Saturday, November 23, 2013

I Just Want You

Way back in 1995, when Matt Williams was signed as a free agent by the California Angels, Ozzy Osborne released "I Just Want You." No doubt he was thinking about things well outside the sphere of baseball, but the lesson is not lost today.

There was an idea that a major contract meant longevity for a player with that team. In 2013 that is no longer the case. In the wake of the blockbuster to outweigh all blockbusters, Prince Fielder  exchanged his Tiger stripes for Ranger Blue. This is not my first foray into the idea of the untradeables, but I address it today in light of the momentum changing shift between the Detroit Tigers and Texas Rangers involving Prince Fielder and Ian Kinsler.

This idea first stuck me when Vernon Wells went from the Toronto Blue Jays to the Anaheim Angels. Most people laughed and mocked the "untradeable" Wells as an eyesore and contract drain on the Angels. Well those who mocked that can click here. Baseball is such a fluid industry, with so much disposable income floating about that there is no such thing as an untradeable contract. To repeat there is NO SUCH THING as an untradeable contract in the modern game. All it takes, all it has ever taken, is for one owner, one GM to want a player so bad he will make it happen. George Steinbrenner was the pioneer of this mentality, but since his passing every owner/GM has been seizing their moment to snag their player.

When the right player comes around the solution for these transactions is to open the pocketbook even further. Ryan Howard was signed to a 5 year deal with 2 years remaining on contract and his stats already trending downward. Ruben Amaro Jr. was not about to risk losing his man; stats and common sense be damned. Arte Moreno forced MLB to modify free agent signings when it tacked on a $10 million dollar personal service contract to Albert Pujols' already impressive $240 million dollar contract. The Yankees overpaid for Mark Teixeira, Derek Jeter and cut out Brian Cashman in their pursuit of resigning Alex Rodriguez against a market of...well no one really knew who was actually interested in Alex Rordriguez within $50 million of what the Yankees signed him for.

A team rarely loses its infatuation with a player when they miss out on free agency either. The Yankees after many years and many miles finally landed Ichiro Suzuki. Alex Anthopoulos finally got Jose Reyes on his team. Amaro was so infatuated with Cliff Lee that he got him, gave him up, and went out and got him back again. Any trade or veteran signing that starts with "veteran presence" and/or "proven winner" is code for this infatuation, but they cannot come out and just say it.

AJ Burnett was supposedly finished, but the Yankees threw in a generous amount of cash and the Pirates are glad they took the gamble. The Mariners signed Raul Ibanez last season and were so happy to see his name in the lineup they did not even seriously consider trading him despite going nowhere. Today anyone can say with a fair amount of confidence that Ryan Howard, Josh Hamilton, Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez are not going to be traded this winter. With injuries, age, and other baggage no team is jumping for any of these players. But, with the years left on their contracts and teams willing to kick in enough cash to facilitate the deal, never say never. All it takes is a hot month, a hot start, another player being injured for a team to see the player they were when they coveted them and not as they are today.

Prince Fielder was his usual steady, productive self in 2011 and Mike Illitch wanted a championship. Despite having a first baseman he dropped $214 million for the son of former Tiger, Cecil Fielder. The same Cecil Fielder who lost all ability around age 32-33. Prince did not excel, but he was his usual highly productive self at the plate. Miguel Cabrera took advantage of his peak seasons to win a Triple Crown and back to back MVP's. That was not reason enough to hold onto a Prince.

Today, Prince is headed to Texas with a new team. Illich still wants to win, he just needed those millions back. Jon Daniels wanted Prince in 2011, he still had an opening in 2014. He was looking less at the danger years of Fielder's contract and more at the player from back then, when he was younger, and gambled on durability than decline. According to reports this was about "winning now" and "filling holes," but in reality it was about one thing, Daniels and Texas saying to Prince Fielder "I just want you." This trade was a blockbuster, but do not expect it to be unique.

Can you find a contract you cannot fathom being traded someday? Let me know in the comments below.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Vanity, Thy Name Is Verducci

Tom Verducci is an accomplished sports writer and current senior baseball writer for Sports Illustrated. He also appeared on TBS' postseason coverage and is rumored to be a favorite to replace Tim McCarver for Fox Postseason broadcasts going forward. He continues to leave an impression on baseball through the media, unfortunately, like many in this age of expanded statistical access and cheap seat's general managing, this is not enough for him. Verducci is back trying to modernize the game, and once again he has failed miserably.

Verducci's first stab at immortality came about with the "Verducci Effect," that, in a nutshell  "define[s] an at-risk pitcher as any 25-and-under pitcher who increased his innings log by more than 30 in a year in which he pitched in the big leagues." This Effect has been dismissed by nearly everyone outside of Sports Illustrated and Tom Verducci himself in no small part due to small sample sizes and confirmation bias. To learn more, check out great articles from Baseball Prospectus here and here, or at Deadspin here.

Undaunted by something as trivial as near-universal public rebuke, Verducci has once again delved into changing the game, this time with the "Bonus At-Bat." Briefly, "the Bonus At-Bat, in which a team could use a player like Ortiz for one strategically advisable plate appearance out of his regular turn in the order without removing anyone from the game." On the one hand, he should be applauded for thinking outside the box and deciding the game could be "more exciting" with an expansion of the Designated Hitter. On the other, I wonder if he is even watching the same game as me.

He tries to defend his position with the notion of power pitching and grinding out at bats do not make for good entertainment. From experience, 2 of my favorite moments watching a game live involved Mark Buehrle's Perfect Game and Randy Johnson's 300th win, I enjoy good pitching.

More than that, I appreciate the strategy that baseball requires. Teams willing walk the number 8 batter to face the opposing teams pitcher early and often. They pitch around sluggers because the guy behind them is hitting .200 with runners in scoring position. From the first pitch to the last, every thing is part of the whole in-game strategy. October's are made by unlikely heroes. Imagine 2011 if Freeze was pinch hit for, the result might not have changed, but a star would not have seen the light of day. Players on both sides have to rise to the occasion and it is not easy, but everyone appreciates cheering for the underdog, the unlikely star, when the come through. To make all that strategy moot does more harm than good.

Elsewhere in his article, Verducci mentions, but fails to address other ways to improve the game. Notably pitchers stepping off the mound and rubbing the ball or getting a new one at 21-30 seconds between pitches and at 150+ pitches per side that adds up. There is a rule in baseball, 8.04, which states:

 "8.04 When the bases are unoccupied, the pitcher shall deliver the ball to the batter within 20 seconds after he receives the ball. Each time the pitcher delays the game by violating this rule, the umpire shall call "Ball." The intent of this rule is to avoid unnecessary delays. The umpire shall insist that the catcher return the ball promptly to the pitcher, and that the pitcher take his position on the rubber promptly. Obvious delay by the pitcher should instantly be penalized by the umpire"
Enforcing this rule (especially when the Yankees and Red Sox play on ESPN Sunday Night) would immediately speed up the game and make it more exciting. Mark Buehrle's Perfect Game I mentioned up above? Finished in 2:03...a mere 2 hours and 3 minutes, that barely gets you into the 4th inning of those NYY-BOS ESPN games. Anyone can come up with a "new" idea to "improve" the game, but a seasoned sportswriter with the wealth of knowledge he possesses should look for ways the game should adhere to its own rules (in this case sticking to the "written" rules would suffice) before looking outside the box for an unnecessary fix. 

