Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Another Project I'll Never Complete

Back in November, I had an idea to create a database of statistics for General Managers, linking win shares data to transactions data to general manager tenure data to help evaluate the performance of GMs based on whom they signed, traded for and traded away. Despite the helpful tips from folks like Simon Oliver Lockwood, that project never got off the ground, given that I have a full-time job and three young kids.

Yesterday, I thought of another project that I'll never have time for when I stumbled on Retrosheet's Umpire Data. While Retrosheet tells you how many games the umpire worked at each base, they do not relate the umpire's presence to the result of the game. You can get the daily game log for each umpire, but it would be better if we got each umpire's "record" per team. For example, from this page you can tell that the Nats were 2-4 when Paul Schreiber worked their games. Some interesting stats to run would be (1) the home team's record when the ump worked the game; (2) whether teams fared better or worse when an umpire was behind the plate or in the field; and (3) number of strikeouts and walks in games when the umpire was behind the plate. Wouldn't it be interesting to find out that some teams performed better with certain umps? In the early 1990s, Barry Jacobs's Fans' Guide to the ACC use to publish data like this for all ACC referees -- it showed this Duke fan that we actually performed better with the villified Dick Paparo or Lenny Wirtz working the game.

I poked around Retrosheet but could not find data presented in this fashion. It does not seem like a difficult task to create a database from which these questions could be answered. If anyone knows of a place where this data can be found, I'd love to hear about it.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Sports & Economics: Further Reading.

For the four of you who actually read my diatribe on reinventing baseball, you might be interested in a couple of blogs that talk more about the economics of sports. The Sports Economist looks to be very good, and has a lengthy post comparing MLB to the English Premier League that goes into more detail than my comments. See also The Wages of Wins blog, which is an adjunct to the new book of the same name (which I plan to read soon) analyzing the connection between the economics of sports and the performance on the field.

Random Thoughts at the 50-game Mark

In no particular order:

-- Last year there were 1.38 HRs hit per game in RFK. So far this year there have been 1.78 HRs per game. One is tempted to call it "The Soriano Effect", but I'm just inclined to blame small sample size and media hype -- RFK isn't _that_ big and it's just regressing to the mean. On Soriano, I have learned that hitting is a lot more dynamic a process than our stats can measure. As Capital Punishment presciently explained back in December, Soriano hits the kinds of balls that can get out of RFK, unlike our "sluggers" from 2005. He is also just a better hitter than Jose Guillen, period, and perhaps by a long shot.

-- John Patterson last pitched on April 20. The Nats have gone 14-21 (.400) since then. They were 7-10 (.411) with him in the rotation. I know, I know, small sample size and silly to correlate record to a guy who plays every 5th day, but I found this a sobering reminder that the baseball is a team game, and the reason it feels like we don't really miss some players is because we're not that good a team.

-- Speaking of which, anyone else confused by all the good feeling from last week's tearful success and yet we're still 10 games below .500?

-- Speaking of tears, if Frank cares so much about his players who are likeable and work hard that it pains him deeply to put them in positions where they can't succeed and will embarass themselves, he must really hate Joey Eischen.

-- Mrs. DM's comment from Saturday's game against the Dodgers "I always thought Nomar was a scrawny dude, but he's pretty buff." I just noticed that his hair was much more Fonzi-like than TV leads you to think.

-- Little DM wanted to wear his San Francisco Giants cap to the game Saturday, but, with hopes a Dodger might throw him a ball, I had to explain the concept of a "rivalry" to him. He listened carefully and then asked "Who is the rivalry with the Nationals?" I was stumped, and just said "Bowie".

-- Mrs. DM asked if Saturday's start was Shawn Hill's MLB debut. I said yes, but was hesitant in answering. Then the RFK Jumbotron confirmed that is was, in fact, his MLB debut, which made me feel confident. I should have known better than to trust the RFK scoreboard operator.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Tears of a Clown

There are times, to be sure, when a grown man crying about sports is both expected and accepted. The aging veteran, finally hanging up the spikes in retirement, usually can't make it through the press conference without choking up. The college hoops star, walking off the court in his last game -- usually a loss in the tournament -- often hides his tears by burying his head in the coach's shoulder. Cory Gibbs, who just learned his knee won't let him play for the United States in the World Cup, understandably shed a few tears at the news. Even cynical old me bawled like a newborn while watching the video of J-Mac, the kid with autism who finally got in a high school basketball game and scored 20 points.

