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Sabermetrics in Sin City? Don’t expect old-school gamblers at winter meetings – WSAIGO Sports
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Sabermetrics in Sin City? Don’t expect old-school gamblers at winter meetings

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It is, in theory, the perfect intersection of glitz, glamor, gambling and greed: Major League Baseball, with its massive assembly of platinum free agents and its compelling trade pieces, will meet for four days for the winter meetings in Las Vegas, the entertainment capital of the world, the gambling mecca, Sin City. What happens here, stays here. It’s an ideal collision. Place your bets right here, folks, and let the roulette wheel spin.

And yes, there will be tremendous movement and excitement at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino. Free agents Bryce Harper and Manny Machado will get paid an enormous amount of money, Patrick Corbin has already been paid, and to a lesser degree, so will Nathan Eovaldi and Craig Kimbrel. Maybe Madison Bumgarner, Corey Kluber, Noah Syndergaard and Zack Greinke will be traded. But the game has changed, and so have those who run it, which might make Vegas the least appropriate site for baseball’s winter meetings. This might be more like Wayne Newton vs. Sir Issac Newton.

Today’s baseball executives, mostly the general managers, are logical. They aren’t gamblers, and building a team is no longer a game of chance. Today’s leaders are young, brilliant, remorseless, bloodless guys from business and mathematical backgrounds, from the Ivy League, not the International League or the Pacific Coast League. At the general managers’ meetings last month in Carlsbad, California, one executive estimated that of the 90 people in one meeting room, three per team, only 14 played pro ball. An executive who was there said that when a baseball question came up, about the actual playing of the game, “no one in the room knew who to look to for an answer.”

Our new execs might not have played the game at its highest level, but they know how to play the game.

“The market has been flooded with very intelligent people over the last 10 years,” said Brian Cashman, the Yankees’ GM the past 21 years. “Maybe they have more discipline and patience. The light has been shined on making objective decisions, not subjective decisions. Teams are still spending lots and lots of money. But with all the information we have now, the decisions on how and where to spend are safer and more sound. We are investing in the right places. It’s like Michael Corleone: It’s not personal, it’s just business.”

One of the new general managers, former agent Brodie Van Wagenen of the New York Mets went rogue by taking on $83 million in salary in a risky trade to acquire second baseman (and former client) Robinson Cano, age 36, and closer Edwin Diaz from the Seattle Mariners. But for the most part, these guys, as we saw last year during free agency, are not going to give a 32-year-old with declining skills a four-year deal because they had a good “feeling” about the player. There isn’t much feeling any longer, gut or otherwise. There isn’t much human element involved. The players are numbers, imminently replaceable, as important to the game as beer vendors, according to Bill James. This is about math and science now. Physics is undefeated. This is not about riding a hot hand at the blackjack table or blowing on dice in a game of craps. This is about counting cards. This is MIT against Vegas, which, we have learned, is Vegas’ worst nightmare. This is about exit velocity, launch angle and spin rate. Two years ago, an American League team hired a rocket scientist to study exit velocity, and among his findings was that Tony Gwynn was a not a great hitter. He was a lucky hitter because his exit velocity wasn’t as high as that of other great hitters. He must have gotten lucky 3,141 times.

“There’s no substitute for the experience of people who have marinated themselves in scouting and player development,” Royals GM Dayton Moore said. “But there’s a lot of wisdom in the game. With advanced metrics, we rely less and less on instinct and more on facts and information. We’re in the most over-evaluated period of players in baseball ever, but the information is so precise, we are much more strategic and focused on things that make sense. We know teams’ plans, who non-tenders will be, two to three years in advance.”

The old days of evaluating players and assigning value are over, as are the old days of the winter meetings. At the 1975 meetings in Hollywood, Florida, White Sox GM Roland Hemond posted a sign in the hotel lobby that read: “Open For Business.” “By midnight that night,” he said proudly, “we’d made four deals.” Back then, the GM with the biggest bar made the most trades. Back then, Phillies GM Paul Owens, at the hotel bar at 1:30 a.m., took off his sport coat, and demonstrated the proper way to execute a hook slide. He also, one morning at 2:30, called the beat guys who covered the team to announce that the Phillies had acquired Sutter — but it wasn’t closer Bruce Sutter. It was a minor leaguer named Burke Sutter.

