"It gets late early around here." - Yogi Berra
March 30, 2001
BASEBALL: 2001 Preview
Originally posted on the Boston Sports Guy website
I originally planned on a more elaborate preseason spread, with projected records and league leaders, but work intervened and this column doesn’t pay the rent. Here are the standings as I see them:
The Mets and Braves might not be helped by the unbalanced schedule; the Mets were just 27-23 last season against the NL East, but 34-16 against the Central; the Braves were 27-24 last season against their divisional rivals but 32-13 against the West. In fact, the Marlins had the best record in intra-division play (28-22).
If you’re wondering, the teams with the best records within their divisions were: Marlins (.560), Cardinals (.597), Dodgers (.588), Blue Jays (.571), White Sox (.592), and A’s (.579). Teams that overachieved against their division rivals: Royals, Orioles, Phillies, Astros. Underachievers: Yankees (.510), Red Sox (.469), Indians (.412, worst in the Central Division and one of the worst home-division records in baseball), Mariners, Cubs (.339 against a weak division), Giants and Rockies. Take all that for whatever it’s worth.
Anyway, the Braves, like the Yankees, have seen their well-balanced juggernaut unravel and are increasingly dependent on a few superstars and veteran starting pitching -- still a tough mix to beat. With injuries attacking their rotation and catching, a desperate situation at first base and potentially bad outfield corners (although Brian Jordan may rebound), the Braves are ripe for pickin’. But I don’t see it happening.
One piece of good news on the Mets: they plan to use Benny Agbayani in the leadoff spot more often than not. Bobby V can do some strange things, but he deserves credit for not just going with the knee-jerk move of leading off the small, speedy Timo all the time and instead picking a 225-pound home run hitter to lead off because he gets on base.
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(Note: I’ll take a closer look at the NL East some time in the next few weeks. This could be a much more competitive division, top to bottom, than it’s been in years. But for now I’ll be brief and move on to the other divisions.)
The Cards face some challenges: Jim Edmonds had a career year last year; Darryl Kile may also be off; Rick Ankiel is a wild Card, literally; McGwire’s age, injuries and huge strike zone could catch up to him; Will Clark and Fernando Tatis are gone; Mike Matheny remains. But this team still has the best balance in the division, they could get real improvements from JD Drew and Edgar Renteria, and they would take a large step forward if McGwire hits 60 homers again (you can’t say for certain he won’t) and Matt Morris starts 30 times.
Things often collapse much more quickly than they can be rebuilt. The Astros lost too many close games last year, and frankly, they seemed unprepared for how moving from the Astrodome to Enron would affect them (with Billy Wagner mostly healthy, that won’t happen again). I expect an off-year (.290 with 28 homers would be an off-year) from Bagwell and only a partial return to form by Biggio, who’s older than you think (34), but this team can still hit. The rotation is a mess, though, and with Shane Reynolds hurt it could take time to come together. Both Jose Lima and Octavio Dotel may need to be exchanged for ground ball pitchers for the Astros to be more than just Rangers Part Deux!
I was debating picking the Reds before Griffey got hurt, but then reality set in. If healthy, Griffey should rebound. Sean Casey had a huge second half last season; his huge second half in 1998 led into a big 1999, and this could be the same thing. Casey is a serious hitter. The bullpen should be good again. Beyond that, the Reds are their usual collection of talented question marks, and I’m not optimistic about Barry Larkin. I will also be waiting to see if Bob Boone has learned anything from his disastrous tenure
The Cubs have patched some holes by bringing in Todd Hundley, Bill Mueller, Rondell White and Matt Stairs. It’s a fair question whether they should be focusing on plugging holes rather than rebuilding, but with Sammy re-signed and a weak division the Cubs clearly sense an opportunity and a need to make a push now. They should be improved and might finish ahead of the mercurial Reds, but their rotation is still weak behind Jon Lieber and Kerry Wood (assuming Wood is all the way back; the high strike should help), the bottom of the order is pitiful, and the lineup is loaded with guys who list the disabled list as their primary residence. Only three non-pitchers on the roster are under 30, and Rondell White (an old 29) is the only one expected to play a significant role.
The Brewers, as usual, are headed nowhere in particular. They badly need Ron Belliard to step up, and together with the Jenkins/Sexson/Burnitz power core he could give them some offensive oomph. But the pitching staff is not strong, and Jeff D’Amico’s health is (as always) a major concern. Ben Sheets and Miller Park could create some excitement, which is much needed after a lost decade in the wilderness; I watched one Met-Brewer game last summer where Tom Seaver just tore into the Brew Crew for going through the motions.
The Ship of Fools was already headed for rough sailing in Pittsburgh before a battery of pitching injuries set in. The charitable reading of Lloyd McClendon’s decision to name Pat Meares the starting second baseman is that he’s just trying to light a fire under Warren Morris, but it appears that he’s actually serious about giving up entirely on a talented young player coming off a disappointing second season and handing his job to a thirtysomething who is trying to recapture the mediocrity of his youth. Is it too late for Brian Giles to fail his physical and get sent back to Cleveland? This simply has to be the worst team in the National League.
Another division with four competitors and one doormat, although the competitors are all weak enough that the West may be thankful for the unbalanced schedule.
The Rockies are hardly an imposing team outside of the best-hitting pitching staff since Babe Ruth left Boston, and the Neagle signing is sure to be a disaster. But they have two outstanding starters (Hampton and Astacio) and an offense that ought to score some runs even on the road. Fleet-footed rookie Juan Pierre should help shore up the outfield defense, always a burning issue in spacious Coors Field, and Neifi Perez is probably the NL’s best defensive shorstop.
