Tuesday, November 22, 2011


Major League Baseball, led by Bud Selig and the owners, and the players association, led by the players, has reached an agreement on a new collective bargaining agreement that will last until 2016.  Before getting into the nuts and bolts of the changes to the new CBA I want to congratulate the players and and owners for ensuring that baseball will continue to be played without a work stoppage.  Baseball has continued to grow every season and remains America's pastime.  For it to be the only major sport in the U.S. not to have a strike since the 1990's constitutes an impressive accomplishment.  

The new collective bargaining agreement contains some interesting changes.  One of the most recent intense debates in the baseball world has concerned the use or disuse of instant replay.  The new CBA stipulates that instant replay will expand its purview.  Pending an agreement with the umpires union, the new owners and players have agreed to use instant replay in situations of fair/foul calls and in cases of a "trapped" ball.  I am a proponent of expanding instant replay.  If we have the technology and we truly love the game we should want to get the call right, no matter what.  I agree that utilizing umpires keeps the human element as part of baseball, but allowing the umpires some assistance adds to the game's legitimacy.  No one will forget the no-call that disallowed Armando Gallaraga's perfect game.  Interestingly, these new changes will not govern a play similar to the one in Gallaraga's imperfect game, but they do illustrate a move in the right direction.  

Another important change covered in the CBA also refers to a hot-button issue: performance enhancing drugs.  The new CBA calls for drug testing of the top 200 amateur prospects as well as blood testing for human growth hormone.  HGH has been recently publicized as rampant throughout baseball.  Previously there was no definitive test for HGH but blood testing has proven effective.  The owners finally convinced the players union to allow their members to be blood tested in addition to the urine test which they were subjected to previously.  Following the testing the samples will be disposed of.  Players are subjected to be tested at random for HGH in spring training and after that players can only be tested for just cause.  

Tobacco has become an important topic in baseball circles.  Large numbers of players chew tobacco, which can lead to esophageal, tongue, and mouth cancer.  MLB sent a message to the country in the new agreement by banning the use of smokeless tobacco during any on-camera moments.  A player should be allowed to chew tobacco, but by doing so on TV he advertises its use.  This new directive is aimed at discouraging children from picking up unhealthy habits.  Players are role models and should act as such through their play, attitude, and their health habits.

Other important changes in the new collective bargaining agreement concern free agents and the draft.  Under the new agreement, contracts for amateurs have undergone adjustments.  Each team, depending on regular season record, with the teams that win more getting less money and the teams who win less getting more money, will receive a stipend or signing bonus pool that can then be spent on signing top free agents.  Teams with higher pools will find it easier to sign their top draft picks and thus rebuild their farm systems, while consistently competitive teams will have to use other methods to sign coveted youngsters.  The same bonus pool system will apply to international amateurs, those players whose nationality is of a country other than the United States, Canada, Puerto Rico, or other U.S. territories and who have not attended a U.S. high school or college.  Teams like the Rangers, Reds, and Rays have recently signed a number of highly touted international players by spending more money on them.  These teams have benefited from this increase in spending, using it to compete with bigger market teams like the Red Sox, Yankees, Phillies and Giants.  The changes lessen but do not erase this advantage.  

One inherent problem with  bonus pools for signing amateurs regards two or multi-sport athletes.  Money remains a significant reason for multi-sport athletes to choose baseball over football, basketball, and hockey.  If MLB decreases the ability of teams to spend lots of money on signing bonuses then some players who excel more than one sport may be persuaded to play another sport instead of baseball.  

Two other minor but interesting changes in the new CBA include a minimum salary increase for first-year players as well as the elimination of the Elias sports rankings for free agents.  No longer will players be classified as type-A or type-B free agents according to Elias. Instead, the decision to award compensatory draft picks for losing a free agent will be determined by the amount of money per year in the free agent's new contract.  Teams offering a contract to a free agent that has a value greater than $12.4 million per season will receive a first-round draft pick as compensation.  $12.4 million is the average salary of the 125 highest-paid players in the league.  Teams that finish in the bottom 15 teams in the regular season will not have to forfeit a draft pick for signing a free agent for more than $12.4 million per season.  I think this change serves a purpose, in that it rids the league of the arbitrary Elias sports rankings and implements a system that can change as contracts do.  The new system will most likely need tweaking, but theoretically it seems more beneficial than the old system.[1]   

