Live podcast announcement: Man vs. Pizza Machine

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I’m headed back into the Pizza Cave tonight to discuss the hot topic on the Detroit sports streets, Miguel Cabrera versus Albert Pujols, with legendary Southeast Michigan restaurateur-podcaster Fredi the Pizzaman live at 5:00 pm Eastern. Although you can listen to it later on, keep in mind that this is a live podcast, meaning that you can stream it as it’s being recorded, which I recommend.

Tune in tonight at 5:00 by clicking here to listen live or check out the archives later on.

Saving Detroit: Michael Fulmer has righted the ship

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Michael Fulmer is the defending American League rookie of the year, and he’s showing no real signs of a sophomore slump. That’s good because it means he’s continuing to perform at a high level. It also is good because there was some concern that his rookie success wasn’t sustainable. The basis for that concern was the gap between his ERA and his defensive-independent pitching statistics (“DIPS”). Jeff Sullivan raised the issue late last season:

It sure is tough to trust the legitimacy of Fulmer’s ERA-FIP gap. Certainly at least to this extent. I don’t think he’s demonstrated that he’s “earned” it. You might counter that Fulmer should get more credit, given the Tigers’ defense; they’re 28th in DRS, and 23rd in UZR. But it’s important to remember that defenses don’t play exactly the same every day behind every pitcher. Bad defenses can look good, and good defenses can look bad. As a comparison, think about lineups and run support. The Red Sox are the Red Sox, right? But Rick Porcello has a run-support average of 7.0 runs per nine. Eduardo Rodriguez has a run-support average of 3.0 runs per nine. Baseball’s weird. Just because the Tigers don’t have a good defense doesn’t mean they haven’t had a good defense behind Michael Fulmer.

Fulmer finished last season with an ERA of 3.06, which would have been third-best among qualified AL pitchers had he thrown enough innings to qualify (he was three short), and a FIP of 3.76. Following the general principle that DIPS (such as FIP) are more reflective of a pitcher’s true talent than ERA, Fulmer’s negative ERA-FIP gap suggested that he wouldn’t be able to sustain his low ERA going forward.

In fact, Fulmer’s successful results have continued. Through June 25, his 3.29 ERA places him in the top ten among qualified AL pitchers, and he’s been the fourth most valuable pitcher by fWAR across both leagues.  Perhaps even more significantly, he’s doing all this with a positive ERA-FIP gap. Even better, he seems to be doing it without significant alteration to his approach. The only noticeable change I detected there was an increase in velocity, which will be interesting to monitor down the stretch in light of some of the concerns voiced last season about fatigue and endurance.

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For context, this table (data pulled from FanGraphs) shows all qualified pitchers currently running positive ERA-FIP gaps:

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Viewed this way, Fulmer’s differential doesn’t look all that impressive– it’s only the third-best gap among his own teammates! The point, though, is the trend. Last year, he had one of the worst ERA-FIP gaps, which is what prompted Sullivan’s concern about Fulmer’s potential for future success, and there he is, near the bottom of the list of qualified pitchers from the 2016 season:   Continue reading

Man vs. Machine

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The great Miguel Cabrera is thirty-four years old. His team, once a surefire contender, is stuck in neutral, and Cabrera, their ostensible offensive engine, has only been slightly above average at the plate (108 wRC+, which would be the worst of any of his seasons since his rookie year (106 wRC+)).

It looks like we are seeing the beginning of Cabrera’s inevitable decline, which has observers taking stock of Cabrera’s likely legacy and projecting his place among the greats once he puts that magic bat down for good. For example, Yooper David Laurila included this observation in a recent edition of his Sunday Notes column:

Lou Gehrig had 8,001 at bats, 534 doubles and 493 home runs. Miguel Cabrera has 8,028 at bats, 533 doubles, and 451 home runs.