Having to take the mask from a fat guy who can't play catcher, doesn't really want to play catcher, and shouldn't be playing catcher, should not, I submit, make anyone cry. Well, maybe his over-protective mom who has always been quick to feel her son's failures a little too closely, or his grade school child after being teased by classmates. But the last person who needs to be crying about the decision to replace LeCroy with a less awful catcher in a close game is his manager, Frank Robinson.

Yet, that's exactly what Frank did today after the game yesterday. He said he "trusts his veterans," but that "he had to do something" when LeCroy kept throwing the ball to Damian Jackson in CF when trying to get runners out at second. Apparently, Frank considers being pulled by your manager mid-inning a tragically sad event, especially for a veteran ballplayer. I think every other person in the park, even LeCroy, thought it was welcome, necessary step towards the Nats winning the game, and that any bruise to LeCroy's ego would be salved by a few Krispy Kremes in the clubhouse and the $850,000 he'll make this year.

This should have been a total non-event. But Frank's antics prompted ESPN SportsCenter to treat it as newsworthy, even though by any measure it was ordinary. Did you know the last time a catcher had 7 guys steal bases on him in a game was 2002? For those readers who weren't alive in 2002, it was a crazy time when MLB actually had 2 teams in Canada, the All-Star game did not "count", and Benny Agbayani was still playing.

This little awkward moment does confirm, however, what we've all thought -- that Frank is first and foremost a player, not a manager, and has a hard time seeing the world from a perspective other than that of a Hall-of-Famer who hit nearly 600 home runs and is probably still a little bummed that the time when he could grab a bat and send one into the seats passed away over 30 years ago. If Frank was pulled mid-inning by Earl Weaver, he'd have considered it the greatest indignity, as he apparently still does. But a manager who worries how a guy like Wil Cordero will take being replaced deserves the under-.500 career record he has.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

How far did that one go?

Lance Berkman crushes a ball into the 400-level in dead center earlier this week. Jose Guillen finally bombs one into the mezzanine in left field off of Zach Duke. Alfonso Soriano crushes a ball against the Braves. And Barry Bonds sends one to the back of Section 468 last September.

You may have noticed that for each of these dingers the announcers did not give an estimate of the distance they traveled. Apparently that is because the Nats have been too cheap to subscribe to the service that provides the measuring guide for home runs. No surprise there, but thanks to Studes over at The Hardball Times, I've learned of a new site, Hit Tracker, that does the work for us, and apparently in a much more thorough and accurate way.

According to the site's founder, Greg Rybarczyk, Berkman's blast went 466 feet, fifth longest in MLB for 2006 (that's under his measure of "True Distance," which accounts for altitude, atmosphere and other things to make comparison's more apt). Guillen's went 434 feet, and Soriano's 429 feet. The 2005 data does not yet contain Bonds' homer from last year.

Studes points out the interesting comparisons and lists you can make with Hit Tracker's data. I've only begun to explore the site, which looks like a real pleasant timewaster. They say "chicks dig the long ball", and if you dig the long ball, you'll dig Hit Tracker.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Random Thought on the Designated Hitter

The interleague play this weekend always prompts a discussion of the designated hitter, given that many AL pitchers are forced to hit this weekend, and some DHs like David Ortiz of the Red Sox are forced to play the field. I am not a fan of the DH, but not primarily because it means the pitcher does not hit, and the double switch no longer becomes relevant. Bill James has argued that the DH might actually increase strategy by giving the manager more pinch-hitting options late in the game, and that the decision to pinch hit for the pitcher is usually obvious in most cases, as is the double-switch (unless, of course, you are Frank Robinson).

My main problem with the DH is the aspect related to guys like David Ortiz, which I like to call the "Greg Luzinski Dilemma." To me, it is a much more interesting strategic dilemma for a manager to be forced to play every guy he'd like to hit, and how he must "hide" good hitters with bricks for gloves in places like LF or 1B. I don't like it when this worry is lifted by the DH, which lets the manager send a guy like Ortiz up there 4 times a game without any cost. (The Post did an interesting story on how much time Ortiz actually spends on the bench in a typical AL game).

