The week in baseball: 5/29/20

From the Increasingly Nocturnal Department:

  • I haven’t found it productive to follow each new return-to-play proposal for the 2020 MLB season in any detail, but public comments this week, especially from players including Max Scherzer and Trevor Bauer, point to the very real possibility that the entire season will be lost due to the inability of the owners and players union to reach final agreement on compensation arrangements for the year in a timely fashion. Although the calendar has not yet turned to June, keep in mind that any start date will need to allow a few weeks of lead time for pitchers to stretch out, undoubtedly among other logistical considerations. The viability of opening the season on or around July 4 therefore depends on what the sides can accomplish over the next couple of days. Of all the things Rob Manfred has screwed up in his brief tenure as MLB commissioner, the complete absence of baseball in America should other professional sports leagues find a workable way to resume action would be one of the most memorable.
  • Meanwhile, the 2020 Minor League Baseball season effectively ended this week following the announcement that teams are expected to begin releasing large numbers of players shortly. Some big-league veterans, including  Shin-Soo Choo and David Price, have responded by personally paying all of the monthly stipends of all of the minor-league players in their respective teams’ farm systems.
  • The CPBL and KBO seasons are rolling on, though a recent resurgence of COVID-19 cases in South Korea has delayed the expected return of fans to KBO stadiums. ESPN is continuing live telecasts of KBO games, often with replays on ESPN2 later in the afternoon.
  • The KBO appears to have earned itself a celebrity fan in Adam Eget, trusty sidekick of Norm Macdonald and manager of the world-famous Comedy Store, who said as much on a recent episode of Joe Rogan’s podcast. He and Rogan also discussed cults and Charles Manson, so listen at your own risk.
  • Japan’s professional baseball league, NPB, announced it will begin an abridged season on June 19. The prevalent view among those who follow foreign baseball leagues is that the NPB is the league that comes closest to MLB in terms of talent and competition levels.
  • Facing the prospect of the complete absence of MLB games this year, I’ve begun posting daily baseball landmarks that occurred on that day on ALDLAND’s twitter account. Some from the past week in baseball history, courtesy of Baseball-Reference:
    • 1904 – Dan McGann steals 5 bases in a game, a feat not matched until 1974 (Davey Lopes) or bested until 1991 (Otis Nixon, 6)
    • 1922 – Supreme Court rules baseball not subject to antitrust laws, interstate commerce regulations
    • 1925 – Ty Cobb becomes 1st major leaguer with 1,000 career extra-base hits
    • 1946 – 1st night game at Yankee Stadium
    • 1951 – Willie Mays gets his first hit, a home run off Warren Spahn
    • 1952 – Hank Aaron, then of the Indianapolis Clowns, signs with the Boston Braves
    • 1959 – Harvey Haddix pitches 12 perfect innings before an error in the 13th (“there has been never been anything like it” = more from Tim Kurkjian here)
    • 1968 – NL announces expansion to Montreal, San Diego
    • 1969 – Aaron becomes the 3rd major leaguer with 500 HR + 500 2B
    • 1976 – Pitcher Joe Niekro, batting against his brother, Phil, hit his only career home run
    • 1990 – Rickey Henderson breaks Cobb’s AL stolen-base record
    • 2004 – Mariano Rivera earns his 300th save
    • 2006 – Barry Bonds hits 715th home run
    • 2008 – Pedro Martinez, making a Single-A rehab start for the St. Lucie Mets, faces off against then-recent top pick David Price, then of the Vero Beach Devil Rays. (Price and the Rays win 2-0.) Price would make his major-league debut that September and his World-Series debut the following month.
    • 2010 – Roy Halladay pitches perfect game (ESPN is airing a program on Halladay’s career and too-short life tonight at 7:00 pm)
  • Whatever happens with baseball this year, Jersey City brewery Departed Soles wants to make sure we don’t forget what happened in the recent past, and therefore has released its newest beer, Trash Can Banger, a session IPA with a can styled after the Houston Astros’ classic 1970s uniforms. For now, the beer only is available in New Jersey.
  • Did the Astros cheat? They did. Did their cheating help? Running counter both to fan intuition and the public statements on the subject by professional pitchers, the latest look at that question, like some others before it, concludes that it didn’t make much of a difference. This analysis also set out to test Commissioner Manfred’s assertion that the Astros didn’t cheat in 2019 but was unable to reach a conclusion on that question.

