Baseball’s September Problem

Kansas City Royals v Baltimore OriolesCamden Yards this past May. Just think how many empty seats this month.

Complaining about baseball is in itself nearly a national pastime, and despite the fact that the game is in very good shape, you have your pick of poisons these days: The pace is too slow. Relievers are starting games. The shift. Analytics. And on and on.

While there certainly ARE problems in the game, none of those qualify.  September IS a problem. Two problems specifically:

A) The fact that rosters expand up to 40 percent for the final month of regular-season games; and ….

B) The fact that they’re playing regular-season games at all.

The first one is an obvious problem, everyone agrees, everyone knows the arguments, and I haven’t seen too many people try to defend it. The bottom line is it fundamentally changes how managers approach game strategy. You’re essentially playing a different kind of game, and there’s just no need for it. Can you tell me any other pro sport that does this? The solution is easy: Expand the rosters, but only slightly. Go up to 28 instead. Give yourself a couple extra arms down the stretch and give your prospects a glimpse of major-league curveballs. But that really should be enough. Done! Solved!

The second one is more problematic, but there IS a solution. Even as football’s popularity has begun its decline, there’s no denying it remains immensely popular, and sports fans rightly equate the start of September with the start of football. And direct their attention spans there. Meanwhile, September baseball is a drag for teams not in the pennant chase, or already have their playoff place assured (no question they will be a wild-card team or a division winner). By my count, this season only 11 teams are truly playing for anything as of September 7 (Astros, A’s, Mariners, Braves, Phillies, Cubs, Cardinals, Brewers, Dodgers, Diamondbacks, Rockies). Admittedly, this year is a bit of an anomaly; the previous two seasons that number was 14-15 on this date. But each year as September wears on, teams drop out, and engagement (attendance and TV) drops rapidly as attention shifts to football.

Baseball needs to get its regular season out of the way once football begins. So the answer (you guessed it) is a reduced schedule. There’s no reason why a 140-game season can’t be completed by Week 1 of the NFL season, with the playoffs starting a few days after the first Sunday of the NFL season.

(OK, there’s one reason: money. Nobody wants to make less money, and 10-11 fewer home games per team will not exactly stimulate gross revenue. But maybe less is more, especially given attendance at games with nothing at stake)

A broader view is needed. Nobody’s going to pay much attention to Rangers-Angels next Tuesday night, in the afterglow of NFL Week 1. But what if this Tuesday night featured the Yankees-A’s wild card game? What if, next weekend, the competition against the NFL was Cubs-Braves Game 3 instead of Cubs-Reds Game 148?

Yeah, the NFL would still win that ratings battle. But at least baseball would be relevant.

There are several more aspects of making the 140-game schedule work, but it CAN work; I have answers, and there’s more blog space in the future for that. Meanwhile, think of the possibilities: the regular season would end this weekend, playoffs begin Tuesday/Wednesday, and the World Series is all wrapped up in warm weather by the first week of October.

It’s time! Bring on the 140-game season. And bring your best product to complete against football head-to-head.



Hoping deGrom Loses … And Then Wins


Here’s Mets starter Jacob deGrom, probably looking up at the scoreboard and seeing  yet another string of zero-run innings … from both teams.

Jacob deGrom probably has about six starts left in the 2018 season. I hope he pitches spectacularly … and loses more than he wins.

If that happens, and the voters are smart, two things could happen:

  1. deGrom would win the N.L. Cy Young, which he would definitely deserve
  2. The pitcher “win” stat would receive a near-fatal blow, which it definitely deserves

So you don’t have to go looking them up, here are the N.L. rankings that make deGrom’s strong Cy Young case (min. 120 IP): 1st in ERA (by a wide margin); 1st in FIP; 3rd in IP; 3rd in WHIP; 1st in fWAR; 2nd in strikeouts; 2nd in K/BB rate; 1st in ERA+; t2nd in WPA.

While some publications are calling it a “doozy” of a Cy Young race, it isn’t. At least, it shouldn’t be. If the season ended today, deGrom should win easily. But he might not, thanks to THIS ranking: He’s 22nd in the N.L. in wins. He is 8-8. A .500 pitcher. Which is probably the strongest argument ever made against the value of the W-L record.