Our GMs today don’t laugh much. And they don’t call writers at 2:30 a.m. or make trades after 12 gin and tonics. In fact, you rarely see them in the hotel bar or in the hotel lobby at the winter meetings. They are all gathered in their suites with their computers, their smartphones and their battalion of sabermetric minds, all looking for the perfect deal. This is how it works now: A smart, young GM surrounds himself with a bunch of other smart people, and they don’t leave the room until they get exactly what they want. Much like in our society, there are fewer handshake deals, and there is far less personal communication, especially face to face. The winter meetings are, as they have been for several years, the image of Scott Boras texting Barry Zito with the final contract details in nine characters: 7 for 126.

“We are able to make more efficient decisions now, less emotional decisions,” Cashman said. “The guy at the blackjack table isn’t as willing to gamble. Now, it’s the house rules. Now the guy sitting at the poker table might stay and fold rather than make an emotional decision and just go all-in. And he might sit at the table until spring training if he has to.”

Maybe it is the right way to go. Maybe our new execs have developed a new system, a better system, to build a team and save money. The owners think so. But if they are right, then the meetings in Vegas don’t represent the perfect intersection of free agents and free enterprise. They represent the irresistible force against the immovable object and could take place in Iowa or anywhere. The meetings will have movement, excitement and their own fascination, but at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, sadly, there will be no hook slides.

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Excitement, angst face Cubs fans as winter winds down

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CHICAGO — Talk to a Chicago Cubs fan these days and you’re likely to find mixed emotions. That’s been the theme of the offseason right up to, and through, this past weekend’s annual winter fan convention.

Mixed emotions. Conflicting thoughts. Excitement and angst.

Those are all part of the Cubs experience right now as the calendar inches toward spring training. In the past, the Cubs signed big-ticket free agents like Jon Lester, Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist and Yu Darvish. But this winter has been anything but big. The front office forecast early that the budget wouldn’t allow for additions like those splashes. Utility man Daniel Descalso is the lone new player on the team that’s won the most regular-season games the past four seasons but has come up short in the postseason the past two years.

“We didn’t have the flexibility this year to go ahead and sign a huge free agent and I’m not sure we would have anyway,” owner Tom Ricketts said on ESPN WMVP-AM 1000 last week in a rare interview. “We like the team we have. We have strong young guys at most positions.”

So free agent Bryce Harper would not have been on the Cubs’ radar, even with the budget for him? Not many fans believe that from an owner who has been less transparent in recent days. Ricketts canceled his annual fan forum over the weekend for the first time since buying the team in 2009. Yet team president Theo Epstein held a session with fans himself. He wanted to face the music after a disastrous end to 2018, and he did.

So there was transparency from one executive, whereas the owner claimed “low ratings” from previous years were to blame for canceling his own panel discussion. Ricketts did explain himself regarding the employment of shortstop Addison Russell, who is suspended for the first 28 games of 2019 after violating the league’s policies on domestic violence. That’s yet another topic ripe with mixed emotions, especially when you consider the Cubs won’t invite former star Sammy Sosa back into the fold until he comes clean about use of performance-enhancing drugs. For some fans, that opened the door to compare and contrast Russell’s and Sosa’s situations. Right or wrong, it doesn’t sit well that one has a job with the team and the other can’t wave to the fans at a fan convention.

Without Ricketts answering questions, without charismatic team leader Anthony Rizzo in attendance (he was on his honeymoon) and without a major new addition to the team, the headlines from the convention fell to Kris Bryant. He was openly critical of how free agency has played out again this winter, then hours later called the city of St. Louis “boring” — starting an offseason feud with the rival Cardinals. Many fans loved it, but since Bryant and his team must now back up the rhetoric, even that moment brought some mixed emotions.

