Game One

Opening Day gets a lot of attention. It’s the sporting end of winter. It’s the start of a six-month marathon for thirty teams chasing two four eight ten chances at a four-week sprint to the finish. Football has lured away America’s raw passion, but even still, no other season starts with as much fanfare and optimism as baseball.

Which is why I always get an odd feeling as I begin to watch the actual game itself.  All this build up, and then you realize you’re watching what will be just one instance among one hundred and sixty two.  For as much meaning as Opening Day holds, the game doesn’t mean a whole lot.  A win *feels* like the beginning of something great.  I remember in 2011, watching Ramon Hernandez’s opposite field walk-off sear over the wall.  It was one of the most exciting Reds moments I’ve witnessed.  What followed was a season of disappointment.  The only time in the past four years the Reds didn’t make the playoffs.

Just the same, a loss must be shrugged off.  Johnny Cueto turned in a gem, and an injury-depleted bullpen did its job.  But the Reds offense was everything we feared it might be.  Billy Hamilton looked lost at the plate.  Joey Votto seemed indecisive, and only saw 14 pitches in four plate appearances.  All together the Reds mustered three hits.  Yes, they were facing one of the best pitchers in the National League.  But when it’s Opening Day, it’s all you got.

Brandon Phillips had the best day, offensively.  Normally a free-swinging contact guy, BP saw 23 pitches in four plate appearances with two walks.  He showed good patience and laid off some quality pitches from Wainwright.  As was noted on Twitter, how great would it be if he decided to spite us all by showing just how patient he can be (probably a one-game anomaly, but one can hope).

The start of the baseball season is an odd paradox.  Finally, baseball is back, yet we can’t truly make any judgments for at least several months.  Even a poor April shouldn’t leave a fan too discouraged.  So with that, we look to tomorrow, and enjoy the fact that baseball is back, and with every loss comes the promise of another opportunity. At least for now.

Thoughts on the Reds

The Reds have made the playoffs three of the past four years, but a 2-7 record has left fans wondering what’s wrong.  I have a couple theories.

DUSTY BAKER

I’ll start with the most popular and most controversial of theories.  Dusty Baker embodies old school (whatever that means).  His lineups, bullpen usage, interactions with players and media, demeanor.  Everything.  And I must admit upfront, Saberists acknowledge the somewhat limited impact a manager can have on his team’s win total by making minor tweaks to things like batting order.

At the same time, the studies that are done on that topic often assume these “tweaks” are in fact minor, and that generally the manager will come up with a lineup that is at least somewhat close to optimized.  I’d argue that Dusty does not do this.  For over half the season he batted one of his lowest OBP guys second.  For basically all of the season he batted another low OBP guy in the top 4, probably because of that player’s reputation for being a “run producer” (whatever that means).

The point is, Dusty isn’t coming close to trotting out an optimized lineup.  This was blatantly clear in a September game against Houston, when Votto and Bruce (2 of the Reds top 3 hitters) were intentionally walked in the same inning.  They were separated by Ludwick (who of course missed most of the season with an injury, so this is nothing against him) which allowed the Astros to pitch around the Reds best hitters and instead face a rusty Ludwick and free-swing Todd Frazier.  The Astros got out of an inning in which the Reds had the winning run on third with nobody out.

Of course this is one example, and you could point to other examples where Cozart or Phillips or someone other than Votto/Choo/Bruce came through.  But the point is that night after night, the Reds aren’t put in the BEST position to win when it comes to something they have COMPLETE control over.

I won’t go into as much detail around the bullpen, except to say that Dusty has shown he is unwilling to veer outside conventional “wisdom” when it comes to bullpen usage, almost always saving his best reliever until the 9th inning, ignoring whether a situation previous to the 9th calls for it.  And this happens right on down the line.  Tough situation in the 6tH?  Here comes Logan Ondrusek or Zack Duke.  I am not trying to knock these guys, but the blind use of bullpen arms in reverse order of quality is just mindless and silly.

Dusty sympathizers point to his very long track record, his reputation for clubhouse management and being a player’s manager, and the fact that he can’t control how players perform on the field.  In my opinion, there are legitimate arguments against each of these.  Along with a track record of regular season success is a track record of post-season disappointment.  As many have stated, perhaps Dusty’s clubhouse magic helps a team through the long grind of 162 games, but his game (mis)management gets magnified in the post-season, and ultimately hurt his teams considerably.

Last year I was more or less convinced that Dusty’s immeasurable impact when leading a group of 25 adult baseball players was real (at least in the regular season), and possibly worth his other shortcomings.  This year, I’ve become unconvinced, and everything I’ve seen confirms that any team he leads will always be at an inherent disadvantage when facing another team in a post-season series.

THIS TEAM IS MISSING “IT”

Define “It” however you want… desire, urgency, heart.  I’ve read over and over this year that this team doesn’t have it.  And while I generally dismiss this as a chicken and egg argument (do teams lacking desire lose, or does losing just make it APPEAR that the team lacks desire) but at this point I feel I can no longer deny the possibility.  Did Scott Rolen’s leadership really inspire this team that much?  Is Joey Votto too much of an introvert to be this team’s emotional leader?  Is Brandon Phillips too much of a wild card?

It’s impossible to answer these questions.  They say teams without chemistry seem to suddenly acquire it as soon as they start winning.  I don’t necessarily think this team has chemistry issues, but might “desire” and “urgency” suddenly be detected if only a few more things went their way?

Do the Reds not want to win as much as other teams?  I have a hard time believing that.  If Frazier stopped swinging at terrible pitches, and guys not named Votto/Choo/Bruce worked the count a little better, would it look like the Reds wanted it more, as a whole?  I have no idea, but at this point, I believe it’s very hard to completely change the way a Major League baseball player approaches an at bat.

CONCENTRATION OF TALENT

This “theory” could probably be labeled a bunch of different ways, but the point is this: for the past couple years, the Reds have had VERY good production from a few spots in the lineup/field, and average or below average production in most other places.  Votto and Bruce are very good baseball players.  This year, the Reds had another very good baseball player in centerfield.  However LF, SS, and C were all below average, especially at the plate.  3B and 2B were about average, overall.  This offense relies heavily on 2-3 guys.

