Saturday, July 30, 2016

“Soulless Emporiums of Shameless Commerce”: Baseball and Black Radicalism in the Twenty-First Century

A paper I wrote for my Black Leftist Radicalism course. Shared because combining baseball and history is always delightful!

The connection between leftist politics, the Black freedom struggle, and professional baseball has historically centered on the campaign to integrate baseball, which culminated in Jackie Robinson’s debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. The Black and white anti-racist left maintained an interest in baseball’s potential to highlight America’s economic, cultural, and racial divides after integration. Yet their critiques gained new salience in the modern era of neoliberal economics and colorblind social policies. How and why has professional baseball served as a topic of political discussion and advocacy for Black leftists and white anti-racist socialists in the twenty-first century? Authors and activists on the anti-racist left have approached contemporary baseball through two thematic lenses: analyzing race and cultural representation in the game, or by using baseball’s financial structure as an example of racist and capitalist practices in America. The majority of these articles bemoan the relative decline of African American players in the game since the 1980s and connect that decline to the lost promise of integrationism. These articles contain leftist critiques of baseball’s capitalist structure and also wrestle with concerns about racial solidarity with latino players. The other primary theme in Black leftist coverage of baseball is the use of the economic structure of baseball ownership and management as an example of the corruption inherent in modern capitalism. Public-private stadium ventures provide understandable stand-ins for the complex machinations of neoliberal economics made all the more visible by the public bank bailouts necessitated by the 2008 financial crisis. At times the economic machinations involved in baseball and other professional sports provide direct examples of government disinvestment in Black urban spaces. The common thread that links all of these commentaries, protests, and think-pieces, aside from baseball, is their intersectional analysis of race and capitalism.

In what has become a biennial ritual, Jackie Robinson Day in mid-April and the World Series in October are now always accompanied by a profusion of articles bemoaning the declining percentage of African American players in the game. Though the statistics they cite vary, the trend is inarguable: African American participation in baseball has declined dramatically since its peak in the late-1970s and early-1980s. Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) writers Mark Armour and Daniel R. Levitt conducted the most thorough study of the phenomenon of declining African American participation in baseball in 2013. The study offered the most accurate assessment of the ethnic makeup of the game by disaggregating African Americans, Latinos, and Asians, who had often been grouped together as “Black” in prior studies. Armour and Levitt determined that in 2012 African Americans comprised 7.2% of all players, a dramatic decline from the peak of 18.7% in 1981, while Latino players increased from 11.1% to 26.9% over the same period. The SABR writers cautioned that they did not know the cause of these changes, but mainstream media outlets quickly offered speculative suggestions about the economic and cultural causes of the demographic shifts.

Though subsequent academic studies concluded that “the larger impediment” to African American participation in baseball “is cost,” many media reports placed the blame for the declining African American presence in the game on African American culture. In rhetoric that contains painfully familiar echoes of the discourse on Black poverty and criminality, such articles typically gesture towards the pernicious effects of what ESPN writer Tim Keown describes as “athletic red-lining” in youth baseball before pivoting to damaging cultural critiques. Tyler Kepner’s April 2014 New York Times article offered an egregious example of the genre. Kepner describes the complex economic disincentives that confronted African American pitcher C.C. Sabathia in his struggle to afford youth baseball, but ends with Sabathia’s musings that “there’s a lot of single-parent homes in the inner city, so it’s hard to get kids to play.” Quotes from prominent African American players like Sabathia serve to legitimize the cultural critique of African American family life as the cause of the decline. African American comedian Chris Rock offered the same cultural criticism in his 2015 HBO special on baseball, declaring that “it’s not the money, you can’t tell me Black kids can’t afford baseball when everybody’s buying Jordans for $300.” Similar statements, such as Jesse Jackson Sr.’s remark that he was relieved to hear footsteps on the street and “see somebody white,” legitimized the rhetoric of law and order politics in the 1990s.

Black leftist commentators and news sites covered the decline of African Americans in baseball extensively and from a very different perspective. Color Lines, American Renaissance, Solidarity, and the Equal Justice Society each reported on the phenomenon. The Pan-African News Wire alone ran nine articles between 2007 and 2015. Each article employed a different set of statistics but offered arguments that differed fundamentally from the cultural critiques of the mainstream media and more conservative Black commentators. These leftist organizations emphasized the structural inequalities of racism and capitalism in American society as the cause for decline in African American participation in baseball. Dave Zirin, sports editor of The Nation, summarized this structural critique by saying “it’s not a question of action. It’s a question of access.”

