Two kinds of Braves reunions

MCCANN

The Atlanta Braves made MLB offseason headlines yesterday with two short-term free-agent acquisitions that find the team taking calculated chances on former stars.

First, with Kurt Suzuki leaving in free agency, the Braves sought out a familiar face in Brian McCann to serve as a veteran backup to presumptive starting catcher Tyler Flowers. McCann made his major-league debut with the Braves in 2005 and quickly and consistently achieved success, earning all-star honors in all but one of his eight full-time seasons in Atlanta and tacking on silver-slugger recognition five times and down-ballot MVP votes once. As one would expect, McCann did this by being one of the best offensive and defensive catchers in baseball over that stretch. The following table notes his yearly offensive (by wRC+) and defensive (by FRAA) rankings among fellow catchers from 2006-2013.

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A pretty nice run indeed. McCann’s departure after the 2013 season, which marked Atlanta’s last appearance in the postseason before this year’s surprise early return, marked the beginning of the Braves’ dismantling of their last promising, young, cheap core. (Remember when Andrelton Simmons, Craig Kimbrel, the Upton brothers, Jason Heyward, Evan Gattis, and Alex Wood all played for the same team?)

Now Atlanta has another promising, young, cheap core to which McCann returns to provide his brand of veteran leadership. His bat settled down to “decidedly average” status during his five years away (three in the Bronx, then two in Houston), still nice for a catcher, though his 82 wRC+ in 2018 marked a low point in his career, and his 216 plate appearances were his fewest of any season save his ’05 debut, a reflection of his new, backup status. McCann also hasn’t been an above-average defender since 2016. At one year and $2 million, though, the Braves probably aren’t too worried about those trends and instead are banking as much on McCann’s perceived intangible contributions as they are on those that register more explicitly in modern stat books.

Baseball Prospectus sees good things on the horizon for McCann as a backup in his return to Atlanta, and FanGraphs also is optimistic, though it reminds us about the two months McCann missed last season as a result of a knee injury. For the team and the player it seems that this signing came down to a mutual desire for a homecoming:

Here’s hoping it’s a happy return.

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The bigger news from yesterday was Atlanta’s Josh Donaldson signing. It too was a one-year agreement, though for about ten times as much money ($23 million, to be exact), and a reunion of sorts, though not with the Braves per se but their general manager, Alex Anthopolous, who previously brought Donaldson to the Blue Jays. As they are with McCann, the Braves are banking on a rebound by Donaldson, who fell apart last year, just three seasons removed from an MVP-winning campaign. Predicated on that perennial proviso, “if healthy,” BP likes the gamble:

Donaldson offers a much more dynamic risk profile, but a simpler one. If he stays healthy, there’s no reason not to expect him to rake. Even when he played last year, his power was seriously sapped (a still-impressive .203 ISO represented a major step back from the .274 he averaged in his first three seasons with the Jays), and that presents a real risk that simple projection systems will underrate. However, if the Braves believe that decrease in pop stemmed from the compromised state of Donaldson’s lower half, and if he’s going to be healthy going into 2019, then he could easily bounce back in that department.

He’s no longer a plus with the glove or on the bases, and he’s not going to be the MVP again. There’s tons of room, though, between his decidedly average 2018 and his peak performance, which is why BP ranked him as the no. 3 free agent available this offseason. If healthy, he fits nicely into the middle of the Atlanta batting order.

The Braves still have more money to spend on 2019 payroll, and they already look to be in excellent shape to contend in what again should be a competitive division. (It is as I foretold.)

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Baseball’s faithless electors

My latest post for Banished to the Pen considers the Tampa Bay Rays, the faithless electors of the vote on the 2016 MLB collective bargaining agreement, and it includes this picture:

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The full post is available here.

Sports Law Roundup – 12/16/2016

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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:

  • NBA CBA: Like baseball, the NBA has a new collective-bargaining agreement. Full details are not yet public, but it appears there will be salary cap and luxury tax changes, as well as an increase– from thirteen to fourteen– in the number of guaranteed roster spots for each team. The league also has agreed to shorten the preseason and expand the calendar length of the regular season without increasing the number of regular season games. One aspect that will not change is the manner in which the players and owners divide basketball-related income. The players conceded roughly seven percent (approximately from 57% to 50%) during the last lockout in 2011.
  • NFL concussion settlement: Earlier this year, the NFL settled a class-action lawsuit brought by former players seeking compensation for ongoing problems related to head injuries suffered during their professional football careers by agreeing to provide a fund to compensate former players for the next sixty-five years. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed the settlement, but a small subset of the class members– approximately thirty of 22,000– were dissatisfied with the settlement, believing it was underinclusive because it did not provide relief for former players who develop CTE, the disease found in people who suffer from repeated brain trauma that, at this time, is not detectable while the player is alive. Seeking further review of the settlement, these plaintiffs petitioned the Supreme Court. On Monday, the Court declined to grant their petition, leaving in place the Third Circuit’s ruling. It is unclear whether these objecting plaintiffs have any further recourse, though they likely are watching the new lawsuit highlighted in this space last month that specifically addresses CTE.
  • Student-athlete classification: As discussed here last week, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit rejected claims by a group of former Penn student-athletes that they are employees entitled to minimum-wage compensation under the Fair Labor Standards Act. Now, those students plan to request en banc review, meaning that they will ask the full panel of Seventh Circuit judges to reconsider the decision. (Federal circuit courts typically hear cases in three-judge panels, even though more than three judges make up each of the federal circuit courts. Aside from an appeal to the Supreme Court, which may not even be accepted, the only way to reverse a circuit court ruling is to ask the full court to do so.) The plaintiffs contend that the amateur aspect of collegiate athletics the ruling noted is not pertinent to an FLSA analysis, and that the Seventh Circuit’s decision “conflicts with decisions in this and other circuits on employee status.”
  • Raiders stadium: In an apparent attempt to keep the Raiders from moving to Los Angeles or Las Vegas, the Alameda County Board of Supervisors voted to support the building of a new football stadium in Oakland that– unlike the new basketball arena being built for the NBA’s Warriors that will relocate them from Oakland to San Francisco–  would be funded, in significant part, with public money. The Board’s vote does not guarantee that the Raiders will stay in Oakland.
  • Rams fans: St. Louis-area holders of Rams personal seat licenses suing the team after its move to Los Angeles now have requested class-action status. The plaintiffs are seeking a variety of forms of relief, including reimbursement for tickets and concessions. A judge already has ruled that some of the plaintiffs who want the team to continue to honor the licenses by allowing the St. Louis fans to purchase season tickets at the team’s new home in L.A. are entitled to do so.
  • NFL broadcasting: The plaintiffs in an antitrust lawsuit targeting NFL Sunday Ticket, the product of the exclusive agreement between the NFL and DirecTV for the television broadcasting of out-of-market NFL games, won an apparently significant victory when Fox and CBS agreed to produce documents evidencing their own Sunday-Ticket-related agreements with the league and DirecTV in connection with a judge’s discovery order. The NFL contends that the plaintiffs have failed to allege an antitrust violation because the NFL can decide how to broadcast its games, and the Sunday Ticket package represents an addition to viewers’ existing options (i.e., the one or two games available each Sunday afternoon on Fox and CBS, plus the national Thursday/Sunday night/Monday night broadcasts) rather than a restriction.
  • Secondary ticket market: The President has signed the BOTS Act, a bill that expands the authority of the Federal Trade Commission to regulate the online secondary market for event tickets. The new law seeks to prohibit “ticket bots and other online tools that deliberately circumvent security protocols limiting or restricting online ticket purchases.” Here’s hoping this law will provide a more meaningful benefit to sports fans than the NFL’s practically meaningless agreement to end its league-wide imposition of a price floor on game tickets sold on the secondary market.
  • Formula One acquisition: Liberty Media, the company that owns the Atlanta Braves, will acquire auto-racing series Formula One for $4.4 billion. According to a reputable source, F1 cars are the fastest in the world among road-course racing cars.
  • MLB CBA: I wrote about the new CBA in this space after the league and players union reached their agreement on November 30. Now we have more information about the particularities of the agreement, and this analysis provides a helpful overview. We also learned that the Tampa Bay Rays were the only team to vote against approving the agreement. In a public statement, the Rays’ general managing partner made reference to an “opportunity [that] was missed” to “address the extraordinary and widening competitive gap that exists on-field between higher and lower revenue clubs.”

Sports court is in recess.

Baseball Notes: Save Tonight

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It is an accepted reality that, in general, baseball players don’t have much time for their sport’s new and advanced statistics and metrics. In many ways, this resistance makes sense. In the moment, when standing on the mound or in the batter’s box, there’s only so much thought and information a player can hold in his mind while trying to accomplish the task– make or avoid contact between bat and ball, for example– at hand. Players, like experts in other fields, also understandably tend to be skeptical of outsiders’ ability to provide baseball analysis or insight superior to their own. This skepticism is fairly well documented, most obviously when it involves changes that might impair or decrease a player’s value or role in the game, and, more surprisingly, even when new statistical revelations work in a player’s favor. (There certainly are some players, like Jake Lamb and Trevor “Drone Finger” Bauer, who have embraced sabermetric thinking, but it’s reasonable to assume they remain in the minority among their colleagues.)

