04 December 2016

We Don't Care About the CBA...and That's Great

You've probably heard that the owners and players' union have hammered out a new five-year collective bargaining agreement that guarantees labor peace will extend to 26 years since the 1994-95 lockout.

And your eyes probably glazed over at the terms players' union, collective bargaining agreement and labor peace. This is an excellent development in a sport that used to be consumed with those considerations.

A Little History
From the sport's early days to the 1970s, baseball was ruled by owner-overlords protected against anti-trust restrictions by Congress. Players were literally treated like chattel. When the players' union, led by the brilliant Marvin Miller, began asserting its rights in the late 1960s, the battles with owners were over the larger philosophical issue of whether employees had the right to negotiate the terms of their employment.

It took a series of labor battles, both at the bargaining table and in the courts, and an almost unbroken string of union victories, for the balance of power to shift. By the time of the destructive '94-'95 power struggle that cancelled the World Series and delayed the start of the following season, the millionaire players and their intransigent union chief, Donald Fehr, could no longer credibly argue that the fight was about securing rights.

Although the players mostly prevailed in 1995, many fans were disgusted with them. Members of the union increasingly felt the fight was simply over money. At the same time, the old-style autocrats were ceding their ownership to business people more amenable to the new reality of a freer labor market. In the wake of the embarrassing spectacle that pitted millionaires against billionaires and robbed Americans of their national pastime, both sides recognized the need to ditch the dogma and find reasonable compromises.

Today's Reality
Having passed through that painful chapter, players and owners have been thriving. The bones of contention between them are narrow fights over how to divide a rapidly-growing pot of revenues -- the kind that lend themselves to easier compromise.

So two decades later, of course we have labor peace. Why shouldn't we? Viewed through the prism of the 70s and 80s, this is an accomplishment. But viewed through common sense, it is simply tinkering. The 15-day DL is now the 10-day DL. Qualifying offers for free agents will be watered down. The minimum salary will rise. Wake us up when you get to the interesting parts.

I read an analysis that castigated the union for allowing the owners to "win" this round of bargaining. But that is an antiquated view of the negotiations. The players and the owners  understand that their interests generally dovetail and no longer view negotiations as a win-lose proposition. And as long as that's true, it's generally a win for the fans.

22 November 2016

Infrequently Asked Questions

You have questions? I have answers. Some of them are even right answers.

These are the questions baseball fans have been sending my way lately:

Q. Can the Indians return to the World Series next year?
A. Which is to say, can they make the playoffs? Fo' shizzle. Their two injured starters return to join my Cy Young pick, Cory Kluber, and Trevor Bauer is poised to take the next step. They lose Mike Napoli's bat but add by subtraction in the field. If Michael Brantley can return to anything like his 2015 self in 2017, and Lindor, Naquin and Ramirez avoid catastrophic sophomore slumps, they could be even better. With the Royals, White Sox and Twins reeling, only the Detroits have the stuff to challenge Believeland.

Q. When does the Yankees' rebuild pay off?
A. Sooner than any of us want it to. They very likely have the best Minor League system in baseball today, and that's even after Gary Sanchez and Greg Bird made The Show.

Q. Should the Mets sign Yoenis Cespedes?
A. It's not my money, so sure! The Amazins can hurl with anyone, particularly with Gsellman in the mix and a potential Wheeler bounce-back, but they have fewer bats than an aquarium. Getting Neil Walker back is nice, but the Mets had better sign someone who can thump or the fans will be doing the hurling. They can sign Cespedes for some gargantuan contract that he won't be worth, once again playing three left fielders in their outfield. But who's the alternative -- DH Edwin Encarnacion? DH-in-waiting Jose Bautista?

Q. Which is the worst team in baseball next year?
A. i wouldn't bet against the Reds.

Q. What should the Jays do about their two big free agents?
A. Toronto is in a pickle. Lose Bautista and Encarnacion and there go 70 home runs out the door. Each is expecting the kind of deal that could sink a team as they age poorly. The Blue Jays are too good to punt and too smart to bankrupt the future on a 36-year-old defensive liability. I think the brass are hoping the market for Bautista cools and they can reclaim him for a reasonable amount.

Q. Is Andrew McCutchen over?
A. Boy, that would be precipitous -- from the game's most dynamic player to replacement level in one year. Regression to the mean suggests he'll be a 3-4 win player next season -- very good, but not the 'Cutch we knew. After that he's 31.

Q. How good can the Mets be next season? They were ravaged by injuries in '16 but overperformed; could they get a lot better and win fewer games in '17?
A. Depends on the sticks. The lineup they have today couldn't beat O'Neil's Texaco from the Bay Village Little League. They need to find some lumber, whether from inside the roster or plucked off another one. Add some scoring to 140 starts out of deGrom, Syndergaard, Gsellman, Harvey, Wheeler and Matz, and they're a serious World Series contender.

Q. Is there anyone on the free agent wire who can help my Orioles pitching staff?
A. Zippo, zilch, nada, nuttin, nil. Rich Hill's the best moundsman out there and he's 37 with 24 good starts in his pocket.

