Finishing the Discussion

Real baseball fans love to discuss the game endlessly. As the old cliché (sort of) says, “Opinions are like posteriors…everybody has one”.

Ask your favorite baseball fanatics who would be the three Outfielders on their all-time team. One may say Ted Williams, Willie Mays & Babe Ruth. Another may question how the player with the highest lifetime Batting Average (Ty Cobb) could be left off. The third might ask about the player with the most popular baseball cards of the post-War era (Mickey Mantle). Then, we’d hear from a Pirate fan about Roberto Clemente. And, as we know, “chicks dig the long ball”, so Hank Aaron & Barry Bonds would get significant support.

This time of year always brings out opinions about the Hall of Fame balloting and no two fans seem to have the exact same list. This year is no exception with controversial players such as Curt Schilling, Bonds & Roger Clemens eligible. How about Omar Vizquel, Scott Rolen & Billy Wagner? Then there’s Gary Sheffield, Todd Helton & Jeff Kent. What about first-time guys…Tim Hudson & Mark Buehrle each won over 200 Games with WAR (Wins Above Replacement) numbers of 59 & 58. Would your ballot include one player, a few players or ten players?

Another really interesting discussion involves great baseball finishes. For many fans, the World Series comes to mind and the names that were captured by our mental snapshots…Bill Mazeroski, Bobby Richardson, Kirk Gibson, Jack Morris, Joe Carter, Luis Gonzalez and so many more. But, of course there were also seemingly unimportant games that provided memorable finishes…the last day of the 1941 season when Ted Williams went 6-for-8, the last day of the 1950 season when the Phillies captured the pennant, Harvey Haddix and his 12-inning “perfect game”. Or, maybe it’s a moment you actually witnessed like George Brett’s 3,000th hit or a Sandy Koufax no-hitter.

Now, there’s a way to enjoy this topic fully in a new book by my friend Howard Peretz. He has developed the BFI (Baseball Finish Index) and ranked each of the top finishes in a fan’s guide to “Baseball’s 100 Greatest Finishes”. It is a great read for both old-school fans and youngsters learning about the game. You will reminisce about many of the entries and also wonder about a few that might surprise you. To tease you a bit, #99 is about a College game, #93 took place in 1905, #79 is about a 15-inning game and #60 stars an 11 year-old.

Howard’s book also has great visuals, as there are over 100 beautiful images of baseball cards that dovetail with the game descriptions. If you’d like more information, the book is available at both Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Just use “peretz” or “saving baseball” in the search engine.

Getting My Dux In A Row

In 30+ years of playing auction-style Fantasy Baseball, winning over 30 championships can make you feel like an “expert”. The real test, however, is when you compete in a league full of experts. That has been a yearly challenge for The Old Duck and it presented itself once again as the 15 owners in the Xperts Fantasy League (XFL) gathered on-line last week for their 19th annual draft. Our previous drafts were all done in-person but circumstances create changes.

As a quick refresher, the XFL is the only expert’s keeper league within the fantasy industry and many of the owner’s names are familiar to those who have viewed the landscape of fantasy sports over the years. These brilliant guys produce websites, magazines, newsletters and blogs that help guide you in becoming a better player in your league. The league is a 5 X 5 format (with on-base percentage replacing batting average), a 23-player auction draft after the World Series with a $260 budget and a supplemental snake draft in late March to round out the 40-man rosters (23 players are active each week during the season). Donald’s Dux (my squad) has captured four championships and holds the top overall performance record encompassing all 18 seasons of the league.

 The 2020 season didn’t look too promising as the projections had the squad near the bottom of the pack but the boys overachieved and finished a strong 4th after a slow start. Solid seasons from team members such as Jose Abreu, Ian Happ, Pete Alonso & Teoscar Hernandez helped overcome lots of pitching injuries to Milos Mikolas, Madison Bumgarner, Steven Matz and others.

So, as we approached the November Draft for the 2021 season, it appeared that the Dux had a much better starting point than last year.

Here’s the keeper list that was frozen on November 1st –

C – Willson Contreras $16

C –

1B – Jose Abreu $22

3B – Yoan Moncada $13

1/3 – Pete Alonso $7

2B – Wilmer Flores $6

SS – Gleyber Torres $10

2/S –

OF – Ian Happ $6

OF – Randy Arozarena $8

OF – Teoscar Hernandez $6

OF – Dylan Carlson $4

OF –

U –

P – Kevin Gausman $6

P – Brandon Woodruff $16

P – James Karinchak $4

P –

P –

P –

P –

P –

P –

Farm – Royce Lewis

Farm – Christian Pache

Farm – Triston Casas

Here’s a quick review of the salary structure…

> November Draft – Player salaries are determined by the winning bid at the table and increase $5 each season. So, unless a team finds a break-out player in the end-game, there’s a reasonable chance that expensive veterans will only be on your team for one season.

> March Supplemental Draft (done in July for 2020) – A 17-round snake draft gets all the squads up to a 40-man roster from which you determine 23 active players each week. All players chosen in this phase have a $1 salary. For current major-leaguers, the increase each season is $5 so the annual keeper lists have a smattering of $6 players that were great choices the previous year. Examples this time around include Clint Frazier, Dominic Smith, Framber Valdez, Anthony Santander, Corbin Burnes, Trevor Rosenthal, Dylan Bundy and the four $6 players on the Dux roster. Minor-leaguers taken in this phase also have a $1 starting salary, but once they get to “the show”, their salary only goes up $3 per year. This is what might be described as the “dynasty” component in this particular league. An example would be Jose Abreu, who was taken as a free agent by my team in March of 2014 and now enters his 8th season on the roster at a salary of $22.

> In-Season Monthly Free Agent Selections (only in August for 2020) – Teams can choose free agents once a month and drop someone on their roster in a corresponding move. The salary is $5 with a $5 increase in subsequent seasons, so you’ll see a few of these players scattered on keeper rosters at $10 each year.