The Pan-African News Wire’s 2012 installment typifies Black leftist coverage of the phenomenon. The article places the bulk of the blame for the decline of African Americans from a peak of 27% in 1975 to only 8% that April on the “dearth of collegiate scholarships, increasing cost of funding teams in inner cities and, some say, a lack of opportunities in major league front offices.” The leftist critique in this and several other articles on leftist sites focuses on the lack of equality of opportunity for African Americans to make their way into Major League Baseball. The rising cost of youth baseball and lack of collegiate scholarships are presented as structural barriers but the authors stop short of asserting that they were constructed with an explicitly racist intent. Color Lines offered a more aggressive and wide-ranging anti-capitalist critique in an interview with University of California Sociology Professor Harry Edwards in April 2000. In the midst of a lengthy discussion of the decline of African American athletics nationally, Dr. Edwards argued that the drop-off in participation numbers was attributable to punitive social policies. Dr. Edwards said that “through institutional erosion, through the degradation of the black athletic pool, through disqualification, judicial procedures and deaths” America had begun “disqualifying, jailing, burying, and leaving behind” its African American athletes. Though Dr. Edwards’ critique delved more deeply into institutional factors than did other commentators, his interview in Color Lines established the basis of the Black leftist interpretation of the drop-off in African American participation in baseball by locating the reasons for the decline “not inside sport, but the reasons in society, which are ultimately reflective in sport.”

The Black left’s critique of the racist and exploitatively capitalist processes that they perceived as the cause of baseball’s ethnic transformation gained widespread attention as a result of controversial comments by two African American star players. In the twilight of their All-star careers, Gary Sheffield and Torii Hunter sparked angry reactions from both the mainstream and portions of the Black and Latino/a press by speaking openly and provocatively about the demographic shifts in the modern game. Hunter garnered attention in 2010 for remarking that “people see dark faces out there, and the perception is that they’re African American.” Hunter continued to say that the dark-skinned Latino players from the Caribbean were “not us. They’re impostors." Yet the primary focus of Hunter’s comments was on the racially-based economic exploitation that the demographic shifts represented. Hunter believed that the reason Latinos were recruited by teams instead of African Americans was “because you can get them cheaper. It’s like, Why should I get this kid from the South Side of Chicago and have Scott Boras represent him and pay him $5 million when you can get a Dominican guy for a bag of chips?” Sheffield made the same point with less dramatic language, declaring that the demographic shifts in the game were “[about] being able to tell [Latin players] what to do–being able to control them. Where I’m from, you can’t control us.” However, his comment that African Americans were more capable than Latinos of demanding respect in labor disputes because of their long history interacting with American racist capitalism was stripped of its condemnation of exploitation in mainstream reports. As with Hunter’s remarks, Sheffield’s critique of the inherent power dynamic of poor Latino immigrants reliant on white-owned baseball corporations for their employment and resident status was rendered in the mainstream media as a Black-Brown conflict.

Black leftist organizations used Sheffield and Hunter’s controversial comments to move the discussion of ethnic representation in baseball further away from the realm of sports and integrate it into a broader debate over race, capitalism, and immigration. Color Lines questioned whether his comments were “frank or racist” but declined to pass judgment one way or another. The Equal Justice Society, an Oakland, CA-based non-profit dedicated to “transforming the nation’s consciousness on race through law, social science, and the arts,” used Sheffield’s comments to provide insight into “the context of changing racial demographics and global economic conditions and what it means for the fight for social justice.” The 2007 article contrasted the tension between Latino and African American baseball players with the way that “discrimination and exploitation” function in American capitalism to break down solidarity between ethnic groups. Instead of decrying Sheffield’s racially charged remarks, the article compared his description of the racial power dynamics in baseball with recent conservative Supreme Court rulings that had constrained the ability of laborers to seek legal redress against exploitative practices.

Sports, and baseball in particular, also serve as useful “microcosms of society” through which Black leftists seek to advance their anti-capitalist and anti-racist critiques more broadly. The Pan-African News Wire used this approach to highlight racially-based income inequality by noting that “the majority of the players are black; however the overwhelmingly majority of the fans that can afford tickets are white.” However, the most powerful criticisms of the economic structure of baseball and other professional sports that Black leftists offered have focused on the public funding of private sports stadiums. The poor return on investment that these public-private ventures provide has been widely acknowledged since the 1998 book Field of Schemes: How the Great Stadium Swindle Turns Public Money into Private Profit detailed the financial shenanigans involved in such projects. President Barack Obama’s proposed 2016 federal budget attempted to tackle the issue by barring “the use of tax-exempt bonds to finance professional sports facilities,” but the possibility of anti-democratic collusion in public-private deals has made them increasingly difficult to stop. Perhaps the most dramatic example of the corrupting influence that stadium deals can have on municipal politics arose in 2014 in Cobb County, Georgia. County Commission Chairman Tim Lee wooed the Atlanta Braves out of their barely twenty-year-old stadium in the Black-majority downtown and into the predominantly white northern suburbs by offering nearly $400 million in public funds. It then emerged that Chairman Lee had secretly hired a lawyer to negotiate the stadium deal with the Braves without informing his fellow commissioners, in direct violation of the county code of ethics. However, in a twist that would be considered implausible in a Danielle Steele novel, Commissioner Lee successfully fended off the ethics charges in part by arguing that the ethics code’s usage of the word “should” in the statement that government officials “by their conduct should avoid the appearance of impropriety,” meant that the code was “not a mandatory standard of conduct, but rather an advisory statement.”