So that led me to this thought. What if the "DH" rule wasn't that you get to substitute a hitter for the pitcher, but that the pitcher simply did not hit, and you only had 8 batters in the lineup? In other words, you can't hid a bad fielder anymore -- if David Ortiz wants to hit, he must play somewhere in the field. But you would still have no "bad spots" in the lineup.

I don't think there is any magic to the lineup having 9 hitters. Having 8 would only give more plate appearances to everyone in the lineup. IIRC, the average game has about 42 plate appearances, meaning about 4.67 PAs per lineup spot. With an 8-man lineup, each guy would get, on average, 5.25 PAs. In other words, rather than giving the pitcher's plate appearances to one guy like Ortiz, you would spread them out over the 8 players, which seems, for some reason, more equitable to me.

What would be the effect of such a change? I'm not sure. Obviously, the counting stat records like hits or HRs in a season would be affected, as batters would get around 80 or so more plate appearances per season. I have not read of anyone discussing this option -- I wonder if it was considered back in 1972? I imagine that it would have been rejected because the primary point of the DH was to add offense, and this approach would not necessarily do that, because you could not add a good bat to the lineup. On the other hand, it would give some of your other hitters more at bats, so the effect is not that drastic. Perhaps it would reward teams with deeper lineups, and hurt those who need that extra bat.

Anyway, I had never thought of this before, and wonder if it has ever been discussed. If you know of any information on this approach, please let me know. And if I am missing something here, let me know that too.

ERV Boxscores -- Closed for Renovations

You might have noticed that I have not been providing ERV boxscores the past few days. The time has come for me to bite the bullet and convert to a database program instead of using Excel to keep the data and produces the boxscores. The bad news is that this will require me to develop a database in MySQL and convert my Excel code, which I cannot do an keep updating the boxscores on a regular basis. The good news is that after this is complete, the system should be a lot more powerful. Some advantages I anticipate include:
  • more timely publication of boxscores
  • more complete fielding values assigned
  • more interesting analyses of the data
  • historical ERV boxscores and analysis (possible, not certain)
  • ERV values for teams beyond the Nats (possible, not certain)
Unfortunately I do not have an estimate of how long this will take. But my first experiments with MySQL have gone well, and if I can devote serious time to it, I am optimistic. Thank you in advance for being patient.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Revolution, Revisited (Part 4)

[Note: This is the fourth and final part of the series. Part 1 is here, Part 2 is here, and Part 3 is here.]

I can anticipate some common questions and criticisms about an "open" major league baseball system. In this post I'll try to set them out and respond.

1. More teams would dilute the quality of play among the "major" leagues.

There's no reason to believe that the clubs in the top league won't be able to attract and buy the best players. It hasn't hurt the Premiership in England. In fact it may be the case that an open system would allow talent to flow more efficiently to the top league, through both promotion and more free transfers of players from the minors, rather than be funneled through farm systems that may be managed poorly. Note also that in England it is possible for good players to negotiate a "relegation-release" clause in their contracts, so that if their club drops, they become free agents available to other top tier teams. These help ensure that the best talent remains in the top.

2. The rich teams would dominate even more than they do now in a "more free" market.

This is the competitive balance issue I touched on in earlier posts. With promotion and relegation, those rich successful teams don't get to beat up on the Royals and Pirates every year, but must face new competition that would dearly love to unseat them and prove their worth in the top league.

3. It would diminish the value and excitement of the playoffs.

If this turns out to be a problem, you could grant the World Series winner one year of being protected from relegation. Winning in the playoffs would, as it does now, make your club more attractive to everyone, players, fans, advertisers, so there are natural incentives to succeed there. Plus you are adding excitement of the relegation competition at the end of every year, which would keep interest in many more teams down the stretch.

4. The players would suffer, and they are the ones who make the game great.

I am not one to begrudge players a large, even obscene, income -- they undertake a demanding job which lasts only a short time, under intense scrutiny and pressure -- and among those involved in baseball they should receive a healthy portion of the revenues generated from the game. However, to the extent those profits are borne of monopoly power and anti-competitive behavior, they don't deserve them any more than the owners. Jim Bouton said a lot when he noted that the 1994 strike was the "first labor dispute in history to pit billionaires against millionaires." There is no doubt that the owners for decades kept the players from getting a fair share of the spoils, which in large part they created. But the MLBPA has only succeed in broadening the privileged class to include the players -- like many labor unions, it is not primarily concerned with free and open competition. The experience of European soccer demonstrates that player salaries do not suffer from open league structures, so in the end I doubt the players will suffer, and might even make out better, and more players will have a chance at success. Most importantly, we would end the pointless death struggles we've seen every few years between two monopolists trying to divy up billions of dollars.

