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Aiming for the Middle

There’s been much criticism of “tanking” teams in this slow offseason, or at the very least, criticism of teams who are not aiming to win now. Most notably the Marlins, Pirates, and now Rays have been held up as examples of teams who are not aiming to win. Fans, players and commentators have raked the teams and their ownership/management over the coals for embracing a strategy of failure.

Let’s leave aside for a moment what is a tank and what is a rebuildBut from an empirical standpoint, I find it simply inaccurate to assert that most teams are not trying to win in 2018 based on their offseason moves. Rather, I think there is a strategy emerging in the non-super-team group of aiming for slightly above average and hoping for a Wild Card berth. Indeed, given the increased supply of teams on the low end of the win curve selling current assets for future ones and the smaller marginal returns for teams at the top end, the middle-tier teams actually can scoop up value here.

I guess the thing I don’t understand, particularly regarding the trades, is that the team on the other side of the ledger matters. That is, the seller’s loss in the current season is still the buyer’s gain.

Currently, 7 teams project for 90 wins or more according to Steamer (Astros, Dodgers, Cubs, Indians, Red Sox, Nationals, Yankees). We can safely say these teams are aiming to be division champs. But the next tier of roughly 10-12 teams has been quite active this offseason in aiming for wild card slots and hoping things break right for themselves (and wrong for the division favorites).

Consider the Marlins’ sell-off. Yes, Stanton went to the Yankees, so “the rich get richer,” but the other three “sell-off” players — Christian Yelich, Marcell Ozuna, and Dee Gordon — all arguably went to teams who are in the “middle.” The Brewers project for 78 wins in Fangraphs currently, Cardinals for 88 and the Mariners 80.

And many teams that could decide to sell off are actually holding steady or gearing up for another shot at the title.

Plenty of Mets commentators decried the Mets’ offseason as giving up on the season before it started, but the Mets have added $88M in salary obligations and roughly 6 extra projected WAR next season. The “middle class” of free agents is a value proposition for the Mets, who picked up Todd Frazier on the cheap. The Mets project 11 games back of the Nationals, but they’re still aiming for the middle, deciding that the possibility of even the one-game playoff is worth it and remembering that even superteams do fall apart.

Similarly, the Blue Jays, a team that won 76 games last season should have, if the “everyone’s tanking” narrative were correct, sold off Josh Donaldson. Instead, the team has re-loaded for another run in a division with two 90-win superteams with some tweaks to engineer a team capable of sneaking into the wild card race, adding roughly 5 WAR through a combination of free agency and trades.

And these moves are in keeping with what we might expect from Jesse Wolfersberger’s calculation of the second wild card win curve:

If you’re unlikely to beat out the top teams, maybe better to hover opportunistically around the middle and stumble into a playoff spot. The second wild card may make the value of the first wild card lower, but it stretches out the tail of value for teams in the 85-90 win range.

Even teams arguably outside the window of contention right now are aiming for the middle. The Padres just signed Eric Hosmer to a huge deal. They wouldn’t do that if they didn’t think they were close to contention. The Pirates, who were roundly condemned for trading Gerrit Cole, actually got good players in exchange who are ready to play in the majors, like Joe Musgrove (injury notwithstanding) and Colin Moran. (Indeed Musgrove and Moran currently combine to project for more 2018 WAR than Cole at the moment!)

It’s not sexy to aim to be number 2. To quote notable philosopher Ricky Bobby, “If you ain’t first, you’re last.” American culture and sports culture in particular places dominance and winning above all other goals. But given the randomness of the sport and the recent history of failure among projected “super teams,” there is a reasonable strategic position to embrace aiming for the middle. And as the offseason price of free agents fall, it seems that many teams are doing just that.


In Defense of Secret Hall of Fame Ballots

As a baseball nerd, I enjoy reading Ryan Thibodaux’s (Thibodaux’?) yearly tally of Baseball Hall of Fame ballots. I participate in the yearly gnashing of teeth at Murray Chass’s intentionally blank Hall of Fame ballot.

