Ever since Moneyball was published in 2003, the baseball world has been in hot pursuit of the next great market inefficiency. Whether it was Billy Beane’s mining for high on-base percentage, the Rays’ dedication to the “extra 2%”, or, more recently, the Royals’ embrace of contact hitters in a swing-and-miss era, the last decade has seen momentary success heralded as a new paradigm for winning.

In order to play catch up with the likes of the Royals and crosstown Mets, Brian Cashman has reportedly been considering all options. According to teams who have had early talks with the GM, Cashman has been aggressive and creative. The irony, of course, is Cashman doesn’t really need a big imagination to turn the Yankees into World Series favorites. He just needs a good short-term memory.

Market inefficiencies are difficult to exploit because baseball is a copycat industry. As soon as one team strikes gold, another is right behind ready to stake a claim. However, amid the cascade of short-lived formulas, one model has been a true foundation of sustained success: the Almighty Yankee Dollar. For the better part of the last century, including most of the past 20 years, the Yankees have flexed their financial muscle. However, more recently, the team has decided to devalue its currency. Instead of “winning at all costs”, the franchise’s new strategy prioritized profit margin over winning percentage. Well, three year later, the Yankees have certainly fattened their wallets, but winning games has proven much more difficult in a cost cutting environment.

Only Hal Steinbrenner knows whether the Yankees will be once again willing to leverage the advantage of their oversized wallet, but if so, this year’s free agent market presents several compelling opportunities to remedy the team’s deficiencies. So, guided by the old franchise philosophy of money being no object, below is a championship blueprint the Yankees can use to once again lord over the baseball world. Continue Reading »

Baseball’s final four is set, and it features a quartet with one of the longest cumulative championship droughts in LCS history. So, forget the recent talk of dynasties and title defenses. When the champagne flows after this year’s World Series, it will quench the thirst of a long-suffering fan base.

Yearly Cumulative World Series Drought of LCS Participants, 1969-2015
LCS Drought

Note: Includes the sum of years between a World Series victory and the current season for all teams. A team that won the World Series and played in the LCS in the following year is considered to have a drought of one year. For teams without a World Series victory as a reference point, either their first season or 1903 was used.
Note: 1904 and 1994 were included in calculating the durations.
Source: baseball-reference.com (data)

LCS with Longest Combined Championship Drought
Top 10 lcs droughts
Note: Includes the sum of years between a World Series victory and the current season for all teams. A team that won the World Series and played in the LCS in the following year is considered to have a drought of one year. For teams without a World Series victory as a reference point, either their first season or 1903 was used.
Note: 1904 and 1994 were included in calculating the durations. Droughts of longer than 20 years in bold.
Source: baseball-reference.com (data) Continue Reading »

The MLB postseason had a power surge on Monday. Yesterday’s four division series games featured a long ball barrage that set a myriad of records, including the most home runs and runs scored in a single day of postseason play. Who said the playoffs were all about small ball?

To be fair, before Monday’s outburst, both runs and home runs had been in short supply in October. The 21 homers and 61 runs scored nearly doubled the cumulative output for each statistic, so yesterday’s breakout hardly represents a trend. However, that doesn’t mean the small ball narrative has validity. Although home runs aren’t likely to be as plentiful during the rest of the month, history suggests they will continue to play a significant role throughout the rest of the postseason.

Rate of Runs Scored via the Home Run, Regular Season vs. Postseason, 1995 to 2015YTD
HR percentage
Note: PS = Postseason; RS = Regular season.
Source: Baseball-reference.com

Since the start of the wild card era in 1995, home runs have accounted for 38.6% of all runs scored during the post season. Contrary to conventional wisdom, which suggests hitting home runs becomes more difficult in October, that’s three percentage points higher than the MLB regular season rate. When compared to the regular season performance of playoff teams, the gap narrows, but remains at two percentage points. What’s more, the yearly fluctuations have a similar bias. Compared to the entire league, 15 of 21 seasons (including year-to-date 2015) have featured a higher percentage of runs scored on homers in the postseason. Relative to playoff teams only, the ratio actually increases to 16 of 21. In addition, the differential has routinely been larger when it favors the postseason. Whereas there have been seven seasons since 1995 with at least a five percentage point increase in postseason runs produced by the long ball (six seasons when comparing to playoff teams’ regular season output), only two years (2000 and 2012) have featured a decline of a similar magnitude.

Home Runs Per Game: Regular Season vs. Postseason, 1995 to 2015 (ytd)
HR per game

Note: PS = Postseason; RS = Regular season. Averages are per team per game.
Source: Baseball-reference.com Continue Reading »

Records are made to be broken, not rules, and certainly not the legs of middle infielders.

