24 November 2015

Craig Kimbrel Stunk In 2015

You've likely heard the news that closer Craig Kimbrel got traded again -- to his third team in the calendar year.

The Padres acquired Kimbrel from the Braves in one of those modern-day swaps in which one team gets by far the best player and by far the worst contract in exchange for some lesser players and prospects. One team gets future value and salary relief -- i.e. money -- and the other makes a blockbuster move for right now.

But as you now know, but San Diego GM AJ Preller did not at the time, his team face-planted and now needs to regroup. So he off-loaded Kimbrel to Boston for four farmhands.

It's Kimbrel's first foray in the American League, so the results will be interesting. But we already know how he would fare away from The South. The Alabama native suffered the worst season of his career -- fewest games, fewest innings, fewest strikeouts, lowest K rate, most runs allowed, highest ERA by nearly double, most home runs allowed and only season without Cy Young votes.

That's some disaster, huh? Well, not quite. Kimbrel's 39 saves for that 74-win jalopy aren't too shabby, nor are his 2.58 ERA, his 13.2 K per nine innings or his K/BB ratio of four. He still fanned more than a third of the batters he faced.

In addition, he front-loaded most of his struggles. In the second half, Craig Kimbrel was so unhittable it was like he was ... Craig Kimbrel. The league batted .120 against him, managed four extra base hits and saddled him with a 1.73 ERA.

It's a testament to how transcendent Kimbrel had been that he could fall so far to that. If he returns to form at Fenway he'll be the toast of New England.

21 November 2015

A. J. Pierzynski's Unprecedented Season

And so, as noted here, A. J. Pierzynski made history in 2015.

The 38-year-old Pierzynski outplayed the Braves' backstop of the future and produced an above-average hitting line despite squatting in 112 games.

The 18-year veteran of seven Major League clubs produced .300/.338/.422 slash stats, a .281 True Average and two-and-a-half wins above replacement for the Braves, 14% better than the average hitter, whatever his position. 

Two wins cost, on average, about $16 million in today's game. Pierzynski provided Atlanta with that, plus another half win, plus that highly-coveted veteran presence, at a cost of just $2 million. (Fat lot of good it did the team.)

But beyond being a bargain, Pierzynski was arguably -- and it's a pretty convincing argument -- the greatest hitting 38-year-old catcher of all time.

Here are the list of backstops, either now or soon to have their likenesses carved in bronze and displayed in a museum on the banks of Lake Otsego, who could not produce even average batting lines in their age 38 season:

  • Johnny Bench
  • Yogi Berra
  • Carlton Fisk
  • Ivan Rodriguez
  • Mike Piazza
  • Roy Campanella
  • Bill Dickey
  • Mickey Cochrane
  • Gary Carter

The three catchers in all of baseball history who could still lay the lumber at that advanced age were HOFers Gabby Hartnett and Ernie Lombardi, and near-great Jorge Posada. But none of them caught even 85 games, compared to Pierzynski's 112. (He also DH'd once.)

Atlanta has Pierzynski signed for next season at $3 million. He could contract Diptheria before the season commences, return after the All-Star break for one game in which he succumbs to the Golden Sombrero, tear his sternocleidomastoid the next day, throw up into the stands on Fan Appreciation Day and spend the last game on the bench Tweeting a photo of Fredi Gonzalez performing fellatio on Freddie Freeman in the clubhouse -- and still have earned far more than his salary over the course of his deal.

And he probably won't. So hats off to A.J. Pierzynski.

13 November 2015

Saved From the Perils of G-G-G-Gambling

News item: The New York State attorney general ordered the two biggest daily fantasy sports companies, DraftKings and FanDuel, to stop accepting bets from New York residents, saying their games constituted illegal gambling under state law.

Oh thank you Mr. Schneiderman, you five-card stud, and your counterparts in neighboring states, for sheltering us from the scourge of gambling! Games of chance are dangerous for the public because they might spend more money than they can afford. Gambling is the devil's work. It's an addictive drug.

(No doubt, many of you read that news item while downing a cup of coffee, without which you're inert in the morning.)

Now, because of the heroic efforts of law enforcers everywhere, Americans from coast to coast are free from the ravages of games of chance.

  • Except for state-controlled lotteries.
  • Except for the entire state of Nevada.
  • Except for casinos on Indian lands.
  • Except for casinos aboard riverboats.
  • Except for casinos aboard cruise ships.
  • Except for Internet gambling sites.
  • Except for NCAA office pools.
  • Except for Super Bowl bar games.
  • Except for church bingo games.
  • Except for charity raffles.
  • Except for Wall Street day trading.
  • Except for season-long fantasy games.
  • Except for the billions bet on sporting events every day.
  • Except for horse racing venues.
  • Except for Off Track Betting. 
  • Except...well, let's not let details get in the way.

Good thing gambling is illegal in this country. Its comforting to know that government is keeping us all safe.

10 November 2015

About That Whole "Cubs Fans Can Dream On" Thing...

You may recall this post back in April. I made a bit of a to-do about the folly of predicting a Cubs playoff appearance. At the risk of quoting that brilliant philosopher, my own personal self, here's what I said at the time:

"...not since 2008, coming off a roaring 97-win season, has hope taken residence so distant from reality."

Right. Well, about that.

See, here's the thing about predictions in baseball: you can be flat wrong about everything and still call the winner. Or you can nail the logic but get foiled by the vagaries of the game. If you placed those two ideas on opposite ends of the street, I'd be standing on the corner of Well-reasoned and Wrong.

The point of that article was that the Cubs were coming off an 89-loss season even while many of their young players; think Jake Arrieta, Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Hendrick and Starlin Castro; had already blossomed. Despite the addition of Jon Lester and Dexter Fowler; not to mention manager Joe Maddon; and the imminent arrival of Kris Bryant, Jorge Soler and that group; it seemed wise to counsel patience. Rookies not named Vida, Fernando, or The Bird don't generally rocket to success immediately. Some veteran acquisitions don't pan out. Sophomores often stumble following promising freshman seasons. And empty rosters don't unempty themselves just because a couple of newbies join the ranks.

