Wednesday, December 12, 2018

The New Moneyball And The Corner Bakery

My first admission is that I am 62-years-old. As a fan of some 56 years of MLB, I have to fight my inner Murray Chass (or Tony La Russa apparently) and not be a curmudgeon about baseball analytics. I use them. I enjoy them as rating tools. But there is just something about the entire game being run by them that rubs me in all the wrong George Orwell places.

My curmudgeon side will complain that analytics is the cause of shifts in baseball and lower batting averages. They are the cause of being unhappy that Justin Verlander's career was petering until he went to Houston. Can't a guy I don't like die a graceless death already?

My inner Murray Chass will bemoan strikeouts that are just outs when I will never accept that or that they are worth it if launch angles create more homers along the way. I won't ever be able to figure out why Designated Hitters who never touch a glove all season get negative dWAR. I'll never understand how Didi Gregorius never rates higher defensively than he does or how the defense of a lousy hitter makes him a better player than a really good hitter.

My second admission is that I long ago accepted that is the game now as we know it. I get it. I am, after all, the kid who played multiple Strat-o-matic baseball game seasons each summer knowing they were an early form of statistical analysis. I will never be an Eno Sarris, but I've done my best to understand as much as I can about what the numbers mean. It's okay. I'll deal.

But then I saw this video on Twitter. And the ever smug, I-know-more-than-you, Brian Kenny introduces Mr. Sarris to talk about the new Moneyball and how analytics is taking over the game from every angle right through player development. I remember when the (very pleasant) Mr. Sarris was a hack blogger like the rest of us. Good on him for carving a career out of figuring this stuff all out. I root for people like him.

So anyway, I watch this video and instead of marveling at how far technology has come in baseball, I got this sinking feeling. There is a sort of innocence lost in being able to parse the game into its minutia.

For some reason, the thought process made me think of cookies. Yes, this is the time of year I think about cookies. I am really good at making cookies. My cookies taste better than ANY cookie I've ever bought at the grocery store. Why is that? Nothing you can buy in a package tastes as good as it did when we used to go down to the bakery and buy from a nice man and his wife. THOSE were cookies!

Is there a similarity here? I think there is. The act of making cookies in mass production came from information. The basic formula is how a company can mass produce cookies that consumers will buy despite not tasting as good as their bakery forebears. Use the cheapest materials, find artificial replacements for real ingredients and design machinery and packaging to produce a somewhat tasty, cheaply-made bulk product for the masses.

All those cookie decisions were made by analyzing data. And these companies, whether it be Nabisco or Keebler rely on tons of data to balance performance versus cost. It sounds similar does it not? The bottom line is maximizing the dollar.

But some of the magic was lost. Bakeries cannot compete with mass production. They make a better product but it costs more. I feel a loss not making a special trip to a bakery and smelling the delicious odors and trying to understand what the owners were saying.

Some of the magic of baseball is being lost for me. Does that make me Murray Chass? Gosh, I hope not. Players do not play their entire career with the same team. Next year's roster will look totally different than this year's. A hit up the middle is no longer a hit. Strikeouts with a man on third with one out are okay. No, it's not!

When a rookie came into a league, it was like trying a new cookie recipe. Would it be a winner or a disappointment? Now rookies are measured from molecular structure to entire psychological profiles. Sure, some still flop. But young players just seem to have it so much more together than they did even ten years ago.

I am having a problem describing what I am feeling here. The game just seemed more basic and rooted in my past. If my scorecard read, "5-3," it meant that the third baseman fielded the grounder over by third base, not between first and second (and no, I am not advocating doing away with shifts). There was more mystery to the game which made it unpredictable and accessible.

I wish I could express things better. Let's just say that the attached video that started this thought process made me feel like I had lost something. Cookies no longer melt in my mouth (unless I make them myself). And baseball feels more like a science project than a game.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

On Trading Miguel Andujar

Rumors rule the off season and as the market heats up, they are swirling in gusty winds. Of course, rumors are just rumors until they are not. But they do get clicks don't they? The latest gust has the Yankees, Mets and Marlins involved in a three-team swap as the Mets desperately want to get J.T. Realmuto from the Marlins and the Yankees would love get a big-time pitcher and Derek Jeter wants a Major League player. The name swirling for the Yankees is Miguel Andujar.  Another piece stated that the Yankees were willing to listen to talks concerning Andujar.

Granted, we are just talking rumors here. And granted, the Yankees need pitching as we have seen time and time again that pitching wins the post season. But if there is any kernel of truth to these rumors, why Miguel Andujar? Is it his defense? Or that he does not walk enough? Or is the truth closer to the fact that the Yankees really want to sign Manny Machado? Or is it all three?