The Giants, who looked like the best team in baseball entering the 2000 postseason, missed their chance. To repeat, they are heavily dependent on Bonds and Kent repeating their 2000 performances. Both should still be outstanding this year, but it’s highly unlikely that they will finish 1-2 in the MVP balloting again. Ellis Burks wasn’t going to hit .344 again, but now he’s gone entirely, as is Bill Mueller, and Mueller leaves a gaping hole (Russ Davis) in his place. Robb Nen will also have difficulty repeating at last year’s unearthly level. I will admit that I may not be giving their rotation its fair credit, but SF’s collection of number 3 starters still doesn’t inspire confidence.
Arizona, the Orioles of the National League, should stay above .500 thanks to solid pitching, but their offense was unimpressive last year and only seems older. My list of guys threatened by the new strike zone includes virtually the entire D-Backs lineup except for Tony Womack, who already stinks.
The Dodgers tempted me, but the Beltre injury leaves them with only two dependably above-average hitters (Sheffield and Green), Chan Ho Park may not be able to repeat last season (when he was the best nonPedro pitcher in baseball the last two months of the season), the bullpen is ancient (you think the Twins still regret dealing Jesse Orosco for Jerry Koosman?), and the defense is suspect. Oh, and now Kevin Brown’s banged up, albeit mildly.
The Pads? Well, there are better ways to develop a young pitching staff than an outfield where Tony Gwynn is not the oldest guy out there. San Diego may make some progress but frankly there’s little new to say about a team there was really nothing to say about last season.
OK, the top 3 aren’t real original. The Yanks aren’t really a championship-caliber team at this stage, given the injury threats to the pitching staff, the decay at three positions (1B, RF and 3B) and defensive experiments at two others (LF and 2B). Justice and Posada are likely to be off last year’s pace, although if Knoblauch survives in left he could give a big boost to the offense. They still have Rivera, Bernie, Jeter, excellent starting pitching, and they are still the Yankees: even if THIS roster isn’t enough, George will get more at the deadline. They won’t win 96 games, but they should hang on to take an injury-riddled division and the mid-season additions could still make them scary in October.
My older brother called this one: the Red Sox look like a rotisserie team assembled by an owner who spent all his money in the first five minutes of the draft and had to fill out his roster with $1 players . . . . At this writing, the 2001 Red Sox Bandwagon is in the garage with the door shut and the motor running. Did I mention that Chris Reitsma, traded by the Sox for Dante’s Decline, will be in the Reds’ starting rotation this year?
Toronto is the same old story: key guys will hit, Billy Koch will close the close ones, but the young pitchers are unpredictable and the lineup peters out at the end. 86 wins. Yawn.
Much of the Rays’ success will hinge on two things: can they unload Vinny Castilla to get more at bats for Aubrey Huff and Steve Cox? And, can Albie Lopez and Paul “Mr. February” Wilson hold up as productive starters over a full season? If so, Tampa could threaten .500. Larry Rotschild deserves some credit as an excellent handler of pitchers. Jason Tyner appears relegated to a bench role, but Tyner is only 24, and if he gets playing time he still has a decent shot at developing the patience at the plate to be an effective table-setter. The best hope for these guys is to shop Vaughn, McGriff, Castilla, Guzman, Alvarez, and Flaherty to contending teams in July.
How bad are the Orioles? A starting outfield of Melvin Mora, Brady Anderson and Delino DeShields? And take a look at the starting rotation beyond Hentgen and Ponson. They are planning on starting some guy named Willis Roberts, a prospect so obscure that none of the many preseasoon guides I own (including the Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus books) even cover him. Peter Angelos should be sued for malpractice . . .
No bad teams in the Central, so head-to-head competition will be vicious.
I see the Indians, like the 1992 A’s, the 1983 Phillies or the 1972 Tigers, squeezing out one more run. Their top 3 starters should be a match for the Twins’, the bullpen is deep, and the offense should still have some firepower. Obviously a revived Juan Gonzalez and the health of Travis Fryman will be key; they need to handle their aging outfielders with care without giving too much playing time to Wil Cordero. The other big things that could kill them: 1) Chuck Finley suddenly getting old, or 2) Russ Branyan hitting .180.
The White Sox have some real health issues on the pitching staff; Ray Durham is due to have a mild off year; Charles Johnson is gone; the team’s best defensive player (Chris Singleton) has lost his job; and Frank Thomas will probably not be quite as good as in 2000. They should still win 90 games, but I sense the Indians taking them head to head. Mark your calendars now for 8 games between the Indians and White Sox between August 31 and September 10 ( the same stretch when the Yankees will be playing the Red Sox and the Giants playing the Rockies).
Some people are picking the Twins to contend for the wild card or even the division title based on their starting pitching. I don’t see it. Their three best hitters are Matt Lawton, David Ortiz and Corey Koskie. Good players all, but can those three outhit Thome, Alomar and Juan Gonzalez? To say nothing of Thomas, Ordonez, and Konerko. The Twins’ vulnerability to lefthanded pitching could be lethal, given how often they’ll see Finley, Wells, Parque, and (if healthy) Rosado, plus rookie lefties Mark Buerhle and CC Sabathia. And their closer is LaTroy Hawkins; baseball-reference.com lists Lynn “Line Drive” Nelson as one of the ten most similar pitchers ever to Hawkins. Not a good sign to be compared to a man known for serving up line drives (for the optimists, Jose Mesa is also listed as a comp through the same age, two years before his '95 breakout).