So what happened? All the touted met their tout line, plus 235 pounds of Kyle Schwarber arrived mashing. Jake Arrieta got in touch with his inner Superman. None of the top four starters missed a start. Lester and Fowler played as advertised. The squad served as windshield to the injury bug. New manager Joe Maddon thrilled everyone and the team emerged victorious 97 times plus change in the playoffs.

The point is, that post was right. It was unreasonable to expect the Cubs to blossom all at once, maintain the gains of the previous season and enjoy the fruits of veteran labor without some setbacks. That can happen, it does, and it did. But that's not the way to bet.

The stories were similar in Flushing, Houston and Minnesota, which is why I wasn't too sanguine on any of those teams' chances. The Nationals and Angels are more talented than all of those teams, but sometimes, it's more important how much lightning is in the bottle than how much talent. And nowhere was that more obvious than with the Cubs.

08 November 2015

The New Trend That Won't Be

Far be it for me to pass judgment on the latest fashion. I was recently invited to an event in which we were encouraged to wear 90s styles, so I wore my usual attire. I couldn't actually tell you what was fashionable in the 90s, except that I wasn't wearing it then.

I stopped paying attention to pop music way before Justin Bieber was born (though possibly because of that), and see ads for TV shows I've never heard of on networks I've never heard of starring actors I've never heard of. I keep up with the Cashins, not the Kardashians.

And I'm still not clear what birds are angry or why.

So maybe I'm not the great trend spotter, but here's one trend I can publicly dismiss.

The False Narrative
During the World Series, one of the false narratives took shape around the construction of the World Champion Kansas City Royals, a low-payroll juggernaut with the best AL record making a second straight Series appearance.

Unlike the Moneyball A's, built around on base percentage and power, the Royals are a high batting average team without power. They led the league in fewest strikeouts and fewest walks, hit the second fewest home runs and paid no nevermind to "working the count." They put a premium on speed, athleticism and defense. On the mound, they trotted out a series of third and fourth starters and let the bullpen dominate.

And this, it's been suggested, is the next wave of roster-building.


Let's jettison the opening shibboleths before we wade into the facts.

Moneyball is Obsolete
First, there is nothing Sabermetric about OBP and power. What was special about the 2000 A's is that they realized that OBP and power were under-priced in the baseball labor market and therefore they could afford to sign those sorts of players. Walks and homers were cheap; singles and speed were expensive. That, of course, is no longer true.

In addition, the Royals are in a unique situation. Their home park is the size of a National Park. The grassy outfield has a zip code. Speed and defense are especially advantageous in that park; slugging is exceedingly difficult. Walks -- a key component of OBP -- are now appropriately valued, so for a small market team like Kansas City, the more cost-effective way to get on base is by making contact on a field with such wide gaps. In other words, don't try this at home.

Uh-oh: Here Come Facts
Now the facts: the Royals owe their success much less to their approach than to their talent. Lorenzo Cain became an MVP contender this year. Mike Moustakas learned to hit the other way and foiled the shift that foiled him last year. Eric Hosmer fulfilled his potential. Alex Gordon was already a star and Sal Perez rakes relative to his position. So if you want a team construction concept to emulate, here it is -- get really good players.

Lost amid the World Series hype is KC's Achilles heal, one that, largely by luck, avoided exploitation. This was a team reliant on their starting nine like no other, but because the injury gods smiled upon them, their lack of depth was not tested. (I made that very point in May.) Just three non-regulars came to bat 100+ times; the Mets by contrast had nine backups come to the plate that often -- for one less position. There again, building a team virtually free of injury is unquestionably a strategy worth copying.

It might be that GM Dayton Moore has systematically drafted, developed and signed players who make contact and flash leather. It's said (now in retrospect, though I never heard it at the time) that he traded Wil Myers for James Shields in that odd 2013 swap with Tampa Bay because Myers had swing and miss tendencies. But much of this has to be happenstance. The players who prospered in the Minors -- and in Kaufman Stadium -- were these kinds of players, so these are the types who comprise the roster. Teasing out cause and effect is tricky business, especially from where you and I sit.

There may be other franchises that take a swing at the Royals' model, especially those in big parks like San Diego and -- snicker -- Citi Field, where the front office is cost-controlled. It makes no sense in Fenway, Wrigley or Coors, or generally most anywhere else. Which means, you're unlikely to get invited to a 2035 party and encouraged to dress as a contact hitter from 2015.

06 November 2015

The World Series That Wasn't

Think back to the World Series of 2005 when the White Sox swept the Astros in four games. The cumulative game tally failed to capture the intra-contest drama of that Fall Classic.

Chicago won Game One 5-3 with a score in the 8th; Game Two 7-6 by overcoming a 4-2 deficit with four in the 7th, then watching Houston knot it with two in the top of the ninth before walking off on an unlikely one-out Scott Podsednick homer off Brad Lidge. Game Three took 14 innings to settle 7-5 and Game Four went to the eighth scoreless until a two-out single plated the game's only run.

The Series might not have been very competitive but each individual game was a barn burner.

Ditto for the 2015 Series. Many have noted that if baseball were an eight-inning affair the Mets would have won in five. The Royals saved their hitting for the final at bats, like a virgin awaiting marriage, despite a strong NY bullpen anchored by one of the league's best closers.

Of course, it wasn't all that surprising the KC owned the games' ends. Their pitching staff is built backwards, after all, which means they are more likely to relinquish runs in the initial six frames than in the final three (or beyond). Like most teams, the Mets are the opposite: their four stud starters were thought to be their golden ticket.

All of which gave rise to several false narratives during the World Series, narratives being the stock in trade of baseball broadcasters whose ability to transform a sporting competition into human drama with a moral component is critical to the enjoyment of the casual fan.

