Archive for February 2019

Panama Wins First Caribbean Series Since 1950

February 21, 2019

Thank goodness for the fact that anything can happen in a short series.  The Toros de Herrera of Panama’s Professional Baseball League (Probeis) one four out of five games and beat Cuba’s Lenadores de Las Tunas 3-1 in the championship game of the 2019 Caribbean Series.

It was Panama’s first Caribbean Series championship since 1950, and, in fact, Panama’s first appearance in the Caribbean Series since 1960.  It is highly likely that the Probeis champion got to play in this year’s Caribbean Series because the original venue (Venezuela) was cancelled on short notice due to the political crisis there, and the Caribbean Series needed a new place to play, which turned out to be Panama City.

Toros’ infielders Javy Guerra, Allen Cordoba and Elmer Reyes each had seven hits in the series with Guerra and Reyes hitting home runs.  Reyes is a ringer from Nicaragua who played in Mexico’s Winter League (LMP) this off-season.  Guerra and Cordoba are a couple of young Panamanians in the Padres’ system.

Toros’ hurlers Oriel Caicedo, Luis Matos, Andy Otero and Harold Arauz allowed only two runs (one earned) over a combined 26 innings pitched.  The Dominican Matos is the non-Panamanian in the group.

One hopes that Panama’s 2019 success will mean that the Panama gets to play in the Caribbean Series for at least the next few years. I wouldn’t mind seeing Nicaragua and Colombia also get a chance to play in the Carribean Series, although would likely require an expansion of the Series’ current one week format by at least two days.

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Baseball Cop

February 20, 2019

I recently finished reading Baseball Cop by Eddie Dominguez (with NY Daily News reporters Christian Red and Teri Thompson).  Dominguez was a long-time Boston police detective who worked from 2008 until 2014 for MLB’s Department of Investigations (“DOI”), a department MLB set up on the recommendation of George Mitchell’s 2007 Report on PEDs in baseball.

DOI was set up to be an independent investigations entity free from interference from other MLB departments such as Labor Relations, which would work with governmental law enforcement agencies like the DEA to go after steroid peddlers and human traffickers.  According to Dominguez, however, MLB within a few years determined that it wanted more control over the DOI’s investigations and by 2014 had reined in the DOI and canned most of the experienced former law enforcement investigators it had hired only a few years earlier.

Dominguez’s main premise is that MLB, as led by commissioners Bud Selig and Robert Manfred, really isn’t interested in stamping out PEDs from baseball.  Instead, it wants the appearance that it is doing something, in this case MLB’s drug testing regime, while still allowing many players to get bigger, faster and stronger under quietly suspicious circumstances.  According to Dominguez, the drug testing regime catches the stupid, the careless, the unlucky and players who have not yet earned enough money to pay for cutting edge PED regimens that are unlikely to be detected.

In the case of the Biogenesis of America PED scandal, Dominguez asserts that MLB’s Labor Relations department repeatedly interfered in the investigation conducted by the the DOI and the work being done by the federal DEA to unravel the entire conspiracy.  Instead, all MLB really cared about was catching and disciplining Alex Rodriguez, who had never had a positive PED test but whom just about everyone knew was a PED cheat.  As a result, while 14 players were ultimately suspended as a result of the scandal, Dominguez asserts that the DEA had identified as many 17 players involved with Biogenesis, but was unable to fully unravel all of Tony Bosch’s tentacles because of interference from MLB that compromised the criminal investigation.

The book was a good read for the most part, and Dominguez’s premise rings true to me.  The MLB drug testing regime catches just enough players to look like MLB is taking the matter seriously, but there haven’t been many reports of any other investigations like the one that exposed Biogenesis.  It’s worth noting that Ryan Braun was the only one of the 14 Biogenesis suspendees who failed a drug test, suggesting that it is indeed possible to take PEDs and get away with it, so long as the right drugs and dosages are administered and everyone keeps their mouths shut.  While the penalties are more severe than they once were, they’re still ultimately small relative to the riches that can be made by being just a little bit better on the playing field.