Additionally, new CBA realigns the league as well as changes the playoff system.  The players and owners announced that the Houston Astros, under new owner Jim Crane, will be moving to the American League West beginning in 2013.  This will leave 6 divisions with 5 teams in each.  Each league will have 15 teams, which creates some scheduling problems.  In the new vision, there would have to be an inter league series played at all times because each league has an odd number of teams instead of an even number.  The new realignment means more inter league games, something which does not excite me.  Inter league play is fun but nothing in baseball creates more excitement than a division race with playoff implications.  It is more important that teams within each division play themselves more often than teams from different leagues playing each other.  As a Phillies fan, I would rather see more games against the Mets, Braves, Marlins, and Nationals, than games against the Red Sox, Royals, or Mariners.  This change may eventually lead to the elimination of the pitcher from hitting, even in the National League.  The DH may soon be introduced in the NL because owners and managers will not want to sit their DH's for more games being played in NL parks.  This distresses me even more because I am completely against the designated hitter.[2]  

Finally, the new CBA also calls for an eventual expansion of the playoffs to include one more wild card in each league.  I cannot begin to articulate the stupidity of expanding the playoffs.  With advanced metrics taking over the baseball world, influencing the valuation of players, teams, and even statistics, devaluing the regular season seems ludicrous.  It is now possible that the 5th best team in either league could not only win their league's pennant, but the World Series.  The 5th best teams in the NL and AL respectively in 2011 were the Atlanta Braves and Boston Red Sox.  Both teams experienced infamous collapses.  Neither team deserved to make the playoffs.  This change will add more games to the playoffs, which already last till the end of October.  MLB owners will make more money due to this change; no other legitimate reason could be found other than the obvious monetary incentive.  Currently the 8th best team could win the World Series; under the new agreement the 10th best team in the league could do so.  I understand the odds are against the 9th and 10th best teams, but with the Cardinals winning two World Series with teams that won 90 or fewer games many fans already see the playoff system as completely random instead of rewarding the teams with the best regular season records.  Inflating the playoff system will only prove to further dilute the talent pool in the playoffs.[3]

The latest collective bargaining agreement encompasses some powerful changes to Major League Baseball.  The most comforting piece of information to come out of this agreement is that baseball will be played through 2016 and that both the players association and owners agreed to all of these changes.  Although both sides have agendas, I trust that both the owners and players want to uphold the integrity of the game despite the possible flaws in the new agreement.  Both sides have the best intentions of the league at heart.  The announcement of the new CBA perfectly exemplifies the importance of the off-season.  The off-season contains great excitement and importance, something extremely evident in the new collective bargaining agreement.  

Monday, November 21, 2011

Justin Verlander MVP??

Today, the baseball writers announced that Detroit Tigers starting pitcher won the American League MVP award garnering 13 first place votes.  I know what you're thinking, pitchers do not usually win most valuable player awards.  You're right, the last starting pitcher to win the MVP award was Roger Clemens in 1986.  If you are looking for "the case for Verlander" visit FangraphsVerlander.  Verlander went 24-5 with a 2.42 ERA, with 250 strikeouts and a 7.0 WAR.  He compiled a 0.92 WHIP and a .236 BABIP.  Verlander showed durability by not appearing on the disabled list and pitching over 250 innings pitched while averaging 7.38 innings per start.  The tiger's star has emerged as a complete pitcher who does not rely on the fastball to get outs.  Verlander threw fastballs only 57% of the time this season, a career low but did not achieve a career high in percentage thrown of any other pitch demonstrating his versatility on the mound.  By not relying heavily on any one pitch batters lose the ability to take educated guesses as to the pitch type.  Finally, Verlander achieved a 2.99 FIP which accounted for 8th in Major League Baseball.

So, I think it is fair to assume that Justin Verlander deserves the Cy Young award and possible consideration for the MVP , but does he deserve to win MVP.  The MVP is historically an award dominated by position players.  In my opinion pitching and hitting are extremely different, so just as  WAR is different for pitchers and hitters so should the MVP award.  Most people consider the Cy Young award to be based mostly on statistics, which implies that the playoff status of a team does not factor into writers' votes.  In addition baseball writers consider the most valuable player award to factor in team success as well as personal statistics.

Non-pitchers play on an every day basis, while starting pitchers only play 1 out of every 5 games.  A position player can effect his team on an everyday basis, which also implies he can consistently detract from his team.  I still believe that a team's success should factor into the most valuable player award, but if we agree not to separate a players value and their personal statistics than I think personal statistics should be taken into greater account.  A player can prove extremely valuable to his team but not lead them to the playoffs.  For example, Dodgers outfielder Matt Kemp has a significant chance to win the National League MVP despite playing for a team that finished 3rd in the NL west with a .509 winning percentage.  Overall, my opinion is such, awards should be separated by pitcher and position player, just as NFL player awards are separated by offense and defense.  Also, both pitcher and position player should have either two awards, one for best player and one for most valuable player, or one award for each.

