Rob Manfred’s reign as MLB commissioner began on the offensive. Or was it the defensive? That probably depends on how you feel about shifts. During an interview with ESPN, the new commissioner casually stated he would be “open to eliminating shifts” in an effort to “inject additional offense” into the game. Although a small part of Manfred’s interview, the immediate vocal reaction to that statement was not only negative, but overwhelmed other, arguably more important proposed initiatives. Since then, Manfred has clarified his statement, but is his position on shifts still off base?

There are two elements of Manfred’s statement worth considering. The first is whether the decline in runs scored represents a problem that needs to be fixed. After all, it wasn’t too long ago that inflated offensive totals were a bane. Is it really in baseball’s best interest to strike a balance between offense and pitching, or is the public perception always going to view the grass as being greener on the other side of the run scoring spectrum? That question is hard to answer, but it’s worth noting that baseball currently enjoys near-record attendance levels, strong regional ratings, and exploding revenue. So, even if fans prefer more offense, there’s no evidence to suggest the recent decline in runs per game is hurting baseball’s popularity.

Runs Per Game, 1994 to 2014
runs per game 1994 to 2014
Source: baseball-reference.com

If we assume fans are pining for more runs, is eliminating shifts the best way to go about boosting offense? That brings us to the second part of the new commissioner’s statement. Some of the immediate critics of Manfred’s proposal have cited statistics like BABIP and wOBAcon to definitively state that shifts have little to no effect on overall offensive levels, but that analysis is too simplistic. After all, these arguments ignore the potential impact that shifts could have on balls that aren’t put into play. For example, what if hitters are over-compensating in an attempt to beat the shift, either by hitting away from or over the realignment of the defense? Intuitively, a hitter deviating from his comfort zone would not only be prone to more swings and misses, but also weaker contact, and these impacts would undoubtedly weigh negatively on his performance. Stats based on balls in play would not be able to detect this relationship, so using them to analyze the effects of defensive shifts on offense is limited. Continue Reading »

ESPN prospect guru Keith Law thinks the Yankees’ farm system is “trending up”, but still not ready to be cultivated. Thanks to a strong 2013 draft and aggressive foray into the international market, Law was more optimistic about the Bronx Bombers’ stockpile of prospects, but still ranked the team’s minor league system toward the bottom third of the league.

Keith Law’s Yearly Organizational Rankings for AL East, 2009-2015
Source: ESPN.com

One small consolation in Law’s rankings is the relative position of the Yankees’ A.L. East counterparts. With the exception of the Red Sox, who maintained their top-5 billing, every other team in the division was ranked toward the bottom third. Still, that’s not likely to appease Yankee fans, especially those who have bought into a much more positive view of the franchise’s minor leagues. To them, Law’s rankings will probably be dismissed as nothing more than “typical ESPN bias” against the Yankees, but that ignores the fact that Law ranked the team within the top-10 from 2011 to 2013. If anything, Law’s track record regarding the Yankees is one of over-rating the franchise’s farm system.

Keith Law’s Top-10 Farm System Rankings, 2015
Source: ESPN.com

Law’s top-10 remained mostly intact from last year, although there was some jockeying for position within the first five slots. In the bottom of half of the top-10, there were three newcomers, including the Braves and Nationals, who catapulted from 22 and 18, respectively, in last year’s ranking. Meanwhile, the Royals, Padres, and Orioles each saw their stock drop precipitously, led by Baltimore, which plummeted below the Yankees into 22nd place.

Prospect rankings are highly subjective and speculative, as the fluidity in Law’s annual progress reports illustrates. That’s one reason why Yankee fans shouldn’t take the team’s poor showing in prospect rankings to heart. However, the great uncertainty that goes with evaluating prospects is not unique to third-party evaluators. The same difficultly applies to teams themselves. That’s why organizations, and their fans, need to avoid placing too much stock in prospects. Trying to build success from the bottom up is a very difficult task. Granted, the process can be rewarding, and cheaper, when it pans out, but relying on young players as the foundation for sustained success is a very risky proposition, which is something teams like the Yankees, who have the resources to attack roster building from many avenues (including high priced free agents), need to consider before penciling prospects into their future plans.

