Chris Borland’s decision to turn his back on a multi-million dollar career as a hard hitting linebacker may have sent shockwaves throughout the NFL, but the implications could be just as significant for major league baseball.

If Borland’s early retirement was the headline of yesterday’s sports news, MLB appointing Tony Reagins to the newly created position of senior vice president for youth programs was a footnote. And, that’s being generous. However, there is a strong link between the two stories…one that Reagins would be wise to exploit in his new job.

According to Commissioner Rob Manfred, one of Reagins’ mandates will be to increase youth participation in amateur baseball, whether it be on the local, high school or college level. Presumably, Reagins will be responsible for coordinating the operational and financial support of youth-based initiatives across the country, but the most important message he and MLB could send to young athletes is one Borland may have benefited from when he was a kid: baseball doesn’t ask its athletes to choose between a successful career and a healthy life.

Injuries are a part of every sport, but the relative risk faced by football players is much greater, especially when you consider the shorter playing careers and lack of guaranteed contracts faced by those who toil on the grid iron. Granted, baseball does not provide immediate fame on the NCAA level, and spending several years in the minor leagues lacks instant gratification, but for those athletes who persevere, the rewards are much greater and, more importantly, the risks are much less. That’s the message Reagins should hammer home every chance he gets. Providing more opportunities for America’s youth to play baseball should be paramount, but once they are involved, a little evangelization could go a long way.

Chris Borland’s retirement is the NFL’s loss today, but at some point in the future, it could be MLB’s gain. Who knows whether Borland is a trailblazer or an anomaly, but if other top athletes decide to follow in his footsteps, MLB should be eager to provide them with an alternate path. Baseball’s overriding goal should be to attract as many great athletes as possible into the fold, and if that mean’s exploiting the inherent dangers of other sports, so be it. Doing so would certainly be good for baseball, but it would be even better for the health of the young athletes who make the transition.

(This updated post was originally published on February 16, 2011)

For 19 years, Tampa has been the Yankees’ spring training home, but it still seems like just yesterday when the team’s camp was located down the coast in Ft. Lauderdale. I am sure most fans who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s still reflexively harken back to those days of yore, while the real old timers’ memories take them all the way back to St. Petersburg, where Yankees’ legends from Ruth to Mantle toiled under the Florida sun.

Over the years, spring training has evolved significantly. Once upon a time, it was a pre-season retreat designed to help out-of-shape ballplayers shed the pounds added over the winter. In the early part of the last century, before even reporting to camp, players would often attend spas in places like Hot Springs, where they would purge their bodies of the inequities from the offseason. Then, games would either be played among split squads (in the old days, the camps would be split into teams of veterans and hopeful rookies, the latter often called Yannigans) or against local minor league and college ball clubs. Finally, the teams would barnstorm their way back up north before finally kicking off the regular season.

Today, spring training is more big business than quaint tradition. Thanks to the growing competition between cities in Arizona and Florida (each state now hosts 15 major league clubs), teams have been able to extract sweetheart stadium deals, allowing them to turn the exhibition season into a significant profit center. Still, at the heart of spring training is hope and renewal as teams begin the long journey that is the baseball season.

The Yankees’ spring history has been a journey all its own. Below is an outline of some significant mileposts along the way.

Yankees’ Spring Training Homes Since 1901

Continue Reading »

(This post has been updated from its initial publication on April 26, 2010).

Yanks politicsAt the risk of getting too political, President Barack Obama’s second term has been a disaster…for the Bronx Bombers. After racking up an impressive .602 winning percentage during his first term, the Yankees have struggled after President Obama’s re-election. Not only have the pinstripes posted a mediocre .522 winning percentage over the last two years, but they’ve also been outscored in each season, something that hasn’t happened to the Yankees since George H.W. Bush was in the White House.

Although President Obama hasn’t been kind to the Yankees during his second term, the Bronx Bombers have still done better under a Democrat commander-in-chief. Since 1901, the franchise’s winning percentage is nearly 30 points better when the President has been a Democrat. The Yankees have also won nearly three times as many World Series when the oval office was Blue instead of Red. This advantage has been particularly evident over the last half century. Since the Eisenhower administration, the Yankees have not won a World Series when a Republican has resided at 1600 Pennsylvania, but have claimed nine championships with Democrats in charge, including at least one in every administration but Lyndon Johnson’s.

I never like to mix politics and sports, but perhaps the Yankees’ drought under the GOP is something to keep in mind the next time you enter a polling booth during a presidential election. Then again, if President Obama doesn’t get his act together, it just might be time for an Independent.

