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 done with Turner Field after 2016. So wait... the Braves are going to demolish a stadium in decent shape? And the Tampa Bay Rays are still looking for a new stadium deal? We should really get these two organizations together before the Braves go all Miley Cyrus on their adolescent home. But how? Could you ship pieces of Turner Field down to Florida? Hmm, if only there was a precedent for moving MLB franchises to new cities.

Okay, I am done being facetious (for now). 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, 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. 

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!"

Even as an architect, 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. 

But the more I read, the more I understood the deeper grievances of the Braves. Clearly, something is going wrong 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 Cleveland. 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. 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, while the breathtaking fields and unforgettable ballpark 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 said, "never buy a woman shoes... and 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 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.  

What about Turner Field handcuffed the Braves so badly?

In 1996, the world was caught up in the pageantry of the Atlanta-hosted XXVI (and Centennial) Olympiad. When the Games left town, 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. Renovating it for baseball, after its three-week Olympic use, seemed like a lofty campaign promise; included in Atlanta's proposal only to impress the IOC's selection committee. 

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. But the retrofitting of Turner Field looked like someone called Atlanta on its promise. 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. I want my guys to be tweeting the outcome of an intrasquad scrimmage, patiently waiting other teams’ grueling postseason stress. The new Wild Card scenario serves the top seed a sleep-deprived, jet-lagged ball club, down one starting pitcher. In theory, this all works fine.

I was surrounded by Cardinals fans, watching Game 5 of the 2011 NLDS; seeing first-hand what an ace, in a short series, can do. Having Chris Carpenter throw twice, against the Phillies, indirectly won the Cardinals that 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 unhindered 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, there were only two playoffs teams, period. These teams would annually meet in the World Series, without Wild Cards or Division winners or anything. The path to the postseason certainly has added more lanes, right or wrong. After one 4-0 loss to Tampa Bay, I am simply questioning why Cleveland's lane was forced to exit. 

The “modern” construct, the format that I grew up with, would have benefited Cleveland emphatically. The Indians, winners of the one-and-only Wild Card, would be gearing up for a best-of-five series with Boston. I could not wait for the 24-hour sports media machine to construct bulletin board material, trying to play up the psychological battle of a fired coach coming back for revenge.

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 a system I would have trumpeted as “brilliant” should 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 that went one-and-done. I denounced the nature of the one-game playoff, despite its unpopularity among all my Cardinals friends/coworkers who profited from it. My stance is the same as it was; it just happens to have a victim with some greater emotional connection. 

I will start with a little story. In 2005, my alma mater — the 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 with the system with which we started. Instead, a 90% in year two of similar courses would earn us 3.66 GPA points and an A- grade.

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

If you would like to award another team a spot in the playoffs, I am for it, but it should not come at the expense of another 
 having to prove their inclusion as they never had to before.

This is the basis for my argument. That Major League Baseball, in creating a second Wild Card, has decided that it is okay for the best second-place team in each league to not be included in the Division Series  something it has consistently offered for nearly two decades. If you cut through the clever labels and catchy names, Commissioner Bud Selig is simplistically taking the 90% A effort of the past and branding it an A-. Then, he goes on to say “only teams with a solid A are allowed 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 actually subtracting by addition. 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 much bigger way. In fact, 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 doing so with precedent.  

With this Wild Card Game, Selig is attempting to put the lid back on Pandora's Box. He is conceding that he gave past Wild Cards (especially the five World Champions) too much equal footing. But now the whole system has lost its historical context. 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. 

Forget the fact that, if Cleveland won last night, they would get their chance at a guaranteed three. 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 take umbrage. 

Their first time ever winning the Wild Card  the “true” Wild Card, the best second-place team in any division  and they do not get to play under the same format as all the others that came before; a system that has produced five World Champions. How many of them would have lost a one-game playoff to an inferior second Wild Card? With only one game to decide it, you cannot say with certainty. 

After 162 games, a scenario of being one-and-out is reserved for tiebreakers, not playoff contenders. It is a tough sell to a fan base that we were better than the Texas Rangers this year, but we exit in a similar fashion. We earned the right to prove ourselves over a course of, at minimum, two games. 

