David's Blog

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!


"often described as a throwback to a less enlightened era"

 

 

 

 

The Royals Are the Epitome of a Moneyball Team

Ignore Ned Yost’s terrible reputation—Kansas City is a perfectly designed machine.

By Martin Johnson

 

The Kansas City Royals head into the World Series against the New York Mets with a distinction among recent American League champions: They are only the second AL team since 2001 to win consecutive pennants. So it’s fair to say that the Royals, chasing their first title since 1985, have built a pretty sound team.

Yet, Kansas City—more than any other successful team in baseball—is often described as a throwback to a less enlightened era, one where the backward ways of a time before advanced statistics still reigned supreme. This is largely due to their manager, Ned Yost, who, earlier this month, was described in practically Neanderthalian terms by the New York Times Magazine. In a strangely loving piece, Bruce Schoenfeld argues that “the most criticized manager in the major leagues dismissed metrics and embraced failure” to lead the Royals to success.

Many of Yost’s moves fly in the face of modern baseball best practices—such as the Royals’ reliance on bunts and stolen bases—so it is fair for the Times and others to target him in that regard. (Though the Times might have toned down their own over-the-top caricature of the manager, described as “Ruddy-faced and taciturn,” and looking “like a baseball manager from a less image-conscious era, someone who might spend the game with tobacco juice dribbling down his chin.”)

It’s also true that the Royals are built around speed, defense, contact hitting, and stellar relief pitching, all things that teams that follow the analytical dictates of Bill James, the authors of Baseball Prospectus, and other advanced statisticians decried as being overvalued in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Around that time General Manager Billy Beane built an Oakland A’s team around these ideas and despite having a payroll that was less than half of their big market competitors in places like Los Angeles, New York, and Boston, the A’s were regular contenders for seven seasons.

Since Beane’s accomplishments were romanticized in Michael Lewis’ Moneyball and its movie adaptation, baseball teams have begun employing committees of statistical analysts, and an Ivy League MBA has become a better qualification to run a front office than a World Series ring. Several small-market teams like the Tampa Bay Rays and the Pittsburgh Pirates became regular playoff challengers on the basis of following Beane’s approach. In a span of less than two decades, Moneyball went from being some rebel philosophy to becoming the modus operandi of most teams.

Then along came the 2014 Kansas City Royals. On July 24 of last season, they were 50–50—in the midst of a playoff drought that stretched back to that 1985 World Series win—and seemed en route to another nondescript season. Instead, the Royals won 39 of their 62 final games, mounted three jaw-dropping rallies in the Wild Card Playoff game to beat Beane’s A’s, swept the next two rounds of the playoffs, and took the San Francisco Giants—a team that had won two titles in the previous four seasons—to the deciding seventh game of the World Series before falling just short in the final inning. They did all of this with a team built on speed, defense, contact hitting, and relief pitching—traits supposedly anathema to Moneyball.

But the idea that this team is some sort of 1960s throwback that is just getting by on grit, luck, and managerial tobacco drool is a false narrative. Yes, the Royals were tied for second in the American League in batting average (trailing first place Detroit by just .270 to .269), and second in stolen bases. Their bullpen boasted the best ERA in the American League and the fourth-best WAR. According to advanced statistics, the Royals have had the best defense in baseball for three consecutive seasons by a significant margin. So it sounds like the Royals are just really good in areas where teams long ago decided it’s less important to be so good. Which is exactly what Beane did with his millennial era Oakland A’s.

Beane built those teams around on-base percentage. But a large part of the reason for that was because it was a time when baseball professionals didn’t value OBP, and a bargain-hunting small-market team could gain a cheap edge by focusing on it. In fact, led-footed, unathletic players who often took walks were even looked down upon at the time. (In 2004, Chicago Cubs manager Dusty Baker infamously said he didn’t want his players clogging up the basepaths by taking walks.)

