Tagged: Major League Baseball

Blackout Rules Apply

The playoffs are when the best from every sport is on full display. The best teams play each other, which often leads to games full of drama that only further entices new fans to continue watching. Unfortunately Major League Baseball has hidden some of the best games of the year from many fans in how it broadcasts the playoffs. Avid fans miss out on great games, but baseball also misses the opportunity to draw in new fans as the majority of games before the World Series are broadcast on cable networks.

The airing of playoff baseball on TBS, Fox Sports 1, the MLB Network, and ESPN has shut out many people from watching great baseball. Yes, plenty of people have access to all or some of these channels to watch the games, but those who do not have to make a choice. They can find a radio station broadcasting the game (personally I love listening to baseball on the radio), go to a restaurant, bar, or friend’s house that is showing the game, or generally miss out except for updates. Going out several nights a week for a few weeks gets expensive quickly, thus pricing many more people out, thus radio or the updates are the most likely options for many people. I am fully aware, as I have stated many times, baseball is a business. Major League Baseball signed contracts with these broadcasters for enormous sums of money for the rights to these games. However, there needs to be a balance between television revenue and making the best weeks on the baseball calendar available to all fans. Broadcasters like ABC (which owns ESPN), NBC, and CBS might have passed on the rights to broadcast playoff baseball. Fox will once again broadcast the World Series, yet it is a shame that for some they will not see a single game of baseball on television from the last day of the regular season until Game 1 of the World Series.

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Major League Baseball continuously stresses the importance of growing the game, reaching a younger and more diverse audience. Reaching out through promotions like Players Weekend, programs like RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities), and highlighting some of the best players like Bryce Harper, Clayton Kershaw, and Jose Altuve are great, but Major League Baseball hurts its own efforts to reach a larger audience by hiding the playoffs from those who choose to not have cable or satellite television and/or those who cannot afford it. If I can only watch sports on the basic channels and the majority of the games I see are football, why would I wait for weeks to see a few games at the end of October when the NFL season is in full swing? Even during the regular season the availability of baseball games is rather spartan.

Major League Baseball has signed contracts with broadcasters and for now can do little to change how the playoffs are broadcast. However, at the end of these contracts a hard look must be taken at whether only premium channels get the games before the World Series is the best for the future of the sport. Major League Baseball should be paid handsomely for the product it provides to broadcasters, but there could be a middle ground where baseball is paid well, yet does not shut out many fans and potential fans from the best games of the year. Baseball needs to be the sport of everyone, not just those that can afford television packages. No one likes blackout rules.

DJ

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The Glove

Ozzie Smith was a wizard with the glove, he could do everything on the field defensively. The same could be said for Omar Vizquel. If it was possible defensively, one or both of these men could do it on a baseball diamond. The impossible dive, catch, or throw; they could do it all. Andrelton Simmons seems to have taken up their torch. Simmons is only in his sixth season, yet he is already drawing comparisons to these legendary players.

Omar Vizquel played for six teams during his 24 year career, all in the American League except a four year stint with the Giants. A magician with the glove, Vizquel ranks first in career games played at shortstop, fourth in career dWAR, appeared in three All Star games, and won 11 Gold Gloves. Beginning in 1993, Vizquel won the American League Gold Glove for shortstop every year until 2001. His defensive dominance continued late into his career, as he won his 11th and final Gold Glove as a 39 year old shortstop for the Giants in 2006.

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Ozzie Smith was fearless with a glove in his hand. (www.si.com)

Ozzie Smith played for the Padres and the Cardinals during his 19 year career. The Wizard ranks fourth in career games at shortstop, first in career dWAR, appeared in 15 All Star games, and won consecutive 13 Gold Gloves. He is the only player to win a National League Gold Glove at shortstop in the 1980s, winning every year from 1980 until 1992.

Vizquel and Smith were the premier defensive shortstops from 1989 to 1996; collectively winning eight of the 16 Gold Gloves awarded by Major League Baseball. Two men, two leagues, winning half of all Gold Gloves.

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Omar Vizquel could do it all with the glove.  (www.mlb.com/indians)

The absurd defensive capabilities of both Vizquel and Smith did not translate into hitting prowess. They each hit .300 or better only once in their careers. Vizquel and Smith were the traditional light hitting shortstop that rarely exists in baseball today. Every player is expected to help the team offensively, even defensive legends. The offensive ability of Andrelton Simmons could be what separates him from the two legends he resembles defensively.

