Last year, we looked at the arguments for and against the implementation of instant replay in baseball. This year, Major League Baseball decided to make replay a part of the game, but as with any change, there have been some hiccups. These hiccups have led to some resistance and blowback, leading to contention about the system itself. Each failure of instant replay in its infant stage represents a chance for the entire system to come crashing down. Baseball should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

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While many initially fought replay on the grounds that the new system was too complex or arbitrary, the list of rules agreed upon by MLB owners is very straightforward. A list of reviewable plays as reported by Jayson Stark at ESPN reports, can be seen below:

In addition to home runs, expanded replay was unanimously approved by MLB owners for the following plays:

• Ground-rule double
• Fan interference
• Stadium boundary calls
• Force play*
• Tag play
• Fair/foul in outfield only
• Trap play in outfield only
• Batter hit by pitch
• Timing play
• Touching a base (requires appeal)
• Passing runners
• Record keeping

*Except fielder’s touching of second on double play

These plays provide little room for interpretation and instead place a burden of education on the managers and team staff, as is the case with all other baseball rules. It is the team’s responsibility, as well as the announcers commentating on the game, to understand the possibilities of replay in order to effectively do their job.

Any critique of the new system on the basis of challengeable plays, such as those regarding the “neighborhood rule”, which is the caveat to the force play listed above, are fair in order to examine possible improvements. Yet these arguments should be analyzed through the lens of player safety, which is another focus that MLB is attacking through new policies regarding catcher collisions, pitcher’s padded hats, and now middle infielders.

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Mark Ellis Needed Surgery to Save His Leg After a Double Play Slide Injury Last Season

Another large critique is that replay is still getting calls wrong. However, it should be understood that replay is not a method that eliminates mistakes; as football fans will attest. Instead, the goal of replay is to reduce the number of incorrect calls. And this is done through the requirement that a replay needs “indisputable video evidence” in order to overturn, which gives preference to the initial call, sometimes at the cost of the right call. Yet this type of system, as opposed to one that assumes skepticism toward the play, limits the umpire’s ability to change a right call to a wrong call and will ultimately reduce the number of blown calls.

By no means is the system perfect, but it should be looked at with respect to what other negative effects replay could have imposed on the game. The current system does a good job of allowing for the possibility of taking a second look at close plays while limiting the possible nuances that could accompany play review. Currently replay rarely prolongs the game any more than a standard pitching change (average replay was just 1:39 in the first 13 games). It limits the possibility of over-challenging by invoking a negative penalty for poor challenges. And it gives GM’s another tool that they can use to evaluate their coaching personnel with; is the manager challenging at the right time, or is the manager too quick to go to replay.

While replay has its flaws, the current system accomplishes its goal of reducing blown calls while working within current MLB policy focuses. Any critiques of the replay system should also be viewed and discussed with the acknowledgement of how they will influence the larger game of baseball. New technologies represent new ways to help improve the game, provided any changes are evaluated and implemented with an eye to existing rules. There is no reason for baseball to stick its head in the ground and reject all change. Its time to move forward and look towards ways to continue improving the game.

Tampa Bay

Might as well start off with a bang. Tampa Bay is my choice for division winner and for eventual World Series champion. “Pitching and defense” has become a bit of a trope at this point, but nobody does it better than the Rays and skipper Joe Madden is the best at using defensive switches and metrics to set his defense. Notable losses from the 2013 squad include Alex Torres, Fernando Rodney, Luke Scott, Kelly Johnson, and Jose Lobaton. Notable additions are David DeJesus, Grant Balfour, and Heath Bell.

Jake Odorizzi, the lesser known piece of the Wil Myers for James Shields trade, won the 5th starter spot in Spring Training. Look for him to shore up the backend of the best rotation in baseball while Alex Cobb breaks out into a true superstar in 2014. And that is without even mentioning David Price, who I expect to stay in Tampa Bay at least until the end of the season and is also my choice for AL Cy Young. Wil Myers is ready to take the next step after a solid freshman campaign and its time for Desmond Jennings to finally put it all together. Many of these players are young and relatively unproven, but if this team plays up to its potential, look out.