There is a measure of ownership to any project, task, or assignment one works on and the more time one spends working on it the stronger that ownership feels right. From staff who think they know more than the boss, to students who challenge professors, we have all run across many incarnations of this phenomenon. We may even find ourselves falling victim to it ourselves from time to time. By and large it is what it is. When you have Verducci's audience however, one should keep in mind the Rock's words:

Baseball is constantly evolving and it will evolve all the better without undue influence from sports writer Tom Verducci.

Monday, September 30, 2013

O's Defense Historically Golden?

The Baltimore Orioles season ended in fitting fashion Sunday, a 5-4-3 double play sealing closer Jim Johnson's 50th save and ending with an 85-77 record. The team's late fade kept them out of the postseason, but the season was far from a disappointment - especially from a defensive standpoint. The Orioles set a new record for the fewest errors in a season with 54, out pacing the Tampa Bay Rays 59 and easily breaking the record of 65 set by the 2003 Seattle Mariners. They finished with .991 fielding percentage, besting the 1997 Colorado Rockies .989, a team considered one of the best all time. From their season opening series where Evan Longoria and Manny Machado delivered enough web gems to last a season until the very end, watching these two teams play defense on a daily basis has been an exercise in amazement. With award season coming up the question now becomes whether or not the Orioles defenses will be historically golden.

The Rawlings Gold Glove has been handed out since 1957 to recognize the best defensive players at each position as voted by managers and coaches. Since 1958 separate awards have been given for the American and National leagues. During that time,the best a team has done is 4 gold gloves in a season doing so 13 times. As a team the Baltimore Orioles have done it a record 5 times, all in the early 70's with Paul Blair, Mark Belanger, Brooks Robinson, Davey Johnson/Bobby Grich. Baltimore is also currently one behind the Yankees for most Gold Gloves by an American League team with 64 and should pass them after this season.  

While managers and coaches vote on this award as opposed to writers who vote for the mvp that does not mean this award is without controversy. Players who have won it previously tend to have the advantage to repeat regardless of performance. This is the only explanation for Rafael Palmerio winning the gold glove at first base in 1999 while only playing first in 29 games, he was the designated hitter in 129 games. This also explains how Derek Jeter has won multiple gold gloves despite not having great range or a good defensive reputation. The Orioles had three players win in 2012 -Adam Jones, J.J. Hardy, and Matt Wieters. It also means players are going to be reward for more subjective reasons and what voters saw more than advanced metrics like defensive runs saved, fielding percentage, or Ultimate Zone Rating (which really likes the Kansas City Royals). I can see the Orioles winning 5 to 7 gold gloves, with 5 much more likely. The results should come out October 30th. Feel free to check this now, challenge my picks in the comments and come back and chide me later.

Here is my rundown of the AL Gold Glove Winners:
*Now that we have the results I am editing this to put those players in

Pitcher: Expected winner - Mark Buehrle
             Actual Winner - R.A. Dickey

I have no idea how they go about evaluating a pitcher's defense and am going with the guy who has won a gold glove 4 years in a row.

Catcher: Expected winner - Matt Wieters
              Actual winner - Salvador Perez

He has proven himself to be a great defensive catcher and has won the past 2 gold gloves at catcher. Wieters caught more games (140) and innings (1201) than any other catcher and still committed the third fewest errors among starters (3). He also caught 24/68 base stealers leaving him just behind Salvador Perez (25/69). Perez is the only other catcher who might win this award, but I think he is a year or two away yet.

First Baseman: Expected winner - Chris Davis
                         Actual winner - Eric Hosmer

Traditional winners at this position Mark Texiera and Albert Pujols spent a large portion of the season on the disabled list leaving this years winner wide open. This is the perfect place for a lazy voters to write in the first name that comes to mind. While offensive production is not supposed to factor into gold gloves it undoubtedly does and when you combine Chris Davis offensive production along with the teams record setting defense I see gold to match his Silver Slugger Award. Not that he needs the help as he led all first basemen in games started at first (155), putouts (1339 to 1205 for second place Eric Hosmer), while playing a league leading 1377.2 innings and having a .996 fielding percentage, good for second in the league (.997 for Justin Morneau over 111 games) and a scant 6 errors. Hosmer and James Loney are also likely candidates, with Mike Napoli a dark horse.

Second Basemen: Expected winner - Dustin Pedroia
                             Actual winner - Dustin Pedroia

This was a rotating position for the Orioles all season as Brian Roberts spent his now expected extended stay on the disabled list. As a result I don't know how any individual Orioles second baseman could win it. Robinson Cano and Dustin Pedroia have alternated winning this award recently and I expect the trend to continue. Pedroia had tied for the top fielding percentage among starters at .993 and his 5 errors over 160 games and 1398 innings (both tops at the position) were one more than only Ben Zobrist who played in 116 games at second. Jose Altuve has more put outs and double plays but is likely going to finish behind Pedroia and Cano when the voting occurs.

Third Basemen: Expected winner - Manny Machado
                           Actual winnner - Manny Machado

This is a no-brainer pick in my book despite the fact that he leads the Orioles in total errors with 13. Former Oriole's Ace and current broadcaster Jim Palmer sees shades of Brooks Robinson in Machado's play. High praise for a pitcher who benefited from many seasons of Brooks record 16 gold gloves at third base. If you have not seen it already here is one of his many highlights from a July 17th game against the New York Yankees.

Adrian Beltre has won the award 4 of the last 6 seasons, but he has fallen off defensively this year. Evan Longoria is a threat to win this award as well but fails to measure up to Machado in innings (1280 - 1390), total chances (382 - 484), or double plays (27 -42), making his lead in errors (11-13) a mere footnote. Machado also leads all starting third basemen in range factor (ground he can cover to get to ground balls) with 3.02, Miguel Cabrera for comparison is at 1.87. Kyle Seager and Josh Donaldson are great third basemen as well, but this year no one was better than Machado, even if his season did end prematurely.

Shortstop: Expected Winner - J.J. Hardy
                 Actual winner - J.J. Hardy

With Derek Jeter not playing enough to be grandfathered into this award, probably --see Palmerio above, J.J. has a great chance to win this award for the second time in a row. Once again the Oriole leads the league in games (159), innings (1417), and double plays (108). His 12 errors are second most on the Orioles (that Machado and Hardy combined for 25 of the teams 54 errors and still make this list is impressive), but is good enough for 4th fewest among shortstops. Yunel Escobar is another viable candidate with a league leading .988 fielding percentage (vs .981 for Hardy) and his team had the second fewest errors of all time. A dark horse candidate here is Minnesota's Pedro Florimon who will lose out for playing in Minnesota as much as anything.

Outfield has alternated between each position getting its own award and lumping all outfielders together. In 2011, the award went back to each position receiving the award. That said there could be some variance here as voters move players to accommodate those who they want to win.

Left Fielder: Expected Winner - Alex Gordon
                     Actual winner - Alex Gordon

With 17 outfield assists, 2 double plays and a .997 fielding percentage, Alex Gordon was clearly the superior left fielder this season. He also played the most games (159) and innings (1364.1) of any player in left fielder. He has also won the golden glove the previous two years. Nate McLouth won the award in 2008 while in Pittsburgh and if he wins the award it will be due to the teams accomplishments more than his own as he has a mere 4 outfield assists. He might have lead the league in dives into the stands with 2, including this number, and he certainly led the league in beers thrown at in game. At a position where the expected winner is so much better than the field it does not really matter who takes second.

