01 July 2015

Eleventh Anniversary of an Iconic Play That Never Happened

Major League Baseball's marketing department is enjoying 24-hour erections today; the 11th anniversary of Derek Jeter's storybook dive into the stands to catch a foul ball. Why not roll out the video and let every boy and girl see how Captain America saved the day against the arch enemy Red Sox on July 1, 2004.

And so here's the story and video.

Oh wait, here's why not: he didn't actually dive into the stands for the ball. And now you've shown the video proof of him not diving into the stands for a ball that he actually caught in fair territory. A nice catch to be sure, but not really all that noteworthy, except that if we can gloss over the facts and believe hard enough it burnishes Jeter's fairy tale reputation as the Golden Boy. So showing the video unravels the legend, which has lived on in our hearts and seeped into our minds for over a decade. That's why not. Oops.

Except, MLB has nothing to fear, because America will continue to watch the video with its heart and not its eyes, and will continue to remember this catch as something it's not, evidence be damned. 

Here's something many people fail to credit to the great Yankee captain: that very year, under his legendary leadership, the Bronx Bombers authored the most spectacular collapse in baseball playoff history, gakking up a 3-0 AL Championship Series lead to the Sox. Now there's an accomplishment that Jeter admirers can truly claim as uniquely their hero's. 

While you were revisiting the catch, did you notice the little side paean to Jeter just below, the clip of him juking Jason Kipnis into a double play. What a great, heads-up play by the Yankee immortal. 

I wonder what we'd be calling that move if Alex Rodriguez had done it. "Cheap?" "Petty?" "Low class?" "Minor league?" "Phony?" Weren't those the words used when ARod called for a popup while running the bases? What's the difference between faking out a runner and faking out a fielder?

Finally, let's circle back to the enraptured MLB marketing department, which might, next time they need some hagiography written on the site, consider hiring a writer with an expertise in, you know, vocabulary. 

The story written by Chris Landers contends Jeter "leaped" into the stands. There was no leaping of any kind, stands-ward or otherwise, except perhaps by victorious Yankees after John Flaherty's winning hit. Leaping involves a vector opposite that of diving, which is what Jeter did, into the stands, 15 feet after catching the ball, in fair territory, in a game in July.

28 June 2015

The Best Player Not to Make This Year's All-Star Team

After exercising my first 70 (of 105) All-Star franchises, I initiated a thought experiment about who would eventually wind up in Cincinnati and, more to the point, who wouldn't. Who would be the best player left off the All-Star roster?

It didn't take long before a name popped so far out it couldn't be ignored. The research ended there, less exhaustive than exhausted, so take it with an extra grain of salt. 

It appears that only injury or a bizarre desire on the manager's part to select five first baseman will punch Freddie Freeman's Mid-Summer Classic ticket in 2015. Freeman is having a fine season -- a .327 True Average, the best of his career, along with solid defense at the cold corner. It doesn't appear that will suffice.

Ahead of Freeman are a pair of MVP candidates, the Dbacks' Paul Goldschmidt and Cubs' Anthony Rizzo, and two veteran stars, the Reds' Joey Votto and Dodgers' Adrian Gonzalez. The quartet rank second, third, ninth and tenth in OPS in the NL this year. With Votto playing at home, he's a nearly sure bet to be selected, while Gonzalez's offensive-subduing home field and Gold Glove credentials argue for him.

That leaves Freeman fifth for three -- maybe four at most -- spots on the All-Star roster.

In a way, it's a microcosm of Freeman's career. A milquetoast guy on a middling team, Freeman has demonstrated broad excellence (a lifetime .304 TAv) but has rarely stood out. He's hit .300+ once and knocked in 100 runs once in his five-year career. He's never bopped more than 23 homers, stolen bases or claimed many Web gem moments. He's a steady-Eddie kind of player, the type who rarely earns much notice.

So he appears to be the best player who won't make this year's All-Star team. Of course, that might change once my research moves beyond first base.

Addendum: Another reason Freeman might not make the All-Star team is that he's now on the shelf with an injury. I don't think it was true when I wrote this, but if it was, it was a new development that hadn't filtered down to me yet.

24 June 2015

History Right Under Our Noses

There's nothing special to report about well-traveled backstop A. J. Pierzynski, currently a body filling the lineup for the future-looking Atlanta Braves.

Pierzynski provides that "veteran presence," while hitting .271/.316/.416, a tick above average. He had been splitting duties with defensive specialist Christian Bethancourt, but has usurped the starting job as Bethancourt struggles to hit his weight. 