The Tigers just don’t impress me. Sure, there’s cause for optimism. Roger Cedeno is primed for a solid season at bat and a huge one on the bases (he should lead the league in steals by a margin of about 15-20). The disgruntled Juanny Paycheck is gone. Tony Clark could be healthy. And Matt Anderson’s 100 mph fastball can’t help but make him a big beneficiary of the new zone. But beyond that, this team is too far from having a passable pitching staff or a scary offense to make a dent. Mitch Meluskey's season-ending injury doesn't help.
The Royals aren’t really a last place team; they still have young hitters, and they finally have a closer after an unprecedented stretch of having more blown saves than saves two years in a row. But their starting rotation stinks, Johnny Damon’s gone, Rosado’s ailing, and Joe Randa is probably going to hit .254 again, which would give them three non-hitters in the lineup. The keys to a winning record are the rotation and a revival by Dos Carlos, who have lost their luster of two years ago.
Sure, anything can happen, but the A’s are the only team in the majors that doesn’t need a miracle to have a realistic shot at 100 wins this season if they get reasonably good breaks. The main wild cards would be a big sophomore slump by Barry Zito, the failure of Mark Mulder to develop, the right field platoon, and whether Eric Chavez can crack the Mendoza line against lefthanded pitching. He’d better be prepared for off-speed stuff, since none of the half-decent lefty starters in this division throw much
The Rangers will score plenty, but injuries and bad pitching will doom their playoff hopes. They already have five or six guys on the DL. The bullpen is a shambles, Rusty Greer has struck out in a third of his spring at bats (don’t say you weren’t warned), and Rick Helling collapsed in September last season. The upside: Kenny Rogers could win 20 games with this lineup, and if Helling rebounds, Doug Davis could actually give them 3 decent starters. The new strike zone could help Darren Oliver get his ERA back around 5.00.
The Mariners just don’t have the bats. Besides Olerud – another guy on strike-zone watch – and 38-year-old Edgar, the only possibly above-average hitter at his position is Ichiro! Suzuki, and with little home run power and a moderate number of walks, Suzuki will have to swing his herb-quelling sword at at least a .320 clip to stand out among AL right fielders.
The Angels will get real sick of this unbalanced schedule real fast. Besides Glaus, Salmon, Erstad, Ortiz and some middle relievers, is there anyone on this roster you would want on your team? What kind of organization can’t find a decent DH?
AL -- Nomar's injury clears the way for the Central Division runner-up as the clear favorite in the Wild Card race; since I have the Indians winning the division, that leaves the White Sox for the card.
NLDS: Braves over Astros (pitching wins the day); Cardinals over Rockies
NLCS: Cardinals over Braves, again; this time Atlanta’s just outgunned. Of course, Ankiel could upset that analysis.
ALDS: A’s over White Sox, because the Sox still don’t have the starting pitching; Yankees over Indians, just because they’re the Yankees
ALCS: A’s over Yankees; the torch passes, or rather is pried out of the hands of Clemens and Mussina.
WORLD SERIES: A’s over Cardinals. Not even close. The Yankees will give Oakland a much better fight.
The parity trend continues, as the rich get older and the young stay poor. Last season exposed gaping weaknesses in the game’s top teams, most of whom have responded by dragging in still more expensive veterans, while the young teams continue to find critical elements missing from their hopes of contention. Of the teams with the most prime and near-prime talent and the least dependence on old folks, the Blue Jays, Red Sox and Rockies all have gaping holes in their lineups. Only the A’s are capable of really seizing the moment, which is why they are the logical pick to win it all.
If they don’t click, the inevitable mid-season retooling will put the Yankees back in striking distance of the baseball’s third-ever Four-Peat and third ever by the Yankees, but for now I’m going with the AL’s second most-storied franchise to win its sixteenth AL pennant and tenth World Championship.
QUOTES OF THE WEEK:
“I want to make the team, but if I don’t, I’m in the frame of mind it’s not going to spoil my golf game.”
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March 20, 2001
BASEBALL: Crank's Top Twenty - 2001
Originally posted on the Boston Sports Guy website
I’m starting what will hopefully be an annual feature here: my preseason ranking of the twenty best players to have in 2001. I’m not looking long-term; these are the guys to have on your team this year. I’m looking at the stats and past performance only for what they say about this sesason’s performance. And this isn’t a rotisserie exercise, otherwise Mariano Rivera would be on the list. Here are the top twenty players that any major league GM should and would want:
1. PEDRO MARTINEZ
2. ALEX RODRIGUEZ
3. VLADIMIR GUERRERO
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4. ANDRUW JONES
5. DEREK JETER
6. CARLOS DELGADO
7. MANNY RAMIREZ
8. BARRY BONDS
9. EDGARDO ALFONZO
10. NOMAR GARCIAPARRA
(Here’s why Jimy Williams is under so much pressure this year: if you rank them as if they were healthy, Nomar and Manny give the Sox three of the top six players in the game. It’s hard for that not to lead to great expectations, particularly when you throw in Everett and Derek Lowe.)
11. IVAN RODRIGUEZ
12. KEVIN BROWN
13. CHIPPER JONES
14. MIKE PIAZZA
15. TROY GLAUS
16. BERNIE WILLIAMS
17. RANDY JOHNSON
18. JASON GIAMBI
19. TODD HELTON
20. SAMMY SOSA
GROUP A: Ready to make the leap
JEFF CIRILLO AND TODD WALKER
GROUP B: Ready to disappoint
THE "AFFECTED BY THE STRIKE ZONE" GANG
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March 13, 2001
BASEBALL: Fixing Baseball's Economic Problems
It’s hard to imagine that anyone in their right minds enjoys writing – or reading – about the economics of baseball. Frankly, even though it can be fun to poke some humor at the big numbers, I don’t give two hoots whether Alex Rodriguez makes $252 million or $252 a month. Nor do I care whether George Steinbrenner makes more money from his baseball team than Jeffrey Loria and David Glass put together. And, I suspect, neither do you. The game on the field – and, for that matter, the financial disputes off it – would be exactly the same if you took every dollar figure in baseball and cut it by 95%.