The problem is, it seems the other positions are good enough that they aren’t glaring holes the Reds perceive as problems that need to be fixed, but they are also not good enough to form a complete, well-rounded offense.

Frazier and Cozart were just assumed to be the heirs apparent for their respective positions.  Both have been quite good in the field, but thus far have not developed into bona fide Major League hitters.  More than just results, it is their approach at the plate.  Frazier especially appears to have terrible pitch recognition, though gets ahold of one often enough to remain around a league average hitter.  And even after Cozart’s hot finish to the season, he was still well below average (albeit at shortstop) and walks very infrequently.

Ludwick is another story, as a surprising 2012 performance at the plate has led the Reds to believe he’s a solution at LF.  His injury notwithstanding, he was unlikely to duplicate his 2012, he’s 35 years old, and a liability in the field.  Add in Brandon Phillips’ disappointing season (and impending decline), and terrible offensive output at catcher, and *all of a sudden* positions in which the Reds thought they were fine or had answers, are dragging down this offense.

The issue is how to fix it.  After a bit of a spending spree in which Votto, Phillips, and Bruce were signed to long term contracts, and Ludwick signed a multiyear deal, it’s unclear how to fix this, or how a single player can make any significant impact.  As I said before, players in these positions are good enough that they appear not to be problems, but when you add up 4-5 spots in the field that are average or below average, you end up with a problem.

Over the last two years the Reds have traded away a lot of young talent for players like Mat Latos and Shin-Soo Choo.  It’s hard (or impossible, really) to argue that those trades didn’t work out in the Reds favor.  What it leaves, though, is a relatively empty farm system with very little coming down the pipe any time soon.  In contrast, the Cardinals seem to pull guys up at will that contribute right away… Lance Lynn, Shelby Miller, Matt Adams, Matt Carpenter, their fire-balling bullpen.  The Reds don’t have these guys.  Someone smarter than me has to figure out why.

Have the Reds put too many eggs in a few baskets.  Eclipsing $100 million for the first time in their history, have they left themselves with too little flexibility in their budget?  Do familiar names at all the positions prevent them from taking flyers on guys like Justin Morneau, or Marlon Byrd, or Francisco Lirano, or Carlos Beltran?  I think it’s a little bit of all of these things.

CONCLUSION

I haven’t talked about the pitching at all here, which is mostly because the Reds are in the best shape, pitching-wise, than they have been in maybe ever.  The one issue I could squabble with is their recent obsession with committing lots of money to bullpen arms, but that could be another entire article.  Suffice it to say that it certainly impacts budgeting (and lack of funds to make other moves) though bullpen performance is probably fairly low on this teams list of problems.

When it comes down to it, it’s probably a combination of all of the things listed above.  My fear is that whatever the reason(s), this Reds team is fatally flawed.  Next year we likely lose a major piece of the offense.  Dusty Baker will almost certainly be back.  I’m not sure what moves there are to be made in the off-season.  We’ll just have to wait and see.  If the talent this team has (or seems to have) ends up going to waste, it’ll be a shame.

But maybe next year Brandon starts hitting like 2010, and Frazier and Cozart figure it out a little more, and Ludwick returns fully healthy to produce almost as well as 2012, and the bullpen injuries are minimal, and Votto becomes superhuman again, instead of merely really awesome.  (And Bruce puts up another Bruce season… man that guy is consistent.)

Baseball is a funny game, and despite everyone’s insistence on trying to figure it out, it refuses to be figured.  Which is why we come back for more, every year.

Mike Leake

Today’s starter Mike Leake has had a pretty good year, at least by traditional standards.  A 11-5 record, 3.51 ERA, on track for over 30 starts.

A deeper look gives me some concerns.  A K-rate that’s gone down in back to back years coupled with an increasing walk rate.  His homerun-rate has gone down to about league average (taking into account Leake’s home ballpark), so that’s good.  A fielding independent pitching mark of 4.11 isn’t bad, especially for a 4th or 5th starter.

But Leake was a first round pick.  A guy we were told knew how to pitch, and could ultimately turn into something of a Greg Maddux-lite.  After almost four years in the big leagues (and virtually none in the minors), have we learned anything?

Mike Leake’s overall strikeout rate is 5.9 per 9 innings, 69th out of 86 qualified National League starters since 2010.  He’s countered that with 2.3 walks per 9, good for 19th among the same group.  His homerun rate is about league average, if you account for Leake’s home ballpark.

It’s not impossible to succeed with these peripherals, but will Leake ever ascend beyond the 4th/5th starter label?  Will he ever remind us of the Mad Dog?

I took a quick look at pitchers in the last 10 years with a K-rate below 6.5, at least 1000 innings pitched, and who earned at least 2 wins above replacement per 180 innings pitched.  That left me with 20 guys.  Of those, Mark Buehrle was the most successful, accumulating 146 wins, 39.2 WAR, and of course a World Series championship.  Of course, he’s also left handed, which Mike Leake is not.

The second most successful is Tim Hudson with 141 wins and 31.3 WAR.  He’s an extreme groundball pitcher.  As is the next man on the list, Derek Lowe.  Mike Leake isn’t one of those either.