Watching Simmons play shortstop is like watching an unscripted ballet. Every night he does something amazing. A throw that catches a sleeping runner. A dive to stop a ball getting to the outfield, thus stopping a runner from grabbing another bag. A catch that normally would fall in for a base hit. Every batter knows they have to hustle on any ball in the infield because Simmons can appear out of nowhere to field the ball and unleash his cannon arm to take another hit away. If Omar Vizquel was a magician and Ozzie Smith was the Wizard, let’s call Andrelton Simmons a sorcerer.

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Andrelton Simmons will leave you speechless with his glove every night, and could become the greatest shortstop ever. (AP/ Mark J. Terrill)

Simmons is only 27 years old, his peak years should be ahead of him. This season he is breaking out offensively, as he is on pace to set career highs in Plate Appearances, Home Runs, Batting Average, On-Base Percentage, Slugging Percentage, On-Base Plus Slugging, Total Bases, Defensive Innings and Errors. (Defensive errors can be a sign of greater range or instincts, thus reaching more balls and creating more chances to make a play. The more chances the more opportunity for mistakes. More aggressive defense does have ceiling however.) He has already set career highs in Hits, Doubles, Walks, RBI, Stolen Bases, and Sacrifice Flies, and we have a few more weeks left in the season.

No one is under any illusion that Simmons is the next slugging shortstop, like Alex Rodriguez or Cal Ripken Jr. He is rather a once in a generation defensive player. If he continues to improve offensively, while retaining his defensive skills, he should enjoy a long career. He has the skills with the glove to become the greatest shortstop to ever field the position. Improving his ability with the bat could put Andrelton Simmons in the conversation for the greatest shortstop ever.

DJ

September Baseball

The time has arrived for teams chasing the playoffs to claim their spots or fade away into another off season. The boys of summer has worked hard for months for the opportunity to play in October, and September has the ability to give them the world or take it all away. There are 10 playoff spots available and as September marches towards the cooler weather of October there are 18 teams fighting for their spot among the 10. Several teams like the Royals, Mariners, Brewers, and Cardinals have almost no room for error. They must play nearly perfect September baseball to pass teams ahead of them to secure their ticket to the Wild Card game. Is it impossible? No. Is it likely? Probably not, but what is wrong with giving it a shot.

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Will the Brewers high flying start help them make the playoffs for the first time since 2011? (Noah K. Murray- USA TODAY Sports)

Those teams like the Phillies, Giants, and White Sox are already looking forward to 2018. Even though the results of their games in September will not change the outcome of their season, many players are playing for  their futures. No one wants to pack it in in September because the difference between playing in the Majors and the Minors is microscopic, yet the rewards are enormous. Jobs are on the line for players with  teams who have been out of the playoff hunt since early summer; players, coaches, and the front office need to leave owners with a good impression otherwise the off season could be unkind.

As the calendar turns deeper into September, the games for those chasing the playoffs begin to feel like the playoffs themselves. Every at bat and pitch matters because a single win or lose can be the difference between making the playoffs and watching at home. The Major League season is a marathon and September is the home stretch. Teams need to pick it up and start sprinting to the finish. It is better to go all out now, than to wonder all winter what could have been. Happy September baseball, the playoffs before the playoffs.

DJ

American Dominance

The Houston Astros are rolling through the American League yet it is not a single dominant player that is leading the team, rather it is a full cast. A.J. Hinch is managing an offense that can pound opponents from different angles and a pitching staff that is above average. Put the two together and it is clear why the race for the American League West ended a long time ago.

Offensively the Astros are not a one man show, rather they are a cast of many. A quick rundown of the statistics paints a vivid picture. Houston has:

  • 7 players with 100 or more hits: Jose Altuve, George Springer, Yuli Gurriel, Josh Reddick, Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman, and Marwin Gonzalez.
  • 4 players with .300 or better Batting Average:  Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, Marwin Gonzalez, and George Springer.
    • Josh Reddick and Yuli Gurriel are hitting .295.
  • 6 players with at least 50 RBI: Carlos Correa, George Springer, Marwin Gonzalez, Jose Altuve, Yuli Gurriel, and Josh Reddick.
  • 4 players with 40 or more walks: Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve, and George Springer.
    • Marwin Gonzalez has 37 walks.
  • 8 players with 50 or more Runs scored: George Springer, Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, Josh Reddick, Alex Bregman, Carlos Beltran, Yuli Gurriel, and Marwin Gonzalez.
  • 11 players with 11 or more home runs: George Springer, Carlos Correa, Marwin Gonzalez, Jose Altuve, Yuli Gurriel, Alex Bregman, Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann, Jake Marisnick, Josh Reddick, and Evan Gattis.

