August 26, 2015

PLAYOFF BASEBALL

When the Giants were recently at Wrigley Field, Joe Maddon managed the Cubs like it was a play-off series. When was the last time a Cub manager used his roster like it was a must-win game seven in a series? It worked. The atmosphere and the Cubs sweeping the Giants propelled the Cubs into the "very good team" category.

The team has exceeded most people's expectations.

It has been a rolling momentum. In the early part of the season, Anthony Rizzo was the powerful glue in the lineup. He led by example, hitting homers but also buying into the Maddon philosophy that "you get two strikes then earn first base with a walk or hit." 

But the team did not have to put everything on Rizzo's shoulders. Kris Bryant was injected into the lineup which gave it another powerful, poised hitter. The Cubs continued to roll.

And when the dog days of summer came around, the team was infused with more talent. Kyle Schwarber gives the lineup another professional hitter. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Schwarber became the first Cubs player within the modern era (since 1900) to hit 12 home runs within his first 42 career games.

By September, the Cubs will have another injection of talent, especially to upgrade second base over Chris Coghlan and Starlin Castro platoon, with Javy Baez. Down the stretch, defense matters and Baez is a better fielder than either Coghlan or Castro.

Throughout the season, the most consistent player has been Jake Arrieta. He has become the quiet ace of the staff. He looks mad when he goes to the mound. His control has been excellent. He has pitched 13 straight quality starts. The debate is over: he will be the wild card game starter.

There are still some glaring weaknesses on the team. The fourth and fifth starter roles have been a sore point. The overworked bullpen is beginning to show the strain of the long season. 

The West Coast road trip has traditionally been a Cub killer. But with an opening swing victory over the Giants, sending San Francisco 7.5 GB the Cubs in the wild card race, the Cubs could bury the Giants with a series sweep. The Cubs have won six in a row. They no longer think about just "winning" series but sweeping series. 

To add to the joy of this summer, this team is very likable. They are young, energetic, polite, and professional - - -  which is a testament to how Maddon has forged a special bond with his players.

The Cubs control their own destiny this season. That itself is a scary but unexpected result.

August 25, 2015

SAFETY

There have been an epidemic of serious fan injuries this season at baseball parks.

Sunday's Cubs game was halted due to a fan injury.


The game was briefly delayed in the first inning after Kyle Schwarber's foul liner struck a female fan sitting just past the camera well on the first base side.

The woman was carried off on a stretcher and taken to a hospital. The Cubs said she was conscious, but had no further details on her condition.

''Oh my God, awful,'' Joe Maddon said.

Several fans around the majors have been hit this season by fouls and flying bats, and Major League Baseball has said it is studying the issue of crowd safety.

Maddon issued his own warning.

''Pay attention. I hate to say, but those are wonderful seats. Probably pay a lot of money for them, you're digging the fact that you're right there. I watch and and I see people turning their back to the field when action is going. You just can't do it, you can't do it,'' he said.

''But what I'm saying is, when you're at the ballpark and you're in those particular locations, watch what is going on. Don't turn your head away from the action. Every time a ball is pitched you look, you look and see, then you can go and talk. That's probably the best answer, to just pay attention.''

The problem with Maddon's advice is that it was fine twenty years ago but not today.


Tiger pitcher Justin Verlander went to social media to push for changes after a woman was hit by a foul ball in the eighth inning of a recent Tigers' home game against the Texas Rangers.

"More protective measures need to be put in place in all ball parks! Players are sick of seeing injuries that could easily be avoided!" Verlander said on the social media site after seeing medical personnel take the woman away in a neck brace, adding that Major League Baseball should make changes "before it's too late."

The Tigers said after the game that the woman, who was sitting behind the home team dugout, was hospitalized for tests but was alert and conscious.

Tigers third baseman Nick Castellanos said there was "no way" the fan could have reacted in time to avoid being hit by the ball of Anthony Goes’s bat.

He's in favor of increased security netting between the field and fans.

In July a class-action lawsuit was filed in federal court in San Francisco seeking to have Major League Baseball install such protective netting down the baselines. Currently such netting is typically used only directly behind home plate.

In the past, the license printed on the back of your ticket insulated owners from liability. The legal concept is assumption of risk. It presumes to have certain knowledge about the likelihood that objects can fly off the field into the stands, so the law imposes a duty on fans to take reasonable precautions for their own safety. The legal effect is if a fan  is even 1% at fault for their own injuries, they are not entitled to any legal recovery whatsoever as a matter of law.

