Ten Stray Thoughts On A Friday

DOMINICAN-BASEBALLFor many, Friday represents the end of a long work week that’s filled with heavy doses of drudging, sludging and other words that don’t actually exist but rhyme with “udging” and connote menial and tedious tasks that are ultimately distasteful.

It’s my hope that at the end of such misery, at that moment in time that only occurs on a Friday afternoon – when it’s too far away from closing time to leave work early, but too late in the day to start anything new – you’ll join us here to read some random observations about baseball and contribute your own thoughts on the topics that get discussed.

So, without further ado, I present this week’s Ten Stray Thoughts On A Friday:

Going International

Major League Baseball will not implement an international draft in 2014. This is exceedingly good news to some – mainly the trainers in Latin America whose livelihoods depend on brokering talent to Major League Baseball teams – but the inevitability of it remains off-putting. Even with word from Jeff Passan, that an international draft won’t occur until the current Collective Bargaining Agreement has run its course, it remains a very visible entity on the horizon.

Is it a good thing?

I really don’t know enough to formulate a strong opinion, but here’s what I’m considering:

Fighting the impulse to simply hate anything that Major League Baseball would attempt to implement, it seems to me that it would be a positive step to put international amateurs on the same level as amateurs from the United States. All of the corruption and exploitation from trainers and agents attempting to make money from lowly amateur athletes whose best prospect of success is found in sport would hopefully be done away with due to stronger central control of talent in Latin America.

Alternatively, Latin America is not the United States of America. The typical amateur in the United States has better fallback options and safety nets in place to protect them from failing than international amateurs. As it stands right now, the conversation around domestic talent isn’t taking place. This is about international players. What’s best for them? Don’t the deserve every opportunity to make as much money as possible? Wouldn’t a lower cap for signing these athletes – which is inevitable as the draft itself – hinder that?

There also exists a fear that introducing an international draft would turn Latin American countries with prodigious baseball talent into Puerto Rico, a nation that witnessed its own baseball talent go by the wayside without the appeal of large signing bonuses outside the restrictions of MLB.

A New Exploitation

The thing that bothers me most about entry drafts in professional sports is that the rules of engagement are negotiated by two sides that don’t represent the players getting drafted. It’s something of a farce to read through the newest CBA in MLB and consider that the union ceded ground on draft signing caps in order to ensure that the comfort afforded older players signing free agent contracts remains in place, and then remember that the players who have yet to be drafted have absolutely no sway the union that is negotiating their terms.

For college athletes, the exploitation through this set up is only the beginning. Before being drafted, they’ve already provided their services – through which their university earns income in merchandise sales, television contracts and video game rights – for years without earning any significant money whatsoever. While this exploitation is at its ugliest in college basketball and football, college baseball is becoming increasingly popular.

As Steven Godfrey of SB Nations points out:

ESPN is excited about the growth of the sport. Over the last three years, College World Series games broadcast on ESPN have pulled in around 1.3 million viewers per telecast, while six Super Regional telecasts on ESPN in 2011 peaked with an average of 644,000 viewers. Last season, a record 15 Super Regional games were broadcast on ESPN and ESPN2. But with 112 potential games at 16 different sites and only one network, ESPNU, scheduled to broadcast games, ESPN is relying on its streaming services as well as the launch of “Home Plate,” a whip-around coverage program similar to its “Goal Line” platform for college football.

Blame Cybermetrics

Earlier this week, Seattle Mariners manager Eric Wedge expressed an interesting perspective on the struggles of recently demoted second baseman Dustin Ackley.

It’s the new generation. It’s all this sabermetrics stuff, for lack of a better term, you know what I mean? People who haven’t played since they were 9 years old think they have it figured out. It gets in these kids’ heads.

He later clarified his remarks which were largely mocked out of context.

We were talking about Ackley. That’s not the reason Ackley was having issues at home plate. What I’m talking about is this recent generation of players that has come up in the sabermetrics world. It’s something that’s out there and people know how important it is. What you can’t do is play this game with fear. You have to go out there and play, and when you get your first good pitch to take a whack at, you have to take a whack at it. People stress so much getting deeper in counts and drawing walks, it’s almost a backward way of looking at it.

There is a point here. Ackley’s struggles did coincide with his swinging less, but it also coincided with a lower walk rate, a higher strike out rate, fewer line drives, fewer fly balls, and a whole lot more ground balls. It’s impossible to say for sure if this is all the result of more patient plate appearances, but there is certainly evidence to suggest that he had altered his approach.

