01 March 2015

The Aaron Harang Streak That Won't End

I say "Aaron Harang" and you think...what?

Andre the Giant look-a-like?

League-average innings muncher?

Eight-team mercenary?

Active pitcher with the longest career without a playoff appearance?

Yes, Harang has donned a uniform for 13 summers and 352 starts without enjoying firsthand the pageantry of October. Although he has twice entered service for a playoff-bound squad -- first his rookie campaign and then his inaugural season in Cincinnati -- in neither case was he a sufficient staple of the rotation to eat playoff frames. Since then he has endured the Reds' lean years and successive one-year-or-less stints in San Diego, Los Angeles, Seattle, Queens and Atlanta, none of which hosted post-season contests.

This year, at 37, Harang has found work for $5 million before the good people of Philadelphia, or at least what few of them will deign to countenance Citizens Bank ballpark while the home nine kills time until 2019. His streak, so lovingly nurtured across 2,150 innings of regular season action, appears destined to flower further, in large part because Harang can be expected to Rototill innings while Phillies brass contemplate what they can secure in trade for closer Jonathan Papelbon.

The Hardball Times points out that Harang is sixth in baseball in games pitched since he became a regular in 2004, eighth in innings and 11th in strikeouts. That shouldn't obscure what a plug-average hurler he's been over his career. In fact, setting aside his two peak seasons of '06-'07, when he won 32 games with a 3.75 ERA, 24% better than average; consumed 466 innings; fanned four times as many batters as he walked; and added 11.2 wins to the Reds' standing; Harang has enjoyed just one season more than five percent above average and four seasons at least 8% worse.

Over the 13 years, Harang has earned 23 WAR, two-thirds of it in his three best seasons. In Atlanta last year, Harang kept the ball in the park unusually well en route to 204 thoroughly average innings. That is unlikely to occur in Philly's breadbasket ballpark. Don't be surprised if the giant Californian gives back a WAR or two in '15.

Then again, if he continues the third-starter act he reveled in last year, Aaron Harang could find himself trade-deadline bait, perhaps to a contender in need of veteran presence. That's about the only hope he has for the streak to end.

25 February 2015

Ash-Evading In the Bronx Pen

Over the last two seasons, as a reliever for the Braves, David Carpenter mowed down batters to the tune of 10 strikeouts every nine innings.

In 2015, Carpenter could very well be specializing in seventh innings as the table-setter for flame-throwers Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances.

The 6'8", 260-pound Brooklyn-born closer dominated AL batters last year, whiffing 13.5 per nine en route to general unhittability.

Sandwiched in between is the 6'7" lefty Miller, whose three-year AL East stint has caused 305 batters to return mumbling to the dugout in just 195 frames.

Combined, the trio could produce a lot of lumber-dodging in Yankee stadium. And with ERAs the past two seasons of 2.63, 2.02 and 1.40, this might be the 2015 version of the KC Royals bullpen.

24 February 2015

Why I Despise Ryan Braun More Than I Despise Alex Rodriguez

As if any more data points were necessary, Alex Rodriguez demonstrated this week that he belongs to a growing club of people -- Lance Armstrong, Bill Clinton, Ryan Braun, Ted Bundy among others -- for whom lying is a strategy and for whom the truth is an option only when all others have been exhausted.

ARod released a written statement this week vaguely apologizing for "mistakes" without ever identifying his transgressions amid the hope that the baseball public would simply forget about it and let him play ball. This is a ploy clearly devised by new handlers who recognize that there is plenty of precedent for avoiding the issue until the public just gives up and talks about something else.

This strategy worked magnificently for Braun, but for reasons unavailable to ARod. Braun still has ability that endears him to the Milwaukee faithful. Although Braun is the same conniving scumbag that Rodriguez is, his entire lying scheme can be seen as one incident, so that even fans residing outside Wisconsin might be willing to give him a second chance. And Braun never committed the tripartite sins of a) not being Derek Jeter, b) signing an insanely lucrative contract or c) going to New York.

Rodriguez has to admire Braun from afar for ingeniously squirming out of responsibility for his package of bald-faced lying, phony self-righteousness, evasion of consequences -- he accepted a suspension during which he was injured anyway; his one and only punishment being the lost income during that period --  and reinstatement in the hometown fans' hearts. Braun and his PR team have to earn ARod's particular reverence for the manner in which they cynically portrayed his refusal to discuss his transgressions as an abject apology.

Sadly, as with much else in his life, Alex Rodriguez is way too tone deaf to pull off a Braun. For all his world class talent, his immense drive and hard work, his intelligence and his spectacular good looks, ARod is a supremely sad and pathetic creature worthy of our sympathy alongside our scorn. It is transparent from a great distance that he suffers from raging self-doubt and very possibly depression. He is extremely uncomfortable in his own snake skin and so wants to be liked without understanding that he first has to like himself.

