Junior Joins The Hall

For baseball fans, the name of a Hall of Fame player brings up instant images from the history of the game. For those of us falling into the category of “vintage” fans, those mental snapshots include moments we actually witnessed such as…

 

> Ted Williams hitting a milestone home run (#400) at Fenway Park.

 

> Being at Angel Stadium the night that George Brett went 4-for-4 to reach 3,000 hits.

 

> Seeing Carl Yastremzski playing left field at the old Wrigley Field in Los Angeles in his rookie season.

 

> Hearing Sandy Koufax’s fastball hit the Catcher’s mitt at Dodger Stadium.

 

> Watching Cal Ripken Jr. hit a home run at Camden Yards.

 

> Sitting at Jack Murphy Stadium and having the privilege to see Tony Gwynn hit an opposite field single.

 

For the newest HOF member Ken Griffey Jr., the memory is different because it went unnoticed by history. In the early 90’s, a group of baseball fanatics from Southern California did a Spring Training road-trip to Arizona and took in four games in three days. On a beautiful day at Tempe Diablo Stadium, the Angels were hosting the Mariners and some unlucky member of the home team hit a deep drive to left-center field. Junior got a great jump on the ball and ended up making the catch with a head-long dive on the warning track. He proudly showed off the ball to the crowd and then got up and sprinted to the dugout (it was the 3rd out) with a smile that everyone could see. Yes, a meaningless game and a dangerous play by a star player, but it told you everything you needed to know about his enthusiasm and love of the game. I still remember that catch like it was yesterday and it will jump into my consciousness again when he’s at the podium in Cooperstown this Summer.

 

Interestingly, Ken Griffey Jr. also had a profound impact on the baseball card industry. In the February issue of Beckett Baseball Magazine, Dave Sliepka chronicles the background of the turbulent story of baseball cards in the 80’s. As we’ve talked about in previous articles, Topps lost their monopoly of cards in 1980, allowing Donruss & Fleer to enter the market in 1981. By the late 80’s, other companies were entering the fray and collectors were becoming more and more frustrated due to over-production and too many similar products. That all changed in 1989, when a fledgling company called Upper Deck received licensing and started producing sports cards.

 

Putting together their first baseball card in 1989, the company decided to alter the landscape by offering a higher quality collectible with thicker paper stock, beautiful photography and a hologram for authenticity. They even had the audacity to charge $1 a pack, which was more than twice what Topps cards cost at the time. Sliepka describes it as “going from a rotary phone to an iPhone”. Another significant factor in their success, however, was the willingness to take chances. They decided to go out on the limb to feature “prospects”. Other companies had always had “rookie cards” in their sets, but Upper Deck opted to have the first 26 cards in their 700-card offering to be “Star Rookies”.

 

The best decision was to have Ken Griffey Jr. be the #1 card in the set. Today, that seems like a no-brainer but when the calendar turned to 1989, Griffey was only 19 years old and had never played a game above AA. In fact, due to injuries, he only played 75 games in the minors in 1988. To verify how “out of the box” this thinking was, Topps didn’t even include Griffey in their 1989 set. Two members of last year’s HOF class were also in that 26-card subset…John Smoltz & Randy Johnson. However, what would have happened if one of the other prospects had been chosen to be #1, like Doug Dascenzo, Mike Harkey or Felix Jose?

 

Griffey exploded onto the scene in 1989 by hitting 16 HR’s with 61 RBI’s and 16 SB’s to finish 3rd in the Rookie of the Year balloting. And the perfect storm of the Upper Deck set dominated the hobby with the Griffey RC becoming the most popular card. The good news for today’s collectors is that Upper Deck joined the competition in producing mass quantities of the product and you can still buy a factory-sealed set for around $50 on eBay. To show the popularity of the individual Griffey card over the years, grading company PSA has had over 60,000 of them submitted. Only 4% have been determined to be “Gem Mint 10” and if you have one, it’s worth about $300. A “Mint 9” (about 33% of those submitted) books for $45-$50 and a “NM – MT 8” (44%) is worth about $30. The downside to the glossy sheen of this product is that even a card coming out of a sealed pack or set could have enough slight damage to impact the grade. For collectors, this background allows you to own one of the most famous cards in the history of the hobby for a reasonable price.

 

As for me, every time I see the card, it also takes me back to the warning track in Tempe, Arizona.

 

 

Casey Stengel’s Platoon

Casey Stengel’s Platoon

 

 

Back in the 1950’s, Yankees Manager Casey Stengel was a most colorful and confusing character on the baseball landscape. After all, he once said, “You have to have a Catcher because if you don’t, you’re likely to have a lot of passed balls.” And, “The key to being a good Manager is keeping the people who hate me away from those who are still undecided.” Of course, he was also very much crazy like a fox because he also said, “Being with a woman all night never hurt no professional ballplayer. It’s staying up all night looking for a woman that does him in.”

