24 September 2016

Those Amazing Mets...and Yankees

There's a guy at my gym who's a diehard Mets fan -- the kind of fan who whose opinion of a player's moral fiber is directly proportional to his batting average over the last six weeks.

Mostly I giggle when we talk, but every once in a while I make an attempt to reorient him to reality. Met fans should be making sacrifices to the baseball gods for the team's continued Wild Card contention.

This is an outfit built on an eye-popping young rotation and a couple of other assets. Sixty percent of the starters are on the shelf and manager Terry Collins has lost the services of his team leader, his slugging first baseman, his star keystoner and various others. His only remaining power bat has bulled through a serious of pulls and strains throughout the season.

The Mets' Wild Card fortunes turn on the contributions of rookies Seth Lugo, Robert Gsellman and Logan Verrett, and veteran castoffs Kelly Johnson, James Loney and Rene Rivera. And they're 10 games over .500.

The House That Refsnyder Built
The Yankees are likewise in a Wild Card chase, if only peripherally, but their miracle has a somewhat different shape. A broken down old roster with questionable pitching at season's start, the Bombers jettisoned their best players at the trade deadline and began the youthful march towards 2017.

Yet somehow, the future's remained now. Gary Sanchez, in a mere 44 games, is the team's second most valuable player by WAR. But besides him, this is a team without hitting (next to last in the AL in OPS) or pitching (non-Tanaka starters sport a robust 4.78 ERA).  Their roster rates as below average by Wins Against Average and they've been outscored on the season by 25 runs with eight games left.

It's hard to imagine either team making much noise beyond Fan Appreciation Day. The Yankees will need a miracle finish and they just don't have the horses. The Mets might slip into October baseball where anything can happen, but how will they score runs?

Nonetheless, both teams merit some props for making it interesting. And then, there's next year.

22 September 2016

No Brainers: Rookie of the Year Awards

"We're #2. We Try Harder." --Avis Car Rental 's longtime slogan.

Washington's center fielder, rookie Trea Turner, is hitting .345 with 12 homers. He's swiped 27 of 31 bases in less than half a season of work. His .338 TAv describes his entire offensive output scaled to batting average.

So is he the NL Rookie of the Year?

Not no. Hell no.

Corey Seager has owned the game in his inaugural season. The Dodger shortstop is the team MVP with his .316 average and 25 homers in 147 games.

Apologies to Aledmys Diaz and Trevor Story, but Seager, with a .330 TAv over a full season, should be the unanimous NL Rookie of the Year.

Over in the American League , Indians first-year centerfielder Tyler Naquin is tearing up opposing arms with a .300/.371/.535 in 107 games. But he's not the AL Rookie of the Year. For that he can thank Alex Rodriguez.

The departure of old, broken down ARod has given the re-issued, best-player-in-the-game ARod an opportunity to shine. 

So in his first 43 MLB games, Yankee catcher Gary Sanchez is hitting .337/.409/.725 and dragging the Bombers into the playoff race. He's reached 19 home runs faster than any player in baseball history, which goes back more than 100 years before Sanchez's parents were born.

Willie McCovey won the ROY award in 1959 by slamming 13 homers in just 52 games from the first base position. If he plays every remaining game, Sanchez will reach 54 games, and unless the magic dust suddenly wears off, he will join McCovey's on that list.

And that could work out well. McCovey hit another 508 dingers in his career, earned VIP status in a quaint upstate New York village and got a prominent cove named for him.

19 September 2016

What Are the Odds?

With 14 games left in the season, seven American League teams still have a conceivable chance of earning a slot in the Wild Card play-in game. (Baltimore and Toronto have fading hopes of winning the AL East; the Orioles play a set in Boston starting tonight.)

Orioles       82-67    --
Blue Jays    81-68    --
Tigers         79-70    2
Mariners   79-70    2
Astros        78-71    3
Yankees     77-72    4
Royals       76-73     5

With 13 games left, there's plenty of opportunity for the two teams leading the charge to falter and for a team down near the bottom to streak its way in.

If you figure that 88 wins will be necessary for a Wild Card game appearance, Baltimore and Toronto still need to go 6-7 and 7-6 to get in. Each team has done worse over 13 game periods at various times during the season.

Detroit and Seattle have to get hot -- 9-4 -- but nothing outrageous. Each team has posted 9-4 records over 13-game stretches previously. (Indeed, Seattle is in such a stretch.)

For New York and KC, great drama would be necessary. The Yankees, stripped of their best hitter (pre-Gary Sanchez) and their two best relievers, would need to win 11 of 13 to pass four competitors ahead of them. The Royals would have to reprise recent miracles and win 12 of 13. 

Baseball Prospectus, which uses all kinds of fancy calculations about strength of schedule, real team performance and so on to derive its playoff odds, puts Baltimore and Toronto at 76% and 63% respectively. That seems high to me, particularly considering the drama we've seen in recent years.

