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February 1, 2011

Changing Speeds

11 Random Wishes for 2011

by Ken Funck

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My local weather forecast is calling for somewhere between four and twenty inches of snow over the next few days — obviously the folks at Weather Central read Colin Wyers and remembered to display their error bars — but now that February is here, spring and baseball are just around the corner. Pitchers and catchers will be reporting in two weeks, and I’m counting down the days by preparing for my Strat league draft, and wondering if I should trust my home-grown formula that says playing Jack Cust in left field against right-handed starters is truly the right thing to do. The latest BP annual is set for publication this month, the PECOTAs are coming, and Joe Hamrahi’s invaluable Top Prospects Compilation is growing full. All will soon be right with the world.

Each year at this time, I start thinking about what I would like to see in the coming season. Like you, I want the usual things: my team to win (for once), tense pennant races, jaw-dropping individual performances, and baseball on the radio when I have long distances to drive. In addition to the norm, however, there are usually a few things I’m especially looking forward to, or dreading, or hopeful about for the coming season, and this year is no different. Below you can find my wishes for the upcoming season. I’d love to hear yours.

1. Continued labor peace. The current Collective Bargaining Agreement is set to expire on December 31, and both sides are gearing up for negotiations. The calamitous strike of 1994-95, which canceled the World Series, drove fans away, and may have caused teams to studiously ignore steroid use with the thought that increased scoring would boost attendance, left such a deep scar that both sides have been loath to risk another work stoppage.

Over time, that scar will eventually fade and both sides will again dare the sort of disastrous brinksmanship that alienates fans and leads to strikes and lockouts, just as greedy investors occasionally forget that markets can go both up and down, with disastrous consequences. Let’s hope (as seems likely) that the pain of the '90s is still fresh enough to remind both sides that a larger share of a small pie is worth less than a smaller share of a large pie. If I had a say in these things (and it’s probably a good thing that I don’t), I’d require the negotiators to meet in a room with a video screen showing a continual loop of protesting fans, half-empty stadiums, waifs in baseball caps weeping inconsolably, and Jose Canseco smiling and signing books. You can never be too sure.

2. Draft-pick trades. On the flip side, the new CBA is perfectly timed to allow a few tweaks to improve the game, such as allowing teams to trade their draft picks. The purpose of awarding draft picks in reverse order of record is, of course, to give the least successful teams a leg up on building themselves back into contention. However, as long as unsuccessful small-market teams feel the need to pass over more talented players for lesser players they’re sure they can sign, the draft is a far blunter instrument than it should be. Sure, it’s valid to question whether a team should ever pass over the best players due to signability concerns, but if you allow those teams to instead trade those picks for something they value as much or more, it becomes a moot point. Any mechanism that allows smart GMs to make trades that they feel help their teams, whether it involves moving up or down or out of a draft entirely, should be embraced.

3. No additional Wild Card teams. It seems a near certainty that the new CBA will also include the addition of a new wild-card slot in each league starting in 2012, but I’m hoping against hope that everyone will come to their senses. I’m on record as supporting the current system, not so much to keep additional teams in the playoff hunt longer, but to ensure that the second-best team in a league isn’t shut out entirely. An extra Wild Card round, however, further cheapens the regular season for little additional benefit, especially if the decision is made to go with a one-game Wild Card showdown, making the baseball playoffs start out with a whimper that’s disturbingly similar to the pointless NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament play-in game.

Adding more playoff games lengthens the season and ensures that the World Series gets played in ever-colder weather, when the league should instead be looking at ways to finish the season earlier in the fall, perhaps by reinstituting the occasional Sunday doubleheader. Have four doubleheader weekends a year, and get the beverage industry to sponsor them, with vendors only offering things like Pepsi Throwback and Schlitz. I’ll let you have that idea for free, Bud, so long as you send that extra Wild Card idea down the memory hole.