 

From 1949-1960, Casey’s Yankees won 10 of 12 AL Pennants and 7 World Series titles. In an era before advanced baseball statistics, it seems that he was decades ahead of the curve in the ability to manipulate line-ups and get the most out of a 25-man roster. Of course, anyone can put Mickey Mantle’s name on the line-up card each day, but that version of the Bronx Bombers seemed to have a different hero each day. If you look back at some of those rosters, it’s clear that Stengel knew about percentages because he took advantage of platooning LH & RH hitters on a regular basis. Just using 1954 as a snapshot, you’ll see that the everyday 1B Joe Collins (who hit LH) didn’t even get 400 AB’s because Bill Skowron (who hit RH) was available. “Moose”, in his rookie season, hit .340 in 215 AB’s. In the corner OF positions, Gene Woodling, Irv Noren & Enos Slaughter batted from the left side, while Hank Bauer & Bob Cerv batted from the right side. Even HOF Shortstop Phil Rizzuto had less than 400 AB’s because switch-hitting Willy Miranda was available.

 

The modern version of that team is the Oakland Athletics, under the guidance of GM Billy Beane. Working with a limited budget, the “Moneyball” system has made the A’s competitive with their major-market opponents. One of the keys to their success is the same platoon blueprint that Old Casey implemented in the 50’s. A quick glance at their 2012 roster shows the symmetry. Chris Carter / Brandon Moss at 1B, Jonny Gomes / Seth Smith at OF/DH and numerous other limited AB contributors like Josh Donaldson, Derek Norris and Colin Cowgill. The A’s averaged over 92 wins in 2012-2014 utilizing versions of this formula.

 

For MLB GM’s and Fantasy Baseball participants, this lesson shouldn’t be ignored. For whatever reason, LH batters always have more difficulty hitting LH pitching than their RH counterparts have hitting RH pitching (have you ever heard of a “situational right-hander”?). If teams blindly continue to give their LH hitters AB’s against tough LH hurlers, it will impact productivity for the team. Hitters like George Brett and Tony Gywnn only come around every decade or so. From a Fantasy prospective, you need to know about this statistical category because players who don’t produce will eventually lose playing time and impact your investment in the player. The analysis becomes even more critical in today’s game where teams now carry 12 or 13 pitchers and the platoon option gets reduced with a limited amount of batters on the bench.

 

Looking only at fairly regular members of the line-up, here’s some eye-opening numbers about LH hitters and their success against LH pitching in 2015…

 

> Cody Asche, Phillies 3B/OF – .231 BA, .277 OBP

 

> Justin Bour, Marlins 1B – .221 BA, .293 OBP

 

> Jay Bruce, Reds OF – .229 BA, .286 OBP

 

> Kole Calhoun, Angels OF – .220 BA, .293 OBP

 

> Jason Castro, Astros C – .192 BA, .243 OBP

 

> Chris Coghlan, Cubs OF – .116 BA, .208 OBP

 

> Andre Ethier, Dodgers OF – .200 BA, .229 OBP

 

> Carlos Gonzalez, Rockis OF – .195 BA, .222 OBP

 

> Curtis Granderson, Mets OF – .183 BA, .273 OBP

 

> Ryan Howard, Phillies 1B – .130 BA, .176 OBP

 

> Ender Inciarte, D’Backs / Braves OF – .229 BA, .255 OBP

 

> Jake Lamb, D’Backs 3B – .200 BA, .275 OBP

 

> Adam LaRoche, White Sox 1B – .157 BA, .191 OBP

 

> Adam Lind, Brewers / Mariners 1B – .221 BA, .277 OBP

 

> Logan Morrison, Mariners / Rays 1B – .190 BA, .253 OBP

 

> Davis Ortiz, Red Sox DH – .231 BA, .277 OBP

 

> Gerardo Parra, Orioles OF – .238 BA, .296 OBP

 

> Jace Peterson, Braves 2B – .190 BA, .234 OBP

 

> Gregory Polanco, Pirates OF – .190 BA, .250 OBP

 

> Kyle Schwarber, Cubs C/OF – .143 BA, .213 OBP

 

> Denard Span, Nationals OF – .197 BA, .279 OBP

 

> Luis Valbuena, Astros 3B – .158 BA, .265 OBP

 

The question is if this type of player will get more or less regular AB’s moving forward? And, if they continue to get those AB’s, is it a positive or negative for your Fantasy roster? More AB’s will not only negatively impact the BA/OBP category, it also becomes a factor for power numbers, as this type of player has a tendency to underperform in that realm also. Bour hit 23 HR’s in 2015, but none were against LH…Lind hit 20 HR’s in 2015, but also had zero against southpaws…Bruce was at 4 of 26…CarGo hit 5 of 40…Granderson slugged 2 of 26 and the list goes on.

 

Are there LH hitters you can count on to be in the line-up everyday? A few to consider –

 

> Christian Yelich, Marlins OF – .288 BA, .347 OBP

 

> Joey Votto, Reds 1B – .331 BA, .467 OBP

 

> Travis Shaw, Red Sox 1B – .329 BA, .353 OBP

 

> Kyle Seager, Mariners 3B – .297 BA, .324 OBP

 

> Eddie Rosario, Twins OF – .289 BA, .311 OBP

 

> Anthony Rizzo, Cubs 1B – .294 BA, .409 OBP

 

> Joe Panik, Giants 2B – .291 BA, .374 OBP

 

> Mike Moustakas, Royals 3B – .282 BA, .338 OBP

 

> Eric Hosmer, Royals 1B – .279 BA, .332 OBP

 

> Jason Heyward, Cardinals / Cubs OF – .272 BA, .344 OBP

 

> Bryce Harper, Nationals OF – .318 BA, .434 OBP

 

> Dee Gordon, Marlins 2B – .350 BA, .373 OBP

 

> Alex Gordon, Royals OF – .280 BA, .377 OBP

 

> Brett Gardner, Yankees OF – .276 BA, .361 OBP

 

> Lucas Duda, Mets 1B – .285 BA, .333 OBP

 

> Michael Brantley, Indians OF – .294 BA, .346 OBP

 

> Nori Aoki, Giants / Mariners OF – .333 BA, .400 OBP

 

Just what you need, another calculation to include in your 2016 player analysis. Sort of like giving a golfer one more swing-thought.