MLB’s intense focus on ARod always had an aspect of theater to it, which has only been made more obvious by the fact that Rodriguez was more or less forgiven by MLB once he accepted his year long suspension.  We now see Rodriguez working as a commentator every World Series, which MLB could certainly prevent if it wanted to.  Clearly, MLB doesn’t want to, even though Rodriguez is the face of post-Mitchell Report PED cheats.  His celebrity, good looks and knowledge of baseball are more important than the fact that he is proven cheat.

As I said above, MLB wants to look like it’s doing something about PEDs while still putting baseball supermen on the field to maximize revenues.  Dominguez suggests that more than half of current MLB players could well be using PEDs to some degree, since the testing regime can be beaten.  I have no way of knowing if his hunch is accurate, although he would certainly have more inside knowledge on the subject than I do. I definitely suspect, however, that MLB is just fine with its best players getting even better with a little juicing, so long as the players doing it are smart enough, careful enough and discreet enough to get away with it.

Some Order Has Been Restored to the (Baseball) Universe

February 20, 2019

It’s being reported that Manny Machado and the San Diego Padres have reached agreement on a deal that will last ten years and guarantee Machado $300 million, with an opt-out after the fifth season, the money fairly evenly spread over the ten year term and a limited no trade clause.  It was a long time in coming, but it sure seems in line with the other free agent contracts already signed this off-season.

I was figuring that unless the teams were in fact colluding, Machado would get at a minimum eight years and a $250 million guarantee, because that would a bargain for the age 26 through 33 seasons for a player of Machado’s caliber.  This is, in fact, what the White Sox offered Machado, although the ChiSox offer also included a whopping $100M in performance incentives and additional years.

That Machado got an extra two years and $50M guaranteed over an eight year, $250M deal seems in line with what the best offer would be in light of the tough negotiating teams have been performing this off-season.  Still, until the deal was finally reported with Spring Training already underway, one certainly couldn’t be sure what Machado would finally get.

I agree with Justin Verlander that signing Machado or Bryce Harper to a long-term deal is actually a good move for a rebuilding team like the Padres.  Even if the Friars need another three years to put together a contender, they’ll still have Machado for another five years (barring injury) of peak or close-to-peak performance.

Paying generational players like Machado or Harper even record-setting contracts tends to be a better risk than signing most other free agents, because they reach free agency younger and their peak performance lasts longer.  Of course, there is risk, since ten years is a lot of time for a debilitating injury to occur.

Machado’s offensive numbers are going to drop playing half his games at Petco Park, but the fact that Machado is not a “Johnny Hustle” type who gets too high or too low may actually be a good thing.  I don’t see Machado losing confidence in his abilities just because his offensive numbers drop off a little.

Now we’ll see what Harper gets, most likely from the Phillies.  I’d guess at least $330M guaranteed and possibly as much as $360M guaranteed over 10 to 12 seasons.

San Francisco Giants Loading Up on Marginal Players

February 17, 2019

With it now looking like the Giants will be bridesmaids in the Bryce Harper sweepstakes (mlbtraderumors suggests today that the Phillies are now the clear favorites to sign Harper), the Giants are continuing to load up on marginal players to address weaknesses throughout the major league and AAA rosters.  I listed the earlier signings about a month ago.

Since then, the Giants have added outfielders Cameron Maybin (age 32 in 2019), John Andreoli (29), Gerardo Parra (32), Craig Gentry (35) and Anthony Garcia (27); infielder Yangervis Solarte (31); catchers Stephen Vogt (34) and Rene Rivera (35); and right-handed pitchers Trevor Gott (26), Jose Lopez (25), Jake Barrett (27) and Brandon Beachy (32).  That’s whole lot of names but not much to get excited about.

In fact, the Giants have accumulated so many possibly has-been or never-will-be outfielders that one has to wonder how the team will get all of them enough Spring Training plate appearances to reasonably separate all the chaff from whatever remaining wheat there might be.

On a more positive note, the Giants have been good at identifying relief pitching candidates who suddenly become useful major league arms once they get to pitch their home games in the pitcher-friendly confines of McCovey Park (name sponsors come and go, but Willie McCovey is eternal, at least in the hearts of Giants’ fans).  Trevor Gott or Jake Barrett could well be the bullpen diamond in the rough the Giants turn up in 2019.