Eventually, the weekend discussion returned to the field, where the Cubs failed on offense down the stretch last season and then vowed to fix what ailed them. That’s when the Harper discussion picked up, only to be quashed early in the offseason.

“The money got eaten up in a lot of ways by the guys that were coming through the [arbitration] system, and it’s not like we had a big contract roll off,” Ricketts said.

So the team turned inward, with manager Joe Maddon saying over the past few days there was more to “extrapolate” from his current group, while the front office has asked players to maximize their day-to-day prep better. After all, the Cubs won 95 games last season. Tweaking to maximize potential only makes common sense.

“You turn over every stone,” Zobrist said. “You’re thinking about ‘why.’ It’s not just that it did happen. You have to figure out why and then you have to make an adjustment and do something different.”

The Cubs also want better leadership in the clubhouse. This was supposed to be a tight group — the same that won the World Series in 2016. But perhaps it’s been too tight. Calling each other out, when needed, hasn’t been a part of the room since David Ross and Jon Jay moved on. Perhaps a full season with pitcher Cole Hamels will provide some extra leadership.

“That’s where I need to be,” Hamels said this past weekend. “That’s the role directed towards you if you play this game long enough. Being more vocal, instead of just letting it play out on the field.”

Ultimately, if the Cubs start to hit again, the rest should take care of itself. The starting staff is deeper — Darvish is healthy and seems more confident — and Epstein has found effective arms for his bullpen over the years, even if they aren’t always the biggest names. The key might simply be the Cubs’ attitude. They were once on top of the world, but the end of last season knocked them down. How they get up off the mat is how they’ll be judged moving forward. Mixed emotions and all.

“We’re a confident group,” Albert Almora Jr. said. “We just have to finish what we start. We want to send a message early on.”

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MLB — Everything you need to know on Hall of Fame announcement day

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The results of the second stage of the annual Hall of Fame voting process will be announced Tuesday evening with the Baseball Writers’ Association selections, and we can safely say not to expect any stunning news along the lines of what happened in December with the Today’s Game Era committee.

In other words, we’re not going to see a reunion of the 2005 White Sox with the elections of Jon Garland and Freddy Garcia.

The committee’s election of Harold Baines, however, does raise an interesting question: How much does the BBWAA vote even matter if a 16-person committee is simply going to override those results in the future?

Take Fred McGriff. He’s on the BBWAA ballot for the final time. He’s not going to get in. Not to worry; in a few years he seems like a surefire committee choice. He’s like Baines — a one-dimensional slugger, highly respected, played a long time — except even better at that one dimension. McGriff hit .284 with 493 home runs and an OPS+ of 134. Baines hit .289 with 384 home runs and an OPS+ of 121. McGriff’s 52.6 WAR dwarfs Baines’ 38.7. He’s fared much better in BBWAA voting than Baines ever did.

The same can be said of some of the other borderline candidates on the ballot, such as Larry Walker, Scott Rolen and Jeff Kent. Todd Helton and Andy Pettitte are on for the first time. They aren’t strong candidates based on traditional BBWAA standards, but compared to Baines, Lee Smith and Jack Morris — elected the past two years by the special committees — they look pretty good. We can debate their merits, but in the long run they’re probably all getting in. The BBWAA vote only (potentially) expedites the process.

That isn’t to suggest that everyone better than Jack Morris or Harold Baines should get in. Heck, there are 21 players on this ballot with a higher career WAR than those two. What remains to be seen is how the soft selections of Morris, Baines and Smith might start influencing the BBWAA vote.

Anyway, here are some key things to look for with Tuesday’s results. All references to voting totals are courtesy of the great work Ryan Thibodaux does with his Hall of Fame vote tracker.

Will Mariano Rivera become the first player elected unanimously?

