LaRussa v. Rasmus (2010)

So, Albert Pujols has gotten involved in the new rift in the St. Louis clubhouse. Let me start by saying that I have no real insight into the actual fault of the Tony LaRussa-Colby Rasmus spat. I’ll go ahead and assume it’s LaRussa’s fault because he ran Scott Rolen out of St. Louis, seems to be a “my way or the highway” type of guy, and is known for being a veteran’s guy. On the other hand, Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco got along with him, Yadier Molina and Albert Pujols got along with him, and, although he’s a “my way or the highway” guy, his way may not be a bad way. So … who knows what’s really going on. But I do have a reason for bringing this up. If you have a player-manager feud, who do you choose?

Sabermetricians have formed uniformly behind the player, and they have a point. LaRussa is getting older and won’t be around much longer, and managers aren’t much in the way of actual value toward a team (supposedly). Rasmus, however, is young and getting better, and young, talented center fielders are extremely valuable to a team. Therefore, the team should favor Rasmus and let LaRussa go because Rasmus is far more valuable to the team’s future than LaRussa. It seems to make sense, but here’s one spot where I think sabermetrics (Brien had an excellent post on this the other day, but I don’t necessarily agree and would like to, at least, mention the other sides of the argument), for all its positives, fall short.

There seem to be three choices, and each of them has a precedent. Let’s take a look.

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Race(s) for the Red(?) October

New York Yankees vs. Tampa Bay Rays

You have a vested interest in this, the two teams are deadlocked for the division lead, and they’re the best two teams in the majors. Yet, there’s really not a whole lot to get excited about. Boston is nowhere to be seen, and any other Wild Card challengers are four games behind them. Sure, the winning team gets home-field advantage in the ALCS, but I can’t get excited about something that might happen. Otherwise, they’re fighting for the right to play Minnesota or Texas, and those teams are so close that it really doesn’t matter who the team gets, though it’s probably more pleasant to play in Texas than Minnesota in October. So, what’s really up for grabs is division bragging rights, but (quoting Yankee Universe) World Series championships are the only things that matter, right? I imagine that, with two weeks left, both teams will start resting their players anyway with an eye on the playoffs, leaving less to watch. With that in mind, what else is there that you should watch?

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Race, Baseball, and Third Base Coaches

If there is one year that most baseball fans know, it’s 1947. 1968 has become quite common recently (see Year of the Pitcher), and 1927 is pretty popular around these parts. But 1947 is universal. As the year Jackie Robinson broke into baseball becoming the first African-American in the major leagues, 1947 is burned into baseball’s memory, the moment the sport began to do something about racial discrimination. Racial discrimination, of course, did not end there. Just like in all other areas of life, race still remains a difficult and controversial issue, but how much does race have to do with the disparity in minority hiring between first and third base coaches?

Brown v. Board and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 didn’t end racial discrimination, but it did transform and weaken it. The days of slavery, KKK cross burnings, and using fire hoses against protestors are essentially over. Society has largely (though not thoroughly) deemed these actions despicable, and individual, or person-to-person, racism has significantly diminished in the last half century. However, structural racism has become the primary vehicle of racism.

I’ve talked about structural racism before, but let’s take a more elaborative look. If one expected racism and racial inequality to end with Brown and Civil Rights legislation, then he/she is quite naïve. Those actions made individual racism illegal, but making something illegal doesn’t eradicate it. You have to change hearts and minds before that happens, and it takes generations to do that after 400 years of racial subjugation. The two actions also somewhat assume that they reset the system, placing everyone on equal footing and letting them go, but that wasn’t the case. Those problems were not immediately corrected in the 1960s, and in some ways, they still haven’t been corrected. The consequences weren’t necessarily intended, but they exist nonetheless. The day-to-day actions of racism were changed, but the structures underlying them and resulting from them were not always changed. And in some ways, they would have been difficult changes facing practical problems, needing mammoth amounts of money, construction efforts, and redistribution. But it’s important to realize that these are structural, or general, issues and not specific individual ones. They can appear in individual cases, but the underlying cause is structural. I’ll use baseball to elaborate on this idea a bit more because it’s fairly abstract.

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Jeter’s Contract … Again … But This One’s “Fair”

This has been the source of endless discussion in the Yankee Universe—what will the Yankees do with Jeter? It’s kind of a ridiculous question because everyone knows the Yankees and Jeter will work something out, and they’ll do it this off-season when they do it with everyone else. It will get done, but what would you give Jeter? Well, I’ll discuss my thoughts.