But we were put on this patch of outfield grass to bust myths, so let's get to it:

Myth 1: Terry Collins lost this World Series with his overuse, and then underuse, of Jeurys Familia
Reality: Without defending his decisions to wring two innings from his closer in a blowout and then keep him on the bench in the ninth inning of an apparent win, it's worth noting that the Game 5 choice of Harvey to complete the game is not only totally defensible -- he was dominating KC batters -- but also only marginally different than bringing in Familia. Without knowing what was going to happen, even a purely rational calculation would have pegged the odds of the Mets winning the game as only slightly worse with Harvey on the mound, if at all. The Mets lost that game because they hit safely four times in 12 innings.

Myth 2: The Royals won because they are built a new way -- to make contact and "keep the line moving."
Reality: The Royals are built to get hits and steal bases, and not to strike out, walk and hit home runs, mostly because that's the best strategy (the walks aside) for their bulbous home outfield. But their middle-of-the-pack run scoring ability among AL teams hardly screams "revolution." And remember how they rarely swung and missed in the first two games against Harvey and deGrom? In Game Five, Harvey fanned 11 in eight innings.

Myth 3: Kansas City won the World Series because they -- take your pick: Never Say Die, Hit Better In The Clutch, Have some special bond among the players, blabbity blab blab.
Reality: When a team stages one 11th-hour rally after another -- they led all of 14 innings in a World Series in which they won four times -- it's tempting to assign meaning to it. Very possibly there is some meaning; perhaps the Royals are supremely confident even when down, particularly knowing that their bullpen is superior to the opposition's. But the narrative you heard was all ex-post facto explanation for what was more likely somewhat random and inexplicable. I'll believe Fox's line of logic when it's predictive.

Myth 4: Kansas City's superior advance scouting won the series. They knew to run on Met pitching and Lucas Duda's arm, and to test NY's defensively challenged defensive middle.
Reality: Wow, how exactly did they crack that code? Did they ask a random Met fan on the street? Or a hot dog vendor at Citi Field? Those discerning horsehide experts must have attended two Met games in order to draft that insight.

It was a great postseason packed with teams whose fans have long-suffered. It followed an inspiring season that belied prediction. It was full of team surprises, wild individual accomplishments, rousing young talent and the unique rhythm of a sport played outdoors in Spring, Summer and Fall. It was wholly satisfying even if you're a fan of the fallen.

Let's do it again next year.

02 November 2015

Baseball Royalty: It Wasn't Really A Drought

The narrative this postseason -- one that satisfied my deep sense of sports fan justice -- was that the teams competing for the championship were, save for St. Louis and the Yankees, all seeking to end long periods wandering aimlessly in the desert. The Cubs are the cliche, but even the finalists from KC and NY were 30 and 29 years without ultimate victory.

It's so romantic that the story engulfs us. Little guy overachieves. Starving fan base finally quenched. Good guys victorious over the evil empires. It feels so good, World Series ratings spiked -- until games went past midnight Eastern.

But a little arithmetic demonstrates that it's all a mirage.

There are 15 teams in each league. On average, each team should win the pennant twice every 30 years.

There are two leagues. So on average, each team wins the World Series every other time they make the finals, or once every 30 years.

(The number of teams in each league has fluctuated a little over that time, with Milwaukee's move to the NL giving the Senior Circuit 16 of the 30 teams until Houston fled to the AL. That has slightly altered the odds.)

In the last 30 years, the Royals won two pennants and one championship. Perfectly average.

The Mets played in their third World Series -- a little above average -- but haven't won the title -- a little below.

If we look at the other teams in the playoffs, we get much the same thing. Toronto hasn't won a pennant in 22 years, but they hoisted two flags in two seasons before that. The Rangers and Astros are overdue for titles (none between them in nearly 100 combined years of play), but Texas has two pennants in the last five years and the Astros have one in the last 10.

What really marks these teams was how poorly most of them had competed during their drought periods. With four teams in each league earning a playoff spot each of the last 20 seasons (that number is now up to five, thanks to the play-in) a fan base could expect, on average, to see their home nine make the tournament eight times every 30 years. The Blue Jays and Royals hadn't earned a postseason berth since their last World Series; the Pirates hadn't had a winning season for two decades, and the others on this year's playoff roster have all likewise underachieved.

They've been victimized by the Cardinals and Bronx Bombers who have, combined, participated in the postseason 33 times in those 30 years. Hate the Red Sox (13 playoff runs) and Braves (17) too, though at least they had the grace to finish last in their division and third worst in the Majors, respectively, this year.

So, yay for the World Champion Royals, and for the NL champion Mets, and good luck to Houston, Texas, Toronto, Pittsburgh, the Dodgers and, godalmighty, the Cubs. Let's just temper our condolences for many of their fans.

31 October 2015

Sandy, Don't Re-Sign Daniel Murphy!

Back in 2010, the Rockies' Ubaldo Jimenez, up until then a .500 pitcher with a four ERA, began unraveling the Colorado mound curse. The Dominican righty entered the All-Star break an untouchable 15-1, 2.20.

I remember listening around that time to a baseball reporter -- either Buster Olney or Tim Kurkjian, but in either case a respected and knowledgeable scribe -- discuss at length the changes Jimenez had made in his approach and execution, and the challenge of hitting his mid-90s heat and quality secondary pitches. The reporter extolled the mechanical changes Jimenez had made that had catapulted him to present and future glory.

Had he entered free agency right there, teams would have been waving Woodrow Wilsons at him.

Very nice.

And then the rest of Jimenez's career happened. He went 4-7, 3.80 in the second half, and has authored a 50-58, 4.43 resume since, allowing nearly a runner-and-a-half per inning.

Which brings us to Daniel Murphy, a perfectly good second baseman known for intelligent play and a nice batting average, but not much power or defense. Since his return from injury in 2011, he has produced 13.3 offensive wins against replacement in five years. That's a solid starter. (Baseball Reference says he's given back three wins with the glove during that time, but we're dubious about defensive metrics.)

