Saturday, December 28, 2013

Excerpt: "Upending Free Agency"

"At some point, though, some player is going to decide that the best choice for him is to maximize his raw cash earnings at the expense of everything else. It will probably be a superstar. It will be a player who is young and unattached, maybe someone who sees through the superstructures we build around sports, who understands that fans don't root for him so much as they root for him as long as he's on their team, who takes the Seinfeldian 'laundry' notion to its natural end. It will be a player of tremendous talent and self-confidence. I'm thinking, I suppose, of Barry Bonds, only if Bonds had come along at a time when the rising tide of MLB revenues meant he had already banked $10-15 million by the time he reached a decision point."

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Excerpt: "Offseason Catchup, NL West"

"Other than that, the Padres look a lot like they did when I picked them to win the division last year. No projected starting position player is older than 31, with most in that 25-27 sweet spot that allows you to project collective growth. It's going to again come down to the rotation. Cashner and Tyson Ross established themselves at the end of last year, but they're mid-rotation starters, as is Eric Stults -- at best. This is where the Padres can really help themselves, and by using only money. There are still three starting pitchers out there (plus Masahiro Tanaka) who would make this team better. While it would be nice to see the Padres make a run at Tanaka, they can use the focus on him to go hard after Matt Garza instead. Garza isn't a true #1, but he is a #2, he doesn't require sacrificing a draft pick and he'd be this team's best starter. I'm not going to get into the issue of "afford" in detail again, except to say that the Padres will piss away $16.5 million next year on a homer-prone closer and a DH -- and Garza will actually help them win."

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The Joe Sheehan Newsletter
Vol. IV, No. 133
December 30, 2012

I have largely kept my discussion of the 2013 Hall of Fame ballot and the related issues to Twitter. This year's ballot, loaded with the villains of the era, has been coming for a while, and we're of course familiar with how sports-drug usage has affected the vote totals of Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro in their time on the ballot. The number of problems with Hall of Fame voting in the early days of the 21st century start with the way the voters seem to be folding this particular brand of bad behavior into their evaluations, but they extend beyond that to the issues of narrative versus fact, and the way things like the 5% rule and the 15-year eligibility queer relative results, and the Hall's insistence on retaining the concept of the Veterans Committee decades past its useful life.

An exhaustive examination of many of these issues -- a couple are, admittedly, my own hobby horses -- would take a year, and I'm not signed on to write the update to The Politics of Glory, so I won't be tackling them all. Today, though, I want to focus on one particular point that undergirds the decision by many writers to withhold votes for some of the greatest players in baseball history. There's a belief among many writers and fans that the use of sports drugs with the intent of gaining strength queered the statistical output of baseball players during what is popularly known as "the Steroid Era". Specifically, it's a belief sports-drug usage caused a peak in overall home runs hit and a peak in the individual leaderboards. This is the distinction that separates strength-enhancing sports drugs from other forms of cheating, most specifically amphetamines.

This belief provides a veneer of statistical viability to a set of opinions that isn't backed by even 200-level analysis. It's an argument that requires you to ignore the majority of data points and nearly all of the factors that contributed to the spikes. What I find most interesting, though, is that it requires you to ignore the statistical evidence of amphetamine use that is exactly in parallel to what believers see as the statistical evidence of steroid use.

Labeling anything "the amphetamine era" is problematic, but we can say with confidence that amps were a big part of the game from the 1960s -- an era described by Jim Bouton in Ball Four -- through the 2000s, when testing for amps was put in place, with first counseling and then suspensions the punishment for testing positive. How deep the penetration of amphetamines, we'll probably never know, but we do know that some of the greatest players of the era have said that they did use, if perhaps only on occasion. (Remember that a single positive test for steroids has been enough to end Rafael Palmeiro's chance at the Hall of Fame.)

Historically, stolen bases were at their peak usage in the dead-ball era that ran through World War I. No season since 1919 has featured more than .9 stolen bases per game. Since 1920, however, there was one era in baseball history in which stolen bases were more prevalent than any other:

Peak SB/game, since 1920:

1987    0.85
1976    0.79
1983    0.79
1986    0.79
1988    0.79
1980    0.78
1990    0.78
1992    0.77
1982    0.75
1985    0.74

Were I to go past ten, you would find that there has been just one season since 1920 -- 1920 itself -- outside of the amphetamine era in which there were at least .7 SB/G. The league stolen-base totals in the "amp era" are as distorted as the league home-run totals were in the "steroid era". This extends to the individual leaderboards as well. There have been 23 seasons since 1901 in which one player has stolen at least 80 bases. Eighteen of those (78%) occurred from 1962 through 1988 -- the other five all occurred from 1910 through 1915.

Using the same "logic" that underpins the idea that steroids caused a bunch of home runs and caused a bunch of 60-homer seasons leads to the conclusion that amphetamines caused a bunch of stolen bases and a bunch of 80-steal seasons. Let me be clear: this is not my argument. It is, however, the counter to the wildly prevalent ideas that steroids caused home runs and were somehow different than amphetamines. You cannot look at the data and hold both of those ideas in your head.