I’ve ignored pitcher wins and losses for years now; you can read elsewhere about all the reasons why it’s a very poor statistic. It used to be more valuable, back when pitchers were expected to complete games, but even then it was flawed.

When Felix Hernandez won the A.L. Cy Young in 2010 with a 13-12 record, the W-L record was officially put on notice as an overrated stat. But eight years later the W-L record is as pervasive as ever, especially among announcers. Inexplicably, it’s still the lead stat almost every time a pitcher begins or enters a game. Now, as Boog Sciambi and Buster Olney pointed out on a recent Baseball Tonight podcast, deGrom winning the Cy Young could finally be the death blow.

But to accomplish both things, deGrom has to keep not winning. So here’s what I’m rooting for:

In these last six starts, we need deGrom to pitch great and go, say, 1-2 with three no-decisions. If he finishes 9-10 with an ERA of 1-point-something, we could have a “losing” pitcher win the Cy Young Award.

He wouldn’t even have to keep up his current pace. If he averaged 6 IP and 2 ER over those final six starts, deGrom would finish with a 1.93 ERA. Barring a huge September from Scherzer or Nova, that should be enough. And 36 IP with 12 ER would constitute a slump for deGrom, who has allowed more than 2 ER in just five starts this year.

So go, go Jacob! Rooting for 9-10, a 1.93 ERA, a well-deserved heavy trophy, and a crushing blow to an overused stat. My September dream.



“Does Everything Have to be Measured?”

This was an insightful question asked by a friend last month on Facebook, from a longtime mentor and former colleague who is a lapsed baseball fan. He read a review of Keith Law’s book on statistics (I’m patiently waiting for the paperback) and posted:

Why does everything have to be measured? My past delight in the game was fueled by what I understood and didn’t quantify, like understanding that runners didn’t even try to steal on certain catchers.

I’m no math whiz but I have a fair background in baseball statistics, professionally and as a fan. And with those fuzzy credentials I can confidently say: Yes. Yes, we should measure whatever we can. And the reason is that some of those measurements — perhaps even just a few of them — will help us gain a better understanding and appreciation of not only how the game works, but also improve our use of the most meaningful and telling statistics derived from those measurements (more on that later this week).

The big caution here is data overload, and making poor conclusions (or creating poor stats) from the data. We have had a virtual explosion of baseball data over the past 10 years, thanks to in-park telemetry that literally captures thousands of data points every game. And some of that data is erroneous, or missing — remember, this is still new technology — so we don’t yet truly know what all of the data is revealing. But it’s revealing something. The next challenging wave will be, over the years, to separate those telemetry data signals from the noise (using Nate Silver-speak) and produce even better, more accurate statistics.

And just why would we want to do that? Because we love the game. And statistics help fuel that love. It’s NOT an either/or proposition here (scouts vs stats; what I see vs what I compute; analytics vs observation). One part informs the other. I can enjoy a beautiful Clayton Kershaw curveball or a stunning catch by Jackie Bradley Jr or an Aaron Judge bomb … AND I can enjoy using statistics to help discover whether Kershaw is on pace to be the best pitcher of all time, and just how special was that JBJ home-run robbery, and where Aaron Judge’s rookie season ranks on the all-time list. Without the on-field game, the sport becomes a mere spreadsheet. Without the numbers, the sport becomes a repetitive blur, unfocused and without form — 700,000 pitches each season, signifying nothing. I need both.

And even as we have learned so much more about statistics (and thus the game) in the past 30 years, the “delight in what we understand and cannot quantify” will always be there. Despite the millions of data points and the thousands of numbers at our disposal, we’ve merely made a dent in our knowledge of this simple yet complex game, still completely unpredictable, still a sport where the very best teams in history win only two out of three games, and the very worst of the worst go home winners at least 50 times a year.

So measure it. Measure it all, dump the numbers that we discover are meaningless, and let the rest fuel our knowledge, enjoyment, and understanding of this most lovely and most mysterious sport.

