April 16, 2014

ARM ISSUES

Tampa Rays manager Joe Maddon offered his take on the recent rash of Tommy John surgeries in the game. In an Associated Press article, Maddon said:
"Sometimes you have to look underneath the surface and I tend to agree it has a lot to do with youth sports and travel teams and multiple travel teams and kids pitching to win when they're really young and throwing too many pitches. I think the more recent epidemic curiously might be tied to what they're doing before they even get here professionally."
Having watched enough youth baseball in my time, I have to disagree. Youth leagues require their managers to keep pitch counts for their pitchers. They also have innings pitched limits and non-consecutive game start rules. The one point of agreement is that travel leagues and especially private club teams have caused young players to play more often than in the past; to some, it is a 12 month season of games and training sessions.

But the real problem of the increase in significant arm injuries is the fact that pitchers have been quantified by numbers. The radar gun turned many players into flame throwers and not pitchers. The concept that a player has a finite amount of pitches his body can take is a vague assumption that somehow has been repeated as truth by general managers. And yes, major league teams use pitch counts to control usage of their pitchers. And then pitchers have in the back of their mind to conserve their number in order to get enough innings to earn a victory. Then they stop throwing strikes to nibble the corners for chasers.

But some older pitchers have remarked that the real reason today's pitchers are not durable is the fact they train differently than in the past. Before the union and big money CBA contracts, professional baseball players were part timers. They all had off-season jobs in order to earn a living. Many of the players were factory workers or farmers. So during the off-season, they used their entire bodies in physical labor. This coordinated work was called being "country strong."

But today, the modern athlete is tuned in to be a gym rat with personal trainers and strength coaches. The weight training routines to build muscle mass is probably the worst thing to happen to pitching since lowering the mound. Old school pitchers were of two body types: the lanky string-bean who could throw all day because he was flexible and not muscle bound or the round beer barrel type who had large leg muscles with a simple torque turn to throw effortlessly. Fergie Jenkins was the first type; Rick Reuschel an example of the second type.

Jenkins has been quoted in the past saying that the problem with current pitchers is that they don't throw enough these days. They don't get their bodies used to throwing 9 innings per start (which pitchers in Fergie's era were expected to do). They may have actually more time off per start with the current 5 man rotations (up from the 4 man rotations of the 1960s-1970s). In today's game, a starter who throws 200 IP per season is golden; in the past, 300 IP was the norm for quality starters.

The reason that youth pitchers throw more innings as the reason that they break down as major leaguers is not the real problem. Before pitchers come to the majors, the team drafting them will have done due diligence and put them on the team's work-out development routines. If anything, based on historical statistics, it is the modern training techniques that may be the biggest cause of arm injuries in the majors.

April 15, 2014

EVERYONE IS TIRED OF LOSING

At age 29, Jeff Samardzija is nearing his peak pitching years.

And he is clearly frustrated with the position he is in with the Cubs. He has put his house on the market; he has not signed a contract extension; he knows he will likely be traded this season.

He spoke to Dan Patrick this week on his off-day.

In the midst of another rebuilding season, Samardzija acknowledges that his time as Cub could end. 
"I don't know, I think it really depends on how this team turns out this season.  I think it's looking like it, but I don't want to say anything for sure because I don't want to be traded," he said.

However, the frustration is apparent. "I want to win," Samardzija said. "That's my number one goal. I don't care about anything else but winning."

The Shark has helped his cause in getting traded to a contender.  He has a 1.29 ERA and 1.05 WHIP in his first three starts of the season, but has no wins. He knows that his career cannot wait until the Cubs young prospects arrive in 2018 or 2019.With the rash of Tommy John injuries this season, Samardzija value will be high - - - if the Cubs pull the trigger early.

Samardzija is outspoken about the losing ways. This may be a good thing to remind young players that losing is not acceptable at the major league level. But at the same time, executives may classify the attitude as being destructive to long term clubhouse chemistry.

If the Cubs continue their annual strategy of tanking the season for high draft picks, then two Cub starters will be traded by July. Jason Hammel was acquired this off-season for that reason. That leaves Samardzija is the second viable trade chip.

But the Cubs have no one ready to replace either Hammel or Samardzija. You would have to get  major league ready AAA pitchers in return to make sense of such trades. Very few teams want to get rid of their quality and controllable pitchers.

We can see Samardzija brew a tempest in a teapot if the season continues on its natural course to a 95 plus loss record. At least the competitive fire still burns within him. And that is a valuable commodity in itself.

ALTERNATIVE B.S.

All season long, I have watched the Cubs "alternative" road uniform as the team struggles series after series. And my attention was drawn to the last two letters of the logo: B.S.

This whole season is wrapped up in a one large basket of B.S.