Let's run at this from a slightly different direction. There have been 14 instances in MLB history of a player playing in at least 700 consecutive games. Six, including four of the top six, occurred during the amphetamine era. That's a small enough data set that it may not be meaningful, so let's look at something else. Baseball went to a 162-game schedule in two stages, the AL in 1961, the NL in 1962. From 1961 through 1972, there were a total of 20 instances in which an individual player played in at least 162 games -- a bit less than two a season. Here are the totals starting in 1973, through the end of the 26-team era:

1973: 6
1974: 5
1975: 3
1976: 3
1977: 4
1978: 5
1979: 10
1980: 9
1981: 0 (strike)
1982: 8
1983: 4
1984: 5
1985: 5
1986: 6
1987: 2
1988: 2
1989: 7
1990: 2
1991: 3
1992: 4

The widespread use of amphetamines certainly seemed to make it more likely that players would play in every game, with a clear peak in the 1979-82 period, broken up by the strike-shattered season of 1981. Once expansion pushed the industry to 28 and then 30 teams, the number of players playing in 162 games settled in at around five a year, with occasional spikes above that number through 2008. What is very interesting is that in the last four seasons -- since testing positive for amphetamines a single time became punishable by a 25-game suspension -- the average has dipped back to the 1960s figure of two a year -- just eight players have played in 162 games since 2009. In 2007 alone, seven players did.

In the early days of baseball, individual pitchers routinely through nearly all of their team's innings pitched. When "pitching" went from just that to more of a skill, individual innings pitched totals dropped, and they dropped further as pitchers threw harder spun the ball in an effort to miss the bats of hitters swinging as hard as they could. There have been 371 seasons of at least 300 innings pitched since 1901. They break down, by decade, like this:

1901-10: 142
1911-20: 89
1921-30: 34
1931-40: 19
1941-50: 13
1951-60: 8
1961-70: 29
1971-80: 37
1981- the end of time: 0

There were 40 300-inning seasons from 1931-1960. There were 37 from 1971-1980. There has not been one since then. The period from 1963 through 1987 also was the peak for reliever usage; 130 of the 166 seasons in MLB history in which a pitcher threw 120 games while making 90% of their appearances as a reliever occurred in this 25-year span. No pitcher has done this since 1991.

The amphetamine era featured just as many statistical anomalies as did the steroid era, but there was no connection between the two reported. No one cared. Why that is the case is a topic for a book, I'd imagine, but you cannot defend the idea that steroids alone fundamentally changed the game's statistics in a way that the previous generation's drug of choice didn't. The correct answer, or course, is to see the whole board and acknowledge that peak homer was the product of a dozen factors, with the number "73" an explicable statistical outlier in that context, just as peak steal (and "130") were the same, just as peak playing time was the same, just as peak innings pitched was the same.

We build assumptions into the language. Steroids are "performance enhancing" and amphetamines -- or cocaine -- are not, for no reason other than that's just the way the language developed, borrowed by and large from Olympic sports that have little to to with the practice of a major-league baseball season or an individual baseball game. This is important in the context of Hall of Fame voting because the Baseball Writers Association of America has already honored many men who used sports drugs. The only way to argue that they have not is to define amphetamines and steroids as dramatically different, and there is simply no rational case for doing so, not based on legality, not based on notions of cheating, and certainly not based on the populist approach to seeing drug use in statistical lines. If you see steroids here, then you should see amphetamines here.

The cadre of writers who see themselves as defending the Hall against cheaters and drug users who distorted the game is wrong. It's not a point of debate, it's not "reasonable minds can disagree", it's not a moral stance. These people are wrong. MLB turned a blind eye to drug use of all kinds for decades, as did the writers covering the game. Those same writers elected player after player after player from an era in which we know amphetamine use was popular without ever raising the issue of illegal drug use in the context anyone's candidacy. To draw the line at steroids as if they represent a bridge too far is ignorant of history, ignorant of statistics, and ignorant of baseball.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Excerpt: "The Ballot Frontlog"

"The only way to address this is for the Hall to issue clear directions to the voters…and it's clear what those directions need to be. See, whether your dad likes it or not, some day Barry Bonds is going to be on that wall. So is Roger Clemens. So are Mike Piazza and Jeff Bagwell and probably the other three guys as well, along with the players like Alex Rodriguez who will come along after them. As steroid hysteria and all of the bad math, history and chemistry that came with it fade into the past, smart people who weren't invested in our narratives will recognize that a place that honors the greatest players ever, but doesn't acknowledge these all-time greats, cannot stand; that a Hall of Fame without Bonds and Clemens creates more questions than it answers. There'll be a committee, maybe in my lifetime, certainly in my daughter's, that corrects the mistakes being made now, that inducts these players, that acknowledges that in the heat of the moment, a lot of people got it wrong in the early days of the 21st century."