I’m not a sentimental person. My mother says I don’t have a sentimental bone in my body. This is especially true when it comes to baseball. I’m bummed that Chipper is out for the season and will lament his retirement a year or so from now, but life will go on. I was completely on Wren’s side when he let Smoltz go to Boston and released Glavine, and I actually advocated not touching them at all during the previous off-season. So, when it comes to players (even like Jeter), I’m not a huge fan of the “franchise” treatment wherein the most popular player gets special treatment. Why? Because the guy giving out that contract isn’t evaluated on how nice he is. He’s (anyone else find it mildly disturbing that I can use the masculine pronoun here? Still no women GMs) evaluated on the team’s W-L record, and to get to the best record, sometimes they have to drop the player because he’s too old, too injury prone, or in a decline. Fans don’t like it, but they don’t like it even more when the team loses.

But I don’t mind a little special treatment. I wanted the Braves to offer Smoltz and Glavine $2-3 million contracts and leave it at that, but if they hadn’t been who they were, I would have just said to get as far away as possible (see Hampton, Mike). Jeter is actually in a much better place. He’s still a valuable player and worth a contract, so I will advocate that he’s treated a little better than some. I don’t think he’s owed that treatment because he’s made a lot of money by being where he is and wouldn’t have made more elsewhere, but because there is a tangible fan reaction, it has to be accounted for. So let’s try to keep this in mind as I work on what a fair contract for Jeter is—it won’t be sentimental, but it should be more than fair.

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With a Jump and a Tear

I have no idea how Derek Jeter has avoided this all these years, but as many of you know, Chipper Jones has a torn ACL after making a jump throw from the third base line the other night. Some of you might feel some schadenfreude, as I expect the Braves and Chipper aren’t exactly on your BFF list, but I’ve never really been able to enjoy injuries to anyone. For one, I don’t like seeing people get hurt during a, in the grand scheme of things, meaningless game but having to go through real-life rehab that is quite painful, and in addition, I want my team to beat your team on its best day. I don’t want you to have any excuses for why you lost to me. Finally, I really don’t like it when it concerns my favorite team who is only 2.5 games up on the surging Phillies who are also getting healthy. It’s a sad day around here, but this isn’t going to be about Chipper exactly, retirement, or favorite players. It’s about injuries and how it plays into the team’s success, especially late in the season.

I imagine that we’ll see a lot of “woe the Braves” articles, believing that the Braves’ season is over (I keep saying Braves, but this is going to be a more general idea with the Braves serving as example). I don’t believe that, and it’s not because I think the Braves will rally around this moment and win one for Bobby anyway against all odds. No, I’m not that sentimental/emotional/delusional to believe that a team can simply will itself to do these things. I just don’t think Chipper’s injury makes that big of a difference. Am I allowed to say that? Let’s take a look.

The Braves currently sit two and a half games ahead of the Phillies, with the Braves at 66-48 and the Phillies at 63-50. The Braves’ run differential is +88 and the Phillies’ is +56, so the Braves should theoretically be about three games ahead (+10 runs is about a win, and with a 30 point difference, there should be three games between them). In other words, they aren’t ahead by fluke (theoretically). As of right now, the Braves have been the better of the two teams and legitimately better. But we’re concerned about right now going forward, not right now and the past.

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A Grand Canyon in the Lineup

Let’s all just get this out of the way. Say all of the following, until the second ellipses, with me … Curtis Granderson sucks. He’s been a massive disappointment. He can’t hit left-handed pitching. We’d all be better off with Johnny Damon or Hideki Matsui … Okay, do we all feel better now? I didn’t think so.

Let’s start with Granderson’s offense. After a rough 2009, all sorts of analysts saw good things from Granderson for 2010, and there were plenty of reasons to believe them. His .275 BABiP was the lowest of his career, and it seemed bound to come up, bringing his BA, OBP, and SLG right up with it. People could bring up his fly-ball tendencies, which kill BABiPs, but he was pretty fly ball heavy in 2007, too. Things looked good due to the theory of regression to the mean.

Well, that didn’t happen, did it? His .240/.307/.417 line is worse than last season’s, and though he somehow managed to be 6 runs above replacement on offense last season, he’s been almost exactly replacement level this season. That BABiP did come up a bit (from .275 to .284), but it’s still a far cry from his career .317 mark. There are some disturbing trends, though. His K rate has risen (from 24.7 to 22.3) and his BB rate has dropped (10.1 to 8.7), but those aren’t catastrophic or way off from career norms. But there’s more. His 25.3% O-Swing rate, rate of swinging at pitches out of the zone, is up by 5% from last season and up 4% from his career mark, and even worse, he’s making a lot of contact with those pitches out of the zone (59%, up 9% from his career but almost identical to last season), which is obviously bad because hitting pitches out of the zone is harder than the ones in the zone. Additionally, his run values on fastballs have really declined (from 31 runs in 2007 to 2.4 this season), which may mean that he’s swinging at more fastballs out of the zone and/or that his bat speed has slowed. So what does all this mean? It means that his plate discipline has regressed, and coupled with the increased contact% on pitches out of the zone, he is making weaker contact. And his bat seems slower. Those are not good things, but there is some hope.