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 up for the wrong pitcher, and your team could be wearing a hole in the couch for the rest of October. 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? It becomes extra hypocritical when we load clubhouses with champagne after the longest season in any professional sport in the world. 

An irritating sidebar to this is the merchandise. It just looks bad, like a typical MLB cash grab, for New Era and Majestic to litter our players up 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 before the party even truly starts. I want all sales of such merchandise to be refunded to any Cleveland fan. Funny, our champagne-drenched caps say we made the postseason, but it sure never felt that way. 

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, fifteen guys decided the entire fate of a long season last night. 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 fishing 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 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. 

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Just Win (and Have Your Team Lose), Baby!

W. Ross Clites
Your City Sports-Cleveland

Saint Louis, MISSOURI--At the end of the day, the biggest push back I received from my "Mike Trout for MVP" campaign centered on the indisputable fact that Miguel Cabrera led his team to the World Series and Trout did not even make the playoffs. While I will not dwell on this debate, nor carry it over to this article, it is the fundamental basis of this piece. 

Playoff appearances are so vital to that award and yet so trivial to others, primarily the Cy Young Award. I want to investigate why that is and if it needs to change.

Recent history has shown that pitching for a successful team is not a prerequisite for postseason awards. Since 1995--when making the playoffs got "easier"--actually doing so seemingly became antiquated. Ironically, you are now better served to miss the current expanded playoffs in order to be labeled the game's best pitcher. Is this a coincidence? Have we unknowingly created a new stat: the conditional win, which overemphasizes (and rewards) individual wins on a garbage team?

David Price of the Tampa Bay Rays and R.A. Dickey of the New York Mets were just named the 2012 winners of their respective league's Cy Young Awards. This mirrors what I projected using Pitcher Rating, meaning both are also taking home the (still fictitious) Walter "Big Train" Johnson Award. The latter award is strictly objective; the result of a complicated formula that does not take team record into effect whatsoever. The pitchers involved have a full season to put in the work. Come October 4, 2012, the numbers are what the numbers are. I take the pitcher in each league with the highest value... end of story.

Meanwhile in crazy land, the Cy Young is still voted on by the Baseball Writers' Association of America (BBWAA). This annual process had me assuming Justin Verlander of the Detroit Tigers would capture the AL award. Human instinct remembers the most recent performance and values the eye test. The show that Verlander put on in the 2012 postseason was unworldly. He was everything an ace should be, and looked the part of the game's best pitcher.

But the playoffs always have been, and always should be, discounted from the Cy Young equation. Easier said than done. Unless a writer's ballot was cast before Game 1 of the Division Series, the greatness of Verlander had to be fresher in the mind.

My assumptions were surprisingly wrong. The BBWAA got it "right." In the tightest vote since 1969, by a margin of only 4 points (or the repositioning of a single first-place vote), Price won the award. Whereas I should be happy, I am actually the complete opposite. This is because I am a contemporary BBWAA contrarian. Writers are making it harder to oppose what they stand for--and vote for--when their credentials are a roaming target. 

Just when I thought I had the BBWAA figured out, I am now left wondering--along with all Detroit fans, and most educated baseball fans--why it wasn't Verlander. In an even two-man race, he had the upper hand in WHIP, strikeouts, innings pitched, complete games. You know, everything recent votes have shown the writers value. It should have been (and thus should not have been) Justin Verlander with the Cy Young. How can I argue against it when they pull a statistical 180? They are "getting it wrong" all wrong.

Is this not the same BBWAA that voted for Felix Hernandez and his 13 wins two seasons ago? They are the reason I set out to make an objective, statistically-based postseason award in the first place. It seems that each year what Cy Young voters value changes. Notify the press, wins are back in vogue in 2012. 

