Yesterday, ESPN’s Buster Olney listed nine improvements he would like to implement in major-league baseball. Olney touched on a number of hot topics, including the length of games and the ever-present debate surrounding home field advantage in the World Series. His list incited various levels of support and opposition, but I’m assuming that Olney endeavored less to craft an op-ed than to start a conversation. To that end, it was extremely successful. Many pundits and fans crafted their own list in response, and you can count me among those so inspired. Below, you’ll find the nine things I would change about the game if I had Rob Manfred’s power and enough time to bring my vision to baseball.*
*As a baseball fan, my interests and loyalties lie more with creating a watchable product than maximizing profits. I fully recognize that the preceding caveat turns this exercise into theoretical and unrealistic wishcasting, but why stop now?
1. Remove convenience fees on ticket purchases: We’ll start with something fan-friendly and self-explanatory. Currently, any time you want to buy tickets in advance, you have to order them from a team’s website, or a third-party service like StubHub. The third parties have their own set of baggage, but the team sites are a headache too. The biggest issue is that they charge a “convenience” fee for processing, regardless of whether you print your tickets at home, pick them up at will call, or download them onto your phone. As any fan knows, there’s no convenience associated with paying an extra $3 per ticket, particularly since the surcharge is unavoidable; it’s just a tax on buying tickets. If I was the commissioner, I would ensure that any fan buying a ticket online would only be paying the advertised price.
2. Eliminate barriers to ticket exchanging/re-selling: This isn’t an issue for much of the league, but anyone following the Yankees-Ticketmaster snafu can probably feel which way the winds are blowing. To summarize a long story, the Yankees have made it very difficult for fans to get into the stadium without buying their tickets on Ticketmaster; purchasers are no longer allowed to print their own tickets, which limits everyone’s ability to buy seats from friends, scalpers, or on a website like Craigslist or StubHub. While important looking people in suits will dress these decisions in fancy rhetoric laden with ridiculous phrases like “safer ticketing experience,” the reality is that these policies make it more difficult for fans to attend games affordably. It’s always unseemly when a multi-billion dollar industry squeezes every last cent out of its paying customers, and as commish I would put the kibosh on the practice before it spreads throughout the league. You should be allowed to download your tickets, sell them to friends or fellow Craigslisters, and pay less than face value for tickets to a game with thousands of available seats. Criminy.
3. Remove metal detectors from stadiums: There’s no evidence that metal detectors make attending a baseball game any safer. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence, however, that the long lines outside of metal detectors can make you late for first pitch. There’s also no history of people bringing weapons to ballgames with the intent to cause mayhem, and even if an enterprising terrorist saw fit to do so, the metal detector wouldn’t necessarily impede his plan; instead of bringing a weapon into the stadium, he could instead wreak havoc outside the gates, where he'd find scores of immobile fans helplessly stuck in line while they waited to march through a metal detector. Ultimately, metal detectors are security theater, and if we’re going to trade freedoms for enhanced security, the security should actually be enhanced, damn it.
With DRA, solving BABIP--and other reasons to be excited about what we're measuring.
As many of you know, we updated the formulation of Deserved Run Average (DRA) once again for the 2016 baseball season. We gave you the overview of the changes here, discussed the innards here, and talked about the new run-scaling mechanism here.
This last article deals with arguably the most important question of all: What, exactly, is DRA trying to tell you? And what does it mean?
Last year, DRA was focused on being a “better” RA9. After running one overall mixed model to create a value per plate appearance for each pitcher, we ran a second regression, using multi-adaptive regression splines (MARS), to model the last three years of relationships between all pitcher value rates and park-adjusted pitcher linear weights allowed. The predictions from this second regression took each season’s mixed model results, forced them back into a runs-allowed framework, and then converted PAs to IPs to get DRA.
This approach did succeed in putting DRA onto an RA9 scale, but in some ways it was less than ideal.
First, having moved one step forward with a mixed model, we arguably were taking a half step back by reintroducing the noisy statistics—raw linear weights and, effectively, RA9—that we were trying to get away from in the first place. The results were generally fine: Good pitchers did well, bad pitchers did poorly, and there were defensible reasons why DRA favored certain pitchers over others when it disagreed with other metrics. But, the fact that something works reasonably well is not, by itself, sufficient to continue doing it.