Nonetheless, it seems you can’t scan the newspapers for a single day without seeing dollar signs, salary disputes and sky-is-falling warnings about the game’s fiscal health. Reporters report this stuff and columnists write about it because (1) they need something to talk about; (2) their sources are obsessed with this issue, which is pretty much the same reason why political reporters wind up wasting so much space on polls instead of ideas – you tend to assume that whatever matters to the people you spend all day with must be important to just everyone; and (3) journalists generally tend to be armchair socialists who love to rail against economic inequality.
All of this can have a rather corrosive effect on any fan’s attempt to just enjoy the competition on the field; we would all be better off if more journalists remembered former Chief Justice Earl Warren’s dictum that “I always turn to the sports pages first, which records people's accomplishments. The front page has nothing but man's failures.”
Nonetheless, economic issues DO affect the game on the field; increasingly, they have affected the way we look at the game. It’s worth taking a closer examination at some of the ideas being mooted about by baseball’s powers-that-be to see if the cures are likely to work – or are as bad as or worse than the disease. I profess no great expertise in baseball finance, and unlike professional sportswriters I don’t feel compelled to pretend otherwise, so I’ll mostly stick to generalities here. If you get the big picture right – fixing the incentive structure, that is – the details can usually be worked out anyway.
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PART A: WHAT’S THE PROBLEM?
As usual, experts moan about the game being in trouble without specifying exactly what’s wrong. The usual lament is a variant on the idea that, under the current structure, the richest teams constitute a permanent “winning class” (Yankees, Braves, Yankees, Indians, Yankees, Mets, Cardinals, Yankees, Dodgers, Yankees, Orioles, Red Sox, and Yankees) that goes to the playoffs every year. The poorest teams (Pirates, A’s, Twins, Expos, Royals, Reds, Marlins, Brewers) are a permanent underclass that can’t pay their own young players to stay, can’t sign free agents, can’t draft the players they want due to “signability” issues, and therefore needs handouts to have an occasional chance at the postseason, let alone any hope of beating the Yankees.
(If you look at this politically, by the way, it’s ironic: New Yorkers screaming for the right to keep the fruits of their labors, Midwesterners crying for redistribution of income to the heartland. Not your usual tunes from either camp).
Obviously, there are problems with this view of the world, not least of which is that its entire foundation would have crumbled had the A’s beaten the Yankees in the 2000 ALDS. The owners would have been totally screwed in their bargaining position for the coming lockout if it happened... and Oakland came fairly close. "Of course, the series was cleanly played and this isn't David Stern's NBA (the home of a million and one conspiracy theories), so I'm not suggesting it was fixed; just that the owners and their allies in the newspapers breathed a huge sigh of relief when the Yankees preserved their justification for redistribution.
But let’s pick this apart, because there are really two separate complaints – the good teams are too good, and the bad teams are too hopeless – and a lot of reasons advanced why this is so.
1. ARE THERE HUGE DISPARITIES IN OWNER PROFITS?
If you want a more detailed look at market sizes, here are two thoughtful
2. DO SOME TEAMS PAY THEIR PLAYERS TOO MUCH?
3. IS OVERALL COMPETITIVE BALANCE OUT OF WHACK?
Face it, the real driving force here is Yankee-hating. Now, I hate the Yankees probably more than is healthy, but if anyone else – even the Mets or Braves – won the World Series last year we wouldn’t hear half of this. And the fact is, the Yankees aren’t invincible, and do have some problems of their own. It’s not like they win 110 games every year, they’ve just learned how to build a team that’s both good and well-suited to short series.
4. ARE THE BAD TEAMS TOO STUCK IN THE CELLAR?
Also, the fact that some teams reach the postseason every year (and, in fairness, the reason so many different teams have been there lately) is the wild card, which rewards the constant retooling that a big budget makes possible. For a 90-win goal, that's fine; it's much harder if your object is to win 100 games.
The core complaint here, it seems, is that the best teams operate at a level that “small-market” teams simply can’t reach – they can make the playoffs, maybe they can get lucky in one series, but sooner or later they will get stomped by a team that adds depth that poor folks can’t match. And there IS at least some validity to that – the Yankees and the A’s may look even (or better than that, for Oakland) right now, but at the trading deadline this season, the Yankees can go out and add another big salary if they want to. The A’s might add another low-paid guy who’s about to be a free agent (like Johnny Damon), but they can’t pay a Sosa or a Sheffield if they need one to keep up, particularly if it’s a guy with more than a few months on his contract.
So we’ve diagnosed one problem: the big-market teams can add salaries to put them over the top, and the small-market teams generally can’t.
6. DO THE GOOD TEAMS HAVE A BETTER CHANCE AT STAYING GOOD?
7. WHAT ABOUT YOUNG PLAYERS?
So we’ve identified the specific issues. Smaller-revenue teams have more difficulty with three things relative to teams with the biggest revenue streams:
--A) Paying their existing players to stick around once they are free-agent eligible.
Moreover, it would be better if more teams had at least the ability to match the top payrolls in the league. Any solutions offered should look to even the score, at least partially, on these four counts.