The 10 hitters on the Dux keeper list had a salary total of $98, while the three pitchers equaled $26 leaving $136 to buy 10 players at the draft table. The basic allocation would be $71 for the four hitters and $65 for the six pitchers. So, the draft strategy was as follows…

> 30 Catchers will be rostered in this league and a significant percentage of them have negative value. Only six were kept, so there will be feeding frenzy for backstops. J.T. Realmuto is available but he went for $33 last year and there’s no reason to think it will cost less this time around. The Dux will be willing to overpay for a second-tier Catcher like Travis d’Arnaud, Salvador Perez, Sean Murphy or Christian Vasquez but if that doesn’t work, taking Victor Caratini (Contreras’ back-up) for a single digit price will allow dollars to be shifted to another priority.

> Spend $20+ to fill the 2/S spot and prioritize speed if possible. The pool is weak with Didi Gregorius (unsigned at the moment), Marcus Semien (also a free agent), J.P. Crawford, Jean Segura & Cesar Hernandez heading the list.

> Allocate $25+ for a solid 5th OF…Michael Conforto, Charlie Blackmon, Kole Calhoun, Eddie Rosario, Brandon Nimmo, Nick Castellanos & Kyle Schwarber are all available.

> Look for one of those end-gamers in the Utility spot that could be productive…players like Manny Margot, Garrett Cooper, Leody Taveras, Victor Reyes & Ramiel Tapia would all fit the bill. It is always easier to find an end-game hitter than an end game pitcher.

> Four starting pitchers for about $50…Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer & Stephen Strasburg will all be too expensive. Hurlers like Zack Wheeler, Carlos Carrasco, Sandy Alcantara, Julio Urias & Joe Musgrove are on the radar.

> Spend $12-$15 on a 2nd Closer…the priority is just finding someone who will have the job in March. Rasiel Iglesias was a member of the team in ’20 and still has the skills.

> Look for skills in the last pitching spot for a minimal cost…Andrew Heaney, Tyler Mahle & Seth Lugo all fit the type.

> My advice to players has always been to not “chase” any particular player. Find a group of players that fit your need and focus on getting one of them. This was the biggest challenge because so many of MLB’s star players were already rostered.

Before reviewing the results of the draft, there’s one other important league rule for readers to understand. Even though the word “list” is being used in this discussion, the really unique aspect of the XFL is that team owners can bring nothing to the table…no lists, no projections, no research, no draft software, no laptops, no tablets and no smart phones. When you sit down at the table, major league depth charts are handed out with the names of keepers crossed off and that is your only reference material during the auction. Even the depth charts are as neutral as possible with players listed by position and alphabetically. You don’t get any help as the typical MLB team could have 12 relief pitchers on the sheet and you need to know which one might get (or be next in line for) Saves. With this year’s Draft being done remotely, we’re all on the honor system.

The actual approach at the draft table needed to be somewhat aggressive for the positions needed, so money could be shifted later in the process. And, of course, never forget the words of a world-class poker player who once told me, “If you sit down at the table and don’t spot the pigeon, it just might be you”.

Note – All of the previous paragraphs were written prior to our November 14th draft date. That original date was pushed back due to one of our owners being hospitalized by Covid-19. Thankfully, he is home and recovering well, so the draft took place on December 5th.

One of the keys in a keeper league environment is to determine what the inflation factor might be on player salaries. You can do the math prior to the Draft, but until you actually see the bids, you can’t really be sure. Every Fantasy league is basing their valuations on projections but when you’re bidding in December, knowing what a player actually “earned” the previous season can give some insight into inflation.

The first player nominated might tell us some of what we wanted to know. J.D. Martinez had a terrible 2020 at age 32, earning less than $10 in our statistical format. Was it an aberration or is he on the down-side of his career? Our experts strongly voiced their opinion as he went for $27.

The rest of the 1st round looked like this…

  • Realmuto $28
  • Hendriks $19
  • Rizzo $25
  • Kershaw $30
  • Scherzer $33
  • Sale $18
  • Goldschmidt $30
  • Carrasco $29
  • Conforto $35
  • Hand $15
  • Vasquez $16
  • Segura $11
  • Strasburg $30
  • Cruz $25

The Dux didn’t roster a player until the 4th spot in Round 2, when we added Marcus Semien for $24. At age 30, he’s only one year removed from a 3rd place MVP finish. Javier Baez went later in the round for $26, while Jose Altuve was $22 in round 3.

By the end of round 2, ten starting pitchers were already rostered, so it was time to act and Zack Wheeler was the choice at $25. Four picks later, the Dux got their Closer with a $16 bid on Iglesias. Young Pitchers are always somewhat of a crapshoot, but Cristian Javier seemed like a good addition. His $15 price was somewhat high but the skills look good and we were sticking to our aggressive posture.

At the end of round 3, it was time to address the Catcher position. Realmuto & Vasquez were already gone and when Sean Murphy was nominated, the Dux went the extra dollar(s) and paid $19. Getting a solid OBP performer (.364 in ’20) at a scarce position is an advantage.

At this point, the Dux had filled 2/S, C, SP (2) & Closer for a total of $99…about $10 more than the amount budgeted prior to the draft. It became clear that the last OF spot didn’t need to be a particular priority because there’s a reasonable chance that Farm player Cristian Pache could be in the Braves line-up on opening day. It seemed more important to get another quality SP, so Joe Musgrove joined the squad at $12. Even though he’s on a lousy team, the stuff is tantalizing.

With $25 remaining for four players, we added Brandon Nimmo, Tyler Mahle, Drew Pomeranz & Cesar Hernandez

The Dux spent $160 on offense (62% of budget) and $98 on pitching (38% of budget), which were close to the target numbers. We filled 2/S, C, OF, 4 SP’s and 1 ½ Closers with players who shouldn’t have too many question marks. The overall strategy was very different than my normal approach. My mindset was to avoid thinking about “bargains” or keepers for 2022. Of the ten players drafted, there’s a good chance none of them will be keepers a year from now. That is offset by the fact that almost all of this year’s ten keepers have a chance to be on the roster again in 2022.