Center Field: Expected Winner - Adam Jones
                      Actual winner - Adam Jones 

Not only did Jones play 22 more games than anyone else at center (154) but he also logged more than 200 innings over second place Jacoby Elsbury (1394 - 1188) but he also tied for the lead in assists (11). His .995 fielding percentage was good for third in the league, but given his superior time logged that should not factor into it. Go ahead and ask Jose Reyes if he has a good arm:

Jones will also likely benefit from having a career year at the plate, he has 2 gold gloves (2009 and 2012) and a third should join his mantle shortly. Mike Trout and Jacoby Elsbury are likely challengers, but only Elsbury has any assists (3). For what it is worth, noted speedster Michael Bourn actually has a lower range factor (2.17 - 2.33) so there is more to range than pure speed. Lorenzo Cain is a potential dark horse here, but might not have the playing time to garner serious attention.

Right Field: Expected Winner - Nick Markakis
                    Actual winner - Shane Victorino 

Once again an Oriole leads the league in games started (154) and innings played (1381). There is something to be said about having a healthy, young team like the Orioles who boast Nate McLouth, at 31, being the oldest regular fielder. His 312 putouts were second to only Alex Rios (326) and nearly 50 ahead of third place Shane Victorino (264). His 7 assists were just 2 off the league lead and he was the only right field regular to play error free. Josh Reddick and Ichiro Suzuki, both past winners, have had down years defensively and Markakis did win in 2011.

In a year where the Orioles were historically good and historically good fielders were out, the conditions are right for the Orioles to set the Golden standard for defensive excellence at 5, 6, or 7. At the very least I expect them to collect enough hardware to overtake the Yankees for the all-time American League lead.

The Orioles had 3 Gold Glove winners out of 6, tied with Kansas City for the most in baseball. Not a bad haul, but short of what I was expecting. I correctly called 5 of 9 Gold Glove winners and only really missed right field.

What did you think of the results and my predictions? Any winners leave you scratching your head?


Tuesday, September 17, 2013

2014 Yankees Odd Season Continues

Most teams would have celebrated what happened to Yankee Legend Andy Pettitte with a pause of the game, a scoreboard salute and a standing ovation. In case you missed it, as I did and I was looking out for it, Pettitte reached his 2,000th strikeout as a Yankee on September 6th. You can see it here. Even the announcers seemed to give it a mere "yep its a milestone, move along" that most reserve for historical land marks on the highway. Looking at the all-time Yankee strikeout leaders (the asterisk denotes active players fyi) what shocks me is that Pettitte is the only Yankee to reach the 2,000 strikeout plateau. I always figured somewhere among the 69 pitchers to have 2,000 strikeouts a Yankee or two would be in the mix, such is the power of the Yankee mystique. Yet this season every achievement, every milestone in Yankee land has been met with a shrug or sigh or controversy.

The big celebratory milestone of the Yankee season was Derek Jeter at shortstop  on opening day Ichiro Suzuki reaching 4,000 hits. Of course it is not enough to congratulate someone reaching 4,000 hits for only the third time in history, Pete Rose (the all-time hit leader and somehow popular asshat) decried his achievement by pointing out that he only had 2,722 in the major leagues. It is tough enough to get hits professionally let alone remain healthy enough to achieve the milestone. Reaching such career milestones can be even more challenging when you are a foreign born player. The Rose group missed the celebration and spoiled it for others. It was never about Ichiro "beating" anyone for the most hits of all time, it was a personal milestone to signify personal achievement at the highest level in two countries. Fans love a round number and 4,000 hits is amazing anyway you look at it, but the Roseists won the day, stirred up more than enough controversy that people debated the merits of the hits more than appreciating the requisite skill necessary to achieve it. In a year when 4,000 should have stood out, we instead have seen it matched by 2,722, yet that is not the only oddity the Yankees have produced this season.

Another, rather amazing, feat pulled off by the Yankees is their ability to persevere without their usual stars. C.C. Sabbathia looks like he needs the Cap'n to make it happen and the team as a whole has spent more money on players on the disabled list than on the active roster. Despite that hurdle they are fighting for a wild card spot with less than 2 weeks remaining. This should be a resounding success story of scrappy players, wily veterans and good old fashioned hard work. Kirk Gibson has hoarded all the grit, determination and moxy in the Arizona desert. Joe Girardi should be the front runner for manager of the year for his efforts, Brian Cashman applauded for continuing to get the most out of so many aging veterans. Instead fans are split on embracing the pennant race and quietly hoping they miss out. Helping fuel the Yankees late season push is also the reason fans might be okay missing out, Alex Rodriguez. His career numbers continue to climb and the only reason fans care is if he gets that first $6 million dollar home run bonus for #660. However, as far as third baseman for the Yankees in 2013 go, A-Rod has performed better than the rest despite playing in only 36 games. He is not going away this season, leaving fans to be thankful for his efforts, but remain largely silent in their applause. Even when facing success, Yankees fans are oddly torn this season.

This odd season for the Yankees seems to have ensnared Pettitte hook, slider and sinker. Some may argue that his steroid admission is the reason this milestone, along with so many others for him, is noted but not appreciated. There is also a little bit more to the anti-climatic murmur that greeted 2,000 K's, he had been done before. Heading into tonight's action he has 2,432 strikeouts. He had passed the 2,000 milestone before his first retirement, fans have been there seen that. He also became the Yankees all time K leader back on July 1, passing Whitey Ford. Back when they were just scuffling along and Pettitte has been scuffling all season with a 4.04 ERA and 1.402 WHIP. 2,000 strikeouts is the sign of a long and successful career much like 4,000 hits. I am willing to appreciate effort necessary to reach such lofty heights, let the debate wait for another day and applaud the accomplishment. It has been an odd season in the Bronx, where the Captain is manning the DL, the enemy is cheering their closer, and the season is marked by round numbers like 2,000 and 4,000, except when its not.

Then again, that's baseball. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains. 

Think about that and let me know your notable oddity about the Yankees or any other team in the comment section!

Monday, September 9, 2013

Raise the Jolly Roger! The Pirates are Winners

I know most published their two cents on the Pittsburgh Pirates ending their two decade losign streak last week and there was certainly good cause for that. After twenty years, many want to jump on the first positive, enjoy the celebration as soon as possible. Perhaps that is what the Pirates did themselves, I shudder to think that last weekends sweep at the hands of St. Louis Cardinals was the start of yet another September collapse. A second reason I hesitated is that after twenty years I support celebrating winning not merely "not losing" after so long I believe it is worth the wait.

Twenty-one years can go by in a flash when things go right, it can seem like an eternity when things are going wrong. A generation of Pirates fans have grown up watching their beloved team fall short of .500 year after year after year. Twenty years of wandering the barren sub-par baseball desert is enough to make anyone thirsty, so join me, won't you, in raising a glass of rum to the Pirates who have finally ended a streak of futility just in time for a generation of fans to start drinking in joy.

Looking back on exactly how the Pirates avoided .500 for all these years is as futile an exercise as looking back at the first twenty years of your life. In hindsight, the first few years were a blur and no one really noticed the growing trend of futility. Players came and went like so many people have in your life. Aging Kirk Gibson was a bench piece the last time the Pirates were in the post-season, now he is hoping his Diamondbacks can squeak into the postseason on grit and determination. Jim Leyland is still a chimney smoking manager riding amazing talent into the postseason and taking glory for being along for the ride. Only now it is Miguel Cabrera not Barry Bonds and he exchanged the Pirate flag for Tiger stripes.

