On this page, I'll share my thoughts, and any articles or information I think are of interest. Feel free to use the comments section to join in the discussion!
Posted on April 16, 2014 by Evan Drellich
The Astros almost certainly were never going to promote George Springer ahead of April 11, the first day that he could join the team while also being guaranteed to remain under club control through 2020. They could never publicly acknowledge that, although it remains worth wondering what they would have done had Springer put together a mind-blowing spring training.
If Springer remains in the majors the whole year — or is optioned for fewer than 20 days — he will receive 166 days of service time. That would put him six days shy of 172 days, the amount needed for a full year’s credit.
Whether the team hoped all along to bring up Springer at this exact point — or were prompted to do so by both his strong start and the team’s terrible offense — is harder to know. Perhaps they initially wanted to wait until the Super-Two cut-off passed in late May or June, or perhaps this was always the plan. The circumstances of the team struggling and Springer taking off might actually perfectly mask a plan that was in place all along.
Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow told the Chronicle days before the promotion that the minimum amount of time needed to evaluate a player in the minors is two weeks. Springer played 13 games for Class AAA Oklahoma City. Maybe Luhnow was dropping a hint.
The fact that Springer traveled with Class AAA Oklahoma City to Colorado Springs on Tuesday to play one game before being promoted suggests an in-the-moment decision, even if it was moved up by only a few days. A planned promotion typically comes at the start of a series — and some clubs favor promotions on the road, to minimize pressure.
The possibility of action from the players association and Springer’s agency, as reported by the Chronicle in spring training, could have helped solidify this path as well.
This, ultimately, might be the important consideration: If a team is going to bring up a player ahead of the Super-Two deadline, it makes much more sense to pull the trigger as soon as possible after the “control deadline” passes — as soon as possible from April 11 on.
Why wait until May 1 or May 15 if he’s going to become Super-Two eligible anyway? A team arguably should wait until June at that point.
There’s no denying that the Astros made a sound financial decision by keeping Springer off the opening day roster. But you can also be sure that at the next round of collective bargaining, Springer’s name will come up. And so will Archie Bradley’s.
The agent for Bradley, a D-backs pitching prospect, said the 21-year-old was being held down because of service time.
“I think it’s very apparent what is going on in Arizona,” Bradley’s agent Jay Franklin told FOX Sports on Monday. “Every ballplayer that is playing minor league baseball works his tail off to get an opportunity to play in the big leagues.”
D-backs general manager Kevin Towers responded.
“I would not bring him up in this environment the way we’re playing,” Towers said. “I know how it would be perceived if he came up: ‘Archie is going to save us.’ I don’t want to do that to a 21-year-old kid.”
Springer will be looked at unfairly as an Astros savior, but he’s also 24 years old. He turns 25 in September.
As former Chronicle writer Zachary Levine pointed out Wednesday, former Astros outfielder Hunter Pence was brought up on April 28, 2007.
That made his first year of arbitration eligibility the 2011 season — the same season the Astros were able to flip Pence to the Phillies, of course, for a package that could go down as a truly great haul: Jarred Cosart, Domingo Santana, Jon Singleton and Josh Zeid.
If Pence had been on the 2007 opening day roster, the 2011 season could’ve been his second-year of arbitration eligibility. Pence wouldn’t have been able to return the same haul because he’d be closer to free agency and more expensive. There’s nothing more valuable than cheap, controlled players — young players.
Just because the issue will be raised in 2016 when this CBA expires does not mean it’ll go anywhere. As agents explain it, what makes the matter of promotion dates so tough to regulate is that they’re ultimately predicated on good faith. Each call-up — or lack thereof — comes with a unique set of circumstances, which makes defining thresholds for call-ups a near impossible task.
This path does come with drawbacks for the Astros. The positives — the money saved — clearly well outweigh any negatives in their eyes, but there is a perception battle they have to fight.
Fans, paying customers, look and wonder why the 25-man roster doesn’t include the best 25 players possible. And players inside the clubhouse do too.
Does Springer feel he’s been treated right? There’s no question he could have been treated better.
The potential long-term consequence is that he could be less enamored to stay with the Astros, or that he’ll make sure if he does stick around, the Astros pay a higher premium. Why would he act in good faith to give a hometown discount to a team that didn’t have his best interest in mind last season, or on opening day?
