Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Distracting the Defense

On the latest episode of "ESPN Makes An Issue Out Of Nothing," Alex Rodriguez appeared to yell something to distract the Blue Jays shortstop and third baseman, allowing a pop fly to drop between them and keep an inning alive for the Yankees, who scored three more runs in the frame.

So...where's the controversy here? Let's run down the ESPN checklist:

Superstar involved? Check.

Popular big-market team? Check.

Argument with the umps? Check.

Making a big deal about it when they don't know what actually happened? Checkmate.

A-Rod claims he just said "Hah!" I haven't heard from the Jays on what they believe he said, but the video made it clear it was just one word. Not enough time to insult the fielders' mothers, to say "I got it!" or anything like that. Clearly, if a fielder is fooled by this, he isn't paying much attention, and the fault lies entirely with him. And anyway, when did it become illegal to deke the opponents? What did the Blue Jays think they could possibly accomplish by arguing with the umps?

Personally, I like the mental aspect to the game. The hidden-ball trick is one of my favorite plays. I get a kick out of it when a player fakes like a throw went over his head, then tags out the unwitting runner. It's very rare to fool a player with a deke, but it is very satisfying to watch when it is successful, unless your team is victimized. Should these plays be made illegal?

What about picking a batter off? That's all about misdirection. Should we outlaw catching a runner leaning the wrong way or taking an early jump? In fact, why not return to the days where the batter can request a certain pitch and location? That would make things much easier on everyone.

I've watched SportsCenter almost every day this year and have seen zero coverage of Chase Utley faking getting hit by pitches, which is a clear case of cheating. Utley is a legitimate superstar who had a better year than A-Rod in 2006. He has blatantly violated the rules, but it's no big deal to the media. Meanwhile, A-Rod may or may not have done something that isn't illegal in the first place, and it's front-page news.

Apparently if someone wants Utley to be brought to national attention, he needs to go and have a loud argument with the umps, or Utley needs to be traded to New York. Until then, the airwaves will be full of coverage of who Derek Jeter is currently dating and how that affects his intangibles.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Fired Up

Today's games featured two situations where it seemed that extra motivation led to better performance.

In Minnesota, A.J. Pierzynski may or may not have spiked Justin Morneau at first base after grounding into a double play to end the top of the sixth inning. The incident prompted Twins manager Ron Gardenhire to come out and scream at all four umps. In the bottom half of the frame, the Twins pushed across five runs and took control of the game.

In Tampa, Edwin Jackson took a ball to the side of the head when Carl Crawford's throw airmailed the catcher. Jackson responded by striking out the next three batters to strand two men in scoring position, which helped Tampa to a 6-5 win.

Naturally, the media is all over how the incidents fired up the Twins and Jackson, leading them to victory. In the sports world, where every effect needs a cause, this seems to make sense, right?

Wrong. In the middle of the Twins rally, Justin Morneau hit into a forceout with the bases loaded. If the spike (or non-spike) was the motivation for the big inning, why did they get no contribution from the only Twin involved in the incident? In typical ESPN fashion, tonight's SportsCenter featured plenty of coverage of the "spiking," but didn't even show Mike Redmond's three-run double that busted the game open, because Mike Redmond is neither famous nor controversial. He'll have to settle for outhitting Pierzynski every year from 2005-07.

The real story, of course, was Gardenhire's tirade. Regular ESPN viewers are all-too-familiar with the network's propensity to recap any non-Yankees game with ten seconds of run-scoring plays, followed by thirty seconds of a player or manager arguing a call and getting tossed. Is this really what viewers want to see? Don't they ever wonder why the score suddenly changes from 1-0 to 7-5 on the display?

Over in Tampa, Edwin Jackson struck out nine total batters in six innings, so three in a row was not out of line with his stuff last night. He also picked up the strikeouts against Brandon Inge, Curtis Granderson, and Craig Monroe, a combination that gives Nolan Ryan wet dreams. In this case, I understand why no highlights were shown of Tampa Bay's hitters, since they scored runs on a sac fly, a passed ball, two groundouts and a grounder that bounced over the head of the third baseman. (As an aside, has any team ever scored six runs and gotten a walkoff win in a more boring fashion? Even Elijah Dukes was falling asleep by the end, but apparently someone told him to picture his wife's face on the ball as he batted.)