Riding With Roland

Riding With Roland

 

 

 

One of the great things about baseball is that it still brings excitement to fans whether they’re 7 or 70. And, no matter when it happened, you’ll always remember that time you got to meet an icon of the game. For some, it’s that autographed baseball you got from your favorite player. For others, it was the chance to talk with a player, coach or manager during Spring Training or at a sports function. Or maybe you had the unique opportunity to have a one-on-one conversation with someone whose plaque hangs in Cooperstown.

 

My retirement community has a very active Sports Club filled with the most knowledgeable baseball fans you’ll ever meet. We attend a number of games at Chase Field in Phoenix each season and also gather at local ballparks for Spring Training and the Arizona Fall League. In addition, at least a dozen times each year, we are privileged to have guest speakers who give of their time and come talk with us about the national pastime. Over the years, we’ve been fortunate enough to host Fergie Jenkins, Matt Williams, Josh Hamilton, John D’Acquisto, Peter Magowan (former owner of the Giants), Jeff Idelson (HOF President) Bernie Pleskoff (MLB.com writer), Daron Sutton, legendary scouts Art Stewart & Mel Didier as well as many others.

 

Of all our visitors over the last decade, the most frequent and most accommodating has been Roland Hemond, Special Assistant to the President & CEO of the Diamondbacks. He has made multiple presentations to the Club, has attended numerous functions and has also used his influence to bring in other speakers. At our recent holiday party, Roland was a featured guest and received a plaque from the group in thanks of his contributions over the years. I had the enviable task of picking him up at his Phoenix home for the 45-minute drive out to our community, which allowed me to talk baseball with one of the most famous executives in the history of the game. Of course, a few detours would have helped because his first big-league job was in 1952.

 

Talking with Roland is akin to attending a class in baseball history. In 1949, he was in the Coast Guard and stationed at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Along with 68,000 other people, he was in Yankee Stadium on October 2nd for the one-game playoff for the American League Pennant between the Yankees & Red Sox. In the car last week, he gave me a virtual play-by play of the game from Ellis Kinder’s tough luck loss (allowing only one run in 7 innings for the Sox) to Jerry Coleman’s 3 RBI’s in the bottom of the 8th that put the game out of reach for the Yanks. We also came to the realization that “small world” moments are always part of the game. Roland’s first big league job was with the Boston Braves in 1952 and he admitted that occasionally, he would sneak over to Fenway Park to see the Red Sox and the great stars of the American League. There’s a good chance that a six-year old boy was also in attendance, as that’s the same year my Uncle first began taking me to the ballpark.

 

So, for the casual fan, who is Roland Hemond? The resume is impressive…

 

> 1952-60 – Worked in the front office of the Boston/Milwaukee Braves (Eddie Mathews’ rookie year was ’52, Hank Aaron’s was ’54).

 

> Scouting and Farm Director of the expansion Los Angeles Angels from 1961-70.

 

> Became the Assistant GM of the White Sox in 1971 was the GM from 1973-85.

 

> General Manager of the Orioles from 1988-95.

 

> Senior Executive VP for the Diamondbacks from 1996-2000.

 

> Executive Advisor for the White Sox from 2000-07 and then back to the D’Backs in 2008.

 

> Considered the architect of the Arizona Fall League, which began in 1992 and is still recognized as the premier developmental program in baseball.

 

His success and reputation in the game can be measured by the awards he has received….

 

> Selected as MLB’s Executive of the Year three times (1972, 1983 & 1989).

 

> The New York baseball writers presented him with the prestigious William J. Slocumb Award.

 

> The Honors Award from the Baseball Coaches of America.

 

> In 2011, the Baseball Hall of Fame selected him as only the second recipient of the Buck O’Neil Lifetime Achievement Award for his extraordinary efforts to enhance the game’s positive impact on society. Presented in Cooperstown, the honor is bestowed upon an individual whose efforts broadened the game’s appeal and whose character, integrity and dignity are comparable to the late O’Neil, the former negro league player who passed away in 2006 at age 94.

 

You would think that a person with this history might be slightly full of himself, but if you meet Roland, you find that the exact opposite is true. During our visit, he told a little tale on himself from the 1970’s. One of the other AL teams was attempting to get a pitcher through waivers late in the season, so they could trade him to a contender. Sometimes teams will put in a claim in these situations in order to block the prospective deal and then the original team will just pull the player back. Roland put in the waiver claim and then the team didn’t pull back the player. When he informed his staff, the first thing they said was, “where are we going to get the $20,000 for the claim?” If that doesn’t show you how the business of baseball has changed in the last 40 years, nothing will. Of course, they found the money and the Pitcher won 20 games in both of the next two seasons.