“It’s about the culture & the message you’re sending to players/fan: We don’t promote on merit, winning is secondary to FA status 7 yrs away,” former big-league pitcher C.J. Nitkowski wrote on Twitter on Wednesday. “Springer didn’t become a better hitter in 13 games at AAA. For a team with a .185BA & 40 runs scored this is a poor reflection of operation.”
But maybe Springer would want to walk into free agency no matter what. That’s hard to predict, and the Astros hedged against that possibility by ensuring they get an extra year. The Astros are operating within the rules, even if they don’t look good doing so — and they’re not the only team that’s taken this approach.
It’s about the culture & the message you’re sending to players/fan: We don’t promote on merit, winning is secondary to FA status 7 yrs away.
— CJ Nitkowski (@CJNitkowski) April 16, 2014
When it came time to talk about the tall, skinny kid who threw like nobody else, the debate wasn't much of a debate at all. The Kansas City Royals held the fourth pick in the 2010 draft. The top three picks were gimmes: Bryce Harper, Jameson Taillon and Manny Machado. Where they would go at No. 4 they weren't sure. They just knew it wouldn't be the tall, skinny kid.
Everyone in their draft room, recalled people privy to the conversation, agreed: Chris Sale was a relief pitcher. They loved what he did at Florida Gulf Coast, where he enfeebled batter after batter. They appreciated how hard he threw, the action on his changeup and slider, everything about him. They just weren't taking a reliever with the fourth pick in the draft. That would be like picking a utilityman.
The greatest beauty of Sale, who may well be the best left-handed pitcher alive not named Clayton Kershaw, is the very thing that frightened off the Royals and the eight teams that followed them: that he is a complete anomaly, a 6-foot-6, 180-pound pipe cleaner with an 82-inch wingspan, a delivery that looks wrong bordering on painful and a way of combining the two to make hitters look perpetually foolish. Now in his fifth big league season – yes, it's been that long – he is one of baseball's unquestioned aces, a high-inning, high-strikeout, high-groundball, low-walk, homer-scarce, left-handed monster. His success is an ode to the cooperation of scouts and major league personnel, and an organization that bucked conventional thinking to rely on its own wisdom.
Sale is baseball's worst nightmare: the player with no comps. Scouts like to give their bosses comparable players, if only to give a general outline as to who he resembles. Sale's closest comp may be Randy Johnson, who's only the biggest freak baseball ever has seen. Nobody else fits Sale's mixture of body, sidearm action and mean stuff. And so in the days leading up to the 2010 draft, his name came up in another room, as an answer to the question: "Who can help this team win now?"
Kenny Williams, now the Chicago White Sox’s president and then their general manager, wanted help for what ended up an ill-fated playoff push. Someone pulled up video of Sale, though the White Sox, picking at No. 13, didn’t expect him to drop to them. Only the Royals skipped past him, as did others because of the body or arm action or maybe both. Kids named Barret Loux (Arizona) and Karsten Whitson (San Diego) and Deck McGuire (Toronto) went ahead of Sale. He is the classic draft second-guess, every team jealous that Chicago guessed right.
The White Sox's front office and evaluators used slow-motion video of Sale's delivery to assess different potential danger areas: where his arm sat at foot strike, how well he cleared it, where it was upon landing. That allayed fears. Pitching coach Don Cooper, respected across the sport for his historically healthy rotations, broke down the same video of Sale and gave his seal of approval. As long as the White Sox could get Sale on board with their shoulder-intensive exercise program – and he has proven among the team's most diligent with maintenance work – they believed his arm would hold up despite not looking the part.
"Given the upside and the impact he could have," said Rick Hahn, now the White Sox's GM, "it was a risk we were willing to take."
And one, it turns out, well worth taking. After debuting as a reliever for the last two months of 2010 and sticking in the role the next season, Sale has spent 2012-13 as a starter, made a pair of All-Star teams, received Cy Young votes, averaged more than a strikeout an inning over 406 1/3 frames and left hitters more confused than anyone.
