One of the weird things about being a parent is that your kids will do things that will confuse you. I’m not talking about the things that confuse you and make you mad, like emptying an entire bottle of soap into the bathtub. Or things that confuse you and make you laugh, like a nonsense song or an accidentally urbane joke. No, they’ll do things that seem like weird glitches, odd actions that make you wonder when the next Child Patch is coming out to clean up the bugs. It’s these confusing moments that most occupy my reflections as a parent, and none more than the incessantly repeated action.
Parents are now nodding their head, but for non-parents, here’s what I mean. My daughter, Tilly, has started to get really invested in hide-and-seek. Not weird on its face, I know, but Tilly’s version of hide-and-seek is a little strange. She’ll hide in plain sight and loudly tell you to look around the room for her. Once you “find” her, she’ll usually jump out and yell and then hop back into her hiding place and ask you to find her again. Finding her this time means repeating your previous actions exactly, even up to the words you say before she jumps out. I know this sounds farfetched, but I have the phrase “I always check the modem when I can’t find someone” indelibly marked in my memory as proof.
Okay I hear you: my daughter likes to play a weird version of hide-and-seek and has quirky 2-year-old behavior. So—you’re asking—what? What could this possibly have to do with baseball or anything that would interest anyone outside of the most doting grandparent? Well, it’s in the explanation of why she does it that we find our hook. Apparently, repeated games—these sort of maddeningly scripted, exactly replicated games—are common in the development of toddlers, a sort of cognitive checkpoint in human growth.
Now, despite what you may have heard, I am not a brain scientist, so grains of salt all around. But as far as I can tell, the cognitive purpose of this repeated game is a sort of super charged version of object permanence. Object permanence is the funny trait we have as humans wherein we know that an apple does not disappear just because someone tucks it under the table. Or, in the case of infants, that mom or dad doesn’t disappear entirely when they put up their hands and say “peekaboo!” Believe it or not, this insight is actually something learned, not innate, and it’s something that has different levels of complexity. Object permanence, I’m suggesting, isn’t just about knowing that material objects have permanence, but also that social ones do as well.
So when Tilly plays hide-and-seek, she’s repeating the performance in an experimental effort to see how permanently the game exists in the world, testing its repetitive tension: Can I reproduce the exact conditions, and if so for how long? Put this way, I think you might be able to see how baseball comes into the picture, as the game is primarily focused on an extreme attempt to repeat the conditions of play: Every at bat has a fairly limited set of outcomes, even in a per-pitch basis. And especially when we get into recognizable pitches and situational pitching, we come to expect particular outcomes. Left-handers roll over on well-placed changeups; guys being pitched in the zone will usually swing over a wipeout slider; leaving a breaking ball up is a good way to get it crushed. For as weird and mercurial a game as baseball is, these scenarios proliferate in which we already know what should happen, and we expect that outcome to repeat itself.
So when it doesn’t, when a batter misses a fat meatball and hits it just foul or someone lays off the impossible slider to get a rally-starting walk, we get angry or thrilled depending on our particular rooting situation. These are the unexpected moments in baseball, and by their very nature, they’re of course interesting and evoke emotion—they’re special and usually memorable because they change games that really matter to a particular set of teams. But they’re also special because, within the fabric of baseball’s own object permanence, they aren’t ever meant to happen. We know that sliders are strikeout pitches, that hitters hit bad pitches, and that changeups are a quick out for lefties because if we didn’t know that, baseball itself would be a totally random proposition, an unchartable mish mash of outcomes that would frustrate even the most committed fan. So long as we know, know, that, say, Aroldis Chapman is meant to strike out the side, then we can contextualize how unlikely it is when that doesn’t happen.
There were plenty of reasons to dislike trade if you were, as I was, a Red Sox fan. Crisp was a relative unknown, Marte was a prospect stud, and I mean, why couldn’t the Sox just have resigned Johnny Damon? But my Mom found an even better reason to dislike the trade: David Riske’s name. What follows is a brief, reimagined rendition of the conversation that followed.
Mom: I don’t like this at all. They should’ve just resigned Damon. And you can’t use a reliever named Riske. That’s asking for trouble. Ben [extremely early-teensplainy voice]: That’s ridiculous! Riske was good last year! Mom: That’s not in the AL East, though. And still, his name is Riske.
In essence, at a very young age, my mother had warned me about the dangers of Reliever Name Foreshadowing, or, as I will refer to it henceforth, RNF. I’ve thought about RNF sporadically throughout the years, but was reminded of the valuable lessons it offers a few weeks ago, when I got the increasingly rare opportunity to watch most of a Red Sox game with my Mom.