Second, this approach forced us to make DRA an entirely descriptive metric with limited predictive value, since its yardstick metric, RA9, is itself a descriptive metric with limited predictive value. This did allow DRA to “explain” about 70 percent of same-season run-scoring (in an r-squared sense), which was significantly more than FIP and other metrics, but also required that we refer readers instead to cFIP to measure pitcher skill and anticipated future production.
On Aristotle and the ethics of the trade deadline.
I’m in the middle of a move this week, and almost to the half-dreaded, half-anticipated moment where I unbox all of my books and get them back on their shelves. Unlike a lot of the staff at BP, my background is less in baseball and more in literature, so while I have the requisite classics—Cobb, Moneyball—on my shelves, much of my collection is literature, philosophy, and weird ephemera. And it was during the sorting of a lot of the ephemera of the ancient Greeks that I started thinking about the upcoming trade deadline. How, I wondered aloud likely to the shock and dismay of my cats and anyone else awake at 1:30 a.m., would the ancient Greeks judge the value of MLB trades?
It sounds like a silly question until you remember that the Greeks judged most everything on whether or not it was edifying and appropriate. While Gorgias, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Patrick Dubuque would all be quick to remind us that the Greeks had their weird side as well, the staid evaluative practicality of Aristotle looms over their philosophical tradition, particularly over the aesthetic side of things. Aristotle’s Poetics, for instance, takes a typically Platonic view of art, arguing that art’s value lies primarily in its ability to imitate life honestly. To narrow down what could be a seminar on early aesthetic theory: Plato exiled the poets from the Republic because of their ability to convincingly lie; Aristotle argues that only bad poets would do such a thing in the first place. Both philosophers agree on what makes art good and bad, but Plato would legislate art while Aristotle is content in judging its quality.
In a way, Plato’s position must have been pretty similar to the writers who had to deal with the Wild West of early baseball. The deadline itself was instituted in 1923 as a response to teams’ attempts to game competition by buying and selling players up until the World Series. And one can imagine that watching the New York Yankees and Giants buying up talent before World Series runs would make anyone hostile to the very idea of player mobility, even if one could still imagine a “good” or “bad” trade. But after the implementation and finessing of the modern trade deadline, coupled with the modernization of player salaries and contracts, the balance of trade has shifted to the point where judgment trumps legislation. No one is trading anyone of any moment without giving up something more fungible than cash, namely talent. Now the question isn’t “how do we stop all of this?” but “how do we know if the trade was good or bad?”
Let’s get this out of the way here: All trades are kind of bad for the minor-league talent moving. The fact that minor leaguers are attractive to teams because they’re affordable for many years, regardless of their talent, is a bit of a kick in the pants to any young player. Teams know they don’t have to pay you fairly for six years, and you can be moved from city to city without much if any warning. But that’s another column (maybe next week’s column!). And true, the veterans traded are often happy to move on to a team in contention, but there are many who would rather not leave and who haven’t earned the five and 10 rights that would let them choose to stay. So there are trades that are bad for all involved, regardless of fairness or agreeability.
For anyone who isn’t a minor leaguer or a frustrated veteran, though, trades have complex criteria for their quality. Fans, as we know, are bad analysts of trades, as they are too attached to their team’s prospects or overvalue their veterans: Every fan thinks its front office sold too low on their future stars or didn’t get enough for its star players. But outside of fan circles, (relatively) dispassionate observers are seemingly more concerned with something close to what Aristotle was: the imitation of expected reality. No one likes, say, when a Shelby Miller nets a huge package after a decent-but-not-elite season; and similarly people are perplexed when top prospects are sold low, as in the Mark Appel deal of last winter. Not that the teams were wrong to make these trades or simply blinkered, but that the fans did not see the trades as pleasing. They were wrong, dissonant or confounding.
And why? Well, I’d suggest it’s because they don’t look like trades we as fans would propose ourselves hypothetically. They seem unfair one way or another, or they seem otherwise unsuited to the players involved, at least as we as fans understand them and their value. What we want to see are deals like the recent Drew Pomeranz-for-Anderson Espinoza deal. We see a high-performing young starter with question marks traded for a high-upside, risky pitching prospect and we all kind of nod and say “That’s probably what I’d have asked for/what I’d have offered.” We can go back and forth about whether or not one team overpaid or underasked, but we don’t find the concept of the trade dissonant. It makes sense within the genre of the form.
Down the rabbit hole of just how good the fifth-best pitching prospect in baseball is, historically speaking.