And so Rodriguez's evasiveness will simply come off as evasiveness. Yankee fans will mock him. The team will beseech the god of loopholes for a way out of his contract. The media will rip what is left of him until they get tired of it, or until he gets hurt again. In the end, it won't matter anyway, because ARod will start to embarrass himself on the field. Don't be surprised if he retires in shame before his contract runs out (in three years.)

Ultimately, shame and accountability will be the reasons to detest Braun and not Rodriguez. ARod, unable to tune out other people's wrath, suffers in his shame and is held accountable for his misdeeds by everyone connected to the sport. Braun, pathologically, knows no shame and has manipulated his situation so that he will get away with it.

22 February 2015

Should the Braves Trade Craig Kimbrel?

You may have heard that when Atlanta closer Craig Kimbrel takes the mound it's like a shark in a sea of chum The greatest reliever in baseball history, Mariano Rivera, wishes he had Kimbrel's talent. In his first-ballot Hall of Fame career, Rivera managed just three seasons with better ERAs, relative to league average, than Kimbrel has averaged over his first six seasons.

During that time, Kimbrel's 1.43 ERA compares to a league ERA of 3.82. He has toyed with NL batters like no other pitcher ever has. In his 289 innings, Kimbrel has fanned 476 batters and allowed just 153 hits. He's led the league in saves each of his five full seasons.

Better yet, the Braves have enjoyed Kimbrel's contributions at bargain bin prices, at least in the baseball universe. He's earned just $8.7 million, and even with the lucrative five-year deal they inked last season, the Braves are on the hook for just $46 million over the next four seasons for a pitcher who is just 27 and has missed a lifetime total of six days due to injury.

PECOTA projects that Kimbrel will whiff 103 batters in 64 innings in 2015, producing 45 saves with a 1.34 ERA. Keep in mind that projection systems are inherently conservative. If he has a good year you can expect him to cure cancer, exterminate ISIS and reach a higher state of consciousness.

All of which is prelude to the idea that the Braves should consider trading Craig Kimbrel. A closer's value is limited by the paucity of innings he pitches. For all his heat-firing transcendence, Kimbrel has retired just 867 batters in his career, earning the Braves just 12 wins against replacement, according to Baseball Reference.

Of course, closers don't just pitch innings; they pitch critical innings. Their value is heightened by the importance of the situations in which they appear. Closers generally enter tight games to secure key outs with the outcome on the line. 

But: there will be no critical innings in Atlanta for the next two years. The Braves have sacrificed '15 and '16 for a sustained run starting in 2017 when the new ballpark opens in Marietta. Kimbrel will have to be under-utilized for two seasons when there are fewer games to "save," and even then, somewhat irrelevant as the team chases 80 wins. That's a lot of opportunity cost -- in the form of what he might bring back in trade -- for a few extra wins that might catapult the Braves into third place instead of fourth.

Moreover, the gulf between Kimbrel and Mariano Rivera is in the realm of reliability and longevity. Rivera's renown stemmed in part from the metronome-like regularity of his excellence over two decades. Kimbrel has not proven that he will sustain his performance into and through his 30s when bodies, particularly those of hurlers, break down.

Other teams know that, of course, but all it takes is one general manager to salivate at the prospect of acquiring Superman for his pen. Imagine what the Tigers might consider offering from the prospect list for some ninth-inning reliability.

For a team that is future-focused, with their top young stars locked up beyond arbitration, Atlanta might have the opportunity to flip a glitzy, over-appreciated asset for more future stars. It's worth looking into, if the braintrust hasn't already.

18 February 2015

The Best Player in Baseball? He's Not in Your Top Ten

Who has been the best player in baseball over the last six years? 

Go ahead, ponder that for a minute. Make your list of five guys. No, make that 10. 

I'll bet this Gold Glove shortstop never entered your mind:

He's hit .309/.385/.553, 37% above average from that key defensive position.

Per 162 games played, he's slammed 35 home runs and 40 doubles and triples. Per 162 games, he's accounted for 7.5 WAR. And his name is a three-pack of alliteration.

If only Troy Trevor Tulowitzki could remain upright, we'd recognize his greatness, and maybe the Rockies would avoid the cellar. In the last three seasons, he's hit 44% above average, but missed 222 games due to, among other things, a labrum tear, a fractured rib and groin surgery. He's Nomar for Millenials.

It's a fool's errand to count on Tulo for more than 100 games this season, but it's a dreamer's responsibility to consider the possibilities. A healthy Tulo could win an MVP. But then, so could a healthy Babe Ruth.

