Thursday, November 14, 2013

Gently-Used Stadium for Sale: $200 Million (OBO)

W. Ross Clites
Your City Sports-Cleveland

Saint Louis, MISSOURI — On Monday, the Atlanta Braves announced that they are moving out of Turner Field after 2016. 

Wait. Rewind. What? 

The Braves are going to demolish a stadium in decent shape before its twentieth birthday? Before we dive in on the reasons behind this shocking headline, let's talk about some teams that are getting skipped at the buffet line. 
At the top of the aggrieved sit the Oakland A's. They are the last remaining team in Major League Baseball to share a facility with an NFL franchise. The 48 year-old [Your Name Here] Coliseum is in extreme disrepair, and has never been an ideal place to watch a baseball game. It came cheap ($25 million); comparable to a single-occupant Dodger Stadium in the same state, size, price tag, and era. The difference is the current renovation efforts. Los Angeles' ownership group is investing $500 million to upgrade the historic ballpark. The Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum has no such plan on the books. The lease is up and one, or both, of the tenants could be exiting. 

The issue in Oakland is its annual transition period. All the moving parts required to go from A's to Raiders (and back) have aged the building more than most. For both sports, it is a house and not a home; there is nothing permanent enough for either the A's or Raiders to "take their coat off and stay awhile." If the Raiders left for Los Angeles, staying in the Coliseum would not be the top choice for the A's, but it would at least give them a chance to invest in baseball-only upgrades. Stay tuned on this one.  

A baseball-only Coliseum would still be at the bottom of the MLB's list of fan favorites  in an era where nearly every city has built new  but nothing will ever be worse than Tropicana Field. A dome with fake grass in a sun-drenched city? Check. Poor attendance due to its placement in a New York snowbird haven? Check. The Tampa Bay Rays are tucked in the corner of the reception hall; forgotten about as the tables get called to the dinner line. And with today's announcement, they must idly watch the Braves go up for seconds before their first helping. If Tampa Bay is really hungry, they could go after the scraps left on Atlanta's table.

In all seriousness, the Rays organization should consider making a pitch to save Turner Field. Professional athletic facilities are never this young when they hit Craigslist. In 2006, Tiger Stadium had no shelf life left and still fetched double of what the Rays would pay for something operable in Atlanta. The two organizations need to come together before the Braves go all Miley Cyrus on their gently-used facility.  

On the surface, this appears like an easy thrift-store transaction: a product has fallen out of favor, but would be cherished by a lesser-off new user. If the Rays could concede what most baseball minds speculate  that they are eventually leaving town  this would be the best-case scenario for a turn-key relocation. One man's trash is another man's treasure, right?

Would you rather spend $500 million on a new stadium on the Gulf Coast of Florida, or move into the discarded digs of the Atlanta Braves for $1? Now I know there are various hiccups, obstacles, legal implications, and these dollar amounts are exaggerated for effect, but for the sake of a conversation, let's hypothesize a markdown price that would favorably make the Atlanta Rays a reality. 

Socio-Economics 101: What is going wrong in Atlanta?

I was shocked when the Braves publicized their intentions to move to a new ballpark in four short years. As the headline crawled across my TV screen, my initial thought was strangely not about Atlanta at all. My focus was miles away in Oakland and Tampa Bay.  

"How wasteful!" "What a middle finger to the Rays and A's!" "Talk about First-World Problems; a ballpark that is 16 years-old isn't good enough for the Braves!"

I had nothing to really say regarding the prospects of a fancy new ballpark in the majors. Instead, I was distracted by my anger, aimed at the audacity of the Braves ownership. They were jumping line!

But the more I read, the more I understood the deeper grievances of the Braves. Clearly, something is awry in the city of Atlanta. In recent years, the disconnect between on-field success and the thousands of empty seats has been striking. 

While in Turner Field, the team has won 10 NL East Division titles, including postseason appearances in each of the last two seasons. Despite this, the Braves were inexplicably 13th in MLB attendance last year. The stadium rates even lower in credible popularity contests; Turner Field came in at 20th and 21st in two recent MLB fan votes (based on value, aesthetics, and fan experience).

"Boohoo" says most of Major League Baseball, especially in places like Seattle and Cleveland. Even with wins and newer ballparks, the fans are not showing up like they should. But for a successful franchise with the money to spend, I could hardly fault the Braves for exploring corrective measures. Their goal is to get attendance figures and the fan's perception both in the top-5 league-wide. It is where they envisioned their franchise was headed after mid-90s success. 

Monday's announcement of a new stadium is an admission that Turner Field could never achieve that goal; actually setting the team's growth back a decade. The city planners surrounding the Centennial Olympic Games hoped that building in a discarded area of town would lure businesses and residents. When the Games left town, the predicted influx never filled the void. The Utopian plan, that landed Atlanta the historic world-event, could never make good on their campaign promises. In fact, the more history I uncovered, the more I applaud the Braves for not trying to get out sooner. 

Just another case of "white flight" to some, I personally think the Braves are using advanced predictive analytics  unseen in the sports world  to maximize their revenue opportunities. In the past ten years, the Braves got caught in a game they never wanted to play: leapfrog. Modern doormats like the Twins, Mets, Marlins, and Padres used amenities, and not victories, to provide a better fan experience than the Braves. The world passed them by, as they were stuck in a ballpark without character. 

The Rays could have helped them understand that winning baseball in a stale ballpark is not inversely related to losing baseball in a cutting-edge venue. Even winners need beauty. Breathtaking fields and unforgettable food menus draw fans  regardless of the standings. In this, the Braves and Rays are oddly cut from the same cloth. Neither current ownership group had a true say in the identity that was portrayed in their architecture. They play in whatever the city was willing to give them; generous gestures for the creation of baseball-only facilities, but certainly not Target Field and Petco Park.  

Like my mother always says, "never buy a woman shoes." Similarly, never build a ballpark for a professional sports franchise. In both cases, supply them with a large portion of the funds and let them pick out what they want. Thanks to poorly-designed home fields and a ton of envy, the fans and front offices in Tampa Bay and Atlanta long to go shopping. Each have met with Populous — the unrivaled firm that has 18 of the 30 MLB stadiums in their portfolio  and drafted up that distinct, regionally-responsive ballpark they missed out on decades ago. The difference: the Braves are finally exiting the tunnel of a bad lease, while the Rays' tunnel looks more like a cave. They sold their soul away to St. Pete. 

This time around, the Braves are listening to the data instead of plopping the stadium in the first cost-effective lot that comes available. This is something the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG) could have looked into back in 1990.  

In 1996, the world was caught up in the pageantry of the Atlanta-hosted XXVI (and Centennial) Olympiad. When the Games faded away, the Braves were like a kid opening an undesirable Christmas gift. "Thanks, ACOG, this is what we always wanted!" 

The track & field stadium was a step up from Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, but never a perfect fit. Oh yeah, we'll just turn it into a baseball field afterwards. It felt like doublespeak, included in Atlanta's proposal only to impress the IOC's selection committee. They were passionately in "Win the Bid at All Cost" mode; they said a lot of things that would get kicked down the curb for other politicians to actually deliver.   

In 1990, with sustainable architecture becoming a decisive factor, the finalists had to show forethought for their primary buildings' lifespans. The ACOG had a favorable plan: instead of demolishing their proposed stadium, they would re-purpose and gift it to the Braves. It ultimately got them the nod. But the retrofitting of what became Turner Field looked like someone called Atlanta with an off-suit 2, 7. Construction scrambled to assemble the grandiose Optimus Prime; ambition that made more sense on paper. 

