Sunday, March 17, 2013

From 347* to 68: Final

*I have been calling this "From 348 to 68" all week. I thought we were up to 348 D-I teams. My bad.

I've spent less time on sussing out the bubble and writing about the process than I have in decades. No one reason -- the World Baseball Classic and day-job deadlines have certainly been a factor -- but unquestionably part of the reason is the data set we're working with. I wouldn't call this the "worst bubble ever"; the pool of teams under consideration for the final at-large berths is stronger than it was a year ago. It is, perhaps, the least interesting bubble ever. There just aren't hooks to argue about, and there aren't that many teams who are going to fall on the other side of the line. I have felt all week like I have less to contribute to the general discussion that I have in most years.

Championship Week was unusually boring. Very few teams -- Mississippi, maybe Maryland, maybe Southern Mississippi -- changed their case in a substantial way. Many more teams fell aside meekly, which meant that teams in the clubhouse who we expected to see get passed didn't.

I don't think this year's bubble discussion speaks to any larger truths about the game of college basketball, at least not any more than other years do. There's still a massive gap in the middle of the sport, where teams in the #7 through #16 conferences have very little access to quality non-conference games, and no access to quality non-conference games at home. While I appreciate the economics involved, it leaves us with an almost football-like lack of data points to determine relative quality. There's simply no reasonable way to compare the work of Middle Tennessee State and Virginia, or LaSalle and Iowa State. They play virtually different sports. Until and unless the second and third quartile of NCAA basketball teams get more opportunities to play the first, we're going to be in this position every March, guessing whether 28-5 over here should mean more than 20-11 over there.

Here's my best guess for 2013. Through Saturday:

Automatic Bids (30): SUNY-Albany (America East), Florida-Gulf Coast (Atlantic Sun), Louisville (Big East), Montana (Big Sky), Liberty (Big South), Kansas (Big 12), Pacific (Big West), James Madison (Colonial), Memphis (Conference USA), Valparaiso  (Horizon), Harvard (Ivy), Iona (MAAC), Akron (Mid-American), North Carolina A&T (Mid-Eastern Athletic), Creighton (Missouri Valley), New Mexico (Mountain West), Long Island University-Brooklyn (Northeast), Belmont (Ohio Valley), Oregon (Pac-12), Bucknell (Patriot), Davidson (Southern), Stephen F. Austin Northwestern State (Southland), Southern (Southwestern Athletic), Western Kentucky (Sun Belt), South Dakota State (Summit), New Mexico State (Western Athletic), Gonzaga (West Coast).

In (7):
Miami (FL), North Carolina, Saint Louis, Virginia Commonwealth, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Florida.

Those teams will account for at least three and no more than four at-large bids.

On the Board (24): Wichita State, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Villanova, Marquette, Illinois, Michigan, Duke, Georgetown, Temple, Notre Dame, San Diego State, Arizona, Oklahoma State, Colorado State, Missouri, North Carolina State, Butler, Indiana, Michigan State, Kansas State, Nevada-Las Vegas, Syracuse, UCLA.

We started the week with 23 teams on the bubble. Baylor, Louisiana Tech and Iowa played themselves off the bubble the bad way. Illinois and Oregon played themselves off it the good way. (Oregon eventually won an automatic bid, but had become a lock before that.) Akron and Stephen F. Austin won their conference tournaments. (Edit: Northwestern State beat Stephen F. Austin in the final. Not sure why I forgot that, as I watched the game. SFA's profile takes too large a hit with the loss to remain under consideration for an at-large bid.--JSS) This morning, we have 16 teams for nine or ten spots, pending the SEC tournament final. Here they are in RPI order (source: CBS Sports):

Middle Tennessee State (29): Left for dead when they took a bad loss in the Sun Belt quarterfinals, MTSU may find the back door as the SEC collapsed and a number of other bubble teams failed to make a move. Comparable to some Utah State teams in the 2000s, the Blue Raiders dominated a mid-major league that didn't have a good year and that has become bottom heavy. Their best win is an increasingly valuable one over Mississippi -- barely a top-50 win as of today -- but it's also their only top-100 win. They have the low RPI on the board, but it wouldn't be historic for them to be left out. Their 1-3 mark against the top 100 damns the Sun Belt more than it does them. Their non-conference SOS of 6 is being heavily cited in their favor; as with Davidson a few years back, you have to win some of the good games you schedule, and they just didn't. Two road wins in the top 150.