So what really happened on Memorial Day? A couple of teams recorded comeback wins, and the media searched in vain for an explanation involving some kind of manager outburst. They found it, and a TV audience was once again misled about where good performances really come from.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

What's Wrong With Barry Bonds?

Nothing.

That is all.

The man is 42 years old and entered tonight's game with a 1.099 OPS. In May--while ESPN has treated him like he was on the coldest streak in baseball history--his on-base percentage is .457.

You want him to break the home run record so you can sell advertising? Fine, but stop filling your shows every night with pointless attempts to explain why even very good hitters go through periods where they aren't superhuman. It's insulting to the intelligence of the viewers.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Stretching a Triple

With his team down 6 runs and no outs in the fourth inning today, Jose Lopez tried to stretch a triple into an inside-the-park homer, only to be thrown out by 15 feet.

The Mariners went on to lose 13-12.

As a fan, I'm in favor of more attempts at the inside-the-park homer, which remains one of baseball's most exciting plays even though it's really a double or triple plus a fielding miscue. But the Mariners' third base coach fully deserves the blame he's going to get for this one. Despite the six-run gap, this was still a game. Jae Seo is pitching horribly this year, and the Devil Rays have a pathetic bullpen.

As a strategic decision, rather than for entertainment value, this was a brain fart comparable to Greg Dobbs' decision to throw home rather than take the out last night.

I No Longer Grieve For Josh Hancock's Family

That's a pretty heartless post title, but after reading this piece, I think you'll see things my way.

Imagine that your son spends his whole evening at a bar, sipping drinks. He then decides it's a good idea to drive himself home while completely hammered, even though he can easily afford a cab or even a limo on his six-figure salary. On his way home, he gets into an accident. It can be fatal or non-fatal; we're not results-oriented here.

Driving drunk is stupid, but most people who do it don't suffer any consequences. It's like betting your life's savings on a big favorite. Usually you escape okay, but every once in awhile a Buster Douglas bankrupts you. Josh Hancock bet his life on Mike Tyson and lost. It's a sad story, but we can't feel too sorry for him. Warnings about drinking and driving are so ubiquitous that he must have known the risks going in.

Back to our hypothetical situation. As the father, obviously you're going to be very shaken up, especially if your son is killed or seriously hurt. But who do you think is at fault for the accident? If your son's name is Josh Hancock, apparently the culprits are the restaurant and its manager, and they're going to pay.

Hancock likely went to some parties in high school, and at some point, he probably drove himself home after knocking down a few. When Dean Hancock stayed up to see Josh stumble through the door at 2 AM, was his first instinct to blame the organizers of the party? Probably. Certainly, it was not to teach him that drunk driving is dangerous to yourself and others.

I know nothing else about Dean Hancock, but this lawsuit tells me he fits into one of two categories:

- A father who not only doesn't bother to teach his son not to drink and drive, but also believes that when the son does so, it's the fault of others
- A money-grubber who's trying to profit from the death of his own son

There's really no third option. It may be premature to assume that the rest of Hancock's family is like Dean, but they probably had the opportunity to stop him from going public with this, and decided not to.

A few other comments:

- There is no doubt in my mind that this lawsuit would not have been filed unless Josh Hancock was killed or seriously injured. That means that the suit alleges that the restaurant is at fault not only for over-serving Hancock, but also for his poor driving ability while intoxicated--or his bad luck, if you want to look at it that way.

- Josh Hancock was not some rube that didn't know what he was getting into. How many 29 year olds do you know that don't know drinking and driving is dangerous? If you believe Dean Hancock, these ignorant grown men are all over the place, victims of an alcohol culture they do not understand, waiting to be endangered by restaurants and bars.

