Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Newsletter Excerpt, February 20, 2019 -- "Manny Machado and the Padres"

This is an excerpt from the Joe Sheehan Baseball Newsletter, an e-mail newsletter about all things baseball, featuring analysis and opinion about the game on and off the field from the perspective of the informed outsider. Joe Sheehan is a founding member of Baseball Prospectus and a contributor to Sports Illustrated and Baseball America. He has been writing about baseball for more than 20 years.

Your subscription gets you the newsletter and various related features two to five days a week, more than 150 mailings (more than 200,000 words) a year full of smart, fun baseball writing that you can't find in the mainstream. Subscribers can also access the new Slack workspace, to talk baseball with Joe and hundreds of other Newsletter subscribers.

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"Manny Machado, very soon, is going to be the best player on a playoff team in a city that is a far better baseball town than it’s ever given credit for. San Diego is Milwaukee with perfect weather, a place that has always shown up for good teams and of late, has shown up better than you might think for bad ones.

"With the departure of the Chargers, and all respect to the Gulls and Sockers, the Padres are the last bastion of major pro sports in the city. When the Padres are good, they will get to own San Diego in a way few baseball teams can own their city these days. The money and the weather provide plenty of reasons for Machado to sign, but there’s reason to think that this will end up a great marriage of player, team, and city."

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Newsletter Excerpt, February 16, 2019 -- "$55 Million in Dead Money and the Giants"

This is an excerpt from the Joe Sheehan Baseball Newsletter, an e-mail newsletter about all things baseball, featuring analysis and opinion about the game on and off the field from the perspective of the informed outsider. Joe Sheehan is a founding member of Baseball Prospectus and a contributor to Sports Illustrated and Baseball America. He has been writing about baseball for more than 20 years.

Your subscription gets you the newsletter and various related features two to five days a week, more than 150 mailings (more than 200,000 words) a year full of smart, fun baseball writing that you can't find in the mainstream. Subscribers can also access the new Slack workspace, to talk baseball with Joe and hundreds of other Newsletter subscribers.

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--

"The Giants have done almost nothing this winter, bringing in an assortment of fourth- and fifth-tier free agents (Pat Venditte, Drew Pomeranz, Stephen Vogt, Rene Rivera, Gerardo Parra, Yangervis Solarte) who will do little to close the 20-game gap between them and the Dodgers. They haven’t consummated the expected trade of Madison Bumgarner, a franchise hero in the final year of a contract on which the Giants have made tens of millions of dollars in profit. They haven’t, despite taking meetings, signed Bryce Harper, a move that would be consistent with this team’s willingness to put its profits into the roster, but not be nearly enough to make them a contender. The Giants have laid out more than $700 million in major-league salaries and benefits in the four seasons since their last championship. You can’t paint them as unwilling to spend."

Friday, February 15, 2019

Newsletter Excerpt, February 15, 2019 -- "Signing Machado AND Harper"

This is an excerpt from the Joe Sheehan Baseball Newsletter, an e-mail newsletter about all things baseball, featuring analysis and opinion about the game on and off the field from the perspective of the informed outsider. Joe Sheehan is a founding member of Baseball Prospectus and a contributor to Sports Illustrated and Baseball America. He has been writing about baseball for more than 20 years.

Your subscription gets you the newsletter and various related features two to five days a week, more than 150 mailings (more than 200,000 words) a year full of smart, fun baseball writing that you can't find in the mainstream. Subscribers can also access the new Slack workspace, to talk baseball with Joe and hundreds of other Newsletter subscribers.

You can subscribe to the newsletter for one year for $39.95 using your PayPal account or major credit card.

--

"Let’s focus, though, on the type of team that has historically signed the biggest free-agent deals, the ones trying to launch themselves into contention, the ones for whom marginal wins mean the most. Between the likely value of the two players, and the current rosters and projections of the teams, it seems to me that there are 11 teams for which you can make a real argument for this. Go to both Manny Machado and Bryce Harper and offer them a contract that makes them the highest-paid player in baseball next season, and allows them to leave the next time the market looks better than sticking around."

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Newsletter Excerpt, Feburary 14, 2019 -- "Defensive Improvement and the A's"

This is an excerpt from the Joe Sheehan Baseball Newsletter, an e-mail newsletter about all things baseball, featuring analysis and opinion about the game on and off the field from the perspective of the informed outsider. Joe Sheehan is a founding member of Baseball Prospectus and a contributor to Sports Illustrated and Baseball America. He has been writing about baseball for more than 20 years.

