Archive for the ‘Baseball History’ category

Catcher Defense

April 16, 2019

One of the biggest breakthroughs of the recent analytics revolution of the last generation is the degree to which catcher defense can now be analyzed and quantified.  Specifically, pitch framing has turned out to be far more valuable than teams realized only two decades ago.  Teams, of course, knew that pitch framing was important, but until complete filming, saving and replay of every pitch thrown in MLB was accomplished it wasn’t really possible to quantify which catchers were good at and which ones weren’t and just how many runs are saved or lost as a result.

I was looking at fangraphs.com’s defensive leaders for 2018 today and the importance of catcher defense completely jumped out at me.  18 of the top 30 players in terms of runs saved over replacement were catchers.  Six of these 18 catchers caught fewer than 540 innings in 2018, meaning they played less than 60 full games at the position but were still among the most valuable defensive players in MLB.  The only other defenders of roughly or nearly equal value were the seven best everyday shortstops.

Three 2Bman, 3Bman Matt Chapman and CF Kevin Kiermaier round out the top 30.  Aside from being the only center fielder, Kiermaier played only 747.1 innings there in 2018, which gives you a pretty good idea of just how good his center field defense is.

MLB teams have known just about forever how importance catching defense is.  How else to explain the fact that Bill Bergen played 11 major league seasons more than 100 years ago in which he compiled an astounding .395 career OPS (even worse than today’s best hitting pitchers and a lot worse than the best hitting pitchers of his own era)?  Bergen played in the deadball era when catchers had to be good defensively, at least insofar as controlling the running game and fielding bunts.

What we have now is a better idea of which good-field, no-hit catchers are worth keeping around solely for their gloves and which ones aren’t.  By the same token, there are still intangibles like pitch-calling (particularly because on many teams the manager or coaches call the pitches and clubhouse/on-field presence which are hard to quantify.  Obviously, we can now quantify whether catchers of the same team have higher or lower ERAs when they are behind the dish, but it’s hard to quantify the value of pitch-calling or the ability to keep a pitcher calm and focused.

I definitely think that some catchers — at least based on fangraphs’ evaluations — are still seen as major league catchers simply because they have been major league catchers.  For example, Drew Butera just got the call to come up with Rockies in spite of the fact that he is now 35 years old and has been worth $21.4M less to his major league teams than a replacement level catcher would have been across his nine year major league career.

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An Off-Season of Contract Extensions

March 26, 2019

As we approach the start of the 2019 season, it was a notable off-season for the way in which big money contract extensions eclipsed all but the top three free agent signings.  As Spring Training started, it seemed like every single team was determined to lock in their best players for many years at big money, bigger money it sure seems than the free agents got at least in grand total.

A couple of things seem to be in play here.  First, it seems like the owners have finally figured out what Charlie Finley had realized around 1975, which is essentially that only the superstars are worth the really big contracts and that more average players and aging stars are fungible enough that teams shouldn’t go around overpaying them.

When the players won the Andy Messersmith free agency arbitration, Finley suggested that all players should be allowed to be free agents every year.  That way, the biggest stars would get huge salaries, but all the other players would be competing with each other for contracts, which would drive their prices down.

However, the other owners thought Finley was a kook and wanted to hold on to their best players as long as they could.  Thus, the owners negotiated a six-year service requirement for free agency, which meant that there would always be more demand for free agents than there were actual players who satisfied the six year service requirement and were still playing well.  As a result, for a very long time, free agents received enormous contracts, and the players’ association used those contract amounts to get higher contracts for younger players through the salary arbitration process they had successfully negotiated for a few years earlier.

The pendulum back towards a freer market began when teams began to non-tender an increasingly large share of their arbitration eligible players as arbitration salaries also got enormous.  More available players each off-season meant more competition for second-tier free agents, and the non-tendered players were and are more likely to sign one-year contracts for less money just to guarantee themselves major league jobs.  That surely drove down the market for second-tier free agents.

Also, teams may be realizing that their own superstars are worth more to them than anyone else.  While it is certainly exciting to bring in a high profile free agent like Bryce Harper or Manny Machado, there is probably just as much good will to be gained from the fan base when a Mike Trout or Nolan Arenado is locked into play all or nearly all of his professional career for the team that developed him into a superstar.

Given how much more generous the recent spate of extensions feels compared to the free agent signings this winter, I would if teams aren’t acting collusively to send a message to players: sign with the team that developed you for big money, or test an increasingly uncertain free agent market.

Of course, if more superstars sign long-term extensions covering their prime and declining years, the superstars who do elect to become free agents will find even less competition for their services.  In short, the Bryce Harpers of the baseball world who elect free agency will continue to set contract records.  Instead, it’s the second-tier free agents who will be feeling greater pressure to accept any extension offers their current teams are willing to offer them.

No Fan of Spring Training

March 19, 2019

Spring Training is one of my least favorite times of the baseball season.  Nothing really interesting is going on, and I find it hard to wait for the real games to start.

Most of the news is who got hurt last and the Spring-Training-everyone’s-still-in-first-place B.S.  Hope springs eternal, and everyone’s got a shot in Spring Training, but I am tired of it.  The Giants look old and under-talented, and they aren’t going to compete unless almost all their stars have great seasons and stay healthy.  That’s not easy when most of the players with talent are over 30.

There are still a few free agents out there, but it’s hard to wait for the at most once a week big signing.  Most of the guys being signed now are guys who just got released from other teams or who have no real chance of playing in the majors and are being signed to fill in Spring Training injuries at the AA and AAA levels.

