A Solution to the DH Dilemma

casillabatting.png*** Pitcher at the plate:  Guess what kind of chance he has with this stance?

The designated hitter rule is back in conversation after reports about what the MLB and Players’ Association are discussing. This has prompted the usual intense debate about DH vs. no DH, though it seems like the N.L. adopting the DH is inevitable as Ivan Nova’s return to the dugout (the Pirates pitcher has reached base twice in 116 plate appearances  the past two seasons).

But it’s not. There’s another solution. A solution that SOUNDS much more radical than it really is. A solution that abolishes the designated hitter AND the mostly-pathetic results when pitchers try to hit.

The solution is: eight-man lineups.

Now, reader, I need you to toss away that initial gut reaction like you’re Barry Bonds flinging his elbow armor after yet another walk. Just chuck that initial “WHAT?”  to the side and give me a few paragraphs; I think you’ll start to see it.

Eight-man lineups! I’m as traditional as the next lifelong baseball fan — I still hate that there are lights at Wrigley — but I also know baseball needs to make changes. I draw the line at anything that impinges upon the actual PLAY of the game. I like four balls, three strikes, use any shift you want, don’t put runners on base automatically in extra innings. No changes that fundamentally affect the pitch-by-pitch aspect of the game.

But an eight-man lineup … why, that’s less radical than the DH rule itself. It’s less radical than allowing a team that didn’t win its division to compete for the World Series. It’s less radical than instant replay. And while we may disagree with some of these changes, none of them impeded the growth of baseball at all.

With an eight-man lineup, you get the best of both worlds: There’s no DH, so you can’t hide poor fielding skills. All players must actually PLAY. More strategy is introduced because everybody must play offense and defense. The trade-offs in both directions intensify. But there’s also no pitchers batting. Pitchers can focus on what they do best (pitch) and also never have to leave a game simply because they’re next up at the plate with their .150 on-base percentage.

The advantages are clear: We’ll get to see more plate appearances by great hitters. Eight-man lineups means rotating through the lineup quicker. The No. 9 hitter averages slightly under 4 PAs per game (source: “The Book” by Tango, Lichtman, Dolphin). So the top half of the 8-man lineup — your best hitters — would get more PAs every game. Wouldn’t you rather see that? If the Red Sox want J.D. Martinez in the lineup, he’s going to have to play the outfield or first base. But he’s going to come up to the plate one more time every game. Let’s look at a few “what-if” examples from 2018 …

Boston Red Sox 8-man lineup, 2018

Essentially, Alex Cora would have had to weigh Martinez’s offense vs. Bradley’s defense.

  1. Betts – CF (extra PA per game on average)
  2. Benintendi – LF (extra PA per game)
  3. Martinez – RF (extra PA per game unless Bradley subs in with a lead)
  4. Bogaerts — SS (extra PA per game)
  5. Moreland – 1B
  6. Devers – 3B
  7. Nunez – 2B
  8. Leon – C

New York Yankees 8-man lineup, 2018

The Yankees probably wouldn’t have traded for Andrew McCutchen late in the year because Judge and Stanton would have played in the OF every night.

  1. Hicks – CF (extra PA per game on average)
  2. Judge – RF (extra PA per game)
  3. Gregorius – SS (extra PA per game)
  4. Stanton – LF (extra PA per game)
  5. Andujar – 3B
  6. Sanchez – C
  7. Bird/Voit – !B
  8. Torres – 2B

In the NL, of course, the only real change is that the pitcher falls out of the order. Look how much time we’ve just saved Joe Maddon each day as he no longer has to ponder whether to bat his SP eighth or ninth! But the big change is the top of the lineup gets more PAs. Here were some regular “top threes” — you’d see more plate appearances by …

Chicago Cubs 1-3 order, 2018

  1. Almora
  2. Baez
  3. Bryant

Atlanta Braves 1-3 order, 2018

  1. Acuna
  2. Albies
  3. Freeman

Don’t you want to see those six guys at the plate more than pitchers Mike Foltynewicz (3 for 58), Anibal Sanchez (1 for 41) or Kyle Hendricks (4 for 60)? Of course you do.

So, what are the disadvantages to this idea? There are only two, possibly, and both are reaches:

The first is tradition. An eight-man lineup SOUNDS strange. It’s a change from the birth of baseball. But it’s not a change in how the game is played, just how it is organized. Some people like the triadic symmetry of baseball — three bases, three strikes, three outs, nine fielders, nine batters, nine innings … but there’s nothing tangible about all that. It’s just tradition. We’ll all get over it quickly.

The second is that players might have to retire earlier — and thus we get to see them less — because they physically can’t play the field at their advanced playing age. There could be something to this, but baseball did just fine for 50 years in the live-ball era before the DH was introduced. Again, the trade-off would be the enhanced strategy and debate — What sacrifice would the A’s make to get Khris Davis regular PAs? What about the Mariners with Nelson Cruz? The best argument here is David Ortiz, but the end of his career was a nearly-unexplainable outlier in many ways.

When you weigh the pluses and minuses, it’s actually a little surprising this idea hasn’t received more traction. It dovetails with many other components of my common-sense Master Plan to Fix Baseball, which I’ve been sharing for privately for 10 years but may not be truly unveiled until I succeed Rob Manfred as Commissioner.

So there it is, our common-sense solution to the DH Dilemma: eight-man lineups. Natural. Simple. Let’s get it done.

 

 

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Quick Tribute: Frank Robinson

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I wish I would have seen Frank Robinson play.

