Archive for March 2013

Buster Posey’s Contract Extension

March 31, 2013

As you certainly know by now, the Giants just signed Buster Posey to an eight-year contract extension that guarantees he will be a Giant (unless the team trades him) through 2021 and that he will make at least $167 million during that period, including the $8 million he had previously agreed to be paid for 2013.

Cliff Corcoran of Sports Illustrated writes that this signing is bad for free agency in the sense that teams will find it hard to get better through free agency, because the current trend is for teams to extend their best free agents through the peak seasons long before they reach free agency.  That’s sort of true, except that most teams don’t really benefit a whole lot by signing expensive free agents unless (1) they’re the New York Yankees and can buy the best available free agents every off-season, or (2) they are only one or two players away from reaching or advancing in the post-season.

The current trend is that teams in the middle of the revenue pack have decided that it is better to extend their best players as soon as possible in the hopes that these players will be able to stay healthy.  If said young star stays healthy, the team has effectively locked the player in at reasonable annual rates and usually for the best years of the young star’s career without as many of the old-age garbage years that usually come at the end of a true free agent contract.  The young star gets a guarantee of future riches no matter what happens to him in the future.

This may be the hot trend right now, but we’ll see how long it lasts.  Some of these contracts are going to blow up spectacularly on the teams signing them.

The two signings Corcoran discusses at greatest length, Posey and Joe Mauer, are cases in point.

Corcoran describes Posey’s 2011 injury as a “fluke” that won’t happen again because the Giants have instructed Posey not to block the plate any more.  That’s nonsense.  Catchers get hurt a lot regardless of whether or not they block the plate.  They take all kinds of foul tips off their bodies, and the simple act of crouching behind the plate for 120+ games a season by a man who weighs more than 200 pounds is not something that can be sustained year after year after year.

Joe Mauer proves this point.  The Twins gave Mauer an even bigger contract than the Giants just gave Posey and it’s already looking highly suspect.  I’ve been writing for years that Mauer is too big a man to be the Twins’ primary catcher, and the evidence is bearing me out.

Mauer missed half of 2011 to injuries, and while he was healthy last year and hit fairly well, his best two offensive seasons were years ago at ages 26 and 23, a clear sign that playing a lot of games at catcher has affected his offensive performance negatively.

The Twins made the mistake of locking in 1Bman Justin Morneau to a long term contract long before he reached free agency.  Morneau got hurt in 2010 at age 29 and hasn’t been the same player since.  That allowed Mauer to play fewer games at catcher last season, which is good.  However, it may already be too late, since Mauer no longer looks like the kind of hitter who could be a major star playing most of his games at 1B.

At any rate, with back-to-back 95+ loss seasons the last two years, locking in Mauer and Morneau to long extensions sure don’t look like good moves by the Twins.

The Giants are facing something of a similar situation with Posey, although they presently still have flexibility.  Given Buster Posey’s offensive potential, the Giants should be looking for every opportunity to play Posey at 1B.

However, current Giants 1Bman Brandon Belt looks on the verge of breaking out as a major star. Last year at age 24, Belt helped the Giants a lot more than some people may realize with his .360 on-base percentage and his Gold Glove caliber defense at 1B.  This spring, Belt hit .410 with a 1.265 OPS.

If Belt’s 2013 spring training numbers aren’t a total fluke, Buster Posey isn’t going to be playing much at 1B in 2013 or for the next few seasons.  Additionally, if Belt continues to develop, don’t be surprised if the Giants then lock in Belt long term and the Giants end up getting burned much in the same way the Twins got burned by locking in Mauer and Morneau.

 

More Strikeouts

March 30, 2013

There was an article in the New York Times today about the “mysterious” increase in strikeout rates in recent seasons.  It doesn’t seem like a very big mystery to me.

The rise of sabermetrics since the late 1990’s has established the idea throughout MLB that strikeouts by hitters really aren’t that big of a deal, at least if they increase because hitters are also hitting with more power and drawing more walks.

In the early days of professional baseball, when home runs were rare and errors were many, teams hated hitters that struck out a lot.  Since few players hit large numbers of home runs, they were not as highly valued as they became after 1920, and even weakly hit balls had a chance of falling in for hits or being muffed by fielders, whose fielding gloves were more akin to handball gloves than the baseball mitts in use now.