Your subscription gets you the newsletter and various related features two to five days a week, more than 150 mailings (more than 200,000 words) a year full of smart, fun baseball writing that you can't find in the mainstream. Subscribers can also access the new Slack workspace, to talk baseball with Joe and hundreds of other Newsletter subscribers.

You can subscribe to the newsletter for one year for $39.95 using your PayPal account or major credit card.

--

"A baseball team has about 4000 balls in play against them every year. The number varies widely around that figure, but it’s a good round number for our purposes. The A’s turned 2.5% more of those balls into outs in 2018. That’s 100 outs instead of hits, mostly singles, but enough doubles and triples to leave a mark. That’s how you allow 150 fewer runs year over year with just a small change in strikeout and walk rates."

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Newsletter Excerpt, February 13, 2019 -- "LABR Recap"

This is an excerpt from the Joe Sheehan Baseball Newsletter, an e-mail newsletter about all things baseball, featuring analysis and opinion about the game on and off the field from the perspective of the informed outsider. Joe Sheehan is a founding member of Baseball Prospectus and a contributor to Sports Illustrated and Baseball America. He has been writing about baseball for more than 20 years.

Your subscription gets you the newsletter and various related features two to five days a week, more than 150 mailings (more than 200,000 words) a year full of smart, fun baseball writing that you can't find in the mainstream. Subscribers can also access the new Slack workspace, to talk baseball with Joe and hundreds of other Newsletter subscribers.

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--

"One of the things to keep in mind is that on February 12, we don’t know enough to nail the end of a draft. I mean, someone can nail their last five picks; we probably drafted 100 saves in the last four rounds, but I can’t tell you how they will be distributed among the dozen relievers we picked. Three Indians outfielders went in short succession, and it’s not certain any of them will have a job in June. I emphasized getting guys who I liked, whose talent I believed in, and didn’t worry about role so much. Zach Britton may be all the way back. Blake Swihart stole eight bases last year and could make a great C2. Scott Kingery was a top-25 prospect a year ago. I’ll take my chances with these guys on February 12, knowing full well that by April 12, they may be on the league’s waiver wire."

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Newsletter Excerpt, February 12, 2019 -- "LABR"

This is an excerpt from the Joe Sheehan Baseball Newsletter, an e-mail newsletter about all things baseball, featuring analysis and opinion about the game on and off the field from the perspective of the informed outsider. Joe Sheehan is a founding member of Baseball Prospectus and a contributor to Sports Illustrated and Baseball America. He has been writing about baseball for more than 20 years.

Your subscription gets you the newsletter and various related features two to five days a week, more than 150 mailings (more than 200,000 words) a year full of smart, fun baseball writing that you can't find in the mainstream. Subscribers can also access the new Slack workspace, to talk baseball with Joe and hundreds of other Newsletter subscribers.

You can subscribe to the newsletter for one year for $39.95 using your PayPal account or major credit card.

--

"One issue I’ve had in roto-style leagues is not being category-conscious enough. Targeting one of those middle infielders in the first round is one way to get steals, but I’ll have to be aware of my stolen-base count throughout the draft. My tendency to draft youth means I get a lot of players who contribute some steals, but the goal is to get some more speed-based players in the draft’s first half. I’m a very big Mallex Smith fan. I like Amed Rosario as a breakout. It’s almost an article of faith that I’ll have Roman Quinn on my team."

Friday, February 8, 2019

Newsletter Excerpt, February 8, 2019 -- "Four Departed Stars and the Marlins"

This is an excerpt from the Joe Sheehan Baseball Newsletter, an e-mail newsletter about all things baseball, featuring analysis and opinion about the game on and off the field from the perspective of the informed outsider. Joe Sheehan is a founding member of Baseball Prospectus and a contributor to Sports Illustrated and Baseball America. He has been writing about baseball for more than 20 years.

Your subscription gets you the newsletter and various related features two to five days a week, more than 150 mailings (more than 200,000 words) a year full of smart, fun baseball writing that you can't find in the mainstream. Subscribers can also access the new Slack workspace, to talk baseball with Joe and hundreds of other Newsletter subscribers.