Sure, I can get a sense from video clips and a few games on YouTube, but I’m talking about day in, day out, maybe a full month’s worth of Frank. I was born in 1968; his last season was 1976. Frank just died at age 83 and there’s a truckload of good content out there. A quick tribute, in three parts:

Numbers:  Frank Robinson, for all his accolades and HOF status, STILL might be one of the most underrated players of all time. His numbers are staggering: a 153 wRC+, 11 seasons of 5+ WAR, a career OBP of .389. His career OPS+ of 152 ranks 26th all-time, but it’s more impressive than that because it’s over 21 seasons, more longevity and consistency than most of the HOFers ahead of him on that list.

Awards:  Robinson won two MVPs, in different leagues, but should have had at least one more. In 1960, Frank led the NL in slugging percentage and OPS, and was second in OBP, but back in the day more attention was paid to BA and RBI. Dick Groat won MVP that year, and a good case can be made that Mays should have won it. But — get this — Robinson finished 20th in the voting that year. Twentieth! Impossible to believe.

Visuals:  Back to my first point. We’re fortunate to live in a day where, given an internet connection and the money for an MLB.TV subscription, we can watch our era’s greatest hitters every day. Which hitters would YOU have liked to have seen, day in and day out? There are obvious choices, but I’m talking visuals here — guys who I can tell from old clips must have been amazing to watch regularly. Here’s my top 10, in no particular order (not talking pitchers OR guys I did get to see multiple times): Clemente, Ruth, F Robinson,  Cobb, Williams, J Gibson, Mantle, Mays, Charleston, Wagner.

Who would be on your list?

 

A “Common-Sense” Class for the Hall

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The BBWAA got it right.

Let’s not lose sight of that. Because we care about the game, fans are frequently disposed to talking about what’s wrong with baseball: non-competitive teams, lack of balls in play, to shift or not to shift, and OH that pace … of … p…l..a…y issue.

So let’s celebrate that last week the Baseball Writers Association of America made the right call to the Hall, electing four indisputably elite players, leaving out a few big names  who do not meet all of the current criteria, and setting aside for at least another year a set of players whose credentials are just fuzzy enough to merit more review.

Three quick reflections on the voting this year, superhero style, followed by a few big takeaways …

Fantastic Four:  Mariano Rivera, Edgar Martinez, Mike Mussina, and Roy Halladay are all clear, great choices for the Hall of Fame. I don’t need to review any analysis of this because it’s just a search away. It would take a pretty stubborn position to argue against any of these four. It’s an excellent Hall of Fame class.

Silver Surfers:  There are good arguments for and against several players who did not make it in this time, who are surfing that second-tier line now but eventually might make it in. My ballot would have included Curt Schilling and Larry Walker, for example. Omar Vizquel will probably get in, eventually. But because of the new committee and “Bainesification” (see below), these guys still have a chance. They are not slam-dunks, and in a “small” Hall we want that greatness bar to remain as high as possible. We usually get a smarter, more accurate view of history when there’s more history to review. Nothing wrong with that approach here.

Incredible Hulks:  Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and Manny Ramirez are all worthy (as were Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, and Rafael Palmeiro) if the voting guidelines were based solely on performance on the field. But, currently, they are not. Voters are free to vote however they want, BUT these are the guidelines they are SUPPOSED to follow:

“Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.”

This is the so-called “character clause.” Three off the six factors to be evaluated are integrity, sportsmanship, and character. So anyone who clearly falls short on those three areas should not be elected. So are Incredible Hulks are not in, and this makes sense for now. THAT SAID: I think the “character clause” should be removed. We get into terribly fuzzy territory when we try to tie an athlete’s on-field performance with off-field behavior, no matter how it’s related. So if I were Ruler of All Things Baseball, I would have the Hall of Fame be strictly about on-field performance. And then I would induct Bonds, Clemens, Sosa, McGwire, Palmeiro, Shoeless Joe Jackson, and Pete Rose. And then we would move on.

Big Takeaways: The “Bainesification” of the Hall of Fame

Oh look, I just made up a noun! The Bainesification of the Hall has multiple implications.

Background — Harold Baines was a good outfielder and designated hitter for 22 seasons. He made six All-Star teams and one year finished 9th in the MVP voting. He piled up strong counting stats because he played at a consistently high level for 22 years. His career wRC+ was 119. His career OBA and wOBA were .356 and .358, respectively. Harold Baines was a good, solid player for a long time. He is not a Hall of Famer. He was never considered an elite player. Back in the day, nobody talked about Baines being a candidate for the Hall. But a special committee met last year, and 12 people, including several who worked closely with Baines, decided that he WAS a Hall of Fame player. But the common-sense view is that he clearly, CLEARLY, is not.

Bainesifcation Part I — One aspect of Bainesification is that it opens the door for arguments for dozens of other players whose careers were similar or better than Baines. The bar has been lowered, dramatically. So our common-sense response must be: We have to ignore this mistake when considering candidates. It’s an outlier, a rash decision by a handful of people, and it simply cannot be the standard for HOF voting. Because if it is, the Hall will very quickly be overrun with good, above-average players who were never considered the best at their positions in their eras. And the Hall will become meaningless.

Bainesification Part II — If the BBWAA does not vote a player in, there are two other committees that can reconsider their eligibility later on. Players like … Harold Baines (I still can’t believe I’m writing that line). So now voters can be much more judicious in the initial voting process. If there’s any uncertainty and a player is not elected, a group of people down the line (including, possibly, former teammates and managers of said player) will reconsider and correct any perceived oversights. If someone is deserving, they will eventually get in. Or even if they’re undeserving, they may eventually get in. Like … Harold Baines.

For one year, this year, we can just say this with certainty: The BBWAA got it right, under the current guidelines, and four exemplary “heroes” of the game are taking their rightful place among the game’s most elite. Congrats to all. (Even Harold Baines.)

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

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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.”