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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In the NL MLB vote, Bochy superceded this process and selected someone who wasn’t even part of the top five vote to begin with.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 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

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.

Human Error is a Part of the Game

By: Ryan

No play in baseball has lead to more outcry for the incorporation of expanded replay use by umpires than the blown Jim Joyce call which cost Armando Galarraga a perfect game in the bottom of the ninth. While baseball has been inching towards expanding the use of replay, many will soon find that while replay will solve some deficiencies in the game, it will merely adjust how these deficiencies surface.

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The Runner was Called Safe.

It always seemed that a large reason that the game had resisted replay was because its fans believed in two axioms; 1. People make mistakes and 2. Umpires are people. Fans accepted that human error was part of the game and that the human element just another obstacle to overcome. This mentality stems from strike zone discrepancies with different umpires. The general rule is that anything over the plate from the letters to the knees is a strike, but anyone that’s played baseball/softball knows that each umpire sees this zone differently. No other sport relies so heavily on the umpire to define the terms of the majority of the game. And since the game is so dependent on the umpire for balls and strikes, inconsistent “mistake” calls are inevitable. And it always seemed that because of this, we were willing to accept that umpire call were imperfect, even on the base paths.

But it’s 2013, and people are less tolerant of mistakes at the professional level. The demand for expanded replay has grown when fans witness blown call after blown call on the base paths and with fair/foul balls. While the reasoning for expanded replay use has been well vocalized and developed, the ramifications of play review have not been equally evaluated, even though expanded replay will result in longer games, continual play discrepancies, and continual human error.

The most obvious unintended consequence is the lengthening of games. Baseball as a sport is already ragged on because the game “drags on.” Currently, the average baseball game lasts just under three hours. Once umpires are allowed to review plays and consult, the game will see its average game time increase, just like basketball and football, making the baseball experience an even longer affair for non-diehard fans.

While many look for replay to remove the discrepancy that results from human interpretation, this won’t necessarily be the case. When replay is used to determine that a foul ball down the line is actually fair, it will be up to the umpires to determine how many bases the player will be awarded, which can vary depending on the depth of the hit and park proportions. There is no clear cut determining factor, unlike the ground rule double, making awarding bases and runs entirely arbitrary and unrelated to the players skills. Umpires then become even more involved in the game, and can receive more backlash.

Additionally, umpires can still blow calls after looking at replay, an unfortunate event that already happened this year. Earlier in the season, the Athletics were visiting the Indians and were trailing 4-3 in the top of the ninth. Into the box steps Adam Rosales and he crushes a ball deep to left field. The ball looks like a homer but is ruled a double on the field. Due to this discrepancy, the umpires review the play. Fans at home watch the replay and A’s fans rejoice because the hit is clearly a homer. The umpires come back out and rule to the contrary and put Rosales at second. A’s then load the bases before grounding out to the pitcher and losing the game. The next day, the umpires and MLB admit that they botched the call, a call which cost the A’s the chance forcing extra innings. Thus, while replay can reduce the number of botched calls, this problem is not eliminated and leaves umpires with little to no excuse for mistakes.

HR?

While instant replay appears to solve some of the problems that are present in the game, baseball will never be able to entirely eliminate human error and discrepancies.

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The Case for Expanded Replay

By: Matt

Nothing in sports is an exact science, but considering the amount of time, money, and effort that goes into playing a baseball game, the league should be doing everything in its power to get a call right.  Commissioner Selig has been wary of adding replay to the game for all the reasons that Ryan outlined above, and they are certainly valid, but we have come to a point with technology where no calls should be getting blown and no one should feel cheated or ripped off.

Below are some examples from this year showing that this is indeed a real problem in the game right now. Umpires miss calls. Like Ryan said: it happens, they are human.

Called safe. His foot looks on the bag to me.

Safe?

Missed the bag or didn’t have possession of the ball. Take your pick.

Nice sales job by Segura, but it would have been easily overturned on review.

And my personal favorite:

Ruled Out at Third, Safe at First. Two blown calls on the same play.