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--

"The Marlins were a bad idea from the start, existing only because collusion created a need for expansion fees. They are a bad organization that makes bad decisions and puts bad baseball teams on the field. They’ve been run by a succession of bad owners. This is as unwatchable a team as there is in baseball. Whatever the floor is for attendance in 2019, the Marlins could drop through it this year."

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Newsletter Excerpt, February 7, 2019 -- "Endless Movement and the Mariners"

This is an excerpt from the Joe Sheehan Baseball Newsletter, an e-mail newsletter about all things baseball, featuring analysis and opinion about the game on and off the field from the perspective of the informed outsider. Joe Sheehan is a founding member of Baseball Prospectus and a contributor to Sports Illustrated and Baseball America. He has been writing about baseball for more than 20 years.

Your subscription gets you the newsletter and various related features two to five days a week, more than 150 mailings (more than 200,000 words) a year full of smart, fun baseball writing that you can't find in the mainstream. Subscribers can also access the new Slack workspace, to talk baseball with Joe and hundreds of other Newsletter subscribers.

You can subscribe to the newsletter for one year for $39.95 using your PayPal account or major credit card.

--

"The Mariners at least have a chance to be an entertaining sort of bad, with a plus offense and a minus pitching staff. Santana, Bruce, and Encarnacion will hit dingers, Gordon and Mallex Smith could steal 125 bases between them, and there are no automatic outs in the lineup. All of that is good, because this staff is bottom-five in the AL, and I can’t put them lower because there are some really awful pitching staffs in the AL. This Mariners team resembles, more than anything, some of the franchise’s old Kingdome teams. The results will be from that era as well."

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Free Preview: "The DH, Revisited"

This is a preview of the Joe Sheehan Baseball Newsletter, an e-mail newsletter about all things baseball, featuring analysis and opinion about the game on and off the field from the perspective of the informed outsider. Joe Sheehan is a founding member of Baseball Prospectus and a contributor to Sports Illustrated and Baseball America. He has been writing about baseball for more than 20 years.

Your subscription gets you the newsletter and various related features two to five days a week, more than 150 mailings (more than 200,000 words) a year full of smart, fun baseball writing that you can't find in the mainstream. Subscribers can also access the new Slack workspace, to talk baseball with me and hundreds of other Newsletter subscribers.

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The Joe Sheehan Newsletter
Vol. 10, No. 25
April 26, 2018

In an otherwise desultory five-inning performance last night, Clayton Kershaw slapped a single to left in his first at-bat. It was his third hit this month, and he finished the game batting .231, 3-for-13 on the young season. You might think Kershaw’s showing is an argument for allowing pitchers to continue batting, as the National League has for its entire existence. It’s not.

Kershaw’s single is one of 75 hits pitchers have so far this season, in 740 plate appearances. A bunch of those PAs have been given over to sacrifice bunting, as per usual. In the rest, pitchers, as a group, are embarrassing themselves: .113/.138/.142, with 325 strikeouts. It’s early, but pitchers are in line to have their worst season at the plate in baseball history, a year after they had their worst season at the plate in baseball history.

The baseball-reference stat tOPS+ is a group’s OPS+ relative to the league -- 100 is average, higher is better. Pitchers’ hitting, relative to the league, isn’t just getting worse; it’s starting to fall off a cliff.

Worst Hitting Seasons By Pitchers (tOPS+, 1925-2018)

        AVG   OBP   SLG  tOPS+    K%   K/BB
2018   .113  .138  .142    -21   44%   18.1
2017   .124  .156  .161    -14   38%   12.6
2014   .122  .153  .152    -12   37%   12.6
2006   .131  .166  .175    -10   33%   10.0
2016   .132  .164  .171     -8   39%   12.3

  
I’ll stop the chart there, but if I kept going, you’d find that five of the six worst seasons for pitcher hitting have come in the last five years, 2018 inclusive. Seven of the eight worst have come since 2012. As pitchers evolve into velocity monsters with vicious cutters working the edges of the strike zone, the most vulnerable victims of those skills are their fellow hurlers. Pitcher batting, which has been a regressive trait ever since pitchers were allowed to throw overhand in 1884, is now nearly a nonexistent one.