Saint Mary's (30):
Living off their BracketBusters win at home over Creighton, their only win over a tournament-quality team. They beat Harvard a year after that would be very meaningful, and that win and one of their wins over Brigham Young were both extreme squeakers. The Gaels' 7-5 mark against the top 100 isn't all that bad, they were 9-2 on the road and the subjective arguments break their way -- they have a lot of talent and "look" like a tournament team, for whatever that may be worth.

Southern Mississippi (31):
On the margins, losing the conference championship game in double-overtime in a time slot where they were likely to have a lot of eyeballs on them might not have hurt them. They have two wins over teams in the field: Western Kentucky and Liberty. Their best win is at home over Denver. They were 3-7 against the RPI top 100.

These three teams are of a kind. I rate them St. Mary's, Middle Tennessee State, Southern Mississippi, and while I wouldn't go to war over that ranking, I'm good with it.

Minnesota (34): This is me being stubborn. 8-10 (or 8-11) in their conference, they have two decent wins in two months, both of which were squeakers, and they lost to Purdue, Nebraska and Illinois in their last three games -- and were a miserable 3-8 on the road, 5-10 R/N. With that said…5-8 against the top 50 and 11-9 against the top 100 are impossible to overlook. They're pretty much at the top of this list, and I'm about the only guy who hasn't officially put the Gophers in at this point. Could win two games, could lose by 35 Thursday at noon.

Colorado (38): The Pac-10 just isn't that good, substituting, as John Gasaway has noted, a different kind of mediocrity, a flatter one, for its more recent brand of one-bidness. So the pool of at-large teams looks a little better, but their qualifications are largely that they all beat up on each other, and they're five percent better than they were a year ago. Meh. Colorado's best road win is at a Dominic Artis-free Oregon, and they beat Baylor on a neutral court back when that almost meant something. 4-4 top 50, 9-9 top 100 get them in.

I'll come back to both those numbers a lot. "Did you beat tournament-quality teams?" and "Did you beat good teams?" are the coin of the realm. It's hopelessly biased towards teams in the big football leagues, but it's what we have.

Oklahoma (39): One win swings so many of these teams' chances. Take away Oklahoma's win over Kansas in Norman, and the Sooners are sweating out today. You can't take that away, of course, but there are a lot of teams in the mix that would love to have a team as good as Kansas forced to come play them at home. Florida and Missouri tried to get half the SEC in, and Duke did their best with Virginia and Maryland. Oklahoma is just 3-7 against the top 50, but 9-9 against the top 100. They're home.

Boise State (41): Were this the Sheehan Invitational, Boise State might be wearing white this week. It's not clear to me why they're not. Their road win at Creighton is better than the best road win of almost every team in this mix, and it's one of four top-50 wins (4-7) and eight top-100 wins (8-8). Boise State, in the Mountain West, played 11 top-50 games; of the teams under consideration, only Minnesota and Iowa State played more, and only Minnesota and Cal had more top-50 wins. Three of their losses came without Jeff Elorriaga. If this were Baylor, they'd be long in. This is the one team who, if left out, would represent a clear mistake by the committee.

Iowa State (45): It's hard to avoid the subjective here, as two losses to Kansas might have been two wins but for a fluke shot and a bad call. Not much separates them from Oklahoma but for their comeback win Thursday in the Big 12 tournament. Like St. Mary's, they look better on the court -- a better team than tournament case, if you will. I think they're closer to the line than most people do, but they're on the right side of it.

LaSalle (46): They beat the two best teams in the Atlantic N (edit: two of the best three, they didn't beat Saint Louis.--JSS) and picked up a Big Five win over Villanova before that seemed like it would matter much. The Explorers are one of the many, many teams that could have made their case by winning their final game this week. Their 6-8 mark against the top 100 isn't anything, and actually fairly week by the standards of this group. Maybe the one team on the bubble I'm genuinely lost in evaluating, and probably #37 or #38 in the end.