 

Roland’s mlb.com bio also tells you about what it was like to be a GM in during that 25+ year span. The stats say that he negotiated 135 trades involving 428 players. In just the first few years in Chicago, there were deals including Ron Santo, Dick Allen & Goose Gossage. During his Orioles tenure, trades show the names of Brady Anderson, Curt Schilling, Fred Lynn & Harold Baines. The best piece of trivia, however, might be that in 1976, Roland traded Tony LaRussa.

 

The history of the game comes in many shapes & sizes…and people. It’s nice to know that even men who didn’t wear the uniform can still be baseball treasures.

 

What’s A Bonus Baby?

What’s A Bonus Baby?

 

 

 

For baseball fans under the age of 50, there’s never been a time without baseball’s Amateur Draft. For Fantasy Baseball players in deep leagues, the identity of three Shortstops named Dansby Swanson, Alex Bregman & Brendan Rodgers is certainly no secret. Back in the covered-wagon days of the 1950’s however, acquiring the top young talent in the land was a totally different process.

 

In the days before the World War II, major league organizations would scour the country looking for players and then try to sign them on the spot, often getting into bidding contests with other teams. In that era, College Baseball wasn’t the factor it is today and teenagers would welcome the chance to become professional ballplayers. Starting in 1947, baseball began an attempt to curtail this process with a succession of procedures linked to signing bonuses. The idea was to block the ability of the richest franchises to buy up the best young players and then hide them in the cupboard known as their minor-league system. Remember, this was long before the days of free agency and players were employees without rights.

 

The first process only lasted from 1947-1950 before being rescinded, but the problem was still there for the majority of the teams. Prior to the 1953 season, a committee chaired by Branch Rickey developed a “Bonus Baby” rule that ended up being part of the major league landscape for five years. The basic premise wasn’t to establish a cap on signing bonuses, but to require that a player signed above a certain dollar figure must remain on the major league roster for two seasons without being “farmed out” to the minor leagues. That meant teams would have to use up one (or more) of their 25 roster spots on a player who might not be able to contribute to the team’s success.

 

Over 50 players fell into the “Bonus Baby” category between 1953 and 1957 and the success rate was abysmal. With that being said, however, three of these individuals ended up in the Hall of Fame, but took very different paths that were affected by the rule…

 

> Al Kaline was signed by the Tigers out of High School in June of 1953. He immediately made his major league debut on June 25th at age 18. While Kaline only had 30 AB’s during that first season, by 1954 he was an everyday player and finished 3rd in the Rookie of the Year voting. His career lasted until 1974 without spending a single day in the minor leagues.

 

> Harmon Killebrew signed in June of 1954 and was six days shy of his 18th birthday when he made his major league debut on June 23rd. “Killer” had only 13 AB’s that season and then 80 AB’s while he spent the entire 1955 campaign at the big league level. After meeting the two-year obligation, he spent most of the next three years learning his craft in the minors and didn’t became a regular until 1959, when he led the AL with 42 HR’s.

 

> Sandy Koufax signed his contract with the Dodgers in December of 1954, spent the next two seasons in Brooklyn and only made 15 starts with a record of 4-6 with an ERA of 4.14. As with Kaline, he never spent a day in the minor leagues but it wasn’t until 1961 that became a star.

 

Let’s look at some of the others names that fell under this umbrella during the 50’s. By the way, if you look up any of them on baseball-refernce.com, it will say “bonus baby” in parenthesis next to their name.

 

> The Pirates signed the most bonus babies (8) and a famous name was Vic Janowicz. Unfortunately, his fame came primarily from football, as he won the Heisman Trophy in 1950 while playing at Ohio State. His only two seasons in baseball were the obligatory seasons of 1953 & 1954 and he hit a combined .214 in 196 AB’s. Interestingly, he also played Halfback for the NFL Washington franchise in ’54 & ’55.

 

> Seven youngsters were signed by the Orioles including Pitcher Bill O’Dell. He actually lost three years as the two required seasons were wrapped around military service in 1955, but he ended up with 105 major league victories in a 13-year career.

 

> In addition to Kaline, the Tigers also signed two players you might remember from baseball cards named Reno Bertoia & Steve Boros.

 

> Pitcher Joey Jay of the Braves overcame three years of relative inactivity to become a two-time 20-game winner for the Reds in the early 60’s.

 

> SS Dick Schofield of the Cardinals had a 19-year major league career and has to be included on this list because his nickname was “Ducky”. And yes, his Son (also named Dick) played 14 seasons in the 80’s & 90’s.

 

> Moe Drabowsky was a 1956 signee and won 13 games for the Cubs in ’57.

 

> The Giants made a good decision by signing 17 year-old Pitcher Mike McCormick in 1956…he won 22 games and the Cy Young Award in 1967.

 

> One very shady episode during this era was the A’s signing of 18 year-old 3B Clete Boyer in May of 1955. He only had 208 AB’s in his first two seasons and then, as soon as the 24-month requirement was met, the A’s traded him to the Yankees as “the player to be named later” in a previous deal. American League teams, already convinced that the two teams had an under-the-table relationship, complained that the A’s had just used their roster to hide a player the Yankees coveted. However, the trade was allowed and Boyer became the Bronx Bombers’ regular 3B during the 1960’s.

