Friday, May 30, 2014

Excerpt: "The $36 All-Time Team"

"Having spent just $7 on a pitching staff, I blew the profits on my outfield, snatching up Babe Ruth ($5) and Willie Mays ($5). After that, the ballots drop off a bit -- I'm not sure you can justify going below the second spot at either position. So much for timelining. Thanks, I'll start with two of the seven best players ever, paying full value for the pair. If you want to argue for saving a buck and taking Ty Cobb in center or Hank Aaron in right, I can't object too strenuously."

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Excerpt: "The Demon"

"In that same time frame, 18 starters have averaged 95.0 to 95.9 mph in a single season. Four of them are already part of the 96-mph class. Of the other 14, three (Felipe Paulino, Matt Harvey and Jose Fernandez), went on to have Tommy John surgery. Three others, A.J. Burnett, Wily Peralta and Josh Johnson, had Tommy John surgery prior to posting these velocity numbers. Two pitchers in this group are on track for the Hall of Fame in Justin Verlander and Felix Hernandez. The other seven include some of the remaining good and healthy starters of 2014 -- among them Jeff Samardzija, Garret Richards and Chris Archer. The raw data includes a lot of wait-and-see guys."

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Excerpt: "Jose Abreu"

"I rarely have nice things to say about players with a 7/1 K/UIBB, but in this case, I'm optimistic. Abreu need reps against major-league pitching, lots of them, so that he can begin to identify the pitches he can crush from the ones he can't even reach. He's made a huge leap in competition, and he's done so while maintaining his core skill -- power on contact -- which is a great sign. What Abreu can do, while his ankle heals, is work on pitch recognition. He can just stand in a batter's box, no bat in hand, while a pitcher throws to a catcher and he watches MLB stuff, learns what it looks like, learns how quickly he has to make the decision. There's a payoff to the practice. The more soft stuff outside the zone that Abreu takes, the more fastballs inside the zone he will earn, and that's where he's going to make his money."

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Excerpt: "Stephen Drew Signs"

"The Red Sox -- both the manager and the front office -- are kicking a young man in the crotch, queering their relationship with an enormously valuable baseball player for what may be very little in-season benefit and significant risk to the development of someone who should be helping the Sox win when Stephen Drew is taking over as manager of the Visalia Oaks.

"It's as if the people handling him think Xander Bogaerts is a stat-generating robot. Boop, boop, beep."

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Q&A with Jeff Passan, Author of "The Arm"

Jeff Passan's The Arm: Inside the Billion-Dollar Mystery of the Most Valuable Commodity in Sports is the must-read baseball book of the year. Deeply reported and passionately written, The Arm attacks one of the biggest problems the sport of baseball faces: keeping young pitchers healthy. Passan uses rehabbing major leaguers Daniel Hudson and Todd Coffey as his framework, but touches on everyone from a youth hurler in California through the deceased Dr. Frank Jobe to get at the problem of why pitchers get hurt, what can be done to prevent injuries, and what happens after an elbow blows out.

I talked to Jeff about the book -- which you should buy --  for the Newsletter.

The Arm begins with a prologue that touches on this a bit, but I want to ask you directly: How did you arrive at this idea for a book? Where did you start? Was there a "Eureka!" moment?

You know how around 3 a.m., your mind can drift to the most delightfully creative places...and a second later you realize what seemed so brilliant was actually rather senseless?

Well, it was 3 a.m. in May 2012, and I was feeding my one-month-old a bottle, and I kept thinking about recent conversations I'd had with Alex Anthopoulos and Dan Duquette about how they were handling Noah Syndergaard and Aaron Sanchez [then Blue Jays prospects] and Dylan Bundy. Those thoughts branched into other approaches, and those angles multiplied, and by the time my mind stopped racing it felt like I had enough for a book.

When I woke up the next morning and catalogued the previous evening's thoughts, I realized this wasn't some middle-of-the-night delirium but a legitimate idea.

The Arm spends a lot of time with amateur players in travel-ball leagues, and you make the argument that this is where the problem is beginning. What can be done about youth coaches emphasizing winning a game versus keeping developing arms healthy?

The solution to coaches is parents, and the solution to parents is coaches. Checks and balances at the youth level come down to at least one of the parties being educated. Even then there are appeals to authority and other biases that complicate the matter.

