Friday, November 18, 2011

What Does Baseball Mean To You

Where I want to be.
I often find myself amazed by just how polarizing baseball is. When the topic comes up in conversations between adults, most will offer a smile and simply say they don't follow. In my experience though, when secure in the assumption that no feeble minded baseball fans are nearby, a proportion of these same people will profess a profound boredom with the game, in all likelihood while wearing a Kobe Bryant shirt, or, in a seizure of irony, a Manchester United jersey.

Then there's us. The people who write about baseball. In November. What makes us do the things we do?

Earlier this evening I re-watched The Rookie, in which the actor Dennis Quaid portrays an aging high-school teacher by the name of Jim Morris, whose baseball career was ended during his youth by injuries before it could get off the ground. The based-on-a-true-story moving picture show documents Morris' struggle to fulfill his dream of becoming a professional baseball player, in the face of family responsibilities and self doubt. While the film is far from a cinematic masterpiece, I found myself laughing along with the characters and becoming excited, nearly giddy, when they succeeded. My emotions were entrained to the careful rhythm designed by the editors. At the climax of the film, when Morris exits the bullpen and runs onto the field for his first major league relief appearance for the Devil Rays during a blowout in Arlington, my eyes watered with happiness.

Although improbable, for the moment, let's work under the assumption that I am not 10 years old. How did this film elicit such a strong emotional response from me? I can tell you with certainty that if Jim Morris had been taking his first lap around an MLS soccer pitch, I would have been reaching for the whiskey in order to forget the last 90 minutes of my life. There's just something about baseball. Our connection with the game is, for most of us, linked with strong childhood experiences. I played baseball growing up, and at the time, it was as much about the pressure and the tension as it was anything else. I liked being up at bat, being in the spotlight, and having the expectations of those around me push me to succeed. I relish memories of the feeling of coming home in the car, my legs rubbery, hands calloused, with every bump on the road reminding me of just how dangerously full my bladder was.

Things aren't like that anymore. The meaning of the game has changed for me. It has evolved and grown into something much more powerful, but exactly what that is, I'm not sure. More than anything for me, it's the field. The players are secondary, and ultimately, unnecessary. It's the way the grass is cut around third base, the sound the dirt makes against the pitcher rubber as you scrape it across with your foot, and the divet dug into the back of the batters box. And it is also none of these things.

There is, in my mind, an idea of baseball - an abstraction of what the game is, and what it means - but there is no real form that encompasses all of the feelings it brings up within me. It explains to me how incredible it is to be a part of something larger than your corporeal self, and at the same time, why sometimes you truly must go your own way.

Baseball is not about the drama and the suspense. It's not the home runs, the strike outs, or the, God forbid, intentional walks. The final day of the 2011 regular season is not why I love baseball. Beneath the rules, patterns, heuristics, and probabilities that govern the game lies something intangible and spiritual. Masked by its complexity, at the game's core, is perhaps the simplest, most beautiful idea I have ever come upon. It is the power of many, of the few, and of the one.

That's what baseball means to me.

Playoff Cage Wrestling

I'm still undecided as to whether I like the new concept of a play-in game for the playoffs, however my real concern with the upcoming system is which two teams end up playing in the additional game. As a fan of a team in the AL East, I've seen many seasons where crappy teams in other divisions get home field advantage to a far superior Wild Card team. It usually wasn't too big of a problem since once the playoffs started the wildcard team was on essentially equal footing with the division winners, but with the new two wildcard team scheme about to be implemented I'm concerned that the wrong teams are being forced down the more difficult path to the World Series. I'm all for divisional rivalries and having winning the division mean something, but when most divisions only have one team that make the playoffs we've got to acknowledge the fact that often at least one divisional winner is undeserving of their playoff position.

Below is data on the playoff teams plus the additional two wild card teams from 2002-2011. S.O.S is the Strength of Schedule rank for the entire league (a rank of 1 indicates the team played the hardest schedule). There is the slight issue that winning teams play easier schedules since they are responsible for giving their opponents more losses, but given the range of wins in each case we should still be able to draw some meaningful conclusions.

So what can we draw from this? In the 20 league instances, 14 times the wild card team either had a greater win total than the worst division winner or had the same win total with a more difficult schedule. In fact 5 of those times the wild card team was better than the second division winner. When analyzing the potential second wildcard team, in 8 out of the 20 instances the second wild card team finished better than the worst division winner and once even better than the second division winner.

I want to see the best teams in the playoffs with a hopefully deserving team making it to the World Series. Unfortunately that just won't happen under the new playoff scheme. We've seen that the Wild Card team is usually better than at least one of the division winner and plays a tougher schedule to get there, why punish them further by putting them in a one-and-done game to get into the playoffs. Shouldn't it be the worst teams that play in that game. From 2002-2004 Minnesota made the playoffs as the third division winner, winning less games than the wild card winner, and playing the easiest schedule in the entire league. Under the new playoff scheme the two wild card teams with better records and tougher schedules would have to play a single game to get into the playoffs. How is this fair? I don't have a problem with rewarding Minnesota for winning their division, but this has gotten excessive. If they were to make the playoffs in a system like this, shouldn't they be the team forced into the single game playoff?

In these 20 instances, the third division winner won an average of 90.4 ± 4.4 games and had a S.O.S. rank of 22.5 ± 8.8. The wild card winner won 93 ± 2.7 games with a S.O.S. rank of 12.7 ± 7.5, and the second wild card team won 89.6 ± 2.0 games with a S.O.S. rank of 14 ± 8.1. The third division winner is clearly undeserving of its easy path. Nothing wrong with expanding the playoffs, let's just make sure its fairly skewed to the correct teams.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Timing is Everything

What could have been

Timing is everything.