If you take away the lefties, extreme ground ball pitchers, and knuckleballers, we get the following list:

Name W L GS IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP GB% ERA FIP xFIP WAR Per180IP
Bartolo Colon 100 77 223 1393 6.2 2.2 1.2 0.292 41.3% 4.08 4.21 4.22 21.0 2.7
Greg Maddux 82 75 205 1258 5.2 1.4 1.0 0.288 50.8% 4.13 3.97 3.74 17.9 2.6
Carl Pavano 81 69 198 1272 5.3 1.8 1.0 0.301 46.6% 4.27 4.03 4.10 18.0 2.5
Brad Penny 93 75 238 1415 5.9 2.7 0.9 0.303 46.2% 4.20 4.07 4.26 19.8 2.5
Freddy Garcia 93 77 233 1424 6.2 2.6 1.3 0.286 41.9% 4.41 4.47 4.26 18.8 2.4
Joe Blanton 85 87 248 1535 6.2 2.4 1.1 0.304 44.2% 4.46 4.20 4.13 19.3 2.3
Kyle Lohse 109 101 312 1839 5.5 2.4 1.0 0.297 41.9% 4.31 4.26 4.39 22.2 2.2
Bronson Arroyo 127 109 321 2037 5.9 2.3 1.2 0.279 40.6% 4.09 4.48 4.39 23.0 2.0
Carlos Silva 62 69 180 1065 3.9 1.5 1.2 0.312 47.1% 4.83 4.56 4.40 11.9 2.0
R.A. Dickey 64 62 168 1067 6.5 2.7 1.1 0.284 46.8% 4.00 4.25 4.09 11.8 2.0
Joel Pineiro 81 82 223 1396 5.2 2.4 1.0 0.303 49.3% 4.65 4.26 4.19 15.3 2.0

An interesting list, but not really any consistent, top of the rotation guys.

Maddux was in his declining years, of course.  What separated him from these others guys while he was in the prime was maintaining a K-rate just above the threshold I listed above, but in particular it was a walk-rate below 2, and an extremely low HR/9.  For his career, Maddux allowed 0.63 homeruns per 9 innings. No one on this list comes close.

I hope Leake continues to develop, and I think he’s great to have on this team, but if he hopes to take the next step I think he’ll have to improve all three main peripherals just a bit.

Follow Aaron on Twitter @aaronjlehr

Joey Votto

After a semi-long hiatus, mostly the result of a week in Florida and a week of playing catch up at work, yesterday brought baseball news that cannot be brushed aside.  In case Big Red Smokey is your primary news source, let me just tell you that while nothing is official, it appears that the Reds may be signing Joey Votto to a 10 year, 225 million dollar extension.  Indications are that this is on top of the 2 years, 26 million dollars he has remaining on his current contract.  In total, this would mean the Reds are committing 12 years, 251 million dollars to their MVP first baseman, who would hopefully man the position through 2023.

Those last three sentences probably warrant a second or third read.  Every Reds fan – nay, every baseball fan - should be stunned.  We had all but accepted the fact that Votto’s time with the Reds would end in two years, and we would do our best to go on without him.  There was no way the Reds could afford a superstar at market value, and Votto indicated that there would be no hometown discount (can’t really blame him for that).

But when I randomly saw the link on Rotoworld, I got excited, of course.  I rushed to my good friend twitter, and all afternoon different thoughts and figures were popping up.  First it was the $200 million, then it was 10 years, then it was 10 years including the final two of his existing contract.  Whatever it was, it didn’t matter.  Life without Votto was irrelevant now, and Reds fans rejoiced.

It was a good two or three hours before I allowed myself to address a minor concern that had begun to fester.  Is this a good idea?  It’s funny because I honestly expected to see more backlash, as least from non-Cincinnati media, calling the decision foolish and irresponsible.  There was some of that, as Keith Law noted, “the real question on the Votto deal is how soon the Reds regret it.”  Law’s ESPN Insider article is exactly what I expected from the outside world.  But there was actually a different tone to most comments.  They didn’t focus as much on the contract as what it means for baseball.

As you may or may not know, several teams signed new local TV deals this winter, creating huge new revenue streams.  Apparently this is expected to continue.  On top of that, the recent sale of the Dodgers for over $2 billion seems to have been eye opening for many.  If that kind of value is contained within teams, it would logically follow that there’s money to be spent that hasn’t been realized.  Votto wasn’t the only player to make news yesterday.  The Giants’ Matt Cain was officially given a massive, nine-figure contract that on the surface looks like an over pay.  However, given all this talk on the new state of baseball, who knows anymore.

Think about this – Votto was still two years away from free agency.  The Reds weren’t bidding against anyone but themselves.  And while no one expected a hometown discount, the Reds are a good fit for Votto, and he knew it.  Votto noted to John Fay yesterday, “I’m about to sign a huge deal, John, and you’re the only media I have to answer to.”  Yet look at those figures.  There isn’t one iota of an indication that anything was left on the table.  The Reds just committed more than three times the salary of their entire roster last year.  They’ve contructed the longest contract in the history of baseball.

Yesterday afternoon, initial indications were that the extension resulted in a 10 year, $200 million contract that included the next two years.  I was ok with that.  That number seemed reasonable*.  Yes it was a huge risk, but given everything I’ve mentioned, and the fact that it’s JOEY VOTTO, I was ok with it.  As Joel Luckhaupt pointed out, one could conclude that the Reds saved around $40-50 million, if you compared the contract to potential full market price.

*You know what I mean.

But nope.  Throw that out the window because this is value times 100%, maybe more.  But again, I don’t think any of us really know what this is going to mean.  The Reds’ TV deal is up for renegotiation in 2015 I think, and it will be our turn for new revenue streams.  As usual, Dave Cameron over at Fangraphs does a great job reflecting on the deal while maintaining perspective on everything else.  Maybe this is the new standard.  Maybe teams won’t have the revenue concerns of the past decade, and locking up MVP caliber players for the next 4-5 years is worth the over pay at the back end.  Chances are Votto’s not going to be an All Star when he’s 38 or 39.  In fact, Cameron has him barely above replacement.  And of course the Reds don’t have a DH spot to fall back on.  Do you know many 38-year-old starting first basemen?  Todd Helton is one, limping to the end of his 10 year contract.  Many casual baseball fans don’t realize he’s still playing.

But enough of that.  Bottom line, Votto’s and Red, and likely will be for the duration of his career.  I love that.  Sadly, this is no longer common in baseball, but for the second time in as many generations, Cincinnati will have its superstar spending his entire career in a Reds uniform.  As Red Reporter put it:

The irrational love from Reds fans for this extension might have something to do with “hey wait up guys, we can spend a ton of money too”… more importantly, it’s that we keep our best player/generational player even tho free agent doctrine says we’re not allowed.