As players have gotten bigger, faster and stronger and the equipment better, a much lower percentage of weakly hit balls fall in for hits or are dropped by fielders. Also, more ground balls are turned into double plays today, which has decreased the relative disadvantage of striking out as compared to making an out while putting the ball in play.

MLB should have learned a lot sooner after the advent of the so-called “lively ball” era that strikeouts are a small price to pay for more home runs and higher on-base percentages.  For example, between 1918 and 1941 Babe Ruth and Jimmie Foxx led the American League in strikeouts a total of 12 times.

Both hitters took a lot of pitches waiting for a pitch they could drive and also drew a lot of walks because they were good at laying off pitches off the plate.  As a result, their strikeout totals were also high, at least for their eras.  However, teams apparently only learned that striking out a lot was O.K. only if a player hit like a Ruth or a Foxx.

MLB is an extremely conservative industry.  Batting average was highly overvalued and the ability to draw walks highly undervalued at least until the 1980’s.

Sure, there were always a few major league players, like Maxie “Camera Eye” Bishop and Eddie “The Walking Man” Yost, whose ability to draw walks was so exceptional that they were able to hold down major league starting jobs for years in large part based on their ability to get on base.  However, in their eras they always had a certain number of detractors in and around MLB who felt there was something not quite kosher about players who got on base regularly without hitting the ball, and they were often accused of being “lazy” or somehow dishonest.

That has obviously changed today, and players who strike out a lot and hit for relatively low batting averages are acceptable major league hitters if they also hit for power and draw a lot of walks.

The fact that strikeout rates are still going up, while home run rates have declined and walk rates of have leveled off in recent years, is probably a result of the degree to which MLB as a whole no longer much cares if young hitters strike out a lot so long as they hit for power and get on base.  Home runs are obviously down because fewer hitters are using performance enhancing drugs (“PEDs”).  Walk rates have probably leveled off as a result of the fact that more teams are looking for pitchers who can command the strike zone as hitters as a group take more pitches and also the fact that with fewer PED-fueled sluggers in the game, fewer batters are being pitched around.

Major league hitters are definitely taking more pitches today than they did a few years ago.  During the last five seasons (2008-2012), hitters averaged 3.82 pitches per plate appearance, and the number in any of the five seasons was never lower than 3.81 or higher than 3.83 pitches per plate appearance, according to espn.com’s statistics.  Meanwhile, between 2002 and 2007, the average was 3.76 pitches per plate appearance and was never lower than 3.74 or higher than 3.77 pitches per plate appearance during the six-year period.While that is not a particularly large increase (about 1.6%), it is an increase.

For the time being, I don’t see any reason to think the trend in increased strikeout rates will end unless MLB becomes concerned about the more recent drop in average OPS numbers (it’s been down the last three seasons) and does something to improve offense, like lower the pitcher’s mound or re-shrink the strike zone.

Life is a Gamble

March 28, 2013

The Toronto Blue Jays just extended J.A. Happ, and the St. Louis Cardinals just extended Adam Wainwright.  Both moves appear to be premised on the ideas that (1) Happ and Wainwright will have solid seasons in 2013 and (2) their current teams will want to retain them when they do.  Could be a lot of wishful thinking.

Happ will be 31 in 2014 and is a starter who has never thrown more than 166 innings pitched in a season.  Somehow it seems telling that mlbtraderumors.com reports the extension with a photograph of Happ apparently short-arming a pitch for Blue Jays.

Adam Wainwright will be 32 years old in 2014, and, after missing all of 2011 to Tommy John surgery, he came back in 2012 with a 3.94 ERA, far and away the highest of his career.  That said, right now Wainwright  can still pitch.  But is he worth $97.5 million from 2014 through 2018?

Yes, if he can stay healthy at least through 2017.  That seems like a mighty big if.

I take two things from these contract extensions: (1) teams are flush with money; and (2) starting pitching is very highly valued as we enter the 2013 season.  Can’t help but think that’s the lesson MLB is taking from two Giants’ World Championships the last three seasons.

The Owners Show Their Colors

March 20, 2013

A couple of articles in the last day or so show just how chintzy the very rich men who own baseball teams can be.  First, the owners are reportedly considering doing away with the pension plan that covers non-playing team employees, in spite of record revenues in the industry.  Second, the cheapest of the cheap Miami Marlins are threatening to sue a pair of 15-year season ticket holders because the fans requested to change their seats, as they are apparently allowed to do under their ticket purchase contract.

