MLB Wild Card: The Final Weekend

Wednesday night was the final curtain for several teams with playoff hopes. The Yankees lost to Tampa Bay 8-3 and, when coupled with the Indians’ win over Chicago, were eliminated from post season play for only the second time in nineteen years. This also signaled the end of the Mariano Rivera era and his significant contribution to success over his career. Kansas City lost and its hopes ended as well. We will see more of this fine, young team next year. Both Pittsburgh and Cincinnati lost, setting the stage for the three games they play each other in Cincinnati this weekend. Pittsburgh has a one game lead over Cincinnati, so, if Cincinnati wins the series, it has home field advantage based on the record between the two teams this season where they are tied 8-8 at this time. Regardless, these two teams will play for the wild card on October 1.

In the American League, Texas remains one game behind Cleveland for the second wild card slot. Tampa Bay leads Cleveland by one as well. An interesting note here is that the inter-league, unbalanced schedule means that Texas has played seventy-eight games against +.500 teams and the Rays have played 100+.500 teams. A large part of the difference is that Texas is 17-2 against Houston. That is reality. Cleveland plays at Minnesota and the Twins play well at home and have played well there against Cleveland, Texas plays at home against the Angels who need two wins to finish at  .500, a significant achievement for them, and Tampa Bay plays at Toronto. What this means is that these three teams will play intensely to finish and win. Just think that if Toronto sweeps Tampa Bay, the Rangers win two of three with the Angels and Cleveland loses two of three in Minnesota, all teams will be at 89-72, a three team tie. This is highly unlikely, but it is baseball, so is possible. We will worry about that on Sunday.

The wild card games will be played October 1 for the NL and October 2 for the AL. The games will be played, if I am to hazard a guess, in Cincinnati and Tampa Bay. We’ll see.

New York Yankees and the Wild Card

I just noted  that the NY Yankees are 3.5 games behind in the Wild Card race in the American League.  This team has been playing better since the Alpha player, Alex Rodriguez,  has returned to the pack. 

The schedule works for the Yankees in the final 35 games. They play twenty games against the teams ahead of them, Boston, Tampa Bay and Baltimore and fifteen games against teams that are in last place in their respective divisions. These teams are San Francisco, Chicago White Sox, Toronto and Houston. Boston has six such games, Tampa Bay three, and Baltimore six  games. If the Yankees win half the games against the better teams and dominate the bottom teams, a very likely outcome, they will be the second wild card, at least. NY is 12-1 against Toronto this year, for example.

This will be a shocking outcome to the Alex Rodriguez drama, as it will be the his return that made the difference. If Jeter can also play, watch out.

The Los Angeles Angels and Free Agent Signing Errors

The Los Angeles Angels just traded their best relief pitcher, Scott Downs, for a minor league reliever. This is the sign of a team that has given up on 2013 and is looking forward to better days. The Angels plans are made more difficult by a signing error in 2011 when they signed Albert Pujols to a 10 year $240,000,000 contract that ends with escalating payments. They then signed Josh Hamilton to a 5 year $125,000,000 contract this year.

In March, I predicted that the Angels with Trout, Trumbo, Pujols and Hamilton would win the AL West. Today, they are 14 games behind Oakland and eight games under. 500. It is a disaster. My prediction failed as I over estimated the adequacy to the Angels’ pitchng and did not recognize the rapid decline in Pujols’ performance and Hamilton’s collapse. Hamilton is a psychological case.

Pujols decline is classic baseball decline and was predictable due to physical factors.  First, he hit his peak when he was 28 in 2008. It is shibboleth among baseball purests that a player peaks at 27. His decline in batting average has been 2008, .357,  .327, .312, .299, .285, and .258 this year. He has been troubled by plantar fasciatis this year as well. His OPS (slugigng plus on-base percentage), a statistic some think is indicative of true value,  has similary declined as follows,  2007, .997, 1.114, 1.101, 1.011, .906, .859, and .767 this year.  The numbers at age 27-28 are dramatic and rank with baseball’s great players, but that was then.