There’s no more fun certainty on #BaseballTwitter than the certainty that exists about which prospects are going to be awesome. We’re all guilty of it at some point, myself included. It gets even worse when a fanbase brands a group of players together, like Generation K or the Killer B’s, so when one departs or fails, there’s an overwhelming sense of “hey you’re breaking up the band.” It starts earlier and earlier, with Boston’s “Big Four” the latest example. And with Anderson Espinoza heading across the country to meet up with the rest of his former Red Sox farmhands, there is now just a “Big Three.”
But rather than view Espinoza as the member of this future foursome who would transform the organization, let’s view him as part of a similarly arbitrary group to try to get a sense of the historical significance of what the Padres are getting and the Fightin’ Dombrowskis are losing. The right-handed fireballer was the fifth-best pitching prospect in baseball as of last week, when we released the mid-season top 50. And while some slight eligibility discrepancies exist between the mid-season list and The 101, they are mostly muted because the pitchers who have pitched fewer than 50 innings, but were in the majors at the time of publish, are both likely to lose their eligibility prior to the season’s end. So who have the fifth-best starting pitching prospects been in the 10 years we, at Baseball Prospectus, have been setting Top 101s ablaze into the ether? And how have they performed before hitting free agency? No, put your phone away.
2016: Tyler Glasnow (0.1 WARP; 4.05 DRA; all but one start left)
There’s almost nothing we can draw from Glasnow’s last six months that will leave us more or less confident about what he’ll be through the duration of his service time. So let’s just move on.
Diving deep into Jonah Keri's best-seller looking for secret messages from the future--or, at least, ominous foreshadowing.
You'll recall Jonah Keri's The Extra 2% as a peppy history of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays’ growth out of their gross adolescence and into their handsome manhood as the Rays, but it ends with an omen:
The idea behind the extra 2% -- finding ways to gain that little, but essential, edge on the competition -- will always exist, in baseball as in business. It just won’t always belong to the Tampa Bay Rays.
And then you close the book. No, wait. There’s an epilogue:
In search of reverse Lirianos in the batter's box.
In this article, I explained that batters are swinging at pitches outside the strike zone less frequently this year, reversing a fairly steady recent trend, and that this has particularly hurt pitchers whose strategy has been to pitch outside the zone, inducing weak contact. It’s also affected teams (notably the Pittsburgh Pirates) whose pitching staffs focus on getting batters to swing outside the strike zone.
So if pitchers who depend on inducing swings outside the zone are the victims of this shift, what kind of hitters are the beneficiaries?
In the earlier article, I listed the pitchers with the lowest Zone Rate (percentage of pitches in the strike zone) in 2015 and how they’ve fared this year. (Short answer: Worse.) Zone Rate might seem like a proxy for control, but it isn’t. Well, it might be for a pitcher called up for a couple weeks who can’t throw strikes, but pitchers who accumulate a lot of innings with a low Zone Rate are doing it strategically. They’re trying to get batters to chase pitches outside the strike zone. The leaders last season included Liriano, Dallas Keuchel, Jon Lester, and Felix Hernandez, good pitchers all. (At least they were last year.)
Money still buys success, but the league's payroll disparities appear to be shrinking. This is good.
Baseball fans are, I believe, somewhat self-conscious about the sport. Maybe that’s true of fans of every sport, but I don’t know about other sports, and I do know that when something monumental happens in one of those other sports, baseball fans are quick to use it to illustrate why baseball is (supposedly) supreme.
Something monumental happened in basketball last week, when Kevin Durant announced he was signing with the Golden State Warriors. This is a big deal, because the Golden State Warriors were extremely good this past year, winning the most regular season games ever and coming one game short of the championship, and because Kevin Durant is also extremely good, apparently one of the top three or so players in the game. This leads to a team that, on paper, is extremely, extremely good. (I don’t know anything about basketball.)
Basketball free agency is really different from baseball free agency, since basketball teams are limited in how much they can offer any single player. A number of teams made “max offers” to Durant, and tried to differentiate themselves from the others with various creative pitches. The Celtics crossed sports, and brought Tom Brady, a football player, to their meeting with Durant. He eventually chose the team that was staffed by tons of other incredibly talented players in the Warriors, whose pitch was probably something like “we win a lot already, and will win even more with you, and winning is super fun.” Good pitch!
