05 February 2016

Big Free Agent Deals Don't Equal Pennants

Now that the hot stove has cooled, it's tempting to review off-season winners and losers by the yardstick of big free-agent signings and high-salary acquisitions. Not only is that demonstrably the wrong lens through which to analyze the off-season, the off-season isn't much of a precursor to the season itself.

Consider who was active last winter. The White Sox brought in Jeff Samardzija, Adam LaRoche and Melky Cabrera, and nonetheless posted another losing record. Miami acquired Dee Gordon, Dan Haren and Mat Latos -- and sputtered to a sub-.500 finish. And most significantly, the Red Sox inked deals with Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez, who turned in two of the worst performances in the Majors, consigning Boston to last place.

Once again, New Englanders are tantalized by the upcoming season with David Price anchoring the rotation, particularly during an off-season in which the Yankees uncharacteristically stayed put. It seems far more likely that the Sox will succeed in 2016 because of the relative pittance they pay Xander Bogarts, Mookie Betts and Jackie Bradley than the giant contract Price commands.

The Trout Effect
Indeed, the value of big payrolls is measurably declining, and not just anecdotally because the Royals and Mets squared off in the World Series and only two of the 90-win teams were Top Ten in payroll (with Texas 10th.). In 2009, there was a 47% correlation between payroll and wins; that was down to 21% last year. Large payrolls allow franchises to withstand one bad deal but they are decreasingly relevant otherwise.

One big reason for that is the disconnect between the way players age and the way they are paid. Many athletes -- think Ken Griffey Jr., Albert Pujols and Mike Trout -- peak in their first few years. After 30, they decline rapidly. Griffey is a first ballot HOFer despite averaging 19 homers and a .260 batting average after age 30.

Players are salary-constrained their first six full seasons. That means most regulars won't reach free agency until at least 29 -- Trout will be an exception -- right about the time their performance begins tailing off. Most free agent signings are rearview mirror deals.

Damn the Torpedoes!
In this intriguing recap of the hot stove period, Sports On Earth's Anthony Castrovince lauds those clubs that stayed the course, even when the course did not involve free agent adventures. As the Blue Jays demonstrated in 2015, sometimes allowing a good roster to just play is the best strategy.

Last season, only three of the 30 best players joined their teams via free agency. It's likely that the best players in baseball in 2016 will be the likes of Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Carlos Correia, Manny Machado, Clayton Kershaw and their ilk, not Jason Heyward or Wei-Yin Chen, whose net worth increased nearly $300 million combined this winter.




19 January 2016

The Braves Won the Trade and Lost the Season

Of all the moves consummated so far this off-season, one of the most intriguing involves the Braves and Diamondbacks, in which the D-backs get an orange in exchange for some shiny rocks.

That is, Arizona knows what its end of the deal brings: Shelby Miller and a Single-A pitching prospect, which is to say, Shelby Miller. The 25-year-old righty enters his fourth season cost-controlled with a 3.22 lifetime ERA. If your immediate aim is a pennant, which is the profile of a team that signs Zack Greinke to a fat contract, Miller is a find.

Atlanta, by dealing Miller, is telling us what we already suspected: damn the torpedoes; full speed ahead to 2018. That's the year after the franchise basks in the fresh bloom of a new stadium in a new town.

So the Braves cashed in Miller for a haul of youthful talent. First, there's Ender Inciarte, also 25, who is all batting average, speed and outfield defense. Atlanta's young pitchers will appreciate his glove behind them in the field, not so much the lack of run support he'll contribute to.

Promising Triple-A hurler, 24-year-old Aaron Blair, might be one of those pitchers soon. Low strikeout totals belie low ERAs in high scoring environments. A good addition to a rebuilding club.

Then there's homeboy Dansby Swanson, the shiniest object in the bag. A shortstop out of Vanderbilt selected with the #1 pick in last year's amateur draft, he did nothing to diminish his status as a 21-year-old in Single-A. If your eye is on a distant horizon, the most recent #1 pick is a nice prize.

So the Braves relinquished their second-best starter, but got back a good defensive outfielder, a pitching prospect and a potential star at middle infield. It's the riskier side of the equation and its payoff will take a couple of years, but the likelihood is the scales will tip their way in the long run. That's the side you want to be on if you're not concerned about the present.

17 January 2016

How in God's Name Do Hail Marys Work?

For the fourth time this season, I witnessed a game tying or winning Hail Mary throw into the end zone yesterday in the Packers-Cardinals game. Down seven with five seconds left, Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers scrambled away from a withering Arizona rush and flung the ball past the goal line, as everyone on the field, in the stands and watching across the world knew he would.

It's as if God hears a Hail Mary and answers the prayer of the hopeless cause. Maybe the throw should be called a St. Jude. Though, honestly, Mother Mary's results are astonishing.

The gentlemen defending on this play are the globe's greatest American football players. They are athletic freaks in size, strength, speed and agility. They are experienced in the art of defending against the pass. One of the offending defenders, Patrick Peterson, is an All-Pro, which is to say he is among the six or eight greatest pass defenders on Planet Earth.

And yet neither he nor his compatriots can figure out how to knock down this up-for-grabs heave.

