September 23, 2017

THE REAL ROTATION

After two nail biting victories over the Brewers, the Cubs are crawling to the post season.

Talk has turned to the playoff starting rotation. There are questions for every current Cub starter including the swing man Montgomery.

Lester has not been the sharp playoff ace in his last 3 starts.
Arrieta is coming back from a hamstring injury.
Quintana has good outings and bad innings.
Lackey has been very consistent in his last 4 starts, but not overpowering.
Hendricks seems to be finding his last season groove but does he have the stamina to finish strong?

Montgomery pitched a quality start one-hitter in his last spot start. Maddon seems to be clear that he wants Monty in the bullpen in the playoffs.

Most assume that you want your "ace" to start Game 1 of the playoffs. But the post season games have tightened a bit with less travel days so if you are really projecting a World Series appearance, you have to manage the rotation prior to the end of the season.

Everyone projects the Cubs to use a four man rotation (with Lackey as being the odd man out).

The NL playoffs for the Cubs looks like this:

Game 1 NLDS Friday Oct 6
Game 2 NLDS Sat Oct 7
Game 3 NLDS Mon Oct 9 (home)
Game 4 NLDS Tue Oct 10 (home)
Game 5 NLDS Thur Oct 12  (6 days after Game 1)

When you look at this set up, the Cubs get two home games. Lester and Hendricks pitch better at home than on the road. So do you put Arrieta and Quintana 1-2?

The next round of the playoffs looks like this:

Game 1 NLCS  Sat Oct 14 (2 days after Game 5; 7 days after Game 2 NLDS)
Game 2 NLCS Sun Oct 15
Game 3 NLCS Tue Oct 17
Game 4 NLCS Wed Oct 18
Game 5 NLCS Thur Oct 19 (5 days after Game 1 NLCS)
Game 6 NLCS Sat Oct 20 (6 days after Game 2)
Game 7 NLCS Sun Oct 21 (5 days after Game 3)

The oddity is that the Game 6 pitcher will have more rest than the Game 5 or Game 7 starter.
Would it be prudent to make sure an older pitcher like Lester fit into Game 6?

The World Series looks like this:

Game 1 Tue Oct 24 (2 days after pennant series; 5 days since Game 5 start)
Game 2 Wed Oct 25
Game 3 Fri Oct 26
Game 4 Sat Oct 28
Game 5 Sun Oct 29 (5 days after Game 1)
Game 6 Tue Oct 31 (6 days after Game 2)
Game 7 Wed Nov 1 (5 days after Game 3)

It would appear your Game 5 NLCS starter would be the WS Game 1 starter on 5 days rest.
The Game 1 starter would also be the Game 5 starter on 5 days rest (and would be available in the bullpen for Game 7 like Maddon did with Lester last season).

If you think each round will be very close, then the pitching staff has to determine who should pitch the final game in each series.

You have to work backwards from WS Game 7 with your ace.
Your ace would pitch WS Game 7 and 3; Game 6 and  2 of the NLCS; Game 3 of the NLDS.
Game 3 of the NLDS is a key game coming off two road games in a short series against the Nationals. Perhaps Lester with his better home record and playoff experience in meaningful games would fit in as the #3 pitcher in the Cubs playoff rotation.

The other argument is to give him an extra day of rest during the playoff run.
Lester would then pitch WS Game 6 (on 6 days rest) and 2; NLCS Game 5 (on 5 days rest) and 1 (on 7 days rest) and start Game 2 of the NLDS.

This is the chess game within the game for managers. How you set up your roster and rotation is a critical component on how well your team will perform in the post season. There is no easy answer. Some will say just start your "best" pitchers first because you have to win each round to advance. There is not enough time between series to "reset" the rotation back to Game 1.

People have emphasized the rotation as being the key of this Cub post season since the bullpen continues to be in flux. People are looking for starters to go 7 strong innings, but that has been a rarity all season long.

It will be interesting to see how Maddon and the front office creates its 25 man post season roster. One expects that there may be an additional relief pitcher in the mix (but no one believes Lackey will be that guy).

September 19, 2017

THE MATH

It is crunch time in the NL Central.

Today's standings:

Cubs 83-66
Brewers 80-70  3.5 GB
Cardinals 77-72 6 GB

The Cubs and Cards have 13 games to play; Brewers 12.

The Cubs have a 97.1 percent chance to make the playoffs. The Brewers have 14.8%. The Cardinals only 4.0%.

But what will it take to win the division?

The Brewers are currently on an 8-2 streak. At that pace to the end of the season, the Brewers would win 88 games. So really, the mark to take the crown is 88 wins.

The Cardinals are currently on a 5-5 streak. They would have to win 11 of their last 13 games to reach 88 wins. That is highly unlikely.

The Cubs would have to go 5-8 to reach 88 games.Considering the Cubs have been good in their last ten games (7-3), they should easily reach 88 wins. The Cubs current winning percentage projects 90 wins which means the Brewers would have to win every remaining game to tie the Cubs.

The Cubs appear to be on the cusp of repeating their NL Central championship. The only potential spoiler remains the pesky Brewers.