Q. Are we forgetting about Buster Posey?
A. Who? His output dipped 50 points of OPS in his age 29 season but he's still an above-average hitter with mad framing skills who was worth four wins to the Giants. He's a Hall of Fame argument, depending on how he ages, and still one of the best receivers in the game. It wouldn't surprise me if he hit .300 next year with a bump in home runs and 5+ wins of value.

Q. Who is the most under-rated player in baseball?
A. There are two variables in that question, one of which is, how is a particular player "rated." For the past two years I've touted Marlins outfielder Christian Yelich. The low-key 24-year-old has a Gold Glove, a Sliver Slugger and a .293/.368/.483 batting line over a three-and-a-half year career. 

Q. Didn't Ian Kinsler sort-of get his wish?
A. When the Rangers flipped him to Detroit for Prince Fielder before the 2014 season, Kinsler called GM Jon Daniels a "sleazeball" and wished a 0-162 record on Texas. Since then, he's added 18 wins and a division title to the Tigers, but Texas has won its division each of the last two seasons, even as injuries ended Fielder's career prematurely. So assuming Kinsler hates the Rangers and not Prince Fielder, all he has is the satisfaction that his side got the better of the deal.

Q. What can we reasonably expect from Gary Sanchez in 2017?
A. Not that. Fangraphs projects .268/.329/.490 with 26 home runs and four wins against replacement. Pretty good for $540,000.

Q. It felt like Terry Francona out foxed Joe Maddon in the World Series. Why does everyone love Maddon?
A. For all the right reasons. He's smart and open to new ideas. His players love playing for him. He keeps it light over 162 games. He knows his players and never panics. That said, I agree that Tito did a great job of matching his limited assets -- most notably Cory Kluber and Andrew Miller -- against the Cubs' deep vein of talent. 

Q. I can't decide whether Hal Steinbrenner is a better owner than his father. George was a lunatic but his teams won.
A. That's not technically a question, frequently asked or otherwise. It's a different time now. George could bully the rest of baseball then in a way Hal can't today. New York enjoyed advantages -- not just financial-- that pre-dated the luxury tax, shared revenue and a social media landscape that makes anywhere the center of the media world depending on who's Tweeting. George's brand of insanity would be a colossal failure today.

Q. You made it pretty clear that you think Donald Trump is a sociopath. What policies of his are you rooting for?
A. My problem with Trump is not partisan;  who even knows where he stands on the issues? The problem is he's a despicable human being who remains willfully ignorant of the job he sought. Replacing the Affordable Care Act and enforcing some fiscal discipline would be welcome developments, though I have zero faith he will accomplish either.

Q. What is ahead for Bryce Harper? He was the world's best player in 2015 and then hit .243 last year.
A. Almost no one's career progresses in a straight line. Harper appeared to be dinged up last year, yet he managed a .373 OBP, 24 homers and three wins against replacement. His 2015 might have been a one-off, but Fangraphs projects a big bounce back for him, particularly in the power department.

Q. What do the Cubs do if Jason Heyward continues to suck?
A. The only thing that's certain is that they'll keep paying him through 2023.

Q. Where does Aroldis Chapman land and for how much?
A. Are we assuming he's chasing the cash? Word is he and the Yankees are courting.

Q. Am I crazy or is this Hot Stove season shaping up as the worst ever? The free agent crop is garbage.
A. The free agent crop is mostly garbage. As for your mental health, you should see a professional.

Q. Who is going to be the best free agent pickup this winter?
A. Ian Desmond? Versatile defenders with broad skill sets tend to have high floors, and speedsters tend to age well. Plus he's good looking and of uncertain ethnicity.

That's enough for now. Keep those cards and letters coming. And try to put the questions in question form.

18 November 2016

The Mike Trout Award

Congratulations to the AL MVP Award for winning Mike Trout in 2016. 

The best player on the planet doesn't need another MVP designation, or the three other MVPs he earned but failed to procure because writers don't always understand logic.

Mike Trout is already a Hall of Fame candidate at age 25, with more lifetime wins against replacement than Hall of Famer Jim Rice, who toiled for 11 more seasons than Trout has so far played.

Trout is only the third player in baseball history to finish in the top three in MVP voting five consecutive years (joining Albert Pujols and Barry Bonds) and the first ever to do it in his first five seasons. 

No, Trout is in Greatest of All Time territory without MVP awards. But the MVP award was in serious jeopardy of losing its relevance if it had once again failed to attach itself to the transparently best player in the world. Debates over "value" are pedantic and vapid in the face of Mike Trout's prowess and were pushing the MVP award dangerously close to occupying the space currently held by the Miss America Award, the vice presidency and the AFC South champion.

Congratulations, AL MVP award, for winning Mike Trout. And saving yourself.

16 November 2016

The Brand New Geriatric Braves

The last place Braves just aged 85 years, inking geriatric pitchers Bartolo Colon and R.A. Dickey, and forking over $20 million in the process. That has led some to wonder if their heads are screwed on straight.

Oh they're on straight all right, and looking ahead. The Braves are telling their fan base that 2017 won't be their year. But keep an eye out for 2018.