More specifically, what are the solutions to the moral hazard of coaches rewarded for winning rather than sending kids to the next level?

Winning is a hard one to adjudicate. Because every time I have the temerity to suggest winning doesn't matter for 9- and 10- and 11-year-olds, I hear gasps, cries; I am told I'm an un-American heathen. How we devolved to the point where children are going to tournaments and throwing hundreds of pitches in a weekend or three times in two days -- it happens all the time -- is a testament to the commodification of children and how Major League Baseball let its youth space get co-opted by profiteers.

So we need to start emphasizing proper development over winning, particularly at the youngest ages. We need strict pitch counts on arms that simply cannot take the stress and strain of overuse. We need parents and coaches both to understand PitchSmart and to realize Tommy John surgery isn't some sort of sign that your kid has made it. We need them to make health a priority, not a secondary consideration.

For me, the most fascinating story in the book was about what I'll call Tommy John Lite: A new surgery, not yet tested on major leaguers, whose advocate purports to repair UCL tears with half the rehab time. What is the state of this procedure, and when will it make the leap to MLB hurlers?

Dr. Jeffrey Dugas, one of James Andrews' protégés, conceived of the surgery for partially torn ligaments and tested it on the perfect candidate: a high-school kid going into his senior year. Dr. Dugas's procedure -- using a suture tape dipped in collagen that theoretically would stabilize the ligament and promote healing -- worked well enough to allow the patient to pitch into college. Since then, Dr. Dugas has tried the surgery on dozens of kids, and the success rate, last I checked, was 100 percent.

Now, high-school kids in Alabama aren't professionals. They don't throw as hard, and that's what Dr. Dugas doesn't know: whether the ligament -- which because it uses anchors screwed into the bone instead of holes drilled through it brings pitchers back in less than six months -- can withstand the perils of velocity. I hope so. The idea of a pitcher with a partially torn UCL pitching through the end of the regular season, having modified Tommy John at the beginning of October and being ready for Opening Day is, absent us figuring out the arm and how to prevent the injuries in the first place, a pretty phenomenal upgrade in care.

MLB is a penny-wise, pound-foolish industry. Perhaps more to the point, it isn't an industry as much as a loose amalgamation of competitors. What has to happen to get 30 teams to put time and money into a solution that may take a generation to find, and whose benefits will be spread among all teams -- a zero-sum game?

An edict from Major League Baseball that injuries are now the domain of the league. While MLB has taken admirable steps with its injury-tracking system, the 2014 draft study and PitchSmart, it could do so many simple things. A twice-a-year draft combine not only would serve a functional purpose but cut deeply into kids' desire to play year-round competitive ball in order to be seen more often by scouts and decision-makers. Partner with the NCAA to invite college coaches and educate them on the subject of pitcher health, and you create another layer of people less likely to screw up an arm that could be on the cusp of the big leagues. MLB also needs a think tank similar to what the Dodgers built, in which it could conduct experiments with free-agent pitchers who may be on their last chance and looking for nothing more than an opportunity to salvage their careers.

I don't know that MLB focusing more on injuries and teams doing the same are mutually exclusive, of course. Ideally, sure, you'd like the research being done by the party likelier to spread its discoveries among the masses. If baseball were to grow into a research-focused industry, though, and that came about because the league itself was determined to keep up with the Dodgers and Rays and Astros and Indians and other standard-bearers of arm care, a small investment from all teams seems like a cheap price considering how much it could save.

Daniel Hudson, one of your two main protagonists, is pitching out of the Diamondbacks bullpen again. What is Todd Coffey up to?

He's closing for the Long Island Ducks. He has thrown five straight scoreless innings. Sent me a text a couple days ago: "Sat 94-95 tonight." He's convinced he's going to pitch in the big leagues again. And when he's 50 and pitching in a men's league in Rutherfordton, N.C., he's still going to be sure that guys in the major leagues ain't got nothin' on him. I wish I saw life the way Todd Coffey sees baseball.

You've pushed the book very hard to coaches and parents. Four or five years out, when you cover this ground again, what do you want implemented for the care of youth arms?