Amen.

Playing with Fangraphs’ Positional Power Rankings

If you haven’t caught on yet, Fangraphs is awesome.  And well, they’ve done it again.  They took a great idea, and executed it beautifully.

This time of year, everyone puts out some sort of predictions/rankings/etc, and to be honest, I’ve gotten tired of them.  But of course, Fangraphs puts a different spin on them and made it interesting again.

How’d they do it?  First they broke it down by position and ranked every team, 1 through 30.  Second, they considered all players currently slated for playing time at the position, not just one guy.  This allows platoon situations, or rookies who may get more playing time later in the year, to factor into the equation.  Dave Cameron gives a more detailed explanation in the intro, but they basically used a combination of ZIPS projections and fan evaluations of defense to come up with an aggregate WAR for the position.  Numbers were typically ballparked and I think “ties” were broken by the evaluator.  What resulted was a ranking for each position that was built on objective analysis, but also maintained the human element.

Intrigued by the results, I decided to collect the rankings for all offensive positions and create an aggregate number by adding each team’s rank for each position.  I initially included offense only, as combining hitting and pitching often gets messy (plus there were only two pitching categories and I would have had to do some sort of weighting).  Results are to the right.

Not surprisingly, the American League dominates the top of the rankings, with New York, Texas and Boston nabbing the top three spots.  The Phillies, perhaps the NL’s best bet in recent years to compete with the offenses of the AL on paper, clock in at number eight, just behind your Cincinnati Reds.  The Phillies are getting older, and Rollins, Utley and Howard are developing extensive injury histories.

The Reds show well here thanks to three top 10 finishes (I’m sure you can guess who they are – though full results are below) including the number 1 first basemen(!), with Votto edging out Pujols thanks to the latter’s likely, though limited, appearances at DH this season.

As you can see, those damn Cardinals find themselves ahead of the rest of the National League.  Somehow they just continue to reload, thanks, in part, to a timely Beltran signing (sad face).  The Cards have few holes, if any, claiming a top 5 ranking at two positions (Molina, Holiday) and a top 10 ranking in another three (Berkman, Furcal, Beltran).  Their biggest weakness is in center, where Jon Jay still ranks two spots ahead of Stubbs.  I think it’s tough to have anyone other than the Cardinals as division favorites right now.  Even with the Carpenter situation, we saw how they dealt with Wainwright’s injury last year, and they are pretty strong one through five.  Additionally, Fangraphs is giving 75 innings to prospect Shelby Miller.  The guy just turned 21 and has ranked among the top 10 or 20 prospects in baseball for a couple years now.

It’s interesting seeing how all the teams stack up.  I don’t think there are a whole lot of surprises here, but I’ll let you decide for yourself.  You should browse the entire series, as there is tons of info that you know is going to be as reliable as anything else out there.  I’ll also include my graphic that includes all rankings at all positions, with the Reds spots highlighted, of course.

One thing we’ve yet to address is pitching.  I figured it didn’t require this sort of effort since it’s basically two numbers (starters and relievers), but it is worth considering.

Obviously there’s high hopes for the Reds’ staff this summer.  The addition of Mat Latos, the continued growth of Cueto, Leake and Bailey, the bounce back of Arroyo, and the eventual inclusion of Chapman, all leave room for optimism.

Unfortunately, ZIPS disagrees.  The Reds land at number 23 in the starting pitching rankings, and even Dave Cameron admits that he was “shocked”.  As he puts it, “ZIPS is just not a big fan of Bailey or Leake, and top top it off, it hates Bronson Arroyo with the passion of a 1,000 burning souls.”  Maybe not surprising given his spring performance thus far.  Even Latos doesn’t stack up against other teams’ aces.  Cameron hypothesizes that the Reds will outperform this projection.  (Another surprise was seeing the Diamondbacks at number 21.  You just never know with these projections, and pitching is especially difficult to forecast.)  Thankfully, our revamped bullpen comes through in the clutch, checking in at number 3.

In the end it’s just another set of projections, and they can be wrong.  Wait, check that, they will be wrong, in one way or another.  Which again, is what makes it all worth watching.  It looks like the Reds come out pretty decently, which may not be the enthusiastic endorsement fans are hoping for, but it certainly could be worse.  This is an exciting team with a lot of upside, well positioned for a run at the Central.

Realignment

If you really like baseball, you probably know that in 2013 the Houston Astros will be moving to the American League West.  I had always heard that the idea of making two fifteen-team leagues wasn’t feasible because it would mean year-long interleague play.  Well, I guess they finally decided that was a fair price to pay for giving “equal” playoff access to all Major League teams.

I’m on board with the change, and all NL Central fans should be.  For seventeen years we’ve been competing with five other teams for a division crown while AL West teams had just three other competitors.  Beyond The Boxscore did a brilliant job outlining how realignment (and the extra wild card) will alter the playoff chances for each team (assuming all else is equal – there’s that word again).  Long story short, it will make a lot more sense in 2013.

For a while now, however, I’ve played with the idea of realignment on my own, imagining what I would do if I was the commissioner of baseball.  Obviously many ancillary questions come along with that, in particular, how to deal with uneven leagues.  We all remember the contraction conversations that took place around the turn of the century.  It seems clear now that it won’t be a solution to league imbalance anytime soon.  Which, before resorting to two 15-team leagues and season-long interleague play, left only one other option: expansion.