While the overall considerations for these awards deserve amending, 2011 proved no different.  Jose Bautista and Jacoby Ellsbury, the 3rd and 2nd place winners in the MVP race respectively both play in the AL east, a significantly more difficult division than the AL central.  Overall Jose Bautista compiled a league leading 10.3 WARP.  Ellsbury's numbers proved similar to Bautista's, but Ellsbury proved more versitille due to his great base running (39 stolen bases) and ability to play an outstanding center field.  The Red Sox may have completed the greatest September meltdown in MLB history, but it was not due to Ellsbury's play.  Statistically, September proved to be Ellsbury's second best month.  In the season's final month Ellsbury had a .358 batting average, with a 1.067 OPS, and 8 home runs.  The Red Sox may have faltered down the stretch, but the collapse does not rest on the shoulders of Jacoby Ellsbury.

In the end, Justin Verlander is the 2011 American MVP, not Jose Bautista, Jacoby Ellsbury, nor any other AL player.  We entrust the baseball writers with the power to give out awards and the writers have spoken.  Verlander may not deserve the MVP by our newer more progressive statistical models, but he had an outstanding season.  His play was integral to the Tigers, even if Ellsbury's and Bautista's play were more significant to their teams.  Perhaps the 2011 AL MVP will serve as an example in the fight for a different set of standards and for deciding the winners of seasonal accolades.  Whether this vote changes any fans' minds concerning player awards has yet to be determined, but hopefully the debate over whether Justin Verlander deserved this award will continue to prove the importance of questioning by whom and how these awards are given out.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Epstein Effect

