One Thing Leads to Another

Posted August 23, 2014 by Burly
Categories: Baseball History, Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Yankees

It’s been sixteen years since the last major league baseball expansion, which equals the longest period between expansions since 1961 when the first MLB expansion happened.  The record will be broken next season since expansion isn’t currently being discussed by the team owners (at least as far as the public knows).

Why haven’t major league teams given more thought to expansion, given that the Great Recession is more or less over and that two new expansion teams would bring fees of as much of $1 billion to be split between the existing team owners given the current value of even the poorest MLB teams.  The main reason is that major league owners are incredibly short-sighted and greedy.

Two new teams mean two more teams who get an even cut of national television revenue, the new teams might cut ever so slightly into existing teams’ fan bases, and they would reduce the number of credible relocation sites that teams can threaten their current cities with if the cities won’t give them various benefits from tax breaks to publicly financed stadiums.  More teams also mean more supply when it comes time to put a team up for auction to the highest bidder.

In the long term, of course, expansion for an industry as financially healthy as major league baseball means expanded markets, bigger TV and radio contracts and greater overall national interest.  In other words, more money for everyone.  Even so, the current teams want every last dollar for themselves now, rather than getting even more ten or twenty years down the road.

In fact, former baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent is on record stating that the only reason MLB expanded in 1993 and 1998 is because the existing teams needed the huge expansion fees in order to pay off the $280 million the teams owed to the players’ association in settlement after having been found to have colluded against free agents in the 1985, 1986 and 1987 off-seasons by two different arbitrators (the first arbitrator was fired by the owners after the first collusion decision).

The fact that the owners had to pay the players’ association for colluding in the first place goes back to 1966 and beyond.  Before 1966, major league baseball was a complete monopoly and recognized as such by two United States Supreme Court decisions.  Major league players had no choice, no matter how good they were, but to play for the team’s salary offer.  Their only other option was to find a job in some other industry.

Individual players tried hold-outs, and these sometimes got them a few more dollars, but in the end they always had to accept a price very close to the owner’s previous final offer, or be barred from the game at all professional levels.

In the early spring of 1966, shortly before the players elected former United Steel Workers’ economist Marvin Miller to represent them and create a truly independent labor organization, star pitchers of the World Champion Los Angeles Dodgers, Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, got the bright idea to stage a double-holdout.  They hired a lawyer to represent them (up until this point, teams had steadfastly refused to negotiate with anyone but the individual player) and demanded a cool $1 million to be split evenly between them over three seasons (so, $167,000 per year each).

The Dodgers refused to meet with the lawyer and refused to acknowledge the duel holdout.  However, with the team’s two great aces both holding out, they had at least twice the leverage they’d have had holding out alone and ultimately signed contracts for $130,000 (Koufax) and $110,000 (Drysdale), which were almost certainly the largest single-season major league contracts up to that date.

[It's worth noting that recent research by SABR's Michael Haupert strongly suggests that before the formation of a real players' union in 1966, teams routinely fed the media exaggerated figures instead of the real the amounts they signed their biggest stars for.  For example, contemporary news reports (and legend -- more than the President) indicated that Babe Ruth made $90,000 in the early 1930's; Haupert says he never made more than $80,000, although that was still more than twice what any other player in baseball was making at the time.  Similarly, contemporary reports said that Ted Williams made as much as $125,000 and Stan Musial made $100,000 in a season; neither ever made six figures in a season, at least in terms of base salary excluding performance bonuses.  Teams obviously did this for two reasons: (1) it was good press and promoted a recognition of just how good the best players were; and (2) it disguised just how little players were paid in comparison to their true value in terms of putting fans in the seats at market prices.]

Well, the team owners just hated what Koufax and Drysdale had done.  When the players’ union came in later that year and began forcing the teams to negotiate collective bargaining agreements, one of the things the teams asked for fairly early on was agreement that players wouldn’t be able to negotiate their salaries collectively in the future in the manner that Koufax and Drysdale had done.  The union said O.K. but only if the owners agree not to act collectively in negotiating with the players (i.e., no collusion).  The owners couldn’t agree fast enough at the time, but it came back to bite them years later when they collectively agreed not to sign free agents.