That may seem weird to some.  The Florida clubs can’t sell 10,000 tickets on a weeknight in August (before the Marlins’ new stadium, that is) and I’m telling you baseball needs more teams?  Well, I’m no expert, but from what I read (and I remember Rob Neyer writing about this more than anyone), just because baseball isn’t working in one state doesn’t mean there isn’t demand elsewhere.  I know Rob is biased due to his residence, but he’s often wrote of putting a team in Portland.  I’ve also heard of places like Charlotte, New Orleans, and Nashville.  I have no idea if baseball teams could survive, let alone thrive, in these places.  I’d imagine, as it would for most places, that it depends on countless factors that many people other than myself would have their hand in.  Regardless, I’m going to assume here that it could work.*

*There are other issues with expansion, of course.  I honestly don’t like the idea of it in general because it just waters down the overall talent of the league.  Plus, to me, it makes baseball just a little less baseball-y.  I’m no traditionalist, but at some point I like the idea that baseball is different that other sports and doesn’t have teams that fans sometimes forget even exist.  Charlotte Bobcats?  Atlanta Thrashers?  (Oh wait, they don’t exist anymore.)  I think baseball has enough teams.  We don’t need more starting from scratch, trying to build up their fanbase (see the story from earlier this off-season of the Nats owner going off about Phillies fans taking over his home ballpark for an example of what I mean – I read a good piece on SB Nation, I think).

Anyway, I’m going with expansion, and I’m going with Charlotte and Portland.  Another thing I always liked, is the two-division format within each league.  Again, I was doing this before the extra wildcard, so one reason I liked two divisions is because it gave you a greater chance that the four best teams would make the postseason (assuming two division winners, two wildcards).  Additionally, a team that won its division wouldn’t start the playoffs on the road.  And and, for some reason it bothers me when divisions get so small (like in football).  I like them big, and I like playing two-thirds of the league more than six times a year.

So, we have a basic format: four divisions, eight teams in each division.  Here’s how it all played out in excel.  Comments after the graphic.

All graphics courtesy of sportslogos.net

As I’m sure you noticed, these aren’t all current logos.  I decided to use them from the last time baseball had four divisions.  It was funner that way.

First, I put the Astros in the American League.  I honestly can’t remember if I did that on my own before baseball decided it, but either way, I kept it.  That way I can put one expansion team in each league, and decide where they go based on geography and need.

Basically, when you’re going from three divisions in each league to two, the issue is splitting up the two central divisions, which can be tough.  The easiest call is probably putting the Astros in the West, followed by Pittsburgh in the East.  It’d be pretty difficult to justify Kansas City going east.  Same with the Twins.  Conversely, Detroit and Cleveland are clearly leaning that way.

This leaves Chicago, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, and St. Louis in the National League, and only Chicago in the American League.  To me, it doesn’t make sense to have the two Chicago teams assigned to different halves of the country.  I know baseball has done a lot weirder, but this is my league and that would drive me nuts.

I think you also need St. Louis in the same division as the Cubs.  Putting these teams in the East doesn’t make sense, as it would force Cincinnati or Milwaukee, teams located east of St. Louis, into the West.  So, Cards and Cubs in the West.

It would be tempting to throw the Brewers in there with them, except there’s a problem.  Putting the Cubs in the West forced the White Sox westward, which fills the AL West’s quota for teams.  This means that Charlotte goes to the AL and lands in the East, forcing Portland to the NL West, and all of a sudden the NL West is capped out too.  So Milwaukee, you’re with us Reds in the East.

As a Reds fan I like this setup.  I’ve always missed the Reds/Braves matchup from the old NL West days, and while I would have enjoyed a Reds/Dodgers reunion, that’s an awfully long trip.

Now a word on the logos.

We had this poster in our basement for the longest time that had the 26 teams (yes, 26) all sorted by division.  I loved that poster and probably stared at it a lot (mostly trying to figure out what the hell the Expos logo meant – the coloring threw me off).  Certain icons are burned into my memory: the Phillies maroon “P”, the Brewers ball-in-glove, Chief Wahoo’s giant grin.  Well to me, that poster represents a time when baseball had four divisions, and I wanted to go back to it.  A couple of awards…

Most Improved
Nominees: Astros, Blue Jays, Brewers, Orioles
Winner: Brewers – possibly the greatest baseball logo of all time.

Biggest Mistake
Nominees: Diamondbacks, Padres, Pirates
Winner: Diamondbacks – the worst offender of the purple and turquoise era.

Some additional notes…

Did you notice that the American League has a lot of circular logos?  Ten versus the NL’s five (six if you count the Marlins).

I didn’t follow any hard and fast rule when it came to selecting old logos.  I mostly went to the early ’90s, and if there were several to choose from, I picked my favorite.

The Padres was the toughest call, as they changed things up slightly in 1990, ’91, and ’92.  I had ’92-’98 in there first, which had eliminated all brown and added a pinstripe-y look, but after some thought I went back and opted for brown.  It’s classic.

As I mentioned before, to do this I used sportslogos.net, which is an awesome site that has everything.  Most of the time I would go to the search bar, type in the nickname, and the appropriate team (along with several other related teams) would show up in a table below.  However, I had to mention that only with the Pirates did I have to scroll down several rows to actually get to the Major League team I was searching for.  Poor Pirates.

The one exception to my logo selecting was probably the White Sox.  They introduced the current black and white theme in 1991, and in most cases I would have opted for the generally more interesting look of the previous logo.  But that would have meant going with the light blue and red and the weird looking batting guy, I never really liked that.  The black and white is slick, if you ask me.

Love that the Blue Jays are going retro this year.  They may have been my favorite in the chart above if it wasn’t for the Brew Crew.

For some reason it seems that younger teams like to change stuff around a lot.  The Astros, Mariners, Blue Jays, Angels, Diamondbacks and Rays have all gone through several looks, usually including at least one major color theme change.  The Royals and Mets, however, are the exception.  Their logos are virtually unchanged since their inceptions, and I kind of like that.

I don’t remember that Phillies logo, at all.  But if they tell me it was the primary logo in 1990, I’ll go with it.  It’s sort of incredible, when you look at it, with the shrubery and all.

And I just have to say, that when I clicked on the big version of the Cardinals logo, something struck me.  That is an awfully surly looking bird.  It fits, I guess.

Why Mike Cameron is to blame for the Reds’ decade of futility…

In case you hadn’t heard, 15-year-veteran Mike Cameron retired on Sunday.  I’m not going to go into detail about his career, but if I may give an opinion, I’d say it was a quite successful one.  Cameron was often cited as one of the more underrated players in baseball (somewhat of contradiction, I know) especially during the later stages of his playing career.  This was likely due to his unimpressive batting averages (a stat that is historically overvalued) and the value that he added in centerfield (defense is difficult to measure).

