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.