17 February 2015

Why Seamheads Keep Under-Rating the O's

In the last three seasons, the Baltimore Orioles have punished their AL East brethren, tallying 93, 85 and 96 wins, and snagging two division titles.

And so this year, once again, the stat-based projection systems are showing the franchise less respect than Aretha Franklin. PECOTA pegs the Birds at 78 wins and a basement finish for the fourth straight season. Not a finished basement, mind you.

The Birds have unintentionally uncovered one way in which projections systems and the seamheads who worship them are for the birds themselves. (But not for the Birds.) Because of pretzel logic baked into the projection system by stat guys who call everything they can't quantify "luck," PECOTA holds a deep and abiding hatred for everything Baltimore, including crabs, Terrapins, Edgar Alan Poe and being called "hun."

In this article for Baseball Prospectus, Zachary Levine explains what the Orioles did to PECOTA (pulled its hair and made it cry in fifth grade) to consistently earn a subterranean ranking. How does PECOTA suggest the Orioles will shed 18 wins from last season? Here's the critical segment of the explanation:

The first five wins are easy. That’s the luck that the Orioles had last year that you would expect to be close to independent year-to-year. A 96-66 team, they had a Pythagorean record based on runs scored and allowed of 94-68 and a third-order record based on the underlying stats that go into run scoring and prevention of 91-71. 

Translation: the O's presented a unique profile in 2014, in which the close matches tilted their way and the blowouts blew in the other direction. Generally, that's more likely luck than skill. Bill James discovered in a previous century that teams are much more like their run differential than they are like their won-loss records; the run differential is a better predictor of future record than past record.

The discrepancy between the won-loss record suggested by run differential (technically, the difference between the square of runs scored and the square of runs allowed, hence the notion of a Pythagorian record) and the actual won-loss record is commonly referred to by sabergeeks as "luck."

But sometimes what appears to be luck is skill lurking in the corner of the dugout. The Os under Showalter have vastly out-performed this measure, which suggests that they know something Bill James doesn't . (Is that possible?) In 2012, Baltimore posted an astonishing 29-9 record in one-run games and 16-2 record in extra-inning affairs, and they repeated the feat, albeit less dramatically, in 2014.

This could be a run of luck akin to flipping heads 17 of 19 times. Or it could be that the team knows something that gives them an edge in close contests. A sharp manager, a good bench and a deep but unheralded pitching staff, all of which Baltimore possesses, could convey that needed margin in close games without tilting the balance in less evenly contested skirmishes.

This is a bit like the "pitching to the score" argument people make for Jack Morris and his pedestrian 3.94 lifetime ERA, so we have to be careful. But PECOTA and its brethren have been wrong for three straight years. Maybe it's time to acknowledge that just because we don't know what it is doesn't necessarily make it luck.

Bet the over.

15 February 2015

Who Will Win in the National League?

If you ask PECOTA, there will be no pennant races in the National League in 2015. In fact, four of the five teams that competed for the title last year will compete again this year, in the same configuration.

It does take particular interest in the injection of James Shields, Matt Kemp, et. al. into the Padres, lifting their projection into the Wild Card.

Here are the projected standings: 


NL East
Washington  88-74
Mets 86-76
Miami 83-79
Atlanta 80-82
Philadelphia 78-84

NL Central
St. Louis  89-73
Cubs 81-81
Pittsburgh 81-81
Milwaukee 80-82
Cincinnati 79-83

NL West
Dodgers  97-65
San Diego  85-77
San Francisco 84-78
Arizona  73-89
Colorado 71-91

With the league's best offense and defense, the Dodgers will run away with the West, according to the forecast.

The Nats, flipping Tanner Roark for Max Scherzer, nonetheless return to the field, which now includes the rejuvenated Mets and Marlins.

The Cubs and Pirates move inversely and meet in the middle.

13 February 2015

Who Will Win in the American League?

Time to tramp through the muddy waters of team projections, according to PECOTA, the Baseball Prospectus system. Predicting team performance is akin to predicting the content of Vladimir Putin's next outburst. But there is much to learn from the conceptually.



AL East
Boston   88-74
Tampa Bay 86-76
Toronto 83-79
Yankees 80-82
Baltimore 78-84

AL Central
Detroit  83-79
Cleveland 80-82
Chicago 79-83
Kansas City 71-91
Minnesota 70-92

AL West
Angels  91-71
Seattle  87-75
Oakland 85-77
Texas  79-83
Houston 77-85


Keep in mind that these projections tend to be conservative. Teams rarely project to high win or loss totals.

Some general observations:
PECOTA thinks the East and Central are wide open, particularly when you consider that Baltimore likes to stick its thumb in projections' eyes.

Oakland, Tampa Bay and Kansas City, all "small-market" teams, propose to win with defense. Among the trio, PECOTA foresees 87 runs saved by their defenses, or roughly 11 wins. That suggests that defense is currently the market inefficiency.