Chase Utley was just trying to break up a double play. As it turned out, he not only broke the leg of Mets’ shortstop Ruben Tejada, but also one of baseball’s most ignored rules. Whether or not you believe Utley’s slide was dirty or a good clean baseball play, the MLB rule book says it was illegal. In fact, any slide designed to interfere with a fielder, as opposed to reach a base, is against the rules.

Rule 5.09(a)(13)
Note: Rule 5.09(2)(13) was Rule 6.05(m) in the 2014 version of the Official Baseball Rules.
Source: Official Baseball Rules (mlb.com)

Baseball’s rulebook is rife with ambiguity, but Rule 5.09(a)(13) is actually quite clear. Whenever a runner makes an obvious attempt to crash into the pivot man on the double play, instead of trying to reach the next base, it is a violation of the rules, and both he and the batter are liable to be called out. Unfortunately, second base umpire Chris Guccione didn’t see it that way, but it’s hard not to wonder if his judgment was more clouded by MLB’s tacit acceptance of illegal takeout slides than illuminated by his knowledge of the rules.

That’s not a slide. That’s a tackle.” – Mets outfielder Michael Cuddyer, quoted by MLB.com

Any reasonable person watching last night’s game would conclude that Utley’s sole purpose was to prevent Tejada from making a return throw to first. The 13-year veteran admitted as much in his postgame comments. Besides, the visual evidence is clear. Utley not only began his slide after the bag, but he was perpendicular to the baseline at the point of contact and never made an attempt to touch second base (in fact, his first contact with the base came after returning to the field from the dugout).

So, does that mean runners like Utley should simply concede the double play? Although Rule 5.09(a)(13) prohibits slides with the express intent to interfere with fielders, it doesn’t outlaw those designed to actually reach the base. Baserunners can still breakup double plays by simply sliding hard into second base and preventing the pivot man from moving forward into his throw. When fielders come across the bag, they are entering the runner’s domain and assume responsibility for contact. However, when runners go after the fielder like a heat-seeking missile, they go from trying to break up a double play to breaking the rules. This simple, logical rule of thumb should govern how the play is officiated.

As had occurred with plays at the plate, MLB has ignored its own rules for so long that it may now become time to either more explicitly define what a legal slide is, or, at least, re-educate umpires and players on what the current rulebook allows. In addition, illegal slides should be reviewable. If the replay officials were able to overrule Guccione’s out call, why shouldn’t they be permitted to evaluate his judgment of Utley’s slide? With this second layer of enforcement, major league baseball may be able to more quickly and fairly alter what has become ingrained behavior due to neglect.

The insult to the Mets’ injury occurred when the replay officials, who weren’t able to review the legality of the slide, overturned the out call and placed Utley back at second. Unfortunately, because of how the umpires on the field ruled, that was actually the right decision. Although Utley had never touched second (as we established, that was never his intention), Guccione’s out call removed that requirement. So, when the replay officials decided to overturn the call, they were tasked with determining what would have happened had the incorrect verdict not been rendered. In this case, it was more reasonable to assume that Utley, upon realizing no out signal was made, would have scrambled back to the base ahead of Tejada, who was now on the ground with a broken leg. So, not only was Utley not penalized for his illegal slide, but, he was actually rewarded because of the violent consequences.

The umpires on the field didn’t give the Mets justice, but MLB chief baseball officer Joe Torre’s cryptic comments after the game suggest a measure might be forthcoming from the league’s disciplinary office. Just because Utley may not have intended to break Tejada’s leg, his slide was an example of willful negligence. The veteran, who has a history of violent take outs, had to be aware that his actions had the potential to cause great harm, so, whether or not he viewed his slide as illegal, there should be consequences. A suspension probably won’t make the Mets, or Tejada, feel any better, but it would set a good example and signal MLB’s seriousness about eliminating a needlessly violent part of the game.

Unfortunately for MLB, the NLDS between the Dodgers and Mets has gone from a showcase of great pitching to a discussion of a lack of fairness and potential retaliation. Equally unfortunate is Chase Utley’s career could now become defined more by one dirty play than 13 years of skillful performance. Such is the price for not playing by the rules.

The Yankees’ return to the postseason didn’t last long, but, because most people didn’t expect them to make the playoffs, even a brief cameo in October can be considered an over-achievement. However, just because the team exceeded diminished expectations doesn’t mean that over-achievement was a success.