Over the years, I have seen several games in "The Ted" and it has been average from the beginning. This is coming from a guy that grew up with Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati and Three Rivers in Pittsburgh. Today, Turner Field feels like the awkward teenage offspring of those late multi-sport cookie-cutters.  

It is a baseball stadium in the sense that the sport takes place in front of you. The sight lines, oddly-shaped concourses, and the bland symmetry of its outfield have left Braves fans wanting more. It is not embedded in Atlanta's downtown and does little to visually stimulate. Not surprisingly, it feels like half an Olympic Stadium.  

For some strange reason, the city never took a cent from any of its citizens. If the Braves played one more year (1997) in their old building, and/or raised a modest public fund, Monday's headline would have been delayed at least twenty years.    

To make matters worse, Turner Field is now showing the signs of rushed de(re)construction. Take notes, IOC. This is what you get when you design a nine-figure stadium that serves its primary purpose for one measly month. My argument against the validity of binge-spending for the Olympic Games is a topic for another day.  

Liberty Media, the group that now owns the Braves, has said that there is a $150-$250 million cost associated with face-lifts and a better fan experience. For that price tag, any team could move to the ideal location and build something better-suited. And that is exactly what the Braves are doing. See, ACOG, you should have just gone with a gift card. The sweater you thought the Braves would love is now on the $2 rack at Goodwill. 

Enter the "beggars can't be choosers" portion of the argument.

Say Turner Field needs $200 million to be a top-10 field in Major League Baseball? The Tampa Bay Rays could cut that capital improvement budget down to a mere $50 million and still offer their fan base a ballpark experience lightyears ahead of their current offerings. At this point, they would kill to have a stadium that is in the top-20. 

Why should the Tampa Bay Rays front office try to enact tax hikes and public support for a new ballpark in a place that  the attendance figures show  is apathetic to the local team? Even during periods of sustained on-field success, Tropicana Field drew an average of 18,645 fans in each home game last season. 

Thanks to its capacity, the stadium hosted 40,947 fans in the 2008 World Series, fewer than four teams averaged in the 2013 regular season (two of whom did not make the playoffs). 

I have attended games at Legends Field (both Minor League and Spring Training) that have drawn more interest and excitement than midseason Major League Baseball games across town. But it is not the Rays fault. The franchise was set up to fail from the get-go. It is a Yankee town and always will be. Retirees flock to Tampa to see their pinstripes from February to April.

These people have been fans of teams like the Yankees, Phillies, and Red Sox for twice as long as the Tampa Bay Rays have existed. That is a tough row to hoe. Their best bet is with current school-aged baseball players, free of allegiances. 

Thanks to modern innovations in MLB coverage, these fans could live just about anywhere and still follow the Rays. If the franchise moves to a different city, it would hardly kill off the previous generation of fans. The Atlanta Rays would have a more storied history in Georgia than Florida in no time. This storyline has numerous chapters in the history of professional baseball, including the Braves moving from Milwaukee.     

So, for a speculative $50 million, the Rays could pioneer a new way to procure a stadium: the Craigslist route. If the Braves could halt the demolition, there is no better way for the franchise to upgrade its dismal ballpark situation. The Florida Suncoast Dome cost $200 million (in 1990 dollars) and has done nothing but underwhelm baseball enthusiasts. They obviously want out, while staying the Tampa Bay Rays. 

I am staunchly against the relocation of pro sports franchises. But this is a glaring exception; an offer (not that the Braves have made one) that no one could refuse. This is not asking the Rays to travel to the West Coast and alienate its fan base. The relocation is a state away, in the same time zone, in the same climate, in a region where all professional franchises have young roots. The term "second-generation Rays fan" hardly exists yet.   

It is also the righting of two wrongs: Atlanta building a disposable stadium that they marketed as a long-term baseball solution, and Major League Baseball granting an expansion team to an unsupported market.   

Throw in some brownie points  in the court of public opinion, for saving an American landmark — and the Rays could be welcomed with open arms. Have the Braves sell that thing they were going to destroy for a $1 and suddenly it is a win-win.

If the ballpark isn't working for the Braves, why would it for the Rays?

To answer this, we must first understand why Braves ownership wants to move to Cobb County, Georgia. Their Turner Field lease is up in 2016, granting them flexibility to move anywhere in the Atlanta metropolitan area. 

According to reports, the city's transportation system never adequately serviced Turner Field. The stadium is situated on a constantly log-jammed I-75/I-85 superhighway. The city's population, like most American urban centers, has sprawled further into the suburbs. Even those that do wade their way through airport traffic cannot be guaranteed sufficient parking. 

None of these complaints could deter a fledgling team like the Tampa Bay Rays. I have a feeling their management would long for those to be the only headaches. On a beautiful August night in St. Pete, with a first-place team, the Rays might draw 20,000 fans for ESPN's spotlight game of the week. Of those fans, 25% are Florida transplants, rooting for the visiting team. 100% of the fans cannot enjoy the night sky. 

If you put the Rays in Atlanta, you would never hear "we only had 30,000 fans tonight!" Rays owner, Stuart Sternberg, would be screaming "we had 30,000 fans tonight!" If Turner Field comes cheap on the secondary market, the Rays could take half the money they are willing to spend on a new ballpark, in Tampa, and put it towards supplementary infrastructure enhancements in Atlanta. All the superfluous things that are plaguing Turner Field — the things a "wealthy" team like the Braves never got to  could ironically be fixed by a team ranked dead last in Forbes' MLB team values.
Did I mention the history involved in Turner Stadium? The Summer Olympic Games have been hosted by the United States only four times (St. Louis, Los Angeles twice, and Atlanta). Ask a Chicago politician where their city is on that list and you will know how big of a deal it is. 

Although highly reconfigured, the Rays would join USC football as the only "major" sports team that plays in a U.S. Olympic Stadium. There is brand equity attached with that venue; the site of Muhammad Ali's incredible Opening Ceremony torch lighting and Michael Johnson's record 200 meter dash. 

In the next months and years, there will be groups in Atlanta that step forward  ready to support anyone who could save Turner Field. Community social responsibility (CSR) could be the least important factor for the ownership of the Rays, but that is not how it would read in the local papers. A strictly lucrative business decision could be spun as an environmental or historical preservation initiative. 

This situation is the very definition a feasibility disparity in major sports. If the Braves want to move on, they have every right and the economic means to do so. Good for them. But demolishing a historical site, a very serviceable stadium, is short-sighted and wasteful. It is in the perfect price range for other owners. 

What about their loyal fans in St. Petersburg? 

Rays ownership recently announced that only about 300 season ticket holders have permanent St. Petersburg addresses. The stadium is in the wrong part of town, but not from the typical socio-economic standpoint. St. Pete is plenty affluent, plenty beautiful, and plenty populated to support the Rays. Without getting too technical, the empty seats do all the talking. The management group that brought expansion baseball to the region missed the boat on where their fans call home. 

This is exactly what the Braves just realized. The people buying their tickets are coming from Cobb County, not Fulton. What are they doing about it? They are letting the lease run out, after the sun sets on their 2016 season. The Braves intend to remove the shackles that tethered them to a Turner Field that never really suited their needs. Like LeBron James, they have earned this right to leave and chase the dollar (the richer, better-connected neck of the woods). 

