Archive for the ‘Baseball History’ category

Further Thoughts on Major League Baseball’s Pension Plan

October 13, 2017

About a year ago, I wrote a post on MLB’s player pension plan.  It got a lot more hits than I expected, probably because there were many people as curious as I was about the players’ pension plan who couldn’t find good information on the internet on this question.  However, the post generated only a single comment, from Doug Gladstone, a man who wrote a published book about the unfairness of one aspect of the current pension system.

Mr. Gladstone wrote:

My name is Doug Gladstone, and I’m the author of the critically acclaimed 2010 book, A Bitter Cup of Coffee; How MLB & The Players Association Threw 874 Retirees a Curve.

I read this post with great interest, if only because it doesn’t mention the 500 or so former players, such as the Giants’ Don Taussig or Rich Robertson, who don’t get an MLB pension. All they get is a bone thrown at them — for every 43 games they were on an active roster, they get a measly $625, up to $10K per year. And MLB is a $10 billion industry.

I’d love to see you do a follow-up to this post, and if you let me know your email address, I’ll send you a few releases about this dirty little secret.

I did not respond sooner because I had mixed feelings about his premise, at least insofar as the title of his book suggests.  I have not read Gladstone’s book, so it was hard to respond intelligently.

My conclusion, without reading his book, is that Gladstone has a point, but only up to a point.  Players who accumulated one quarter up to 15 quarters of major league service time between 1946 and 1984 deserve more than $625 per year in pension benefits for each 43 games (one quarter of a season) of major league service, up to 16 quarters of major league service, when full pension benefits would kick in for players from this era.

My opinion is that these 874 former players (according to Gladstone, and to the extent that they are all still alive as of this writing) deserve $2,000 per year for each quarter of MLB service (or 1/16th per quarter of whatever the current minimum benefit is for players who accumulated one quarter of MLB service after the 1985 rule change or four full years [16 quarters] of service between 1946-1984).  In my mind, that would be a fair amount.

The problem I had with Mr. Gladstone’s comment and book title is that it fundamentally misunderstands the rules of federal labor law.  Under that law, the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) solely represents the interests of current MLB players.  The only obligation the MLBPA has to retired players is to ensure that they receive the benefits to which they are entitled based on the rules (contract terms) in effect during their playing careers.  In other words, retired players are only entitled to the pension benefits in effect when they were actually playing.

The most important issue to MLB players when they first elected to have a real union in 1966 was their pensions.  That’s why they fought in 1969 for the service limit for a major league pension to be cut down from five full seasons to four full seasons for all players going back to 1946 (the start of player organizing and, as a direct result, the original pension pension plan and rules).  In 1969, the current players all knew of players who had long major league careers who weren’t entitled to pensions  under the old rules (see Bobby Tiefenaur) who active players believed deserved pensions.

By 1985, the active players were not particularly concerned about players who played between 1946 and 1984 who had at at least a quarter of MLB service but less than 16 quarters of MLB service.  They fought at the start of the 1985 season (there was a two-day strike) for full pension benefits after only 43 days (one quarter) of service for all players, but only going forward.  Owners were willing to make this compromise in large part because MLB revenues had grown tremendously since 1969, in no small part due to the formation of the MLBPA and the new marketing and merchandizing schemes the MLBPA originated and the owners quickly copied and improved upon.  You can read Marvin Miller’s book, A Whole Different Ball Game for some of the details.

By 1985 there was a mature owner-union relationship in which both sides weren’t going to give up anything unless they got something in return.  After 1985 the players didn’t have a great deal of interest in fighting for players who retired before 1985 with between one and 15 quarters of major league service.  Meanwhile, the owners/controlling interests of MLB teams, who are now all billionaires or 100+ millionaires, are people who didn’t get this rich because they gave up one more dollar than they absolutely had to in a contract negotiation.  That is how capitalism works for better or for worse.

The MLBPA could not ask for and receive better benefits for retirees without giving up something that the active players (the actual union members) wanted.  Had the union leaders wanted to the do the “right thing” — at least according to Gladstone — they would have been violating federal law if the active players did not agree to it.

Current owners could certainly do the right thing if they wanted to.  They can certainly afford to do it, if they wanted to, but 99% of the time you don’t get to be a billionaire or 100+ millionaire by giving up money you don’t have to.  Owners almost certainly all feel like they’ve given up as much as they can to get every single collective bargaining agreement that has been signed since and including 1985.