BP also suggests the Tigers and Mariners each have a 23% chance of getting in. It doesn't feel right that the odds could be so against a team that would be at 50/50 with two wins.

In case you're wondering, the Astros are listed at 13%, Yankees at 2% and Royals at .3%. 

Go ask the 2011 Red Sox and Braves about those odds. Ask Rhonda Rousey and Ian MacGregor. Ask anyone (like me) who dismissed the idea that an ignorant, unqualified, juvenile jackass clown could become President of the United States.

Go Royals.

Blessed Are the Cy Young Voters, 2.0

I do a lot of editing of other people's writing in my work, and one of the things I try to avoid is making edits that are distinctions without differences. There's no reason to alter a writer's copy if the change is no better or worse.

Distinctions without differences divide the AL Cy Young candidates so far this year, and by so far, we mean 90% of the way through the season.

Again, let's consider the contenders and shake our heads at the red pubic hair of difference among them. For a discussion of the statistics, see the previous post.

Masahiro Tanaka, 13-4, 2.97, 194 Inn, 160 K, ERA+ 148, FIP 3.27Chris Sale, 15-8, 3.03, 202 Inn, 205 K, ERA+ 133, FIP 3.43
Corey Kluber, 17-9, 3.12, 205 Inn, 215 K, ERA+ 153 FIP 3.26
Jose Quintana, 12-10, 3.05, 192 Inn, 171 K, ERA+ 133 FIP 3.43
Rick Porcello, 20-4, 3.12, 202 Inn, 167 K, ERA+ 146, FIP 3.45
Danny Duffy, 12-2, 3.18, 170 inn, 181 K, ERA+ 139 , FIP 3.53
Aaron Sanchez, 13-2, 3.17, 173 Inn, 140 K, ERA+ 136, FIP 3.60
Cole Hamels, 14-5, 3.24, 181 Inn, 181 K, ERA+ 141, FIP 3.98
J.A. Happ, 19-4, 3.27, 176 inn, 152 K, ERA+ 132, FIP 4.03
Justin Verlander, 14-8, 3.33, 200 Inn, 216 K, ERA+ 124, FIP 3.64
David Price, 16-8, 3.91, 212 Inn, 217 K, ERA+ 118, FIP 3.46

If you like advanced metrics, Kluber's your guy, but Porcello sports a sparkling W-L record and an ERA and FIP that are about the same as the other best contenders. Price leads this group in innings pitched and strikeouts, and though his ERA is high from early season struggles, FIP has him third best.

Good luck with that vote. I think Kluber has an edge on Porcello right now, but Tanaka could win the award with a couple of sterling starts that catapult the Yankees into the playoffs. And if you think Hamels or Sale is this year's Cy, I have no argument against it.

16 September 2016

Good Luck With That Cy Young Vote

There are roughly 16 games left in the MLB season as this is being written, and if you know who should win the Cy Young Award in each league, you deserve a prize with the name of dynamite's inventor on it.

In the old days it was easy: find the guy with the best won-loss record and a reasonable ERA and cast your vote. But today we are cursed with knowledge, and the more we know about pitching performance, the less we're able to distinguish top pitchers.

Let's take a look at the top contenders, first in the NL:

(ERA+ adjusts for the ballpark; FIP adjusts for defense. Bold indicates league leaders.)

  • Kyle Hendricks, 15-7, 2.03, 173 Inn, 157 K ERA+ 197, FIP 3.38
  • Jon Lester, 17-4, 2.40, 184 Inn, 179 K, ERA+ 167, FIP 3.46
  • Noah Syndergaard, 13-8, 2.43, 174 Inn, 205 K, ERA+ 165, FIP 2.26
  • Madison Bumgarner, 14-9, 2.66, 206 Inn, 231 K, ERA+ 153, FIP 3.20
  • Tanner Roark, 15-8, 2.75, 193 Inn, 157 K, ERA+ 152 FIP 3.67
  • Max Scherzer, 17-7, 2.78, 211 Inn, 259 K, ERA+ 150, FIP 3.09
  • Johnny Cueto, 16-5, 2.86, 207 Inn, 181 K, ERA+ 143, FIP 3.06
  • Jake Arrieta, 17-6, 2.91, 179 Inn, 171 K ERA+ 137, FIP 3.49
  • Jose Fernandez, 15-8, 2.99, 174 Inn, 241 K, ERA+ 131, FIP 2.40

...and the wild card, Clayton Kershaw, 11-3, 1.81, 129 Inn, 155 K, ERA+ 214 FIP 1.70

In other words, according to ERA+ and FIP, the Cubs pitchers pitch in a good hitting park before the best defense in the game. Noah Syndergaard plays his home games in Supression Stadium but Jose Reyes at third and Yoenis Cespedes in center are catnip for opposition hitters.)

How Do You Value Kershaw?
The first thing voters are going to have to do is determine whether Kershaw is a candidate. He's the king of the hill, but it's not possible for him to be as valuable to the Dodgers in 129 innings as other top candidates are in 200 frames for their teams.