The few solutions that have been tried so far -- banning cash sales of players, the amateur draft, limited revenue sharing, etc -- have either failed or produced unintended consequences. For example, revenue sharing failed because cheapo owners like Carl Pohlad in Minnesota and Claude Brochu in Montreal preferred to pocket the money they begged off of Steinbrenner instead of investing in players.
As for other solutions, it is generally agreed that salary caps are bad for many reasons: they’re either inflexible, discourage trading, and ruin existing teams, or they’re laughably ineffective, or both. Most of the owners’ options would either (i) cause war with the players’ union (e.g., salary caps), (ii) devalue existing franchises (e.g., Rupert Murdoch would never have paid so much for the Dodgers if he thought there would be comprehensive revenue sharing) or (iii) require owners to open their books to detailed examination of their finances and/or encourage cooking the books to look poor.
PART B: MY SOLUTION
So... how do we fix this?
The Deep Thought that came to owners during the offseason was to hold an annual “competitive balance draft,” in which the teams with the 5 or 8 or so worst records would select players (beyond a core protected from drafting) from the 5 or 8 best teams. This was obviously triggered on the notion that there is too much imbalance between the top and bottom of the scale, and specifically that the top teams need to be brought down as much as the bottom teams need to be brought up. As I said before, I don’t really buy it, but there’s a point in trying to get the richest teams to at least have SOME constraints in how they try to spend the opposition out of the water.
The competitive balance draft has been widely pillored, and justifiably so. The owners’ reasoning, given the benefit of the doubt, runs something like this: there are many ways to address the specific imbalances in revenue or spending, but rather than open themselves up to the kind of gamesmanship that separates revenues from success on the field, the owners have decided to look at the ultimate bottom line – winning – to determine who’s rich and who’s poor and in need of help. The obvious problem is that this confuses cause with effect, poverty with foolishness and bad luck; as many critics have pointed out, it would be ridiculous to let the wealthy but dim-witted Orioles draft from the poor but clever A’s. Talk about “corporate welfare.”
One other problem: this draft does nothing to stop top teams from signing people like Alex Rodriguez, since nobody’s going to draft the most expensive player, and once you’re good enough there’s no extra penalty for piling on. In fact, the fear of losing key role players would likely lead teams like the Yankees to spend more on free agents, since they know that part of what they spend is being taxed to help the Twins.
Still, it’s worth asking exactly what is wrong with the diagnosis and how the owners could structure such a draft in a way that would, at least, be directed at the actual problem. I propose that there’s a better way to conduct the same draft, one that would not be nearly as bad and might have the positive effect of imposing some hesitancy on teams who want to spend, spend, spend.
Before we attack my idea, here are some essentials for how a better mousetrap might work:
--1. Instead of drafting from teams with the biggest revenues or records, target teams with the biggest and smallest payrolls. That’s sort of what’s done in today’s “luxury tax” system anyway. Anybody with a minor league contract would be excluded, but foreign free agents and draftees with salaries above a set scale would be counted in, so as to alleviate the signability issue.
--2. Instead of allowing teams to protect a certain number of players, teams would be allowed to protect a certain amount of salary. That way a team that signs an A-Rod-type market-busting contract would have to make tougher choices about which players to protect. Also, teams would have to choose between protecting more of their young, low-salary players or the high-salary veterans.
--3. Instead of picking a certain number of teams at the top, the eligibility for losing players would arise from being a certain percentage above the average or median payroll. The fact that this would be a floating target is a good thing, because teams would be kept guessing a bit about how far they want to stick their necks out. On the other hand, the number of teams at the bottom would be fixed, so as to discourage artificial suppression of payrolls.
--4. Of course, bad teams wouldn’t draft guys with $8 million salaries unless the teams that lose them are required to keep paying them. This sounds awful, but it’s really no different from the luxury tax or the “Steinbrenner tax” (how Steinbrenner often has to pay teams to take guys like Kenny Rogers off his hands). On the other hand, the salary would be transferred to the acquiring team for draft purposes, so that teams can’t play the same poverty game year after year.
(I know some of the free-marketers in the audience are gagging at this point, but remember, baseball is not intended to be a free market; equality of opportunity to compete is part of the product).
This may be both too draconian and too complicated, and as a practical matter such a draft’s depressing effect on the top salaries would likely trigger a labor war. Also, how thrilled do you think Paul O’Neill or Andy Pettite would be about getting drafted onto the Twins? The prospect might result in good teams losing scads of young players because their veterans would all demand contracts providing for protection in the draft. But at least the solution would be aimed at the right problems.
Still, we need something more tangible. Baseball agent Scott Boras proposed giving teams a financial incentive for the number of plate appearances (and, presumably, innings, although as Rick Ankiel’s agent he might want to reconsider encouraging teams to work their youngsters harder) they give to home-grown players. He also proposed giving teams a financial bonus tied strictly to the number of games they win. The problem with the first solution is that nobody wants to see teams giving playing time to stiffs just because they came from the farm system. The second is even more objectionable – the game has worked too hard to avoid having money change hands on the basis of particular regular-season games. The incentives for fixing games are too serious to put in such a system.
But Boras’ ideas gave me some pause, and ultimately gave me an idea that I like much more than re-jiggering the competitive balance draft. What we're really concerned about here is giving low-revenue teams an incentive to retain their players while putting them on sounder financial footing to compete in other ways? That's it in a nutshell.
So here's my grand idea...
Why not CREATE A FUND from which ALL teams – rich or poor – would be able to draw matching funds for the purposes of re-signing their own players? The matching-fund concept is widely used by government programs and corporate benefit programs; it’s a well-recognized way to subsidize something without just giving handouts. The more teams spend on their own players, the more they would get back, so this wouldn’t just be welfare or a Steinbrenner-fleecing scheme.