The Rays would love to have the same community flexibility; the opportunity to make a comparable "Decision" as LeBron and the Braves. They would move across the Bay, to their fan nucleus  if you could call it that. Trouble is, St. Petersburg mayor, Bill Foster, has insisted that the franchise honor its contractual commitment to stay in his city until 2027. 

By that time, Turner Field will be a distant memory and this whole proposal will be moot. It will take contract opt-out clause, an early St. Pete exit strategy. Rumors have swirled that one could come to fruition in the next few years. If this is the case, the Rays ownership should thoroughly evaluate its long-last free agent status. 

Whenever the Rays do finally get out from underneath their dreadful Tropicana burden, they should test the market. The United States is full of second-tier professional sports cities that would love to build them a new stadium. Right now, the belief is that the team will forego being wooed. If a quick move to Tampa is all they consider, I feel it is grossly short-sighted. They are making a blind assumption that Tampa is their version of Atlanta's northwest suburbs; that anything better than the sterile Tropicana Field will immediately draw 40,000 people.  

Monday's announcement by the Braves serves as a cautionary tale for a new generation of ballpark developers. If the Rays do not run the right analytics, they could be bound, for forty (plus) years, to a lease in their Tampa equivalent of Turner Field. In no way would it utilize their leverage or help to cultivate a better MLB market. 

This Bay Area is not Oakland-San Francisco, which has two teams. I do not feel either side of this Spring Training, Minor League, and retired transplant haven can sustain professional baseball. Jumping from one side of an disinterested town to the other would get them shiny new digs and not much more. We see how that has worked well for the Marlins.  

If they do entertain options, where would a cash-strapped franchise go to find greener pastures? If New Orleans does not come calling, Stu Sternberg could save some serious money with a move-in-ready place up I-75. 

Could Atlanta support two teams?

I say yes. And I say this because Atlanta is a sports oasis. The geographical market share of MLB allegiances is dominated by the Braves in the South. With Houston now in the American League, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Washington, and Miami are the team's four NL neighbors. This island effect would work in the Rays favor even more; Baltimore is the only AL franchise within 750 miles of Atlanta. The Rays and Braves would hardly step on each other's toes. The two stadiums would be roughly 15 miles apart, nearly twice as far as Yankee Stadium (Bronx) is to Citi Field (Queens). 

In the standings, the two teams would continue to play in opposing leagues. This model has existed in professional baseball for over 120 years (begun in the boroughs of New York in 1890). These cities unite against anyone that talks trash about their town, but is lovingly cantankerous when their two teams are pitted against one another. This occurs so rarely that fans could have vested interest in both.     

Furthermore, the metropolitan statistical area of Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Roswell, Georgia ranks ninth in the nation. After losing the NHL's Thrashers to Winnipeg, the city of Atlanta became the largest in the United States to not have four franchises in the major sports scene. It is as prominent as St. Louis, Boston, and Philadelphia were when they each had two MLB teams. 

It would certainly be unique to the region and have its fair share of growing pains. The tribulations that currently plague the Braves would not go away. The hope would be that the casual fans in the city would inherently pick a side. 

There is a comfort in that city where people either answer "Braves" or "I don't like baseball" when asked about their favorite ballclub. This is not all that unlike St. Louis. With this move, Georgians would have an option to be different than their sibling or spouse or neighbor. It takes the building of a fence to get people off of it.     

The Rays would have the appeal of being the team that actually represents the city, not the Atlanta suburbs. That is a distinct marketing advantage, given cities that also have two teams are very territorial in their nicknames (South Siders, Bronx Bombers, etc.). The Braves have done their homework in tracking where their ticket-buying fans live. If they are correct, and the northern portion of Atlanta comes out in droves, then the south side residents will be the ones who balk at the commute. The neighborhoods around Turner Field will not be able to afford the sticker shock associated with a new stadium's seat price and a 15-mile drive. This would give the Rays a local pool of fans, priced out of the market by their own hometown team. They could stay the course with cheaper prices and draw 10,000 fans right away.  

My hunch is that Atlanta citizens would sure appreciate seeing a game, twenty years from now, in a renamed Turner Field  even if it is not their beloved Braves' home field. If it means that they have to put up with another team encroaching on their turf, so be it. They can be that cross-town annoyance that no one thinks about until an interleague match-up comes around. I feel they would rather keep the memories of that stadium alive. 

With harmony and balance in a 30-team MLB, why would franchise relocation be a good thing?

Well, let's look at recent contentious moves across the sports landscape. Certain franchise relocation plans have startled, baffled, and angered the local fans. Others were an inevitable necessity for survival. I'll do my best to place a potential move from Tampa Bay to Atlanta on this scale of detriment. 

There are several tangible factors that go into this decision: 

The year, since this century has been unbelievably stable in its expansion and relocation compared to the last half of the 20th century.

The team, for the winning (or losing) tradition of each relocated team plays a huge part in how the fans react.

The miles, because the distance is everything; if a team moves far enough away, the wounds can heal.

If a team moves just across the stateline, a franchise might be able to keep a regional fan base in tact. Thus, the number of states (or provinces) that the team moved away has some merit. I agree that the significance of this stat is skewed, since states come in all shapes and sizes. But state pride has no size; certain borders add to the animosity of a franchise changing hands.

Even more important is the quantity of championships the franchise logged before they were uprooted. The ripping off of the band-aid hurts fans more if banners were raised in the team's old hometown.
Lastly, the tenure of the team in its previous city matters. Uprooting a franchise is easier when the roots never fully grabbed a hold.  

In 2004, the Expos moved 590 miles to Washington, D.C. In doing so, they crossed over four states and an international border. The franchise never won the World Series in its 35 years in Montreal. 

Following that same format (year, team, miles, states, titles, tenure): 

     1953, Braves, 980 miles, 6 states away, 1 title, 83 years in Boston

     1955, Athletics, 1100 miles, 5 states away, 5 titles, 53 years in Philadelphia

     1958, Giants, 2700 miles, 11 states away, 5 titles, 74 years in New York

     1958, Dodgers, 2600 miles, 11 states away, 1 title, 73 years in Brooklyn

     1961, Senators, 1050 miles, 6 states away, 1 title, 59 years in Washington

     1983, Colts, 580 miles, 3 states away, 4 titles, 30 years in Baltimore

     1993, North Stars, 930 miles, 4 states away, 0 titles, 26 years in Minnesota

     1994, Whalers, 600 miles, 6 states away, 0 titles, 15 years in Hartford

     1994, Rams, 1800 miles, 5 states away, 1 title, 48 years in Los Angeles

     1995, Browns, 370 miles, 2 states away, 4 titles, 49 years in Cleveland

     2008, SuperSonics, 2000 miles, 7 states away, 1 title, 41 years in Seattle 

For the 2017 Rays, the distance is only 480 miles, one state away, no championships, after spending 19 seasons in St. Petersburg. The move would be the second-shortest (miles), the fewest states away, and the second-shortest lineage of any on this list. This puts Tampa Bay to Atlanta very low on the detriment meter; it is conceivable that local fans could see a team leave town and understand it was truly for the best. At the very least, they would be more consolable than Browns fans.  

From the department of "if you love something, let it go", the Rays could have a boost in attendance from a new city. All these decisions ultimately come down to what is best for the business and not what is best for the fans. The Atlanta Rays would be a rarity in the sense of potentially being better for both.  