In the Adam Rosales home run case from Ryan’s article, the umpires got it wrong. MLB admitted that the call was blown and the A’s ended up losing that game. But can we really fault the umpires for blowing the call when, according to NBC Sports, they were watching the footage on this?

Replay booth or arcade game?

Replay booth or arcade game? Photo: NBC Sports

There are many other examples of blown calls so far this year even though we aren’t half way through the season yet. So, the problem exists, what should we do about it?

First off, MLB needs to upgrade the screens and televisions that umpires are using to review plays. It looks like the ones they currently use double as a way to check the weather during rain delays. There is no excuse for having umpires review on what looks to be a Pac-Man arcade game that has more pixels than the center field scoreboard.

Next, the MLB must expand their use of replay. The argument that review would slow down the game makes sense, but doesn’t the game already get slowed down when a player argues with the umpire? And then the manager argues with the umpire? And then the manager gets tossed? And then the manager keeps arguing since he’s already tossed and can say what he really feels now? And then the players bark at the umpire from the dugout and get tossed? I think you get my point, but think about all the extra time that bad calls currently soak up in a regular baseball game.

This could all be avoided with the introduction of a “challenge flag” system like the one practiced in the NFL. Certain plays would be deemed reviewable, and a manager could get 1-2 challenges per game. This of course would not work on balls and strikes. Since that is still sacred ground with umpires, and this Kickstarter failed. Umpires would be able to review a call and save face on a blown call by reviewing it and getting it right, and managers and players would be happy since they would no longer feel cheated out of an at bat, hit or run.

Now that wasn’t so hard.

Baseball will never be perfect, but considering the expectations that we place on baseball players and management to do everything right all the time, that same expectation must be placed on its umpires. An expanded replay system will not only make sure that the umpires have the materials they need to get the call right as often as possible, but it will eliminate grudges and animosity between players, managers, and umpires. This will lead to fewer ejections and hurt feelings, and most importantly a better ball game.

Now that we are a few weeks into the season, let’s take stock. The Rockies and Braves play each other with the best records in baseball on the line. Former aces look mortal and sluggers are slumping. Everyone is overreacting, but it is important to remember: we are only a few weeks into the season! It’s a small sample size. Still, it doesn’t take long until a sample becomes a trend. With that in mind, here are the hot and cold starts and what to actually believe.

Hot Teams

Boston Red Sox 12-6 (.667) 1st Place AL East as of 3/23

Last year, the Red Sox finished in last place and were part of the salary dump trade to the Dodgers that people saw as a team giving up. And yet, here they are a year later sitting at first place in the AL East with a team and city that is playing for something beyond the standings. 

The Boston offense is producing well, and Mike Napoli looks like he is happy to be out of Texas. Big Papi is back from the DL and the top of the order is healthy (Ellsbury) and getting on base (Pedroia). The offense is doing well, but the success of the Red Sox so far comes down to one thing: pitching.

Last year, the Red Sox starting pitching was among the worst in the league. This year, Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester are leading the way. Neither has lost a game yet on the season, and they look like the pitchers everyone expected them to be. So, do you believe it? Well, kind of. The fried chicken fiasco and the attitude of Josh Beckett are long gone. With that departure, the young Boston pitchers lost a bad influence and look like they are taking to new manager John Farrell well. Also important is the arrival of Allen Webster with the big league club. Webster was part of the trade with the Dodgers, and despite all the big names involved, is looking like he might be the diamond in the rough.

The Red Sox picked a great time to get hot. The city of Boston needs something to root for right now, and I think everyone in America is happy that they are succeeding. For now. The Red Sox aren’t going to keep up their current pace, but I am a believer in the younger, healthy rotation. If they can stay healthy, and the offense can continue to put runs on the board, there is no reason that Boston shouldn’t keep winning baseball games. Sports are always important when they come to signify something other than just the standings, and that is happening in the city of Boston right now. In the words of Big Papi:

Colorado Rockies 13-5 (.722) 1st place in NL West as of 3/23

The Rockies have surged out of the gates this year, surprising, given their last place finish in 2012. A healthy Tulowitzki, CarGo and Wilin Rosario lead the offense, while Jorge de la Rosa (2-1, 2.82 ERA) and Jhoulys Chacin (3-0, 1.46 ERA) anchor the staff.