If Fay Vincent is right, then it might be quite some time before we see major league expansion again.  Without an immediate need for large amounts of capital, don’t bet on the owners to look any further than maximizing their immediate profits and team values.

Foreign Players in KBO — A History Lesson

Posted August 23, 2014 by Burly
Categories: Baseball Abroad, Baseball History

mykbo.net recently linked to a Korea Times article written a member of SABR’s Korea chapter that I thought was very interesting.  It’s about 1998, the season when foreign players (players from the Americas) began playing in South Korea’s KBO.

The KBO from its inception in 1982 through 1997 had not allowed foreign players with the exception of ethnic Koreans born in other countries.  A big part of the reason for this was the fact that KBO finances were weak and foreign players were expensive.

The decision to bring in foreign players (which Koreans often refer to using a word that translates as “mercenaries”) was largely an economic decision.  In the mid-1990’s interest in KBO began to lag, with attendance falling for the first time, as South Koreans became more interested in soccer, particularly with South Korea having been awarded the co-host with Japan of the 2002 World Cup.

Also, Chan-ho Park’s arrival in MLB directed South Korean baseball fans’ attention away from KBO, and the KBO’s Haitai Tigers’ had sold two of the league’s biggest stars Dong-yeol Sun and Jong-bum Lee to Japan’s Chunichi Dragons because of financial problems.  [Baseball Reference should be called to task for having Lee's stats under the name "Jon Baum Lee."]

KBO thus hoped that bringing in foreign players would goose attendance, but after the decision to bring in foreigners had been made, the 1998 Asian financial crisis hit, causing a lot of resentment and concern that high-priced foreign players were being brought it at big expense and at the cost of jobs for Korean baseball players.  Seven of the eight KBO teams ultimately signed 12 foreign players, most notably Tyrone Woods and Scott Coolbaugh.

The initial class of foreign players included eight position players and four pitchers.  The pitchers all had success in KBO that first season, but only about half of the position players did. Since then, pitchers have gradually dominated the ranks of foreign players until this year, when teams were allowed to sign three foreign players instead of two for the first time, one of whom had to be a position player.

Scott Coolbaugh led the Hyundai Unicorns to a Korean Series title, hitting a home run in the deciding game six.  Tyrone Woods set a new KBO home record (since broken) with 42 dingers and won the league’s MVP Award.  That was enough to convince the team owners of the value of foreign players, and they have played in KBO ever since.

Boston Red Sox Sign Rusney Castillo For $72 Million

Posted August 23, 2014 by Burly
Categories: Baltimore Orioles, Boston Red Sox, Chicago White Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Yankees, San Francisco Giants, Texas Rangers

It was announced today that the Red Sox signed 27 year old Cuban outfielder Rusney Castillo to a heavily back-loaded seven-year deal worth $72 million.  If the Cuban Serie Nacional stats provided here are accurate, particularly in comparison to the Cuban stats of the position players who have recently succeeded in MLB, it seems like an over-pay by the Crimson Hose.

What people are in agreement about is that Castillo has great speed and is an excellent base stealer.  Otherwise, he doesn’t appear to have a lot of plate discipline, and his history in Cuba in terms of the playing time he received raises questions about just how good his defense is.

The impression I get about major league management is that it is extremely reactive.  Jose Abreu, Yasiel Puig and Yoenis Cespedes have been great, so the market for Cuban talent is way up and Castillo gets a record-setting deal.  If Castillo falls on his face, the market for Cuban players will drop like a stone, at least for those without the obvious talents of Abreu, Puig and Cespedes.

We’ve seen this already with Japanese and Korean players.  Because Yu Darvish succeeded, Masahiro Tanaka got a record contract, and Tanaka’s outstanding performance, at least until he got hurt, means the next Japanese pitchers to leave NPB for MLB are likely to get very good contracts.  However, I remember Hisashi Iwakuma signing for peanuts, or at least way less than he deserved, because the last couple of Japanese pitchers immediately before him hadn’t panned out.  The next well-paid Japanese pitcher who falls on his face in MLB, and the prices for Japanese pitchers will fall again.