Kyle Hendricks has a real edge in ERA over the field, but fielding independent statistics suggest he's had a lot of luck on his side. Eight unearned runs burnish his ERA. 

Thor is the best pitcher by the advanced stats, but accounting for the shaker of salt we take them with pushes him back to the pack. Lester has the gaudy record and second best ERA, but he has the best team behind him. Fernandez has dominates since returning from injury with 12.5 punchouts per 9 innings and the second best FIP. But the non-fancy stats have him ninth in ERA.

Max Scherzer is near the top in everything, which might tilt the scales in the voting. He's pitched almost as many innings as the league leader and he paces the league in whiffs, with the sixth best ERA and the third best FIP (not counting Kershaw, who isn't eligible for the league lead in those categories.)

The last three weeks will likely decide things, but woe are those who must decide. 

We'll take a look at the AL next, but the song remains the same.

06 September 2016

Fireman of the Year Award Goes To Terry Francona

The Fireman of the Year Award doesn't exist anymore. It was retired in 2011, long after the notion of employing your best relief pitcher to extinguish a rally was itself extinguished.

Blame Tony LaRussa and Dennis Eckersley
The closer killed the award, given annually by The Sporting News. When the fireman was in his prime, managers called upon him in any late inning to get key outs with runners on base, then quell the riot for another frame or two.

In 1977, Sparky Lyle won the Cy Young Award (and the Fireman, of course) hurling 137 innings and winning 13 games without ever starting. Mariano Rivera, who tallied nearly three times as many saves in his career as Lyle, averaged about half as many innings per year and never pitched even 80 in a season once he became a closer.

Chapman vs. Miller
Which brings us to the two bullpen back-enders packaged by the Yankees to Chicago and Cleveland to help those two woebegone franchises make a run at a title this year. One flame-throwing lefty, Aroldis Chapman, is closing quite nicely for the Cubs, allowing two earned runs in 13 innings while fanning 22 of 53 batters he faced in August. That's exactly what Theo Epstein and his front office cadre paid a high price for.

Over in the AL, former Red Sox skipper Terry Francona was reunited with lefty flamethrower Andrew Miller, who served as Chapman's eighth-inning caddy in New York. Because he wasn't wed to saves, Miller has been amenable to serve in the old fireman role. He's entered games most often in the seventh inning, and sometimes in the eighth or the sixth. Miller has been used in only three save situations, but like Chapman, he's allowed two earned runs in 15 innings and whiffed 24 of 52 batters.

But they're not the same. They've pitched roughly the same number of innings, faced the nearly same number of batters, smoked roughly the same number and allowed the same number of runs, Miller has been much, much more valuable.

Win Probability Added
By Win Probability Added, a statistic that determines the likelihood that a team will win when a reliever enters a game and the likelihood when he exits (100% in the case of a save), Miller has gifted 1.3 wins to the Indians in just one month, while Chapman has earned just .15 for the Cubs. 

That's because a team ahead by two entering the ninth is virtually a lock to nail down the win even without the closer, whose successful "save" adds nearly nothing to the team's win probability. Contrast that to a fireman who enters with the bases juiced and a one-run lead in the seventh. That game is close to a toss-up, but if he can induce a double play, or fan the two batters, he's put out the fire and vastly improved his team's odds of winning.

The risk for a manager of trodding this weeded-over path is that another reliever blows a ninth inning lead and the hometown blowhards call for your head. But a self-confident helmsman like Terry Francona can do it, and a tip of the cap to him for trying it.

Maybe if the Tribe wins the World Series, everyone else will finally try what should never have been abandoned.

04 September 2016

Should Snakes Sell Off Greinke? Not Just No, Hell No!

If you lived in Phoenix -- or Tucson or Flagstaff, for that matter -- you'd be hearing a lot of "Trade Zack Greinke" talk. It's not hard to understand: the Dbacks are unfathomably bad and Greinke is more like an actor in community theater doing a bad Zack Greinke impersonation, complete with a 4.17 ERA and a $200+ million contract.

Certainly if this sorry outfit, skidding to 95 losses, were considering a massive deal with Greinke now, you'd dismiss that as dumb on the scale of building a wall along the Mexican border. (Come to think of it, Phoenix is close to the Mexican border; maybe we can get Mexico to pay Greinke's contract.)

It's been reported that the Dodgers offered to take Greinke's contract off Arizona's hands; i.e., without sending anything back in return. The team's brain trust -- if you want to be generous to team president Tony LaRussa and general manager Dave Stewart -- scoffed at the offer.

The contract was rubbish (from the team's point of view; Mrs. Greinke, I'm sure, thinks it's genius) the day it was inked because it assumed that Greinke would continue to pitch like his 2015 career year (19-4, 1.66) rather than like the 32-year-old, 14-9, 3.40 pitcher he is. 

Nonetheless, Greinke is about the only mound asset Arizona has. They are last in the league in ERA even with their ace and 42-73 without him.