I am completely at a loss over how this happens. I am unathletic and middle-aged; I stand 5'9" 160 pounds. I haven't defended a pass in two decades. And yet I know how to prevent a receiver from catching a rainbow. Just get in the way!

In this particular case, Packer receiver Jeff Janis slid in front of the defenders as the ball began its ascent from Rodgers's hand, 41 yards downfield. I could see he was going to catch the ball as soon as the camera panned to the goal line scrum. There was plenty of time for Peterson or Rashad Johnson to slide in front of him. What they did instead, was a colossal, epic, jaw-dropping fail.

And it's becoming pretty common.

So, I implore you, dear reader: leave a comment, explaining how this desperation measure entirely absent a strategy, ever works. Any theory you've got is a step up from my current state of bewilderment.

10 January 2016

Why Ben Roethlisberger Is An Asshole

Tracy Wolfson is a professional sports journalist, a knowledgeable sideline reporter with 10 years of experience, a wife and a mother of three sons. None of these descriptions are themselves reasons that she deserves respect.

Following the Bengals' epic collapse of composure against the Steelers in the Wild Card game yesterday, Wolfson asked Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger how his shoulder felt. Rothlisberger had been carted off the field after absorbing a big hit and returned to the game to lead his team on the winning drive seemingly absent the ability to throw downfield.

Evidently Roethlisberger didn't want to linger on the role his injury played in the game. He could have dismissed the question respectfully by saying his shoulder wasn't an issue or it felt good enough to play or he didn't want his injuries to diminish the team's achievement. Instead he said, on national TV, in different words and with a smile, fuck you, Tracy.

It actually sounded more like "I'm just glad we won." Tomato tomahto. It amounted to a disrespectful non-answer. If you invited your neighbor over your house and asked him or her about their ailing shoulder and they said "I'm just glad it's sunny today," you'd wonder what their problem was.

The answer didn't shock me, but her response did. Instead of pressing the question and at least demanding a respectful answer, she let him off the hook. "Why did I know that was going to be your answer?" is what she said.

Here's why, Tracy: because you've let him get away with this condescension before. Stand up for yourself!

A benign question and benign, rambling, cliche-ridden response later, Wolfson tried again, querying whether the shoulder would be ready for the next playoff game. Again, Roethlisberger could have said he'd be ready regardless, or they'd find out that week or simply that his shoulder was fine. Instead, he chose to repeat the first non-answer. That is, he chose to be a patronizing asshole, on national TV, one more time.

It seems that Bill Belicheck has made it fashionable to disdain reporters who are doing their job and asking reasonable, fair, even easy questions. Gregg Popovich is now lauded for treating interviewers like pond scum for no reason. I would like to see a reporter demand of him, in front of a live national audience, why he feels it's necessary to belittle the interviewer.

Of course, the real problem is that the networks interview these guys at all. When I was a reporter, if someone was a lousy interview, I wouldn't look to them for quotes. If Belicheck, Popovich and Rothlisberger can't be civil and respectful, find other people to interview. Everyone will be happier.

I worked as a radio reporter in one town that was having big issues with its water system. The town supervisor would purposely lower his voice or mumble when the questions got tough, so that I couldn't use those answers in my stories. As a result, I stopped calling him and instead sought out more critical voices. When he asked me why I didn't talk to him, I described why it was his own fault. We agreed that I would give him another chance and when I did he answered my questions directly.

It turns out that Roethlisberger may have a separated shoulder and miss the divisional round game against Denver. I wonder how smug he feels now that he can't insult Tracy Wolfson about it.

05 January 2016

A Fan's Identity Crisis

In 1993, following the death of Ewing Kaufman and eight years after the Kansas City Royals' only World Series championship (to that point), David Glass took the reins of the franchise. At that point, I had been a diehard Royals fan, despite growing up 1200 miles away, for 23 years. I attended the 1976 playoffs at Yankee Stadium and died a little inside when Chris Chambliss belted a ninth-inning, game-seven home run to foreclose the Royals' World Series aspiration.

Though I had never been to the state of Missouri, I followed my team and clung to my idolatry despite a string of losing seasons, because that's what a fan does.

Glass, former CEO and board chair at WalMart, was not so much a fan. Glass was a businessman who had made a career racing to the retail bottom. He deduced that a similar strategy would work in Major League Baseball, as long as he defined "worked" as "made a profit."

So Glass bled the franchise, secure in the knowledge that fans -- short for fanatics -- would continue to buy tickets and watch games on TV, not only because fanatics are fanatical but also because every game featured an opponent who might be worth watching. If the buying public wasn't interested in purchasing a ticket to see Mike Macfarlane and Hipolito Pichardo, a sufficient percentage of it would pay to see Mo Vaughn, Jim Thome, Roger Clemens and Cal Ripken.

Here's the Wikipedia entry extolling Glass' early "accomplishments" as owner:

Under Glass' leadership, the board cut the payroll budget from $41 million to $19 million. During the Major League Baseball strike of 1994-1995, Glass opposed any settlement with the players' union without a salary cap, and supported the use of strike breaking "replacement" players, despite a court ruling that the use of replacement players violated federal labor law

Lovely. So my favorite team was being guided by a Neandethal who cared not one whit about his team's place in the standings.