The day before, conversation on Fredi the Pizzaman’s Pizza Cave Podcast turned to Cabrera as the panel debated whether he would join Albert Pujols in the 600-home run club. (Pujols, whose major-league debut came two years before Cabrera’s, passed that milestone on June 4 of this year.) That discussion prompted a broader one about both players’ achievements and legacies.

Here’s a quick graph to introduce and orient this comparative analysis:

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By aligning the two players’ offensive performances (measured by wOBA) to their individual age-seasons, we can develop a rough snapshot of their careers at the plate. This graph illustrates a couple of significant trends. First, it’s easy to identify the clear tipping point in Pujols’ career, which very clearly has two distinct halves. Second, Pujols came out of the gate hotter than Cabrera, who needed a couple years to ramp things up. Both achieved production levels that make them generational talents, but when it comes to counting statistics (like career home run totals), the gap in those early years may be what will end up separating these two in the final analysis. All players eventually decline, but that just means it’s going to be tougher for Cabrera to make up for his comparatively slow start now.

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Again, this graph compares Pujols and Cabrera by aligning their career seasons. Even though they’ve accumulated homers at a similar rate, merely keeping pace in that regard likely won’t be enough for Cabrera in light of Pujols’ head start unless Cabrera has more years left in his tank than Pujols has in his. And right now, that first part– keeping pace– isn’t looking so sure for Cabrera. Here’s the same graph as the one above expanded to include 2017 numbers:

pujols cabrera hr career

This comparison to Pujols thus suggests that Cabrera is unlikely to reach the 600-homer benchmark for two reasons: 1) a slow start and 2) what looks to be an early– relative to Pujols– decline. None of this is to say that Cabrera can’t or won’t reach 600 home runs. Comparing him to the most recent guy to do it suggests that, absent some change, he’s unlikely to get there.

That change could come in the form of a late-career rejuvenation. Cabrera’s capable of ripping off amazing offensive tears, and he certainly could do that again. It always has felt a bit odd to think of Cabrera as unlucky, but there continues to be evidence that Cabrera’s offensive numbers should be even better than they already are based on the quality of contact he makes. A third change could be a positional one. Just as David Ortiz extended his career by becoming a full-time designated hitter, the thought is that Cabrera could alleviate some of the strain on his body by being relieved of his defensive obligations.

All of this is relative, of course. Failure to accumulate 600 home runs is no indictment on a player or his legacy. Only nine players ever accomplished that feat, and three of them are Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, and Sammy Sosa. Three more of them are Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, and Willie Mays.

 

While we’re here, two concluding notes on the overall comparison between Pujols and Cabrera. The first, which came up on the podcast episode linked above, involves postseason success. As a rookie, Cabrera was a member of the Florida Marlins team that won the World Series in 2003. Pujols was a member of the 2006 Cardinals team that swept Cabrera’s Tigers in the World Series, as well as the 2011 World Series team that beat the Rangers in seven games. Pujols also has been a better hitter in the playoffs, though both have been significantly above average (164 wRC+ vs. 136 wRC+). Postseason appearances are significantly team and context-dependent and involve small samples (seventy-seven games for Pujols and fifty-five for Cabrera), but it’s something to mention.

The second is a total career assessment. Neither player is retired, obviously, but that doesn’t mean we can’t take a peek at what their legacies look like right now. One way to do that is with JAWS, an analytical tool designed to assess Hall-of-Fame candidacy. Its creator, Jay Jaffe, explains:

JAWS is a tool for measuring a candidate’s Hall of Fame worthiness by comparing him to the players at his position who are already enshrined. It uses the baseball-reference.com version of Wins Above Replacement to estimate a player’s total hitting, pitching and defensive value to account for the wide variations in scoring levels that have occurred throughout the game’s history and from ballpark to ballpark. A player’s JAWS is the average of his career WAR total and that of his peak, which I define as his best seven years. All three are useful for comparative purposes, as Hall of Famers come in different shapes and sizes. Some—Hank Greenberg, Ralph Kiner, Sandy Koufax, Jackie Robinson—dominated over periods of time cut short by injuries, military service or the color line. Others such as Eddie Murray, Don Sutton and Dave Winfield showed remarkable staying power en route to major milestones. While it’s convenient to believe that every Hall of Famer must do both to be worthy of a bronze plaque in Cooperstown, they can’t all be Babe Ruth, Ted Williams or Willie Mays, or the institution would merely become a tomb, sealed off because so few have come along to measure up in their wake.