Every night, 25ish Hall of Famers play baseball for us. How aware are we?
Bill James once wrote that, on average, there are approximately 25 future Hall of Fame players in the league in any given season. That number has fluctuated a bit throughout history, of course, and with 30 teams playing now, I’d take the over on that number today. Recently, I was thinking about which of the players from 2016 are going to be in the Hall someday, and I quickly realized that there are a lot fewer locks than I had previously imagined.
By my count, there are only five slam dunk, no doubt, no steroid concerns, could retire and plan a trip to Cooperstown players in the league right now: Albert Pujols, Ichiro, Adrian Beltre, Carlos Beltran, and Miguel Cabrera. You might say David Ortiz or Mike Trout and I wouldn’t disagree; I certainly think both of them will make it. But once it became clear that there are a whole lot less than 25 locks in the league, the next move was obvious: Find a buddy, draft two teams of superstars, put the results in a time capsule, and see (30 years down the line) who picked more Hall of Famers.
Fortunately, Meg Rowley was up for the challenge. Below, you’ll see the results of our draft. We used a simple snake draft method and went through 25 rounds. We figure that most of the players we took in the first 10 rounds will make it; we also imagine that we whiffed entirely on at least one guy. Ultimately though, the process revealed just how difficult it is to project which superstars will and won’t make the Hall of Fame.
Ironically, the ace we're about to talk about is quite possibly best known for being untalked about.
Appreciation is a skill worth practicing. While it’s better directed toward our spouses, children, friends—the parts of our life that actually matter—sometimes it is just easier to aim at baseball and its players. It’s possible now that we’re at Peak Written Baseball Content, with dozens of player profiles written each week by talented, insightful writers and smart, cutting analysts at every possible outlet. As a group of sport enthusiasts, we are in no short supply of words of appreciation directed at the game’s best, worst, and everything in between.
Despite this, sometimes there are players who seem to fall through the cracks for a moment in time. Even true seamheads can’t always focus on each of the 760-plus major-league players. Are you surprised to hear that Arizona’s Jean Segura has 5.0 WARP, only trailing Corey Seager and Daniel Murphy among all National League middle infielders? Does it shock you to see that D.J. LeMahieu has a .416 on-base percentage, a mark that’s third-best in baseball, only topped by Mike Trout and Joey Votto? Even after investing so much time and energy into this baseball season and its players, there are things that shock me and blind spots in my knowledge of the game.
Jose Quintana used to be one of those blind spots for me, and he has been for most of the past four years. He is, by my accounting, the quietest ace in the American League, and perhaps the least-appreciated pitcher in baseball. His skill and performance are undeniable, and currently he is the 12th-best pitcher in baseball according to Baseball Prospectus’s DRA-based WARP. That surpasses Rick Porcello and Johnny Cueto, Carlos Carrasco and Stephen Strasburg. He’s a pitcher who throws a lot of innings—reaching 200 or more in each of the past three seasons, and poised to surpass that number this year—but by rate stats he’s pretty great too. His DRA, ERA, FIP, and cFIP are all top-25 in baseball among starting pitchers.
To "fix" the postseason requires first deciding which story baseball is fundamentally trying to tell.
The playoffs are broken. They exist to crown a champion of Major League Baseball in a way we find satisfying and enjoyable, but they’re not living up to that relatively simple calling. One needs only to look at the last few years to see that it’s true: the wrong teams have been making the playoffs, and the wrong teams have been winning. And while we don’t yet know how 2016 will turn out, the playoff picture has almost totally resolved itself for all but a half-dozen or so teams, and it’s safe to say we can expect more of the same this October.
The playoffs are broken, but not irredeemably so. Baseball is a game that, to its benefit, is comfortable with rule changes and tweaks in the pursuit of improvement. It’s time for another, to fix the playoffs.
The best Septembers ever, when the best Septembers ever were required.
In this series, we’re looking at the 210 teams that won at least two thirds of the games they played in September and October. I divided them into three groups. In the first installment, I examined Group 1: They Were Gonna Win Anyway. They’re the 87 teams that were leading their league or division at the end of August, or were less than three games behind, and rode a hot September/October to the postseason. I also looked at Group 2: No Cigar, Often Close. That’s the 91 teams that that won two-thirds of their games starting September 1, but didn’t play beyond the regular season’s close. Now we’re at the really fun teams—those that were trailing by three or more games at the end of August but rallied to make the postseason.
Group 3: From the Depths of Hell
If you haven’t seen this video of a collegiate 4x400 relay, you really should, partly because it’s a thrilling race, but also to hear the announcers, one of whom makes a Tom Hamilton home run call seem sedate while the other at points seems to be channeling Fred Willard in Best in Show. So which major-league teams, like the anchor-leg runners, have used a sizzling final lap to come from behind and win their races?