Mississippi (50):
No big-conference school with 24 D-I wins has ever been left out of the tournament. Mississippi would have 25 as an at-large candidate. That doesn't have to carry the day, but leaving them out would be setting a new standard, and it's the biggest reason I think they're in. The SEC is barely a big conference this year, to be sure, but if I'm thinking like the committee, I can't see them not putting in a 25-9 SEC team that reached its conference final. even if in doing so all it did was beat the 6-10 version of Missouri and Vanderbilt. (Aside: why aren't we discussing Missouri, which is a hideous road team?) Mississippi's only tournament-caliber wins are over Unhome Missouri. However, 8-6 against the top 100 -- 8-7 if they're an at-large team -- and the 25 wins and the SEC runner-up status should be enough. Should.

California (53): Take everything I said about Colorado, right down to beating a weakened Oregon in Eugene, and throw in a loss to Utah in the Pac-12 quarters. They won an exempt event in November without getting a top-100 win in the deal. (I love the four-day ESPN events, myself, but the fields have been growing weaker, especially the Thanksgiving weekend ones.) Back to the standards: 5-5 top 50, 7-10 top 100. They'll be in.

(I was unusually stubborn about some of these teams this year. Not sure why.)

Massachusetts (56): They played a four-half stretch in February in which they blew a lead to VCU, lost to Temple by a point and fell behind to St. Bonaventure. That was fatal. Could have gotten in by beating VCU yesterday in Brooklyn, but fell apart late. Wouldn't surprise me if they were back in New York in three weeks. 0-5 top 25, 2-7 top 100 are bad numbers.

Kentucky (57), Tennessee (59), Alabama (60): Kentucky is 4-4 without Nerlens Noel and hasn't been competitive on the road without him. Alabama is 0-6 against the top 50, which is a strong indication you're not good enough. Tennessee has the best overall set of qualifications -- wins over Wichita State and Massachusetts carry some heft -- but that's a tallest-midget thing. I'm prepared for any outcome here, but Tennessee-Alabama-Kentucky is how I rate them, and only Tennessee seems to have a shot.

The bottom of the SEC has just fallen apart. Yay, football and all, but they've got to get it together. For teams to go 12-6 in conference and have RPIs this poor is terrible.

Virginia (75): This is USC from 2011, with a bunch of good wins and a bunch of bad losses. Forget the RPI and look at this: 4-3 against the top 50, 8-4 (!) against the top 100. No, you shouldn't lose to Old Dominion, but… Then again, 3-8 on the road and 3-10 R/N. It's a fascinating profile. More and more, I think the committee ends up picking the last few spots based on who you beat, and Virginia's track record against tournament-quality teams is as good as anyone's.

Minnesota, the Big 12 and Pac-12 schools are at the head of the line. Put the five of them in and that leaves four or five spots for 11 teams. Actually, four for ten, as Mississippi is going in one way or another. Kentucky is out, as is Massachusetts. So the final bubble looks like….

Last four in: Virginia, Middle Tennessee, St. Mary's, Boise State
Last four out:  Southern Mississippi, LaSalle, Tennessee, Alabama

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Newsletter Extra: Perceived Problems and Actual Problems

The United States was eliminated from the World Baseball Classic last night by Puerto Rico 4-3. The loss means that the U.S. misses the semifinal round for the second time in three Classics, a result that has caused a substantial amount of hand-wringing this morning.

That the U.S. has not shown well in three WBCs is a perceived problem, not an actual one. The WBC isn't about showing what nation is the best at baseball. The design and timing of the event should make that abundantly clear. If you were serious about a global baseball tournament, you wouldn't hold the thing in March and you wouldn't play one-game round-robins and you really wouldn't invite China and Brazil and you wouldn't tell pitching-short teams they could only use their best pitchers for 65 pitches. The WBC's current design is like the MLB postseason, only much worse for gathering useful information about the relative quality of teams. Since the baseball media can't get their hands around the uselessness of a best-of-seven for determining relative quality, it's probably too much to expect them to not draw conclusions from a single game between the U.S. and D.R., or between the U.S. and Puerto Rico.

