February 15, 2019

NEW RULES

League executives think that they must continually tinker with their sports rules in order to make their product "better."

The NFL went through several seasons tinkering with what constitutes "a catch" to the dismay of most fans.

Baseball has caught the tinkering bug. 

The trial balloons floated this off-season could fill a New Mexico sky.

PITCH CLOCK.  MLB wants to speed up games from 3.5 hours to a more manageable 3 hours or less. The reason is TV. TV wants clear start and stop times for their program blocks. They don't like 4 hour games. Since the action starts on the mound, MLB thinks that putting a pitcher on a 20 second pitch clock would speed up the game. But there is no cause and effect between the time a pitcher receives the ball on the mound on whether the throw will be a strike, ball or hit into play.

The real problem in dragging down the sequence is in the batter's box. After every pitch, a batter gets out of the box to adjust his armor, re-digs a foot hole, and makes several practice swings. A more feasible solution already exists; once a batter gets into the box, the ball is live. The batter should stay in the box for the entire at bat (with the exception of being knocked down). If a batter takes 15 seconds to reset after every pitch, and there are 250 pitches a game, in theory you could save an hour.

BAN THE SHIFT. MLB wants more offense, which means more balls in play. The big data stat gurus can plot the tendencies of every hitter and make comparison predictions on every type of pitch and pitcher. Teams employ the shift in order position the defense where the ball is most likely to be hit. Hitters complain that three fielders on one side makes it unfair, especially if one is in short right field.

But the solution is simple: learn to hit the ball where they ain't. If three players are on one side of the infield, there is a huge hole on the other side. Learn to hit the ball to the opposite field. Bunt for a single. There are many strategic alternatives an offense can employ to negate the shift. But hitters don't think they will get paid for drag bunts or measly singles. They are taught launch angles, hard contact and home run swings.  They have not adapted to the new defensive alignments.

EXTRA INNINGS. MLB wants to end games quicker. It believes extra innings are boring and harmful to bullpens. So the idea is to drastically alter the fundamentals of the game by placing a runner at second base, in scoring position, for each extra inning. Why "gift" a runner in scoring position? Does that make the runner who scores "unearned?"

Other leagues have adopted quick finish overtimes. Th NFL has its strange rule where one team can win the game after the OT coin toss. Hockey adds a short extra period with less skaters, and if that does not work, a shoot-out. Soccer uses the shoot out only after another full period of regular play.

Baseball has always been a timeless game of innings. Only players, not rules, can manufacture scoring on the field. A problem with hitting philosophy today is that managers do not make their players manufacture runs (get a walk or bunt single, steal a base, perform a sacrifice fly) because those aspects of the game do not help an individual player's WAR or contract value. If a team wants to win a close game, you put pressure on the defense by manufacturing a winning run.

THREE BATTER RULE. MLB is fed up with the bullpen specialist. Managers are using one relief pitcher for one batter, then making multiple pitching changes in one inning. It seems like the strategy makes the game drag on. But the manager is paid to win games, and he has to use his roster to get his players the best opportunity to succeed. By forcing a pitcher to throw to at least 3 batters would actually artificially increase the change of injury to bullpen arms (not protecting valuable arms because specialization is now normal with 13 man bullpens).

The obvious way to lessen the impact of bullpen use is to get one's starters to pitch deeper into games. The large bullpens makes it easier to pull a starter in the 4th inning instead of the expected 7th or 8th inning performance. Also, if you want to make the strategy to use pitchers longer in games, mandate that teams can only have 11 pitchers on their staff (5 starters and 6 relievers). Bullpens would then have to be assembled with different roles from closer (1 IP) to set up men (1-2 IP) to real middle relievers (2-3 IP).

For every proposed rule, there is something already in the game to solve the alleged problem.  More rules equate to more confusion.

February 8, 2019

THE BANE OF THE CUBS

The Great Failure of Team Theo is the lack of development of one starting pitcher.

The Tribune's Mark Gonzalez finds that this is a troublesome development, especially when Theo's Plan B, buy pitching, has hit a fiscal brick wall. The Cubs traded one of the few pitching prospects, Dylan Cease, to the White Sox (with star OF prospect Eloy Jimenez) for Jose Quintana, a quality starter for a team in the position to win now.

Cease was still in low Class A at the time — two full seasons after returning from surgery.