As a Reds fan, I always had a liking for Mike Cameron.  Looking back, I had sort of forgotten that he only spent 1 year in a Reds uniform, but I remembered him as a productive player while he was in Cincinnati.  Not to mention the fact that he was here in 1999, the year any Reds fan will remember as the time we won 96 games and lost a 1 game playoff to Al Leiter for the wild card spot.  Despite the lousy ending, it was the last time the Reds were a productive baseball team for quite some time.

Something I also hadn’t remembered is how the Reds acquired Mike Cameron… in a trade with the White Sox for Paul Konerko.  No Reds fan enjoys reading that sentence.  As I recall, the Reds had 2 promising young first basemen at the time, and picked one.  Sean Casey was a good player for a while, and of course became known as the friendliest player in baseball, but the Reds clearly passed on the superior player.  Paul Konerko has gone on to anchor the middle of the White Sox lineup for 13 years and counting (not to mention win a World Series).

But of course, the Reds got a very good player in return.  In fact, if you go by Fangraphs WAR (which some say puts a bit too much emphasis on defense) Cameron has a sizable, and likely insurmountable, lead over Konerko.

Problem is, after the Reds successful 1999 campaign they of course included Cameron in a somewhat notable trade with the Seattle Mariners for Ken Griffey Jr.  No Reds fan could have imagined that over the next 4 seasons, Cameron would produce 10 more wins for the Mariners than Griffey managed for the Reds.  Of course, that was due to the fact that Cameron played in 231 more games and came to the plate over 1000 more times.  Griffey’s rate stats easily bettered Cameron’s (.271/.374/.530 versus .256/.350/.448).

Not helping the cause was the fact that in the second season following the trade, the Mariners tied the Major League record for most wins in a season.  Cameron played a huge role on that team with 25 homeruns, 110 RBI, 31 stolen bases, an All Star appearance, and a Gold Glove.  Coincidentally, Griffey suffered his first major injury with the Reds and played in only 111 games.  It was probably around this time that people started to wonder if the Reds would have been better off keeping Mike Cameron, without even factoring in the other players surrendered (which included Brett Tomko, the Reds’ latest signee… awesome).

I was probably bitter toward Mike Cameron at first, though for no logical reason.  Here we go and trade for the best player in baseball after winning 96 games, and it turns out we would have been better off with a guy who ended up playing for 8 different teams and had a lifetime batting average under .250??  Well, to put it simply… yeah sorta.  But really, at least to me, the Griffey situation became so absurd in Cincinnati, that soon it didn’t matter who he displaced (it also helped that the Mariners were perennial disappointments in the playoffs for a few years).

I imagine the Reds weren’t the only team who regretted losing Cameron.  He was a productive player for many years.  However, it turns out that he cost the Reds a franchise first baseman in Konerko, and then became the centerpiece in a package sent over to the Mariners in exchange for a player who came to epitomize the disappointing Reds teams of the 2000s… big and slow with a little power and no defense.  Let’s take a look at these three players’ WAR totals over a ten year period and note when each played for the Reds.

Mike Cameron vs Reds Players

The flurry of deals worked out at first, netting the Reds the highest performing of the three in 1999 and 2000.  However that trend turned quickly as Griffey clearly performed the worst of the three over the next 5 years (and surely beyond).

So, to Mike Cameron, congrats on a great career.  But know this: I blame you for the Reds decade of futility.

Baseball Trivia

If you’re like me, you love baseball trivia.  It’s a chance to show off your knack for recalling mostly useless facts about players who probably don’t play anymore.  It’s a way to reminisce about the days of yore, when baseball was played with rocks and baserock was played with knives.

K, sorry.  Anyways, if you’re like me you probably also hate baseball trivia, because with all the details and stats that are recorded, there’s an opportunity for endless amounts of pointless and unfun baseball trivia.  To steal a line from the man to whom I’m about to link, unless your Floyd Robinson’s mother, you don’t care who led the American League in doubles in 1962.  You either know it or you don’t, and no amount of thought is going to help you.

That’s where Rich Burk’s baseball trivia (and baseball-reference) comes in.  Rich feels your pain, and has done something about it.  You can read about all the gruesome details over on his site, but be careful!  This isn’t any ordinary baseball trivia site.  It’s slightly old school, in that there are no interactive answer fields or names that get automatically revealed when you type them.  Each question is accompanied by 3 hints that are listed directly below it, and at the very bottom of the page are all the answers.  This makes things tricky, especially if you choose to skip a question or come back to it later.

The first thing I’d recommend is reading the “About Rich Burk’s Baseball Trivia” followed by the “Ground Rules“.  Those will tell you what it’s all about and how to play.

If you don’t feel like jumping right in, I’ll give you a question here to get you started.

The Victors

A couple of days ago, we were discussing the years 2000-2011. During those 12 seasons combined, which major league pitchers have the most wins? Name the top ten in any order.

Step 1 is writing down your best guess.  Don’t be afraid to spend a few minutes (or longer) mulling it over.  Even if you’re not too sure, or can hardly name 10 decent pitchers period, it doesn’t hurt to guess.

After your done you can check out Hint 1.  Use the information provided to change your answers how you see fit.  Make sure you have a way of knowing when each player is guessed.  Correct guesses made without any hints receive the most points, which each hint reducing the points awarded by 1.

Here is Hint 2 (remember to change your answers accordingly)… Hint 3… and finally, the Answers.  Again, I recommend giving it some thought between each hint.

Now you add up your score: 4 points for answers without any hints, 3 points after the first hint, 2 after the second, and 1 point after the third.  Any blanks or incorrect answers don’t affect your score.

How fun was that?  Did you beat me?  I got 28 points… 5 players with no hints, 3 players after 2 hints, and 2 players after 3 hints (sadly, I had one of my 3-hint players listed after 1 hint, but took him off after the hint 2).