The critiques offered by Black leftist organizations go far beyond the budgetary criticism of mainstream commentators. Black leftists placed the public financing of sports stadiums into the context of the decades-long destruction of inner cities “committed under the guise of beneficial economic development” but without the consent of the community. The Black Agenda Report, which offers “news, information and analysis from the black left,” twice compared the effect of publicly funded stadiums to the devastation of Black New Orleans in Hurricane Katrina. Glen Ford, Executive Editor of the Black Agenda Report, remarked that “Katrina left no doubt” that the goal of the “financial class… is to drastically reduce the Black populations of the cities.” Citing a plan to build a $60 million stadium in downtown Hartford, Connecticut, Ford claimed that the hurricane and the stadium were part of the same scheme that was “ultimately intended to bring in whites and displace Blacks and browns” from the cities. Ford’s 2014 comments built on a 2007 article by Margaret Kimberley in the same publication. The article denounced how “the poor and working class who ask for help are stigmatized as parasites, [while] the high and mighty get the red carpet treatment when they stick their hands in the public treasury.” Kimberley explicitly implicated “Black elected officials” in her criticism of public stadium funding, arguing that they were accomplishing for New York “what hurricane Katrina did for New Orleans.”

Black leftists also emphasized, as the mainstream media often failed to, how municipal budgets were a zero-sum game. Funds going to sports stadiums could not be spent on education, infrastructure, or community programs that would disproportionately benefit poor urban minorities. Varda Burstyn, author of the 1999 book The Rites of Men: Manhood, Politics and the Culture of Sport, explained to the “Socialist, Feminist, Anti-Racist Organization” Solidarity that, in Cleveland: “$450 million came out of the education budget, but the city found $520 million [that] went into the new stadium for the Cleveland Browns.” Burstyn linked professional sports to the decline of the city and the growth of the punitive state by explaining how “hundreds of billions of dollars of public money have been taken away from health, education and welfare -- the “soft” departments of the state” and funneled instead into either police departments or sports stadiums. In Cincinnati, sales taxes funded $1 billion in stadium construction while “thousands of Cincinnati children [went] to school without pencils and paper.” In Burstyn’s revealing phrase, the siphoning off of public funds into private sporting arenas amounted to providing “circuses without the bread.” Similarly, Ryan Reilly, writing for the Socialist Alternative in 2014, bemoaned the "public money being spent on privately owned stadiums instead of programs to help working people, the poor, and youth.” Reilly considered the use of public funds for stadium construction an indictment of the inherent corruption of capitalism on par with the public bailouts that were “given to the banks that crashed the economy.”

Though Black leftist commentators mainly sought to expose the pernicious effects of public-private stadium projects, they did at times propose solutions. Reilly advocated for “‘municipalization’ where the resources and profits of the teams would be used to the benefit of the people in the cities and areas in which they are based.” James Generic of Solidarity somewhat optimistically saw a chance for sports to provide an avenue for the realization of his organization’s namesake. He argued that the shared “history of betrayal by a conservative, inactive social elite” that promoted such projects would be a way for leftists to connect with sports-loving but non-radical white workers. The most concrete and powerful opposition to the application of neoliberal economics to sports stadium construction took place in Detroit in the 1990s. Mike Betzold, a radical journalist locked-out of the Detroit Free Press explained in Solidarity how crucial the old Tiger Stadium was to the troubled industrial city. Though Betzold confessed his attachment to the park was largely sentimental, he phrased his opposition to the “malicious destruction of public property accomplished through extortion and corporate welfare” as an explicitly anti-capitalist critique. Though Betzold and a group of local activists delayed the stadium plan for years, and limited the public funds involved, they were unable to save the old ballpark which had served as “a center of urban life even after much of the life had gone out of the city.” The destruction of sites of urban community solidarity, cultural “common ground,” and their replacement by luxury stadiums that Betzold catchily characterized as “soulless emporiums of shameless commerce” was viewed by the anti-racist left as merely an extension of “business as usual in modern America.”

Because of its association with one of the first victories of the Black freedom struggle and with some of the worst excesses of capitalism, baseball remains a potent metaphor for Black leftists to engage with. The demographic shifts in the game since the 1980s have provided writers and activists with the opportunity to discuss the failures of colorblind social policies, immigration and labor law, and issues of solidarity with the growing Latino/a community. Black leftists have, and will continue, to use the funneling of public money towards private stadiums and away from city coffers to indict the discriminative nature of modern American capitalism. Examples of how these public-private partnerships undermine public safety and urban communities have proliferated almost too rapidly to catalog. In only the most recent instance, Cobb County Chairman Tim Lee, of ethics code fame, announced on June 6, 2016 that the county had been forced to redirect more than $20 million in funds that had been intended to acquire and build new public parks to instead pay for bonds on the new Atlanta Braves stadium. The county will now have to raise taxes on its constituents to fund the public parks.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Looking Ahead to Next Season, Because This One is Done!