But these days almost all teams value OBP and recognize that a patient hitter is superior to one who hacks away. The thing is that this statistical analysis wasn’t built around valuing walks qua walks, but rather advocating that teams with smaller budgets could be competitive by building around undervalued assets that bigger franchises were neglecting. The Royals are doing just that.

Kansas City’s payroll, at the start of this season was $113.6 million, 16th in Major League Baseball. With elite veteran starting pitchers commanding well north of $20 million, it made sense for the Royals to develop a lights-out bullpen that would cost a small fraction of what top starters do. While building one of the best bullpens of all-time, the Royals have also designed one of the best defenses in the history of baseball—another asset that is not nearly as valued by their competitors.

Finally, while it’s true that the Royals don’t prioritize walks (their 383 walks ranked last in the American League and second-to-last in all of baseball), they don’t strike out either (their 973 strikeouts was the lowest total in the majors, more than 100 fewer than second-place Atlanta and third-place Oakland). While it’s become conventional wisdom that strikeouts aren’t that bad anymore, the Royals are putting more balls in play than their opponents. This ultimately led them to the 11th best OBP in baseball despite walking nearly 200 fewer times than OBP leaders and defeated ALCS opponents Toronto. The pendulum has swung so that there’s value in a team like the Royals putting together players who hit really, really well for average and don’t walk as much.

The larger point is that Moneyball was originally about roster construction and not game management. Even when you consider those day-to-day decisions, though, the Royals are not nearly as backward as they have been depicted. The team is about at the league average in using extreme defensive shifts. It also has one of the best advanced scouting operations in baseball, with Sports Illustrated making a strong case that scouting played an almost decisive factor in the team’s series victory over the Blue Jays.

Despite Yost’s (sometimes legitimate) detractors, Kansas City is one of the finest examples of adapting the Moneyball ethos—which is to try to gain an edge on your opponents by doing things that they are not—to modern-day baseball.

http://www.slate.com/articles/sports/sports_nut/2015/10/why_the_kansas_city_royals_are_actually_the_perfect_moneyball_team.html

 

“And so, his legacy is in the lessons.”

 

 

The complicated legacy of Oscar Taveras

6 hours ago  •  By Benjamin Hochman

I wanted to do it justice, describing his home run swing with the absolute fitting description, for this is the column on the anniversary of his death.

Over and over, I watched the pinch-hit homer — “That’s hit in the air to right!” Joe Buck exclaimed on the broadcast. “Taveras, off the bench, has tied it!” — and I agonized over analogies.

And then, there it was. So simple, so perfect, so poignant:

His swing had such life.

When Oscar Taveras hit it — tying Game 2 of the 2014 National League championship series in the seventh inning — the Fox cameras followed the ball over the wall and then cut to the dugout. A wowed Adam Wainwright “wooooo’d!” The cameras caught the Cardinals pitcher spotting Mike Matheny. Waino waited until he locked eyes with the manager — and then stoically pointed an index finger at him, a moment within a moment.

“I pointed at Mike because he pinch hit Oscar there, and I do that sometimes when coaches make good decisions like on defensive positioning or pinch-hitting the right guy,” said Wainwright, one October later, via text. “And if I’m not mistaken, he called the homer. When I call homers sometimes I’ll go, ‘Great time for a home run.’ If I’m right, in that spot HE said, ‘Great time for a home run.’”

It was all just so wonderful. The Cardinals’ phenomenon of a prodigy — “El Fenómeno,” as they called him in the Dominican Republic — unleashed his swooping swing to tie a playoff game, which St. Louis would go on to win. He was only 22. Imaginations didn’t just run wild — they deliriously scampered.

Fourteen days later, the phenomenon was gone. And someone’s daughter was also dead.

HE WAS OURS

It’s hopeless, isn’t it? 

People will always drive drunk, right?

Even if a St. Louis Cardinal dies in a drunk-driving accident — as Taveras did on this day a year ago — some St. Louisans will still drink and drive.

You.

You do it.

You make justifications.

I trust myself.

I’m super-close to my home.

I’m not totally drunk.

“It” won’t happen to me.

