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!


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.

18 January 2015

25 Bizarre Facts About Baseball in 2014

Stuff from the 2014 season you can't make up:

1. Clayton Kershaw faced a bases loaded situation three times all last season. He allowed no hits.

2. Only four second basemen made more errors than Dan Uggla did last year. He started only 37 games.

3. After a five-year career as a starter in which he allowed a 4.57 ERA, Wade Davis moved to the bullpen and reduced that ERA to 0.94.

4. Tampa Bay catcher Jose Molina scored four runs all year, in 247 PA. Thirty-seven players scored four runs or more in a game.

5. Forty-five players earned MVP votes in 2014, not one of them a Yankee or Red Sock.

6. The Texas Rangers went 24-18 in day games and 36-74 in night games. And nearly all the day games were on the road.

7. More on Jose Molina: he stroked two extra base hits all season. He slugged .187, the second lowest SLG among players with 200+ plate appearances all-time. (Ray Oyler, 1968)

8. Pablo Sandoval missed two games after injuring his elbow on a hit-by-pitch. Which he swung at.

9. All the Major League position players who batted at San Francisco's AT&T Park in 2014 combined for two grand slam home runs, the same number Madison Bumgarner hit.

10. Another Molina: he cost Tampa two wins against replacement in less than half a season's hitting opportunities, despite good defense behind the plate. His offense was roughly one-fifth league average.

11. The top five finishers in the AL Rookie of the Year voting were all older than Bryce Harper, Mike Trout and Giancarlo Stanton.

12. Hunter Pence batted .269 with no one on base in 2014, .377 with runners in scoring position and .452 with RISP and two out.

13. One last Molina: The Rays paid him the $2.75 million left on his contract for 2015 and released him. 

14. Pat Neshek walked one batter per nine in 2014. His career rate was 3.7 per nine in the eight years prior.

15. This is Ryan Braun, 2014: .266/.324/.443, 19 homers. This is Ryan Braun on drugs, 2007-2013: .312/.374/.564, 30 homers. Any questions?

16. Kirk Nieuwenhuis hit four consecutive doubles for the Mets . . . over a span of 58 days. He was sent to the Minors after the first double and didn't play the game after the third.

17. The World Champion Boston Red Sox, who won 97 games in 2013, were officially eliminated from playoff contention on September 10, three days earlier than the Houston Astros, who lost a Major League-high 111 games in 2013.

18. In his 19 Major League seasons, Raul Ibanez produced 20 wins against replacement, barely one per year. He ends his career with $66 million in earnings.

19. Joe Panik of the Cardinals went five-for-five in a game in September without scoring a run or knocking one in. Brett Gardner went oh-for-three in an April game and scored four times.

20. Over the last three years, there have been 29 player-seasons of 30 homers and 100 RBI. There were 35 such seasons in 2001 alone. There were 39 in 2002.

21. Chris Young pitched 162 innings for the Mariners last season, more than he had managed the previous four seasons combined.

22. Who won the Tigers-Rangers trade involving Prince Fielder and Ian Kinsler?
  • Fielder: 42 games, three homers, negative WAR, Rangers' season collapses.
  • Kinsler: 161 games, 61 extra base hits, 15 steals, superb defense, 5.5 wins against replacement and a division crown for Detroit.
  • Kinsler nearly got his wish.

23. Rays' second baseman Sean Rodriguez batted .292 on the road and .112 at the Trop in 2014. He batted .211 overall but managed to slug .443.

24. Adam Dunn retired at the end the season with the expiration of his four-year, $56 million contract with the Chicago White Sox. The Big Donkey might have been better off retiring prior to the contract. He hit .202/.321/.407, or roughly replacement level on offense those four seasons after terrorizing pitchers at a .250/.381/.521 clip, worth 33 offensive wins against replacement, in his first nine years. Of course, then he'd be out $56 million. So never mind.

25. Jerome Williams beat the A's while pitching for the Astros. Then he beat them while pitching for the Rangers. And then he beat them while pitching for the Phillies. All in 2014.