Just to keep your mind percolating during the off-season, here are some random thoughts from the Draft…

> Reputations don’t matter as Adam Wainwright, Johnny Cueto, Miguel Cabrera, Jon Lester, Evan Longoria & Jake Arrieta weren’t drafted.

> Never ask the question, “Why did someone pay $28 for Joey Gallo” without clearly understanding that someone else bid $27.

> And, of course, the annual exercise of listing the players that weren’t even drafted. You can decide if the experts were right or wrong…Brad Keller, Spencer Turnbull, Danny Duffy, Adam Duvall, Diego Castillo, Mark Melancon, Kevin Pillar, Jackie Bradley Jr., Rick Porcello, Robbie Grossman, Jesus Aguilar, Robbie Ray, Nick Ahmed, Colin Moran, Brandon Crawford, Archie Bradley, Jonathan Scoop, Stephen Piscotty, Kevin Kiermaier & Orlando Arcia…among others.

You can review additional league information at fantasyxperts.com

2020 Rookies in the Crystal Ball



Baseball fans have always been intrigued by Rookies. They bring hope during Spring Training to those franchises that have been floundering. Every team is undefeated until opening day.
 
The last 30+ years has changed the perception of rookies for two reasons…1) baseball cards and 2) Fantasy Baseball. Starting in the 1980’s, baseball card collectors became baseball card investors and their focus was on RC’s (Rookie Cards). Scores of collections come across my desk that have 50 Candy Maldonado cards from 1983 or 75 Gregg Jeffries cards from 1989. Hopefully, there might also be a smattering of 1984 Don Mattingly cards along with a few Ken Griffey Jr. cards from 1989. All of these collectors were scouting rookies of the day, and most of the time, they were wrong.
 
Those of us who began playing Fantasy (Rotisserie) Baseball at about the same time were also possessed about rookies. With no Internet and no real experts, we spent most of the off-season waiting for the next issue of “Baseball America
”. After all, this publication actually gave us the top ten prospects in each organization and we enthusiastically took it all in to get an edge on our competitors.
These days, card collectors and Fantasy Baseball aficionados are ahead of the curve. They’re looking for cards of a player who has never had a professional at-bat (Jasson Dominguez) or trying to add a 19-year old to their roster (Wander Franco).
 
The 2020 season was different in a myriad of ways and one of the most unique was the presence and performance of rookies. Did the 60-game season really give us insight into the skills of a first-year player or were some just the “flash-in-the-pan” variety? Let’s look at the top 20 rookies of this past season as determined by WAR (Wins Above Replacement). First the position players…
 
1)  Kyle Lewis, Mariners – The AL ROY posted solid numbers and his RC’s have been flying off the shelf. Might not be quite a finished product…be careful of that 29.3% K rate.
 
2)  Ke’Bryan Hayes, Pirates – Only 95 AB’s but his OPS was a spectacular 1.124. On the flip side, he’ll be hitting in a terrible line-up.
 
3)  Luis Robert, White Sox – Lots of hype and his potential makes his cards very popular. Curb your enthusiasm slightly, as his 32.2% K rate and .738 OPS are red flags.
 
4)  Sean Murphy, Athletics – Card collectors don’t generally get excited about Catchers and his .233 BA doesn’t help. Under the surface, he had the best Walk rate of any rookie at 17.1%, which brought his OPS to .821.
 
5)  Jake Cronenworth, Padres – 26 year-old rookies don’t get any attention, but he’ll probably carve out a nice spot as a multi-positional player.
 
6)  Willi Castro, Tigers – Only the #7 Bengal
prospect prior to the season, he surprised everyone with a solid performance. Should be the everyday 2B.
 
7)  Alec Bohm, Phillies – Not much power yet, but the pedigree and a .881 OPS makes the 3B job his.
 
8)  Andres Gimenez, Mets – He’ll need to improve a .398 slugging percentage, but Cano’s stupidity might give this 22 year-old more playing time.
 
9)  Randy Arozarena, Rays – Off-field news aside for the moment, his numbers are mind-boggling. OPS was over 1.000 and an EV (exit velocity) of over 90 mph. In the post-season, his OPS was over 1.200!
 
10)                    Ryan Mountcastle, Orioles – Not spectacular, but solid…could be the Bird’s everyday 1B.
 
Now for the Pitchers…
 
1)   Tony Gonsolin, Dodgers – A 2.31 ERA (and 2.29 FIP) tells you about the skills. Could be the 6th starter for the Blue Crew but the way they handle the staff might give him 12-15 starts.
 
2)   Justus Sheffield, Mariners – Ten productive starts in 2020, but the 7.8 K rate is somewhat scary.
 
3)   Devin Williams, Brewers – The NL ROY was the #20 prospect but pitched like no one in recent history. His ERA in 27 IP was 0.33 and he struck out 17.7 batters per nine. No, that isn’t a typo.
 
4)   James Karinchak, Indians – The Tribe waived the best Closer in baseball to give this guy the job. Also had a 17.7 K rate.
 
5)   Ian Anderson Braves – The #3 prospect and pitched like it…1.95 ERA & 11.4 K rate. With the additions of Smyly & Morton, he doesn’t need to be the ace…yet.
 
6)   Brady Singer, Royals – 12 starts from the #4 prospect. Needs to lower the HR rate to lower the ERA.
 
7)   Sixto Sanchez, Marlins – First taste of the big leagues at age 22 produced seven starts and an ERA of 3.46. The future ace of the Fish.
 
8)   Randy Dobnak, Twins – Had 6 Wins in 10 starts with a 4.05 ERA but there were some smoke and mirrors.
 
9)   Jesus Luzardo, Athletics – Nine starts with 4.12 ERA. The A’s #1 prospect will get every opportunity.
 