We’ve been having fights over whether the pitcher should bat for generations. The DH rule was adopted by the American League in 1973, but had been bouncing around as an idea since the late 19th century. The earliest season we have splits for is now 1925; pitchers hit .207/.245/.272 in ’25, for a tOPS+ of 35. Shortstops, the second-worst hitters, hit .270/.329/.359 for a tOPS+ of 80. As far back as we can measure right now, pitchers have been a fraction of the hitters that the worst position players are. The best seasons for pitcher batting are the earliest, and even then pitchers were terrible hitters, peaking at a 38 tOPS+ in 1927. There’s a focus, in the storytelling, on Wes Ferrell and Don Newcombe and Red Ruffing, but the vast majority of pitchers couldn’t hit. It simply wasn’t their job to do so.

No pitcher with at least 300 plate appearances has finished his career as a league-average hitter since Ferrell, and his career ended before World War II. The best-hitting pitchers since then are Ken Brett, Oscar Judd, Schoolboy Rowe and Newcombe, just one of whom played past 1960. In the expansion era, just one pitcher, Brett, has even an 80 OPS+ -- which is to say, been within 20% of a league-average hitter. Just four have been within 30% of a league-average hitter, and only one of those, Dontrelle Willis, has played since 1981. Everybody loves Madison Bumgarner, and Bumgarner has a career .185/.232/.322 line, for a 53 OPS+. Zack Greinke supposedly signed as a free agent with two NL teams in part because he liked hitting so much. He’s a career .213/.256/.308 hitter, 52 OPS+. Mind you, these are the 21st century’s wildest success stories.

The best argument for the designated hitter is watching pitchers bat. As the game has evolved, though, it's become even clearer that the DH should apply across MLB. When the DH rule was implemented, starting pitchers went deep into games, threw a lot of innings and, as such, batted a lot. Relief pitchers would take at-bats as well. In the 1972 National League, pitchers accounted for 7.4% of the league’s PAs. Eight pitchers had more than 100 PAs. Tug McGraw, relief ace, batted 20 times. Pedro Borbon, also a reliever, batted 23 times. There was a stronger argument, at the time the DH was implemented, that pitchers were expected to be complete players.

In the NL of 2017, pitchers are down to 5.2% of PAs -- fewer than half of what you would expect from a given lineup spot. Jacob deGrom led all pitchers with 77 PA, and just six had even 70. (Thirty pitchers had at least 70 PA in 1972.) Relievers almost never bat. Michael Lorenzen rode an early-season pinch-hit homer to 12 plate appearances. Chris Rusin batted nine times, Craig Stammen six, Dustin McGowan six. The best relievers, no kidding, never bat. Kenley Jansen has spent his entire career in the National League, nine seasons, and he’s batted eight times. Craig Kimbrel spent five seasons as a dominant NL closer and held a bat once. Mark Melancon has made three NL All-Star teams since his last major-league plate appearance back in 2011.

The “nine-man game” argument has been mooted by the evolution of pitcher usage. We have this enormous class of players for whom hitting is just not something they do. David Robertson has made more than $50 million playing baseball without ever coming to the plate. Trevor Hoffman was about to become the Hall of Famer with the fewest career hits (four), until the Veterans Committee slid Jack Morris -- no career hits -- in through the back door. Mariano Rivera, 0-for-3 in a 19-year career, will follow the two of them in shortly. Some of the highest-paid players in baseball have the most narrowly-defined jobs. In nine seasons, Aroldis Chapman has two career plate appearances and 49 career defensive chances. Forget hitting; some of these guys aren’t even asked to field a ball more than once a month.

If you accept one-inning relief pitchers as baseball players, which the game clearly does, then you have to accept designated hitters as well. They’re two sides of the same coin. Three hundred eighty-one men pitched in the National League last season. More than a third of them never batted. More than half of them batted twice or less. Without a rule change, without controversy, without exobytes of arguments, the “designated pitcher” came into being over the last quarter-century. Isn’t it time we let that inform the DH discussion?

Pitcher batting has become a joke, with pitchers more overmatched at the plate than ever before. The evolution of pitcher usage is such that pitchers are asked to bat less than they ever have. Most pitchers, even in the National League, rarely bat, and a significant number of them never do. We’ve opened the Hall of Fame to players, full-career National League players, who almost never batted, a trend that will surely continue.

The argument that baseball purity demands complete players, a nine-man game, is forever lost. Let’s acknowledge that to end the silliness of pitcher batting.

Free Preview: "The DH"

This is a preview of the Joe Sheehan Baseball Newsletter, an e-mail newsletter about all things baseball, featuring analysis and opinion about the game on and off the field from the perspective of the informed outsider. Joe Sheehan is a founding member of Baseball Prospectus and a contributor to Sports Illustrated and Baseball America. He has been writing about baseball for more than 20 years.