And finally, two thoughts: (1) Don’t cheat, and (2) If you write an answer down that ends up being correct, but then you remove it after one of the hints, and then you write it again after a later hint, you don’t get points for the first time you wrote it.  It has to be on there every subsequent round in order to get the higher point total.  Make sense?

10 Best Transactions of the Winter

Dave Cameron of Fangraphs has put together a list of his 10 best transactions of the winter.  Considering the amount of activity coming from the Reds’ front office I was curious to see what he came up with.  Right off the bat I can tell you that the Sean Marshall deal won’t be on there, and that the Ryan Madson deal will.  The Latos trade was kind of a long shot, though I think if Reds fans take a moment to be really honest with themselves, it might make this a little easier to swallow:

#3 – San Diego Padres Acquire Yonder Alonso, Yasmani Grandal, Edinson Volquez, and Brad Boxberger for Mat Latos

The Reds needed to make a deal like this, but I love this trade for the Padres. Alonso might not have star potential, but as a left-handed hitter with opposite field power, he should be able to hit well enough in Petco to be a useful piece, and there’s value in having six years of a cost controlled Wally Joyner hanging around. Grandal is the real key to this deal, though, as a switch-hitting catcher with power and patience who could easily be more valuable than Latos over the next six years by himself. Toss in a terrific buy-low arm in Edinson Volquez, who is a perfect fit for Petco, and a good young bullpen arm in Boxberger, and the Padres restocked their talent base in a hurry without drastically making their team worse for 2012. In fact, if Alonso and Volquez perform as expected, the team could actually be better than they would have been with Latos and some random first baseman. Toss in the long term value, and this deal was just a huge win for San Diego.

A couple things.

Cameron throws us a bone in the beginning, admitting that yes, the Reds needed to make this deal.  What immediately follows, however, left me kneeling on the mat.

I can’t figure out for the life of me what people are seeing in Volquez.  Every single commentary on the trade sees him as a high upside piece.  I mean, maybe Reds fans are being a little reactionary, but it irks me a little that he’s viewed as more than a throw in.

As most pro-Padre analyses have done, Cameron highlights Alonso’s and especially Grandal’s upside, while glossing over Latos.  I know Latos has some risk, but so do the youngsters (wait a minute, Alonso is how old?).  I was just reading Rotoworld’s top 100 prospects (might be subscriber only – sorry), which notes that Grandal is “already 23 years old and doesn’t have much projection left” and “could be an above-average regular”.  Yes, I cherry-picked a little, and it’s one source’s opinion, but let’s not get carried away.  He’s no Meso (ranked 14th to Grandal’s 45th) and all reports seem to point to Grandal being less likely to stick at catcher.

I don’t mean to knock Grandal here, and I realize I’m getting a little defensive.  But hey, that’s what fans are supposed to do.  Ultimately, I admit that Cameron’s take is convincing, and he may well be right.  But I do think he overstates it a bit.

Anyhow, you should go read the whole thing, but before I quit here I will reveal that (***SPOILER ALERT***) Madson came in at #8, and the yet-to-be-completed Roy Oswalt signing clocks in at #4.  Cameron seems to be optimistic on everyone with an injury history on this list, and Oswalt is no exception.  As you’ve probably heard, the Reds have been popping up more and more in Oswalt speculation, and though I know it’d be a gamble (I’m as big a Homer Bailey fan as anyone), I can’t help but get excited over the possibility.

Fantasy Baseball Valuations, Pt. 1

I realize that this topic will not interest everyone, and in fact may be the most limiting thing I’ve written about so far when it comes to audience appeal.  I’m going to go ahead and apologize now because this is fairly self-indulgent, and very nerdy.  I’m also going to apologize to Zach for plopping this down right in between his movie month intro and the subsequent followups.  However, this has just been on the forefront of my mind, and I have confidence Zach and his wonderful idea will rebound.

I have been playing fantasy baseball since college, and my involvement has gone through several stages.  I don’t really remember my first fantasy baseball league, but I’m going to assume I was pretty pumped about the idea of being in charge of my own team, drafting players and setting lineups.  I’m pretty sure these are the same reasons most people get into it.  And as most serious fantasy baseball participants soon discover, some of our favorite aspects of the game aren’t fully captured in your most basic fantasy league: setting the batting order, evaluating prospects, deciding how much value a player loses when he undergoes Tommy John surgery.  So of course, we search for more.

I don’t really remember the first time I joined a keeper league, but I’m going to assume it was pretty soon after I joined a non-keeper league and realized how much awesomer keeper leagues sounded.  And it didn’t take long until even that didn’t satisfy me.  I wanted to build a roster, contemplate middle relievers, and not have every guy in my starting lineup bash 20+ homeruns.  So I did the only logical thing and joined a 30-team sim league.

I’m going to pump the breaks a little here.  I don’t want to get too far into this, partly because my apology at the beginning of this post would be a severely sub-sufficient warning for what would transpire.  I will say that I spent hours and hours looking at every major league player’s three previous years of stats, ranking every position.  And by the way, this is weird to think, but I’m realizing as I type this that it doesn’t sound as crazy now as it would have in 2003 when I was doing it.  I won’t speak definitively on the nature of the universe of baseball stats and analysis, but at least to me, it was nothing like it is now.  No Fangraphs, no exportable stats, no easy and convenient way to get everything in one place.  I remember I spent one summer vacation pouring over pages and pages of printouts, taken from ESPN’s stats pages and sloppily copied and pasted into Excel.

But anyhow, hopefully some of your faith in me is restored when I tell you it didn’t take much more than a season for me to determine that it wasn’t sustainable.  Perhaps the realization that I was in college and shouldn’t spend hours alone in my room played a part, I dunno.  But let’s get back to the point.

The point is, despite the ups and downs, I would never lose the desire to build my own successful baseball team.  Generally speaking, my fantasy baseball involvement has leveled off somewhat to a place I’m comfortable with.  Specifically speaking, Fangraphs introduced a fantasy game last year with stat categories deviating from the norm, and that’s sort where all this starts.