But there have been a few court cases that have versed this old doctrine and imposed some liability on teams. Truth be told, owners do not want to aggrieve high paying season-ticket holders who like the unobstructed view from their close seats near the field in foul territory, and they believe these premium fans do not want something as foreign as safety netting getting in the way. But baseball owners are adding the danger of fan injury caused by the wave of new ballpark improvements.

Technology has become today's addictive distraction. People bend over their cell phones like nuns in a church pew. The world around them is lost; these people don't pay attention to where they are going (running into people on sidewalk, stepping out into traffic; texting while driving). 

And baseball owners, in order to attract younger fans, push team apps, stats, fantasy sports to patron's smart phones. They want fans to tweet and retweet during the game. They are fans to have "an interactive experience." 

The addition of large electronic scoreboards showing replays and information further distract fans attention from the actual game on the field. 

Twenty years ago people came to baseball games to watch a contest but also to have a social experience with family and friends. Sitting a park, with the ebb and flow of down time between pitches, allowed fans to actually talk to each other during a game. Perhaps, with the advances in communications technology, the average person is less engaged on one-on-one personal conversations than in the past. And that is the point that baseball does not fully comprehend.

A split second reaction time looking at a foul ball racing toward your head can be the difference between life and death. (The last baseball fan fatality by a baseball in the stands was in 1970 at Dodger Stadium). The human brain is hard wired to make instant reactions to protect itself from harm. Reaction times have been decreased for fans in the stands as in the case of Wrigley Field, the foul territory from the field to the seats has dramatically contracted over the years. Closer seats without protective netting equals fan injury. A distracted fan by his own phone or the video boards is a sitting duck in the stands.

But owners will say that tradition and the fan experience outweighs the rare fan injury. In the NHL, a young woman was killed by a stray puck which lead to the league putting in protective netting around the entire rink. It is possible to put a clear, transparent netting around the box seats to catch screaming liners or helicoptering baseball bats. But in the cost-benefit analysis, teams won't do it. 

Economic models show that the value of a human life is $3.5 million. Is it worth that much money to install safety netting in each park to avoid serious to fatal fan injury? Or do baseball men think the money is better spent on a veteran utility infielder as the 25th man on their roster?

August 24, 2015

UNCHARTERED TERRITORY

NEW YORK (AP) — Chase Utley's acquisition put the Los Angeles Dodgers close to becoming the first baseball team with a $300 million luxury-tax payroll.

The trade Wednesday that sent the six-time All-Star second baseman from Philadelphia to the NL West leaders raised the Dodgers' projected payroll for tax purposes to about $298.5 million, according to calculations by Major League Baseball. Performance bonuses for other players and end-of-season award bonuses could make the Dodgers the first team to reach the $300 million mark.

"That's fine. They haven't won the championship," Baltimore All-Star outfielder Adam Jones said. "You still have to play between the lines — same thing with the Yankees in the '90s and 2000s. It's baseball, man. Our union is tough enough to fight for our rights and we don't have a salary cap. Los Angeles is the second-biggest city in the United States. They can support it. I don't have to pay it!"

Luxury tax payrolls are based average annual values of contracts for the 40-man roster and include about $13 million per team in benefits, such as the health and pension plan, and payroll, unemployment and Social Security taxes paid by clubs.

Los Angeles is well above the $189 million tax threshold and will pay at a 40 percent rate for exceeding the mark for the third straight year. Its projected tax bill is about $44 million, which would top the record $34 million paid by the New York Yankees after the 2005 season.

The Dodgers' luxury tax payroll includes about $40 million for players no longer with the organization.

Los Angeles paid $11.4 million in tax in 2013 and $26.6 million last year, when its tax payroll was $277.7 million.

The Dodgers' regular payroll — salaries plus prorated shares of signing bonuses and earned bonuses — is at about $285 million, up from a record $257 million last year.

>>>> ANALYSIS:

The takeaway from the Dodgers ownership change and massive multi-billion dollar Dodger channel cable deal (which has been a disaster for TW, the cable partner) is that owners will spend just about anything in order to win. The Tigers were the same way for the past three seasons; overpaying for star players in order to win. But rarely does one "buy" a championship.