10)                    Keegan Akin, Orioles – The 4.56 ERA looks ugly but the 3.27 FIP says that he deserved better. The 12.3 K rate is impressive and the Birds don’t have anyone better.
 
 Rookie Pitchers don’t draw the same baseball card interest as hitters, but the younger guys like Anderson, Sanchez & Luzardo are popular.
 
Now, where are those Brandon Wood Rookie Cards?
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

The $283M Payroll

Baseball fans are secure in the fact that they know more about running a major league team than the people actually in charge. However, when you speak to fans who play Fantasy Baseball, the crescendo of arrogance moves to an entirely different level.

These fanatics study the game’s nuances; look deep inside the numbers and pride themselves in knowing details unimportant to the casual fan. Each off-season, the Fantasy community watches closely as real-world GM’s sign free agents and offer extensions to players on their rosters. It’s always easy to criticize after-the-fact but Fantasy players put their money where their mouth is by bidding at their own annual draft.

Examples of this phenomenon are many, but let’s just use some Orioles pitching decisions as a case study….

  • In 2014, they signed Ubaldo Jimenez to a 4-year, $50M deal. He went 32-42 and had a 6.81 ERA in the final year.
  • In 2016, they signed Yovani Gallardo to a 2-year, $20M deal. He went 6-8 with a 5.42 ERA and was then traded.
  • In 2018, they signed Andrew Cashner to a 2-year, $16M deal. In his first season, he went 4-15 with a 5.29 ERA
  • In 2018, they signed Alex Cobb to a 3-year, $42M deal. So far, he’s 7-22.

This isn’t about cherry-picking bad decisions. This is about the knowledge of a winning Fantasy player. The experts I play against wouldn’t have rostered these hurlers without hurling their lunch. But yet, Baltimore’s management team obviously felt they were making good decisions.

So, for today’s visit, you’ll be given a 15 man roster of current major league players. Your assignment, if you choose to accept it, is to avoid the cellar in the standings with a $283M payroll.

1B) Albert Pujols, $24M – One of the greatest players we’ve ever seen, but the Angels made a huge mistake by giving a 10-year contract to a 32 year-old.

2B) Robinson Cano, $24M – Another 10-year commitment to a player already in his 30’s. As of today, he’s made $214M playing baseball and still feels he needs to cheat. Farewell Cooperstown.

3B) Matt Carpenter, $19M – Got a two-year extension at age 34 and hit .186.

SS) Jean Segura, $14M – Got a five-year deal in 2019 and hasn’t come close to matching his past performance.

C) Buster Posey, $18M – A great player and three-time champion but he’ll play 2021 at age 34 after sitting out 2020.

OF) Justin Upton $21M – Got a five-year $106M contract in 2018…in 2020, he had a negative WAR.

OF) Khris Davis $17M – Received a two-year deal prior to 2020 and hit .200.

OF) Ian Desmond $14M – The Rockies gave him a five-year deal in 2017 and have regretted it from day one.

DH) Chris Davis $23M – A millionaire who actually deserves our sympathy. Watching him try to play the game is excruciating.

SP) Johnny Cueto $21M – Going into the last season of six-year $130M deal. The last four seasons, he’s won 14 games.

SP) Chris Sale $26M – Critics always said his motion would cause arm problems. It took seven seasons but they’re finally right. He’s still owed over $100M.

SP) Miles Mikolas $17M – Resurrected his career in Japan but missed all of 2020 with an injury. Still owed over $50M for the next three years.

SP) Madison Bumgarner $17M – One of the great World Series heroes in history, but the first year of a five-year deal was a disaster.

SP) Yusei Kikuchi $14M – Two years into a three-year deal, his ERA so far is 5.39.

RP) – Craig Kimbrel $14M – One of the reasons Theo walked away.

Money can’t buy you happiness but it does bring you a more pleasant form of misery.

Sharing The Wins

With the Winter Meetings on the horizon, let’s take a look at the relative value of the players in the game. In a sport awash with money, old-school fans often have difficulty wrapping their heads around the new levels of salaries and budgetary guidelines. With the average MLB salary now above $4 Million, how do we really know what a player’s contribution is worth? And do these contributions 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 confirms that Jose Ramirwz was the best position player in the AL (3.4 WAR) and Freddie Freeman was tops in the NL (3.4 WAR). The fact that Freeman won the NL MVP and that Ramirez finished 2nd in the AL adds to the credibility of the statistic. Cy Young Award winner Shane Bieber (3.2 WAR) was the best in the AL while the NL winner Trevor Bauer (2.5 WAR) was in the top three.

 Most baseball stat-heads believe a player is worth about $6-8M per win to his team and free agent signings give us a window into that formula. So, when you pro-rate the 2020 numbers to a 162-game season and digest the upcoming free agent contracts of Marcell Ozuna, D.J LeMahieu & Bauer, see how close the formula compares to the new contracts. Their full season numbers come out to a WAR of 6.8.

Each year at this time, we turn to another statistical measure in an attempt to gauge player value. 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. Only 13 position players had a number of 10 or better in 2020 and it’s difficult to take exception with the results. Freeman led the way with a figure of 17 followed by Juan Soto with 14. Mookie Betts, Ozuna & Trea Turner posted 13 shares each. Other members of the “baker’s dozen” included…

> Fernando Tatis Jr., 12

> Brian Anderson, 12

> Ramirez, 11

> LeMahieu, 11

> Manny Machado, 11

> Kyle Tucker, 11

> Mark Canha, 11

> Brandon Lowe, 11

Some surprising names, don’t you think? Maybe underrated players or was it just the short season?

The highest-rated Starting Pitchers were Bieber with 11 and Bauer with 10.

As always, there are some hidden tidbits in the rankings that impact both fantasy and reality baseball…

> Rookies of the Year contributed 7 (Kyle Lewis) and 5 (Devin Williams).