We don’t have that kind of thing in baseball, with no caps on the salaries an individual player can make. Soft factors might still come into play sometimes—there were reports that some of the players the Cubs signed this offseason did so to play for Joe Maddon, and to try to break the Cubs’ championship drought—but teams can always offer more money, and that’s usually what drives the decision. So when Durant signed with the Warriors, in the baseball-centric milieu I reside in, I saw a lot of praising of baseball’s more egalitarian set-up. Players get paid, and while there’s a much larger gap between baseball’s rich and poor teams than basketball’s, the prevailing wisdom is that baseball is actually more fair. Poor teams can still win, and the elite players don’t flock together to form “super-teams” that might threaten the competitive integrity of the league.
That’s not exactly wrong, but it certainly leaves a lot out. Baseball might have a reputation for fairness, but its mostly due to the isolated successes of a few low-spending teams. It’s true, poor teams can succeed: from 2001 to 2015, about 25 percent of teams with the lowest, second-lowest, or third-lowest payroll in the league won 85 games or more, and about 15 percent won 90 games or more. The 2001 Athletics won 102 games, and had a payroll just slightly more than half of league average, the 29th lowest in the league that year. The 2008 Rays won 97 games with the 28th-lowest payroll, also about half of league average. Last year’s Pirates won 98 with the 24th-lowest payroll, at 72 percent of league average. It is clearly possible for poor teams to win. But I’d argue that for a league to be “fair,” it also has to be possible for the rich teams to lose, and that hasn’t really been the case in major-league baseball.
If an owner is willing to spend enough, he or she can basically guarantee a successful team. Over that same period, 2001–2015, there have been 14 teams with payrolls more than double the league average: the Yankees, every season from 2003–2013, and the Dodgers, from 2013–2015. They averaged a cool 95 wins each season, and broke the 100-win threshold three times. These super-rich teams win 100 games at nearly the same rate the teams with the three lowest salaries win 85 games. They never won fewer than 85 games, and only won less than 89 once.
Brian Kenny takes a victory lap for sabermetrics, but still treats the world as too simpleminded for it.
"If anyone would know how great I am and where I lie, let him surpass one of my works." -- inscription on the statue Ozymandias
In 1817, Percy Bysshe Shelly started his famous poem "Ozymandias," a reflection on the impermanence of dogma and its artifacts in the face of the withering golem of Time. About two centuries later, Brian Kenny began writing his own artifact, albeit one intended to strike a blow against dogma and advance novel baseball concepts. This book, "Ahead of The Curve," is neither novel nor non-dogmatic and had me wondering for whom, exactly, this book was intended.
The Pirates' struggles this year might have more to do with the entire rest of the league than Pittsburgh's pitchers themselves.
Francisco Liriano has been a Pittsburgh Pirates success story. Signed as a free agent for $1 million after compiling a 5.34 ERA, 4.29 FIP, and 4.02 DRA in 156 2/3 innings split between the Twins and White Sox in 2012, he became a hero in Travis Sawchik’s book about the 2013 Pirates and their embrace of analytics, Big Data Baseball. In Liriano’s case, the approach was to junk his four-seam fastball, focus on his sinking two-seam fastball, and generate a lot of groundballs for shifted Pirates infielders to gobble up. The success of this strategy was evident through last year:
Practice, practice, practice really might get you to Carnegie Hall, but probably not. What then?
While it’s rightly fallen out of the zeitgeist after this week’s traumatic and violent events, it was just last week that Major League Baseball attempted an end-around on the salary question for minor league players. Baseball Prospectus’ excellent Kate Morrison did a thorough savaging of MLB’s press release supporting the “Save America’s Pastime Act” and Samuel Mann has worked up a comprehensive account of the legal ramifications of the death of said bill, so I’m going to let those two articles deservedly do the heavy lifting on the topic in general. What I want to focus on in particular is one specific logical turn in the release that caused much of the anger we saw on Twitter and elsewhere, namely the designation of minor-league baseball player as “not a career, but a seasonal apprenticeship.” Essentially, I want to delve into the rhetorical and theoretical magic that allows MLB to transform 7,500 professional baseball players into 7,500 interns.
