November 16, 2018

A SURPRISING NEW DEAL

I am more surprised than the average fan.

MLBTR reports that MLB signed a huge deal with Fox.

MLB reached a new seven-year, multiplatform agreement with FOX Sports spanning the 2022-28 seasons. Eric Fisher of Sports Business Journal reports that the contract’s rough value is a staggering $5.1 billion — a near-50 percent increase over the total value of the existing agreement between MLB and FOX. Bloomberg reports a similar total figure and notes that on an annual basis, the agreement represents a 36 percent increase over the prior contract.

Major League Baseball owners approved a three-year, $300MM streaming rights deal with DAZN, wherein DAZN will offer a weeknight show whose coverage bounces from game to game throughout the league — “similar to NFL RedZone.”

Under the terms of the television agreement, FOX Sports and FOX Deportes will retain exclusive rights to airing the World Series, one of the two annual League Championship Series and two of the four annual Division Series and the All-Star Game. FOX will also continue to air a pair of games each Saturday, with today’s release indicating that the number of regular season and postseason games aired on FOX will begin to increase in 2022. FOX also secures expanded streaming, social media and highlight rights, per the announcement.

It’s an enormous windfall for the league and one that further places a spotlight on the ever-increasing revenue available to Major League teams in today’s game — even as league-wide attendance dips and World Series ratings fell dramatically. The financial specifics of each team (or of any team) remain unknown as such information (including revenue sharing figures) is not made publicly available.

But in a general sense, each team will benefit by $170 million or around $24 million/team/year starting in 2022.

From a media standpoint, this is not based on the traditional Nielsen TV ratings book. The rights purchase includes multiplatforms, which would include mobile, streaming, on demand, or the next viewing technology platform (such as the next Facebook). Fox is trying to capture those distribution channels, but it is unclear if this Fox deal hampers the growth of MLB's own internet game applications and subscription based streams.

One thing is certain: the news of this huge extension will be on the minds of the superstar free agents who will not take any idea that the owners are poor or hitting a rough revenue patch.

November 15, 2018

HITTING THE IVY PADDED WALL

The happy family facade at Clark and Addison is beginning to crack.

The national media is confused by how the Cubs front office is acting this off-season. Even local writers have woken up to the prospect that the Cubs may not be the Midwest, free spending, big market Yankees.

It began when Theo Epstein post season autopsy, er, press conference left a lasting impression that Theo was not happy. He stressed the fact that the team has to focus in on performance and not talent. It means highly prized prospects have to perform better in order to keep their spot. But on the flip side, the Cubs brass have always been enamored with "their guys."  They will keep their guys well past their trade value. And now, Epstein admits, that the 2019 roster improvement will have to come via trades.

It is stunning reversal for the genius baseball gods. The plan was to draft the best bats available and solve pitching via free agency. Young position players are cheap and controllable up to six years. Veteran reliable pitching, though expensive, is less likely to be busts.  Well, until this year.

The Cubs spent more than $185 million on Yu Darvish, Tyler Chatwood and Brandon Morrow. The next consensus is that the three star pitchers flamed out badly. Darvish had injury problems from the start. Morrow had a long injury history. And Chatwood was plain bad.

The Cubs have drafted 147 pitchers in the past seven years and they have not developed one quality starting pitcher. Last season, Theo-Jed's farm system produced less than 20 innings of home grown pitching talent. It is a disaster. It has crippled the organization.

The quick promotions of Bryant, Schwarber and Happ have created a prospect vacuum in the minors. The best prospects are now at low A, four or five years away from the majors. Triple A is filled with AAA players with little chance to catch on even in a bench role. The minor league system has little trading chips. And the major league roster has very few "marketable" players to other teams because Russell, Schwarber and Happ are now solid .240 hitters which are a dime a dozen nowadays.

What struck the baseball nation odd was the story that in order for the Cubs to exercise the $20 million option on Cole Hamels, the team had to jettison $7 million in salary (Smyly was traded to the Rangers to clear that budget space.)  Now that type of contract shuffling is what a small market team like the Royals, Rays or Marlins would be accused of doing for a long time.

The Cubs have been in the top 5 in spending, just under the luxury tax threshold. The ceiling goes up $9 million to $206 million in 2019. So one would ask why did the Cubs have issues signing Hamels if the team was getting a $9 million budget bump?  Because the soft salary cap and the real Cubs payroll budget are two different things. The Cubs are already committed $350 million to 11 players. This does not include the arbitration awards for players like Bryant, Hendricks, Baez, Russell, Schwarber, Montgomery, Edwards and LaStella. Collectively, these arb players will be paid north of $40 million.

Major caveat: rich people stay rich by not losing money.

Epstein's off-the-cuff remark that the Ricketts have invested $750 million on development around Wrigley Field is telling; the Cubs are secondary in ownership's profit center mindset. You have to realize that the outside development is not owned by the Cubs team. Separate companies own the land and the development of the McDonald's block and the triangle. In fact, the Cubs are a tenant because Wrigley is owned by a different legal entity. Why would Theo know how much the Ricketts invested in the neighborhood? He was told it.

There has always been friction between Epstein, baseball operations and the "business" side of the Cubs run by Crane Kenney and Tom Ricketts. Ricketts wants a return on his "entire" investment and that includes premium events at Wrigley, i.e. concerts or play-off games. When the Cubs bowed out of the playoffs in the Wild Card game, the Cubs lost at least $30 million in gate receipts and the Ricketts enterprises (the hotel, the bars, etc.) lost more than that in revenue. If the business side had counted on annual deep playoff runs in their budget projections, this would have been a huge jolt to ownership.

Perhaps, that is why Epstein has been surly. He cannot buy his way out of bust or dead money deals like he tried to do in Boston. So he has to find a scapegoat, so the hitting coach gets fired after a year (and apparently the pitching coach, Maddon ally Jim Hickey is also out the door.) Epstein blames Maddon for not following "the plan" with Morrow to not pitch him more than two days in a row. Maddon pitched Morrow three times (an extra 6 pitches) that allegedly caused Morrow to get shut down. This deflects the fact that Morrow is a brittle arm, but it gave Epstein some ammo not to extend Maddon's contract. Joe will be a lame duck manager in 2019. And if the league trend continues, he will not be renewed as teams are now hiring inexperienced, stats-savvy guys front offices can control. Such a hiring would save the Cubs at least $5 million in 2020.

As you can tell, these seem to be like nickel and dime, petty things to do. But it may be by necessity. The Cubs have the weakest local television rights contracts for a big market team. In 2020, the Cubs were going to launch their own network. The idea of a multi-billion payday for Cubs broadcasts is now a pipe dream after the Dodgers deal blew up in Time Warner's face. Cable operators are losing subscribers in 2018 at a 300,000/month clip. People will not pay $5/month extra for a sports channel on their already high cable bills. Only a fool would pay a team a Dodger pay-out. (In a telling move, in the past few years, the Steinbrenners, who created the team channel revenue stream,  have divested most of their stake in their YES network.)

It seems that Epstein has hit the wall. He is under strict budget restrictions. That is why there are no rumors, stories or hints that the Cubs are negotiating for Harper or Machado or a starting pitcher like Keuchel. Epstein cannot sign free agents without making room for them in the budget (the Hamels option). He does not have a strong minor league system to either promote players to fill needs or trade prospects for proven talent.

Fans will not complain when the Cubs went "all in" in 2016 to win the World Championship. But now Epstein is sitting a poker table with a very short stack. And he is not happy about it.

November 9, 2018

A DIFFERENT KIND OF PLAYOFF

Baseball is very popular in South Korea. Many KBO stars have made it to the U.S. major leagues. The nation takes pride in its national team when it plays in international contests.

South Korea is a nation of only 51 million. It does field one league with ten sponsored teams (major corporations). The teams play 144 games in the regular season.

But the championship playoffs are interesting alternative to the American version of the post-season.

Five teams make the playoffs in Korea.

The 4th and 5th place teams are the Wild Cards. They play a one game winner-take-all contest. The winner of this Wild Card games goes on to play a best of five series against the 3rd place club the Semi-Playoff.

The winner of the Semi-Playoff plays the 2nd place team in a best of five Playoff series.

Then the winner of the Semi-Playoff series plays the 1st place team for the championship. The championship series is best of seven.

What is clear about the KBO playoff format is that it rewards regular season play. The regular season winner has an automatic berth in the championship series. It also makes teams that finish lower than the league winner to "earn" their way to the championship round.