The turnstile tally shows a substantial portion of their current fans prefer the living room or bar to the seats in Tropicana. Would their allegiance be drastically affected? I say no, not when the viewing experience would only get better  grass field instead of artificial everything. 

Would the result benefit the Rays and/or the league?

Since "exorcising" the Tampa Bay Devil Rays name in 2007, the franchise has really turned a corner in the competitive American League East. After ten straight years of losing 91+ games, the Rays have now logged six consecutive seasons with a winning percentage over .518.  

This move would be the next evolution of credibility for an underdog team with national appeal. They are slowly gaining traction among baseball purists as the surprising Moneyball A's of the Southeast. Joe Maddon is lovable and his team likely has more fans outside of Florida than it does within. 

The team has a decent fan base built up in the Carolinas; deliberately or inadvertently wearing a hue very similar to Carolina blue more and more each year. North Carolina holds its AAA affiliate, the infamous Durham Bulls. 

Moving to Atlanta shrinks that road trip time and ups the reward at the end of that journey  outdoor baseball.

Chalk it up to an era of new ballpark construction, but the odds suggest there is something to World Series success and a new home field. Five of the last eight World Champions won a title in the first ten years of their stadium's existence; two (St. Louis and New York) won a championship in the year one of a new building. 

The team would need a name change if it relocated to Montreal, but not Atlanta. From coast-to-coast, the city's colloquial nickname is Hotlanta. Hot = Atlanta sun = Atlanta Rays. No brainer, right? It's not like we're moving the Jazz to Utah and keeping the name. 

Major League Baseball would be one step closer to having each franchise in a new (or gently-used) baseball-only, outdoor (or retractable-roof) facility. Only Oakland would need a new place to call home, and only Toronto would need natural grass. Everyone else is locked into something that barely requires a fresh coat of paint for another 20 years. What an asset for the league's bottom line: stability.  

The move would put two teams in the same city in four different regions of the country: Midwest (Cubs, White Sox), West (Dodgers, Angels), Northeast (Mets, Yankees), and Southeast (Braves, Rays). It would not affect the division layouts or the current schedule format. The movement actually helps Miami, too. It gives MLB fans in the state of Florida one team to rally around. Let that crazy cathedral/fun house in South Beach be the shining beacon for all of Florida baseball. 

Is there an opportunity for a compromise?

This is not a unique leverage situation. In the late 1980s, Tropicana Field was commissioned to lure a professional team down to the Sunshine State. The White Sox were enticed enough to threaten the city of Chicago into building a new Comiskey Park. If Turner Field can get on the table as a viable option, it might be enough to get what the people in Tampa Bay want. Without a place to go, the leverage for Floridians is non-existent. Ironically, it could be a defunct stadium that does to Tampa's team what the city attempted decades before. 

It sounds as surreal as an episode of Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?  with my suggestion of a landmark changing hands  but it is plausible. It starts with Braves ownership loosening his "if we don't use it, no one can have it" stance. Postpone the demolition indefinitely. Give a team like the Rays time to satisfy their St. Pete lease and still have that standing as an option. Tigers Stadium stood for nearly ten years before it was razed. 

Let's say certain political factors all the Rays to get out of their lease by the end of 2022, five years early. Turner Field would be vacant for a mere six years, and only 25 years old. That is nothing in stadium years. Even in total disrepair it would be a sound investment, with a long life let to live. That is why Liberty Media needs to stall the demolition. 

If the stadium formerly known as Turner Field is somehow still standing, the Rays would be ideal suitors. Let's say their franchise has $300 million to spend on a new ballpark (half from the public and half from the private sector). Starting from scratch would develop them a nice place on the waterfront, either in St. Petersburg or Tampa. But would it truly address their attendance issues? My guess is that the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees will always feel like a trip to Florida is a home series. 

Building the Georgia fan base from scratch would be hard, but building the stadium would be easy. And since Major League Baseball is a business, the latter is a bigger proponent for the move. Stadiums are inherently solidly constructed. Without doing advanced analysis on Turner Field, I have to speculate that the same $300 million the Rays hypothetically have to spend would go further in Atlanta. Even if the venue is stripped down to the core, time and money would be saved  move-in ready in one offseason. 

If the Rays someday have the option of new or used, used would sure make the green-washed, eco-friendly people happier. The embedded energy in that discarded Atlanta field would all go up in smoke. Anybody that remembers the greatness of the 1996 Olympic Games would be happy to see a piece of history saved. The Atlanta sports scene would be satisfied by becoming a bigger baseball town; a rivalry of recent playoff teams injected into their city. 

For all these reasons, in a seemingly counter-intuitive way, I think the refurbished route would even make true Rays fans happier, too.   


I am a college baseball coach, I have a master of architecture degree, and I have a master of business administration degree, so I get why this pops into my head. But I cannot be the only person thinking about this. People see the value of buying a 100 year-old house, but they cannot see that flipping a commodity like a 25 year-old Turner Field would not yield an economical incentive? It is like baking cookies: sure, building from scratch produces better taste, but when you find that ready-bake rolls are available at half the time and expense, you are foolish to say no. 

In this case, with how bad of a stadium Tropicana Field is, the metaphor can be taken a step further. The Tampa Bay Rays burnt their first batch and have never really tasted a good cookie, so no one would hardly notice that this iteration was store-bought. Who cares if it was built by the hands of another? The fans would be appreciative of the upgrade, even if a cross-state relocation is required. 

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Wild Card Playoff: MLB's Version of Adding Plus/Minus Grading

W. Ross Clites
Your City Sports-Cleveland

Saint Louis, MISSOURI — Let me preface this by saying I conceptually like the new Wild Card format. Why? Because someday I want my Cleveland Indians to be in the driver’s seat like the 2013 Boston Red Sox currently sit. The onus is now back on winning the division, the way MLB was for decades. Should the Tribe ever do that again, I want them to be rewarded for their efforts. I want my guys to be tweeting the outcome of a casual intrasquad scrimmage, while other teams are playing a stress-filled one-and-done game. The new Wild Card scenario serves up a sleep-deprived, jet-lagged ball club — down a starting pitcher — to this rested top seed. In theory, this all works fine. 

Through the course of time, and several playoff changes, MLB has always said: If you have a problem with it, a 162-game regular season is plenty long enough to do something about it. This was true when there were 20 teams and only two postseason members. It is still true today. The sample size is the largest in sports, so teams that are on the outside looking in have no one to blame but themselves. 

While I agree with that sentiment, I point to manner in which Wild Cards of the past were treated. In 1994, Commissioner Bud Selig opened Pandora's Box: giving a second-place team full-fledged playoff status. They were treated as equals with all the other contenders, able to prove they belonged in a best-of-five series. Their competitive chances were hardly hindered in any way (hence, the ten Wild Card World Series participants). Now, I argue, we have swung too far. Major League Baseball has hypocritically reduced the Wild Card to a second tier, below all other postseason members. 

We are caught in a grey area where only division winners have a real chance (like pre-1994), but have these other teams still showing up. It is like Selig is admitting the Wild Card was a mistake, so he is throwing more of them out there. Under the guise of expanding "for the fans" he is actually phasing Wild Cards out of the history books. It is a brilliantly evil PR move, subtracting by addition: include more teams but stack the deck so they practically never exist. This last part is where I take umbrage. The lid is off and today's Wild Cards should have the same odds to win as in the past.      