 

> Speaking of the Yankees, one of their choices shines a light on the underside of the consequences to this rule. In 1953, they signed High School 1B Frank Leja. A 6′ 4″ left-handed power hitter, he seemed like the perfect fit for their ballpark. Unfortunately for the kid, the Yankees of the 50’s were a juggernaut filled with talented players and he ended up getting only 7 AB’s (and one hit) in two seasons. He bounced around the minor leagues for the next half-dozen years, even hitting 20+ HR’s a number of times but it was 1962 before he wore a major league uniform again. He went 0-for-16 for the expansion Angels in early ’62 and retired the following year.

 

> Another sad tale is that of the Phillies Tom Qualters. This 18 year-old Pitcher only got into one game in 1953, pitched 1/3 of an inning, allowed 6 Earned Runs and ended up with a ERA of 162.00. In 1954, he spent the entire season on the roster and never pitched at all. His career numbers show 34 appearances without ever winning a game. His teammates nicknamed him “Money Bags”.

 

As all fans know, baseball history has its shameful side…from the Black Sox scandal to the color line. This five year period doesn’t get the same scrutiny, but a closer examination tells an ugly story. None of the 50+ players that fell into the “Bonus Baby” category were players of color. Even though most major league teams had broken the color barrier by this time, they certainly didn’t think it was necessary to bid against each other for youngsters from a poor background who had no leverage. So, even though Bob Gibson, Frank Robinson, Willie McCovey & Billy Williams were all signed during this timeframe, none of them received a bonus above the threshold. The bright side is that today, they are all in the Hall of Fame.

Baseball Cards

Baseball Card Collecting : A Lifetime Hobby

 

 

 

How old were you when you opened your first pack of baseball cards? For me, it was probably about the age of seven when Topps baseball cards were a nickel…and came with a stick of bubblegum! For boys of my generation, the beautiful fragrance of that gum is something that has stayed with us over the years and would be recognizable even if we were blindfolded.

 

The wonderful magic of collecting is that the thrill of opening those packs to see if we got Ted Williams or Mickey Mantle is not any different today when we look for Bryce Harper or Carlos Correa to appear from beneath the wrapper. Of course, the packs are no longer a nickel (and there is no gum) but for a baseball fan, the thrill remains the same.

 

Card collecting is over 100 years old and the hobby has evolved into a complex and ever-changing marketplace. From the tobacco cards of the early 20th century to the sporadic issues of the Depression era and World War II to the post-war cards from companies like Bowman & Leaf, it wasn’t until 60+ years ago that the Topps company started the real boom era of sports card collecting. While they issued a couple of playing card style sets in 1951, the 1952 set marked the true beginning of baseball cards as we know them today with over 400 numbered cards that included statistics and player bios. Bowman also issued card sets during this time, but Topps bought them out in 1956 and became the exclusive distributor of major league cards for a period that lasted through 1980.

 

A court decision in 1980 paved the way for new companies to enter the market and starting in ’81, Donruss & Fleer began to distribute baseball cards and more competitors (like Upper Deck) joined the market during the 1980’s. In the 80’s & 90’s, this highly competitive industry created their own problems by adding too many products and brands, while also over-producing the products they made. Collectors became “investors” (a classic mistake), hoping that cards would increase in value as the players performance improved, but the glut of cards on the market created just the opposite effect. Even today, when I look at collections that people have interest in selling, many of the cards are “bulk junk” from that era.

 

Out of necessity, the card manufacturers began re-inventing their products in the late 90’s with the advent of higher-priced “premium” items that included autographed cards as well as memorabilia cards (pieces of uniform or bat) and limited edition issues. Today, we have come full circle, with MLB limiting the licenses they issue and Topps once again being the major producer of cards. For fans and collectors, the hobby is still great fun and continues to bring enjoyment to young and old alike.

 

In future visits, we’ll cover other aspects of the hobby, from building your collection, to understanding values, to card condition & grading and anything else you might find interesting. Please understand that the emphasis will be on “collecting” as opposed to “investing”…even though a nice collection will always be a good investment.

 

Your feedback is welcome…thanks for reading.

 

 

Sharing The Wins

Sharing The Wins

 

 

If you’ve ever been to the gigantic Opryland Hotel in Nashville, you wonder how all those baseball executives and agents could even find each other to consummate a deal during the Winter Meetings. But consummate they did, and in a sport awash with money, old-school fans are having difficulty wrapping their heads around the new budgetary guidelines. These days, even the 7th or 8th pitcher on a major league staff is commanding $6 Million a season and more.

 

The real question under the surface, however, is if these acquisitions can really make a difference in the standings? In other words, what is their contribution to winning games? We’ve discussed WAR (Wins Above Replacement) numerous times in this space and that statistical outcome does impact decisions made by writers voting on awards and General Managers making deals. It has become a mainstream analysis over the last decade and can help clarify and justify some contract amounts. For example, if you believe in the WAR calculations, it appears that the Diamondbacks got a slightly better deal on Zack Greinke (5.8 WAR average the last three years, $32M per year x 6) than the Red Sox did on David Price (4.4 WAR average the last three years, $31M per year x 6). Most baseball stat-heads believe a free agent is worth about $7-8M per win, so that makes Greinke’s contract a relative bargain while Price comes in right on the money. Of course, that’s just a snapshot valuation based on past performance and all of these deals require projecting into the future.

