Modern baseball is smarter, which isn't always as fun.
At this year’s Saberseminar, I was out for dinner and one of the people in our group asked what contemporary player we think we could tell our grandchildren, “I saw him play.” Mike Trout was a gimme, but we had a hard time coming up with someone else. My thought was that Billy Hamilton would be such a player, but he was born about 30 years too late.
I know, Billy Hamilton is not a great player. He’s having his best season, and his career on-base percentage is still below .300. And it’s not like he compensates with power: Of the 172 players with 1,200 or more plate appearances from 2014-2016, his .088 ISO ranks 164th. He does play a good center field, but he’s got a .236 career TAv. That’s a lot of bad bat to carry with a glove.
But he can run. Man, can he run. Through games of August 16, when he was sidelined by a knee contusion, he has 29 stolen bases. Since the All-Star break. The only players, other than Hamilton, with that more swipes all year to that point were Jonathan Villar, Starling Marte, and Rajai Davis. And that doesn’t include plays like this:
Despite the obvious strategic benefits, teams never tactically surrender. Why that should give you faith in the game.
The first season of the Toronto Blue Jays’ existence was 1977. It didn’t go particularly well, as is true of most first seasons, and they began play on September 15 with a 48–96 record. Baltimore was their opponent that evening, owners of an 87–58 record, second-best in the American League. The Orioles had won seven straight games and 15 of their previous 18, and were looking to narrow the gap between themselves and New York in the pennant race and leave Canada with a four-game sweep of the Blue Jays behind them.
By the third inning of that night’s game, a steady drizzle had begun to fall over Exhibition Stadium. The temperature that day was in the 50s, so drizzle probably wasn’t the end of the world, but Exhibition was not a pleasant place to play. Originally built for football, the Blue Jays would spend their first 12 years in the park as it became renowned for dismal seating, bad weather, and seagulls. On this day, however, Exhibition’s important feature was its on-field bullpens, squeezed tightly into the sparse foul territory of the oddly shaped stadium’s outfield.
As the rain continued, the grounds crew placed tarps over the bullpen mounds, and weighed them down with bricks. Presumably, this had happened before, but perhaps never against the Orioles, and more importantly, never against Earl Weaver. The famously combative Hall of Famer was in the 10th year of his hugely successful tenure as manager of the Orioles, and he protested the deployment of the tarps vociferously, citing the risk of slipping and injury to his players. Crew chief Marty Springstead ordered the removal of the bricks, but wouldn’t order the tarps removed or declare them out of play, as Weaver wanted. In response, the Baltimore manager removed his players from the field, and refused to have them return while the tarps remained. As a result, midway through the fifth inning, with the Blue Jays leading 4–0, Weaver’s Orioles performed the first, last, and, to date, only voluntary forfeit since integration.
You can't predict baseball, Suzyn, yet baseball's allure is its fundamental predictability.
There is something about hometown radio broadcasts that can captivate even during the most boring games or amid the worst seasons. Simply hearing the same cadences that you’ve heard hundreds of times before, or rehashes on the same jokes again and again, can bring a sense of calm or stability to a short trip in the car. At least, that’s how it is for me, and based on the hagiography of voice that stands as a backbone to baseball’s popularity, I’m not alone: Harry Kalas, Bob Uecker, Jack Buck, Vin Scully—the list of baseball men alive or dead who have been the je ne sais quoi of their team goes on. Add in the crackly static of a fickle AM broadcast, and you have quite the stew going.
What I’ve always thought is that the mix of warm feelings and familiarity was a product of memory, and that the tricky catch of aural recall mixed with the distinct feeling of a summer evening produced a powerful trick of the senses. Listening to the game, in other words, isn’t the perfect experience we think it is, it’s the memories that go along with it that trigger our euphoric calm. But I’m less and less convinced that it’s anything as simple as that.