I was in St. Louis, surrounded by Cardinals fans, watching Game 5 of the 2011 NLDS; seeing first-hand what an ace in a short series can do. Having a Chris Carpenter throw twice, against the heavily-favored Phillies, indirectly won the Cardinals that thrilling World Series. Winning the Wild Card was never even a slap on the wrist. Each year, it was like being the fourth division winner. Even better if the league's best record came out of your division; not only were you unaffected by rest restrictions or personnel decisions, but you got to play the two seed in the tournament. It certainly needed a change. 

I found out last year, but especially last night, that a one-game playoff was not the answer. 

Before I get hate mail from some 80 year-old Cubs fan — that my team has it easy these days  let me back up. I am happy with the unexpected success this Cleveland ball club had this year. Furthermore, I understand that you are at the mercy of the format in place at the time. The Indians are lucky to even be considered a playoff team at all. As recent as 1968, the Tribe's 92-70 record would have mathematically eliminated them weeks before the end of the season. The highway to the championship has certainly added more lanes, right or wrong. After one loss to Tampa Bay, I am simply questioning why Cleveland's lane was forced to exit. 

The “modern” Wild Card construct, the format that I grew up with, would have undoubtedly benefited Cleveland. The Indians, the best second-place team in any AL division, would be gearing up for a best-of-five series with Boston. I could not wait for the 24-hour sports media machine to provoke bulletin board material, trying to play up the psychological battle of a fired manager coming back for revenge. There would have also been a 2007 ALCS redemption angle in play. It would have been a great, fair series.

Instead, Cleveland has to pick up the pieces and focus on 2014 far too soon. The Indians may not feel like they were hosed, but I sure do. Hear me out before you say that I am being unjustifiably spiteful to the system. I would not have trumpeted this play-in game even if the Tribe pulled out the win. I wrote a shorter post about this very topic last year, when the Atlanta Braves were the home team whose dream run failed to launch. I denounced the nature of the game, despite its unpopularity among all my Cardinals friends/coworkers who profited from it. My stance is the same as it was; the 2013 version just happens to have a victim with a greater emotional connection. 

I will inject a metaphoric story. In 2005, my alma mater — Kent State University — implemented the plus/minus grading system. Prior to that, students received a full A (and more importantly, a full 4.00 points towards their GPA) for work that was 90% correct/satisfactory. Suddenly, as a sophomore in college, the world changed in an instant. We were not grandfathered out of the system with which we started. Instead, a 90% in year two of the same courses earned us 3.66 GPA points and an A- grade.

Now, my argument is neither for nor against either of these systems. In fact, the plus/minus saved me enough times; granting an extra .33 boost to the GPA on classes where I posted an 88% (or 78%). I am simply crying foul for lack of consistency. Feats should be rewarded in the same vein as they always were.

If Bud Selig wants to award another team a spot in the playoffs, I am for it, but it should not come at the expense of another. The top Wild Card should not have to
prove their inclusion, since they never had to before.

This is the basis for my argument. Major League Baseball  in creating a second Wild Card  has conceded that it is okay for the fourth-best team in the AL and NL to be excluded from their league's "Final Four" (Division Series) before it even starts. It makes no sense. Taking MLB's 162-game rationale and spinning it against them: the top Wild Card made use of their regular season more so than the second. If they did not finish with identical records, the sample size was plenty to differentiate the two. Now, the fifth-best team gets one final crack, as if they are on equal standing, to prove they are in the top four?! Worse, they get this shot in an unpredictable one-game setting — a way baseball never uses to settle who is the superior team. We have gone against 144 years of Major League Baseball tradition, built upon the concept of series, and resorted to a format without a precedent (unless teams finish tied).   

The 2012 Atlanta Braves were six games better than St. Louis in the standings; third-best record in the entire National League. But since they did not overtake Washington in the NL East, their effort was given a 93%. Any other year and this would have been a great score, sending the Braves on to the NLDS (against a two-seed Reds team). Instead, the Cardinals 90% unjustly lumped them into the same A- Club. The flaw is that the new system assumes all Wild Cards are chasing identical-caliber division leaders. Finishing four games back of the best team in the league is far greater than 9 GB of a middle-of-the-pack team. The Braves/Cardinals game should have never been played; they were never on equal footing.

If you cut through the clever labels and catchy names, Selig is simplistically taking the 93% A effort of the past and branding it an A-. Then, he goes on to say “only teams with a solid A are guaranteed the safety of a series in the playoffs.” This decision robs deserving people the opportunities of those that came before. 

The Wild Card saw its first playoff action in 1995, and with that, certain privileges incurred. You, the Wild Card, got a state-issued best-of-five series, for you to prove you should advance in the playoffs.

The Major League Baseball postseason schedule has not shrunk in 91 years. That year, 1922, the World Series scaled back from a brief, experimental nine-game series. Other than that, it has always been build, build, build. Include more, travel more, create more, celebrate more, and sell more. 

The playoffs expanded in 1969 to a four-team playoff, allowing two division winners per league to duke it out in a semifinal. Those first League Championship Series were best-of-five. In 1985, we got up to a seven-game LCS. 

1981’s strike-shortened season notwithstanding, the first-ever Division Series was played in 1995. Those remain best-of-five, as they always have been. But, as history has shown us before, growing this playoff round to seven games is not far-fetched. There is nothing more inevitable than change. It took 16 seasons for the LCS to expand. This year marks the 20th annual NLDS and ALDS, so we shall wait and see. 

Last season, we were introduced to an “exciting new round of playoff baseball.” The Wild Card would expand to include one more team. Okay, right there I was on-board; Selig had me at “hello.” 

It keeps more teams alive, for longer. It adds drama to already-exciting September baseball. It prevents wholesale roster dumps at the Trade Deadline. On-and-on I went, thinking this is a fantastic move. 

But then it hit me. The league was trying to cut the odds of Wild Cards winning it all to 0%. That is what has me upset this morning, and not just because it is my beloved Cleveland Indians who were affected. Major League Baseball is retracting its postseason offerings for the first time since 1922, but in a psychological way. It is like adding a plus/minus system right in the middle of a student’s academic career. The best second-place team in any division is now guaranteed one game… one game. For 18 years straight, the team that met this identical qualification was promised three.

That is the injustice; on par with Cam Newton taking a $56 million pay cut to that of Sam Bradford, just because of a rule change from the year prior. It gets ugly when you give athletes an "in" and it snowballs to a place you never wanted it to go. Selig is conceding that he gave past Wild Cards (especially the five World Champions) too much leverage. It was not where he wanted this to go. But people get accustomed to the scenarios those who came before were afforded. It is human nature to want the same deal as the guy ahead of you in line. Putting that lid back on Pandora's Box gets messy. 

Prior to 1919, the World Series was a best-of-seven match-up. Thus, the only time baseball ever rescinded the volume of potential playoff games, it was simply reverting back to the old way. Now the whole system has lost its historical context. 

Forget the fact that, if Cleveland won last night, they would get their chance at a guaranteed three games. This is not about what a team could do with their playoff opportunities, it is about the bare minimum that Major League Baseball provides. Currently configured, that safety net surrounding one bad game is non-existent. That is where I cry foul. 