Owners and the MLBPA won’t give the 874 or less players Gladstone advocates for a better deal unless the public demands it.  But how many current MLB fans really care enough about former players who retired between 1946 and 1984 with between one and 15 quarters of MLB service getting fairer retirement benefits, to actually do something about it?

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The Demise of the Everyday Player

August 10, 2017

Years and years ago I read a piece by Bill James in which he argued that Cal Ripken‘s decision to keep his consecutive game streak alive was actually detrimental to the Baltimore Orioles’ ultimate goal of winning as many games as possible.  The article made a lot of sense to me: playing every single game, even by the very best players, means that the player plays a lot of games when he’s exhausted and/or has minor injuries, which can’t heal properly because the player is playing six days a week; under those circumstances, even the best major league players aren’t necessarily playing as well as the replacement-level player sitting in the team’s bench would.

[In fairness to Ripken, the Orioles’ true ultimate goal was putting as many cans in the seats as possible.  Being Cal Ripken, playing every game every day for a generation, probably was pretty good for Orioles’ attendance during that streak.]

Cal Ripken’s consecutive games streak is a record that probably never will be broken because it seems that MLB teams now agree whole-heartedly with what James argued all those years ago.  In contrast to the Asian leagues, where playing every day in leagues that play shorter schedules and have more rain-outs is still commendable, MLB teams have clearly decided that the occasional day off is more valuable than playing every single game.

Looking at the 17 full seasons from 2000 through 2016, the shift from playing every single game seems to have taken hold after the 2008 season.  In the nine seasons from 2000 through 2008, an average of 6.33 players per season played in all 162 games.  In the eight full seasons since then, only 2.5 players per season have played 162 games in a season.

Even players who manage to play at least 160 games in a season seems in decline.  In the 14 seasons from 2000 through 2013, an average of 13.6 players played at least 160 games per season.  In the last three seasons, that average has dropped almost in half to seven per season. The recent low seasons could be a result of a small sample fluke, but I don’t think so.

Just as teams have learned that using more and more relief pitchers pitching more and more total innings results in fewer runs scored by the opposition, teams have also learned that keeping their stars properly rested and their bench players sharp results in better won-loss results.  The good managers, and I consider the Giants’ Bruce Boche one of them, realize that keeping the stars fresh and the bench players sharp has a lot more value than riding the race horses until they inevitably drop.

For what it’s worth, Justin Morneau is the last player to play 163 games in a season.  Morneau’s 2008 Twins lost their 163rd game to the White Sox, sending the latter team to a brief post season and former team home.  The all-time record for games played in a season is Maury Wills‘ 165: he played all 162 regular season games and all three games to decide the pennant against the Giants.  That was the year Wills set then records for plate appearances and stolen bases in a season.

 

 

Kenta Maeda — Every 10th Day Starter?

July 21, 2017

I’ve been a fan of the Dodgers’ Kenta Maeda for a long time.  I followed his career closely in Japan, where he was a great pitcher at the top of the class just behind Yu Darvish and Masahiro Tanaka.  I definitely thought he was good enough to be a successful major league pitcher.

I also liked Maeda because he was a small right-hander, and I was a small right-handed player in my playing days, now oh so long ago.  Like Tim Lincecum, Maeda was small, but he could pitch, and I felt there ought to be a place his talents in MLB.

From the beginning MLB teams were suspicious of Meda because of his size.  The Dodgers signed him on a deal that guaranteed him only $25 million over eight years, but was chock full of incentives if he could prove he could be a successful MLB starter.

Last season, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts decided pretty quickly that Maeda’s innings had to be strictly limited.  While at the time I thought that this might reflect some latent MLB prejudice against small right-handers, on further analysis, I was probably wrong.

Roberts is literally the product of an American Marine and a Japanese woman his father met while serving in Japan.  (I, and probably lots of other baseball afficionados, had assumed that the Dodgers’ manager was the son of Panamanian ball player Dave Roberts, who was playing in Japan the year and the year before the now manager was born.)  The Dodgers’ manager was a below average sized major leaguer in his own day.

Instead, Roberts decided quickly and probably accurately that it would be tough for a pitcher Maeda’s size to start every fifth game.  In fact, this has been a problem for all Japanese pitchers moving to MLB, including those with MLB-sized bodies like Darvish, Tanaka and Hisashi Iwakuma (it’s been a problem for a lot of American-born pitchers too.)  In Japan, starters typically start only once a week, because so many games are washed out during the wet Japanese summer months.