Theo Epstein’s swift departure from the Red Sox not only altered the Red Sox and Cubs front offices, it sparked a chain reaction of movement within the administrative community of Major League Baseball and shed light on the most recent aristocracy of baseball front office minds.  Much has been written about the “Moneyball” revolution that began with Bill James and permeated to the likes of Sandy Alderson, reaching current minds such as Billy Beane, Paul DePodesta, and Mark Shapiro.  All of these men embraced the idea that a logical, well-educated, statistical approach to the acquisition, sale, and general movement of baseball players provided more merit than the system traditionally implemented.  Just as the baby boom of the 1950’s and 1960’s led to boomlets, so too did the “moneyball” revolution lead to an aftershock of its own. 
Enter Theo Epstein.  Epstein, a graduate of Yale, became the first of many young, well-educated, general managers with a sabermetric mind.  Epstein’s first job in baseball was in the public-relations department for the San Diego Padres.  It was there that he developed a relationship with then Padres President and CEO Larry Lucchino.  Lucchino, a lawyer by training, convinced Epstein to attend and graduate from law school.  Lucchino understood that a Juris Doctor would teach Epstein to think rationally and logically when solving baseball problems.  Epstein already exemplified the characteristics Lucchino thought necessary to achieve high status in a team’s front office.  Lucchino, who had achieved success with Baltimore and San Diego, was grooming a protégé.  Lucchino eventually left the sunny California coast for snowy Boston and the historic Fenway Park.  Not surprisingly, Lucchino brought Epstein along with him to Boston where he eventually ascended to the position of general manager. 
Once Epstein established himself in the Red Sox’s front office, he began to evaluate his staff and assemble his version of the Knights of the Round Table.  Epstein knew that the sole way to create a winning team on the field was to create a winning team in the front office.  His army of minds included Bill James, Jed Hoyer, Ben Cherington, Josh Byrnes, Craig Shipley, Dan Lejoie, and Jason McLeod.  Epstein’s fraternity of young baseball minds made the Red Sox best known not for breaking the curse of the bambino, but instead a powerhouse club that is the only team to win multiple World Series between 2000 and 2010.  Although the on-the-field success fueled the media, fans, and players, Epstein’s front office showed the baseball world a new formula for success.  Almost every member of Epstein’s crew is young, attended top-tier universities, and embraced the “moneyball” method towards running a baseball franchise.  The major difference between Beane’s implementation of sabermetrics in Oakland and Epstein’s usage of it in Boston was that the Red Sox were willing to spend money. 
With an open wallet and a clear plan, Epstein began building a winning team with the capability to shock the world and end the curse of the bambino.  Epstein accomplished this goal within 2 years of taking the job with the Red Sox.  Then, in 2007, he replicated that result by winning a second World Series and cementing his legacy as one of the greatest general managers of all time.  He accomplished this all at only 33 years old. 
Recently Epstein decided to leave Boston, taking his talents to the “Windy City,” to become president of baseball operations for the Cubs.  Epstein, once instructed to lift the curse in Boston, is now charged with reversing 103 years of losing in Chicago.  Not surprisingly, Epstein began reassembling parts of his dream team from his Boston days.  He hired Jed Hoyer as his general manager and Hoyer’s right hand man Jason McLeod as Senior Vice President for Scouting and Player Development.  If Epstein is to turn the Cubs into World Champions he needs to draw on similar principles as those he used in Boston while simultaneously utilizing Avant-garde methods of analyzing the game.
When Theo Epstein became the President of the Cubs he caused movement amongst the front offices in baseball.  His departure opened up a vacancy in Boston.  The Red Sox recently fired manager Terry Francona after an historic collapse that left them out of the playoffs and searching for answers.  Soon after these events unfolded, Epstein bolted for Chicago, which left the Red Sox with a number of gaps in their front office and in need of a new direction.  Instead of using their considerable clout to attract big name general manager candidates, the Sox focused on recent success and the need for stability.  The Sox hired from within, propelling Ben Cherington, an Epstein disciple, to become the Red Sox General Manager at age 37.  Cherington attended Amherst College and received a master’s degree in sports management from the University of Massachusetts.  He broke into baseball with the Cleveland Indians as a scout and was hired by Dan Duquette, the General Manager of the Red Sox before Theo Epstein, in 1997.  He and Jed Hoyer served as co-general managers during Epstein’s leave of absence in 2005 and facilitated the trade for Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell. 
Cherington’s Co-General Manager during Epstein’s short resignation from the Red Sox was Jed Hoyer.  Hoyer, like Cherington, attended an excellent small liberal arts university and broke into baseball at a young age with no major league experience.  Hoyer attended Wesleyan University graduating with a degree in history joining the Red Sox in 2002 at the same time as Epstein.  Hoyer is most famously known for traveling with Epstein during Thanksgiving to convince Curt Schilling to accept a trade to the Red Sox.  Hoyer quickly moved up in the Red Sox organization becoming Assistant General Manager.  Not long after, his name began to appear on lists of the top ten next General Managers. 
Hoyer has been at Theo Epstein's right hand since the start of the Red Sox revival. Taking over as Assistant GM after Josh Byrnes left to head up the rebuilding of the Diamondbacks, Hoyer was mentioned by nearly everyone asked as "the next big thing."”[1]
Hoyer was rewarded for his success in Boston when the San Diego Padres hired him as their new General Manager in 2009.  He turned a 75-win team in 2009 into a 90-win team in 2010.  Following early success in San Diego, Hoyer made the transition from small market team to the big times when his former boss, Epstein, hired him to be the general manager of the Chicago Cubs. 
Jed Hoyer’s story is very similar to that of Josh Byrnes.  Byrnes went to Haverford College, graduating with a degree in English.  Byrnes began his career with the Cleveland Indians, before Dan O’Dowd hired him as an Assistant General Manager of the Colorado Rockies.  Epstein recognized Byrnes as an asset to his squad and hired him as an Assistant GM of the Red Sox.  That same year, 2005, Byrnes was hired by the Arizona Diamondbacks to become their GM at the age of 35.  In 2 years Byrnes took a 77-win team to the 2007 NLCS.  His immediate success was followed by some difficult years that led to his firing in 2010.  Although his time in Arizona had ended, the Padres quickly hired Byrnes as their Vice President of Baseball Operations.  Then, following Hoyer’s departure for the windy city Byrnes became the next Padres General Manager. 
The Theo Epstein boomlet has finally sprouted wings and begun to fly on its own.  Epstein took a new style of thinking about baseball, money, and ambition and changed the position of General Manager forever.  General Managers had commonly been older former players, managers, and executives—not young, educated, enthusiasts with sharp minds and full of confidence.  Margaret Meade once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”  Meade could easily have been describing Theo Epstein and his disciples.  Epstein may still wear the crown in the GM world, but he has created a new crop of forward thinking baseball administrators pent on using the Epstein principles of management to turn losers into winners.  Change the philosophy of scouting, drafting, and evaluating talent, while simultaneously trading for and signing players who fit their defensive, offensive, and pitching metrics.  The Epstein effect has and will continue to spread, changing the position of General Manager and the game forever. 

[1] The Next Ten Top GM Candidates by Will Carroll www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=7683