Perhaps the writers understood how hypocritical it would be to award Miguel Cabrera the MVP and Justin Verlander the Cy Young. You cannot have the offensive Triple Crown stats carry an MVP candidacy, while the pitching equivalent is overlooked. A voter that says WAR and Runs Saved are not applicable in postseason awards cannot come back at me with WHIP or Run Support. Plus, wins and RBIs are equally dependent on extrinsic factors, mainly the quality of the team around the player. So, I see a situation where votes were backed into a corner. If they wanted Cabrera's RBI supremacy to have merit, they begrudgingly had to give Price's 20 wins their due.
Forget Obama/Biden vs. Romeny/Ryan, 2012 was a baseball fan's ultimate showdown. The American League Cy Young and MVP votes were a statistical crossroads. The Cabrera/Price ticket spoke to the old guard, where batting average and wins both maintain meaning. The Trout/Verlander camp was a sleek machine of sabermetrics, where hitting .400 means a player had an atrocious season (using OPS standards) and a pitcher's win-loss record has been eliminated from the baseball vocabulary.

I, for one, will admit I have been talking out of both sides of my mouth--pulling for Price and Trout. I admit it because I see the day when the Jumbrotron at a Major League stadium displays the lineup of a team with Player Name, Number, Position, and OPS (not batting average). But I cannot allow myself to envision a future where pitchers--warming up in the bullpen--do not have their win-loss record displayed. 

It would be nice if the BBWAA followed suit and admitted double-dealing. All we ask is that they share their vision of the future of the sport they care so much about. Pull back the curtain and let the fans see what the rules of the game are. It sure feels like writers wanted Cabrera and Verlander, but could not pull the trigger. If that is true, say so. Help us better understand the process, instead of releasing the voting results (in a zero explanation, take-it-or-leave-it fashion) and disappearing until the Winter Meetings. 

Like Congress, baseball fans must work across the ropes, figure out what standards they want, and demand it of the writers. Taking the guess work out of the vote begins with a simple survey. What consensus statistics do we value the most? The BBWAA will never come out and tell the general public what things they look for, so we either need to lead them to water or change the entire secret-vote process. 

To show you how far we are divided on these issues, I brought in the opinion of a friend--currently working for the St. Louis Cardinals. He recently wrote to me "if we didn't have the wins stat now, and somebody proposed it as a new idea, most people would think it was useless." The unfortunate thing is I agree with his assessment. I do not agree with the stat's fall from grace, but I certainly cannot argue the statement's validity.

I want to use wins, both by a pitcher and their respective team, to dive deeper into the comparison of Cy Young past vs. Cy Young present. After all, we have to see how we got here before we can plan a course of where to go. Let's start by looking at the team these players pitch for.  

Why team wins mean nothing to modern pitching awards:

Fitting, that in a year when more teams than ever make it to the playoffs, two pitchers from middle-of-the-division teams took home the top pitching prize. As time has passed, the bond between playoff appearances and being named the league's best pitcher has become a coin-flip afterthought.

Of the last five seasons of Cy Young winners, only Roy Halladay (2010) and Justin Verlander (2011) pitched their way to the postseason. That means a mere two out of the last ten recipients (20%).  

Take it back farther--to when the playoffs expanded to eight teams--and the numbers barely change. In these 18 years, now counting Price and Dickey, both leagues are dead even with nine playoff-bound Cy Young winners and nine October fishermen. This 50/50 split shows the playoffs are not on the mind's of contemporary voters as much as previously thought.

In that same span, from 1995-2012, the MVP came from a playoff team 81% of the time. This should not be news to anyone, as it was the thrust of most people's Cabrera counter-argument to my Trout campaign.

This is not how it used to be. The first eight American League Cy Young Award winners played on a playoff team, including 1967 and 1968 where there was still only one AL "playoff" team.

In the first 19 years of the Cy Young's existence the recipient(s) came from a postseason contender 21 out of 27 instances--a 78% correlation. The Cy Young was like the MVP voting of present day; you better have some kind of season to win it on a non-playoff team.   

This is why I contest Nolan Ryan was snubbed out of the Cy Young for his career. The precedent had not been set. In 1973 and 1974, Ryan had the best pitching seasons, hands down. But his California Angels were not in the World Series and, at the time, the two were synonymous. It took voters one more year, 1975, to award a pitcher who did not appear in the postseason (Jim Palmer).

So what has changed? How have qualified candidates, ordinarily buried in the standings, risen to elite status? Exposure has sure evolved; our 24/7 sports networks and ability to watch every team coast-to-coast on the internet. But the math is actually simpler than that. Voters finally understand how little responsibility a starting pitcher should bear in a team's 162-game record. In the era of thirty teams (or more) per professional sport, Major League Baseball is not the NBA or NHL in its postseason representation.  