The scary part: Only now is he truly unleashing his full arsenal. In an effort to save his arm from excessive wear and tear, Sale is throwing far more changeups than he has at any point in his career – nearly 30 percent of his pitches in his first three starts, compared to less than 14 percent in his first season as a starter. His fastball and slider proved such great weapons that he treated them as security blankets; the evolution of the changeup is simply another step for the 25-year-old in his quest to grow even further past the rap hung on him in college.
"I've never put too much thought into what other people think," Sale said. "It either happens or doesn't. There were guys who weren't supposed to pitch in the big leagues who have long careers. You have guys drafted in the 30th round that become perennial All-Stars and lead teams. You can't pay attention to what everyone else is saying. Be your own guy."
He is very much that. Sale isn't the sort to embrace his own success, especially numerically. Sale said he never looks at his statistics until the end of a season. He worries about letting his ERA get into his head. Even after the year ends, the advanced metrics that put him up there with Kershaw and the rest of the best pitchers in the game don't resonate.
"All I know I've got to do is give up less runs than we score," Sale said. "I don't care about anything else. Not the numbers. Not the ISPFMLBLSSRs and whatever else Brian Kenny has come up with to define what makes a good player or not."
Reminded the numbers love him, Sale said: "I don't love them back."
Nobody said love needed to go both ways. So long as his arm keeps pumping two-seam fastballs in the mid-90s and grants him the confidence to throw changeups to left-handed hitters, Sale could profess his love for the Gatorade cooler in the dugout, and nobody would flinch.
As the White Sox rebuild, Hahn can at least take solace in that. It's a luxury to know in a game against the defending champion Red Sox in Boston, with the great Jon Lester on the mound, Chicago can come into the game as favorites because Sale is pitching. He'll do so Thursday night, looking to bump his record to 4-0 and lower his ERA from 2.66.
In the meantime, a 24-year-old infielder will continue playing at Triple-A, where he's hitting .224 with a .637 OPS. His name is Christian Colon. The Royals took him with the fourth overall pick. If he ever makes it to the major leagues, scouts believe he'll be a utilityman.
Samardzija, Sabathia and the distance between Cubs, Yankees
April 17, 2014
By Patrick Mooney
NEW YORK — So which New York tabloid produced the better back page for Thursday’s editions? “ZIP ZIP HOORAY!” and “CLEAN SWEEP” summed up a long, cold day in The Bronx that again spelled out Jeff Samardzija’s future in ALL CAPS.
The New York Post highlighted Masahiro Tanaka, the one pitcher who could’ve jumpstarted the Cubs and accelerated their timeline, while the Daily News focused on pine-tar-free Michael Pineda (“no dirty tricks”).
Like those headline writers, there’s nothing subtle about the roster bulldozing at Clark and Addison, where the Cubs flip veterans to get more prospects and higher draft picks. The Cubs returned home after Wednesday’s double shutout at Yankee Stadium with a 4-10 record that left them stuck in last place in the National League Central.
Samardzija (0-1, 1.29 ERA) will face the Reds (6-9) on Friday afternoon at Wrigley Field. Enjoy it while you can, because it’s almost impossible to see how he’s still on this team by Aug. 1.
As Alfonso Soriano said, win a title in Chicago and “you can be a God in the city.” Samardzija — who became the longest-tenured player on the team when the Cubs traded Soriano to the Yankees last summer — certainly understands all the potential rewards.
It’s a long shot, but maybe the Northwest Indiana guy returns as a conquering hero after the 2015 season, when Javier Baez and Kris Bryant are supposed to be ready for prime time, along with Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo.
Samardzija should already have some fans in New York, inside the Major League Baseball Players Association’s headquarters near St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Rockefeller Center.
Given the way teams keep locking up young players with long-term extensions, do you feel a responsibility inside the union?
“Without a doubt,” Samardzija said. “I’ve said it before: Personally, numbers and money don’t really drive me. What does drive me is protecting and setting up the players behind me, the future generations, so that I’m not signing any of these crummy early deals for seven or eight years.”
Samardzija has taken crash courses in baseball economics. He thinks the Northwestern football team is onto something, targeting the NCAA and fighting for the right to collectively bargain. His dad, Sam, has been a union guy for 30-something years, working at Northern Indiana Public Service Company.
“When you’re hitting your prime and you’re hitting free agency — like it’s supposed to be done — then that’s the way it sets up for guys behind you,” Samardzija said. “I definitely have a responsibility to the players that are younger than me and approaching arbitration or approaching free agency to keep the numbers where they should be.