 

This time, we’ll turn to another statistical measure in an attempt to gauge the free agent market. The other stat that is team-result based is WS (Win Shares) as developed by the godfather of modern statistical analysis, Bill James. While trying to describe the formula is impossible (James wrote an entire book on the topic in 2002), it comes down to a system where each game a team wins during the season is meticulously analyzed and the three players most responsible for that win get a “win share”. So, if a team wins 80 games, there will be 240 win shares distributed on the roster. Position players will have a tendency to accumulate higher totals than pitchers, but it’s all about comparisons between players among positions. Less than ten position players had a number over 30 in 2015 and it’s difficult to take exception with the results- both MVP’s are on the list with Josh Donaldson at 32 and Bryce Harper at 38. Other impressive performances belonged to Matt Carpenter (30), Kris Bryant (30), Anthony Rizzo (32), Joey Votto (33), Andrew McCutchen (35) & Paul Goldschmidt (35). The leader, however, was a repeat from last season…Mike Trout with 42! In fact, Trout has averaged 40 Wins Shares over the last four years. The pitching leaders were Jake Arrietta (27), Greinke (26), Dallas Keuchel (22) & Clayton Kershaw (21).

 

Let’s look at the free agent class through the prism of “Win Shares” and analyze the results…

 

> David Price, P – 7 Years, $217M (Red Sox). A durable, left-handed ace was exactly what the BoSox needed to bolster their mediocre rotation. At age 30, his Win Share average for the last four seasons is 16.5, so maybe he’s slightly overpriced…but big market teams roll the dice.

 

> Jason Heyward, OF – Available. At age 26, his free agent timing couldn’t be better. Productive hitting and superior defensive skills give him huge WAR numbers and his Win Share four-year average of 20 is solid. The question remains if some team thinks that translates to $200M. Just to keep things in perspective, the last mid-20’s free agent OF with great skills was B.J. Upton.

 

> Zack Greinke, P – 6 Years, $206.5M (Diamondbacks). A bold move by the Snakes, but it makes them an immediate contender because their run-scoring ability and defense are already first-rate. His four-year Win Share average of 18.5 is elite.

 

> Justin Upton, OF – Available. Another guy in his prime at age 28, but his opportunity to be a real star has already passed. Has had 21 Win Shares each of the last three seasons, so despite his in-season “streakiness”, the overall production is consistent. Probably looking for 7 years, $140M+.

 

> Chris Davis, 1B – Available. The poster boy for HR’s & Strikeouts, his power is unquestioned. Led all of baseball with 47 Homers in 2015 and set a record by having five (5) others robbed by OF making over-the-fence catches. Leaving out 2014 (when he had legal issues regarding medication availability), his Win Shares in 2013 & 2015 were 33 & 27. Six years and $150M+ should be waiting somewhere.

 

> Yoenis Cespedes, OF – Available. Another streaky, power-hitting OF, his Win Share average after four big league seasons is 21. At age 30, he’s looking for a similar payoff as Upton & Davis.

 

> Jordan Zimmerman, P – 5 Years, $110M (Tigers). Not in the same category with Price and Greinke and his Win Shares tell the tale…an average of 14 over the last four seasons.

 

> Johnny Cueto, P – Available. Likely did the D’Backs a favor by turning down 6 years and $120M. Had only 12 Win Shares in 2015 and has only exceeded 20 twice in his career. The market will force some team to pay $20M+ per year, but he’s the least reliable of the big name starting pitchers.

 

> Alex Gordon, OF – Available. An injury limited his Win Share total to 16 this past season, but it was over 20 each of the previous four years. Even at 32, he’s under-rated and a team might be smart to pay $100M over five years for him as opposed to $200 over 10 years for Heyward. How many GM’s expect to be in their job ten years from now?

 

> Ian Desmond, SS – Available. He’s fortunate to be on the market right now because the SS position is going to be loaded with great young players for years to come. We already have Correa, Lindor, Seager, Turner, Simmons, Russell, B. Crawford & Bogaerts and on the horizon…J.P. Crawford, O. Arcia, Albies, Rodgers & Swanson. At age 30, coming off a career-worst 12 Win Share season, he better grab a deal quickly from one of the few “have-not” teams

 

> Jeff Samardzija, P – 5 years, $90M (Giants). You may wonder how a pitcher with a 4.96 ERA could command such a contract. The rationalization from the Bay Area must include that he pitched in a terrible park (and in the AL), he hasn’t missed a start in the last three seasons (647 IP), his fastball velocity has been at 94 MPH each of those three seasons and he’s a great athlete who should age well. Win Shares say be careful…his highest total was just 11 (in ’14).

 

> Mike Leake, P – Available. Still in his 20’s, it was amazing how successful he was in Cincinnati’s ballpark despite a low strikeout rate. His Win Shares the last three seasons have been 12,10 & 10 so this is not an ace…more of a complimentary piece.

 

> Wei-Yin Chen, P – Available. If a LH starter had 14 Win Shares, 190+ IP and a 3.34 ERA in Boston or New York, everyone would be talking about him. Instead, he seems like an afterthought in this market.

 

> Dexter Fowler, OF – Available. Did a good enough job for the Cubs that they gave him a $15.8M qualifying offer. He chose to test the market with his 22 Win Share season, which was the best of his career.