One of the things I wrote about in my very first column here at Baseball Prospectus was the issue of fun in baseball. Whether or not baseball is “fun” in the way that, say, football is “fun” is part of a debate that refuses to die. Some people will tell you baseball isn’t fun at all, while others will tell you it’s boring to watch on TV but fun at the park. And many, many people will profess the beauty of a game on the radio during a day at the beach or while grilling up food for a twilight picnic in late July. But many more will be more than happy to detail exactly what they dislike about baseball in general: it’s too slow-paced; the mound visits make the thing so boring; the athletes don’t look like they’re in shape; steroids; etc., etc. It’s just that all that irritation about the game and its various flaws and foibles goes away when we hear the familiar voices that go along with it.
So why would that be? More and more I’m convinced that it’s because much of the general enjoyment of baseball—much of what makes it “fun” for an average, non-fanatical or BPro-subscribing viewer—is its predictability. If this seems counter-intuitive, I get it. A lot of what is most fun about baseball on the surface is its unpredictability, its intensification of football’s iconic “Any Given Sunday” mentality in which any given team might beat any other given team given a best of five series. The 2011 Phillies taught us that you can’t stack enough pitchers up to clinch a five-game series on merit alone, and the 2001 Mariners taught us that you can’t brute force your way to a World Series (sorry to the 2016 Cubs). And that kind of variance is fascinating as much as it is heartbreaking and frustrating, so to say that the bedrock appeal of the game lies in the totally opposite direction is, on its face, a bit perplexing.
But the appeal of a single game of baseball is different than the appeal of the sport entire. And for most people, the 162-game season deeply discourages acute attention to individual games. As my colleague and diehard Yankees fan Mary Hale loves to tell me, the season doesn’t even start until the playoffs. Her ability to get under my skin with this notwithstanding, I’m pretty sure that most fans feel similarly: that the regular season is a morass of either positive or negative trends that don’t quite become real outside of the abstraction of box scores until October. And so, the out and out unpredictability of a mid-June or late-August game probably means more to you and me, dear reader, than to, say, our dads or a random barber.
But—But!—the games still happen! Yes indeed, despite interest or attention or ratings to speak of, the games happen constantly through the dog days of summer. And often, they happen in front of packed stadiums and cheering fans, even when the home teams are skidding to yet another disappointing season, and especially when those home teams are cruising to an easy playoff berth (someday I will write a column devoted to how pleased I was to move away from Wrigleyville in the early summer of 2015). And I would hazard a guess that 75 percent of those fans filling the seats are less interested in the exact standings or particular stats of their chosen team and more interested in enjoying a nice night outdoors with some beer, hot dogs, and good company. All paced by the familiar cadence of the nine innings.
All the good hitters are young. This is not true of the other half of the league's players.
I recently moved back to where I grew up, in the Philadelphia area, or if you want to be specific, just north of that Delaware Valley we know and love. Moving back home has meant moving back to a lot of familiar people and places, and that’s been a real joy; perhaps not chief among these joys, but among them, has been a return to Philadelphia sports radio. When I lived in Chicago, I’d dabble in the ocean of sports radio there, but the pessimism and anger there just wasn’t the same as my pessimism and anger, so it never quite clicked. Now that I’m back, I can listen to the angry men yell on the AM radio for as long as I can stand, which is usually 15-20 minutes.
And while there is increasingly more decent sports radio—the immortal Chris Mueller and John Barchard have helped with this—the angry, reactionary takes far outweigh the reasoned ones. And so I started listening more carefully for germs of sense in the reactive talk. Obviously we know what isn’t true—the Phillies can’t trade for Mike Trout; no one will be selling the team; ownership will not “reward” the fans for their loyalty. But in the premises of some of the call-in segments and rants, there are legitimate questions, and on the rare occasion those questions devolve on baseball in August in a city where there’s no hope of the postseason, there are some compelling threads to pull out. For instance: Where are all the really good, kind of old veterans?
When I heard the question, I initially scoffed because, of course there are good older veterans. This was just a case of confirmation bias and a young, fun, and bad Phillies team featuring Ryan Howard’s terribly aging corpse distorting perspectives.
