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.

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.

 

 

Embracing chaos

Matt Lewis likened President Donald Trump’s White House to the “Bronx Zoo” New York Yankees of the 1970s and 1980s, and there is a fair amount of merit in the comparison. By now, the hand-wringers so worried about the chaotic Trump Administration should understand: This is a feature, not a bug.

As President Trump prepares to  launch his policy agenda in a congressional address, don’t expect the chaos to dissipate. But, as I wrote in a post on LinkedIn, that represents a big opportunity for anyone laying groundwork for the 2018 elections – or, for that matter, future policy battles that come up before .

Sometimes the best trade is one you don’t make (Or, how the Yankees won the trade deadline)

The Yankees aren’t getting a ton of criticism for sitting out last week’s MLB trade deadline, but it was surprising to see this “winners and losers” post on ESPN that listed them among the losers of the deadline.

Looking at their roster, the Yankees actually did the right thing.

New York needed (and still need) starting pitching. Toronto needed pitching, and they got David Price. Kansas City needed pitching, they got Johnny Cueto. The Yankees declared their top prospects off limits, and got nothing (despite a late charge for Craig Kimbrel). Heck, even the Mets got a little better, right?

But look at those other teams.

Toronto hasn’t been in the postseason since Joe Carter touched home plate in 1993. They spent lots of money over the past couple of years building stacked, powerful rosters, but haven’t even sniffed the wild card. Their best players are at the age where they could decline quickly.

Kansas City, the textbook definition of a small market team, probably won’t be able to keep everyone on their team together for long due to financial constraints. They suffered 29 dark Octobers before dialing back the clock in 2014. They have a roster with that postseason experience under their belts. If they had either one or two more pieces or hadn’t run into Madison Bumgarner and the Giants in an even year, they could have pulled off a championship. They’re back on top of their division this year, but how long will it last once players start leaving?

The Mets are a little different. They’re coming off a long run where their owners were financially constrained, and now a restless fan base wants to at least see a playoff berth. But those other two teams are thinking World Series or bust.

And you know what? They are right to think that. Their windows are not wide, and may already be in the process of shutting, maybe for a decade or more.

Which brings us back to the Yankees. Their roster has performed well, this year. Everything has gone just right. But they were notoriously streaky in the first half.

Could you see the Yankees’ bats going cold and putting up six or seven runs – total – in a five-game playoff series? It’s more than conceivable, if that series happens in the wrong week, it’s likely.

Could you also see the current roster catching fire and putting up six or seven runs per game over a playoff series? And, if everything goes just right, making a World Series run on grit and the strength of their bullpen?

Brian Cashman probably saw those almost equally likely outcomes, too. If cold bats could sink your October so quickly, why trade any of the top four or five prospects – all of whom the Yankees feel are big league regulars who could contribute significantly as early as 2016 – for three months of Price or Cueto? If those young players work their way into the lineup alongside veterans over the next few seasons (while some of the more cumbersome contracts come off the books) the Yankees could find themselves at the beginning of a window, rather than at the end.

Truthfully, the Yankees’ deadline activity should have been called a draw. They probably couldn’t have made a deal that would have put them in an appreciably better position for 2015 – and they didn’t screw up 2016 or 2017 by trying.

The case against Ken Griffey Jr. (Or, there will never be a unanimous Hall of Famer, but that’s ok.)

After the Baseball Hall of Fame announced its 2015 class yesterday, some of the annual grousing about the results centered on winning vote totals. Arizona and Boston writers wondered why Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez were not unanimous selections. That echoes a 2013 Joe Posnanski article which claims at least 20 previous inductees should have been unanimous selections – the likes of Tom Seaver, Cal Ripken, and Willie Mays. Speculation about how close Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter will get is already underway.

Rivera and Jeter might get deservedly close, but neither will be unanimous. Neither will Ken Griffey Jr. when he reaches the ballot next year. The reason why is in the nature of the vote: Writers are asked to name up to ten former players who belong in the Hall of Fame. One player’s vote total versus another’s doesn’t matter – it’s not like only the top four vote-getters make the cut. Everyone named on 75% of the ballots gets in. Conceivably, there could be up to 12 or 13 inductees in any given year.

Look at the list of potential candidates next year. Griffey and Trevor Hoffman seems like slam dunks, and Mike Piazza looks likely. Jeff Bagwell and Tim Raines have gotten a good amount of buzz this year and may creep closer. Then there’s the steroid caucus – Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and a handful of others – who will get significant votes but probably not make the cut because of admitted or suspected PED use. Just below them are a group of players who were good but not no-doubt Hall of Famers. Each Fred McGriff, Curt Schilling, Mike Mussina, or Jim Edmonds will have their case made by writers who saw them play.

