Game 162: Talking baseball at the end of the 2016 regular season

Every MLB team is in action beginning at 3:00 this afternoon for the final* day of the 2016 regular season. Before heading down to Turner Field to catch the Tigers and say farewell to baseball in downtown Atlanta, I was a guest on today’s episode of the Banished to the Pen Podcast, in which I rambled about wild card scenarios and made severely underinformed playoff predictions.

Stream or download the podcast here.

* Final as to all except Detroit and Cleveland, which likely will need to play a makeup game tomorrow.

Another audible discussion of current baseball stories

While the ALDLAND Podcast‘s technical hiatus continues, I returned as a guest on this week’s episode of the Banished to the Pen podcast, where we discussed current baseball stories, including the latest Dave Dombrowski news, the status and outlook of frequent trading partners the Detroit Tigers and Toronto Blue Jays, and issues surrounding the possible expansion of safety netting in MLB stadiums.

You can download or stream the entire podcast here.

Window Shopping: Step Back From the Window, or, Thank You Very Much, Mr. Rebooto

The July 31 non-waiver trade deadline was an especially active period for the Detroit Tigers franchise, which made big moves both with player and front-office personnel.

Detroit traded three of the best players on its 2015 roster in the days and minutes prior to the trade deadline. The team’s biggest move, and arguably the biggest of one of the most active trade-deadline periods ever, was their decision to trade number-one starter David Price to the Toronto Blue Jays. They also sent closer Joakim Soria to Pittsburgh, and, in the final moments before the deadline, Yoenis Cespedes to the Mets.

The basic logic behind each of these moves is that, even prior to these trades, each of these players was, for all practical purposes, not going to be a member of the Detroit Tigers in 2016. That’s because each is in the final year of his current contract, meaning that each becomes a free agent at the end of this season. The Tigers would have no special ability to keep Price, Cespedes, or Soria in Detroit after the end of the 2015 season, and, given their individual successes, each is likely to fetch contract offers on the free market too rich even for Mike Ilitch’s blood. Rather than keep Price, Cespedes, and Soria for August and September on a team that’s unlikely to even make the playoffs, only to watch them walk away in the winter, the Tigers, with an eye on the post-2015 future, decided to cash in some of the value of these assets by trading them now. In doing so, Detroit converted these three expiring assets into six prospects, including five pitchers and one infielder.

Baseball analysts widely praised these transactions as beneficial to the Tigers, who, general manager Dave Dombrowski announced were “rebooting,” selling with the goal of remaining competitive in the near term, rather than undergoing a full rebuilding. The top return for Detroit was Daniel Norris, a now-former Blue Jay who lives in a van and shaves his beard with an ax. They also received Matt Boyd from Toronto, a younger starter who, in his recent Tigers’ debut, beat Johnny Cueto and the Royals.

Of course, the only real question for Detroit was not whom to trade but whether to trade. As July 31 approached, that question divided fans and, it later would be revealed, members of the team’s front office and ownership. As for the former group, most fans recognized the Tigers’ slim playoff odds and supported selling, although a minority that included this writer held out hope that the team could make one more postseason push before initiating a rebuild. Ultimately, Dombrowski’s “rebooting” seemed to satisfy both camps: Detroit would get close-to-ready prospects in exchange for their expiring assets. No long rebuilding process– a full surrender– was in store, just a quick retooling.

Two additional notes in the context of these trades: 1) one week before the trade deadline, Toronto, the biggest buyers, and Detroit, the biggest sellers, sat four and five games out of the last American League wild card position, respectively, and 2) while it isn’t at all likely that Price, Soria, or Cespedes will return to Detroit in the offseason, the effect of an unusual clause in Cespedes’ contract is that the Tigers actually increased whatever chance they have of resigning Cespedes by trading him.

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As the Tigers and their fans were settling into life without Price, Soria, and Cespedes, and enjoying their first trial run with Norris, who had a strong start on Sunday in Baltimore, unbeknownst to them, even more action was afoot behind the scenes.    Continue reading

Window Shopping: We Got Robbed

The Detroit Tigers shot out to a hot start in 2015, but things have not been too good for Detroit since then. They’ve won just five of their last thirteen series. The team’s active six-game losing streak is its longest in four seasons.

The title of this year’s serial Tigers feature at this site, Window Shopping, comes from the common theme of Detroit season previews that, with respect to a World Series championship, the team was trying to keep open its “window of opportunity,” assuming that proverbial window had not already slammed shut under the weight of expensive long-term contracts, aging players, and perceived defensive burdens.

After the last month and a half, though, it is as if these window shoppers, gazing upon the Commissioner’s Trophy in a fancy Harrod’s storefront display (did we fight the Revolution for nothing??), reached into their back pockets in consideration of making the eventual purchase, only to find they suddenly had no money, no credit cards, no traveler’s checks, nothing. They’ve been robbed.

The Tigers are in a tailspin, and it isn’t exactly anyone else’s fault. Their recent struggles have come in games against teams largely regarded as mediocre or worse, including the Athletics, Angels, and Brewers. What’s happening?