The Cubs have been open about their failure to develop a deep pool of homegrown pitchers despite an abundance of candidates, and they have vowed to push those pitchers harder than in the past.

“We have to re-evaluate what we’ve been doing because it hasn’t been working,” Jason McLeod, the Cubs’ senior vice president of scouting and player development, said last month at the Cubs Convention. “It’s really that — looking at ourselves and looking at some of the things we can do to change that.”

Given the age and cost of their projected 2019 rotation, the Cubs have an urgent need to develop young starting pitchers. Cole Hamels (age 35), John Lester (35) and  Yu Darvish (32) will earn $62.5 million in base salaries, with Hamels scheduled to be a free agent after this season and Lester after 2020 unless he meets certain innings benchmarks.

Cease, one of seven pitchers selected by the Cubs in the first 10 rounds of the 2014 draft, isn’t the only pitching prospect the Cubs have traded for veteran help. They dealt 2013 10th-round pick Zack Godley to land catcher Miguel Montero in 2014. And they traded 2012 supplemental first-round pick Paul Blackburn in a deal for Mike Montgomery in 2016. The result has been a reliance on the free-agent and trade markets to fill out their rotation at a high cost. None of those pitchers have set the league on fire.

We have expressed frustration in the past as half of the draft classes were used on pitching prospects.
The irony is that the Cubs scouting department and minor league coaches are good at drafting and signing hitters as the roster is full of home grown talent. The best prospects are still in Class A, a long way from showing any major league potential.

Some teams seem to have a higher level of competence than others. The White Sox have a ton of quality starting pitchers in their minor league system. Their problem is that they cannot draft and develop hitters (especially under the Kenny Williams GM days).

The only way the Cubs can change this major sink hole is to hire the best pitching development coordinators from a proven major league organization. But that is easier said than done.

February 6, 2019

THE NEW OLD SYSTEM

For the past week, team equipment trucks have been motoring to Arizona and Florida. Spring training begins in about a week.

But about half of the Top 50 free agents remain unsigned. And the prospects of mega-deal long term contracts are fading fast.

The new free agent dogma is actually the renewal of the old ownership system. Way back, teams used to be owned by individuals or families. The baseball club was their sole business. They operated it like a mom and pop store. If they could get by cutting corners (player salaries) to make a profit, they made a profit first.

Small market clubs still operate under that guide line. Low attendance, small fan base, and lower local television deals means these clubs are under financial pressure against signing a player to a large contract. But under the CBA and baseball rules, all the small market teams have enhanced revenue sharing from the league, and extra draft picks to acquire "cheap" young talent to remain "competitive."

General managers now covet draft picks because they can retain a player for six years (three in arbitration) at a relative small cost. The farm system is now the most important aspect of the operations. If you can draft and develop talent consistently, your team can be frugal, competitive and profitable.

In order to do so, teams now "tank" more often to obtain higher "can't miss" prospects. It is okay to tank if you have very little fans to complain (see, Marlins.)

You have now about one-third (1/3) of MLB clubs at the bottom in salary budgets, many whom have little desire but to tank to acquire top ten draft picks.

You have the top four spenders, big market clubs, who are at the luxury cap limit of $206 million. These previously annual big spenders do not want to go over the salary cap because of the financial and draft penalties. To take on a salary like Harper's $30 million/year $300 million total, it could cost a team over the cap as much as another $300 million in penalties over that ten year period. To avoid that, the team would have to off-set or cut $30 million a year for the duration of the contract (which some GMs would classify as three veteran players or four quality relief pitchers in value.)

The rest of the clubs position themselves to spend $100 to $150 million per year. If their division is weak, like the AL Central, they could be in contention most of the season (thus validating their "plan" to their fans). Fair weather fans might return so everybody is happy. But with an average starting pitcher making $10 million, a team could have almost one-third of their payroll in a rotation. That leaves an average salary of $4 million for every other player on the roster. That is why prospects being paid the league minimum ($555,000) are so important as they free up money to sign or retain veteran players (second tier).

Player agents may be late to recognize this new paradigm being the old system before steroid fueled free agency. Teams now have the MBAs, computer geeks and stat analysts crunching big data to find that players over 30 in the non-steroid era are not as valuable or productive going forward. So many teams have been burned by long term, dead money contracts to be gun-shy about signing another player demanding even more money.

