Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Radical Re-alignment

Inspired by two fangraphs items: Maury Brown's "Playing the God of Baseball" and a comment by Dave Cameron in a recent FanGraphs chat.

Maury Brown wants to balance the divisions and create a system that puts real restraint on the Yankee's runaway spending, and Dave Cameron thinks the only way to do the latter is to put a third team in New York. These ideas raise a lot of questions. To balance the divisions in the current setup, you would have to have one inter-league game every day--is that really a good idea?. And if you add a third team to New York, which league and division would have two New York teams? And where would that team come from--expansion or relocation?

Here's my idea about how to address these questions, through a truly radical realignment. (Is this going to happen. Probably not. But I had fun thinking about it.)

Here's the basic idea: rather than splitting 30 MLB teams into 2 leagues, and having a constant trickle of inter-league games, split the 30 teams into 3 Leagues. Each leagues plays 5 games per night. New York gets a team in each league.

I think expansion is unlikely--there are really not any more large markets without a baseball team, except Montreal. (See Al Streit's article). In my mind, the best candidate for relocation is Tampa Bay. The fifth smallest market, with a really bad 20-year old ballpark. Kansas City would be a prime target, except they recently renovated what was already a really nice park in Kauffman Stadium.

So with that said, here's my crack at the divisions:
National LeagueAmerican LeagueFederal League
ArizonaCincinnatiMilwaukeeClevelandKansas City
SF Giants
Chi. Cubs
St. Louis
SeattleDetroitSan Diego
LA Dodgers
NY Mets
LA Angels
NY Yankees
Chi. Sox
Brooklyn Rays

In structuring the division, I'm seeking to keep the oldest franchises in their respective divisions, with the Sox being the odd team bumped to the new league, keep the divisions balanced in terms of their competetiveness, and try to keep travel distances down. Competetiveness, of course, varies from year to year and decade to decade, so I'm trying to give each division it's share of small- and large-market teams. Currently, for instance, the average market size for an NL Central team is nearly half of the average for the NL East. My realigned divisions (along with the move from Tampa to New York) bring those averages closer together:

Current Average
Market Size
Average Market Size
in Realignment
NL West4.07 million
4.84 million
NL Central2.98 million
NL East5.72 million
4.04 million
AL West5.12 million
3.91 million
AL Central
3.55 million
AL East5.46 million
5.02 million
FL West--3.47 million
FL East--4.71 million

Structuring playoffs would be the most complicated and thorniest issue. Brown wants to expand the field of teams into the playoffs, but I'm in agreement with some of the commenters who say a 162-game season really should be enough to separate the cream. I think more teams in the baseball playoffs would take away the drama of pennant races (hey, most of us are getting in anyway!) and would make the post-season too long.

So here's how I would do it:
Each division champion plays in a League Championship--the NLCS, the ALCS, and the FLCS. Two wildcards are selected: one from the Eastern divisions, and one from the Western divisions. They play each other in the Wild Card Championship Series.

The remaining four teams--the NL Champion, the AL Champion, the FL Champion and the Wild Card winner, square off against each other. How these assignments are made is an open question for me, but I think I would avoid having the AL and NL champs play each other--it would recall too strongly the current World Series, even though it wouldn't be. Perhaps the AL or NL team with the best reg-season record would play the FL or WC team with the worst regular season record. The winners of these two series would square off again in the World Series.

The downside is, of course, that winning an AL pennant wouldn't carry the same weight. But the upside for traditionalist would be that only one wild card team could make the world series. The leagues might have to consider scheduling more interleague games, too, in order to allow each team to compete against the other teams in its "Wild Card Race." That would make interleague games more regional in focus (East vs. East), which is likely better for attendance, but it would mean some teams would never some play teams in other leagues (Cincinnati would never play Seattle, for instance.)

The All-Star game could easily be reformatted as and East-vs.-West contest. Or be more creative with it: fan selections vs. player selections (the tie goes to the side with the highest percentage of votes toward that player--i.e. Ichiro is the top fan-vote-getter, so he goes to the fan team).

Ahh, but what to do with the DH? Well, you could let the teams of the new league determine that. Alternatively, let the new Federal League have a Designated Pinch Hitter--a manager can pinch hit for a pitcher once in a game without removing the pitcher--but the pinch hitter can't go back in the game. (Thanks to a couple commenters on fangraphs for reminding me of this idea). As it is now, the home ballpark determines the rule (including in the All-Star game).

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

McGwire as a proxy for the steriod discussion

Surprise! Another 90's slugger took steroids! (Topic for another post: what does the existence of "The Steroid Era" do for Edgar Martinez' Hall of Fame candidacy?)