- Imagine the precedent this suit could potentially set in place. Whenever I want to do something illegal in the future, all I have to do is make sure I'm good and liquored up, particularly at a bar with deep pockets. Nothing will ever be my fault again.

- If a settlement is reached in this case, or the courts awards Dean Hancock anything, I'm retiring from gambling to start a career filing frivolous lawsuits. It's got to be more profitable and much more of a sure thing.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Consistent .400 Hitters

ESPN.com has a new video from Steve Phillips regarding the following:

"Will Ichiro or any other player in today's game ever be consistent enough to put together a .400 season? Time will tell."

This is probably about as intelligent a statement as we can expect from the man who brought Mo Vaughn and Roberto Alomar to the Mets, but I digress. Breaking this down:

- If there's one thing the last 65 years have taught us, it's that a .400 season is an anomaly, something that can only happen through a great confluence of skill and fortune. In other words, it is the exact opposite of a "consistent" performance.

Here are some of the recent runs at .400, along with the player's batting averages before and after that year:

Tony Gwynn:

1992: .317
1993: .358
1994: .394
1995: .368

Gwynn was about as consistent a hitter as I can remember, but his 1994 seems well out of line with his other numbers. Note that he played only 110 games in '94, increasing the inherent variance in his batting average. (Think about how often you see a player hit .400 for one month vs. how often it happens over a full season.)

It's possible the strike cost him a .400 season, but far more likely that his average was going to fall in the final two months.

George Brett:

1978: .294
1979: .329
1980: .390
1981: .314

Yeah, that's consistency if I've ever seen it.

Like Gwynn, Brett benefited from playing a short season, appearing in only 117 games. That, plus a good deal of luck, is the real reason he batted .390, not consistency.

Rod Carew:

1976: .331
1977: .388
1978: .333

Carew was a very similar player to Tony Gwynn, a guy who was good for a .330 batting average nearly every year during his prime. He still was nowhere near a .400 hitter.

I could go back further, but the point is clear. Recent baseball history has seen a few guys who have demonstrated the ability to consistently hit .360 for a few years (Boggs, Gwynn, Larry Walker in Coors). No one has shown the consistent ability to challenge .400, and with good reason. Even when Bill Terry or Ted Williams or Joe Jackson hit .400, it was a year well out of line with career averages, the equivalent of Adrian Beltre's 2004 or Norm Cash's 1961. As A-Rod showed us this April, when a superstar has a "fluke" good run, he looks superhuman. If and when someone hits .400 over a full year, it will be a very good hitter who had a career year.

- On the "Time will tell" comment: This is probably satisfactory for Steve Phillips, who a few weeks ago was talking about how A-Rod would rewrite the record books this year. Those of us who aren't results-oriented know that someone hitting .400 doesn't prove anything about how it's done, just like winning the lottery doesn't demonstrate your ability to pick numbers better than anyone else.

Barry Bonds had a great chance to hit .400 at some point in his 2001-2004 run. Drawing a huge number of walks every year and sitting out 20 games kept his at-bat total under 400, increasing the variance involved. Lots of home runs and few strikeouts gave him a huge head start. He didn't get there, partially because he had lost his speed and the "Bonds shift" was cutting into his batting average on balls in play. Does his failure tell us anything about what kind of player he was?

Maybe it tells Steve Phillips something, but not me.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

B.J. Upton

I've been traveling a lot recently, so I missed the optimal point to blog about B.J. Upton and his ridiculously unsustainable batting average. In two weeks, Upton's season average has fallen from .386 to .309, and it's not going to stop there.

Upton, at his peak, had something like a .550 batting average on balls in play. Even with his overall batting average down 77 points, he still leads the league by a wide margin in BABIP.

The ceiling on a sustainable long-term BABIP is roughly .370, and that level is reserved for guys who smack the ball really hard and play in a favorable home park (Manny Ramirez) or speedy ground ball hitters (Derek Jeter, Ichiro). Though he is very fast, Upton is not an extreme ground-ball hitter or a prodigious power hitter, so it's unlikely he can consistently post a BABIP over .350.