Well, as it happens, give a point to sports talk radio. As has likely been discussed in the pages of this site many times, the top 10 in rWAR this year, according to Baseball Reference, are all 33 or under. Take out the outliers of Robinson Cano, Josh Donaldson and Clayton Kershaw (RIP) from the list, and that number plummets to 26. (Jose Altuve, you are now an elder statesman.) Now, 33 isn’t exactly young in baseball years, but Cano isn’t in the same geriatric ballpark as A-Rod or Beltran, let alone 39-year-old Barry Bonds, who had led the league in rWAR back in 2004. So what the heck? Where art thou, 32-40-year-old stars? Is Robinson Cano all that’s left?
Scanning a list of WAR leaders, the answer is kind of “yes and no.” Miguel Cabrera remains in the top 30 thanks to his bat if not his glove, but despite seeming like he’s been around forever, he’s only 33. Same with Evan Longoria, who, while transcendent in his way, is only 30. Daniel Murphy’s 31-year-old season continues to be a revelation, and Justin Turner is still hitting. Ian Kinsler is the oldest within spitting distance, at 34 years old, and we’d be wrong to not mention the prejudices of WAR when it comes to analyzing designated hitters, as David Ortiz is having a historically good 40-year-old season. But I think we at least have to wonder—where are the late-career stars?
One answer, looking back at previous Top-10 rWAR lists, seems to be that many of our best stars from 2004-2010 burned out pretty much around the same time. The bright and quick peaks of players like Chase Utley; the steady decline of players like Ben Zobrist or Albert Pujols; the retirements of Derek Jeter, David Ortiz, and Alex Rodriguez. All of these contribute to what seems like a barren landscape of truly elite older position players. Add on to this that some of the best older position players still at it are not as flamboyant as your Manny Ramirezes gone by, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that the older star had vanished. There are 66 position players over 30 playing in the majors this year, and very few of them are what you’d, subjectively, call bona fide stars. Raise the age to 33, and you’re left with 28. Above 35? Only 14. Which is sobering not in terms of numbers—only 11 players were over 35 in 2006—but in terms of names. No Jim Thomes or Frank Thomases on the list in 2016 to be sure.
Groundball pitchers seem like a good thing, but does DRA agree?
Back in June, I took on the issue of groundball pitchers. Well, more specifically, I took on the issue of groundball pitchers and Bill James’ antipathy toward them. This article was prompted by James’ comment, “If you like Groundball pitchers, you’re welcome to them. I don’t want nothin’ to do with them.” In the article, I looked at pitchers last year. I found that if you rank every pitcher in 2015 by groundball percentage and divided them into deciles, generating more groundballs was correlated fairly strongly to fewer home runs and lower ERA and FIP. Here’s the key table:
An appeals court rules against the state of New Jersey's push to legalize sports gambling.
In the newest, but probably not last, chapter of New Jersey’s long battle to legalize sports gambling, yesterday the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in NCAA v. Governor of the State of New Jersey again upheld the constitutionality of the federal law preventing gambling on professional and college sports. The defeat serves as yet another judicial setback for the State of New Jersey’s attempt to legalize sports gambling at its casinos and racetracks.
New Jersey’s plight began in 1992 when Congress passed the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (“PASPA”). Alongside a broad prohibition on sports gambling, Congress included a series of exceptions for states that permitted sports gambling over the ten year period preceding the law’s enactment. This, of course, is how Nevada can maintain gambling in its sportsbooks. One of the exceptions was given to New Jersey—if New Jersey passed a regulatory scheme authorizing sports gambling in the year after the law was passed, New Jersey would not be subject to its main prohibitions. But New Jersey elected not to do so; instead, both its constitution and laws prohibited sports gambling. In 2011, desperate to reinvigorate Atlantic City and its gaming industry, the state held a referendum to amend the constitution to permit sports gambling, which passed easily. The New Jersey legislature followed up in 2012 with a bill authorizing sports gambling at casinos and racetracks. MLB, along with the NFL, NBA, NHL and NCAA (the “Leagues”), vindicating a right expressly granted to the Leagues by Congress, sued to enjoin the state under the terms of PASPA, which expressly prohibits states from “authorizing” sports gambling.