Among those who obsess about Hall of Fame balloting, there is a small subset who obsess over this twist of history: No Hall of Famer has received 100 percent of the vote. Somehow, 23 people didn’t vote for Willie Mays. Nine people didn’t vote for Hank Aaron. Imagine having a Hall of Fame ballot and not voting for Willie Mays or Hank Aaron. Twenty didn’t vote for Ted Williams, but, hey, a lot of writers despised the man. In the first election in 1936, 11 writers didn’t vote for Babe Ruth. The rules might not have been entirely clear: Ruth had just retired the previous year. Still, Ruth received just 215 votes out of 226 ballots.

So, as Joe Posnanski related in a recent column, the issue of unanimity became a thing right from the beginning.

Tom Seaver came close. He was named on 425 of 430 ballots in 1992. Three writers sent in a blank ballot, protesting that Pete Rose was not on the ballot. One writer had just gotten out of open-heart surgery and simply missed checking off Seaver’s name. The final non-vote, as Posnanski writes, came from a retired writer named Deane McGowan, who apparently refused to vote for any player on his first ballot. And you think Baseball Twitter is cranky.

Ken Griffey Jr. set the record with 99.3 percent of the vote in 2016. Three writers didn’t vote for him. We don’t know who they were since voters don’t have to reveal their ballots. Maybe somebody sent in a blank ballot. Maybe somebody refused to vote for anybody who played in the steroid era. Maybe somebody decided, “If Babe Ruth wasn’t no unanimous, nobody should be unanimous.”

So it goes. As did Griffey, Rivera has received 100 percent of the publicly revealed ballots. He’s 180-for-180 so far. My guess: He won’t get 100 percent. Somebody will enforce the Ruth rule. Maybe somebody feels no reliever deserves to be enshrined. Maybe somebody, knowing Rivera will get elected, will use his or her 10 spots on the ballot for other candidates. But Rivera has a chance to end the silly 100 percent stigma.

Does Edgar Martinez get in on his final ballot?

It would be a little awkward if Baines is giving a speech in July and Martinez isn’t. After all, the Designated Hitter of the Year award isn’t named after Baines. Fortunately, it looks like Martinez will get elected. He’s received 90.8 percent of the public ballots, compared to 76.3 percent last year, when he finished at 70.4 percent. So even with an expected decline in the percentage he receives from the private ballots, he looks in good shape. Book those hotel rooms now, Mariners fans.

Does Roy Halladay get in on his first ballot?

Halladay is polling at a surprising 94.1 percent — not that he’s undeserving, but he’s not a slam dunk by career WAR (64.3) or wins (203), standards that BBWAA voters have employed in the past. Compare him to Mike Mussina and Curt Schilling:

Halladay: 64.3 WAR, 203-105, 3.38 ERA, 131 ERA+
Mussina: 83.0 WAR, 270-153, 3.68 ERA, 123 ERA+
Schilling: 79.6 WAR, 216-146, 3.46 ERA, 127 ERA+

Mussina is on the ballot for the sixth time and received just 20.3 percent of the vote on his first ballot. Schilling is on for the seventh time and received 38.8 percent of the vote his first time. There are reasons to like Halladay over Mussina and Schilling — he won two Cy Young Awards and finished second two other times, and his seven-year peak is highest of the three (50.4 WAR, 48.7 for Schilling, 44.6 for Mussina) — but it seems Halladay is being viewed much differently than those two. Perhaps his unfortunate death in a plane crash is helping his vote total.

Anyway, like Martinez, his total will surely drop in the private ballot, but he needs just 59.5 percent on the remaining ballots to clear 75 percent.

Speaking of Mussina and Schilling, how will they do?

Mussina is inching closer, but it looks like he’ll fall just short. He’s at 82.2 percent of the public vote and would need 69.2 percent of the remaining ballots. He received just 46.7 percent of the private ballots last year, so he will need a significant increase in that area. Still, he’s trending in the right direction and looks primed for 2019. If Halladay gets in, that helps Mussina since it clears a strong candidate off the ballot and there aren’t any strong starting pitchers hitting the ballot in upcoming years. (Tim Hudson and Mark Buehrle are the best.)