One negative to this format is that the league regular season winner has to wait until their opponent goes through a playoff gauntlet. This year's Wild Card game was held on October 16. The first championship game (against the 1st and 2nd place clubs) began on November 4.

MLB continues to talk about future expansion or re-alignment. That also means potential more playoff games, which in the current format dilutes regular season accomplishments of the best teams.




November 3, 2018

THE CALL FOR A SET LINE UP

The off-season begins in earnest with option calls and exclusive negotiation periods for free agents.

Roster rebuilds are the bread and butter of winter work for teams.

The Cubs have built a roster of utility players, i.e. players who can play multiple positions, In the past, utility players were bench substitutes, pinch hitters and Sunday starters. But with the new religion of advanced stats and match-ups, lefty righty, situational OBP, shift and base running at end of games becomes more important than having regular starters and bench players.

Joe Maddon loves multi-use guys. He likes to mix and match lineups to opposing starting pitchers. ESPN Chicago notes that in 2018, Joe Maddon wrote out 152 different lineups in 163 games (and that's not even factoring in the pitcher's spot). That's a bump up from 2017 (143 different lineups) and 2016 (130 lineups in the regular season of the championship year).

How does that relate to the top contenders around the league?
The last four World Series teams (2017 Astros, 2018 Red Sox and the 2017-18 Dodgers) averaged 145 different lineups per regular season. All 2018 MLB playoff teams (excluding Cubs) averaged 129.1 separate lineups throughout the regular season. The Dodgers tallied 155 different lineups in 2018 and 147 in 2017 and they made it to the World Series both seasons. The Astros posted 144 new lineups each of the last two regular seasons while the Red Sox were at 134 lineups and the Brewers and Yankees sat at 137 lineups in 2018.

It seems that all teams are  mixing and matching lineups. Front offices are living in a  world of extreme platooning, bullpening and shifting which equates to a lot of different lineups.

If the rest of the league has adopted this philosophy, why would the Cubs be any different?

In his post season press conference, Theo Epstein indicated that some players told him they would like less daily lineup shakeups. A regular lineup is what they felt would be good for them.

 If the Cubs do not make major personnel moves this off-season (due to budgetary and luxury tax restraints), then the only major change would be how the players on the roster will be used in 2019. A regular, set lineup may be that major move.

In the past, starters earned "their job" and kept their position on the field until injury or demotion. Players in the minors worked hard to "earn" a position on a 25 man roster. It is that competition and fear of losing one's spot that keeps a player focused on playing hard and performing well. But when you have a dozen position players vying for 8 daily spots with a manager who likes to mix and match, you know you will play most of the time (but not necessarily a complete game at a time.)

Professional athletes are creatures of habit. They have set pregame routines (almost superstitions). They want to know their role so they can adjust their play to match the manager/team's expectations. There are two components of knowing your position: the place you play in the field and the number spot in the batting order. Most baseball players are more concerned about the latter - - - because where you hit in the order can affect your mental approach in an at-bat.

For example, a lead off hitter has to have the mentality of getting on base so the heart of the order can drive him home. A free swinging lead off hitter cannot "set the table." When the Cubs had Alfonso Soriano hitting lead off, it was not because it make sense but because Soriano demanded the spot because he felt he would see more fastballs he could hit.

Maddon only used the same lineup a total of 5 times in 2018.

Some believe the causes of this non-regular line up were:
1.  Bryant's shoulder injury became an issue and he was out for an extended period of time.
2. Russell's nagging injuries affected his hitting and fielding in such a manner that he needed more rest.
3. Heyward's defense in RF was more important than his hitting (which then improved under Chili Davis securing more playing time.)
4. Contreras' slumping season at the plate caused him to slowly drop down the order.
5. Maddon likes to play favorites with his veterans like Zobrist, giving him more playing time than with Happ or Almora.
6. And the front office pushing Schwarber as a pure hitter so he had to play LF to get at-bats.
7. Maddon's odd approach of putting struggling hitters (including Rizzo) in the lead off spot. (The Soriano philosophy).

Granted, the Cubs won 95 games with this carousel approach. But in the second half of the season, hitting became a real problem and some players may believe it was because of the daily changes in the lineup.

The platoon situation works if you have multiple players who can evenly perform at a high situational level (righty-lefty matchups). But if your roster is filled with .240 hitting utility players, then it really does not matter which ones start a game. The Cubs multiple position player depth is not the same as having a deep bench where the bench player is as good as a starter who earns that position. The bench or role players on the club are now pretty obvious: Schwarber, Almora, Happ, Zobrist, Russell, LaStella, Heyward, Bote. You could start a game with these 8 players, but why would you?

Which players have "earned" a regular starting position? Those players who do not have enough fatal flaws to become a platoon player:

Rizzo at 1B. Bryant at 3B. Baez at 2B/SS.

If a team objectively self-scouts, you can see the need to upgrade all of the other positions with a full time player.  That may be why fans are anxious to see if the Cubs will legitimately go after Bryce Harper and/or Manny Machado. Those players would be penciled in to start 154 games.

Even if the front office is handcuffed into keeping its existing roster, spring training would be an open battle field to determine who will be the starting 8. If Bote can hit enough, that would move Bryant to the outfield. If Russell can regain his ability to hit the ball with power and RBI numbers, Baez can be set at second. Do you trust Almora to be your regular center fielder? Will Heyward be content being only a late inning defensive substitute? This is the perplexing problem the Cubs must address this off-season as Epstein was not happy with the direction of the club as it finished 2018.

Fans are like the players when it comes to a set lineup. They pay to see the best players on their team. If there is a set lineup, they are almost guaranteed to see their favorite player play.

October 26, 2018

HARPER'S FAIRY TALE

Bryce Harper has been waiting for this pay day since he was called up at age 19.

Now at 26, he can get a mega long term deal as a free agent. He has a super agent in Scott Boras.

There are several problems on the bumpy road to mega wealth as the highest paid baseball player in history.

First, he had a down season.

Second, the free agent market dipped significantly last season. There are several big market big spenders who have had enough of luxury tax penalties to stop their spendthift ways.

Third, Harper is a one dimensional player. His defense continues to slide from below average to bad.

Fourth, he has a growing reputation as a clubhouse diva.

Bruce Levine reported this week that Harper's "starting" point for negotiations is 10 years/$350 million.  The agent is trying to set the bar higher than Giancarlo Stanton's current record deal of $325 million.

But in comparative terms, Stanton has earned more of his contract than Harper is asking for.

Stanton:
2018 4.0 WAR .266 BA 38 HR 100 RBI
2017 7.6 WAR .281 BA 59 HR 132 RBI
2016 2.6 WAR .281 BA 27 HR 74 RBI (119 GP)

Harper
2018 1.7 WAR .249 BA 34 HR 100 RBI
2017 4.7 WAR .319 BA 29 HR 87 RBI (111 GP)
2016 1.5 WAR .243 BA 24 HR 86 RBI

In 9 seasons, Stanton has 39.2 WAR (an average of 4.36 WAR).
In 7 seasons, Harper has 27.4 WAR (an average of 3.91 WAR).

For a valuation standard, Stanton is still worth .45 WAR per season more than Harper.
On a salary formula basis, Stanton is worth $2.475 million per season more than Harper.

Stanton is set to make $26 million in 2019.
Harper would then project to make only $23.525 million or only $235.25 million over ten years.

If Harper is set on signing a $350 million deal, he may have to wait a long time.
Last year, JD Martinez held out but had to sign a five year, $110 million deal with the Red Sox. Martinez had a 6.4 WAR in 2018 and his team is in the World Series. (Martinez does have several opt out clauses including after the 2019 season, but the market may not have changed by then.)

In order to boost a deal, Harper needs to have more than one club after his services. The only club remotely interested in Harper has been his old team, the Nationals. But the Nats are on the verge of a rebuild as their veteran roster has to start to turn over.

The Phillies could be another suitor. The Phils overachieved last season, but its front office would have to weigh routing their rebuilding process with a high price veteran. Nick Williams is penciled in as the Phils RF for 2019.

The usual big money spenders will probably be quiet this off-season: Dodgers, Cubs, Red Sox, Yankees and Angels. The Rangers and Braves may spend money on pitching but not position players.

We will know after the Winter Meetings in December if the free agent market will continue to cool.

October 20, 2018

GAME CHANGER

Justin Verlander spoke to the media about the scandal of the Astros "spying" on their opponent's dugout. He said the company line about the spy was really trying to see if the Red Sox were cheating.

