25 March 2017

Did You See the Madness for Yourself?

As if the NCAA basketball tournament was awaiting an opportunity to vindicate me, there was the fascinating Sweet 16 game between #1 seed Gonzaga and #4 seed West Virginia, in which the losing team held the ball too long on the last possession and paid for it with the end of their season.

Down three with 35 seconds left, the Mountaineers missed a pair of shots and retrieved the rebound each time, giving them the ball with 13 seconds left. As you can see from the video here (go to about 2:05 for the final sequence), the rebounder hands the ball to another player who immediately backs away to regroup just as the clock hits 10 seconds.


You can see from the still shot above that he doesn't begin making an effort to drive the lane or set up for a pass or a shot until 6 seconds are left, by which time it is way too late. Gonzaga stifled his attempt to dribble and he never even got off a shot. 

Think about what a disastrous possession that was. The team missed a pair of three pointers and yet still had the ball with plenty of time to even the score. Yet they wasted half the available time in a misguided attempt to run out the clock while still behind.

Eventually, some coach is going to recognize the folly of this strategy and win a Final Four or championship game. Then you will begin to see teams altering what is transparently and empirically a losing proposition.

11 March 2017

A Brief Note About the Real Madness in March

You want to know the real March Madness? It's this: professional coaches all over the college basketball landscape, leaders and molders of young men, CEOs of their teams, the top hoops strategists in the world, can't figure out a simple concept that is literally costing wins in league tournaments -- which means teams are losing league titles, and thus NCAA appearances, because coaches and players can't figure out something that's beyond obvious to me and empirically provable.

I saw this crop up in Siena's MAAC championship loss to Iona and Kansas State's Big 12 semi-final loss to West Virginia. In Siena's case, the punishment is the league title and the NCAA bid. In K-State's case, as a team squarely on the at-large bubble, it might or might not have cost them a place in the dance.

The Football Parallel
Before delving into this discernible, indisputable, self-evident strategic error, I want to take a trip back to review its football analog. Remember the days when teams ahead late in games rushed three defensive lineman and played their linebackers and corners way off the line to prevent the deep ball from beating them? Remember what an abject failure that strategy was, as trailing teams regularly marched down the field with short passes and scored tying and winning touchdowns? Remember how you howled at the TV when your team attempted this clearly ineffective strategy?  It eventually became so obvious that "prevent defenses" were preventing teams from winning that they finally -- finally! -- abandoned the practice.

That's what's going on for me in basketball. I yell at the television every year around this time while enjoying conference tournament action. Why is it so plain to me but apparently beyond the perception of highly-compensated head coaches?

What's the Problem?
The issue is this: teams with the final shot in a game -- in the first half too -- regularly run the clock down way too far before pressing the action for the last shot. They fear leaving time on the clock for the other team to respond, but that's irrelevant unless they score first.

Generally, teams dribble the clock down to about 8 seconds before beginning their play, an amount of time that is clearly insufficient. It leaves enough time for a rush to the basket and a shot -- nothing more. Invariably, a defender intercepts the attempt, leaving the offense without any real second option. Time after time you'll see the result is a bad shot that doesn't go in.

Teams need to start their rush with at least 12 seconds on the clock. This gives them time to go to a second option or get an offensive rebound and make a pass before another shot. If the play materializes quickly and they score in only a few seconds, the other team still only has 8 or 9 seconds to rush up the court and make a shot. In any case, that has to be a secondary consideration. 

Score first; defend second.

How It Plays Out

In Siena's and Kansas State's case, they made this mistake while behind. That's nuts! They needed to maximize their own ability to score, not worry about their opponent's possession.

So here's what happened: The point guard for the Saints, who were down two at the time, was stymied on his attempt to drive the lane, so he did the only thing available to him -- chucking up a 30-footer. Clang.

The Wildcats fared even worse. In a tight defensive struggle with the Mountaineers, Coach Bruce Weber allowed his team to dribble the clock down to 10 seconds before calling a time out. That left them about eight seconds to organize a play against a stout defense that easily cut off an attempted drive, resulting in a weak, off-balance shot as time expired.

The success rate on running the clock down below 10 is, in my viewing experience, about 8%. But no one seems to have learned the lesson. So it's going to happen again in another league tournament game. And then again in an NCAA tournament game. And then again. And again. What is going on with college basketball coaches?

10 March 2017

There's a Revolution Brewing Among Hitters

It has probably always been evident to you that for every physical action there is an equal and opposite reaction. You realized it in some vague way you couldn't articulate long before you ever heard of Newton's Third Law. You knew that if someone threw a dodge ball at your head in school gym, the ball and the melon each bounce in opposite directions.

You probably had some unformed understanding of gravity too, since everything you threw in the air mysteriously came down.

The same kind of old discovery becoming new is happening today with a small number of batters in baseball. It's been fueled by Statcast measurements of launch angles but it goes back to the days of Babe Ruth.

What J.D. Martinez Figured Out
Let's look at the career of J.D. Martinez to see what the revolution is. In his first three seasons as an Astro, Martinez followed the counsel of all the hitting gurus and attempted to put a level swing on the ball. If he blasted a liner up the middle, that was considered perfect contact.

Employing that philosophy, Martinez compiled a .251/.300/.387 line, roughly 12% below average -- for an outfielder, about replacement level. It began to occur to him that perfecting his swing was getting singles.

The he started noticing teammate Jason Castro, who in 2013 increased his OPS 100 points -- almost all of it in slugging percentage -- by swinging upward. The wheels began to turn. He started watching the swings of the best hitters in baseball. They all sported similar uppercut swings. It's something Babe Ruth introduced to the game in the 1920s and has been employed by every Hall of Fame home run hitter since. But it's always been seen as the province only of sluggers, not of ordinary hitters.

Well, what made those hitters sluggers?

Martinez spent that off-season with a hitting instructor whose motto was "ground balls suck." In fact, ground balls are somewhat more likely to result in hits, but obviously never home runs, and rarely doubles or triples. The OPS on fly balls is much higher. 

Chicks don't dig the ground ball. Neither do front offices.