Team personnel, excluding major league players who have their own collectively bargained pension plan, are presently covered by a defined benefit pension plan, which means that participants (team employees) are promised a guaranteed benefit based on their total number of years of employment and their salaries during their employment.  Each year that employees work, the plan sponsor (management) is supposed to deposit monies into the pension plan, which monies are then invested.  If the investments under-perform for whatever reason, the plan sponsor is on the hook to add additional monies to the pension plan to provide employee participants with the promised benefit.

The trend in the U.S. over the last 40 years, as less and less of the work force are members of labor unions, is for employers to switch their defined benefit plans to defined contribution plans or to do away with pension plans entirely.  In a defined contribution plan, the employer makes an initial contribution to the pension plan but then has no responsibility to make up any short-falls if the pension plan’s investments do poorly.  The benefit that employee participants then receive is determined by the performance of the pension plan’s investments.  If the employee participant retires at a time when the stock market is down, then the participant receives a much smaller benefit than when the stock market is up.

However, many of the industries that have switched to defined contribution plans or eliminated their pension plans entirely do not have the revenue growth or profitability of major league baseball.  MLB is setting new records for revenue every year since the darkest days of the Great Recession in 2009 and 2010.  You can also be certain that the owners themselves have all kinds of lucrative deferred compensation arrangements so that they will be drawing a pretty penny when their own retirement years arrive.

The greed of the wealthy owners is more apparent when you take into account that many team employees such as minor league coaches, trainers and scouts are not particularly well paid to begin with, often making less than $40,000 or $50,000 a year.

Here is an article from espn.com that provides more details.

Meanwhile, the Miami Marlins seem determined to destroy whatever little good will they have left with the people of South Florida.  The team is now threatening to sue two long-time season ticket holders (since 1998) Jan and Bill Leon in a dispute concerning the Leon’s desire to switch their seats after the Marlins installed a new billboard which partly obscured the view from their seats.

The Leons’ seats are apparently in the front row just beyond third base.  Prior to the 2012 season, they signed a contract with the team under which they would purchase season tickets for two seasons (2012 and 2013) at a cost of a little over $25,000 per season.  The contract reportedly also provides that if the Leons are unhappy with their seats after the first season, they could request to switch seats for the second season.

In the middle of last season, the Marlins installed a new billboard in front of the Leons’ seats which caused the padding on the wall in front of the first row to be raised by what appears to be four to six inches.  Here is an article from the Miami New Times with pictures of the seats before and after.

Mrs. Leon is particularly unhappy about the change, because the new, higher padding obscures her view of the third base side of the field and makes it harder to follow hard hit foul balls that sometimes jump into the stands, creating what she believes is an increased danger of injury.

The Leons have requested to change seats for the 2013 season and have withheld their payment for their 2013 season tickets until they receive new seats they find acceptable.  After initially failing to respond to media inquiries about the dispute, the Marlins now claim that they have offered the Leons alternative seats, but the Leons have refused to accept them.  It has not been reported where exactly the proposed alternative seats are located.

At any rate, the Marlins’ in-house lawyer sent the Leons a demand letter on March 8th stating that unless the Leons tender their $25,000+ within 20 days, the Marlins “reserve the right to pursue any and all legal and equitable remedies available to it … including, but not limited to, pursuing you for the full amount currently outstanding …, plus all interest charges and applicable collection costs and legal fees.”

That’s some way to treat season ticket holders who have been putting large sums of money in your pocket for the last fifteen years and are now justifiably upset because the team effectively changed the seats they paid for after the contract was signed.

If the dispute were to end up as a lawsuit, the outcome would almost certainly be dictated by the fine print of the Premium Seat Agreement.  Thus, without reading the contract in its entirety, it is impossible to say who would come out on top in a lawsuit.  However, the demand letter and the resulting national media coverage (it was reported on Sports Illustrated’s website) make the Marlins look even more venal than they already did, if that were possible.

The Marlins drew more than 2.2 million fans last season.  One has to think they may be lucky to draw even half that number in 2013.

More Players Head Far East

March 18, 2013

The Oakland A’s gave left-hander Garrett Olson his release so he could sign with the Doosan Bears of South Korea’s KBO, and it now looks like Manny Ramirez is really going to start the 2013 season playing in Taiwan for the EDA Rhinos of the China Professional Baseball League.

