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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.

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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 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

The Dodgers are currently in the midst of a hot streak. After splitting a series with the Padres, they went on to sweep the Giants and take two of three from the Phillies, leaving the team four games out of first place. There is a sense of optimism in Los Angeles; Nick Punto in an after game interview mentioned the p-word (playoffs), an unusual topic for teams who have been trapped in the cellar for the past month. A big part of this hopeful outlook is because of rookie phenom, Yasiel Puig. The 22 year old Cuban defector has maintained a .436 average in his first month in the big leagues. With 7 home runs and 4 stolen bases, Puig has produced a large chunk of the Dodger offense while removing much of the pressures from his injured and/or struggling teammates. As Puig garners more headlines, the rest of the team’s struggles seem to fade from memory. Nobody is more pleased to have his name disappear from the papers than Don Mattingly, who appeared to already have his bags packed before the rookie was called up.

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Mattingly has had a rough year, and while much of this is a result of the struggles of the heavy hitters on his team, he has done little to boost the confidence of LA fans or prove his competency at damage control. Mattingly has hear boos in Dodger Stadium this year get louder after he would take the field to pull Brandon League after another blown save. (It’s hard to say that the jeers are entirely Mattingly’s fault; if your GM decides to give a reliever seven million dollars a season, your hand is forced.) While Puig has helped damper the amount of Mattingly’s boo’s, the Dodger manager has not received enough credit for the work he has done with the lineup.

Los Angeles Dodgers v Atlanta Braves

There has been quite a lot of noise in the sabermetric community about reinventing the traditional batting lineup. Usually, a manager will put the fastest guy first, a good sacrifice guy second and then the big and best hitters three and four, with the primary goal to manufacture runs in the first inning. The rest of the lineup descends in order of skill.

The sabermetric lineup focuses on the stats associated with each batting order position and adjusts accordingly with the focus being on the number two hole. The second batting position should be home to each teams best hitter. He reaches the plate the second most times in a game and more importantly, comes to bat 44% of the time with a runner on base. Mattingly has seemingly stumbled into a sabermetric lineup and it is one of the quietest reasons that the Dodgers have won eight of their last nine. (A more in depth reading of the entire sabermetric optimal lineup can be read here.)

After shuffling Puig around in the lineup during the first weeks of the rookie’s call-up, Mattingly has settled him into the number two hole and been rewarded with great success. Most notably was game 1 of the recent Giants series. Puig homered in the first inning off of Bumgarner, which the giants countered in the second inning and the game remained tied until the eighth. Puig stepped into the batters box with two on and no out and singled to score the go-ahead run. The Dodgers went on to score again that inning, but they wouldn’t need it as the team won 3-1.

Three nights later the Dodgers were losing to the Phillies by one in the seventh inning. The bases were loaded with two outs and Puig steps up to the plate. Sure enough, the rookie hits a single scoring two and handing the Dodgers the lead they would need to win the game.

Only a month into his career, it is fair to question whether Puig is the best hitting Dodger. He is adequately described as “raw”, which is continually evident as he chases breaking balls low and away and currently sits with a 5:1 K to BB ratio. But there is no denying the fact that he has been the best hitting Dodger in June.

The lineup has also been built around Puig, with Gonzalez, Ramirez and Kemp hitting directly behind him in that order. As a result, Puig has scored six times during the last nine games, which has been vital since the team won by 2 or less runs in six of those games.

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While there is no guarantee that Puig will find himself in (and producing in) these clutch situations as often as he has been, Mattingly should receive more credit for trusting the odds of the batting order and batting his best hitting Dodger second.

As some of you know, both Ryan and I studied politics at Cal and now work in it in different capacities. Politics and baseball are some of the most interesting things to us, and we have noticed many ways that the two tend to overlap. For this reason, I am starting a new running series entitled “Politics and Baseball” that will hopefully be as entertaining for you as it is for me. Future themes will involve the use of political sabermetrics, which is a term I’ve been playing around with in my head for a while, but for right now I am going to write about how trades and deals that are made throughout the year between baseball teams reflect the way that deals get done in Sacramento or Washington.

Trade Blocking

The NL West is all jammed up. All 5 teams are technically still in contention, with the Dodgers and Giants underperforming, the D Backs playing well, and the Padres and Rockies surprising some people.

NL West Standings

Because the standings are so tight, with the year half over, there is no clear “seller” or “buyer.” Everyone is still willing to make a deal that improves their team, and no team is looking to mortgage this season to start rebuilding for next year yet. So, with this backdrop, enter Ricky Nolasco. There are, of course, many pitchers that are rumored to be moving teams soon (Bud Norris, Jordan Lyles, Matt Garza, etc.), but Nolasco represents a special case in that his contract is up at the end of this year, the Marlins have no hope of contending this year, and the Marlins have come out and said whoever takes on the rest of Nolasco’s contract can get him first without giving up top-tier prospects.