Faces of the franchise have come and gone as various general managers attempted to bring a winner to the city's beautiful gem of a stadium and start to match the success of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Penguins. Since 1992, the Steelers and Penguins each won their league titles two times. The city is not starved for champions, like Cleveland, but the Pirates have wanted to get in on the fun and excitement of playing in front of a packed stadium all hands on deck in their finest Gold and Black.

In 2011, the losing streak looked over in the first half of the season, with a 47-43 record, until a disastrous second half 25-47 left them at 72-90. 2012 looked even more promising, starting out 48-37, however, a 31-46 second half -lowlighted by a 9-22 September/October lead to a 79-83 record. Improvement, but not enough to end the losing streak. In both those years the Pirates reached for trade upgrades, but the results did not pan out. The success of this years squad is less reliant on whatever Marlon Byrd, John Buck, or Justin Morneau can provide because this team has relied on pitching more than offense. Those Pirate teams needed offense because their pitching was mediocre at best. This year's squad boasts the #3 bullpen ERA in all of baseball to support the #3 starter's ERA. Improved pitching has been the Pirates key and will keep them going the rest of the way.

No one can say what the rest of the season will bring. Will the September collapse of the last two seasons ago sneak up and relegate them to the wild card game, or worse getting passed by the Diamondbacks or Nationals and missing October completely? Or will they ride this feel good wave through the postseason, sparked by sound pitching and timely offense all the way to world series glory? These are questions for tomorrow, or next week, and maybe even deep into next month. For now Pirates fans should drink deep in the joy of 82 wins, embrace the triumph of winning baseball and enjoy this moment a generation in the making.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

How MLB Won on NFL's Opening Night

For many, this Thursday has been circled on their calendars for weeks. Drafts both real and fantasy have taken place, bold predictions and optimistic bets have been placed. For many football is finally here. However, in its never ending quest to keep football relevant 365 days a year, this article is about a story that broke way back in March, the story about how Baltimore Orioles and baseball challenged NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, and won. In order to beat Goodell baseball faced the three political grenades: religion, tradition, and bribes. A daunting task for even the most skilled of opponents.

At issue was the mid-March dilemma of scheduling the NFL season. The most public issue was the NFL wanting the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens to open the season at home on September 5 and kick off football with all the pageantry of a second parade on a national scale. Unfortunately for the NFL, MLB had created their schedule the previous September and the Orioles were set to fly in from the road and host the White Sox for a four game homestand beginning that night. Baltimore's layout does not allow both venues to logistically operate major events at the same time. It was here that the politicking began in earnest and ultimately we were left with a result few saw coming: the Orioles would stay in Baltimore while the Ravens would open the season in Denver. 

"Solutions" came early, often, and decidedly one-sided. Baseball should compromise, play in Chicago, play a Saturday double-header, anything so long as lord football got its way. Baseball fans pointed out the logistical nightmare of changing the schedules of the Orioles, White Sox, plus the Indians and Yankees their respective Wednesday night opponents . They next advanced the ideas that the NFL game could be changed (their schedule had not even been made) and just the year before the NFL opened on Wednesday so as not to compete with the Democratic National Convention (the one without Clint Eastwood talking to a chair).

As all good politicians do when faced with daunting logic that threatens to derail their best laid spontaneous plans, the NFL shot down the notion of changing to Wednesday by citing, wait for it, religion! The NFL stated they would not consider opening on Rosh Hashanah, never mind that they have done that in the past and revel in the opportunity to play on Christmas. Wise choice or convenient memory, by committing to play on Thursday night the NFL played the next card in the politicians handbook: tradition!

"The Ravens deserve to open the season at home because it is tradition for the Super Bowl winners to do so." If you have not heard this yet, just tune in to the NFL this weekend and you will some form of it plenty. The problem is the boy who cried wolf has more credibility than sports crying out tradition lately. Every little tournament, event or occurrence in sports these days is a classic or a tradition despite nothing being further from the truth. Notre Dame v Michigan is rivalry over 100 years old, despite most games being played only from the 1970's on. The NCAA opens up with over a dozen different basketball tournaments that are all "classics" despite most being less than 6 years old. The NFL to has fallen prey to this heritage link with opening night being reserved as a home game for last years Super Bowl winner, never mind that the last winner to open on the road was way back in 2003 way back in the pre-3D-TV ages, YIKES! Baseball had not even begun to seriously follow the Pirates ongoing futility at that point.

Religion set the date, traditions backfired, the NFL faced door number 3: bribes. This is not the NCAA where washing your car can get you into trouble, this is professional sports, the NFL the biggest, baddest sport going. More than that it is led by Sheriff Goodell slapping players with suspensions left and right for off-field infractions, rebranding "the league" into "the shield" even pushing Disney executives into stepping away from a public broadcasting documentary. This is the league that settled a massive lawsuit for $765 million dollars, without admitting doing anything wrong and all before a game that matters could bring it up as anything short of a positive.

Goodell has run a tight ship with a simple motto "what I want I get." Unfortunately for him, Bud Selig the loathable MLB commissioner has been living that motto for more than 20 years. Between Bud Selig and Orioles owner Peter Angelos, they were not going to give something away without a little kickback. Considering how rare this occurrence would be I find it hard to believe that this couldn't have been handled graciously and magnanimously in the media by all involved and somewhere around $1-2million dollars goes from a $9billion dollar sports entity to a $7billion dollar one somewhere down the line.

It was not a moral dilemma or pride that stopped Goodell from making that offer, it was shock at being told no. No, he could not simply get what he wanted. No, if he really wanted to have his way there were some wallets that needed lining first. Goodell puts on a strong face, but he is nothing more than a bully playing at expert politician. He has carved out a power vacuum for himself atop the most profitable sport in North America. Employees within and around the sport know who is in charge and he grew so used to stomping on others that it is second nature to him. That PBS documentary I mentioned earlier, Frontline, their people tried to break the story about how the NFL was trying to bury their piece on  “League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions and the Battle for Truth” by having ESPN back out. Goodell swooped in and rallied his followers with what really happened. (Goodell claimed to do nothing wrong and that the meetings were monthly occurrences about normal monthly matters) Goodell is back to fighting hard and grinding opponents, but the Frontline people had to feel somewhat emboldened by MLB's actions. Back in March, Goodell tried his hands at politics: he played the cards he had and he played them well, but he was no match for the elder statesman from MLB. For at least one brief moment someone stood up to the bully and the bully backed down. On this opening day the scoreboard will read NFL 0 MLB Won.

Any feedback is appreciated below, thanks for reading.

Friday, August 23, 2013

These Guys Are Professionals, Right?

Baseball is an entertaining game to watch. In a sport in which every action is met with resistance it can be taken for granted just how easy those in the major league can make the game look. This piece is dedicated to the other end of the spectrum, to the plays you only enjoy watching five year olds engage in, where the joy of playing outweighs the importance of the win/loss record. Warning these plays are not exactly pretty, but go ahead and laugh, but remember these are professionals trained to drown out crowd noise and insults.

