Archive for the ‘Baseball History’ category

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.

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.

You Could See This Coming

December 19, 2018

MLB and the Cuban Baseball Federation (i.e., the Cuban government) have reached a deal that will allow Cuban Serie Nacional veterans to sign with MLB teams without the previous requirement that the ballplayers defect first and then wait to get authorization to live and work in the U.S.

Cuban players over age 25 could demand a release, in which case they would be allowed to sign with an MLB team without restriction, but the Cuban government would get a “release fee” on a sliding scale between 15% and 20%, assumably based on the amount of the contract signed by the player with his new MLB team.  For players under 25, it is at the Cuban government’s discretion whether or not to allow the player to sign with an MLB team.  If so, then the Cuban government would get a 25% release fee based on the amount of the contract signed by the player.  For players under age 25, the contract amount would count against the team’s international signing-bonus pool, but the “release fee” would not.

This is a fairly obvious solution to the strong demand pressures for MLB teams to sign elite Cuban players and for elite Cuban players to want to play in MLB.  I think that NPB will almost certainly quickly seek to arrange some kind of similar deal, if such a deal isn’t already in place between NPB and the Cuban Baseball Federation.

The big question now is whether or not the Trump Administration decides to let this deal go forward, since it would obviously have American businesses putting money into the Cuban government’s hands in exchange for Cuba’s best baseball players.  I would think that conservative Cuban American interest groups might be willing to support this arrangement, because it allows Cuban players to come to the U.S.  It is also a fairly clear demonstration of the fact that the U.S. economic system works better than Cuba’s — there aren’t any North American players looking to be given the opportunity to play in Cuba’s Serie Nacional.  With the Trump Administration, you can never be too sure in advance what they will decide to do, as logic and predictability are not strong points of the Trump Administration.

Anyone who has read this blog with any regularity knows that I want as many qualified Cuban baseball players playing in MLB as possible and that these players shouldn’t have to sit out for a year of their typically brief professional careers awaiting approval after they have defected.  Again, the fact that the Cuban government agreed to this new arrangement is an admission that their economic system doesn’t work and they need to make some changes in order to improve the lives of the majority of the Cuban people.  I hope our current government does not stand in the way of what seems like a win-win for almost everyone.

MLB and Fox Reach $5.1 Billion Broadcast Rights Agreement

November 15, 2018

MLB and Fox reach a new rights agreement covering the seven-year period between 2022 and 2028.  The agreement provides that MLB will earn almost 50% more money per year than under the previous eight-year agreement that expires after the 2021 season.

It is something of a surprise that the new deal is so much more generous to MLB given that attendance was down this year and World Series viewership was very disappointing in light of the fact that you had two teams playing, Boston and L.A., which should have provided for more interest and viewership.

What the new agreement says to me is that we probably won’t have another round of MLB expansion through at least 2028.  MLB teams are too conservative to be willing to cut the TV pie thinner to allow for two or four more teams to get a slice.  As long as TV revenues keep increasing by leaps and bounds, teams are not going to feel the need to add expansion teams to additional markets to increase national viewership or league-wide attendance.

This agreement is great for MLB through 2028, but could be very bad for MLB in the long term if the current attendance and TV viewership decline trends continue through 2028.  MLB isn’t going to have much incentive to make the changes necessary to reverse these negative trends until they actually start to hit MLB in the pocketbook.

Willie McCovey Passes

November 1, 2018

Willie McCovey passed away today at the age of 80.  Giants fans will tell you he was the most popular San Francisco Giant of all time.  Willie Mays may have been better, but Willie Mac had a better disposition and his 1968 through 1970 season certainly must have made fellow Alabama boy and teammate Mays proud.

I had the privilege of watching McCovey play, which means a lot to me since Mays was before my time.  I will admit that the Willie Mac I remember was the 1978 version, when he was an old war-horse who wasn’t very fast to the ball anymore, but still got some big hits that drove in runs and gave Mike Ivie the opportunity to have the season that Giants’ fans best remember Mike Ivie for.

I also got to see Willie Mac having dinner at his namesake restaurant in Walnut Creek some years ago when I went there with my father, my last memory of seeing Willie in person.

You can read the San Francisco Chronicle article on his death here for more career details, if you haven’t read their article already.