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Playing .500 on the road while cleaning up at home has long been a prescription for success in baseball. No wonder the 2014 Yankees have been such a failure.  With only 10 home games remaining, the Bronx Bombers are at the threshold of their first losing season at Yankee Stadium since 1991, and the offense is entirely to blame.

Yankees’ Actual vs. Pythagorean Home Record, 1901-2014
nyy home record
Note: Oriole Park from 1901-1902; Hilltop Park from 1903-1912 (and Wiedenmeyer’s Park in 1904); Polo Grounds from 1912-1922; Yankee Stadium I from 1923 to 1973; Shea Stadium from 1974 to 1975; Yankee Stadium II 1976 to 2008 (and Shea Stadium in 1998); and Yankee Stadium III from 2009 to present. Source: Baseball-reference.com

The Yankees are teetering at one game over .500 at home despite being outscored by 30 runs in the Bronx. If the team finishes below that mark, it will mark only the 14th time in franchise history that the home crowd was witness to more losses than victories. Either way, the Yankees should consider themselves lucky to have won so many games at home. Barring an outburst in the final 10 games, the Bronx Bombers’ run differential at Yankee Stadium will likely go down as one of their all-time worst. To date, the Yankees’ Pythagorean winning percentage of 0.449 at home ranks eighth lowest in franchise history, and there’s still a chance it could crack the bottom-five. Continue Reading »

If Stephen Drew’s attempt to score the tying run in last night’s game had taken place on Monday, the Yankees and Rays might still be playing. However, a memo issued by MLB executive vice president Joe Torre earlier in the day altered the enforcement of baseball’s controversial rule 7:13 (see below for full rule text) and likely resulted in Drew being nailed at the plate. But, did the umpires and replay officials get the call right, and does Torre’s memo really provide the clarification it intended?

In the missive from Torre, which was obtained by ESPN, umpires were instructed to give a catcher more leeway to block the plate without the ball, provided he hasn’t “hindered or impeded the progress of the runner attempting to score.” The impetus for this adjustment was to prevent runners, who otherwise would have easily been thrown out, from being awarded home on a technicality. As Braves’ manager Fredi Gonzalez told ESPN, “If you’re out by 40 feet … let’s not call that guy safe.”

The rationale behind Torre’s memo makes perfect sense. If the catcher is standing in front of the plate, but the runner still isn’t in the picture, the position of his feet should be irrelevant. Rule 7:13 was intended to prevent catchers from impeding the runner; it wasn’t meant to create a no standing zone in front of the plate. But, how long is the leash? Can a catcher continue to put up a wall until just before the runner is ready to touch home plate, or must he yield the right away when the runner gets within a reasonable distance (what is a reasonable distance)? Last night’s controversial call hinges on the answer to this question.

In Exhibit 1, we see Drew and the ball approaching, while catcher Ryan Hanigan straddles the plate. At this point, there is no potential violation of Rule 7:13. Hanigan has provided a path and Drew is running on a direct line to home.

Exhibit 1: Drew and the ball approach home plate.
Drew1

Continue Reading »

Baseball is ruined! Again. According to a recent article in The Atlantic, the culprit this time around is Pitch f/x, a “simple technology” that inadvertently wrecked the game by encouraging umpires to call a more accurate strike zone. Who knew adhering to the rule book could prove so detrimental? Well, besides Tom Glavine, who made the same argument over 10 years ago.

Despite being repeatedly pronounced dead, baseball's headstone has yet to be engraved.

Despite being repeatedly pronounced dead, baseball’s headstone has yet to be engraved.

Baseball has been ruined so often, an archaeology degree may become a pre-requisite for being a fan. Over the last 150 years, the list of things that have ruined baseball are too numerous to count. It would be easier to identify that which hasn’t killed the game than name every cause of baseball’s death. And yet, despite the frequent reports of the sport’s demise, so many still seem interested in walking through the rubble. It must be hard to look away from the destruction.