September 14, 2017

CHOICES

We do not know what more Albert Almora can do to secure a starting job.

Last night, Almora became the first Cubs player to drive in six runs during a game he did not start since Mandy Brooks did it at Philadelphia on Aug. 25, 1925.

The 2017 Cubs have been marred by the lack of scoring and lapses in defense. A solution to part of those woes has been sitting on the bench for most of the season.

Almora is the best defensive center fielder on the team. But he has been used in 117 games as mostly a defensive replacement.

Almora stat line: 270 AB, 34 R, .285 BA, 6 HR, 35 RBI, 1 SB, .330 OBP, 0.8 WAR.

But Joe Maddon has preferred to put infielder Ian Happ in the outfield.

Happ's stat line: 321 AB, 51 R, .255 BA, 22 HR, 56 RBI, 8 SB, .329 OBP, 1.5 WAR (-0.2 dWAR).

Happ has more versatility by playing both outfield and infield positions. He is also a switch hitter with power.

But Maddon used to preach defense as a means of winning. That is why he continues to play Heyward in RF even during his batting slumps.

Maddon made the choice of power over defense with Happ over Almora.

The best defensive outfield Maddon could put on the field is Jay in LF, Almora in CF and Heyward in RF. The best power outfield is Schwarber, Happ and Zobrist. Maddon has been mixing and matching all season to find some sort of balance. 

The Cubs will have some tough choices in the off-season.  The farm system has no real premium assets to trade for missing pieces for 2018 (starting pitching, back up catcher, closer, bullpen arms). Someone from the current major league roster will have to be dealt.

Kyle Schwarber falls in and out of favor. He is hitting just above .200 with power numbers. But he is still a defensive liability in LF and he has not returned to catching since his serious knee injury. Most scouts believe he is destined to be a DH in the American League. But the front office loves "their guys" and Schwarber is one of their guys.

So is Happ and Almora, both first rounders. Maybe in the post-season line up where defense is valued more, both Happ and Almora will be starters. But it is doubtful. If Russell comes back, he will start at short and Baez will move to second (blocking Happ from his natural position). That would move Happ to the outfield, to displace Schwarber (doubtful because of his post-season heroics) or to start in center over Jay and Almora.

No matter what happens this year, Almora has great value being some team's starting center fielder in 2018.

September 12, 2017

SURRENDER

The turning point for the Cubs season may well be when Maddon surrendered a game when the Brewers were leading 8-0 in the 3rd inning. Pulling starters and running it like a spring training game gave the Brewers more opportunities to stomp the Cubs, 15-2. The Brewers went on to sweep the Cubs to push to only 2 games behind the NL Central Race (along with the Cardinals).

With 4 games left with Milwaukee and 7 games left with the Cardinals, the Cubs are on the verge of a historic meltdown.  The season has been tempered by a multitude of excuses: the Cubs played late into last season so they are tired (but the Indians did as well and currently have won 19 in a row); players were distracted by all the off-season celebratory events; the weather was cold early in the season; every club they played came into series with an attitude to beat the champions; there were some injuries; bad play would be turned around into consistent team performance; the club needs more Friday night games.

The idea that the 2017 Cubs, in the midst of their dull drum behavior, could turn around their performance on the dime into the 2016 Cubs juggernaut is a myth. But appears management and the team believed the myth. The recent Milwaukee series proved it was a myth. 

The Brewers were not supposed to contend for a title. The Cardinals were having a down year. The Cubs were supposed to cake walk through the division and into the playoffs. Many fans are now saying the 2017 season could be one of the great disappointments - - - a choke - - - if the Cubs fail to make the playoffs. In bad times, it is said you will find the best character in an individual. So far, we only see the Cubs on the ropes.

September 1, 2017

DESPERATION?

The Cubs are at a season high 13 games above .500. But the Brewers are still only 3.5 GB.

For the second time this season, the Cubs are messing with Brewers in regard to playing a game.
First, the Cubs called a game for an alleged rain out on a day that it did not rain. It created a
doubleheader disadvantage for Milwaukee.

Now, the Cubs got a "one time exception" to the Friday night home game ban. The reason:
the Cubs are coming home from a night game in Pittsburgh. Well, the team knew that a year ago
and the Cubs set the start times for their home games - - - a year ago.

The Brewers wanted the day game to go on as scheduled. They appealed to the league office.
No action was taken.

The Cubs may be "tired" on the trip home (?) but it is September - - - you can have 40 men on your roster!
Being tired in September is a weak excuse.

You are the defending World Champs. Why pull bush league schedule changes against your closest rival?

Perhaps it is because the Ricketts are so invested in the new infrastructure that they are desperate for
post-season revenue - - - a lot of post season revenue. World Series type revenue.

Attendance has not been max this year. The official seating number is around 42,000 but local business owners think the "real" capacity with standing room and party decks is more like 45,000. The Cubs have drawn 2.6 million in 66 home games (39,393). If the Cubs owners were banking on a full house for a full home schedule, revenue projections have been light by more than $18 million.

August 24, 2017

5 & 7

Barring an epic collapse, the rule of thumb is that a team can realistically make up one game per week in the standings.