Houston can hit for average and power, can get a runner over and then in. The Astros have the fewest strikeouts in the Majors, they put the ball in play and good things are happening. Even with Correa, McCann, and Gattis sporting injuries, this team still has enough firepower to continue rolling along. Not relying on one or two players for their offense should prevent the Astros from running out of steam in October.  

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The Astros hope to continue the celebration in October. (Aric Crabb/ Bay Area News Group)

Even if the Astros offense gets hurt and/or all runs cold the pitching staff is capable to keeping the team going. While not as dominant as the offense, it’s a tough act to follow, the Houston pitching staff has a 4.24 team ERA, below the MLB average of 4.34. They lead MLB in strikeouts with 1,201 and are only slightly above average in walks allowed with 397, average is 389. The team WHIP is 1.288 against the MLB average of 1.342. None of these numbers are eye popping. They merely point out that the Astros have a serviceable pitching staff able to keep games close enough on those nights when the offense slows down a step. Despite his own injuries, Dallas Keuchel leads the starting rotation with a 2.77 ERA in 15 starts. Injuries to Keuchel, Lance McCullers, and Collin McHugh have meant the linchpin to the pitching staff’s success has been the bullpen. Set up men Chris Devenski and Will Harris have ERAs below 2.86, while closer Ken Giles has an ERA of 2.80 with 23 saves and 40 games finished. The ability to shorten a game to only six or seven innings on a given night means even in close games opposing teams have to get their offense going early otherwise the Houston bullpen can shut them down.

Houston lost a lot of games for several years to rebuild into a contender. The plan has worked. The Astros are one of, if not, the best team in baseball. The discomfort of losing season after season should result in winning season after season for the foreseeable future. A.J. Hinch’s team shows no sign of slowing down. The offense is carrying the team, yet the pitching staff is good enough to keep the success going once playoff baseball arrives. Time will tell, but for now Houston looks almost unstoppable.

DJ

Old School Pennant Race

Under the original playoff system the best team in each league met in the World Series. If that system were still in place the pennant race in both leagues would be nearly over. The Houston Astros lead the American League by 6 games and the Los Angeles Dodgers lead the National League by 12.5 games. It is early August. The rest of the season would be rather boring unless at least one of these teams takes a nosedive. Barring the unthinkable, it would almost seem like a waste to wait until October to play the World Series. Houston and Los Angeles have demonstrated their dominance over their respective leagues during the first two-thirds of the season.

Thankfully baseball no longer goes straight from the regular season to the World Series. Instead a potential snooze fest of a season is shaping up to be an exciting stretch run. The Red Sox and Indians lead their respective divisions, with the Yankees, Twins, Royals, Rays, Mariners, Angels, Orioles, Rangers, and Blue Jays within five games of either their divisional lead or a Wild Card spot in the American League. In the National League, the Cubs and Nationals lead their divisions with the Cardinals, Brewers, Pirates, Rockies, and Diamondbacks within five games of their division lead or a Wild Card spot.

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The Dodgers hope to celebrate a World Series victory in October. (Noel M. Vasquez/ Getty Images)

Baseball is better when 18 teams are in the running for the playoffs, not just two- exciting playoff races are one way to grow the game.

One of the critics of each playoff expansion, from Championship Series to Divisional Series to Wild Card, has been that the best team in baseball does not always win the World Series. No doubt this is true. The Braves of the 1990’s should have won more than just one World Series. The Indians of that era should have at least one World Series title to their credit. Meanwhile, the Miami (Florida) Marlins won two World Series, both times as the National League Wild Card.

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Sandy Alomar and the Indians were the better team during the regular season, but came up short in the World Series. (www.si.com)

In many ways this unpredictability in the World Series is good for baseball. Think of the billions of dollars the Dodgers, Yankees, Cubs, and Red Sox have spent over the last decade to win four world Series between them. Large payrolls don’t guarantee World Series victories, nor does a World Series title guarantee success the next season as the Red Sox can attest. In basketball, it’s an easy bet that any team with LeBron James will play in the NBA Finals. In football, the Patriots are usually a solid choice as long as Tom Brady is healthy. It does not work that way in baseball. If it did every World Series would be Mike Trout and the Angels and/or Bryce Harper and the Nationals. How many World Series appearances do they have combined? Zero.