I understand people are tired of this. USSMariner and Fangraphs don't bother to mention it. Standard news outlets are reporting it, but it will go away tomorrow. People in my Facebook feed are posting stuff about Conan O'Brien and the Haitian earthquake, but the McGwire story is absent.

This isn't exactly News, as much as confirmation. People have long suspected McGwire of using PEDs (and not just Andro), and he's had paltry Hall of Fame support because of these suspicions. And because so many big names have admitted or been caught using PEDs, McGwire's admission just makes him normal. Graham at Lookout Landing can't get angry about McGwire. Fine.

I'm still bothered by it. Not destroy-my-love-of-baseball bothered. Not ruin-my-day bothered. I'm not even angry. But I do care. Here's why:

Steroids were against the rules. Even though there was no testing policy in place, steroids and other illegal drugs were banned by Commissioner Fay Vincent in 1991. If you used steroids, you broke the rules.

Taking PEDs is cheating. Sport is a quintessentially human activity. PEDs diminish athletes' humanity, because they make the athlete something closer to a machine than a human being au naturale. To quote Michael Sanders (of the Presidents Council on Bioethics):
It is one thing to hit 70 home runs as the result of disciplined training and effort, and something else, something less, to hit them with the help of steroids or genetically-enhanced muscles. Of course the role of effort and enhancement will be a matter of degree. But as the role of the enhancement increases, our admiration for the achievement fades. Or rather, our admiration for the achievement shifts from the player to his pharmacist. This suggests that our moral response to enhancement is a response to the diminished agency of the person whose achievement is enhanced. The more the athlete relies on drugs or genetic fixes, the less his performance represents his achievement. At the extreme, we might imagine a robotic, bionic athlete who, thanks to implanted computer chips that perfect the angle and timing of his swing, hits every pitch in the strike zone for a home run. The bionic athlete would not be an agent at all; "his" achievements would be those of his inventor. According to this account, enhancement threatens our humanity by eroding human agency. Its ultimate expression is a wholly mechanistic understanding of human action at odds with human freedom and moral responsibility.
Read the full paper here.

Peer, fan, and media pressure do not exempt players from personal responsibility.
None of us is an island. We all come from somewhere, grow out of a set of circumstances, are influenced and limited by our environments. I think we often overestimate our ability to transcend our circumstances. I don't condemn McGwire for doing what all the fans, his fellow players, the league and the media, implicitly or explicitly, were telling him to do: "hit as many homeruns in a season as you can, whatever it takes, even if it means PEDs." But I do believe in real human agency. That taking PEDs was so easy, that the system was gamed to reward players who took them--these are not McGwire's doing. We, as fans, bear responsibility for that. But McGwire still made choices, and unless we believe that EVERY player took steroids, we can say that some players made different choices. Hence, McGwire could have refrained.

I will give McGwire credit for coming forward himself, for admitting, before someone produced damning evidence, that he used banned steroids. I give him credit for realizing that his actions affected others: his family, the commissioner, the Maris family, and the fans. He clearly regrets his decisions, and it clearly pains him to have let people down. On a personal level, I know firsthand how hard it is to admit to people you love that you have let them down, even betrayed their trust.

But I also give McGwire "credit" for taking steroids in the first place. And I do think it matters.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Where we are now

I hope to summarize here how I understand the Mariners current situation in the context of how I understand what makes a Baseball team win. Interspersed are the questions I still have (if there's an answer out there, I haven't read it, and if there isn't, I don't have the passion or skill to figure it out myself.)

It's nearly impossible to say anything new about the M's or Baseball in general these days. I don't know how Dave Cameron sleeps, but between USSMariner and Fangraphs, he must average more than three posts per day (955 posts in 15 months on Fangraphs alone!), and he is only one of several contributors to USSM. Add the often-insightful (and often "colorful," shall we say) commentary and analysis on Lookout Landing and the beat reporting found on the Seattle Times Mariners Blog, it's no surprise that most of us that started blogs during the early years of the Bavasi regime have quit, officially or unofficially. What is there to say?

Like many fields, quanitative baseball analysis is getting more and more technical. I used to be ahead of the curve using OPS and range factor, but you used to be ahead of the curve if you were using a modem. I later "upgraded" to VORP and Zone Rating, but I only have a vague idea about wOBA and xFIP and tRA in the same way my grandfather had a vague idea about what the Internet was. Needless to say, I have an easy time being convinced by the preeminent bloggers and a hard time adding anything to the discussion. What follows is not supposed to be an original argument, just an assessment of where one long-time fan sees going on in baseball in general and with the Mariners specifically.