 

> Daniel Murphy, 2B – Available – This post-season hero made a name for himself and we’ll see how it pays off in free agency. Even before becoming a household name, he’s averaged 20 Win Shares for the last four seasons.

 

> Scott Kazmir, P – Available. Came off the baseball scrap heap to post 10 & 11 Win Shares the last two years. Realistically, he’s a #3 SP at best.

 

> Ian Kennedy, P – Available. If you had a 4 Win Share season along with 4.28 ERA in a Pitcher’s park, maybe that $15.8M qualifying offer wasn’t a bad deal. His name hasn’t even been mentioned during coverage of the Winter Meetings.

 

> Yovani Gallardo, P – Available. His 14 Win Share season in Texas was his best since ’12 and convinced him to turn down the Rangers $15.8M offer. If you look closely at his numbers, however, 2015 seems to have been somewhat of a “smoke & mirrors” campaign. Could be a risky investment on a 3-4 year contract.

 

> Ben Zobrist, 2B – 4 Years, $56M (Cubs). Any deal of this length for a player in his mid-30’s is risky, but he’s a consistent and versatile player. Over the last seven seasons, his average Win Share number is 23+.

 

> Howie Kendrick, 2B – Available. Another player who turned down $15.8M, he doesn’t seem to be aging well at 32…especially defensively. Still had a 18 Win Share, so he’ll get a multi-year deal somewhere.

 

> John Lackey, P – 2 Years, $32M (Cubs). Even though he’s 37, this is a smart short-term commitment from Chicago. His 17 Win Share season was his best since 2007, so he’s not on the downside…yet.

 

> Hisashi Iwakuma, P – 3Years, $45M (Dodgers) . Will be 35 on opening day, but his numbers have been solid the last three seasons. Warning sign – his Win Shares have gone from 20 to 11 to 8.

 

> J.A Happ, P – 3 Years, $36M (Blue Jays). These dollars tell you all you need to know about the financial status of the game. A 10 Win Share in 2015 (his best since ’09) makes him a fixture in Toronto’s rotation.

 

> Gerardo Parra, OF – Available. Reportedly looking for a 4-year deal, this outstanding defensive OF has only had one Win Share season over 15 in his career…last year it was 14.

 

> Joakim Soria, P – 3 Years, $25M (Royals). This explains how valuable bullpen pieces have become in today’s game. $8+M per season and he’s not being asked to pitch the 9th inning…and maybe not even the 8th inning.

 

> Asdrubal Cabrera, 2B/33 – 2 Years, $18.5M (Mets). At first glance, it looks like he resurrected his career somewhat in Tampa this past season. A look at Win Shares tells a different story at age 30…the player who averaged 22 in ’11 & ’12 had only 11 in 2015. The Mets were concerned about the defense of Wilmer Flores, but Cabrera’s “Runs Saved” total over the last three seasons is -(minus) 31. Of course, one of the ex-ballplayers on the MLB Network panel described him as a “defensive wizard”?

 

> Ryan Madson, P – 3 Years, $22M (Athletics). His first healthy season since 2011 with a Win Share of 9 gets this kind of contract at age 35. As Yakov Smirnoff once said, “America is a wonderful country”.

 

> Rich Hill, P – 1 Year, $6M (Athletics). Might not seem like much, but this was based on four (4) great starts at the end of 2015. He’s 36 years old and has a lifetime ERA of 4.54.

 

And, of course we’ll have all those LOOGY’s (Left-Handed One Out Guys) like Antonio Bastardo, Tony Sipp & Randy Choate still to sign.

 

Hope all your free agents signings win their share of games.

Visiting With Bill James

Visiting With Bill James

 

 

Many baseball fans from the “Baby Boomer” generation haven’t really bought into the immense change in how statistics are viewed. They still look at the game with their eyes and are only concerned with the numbers on the back of the baseball card. For those of us more immersed in the details of the game, the man who guided us through the wilderness is Bill James. Starting in the late 70’s, he published an annual “Baseball Abstract” that began the task of analyzing data in new and different ways. By 1985, he wrote the first “Historical Baseball Abstract” and that 700+ page volume still sits on the bookshelf in my office.

 

For baseball fans in general and Fantasy Baseball players who participate in keeper leagues, Bill also helps us get through the winter while we’re longing for box scores. Each November, The Bill James Handbook gives us a review of the season, lifetime stats of every major league player and numerous articles and lists to make the “hot stove” season tolerable. The 2016 version is available now and at 601 pages, offers just about something for everyone. The Old Duck has an annual exercise, where I take my initial cursory glance at the book and begin discovering information that surprises and enlightens me.

 

So, here are some random observations from my first time through the pages…

 

> In golf and tennis, fans can easily find current rankings on each player. The systems are set up so that the rankings move up and down based on performance and are not just for the current season. James has developed a similar idea for ranking starting pitchers. The current top five are Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Max Scherzer, Jake Arrieta & Madison Bumgarner. Jacob deGrom was 94th going into 2015, now he’s 22nd. Carlos Carrasco was at #120 and now sits 28th.