5. It would destroy the beloved minor league system! What would happen to player development?

There would still be a fair amount of player development in the minor leagues, it just wouldn't be directly tied to a major league franchise. Again, we have examples from English soccer, where clubs in the lower division often develop players with an eye towards selling them to higher division clubs for profit. As Bill James points out, this happened as a matter of course in the early days of baseball, until the majors got control over it to lower their player acquisition costs. But each club would face the business choice of deciding whether it wanted to retain players and make a push for the championship and promotion, or sell them off to reinvest in new young players, much like the major league clubs decide today.

Also, there would not be any prohibition on clubs developing their own youth and reserve programs to develop new talent as well. A high school player would face a choice of signing with the Yankees youth program, presumably for less money but better experience and teaching, or striking out with a lower division club, presumably for more money and a chance at playing competitive ball earlier. Also, players from major league clubs could be loaned to minor league clubs to give them playing time and experience in competition -- David Beckham on Manchester United was loaned to Preston North End early in his career, where his talent quickly revealed itself. There would not be any prohibition on big league and minor league clubs creating such arrangements, so long as they were not exclusive.

Be sure to check out the comments to part 2 from Will on this point, they are excellent.

6. It's an idea from Europe!

Yes, my jingoistic American pride is wounded a bit by citing a European model that is more faithful to the free market than ours. (Especially when countries like Germany prevent Lands' End from doing business there because they offer unconditional money back guarantees to their customers.) But the experience from Europe, particularly England, shows that such a system does accomplish important goals of increasing economic welfare for the fans by making on-field success and failure more relevant to the overall success/failure of the clubs. It's not perfect, but it's better than what we have. As Bill James noted, this is a problem of comparing reality to a possible world, and it's hard to fully grasp that what we have now and are used to is not the only possible world, and not the best one.

7. You might end up with a World Series between Ft. Wayne, Indiana and Chyenne, Wyoming. Who wants that?

What are you, a network TV executive? Yes, there is that possibility, after years of promotion and relegation to allow clubs in such cities to have that success. But keep in mind, Mr. TV guy, that you likely would also have more than 2 clubs in NYC, LA and Chicago, which increases the chance of a high demographic market being involved in the post-season. So I think you might have more, not fewer, TV-friendly matchups under this system. You also have more potential geographic rivalries that baseball seems to love so much.

8. It would ruin baseball's tradition!

I would give this argument credence -- if it were 1959. But the tradition many people love to trot out has been beaten to an unrecognizable pulp by expansion, television, the designated hitter, divisional playoffs, free agency, player strikes, lockouts, wild card teams, astro-turf, inter-league play, revenue sharing, luxury taxes, baby-blue double-knits, steroids, air travel, and on and on. And I see this system as return to a more longstanding American tradition -- open and fair competition that provides opportunity and incentive for everyone, not just a privileged few.

As Bill James said in 1988, "Hey, buddy, I love tradition too."

9. The current owners would never allow it, and the Congress/Administration would never impose it on them.

The best objection yet. All true, and, apart from the steroids issue, the current state of baseball does not cry out for reform -- it has solved the "Montreal problem" (to our benefit, yay!) , no labor crisis is imminent, attention to the sport from the public seems relatively healthy. So it is not the most opportune political time to expect any reform like the one proposed here. Hell, Bill James's ideas have been around for nearly 20 years through 3 labor disputes, a missed World Series, the threat of contraction and other controversy, and never received much serious attention. But I wanted to lay it out here because it has helped me understand some of my frustration with the sport, and to help you think more about possible worlds, rather than just the one we know. And it's a lot more fun than watching Joey Eischen pitch.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

ERV Boxscore for May 17, at Chicago

Revolution, Revisited (Part 3)

[Note: This is part 3 of a 4-part blog post. Part 1 is here and Part 2 is here .]

