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.