“And rising as they should be, in accordance to the economy and the state of the game. That’s more important than anything else — what you owe the players that did it for you and then the players behind you.”
The Cubs have been in a slashing mode ever since Sam Zell’s Tribune Co. formed a highly leveraged partnership with the Ricketts family, a financial unwinding that can be traced back to the 2008 winter meetings in Las Vegas.
That offseason, the Cubs were coming off back-to-back division titles. Chicago was a destination point, not a layover for Tommy John cases looking to reestablish market value and role players hoping to show they can be everyday guys.
Maybe CC Sabathia could have been a finishing piece for a 97-win team that got swept out of the playoffs again. The big lefty helped the Brewers win a wild card by going 11-2 with a 1.65 ERA in 17 starts after a midseason trade from the Indians.
“I was open to ideas,” Sabathia said. “My agent did talk to the Cubs. I don’t know how far those talks went. But, yeah, I had interest in going, especially at that time. They still had Derrek Lee. It was a pretty good team.”
That friendship with D-Lee got the Cubs thinking Sabathia might actually prefer to come to the North Side and play for a win-now team.
“We may have had some conversations,” Sabathia said. “It was a long time ago. But I definitely talked to everybody I could — all of my friends who worked with the free-agency process. I looked at everybody.”
In the end, the Cubs were a non-factor. Sabathia signed with the Yankees for seven years and $161 million, re-working his contract in 2011 after a three-season run that saw him win a World Series ring, notch 59 victories and account for more than 700 innings.
The Yankees have the financial flexibility to survive when their 33-year-old investment inevitably declines — Sabathia had a 4.78 ERA last season— but they probably don’t have the prospects to trade for Samardzija now.
Samardzija’s camp will have to keep the Evil Empire in mind, because it’s good for business. (See Tanaka’s seven-year, $155 million megadeal, which blew the Cubs away by one year and $25 million.) There’s also the connection to former Cubs general manager Jim Hendry, who’s now a special assignment scout with the Yankees.
Samardzija is used to playing with a target on his back after an All-American football career at Notre Dame and his time inside the Wrigley Field fishbowl. He enjoys bantering with the media and speaking his mind.
Maybe Samardzija won’t develop into the No. 1 starter he thinks he should be paid like now. But it won’t be because he’s afraid of the big stage or getting lazy and simply cashing checks. He’s not wired that way.
“If you say you want to be a winner,” Sabathia said, “this is the place to come. You know they do whatever they can every offseason to try to get to the playoffs and put the best team out on the field.”
“SHARK ATTACK” would make a good back page in New York.
April 18, 2014
BASEBALL FROM A DIFFERENT ERA
An Ervin Santana slider cracks off Travis d'Arnaud's bat and keeps a low bounce up the shortstop's side of the 5.5 hole. A few shortstops could range out to the outfield grass for a cutoff, but a throw to first would be futile. Besides that, d'Arnaud is hauling down the line like the hit-starved rookie he is. Instinctual logic and baseball's near-endless dataset both conclude, rightly, that this is a hopeless play. However, both ignore one key fact: Andrelton Simmons does not care.
On a ball most shortstops can't reach, Simmons actually ranges too far right, grinds to a slippery halt, falls flat on his butt, makes a backhanded stab to his left, transfers cleanly to his right, posts on one knee and unloads a screamer from the outfield grass to beat d'Arnaud by a micro-stride. It's a ridiculous play, and just one of many that places him in an subset -- throwback players forcing a reconsideration of how valuable they can be in the modern game.
Look at Simmons' hitting numbers with any critical lens and the conclusion is obvious: He's a time-displaced 1960s shortstop. The .692 OPS Simmons posted in his first full season works out to less than league average, even with the 17 home runs he popped, and nothing in Simmons' minor or major league history suggests that his ceiling is much higher than that. What's interesting here is how little it matters. The Braves have Simmons down as their franchise shortstop based mostly on the 24.6 UZR and major league leading 5.4 dWAR he put up in 2013. His total WAR for the year was 6.9, which means Simmons rates out as an All-Star based almost entirely on his defensive value -- he's the Ghost of Players Past, and he's not the only throwback.