Baltimore

Baltimore was the hardest team for me to figure out going into this year. They lost Brian Roberts and Nate McLouth to Free Agency along with trading away their 40 save closer Jim Johnson to the A’s for once-prospect Jemile Weeks. They then stood pat for most of the offseason before making a flurry of moves late in Spring Training. Johan Santana looks like his days in the bigs are over, but Nelson Cruz and Ubaldo Jimenez could have real impacts, unfortunately both are flawed players. Cruz will be a negative defensively, unless they utilize him as a full-time DH, left field could be an adventure. Jimenez has had stretches where he has been unhittable in his career, usually coming right before a contract. We’ll see if his new digs translate to his old successful ways, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Suk-min Yoon could be the steal of the season despite flying under the radar as Hyun-jin Ryu did in the 2012-2013 offseason.

This team has real stars in Chris Davis and Manny Machado. It has solid position players in J.J. Hardy and Matt Wieters. But the rotation just won’t be able to keep up in the talented AL East. All-Star Chris Tillman’s 19-win season glosses over some problems with his underlying numbers, but he’s still the closest the team has to a number 1 starter. Marwin Gonzalez, Bud Norris and Wei-Yin Chen should not be in the rotation of a team that is looking to win now. And that is what the Orioles need to do. Their team is not built for the future, its built for now, but it is still missing a few key pieces if they look to surprise the baseball world again with another playoff berth.

Boston

The first thing you might notice is that I did not pick the reigning World Series champions to repeat, or even reach the playoffs. Everything went right for the Boston Red Sox last year and they overcame a lot of underlying issues with their pitching and team as a whole and went on an incredible run in the postseason. However, this is not the same team from 2013, and there are real problems heading into the season. Notable losses from the offseason include Jacoby Ellsbury, Stephen Drew, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia along with Ryan Dempster who decided to take a year off. Those losses have been replaced with some real question marks in the oft-injured Grady Sizemore, the untested Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley Jr., and the consistently mediocre A.J. Pierzynski. Look for Will Middlebrooks to settle into his role as starting third baseman after an up and down freshman campaign and have a moderate breakout. Unfortunately, this team has lost too many key players and is asking too much of its young players as they look to follow up on their 2013 world championship.

New York

This Yankee team looks remarkably different from the one that took the field in 2013, with a new starting position player at every position on the diamond in 2014. The loss of Robinson Cano obviously loomed over everything that occurred in the offseason, but the Yankees tried valiantly and expensively to mitigate his loss of production with the additions of veterans Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Carlos Beltran along with Masahiro Tanaka the $155 million man. All of these players will contribute in 2014 and help the Yankees to field one of the most experienced and productive teams on the field in 2014, but there are real question marks in the rotation. CC Sabathia has declined for two years in a row now and the zip is off his fastball taking him down from an ace to a hittable middle of the rotation starter. Tanaka will be good, but fans should temper their expectations. The first year in America can be a rough one for players making the jump from Japan, and there is already a lot of wear on his arm from 7 years in the big leagues in Japan – don’t expect Darvish-like production. New York’s best pitcher last year was the ageless Hiroki Kuroda who had one of the best years of his career at 38. The question is how much longer the Yankees can expect him to hold up. At age 39, there may not be much left in the tank, and he will be asked to carry the load all season. Ivan Nova and Michael Pineda represent real upside at the back end of the rotation, and the way they pitch could dictate if the Yankees finish near the top or bottom of the AL East standings.