Bonus: No one on their team hit 20 home runs. Their first baseman slugged .398, their right fielder .360. None of their hitters knocked in 75 runs or scored 90. Forty-two-year-old Raul Ibanez wangled 90 plate appearances (of .188 hitting.) Their manager occasionally looked lost. And they came within 90 feet of extra innings in Game 7 of the World Series.

Baseball. You can't make this stuff up.

Many of these facts courtesy of Jayson Stark, ESPN; and Paul Casella, Sports on Earth.

16 January 2015

Carlos Delgado Deserves This Homage

He slammed 473 home runs and knocked in 1512 runs in his illustrious career. He posted a lifetime OPS of .929, 38% above average. He earned MVP votes seven times. He was beloved by teammates and above steroid reproach. And even in his final season, bedeviled by hip injuries, he continued his on base and slugging ways, with a .914 OPS.

And yet Carlos Delgado fell like a stone from the Hall of Fame ballot after one appearance.

Delgado was a spectacular hitter. He took walks and pounded mistakes, cracking 38 or more homers seven times and knocking home 100+ runs nine times. In 2000, at age 28, he batted .344, with 57 doubles, 41 homers and 102 walks, and posted an 1.134 OPS, 81% better than average, even in the big bat era.

Delgado lifted his teammates; just ask them. When fellow Blue Jay Shawn Green signed a big free agent deal with the Dodgers, he credited Delgado for his success.

Despite the injuries, Delgado continued slugging and served as an eminence grise with the Mets during their 2006 playoff run, the only one of his career. He left the game with 500 homers in sight but his dignity intact. He remains the Blue Jays' career leader in home runs, RBIs, doubles, walks, runs scored and OPS. ESPN's Jayson Stark calls him "the best player in history to get booted off the Hall of Fame ballot after his first year."

Carlos Delgado wasn't a Hall of Famer. History is littered with immobile sluggers at first base; Delgado posted the 35th most WAR among players at his position. The logjam on the ballot, combined with a paucity of post-season heroics, further conspired against him. But Carlos Delgado deserves to be remembered for his near-great career.

14 January 2015

The Odd Case of the Cornhusker Punter

The 2015 Hall of Fame voting results are in and Darin Erstad failed to convince a single voter to check his box. The reason is obvious: he wasn't anything like a Famer.

But for one season, and one season only, Darin Erstad was chocolate cake with fudge topping.

Erstad, then 26, was coming off a .253/.308/.374 season in 1999 for the Anaheim Angels. The former Nebraska punter, Erstad had been selected by the then California Angels with the first pick of the '95 draft.

And then, in 2000, he justified his selection. Already an outstanding outfield glove man, Erstad busted out in a nearly unprecedented way. He set career highs in AB, hits, doubles, triples, home runs, runs scored, runs batted in, total bases, walks, stolen bases, batting average, on base, slugging and little old ladies helped across the street. He hit .355/.409/.541, gaining 270 points of OPS.

The 2000 performance wasn't just better than any other Erstad season; it was like he was a different guy. In a 12-year career, he hit a fifth of his homers (25) in 2000. He scored 121 runs, the only 100+ run season of the 12. He hit for a higher average than his lifetime OBP. He got on base at a higher rate than his lifetime slugging percentage. He earned a third of his lifetime offensive wins against replacement that one year.

For his career, Erstad was a below-average hitter in a corner outfield spot. He flashed the defensive web gems, six .280+ batting averages and 179 career steals, but little power, on base skills or durability.

And certainly not that. That was Albert Pujols. The rest of his career he was Omar Infante.

Erstad crashed right back to earth the following year, posting a .258/.331/.360 line in 2001 that was nearly identical to his 1999 season. And after a better 2002 campaign, in which he helped the Angels win their only World Series, Erstad's wall-crashing ways caught up to him. In the seven years after '02, he averaged four homers, an 80 OPS+ and less than a win against replacement per season.

But for that one year, the Cornhuskers' punter was a Hall of Famer.

12 January 2015

The First True Playoff

Tonight's national championship game between Oregon and Ohio State is being touted variously as the first true national championship game and the result of the first true playoff in big-time college football.