This season was the first time the Cleveland Indians ever won a Wild Card spot  and it was the “true” Wild Card; the best second-place team in any division. All that and they do not get to play under the same format as if they were the Wild Card in 1994 or 2000? The Tampa Bay Rays had all season to prove they were better and they did not do enough. Period. But, there they go to continue the postseason ride that should belong to Cleveland.  

How many of the five World Champion Wild Cards would have lost in a similar fashion  before the Division Series in the contemporary bracket? With the volatility of only one game to decide it, you cannot say with certainty. Likely one or two would have tripped up, ending the ride before it ever began. They would be left wondering what might have been, just as Cleveland is today. That is what hurts; you want what they had, what it used to be. It is not playoff expansion at all.  

There is something so karmic and reciprocal about baseball. It is the reason statistic nerds like me love the game. We speak of “baseball gods” and laws of averages that regress players to the mean over time. We spend all season trending data, but never dwelling on the anomalies of just one game. Then suddenly, that one game means everything. The umpiring alone has proven far too suspect to leave it up to one game. You get a perfect storm of wrong plate ump for the wrong pitcher, and your team could be grabbing the fishing gear three days after throwing champagne around in the clubhouse. There is no do-over; no chance for the baseball gods to right a wrong. 

Every level of baseball, from Little League to college, has a double-elimination structure. Where does Major League Baseball, the crème de la crème, get off booting someone after one poor performance? After 162 games, a scenario of being one-and-out is reserved for tiebreakers, not playoff contenders. There have now been ten such single-elimination (non-Wild Card) games. They have given us iconic images: Matt Holliday sliding headfirst into home in the 13th inning to send the Rockies to the NLDS, or Bucky Dent's improbable home run over the rival Red Sox in 1978. 

But these contests were required to separate two teams that were deadlocked; a coin-flip difference, tied in the standings of the same division. That is what made the concentrated intensity of a one-game playoff so much fun. The same does not work for Wild Cards with different records. It makes the regular season meaningless if the resumes get Etch-a-Sketched clean when the games matter the most. 

One or two games difference in the standings? Oh well, they're both the same... Wild Cards. The better one will get home-field advantage.

Gee thanks. Including the four Wild Card Games in MLB history, only six of the fourteen home teams have ever won a one-game playoff. We should take a page from yesteryear. When teams tied atop the standings in the '50s and '60s, a three-game series was implemented. This gave us moments like Bobby Thompson's famous "Shot Heard 'Round the World". His Giants needed the decisive third game, at home, to settle the tie with Brooklyn. 

This new format becomes a tough sell to fan bases when the Indians are better than the Texas Rangers, but exit in a similar fashion. There is no justification for a tiebreaker and Wild Card game being the same number of games. We earned the right to prove ourselves over a course of, at minimum, two games. Turning into soccer and using a two-match aggregate score makes more sense than this.    

An irritating sidebar to this is the merchandise. The new game looks bad, like a typical MLB cash grab, when New Era and Majestic litter the players with “POSTSEASON” patches on everything under the sun. It invites fans to spend hard-earned money on celebratory gear, only to kick one team to the curb after nine innings of said "POSTSEASON" play. I want all sales of such merchandise to be refunded to any Cleveland fan.  

And they spun all of this “second Wild Card excitement” in a way to make all of us fans feel better. I do not feel better; I feel robbed or cheated. I feel like baseball is apples all year long, and when the moments of October importance come around, baseball becomes oranges. What team is built for such a switch in tactics? Why carry a full roster into this silly one-game playoff? Ultimately, a total of fifteen guys decided the entire fate of both team's long season. They say experience is key to log for a future run in the playoffs. Can the Indians even count that? Some postseason experience for those starting pitchers that never even got to throw.  

If I am Tampa Bay, I have to feel like I stole something. Two years ago, they would be on a golf course with the record they posted. Even if the Indians and Rays finished with reverse records, and the Wild Card Game was in Tropicana Field last night, I would feel like Cleveland should have to “prove it”  a la the final shot in a game of “H-O-R-S-E.” You cannot walk into somebody’s house, challenge a superior opponent, win once, and claim total victory. Where is the rebuttal? In a sport predicated on coming back the very next day to enact revenge (sometimes hours after a gut-wrenching loss), where is this opportunity when the games matter the most?

How do we fix this? My sources tell me that it could theoretically be done for 2015, without creating too many waves. Logistically speaking, however, there are some undeniable preventative obstacles. Namely, travel distances and that pesky other Division Series that is forced to idly sit, without any chips in the Wild Card Game. The Oakland A’s and Detroit Tigers earned their rest, but awaiting the outcome of a Wild Card five-game series, and then an ALDS five-game series, would be too much.    

So why not take a page from the regular-season itself? Throw Tampa Bay and Cleveland into the gauntlet in the same way they would meet in mid-May: a three-game series.  

Owners need to take a small hit to their bottom line, in order to get the integrity of postseason baseball back in balance. Take a “loss” at the turnstiles on holidays, and return baseball back to its glory days of Memorial Day, Fourth of July, and Labor Day double-headers. It is relatively easy to condense the 2015 schedule enough to squeeze in a Wild Card best-of-three series. 

End the season on a Wednesday, instead of a Sunday. Leave Thursday open for a tiebreaker (in this case, Tampa Bay vs. Texas) and start the Wild Card Series on Friday afternoon. Put the start time at 4:00 p.m. local time, and allow the lesser Wild Card (i.e. Tampa Bay) to host game one. Charter a flight to Cleveland after the game, where game two and — if necessary  game three will be played. Saturday is a night game, with a chance for a sweep in primetime. Sunday moves to a day game, which is typical. The whole model better emulates the natural ebb and flow of the MLB schedule. The early start time on Sunday also buffers in travel time that night for the winning team in the decisive third game. The ALDS could then begin on Monday (for Oakland and Detroit) and Tuesday (for Boston vs. Wild Card Winner). 

Major League Baseball would get exactly what it had this year: playoff baseball every single day, from the last day of the season to the start of the Division Series. The only difference with my proposal is Boston receives one extra day of rest.  If that is the trade-off to ensure better playoff integrity, I feel it is a no-brainer for the competitive committee to adopt. 

2013 Wild Card Redux, Rays 2-1 series winners. Major League Baseball is happy; they get more postseason cash, from two different cities hosting games. They get more opportunities to sell all this garb that they branded with “POSTSEASON” logos. The Tampa Bay Rays (winners of this hypothetical scenario) are happy; even though they spent some bullets, they get to advance. What more could any team ask for? Even the Cleveland Indians are happy (or at least I sleep better); they now understand that winning the division is extra important in this new playoff system. But at least they had a shot as a Wild Card, not a coin-flip outcome. The Boston Red Sox (in this contemporary example) are happy; they get to face a team that uses up more than just Alex Cobb. 

The last piece of that equation was the real reason for the second Wild Card to begin with. If a casino dealer has to burn a card, the Wild Card has to burn an ace. Using up only Danny Salazar would have done nothing to hinder the Tribe’s chances if they advanced last night. You need at least a two-game sweep to effectively put the Wild Card at a pitching match-up disadvantage.   

So, as I embark to Busch Stadium this afternoon, to watch the Cardinals battle the Pirates, I sheepishly grin. Must be nice for Pittsburgh, the “true” NL Wild Card. They get to settle in, reshuffle the deck, and prep for a best-of-five series against a division winner. I want Major League Baseball to explain to me, and all of Cleveland, why they get to do that and the Indians do not. The body of work was ultimately the same in their respective leagues. Should MLB get back to me, their answer better be something more calculated than “they [the Pirates] showed up to play on their Wild Card night.”  