In the wake of Murphy's sudden liftoff in the playoffs -- a record seven homers in six straight games against the best pitchers the NL has to offer (excluding his own staff) -- the narrative has turned. Suddenly we're scouring Mets lore for the source of this outbreak, and the slight increase in power. (He hit 14 homers this year, one more than in 2013, and recorded a .449 SLG, one point higher than in 2011. The small uptick in muscle accompanied a small downtick in batting safely, resulting in a fairly typical Murphy season.)

Several sources have documented that hitting guru Kevin Long rejiggered Murphy's setup, keeping his hands lower, bending his legs deeper and starting his leg lift earlier. Perhaps as a result, he popped eight home runs in August and September, and then seven more in nine games before entering the World Series. The implication, of course, is that the slugging is now a Murphy trait.

And maybe it is, but that's not the way to bet. Daniel Murphy enters free agency as a 31-year-old future former-keystoner. It's far more likely that we've seen his best than the beginning of something new. One front office wag speculated to Sports Illustrated that his activities in the NLCS had raised his price to five years/$75 million.

To the Mets, that should sound like Bernie Madoff with a stock tip.

Sandy Alderson now has five sterling starters and a golden closer, all 27 or under, around whom to build for future World Series runs. While a $10 million, 280-pound boulder comes off the payroll, the lineup is still wanting, particularly if the straw that stirred this season's drink, Yoenis Cespedes, seeks Bartolo Colon's weight in gold. One way or another, the Mets need to pony up for a reliable middle-of-the-lineup hitter or they could suffocate on 2-1 losses again the way they did through July.

For a franchise with limited resources, a host of arbitration raises to contend with and that one big need, Daniel Murphy on a long, fat contract is not the prescription, particularly if Wilmer Flores can cover the keystone.

Absent a natural replacement, should the Mets re-sign Muphy? Sure, for three years at a reasonable price, while they look for reinforcements as he ages. But breaking the bank for Daniel Murphy? Please. His leg kick isn't that much earlier.

29 October 2015

You Couldn't Make This Stuff Up

Baseball: you've gotta love it:
  • The first pitch of the first game thrown to the home team turns into a four-base error generously credited as a the first inside-the-park home run in roughly a century of World Series. 
  • The centerfield defensive replacement and the backup shortstop combine to produce the go-ahead run.
  • A Gold Glove first baseman makes a miscue that allows a run to score and appears to cost his team the game. 
  • The surprise fourth starter pitches three innings of relief and is the star of the game.
  • A pitcher who allowed 24 free passes in 194 innings walks three batters in two innings to lose the game.
  • A red hot batter with a record seven home runs in his last six contests off the best hurlers in baseball comes up empty in two games against Edinson Volquez, Chris Young, Luke Hochevar and Johnny Cueto.
  • A Cy Young contender allows four runs and three walks in five innings.
  • A struggling starter hurls a complete game two-hitter.
  • The controversial leadoff hitter with a sub-.300 OBP breaks the record for postseason hits with at least two more games to play.
  • The TV crew loses power to their truck so the lords of baseball delay the game while fans in attendance wonder what's going on.
  • The vaunted starting staff that was the linchpin of one team's World Series run gives up seven runs in 11 innings. Known for their blazing heat and confounding secondary pitches, they punch out just five batters.
And all that tells us nothing about Game 3. Play ball!

27 October 2015

World Series Preview Nonsense

In my newspaper Tuesday; in your newspaper too, most likely; indeed in newspapers across America; is a World Series preview. It is written in that time-honored tradition of matching up players from the two teams at each position and assigning one team or the other an edge.

This is a time-honored tradition just as hitting a woman over the head with a club and dragging her to your cave by the hair is a time-honored tradition. By that I mean, it's obsolete, makes no sense, is counterproductive,  stupid and makes the receiver's head hurt without enlightening them.

Unless Daniel Murphy and Ben Zobrist are going to line up against each other across the line of scrimmage, the idea that one of them is a superior second baseman is irrelevant. (Besides that, the AP listed Murphy as the better player. Zobrist produced an .809 OPS and 2 WAR, according to Baseball Reference. Murphy hit for a .770 OPS and 1.4 WAR. Evidently the last six games are more relevant than the entire season, according to them.)

In addition, it weighs each position equally, as if the gaping yaw between Lorenzo Cain and Juan Lagares is equal to the slight edge David Wright has over Mike Moustakas this year.

Then, it examines the starting staffs and adds a point to the team with the superior rotation. Forty percent of the game gets the Mets a credit equal to having a marginally better DH. The same for bullpens, managers and benches. Defense and speed don't seem to get captured at all, except in the player match-ups.

It's all for naught in a short series anyway, but if we're going to read a World Series preview, could it at least make sense?

25 October 2015

The Projector Was Broken: Pre-Season Projections Got Everything Wrong

History will little note, nor long remember, what we say here." -- Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address. Voted worst prediction in history.

In February, we examined the PECOTA projections for MLB 2015. Based on everything the computers could crunch prior to the start of the season, this is how Baseball Prospectus stacked up all the teams for the 2015 season. Remember that the projections can't predict trades and injuries. They can't predict much else, as you'll see.

The projections had Washington, St. Louis and the Dodgers winning the NL divisions with the Mets, Giants, Marlins and Padres competing for the Wild Cards. That's two of three division winners and two of four Wild Card contestants.

PECOTA saw the Cubs, Pirates and Braves as .500 teams. To that we say: ha!

On the other hand, it correctly tabbed Philly, Cincinnati and Colorado as bottom feeders.

In other words, the fancy computers with their gigagoogles knew about as much as you did with your biases and half-baked opinions. Not exactly an endorsement for SABR membership. About the only thing we can say about the projection is that it recognized improvement in Flushing.