That is definitely true.

On Planet Imadope.

Division 1A college football has had a playoff, also known as the BCS, for 15 years. It has produced a true national championship every single year since 1998.

The only difference between a two-team playoff and a four-team playoff is the number of teams. In either case, someone had to decide, subjectively, which teams to allow into the playoff. That would be true even if they conducted a 64-team playoff. Someone would have to decide which team was 65th best and thus not qualified to play on.

In fact, we have just that system in college basketball. Currently, 68 teams crowd into the field, yet we hear the same ulcerative wailing about teams #69, 70 and 71 being short-changed.

So it's a semantic difference, right? Sure, in a system where a league with 16 teams is called the Big Ten, a league with 10 teams is called the Big 12, a league called the Big East includes schools from Omaha and Indianapolis, and pre-professionals expected to work hard in their jobs representing their billion-dollar institutions are called amateurs, the 16th version of something can be called the first.

09 January 2015

Amazing But True Baseball Facts From 2014

David Price whiffed 271 batters while walking just 38. That's practically Phil Hughesian. Hughes issued just 16 free passes in 210 frames while sending back 186 on strikes. His 11.38 K/BB ratio is the highest ever for pitchers throwing at least 200 innings.

Stephen Drew's supporters blamed his .583 OPS through June on the fact that he missed Spring Training. He rocked a .491 July through October. That's a .150/.219/.271 line once he got warmed up.

The back end of the Yankees' bullpen -- Dellin Betances and David Robertson -- fanned 229 batters in 154 innings, a 13.5 Ks/9 rate. Robertson is gone now, replaced by Andrew Miller, who struck out 14.5 per nine in 2014.

Unsurprisingly, the Detroit Tigers' infield offered the worst facsimile of defense in baseball in 2014, as it did in 2013, allowing a .281 batting average on ground balls. The Oakland A's defended best on the infield, holding opponents to a .215 average. The difference was about 100 runs, or between 10 and 12 wins in infield defense alone.

Why did the Cincinnati Reds lose 14 games in the standings from '13 to '14? Look to the outer pasture. Redleg outfielders poster a .649 OPS, the worst in 100 years of Cincinnati baseball. They were basically Twins' third-string shortstop Eduardo Nunez -- minus five points of OPS.

Here's the kicker: Seattle's outfield hit worse.

Clayton Kershaw is the first pitcher in the 130-year history of baseball to lead the Majors in ERA four straight years. Take that Walter Johnson.

Victor Martinez clubbed 32 home runs in 2014 while fanning 42 times. B.J. Upton needed 172 strikeouts to mash 12 homers.

The Washington Nationals have averaged more than 93 wins each of the last three seasons, best in the Majors. They have zero playoff series victories.

America learned about the Royals' bullpen of Greg Holland, Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera during the post-season, but AL hitters had already seen enough of them. They are the first trio of relievers to sport ERAs below 1.50 in 65 or more appearances. No team has ever boasted two such hurlers.

Of the 937 gentlemen who have donned a uniform for the Los Angeles California Anaheim Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim during the franchise's 43-year history, the player who has earned the 10th most wins against replacement is Mike Trout, in all of three seasons. The player just ahead of him, Darrin Erstad, toiled for 12 seasons in Orange County.

Nomar Garciaparra wielded a stellar glove at shortstop while batting .313/.361/.521 over his career, 65 points of OPS better than Derek Jeter.  He earned 6+ wins against replacement in six of his first seven seasons -- not counting a 23-game rookie warmup -- three more than in Jeter's entire career.  And yet, Nomar barely cleared the 5% threshold last week to stay on the Hall of Fame ballot. In his final six seasons, Nomar stayed n the field more than half the season just twice, missing 81 games during those two. Oh, what could have been.

06 January 2015

The Oddity In Hall Voting

In the wake of the big reveal on this year's Hall of Fame election, we can quibble, even gladiate, over who, among those on the ballot, deserved a bust in Cooperstown. Those whose enshrinement is being debated were among the greatest baseballers on Planet Earth, regardless of whether or not they make your cut or mine.