There’s no overarching principle to good batting. If reading Drew Fairservice’s ongoing My Approach features has taught us anything, it’s that different strokes are acceptable for different folks. Where Jose Bautista is calculative of his opposition, Pablo Sandoval is anything but. Both players are excellent hitters, and their individual approaches work well for them.

What Dustin Ackley was doing at the plate wasn’t working … for him … but that doesn’t mean it’s useless for everyone. I get the impression that in our eagerness to label every manager an idiot, we probably overlooked that Wedge is aware of this. No matter the principle informing his approach, it’s up to Ackley to adjust and find an approach that does work. If he was relying on sabermetrics to make decisions at the plate, and it wasn’t working, that’s his fault, not the fault of sabermetrics.

Unruly Fans

They say that the fan bases of sports teams from city to city are ultimately the same. There are positive elements that cheer for the home team, purchase merchandise and are knowledgeable enough to understand what’s happening at the game. There are negative elements that jeer both teams, consume too much alcohol at the game and harass other members of the crowd with their drunken antics. Then, there are the idiotic elements who feel the need to participate in a spectacle that has absolutely nothing to do with them.

That may be true. It may not. I can’t think of a way to measure it. But things like this, seem to be happening more frequently in Toronto than in other ballparks:

I suppose if you really wanted to differentiate the behavior of fan bases in different cities, you could poll ticket holders – stadium by stadium – and ask them about their fan experience, but such an undertaking would likely be more valuable to customer service representatives than curious baseball writers.

As long as we’re on the topic of impossible things to measure, I would like to mention an observation that I’ve made: Fans in Toronto watch baseball in a different manner than the majority of Major League stadiums. It’s a much different experience at Rogers Centre than the typical big league park. This extends beyond the concrete coffin of the stadium structure, the horrible in-game promotions and the complete and utter lack of anything remotely creative done through the public address system.

Obviously this is a generalization based solely on observation, but there’s a quiet expectancy in a Toronto baseball crowd that isn’t present elsewhere. The crowd is hushed. They watch and wait for something to happen. I don’t really watch baseball this way. To me, the great thing about baseball – and the reason why there’s so much nostalgia attached to the sport – is that it’s about conversation. There is time between the moments to talk to the people with you at the game.

Other sports are more about the spectacle of action, and I wonder if given the city’s great love of hockey, the majority of attendees don’t watch baseball as though it’s played on ice, soaking up the fast-paced play and waiting for those moments of excitement that are delivered constantly in comparison to the pace of baseball.

To extend my generalization – that admittedly verges on stereotype – further into the dangerous realm of half-baked theory, I also wonder if throwing objects on the field, fighting with other patrons and behaving poorly isn’t the result of failed expectations for something to hold one’s attention. People attending a baseball game in Toronto are presumably more experienced watching live hockey, and have come to expect a certain level of interaction between themselves and the sport. Add alcohol to baseball’s failure to deliver this same experience and WHAM! you have idiots in the stands throwing beer at the athletes on the field.

I honestly don’t know. It’s just an idea that I would just as happily see proven wrong as proven right. However, I will tell you that the moment you find yourself considering throwing something on the field, court or rink of a sporting event is the exact same moment you should take a walk around the concourse, grab something to eat and maybe have a hydrating beverage or two.

Some Ball Player

Toronto Blue Jays catcher J.P. Arencibia is a unique Major League Baseball player.

Most baseball fans would agree that – despite being a total rally killer (according to idiots) – a home run is the best possible outcome for which a batter can hope. Players who hit a lot of home runs are typically really great baseball players. See Bonds, Barry. J.P Arencibia hits a lot of home runs, but is actually a really bad baseball player. In fact, he hits so many home runs that it takes an astronomically terrible effort in all other areas of his game to produce as little value as Arencibia does. He’s so good at hitting home runs and so bad at everything else that it’s almost an accomplishment.

No position player hits as many home runs while returning so little value offensively and defensively. In fact, if we break down the contributions of the numbers that comprise his wins above replacement total, we learn that the only reason he even has a positive WAR over his career is because of the handicap he receives as a catcher. His greatest attribute it seems is the Blue Jays’ insistence on playing him every day.

Again, this is despite his home run prowess. I’m not looking at these numbers outside of his dinger total. This includes it.

Since 2011, 29 catchers have accumulated at least 650 plate appearances. Of those 29, Arencibia ranks fourth in home runs behind Mike Napoli, Carlos Santana and Matt Wieters. Both Napoli and Santana are part-time catchers (at best). He is, for all intents and purposes, one of the best home run hitting catchers in the league, but then …

… of those 29 catchers, he’s also accumulated the:

  • second highest strikeout rate;
  • second lowest on base percentage;
  • tenth lowest wRC+;
  • the worst fielding runs above average; and
  • the sixth lowest WAR.