But he went on to say something about sign stealing and speeding up pace of play. Yahoo Sports quotes the Astro ace from his Thursday press conference:

Given that cameras are everywhere, do you have any ideas how to make the sign stealing stuff go away, whether it’s wireless headsets, the communication —
It’s a good question. You know, honestly, I think something that came up for me in talking about pace of game might also help, which is, like you said, some wireless — you see in the NFL with the quarterback, a way to converse between pitcher and catcher and honestly between manager and catcher. I thought — I brought this issue to MLB last year and thought that for pace of game that could probably save 20 minutes a game.
You think of all the signs everybody’s going through — between pitcher/catcher, manager/catcher, especially when a guy gets on second base, I mean the game comes to a halt when that happens because of all the technology and we know that you need to be aware of it.
But I think that can also help. It’s not going to help pitch tipping, but I think it will help a lot with the sign stuff. And I think — I mean, I think this is a lot to do about nothing. I think it’s more peace of mind for the pitchers. Like I said, especially in the playoffs, you don’t want there to be any lingering doubt of anything. You want the only reason you get beat to be because you got beat. You don’t want to have to think it’s something else. That’s why you’re seeing all these advanced signs.
Yahoo Sports calculated that the wireless signal calling could speed up the average game by 10 minutes.

But this discussion does not really address the REAL problem. The real problem is that managers and coaches are trying to micromanage the game into a video realm. In the past, the pitcher and catcher had their own "books" on how to get players out. They would review their pitching strategy for the entire game. The catcher would not look to the dugout before each pitch. He would put down the sign and the pitcher, the ultimate one in control of the situation, would agree or shake off the sign. A pitcher knows what is working that day; he knows how he feels. He should have the baseball IQ to pitch to the situation.  

The NFL having an offensive coordinator calling every play through a headset actually turns the game into a battle of sideline guys. The view from the sideline is not the same from that behind center. The QB is the one who sees the flow of the defense; he can see the matchups at the line of scrimmage. But he is told what to do. He is not supposed to audible. He calls the play and has to get through his check downs quickly before being hit by a defender. 

In the past, the quarterback called the plays. Peyton Manning was the last traditional QB in the game. He called all the plays because he was a "coach" on the field. He understood defenses. He understood his players strengths and weaknesses. He could game plan and adapt on the fly. That is why he was a great, winning QB. 

If you want to speed up the game AND bring it back to its roots, the pitcher (like an old school QB) should call his own pitches, take command of his own performance and own his own accountability. That would be a real game changer.


October 15, 2018

PHILOSOPHY OF NEW STATS

Baseball core principles are changing as advanced stats become the norm.

Batting averages, the key stat in a hitter's success, are now downplayed or discarded in favor of OBP or OPS. The league is now flooded with .230 hitters with high strike out rates because power stats are more "valuable" than a single or a single out (strikeout). If a lineup is filled with .230 hitters, it is more prone to long batting slumps. In 2018, the Cubs found that out the hard way by scoring one or fewer runs in 41 games.

No one is trying to find a traditional lead off hitter. A person who hits for high average, can work a walk, and steal a base with ease. The reason is that stat men believe a steal is a risky and worthless strategy. Teams no longer think on ways to "manufacture" a run when the trend is still the 3- run HR or bust mentality.

There are so many .230 BA strike out machines that pitchers no longer have to "pitch to contact." In other words, starters use to have to conserve energy to pitch 8 innings/start. But today, they are nibble on the corners and try to "trick" batters into missed swings. Other pitchers just rely on two pitches, a fastball and an off-speed pitch, and throw as hard as possible knowing that they are on a 100 pitch count. It does not matter if you are in the third or sixth, at 100 you are going to get yanked. So wins, an old measure of starting pitcher success, is another meaningless stat in the modern age. Pitchers don't have the mind set to go out a "win" a complete game because management has diminished their role by bolstering the bullpen to finish games. It also is driven by the fact that pitchers give up more hits the third time around in the batting order. So teams are planning to get a pitcher, however effective, out by the time the batting order rolls around for the third time.

All the nibbler pitchers have increased the time of games, and contributed to the wide variance in strike zones called by umpires. In the past, a quality pitcher will blister the zone with his best pitch challenging the hitter to hit it. Now, batters are sitting back looking for "a mistake" to hit. Since the pitcher has the advantage, most do themselves no great service by throwing outside the zone.

Traditional pitching coaches preach that it is not velocity that matters most in pitching, it is movement. But velocity speed guns are still the primary tool to evaluate pitchers. A 100 mph straight fast ball can be hit by any major talent. It is the 94 mph pitch that moves sideways or plummets down that causes batters more problems. Bruce Sutter was an ace closer not because he had a dynamic fastball, but because he developed the original fork ball, an enticing pitch that looked like a heart of the plate fastball until it dropped off a table at the last moment. Sutter was looking for swings and misses, but he could throw his fork ball for called strikes. He was a pitcher not a thrower.

A pitcher has a plan for each batter, because each batter has a hole in his swing. A sinker ball master can have opponents beat the ball to the infielders for easy outs. Such a plan limits the starter's pitch count and gets the entire team into the game. A thrower gets on the mound a rears back for every pitch. He does not really know where it will land because control is not his primary principle.

With all the new stat analysis, what is lost is the more basic elements of the game: runs and outs. Each team has 27 outs to score runs. How you use those outs to get runs is important. A "productive" out such as a sacrifice bunt, hitting to the opposite field, a sacrifice fly are all downplayed today. Teams have horrible collective stats with runners in scoring position. Why? An individual stat priority takes precedence over the proper situational play like moving the runner over, of choking up on the bat to hit a single instead of a home run. Scoring runs should be the priority of every player, but there is now an inherent bias to put individual stats (that's how players are paid) ahead of the team.

Front offices continue to hire cheaper, non-old school managers who management can control more with stats than gut strategy. The game is morphing into a video game without controllers.

October 12, 2018

SOME KEY STATS

A major league team filled with a roster of "replacement level players" would be expected only to win 48 games. In reviewing the Cubs 2018 season, let us look at a few key statistics.

The Cubs won 95 games. That is 47 games above replacement level.

The Cubs combined hitters had a 24.0 WAR.

The Cubs pitching staff had a 21.1 WAR.

Combined, the roster had a 45.1 WAR.

In the end, the Cubs wins was 1.9 above their collective WAR. So the Cubs won two more games than reasonably expected during the season. Is this the quantitative measure of Maddon's managerial skill?

If you look at the Cubs win total to actual WAR, the 1.9 WAR difference is 4.2 percent. That would equate to a projected seasonal impact in approximately 7 games (6.82).

The Cubs were 11th in the NL with 104 errors made. That means the Cubs gave their opponents 104 more outs, or the equivalent of 3.85 games. For a tired pitching staff, adding another 4 games to 163 regular season contests is a burden. They had to perform 2.4 percent more than the norm.

Errors create base runners which leads to more "highly leveraged" pitching situations. For starters, that means changing one's mechanic's to the stretch position. For relievers, it puts more pressure to get strikes with your best pitch. For relievers, the errors could have added an average hidden  4 1/3 IP  to their work load, or 4 more appearances during the season. Cishek had 80 appearances for 70.1 IP. Wilson had 60 appearances for 52.1 IP.

The Cubs season could be summed up as being conflicted; there was inconsistent offense and tired pitching but it lead to a slight overachievement in the end.

October 11, 2018

BRYANT TO WALK

Multiple reports having Kris Bryant turning down a $200 million extension offer from the Cubs.

Bryant's agent, Scott Boras, is looking for his MVP winner in three years to hit the open market. A market, which two years ago, thought Bryce Harper would potentially reach the $400 million mark. But Boras and other top agents hit the wall last season when the free agent market tanked on star players. Harper's market value has plummeted with the misfortunes of the Nationals. Being a diva and not a five tool player has hurt Harper's valuation. But the market makers, the large big budget teams, are now more concerned about staying under the luxury tax or spending caps to bankrupt their draft picks and international pool money.

For the Cubs to even offer Bryant such a deal after his weak 2018 campaign is telling; someone in management thinks the Cubs window of opportunity for championships is longer than three years. But to offer any player $200 million is a risky proposition. Bryant has had various injuries that kept him out of the lineup for 60 games. Most troublesome is a shoulder injury for which rest did not help. It screwed up his batting mechanics to the point where he became a weak singles hitter. The Cubs do not need another .275 BA, big money singles hitter (i.e. Heyward.)

Player salaries continued to rocket northward from 2009 to 2016. In 2009 free agency, a star player would receive approximately $1.3 million/WAR. By 2012, the value increased to $3.3 million. It peaked around $6 million/WAR. Last off-season, J.D. Martinez had a 4.2 WAR. He was one of the few power hitting free agents. After a long wait, Boston signed him for decrease in his asking price, around $5.6 million/WAR. Other free agents got less.