The Giants have been linked to still free agents Gio Gonzalez and Josh Harrison, and there has been rumored interest in the Yankees’ Jacoby Ellsbury.  Still, it looks to me like the Giants are starting a rebuild without yet disclosing that fact to the fan base.  If the Giants don’t make any more significant moves between now and the start of the 2019 regular season, the fans are likely to figure it out on their own soon enough.

Is Corey Kluber a Legitimate Hall of Fame Candidate?

February 12, 2019

I was looking at Corey Kluber‘s career stats the other day, and I wondered if what he has accomplished in the last five years has made him a legitimate Hall of Fame candidate.  The short answer is no, not yet.

The player Kluber currently looks most like is Johan Santana.  Santana was MLB’s best pitcher for the five seasons between 2004 and 2008.  However, arm problems then ruined his career, and he finished 139-78.

Santana appeared on the 2018 Hall of Fame ballot for the first time, but he received only 10 votes and was dropped from the 2019 ballot.  I definitely think that in 25 or 30 years, the Hall of Fame’s Veteran’s Committee (or whatever they call it now or then) will notice that Santana’s career record looks an awful lot like Dizzy Dean‘s and maybe even Sandy Koufax‘s.  However, Santana might be hurt by pitching in the heart of the PEDs ERA.

Corey Kluber will be 33 this upcoming season, but he’s bigger than Santana, so maybe his arm will hold out better.  He’s probably only one more CY Young caliber season (i.e., on a par with four of his last five seasons) and another 55 career wins from what it would require for him to be a sure thing to reach the Hall of Fame eventually.

An Idea for Solving the DH-Pitcher-Hitting Debate

February 9, 2019

There has been a lot of talk this past week about new negotiations over playing rules between MLB and the Players’ Union (MLBPA).  The most notable proposals have involved getting rid of the designated hitter in the National League, requiring incoming relief pitchers to face at least three batters and a 22 second pitch clock (pitchers have to throw the next pitch within 22 seconds.

I am a life-long NL fan, what with rooting for the Giants.  My main concern with adding the DH to the National League is that there are a few pitchers who can hit, and I would miss seeing them get their turns at the plate.  The pitchers that can’t hit a lick?  Well, not so much.

So how about a rule that requires teams in the NL (or both leagues) that requires teams to bat their pitchers a certain number of games every season, but less than all 162 games.  Why not require teams to bat their pitchers, say 40 to 80 games a season, with all of the remaining games subject to the DH?  Madison Bumgarner and Zack Greinke would still get to hit when they start, but the really dreadfully hitting pitchers could be replaced by DHs.

Such a system would increase strategy because teams would have to figure out when to let their pitchers hit and when to go with the DH.  The best hitting pitchers, like Bumgarner and Greinke, might not be thrilled with such an arrangement because they’d often have to face the DH, while they themselves batted.  However, it would also shine a spotlight on the value of pitchers good enough to hit for themselves.

What bothers me most about the DH is that it creates this developmental separation between players who can pitch and players who can hit, when the reality is that most major league pitchers were the best or at least in the top half of hitters among starters on their high school teams.  Before the Second World War, there were many players whose careers moved back and forth between pitching and hitting, because they were good enough to do both.  Now that Shohei Ohtani has shown that players can do both even today, it would be a shame to completely cut out hitting pitchers from the professional game.

If you are willing to impose a rule requiring relievers to face at least three hitters (I am doubtful, however, that such a rule will be adopted), then there is no reason why you could not require pitchers to hit in some games and DHs to hit in others.  Once you get past the novelty of the idea, rules that create more room for strategy and calculation are actually a good thing.

Maybe Free Agents Just Aren’t Worth It

February 3, 2019

On February 1st, I was planning to write a post about how strange it is that four of the top five free agents (at least according to mlbtraderumors.com) are still unsigned.  Barry Svrluga of the Washington Post beat me to it.  However, the title of his article got me thinking whether not signing free agents means not trying to win.