Every drunken driver thinks “it won’t happen to me,” but it obviously still happens to some people, right?

If we don’t try to make a change, nothing will change, and someone’s son or daughter will die. Guaranteed.

Death, guaranteed.

Oscar Taveras’ legacy is complicated. You cannot mourn the loss of the Cardinals’ top prospect, the guy who homered in the NLCS, without acknowledging how it happened — by Oscar’s doing.

Oscar Taveras could have avoided killing Oscar Taveras. And Edilia Arvelo, his girlfriend.

And so, his legacy is in the lessons.

And his legacy is also in the images of his swooping swing, which we can watch on YouTube, over and over.

And his legacy is in how the Cardinals honor him, in how they carry themselves on the field and, yes, off.

And his legacy is in our imaginations, written by each one of us in mind-wandering wonderment.

What might have been? Who could he have been? In his six minor-league seasons, he hit .321. He was only 22. He was our town’s, he was ours.

‘LIFE’S TOO PRECIOUS’

Carlos Martinez didn’t use a finger to dab; he used a towel to wipe away all those tears, as he waited to start a game, while watching a highlight video of his dead teammate, whose number he then wore on his back.

Oscar’s first big-league hit was a home run. He swatted it so dramatically amid a rainfall, on May 31, 2014.

On May 31, 2015, the Cardinals honored Taveras at Busch Stadium. His family stood on the field. His best friend stood in the bullpen.

Memories are all we have now. And memories of memorializing.

The way the team honored Oscar this past season was pitch perfect.

And the perfect pitcher to carry his legacy was, and is, Martinez.

“We had a day-to-day reminder (of Taveras) in the way Carlos went about his business — it was like a living reminder,” Matheny said. “Carlos always had a pendant around his neck with OT on it. There was no denying that that was still a part of this club. Whenever any person or group loses somebody who is close to them, that’s not something that goes away this quick.”

We remember Cardinals gone, but how often do we remember why these Cardinals left us?

Oscar Taveras. Josh Hancock.

If a big-league ballplayer isn’t invincible, surely we aren’t.

And we remember snippets of news stories. Oh yeah, didn’t he once get a DUI? Gary Pinkel. David Freese. Tony LaRussa. Rob Ramage. And, of course, Leonard Little. We remember, and then we forget.

In 2012, the Rams’ Robert Quinn crashed his car while driving drunk. The late, great Bryan Burwell wrote in this newspaper, “Because this is St. Louis, sadly we all know exactly how these sports stories go. ... You know how it all ends, and I’m getting tired of writing about this. ... For the lucky ones, it ends with embarrassing arrests, punitive suspensions and awkward apologies. But far too often, it’s a tragic tale that comes to a disturbing halt with a heap of twisted metal, funeral processions, lawsuits, court trials, lives lost and reputations destroyed.

“I just don’t understand why it keeps happening.”

The Rams’ Quinn is now 25, a wise veteran. He’s well-respected for his perspective. At Rams Park last week, Quinn talked about second chances. He was one of the lucky ones who lived to get one.

“People say it all the time — ‘make plans, get a (sober) driver’ — but it’s easier said than done,” the All-Pro Quinn said. “But we’re all grown men playing this game, so when it comes to that, we should stop acting like children sometimes, be grown and get somebody to drive us — no matter if you don’t want to pay for (the service) or you’re worried about your car. Life’s too precious to think you can overcome it, because you’re this big guy or (think you’re) invincible.

“At the end of the day — how much do you love to live? You really have got to appreciate life.”

http://www.stltoday.com/sports/columns/benjamin-hochman/the-complicated-legacy-of-oscar-taveras/article_656f65e7-54dd-56aa-84d5-1567da9c5636.html

 

“these trends can be transient and even illusory to those who seek patterns where sometimes only randomness exists.”

 

 

 

Has 2015 Been A Bit Of A "Draft/Develop Renaissance"?