The Red Sox, Angels and Blue Jays will earn their wins with the bat. Boston's pitching is rated 13th out of 15 teams. Toronto is 14th. (The Twins are last by a wide margin.)

Seattle projects as relinquishing the fewest runs; the Astros appear to be last in flashes of leather.

The White Sox' signings don't move the needle here.

The Angels have the best roster in the junior circuit. Who could argue with that?

The Astros are becoming respectable. Many question Houston's all-or-nothing lineup but PECOTA doesn't appear too concerned.

Texas will bounce back from last season's dumpster fire, but not into contention.

Best bets: Baltimore over 78 wins. Cleveland over 80 wins.

11 February 2015

Wherefore Art Thou Justin Verlander?

From 2009 to 2012, Justin Verlander was the best pitcher in baseball. In those four campaigns, the 6'5" Virginian averaged 34 starts, a 20-8 record, 2.95 ERA, more strikeouts than innings and a 4-1 K-BB ratio. He finished first, second, third and 11th in the Cy Young voting those four years and was worth 26 wins to the Tigers.

He did a little less of everything in 2013, and then last year, at age 31, he cratered. His 4.54 ERA was well-north of average (that is, worse) and he fanned just seven batters per nine. He was worth about a win to Detroit, about the same as Zach Duke, who hurled all of 59 middle innings for Milwaukee.

Will the real Justin Verlander please stand up? The Tigers, recently shorn of their new-now-old ace Max Scherzer, need a clue about which Verlander they will get.

There's tempered good news, according to Baseball Prospectus's PECOTA projection. It sees Verlander bouncing back to 2013, with a 3.30 ERA, nearly a strikeout an inning and 3.5 wins against replacement. That might not be ace material, but it'll play.

But not so fast, my friend. The Steamer projection system forecasts continued scuffling for the Detroit righty. That system has him pitching fewer innings at a 4.05 ERA, continued diminished strikeouts and just two wins against replacement.

See, they're as bad at this as you are. We know one thing for sure about these two projections: at least one of them is wrong. One system says he'll return to a diminished version of his old form; the other thinks there's a new norm. What you're seeing is one system valuing recency more than the other. And systems are just a series of assumptions that get tested and re-tested thousands of times. 

Let's examine some other intriguing projections:

Corey Kluber
Corey Kluber slashed nearly three runs from his ERA over two years en route to a Cy Young in 2014. PECOTA is unimpressed, mostly because of a mediocre six-year Minor League journey that preceded his rise to the Bigs. Its forecast: 12-12, 4.08 and 0.7 WAR.

Steamer is more sanguine, though it's regressing only to the mean: 13-9, 3.21, 4.0 WAR. (Worth noting: there isn't a seamhead in America who wouldn't take the over on the PECOTA line.)

Prince Fielder
Pitchers are puzzles inside riddles wrapped in shoulder tendonitis. Hitters are easier to project. So let's take a look at Prince Fielder, who blasted 38 taters a year from '07 to '12, while getting aboard at a 40% clip. In 2013 he slipped to 25 homers and a .362 on base before being shipped to the hitting zone in Texas. Alas, Fielder succumbed to a herniated disc after a 42-game power outage last season.

PECOTA both gives Fielder a pass but also projects the whompin' days are over at age 31 and weight 275. It projects just 23 homers and three WAR. Steamer agrees: 24 homers and two-and-a-half WAR.

ARod
You're probably wondering about Alex Rodriguez. Projecting him is easy. That's because ARod, no matter what any projection system thinks about his talent, is certifiably 40 years old. Debilitations of the body and the batting line are a guarantee. PECOTA says .248, 10 home runs in 300 at bats. Steamer projects .235, 11 home runs in 400 at bats. He needs but six to catch Willie Mays. Yankee brass may have something to say about all those at bats.

Matt Harvey
The Dark Knight of Gotham breezed through the minors and wowed the baseball world in his 36 lifetime starts (2.30 ERA, 4.5-1 K-BB ratio) before Tommy Johnning his elbow in '13. Both systems project Harvey will continue to light it up but over less than a full season.
PECOTA: 10-8, 2.91, 151 innings, 153 K
Steamer: 11-8, 3.13, 163 innings, 175K

Matt Kemp
Kemp's career has been an elevator ride. His past four seasons have gone like this: 
  • Up! MVP-type season.
  • Down! Excellent but injury-shortened.
  • Down! Lost season on offense and defense.
  • Up! Very good at the plate. Fielding not so great.
Now he moves from the offensive hole in L.A. to the offensive black hole in San Diego, plus he has to face Clayton Kershaw a couple of times a year. The statistical crystal balls see the power and average returning, but not the glove. 
PECOTA: .270, 25 HR, 14 steals, 3.1 WAR
Steamer: .266, 20 HR, 8 steals, 1.9 WAR (in only 128 games)

So there are six of many projections. We'll look at the team projections over the next few days and return occasionally to individual players.