Bryant and his agent are still miffed that their grievance on manipulating service time cost Bryant an earlier escape into free agency. But the Cubs did pay him more money than the minimum prior to arbitration eligibility. The Cubs have paid record arb awards to Bryant. He will make from $14 to 16 million in 2019. If you look at Martinez's Red Sox valuation, Bryant only had 1.9 WAR in 2018. That would equate to only a $10.4 million 2019 salary. Bryant's 2019 salary is still based on "talent" and not "performance," something Theo Epstein was in general bitter about his team during the post-season press conference. He had earned a record for a first-year arbitration-eligible player $10.85 million in 2018.

To offer Bryant $20 million/year extension means that the Cubs would not exercise the option on Hamels. The team would have to shed more money to keep under the salary cap, probably packaging Russell ($3 million), Schwarber ($1.3 million) and Chatwood ($12.5 million) in order to pay for Bryant's extension. All three of those Cub players are at their lowest trade value. They may have gone stale from their prospect-scouting talent projections based on recent performance.

Boras may still be misreading the future of MLB. The bottom of the market could crash in the next three years because MLB cannot count on a billion dollar national television deal. MLB teams cannot reasonably believe they will get a billion dollar windfall by creating their own Yankee network or Dodgers channel because cable operators are bleeding to death by cord cutters who refuse to pay for sports channels. Boras and other agents may think smart owners may cash out their investment in the next few years so some new rich guy will come to the table ready to spend money for "star" players.  So the odds are that Bryant will take a dangerous jog down the path of free agency.

October 6, 2018

THE SAME POSITION

The Cubs find themselves in the same position as they did last off-season.

The Cubs are in need of the following:

1. TWO STARTING PITCHERS.  Darvish and Chatwood signings were a total disaster. Darvish has an arm injury and Chatwood is a walk machine. Darvish injury is a stress reaction which is a precursor to a stress fracture in his elbow. It was reported that 8 weeks of rest would be the treatment plan, but one has to put a question mark on whether the injury is problematic (due to mechanic's etc). Chatwood may get a second chance, but most believe he can maybe salvageable as a long reliever. Montgomery was the 6th starter for most of the year. In 19 starts, he went 5-6, 3.99 ERA and 1.1 WAR. That may not be enough to claim the 5th starter role in 2019. The Cubs have to prepare to sign two more starting pitchers this off-season (Smyly does not count since he did not recover from his injury in the projected time frame to help the club in 2018).

2. LEAD OFF HITTER. Ever since Dexter Fowler left for free agency, the Cubs have not had a consistent lead off hitter (even though Fowler was not the prototypical lead off batter). It was recently reported that not all Cub players are happy with Maddon's new line-up everyday philosophy. Players want an established lineup order to better prepare for their games. The idea of leading off Rizzo, Bryant, or Baez (usually to get them out of slumps) hurt the run producing slots down the line. The Cubs had a major issue in run scoring. It was feast or famine. The second half was a painful drought. In 40 games, the Cubs scored less than 3 runs. The Cubs could not manufacture a run with a walk, stolen base and a single (only when pinch runner Gore made the club was there a slight glimmer of old school baseball.) When the hitting philosophy changed from launch angle/home run upper cuts to level line drive/opposite field for average, the Cubs offense was more ineffective. Having a high OBP, contact hitter with stolen base speed at the top of the order allows the Cubs the ability to manufacture at least a run every three times through the order. But advanced statistics (which Theo seems to be addicted to) calls out base steals as being counter-productive (risk-reward).

3. CLOSER. Morrow signing was hailed as a good move, but risky. He had a history of arm issues. But the front office said that the team would not "overuse" him. But Maddon, who really has a problem managing his bullpens, used Morrow three games in a row (for no apparent reason) which led to Theo believing that ended Morrow's season. The alternative closers did not step up to replace Morrow. Edwards seems to lose concentration in high leverage situations. Strop can be good, but Maddon making him bat after throwing 1 2/3 innings which led to his hamstring injury killed the final run. Cishek was overused by Maddon throughout the season so that his throwing arm is a foot longer than normal. There is no dominant arm in AAA to be the next closer. It is hard to trust whether Morrow will come back fully healthy, or whether he can be the regular closer in 2019.

The front office was under orders to not go over the luxury tax threshold in 2018. They bumped up to the ceiling by the end of the year. There is not much coming off the payroll for 2019. With arbitration players and existing contracts, the Cubs project to be near the $200 million mark, only $6 million from the new tax cap. If Russell is given his walking papers or traded, that saves around $3 million. A $9 million window will not sign a big FA like Harper, or exercise the $20 million option for Hamels.

You have to realize that there is still tension between baseball operations and the "business" side of the Cubs. Ricketts and Kenney were budgeting and banking on the Cubs going deep in the playoffs. The was the expectation from fans and ownership. If the Cubs would have gotten to the NLCS, the team could have banked at least $60 million in premium post-season revenue. That has to be a sore spot for the bean counters and the huge investment Ricketts has made outside the ball park. There is no reason to expect the Cubs to spend like drunken sailors this off-season to get an ace pitcher and a big expensive bat after spending $186 million on Darvish, Chatwood and Morrow who are under contract.

When Theo said in his state of the Cubs post-season press conference that they would be not looking at "talent" but "performance," he was calling out his young core guys: Schwarber, Happ, Contreras, Almora. Theo has a track record of loving his guys to the point of over-valuing them (and not trading them when they had value). Some reporters believe after the flat finish to the season, no one is untradeable from the roster.  But the front office and scouts may still have rose color glasses on their players "turning things around."  The roster is filled with .230 hitting platoon players. It would be rare for all of them at the same time to have sudden career years in 2019.  Spring training needs to be a battle for starting positions. Give the position to the player who earns it, so he can be hungry enough during the season to perform to keep it. That level of internal competition has been missing in the clubhouse under Maddon because juggles the lineup so everybody plays. But that track may not help in the development of players. Likewise, giving the job to a player on the up-cycle (like Contreras at catcher) does not necessarily guarantee continued success (at least offensively).

In one respect, the Cubs 2019 roster is pretty much hand cuffed by the underperforming core of young players. The Cubs championship window is now (and closing fast). The win-now demands means that they cannot shop for prospects and wait three years to promote them to the major league team. Do you blow up the team and trade for veterans on the downhill side of their careers for one last death march to the pennant? Of do you stay the choppy course with the guys you have?

October 3, 2018

CUBTOPSY

The lunch time sports radio is all about Cub disappointment.
And a storm cloud on the horizon future is the metaphor for the future.

Here's the preliminary Cubs autopsy:

 LEFT FIELD: Is Schwarber's .236 BA, 25 HR, 61 RBI, 1.5 WAR
enough to keep a full time job in 2019? Probably not
if Bryant is going to move to LF to protect his lame shoulder.
Which leads to a bigger question: will Bryant fully recover
from his injuries or is he going to stay a singles hitter?

CENTER FIELD: Will Almora be given the full time job
or will Maddon continue to use Happ as his primary guy?
Almora .286 BA is good but lacks power (5 HR). His overall
1.7 WAR is surprisingly low for a defensive specialist
which equates to be a bench guy. But Happ is not the
answer either: .235 BA, 15 HR 44 RBI 0.5 WAR.

RIGHT FIELD: Heyward has the big money contract so
the management forces him to start. .270 BA, 8 HR, 57 RBI, 1.6 WAR
is not a power corner outfielder. Zobrist's come back year of
.305 BA, 9 HR, 58 RBI, 3.3 WAR took time late in the season
away from Heyward. But Zo is turning 39 and his defensive range
is becoming a real issue.

In essence, the Cubs ran their outfield last season with 6
bench players sharing time instead of getting solid, proven
starters like the Brewers did with Yelich and Cain. There is
strong argument to be made that none of them have won
a starting job for next season, but there is no one in the
minors who will push for a starting role.

THIRD BASE: by default this is Bryant's spot, but
you have to be skeptical with his injuries. Bote was the
surprise call up, but his magic turns to myth when you look
at his final stats: .239 BA, 6 HR, 33 RBI, 1.0 WAR. Again,
Bote looks like a defensive replacement/bench player.

SHORTSTOP: Management likes Russell, but his suspension
and lingering injuries have affected his ability to a two-way player.
.250 BA, 5 HR, 38 RBI, 2.0 WAR are bench player numbers.

