The blackout is one of the best things to happen to baseball fans in the last 20 years. Although conventional wisdom regards MLB’s blackout policy as a scourge, the truth is much different. Blackouts, which are based on territorial exclusivity, are the foundation of the sport’s economic system, and, it’s because of them that most fans today have access to an unprecedented number of games at an extremely affordable price.

Television territories that cause these blackouts are integral to the economics of the game. They’re a foundation of the very structure of the league.” – MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, quoted by Forbes.com

Railing against MLB’s blackout policy is old hat, but new Commissioner Rob Manfred’s recent defense of the system has elicited fresh condemnation. At the heart of these criticisms is the premise that major league baseball is being greedy and short sighted by denying fans an opportunity to watch the game they love. However, when you boil down these arguments, the motive is much more self-centered. What those who call for the abolishment of blackouts really seem to be saying is: “give me what I want when I want it and at a price I want to pay.”

Before addressing some of the specific arguments against MLB’s blackout policy, it’s important to understand how it works. Basically, MLB allows teams to sell television rights in a particular market. These rights come with a guarantee of exclusivity, which enhances their value to the regional sports networks (RSNs) bidding for the contract. With exclusivity in hand, RSNs can demand larger carriage fees from cable operators, who in turn pass along sports surcharges to their customers. Everyone gets paid in the process, which is why the contract values keep increasing exponentially. This system can be extremely unfair to the consumer…unless you are a sports fan.

Because cable operators spread the RSN carriage fees broadly across their customer base, non-sports fans wind up subsidizing the cost. Of course, turnabout is fair play, and sports fans with no other TV viewing interests wind up paying the freight for other channels they don’t watch. Still, because athletic events have become such a coveted TV programming asset (i.e., it is one of the few things most people exclusively watch live), sports fans wind up coming out ahead.

Another way baseball fans have benefited from the sport’s economic framework is access…the very point of contention raised by those who oppose the imposition of blackouts. For about $120/year, baseball fans all around the country can watch just about every game on MLB.TV. However, it’s important to remember that MLB.TV is not a self-sustaining service; it is a provider of streaming broadcasts that are produced by RSNs. Without blackouts, there would be much less incentive for RSNs to bid for rights and produce games. And, without those games, there would be no MLB.TV. Continue Reading »

Keith Law has released his annual ranking of the top-100 prospects in professional baseball, and the Yankees managed to land only two players on the list. Aaron Judge (23rd) and Greg Bird (80th) were the Baby Bombers who made the cut, giving the Yankees their fewest number of entrants in Law’s ranking since 2010.

Yankees’ Historical Representation in Keith Law’s Prospect Ranking, 2008-2015
Yankees Law Historical
Note: Prospect Score is a cumulative total based on the assignment of a score to each ranking (100 for #1 to 1 for #100). It is a proprietary calculation not endorsed by Mr. Law and not intended to suggest the ranking is linear.
Source: ESPN.com

The number of Yankees on Law’s list has fluctuated since the ESPN analyst began ranking prospects in 2008, but never has it fallen below two, a distinction maintained in this survey. However, for the third straight year, the Yankees were without a pitcher included among the top-100. Nonetheless, the Yankees did see their prospect score (see footnote above for explanation) increase over last year because of Judge’s relatively high position on the list. At number 23, the big outfielder, whom Law stated has the potential to “post strong triple-slash numbers”, was the Yankees’ highest rated prospect since Gary Sanchez cracked the top-20 in 2013. Since then, the now 22-year old catcher has seen his stock decline precipitously, and, after four years among Law’s elite, has finally fallen off the list.

Yankees Prospects in Keith Law’s Annual Ranking, 2008-2015
NYY prospects on Law Lists 2008 to 2015
Source: ESPN.com

The Yankees have had 14 different players make Law’s top-100 on 27 different occasions. As mentioned, Sanchez was a four-time member of the ranking, followed by Andrew Brackman, Jesus Montero, Manny Banuelos, and Mason Williams who appeared on the list three times. Unfortunately for the Yankees, the third time wasn’t a charm for any of the aforementioned, all of whom have failed to make a meaningful impact at this point in their careers. That’s not to say every Yankee prospect identified by Law has flamed out. Dellin Betances has finally forged an important role in pinstripes, while Joba Chamberlain, Austin Jackson, Jose Tabata and Ian Kennedy have had varying degrees of success.

Top-10 Prospects in Keith Law’s Annual Ranking, 2014 vs. 2015
Top 10 LAW 2014 v 2015

Source: ESPN.com

Almost half of Law’s top-100 were holdovers from 2014, and four of the current top-10 held the same distinction last year. However, a new number one prospect was crowned. The Cubs’ Kris Bryant ascended from 15th last year to supplant the Twins’ Byron Buxton, who dropped to second. Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor and Addison Russell also made return appearances in the top-10, while six others, including Bryant, moved up from lower on last year’s list. The two biggest movers into the top-10 were J.P. Crawford and Blake Swihart, who rose from 46th and 56th, respectively, in 2014.

The Cubs not only rated the game’s best prospect, but also placed first in Law’s organizational ranking. However, Chicago’s prospect score wasn’t the top mark. The Twins earned that distinction thanks to landing Buxton and five other prospects in the ranking. Not far behind Minnesota was the Boston Red Sox, whose five representatives tallied the second highest prospect score. The Red Sox also joined the Cubs, Twins and Dodgers with three prospects ranked among the top-30.

Keith Law’s 2015 Top-100 Prospect List, by Franchise
Note: Prospect Score is a cumulative total based on the assignment of a score to each ranking (100 for #1 to 1 for #100). It is a proprietary calculation not endorsed by Mr. Law and not intended to suggest the ranking is linear.
Source: ESPN.com Continue Reading »

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.

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