09 February 2015

You Can Project Corey Kluber's 2015 Season

Do you aspire to be PECOTA? 

Not Bill Pecota, the late 80s-early 90s Royals infielder who smacked 22 lifetime home runs.

PECOTA, Baseball Prospectus's "Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithm."

It's one of several super-heated statistical projection systems that help filter out some of the noise to determine how today's Major Leaguers might perform next year based on their past performance, age, injury history, and how similar ballers have performed at the same point in their careers.

As I mentioned last post, PECOTA and its cousins have a WAR of about two. They're contributing team players but you're not winning the pennant with them. They excel at pointing out the ravages of age on players. They can't predict big surprise performances. 

In fact, you can be your own PECOTA if you keep these rules in mind:

1. Hitters tend to peak around 26-29 and thereafter decline.
2. Pitchers' peaks are more varied and can occur later.
3. Hitters' batting averages can fluctuate because of varied BABIP, but walk rates tend to remain fairly constant.
4. As they age, everyday players lose speed, walk and strike out more, steal fewer bases, play worse defense and hit more home runs.
5. Lumbering first basemen and DHs tend to lose their skills and their value quickly. Speedsters tend to age more gradually.
6. After about age 36, even the healthiest everyday players begin breaking down and losing time to injury.
7. Players who have one anomalous season after several years of significantly better or worse performance tend to regress to the mean the following year. That is, a third baseman with a .250 lifetime batting average and 15 homers a year who bats .300 and goes yard 35 times this season is likely to bat around .275 with 25 taters the following season.
8. Players who have anomalous first half seasons tend to play to their projection in the second half, not withstanding injuries and other externalities.
9. Players who enter the league late tend to leave it early. Think Evan Gattis.
10. Hitters who enjoy unusually high BABIP, and pitchers who allow unusually low BABIP, are generally hoodoos and fakes who will pay the piper the subsequent season. (The reverse is also true.) "Unusual" is relative to a player's own experience. Ichiro had ridiculously high BABIP every year because of the way he went about hitting.
11. Pitchers can seem to have great or poor ERAs because of the defense behind them. Examining "Fielding Independent Pitching" statistics offers a more accurate window into the future.
12. Pitcher ERAs rise when they move from the NL to the AL (and vice versa) mostly because of the DH.
13. Pitcher ERAs fall when they leave the rotation and enter the bullpen. It's easier to subdue batters for one inning than for seven. Moreover, relievers tend to face same-handed batters; starters tend to face lineups constructed to defeat them.
14. Baseball players are humans. They are unpredictable. That's what makes the game fun.

You are armed. Go out and predict the future. Be PECOTA.

(Next post, we'll examine some of the interesting projections. With a  grain of salt, of course.)


07 February 2015

Statheads Have To Lighten Up About Their Projections

When a kid gets a shiny new toy he always wanted for Christmas, it's not surprising that he plays with it endlessly. And when it ceases to work, it's not surprising that he puts it away.

The seamheads turned out shiny new projection toys in the 2000s variously called PECOTA, Steamer, ZiPS, Marcel, FANS and Oliver, depending on whose proprietary system you prefer. (For example, Baseball Prospectus created PECOTA, Fangraphs introduced ZiPS and Tom Tango developed Marcel.) They all compare ballplayers of today to their counterparts in history to determine what awaits the current crop in the coming year. All that is then compiled into team projections.

These toys have some value for a couple of reasons: they are objective and they have built into them some simple rules that humans fail to recognize or choose to ignore when analyzing player performance. Beyond that, though, they offer little insight. Most significantly, they don't know anything about the people who play the game. They are blind to who learned a new pitch, is struggling through a wrenching divorce, picked up a hitch in his swing or is finally healthy.

As a result, they can never tell us who will suddenly break out, Jose Bautista style, or who will Dontrelle Willis all over himself. None of them could pinpoint the 2014 demise of the Red Sox or the Orioles' pre-eminence. And yet the sabermetric world talks about these tools as if they're atom splitters.

So, for example, Steamer predicts the top 10 players by WAR next year are Mike Trout, Andrew McCutcheon, Giancarlo Stanton, Troy Tulowitzki, Miguel Cabrera, Josh Donaldson, Evan Longoria, Adrian Beltre, Jose Bautista and Paul Goldschmidt. (Cano, Machado and Puig are right behind.) Well, duh. right? (Clayton Kershaw and Felix Hernandez are its top pitchers. Who knew?)