It gets worse. In the junior circuit, PECOTA struck out looking on a fastball down the middle. It identified last place Boston and Detroit as division kings and named the Of Anaheims as the best team in the league. Its Wild Card competitors were the woeful Mariners and A's, along with Tampa. In other words, oh-for-six.

PECOTA projected the top teams in the Central -- Kansas City and Minnesota, who finished a combined 32 games over .500 -- as the AL's two worst teams, with a combined 141-183 record. It did the same for Texas and Houston in the West.

That's as stinkin' wrong as you can get.

In the East, PECOTA projected the Blue Jays a couple of games over .500 and the Yankees a couple of games under. About the only thing the projection system nailed was that all the machinations in Chicago still left the White Sox as poseurs.

In other words, all the fancy algorithms don't know squat. A blind squirrel could have picked one of the division winners. This is the very point I made in this post  eight months ago.

It's not that the seamheads are stupid, or have nothing to add to the conversation, or to our understanding of the game, quite the opposite. It's that baseball is a crazy game that no one can predict, project, prognosticate, portend, prophesize, augur, foretell, forecast or in any way anticipate. That's what we love about it.

So let's all, all of us including the great scientific analysts of the horsehide, just take a chill pill and dial down the...um...what's the word...?

24 October 2015

World Series: It's a Tossup

"Predicting the future is easy. Getting it right is the hard part."

Just as you predicted, the Mets and Royals meet for the World Series title. At season's start, projection systems rated the Mets above average. Indeed, Baseball Prospectus's PECOTA system had NY winning the first Wild Card. Alas, it also pegged KC 20 games under .500.

Since those projections were made, each team added some pieces. The Royals nabbed Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist, and over to Flushing went Kelly Johnson, Juan Uribe and most notably Yoenis Cespedes. But they are basically the teams that started the season. Particularly in Kansas City's case, it's hard to argue that their trade deadline pitching acquisition (4-7, 4.76) is responsible for their success.

So if you had this quinella in March, please email me immediately with this week's winning Powerball numbers. One hundred dollars on these two teams to meet in the World Series would have yielded you $78,400. Place your bets!

Which leads to the question, who has the edge? Will this be the first championship for a team since 1985 (Royals over Cards) or 1986 (Mets over Red Sox)?

Who Will Win
The answer, as usual, is, "who knows?" It's a seven-game series. The Phillies took five of seven from the Cubs this year. Whatever else you read here is simply subtext.

That said, the Mets and Royals are both acceptable representatives of their leagues, the Royals because they were the best team wire to wire and the Mets because they took off once Cespedes joined the squad and Matz returned from injury. And Wilmer Flores cried.

The dominant narrative is the Mets' power arms against the Royals' broad skill set and experience. That's a simplification, of course, but it is true that New York is much less balanced then Kansas City. Should any two of the Mets' hurlers stumble, it would likely spell disaster for them. You can't fall behind early against the Royals, especially if Ned Yost has "accidentally" given Ryan Madson the wrong directions to the ballpark.

The Edge Goes To...
Starting rotation is the big edge the Mets have, and much is being made of that. But that would be true of any team against KC because they are purposely constructed backwards on the mound. No team is more lethal than KC if their starters can muddle through two-thirds of the game with a lead. This strategy has worked for two seasons and is particularly effective in the playoffs, given the short leashes starters generally have now. Ignore that at your peril.

One more thing about the Mets' rotation. It is over-rated right now. It is over-rated because its youth and promise account for some of its allure, but the World Series is being played this week. We're all projecting out what deGrom, Harvey, Syndergaard and Matz could be, and the possibilities make us drool (particularly when we recall that Zack Wheeler will join them next year.)  But the Thor who will face Lorenzo Cain had a 3.25 ERA and a susceptibility to gopher balls.

I've debunked much of the home advantage in the playoffs in this post. (Spoiler alert: it comes into play in a seven-game series only if it goes the distance.) But in this particular case, there is a slight edge to Kansas City. No team is woven more snuggly to its home ballpark than the Royals, who value speed and athleticism over pure power in their wide-gapped stadium. Of course, Citi Field is no homer dome either, so some of that small advantage is offset.

There's always talk about it, but there's no evidence that experience is of any value, particularly now that both teams have run the playoff gauntlet. It is worth observing that no deficit appears insurmountable to the Royals, and whether that's a function of team psychology or skill set, it's a good quality to have. 

Rust, on the other hand, is measurably detrimental to playoff teams. The Mets will have spent nearly a week waiting for the Series to begin by the time they get underway Tuesday. Long rest can help an older team with a key player hobbled by injury and a clear ace they would like to line up for three starts. But none of those advantages accrue to the Mets.

Both teams are managed by men who appear to do a great job molding coherent units out of disparate parts. Terry Collins's in-game strategy gets the edge over Ned Yost's because everyone's in-game strategy gets the edge over Ned Yost's. 

Again, absolutely anything can happen on the road to four wins. Noise is just so loud at that level that a few missed notes here or there might not matter. That said, the Royals have some small advantages and I would rate them slightly more likely to win their first World Series in 30 years. Then again, Al Weiss...

16 October 2015

Blue Jays-Royals: Forget the Caricature

If you were drawing a cartoon of the President of the United States of America, you'd give him dumbo ears, a long face with a Rhode Island-sized forehead and a mole that nearly blots out his nose. There's some truth in the caricature, but it's blown out of proportion.

It's easy to fall into the same trap with the Royals-Blue Jays series. You will hear a lot of pitching versus hitting about this match-up. For sure, the Blue Jays were baseball's best team on offense, mashing 232 home runs. And it's true the Royals flash leather, particularly in the outfield, and boast a shutdown bullpen.

But it's a much more nuanced series. For one, these are not the 2014 hitless wonder Royals. That team called three infield singles a rally. This team boasts six above-average starters with the bat and the same basepath scorchers who ran opposing teams ragged last season. Three Royals bopped 20+ home runs.