Baseball and Father’s Day

18766116_10211736290715591_8267950513853134737_nGenerally speaking, the most passionate baseball fans were baseball fans in their youth. A parent or coach (who were most likely baseball fans in their youth) explained the game, taught it, watched it, nurturing the young fan like a gardener tending a new floral bed. Though I have no scientific data to back this up, I strongly believe that baseball fandom is most easily attained as a kid; harder, compared to other sports, to develop a deep love for the game when starting out as an adult.

So on this Father’s Day I want to thank my dad, again, for not just being a super father for my 49 years, but also for generating the spark for baseball being a big part of my life. My earliest memory (of virtually anything) is watching Hank Aaron hit his 715th home run in 1974, watching with my dad, who I describe as a “medium” baseball fan. He knew it was an important moment, and he knew to make sure we should both be watching. He spent the money and time and took me to Cubs games and even a White Sox game (with the exploding scoreboard!). He taught me how to keep score, which quickly became a standard part of any game experience for me and remains to this day.

And of course he spent countless hours coaching my T-Ball and Little League teams, coaching the RIGHT way, putting the kids first. Even though we rarely talked about it, I remember a vague sense of pride on how he coached when a girl was on our team. I also remember him discussing the team, and skills, and strategies, with just me in the car, asking my opinion and making me feel special that I was on the “inside” and that he trusted me with his thoughts about me and my teammates.

None of this is to diminish the role of my mother, a baseball fan and very supportive of this hobby of mine since I was 5. And with the opportunities these days, the fuzzy nostalgic notion of baseball being a father-son thing has slowly and rightfully been replaced by a parent-child thing. The roles don’t matter; the relationships do. And baseball, more than any other sport, fosters those relationships and becomes the shared diamond on which we play out a part of our lives, a safe and warm link to the past, a known and trusted path to the future.

This was proven to me again just a few weeks ago, when we had a few days together as a family again on the west coast, and several of us went to a San Jose Giants (Single-A) minor league game (that’s us in the photo). I spent many a wonderful summer night with my parents in the late 1970s and 80s at Municipal Stadium, and for a few hours we were there again together, with my wife and my own son and daughter, and nephew, carving out more memories on just another ordinary night at the ballpark. And for a few hours, at least, we were all young again.

I can’t write a better ending to this kind of essay than Donald Hall, the poet, so I’ll attribute and copy it here — picking up the final paragraph from his essay “Fathers Playing Catch with Sons” from the book of the same name, published in 1985:

“… He sure would be pleased to see us again. And I him, and my father and my son, and my mother’s father when the married men played the single men in Wilmot, New Hampshire, and my father’s father’s father who hit a ball with a stick while he was camped outside Vicksburg in June of 1863, and maybe my son’s son’s son for baseball is continuous, like nothing else among American things, an endless game of repeated summers, joining the long generations of all the fathers and all the sons.” 

The Trouble with Home Runs


So 35 games into the season there are two facts that are A) undeniable and B) probably related: Home runs and strikeouts are at all-time highs. By “all-time” I mean … all time. If the trends continue (and there’s no reason to believe they won’t) we will see more home runs and strikeouts than ever. This is all the talk on baseball sites, so why should this site be different? There’s plenty of analysis and stories about what’s causing this, but to me the more important question is:

Are these trends something to worry about?

While baseball fans tend to over-worry about a lot of things, especially when it comes to the fabric of the game, I believe the answer in this case is yes. Especially when it comes to home runs.

First, a quick summary that will save you some Google time. Home runs are at historic highs since mid-2015 because of one or more of the following factors:

  • The ball is wound tighter.
  • Players are swinging harder, resulting in mighty blows and mightier misses.
  • Analytics has revealed optimal swing angles for home runs, and batters are making adjustments that result in geometrically guided smart bombs.
  • Analytics has revealed that from a run-producing standpoint, there’s nothing embarrassing about a strikeout, especially if the trade-off is a home run. A box score line of 4-1-1-1-0-2 is perfectly acceptable.
  • The use of defensive shifts WORK, so frustrated batters are trying  harder than ever to place the ball where defenders can’t shift to (namely, over an outfield fence).
  • The use of performance-enhancing products (oops did I say that?)