It says Joey Votto and Bryce Harper are stars with injury risks. You don't say. It projects Chris Davis bouncing about halfway back to 2013 with a .242 batting average and 30 home runs. About what you'd predict. It sees Justin Verlander returning to about league average pitching. And it's not really buying Rookie of the Year Jacob deGrom. Well, who outside of the outer boroughs is?

So the toys have some entertainment value, but the saber community plays with them as if they're iPads.  They quote chapter and verse on players, particularly when analyzing trades and signings. The truth is, exercise a few simple guiding principles, like Warren Buffet investor tips, and you too can lord over the average baseball fan.

And be right 60% of the time.

In subsequent posts, we'll discuss those principles, examine some interesting player projections and the swim among the team projections. (Spoiler alert: the Phillies will suck.)


05 February 2015

Votto You Waiting For?

Last season, Reds first baseman Joey Votto suffered through his worst season, registering his first sub-.400 on base percentage (.390) and first sub-.900 OPS (.799) since 2008. For the first time since his rookie coffee cup, he added fewer than three wins (1.9) to his team, roughly the equivalent of an ordinary starter. 

Of course, Votto missed 100 games last season due to a quad strain, and played hurt during the other 62. Even so, he swung a mean stick and was meaner still when he didn't swing it.

Baseball research shows that the one skill that never goes away -- well maybe not the one, but one of the few -- is the ability to take a walk, which the big Canadian does in spades. While injury sapped his ability to hit for average or power last year, he still coaxed one free pass every five-and-a-half times he came to the plate.

Votto says he's healthy now, which means, look out. At age 31, his skills might be starting to wane, but here's his last full season:

.305/.435/.491, 56% above league average, 6.4 WAR and a sixth place MVP finish.

It's likely wasted on Cincinnati, which curiously jettisoned its two best pitchers for nothing immediate in return during the off-season. But for all those baseball fans who forgot about Votto, or just never appreciated him, it'll be nice to see him back in form.

03 February 2015

Super Bowl Musings You're Not Seeing Elsewhere

Super Bowl Moral
Seattle Seahawks: Live by the miracle, die by the miracle.

Critique of Seattle's Final Play

What I would have done: The same thing you would have. I would have guided the Seahawks to a 3-13 record, eliminating any need for a goal-line decision.

Tom Brady's Legacy
Myth 1: Tom Brady has won four Super Bowls.
Truth: Tom Brady's team has won four Super Bowls. He's been the most important player on that team, but not the only one.

Myth 2: Winning a fourth Super Bowl solidifies Tom Brady's legacy.
Truth: A great quarterback plays 150-200 games. It's not possible that one game in which the QB may or may not have played well makes the difference.

Myth 3: Joe Montana is a greater QB than Tom Brady because he didn't lose any Super Bowls and Brady lost two.
Truth 3: Translation: It's more impressive to miss the playoffs altogether than earn a berth in the championship and lose it.

Myth 4: Losing this game would have hurt Brady's legacy.
Truth 4: Translation:  Tom Brady's legacy depended on a fluke play that occurred while he was on the sideline.

Worst Shame of Super Bowl XLIX
The amazing, acrobatic, game-changing catch that set up the goal line play at the end will be lost to history.

Best Thing About the Super Bowl
Pitchers and catchers report in two weeks.

29 January 2015

Freakin' Amazing Cautionary Tale

If you just started watching this guy three years ago, you'd expect he'd be signing a minor league deal somewhere with hopes of making the 40-man roster as a middle reliever. He's lost three games compared to a journeyman fifth starter the last three seasons, posting ERAs of 5.18, 4.37, 4.74 even as hitting declined.

He's made 41 quality starts the last three seasons, fewer than good pitchers supply in two. Since 2009 he's pitched fewer innings every year except one; since 2008 he's struck out fewer batters per nine every season but one.

He made $17 million last year. He'll make $18 million this year. For the World Champions, no thanks to him. He pitched to five batters in the entire playoffs in 2014.

That's the real reason to call him The Freak.

Tim Lincecum has been a disaster since he won consecutive Cy Youngs and followed that with a pair of All-Star appearances. He's lost velocity off his fastball, bite off his slider, length off his locks and pretty soon, years off his career.

The former best pitcher in baseball is one more replacement-level season from getting cut at age 30. It's hard to believe and serves as another cautionary tale against extrapolating pitching careers. It reminds us that there are no guarantees that Clayton Kershaw is Cooperstown-bound, or that Max Scherzer makes the Nationals' rotation stronger.

27 January 2015

Taking the Air Out of A Controversy

I've got it all figured out:

The cold deflated the balls.

But then the Colts inflated theirs!

Cheaters!