At the same time, KC's starting rotation is more like five set-up men for the vaunted bullpen. Absent James Shields, last year's ace, its ERA has jumped 30 points.

On the other side of the ledger, the Blue Jays are more than wallbangers. Their moundsmen finished fifth best in the AL, anchored by Cy Young candidate David Price and supported by Marcus Stroman, who posted a 1.67 ERA in 27 frames following return from injury. The bullpen of Roberto Osuna, Aaron Sanchez and Liam Hendricks (Brett Cecil and his sub-one WHIP is on the shelf) gave opponents fits, posting a 137 ERA+.

The real contrast between these two teams, besides the admitted difference in home run power, is the bench. Kansas City's cupboard is largely bare. It contains two defensive replacement/speedsters -- Terrence Gore and Jarrod Dyson, and that's it. As a result, manager Ned Yost simply prints out a pdf of his daily lineup each night. Toronto, by contrast, platoons Chris Colabello and Justin Smoak at first, with the backup on any given night serving as first bench option.

The Royals are more narrowly suited to their home park but the Blue Jays have the superior roster. Both teams have shown grit by snatching defeat from the jaws of victory -- the Royals in Game Three and the Blue Jays in the series. There's no telling which starving fan base gets rewarded with a World Series appearance -- and that's the way we like it.

15 October 2015

How's That Home Field Working For You?

"There's nothing I hate more than nothing. Nothing keeps me up at night. I toss and turn over nothing. Nothing can cause a great big fight." Edie Brickell & New Bohemians, 1988

Oh, that home field advantage! It has catapulted two Wild Cards into the division series and four teams into their League Championship playoffs.

Wait, what's that? It hasn't?
  • Road warriors swept the Wild Card play-ins games.
  • Road teams have captured exactly half the Division Series wins, not counting tonight's Mets-Dodgers finale. If the home nine wins in L.A., the "advantage" will amount to 5% (a 10-9 record or .526 winning percentage), exactly as noted a fortnight ago in this space.
  • Last licks played a role in exactly none of the contests. The team ahead after eight innings won every time.
And while we're inconveniently deflating the long-held myths that have passed for conventional wisdom in baseball, let's examine the myth of the critical first game.

If the Dodgers win their tilt with the Mets tonight, the Game One victor from every series will be watching the League Championship Series on television. Oh-for-four. That's the definition of critical, all right.

Finally, there are those mental calculations people do to predict who will win a series. Specifically, let's look at the ridiculous strategy of comparing pitchers and just assigning the win to the ace.

I calculate that the eight teams in the Division Series would have considered these pitchers aces:
Jacob deGrom - Mets
Clayton Kershaw - Dodgers
Zack Greinke - Dodgers
David Price - Blue Jays
Cole Hamels - Rangers
Jake Arrieta - Cubs
Dallas Keuchel - Astros
Johnny Cueto - Royals

We're having a plumbing problem here. I'm not sure the Cardinals would consider John Lackey their ace and you could make a case for the Cubs' Jon Lester. You could certainly argue against Johnny Cueto, but he was brought to K.C. for just that purpose. So that's three Johns at issue.

Let's see how their teams fared when they pitched:
Cueto - 2-0
Price - 1-1
Keuchel - 1-1
Hamels - 1-1
Kershaw - 1-1
Greinke - 1-0
deGrom - 1-0
Arrieta - 1-0

Greinke and deGrom will split tonight's game, so that's a wash. All told, the team sending its ace to the hill went 10-5. That's superb. It's probably unusual. But in any case, it's hardly automatic. You would love 2-1 odds in your favor for the deciding game, but every third time you would lose.

These are still uselessly small samples. But the point is that when you count something as an automatic, as many people do with the #1 arm, the first game winner and the home team, and it turns out to be a 5% advantage, that's a bit of a myth-buster.

And if you know that's a small sample size, then you know enough to examine a large enough sample -- like playoff games all time. In other words, you examine the facts. And that's when you stop predicting games based on who's got the shorter commute.

14 October 2015

The Head Ball Coach Quit On His Team

Here in South Carolina, the state deemed too small to be a nation and too large to be an insane asylum, we're finally over the cop killing of an unarmed black man, the mass murder of nine parishioners in their church and historic flooding that closed more than 500 roads from Columbia to Charleston.

Those stories ended yesterday when the head ball coach suddenly retired. The University of South Carolina, like a lot of southern colleges, is a football team with a university attached. The main purpose of its alumni is to buy tickets to football games.

Now that Steve Spurrier has stepped down without warning, everyone connected with the state, and with SEC football, has spent the past two days lionizing him and his 10-year tenure at the helm of the Gamecocks.

Undoubtedly, Spurrier has lifted the 'Cocks to new heights, including three straight 11-2 seasons in the brutal SEC, wins over arch-rival Clemson and prestigious bowl victories. He has recruited half a dozen of the 10 best players the team has ever produced,. including Jadeveon Clowney, Connor Shaw and Marcus Lattimore. And he retires with the most coaching wins at what locals sadly call "USC." He put the program on the college football map.

What no one seems to have noticed is that the head ball coach has quit on his team. He said it himself: he's leaving because he was frustrated by the 7-6 showing last year and thought the team would be better than the league cellar-dwellers it appears to be this year. He doesn't like the losing and so he has quit.

Just like that. Middle of the season. No heir apparent. Facing a string of tough SEC games.

Imagine if a player decided to quit on the team because it stunk. What would the sports media, the people of South Carolina and Gamecock nation be saying? He lacks character. He's a quitter. He's immature. I'm pretty sure Steve Spurrier would have had some cutting remarks for a juvenile outburst like that.

Is the inventor of Fun 'n' Gun allowed to act like a crybaby just because he's got a legacy? If the 'Cocks, already dealing with the upheaval on the field and in the classroom, go winless in the conference this year, what does that do to recruiting?