As Morrison notes in her piece and as I’ll echo off the top, this transformation is magic not in the “witchcraft and wizardry” sense, but in the “smoke and mirrors” sense. Seasonal apprenticeships rarely last 6-14 years, Morrison reminds us, and the rhetoric all over the MLB and MiLB websites is such that we’re encouraged to see these players as professionals, not amateur talent. And yet, there’s a bit of a semiotic dilemma for us now that MLB—essentially God in this scenario, thanks to some very generous antitrust loopholes—has spoken and redefined its employees. Make whatever argument you’d like about what players should be called or paid, ultimately MLB has a far bigger say here, so the rhetorical move is simply a blunt force object: We say they’re seasonal apprentices, so that’s what they are.
But what are the theoretical underpinnings that license the force of this shift? Why are professionals so much different than seasonal apprentices or interns? Ostensibly, shouldn’t an apprentice or an intern be aiming to get the same job as a professional? Isn’t the former just a step on the path to the latter as opposed to two entirely separate categories? Well, yes and no.
In order to understand how baseball can have it both ways—how MLB can have a hold on its minor-league employees as if they were full-time workers while also designating them as a much less fully employed category—we need to delve a bit into the concept of human capital. Human capital, which has had a bit of a brand resurgence thanks to Deray McKesson’s appointment as Interim Chief Human Capital Officer of Baltimore City Schools, is the idea that self-improvement is the great equalizer under capitalism. And it’s essentially been the prime mover of modern capitalism from at least 1978 to the present. Coined by University of Chicago economist Gary Becker, human capital reimagines the “means of production” so important for Adam Smith and Karl Marx’s conception of capital accumulation as part of an internal drive to self-improvement. So, one need not seize the means of production because—to paraphrase any number of famous moments in shlocky cinema—the means of production were inside you the whole time. Which also means that the product is, well, you.
Think about it this way: Within you is a bit of a factory, and that factory builds you a job. The bits of the factory that work to build you that job are all limited by what you’re given at birth. Maybe you’re smart but not very athletic. Maybe you’re smart and athletic, but you have a tough time relating to other people. Maybe you’re a totally balanced person with no real “standout” biological skill. You get the idea. From there, you build on this foundation by going to school, learning a trade, starting a hobby, writing a book—whatever you think will improve you as a person. And as you improve yourself immanently as person, you are also improving your hireability on the market, since the market wants people who have certain skills, qualities, and abilities. Essentially, your factory puts out what it gets in, and as you issue more effort toward building your human capital, the more profit it will realize for you.
Well, it’s a nice story anyway. Unfortunately, as many people—your fair author included—will tell you, merely improving yourself doesn’t always open up employment opportunities. Sometimes your PhD or your new skill or your ability to hit or throw a ball extremely hard gets you nothing in a highly competitive marketplace. None of this stops human capital from being a powerful ideological tool to convince people that outside education and self-improvement are more efficacious than a good union or worker protections, and I don’t totally blame people who buy into it. It’s very seductive to think that life is like a Super Nintendo RPG, where you can level up through hard, repetitive work until you get the best possible job you can. It’s why Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours-to-expertise theories are so popular, and why our schools insist children “learn” critical thinking, as if it’s a rubric point to check off. We want to live in a world where our best efforts yield consistent material results.
Let's spend some time looking slack-jawed at Chris Young's season.
Chris Young has always been an oddity. For one thing he’s an Ivy Leaguer in the major leagues. He’s also 6-foot-10, but Young was never a power pitcher and his average fastball hasn’t topped 89 mph in a decade. Not particularly durable and frequently on the disabled list, he’s nonetheless managed to pitch 12 seasons in the big leagues and is currently signed to a multi-year contract at age 37. For that entire career he’s been baseball’s most extreme flyball pitcher, posting an absurdly low groundball rate of 26 percent, yet Young’s homer rate is barely worse than average and his rate of homers per fly ball is one of the lowest around.
Or at least it was, until this season.
After more than a decade of mostly successfully walking a very thin line as a soft-tossing extreme flyball pitcher, Young has seen those soft-tossed flyballs leave the ballpark at an alarming rate. In his most recent start Tuesday night Young allowed four homers in 2 1/3 innings against the Blue Jays, which is only tied for his second-most homers allowed this year. He also surrendered four homers to the Indians on June 5 and served up five homers to the Yankees on May 9. Combined in those three starts Young allowed 13 homers in 9 2/3 innings. This year 25 pitchers have thrown at least 100 innings while allowing 13 or fewer homers. Last season Jake Arrieta allowed a total of 10 homers in his Cy Young-winning campaign, during which he logged 229 innings.