Toronto

Everything went wrong for the Blue Jays last year, with a majority of the players on the Jays’ roster succumbing to some form of injury or another. That being said, the 2014 Toronto team still has some work to do to contend in the deep AL East. Notable departures include Josh Johnson, Rajai Davis and J.P. Arencibia. Though Johnson never put it together in a Jays uniform, he represented the best chance this staff had for an anchor, and without him or a bounce back from R.A. Dickey, this staff will repeat as one of the worst in the majors. With the loss of Arencibia, the Jays looked to upgrade at the catcher position and did so with the addition of Diner Navarro. Navarro has yet to prove himself as a full-time backstop, but a 2013 slash line of .300/.365/.492 definitely turned some heads. The bat is there, but the defense remains a question, and Toronto is one of the hardest staffs to catch in the big leagues with knuckleballer R.A. Dickey and junk-thrower Mark Buehrle. The lineup is one of the best in the bigs, and look for Colby Rasmus to finally break out this year, but the pitching remains a problem even with newcomer Drew Hutchinson making his way into the rotation full time.

It’s been an exciting offseason with star studded trades, record extensions and off-field drama, but the season has started and it’s time to get back down to business. We are already more than a week into the 2014 season and  I’m many days late and many dollars short at this point, I know. But I needed to get something posted to put my predictions out there. Playoff teams are in bold.

AL East

Tampa Bay
Baltimore
Boston
New York
Toronto

AL Central

Detroit
Cleveland

Kansas City
Chicago
Minnesota

AL West

Oakland
Los Angeles
Texas
Seattle
Houston

NL East

Washington
Atlanta
New York
Philadelphia
Miami

NL Central

St. Louis
Pittsburgh
Cincinnati
Milwaukee
Chicago

NL West

Los Angeles
San Francisco
Colorado
Arizona
San Diego

World Series: Tampa Bay over St. Louis

AL MVP: Mike Trout
NL MVP: Bryce Harper

AL Cy Young: David Price
NL Cy Young: Adam Wainwright

AL ROY: Jose Abreu
NL ROY: Billy Hamilton

Over the course of the week I’ll do a write up looking at each division and pick where I think the teams will finish, call out a few notable additions or subtractions from each team’s roster and pick a surprise breakout or slump performance.

AL East
AL Central
AL West

NL East
NL Central
NL West

So, nothing has happened in the past five months, right?

I’m sure our tens of readers have missed us, but unfortunately both Ryan and I got a little sidetracked with work and other things going on in our lives. The reason for restarting this is more to give myself an outlet than anything else, but if you want to come along for the ride, welcome.

We left off at the all-star break and we are now at the end of the season, the Red Sox beat the Cardinals in the World Series, and the hot stove is burning up. I will likely follow up with some pieces retrospectively looking at our previous fastball/changeup arguments and looking at which side was closer to the mark, but for now the reason that I wanted to start writing again is simple, I miss the promise and the possibility.

This past year in baseball showed that anything is possible in this game. The Red Sox were the worst team in 2012 and the best in 2013. The Giants won the World Series in 2012 but were mediocre for the entire year. Teams like the Marlins and Mets in “rebuilding” years still entertained with phenoms like Jose Fernandez and Matt Harvey. And teams that spent big in the offseason such as the Nationals and Blue Jays put up mediocre seasons despite being “all-in.”

The offseason is the least interesting part of the year to most fans, but to a stathead like me, there is no better time to run wild with projections, hypotheticals and trade talk about how a team can improve, which moves are “good” or “bad” and how best to construct a roster for the short term and the long term.

There are plenty of places you can look to find analysis on whether the Yankees can succeed without Cano (they can) or the A’s can compete without greatly expanding payroll (they can) or the Dodgers can buy themselves a championship (they can’t), but I am hoping in subsequent pieces on this site to delve a little deeper into both the statistical and human side of this game and why we find it so compelling.

Baseball is a business, but in any business there are multiple reasons and motivations that any action is taken. A capitalist works to optimize profit, while a community bookstore might be interested in teaching kids the joy of reading. A sabermatrician is interested in optimizing wins, while a regular fan might just want to see their favorite player because he has a great nickname and his kid likes to dress up in a panda hat. This site is called Fastball/Changeup because it was started as a way for my friend and me to argue and discuss an issue from two different sides. In the past, you have seen both sides taken to an extreme for the case of argument and then been left to decide for yourself which side was more compelling. While it is easy to write from just one perspective, it doesn’t always tell the whole story. There are always multiple reasons and motivations in baseball and in life, and going forward I will do my best to analyze all of those reasons and find that middle ground here.