A primary impetus of baseball’s sabermetric movement has been to encourage the abandonment of certain traditional statistics that, while still largely entrenched in the sport, are understood to be incomplete in important ways or much less meaningful than their use might suggest. Batting average, for example, doesn’t include walks. (Cf. On-base percentage.) RBIs require a player’s teammates to reach base ahead of him. ERA depends, to a significant extent, on a pitcher’s defensive teammates and other factors outside a pitcher’s control. (Cf. defensive-independent pitching statistics like FIP and DRA.) Pitcher wins and saves are artificial, highly circumstantial metrics that, at best, indirectly measure pitching talent.

For years, analysts have pushed baseball to rid itself of these traditional performance measures. There’s a comfort in hanging onto the statistical language with which we grew up as we learned and discussed the game, but that comfort should turn cold upon learning the degree to which these familiar stats obscure what’s really happening on the field.

So long as baseball’s current player-compensation structure remains in place, though, players aren’t likely to stop caring about things like saves; after all, that’s how they’re paid:

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In the course of discussing whether departures from conventional reliever usage as particularly exhibited in the 2015 and 2016 playoffs are likely to bleed over into upcoming regular season play, FanGraphs’ Craig Edwards explains one reason players are likely to prefer conventional, save-oriented bullpen strategy:

Saves get paid in a big way during arbitration. Only one player without a save, Jared Hughes, received a free-agent-equivalent salary above $6.5 million in arbitration, while all 16 players who’d recorded more than 10 saves received more than Hughes in equivalent salary. Players are more than happy to make more money, so giving more relievers higher salaries and more multi-year deals is openly welcomed. Taking saves away, however, also takes money away from players with less than six years of service time.

Although there are a number of not-uncompelling reasons why players prefer to steer clear of baseball’s newer metrics, Edwards has fingered one of the most forceful. If fans and analysts want to hear players discuss OBP, DRA, and leverage, they ought to channel their persuasive efforts less toward appeals to players’ logical sensibilities (they get it, no doubt) and more toward the education of the MLB salary arbitrators, to whom the players already listen with great attention.

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Previously
Baseball Notes: Current Issues Roundup
Baseball Notes: The In-Game Half Lives of Professional Pitchers
Baseball Notes: Rule Interpretation Unintentionally Shifts Power to Outfielders?
Baseball Notes: Lineup Protection
Baseball Notes: The Crux of the Statistical Biscuit
Baseball Notes: Looking Out for Number One
Baseball Notes: Preview

Belated welcome to the 2016 NFL season

We probably aren’t going to have weekly wrapups this season, but I am kicking myself for forgetting to post this 2016 NFL season introduction. Even though Week 1’s already in the books (go Lions), this is too good not to share:

Continue reading

2016 College Football Kickoff: Vanderbilt in search of hope and change in opener

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Once again, the Vanderbilt Commodores will help open up the college football season, this year by hosting the South Carolina Gamecocks tonight at 8:00 pm on ESPN, and they’ll be looking to exorcise some debut demons.

Vandy played in the first Thursday night season opener back in 2012, which also saw them playing the Gamecocks in Nashville. Vanderbilt lost that game, 17-13, as the result of a very bad officiating call, although they missed opportunities to secure a victory for themselves. The Commodores were part of the opening Thursday night in 2013 as well, again losing by four at home, this time to Ole Miss. They nevertheless were called upon again in 2014 to play on the first Thursday, losing so badly at home to Temple, 37-7, that I and a significant majority of our readers wondered whether VU should fire then-first-year coach Derek Mason. Vandy didn’t fire Mason, and the NCAA didn’t fire Vandy from the season-opening Thursday slot, where they again appeared in 2015, hosting Western Kentucky. That was a stupid game the Commodores lost by two points.

Which brings us back to tonight. Vanderbilt is seeking its first opening Thursday win in Nashville, and they’ll have to beat South Carolina, their original opponent in this series of sorts, to do so. The SEC Network’s analysts, including former Vandy QB and Bachelorette star Jordan Rodgers, predict a win this evening. They also predict a 5-1 start and a 7-5 overall record, though, which some may take as a sign of excessive optimism.

At this point, VU fans have every reason to expect a disaster in this game, but I think it’s fair to expect that Mason, in his third year in Nashville, will have his team better prepared to start this season than the Gamecocks under new coach Will Muschamp. One of these teams is going to secure an SEC win in the first week of the season, and, in my estimation, it’ll be the Commodores. Paul Finebaum agrees. If you want to place a bet, maybe take the under– it’s tough to envision these two teams combining for more than forty-two points.

Farewell, again, dear Prince

Nearly three years ago, Detroit Tigers fans said goodbye to Prince Fielder, whom the team traded in the 2013 offseason to Texas in exchange for Ian Kinsler. At the time, many were glad to see him leave, though some, including this author, were not. All must agree, however, that when Fielder left Detroit, he became barely a shadow of his former Ironman self. In his two years as a Tiger, he didn’t miss a single game. Excluding his rookie year, in the eight years he spent in Milwaukee and Detroit, he missed a total of thirteen games, playing the full 162 in four of those eight seasons. That’s an impressive accomplishment for any player.