2019 NLDS Braves/Dodgers Spin Zone

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Last night, both National League Divisional Series went to decisive fifth games, and, in both games, the teams favored to win the series lost in dramatic fashion. For the Atlanta Braves, the drama came very early, while it arrived late for the Los Angeles Dodgers (I assume; I went to sleep when they were up 3-0). Of course, the only question today for both teams is: Whose fault is this?

For the Braves, you might think it had something to do with the disappearance of its star hitter or team’s failure to address sufficiently its lack of pitching depth and experience. For the Dodgers, it would seem to make clear and natural sense to point the accusatory finger at Clayton Kershaw, who totally and perennially stinks in October.

Obviously, those thoughts, which involve the teams’ players, coaches, and front-office management, are wrong thoughts. That’s because the blame actually lies at the feet of MLB itself and Commissioner Rob Manfred.

The Braves and Dodgers are successful teams built to succeed in the sport’s current era, the defining factor of which is the baseball itself. Changes to the baseball have driven massive increases in home runs, and the two NL favorites heretofore thrived in this extreme offensive environment.

What, then, to make of a report out this morning that the baseballs used during postseason play are radically different than those used during the regular season such that the playoff baseballs effectively suppress home runs to a significant degree? In light of that news, can it be a coincidence that the NL playoff teams that were the most homer-reliant during the regular season were the losers last night?

NLDS guillen # 2019

Commissioner Manfred, whatever you have against the cities of Atlanta and Los Angeles (to say nothing of poor Milwaukee), you are reminded that it is not a crime to ask questions.

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Previously
The 2018 All-Star Game was one for the Age

 

Tilde Talk: The Empty Ureña Suspension

Atlanta Braves rookie outfielder Ronald Acuña, Jr. has been on a tear. Entering last night’s game against the floundering Fish, he had just become the youngest player (since at least 1920) to homer in four straight games, joining Miguel Cabrera as the only two twenty-year-olds to accomplish the feat. He leads all rookies in slugging percentage. He’s amazing, and he’s a big part of the reason why the Braves have reclaimed first place in the NL East.

The Miami Marlins stink. Their new ownership group, led by Derek Jeter, has spent its inaugural year at the helm casting off virtually every remotely valuable member of the team, which has a .390 winning percentage in 2018 and is unlikely to compete in any respect for years to come. I didn’t call the Marlins franchise a tax shelter, but somebody else might.

The Marlins pitching staff isn’t really getting anybody out, as a -180 run differential somewhat suggests. Only the Orioles and Blue Jays have been worse in that regard, and they spend a lot of time in the AL East getting beaten up by the Red Sox and Yankees juggernauts. If you care about ERA, the Marlins have the worst such mark (4.85) in the National League.

Acuña has enjoyed an extreme degree of success, even by his standards, against Miami: .339/.433/.714 (201 wRC+). They just can’t get him out, at least as the rules of baseball define that term, especially lately. In the first three games of the four-game series with the Marlins that ended last night, Acuña reached base ten times in fifteen plate appearances, which included four home runs and a double.

The Braves’ half of the first inning last night began like this:

I’ve watched Jose Ureña’s first pitch from last night, which came in at about ninety-seven miles per hour, as well as his subsequent reaction to his pitched ball hitting Acuña on the arm, about a dozen times. There is no doubt in my mind that Ureña took the mound last night with the intent to hit Acuña with his first pitch and did what he intended to do. The umpiring crew apparently agreed and ejected Ureña after that first pitch.

For those unfamiliar with Ureña, a collection of humans that, prior to roughly twenty-four hours ago included very nearly the entirety of the human species, he is a twenty-three-year-old pitcher who has spent all four years of his major-league career with the Marlins, mostly as a starter. Among regular starters, Ureña has been one of the harder throwers in 2018, but there’s little else remarkable about him. The current season has been the best of his career so far (1.7 WARP to date), and there’s a not-unreasonable argument that he ought to be done for the season.

This evening, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred decided to suspend Ureña for six games and fine him an undisclosed amount of money. Suspensions for this sort of thing often are of the five-game variety. For starting pitchers, five-game suspensions really are one-game suspensions, because most starting pitchers only pitch once every five games. It’s a bit of a charade by the Commissioner’s office.

Manfred has not released an explanation of his somewhat unusual decision to push Ureña’s suspension to six games, but it’s reasonable to assume that he wanted to appear tougher to avoid the usual critiques of the standard five-game suspension. It’s readily obvious, of course, that, for starting pitchers, a six-game suspension suffers from almost precisely the same practical defect that attends a five-game suspension. Indeed, as reporters immediately noted, it’s a very real possibility that Ureña won’t even miss his next start.