Yankees Record by Political Party

Democrats 4870 3512 44 0.581 41248 34216 23 20
Republicans 5161 4136 49 0.555 45171 40354 17 7

Yankees Record by Presidential Administration

Warren Harding 257 146 0 0.638 2227 1706 2 0
John Kennedy 309 176 1 0.637 2358 1839 3 2
Franklin Roosevelt 1156 677 17 0.631 10355 7705 7 6
Dwight Eisenhower 761 468 4 0.619 6140 4695 6 3
Herbery Hoover 375 240 4 0.610 4030 3157 1 1
Harry Truman 747 483 3 0.607 6279 4860 5 5
Jimmy Carter 392 255 0 0.606 3120 2567 2 2
George W. Bush 775 518 2 0.599 7048 5994 2 0
Calvin Coolidge 493 331 5 0.598 4522 3680 4 3
Bill Clinton 724 504 1 0.590 6738 5659 4 4
Gerald Ford 215 156 0 0.580 1644 1344 1 0
Barack Obama 559 413 0 0.575 4728 4106 1 1
Ronald Reagan 677 562 0 0.546 5854 5345 1 0
Richard Nixon 468 444 2 0.513 3526 3419 0 0
William McKinley 60 59 2 0.504 67 69 0 0
Lyndon Johnson 401 406 6 0.497 3010 2945 1 0
Woodrow Wilson 582 598 16 0.493 4660 4535 0 0
Theodore Roosevelt 504 535 21 0.485 4876 5172 0 0
William Taft 288 318 9 0.475 2529 2709 0 0
George H.W. Bush 288 359 0 0.445 2708 3064 0 0

Presidential Performance

  • Best Winning Percentage: Warren Harding (.638, from 1921 to August 2, 1923)
  • Worst Winning Percentage: George HW Bush (.445, from 1989-1992)
  • Most AL Pennants: Franklin Roosevelt (7, from 1933-1944)
  • Most World Series Victories: Franklin Roosevelt (6, from 1933-1944)
  • Best Season (By Win%): Calvin Coolidge (1927, 110-44)
  • Worst Season (By Win%): William Taft (1912, 50-102-1)
  • Best Run Differential: Franklin Roosevelt (1939, +2.70 runs/game)
  • Worst Run Differential: Theodore Roosevelt (1908, -1.63 runs/game)

Presidential Trivia

  • Lyndon Johnson and Woodrow Wilson are the only two Democrats under whose administration the Yankees have not won a World Series. The Yankees have failed to win a championship under nine different Republican presidents.
  • There have been three presidential successions during a Yankees season: McKinley to Roosevelt in 1901; Harding to Coolidge in 1923; and Nixon to Ford in 1974.
  • Yankee pitchers have thrown eight no-hitters under a Democrat president and four no-hitters under a Republican.
  • Yankee batters have hit for eight cycles under a Democrat president and seven cycles under a Republican.
  • Of the Yankees five Cy Young award winners, three came under a Democrat president and two came under a Republican.
  • Of the Yankees 20 MVPs, 11 came under a Democrat president and nine came under a Republican.

James Shields is headed to San Diego, and it didn’t take a mountain of cash to get him. Instead, the right hander signed a very reasonable four-year contract at a price commensurate with the value he has consistently provided during his career. So, why weren’t the Yankees interested in a player who would have fit well into their immediate plans?

At about $18 million per year, the Yankees could have essentially replaced Hiroki Kuroda with the much younger Shields at a very similar cost, albeit with a longer-term commitment. Adding that kind of stability would have helped mitigate the heightened risk that exists in the team’s rotation. As things stand, all five potential members of the Yankees’ opening day rotation come with substantial injury and/or performance risk, which means the Bronx Bombers are basically rolling the dice on 2015. That’s a part of the risk equation that often gets ignored. Signing any pitcher, much less one entering his age-33 season, to multiple years comes with potential peril, but so does entering a season without a starter who has a track record of both durability and success.

Signing Shields would have given the Yankees a chance to hedge the gamble they are taking in 2015. Instead, other priorities, like cutting payroll to below recent norms and accumulating drafts picks, have seemingly taken precedence. That doesn’t mean the Yankees are throwing in the towel, but they’re certainly not making every effort to win now.

Reasonable arguments can be made for and against the Yankees’ signing James Shields, but what’s beyond debate is the team has taken a much more laid back approach to setting goals. As Brian Cashman recently noted, “if a lot of guys stay healthy and live up to their potential”, the Yankees “could very well contend for a championship”. For a team that used to pride itself on demanding excellence, that’s a lot of ifs and buts.

If the Yankees are no longer committed to spending their resources to ensure success, they’d better have an alternate plan. Presumably, that blueprint involves stockpiling prospects and cutting payroll until several big contracts come off the books in 2017. However, in order to avoid alienating its season ticket base, the team is attempting to make this transformation while still maintaining an air of competiveness. To some, this approach might seem like a reasonable compromise, but by serving two masters, the Yankees could end up pleasing none. Continue Reading »

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 »

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