Letting Go of My Team
As you might imagine, my fanhood waned in the '90s, both because I grew other interests and because my team was literally a lost cause. By the early 2000s I had largely stopped following the Royals, who had not been competitive for 23 years and had no prospects of improving upon that record.

Indeed, despite the hiring of Dayton Moore as GM from the successful Atlanta franchise, KC had little to show for a string of high draft picks -- among Alex Gordon, Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, Luke Hochevar and Billy Butler, only Gordon had performed as advertised. When they hired Ned Yost, a dinosaur manager who disdained new and improved baseball analytics, I scoffed. It occurred to me that not only was KC a pathetic shell of an organization, its mission was at odds with my fandom.

So in 2005, when the Montreal Expos moved to Washington, I seized upon the opportunity to attach myself to a new team. Living by then in Charleston SC, I was a lot closer to the District of Columbia than to Kansas City, and I could begin anew with a franchise whose long-term goal of a championship justified the lean times early on. And indeed, early investments paved the way for a pennant contender by 2012.

Falling Back In Love With My Ex
And then a funny thing happened in Kansas City. Moore's new strategy of signing glove-first, high-contact players for his spacious ballpark, combined with a pitching rotation built from back to front, began paying dividends. The Royals won 86-89-95 games the last three years, earning two playoff berths and winning a World Series title with thrilling never-say-die performances. The Little Engine That Could is eminently rootable.

Meanwhile, despite a pile of talent, the Nationals have stumbled the last few years, unable to win a single playoff series. Their stars can be cantankerous and their new ballpark is a junk pile. My head says I'm a fan but my heart is not with the program.

What's a boy to do?  I don't have a favorite football, basketball or hockey team. Being a Royals fan, and later a Nats fan, has been part of my identity, and now I seem to be suffering from a split personality. In a baseball sense, I'm bipolar. It seems clear to me that a fan divided against himself can't stand, but if I return to my childhood crush it would require divorcing my current partner, to whom I have promised fidelity, til death do we part.

I am vexed. I must choose by Opening Day. Stay tuned, or help.

03 January 2016

MLB Demonstrates the Uselessness of Projection Systems

Major League Baseball is touting today the Steamer baseball projections for 2016. Steamer is one of several Sabermetric projection systems -- including Fangraphs' ZIPS, Baseball Prospectus's PECOTA and the Hardball Times' Oliver -- that offer a crystal ball of sorts on future player and team performance.

These systems generally work the same way, projecting the accomplishments of players by comparing their careers to similar players in history, averaging the performances of those similar players in their next season and adjusting that to the player in question.

The MLB.com story is not a particularly interesting read. It projects that Miguel Cabrera will win another batting title, Clayton Kershaw will again top the pitching charts and Giancarlo Stanton will once more outslug the field. 

Shocking.

This is what you get with projection systems, which have no ability to predict the unpredictable. The 2015 accomplishments of Jake Arrieta, Dee Gordon, AJ Pollock, Dallas Keuchel, the Kansas City Royals and New York Mets were no less a mystery to these projection systems than to you.

They also have no ability to predict outlying performances. They will never project any player will slam 58 home runs, bat .360 or accrue 21 pitching wins unless he has done that regularly in the past. 

Moreover, Steamer does not attempt to project playing time, so even though Stanton has missed 40 games a season in his career, the projection assumes he plays 150 games. (Some of these systems do take playing time into account, which means they are wildly wrong slightly less often.)

These systems gave us the Angels, Dodgers and Nationals as baseball's best teams in 2015. They got the AL East and West almost exactly wrong. They offer some mild insights that can be almost completely encapsulated in 13 simple rules.

So don't bother reading the article. (Read this one about Statcast instead.) And let's just enjoy the raging unpredictability of the game that served us so well last year.

30 December 2015

What's Wrong With HGH?

The recent kerfuffle over Peyton Manning reportedly -- but not convincingly so, at least not yet -- using human growth hormone (HGH) to recover from the serious neck injury that sidelined him for all of 2011 is a trenchant reminder that most folks don't understand why athletes in professional sports are prohibited from using steroids and other drugs.

Contrary to popular opinion, the problem with steroids, HGH and their cousins is not that they are "performance enhancing." There's nothing wrong, or new, with athletes consuming substances to improve their performance. Orange juice, lean meat, ibuprofen and caffeine are all "performance enhancing," and yet no one is suggesting that they be banned, or that athletes who consumed these substances be blackballed.

There's nothing inherently wrong with an injured athlete taking HGH to recover faster. Who could blame him? It's not "cheating" others or gaining an unfair advantage to recover faster from an injury.

The problem with steroids, HGH and their ilk is that they can do serious damage to the human body (and mind) -- up to and including death -- with long-term use. Fearful that young athletes would choose the short-term benefits over the long-term ravages, government banned their use, and many governing bodies in sports followed.

The unfair advantage comes into play when athletes decide nonetheless to take potentially harmful substances that others are dutifully avoiding. It also creates a strong incentive in others to use those "performance enhancers" to keep up. 

This is exactly the story attached to Barry Bonds' descent into steroid use: the best baseball player in the world, he resented the adulation that steroid-enhanced Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa received with their prodigious home run counts in 1998. To reclaim his crown, he launched his own steroid adventure.