Your subscription gets you the newsletter and various related features two to five days a week, more than 150 mailings (more than 200,000 words) a year full of smart, fun baseball writing that you can't find in the mainstream. Subscribers can also access the new Slack workspace, to talk baseball with me and hundreds of other Newsletter subscribers.

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--

The Joe Sheehan Newsletter
Vol. V, No. 32
April 5, 2013

In the early days of proto-baseball, pitchers were just that. Their role was similar to that of the pitcher in your local co-ed softball league: to instigate play by pitching the ball to the batsman, whose actions would start the game itself. Peter Morris, in his book A Game of Inches, describes the style as "pitching a horseshoe." Even before the Civil War, however, pitchers had come to realize that by starting the action with the ball in their hands, they could exercise significant control over the action once it left their hands. Despite rules that limited their movements -- such as requiring both feet to be on the ground and the arm to be perpendicular to the ground at release -- pitchers rapidly developed methods for deceiving hitters so as to induce weak contact or no contact at all.

When baseball was codified, pitchers were just like every other player on the diamond. By the time the Civil War ended and professionalism was nigh, they were already in class by themselves. The idea that pitchers in professional baseball were ever just like every other player on the diamond was dead by the time the National League came into being in 1876. That season, 13 pitchers threw at least 100 innings. Nine were below-average hitters. Bobby Mathews started 56 of the New York Mutuals' 57 games while hitting .183/.195/.211. Candy Cummings hit .162/.162/.190 (for a 13 OPS+) but only lost his job as Hartford's main hurler because Tommy Bond out-pitched him. From the earliest time for which we have records, a pitcher's role while on the mound was considered so important that his batting skill was a non-factor in evaluating his contributions to the team.

The development of pitching skill would fight a battle with those determined to restrict pitchers' impact on the game for the next generation, until the rule makers pulled out the big guns and pushed the pitchers back from 50 feet from the plate to 60 feet and six inches. (As a practical matter, the move was shorter than this, and I recommend Morris's book for the details.) By this time, pitchers had asserted themselves as the most important players on the field, controlling the game with speed and spin, and who cares what they hit. By this time, most of the NL's 12 teams were employing multiple starting pitchers, although the innings totals of the league's starters reached into the 300s as a matter of course and above 400 for the league leaders. As you can see by looking at the top-ten in innings pitched for 1892, what these guys hit wasn't keeping them from being handed the ball:


                  AVG/OBP/SLG  OPS+
Hutchinson, CHC   217/245/304   70
Rusie, NYG        215/224/285   54
Weyhing, PHI      136/178/159    2
Killen, WAS       199/310/328   95
Nichols, BOS      203/263/284   59
Young, CLE        158/191/199   16
Baldwin, PIT      101/162/129  -12
Stivetts, BOS     296/369/408  125
King, NYG         209/283/307   79
Chamberlain, CIN, 225/257/294   67


Sure, it was nice if you had a Frank Killen or a Jack Stivetts, but whether you could hit or not wasn't going to determine your job status as a pitcher. In 1892, pitcher batting was already a recessive gene, even a vestigial one. 

No one alive has ever seen a time when pitchers' batting was anything but an afterthought. Very few people alive have ever heard stories from their elders about such a time. The evolution of pitchers' hitting was set in motion when, some time during the Pierce Administration, an enterprising young man decided that if he was going to stand 45 feet away from a guy with a stick, he was going to defend himself with more than just his wits. He was going to try and make the batter's job a little bit harder. Once he did that, he separated his job from that of everyone else on the field. It didn't take until 1973 for that to be clear. It didn't even take until 1873.

The 1945 season is the earliest for which we have splits data at baseball-reference.com. In 1945, pitchers hit .176/.217/.221, for an OPS+ of 28. As a point of comparison, shortstops -- players who are selected in no small part for their defensive ability -- hit .247/.309/.318, for an 84 OPS+. No one reading this can remember a time when pitchers were anything but the worst hitters in baseball, and not by a little bit. Very few of you, maybe no one, has ever had a discussion with anyone who remembers a time when pitchers were anything but the worst hitters in baseball. "OMG, Wes Ferrell" is not a rebuttal, any more than "OMG, Ray Oyler" is an argument for not letting shortstops bat or "OMG, Mitch Williams" is an argument for not letting humans communicate with words.