For the purposes of comparison, players are classified at the position where they accrued the most value, which may be different from where they played the most games, particularly as players tend to shift to positions of less defensive responsibility—and thus less overall value—as they age. Think Ernie Banks at shortstop (54.8 WAR in 1,125 games there from 1953 to ’61) as opposed to first base (12.8 WAR in 1,259 games there from ’62 to ’71). A small handful of enshrined players, including pioneers and Negro Leaguers with less than 10 years of major league service, are excluded from the calculations; Satchel Paige and Monte Irvin, for example, had major league careers too short to use as yardsticks for non-Negro League players.

By JAWS, Pujols and Cabrera both are clear Hall of Famers even if neither ever played another game, but there’s a clear separation between the two. JAWS has Pujols as the second-best first baseman ever, trailing only the aforementioned Gehrig, while Cabrera currently slots at the eleventh position, right next to Jim Thome (another one of those 600-HR guys). Pujols has two more years under his ample belt than does Cabrera, and neither is done playing. (This probably is a decent place to note contract details: Pujols has four more years on his current contract, while Cabrera has at least six.) As with the home-run chase, so too with overall career value: Cabrera has a good bit of work to do if he’s to catch Pujols.

The book is not closed on either of these two great baseball stories. Pujols and Cabrera have yet to author their final chapters. The balance of their works likely are complete, however, and from that we can make educated predictions. Both have their high points and distinct achievements, but it looks like Pujols’ early peak will prove a little too high and too long for Cabrera to close the gap. Here’s hoping I’m wrong.

Sports Law Roundup – 6/23/2017

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I used to write the sports technology roundup at TechGraphs, an internet website that died, and now I am writing the sports law roundup at ALDLAND, an internet website.

Here are the top sports-related legal stories from the past week:

  • Football trademark: As predicted (not by me) back in 2015, the Supreme Court heard and now has ruled on a trademark case involving a band called The Slants that has a direct effect on the Washington Redskins, whose trademark registrations were revoked under the same policy applied to The Slants. That policy sought to ban registration of trademarks that were disparaging or offensive, but a unanimous (8-0) Court held that the ban violated the First Amendment. “It offends a bedrock First Amendment principle: Speech may not be banned on the ground that it expresses ideas that offend,” Justice Samuel Alito explained.
  • NFL fan access: A Green Bay Packers fan has sued the Chicago Bears because the Bears won’t allow him on the sidelines before games at Soldier Field while he’s wearing Packers attire. The fan is a Bears season-ticket holder who built up enough “points” to receive an award in the form of a pregame warmup sideline experience. Despite his entitlement to that experience under the terms of the Bears season ticket program, the Bears refused to allow him to participate while wearing Packers clothing.
  • Daily Fantasy Sports: The inevitable merger between DraftKings and FanDuel announced last November has hit a probably inevitable regulatory hurdle. The Federal Trade Commission has filed a lawsuit in an attempt to block the merger, which, the FTC says, would create a single company that controls ninety percent of the daily fantasy sports market. On Tuesday, a judge granted the FTC a temporary restraining order that halts the merger for now.
  • Golf drugs: The PGA has asked a judge to reconsider her May ruling that the tour breached an implied duty of good faith it owed to Vijay Singh in connection with a 2013 suspension the PGA issued to him after he told a reporter he’d used a product called The Ultimate Spray, which contains “velvet from the immature antlers of male deer,” something that supposedly aids golf performance. The PGA’s arguments in support of reconsideration involve evidentiary matters pertaining to witness testimony regarding the financial consequences of Singh’s suspension and the judge’s understanding of whether the PGA reviewed materials from the World Anti-Doping Agency (“WADA”), which maintains the tour’s agreed list of banned substances, to confirm that the spray in fact contained or constituted a banned substance. During Singh’s suspension, WADA issued a public statement clarifying that use of the spray was not prohibited, and Singh argued that the PGA should have confirmed this fact with WADA before it suspended him.

