February 15, 2019

NEW RULES

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

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

Baseball has caught the tinkering bug. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 8, 2019

THE BANE OF THE CUBS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 6, 2019

THE NEW OLD SYSTEM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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