Tomorrow is the 40th anniversary of baseball's attempt to adjust to its own evolution. The designated hitter didn't come about for these reasons so much as it did for a desperate attempt to raise run scoring, and with it attendance, during a fallow period for both. For a while, the DH was worth about a half a run a game to the American League, but even that has been tamped down over the years as teams have come to treat the DH less as a free spot for a hitter and more as a way to use the rest of the roster efficiently. Whatever its origin story or development, the designated hitter was and is the necessary adaptation to the selection process that gave us a class of players that, in the final year before the DH came into being, hit .146/.184/.184, for an OPS+ of 11.

Humans don't have tails any longer because we don't swing from tree branches any longer. We moved to the ground when the monkeys did not, we learned to walk upright and, over time, our tails went away. For pitchers, bats are tails. They learned a skill set that separated them from the other monkeys on the field, and the skills they did not need went away. The "nine players" argument that underpins the anti-DH position is, because of this, invalid. Pitchers are fundamentally a different class of player from the other eight on the diamond. Different rules apply to them. They're compensated differently. They're handled, within games and on rosters, differently. And they cannot, as a class, hit well enough to be asked to do so in a major-league setting. Their attempts to do so are an embarrassing anachronism not as of 2013, not as of 1973, but as of your great-great-great-grandparents' baseball.

The DH isn't an abomination, it's a necessary adaptation to evolution. I join my friend Christina Kahrl in calling for the National League to adopt the DH so that we can watch the best brand of baseball possible.

Newsletter Excerpt, February 5, 2019 -- "The Missing Middle"

This is an excerpt from the Joe Sheehan Baseball Newsletter, an e-mail newsletter about all things baseball, featuring analysis and opinion about the game on and off the field from the perspective of the informed outsider. Joe Sheehan is a founding member of Baseball Prospectus and a contributor to Sports Illustrated and Baseball America. He has been writing about baseball for more than 20 years.

Your subscription gets you the newsletter and various related features two to five days a week, more than 150 mailings (more than 200,000 words) a year full of smart, fun baseball writing that you can't find in the mainstream. Subscribers can also access the new Slack workspace, to talk baseball with Joe and hundreds of other Newsletter subscribers.

You can subscribe to the newsletter for one year for $39.95 using your PayPal account or major credit card.

--

"Historically speaking, it shouldn’t be the Red Sox and Yankees and Dodgers signing Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, but rather the teams just outside the playoff picture last year, like the Mariners and Rays. Those are the teams that have gone big in free agency in the past. The next group down, too, the ones on the come-up like the White Sox and Padres and Phillies. There’s more precedent for sub-.500 teams signing $200 million players than there is for playoff teams doing so.

"Those are the teams that, thanks to massive growth in national revenue, thanks to the $68 million one-time payment from the sale of BAMtech, thanks to the sharing of local revenue, have sat out free agency. It’s not the lack of action at the top of the standings or the payroll scale that breaks from history, but rather the lack of action from the teams who would normally be climbing the ladder."

Monday, February 4, 2019

Free Preview: "MLB, NFL, PED, MVP"

This is a preview of the Joe Sheehan Baseball Newsletter, an e-mail newsletter about all things baseball, featuring analysis and opinion about the game on and off the field from the perspective of the informed outsider. Joe Sheehan is a founding member of Baseball Prospectus and a contributor to Sports Illustrated and Baseball America. He has been writing about baseball for more than 20 years.

Your subscription gets you the newsletter and various related features two to five days a week, more than 150 mailings (more than 200,000 words) a year full of smart, fun baseball writing that you can't find in the mainstream. Subscribers can also access the new Slack workspace, to talk baseball with me and hundreds of other Newsletter subscribers.

You can subscribe to the newsletter for one year for $39.95 using your PayPal account or major credit card.

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The Joe Sheehan Newsletter
Vol. 10, No. 153
February 4, 2019

On June 6, 2018, Julian Edelman was suspended for four games for violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing-drug policy.

Last night, Julian Edelman was voted the Most Valuable Player of Super Bowl 53.

There is some pushback on that contrast this morning, but by and large, Edelman’s positive drug test and suspension have not been a part of the Patriots’ story this season. They have been, at most, a parenthetical during the team’s run to the Super Bowl, and were not an issue during the game last night. Edelman was essential to Tom Brady’s offense, targeted 35 times in three playoff games, hauling in 26 catches for 388 yards. In the aftermath of last night’s MVP award, the conversation was more about Edelman’s Hall of Fame chances than it was about his suspension.