It's Octavio Dotel having his career revived by being traded to a manager who has heard of platoon splits and the hometown kid David Freese blasting out the heroics after a Braves legendary collapse.

It's having no one question your ridiculous STRAIGHT EDGE tattoo because you're the only starting pitcher in free agency that isn't one poor outing away from being demoted to being a T-ball rover.

It's putting all the naysayers to bed by getting a 3000th hit not just out of the infield but out of the park before going on a second half streak that makes people forget about how much longer you're under contract for.

It's having a GM on the other end of the phone reject your trade offer of Tim Lincecum because it seems as if Alex Rios' career is taking off instead of reaching its apex.

It's the Pirates finishing below .500 for 19 consecutive seasons, ending up with multiple first overall picks, but missing the years where once in a generation talents like Strasburg or Bryce Harper are available.

It's falling into the opportunity to trade for that prospect taken one pick too early because the Brewers were forced to go all-in since Prince Fielder wants to get PAID.

Most importantly though, it's two professional students deciding to share their views on baseball with the world right at the time when the only things to talk about are Juan Rivera and Chien-Ming Wang re-signings. 

Saturday, November 5, 2011

A Drop In The Bucket

Anthopoulosterbating, as I like to call it, is easy, not to mention fun. After reflecting for a day or so on the seemingly trivial deal that brought Trystan Magnuson back to Toronto from Oakland for cash considerations, I think it serves as a nice case study in examining the methodology of the Toronto G.M. Lend me your ears, friends, as we further examine this particular section of the infinite feedback loop of players moving between Oakland and Toronto!

After sending Magnuson to Oakland in the Rajai Davis deal, the right-handed reliever proved to be marginally ineffective in just shy of 15 innings of major league work in Oakland, posting a WHIP over 1.3. After being shut down in August due to injury, Anthopoulos saw an opportunity to buy low on an  (admittedly maple-syrupy) asset, and took it. To be clear - Magnuson is a far cry from a legitimate high ceiling prospect. We are not going to see any surprise 17 strike out performances, and depending on how the bullpen drama shakes out this off season, we potentially won't even see him in the big leagues. What he offers is what any 26 year old fringey reliever offers: flexibility. At the risk of waxing tautologically and using confusing idioms, having lots of cheap players gives you more options. Whether it be as a throw-in/side-piece to a deal, or as a low-leverage relief option in the bullpen, Magnuson's value stems as much from his ability to play baseball as it does from the managements ability to really do whatever the fuck they want with him.

Plus, you know, him and Gordie can go catch the Canucks game at Gretzky's.

On "The Plan" and Albert Pujols

Pictured: The apple of our collective eye.
Much has changed since Alex Anthopoulos took charge of the Toronto Blue Jays in late 2009. In the time since, Alex has made a point of keeping the attention of fans focused squarely on The Plan, that is, the acquisition and development of a core of young, controllable, high ceiling players with the end goal of stringing together multiple playoff appearances. The Silent Assassin, as he has become known in circles of like-minded baseball degenerates, has pulled off some trades that are simply embarrassing to the other parties involved, and at this point, anyone who would claim Anthopoulos has not done an outstanding job as G.M. disqualifies him or herself from conversation between rational adults.

However, high fives and handjobs aside, young talent is - by its nature - volatile. This fact Toronto fans know all too well. Over the past several seasons, we have watched names such as Hill, Lind, and Snider undulate between the the canyon that is the Mendoza line and the Mount Kilimanjaro of Silver Slugger stardom, with each spending significant time in the vast limbo of the "he's really figuring it out" grasslands. Much thought has been put into explaining why the first two names have had the successes and failures they have had, with the third resulting in an equal amount of contemplation in the form of head scratching. Players that excel one season sometimes flounder the next, and prospects that can't miss often do just that.

It is for this reason that veteran talent is valuable. Players who have shown consistent performance year in and year out. I'm not interested in talking about Proven closers like Papa Grande, or clubhouse leaders like Michael Cuddyer. I'm talking about the best player in baseball.

This kind of talk immediately runs counter to the current situation the Jays find themselves in. One would be hard pressed to argue convincingly that Toronto is one piece away from a contending team in the AL East. Under official Plan dogma, the mere mention of signing a massive free agent deal constitutes heresy, punishable by disapproving stares from Getting Blanked commenters. But this is Albert Pujols. The Albert Pujols. How close does one have to be to the fruition of years of planning before such an idea becomes palpable? At what value of x does it become reasonable to sign a player like Albert Pujols long term, when you find yourself x pieces away from contention?

Any attempt to consult history regarding the answer to this semi-qualitative question would no doubt lead to an answer so heavily drenched from year to year in opportunity and context that it would be impossible to draw any conclusions going forward. One could of course make the argument that any signing like Pujols would be ill advised, since the value added per dollar spent would probably equal out to be far below major league average. Dollar efficiency is great, but if you've got the money to do so, it's never going to hurt to pile 7 or more WAR onto your team for the foreseeable future.

When you think about the current state of the Toronto Blue Jays in relation to Albert Pujols, certainly keep the plan in mind, but I think the water is far murkier than some would lead to you believe regarding what is and is not a good idea for a developing team. The best player in baseball is waiting for someone to pay him.