I can't plausibly argue that Sammy Sosa doesn't deserve consideration, even though he doesn't get my vote. Nor can you argue likewise against Tim Raines or Curt Schilling. It's not as if F.P. Santangelo's immortality is at issue here.

In fact, the one concept about which nearly everyone agrees is that this year's ballot positively bulges with legitimate candidates. It's the very basis of Jayson Stark's complaint. In a previous post, I counted 12 certifiable no-doubters, without even taking into account several who merited further consideration.

Yet the average voter only selected 8.4 names. How could that be?

Some Theories That Don't Hold Up
I understand that a couple of writers handed in blank ballots. However, it would have taken 85 blank ballots to skew the results so low.

I understand that much of the electorate refuses to check the box next to the names of known steroid users, like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, even though they were the best in the game before they evidently began using. (I mean, I don't understand it, but I understand that it is the case.) Nonetheless, there were available down-ballot candidates to fill their spots, like Edgar Martinez (the greatest DH of all time), Alan Trammel (one of the 15 best shortstops of all-time) and Mike Mussina (every bit as good as John Smoltz except he never accumulated stats out of the pen).

I understand that not everyone with a BBWAA card can comprehend, or come to terms with, those newfangled sabermertronics invented by Billy Beane in Moneyball. So they vote on standards -- like 300 pitching wins -- that were actually discredited by Bill James starting in 1977. In other words, before Ronald Reagan was president; before Germany was one country; before Microsoft existed; before today's 54-year-olds graduated high school.

I understand that not everyone shares my enthusiasm for Mike Piazza, or Jeff Bagwell, or Raines. Presumably some of those who would (inexplicably, to be honest) eschew one or more of those three would find some merit in Jeff Kent, Mark McGwire or (the transparently unworthy) Lee Smith. One way or another, it's hard to fathom failing to find 10 qualified candidates from among this gaggle.

The "Me" Decade
So how do these voters average one-and-a-half blank spaces? It appears that as the number of voters has grown, now above 570, the number of voters seeking their own unique identity has ballooned. There is some significant minority of voters who want to stand out, or make a stand, or stand aside. They vote exclusively for steroid suspects, or exclude anyone with a PED whisper in his dossier. (How else to explain the lack of support for Bagwell, a guy with a 149 OPS+, a great glove at first, 202 stolen bases at a 72% success rate and MVP votes after 10 seasons?)

Or they employ some pretzel logic that would make Michele Bachmann blush, so as to appear cooly contrarian, enigmatically erudite, or just plain inscrutable. Swathed in the downy comfort of 570 other votes, their franchise has become an expression of their individuality, rather than a referendum on the players' Hall of Fame credentials.

In short, it appears that for a small but growing number of BBWAA members, the Hall of Fame vote is about the voter and not the Hall. And it's going to cost some all-time greats their place in Cooperstown.

01 January 2015

Exalting A Streak Over A Season of Greatness

News item: Madison Bumgarner named Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year

It's a cliche that baseball is a marathon: it begins with the first stirrings of spring when hope has a heartbeat in every city. It runs through the blooming of flowers, then the dog days of summer and into the changing leaves of Fall. In this long race patience is a virtue and trends earn coherence only over the long haul.

So why do we ignore all but the final 100 yards?

Madison Bumgarner rewrote the history books in the post-season, leading the Giants almost single-handedly to the World Series crown. His 4-1, 1.21 performance over 58 frames of playoffs, with two shutouts and a five-inning save on two days' rest was sparkling and unprecedented. He won the World Series with 21 innings at an 0.43 ERA and 17-1 K/BB ratio.

For this dominance he was rightly rewarded with the MVP of both the league championship series and the World Series. No one could credibly dispute either.

And Bumgarner was no 1972 Gene Tenace or 1969 Al Weiss. At age 24 and already in his fourth full season, MadBum went 18-11, 2.98 in 217 innings, with a 5.1 K/BB ratio en route to a fourth place finish in the Cy Young voting.

In other words, Madison Bumgarner is a bonafide star who had pitched out of his mind in the playoffs. But sportsman of the year? He was fourth in Cy Young voting.