Over the past few years, Hall of Fame voters have become steroid addled. By refusing to elect candidates with links to PEDs, regardless of substantiation, voters have allowed each subsequent year’s ballot to become increasingly crowded. As a result, some electors have been forced to consider game theory as much as the individual merits of each player when casting their ballot. And yet, despite the intricacies of this new dynamic, the 2015 Hall of Fame class has the potential to be historic.

This year’s ballot isn’t really more concentrated than 2014’s. Although three likely honorees are joining the ranks, they’ll be replacing the trio that was elected last year. Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, and John Smoltz are a good bet to replicate last year’s vote totals of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and Frank Thomas, so their entry into the field shouldn’t force others off many ballots. This year’s class also includes first timers like Garry Sheffield and Carlos Delgado, who will likely gain a solid backing, but the departure of Jack Morris and the 351 votes he garnered last year should provide more than enough slack to accommodate them. That leaves us to consider whether anyone from last year’s returning field has enough momentum to make this year’s Hall of Fame class historic in size.

Hall of Famers by Year of Eligibility, Since 1966Hall of Fame eligibility

Note: Data is as of 1966, when BBWAA started conducting annual ballots.
Source: baseball-reference.com and BBWAA

Since annual ballots commenced in 1966, 700 players have been nominated for enshrinement, but only 74 have been elected to the Hall of Fame by the BBWAA. Of that total, 40 were honored on the first ballot, leaving only 34 (or about 5% of those not elected on the first ballot) who eventually got over the hump after falling short in their initial attempt. This year, there are 17 players from last year’s ballot seeking another chance. The chart below illustrates how they compare to other eventual Hall of Famers in the ballot years leading up to their induction.

Current Holdovers vs. Aggregate Historical Vote Totals of Future Hall of Famers
Hall of Fame Historical
Note: Compares last year’s holdovers to the 34 Hall of Famers elected by BBWAA after their first year of eligibility. Vote totals are only included from the years in which an eventual Hall of Famer failed to earn the necessary two-thirds vote. The average represents the aggregate of all applicable nominees in each year. Max and min refer to the highest and lowest vote total recorded by a future Hall of Fame in each respective year of eligibility. Data is as of 1966, when BBWAA started conducting annual ballots.
Source: baseball-reference.com and BBWAA

Because of mitigating circumstances related to the ballot glut, historic voting patterns may not be as useful an indicator as in the past. Still, the vote total progression of past inductees is noteworthy. Entering this year’s election, three candidates find themselves on the right side of the historical snapshot provided above. In particular, Craig Biggio’s and Mike Piazza’s second year vote percentages are both well above the average rate for all eventual Hall of Famers in their second year of eligibility. In fact, no player has ever recorded at least 60% of the vote in their second year on the ballot and not been enshrined. So, unless Biggio and Piazza face a strong PED backlash, their eventual induction seems inevitable.

Jeff Bagwell is also in a favorable historical position. Last year, in his fourth year of eligibility, Bagwell recorded 54.3% of the vote, placing him above the 48.7% average for the 18 Hall of Famers since 1966 who needed more than four tries to win election. No player who has earned over half the vote at this point in their candidacy has failed to eventually pass the 75% mark, and 15 of the 19 who cleared 40% at a similar juncture were eventually elected. Unfortunately, Bagwell is somewhat of a unique case because he has been unfairly targeted as a PED user by some voters despite the lack of evidence to warrant such speculation. If this continues, it could cause Bagwell’s candidacy to deviate from historical patterns, which makes his vote total this year of particular interest. It’s unlikely that the first baseman will clear the bar in 2015, but if his momentum is maintained, it could signal induction at some point in the near future.

Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds continue to be the bellwethers for the electability of players with links to PEDs. For each player, the historical comparisons have no meaning. What matters instead is any indication of a thawing among the electorate. After only two tries on the ballot, Bonds’ and Clemens’ vote total has stagnated, suggesting neither is poised for a breakthrough, at least not until either the ballot glut clears or the Hall of Fame Board of Directors provides more guidance on how such players should be handled.

Tim Raines has been among those most hurt by the crowded ballot. After six years of a gradual progression that was in line with the average totals of eventual inductees, Raines’ candidacy took a step back in 2014, placing him below the mean for seven-ballot players. Unfortunately for the former speedster, it could be more of the same this year. However, there is a silver lining for Raines, whose candidacy enjoys grass roots support from several factions, especially the sabermetric community. As the ballot thins out, those who continue to make a compelling argument for Raines may bolster his chances, similar to what occurred for Bert Blyleven in 2011.