And while their offense has been inconsistent, it positively pulsates with talent. A trio of stars  -- first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, outfielder A.J. Pollock (who's been hurt all season) and keystoner Jean Segura -- is complemented by a passel of promising young players -- hot cornerman Jake Lamb, swingman Chris Owings, outfielder Yasmany Tomas and catcher Wellington Castillo, to name four. That's a solid core to build around for next year and beyond. (In addition, any team with a Tuffy and a Socrates has yin and yang covered.)

Relief pitching can be found, often by keeping the arms already on the roster. So starting pitching is this team's Achilles heel next year and it can't be healed on the free agent market. There won't be anything out there unless Tony LaRussa and Dave Stewart want to empty the vault -- assuming that's not already it's state -- for Edinson Volquez or Andrew Cashner. No kidding, those are the top names on the 2017 free agent pitching market.

No, the Dbacks have a chance to be quite improved next season, but only if they keep the only reliable starter they have. They need to scuttle the front office experiment and get a real team president and GM. Then develop the impressive talent on board, find a couple of third starters and run Greinke out 35 times. They could be the Miami Marlins of 2017.

03 September 2016

Please God, Deliver Us From This

I know they're the worst team in Major League Baseball this year (the Twins' August swoon notwithstanding), but don't the Atlanta Braves owe their audience some professionalism off the field?

Look, I get it: the pre-game show is the sub-basement of sports announcing. And I get that doing 162 of them -- particularly for a franchise that mailed in 2016 before it started -- has got to wear on a guy.

And I understand that ignorant and uninformed are trendy these days. And since the subject of this diatribe is a vote, I see the parallel.

Your Atlanta Braves Radio Network
But that doesn't excuse the kind of stupid that I thought was cured by now. Announcers on the team's radio network, which spans the entire Southeast from Florida to Kentucky, should know more about baseball than a time traveler from 1933, don't you think?

So that brings us to Ben Ingram, Chris Dimino and Buck Belue, the Braves' pre-game announcers earlier this week. Why I was listening to this offering in the first place is another story that I'm not proud of. (I was washing dishes during a tropical storm that closed the library and precluded TV watching.)

To begin with, let's acknowledge that Buck Belue was a star quarterback at Georgia 1981-1983 and Chris Dimino is a New Joisey guy who got hired to sports talk radio in 1993 after calling repeatedly and arguing with the hosts. This isn't Baseball Mensa to begin with.

Veteran Leadership >> Hitting, Fielding, Baserunning
The trio was discussing the post-season awards with common dopiness -- Anthony Rizzo's RBIs (duh, he bats behind Kris Bryant), Jake Arrieta's pitching wins, teammates dividing votes, that sort of thing. I shook my head and listened, bemused.

In a discussion about the AL MVP, the name Mike Trout -- you know, the actual MVP -- never came up. The Mike who came up was Napoli, who after all, is providing 29 home runs and veteran leadership to the first place Indians. ("He really has them playing great," said Dimino.) That Napoli is a butcher in the field, runs like a Yugo, and sports a middling .345 OBP is apparently of little magnitude to the on-air trio; he's an MVP contender because he's a good coach.

Evidently first base coach Sandy Alomar doesn't slap tushies the right way. Hitting coach Ty Van Burkelo smokes cigarettes and snoozes during batting practice. Manager Terry Francona isn't doing his job. Without Mike Napoli's veteran leadership the team would be adrift.

Time To Move Beyond 1977
Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said that everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but no one is entitled to their own facts. Napoli is seventh on the Indians in Wins Against Replacement. With his one signature skill, he has four more homers than Trout. To get there, he's cost his team 47 more outs, stroked a dozen fewer doubles and triples, stolen 14 fewer net bases and cost his team 2.6 losses in the field relative to Trout. Trout's WAR, according to Baseball Reference, is 8.8; Napoli's is 1.0.

If the people talking about the games employed by a Major League team haven't a clue, how are the fans supposed to learn anything?

Thirty-nine years and counting...

30 August 2016

Kansas City: The Waiting is the Hardest Part

If there's one thing you have to admire about the people who cut the checks for Kansas City's baseball club, it's their patience. For years they let Alex Gordon, Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer and Luke Hochevar marinate until they were ready to contribute. 

Two years ago, they doubled down on their personnel's strengths, focusing on contact, speed, defense and relief pitching, and flipping strikeout-prone Wil Myers for a dubious return (it seemed at the time) that catapulted them to a pair of World Series.

Yet baseballdom seemed taken aback when GM Dayton Moore stayed the course at the Trade Deadline following a 7-19 July that pushed the Royals to the edge of extinction for the season. What Moore knew was that the snake bites that crippled his team -- including a freak collision that put Moustakas and Gordon simultaneously on the shelf -- would mend itself in time for the team to bounce back.