If one wanted to be cold about it, one might note that, 2014, Fielder’s first in Texas, was a year of insult and injury for Prince. Not only did his trade replacement, Kinsler, make the All-Star team on his way to completing the second-best season of his career, but Fielder underwent season-ending neck surgery in late May, appearing in just forty-two games for his new club. He seemed to bounce back in 2015, posting a .305/.378/.463 line in 158 games, but it has been trouble again for Fielder in 2016. Despite his team’s success, Prince arguably was the worst position player of the first half of the season, and things weren’t looking up in the second half. After playing in all but five of the Rangers’ games through July 18, Fielder again went on the disabled list and, after undergoing a second neck surgery, is expected to miss the remainder of this season.

It may not just be the rest of the season he misses, however, as shocking reports emerged this afternoon that Prince’s career may be over:

If true, then, as a number of people have pointed out, Prince will finish with a .283/.382/.506 line, .304 TAv, .377 wOBA, 133 wRC+, 26.8 fWAR / 23.8 bWAR / 30.3 WARP, and 319 home runs, the same number of home runs his father, Cecil, with whom he seems to have reconciled, hit in a career just one season longer than his son’s.

Although serious injuries seemed to dim his wattage following the trade to Texas, I always will remember Prince Fielder as a complete hitter who was one of the happiest baseball players I ever saw. His friendship with Miguel Cabrera was particularly endearing.  What follows are some of my favorite images and clips from Prince’s playing days:   Continue reading

Catching Fire: Night of a thousand feet of home runs

If not winning, the Detroit Tigers certainly have been doing a lot of home-run hitting over the last week or so, and, after some extra-inning disappointments during that stretch, they finally put it all together last night for an overtime win last night in a home series opener against the Seattle Mariners. That game featured three Tigers homers, each of which gave the team the lead. Especially exciting for Detroit was that two of them came off the bat of Justin Upton, who finally appears to be heating up for his new team after suffering one of the worst offensive stretches of his career.

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Upton’s first of the night was a dead-center bomb in the seventh that gave the Tigers a 7-6 lead, and his second, which clinched the game in walk-off fashion in the twelfth, landed beyond the bullpen in left. There likely is no one happier about this apparent return to power than Upton himself, and, especially with J.D. Martinez out with an elbow injury, it couldn’t be more timely for the team.

Upton’s homers last night inspired celebration, but Miguel Cabrera’s, which gave the Tigers a 2-0 lead in the first inning, inspired awe. I’ve never seen a Comerica Park home run hit where Cabrera hit his last night. No one has.

Have a look:   Continue reading

Red Wings’ season, playoff chances coming down to the wire

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It’s easy to second-guess coaching decisions after the fact, begins many post-loss sports articles, but it was immediately clear that the Detroit Red Wings, and their recently redeemed goalie, Jimmy Howard, were not 100% last night in Boston. The direct evidence? Surrendering two goals on four Bruin shots in the first 2:44 of the game. The circumstantial evidence? A hard-fought win the night before in a game that did not start until after 8:00, delaying the team’s arrival at its Boston hotel until 2:45 yesterday morning. Howard looked sluggish, and his teammates weren’t able to bail him out. Their backs against the wall, Boston hardly let up, eventually claiming a 5-2 win.

The Howard redemption story is a nice and good one, and, if the Red Wings are able to clinch a twenty-fifth-consecutive playoff berth, there’s little reason to believe it can’t continue into the postseason, but hockey, as much as any sport, is a sucker for narratives like these, and they can color strategic decisions. Continue reading

Getting to know Jordan Zimmermann in context

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I’m going to continue to link to this baseball-season countdown clock in the introductions to my baseball-related posts this month because it’s an easy way to ease into the subject matter while framing the content that follows as timely, topical, and fresh (regardless of its actual timeliness, topicality, or freshness).

The Detroit Tigers added a number of new players this past offseason in attempts to replace departures from and fix preexisting holes in each portion– offense, starting pitching, relief pitching– of their roster. Having already discussed the offense here, my focus here is on the new addition likely to have the largest effect on the pitching staff: former Washington Nationals starting pitcher Jordan Zimmermann.

As demonstrated last week in his spring training interview on MLB Network, Zimmermann has the personality of a post-Lions Silverdome hotdog, but the Tigers didn’t sign him to a five-year contract so he would challenge Miguel Cabrera in the joke-telling department. All the team is asking Zimmermann to do is replace David Price’s position in the starting rotation, which, sure, Jordan, you can borrow this book of limericks.

Zimmermann is unlikely to be mistaken for Price, but a recent comparison with another Vandy alum, Sonny Gray, can serve as an entry point to the new Tiger’s recent performance. Continue reading