Olson is 29 years old and appears to be a player whose brightest professional future lies in South Korea or Japan.  He has a major league career 6.26 ERA in just over 287 innings pitched, and he spent almost all of 2012 at AAA where he was an average starter.  He should help the Doosan Bears though.

Manny’s signing with a Taiwanese team is old news now, but I’ve held off writing anything about it because I still have my doubts that Manny will actually play in Taiwan for more than 20 or 30 games, if at all.  Everyone knows that Manny really wants to get back to the majors, and how long he is willing to live and play in Taiwan, since he had quite a reputation as a prima donna when he was a major league star, remains to be seen.

However, I don’t see how playing in Taiwan is going to get major league teams interested again unless Manny hits at least .375 with an OPS over 1.200 for the better part of a season.  The China Professional Baseball League (“CPBL”) is probably a long way from even an American AAA team in terms of quality of play.

I read somewhere that American baseball players playing in the CPBL typically make about $150,000 a season.  Assuming that as a major star, Manny is getting a bit more ($200K or $250K), he’d make more playing baseball in Taiwan than doing just about anything else right now.  Salaries in the Atlantic League, the highest paying of the Independent A leagues, probably now peak at $5,000 a month for a five month season.

Manny made a tremendous amount of money in his major league career, but who knows how well he’s held on to his money?  He can’t begin to collect his pension until he’s 50, which is still more than nine years away.  If he’s been profligate, whatever money he makes in Taiwan might come in handy.

Ruth Ann Steinhagen Passes

March 17, 2013

It was reported today that the woman who famously shot Phillies’ 1Bman Eddie Waitkus on June 14, 1949, inspiring Bernard Malamud’s 1952 novel The Natural, which was later turned into the even more well known 1984 movie starring Robert Redford, has died.  Her name was Ruth Ann Steinhagen.

Waitkus had had an eventful life before he met Steinhagen.  His professional baseball career started in 1938 at age 19, when he was nicknamed “the natural” because of his abilities.  He reached the major leagues in 1941 but then lost four years of this career to the Second World, where he saw heavy fighting in the Philippines and was awarded with four Bronze Stars.

Waitkus returned to baseball in 1946 at age 26 and quickly became a star for the Chicago Cubs, being named to the NL All Star team in 1948.  Waitkus was bright, fluent in four languages in addition to English (Lithuanian, German, Polish and French), and outgoing, and he quickly became a media darling in Chicago.

As a result, Waitkus had many female fans, including Steinhagen, who was still a teenager.  She turned her bedroom in her parents’ house into a shrine for Waitkus, sleeping with a photo of Waitkus under her pillow and even setting an empty place at the family dinner table for him.

Obsessive compulsive disorder and stalking were unknown in 1948, and Steinhagen’s family apparently didn’t see anything out of the ordinary, or at least did not seek treatment for Ruth Ann.

What apparently set her over the edge was Waitkus’ trade (along with Hank Borowy, the pitcher whose acquisition from the Yankees in mid-1945 brought the Cubs their last pennant, for pitchers Monk Dubiel and Dutch Leonard) after the 1948 season.  The trade was almost certainly unpopular with Cubs fans, not least of whom was Steinhagen.  Apparently, she somehow blamed Waitkus for deserting her.

When Waitkus returned to Chicago to play for the Phillies against the Cubs in June of 1949, Steinhagen, who was now 19, rented a room in the same hotel and sent a cryptic note to Waitkus inviting him to her room to discuss something important.  He went to her room, possibly expecting a little action from a young Baseball Annie.  Instead, when he came into the room and sat down, she pulled a rifle out of the closet and shot him in the chest.

As he lay bleeding on the floor, she knelt down beside him and held his hand on her lap until someone roused by the gunshot came to her room.  Steinhagen was deemed insane by a court and spent three years in a mental institution.

The bullet just missed Waitkus’ heart, and he nearly died on the operating table before it was successfully removed.  He missed the rest of the 1949 season, but he was nevertheless again selected to the National League All-Star team that year.  By 1950, he had recovered fully physically, and in one of the best seasons of his major league career, he helped lead the Whiz Kids to their famous 1950 pennant.