This season, Maeda has been the victim of the new home run trend, and he’s been in and out of the Dodgers’ talent-packed starting rotation.  He’s become basically a spot starter (and spot reliever), starting when the team doesn’t have an extra game off to rest the other starters.

Maeda has been remarkably successful in this role.  Through June 9, pitching as part of the regular five-man rotation, Maeda had a 4.95 ERA.  Since then he’s made five starts on average eight days apart, and he’s allowed more than one run in a start only once, on a day when he had only four full days’ rest since his previous start.

I’ve been following MLB since 1978, which is pretty much the entire era of five-man pitching staffs.  Many is the time I’ve seen teams try to use 4+-man rotations, basically skipping the fifth man every time there was an extra day off that allowed the other four starters their normal rest.

This strategy has almost never worked.  The fifth starter was routinely skipped because he really wasn’t an adequate starter at all.  The fifth starter, who wasn’t any good to begin with, tended to be even worse when he didn’t pitch regularly.  Also, one of the other four adequate or better starters tended to get hurt at some point in the season, which rendered the strategy completely ineffective.

This season, the Dodgers are so deep with talent that they have the starters, the bullpen, and the pitcher in Maeda to make this strategy work well for the first time I can remember.  Maeda is a veteran pitcher who can be still be effective starting every eight to 12 games, plus the occasional one or so inning relief appearance in between, who may well benefit from starting half as often as the typical MLB starter.

Maeda has also been willing to give the team whatever it needs, even though the infrequent starts hit him directly in the pocketbook because of his incentive-laden contract.  Apparently, Maeda is mature enough to realize that he’s making more in the U.S. than he would have made if he’d stayed in Japan.  Plus, the reasonable likelihood of a World Series check and ring probably do a great deal to assuage any hurt feelings Maeda might otherwise have.

I’m a strong believer that managers need to be extremely flexible in terms of using the actual players they have on their rosters, with their specific skill sets and specific weaknesses, in order to tease out as many regular season wins as they possibly can in any given season. Managers’ jobs are too tenuous not to do every single thing within their power to win ball games.

Managers often aren’t flexible in large part because the players demand consistency in their roles (and the players are now well better paid than the managers), and because there are certain well-established notions about how managers should use their players, built up over generations, and known to the sportswriters who cover the games like professionals.  It’s the reason that teams without great closers generally do not elect to use bullpens-by-committee based on match-ups, even though this would make a great deal of sense if you don’t have a true closer.

Roberts may well end up sending in Maeda for every fifth start if somebody else in the starting rotation gets hurt.  I’m just trying to point out that using Maeda on a less regular basis seems to be working very well for the Dodgers and that Maeda might be exactly the pitcher to make such a strategy work.  The 2017 Dodgers are currently on a pace to win 113 games.  It’s hard to find fault with that.

Home Runs and Strikeouts

June 29, 2017

The last year and a half, MLB has been averaging all-time records for both home runs and strikeouts.  Much has been written on this topic, but not by me, so hear goes.

The cause of the increases are fairly obvious.  All of the teams and players, thanks to advanced statistical analysis (sabrmetrics) and much better tracking records of every pitch and every ball put into play and their outcomes, has finally broken down professional baseball’s 125+ year hostility to strikeouts, at least if more strikeouts come with more home runs.

Obviously, a home run, compared to singles and doubles, produces a greater benefit than the extra cost of a strikeout compared to an out made on a ball put in play.  Teams just don’t care any more if a player strikes out 200+ times for every 650-700 plate appearances, so long as that player also hits 30+ HRs and can keep his on-base percentage over .320, however he may get to that number.

What is interesting in the last year and a half is that batting averages have not fallen in spite of the increase in strikeouts.  Along with the increase in defensive shifts, one would expect to see falling batting averages as a result of these trends.  In fact, the new obsession with batter launch angles (i.e., upper-cutting the ball in order to hit it in the air) is almost certainly in part a result of the increase in defensive shifts, as home run balls are much harder to defend against and the statistical analysis and tracking shows that balls hit in the air are much likelier to result in hits than balls hit in the ground.

I have certainly noticed the rise in pitchers throughout professional baseball who are striking out more than 8 batters per nine innings, but still have terrible ERAs, because they are giving up lots of hits and especially home runs.  It’s not something I’ve ever seen before on this scale, and I very much doubt anyone else has seen it either.

