Forget March Madness…Watch the WBC

You probably didn’t hear about it, but the World Baseball Classic just started. Don’t feel like you are out of the loop; no one seems to know or care much about the WBC. And although you have March Madness, spring training, or maybe your own fulfilling career to distract you from creeping existential angst, I want to make the argument that you should focus on the WBC.

(I would be remiss if I did not mention that Michael Baumann over at the Ringer made his own list of reasons to watch the WBC. It’s a quick, fun read, so click over there if you need more convincing. He also touches on at least two of the points I will bring up.)

1. Prospects, prospects, prospects. One of the main problems with the WBC–at least the United States team–is that it has trouble enticing the real stars of the game to take time out of their preseason workouts and exhibition games to play internationally. Seen another way, though, this can also be one of the biggest opportunities of the tournament: the hole left by veteran ballplayers is readily filled by the young up-and-comers of the game. The WBC can be one of the best ways to get a look at the players who will be leading the MLB in a few short years.

2. They have a bracket, so you won’t have to miss the communal part of March Madness. Just get some friends together and see who can guess which country will go all the way. Does the Dominican Republic have what it takes to repeat 2013? Or will the perennially solid Japanese team rise to the occasion? With any luck, all of our brackets will be shot by the end of March, finally clearing the path for the United States to collect a WBC title.

3. It’s an alternative to spring training. If you are a consummate baseball fan like me, you want to enjoy the game as soon as possible. You were on Twitter all winter, reading Jon Heyman and Ken Rosenthal’s feeds, trying to find any informational morsel to nourish you until spring. Then when spring training arrives, you’re forced to keep up the facade that exhibition games are what you have been waiting for all year. But alas, spring training just isn’t meaningful enough. The WBC can be that bridge to competitive baseball. Instead of watching teams field half-strength lineups in glorified scrimmages, why not watch a real tournament for international glory? Then, just when the WBC is over and we are all done processing, the first pitches will be thrown on opening day.

4. It shows you the scale and influence of the sport. As an American, I think it is easy to take baseball for granted. One of the most beautiful things about the game is that it happens everyday from April until October, giving us a way to mark the progress of the middle of the year. But this omnipresence can lend itself to complacency. If my team plays every evening at 7, why bother listening in or reading the box score? The entire season is so long that every individual game loses any sense of urgency or importance when you are face-to-face with the sheer scale of the entire endeavor.

But the WBC allows us to take a step back and get a global perspective. We can see how the game that is uniquely ours (or our own bastardization of a game played in England centuries ago, depending on how you look at it) has been taken up by other countries, molded by their own cultures and perspectives, with the same basic rules holding sway, but with entirely different styles and characters emerging to fill the gaps in those rules. In the end, we are left to grapple with the question: Is baseball really is America’s game? Does America even want it anymore? Sure the MLB is making money hand over fist, but the American fan base is aging and today’s youngsters just aren’t into baseball like their grandparents were.

On the other hand, maybe baseball isn’t for America anymore, but it has ascended to some higher plane. Maybe it is a citizen of the world. Like those other uniquely American innovations of jazz and the Constitution, maybe baseball is just some vague framework that anyone can paint their own ideals and prejudices onto. If so, watching the WBC lets us experience other cultures through the lens of baseball. It’s just a simple bat and ball sport, but for much of the twentieth century the world could have learned a lot about Americans by understanding the game: what they valued, who their heroes were like, even how they felt about labor versus capital. Maybe now in the twenty-first century, baseball is what Americans need to understand the world.

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Pirates Go Super-Nova

The weather outside is frightful, but the hot stove fire is so delightful. I am delighting even more after my Pirates re-signed free agent starter Ivan Nova to a three year, $26 million dollar contract. Putting aside the fact that $26 million is more than I will ever earn in my lifetime (and probably you too, dear reader), $26 million over three years is steal for a pitcher of Nova’s caliber. Simply put, Nova should have made much more on the open market than he got from the Pirates in his freshly-inked three year deal.