Why would a rebuilding squad offer a contract to a 42-year-old in decline and a 43-year-old with weight issues? Because pitchers that age gleefully sign one-year deals, and the Braves need a bridge year to develop their young mound talent. 

Colon and Dickey will give way to the next generation of hurlers, but not until they young dudes are ready. Until then, Colon and Dickey join 25-year-olds Julio Teheran and Mike Foltynewicz in the rotation, with 24-year-olds Aaron Blair and Matt Wisler duking it out for the fifth starter spot.

For the past four seasons, Dickey has been a below-average starter and Colon a mixed bag that could pop at any moment. But as long as they eat innings, the non-contending Braves don't care. Perhaps the pair will teach the young lads a thing or two about life in the Bigs while they're at it.

In the process, Colon aims to become the winningest Dominican pitcher ever, with 11 Ws to pass Juan Marichal's 243. He and Dickey will become the second pair of 42-year-olds in baseball history (after Phil Neikro and Gaylord Perry with the '81 Braves) to start 10 games each -- if they make it.

It's another step in Atlanta's rebuild, which has proceeded at a faster pace than that of several other bottom feeders, like Cincinnati, San Diego, Arizona and Philadelphia. In the meantime, the team's supporters can enjoy their new billion-dollar stadium in the suburbs.

11 November 2016

The NL Cy Young -- Grab Your Aspirin

Choosing 2016's best pitcher in the American League was a matter of dicing the available information. Do you more heavily weigh ERA or FIP? Which is more important, WHIP or K/BB? That kind of thing.

The problem with choosing the Cy Young winner in the NL is more one of philosophy. Does the Cy Young go to the best pitcher or the most valuable? Because it's pretty clear who the best pitcher in the world is, and was this season, when he pitched. At 12-4, 1.69, and a 15.64 strikeout-to-walk ratio, Clayton Kershaw is the universe's grand poobah of the mound. That's as obvious as a hurricane.

But Kershaw made only 21 starts this year, succumbing to injury for all of July and August. During those two months, he contributed a grand total of nothing to the Dodgers.

How do you compare that to, say, Max Scherzer, who went 20-7, 2.96 in 100 more innings than Kershaw?

Or to Kyle Hendricks, who bolted from the bottom of the Cubs' stacked rotation to lead the league in ERA, with a 16-8, 2.13 line? He allowed half-a-run more per game than Kershaw, but hurled 70 more innings.

The Crowd of Great Starters
In total, eight starters limited their opponents to fewer than three earned runs per game. That's a fat list of names to consider and it leaves off the likes of Jake Arrieta, Carlos Martinez and Julio Teheran. Among them are legitimate Cy candidates Jon Lester (19-5, 2.44 in 202 innings), Noah Syndergaard (14-9, 2.60 in 184 innings), Madison Bumgarner (15-9, 2.74 in 227 innings) and the special case of Jose Fernandez (16-8, 2.86 in 182 innings before his death, and 12.5 strikeouts per nine innings.)

Lester benefited from the great Cubs infield and Syndergaard from Citi Field. Bumgarner and Fernandez were a hair less impressive than the top three candidates, particularly if you discount hitting for MadBum and sentiment for Fernandez. Kudos also to Tanner Roark and Johnny Cueto for superb seasons, but not ultimately Cy Young quality this year.

So my top three are Hendricks, Kershaw and Scherzer. Let's consider them.

Parsing the Top Three
Because Hendricks played in front of the best infield in the Majors, he could record outs more often than other pitchers without fanning opponents. The advanced stats say Hendricks' ERA was heavily polished by the awesome defensive cast in Chicago.

Kismet smiled on Scherzer's ERA also, but unlike Hendricks he was a horse, leading the league in workload. He led pitchers in wins against replacement, because while Hendricks sat on the bench while a reliever finished the job and Kershaw sat in the clubhouse rehabbing, Scherzer was still on the hill, mowing down batters. 

Scherzer was the most valuable pitcher in the NL this year.

Ultimately, It's The Claw
But here's the thing: Despite missing all that time, Kershaw earned just half-a-win less against replacement than Scherzer. His output was so spectacular, and so transcendent, that he was still the second most valuable pitcher in the league, despite missing a third of the season.

That's why I would vote for Clayton Kershaw for Cy Young. He was simply the best pitcher, by a country mile, in the NL.

Max Scherzer, for his sustained excellence, earns my #2 vote and Kyle Hendricks #3. The ERA is gaudy, but peek behind the curtain and you do see some duct tape and bailing wire.

If your philosophical bent is more in the direction of value, put Scherzer's name on your metaphorical ballot (or real one, if you are honored with a vote.) More than any other NL pitcher, he took the ball every fifth day and gave his team a chance to win. Clayton Kershaw? He won games almost by himself.

08 November 2016

The AL Cy Young Conundrum

Remember what an easy call the two MVP races are? Kris Bryant and Mike Trout are far and away the most valuable players in their leagues this year.

But good golly Miss Molly are the Cy Young competitions a quagmire. Depending on how you slice it, one person's ripe fruit is another person's rind. 

Taking a gander at the junior circuit first, there are a bevy of candidates.  