This is not Any Given Sunday. This is not the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship. Requiring one baseball team to put the hopes and dreams of their entire city on the table, all-in, is asinine. It is as foreign to the nature of the regular season as an NFL coach, from a cold-weather town, gearing up to play in the league’s freshly-minted “Super Bowl Series”  a best-of-three championship played indoors in New Orleans.

When did sports leagues stop caring about how you got to the playoffs? Should those last games of the season not be the pinnacle test at whether the regular-season results were a fluke? In the contemporary sports landscape, with its gimmicky postseasons, it feels like we throw our title fights to chance. 

And Pirates fans, of which I have many friends that are diehard variety, you should be just as agitated as I am about this topic. Your first taste of the postseason since 1992 and Bud Selig wants to put it all on one game. A game you did win, but a little too risky to have your decades of despair to hinge upon. After the season you had, the last thing you needed was another test. A multiple-game series should be granted to all those who achieve such seasons.   

Ultimately, I am just sad. I did not want to switch to woefully optimistic 2014 mode for at least another two weeks. But time will pass, and I will look fondly on this exciting year for Cleveland baseball. I will, without a doubt, look back on the season series with my detested Tigers, wishing we could flip the script just once. Doing so would put us in Oakland. Ugh. 

Living in St. Louis now, I "had to" listen to each game instead of watching. Now, I prefer it. It really made me fall in love with the team all over again. Tom Hamilton is, bar none, the best in the business. I wanted too hard for them to be the team of destiny; play the Cards, so I could see an Indians World Series Game. Perhaps I wanted it too much. 

Call this online venting sour grapes; pass judgment that I am just bitter because they lost. I do not care. Take away from this article whatever you would like. I will never stop caring about this team, nor this game, as the passion I write with challenges both to be better in the future. 90+ wins immediately after a season of 90+ losses; I like where Terry Francona and Chris Antonetti have this thing going. In a perfect world, Major League Baseball listens to such proposals as mine. In a real world, I hope this is some other fan’s problem to deal with next year.   

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Mental Approach to Baseball: Limit WALKS + ERRORS to 5 or Fewer

W. Ross Clites
Your City Sports-Cleveland

Saint Louis, MISSOURI--This article is my contribution to a youth baseball education series for the St. Louis Gamers Elite Travel Program. The topic was "The Game Within the Game," speaking towards attainable victories for players to make their goals. 

One of the biggest misnomers I see in baseball today is the thinking that walks and errors are these counterproductive anomalies that occur independently. From the department of “everything in moderation” comes the adage that a walk can be a successful tool for a pitcher. Lead-off doubles happen. Sometimes you have a base free and a guy in that other dugout circled as “the one who we cannot allow to beat us.” There is such a thing as the intentional base on balls for a reason. But what we must first grasp is why we have a cap on walks, as a goal for our program, and how pitching around a hitter is the exception, with pitching to contact being the overriding rule.

Generally speaking, a pitcher chalks up walks as what he can control, but the errors are the onus of others around him. This is the fundamental thinking that needs to change. Treating teammates as scapegoats is never the way to effectively (or maturely) pitch. The criticism that Johnny’s miscue forced you to unnecessarily stay on the mound to record a “fourth out” is not always fair. That is to say, the criticism is a two-way street, so tread with caution. Should the circumstances be applicable, Little Johnny has every right to quip back, “If one out of every 20 pitches was actually put in play, I wouldn’t be asleep over here at third.” Never assign blame as a pitcher. It is cowardly to treat umpires and your own players like they are sabotaging your efforts.

As a player, after an error, I would always wonder what I could have done differently to give my defense a better chance to make the play. Let’s investigate some numbers to see if anything a pitcher does can keep the error totals in check.       

As players in our program reach the next level, they need to understand that A) walks and errors are two inevitabilities of baseball. Mistakes on the micro scale are what make the sport unique, so there is no need for any player to beat themselves up over either. And B) the two types of gaffes are tied together in a way that pitchers can dictate. At the very least, a pitcher can put his defenders (himself being on e of them) in the best position to succeed by throwing strikes. Activating the defense draws their full attention to the plate with every pitch; it has fielders eager to receive their next chance, and has players more mentally prepared for where the play will take place before the various scenarios even arise. 

Pitchers need to assume a larger accountability in how a low strike percentage affects others around them. Errors occur due to a lack of concentration and/or an elevated stress level of the situation. Sometimes the moment can become “too big” for the player to handle. Doubt creeps in, the mind becomes reactive with where to go with the ball—instead of proactive—and mistakes happen. These moments commonly occur when runners are on base, when the defense has not been tested yet. Infielders typically want a low-pressure ground ball in the early innings to get into the flow of the game. Not too many players want their first chance of the game to come with runners on first and second via back-to-back walks. Ballplayers require the sound of bat hitting a ball—even if the play is to another teammate—in order to almost relearn the established pace of the game. Without that subtle noise to cue the timing, pressure builds. Missteps are more prevalent when an untested fielder has scoring implications riding on his first assist, or put-out, of the game. 

The wordage makes errors feel so insurmountable or detrimental. It has its own spot on the scoreboard and it carries this ominous name that basically says Fielder A “messed up.” It is all an unnecessary stress that coaches need to overcome. Baseball players would play looser without that “E” column. Even as a former pitcher, I feel it is hypocritical to not tally walks and wild pitches in the same vein. Why do the fielders have to visually live with their mistakes, for all the people in the stands to see?  Perhaps this is because we do not think of walks as comparable to errors in their disastrous repercussions. That is a mindset that needs to change in order to win more games.

There are many other botched plays in the game of baseball that are “errors” but do not go down as an error. You hear coaches say, “That error in the ninth cost us,” all while that day’s pitching staff racked up seven walks. Walks and errors need to meet in the middle on their negative connotations. We must learn to downplay the fielding errors as not as traumatic as they seem, as they come flashing across the scoreboard in lights. Simultaneously, walks need to be talked more about. They need to be elevated to the status of half an error (at least). The two work with extreme correlation in how to lose a game. This is why we tally walks and errors together, and set a target of five or less.

If a pitcher can learn to live with the shot to the ego that is having the crack of the bat heard often, they will find that a higher Opponent’s Batting Average is just a mere negative statistical side effect for a bigger equation at play: higher strike percentage = fewer walks = fewer errors = more wins. Noisy outs are still outs, and the game is a race to 27 (or 21 for seven innings). They all count the same. A ten-pitch strikeout is a double-edged sword; it can be just what the other team wanted. They saw all of your pitches (likely twice) and ate into your pitch-count. As Crash Davis [Kevin Costner] says in Bull Durham, “strikeouts are boring, besides that, they’re fascist.” I will take a three-pitch groundout every time.

For Major League Baseball precedence on this topic, I like to use the 2004 and 2005 seasons by former Cy Young winner, Brandon Webb. He was a tremendously successful sinkerball pitcher, but a person with flawed mechanical issues that pointlessly cut his career short (a topic for another day). In 2004, before really reaching the peak of his career, Webb walked 119 batters. This was one of the highest walk totals for a single-season by a picture in the modern era—third most this century.  So what did this astonishingly high number of walks translate to, in terms of end-of-season statistics? Webb posted a 3.59 (NL Average that year: 4.31), a 1.51 WHIP (not terrible), and 7.1 strikeouts per nine innings (a solid SO/9). For all intensive purposes, Webb had an above-average season. But he finished with a record of 7-16. Say what you want about a pitcher’s win/loss record, but I think it still has merit. And in this case, it was telling of what 119 walks—and 11 HBPs—do to your team’s chances of winning baseball games.