There was an internet report that the Cubs are close to settling with the roof top owners on the team's new signage demands. In truth, there was nothing to settle. The Cubs and the roof top owners have an existing settlement contract. It was the Cubs who want to unilaterally change it. And it is the Cubs who used the roof top owners demands to "abide by" the existing contract as an excuse NOT to start any renovation of Wrigley Field. The two items are unrelated so this is merely team B.S.

The Cubs continue to throw around the "burden" of ownership of spending $500 million of their own, private money, into the Wrigley Field rehab project. But his martyrdom is also B.S. because the actual Wrigley Field repairs is a small fraction of the total project cost which includes an entire block across the street from Wrigley Field (with a hotel, health club, parking lot and commercial space). Outside the ball park is the most expensive part of the project. And the cry of being beat up by the city and neighbors is another excuse, considering the city gave the owners a large real estate tax break for the Wrigley repairs and green lighted a zoning variation to build a highly dense commercial development in the middle of a residential neighborhood.

The business executives and owners kept telling us that the team needs new revenue streams in order to be competitive. It cites the "bad" contract deals for local broadcast rights. But those contracts were known and accepted by the Ricketts during the purchase; and the same "smart" Tribune executives who structured those deals are still working for Ricketts. It is another excuse to defer away from the bad team creating bad ratings which is tanking Cub advertising revenues. The idea that the Cubs are "trapped" in bad TV deals until 2020 is weak considering the Tribune was able to field season after season of high payroll teams prior to the sale.

The story line continues to be that the young front office talent (Epstein and Hoyer) know what they are doing; they are the boy geniuses of baseball. Ricketts said they could win 83 games in their sleep. So why have the Cubs not come close to winning 83 games the past few seasons? Their Boston greatness has to be tempered by the fact that the Red Sox organization was already built up by Epstein's predecessor, and that the Red Sox ownership gave Theo a blank check to win. Here, in Chicago, there is no blank check. The baseball team is not a priority, but only a tenant at Wrigley Field's entertainment complex.

So it is really hard to watch the Cubs this season with all this B.S. surrounding the club. Unless you are a farmer with a million acres, the amount of manure generated by the team is monumental.

April 14, 2014

RECRUITING

Bruce Levine was on the radio this morning. He agrees with my philosophy that there really is no good reason for the Cubs to build up their minor league system while still fielding a competitive major league team through development and free agency.

Levine notes that one reason could be the Cubs having financial difficulties.

The circumstantial evidence as set forth in this blog and other media reports lends some credence to that statement. A financially sound club would not be looking for outside investors. A financially sound club does not have the huge debt-to-equity ratio the Cubs have since the sale. A financially sound club would not have to cut payroll each of the past four seasons.

But part of "the plan" of the front office is to be "bad" in order to get high draft picks, and under the new CBA, a larger "signing bonus pool." So the team has decided that it was going to spend their millions on unknown kids and hope to "beat" the low odds that prospects will turn into impact major leaguers. One avenue of increasing the odds was merely adding more prospects to the system, through trading off 40% of the annual starting rotation (that is why Samardzija put his house on the market; and we assume Hammel was only renting.)

But Levine makes another good point. In these rebuilding years, the Cubs have been so bad that major free agents would not want to sign with the team. The Cubs could have offered the same amount of money as the Yankees for Tanaka, but the Japanese star did not need an interpreter to determine that if he wanted to be successful here, the Yankees were the better team and opportunity.

We all know about college football and basketball recruiting; it is a highly charged and competitive endeavor. But even in pro sports, recruiting is important. If members of your own team are unhappy, word will get around to other team's players. Even though there are a limited number of major league roster spots, even second tier free agents normally have a choice. (In fact, several decided to sign minor league deals with a good team rather than taking a full major league season with a team destined to be at the bottom of the standings. Example, former Cub Scott Baker.)

So, the growing consensus is that the Cubs have done a poor job of recruiting free agents. The team has focused on rehabbing broken pitchers with the prospect of flipping them at the trade deadline. And when it is time the prospects make it to the major leagues, the Cubs stigma may still keep free agents away.

April 12, 2014

PLATOON

In many old movies, a platoon was a bunch of soldiers trapped in a WWI trench, a foxhole or a tangled jungle, facing adversity of combat.

In baseball, the concept of a platoon is two players "sharing" a position. It is like using two part time employees at the fast food register instead of hiring one full timer.

The reasons for platooning players are plentiful. One, managers may adopt the idea that a left handed bat is better against right handed pitching and vice-versa. The team may think it can have a hitting advantage with a lefty and righty hitter sharing one position on the field. Two, no matter the batting stance, a manager may have two similar talent level players who do not have the skill set to start every day. By sharing the position, a manager may attempt to minimize a player's deficiencies (such as defense). Three, a manager may platoon in order to build up morale in the clubhouse. This harks back to Little League where "everybody plays" rule. Four, the general manager may have decided that it is cheaper to have a bunch of utility players sharing spots on the roster than spending premium money for actual starters.