Mike Mussina, Curt Schilling and Edgar Martinez are three more strong candidates who enjoy grass roots support, but, unlike Raines, lack mainstream traction. In his first year on the ballot, Mussina only attracted 20.3%, which would represent the third lowest initial rate for an eventual Hall of Famer (Duke Snider at 17% in 1970 and Blyleven at 17.5 in 1998). Similarly, Schilling’s 29.2% in his second year would also rank low for a future Hall of Famer, behind Bob Lemon, Blyleven, and Snider at similar points on the ballot. Meanwhile, Edgar Martinez’ 25.2% in year-five is above only Lemon, making his prospects even more of an outlier. Barring a sudden jump in the vote totals of these players, their candidacies seem likely to languish.

Lowest First Year Vote Totals for Future Hall of Famers, Since 1966

Note: Data is as of 1966, when BBWAA started conducting annual ballots. Source: baseball-reference.com and BBWAA

The other eight leftovers from last year’s cycle fall outside of a historical path to enshrinement, but most of them could eventually add to the 37 players who have lasted on the ballot for the full 15 years. With the exception of Sammy Sosa, who was just 13 votes above last year’s cut off, and Don Mattingly, whose eligibility comes to an end, every other player has at least a 5% cushion and should get another look.

A lot of attention for this year’s Hall of Fame election has been on the crowded ballot and which players won’t be elected as a result, but a historic class still seems likely. In addition to first-timers Smoltz, Martinez and Johnson, Biggio is a good bet to finally cross the threshold, which would represent only the third quartet ever elected by the BBWAA. And, if Piazza can clear the bar, the group of five would only be rivaled by the inaugural class of 1936 in terms of size. That’s no consolation for the many deserving players destined for another snub, but such a historic election would also thin the ballot and, perhaps, improve their chances going forward.

The Yankee dollar has been pushed aside by Dodger dough. For the first time since 2001, the Bronx Bombers did not end the year with Major League Baseball’s highest payroll. Instead, it was the Dodgers who were baseball’s biggest spender. And, it wasn’t even close. With a final payroll just over $257 million, Los Angeles not only out spent New York by nearly $40 million in 2014, but also easily topped the Yankees’ previous record-high payroll of $237 million, which was set last year.

Top-20 Final Team Payrolls, All Time

Top 20 Final Payrolls

Note: Final payrolls represent actual amounts spent (salaries, benefits, earned bonuses and pro-rated shares of signing bonuses), but not AAV valuations used for luxury tax purposes.
Source: bizofbaseball.com and MLB releases published by AP

For their efforts, the Dodgers were also hit with this year’s largest tax bill, breaking the Yankees’ stranglehold on that distinction as well. Don’t expect Los Angeles to be popping corks, however. The team now has until January 21 to send a $26 million check to the commissioner’s office (30% tax levied against the team’s $277 million AAV payroll; click here for 2014 luxury tax payrolls). That tidy sum represents the fourth largest remittance since the first luxury tax was instituted in 1997, and one-third of the total paid by teams other than the Yankees.

Year-by-Year Luxury Tax Payments by Team
lux tax bar
Note: Baseball’s first luxury tax was in force from 1997-1999. The current system was instituted in 2003.
Source: bizofbaseball.com and MLB releases published by AP

Percentage of Luxury Taxes Paid Since Inception
lux tax pie
Note: Baseball’s first luxury tax was in force from 1997-1999. The current system was instituted in 2003.
Source: bizofbaseball.com and MLB releases published by AP

Continue Reading »

As expected, the Yankees’ bullpen swap of Andrew Miller for David Robertson was more about economics than an assessment of each pitcher’s potential performance over the next four years. By suggesting that Robertson priced himself out of the Yankees’ plans, GM Brian Cashman admitted as much. Considering the meaningful savings and relative competence of each pitcher, the penny wise choice doesn’t necessarily mean it will turn out to be pound foolish. However, more concerning to Yankee fans should be other statements made by Cashman that suggest both a level of dishonesty and disconnect with the team’s rank and file fan base.