All 5 of the contending NL West teams (except maybe Arizona) need starting pitching help right now. The Giants rotation is not as vaunted as it once was, the Dodgers entered the year with 8 starters but are down to 3 or 4 capable ones at this point, the Rockies staff is performing well, but they need some help on the backend with no true ace, and the Padres have had their share of injury troubles as well. For these reasons, everyone in the NL West seems to be in on Nolasco, but his salary is not low (half a season at $11.5 million) and that his contract expires at the end of year making him just a rental, meaning that a team has to make a conscious decision that they are going to try and contend for this year before making a move for him.

You’d be angry too if you had to pitch for the Marlins. Photo courtesy: blogs.sun-sentinel.com

This is where money comes in handy. As in politics, money cannot win you a race alone, but it certainly helps. The Dodgers seem to still have money to burn from their lucrative TV contract and Magic Johnson trust fund, meaning they find themselves at an advantageous position. Though the Dodgers are technically in last place, they are only 6.5 games back of first, and thanks to their extra cash supply, they can afford to make a move for Nolasco now, blocking the other teams in the West. Assuming Nolasco does well, the Dodgers can simultaneously help themselves and prevent a good player from winding up on a rival.

In California state politics, there is a June 30 filing deadline for all California legislative candidates. This deadline marks the first time that a candidate discloses how much money he/she has raised. Besides keeping them honest, it is there to show viability and give an idea of who the frontrunners in a race might be. By making a move for Nolasco now, the Dodgers can show viability that, despite their place in the standings, they are a contending team and one that intends to do everything possible to get to October. In the same way that a political candidate can dissuade other challengers from running by starting off strong with lots of donations and endorsements, so can the Dodgers dissuade some of the other teams in the West, such as the Padres and Rockies, from getting too confident in their current position and making moves that might improve their club before the deadline. Obviously, it will be tough to dissuade the Giants from contending in the same way that an incumbent who is down in the polls would still want to run for re-election. Still, wrapping up early endorsements from star players can definitely help improve your chances.

There is a lot of campaign left, and the race is still wide open, but whichever team makes the move for Nolasco the soonest gives themselves a huge advantage for the rest of the year. It is low-risk in that Nolasco is a proven innings eater and that the Marlins have said they won’t require big-name prospects in exchange. And more importantly, the longer Nolasco is on a team other than the Marlins, the more chances he has to help that club. He is wasting wins on the Marlins currently, and the sooner a team goes out and gets him, the sooner he becomes a productive member of that team and starts generating wins. This type of move should be made more often in the major leagues, but many teams are risk-adverse and like to wait until the trading deadline when they have a clearer picture. For just this reason, the Dodgers, or any other team in the West that is willing to take on his contract, can improve themselves now by trading for Nolasco. This will give the team that gets him the best chance of making the playoffs, while dissuading other candidates from running. Whichever team makes a conscious effort to improve themselves first puts themselves in the best position to contend in October. My bet is the team that goes out and gets Nolasco now will be the one you see in the playoffs come seasons end.

The issue of gay marriage is being debated yet again in the Supreme Court, and were a verdict to come out in favor of the institution, society would take another step forward towards acceptance. New polls show that a majority of Americans now support same-sex marriage, but even as the concept of gay marriage gains momentum in society, the sporting world has fallen behind.

San Francisco 49ers safety Chris Culliver infamously tweeted his disgust towards the prospect of having a gay teammate during the week leading up to the Super Bowl. While he later apologized for his statement, that it was a player from a city as liberal as San Francisco  shows the disconnect between sports teams and the players who play for those teams. While the 49ers made an “It Gets Better” video last year, half of the players did not know that the anti-bullying message was targeted at LGBTQs and two of the four athletes who participated deny involvement. The ad has since been pulled.

While many athletes will not say it, Culliver is not alone in his feelings of discomfort towards the prospect of playing with a gay teammate. Even so, the NFL gets some credit as an alliance of athletes including NFL players Chris Kluwe, Scott Fujita, and Brendon Ayanbadejo filed a brief to the Supreme Court challenging California’s ban on same-sex marriage. On that brief were the names of 10 current NFL players as well as representatives from all other major sporting leagues in America, except one: Major League Baseball.

With the success of “42,” a biopic of the story of Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play in the MLB, the spotlight is on baseball to again be the catalyst for change in society. Robinson was a hero, and as the movie shows, nothing he did came easy. He was greeted in the big leagues with pitches thrown at his head, racism from opposing players as well as his own teammates, and fans that hurled all kinds of insults at him from the stands. But because of his struggle, Major League Baseball was able to integrate and society soon followed.

Photo credit: umw.edu

Jackie Robinson was the first African-American to play major league baseball. Who will be the first openly gay player?

Fast forward over sixty years, and baseball has fallen behind. Number one WNBA draft pick Brittany Griner recently came out and went on to sign an endorsement deal with Nike, mixed martial arts fighter Fallon Fox recently came out as transgender, and former Celtics center Jason Collins revealed he was gay in a soon-to-be-released Sports Illustrated article. But while a few baseball players have come out after the fact, there has never been an openly gay player on a major league roster.

