Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Cardinals Fans Should Applaud the Machine

Cardinals fans are known to be passionate and intelligent baseball fans. Sadly, this is a rare compliment and St. Louis fans should be proud of such universal acclaim. Given this level of intelligence I expect Cardinals fans to increasingly speak glowingly about Albert Pujols. After all, the Machine is still producing for the Cardinals.

Pujols started his career with one of the greatest 11 year spans of all time. From winning the rookie of the year award to three most valuable player awards and two gold gloves, all he did was produce. He produced an 86.5 WAR value during his St. Louis tenure. He is second behind only the great Stan Musial in many offensive categories for the organization. More than that however, he helped bring two World Series titles to St. Louis. Though he signed a 10 year $240 million contract with the Los Angeles Angels after the 2011 World Series, his contributions to the Cardinals continue.

After Pujols left, the Cardinals acted quickly to bring in Carlos Beltran to replace his bat in a move that has clearly worked out to date and at a fraction of the price. They also opened up the purse strings to extend Yadier Molina to a 5 year $75 million deal. Pricey for a catcher, but as I noted in an earlier post he is the best all around catcher in the game today and arguably more important to the team than Pujols would have been. The Cards have also been able to extend Adam Wainwright, the staff ace, to a 5 year $97 million dollar extension. All three signings cost the Cardinals less than the $210 million the Cardinals offered Albert.

Were it just those players Cardinals fans should jump for joy as they compete for yet another World Series opportunity. However, come Thursday Albert's latest gift is scheduled to make his major league debut. Michael Wacha, a 21 year old flamethrower was drafted 19th overall in 2012 as compensation for Albert's leaving. Earlier this season Baseball America rated him the #6 prospect in the Cardinals #1 ranked farm system. Wacha may only make a brief appearance, but that is due more to the depth of the Cardinals pitching staff than any warts on his ability. He figures to be a rotation staple by the time he reaches arbitration.

I understand why Cardinals fans were upset and/or disappointed with Albert Pujols taking the money and leaving town. He was a face of the franchise, a positive impact in the clubhouse and  in the community. However, he produced over a decade of dominance, the best decade he will likely produce as a player. St. Louis fans will be able to see a new generation flourish and compete rather than politely applauding as Albert inevitably declines. Fans can look back and remember how great he was and all the positives he helped bring to the franchise rather than worry if he is older than he claims. Albert left and is now the Angels problem. Cardinals fans know that in the annals of Cardinals history the greatest offensive players is 1) Stan Musial then 2) Albert Pujols, there is little debate. Albert would probably insist on that ranking himself.

I am not expecting an about face this year or next on Albert Pujols by Cardinal fans. I am not expecting him to ever get a bronze statue outside of Busch Stadium. But, Cardinals fans are intelligent and over the next few years they will look back and realize that while no longer wearing Cardinal red, the Machine kept producing for the Cardinals. Be it Yadier or Wainwright or Wacha, Albert played a part in them being around and for that he has earned a round of applause.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The New DH

This season started the advent of yet another new phenomenon in baseball: year-round interleague play. Nearly every day at least one team from the National League is forced to tangle with a team from the American League. Making each league carry an even number of teams, 15, has that effect on the schedule. Baseball purists have been up in arms decrying this as the latest affront to our National Pastime. They see this as another money grabbing move by Selig and the players to get the National League to adopt the designated hitter (DH). Small ball and true strategy will be gone, the game will be inevitably compromised! Cats will also marry dogs and the apocalypse is nigh! Take a deep breath purists, the game will continue, but there will be a change, what I call "the new DH".

Baseball as a game is constantly evolving. The distance between the mound and home and the distance between bases are about the only two things that haven't changed since baseball as we know it started. The mound has been raised and lowered, rotations have been altered, even the uniforms have changed. Technology and innovation have improved the game, the innovation lasts as long as the players on the roster permit it. The Moneyball A's did not want to steal bases, with their success many spoke of the end of the stolen base. Last year the A's were 9th overall and stole 14 more bases than the league average. The players changed, not the front office. Rumors of stolen bases' demise have been greatly exaggerated. Steroid/PED prevalence likely played a larger role in teams opting for the long ball over small ball.

Purists can rest easy in the knowledge that Bud Selig stated in April that "some cataclysmic event” would be required for the NL to adopt the DH. I do not have an issue with universal designated hitters. We now have 7th inning specialists and LOOGY's, we are in an age of specialization and there is nothing wrong with that. Let pitchers pitch and hitters hit, less embarrassment and less injury risk for all.

But what about strategy? How much strategy is it to know the pitcher will be sacrificing or striking out 8 of 10 times? The idea that small ball and other strategies would disappear is as overblown as the death of the stolen base, and for a similar reason. When the DH was introduced it was done to allow older, big hitting sluggers to continue to contribute and keep going to the ballpark. That notion was amplified through the 90's and aughts. However, no where does it say that is how position must be used.

