The commissioner's lasting legacy isn't randomness and meaningless. It's a more fair world.
For all the excitement of this postseason’s individual games, there is a fairly common sentiment out there that something sucks about a system so random that sub-par teams get to fluke their way to the World Series, thus stripping the season of its power to make sure the best teams are rewarded. Why play a long season and then reduce the championship to coin flips? Why continually expand postseason until every champ resembles Chris Moneymaker? Zachary Levine foretold this postseason in his epitaph for Bud Selig, written in August:
Andrew Friedman might be the most revered executive in the game--Billy Beane included--and the richest team in baseball just hired him.
On the one hand, Andrew Friedman is one of the only executives with a book written about him—or, at least, a book read by more than the author’s closest friends and relatives. On that hand, he runs a team that, when it succeeds, is largely credited to his genius (and the genius of his front office). On that hand, his Rays have been experimental and at the vanguard of various “trends”—at various times shifting, locking up pre-arb players ever earlier, building around defense, resisting multi-year contracts to relievers, or giving what figuratively seem like literally millions of at-bats to Jose Molina—that have become routine, even over-fished, around the league years later. We tend to see his Rays as the first clinical trial for the strategies that will soon be ubiquitous, so we pay a ton of attention to him. Because of all this, we know a lot about Andrew Friedman, who the Dodgers just poached to be president of baseball operations.
On the other, he has run perhaps the most opaque organization in the game. I once heard about a former Rays intern who was applying for another job. Standard industry practice in this situation is to pump the applicant for information about what his old team was doing, the research, the secrets. Heck, some of the time this fact-finding might be the only reason the interview is even taking place. But this intern wouldn’t budge. Again and again, he told the team that he was interviewing with, the team he was trying to impress, that, well, shoot, he’d love to, but he just couldn’t, not with his non-disclosure agreement, not when we’re talking about the Rays. The Rays were a black box. Their local media, for the most part, never got the Rays, and the Rays never gave them much to get. We know, in some ways, very little about Andrew Friedman.
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What to watch for in this postseason? Things three standard deviations away from the mean, obviously.
There’s a toy over at Brooks Baseball—well, he probably wouldn’t call it a toy, but I use it as a toy—that I just love. For each pitch thrown by each pitcher, it assigns a “scouting scale” number for certain characteristics and results: velocity, movement, release point, whiff rate, groundball rate, etc. As you know, on the 20-80 scouting scale, 50 is average and each standard deviation represents 10 points up or down the scale. For instance, Aroldis Chapman’s average fastball velocity is a bit more than three standard deviations from the average left-hander's, so, per Brooks, his fastball velocity is assigned an 84 (lol) on the scouting scale. Dallas Keuchel’s groundball rate on his sinker is nearly three standard deviations higher than the typical lefty sinkerl in that specific aspect, it gets a 79. It’s a toy, of course, because that’s not to say Keuchel’s sinker is an 80 pitch, or that a scout would put an 80 on it, or that you should put an 80 on it; it’s just that, statistically, in this one aspect of it, compared to other pitchers, in the period of time surveyed, his was thatfar from normal.
What the back of the Padres' team leader card will tell us about the Padres, baseball, and team leader cards.
I remember the 1987 Cardinals team-leader card, where on the back it said the most home runs hit by any Cardinal the previous season was 13, by Andy Van Slyke. That was absurd, and it was so absurd that I had to explore further, and upon further exploration I learned my first lesson in team building: The Cardinals, with that artificial turf, were built for speed. They stole 262 bases. They didn't need to hit home runs, except inasmuch as they finished with the fewest runs scored in the National League and a .600 OPS. That was a fun team-leader card. It was an educational team-leader card.
Next year's Padres team-leader card is not going to be as fun. It'll be dispiriting, it'll be disorienting, and if it teaches you anything it'll be how to spell "Gyorko." But there is fun to be had with it, and this is the Fun Fact portion of this post:
Right in your neighborhood, there is a team operating on the periphery of professional baseball.
In early August, an independent league team called the San Rafael Pacifics played a team from nearby Pittsburg, California, called the Mettle. The last-place Mettle are owned and coached by former big leaguer Wayne Franklin, who (at age 40) is also the team’s ace starter, sort of—he leads the league in innings pitched, by far, yet has the second worst ERA. (He rarely takes himself out. In his last start, he allowed 11 runs in a complete game.) In left field for the Pacifics was Eric Byrnes, the Eric Byrnes, out of retirement for two games to raise money for charity. Byrnes’ bat was slow and he had become a two-true-outcomes hitter, walks and strikeouts, but he sprinted all over the outfield, wandering far into F-8 territory because every ball he caught sent $500 to a veterans group. It all sounds like a lark, but anchoring the whole thing to reality was an honest pennant race.
Teams need fast guys in September. Here's who the contenders should use.
Last year, the best/my favorite transaction of the season came in late August: “Tampa Bay Rays signed free agent CF Freddy Guzman to a minor league contract.” Guzman was 32, had most recently appeared in the majors in 2009, had a career OPS+ of 42, and was at the time playing in Mexico, where his teammates included Esteban Loaiza (41 years old), Ruben Rivera (39) and Ruben Mateo (35). I liked this move so much that Ben Lindbergh and I devoted an entire podcast episode to it.