This isn’t to say there haven’t been developments in the baseball world. The MLB recently added a line on sexual orientation to the players’ anti-discrimination clauses. This clause may be necessary, as last year, former Toronto Blue Jays shortstop Yunel Escobar was fined and suspended for three games when he played with a homophobic slur written in Spanish on his eye black. Many high profile players, including Tigers ace pitcher Justin Verlander have made comments saying they would welcome a gay teammate. However, these comments might have been prompted, since Verlander’s teammate Torii Hunter has said last year that playing with a gay teammate would make him “uncomfortable. The “uncomfortable” idea is thrown around a lot by players as an argument against their peers coming out, but not all players feel that way. Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Brandon McCarthy responded to the idea of discomfort from a gay teammate saying “If you’ve played this game for a number of years, you’ve probably had a few gay teammates, and have you been accosted in the shower yet? It’s probably not going to happen if someone comes out.”

The baseball world would appear to be split on the issue, echoing the societal feeling as well. What baseball needs is a gay Jackie Robinson. A player who is so good that he cannot be ignored, but so dynamic that no one would want to ignore him. The potential for revenue is huge, and any owner should jump at the opportunity and media buzz it would bring. Just as Jackie Robinson changed the way that society thought about race, so too can a gay player change the way that we think about sexual orientation. Baseball is the national pastime, and sports are great when they can bring people together. The question now is, who will step up to the plate?

In light of the recent Dodger/Padre brawl that left one player with a broken collarbone and one suspended for eight games, I felt it necessary to look at the ramifications of other brawls to determine the fairness of the most recent confrontation.

Surprisingly, there is little information on the history of bench clearing brawls in baseball. There isn’t a list of players who have charged the mound. There isn’t a ranking of the batters that have been suspended for fighting with pitchers. Instead, the focus is on ranking the best bench clearing brawls and the only suspensions people remain interested in are for performance enhancing drugs.

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Duck. Dodge. Dip. Dive. and Dodge.

A cursory glace at recent mound fights show that Quentin has received the harshest punishment for charging the mound; 8 games. Before that, Nyjer Morgan and Coco Crisp held the record at seven games, which occurred in 2010 and 2008, respectively. It must also be noted, that this most recent brawl looked comparatively calm compared to those two, and had it not been for the broken collar bone, it would have been remembered that way. But while the Crisp/Morgan charges flirt with injury opportunities, the Greinke/Quentin fight finally revealed the damage that can result from a meaningless confrontation.

When comparing Quentin’s trip to the mound to both the Morgan and Crisp fights, the suspension seems fair; its right in line with the other two, yet slightly higher due to the unfortunate broken bone. However, this has not satisfied Dodger loyalty, and Mattingly even demanded that Quentin be suspended until at least Greinke gets back.

Currently, Greinke is in line to miss roughly ten starts, or a third of the season, as a result of the incident. This can prove to be disastrous for a team that some project to win the division by fewer than five games. Quality starting pitching is hard to come by, and $147 million arms are even harder to come by, making it difficult for the Dodgers to easily find replacements and putting their entire season into limbo. Should the Dodgers fail to make it to the playoffs and the gap be within a couple of games, fans will no doubt blame the season on Quentin.

As a Dodger fan, it’s hard to disagree with Mattingly. But I would find it wildly random if players were to be suspended for seven games for charging the mound, and 60 if the pitcher is injured. Granted its easy to blame the batter for causing the fight, but it becomes harder to locate when, if and who causes the injuries occurred. Not all of these questions are easily answered and could make it hard to point the blame at one person. And the degree of injury is easily quantifiable in time missed, but these two shouldn’t always be correlated.

As a result, this type of suspension opens itself up to debate. Not only to the amount of time a player should miss, but also because of the discrepancies that can present themselves in terms of skill level. In the Dodger’s case, it’s clear that the two players are of roughly the same skill level and importance to their team. But what happens when Nolan Ryan is charged by a young Robin Ventura, who hypothetically gets hurt? It wouldn’t be fair, and it would actually incentivize teams to send their rookies out to the mound to throw up some fisticuffs against an ace.

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Nolan Ryan and Robin Ventura.

Instead, MLB should just seek to drastically punish batters who charge the mound to the point that it becomes nonexistent.

But MLB done little to discourage players from charging the mound. Since 2006, MLB has added four games to the suspensions issued to mound chargers, and nobody really knows how much the undisclosed fine has increased. Although ESPN published Quentin’s amounted at $3,000. Oh and did I mention that Brian Wilson was fined $1,000 in 2010 for wearing bright orange shoes in the World Series.

It must also be noted that there is little to gain out of allowing players to charge the mound. Sure, fans love watching the benches and bullpens clear, but there are far easier ways for MLB to sell tickets and gain youtube views. Fans get just as excited over managers getting tossed, and thats not even saying they are expecting that anyways. Most fans do not arrive at a baseball game expecting heavy hitting physical contact. This is especially true for contact that has no impact, other than a negative one, on the outcome of the game.

Baseball is not a contact sport, which is what makes it such a mental challenge. While it’s easily mocked because of this (famously done by George Carlin), MLB should stop pretending that the game is something it isn’t.