You can read more insightful articles about this stuff here and here, among many others.

The main reason I think we need to reverse this trend (and I offer one solution below) is not because I don’t like homers. I love homers. But I love them when they’re special. Homers have become routine. And where’s the joy in that?

Take our man Hank Aaron, above, still the true Home Run King. Aaron never hit more than 47 home runs in a season. In a wonderful homerun-ic convergence, by the way, No. 44 hit exactly 44 home runs in a season four times. Forty seems like a good number for a home run leader. That’s a lot of home runs – more than one every four games – but the past two seasons we’ve had nine and eight players hit the 40-homer mark. Back in the 1970s, an exciting baseball time that achieved great statistical balance, you’d have two guys each year hit 40. And sometimes nobody would. And we can get there again — we were JUST THERE a few years ago, as a matter of fact.

But if we assume the ball is NOT juiced, and we assume the parade of 1-inning flame throwing relievers will continue, as will defensive shifts, what can be done?

To me there’s one obvious answer. We need to move the fences back – everywhere. Moving the fences back universally in every park might seem drastic, but it’s no more so than lowering the mound or introducing a designated hitter, or moving three infielders to one side of second base. By moving the fences back, hitters will be less inclined to pull out their drivers and play mash and smash at the plate. They will be forced to work on their contact to beat the shifts. We will get more doubles and triples, which are also exciting! And it will restore some balance and make the home run special again.

There are a few other larger ideas to address this, but I’m saving all of that for my big five-part Baseball MAP project coming in June. (MAP: Major Adjustment Plan).





Baseball Delights No. 3

Werth fan

The third in an occasional series of short baseball bursts of delight …

One paragraph of set-up: Last year in a road game at Colorado, Washington Nationals OF Jayson Werth was hit (nearly in the head) by a pitch. A young Nationals fan became semi-famous with her shocked reaction. Werth heard about it and sent her a bat for her concern.

Flash forward to this week, when the Nationals again visited Colorado. Werth did not forget his No. 1 road fan, and she got a souvenir mid-game.  Check out the video.

Power of the Baseball Cap


I wore my vintage 1977 gold “pillbox” Pittsburgh Pirates cap to a high school baseball game tonight. I love that cap; it represents an era, the late 1970s Pirates. They mixed and matched colors and caps and uniforms. No matter what they wore, they won. From 1975 to 1979, their win totals were 92, 92, 96, 88, 98. And in that last season, 1979, they won the World Series. I never really saw them play, mind you, but I loved how the team fit statistically, from the box scores and my baseball cards: Dave Parker, the slugger; Omar Moreno, the light-hitting speedster; Willie Stargell, the senior captain; Kent Tekulve, the sidearm relief ace.

Anyway, so here I was at the high school game — we’re friends with one of the players, a sophomore starting shortstop, It was a tough go for the Local Nine, who just can’t get key hits lately, to the tune of a 2-0 loss. BUT my geeky-looking authentic Pirates cap got the attention of the assistant coach, to the tune of this conversation:

Coach: “Hey, nice Pirates cap!”

Me: “Thanks! 1977!”

Coach: “Kent Tekulve!”

Me, nodding: “Kent Tekulve!”

Though they don’t happen often, these are the kinds of conversations my cap generates, between knowing fans. The best one was at Fenway Park about three years ago. Wearing my Pirates cap, I was on the concourse between innings and some guy, probably around my age, yells out …

Him: “Hey, 1977 Pirates!”

Me: “You know it! Kent Tekulve!”

Him: “Willie Stargell!”

Me: “Dave Parker!”

(His eyebrows raise, the game is on; he speaks slower, and with more importance)

Him: “John Candelaria!”

Me, even slower, pronouncing each syllable carefully: “O-mar Mor-e-no!”

He nods and smiles. I nod and smile. And we moved on, two strangers having shared a pure, unscripted moment for a few seconds in the hallways of fabled Fenway. It remains a cherished conversation, one that required hardly a verb and nary an adjective but overflowed with meaning and memory, sparked by the sight of an ungainly gold pillbox baseball cap.