The Braves hope to develop Bethancourt's bat enough to keep his glove in the lineup for years to come as they focus their efforts on building a contender for the 2017 opening of SouthTrust Park in the Atlanta suburbs.

But look closely and you'll see something remarkable about Pierzynski. In his 18th year with his seventh team, the left-handed hitting Floridian is performing at a notable level for a 38-year-old who squats every day.

How unusual is it for a catcher that old to play regularly and flash a league-average stick? Two words: Pudge and Yogi.

That's the list of catchers in MLB history who have played that long, held down the starting job at age 38 and out-hit half the league. I'd just like to be in a room with Pudge and Yogi; A.J. Pierzynski is in the conversation with them. (That's Carlton Fisk, not ersatz-Pudge Ivan Rodriguez.)

There's a long way to go in the season and Pierzynski is bouncing back from a 2014 during which it appeared he was filling out his retirement papers at the expense of Boston and St. Louis. This year, so far, he's resurrected most of his 2012-13 seasons when he averaged in the .270s with 22 homers.

So keep an eye on him. If he remains in the lineup and represents himself well he will be making history. Right under our noses.

23 June 2015

Pete Rose Colored Glasses

There has been a lot of good, smart discussion about Pete Rose since the most recent revelation that he bet on baseball while a player, and therefore, has never stopped lying. If the door was ever cracked to Rose's return to Baseball, that loud shudder you heard yesterday was the room shaking in the shadow of a slam.

For those still clinging to sympathy for the hit king, the argument against is tough to oppose. Rose is now in league with those inveterate liars -- Lance Armstrong, Alex Rodriguez, Ryan Braun, Bill Clinton, et. al. -- who treated the truth as a strategy to be employed only when effective. MLB did then and does now exhort players endlessly about its absolute prohibition -- and the consequences if violated -- against gambling of any kind.

So therefore, goes the argument, Pete Rose, a 17-time All Star, .303 lifetime hitter, three-time batting champ, 15-time MVP candidate, and contributor of 79 lifetime WAR, that guy should be banned from the game and hence from the Hall of Fame. Smarmy creep. Lying bastard. And all that.

It's a convincing argument. Screw Pete Rose.

But how about me? How about you?

We want Pete Rose in the Hall of Fame because we want the Hall to mean something about baseball. We grew up with a Hall of Fame that welcomed Ty Cobb's virulent racism and Tris Speaker's KKK membership and Babe Ruth's serial infidelity and Mickey Mantle's raging alcoholism and Joe DiMaggio's mob ties and Gaylord Perry's career-long cheating and on and on. Now we're being asked to accept the exclusion of all-time great players like Rose, Bonds, Clemens, McGwire, Alex Rodriguez and perhaps others.

It doesn't make sense. It's not just that he Hall shouldn't exclude those wanting in character; it's that it hasn't.

I say screw Pete Rose too. And Bonds, Clemens and the rest of them. But induct them into the Hall of Fame because it's not their Hall of Fame; it's mine. And I want the best players enshrined in Cooperstown.

21 June 2015

You Don't See That Very Often

Dodgers rookie center fielder Joc Pederson has slammed 18 home runs three weeks short of the All-Star break. Only three rookies in National League history have gone yard 18 or more times before the All-Star break. The names with which Pederson cohabits are: Mike Piazza, Frank Robinson and Albert Pujols.

Chris Sale shut down the Texas Rangers for eight shutout innings, allowing just two hits and no walks while whiffing 14 batters. But Sale didn't earn a win. His team lost when reliever David Robertson allowed the same number of hits, plus two walks and two runs in a single inning.

On the other side of the equation, Phillies starter Phillipe Aumont walked seven Cardinals while fanning three in just four innings. That's just the fifth time in the last two years that a pitcher has walked seven or more and struck out three or fewer.

The near-perfection of Max Scherzer's performance Saturday pointed out how prosaic his no-no was. There have been 289 no-hitters in MLB history, roughly two-a-year, including Edwin Jackson's sow's ear in 2010 when he walked 8 Rays, hit a batter and missed the strike zone on 47% of his 149 pitches. Perfectos? Just 23 all time, or fewer than two-a-decade.

That's even less often than an everyday player reaches 3,000 hits. Remember when that was special? Alex Rodriguez became the 29th to join the club last week, but only the third member to reach the 600 HR/3,000 hit heights, which he achieved, appropriately, with a dinger. Yet zzzzz. I hope we care more when Ichiro, Prince Albert and Miguel Cabrera reach that vaunted status.