To understand how valuable Nova is, you have to understand how players are valued. Typically, a ballplayer’s value is expressed in terms of wins. There are different formulae that attempt to model the value of a player in terms of wins, but several of them fall under the heading of “wins above replacement (WAR),” meaning the number of wins–above that of a replacement level player–that a given player brings to his team over the course of a season. The different formulae to calculate WAR mean that there are different flavors of WAR depending on who you talk to, but I will be focusing on Fangraphs data and the Fangraphs WAR calculation (fWAR). If you look at Fangraph’s Free Agent Tracker, you can see that most of the 2016 free agents with the highest 2016 fWAR values are projected to regress toward the mean/come back to earth/not do as well in 2017. But if you look for Ivan Nova on that list, you will notice that he is among the select group of free agents projected to have a better 2017 than 2016 by fWAR. The caveat here is that we are talking about a projection, and baseball projections have been shown season after season to not hold up in retrospect. But this should make for a fun exercise nonetheless. If we restrict our analysis to 2017 free agents with a positive fWAR, Nova ends up in the top 25% of free agents by projected increase in 2017 fWAR. But the real kicker for me? Nova is the only 2016 free agent with a 2016 fWAR greater than 2 (denoting a “solid starter“) who is projected to have a better 2017 fWAR. In short, among the best players who would become free agents in 2016, he is expected to be the one to continue to get better in 2017.

Another key point I want to make is that the Pirates may have turned the free agent market on its head with this signing. The free agent market tends to be all about big paydays for past achievements. A lot of players do not live up to the numbers they put up before their first free agent paycheck, but that is how the business side of the sport works. By signing Nova, and from my investigation into his previous and projected fWAR marks, I propose that the Pirates might actually be paying him for future value. If Nova lives up to his 2.5 win Fangraphs projection before giving another couple of years as a one to two win player, the Pirates come out on top. Based on analysis by Neil Paine at FiveThirtyEight, those 5.5 or so wins over the three years of Nova’s contract would cost about $42 million on the open market. This sounds more like the Pirates club that we all know and love, with a front office that seeks value above all other things.

I cannot help but wonder what made Nova offer the deep discount to Pittsburgh. Plenty of ink has been spilled on the topic of the contracts that starters are commanding this off-season, but Nova seems to have given the Pirates a hometown discount. Not being the type to look a gift horse in the mouth, I am just excited to see him pitch at PNC Park in 2017. Maybe I can even catch him at a doubleheader with Jose Quintana.

*Note added after publication: a blog post by Travis Sawchik at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review hit on some of the same points.

Little Market, Big Possibilities

We have not seen the Cleveland ball club in the World Series since 1997 (although I saw them there on Netflix just a few months ago), but this most recent
AL pennant is important for another reason aside from the relative rarity. The simple storyline that we can attach to the Cleveland side of the World
Series would be that Cleveland is now “Believeland”, a place where pro team franchises can succeed and reinvigorate a downtrodden blue-collar town. But I
would argue that it is a terrible injustice to the entire Cleveland baseball organization to suggest that what they are doing is impressive only in light
of what the Cavaliers have already done in the NBA. Specifically, the front office is continuing to prove to the baseball community that small market,
small budget MLB teams can build from within and go all the way.

One of the most familiar symptoms of a small market team is a reliance on homegrown talent. Fortunately for Cleveland, they have done this quite
successfully. Nine out of Cleveland’s top twelve players, by Baseball Reference’s wins above replacement model, made their MLB debut with the team, compared
to six of the Cub’s top twelve. In Chicago, only three of those twelve were drafted or signed as an amateur free agent by the Cubs, compared to six of
Cleveland’s top twelve. Both teams have struggled in the last decade or so, and have thus been rewarded with top draft picks. Specifically, Cleveland has been awarded seven top 20 overall draft picks since 2009, while Chicago came in just behind them with six*. So while it appears that the teams have been similarly lucky with draft picks in the last few years, Cleveland has done a better job of developing those guys and directly benefiting from them at major league level.