Here are three batting lines for Upton. The last is his season-to-date line assuming a BABIP of .350 rather than his actual .462:

Through May 4: .386 BA/.443 OBP/.670 SLG
Through May 22: .309/.385/.540
.350 BABIP: .247/.329/.458

Now, a second baseman with an OPS of .777 is still quite valuable, particularly when he's 22 years old. But he's not a star--yet.

Fantasy leaguers should also note that Upton's regression will go far beyond his batting average. Fewer hits mean a lower RBI total. Fewer times on base means reduced opportunities to steal and less runs. Given that Upton's seven homers are also higher than we'd expect, he's likely to fall off considerably in all five categories. In other words: SELL HIGH.

Upton still has a chance to become a superstar, but in order to do so, he needs to develop some serious power, stop striking out 180 times a year, or become a plus fielder at second base or center field. If he doesn't, he'll have to settle for being merely above-average.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Beneficial Fan Interference?

In the top of the ninth inning in the Cardinals-Tigers game, the tying run was on first base with two outs when Scott Spiezio hit a shot down the left field line. A fan wearing a Tigers cap reached over the railing to collect the ball, giving Spiezio a ground-rule double and holding the tying run at third.

We're not talking about a Bartman play here; this ball was clearly in the field of play, with the fan having to reach all the way over the railing and down to the ground to pick it up. This sort of interference simply should not happen, especially at a critical point of the game.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I had a bet on the Cardinals tonight, so I am not totally unbiased. But I believe this is a general issue that deserves discussion.)

Would Aaron Miles have scored from first base on the play? Probably not; he likely would have been thrown out to end the game. However, the fan probably would not have interfered with this ball if it had been the Tigers trying to tie the game, and that's the important thing here.

Not only did this fan affect the outcome of the game, he probably deprived the crowd of a chance to see one of baseball's most exciting plays--the tying run trying to score on a close play at the plate with one out left in the game.

MLB should take a stance on this kind of behavior. I know they want to be fan-friendly and not impose too harsh penalties for this kind of interference, but is the optimal form of entertainment really watching a fan pick the ball up instead of seeing a close play at the plate to decide the game?

I can't really come up with a perfect solution, but if MLB made a statement--say, by awarding Miles the tying run for interference--fans everywhere would take notice and think twice before acting in a similar way in the future. The decision might be unpopular in Detroit, but it would be good for the long-term enjoyment of watching baseball.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Cheating in MLB

Chase Utley was just hit by a pitch for the 13th time this season, and the announcers pointed out that he's "pretty well wrapped up the league lead" in that category.

The replay showed why this is so. It clearly shows Utley pulling his legs back from a low and inside pitch as the ball misses him and glances off the catcher's mitt back to the backstop. Utley then trots to first without the ump ever making a signal. As Phillies fans can attest, this is not the first time this season that Chase has used this little scam to take a free base.

Now, this isn't a new phenomenon, and it can be hilarious to watch. But I'd like to see MLB take a stance against this and other forms of obvious cheating. Why is it immoral to take a performance-enhancing drug, but perfectly fine to blatantly cheat to get an interference call? Why is there a rule against throwing a spitball, but none against obviously faking a tag to prevent the game-tying run from scoring?

I'm not talking about innocent mistakes, like an ump calling a player out on a close play. You can't expect any player to argue against a close call that went in his favor, even if he thinks the ump was wrong. But when a player deliberately takes advantage of a situation, like in these cases, he not only gets an unfair edge, he also disgraces the rules of the game.

Obviously an umpire can't apply a punishment to the offending player at the time of the violation, since he has been bamboozled. But MLB can take a stance. Add a rule to the books that applies a penalty for any player who makes a mockery of the game by willfully and obviusly cheating to get an advantage.

The penalty can be anything from a meager $5000 fine to a one-game suspension; it's there strictly as a deterrent. As J.C. Bradbury can tell you, when you reduce the incentives for a particular action, people are going to take that action less often. Even though $5000 may not be a meaningful sum to a professional athlete, the threat of the fine will reduce the total amount of cheating. If this does not actually happen, the amount of the fine can be raised until the desired effect is reached.