It’s the same with pitchers out of South Korea’s KBO.  Hyun-Jin Ryu turned out to be great, and MLB got all excited about bringing more Korean pitchers to MLB.  The Orioles signed the KBO’s next best veteran starter Suk-min Yoon to a three-year $5.75 million contract, but he’s been dreadful, pitching badly in the AAA International League.  This most likely means no other major league team will take a chance on a KBO pitcher, even at very modest prices, until the next talent like Ryu comes along.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that scouting as its actually done is awfully subjective and heavily influenced by what other players have accomplished rather than being exclusively focused on the player actually being scouted and signed.  It also means that small-market teams that can identify these trends can occasionally sign good foreign talent for bargain prices when the market is irrationally down.

You Go, Girl!

Posted August 21, 2014 by Burly
Categories: Uncategorized

Here’s to Mo’ne Davis, the 13-year old girl who has made history, not only by pitching a shutout to get her Philadelphia team into the Little League World Series, but even more impressively shutting out Tennessee in her first Little League World Series start.  As you can see here, she struck out the side in the 6th and final inning of the game against Tennessee.  She was throwing nothing but fastballs, and the Tennessee boys just couldn’t catch them, particularly when she threw them up in the zone on the strikeout pitches.  It was quite a performance.

I read a thoughtful article from Scott Cacciola of the New York Times today about Mo’ne’s future prospects. It’s hard to imagine she won’t be good enough to play on her high school team even if she doesn’t grow much more, and I doubt she’s going to get as much flack about playing with the boys as girls have gotten in the past.  In this day and age, one would hope she’ll be able to play with the boys as long as she’s got the talent to merit a roster space even if she bruises a few sensitive (and sexist) male egos along the way.

Clearly, there is a question about how much more she will grow.  However, there are plenty of big and tall women today, so there’s at least a chance she’ll continue to grow.

One point that Cacciola makes that I hadn’t thought about is that the relatively few teenage girls (at least as a percentage of the total number of participants) good enough to play boys’ varsity baseball often face pressure to switch to softball at some time during high school simply because they are much, much more likely to get a college scholarship playing women’s softball than men’s baseball.  For young athletes from all but the wealthiest families college scholarship money is a huge consideration.

While its kind of sad that there is this built-in disincentive for talented girls to continue with baseball, at the same time, if college athletic scholarships are based on merit, baseball scholarships will almost always be awarded to men, simply by virtue of the fact that elite male baseball prospects today are generally so big and strong by the age of 18 that few if any women can compete with them at the college level.

At any rate, I hope Mo’ne will keep playing baseball as long as she enjoys it, and she won’t face sexist barriers that some people might try to set up to take the game away from her until she decides on her own to do something else.

Cleveland Indians Re-Sign Scott Atchison

Posted August 20, 2014 by Burly
Categories: Boston Red Sox, Cleveland Indians, New York Mets, New York Yankees, San Francisco Giants

Hey, MLB’s most disrespected player Scott Atchison finally gets a little love!  The Indians re-signed Atchison for 2015 for a cool $1 million well before the end of the 2014 season.  He gets $900,000 next year, with a $100,000 buy out if the Tribe doesn’t pick up their $1 million team option for 2016.

Actually, Scott was arbitration eligible after this season and projected by mlbtraderumors.com to make $1.3 million, so signing the extension now gives up roughly $300,000 in exchange for the risk that he might get hurt between now and the end of the season.  Atchison may also have given the Indians a discount because he was so excited to find a team that actually wants him to stick around after he pitched well for them.

As the above link indicates, I’ve been following Scott Atchison for years, in part because I love the old guys who figure it out after age 30 and go on to have successful major league careers.  Atchison has more than paid his dues, and it’s nice to see him get rewarded a little bit.  He first caught my attention when he pitched well for the San Francisco Giants back in 2007, but the Gints didn’t make an effort to keep him around.

The last time I wrote about Atchison, the Red Sox non-tendered him after he recorded a 1.58 ERA for the team and was only expected to make $800,000 through the arbitration process, because he had a tear in his elbow tendon.  He refused to undergo Tommy John surgery, probably because the doctors told him it might be enough to rest his elbow and try other treatments (I’d don’t know if got the platelet rich injection that Masahiro Tanaka recently had).

In 2013, Atchison had a 4.37 ERA in 50 relief appearances for the Mets, which suggests his arm still wasn’t quite right.  This year, though, he’s got a 2.95 ERA and a 6-0 record in 53 relief appearances for the Indians, and his other numbers are close to what they were in 2012 when he looked so good for the Red Sox.

