Archive for Idle Thoughts

The Text and Also Subtext of Baseball’s Rulebooks

Baseball is enjoyable this time of year. It’s like catching up with a friend we haven’t seen in a while. We spend April trying to figure out what the game is — not as it is right now, I mean, but as it will be all season. We parse through small bits of over- and underperformance, endeavoring to sift signal from the noise. Shohei Ohtani has been great. That probably means something! Ryan Flaherty has also been good. We might expect that means less. The Dodgers will likely recover; the Padres likely won’t.

With any friend, part of learning the who of them is knowing what matters and what is mere flotsam; alma maters and disappointments, cities lived in. Sayings only our mothers use. It’s why it is so hard to make new friends as an adult: grown-ups have all these stories from way back, full of people we don’t know, doing all sorts of things. It’s a lot to learn.

And while baseball’s who shifts around and grows, changing with new players and seasons, there are bits that endure, memories of childhood and cut grass that constitute a more fixed personality. I thought I might look beyond April to other artifacts, stories from way back full of people. So, inspired by how little they change year to year, I made perhaps an odd choice — namely, of reading The Official Professional Rules of Baseball and The Official Baseball Rules (2018 Edition), to see what baseball tells us about itself.

Here are a few of the things I found.

Baseball allows for small moments of grace…
Sports inspire intense competition. It’s sort of the whole thing. Once play begins, teams are generally expected to press their advantage, however minute. It’s why managers challenge when an opposing runner comes of the bag for the briefest of instants. It’s annoying, and a bit fussy, but there might be an out hiding in there. Can’t just give up an out! Baseball knows this about itself, this impulse to be fastidious in the service of winning, but it also knows that we humans are prone to make mistakes. Managers have to wear those mistakes when they come in the fourth inning, but earlier, before the stakes are set, baseball allows its generals a bit of grace.

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How Mike Trout Could Legally Become a Free Agent

What type of contract would Mike Trout have commanded this offseason had he been a free agent? Coming off an MVP-award-winning campaign in which he compiled 9.4 WAR and about to enter just his age-25 season, Trout would have easily been one of the most sought after players ever to hit the open market. And given the state of this year’s historically weak free-agent class, the bidding for Trout may very likely have ended up in the $400-500 million range over eight to ten years.

Considering that Trout signed a six-year, $144.5 million contract extension back in 2014 – an agreement that runs through 2020 – this is just an interesting, but hypothetical, thought experiment, right?

Not necessarily. A relatively obscure provision under California law — specifically, Section 2855 of the California Labor Code — limits all personal services contracts (i.e., employment contracts) in the state to a maximum length of seven years. In other words, this means that if an individual were to sign an employment contract in California lasting eight or more years, then at the conclusion of the seventh year the employee would be free to choose to either continue to honor the agreement, or else opt out and seek employment elsewhere.

Although the California legislature has previously considered eliminating this protection for certain professional athletes – including Major League Baseball players – no such amendment has passed to date. Consequently, Section 2855 would presumptively apply to any player employed by one of the five major-league teams residing in California.

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Why Does the Home Run Derby Poll Go Live in April?

Yesterday, Major League Baseball’s Twitter account tweeted a link for something called the Home Run Derby poll. I was curious. I had never heard of this being a thing before, so I wanted to take a look. The group chosen for the unofficial voting is a confusing group to say the least. The poll is unofficial, which already makes it sort of odd, but the candidates for it were not optimally chosen. Once I investigated a little further, I realized why — it’s released way too early in the season.

Major League Baseball has been conducting this poll since at least 2011. So right away, we know that the ballot that fans are voting on right now is not the result of some feeling out process. To cut right to the chase, here’s the ballot we’re working with this year:
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Why Do We Use MPH?

The Hot Stove is still pre-heating, so while we wait on the oven timer, let’s reflect on a topic that we rarely question. Provocative title aside, why do we use miles per hour, more commonly referred to as mph, to talk about velocity in baseball? After all, it’s a game of feet, inches, and seconds.

It’s 60 feet, six inches from the rubber to the back corner of the plate. Home to first is 90 feet. Home to second is 127 feet, three and 3/8’s inches, which can also be expressed as 90 times the square root of two (h/t Pythagoras). The outfield fence is typically somewhere between 310 and 410 feet from home plate. A really long home run will travel 500 feet in about four to six seconds. Billy Hamilton can steal second base in 3.1 seconds. When Jose Fernandez hits a home run, it takes him about 28 seconds to wander around the bases.