26 January 2015

John Hart Is A Big Fat Lying Poopyhead

If you had recently inherited the Atlanta Braves' GM job you might have noticed that your team skidded to a 21-35 second half record, tallied the second fewest runs in baseball and face increasing competition from the restocked Marlins, rejuvenated Mets and double-barreled Nationals.

You might be bucking against the limited budget, $46.5 million of which will drain into the bank account of B.J. Upton for three years of pre-game batting practice.

It probably does not escape your attention that while you've locked up four of your young studs, your two outfield stallions are knocking on free agency's door. Maybe most importantly, you're moving to a new suburban home in 2017 and would like the team's zenith to coincide with its early years in Marietta.

What do to? Wisely jettison half your home run output for future value. Flip the two outfielders a year from house shopping elsewhere, along with your slugging semi-catcher whose value has roughly a three-year expiration date.

All that, new GM John Hart has done. The result, of course is that the Braves will arm wrestle the Phillies for early 2016 draft picks. Beyond that, the franchise is already deep into divorce proceedings with downtown Atlanta even though they remain legally betrothed.

So Hart is attempting to smear some proverbial lipstick on the proverbial pig, promising the metro that their team will compete in 2015. Management is committed to winning this season, we're doing everything to field a competitive team, we're not sacrificing the present for the future, the check's in the mail and we'll respect you in the morning.

If he were made of wood we could watch his nose grow.

Hart is doing exactly what he should with the roster, focusing on exactly the right page of the calendar for the franchise. He was an innovator as GM in Cleveland and he hasn't forgotten how to ply his trade. He's spewing the cliches he feels are necessary to keep season ticket sales stoked.

But it won't take long for Atlanta fans to smell the body odor from this lineup. When new import Nick Markakis, averaging 16 homers a year, is your number two long ball threat, well, B.J. Upton might get some playing time after all.

Hart is full of it, it being something other than short-term answers. If the trades were deft and the returns as useful as they appear, it should be a short reload in northern Georgia.

Just not in Atlanta.

24 January 2015

My Incredible Super Bowl Prediction

Of all the many many stupid predictions constantly demanded in life, the Super Bowl winner is the Super Bowl winner of stupid predictions.

There are only two teams. They play one game. One of them is going to win. Consequently, there is no "Bad" or "Dumb" prediction, the way predicting the Atlanta Braves are going to win the 2015 World Series would be.

All anyone has to know to make a prediction is the names of the two cities vying for the crown. (In this case, to choose one of the contestants, you need to know a region of the country, not a city. So perhaps people who are self-aware of their football-ignorance will be choosing the city.) 

Whichever side they choose, they will have as allies roughly half the cognoscenti.

This year in particular, when the game is such a predictive toss-up, there is no silly answer. Consequently, there is no surprising answer either. No one is going to be vindicated for prognosticating an unexpected victor with the opportunity to brag about their insight later, the way one would with a Braves 2015 World Series championship.

In other words, you're being asked to choose whether the next toss of a coin will be heads or tails. The question isn't interesting and the answer requires no knowledge.

So when people ask me, I tell them that I have some expertise on this matter and can say with some certainty that the team going to Disney World will be the Seattle Seahawks ... or the New England Patriots. 

But no one else.

23 January 2015

Dexter Fowler is the Joe Maddon Edge

Ever since Lou Piniella took the helm of the then-putrid Tampa Bay Then-Devil Rays, the baseball universe has become pretty savvy about the lack of impact a manager can have on his team. Despite unreasonable expectations of their 55-win franchise going into the 2003 season -- which is to say, any -- Sweet Lou guided his squads to 99, 91 and 95 losses before he stalked off to the golf course.

There is no managing wizardry that can transform a team starting Toby Hall, Damian Rolls and Al Martin (at DH!) into a contender. And now most baseball fans recognize that.

So excitement was muted, but still detectable, when Joe Maddon took the reins of the Cubs this year. Maddon is a perennial All-Star at his craft, both on the field and in the clubhouse, and he's bringing that deft touch to the North side, alongside a whip-smart front office of team president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer.

That enthusiasm around Wrigley was vindicated this week when Maddon got his publicly stated wish to land a leadoff batter who first and foremost gets on base. The Cubs traded spare parts for outfielder Dexter Fowler and his .366 on base percentage.

There are still managers, say, Ned Yost and Dusty Baker, who aren't sold on this simple formula. They're still locked in on the 1937 model of leadoff hitter -- a powerless speed merchant regardless of his ability to get aboard. That's the guy they want getting the most at bats on the team. And 1937-mentality managers don't lobby their superiors for 2015 assets, the way Joe Maddon does.

Not only does Maddon know better, so do the people who hired him. When Hoyer reels in a legitimate fire-starter, he knows that Maddon has a plan to exploit that asset. Ironically, while Fowler is a road runner, he steals bases only occasionally and, generally, at an unproductive rate. His value is entirely in the 189 occasions last season he reached base safely for the batter following him, in 505 opportunities.