So Martinez rebuilt his swing, and the next season in Detroit, looking for pitches he lift, he more than doubled his extra base output. In his three seasons as a Tiger, he's become a star, triple-slashing  .299/.357/.540. That's a 210-point rocket launch in OPS, and it earned Martinez an All-Star nod, some MVP votes, 13 wins against replacement and $11,750,000 in his last season of arbitration eligibility. If he hits like that again this year he'll be looking at $100 million.

Where Statcast Comes In
It might have escaped notice, except MLB now measures launch angle and exit velocity of every ball hit. And when you look at the numbers it's pretty obvious, so obvious that pitchers are now throwing, ironically, more pitches up in the zone to Martinez. It's hard to golf a chest-high fastball.

It's a secret that's been hiding in plain sight for a century but it may be enjoying a renewed heyday. Word is that some teams are introducing their players to a more angled swing path. We'll see: maybe it's just an isolated thing; after all, Castro's performance plummeted after the 2013 season. But for a handful of guys like Martinez, hitting the ball in the air has been the path to success.

06 March 2017

More Questions and Answers -- Some of Them Right!

Spring Training brings questions about the upcoming baseball season. According to the projections, the division races will have less intrigue than a four-pitch intentional walk; the Wild Cards are a tossup. We'll see...

Q. Who is going to challenge the Indians this year?
A. Andrew Jackson? I don't see anyone in the AL Central giving them much of a tussle, though, of course, you never know. The White Sox are rebuilding and the Twins are not yet rebuilt. The Royals are degrading and the Tigers would have sold off if they could get something for their expensive old stars. I suppose KC could put things together and make a respectable showing, but I don't see anyone challenging the Indians for first place.

Q. Which team that looks bad going into the season would you be least surprised to see contend?
A. The Diamondbacks have so many good pieces and now have a front office that could pass a competency test. With the return of A.J. Pollack and an unexpected arm or two they could enter the Wild Card mix.

On the other side, the Tigers still have some big bats and Justin Verlander. Wouldn't that be rich if Detroit got its World Champs as soon as Mike Illitch finally dies?

Q. Now that we have so much more information, is there anything more definitive we can say about clutch hitting?
A. The same thing discerning people were saying before: psychology matters in baseball, as in all aspects of life, but you would be surprised how rare true "clutch" performance really is. The vast majority of "clutch" plays are just good plays that happened to come at opportune times. All the statistical evidence, and now all the atomically-measured Statcast data, demonstrates that more and more clearly.

Q. Eric Thames was a washout in the Majors and then went to Korea and became Babe Ruth. What are his prospects now that he's back in MLB?
A. Everyone is very curious to see. Experience tells us that guys who go elsewhere and figure it out (e.g., Cecil Fielder, Ryan Vogelsong) return having figured it out, just as guys in the Majors who suddenly figure it out (e.g., David Ortiz, Jose Bautista) do. The problem with Thames is that his window is narrow because he's 30 and he really can't play the field. It wouldn't surprise me if he puts together two or three power-hitting seasons before tailing off and losing any value.

Q. Whither Rick Porciello, who won 22 games for Boston last year?
A. If he's a viable #3 for 30 starts this season the Sox should be grateful. He's not repeating last year.

Q. How damaging is the David Price injury?
A. Well, that depends on how damaging it is. If he's cooked, that brings Boston back to the AL East pack. If his first start is delayed and he has to monitor innings, that will be fine. Teams have to assume they won't get a full season out of any starter. On average, a team uses eight starting pitchers.

Q. Are we in another golden age of shortstops?
A. No question. Manny Machado, Xander Bogarts, Addison Russell, Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, Andrelton Simmons, Javier Baez, Trea Turner, Francisco Lindor, Dansby Swanson, etc. And second base is brimming as well.

Q. Are the Mets crazy for sitting Conforto in favor of Jay Bruce?
A. Insane. But these things have a way of working themselves out.

Q. I hear there is a new Statcast wins against replacement measure. What's that all about?
A. Not yet, but MLB's Statcast does provide a computational version of what the A's were doing in the 90s by charting batted balls.

Here's how it works: if a batter hits a screaming liner in the gap and the center fielder snags it, the pitcher records and out and the batter absorbs a futile at bat. Statcast can tell us that 75% of the time that would have been a double, and charges the pitcher with 3/4 of a double and credits the batter with the same. So instead of measuring the results of plays it measures what "should have" happened.

Over the course of a season, luck, the effects of defense and park effects are stripped out of a player's performance, not just on average but specific to him. Additionally, the same calculations will apply to their defense, which would be an immense upgrade, compared to the squooshy defense metrics we have now. Eventually this could be a major upgrade.

Q. Why doesn't anyone give the Yankees any love.
A. They are reserving it for the next decade, when the Bombers will be a force. For now, they're short on rotation arms.

Q. Did you see that Bud Selig said in an interview that Marvin Miller should be in the Hall of Fame?
A. And he said that Donald Trump is a dope. Tell me something that's not obvious.

Q. But Selig never endorsed Miller for the HOF before.
A. It would be unseemly for the Commissioner to do that. But Bud's just an ordinary citizen now. And it's not like he's sticking his neck out: Marvin Miller is one of the five most influential people in baseball history. 

Q. What do you see for Jason Heyward this year?
A. If we knew the answers to questions like that baseball wouldn't be as much fun. That said, it's hard to believe Heyward won't hit for both a higher average and more power than he did last year.

Q. If the Braves are faltering by the trade deadline, will they unload all those free agent pickups they signed?
A. If they're faltering, it's unlikely the free agent pickups are performing all that well. What are they going to get for a mediocre 42-year-old pitcher on a one-year deal? 

Q. Who is this year's surprise breakout?
A. If I told you that, it wouldn't be a surprise.

Keep those cards and letters coming!

01 March 2017

The High-High Upside, Low-Low Downside Mets

When Theo Epstein took over the Chicago Cubs the bare cupboard allowed him an opportunity to reconfigure the franchise to his liking. Epstein decided to rebuild with hitting and defense, and pick up arms wherever he could. The Cubs drafted everyday players, developed everyday players, hunted internationally for everyday players, and when the time was right, went fishing for pitchers in free agency, low-cost trades and the like.