Analytics are showing that free agents aren’t worth the money they are getting in terms of actual performance on the free agent contracts they sign and that MLB teams are finally catching up, although it has taken them a long time to do so.

I thought it might be interesting to look at what last year’s top 50 free agents (according to mlbtraderumors.com) did in  2018, the first year of their free agent deals, when everyone expects free agents to be worth the most.  Everyone basically understands that signing a free agent is a win-now strategy and that players are overpaid in the latter years of their free agent deals to provide big value in the first year or two of their contracts.

So what were free agents worth in the first year of the new contracts they signed during the 2017-2018 off-season, which was the off-season when free agent contracts dramatically tightened up in terms of guaranteed seasons?  As it turns out, not what they were paid.

I used the average salary over the years of multi-year contracts, rather than the actual first year salaries, which are in many cases lower, because it was less work to calculate.  It also gives a more accurate value, in a sense, of what the team will end up paying annually for the term of the contract.

By my calculation, teams committed $441.9 million in first year salaries, and got total production value, according to fangraphs.com, of only $356.6 million in return.  Of the 47 free agents I included, only 12 players performed in 2018 at a level greater than their average annual average salary over the lengths of their contracts, while 34 performed worse, 10 of whom cost their new teams money by playing at a level below replacement level.  The 47 players have a remaining 62 seasons on their combined contracts, when as a group they will almost certainly perform at a lower level than they did in 2018, since free agents as a group do not age well at all.

Free agent contracts look like a lottery gamble for teams.  A team might hit it big with the kind of performance J.D. Martinez, Lorenzo Cain, Jhoulys Chacin, Miles Mikolas and Mike Moustakas gave their teams in 2018, but teams were more likely to get the the underwhelming and overpaid performances Yu Darvish, Eric Hosmer, Wade Davis, Zack Cozart and Jay Bruce gave their 2018 teams.

There are a lot of reasons why teams would continue to sign free agents, even if they are overpaid even in their first seasons with their new clubs.  It’s good public relations to sign free agents, particularly if you have lost one or more of your own players to free agency.  The cost in talent, compared to trades, of signing a free agent is very low (although the current collective bargaining rules make it more expensive in terms of talent for the wealthiest, highest spending teams to spend big on free agents, which has always been the driver of the free agent market).  It might be worth overpaying a free agent in order to plug a glaring hole in your line-up.

However, what I take from this information is that it makes little sense to sign a free agent, particularly one in the bottom half of the top 50, unless you are fairly certain one or two performances is all that is separating your team from making or returning to the post-season.  Rebuilding teams shouldn’t be signing free agents until they are truly ready to compete.  Even if you don’t have a replacement level player in your organization at the position you are looking to improve at, a replacement level player can probably be obtained cheaply from another organization, particularly when compared to the financial cost of free agents, even with the sharp tightening in the market the last two off-seasons.

While I still suspect that teams are engaging in some kind of soft collusion — maybe MLB is holding meetings where MLB’s analysts are lecturing teams on the actual value of free agents each November — in-house analytics departments for each team are probably telling teams the one thing they need to do with respect to free agents is sign them for fewer seasons than they did in the past.

mlbtraderumors.com predicted that Bryce Harper and Manny Machado would get respectively 14 and 13 season contracts at $30M per.  The reason they may not yet be signed is that, while teams are willing to pay the $30M per, they aren’t willing to guarantee more than eight or 10 seasons, even for free agents so young and so good.  The only rumors I have heard for either is that the White Sox may have offered Machado somewhere between $175M and $1250M for seven or eight seasons only.

The current collective bargaining agreement terms are devastating the free agent market, because the ten richest teams can’t spend like they once did.  The talent bite that comes from overspending the salary cap for three seasons in a row, in terms of draft picks and international amateur spending, is steep enough that the richest teams are all trying to keep close enough to the cap amount that they can dip under at least once every three seasons in order to avoid the most severe penalties.  It is the richest teams that drive the upper limits of free agent contracts, so the current rules are bound to effect free agent contracts in a big way.