The new question, of course, is whether a regimen of steroid use carefully monitored by a physician is indeed harmful to long-term health. We appear now to have a large number of professional athletes who have dabbled in the dark arts without any new Lyle Alzado or Ken Caminiti stories. There may come a time -- we might already be there -- when steroid use should be allowed under a doctor's care.

That would raise new issues involving role models and under-age athletes, issues beyond the point of this discussion. The point is that the use of "performance enhancing drugs," in and of themselves, is neither unusual nor unfair.

27 December 2015

Top Sports Hypocricies of 2015

Major college and professional sports are presented to us by the leagues, the schools and their broadcast partners as noble competitions that distinguish the emotionally tough from the emotionally indomitable. While that is often an element of the games, what characterizes every single major sports contest is the pursuit of money, and ever more of it.

Money underlies the raging hypocrisies that gird our most popular sports today. Let's look at the big one:

1. The NCAA -- A fraud wrapped in a lie engulfed in a sham. The so-called "student athletes" competing in major college football and basketball are often functionally illiterate young men forced to support their sponsors' lies about high school "graduations" and  class "attendance" at major American research universities-- until the moment they are released to seek recompense for their labors. Everyone involved in the games -- except the NCAA, of course -- refers to their trade in work terms, such as coaches demanding that players "do their jobs." For this, athletes from low-income families not only get nothing of value (a university education is worthless to someone at a fifth-grade reading level) but are prohibited from earning income by working side jobs. Heck, they can't even get a free ride home from a coach or a fan.

2. The NFL and domestic violence -- Beat your girlfriend mercilessly behind closed doors; serve a short suspension and then sign a lucrative contract. Punch your now-wife once on video and earn the endless enmity of humankind, not to mention an effective lifetime ban from the game. And how about the NFL puking all over itself on the issue, initially all-but dismissing the incident, then over-reacting and violating the policy it had literally just written.

3. Hoopla about the NBA (and NHL, among those who care) regular seasons -- which are as meaningful as clown candidate policy pronouncements. Here are the conference playoff seedings of the last seven Stanley Cup Champions -- 4-6-1-8-3-2-4. Media coverage of these games would have you believe that teams are straining to win every contest down the stretch for the highest seed possible, when in fact they are trying to avoid strains so that their players are healthy for the two-month marathon that actually determines the champion.

4. The brainless patriotism attending the Olympics, World Cup, Rider Cup and Davis Cup -- Nothing swells our USA pride like millionaire professionals from the States defeating amateur Angolan hoopsters. Take that, ISIS!

5. Our varied responses to cheating in different sports -- In NASCAR, if you ain't cheatin', you ain't tryin'. That was the credo of the most beloved driver ever. In football, we could hardly care less who's juicing. In basketball there's an overt understanding that the rules are more lenient for big stars. But in baseball, the Wrath of God is unleashed upon those who take substances that make them better players.

6. Gambling laws -- After 30+ years of asking, I have yet to hear a coherent, much less convincing, argument supporting the prohibition. It's particularly indefensible that the laws are so gauzy that gambling is actually quite encouraged by law, except when it's not.

7.The anti-geek crowd -- Employing mostly red herring arguments, they dismiss the advances made to baseball analysis that have been adopted by every Major League organization and rely instead on old stats they're comfortable with but were discredited nearly 40 years ago.

8. The geek crowd -- Make no mistake, there's plenty of culpability on that side of the ledger too.The stat guys are starting to learn the algorithm for humility and it's about time. Their differential equations offer a 5% edge in a game where swings come in 20% packages.

25 December 2015

All I Want for Christmas

Ah Christmas, that joyous time of year when we celebrate freezing precipitation and a fat toymaker in a red suit and a caribou with a glowing proboscis and the loss of our grandmother in a speeding sled accident.

And a seasonal egg-based beverage, and hanging twigs and berries, and parties celebrating Christmas but specifically not called Christmas parties, and the minor league football playoffs, and a Wonderful Jimmy Stewart movie, and the singing of festive old chestnuts.

And the unconscious consumer orgy that fuels our great American economy and has now risen to the level of buying our loved ones luxury automobiles with ribbons on them. 

Also, I understand there's a religious holiday somewhere in there that celebrates the birth of someone who evidence suggests was born in July.

I don't ask for much for Christmas. The Onion calendar. some new sweat socks and a Padres-Mariners World Series.

But if the gods can't make that happen, how about some of these baseball-related requests:

1. Some joy in Mudville -- a World Series pitting teams that haven't won anything in a while. Keep the Yankees, Red Sox, Giants and Cardinals out of it. Give the fan bases that have never enjoyed a baseball championship in Tampa, Seattle, Dallas, Houston and Denver a chance for a parade. 

Include long-suffering fans in Chicago's North Side, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Detroit, Oakland, L.A., Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Minneapolis, Toronto, Atlanta and Queens -- all of whom have waited at least 20 years for a title. I'd even settle for victory in cities that have a recent championship, but nothing else. That would add Anaheim, Chicago's South Side, Philadelphia and Phoenix.

What I'm really saying is, the smaller the financial gap between franchises, the more competitive balance, the better.