It also has a domino effect on clubs that cannot afford free-wheeling spending. The Kershaw $210 million deal is now the gold standard for ace pitchers. More than half of the clubs now cannot even bid on a Kershaw type starter. As the top tier players get more of budget payrolls, teams will have to axe the middle tier players (who earn on average $5 million/season) to go with more unproven prospects (at the major league minimum $550k). The Cubs are banking on that protocol: pay big money for arms, grow farm bats who don't take up much payroll.

But the bubble on cable TV deals is about to burst. Other teams think they will get Dodger money will soon find out that cable operators have hit the ceiling on what subscribers will pay for channel packages. And most subscribers don't want to pay $1.00 to $5.00 a month for a baseball only channel. In fact, more and more cable subscribers are "cutting the cord" to stream live events through the internet. 

When the big money well dries up, there will be a player backlash for several years. Many rookie deals are looking forward to the big payday that may not come. And generationally, if the big paydays are numbered, less youth will go into the sport as children. Instead, they will concentrate on other more potentially profitable athletic pursuits like basketball, football, or European soccer.

August 20, 2015

A QUICK CHANGE

Finding a new job in baseball is usually hard. Unless, you have a proven track record of success.


The Red Sox’ stunning announcement that Dave Dombrowski was hired as new President of baseball operations  is still sinking in for many, but further changes figure to be on the way in Boston, MLBTR summarizes.

Anthony Fenech of the Detroit Press spoke to Dombrowski and tweets that the new Boston president believes he will hire a GM to work underneath him. Bob Nightengale of USA Today Sports reports that former Braves GM Frank Wren, who worked with Dombrowski in the Marlins and Expos front offices in the 1980s and 1990s, is a leading candidate for the position.

Wren’s more traditional background of scouting would seemingly align well with Dombrowski’s strengths, as opposed to a more analytical GM like Ben Cherington, who passed on the opportunity to remain on board as the Red Sox’ GM following the addition of Dombrowski. There’s been speculation about Jerry Dipoto, who is working with the Sox on a temporary basis at the moment, but he, too, has a more analytical slant and wasn’t hired by Dombrowski.

When the Braves hired John Hart  as president of baseball operations, he fired Wren.  Currently,  the Braves have elected to deploy a president but no GM, as they currently do not have one in place.

The 57-year-old Wren’s front office experience dates back to the mid-1980s, and he’s worked with the Orioles in addition to the previously mentioned Expos, Marlins and Braves.

Peter Abraham of the Boston Globe reports  that he finds it difficult to imagine any team owned by John Henry would completely abandon analytics, noting that there will have to be a balance in place. One can imagine that even in the event of a more traditional hire in the GM department, Dombrowski may bring in some new analysts or, at the very least, make an effort to retain some of Cherington’s more analytically inclined lieutenants. Of course, many that previously worked underneath Cherington may elect to seek employment elsewhere as well.

The whole concept of a president of baseball operations is new. Many teams have started to divide functions: club business is separated from daily baseball activities. This sets up the possibility of two distinct feudal power bases. The president of baseball operations sits on a committee with the president of business operations and the owner to discuss general policies and goals. 

This does add layers of bureaucracy and executives. The "business" of baseball is running a team and winning (i.e. having good fan attendance). The general manager used to control all aspects of the club: from ticket sales, advertising, sponsorships, to hiring staff, reviewing scouting reports, drafting and trading for players. Now, in the age of analytics and specialization, the GM's duties have been pared back. 

In some situations, the president of baseball operations is a figure head title to move an ineffective GM upstairs to allow a better manager run a team. It is a way to keep a knowledgeable asset from taking his consultancy skills and team knowledge to other clubs. But in Dombrowski's case, the Red Sox are hiring a fully knowledgeable general manager with a great track record.

Some people were surprised that the Tigers let Dombrowski go, but his contract was not going to be renewed by ownership. The Tigers spent like a big market team in order to get its elderly owner a World Series title. But despite the spending and talent, the Tigers have never reached that goal. And that one goal fell squarely on Dombrowski's head. 

The Red Sox have had a tailspinning bad season. Dombrowski has experience in tearing down and rebuilding franchises, which is something the Red Sox need to do in order to get competitive in the strong AL East. Boston's quick hire of Dombrowski makes great sense.

August 19, 2015

DON'T CHASE CHASE

Local sports polls show between 74 to 90 percent of the fans are against the Cubs trading for veteran second baseman Chase Utley.

Utley has had a series of injuries that have limited the former All-Star to replacement value level, at best.

Could the Cubs upgrade the Coghlan-Castro platoon at second base? Sure. Is Utley the answer? No.