The local newspaper is selling Spurrier's departure as selfless, allowing the anonymous assistant coach who succeeds him (without any chance of succeeding) an opportunity to turn the club around. It's plump with speculation about the next big name coach, proposing that South Carolina could lure Bob Stoops from Oklahoma or Mark D'Antoni from Michigan State. They assert that the 11-2 records that Spurrier engineered three-to-five years ago have set the bar higher and will draw a bigger name.

Only someone who has never been to Columbia, SC and is not paying attention to the current state of the team could make such a lame suggestion, and yet residents of that squalid town are the only ones doing it.

No, Spurrier has dropped the team on its head in the middle of the season. He took his ball and went home. He has left South Carolina football high and dry, even after 18 inches of rain. It's as if everyone is wearing a visor -- and has it pulled down over their eyes.

13 October 2015

...And E-Manager

Following up on yesterday's post about the Utley case, after charging the ump, the replay and the league with errors, today we add Don Mattingly to the party for a grand slam of misjudgments.

When his two-game suspension was announced, Utley promptly appealed, automatically suspending the suspension. Reports asserted that the suits offered Utley a one-game punishment if he'd drop the appeal -- and he took out that offer with a hard slide too.

So with his star second baseman available for duty at Citi Field, where he has hit well, against Matt Harvey, whom he has hit well, manager Don Mattingly sat Utley for Game Three of the series in favor of inferior performers.

While Chase Utley's lawyer was gathering evidence to dismiss the suspension, his manager made it moot by imposing the equivalent of one. And because Stephen Matz, a southpaw, starts Game Four, left-handed hitting Utley will sit again.

Making it, conveniently, a two-game suspension.

So why do we need a hearing?

12 October 2015

E-Ump, E-Replay, E-League

What do you call it when everyone gets every possible decision wrong? A grand slam? Taking the collar? E-ump, E-replay, E-league?

That's the dumpster fire that was Chase Utley's leg-breaking slide into Ruben Tejada at second base in Game 2 of the Mets-Dodgers series.

In case you snuck out of the country for a week to a place without a connection to the rest of the world - let's say you were enjoying North Korea's independence celebrations with that nation's inmates -- here's the rundown: With runners on first and third and one out, Utley slid well wide of second on a grounder behind the bag to bust up a double play.

Under any reading of the rules, the slide was illegal. He wasn't aiming for the base but for the fielder and never came in contact with the bag. He should have been ruled out for interference, irrespective of Tejada's broken fibula.

It was also clearly not malicious. Chase Utley has a 15-year record of hard-nosed but principled play. His efforts helped a run score. He deserves the benefit of the doubt, of which there shouldn't be any.

The ump ruled Utley out on a force, but the replay demonstrated that Tejada, because of his awkward positioning, missed the bag. The anonymous replay umpire from behind the curtain in New York overruled the call but didn't propose interference.

No one seems to know what powers the Great Oz in New York has, but someone should have sent Utley off the field. Indeed, they should have ruled the batter out too, because the illegal slide prevented any attempt at turning two. That would have ended the inning and negated the run.

Then, to compound the mistakes, Joe Torre, now an MLB mucky-muck, suspended Utley for two critical games -- maybe the last two of L.A.'s season. That move implies that Utley committed a purposeful act and gave the Mets ammunition for their cries of "dirty play."

There is no evidence for this decision, but plenty to the contrary. The ump, the replay apparition and the suits all got it wrong. Utley and Howie Kendrick should have been out, the inning should have been over, the run shouldn't have scored. And Utley should have been in the on-deck circle preparing to bat against Matt Harvey in Game 3. Sadly, Tejada's leg is broken either way.

Let's hope the rulings don't have much impact on the outcome of the series.

09 October 2015

The Injustice of the One-Game Play-In

Think about packing a box to send a birthday gift to a friend. It has six sides, all of them solid. We want to fill the box as much as possible to maximize the gift. 

We're going to place stacks of flat objects in the box that nearly fill it. Then we're going to squish some fist-sized items the consistency of bean bags into the box. They can be molded to any shape but they still take up room. We're running out of room, but we can tear open a couple of those bean bags and disperse most of the beads before tying back up the bag and stuffing it inside.

Man, we really want to cram more stuff in there. It's a flat fee for shipping, so the more we get in, the better the value. But the box is groaning at the seams. In fact, some of the bean bags are poking above the fold. We'll tape it up best we can. It's pretty jerry-rigged.

We could just bring the gifts to our friend but it wouldn't be the same. Every year since forever we have been shipping a box of goodies and it's a nice tradition we want to keep. We could send fewer gifts too, but that's another great tradition.

And that is the baseball's dilemma in a nutshell, or a box.

Baseball is stuck on a 162-game schedule because it's been that way for 54 years. There's nothing magic about 162 games; in fact, with the elimination of double-headers, they don't really fit between harvests in Northern climes with the populations to support Major League teams. They shouldn't be playing baseball in New York, Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Detroit, Milwaukee or plenty of other MLB cities in early April or October, particularly at night. But they must. A more sensible 140-game schedule is a non-starter, like Republicans acknowledging that they don't understand science.

So the season spans the months that can barely support a warm-weather sport, and then the playoffs begin and stretch into November, at night, often in places whose winters are debuting. World Series games in those cities are deplorable nonsense. The box is stretched beyond its limit.

Beyond that, baseball has encountered another conundrum. Fans turn tail when their home nine is eliminated in August. It makes for a soul-crushing season and induces them to turn their attention to their alma mater's minor league football team. With the number of baseball teams doubling since 1960, they want more opportunities to get into the post-season tournament. We need to fit ever more into the box.

But the game reveals itself only through the long slog of the season. Any cellar dweller can rattle off a week's worth of wins; any pennant contender can slip up over half-a-fortnight. The tournament, though sometimes enthralling, has lost its ability to determine the "best" team. It merely asserts a champion, whose crown fetches diminishing amounts on ebay.