Juan Lagares is even further out on the fringe of modern players. In 121 games last season, Lagares put up a 0.2 oWAR against a 24.4 UZR and 3.5 dWAR, which means he was borderline worthless at the plate and an elite player in center field -- I mean, look at this, it's stupid. However, Mets manager Terry Collins is deadset on "juggling" his two center fielders, despite having no demonstrable reason to give Eric Young regular playing time over Lagares (at least before Lagares injured his hamstring earlier this week). For as much as sabermetrics has done to diminish the old-school player archetypes, it seems Collins is ignoring data that bolsters the case for a straight-up old-school move.
While the debate is mostly dormant now, it's worth remembering that a defining knock on sabermetrics is its struggle to capture the precise value of defense. Metrics such as dWAR and UZR are hardly definitive, and have an infuriating tendency to spit out results that either don't align with reality or fluctuate wildly from year-to-year, but it would be ahistorical to assume that our mightiest baseball nerds have taken us as far as they can.
MLB Advanced Media's new field tracking system is the Holy Grail, capable of generating the enormous sums of raw data essential to sabermetric answers on defense, but the system's gradual rollout means those answers are still beyond the public's reach. For now, defensive metrics lack final authority, but team and fan alike could do much worse than weighing an honest eye test against those metrics -- especially when the metrics make a case for players whose value is obvious on sight, but hard to capture on paper.
And then there's Billy Hamilton, the great paradox.
He is, somehow, the Reds' everyday center fielder and leadoff hitter as a rookie who can't hit, get on base or throw. The entire baseball world is simultaneously rooting him on and writing him off, because he is the fastest baserunner anyone has ever seen. The dead horse is battered, but it must be said that Hamilton's hitting numbers have progressively worsened at every level of minor league ball, his 2014 slash line of .170/.220/.234 is just a bummer and he's still learning how to play center field, but who cares? Dude can fly.
There is the clip of him turning an opposite field single into an easy double. And the clip of him scoring from third on a 200-ish foot pop-out to shallow right field.
Oh, and he can get from home to first in 3.3 seconds, which is basically impossible. Getting a firm read on the value of a player becomes boring and very much beside the point when the player is an unprecedented version of the basepath demon. We're watching different games if the possibility of Hamilton terrorizing pitchers and catchers for the next decade doesn't register as The Dopest Ish. After a decade of on-base beef bros getting their overdue props, it's time for a 160 lb. spindle-squeak and some evil genius fielders to swing the weirdo pendulum back the opposite way.
Yes, baseball's throwback answer to #normcore does amount to modern-day riffs on players from the 60s you probably haven't heard of, but at least the stats add up this time. If nothing else, at least the asinine notion that sabermetrics would produce a cookie cutter generation of players will finally make its appointment with the reaper. However, the true value of baseball's throwback subset may be driving home the lesson that all of our assumptions are wrong and dumb. Progress at last!
TUESDAY, APRIL 15, 2014
The chart above clearly explains what the issue is. Major League Baseball players' salaries have decreased relative to the league's revenues. The players' shares of the revenues used to hover above 50%, but have since fell to around 40%. As a point of reference, all of the other North American major professional sports leagues have collective bargaining agreements that guarantee players approximately 50% of revenue.
In terms of real dollars, the difference is more striking. MLB revenues were over $8 BB last year. That means every percentage point in 2013 represents about $80 MM in salaries. That's close to $100,000 per player. And that's just for one percentage point of revenues. If players were receiving the industry standard of 50% (a gain of ten percentage points), that would mean closer to a billion more dollars going towards salaries.
Some people may not think that this is a problem. Players salaries have still been increasing rapidly, even relative to inflation, when most peoples' wages have remained stagnant. Most of the world's workers are not losing much sleep over how athletes may be missing out on a few hundred thousand dollars.
Team shareholders and MLB officials also probably don't see what the problem is. After all, this is extra cash going into their pockets. It's a transfer of wealth from millionaires to billionaires, and most fans probably don't care.
But for players and their agents, this is a real problem. In fact, this might be the biggest challenge the MLB Players Association has faced in a generation. And while a significant number of players do earn generational wealth playing the game, many fringe major leaguer's never make that kind of money. For them, even a small change in salaries could make a real difference.