18 of the 30 Major League teams still have at least an outside shot at the playoffs. Are some teams delusional about their chances and were buyers instead of sellers at the trade deadline? Absolutely. However, baseball as a whole benefits when the majority of teams are still playing hard with two months to go instead of rolling over and waiting for next year. The Astros and Dodgers should play each other in the World Series, but like most things in life and baseball this is not guaranteed.

DJ

The Only Rule Is It Has To Work

What if everything you thought you knew about the game of baseball was wrong. What if we have been playing baseball wrong since the beginning? Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller attempt to use the data that has emerged in baseball to lead the Sonoma Stompers in the next baseball revolution. Their seemingly crazy attempt is chronicled in The Only Rule Is It Has To Work.

The Pacific Association of Professional Baseball is one of the bottom rungs of independent professional baseball. The players are playing the game more for the love of the game and one last shot than for the paycheck, which is rather small. Despite being so far from the Major Leagues, it is still baseball. The fastballs might not be as fast, the fielding might not be as crisp, and the fields might not be as pristine, but the same data approach can be applied. Lindbergh and Miller set out to see if their data can give the Sonoma Stompers an advantage over the other three teams in the Pacific Association. Deploying a five man infield or a four man outfield against a batter regardless of game situation, crazy right? The numbers don’t think so. Why wait until the 9th inning to use your best relief pitcher, the closer, when the most critical moment in the game occurs in the 7th inning. If a team can’t hold the lead in the 7th, there may not be a game to save in the 9th.

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Baseball can be a game of habits that is slow to change, because “we’ve always done it this way.” The Only Rule is a real life experiment to see if all the data is nothing more than noise or if it can change the way managers manage and players play. The experiment did not take place within a controlled setting. Lindbergh and Miller run into issues with players and the manager about implementing their approach. Baseball does not change quickly, and the people who live and work inside of it are not always willing to change because they believe their experience and understanding provide insights toward make the best decisions rather than fully acquiescing to the data.

The Only Rule is a fantastic book that a baseball stat nerd and a casual baseball fan can both enjoy. The book makes you rethink many of the basic assumptions we have all held regarding the game.  The Sonoma Stompers, at least for one season, are on the cutting edge of baseball because their General Manager, Theo Fightmaster, decided he would allow two men who worked at Baseball Prospectus to indirectly manage his team. As you read you learn that baseball does not have to be set in stone and you begin to ask yourself, “if baseball was different, how different would it be?” What if the best hitter always batted at the top of the line up, what if a pitcher was pulled before he went through the lineup for the third time, and the what ifs go on forever.

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My wife and I stopped by the Stompers stadium on our honeymoon, too bad it was their day off. (The Winning Run)

Looking at baseball on a personal level through Lindbergh and Miller expose how much work is put into achieving every victory in professional baseball. It is much easier to lose than it is to win and, even when you are doing everything possible to win, success is never guaranteed. Baseball is a daily grind that lasts for months on end. In many ways, today’s success is built upon the work of yesterday, yet at the same time yesterday’s success has little impact upon achieving success today. Much like the best battle plans do not survive the first contact with the enemy, the best scouting and data information are no match for the abilities and reactions of players on the field. A five man infield should all but ensure if the ball is hit on the ground that an out is recorded. However, the player must still field and throw the ball, the nature of the game leaves room for human error. No plan is perfect but you still must have a plan to be successful.

I first heard of Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller while working an office job fresh out of graduate school. Their daily podcast Effectively Wild was different. They sought to find the fun and the weird in baseball and to see if they could uncover something else. Why go on and on about last night’s Yankees-Red Sox game when instead you could spend an hour looking at how Jose Altuve’s BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) was through the roof. Searching for and finding the oddities of baseball can help to uncover players before they burst into stardom, or it can help you appreciate how a team keeps winning when they seemingly should be losing non-stop. Listening to the Effectively Wild podcast got me through that summer and when I heard Ben and Sam were going to write a book about their wild real life baseball experiment I knew I wanted to read it. The Only Rule Is It Has To Work did not disappoint me, even with so much internal build up. Baseball is a crazy game, so why not use crazy tactics to win?

DJ

Globalizing the American Pastime

 

Soccer, or football as most people call it, is the global game. People of all ages play the beautiful game from the busy streets of New York City to rural villages all over the world, like this one in Rwanda. Soccer, as Americans call it, is globally popular for a variety of reasons, but I believe the two most important are the requirements to play in terms of people and equipment. Only have one friend to play with? Simple! It’s one on one. I hope you can dribble. Live on less than a dollar a day and not positive where your next meal will come from? Here’s some rolled up cloth that will work as a ball. The simplicity of the game opens it up to almost every person on the planet.