> How about veterans with big $ contracts? Matt Carpenter, Josh Donaldson & Joey Votto each had 3. Jose Altuve & J.D. Martinez contributed 2 each. Elvis Andrus, Evan Longoria, Albert Pujols & Justin Upton all came in at 1.

> Mike Trout’s 10 shares were solid and he has over 300 for his career.

> Can the numbers give us a hint at potential? Cavan Biggio & Mike Yastrzemski both posted 10, while Willi Castro, Ian Happ & Eloy Jimenez each had 9.

> Austin Nola (8) had more than Aaron Nola (4).

Don’t forget, it’s the season for sharing…even if they’re Wins.

Hanging Around The Hot Stove 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 can’t wait for the upcoming season, 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 2021 version is available now and at 578 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 Gerrit Cole, Jacob deGrom, Shane Bieber, Trevor Bauer & Max Scherzer. Cole is the first pitcher to start and finish the season at #1 since Clayton Kershaw in 2016. Bieber’s incredible performance moved him up from #24 at the start of 2020. The Cubs had two SP’s in the top ten…Yu Darvish at #6 and Kyle Hendricks at #10. The Reds had the best 5-man rotation rating with Bauer, Luis Castillo (#14), Sonny Gray (#18), Tyler Mahle (#76) and Anthony DeSclafini (#126). Some of the biggest drops since a year ago were Patrick Corbin (from 8th to 33rd), Stephen Strasburg (#5 to #46) and James Paxton (#18 to #57). On the positive side, Kenta Maeda (53rd to 13th), Dinelson Lamet (111th to 17th), Brandon Woodruff (78th to 21st) and Zac Gallen (93rd to 25th) were some of the shining stars.

> Fielding metrics are relatively new and not yet accepted by fans or even by many statisticians. The handbook’s “Defensive Runs Saved” chart shows a plethora of new players compared to previous seasons and very close results due to the shortened schedule. Evan White of the Mariners was surprisingly awarded the Gold Glove at 1B but his 7 runes saved were better than perennial leader Matt Olson, who had 5. Kike Hernandez & Nicky Lopez led the way at 2B with 8; Nolan Arenado practically lapped the field at 3B with 15 while Dansby Swanson led all SS with 9. There were also surprises in the Outfield with Tyler O’Neill leading the LF with 9, Byron Buxton in CF had 11 and Joey Gallo topped the RF with 13…two more than Mookie Betts! Max Fried led all Pitchers with 5 and Tucker Barnhart was the best Catcher with 9. 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) Joey Votto – 7

2B) Keston Huira – 8

3B) J.D. Davis & Austin Riley – 8

SS) Gleybar Torres – 9

LF) Alex Dickerson, Andrew McCutchen & Juan Soto – 8

CF) Mike Trout – 9

RF) Adam Eaton & Matt Joyce – 6

C) Luis Torrens, Jorge Alfaro & Travis d’Arnaud – 7

> A consistently debated topic among fans and media is the dramatic increase in defensive shifts. In 2014, shifts were utilized over 13,000 times, in 2015 the number increased to over 17,000 and in 2016, it grew tremendously (+58%) to over 28,000. The 2017 numbers seemed to show that the optimum advantage had been reached, as the figure dropped slightly to 26,700. But 2018 put every number in the rear-view mirror with over 34,600 (a 30% increase). 2019 left that number in the dust with a 34% increase to 46,700. To the naysayer, the question becomes, would teams be shifting if it didn’t work? According to the “Runs Saved” statistic, shifting saved 196 runs in 2014, 267 runs in 2015, 359 in 2016 and 346 in 2017. Then in 2018, it increased to 592! 2019 came in at 622 runs! If you prorate the 2020 number to a 162 game season, there would have been 64,606 shifts, an increase of 31% from 2019. The shift lowered the Batting Average of shift candidates by 39 points. 25 of the 30 teams increased their shift usage, so don’t expect the strategy to go away.

> In the past, players were judged as good baserunners if they swiped a lot of bases. Not only were 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 top eight were Mookie Betts (+22), Trevor Story (+20), Kyle Tucker (+17), Brandon Lowe (+17) and four with 16…Xander Bogaerts, Adalberto Mondesi, Robbie Grossman & Starling Marte.  The Rockies were the best baserunning team in the game at +67 and the D’Backs (who led the category in ’19) were second with +59.

> How often did the top five starting pitchers use their fastball? The “Pitchers’ Repertoires” section will answer that question by telling you that it was 53% for Cole, 45% for deGrom, 37% for Bieber, 48% for Bauer and 46% for Scherzer. See a pattern here? Maybe the pitching philosophy of “Throw him the heater, Ricky” went out about the time of “Major League II”.

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.

Hot Stove Smiles

As we head into “hot stove” season and all the complications of free agency, non-tenders, salary arbitration, DH discussions and 60-game player evaluation, let’s take a break and have a few laughs. This piece originally appeared about 3 ½ years ago and was a favorite of regular readers…

There is little doubt that there are more golf jokes than in any other sport. After all, even the throw-away lines are funny because when you ask a golfer how he’s been playing lately and he replies, “My game has improved dramatically since I had my ball retriever re-gripped”, you can’t help but laugh.

When it comes to quotes however, baseball will always be at the pinnacle. Maybe it has to do with over 150 years of history or the fact that every American youth is exposed to the sport at an early age and understands the basics of the game. For us die-hard fans, we’d probably like to think that it’s the result of the great characters that have captured our imagination over a lifetime. So, for today’s visit, we’ll look at some of the great quotes of the game and hope they bring a smile, cause an outright guffaw or put a quizzical look on your face.

> On hearing that Reggie Jackson was reported to have an IQ of 165, Yankee teammate Mickey Rivers snidely replied, “Out of what – a thousand?”