Three position players toed the rubber on Friday, and not in the same game. It's the first time that happened in nearly 100 years -- since 1918 to be exact.

One of those "pitchers" was Rays keystoner Nick Franklin, who hurled a frame of three-hit, two-run ball against the Nats. During that contest, the Nats ran out pitcher Joe Ross to replace the DH, thereby becoming the first National League pitcher to DH. Ever. That he did so against a position player will probably leave him alone in history for awhile.

Remember all that talk about the Kansas City Royals dominating the All-Star voting? As more precincts report it will seem like ancient history. Most knowledgeable voters, the kind who exercise their 35 ballots, wait until the last weeks to weigh in. By then, the ranks of the deserving -- e.g. Josh Donaldson at third, Miguel Cabrera at first, Nelson Cruz at DH, Jason Kipnis or Dustin Pedroia at second -- will claim their rightful spots.

Chris Young, the Yankees' ostensible outfielder, needed six weeks in May and June to cobble together three RBIs. Chris Young, the Royals pitcher, drove in three runs in an inter-league game last week.

The Houston Astros lead the AL in homers, steals and strikeouts. They are the first AL team in nearly 80 years to nail all three legs of that stool. They also sport the third lowest batting average in the league. Drop down two more notches and they will be alone in history.

Pirates starter Charlie Morton entered his tilt against the Nationals Sunday with a 1.62 ERA. After two-thirds of an inning, during which the Nats pounded Morton for eight hits and nine runs, he left with a 3.97 ERA. There goes the All-Star berth.

17 June 2015

MVP - Most Unexpected Performance...Wait!

If you watched the NBA finals, you saw a thrilling display of basketball mastery. LeBron James makes other NBA behemoths look like match sticks. Steph Curry defies the laws of existential philosophy, much less physics.

Defying the laws of logic was the largely ceremonial awarding of the MVP trophy to Andre Iguodala of the champion Warriors. To say Andre Iguodala was the most valuable player in this series is to elevate sentiment over facts, to ignore the obvious in favor of the novel and generally to make a mockery of the award.

LeBron James won a third of the games in this series almost completely unaided in a one-on-five competition. You can't make a credible argument that the Cavaliers would have even earned a finals berth without the world's greatest player, much less won two of the first three contests.

Competing without their second and third best players, the Cavs bucked the odds just by avoiding a sweep. They did so because LeBron played nearly every debilitating minute and led his team in scoring, rebounds, assists, blocked shots and concessions sold. He is a giant among Gullivers but was out-manned, out-womanned and out-childrenned against Oakland.

People are entitled to their opinions, but this particular opinion has to rest on facts. James averaged 36 points, 13 rebounds and 9 assists while playing 46 minutes per game. Iguodala averaged 16 points, 6 rebounds and 4 assists, and is "credited" with "shutting down" LeBron.

Stats don't tell the whole story, of course. Iguodala had to be removed from the final minutes of games because he can't make a foul shot to save his life. This is the MVP of the series -- the guy the other team wants on the floor when the game is on the line. 

Andre Iguodala offered the most unexpected performance. Added to all the amazing talent the Warriors already had, his performance might have been the difference in the series. Handing a morose LeBron James the MVP trophy amid the Warriors' jubilation might have proved awkward and embarrassing before a worldwide television audience. This may all be true.

But none of it adds up to Andre Iguodala MVP, especially when weighed against LeBron James, who might have turned in the greatest performance in NBA Finals history.

16 June 2015

The Backloaded Contract Phenomenon

News that Albert Pujols had passed Ted Williams, Frank Thomas, Willie McCovey, Jimmy Foxx and Mickey Mantle, on the all-time home run list, and is now bearing down on Mike Schmidt, got me thinking about posterity. 

If Pujols can maintain the assault this year, 18 more home runs will leave him as the all-time 35-year-old home run leader.

Of course, what made Hank Aaron the home run king, or Barry Bonds, if you consider all of his 762 yard clearings to be legitimate, was their longevity at a high level. Hammerin' Hank popped 201 dingers after age 35, posting a productive year as late as age 40. Bonds smashed 268 in his geezerhood, including the record 73 at age 36. He, of course, remained productive on the field through his last at bat but was banished by a conspiracy among the lords of baseball for other reasons.

We can speculate about where Pujols might end up on the home run list by career's end, but the more pertinent question might be where his skills will be. They had obviously begun their retreat long before age 35 (in fact at age 31), delivering all of his four worst seasons on the new contract with the Angels. The decline has been steep: .331/.426/.624 before age 31; .279/.339/.498 since. Pujols has fallen from Willie Mays to Justin Upton.