SECOND BASE: Baez had a team MVP season.: .290 BA,
34 HR, 111 RBI, 6.3 WAR. He is the first real starter in this
season review.

FIRST BASE: the second is Rizzo. .283 BA, 25 HR, 101 RBI,
2.7 WAR are respectable stats, but it should be noted that
Rizzo's WAR has steadily decreased since its 6.3 peak in 2015.

CATCHER: Contreras fell off the Earth in the second half of the season.
He bolted on the seen as the next great NL catcher. But 2018 was
a struggle: .249 BA, 10 HR, 54 RBI.

The Cubs offensive woes are clearly visible when you look at the
main players final stats. Of the 8 position players, only 3 (if you
include Contreras) rate as major league starters.


A fist full of .235 hitting players platooning with other .235 hitting players
is not going to create a .300 hitting position player.

The Cubs have hit the business side's glass ceiling for payroll in 2018.
There is a question of whether the team has any room to sign a quality free agent
or exercise Hamels $20 million option. The glass ceiling is the luxury tax limit
which Ricketts abhors to pay. The current penalties for overspending two years
in a row handcuffs front offices from both amateur and international signings. 

The Cubs midseason was on pace to spend $193 million with the luxury tax
threshold at $197 million. It will be close. Next year, the tax floor is raised
to $206 million.  But a look at the commitments for 2019, no opening day
salaried player is coming off the books. Instead, there are a few options
to retain players but no big window to spend a great deal more to get a
$25 million player like Bryce Harper.

This would be bearable if the farm system was ready to churn out major
league rookie prospects like the Dodgers organization does on an annual basis.
The Cubs are stuck with their current roster for the foreseeable future.

UPDATE: 10-10-18

MLBTR projects the Cubs will pay their arbitration eligible players a combined $40.1 million next season. That is an increase of approximately $21 million.

According to Sportac, the Cubs had the fourth-highest payroll in 2018 at $194,259,933. As we stated, the roster may not see a lot of  turnover (the bullpen may be the exception), but just adding the increase in arbitration salaries shows the Cubs projected payroll of $215 million for 2019 will be over the luxury cap by $9 million. This projection does not include exercise of Hamels $20 million or Kintzler's $5 million options.

September 6, 2018

BULLPENNING

In the evolution of baseball strategy, the role of the starting pitcher has diminished dramatically. In the past, including the modern golden era of the 1960s and even through to early 2000s, a premium position was starting pitcher. Aces were paid like stars. They were expected to pitch 7 or 8 quality innings for 35 times a season. They were expected to win 20 games. The mental position was that once I got the ball on the mound in the first inning, I would not leave until the game was over.

But there has been a sudden shift in pitching philosophy. The idea of a complete game by a starter is ancient history. Starters are now expected to only pitch through the 5th of 6th inning. Bullpens have expanded to 8 or 9 relievers making the bench for position players extremely small.

Tampa Bay started to carry this trend to a new level by "bullpenning" games. The stat mavens have concluded that starters get weaker as they go through the opponent's lineup a second or third time. Therefore, to eliminate that outcome, a manager will take out a starter, however effective that day, for a series of bullpen arms. But the Rays have started to adopt a more radical approach: start games with bullpen arms and let starters become long, middle relievers. It has worked as the Rays have the best team ERA since May.

Some people are not happy.

The Oakland Athletics are among Major League Baseball’s most surprising contending teams this season. The Athletic website reports that a late-season change in pitching philosophy could threaten to disrupt the relationship between the players and front office.

It all started over the weekend when the A’s became the latest team to adopt the “bullpenning” approach to pitching. Scheduled starter Daniel Mengden arrived to the ballpark for Saturday’s game against the Seattle Mariners expecting to begin his usual pregame routine. That’s when manager Bob Melvin informed him of the change in plans.

Instead, reliever Liam Hendriks was getting the starting nod as an opener, while Mendgen only knew he’d be pitching multiple innings in relief. The confusion admittedly led to frustration, and Mendgen’s performance suffered as a result.

Rather than go through one warm up routine, Mendgen was asked to warm up three different times before entering in the third inning. Seattle took advantage of the staggered Mendgen, scoring three runs in two innings. Now the entire A’s clubhouse seems to be wondering if bullpenning is necessary to achieve their goals.

The A’s obviously took notice of Tampa Bay’s success. Injuries to starters Sean Manaea and Brett Anderson left their rotation depth even thinner, Oakland's management decided bullpenning can help cover their rotation shortcomings. In long stretches during the season with no days off, a manager, including Cubs Joe Maddon, have had to resort to a "bullpen" game where a long reliever started hoping to get 3 or 4 good innings of work, then have the rest of the pen mop up. No starters were sacrificed in bullpen games.

Starting pitchers are creatures of habit. They prefer getting to the ballpark knowing what they have to do and when they have to do it to get ready. They have a set time to prepare for each game. They go over hitter charts with the catcher and bench coach. The pitcher starts his long toss and long bullpen session to get ready for the first inning. IN that preparation, a starter can see what pitches are actually working that day, and to adapt prior to seeing the first batter. It is totally different for a bullpen arm, who may only have 5 minutes to warm up (sometimes less).

“It’s going to affect the routine a little bit,” Mengden said after Saturday’s game. “But you have to adjust to it. It’s a little different sitting down for an inning or two in the bullpen. But playing at this level you have to be ready for anything and make adjustments on the fly.”

Mendgen adjusted well the second time he was asked to follow a reliever, tossing 4 2/3 scoreless innings of relief in Tuesday’s game against the New York Yankees. However, frustration remains in the clubhouse because such a drastic change came without any warning. Players like knowing what’s going on, and like being able to prepare ahead of time.

Whether this is a trend, or part of an effort to reduce costs (relievers are less expensive than starters) will be seen. Tampa Bay is not in a pennant race, but the A's are in one.


August 28, 2018

BOOSTER SHOTS

Since the Cubs acquired second baseman Daniel Murphy, the team is 6-0.
Murphy is hitting .407, 2 HR, 5 RBI, .448 OBP and 0.4 WAR since leading off for the Cubs. He solved two problems: the lead off hitter slot and the weak offensive production. He was the spark plug that ignited the Cubs current six game winning streak.

Cole Hamels has been a godsend to the Cubs rotation. Not only has he taken the place of Yu Darvish, he has pushed the other starters to perform better. In his five starts (all Cub victories), he is 4-0, 0.79 ERA, 0.941 WHIP. As a veteran presence, he took some pressure off Jon Lester to lead a shaky staff into the final two month grind of the season.

On the South Side, the White Sox starting pitchers have a streak of quality starts. Michael Kopech's debut in the rain was impressive, as was his second start. He is 1-0 with a 1.13 ERA. But even more impressive has been Carlos Rodon. He has solidified his role as a #1 starter (and was one of the reasons the Sox traded Chris Sale). Rodon is 6-3, 2.70 ERA, 1.007 WHIP. Young starters Reynolaldo Lopez and Lucas Giolito have been coming on strong after a rocky first half of the season.

The 2019 rotation is starting to take shape very quickly. A White Sox staff of Rodon, Kopech, Lopez, Giolito and a fifth starter from Carson Fullmer, Dylan Covery, Jordan Stepehns, Tyler Danish or Donn Roach will be solid. After completing the starting pitching part of the rebuild, it should be easier to consolidate the offense when Elroy Jimenez joins the team in late April, 2019.

It is interesting to note that the addition of a player or two can really turn around a ball club with both excitement and enhanced performance.

August 2, 2018

RECAP DEALS

 The Cubs made the following moves:

Players acquired: LHP Cole Hamels (TEX), RHP Brandon Kintzler (WSH), RHP Jesse Chavez (TEX)

Players traded: RHP Eddie Butler (TEX), RHP Rollie Lacy (TEX), RHP Jhon Romero (WSH), LHP Tyler Thomas (TEX), player to be named later (TEX)

MLB.com notes that the Cubs were able to reinforce their bullpen and rotation without losing any top prospects, improving their playoff odds in the short term without compromising their future.

Well, the Cubs farm system is extremely weak, near the bottom in most current rankings.  The Cubs gave up Class A prospects for the three pitchers. A quick scouting report shows why.

Hamels is at the end of his career. He was great in 2008. He was traded to the Rangers and had a good season and excellent post season. But this year he has been horrible at home and okay on the road. He is no longer the ace of a pitching staff. He may be best viewed as a hang-around fifth starter in the mode of last year's John Lackey.