It seems that Harper's foray (or folly) into free agent basically ended when he rejected the Nationals pre-free agency extension of $300 million/30 years. Machado has not formally rejected the White Sox $175 million offer, but it seems no one else has topped it. The Phils said they would spend "stupid money," and if that was the case Harper and/or Machado would have had last month a press conference in Philadelphia. Agents must be frustrated by the "take it or leave it" offers from teams (who are giving their best contract first without being pushed and pulled by other teams or the agent.) Free agency is no longer a live auction between teams. It is more like a Priceline value search.

January 25, 2019

TINKERING FOR OFFENSE

One of the reasons teams now go less on starting rotations to more workload on bullpens is the disabled list. Yahoo Sports:

One of the changes brought forth by the 2016 Collective Bargaining Agreement was the reduction of the minimum disabled list stay from 15 days to ten days. At the time this seemed like a win-win. If they only faced being out ten days rather than 15, players would be under less pressure to play through an injury. Likewise, teams would be less likely to play shorthanded while injuries were assessed.

Teams began to use the DL as a means of cycling pitchers on and off the roster, allowing them to bring in fresh arms with greater frequency. The result: a significant increase in the amount of players used, particularly relief pitchers. Bullpenning strategies that have developed over the past couple of years have been greatly aided by a shorter DL stay. Such strategies, in turn, have contributed to a reduction in offense.

The Associated Press reports Major League Baseball has proposed going back to a 15-day disabled list and increasing the time optioned players usually must spend in the minor leagues, a person familiar with the negotiations tells The Associated Press, moves aimed at reducing the use of relief pitchers and reviving offense.

This bargained for operational rule does get more players on active major league rosters (with prorate MLB pay and benefits) so the union must like the 10 day DL. But perhaps the owners have found that adding players to payrolls (with benefits count toward the luxury cap) for the sole purpose of extending the 25 man roster to a turn style 30 man team is not worth the cost.  

MLB does want offense. The home run derby days during the Steroid Era helped keep baseball from having serious financial issues. If the game is deemed "boring" for lack of scoring, then casual fans will swipe their streaming device to find some other form of entertainment.

January 18, 2019

SO QUIET THERE ARE NO WHISPERS

This off-season has been quieter than a strict library.

It has been dominated by the lack of offers for superstars Bryce Harper and Manny Machado.

But what is even more telling on how bad the market is for players is the other free agents who are not getting the attention; it is like a playoff roster waiting for an expansion team.

Yahoo sports broke down the unsigned talent:

Pos. Name fWAR
C Matt Wieters 1.3
C Martin Maldonado 1.0
1B Logan Morrison 0.8
2B Asdrubal Cabrera 2.0
3B Mike Moustakas 2.8
SS Manny Machado 5.0
LF Marwin Gonzalez 1.8
CF A.J. Pollock 3.1
RF Bryce Harper 4.9
IF Jose Iglesias 1.1
IF Josh Harrison 0.8
OF Adam Jones 0.8
OF Carlos Gonzalez 0.9

Total 26.3     
At 26.3 fWAR, the Free Agent Team would have projected the ninth-most offensive fWAR in the league. It’s a well-balanced team with solid power and versatility that slots ahead of the Oakland Athletics, Atlanta Braves, Cleveland Indians and New York Mets. The pitchers on the market are well known names, but like most pitchers they are on the second half of their career. But there are a few All-Stars on that list.

Pos. Name fWAR
SP Dallas Keuchel 3.3
SP Brett Anderson 1.3
SP Wade Miley 1.1
SP Clay Buchholz 1.0
SP Gio Gonzalez 0.8
CL Craig Kimbrel 2.1
RP Cody Allen 0.5
RP Bud Norris 0.3
RP Ryan Madson 0.1
RP Brad Brach 0.1
RP Justin Wilson 0.1
RP Drew Pomeranz 0.8

Total 11.5

January 14, 2019

NEW METRICS PLAYER VALUE

The Machado rumors heated up with contradictory reports on the White Sox latest offer
(is it 7 years or 8 years? $200 million or $225 million?)

I read an interesting follow up article on the new aspect of the off-season: "player values."
Player agents are using the old system to value their clients: WAR from past seasons
was worth $8 to 10 million.