What are the benefits of an "open" league system? They are several primary benefits for fans, in my view, stemming from the increased competition such a system allows. First, success or failure would have a more meaningful impact on a team's bottom line. Right now a team's income is largely determined by its city, rather than whether it wins or loses. With relegation and promotion, bad teams in large markets can be forced down into lower leagues with fewer revenue opportunities, which good teams in smaller markets can get the chance at bigger revenues in the "major" leagues.

Second, by allowing more teams into the same market, fans have the benefit of competition between local clubs. We Nats fans would be a lot better off if the idiocy that is Tavares/Bowden/Robinson were not the only game in town, and we could switch our allegiance to a second club in D.C. (To those who might suggest that the Orioles are competition for fans of baseball in D.C., please do so, because the owner of that club is a poster boy for monopoly power abuse). That, in turn, will make the Nats a better club, because the owners will not tolerate fan defection. And note that in an open system where a single A or double A team has a chance, even remote, to make it to the big leagues, that would provide even more competition to the Nats from Bowie, Frederick, Potomac and Richmond, especially where these clubs are freed from their major league masters and can devote resources to actually winning games for promotion purposes.

Another important benefit is the ability of outsiders to actually start new baseball teams that might make it to the major leagues. Andrew Zimbalist explains this benefit as it has played out in the English soccer leagues:

[B]ecause league membership is not fixed, teams do not have monopoly control over their territories. Any individual with sufficient capital and drive can create a lower-division team, invest in top players and coaches, and potentially rise up the divisional ladder to the top level. As a result of this characteristic, promotion/relegation leagues tend not to have monopolies or even duopolies in large cities. London has had nine different teams playing in the top-level EPL since 1990. If a city has too few teams relative to its economic potential to support teams, then entrepreneurs are free to increase supply without paying the existing league for the permission to become an expansion team. Thus London EPL teams do not enjoy the rent from the large market that is bestowed, for instance, upon baseball's Yankees.
As a result, even though clubs could no longer prohibit franchise relocation, it doesn't happen in practice in the European soccer leagues because there is no longer any geographic monopoly over cities, so the incentives for relocation diminish. In baseball, owners who would want to move to a city like New York or Los Angeles would be free to do so, knowing that they would likely have to compete with several other clubs for those large markets. New clubs would be formed (or exisiting minor league teams repurposed) to serve markets like Portland, Las Vegas, Charlotte and even Montreal. This approach, by taking away the geographic monopoly on the baseball business, avoids the wasteful, protracted drama we watched with the Nats and the D.C. Council -- cities will be in a much stronger position when negotiating stadium deals with clubs, and, as Zimbalist points out, public subsidies for stadia in English soccer are very low, with the clubs financing most of the development.

The importance of allowing new entrants into the baseball market should not be underestimated. Why should all of the "outsiders" who have begun to revolutionize baseball with new ways of evaluating talent and strategy be forced to compete for the handful of jobs in MLB? Shouldn't an entrepreneur be able to start a new club, hire those folks and see if the new theories actually work? If all of the current minor league teams were real baseball teams, who had to evaluate and deploy talent to win games themselves, then suddenly you have hundreds of real GM positions (and assistant GM and all other related jobs) available, rather than 30 as there is today. Baseball needs start-up clubs to help keep it strong and innovative.

This point addresses something that's been bugging me since last summer. In the middle of chat over at Yuda's, we tried to list the length of tenure for all current GMs in MLB. The crazy thing was that the guy with the longest tenure with his current club was the now departed Chuck LaMarr of Tampa Bay, perenially one of the worst teams in MLB, and a team that makes terrible personnel moves. Also, it seems to me odd that the same guys keep getting hired by MLB clubs, even when they suck or, at best, are mediocre (e.g. Bowden). These counter-intuitive observations flow directly from MLB's monopoly structure.

Of course, not all would be rosy from some particular teams. Bill James acknowledges that his "Revolution" would be painful to many clubs in the early going. Some, maybe many, existing minor league clubs, especially those accustomed to living off the majors and not developing talent to win ballgames, would suffer and even go under. Relegation of teams like the Royals and Pirates would be painful. But these pains are exactly what is needed to force owners like David Glass to actually improve his team. Even the vaunted Manchester United spent time in the lower divisions of the English soccer leagues in the mid-1970s, only to return in the 80s and 90s to dominate the sport.