Since swinging for the fences at all times seems to be working, I don’t see any likelihood in the near term that these trends won’t continue, absent rule changes imposed from the top.

Clearly, teams are going to have to start finding and developing more pitchers that hitters cannot easily hit in the air, i.e., extreme groundball pitchers.  However, MLB has been drafting and developing pitchers based mainly on arm strength since basically forever.

There are always a few extreme groundball pitchers in MLB, including low side-armers, but these guys never get anything they don’t earn in spades.  Their major league careers typically start late, and often don’t get a chance except from teams that are desperate for affordable, effective pitching.  It’s no surprise that in the last 15 or 16 years, it was the “Money Ball” Oakland A’s who developed both Chad Bradford and Brad Ziegler as effective major league relievers.

This subject is particularly on my mind because I recently wrote a post about San Francisco Giants’ prospect Tyler Rogers.  Rogers now has a 2.14 ERA in more than 46 relief innings pitched at AAA Sacramento, but the Giants elected to call up Dan Slania yesterday when they put Mark Melancon on the 10-day disabled list.

Slania is a year younger than Tyler Rogers, he has much better stuff, and he has a better draft pedigree.  However, Slania was hit hard as a starter at AAA (7.82 ERA) in large part because he couldn’t keep the ball in the yard (14 HRs in 61 IP).

140 years of baseball history support calling up Slania over Rogers.  However, the way the game is being played at this moment suggests that teams need to start to crediting the cold, hard statistics that extreme groundball pitchers like Rogers put up.

Also, if more hitters are hitting more balls in the air, the value of outfield defense is also going to increase.  Fast outfielders who can cover ground are going to become more valuable than ever.

Japanese Baseball News

June 23, 2017

Tad Iguchi, now age 42, has announced that this will be his last professional season.  It has been quite a career, as he has combined to date for more than 2,200 hits, 294 HRs and 224 stolen bases between MLB and Japan’s NPB.  Lusty numbers indeed for a career 2Bman.

On June 14th, Shun Yamaguchi, Scott Mathieson and Arquimedes Caminero combined for a no-hitter for the Yomiuri Giants against the SoftBank Hawks.  It was Yamaguchi’s first start or appearance of the 2017 NPB season.

A few years ago, Yamaguchi was definitely an MLB prospect, but it’s now looking like he’ll stay in Japan for his career.  Does anyone remember the first time two pitchers combined for a no-hitter in MLB?  (Answer at bottom.)

Chris Marrero, whom I wrote about in my last post on the 2017 NPB season about a month ago, appeared to hit his first NPB home run on June 9th.  But he missed home plate!  The catcher went over and tagged Marrero, and the umpire called him out.

That’s no way to make an impression on your new team in a foreign country.  However, the man on base ahead of Marrero still scored, and Marrero has continued to hit with power in what appears to be a platoon role.

The Rakuten Golden Eagles signed American Josh Corrales recently.  What is interesting about this move is that Corrales was signed out of the BC League, Japan’s independent-A league.  He’s not the first player from the Americas to be signed by an NPB organization out of the BC League.

Corrales had an interesting year in the full season A League Midwest League at age 22, posting a 4.09 ERA and striking out 54 batters in 55 innings pitched but also walking 40.  After he was apparently released, he must have somehow decided that his chances of one day reaching NPB were better than reaching MLB, because he has no record of pitching in any of the more stable American Indy-A Leagues.  He’s only 27 years old, so an NPB big payday is still possible!

The first time two pitchers combined for a no-hitter in MLB history was when Babe Ruth and Ernie Shore did it on June 23, 2017.  The Babe, who was then one of the Junior Circuit’s aces, walked the first batter of the game and was promptly thrown out of the game for arguing about it with the umpire.  Shore came in, the runner on first was thrown out trying to steal second, and Shore retired the next 26 batters consecutively for what has widely, but not unanimously, been recognized as a perfect game, sort of like Harvey Haddix‘s 12-inning perfect effort in 1959.

The first time in MLB history three or more pitchers combined for a no-hitter was September 28, 1975, when Vida Blue, Glenn Abbott, Paul Lindblad and Rollie Fingers accomplished the feat.  The A’s had already clinched a play-off birth and decided it was wise not to overwork their ace Vida “True” Blue (a little joke there for Charlie Finley fans).  Seems kind of ho-hum today, but it was a big deal in the 1970’s.

How Small Was He?