It’s difficult to say what first destroyed baseball. Ty Cobb often argued that Babe Ruth was the cause. Not only did the Sultan of Swat promote the evil home run over the beauty of fundamental play, he also had the nerve to habitually holdout for fair pay. Hadn’t Ruth learned from the experience of the Federal League, which ruined the national game by inflating salaries? Despite the restrictions of the reserve clause, and anti-trust exemption of the major leagues, greedy players, with their desire to unionize, continued to pose an imminent threat to the game. Not to be outdone, equally greedy owners, with their monopolistic ways and absurd innovations, like farm systems, were busy doing the same. These two factions competed to be the cause of baseball’s ruination for most of the 20th century, until they finally teamed up to destroy the game with free agency.

Who did the most damage during the free agency era? Was it free spending owners like the Yankees’ George Steinbrenner? Or ungrateful, overpaid, selfish players who only cared about the almighty dollar? What difference did it make? Because of the sport’s collective greed, labor discord abounded, and the bond between fan and team was inexorably broken. Once a populist game, baseball was now refuge for the elite and, as a result, destined for the scrap heap of the American sports landscape. Continue Reading »

The Oakland Athletics have underachieved all season. Even when they were playing well, the A’s winning percentage lagged their run expectancy by a historic margin. In mid-June, the deficit was the largest in the modern era, suggesting that, even though Oakland had the best record in the major leagues, the best was yet to come.

Oakland Athletics’ Actual vs. Expected Winning Percentage, 2014
As real vs expected

Note: For information on how Pythagorean record are calculated, click here. Data as of September 2, 2014.
Source: Proprietary data base with data from baseball-reference.com

Since mid-June, the gap between the Athletics’ expected and actual winning percentage has been cut in half, but not because the team started to fulfill its potential. Instead of playing up to its run differential, Oakland’s Pythagorean record began to decline, even as Billy Beane spared no effort to improve the team. After playing at .500 for the last 56 games, the Athletics have ceded first place to the Angels and allowed the Tigers and Mariners to creep within three games of their hold on the two wild cards. If the trend continues, Oakland very well could make history, albeit not the kind they were aiming for during the summer.

Even with a prolong stretch of mediocrity, the Athletics still have the best run differential (and Pythagorean record) in baseball. If that remains, and Oakland finds itself out of the playoffs, it will be the first time in the wild care era that a team with the major’s best run differential and expected winning percentage did not make the post season. In the division era, which began in 1969, only three teams share that dubious distinction, and, since 1903 (the advent of the World Series) this unfortunate list only totals eight.

Teams With Best Pythagorean Record/Run Differential but No Postseason
best not in playoffs
*In 1978, the Brewers and Dodgers tied for the best per game run differential in the majors. The Dodgers won the NL pennant.
Note: The highest Pythagorean record doesn’t always correspond to the highest run differential. For information on how Pythagorean record is calculated, click here. Data as of 
September 2, 2014.
Note: Excludes 1904 and 1994, when no postseason was held.
Source: Proprietary data base with data from baseball-reference.com
Continue Reading »

Derek Jeter’s farewell tour has been a victory lap for the Hall of Fame shortstop. In cities throughout baseball, fans have cast aside their loyalties to shower appreciation on the Yankees’ Captain, who spent most of the last 20 years helping the Bronx Bombers repeatedly beat their favorite teams.

Derek Jeter's 20-year reign of "selfishness" is coming to an end.

Derek Jeter’s 20-year reign of “selfishness” is coming to an end.

Although the fan response has been resounding, Jeter’s final go-round hasn’t been without bumps. The 40-year old has suffered through the worst season of his career, and that has provided an opportunity for the short stop’s embittered critics to take one last shot at the legend as he makes his way out the door. While the vast majority of baseball fans have been eager to slap him on the back, this smaller group of Jeterphobes has opted for a push, with a little dirt kicked in his direction for good measure.

The typical contrarian Jeter article usually acknowledges, albeit begrudgingly, the short stop’s historic career, but it is careful to couch that praise in standard criticism of his defense. Conferring infallibility to defensive metrics that are inherently flawed, the critics proclaim that Jeter is the worst defensive short stop of all time, as if being extra emphatic will change the minds of those who have watched him play for 20 years. Putting aside the reliability of these metrics, and the validity of the resultant exaggerated claims, these articles never seem to mention that, despite being heavily penalized for his defense, Jeter still has one of the highest WAR ratings among short stops. If the truth about Jeter’s defense is somewhere in the middle, who knows how high he’d rank? Maybe, he’s actually underrated?