Kintzler has been a meh middle reliever for the Nationals. Nothing special except his veteran status. The Cubs bullpen burnout is happening quicker this season than in Maddon's recent past. Maddon has rarely used AAA call-ups for innings unless he was pressed to the extreme (and they failed and got sent back down.) Maddon may also be getting Dusty Baker scared of using some of his staff (Wilson, Duensing, Chatwood) in high leverage situations.

Chavez may be the best pitcher of the bunch. Scouts call him a "rubber arm" pitcher. He throws strikes, challenges hitters and so far been quite effective. He may teach other pitchers not be throwers who nibble on the corners because they are afraid their pitches will get hit. Chavez has the reputation of throwing his best stuff in the zone daring the hitter to make contact. As we all know, even the best hitters fail to get a hit 70 percent of the time. Patient hitters with non-confident pitchers who lack control can get on base more than 40 percent of the time.

The move that could have shored up the rotation would have been to trade for former Cub farm product Chris Archer. The Rays received two major league players from the Pirates, both under the age of 25. To make that deal, it seems the Cubs would have had to trade Russell or Happ and Edwards or Strop to get Archer.

But in the end, the Cubs think they have enough starters in Lester, Quintana, Hendricks, Hamels, Montgomery, Chatwood and rehabbing Darvish plus Smyly to make it to the post-season.  

July 27, 2018

MORE COLE IN YOUR STOCKING

The Cubs were forced to make a move. Tyler Chatwood had another aggravating outing of walking 6 batters and putting the team into an early, big deficit.  Yu Darvish has been slow in his recovery to the point the team is now counting on a TJ-rehabber in Drew Smyly to make an impact in September.

So the Cubs made a trade for a second or third tier veteran starter in Cole Hamels. He has a no-hitter and a WS ring on his resume, but he has struggled for the Rangers this season. As MLBTR reports, the 34-year-old Hamels isn’t the ace that he once was, and he’s had his share of struggles in 2018 — albeit nearly all of them coming at his homer-happy home stadium in Arlington. Hamels is surrendering home runs at a career-worst rate, but it’s somewhat telling that 16 of the 23 round-trippers he’s yielded have come at Globe Life Park. Hamels has a 6.41 ERA, a 6.16 FIP and a 4.49 xFIP when pitching at home this season but a 2.93 ERA, 4.17 FIP and 3.83 xFIP on the road.

This is the same logic Theo used to justify signing Chatwood to a three year deal. Get him out of the hitter friendly Coors Field climate, and he will do great. It is apparent that throwing strikes or allowing home runs is not solely dependent on the climate.

The Cubs rotation, except for Lester, cannot get through five innings in any consistent manner. Hamels has to fit into the fourth or fifth starter role with the mentality of six plus innings in order to save the bullpen. Hendricks had another iffy outing, Quintana has had one quality start and two good ones in his last three, and Montgomery is hitting the wall by the fifth inning.

I suspect that Montgomery will move back into the bullpen as the long relief, emergency closer role from 2016.  Hamels will be in the rotation until Darvish returns. Then the real decision has to be made: keep sending Chatwood out to the mound to wet the bed, or go to a six man rotation (which Lester opposes.) You cannot trust the lack of command in Chatwood to be a leveraged relief pitcher. You can't waste Hamels potential for eating early innings in the bullpen.

In 20 starts this year, Hamels is 5-9, 4.72 ERA, 1.373 WHIP, 0.8 WAR. He is averaging 5 2/3 IP per start. If he fits into the rotation, the Cubs could probably count on 10-12 more starts from him (which would be slightly better than Chatwood's numbers). 

The Cubs gave up two minor league pitchers and a possible player-to-be-named later for Hamels. The Rangers will still eat most of the money owed to Hamels. Whether Hamels has anything left in the tank is the value of this trade.

July 25, 2018

SECOND HALF ISSUES

The Cubs surged into first before the AS break, but now have begun to wobble in the heat of July.

Kyle Hendricks is not the old Hendricks, a pinpoint professor in the art of pitching. Teams have finally figured him out. An 88 mph fastball is not his out pitch. Batters are now sitting on change ups that are in the hitting zone. As Hendricks relies more on off-speed stuff on the corners, umpires are taking away is major advantage by calling more balls. Patient hitters and smaller strike calls is making Hendricks an average pitcher. It could change if he uses his fastball more to keep the batters honest and off-guard.

Kris Bryant was pulled from the line-up because of his shoulder issue. He said before the ASG that it was an injury that he will have to deal with throughout the season. But word is that he cannot even swing the bat. That means a probable DL stint and the return of Bote at third. Having Bryant out of the line-up puts more pressure on Rizzo, who is trying to hit his way out of his own personal slump by leading off. But Maddon will have to move Rizzo out of the #1 spot to increase scoring chances if Bryant goes on the DL.

Yu Darvish is becoming a real bad issue. The Cubs were happy that Darvish  yesterday threw 16 pitches off the mound after three weeks of rest. Sixteen pitches is not a start. It seems that Darvish's progress has been painstakingly slow. The front office is counting more on Drew Smyly coming off Tommy John surgery than Darvish. Montgomery was great when he first took Darvish's spot in the rotation, but now after a half dozen starts, he is falling back into being an average starter (which ironically is better than the Cubs original 4th and 5th starters).

Javy Baez is trying to do too much. He got throw out again for aggressive baserunning. He needs to calm down and let the team win games. Baez is the Cubs current MVP. He is the only true five tool player on the roster who can make exciting plays at the plate and in the field. But Baez has a history of coming unglued at the bat.  Let us see if he has matured enough to adjust to his new leader-by-example role.

The bullpen was re-tooled in order to be ready for the post-season. Brandon Morrow was the new closer, and Maddon kept him on the light work load. But Morrow got hurt anyway (which is his M.O.). The rotation has been sub-par all year, with very few quality starts. More times than not, starters are barely throwing five innings - - - which taxes the bullpen to the extreme that now four different position players have thrown in relief. Jesse Chavez acquisition was needed to find a "rubber" arm veteran who can do long relief, short relief, close and spot start. But asking Chavez to be the bullpen godsend is asking too much.

The Cubs offense still runs in feast or famine mode. They score a lot of runs, or they score very little. Consistency in the batting order could be blamed for the hot and cold mentality, but Maddon would disagree. He wants to use his entire roster to keep them fresh and in the game. But since the ASG, he has literally given up midway through 2 games (for losses).

The Cubs probably need to make a big move at the trade deadline, but they do not have any great minor league prospects to trade. And Theo and Jed are in love with "their" guys to trade away Happ, Schwarber or Almora.

July 19, 2018

THE BREAK

The Cubs surged into (or do you say the Brewers stumbled out of) first place in the NL Central. And, by a matter of mathematical magic, the Cubs have the best record in the NL.

But the consensus is that the Cubs lofty position was more to blind luck and a weak league than a juggernaut of goodness.

Bryant and Rizzo are having sub-par seasons.

Hendricks and Quintana have regressed from last season.

Chatwood has been a wild pitching machine disaster.

Darvish is MIA.

On the plus side, Baez has become the MLB poster boy for fun, on offense, defensive and on the base paths. How many runners can score from first on a stolen base attempt of second?

Lester is pitching well. Morrow has not blown up his arm (yet). Montgomery has been a pleasant surprise in the rotation as the emergency, long-term sixth starter (but even he is beginning to wear down).

We have been lulled to think that Russell, Schwarber, Happ and Almora are having better than expected seasons. The Cubs are near the top in offensive stats, but a lot of their games have either been feast or famine HR contests or a streak of series of oppo-hits, merry-go-round the line up crooked innings.

Pundits believe the Cubs history of having a .660 second half will happen again. The team should cruise to the playoffs. But the Brewers are still better than most people thought they would be. They are one or two trades away from making the race closer than comfort.

And this second half of 2018 has a new components: Rizzo and Bryant must have nagging injuries (back and shoulder); Darvish may be a big-city head case; Contreras may not live up to the hype as the next Molina; and the bullpen has been overworked early because of the poor collective starts of the rotation.

The Cubs are favored to win the NL and should be able to accomplish that feat.

But the Dodgers got Machado in a trade, and the American League is stacked with All-Star Teams (Astros, Red Sox and Yankees). It is not going to be an easy October run.

July 2, 2018

EASY TRADE?

The radio chatter for weeks has been that the Cubs should trade Addison Russell to the Orioles for Manny Machado. It was poised as a simple no brainer deal, especially considering Machado wants to play shortstop.

But is it?

Machado is deemed to be a top 10 player in baseball. In 2018, he is hitting .310, 21 HR, 59 RBI, 5 SB and 1.7 WAR.  However, he has a negative 1.5 dWAR.