Schilling, meanwhile, continues to fall behind Mussina — even though as recently as 2016 he was well ahead (52.3 percent to 43.0 percent). Schilling is polling at 74.1 percent, which is better than the 60 percent he received on public ballots a year ago, so it’s difficult to know how much his various contentious statements on Twitter and elsewhere have hurt his vote total.

Will Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens get any closer?

We know the Hall of Fame’s stance on these two. Joe Morgan’s letter in November 2017 — he’s the Hall’s vice chairman and on the board of directors — made that clear. Issued from a Hall of Fame email address, Morgan implored voters not to vote for known steroid users. “We hope the day never comes when known steroid users are voted into the Hall of Fame. They cheated. Steroid users don’t belong here,” he wrote.

Of course, there’s the almost certain likelihood that there are steroid users already in the Hall of Fame, and recent elections have voted in players strongly suspected of steroid use. The Hall doesn’t want Bonds or Clemens in, and it could simply remove the pair from the ballot (not to mention Manny Ramirez, who actually failed tests for performance-enhancing drugs), but hasn’t had the audacity to do that.

Anyway, Bonds and Clemens won’t get in, at least not this year. They’re both polling at 73 percent, which is an increase from last year’s public ballots, when they were at 64 percent. Like Schilling, this is their seventh year on the ballot and time is running out, with just three years remaining after this vote and likely not enough momentum in the private ballots (which tend to be more anti-steroids).

What happens after that if they don’t get elected? Who knows. The Hall of Fame could simply choose not to put Bonds and Clemens on the committee ballot. Or it could put them on with the implicit knowledge they won’t get elected. We certainly know one board member who won’t vote for them.

Will Andy Pettitte stay on the ballot?

A player needs 5 percent of the vote to remain on the ballot the following year. Pettitte is at 6.5 percent. Like Jorge Posada a couple of years ago, he’s in danger of getting the boot after one year. (Even Bernie Williams lasted two years.) Pettitte has a stronger case than those two former teammates, however, and a similar — but much stronger — case than Morris. The strongest part of Pettitte’s case might be his postseason record: He went 19-11 with a 3.81 ERA over 44 starts, including 23 starts in which he allowed two runs or fewer.

Still, he’s not one of the 10 best players on this ballot, and his 3.85 career ERA is a tough hill to climb to get in. He also admitted to a one-time use of PEDs, although I haven’t seen anybody reference that as a reason they didn’t vote for him.

How close will Larry Walker get?

Walker is polling at 67 percent of the public ballots compared to 37.5 percent last year. That’s good! Except this is Walker’s ninth year on the ballot. That’s bad! It feels too late to make a run. Tim Raines, for example, was up to 69.8 percent in his ninth year and Martinez was even closer last year. Even if Walker becomes the guy everyone pushes next year, he’s probably going to have to finish with at least 65 percent of the vote this year, and it seems unlikely his private support will keep him at that level.

Even if he falls short next year, there’s always the Today’s Game Era committee. After all, Baines, who lasted only five years on the ballot, topped out at just 6.1 percent on the BBWAA vote.

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MLB — Cincinnati Reds risk overpaying to finally land Sonny Gray

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The long-rumored trade of Sonny Gray to the Cincinnati Reds came through on Monday, with Gray and minor league reliever Reiver Sanmartin going to Cincinnati, infielder Shed Long going to the Seattle Mariners, and outfielder Josh Stowers and a 2019 competitive balance pick (from the Reds) going to the New York Yankees. It’s a puzzling deal for the Reds, some value for the Yankees in moving a player they didn’t want, and I’m not really sure why the Mariners are here unless Jerry Dipoto was bored.

Gray’s tenure in New York was a disaster, but the Reds are hoping that reuniting him with his college pitching coach Derek Johnson, who came over from the Brewers and was with Gray at Vanderbilt, will help him rediscover his form.

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