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.

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Sports Law Roundup – 4/28/2017

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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 slow news week off, we’re back with the top sports-related legal stories from the past week:

  • Hockey head injuries: The NHL suffered another loss in the pretrial discovery process in the ongoing head-injury lawsuit between the league and a group of former players. Last month, the court ordered the public release of certain internal NHL communications and other documents, some of which contained embarrassing and damaging statements by team and league officials, including Commissioner Gary Bettman. Now, the court has mostly denied the NHL’s motion to force Boston University’s CTE Center to produce research documents and information about test subjects, although it will allow production of documents pertaining to deceased players whose families authorize the release of those records, as well as documentation of the Center’s public statements to the press regarding research on NHL players. The league responded by filing its opposition to the plaintiffs’ request for class-action treatment, arguing that there is not a scientifically established link between head trauma and “neurodegenerative” diseases like CTE. According to the NHL’s filing, “any causal relationship between head injury in contact sports and later-in-life development of CTE remains scientifically unproven.” The league also argued that it would be inappropriate to certify a nationwide class for a medical-monitoring claim, since the applicable laws vary on a state-by-state basis.
  • More hockey head injuries: With the NHL already embroiled in head-injury litigation, two of its teams, the St. Louis Blues and New Jersey Devils, now face another lawsuit filed by a former player, Mike Peluso, addressing the same situation. Peluso, an enforcer for the Blues and Devils (as well as the Blackhawks, Senators, and Flames) in the 1990s, alleges that the teams had actual knowledge of the medical risks of additional head injuries he personally faced, yet continued to encourage him to play and fight on the ice. According to Peluso’s complaint, which also names an insurance provider as a defendant, “This is not simply a case were [sic] defendants are alleged to know the link between head injuries and permanent brain damage. This is a case where defendants knew the link between Mr. Peluso’s head injuries and permanent brain damage because they had their own Board Certified Team Neurologist tell them that Mr. Peluso would have brain damage if they allowed him to continue to receive head injuries” and hid that information from him. The complaint also alleges that Peluso suffers from permanent brain damage and dementia and is permanently disabled. Peluso, now fifty-one years old, claims he engaged in 240 fights in his nine-year NHL career and suffered at least nine grand mal seizures. A member of New Jersey’s 1995 Stanley Cup-winning team, Peluso finished among the top-ten players in the league in penalty minutes in four of his nine seasons, leading the league in the 1991-92 season. Mike Peluso should not be confused with his cousin, Mike Peluso, who had a brief NHL career with the Blackhawks and Flyers in the early 2000s.
  • Football biometric data: The NFLPA and Whoop, a company that sells wearable fitness monitoring devices, have entered into an agreement in which Whoop will provide players with devices that track “strain, recovery, and sleep” and can transmit that data to Whoop’s web-based applications. As part of the agreement, the players will be able to customize the aesthetic design of their device for their own use and for retail sale. Significantly, the agreement grants each player ownership rights of all data his device collects. While headline-writers have feasted on the possibility (apparently authorized under the agreement) that players may sell their data in some manner, the real purpose of this deal likely is to stem growing concerns that it would be the teams or leagues that would own (and potentially misappropriate) players’ biometric data.

Sports court is in recess.

Sports Law Roundup – 4/14/2017

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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:

  • Aaron Hernandez: This afternoon, a jury acquitted Aaron Hernandez, who played tight end for the New England Patriots and Florida Gators, of charges that he murdered two people in Boston in 2012. Hernandez already is serving a life term without parole for a 2013 murder. Despite the acquittal on the murder charges, the jury did convict Hernandez on a firearm charge.
  • St. Louis Rams: The City of St. Louis has sued the NFL and all thirty-two of its teams for losses related to the Rams’ departure to Los Angeles in 2016. The suit alleges that the team failed to make a good-faith effort to stay in St. Louis before leaving in violation of league rules. According to a public statement by the city’s mayor, the city spent a substantial amount of public money in the hopes of keeping the team, and it did so in reliance on the expectation that the team would comply with NFL team-relocation rules.
  • Baylor sexual assault: Earlier this year, 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. She 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 claimed that, between 2011 and 2014, thirty-one Baylor football players committed a total of fifty-two rapes, including five gang rapes. Now, the judge overseeing the case has largely denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss, narrowing the plaintiff’s emotional distress claim but otherwise allowing her case to proceed, calling the allegations “disturbing.”
  • Volleyball sponsorship: Kerri Walsh Jennings, who won three Olympic gold medals for the United States beach volleyball team, is suing the Association of Volleyball Professionals for breach of a sponsorship contract. Walsh Jennings alleges that AVP still owes her $150,000 on a $450,000 agreement despite her compliance with all of the contract’s terms. Part of the backdrop of this dispute may be another dispute between Walsh Jennings and AVP over whether she will play in AVP’s 2017 professional tournament.
  • NFL memorabilia: What purports to be new evidence in two 2014 lawsuits against Eli Manning, Steiner Sports (a memorabilia company with which Manning has a formal relationship), the Giants, and a team equipment manager alleging that the defendants worked together to sell collectors “game-worn” items that were not, in fact, game-worn emerged this week in the form of an email exchange between Manning and the equipment manager. In it, Manning requests “2 helmets that can pass as game used,” and the manager responded that he “should be able to get them for tomorrow.” The collectors who filed the lawsuits contend that this exchange proves that Manning knowingly provided Steiner with “fraudulent” items to sell to fans. The team now says the email exchange was taken out of context, and that its release now constitutes an attempt to defame Manning.