The proof is in what happened that 2005 season for Brandon Webb. He put up an almost identical 3.54 ERA and 6.8 SO/9, but cut his walk total down from 119 to 59, his HBPs from 11 to 2. A sixty walk disparity in back-to-back seasons by the same pitcher is unheard of. So what changed? His personal winning percentage saw an 11-win swing: 14-12 record. His WHIP dropped to 1.26 and his Opponent’s Batting Average fell from .353 to .311—despite giving up 35 more hits (an average of one more per start). This is what young pitchers need to understand. Webb gave up more hits in 2005 than in 2004, but hitters’ success rate dropped. Live around the strike zone and, yes, batters will hit you more. But remember that at-bats are isolated, individual battles; the bigger picture victory is having the collective group in the opposition’s dugout reach base less. If given the choice between surrendering one more hit per game or handing out one more walk per game, the statistics reflect base runners on via a free pass score more often.

Pitching to contact will result in more hits, but it also engages the defense to play better around you. The 2005 Arizona Diamondbacks committed 14 fewer errors behind Webb than they did in 2004, even though he pitched 21 more innings. Sure, there were personnel and managerial changes in between these seasons—both of which are proven to change win percentage and clubhouse morale, but that is not the whole story. A new set of coaches and a new set of defenders are not going to entirely account for a 14 error decrease behind one pitcher. Brandon Webb activated his defense by throwing more strikes. His strikes were put into play at a higher rate and his defense felt a part of the game at all times. They executed their throws and catches with better frequency and the result was more individual and team wins. It is a pretty simple concept.

I treated my time on the mound with a mentality that a team arrives at the ballpark with a finite number of hits, like bullets left in the chamber. I usually set this number around nine or ten. The rare 15+ hit games do occur, but as a pitcher, I knew I would not be around long enough to give up all of them. From there, I simply did the math—noticing that it is heavily skewed in the pitcher’s favor. For a nine-inning, non-rain-shortened game, even the winning team records 24 outs. So you know that in the ebb and flow of the game, ten hits might be scattered intermittently with 24 outs. If the starter goes seven innings, he still will record 11 more outs than he mentally prepares to give up hits. Those are odds I would take every time. Each at-bat was a statistically-favorable opportunity to convert it into an out. I felt it was a victory for me if one of those hits was a two-out single, with a weak groundout or fly out to follow. It was one of their bullets now “wasted,” as it did not lead to the start of a rally.

This is the trouble with walks. If you add a base on balls to this two-out scenario, suddenly guys are in scoring position and the other team used up only one out of their complement of bullets. You gift-wrapped the other team a precarious situation for yourself. You are now an extra base hit away from giving up two runs. It really makes you want to have a do-over with the previous hitter; go back, throw him strikes, and take your chances.
In my head, I thought with confidence about how hard it is for offensive players to even record a two-hit day. If a player just “got his lone hit out of the way,” I felt free and clear. Sure, that guy could have come back in his next at-bat and hit a double off the wall. It was false bravado and irrational logic, but it gave me assurance to pitch in a way that was hit-oriented and not nibbling on the corners. 

I am not a believer that a person can be “too much in the strike zone.” Even the most accurate pitchers miss the zone with enough regularity to keep a hitter honest. A guy who gives up four consecutive doubles probably needs to exit the game, but not because he was throwing too many strikes. On that day, for whatever reason, his stuff was more like batting practice to the other team. That happens. Asking him to throw more balls would not solve anything. In fact, it would add fuel to the fire; as a few extra base runners (via walks) would have been aboard for those gap shots.

I never fully understood how a pitcher feels pressure to throw strikes in certain situations, most commonly seen in a bases-loaded jam. The “pressure” should be a consistent gradient throughout the game, since the importance of strike-throwing is no different from the first batter to a bases-loaded scenario to the last out. The magnitude of the moment can change, but base runners and cheering fans should not be altering the pitcher’s primary objective. Consistently throw strikes at every point during the game and that anxiety will be on the hitter to execute, and not you.

Another common phrase is that a pitcher is “effectively wild.” While I think it has some merit, we need to understand it has limitations on it being a good thing. “Effectively wild” pitchers love to give up hits to the nine-hitter. Hits recorded by the other team’s bottom of the lineup typically occur when a pitcher is consistently missing the strike zone to those in front of them. When you fall into an erratic pattern, everyone in the stands knows that a four-seam fastball is the “get right” pitch; the one thing you can throw to find your arm slot and get back into the groove of throwing strikes. This allows for a batter, that you would ordinarily overpower, to hone in on that one fastball down the middle that he knows you must throw. Stay in the strike zone all game and this situation never happens. 

Pitchers do control their walk rates, but their hit rates reside largely outside their control and are prone to fluctuations and luck. A pitcher might as well pitch to contact and allow the Law of Averages to take it from there. Meaning, if a great hitter gets himself out 7 out of 10 tries, you should probably oblige him that opportunity.

Swings get lazier when there is not a sense of a rally brewing. You would be surprised at the frequency outs are handed to the pitcher in two-out scenarios without a man in scoring position. The sports psychology behind this thinking is fascinating. Research shows that the average player has very pessimistic thinking with bases empty and two outs: so much good would have to happen, while all the opposition has to do is get one out. The “fear” of building a big inning, only to have it squashed by one poor at-bat has players (not necessarily the hitter at the plate, but those around him) pack it in mentally. Players and coaches get lulled into this feeling of “save the middle of the order for next inning when we have no outs.”

When the lead-off hitter gets on first base (whether it's a walk, a single, catcher's interference, or a dropped third strike) he is about 40% likely to score a run in that inning (as opposed to 27% and 13% with 1 and 2 outs, respectively. Generally speaking, it takes three singles in an inning to score just one run. That is asking the offense to have a .500 batting average in one frame. That is a tall order for a team to link together hits like that, and the mathematics of baseball bear that out. If there is a walk or an error sandwiched between any of those singles, then suddenly the run total starts to balloon. This is why the phrase "walks kill" exists. Walks fuel rallies and move guys into scoring position without offense effort exerted. They cause pitchers to work from the stretch, which is a trouble spot for most starters. A base runner of any variety disrupts the rhythm of the windup and typically sees a slight dip in velocity and deception. Subsequently, Opponent's Batting Averages rise as hitting becomes contagious. Lead-off walks immediately put the pitcher in this defensive mode. It typically takes 3 outs before the pitcher can return to the comfort of their windup. The other alternative is clearing the bases via extra base hits, and that is never a welcome way. Back-to-back walks can take a harmless ground ball through the right side of the infield and turn it into a 2-RBI single. 

I have personally seen teams commit four errors and win the game. On the other side of the coin, Jim Maloney famously threw a 10-inning no-hitter in 1965, but walked 10 batters and hit another. Weird things happen in the game of baseball, so there is no hard-and-fast rule all the time. But trying to limit defensive walks and errors to a combined total of five or fewer has a proven, near-.900 win percentage. It is a solid number to use as a jumping off point. Target five or less and the wins should correlate this game within the game.