Mo-nanimous

Here’s something from last week, written after Mariano Rivera became the first-ever unanimous selection to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

This is something I confidently predicted would never happentwice, in fact. Shows what I know. Rivera broke the barrier, though – not only because he was easily the best relief pitcher ever, but also because of who he was over the 19 years he played Major League Baseball.

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What if Luke Heimlich is telling the truth?

Luke Heimlich did not get drafted by a Major League Baseball team this week. He was expected to, but last year’s revelation that he admitted to child molestation charges as a minor has made him pretty much radioactive.

Yahoo! Sports’ Jeff Passan, perhaps realizing this possibility, wrote a pre-emptive column bemoaning that sports teams would overlook such a sordid past. Others have suggested his past crime makes him unfit for a job as public as a professional baseball player. Yet, even in the 40-round MLB Draft, where teams assume they won’t be able to sign half the players they select and where late-round picks are routinely flushed on nepotism, no one wanted to be anywhere near the former top prospect.

Heimlich maintains his innocence. In recent interviews, he claims his guilty plea to charges of molesting his niece were a play for family harmony and based on poor legal advice. Such a non-apology tour sure seems like something you would do about a month before the MLB draft if you were starting to sense that they wouldn’t call your name from the podium.

But Heimlich’s side of the story also sounds fairly reasonable.

Imagine being a 16-year-old star athlete, getting early attention from MLB and college scouts, and suddenly having your future placed in jeopardy because you are accused of a crime like this. Assume, for a moment, you are also innocent (which is a big assumption, but within the realm of the possible so let’s run with it).

Your lawyer presents you with two options: Option A is a lesser conviction with a very light punishment (probation, therapy sessions, and a court-mandated admission) plus a sealed record in five years. Option B is a more public trial, family discord, the risk of a much harsher punishment (including time in a juvenile detention center), and the probability you will lose scholarship offers and a future professional baseball career due to the public scrutiny. You also face a court system that rightfully tilts toward the victim.

Assuming you were innocent, which would you pick? Option A sure does sound like a low-risk alternative.

Remember that law enforcement officials offer plea bargains to avoid the risk of losing a conviction. They are not always used for the benefit of the accused.

Also worth remembering: The only reason this is public at all is because a sheriff in Oregon made a mistake, citing Heimlich for missing a reporting requirement which turned out wasn’t required. That citation made his previous conviction public. In other words, if not for a bureaucratic snafu, no one would ever know about Heimlich’s past. Heck, he could have been drafted last year and might be halfway through his first year of Single-A minor league baseball by now.

I still breathed a sigh of relief when the New York Yankees passed over Heimlich; fans of every other team probably did the same. The reality is that, outside of a complete exoneration, Heimlich would have brought a media circus with him to whatever sleepy, short-season rookie league he would have been assigned to. And that mess would follow him throughout his career – which might not last that long anyway. It’s tough enough to make the major leagues without having to constantly justify a child molestation conviction. That’s to say nothing of any remorse or guilt Heimlich may carry onto the field with him if he actually committed the crime.

That “if” is, of course, an important factor.

The only person who really knows for sure what happened is Luke Heimlich himself. He could be a monster who really did molest his niece and who presents a predatory danger to any other child he’s around. He could be someone who perpetrated an evil act and who will hopefully and rightfully bear the consequences for the rest of his life. Or, he could be someone who, faced with the promise of short-term pain, admitted to something he did not do for the sake of expediency.

None of those three situations are far-fetched. Each is reasonably plausible. And each conclusion spawns more questions.

Much of the pre-draft coverage assumed Heimlich’s guilt and asked to what extent his past actions should influence his future.

Yet if Heimlich is innocent, doesn’t that raise some important red flags about the legal system? If a star athlete can get his life derailed with bad legal advice, what happens to people who don’t have that level of privilege?

The story of Luke Heimlich’s career in baseball (and whether it continues or not) is the story of a series of uncomfortable questions. As the story unfolds, it’s only fair to ask them all.

 

It’s apparently hard for some athletes to fake politeness

Most of today’s professional athletes grew up with ESPN. Teams have become increasingly savvy about the use of social media and have entire public relations departments to help spread good will in the community.

So how is it that the likes of Ben Roethlisberger and Joe Flacco don’t understand how it sounds when they get defensive about their own team’s draft picks?

In a radio interview, Roethlisberger questioned the Pittsburgh Steelers’ decision to draft quarterback Mason Rudolph with a third-round pick:

“Nothing against Mason — I think he’s a great football player. I don’t know him personally, but I’m sure he’s a great kid,” Roethlisberger told 93.7 The Fan in Pittsburgh on Friday. “I just don’t know how backing up or being a third-[stringer] — well, who knows where he’s going to fall on the depth chart — helps us win now. But, you know, that’s not my decision to make. That’s on the coaches and the GM and the owner and those kind of things. If they think he can help our team, so be it, but I was a little surprised.”