Rick Porcello went 22-4, 3.15 for the Red Sox, with a league-leading 6-1 strikeout-walk rate.  

J.A. Happ, in his season of redemption, earned a 20-4, 3.18 line, though the advanced stats give his Toronto defense a lot of the credit.  

Justin Verlander bounced back to 16-9, 3.04,  and the AL's lowest WHIP and highest pitching WAR. 

The Yankees' Masahiro Tanaka owned a 14-4, 3.07 resume despite a relatively low strikeout rate. 

And Chris Sale, for all the drama of his season in Chicago, pitched to a line of 17-10, 3.34 and completed a league-leading six games.

Verlander's year was stealthy-great. He paced the league in strikeouts and and hurled a healthy 227 frames. The advanced stats say his ERA was partially a figment of defense and ballparks. I award him the bronze medal.

Porcello really shined and would get my second place vote. The advanced stats like him but he's a little light on whiffs, which is the one thing a pitcher can claim nearly total credit for. 

For my money, the best pitcher in the AL was Cleveland's Corey Kluber. At 18-9, 3.14, he didn't lead the league in anything  but was among the best at everything. He anchored the Tribe's killer rotation, pitching a lot innings with an excellent K-BB ratio, a low WHIP and more strikeouts than frames. The advanced stats love him, giving him their highest grades. The playoffs aren't considered for this, but they certainly vindicate this choice.

What's that you say? One of the others is your guy? Go for it. There's no credible argument against any of the pitchers named here.

Just please, don't talk to me about Zach Britton. The guy was a horse out of the Oriole pen, with an 0.54 ERA and 47 saves. He deserves the Rolaids Relief Award, unless Andrew Miller steals it. But the dude pitched a grand total of 67 innings -- one at a time, and that's just a quantum leap easier than throwing six frames each time out. Meausring him against starters is an apples and zebras comparison.

That's not a knock on Britton. Over the last three years, he's thrown 209 innings -- about a full year for a starter. Batters have touched him up for a 1.38 ERA and 0.9 WHIP. In that one year's worth of pitching he earned nine wins against replacement -- roughly MVP level. He's a stud, but so is Mike Trout. And neither one deserves the Cy Young.

06 November 2016

The Biggest Game of All

Here's the situation in the critical game on Tuesday:

Your team is among the league's best, despite lousy pitching that could sink its playoff chances. You need a new arm in the rotation.

You could bring up that guy from Triple-A, the one with the 5.38 ERA, questionable work habits and dubious make-up. Last time he was up, he made a mess of things.

Or you could insert into the rotation a professional carnival barker who has never thrown a pitch in his life. He wants to put the glove on his penis and won't listen to the professionals who tell him how to use it correctly. 

The carny says he's going to make a touchdown against Mike Trout. He insulted the manager's wife. He promises to get on the mound and flip the bird to the fans, maybe punch the kid in the front row.

Some of the front office people want the nutcase-- he'll shake things up. He's bold. Fresh blood. He'll make the team great again.

Sure, you understand their frustration, but the team is already pretty good. Besides, the guy thinks your team's problem is that it doesn't score enough goals. He offers confidence without ability. Everyone in the league hates him, including many of his would-be teammates.

The front office guys who want the clown say your triple-A pitcher stinks -- he's just as bad. You might as well try the other guy.

But the Triple-A guy is not just as bad because at least he's a baseball player. The other guy is a mentally ill circus employee.

Then one of the seamheads in the basement office observes that those aren't your only choices. There's a guy, for example, in Double-A who doesn't bring heat but has nice secondary pitches. Good command. Great make-up. A much better alternative than the bum and the lunatic. Why not bring him up?

They're deadlocked and so they come to you, the owner. It's your choice. 

What will you decide?

02 November 2016

Why the Tribe Has To Win in Seven

If you can believe in momentum -- that magic spirit that predicts the past -- I can believe in karma. This is the karma World Series, where good is triumphing over evil and the tortured will have their suffering eased.

If I'm reading the gods right, the Tribe must triumph in seven, not six or five. Or if it's God, the loving and righteous God who gave us baseball in the first place, surely He, in his infinite wisdom, even more infinite than a pitching change, must want a Series this year that comforts the afflicted most, which is a seven-game variety.

It's the least they, or He, could do, considering the abomination that will be visited upon Americans next Tuesday. 

The Cubs and their long, long-suffering supporters have already tasted victory and redemption. They have won their first pennant and competed in their first World Series in 71 years. There is joy in Chicago radiating across the nation even if they succumb in the championship.

The Indians have been here twice before in recent years and come away empty, most notably in 1997 when the taste of victory was on their tongues before it dribbled off the (Joe) Table. For them to find redemption requires a dogpile and a parade, just like LeBron and crew enjoyed.

So karma favors the Tribe, but why seven games? Here's why:

With Cleveland up 3-1, a quick Indians victory would have swept back the ill winds and extended the hardship of the unfortunate. Getting wiped out of the World Series suggests the Cubs remain lovable losers, which, given this roster and its expectations, is no longer lovable. On the other hand, clawing back with their season in the balance  before the home fans in their cathedral in Game 5, and then again in Game 6 on the road, shows this young squad's toughness, resilience and heart. 