The Rockies are doing well despite almost no roster turnover from last year, with 21 of the 25 roster spots returning from 2012, and no major free agent signings in the offseason. The main thing to focus on with the Rockies, as with any team, is health. Tulo is an all-star caliber shortstop who’s worst enemy is health. If he is healthy, he transforms any lineup. The Rockies offense is legit. Dexter Fowler is having a coming-out party and Rosario is showing that his offensive prowess last year was no fluke. 

Photo credit: Bleacherreport

The Tulo Mullet – Never forget.

However, the pitching will not hold up. Chacin just went on the DL and won’t be back any time soon. De La Rosa has shown potential throughout his career, and could be legit, but the rest of the staff is a shambles. Garland is coming off shoulder surgery, and can’t be trusted to hold up for an entire season. The bullpen is a strong point, but whether they can continue their success all season will come down to the managing of rookie manager Walt Wiess. 

The Rockies are currently scoring 4.22 runs per game, and the offense is capable of continuing at this pace. They may just surprise everyone and be a .500 team, but the starting pitching will not hold up. Expect a come back to earth, as early as tonight against the Braves.

Honorable Mentions:

Atlanta Braves 13-5 (.722) 1st place, NL East – legit. The offense with the additions of Justin Upton and Evan Gattis will have pop all year provided they can keep the strikeouts down. The pitching, including Paul Maholm should continue to keep runs off the board. The team is currently best in the majors with a ridiculous 2.36 ERA, and while this may come up a bit, the Braves are still the team to beat in the NL.

Oakland A’s 12-8 (.600) 2nd Place, AL West – legit (kind of). The A’s have succeeded so far thanks to an incredible 5.26 runs per game so far. There is no way they will keep this up. Coco Crisp is about to hit his season high in homers in the first few weeks. Jed Lowrie is hitting well, but has never been able to stay on the field for a full season. The A’s are a legitimate contender this year, but they will do it with their pitching, not their hitting. The hitters are on a hot streak right now, but the runs per game will come down, and it will be on the pitching staff to pick up the slack for the A’s to make it to the playoffs for the second year in a row.

Cold Teams

The two teams I will be talking about here are actually not doing terribly. They are only a few games below .500 and will both likely climb in the standings soon. However, they are included here because the expectations for success were so high. The Dodgers and Jays will both be fine and both be contenders by the end of the year, but they are both off to cold starts, and here is why:

LA Dodgers 8-10 (.444) 4th place, NL West

The Dodgers have run cold so far this year. Everything starts and ends with pitching, and even Clayton Kershaw has looked mortal (not counting opening day when he crushed my Giants). Zach Greinke landed on the DL after a brawl with Carlos Quentin. The rest of the staff has looked average, but none have stood out. Meanwhile, the offense is bipolar. Big name acquisitions such as Adrian Gonzalez (.385 avg) and Carl Crawford (.338 avg) are hitting great, while local stars Matt Kemp (.235 avg) Andre Ethier (.230 avg) are slumping badly. The hot and cold starts should even out, as good hitters don’t stay cold for long. That being said, there are some real problems with this team.

Photo Credit: USA Today

Not a good way to start a season.

The left side of the infield is weak. Shortstop and third base is currently a merry-go-round of average to bad players, and even when Hanley Ramirez comes back from the DL, the Dodgers will have below average defense and average offense at third or short depending on how they structure their lineup card. Kershaw is fine, but the rest of the staff could have troubles. Ryu is still adjusting to American baseball, Greinke is out indefinitely, Billingsley is having Tommy John and done for the year, Lilly is coming off another surgery, and Josh Beckett’s best years are far behind him. The bullpen is not yet reliable, and manager Don Mattingly has not yet figured out the intricacies of managing a bullpen over the course of the season.