Right now, with no incentive not to cheat, how can we expect the players to stick to the rules? When MLB had no tests for steroids, they were all over the place. Now, all the evidence points to severely reduced use of everything they're testing for. The 50-game suspension is bad enough, but being labeled a user for life can really haunt you--just ask McGwire and Palmeiro.

Meanwhile, what's the worst that can happen if the ump tells Utley to get back in the box? He's no worse off than if he hadn't attempted his stunt at all. A little embarrassed, maybe, but he's back at bat with the same count. If Shane Victorino's gimmick to run way out of the baseline had been discovered, he gets called out, the same as if he had simply been tagged. Paul Lo Duca had nothing to lose by applying a phantom tag at home.

If parking tickets and towing were eliminated, how many people would pay the meters or stay out of a No Parking zone? Assigning no penalties for breaking the rules simply encourages people to cheat. Utley probably feels pretty smart for getting away with it, but if he gets a $10,000 fine and is publicly outed as a cheater, he--and everyone else--will think twice before trying that trick again.

Once upon a time, pitchers had almost no incentive to throw the ball inside the strike zone, because it took nine balls to collect a walk. Even our ancestors knew that this was not the optimal form of baseball, and the rules were changed fairly quickly. The advantage shifted from pitchers to hitters, and the game was much more entertaining.

It's the same with pickoff throws. Every time a pitcher attempts a pickoff, he has a slight chance of throwing the runner out. If he tries 20 throws to first in a row, the only negative consequence is that he might hurt his arm or throw the ball wild. Meanwhile, the fans have left the ballpark and the viewers at home have switched the channel to the more masculine programming on Lifetime or Oxygen. As Bill James wrote in the New Historical Baseball Abstract, baseball would benefit greatly from a rule limiting pickoff throws per inning.

Maybe you're reading this and saying "Utley didn't score anyway, so what's the big deal?" That's as results-oriented as you can possibly get, and definitely the wrong way of looking at this. If your team lost an important game on a call like this, wouldn't you be livid? Would you really be proud if your team won a game by cheating? Cheating is not only bad for the integrity of baseball, it's bad for the entertainment of the fans. Any policy against it is a good one for the long-term health of the sport.

MLB.com is Stupid, and so is Ozzie Guillen

I have low standards for any mainstream baseball website, but this piece is definitely something.

If you don't want to click on the link, basically, the article praises Juan Uribe's new-found plate discipline, citing his nine walks in 28 games and "third on the team" .324 on-base percentage.

Breaking this down:

- Once again, 28 games doesn't mean much.

- Uribe's nine walks are not out of line with his past numbers. We're nearly a fourth of the way through the season, and Uribe averages 30 walks/season for his career. He's about two walks ahead of his career pace.

Perhaps the author of this piece is not familiar with the concept of regression to the mean. Uribe walked only 13 times last year; this number was very likely to bounce back. Scott Merkin probably spent his 2006 writing about how Carlos Beltran became an overnight superstar, and later this year we'll read his take on "Whatever happened to Luke Scott?"

- A .324 on-base percentage is not good. It's decent for a shortstop, but it is below the AL average. That it is third on the team is an indictment of the White Sox hitters, not praise for Uribe. Do you see the third-best starting pitcher on the Nationals bragging about it?

- Ozzie Guillen's decision to move Uribe to second in the batting order obviously hurts the South Siders, but it does make some sense coming from Ozzie, who as a player was basically Juan Uribe with less power.

I will never understand baseball's fascination with moving guys from the eighth or ninth spot in the order to first or second, if that spot opens up. That's like replacing your departing CEO with an employee from the mail room. When was the last time you saw an NL team bat its pitcher second because someone was getting a day off? Their bats are hidden at the bottom for a reason: they get the fewest at-bats that way. It should be the same for your light-hitting shortstop.