Swapping Russell for a rental Machado may have made some sense when the Cubs could not score runs, but after scoring more than 40 in 4 games, is Machado really needed?

In 2018, Russell is hitting .286, 5 HR, 27 RBI, 3 SB and 2.4 WAR.

Yes, Russell has a higher WAR value than Machado. Russell's WAr breaks down 1.4 oWAR and 1.4 dWAR.

Russell has three more years of control while you would have Machado for three months tops.

Russell has lost his luster because of nagging injuries and lack of flash that Baez provides on defense.

But the more the season progresses, the need is less on adding Machado than finding another reliable starting pitcher.

June 21, 2018

MODIFIED ROTATION

The Cubs continue to dance around first place in the NL Central without having consistent starting pitching from the back of the rotation.

Yu Darvish's injury has created multiple issues. Darvish was supposed to be the 1A or 1B starter this season. However, he has gotten off to a rocky start. Some people believe he is trying too hard to justify his large free agent contract. Others believe that the fan culture of a big American city is so different than in Japan that it has affected Darvish in a negative way.

Jon Lester has been the best pitcher on the staff, and maybe in the NL. In 15 starts , he is 9-2, 2.10 ERA in 90 IP with a stellar 2.6 WAR. He is averaging 6 IP/ start.

Darvish is on the opposite end of the spectrum. He has 8 starts with a 1-3 record, 4.95 ERA in 40 IP with a negative 0.3 WAR. He is only averaging 5 IP/start.

Kyle Hendricks has not had a breakout season. In his 14 starts, he is 5-6, 3.55 ERA in 83.2 IP with a 0.9 WAR. He is averaging just under 6 IP/start.

Jose Quintana is hovering around his White Sox stats: in 14 starts, he is 6-5 with 4.06 ERA and 0.0 WAR in 75 IP. He is only averaging 5 1/3 IP/start.

Tyler Chatwood is an enigma. He was an early signing for a lot of money to be a 5th starter. In his 14 starts, he is 3-5, 3.95 ERA in 68.1 IP. He is averaging 4 2/3 IP/start. His WHIP is an outrageous 1.727. He leads the league in walks allowed with 63 (Lester led the team in 2017 with 60 for an entire season).

However, swingman Mike Montgomery has been great as a starter. In his 5 starts, he has gone 2-1, with 1.21 ERA in 29.2 IP. He is 6th in strikeout rate, and 1st in not allowing walks. In his 23 appearances as a starter and reliever, he is 2-2, 3.11 ERA in 55 IP with a 0.9 WAR. He is averaging 6 IP/start.

Montgomery has earned a starting rotation spot. The question is what happens when Darvish gets back from the DL. Does Monty move back into the bullpen or does he stay as a permanent 6th starter. The front office is against having a 6 man rotation. But Maddon does not have Morrow who has back issues. The bullpen is getting burned out because starters cannot go deep into games.

This is the disturbing rotational fact. The starters are not eating innings:

Lester 6 IP/start
Hendricks 6 IP/start
Montgomery 6 IP/start
Quintana 5.1 IP/start
Darvish 5 IP/start
Chatwood 4.2 IP/start

The latter three starters bring into play using 4 relief pitchers in back to back games.

The Cubs still have several make-up games in this summer. A 6th starter like Montgomery is needed, but he needs to remain sharp and stretched out.

Maddon could use his match-up style and put Montgomery into a hybrid 6-man rotation. Keep Lester and Hendricks on their normal 5 day routine, but alternate an extra day for Darvish and Chatwood to plug in Montgomery against a left hand hitting lineup.

June 1, 2018

MISSING PIECES

ESPN's Buster Olney opines that many aspects of the traditional game of baseball are vanishing before our own eyes. Basic managerial strategies like the hit-and-run, or the squeeze bunt, or pitchouts, or stolen bases are all significantly down over the past decade.

The game’s three true outcomes -- the strikeout, the walk, the home run -- have increased exponentially, and "like invasive species, they are swallowing other parts of the game."

He blames the wide spread use of statistical models that are now ruling the game.

Pitchers are now being programmed to make exacting pitch locations with various pitches. So there is no emphasis on keeping a runner close at first base, or worse, wasting a pitch on a pitch out.

Likewise, runners have been taught that the risk-reward for stealing a base is not worth the chance. Unless you have an 80 percent success rate, it is better to stay close to the bag to wait for a batter to walk or hit a home run.

Even with a slow runner on first base, managers used to employ the hit-and-run. The reason was simple: once the runner broke to the bag, one middle infielder had to start moving to cover second. The motion of the defense created holes in the infield that could be exploited by a good contact hitter. But there is a huge lack of .300 contact hitters in the majors. Hitters are being more concerned about their launch angles (swings so they can hit HRs), exit velocity of the ball off the bat (for distance) and OBP (the general manager's pet statistic come contract renewal time.) 

But with the statistical probability defensive grid shifts applied to every batter, the hit and run play may be the only way some batters can actually hit a grounder into the outfield for a single.

With a runner at third with less than two outs, the manager had several options to call. First, the batter could try to hit a deep fly ball to the outfield (sacrifice fly) to score the runner. Second, the batter could make the pitcher work a count, and in a high stress situation may throw a wild pitch to score the runner. Third, the batter could try to fool the infield with a "safety" squeeze in an attempt to get an infield single - - - and if the defenders were not paying attention, the runner from third could try to score in the confusion. Fourth, the manager could on the pitch send the runner racing for home forcing the batter to make any sort of contact in play so the runner could score (the suicide squeeze since the runner would be out if the batter failed to get contact).

Rarely does a manager call for a bunt. The problem is that players don't want to learn to bunt. Bunting does not help their stat line. Players would rather try to get a hit than sacrifice. Sacrifices are left to the weak hitting pitchers in the NL.

For some, major league baseball is now becoming a modified home run derby contest. It is swing for the fences or coax a walk. There is less strategy but more controversy about calls made by umpires (and the breakdown of replay to resolve issues).

Olney may be on to something. The game is supposed to have more moving parts than just pitching and hitting.

May 25, 2018

A DRAG

Yahoo Sports reports:

A group of scientists tasked with finding the reason home runs flew at a record rate in Major League Baseball last season believe the ball’s aerodynamic properties – and particularly the drag on its surface – are the culprit and not changes to the core that would cause extra bounciness, according to a report the league released this week.

In the midst of a season in which players hit a record 6,105 home runs and emboldened juiced-ball theorists, MLB commissioned 10 scientists to study the source of the spike. Using a combination of Statcast data and laboratory testing, the group found that balls in 2016 and 2017 had lower drag coefficients than their predecessors.

What they didn’t find was why.

“It was something of an unsatisfying result,” said Dr. Alan Nathan, a physicist who has studied the game for decades and chaired the group that wrote the 84-page research paper. “We had a set of baseballs that had a much higher than average drag. We had a set of baseballs that had a much lower average drag. We asked ourselves: ‘What’s the difference between these baseballs?’ ”
Nathan’s conclusion: “We cannot find a single property that we can actually measure other than the drag itself that would account for it. … We do admit that we do not understand this.”

Fans had thought the baseball were juiced, i.e. have a tampered inner core which would give the ball farther distance. Getting more out of a sphere's core is the heart, no business model, in the golf ball manufacturing industry.

When experts cannot find out what the difference between two baseballs, that is very strange.

Some pitchers had indicated that they could not get a good grip on the old ball. There could have been two reasons for this: the height of the seams, or the slickness/texture of the leather.  Umpires still use Mississippi mud to rub up the baseballs to take off the factory sheen and add grip. It could be possible that the balls are fundamentally the same components, but there is a change in either the manufacturing or assembly processes. 

In aerodynamics, a lower drag indicates that an object has less air resistance. This could mean that the baseball may stay "airborne" longer, i.e. less dip or drop in the strike zone. A ball in the strike zone is more likely to get hit. In addition, if there is an issue with the grip, there could be less baseball pitch spin rate which would affect the movement and direction of the baseball.

There is another factor in play: the human pitcher. The way games are now called, pitchers are nibbling at the corners to try to get strike outs instead of "pitching to contact."  By pitchers falling behind in the count, batters can hunt their pitch better. Any advantage to the batter could lead to more contact and home runs.

The home run rate is a puzzle that may have many different elements to solve.

May 18, 2018

PERFECTION

This was a first: the best part of last night's Cubs game was the Rain Delay. WGN played highlights from its 70 year baseball broadcast history.