But one thing I’m not behind is the push for mandatory public Hall of Fame ballots. (The Hall rejected the BBWAA’s vote to make every ballot public.) Secrecy in balloting among private citizens is a value worth defending, even if the votes themselves are based on malice or stupidity.

A brief history:

The English tradition was to vote with one’s voice, as evidenced by Virginia’s early voting methods:

As each freeholder came before the sheriff, his name was called out in a loud voice, and the sheriff inquired how he would vote. The freeholder replied by giving the name of his preference. The appropriate clerk then wrote down the voter’s name, the sheriff announced it as enrolled, and often the candidate for whom he had voted arose, bowed, and publicly thanked him.

Even as ballots shifted to paper ballots, the votes themselves were publicly displayed, often counted in plain sight of the public. But as should be unsurprising, the public ballot meant that public pressure could be exerted on any person’s vote. Bribes and threats were frequent.

Eventually ballots were printed by local party bosses. The secret ballot soon began to gain steam as a potential innovation in England and Australia. In England, intimidation was pervasive:

He referred the intimidation exercised by landlords on tenants . . . , by employers on the employed, by customers on shopkeeper. . . .  He had known half a congregation leave their parson and set up another place of worship on account of his vote, thus depriving him of a considerable part of his income.

(Boycott by Hall of Fame ballot would admittedly be fun.) Brazen vote purchasing was common in American politics, with the 1880s producing multiple tainted national elections.

By the 1950s, the secrecy of the ballot was a core American value, as seen in Twelve Angry Men:

JUROR SEVEN: Who was it? I think we have a right to know.

JUROR ELEVEN: Excuse me. This was a secret ballot. We agreed on this point, no? If the gentleman wants it to remain secret…

JUROR THREE: What do you mean? There are no secrets in here! . . .

. . . .

JUROR ELEVEN [omitted in film version]: Please. I would like to say something here. I have always thought that a man was entitled to have unpopular opinions in this country. This is the reason I came here. I wanted to have the right to disagree. In my own country, I am ashamed to say that.

Why have a secret ballot? The primary goal is that a voter is protected from public pressures. As a party boss, I wouldn’t know if you voted for my candidate or another one, so threats and bribes have no guarantee of success. And as a sports fan, I wouldn’t know if you voted for Roger Clemens or not, regardless of what your public posturing on steroids may have been.

(There were plenty of reasons why the printed secret ballot had negative consequences on turnout, namely imposing a quasi-requirement of literacy, but the secrecy of the ballot was not the problem there.)

So where does this leave us with the Hall of Fame ballot? Do these reasons of secrecy apply to the BBWAA? I don’t think we have to worry about vote buying (Deadspin notwithstanding), but I guess my position relates to first principles of the Hall of Fame ballot. With this vote, we want an honest accounting of whether a supermajority of voters believes said player belongs in the Hall. We may have problems with the percentage necessary, or the number of votes on the ballot or the composition of the electorate itself, but the purpose of the Hall is to see who the electorate believes is a Hall of Famer in their hearts, not in the face of public scrutiny. Unless we just want to have a JAWS cut-off and eliminate the electorate entirely, there must be something ineffable about the Hall of Fame, something that comes from a private evaluation of one’s emotions. The sportswriters are not elected by us, nor are they supposed to be “accountable to the public.”

There are of course strong arguments against anonymity in voting. Yoav Fromer argues that the secret ballot allows people the luxury of voting for positions that are publicly unpalatable. Without needing to defend their choices, voters can simply hide behind the secret ballot and avoid public accountability. Similarly, John Stuart Mill worried that in private people would be more prone to bias or dishonesty: “People will give dishonest or mean votes from lucre, from malice, from pique, from personal rivalry, even from the interests or prejudices of class or sect, more readily in secret than in public.”

But part of the reason the Hall is built around these secret ballots is the belief that we do want the raw honest truth from the voters. We don’t want their public opinions; we want to know what they believe in their dark hearts. And if they really can’t quite stomach voting for a “steroid guy” or they think Jack Morris just feels like a Hall of Famer, we want those flawed, messy and private emotions packed into their vote.