National League teams are not going to invest heavily in players who can't field for a whopping 19 games, half of which will not have a DH option. The new DH has been employed for a few years now, signing veterans who will take lower salaries and are known as "good clubhouse guys". Jason Giambi, Jim Thome, and Carlos Pena come to mind. Their value is based as much on the off field intangibles as their on field production. Most of these players are being platooned to maximize their value while they mentor younger players. Both leagues have 25 man rosters, but NL teams are often carrying two bench players who are really just bats to the AL's one. Platoon players are another rising trend, batting lefties exclusively against righties and vice versa, which increases the value of every roster spot.

The NL should take an aggressive approach to this for their benefit. When teams play early interleague games, highlight that player, let him produce, then trade him.  Showcase a veteran and ship him out as soon as you get a decent offer. If he is a problem that cannot be traded, dump him. Improve the roster by subtracting a player who has become upset with a lack of at bats as the season wears on. Give his platoon partner a chance to prove himself against all pitchers. If the player is not a problem and no trades materialized, there are worse things than a player/manager/mentor for younger players to look up to.

The DH is not coming to the National League anytime soon. Small ball will not be going anywhere either. Manufactured runs are the lifeblood of postseason play, regardless of league. The game of baseball is evolving yet again to yet another change, NL teams would be wise to turn this situation to their advantage. The friendly, useful veteran is headlining this new DH and at current prices it is a sound gamble to take.

Are you buying in to the new DH or am I talking nonsense? Feel free to sound off in the comment section below.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

All Star Balloting Still Has A Ways To Go

MLB recently released their online balloting for the 2013 All-Star Game taking place at Citi Field July 16. I was waiting for this. I was ready to call on MLB to step up there system to be more judicious, more fair, to players who, well, actually played. Upon reviewing their ballot, I have to applaud the changes they have made, but note there are still ways to improve the ballots.

Previous all star ballots let fans vote for 1 of 8 players for each position. The biggest problem with that was MLB never updated the rosters. Despite being the most tech savvy major sport, they willfully remained stuck in the dark ages when it came to updating online ballots. Arguably this was to show some consistency with ballots fans filled in at ball parks. However, fans were already at a virtual voting advantage as they could vote up to 25x for all stars per e-mail account registered with  Furthermore, the ballots often seemed preordained as players who started break out seasons remained off the ballot while past stars who struggled or were injured remained on the ballot despite not playing at all.

The current ballot appears to go some way to address this issue. Each team has a position player listed and every team has three outfielders. However, there are still a handful of players who have not produced enough to garner "point-and-click" votes due to injury. Injuries that will keep them out until the all-star break anyway. A quick review identified Brian Roberts, Jose Reyes, Derek Jeter, and Brian McCann as names that should be dropped. The first two suffered injuries in season that will keep them out, the latter two have yet to play a game this season. McCann is particularly problematic as his inclusion is keeping Evan Gattis, who is off to a blistering start, from being on the ballot. If MLB really wants to reward its fans it can start giving them the best opportunity to place educated votes for starters and not simply relying on managers selecting the best of the rest. I am not saying Gattis would garner more fan votes than Buster Posey or Yadier Molina, but he deserves more votes than McCann this year. 

Roster lists appear to have been submitted by each team to MLB sometime during Spring Training on what they thought would be their projected starters. Given how MLB provides a daily updated lineup link for each team, I find it hard to believe that could not create a list based off opening day rosters or update it based on updated information (such as long term injuries). Yes each of these players mentioned have previously been all-stars. They are fan favorites to many even outside their current teams. If fans really want to see them, that is why the write-in candidate box exists.

Current stars. Rising Stars. The Next Generation. The All-Star Game should highlight these players, build the game with more new players, not mediocre production (if any) from older names. With so many teams embracing a youth movement MLB should jump on that bandwagon and knock off players who do not play in April or miss more than 25 days. Josh Hamilton would not make my ballot today, but at least he is playing, if you want to vote him in go ahead. Jeter, icon of all things Yankees though he is, does not deserve to be on the ballot. He is injured, he will not play before the all-star break. Future Hall of Famer though he is, he does not warrant being voted onto the all star team even if this is his last season. If enough people want to disagree with me and write his name in, I could live with that result. I find it hard to believe that enough people would vote him as the best American League shortstop despite not playing a single inning, but I have been wrong before. 

The perversion of the All-Star Game from an exhibition of the games top stars to having some relevance should encourage managers to endorse this remedy. When the game was "just" for the fans there was little harm in letting players on the team to tip their caps and sign some autographs. Unfortunately, Bud Selig decided the game needed to "mean" something and tied it to home field advantage in the World Series. With such a prize awarded to the victor, each manager should want the best current players on his team. That is the best players of this season, not of their careers. Pitchers who pitch the Sunday before the game are already blocked from participation, which limits how effective the managers can be. Allowing fans to dictate starting rosters, and presumably players who will play the longest, further cripples managers abilities so long as lackluster options are just a click away.

Popular, but limited, players do not help either side win. They also keep casual fans from seeing the next batch of all-star talent. Baseball fans are not dumb, most can put aside team affiliations for the All-Star Game and appreciate the spectacular performances provided. MLB has improved their online balloting by including more players than ever, but until they start knocking players off due to significant injuries or failure to play in games, they are still doing their fans a disservice.