What has to make that contract particularly nettlesome to the Angels' brass is that they backloaded  it, so Albert will be collecting $30 million in his age 41 year, a full decade after he slipped off the hitting cliff. But because he's guaranteed that 30 extra large, it's nearly inconceivable that he'd retire before then, no matter the state of his skills.

It's not just Albert. Back-loaded contracts have been the free agent form the last few years, with analysts proclaiming that the only way to sign a free agent behemoth -- ARod, Robby Cano, Max Scherzer, etc. -- is to "eat" the final years of the deal. 

(This has always struck me as a self-fulfilling prophesy. The more likely truth is that any team dumb enough to offer such an over-generous guarantee is, by definition, most likely to win the bidding war, Pyrrhic though that victory may be. But if everyone recognized how stillbirth the logic in the long-term, a winning bid could be made without any late-contract consumption.)

Will Alex Rodriguez finally, mercifully, hang up his spikes following his age 41 season before or after he needs a hip replacement?  How much embarrassment will ARod and Albert (and Robby, etc.) heap upon themselves and their front offices in their final seasons when they're more likely to work a walker than a walk? 

Certainly other great players ended their careers on down notes. But in almost every case they stowed their cleats immediately thereafter, without the temptation of a guaranteed $30 million opportunity cost. If Albert can hardly move at age 38, will he have the fortitude to leave $100 million on the table to save his dignity?

These are new questions necessitated by the goofy philosophy dominating free agent signings. The sad declines potentially facing Albert, ARod, Cano and others may bring the subject into sharp relief, but it's the offending GMs who will have to answer for the players' decrepitude.

14 June 2015

The Unicorn of Baseball Facts

You're reading today that Alex Rodriguez has become the second player in baseball history to 2,000 RBIs, after Hank Aaron.

Yay him.

Except, this is abject nonsense and everyone disseminating this "fact" knows it.

The lords of baseball established the RBI as an official stat in 1920. Prior to that, it was not tracked. But it's not like it didn't exist. Uranus existed before 1781 even though humans didn't know it.

From 1920 onward, Babe Ruth drove 1,993 runners home, including himself nearly 700 times. But he began driving in runs before that.

In 1919, his first as an everyday player, he smashed a record 29 home runs. So without any calculating, we know that Ruth passed the 2,000 RBI mark (1,993 + 29). He also popped 11 out the year before as a pitcher/outfielder.

It strains credulity to think that Ruth didn't knock in many more than 29 runs that year. He batted .322 with 34 doubles, 12 triples, 64 singles and 101 walks for the BoSox.

Reviewing the boxscores of every game in which the Sultan swatted prior to 1920, Baseball Reference estimates he drove home another 221 beyond those officially tallied, for 2,214 in total.

Now maybe the intern at Baseball Reference was smoking dope the week he did the calculations. Let's say he was seeing double and vastly over-estimated the Bambino's RBI total. What's the difference? He's well over 2,000 by any standard.

We can say there is uncertainty about Ruth's lifetime RBI count. He's around 2,214, give or take a handful. But he unquestionably accounted for 2,000+ runs. We know that beyond a shadow of a doubt.

Then why does the world of baseball journalism assert and repeat a piece of information that it knows, not withstanding any other uncertainty, is wrong. False. A lie. Mis-information. Stupidity.

You know my theory: because baseball "journalism" and stupidity go together like peanut butter and jelly. Or really like unicorns and horns. Because like baseball journalism, a unicorn is a figment of our imagination.

13 June 2015

New Study: Walking Is Good for You

Danny Santana, the shortstop for the Minnesota Twins who shocked even his own organization with a .319/.352/.472 season in 101 games at short and center field last year, has this season struck out only the third most often among his teammates -- 49 times.

The issue is, that while Brian Dozier and Trevor Plouffe have fanned on a few more occasions, they've also earned more than 20 bases on balls each.

Salazar has walked twice.

Fortunately, he's been hit by two pitches, inflating his .218 batting average into a .235 on base percentage. This from Minnesota's leadoff hitter.

Mix in an inability to exit the yard and you've completed the slash line with a slugging average of .291, which explains why Santana is currently working out the kinks in Rochester, NY.

The good news is, no more Major League strikeouts. The bad news is he's stuck, for now, at two walks.

The organization will have to parse whether Santana's problems hitting stem from his lack of strike zone control, or whether no one is walking him because they don't fear pitching in the zone. Very likely it's more former than latter, which spells long-term issues for the young Dominican.