For a while now I’ve had this end-goal in mind when it came to evaluating players for fantasy.  Yes there are tons of rankings out there, and even some that give you auction values and yada, yada, yada.  But honestly, I’ve wondered where those came from.  How do they come up with a dollar value for what a player is worth.  Any maybe it’s not such a difficult question on an abstract basis, but if I literally wanted to start writing formulas and crunching numbers, how would I do it.  This became even more necessary when I joined a Fangraphs league, because most rankings out there consider stolen bases and wins, and those were stats I needed to completely ignore.  What had been a dream was going to have to become reality: I needed to develop my own system for valuing players.

Whenever I had attempted to tackle this topic, my idea had typically centered around the idea that every run, every homerun, has a dollar value, and as a player accumulates these stats, he accumulates value.  For counting stats this is somewhat simple.  How many homeruns are hit in the National League?  How much money do you have to spend?  Some quick division and you have a dollar value per homerun hit.  Obviously there’s a lot more to go through but the general idea is there.

Rate stats threw a wrench in it all.  Players don’t accumulate on base percentage.  How do you give a dollar value to a percentage point of OBP?  And really, more importantly, you can’t just consider pure OBP because it doesn’t account for playing time.  A starter with an OBP of .360 obviously has more value than a bench player with an OBP of .360.  Additionally, a player with a .220 batting average doesn’t add value.  Logically speaking, there is a point at which a player’s batting average is low enough that it hurts his value.  And if you think about it, this is true for counting stats as well, though I didn’t realize it at first.  When Juan Pierre is on your team, he generally helps in stolen bases and average (stick with me here, I know he’s old).  But his homerun and RBI totals are deficits to your team, and it all contributes to the net value that he provides.  I realized that instead of benchmarking every player at zero, the benchmark should really be a league average, and to the extent a player is above or below that average in a given stat category, he adds or subtracts value.

What I would like to do now is show you what I’ve started doing, and then reveal an interesting result that came out of my league.  Like I said before, this is somewhat self-indulgent, but I also see it as documentation, as well as an opportunity to share some knowledge/ideas to whomever wishes to consume it.  Finally, if you see anything that doesn’t make sense, or you want to yell at me about how much of an idiot I am, I welcome that too.

First I will tell you that this Fangraphs league includes runs, homeruns, on base percentage, and slugging percentage for offensive players.  There are 12 teams in the league, with each team allowed 40 roster spots and $400 dollars to spend.  Let’s start with runs and homeruns.

Actually, let’s stop here to remind ourselves that there must be several assumptions that go into a process like this.  The first, and possibly most important, is the data source.  I am trying to predict 2012 value, so I need 2012 stats.  The obvious problem here is that there aren’t any yet.  So of course I go to trusty ol’ Fangraphs who generously provides us with projected 2012 stats thanks to RotoChamp.

With that out of the way, let’s say we want to determine how many dollars Prince Fielder’s league-leading 117 runs are worth.  As I mentioned before, you might first decide that the place to start is determine how much a single run is worth.  However, we can’t simply look at a single run out of context.  If Prince Fielder were to score 1 run the entire year, he would actually provide negative value.  Instead, we need to compare his aggregated total to that of the average player.  To do this, I introduced our second assumption, which is that the average number of at bats for a typical major league starter is around 550.  I honestly don’t have a lot backing that up.  I mostly based it off of the idea that 600 AB is a full season, and then I wanted to account for routine off days, minor injuries within our pool of players, etc.  (I might also argue that what this exercise is really doing is calculating relativities, so the exact number I picked here doesn’t really matter much.)

Ok, so what we’re left with to compute the average number of runs is:

  1. Take the total number of runs for the entire league (23,393)
  2. Divide it by the total number of at bats for the entire league (169,705)
  3. Multiply by 550 to get 76 runs (all numbers from RotoChamp projections)

This is the average for the league.  Clearly, Fielder is projected to be above average for this particular category, while other players will be only slightly above average, and still others below average.  So, instead of assigning a value to the run itself, we are going to assign a value for every run above or below the average.  The first step then, is to determine how many above average and below average runs there are.  I do this by taking the absolute value of each player’s total runs minus the average (in Fielder’s case the result would be 41).

Next, sum up number of runs above and below the mean (13,851).  And finally, we can assign a value, which brings us to assumption #3.  I mentioned before that each team has $400 to spend, which results in a league-wide total of $4800.  Since there are 4 hitting and 4 pitching categories, we could just divide $4800 by 8.  Problem is, that is essentially stating that a fantasy player should spend the same amount on hitting that he does on pitching, which probably isn’t the case (I sort of file this idea under “fantasy rules that are mostly assumed”, but I believe the reasoning is that pitching is much less reliable/predictable… there are probably other reasons too).

So what I wanted to do was determine a split between hitting and pitching dollars.  I did this by taking ESPN’s auction values from last year and calculating how much they allocated to hitters and pitchers, respectively.  This resulted in about a 65/35 split between hitting and pitching, so I divided the league’s dollars accordingly: $3120 for offense, $1680 for pitching.  Now, I think you can argue that each category within hitting and pitching are worth the same (I can’t think of any reason why they wouldn’t be) so I divided each number by 4 to get a dollar amount per category.

Back to runs.  We’ve now determined that there are 13,851 runs above or below the average, and that $780 league dollars will be spent on the category.  Some simple division (780 / 13,851) tells us that each marginal run is worth 5.6 cents (we’re almost there I promise).  Now multiply 0.056 times each player’s number of runs above or below the average, and you get a dollar value for that player’s run stat (be sure you use the actual difference this time instead of the absolute value because we want to reflect players who contribute negative value due to their low run totals).  For Prince Fielder, we get 0.056 * 41 = $2.31.  You will see later that there are actually a few more league-wide adjustments to make based on roster size and total league dollars, but for now our run component is done.

This same process is done for all counting stats.  I included a portion of my spreadsheet below to provide a visual.  In part 2 I’ll cover how to adjust the calculation for rate stats, and how we come up with final dollar values.  Thanks for reading.