This isn’t the first time Manfred has acted in a way he knows is purely symbolic and entirely without practical consequence. It’s becoming a bad habit of his, made all the more frustrating by the ready availability of effective alternatives. Here, if Manfred really wanted to communicate a message to players that he will not tolerate intentional, unsportsmanlike behavior like that Ureña exhibited last night, he could have done any of the following:   Continue reading

The 2018 All-Star Game was one for the age

Image result for joe jimenez all star

The American League continued its All-Star-Game winning streak last night, claiming an 8-6 victory in ten innings at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C. The game included a record ten home runs, far more than the previous ASG record of six, which had been matched three times (1951, 1954, and 1971).

What’s both more remarkable and unsurprisingly typical is the fact that all but one of the fourteen runs scored last night came by way of the home run, the sole exception being Michael Brantley’s sacrifice fly that scored Jean Segura to extend the AL lead to 8-5 in the top of the tenth:

asg hr log

While absurd in its extremity, this homer-laden affair merely serves to illustrate that, across the sport, a larger share of all runs scored come by the home run than ever before.

guillen no 88-18 (asb)

Blame (or credit!) launch angles, player fitness, chicks, or the ball itself, but last night was a snapshot of the modern game’s offensive environment, as much as a single, top-tier exhibition game ever could be.

Whether you find this new reality fun and exciting or an inflationary bore, the trend seems likely to continue absent external intervention. Of all of the sport’s (seemingly) natural evolutionary developments, this is the only one for which I currently would consider the introduction of reforms with the goal of shifting gameplay away from consumption by the three true outcomes and toward a greater ball-in-play experience. It isn’t clear to me how to accomplish this, as most of the obvious changes likely wouldn’t work or raise other serious consequences, but I think this– not game time or designated hitters— is where the Commissioner should focus his energy with respect to on-field matters.

Designated Sitter, or, Manfred Ado About Nothing

manfred dp

For people who write about baseball, the All-Star break offers at least two things: (1) an intraseasonal oasis in which one can examine and address baseball topics over the span of a day or two without worrying that the otherwise constant barrage of new baseball events occurring that might, for example, mess up the performance numbers on which a writer had founded his or her baseball writing and (2) a probably countervailing force in the form of significant public interviews with the sport’s leaders addressing the sport’s Big Topics Of The Day.

Regarding the latter, Commissioner Rob Manfred kicked things off this morning with an appearance on Dan Patrick’s radio show. Here are my notes of the highlights:

manfred dp notes

People love to talk about the designated hitter and whether the National League will adopt it, and Manfred’s mention of the subject this morning predictably reignited the “conversation”:

I suspect that those on the fence or without a considered opinion on the subject may have found prodding from recent articles like this one Ben Lindbergh published last month illustrating the historically poor offensive numbers from current pitchers. What many of these conversants don’t do is think about this conversation from the DH side, however. There really is no doubt that a designated hitter is going to bat better than a pitcher, but the nature of the DH position is changing, both in terms of the players who are filling that role and their performance levels.

Regarding the union’s particular partiality to the DH, are David Ortiz-types really the players finding extra PAs as designated hitters? Take a look. Continue reading

2018 MLB rule changes less drastic than anticipated

baseball time

With the MLB and MLBPA finding it difficult to engage in substantive, productive conversations with each other, Commissioner Rob Manfred was poised to enact rule changes unilaterally in an effort to advance his ill-defined pace-of-play goals.

In his three years in office, Manfred already has made changes in this area, including a reduction in the time of the between-inning breaks and an informal request for hitters to remain in the batter’s box between pitches. More fundamentally, one year ago, he made what I still believe to be “the most significant change to the sport since 1879” when he eliminated the four-pitch intentional walk, an alleged pace-of-play reform he later conceded was merely “symbolic.”

Rumored to be chief among those new, unilateral rule changes for 2018 was the institution of a pitch clock, which the upper levels of the minor leagues have been using since 2015. While a less-fundamental change to the game than the intentional-walk rule, in my estimation, a pitch clock in the majors likely would have drawn a louder critical outcry from fans.

Thankfully, we’ve learned today, a pitch clock will not be a part of the game in 2018. Instead, Manfred has made what I think are very good choices, as first reported by the San Francisco Chronicle’s Susan Slusser:

In case those tweets are hard to read or disappear, that’s a cap on mound visits per nine innings at six (with limited exceptions for extra innings and other defined situations in the umpire’s discretion) and a reduction in inning breaks during the regular season to 2:05 (with scaled expansions for postseason games).