> “He’s got power enough to hit home runs in any park, including Yellowstone.” – Sparky Anderson on Willie Stargell

> “I gave (pitcher) Mike Cuellar more chances than I gave my first wife.” – Earl Weaver

> “Hating the Yankees is as American as apple pie, unwed mothers and cheating on your income tax.” – Mike Royko, Chicago newspaper columnist

> “Ninety feet between home plate and first base may be the closest man has ever come to perfection.” – Red Smith, sportswriter

> “There are two theories on hitting the knuckleball. Unfortunately, neither of them work.” – Charlie Lau, hitting coach

> “Baseball is ninety percent mental and the other half is physical.” – Yogi Berra

> “For the parents of a Little Leaguer, a baseball game is simply a nervous breakdown divided into nine innings.” – Earl Wilson, former pitcher

> “Good pitching will beat good hitting anytime, and vice versa.” – Bob Veale, former pitcher

> “The designated hitter rule is like letting someone else take Wilt Chamberlain’s free throws.” – Rick Wise, former pitcher

> “Trying to sneak a pitch past Hank Aaron is like trying to sneak a sunrise past a rooster.” – Curt Simmons, former pitcher

> “In a way, an umpire is like a woman. He makes quick decisions, never reverses them, and doesn’t think you’re safe when you’re out.” – Larry Goetz, former umpire

> “You never save a pitcher for tomorrow. Tomorrow it may rain.” – Leo Durocher

> “A good cigar is like a beautiful chick with a great body who also knows the American League box scores.” – Klinger (from M*A*S*H*)

> “I never threw an illegal pitch. The trouble is, once in a while I toss one that ain’t never been seen by this generation.” – Satchel Paige

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> “Baseball is like a poker game, nobody wants to quit when he’s losing: nobody wants you to quit when you’re ahead.” – Jackie Robinson

> “The difference between the old ballplayer and the new ballplayer is the jersey. The old ballplayer cared about the name on the front. The new ballplayer cares about the name on the back.” – Steve Garvey

> “Baseball must be a great game to survive the fools who run it.” – Bill Terry

> “Baseball gives every American boy a chance to excel, not just to be as good as someone else but to be better than someone else. This is the nature of man and the name of the game.” – Ted Williams

> “If a woman has to choose between catching a fly ball and saving an infant’s life, she will choose to save the infant’s life without even considering if there are men on base.” – Dave Barry, humorist

“You can’t sweep a series if you don’t win the first game, and it’s tougher to win two out of three if you lose the first one.” – Todd Helton

> “Willie Mays’ glove is where triples go to die.” – Jim Murray, newspaper columnist

> “The key to being a good manager is keeping the people who hate me away from those who are still undecided.” – Casey Stengel

> “The way to make coaches think you’re in shape in the Spring is to get a tan.” – Whitey Ford

> “I watch a lot of baseball on radio.” – Gerald Ford

> “I never took the game home with me. I always left it in some bar.” – Bob Lemon

> “All I remember about my wedding day in 1967 is that the Cubs lost a doubleheader.” – George Will, author

> “A hot dog at the game beats roast beef at the Ritz.” – Humphrey Bogart

> “He looks like a greyhound but he runs like a bus.” – George Brett on teammate Jamie Quirk

> “If Mike Scioscia was in a race with a pregnant woman, he’d finish third.” – Tommy Lasorda

> Asked what it feels like to be the shortest player in the major leagues, 5′ 4″ Freddie Patek replied, “A heckuva lot better than being the shortest player in the minor leagues.”

> “Andre Dawson has a bruised knee and is listed as day-to-day…Aren’t we all?” – Vin Scully

> “He once asked me if Beirut was named after that famous baseball player who hit home runs.” – High School Teacher

> Veteran Pitcher Roger McDowell on taking a rookie under his wing – “I have to go to all the places he can’t, to make sure he isn’t there.”

> In 1995, during the strike, a replacement pitcher who hadn’t pitched professionally in nine years had a terrible outing. Pirates broadcaster Steve Blass said, “He should have been better, pitching on 3,195 days’ rest.”

> “Aw, c’mon, how could he lose a ball in the sun? He’s from Mexico.” – Harry Carey

Needless to say, we’ve just touched the surface of this glorious topic and if you’re wondering if we’ll revisit it in the future think of the Bryce Harper quote – “That’s a clown question, Bro”.

Do You Have A Literary Agent?

Seemingly, sportswriters must always wonder if anyone enjoys, or even reads, their work. If a book is published, sales can be tracked but for newspapers, magazines and this new-fangled Internet thingy, the level of interest can remain a mystery.

This humble column, however, doesn’t seem to have that problem. Every weekend, readers send comments about Friday’s article and most are complimentary. Then there are others who take issue with an opinion or position, but that means they’re interested enough to take the time to disagree. Beyond those two categories, however, there is another group known as the “literary agents”. The lead character wants to know when all of these stories will turn into a book because he thinks it would be a best seller. Another reader, who is only a casual baseball fan, regularly asks “non-expert” questions that suggest general topics for future pieces. One other fan only sends comments less than a sentence like “Didn’t know that” and “Willie Mays was better”. If he was Native American, he would be called “Man Who Speaks Without Punctuation”. Six years ago, a young Rotisserie player ramped up the discussion by requesting a specific topic. After reading a previous offering about baseball card values of that year’s hot prospects, he suggested looking at the cards of the top prospects from 10 years ago because he would “be intrigued to see how the value holds up as players reach the majors and either succeed or fail”.

The answer, of course, was “ask and you shall receive”. We reviewed the 2004 top prospect list and found “hits” (Joe Mauer, Prince Fielder, Zack Greinke & David Wright) and “misses” (Delmon Young, Greg Miller, Andy Marte & Dustin McGowan). Now it’s time to re-visit the topic and see how the youngsters from the 2010 list have done…and if their baseball cards were a good investment.