The debate over Jeter’s defense has become so clichéd, the discourse is more about the person taking a position than the merits of their argument (present company included). And, perhaps because this pointed criticism of Jeter has begun to fall on deaf ears, his detractors have latched onto something new. Now, not only has Jeter been an abominable defender all these years, the critics proclaim, but his farewell tour has proven him to be selfish.

Although others have made similar veiled suggestions, Howard Megdal doesn’t mince words. In his latest article at SBNation, Megdal calls into question “the basic truth…that Derek Jeter is a selfless leader who will do whatever it takes to win”. The crux of Megdal’s argument is Jeter should have voluntarily and publically demoted himself in the lineup and/or limited his playing time. His failure to do this, the author states, is evidence of Jeter’s selfishness. Continue Reading »

The Yankees find themselves idle on Labor Day for the first time since 2005 and on only the second scheduled date in franchise history (1994 was victim to the strike, and rain postponed games in 1922, 1933, 1935). Considering how poorly this year’s offense has performed, the day off seems rather appropriate. Because of the team’s slumbering bats, the Yankees enter the home stretch with their worst record on September 1 since 1995. That year, the Bronx Bombers rallied to win the Wild Card. Unless the Yankees’ offense awakens suddenly, a similar turnaround doesn’t seem likely.

The Yankees’ season-long offensive malaise has been a surprise to many. “If only the players would hit to the back of their baseball cards” has become a common refrain from fans and pundits alike. A careful look at the numbers, however, tells a different story. With the exception of Brian McCann, every other Yankee hitter has at least performed close to a reasonable expectation. How did the mighty Bronx Bombers come to such a sorry state? Before answering that larger question, it makes sense to examine each component of the offense on an individual basis.

Yankees 2014 Offensive Performance vs. Career and Recent Rates
BCARDCOMP
Note: Includes hitters with at least 100 plate appearances. Snapshots below are limited to hitters with at least 200 plate appearances.
Source: Baseball-reference.com

Above is a summary and below are a series snapshots for each Yankees’ position player with at least 200 plate appearances this season. For each, 2014 OPS/OPS+ is accompanied by the player’s age as well as career and three-year production levels. This juxtaposition strikes at the heart of the “back of the baseball card” argument, and shifts the blame for the team’s poor offense higher up in the food chain. Continue Reading »

Major league baseball has achieved competitive balance. Whether you choose to call it parity or mediocrity, the difference between the best and worst teams in the league has seldom been so narrow.

Max/Min Winning Percentage Comparison, 2001 to 2014
MAXMINWRATE
Note: 2014 data is as of the August 25, 2014.
Source: Baseball-reference.com (data) and proprietary calculations.

So, how has baseball been able to fulfill Bud Selig’s dream of league-wide balance? The combination of increased revenue sharing and a soft cap created by the luxury tax are two key reasons, but there are several others as well. Clearly, the economic landscape in baseball has shifted, but does that really mean the end to big market teams wielding financial influence in the standings?

Before considering that question, it’s important to point out that payrolls in baseball aren’t really coincident indicators. Because baseball’s collective bargaining agreement denies a player access to the free market for at least the first six major league seasons of his career, it’s often the case that salaries lag performance. As a result, players are often paid as much, or more, for how they’ve produced in the past than what is expected from them in the future. Due to this incongruous relationship, it’s easy to see why payroll wouldn’t necessarily correlate strongly with winning percentage in the current year.

Correlation Between Payroll and Past Success, 2000 to 2014
correlation win salary
Note: Periods are as follows Y2Y (current year to current year), Y2LY (current year to last year), Y2LY2 (current year to two years ago), etc. Average period includes all periods ending from 2000 to 2014. Other period ends displayed are a snapshot. Source: Baseball-reference.com (win-loss data), Cots contracts (opening day payroll data with pro-rated signing bonuses), and proprietary calculations. Continue Reading »

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