4. Expanded instant replay. I’ve written at length about this before, and there is virtually no downside to the idea of putting an umpire in a booth to review plays as they happen, and buzz the home-plate umpire when something needs a closer look. It won’t slow down the game, it will ensure egregious errors won’t cost some unfortunate team a playoff game, and most importantly, it won’t undermine the authority of umpires. Instead, it will increase it, and give them the safety net they deserve. How mainstream is this idea? I’ve heard Mitch Friggin’ Williams stumping for exactly this plan, so you have to think its time has come. The league is right to take time to study the issue and come up with the best solution (which I’m convinced I’ve just described), but if we don’t have expanded replay in time for 2012, this season will have been a major disappointment.

5. The Next Jose Bautista. If there’s one baseball storyline I absolutely love, it’s the veteran journeyman who suddenly breaks out a boom-stick on the rest of the league, with virtually no one expecting it. Last season it was the Jose-Bot launching 54 dingers in Toronto; in other seasons I’ve fallen hard for guys like Esteban Loaiza on the South Side and Mike Bielecki on the North Side of the Windy City. There’s something magical about watching long-suffering players having a career year, as if Dame Fortune has decided merely smiling on them isn’t enough, she also needs to wash and condition their hair, do their laundry, and make them a meal of chicken, waffles, and deep-fried ambrosia — and you can tell they know it. They’ll occasionally flash an unbelieving grin, hoping against that inevitable day when their long drives start dying again at the track, or their cutter starts catching too much of the plate. Who will it be this year? Maybe we should run a contest, asking people to predict the players that most outperform their PECOTA forecast or something like that. I’m open to suggestions.

6. Even better baseball analysis in the mainstream media. This is another topic I’ve beaten to death, but it continues to bother me how far behind the curve some of what passes for baseball analysis in the mainstream media actually is. That’s not to say progress isn’t being made — on the contrary, several years ago I wouldn’t have said “some”, I would have said “most.” The number of voices that are actively hostile to sabermetrics as a whole are growing ever fewer, while there are more and more instances of a Len Kasper or a Jon Sciambi tossing in an advanced metric while calling a game. There’s a long way to go, but the needle is moving in the right direction. Our sabermetric moon-mission should be to bring triple-slash stat displays to all the major network broadcasts by 2012, not because it is easy, but because it is hard — because that challenge is one we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone and one we intend to win.

7. Sabermetrics gets a seat on the panel. Similarly, I dream of seeing a leading saber-friendly analyst with a permanent seat at the big-boy panelist tables on MLB Network, ESPN, and FOX. Sure, it’s nice to hear a Peter Gammons or a Tom Verducci toss out a more nuanced take on the topic of the day than, say, Kevin Millar, but can you imagine how the entire tenor of the conversation would change if, say, Rob Neyer or Joe Sheehan were at that table every day? They’d be right there on set every day, microphone clipped to their lapel, poised to say all the things you wanted to say in response to some other panelist’s cringe-inducing evocation of Joe Carter as a run-producer, only doing it more eloquently than you could yourself. Sounds like heaven to me.

8. A breakthrough in keeping young pitchers healthy. Few things last season were as exciting as watching the arrival of Stephen Strasburg, and few things were as depressing as watching his quick departure from active action. Pitching is an unnatural act, and arm injuries will never be eliminated, but for all the work that’s been done tracking pitch counts and using other blunt instruments to keep young arms from being overburdened, we still lose way too many to surgery. Perhaps increased use of biomechanical analysis will lead to some breakthrough, or mining PitchF/X data will identify characteristics of fatigue that can be monitored and acted on. With so much money at stake, and so much data available, it’s hard to believe that more progress hasn’t been made. Perhaps this is the year.

9. More success for the long-suffering fan. Last season it was the Giants and Rangers slaying dragons and ending long droughts. This year, maybe it will be the Brewers winning a playoff series as a reward for Doug Melvin’s bold off-season moves. There’s nothing wrong with the Yankees or the Red Sox playing the Phillies for the title, but there’s something right about, say, the Reds playing the Orioles.

10. No more steroid talk. Seriously. I’ve reached the point where I can’t summon the will to care about who used what when, who’s lying and who’s telling the truth. The hypocrisy of both those who used and lied, and those who deliberately looked the other way and now accuse, has worn away my capacity for outrage. If only there were some chemical I could take which would help me overcome the fatigue I feel whenever I read the word “steroid.”

11. This. Not that I’m holding my breath.

Ken Funck is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ken's other articles. You can contact Ken by clicking here

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