1) Jayson Heyward, OF Braves – If success was measured in dollars, this player would be on Mount Rushmore. His eight-year, $164 Million deal with the Cubs runs through the 2023 season. Collectors aren’t impressed as his five years with Chicago have only produced 7.4 WAR…Mike Trout has exceeded that total in a single season. Heyward’s RC Auto from 2008 Bowman Chrome is worth $15-$20.

2) Stephen Strasburg, P Nationals – The first player taken in the 2009 Draft, he has had great success but has also battled injuries. His lifetime mark is 112-59. The RC Auto is from 2010 Bowman Chrome and sells for $25.

3) Giancarlo Stanton, OF Marlins – Hold an additional spot on the financial mountainside, as his $325 Million deal goes through 2027. Another player with the mixed result of success and injuries, he has a MVP award but only four seasons where he played 125 games or more. His 2010 Topps Chrome RC Auto will cost you $100.

4) Buster Posey, C Giants – A bay area favorite, the rigors of playing behind the plate have taken their toll. With that being said, he was Rookie of the Year in 2010, MVP in 2012 and owns three World Series rings. A RC Auto from 2009 Bowman sells for about $75.

5) Brian Matusz, P Orioles – As with every year, some top ten prospects never make it. Had a lifetime record of 27-41 and retired in 2016. You can find his RC in the bargain bin.

6) Desmond Jennings, OF Rays – Even Tampa makes mistakes and this “sure-fire” prospect is a prime example. In seven seasons, he batted .245 and his last major league appearance was when he was only 29. More bargain bin cardboard.

7) Neftali Feliz, P Rangers – Blessed with an electric arm, he was the Rookie of the Year in 2010 when he posted 40 Saves. 2011 was another productive season but it was mostly downhill from there. His last year in the “show” was 2017.

8) Pedro Alvarez, 3B Pirates – Led the NL in both HR’s (36) and Strikeouts (186) in 2013 but that was the highlight of a mediocre career. A lifetime BA of .236 doesn’t impress the buyers of collectibles. 

9) Justin Smoak, 1B Rangers – Aren’t you glad there wasn’t a mutual fund where you could have invested in the baseball cards of prospects 5-9? Never made it in Texas but had some productive seasons in Seattle & Toronto. His lifetime BA of .229 and OPS of .740 tells the tale. His RC has no real value.

10) Madison Bumgarner, P Giants – Finally, another name that has historical value. His World Series exploits are the thing of legend. Had 120 victories and four All-Star appearances with San Francisco, along with a post-season ERA of 2.11. His 2008 Bowman Chrome RC Auto is valued at $60.

Reviewing the next ten prospects on our 2010 list gives you a clear insight into just how difficult it is to scout young players. Only #11 qualifies as a real success…

11) Carlos Santana

12) Alcides Escobar

13) Wade Davis

14) Domonic Brown

15) Dustin Ackley

16) Brett Wallace

17) Kyle Drabek

18) Martin Perez

19) Jesus Montero

20) Jeremy Hellickson

You might wonder if there were any big misses by the well-informed baseball experts that put this list together. Let’s allow you to decide, as we look at prospects inside the top 50.

22) Starlin Castro

29) Aaron Hicks

32) Mike Moustakas

33) Wil Myers

46) Michael Brantley

If you play Fantasy Baseball, you might look a little deeper and find these three players who didn’t make the top 50…

Anthony Rizzo

Freddie Freeman

Mike Trout

What’s that you ask? The value of Autographed RC’s of these three? Rizzo is about $50. Freeman is $75-$100. As for Trout, refer to the old cliché…”if you have to ask, you can’t afford it”. Let’s just say four figures.

Stan The Card Man

When friends have the opportunity to view my autograph collection, they invariably ask which players were the nicest and which were the most difficult. Interestingly, some of the best were also the nicest and I always recall the wonderful experience of meeting Stan Musial. So, as this humble blog continues to add new readers, I wanted to share with you a column from 7+ years ago that I penned at the time of Stan’s passing. The baseball card values have been updated.

As we reflect on the life of Stan Musial, the impact of his personality becomes obvious. Quotes such as, “People loved him and he loved them right back” and “Where is the single person to truthfully say a bad word about him” certainly tell the story of how he impacted players and fans. As for his career, anyone who doesn’t think he was one of the five best players of all time needs to book an appointment with a Proctologist to get some assistance finding their head.

There has been much speculation as to why “Stan The Man” was consistently underrated and under-appreciated. As Bob Costas pointed out during the funeral, Musial lacked that singular achievement like DiMaggio’s hitting streak, Williams’ .406 season, Mays’ catch in ’54 and Mantle’s World Series HR’s during the Yankee dynasty. In addition to that, it probably can be attributed to geography. Until 1958, St. Louis was the western-most city in the Major Leagues and by then, Stan was 37 years old. He didn’t have the media hype that surrounded players in New York and other cities. In addition, he never did or said anything controversial and was never once thrown out of any of the 3,000+ games he played.

Adding to all of this, there may be another slightly hidden factor. During his prime, Stan Musial was very seldom found on a baseball card. In the 50’s, before satellite / cable TV and the Internet, boys learned everything they knew about baseball players from the back of Topps baseball cards. For a nickel, they could buy a pack of five cards (with a stick of bubble gum) and hunt for their favorite players. If you bought enough packs, then duplicates could be traded for the cards of other stars and those players also became familiar. Stan Musial wasn’t part of that history lesson for young fans.

When Topps produced their first modern card set in 1952, Stan was already under contract to the Bowman Card Company. He appeared in both the ’52 & ’53 Bowman sets but for the next four years (1954-57), he wasn’t on any baseball card even though he was one of the best players in the game. The back story is that Topps finally was able to get Musial under contract in 1958 as a trade-off for donating money to a charity supported by Cardinals owner Gussie Busch. Why didn’t he sign earlier? One biographer claims “insufficient compensation” was the reason, but that flies in the face of everything we know about the man.

Here’s the history of Musial’s baseball card offerings during his actual playing career. The values are based on a card in “Near Mint” (NM 7) condition.