For the first 68 years of the previous century, the two league winners competed unencumbered by "playoffs" for the World Series crown, with the victor reasonably claiming superiority over all. For another couple of decades, the league split into divisions and each World Series team was forced to defeat its foe from across the Mississippi to earn a slot in the championship. That led to some questionable World Series opponents, but still, they had won a segment of the marathon.

And then the Wild Card, and the playoffs devolved into a series of coin flips. So the regular season is more thrilling but the race to the championship is dishwater. The last teams in are winning the tournament with disturbing regularity. Moreover, the post-season has begun to tear the sides of the box.

To counteract the playoff success of the Wild Card, MLB gave it a twin and ordered a sudden-death play-in. Even more value to the fans and a sense of advantage to the division winners. Alas, the box cannot expand any more. 

There is time for but one game, a winner-take-all. It's that last bean bag, drained of most of its beads. The drama builds but the fairness declines.

After the 98-win Pirates succumbed to Jake Arrieta Wednesday night, voices rose again about extending the play-in to at least three games. But the calendar is inflexible. And so Baseball is pushing up against all six sides of the box. It wants more games than the calendar will hold. It wants more teams in the playoffs but that dilutes the championship. Short playoff series accommodate the seasons but eliminate the best teams more often. Longer series present the opposite dilemma.

The center cannot hold. Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world

And under-girding the entire enterprise is the constant drumbeat of economics, which is never satisfied with too much and must always demand more, more, more. And so the box is splitting and the sensible course of action -- remove some of the contents -- cannot be considered. 

That is the injustice of the one-game play-in. And it is not going away.

08 October 2015

Who *Doesn't* Win the NL Cy Young?

If you were Dr. Frankenhurler and conspired to design the next Cy Young winner you would assemble a creature who could eat innings, keep the ball in the park, miss bats, carve up the strike zone, suppress plate crossings and stand tallest when the pressure mounted.

Your monster would be named Jake Arrieta.

I mean Zack Greinke.

Oh Lord. We only have room for one of them. And we haven't even mentioned Clayton Kershaw.

It looks this year like Dr. Frankenhurler used the same template twice. One of these guys is Cy Winner 1.0 and the other 1.1.

Arrieta (22-6, 1.77) and Greinke (19-3, 1.66) both posted cartoon numbers with laser command and a cornucopia of offerings. Each topped 220 innings. Each fanned at least 200 and walked fewer than 50. Both benefited from defense and luck about equally; both are freakish specimens even without serendipity's side effects.

Each spells his first name with four letters and his last with seven, including three vowels. Freaky similar.

Their "Deserved Run Average," a complicated computation that accounts for everything the geeks can think of and weighs most heavily the components of good pitching rather than the results, favors Greinke, 2.17 - 2.31.

That's the difference of one run every 63 innings.

The trajectory of the two pitchers' years provide the greatest contrast: Greinke the model of consistency, Arrieta the charging bull. By now you've heard that Arrieta allowed four runs after the All-Star break. (That includes one complete game play-in, which doesn't count in the voting.) Batters hit .136 and slugged .172 against him in August and September, because he allowed two doubles, a triple and a homer. In two months of work.

Greinke is defined by his worst month, August, during which he went 4-1, 2.45, allowed a .325 SLG and whiffed six times as many batters as he walked. That was the bad month.

Cy Young voters will be swayed by which shiny object most appeals to them, the big kick or the steady speed. The overall numbers tilt ever so slightly to the Dodger, as if the inventor made one small tweak in the form between creations. But one of these guys won't win the award, and we'll shake our heads and wonder what more the good tinkerer could have done.

07 October 2015

It's Mike Trout and It's Not That Close

For the fourth consecutive year -- indeed, for the only four years of his career -- Mike Trout will finish in the top two in the MVP race. Also for the fourth time, he should finish first, ahead of a star with bigger traditional numbers. And for the third time, he might finish second.

Josh Donaldson has produced a monster season for the Blue Jays, hitting .298 with 41 homers and a league-leading 123 RBI. He's scored a league-pacing 122 runs too. His OBP-SLG of .373/.571 places him second in the AL in OPS.

Behind Mike Trout, whose .299-41-90 with 104 runs scored and a .400-.588 OBP-SLG gives him 44 points more of OPS.

Here's the comparison, with league-leading numbers in bold.
Trout            .299-41-90   104R .402/.590/.992 176 OPS+ .353 TAv
Donaldson  .297-41-123 122R .370/.569/.939 155 OPS+ .323 TAv

In other words, Donaldson leads in team events because he bats in the middle of that historically-potent Blue Jays lineup. Trout leads in measures of individual excellence.

Both are superb base runners who have not applied that to base stealing. Donaldson has swiped all six of his attempts. Trout, once a 40-steal guy, is just 11 of 18. That's a ding against Trout.

Both light up the web gems highlight reel. Donaldson is generally considered even more special at his position than Trout is at his, but Trout plays the more critical CF to Donaldson's hot corner.

Factoring in their ballparks and strength of opposing pitchers, Trout has produced 8.7 offensive wins for his team, 13% more than Donaldson's 7.7, according to Baseball Reference. Baseball Prospectus has the gap even wider, and rates Trout the better fielder too.

Sentiment had shifted toward Donaldson as he and Toronto heated up while Trout and the Of Anaheims cooled in August. But the tables turned some in September/October as Trout humped it up and his team hung in the playoff race until the last day. Of course, the performance of his teammates should be of no consequence to a player's MVP candidacy: it's not up to him whether the nine wins he adds are wins 71-79 or wins 87-95.

So a voter could cast his vote for Josh Donaldson for 2015 AL MVP and that would be a perfectly reasonable choice. No one could argue that Donaldson didn't deserve it for the quantum leap he's taken this year following his shocking trade from Oakland. It's just that Trout is clearly the better candidate, not by a significant margin, but by enough that everyone ought to recognize it.