Over the past decade, Major League Baseball has attempted to drum up support for the All Star Game with a new democratic selection process and a “This Time it Counts” ad campaign, the later of which was more of an apology for 2002 than a groundbreaking statement. One of the more popular reforms gave fans the ability to select the starting lineups through a voting process. Managers would still be in charge of filling out their respective lineups, but MLB put its belief in the fans ability to find the balance between the most worthy and most popular. The league also started giving home field advantage in the World Series to the side that won the All Star Game in an attempt to improve the game’s meaning for the players and the fans. Ultimately, MLB sought to make the game more of a spectacle for the fans by empowering their control over the game.

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Some have derided the changes, claiming that the game is being made into a spectacle and popularity contest all while undermining the accomplishments of the higher seeded playoff teams. What seems to be the most striking is the lack of criticism for the undemocratic final vote competition.

After the lineups are set and the league managers fill their remaining spots, the manager decides on which five players will go before the fans in a vote for the final spot. The winners this year were Freddie Freeman (1B-Atlanta) and Steve Delabar (RP-Toronto).  But days before the All Star Game, Freeman injured himself preventing him from participating in the festivities. Bruce Bochy, the NL manager, then appointed his replacement, an action that undermines the premise of voting for the final spot.

Anecdotally, Americans are most accustomed to voting in regards to political races. While there are many different rules regarding voting processes, we, as Americans, like to feel that our vote had a direct result in the eventual outcome. In single candidate races, it is expected that the top vote getter receive the position he was elected to. If, for whatever reason, he is unable to perform, then it is only fair for the second vote getter to step into his place.

In the NL MLB vote, Bochy superceded this process and selected someone who wasn’t even part of the top five vote to begin with. As manager, Bochy should have authority over some roster moves, but he should not disregard the parameters that the MLB has set up in order to increase fan involvement.

If MLB wants to legitimize the impact that the fans have on the All Star Game, it must honor the democratic elements of the “fan-vote”. Otherwise, the sport should recognize the limited amount of influence the fans actually do have over the rosters and rename the final man vote to a final man recommendation.

The Fastball: Punish Them to the Full Extent

By: Ryan

Earlier this week, ESPN received word that Major League Baseball is planning to issues bans to over 20 players connected to Tony Bosch‘s steroid drive-thru, Biogenesis. If reports are true, suspensions of varying degrees will be issued, with Ryan Braun and Alex Rodriguez being banned for the rest of the season and then some.

One hundred games to be exact.

100 game suspensions are usually reserved for “second offense” punishments and if any player receives a ban of this length as a result of the Biogenesis scandal, it will mark the first time that MLB has issued a steroid related suspension without the evidence of a positive test. Not only are these suspensions justified, but any and all suspensions issued by MLB as a result of this case indicate a new proactive approach to ridding the game of performance enhancing drugs – a step that is emphatically taken with 100 game suspensions.

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Bosch has been cooperative with the MLB Biogenesis investigation.

MLB always seemed to be 90 feet behind the steroid issue. Although home run numbers were growing just as fast as the muscles and foreheads of the players in the nineties, Baseball didn’t implement a random drug policy until 2004, where a positive test would result in a 10 game suspension. The policy was updated in 2005 to its current ramifications, but only after Congress pressured the sport to do so. Even then, the PED policy appeared to do little to curb the use of steroids and other performance enhancing drugs in the game and seven suspensions were issued in 2012 alone.