Backup catcher Yorvit Torrealba exploits some terrible base running (8/14/13)

Juan Uribe falls for the old "hidden ball trick" and to make matters worse Angel Hernandez, one of the more controversial terrible umpires in the game today. Just ask Chipper Jones, Hawk Harrelson and the Oakland A's. (8/10/13)

It is cute when kids get so excited they can't keep their balance and fall down in a heap of joy. For Chad Qualls it was probably a bit more embarrassing, but nonetheless entertaining. (7/30/13)

Melky Cabrera shows off his powerful arm in left, if not his sure-handed grip (8/1/13)

Five days latter Melky got a sigh of relief that it can even happen to 18 year veterans like Raul Ibanez (8/6/13)

 Finally, it doesn't matter how fast or talented you are, somethings are sure outs. (6/19/13)

Yasiel Puig will likely learn that next season, because he has yet to learn it yet. It is bad when Vin Scully is calling you out. (6/26/13)

Hope you enjoyed some of the more embarrassing gaffes of the year. Did I leave any out? Let me know and I will try and tack them on.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Expanded Replay is Coming

With the clarity of Gabbo's arrival, MLB announced on Thursday that expanded replay is coming in 2014. Expanded replay has been on the table since the current home run review system come online in 2008. After today's announcement we have been given some idea of what to MLB wants in an expanded replay: coaches getting 3 challenges each (1 in the first six innings, 2 in the seventh and beyond, though umpires may seek to have discretion to review plays if challenges are exhausted), a central review office to make the final calls, balls and strikes are not reviewable. Home run reviews are to be grandfathered in. Brushed aside like so much fine print are the important details about how the owners, players association, and the umpires have yet to sign off on the expanded replay. To put it simply, this replay system could look radically different from what was announced Thursday before it is approved. With that in mind, here is a look at what I would like to see and a warning to what we may be saying goodbye to.

MLB claims "89 percent of incorrect calls made in the past will be reviewable," but did not go into specifics. I assume reviewable plays will now include fair/foul balls, trapped balls, and plays at bases. Something I am sure Armando Galarraga is behind. I can get onboard with these reviews, they shouldn't take too much time to review and it is better to get the call right in these situations. There are still some questions to iron out, including how to determine what base batters and baserunners should be awarded when a foul ball call is overturned, but that should not be too difficult for the league to iron out. 

The judgment calls are where things get a bit dicey. Judgment calls can include in/out of the basepaths, the neighborhood rule, balks, or the infield fly rule. While the neighborhood rule is among the numerous unwritten rules of baseball, the other examples all include the caveat "in the judgment of the umpire(s)" as part of the rules definition. These type of rules should remain as free of review as ball and strikes. These will not be called correctly every time, but retroactive, third-party judgments would do more to harm the situation, not to mention needlessly prolong games, than just accepting the call and moving forward. Players and managers are not perfect, neither are umpires, but they all strive to do their best and by keeping the judgment calls under the on-field umpires control they will hopefully work harder to get those non-reviewable calls correct.   

An unintended consequence for the fans could a marked decrease in manager-umpire arguments and especially managers getting tossed. Aside from the humor of watching a manager throw a tantrum, there is a tangible benefit to their actions as well. Teams win at a .550 clip in a game following an ejection versus an expected .494 clip generally, according to Sports Illustrated research. Arguing balls and strikes will remain a tossing offense, but for other calls managers will now be told to toss challenge flags instead of verbal abuse. Add to that the potential for umpires to seek reviews on close plays themselves and managers will be on their best behavior in hopes of getting such plays reviewed late in games. I hope MLB gives something back the managers and makes the challenge flag a rosin bag (look at 1:15-1:30 in the video) so they can really show their displeasure. 

Replay is just the latest in a long line of changes to the game and I would not be surprised to see them come in 2014. Bud Selig wields enough power that when he wants something done, he gets his way, for better or worse. Thus, even with a potential $40 million dollar budget to address, I expect the owners to sign off on it in November. However, what was announced today is not likely to be exactly what we will see in 2014 and the system introduced next season will undoubtedly be refined in the years ahead. On paper I congratulate MLB for embracing change and adopting further replay, now lets see if it works as well in practice. 

Is this a step in the right direction, a bridge to far, or will you not be satisfied until robots call the game? Sound off in the comments  below

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

A-Rod Frustrating Selig's "Clean in '14" Effort

Normally, after the trade deadline fans are supposed to stop hearing about fourth place teams and instead get to know playoff teams and start to consider offseason awards and moves. I plan to get to those soon. However, MLB announced their Biogenesis suspensions on Monday and that warrants some attention. If you are sick of hearing about PEDs, Biogenesis or other off the field issues in general, I don't blame you, I encourage you to skip the rest of  this article because I am fascinated by Bud Selig's actions in this matter and want to take a closer look into it. My upcoming articles will be as PED free as I can make them, I promise.

Disclaimers out of the way, let us look at the Biogensis fallout this past month: 12 suspensions for 50 games, 1 for 65, and one for 211 games. None of these players tested positive. The league suspended them using a "non-analytical positive," code for witnesses and a paper trail sufficient  to prove purchase, receipt or use of banned drugs. Oh and a few players were not suspended because they actually got caught last year. An odd system where those not smart enough to beat the system will receive less scrutiny than those who only may have. Most of the players are not challenging the suspensions, but that has more to do with the blatant incentive MLB put on the players to take the punishment. Incentives seemingly designed to provide Bud Selig with a clean final season as commissioner.

Despite all the evidence MLB collected and sifted through since January, the suspensions only came out when teams had 50 or so games remaining in the regular season. Players on post-season bound teams could serve out the punishment and still help their team in October. If they are allowed on the post-season roster. Free agents will not take a financial hit because they still have days, weeks, or months remaining on their suspension. More important to these players and MLB is the attempt to put Biogenesis in the 2013 season alone, to wrap it all up in a neat little package and pretend it is an isolated incident that can be mentioned as a historical footnote, an odd quirk to one season. Players who do not challenge the suspensions will start 2014 with as clean a slate as possible. Even Alex Rodriguez suspension was designed to fit the mold, the idea being to suspend him for the remainder of 2013 and all of 2014, after this season Biogenesis would be out of sight, out of mind. It is cleaner, simpler, to treat it as such, but hardly in the best long term interest of the game.

Part of the problem with this approach is that it oversimplifies the PED problem. One clinic lead to 15 suspensions (don't forget minor league pitcher Cesar Carrillo who suffered a 100 game suspension back in March for refusing to talk with MLB investigators about the case). One clinic handed this information to major league baseball, they merely had to sift through the information to get results. The league, as tough as it claims to be on testing steroids, did not find the Biogenesis clinic on their own and there is currently no indication that they actually want to investigate the potential for others. Had Tony Bosch paid his former employee, odds are the baseball loving public would have remained blissfully ignorant of Biogenesis and "anti-aging" clinics. Other clinics are out there. Shutting down the suppliers would be ideal. The appearance of investigations may even deter some players. The league can only punish the players, not the providers, unfortunately. So, rather than look ineffective, the league will keep improving its testing and attempt to increase the penalties to deter future use.

I would have preferred all those suspended to have to sit out opening day next season as well. This would keep the PED talk alive in clubhouses throughout spring training and serve as a constant reminder that there are consequences for PED use. The players would undoubtedly be asked about the issue throughout training camps and that is a very good thing. The conversation among players has changed dramatically since testing started back in 2005. No longer are players willing to turn a blind eye to a teammates use, pretending that the issue does not exist. Players are increasingly vocal about wanting a clean game, clean teammates. They want to be surrounded with the best 25 players, players who earned it with skill, dedication, and effort not through a needle, a cream, or a pill. This trend should continue as more and more players come up who have been tested from day 1 in the minors. Imagine what an offseason full of such talk could do. Tacking on an extra day would have allowed the owners to use the union against itself which would have been a powerful ally if they review the PED penalties as expected this offseason.