As an aside, I'm seeing a lot of teams use unorthodox leadoff hitters lately, guys like Morgan Ensberg, Scott Hatteberg, and even Scott Spiezio. These players' managers realize the importance of getting your leadoff man on base rather than making sure he can run fast. Until Ozzie learns this lesson, he's going to cost the Sox some wins with his lineup construction.

Friday, May 11, 2007

B.J. Ryan

As you've probably heard, Ryan is out for 2007 after undergoing Tommy John surgery, and his 2008--not to mention the rest of his career--is looking very uncertain.

When the Blue Jays handed Ryan his five-year, $47 million contract (the largest ever for a reliever) prior to 2006, there was a lot of talk about the risk involved, and the deal was universally panned by sabermetricians. The few writers who liked the signing said that the Jays needed to overpay to compete with the Yankees and Red Sox--as if it makes more sense, not less, for a team to spend money precisely because it probably won't be enough to make a difference.

The two years since have been a pair of opposite extremes. In 2006, Ryan was lights-out, performing far better than anyone could have reasonably expected. Several other Blue Jays--such as Vernon Wells, Alexis Rios, and Reed Johnson--also beat their projections handily. The Jays still weren't close to a playoff berth. This year, a lot of things have gone wrong, including injuries to Ryan and Troy Glaus. We're not even halfway through May yet, and Toronto looks absolutely dead in the water.

No one should be too surprised by this. Teams experience ups and downs; that's why we watch the games. The Blue Jays had roughly a 75-win collection of talent at the end of 2005. Through big-money acquisitions like Glaus, Ryan, and A.J. Burnett, they were able to bring themselves up to 80-82 wins. This still wasn't--and isn't--enough to compete in the AL East, as the Jays demonstrated last year.

Two years ago, the Blue Jays were barely at a level where they could justify paying market price for a player like B.J. Ryan. Instead, they went over and above that level. Ryan's injury doesn't change the correctness of the decision at the time, but it does illustrate the risks associated with the signing, and demonstrates why no other team was willing to go to five years and $47 million.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Blogging and Journalism

It seems there are two new fads f0r journalists. One is for the writer to start his own blog--Joe Posnanski has a great new one--and the other is for him to openly deride bloggers, labeling them not good enough for newspaper work, or in one instance, even comparing them to the homeless.

Now, to an extent I understand the stance taken by major newspaper columnists. After all, they had to work for many years to get where they are, and now much of their audience is being taken away by amateur writers or professionals who have only been writing for a short period of time.

However, what I really see is a group that is upset because:

- the barriers to entry have been removed from their profession
- "inferior" writers are taking their jobs, even though their work is superior
- in the internet age, the daily paper is often obsolete by the time it hits newsstands

The fact is, blogging encourages an open competition in which the cream rises to the top. If someone starts a blog and it sucks, no one is going to read it, but the good blogs will develop a strong following. In other words, you're much more likely to get a better final product by picking the best blog out of a thousand candidates rather than the best local reporter out of five.

The readers of a local newspaper often have no choice; they often must choose between reading a particular writer's work or not following the local team at all. Does this system really reward quality at all? There's no doubt in my mind that some journalists, like Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times, would never make it in blogging because their columns can't cut it.

These stubborn journalists who dismiss blogging as a hobby of the homeless remind me in many ways of the men who defended the color barrier in the face of Jackie Robinson's arrival in 1947. They viewed blacks and Latinos as inferior players who should stay in the Negro Leagues and not take the jobs of the whites who had worked so "hard" to get them. They believed in keeping the barriers to entry and not encouraging an open competition--the same open competition that has raised the level of play in baseball to its highest point in history.

I'm not trying to compare the trivial matter of blogging to the landmark achievements of the Civil Rights movement, but it's the same idea. Competition is a good thing for everyone involved except those who can't keep up. If a blog is doing a better job reporting on your local team than you are, do something different until you re-establish yourself as the primary source for all things Boston. But don't complain that you're losing your audience to an author who's more eloquent or better understands baseball statistics, just because he writes for U.S.S Mariner instead of the Post-Intelligencer.