With all those factors in play, the Cubs seem to be falling toward the latter.

The Cubs payroll continues to decline. The front office is not trying to win 83 games (as Ricketts said they could do in their sleep) because the club wants either to win big or lose big (to get high, guaranteed draft picks). One way to repress winning is to have a major platoon system because players will not get into a comfortable rhythm or routine. This is readily available with the Cubs currently averaging between 42 to 48 percent strike out rate during their early games. A platoon player wants to "make the best" of his playing time, and usually overcompensates toward failure.

The Cubs have many platoons:

CF: Bonifacio and Sweeney
LF: Lake and Kalish
RF: Ruggiano and Schierholtz
3B: Olt and Valbuena
2B: Bonifacio and Barney

The Cubs line up is 62.5% platoon which has to lead the majors.

You could probably add a platoon situation, or closer by committee in the bullpen with Veras struggling and Strop doing okay.

A platoon also indicates which players the front office believes are keepers. Those players are the ones not currently in a platoon situation: Castro, Castillo and Rizzo. These three players have to have above average performance to off-set the platoons. This is not basketball where three star players can carry a team to victory or the playoffs. You need probably seven good starters to be competitive.

So the Cubs continue to be a long way off on the competitive road.

April 11, 2014

A SET BACK

If having a bullpen in flux was bad enough, the White Sox got hit hard with the season ending injury to the team's young right fielder.

Avisal Garcia injured his shoulder trying to make a diving catch. As a result,  he will undergo season-ending surgery to repair a torn left shoulder labrum. He was the White Sox acquisition in the three team Jake Peavey trade from last season.

In 341 big league plate appearances in his still-young career, Garcia has a .287/.323/.411 triple-slash. He was rated the game's 74th-best prospect before last season by Baseball America. The biggest loss for Chicago, of course, may simply be the playing time and development that the club hoped for from Garcia over 2014.

Jordan Danks was recalled from AAA Charlotte to take Garcia's place. Most likely, Danks will platoon in RF with Dayan Vicideo. This also means Alejandro De Aza will play the bulk of time in left field.

Most major league executives agree that the White Sox had a terrific off-season by rebuilding their roster with young talent. A few publications called the White Sox the 2014 "surprise" team. But losing a starting power bat is a set back for the season.

April 10, 2014

A BAD TREND

For the first time in history, online advertising revenues have exceeded traditional TV broadcast advertising revenues. CNET reports online ad revenue for 2013 at $42 billion vs. $40.1 billion for traditional TV outlets.

Some will say that this was a trend that is not surprising; the new media was going to catch the old media at some point in time.

However, it is a bad trend for those who keep to the old business revenue models.

The Cubs grand rebuilding plan centers on getting rid of its existing broadcast contracts in 2020. The Cubs would then form their own network to televise their games and promote all things Wrigley Field Rickettsland. But this is the old Yankees model, which, if you haven't heard, is not going so well in LA.

The Yankees were the first to create their own regional cable channel, the YES network. It generated more than a billion dollars a year into the Yankee coffers. It gave the Yanks a huge competitive advantage, especially overspending on free agents. But even the Steinbrenner kids saw the trend coming recently by selling off part of their network stake to other investors.

The new Dodgers ownership group decided to create their own network. The team partnered with a cable operator to create a regional sports network. The Dodgers reportedly will receive $8.35 billion over 25 years under the deal. The team used that windfall to restock its major league roster with expensive talent.

However, the Dodgers new network has hit an major roadblock as most cable distributors and satellite dish companies refuse to pay the $4 per subscriber per month charge the Dodgers channel wants as carriage fees. The cable operators have balked at paying such a high charge for a specialized sports channel. In fact, many cable operators have seen their consumer rates rise by the cost of ESPN channels alone. As a result, the industry has been averaging more than a million subscriber cancellations per quarter. It was also recently reported that the cable industry had it's first negative month where cancellations exceeded new subscribers by more than 100,000.

People are cutting their cords with traditional telephone and cable companies. This trend is clear. People are finding the alternative entertainment media of Netflix, YouTube and internet streaming a cheaper alternative to expanded cable.

The Dodgers current network can only get to less than a third of the metro LA households. Ratings are down because of the lack of traditional free television (paid advertising) stations. (It is not as bad as the Astros regional cable network which recently had a 0.0 rating for a game last week. The Astros network gets into less than 500,000 homes, but since the team has been bad for so long, game telecasts easily get beat by old syndicated reruns.)

Ricketts' plan is to have a Cub network cash money machine by 2020. There is no reason that consumers will be willing to pay for such a channel. The Dodgers and the Astros are prime examples of how the old revenue model is no longer the great game-changer.