Sports court is in recess.

Relief from Short Relief

Not as in “relief from the burden of Short Relief.” More like, “Short Relief (at last) has provided me with some relief.” I am not a longtime reader of Baseball Prospectus the way people who truly have been reading Baseball Prospectus for a really long time casually sprinkle into digitally transmitted discourse that they are longtime readers of Baseball Prospectus, but I have been reading the site and its books and listening to its podcasts (or one of its former ones, anyway) for a few years and been a subscriber for the balance of that time, and there is no question that the temperament of the site has changed over that period. Since I have been reading it, BP has had three editors in chief: Ben Lindbergh, Sam Miller, and Aaron Gleeman, its current EIC. Miller, who now writes for ESPN, has a special ability to blend the analytical and the fanciful (perhaps “imaginative” is a better word here, though neither are correct), and, by outward appearances, was a judicious editor. Baseball writers everywhere usually write about baseball in serious tones, and Miller was a breath of fresh air in that regard, if a measured one. It’s good to have outlets for some less serious baseball writing too. There used to be a whole place for that, which was called NotGraphs, but it was terminated in late 2014. Thereafter, its postmortal spirit attempted to eke out a living in an even smaller corner of the web, but that campaign fizzled.

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Although Miller never misses an opportunity to credit Lindbergh, his former boss and collaborator on two significant projects who now writes for The Ringer, as the best in the business, it’s clear to me that it’s Miller who’s left a large impression on the current version of BP. Whimsy, once reserved for sidebar Hitlist one-liners and a few player comments in the BP Annual (not unusually in the form of a Simpsons reference) everyone raced to find, photograph, and post on social media web platform Twitter.com, now abounds– or, at least, attempts to abound– at BP. This is most visible in the daily Short Relief feature, a sort of refugee camp for NotGraphs alums that typically contains three essays, or maybe poems, or maybe just a picture, that effort and imitate toward the odd and purposefully absurd.

I never read every article every day at BP, but I’ve never read less of BP than I do now (Russell Carleton and Rob Mains are musts), and I very rarely read Short Relief. I’m glad a major baseball site is trying to resurrect NotGraphs, but this take just doesn’t hit me right. It feels very unessential and often forced. A lot of that probably is due to the fact that it’s an everyday feature. It’s really hard to produce original funny, silly, odd, unusual, quirky, or whatever content on a daily deadline. It’s even harder when you’re limited to one subject area. (There’s also the part about the site’s budget crunch and probably a little friction with the idea that BP is contributing resources to Short Relief rather than its core mission, which seems noticeably understaffed at the moment.)

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BUT. Today’s Short Relief I did read, and today’s Short Relief I did like. It contains two entries, both by former owners of NG bylines. The first, from David G. Temple, once the managing editor of TechGraphs, is a short story about baseball cards that really hit home for me, as anyone reading ALDLAND’s late-night tweets earlier this week might have guessed. The second, from Short Relief coordinator Patrick Dubuque, provides a short metacommentary on the Short Relief series itself that resonated in light of the above-transcribed feelings about the Short Relief series. I commend both to your screen and eyes.

Saving Detroit: Tigers in Retrograde

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I thought we already covered this, Brad.

After a pleasantly surprising series sweep of the White Sox, the Tigers have lost eight of twelve and fallen to fourth place in the underwhelming AL Central. Rather than capitalize on a slow start by Cleveland, Detroit is struggling to keep its head about the .500 winning percentage waterline, and a deeper look into their 32-36 record suggests it’s an accurate reflection of who they’ve been to this point– no bad luck to blame so far. At least Victor Martinez is out of the hospital.