In sum, the baseball fan has a lot to gain from an open league structure with promotion and relegation. The fear of relegation will "concentrate the mind" of the club's owner and management, prompting them to improve their teams. Multiple clubs in major markets will prompt clubs to try to appeal to fans, rather than dictate to a captured group in an exclusive territorial market. And by prompting the minor leagues to be real baseball teams, that opens up a whole new market of opportunity and enjoyment of baseball for the avid fan, and spreads real baseball around the country in all markets, not just the large ones.

In the next part, I'll try to answer some anticipated objections to such an approach.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

ERV Boxscore for May 16, at Chicago

Revolution, Revisited (Part 2)

[Note: This is part 2 of a 4-part blog post. Part 1 can be found here.]

In his 1988 essay Revolution, Bill James describes the transformation of the minor leagues over the course of the 20th Century. He explains how the "minor" leagues went from being independent competitors to the American and National Leagues in the early part of the century to their status as wholly dependent organs for player development for the "major" leagues. For example, in the early 20th Century, the Baltimore minor league club started recruiting quality players and retaining them, thinking they might be able to compete with the likes of the St. Louis Browns. To respond to this competition, the major leagues entered into deals with minor league clubs restricting their sales of players, and standardizing the terms of such contracts. James notes that this change did not take place overnight, but gradually, the result of series of transactions with the major leagues that provided short-term benefit for the minor league clubs (usually cash and more certainty about their finances), in exchange for less and less control over their players and affairs in the long term.

He laments this change, because it fundamentally alters the incentives of the minor league clubs away from trying to win baseball games. He retells an amusing story from Earl Weaver, who, while managing in the minor leagues, was asked by the big league club to move a player from 1B to 3B. Weaver, knowing that the guy could never play 3B and trying to win the pennant, kept the guy at 1B but submitted false reports and boxscores back to the big league club showing him playing at 3B. Similarly, a few weeks ago XM radio interviewed the general manager of the Nats AAA club, the New Orleans Zephyrs. He explained that a AAA GM's duties have very little to do with player personnel decisions (those are made by the big club); he spends his time thinking up things like the Dizzy Bat Race and getting Al's Pizza and Pasta to pay for a sign in the left-field gap. I think I knew this, but it stands out as a clear example of James' point about the "point" of minor league teams.

So what does James think should be done? He recommends that the ties between major and minor league clubs be severed (essentially via antitrust law), so that the minor league clubs become free to develop and acquire players on their own, and regain the incentive to try to win their league. In other words, no longer would their be 30 MLB clubs, but potentially many more -- James thinks about 60 will be the right number, with another 150 in other independent leagues.

More recent work fleshes out this "open league" concept -- this article by Stephen Ross and Stefan Szymanski is a good introduction to the issues. It is also discussed in Andrew Zimbalist's "May the Best Team Win" and Zimbalist's and Szymanski's "National Pastime". These authors add to James's concept the idea of promotion and relegation, which would help put some order to the new open league system, and also provide incentives for teams to succeed on the field. Promotion and relegation, which is common in professional club soccer in Europe and elsewhere in the world, requires that the best teams in the lower divisions of clubs replace the worst teams in the next highest division, so that even the composition of the "major" or "Premier" leagues is not set but open to those clubs demonstrating success on the field. Szymanski and Zimbalist, in particular, make direct comparison of the economics of European soccer using promotion/relegation and the current MLB closed system.

So what would an "open" major league baseball system look like? Probably a lot like the system we have today, but with some fundamental underlying differences. You could keep the existing MLB, AAA, AA, A leagues in place, but just permit movement of clubs between the leagues. For example, the bottom team in each division could be replaced with the top six teams from AAA, probably with a geographic and regional classification (e.g. Pacific Coast League teams move into the West divisions) to minimize travel burdens. (Promotion and relegation work well in English soccer in part because all of the teams live in a region that is not much bigger than Virginia and North Carolina combined). Goodbye Kansas City, Hello Charlotte. Similar trade-offs would be made between AAA and AA and A.

Another change that I think would work nicely is to have the AL and NL realign into 2 divisions each, with 8 teams in each division (you could add two more teams to the AL, or have two 7-team divisons). The top 2 teams in each division make the playoffs, and the bottom team in each division (4 total) are relegated. For example, based on 2005 standings, Colorado and Pittsburgh would have been relegated in the NL, and Tampa Bay and Kansas City in the AL. You would fill these slots from the four best teams in the AAA minors (2 "western" teams and 2 "eastern" teams).

