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.