Burying the issue is easier than examining it. For the sake of a "clean" 2014 Selig slow played his hand until the players had to accept the suspension. The players were left in an unenviable position: serve the suspension immediately or risk it limiting their opportunities in 2014 and beyond. Pushed, prodded, or cajoled, I refuse to call this opportunity "unfair" because the players linked themselves to a questionable clinic, regardless of whether they actually took illegal substances for tummy aches or some competitive edge. This "clean in '14" campaign Selig is trying for (conveniently his last as commissioner, I hope) requires the biggest name to be stashed for the entire '14 season, with a 211 game suspension, Selig would accomplish just that.

Unfortunately for Bud Selig, A-Rod is planning to appeal his suspension. Financially it makes sense for A-Rod to appeal, he is set to make $7.96 million the rest of this season, $25 million in '14, and $21 million in 2015. Even if the suspension is upheld, A-Rod will have around another month to play and get paid this season. I actually see the suspension being shortened. Selig suspended all players under the Joint Drug Agreement rather than the vague "good of the game" clause in the Collective Bargaining Agreement. A-Rod is getting his stiff suspension for alleged PED use over several years, attempting to hide violations, and for "a course of conduct intended to obstruct and frustrate the Office of the Commissioner," according to MLB. MLB's plea deals were accepted by everyone else, but when A-Rod decided to take his chances via arbitration, Selig swapped his carrot and stick for the hammer and sickle.

Selig seems hell bent on going after A-Rod because he had the audacity to try and purchase potentially incriminating evidence when this whole mess started. Just like MLB did. MLB went even further, suing Tony Bosch into cooperating with their investigation. By going so hard after one player MLB has forced the Union to step in and defend A-Rod, if only to prevent MLB from setting a dangerous precedent for future players. Any attempt to claim multiple suspensions for A-Rod based on Biogenesis documents should be greeted with a high level of skepticism. After all, 3 players who tested positive are not facing a second punishment after the league reviewed the documents. I do not see how a neutral arbitrator would buy that A-Rod is the only player linked to Biogenesis who merits multiple suspensions from the recovered documents. Given the amount of information revealed to date, I expect a 50 game suspension for PEDs and 75-100 for impeding the investigation.

A-Rod has a storied history of rubbing people the wrong way and I have no problem seeing him punished for breaking the rules. I just want to see him punished like every other player. Michael Weiner and the Player's Union agree. Selig looked the other way when steroids brought fans back to the ballpark, with his last season approaching he is once again trying to put steroids out of sight, out of mind, and away from his legacy. A legacy which will receive much more scrutiny next season, a compelling reason to push forward with a "clean in '14" campaign.

From being handed an investigation to forcing players to meekly accepting suspensions, Selig was so close to having everything Biogenesis wrapped up in a neat little package. Except for A-Rod.

At least we know what A-Rod did to frustrate the Office of the Commissioner, he refuses to be bullied, intimidated, and shut out of the league. He dares to keep Bud Selig from sweeping Biogenesis under the rug and riding into the sunset after a Clean in '14 season. And I am fine with that. 

Do you support Selig's actions? Did he do enough or not enough? Do you just want to stop hearing the name Biogenesis? Let me know in the comments below

Friday, July 26, 2013

Why PEDs Matter to Fans

Ryan Braun accepted a 65 game suspension on Tuesday, the first major league suspension issued from the ongoing Biogenesis scandal. It will not be the last suspension we see, nor is this likely to be the end of steroids in the sport. Part of the reason why is the money involved. Braun is losing around $3.2 million for his suspension this season. Yet, he is set to make $10 million next season and his $105 million dollar extension doesn't even kick in until 2016. Part of the reason is that cheaters will always find a way to stay one step ahead of the testers. As in any competition, people will seek out advantages to maximize their opportunities for success. Some are simply willing to go further than others, beyond the rules, because "winning" is more important than "fair." The uproar that Braun's suspension and subsequent pseudo apology has triggered has been shocking because of just how many people actually care. Why are PED suspensions such a big deal in MLB and barely a blip in other major North American sports?

A popular theme has centered around the idea of being lied to. Braun had a positive test suspension from the 2011 postseason overturned in 2012 based on a chain-of-custody technicality. His comments during the investigation and afterward were filled with strong denials and accusations against Dino Laurenzi Jr., the man in charge of handling Braun's sample. Mr. Laurenzi ultimately lost his job over the incident. This week, Braun brokered a deal with MLB and is out for the season, a season where Milwaukee is going nowhere and he is dealing with an injured thumb. He gets to come to the ballpark next season with no threat of suspension and plenty of years to rebuild his reputation. Unfortunately, part of his deal, apparently, is that he cannot speak about the incident until MLB's Biogenesis investigation is concluded. That makes sense, but when you leave the masses without information we will supply our own. "Braun was guilty in 2011", "Braun was using for years before that positive test", "Braun was probably using as late as last week." We don't know, but the public perception is that he lied: lied to the commissioner, his teammates, his family, but most importantly to us. Lying is being paraded as Braun's real problem. His hubris led him to use, to be the best, to try and hide the fact, to deny it loudly, publicly, and often. As if speaking louder has ever made a lie sound better when the speaker knows its a lie. This theory points out Andy Pettitte, Jason Giambi, and others who admitted to using PEDs, who stood on a podium, took a beating for admitting the truth. They did not try and hide behind loud denials or false websites. Wouldn't that just wrap everything up in a nice little moral package fit for Sunday School. Unfortunately, the real world is more complicated than that, for better or worse there are other reasons why PEDs in MLB matter so much to fans.

First of all Major League Baseball makes it matter. For over a decade major league has pushed for more and better testing to catch PED users and punish them. They now boast the most advanced testing policy in major sports. The testing includes baseline results to track players over time and blood testing in addition to urine analysis. The Braun Exception loophole has been closed, players are getting punished. MLB has taken a bold and unnecessary risk in their approach to combat dopers: they air their dirty laundry publicly. No other league would dare consider this option, let alone implement it. MLB is betting on fans wanting a cleaner game, on players wanting clean teammates, to win out over the negative press and they appear to be winning. Indeed the Players Union seems to want those caught doping to be exposed, separated from the good, clean majority. During the BALCO scandal players were quiet, protective, since then they have permitted increased testing, today with Biogenesis players are speaking out. It might shock you that there are NBA ties the Biogenesis clinic. In 2013 there have been 13 NFL players suspended for PEDs, that is the same total as all of MLB from 2009-13. MLB is leading the charge to clean up their game and are willing to take the mud stains that come with it. MLB knows, dovie'andi se tovya sagain.

The fans are the reason MLB is willing to toss the dice, fans care about the history and statistics of the game. Baseball, more than any other sport, has always been about the statistics. From scoreboards and boxscores to fangraphs and baseball-reference, baseball has loved data -and the fans have loved it back. 300 wins, 3000 hits, 56 hits, 2632. The numbers matter to fans. Mets fans can probably tell you Keith Hernandez batting average in 1986 before they could recall their anniversary. Andre Dawson's 1987 MVP season, a glowing highlight to this day for the Cubs, more than a few in Cubs land could tell you he led the led the league in homeruns (49) and rbi (137) without needing a smart phone. Examples exist for every team in every era. Before fantasy sports took root, baseball was the sport for the analytical mind. When MLB looked the other way and tainted sacred records by permitting PEDs, fans enjoyed it, until the reports came out. PEDs took the fun out of the game. We enjoyed watching Sosa, Bonds, and McGuire slug homeruns until it started leaking that it might not have been done "right," not "clean."