Which sets them up perfectly for the moral victory necessary when they lose Game 7 to the plucky, duct-taped Tribe. The upshot: the suffering is completely erased in Cleveland; and a goodly part of the pain is expunged in Chicago where they can feel good about how they fought when they were down. 

Making America great again. Because of baseball. And karma.

Then it's wait 'til next year for real on the North Side, with a team that will once again enjoy favored status. Good karma all around, thank God.

Or gods, whichever the case may be.

Addendum: Well, there's no such thing as karma. And there's still no such thing as momentum.

31 October 2016

We Interrupt This World Series to Talk MVP

Discussing the season's MVP awards while the World Series is underway is like examining NFL draft positions during Super Bowl week. Except worse, because the Super Bowl is silly while the World Series is important.

Nonetheless, we venture, largely because the two MVP awards are easy picks. Here, choose your guy:

Player A: .318 BA, 31 HR. 26 of 30 steals. Great defense, corner outfield.
Player B: .315 BA, 30 HR. 30 of 37 steals. Very good defense up the middle.

Pretty even, right? Now add this:
Player A: 49 walks, .363 OBP
Player B: 116 walks, .441 OBP

Oh, and this:
Player A: great hitting home park, surrounded by sluggers.
Player B: average hitting home park, lousy lineup around him.

It's becoming a no-brainer, right? Player A, with a 131 OPS+ (31% better than average) and 9.6 WAR is a stud. Player B, with a 174 OPS+ and 10.6 WAR is the league's MVP.

So it's agreed: MIke Trout is the MVP over Mookie Betts and it's not terribly close.

In the NL, the MVP didn't hit .300 or lead the league in OBP, slugging, home runs or RBI. He isn't the best defensive player. He's simply top 10 in everything with a special bonus to boot. 

So while Daniel Murphy was a revelation at the plate, and led the league in OPS, he's a liability in the field. Joey Votto's OBP led the NL, but his defensive value is limited as a first baseman. Nolan Arenado paced the circuit in homers (again) and makes batters cry with his defense, but the offense must be tempered by his home park (Denver.)

Kris Bryant is your MVP. His OPS is fourth in the league, he smacked 39 home runs and he's a whiz in the field. Plus, he offers Joe Maddon valuable defensive flexibility, logging solid innings at the hot corner, the two corner outfield spots and even first base. His WAR (7.7) is a full win ahead of anyone else's.

In olden times (last decade) Murphy would have swept the award for his big offensive stats and his position on the field. David Ortiz might have done the same in the AL. We know better now the true cost of their poor (or non-existent) defense, and recognize the players who actually deserve it.

30 October 2016

The Cubs' Chances of Winning the World Series

If you saw the post-game interview with Corey Kluber after last night's Game 4 win for Cleveland, you got a taste of why he's in the running for his second AL Cy Young. Not that a wicked arsenal of pitches isn't useful, but Kluber demonstrated poise, equanimity and perspective that have to help on the mound during a tense three-hour battle.

Behold his response to a question about winning the series following Game 4:

“I think we like the position we’re in, but the task isn’t done yet. We still have one more game to win, and we’re going to show up tomorrow and play with the same sense of urgency we’ve played with until this point. We don’t want to let them build up any momentum and let them get back in the series.”

It's an uphill fight for the Cubs, certainly. If each game is a tossup, the Cubs' 12.5% chance of winning the next three games for the championship is less than the odds that an ignorant troglodyte sociopath will be our nation's next commander-in-chief. So that's pretty sobering.

But the point is, they don't have to win three games; they only have to win the next one. Then their chances double, and the series offers them a day off and a new opportunity.

The World Series isn't anything like over, as Kluber notes. You'd rather be in his position than Chicago's, but a couple of timely hits in the next two games could change all that.

28 October 2016

Is an Outfield Bobble Worth 34 Home Runs?

There's talk today that Indians manager Terry Francona wants to get Carlos Santana's bat into the DH-less lineup and so will play him in left field in Game 3 tonight.


It's not Santana's bat that gets into the game by virtue of his placement in left field. It's Mike Napoli's.

You see, Santana is no worse a first baseman than Napoli, which is damning with the faintest of praise. Neither of these guys is Keith Hernandez. But Santana's a better hitter, and so without a DH Napoli would have sat and Santana would have manned the cold corner.

But the pair crushed 68 home runs this season, something that might be useful on a windy night in the Friendly Confines.

So Santana and Napoli will certainly get six trips to the plate tonight, probably eight and maybe more.

In exchange, there might (or might not) be a ball or two that challenges Santana in left field, one that Brandon Guyer or Coco Crisp might have corralled, or cut off, or played better in some other way.

From Francona's standpoint, it's not much of a tradeoff. You put the bat in the game every time.

23 October 2016

Cubs, Wait 'Til Next Year

It's the most satisfying World Series match-up I can remember.

I loved the Angels-Giants of '02, a pair of franchises that had not won a championship in their cities.  White Sox-Astros of '05 thrilled because Houston had never seen a dogpile and the South Siders had last stood atop the baseball world in 1917.