The fund could be financed by a levy on local TV revenue, which is the single largest source of economic disparity between franchises (Bob Costas lays out the numbers on this in his book Fair Ball, which offers a mixed bag of good and bad ideas about reforming the game’s economic structure; Costas proposes sharing local TV revenue). I don’t have numbers on how big a bite such a fund would take out of that pie, if, for example, you had a 50/50 match for all free agents and all contract extensions beyond the date of eligible free agency.
The NBA has long recognized, with the so-called “Larry Bird rule,” that teams should have a financial advantage in re-signing their own guys. My idea for a matching fund would go even further, by putting actual dollars (not just “cap room”) in teams’ pockets. Players would love it, since it would exert an upward pressure on salaries by putting more teams in the market to re-sign their own guys and requiring suitors for free agents to offer a bigger premium. Also, many players would be happy to stay where they are for the right money, particularly guys with families and/or close friends on the team. The only downside is that mid-level free agents (unlike the A-Rods and Mussinas of the world who aren’t really replaceable) would find demand for their services drying up because it would be cheaper for teams to keep their own guys than shop through the market.
Obviously you would need to have restrictions to curb abuse of the rule by jerks like Roger Clemens who (1) demand a trade, and (2) use the automatic free agency that comes after being traded under certain conditions to demand fat contract extensions from their new team. Such a rule would be easy to devise, simply requiring that players would be eligible to be signed with matching funds only if they either had their rookie season with the team (under the Rookie of the Year eligibility standard) or had been with the team for two years, or three years, or something like that.
One of the virtues of the matching fund concept: it would fix the problem Steinbrenner gripes about of owners taking handouts and pocketing them. Owners would only receive help in proportion to how much they help themselves. The flexibility of the fund concept beats some of the alternatives suggested for policing the owners, like requiring them to spend a certain amount on payroll. And in the end, it would give fans what they want most: to keep the guys they have. Teams don’t have to look like roto squads, after all.
As for the high school draft, the owners actually seem to be headed in the right direction as far as extending the amateur draft to foreign players. Not perfect, but a good idea. Some scouts have complained that the signing of foreign players is too chaotic to be subjected to the amateur draft, but teams will still pick the players they want, and if it was really that much of a crapshoot, teams wouldn’t spend their money on foreign players. Yeah, there will be risks, but those risks are part of the business already.
The amateur draft isn’t a cure-all, since teams with shallow pockets often pass over the best players (or the ones represented by Scott Boras) because they can’t sign them; perhaps the matching fund I described above should be extended to the draft as well (although the issues would be more complicated). Allowing trades of draft picks would also be a good idea --this would give teams more leverage over draftees and enable teams to benefit from a high placement even if they don’t have the cash to get the best player.
Anyway, these are just a few of the ideas kicking around. The game’s problems are real, but they aren't as bad as they look; there aren’t nearly as many teams in trouble as many people think. And solutions are not that hard to imagine. The real problem is that players and owners don’t always have incentives to fix them; they certainly don’t have sufficiently similar incentives to reach agreements. And that’s a shame.
QUOTES OF THE WEEK
On Kevin Brown’s contract, in the winter of 1999:
“People say it's monopoly money. That's wrong. When we were kids we never had that much monopoly money."
"Parity is not the American way. The American way is to dominate somebody
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March 2, 2001
BASEBALL: REMEMBERING EDDIE MATHEWS
Originally posted on the Boston Sports Guy website.
Eddie Mathews died last week. Although it wasn't quite ignored by the media, Mathews' passing was given only a cursory writeup in many corners and widely overshadowed by the spectacular death of Dale Earnhardt. Sports Illustrated ran only a brief note on how Mathews was the magazine's first-ever cover picture, in 1954. The New York Times buried a small obituary for Mathews under a much longer one for "sex expert" William Masters. ESPN.com couldn't even find space on its baseball page for a decent tribute, leaving it to the indecipherable Ralph Wiley to give him a decent sendoff. CBS Sportsline did a better job with this "Behind the Numbers" profile and career retrospective.
But Mathews deserved better. In 130 years of organized major league baseball, thousands of men have played Mathews' position, and only one - Mike Schmidt - played it better. That's more than you could say about Joe DiMaggio, or Roberto Clemente, or Sandy Koufax, or Whitey Ford. Mathews was one of baseball's giants, only the second third baseman (after Frank "Home Run" Baker) who could have been considered one of the game's superstars. It still astonishes me that it took Mathews five tries to get elected to the Hall of Fame.
I've been busy this week, so I don't have the time here either to do Mathews justice. But it's fitting to compare him to some of the other, more prominent contenders for the title of "second greatest third baseman of all time." (Schmidt is regarded now, by acclamation, as the best at the position, and since I have no quarrel with that assessment I'll leave him out of the discussion). I?ll stick to the most famous ones, although I feel comfortable as well that Mathews was a greater player than Baker, Jimmy Collins, or John McGraw.
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PART ONE: THE ALL-TIME GREATS
Here are the contenders: I'll run links for each player to the baseball-reference.com profile and the Baseball Prospectus profile (which includes BP evaluative stats like "EqA" that are explained on the BP website).
I don't have a definitive list, but I believe that when Mathews retired in 1968, he had hit more home runs than any other two third basemen combined; the only other players I could find with 200 homers to that point who had played most of their careers at third were Ron Santo (282) and Ken Boyer (224).