Atchison will be 39 next year, which is certainly old for almost every major league player.  However, he’s clearly pitched well enough this year for the Indians to bring him back, and the guarantee is so low by MLB standards that it has to be seen as a good risk for the Indians to take.  Way to go, Scott — keep pitching into your 40’s!

What Is the Most Wins a Pitcher Could Win in One Season in Today’s Game?

Posted August 18, 2014 by Burly
Categories: Arizona Diamond Backs, Atlanta Braves, Baseball History, Detroit Tigers, Florida Marlins, Miami Marlins, New York Yankees, Oakland A's, St. Louis Cardinals

In my last post, I wrote that it is highly unlikely that we will see a batter hit .400 in a full season in our lifetimes, but more likely that we’ll see another .400 hitter before we see a starting pitcher win 30 games in a season again.  Which made me think, what is the most wins a pitcher could accumulate in the most extreme season which could reasonably happen.

My feeling is that the limit is about 28 games, if everything reasonably broke in favor of one great starter in one season.  I will explain how I got to that number as follows.

The last pitcher to win 30 games in a season was Denny McLain in 1968, when he won 31.  He was the first to win 30 since since Dizzy Dean in 1934.   McLain’s 1968 was a fluke season by a pitcher who was terrific that year.

The last pitcher to win as many as 27 in a season was the recently deceased Bob Welch, who went 27-6 in 1990.  Since then, no one has won more than 24 games in a season (John Smoltz in 1996, Randy Johnson in 2002 and Justin Verlander in 2011.  Smoltz, Johnson and Verlander were just terrific in the seasons they won 24, but the truth of the matter is that Bob Welch wasn’t particularly brilliant in his 27-win season.

In 1990, Welch had a 2.95 ERA in 35 starts and pitched only two complete games.  He did generally go deep into his games, pitching 238 innings that year, but he struck out only 127.  His exceptional record that season was a testament to tremendously good luck and the exceptional job Dennis Eckersley did as the Oakland A’s closer that year.

If Bob Welch could win 27 games in 1990, I think its at least reasonably possible that in the next 40 years a pitcher having a much better season in all other respects could finish the season at 28-4 if everything reasonably possible broke right for him.

35 starts in a season was relatively common through the 2006 season.  In the the last seven complete seasons, however, only three pitchers have made 35 starts in a season (Dontrelle Willis in 2007, Justin Verlander in 2009 and Chris Carpenter in 2010).  Elite pitchers still routinely make 34 starts in a season, though, and this number isn’t likely to drop any lower in the future, simply because there is no indication that teams will use more than five starters or that active major league rosters are going to get any bigger than the current 25 slots in the foreseeable future.

While no one has made 35 starts in the last few seasons, I certainly think that in a situation where a starter is having an historically great season, teams would find a way to squeeze a 35th start out of that pitcher.  Further, each league’s leader still pitches more than 238 innings in a season more often than not.

In short, a pitcher with Welch’s luck and an historically great bullpen could go 28-4 if he pitched 35 starts as well Randy Johnson or Justin Verlander pitched the seasons they won 24.  I can’t imagine a major league pitcher doing better than that simply because no pitcher in baseball history has ever won 20 games in a season with a won-loss percentage as high as .900.

Only four qualifiers (excluding Perry Werden, who won 12 out of 13 decisions in 1884 in a league that was nowhere near a major league level of talent, although in fairness to Werden, he was one of the greatest players no one has ever heard of) have ever finished the season with a winning percentage at or over .900, and none of them won more than Greg Maddux‘s 19 in 1995.  The closest was Ron Guidry‘s 25-3 in 1978.

In short, I just can’t see anyone going 29-3 in a major league season, but 28-4 at least seems possible based on what’s actually happened in the past.

Will Anyone Hit .380 in a Season Again?

Posted August 17, 2014 by Burly
Categories: American League, Baseball History, Boston Red Sox, Chicago White Sox, Denver Rockies, Kansas City Royals, Minnesota Twins, National League, San Diego Padres, San Francisco Giants, Tampa Bay Rays

At least since I became a major league baseball fan in 1978, the conventional wisdom has been that no one will ever hit .400 in a season again. As I’m sure you know, Ted Williams was the last hitter to bat .400 in a full season back in 1941.  With every passing year, it seems more certain that Williams will be the last .400 hitter.