Voros McCracken was mostly right
The only really reliable way to project pitching performance in the future is to assume pitchers can't control the batting average of balls in play (BABIP). The more groundballing a pitcher is, the better chance he has of avoiding home runs, but BABIP is higher on ground balls. The way to reduce BABIP is to have a great defense behind you.

For the Mariners, the spacious Safeco Field outfield allows flyball pitchers to succeed more than in other contexts, as long as they have a defense to turn those flyballs into outs. And the M's have that.

Ben Franklin should have coined aphorisms (no pun intended) about baseball
"A run prevented is a run scored," might have been his maxim. It doesn't matter if you win 3-1 or 10-8; what matters is that you score more runs than your opponent. (Is it that simple? Is it harder to reliably win low-scoring games, since the margin of victory is small?)

The Mariners have applied this principle to the extreme, improving due to their increased run prevention, having allowed the fewest runs of any American League team this year. In fact, if you add the runs scored and runs allowed totals together, the Mariners have the lowest total in the AL by far. They have taken the low-scoring offense, low-run-allowing defense model as far as you can take it. (The AL comparison makes more sense here than all-MLB, since NL offenses have to include pitchers.) Can the M's improve any further by improving their defense? Or must they look to other areas?

The Mariners drive an Acura, but not a Porsche (of which the Yankees own a fleet)
The M's still rank tenth in MLB payroll this year, but indications from the front office are that we won't likely increase our ranking signficantly. In the last ten years, the M's have been as low as 15th and as high as 7th, but they have never been the highest spenders in their division.

For the last eight years, the Yankee's payroll has been twice the median MLB payroll, despite the increase in revenue sharing and luxury tax:

So, the M's can spend some money, but don't have a money tree in the backyard.

Defense is a Bargain and Pitching is a ripoff, and hitting is... get what you pay for?

Dave Cameron has repeatedly (and for the most part, convincingly) argued that what many have called good pitching is really mostly good defense. Jarrod Washburn is Exhibit A in this case. Washburn was marginally better this year than last, but the defense was exponentially better. He's come back to earth, and we've lost little by replacing him with Ryan Rowland-Smith.

Free Agent pitchers are almost always a bad deal. And again we are reminded that the attrition rate for pitching prospects is much higher than for hitters.

Which brings me to the set of my most pressing questions:
Since the Mariners have limited resources, doesn't it make sense to focus on acquiring--through free agency or player development--good hitters?
Can they offset a lack of elite pitching talent with enough hitting and defense to make them competetive for a playoff spot?
How much should they pay to retain the valuable players they have (in particular, Felix Hernandez)?

And finally: if the Mariners can go from forehead-slapping dumb to giddy-laughter smart in one season, how much longer will they be able to exploit market inefficiencies caused by other ignorant front offices? How much longer until every front office knows how to rightly evaluate defense? How much longer before the advantages of being smart can't overcome the advantages of being rich?

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Remember that at-bat, Yuni

Dear Yuni,

It was probably a fluke, not a sign of a change in your approach. But let's take a look at that second-inning at-bat:

Wait for a pitch to drive, and VOILA!
(We need to see more of these to offset the giant sieve that your defense has become. )

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Jose Lopez: does hope spring eternal?

There is a fantastic discussion about what we might expect (and hope for) regarding Jose Lopez over on USS Mariner. Some commenters are taking on Dave Cameron's argument in a compelling way, no easy feat. Which is why you should go vote for Dave in his blogging scholarship contest--where would we fans be without USSM sanity?

Monday, October 27, 2008

You heard it here first

The most anticlimatic World Series victory will occur if this Game 5 is called on account of rain.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Armstrong still doesn't get it

Mariner's president Chuck Armstrong nixed the deal for Jarrod Washburn, according to Geoff Baker. Several theories about about why he did show up on Baker's blog entry and the comments:
  • Armstrong wanted a valuable player in return, not just the savings of not having to pay him. The problem is that Washburn isn't just under contract for 2008; he's due $10M in 2009. This is about like going to a store and insisting on an exchange instead of a refund.
  • Having let Bavasi run a little wild with spending and payroll, Armstrong decided he'd be taking a more involved roll in personell/payroll decisions. Fine. Except this decision was to save money, not spend it. Armstrong's interference increases payroll next year. How is that being more fiscally responsible?
No matter how you want to dress it up, it comes down to this: Chuck Armstrong thinks he can evaluate baseball talent. He thinks Jarrod Washburn is worth something. More than that, he thinks that his opinion about Washburn is so trustworthy, he's going to override his interim GM. Moreover, nobody was going to give up a decent player for Washburn; Armstrong thinks his opinion of Washburn is more accurate than the entire league.

Bavasi may be gone, but the M's management won't really undergo a significant change until Armstrong steps aside.