But the big question is "Why has the players' share of revenue decreased?" This is too big a question to answer in one post, but I think it is important to lay out the major issues that need to be addressed. I have organized my thoughts into four major points, that will each be the subject of its own post. Two are listed as "Player-side issues" meaning that they are most affected by the actions of players (or perhaps agents and the MLBPA as well). The other two are listed as "Management-side Issues", since they revolve more around the behavior of teams and the league.
Remember, we are trying to explain hundreds of millions of dollars in lower salaries, so it's probably not just one thing. And if it is just one thing, it would have to be a pretty big thing. Before I get into the issues that I will be addressing, I'll mention a few other alternatives.
Some could claim that revenues and salaries are not being measured accurately, or consistently over time. If that were true, this may not be as big of an issue, but there's just no way that the we are off by such a wide margin to explain the relative decrease in salaries.
One other interesting possibility that I didn't list below is if the supply of baseball labor had changed in some significant way. More precisely, if there was less variation in talent, in say, the top 5000 baseball players in the world, then MLB players would have less leverage in negotiating salaries. Since the quantity of players demanded has been static since the late 1990's, this could be answerable by looking at the data. Until I see empirical evidence, I'm not giving this scenario serious consideration.
Matt Swartz's latest works on The Hardball Times were not the first pieces to call attention to the players' share of revenue, but they were the most helpful in getting started. Cot's Baseball Contracts and Biz of Baseball are valuable resources for anyone looking to do research on the topics. Also, Tom Tango's (and his esteemed readers') comments were really what got me thinking about the issue.
So I've already used a bunch of words, and I haven't gotten to the main issues, so here they are. They'll be a post on each one, but for now I've just written enough to clarify what I mean.
1. Players are not optimizing their compensation.
Basically, players and agents are losing many more contract negotiations than they are winning. The main theory is that early career extensions have been lopsided in favor of teams. More players are willing to bypass arbitration and prime years of free agency in favor of relatively less rich extensions. Some would argue that this phenomenon can even affect players who haven't received extensions. Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports thinks this issue is very important, and wonders if less players are looking out for the "next guy". These extensions are certainly a far cry from players' fights against the reserve clause and collusion.
2. Salary is a relatively less important piece of player's compensation packages.
Another possibility is that players as a whole are placing less of a value on salary when signing contracts. In this scenario, a relative decrease in salary isn't necessarily a problem for the MLBPA. Players, like workers as a whole, may be increasingly factoring in location, career development, or "fit", when considering offers. In baseball terms, this could involve working with particular coaches, being a part of a certain team chemistry, or even "playing for a winner". While this likely wouldn't explain a huge change in salaries, it could be a part of the trend. We may also be missing out on the value of small items such as health care and the players' pension plan.
3. Teams have become more efficient in the way they compensate players.
A generation ago, teams were only effectively able to limit pay via collusion. Today, there is a common framework that executives can use to put a value on every player. Every team is at least aware of the market $/WAR. Additionally, newly available statistics and more modern thinking may have led to cheaper, younger players occupying more roster spots relative to older, more expensive players. Regardless, the increase of business-minded management teams have led to more sophisticated roster construction.
4. The revenues of teams are now less dependent on team performance (and how much they spend on players).
Of all the issues, this has the most potential to impact salaries. It would also be the most difficult problem for the players to address. As gate revenue, and other revenue related to team success (merchandise, concessions, parking, etc.) have decreased as a share of total revenue, teams have less incentives to spend big on winning teams. With most teams locked in on long-term local TV deals, short-term winning is also somewhat less important. National TV money, and other centrally distributed revenue (revenue sharing funds, MLBAM earnings), is earned regardless of team performance. Finally, the competitive balance tax acts as a disincentive for teams with the highest marginal revenue products from spending freely on players.
Additionally, across all sports, the business operations of teams have become more professionalized. Every team business official I've talked to has described the importance of separating financial success from on-field success. With revenue targets that must be met regardless of winning or losing, perhaps a larger share of MLB's revenues should be going to the front office folks who are finding better ways to capture every last dollar (at least in the short term).
So those are what I consider to be the main factors. I think that my individual posts will be more content-filled and incisive, but I needed this post to lay out the issues. Hopefully it helped line things up for you as well, and let me know if I missed anything.