The most eyebrow raising comment from Cashman was his admission that, despite statements to the contrary, the Yankees had no intention of signing both Miller and Robertson, and, in fact, never made their incumbent closer an offer. According to the GM, he did this to prop up Robertson’s market, which is not only a little condescending to the reliever, but also a big fat lie. Undoubtedly, Cashman isn’t the first MLB executive to manipulate the media during a contract negotiation, but his bold-faced admission and use of deception for the perceived benefit of a third party is more unique. What’s more, it’s also contrary to a code of conduct to which Cashman himself has professed to adhere.

In September 2008, Joe Girardi was wrapping up his first turbulent year as Yankee manager, and one of the most common complaints about his stewardship was a tendency toward deception when it came to addressing the media. These allegations came to a head when the media accused Girardi of misleading them about Mariano Rivera’s “cranky shoulder”. According to reports, the GM privately apologized for his manager’s conduct and forced Girardi to make a public apology. The end didn’t justify the means then, so why should it now?

Does Cashman owe the media an apology for his lie? Let them sort that out. Yankee fans should be more concerned about how the team’s GM regards their engagement with the team. After all, Cashman also led them astray, giving false hope to fans who might actually have an emotional attachment to one of the team’s longest tenured players.

Cashman’s dishonesty is only a small part of the story. The bigger issue is the franchise’s increasing disregard for tradition and gradual dissolution of the idea that there is a “Yankee Family”. Robertson is the latest in a growing line of popular Yankee free agents who have been dismissed without a competitive offer. Last year, a half-hearted attempt was made to keep Robinson Cano, and the year before Nick Swisher and Russell Martin were shown the door without an offer. Even before that, the Yankees played hardball with Derek Jeter, of all people. Although being a Yankee doesn’t come with a lifetime guarantee, the team has rarely shown such disregard for factoring tradition into its decision making.

At the heart of the team’s new ambivalence toward retaining their own players is the notion that clothes do in fact make the man. “I would think the fan base is connected to the pinstripes”, Cashman stated in defense of the team’s new penchant for letting its own free agents depart, but what are the pinstripes without tradition, and where does that leave the fans?

Do the Yankees still believe they owe it to the fans to build the best possible team each and every season? Is cultivating the franchise’s tradition still worth spending a few extra dollars? Or, is a healthy profit margin just as important as a lofty winning percentage and proud tradition? To this point, the team’s brass has had all the right answers, but their actions have spoken louder than the hollow words. Yankee fans deserve the truth, and it’s time for the team to start telling it.

The Yankees haven’t had an active winter, but the one question they’ve reportedly been weighing is who will pitch the ninth inning next season. The choice has seemingly been narrowed down to incumbent David Robertson and lefty set-up man Andrew Miller, but what’s not as clear is the criteria the Yankees are using to make the decision. So, before venturing a guess as to whom the Bronx Bombers will tap as their next closer, let’s consider the options.

The Case for David Robertson

Since 2009, David Robertson has consistently ranked among the most effective relievers in the game. Over that span, his ERA+ of 162 ranks 12th best among all relievers with at least 250 innings, and his fWAR of 8.9 ranks fourth. Robertson is also one of only six relievers to throw at least 60 innings in each of the last five seasons. What’s more, with 39 saves last year, Robertson completed his transitioned from Mariano Rivera understudy to an effective closer in his own right. Both effective and reliable, Robertson’s level of consistency means the Yankees would be signing a known commodity, both in terms of his ability to close games and handle the pressure of New York. That’s no small consideration in a market known for rough free agent transitions. Also, though insignificant from an evaluation standpoint, Robertson’s time in the Bronx should carry some weight in terms of leadership and fan connection. Along with Brett Gardner, Robertson is the most tenured Yankee, so his presence in the clubhouse could have value to the team, while his familiarity and likeability among Yankee fans is also an added bonus. Besides, if you’re going to “overpay” a reliever, you might as well do so with one of your own.