So we get this perceived problem of the United States not showing well in the World Baseball Classic. If there's one thing MLB does with passion and aggression, it's address perceived problems, be it pushing for increased penalties for positive drug tests despite a well-functioning testing program, or adding a ridiculous incentive to prop up the decaying All-Star Game, or introducing a one-game playoff round out of a sense of embarrassment that teams acted in their own self-interest in a division race. MLB loves fixing that which isn't really broken in an effort to placate a media completely unwilling to address complex, multi-faceted issues in all but the most simple of terms.

I make this prediction against that backdrop. The United States team at the 2017 World Baseball Classic will include almost all of the best American players at that time. The perceived failure of the U.S. team will cause the league and Bud Selig to place undue pressure on the game's stars -- most likely with a healthy dose of MLBPA-bashing -- to participate in the event regardless of how the players or their teams believe it may affect their preparation for the season. The perceived problem of the U.S. not showing well at the WBC  will be addressed by a faux solution that does nothing about the WBC's issues of timing and format.

The WBC is a marketing event, not a championship event. Anyone taking more than nine seconds to look at the thing -- held in March, including nations that absolutely suck at baseball but are included for their potential as markets, seeded in comical fashion, with far too few games to carry legitimacy -- can see that. Rather than address those problems, or better still, acknowledge that it's a marketing event, MLB will, in the grand tradition of the Coin Flip Game and "This Time It Counts", take the easy way out and raise up the issue of American player participation as the event's biggest problem. The 2017 U.S. team will be the best ever in the history of the World Baseball Classic.

And the WBC will still be a marketing event, not a championship one.

Friday, March 15, 2013

From 348 to 68: Friday, 2:30 p.m.

In a week when tournament bids are just there waiting to be taken by teams that can win a single game, yesterday featured missed opportunities at every turn. Baylor and Louisiana Tech played their way off the bubble. California, Colorado, Oklahoma and Minnesota left the door open for them to be passed. Only Illinois and Oregon pushed their way into the field, although you could argue I'm being overly conservative about Iowa State. As ever, I am reluctant to move teams onto the board, because I hate having to take them off of it.

Friday is moving day. Of the 19 teams I have on the bubble, Five are playing "win and in" games -- LaSalle, Iowa State, Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia -- and seven others are playing games that they can't lose and remain under consideration. Tennessee/Alabama is pretty much an elimination game. For the record, I can't for the life of me ever remember having so few bubble teams this early in the process. It's just a strange year for this stuff.

Through the first four games on Friday:

On the Board (6): Wichita State, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Villanova, Marquette, Illinois.

Automatic Bids (14): Florida-Gulf Coast (Atlantic Sun), Liberty (Big South), James Madison (Colonial), Valparaiso  (Horizon), Harvard (Ivy), Iona (MAAC), Creighton (Missouri Valley), Long Island University-Brooklyn (Northeast), Belmont (Ohio Valley), Bucknell (Patriot), Davidson (Southern), Western Kentucky (Sun Belt), South Dakota State (Summit), Gonzaga (West Coast).

In (30): Duke, Miami (FL), North Carolina, North Carolina State, Saint Louis, Virginia Commonwealth, Butler, Temple, Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma State, Louisville, Georgetown, Syracuse, Notre Dame, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio State, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Memphis, New Mexico, Colorado State, Nevada-Las Vegas, San Diego State, UCLA, Arizona, Oregon, Florida, Missouri.

Those teams will account for at least 21 and no more than 28 at-large bids, leaving three to ten slots for bubble teams. I'm going to wait another day before writing a lot, largely because I think this picture is going to self-clarify a lot today.