On the first go round in court, New Jersey acknowledged that PASPA prohibited the state’s attempt to authorize sports gambling, but asserted the law was unconstitutional under what is known as the anti-commandeering doctrine. The doctrine provides that, as an essential element of our federalist system in which the federal and state governments share power, Congress cannot commandeer the states to enforce federal law. Essentially, on issues in which both the federal government and state government share regulatory authority, the federal government must leave the states a choice as to how they may deploy their resources. The District Court found there was no commandeering and granted judgment to the Leagues, preventing the law from going into effect. On appeal, the Third Circuit’s 2013 Opinion agreed and stated that PASPA was constitutional because nothing within the statute requires a state to keep any law in place. But the court also left the door open for this lawsuit, musing that New Jersey was free to repeal the prohibitions already in place and explaining that the repeal of a prohibition was not the same as legal authorization of an activity.
Minor leaguers bear all the risk in American baseball's monopoly.
I have to confess, I’ve become bad at responding to comments. Part of this is laziness, but another large part is due to the classic internet truism that one should never read the comments, and I have found that not focusing on the mean things people say about me does help me keep the ol’ self esteem up and running. That said, I’ve found that the commentary at Baseball Prospectus, almost on a whole, has been thoughtful and civil: not a crying Jordan or “delete your account” as far as the eye can see, regardless of how much I might deserve it. So I thought, why not show the same kindness back and try to answer a comment, however best I can.
So, to that end. Last week, before the insanity of the trade deadline and even before the Colin Rea-Luis Castillo swap could prove my point for me, I wrote about the exchangeability of minor-leaguers, particularly the lack of protection they received from the MLBPA and the unique role they played in allowing for a surplus labor army for baseball itself.
Two comments on that piece spurred my interest. First was a correction from the charming and intelligent Jason Wojciechowski, noting that I was incorrect or, at least, unwise to say that minor leaguers were represented by the MLBPA. He’s right, too; before they are major leaguers, minor leaguers do not have standing with the union. In a perfect world they might, but this is a systemic problem with the union, and one I should have noted, despite how much I admire MLB’s incredibly strong player power (paging Jonathan Lucroy).
Another comment followed from Jason’s, however, which is somewhat less easily answered. SChandler admirably took up the mantle of free-market enterprise (admirable not because free-market enterprise is especially admirable, but because they knew that it would be an unpopular position). Playing advocate for the system, SChandler asked:
What do you all not understand about free market enterprise…you say that ownership could pay minor leaguers what they deserve. What exactly is that figure? I contend that the market has set the price. If minor leaguers think they are unfairly treated, they are not slaves and don’t have to continue.
I’m not bringing this comment up to rip it, though I do disagree with its premise and conclusions. On the contrary, I think it’s a very important point because a plurality of fans and, more importantly, team owners ostensibly agree with it. So, to flip the initial question around, let me ask again: What is it that I understand about free-market enterprise that I don’t like?
Does the jump from "good" to "great" make all the difference when it comes to acquiring a closer?
For a number of reasons, the move from this trade deadline that seemed to occupy the biggest portion of our collective consciousness was the Aroldis Chapman trade. He was sent from the Yankees to the Cubs in exchange for Gleyber Torres, Adam Warren, Billy McKinney, and Rashad Crawford. Chapman was suspended earlier this season for violating the league's domestic violence policy, firing a handgun during an argument with his girlfriend and allegedly choking her as well, which meant this trade was accompanied by numerous thorny moral issues. It also happened before the real madness of the 48 hours leading up to the deadline, which meant it had less attention competition for our attention than some of the later trades.
But most relevant to this article, the return seemed huge. Yes, the Cubs are almost definitely going to make the playoffs, and they'll appreciate having a lights-out closer if/when they do, and yes, Torres was almost certainly blocked by other Chicago players, but this still seemed like a high price to pay. Andrew Miller, one of the other elite Yankees relievers, was also traded, and his DRA this season is almost a full run lower than Chapman's. Miller brought back a package of Clint Frazier, Justus Sheffield, Ben Heller, and J.P. Feyereisen, and while I'm not a prospect expert, my sense is the Chapman return is more desirable. It's at least close, which is amazing, because Miller has not only been better than Chapman this year, he's also signed for two years after 2016, at $9 million annually, while Chapman will be a free agent and will probably cost a lot more than Miller over those two years.