If you exclusively awarded pitchers from playoff teams, selecting the Cy Young could only be drawn from 31% of the league's rosters. If the NHL chose the Vezina Trophy (best goaltender) off the same criteria, 53% of the starting goalies would be eligible. This is why hockey can get away with an unspoken "no-playoff, no award" policy; no matter how terrible the offense is, no one can be the best goalie if their team is in the bottom half of the league.

Baseball, not so much. There is a grey area of being above the midpoint of teams in the league and still not appearing in the playoffs. Being above .500 is not guaranteed a thing in MLB standings.   

There is also the issue of utilization. For the second straight season, the Major League lead in games started was only 34 games (21% of team's games played). Once again seeing similarities between hockey and baseball, this would be the equivalent to an NHL goalie making 25 starts in net. Essentially, this means a starting pitcher is like a back-up goalie; neither of whom should be held all that accountable for the team's end-of-year record.

Not his fault, but Justin Verlander was utilized less often than Jhonas Enroth (an athlete you have likely never heard of) was for the Buffalo Sabres in 2011. This is tongue-and-cheek and certainly not a comparison on their value/quality of play, but something to ponder. The point is, there are other players in the lineup every single day that shoulder the responsibility of team wins far more than pitchers. The past had it wrong; non-playoff pitchers are people too.   

Why individual wins are still meaningful to modern pitching awards:

I am all for the greatest pitchers coming from losing teams, as long as they win their games. The 2010 Felix Hernandez Cy Young, heralded as a victory for baseball nerds like me, was short-sided and frankly a travesty. Pitching in meaningless games is pitching in meaningless games; the difference is what you do in those games. Hernandez (2010) lost a majority of them, while Dickey (2012) won his fair share.  

These days, the modern Cy Young is evolving into something that resembles Andre Dawson's infamous NL MVP win in 1987. There seems to be a new focus on a single starting pitcher's percentage of total team wins. It is as if writers are saying "look at what this guy could do on an inept team, such that no one else on his team could do half as well." 

This is especially ironic when it comes out of the mouth of a sabermetrician who despises the pitching victory stat. They are all about rewarding a 20-game winner on a 60-win team, but hypocritically quick to discount 20 wins from a member of a division-winning team.

Run support is huge factor at play. Losing 1-0 is hard luck, while even the league's worst pitcher can pillage a 5-inning win for a team that puts up 8 runs. These are the extreme anomalies that everyone turns to, but they are also the reason averages exist. Take a look at the RS column in the Pitcher Rating table (below) and you will see that Verlander did more with less, but Price's Run Support Average was not that egregious. This was not a Tampa Bay juggernaut offense, constantly gifting Price 6-run leads. 

It is a given that a pitcher's win-loss record has evolved into something out of their own control. Complete games are on MLB's endangered species list. A starting pitcher can pitch brilliantly, leaving a game in-line for a win, and then helplessly watch from the dugout as the bullpen blows the save. 

But as the game gets more and more specialized, the expectation of perfection from the bullpen grows. For argument's sake, let's say a top-tier closing pitcher records a save nine out of ten tries--11 out of 30 full-time closers had a save percentage above 90% in 2012. Pair that with the fact that starters pitch every fifth day. It means that Price and Verlander (and every other team's ace, for that matter) had a one-in-five chance of running into their closer's one-in-ten bad days. It is negligible dumb luck. 

The modern game is also making the disparity in innings pitched between Price and Verlander a non-factor. Baseball has a mimimum criteria to qualify for a win. As long as Price consistently gets through the fifth inning, he should not be penalized for other player's who go deeper in the game. As a manager, a five-inning victory by my starter and an eight-inning victory by my starter are insignificantly alike. As long as the bullpen is not suffering fatigue from overuse, the innings are just descriptive words to the larger focus--the victory.  

More complete games and 27 1/3 more IPs does not prove to me that Verlander is a better pitcher. It is a sign of manager's assessment of who, at a specific situation in the game, gives the team the best chance to win.  