The season is not yet over, but for the home 9, the green and gold, the Oakland Athletics… it might as well be. This has been a dispiriting season for many reasons, but I think this really could be an excellent moment to begin a comeback. Rocky-style. But not like the first movie, because he ends up losing in that one.

So, as we prematurely begin the offseason, let’s take a look at what the A’s have, what they need, and what strategies they can pursue to improve.

Here’s where the roster will stand at the end of the year, assuming no one implodes in the meantime.

1. Sonny Gray
2. Jesse Hahn
3. Jesse Chavez
4. Kendall Graveman
5. Chris Bassitt/Sean Nolin/Aaron Brooks

1. Sean Doolittle
2. Drew Pomeranz
3. Pat Venditte (because he makes the world a more interesting place)
4. Evan Scribner?
5. RJ Alvarez?
6. Ryan Dull?
7. Live-Armed, Undersized Righty Number 45C

C: Stephen Vogt/Josh Phegley
1B: Mark Canha/Stephen Vogt
2B: Brett Lawrie/Joey Wendle
SS: Marcus Semien
3B: Danny Valencia
LF: Coco Crisp?
CF: Billy Burns
RF: Josh Reddick
DH: Billy Butler/tire fire

Reserve IF: Eric Sogard (because nerd power
Reserve IF: Max Muncy
Reserve OF: Tyler Ladendorf
Reserve OF: Anthony Aliotti

Ok, let’s be honest. This is not a playoff caliber team as it is currently constructed. It’s the kind of roster that a true fan would have to squint at for quite awhile before he or she concocts a semi-plausible path to contention.

Now, I am a true fan… but I’m in grad school now, and simply don’t have the time to stare at these names that long. Plus I now live where it snows in the winter, and I just don’t want to be that depressed.

So, instead of accepting this roster and hoping for 7-12 simultaneous offensive breakouts, let’s imagine that Billy Beane (have you accepted Billy Beane as your lord and savior yet?) will take action! 

Monday, November 10, 2014

Have You Accepted Billy Beane As Your Lord and Savior?

In early November of last year I wrote a somewhat over the top article arguing that Billy Beane should take decisive and potentially destructive action to improve the Oakland A’s.

Beane did eventually consummate two of his patented “fuckin A trades,” but he did so midway through the season, and focused on acquiring star caliber pitching, while I had guessed he would attempt to shore up the weak A’s offense.

I have been patting myself on the back for predicting the Rangers would ship out Ian Kinsler for a flawed power-hitting first-baseman, and I am sure that in retrospect the Rangers would have preferred my proposed Brandon Moss and Alberto Callaspo package, despite its flaws, over the less than princely haul they received from the Tigers.

In the wake of what essentially amounted to a self-immolation in the half of the season and an unnecessarily painful collapse in the AL Wild Card Game to the suddenly unbeatable Kansas City Royals, Beane’s A’s suddenly have a great deal of soul searching to do, and have had about a month longer than expected in which to do it.

So, with your indulgence, I will begin the age old practice of the fan whose beloved team has bowed to the cold winds of winter (or rather the foot speed of Jarrod Dyson) and speculate wildly about the BIG things Beane can do to rebuild the club this offseason. Here I present the first installment in my infinity part series: “Have You Accepted Billy Beane As Your Lord and Savior?”

As wild as this speculation may eventually become, I do intend to maintain a semblance of rationality. Despite the emotional damage inflicted on my A’s fan psyche, I am strangely and calmly enthusiastic about this coming year. 2014 was a year of uncomfortably sky-high expectations. The Oakland A’s… of Oakland, CA… were actually talked about throughout the year as World Series favorites. I know that such chatter goosed my enthusiasm in the first half of the season, and exacerbated my melancholia throughout the late-summer collapse. I can only imagine the impact it might have had on the A’s players. By which I mean that literally my imagination is the only tool I can bring to bear on any discussion of the mental state of the players.

My imagination is the kind of thing that is suited to parsing whether the Democratic Party convention in 1896 would have swung away from William Jennings Bryan if Ben Tillman had been a better public speaker, but it has no experience to call upon regarding how professional athletes think. As I hope I have capably demonstrated, I carry both the non-athletic and supremely nerdy stereotypes of Sabermetrics geeks to their logical extremes.

So let’s start with what the A’s have on the books:
SP: Jeff Samardjza
SP: Sonny Gray
SP: Scott Kazmir
SP: Drew Pomeranz
SP: Jesse Chavez/Jarrod Parker/AJ Griffin

RP: Sean Doolittle
RP: Ryan Cook
RP: Dan Otero
RP: Fernando Abad
RP: Eric O’Flaherty
RP: Evan Scribner
RP: Live Arm Number 42B

C: Derek Norris/Steven Vogt
1B: Brandon Moss
2B: “Eric Sogard- Nedpower!”
SS: “Nick Punto”
3B: Josh Donaldson
LF: “Sam Fuld”
CF: Coco Crisp/Craig Gentry
RF: Josh Reddick
DH: John Jaso

The players in quotations are presumably placeholders, because a playoff contending team would never give someone like Eric Sogard 300+ at bats!... right guys?