When you build behind pitching, you're building on a foundation of uncertainly, like a house built on sand. Scouts and seamheads know there's only a little hyperbole in the bromide abbreviated as TINSTAAPP -- there is no such thing as a pitching prospect. Banking millions of dollars and a pennant on arms, shoulders, elbows and other appendages withstanding the blunt force trauma of snapping off sliders and cranking up fastballs 90 times a game is a fool's errand.

Ladies and gentleman, I give you the 2017 New York Mets.

Not so much by design as by happenstance, the studs holding up the walls in Queens are all of the hurling variety. Thor, the Dark Knight, Jacob deGrom, Steven Matz, Robert Gsellman and Zack Wheeler have all demonstrated ace or near-ace ability, and present as a group the most formidable five starters since at least the '90s Braves.

 At the same time, only one star player graces the everyday lineup, Yo, and there are even questions about him. Baseball Prospectus's projection system has the Mets winning the division with the second best run prevention in the league, but also below average offense.

If Terry Collins can coax 130 starts out of his impossible sextet, the hitting might not matter. With continued dominance and newfound health 90 feet from the plate, the Mets could rout the division and claim the NL's best record. That is the formula that drove them to the pennant in 2015, though with a somewhat different crew.

It Isn't Gonna Be That Way
Ah, to dream. Gsellman owns all of eight starts in the Major Leagues. Matz shut it down in mid-August last season. Wheeler's a wreck after post-TJ surgery complications and Harvey looks more like the rabbit than the Knight. That doesn't even account for the prospect of injury every time a previously healthy pitcher like Syndergaard takes the mound.

The betting line on starts by the top six starters is probably in the 110-120 area and betting the over seems foolhardy. The team showed last year they could sneak into the playoffs without the staff intact, but one-and-done isn't any pennant contender's idea of success. Besides, what if the mound arms implode? It could get uglier than a Twitter war with Charles Barkley. The franchise has some good options in a pinch, but not #2-starter types for extended periods.

Fangraphs' projection system says the Mets' pitching staff (including relievers) will produce roughly twice as much WAR as the everyday players. That assumes a full season (143 starts) from the front line. A couple of injuries could easily cost 10 wins of value.

Every team has best and worst case scenarios but the standard deviations on this team are the largest. It wouldn't be shocking for them to knock on the door of 100 wins -- or 84 losses. There really isn't any other team you could say that about at season's start.

27 February 2017

Craig Kimbrel Is Proof of Mariano Rivera

In his first five seasons in baseball, Craig Kimbrel was turning the best hitters in the world into pretzels -- the greatest reliever baseball had ever seen.

The undersized Brave mowed down 476 batters in his first 289 innings and allowed just a 1.43 ERA. He relinquished a total of 12 home runs -- in five years! -- and finished off 186 saves, the most in the NL in four of those five seasons. Despite the size of his workload, he earned top 10 Cy Young votes for all but his rookie season.

Then Kimbrel became arbitration-eligible, and the Braves inked him to a deal that hiked his salary 11-fold to $7 million in just its first year. In deep rebuilding mode and at the urging of this blog, the Braves suckered A.J. Preller into taking Kimbrel and B.J. Upton's death-contract to San Diego for players, prospects and massive salary relief.

But I haven't heard much about him lately...
Imagine the setup: the Incredible Hulk of closers moving to the most demoralizing park for hitters the game has conjured. Petco Park saps 14% from hitters' production, a gilding of the lily that Kimbrel hardly needed.

But a funny thing happened on the way to immortality: Kimbrel lost some of his mojo. Batters began timing his fastball -- just a bit -- and squared him up for homers twice as often. His ERA ballooned from otherworldly to excellent (2.68) and his save numbers dropped by 20%.

Quickly pivoting, Preller sent Kimbrel to Boston for pennies on the dollar, but Kimbrel again took a step back in 2016. Battling injuries for the first time, his walk rate spiked, sending his ERA to 3.40. His saves plummeted again and his value, once reliably more than three wins a year, stood at 0.9 wins last season. The projections suggest that this is the new Craig Kimbrel -- a flame-throwing reliever whose high heat is losing its novelty.

All of this is commentary on Mariano Rivera. Wha?

In his best year, Rivera was a pale shadow of Craig Kimbrel 1.0. He never fanned batters at such a rate. He never dominated hitters so thoroughly. He merely converted his split-finger into relentless awesomeness -- year after year after year.

In Rivera's worst year, his ERA jumped to 3.15. But advanced metrics suggested he was mostly unlucky and the following season -- at age 38 -- he allowed 49 baserunners in 71 innings and dropped his ERA to 1.40.

Mariano in his 40s
In his 40s, Rivera saved 126 games, sported a 1.95 ERA and allowed a WHIP under one. Included in that period was a year missed due to knee surgery and his comeback (and final) season.

In other words, any notion we might have had that Rivera was turning into the game's second best reliever of all time have evaporated, just like that. While Kimbrel's inaugural five campaigns rank up there with the best ever, his two seasons since would rank as Rivera's worst. Kimbrel would have had to maintain his pace for 15 years to match Mariano -- and he has begun to wear down after five.

The name of the greatest reliever of all time will not be changing anytime soon, and by soon we mean at least two decades. Craig Kimbrel's "struggles" remind us how unbelievably great Mariano Rivera was.

25 February 2017

Dellin Betances Exposes Baseball

I'm going to go out on a limb and opine that Dellin Betances is awesome. The gigantic, Brooklyn-raised Yankee reliever sports a career ERA of 2.16, a WHIP of one, and 400 strikeouts in 254 innings. Those numbers put him in the company of the two best relievers in baseball -- Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen.

What makes Betances especially valuable is what you might call Andrew Miller Syndrome: Betances is Joe Girardi's Swiss Army Knife, heading to the hill whenever he's needed. In three years, he's made 217 appearances -- mostly in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings. He's entered games with no days' rest about as often as he's pitched with days off. And half his pitches are thrown in high-leverage situations.

A mere 22 saves belie his prodigious value to the Bronx Bombers.

The Betances Arbitration Debacle
You might have heard that Betances took the team to salary arbitration, requesting a tenfold raise to $5 million, citing projections that put his financial worth at about $15 million to the team. The Yankees countered with $3 million, citing precedent. No other non-closer has ever won more than $2 million in his first year of arbitration.