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Previously
Saving Detroit: Fixing Justin Upton – 5/31
Saving Detroit: Soft in the Middle Now – 5/30
Saving Detroit: Reliever Relief, Part 2 – 5/11
Saving Detroit: Reliever Relief – 5/8

A lesson in comparative hockey violence for Predators fans

After tying the Stanley Cup Final series at two games each on the backs of two emotional, dominant wins at home in the first NHL championship-series games ever played in Nashville, the Predators returned to Pittsburgh hoping to convert their momentum into their first lead in this series. Instead, they fell flat. The Penguins scored three goals in the first period, and three more in the second on their way to a 6-0 shutout victory.

It was a very disappointing night for Predators fans, who reportedly had more people in attendance in Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena to watch the away game on big screens than the number of people who were in the seats at the actual game in Pittsburgh. They certainly were upset with the result of the game, as well as with the way in which the Penguins– Sidney Crosby in particular– played it.

Crosby has been sparring with Nashville’s P.K. Subban throughout this series, but their clashes mostly have played out in the media and off-ice press conferences. Last night, however, things became decidedly physical, peaking with this moment:

Hockey is a contact sport, obviously, and the issue of fighting in hockey is a broader conversation for another day. I think most agree, though, that there is not a place in the game for Crosby’s behavior captured above.

Understandably, Predators fans are incensed and are calling for Crosby to be suspended for his actions. (Crosby also threw a water bottle on the ice in apparent response to what he thought was a missed penalty call against the visitors.) If the league decides to go in that direction, I would not have any objection.

I would remind the Predators fans that their team does not exactly have a clean record in this department, however. Five years ago, hosting their then-division rival Detroit Red Wings in the early rounds of the playoffs, Nashville ended a game-one win in ugly and embarrassing fashion. That night, it was Shea Weber who brutally bashed Hendrik Zetterberg’s face into the boards as time expired:

(In a bit of hockey irony, the Predators later would trade Weber for Subban, the victim of last night’s skull dribbling.)

I know from first-hand experience that Nashville hockey fans are good hockey fans who know the game. They’re justified in directing their anger toward Crosby (welcome to the club!), and I do want them to win the Cup because of what it would mean for the sport; a city I love; and all of my friends there, whether they’ve been on the hockey train or are jumping on now (again, welcome to the club!). All teams have had their dark moments, though, and hockey memories run deep. On the other hand, does it seem like Crosby’s Pens have more such moments than, say, Subban’s Preds? You bet.

Go Perds.

Ted Turner on the Atlanta Braves’ move to Cobb County

Former Atlanta Braves owner Ted Turner is not a fan of the team’s move to the suburbs:

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Not sure about “sharp,” but those certainly are words.

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Previously
2017 Atlanta Braves Season Preview
Braves finally strike a positive note in move to new stadium
The political costs of a new baseball stadium
Previewing the 2016 Atlanta Braves
The Braves are failing on their own terms
New Braves stadium project continues to falter
Georgia Supreme Court Upholds Cobb’s Braves Stadium Bond Deal
Braves Break Ground on Baseball Boondoggle
The yard sale at Upton Abbey continues
From Barves to Burbs: What’s happening to baseball in Atlanta?

Baseball’s growth spurt, visualized

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Baseball is a sport that is susceptible to, and, indeed, has subjected itself to what most regard as extremely fine-grain analysis. For example, in just a few clicks, you can pull up the spin rate of the ball on any pitch thrown in any MLB game last night. Whether we’re examining something, like baseball, for which we have relatively precise analytical tools, or something our ability to probe is more limited, we necessarily operate with certain assumptions practically taken for granted. Gravity. Air. Taxes. The general inflation of the value of U.S. currency over time. The general improvement in human health over time. While we need to monitor these somewhat ambient, environmental facts and trends, it usually doesn’t make sense to address them with great frequency and detail. We all generally know that Al Kaline’s $35,000 rookie signing bonus probably was a lot of money in the 1950s even if it doesn’t sound like a lot by today’s standards, just like we generally know 6’2″, 215 lb. Babe Ruth probably was a lot bigger than his peers, even if he wouldn’t appear out of the physical ordinary today.