2. A laxative -- some common sense rules to move things along. Like limiting pitching changes, throws to first, and stepping out of the box. And where the rules already exist, enforce them. Baseball is entertainment.

3. Hal behind the plate -- a computer calling balls and strikes. The technology now exists to get every ball/strike call correct. Why muck around with the Odyssey of umpires who are fooled a dozen times-a-game by moving pitches and catcher framing? 

4. The Andrea True Connection -- More! More! More baseball on computers. Ditch the non-competes and allow us to watch all the playoff games on MLB.TV.

5. Trout fishing -- More great young talent like Mike Trout and Bryce Harper. It's awesome to see players who stack up with the greatest of all time.

6. A curfew -- arrange things so we finish the World Series by mid-October, before the snow flies on the most important games of the season. They have these new things called double-headers.

7. Global warming -- while we're at it, arrange the early schedule so games are played in good weather cities and domes. Early April is too cold for baseball north of the Mason-Dixon line.

8. A bust -- for Pete Rose, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire, Jeff Bagwell, Mike Piazza, Ivan Rodriguez and every other all-time great who is or might be tainted by steroid use. Put them in the Hall of Fame, warts and all, not for their sake, but for the Hall of Fame's sake. 

9. A license to ill -- Require anyone requesting press credentials to have completed a course and passed a test on baseball's new analysis. Now that we're approaching 37 years since Bill James debunked the traditional accounting -- BA, HR, RBI, RS, W-L -- everyone covering the sport should understand why Alex Gordon (.271-13-48) is as valuable as David Ortiz (.273-37-108).  

10. Peace on Earth. So I'll settle for Padres-Mariners.

23 December 2015

The Pete Rose Conundrum Is Really Kind of Simple

I'm not the least bit sympathetic to Pete Rose for his continuing ban from baseball, are you? The guy is an inveterate liar and a bit of a dope. He's frittered away numerous kotowing opportunities to the lords of the game that could have polished his reformation credentials.

Besides that, what do I care if he's allowed to serve as a hitting instructor or a first base coach? That's really a Pete Rose problem.

Here's what I do care about: I care about a baseball Hall of Fame that doesn't include the all-time hits leader. That's a bit of a travesty.

Here are some more bits: the Hall of Fame apparently will close its doors to the all-time home run king and the best pitcher of his generation. We appear to be destined to a Hall absent one of MLB's greatest infielders, who has not yet retired. For years the Hall has turned a blind eye to one of the best players of the early 20th century. 

Instead we have Phil Rizzuto and Lloyd Waner.

Having lived down the road from the Hall for 18 years; having made a tradition of annual Hejiras to Cooperstown every Opening Day, where we would hop the fence at Doubleday Field and throw a ball around (it snowed on us once); I want the museum to mean something. I want enshrinement of the game's best, not its nicest or most moral. 

MLB can screw Pete Rose, but I wish it would quit screwing you and me, and this year, new commissioner Rob Manfred made it clear that he is not interested in that responsibility. He announced -- I read it as a suggestion -- that the Hall of Fame could make its own decisions about Rose independent of his decision to maintain the ban.

So here's your chance, proprietors of the realm: disconnect Hall votes from MLB policy and let the voters decide whether Rose and his clay feet belong next to a string of vicious racists (Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker and Kennesaw Mountain Landis, to name three), proven cheaters (Gaylord Perry) and serial adulterers (most notably Wade Boggs).

And voters, don't forget that it's not just about Pete Rose (or Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens, or Alex Rodriguez someday.) Electing them to the Hall of Fame isn't just an honor for them. It's about honoring the baseball fans who remember how Rose stole our hearts with his unprecedented hustle, how Clemens mowed down professional hitters, how ARod played the greatest shortstop we'd ever seen and how Bonds dominated the game like no one who ever played.

19 December 2015

Are We In A New Era of Baseball?

Remember the 2000s, which began with Barry Bonds decapitating the record books and the Yankees winning their third straight World Series, and ended with Barry Bonds decapitating the record books and the Yankees winning the World Series? 

Ah, those were the days. Chicks dug the long ball and there was plenty to dig. Thirty-four players smashed 30+ home runs in 2006, including renowned sluggers Joe Crede, Bill Hall and Nick Swisher; just 20 hitters tallied 30 this past season. League average OPS for that year was 47 points higher; teams averaged 100 more runs.

Since 2010, the worm has begun to turn. The Giants, Royals, Cardinals, Red Sox, Mets, Tigers and Rangers have played in the World Series since 2010. The Yankees missed the playoffs the last three years.

In 2010, runs, hits, doubles per game all dropped to their lowest levels in years, and all have stayed low. The walk rate dropped below 1968's level in 2011 and hasn't bounced back. The new strikeout record was first set in 2008 at 6.8 per nine innings and has steadily risen to 7.8 in 2015. Baseball's ERA fell below 4.00 in 2011 and has remained below all but one of the last five years. 