The Yankees' case is based on a flaw in the arbitration rules, which were constructed on an old paradigm that over-values closers and saves. Without the saves to make his case, Betances was forced into the untenable position of having to argue that he is a closer, which he patently isn't, although patently false arguments seem to be the strategy du jour in America.

Needless to say, the Yankees won the arbitration case and Betances will simply double his career earnings this season. 

A Great Set-up Man > A Lousy Closer
The larger issue is that the arbitration system makes no sense. Had Betances simply pitched at the same level of production all ninth innings, instead of seventh and eighth innings, he would have cited Aroldis Chapman's $5 million arbitration salary from three years ago and probably exceeded that. The irony there is that Betances pitches in more high leverage situations as a fireman than he would as a closer, who is often asked to protect two- and three-run leads.

Compare Betances with Phillies closer Jeanmar Gomez, a replacement-level pitcher who is Betances' inferior by every measure except saves, 37 of which Gomez fell into last season despite a 4.85 ERA. And by salary: those 37 saves earned Gomez a $4.2 million contract for 2017.

Take a look at the difference between these two pitchers over the last three years:
Betances: 217 games, 245 innings, 5.3 hits/9, 3.4 BB/9, 14.3 K/9, 1.93 ERA, 8.5 WAR
Gomez: 179 games, 205 innings, 10 hits/9, 2.7 BB/9, 6.4 K/9, 3.68 ERA, 1.5 WAR\

One More Thing, Randy Levine...
There is one more point to make, and that is that Yankees president Randy Levine must have been channeling his inner Jim Dolan in the aftermath of the arbitrator's decision, and now he owes Betances an apology. Levine's denigrating public rant about Betances and his arbitration strategy was mean-spirited and gratuitous. He is going to have to live with the consequences if Betances leaves town as a free agent when he's eligible because the boss treated him poorly in public.

23 February 2017

The Amazing Career of Randy Velarde

You might remember Randy Velarde, a longtime backup middle infielder for the Yankees in the late 80s-early 90s who bolted to the Angels just as the Yankee steamroller got into gear, and played into the new millennium.

Generally speaking, Velarde could hit for average and get on base, offered middling pop, ran well and had a fine glove, all in spot duty. He played 120 games just four times in his 16-year career but when he played, he could be asked to cover second, short, third or the outfield.

What's so amazing about that? 1999.

That season, toiling for the woebegone Angels, and traded after 95 games to the second-place A's, Velarde set career marks for games, at bats, hits, runs, home runs, RBI, steals, OBP, baserunning value, and offensive and defensive WAR. 

Not just by a little. He scored 105 runs. His next best was 82.

He knocked in 76 runs. His next best was 54.

He stole 24 bases. His next best was nine.

He earned six wins against replacement for those two teams, batting .317/.390/.455. His next best WAR in a season was three. (These are all Fangraphs estimates. Baseball Reference credited him with seven wins in '99.)

Indeed, Velarde earned more WAR in 1999 than in his nine worst seasons combined.

Now, I know where your mind is going: steroids. Velarde admitted buying PEDs from Barry Bonds' personal trainer and benefiting from them. But that started in 2001, two years after his career year.

For his career, Velarde added 22 wins to his employers over 16 years, a pretty hefty number. More than a quarter of that came in that one great campaign.

But wait, you haven't heard the amazing part: Velarde accomplished that -- by far his best season in the Majors -- at age 36.

No one does that. By age 36, Derek Jeter was hitting .270 without power. Cal Ripken was playing third base. Miguel Tejada was a replacement-level backup. Nomar was no more.

Randy Velarde never made an All-Star team, never garnered an MVP vote, never led the league in anything except for that year (most singles). Eighty second-basemen's careers are rated ahead of his. Yet he is one of only two second basemen since 1946 to earn 5+ WAR after age 35. The other fella is a guy called Joe Morgan, perhaps the greatest keystoner in baseball history.

21 February 2017

Big Dividends On Tap for the White Sox

Self-knowledge is a wonderful thing. The Chicago White Sox came to the realization last season, the fourth sub-.500 year in a row, that their vector did not point up.

Others might not have reached that conclusion. After all, one of the best pitchers on the planet, Chris Sale, hurled for the White Sox between fashion contretemps. So did promising lefties Jose Quintana and Carlos Rodon. David Robertson has saved 110 games the last three seasons. Jose Abreu and Todd Frazier have banged 200 home runs between them over the last three years. And all-around star Adam Eaton (pictured right) has hit and run to 15 wins during that same period.

Shouldn't They Be Great?
That, plus some other assets, are a great core. You could win with a true ace, two more solid starters, two big boppers and a solid outfield as the anchors of an otherwise solid team. Alas, that last part was not the White Sox.

Chicago's South Siders were the ultimate stars and scrubs outfit. They played a .205 hitter with four home runs in center field. Their best bench bat was 35-year-old Justin Morneau, who can't play the field and posted a .303 OBP. This strategy, if indeed it was one, has proven itself flawed. Teams are measured not by their best players, but by their sixth starter, their utility infielder and the depth of their 40-man roster.

The gentlemen named above carried the team, accounting for 71% of their WAR. Because nine guys have to bat, and your top three starters can only pitch 60% of your games, that's a problem. Well, it's a problem if you're trying to win. But if you want to rebuild, it's an asset.

The Advantage of Tradeable Stars
A sell-off of decent players returns middling prospects, but Chris Sale and Adam Eaton brought a haul of developing talent. The White Sox plucked two big pitching prospects from the nation's capital for Eaton. Sale delivered New England's two prized farmhands. 

Frazier, 31, (pictured left) and Melky Cabrera, 33 in the last year of their contracts; and Robertson, 32, who has two years left; might move before the trade deadline if they continue to play up to expectation. Robertson has already been the subject of trade talks with the closer-deficient Nats.

Assets begat assets, if the front office is adept. Turning Frazier, Cabrera and Robertson into future value, combined with the retrenchment that started with the Eaton and Sale sales, will allow the White Sox to start over, this time with a more balanced approach.

19 February 2017

What Are the Braves Doing?