In other words, no other single activity in baseball is meaningfully measured using miles or hours.
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Far East Rumors and Game Theory

Lately, there have been persistent rumors that Major League Baseball and Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) are considering a major change to the posting system – perhaps in time to affect Masahiro Tanaka. One of the most commonly rumored proposals is a system that would allow three teams to “win” the post. In New York beat writer Joel Sherman’s words:

There had been speculation the system would undergo radical changes, with perhaps even the teams with the three highest posting bids all gaining the rights to negotiate with the players.

He goes on to note that the posted player may get the opportunity to pick one of three top bidders. For the sake of simplicity, let’s leave that wrinkle aside for now.

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Starling Marte Gets on Base the Hard Way

On Tuesday, Starling Marte got his first start in more than a month. To no one’s surprise — at least to those who follow the Pirates — he got hit by a pitch. It was his 22nd hit-by-pitch this season, the second-most behind Cincinnati’s Shin-Soo Choo. Prior to his start this week, Marte had been absent from the Pirates lineup since Aug. 18 — a day after he was hit in the hand. While some players get hit all the time, it looks like Marte might be playing an active role. In fact, it appears he’s getting hit when he’s close to striking out. And if that’s true, the strategy looks to have cost him at least a month’s production.

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Introducing the Adam Dunn Hat Trick

A goal, an assist and a fight. A gino, a helper and a tilly. That’s The Gordie Howe Hat Trick, a rare feat in the game of hockey that honors the gritty and the skilled. It’s a feat that its namesake, Mr. Hockey himself, actually only did twice in his career – it’s named more for his career-long achievements in point production and face punching.

Well, it’s high time that baseball got a hat trick of its own. So today, with a hat tip to David Laurila for the idea, we’re introducing the Adam Dunn Hat Trick.

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Change You Can Believe In

Back in High School, my pitching coach used to sit down all of the starting pitchers (all three of us) from the varsity squad to have a chat about pitching philosophy. Coach was a former minor league pitcher who flamed out after injury and ineffectiveness, but his love of pitching was obvious, if not a little obsessive. He used to preach about a lot of things, controlling your emotions, mechanics, pacing, etc. But it was always the video I looked forward to.

He’d roll out the rickety old metal stand with a crummy 18 inch TV and antiquated betamax player. Not only had we seen it before, but we would never really understand the usefulness of the demonstration. But it was still fun to watch.

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Orioles Defying the Odds

Over this past weekend, the Orioles split a 4 game series with the New York Yankees. Baltimore was able win 2 games and stay only 1 game behind the Yankess in the AL East standings, even though they were outscored 31 to 23. This trend of winning while being outscored is not uncommon for the Orioles this season.

The most remarkable part about the Orioles keeping pace with the elite teams in the AL is that they have done it with a negative run differential, (608 Runs scored vice 637 Runs Allowed). It may seem that it would not be too uncommon for a team to be a few wins over .500 and have a allowed a few more runs then they have scored, but it isn’t. Only the San Francisco Giants achieved the feat in 2011 (86-76, -17 runs) and no teams in 2010. Since 1962, when both leagues went to 162 games, 54 teams have been able to reach this feat, or just about 1 per season. The average run differential for the teams was -18.6 runs and the average number of games over .500 was 6.8 games.

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How Good Is Jeff Samardzija’s Splitter?

It has not all been rosy in Jeff Samardzija’s first season as a major league starting pitcher, but it has certainly been successful. With a 4.06 ERA backed by a 3.54 FIP and 3.59 SIERA, Samardzija has shown the ability to strike out batters at a high rate while getting his walk issues under control. He has battled inconsistency at times, mainly during a stretch in the middle of the season, but overall it has been a rather impressive campaign.

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Johnny Cueto’s Changeup Leads to Cy Young Caliber Season

The past 46 starts of Johnny Cueto’s career have been absolutely incredible. Between last year and this year, the Reds’ ace has posted a 2.41 ERA in 302.2 innings. Cueto was a big regression candidate after posting a 2.31 ERA, 3.45 FIP, and 3.93 SIERA last season, but he has followed that impressive season up with an even better year on the mound. While his ERA has jumped up a tick to 2.52, his FIP of 3.05 and SIERA of 3.70 are career lows, and despite pitching in an extremely hitter friendly ballpark, Cueto has allowed just 15 home runs over the past two years.

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Beltran’s Best Season?