By further (although it’s unclear by how much) reducing the between-inning commercial breaks and limiting mound visits, Manfred tracked two important reform guidelines: a) avoid changes in the on-field game and b) keep the focus on the players. There’s plenty of time in a baseball game for pitcher coaching and coordinating, and I have no problem putting more pressure on pitchers (who, collectively, now are enjoying probably their greatest advantage relative to hitters in the game’s history) to work out struggles on their own.

More than anything, though, I’m glad that baseball, at least at the top level, remains an area of life not dictated by a clock, a space where anything is possible so long as you’re alive.

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Related
Rob Manfred’s Use Your Illusion Tour

Dr. Doolittle knows the cure for baseball’s current ills, to the extent baseball currently is possessed of or by ills

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While MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred continues his increasingly tone-deaf and ineffective campaign to draw more fans to baseball by changing the game rather than changing the way people can follow the game, the real solution is becoming more and more obvious to everyone else. I’m not writing this post because new Washington Nationals pitcher Sean Doolittle is the latest player to publicly agree with me; I’m writing it because he’s right:

We were talking about pace of game changes this spring — a similar effort in terms of changing rules to improve fan interaction with the game — but Nationals closer Sean Doolittle thought we were veering off course. “We’re talking about pretty drastic changes to shave five minutes from a game. Are you seeing a bunch of 20-year-olds lining up for season tickets?”

The lefty thought we should consider how the game is packaged and how people could better interact with the game. “Marketing? We’re not that good at it. Let’s see if we can use some of our personalities to drive traffic and energize the game. Blackout rules. Millennials don’t pay for cable. Allow more gifs and videos on social media. Statcast could help if you use it right — showcasing how athletic some of these guys are.”

He’s speaking to the point I (and others, of course) have been making about baseball for as long as I can remember, and I have a very short memory. From April, when I thought MLBAM cut me off from my MLB.tv subscription:

Baseball is a fine game, and to the extent people will like it, they probably will do so for what it is. I’m not opposed to all measures designed, for example, to reduce the time between pitches (or the time spent on commercial breaks). Rather than changing the game he wants people to watch, though, Manfred ought to change the way people can watch the game, obviously by making it easier for them to do so. That approach would allow him to demonstrate more confidence in the quality of the sport he oversees. Instead, his approach has made the national conversation around baseball into one about how boring it currently is. Probably not the best notion for the league’s commissioner to be pushing, especially because no amount of reform is going to be able to radically remake baseball into some sort of rapid, flowing game like hockey or basketball and still have it be recognizable as “baseball.” He’s painted himself into a public-relations corner, and the sooner he switches from emphasizing perceived negatives to emphasizing positives, such as (hypothetical) proposals to make the game even easier to watch and interact with, the better.

From March, when Manfred made the most significant change to the sport in nearly 140 years:

It’s difficult to know whether fans should be insulted or merely disappointed with Manfred. It also is unclear who should be pleased by [his elimination of the four-pitch intentional walk]. What is clear is that Manfred will not shy away from making fundamental changes to the game in pursuit of a poorly defined goal. That means that we should expect that his past proposals, including a pitch clock and a ban on defensive shifts, absolutely are on the table going forward. As for changes that actually might help draw a younger audience to the sport, like removing local broadcast blackouts on streaming devices or decreasing the cost of attending games? Don’t hold your breath.

This should be an easy one, Commissioner. If you won’t listen to me, at least listen to your players.

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Previously
Pace of Play Isn’t Going Away
Rob Manfred’s Use Your Illusion Tour
MLB in retrograde

MLB in retrograde

mlbtv

I’m not always the quickest to notice changes in my surrounding environment, including the baseball component thereof, and I’ve had a lot (of really good things) going on that have necessarily kept me from fully jumping into the still-young MLB season thus far. Last night, I had a little window, though, so I dialed up the Tigers and Rays on MLB.tv, only to be met with a video-streaming brick wall. After a couple hours with tech support, I discovered that MLB Advanced Media (“MLBAM,” which produces MLB.tv) had discontinued service to the device model– a Lenovo tablet running Android– I’d purchased last year for the sole purpose of running MLB.tv. I have cancelled my subscription and demanded a refund.   Continue reading

Rob Manfred’s Use Your Illusion Tour

rob manfred

Rob Manfred has served as the Commissioner of Major League Baseball for the past two years. A series of aggressive rule proposals, followed by few actual changes, has characterized his tenure thus far. His primary focus has been on increasing the pace of gameplay (or, alternatively, reducing the temporal length of games, although, as many recognize, those aren’t exactly the same thing). To this point, reforms in that regard have been advisory– asking batters to keep at least one foot in the batters’ box between pitches– or nearly invisible– limiting the time between half innings– even as threats of more substantial changes– a pitch clock, for example, which has been installed in lower leagues– loom.