If you wanted your old jalopy to look and run like new, would you swap out the engine for a '75 Malibu's? Would you attach the rusted doors from a '92 Nova? Even if you could get them cheap?

The rebuilding Braves, they of the 68-93 record, have inked deals with two-thirds of a nursing home. 40+ hurlers Bartolo Colon and R.A. Dickey were just the beginning. Atlanta has since picked up 30-year-old Jaime Garcia, 36-year-old Brandon Phillips, 33-year-old Kurt Suzuki and 32-year-old Sean Rodriguez.

It's not like these players were found in the bargain bin. Phillips and Garcia will cost $26 million between them. Dickey's knuckler and Colon's many folds chew up another $20 million. Rodriguez signed a two-year, $11.5 million contract. It's a parade of post-prime players on the books for a team clawing back from the abyss.

And that's added to a last place team already starting two MLB graybeards, Nick Markakis, 33 and Matt Kemp, 32. 

Are They Any Better?
None of these players is currently a star, though Colon was a Cy Young candidate back when rookie phenom Dansby Swanson was in diapers and Matt Kemp came within a Ryan Braun drug test of earning an MVP back in the Bush Administration. All of them together aren't propelling the Braves into contention. So what does it mean?

It means Atlanta's brass knows Atlanta's kids aren't ready, particularly on the mound. Rather than rush the prospects to the Majors, the team is bringing in elderly placeholders on one-year deals. If any of them takes his Geritol and lights it up in the first half,  GM John Copolella will flip them at the trade deadline for more young assets.

“We’re looking for guys who can suck up innings," he told the Atlanta Journal Constitution. 

Beyond that, Copolella recognizes that it's a bad look, particularly as they open Sun Trust Park, if the Braves suck. There might actually be some value to not finishing last in the NL East. So if they want to catch an ascendant Philadelphia team, they'd better get some quality on the field. Middling 29-year-olds aren't generally settling for one-year deals, so they recruited the guys they could.

It's an innovative strategy that might catch on among rebuilding clubs that calculate they are still a couple of years away.

So Year One in the new digs in Marietta won't involve a pennant chase. It won't even involve a .500 chase, most likely. But it increases the odds that a contender gets to Sun Trust Park before its novelty wears off.

17 February 2017

Wouldja Hurry It Up Already?

We're in Dead-Horse Beating territory here, but it seems as if Major League Baseball has taken a Lilliputian step forward with its decree that from now on intentional walks may simply be signaled by the pitcher, rather than throwing four pitches high and away.

I understand the argument that something unexpected can happen during a purposeful free pass, like a batted ball or a wild pitch, but the larger issue is that baseball is an entertainment business and an intentional walk is as entertaining watching a cat cough up a hairball. (Believe me.)

The time saved on one intentional walk every other game is smaller than the president's credibility, or, if that's not possible, than whatever else you can imagine that would be infinitesimal and undetectable.

Two Simple Solutions
First steps are helpful as long as they're not last steps. Baby steps are fine when followed by giant steps. It's time for MLB to take the two big steps that would really increase the pace of games.

First, of course, enforce the existing rules about getting pitches to the plate when no one is on base. A batter gets in the box and stays there. A pitcher has 20 seconds (or whatever it is) to deliver. Shampoo, rinse, repeat, because human rain delays aren't fun. They make flowers grow, but so does chicken poop.

Second, limit pitching changes during innings. There are a number of ways to do it and it almost doesn't matter which one you choose. Pitching changes are the baseball equivalent of corporate board meetings. They provide all the entertainment value of uranium decaying.

It's not about how long games take; it's about how much action they pack. These two simple changes, one of which isn't even a change, would go a long way towards tilting the ratio of excitement to boredom into positive territory, particularly for the casual fans who will make or break our sport.

15 February 2017

Predicting the Predictable

Former New York City mayor Ed Koch was renowned for asking Gotham residents, "How'm I doin'?" 

Let's see how I'm doing. Last year, in this post, I reviewed 2015 performances that seemed ripe for surpassing before the Summer Solstice. Let's review:

Jackie Bradley Jr. -- had amassed just five hits, one homer, no steals, and three runs and RBI into August. In April alone he knocked 22 hits, a home run, 11 runs scored, a base swipe and 13 RBIs. He popped his second homer on May 5. Mission Accomplished.

Tanner Roark -- I predicted he could top his 2015 win total of 4 right quick. It did take him until June 5, but then he heated up and finished 16-10, 2.83.

Nick Markakis -- after mashing just three home runs in 686 plate appearances in 2015, it seemed inconceivable that a guy with 144 lifetime jacks wouldn't bounce back in 2016. We were starting to conceive in 2016 when Markakis totaled just three in the first half of the season. He picked up the pop a bit as the weather warmed and ended the season with 13.

Anthony Rendon -- Injuries limited Rendon to five dingers and 25 runs batted in during the 2015 campaign. He repeated the pattern in April, but got uncorked by mid-May and collected 7 homers and 29 RBIs by the end of June. He finished with a more characteristic 20 and 85.

Jake Arrieta -- allowed just seven runs in August and September of 2015 en route to a Cy Young. Still a CY candidate in 2016, Arrieta allowed seven runs in five innings of one game against Pittsburgh. It cost him 25 points of ERA on the season.

Dee Gordon and A.J. Pierzynski -- world-beaters in 2015, both flopped predictably in 2016. The former, the batting leader in 2015, served a first half suspension and then needed all but the last two weeks to notch his 78th hit, his total by Memorial day the previous year. Pierzynski, coming back for his age 39 season, couldn't match his April 2015 home run total (three) and topped the April 2015 RBI total (15) by just nine all year.

Andrew Cashner -- Cashner appeared due for a bounce after absorbing four losses in April 2015 despite a 2.61 ERA. That was not a problem at all in 2016: Cashner pitched just 53 innings for the Marlins, going 1-4, 5.98. Bust!

Shelby Miller -- After a 6-17, 3.02 season in Atlanta, there was no way his record and ERA could be so divergent in Arizona, right? Right! In 2016, his 3-12 record was validated by a 6.02 ERA. Didn't see that coming!