While the existing exclusive dealing arrangements that prohibit franchise sale and relocation without approval and minor league affiliates would be gone, baseball would be allowed to agree on how the league competition operates, namely how promotion and relegation would work in practice. The key point would be that new clubs could be formed (after meeting some initial criteria) and start participating in the system, probably at the lowest ranks.

What are the benefits of such a system? That will be discussed in Part 3.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Revolution, Revisited (Part 1)

Editor's Note: Ever faithful reader Anonymous pointed out that we here at Nats Blog have not said a word about the ownership situation in wake of the developments last week. I won't speak for SuperNoVa or dexys, but to be honest, I received the news with the same attitude that Alfonso Soriano pursues doubles down the line when the Nats are behind -- I just couldn't muster enough effort to care. The reasons for that reaction are complicated, and these posts are designed, in part, to explain them. They are long, though, so I've split them into four parts.

Just last week Bud Selig finally selected which group of billionaires is entitled to the privilege of spending $450 million dollars to join the exclusive club that is MLB. It should be a time for Nats fans (finally) to put 18 months of off-the-field unrest behind us, and look forward to a Bowden-free era of direction and purpose that typically comes from having a real owner and executives who actually have a stake in the fortunes of our local nine.

But before we do that, we should ask this question: What exactly did the Lerners spend their $450 million on? Livan Hernandez, Brian Schneider, Nick Johnson? Frank Robinson, Jim Bowden, Tony Tavares? RFK? 81-81 in 2005? The expected 70 wins this year? Each of these things are, at best, of average quality relative to other major league teams, and most of these things are below average. Perhaps if the Nats had talent like the White Sox, management like the Braves, wins like the Yankees and a ballpark like SBC Park, the price would be higher, maybe even significantly higher, but I don't think anyone can say that a change in players, management or park would lower the price. To be sure, a fair amount of that price is related to the new ballpark, but that sort of gets to my ultimate point: very little, if any, of the purchase price is related to the things we as fans spend so much time griping and worrying about: the players, the games, the wins/losses. The ballpark, on the other hand, does relate to the price, but fans have very little say in the existence and nature of the ballpark. The bottom line is that the Lerners are paying for something that has very little to do with the success or failure of the Nats on the field.

What they paid for was the exclusive right to the Washington, D.C. market for major league baseball. That in and of itself is valuable, regardless of what happens on the field. As Andrew Zimbalist pointed out in May the Best Team Win, Fay Vincent referred to Washington, D.C. as an "asset" even when no franchise existed in the city. The D.C. area is one of the top five media markets, with millions of residents who would be attracted to baseball and thereby attractive to advertisers and marketers who will pay the Lerners to get in front of that crowd. But it is important that the majority of the value to the Lerners does not come from the baseball played on the field, but from the exclusivity offered to them from MLB. So it's no wonder that Lerners are untroubled by the Nats current awful start, the decimated farm system, and the incompetent management. None of that matters. Getting in the exclusive club that is MLB will earn its rewards by itself. How else can one explain the existence of the Royals, Devil Rays and Pirates?

And therein lies the problem for those of us who spend a fair amount of time thinking, worrying and caring about the on-field fortunes of the Nats. If someone is willing to spend $450 million without much care as to the actual on-field success/failure, then how do you think the fans' complaining about the on-field failure will figure into their calculus? I suspect it will be received like my request for a hot dog from an RFK concession stand -- with something between bemused indifference and annoyed hostility.

Back in February, we had a colloquy with Dave of Nats Triple Play about whether and how fans could voice their displeasure over the mismanagement by Jim Bowden. Dave took the "company" line, chiding those who renounced their season tickets. I disagreed with that view, but upon re-reading that post, it's clear I was half-hearted in my stance, given that I ultimately had no idea how and to what extent fans could influence the management decisions of a team. But ever since that exchange, I've been thinking about what product, exactly, does MLB produce, what type of product we consumers want from MLB, and how we could influence MLB and our favorite teams to make that product?

Now, however, I'm reasonably confident on the answer to that last question. We don't really have any influence at all. We might as well be rooting for the weather. And the reason for this is that we don't have the one tool that we can use in almost any other case to effect change: competition. The monopoly MLB holds over DC, and over the business of baseball in this country, prevents consumers from having a meaningful say in the operations of that business. Until that situation changes, it is delusional (although, like many delusions, a reasonably pleasant one) to think we can effect change.