Fans have asked for asterisks, white out, or separate records for the Steroid Era. Baseball doesn't work that way, for better or worse the game changes, evolves, and some records fall. Ultimately steroid users will be in the Hall of Fame for a similar reason. The era happened, MLB let it happen, but to be fair to future fans they will be included. Part of what helped make baseball America's pastime were the stats, recorded for all time to be called up and dissected by any curious observer. The other part is the oral history of the game. Box scores don't describe when Babe Ruth called his shot, they don't explain the majesty of the "Shot heard 'round the world" or the class of Lou Gehrig or Roberto Clemente. Fans have enjoyed inviting generations of ballplayers into their homes, their stories, and their hearts. Perhaps if MLB can clean up the game, those traditions will continue and fans can continue to flock to the Church of Baseball

Finally, fans appreciate closure, a closure that PEDs just aren't affording us. From the midweek series on up to a whole season we can get closure in whatever dose is required. The season is long, so long in fact they break it up to have a quasi-exhibition every July. For the 29 teams that don't have a parade at the end of the year, there is closure by October. The season is over, the team can retool, heal, and go for it again next season. This reset button recharges fans batteries and allows us to get excited to see what next year has in store. PEDs don't provide that closure. From Balco to Biogenesis there is the looming specter of another suspension, another tainted athlete. It gets exhausting and depressing.

This desire for closure can be seen in the constant references fans make to Pete Rose. "PED users should be banned for life, like Pete Rose" or "Pete Rose should be in the hall of fame before these bums." Pete Rose and PEDs have very little in common, but people bring it up for a reason. Pete Rose was an example of evil with closure. Pete Rose bet on baseball, admitted it and accepted a lifetime ban to halt the investigation into his gambling. Fans could accept that there was one degenerate gambler, one man who ignored the only rule in baseball that mattered. Since Kenesaw Mountain Landis banned the Black Sox for life following the 1919 World Series, gambling has been verboten. PEDs are viewed as a lesser offense in baseball, players get 3 strikes before they are out. Perhaps the punishment is not as strict as some would like it, but that is another matter. With Pete Rose fans got quick, one and done, closure that PEDs simply do not provide. Of the 1200+ players who are on 40 man rosters every year there is always going to be at least one who seeks an advantage, whatever the costs. There is no closure in that and that too is why fans care, we have been programed to seek out closure, if not in a season than in a players career. In baseball, even the brightest stars eventually fade, but PEDs twinkle on the periphery, annoying and tempting at the same time.

PEDs matter because MLB says so, but more importantly they matter because fans care about the past, the players, and the stats that encompass both. The game will never be completely clean, if it ever has been, but by demanding better testing, by taking its lumps, MLB is trying to make up for its mid-90's mistakes and let fans know that it cares because we made them care. Clean players, clean records, and dirty uniforms, doesn't that sound fun, doesn't that sound just like a kids game should.

Am I onto something or simply on something? Sound off in the comment section below. 

Friday, July 5, 2013

The Shot Callers

Whether the ball flies out to Waveland Avenue or needs a little assist, home runs are game changing moments, lighting up the scoreboard to the delight of fans everywhere. Whether the ball is "crushed", "smoked", "drilled", or "launched" the effect upon the crowd is immediate -unbridled joy for the home fans or stunned silence. This is true if the ball is "way back", a "moonshot" or "just enough" to get over the wall. For fans outside the stands it is up to the announcers to bring the excitement, to get us off our couches and dancing a little jig.

Just as every home run is unique, so is each call. Every announcer attempts to put a distinct call to the moment that lets even the casual listener know the home team has hit one out. With the 4th of July weekend upon us, I thought it would be a great time to put together a list of my favorite home run callers this season. I did not use national broadcasters so you will not hear Chris Berman, Joe Buck, or any of the others mostly because their calls are uninspired cliches honed over the years. I also do not have a clip of every team because some announcers just don't bring joy and excitement to their call. Without further ado lets take a look and a listen at some of this seasons fireworks.

Colorado where "you won't see it for long"

Vin Scully calls Yasiel Puig's first two big league home runs "viva Cuba, viva Puig"

Dick Enberg lets Padres fans know the ball was "crushed...way up and way out"

There was no doubt in San Francisco that "this is OUTTA HERE"

Meanwhile in Houston they let Chris Carter's bat do the talking

Out in Anaheim they are talking "Big Flies" --Erik Aybar knew it was gone

Oakland lets us know "that baby is gone"

Pittsburgh fans are warned to "clear the deck, cannonball coming" --really appreciate how they combine team theme into their call

Cubs and CarGo know there is no need to move when it goes on to Waveland Avenue

They enjoy Miggy's "absolute bombs" in Detroit

Hawk Harrelson, baseballs biggest homer announcer is always fun to listen to. Give him a listen when his team is getting blown out for an inning; he sounds like he needs a nap, a snack and a hug. Oh home run calls he begs the ball to stretch before excitingly telling the fans "you can PUT IT ON THE BOARD....YES!!!"

If you want some "Souvenir City" look no further than Cleveland

Nationals emphatically bid long balls together with a "SEE YOU LATER!"

A fond "SEE YA!" greets Bronx Bombs

 Finally, out in Baltimore the tandem are awestruck by the power of Adam Jones before wishing the ball farewell "Goodbye, Homerun"

Did I miss a team that should be here? Do you prefer lackluster national announcers over local "homer" announcers? Feel free to belt out your opinion in the comment section.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Orioles More Than 1-Run Mirage

Now that we are at the midway point of the baseball season, it is a good time to reflect upon what we have seen and what it might tell us about the future. Granted, the All-Star break is the symbolic half-way point, but sometime this weekend every team will play games 81 and 82 of the season. Now is also the time when fans, no longer distracted by other sports, ,look in for the first time since opening day and see if their team is worth paying attention to. Some will be delighted, others disappointed as they set their sports clocks to football season. For those who love the game there are plenty of stories to read about and consider as teams embark on the second half of the season, fighting through the dog days of summer for a spot in the postseason. Today, I direct your attention to a magical team from last season, the Baltimore Orioles. That magical season paved the way for this season, which should not be as shocking as some imagine.

The 2012 season, like many before it, had its share of surprises. The Oakland A's winning the AL West, Mike Trout, Miguel Cabrera winning the first triple crown in 45 years. Each had its own appeal, its own ability to pull you in and ask; why, how, is this even possible? Amidst these stories the Orioles marched along and, in an effort only appreciated when it is over, led the league with an unprecedented 29-9 record in one run games. That .763 winning percentage is the highest ever over a season. On the strength of that record, the Orioles snatched a wild card berth and made it to the playoffs for the first time in 15 years.

Early season predictions gave the Orioles only token respect in not forecasting them to take last place in the AL East finish. Across the board the common argument was that 2012's record in 1-run games was unsustainable. Given that it was the highest winning percentage in 1-run games ever, that was more or less a given. It was also short sighted. Overlooked was that among the 3 other teams who played 38 or fewer 1-run games (Cleveland 24-12, LA Angels 18-18, Atlanta 25-13) only the Angels failed to have a winning percentage over .650 in those games. Perhaps there is a small sample problem that doesn't get corrected before 40 games played, maybe the three teams just had competent closers. A little research shows that the Orioles were not quite the outliers you might have been led to believe.