The biggest black eye to the policy came in 2011 when MVP Ryan Braun found himself in his first PED scandal. At the end of that season, Braun was tested. His results showed an increased level of testosterone caused by performance enhancing drugs. But since his urine sample was not shipped via FedEx on the same day they were collected, Braun was able to escape without a suspension, dampening the legitimacy and strength of the MLB PED suspension policy.

A 100 game suspension issued to any player in the coming weeks would show exactly how serious MLB is taking the PED issue. This type of suspension would be the result of two factors, the linkage to the Biogenesis case and previous denials of usage to MLB officials. These two factors will more often than not go hand in hand, making 100 game suspension the norm and further disincentivizing the use and denial of PED’s.

With this approach, MLB is able to sidestep the players union, which has been hesitant to incorporate any increase in severity of the PED policy. This might present an interesting legal battle for the league if they do issue penalties, but it is a fight worth having. The suspension, with an emphasis on its length, establishes the League as a legitimate advocate against steroids and validates the MLB’s desire to use every piece of evidence possible to persecute offenders.

Unfortunately, giving Braun and A-Rod a 100 game suspension will not eradicate PED’s from the game, but it will show that MLB is taking cheating seriously, a stance that it hasn’t been willing to admit up to this point.

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Uh-oh.

The Changeup: No More Technicalities

By: Matt

Major League Baseball deciding to go forward and suspend these 20 players is good for the sport. It is high time the league took a stand. When it comes to A-Rod and Ryan Braun, any suspension will be a good suspension. The league is considering making an example of the two former-MVPs since both lied about their PED use in the past and are now implicated again. However, by seeking the maximum 100-game suspension (50 games for cheating and 50 games for lying about it), Major League Baseball is making a mistake. Lots of money buys good lawyers, and the players association will probably bring a lot of its clout to the fight as well. In the same way that Al Capone finally went to jail for tax evasion, so too should the League be happy to suspend Braun for just the 50 games. Braun got off on a technicality last time, and the League cannot afford to let that happen again. The length of suspension is not important. What is important is putting these players on record as having cheated. It will tarnish their image with the fans, vacate their records in the eyes of Cooperstown, and be a deterrent to future would-be cheaters that the MLB is finally taking this issue seriously.

Al Capone at a Baseball Game

Capone was a baseball lover, but still ended up doing hard time.

For this to actually work though, what is needed is a full-scale demonization of PED use in the game. It is time for everyone to stop looking the other way. The league needs to do everything in its power to show that it is taking cheating seriously.

This means that these 20 or so players identified in the Biogenesis documents need to all be suspended and on record as cheaters. There are calls everywhere to make the penalties longer, from 50 games to 100 games for first time offenders, for instance. This increase in length of suspensions would be hard to do because of the agreements that the players association has with the league. The length of the suspensions is not as important as the suspension itself. Penalties themselves do not dissuade players from trying to get a leg up. Players by their nature will do everything they can to try and get a little better. The important thing will be in convincing players not to cheat. This will only come if the media, owners, and organizations agree to stop looking the other way when it comes to known cheaters.

Melky Cabrera, one of the players implicated in the Biogenesis documents, was suspended last year in the midst of his best year in the big leagues. The Giants moved on and refused to put him on the postseason roster even though he was eligible. In his contract year, he didn’t receive the extension he was seeking, but did receive a lucrative 2 year, $12 million deal from the Blue Jays in the offseason. Bartolo Colon was suspended last year for PED use, but the A’s decided to resign him anyways and he currently sits as both the ace of their staff and an All-Star. There are around 18 other players listed on the Biogenesis documents. This means that around half the organizations in baseball have decided to look the other way at their players PED use.

This cannot continue.

There are hundreds of young players that are toiling away in the Minor Leagues and doing everything right trying to make it to the show. The League needs to stop rewarding cheaters and keeping them around as it sends the wrong message. Minor Leaguers and even some college and high school players feel that they have to use PEDs to make it as well. PED use becomes both a feedback loop and self-fulfilling prophecy when gone unpunished or brushed aside. The League can get this right. The first step is going through with these suspensions and getting these players on the books. The second step will be up to everyone to decide if we can finally move forward as a sport.