A couple of points to make against Utley.

He was part of the veteran player core in Philadelphia who did not respect or play well for Ryne Sandberg. It was one of the reasons he resigned his managerial position. So the evidence shows Utley is not going to bring quality leadership to the Cubs.  In fact the Cubs don't need a leadership boost; the young club has responded to both Maddon, and players like Ross, Rizzo Arrieta and Lester (by example).

Second, Utley is now a terrible player. He is only hitting .213. In 72 games, he has 5 HRs and 30 RBI and a negative 0.3 WAR.

Third, he has a no trade clause. He is demanding that any team that acquires him will start him. It is that type of selfish demand that immediately turns me off to a player. When teammate Jonathan Paplebon demanded the closer's role in a trade to the Nationals, the Nats complied and the team accelerated its tail spin out of the playoff race. It was a horrible disruption to the Nationals clubhouse and bullpen.

Utley is demanding full time playing status because he needs the at-bats to vest a $15 million option for 2016. Yes, it is a greedy proposition to put your bad playing time over that of a team on the verge of winning a rare playoff berth. But with the Phils, a bad team, that type of demand is moot. But with the Cubs, it could be a deadly anchor dragging the line up down.

Fourth, at 36 years old, Utley has no future with the Cubs. He does not fit any long term need. Besides the Cubs have other options in AAA (Alcantara and Baez) to play second.

There is no rational basis for the Cubs to consider adding Utley to the roster.

UPDATE: Utley and cash traded to the Dodgers for two minor leaguers.

August 18, 2015

STOPPERS

Joe Maddon has come around to a bullpen philosophy I have had for decades.

Growing up, starting pitchers were expected to pitch a complete game. Win or lose. Even in blow outs. Then, in the drag of hot summer days, a team may carry one, two or three "relief" pitchers to mop up games, come in for injury or spot start.

But bullpen evolution with the game has added, in the case of the Cubs, 8 relief pitchers on a 25 man roster. Because of pitch counts and salaries invested in starters, managers are mow trained to set up their pitching staffs in such a way to baby a starter through 5 or 6 innings, then have three relievers finish the game. The "closer" is the best relief pitcher on the staff - - -  the one to get the last three outs. 

But in reality, the "last" three outs count as much as the first three outs, or the middle of the 5th three outs.

Why the game has evolved to add pressure on the pitcher in the 9th inning is hard to qualify. The game now has "specialists" in all facets of the game. The lefty who gets out left handed hitters. The sinker baller who can induce a rally killing double play. The long reliever with the rubber arm who can eat up innings in a game. The "set up" guy to keep the game under control for the closer's 9th. It really seems silly to have a pitching staff blueprint of a "7th inning guy," an "8th inning set up man, and "a closer."

Games may not be won or lost in the 9th inning. In fact, the most damage usually occurs earlier in the game. Games can get out of control with your starting pitcher not having his best stuff. And that is where most games get lost.

So Maddon realizes that it is more important to stop the opponent from having a big early inning than coming from behind to win in the 9th inning.

Justin Grimm has had exactly half of his appearances this season -- 21 --  with men on-base.. More times than not Grimm has shut the door. Grimm, who turned 27 on Sunday, has become Maddon's most trusted middle reliever -- or the "middle innings closer" as Maddon put it -- not that he hasn't thrown late in games as well. It wasn't long ago he earned a win against the Giants after entering the game in the fifth inning, and then got a save against them a couple days later.

I have always called the role Grimm has for the Cubs as being a "stopper."  Not a closer, but a pitcher - - - the old adage, a fireman - - - called upon to put out a fire (potential big inning). A stopper may be more valuable than a closer who usually comes into a game at the beginning of the 9th inning with no one on base. A stopper is a pitcher who comes into a tight jam and tries to stop the team's bleeding away a game.

A stopper could come in a game in any inning, at any time. It is that true versatility in the modern bullpen that most teams do not cultivate in their staffs. Maddon has found Grimm to be the pitcher he has trust and confidence to stop an opponent from burying his team early in games.
 

August 17, 2015

A MISNOMER

The Cubs are 67-49.

Most people say that the Cubs are 18 games over .500.

That's great.

But I believe it is inaccurate.

The Cubs have played 116 games.
If the Cubs played .500 ball, they would have a record of 58-58.

58 wins is the .500 mark at this point in the season.

The Cubs are better, at 67 wins.

67 wins - 58 wins = 9 games above the .500 mark.