There is a lot to worry about with the Dodgers, maybe buying a championship isn’t as easy as we thought.

Toronto Blue Jays 8-12 (.400) 5th place, AL East

Speaking of buying a championship: the Toronto Blue Jays are also having some troubles with their new roster. Fresh off relieving the city of Miami of their baseball team, the Jays are struggling to put it all together. Jose Reyes was lost to injury on a bad slide during an attempted steal of second base. Jose Bautista is still dealing with some nagging back issues, and the Jays are 2-4 without him in the lineup. Meanwhile, starters Josh Johnson and Mark Buerhle have yet to contribute much in a Jays uniform.

Photo Credit: NY Daily News

Reyes may only be able to watch the Jays for most of this season

The Jays are batting .227 as a whole, good for 3rd worst in baseball behind the Mariners and Marlins. Meanwhile, the pitching staff has given up the second most runs in baseball behind only the Astros. If we go based on the numbers alone, the Jays should actually have a worse record than 8-12 at this point. They have been bailed out a bit by the long ball (21 on the year) and the arrival of J.P. Arencibia as a power threat, but the Jays seem to be trending in the wrong direction. A healthy Bautista will do a lot to curb some losses, but the Jays do not seem to be doing any better with the 2012 Miami Marlins roster than the 2012 Miami Marlins did.

With everything from standings to fantasy closers receiving its own rankings before the preseason, we here at fb/cu couldn’t let the season get too far underway without creating a ranking that combines our two favorite pastimes; baseball and politics.

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Tom, George, Teddy, and Abe

Every season, I eagerly await the time when baseball decides to incorporate politicians.  Whether it be a first pitch or the Congressional Baseball Game, nothing is as comfortable as the edge of my seat. At some point during the summer, the President will stroll from the dugout to the mound to make the first pitch. While the President is probably just doing it for PR, I can’t help rooting for the man leading the country to demonstrate his power on the mound. Regardless of party, I want the President to succeed. For America.

CONGRESSIONAL BASEBALL

Politicians Can Play Baseball Too!

That happens to varying success. And as a result, I ranked the five best first-pitch Presidents.

Disclaimer: Clinton was the first president to throw out the first pitch from the mound. Before this, most presidents threw from the stands or the base of the pitchers mound. I only included President’s that made throws from the field.

5. Barack Obama (L) – The President is known for his basketball skills, but his baseball skills remain little league at best. When your watching the video, you know its going to be bad when he struggles with his glove. And his form looks fresh out of the early 1900’s, slight pre-windup windmill arms and tons of body movement. Then he makes the pitch, missing the batters box by feet. It’s hard to justify him even making this list, but he squeaks in because, well, he’s the President.

4. Ronald Reagan (R) – Ronald Reagan was from Illinois and a self-professed lifelong Cubs fan. What remains little known is that he worked for WHO radio as a play by play announcer for the Cubs. His knowledge of baseball translated somewhat to his baseball abilities. But his form remains suspect from time to time. Ultimately, it seems that Reagan would be a better Harry Carey than a Greg Maddux.

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Reagan with Harry Carey in the Broadcasting Booth

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Watch that Leg Mr. President

3. Bill Clinton (L) – Clinton took the mound in Baltimore in 1996. After tons of practice both before the game and during warm-ups in the bullpen, Clinton stepped to the rubber. Although he would later admit his nerves, it doesn’t seem to come out in his pitch. The practice (or something else) worked as Clinton makes the first pitch look relaxed and easy. While he is no power pitcher, he accuracy is on point as he delivers a strike.

2. George H.W. Bush (L) – Even though there is little video of Bush Sr. thawing out the first pitch, the scouting on him alone warrants a number two ranking. Bush Sr. was captain of his high school baseball team, where he played first base. He later attended Yale, where he was also appointed captain and played in the first two College World Series. Although he decided to hang up his jersey after his schooling, he didn’t do so before meeting Babe Ruth. No other President experienced this amount of baseball conditioning, and when combined with his left-handed abilities, we easily give Bush Sr. the #2 position on our countdown.