Allow me to introduce you to The Claw, whose entire season looked like Bumgarner's final 58 innings. Clayton Kershaw missed six starts in the first weeks of 2014 and still managed to unravel the record books. He terrorized NL batters to the tune of 21-3, 1.77 and a 7.7 K/BB ratio, earning him the Cy and the MVP. Kershaw's value, despite a lost month, was twice Bumgarner's during the regular season.

It's true that Kershaw blew up in his post-season starts. Maybe he can't handle cold weather; maybe opponents figured him out and maybe he's a sissy-ass choker who can't handle the pressure. Or maybe he just endured a four-game skid, as every other pitcher in baseball has done. Thirty-five frames of work aren't sufficient information to draw conclusions. 

But one thing is for sure. Madison Bumgarner, great as he is, couldn't pack Clayton Kershaw's lunch. In their careers, Kershaw owns three Cy Youngs and a second place finish. Fourth is Bumgarner's peak so far. Kershaw owns a 2.48 lifetime ERA; Bumgarner, 3.06 in 420 fewer innings. Kershaw has posted 41 wins against replacement to MadBum's 17. Etc. etc. etc.

Naming Bumgarner Sportsman of the Year exalts his final seven starts (including 21 innings against the light-hitting Royals) over Kershaw's full body of work, which was not just superior but vastly so. The tournament that follows the season may decide who gets to call themselves "champion," but it doesn't determine who's best.

Clayton Kershaw was the transcendent star of baseball in 2014. If Madison Bumgarner was second he was light years behind, making him a terrible choice for that award.

29 December 2014

The Myth About Baseball's Declining Popularity

Once again in 2014, ratings for the Super Bowl topped the number of actual human beings on Earth. Evidently some giant coconut crabs and Madagascan aye-ayes were also catching the big game on their smart phones.

Meanwhile, ratings for the World Series continue to float around the lowest depths known to human history. So woe is baseball right?

Sure, if that's your entire worldview. Measured against NFL football's voracious maw, baseball is fading to a pinprick. But then so are presidential elections, African genocide, all television sitcoms and dramas, basketball, hockey, bowling, tennis, boxing and post-Tiger golf.

Less For Everyone

The fact is, TV ratings for basically everything but reality shows has declined in the last 20 years, and they're only exempt because they didn't exist that far back. The diversity of options has dispersed audiences and lowered everyone's ratings.

In the early 70s, all of America tuned in for All In the Family. The #1 show in the nation snagged a 34 rating. Twenty shows total -- including Ironsides, The Flip Wilson Show and the Partridge Family -- pulled ratings of 22+.

By 1998-89, Seinfeld led the ratings by capturing white viewers and a 21.3 rating. It would not have placed in the top 20 in 1972.

By 2008, the top-rated show, American Idol, cleared just a 16.1 rating, capturing mainly young white adults and teens.

Wherefore Art Thou, Bowling?

It's the same issue for sporting events. You hardly have to see the numbers to know that nearly the entire audiences for hockey, boxing and bowling have found other things to do. The average NBA game of the week in 1996 earned a 5.0 rating; the highest rated NBA game last season, a Pacers-Heat tilt featuring LeBron, pulled a 2.4.

So yeah, baseball's TV viewership is down too. The nation used to come to a halt during the World Series and now it comes to a halt during the World Series if someone scores a touchdown in one of the NFL games being played that day. But by another measure, baseball is healthier than Chuck Norris.

We're Watching -- In Person
Last year, 74 million people bought tickets to Major League Baseball games. From Seattle to Miami and Cleveland to Phoenix, the turnstiles once again spun at a rate never fathomed even 15 years ago. The top 10 seasons for attendance for MLB have all occurred in the last decade. 

Sure, there are more games and more teams now than, say, in the "Golden Age" of the 1950s. And stadiums hold more people. It's all true. So is this: teams are filling a higher percentage of their ballparks than in the 50s by a wide margin, en route to doubling average attendance.