Jon Jay -- As San Diego's anointed CF, it seemed likely he'd top his 2015 production of six doubles and a stolen base, early last season. He bopped his seventh double May 5 and stole his second bag May 13. It was his last steal, but Jay did leg out 26 doubles for the season.

Corey Seager -- I knew I was cheating on this one, but oh my. Seager, in an impressive cup of coffee with the Dodgers in 2015 presaged great things, so it's no surprise that by May 15 he'd topped his 2015 numbers with six homers, 20 RBIs, 23 runs and, well, everything else. Seager enjoyed a rookie season for the ages, winning ROY and earning third place in the MVP balloting with a .308/.365/.512 line and 6 WAR.

Hunter Pence -- What injuries did to limit him to 9 HR and 30 RBI in 2015 they also did to him in 2016. However, he managed twice as many games and delivered 13 homers and 57 RBI. Pence would be a perennial 4-win player if he could just stay on the field.

So there you go, 10 for 12. Of course, considering this was a self-selected sample, it doesn't exactly make me Nostradamus. It just shows that good players tend to bounce back from bad years and no one is as good as his best year.

26 January 2017

Let the Silly Season Begin!

Now that the wonderful college football season has ended with my home state's flagship university atop the mountain, the sports world turns its full attention to the NFL.

Having narrowed down the field to the final two, woe is us.

We are now in the middle stages of the interminable Stupid Bowl run-up, during which analysts throw every possibility against the wall in their aggregate effort to demonstrate their collective ignorance about how the game will play out. Primarily, they will wax in a continuous loop for a fortnight about the contestants' past performances, which we already know will have little bearing on the contest. 

Indeed, one of the two combatants is legendary for their weekly overhauls that render all that came before as credible as a presidential tweet.

The dreariness will not end there. Once Disneyland gets its annual plug and the postmortems are rung out a week later, we will be subjected to a sports universe whiling away the next several months obsessing about NBA regular season and early playoff irrelevancies, as if they will have any effect on the inevitable Cleveland-Golden State championship. You will hear more about who finishes seventh in the West -- some mediocre outfit of no consequence -- than about global poverty.

(During this time, the preliminary NHL season will conclude, and its months of playoffs will drag on, but you don't have to worry about sports media wasting any airtime on the sport. If you want to see the games, try the Elbonian Music channel, number 657 on your satellite package.)

Thankfully, the college hoops season will offer a consequential interregnum in February and March. Because it actually does matter to fans, alumni and locals who emerges victorious from some third rate conference and gets to go dancing against some big conference bully, the league playoffs will inspire huge interest around the nation. And unlike the early months of the NBA playoffs, round one and two (the real rounds one and two, not the Dayton-based play-in games euphemistically called Round 1) will actually matter, and provide noteworthy drama, as upsets provide some smaller conference teams and their school communities with their own Super Bowl moments.

The Final Four kicks off in Phoenix just as the Major League Baseball season -- thank God! -- finally resumes in April. It's always darkest before the dawn.

16 January 2017

Cubs in the White House

Did you see the World Champion Chicago Cubs' visit to the White House on Martin Luther King's birthday?

The players, coaches and front office people all stood around White Sox fan Barak Obama who extolled them for uniting a nation with effort and fair play.

Here's what I noticed: a gaggle of professional athletes surrounded the Commander in Chief and the only black guy in the room was...the President of the United States.

What would Jackie Robinson make of that?

09 January 2017

The National Championship: Don't Bet on a Good Game

I don't know which professional minor league football team representing a university is going to win tonight's National Championship game. No one does.

I could take a guess. It's a binary choice. Fifty percent of the guessers will be right. Being so doesn't demonstrate that they know anything.

Last year's game doesn't mean very much. It was one game. Many of the players from that game are gone. It's not likely to have a great deal of bearing on this year's contest.

I live in South Carolina, home of Clemson. I have many friends who are Clemson graduates or have children at Clemson. I like purple and orange. I'm sick of the Alabama franchise winning. So I certainly have my preference.

All that said, there is a lot of sentiment among the cognoscenti about a Clemson victory that is mostly wishful thinking. Alabama is so clearly the better team it hardly seems debatable.

Alabama blitzed through the SEC. They crushed almost everyone they played. They hammered Auburn. Their defense nearly outscored their opponents' offenses.

Clemson lost a game to up-and-down Pittsburgh. They should have lost to a mediocre N.C. State team that missed an easy field goal for the win. They edged Auburn by six. Non-BCS Troy took them to the wire.

Observers are weighting too heavily results from the semi-finals, where Clemson steamrolled mighty Ohio State 31-0 and Alabama struggled on offense in a 24-7 romp over a suspect Washington team. That Alabama would be criticized for only defeating the #4 team in the country by 17 is a testament to the powerhouse they are.

The Vegas spread on this game of 6.5 points is a reflection of two things: recency bias and nationwide sentiment. I've just described the recency bias. No team is as good as its best game or as bad as its worst.

The Crimson Tide played one game all season that ended within the 6.5-point spread, and that was in hostile territory to the team that defeated them last year. Fans want a close game tonight, if not an outright Clemson triumph. I hope they get both.

But that's definitely not the way to bet.

03 January 2017

The Questions Keep Coming

More Braindrizzling queue and eh, eh?

Q. Okay, Trout won't make the Hall with just five more seasons, but what if he plays for like, 12 average seasons. Would he make the HOF then?
A. There are two concepts that grease the HOF skids -- peak value and career value. Career value is Don Sutton -- a very good pitcher for a long time. Peak value is Ken Griffey Jr. who averaged .260 with 19 home runs a year after age 30. (Of course, that allowed him to compile career value as well.)  In your scenario, Trout would look like Junior, except for a shorter peak.

Q. Who is the best young play-by-play guy in Major League Baseball?
A.  No one. Only three of the PBP guys were even born in the '80s. I guess Vin Scully's replacement might qualify.

Q. Which of the big money relievers is most likely to flame out? 
A. There have been some questions raised about Mark Melancon because he's 31, signed a four-year deal with the Giants and is most prone to losing velocity. His four-seamers average 92 mph, a relative tortoise among closers.