Baseball has long sought to expand its global reach, and the advent of the World Baseball Classic was part of that vision. The more countries watching and playing baseball would mean a larger talent pool for professional baseball, but also the more money organizations like Major League Baseball can make. FIFA and leagues like the Premier League are about growing the sport, but ultimately they are businesses interested in making more money. The best way to increase income is to reach into every available market, even creating new markets, to sell your product.

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Gift Ngoepe is not only the firt South African to make it to the Majors, he is the first person from the entire African continent. (Ronald C. Modra/ Sports Imagery/ Getty Images)

If baseball ever rivals soccer in global appeal it will not happen any time soon. At the most grassroots level baseball requires more than soccer. Finding a stick and a makeshift ball may not sound like much but it can be too much for a game for those living in areas without trees or on the edge of survival. A makeshift baseball has to be harder than a makeshift soccer ball for the ball to travel any distance when struck with the makeshift bat. Baseball can work with just two people. Playing catch or one person hitting and the other pitching means baseball at the most basic level, like soccer can involve a minimum number of people. Baseball is heading in the right direction, but growth will take time and Major League Baseball must remain patient to see the fruits of its labor.

Baseball is the American Pastime All 50 states plus the District of Columbia have sent at least 12 players to the Major Leagues. Alaska ranks last with only 12 Major League players and California is first with 2,191 players. Every state could field a team and have a tournament to determine which state reigns supreme. While this tournament rages on, ignoring time to allow all 16,553 American born players to be eligible for the tournament, the rest of the world could watch and learn. There have been 45 countries other than the United States to have at least one player reach the Major Leagues. The Dominican Republic has the most players with 674 while Afghanistan Belgium, Belize, China, Denmark, Finland, Greece, Honduras, Indonesia, Latvia, Lithuania, Philippines, Singapore, South Africa, Switzerland, and Vietnam have all sent one player to the Majors. In addition to countries, there are seven territories which have sent at least one player to the Majors, with Puerto Rico having sent 258 players and American Samoa and Hong Kong sending one player each. The globalizing of baseball would not be complete without Ed Porray, who was born on a ship sailing the Atlantic Ocean.

The globalizing of baseball was noticeable last week with the Major League debuts of Gift Ngoepe (South Africa) and Dovydas Neverauskas (Lithuania). Both players are the first Major League players from their home countries. Ngoepe is the first African born player to reach the Majors. The African continent is home to over one billion people, the talent pool is there, waiting to be found. The careers of Ngoepe and Neverauskas will hopefully be long, but it is doubtful they will be the best player from their home nation. They are the frontrunners who have shown that it is possible. One player makes it to the Majors, teams and scouts may file it away as a place to remember when they have nowhere else to go scout. Two, three, four players, start rising through the minors, suddenly they will begin paying attention and even investing time and resources to developing the talent. What starts as a drip could potentially turn into a river or it could be an aberration.

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Dovydas Neverauskas is the first Lithuanian to make it to the Majors, could he be the beginning of an eastern European baseball pipeline? Only time will tell. (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAT Sports)

Only 19 of the 52 countries and territories that have sent a player to the Majors could field a team and join the fictional tournament involving each American state. Another 19 countries and territories have only had one player reach the Major Leagues. There are roughly 233 countries and territories in the world, and only 53 of them have had a player reach the Major Leagues. Major League Baseball is only batting .227. Not every country will become a hotbed for baseball, but expanding the reach of the game is critical for the continued growth and development of the sport. The 2017 World Baseball Classic saw Israel make a surprising run by getting out of pool play. Yes the Israeli team was heavily Jewish-Americans, however the exposure of the team to the Israeli people should help facilitate growth of the game within Israel itself.

Time will tell if the World Baseball Classic is an avenue for growing the game of baseball or if is simply a tournament held every four years. The arrival of Gift Ngoepe and Dovydas Neverauskas in Pittsburgh happen to occur during the same week. Only one person can be the first player from their home country, but the hope is there will be more to follow them to the Majors. Baseball has a long ways to go before it can become a truly global sport like soccer, but Major League Baseball and other professional leagues are on the right track with the World Baseball Classic. Players from the far corners of the globe will not arrive overnight, but the hope is in the coming years the game will have a more global flare. The more people involved in baseball around the world, the better.

DJ