By Nico on Oct 25, 2015

 

As the stage closes in from 10 featured acts to 8 to 4 to 2, no doubt key acquisitions have played a significant role. Ex-A's no less: Ben Zobrist andYoenis Cespedes have been difference-makers for their respective World Series teams, both down the stretch and in the postseason.

Overall, though, 2015 feels like a year in which high draft picks, homegrown talent, and a consistent core, has been a pattern throughout the playoffs. Store bought teams like theYankees sniffed the postseason but wound up playing the part of the fire hydrant and not the dog. Or like the Red Sox they sat home. The Dodgers did make it to the NLDS but then fell flat. Meanwhile...

No doubt Cespedes energized the Mets' second half run, having had a good season in Detroit but having a tremendous two months for New York. But what has allowed the Mets to stampede over favored teams and represent the National League in the World Series? Their rotation (Jacob DeGrom, Noah SyndergaardMatt HarveySteven Matz) and Daniel Murphy, along with Lucas Duda and the 9th -- and often 8th -- inning dominance of Jeurys Familia.

The Royals are a product of extremely high draft picks they held onto through thick and thin. We won't even focus on Luke Hochevar, who is a bit buried as the Royals' 4th righty out of the bullpen, though he was a #1 overall pick. Eric Hosmer (#3 overall pick) and Mike Moustakas (#2 overall pick) wobbled at times in their early career, but KC stuck with both and are reaping the benefits. Alex Gordon (#2 overall pick) struggled at 3B but found a home as a stellar left fielder. Other Royals' signees who play key roles on the team include Salvador Perez and Kelvin Herrera.

No the Royals did not draft either Alcides Escobar nor Lorenzo Cain, but they acquired both from Milwaukee at age 24 and both have been staples for the Royals for so long now that's it's hard to remember they were once someone else's. This team has grown up together through its prime years.

The Astros, of course, enjoyed the highest of draft picks for enduring 100-loss seasons like they were going out of style. It paid off with the rise of George Springer and Carlos Correa joining Jose Altuve to help propel the Astros into the Division Series where they came within 6 outs of a date with the Blue Jays in the ALCS.

The Cubs, too, rode drafted talent and acquired-before-they-were-successful talent to the Division Series, notably Kyle SchwarberJorge SolerStarlin CastroJavier Baez,Addison Russell, and Jake Arietta. As deep and exciting as the Cubs' farm system is, though, of all the teams they perhaps borrowed the most veteran talent from elsewhere, as Jon LesterDexter FowlerAnthony RizzoAustin JacksonTravis Wood andTrevor Cahill all made their name outside of Chicago before joining the Cubbie Blue.

I'm not outlining this as a surefire blueprint for the A's, or any other team, to follow to glory -- these trends can be transient and even illusory to those who seek patterns where sometimes only randomness exists. Sometimes it's not a Jackson Pollack masterpiece so much as "Dang it I spilled paint all over the garage but huh, maybe I can sell this..."

It is, however, notable how much good young talent there is in baseball right now, how much of it has grown up together to help teams get deep into the postseason, how important it can be to hit on your top draft picks and to bring in -- and hang onto -- talent that is around the "breakout" age of 24. From the whispers around the A's front office, it appears the A's are leaning towards embracing this model for the coming years, and based on what we've seen so far in October it would be hard to blame them.

http://www.athleticsnation.com/2015/10/25/9610848/has-2015-been-a-bit-of-a-draft-develop-renaissance

 

“the single thing that fulfills me today is the acceptance of myself as a worthy and valuable person”

What Baseball Taught Me

OCT 19 2015 BARRY ZITO

Baseball is such a wonderfully unique game. It doesn’t require some extraordinary physical prowess or stature as much as it requires hard work. People of all shapes and sizes have been some of the greatest in our game. If you saw a professional baseball player sitting in a coffee shop, you may not be able to single him out of the crowd — not usually the case with a football or basketball player. It’s what makes baseball the common man’s game: The common man stands a chance at succeeding at it — with much dedication and discipline, of course.