One of my closest friends is a St. Louis native, and after the tumult of contract misadventures this past off season, he asked me how I thought the Cardinals might fare in 2012. My comment was that they’d win more games in 2012 than they did in 2011 — bank on it. But most of that was wrapped up in the notion that they’d get Adam Wainwright back to form, Lance Berkman would be relatively healthy and better suited defensively at first base and Carlos Beltran would produce somewhere around four wins.

Some prognosticator I am. Thank goodness for Carlos Beltran — right, St. Louis?

After just 33 games, Beltran has already posted 2.2 wins above replacement, and although he has played decent on defense, his WAR total is almost entirely accounted for with his bat. His slash line stands at .298/.406/.653 with 13 home runs and 32 RBI. He is among the league leaders in WAR, and is just 0.1 WAR behind Matt Kemp. And what’s particularly notable about the current WAR leaders is the potential for regression:

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Idle Thoughts on the Influence of April Narratives

Part One: Idle Thoughts
It has recently been discovered by, like, top-top literary critics that, when T.S. Eliot writes — in his long poem “The Waste Land” — when Eliot writes that “April is the cruellest month,” he’s referring not to the tumult and angst of spring that is also the tumult and angst of the human condition, but to an entirely different phenomenon altogether.

In fact, the thing to which Eliot is actually referring is the inordinate power and influence of April numbers over the minds of even those of us who attempt to actively avoid such biases.

The reader is surely able to remember examples from past seasons when a hitter or pitcher’s hot start led to an almost season-long narrative that portrayed said player in an unduly flattering light — or, conversely, those other situations in which a player, after a very poor start, slowly hit his way back to respectability without much in the way fanfare.

The pull of these April narratives is strong. It was not, for example, until I saw the above tweet from managing editor Dave Cameron regarding Carlos Beltran and Matt Kemp that I seriously entertained the notion that the former (i.e. Beltran) had approached the latter (i.e. Kemp) in terms of production on the young season.

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Change of Scenery Struggles to Hit Its Weight

Each winter we’re treated to the swapping or signing of former high draft picks, once productive players who have worn out their welcome, or players previously thought to have a great future devoid of on-field results. When the local media narrative begins, these players are often referred to as those who might benefit from a “change of scenery.”

“It might be just what the doctor ordered to get back on track.”

“Never felt comfortable in (insert city).”

“Needs a fresh start,” they’ll say.

Objectively, it feels rather silly to think in this game of inches that a new cut of grass, color of stirrups, or fan base might provide an entirely different result for players. But count me among the many fans who frequently think it just might work. And yet, examples of it working out are few.

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The No Walks, No Strikeouts Clubs

Most teams have played ten games by now, and while we still are unable to draw anything meaningful out of players’ performances, we can still have a little fun with them. I’ve always been a fan of high-contact guys, especially players with better than average walk and strikeout rates. Guys who walk more than they whiff over a full season are my personal favorites.

With that in mind, let’s look at some players who haven’t done either yet this season, draw a walk or strikeout. We’ll begin with the five players with the most plate appearances who have yet to see a ball four in 2012…

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Notes from the Backfields: Jupiter, FL, Day 3 of 3

I’m currently in Jupiter, Florida, as a guest both of (a) my 91-year-old grandfather and (a) the Miami Marlins of Florida. Today was the third and final day on the backfields here, and what follows represents the third and final installment of mediocre analysis on same. (Read Day 1 and Day 2.)

Today, I watched mostly the Double-A game between the Cardinals and Marlins — or, alternately, the Springfield Cardinals and Jacksonville Suns of the Texas and Southern Leagues, respectively.

On Michael Blazek
Right-hander Michael Blazek, 23, pitched for the Cardinals, and is probably the most polished pitcher of any that I saw this week — if not always in terms of command, then at least in his ability to repeat the same shape and velocity on all his pitches. Blazek doesn’t have what you’d call “pedigree”: he appears neither on our Marc Hulet’s top-15 prospect list for the Cardinals, nor on Baseball America’s top-30 list (from their Handbook), nor on John Sickels’ top-20 list, nor on Kevin Goldstein’s top-20 list. There are probably a number of reasons for why his (i.e. Blazek’s) name is omitted from so many lists. The easiest one to which we can point is velocity: at no point did Blazek hit as high as even 92 mph on the radar gun. And it’s a fact that there’s a real correlation between fastball velocity and run prevention.

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Notes from the Backfields: Jupiter, FL, Day 2 of 3

I’m currently in Jupiter, Florida, as a guest both of (a) my 91-year-old grandfather and (a) the Miami Marlins of Florida. Today was Day 2 of 3 of my time here. I’ll be spending time on the backfields, watching some minor-league games and providing mediocre analysis on same.