Furthermore, it’s not clear that Fromer and Mill are correct in practice when it comes to the BBWAA ballot. As it turns out, many people are quite willing to hold unpopular public opinions, and the publicity of ballots has not made Murray Chass or Dan Shaughnessy behave like any less of a dolt. In 2017, only five ballots were anonymous anyways.

If people want to reveal their ballots, more power to them. And kudos to Thibodaux for asking for ballots and to those voters who disclose their reasons for voting. These efforts undoubtedly add to our public discourse on what the Hall is and means.

I understand that I’m probably standing against the tide of history on this one. But we should not be quite so quick to force the disclosure of private votes simply because they may be unpopular positions.


My Ongoing Conversation In My Head About Aroldis Chapman

What ails you now, brain?

Well, I still feel icky watching the Cubs after their trade for Aroldis Chapman.

Even after watching the last few games? Chapman’s been basically as good as advertised.

Actually even more so. Looking at pictures of the team celebrating with Chapman bother me and I wonder about whether the Cubs have mortgaged their souls. There’s one of my favorite young players Addison Russell, high-fiving unrepentant “I’m only sorry because of the gun” wife-choker Aroldis Chapman.

Look, you have to look at this from a baseball perspective. This is a borderline defensible deal. On the one hand, the Cubs gave up a LOT for Chapman, but they also had less relative value of those pieces. The Cubs want to win now, and the Yankees can afford to stock up on pieces to win later. The price of high-leverage lights-out relievers is high. I might think the deal looks imbalanced, but the Cubs stockpiled prospects for this very reason.

OK, but you can’t talk about this in terms of “a baseball perspective”! Clearly the reasons this deal makes you queasy have nothing to do with just baseball. Also in terms of BASEBALL reasons, doesn’t this feel like you’re defending Billy Beane’s terrible Donaldson trade? Or the Astros’ terrible Ken Giles trade?

OK, but when it’s the bottom of the 9th in the playoffs with two men on, are you going to want Aroldis Chapman’s 105-mph fastball against your team or for your team? This is more like the Michael Bourn-Brad Lidge deal. Giving up a lot in the future for one additional piece right now.

Yeah but that also means that when the Cubs go cheering in celebration at that big win, they will be running into the arms of a man who probably choked his girlfriend and then fired a gun multiple times into his garage. Are you OK with that?

Well, you still listen to James Brown, don’t you? You still love “Ignition (Remix)” (surely far more stomach-churning in context). You still watch Woody Allen movies. You still enjoy Degas’ paintings. Can’t you separate the act from the person? Look at that helpless swing from Jose Abreu in the face of a 91-mph slider following a 105-mph fastball and tell me it’s not art!

Yes, but that doesn’t mean that you need to make choices to pursue people who have done awful things. It’s one thing if the world accrues some sort of benefit from this work. Here, only the Cubs do! I can appreciate his fastball on the Yankees, thanks. And on top of that, Aroldis Chapman’s fastball is extraordinary but he’s not somehow irreplaceable. Hector Rondon has been as good this season.

OK, but last time I checked, Mr. “I Think Criminal Defendants Shouldn’t Have Stigma Forever,” you think we should let people who have served their time reenter society, find employment, vote, and be citizens without having the stigma of “ALLEGEDLY” in front of their names for the rest of their lives. We don’t know what happened that night. Chapman was not indicted, and he served a suspension in his job. Why can’t he just be another player now? Why must his collateral consequences last forever?

Well, obviously some categories of crimes we deem worse than others, and you proclaim that crimes that reinforce the patriarchy and misogyny are worse crimes. And do we really think Chapman’s changed? His general comments on the incident are not those of a repentant person and are pretty much a non-apology apology.

OK, but Matt Bush drunkenly ran over a guy’s head with a motorcycle and he plays baseball. Jose Reyes is out there playing baseball. And if what you care about is misogyny, I’m sure that MLB is full of misogynist guys if you ask. Everyone loved Kirby Puckett! Bobby Cox was a lovable grump! And those guys all hit their wives.

That’s hardly a defense. This gets back to what I said earlier: do we need to affirmatively seek out guys with that history? And on top of that, the Cubs paid a lot for the guy! Way more than the Yankees traded back in the offseason. It implies that the Cubs do not care about his past at all. Does this mean that hitting your girlfriend depresses your employability right after it happens, but not eight months after it happens?