The Pittsburgh Pirates are once again off to a hot start. The owners of a 53-34 record, good for second in their division, the Pirates are looking to finish 2013 in the style they hoped to finish 2012. If current trends are any indicator, Pittsburgh should have no problems locking up their first playoff birth since 1992.

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PNC Park – Home of the Pittsburgh Pirates

The biggest strength that the Pirates have this year is pitching, although it wouldn’t seem that way when looking at the starting rotation. Entering the season, Pittsburgh’s starting rotation consisted of A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, Francisco Liriano, Jeff Locke, and James McDonald. The first three names of that list are the most recognizable but also came with the most uncertainty at the beginning of the season. Burnett entered the season at 36 years old. Wandy Rodriguez is 34. And Francisco Liriano has always been known to have streaks of greatness that are perpetually stalked by an inability to throw strikes. McDonald was going to be a solid mid rotation guy, and Locke, with half a years experience, would attempt to fill out the back end.

Once the season got underway, all expectations were exceeded and the rotation proved to be a dominating force. Burnett showed that the Fountain of Youth filters out of the Allegheny River, pitching to a 3.12 ERA and 10 K/9 in 14 games. Wandy drank some of the same stuff and produced equally strong numbers. But the real stories went to both Francisco Liriano and Jeff Locke.

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Even Russell Crowe is excited

Liriano was a high risk/high reward acquisition that many assumed would do far more damage to the team that dared take a flyer on him. But so far, he has been magnificent. Through 10 starts, Liriano has posted a 2.23 ERA and a 9.9 K/9. While the walk rate remains high on the higher end of the spectrum (3.41 BB/9), he is still well under he previous two seasons, which both had a BB/9 ration of 5. While it’s hard to apply the decreased walk rate to any one thing in particular, Liriano will continue to be an asset to the Pirates if that walk rate stays down.

Locke, who has been equally as dominant this year, has a different set of concerns. While on the surface his 2.06 ERA and 7-1 record look remarkable, some of his other numbers raise some questions. So far this season, Locke has been very fortunate to strand a large amount of runners on base. He currently stands with a 85.6% strand rate, which is unsustainable for any big leaguer. Locke has also given up fewer home runs than his fly ball rate would support (8.2%), another reason for second half regression considering it is far under his career average. As both of these stats return to the norm, Locke will see his ERA climb closer to his xFIP of 4.11. Even with this regression though, Locke should continue to contribute to the Pirate rotation in a meaningful way.

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Jeff Locke

There is no denying the strength of this rotation. The pitching staff that is 1st out of all major leagues when it comes to team ERA (3.11) and opponent batting average (.225), and third in baseball in WHIP (1.19). But strong rotations tend to get teams only so far before injuries and bullpens cost the team wins. The Pirates have already been faced with these challenges this year and have proved that they have depth, both in the minors and in the pen, which make up for the doubts within their rotation.

So far this season, the Pirates have had to fill their rotation after injuries left them with holes. First they turned to Jeanmar Gomez who after starting eight games, currently sits with a 2-0 record and a 2.76 ERA. They also were forced to turn to highly touted prospect Gerrit Cole, who started his career off 4-0.

The bullpen has also been one of the safest late inning bets in the MLB. Jason Grilli leads the NL in saves and is 27-28 in save opportunities. Before Grilli enters in the ninth, the Pirates have the best set-up men in the game. Mark Melancon has and ERA and WHIP just above 0.8 in 41 innings. The rest of the bullpen combines to have an ERA of 2.92 and an opponent batting average of .217. The strong bullpen helps to fill in for the starting rotation which averages just over 5 1/3 innings per start.

The Pirates second half will not be as good as their first half. The starting rotation will continue to be tested and there will be some regression for Locke and the questions with Liriano will remain. But the Pirates have proven that they have the depth to overcome any pitching problems that may arise.

The worst thing to happen to the Pirates this year

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