There have been 32 teams that were in second place or lower, three or more games back, at the end of August, but won two-thirds or more of their September/October games to qualify for the postseason. Prior to divisional play, only eight clubs had managed the feat. From 1969-1994, the two-division era, six teams did it. Since 1995, 18 teams have done it. However, of those 18, 14 were within three games of the wild card as of August 31. So there are only 18 teams since 1913 that have trailed a postseason berth by three or more games as of the start of September but got to play into October via a blistering finishing kick. Here they are, ranked by the deficit they overcame in ascending order:
The first All-Star Game was in 1933. Ever since, the Midsummer Classic has provided a convenient, if mathematically inaccurate, way of dividing the baseball season into halves. The first “half” has comprised, over the last 10 years, an average of 90 games. The remaining 72 games of the schedule make up the second “half.” I’ll dispense with the quotation marks here, but keep in mind this is a figurative, not literal, half.
This year, the All-Star Game was a little earlier than average, so the first half was a little shorter than average, with the 30 clubs playing between 87 (Baltimore, Boston, and Milwaukee) and 91 (Dodgers, Toronto) games, with an average of 89. Through Labor Day, teams had played an average of 48 games in the second half, with an average of 25 games to go.
And wouldn’t you know it, we’re seeing something that we’ve never seen before.
With the last month of the season comes an opportunity to indulge in Pointless Baseball, for all it's worth
Tonight, after a week in which I grappled with whether I might take a mulligan or write a scintillating piece on, like, what Tim Tebow means for the ontology of MLB, I found myself listening to a Phillies-Braves broadcast in the car. There are pointless baseball games, and then there are Pointless Baseball Games. A spring training game is the lowercase version of a pointless baseball game: the record doesn’t really count, the performances are questionably reliable, and the overall product is informative but probably misleading at best for an analyst or a fan. An early-September game in which a team that is 10 games out of the wild card race hosts a team that is 19.5 games out is the capital-letter version of a Pointless Baseball Game—there is nothing to gain or lose. You can’t even be mislead.
Now, of course, on a practical level there are certain things that these late-season games provide. They provide audition grounds for promising and even not-so-promising prospects who might be vying for jobs with the big-league club come March. They give managers and veteran players alike a shot at auditioning for jobs they might have to fight for over the offseason. And they determine seeding for the bottom dwellers of the league (when those same bottom dwellers aren’t playing spoiler). There’s certainly quite a lot of use for Pointless Baseball.
But what Pointless Baseball does not provide very well is any incentive for fans to tune in, at least on its face. The games drag on, hurt by the fact that they mean almost nothing, and generally killed by the fact that there is something nicer to do outside in the waning days of summer and the early onset of crisp fall. Any incentive to watching a 6-4 game that largely stars Jeremy Hellickson—just to pick a random for instance—is shot down once the viewer realizes “oh, hey, my team has zero chance of capitalizing on a win here.” Bereft of the systemic drama of the playoff race, we tune out until the Rule 4 draft.
Well, except in two situations (three if you count people who blog about baseball and desire nothing more than to punish themselves by watching September games and thinking seriously about them). The car is the first situation in which you might listen to the game, as there’s rarely anything more peaceful than hearing a baseball game over a middling car stereo with the windows down on a warm summer night. The second situation is the only thing that gives the car a run for its money in terms of pure, uncut baseball emotion: a trip to the ballpark.
Because while TV ratings tend to drop precipitously as teams reach the point of no return on their season, there’s no reason to think that the quality of the team need be a death knell for in-park attendance. While attendance varies from team to team and, more importantly, from market to market, it’s not uncommon to see teams that are well out of the race fill a park on a nice afternoon or evening. And as parks become more and more attuned to the total experience of their fans, providing them with jumbotrons, specialized park food, craft beer, et al, the in-person experience becomes more and more detached from the product on the field.
While it might seem that the last thing teams in MLB would want to do is divorce their stadia from the products housed in them, I think that actually, they’d probably be pretty happy about it, all things considered. Because while tickets sell themselves during playoff runs, the only salable point that teams have during slumps, losing streaks, and abysmal rebuilds is the park and the experience of live baseball. And as you’re probably recalling right now, a good chunk of that experience has little or nothing to do with the game on the field itself. Drinking beers, telling stories with your friends, playing jumbotron race games, figuring out if you’ll eat at the park or after the game—these are often the elements of a day out at a baseball game that stick with a spectator more than the box score. And if those elements can be divorced from the product on the field entirely, then there’s a true draw to late season Pointless Baseball, namely the venue itself.