Yost is the Most
KC has the perfect manager for just such a task. Ned Yost is no strategic savant, to be kind, but he keeps a steady hand on the till and maintains faith in his players, faith that has repeatedly been vindicated. Sure enough, a 20-9 August has the Royals back in the muddled Wild Card race.

"Dayton said he wasn't going to make any deals unless it made us better now or in the future," Yost said. "So, we just weren't going to sell off players. We both talked about it. This was the same group we liked out of Spring Training. And we both felt like we had the ability to get it turned around.

To Yost's credit, he doesn't subscribe to any of the silly chatter you hear from the buffoonosphere about one daring act transforming the team.

"You don't spur turnarounds. If you could spur turnarounds, then what were we doing in July?" he said. 

The Sweet Sound of Smart
When you hear that kind of talk from a manager, you know your nine is in good hands. The Royals are one of seven teams battling for just two Wild Card berths, anchored down by near-worst on base and slugging percentages, and four key pitchers on the DL. 

But if anyone can pull a rabbit out of their baseball caps it's the two-time AL champions. They can thank a general manager and a field general who know that sometimes just waiting is the best strategy.

24 August 2016

This Guy Seager? No His Brother. He's Not Too Bad.

Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager has now played 148 games between his 2015 call-up and the first 121 games of this season. In that time, he has begun authoring history.

Playing in a pitcher's stadium; facing the likes of Madison Bumgarner, Zack Grienke and Petco Park; and staffing the middle infield, Seager has pummeled NL pitching. His 26 homes and 47 doubles/triples make him one of the league's top sluggers -- at age 22. He's produced 52% better than the average batter and earned more than seven wins against replacement. 

Seager, the younger brother of Mariner star third baseman Kyle, was born the same year ARod began his career -- 1994. Less than a calendar year into his career, he's the Dodgers' best everyday player, despite a roster of multi-millionaires, and he's beginning to climb some impressive lists, many of which go beyond rookie status.

Seager is now the most homerific shortstop in Dodger history. He's the youngest shortstop in history to wallop three homers in one game. He's the first Dodger ever with a three-homer game and a three-double game in the same season. He owns the L.A. rookie record for doubles, with more than a month left in the season. He leads the Dodgers in WAR and most everything else that's good, batting .326/.387/.547 to start his career.

Here's the thing: even if you've heard of him, he's not top of mind, even among the plethora of young stars in the game. For a first-round draft pick playing in Hollywood, he generates a minimum of buzz.

That will end soon. The Dodgers are playoff-bound again, and a longer stay will finally put him in the spotlight. Even absent that, Seager is a cinch to win the Rookie of the Year and is in the conversation for MVP.

Go ahead and ignore him. The record books are already noticing.

21 August 2016

Ryan Lochte's "Apology" Will Cost Him Millions

You've perhaps heard of Ryan Lochte now. Lochte is the unfortunate lad who has swum in Michael Phelps' wake for the last 12 years, the world's best swimmer except for the guy setting all the records.

Now Lochte is famous for being an idiot and for sparking an international incident, mostly with his mouth.

Once the story began unraveling and the merda hit the fan, Lochte's PR team went into full Ryan Braun mode.

The Legalistic Non-apology
You've heard the non-apology, non-acceptance of responsibility in which Lochte used the words "apology" and "I accept responsibility" both in his Instagram post and in an interview on national television with Matt Lauer.

Here's his Instagram apology:
"I want to apologize for my behavior last weekend. I'm sorry for not being more careful and candid in how I described the events of that early morning."

That's it. No acknowledgement of what he did, that he lied and embarrassed a nation, that he acted like a drunken moron in someone else's country. ln a statement apologizing for a lack of candor, Lochte lacked candor.

Reading From a Script
For icing on an already sour cake, there's the Lauer interview. (That is, setting aside Lochte's repeated use of the redundant "over-exaggerated".) Lochte attempted a samba in which he appeared contrite and apologetic without ever admitting any of the details of his lie. He even suggested that his bald-faced lie about having a gun at his temple could be a matter of interpretation.

Pressed repeatedly by Lauer to admit the truth, Lochte's PR training kicked in. Looking ever earnest, he simply re-read from the script without ever answering Lauer's questions. He repeatedly claimed to accept responsibility while attempting to evade it. It's understandable, because actually answering the questions would have required Lochte to admit he had lied. On the other hand, a genuine, apology would have humanized him and put a cap on the dramatics.

I knew nothing of, and had no opinion of Lochte. the person, prior to this incident. I have an opinion now: he's a lying, conniving, contemptible, disingenuous jackass, not because he got drunk and destroyed a bathroom, not even because he originally lied about the incident. 

Goodbye Cheerios...and Everyone Else
Lochte loses my respect because he hasn't the common decency to stand up and admit what is transparent to the world anyway. He's hiding behind a PR strategy, presumably to save millions in endorsements.

Well, I've got bad news for Ryan and his PR dopes. The cover-up was worse than the crime. He'll lose those endorsements not because he acted like a knucklehead and wove a tall tail afterwards, but because of his lack of candor and refusal to accept responsibility once the story blew up.

