier Molina have much more experience with the pitch, but they're both exemplary defensive catchers. They're more prepared for the challenge. And Molina has caught the flutterball once or twice in his career. Late in his tenure in St. Louis, former Cardinals closer Ryan Franklin began experimenting with the knuckler and threw a few of them.
This is not about matching up with a catcher, though. It's about two simple matters: the best show, and the best chance to win. For both, the correct answer is Stephen Strasburg.
Matthew Leach is a writer for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.