Remember that in the 50s the NFL was a wish and the NBA was a dream. Six NHL teams -- two of them in Canada and all of them playing in the winter, were no competition for baseball. Color TV, Disney parks, video games and the long list of alternatives to an afternoon at the park had yet to debut. And yet, twice as many people per team journey to see the hometown nine today as did then. 

By comparison, NFL teams drew just 17.3 million people despite more teams and larger stadiums. NFL teams play just once a week, but that's the point. They don't have to entice fans every day the way baseball does. 
Howard Wolowitz Isn't Worried
So let's stop bemoaning the falling TV numbers for baseball's flagship games, unless you're prepared to suffer the sad ratings fate of every other non-football property. You'll have to pity The Big Bang Theory's poor performance while you're at it. Instead, enjoy America's pastime -- on your TV, your computer, your phone or at the ballpark, as Americans have done for 150 years and will do for another 150.

Play ball!

25 December 2014

Thuffering Thuccotath: The Phumbling Phils

While the Mets, Astros and Marlins crawl from the ooze towards respectability, and the Cubs and Padres catapult themselves into contention, there is one team that clings tenaciously to a healthy awfulness in 2015. 

That would be your Phailing Phils. They are phocused on phutility well into the phuture.

Now three seasons removed from a playoff run that peaked with a world championship in 2009, the first crack has shown in GM Ruben Amaro's cognitive dissonance. After a .500 season in 2012 and two 73-win campaigns the last two years, Amaro may be reluctantly coming to grips with the disaster that he built around aging stars Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Cliff Lee, Carlos Ruiz and, most notably, Ryan Howard, whose $125 million extension kicked in the moment his career went belly up.*

*Howard ended the 2011 season by tearing his Achilles tendon on the last out of the playoffs. The extension commenced in 2012 with Howard in rehab. In the three years since, Howard has delivered a win below replacement, slugging 11 fewer home runs than he hit in 2006 alone.

This winter, Amaro finally sold off a part -- shortstop Jimmy Rollins -- but has stuck with the rest of an aging bunch and a steadfast defense of his plan. Without the influx of prospects from trades of veterans, the Phils are headed for a long stint in the fire as they exit the frying pan. This is particularly true absent a productive farm system the last few years that has spit out Domonic Brown, Cody Asche, Freddy Galvis and Darren Ruf. Combined, this crew has performed at half a run below replacement for their careers.

In fact, first round picks in Philadelphia's last 11 drafts have totaled a win below replacement, 40 WAR worse than the average team's first rounders. 

So here's the recipe for 90+ losses out towards the horizon:
Five parts aging veterans well past their prime
Four parts lousy drafting and developing of young players
One heaping tablespoon of recalcitrant GM who refuses to bury sunk costs
And an empty $25 million/year contract that can't be moved

If Rollins turns out to be a start, and Amaro transforms every asset over 30 into some future returns, the Phillies can retrench now and hope to reclaim respectability in three-to-five years. Certainly there are robust markets for a good-hitting catcher (Ruiz) and an All-Star second baseman (Utley). Lee might have more value halfway through the season, but closer Jonathan Paplebon should draw suitors right now coming off a 39-save performance. Together, trading those four could lop half-a-decade off the rebuilding process, while keeping them might get the team to 70 wins.

The Phils don't seem inclined to go that route, believing that their current troubles are merely a flesh wound. That suggests that the first part that needs to be sold off is management.

19 December 2014

Going For Broken: The San Diego Padres

Our dads love us unconditionally, no matter how messed up we are. Baseball's dads, the Padres, appear to be applying paternal love with a vengeance this Hot Stove season. The question is, will that make the team any better?

General Manager A.J. Preller took the reins of the franchise this winter and apparently has a mandate to compete in a division that includes the Brinks truck in Los Angeles and the defending champs in the Bay.

Last year, and seemingly every year prior, the Friars trailed all of baseball in plate crossings en route to another losing campaign. Preller has attempted to remedy that with a Tasmanian Devil imitation. He's made more moves than Allied Van Lines*, swapping out fringe players and farmhands for outfielders Matt Kemp, Wil Myers and Justin Upton, and catcher Derek Norris, then signing hurlers Josh Johnson and Brandon Morrow.