 

> Most spectators are much more aware of pitch velocity than they were 10, 20 or 30 years ago. With radar guns in stadiums and in every scout’s hands, we focus on that statistic and assume a pitcher’s performance will deteriorate with diminished velocity. This year’s handbook charts average fastball velocity by age and actually shows how little difference there is for most pitchers. For example, Kershaw’s average velocity for the last eight years has been either 93 or 94 mph. Looking for outliers, however, shows that from 2008 to 2015, Felix Hernandez has dropped from 95 to 92, Johnny Cueto from 93 to 91, Tim Lincecum from 94 to 87, Ubaldo Jimenez from 95 to 91, Jered Weaver from 90 to 83, Jonathan Papelbon from 95 to 91, C.C. Sabathia from 94 to 90, Bartolo Colon from 92 to 88 and C.J. Wilson from 93 to 90. On the flip side, Tommy Hunter increased from 91 to 95 and Glen Perkins from 91 to 94. Even when you look at a disastrous performance like Matt Garza’s 2015 campaign, the obvious assumption of diminished velocity doesn’t hold up…he’s been at 93 or 94 for the last eight seasons.

 

> Fielding metrics are relatively new and not yet accepted by fans or even by many statisticians. The handbook’s “Defensive Runs Saved” chart does help us verify what we think we’re told by our eyes. The Royals defense in the post season was a major part of their winning formula the last two seasons, so it isn’t difficult to understand that Alex Gordon saved 50 runs during the last three years to lead all Left Fielders and Lorenzo Cain trails only Juan Lagares with 49 saved among Center Fielders during the same span. Most observers think Andrelton Simmons is the best SS in the game and his 25 runs saved in 2015 seems to verify that opinion. Jason Heyward’s 22 runs saved was the best for Right Fielders this past year and will contribute to his free agent value. Watch out for the Rays CF Kevin Kiermaier, as he accumulated 42 runs saved in his first full season and was far-and-away the best defensive player in baseball. For all the cynical fans out there, we can’t leave out the worst fielders in the game and how many runs they cost their teams…

 

1B) Pedro Alvarez -13

2B Johnny Giovotella & Howie Kendrick -12

3B) Yunel Escobar & Pablo Sandoval -11

  1. SS) Danny Santana & Ruben Tejada -15
  2. LF) Hanley Ramirez -19
  3. CF) Angel Pagan -20
  4. RF) Matt Kemp -15
  5. C) Blake Swihart -16
  6. P) Jon Lester & Jimmy Nelson -8

 

> A consistently debated topic among fans and media is the dramatic increase in defense shifts. In 2013, shifts were utilized over 8,000 times, in 2014 the number increased to over 13,000 and in 2015, it grew again to over 17,000. To the naysayer, the question becomes, would teams be shifting more if it didn’t work? According to the “Runs Saved” statistic, shifting saved 135 runs in 2013, 196 runs in 2014 and 266 in 2015. Only five teams (White Sox, Mariners, Brewers, Cardinals & Braves) shifted less than the previous year. The Orioles led all of baseball by saving 29 runs through utilizing the shift. Using ground balls and short line-drives as the criteria, the chart of the top shifted batters shines a spotlight on this trend. Five batters are now hitting into the shift at least 90% of the time…David Ortiz, Chris Davis, Lucas Duda, Ryan Howard & Adam LaRoche. As a group, they hit .199 with the shift in place. And some players below the 90% threshold can probably expect more shifting in 2016…Adrian Gonzalez hit .148 in these situations while Edwin Encarnacion & Albert Pujols hit .196.

 

> In the past, players were judged as good baserunners if they swiped a lot of bases. Not only weren’t their other baserunning skills not considered, even their caught stealing stats were ignored. However, as Tom Boswell pointed out over 20 years ago, a caught stealing is equivalent to two outs because it not only removes a baserunner, it also causes an out. Now we have information that tells us how often a player goes from 1st to 3rd or 2nd to home plate on a single. The handbook grades baserunning on the net amount of bases a player gains in a given season. The Rangers had a surprisingly good season in 2015, which resulted in new skipper Jeff Banister winning AL Manager of the Year. Every year, however, fans wonder if a Manager really makes a difference. Think about these stats – in 2014, the Rangers had a +24 in baserunning, which was near the middle of the pack…in 2015, they led all of baseball with a +142! And over 100 of those bases were due to the team’s aggressiveness on the basepaths, as opposed to just stolen bases. ¬†Only one MLB player gained over 50 bases for his team in 2015 and it was the Reds Billy Hamilton at 67. Ben Revere was 2nd with 44. The Tigers were the worst team at -107 and the two worst individual players were Billy Butler (-38) & Jhonny Peralta (-33).

 

> If you’re wondering how the top five pitchers ascended to that rank, The “Pitcher Analysis” in the handbook gives you some insight. Old-school fans would tell you that getting ahead in the count is extremely important and digging deeper into the stats seems to confirm that logic. When you check how many times these hurlers got ahead in the count 0-1, the numbers are amazing. Arrietta is at 49%, Greinke at 52%, Bumgarner at 53%, Kershaw at 55% and Scherzer had an 0-1 count on 537 of the 899 batters he faced…that’s 60%!

 

> Were there any successful major league pitchers who threw their fastball over 90% of the time? The “Pitchers’ Repertoires” section will answer that question by telling you that there were four and all were well-known Closers…Kenley Jansen, Jake McGee, Sean Doolittle & Zach Britton.

 

That’s just a taste of the information in this year’s edition and we haven’t even looked at the individual player stats. No wonder that “stathead” is now an accepted baseball term.