It appears we are in a new era of baseball. The Steroid Era, The Longball Era, The Era of Offense -- whatever you want to call it, it's officially over. Many cynics believe that testing for steroids has made the difference, but there seem to be other factors as well. Consider these events since 2012:

1. The transition in the Commissioner's office from Bud Selig to Rob Manfred
2. The new CBA kicking in, with its changes to the amateur draft and to free agency
3. The emergence of the Pirates, Royals, Astros, Mets and Cubs as competitive franchises, and the decline of the Red Sox, Tigers, Phillies, and (to a lesser extent) Yankees
4. The A-Rod and Ryan Braun suspensions
5. The wave of front office changes, which have dimished the importance of the traditional "GM" role - as teams like the Dodgers, Cubs, Blue Jays, etc. bring in big names with titles like Director of Baseball Operations while still keeping a GM
6. The arrival of the next generation of superstars: Trout, Harper, Bryant, Machado, Correa, Sano
7. Increasing use of defensive shifts

I'm not sure the significance -- if any. Eras come and go. Whatever era you grew up during is the best to you, though it seems pretty clear to me that the 50s was an awful time to be a baseball fan, particularly if you didn't live in New York. A New York team won eight of the 10 World Series during that decade (and one of the other two was the Dodgers, who had just moved to L.A.) and made 14 of the 20 appearances. Unless you lived in Milwaukee, Chicago, Cleveland or Philadelphia, your team failed to appear in the playoffs even once, and no American League team other than the pinstripes won a championship. (The Yankees played in the World Series every year from 1960-'64, for added insult.)

We might look back on this as the Trout-Harper era, or maybe the return to normalcy.


17 December 2015

In Defense of the Player Opt-Out

If, after year three of his nine-year, $205 million contract with the New York Yankees, CC Sabathia had cashed in his opt-out clause at the age of 30, having accumulated Top 5 Cy Young finishes in each of the previous six seasons, would the deal have worked out poorly for the Yankees? 

They would have paid him $63 million for 18.3 WAR, well below market rate, and enjoyed the fruits of the top-of-the-rotation workhorse they wanted when they inked the deal. Sabathia, riding a wave of great performance and still young enough to command wagon-loads of legal tender, would have been wise to latch on elsewhere for more than the $142 million owed to him.

And he would have saved New York a big sunk cost. In the four seasons since the imagined opt out, his ERA has ballooned to 4.01, 5.20, 6.07 and 4.95, earning just 3.6 wins over four years and showing the decrepitude that comes with turning 34 while your waistline turns 50. The pinstripes still owe him $50 million for his age-35 and 36 seasons, neither of which figures to be pretty.

Player Options In the News
The question of player opt-outs has come to the fore after several recent signings in which players have won early opt-outs as signing sweeteners. The Giants threw in an opt-out after just two seasons of Johnny Cueto's six-year, $130 million deal. That would seem to put the 29-year-old hurler in the primo position of seeking further riches after impressing while he's still young.

But what's good for one side isn't necessarily bad for the other. Unless the contract is heavily front-loaded, the team can prosper when the player finds another suitor. Should Cueto continue his NL mastery in 2016 and 2017, the Giants would have enjoyed those two seasons at market prices and let some greater fool pay for Cueto's age 37 season.

Don't Clubs Assume All the Risk With Player Options?
It's been pointed out that players accept the guaranteed money only when poor performance (or injuries) inhibit their ability to command more on the open market, leaving the original signing team holding the bloated contract. But that's the contract the team would have signed anyway, opt-out or not. Most of these deals figure to diminish in value each marginal year, meaning an opt-out might be a gift from heaven. (I'd like the Cueto opt-out significantly better for the Giants if it came a year later. He figures to still be plenty effective at 31.)

There's an opportunity cost when the player leaves -- i.e., the team has to replace the ace with someone else, and if he's similar quality to the guy leaving, he'll cost a bundle too. But players opting out of free agent contracts are almost by definition entering their dotage (Cueto will be unusually young when his option kicks in), while the replacement, even another free agent recruit, can be several key years younger.

The Contrary Case of Zack Greinke
The Dodgers can't be thrilled that Zack Greinke exercised his option to bolt after three awesome seasons of 51-15, 2.48 for the stacks of Benjamins offered by the division rival Diamondbacks. Greinke increased his annual haul by millions and L.A. is back down to one mound ace. But we'll see how it works out for Arizona at $34 million/year as Greinke ages. Past results do not guarantee future performance, especially in the fickle sport of 162 game seasons.

If player options mean that teams are in effect signing free agents to just a few good years and then watching them depart, well, that might not break many GM hearts. It's not the optimal scenario certainly, because the disaster signings will hang around to fester. But if it gets your team the big star in the first place, it might be a small price to pay, smaller even than paying mega-millions for former superstars in their sub-replacement age 37 seasons.

15 December 2015

The Royals Have Sparked A Trend, But Not the One You Think

In mid-October, the 86-win Houston Astros held a four-run lead with six outs until the victory that would catapult them into the AL League Champion Series by a three games-to-one margin and send home the over-achieving Kansas City Royals. 

But KC roared back with five runs in the eighth to knot their series before winning the deciding fifth game, and then sweeping Toronto en route to the whole shebang. That small pivot is now beginning to change the whole face of baseball.

Your Nose Runs and Your Feet Smell? You're Build Upside Down
As we've recounted here before, the Royals are built upside down. Their offensive formula is predicated on low-strikeout batters who put the ball in play, pressure the opposition with speed, and then hold the lead with spectacular outfield defense. They win with lockdown relievers Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland (since released following surgery that will sideline him all 2016) in the final three frames after hoping to cobble together six innings from their mediocre stable of starters. 