This couldn’t happen in baseball, of course, not anymore. Players suspended under the Joint Drug Agreement are rendered ineligible for postseason play in the season of their suspension. This additional punishment came about, as all of baseball’s drug policies have come about, when the magic-baseball-pills wing of our game got hold of policy. That group reacted strongly to Jhonny Peralta and Nelson Cruz playing in the 2012 postseason after serving 50-game suspensions. As Ken Rosenthal reported, “One concern among players was that the benefits of PEDs extend beyond the period of usage, providing an additional competitive advantage. As one union official put it, a decision to use PEDs is ‘a work-related choice that calls into question the integrity of your job and the game being played on the field.’ ”

It’s helpful to consider the two sports’ policies in the context of the leagues' labor relations. Back in 1987, the NFL broke the NFLPA by using replacement players to beat a player strike. The nation’s football fans didn’t love the product, but they didn’t reject it, and with each passing week of the four-week strike, the games being played weakened the union’s resolve. When the players returned to work, their union was forever neutered. A union that can’t sustain a strike is effectively a house union.

The largest effect of the NFL strike was the imposition of a payroll cap that guaranteed the players a set percentage of the league’s revenues. Players would no longer be negotiating with their teams for the best deals, but rather, competing with each other for their shares of a fixed pot of money. The more in the pot, the more for everyone. By breaking the union in 1987, and creating this system, the NFL had no more need for an adversarial relationship. The league’s drug-testing program and policies also came out of the 1987 conflict, and have remained largely the same since: A player who tests positive gets a 30-day (now four-game, effectively the same) suspension.

Failing a drug test in the NFL is a misdemeanor. The league issues its press release, the player performs an act of contrition, and everyone moves on. Shawne Merriman was named to the Pro Bowl in 2006, a season in which he served a four-game suspension for failing a drug test. Julius Peppers was suspended under the PED policy in 2002; he retired over the weekend and will almost certainly end up in the Football Hall of Fame. Roger Goodell doesn’t shame these players, the league’s press doesn’t call their accomplishments tainted, there are no endless discussions about what these violations mean to the children of America. The NFL has a far healthier, far more proportionate attitude about performance-enhancing drug use than MLB does.

In baseball, the league tried to break the players’ union by using replacement players during a strike, and it was laughed out of the room. The 1995 exhibition season played by strike-breakers was the low point of a labor strategy seemingly derived by putting a biography of Jack Whitehead through Google Translate a half-dozen times and working off the end result. Having failed to bring its own players’ union to heel, MLB’s owners stumbled on a successful strategy in the early 2000s. By painting the players as cheaters, and encouraging the perception that sports drugs were ruining the game, and the players using them villains of the highest order, MLB wrong-footed the players for the first time since they hired Marvin Miller.

You can trace baseball’s labor-market issues today to the shift in power that occurred during the PED fights of the last decade. That dynamic -- “the players are cheating cheaters who cheat” -- runs through everything. MLB, under Bud Selig, did everything it could to keep the idea front and center, from the laughably one-sided Mitchell Report, to Selig observing Barry Bonds’s 756th home run with his hands in his pockets, to turning every failed drug test into a demand for even harsher punishments. We have to go through this in every single Hall of Fame cycle.

MLB has kept this story alive because it’s been a lever against the players, the first one they’ve had since the reserve system was shattered in 1975. Dividing the  MLBPA into players angry about PED users, and everyone else, served to weaken what was once the most powerful union in sports. In each CBA cycle since 2002, MLB has taken back economic ground while keeping the public’s focus on the images of cheating ballplayers who need to be policed, and punished, heavily. While suspensions went from nothing to ten games to 50 games to 80 games, the penalties for going over the luxury-tax threshold increased in kind, the limits on the amateur market increased in kind, the ability to make money without winning games increased in kind.

What replacement players did for the NFL in 1987, fights over steroids have done for MLB since 2002. You cannot separate the disparate treatment of drug-policy offenders, both internally and externally, from the labor dynamics of each league.

Violating the drug policy in the NFL is a misdemeanor, because it serves the NFL for it to be a misdemeanor. Violating the drug policy in MLB is a felony, because it serves MLB for it to be a felony.