Man vs. Machine

pujols cabrera

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.

pujols cabrera hr career

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 – 2/3/2017

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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 to attend a fancy law conference, we’re back with the top sports-related legal stories from the past week or so:

  • Baylor sexual assault: The scope of the sexual assault scandal at Baylor University continues to expand. Last week, a former Baylor student sued the university because, she alleged, she was the victim of a group rape committed by two football players in 2013 that the school ignored. The plaintiff also alleged that football players were responsible for numerous other crimes “involving violent physical assault, armed robbery, burglary, drugs, guns, and, notably, the most widespread culture of sexual violence and abuse of women ever reported in a collegiate athletic program.” She further claims that, between 2011 and 2014, thirty-one Baylor football players committed a total of fifty-two rapes, including five gang rapes. The complaint makes out claims under Title IX and common-law negligence theories. One significant hurdle for the plaintiff is that both types of claims are subject to two-year statutes of limitations. Since her alleged rape occurred in 2013, the university is likely to seek a dismissal on that basis.
  • College football defamation: In more Baylor football news, former head coach Art Briles now has dropped the defamation lawsuit he filed just two months ago against three Baylor regents and the university’s senior vice president and CEO for their statements that Briles was aware of sex crimes reportedly committed by his players and failed to provide that information to proper authorities, among other claims. As of this writing, no one has made an official comment on Briles’ behalf explaining the dismissal, but it appears to be connected to documents some of the same defendants in the Briles case filed in a new defamation case brought this week by former Baylor football director of operations Colin Shillinglaw. Those documents supposedly demonstrate Briles’ awareness of and attempts to cover up his players’ wrongdoing. If you’re the TMZ type, you can read more about the contents of the alleged Briles communications here.
  • Wrestling ban: Iran has announced that it will not allow the American wrestling team to compete in the 2017 Freestyle World Cup, which the Iranian city of Kermanshah is hosting this month. The ban comes as a form of retaliation for President Donald Trump’s January 27 executive order temporarily blocking people from entering the United States from Iran and six other majority-Muslim countries.
  • Football head injuries: A state court judge in New York denied the NFL’s motion to dismiss a wrongful-death lawsuit brought by the son of deceased player Arthur DeCarlo Sr., who, his son alleges, died as a result of CTE he contracted from head injuries sustained while playing football. This is the only CTE case against the NFL that is outside of the federal multidistrict settlement based in a Pennsylvania federal court. Addressing a statute-of-limitations issue, the New York judge likened the case to asbestos claims by describing CTE as a latent condition, the manifestation of which is not discoverable until the completion of a posthumous autopsy. Meanwhile, on Monday, a group of former college football players filed suit against helmet manufacturer Riddell seeking class-action status and alleging that Riddell made false claims about its helmet’s ability to protect against concussions. This is the fifth active concussion-related lawsuit pending against Riddell.
  • Cheerleader wages: A former San Francisco 49ers cheerleader filed a complaint against the NFL and the twenty-six NFL teams that have cheerleaders, alleging that they conspired to suppress cheerleader wages (which are between $1,000 and $1,500 per year, according to the complaint) below market value. The unnamed plaintiff is seeking to represent a class of all NFL cheerleaders employed in the past four years.
  • Child abuse: Three former Penn State University administrators will face criminal child endangerment charges stemming from the Jerry Sandusky sexual assault scandal inside the university’s football program. PSU’s former president, senior vice president, and athletic director were successful in quashing charges of failing to report child sexual abuse, but their trials on the remaining charge will go forward next month.
  • Student-athlete rights: The general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board issued an official memorandum stating that football players at Division I FBS schools “are employees under the [National Labor Relations Act], with the rights and protections of that act.” The precise legal consequences of this memorandum are unclear, at least to this writer, but the practical consequences likely will include an increase in unionization attempts and unfair labor practice filings among student-athletes at the covered schools. The memorandum already has generated critical comments from some members of Congress who believe it would have “devastating consequences for students and academic institutions[,] puts the interests of union leaders over America’s students, and . . . has the potential to create significant confusion at college campuses across the nation.”
  • Baseball hacking: As punishment for their hacking of the Houston Astros’ database, MLB fined the St. Louis Cardinals $2 million and forced them to forfeit two 2017 draft picks (the fifty-sixth and seventy-fifth overall picks) to the Astros. In addition, the league banned the currently jailed St. Louis employee who hacked the Houston system multiple times from future MLB employment. Most commentators and team officials regard the sanction as a light one.
  • Daily Fantasy Sports: The European island nation of Malta has granted daily fantasy sports website DraftKings a license to operate in that country, and that license may allow the site to operate in other European jurisdictions that recognize the Maltese license as well.
  • Live game streaming: MSG has entered into an agreement with the NHL to broadcast the four New York and New Jersey hockey teams (Sabres, Rangers, Islanders, and Devils) on the network’s live streaming service, MSG GO, which is available for free to MSG subscribers. Meanwhile, another New-York-area network, SNY, will begin streaming Mets games on its own website and the NBC Sports app. (NBC previously reached a streaming agreement with MLB Advanced Media for in-market access to Cubs, White Sox, Phillies, Athletics, and Giants games starting this year.)