On this last point, of course, we’re aware that medical and nutritional advances have resulted in general improvements in human health. Humans today live longer and grow larger than they did in the past, and baseball players are no exception.

That growth hasn’t occurred at a steady rate, however, at least as far as the population of baseball-playing humans is concerned. Here’s a graph from Russell Carleton’s article yesterday at Baseball Prospectus showing the median (50th percentile), 70th percentile, and 90th percentile Body-Mass Index (BMI) of all players who appeared in the majors between 1900-2016:

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As Carleton remarks:

We see that in the mid-90s, something (*cough*something*cough*) happened that caused an inflection point in MLB. After most of a century of the same body types, players started getting bigger. Mostly, they got heavier, although players today are also taller than they had been. The median player in MLB right now would be larger (in terms of BMI) than 90 percent of players who played in any year before the 1990s.

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Continue reading

Sports Law Roundup – 6/2/2017

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I used to write the sports technology roundup at TechGraphs, an internet website that died, and now I am writing the sports law roundup at ALDLAND, an internet website.

After a week off, this feature returns with the top sports-related legal stories from the past week:

  • Penn State child abuse: All three of the former Penn State University administrators charged in connection with the Jerry Sandusky sexual assault scandal inside the university’s football program will spend time in jail. In March, former PSU vice president Gary Schultz and former athletic director Tim Curley pleaded guilty to one count each of endangering the welfare of children, leaving former school president Graham Spanier as the sole defendant in the case facing a trial on charges of child endangerment and conspiracy. A jury subsequently convicted Spanier of a single misdemeanor count of child endangerment. Curley and Schultz each received sentences of a maximum of twenty-three months in jail. Curley will serve three of those months in jail and Schultz will serve two months, with each completing the remainder of his sentence in house arrest. Spanier was sentenced to a maximum of twelve months in jail and will serve two, with the remainder in house arrest, and still indicates he intends to appeal.
  • Cheerleader wages: The judge overseeing the proposed antitrust class action lawsuit brought by a former San Francisco 49ers cheerleader known in the context of the case as Kelsey K. in connection with alleged wage-suppression tactics has dismissed the case, although he is allowing the plaintiff’s attorneys until June 15 to attempt to amend the complaint. In February, the judge denied the lead plaintiff’s request to proceed with the case under the “Jane Doe” pseudonym, though he did permit her to use only her first name and last initial.
  • NASCAR pit crew: A judge denied the majority of two competing summary judgment motions and will allow a wrongful termination case by a former NASCAR pit crew member to proceed against his former employer, Michael Waltrip Racing (“MWR”). The plaintiff, Brandon Hopkins, injured his shoulder when a racecar hit him during a race. Treatment from MWR’s training staff was ineffective, and surgery was necessary. Surgery was delayed for reasons the parties dispute, however. Days before the scheduled surgery, Hopkins met with a supervisor, who assured Hopkins his job was safe. When Hopkins left the office to go home, he brought a particular tool– the design of which MWR considered confidential– with him, which, he said, was an accident. MWR did not believe Hopkins’ story and fired him the next day. Office security camera footage also showed Hopkins removing what may have been confidential documents from the office two days prior. The judge determined that there were sufficient facts that a jury could determine that Hopkins’ firing was connected to his injury, an impermissible basis for termination, or his misappropriation of confidential company information, which would be a permissible basis.
  • NBA fan assault: In February, Charles Oakley, a former member of the New York Knicks, was arrested and charged with assault after an argument with Knicks owner James Dolan during a game at Madison Square Garden. Now, Oakley has declined a prosecutor’s offer to drop the charges and requested that the matter be resolved in a trial, which Dolan likely views as a vehicle for unwanted public attention on himself.

Sports court is in recess.