The undeniable fact that players performance declines after age 27-28 begs the question of why a team would sign a player to a multi-year, escalating payment contract for what must be declining performance. The Alex Rodriguez contract with the Yankees should have been instructive here, but it seems Angels’ owner, Artie Moreno, wanted to be like the Yankees by signing Pujols and then Hamilton. If he was looking there for guidance on how to run a team, he looked in the wrong direction, but then again his team had recently lost to the Yankees in the layoffs.

The proper place to look was a few hundred miles north to Oakland or to Tampa on Florida’s west coast.  Those two teams are in first place in their divisions with modest payrolls, but balanced, performing teams.  Moreno has become like the Yankees, who are in fourth place, as are the Angels, even though playing +.500 ball. The Angels winning percentage is 11th in the American League.  The real test in these signings is the reaction of the player’s former team to the player’s departure. The Cardinals seemed to be interested in re-signing Pujols, but dropped out of the bidding. The Cardinals, one of baseball’s best organizations, is 19 games over  .500 in first place in the NL Central and Hamilton’s former Rangers team is eight games over  .500, but trail the A’s for first.

This gets to the basic error in the Pujols signing. No one player makes a baseball team. A single player can only come to bat 11% of the time. Teams are a combination of pitching, fielding, and batting. Too much batting was expected from an aging star.

The rule that a team “shouldn’t get hit by a falling star” has slammed the Angels. I was overly impressed by the Angels offense last March, and have learned  a lesson. I imagine Artie Moreno has learned the same lesson.

Ryan Braun’s Plea Bargain

MLB allowed a plea bargain in the first of the Biogenesis cases. (see article on this blog for June 16, 2013) This was the result of two meetings between Braun and MLB. At these meetings, Braun did not offer testimony, he was simply presented with MLB’s evidence. He agreed to a 65 game, or rest-of-the-season suspension.
As described earlier here, the evidence was non-analytical positive evidence much like the evidence used in USADA’s case against Lance Armstrong.
This evidence is other than drug test evidence but is equally effective in determining use, hence, a violation of the MLB drug use rules.
The most curious part of this is that even with the evidence, MLB chose to bargain for what it could get and did not simply suspend Braun to the limits of the rule,  possibly 100 games.
The reason for this is that MLB has had a difficult time with arbitrators in such cases. The most notable is the Steve Howe case where an arbitrator denied efforts to suspend for life a player whose drug use was epidemic on the basis of a failure to provide counseling instead. Last year, Braun was accused of positive drug test violations and the arbitrator dismissed the case based on a chain of custody error.
To avoid such an outcome again, MLB is bargaining over suspensions. Braun will lose $3.25 million in salary this year, but retains the more than $100,000,000 left on his contract with the Milwaukee Brewers. The question I want answered is whether the Brewers are planning to attack his contract itself, claiming breach on the theory his drug use was a violation of that contract.
The plea bargain process is underway with the approximately two dozen other players named in Biogenesis. Foremost among these is Yankee player Alex Rodriguez. Here the topic is a possible lifetime ban, but the player will negotiate something much shorter, unless MLB decides to suspend and go to arbitration in this case. At some point it has to do this.
The Yankees have the right to challenge the Rodriguez  contract as well and it is through breach of contract actions that MLB and its teams will realize real clout in the drug use cases.

Major League Baseball, Attendance and Competitive Balance.

Major League Baseball is my first interest each morning. World news can wait as I peruse the sports section, especially MLB standings and box scores.There is a lot of information there and I find something of note every day.

Today, what captured my eye was MLB attendance levels at the ten games played Monday.  This is an era of intense media coverage and modern stadiums that has pushed average attendance at MLB games to rise to over 30,000 per game. Yesterday, however, the attendance figures were more typical of the 1970’s. In those days, for example, the only video available of live action, was a 10 second shot of something that happened in the first five innings of the local game that was shown in the 10 O’clock news on one  of the four channels available.. It was hard to generate excitement with this limited exposure. Today, fans see all the great plays that occur each day, on multiple cable channels, and that drives interest and attendance.