I want to stop getting DMs from coaches and parents telling me about the awful thing they saw in a regional game where a kid threw 175 pitches.

I want Major League Baseball to run an ad before Game 1 of the World Series with Matt Harvey, Stephen Strasburg, Jose Fernandez and Yu Darvish showing off their elbow scars. One says: "This is not cool." And another: "This is not fun." And then: "This is not supposed to be there." And the last: "Don't let this be your child. Go to"

I want the Little League World Series games on TV to stop showing the stupid radar gun like it means a damn thing when it comes to 13-year-olds.

I want Perfect Game to stop being hypocrites.

I want, more than anything, for everyone in baseball to understand it's going to take at least a decade to change the culture, and not go hunting for immediate results. They won't be there. If it starts with the kids on my eight-year-old's team, so it's ten years until they're seniors in high school. Considering that a majority of these surgeries are done on teenagers, perhaps if the coaches and parents recognize how real this problem is, and MLB addresses it in savvy enough fashion, we can allow the coming technology to complement the burgeoning conscientiousness and see the game be better for it.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Excerpt: "Mo' Pitchers, Mo' Problems"

"The data does suggest that velocity is, at worst, an interesting line of inquiry. From 2008 through 2013, these were the starting pitchers who threw at least 100 innings with the highest average fastball velocity (thanks, Fangraphs):

"1. Gerrit Cole, 96.1 mph
2. Stephen Strasburg. 95.8 mph
3. Matt Harvey, 95.5 mph
4. Felipe Paulino, 95.3 mph
5. Nathan Eovaldi, 95 mph
6. Jose Fernandez, 94.9 mph
7. Wily Peralta, 94.9 mph
8. Chris Archer, 94.8 mph
9. Justin Verlander, 94.8 mph
10. Jeff Samardzija, 94.7 mph

"Strasburg, Harvey and Paulino have had Tommy John surgery. Fernandez is on his way to one. I'm not even pretending this as some kind of scientific study, but when four of the six hardest throwers in recent years -- almost by definition, four of the six hardest-throwing starting pitchers ever -- meet the same fate, you have to take a look at this new threshold of velocity as a potential cause of injury."

Monday, May 12, 2014

Excerpt: "The Effects of Roster Madness"

"This is just one of the many problems with modern roster construction. Already playing short-handed, teams are crippled when an illness or minor injury makes even one player unavailable for a day or two. There is absolutely no built-in flexibility to cover for the flu, for food poisoning, for a rolled ankle that will be fine in 48 hours, but which requires a day off to heal. In cases where teams are down two players to minor injuries, not the most uncommon happenstance over 183 days, they're effectively playing with no bench, no in-game tactical options."

Friday, May 9, 2014

Excerpt: "Time to Sign Stephen Drew"

"However, there are signs that Jeter, who turns 40 next month, is overmatched. His strikeout rate, 20.1%, is far and away a career high and explained away only partially by the uptick in strikeout rate leaguewide. Two seasons ago, Jeter struck out in just 12% of his plate appearances, far below the league average. Jeter's increased strikeout rate is paired with a higher walk rate -- 8.3%, within range of his career highs. Combined, the two numbers represent the sign of an older player working harder to reach base as his primary skill of getting the bat to the baseball declines. Jeter's rate of contact on pitches inside the strike zone, 86%, is lower than it has been in all but one season for which we have data (2002)."

Monday, May 5, 2014

Excerpt: "Mike Matheny's Terrible Choices"

"What I don't understand is the urgency. If you rank MLB managers by 'likelihood of being fired in 2014,' Matheny is going to be down at the bottom with John Farrell and Joe Maddon. A similar security envelops the front office. There is no baseball reason, no job-security reason, no organizational reason to panic after two weeks of baseball in April. Yet Matheny dumped two starters before Patriots Day. No, let me rephrase: Matheny dumped two new-guy starters before Patriots Day. See, Allen Craig was playing worse than both Wong and Bourjos were when they were benched -- .133/.184/.133, with poor outfield defense -- and was never challenged. Matt Holliday was at .214/.327/.310, also not helping in the field, through April 12. Heck, Mark Ellis has played considerably worse since coming back than even Wong did while he was here: .205/.273/.231. Matheny seems to have one set of standards for some players and a second set for others."