As a fan of a small market team, I can sympathize with Chris Antonetti and the baseball operations gang in Cleveland. I know that they are not drafting top prospects and painstakingly developing them all the way through the minor league system because they enjoy it as a pastime. Cleveland’s 2016 payroll is roughly half that of Chicago’s. Developing from within is really the only way that Cleveland can be successful. Cleveland certainly is not the first franchise to exploit this strategy to make it to the World Series, but it is inspirational to see another small market team go all the way. It really says a lot about our favorite sport that it is not just the New Yorks, the Los Angeleses, and the Chicagoes that are succeeding in October. However this next best-of-seven goes, we are guaranteed to have another great narrative when we have a champion. It just might even be another small market club that manages to beat the big boys.

 

*For the record, Cleveland actually had two of those guys on their roster in 2016, compared to three for the Chicago. But, to be fair, the third guy in Chicago is Kyle Schwarber, so do with that what you will.

Review of Fox’s “Pitch”

I’m a fan of the new Fox show “Pitch.” I support all things baseball. But I do have an interesting point to make. Either the story is trying to be very progressive and insightful, or Mike Lawson’s character seems to have developed entirely too fast. We started the first episode with Lawson being an irredeemable shit-heel: he slapped Ginny’s ass with entirely too much familiarity and with complete disregard for the power imbalance in that slap, and he shit-talked Ginny to the other guys on the team, while being overheard by Ginny in the locker-room.

Great, every story can benefit from an asshole that can be redeemed with some hard-won knowledge and appreciation for other people’s perspectives. But “Pitch” did not choose to take that route. Instead, Lawson turns around in the middle of the first episode, and decides that he is going to hitch his wagon to the Ginny caravan, the only hope that he has of securing his legacy. Instead of having one irredeemable shit-heel to redeem this series, we have the rest of the 25 man roster, who are still having trouble accepting Ginny as a major leaguer. It is just one woman against the world, and one man willing to vouch for her.

Obviously, women do not need vouching for: Ginny has no problem getting the other male baseball players out. In other words, she is able to get by on her own merits. So the argument that “Pitch” makes–that women can only integrate into a traditionally male-only space when a man helps to make a place for them within that space–is a little sad. However, I leave it to women who have had experience moving into male-dominated fields to say whether or not this depiction is realistic. As a cis-het-male in a STEM field, I can only imagine that “Pitch” is a realistic depiction of sex-discrimination that occurs everyday. Which is why I am sure that this show is important. Damn the corny dialogue and shot composition: “Pitch” is doing important work. If you like baseball and/or women and have a stake in the progress of either, I suggest that you watch “Pitch.”

Prospect-gate 2016: Or, how I’m learning to stop worrying and trust Neal Huntington

I was obsessively following trade deadline Twitter chatter up to and past the deadline, so I caught the Liriano trade as it happened. We’re out from under Liriano? Sounds great to me, I thought. Then the details started to pour in. Instead of just Liriano, we were giving up AA prospects Harold Ramirez and Reese McGuire. All for a quad-A starter. I was livid. I cursed Neal Huntington up and down, texted everyone I knew who I thought might give a damn (not many people), and scoured Twitter for someone, anyone, trying to spin the trade in a positive light (no one). I had a sandwich and a beer at a local bar to calm my nerves and started walking home. Maybe it was something about the cool evening air mixing with my slight alcoholic buzz, but the trade suddenly made sense to me. Please allow me to explain.

The trade only makes sense if you assume that the Pirates so wanted to be out from under Liriano that they were willing to part with Ramirez in order to convince Toronto to take on that contract. Ramirez is a decent outfield prospect, but his stock has slipped lately. Tim Williams of Pirates Prospects suggested on Twitter that it is not crazy to think that Ramirez will never see the light of PNC Park. So those two pieces of the trade cancel out, and we are left with Reese McGuire for Drew Hutchison. Unlike Ramirez, McGuire has a really clear path to the bigs in a Pirate uniform, and it is hard to justify dealing him for Hutchison. However, that is my hypothesis. It seems like the Pirates think that Hutchison can be a solid rotation piece by next year, so this makes some sense as a one-for-one trade.