 

 

I think that is why baseball is so adored. At some point, even in the ethers of their mind, everyone has thought that they could maybe, just maybe, square up a 90 mph fastball if they were standing in the box, or find a way to force weak contact against a threatening home run hitter. The allure gets us all.

I was that boy growing up watching on TV, imagining myself on the mound in the Major Leagues. I feel so blessed to have been able to play with and also face some of this game’s greatest players over the last 15 years. Experiencing the highest levels of the sport I fell in love with as a kid was a dream come true.

My baseball career has been a mirror to my life off the field, full of euphoric highs and devastating lows. I’ve been at the top of a rotation and the 25th man on a roster. I’ve started Game 1 of a World Series in one year and I’ve been left off of a postseason roster in another. I’ve been labeled as both drastically underpaid and severely overpaid. I’ve been praised as a savior and deemed a curse. The thing I take the most pride in, however, is not my career itself, not the Cy Young or even the World Series rings. Those things are important, but they only ever gave temporary satisfaction, a fleeting spike or two on my ego’s Richter scale. They are memories that I cherish, of course, but they’re only symbols of something bigger and more challenging to articulate in words.

Beyond all of the achievements, the single thing that fulfills me today is the acceptance of myself as a worthy and valuable person, regardless of what my stature or position in the world was on a given day of my career. Through the ups and downs, accepting myself was by far the hardest thing to achieve over the last 15 years. I believe it is a battle we all face as we are taught to buy into the ravenous lie that any great success, short-lived fame or bank account will bring us the deep fulfillment we are searching for.

 

PHOTOGRAPH BY STEVEN FREEMAN/THE PLAYERS' TRIBUNE

The year 2008 was the toughest of my life so far. I was being told by strangers in public places just how terrible I was — my own fans in San Francisco yelling obscenities to my face while I was in the dugout. I even found myself ringing my mother at times because I was literally losing my mind and needed five minutes of solace with someone who understood me. But that year taught me something: If there was still a reason to smile at certain points throughout those painful days, and if everything I thought had defined me as a person was crumbling down and yet I was still standing, then maybe what I thought defined me truly did not. I came to realize that I was defining myself through my achievements on the field and through the opinions of other people. In reality, that was just the surface of who I really was.

My mother passed later that year and I needed another place to find comfort. It took a few more years of being stubborn, but in 2011, with the help of my wonderfully inspiring wife Amber, I finally found my savior; not in myself, or another self-help book, but in Jesus. What I discovered was a newfound reliance on something bigger than myself. I am grateful that my path went exactly the way it did. To finally get the message, I had to be broken not one time, but over and over and over. I clenched desperately to my own diminishing strength for many years because that was the same strength that earned me a Cy Young, and I thought things would eventually go my way again, but they never did. I am far better off now because I found a greater strength than ever before.

 

 

Baseball has surely yielded a windfall of material blessings on me and my family, and I am grateful and humbled for those things every day. More than any dollar earned or trophy standing on my shelf, I can thank this game for the life lessons it taught me about enduring pain and struggle and where to turn when I face adversity again. Every single fan out there in the Bay Area played a vital role in my journey, whether it was the cheering fans or the booers. In sports, these two opposites go hand in hand.

I was once told that anger is frustrated love. I couldn’t possibly have expected to embrace the uplifting surge of energy from the Bay Area’s baseball passion when I was succeeding and yet not weather the storm like a man when that passion turned into a raging frustration. I feel so honored to have spent my career in the Bay and to have been a part of the two incredible organizations that reside there.

 

I’m retiring today from baseball, but I’ll never be too far away from the game that made me who I am. I am beyond thankful to be at peace with walking away, thanks in large part to my year of renewal in Nashville with the Sounds. My return to Oakland last month was a “cherry on top” moment in my life that my family and I will never forget. I will no doubt be in the stands on both sides of the Bay in years to come.

 

Today, I am very excited to be a “rookie” all over again in a new field: songwriting. I am sure the lessons baseball has taught me will help me develop the thick skin I’ll need for this new endeavor. If one day you ever happen to hear a song of mine, I hope you’ll be honest about what you think. I have been building a skill set of handling adversity for years, so fire away!