I wonder how much he's paying to get really terrible advice.

12 August 2016

And Now A Word From Our Sponsor

In case you're wondering why the Olympic coverage seems oddly unsatisfying, here's 20 minutes of your life you can never get back:

Following Michael Phelps' dramatic gold medal performance in the 200 IM, NBC offered you four minutes of commercials you'd already seen ad nauseum. 

They followed that with the playing of the U.S. National Anthem. Note to NBC: we've heard the national anthem before.

Then four more minutes of commercials, including promos for shows that are comedies, ironically, only because they think they are.

Then several minutes of showing Phelps meandering around the pool waiting for his next event with a clock ticking off the minutes since his last competition. Evidently NBC was oblivious to the fact that it was also cataloging the time since its audience had last seen any action.

Then an interview with Ryan Lochte, who had finished fifth in the event and had, like all the other media-savvy swimmers, nothing to say.

Followed by four minutes of commercials

Or at least I assume it was four minutes. I turned off the TV at that point and read a book -- without commercial interruption.

Alex Rodriguez's Baseball Eulogy

And so, one of the most spectacular, infamous, intriguing, exasperating baseball careers comes to a close exactly the opposite of how you would expect. It fizzles to an ending without a conclusion.

Unless he perks up for his last game, Alex Rodriguez's last RBI will come on an 0-4 day in which he grounded out weakly with the bases loaded. Contrast that with Derek Jeter's last at bat. Contrasting with Derek Jeter will always be ARod's fate, which is why he will always be remembered as both a phenomenon and tragedy.

Today, Alex Rodriguez will play his last game, a shadow of a shell of anything he ever was on the diamond. A sub-Mendoza DH over the last calendar year, ARod may have been removed from the field by the Yankees, but it's hardly as if they had a choice. He has nothing to offer them but the lost opportunity of exposing a prospect to MLB pitching.

There is talk of ARod playing elsewhere to bolster attendance, but this seems like nonsense. The hometown Marlins? An NL team in a playoff race? Fans are not going to pay for the possibility that ARod might pinch hit. 

Sure, Rodriguez could carry on to reach 700 home runs, something only three others have ever done. But it is clear the tank is empty. It could take more than the 48 games remaining for him to reach the mark, during which time he would be dragging down all his other accomplishments.

So while his career droops to an anti-climax, let's just remind ourselves what an all-time great, inner-circle Hall of Famer Alex Rodriguez was:

  • He won the batting title, hitting .358/.414/.631 at age 20.
  • He hit 33 homers the year he turned 40.
  • He led his league in HR five times, in runs scored five times and in slugging four times.
  • He topped 1.000 OPS six times.
  • He slugged 150 HR for three different teams, which no one else has done.
  • He slugged 250 HR from two different positions, which no one else has done.
  • He slammed 696 HR and stole 329 bases. Only Barry Bonds has more of both.
  • His 435 home runs was the most in the 2000s.
  • He hit 35+ home runs for 11 straight seasons.
  • He topped 8 WAR -- the benchmark for an MVP season -- in 8 different seasons.
  • He dragged the Yankees to the playoffs almost singlehandedly in 2007, hitting .314-54-156 and leading the league with a 1.096 OPS -- one of his three MVP seasons.
  • He batted .365/.456/.801 in the 2009 playoffs, leading the Yankees to their last World Series title.
  • He played shortstop! Shortstop! When you think of all the other modern all-time great offensive players -- Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Barry Bonds, Stan Musial, Mickey Mantle, Ken Griffey Jr. -- they all played the outfield, not the most important defensive position behind the pitcher.
Alex Rodriguez will evidently begin employing his prodigious coaching and speaking talents going forward, and it's a good bet he will perform admirably and become an ambassador for the game he once sued. Let's hope he finds some peace in his life now that he's no longer chasing expectations on the field. If he does, he might soften some hearts hardened against him and repair some of his legacy. Because after all is said and done, he was one of the greatest who ever donned a uniform.

06 August 2016

...And Talk About Irrelevant -- There's Olympic Basketball

It beggars the imagination how any American can manufacture excitement about the Olympic men's basketball "competition."

There are 12 players on each team. The American squad fits entirely among the 15 best players competing, meaning the tournament has all the intrigue of Russia's invasion of Crimea.

The US team of NBA stars will oppose the amateurs from China and Venezuela during the tournament. It's hard to believe a single American will watch these debacles and cheer for "their" team.

It's hard to believe this is even an Olympic sport. It's really just embarrassing.

Are 77 Million Paying Customers Irrelevant?

I have a lot of opportunity to listen to sports talk radio -- not that I do, just that I have the opportunity. For one thing, there's no such thing as sports talk radio anymore; there's 24/7 NFL radio with an NBA side dish and some miscellaneous dessert. Around this time golf and Olympics comprise the postprandial offerings. 