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The Babe with the Future President

1. George W. Bush (R) – If there was a Cy Young award to be given out to Commander’s in Chief, it would go to Bush Jr. He earned that award with one pitch on October 30, 2001. A little over a month after 9/11, Bush Jr. decided to head to Yankee Stadium to make the first pitch. In a city rich with history still looking for comfort, the President takes the field to a standing ovation in an FDNY jacket, camera crews lining up down the base paths. Reaching the mound, he turns to give a couple Presidential waves to the thousands of fans in attendance, giving little notice to the pinstripes stationed behind the plate. His face is stoic, no pre-celebratory smiles, and before you know it, he’s in the stretch. His form is tight, and he releases a perfect strike. The decibels spike because the President just put the nation on his back! No other first pitch has meant as much to the country as this first pitch, and George W. Bush pitched a perfect strike.

And that concludes our Presidential rankings. We’ll see you again in 2016!

The Fastball

By: Matt

Spring Training stats don’t matter. You hear the phrase uttered by broadcaster and bleacher bum alike. For rookies and grizzled veterans trying to make a big league roster for the first (or last) time, having a “good” spring is very important. Putting up good numbers during spring training is an important part of winning a job, but hitting .400 is just as meaningless as hitting .125 once April 1st comes around. Major Leaguers who aren’t trying to win a job use the spring as a “tune-up.” Starters will work on a specific pitch, relievers will try and get better at pitching in certain situations, and hitters will tinker with their swings. If these tinkerings work and a player puts up good numbers then great, but for the players themselves, they could care less about their final spring numbers, because  everyone goes back to 0 once the season starts.

Let’s take a couple case studies. Brandon Belt has been having an awesome spring for the Giants and he looks primed for a breakout. He is currently raking with a .410 batting average and 8 homers. So, he must be about to have a breakout season right? Well it turns out the Baby Giraffe has done this every spring. In 2012 he hit .378 and in 2011 he hit well enough to win the job, as shown in the Showtime series The Franchise. Maybe Belt will have a breakout year, but it’s more likely to come from not having to challenge Aubrey Huff for playing time and less because of confidence heading into the season.

How about we look at 2012’s Spring Training batting title champion? No, it’s not Albert Pujols or Joey Votto, no Mike Trout or Ryan Braun. Ladies and gentlemen I present to you…drum roll please: Munenori Kawasaki. The shortstop made the jump from the Japanese Nippon league to the MLB easily in Spring Training and put up a .455 batting average. However, once the season rolled around Kawasaki batted under the Mendoza line at .192 and only appeared in 61 games for the Mariners. A great spring training did not translate into good season numbers for Mune, likely because while it was easy enough to wrap singles against inferior competition, the regular season brought on the best pitching in the world. Major league pitching is a tough adjustment for any player, especially one coming from a different country. Though he never quite figured it out with the bat during the regular season, Kawsaki remains the single most gifable player in the bigs and the best bench warmer any team could ask for.

This is how everybody celebrates a walkoff, right?

Chris Sale and Stephen Strasburg both posted ERAs over 4 in Spring Training last year and went on to Cy Young-caliber seasons (or ¾ seasons). Pitchers often will work on a specific pitch or the timing of their delivery during spring training games, since bloated ERAs and losses don’t matter. Pitchers can also suffer from bad numbers thanks to the strict innings limit placed upon them. A starter may only pitch through a few innings for most of Spring Training so as to protect their arm and ward off injury.

In professional sports it is never a good thing to lose. A culture of winning is something to be fostered, and for baseball players, that culture starts in the spring. Winning Spring Training games can help a team to find their identity and some teams can carry that culture into the season, but this matters more towards the last few weeks of ST. For the first few weeks, players are getting back in the groove, meeting new teammates for the first time, and trying to work on certain things. A player can go 0 for 4 and still have a great day because they learned not to swing at a curveball on a certain count. Spring Training is just that, training. It’s a necessary part of the business, but has no real effect on the real thing. I, for one, am glad baseball is back for real. Happy Opening Day everybody!

Happy Baseball Season!