A few years ago, it was common wisdom that teams were overvaluing their prospects. There's more to it than that.
As front offices have evolved, there’s been a growing perception that they are valuing prospects more and more. Research has shown, for instance, that front offices are bolstering their scouting departments to find top prospects and make sure they don’t miss on the next big star. But a number of people have also asked whether teams are overvaluing these prospects.
Rany Jazayerli has argued that in the past teams were able to “plunder” prospects away for far less than they can today. Jazayerli credits teams for being savvier nowadays, making it harder to swipe a top-ranked prospect in a trade. Jazayerli, however, suggests that the blowback on some of these trades has made teams overvalue their prospects, especially after the Mark Teixeira deal in 2007. “The blowback from the Teixeira trade seems to have made teams even more conservative about trading prospects, even for elite major league talent. As a result, for perhaps the first time in baseball history, minor league prospects seem to be overvalued by MLB front offices.”
To answer this, I selected every team from 1913 through 2015 that won at least two-thirds of their games in September (and, where appropriate, October.) I used two-thirds as my cutoff…well, because. That’s a pretty good month! It equates to a 108-54 season.
If you’ve read any of my columns thus far, you probably could see this one coming. Tommy La Stella, erstwhile OBP machine second-base fantasy sleeper for the Atlanta Braves and current Iowa Cub, has been one of the most fascinating baseball stories this year—well, at least for someone like me who likes to think about labor and contracts and the ugly side of baseball.
The short version is that La Stella, despite putting together a pretty solid year as a utility/spot start guy, got sent down to the minors after the Cubs acquired Once, Future, Past, and Present Cub Chris Coghlan. Understandably frustrated, La Stella made the unexpected move to, well, not report. He did not show up in Des Moines and held out in his home of New Jersey. Held out might be the wrong word here, as La Stella does not have the leverage that an NFL player like Joey Bosa does in his current holdout or like a young top draft pick like Jacob Groome did in this year’s Rule 4 draft. La Stella didn’t make any dramatic demands or pleas of unfairness; he just decided to take some time to think about what he wanted from his future.
Unsurprisingly, the minds at Baseball Prospectus Wrigleyville have had some wonderful takes on the situation. Twitter pal and good writer Tom Hitchner produced a piece near and dear to my heart that tied film analysis to the La Stella situation in an effort to talk about anticlimax in baseball. And Ken Schultz put together a lovely piece explaining the ways in which La Stella’s holdout was not what it might seem, and that a young player might actually deserve time to get his head together.
And it’s times like this that I’m grateful to my colleagues for being such good people. Baseball Prospectus, despite its beep bop boop computers reputation, gets that people, who are sometimes flawed and complex, play the game. In the mainstream press, La Stella has not fared so well. Most notorious is the piece that Schultz critiques in his BP Wrigleyville essay, a fairly brutal polemic against La Stella by Paul Sullivan of the Chicago Tribune.
I don’t want to give my editors conniptions by spending an entire article getting furious at another reporter, so let me give the very quick blow-by-blow of what I find problematic about Sullivan’s piece. First he opens with a fairly hamfisted Carlos Zambrano comparison that smacks of typical Anti-Latino sentiment in major-league baseball writing. Second, the piece refuses to believe La Stella’s own explanation of his behavior, casting not-so-subtle aspersions on his claim that his refusal to report to Iowa was not about being demoted. But third, and worst of all to this leftist’s mind, he sides with management. A longish quote:
Baseball's move beyond seat-of-your-pants, gut-feel baserunning is good for winning and good for Vince Coleman's records.
In this article, I talked about Vince Coleman who stole 326 bases in his first three years in the majors, eclipsing 100 every season, and opined that Billy Hamilton is a similarly devastating basestealer in a more boring era. I calculated that if Hamilton had been used in 2014-2016 the way Coleman was in 1985-1987, he’d have 244 stolen bases since the start of 2014 rather than his present 166. That breaks down to 87 in 2014, 89 in 2015, and 68 so far in 2016. We’d be talking about one of the greatest basestealers in baseball history rather than a guy who’s just really fast. Why aren’t we? Why aren’t the Reds deploying Hamilton the way the Cardinals deployed Coleman three decades ago?
Well, it’s not the Reds. It’s baseball.
It’s not just that Hamilton gets (justifiably) marked down for his low OBP (.296 so far in his career, .294 since 2014) in a way Coleman never did. Here’s a chart of stolen base attempts per team per year from 1951 to 2016. I’ve normalized all the figures to assume a 162-game season, to put the pre-expansion 154-game seasons, the strike years, and the ongoing 2016 season on equal footing.