Last night, however, attendance was 17,653 in Kansas City, where the Royals extended its winning streak to 6, 15,514 in Baltimore, where the Orioles beat the Angels 4-3, 15,447 in Tampa, where the Red Sox won in 14 innings, 18,126 in Chicago, where the White Sox won , 12,811 in Seattle where the Mariners won 3-2, 13,259 in Miami, where the Brewers beat the Marlins, and 21, 192 in San Diego where the Padres beat the Braves 7-6. Texas and the Dodgers both drew over 30,000 for their games. 

I am always concerned by low attendance as that is the first measure of public appeal. The games were well played, five were decided on one run, one was extra innings. MLB is a very competitive business and teams rely on attendance for revenue to pay for players who are more expensive every year. Reduced attendance has an effect on competitive balance, and competitive balance is what it is all about.

The next topic that captured by attention this June morning, was the intense competition in divisions where three teams are within four games of the lead. In the AL East, Boston, New York and Baltimore are within 3.5 games, even the fourth team, Tampa Bay is over .500. In the NL West, Arizona, Colorado, and San Francisco are within two games and in the NL Central, St.Louis,the best team overall, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh are within four games. The most intense two team race is Texas and Oakland, where one game separates them.

This all means that the championship will be determined by the little things that happen, a ball that bounces erratically, a double play missed, an outfielder that loses the ball in the lights, and the hundred other little events that determine the outcome of a game or two of the 162 played each year. 

This is why we pay attention to the game and these races. There are 100 games to the playoffs, and I am making no predictions other than Detroit will win the AL Central. Then again, I picked Toronto to win, and it is last in its division. The infinite possibilities make this a wonderful game, I just hope attendance reflects that wonder.

American League Predictions for 2013- Sunday Ramblings for March 24, 2013;

I have been thinking about the coming baseball season because this is a year that may find a significant shift in the rankings of teams. Here are predictions for the American League in 2013 with the National League predictions coming later in the week.

In the American League, the Blue Jays will win the East because Jose Bautista and the addition of pitchers R.A. Dickey, Josh Johnson, and Mark Buehrle, and players Jose Reyes, Emilio Bonafacio, Melky Cabrera, Macier Izturis and Mark DeLarosa. This increases the payroll to around $120,000,000.The willingness to spend in Toronto is triggered by an awareness that the old guard of Yankees and Red Sox may be finished, at least for a while. The Tampa Bay Rays will be in second and, if Toronto stumbles for any of a variety of reasons, like Bautista’s wrist, and this very solid, very well managed team will win again. Baltimore is improving but is just too young and thin to challenge and the Yankees are really old and injured. The Red Sox are still recovering from whatever it was that wrecked them last year. You still won’t get a ticket in Fenway Park. In the AL East, there will be the top two, Toronto and Tampa Bay, and the bottom three. How’s that for a major shift?

In the American League West, it is Angels all the way. This is easy. Trout, Hamilton, Pujols, Trumbo and an adequate pitching staff. The Athletics and Rangers will follow and may overtake the Angels if there are the unforeseen events of injuries to the key players. I have learned to appreciate the Beane Athletics and am now a fan of Nolan Ryan’s Ranger operation. Still, any team that has the incomparable Mike Trout followed by other hitters is going to be vary hard to beat. If the pitching falters, however, KPKP applies, (more on this later).

In the AL Central, the division I watch the most, it is the Tigers that should dominate, especially if they have a closer. Like Toronto, the Tigers have a dominate hitter, MVP Miguel Cabrera, and the superb Prince Fielder, who is one on the best situational hitters I have ever seen. He is at his best when the going is tough. The pitching, Verlander, Fister, Porcello, Scherzer and others will be sufficient to stay ahead of the much improved Indians. The White Sox and Royals will battle for third and the Twins, my beloved Twins, that lack pitching to such and extent the KPKP rules apply. That team will get better but the Mauer and Morneau pair is over 30 now and heading downhill. (KPKP comes from a from a scout I worked with who used KP to mean “Can’t Play” in reference to a player and we expanded that to KPKP for a team that Can’t Pitch Can’t Play.)

The American League Wild Card will come from Tampa Bay, Oakland or Texas or, if these teams win, the second place team in that Division. I think Tampa will do it, but there is a play-in game with the two top finishing second place teams, so anything can happen there.

Predictions for the National League will come soon, but let me say the Washington Nationals may be the best team in the business.