Sports court is in recess.

Yes, the Cardinals hack was a federal crime (via The Volokh Conspiracy)

According to press reports, front-office personnel of the St. Louis Cardinals used a guessed password to gain access to a private database of player information held by the Houston Astros. Over at ESPN, legal analyst Lester Munson makes the startling claim that this may not be a crime . . . . This is just wrong. … Read More

(via The Volokh Conspiracy)

When do baseball teams score runs?

baseballline

One of the marks of a smart baseball writer is the ability to sense a trend, research its existence and nature, place her findings in context, and present her conclusions in a way that meaningfully educates readers. Inherent in this ability is the wherewithal to know when to stop researching a trend or pressing on a concept, realizing that the fruits of the work have been or soon will be exhausted. Sometimes a person who is not a “smart baseball writer” by the foregoing definition will noodle about on an idea for so long, he’ll end up with a small pile of research that no longer has any bearing on any meaningful conclusions.

Two years ago, I decided to investigate a hunch that the Detroit Tigers were having trouble scoring runs late in games. My initial research mostly seemed to support my hypothesis, and a follow-up look appeared to confirm it more strongly. More than merely interesting (and fleetingly self-satisfying), it also was informatively concerning, because it placed the team’s well-known bullpen problems in a more nuanced light: relief-pitching woes alone weren’t the problem, because the lack of late-game scoring was compounding the problem of surrendering leads during the final frames. As strange as it seemed, the Tigers had interrelated shortcomings on both sides of the plate.

One comment I received in the course of sharing those findings stuck with me: I needed to place this information in context. After all, there are plausible reasons to believe that all teams might, perhaps to varying extents, experience decreased run production in the late innings.

And so it was that, two years later, I finally discovered Retrosheet, a site that compiles inning-by-inning scoring data to a more useful degree than the resources I’d utilized back in 2013. What follows are two graphs of the inning-by-inning scoring of sixteen teams for the 2014 season. Continue reading

The yard sale at Upton Abbey continues

upton abbey banner

It’s been a while– too long– since the last dispatch from Upton Abbey, but today’s news commands an update.

The Braves’ offseason has been one filled with departures. First, they allowed a number of their free-agent pitchers– Ervin Santana, Kris Medlen, and Brandon Beachy, among others– to walk, along with role player Tommy La Stella (via trade). Then came the biggest move of all: Atlanta traded Jason Heyward, its best player and a fan favorite by virtue of his abilities and history in the Braves’ farm system, to the hated Cardinals for some mystery meat.

Now Justin Upton is departing for San Diego, the latest of the Padres’ marquee offseason acquisitions. In exchange for the younger Upton, who is heading into the last year of his contract, the Braves will receive four minor leaguers, including Max Fried, which sounds like a selection on the Popeye’s menu but actually is just a twenty-year-old pitcher who’s already had Tommy John surgery, and something called Mallex Smith. If you can stomach that sort of writing, here are scouting reports on these prospects.

Braves fans can be forgiven for feeling like they’ve been whipsawed. After competing for a playoff spot two years ago and combining the high-profile acquisition of the Upton brothers with contract extensions for most of their infield, it looked like Atlanta was really building something.

As it turns out, the Braves are building something, but it isn’t a good baseball team. The construction of the new Cobb County stadium– much reviled in these e-pages— is the lens through which these moves can be understood. It now is clear that new general manager John Hart has his marching orders: deliver a team that will be competitive in 2017, the year the new park opens. “And not a moment sooner,” fans might add.