What do we do with this? What are we supposed to make of a team like the Cubs, which by all indications is run by very intelligent people, making a decision that looks indefensible? A common reaction (and I think reasonable reaction) is to try to find the assumption that makes the decision look that way, and wonder whether the team might know a reason it's wrong, After the Chapman trade, the most common such argument I saw looked generally like this:
For two decades, innings-per-start has been relatively stable across major-league baseball. Not this year.
Last month, Sam Miller argued in favor of changing the minimum innings qualification for the ERA title from 162 to 130 innings pitched. The reason is that starting pitchers today make fewer starts and pitch fewer innings per start than their counterparts decades ago. In 1969, the first year of divisional play, there were 79 pitchers who qualified for the ERA title, or 3.3 per team. Last year, the number of ERA qualifiers was almost identical, 78, but with 30 teams, the number of qualifiers per team was just 2.6. Sam’s proposal would have given us 3.5 per team.
This being Baseball Prospectus, Sam’s column did not elicit howls of outraged commenters complaining that modern starting pitchers are soft, pitching ever-fewer innings and relying on their bullpen to bail them out. There are two reasons we don’t see much of that here. First, I think most of us agree with Sam when he wrote:
…[P]itchers today throw fewer starts and fewer innings per start, but they throw more pitches in each inning, because evolving strategies (on offense and defense) require them to; and they throw with more effort on each individual pitch, because evolving strategies ask them to.
Nobody takes the brunt of trade deadline season like the fungible minor-leaguer.
As of the moment I’m writing this article, the hot stove is still largely simmering. Outside of the Cubs’ trade for Aroldis Chapman—which, let’s be clear, is fraught and distressing and weird and better handled by a bunch of women online than by me—the trade deadline has approached with more anticipation than action. Yes, Melvin Upton went to the Jays, and yes, we’ve seen the annual Struggling Reliever Swap happen as Drew Storen and Joaquin Benoit switched places, but so far none of the prospects that we cherish—pace, Gleyber Torres—have moved away, and most of the stars remain in place. And so we’re set to receive approximately 8,000 articles debating the relative merits of trading or keeping prospects, about the nature of team development, and about whether veteran rentals are overrated or not.
Thankfully, this is not one of those articles, though I’m sure that if you find any of those debates that break new ground, they’ll be here at Baseball Prospectus. What I’m mostly interested in here is breaking down what makes prospects such valuable chips, why elite prospects and non-elite prospects alike are treated like poker chips at this time of year. As far as I can tell, there are three reasons for why prospects are treated as fungible value: 1) They are largely forgotten by the players’ union; 2) They are out of sight and out of mind for a major-league club; and 3) They have no real say in where or when they are employed. All of these factors combine to make minor leaguers what Karl Marx might call the surplus labor army of Major League Baseball, the collection of underpaid, talented workers that help maintain management’s profitability. So, yes, before you ask, this is a bit of a polemic.
The polemic quality of this article was probably predicted by the first point in my list above, the critique of the Players Association. I actually think that the MLBPA is one of, if not the best player unions in the big four sports, if only for two provisos that make baseball its own unique animal when it comes to player salaries: the lack of a salary cap and guaranteed contracts. That’s huge, and only the NHL really comes close to getting as good a deal for its players. But the dark secret of the MLBPA is that it is a veterans-first organization. Minor leaguers have long lobbied for better working conditions and more competitive salaries, and in response MLB has scuttled their class action lawsuits and defined them as seasonal interns as opposed to employees (largely in contradiction to their own press on MiLB websites, but that’s another issue). And the union has stayed silent. The union that has successfully defended 5-and-10 rights, that has embedded the DH so fully as to be all-but-eventually translated to the NL, and the union that has spit in the face of reports of reduced team profit has refused to speak up for its most roundly trampled members. And, so, minor leaguers are paid relatively nothing past their bonuses, and are set to make relatively nothing for their first six minor-league years.