Teams have economists look at a new stat: player revenue generation. How much more
revenue does a free agent bring to the team? Teams found it is only about $1.5 million/WAR.

The great divide in valuation is probably better expressed as what a player brings to the table.
If a team is about winning, great. But most teams are now about making money because of
high debt loads and investors wanted return on their investment (dividends).


A team like the White Sox could get a substantial revenue jump with signing Machado.
If he draws in another 5,000 fans a home game, that would be at least $20 million in new revenue.
But that may not be enough to get his $30 million/season asking price. If he draws 10,000 more
fans per game, then he works as a profit center and a good team investment.

Teams like the Nationals are already at their local revenue ceiling. Signing Harper would not
increase the top line at all. How many new season ticket holders will there be if Harper re-signs?
Not many.

This is why teams are more focused on touting and developing their minor league players.
When they get to the majors, they are paid a league minimum. For home games, it costs
the team about $6,800. If a rookie can generate enough buzz to get more than 140 new fans
through the gate, the team is making positive revenue growth at minimum cost.

Teams are now looking at two component for player value. First, past performance metrics.
Second, cost-benefit analysis on whether the player will enhance local revenues. The latter seems
to be gathering more traction in front offices.

January 5, 2019

CATCH-22

You are damned if you do; and damned if you don't.


Catch-22.


It continues to be a quiet off-season for the Cubs, though president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said in the Chicago Tribune  that the team remains active in exploring various options for upgrades.  “There are times to be aggressive and times to be patient, and there are times when you can be aggressive and times where you have to be patient,” Epstein said.  “Every off-season is unique. We’re working hard, and there are a lot of things we’re trying to do behind to the scenes to make sure we have a successful season next year.  I know thus far we haven’t added the big names that get the fans excited. I understand that’s part of the expectations in the off-season.”  Trades, more so than free agents, have taken up much of Epstein’s time as of late, he told Paul Sullivan.  They cannot make a big play for a free agent like Bryce Harper only if they can carve out enough payroll room.


Ken Rosenthal wrote that baseball’s “current economic system is outdated and flawed.”  Teams are increasingly leery of signing players to ultra-long contracts, yet are also just as worried about signing players to contracts with fewer years but higher average annual salaries out of fear of crossing the luxury tax threshold.  The result is “baseball’s version of a Catch-22,” Rosenthal writes, and he also points out that teams seem unnaturally adverse to making luxury tax payments given that relatively tiny amount of money actually spent on the tax.


Rosenthal's analysis is only rudimentary. Baseball's economic business model is changing towards uncertainty. The sport has had very good revenue, but the idea that current revenue partners like cable television distributors are going to poor billions into national and local TV rights is a thing of the past. Cable viewership is being slashed on a monthly basis. The main entertainment demographic (24-54) is moving quickly toward on-demand choices through streaming services, internet videos and on-line game platforms.


Baseball, first and foremost, is a business. On both sides of the labor issue. Each side wants to get the maximum out of a contract. Owners have been burned by long term deals that turn into dead money. Players want to be paid for past performance and/or market values tied to other (better) players rather than statistical projections of future performance (which is usually less valuable).


A team wanting to sign a $400 million player contract for 10 years must have some reasonable guarantee that their team net revenue is going to go up at least $40 million a year. With some teams local broadcast rights hovering around that number to begin with, it is extremely difficult to think that those fees will double overnight to pay for a superstar. And teams with high attendance cannot imagine that signing a superstar will increase the gate and ticket revenue. Many teams believe that they have hit revenue ceilings.


As such, owners will not lose money long term. Ownership is getting more cautious and strict on how much money a GM can spend on players. These are not artificial constraints but business reality for teams with high debt loads, and mortgage covenants. Player agents do not realize the potential squeeze some teams may be under.


 The other aspect of cost control is a team's minor league system. More GMs are focused on building a deep minor league system because those players can be cost controlled for six years. Teams have found winning formulas by playing young players at the major league level. You do not have to field a team of All-Stars (at high salaries) to be playoff competitive.


This is the second off-season where the new economic shift is taking agents back a few steps from their client expectations. Only one team, the Phillies, announced that they were willing to spend like a drunken sailor. But there has been little action as quality first and second tier players start to get antsy as winter rolls toward spring.