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.

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

American League East teams explained as members of Genesis

Are you new to the American League East? You picked a great time to start paying attention: Over the past two seasons, each of the five teams has been in contention for the division lead.

But learning the historical context for each of these franchises within the division can be daunting. To make it easier, you can think of the AL East teams in terms that every American schoolchild knows: the members of the British rock band Genesis.

Yankees: Phil Collins (vocals, drums) – The Yankees have been consistently successful over the years, to the point where they inspire hatred. Some criticize them as overly corporate and formulaic. Many hate to admit it, but the entire division is most successful (and really most interesting) when the Yankees are performing at a high level. October nights are made for Yankee Stadium.

Red Sox: Peter Gabriel (vocals, flute, fox-with-a-dress costume) – The Sox used to be the face of the division in the decades before selling off Babe Ruth. Since then, they have their moments of greatness. They are content (and quite successful) doing their own thing.

Orioles: Tony Banks (keyboards, backing vocals)Since the Earl Weaver days, the Orioles’ success has usually been built on strong fundamentals. Other teams usually spring to mind when you think of the AL East, but when Baltimore is strong, the division is deep and competitive. Even if they aren’t in the thick of the pennant race, the O’s usually have enough talent to have a hand in the division race.

Rays: Mike Rutherford (guitars) – Tamba Bay gets overlooked, but (like the Orioles) they tend to have a hand in the division outcome, even when they aren’t at the top of the standings. They could win the division someday, all they need is a miracle.

Blue Jays: Steve Hackett – They were out of it for so long you almost forgot they were even in the division. But they occasionally pop back up and it’s just like old times.

Tigers: Anthony Phillips (original guitarist) – Hey, remember when they were in this division? Right at the beginning, after the re-alignment in 1995 but before the 1998 expansion. They were even in first place for a bit that year. They’ve had a pretty nice run since leaving the division, probably better than they would have fared if they had stayed.

Mets and Nationals: Daryl Stuermer (concert guitars) and Chester Thompson (concert drums)  – The Mets and Nats aren’t in the division, but thanks to annual interleague geographic rivalries you still see them every year.

 

 

The flawed Hall of Fame ballot

Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Piazza are going in to the Hall of Fame. Both clearly belong, and Griffey was almost unanimous.

Almost.

Now, predictably, there are some demanding explanations from the three voters who left Griffey off. MLB.com’s Phil Rogers believes they owe fans an explanation:

What were you possibly thinking when you left Ken Griffey Jr. off your Hall of Fame ballot? How can you possibly justify turning a cold shoulder on a center fielder who won 10 straight Gold Glove Awards, hit 630 home runs and was the face of his generation?

First off, this isn’t how democracy works. Votes are kept secret at the discretion of the voter for a reason: to allow for unpopular opinions.

Second, let’s not pretend like this is an election for something really important. Baseball is entertainment. It’s interesting. It’s fun to follow and talk about. But we aren’t discussing what to do about ISIS here.

Third, this process really isn’t how democracy works. The voters (who, incidentally, are baseball reporters and not players, managers, or front office members) get ten votes, which they can use on anyone within the pool of eligible players. It isn’t a straight up-and-down vote on each career, but a selection of the ten most worthy from an arbitrary pool.

Rogers and others acknowledge the concept of a “strategic vote” – the idea that, with Griffey a likely lock to get 75% of the vote, a few writers could hedge their bets and vote for someone else if they felt strongly for them. One year ago, I made a case for doing just that. At ESPN, Jayson Stark wrote about leaving Mike Mussina off the ballot because he only had 10 spots to work with. Stark felt Mussina was deserving, but couldn’t vote for him. Kevin Davidoff of the New York said Tim Raines was his eleventh choice.  Raines fell 23 votes short, which makes you wonder how many eleventh votes he would have gotten.

The point is not that the three voters who skipped Griffey have a compelling case for keeping him out of the Hall of Fame, but that the voting system doesn’t do what it was intended to do – which is provide a referendum on each player’s career.

 

 

 

English, career advancement, and Jose Abreu

The idea that immigrants should learn English is easy to dismiss as a quasi-racist attempt to expunge foreign cultures from America. The pro-English crowd doesn’t do itself a whole ton of favors, either, even as Americans largely support the position.

Jose Abreu of the Chicago White Sox gets it. While some of his less-accomplished teammates might try to work on their baseball mechanics in the Arizona Fall League once the baseball season is over, Abreu wants to learn English:

“That’s my goal. I want to be a leader and I know that for that, I have to learn the language,” Abreu said through an interpreter Tuesday. “And that’s my focus for this offseason. It’s one of the things that I have on my list. I know if I can learn a little bit more of the language, I can express myself in a better way with my teammates and my coaches. It’s going to help our relationship.”

He’s already a great player, but Abreu wants more – and he understands that means understanding the country’s dominant language. That’s especially wise considering Abreu makes north of $11 million a year and is one of the up-and-coming stars of baseball, a sport which employs a high percentage of Spanish speakers as players, coaches, and managers. Abreu isn’t at a place in life where he needs to learn other people’s languages.

Yet, when Chicago’s 2015 season ends, Abreu plans to do just that – so that he can move beyond being an excellent player and become an excellent teammate as well. And when Abreu’s bat slows and his legs get achy and heavy with age, he won’t want for opportunities to stay in the game – whether as an announcer or in coaching, managing, or the front office.

Public services which cater to Spanish speakers without asking them to learn English promote the status quo. For Abreu, maybe the status quo is earning “only” $11 million annually, rather than getting a sweet franchise cornerstone-type of paycheck in the $20 million range. What about the status quo for a recent immigrant struggling to earn enough to support a family?

With his still-giant paycheck and an offseason’s worth of time to spend, Abreu has the means to take this initiative. It’s worth wondering who else might jump at a chance like this – and whether our public services do enough to nurture it.

Break up the Nats!

Joel Sherman, baseball columnist for Our Nation’s Newspaper of Record, chronicles the now-systematic underachievement the Washington Nationals have suffered over the past four years:

  • The 2012 Nats won 98 games, won their division, and seemed destined for a run of excellence despite losing a hard-fought first-round series to the St. Louis Cardinals.
  • In 2013, the record fell to 86-76, 10 games behind Atlanta for the division and four out of the second wild card spot.
  • The Nats were back on top of the division 2014, with 96 wins and a roster finally coming into its own – until their bats went cold in the first round of the playoffs and San Francisco beat them in four games.

It’s 2015, and the Nats are in second place again, seemingly stuck in neutral (and under .500) despite big years from Bryce Harper and Max Scherzer. Like a Member of Congress in a safe district, the Nats appear to excel in even-numbered years and coast in between. Sherman correctly warns that without a second-half surge, they are in danger of losing the division to an underwhelming Mets team and becoming the “best team that never was.”

The manager and general manager are on the hot seat, but the house cleaning may have to include players as well. The only thing worse than being a bad team is being a mediocre team – where the limited successes come just frequently enough to avoid the big shake-ups. If they are serious about winning a championship, it’s time for the Nationals to stop tweaking and start looking at turning over their roster.