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Rethinking Trades

July 31st is an exciting time in the baseball season. It’s like Christmas, and the players traded are the presents under the tree. Sometimes you get a Playstation3 (Cliff Lee), and sometimes you get socks (Joe Saunders). It happens, but it’s exciting nonetheless. After we open the presents, we are prone to judge them. I’m advocating that we switch up how we grade them.

The idea for this sprung from an interesting article by Steven Goldman at Baseball Prospectus wherein he criticizes selling teams. He argues that it generally doesn’t work out for selling teams because the prospects never work out. It’s an interesting argument, but it is one I would like to tweak.

First thing’s first. It’s not the theory that’s wrong. It’s the practice. Or maybe, I should say that the theory isn’t complete, but completing it further can only help, right? As of now, the theory is simple. If your team is losing, not going to make the playoffs, and probably not going to make it next year, you’re supposed to sell off your expensive veterans for cheap, controllable players or prospects to teams that are willing to take on the contracts. In theory, that turns one player into several while giving a team payroll flexibility. In practice as Goldman notes, the selling team gets screwed. So what needs to change?

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To begin the season, everyone knew the AL East was going to be an intense race. Analysts dissected, bisected, and trisected the division trying to make an argument that unequivocally proclaimed one team better than all the others like they could do with the Cardinals in the NL Central (a lot of good that did). As we head into the second half, I thought it would be a good idea to look at where we’ve been and where we’re headed.

A month into the season, the Tampa Bay Rays were the best team in baseball at 17-7 with a +66 run differential. Matt Garza and James Shields were cruising along with ERAs in the low 2s, and Evan Longoria was doing his best MVP pose with a 1.002 OPS. The Yankees were 1.5 games back and 15-8. As good as Longoria was in the first month, he couldn’t fathom matching Robinson Cano’s 1.201 OPS, and on the mound, AJ Burnett seemed to be transforming into an ace, CC Sabathia was doing his thing, and Hughes was looking like a blossoming All-Star. Unfortunately, Javier Vazquez ruined an otherwise excellent month by picking up where he left New York the first time around. Up the coast, Boston was mired in a slump that saw them go 11-13 causing all sorts of people to panic over “run prevention”. It was ridiculous, but when it comes to big media markets, what do you expect? Making it worse were the Blue Jays doing fairly well (12-13) and forcing the Red Sox into fourth. Baltimore did everyone a favor and laid down and died (6-18).

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Edwin Jackson and Unwritten Rules

With seven walks through three innings, Edwin Jackson didn’t look like he was on the brink of history. Six, one-walk innings later, he had notched yet another no-hitter for pitchers this season. Of course, when one walks eight batters, the pitcher is likely to have thrown a lot of pitches, and Jackson had hurled 149 toward home plate. But was it a good idea to do this? What did anyone really gain?

The first thing that must be talked about is the actual value of his performance. If we’re going off of “historical”, this one gets written in the history books because he gave up zero hits, but let’s be honest, this was no work of brilliance. This was not on par with the perfect games unleashed by Roy Halladay and Dallas Braden, and even if the hit against Galarraga had been legitimate, Jackson’s start wouldn’t approach Galarraga’s one-hitter, either. In fact, Johnny Cueto’s one-hitter with 8 Ks and 0 BBs on May 11th that no one seems to remember is much more impressive than a guy who walks EIGHT in one game while giving up zero hits. In terms of Game Score, Cueto notched a 93 while Jackson got an 85. Why do we focus so much on hits? Now, don’t get me wrong. What Jackson did is impressive. It’s really hard to get that many guys out, and luck or not, a no-hitter demonstrates good stuff. But it is not worth an entire webpage, at least no more than Cueto’s.

And that brings up Jackson’s 149 pitches. I think we could debate all day about whether it’s a good idea to allow a pitcher to throw 149 pitches in one game. On one hand, sticking strictly to a 100 pitch count is a terrible idea as pitchers are obviously built differently and can handle different workloads, but on the other hand, 149 pitches is A LOT of pitches. When most people talk about letting pitchers go past 100, they generally mean 110-120, which seems reasonable. 149 wasn’t really on the radar. Regardless, if Jackson gets hurt in his next start, I won’t be blaming the 149 pitches anymore than the hundreds of thousands of others he’s thrown in his career, and I’m not here to quibble over the pitching strategy. But I will criticize AJ Hinch. How can I do that? Unwritten rules.

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