Well, to start with, that is a wonderful pitching staff! Even without Jon Lester the A’s are shaping up to be one of the better pitching teams in the league. However, that doesn’t mean they will necessarily be the best at preventing runs, which brings us to the first potential strategy Beane could pursue.

If Defense is 50% of Pitching,* Does That Mean About 47% of American Baseball Pitchers Are Dependent On Handouts From Defensive Players Who Work Hard For their Millions?

*it isn’t, btw.

Wow, Mitt Romney jokes just never get old! Unlike John McCain! 

Ok... I promise I'm done.

In 2014 the A’s were 3rd in ERA, but just 14th in FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching). In short, their solid defense 8th in the majors in Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), combined with stellar pitching and a pitcher friendly ballpark to prevent runs at a championship rate. But their pitching needed lots of defensive help, and the love of the BABIP Luck Dragon to rate 3rd.

So, if the A’s did so well, why am I talking about the defense and pitching? Why not improve on that mediocre offense? Well the answer is that the A’s offense actually wasn’t that bad (9th in the majors in Offensive WAR), and that regression to the mean suggests Beane should act to shore up what was a strength last year to keep it that way.

So, if we are going to do this, let’s go all out. Start by trading for Cincinnati shortstop Zack Cozart, since someone needs to play between Donaldson and whichever blow-up doll we install at secondbase. Cozart is a resolutely terrible batter, “hitting” 26% worse than league average for his career, and improving, if that’s the word, that mark to 44% worse than the league in 2014. But this is the remarkable thing about baseball, Cozart is such a superb fielder that even in his flaming wreck of 2014, he was still worth 1.2 WAR.

Jed Lowrie, who will almost certainly depart the A’s this offseason for a multi-year deal, only produced 1.9 WAR. And though Cozart may take the concept to an extreme, he does illustrate nicely that it doesn’t matter what side of the ball you contribute on!

Then snag Kris Davis from Milwaukee. They have a glut of outfielders and seemed to have soured on Davis after his half-season 2013 breakout. Davis has some serious power, and if his walk rate regresses closer to his minor league stats he has the makings of a solidly above average hitter, but it is his defense that is most interesting to me. This might seem strange considering he was barely above average in UZR this last year, but it is the breakdown of that rating that presents what I think may be an opportunity.

UZR has multiple inputs- Range, Errors, and for outfielders, Arm scores. Davis’ Range rating was, at 7.3 runs, the 7th best among outfielders in 2014, however, his Arm score was a subpar -4.7 runs (12th worst in the majors), dragging down his overall defensive rating. Here’s the thing though, the Arm score section of UZR is notoriously volatile, and is not nearly as important a defensive skill as Range. While Davis’ arm might be quite the disappointment for A’s fans after enjoying the heroics of Yoenis Cespedes and his league leading 12 Arm runs, he presents a potentially interesting addition to an A’s super outfield of Craig Gentry/Coco Crisp/Sam Fuld and the rocket armed Josh Reddick. Plus he can really hit!

At second base, let’s buy low on San Diego’s Jed Gyorko. After an excellent if somewhat hack-tastic freshman season, and with a $35.5 million contract newly in hand, Gyorko pancaked. But aside from a spike in groundball percentage, there is little to suggest why he fell apart so thoroughly. With just about average defense and a small offensive bounceback, Gyorko could be a superb building block at secondbase. Bonus- I would be able to like Eric Sogard if he were a seldom used backup as opposed to a depressing regular.

So, Cozart, Davis, and Gyorko. Fix the defense, add a little pop, and just hope last August and September can be excised from our collective memories!

Monday, November 4, 2013

What Will Billy Beane Do? (WWBBD)

The Oakland A’s had a truly remarkable year in 2013, following up their Bernie-lean inspired miracle run in 2012 with 96 wins and a division title. Unfortunately they were eventually ousted in five games… again… by the Tigers… again… in a shutout… again… by Justin Verlander… again… causing me to weep openly- uh, for the first time ever.

If the A’s were to completely eschew trades and free agent signings this offseason, they would enter 2013 with a starting lineup looking something like this:

Catcher- Derek Norris/Stephen Vogt
First Base- Brandon Moss/Nate Freiman
Second Base- Eric Sogard/Alberto Callaspo
Shortstop- Jed Lowrie
Third Base- Josh “Bringer of Rain” Donaldson
Left Field- Yoenis Cespedes
Center Field- Coco Crisp
Right Field- Josh Reddick/Michael Choice
Designated Hitter- Jon Jaso/Seth Smith

And a rotation combining some of the following:
Sonny Gray
Jarrod Parker
Dan Straily
AJ Griffin
Tommy Milone
Brett Anderson

With Ryan Cook, Sean Doolittle, Jerry Blevins, and Dan Otero in the bullpen, the A’s are basically set, and seem ready to commence a boring offseason. So why do I have the uncomfortable feeling that Billy Beane* and Company are about to blow us all away with something big?

*Have you accepted Billy Beane as your lord and savior yet?