On the other side of the NFL’s biggest rivalry, Baltimore’s Joe Flacco said even more by saying much less, opting not to answer questions after his team nabbed Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson in the first round. The Ravens were complicit in his silence.

Professional athletes, like top performers in any field, need a competitive edge that most people don’t have. Beyond that, anyone who has done excellent work for their employer for several years wants to enjoy some measure of job security. But unlike most people, Roethlisberger and Flacco routinely get microphones shoved in their faces for comments on their job.

It isn’t hard to know exactly what to say here. Any of the following will do:

  • “Everyone we draft has the chance to make us a better team.”
  • “I’m looking forward to playing with [GUY THE TEAM JUST DRAFTED TO TAKE MY JOB]. I’m happy to share what I’ve learned during my time in the league, and I bet I could learn something from him, too.”
  • “Hey, I’ll do anything to help the team win. I’ll start, I’ll line up at wideout, I’ll kick, I’ll carry water, I don’t care as long as we win the Super Bowl.”

It’s not hard. Boring? Sure, but the fans love that. Derek Jeter spent two decades feeding boring to the New York press and they practically built a golden idol of him outside Yankee Stadium when he retired. (He’s had some interesting times in Miami, and interesting isn’t going so well for him.) The New York Giants brain trust of coach Ben McAdoo and General Manager Jerry Reese benched Eli Manning last year. While it was obvious Manning wasn’t a fan of the decision, he wisely remained relatively quiet after it was made. Of course, he didn’t have to: Everyone who followed football knew the move was idiotic and said so.

Squeaky wheels don’t always get greased, either. Neither Reese nor McAdoo finished the season with the Giants; Manning is locked in as next season’s starter.

Come to think of it, the only time Manning had real controversy in his career happened on his own draft day, when he very publicly made it known he wasn’t interested in being a San Diego Charger. Notably, though, Manning himself has always refused to give any reason for what prompted his trade demand.

Typically, the less an athlete says (or implies), the better. Maybe that’s boring, but boring is a much better look than the defensive jealousy brewing right now in Pittsburgh and Baltimore.

MLB’s expanded postseason might be hurting player salaries

The Yankees signed Neil Walker to play second base this week. In most off-seasons, the Yankees signing an All-Star caliber free agent to play second base and bat eighth is a dog-bites-man story.

This year? Walker’s cheap contract is a sign of (relatively) difficult times for Major League Baseball players.

Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports chronicles how free agents have struggled to find work this year, and the rising discontent within the players’ union. The hand-wringing comes down to a simple fact: The current market simply values free agent players differently than the market did even five years ago.

There are many reasons for this: advanced analytics, exciting and fruitful youth movements (i.e. cheap talent) on big market teams, and harsh penalties for signing other teams’ free agents (i.e. lost draft picks and international spending restrictions).

Looking at the way teams have spent money, one has to conclude MLB’s postseason format dampens offseason activity, too.

In 16 full seasons with an eight-team playoff format (three division winners plus on Wild Card per league) from 1996-2011, the average Wild Card entrant totaled 93.1 wins. Major League Baseball moved to its current, 10-team playoff format in 2012, with two Wild Card teams in each league facing off in a one-game play-in after the regular season. In six season from 2012-2017, the average Wild Card team’s win total was 90.2.  For good measure, the second Wild Card – the one with the lower record – averaged 89.2. During that time, the average division winner tallied 95 wins.

In the winter of 2007-2008, if you were the general manager of a team that looked like it could win somewhere in the neighborhood of 87-90 games, you might look for players in free agency who could help you add a handful of wins over the course of the season. If everything broke right and you brought in some extra talent, you might bump your win total up to 93-94 games, enough to grab a Wild Card and a chance to see if your elite signees could dominate a short series or two.

In the winter of 2017-2018, your 87-90 win projection might put you in the playoffs already. If you bust your hump to improve to 93 games, you might still only be a wild card, playing in a crap-shoot, one-game playoff. And anything can happen in a one-game playoff.

Is it worth spending money on more players in December if the payoff is a single postseason game which may not be decided by talent? Probably not. Teams who are in the middle are arguably better served to see how their season plays out, then making trade deadline moves if they find themselves in a position to contend for a division title.

Part of the rationale for the Wild Card round was to incentivize teams to push for the division; the unintended consequence has been the devaluation of winning the Wild Card. If winning is less attractive, it naturally follows that teams will spend less in pursuit of winning, right?

