The Race to the Bottom

Opening Day for the baseball season is tomorrow – which means all the sports journalists have come out with their power rankings and predictions for the season. It’s pretty easy to choose who the division winners are going to be. With the exception of the American League East (which has two – the Yankees and the Red Sox), each division has just one powerhouse team that should have no problems running away with their flag.

That’s just how the game has turned out these past few years. Sure, a few teams can sneak in to the playoffs via the wild card, but even there you don’t have more than a couple of teams capable of doing that. Most teams are mediocre at best, with no chance of getting anywhere.

And however it happened, the current economic situation has actually encouraged – at least it hasn’t actively discouraged – poor teams from giving up and selling or trading off the few good players they might have in the hope of getting a bunch of good prospects or draft choices.

With the pennant races virtually decided even before the first shout of “Play Ball”, the real races to watch are the ones for last place. Will the crappy teams do the honorable thing and try to win as many games as they can, or make the good business decision to “tank” and hope for the best in the off-season?

Here are my choices for the worst teams in every division (and how they might actually pull off a miracle):

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The Greatest World Series Ever

With Spring Training underway, baseball is back in the news!. One of the many things we’re pondering (Will Mike Trout ever get another MVP award? Are the Rays and Marlins really trying to lose?) is the eternal question: Who is going to win the World Series this year? It’s a teeny bit too early for predictions – so I won’t make any.

Instead, I’ll note that we’ve had some really great series recently. Exciting games, teams ending championship droughts, classic matchups, the works. It leads one to ponder – just which WS was the most exciting of them all?

Seems like one cannot quantify “excitement” in that manner. Surely, it’s an objective matter. But hold on a minute. The huge body of statistical records in baseball, with details down to individual pitch counts, makes it a bit easier than one would expect. There’s something called “Win Probability” which, as it suggests, gives a team’s chance of winning a game at any specific point in any given game. Atfer a play, the difference in Win Probability becomes “Win Probability Added” (WPA). The bigger and more important a play, the greater the WPA. (more on WPA in this post ) In a World Series or other playoff game, one can calculate the odds of a Championship Probability – the chance a team has of winning the actual series – for each situation. The Championship Probability Added (cWPA) is therefore how important a given play was in determining the outcome of a series.

Naturally, people have done this to figure out the biggest and most important plays in World Series history. Over at The Baseball Gauge, Dan Hirsch has crunched all the numbers and made the database.

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The Hall of Fame Class of 2018

The Baseball Writers Association of America has announced their choices for induction into the Hall of Fame. Add their four choices to the two selected by the Veterans Committee, and there’s a total of six players going in this year. That’s a huge crowd! You can easily look up their stats, and the Hall itself produces and publishes “highlight” films for each of them.

Rather than reiterate all that, I thought I’d post a Fun Fact about each.

Note that I’m not going to make a distinction between those voted in by the writers and those chosen by the committee. The plaques in the actual room don’t care; neither should you.

VLADIMIR GUERRERO

His older brother Wilton had an eight-year MLB career; the two played together on the Expos for three and a half years.

TREVOR HOFFMAN

When he was six weeks old, he had a kidney removed because of an arterial blockage.

CHIPPER JONES

Finished his career with more walks (1512) than strikeouts (1409). On a per-season basis, he did that in 12 of his 19 seasons. Only about 30 players have more seasons doing that over their entire career.

JACK MORRIS

Was on the winning side in three World Series, for three different teams. Only four other players can make that claim (John Lackey, Stuffy McInnis, Wally Schang, and Lonnie Smith).

JIM THOME

His aunt, Carolyn Thome Hart, is in the National Softball Hall of Fame.

ALAN TRAMMEL

Inducted into the National Polish-American Sports Hall of Fame in 1998.
Managed the Arizona Diamondbacks for three games in 2014; went 1-2.

The Other Hall of Famers

With the announcement of this year’s Baseball Hall of Fame inductees less than two weeks away, the discussion in the various media has switched from “Who should get inducted” to “Who will (probably) get inducted”. So we’re not seeing much more in the way of JAWS scores or career Wins Above Replacement anymore.

But there are entire groups of people who don’t have any of those numbers who still deserve to belong in any Baseball Hall of Fame you could create. Just because they never played the game shouldn’t disqualify them. There are plenty of non-players who are already enshrined.

So, as an exercise to my handful of readers, if you were starting with a clean slate, which people who never wore a uniform would you have in your Hall of Fame?

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The Hall of Fame and the Keltner List

It’s that time of year again – the Baseball Hall of Fame has released their annual ballot. Let the arguments begin!

The arguments typically involve analyzing a player’s statistics (which is NOT to be confused with statistical analysis!) and deciding who is better on some arcane and arbitrary scale.

There’s “Wins Above Replacement”, which exists in two versions. At Baseball Reference, you can look up Bill James’ “Black Ink”, “Gray Ink”, and “Hall of Fame Monitor”, which all assign points to various career accomplishments and compare them to players already in the Hall. Jay Jaffe has come up with his “JAWS” score, which is an attempt to combine everything into a single number by which one can easily judge a player’s Hall-worthiness.

(Note that JAWS and WAR are pretty much calculations in a multidimensional space – but more on that in a future post….)

These are all attempts to take something that is purely subjective – a player’s greatness – and treat it in an objective manner. But they still wind up being subjective in the way they assign weights and importance to their individual components. And what the heck is meant by a “half a win” above replacement, anyway?

I figure we should drop all the pretense of objectivity, and go with the Keltner List.