*This is an awesome reference to the seminal '80s parody band, Blotto, and their signature song, I Want To Be A Lifeguard. And by "reference" I mean "theft" of the line "Summer blonds revealing tan lines, I'll make more moves than Allied Van Lines." After you click on this link, listen to this and this and be schooled.

What do all these players have in common? They all live in the Land of Lost Toys. Take Johnson, a once-upon-a-time Marlins star, who's twirled fewer than 82 innings in two of his last three seasons, posting ERAs ranging from 1.64 to 6.20. Or Norris, who busted out to a .292/.402/.477 first half of 2014 and then cratered to .245/.314/.324 second half as part of the team-wide collapse in Oakland.

Or Myers, who lit the AL on fire his first season en route to the Rookie of the Year award and then stunk up the joint during his sophomore campaign last year, bleeding 180 points of OPS before fracturing his wrist, along with much of his promise.

Of the above-named group, only Morrow, a fourth-starter type, has failed to post a sine-curve career, mostly because he's never really peaked, unless you consider his 10-save performance in '08 a crowning achievement.

Well, there is Upton, a certifiable star who's just 26. He's also a one-year rental who will be flipped to a contender if the experiment lurches out of the gate.

Padre fans could be forgiven for feeling like the glass is half full. First, the glass has been merely moist the last few years. Second, Preller has bought all of these shiny trinkets on sale. After all, the best player he's relinquished in these deals, by a wide margin, has been Yasmani Grandal, a good-looking young backstop with fledgling on-base skills and pop, but not exactly Buster Posey's profile.

While the Giants get stripped by the rest of MLB and the Dodgers throw money into the wind, Preller might just be on to something. Or he might be reprising the crash-and-burn Miami Marlins of 2012. If you're a San Diegan, have faith. After all, father knows best.

16 December 2014

If the Astros Aren't 2015's Astros, Who Are?

After the departure of Biggio and Bagwell, and repeated attempts to climb halfway up the mountain by swapping prospects for temporary fixes, the Houston Astros finally collapsed into a vortex of eternal mediocrity. When a new owner arrived in Houston in 2011, he cleaned out the front office and found a GM who was capable of flipping veteran assets for future value.

What followed has been three years of abject baseball poverty followed by a 2014 in which the rising stars picked off the opposition 70 times. Having this off-season inked Grade A relievers Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek to free agent deals that address what ails the Astros most, the team is now poised to exit the vortex completely and make a run at respectability, with contention not far down the road.

So if the Astros are no longer the Astros, and the Pirates sport a winning-season streak, and the Cubs are emerging from hibernation, and their South Side counterparts are signing everyone who will, who is this year's Astros?

Which team is gutting the lineup in a reverse-engineered effort to rise later by crashing today?

It can't be the Padres; you need veteran talent before you can trade them for prospects. The Rockies don't fit the bill; they've slept through all the trade talk. And as semantically satisfying as it would be for Arizona to claim the mantle of turning to ashes for a phoenix-like rise later, the Dbacks are not so inclined.

This year's Astros won 90 games two years ago and maintain the core of that squad, yet they're lowering the lifeboats this off-season. It's the Cincinnati Reds, who cashed in two of their starters -- Alfredo Simon and Mat Latos -- in deals that brought prospects but cost five wins against replacement. Both pitchers will begin getting expensive this year and reach free agency in 2016.

When a 76-win team sheds five wins it either has no plan or it's aiming to bunny-hop to contention in future years.  If another shoe drops; like a trade of Brandon Phillips, Joey Votto or Johnny Cueto; that will be a sure sign. If shoes stay on feet, then the current moves will be head-scratchers. Simon and Latos are too much to sacrifice if this team wants to compete in 2015 and they didn't bring enough back to punt the year and expect an immediate return to contention.