Bubble (19):
Iowa State, Colorado, Kentucky, Oklahoma, California, Minnesota, Virginia, LaSalle, Saint Mary's, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Middle Tennessee State, Boise State, Massachusetts, Southern Mississippi, Iowa, Akron, Stephen F. Austin.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

From 348 to 68: Welcome Back

I'm getting a late start this year for a few reasons. One, Jerry Palm's move to CBS Sports was great for Jerry and for college-basketball fans in general, but lousy for the loss of as a resource. His team pages, his entire site, were essential to my process, and even in starting the work I haven't found anything that apes it. As someone who uses and the Play Index about as often as I do hand soap, it's a reminder that we're very lucky to have Sean Forman's great work -- and very lucky he never made a similar move.

If you're new to this, hi. I mostly write about baseball, but since I was a kid I've loved college hoops as well, and for the past 20 years ago I've worked to figure out what teams would make the tournament as at-large selections. I'm not Jerry or Joe Lunardi or Andy Glockner; I don't build brackets and I don't start doing this the previous fall. I parachute in during Championship Week and do what I can, generally missing one or two teams a year, although I have nailed the field twice. I used to just have this conversation with my best friend (@MikeReganNC), and later I'd send out this stuff to a small group of friends. When Basketball Prospectus launched, I did it there for a couple of years. I got some attention a few years ago for 1) having Virginia Commonwealth in my field, and 2) for a bit of a screed I wrote when reacting to the reaction to their selection.

I'm trying to ape the committee here, not set up the Sheehan Invitational. I do have a preference for teams that do well in smaller conferences, because they get few opportunities to post quality wins, and they never get the kind of home opportunities majors do. If the choice is between the #6 team in a Big Six league and the MAAC champ, I'd like to see the committee choose the latter, even if the former beat a couple of top-ten teams at home. I try to keep that out of my predictions, and it's pretty easy to do so this year. For a variety of reasons, there just aren't very many viable candidates for at-large berths from outside the top nine conferences. Here's the complete list of teams below that line that are or would have been under consideration for a bid: Gonzaga, Creighton, Wichita State, St. Mary's, Belmont, Middle Tennessee State, Bucknell, Louisiana Tech, Akron, Stephen F. Austin. That's it. The Colonial tanked this year. The WAC has been ruined by realignment. Everybody else in the Valley tanked. Butler and VCU moved into top-nine conferences. Teams that have been in the mix in previous years -- Davidson, Long Beach State, Iona, Kent State, Brigham Young -- didn't make the cut this year.

There's also an odd dynamic in the power conferences, which split more cleanly this year than in other years. The combination could make for a week without much drama. There just aren't that many teams in contention for the available bids, and the ones that are will find themselves in fairly clear win-and-in, lose-and-out spots over the next two days. There is the unknown of how much the off-board metrics -- Ken Pomeroy, Jeff Sagarin, the fabled "eye test" -- are playing a role in the process. I think I had a better handle on the committee's approach five years ago. They may be doing a better job of selecting the field today, while making that job slightly more opaque while doing so.

As I start this process Thursday morning, I have one team already on the board in Wichita State. I have 33 locks, which will combine for somewhere between 24 and 31 at-large spots depending on who wins the conference tournaments. That leaves at least five, and as many as 12, slots for bubble teams. There are no bid thieves left in the Big East or Mountain West tournaments. I am exceptionally conservative; if there's a chance a team could lose its next game get left out, they stay on the bubble. We have some win-and-in games Thursday -- Minnesota vs. Illinois, Iowa State vs. Oklahoma -- where the loser is probably in as well, but I'm leaving both teams on the bubble this morning. Boise State vs. San Diego State was a similar game last night.

On the Board (1): Wichita State.

In (33): Duke, Miami (FL), North Carolina, North Carolina State, Saint Louis, Virginia Commonwealth, Butler, Temple, Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma State, Louisville, Georgetown, Marquette, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Notre Dame, Cincinnati, Villanova, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio State, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Memphis, New Mexico, Colorado State, Nevada-Las Vegas, San Diego State, UCLA, Arizona, Florida, Missouri.

Those teams will account for at least 24 and no more than 31 at-large bids, leaving five to 12 slots for bubble teams. Here are those teams in rough order as of Thursday morning. We'll go deeper on them after the list gets culled Thursday. There's at least some chance we're going to be down to just a few spots by the morning.