I, as a fan, don’t want there to be any changes. I want the team that gave joy to my summer to remain intact in perpetuity, just as I did after last year’s exhilarating ride. It’s an understandable emotional reaction, but one that has no place in the front office of a baseball team. Thankfully, in Moneyball (the book), Beane makes clear that a small market team that is not turning over its roster constantly is falling behind. "Don't mess with a good thing" should never be the mantra of a sabermetrically inclined baseball team. If you trust your techniques for player analysis then change can only be good

So, if change we must, these are the three BIG THINGS I would be happiest with the A’s doing this offseason.

1. The Uggly Heyl Mary (I know… I just had to)

Dan Uggla, 10 million dollars, and Jason Heyward
Josh Reddick, Alberto Callaspo, and John Jaso

So here’s the reasoning: the Braves are a very good team, and plan to compete for the next several years with a core of excellent pitching and good defense up the middle. However, their two highest paid players were also their worst players this past year, and while B.J. Upton will almost certainly bounce back to respectability, Dan Uggla has probably lost it for good, and will absolutely not be worth the 13 million dollars he will be paid in both this year and the next.

Jason Heyward is 24, has two more years of team control, and is set to make about 4.5 million dollars via arbitration this next year. Though Heyward is undoubtedly a star, he has been plagued by injuries and inconsistency and will probably make a boatload of money in free agency two years from now. The Braves most certainly do not want to trade him, but they might do so if it meant getting out from under most of the Uggla contract and solving their catching situation for the year.

The truly interesting possibility from my perspective is if the A’s don’t give the Braves Jaso, and instead take on Uggla’s whole contract:

Uggla and Heyward
Reddick and Callaspo

Having disposed of $4.5 million in the form of Heyward, and $13 million in the far less athletic form of Uggla, the Braves would be able to put that savings towards the retention of catcher Brian McCann, who is widely expected to garner a deal worth upwards of $15 million for four or five years on the open market. With McCann back in the fold, Reddick (a superb defender with questionable power) taking over in right field, and the serviceable Callaspo at second, the Braves would still have around 20 million dollars left in their $95-100 million dollar budget to make upgrades.

That’s why I think the Braves might be open to such a deal. Why it may be a good idea for the A’s might not be clear at first glance. Reddick’s value is not so far off from Heyward’s, and $13 million dollars is a lot to eat for the privilege of what seems like a marginal upgrade. Personally, I think that Uggla would do pretty well as a three-true-outcomes (walks, strikeouts, homers) DH against lefties with occasional starts at second base. For his career Uggla has been 13% better against lefties than righties, and I can see a scenario in which he accrues some value for the A’s in that role. However, the reason I think this would be a great deal for the A’s is that Reddick is two years older than Heyward. He is at his peak, and while his power will rebound from this injury marred year, and his defense is superb, Heyward still has room to grow on offense, boasts a far better plate approach, and is just as good defensively.

If the A’s could sign Heyward to an extension as part of the trade, it would make even Uggla’s contract worth swallowing. As is, the A’s payroll next year is projected to be around $55 million. With Heyward and Uggla it would be around $73 million… less than the recent peak of $79 million in2007. Heyward would probably cost $15-20 million per year to extend, but of all the players in MLB, he is the one I would be most comfortable giving the money to.

2) Belt out your Choice! (I think I need to seek professional assistance… the puns… the puns)

Brandon Belt, Santiago Casilla, and two C+ prospects
Dan Straily, Michael Choice, and Seth Smith

Ok, this one might piss off some Giants fans who have spent three years furiously rosterbating over Brandon Belt (ok I know it’s supposed to sound just a tad dirty, but when paired with furiously, the word rosterbating is just making me uncomfortable… it’s staring creepily at me right now).

After a great deal of sabermetric analysis, I have determined that the A’s success on the field is directly correlated to the number of players named Brandon who wear the Green and Gold. Do not question this analysis, just allow the memories of Brandon Hicks, Brandon Inge, Brandon McCarthy, and Brandon Moss from 2012 to slowly overwhelm you with nostalgia. If the A’s had been able to trot Brandon Belt out there too, maybe they wouldn’t have been shut out by the Tigers… in Game 5…

Painful musings aside, Belt is an excellent first baseman, and is growing into power to match his superb plate discipline. He is also cheap and will remain so for several years, Casilla is a decent enough reliever, but his $10 million dollar two-year contract would basically be the cost of doing business from the A’s perspective. With Belt at first base, Moss could spend most of his time at DH, improving the A’s offense and defense while trading from the team’s strength- pitching.

On the Giants’ side of things, Straily gives them a solid fourth starter with upside to slot in after Bumgarner, Cain, and Lincecum, Posey and Sandoval can split time at first base, while Choice and Smith give them offense in left field. This is especially exciting for Giants General Manager Brian Sabean, who was laboring under the impression the past six seasons that no one who played the position of left field was allowed to actually make contact with the baseball. This hilarious misunderstanding occurred when Sabean took comments from some members of the press about the unfairness of his left fielder’s hitting a bit too literally.