Under the old Yankees’ standard, it would have been blasphemous to even consider this year a success, especially after blowing the largest division lead in franchise history. Not too long ago, it was World Series or bust for the Bronx Bombers, so 87 wins and a wild card would have probably been labeled an embarrassment. Truth be told, that was always an unrealistic standard to uphold, but by pursuing perfection, the Yankees still left room for real achievement even when they missed the mark. Now, however, the franchise seems to be taking the opposite tact. Instead of living up to its legacy of greatness, the bar has simply been set lower…so much so that being eliminated in a wild card playoff could be deemed a success.

I don’t think there was a lot of people who thought we were going to play this game. So yes, it was a success.”Carlos Beltran, quoted by Washington Post

A common theme from the Yankees’ postgame clubhouse was that because no one expected the team to make the postseason, simply playing in the wild card game was a moral victory. Although most players didn’t go beyond saying they were proud of the team’s effort, some, like Carlos Beltran and Brett Gardner, actually called the season a success. Joe Girardi wasn’t as explicit, but he also rallied around the notion that the team had overachieved. “When the season started, no one thought we would be here,” Girardi said. What he didn’t explain was why that should be thought of as a good thing. Continue Reading »

Judging by the dwindling crowds at the Stadium and declining audience on YES, Yankees fans haven’t exactly bought into the excitement of the wild card race. For most of the year, but particularly over the last month, apathy has replaced the usual fervor in the Bronx. And, even with a chance to clinch a postseason berth vs. the rival Red Sox, no-shows have seemingly outnumbered fans eager to celebrate the team’s return to October baseball.

Yankee Stadium Attendance, 2009-2015
Yankee attendance
Note: As of September 29, 2015. Dotted line is a two-year moving average.
Source: Baseball-reference.com

Yankees Ratings on YES, 2003-2015
Yankee ratings

Note: 2003 is first year that YES was carried on the Cablevision system. Rating is based on viewing households compared to Nielsen estimates for total New York market size. 2004 Household number not available. 2008 rating is estimated based on 2009 total New York market households and may differ from the actual rating. 2015 HH rating is as of July 7.
Source: YES Network, Nielsen, New York Times, TV By the Numbers

How will Yankee fans react once the playoffs begin? Will the team’s dormant fan base come to life, or will the same malaise that has plagued the pennant drive persist? If ticket availability for the postseason is an indication, the latter seems more likely. Despite being on sale for several days, the Yankees still have not sold out the home wild card game, and large swaths of tickets to the other October series remain.

Comparison of Yankees and Blue Jays ALDS Home Game #1 Ticket Availability

Source: MLB.com

It’s hard to blame Yankee fans for not being inspired by this year’s team. Although eminently likable, and at times exciting, the current edition of the Bronx Bombers pales in comparison to the more talented and star-laden teams of the recent past. However, the shortcomings of the team may not be the only thing keeping fans away. Despite spending much less money on payroll and fielding a weaker team, the Yankees have continued to burden fans with high prices and unfriendly ticket policies, and, for this year’s postseason, the organization has not relented. Continue Reading »

The key to winning baseball games is pitching, fundamentals, and three run homers.” – Earl Weaver

Earl Weaver would have loved the 2015 Yankees…well, at least their offense. Perhaps more than any other lineup in history, the Bronx Bombers have taken the Hall of Fame manager’s most noted philosophy to heart.

While skipper of Baltimore, Weaver’s Orioles averaged just over 20 round trippers of three runs or more, but this year’s Bronx Bombers have slugged their way well past that mark. Carlos Beltran’s homer on Thursday was the Yankees’ 47th long ball with at least two men on base, trailing only the 1996 Mariners and 2000 Cardinals for most since at least 1950 (the period from which play-by-play data is mostly complete). And, because the Yankees have been just as good at preventing these high scoring blasts, the team’s differential of 31 currently stands as the all-time best mark.

Top- and Bottom-10 Teams in Three-Plus HR Differential, 1950-2015
top bottom multi hr

Note: Data is as of September 26, 2015 and dates back to 1950, the year for which play-by-play data is mostly complete. Data labels represent the differential. Includes three-run homers and grand slams.
Source: baseball-reference.com

The Yankees’ ability to hit home runs with the bases crowded is even more extraordinary when considered in greater context. By comparing the Yankees’ and MLB’s relative rate of home runs based on the number of men on base, this year’s Bronx Bombers are clearly an outlier. With a home run in 5.4% of all plate appearances with at least two men on base, the Yankees have essentially scored 60 extra runs on the long ball than would normally be expected. It’s impossible to determine how many of those runs would have been recouped with different outcomes, but we know for sure the Yankees couldn’t have done better.

MLB and Yankees Relative HR Rates, 2000 to 2015
Relative HR rate
Note: Data is as of September 26, 2015. Includes three-run homers and grand slams compared to all plate appearances with either two men on base or the bases loaded.
Source: baseball-reference.com Continue Reading »

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