Updated: MLB tries major Twitter push for All-Star Game

Major League Baseball is changing the rules for its all-digital contest to select the last two All-Stars, allowing official hashtags used on Twitter during the last four hours of the vote Thursday to count the same as voting by online ballot or SMS message. The league won’t get the info it usually requires for votes, swapping that for a burst in publicity and a chance to gauge how involved fans are willing to be in social media.

MLB told the New York Times the results of the last-minute push will be used to assess how social media like Twitter might be used in 2013. The contest to select the last player in the roster for the National League and the American League started in 2002, and unlike the fan vote for the starting lineup that includes paper ballots, has been digital-only all along. More than 50 million votes were cast online or by text in 2011 (each fan gets to vote up to 25 times); including Twitter should push the needle this year.

This year’s vote for the final players to be selected for each team already included a heavy emphasis on Twitter by MLB and the teams campaigning to get their players selected. The contest is known as #FinalVote. Players have hashtags like #freeseplease for the St. Louis Cardinal’s David Freese, #takejake for Chicago White Sox pitcher Jake Peavy or #BryceIn12 for Washington Nationals rookie Bryce Harper. MLB.com carefully includes hashtags in posts meant to play up the contest, the players and the 83rd All-Star Game July 10th in Kansas City. The players campaign too, for themselves and each other.

I wrote Wednesday about how privacy concerns kept me from voting online or from giving up my mobile number via text. Voting by Twitter removes that friction. My Twitter handle (@sdkstl) is already public and linked with my name. If I choose to link that in turn with voting for players or any other poll going around, the impact is minimal. It may get others who felt the same to participate.

So is the league’s ability to verify or monitor who is taking part, undermining the idea that birthdates are needed either to make sure the 13-and-under set isn’t voting or to verify votes. It will be able to collect handles used in the contest but it’s not like getting permission for sponsors to send promos.

Does a tweet equal an online ballot that requires at least one mlb.com visit, where you see messages from sponsors, and engagement, even if the info provided is false in an unknown number of instances? Or an SMS message someone may have to pay to send? Not at first blush. But if it gets more people vested in the outcome or interested in the game, that could be a different story.

Update: The 98-hour contest ended with a barrage of tweets at 4 p.m. EDT Thursday and a total of 50 million votes across Twitter, browser and SMS message. Freese led in overall votes with 8.4 million, while Texas Rangers rookie Yu Darvish won the American League slot with 7.3 million. The Cardinals beat the Rangers in the 2011 World Series (Freese was MVP) and the managers for that series lead the All-Star teams.

Votes for only nine of the 10 players nominated were included in the total from MLB; Chipper Jones was leading the National League when he was pulled off the ballot to join the team as a substitute. Including his votes would have pushed the total well over last year’s 50 million-plus. Instead, it took the last-minute Twitter push to stay even with 2011.

The contest drew more than 600,000 tweets during the four hours, averaging more than 2,500 a minute and peaking at 8,881 at 3:59 p.m. It scored on awareness too, with the leaders trending in the U.S. and all the players trending in their markets.

More than 391.2 million votes were cast on 34.9 million online ballots (both records,says MLB) when fans chose the 17 starters, announced last week.

Will any of that carry over the game on Fox Tuesday night? Or the hoopla surrounding it? Or did the activity come from people who would watch anyway? The only thing certain from this vantage point is it gave MLB and MLB.com a chance to break through the clutter and add some momentum going into the break.