Of course, the MLB Players Association faces an uphill battle making any changes to the playoff format in their next round of collective bargaining. Going back to the old model would force owners to give up the gate and media revenues from two postseason games, which isn’t happening. The MLBPA’s best hope might be to propose eliminating one Wild Card but pushing the divisional round from a best-of-five to a best-of-seven format. That adds postseason games, though it sacrifices two teams’ worth of “MLB Postseason” merchandise.

The current collective bargaining agreement doesn’t expire until 2021, though, and the concerns of the MLBPA might be very different by then. Heck, next postseason, teams may spend boatloads of cash on free agents, and this year’s peculiarities will be forgotten. Still, the MLB postseason starts with a game of chance; as long as that stays true, teams will be hesitant to gamble – which will remain bad news for the game’s most expensive players.

Battling over batting average

Baseball’s back… sort of. Grapefruit League action started on Friday, one of several milestones counting down to Opening Day. Even if it doesn’t mean anything in the standings, it means something to the fans.

Speaking of the fans, baseball has new rules this year designed to speed up games, with more under consideration.

While most of these will help lower game times, they won’t necessarily help pace, i.e. how fast a game moves. In response to a reader question, River Avenue Blues tabbed strikeouts as a major factor in slowing down games:

MLB has set a new record strikeout rate every year since 2008. The league average strikeout rate was 21.6% last season. It was 16.4% back in 2005. Huge difference! Given the value of on-base percentage, these days we’re seeing more deep counts and long at-bats than ever before, and with each passing year, more and more of those long at-bats are ending without a ball being put in play. It can get dull, for sure.

In related news, ESPN recently mused that we’ll never see a .400 hitter again, citing a combination of evolving offensive philosophy and the variety and quality of pitchers a hitter faces. No worry, most general managers might say, since batting average doesn’t have quite the shine it did when Ted Williams put up a .406 in 1941.

Batting average, like pitching wins and RBIs, have largely become casualties of the analytically-focused Moneyball Revolution. Teams from markets of all sizes value players who turn in grinding at-bats and see a lot of pitches. (A great example of this is any nationally televised Yankees-Red Sox game.) Sometimes that means walks; sometimes it means strikeouts. Eventually, as the strategy goes, it means a pitcher makes a mistake and gives up a three-run homer.

It’s a strategy that, statistics say, helps a team win, even as batting averages dwindle. And the idea from the owner’s box was that winning sells tickets, and even if it doesn’t a few home runs will at least make things interesting.

Now look at this past offseason in baseball, which for many free agents is still going on. Owners understand that spending big on free agents is a crap shoot, even when the player turns out to be pretty good. Heck, teams that signed players to two of the biggest contracts in history, the Texas Rangers (Alex Rodriguez) and the Miami Marlins (Giancarlo Stanton) had to pay the Yankees to take those players as reigning MVPs. At the same time, watching how much interest teams like the Yankees, Astros, and Red Sox garnered from promoting young, home-grown players, owners might sense that fans will come out to the park for more than just a guaranteed winner. So no one is signing free agents because, frankly, they don’t need to.

Will this translate to other baseball decisions?

If a team builds around a contact-heavy lineup with a bit of power – think late-1990’s Yankees or early-2000s Seattle Mariners – that’s a) fun enough to watch that fans buy tickets and jerseys, and b) good enough to challenge for a postseason spot, might contact hitting make a comeback? Probably not, but possibly so. After all, who’d have thunk capable pitchers like Jake Arrieta and Alex Cobb would be unsigned at the start of spring training?

If teams start looking for an aggressive, hit-first philosophy it will happen because one team tries, it and enjoys success with it – in the standings, in the turnstiles, and in the television ratings. You might also find strikeouts going down and games getting quicker – even if they don’t get shorter.

 

 

 

 

 

Going for it

In any sport, the pivotal moments of a game can come long before the deciding play.

Super Bowl LII fit that description. The Philadelphia Eagles officially become NFL champions when New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady’s final pass fell incomplete. But the gutsy play calling by Eagles coach Doug Pederson early in the game put them in the position to win.

With 38 seconds left in the first half, and leading by three points, the Eagles faced fourth-and-goal from just inside the New England Patriots’ two-yard-line. The conventional call – going for an easy field goal – probably would have meant a six-point lead heading into halftime. Not too shabby, right?

If you didn’t see it live, you’ve surely seen the highlight by now (assuming you care about football): Pederson went for the touchdown – and with a trick play, to boot.

It worked.

It wasn’t the play itself which won the game, of course. It gave the Eagles a 22-12 halftime lead, but a crazy second half but Pederson’s willingness to gamble demonstrated the aggressive strategy the Eagles would deploy all the way to the final whistle.