If the Yankees were to trade Andujar, they better have Machado all but locked up because Miguel Andujar was the rock of the Yankees' offense in 2018. He was consistently a presence in the lineup from when he arrived to when the season ended. He did flop in the playoffs, but so did a lot of Yankees. As good as Andujar was in the first half of the season, he was better in the second. There is no way the Yankees would have won a hundred games without him.

There is also a pretty good comparable to Miguel Andujar. His name is Robinson Cano. Remember him? He is a Met now. But Robinson Cano had stellar years with the Yankees. Yes, he was a bit of Machado without the mean streak, but he was really, really good.

Cano started a year younger than Andujar. But let's compare their first full season in the big leagues:

  • OPS - Andujar: .855, Cano: .778
  • OPS+ - Andujar: 126, Cano: .106
  • rWAR - Andujar: 2.2, Cano: 0.8
  • dWAR - Andujar: -2.2, Cano: -1.8

Maybe those comparisons are not fair to Cano because he was a year younger. Cano blossomed in his second year. Let's compare Andujar's first year to Cano's second:

  • OPS - Andujar: .855, Cano: .890
  • OPS+ - Andujar: 126, Cano: 126
  • rWAR - Andujar: 2.2, Cano: 3.2
  • dWAR - Andujar: -2.2, Cano: -0.1

At least they are in the ballpark. But again, that was Cano's second full season. Andujar is faulted for his swing at everything approach. He walked only 28 times. Cano only walked 18 times in both his first and second seasons. Cano was able to build his walk rate to the 50-60 range mid-career. There is no reason to think that Andujar could not do the same.

Let's talk about Miguel Andujar's defense. It would be foolish to think that Miguel Andujar could become as good a defender as Robinson Cano became. Cano has better instincts and range. But, by all means, Andujar could get much better than he was in 2018. For one, make the guy play on the front of the dirt so that he does not lose runners being so deep. Work with him on not backpedaling on everything. If he could approach league average, he would be a superstar for years to come.

As good as Robinson Cano has been as an offensive player, Andujar can be better. He was a better hitter in the minors and he started with a bang in his rookie season. He seems like a Roberto Clemente-type offensive talent with more power. Other than his low walk total, there is nothing not to like about him offensively. He is going to be a batting star in the Majors for a long while. That's a hunch, of course and time will tell.

There is another strange thing about this rumor: Why would the Mets trade one of the team's star pitchers if pitching and Realmuto is the team's only shot of post season glory? It does not seem to make sense for them to do so.

Perhaps serving Andujar up for a trade will help the Yankees in the near future. But consider that Chase Headley, a veteran, only had a higher rWAR once while with the Yankees than Andujar's 2.2 tally. And that 2.2 tally was the exact same as the 2012 Alex Rodriguez who cost a heck of a lot more money. The bottom line is that losing Miguel Andujar will hurt and we will see him in the All Star game for years to come...playing for somebody else.

Monday, December 10, 2018

George Steinbrenner Snubbed Again

For decades, some sort of committee has been in place to consider players, team execs and managers who were not elected to baseball's Hall Of Fame via the sports writers' vote. The latest iteration of those committees is called the "Today's Game" committee. This committee's results are in and are hardly inspiring. Harold Baines was elected and should not have been. Lee Smith was elected and teeter-totters on the fence at face value and George Steinbrenner received less than four votes out of sixteen. Say what!?

George Steinbrenner bought baseball's most glittering franchise (with partners) for $10 million, a low figure because CBS had run the team into the ground. His tenacity, ferocity and controversial reign took a shabby franchise and made it the glittering jewel of all sport teams.

There is some understanding of why people would not vote for him. There were the suspensions from baseball. Steinbrenner was bombastic and disliked my many. His treatment of Dave Winfield was particularly odious. There are many stories about his terrible treatment of employees. There was a lot to dislike. But look, if Tom Yawkey is a Hall Of Fame owner, Steinbrenner should be too.

Steinbrenner defined a baseball era. George Steinbrenner was the first to exploit the free agent market. He was the first to spend big money to win. He dominated the news to such an extent that baseball and the Yankees were hot topics. He did not just raise the status of the New York Yankees. His success in building the franchise value rubbed off on all baseball franchises around Major League Baseball.

Baseball players owe Steinbrenner a debt for raising their value. Teams own Steinbrenner a debt for raising the value of their own franchises. That sounds like someone whose contributions should be remembered and enshrined.

The biggest thing about whether Steinbrenner belongs in the Hall of Fame is this: You cannot discuss Major League baseball from the 1970s to the 1990s without mentioning George Steinbrenner in the narrative. It does not matter if he was mouthy, arrogant and did some bad things (among many good ones). What matters was that he mattered. He mattered a great deal.

Not having George Steinbrenner in the Hall Of Fame along with Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds defeats the purpose of having a Hall of Fame. If making a moral stand dilutes the narrative of people who defined their eras, then just tear the whole thing down.