And let’s be clear, major-league baseball teams can afford to pay their high priced vets and their minor leaguers fairly; I find claims to the contrary laughable. But minor leaguers are just not considered a priority for the union, and, fittingly perhaps, they are not considered a priority for the big-league club either. Recall the then-panned James Shields for Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi trade: the veterans in the Royals clubhouse didn’t know Wil Myers from Adam, and they knew James Shields was an (at that time) ace. Maybe Eric Hosmer or some of the very young players who remembered him from the minors shed a tear for their friend leaving, but by and large, any major-league clubhouse will trade any number of minor leaguers for a shot at a pennant or a World Series. The larger issues of abuse aside, I expect that no one in the Cubs’ clubhouse is mourning even the deeply talented Gleyber Torres now that they have a stronger bullpen. And this is natural, of course—minor leaguers are developing while you’re playing a game a day and trying desperately to keep up with the grind of the season. You’re of course not going to relate easily with them.
This leads to the third point, that both the union’s disinterest in and the players’ distance from minor-leaguers plays to management in general, and ownership in particular. Because for the team itself, minor leaguers represent a unique win-win scenario: keep them, and you have cheap talent even if they just fill a spot on your bench or even if they fill a spot on your Triple-A team; trade them and you can add to a playoff run without really losing anything that will impact you until a year or more down the pike. And no minor-league player has the ability to say no to a trade; you won’t hear about Yoan Moncada or Julio Urias holding up trade talks because they need to be convinced to drop their no-trade clause. And even if a prospect is traded into a worse situation—a hitter traded to San Diego, or a pitcher traded to Colorado—they simply have to suck it up and try to succeed in a worse spot. Prospects are truly fungible, from a financial standpoint and from a personnel standpoint.
Ownership depends on this flexibility of labor to maintain its profit margins. While I still maintain that ownership could pay minor leaguers what they deserve and still pull a profit, it’s undeniable that whatever profit they would pull would be less than it is now. And as MLB is run to be profitable first and foremost—though the exceptions to that would make for an interesting article themselves—there’s no real incentive for ownership to make things more comfortable for minor leaguers. Even management has little incentive, as flexibility in the labor pool allows them to make moves to win now and win later. And even major-league players are conditioned into thinking of the minor-league group of players as other than them, non-veterans, or even as unwanted competition. And so minor leaguers remain as the remainder in the system that helps grease the wheels of MLB; spare a thought for them this trade deadline. As fans, we probably owe them that much at least.
On May 25th Ryan Garton got the call that he’d waited his whole life to get. The Tampa Bay Rays needed his help. The 26-year-old reliever had started the season with Triple-A Durham, pitching in 15 games before The Call. The responsibility of finally reaching the majors can weigh heavily on some players, who want so badly not to get sent back down that it becomes a distraction. Demotion is failure, and there is a great challenge to living in the moment.
“Whatever they decide to do, that’s their job,” said Garton. “When my name gets called, I need to get three outs. That’s all I worry about. I keep the same work ethic.”
Taylor Motter had arrived for his own big-league debut just a few days earlier, and the utility-infielder quickly gained popularity with Rays’ fans for his long hair and fun-loving personality. He spent the second half of May, and then all of June, as a big leaguer. But by the end of the month a batting average south of the Mendoza Line had worn out its welcome, and he found himself headed back to the Bulls again. Garton, meanwhile, shuffled from Tampa to Durham, then back up to Tampa a couple days later, before yet another return trip to Carolina barely three weeks later.
Welcome to life on the taxi squad.
The life of a Triple-A player is not stable; at a moment’s notice any player can get The Call to perform his craft in front of tens of thousands, knowing all the while that another moment can just as easily rob him of the big-league lights and send him hurtling back to the purgatory of the high minors. Rosters are a curious mix of veterans playing out the string—some have worn major-league uniforms, others have been so close for so long that it just feels like they never will—alongside the up-and-coming future of the game. It’s a motley crew, really. And the patience of the players is routinely tested.
Though neither Garton nor Motter rank high on any prospect lists—neither received a mention on our pre-season Tampa list—they both have their value. Motter fills a role as a utility guy that can add some power and speed off the bench. Garton provides always-needed bullpen help, with some situational versatility to boot. I asked him if he has a preferred role, to which he emphatically replied that he does not. He wants to do whatever the Rays ask of him. It’s the answer every club wants to hear, and it’s the only answer a guy like Garton can give.
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