The Reds aren't a bad team -- probably somewhere between their last two records, not good enough to compete for a title but not bad enough to tear it down. So with the Cubs ascendant and St. Louis & Pittsburgh still at fighting weight, Cincinnati management may have concluded that the timing, not to mention finances, justifies an all-out strategy rather than all-in. What's curious about it is how far the Reds need to fall to really retrench. Catcher Devin Mesoraco, Votto, Phillips and third baseman Todd Frazier comprise four-fifths of an All-Star infield. Cueto, Mike Leake, Homer Bailey and Tony Cingrani still anchor a middling rotation and the Cuban Missile, Aroldis Chapman, is a human highlight reel out of the pen. 

Then there's Billy Hamilton. He's a threat to score every time he gets to first. He starts doing that more often and YouTube could blow up.

In other words, the Reds would have been an odd choice for 2015's Astros before the winter trading commenced. But if they're not the 2015 Astros now they could join the 2011 Astros in the vortex of eternal mediocrity.

13 December 2014

Spinning the Trade Carousel

For baseball fans, it's like Thanksgiving night. There was so much to consume that we don't know quite what to make of it. We're stuffed, overwhelmed and a little queasy.

Even a few days after the conclusion of the Winter Meetings and the spasm of trades there, we're still not sure what the Dodgers and A's are doing. Both have venerable GMs who have earned the benefit of the doubt. But why salary-dump Matt Kemp (on the Padres, of all teams) as the Dodgers did, and then ink Brandon McCarthy for four years when all he's proven is that he's an average starter who can't stay upright? Why cash in your three best players for prospects, as they A's did, and then sign DH Billy Butler for three years/$30 million?

We can see what the Red Sox are up to. They are rebuilding a pitching staff that they had disassembled during last year's cleansing.

We can understand the Reds' plan. They're cashing out this hand and waiting until they can assemble better cards. One less team for the Cubs to worry about as they return to contention.

The White Sox' strategy is evident. They're taking a puncher's chance by signing David Robertson and trading for Jeff Samardzjia, though it's unlikely that will amount to much.

Miami is dong likewise, taking flyers on elder hurlers Dan Haren and Mat Latos, and speedster Dee Gordon, while welcoming back from injury pitching phenom Jose Fernandez, reliever Kevin Gregg and infielder Rafael Furcal. This could be a team to reckon with.

The signing of Jon Lester is the first domino to fall in the Cubs' ascent, to mix and mangle metaphors, and the swap of farmhands for catcher Miguel Montero is the second. Watch out 2016. 

We can even fathom how the Giants, fat from a World Championship, are being picked clean by free agency, stripped of Pablo Sandoval, Jake Peavy and probably Michael Morse this off-season.

But Oakland and L.A., two playoff teams now spinning the trade carousel to make themselves simultaneously better and worse, that we're having difficulty digesting. It's making the 2015 season interesting already.

11 December 2014

With Help Like That We'd Prefer Hinderance

I got a kick out of this line from the description of the Jon Lester signing by the Cubs:

"Lester was dealt by the Red Sox to Oakland at the trade deadline in July and helped the A's reach the playoffs for the third straight year..."

Ha! Evidently the Associated Press* believes you've already forgotten the 2014 season. You know, the season in which Oakland dominated all of Major League Baseball until pretty much the moment they traded for Lester. 

*Yes, he's picking on the AP again. Sometimes it's a slow baseball news day and all looks bleak and then the AP writes something and makes life fun again. Thank you, AP. Don't ever change. 

For the record, the A's won 65 of their first 104 games, a .625 winning percentage. Three games later they acquired Lester and proceeded to lose 35 of their next 60 games, a .417 winning percentage. They relinquished the best record in baseball, the best record in the AL, the division lead, the first wild card, their air of invincibility, most of their dignity and nearly the post-season altogether, all with Lester in tow. Having stumbled into the Wild Card game, they gakked up a big eighth-inning lead, with Lester on the hill, against middling Kansas City. 

In sum, their season descending into ignominy almost immediately upon Lester's arrival. That's how he "helped" them earn a playoff berth.

Now, to be fair, correlation isn't causation, definitively not here. Lester pitched well for Oakland, allowing 2.82 runs per nine and fanning 71 while walking just 16. It wasn't his fault the A's collapsed like Ukrainian peace talks.

But he doesn't deserve credit for their post-season moment either. They earned that while he was hurling for Boston.