An unsustainable .405 BABIP last year masked some of these issues in the first place, but even then he walked about five times as often. In other words, stay tuned, but don't expect him to ever repeat that rookie campaign.

Still, as a shortstop and center fielder, Santana would have great value if he could just get on base a little less often than league average, pop an occasional dinger and field his positions well. And Paul Molitor could help him by finding someone else -- perhaps someone who knows how to walk? -- for the top of the order.

12 June 2015

A Twin Killing

You might recall, back months and months ago when the NBA playoffs were in their second round; or third, I can't keep track; Memphis led Golden State two games to one and supposedly knowledgeable sports analysts began their Chicken Little dance around the Warriors.

Steph Curry & crew proceeded to win the next three games, take the series in six and earn their way to the league championship for the first time in 40 years.

It's easy to do the same thing with the long baseball season. Who could blame a St. Paul resident for thinking that the first 60 games of the season are representative of something for their beloved Twins.

Alas, there is nothing in the record, besides 33 wins and 25 losses, to suggest the Twins are even average. A peak behind the curtain, the kind of thing we couldn't do in the halcyon days before advanced metrics, suggests Minnesota has taken a long ride on a carpet of smoke, mirrors and just plain luck.

When you're among the best teams in the league, you tend to be particularly adept at some element of the game, or generally adept at all elements. The Twins are neither. Here is their offense:
  • middle of the pack in batting average
  • fifth worst in OBP
  • third worst in slugging
  • with the fourth fewest home runs and
  • fourth worst in steals and caught stealing
The Twins lead all but three AL offenses with 12 triples, but I doubt that's the reason that they've scored the fifth most runs.


Yes, a pretty substandard offense has scored more runs than 10 of the other 14 teams. How? Good timing -- what the geezers in the retirement home call "clutch hitting," bless their hearts. But if clutch hitting is hardly a thing among individual players, it's certainly a passing wind at the team level.  The sequencing of Twins hits have produced runs so far. Expect karma to start making amends in Minneapolis right soon.

The formula is similar on the defensive end. Pitchers have allowed the fewest walks in the league, but registered the fewest strikeouts and allowed the most hits. They keep the ball in the park reasonably well (sixth out of 15), and the result is the eighth best ERA, which is dead center for the league, about what you'd expect.

So the pitching isn't carrying them.

On defense, Baseball Reference rates the Twins just slightly below average. Baseball Prospectus isn't that sanguine. Either way, the gloves haven't transformed weak pitching into shutouts.

Is there some magic formula at Target Field? The team has prevailed in one-run games, but not enough to dress a talent-challenged team in Wild Card clothes. Closer Glen Perkins has turned out the lights consistently (five runs in 27 innings and a league-leading 21 saves) but the rest of the pen is a mish-mash that fails to scream "secret sauce."

In short, the Twins are nothing special, despite the special status in the standings. Those with deadlines and column-inches to fill will credit manager Paul Molitor for teaching his charges "how to win" and settling them down after a poor start. But real people know that managers, even great managers, even Hall of Fame former players, even really smart people with spectacular emotional IQs, can't turn the 2015 Twins into a pennant contender.

Reporters can't interview luck, can't describe it, and won't be received well in the clubhouse if they refuse to credit their sources with the good results those sources have produced. But luck is the reason Minnesota began the season 30-19 and luck is fickle.

The fall won't be pretty because, like fire, luck is a great servant but a terrible master.

11 June 2015

Passing Along This Great Fangraphs Article

I have little to add to this amazing revelation about how Bryce Harper has remade himself even in the middle of his breakout season, so I will simply recommend it.  Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs stands atop the pile of Internet sports writers.

By the way, on June 10 Harper finally faced a pitcher younger than him in his fifth year in the Majors when Yankee reliever Jacob Lindgren retired him on a fly ball. Lindgren, a rookie, is seven months younger than Harper.

10 June 2015

The Dying Gasp of the Luddites

If you're wondering what kind of impact new analytics are having on the baseball landscape, I commend to your attention this dying gasp of Luddite literature from Paul Daugherty of the Cincinnati Enquirer. His half-hearted attempt to wish away knowledge is an ode to new analysis in its way. So tepid and conditional are his objections that we're left to conclude the argument may finally be over.

You can read his diatribe yourself, but I'll summarize it here:
  • Baseball stats can't measure professionalism. No, they measure results.
  • Some new stats, like Deserved Run Average, are complicated and I don't understand them, so they must be useless. When's the last time you measured ERA yourself?
  • The number crunchers think digits can replace eyeballs. Show us the guy.
  • A new measuring tool only measures what it measures, so it must be useless. There go all stats.
  • If a new measuring tool tells you what you already believe, who needs it. If it contradicted what you believed you'd similarly scoff.
This is now the state of discourse from the hidebound. Notice that Daugherty admits new numbers have their place. Notice that he recognizes all front offices have had to adopt advanced metrics or preside over withering franchises.