Bubble (23): Oklahoma, Illinois, California, Colorado, Minnesota, Kentucky, Iowa State, Virginia, LaSalle, Oregon, Saint Mary's, Tennessee, Mississippi, Baylor, Alabama, Middle Tennessee State, Boise State, Massachusetts, Southern Mississippi, Louisiana Tech, Iowa, Akron, Stephen F. Austin.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Newsletter Extra: Mariano Rivera

I originally wrote this last May, after Mariano Rivera suffered a season-ending knee injury in Kansas City. With Rivera expected to announce his retirement tomorrow, it seems a good time to bring it back.


My daughter is named for Mariano Rivera.

She was "Mariana," owing to her mother's deep and abiding love for the Yankees' closer, until about the ninth month of the pregnancy. As we got closer to her birth, my inability to correctly pronounce the name -- I couldn't quite get my accent around the "a" in the first syllable, leaving it flat -- led her mother to shift gears to "Marina," a name even my tortured diction couldn't butcher. Make no mistake about it, though -- her name is a tribute to the man.

That's who Mariano Rivera is: someone you can safely name your kid after, and, when some day she wants to know about why she has her name, be proud when you tell the story. Forget the baseball parts. Rivera isn't just about numbers -- 608, 2.21, 206 -- or even championships. He's not about a plaque in the Hall of Fame or a retired number on a wall. He's not even about a crowd standing and cheering in joy, in admiration, in love. No, Rivera is about the spaces in between the numbers, the equanimity with which he went about his job, the calm and the purpose and the class that I find myself in awe of. Rivera has given up series-losing home runs and World Series-ending hits, and was the same man in those moments that he was when in the middle of a pile of giddy Yankees celebrating yet another World Championship.

It runs deeper than that, though. In an era when we always wonder about the gap between the player and the person, when there's always that reserve, that reluctance to commit, that hesitation, there's never been a need to worry about Rivera. The quiet, hard-working, beloved man of faith who spent eight months trying to be the best teammate he could be spent the other four months as a quiet, hard-working, beloved man of faith trying to be the best husband, father and man he could be. In the latter days of his career, he's had to measure the pull of doing good outside of baseball against his loyalty to his teammates and the money he could make -- for doing that good -- in his career. Rivera has been responsible for so much good when he hasn't been holding a baseball in his hands, donating money and time and effort to make the world a better place for the people he could touch.

That's what made the scene so hard to watch. We know that Rivera has been struggling with whether to extend his career at each of the last few decision points. Since March, when Rivera said that he'd made his decision and would reveal it during the season, there's been a sense that this could finally be it, that we might be seeing the last days of Rivera. Yankee fans' panic over this has absolutely nothing to do with who would pitch the ninth inning; it's not a baseball loss, but a personal one. A generation of Yankee fans has no memory of a time when Mariano Rivera wasn't there at the end of baseball games, the evercool Bronx DJ mixing Metallica and Sinatra 60 times a year and getting 50,000 people to dance to his beat. Bernie Williams and Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada are missed. Derek Jeter is respected. Rivera…Rivera is essential.

We don't know how it's supposed to end. We know only that it's not supposed to end on a warning track in Missouri at 6:15 on a Thursday evening in May. It's not supposed to end with a stumble and a cry and a panicked round of Tweets. It's not supposed to end like this. Fans of the other 29 teams -- even fans of sports who don't particularly care for baseball -- know that it's not supposed to end like this. Mariano Rivera doesn't get carried away from baseball sitting on a cart wearing warmups and sneakers. He walks away from it in pinstripes, head held high, surrounded by teammates and fans, bathed in tears and cheers, and holding a baseball in his glove, one last 27th out, one last win secured, not for himself, but for everyone but him.

Selfishly, I want it to not be over. I don't ever want it to end, but when it does, I want to be there, on my feet, clapping until my hands hurt, tears streaming down my cheeks, trying to say, "Thank you for everything" from Section 414. I want there to be a little girl on my shoulders, taking it all in, who will grow up to display the qualities of her namesake: the dedication to others, the calm in the face of adversity, the endless reserves of inner peace. I want Marina to see Mariano and be proud to share his name.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Newsletter Extra: Mike Trout and Alex Rodriguez

Over the weekend, the Angels renewed Mike Trout's contract for a 2013 salary of $510,000, just $20,000 over the minimum salary. While a bit surprising, and certainly a hardball move, the Angels were well within their rights to renew Trout. In fact, it's the ability to pay Trout a tiny percentage of his market value or of his worth to the team that subsidizes the risks of paying Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton their market value to perhaps lose money on the deal.