3) A trade involving Ian Kinsler (See! A subheading with nary a pun, therapy is working!)

Ian Kinsler and $40 million
Brandon Moss, Alberto Callaspo, and a bag of Kettle Corn

Ok, so this one is never going to happen. The Rangers and A’s are in the same division, and aside from the A’s seeking an upgrade at second and the Rangers looking for power at first base, the two teams don’t match up especially well for a trade. So I am not going to worry about the details all that much. Suffice it to say that the Rangers really really don’t want Ian Kinsler to be on the team any more. He is owed $72 million dollars over the next four years, he is on the wrong side of 30, his offense has declined to the point where he is about league average with the stick and with ever diminishing power, and his defense, while good, has never been spectacular enough to alone make him worth tens of millions of dollars.

All that aside, the Rangers don’t want Kinsler on the team mainly because he is blocking their (and until recently all of baseball’s) top prospect, Jurickson Profar. Having given Elvis Andrus a lifetime deal to play shortstop, the Rangers need to slot Profar in at second, and would probably be willing to give up a decent amount of money to make that happen.

If the Rangers take on $40 million of Kinsler’s contract (a big if), then he would absolutely be a worthwhile upgrade over the Sogard/Callaspo platoon for about $8 million more per year. Jaso could then slide over to first base, and the A’s would have upgraded their primary weak spot on the diamond for a reasonable price.


None of these trades are likely to happen. But Billy Beane is likely to do SOMETHING this offseason, and probably something big. As the phrase: “what would Billy Beane do” is the running track on my internal monologue a shockingly high plurality of the time, I thought I would take a few moments to consider what I would do for a BIG THING this offseason.

Even for those of you who will not be buying the requisite wristbands and bumper stickers, what would you do if you had to go big this offseason?

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Much More Than a Scuffle: Unacceptable Bias in Jose Fernandez's Slow Trot

Watch this video all the way through if you would. If you are reading this at work or in the library, don't worry, I have excerpted the key phrases, but first, watch the video, form a conclusion about what happened, then I will present mine.

Jose Fernandez, a 21-year old pitcher, who a year before was pitching in single-A ball and is currently the odds-on favorite for the National League Rookie of the Year, hits the first home run of his career.

Fernandez flips his bat, admires his shot as he strides down the baseline, and then simultaneously breaks into a grin and a not-terribly brisk trot.

As he rounds third, Fernandez spits on the ground... about 15 feet away from Chris Johnson, who apparently caused some indefinable tension in the previous inning. The entire incident is barely even visible on TV, and certainly does not seem out of character on a field in which the only activity engaged in more regularly than spitting is surreptitious scratching.

The Braves' veteran catcher, Brian McCann, then holds up Fernandez at home, talking rapidly and from far too close to Fernandez for comfort. So naturally Johnson sprints in from third, looking to every viewer as if he is about to cold-cock the young hotdogging pitcher. The benches clear, and the baseball equivalent of a fight breaks out for the better part of 2 minutes.

I've described the events to you, but I will leave it to the overly exuberant Marlins announcers to attempt to reconstruct the motives behind this strange series of events.

First, as Fernandez leisurely rounded the bases, one of the announcers, screeching somewhat, declared: "And I don't care if he took a peek at it, it's his first one!"

But, as the Braves began to take issue with his actions, the other Marlins on-air personality slowly proclaimed: "They're on him for taking a peek. He stood at the plate and watched, I understand that." Jose set it off by standing at the plate and admiring the home run, Johnson is still going nuts right now."

As the scrum dies down and a series of replays begin, the announcers begin to break down the drama point by point:

"Well Fernandez finally hits a home run, so he watched it."

(Fernandez spits as he rounds third)

"and that may have set Johnson off there even more."

"yeah I think he did. Now Jose did some 21 year old things during that sequence. Chris Johnson's from a baseball background, he understands that whole thing. And Jose, yeah he acted like a kid in that situation. He paused, he watched the home run, he shouldn't have done that. And when he ran around third, little look at the ground, looked like he spit, didn't spit toward Johnson, and that set off Johnson. And I think McCann is just trying to say: 'hey kid, you just don't do that up here.'"

"I don't understand Johnson running in from third base."

I've maintained a semblance of professionalism thus far while describing this incident, but I fear I can do so no longer, because, unlike Chris Johnson, I DON'T UNDERSTAND THIS WHOLE THING! 

Saturday, September 7, 2013

A Good Day For Cuba

(Having not written about baseball for some time, I thought that my return to the land of baseball blogging should encompass as many of my favorite things as possible, and here I believe I have managed to successfully combine three of my favorite pursuits: baseball, alternate history, and Communist overthrows of repressive fascist governments that result in equally dictatorial Communist regimes. This story was inspired by my brother, who hates baseball, but enjoys the other two enough to make up for it.)