Contrast this with the AFC championship game a couple weeks ago. With just under a minute left before halftime, New England had scored to pull within four points. On the other sideline, the Jacksonville Jaguars had just watched their “commanding” 14-3 tighten to 14-10. There were 55 seconds left in the half, the Jags had two timeouts, and a kicker with enough range to make a 54-yard field goal later in the game.

But instead of trying to answer New England’s touchdown and reclaim some momentum, Jacksonville simply ran out the clock, waving a white flag on the first half rather than risking a turnover. They ran into the locker room satisfied with a halftime lead – any halftime lead – against the defending champions (who had, incidentally, become champions by erasing a 25-point deficit in last year’s Super Bowl).

The Jags kicked two long field goals in the second half; otherwise, their predictable, conservative play calling lead to four punts. Predictably, the Patriots stormed back. The final score, 24-20, suggests that another field goal at the end of the first half wouldn’t have helped the Jaguars’ cause.

Sure, that math works out, but the bigger point is the strategic error: When they got an early lead, Jacksonville stopped playing to win and started playing to “not lose.”

And they lost.

Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots can be accused of many things, but neither satisfaction nor timidity is among them. Belichick called for a few trick plays of his own in Super Bowl LII. They didn’t work, but would that prevent him from calling those same plays in Super Bowl LIII? Doubtful.  If he had it to do over again, would he have told his defense to let the New York Giants score a go-ahead touchdown in the final minutes of Super Bowl XLVI to conserve more time for his offense? Probably. Belichick’s willingness to push the envelope has been a major factor in his well-documented success.

Pederson and the Eagles succeeded where the Jaguars failed by coaching the same way Belichick does: staying smartly aggressive. No wins a championship by running up a big lead and hoping the other team can’t catch up. That lesson transcends football, too. Sears pioneered direct-to-consumer sales; now the company circles the drain as Amazon experiments with innovative ways to give customers what they want. Instead of presenting an original vision for America, Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign slogan – “Stronger Together” – played off of the loud, often offensive rhetoric of her opponent. On the other side of the coin, note how much Coca-Cola spends on advertising and branding to remind you that their soda is more than just soda.

Like Rocky squaring off against Apollo, Doug Pederson stepped into the ring against Bill Belichick determined to give his maximum effort, win or lose. When he got into the flow of the game, he stayed true to that philosophy, especially when it meant taking a risk.

The risk paid off – and now, Doug Peterson may not have to pay for his own cheese steaks ever again.

 

 

Laugh about ESPN’s Robert Lee decision, but skip the outrage

Did you hear that ESPN has reassigned this weekend’s college football games because an announcer named Robert Lee was going to broadcast the University of Virginia game from Charlottesville, Va.?

Of course you have. It’s been reported everywhere. And ESPN has gotten plenty of internet grief for the decision today, ranging from mockery to outrage.

This is actually a pretty good decision by ESPN. Think about it: Would you want to walk through that town with the name Robert Lee right now? Nothing good can come of it.

And ESPN knows exactly what they would see on Saturday afternoon once Lee introduced himself on camera: Screenshots of the game announcers, their names highlighted on the chyron underneath, with snarky tweets and Instagram posts shared far and wide. Old pictures of General Robert E. Lee would be photoshopped into the announcers’ booth.

There would be another element, too: Instead of taking criticism for being overly cautious, they would catch hell for being insensitive.

Instead, ESPN moved him to another game. They apparently tried to do so quietly, though the decision was leaked – and the internet’s enthusiastic dog pile shows that yes, people will pay attention to announcing assignments. The current situation is the worst case scenario for the option ESPN chose. The alternative worst case scenario – Lee and the network being raked over the coals for latent racism and insensitivity – seems worse.

Given how horribly ESPN has whiffed on America’s move to streaming video so far, this represents a savvy understanding of modern media. (Way to make it to 2011, ESPN.)

But the outrage is unwarranted. ESPN probably didn’t hurt Lee in making this decision (and the current story out of Bristol is that the decision was mutual, anyway). It’s sort of funny, worth a little needling, maybe a late night monologue joke or two, and that’s it. ESPN shows its share of bias in its programming and reporting, but this is not an example.

Robert Lee becomes the big winner in this whole situation though: This weekend he goes to Pittsburgh (a great city with a real college football tradition) instead of being forced to watch three hours of a slap fight between Virginia and William and Mary over who gets to claim Thomas Jefferson for the next year. (Spoiler: No one cares.)

Come to think of it, this may be the first time someone named Robert Lee went to Pennsylvania and came out ahead.