Top-10 Relief Pitcher WAR, 2009-2014

Source: fangraphs.com

The Case for Andrew Miller

Although it’s possible the Yankees’ talent evaluators view Andrew Miller as a better pitcher than Robertson, the strongest case in favor of the lefty is based on relative cost. According to the rumor mill, Miller is seeking a four year deal worth $40 million, or approximately $10 million less than the Papelbon-esque contract being sought by Robertson. Is a $10 million savings over four years really a difference maker? Considering the Yankees’ recent efforts to lower relative payroll expense, $2.5 million per year isn’t insignificant. However, for the Yankees, the impact is much greater. Because the team is likely to continue paying a 50% luxury tax over the next four seasons, the difference in contract values is actually $16 million. Then, if you consider modest investment of the annual difference, another $1-$2 million can be tacked onto the savings. In total, the Yankees are looking at an approximately $16 million savings if they sign Miller instead of Robertson. When added to the interval value the Yankees place on the draft pick they’d net from Robertson signing elsewhere, the difference in contract costs looks more substantial.

Financial Comparison of Potential Deals for David Robertson and Andrew Miller

Rob vs. MillerNote: Contract values based on “published rumors”. Investment is a 5% return on the salary difference plus luxury tax savings compounded once at the end of the year (i.e., investment begins at end of 2015 and first compounds at end of 2016).
Source: www.investor.gov (compound interest calculator)
Continue Reading »

Joe DiMaggio played the game at least at a couple of levels higher than the rest of baseball. A lot of guys, all you had to see to know they were great was a stat sheet. DiMaggio, you had to see. It wasn’t only numbers on a page—although they were there too—it was a question of command, style, grace.”Jim Murray, Los Angeles Times, March 9, 1999

The New York Daily News is celebrating Joe DiMaggio’s 100th birthday by setting the record straight. After decades of unbridled adulation for the Hall of Fame centerfielder, it turns out the Yankee Clipper’s greatness was not only built on legend, but also myth.

The newspaper’s clarification of DiMaggio’s legacy is based on the testimony of baseball historian John Thorn, who “chips away” at the myth with two claims. The first is an assessment of how well the centerfielder’s swing would hold up in the modern game. According to Thorn, DiMaggio fails the “teleportation” test because the “wide arc” of his swing would have left him exposed to the modern fire baller. Maybe so, but it’s always possible that DiMaggio would have adjusted to a different era. Unfortunately, no allowance is made for that possibility, and it’s just as well. It’s hard enough to make comparisons between different eras based on relative performance, much less subjective opinions of how players would perform if capable of time travel.

Thorn’s second attempt to knock DiMaggio down a peg is more defensive, literally. Every baseball fan has heard stories about DiMaggio’s gracefulness in the vast Yankee Stadium centerfield, but despite the countless recitations by teammates, opponents and members of the media who saw him play, Thorn suggests this praise is more exaggeration. As proof of his claim, the historian states that DiMaggio’s “contemporaries recorded more putouts”. Ironically, this statement is offered in support of the notion that modern sabermetrics are what’s eroding DiMaggio’s legend, while ignoring that modern defensive metrics rely heavily on context, namely the number of opportunities and the difficulty of each chance.

So, here’s some context to consider. From 1936 to 1951, excluding the war years DiMaggio missed, Yankee pitchers struck out about 0.5 more batters per nine innings than the AL average. That’s approximately 75 fewer putouts available for Yankee fielders to make. If the Yankees’ staff was more prone to groundballs, that would also lessen DiMaggio’s putout opportunities. Similarly, having to defend a much larger centerfielder than most might also mitigate his total. What’s more, DiMaggio was injury prone, and rarely played a full season, further limiting his opportunity to record putouts. Without the advanced data we enjoy today (and even with this data, defensive metrics can be sketchy), it’s impossible to sift through these variables and arrive at a truly meaningful comparison. That’s why arguments like “DiMaggio only led the league in putouts one time” ring hollow, which, incidentally, also applies to Willie Mays.

Top 20 Outfielders by TotalZone Per Game: 1936-1942

TZ chartNote: Minimum 300 outfield games. See here for explanation of totalzone.
Source: fangraphs.com and baseball-reference.com

Is Joe DiMaggio overrated? If that simply means not as good as rival Ted Williams and fellow centerfielder Mays, the answer is probably yes. Although a case could be made for DiMaggio being the equal to Mays and Williams at his peak (i.e., better defender than Williams and better hitter than Mays), the fact remains that both players had longer and more productive careers than the Yankee Clipper. However, that doesn’t tarnish DiMaggio’s accomplishments. After all, building up Williams and Mays doesn’t tear DiMaggio down. Arcing swings and putouts aside, DiMaggio is one of the true legends of the game with a career worth celebrating every day, not just on the anniversary of his birth.

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