Yes basically! Time and penalties separate us from our past indiscretions as a society. It’s not that time somehow heals the wound, but it’s a return to normalcy.

But I don’t want players who commit domestic violence to be normalcy!

Yeah, but when it comes to a collision of your conscience and baseball, why does your conscience only worry about this aspect of Chapman? Do you expect all businesses to have these high-minded ideals? If you do, where are people who do something you think is terrible supposed to do? Go work in the landfills and live under a bridge? If anything, the economics make it easier to let prior bad acts become history. Jhonny Peralta went from PED user to good SS for the Cardinals. Baseball execs are analytical thinkers in a zero-sum world. Your gain is someone else’s loss. SOMEONE will be employing Aroldis Chapman; your moral stance does not change that.

But the Cubs were supposed to be different! They’re my team! A lovable fun team of goofballs who wear fun costumes and play fun-loving pranks on each other and definitely don’t beat their wives.

OK, one, that’s wrong. Remember Starlin Castro? You think those sexual assault allegations just went away? And he was such a lovable scamp! Sammy Sosa had accusations of spousal abuse. Mark Grace has many a DUI to his name. And second, the Cubs are not heroes. They are, as you often say, millionaire jocks in their early 20s playing a child’s game for your entertainment. Do you expect them to reflect your values?

I guess we all have to accept that our heroes are mercenaries wearing cute outfits and our beloved sports teams are just billion dollar businesses.

There, now sit back and enjoy the baseball.

BUT THAT’S EXACTLY THE THING. Baseball is supposed to be an escape. It’s pure and beautiful and keeps us from thinking about our impending deaths. I want to enjoy it guiltlessly. Why can’t it also have a conscience?

Because baseball is not apart from the world; indeed it almost always reflects the world around it. Baseball is messy and full of flawed humans and you need to accept that.

Why must we accept all those flaws, though? That’s where I think you’re wrong! We celebrate Roberto Clemente and Hank Aaron and players with hearts. We celebrate Branch Rickey for selecting Jackie Robinson because we think his conscience was right.

But he only did it because it “made good baseball sense.” Which this deal makes too. Baseball is inherently immoral. We recognize Clemente, but Kennesaw Mountain Landis and Pete Rose and Ty Cobb are all celebrated too.

OK, but your answer cannot be “not as bad as Ty Cobb” every time.

Fine but modern baseball is not much better. Should I list the terrible working conditions for minor league players? Should I get into these baseball “academies” in poor countries? Terrible stadium deals that rob the public?

Agh! I guess I’ll just feel a little gross about my Cubs this year and a little queasy about any potential playoff glory being tainted by the 50% chance that Aroldis Chapman will be the focus of the big celebration, but only slightly less gross than I should feel about baseball itself?

Yeah that’s about right.

At least I can feel good about hot dogs and apple pie right?

Yeah, about that


The Gritty Details

“Grit” in baseball has long been a gag for the saber crowd. Fire Joe Morgan was basically one long joke about how gritty David Eckstein was. And there’s good reason to distrust “grit.” Grit, hustle, guts — they’re unquantifiable (sabermetrician attempts to the contrary), often racially coded, and poorly defined skills. (Grit does predict great legal representation, though!)

Yet “grit” has evolved into a buzzword and teachable skill — one that social scientists suggest correlates with success in school, work, and life. Grit is defined by Prof. Angela Duckworth, who pioneered the field of “grit” research, as follows:

We define grit as perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Grit entails working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress. The gritty individual approaches achievement as a marathon; his or her advantage is stamina. Whereas disappointment or boredom signals to others that it is time to change trajectory and cut losses, the gritty individual stays the course.

Duckworth’s research suggests that grittiness corresponds with success in everything from spelling bees to West Point.

So why not in baseball? In a sport where we are constantly prophesizing how players develop, isn’t the predictive power of “grit” something we should be looking at? And can “grit” help us ID players who are more than meets the eye? Read the rest of this entry »