In the process, baseball, hockey and all other sports have been relegated to sports talk Siberia. Someone should inform Mike, and also Mike, that Major League baseball games are actually being played during the summer, whereas there is absolutely nothing happening in pro football and basketball, save the verbal diarrhea that pours out across the airwaves about an irrelevant tweet, arrest or contract dispute.

Which brings me to the main point here: how utterly preposterous NBA talk is until the second round of the playoffs in May. Consider this:
  • Today is August 6.
  • The NBA finals take place in June, 2017, 10 months from now.
  • We can agree with nearly 100% certainty that the Cleveland Cavaliers will play in the NBA finals in 2017 unless LeBron James gets hurt.
  • We can agree with nearly 100% certainty that if the Cavs don't advance, the East representative will get shellacked in the finals.
  • We can agree with nearly 100% certainty that the Golden State Warriors or San Antonio Spurs will represent the West in the NBA finals.
  • No other team has any reasonable hope of vying for the title.
And yet, there have been several times more NBA talk on the radio than baseball talk the last two weeks -- even during the run-up to the trade deadline and while the pennant races are shaping up. Actually, that undersells the discrepancy because there was essentially no baseball talk despite the flurry of trade activity.

I understand that football and basketball are young fans' universe, though with supply-side pressure like that, how could they not be? But more than twice as many people attended MLB games last year than NBA and NFL games -- combined

So if 77 million people paid hard-earned American legal tender to enjoy ballgames, doesn't it stand to reason that a few of them, occasionally, would rather hear about baseball games actually being played than about some off-season hypotheticals in a league whose first meaningful contests are months away?

04 August 2016

To Err Is Human; To Acknowledge is Preller

The story of redemption is as old as, well, stories. It's even more compelling than the story of success, because of the added intrigue of the fall.

If A.J. Preller's signing and trading binge preceding the 2015 season had catapulted the San Diego Padres to the playoffs, that would have been noteworthy: A "small market" team with a history of mediocrity (or worse) opens the vault and imports a division title.

Instead, what Matt Kemp, Justin Upton, Craig Kimbrel, Andrew Cashner, James Shields and Derek Norris delivered was the familiar stench of ineptitude, three games worse than the previous year's 85-loss season.

The recent head-scratching trade of Matt Kemp to Atlanta for Hector Olivera -- a 31-year-old washout with a domestic abuse suspension -- amounts to the final unconditional surrender following that brief episode, which unraveled less than halfway through its first season. With Kemp's departure -- a pure salary dump; Olivera was designated for assignment immediately -- and not withstanding the continued employment in SoCal of catcher Norris and his .191 BA, the slate has been wiped clean.

The Padres have banked some prospects in the process, saved some cash to allocate elsewhere and continue their merry prance through the bottom of the NL West, 15 games under .500.

So the future is next year for the Padres, as it almost always has been, except for one thing: the speed with which GM Preller acknowledged the failure of his plan and pivoted to a new one. In the space of a year-and-a-half he has course-corrected 180 degrees. That demonstrates remarkable maturity and aptitude, even in a business where your successes and failures are displayed publicly in the standings every day.

02 August 2016

A Bad Ending To a Nice Story

Two unfortunate jammed thumbs in the same game have sent Trevor Story to the operating room to repair his ulnar collateral ligament and ended his rookie season.

View the sad video here.

Story had just eclipsed the home run record for rookie shortstops with his 27th when he lost his battles with the second base bag and the ground.

It's a shame for Story, for the surging Rockies and for all baseball fans, who were robbed on one of the greatest years by a first year middle infielder.

So to soften the blow, for at least those of us without a rooting interest, let's extrapolate his whole season and see what we get.

The 23-year-old Texan was batting .272 with 67 runs, 21 doubles, four triples, 27 home runs, 72 RBIs, 35 walks and eight stolen bases in 97 games (of 105) as a rookie. Entering Tuesday, his 27 home runs led the National League and his 72 RBIs were fifth in the NL.

So for the mythical full season, Trevor Story, as a 23-year-old rookie shortstop who flashed leather at that key position, batted .272/.341/.567, 20% better than the average NL batter. 

He contributed:
  • 42 home runs,
  • 32 doubles,
  • six triples,
  • 103 runs scored,
  • 111 RBIs,
  • 54 walks and
  • 325 total bases.

He's rated at 4.6 WAR by Baseball Reference, a number dampened by his home park.

Trevor Story won't win the Rookie of the Year award and he won't make the playoffs. And some rookie shortstop in the near future is going to crush his home run record.  Baseball is a cruel game.

01 August 2016

What To Do About A-Rod

Alex Rodriguez is over. Over like the Macarena, like Debby Boone, like Carrot Top (pictured right-- look away!)

ARod spent his 41st birthday on the bench -- for the fifth straight game -- and for good reason. He's as creaky as loose stairs. Two hip operations later, he can't play the field. He swings like a rusty gate and now he's dancing with Mario Mendoza's legacy at .206/.256/.364. His 227 plate appearances have cost the Yankees a win.