The Changeup

By: Ryan

It’s easy to say that spring training stats don’t matter. Players are returning to the game in various mental and physical states, and coaches are shifting lineups and splitting squads. With all this variance, it becomes hard to interpret stats and easy to disregard all spring training numbers. But there are certain “player-centric” stats that can be reliably used to highlight strong/troubled players, a fact that is especially valid at the beginning and end of a player’s career.

I use the term “player-centric” to describe stats that are influenced by the least number of players in the game. The fewer number of people that can influence that particular stat, the greater the individual player’s control is over that number. The difference between wins and quality starts displays the discrepancy between these two types of stats. Wins depend on the pitcher’s performance, the team offense, and the team defense. With more people involved, a pitcher can be robbed of a win with a poor team performance, ultimately masking a pitcher’s abilities. In comparison, quality starts rely solely on the pitcher’s ability to dominate hitters, and becomes a more accurate way to judge a season.

Some of the more reliable “player-centric” stats to quantify spring performances are K and BB percentages. Mike Podhorzer at Fangrpah.com did some regression analysis on these stats for pitchers and found that they are both correlated to regular season performance. This gives fans and scouts the ability to use these numbers to evaluate pitchers and pick better fantasy teams.

He goes even further to speculate that really strong performances should be valued higher than poor performances. His explanation being, “You cannot fluke your way into striking out a high percentage of hitters, but pitchers work on new pitches or their mechanics in the spring all the time and can easily explain a weak performance.”

While his regression model didn’t confirm this notion, another blogger found this speculation to be true. William Juliano at The Captain’s Blog looked at K/IP and K/BB ratios from the 2011 preseason and identified players with stats above a certain threshold as “potential breakout candidates.” A similar list was compiled of players that had spring stats below a threshold. They were labeled “potential breakdown candidates.”

Juliano found that the “breakout candidates'” stats translated better to the regular season. Based on the stats alone, his model correctly identified the breakout seasons of Craig Kimbrel, Ian Kennedy, and Justin Masterson.

BB and K ratios are also useful stats when it comes to hitting. The prime example being the Cuban minor leaguer, Yasiel Puig. The Dodger’s outfielder was relatively unknown prior to this year, since he missed most of 2012 with a staph infection. However, he recently left Glendale, Arizona with a .527 batting average in 55 at bats. With that number, he easily becomes one of the best outfielders in the game, but he lacks plate discipline. Puig struck out 15 times (27% of the time) and only walked four times, yet the Dodgers cited these numbers as a reason for sending him down at the end of March.

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Please come back Yasiel.

Still, in his 25 games, Puig made a name for himself and developed a reputation, indicating a greater importance on stats for the rookies. For rookies, these stats appear more significant. This is the first time that these players are able to face major league talent, and the baseball community winds up giving more weight to their numbers. This was the case with Julio Teheran, SP, Atlanta Braves, who in 6 games, posted a 1.04 ERA 3.89 K/BB ratio. At the beginning of spring, talk was he would wind up back in AAA, but a strong month proved to be enough, earning him the 5th starter role.

Players who are exiting their prime also see their stats heavily scrutinized. Roy Halladay is one player whose stats indicate a potential problem. He has seen his fastball velocity drop even lower than the already reduced high 80 fastball he had last season. It seems unlikely that his velocity will rebound during the season, which has fans worried throughout Philadelphia.

Players in their prime are usually immune from this scrutiny because their “player-centric” stats are traditionally in line with their career norms. But this isn’t always the case, as Tim Lincecum has recently been criticized for having velocity issues also. His fastball speed has been down and his pitch location isn’t as strong as it used to be, leading to speculation that his 2013 is going to look a lot like his 2012.

Roy Halladay, Tim Lincecum

Can either of these guys bounce back?

The degree to which these “player-centric” stats are useful depend on the career arc of the player. The players whose stats receive the most scrutiny, justifiably so, are those player’s in their first couple of spring trainings and those exiting their prime. At the same time, they can confirm regressive tendencies with players in their prime.