There’s nothing wrong with rebuilding. Every team not named the Yankees and (now) the Dodgers has to do it from time to time. What’s likely to trouble baseball fans in Atlanta is the sudden downshift into rebuilding mode apparently for the sole purpose of optics: the Braves organization wants to unveil its new– and, again, controversial and probably illegal– park with a competitive, if unrecognizable, team on the field. The timing was off. The best way to arrive in 2017 with a good team is to sell off your assets that are valuable in 2014. Expect to see Craig Kimbrel traded during the 2015 season. That’s what’s happening now.

Were the Braves of 2013-14 world-beaters? Obviously not, and the 2014 season exposed flaws that everybody chose to pretend didn’t also exist in 2013. But there was a framework there. The team didn’t cry out to be blown up. My strong suspicion is that it wouldn’t have been, even with a new GM in place, absent the construction of the new park. And that’s a stupid reason to hit the restart button.

Preseason BP Nuggets

bpro-oscarAs mentioned, this is my first season reading the Baseball Prospectus annual, and as those around me this spring have noticed, it’s full of numbers. Numbers are okay, but without analysis or interpretation, it can be a bit like reading the backs of a bunch of really comprehensive baseball cards (that also happen to include some sophisticated projections for the season ahead). There’s nothing wrong with numbers, but they don’t tend to make for very exciting reading on a site like this. Instead of asking you to widen your eyes along with me at the number of home runs Chris Davis is projected to hit this year (thirty, down from his Triple-Crown-repeat-spoiling fifty-three in 2013), I’ve tried to extract a few nuggets of information from the weeds of the raw data that will make watching baseball this season just a little bit more enjoyable.      Continue reading

ALDLAND Podcast

The World Series is here and the ALDLAND Podcast is here to talk about it. Boston . . . St. Louis . . . playing baseball. What more could you want? College football, of course, and there’s plenty of that as your favorite cohosts preview all the interesting week 9 matchups.

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Download the ALDLAND podcast at our Podcasts Page or stream it right here:

ALDLAND Podcast

No World Series preview . . . yet, but Marcus and I are happy to share our thoughts on the ALCS and NLCS so far. We also touch on Ndamukong Suh’s latest fine, as well as all of the college football picks you could ever want.

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Download the ALDLAND podcast at our Podcasts Page or stream it right here:

ALDLAND Podcast

The ALDLAND podcast finally gets around to some non-college football topics. MLB playoffs and NFL are both on the menu this week, as we make our picks for the World Series and recap the first quarter of the NFL season. But don’t worry if college football is your thing, since we obviously can’t go a week without discussing that either.

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Download the ALDLAND podcast at our Podcasts Page or stream it right here:

Tuesday Afternoon Inside Linebacker

tailALDLAND’s weekly football roundup is back following week three of college football and week two of the NFL.

College Football

Pregame:

  • I caught snippets of ESPN College Gameday and Fox Sports 1’s college football pregame shows. Gameday remains the leader of the pack, but I’d like more time to see how FS1’s show develops. In the meantime, I’ll join FS1’s Joel Klatt in sending good wishes to the folks in Colorado dealing with major flooding right now.

The games — excitement building:

  • With a couple East Carolina fans in town, we watched the Pirates hang with Virginia Tech for about three quarters. The Hokies did all they could, including badly missing a bunch of close kicks, to hand ECU the game. Frank Beamer looked like he wanted to puke, but his team managed to hold it together in the end. Virginia Tech 15, East Carolina 10.
  • We were flipping between that game and UCLA-Nebraska. When I first checked in on this one, Nebraska had a 21-3 lead, and it looked like the best early game of the day would not materialize into a competitive affair. That turned out to be sort of true, but not in the way I expected. UCLA scored thirty-eight unanswered points to beat the now-mythological blackshirt defense in Lincoln 41-21.
  • The game of the day belonged to Alabama and Texas A&M, and it lived up to the hype. Johnny Manziel and the Aggies started very hot, jumping out to a 14-0 lead and choking the Tide’s early drives. A&M scored touchdowns on its first two drives, which averaged 71.5 yards and 2:06 off the clock. Alabama responded, though, methodically amassing thirty-five temporarily unanswered points and carried a 42-21 lead into the fourth quarter. The Aggie defense had yielded to The System, but Manziel wasn’t through, although twenty-one fourth-quarter points wouldn’t be enough to top Alabama. The Crimson Tide remain undefeated, winning 49-42, but Manziel unequivocally proved that he is must-see football every time he plays, and his cohort, receiver Mike Evans, deserves some credit too.     Continue reading