There are approximately 5 weeks left to go in the season.

The Brewers are 3.5 games behind the Cubs. The Cardinals are 4.5 games behind.

The NL Central rivals may be looking more toward a tightening wild card race than a division win.

But the Cubs still have 7 games left with each of the Brewers and Cardinals. That means that the Brewers and Cardinals are not out of the race even if they trail by 7 games before meeting the Cubs.

Another rule of thumb is that a team needs to take care of business in its own division. The only two teams left with an above .500 record are the Brewers and Cardinals. The Cubs still need to play well against division teams in order to avoid a bitter September surprise.

August 19, 2017

THE FUTURE

There has been one constant throughout the history of baseball: owners desire to make a profit.

In order to keep a competitive balance (and profit sharing), MLB has a luxury tax on payrolls currently pegged at $195 million. The penalty for going over the ceiling is 50 percent to 92 percent. This is a soft salary cap where big market teams like the Dodgers and Yankees can easily absorb.

But the future is rapidly changing that overspend model. The Yankees sold most of their interest in the YES Network, which was the cash cow that fueled those free agent filled teams. The Dodgers got a billion dollar team network deal with TW, which turned into a bust when cable operators balked at paying high subscription fees.

The cable industry, the tinder for the rapid rise in profits and player salaries, is losing three million subscribers a quarter. The biggest reason was the surcharge of sports network fees on monthly bills.  The second reason was the internet and other means of consuming sports than television sets. The third, and possibly most glaring reason, is that the younger generation is less interested in traditional sports franchises. Young kids are more involved in their technology of video games and e-sports than play baseball in the park. In addition, teams have made it almost cost prohibitive for a family to go attend a major league game.

The outside profit center for many teams, the publicly financed sweetheart ball park deal, like the cable money is going to go extinct. Not one publicly financed sports stadium has created an "economic boom" for the municipality. In fact, the associated debt with those deals can be crippling taxpayers. With more and more cities, counties and states in massive fiscal holes and bankruptcy, the community revolt against such capitalism welfare projects will end.

But on the other side, star players are looking for massive contracts. Bryce Harper nears free agency with agent speculation that he will demand anywhere from $30 million to $50 million per season. ESPN opined that Harper could easily become the first $500 million player in sports history. When baseball franchises are worth at the high tide level of $1.5 billion, a superstar player's demand for a third of the team value makes the business model absurd.

Teams are no longer owned or controlled by millionaires looking to massage their country club egos with sports championships. Most teams are corporations who have to answer to shareholders. Investors demand return on their capital in the form of dividends, earnings and appreciation. The easy cost control item on a team is payroll.

In the near future, baseball as a game will fundamentally change. There are growing calls to eliminate much of the subjective, human element of game by turning ball and strike calls over to computer grid technology. In essence, the game will be played without umpires - - - merely sensors and real time play reviews at the league office. But even the elimination of umpires will not drastically alter the erosion of the economics of the game.

If the next generation of fans accept virtual reality for reality, then baseball will probably forge ahead to create a digital platform to replace the timeless past time. Whether it be 3D or holographic representation of past, present or computer generated players, baseball could morph into super computer super charged video game.

Fans like their fantasy leagues. They like their smart phone apps. If baseball was compressed into a graphic rich, high octane video game, many would watch. The elimination of players, ball parks, infrastructure costs, team travel, etc. is like a dream to a team accountant.  If the owners can keep a fan base happy without incurring normal costs, then it is virtual game on.

Since most states have privacy and image rights laws, the new virtual baseball game would probably be run by superstar programmers than old player profiles. Instead of expensive Bryce Harper batting third for the Nationals, it could be RobotOF127. The league could set input parameters for team programmers in setting up algorithms for player stats/performance guides. The league would then run on its own servers simulated games using those team rosters. Whether there would be an real time manager making decisions or strategy calls would be possible. It would also be possible that teams would employ a few gamers to act as pitcher, hitters and fielders to add a "human" element to the simulated game.

Simulated games could be played quicker than real ones. Simulated seasons could be finished rather quickly. Playoff games could be subscription or theater events across the country (or across the globe).

One could argue that this is merely a technological fantasy. That there will always be enough players wanting to play professional sports to field teams. That may be true, but in some sports there is a major shift on whether the health risks outweigh the playing time. More parents are taking their children out of contact football at earlier ages. Even professional players are retiring early because of the current research on the ramifications of concussions. Football could be the first major sport to have a serious personnel shortage. In addition, marketing executives note that in order to capture fans early, those kids need to appreciate the sport, i.e. have played it at some level. That is the fantasy connection between seeing your favorite player juke through the line for a touchdown then going outside to play football with friends.

The same could hold true for baseball. It is a time consuming and expensive spectator sport. The lure of going to the ball park for a game is that it was a social event. There was enough time between pitches to converse with friends. But in this internet age, people are less social. They don't see the need to spend three hours talking to other people at an event. They can poke, text or email them.

All consumption of all forms of entertainment are under fire. Baseball is just one option in this ever changing landscape.