What has prompted this conclusion? Primarily reading Bill James's 1988 essay, Revolution (which can be found in James' 1989 collection This Time Let's Not Eat the Bones), along with some other books and articles by Andrew Zimbalist and Stefan Szymanski. These writings describe the relatively simple steps, although far-reaching and unprecedented, that would vastly improve the lot of us fans in our relationship with the sport we love. The more I think about these changes, and the effects they would have, the less interested I am in discussing salary caps, revenue sharing, luxury taxes, collective bargaining and the like, all of which, when you think about the game as it could be, start to look like what they really are -- hastily constructed artifices designed to symbolize and represent the beneficial effects of the free market without actually changing the most pernicious aspects of the monopoly of baseball, and which, in some cases, do more harm than good in making teams accountable to the fans.

In the next few posts I'll try to describe what I've learned from James et al. about the structure of baseball and the alternatives that would be preferable. In part 2, we start with a description of Revolution.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

ERV Boxscore for May 13, at Atlanta


Pass.

ERV Win: FrancoeurJ
ERV Loss: Cordero (0-1)

3 Most Valuable Plays:

(1) Obvious (7.10)
(2) Soriano's HR in the 6th (2.62)
(3) Andruw Jones' K in the 9th (-2.24)

Friday, May 12, 2006

ERV Boxscore for May 12, at Atlanta

I haven't been commenting on these games, because they've been pretty depressing. This one is the worst kind of loss -- a banal drubbing, with us not showing life enough to make the contest last more than 2 hours and 15 minutes. And there are still 6 games left on this road trip.

ERV Win: Smoltz
ERV Loss: Byrd (1-1)

3 most valuable plays:

(1) Zimm's HR in the 5th (1.95)
(2) Byrd's GIDP in the 4th (-1.03)
(3) McCann's Single in the 1st (1.02)

ERV Boxscore for May 11, at Cincinnati


ERV Win: Griffey
ERV Loss: Eischen (0-1)

3 Most Valuable Plays:
(1) Griffey HR in 11th (8.51)
(2) Johnson HR in the 11th (2.77)
(3) Freel's Flyout in the 9th (-2.53)

Griffey's WV is the largest for a single play, comparable only to Guzman's mudball last year. Both plays reversed a win into a loss, hence the value.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Not a good line

Here are some pitching stats worth cringing over:

168.2 IP
4 wins-12 losses
5.23 ERA
202 Hits and 54 walks given up for a 1.52 WHIP
29 Home runs given up

Those are Livan's stats over his last 25 starts.
I'm not sure at what point he needs to be shut down or traded or seriously medically examined, or have his birth certificate looked over more carefully or what, but we are getting close to that point. The most amazing part of those stats is that 168+ innings in 25 starts means that despite being consistently shelled, he is averaging close to 7 innings per start. This is clearly a combination of the fact that a) he seems to be able to pitch his arm off no matter what, b) that Frank knows this and since Livan is supposed to be a #1 pitcher, the bullpen has to get rest at some point, and c) in his "defense," Livan at least this year gets shelled early and then appears to settle down relatively speaking. But a 5.23 ERA (add on another 0.43 for 5.66 runs allowed per 9 if you want to include his 8 unearned runs) in a severe pitcher's park with our offense is never going to cut it, which explains why in 25 starts, we've only seen 4 wins out of Livan.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

ERV Boxscore for May 10, at Cincinnati

ERV Win: Kearns
ERV Loss: Stanton (0-3)

3 Most Valuable Plays:

(1) LeCroy's Single in the 8th (2.81)
(2) Kearns' Double in the 8th (2.08)
(3) Schneider's double in the 8th (1.85)

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

ERV Boxscore for May 9, at Cincinnati

ERV Win: Armas (1-1)
ERV Loss: Claussen

3 Most Valuable Plays:

(1) Zimm's HR in the 4th (1.34)
(2) Clayton getting thrown out at home in the 4th (-1.33)
(3) Guillen's HR in the 6th (1.02)

Monday, May 01, 2006

Sunday Night Stats

Through Sunday, 4/30/06

ERV Boxscore for April 30, at St. Louis