Q. I've seen comparisons between Yoenis Cespedes and Edwin Encarnacion that are not favorable to Cespedes, yet EE was forced to accept a deal worth millions less. Are the Mets just stupid?
A. Here's the comparison to which you refer:
  • Encarnacion, 146 OPS+, 21.1 WAR last five years.  3 years/$60 million with Cleveland
  • Cespedes, 124 OPS+, 18.7 WAR last five years.  4/$110 milliion with Mets
Cespedes is three critical years younger (31 vs. 34) and plays the field. In addition, the Mets had no leverage; they had to sign a slugger.

Q. Realistically, how long can this Cubs team dominate baseball?
A. At least until the bulk of the lineup reaches free agency. Their combination of dominance and youth is kind of unprecedented.

Q. What is the next area of Sabermetric advancement?
A. Defense. Statcast is telling us exactly where balls are hit and what kinds of routes defenders take. And there's so much more to learn in that realm.

Q. If Clayton Kershaw pitched one more Kershaw-type season in 2017 and then retired after the requisite 10 years, is he in the Hall of Fame?
A. No doubt. Greatest pitcher of his time. Lifetime ERA+ an unfathomable 59% better than average. Top 5 Cy Young each of the last six years -- top 3 if he hadn't been hurt in 2016. Led league in ERA five times in six years.

Q. As of right now, which teams have no chance to win in 2017?
A. Fans of these teams can make other plans in October: Braves, Phillies, Reds, Padres, Rockies, Twins, White Sox and A's. I wouldn't cash in my Berkshire Hathaway stock on several other teams, but these are the lead-pipe locks.

Q. Which under-the-radar signing is most likely to pay big dividends?
A. Depends how low your radar is. Let's say it's a player who didn't command a Qualifying Offer. I like the Marlins signing Brad Ziegler and Junichi Tazawa, a reverberation of the Royals' World Series formula in which they teamed a shutdown bullpen with a wobbly rotation. Adding two consistent relievers to A.J. Ramos is critical in Miami because their best starter is no one.

The signing of Steve Pearce by Toronto is intriguing for several reasons. First, Pearce quietly hit .288/.374/.492 with 13 homers in less than half a season last year. Second, he'll play all the corners of the field for the Blue Jays. Third, he'll replace Edwin Encarnacion north of the border, which means we'll compare the two and wouldn't it be just like Baseball if Pearce, at one-fifth the cost, turns out to be every bit the addition Encarnacion is to Cleveland.

Of course, the real big-payoff signing is the one we can't predict, some guy with 13 lifetime home runs in parts of six seasons who slugs 28 and hits .280 this year. 2017's version of Adam Duvall.

Q.  Now that A.J. Preller has pushed San Diego fans through hell and high water, are you still impressed?
A. Young Preller took the reins of the Padres in 2014 and yanked them hard into expensive free agency with a bevy of stars who almost without exception cratered. Recognizing the error of his ways, he quickly reversed course and unloaded the bunch for prospects in 2015. His team has bumbled in both his seasons and he still hasn't steered the franchise entirely back on the road to success. To top it off, he was busted for falsifying information in a trade with the Red Sox. So while Preller's reign has been audacious, it has not been auspicious, but his full vitae has yet to be written.

Q. What would Matt Holiday have to do to make the Hall of Fame?
A. Age backwards? He's well short and turning 37. Hasn't played a full season in two years. When he's done, he can console himself with $160 million in career earnings and a World Series ring.

Q. Does Carlos Beltran need another crazy-good season to earn his Hall pass?
A. That would help but I think he's already in, based on the career value I described earlier. Beltran's been a very good, five-tool player for a very long time. So while he has never led the league in anything during his illustrious 19-year career, he's done a little of everything at one time or another -- won Rookie of the Year (1999) slugged more than 40 homers (2006), posted an OBP above .400 (2009), delivered an OPS+ above 150 (2011), won a Gold Glove (2006-08), stolen more than 40 bases (2003, 2004) and added post-season heroics (2004 with Houston, 2012 with St. Louis). He is rated the 9th best power-speed combination of all time.

Q. A lot of players and managers dismiss defensive statistics. Are they just Luddites or are they on to something?
A. Both. Defensive statistics are not sufficiently mature to tell the whole story. They are going to mislead us in some cases as the craft evolves. Observation by knowledgeable people has value.

At the same time, the defensive metrics add to the base of knowledge because they are unbiased. Players and managers can discern talent that stats can't, but they can also be mislead by confirmation bias and conventional wisdom. Derek Jeter was a great case in point: he was beloved, made a couple of high-profile circus catches and invented that jump throw, consequently, many observers believed he was a great fielder. But deeper analysis showed quite conclusively that he had extremely limited range on ground balls, which is the sine non qua for shortstops.

Anyone who relies on their eyeballs to the exclusion of the metrics, or vice versa, is a fool.

Q. You've railed against the ignorance of baseball media for years. Where are they now in understanding the science?
A. It's a little like race relations: we've come so far and have far to go.

Q. What do you make of Curt Schilling's HOF case?
A. Schill's arm belongs in the Hall but his mouth is keeping him out. A recent tweet about lynching journalists has prompted a serious number of voters to put his candidacy on the bench for now. Given the large number of legitimate candidates on a ballot limited to 10 choices, many of whom are more worthy than Schilling, that could cost him in the long run. This is particularly so because he has not been gracious about the very reasonable reaction to that indefensible tweet. He doesn't seem to recognize the difference between having a political point of view, which is his right, and being a jackass, which is getting him in trouble.

01 January 2017

11 New Year's Wishes for Sports

The universe owes us one. We will have thrust upon us at the beginning of this year by a comatose American electorate a sociopathic, clinically narcissistic, utterly unqualified, willfully ignorant, despicable, lecherous, shallow, juvenile, jackass-in-chief.*

I hope that wasn't payback for the Cubs and Indians in a thrilling seven-game World Series. Assuming the former was the common people knowing what they want and getting it good and hard, and the latter just good luck, it's only fair that one of the following occur this year to improve the sports universe.