Last month, Manfred finally stepped out with his first substantial rule change at the major-league level, and it wasn’t one– a pitch clock, starting a runner on second base in extra innings, or strike-zone modification– most expected (or, in the case of the former two, feared). Instead, he made an even deeper change to the game’s infrastructure by eliminating the four-pitch intentional walk, to be replaced with a simple signal from the dugout.

Baseball is not a game of summary proceedings, and there’s a reasonable argument to be made that Manfred’s rule change is the most significant change to the sport since 1879, when the rule requiring teams to play the bottom of the ninth inning even when the home team was leading after the top of the night was removed. That change was an obvious one; this one, less so.

Though the opportunities were rare, both offensive (e.g., Miguel Cabrera, Justin Upton) and defensive (e.g., Dennis Martinez and John Hudek, both being caught by Tony Pena) players could take advantage of atypically executed intentional walks. Small things, sure, but undoubtedly exciting things.

The underlying goal of Manfred’s pace-of-play reforms, one assumes, is to make baseball more exciting, or, at least, make it seem more exciting. It’s possible that the rule change trades these small IBB-gone-wrong moments for bigger gains in excitement elsewhere, but that seems unlikely in this case, because elimination of the traditional intentional walk won’t do much either to speed up or shorten games. Cursory research by the Wall Street Journal indicates that this change will trim, on average, 14.3 seconds off each game.

In the weeks since the rule-change announcement, an increasing number of defenses– both quantitative and qualitative— of the IBB status quo have cropped up. Even for those whose aesthetic preferences align with Manfred’s expressed desire for a faster or shorter game, it’s tough to ignore the numbers that belie the minimal impact of this new rule in those regards.

What should be frustrating for everyone who likes baseball is that Manfred is aware of these countervailing realities and made the change anyway. From an interview published yesterday:

How about doing away with the four-pitch intentional walk?

RM: That’s a symbolic change. It’s not going to alter anyone’s perception of the pace of the game overall. But you know what? If you can change it and people say, “They’re being responsive to our [desires],” that’s a good thing, even if it’s a little good thing.

In essence, “The change won’t be effective, but people will be glad we made a change.”

It’s difficult to know whether fans should be insulted or merely disappointed with Manfred. It also is unclear who should be pleased by this rule change and subsequent explanation. What is clear is that Manfred will not shy away from making fundamental changes to the game in pursuit of a poorly defined goal. That means that we should expect that his past proposals, including a pitch clock and a ban on defensive shifts, absolutely are on the table going forward. As for changes that actually might help draw a younger audience to the sport, like removing local broadcast blackouts on streaming devices or decreasing the cost of attending games? Don’t hold your breath.

(HT: Alex Hume)

Pace of Play Isn’t Going Away (via Baseball Prospectus)

[I]n other sports, the fans have compromised perfection for the sake of pace, abandoned the same idealized sport that Dryden laments. Instead, the virtue is not in perfection but in performance under duress. As games have sped up, decision-making time decreases, mistakes get made. On an episode of Effectively Wild a while back, Russell A. Carleton came to the same conclusion: that the pressures of a pitch clock could result in less prepared pitching. This in itself isn’t a problem; pitching under pressure, managing one’s mental energies toward the next pitch, would just become another trait, another way that some pitchers would excel. But the actual, visible product would be diminished, no longer an ideal.

These compromises get made all the time. Playoff structure is a good example: leagues have generally expanded playoff spots to increase drama, at the cost of victory being less representative of overall dominance. Player safety often requires some level of restriction over play. The cynicist can predict these conflicts by the resulting effect on league income, in the present or future tense; the cynicist would often be correct.

But when it comes to pace there’s something deeper at play than just speeding up a game (and why reducing ad times, beyond the obvious reason, was never on the table[).] It’s not so much that baseball is slowing down than that we are all speeding up. There are those who enjoy baseball for this very anachronistic feeling—I am among them—but we as a demographic are getting older.

Manfred’s task will not be changing baseball’s pace, which he could do with the click of a gold-plated pen. It will be to manage it, to foresee the unforeseeable consequences that accompany every rule change and evolution in sport. … Read More

(via Baseball Prospectus)