Of course, the ending of the curse in Boston in '04 was special, mostly because of the ALCS comeback against the hated Yankees. But that World Series was something of an anti-climax.

Last year's Royals-Mets Series gave us a pair of distinct styles, not to mention long-suffering fan bases. That my team prevailed was extra special.

With the Cubs and Indians, what's exciting is not just that one fan base or the other will revel in the first World Championship of its lifetime. It also feels like the two best teams are competing for the title. The Cubs won eight more games than everyone else despite cruising home the last third of the season.

In the AL, the three division champs  won roughly the same number of games, but the metrics suggested the Rangers were something of a fluke. Boston and Cleveland were the contenders for best AL squad, and despite a pitching staff depleted by unfortunate injuries, the Tribe dominated the division series between them before dispatching Toronto with relative ease.

In the Words of Tom Hanks, Go Tribe!
And now, despite the 108-year wait for the Cubs, I hope Cleveland takes the title. Why? Because the Cubs, with their immense youth, talent and deep pockets, really can wait 'til next year. Their team stays intact, Kyle Schwarber returns and they can always add a free agent -- if they can find a weakness. How much worse will it be for North Side fans if their nine breaks a 109- or 110-year old curse?

The Indians, on the other hand, have caught lightning in a bottle. Their future is much more murky.  Youngsters Francisco Lindor, Tyler Naquin and Jose Ramirez have shocked us with their play, but can they keep it up? What if their two injured starters aren't the same after this year?They can't get by on a rotation of Cory Kluber and a Bunch of Goobers. It just feels like a shakier foundation there.

Cleveland should be formidable next year, regardless, but there is so much more uncertainty with them. So I'd like to see them win the World Series in a dramatic seventh game, and then watch the Cubs return next season to take the title.

At least that's how it would happen if I were writing the screenplay.

21 October 2016

It's Over: There's No Way the Cubs Lose to the Dodgers*

The Cubs go back to Wrigley with a 3-2 lead after winning two of three in L.A. So the series is over. After all:

  • The Cubs have never lost a 3-2 lead in an NLCS when returning home for games 6 and 7.*

*Cough - Bartman - Cough

  • Clayton Kershaw. the Dodgers Game 6 starter, can't win in the postseason.*

*His Game 2 shutout in this series not withstanding.

  • The 103-win Cubs never lost two games in a row this season.*

*Except for the 19 times they did.

  • The home team has a big advantage.*

*Having lost three of the five games so far in this series.

  • The Dodgers aren't going to win two elimination games against a great team.*

*The way they did against the Nationals a week ago.

  • The Cubs get a huge pitching mismatch in Game 7 with Cy Young incumbent Jake Arrieta against journeyman Rich Hill.*

*Hill won the first match-up between them 6-0.

  • The Cubs have momentum.*

*Which they had after Game 1, before losing the next two. Which the Dodgers had after Game 3 before losing the next two.

  • Chicago is a team of destiny.*

*Unless they're not.

20 October 2016

Imagining Cubs Vs. Indians

Let your mind consider the delicious possibility of Indians vs. Cubs.

  • The 108-year curse vs. the 68-year drought. To anyone under 75, it's the same thing.
  • Terry Francona vs. Theo Epstein. The Hall-bound strategist vs. The Hall-bound strategist. The battle of the 86-year-old '04 curse killers.
  • Yankee trade deadliner Aroldis Chapman vs. Yankee trade deadliner Andrew Miller.
  • The pitiful fans of the Browns vs. the pitiful fans of the Bears.
  • The city of Jordan's Bulls vs. the city of LeBron's Cavs.

  •  The team of destiny vs. the team no one expected.

Dodgers, nothing personal, but please get out of the way.

19 October 2016

What We've Learned From the Playoffs So Far


No really, we haven't learned a thing.

The playoffs are a lottery. A five-game series at a particular moment in time doesn't tell us anything about the two teams that are competing, unless the Chicago Cubs are playing O'Neil's Texaco, my winless Little League team.

The Indians deserve credit and congratulations for defeating Toronto in the ALCS. Terry Francona earned his master's degree in Pitching Strategy and the bullpen delivered like an obstetrician. But Cleveland, now down to one reliable starter, can't claim a superior rotation to Toronto's quartet of Aaron Sanchez, J.A. Happ, Marcus Stroman and Marco Estrada, and it can't claim bigger boppers than the Blue Jays'.

But when speedster Coco Crisp hits home runs and rookie Ryan Merritt, he of 11 Major League innings, pitches shutout ball, it vividly demonstrates what a roll of the dice a handful of games is.

By the same token, what can we possibly deduce from Anthony Rizzo and Ben Zobrist becoming Sandy Koufax -- the hitter -- for the playoffs? It's all of seven games at this writing, three of which involving Madison Bumgarner and Clayton Kershaw.

We're down to three teams, one of which will win the World Series, and there's two chances in three they'll erase a multi-generational curse while they're at it. It'll serve to spark a dogpile, quench a fan base and add to jewelry collections.

It just won't prove a thing.