So for Dexter Fowler, and the dozens of other small advantages that Maddon appears to accumulate over a season, Cubs fans have the right to feel a little quiver. Their time is yet nigh, but it is coming.

21 January 2015

A Mad Max Contract for Scherzer

"A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon you're talking real money." --Sen. Everett Dirksen

Three years ago, the best pitcher in baseball -- that is, the pitcher with the best performance over the last three-to-five years -- was Roy Halladay. He's now retired, after his arm, and his ERA, blew up.

Two years ago, the best pitcher in baseball was Justin Verlander, who posted a 4.54 ERA last season, 20% worse than average.

Today, you've probably heard that the Washington Nationals have signed Max Scherzer to a seven year deal worth $210 million. We're enured to the numbers at this point, but $210 million is still a boatload.

Because he's not Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer is certainly not the best pitcher in baseball. He's probably not second. But over the last three years he's dominated opposing batters to the tune of 55-15, 3.24 and 723 strikeouts. Any team would like to have the Max Scherzer of the last three seasons.

The problem is, that doesn't guarantee anything about next year, when Scherzer will be 30. And it hardly provides any guide at all to his performance five years from now, when he'll still have two years remaining on the deal.

In a spectacular study at Baseball Prospectus, Sam Miller and Mike Gianella found that 20 high-priced free agent pitchers who performed similar to Scherzer before age 30 pretty much pooped the bed thereafter. Only about half performed at an above average level the following year, and by year four more than half were either out of baseball or below replacement level.

Maybe Scherzer is like the other half. Small consolation. Even the top 50% stopped being Max Scherzer 2014 and became Kyle Gibson 2014. "Who's Kyle Gibson?" you're asking. Yeah, that's the point. (Answer: A rookie Twins starter who went 13-12, 4.47. He's not making $30 million next season.)

Maybe Scherzer's even better than the good half. Maybe there's something unique about him because he's Max. Maybe he's more like Tom Glavine, the only member of the exalted group who maintained consistently high level performance for even five years. (It's worth noting that Glavine signed the big deal with the Braves, the team that knew him best.) Then the Nats have brought aboard 33 WAR and a first ballot Hall of Famer.

That's awesome, but it's not the way to bet. First ballot Hall of Famers are celebrated because they are rare, even among guys who dominated batters from age 27-29. Instead, the Nationals have placed a quarter-billion dollar chip on 37 hoping against the odds that it will cash in.

20 January 2015

One of MLB's Best Players Has Been Traded

What do you think of this player:

In his six full seasons starting in '09, he's batted .270, hit 16 homers and swiped 16 bags in 21 tries per annum. A good hitter but not Mike Trout, right?

A switch hitter, he sports an .801 OPS, 23% above league average, thanks mostly to 84 walks and 40 doubles/triples a year. Getting better, right?

And now the big reveal: He's a second baseman.

With a golden glove.

And he's a right fielder too.

And a shortstop.

And in a pinch, a left fielder, center fielder, DH and first baseman.

And that's why Ben Zobrist is one of the best players in baseball, and one of the least well-known. He's the kind of practitioner whose reputation is a pale shadow of his real value because he doesn't do the showy things we look at -- slug 40 home runs, collect RBIs, steal 80 bases, bat .300. What he does do is often overlooked -- piles up doubles and triples, works the count (fourth most pitches seen last season) and accepts free passes, offers his manager positional flexibility, flashes leather without the flash, leaves the yard or thieves a bag just often enough to cause the opposition stress.

In his career, Zobrist has handled duties 547 times at the keystone, 331 times in the right corner, 229 times at short, 66 times in left, 34 in center and a smattering elsewhere. The value of the flexibility he provides his manager doesn't show up even in the sabermetric stats. Other than catcher, pitcher and third, Zobrist is ready, willing and able.

Like, really, really able. He's averaged 6.2 wins against replacement -- that's solidly All-Star material -- for six seasons with Tampa.

And now he'll play for Oakland, who traded John Jaso and prospects (including Herschel "Boog" Powell, a low-minors on-base machine at age 21) to snag Zobrist and shortstop Yunel Escobar.

Why would a savvy franchise give up on Zobrist? Because he's 33 and eligible for free agency after this coming season, and because his WAR has declined from 8.7 to 5.7 to 4.8 to 5.0 over the last four seasons. That's still high quality, and suggests plenty more the next few years, but the vector is concerning.

Zobrist is one cog in a package of swaps by Billy Beane that revamped the A's in a zigzag pattern, which appears, on balance, to have added some youth, slashed some payroll and stripped some talent from the club, at least in 2015. But if Oakland fails to make the playoffs it probably won't be Ben Zobrist's fault.