But also notice that old false dichotomy between measuring performance and watching games. Would the seamhead who disputes the value of visiting the ballpark please identify himself, because I can't find him. This straw man argument forms the bedrock of most anti-progress rants, as if SABR rattlers are walking the countryside like Johnny Saberseed planting the notion that numbers can capture all the nuance of the game.

But numbers can tell you this: for all his professionalism, Marlon Byrd is batting .212 and playing a low-value defensive position (left field). We could watch Byrd and agree that he's a good guy, a hard worker and a positive influence on his teammates. But we'd also notice that Father Time has taken a chisel to his skills, and left the Reds with an out machine.

His objections amount to a surrender, really. It's like the last wail of an infant before they go back to sleep. The innumerate want to register their discomfort one last time before the next BABIP discussion.

Sorry, Paul, to burden you with added insight into the game, with better predictive tools, with interesting information about plays and players. You're free to ignore all that while you watch a .212 hitter hustle. Say hi to Fred and Wilma for us back in Bedrock.

09 June 2015

Just Asking

If a rookie hurler pitches a no-hitter against you, walks none and fans 11, but hit three batters, is that adding injury to insult?

Just asking.

06 June 2015

Joe Mauer No Longer Matters

Jeff Kent might earn membership in the Baseball Hall of Fame largely because he packaged his first base bat inside a second base mitt. From the keystone, Kent was an albatross on defense but being compared offensively to other second baseman inflated his value. Reportedly, he demurred at moving to the cold corner until he could hardly bend to field grounders.

Joe Mauer is Jeff Kent in reverse, and it's causing him to bleed into irrelevance. As a backstop, Mauer's heart-of-the-order stick made him a perennial All-Star. Translate that to first base, sap it of 30 points of batting average, and you have ... a guy.

On average last year, catchers hit for on base and slugging averages of roughly .299/.390. First baseman, roughly .330/.427. That's all catchers and first basemen, including backups and fill-ins.

In a little more than a year's worth of plate appearances as a first baseman, Mauer is hitting .274/.351/.372, including six home runs. That's not Joe Mauer 2009, (.365/.444/.587) but it's All-Star conversation from the squat. At first, it's barely adequate.

Mauer's defensive value nosedives as well, from Gold Glove receiver to least important player on the field.

The result: even hitting just .294 with nine home runs in his first full season, a year of offensive fireworks, Mauer earned the Twins three wins offensively. His last two seasons combined, even in an offensive trough and with 200 more at bats, just 1.7 wins. And 1.7 wins is barely a starter.

To be fair, Mauer is now in his 12th season at age 32, and certainly fading from the glory days. But more than anything, the combination of losing the .300 batting average and leaving the battery has cost him any shot at Hall of Fame consideration.

02 June 2015

The Microfracturing of Grady Sizemore's Career

It looks like this is the end for Grady Sizemore's Big League career, after his release by the Phils, the worst team in baseball.

Sizemore had one of the great What If careers in the Majors, ruined by the macro effects of micro surgery.

Perhaps you're recalling the glory days of 2005-08, when Sizemore was a five-tool monster for the Indians, averaging 27 home runs, 41 doubles, 8 triples and 29 steals, a .372 OBP, a gold glove in center field and an All-Star berth. One of the true stars of the game, he piled up 24 wins against replacement by the age of 25.

On top of all that, he's Hollywood good-looking, humble and articulate. The year after his debut, female TV viewership of Tribe games tripled. Through his fourth full season, Grady Sizemore was Barry Bonds, without the scowl.

But even before the snow melted in the winter of '09, Sizemore's career was crashing to Earth.

Prior to Spring Training, he suffered a hernia that hobbled him through practice and into the season. An elbow injury plagued him from May on, absenting him from 55 games, hampering his production and requiring surgery in October.

And it only got worse. From May of 2010  through 2012, Sizemore suffered all 10 plagues but locusts. Microfracture surgery on his knee and disc surgery on his lower back relegated him to the sidelines for all but 104 games over the next four years. The Red Sox gave him a chance last year, but he hit .214 and drifted to the containment area for damaged veterans in Philly.

Shockingly, though not surprisingly, Ruben Amaro, Jr. handed the 32-year-old a $2 million contract for the 2015 season and Sizemore rewarded him with about what you would expect -- below replacement-level output before his dismissal this weekend.