One thing that sticks out is Mathews' influence on the Braves organization. After the great teams of the 1890's left town, the Braves spent half a century in Boston as a team without an identity, playing mediocre baseball before miniscule crowds in a stadium with the most distant fences in the history of modern baseball. The 1914 miracle was just that - the major players came and went within a few years. When the team headed to Milwaukee in 1953, the 1948 pennant winners looked to go the same way. But with his blockbuster arrival as a slugger from 1953 to 1955, Mathews joined Warren Spahn to give the Braves an identity that they have basically kept to this day, as a team built around home run power and a combination of young hitters with what have usually been veteran pitching staffs.
Although they don't have the cache of Yankee centerfielders or Red Sox leftfielders, Mathews was the second in an almost unbroken line of hard hitting third basemen, from Bob Elliott (the first third baseman to win an MVP award) to Mathews to Darrell Evans to Bob Horner to (briefly) Terry Pendleton to Chipper Jones.
Beginning around the time Mathews came up and until Schmidt and Brett were in their primes, Traynor was regarded as the greatest third baseman of all time, primarily due to his lifetime .320 batting average and seven 100-RBI seasons. (Bill James, in the Historical Baseball Abstract, traces the timeline of the rise of Traynor's reputation). Third basemen in Traynor's day were expected to be glove men first and hitters second, in part because until the home run became an accepted weapon, teams bunted incessantly and used other strategies (runners trying to take extra bases, hit-and-run, squeezes, steals and double steals) that involved the third baseman in a lot more fielding plays than is true today. You can see the game changing through the average third baseman's range factor Although Traynor played after the "lively ball" era began when Ruth hit 54 homers in 1920, it took several years for managers raised in the old way to adjust; most teams generally only had 1 or 2 power hitters until the 1930s, and the bunt was still a popular weapon. Anyway, Traynor was known as a gifted fielder as much as he was known for his hitting.
Much like Mathews, Traynor also became the prototype Pittsburgh Pirate. Within a few years of his arrival, they had a whole team of guys just like him, high-average hitters with doubles-and-triples power, good gloves and usually not a lot of patience at the plate (the 1925 World Champs were one of the great teams as far as hitting singles, doubles and triples); subsequent Pirate teams have usually built around this model, from Kiki Cuyler to the Waner brothers to Dick Groat to Roberto Clemente to Al Oliver, Bill Madlock and the young Dave Parker to Tony Pena to Johnny Ray to Andy Van Slyke to Jason Kendall. There have been exceptions, of course, but Traynor serves as the dominant model.
Robinson handily defeated Mathews for the second slot on the All-Century team (Brett was third); Robinson was named on 56.3% of all ballots (bearing in mind that everyone was permitted to choose two 3B and Schmidt was named on 63.3% of ballots), while Mathews was named on only 12.9%. He was another guy whose reputation really took off after he dominated the 1970 World Series with his glove, although he also captured the AL MVP in 1964. Like Mathews and Traynor, Robinson has really been the guy the Orioles have sought to replicate in their organization, most prominently with Cal Ripken and Eddie Murray: guys who are fundamentally sound, good defensive players, not that fast afoot and who never, ever take a day off.
I actually voted for Schmidt and Brett for the All-Century Team, although when I thought it over afterwards I was ashamed of myself for overlooking Mathews. For me and almost anyone who ever saw him, Brett was the ultimate clutch hitter. I have read many, many studies on the non-existence of clutch hitting as a distinct skill, and as a rational person I accept them... but if my life literally depended on one hitter driving in a run in a big situation, I'd be lying if I said I'd take anyone I've ever seen other than George Brett.
There's another theme here: George Brett wasn't just the Royals' best player but the guy they've modeled the franchise after. Ballparks have something to do with this process, of course - there's a reason the Red Sox have traditionally favored big sluggers while the Mets have favored power pitchers - but a dominant player can put a deep stamp on the way an organization thinks about the elements of success. The Royals remain to this day a team that is best served by hustling, aggressive hitters with line-drive power.
Boggs is overlooked in discussions of great third basemen, mainly because (1) he was still playing until recently and (2) he's hard to compare to other players. Like Robinson, he stuck around a few years as a so-so player, which really needs to be ignored in evaluating how good he was in his prime.
Just for comparison's sake, we should include the man who holds Mathews' old job and doubles as the best in the business at the position today. Jones hasn't been around long enough for a fair comparison to the rest of these guys, but he does give us a framework to appreciate Mathews and the others through the light of today's game.
PART TWO: THE OFFENSIVE NUMBERS
As I've done for earlier columns, I'm looking just at these guys in their prime years:
Mathews, that's 11 seasons, 1953-63, age 21-31.
A. Raw Stats
(XO= Extra outs, caught stealing + GIDP)
On raw numbers alone, only Chipper surpasses Mathews in this group -- in just half as many seasons -- although you could argue that Boggs was equally valuable because of his extraordinarily high on base percentage. But what about the context? Pie Traynor and Chipper Jones both benefitted from high-scoring eras, and of course Boggs had Fenway. By contrast, Brooks Robinson played in what was practically another dead-ball era, while Mathews played in Milwaukee County Stadium in the fifties, when it was (along with Yankee Stadium) the toughest pitcher's park in the game.
How tough was it? In 1958, the Braves and their opponents scored 31% more runs in Braves road games than home games. In 1954, there were 173 homers (24 of them by Eddie Mathews) hit in Braves road games but only 73 (16 by Mathews) at County Stadium! More runs were scored in the Braves road than home games every year from 1953 to 1962, and the difference was greater than 10% in 8 of those 10 years. It was a tough, tough place to hit.