If you work for a newspaper and are upset about blogging, chances are your anger is fueled more by envy than disdain.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

The $100 million mistake

It didn't seem like a lopsided deal at the time, at least not to casual fans. The defending champion White Sox had just acquired Javier Vazquez from Arizona in exchange for an over-the-hill starter, a journeyman middle reliever, and an outfield prospect.

A year later, the deal is a train wreck for the Sox and the steal of the century for the Diamondbacks. The over-the-hill starter, Orlando Hernandez, had a better 2006 than Vazquez while earning less salary and is off to a strong start this year, though he is currently injured. The middle reliever, Luis Vizcaino, was the biggest name in the D-Backs' trade package for Randy Johnson, whose key indicators are excellent this year.

Those are small trifles, however, compared to the outfield prospect, Chris Young, who is getting rave reviews from both scouts and statheads and figures to contribute great production while earning MLB's minimum wage.

How much is a player like Young worth? For one answer, we can look at what a similar player earns in free agency. Nate Silver recently ranked Young ahead of Andruw Jones on a list of the top players he would take in a super-fantasy draft for the next six years. In other words, in a league without salaries, Young and Jones are basically pegged to return the same value between 2007-12.

Speculation is that Jones will receive a free agent contract in the neighborhood of six years and $110 million when he becomes eligible after this season. Meanwhile, Young will likely earn around $20 million before hitting free agency at the end of 2012. When you get a $110 million player for $20 million, you net a $90 million profit. Baseball being a zero-sum game, that $90 million must be a loss for the team that traded Young, the White Sox.

It's not like this was entirely unexpected. Young ranked 46th on last year's top 50, and didn't have a breakout season last year; rather, he just continued his natural progression. Add in Vizcaino and El Duque, who the Diamondbacks converted into Johnson and Yusmeiro Petit, and subtract the small profit the White Sox will likely get out of Vazquez's first two years, and you can make a convincing case that this deal cost the White Sox $100 million.

Am I being too hard on the White Sox or GM Ken Williams? I don't think so. Dealing multiple young players for a Proven Veteran has been Williams's M.O. for years. He did the same thing with David Wells, Todd Ritchie, Freddy Garcia, and others. The Wells and Garcia deals didn't blow up in his face because the careers of Mike Sirotka and Jeremy Reed have derailed, but one young player who pans out, like Young, costs the Sox more than enough to offset those who didn't.

What's interesting is that Williams seems to have learned. This offseason, instead of loading up for one last World Series run, he exploited the seller's market by trading Garcia and Brandon McCarthy for a collection of young pitchers who should return great value on the dollar. If the Sox fall out of contention, he'll probably do the same with Mark Buehrle, Jermaine Dye, Joe Crede, and Jon Garland.

The key to building a dynasty is through homegrown talent or acquired young talent, not expensive acquisitions. The Atlanta Braves of the past two decades have been carried by Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, David Justice, Chipper Jones, and Andruw Jones, among many others. Even the big-budget Yankees won their four World Series titles on the backs of Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, and Jorge Posada. If the White Sox can assemble enough young talent, they might be the next. It's surely a better approach than stripping the farm system to acquire number 3 starters.

Web Gems?

Tonight's SportsCenter Top 10 features a couple of diving catches by left fielders. At number 3, Carl Crawford gets a great jump on a ball, sprints to it, and lays out to grab it. At number 2, Chris Duncan appears to do the same, making his own diving catch.

Except it's not the same. Crawford is the best defensive left fielder in baseball, and he made a great play. Duncan may be the worst defensive left fielder in baseball, and he turned a fairly routine play into a Web Gem.

This doesn't really matter, of course. The viewers got to see two spectacular-looking plays, and Crawford is still a much better defender than Duncan--and anyone who bothers to do any research will know this. That just leaves the Gold Glove voters, who may well hand Duncan some hardware at the end of the year on the basis of his 20 SportsCenter highlights. They probably won't, but stranger things have happened.

I'll try not to pick on the Cardinals in my next post, I swear.

The 2006-07 Cardinals

When the Cardinals won the World Series after an 83-78 regular season last year, many called them the worst champs of all time. Those who defended St. Louis generally argued that they were the same team who won 205 games the previous two years.