05 October 2016

The Wild Card Kerfuffle Over A Closer

The controversy over Buck Showalter leaving his unhittable reliever in the bullpen with Baltimore's Wild Card elimination game against Toronto hanging in the balance reminds me of the dust-up in MLB's inaugural Wild Card game between Atlanta and St. Louis.

In that contest, a highly questionable infield fly call cost the Braves a bases-loaded rally in the eighth inning of a game they ultimately lost 6-3.

In that contest, the Braves didn't lose because of one infield fly rule, as was pointed out convincingly here. They lost because they made three infield gaffes and stranded a dozen runners.

Similarly, the Orioles' loss can't be laid at the feet of their skipper for mis-managing his pen. While it's hard to defend Showalter's determination to husband Zach Britton -- season ERA 0.54 -- for a save situation, that had less to do with their defeat than producing four base runners in 11 innings did.

The O's lived and died by the home run all year and Tuesday it served as their post-season hemlock. The Jays were the better team anyway and now we'll see what they can do in the playoffs.

04 October 2016

Great World Series Matchups I'd Like to See

For years, baseball fans fantasized about a Cubs-Red Sox World Series. It would be the Futility Series -- 86 years for one fan base and 100+ years for the other since the last championship.

Sadly, David Ortiz and his band of self-styled morons shot that to pieces in 2004 and then again in 2007 and 2013. Boston is no longer the land of near misses but the annoying home of multi-sport titles. 

That is no longer the World Series I want to see, especially if the band from Boston were to emerge victorious.My main criterion for rooting, if I don't have a horse in the field, is to cheer for the longest-suffering.

So for me, the marquee match-up now is Chicago vs. Cleveland. The Indians have not won the World Series in nearly 70 years, which means whichever team would emerge from that series would be quenching a multi-generational thirst. Moreover, like the Cubs, the Indians have been relentlessly pathetic during the long drought.

In truth, the Cubs against anyone is the dream World Series this year, but wouldn't the drama be heightened if they faced Texas, which has never won a World Series, than Baltimore, which has gone 33 years without a title, but has plenty to admire from its past? I'd say, at least a little.

My next favorite match-up is the Rangers and Nationals, two teams that have never won a World Series. Texas is the former Washington Senators, so some old-timers could admire that.  A Texas-San Francisco tilt would reprise the 2010 World Series, but the excitement would depend on the Rangers exacting revenge. I'm plenty tired of the Giants. Give some other fan base a chance.

How about the Nationals and Orioles in a Beltway Battle? I'd find that intriguing and so would much of the nation's capital, but would the rest of the country care? Padre fans, wanna weigh in on that one? Either one of you?

If the Blue Jays and Nationals squared off we would be pitting Canada's only team against Canada's former team, as Washington emigrated from Montreal. I wonder if any Expo fans now root for the Nats.

How about a 30th anniversary edition of the Mets and Red Sox, with Mookie Wilson throwing out the first pitch? Bill Buckner could set up as backstop and let it roll between his legs.

The Amazing Mets of 2016 taking on the Orioles -- would that wake the echoes of 1969 at all? I think we're starting to scrape the bottom of the barrel now.

The truth is that any World Series not involving the Giants or Red Sox would pit two long-starved fan bases. Among the Mets, Nats, Dodgers, Cubs, O's, Jays, Tribe and Rangers, the most recent champion is the 1993 Blue Jays, 23 years ago. That's a full generation of fans who have never seen their team win. Can you imagine Vin Scully in the Fox booth calling the ninth inning of game 7 with the Dodgers playing? It would be like going to heaven without dying.

And that said, a Red Sox appearance would place Big Papi on the big stage one more time, following the greatest retirement season in horsehide history. I'd like to see him take his hacks against Clayton Kershaw, the greatest pitcher of this generation.

Okay, let's get it started. My mouth is watering.

03 October 2016

Just When We Were Writing Off Those Goofy Seamheads...

It's been fun in recent years to malign the SABR eggheads for their silly attempts to guess the final standings at season's start. I post the Baseball Prospectus projections at the start of every season with a healthy dose of disclaimer.

So just when the ridicule was reaching a critical mass, they nailed it.

Take a look at this. It's the BP projection for the AL East throughout the course of  the 2016 season. You'll notice that, other than flipping Baltimore and Tampa, a not unreasonable mistake, they had the  division pretty dead-on.

Notice how little the Red Sox (in red, duh) wavered from being the favorite on Opening Day. For a couple of days there in late June they slipped beneath the Orioles as Baltimore began pulling away from the division. Then in August the Blue Jays surged ahead, as they did in the actual standings. But Boston always enjoyed high odds of making the playoffs. And BP's number crunching system came to the conclusion by June that the Rays and Yankees were toast.

I won't impose the rest of these projection graphs on you. You can find them here. (That's the AL East you'll see, but you can toggle for each division as you like.) Suffice to say that BP correctly identified the Indians as the best team in the Central, briefly credited the White Sox for their early-season heroics and never gave Detroit much of a chance, even as they bore down on the Wild Card,

In the NL East, BP knew it was a two horse race between New York and Washington, and gave Atlanta and Philadelphia zero chance of earning a slot. Well okay, didn't we all.