The pitcher was tall and lanky, but with strong hindquarters of the type that typically prompted crinkle-eyed scouts to declare with clinical detachment that he was well built where it counted. Baseball scouts have their own language for discussing prospects, and when they believe they are speaking only to their own kind they invent words and phrases with sufficient frequency to send a prescriptivist linguist to the showers with, as the scouts would say, an “Indian Sign” (a bad game) hung about his shoulders.

When discussing this particular pitcher, the last semi-prospect they were observing that day, their praise was reserved solely for his curveball, which the oldest scout amongst the half dozen sitting behind home plate described as a great “out-curve hook.” The rest of the scouts nodded and harrumphed their approval with this diagnosis, though one younger fellow wearing a Washington Senators cap dared to venture that it could be considered a “dropball” instead. The scouts paused their discussion for a moment to scrutinize the windmill motion of the young man on the mound. As the ball cracked into the catcher’s glove they let out a universal grunt of disagreement: it was certainly not a dropball, the old scout had it right from the beginning, it was an out-curve hook.

The younger scout felt suitably chastened, but his discomfort was nothing as compared to that of the young law student on the mound, who had taken the day off from his normal daily activities: studying and general rabblerousing, to throw for these strange men. The pitcher knew his curveball was his great strength, but the indeterminate murmurs from the bench did not sound agreeable, and in his nervous state he was incapable of assuming that their displeasure was directed at anything other than his performance. Brushing sweat from his elegantly pointed chin beard, which was now wilting in the heat, the pitcher flashed a signal to his catcher: fastballs from now on.

In scouting parlance, the hopeful young pitcher would be referred to as throwing a “smoke ball” or a “hot rock.” Either term a solemn compliment if offered by the stingy scouting chorus. Yet, despite his ability to “put over a fast one,” the young man had failed to attract the attention of the coach of his college’s varsity baseball team. This failure perhaps had something to do with, as the scouts would say, his “inability to put anything over the plate aside from a knife and fork.” Yet the young man, unsurprisingly, had never considered his wildness to be the reason for his lack of success at garnering professional attention. On the contrary, he believed his propensity for forcing batters to give up their “toe-holds” in the batter’s box with a creatively located “duster” to be a commendable skill.

The true reason he had garnered little scouting attention seemed clear to him: the old men with their big bonus checks had blackballed him because of his activism against the tyranny of the local government. He was wrong of course, coaches and scouts had avoided the young Fidel Castro because of what they would have called his “scatter arm,” and not his scatter brained politics.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Hall Of Fame Cannot Erase History

            The Baseball Hall of Fame shapes the narrative of baseball history.

            Crucially, while the Hall shapes baseball’s history, its decisions of induction and rejection do not create it. A significant portion of the reaction from the sabermetric and thoughtful corners of the baseball world against the lack of admissions in the Hall’s most recent vote seems to be concerned that the Baseball Writers Association of America is denying the existence of 20 years of baseball history.

Many of the writers who cast blank ballots, left off unindicted but muscle-bound stars, and allowed subjective moral codes to rule their vote are undoubtedly trying to erase the so-called “Steroid Era” from the game’s history. But what they have failed to realize is that by intentionally failing to admit these accomplished men they are not erasing them from history, they are merely making their own poorly reasoned arguments the next chapter in each player’s narrative.

The Hall of Fame vote does not merely serve as a stamp of approval on a player’s career, mainly because the Hall, like all mediums of sorting and recording history, is part of the history that it attempts to document. How historical events are discussed in museum exhibits, scholarly papers, and university courses reflects not just the importance of the events or people at issue, but also the biases and concerns of the society discussing them.

Discussions of slavery in textbooks written in the early 20th century by southern authors tell modern historians a great deal not only about how certain people at that time felt about a polarizing issue, but also offer insight into the society that produced those thought processes. I believe that the argument over Performance Enhancing Drug (PED) use by the baseball intelligentsia falls within the same framework. (Yes I just compared slavery to steroids). As much as votes against Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Jeff Bagwell, and Mike Piazza attempt to minimize their statistical accomplishments and gloss over their historical impact on the game, they simultaneously provide a great deal of insight into the moral structure of the majority of baseball writers, and by extension, baseball itself.

The travesty of a vote this afternoon has not erased the history of the steroid era, it has added to it: the moralizing, apologizing, and finger-pointing of our present generation will become part of the narrative of baseball. If Bonds and Clemens are denied entry to the Hall after fifteen years on the ballot, as McGwire and Sosa almost certainly will, their accomplishments will no more be lost to history as those of Shoeless Joe Jackson, Pete Rose, Dick Allen, Lou Whitacker, Keith Hernandez and the countless other players who for one reason or another failed the Hall’s standards.

The Hall’s decision on each player adds to his history and shapes the narrative of each man’s career. Even the (arguably) worst of these decisions- Jackson’s ban, has only made the story of the Black Sox of 1919 all the more memorable.

The anti-PED votes cast today will not erase the last two decades of history, but they will add to it, and I sincerely believe that forty years from now the votes of the Baseball Writers Association of America today will seem precisely as inexplicable as the decision of dozens of voters forty years ago to leave Jackie Robinson off their ballots.