Actually, I think anything is possible, so I think that perhaps the best way to put it is that it is much more likely than not that no one will bat .400 in a full major league season in the lifetimes of anyone reading this post.  I do, however, believe we are certainly more likely to see another .400 hitter, than we are to see another 30 game-winning pitcher.

I was thinking about this today, and I wondered whether or not we have seen the last .380 hitter (Tony Gwynn batted .394 in 1994 in 475 plate appearances, which would not have been enough in a 162 game season, but 1994 was a strike year).  Including Gwynn, there have been only four such seasons since the end of World War II.  The others are Ted Williams 1957 .388, Rod Carew 1977 .388 and George Brett 1980 .390.

For the following reasons I think we probably won’t see another .380 hitter in our lifetimes.  First, a lot more relief pitchers.  Aside from the fact that each of the last four .380 hitters was an all-time great in terms of what they used to call “pure hitting” (i.e., the ability to hit for average) who led his league or was in the top five in batting average many, many times, all four were left-handed hitters.

Aside from the fact that left-handed hitters are a step closer to first base after they hit the ball, left-handed hitters also get to hit with the platoon advantage most of the time.  However, the steady trend of using more relief pitchers means that after the first two or three plate appearances in a game, left-handed hitters bat with the platoon advantage less now they have at any time in baseball history.

Second, modern major league defense is as good as it has ever been and getting better.  Aside from the fact that major league players improve as a group from one generation to the next, modern statistical analysis, particularly in the last five or ten years, has changed the way baseball people look at defense.

Since the 19th century major league defense has been valued, particularly at the key defensive positions (catcher, shortstop, center field, left field and third base — first base defense was highly valued in the deadball era between 1900 and 1920).  What has changed in recent years is better quantification of what makes a player good or bad at the major league level at every single position on the diamond and increased understanding that elite defense at every single position can be quantified so that players like, for example, Adam Dunn are now almost exclusively American League players because of the designated hitter.

In the 1950’s or 1960’s, if Adam Dunn and Gregor Blanco were playing on the same major league team, Dunn played every day and Blanco was the late inning defensive replacement and started only when someone else got hurt.  Today, Blanco gets a lot more playing time in the course of a season because of much more sophisticated and elaborate statistical analysis.  [Actually, my claim is not entirely accurate -- in the '50's and '60's, teams would have hated Dunn's low batting averages and enormously high strike out rates -- see, e.g. Pat Seery.  Instead, teams in that era preferred players like Hank Sauer, who had OPS numbers like Dunn, but hit for a higher batting average, struck out less and drew fewer walks.]

Third, because of modern statistical analysis, there are fewer “pure hitters” in the game than there once were.  Players like Rod Carew, Tony Gwynn and Ichiro Suzuki are not as appreciated as offensive players (Gwynn and Suzuki were/are elite defensive and base-running players under modern statistical analysis, and Rod Carew was one of the last players in baseball history famed for his ability to steal home plate) today as they once were.

Fourth, one of the biggest (and largely unknown) developments in the last five years is the increased use of defensive shifts on hitters.  Teams are now using computers and statistical analysis to track where every batted ball by ever hitter goes on every ball-strike count.  Many teams are now shifting based on the pitch count for every batter who has a statistically significant tendency to hit the ball in a certain place on that count.  The Tampa Rays started this trend, had some success in the won-loss column, and other teams have followed suit assuming there is in fact a connection between more shifting and more batted balls turned into outs.

I doubt that defensive shifts work for every or even most players.  Try shifting on an elite, pure hitter, and he’ll adjust to the shift, trying to to hit ‘em where they ain’t.  You also can’t use radical defensive shifts on fast players who can bunt, because they’ll just bunt you to death.  However, many players are going to have their batting averages drop because of more shifting.

I don’t think we’ve seen the last of the .370 hitter.  We’ve had eight of those (excluding the big years from Gwynn, Brett, Carew and Willliams) since 1945.  An elite left-handed hitter playing for the Colorado Rockies, with half of his games in their spacious ballpark, could definitely hit. .370 again in our lifetimes.


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