All of this is a tough pill to swallow, though. I went to an Altoona Curve game last week and got a front row seat right behind home plate. Reese McGuire kept taking warm up swings in front of me, and I kept watching the man work. The whole time I thought, this guy is going to be catching Taillon and Glasnow at PNC Park before we know it. I am sad to think that I will never see that come to pass. But I wish those guys the best in Toronto, for our sake and for the sake of Huntington’s credibility.

Ruminating on the Loss of Neil Walker

Neil Walker returns to Pittsburgh this week for the first time since being traded to the New York Mets last December for Jonathan Niese. I was born and bred a Pittsburgher, so I love to weigh in on the Pirates front office decisions. It is probably too early to reflect on that trade, but I’m going to do so anyway.

Walker played with the Pirates from 2009 to 2015, and throughout that time he was a pretty dismal defensive second baseman. During that seven year window, Walker racked up -11 defensive runs saved (DRS) and -31.6 ultimate zone rating (UZR). Compare that to the MLB average DRS of 10.9 and UZR of 8.3 over that same period for qualified second basemen. So let’s face it: Walker was never a defensive second baseman. In fact, I might go so far as to compare him to Chase Utley (“He’s a power hitting second baseman. You know how rare that is in the national league?”). Walker had always been there to hit. But if you really compare Walker during his heyday in Pittsburgh to his second base contemporaries, his run production was right around that of other decent second basemen: he was right in the middle of qualifying second basemen between 2012 and 2015 when taking into account DRS and weighted runs created plus (wRC+) (somehow I knew Chase Utley would pop up as a fellow In-Betweener).

2b_wrcplus_drs

With Pirate infield depth waiting in the wings, it wasn’t hard to believe that the Pirates chose to cash out the Neil Walker chip. Josh Harrison has been a more than capable replacement: FanGraphs has Harrison at 0.9 wins above replacement so far this season, with a 0.350 on base percentage and a 4 DRS that puts him comfortably in the top half of second basemen this year. But I will admit that I feel a twinge of nostalgia when I remember the days when the Pittsburgh Kid actually played in Pittsburgh. We had seven beautiful years, Pittsburgh. Nothing lasts forever. And Neil: glad to hear that you finally joined the ranks of those of us who wised up and left Pittsburgh for the greener pastures of New York. Looking for a roommate?

FiveThirtyEight, Elo, and Baseball

Now is as good a time as any to say how big of a FiveThirtyEight fan I am. Nate Silver’s site publishes the best data-driven stories on the web (NY Times’ Upshot is another good one to check out if you’re interested, but it has a decidedly more economic bent). Silver and his colleagues do an amazing job of bring data to bear on any question they can think up, and lucky for me that often includes baseball. If you want to see what I mean, take a look at the pieces that they published in the last 24 hours:

The Complete History of the MLB, an interactive, Elo rating-based way to compare teams throughout baseball history.

2016 MLB Predictions (along with an explanation) also uses Elo, but this time to project the remainder of each team’s performance this season. A nice touch is that this one updates after each game.

FiveThirtyEight has gotten some real mileage out of using Elo ratings to compare basketball and football teams, but this looks like the biggest project they have tackled using the rating system, working with data going back over 100 years.

I plan on keeping my eyes on the 2016 predictions for the rest of the season, and I have already had a ton of fun going back and comparing teams from 100 years ago. So far, it looks like my own Pittsburgh Pirates still haven’t managed to reach their apogee of the turn of the 20th century, even with the recent run of competitive teams. Adding to my frustration, the damnable Chicago Cubs have the highest stock that they’ve had in decades. Everyone gets their moment in the sun, I suppose.