And sure, the Cubs were a shoo-in, but it's interesting that BP was squirrely about St. Louis and totally unimpressed with Pittsburgh as far back as April 1.

You might remember some of the adulation for Arizona's big moves in the winter, but BP saw through them, tabbing the Dbacks a 10-1 underdog to play deep into October. Their algorithms correctly tabbed the Dodgers as top dog and Giants as understudy.

Only in the AL West did BP create the mashup that educated guesses get you. At season's commencement, they credited Houston with a 68% chance of making the post-season, Seattle at 32%, the Angels at 25%, Oakland at 20% and lowly Texas least likely at 19%. The Rangers sport the Junior Circuit's best record while Anaheim and Oakland peed on themselves for six months. 

Still, five of the six teams they tabbed as "most likely" made the playoffs, with all but the decimated Mets winning their division. It's a pretty good showing that should quiet the critics like me -- until next season's projections.

02 October 2016

The Braves are the New Pirates..Or Astros...or Whoever

It seems like a long time ago that the Atlanta Braves were a dumpster fire of Minor Leaguers and MLB castoffs. On July 24, the team had lost 66 of their 99 games, on pace to jettison their manager and finish with 104 losses, the most futile outfit in the sport.

Many of us recognized that Brave management had punted 2016 and were arranging their chips for 2017 or 2018, with the bloom still on their new suburban ballpark. In this space I had identified Cincinnati as the most hapless franchise because, while their Major League talent was slightly greater than Atlanta's, they seemed to lack a plan.

The Braves, on the other hand, simply appeared to be in Year One of the rebuild that had begun Year Two in Philadelphia, and that had recently paid dividends in Pittsburgh, Houston and elsewhere.

Turned Into a Newt, They Got Better
One thing about young talent: it has the capacity to learn and improve. By year's end, the Braves had nearly caught the Phaltering Phils, jumped over feckless teams in Minneapolis, San Diego, Cincinnati and St. Petersburg and moved within a half game of two other teams. Winners of 11 of their last 13, the Braves could have surpassed the records of seven MLB teams given another week of the season.

Deals of their tradeable commodities for future assets helped pave the way, giving the youngsters a free year to sharpen their craft, which they did. In the waning days of the season, they flipped a Minor League albatross for Matt Kemp, adding badly-needed power and a veteran leader for next season. 

With under-25 Dansby Swanson, Ender Inciarte and Mallex Smith joining Freddie Freeman and Kemp in next year's lineup, and with Julio Teheran anchoring a juvenile staff that benefits from a year of schooling under its belt, Atlanta has a chance to make some noise next year. They appear to have passed Philly in that department and have certainly left the Reds, Brewers, A's and others in the rear view mirror.

01 October 2016

The End of Ryan Howard and the Evolution of Baseball Analysis

By the end of 2009, Ryan Howard had won a Rookie of the Year, an MVP and a World Series. He had smashed 45+ home runs and knocked home 136+ runners each of the past four seasons. Many was the number of fans who believed Howard, with the gaudy RBI totals, was Batman to Albert Pujols' Robin.

We laugh at that now, but it wasn't generally recognized as lunacy back then. Most fans were still swimming in the shallow end of the analysis pool, and because they didn't understand the new analysis that was transforming how we measured performance, they discounted it. Most baseball observers -- including baseball writers -- were still drinking the BA-HR-RBI Kool Aid, and treating fielding ability as nothing more than a tie-breaker.

A two-headed monster made us realize our folly. First, Howard's limited skills turned tail and abandoned him. After age 31, he never managed 30 home runs, 100 RBI or even a middling .320 OBP. Over the past five seasons, Howard has cost the Phillies 4.5 wins against replacement and led their slide into irrelevance.

After this season, the Phillies will pay Ryan Howard $10 million to go away. Thirty-seven-year-olds who can't hit for average or power, run, or play the field don't have many baseball suitors. If they did, I'd be getting Qualifying Offers.

We're On Board With TAv
And now, many baseball fans -- and even some writers -- speak the language of TAv, BABIP, OPS, WAR and their ilk. They understand that a walk is often as good as a hit, that fat helpings of luck can distort ordinary stats, and all the other new ideas that have infected the game.

Looking back, Baseball Reference reports that Howard was worth just 14 WAR over his four best seasons, partly because his glovework was so stony, and partly because he played home games in a launching pad. During that time, Pujols earned 28 WAR -- twice as much -- not only because he was a Gold Glove first baseman, but because he hit for a higher OBP than Howard and -- get this -- led the league in slugging three of the four seasons. A few extra home runs and RBIs on Howard's part couldn't make up for, well, everything else.

In that 2006 season when Howard took home Pujols' MVP award, Albert had a higher batting average, on base percentage and slugging average. He ran the bases better, struck out a third as often and caught 1.2 more balls hit per nine innings than Howard. (In case you're wondering, that's a seismic difference, like winning a 100 yard dash by 1.2 seconds.) Pujols was superior at everything -- except coming to bat with RBI opportunities.

As Ryan Howard bows out, we'll remember his big smile and the big bat he once wielded. And we'll remember some of the ridiculous things we believed about baseball but now better understand.