If nothing else, it leaves Price more susceptible to exiting with a lead and not getting the win. The fact that Price still got to 20 victories, despite this greater vulnerability, proves that Rays' manager Joe Maddon made the correct call more times than not. If Verlander pitched the 211 innings that Price did, he may have saved himself a hard-luck loss here or there, but his win total would not have increased. Verlander has very little excuse for not winning 20 games in a weaker division, with a playoff-bound team. 

The bullpen did not solely account for Verlander reaching only 17 wins and Price getting to 20. Verlander and Price had two of the best in the game (er... in the regular season at least). 

Fernando Rodney had a stellar season--eighth best Pitcher Rating in Major League Baseball--closing games for the Rays. He had only two blown saves in 50 chances. Yet, one of those two missteps cost David Price a win. Meanwhile in Detroit, Jose Valverde had a rockier year than his recent past would suggest and he blew five saves. But only once did a blown save come in a Verlander start (Opening Day). So you can add one victory to each Cy Young candidate's speculative win total and/or chalk it up as a wash.

Even if all of Valverde's blown saves cost Verlander directly--meaning a potential 22 wins--I still give the edge to Price. Postseason awards are not for extrapolation or speculation. It is like comparing pre-tax income and take-home-pay. It doesn't matter what you would have without deductions; it is about what you walk away with. Bullpens strip every pitcher of wins. Price dodged the minefield of a long season with the most to show for at the bottom line.

While win total seems to be the theme of the day, why are we not bringing up losses? It is not like Price went 20-10 on the season. His .800 individual winning percentage was far superior to Verlander's .680. Where was Verlander's powerful offense--led by the MVP--to spare him a loss here and there? 

The next argument I pose plays more to "the baseball gods" than it does hardline evidence. Baseball has natural ebb and flow; for every time that a starter helplessly watches a bullpen blow a win, there is a occasion of a late-game rally pulling a loss out of the fire. Or so it seems (I have no proof that it did, in fact, even out for both American League Cy Young finalists). Even if Price benefited from more "bail-out" no-decision games than Verlander, it was not enough to entirely account for a 12% edge in win percentage. 

And that is my thesis: pitchers makes their own breaks and their individual win percentage is the barometer. Most times the win-loss record gauges a player's success rate of wiggling off the hook. Price did what he needed to do, within the criteria necessary to rack up 20 wins.   

I do not care what external variables are involved; I want the pitcher that has the "it" factor to win a majority of his starts. Call it luck, call it a strong bullpen (one that guarantees a victory after 6 innings pitched), call it a potent offense that "wakes up" when a certain pitcher is on the mound. Call it beating up on weak-division teams and collecting "meaningless games" after being mathematically eliminated. Call it whatever you want. A win is a win is a win. Some pitchers know how to manage the game better than others. 

In a professional sports landscape, with super-economics at play, is it not the ultimate return on investment for a pitcher to win the games they start? Forget the ERA and the WHIP, the K/9 and the K/BB ratio. If you are paying a player five million dollars for 34 starts, winning 17 does not cut it. Simple as that.

Conversely, the pitcher can only blame himself for not executing. We live in a free agent world where aces have the right to shift divisions and chase a World Series championship. The circumstances surrounding him on the mound are all a direct result of the contract he signed.   

At the end of the day, the best pitcher in the game needs to have an intangible ability to win despite the worst of circumstances. Even if it is luck, Price put himself in better position to be lucky. Since joining the Rays, Tampa Bay has perennially over-achieved in the regular season (versus expectations and payroll figures), while the Tigers have under-performed (yes, they made it to the World Series, but their all-star roster suggested a 95-win, division-run-away team). 

The Rays have that something that can boost their ace to Cy Young winner. Put Verlander on the Rays and he would win 23 games a year. Their knack for dramatic walk-offs could at least prevent him for ever losing more than five games. In this, we have learned that a team's total wins is irrelevant to Cy Young voting, but found that it is still a team award. 

A fan of the Rays would never nit-pick how their ace won. Neither should the owner that pays him or the voters entrusted to reward his efforts. You pitch to win the game. Hello! 

Pitcher Rating Finale 2012