As nice as it would be to disregard all preseason stats, certain spring training stats prove that they cant be ignored. It seems that spring isn’t just a time for celebrities to play baseball.

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But still, who doesn’t love Billy Crystal?

So Matt and I realized that there was more going on in the baseball world that isn’t necessarily conducive to our normal fastball/changeup style. So in an effort to get some more posts out, we decided to create the “Extra Innings” portion of the blog to give us an opportunity to comment on other aspects of the league. We hope you enjoy!

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Scott Boras’ last major high profile client, Kyle Lohse, signed with the Milwaukee Brewers earlier this week, giving the notorious agent the ability to finally sound off over the new free agency rules.

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Lohse with a Milwaukee M

Venting to FoxSports.com, Boras claimed, “When you have a system that does not reward performance, you know we have something corrupt in the major league process. You cannot have that in the major league system, because it’s not rewarding performance.” Boras later goes on to claim that the new process hurt Kyle Lohse and Adam LaRoche from locking down larger contracts.

But is it fair to call the new process corrupt?

During the offseason, MLB updated free agency procedures in yet another attempt to improve the competitive levels of small market teams. Previously, players were allocated a ranking by the Elias Sports Bureau. Players who had an A or B ranking and denied arbitration forced their new teams to give up a draft pick. While the new team had to forfeit the draft pick, they did not have to forfeit over the signing bonuses associated with those picks.

Under the new system, only players who are offered qualifying offers of $13.3 million are tied to draft picks. This pool of players is substantially lower than before, but when teams sign other free agents, they must also forfeit over the draft pick signing bonus, which ranges from $100,000 to $2.6 million (the first 10 picks are protected from being poached). This money reduces the total pool of dollars, which is regulated by the MLB based on draft pick slot values, and reduces the overall amount teams can offer to players as signing bonuses.

This changes how teams need to approach their draft picks, since they now will have to balance between building the current team and replenishing their farm system. The new system also creates different interpretations of draft pick value depending on when the team wants to be competitive and helps small market teams compete against the deeper-pocketed teams.

Under the old system, big market teams were able to poach big stars, and while they lost a draft pick, they could just roll over the bonus money associated with that pick to a larger signing bonus for a later pick. With money finally being sacrificed, small market teams are compensated for losing out on their players that they just can’t afford to keep anymore, and can still offer appropriate signing bonuses to their additional draftees. The additional draft picks coupled with the additional draft pool money will help stack small market farm teams with top prospects. While there is risk associated with prospect development, a deep farm system reduces this risk, as seen with the 2012 A’s. Strong seasons can then boost ticket sales, creating the additional revenue needed to keep homegrown talent.

Any system created to help increase the competitive level of the game can’t be considered corrupt, but the “corrupt” claim implies that the system is broken with a certain party not receiving their fair share.

Boras is correct in claiming that it reduces the value of players who received qualifying offers. But, he doesn’t seem to see that these players contracts are becoming more in line with their actual market value. Kyle Lohse couldn’t find a home with teams looking to win now, and the contract Boras was after was too pricey for those looking to rebuild. As a result, Boras had to lower his normally-astronomically-high asking price to compensate for a lost draft pick. This resulted in less money for a pitcher who is on the backend of a career with one good season.

As one NL exec said, “If we really want the player and feel he can make the difference for us in having a championship club – or building toward a championship club – it’s not a significant factor.  Look, we all like picks and prospects, but even among the top 50 prospects in the game more than half of them never make it.” Top free agents Josh Hamilton, who signed with the Angels, Nick Swisher, who signed with the Indians, and BJ Upton, who signed with the Rays, all signed huge contracts despite draft pick compensation, showing that the tradeoff is, in some situations, worth it.

Thus it becomes clear that the only people losing out on this new system are the agents pushing the value up for all MLB players. To quote MLB’s top labor executive, “The fact that one Scott Boras client has not signed does not convince me that the system is broken.” I can’t help but agree.

APTOPIX Angels Pitcher Killed Baseball

It’s ok Scotty, qualifying offers aren’t that bad.