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.

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.

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.”

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.