Monday, December 16, 2013

Excerpt: "Offseason Catchup, NL Central"

"The Cardinals, just today, agreed to sign one more infielder, Mark Ellis. They got a great deal, committing just $5 million to an excellent defensive second baseman who has pop against left-handed pitchers. Ellis was miscast as the Dodgers' #2 hitter the past few years, yet still ran up bWARs of 2.5 and 3.0 at 35 and 36. Ellis is up there with Chase Utley as the best defensive second basemen of this era. For the Cardinals, he provides insurance and a platoon partner for Kolten Wong, and probably seals the move of Matt Carpenter back to third base. It's another nice tactical strike that serves to deepen a bench that was a problem in the postseason. I would absolutely rather have Ellis on this deal than Omar Infante on his, and I'm not sure I wouldn't rather just have Ellis period, money be damned."

Friday, December 13, 2013

Excerpt: "Offseason Catchup, NL East"

"The Mets should have simply stayed the course with the team they had, and patched with low-level free agents like Young and their own middling prospects. That's how they found Juan Lagares in the first place. No amount of money spent on third-tier free agents was going to change the team's short-term outlook, which was dimmed when Matt Harvey went under the knife. That injury actually gave the Mets an out for 2014, a chance to tell their fans that they're going to be ready for Harvey's return in '15, if the fans will just stick it out one more year. Instead, the front office chased the cheap thrill of signing veterans who aren't going to change things in Queens one iota. It's a shame, because enough good things happened in 2013, in the majors and on the farm, to create hope for 2015. Next year should have been more of the same. Now, it's not clear what it will be, other than more expensive."

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Excerpt: "The Cano Deal"

"It's great if you can develop seven-win players. If you can't, this is the going rate for them: ten-year deals at more than $20 million per year. Baseball is coming up on $9 billion in revenue. It's capped expenditures in a whole host of areas, kept the best players in the game from ever becoming free agents and by doing so put a choke hold on the upper end of the salary and payroll scales. The money has to go somewhere, and when a player like Cano becomes available -- which happens very rarely -- it goes to him and it goes to him for a very long time."

Friday, December 6, 2013

Excerpt: "Robinson Cano, Kansas City Royal"

"Signing Robinson Cano is the single best thing the Royals can do to make the postseason next year. He's a seven-win player at a position of need available for the AAV of about half that. All it costs is money, something the Royals have plenty of. They have the cash flow to bump their payroll up -- to invest in labor with an eye towards generating additional local revenues -- and the cushion of a half-billion franchise valuation if it goes awry, with the medium- and long-term expectation of rising revenues behind that, all in the service of a man worth $300 million. "

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Excerpt: "The Perfectly Logical Ellsbury Signing"

"So in the absence of buying a unicorn, the money has to go somewhere. It goes to Jacoby Ellsbury, because Ellsbury is the best player on whom to spend it. I do think it's instructive that the Yankees -- who have seen the last few Collective Bargaining Agreements include rules specifically targeted at their business practices -- are the ones making these investments. No team has a greater incentive to get under the luxury-tax threshold, due to the vindictive repeater penalties in the latest CBA, and they're spending the money on top-of-market players anyway. They have cash, and their choices in an industry that has capped draft spending and international-amateur spending (and is trying to cap posting fees for Japanese veterans) are limited to paying Jacoby Ellsbury and Brian McCann, or sitting on their money. They choose to pay. Not everyone agrees with me, but I think there's honor in that. The Steinbrenners want the next win more than they want the next dollar, which is the very definition of a good sports owner. (They also would like to not lose tens of millions of dollars over a period of years to rules designed by people who want the next dollar more than the next win, a position I also defend.)"

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Excerpt: "Tigers/Nationals Trade"

"I think the Doug Fister trade is a prelude to the Tigers signing Shin-Soo Choo. Choo would be an incredible fit between Kinsler and Cabrera, being well-protected from left-handed relievers, having the power to move Kinsler along and the OBP to ensure plenty of men on for the best hitter in the game. The Tigers have no left fielder blocking him, and right now they have no outfielders at all locked up after 2015. A 1-2-3 of Kinsler, Choo and Cabrera might well combine for a .400 OBP and all of the runs that come with that figure."

Monday, December 2, 2013

Excerpt: "The Kinsler/Fielder Trade"

Of course, this trade didn't happen in a vacuum, which is why it's such a fascinating deal. I'm certain that I've made fantasy baseball or Strat-O-Matic trades that were like this, where the fit between two teams was just so perfect that you could make a one-for-one swap that made both teams better the moment the deal happened. It's extremely rare to see it happen in MLB; the first one that came to mind was the Padres/Blue Jays deal that, similarly, swapped a second baseman in Roberto Alomar for a first baseman in Fred McGriff, with Joe Carter and Tony Fernandez along for the ride. The Jesus Montero/Michael Pineda deal wanted to be this type of trade before it drank battery acid. The allure of the never-was-happening Oscar Taveras-for-Jurickson Profar trade was just this: to make the puzzle pieces fit better.