One of the usual Cub historical highlight was Milt Pappas' 1972 "near" perfect game. He walked the next-to-last batter with two outs in the 9th inning on what he believed was a questionable call. The camera angle was behind home plate so the viewer cannot tell, but Pappas reaction on the mound to the call was nuclear.

Pappas was bitter for the rest of his life because of that ball four call.

A perfect game is baseball is defined as pitching a complete game where no runner gets on base by any means (walk, drop third strike, error). But is that definition of perfection really perfect?

Perfect is defined in the dictionary as having all the required or desirable elements, qualities, or characteristics; as good as it is possible to be;  free from any flaw or defect in condition or quality; faultless;  precisely accurate;  and exact.

If you are a starter, what would you classify as the perfect, perfect game?

Pat Hughes continues to say that Kerry Wood's 20 strikeout game was the greatest pitching performance he has ever seen. That may be some biased Cub-homer opinion for Wood's accomplishment. But for an old school, power pitcher, the strike out was the goal against every batter. "You can't hit my stuff." "Take you bat between your legs and get some bench!" That is the mentality.

The "perfect" perfect game would be a pitcher striking out 27 batters in a row. The most strikeouts in a perfect game was 14 by Sandy Koufax (1965) and Matt Cain (2012). 

But we live today in an era of pitch count on starters.  It would be more difficult to have this kind of perfect game: 27 outs in 27 pitches. This improbable rarity would mean that every batter would be swinging on the first pitch. In order to be enticing, the starter would have to throw batting practice speed to the plate and hope his fielders can make every play. But that would mean every pitch was a strike and an out - - - it would be as good as it could get with no flaws (balls).

Baseball has its own language, but when we hear a pitcher is in the midst of a perfect game, is it really "perfect" or just "greater" than a plain no-hitter?

May 13, 2018

CENSOR SHIP

After Cubs relief pitcher Carl Edwards Jr. gave up three runs to the White Sox, a frustrated Cub fan tweeted that the for love of God, send Edwards to Iowa.

The fan reaction was not profane. It was normal. The Cubs have not met fan expectations. This was a championship year in spring training. A solid rotation, a rebuilt bullpen with a live arm closer, and a core of young players who would only get better. But all facets of the club have been disappointing this season. The rotation is hit and miss (more towards miss). The offense has gone into hibernation for most of the season. The defense has been really bad. The bullpen has had its moments.

The Cub fan tweeter was just saying Edwards appearance was not up to major league standards, or the standard the Cubs have set for themselves.

The Cubs responded to the tweet saying that in Edwards last 14 appearances, he had only given up two earned runs. Then the Cubs said that they expected the fan to delete the ("offensive?") tweet. In response, the fan deleted his tweeter account. The Cubs then responded again, trolling the fan with a remark that deleting the account would do.

What is clear is that the "troll" in this tweet volley was the Cubs.

How hypersensitive is the front office to troll its fans after a player has a bad performance?

The fans have invested a great deal of time, money and emotion to follow the franchise. And since the Cubs have been advertising non-stop for ticket sales to games to fill empty seats, one would think it would be bad marketing to criticize an invested fan.

The Cubs sit in third place in a crowded NL Central. The Cardinals and Pirates are surprisingly better than expected while the Brewers improved from last year's good squad. Fans have a right to complain if their team is disappointing them.

That is the big picture. Fans have a right to their opinion. The team has more important things to worry about than trolling their fans: like righting their own listing ship. In this instance, it turns into a form of bullied censorship.


April 17, 2018

WEATHER THERE IS A PROBLEM

Jeff Passan sees a potential MLB problem. In his latest column, he sees a pattern of attendance drop-off in large numbers, notwithstanding the horrible national weather.

After a weekend records for game  postponements, attendance is down precipitously, enough that one league official expressed concern that this isn’t simply a manifestation of the weather but something deeper and more troublesome for the game.
“I’m worried,” and executive told Passan. “The tanking scares me.”

Inside front offices all spring, officials wondered whether the significant number of teams that neither spent in free agency nor harbored realistic notions of contention would have a tangible, negative effect on fans attending games. The early numbers are chilling.

Compared to last season at this juncture, the Boston Red Sox are down about 2,500 fans a game. For the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals, it’s nearly 5,000. The Cleveland Indians’ average crowd has dropped more than 5,000, the Texas Rangers’ more than 7,000 and the Pittsburgh Pirates more than 7,500. The Toronto Blue Jays, Detroit Tigers and Kansas City Royals each are in the 8,000-fan range, and the Miami Marlins are pushing 10,000. The most severe is the Baltimore Orioles, who have played six games at home and are at almost 16,000 fewer per.

Even if some are obviously weather-related, the numbers are nevertheless staggering. The average crowd of 27,532 over the 221 MLB games played this season is about 2,700 fans per game lower than last year through the same point. Over the course of a full season, that would amount to a drop of more than 6.5 million fans.

Now, the last time the league suffered through an April with more postponements than this was 2007. Over the first 225 games that season, the average crowd was 29,888. By the end of the year, that number leaped to 32,704 per game for a total of more than 79.5 million, still the largest attendance figure in the game’s history.

However, last season drew only 73 million fans.  A projected decline of 6. 5 million would be a 8.9 percent decline in attendance. Or at least $325 million in lost gate revenue to the owners.

Weather may have been an early factor. But the high cost of attending games and younger children not playing the sport as much due to school, video games and other entertainment options are other factors to consider. The King of American Sports, the NFL, saw a large decline in TV ratings. Some attributed it to the anthem protests. Others thought it was because parents have stopped allowing their children to play contact football because of concussions. If kids don't play the games they watch on TV, they will likely not watch those games as adults.

April 9, 2018

MESSIN' WITH THE GAME

Baseball is a fundamental sport. You throw the ball, you hit the ball, you catch the ball and you run the bases. It has been a timeless game played by millions of people.

But the overlords of MLB want to mess with the rules to the point of absurdity.

The MLB executives want to "speed up the game." The reason is allegedly to attract attention-deficit disorder youngsters. But in reality, it is to appease the television networks who want to keep games in nice, neat, programmed blocks.

But baseball is the one sport that does not have a game clock. Even though umpires are told to put a timer on pitchers and batters going in and out of the box, the traditional game was meant to be played at its own pace.

So when you have 17 inning marathons that tax both players and managers, fans do appreciate the unique outcomes and drama of extra inning contests.  But MLB wants to force feed results.

The new rule in the minor leagues is to have any extra inning start with a runner on second base. The run expectancy with no outs and a runner on second base is 35 percent.

By implementing the rule, MLB is disrupting the holy grail of fandom: statistics. How do you "place" a runner on second? Is it the next player up in the line up? Or is it "free" managerial extra player, a designated runner, who gets no "at bat." And if the player scores, does his stat line get a "run scored?" Or if it is the next player up, why would he give up an AB since contracts are based upon the "big" stats: average, home runs, RBIs - - - which would be taken away.

Granted, extra inning ball games are not the norm. But that is also the best reason why MLB should not mess with it. Let the game play out in the normal course. So what if a manager runs out of position players. That is part of the charm and strategy of the game. So what if a manager runs out of pitchers. Fans love when their back up catcher comes in to throw an inning.

The extra inning rule experiment should die a quick death in the minors. If baseball wants to attract the next generation, it should help support youth baseball teams because kids who play baseball when they are small will grow up to be fans.

April 5, 2018

A SHIFT IN DEFENSE

Defense and statistic metrics have become so important in baseball. Teams can now accurately predict each batter's contact areas, fly ball rates, ground out locations, etc. The extreme shifts on certain pull hitters have become the norm.

But the Astros have taken defense alignment to a new level: the four outfielder set up. As Yahoo Sports noted, it was a success:

The first player to face the Astros extreme shift is one Houston will see a lot of over the years. Rangers slugger Joey Gallo, whose power-oriented approach often leads him to hit the ball in the air, looked out and saw this arrangement before him.

Astros third baseman Alex Bregman became the fourth outfielder and essentially played a straight up left field. Houston puts its three remaining infielders on the right side, with second baseman Jose Altuve essentially playing short right field. That wrinkle is included because of Gallo’s tendency to pull the ball to right field.

After one game anyway, Houston’s extreme shift should be considered a success.
Gallo hit directly into the shift in three of his four plate appearances. In the first inning, he lofted a fly ball to the relocated Bregman in left field. In the fourth, he hit a sharp fly ball that Josh Reddick  handled in left-center field. In the eighth, it was a fly ball to right field. Gallo added a strikeout to go 0 for 4.

 Here’s a clearer visual of the alignment via Statcast’s Daren Willman.