Sports court is in recess.

Sports Law Roundup – 3/3/2017

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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.

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

  • Football head injuries: Two former Purdue football players have sued the NCAA and the Big Ten Conference, seeking class-action treatment for their claims that those defendants failed to disclose information about head-trauma risks and provide the university with concussion-management policies. Both named plaintiffs allege that they currently suffer from depression, memory loss, and headaches as a result of concussions experienced while playing football in college.
  • Professional athlete Ponzi scheme: Last year, a banker pleaded guilty to conspiracy, wire fraud, and money laundering in connection with a Ponzi scheme she ran with former NFL player Will Allen designed to defraud investors with a plan to make loans to professional athletes seeking offseason financing when they weren’t receiving payments from their team salaries. On Wednesday, a court sentenced the banker and Allen each to six years in prison for their roles in the criminal scheme.
  • Baseball DUI: A South Korean court has sentenced Pittsburgh Pirates infielder Jung Ho Kang to eight months in prison after the player admitted guilt on a DUI charge. The prison sentence is Kang’s first, despite two prior DUI arrests in his native country. It’s possible Kang serves no prison time, though, because the court conditionally suspended the sentence for two years, and he’ll avoid a lockup if he complies with the court’s terms.
  • Rams fans: Last year, St. Louis-area holders of Rams personal seat licenses suing the team after its move to Los Angeles requested class-action status for their case. Having consolidated various of these cases, the judge now has ordered the parties to mediation.
  • Penn State child abuse: Earlier this year, a court ruled that 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. Last month, the three defendants asked for an immediate appeal of the ruling that they must face trial, which remains scheduled for next month. Now, the court has denied those appeal petitions, clearing the way for the trial to begin as scheduled on March 20. (Last week, the judge granted the prosecutor’s request to add a conspiracy charge to the list of criminal counts pending against the defendants.)

Sports court is in recess.

Sports Law Roundup – 2/3/2017

aslr

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.

Sports Law Roundup – 12/16/2016

aslr

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.

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?

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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

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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.

On the Road Again: A study of NHL rink variation

One of the important background dimensions to comparative baseball statistics is known as “park adjustments,” a set of corrective factors applied to account for the physical differences (e.g., outfield wall depth) between each park. Among American sports today, only Major League Baseball and NASCAR (and golf, I suppose) permit such structural variation between the competitive arenas themselves.

Professional hockey used to be in that group too. More than merely adjusting, adding, and subtracting lines on the ice to affect the flow of play, as the NHL continues to do (cf. the NBA three-point line), the rinks themselves used to be different sizes. League rules mandate a uniform rink size, but so-called “small rinks” persisted in the NHL as late as the 1980s and 1990s in Boston, Chicago, and Buffalo.

While hockey does not face the structural differences present in baseball, there still is a need to apply rink-by-rink statistical adjustments. That’s because the compiling of basic hockey statistics (e.g., shots, hits, turnovers) requires statisticians to make judgment calls to a more significant degree than in a discrete-event sport like baseball.

By way of limited background, the NHL collects basic gameplay statistics through a computer system known as the Real Time Scoring System (RTSS). A benefit of RTSS is that it aggregates and organizes data for analysis by teams, players, and fans. A vulnerability of RTSS is the subjectivity alluded to above that comes when human scorers track a fluid, dynamic sport like hockey.

While others have noted certain biases among the RTSS scorers at different rinks, a paper by Michael Schuckers and Brian Macdonald published earlier this month analyzes those discrepancies across a spread of core statistics and proposes a “Rink Effects” model that aims to do for subjective rink-to-rink differences in hockey scoring what park adjustments do for structural differences between baseball parks.    Continue reading