Remember the 24 wins over his first five full seasons? He's cost his teams a win over the last six years.

So a sad goodbye to Grady Sizemore, whose body failed him and whom the scalpel forsook. For a brief glimpse, he was all that and more.

29 May 2015

The Insurance Policy That's Paying Off

Astros prospect Jon Singleton is a millionaire ten times over. Keep that in mind as we recap his story.

A year ago in this space, Singleton made his debut. He had just been called up from the Minors by Houston after agreeing to a five-year, $10 million contract.

His signature was a pre-requisite for the promotion. Other prospects had rejected similar deals and the Astros had left them to marinate on the farm while the big club flirted with 100 losses.

As that post discussed, teams like offering talented prospects guaranteed multi-million dollar deals because, if they've scouted right, they pay off big, plus they eliminate the mess of arbitration and provide relatively low cost-certainty.

Some players like these offers because they're guaranteed, and as previously mentioned, the marginal utility of the first couple of millions is significantly greater than the opportunity cost of the subsequent millions they might be leaving on the table. In effect, young ballplayers are using future earnings to buy insurance policies against a flameout.

Consequently, the number of these arrangements has been increasing of late.

Without the contract, Singleton would have eventually made the Majors after tearing up Triple-A in the first half of 2014. He would have earned a pro-rated portion of the rookie minimum, or about half of roughly $500,000. Without leverage until year three, he'd have earned roughly the same the following year. Entering arbitration eligibility in year three, he would have begun commanding larger percentages of his market value, eclipsing $10 million in a single year if he were to perform as expected.

Sounds like a terrible deal for him, except it hasn't worked out that way.

The holes in Singleton's swing were big enough to drive a Major League breaking pitch through, leaving the 23-year-old with a .168 batting average and a demotion. Singleton didn't make The Show in 2015, and while he's king of Oklahoma City these days, the first-place Astros are no longer in the experimentation phase. For now, Jon Singleton is a Minor Leaguer.

Which, ironically, is good for him in an odd sense: The insurance policy is already paying off as he collects his $2 million-a-year.

The Last Shall Be First

A quarter of the way into the season, the three best teams in the American League have been the Houston Astros, Minnesota Twins and Kansas City Royals. They are a combined 32 games over .500.

Those very teams were rated the three worst in the AL by most projection systems when the season began. Baseball Prospectus's PECOTA system had the triad dropping 85, 92 and 91 games, respectively.

Is this a great game, or what?

27 May 2015

Trends of Note After One Lap

We're around the quarter pole in the 2015 season, which seems like a sensible time to begin taking note of developments. Before 40 games much of what we see is randomness and noise. Games played in parkas, impactful rookies still riding buses in Fresno and Toledo, strength of schedule weighing heavily, streaks with disproportionate bearing, that sort of thing.

By 40 games, trends that matter are starting to emerge. Not all trends are enduring but some are. So it's a good time to take stock.

Let's take a look at categories of teams by performance versus expectation:

Surprisingly wonderful
Houston Astros
St. Louis Cardinals+
Kansas City Royals
Minnesota Twins

Wonderful as expected
Washington Nationals
Los Angeles Dodgers
Detroit Tigers

Surprisingly degenerate
Oakland A's
Milwaukee Brewers@
Miami Marlins
Cleveland Indians*

Unsurprisingly degenerate
Philadelphia Phillies
Colorado Rockies
Arizona Diamondbacks
Cincinnati Reds

Back where we expected them
New York Mets
New York Yankees
Atlanta Braves

In the great middle as predicted
Everyone else

Not sure what to do with them
San Francisco Giants **

+ Might belong in the expected category
@ Might not be all that surprising
* Might be emerging from that category
** May just be on a hot streak

All of which suggests this, with three quarters of the season ahead of us:
1. A wide open AL East that might not resolve itself until Game 163. 
2. An AL West that is inconceivable: could the Triple-A Stros actually run away from Albert Pujols, Mike Trout, CJ Wilson and the National Debt of Anaheim? And Seattle's powered-pumped lineup behind King Felix?
3. The emergence of the Cubs and Mets, and the transformation of the Padres, are still at issue.