After starting the season with an 11-2 record, the Tigers have gone 17-24, and their performance somehow has felt even worse. By my count, since April 21, the date they entered with that 11-2 mark, Detroit has a -19 run differential. Only two other American League teams– the White Sox and Red Sox– have worse run differentials during that period, and only one AL team, Toronto (187), has allowed more runs over that span than Detroit’s 185. Of course, the Blue Jays also scored 213 runs in those games, a number that dwarfs the Tigers’ 166 and is the most in the league. On the other hand, just seven AL teams have scored fewer than 166 runs since April 21, and two of them, Kansas City and Tampa Bay, still maintained positive run differentials. (Both Sox teams, along with Seattle, Baltimore, and Oakland round out this low-scoring group.) In terms of offense and defense (the fundamental terms of competitive team sports), it’s hard to be worse than Detroit right now.

Offense fueled the Tigers’ strong start, and its disappearance has triggered their decline. They averaged 5.38 runs per game through April 20. Since then, though, they’ve scored just 4.05 runs per game, a drop of more than a run and a third. Omit a blowout 13-1 win against the Twins on May 14, and that per-game scoring average falls to 3.83. No bueno.   Continue reading

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

Book Review: Up, Up, & Away

jonahkeriupup&awayJonah Keri has completed the keystone work of his young life with Up, Up, & Away: The Kid, The Hawk, Rock, Vladi, Pedro, Le Grand Orange, Youppi!, The Crazy Business of Baseball, & the Ill-fated but Unforgettable Montreal Expos. While Keri surely will continue to be one of the top baseball writers of this generation, he was born to write this book about his dearest baseball love.

The book tells the full story of the Expos franchise, beginning with pre-Expos baseball in Montreal, which included the minor league Montreal Royals, a team that counted Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente among its alumni, through the bitter end and the franchise’s departure to Washington, D.C. Readers learn about Montreal and the men who brought Major League Baseball to that city (and Canada) and administered it while it was there, but Up, Up, & Away really is a fan’s story of the talented characters who wore the red, white, and powder blue.

The Expos generally had two peaks in their thirty-five-year history. The first came in the early 1980s, Continue reading

Can Jaguars Swim?

british jaguars

The NFL has not disguised its efforts to develop its brand abroad, and it appears to be moving toward establishing a team in another country. With expansion, which probably would reduce current owners’ revenues, unlikely, the only ready option is to relocate an existing team across the boarder.

The obvious choice is Canada. The Buffalo Bills already have some sort of timeshare arrangement with Toronto, but so long as Roger Goodell remains NFL commissioner, that move will not happen. (Goodell:Bills::Selig:Brewers, sort of.) Mexico doesn’t quite seem to be happening for the NFL either.

Instead, the league has set its eyes on Europe, and London in particular. Even though it abandoned NFL Europe, the league is pressing its product there more than ever, and it’s doing so in a targeted way. The team to go? The Jacksonville Jaguars.

I watched last night’s crime against football on Sky Sports, a British broadcasting operation. During breaks, they were airing commercials for some UK version of fantasy football that featured three Jags cheerleaders and chances to win gear from “your favorite team,” spoken over the image of a Maurice Jones-Drew jersey. (You can view the commercial here.) Jacksonville is playing Atlanta in the NFL’s now-annual game in London, but the commercial doesn’t include any Falcons imagery. It’s all about establishing a long-term connection between European fans and the Jaguars.

The newish Jags owner is on board with that long-term connection– Shad Khan, a native of Pakistan who moved to America at age sixteen and became a billionaire through the automotive-parts industry, called the Jaguars “the home team for London.” Khan also bought a London-based soccer team, Fulham Football this summer, and in Khan’s eyes, that’s no coincidence: “Obviously, there would be some practices, some synergies we’d like to take advantage of [between the Jaguars and Fulham],” he said. Khan also pointed out that the Jaguars will be playing one home game in London at least for the next four seasons.

U.S.-based fans may just now be hearing about the prospect that a team, possibly the Jaguars, could be making a more permanent connection to London, but from the looks of things like the commercial I saw last night and Kahn’s actions, the NFL may have already made a decision.

The Toronto Blue Jays have eyes in the skies

From ESPN New York:

New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi said his team needs to use multiple signs even when there is no one on base at Rogers Centre because the Blue Jays “could be” stealing signs using illegal methods.

“Sometimes we have inclinations that certain things might be happening in certain ballparks and we are aware of it and we try to protect our signs,” Girardi said.

What author Andrew Marchand did not mention was that the Jays’ record as of the day he posted that article was 47-48, good enough for penultimate place in the AL East. Yes, Yankee pitcher Bartolo Colon’s meltdown was somewhat epic (and arguably somewhat epoch), but you’d think they’d be winning more if this was their strategy. After all, the Patriots went 18-1 in 2007-2008.

Maybe it’s a new strategy and they want to make a run in the second half. With the Yankees, Red Sox, and D-Rays, Toronto’s division is a tough one, but they knew that going into the season. Why wait so long?

(UPDATE: The Jays now have eked above .500, with a 55-53 record, having gone 8-5 since that game. They nevertheless remain in fourth place in the division, twelve back of Boston.)