Today, I watched mostly the Low-A game between the Marlins and Mets — or, alternately, the Greensboro Grasshoppers and Savannah Sand Gnats of the Sally League.

Regarding Jose Fernandez
Right-hander and Cuban defector Jose Fernandez, 19, pitched for the Marlins. He’s rated as either the second- or third-best prospect in the system by most of the notable outlets (including our Marc Hulet), and this outing — which was attended by scouts from four or five other organizations — exhibted why. He threw three or four pitches, as best I could tell: a fastball that sat at 92-95 mph, a breaking ball at 79-80 mph, and a changeup. Reports suggest that Fernandez actually throws two breaking balls — a slider and curve — and a two-seamer. I saw maybe one of the latter, but, as for the breaking stuff, the shape and velocity were pretty consistent throughout. Whether (a) I’m wrong or (b) he really was just throwing one of the reported breaking pitches — this is something I can’t say (although betting that I’m wrong is probably pretty safe).

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Notes from the Backfields: Jupiter, FL, Day 1 of 3

I’m currently in Jupiter, Florida, as a guest both of (a) my 91-year-old grandfather and (a) the Miami Marlins of Florida. Today was Day 1 of 3 of my time here. I’ll be spending time on the backfields, watching some minor-league games and providing mediocre analysis on same.

Today, I watched mostly the High-A game between the Marlins and Cardinals — or, alternately, the Jupiter Hammerheads and Palm Beach Cardinals, of the Sally and Florida State League, respectively.

Regarding Grant Dayton
Left-hander Grant Dayton, 24, pitched for Miami and was generally excellent — although, perhaps, less excellent in consideration of his age. He threw what appeared to be four or five pitches, depending on how all the breaking balls are split up: a fastball at 88-91 mph, a cutter at ca. 85 mph, a slider at around 80 mph, and a change at 82-83 mph. There were a couple of breaking balls in the high 70s, too, so it’s possible that he was throwing a curve. In any case, the shape of the pitch was pretty similar to the slider.

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The State of Sabermetrics in the College Game

Wednesday was Media Day at Stanford University. Some of the most successful coaches in the college game were gathered in Palo Alto to introduce their teams and take questions about the upcoming season. While there were little snippets of saber-awareness throughout, the overall feeling was perhaps more old-school than the professional game.

Up first was Mark Marquess, Stanford coach since 1977. Proud of his team, recently named the pre-season number two in the nation, he probably the most sabrermetrically-friendly of the group. First, he reacted to the new ball. After giving the caveat that the new bat was “here to stay,” he pointed out that decreasing offense was risky in terms of attendance and popularity of the game. He then added something that FanGraphs readers might applaud.

Third and fourth hitters in the pros are not bunting. They are in college. Maybe another year of adjustment will change things, but that’s how people reacted to the bat last year and it wasn’t necessarily a good thing. — Mark Marquess

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Remembering the Departed

Greg Halman’s recent murder, and to some extent the kidnapping of Wilson Ramos before it each provide us with a harrowing reminder. This reminder is that these players who seem superhuman are in fact mortal. They may be young, vibrant men in better shape than 99.9 percent of us, but they’re still human, and some are still cut down in the prime of their lives.

In light of Halman’s passing, I’d like to take today’s post to remember some of the more recent players (the past 40 years) to pass on while still active. I may be an exception, but even as a somewhat astute baseball fan, I forget about these players from time to time. Please forgive if this is less than a statistically-infused column, and more of one in memoriam.

Nick Adenhart

I still remember hearing about Adenhart’s passing. I was just wrapping up my Junior year in college and was doing so while working overnights. I’d inadvertently forgotten to set a sleep timer on the television, and was jostled awake by the breaking news passing towards the end of the 11 am ET edition of SportsCenter. Adenhart was a passenger in a Mitsubishi Eclipse which was broadsided by a Toyota Sienna that had run a red light in Fullerton, Calif. He was rushed to UC-Irvine Medical Center, where he died a short time later. Even after being a baseball fan some 16 years to that point, I think I was struck most by how Adenhart was younger than I was – a full six months younger. As someone who has experienced their fair share of death, it still struck me that a man so far from the prime of his life could be taken in an instant. Not only was Adenhart a top baseball prospect — named to Baseball America’s top-100 list four times — but at age 22, Adenhart was one of life’s top prospects.

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