And how about these quirks:
1. The White Sox team have stolen nine bases and been caught stealing 12 times. Twelve players have 10+ steals.
2. The Pirates have hit one triple. Eighteen players have at least three.
3. No Blue Jays player has received a single intentional walk. Jose Altuve has six. Jose goes 5'6"- 165.
4. The Diamondbacks have been hit with seven pitches. Anthony Rizzo has been hit 12 times.
5. The Marlins' bullpen has four saves. Eleven pitchers have at least 12.
6. The Rangers pitching staff is without a combined shutout. Shelby Miller has thrown two himself.
7. Padres hurlers have allowed a league-leading 61 home runs so far . . . playing their home games in the toughest home park to go yard.
8. The Indians' pitching staff has averaged 10 strikeouts per game.

Love this game!

26 May 2015

Ninety Years of Doing It Wrong

During a quick perusal of the Sunday sports section -- yeah, I still take a gander at that old relic -- the team batting and pitching summaries leaped off the page and sucker-punched my eyeballs. Down at the bottom of the hitting stats were the Houston Astros, the very charlatans occupying first place in the AL West after winning a weekend series against the behemoths of Detroit.

There they were, the team known previously as the A-A-Astros, dwelling in the hitting cellar. Yet they are living large in the division penthouse. In fact, with a .228 batting average, Houston would seem to be batting in the sub-basement.

Of course, this compilation comes courtesy of the Associated Press, that venerable organization that voted Jimmy Foxx to last year's All Star team.

Thing is, the Astros have done something the Associated Press evidently has difficulty conceiving. They score runs by other means than compiling hits. Huh! Can they do that?

Houston has walked fifth most in the AL and leads the Majors in home runs. They are third in the league in runs scored. (As of the weekend.) That would be runs scored, the purpose of hitting.

So the Associated Press, and by extension newspapers across America, list the Astros as worst in their league at something when in fact they are third best. There is a word for this kind of journalism. That word is: Wrong.

The AP has been doing it wrong for 90 years, but since they've been doing it that way for 90 years they will continue doing it that way. When it comes to covering baseball, the Associated Press, which provides information to nearly every major news operation in America, has the credibility of Bernie Madoff's stock picks. That they are misinforming their readers seems not to make much difference to them. That informing readers is the very purpose of journalism seems to have equal impact.

This is a practice at the Associated Press. It's a policy. This is the way they list team batting statistics -- the way they've always done it.

Here's what should happen instead: Someone in a position of authority should take one look at this summary and determine, much as a third-rate spare-time blogger in Charleston, SC has done, that the formula is archaic, asinine and wrong. And he (or she) should deduce that wrong is bad and immediately declare that henceforth and without hesitation, it should be done right. This policy shift should come to pass without delay because doing it wrong is dumb and doing it right is smart. And smart is better than dumb.

Who could argue with that?

Well, I'm willing to bet it would generate much heat among the Neanderthals of baseball coverage and would take 17 months of review to alter a policy that pre-dates your grandfather. Meanwhile, when I look up the batting statistics in Baseball Reference the default is alphabetical, with Arizona first and Washington last. But clicking on any statistic will re-order the list in descending order of that stat, so if you want to determine the best hitting team, you just click on runs to see the Astros up near the top.

That's smart, which as you know, is better than the Associated Press.

And it didn't take Baseball Reference 90 years to figure it out.

25 May 2015

The NBA and NHL Playoffs Are sdrawkcaB This Year

It's been well-established in this space that pro hockey and basketball regular seasons pack all the relevance of Iranian elections and for opposite reasons.

In the NBA, there are usually only a couple of elite teams with any hope of winning the title, and the final contenders often seem pre-ordained. The first round often pairs a title contender with a lottery pick contender and offers less intrigue than a Dr. Seuss book. In the NHL, the results are so random that the regular season has as much bearing on the tournament as the zodiac.

This year though. This year, the NBA playoffs were something of a con flip. The reigning champs and -- in some eyes -- tournament favorites earned just a sixth seed and got bounced from the playoffs in the first round. Neither conference's top seed was necessarily the favorite entering the second season. And several popular contenders suffered injuries debilitating to their playoff prospects.

It's made the NBA playoffs much more interesting, much more like the baseball playoffs, where only good teams earn a bid and then the championship is up for grabs. As a special bonus, none of the four finalists has won the crown in at least two decades, and two of the four haven't ever held the trophy.

Meantime, the chase for Lord Stanley's parabolic hardware features a highly-unusual development -- semi-finals that include the top seed in each conference. If Anaheim and New York face off for the Cup, they will represent an NBA-style finals. The difference, much to the NHL's benefit, is that such a result carried 12-1 odds against entering the playoffs.

In other words, the results this year were somewhat less arbitrary, and whoever squares off for the championship will have been a reasonably worthy representative. Perhaps someone will take notice and reduce the number...