No one other than Trout should have a problem with this decision. The Angels might have paid him more -- there's some precedent for teams with standout rookies paying those players more in the second year -- but there's no connection between Trout's 2013 salary and any decisions he might make five years down the road. An extra $300,000 now isn't going to influence a $30 million choice in the future, and thinking it will is one of the sillier myths in sports. There is no loyalty. Say it again: there is no loyalty. The Angels made the same business decision that Trout will have to make down the road, and that's the only relationship between the two.

The flip side of Trout making $510,000 off a season in which his performance was worth $30 million or more to the Angels in added wins isn't hard to find. Vernon Wells' 2013 salary is $21 million, after a season in which his performance was worth about 10% of that. Wells, however, is 34, at the back end of a career that will probably end soon, one that will get him a single appearance on a Hall of Fame ballot, maybe a token vote from a writer who liked him. (Criticism of his play aside, you can't find anyone to say a bad word about Wells.) Wells had five years banked as a regular and was 27 years old when the Blue Jays set him up for life with a seven-year contract extension worth $126 million. Since signing that deal, Wells has had two good years and four other ones, and at best he's a part-time player for a team with at least four outfielders better than he is.

This is the way MLB is structured. It was wholly unplanned -- arbitration came first, and that only for players with a couple of years in the league, then free agency and its six-year requirement -- and has created a significant disconnect between when a player is likely to produce the most and when a player is likely to get paid the most. From the start of his career through 2006, Vernon Wells made $9 million and produced 19 bWAR. Since then, he's made more than $80 million and produced a tick less than 7 bWAR. He's owed another $42 million and the ratio of salary to wins isn't likely to get much lower. This is the way the system is set up.

There are people, some of them working out of Tampa right now, up in arms over the fact that Alex Rodriguez is scheduled to make $28 million this year, and owed $114 million over the final five years of a contract signed after the 2007 season. That contract, due to Rodriguez's decline and increased susceptibility to injury -- things you never could have seen coming when you signed a 32-year-old, I guess -- weighs on the Yankees payroll. It has made Rodriguez a target of fan and media ire. Rodriguez isn't the first, of course, just the one taking the biggest shots today. Throughout the game there are players who are huge targets merely for signing contracts that included salaries they had little chance of being worth on the day they were signed. Alfonso Soriano and Jayson Werth and Barry Zito and Johan Santana. We rail at these players, call them overpaid bums and wish our teams would get rid of them.

Here's the thing: if you're not going to storm the barricades when Mike Trout makes 3% of his market value, then you lose the right to do so when Alex Rodriguez makes 300% of his. They're the exact same thing. Pay and performance are only loosely correlated in MLB, with service time a significant distorting factor. Players without it are systematically and in some cases violently underpaid, and those with it go the other way. Fans only get crazy over the latter class, though, an effect of the simplistic way in which baseball economics has been covered for 40 years.

Maybe Mike Trout eventually gets paid, becomes another Vernon Wells or Alex Rodriguez, making on the back end what he never made on the front end. If so, it's probable that there will come a time, 15 years down the road, when a local columnist will rail against this aging, broken-down guy who isn't worth his $40 million salary and who should just get out of the way so that the team can give the money to someone else.

Or maybe we'll all just be that much smarter by then.

Friday, March 1, 2013

World Baseball Classic predictions

First Round:

Pool A: Japan and Cuba
Pool B: South Korea and Taiwan
Pool C: Venezuela and Dominican Republic
Pool D: United States and Mexico

Second Round:

Pool 1: Japan and South Korea
Pool 2: United States and Venezuela


Venezuela over Japan
United States over South Korea


Venezuela 6, United States 3

Tournament MVP: Miguel Cabrera