Adjusting the league runs/game by 1/2 of this "park factor," we can come to a proper sense of the offensive context each man batted in:
Mathews: 4.04 runs/game
When you put it that way . . . it's pretty obvious that Mathews was the best hitter of the bunch, by a substantial margin, and that's comparing his best 11 years to Chipper's 5. Traynor is just as clearly the worst. I don't mean to knock Traynor; a guy who bats .329 and drives in 100 runs every year while playing great defense is valuable in any era... just not in the class of this company. And Brooks Robinson wasn't not so far behind Boggs, Brett, or Jones in his own low-scoring context; Boggs and Jones both played in a time and place where you needed 20% more runs to win.
One hidden advantage Mathews possessed was his ability to avoid the double play; I'm guessing here but that was probably due in part to hitting the ball in the air a lot. Each of the others on this list made between 4 and 10 extra outs every year, mostly through GIDP but in Brett's case through caught stealings (Boggs was the worst offender, hitting into 16 twin killings a year as a leadoff man and getting caught more than half the time he tried to steal).
More technical measures of offensive production agree with the common sense conclusion. The STATS ?Runs Created/27 Outs? leaderboard, through 1997, listed Mathews as the #3 hitter at the position (relative to the league but unadjusted for park effects) behind McGraw and Schmidt; Boggs ranked sixth, Brett 11th, Traynor 43d, and Robinson was not on the list. The Baseball Prospectus ?EqA?, which takes account of league and park influences, places Mathews above Jones (even in mid-career), followed by Boggs, Brett, Traynor and Robinson (Robinson?s career percentages are dragged down by many years at the beginning and end of his 23-year career when he was a no-hit glove man).
Mathews? formula for success was simple: he finished in the league?s top 5 in homers nine years in a row, and the top 4 in walks twelve years in a row. How does he stack up on that count?
League lead-Top 5-Top10 in average, slugging, on base percentage, OPS, hits, homers, total bases, runs, RBI, walks, or steals (for their careers as a whole):
Mathews wasn't a regular as batting champ like Brett and Boggs, but over a range of key offensive categories he was up there in the league leaders more than any of these guys.
C. In the Field
Brooks Robinson was the best at his position in the modern age, quite possibly ever. You can?t argue with 16 Gold Gloves, which his defensive stats back those up. Neyer and the Baseball Prospectus folks have been debating lately about the studies of Voros McCracken, a dedicated analyst who has offered a fascinating, if hard to digest, mathematical analysis of why the rate at which balls in play become hits is determined almost entirely by the hitter and defense and not by the pitcher. It?s a controversial theory, but among recent pitchers with long careers one guy sticks out as having an
Traynor was also a sensational fielder, and along with Ossie Bleuge he defined defense at the position in his day. Brett and Boggs were up-and-down fielders, though each eventually won Gold Gloves, and Chipper was so dreadful last year that the Braves spent the off-season debating moving him to the outfield.
In this class, Mathews has to fall in the top half, behind Robinson and Traynor. He had a great arm and was regarded as a fine fielder; his defensive stats are very good. He led the league in range factor twice, assists three times, and had well above average range factors and slightly above average fielding percentages for the balance of his career. He never won a Gold Glove; the awards only started in 1957, and Ken Boyer owned it for the latter half of Mathews? career. Billy Cox would probably have won it in Mathews first few years, though it?s not clear whether Mathews might have won it in 1955 or 1956.
D. In the clutch
No doubt about it, George Brett is the class of the field on this count; Brett batted .339/.627/.399 in 43 postseason games, and .373/.529/.439 in two World Series. Brett's clutch hitting stemmed in part from his health; while his regular season stats were merely mortal due to constant injuries, he was mostly healthy in October (a prominent exception being his famous battle with hemorrhoids in the 1980 World Series), and raised his level of performance accordingly. As with Mickey Mantle, that's the story of Brett's career; on the whole he can't match up to a guy like Mathews who brought his "A" game to the park 150 times a year for a decade.
Robinson was also a terror in the postseason, with bat and glove. Each of the others, frankly, underachieved in the postseason, although some had their moments, then and in big regular season games: Chipper's September 1999 demolition of the Mets, Mathews' 10th inning homer off Bob Grim in Game 4 to even the 1957 World Series. That homer was a key turning point: remember, the Yankees had won 15 of 17 World Series between 1927 and 1956. Mathews helped break the spell, if only for one October.
Mathews was remembered by everyone who knew him as a fiery emotional leader, like Brett but perhaps not as impulsive. He was not a particularly successful manager, though some of his players thrived under him as never before or after. On the other hand, unlike Traynor, none of the teams he managed choked spectacularly down the stretch (See: pennant race, 1938). In many of his prime years, Mathews was the biggest star on a team with Warren Spahn and Hank Aaron, which says something. Then again, the Braves probably should have won more in those years; they blew close pennant races to a geriatric Dodger squad in 1956, a rebuilding Dodger team in 1959, and upstart Pirates and Reds teams in 1960 and 1961.
Eddie Mathews was a better third baseman -- both in his prime and over the course of his career -- than the legendary Pie Traynor (who lacked Mathews' power and patience). He was better than Brooks Robinson; maybe they weren't in the same league defensively, but Matthews had a fine glove and he was a far better hitter than Robinson. Matthews was better than George Brett: far more durable, more patient, a better fielder, and he didn't spend years as a first baseman and DH. He was better than Boggs, with far more power and much greater range afield. And he was better than the best in the business today, Chipper Jones.
Let the record show that Eddie Mathews was baseball's number-two man at the hot corner, trailing only Mike Schmidt. Don't forget this.
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