Thank you, again, to all the men and women who are as captivated by this great game as I still am. Whether we’re on the field or in the stands, we’re all one family making baseball what it is today.

http://www.theplayerstribune.com/barry-zito-retirement-baseball/

 

“Everybody has off days in baseball — it’s a difficult sport.”

 

Jacob DeGrom: Pitching At Its Finest

 by Eric Johnson 25 October 2015,

2015 has been an incredible year for pitching, with astounding numbers from stars like Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer, and Zack Greinke. Each of these studs share two main characteristics from a very basic standpoint: each pitcher is a right-handed starter and is either the ace or the best right-handed pitcher on their respective teams’ rosters. 

But how well a pitcher rebounds after a poor outing lies in the individual starter’s pitch-by-pitch approach to each batter. 

Scherzer almost threw two perfect games (thanks to the dropped elbow of Jose Tabata and an error by Yunel Escobar), which resulted in two of the seven no hitters pitched in the MLB this year. He also struggled against a weak San Francisco Giants lineup, allowing six earned runs in just seven innings of work on August 14th, three earned runs against the Colorado Rockies on August 20th, and four earned runs against the Miami Marlins on August 28th.

Everybody has off days in baseball — it’s a difficult sport. That’s why it’s impressive to bat over .300 for a season, which is failing seven out of 10 times. Responding to failure is a key sign of a player’s true ability, which is why after a pitcher allows a homerun, its amazing to see a first pitch fastball blown past the next batter. 

Additionally, deGrom pitched a handful of less than impressive games this year, but the flamethrower rebounded much better than Scherzer. Following an embarrassing outing against the Philadelphia Phillies on August 24th, the Mets star responded by allowing five hits and one run against the Baltimore Orioles in 7 and 2/3 innings. Jacob deGrom is able to succeed because of his in-depth game plan for each batter he faces, much like Los Angeles Dodgers star Zack Greinke.

Greinke uses his years of baseball knowledge and access to baseball data like no other player in the MLB. An article written by the Wall Street Journal perfectly describes the phenom’s strategy of studying each batters habits and adjusting infielders accordingly. He even meets with the Dodgers bench coach Tim Wallach and dissects each and every lineup based on hit charts and batters strengths. 

Greinke’s 2015 season rivaled his 2009 Cy Young season, which was absolutely magnificent. Leading the MLB in ERA and WHIP, the Dodgers’ righty has mowed down almost every team he faced this year. The highest team batting average against Greinke this year came on June 13 against the San Diego Padres: .214. Greinke and deGrom have very similar approaches as strikeout pitchers, both having over 200 strikeouts this past season, and the subtle difference between the two is very interesting. 

Greinke relies on his newly adjusted five pitch arsenal to generate more swing and misses and keep a hitter off balance with a huge speed difference in pitches.

Greinke’s ability to throw a lower 90 mph fastball and follow it with a 60 mph slow curveball is just frightening. It’s incredible how he can freeze a batter or blaze a fastball past at his own discretion. 

Similarly, deGrom uses a four pitch system engineered to throw untouchable strikes and result in more ground balls. He focuses on velocity and movement as opposed to changing speed.

One of these three pitchers will win the NL Cy Young this year, and all three have made very strong statements in 2015. It will be a very tight race between deGrom and Greinke for the coveted Cy Young, and both deserve to win the award. But where deGrom excels beyond both of these seasoned veterans is his ability to learn. After all, 2015 is only deGrom’s second year in the MLB, and Scherzer and Greinke are both over 30 years old. 

In 2015, it’s disputable that deGrom is the best right-handed pitcher in baseball, but in the upcoming years, this Mets ace will undoubtedly hold the title and even win a few Cy Young awards, especially if he is able to repeat his 2015 season, let alone improve. 

http://www.thesportsquotient.com/mlb/2015/10/25/jacob-degrom-pitching-at-its-finest