This wasn't true then, and it isn't now. Between 2004 and 2006, the Cardinals--like all teams do over the span of two years--underwent huge turnover, both in personnel and performance. Of those Cardinals who played regularly in 2004's 105-57 season, there were just five holdovers on the 2006 postseason roster: Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds, Scott Rolen, Chris Carpenter, and Jeff Suppan. That's still a hell of a core, but Rolen and particularly Edmonds were substantially less valuable in 2006 than 2004, due to age and injuries. This was simply not the same collection of talent that had the best record in MLB in both 2004 and 2005.

The 2006 Cardinals resemble their 2007 team much more closely than 2004, and the 2007 version ain't looking good. Their Pythagorean record stands at 9-22, making them the only non-Nationals team under 10 expected wins. This is despite returning almost the entire 2006 roster. I know, Chris Carpenter is hurt, but his absence hasn't cost the Cardinals more than one win. Suppan and Marquis are pitching well for divisional rivals, but you couldn't pay St. Louis enough to take Jeff Weaver v.2007 back. The 2006 Cardinals were not a championship-caliber team, and the 2007 Cardinals aren't either.

The Cardinals have had a great run this decade, and they probably deserved a World Series title at some point. But it's looking more and more like that run is over, and that for the next few years, we're going to be watching a team of Pujols, Rolen, Carpenter, and a bunch of also-rans.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Josh Hancock and results-oriented analysis

Josh Hancock's tragic death has served as a wake-up call to several franchises, including the Cardinals, who are now removing beer from their locker rooms.

I hope it doesn't seem like I'm trivializing the man's death, but the reaction to this incident is a great example of how results-oriented the world is. Baseball men frequently get cited for DUI, including Hancock's manager, Tony La Russa, during Spring Training this year. How has MLB reacted? By turning a blind eye, and not dishing out any punishments whatsoever. This is ridiculous.

As teens approach driving age, they are taught to NEVER drive drunk, not to only avoid it those times when it will result in death or injury. Why? Because we never know when those tragedies will strike. It is an awful system that punishes only those drunk drivers who directly cause accidents; to do so is to ignore the real cause of the problem while encouraging the behavior to continue--until tragedy strikes.

Obviously, the impact of Hancock's death is far greater than the average incidence of a baseball man driving under the influence. La Russa, after all, was able to return to work the next day. But the point is that the possibility of a tragedy like this was right under MLB's nose the whole time, and they ignored it, probably because alcohol is a big part of baseball culture. It took a man's death for the baseball world to acknowledge the problem, and now it's too late to go back and change MLB's stance on drinking and driving.

Just to pull a number out of the air, let's say there is a 2 percent chance that a drunk driver will be involved in a major accident. (Obviously it is impossible to compile accurate data on this, but the exact figure is not important for this analysis.) For every fifty drunk drivers, one is going to inflict a tragedy upon himself or an innocent victim--or both--while the other 49 will escape unharmed, probably without even getting a citation. (Remember, we're considering all drunk drivers, not just the ones who get a DUI.)

Ignoring that some of these people may be intrinsically better drivers than others, all 50 deserve the same fate for their negligence--not death, of course, but a severe punishment. Instead, 49 receive little or no recourse. This isn't fair, but it's how life goes. It should not, however, affect the way we perceive the DUI offender. Just like calling with an inside straight draw does not become a good play just because you hit a lucky card, driving drunk doesn't become meaningless simply because you made it home safely.

Keith Law wrote an excellent article for ESPN after the La Russa incident, discussing how TLR not only received no punishment for the offense, but also got a free pass from the media and a standing ovation at the next Cardinals game--and that this was a typical fan reaction to DUIs from their favorite team. The article was ignored by everyone whose opinion mattered to MLB, but Hancock's death could not be.

I hope this incident causes a shift in MLB's rules regarding alcohol, but it didn't have to be this way. It's sad that they only take notice when the unlucky 1 in 50 chance came to be.