All the players getting hurt is a drag.  One tends to find out in Spring Training who worked hard in the off-season and who didn’t.  Bet on the guys who hurt themselves during their off-season workouts and not those that get hurt in Spring Training.  But, of course, even the veteran stars get hurt in Spring Training.  You can’t win, and morality doesn’t always tell the truth.

The Giants’ outfield still looks terrible, and experience has told me I can’t yet write off the possibility that the Giants will make a move here.  I can’t remember the Giants going into a season with an outfield this bad without making a move before Opening Day.

The Winter Hot Stove League beats Spring Training.  When the flurry of signings take place between December 1st and February 1st, at least something of seeming consequence is going on.

Yeah, it’s fun to go to Arizona or Florida to watch the games, particularly if you are from a winter weather area.  Not so much in San Francisco — just wet or not wet — and I’ve never been particularly interested in traveling to Arizona to pay to see games that don’t matter.  Maybe when I have more income than I know what to do with.

It’s nice to argue about who should make the team, but the opening day roster is almost always pre-determined based on who is getting guaranteed money and who doesn’t have any options left.  And the Spring Training games just aren’t enough to give all the bubble players enough plate appearances to really mean something.  It doesn’t get interesting for me until the bubble player actually makes the team and starts putting up some regular season stats.

Does anyone remember Brandon Hicks in 2014?  A good Spring Training got him a roster spot, and he hit a ton his first 15 or 20 regular season games.  Then reality set in, and his inability to hit the ball buried his power and willingness to take a walk.  Hicks was done by July 10, but Joe Panik was ready, and the rest was history, as they say.

Anyway, what Brandon Hicks did in the regular season (and the final result) was a lot more interesting than his Spring Training, even if S.T. was largely what enabled him to make the team in the first place.

New Rule Changes

March 14, 2019

The owners and the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) have reached agreements on numerous rule changes to take place in 2019 and 2020.  Here is a thorough run-down of what has been agreed to so far.  I’ll run down and comment on the most notable changes.

Rosters are being expanded to 26 from the current 25 (the parties are still negotiating on how many of the 26 can be pitchers, but 13 is the most likely outcome) through September 1st.  On September 1st, teams must expand the roster to 28 players, but no more than 28 from the current possible maximum of 40.

Increasing the roster to 26 players for most of the regular season likely means more pinch-hitters, pinch-runners and glove-first players will be able to hold roster spots.  While I am not thrilled that September call ups will be limited to two new players — it’s nice to see prospects get a chance to show what they can do and get some major league experience — I’m sure the MLBPA has done the calculations to convince itself that more players will get more major league service time by expanding rosters to 26 for most of the season.

Clearly, limiting September call-ups is good for teams in preventing prospects from starting their service-time clocks from running, although it seems self-defeating if prospects lose what could be valuable experience in games that for many teams don’t matter as much and are less pressure-filled.  The White Sox decision to option Eloy Jimenez to AAA yesterday is only the latest example that limiting service time accumulation is more important in today’s game than getting prospects an additional 20 or so games of major league experience when their performance suggests they are ready for it.

Pitchers will now have to face at least three batters or finish a half-inning before being replaced.  I suspect that will mean more instances where starters will be called upon to get an out or two in their final innings and fewer instances where relievers will start an inning.

There will be a hard July 31st trade deadline, with no more August waiver trades.  I’m not sure why the parties felt that eliminating August waiver trades is a good idea, except perhaps that teams have been colluding to not claim players off waivers so that such trades can go through (you don’t claim the players I want to trade for, and I won’t claim the players you want to trade for).

I don’t have a problem with teams loading up for the post-season, and I am somewhat at a loss to understand why MLB would want to discourage it.  Might as well have the best possible teams playing in the most valuable games for which MLB stands to make the most money.  It also allows teams that were still in the hunt on July 31st to unload some salary and get some prospects if they hopelessly fade in August.  Forcing teams to make a hard decision by July 31st doesn’t seem wise.

“Subject to input from the Joint Committee,” pitchers placed on the disabled list or optionally assigned to the minors shall be returned to 15 days from the current 10-day minimum.  Obviously, the purpose is to prevent teams from manipulating the shorter time periods, but I hate this rule change.  A 10-day disabled list minimum does mean more trips to the DL, but it also works to prevent player injuries.  I don’t understand why teams would wish to promote more pitcher injuries — I mean there aren’t enough already, right?

In a move that surprises me, inning breaks will be limited to two minutes from the current 2:05 for local broadcasts and 2.25 for national broadcasts.  Obviously, the change isn’t going to mean a big time savings (about seven minutes on a national TV broadcast), but it could well cost MLB one 30 second commercial time slot per half inning, which is money the networks surely don’t want to lose.

It is worth noting, though, that 30 second TV commercials are in decline, with the internet having shortened attention spans for commercials.  In fact, it is surprising that the 30 second commercial has held on for so long in television.  Commercials ranging in length from 10 to 25 seconds should actually be more profitable for TV stations because you can fit more adds into the same two or three minute commercial break.  It’s exactly the reason why early TV’s single sponsor format was quickly replaced by one minute ads, which were then quickly replaced by 30 second ads.

Some changes have been made to the All-Star Game selection process, which I really don’t care about. The prize money for the Home Run Derby will be increased to $2.5 million with the winner getting a cool $1M, which goes to show that it’s good to be a major league star.

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) won four out of five games, including beating 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 Mateo, Andy Otero and Harold Arauz allowed only two runs (one earned) over a combined 26 innings pitched.  The Dominican Mateo 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.

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.