Had Houston held that lead, no one would be thinking twice about Kansas City's odd formula. But to the victor belong the spoils, and also the trend-setting. Now everyone wants to blot out innings seven through nine.

The Hot Stove Scramble for Closers
Consider that the Dodgers just made -- and may have nixed -- a deal for flamethrower Aroldis Chapman, to pair with closer Kenley Jansen. They've already lost Zack Grienke at the top of their rotation and lost out on David Price. So they're evidently attempting to build from the back forward, though that may now be on hold because of accusations that Chapman clamps down on more than just opposing hitters.

Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances, leaders of the Million Strikeout March, have made Yankee Stadium safe for late-game leads. The Red Sox swapped for all-world closer Craig Kimbrel to slot in above Koji Uehara, who has produced a 1.86 ERA, 72 saves and nine times as many strikeouts as walks the last three years. Dave Dombrowski couldn't buy a closer when he was running the Tigers and now he's got two of them to shut down the eighth and ninth innings for the Red Sox.

Out of nowhere, the Astros made the playoffs in 2015 with solid reliever Luke Gregerson and his 2.79 lifetime ERA shutting the door. Last week they swapped their top pick in the 2013 draft and a pile of young players for Phillies closer Ken Giles.

It's All About October (and now November)
And so on. Last year, the thought was that emulating the Royals required the immense good fortune of having three lights-out relievers. Now teams are actively in search of them, and promising them all predetermined roles.

What became clear to many GMs this year wasn't the success of the combo during the season. Teams are realizing that winning in the playoffs requires more than just bullpen arms; it requires bullpen quality. Herrera, Davis and Ryan Madson, their replacement seventh inning hurler, combined for 12 innings of scoreless World Series work with 19 strikeouts as KC came from behind late in three of their four wins. 

Now every team with serious postseason expectations is scrambling to cobble together their own endgame scenario. Good luck with that!


12 December 2015

The Cubs Are the Best Team in Baseball. So What?

Only one day later, there seems to be unanimity that the Cubs are the best team in baseball, because:
  • They won 97 games last year.
  • They swapped Dexter Fowler for Jason Heyward, a net gain.
  • They swapped Starlin Castro for Ben Zobist, a big net gain.
  • They added John Lackey, who is now their third starter.
  • The Cardinals are now seriously weaker.
  • They'll have Kyle Schwarber and Jorge Soler for a full year.
  • Nearly the entire roster is moving closer to its prime.
  • They have the youngest everyday lineup in baseball.
  • They still have a stacked Minor League system.

It's all true, but last year's best team in baseball lost 79 times and failed to sniff the playoffs.

Plus, there's still plenty to worry about in Chicago:
  • John Lackey is 37.
  • Jake Arrieta's Superman costume was a half-year rental.
  • Someone or three is/are not going to live up to their potential.
  • Injuries.
  • Ineffectiveness. 
  • The alignment of the stars.
  • The playoffs are a lottery.

In other words, because baseball.

Let's play the season and see what happens. Can we start now?

11 December 2015

Is Jason Heyward Realy Worth a Spadillion Bucks?

Named the nation's #1 travel destination the past three years, my hometown of Charleston SC is what you would call a destination. People accept jobs paying a lot less money to live here in the 29401.

The 60613 is becoming a destination too. That's the zip code for the iconic structure at 1060 W Addison St. on Chicago's Northside. Both Ben Zobrist and now Jason Heyward have agreed to bring their lunch pails to the shrine on that site for the next several years, despite more lucrative offers to ply their trade elsewhere.

The newest Wrigley Field denizens join John Lackey as 2016 additions to a squad that roared to 97 wins and a spot in the League Championship Series in 2015. Both said at their signings that they wanted to be part of the crew that brought a World Series title to Cub fans after 108 years.

Heyward: Just .268, 16 HR 59 RBI
The predictable blowback on Heyward's haul began the minute word of his eight-year, $184 million deal hit Twitter. Heyward is the prototype of the baseball player undervalued even in 2015 by casual fans and those not yet sophisticated in the ways of baseball analysis, such as many of the media's self-described baseball analysts. But here's why Theo Epstein is a millionaire and a future Hall of Fame front office guy while your average baseball writer is still struggling to understand OPS.

In his six-year career, Jason Heyward has averaged a mere .268, 16 HR and 59 RBI. If that's how you see the world, Heyward is a fringe starter in the outfield. And if that's how you see the world, give my regards to the woolly mammoth.

We've learned over the last 38 years that those three numbers are weak diagnostic instruments. Heyward's walking proclivities and double & triple power show up in his laudable .353/.431 OBP/SLG numbers. His 86 steals in just 113 attempts, combined with superb baserunning prowess, add to his value. Defense that dazzles the eye as well as the stat sheet adds more fuel to the fire, so that by the time you're done, you have a five-win player who's just entering his age-26 prime.

In other words, Heyward is all the things that traditional measures, like cubits and pieces of silver, don't measure. He gets on base without the gaudy batting average. He slugs doubles and triples, not homers. He's circumspect about his base-stealing, but highly efficient. He fields all three outfield positions and scores on doubles -- things that don't show up in the boxscore.