Setting an analysis on one factor also overlooked so many positives that should have indicated the Orioles were not going to fade away so easily. There is the Buck Showalter effect --he finished in the top 5 Managers of the Year voting in the second full season at every stop, four teams and counting. There was also the emergence of Chris Davis who, at 26, produced a .270/.326/.501 slash line with 33 home runs in his first season with over 500 plate appearances. Many players achieve their power peak somewhere between 26-28, somehow an emerging star was overlooked by the majority of pundits. With 28 home runs already this season, it is safe to say he will not be sneaking up on anyone going forward.

Perhaps the most telling factor for continued effect was the defensive core that was formed after the 2012 trade deadline when Manny Machado was called up and Nate McLouth was acquired. Adam Jones, J.J. Hardy, and Matt Wieters all received gold gloves for their defense last year. When the entire middle of a defense (CF, SS, C respectively) earns gold gloves in a season that team's defense is top notch. That does not include McLouth, a former gold glove winner in left, or former recipient Nick Markakis in right. Machado moved from shortstop to third to accommodate Hardy and has showcased the skill, range, and arm to win multiple gold gloves at third or short over his career. McLouth, 31, and Hardy, 30, are the only regular everyday players over 30. With only 25 errors and a .992 fielding percentage the Orioles lead all of baseball at their halfway point.

This is not to say that the Orioles should have been locks to win the AL East or are without faults.I have not mentioned starting pitching for a reason; they are lacking a clear ace, similar to last season.
As great as the bullpen was last season, it is almost impossible to expect a bullpen to repeat as successful a season as 2012 was. Indeed Jim Johnson has blown 5 saves this season after saving 51 games last year.

I have not even mentioned the offense, aside from Davis, but given the relative youth most players had room to grow and improve. I am not sure if anyone foresaw Machado threatening the single season doubles record. That is its own story, a story that we should appreciate today, but wait to reflect upon once the season is over. Pundits overlooked the Orioles based on an impressive statistical anomaly. They refused to look deeper and really see this Orioles squad for what it is: young, hungry, driven, and led by one of the best managers in the game today. They are young enough to not accept limitations or conventional norms. It is time to look beyond the pundits mirage. The Orioles are more than a 1-run record and have been since Machado and McLouth joined the team. At 45-36, they are once again in position for at least a wild card birth, which is not as shocking as you might think.


Saturday, June 22, 2013

Trade Winds Blow, but Lee is Anchored in Philly

Now that the first year player draft is over for 2013, General Managers can get back to improving their major league rosters and getting set for possible post season runs. (If you missed the draft, don't worry. Most players are years away from really impacting your team.) Deciding to be active in the trade market is an important decision for each team. Whether buying or selling, the decision puts a very public light on each team's thinking. Selling off prime players usually indicates punting this season, something not always well received. For teams looking to win now, starting pitching is always a rich topic for trade debate and the current top prize is Cliff Lee. Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe is the latest to tout him as the #1 pitcher available on the trade market. While I do not doubt Mr. Cafardo's sources, I just cannot figure out the logistics of Cliff Lee being offloaded this trade deadline.

The object of player transactions in major league baseball is centered around talent acquisition and financial considerations. A team looking to win now will acquire a player and his salary in the short term and are willing to sacrifice longer term prospects to get it. Recently, teams have included cash in a trade in order to get better prospects. The addition of an extra wildcard in each league has upped the number of buyers, increasing the price sellers can extract. Neither of these factors supports the idea of a Cliff Lee mid-season trade.


For Ruben Amaro Jr and the Philadelphia Phillies, trading Cliff Lee would present a potentially great opportunity to replenish a barren farm system. Due to years of trading prospects for talent, including Cliff Lee back in 2009, the farm system has largely been stripped bare of top tier talent. At the beginning of the season Baseball America ranked the Phillies farm system 24th overall. With an aging core in Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, and Carlos Ruiz; the Phils need to decide whether or not they have one last push in them.

If available-- and with the state of their farm system, few players should be untouchable-- Lee would be the top trade target. To date, he sports a 9-2 record with a 2.53 era and a sub 1.0 whip. As a dominant lefty it doesn't take a vivid imagination to see him atop several contending teams rotations. For his part Lee has stated his desire to win a championship. Lee has been traded three previous times and I would not expect his 21 team no-trade clause to be an impediment to his acquisition. Any trade involving Lee would likely center around young, top-tier arms in return.

Were it just Cliff Lee and just for this season this would be a no-brainer acquisition for just about any contending team. No doubt the Phillies will be seeking a Zack Grienke-esq return that Milwaukee received last season. However, he is currently 34 and has at least $78 million coming his way through the 2016 season, which really complicates matters. In his article, Cafardo states that the Phillies could trade Cliff Lee and not have to cover any of his salary while still getting top prospect(s) in return. With $78 million still owed, I just don't see it happening.

Teams would be paying (and hoping) that Lee did not decline too rapidly over the life of the contract, and that he stays healthy. The modern trend of teams seeking younger, more affordable pitching is at odds with Lee's status and affects his trade value. The Orioles are one potential trade team, but they are not going to give up Dylan Bundy's 6 cost-controlled seasons for Cliff Lee. The top players are likely off the table for any team unless the Phillies toss in $25-35 million. The best the Orioles might offer in return are good MLB-ready pitchers who may benefit from a change of scenery and a fresh look as starters such as Brain Matusz or Jake Arrieta. Not terrible names, especially if they parted with both players, but hardly the restocking haul the Phillies are seeking. If you want to mention the Yankees because they have deep pockets that is fine, but their farm system is equally devoid of MLB ready impact players.


Shedding salary is actually not quite the issue it might have been. Every team gets increased television revenue from national contracts starting next season. Given that, payroll relief is less important for next season than it has been previously. If necessary, the Phillies could pick up a portion of Lee's remaining salary and still come out ahead depending on the players sent back.

Teams looking to add the veteran, however, are less inclined to pay for veterans. Veteran players seem to have more traction on as a one year rental or a 1.5 season player (which allows the potential for draft pick compensation to be attached) recently. Zack Wheeler for Carlos Beltran and Jean Segura for Zack Greinke are recent trades supporting this. The longer a veteran is tied to his contract the greater the risk of injury or a production drop off. Most teams have hesitated to take on longer contracts for fear of them becoming albatrosses rather than aids. This increases the salary chip-in while still lowering the prospect returns. Consider A.J. Burnett to the Pirates as an example.  

Additionally, the Phillies have a new local television contract to consider. Their current deal is set to expire after the 2014 season and dumping one of their best players would not aid the Phillies in those negotiations. Given that the deal will run into the billions of dollars and for up to 25 years, the lasts thing teams want to do is hurt their negotiating position. I cannot say how much of an impact Lee's presence will make, but it is not insignificant in the short term.

Due to the size of his remaining contract and his age, I do not see the Phillies finding a trade that will offset losing a bonafide ace when faced with the looming television deal. Throw in that the Nationals are under-performing this season and the Phillies might convince themselves they can put together a run at the NL East this season. The Phillies would love to replenish their farm system and starting pitching is always in demand at the trade deadline. However, with Lee's contract diminishing the return and a looming contract deal tossed into the mix, expect to see Lee remain anchored in Philadelphia this summer.

Can you see a trade being made? Am I missing something, or overlooking a desperate team? Feel free to let me know in the comments below.