A-Rod could just retire but for the $42 million he's owed for this year and next. The Yankees could just jettison him but, well, you get the idea.

So there he is, taking up roster space on a team that's skidding sideways.

A great piece on Baseball Prospectus documents what good company ARod is keeping with players who posted abysmal OPS+ in their final or age 40 seasons. BP's research shows that no one who plays this poorly this late in his career bounces back.

Besides, what would Rodriguez bounce back to? After a torrid start to 2015, he hit .191/.300/.377 in the final two months.

The Yankees seem caught between ARod and a hard place with their former slugger. But I have a solution for them.

My ARod Plan
First, once the Yankees have acknowledged that they aren't winning a playoff spot this year, they should play ARod every day. Give him a chance to either produce or convince everyone the tank is empty. It also allows him to record his 700th home run, from which he stands four shy.

Then, after the last dregs are drug up, let Alex Rodriguez realize on his own that he needs to leave. Give him the space to approach the Yankees for a buyout -- what basically amounts to ransom. "Pay me a big pile of money and I won't clog up your roster."

If he fails that test, Brian Cashman can turn the tables and offer the buyout. The team would have some leverage too. They could offer a nice retirement package with a ceremony and a happy ending. Or, they could cut his sorry butt and let his checkered career end ingloriously. His choice.

But what if he foils the plan by beating the odds and playing well? Great! Same plan, but this time, offer him the opportunity to retire on top, like David Ortiz. Let him plausibly say it was his decision, to show one last time he could still bring it at 41, and then leave the game.

It's not a perfect solution, but such things have never existed with Alex Rodriguez. Despite the other-worldly talent, good looks, fame and fortune, there's never been an easy way with him, at least not since his Mariner days of the last century. So you take what you can get, which is a few million in savings and a roster spot for someone who can actually contribute.

30 July 2016

This Is Miguel Cabrera in Decline

It had to happen sooner or later. After a five year stretch in which he led the AL in batting average four times, on base percentage three times and slugging percentage twice, Miguel Cabrera finally appears to be paying his debt to Father Time.

Cabrera, unaffected by serious injuries, is nonetheless suffering his worst season since 2008. He's on the way to contributing the fewest extra base hits in a full season since his second year, at age 21. He's posting his lowest batting average since 2008 and headed for the fewest RBIs in any full season of his illustrious 14-year career.

Horrors, right?

Well, not so much. After 101 games, the 34-year old first baseman is spanking AL pitching at .301/.383/.521 with 21 home runs. He's still performing at a solidly All-Star level.

This is how a hitting savant ages. The first couple of years of decline, the star continues to shine, but there's a slight dulling of the luster. Then he drifts down towards the median. Then he gets hurt and his value wanes. Finally, he has nothing left but occasional flashes, like a quark.

Cabrera is a Hall of Fame shoe-in. He's sure to reach 500 homers and his lifetime .320/.398/.560 shines 54% brighter than average. He's already earned 70 wins against replacement, more than the average first base Hall of Famer, and he'll add to that total over whatever portion of the nine years remaining on his contract that he still dons a uniform.

For now, this is what greatness looks like in retreat: a .904 OPS, tied for ninth in his league. Enjoy it while you can.

29 July 2016

Stop Calling Them Favorites!

In a post I wrote earlier this week, I almost described the Chicago Cubs as "World Series favorites." I quickly edited myself because, as experience has taught us in the Wild Card era, there is no such thing.

It's true that the Cubs are almost certain playoff participants, which seems to be the one and only corollary with champion. Every team that has won the World Series has first earned a playoff spot.

Beyond that, there are no guarantees, or even good bets. Consider this:

Does the best team win? Since 2010, only three of the 12 teams with their league's best record earned a World Series berth.
Does the team with the best top two starters win? This old wives tale has gained currency, but there is nothing backing it. The Royals won the pennant the last two years without an ace. The Dodgers with Kershaw and Greinke made exactly zero World Series. The Red Sox anchored by Jon Lester and Clay Bucholz? won the 2014 Series over the Cardinals' tandem of Adam Wainwright and ... Shelby Miller? And so on.
Does a shutdown bullpen win the Series? Sure, that worked for the Royals, but every contender has a great arm at the back of the pen. The 2014 World Champion Giants' closer, Sergio Romo, sported a 3.72 ERA and lost his job the following season.
Does the hottest team win the pennant?  Lots of research on that one: nope, no correlation whatsoever. Indeed, the 2006 Series pitted a stumbling 83-win Cardinals against a Detroit squad that finished 12-17 in the season's final month.
What role does chance play? Now you're talking. The playoffs are a lottery.

On the other hand, the better your team, the better you like your chances. You can at least avoid the play-in game and get that tiny home field advantage. Two great starters is a real asset. And you'd rather have a reliable bullpen than not. So in that sense, the Cubs have as good a chance as anyone who makes the playoffs.

Just not any better.