> 1948 Bowman #36 ($2,200) – Even though Stan’s major league career started in 1941, there were no card sets made during World War II. This is the first post-war set and it is his “rookie card”.

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> 1948-49 Leaf #4 ($4,750) – Also considered a rookie card, these cards weren’t actually issued until early ’49 and the company didn’t have enough success to continue production beyond one year.

> 1949 Bowman #24 ($550) – This set had tinted photos on colored background and laid the groundwork for future color photography on baseball cards.

> 1952 Bowman #196 ($475) – Musial didn’t appear in the ’50 or ’51 Bowman sets but shows up here in a set that featured the player’s facsimile autograph on the card front.

> 1953 Bowman Color #32 ($575) – One of the most beautiful sets ever produced with nothing but a Kodachrome photograph of the player on the front.

> 1958 Topps #476 ($60) – Musial’s first Topps card wasn’t even a “regular” card…it was part of the All-Star run at the end of the set. All the other All-Stars also had an individual card earlier in the set and those cards are significantly more valuable.

> 1959 Topps #150 ($125) – Stan’s first real Topps card…issued when he was 38 years old.

> 1960 Topps #250 ($110)

> 1961 Topps #290 ($75)

> 1962 Topps #50 ($80)

> 1962 Topps #317 ($25) – A highlight card celebrating Stan’s 21st season with the Cardinals

> 1963 Topps # 1 ($55) – A “Batting Leaders” card which also featured Hank Aaron & Frank Robinson. Musial hit .330 in ’62 when he was 41 years old.

> 1963 Topps #138 ($55) – This card is titled “Pride of the NL” and pictures Stan with Willie Mays

> 1963 Topps #250 ($90) – The final regular-issue card of the Hall-of-Famer’s career.

The Old Duck got to meet “The Man” at a sports collectibles show many years ago. Scores of people were lined up waiting for the doors to open at 10:00 AM and Stan walked into the lobby on his way to the autograph area. He stopped and said, “You people aren’t waiting for me, are you? We all laughed and then Stan reached into his jacket pocket, pulled out his harmonica and played “Take me out to the ballgame” while we all sang along. A lasting memory of this great man along with the autographed Sports Illustrated cover that adorns a wall in my home. RIP Stan…we were all better for having known you.

The Clutch Chronicles -2020

The Urban Dictionary defines Clutch as, “To perform under pressure”. For decades, baseball pundits and fans have extolled the virtues of players who supposedly had this trait. Their evidence, however, was only visual and anecdotal. Back in the mid-to-late 1970’s, most people considered Greg Luzinski one of the top clutch hitters in the game. He made four consecutive All-Star teams and averaged 111 RBI’s in those campaigns.

Now that baseball is in the age of statistical analysis, our old observations may be called into question. Even a math-challenged fan understands that you can’t get a plethora of RBI’s without baserunners. And, boy, did those Phillies teams have baserunners! The line-up included Dick Allen, Dave Cash, Mike Schmidt and a part-time OF named Jay Johnstone who compiled a .397 OBP in ’75.

 Statistics on RBI Percentage (RBI-HR/Runners On) now go back to 1974, so let’s see how our legendary clutch hitter fared in 1975. “The Bull” had 120 RBI’s, 34 HR’s & 498 runners on base for a RBI percentage of 17.27%. That didn’t even crack the top 20 for the major leagues in ’75! He finished behind household names such as Bobby Murcer, Dave Parker, Jorge Orta, Rusty Staub & George Scott. The leaders were Willie Stargell (20.48%) and Thurman Munson (20.00%).

As a fan, you certainly have an opinion on today’s clutch hitters but do the stats back you up? In 2020, there were over 40 hitters who exceeded the 17.27% that Luzinski posted in ’75. We’ll only include players who had at least 100 baserunners during the season to eliminate the “small sample size” outliers.  These are “Quacker’s Clutch All-Stars” and we’ll see how well their performance aligns with their reputation. There will be players you expected to see and others that will cause you to scratch your head.

1) Eric Hosmer, Padres 1B, 24.32% – The Friars are on the upswing and gave the veteran guys in the line-up plenty of opportunities.

2) Wil Myers, Padres OF, 23.36%% – Should we be that surprised to see his OPS go up over 200 points? He is still only 29.

3) Freddie Freeman, Braves 1B, 22.47% – A MVP candidate and one of the most consistent players in the game. He was also 3rd in this category last year.

4) Jose Abreu, White Sox 1B, 22.16%% – Led the AL with 60 RBI’s and it was no fluke.

5) Trea Turner, Natioanls SS, 21.80% – One of the best all-around players in the game.

6) David Bote, Cubs 3B, 21.36%- Every list has a fluke…he only batted .200.

7) Charlie Blackmon, Rockies OF, 21.05% – Was in the top ten last season also…solid.

8) Luke Voit, Yankees 1B, 20.83%- Did you predict that he’d lead the AL in HR’s? If so, you win the Cardinals GM job. He was traded for Giovanny Gallegos.

9) Juan Soto, Nationals OF, 20.69%- Yes, he can do everything and won’t be 22 until later this month.

10) Stephen Piscotty, Athletics OF, 20.51% – His .629 OPS tells another story.

 11) Kyle Tucker, Astros OF, 20.50%- He won’t be 24 until January…this will only get better.

12) Mike Yastrzemski, Giants OF, 20.49%- How did everyone miss on this guy?

Others over 20% were Jesus Aguilar, David Peralta, Dominic Smith, Anthony Santander, Eloy Jimenez, Rowdy Tellez & Andrew McCutcheon.

For everyday players, Hunter Dozier was the worst in baseball at 5.41%. Others under 8% included Isiah Kiner-Falefa, Alex Gordon, Edwin Encarnacion & Christian Yelich (7.75%).

Hope all your fantasy players came through in the clutch. For more information on RBI Percentage, go to baseballmusings.com.