June 9, 2017

Something got me thinking today about the smallest real players to play in major league baseball.  Of course, Bill Veeck‘s little person Eddie Gaedel, who walked in his only major league plate appearance, was the shortest at 3’7″ to play in MLB.

Veeck was able to meld crass exploitation with real baseball know-how (in 1951, when pitching staffs were only 9 or 10 men, you can’t entirely discount the fact that Veeck could have seen the value in a pinch-hitter would almost always walk — this was the guy who turned the Indians into World’s Champions, and the best single season attendance draw continuing through the next generation, in only about three seasons).  If filling the seats was the goal, and it was, it certainly worked for Veeck, at least until Disco Demolition Night in 1976.

Will Harridge, the AL President, voided Gaedel’s contract the next day.

This is the best post on-line I found to my question, and it’s relatively recent.  Herearesomeothers.  I not sure it any of these posts mention the 5’6″ Jose Altuve.

Wee Willy Keeler (“Hit ‘Em Where They Ain’t”) is the only Hall of Famer, and for that matter the only player of real consequence at 5’4.”  Nobody remembers Lee Viau today.  At 140 lbs, Keeler was 20 lbs lighter than Viau.

The first major league pitchers to develop major league curveballs were not big dudes.  Candy Cummings was 5’9″ and 120 lbs, and Bobby Mathews was 5’5″ and 140 lbs.  Candy is in the Hall of Fame for his reported discovery of the curveball.  An HOFer who got there purely on MLB performance is “Old Hoss” Radbourn listed at 5’9″ and 168 lbs.

People were a lot smaller in 19th century America.  Multiple subsequent generations of heavy meat and dairy eating has made the contemporary American male on average much larger than those whose diets were based mainly on starches.

Baseball Almanac says there were ten MLB players listed at 5’3″.  Unfortunately, it hasn’t identified, at least to the cheapskate public, the identities of those ten.  One of the posts linked above says that Mike McCormack (5’3″, 155 lbs) was the shortest player to qualify for a batting title.  However, he slashed .184/.278/.222 as the main 3Bman for the 1904 Brooklyn Superbas and was never heard of again outside of the minor league cities where he continued to play pro baseball.

“Doc” Gautreau was probably the 5’4″ that baseball reference lists him at.  Rumors of shorter height are probably a result of the fact that he was reported to weigh only 129 lbs.  He was a rangy 2Bman who made his share of errors.  He had no power, and his ability to get on base wasn’t appreciated during his three seasons as an MLB platoon player on second division Boston Braves teams in the late 1920’s.

Gautreau was a Massachusetts Canuck, like footballer Jack Kerouac a generation later.  When the Montreal Royals started play in the (now AAA) International League in 1928, they were on the look-out for a French Canadian ballplayer who would appeal to their fan base.

Gautreau, who spoke French, had left the majors in 1928, and the Royals acquired him for the 1929 season.  He gave the Royals five strong seasons and was almost certainly the team’s most popular player, since he also hustled like a guy who was 5’4″ and 129 pounds.

The subject of tiny MLBers is near and dear to my heart for reasons I will elaborate on in a later post.

Who Saw Four Home Runs from Scooter Gennett?

June 7, 2017

Anyone who bet on Scooter Gennett to have a four home run game, that’s like winning the trifecta on three horses running longer than 20-to-1 to win.

You have to give Gennett credit: he really socked all four pitches.  My favorite was the home run the opposite way to left field, where he hit it just fair and to the shortest part of the yard, but still no cheapy since he hit it 10 or 12 rows deep.

Pat Seerey (86 career HR) and Mark Whiten (105) were clearly the worst modern home run hitters to hit four in a game.  Both Whiten and Gennett had only 38 career HRs the day before their big day.

Pat Seerey was a player with skills that would be much more recognized today than in his own time.  Mark Whiten was five months younger than Scooter Gennett on their special days.

Mark Whiten’s career was a disappointment after his 1993 season, the year he hit four, although he was good in 1996, the only subsequent year he played more than 100 games — injuries were a big part of his limited career HR total.

If Scooter Gennett stays healthy, I think he’ll show a marked improvement going forward, sort of like Daniel Murphy since his performance in the 2015 post-season.  Sure, it’s only one game, but when a player accomplishes something this rare and sees the company he’s now keeping, it has to boost a player’s self-confidence tremendously.

I don’t know how Scooter wouldn’t feel confident after watching footage of his four swings.  He really socked ’em.