Of those catchers below Arencibia in terms of wins above replacement, none have played as often over the last three seasons and none enjoy the benefit of positional adjustment and replacement baseline that he does.

This season, he’s walked three times, collected 22 singles, hit 11 doubles and gone yard 12 times. He’s also been hit by a pitch once, meaning that of his 193 plate appearances, he’s gotten on base 49 times while striking out 60 times. His strikeout rate is higher than his on base percentage. He has as many walks as ground outs into double plays. And his defense is considered decidedly below average.

And yet, the Arencibia that has collected 12 home runs this year is most assuredly the best Arencibia possible, considering that 22% of his fly balls have become home runs, a number – with fluctuations typically associated with luck – that is 6% higher than his career average and 11% above the league average. It’s going to get worse, and it’s going to be really bad.

To anyone who thinks Arencibia’s home runs make him more of a clutch player, his WPA among those 29 catchers ranks him 23rd.

Ruining It For The Rest Of Us

Part of the enjoyment I derive from watching televised baseball is based on mocking the broadcast. Whether it’s the announcers making inane comments or the strange chyron fails. This was all made a little more difficult last night when the Kansas City Royals broadcast produced this chyron:

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Now, whenever you want to poke fun at a broadcast, you’ll have to think of this and realize that nothing compares. Bigger sin: Wrong last names or wrong logos beside players in caps with right logos?

At least fans in Toronto have little to worry about.

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A Different Perspective

I really like it when commonly accepted principles are challenged to the point of realizing absurdity. Take for instance a recent email that Sam Miller and Ben Lindbergh received for their Effectively Wild podcast on Baseball Prospectus asking why the ball that Miguel Cabrera hit that went off of Michael Bourn’s glove and over the wall was ruled a home run and not a four base error.

If the ball had ricocheted off Bourn’s glove and done anything else other than go over the fence in center field, it would have been ruled an error. Why shouldn’t it be ruled as much when it goes over the fence and causes significantly more damage that any other outcome?

Makes Me Mad

Baseball newsletter writer Joe Sheehan took umbrage with baseball great and new Kansas City Royals hitting coach George Brett referring to home runs as rally killers shortly after his new position was announced, and the pundit’s outrage eventually led to this tweet.

I don’t agree with Brett, and I’m hardly a jock-sniffer, but to diminish the effort of Major League Baseball players by questioning what they’d accomplish without being “blessed” by baseball talent – as though professional baseball players don’t work harder at what they do than the majority of the population – is simply myopic. The founding principle behind the type of analysis which Sheehan pretends to provide is found in thinking beyond the obvious, and providing others with insights that go beyond the brainless reactions of the mainstream.

A Note On The Unwritten

New York Mets outfielder Jordany Valdespin has been gaining a reputation for showboating, mainly after crushing a home run in the the bottom of the ninth in a game the Mets trailed 7-1 earlier this month. Valdespin flipped his bat and trotted around the baselines rather leisurely, inspiring his own comeuppance in the next game when on a pinch-hitting assignment, he received a baseball in the back.

You see, it’s an unwritten rule that you don’t admire home runs. You know what else is an unwritten rule, showing pain after something hurts you on the field.

That’s what retribution like this amounts to, is it not? You showed up our pitcher, so now, you’re going to feel some pain. You caused a teammate some mental anguish by rubbing in his own shortcomings through your less-than-stoic celebration, and so now, you’re going to get it.

It’s stupid. Celebrations are fun to watch for spectators. Bat flips, like touchdown spikes, are awesome. I’m sorry such things hurt a pitcher’s widdle feewings, but maybe next time you want to keep your dignity in tact, don’t give up a home run.

I maintain that unwritten rules are only unwritten because if they were recorded with pen to paper, everyone would be able to see how plainly stupid they are.

Ryan Zimmerman Says

Much was made of these comments from Washington Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman on playoff predictions:

How did that [model] work out for them the last couple of years? Not very well, right? That’s why nerds shouldn’t do that stuff.

If this upset you as a fan of the game of baseball, I’d recommend taking a break from yourself for a little while. There are a lot of things in life more important than Ryan Zimmerman’s thoughts on playoff predictions – which only tell us things in terms of probability.

Just grow up.

I truly believe that the more evangelical elements of analytics-based fans have held back the acceptance of their principles far more than the fear of change that its followers love to imagine their understanding of the game causes.