For the Cubs, there's even more value. Heyward can staff the central pasture and offset some of the defensive pain inflicted by two all-bat corner catastrophes -- Kyle Schwarber and Jorge Soler.  And his addition in Chicago is subtraction from St. Louis, the Cubs' chief rival and tormentor.

Murderers Row, 2016
As for easily-dismissed broad skills, Ben Zobrist is much the same, and with full infield defensive flexibility. He and Heyward join Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Schwarber, Soler, Miguel Montero and Addison Russell as the Cubs' starting lineup if the season began today. (Sadly, it doesn't.) The guy squatting behind the dish flashes a lifetime .343 OBP while averaging 15 home runs-a-year -- and bats seventh in this lineup. Sheesh.

With Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester and John Lackey flummoxing opposition bats, Hector Rondon turning out the lights and Joe Maddon pulling the levers, it's no wonder free agents are turning down marginal bags of money to hop on the Wrigley Express. They will be young and loaded in 2016 -- and Theo might not even be done.

02 December 2015

The Price Was Right For This Fine Starter

Denis Leary and his New England compadres are happy this week. New Red Sox GM Dave Dombrowski landed seven years of David "High" Price for $217 million of John Henry's monies.* They have reason to cheer: Boston lagged the AL in pitching last year, accounting for its cellar-dwelling in the East. Adding Price to lockdown closer Craig Kimbrel, the Beaneaters appear much improved for next season.

*There's an opt-out clause for the hurler after three years but he's less likely to exercise it than previous players with mid-contract options because his deal is backloaded.

This is a good signing for the best mound option on the market, with all due respect to Zack Greinke. Price's track record is not just superb, it's consistent and it's mostly been accomplished in the Red Sox's division.

But if you want to dance the jig for a great pitcher signing, go to Detroit. Jordan Zimmermann can now buy all the vowels he needs with a shiny new five-year, $110 million contract.

Consider that: The Red Sox get David Price for two more years -- presumably his worst two -- at an additional cost of $107 million.

Let's consider the tale of the tape over the last five years:
Pitcher              Age ERA  ERA+  INN  WAR
Zimmermann   29   3.14  123   971    19.5
Price                  29   3.02  127   1090  23.0

David Price is a better pitcher than Jordan Zimmermann. He's bigger, stronger and more durable. He's left-handed. He's spent his entire career in the tougher-hitting league. And he's lauded for his clubhouse demeanor.

A win against replacement is worth roughly $8 million these days, give or take my net assets. If the past five years are an indication of their future performance, Price is worth about $28 million more over five years than Zimmermann. But the Red Sox will pay him $107 million more for those five and his age 36 and 37 seasons. Let's call him an average starter those two years and say a win is worth $10 million in 2021. That's still only about half the difference.

It's not surprising that this deal tilts towards the team (but hardly away from the player. He is after all, guaranteed a million dollars 110  times over.)  Early free agent signings tend to set the stage for more lucrative contracts after them. Even accounting for that, the Tigers got themselves a great get.

Everything went sideways at Comerica last season to land the team in the Central basement, and they still have some home improvements before they can pronounce themselves cured for 2016. Signing Zimmermann gives them a frontline starter they badly needed and plenty of leftover liquidity to purchase a bullpen, a catcher and another starter.

29 November 2015

We Interrrupt This Broadcast For Mike Trout, 2015 Edition

What do Steve Garvey, Paul Blair, Tim Wakefield, Frank Howard, Bill Mazeroski, Rick Wise, Pie Traynor, Frank White, Brady Anderson and Tom Gordon have in common?

It's the same characteristic shared by Joe Adcock, Harvey Haddix, Willie McGee, Ron Gant, Bobby Thompson, Rick Monday, Pat Hentgen and Rico Carty.

They were all very accomplished Major League Baseball players. They all played 14 or more seasons at the highest level.

And they all earned fewer wins against replacement than Mike Trout -- who is only 23.

Trout has now led the league in WAR each of his first four seasons. He's won a Rookie of the Year, an MVP and three second place MVP finishes. He should have been first each time.

Trout this year slugged 41 home runs and led the AL in slugging percentage, OPS and True Average. He plays a key up-the-middle position. You've seen the highlight reel.

Trout's lifetime TAv is .352. That means, if you see the world through batting average lenses, put all of Mike Trout's attributes together and he's a .352 kind of guy. Willie Mays, over his career, was a .339 kind of guy.

Mike Trout is the same flavor as Willie Mays. Plus sprinkles.

So don't feel too badly for Shawn Green, Derek Lowe, Ken Griffey Sr., B.J. Surhoff, Rick Sutcliffe, Barry Zito, Ted Kluszewski, Richie Hebner, Smokey Burgess and Garry Maddox.

And quit your sniggling Lou Brock, Vida Blue, Gil Hodges, Rusty Staub, Carlos Delgado, Nomar Garciaparra, Jack Morris, Dizzy Dean and Rocky Colavito. You're next!

24 November 2015

Craig Kimbrel Stunk In 2015 . . . Relative to Craig Kimbrel

You've likely heard the news that closer Craig Kimbrel is house-hunting again -- in his third city this 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.