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On the 2017 World Series

Wow.

What a World Series! What can I say? It was an unbelievable set of games, between two amazing teams. All the games were very close and hard-fought. Even the ones that look like blowouts from the final score weren’t. Game 4, that ended with the Dodgers winning 6-2? It was tied at 1 going to the ninth inning. And even Game 7 was tighter than you’d think.

Sure, the Astros scored their five runs early. Yu Darvish is probably already getting blamed for it, but watch the replays. Springer’s leadoff double was fair by inches, and if Cody Bellinger has simply put the ball in his pocket instead of throwing it to El Monte…. Meanwhile, Astros’ starter Lance McCullers must have thought he was playing dodgeball instead of baseball against the Dodgers – he hit four of the thirteen batters he faced. But the Dodgers offense left the population of Burbank on the basepaths, dooming whatever chances they were handed.

Even so, knowing the state of the Astros’ bullpen and the overall strength of the Dodgers’ offense, there was always the hope / worry that Los Angeles would put something together and pull out a win. They didn’t really look dead until the bottom of the ninth.

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Just Checking…

Back at the end of March, in the introduction to an essay on the validity of the “win” as a worthwhile statistic for pitchers, I tossed out my picks for the six division winners this baseball season:

Now I could use this opportunity to discuss my picks for the Divisional Champions (Nationals, Cubs, Dodgers, Red Sox, Indians, Astros), but I really haven’t been paying attention to how Spring Training has been going.

https://pureblather.com/2017/03/28/on-pitchers-wins-ii/

Turns out I was right on all six. It’s not really a big deal; it was pretty obvious at the start of the season that they were the strongest teams (at least on paper) in their divisions. But it’s still kind of nice to go 6-0 in my picks.

I’m NOT going to give any predictions for the World Series; I’ll just note that if it’s Cubs and Indians, that will be the first time since 1977-1978 that there’s been a “rematch” in the W.S.; and if it’s Dodgers and Astros, it will be baseball’s best pitching staff (Dodgers) facing baseball’s best offense (Astros).

 

This is Going to be Great!

We’re heading down to the final weekend of the baseball season, and it’s shaping up to be a great batch of playoffs. The division winners are essentially set, and it’s pretty clear who’s going to be facing each other in the wild-card “play-in” game. And they’re all worth rooting for.

The Los Angeles Dodgers have already reached 100 wins. They haven’t done that since 1974. For a while it looked like they were going to set a record for wins, but they stumbled a bit down the stretch. They’ve righted the ship, and it looks like they’ll have home-field advantage all the way through to the World Series. Which, if they make it, will be their first pennant since 1988.

The Cubs want to be the first team to repeat as World Series Champions since the 1999-2000 New York Yankees. The Washington Nationals are (still) going for the first pennant in franchise history (including their tenure in Montreal). I don’t think they’ll settle for just winning more than one playoff game, though. With three of the best pitchers in the NL (Scherzer, Strasburg, Gonzalez), you can’t blame them. And their “window” is closing; Bryce Harper is nearing free agency….

Over in the American League, the Cleveland Indians certainly want another shot at the World Series to end their drought. They’ve been tearing up the joint this month and a half, and should get 100 wins by the time the season ends. The Astros also have a shot at 100, and how can you not root for Houston?

The Boston Red Sox, meanwhile, would like to remind Yankee and Aaron Judge fans that they actually lead the AL East, as well as having Cy Young candidate Chris “300+ strikeouts ought to count for something, right?” Sale.

Speaking of awards, most of these teams have a solid candidate for some serious hardware. Chris Sale and the Indians’ Corey Kluber are the top choices for AL Cy Young, Max Scherzer of the Nationals and the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw to worry about. The Astros’ Jose Altuve is the leading AL MVP candidate. The NL MVP Award field is rather crowded; the Cubs’ Kris Bryant has an outside chance at it.

All the division leaders are loaded with talent. Expect a lot of great, exciting games in October! And however it turns out, it’s pretty much guaranteed that a deserving team will win.

When Your Team is Out of the Race

I freely admit to being a Mets fan. This is largely the fault of Howie Rose, their radio play-by-play man. The Mets radio team runs rings around John “Theeeeeeeeeeeee Yankees Win!” Sterling. Anyway, a couple of days ago, with the Mets well out of contention (even getting to .500 is a very long shot), he talked about why you should follow your team anyway. His point was that you’d get to be there when all these new, young players made their debuts (like I was there for Rhys Hoskins’ first game), and you could brag about it later.

This got me to wondering (especially with football stories starting to occupy the sporting press) – what sort of fun and interesting and amazing things happen with teams out of the playoff hunt in late September? Thanks to the “This Day in Baseball History” pages of National Pastime and Baseball Reference, I was able to dig up a lot of interesting things that happened on September 15 or later. The sorts of things that make following baseball worthwhile.

I’ve concentrated on events no more than ten years old, because we all know that if it happened before you were old enough to notice, it didn’t really happen.

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A Trip to Philadelphia – Part 3

As a baseball fan, I’ve been planning my vacations around the schedule so I can take in a game while I’m away. This time, I deliberately chose to go to Philadelphia so I could see the Phillies host the Mets. I hadn’t been to Citizens Bank Ballpark yet, so there was an extra reason for going.

All of Philadelphia’s sporting venues are clustered together at the southern end of the city. Mass transit is pretty good; the Broad Street subway line ends nearby. It’s a couple of minutes to walk to the stadium past acres of parking lots; it seems that’s the best they could do with all the new stadia construction coming after the subway was finished.

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