1. Put the N-Scam-A-A out of our misery -- its member institutions admit that they are, in
collusion with various television networks, in the for-profit sports entertainment business. They agree to treat revenue generating sports -- big time football and men's basketball -- as the business franchises they are, bidding for players with actual cash and offering everyone who wants one a scholarship to matriculate and graduate like regular students. They maintain the limits on practice time and provide time for all athletes to attend classes, but in every other way continue to treat them like the employees they are. This is the only formula that allows the member institutions to move forward without lying through their teeth every day about their athletic programs.

2. Slash the NHL and NBA playoffs in half -- so that the regular season actually matters. With only the eight best teams qualifying, most every game will count.

3. Enforce MLB's rules designed to move the game along and limit the number of pitching changes. Committee meetings are stultifying, even when they take place on the mound.

4. Have a foreign network provide the telecast of the next Olympics to the U.S. -- It's not all about us.

5. Limit the NCAA hoops tournament to a league's best teams -- No team that loses more games in its conference than it wins should be allowed in the tournament, period. We'd all much rather see a 25-4 squad that lost in the Southern Conference semi-finals make the tournament than a 16-12 powerhouse that finished 10th in the ACC. The latter did not have a successful season and the former did, and they should be likewise rewarded.

6. Begin every televised NFL game with a warning to fans: Though the officiating will not be perfect, it doesn't matter. Luck is 30% of the game. Don't sweat every call; don't worry about three inches that can't be discerned without super slow motion, stop action and three camera angles. Enjoy today's action by freakish athletes who are maiming and killing themselves for your entertainment.

7. Sometimes, tell replay to shut the @#$%&! up -- Baseball players who dive safely into a base but bounce over it while still being tagged shall be deemed safe. That's not what replay was for.

8. Eliminate crappy bowl games -- Division 1A college football post-season contests played in
Detroit, Birmingham or Charlotte, or featuring contestants with losing records in their conference, may not be called "bowls." Instead, each of these contests shall be called the "NIT," as in, the "Pinstripe NIT" and the "Armed Forces NIT" to distinguish it from a real bowl game. There shall be 12 bowl games, -- the Rose, Orange, Sugar, Fiesta, Cotton, Peach, Outback, Citrus, Sun, Alamo, Music City and Liberty -- pitting only ranked teams or league champions.

9. Remove the remaining dolts from baseball coverage -- Require everyone requesting a press credential to a Major League Baseball game to pass a test demonstrating that they understand why the old measurements no longer pass muster.

10. Screw the plane. Get into the end zone for a touchdown.

11. Admit it already: sports gambling is legal. They scroll stats under football games for fantasy league players and list point spreads in newspapers. Every office and bar advertises an NCAA tourney bracket. Forty-nine states participate in lottery operations. Your bookie is just a click away. So let's ditch the self-righteous hypocrisy and end the remaining prohibitions. Good idea? You bet.

* This blog remains non-partisan. This is not an endorsement of the other major party's nominee, who, though qualified and generally adult, was also a miserable candidate. Contrary to what the news media told you during its 25/8/366 coverage of the election, there were actually more than two candidates for president, one of them an actual Republican, all of whom more qualified, mature and dignified than the ultimate victor.

30 December 2016

You Can't Fool Players or Coaches

What do Gregg Popovich, Leonard Fournette and all of Major League Baseball have in common?

They're not buying the hype.

Popovich is the championship-winning San Antonio Spurs coach who regularly flouts NBA rules by resting his best players for whole games, despite outrage from league brass and ticket-buying fans. Recently, LeBron James absorbed blowback for similarly agreeing not to make a trip to Memphis for the second half of a home-and-home series between the Cavaliers and the Grizzlies.

Fournette is the star running back at LSU who has chosen to skip his team's bowl game -- an advertising platform for Hyundai -- in order to prepare for his Major League career in the NFL, which will actually pay him a salary. The sporting public lit up Twitter and the radio and TV commentary universe with brick-a-brats for Fournette, Christian McCaffrey and others making the same decision.

All of Major League Baseball regularly sits its star players from time to time in order to rest them for the grueling six-month, 162-game schedule. No one comments.

Their Own Best Interest
The common thread is this: the people involved recognize, even if their hypocritical overseers don't want to acknowledge it, that their best interests don't dovetail with those of the money counters in their sport. Contrary to the Association's best efforts to bamboozle fans about the abject irrelevance of its interminable regular season, Popovich understands that his team will cruise into the over-stuffed playoff field regardless of its lineup in any given game. He knows that seeding is, as Harry Truman famously quipped about the vice presidency, as relevant as the fifth teat on a cow. And he knows that championships are won on fresh legs, not on victories in Game 26 of an 82-game season against an out-of-conference opponent. And finally, he is well aware that he answers to the owner of the San Antonio Spurs, not the commissioner of the NBA.

Fournette, McCaffrey, et. al. are unmoved by the NCAA's best efforts to befuddle them about their "amateur" status. They are professional revenue generators for their schools, no more so than during bowl season, when a single game kicks back a multi-million dollar payout, even if it is the desultory Buffalo Wild Wings Sun Bowl to which McCaffrey's Stanford squad has been relegated. Each of them is acting in his own best interest. The swami of the NCAA, whatever irrelevant personage that is today, won't reimburse these NFL prospects if they get injured or fall in the draft because they offered their talents for free to the university's capital engine for one more game.

Some of the derision aimed at Fournette, McCaffrey and their ilk has centered around their "abandonment" of teammates. This is hysterical. Both are leaving school after their junior year, a well-worn tradition against which no one has ever railed for "abandoning" teammates. Coaches regularly "abandon" recruits for better-paying jobs at bigger football programs. That die was cast long ago.

A Base Hit for Baseball
Once again, baseball gets it right like no other sport. It's commonly understood that in a long season players need occasional rest in order to perform at their best for the most games. Fans purchase tickets aware that their favorite player might play spectator that day. Ironically, unlike the NBA, MLB's regular season actually does matter. One game can and often does cost teams an opportunity to earn a playoff spot that can lead to a championship. Yet everyone involved readily accepts the notion that resting players is a long-term investment.

What really separates baseball from college football and the NBA is that the latter two sports are built on foundations of hypocrisy, inevitably propping up a precarious structure prone to a collapse of logic. For all its warts, Major League Baseball at least is what it says it is, which is why no one complains when its athletes skip a meaningless game.