Let’s pretend we’re an elector. Our ballot has ten spots. We vote for Griffey, Hoffman, Piazza, Bagwell, and Raines. We think Bonds and Clemens would be in even without the steroid-fueled parts of their career, so we include them, along with Gary Sheffield and his 509 home runs. That’s eight spots taken, we have two more for McGriff, Schilling, Mussina. But wait! Billy Wagner’s 422 saves and Garrett Anderson’s 2,500 hits are still there, not to mention the old YouTube clips of Edmonds playing centerfield. (Seriously, compare this one to Matthew McConaughey’s grab in Angels in the Outfield. Sidebar: How loaded was the cast of Angles in the Outfield? You had Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Adrien Brody, and McConaughey in a movie where Danny Glover and Tony Danza get top billing. That’s pinch hitting Hemmerling for Mitchell.)

Assuming you believe strongly that at least 11 of the 14 players listed belong in the Hall of Fame, whom do you leave off? Remember the loaded ballot means any of those candidates could plummet below the 5% threshold and not get a second chance, so dropping the least worthy and waiting until next year may not be the best strategy.

The most rational candidate is Griffey. In future years, it would be Rivera, or Jeter.

Griffey will surely be named on almost every ballot, so one vote one way or the other wouldn’t make a difference in his election. But one vote could help some of those other, not-quite-sure-thing candidates stay on the ballot or build momentum for future years. If a writer seriously believes in ten candidates beyond the shoe-ins, he or she should absolutely vote this way.

In any election, blowouts reduce turnout. Knowing Griffey, Jeter, and Rivera will top 95% means writers holding the torch for lesser candidates have every reason to leave the no-brainers off their ballot.

Buck Showalter ended Derek Jeter’s career

Derek Jeter plays his last home game Thursday night, with his first major league manager, Buck Showalter, in the opposing dugout. Plenty of people will point out that Showalter was Jeter’s first big league manager back in 1995, but few appreciate how Showalter has helped run Jeter out of The Show.

Showalter took over the Orioles in 2010. After a down year in 2011, the 2012 Orioles gave the Yankees a run for their money in the final month of 2012. It took New York until the final game of the season to clinch the division. Joe Girardi had to pencil Jeter into the lineup every day, despite the fact that he was dealing with a bone bruise in his ankle. The Orioles pushed the Yankees for 162 games, then pushed them again in a thrilling, five-game ALDS.

It took New York167 games to finally get past Baltimore. In Game 168, Jeter’s ankle famously gave out:

[Yankees GM Brian] Cashman said that himself, Girardi, [trainer Steve] Donahue and Jeter’s former manager, Joe Torre, as well as Reggie Jackson and Tino Martinez were all in the room when Jeter heard he was done for the playoffs.

” ‘It’s something you can’t play through.’ That’s something Doc had to emphasize, because Derek is as tough as they come,” Cashman said.

(Sidebar: It took six people – including two Hall of Famers – plus a doctor, to tell Derek Jeter: “No, sorry, Derek, after getting dragged off the field in Game 1 because your leg snapped, you will not play in Game 2.”)

After a season of rehab and re-injuries, Jeter announced his retirement after one more season. It was bound to happen eventually, but the lengthy effort to get back on the field let him know it was time to go.

This year Orioles are going to have no worse than the second-best record in the American League, and can boast three straight winning seasons.

Those are the Orioles, by the way. That may not seem so odd now, but the team hadn’t posted a winning record since the days of Cal Ripken and Armando Benitez. Their last postseason team had a rotation fronted by Mike Mussina and Jimmy Key (before and after the Yankees had them, respectively) and also had Scott Kamieniecki as another starter. Don’t remember Scott Kamieniecki? Neither does anyone else. Camden Yards was perennially a second home field for Red Sox and Yankees fans, and the Orioles were usually kind enough hosts not to put up too much of a fight. They were a lost franchise stuck in a loop of mediocrity like Sidney Ponson at a buffet an hour after the lunch rush.

Then came Buck Showalter, who scuffled with Tony LaRussa in his first year as Yankee Manager and hasn’t lost his fighting spirit yet.  In inspiring that in his new team, he pushed his old team (and his old player) more than they had been pushed in some time.

In 1995, Showalter wrote out the first major league lineup card that included Derek Jeter’s name (a year earlier than the Yankees expected thanks to a rash of middle infield injuries). Twenty seasons later, Showalter had a big hand in hastening Jeter’s retirement.