The shooting was a huge and lurid media sensation of its day, and Waitkus did not contest Steinhagen’s release from the nut house in 1952, perhaps to avoid the media circus another court case would have created.

Waitkus played in the majors until 1955.  However, he suffered post-traumatic stress from the shooting (and quite possibly his long WWII service) which affected his later career and his marriage.  He ultimately died in 1972 at the relatively young age of 53 due to esophageal cancer.

Meanwhile, after release Steinhagen was successfully able to fade into obscurity.  She apparently spent much of later life living with her sister in Chicago only a few miles from where she shot Waitkus and spent as much as 35 years performing office work.  In fact, her decent into obscurity was so complete that she actually died in late December of last year, and her death is only now being reported.

MLB Suspends Tigers’ Minor Leaguer Cesar Carillo for 100 Games

March 16, 2013

MLB has suspended Tigers’ minor leaguer Cesar Carillo for 100 games in connection with the Biogenesis scandal.  Carillo received two fifty game suspensions, one for appearing in the Biogenesis documents reported on by the Miami New Times and another one for lying to MLB about knowing Biogenesis clinic owner Tony Bosch.

Carillo’s punishment appears to be a clear case of because-we-can.  Since Carillo is a minor leaguer not on a major league 40-man roster, he is not protected by the “just cause” provision of baseball’s collective bargaining agreement (“CBA”).  In other words, MLB can suspend Carillo without having to prove that it is more likely than not that Carillo actually used performance enhancing drugs, as it would have to do for any major league player covered by the CBA.  MLB almost certainly cannot do so, in large part because the Miami New Times has reportedly refused to provide MLB with the documents it purports show professional baseball players received performance enhancing drugs (“PEDs”) from Biogenesis.

There is something profoundly unsavory about Commissioner Selig going after the one guy who cannot defend himself from the allegations against him.  Carillo, who turns 29 in late April, is a marginal player who is unlikely ever to appear in the majors again, even without a 100 game suspension.

Although Carillo was once a first round draft pick (18th overall by the Padres in 2005), he pitched only briefly and poorly in the majors in 2009 (three starts, 13.06 ERA), and hasn’t pitched in the Show since.  In 2012, Carillo had a 6.23 ERA in a season split between A+Lakeland and AA Erie in the Tigers’ organization.  That doesn’t sound like a pitcher who is likely to pitch professionally anywhere but an independent-A league in 2013.

Presumably, Commissioner Selig wants to scare minor leaguers who are thinking about using PEDs that MLB will come down hard on them if there is even a whiff that they are juicing.  Even so, no one deserves to lose his livelihood or at least an opportunity at future major league success without it being shown that they are more likely than not to have cheated.

What’s galling to me about Carillo’s suspension is that it points out that MLB isn’t likely to do a damn thing about the major leaguers who are accused of receiving PEDs from Biogenesis.  The major leaguers are protected by the CBA, and MLB doesn’t presently have a shred of evidence that would stand up before an unbiased fact-finder.  At this point, there is no admissible evidence that the documents the Miami New Times reported on are genuine, let alone that any of the players named actually received PEDs from Biogenesis (mere receipt of banned PEDs, as opposed to proof of actual use, would likely be sufficient for an arbitrator to uphold a suspension).

It would be one thing if MLB had obtained enough evidence to successfully suspend a major league player or players named in the purported Biogenesis documents for use/receipt of PEDs and then suspended Carillo without a similar showing.  In that case, it could reasonably be concluded that the Biogenesis documents are authentic and accurate.

In the present circumstances, Carillo’s suspension only highlights the fact that MLB can’t prove any of the named major leaguers cheated and shows that MLB won’t hesitate to punish players without proof of wrong-doing if they can get away with it.

Somehow, I’m reminded of Stanley Kubrick’s classic film Paths of Glory.  We can’t prosecute any of the politicians or generals for sending thousands of men needlessly to their deaths, so let’s line up and execute a few privates to show that we mean business.

I also don’t think that arbitrary punishments are even necessary.  MLB has a great deal of well-wishers in Congress and state legislatures, who would look into the matter and apply pressure on prosecutors to take action after a few well-placed telephone calls from MLB.  Steroids are illegal without a prescription, and apparent use by major leaguers arguably entices young men and boys to use illegally in order to live out their major league dreams.  You can’t tell me that MLB couldn’t get action eventually by lighting a fire under the right legislators.