March 2012

The Effects of Steroid Testing, and the Changing Approach of MLB Teams

I was looking up numbers for a discussion on teams that typically make the postseason when I noticed an interesting trend. Back in good ole’ year 2000 when runs were plentiful, 17 Major League teams scoring more than 800 runs, with 7 of those teams scoring over 900. The same year 16 players hit 40 or more home runs, led by Sammy Sosa with 50. Pitching in the majors was not for the faint of heart. Hitters were destroying the baseball, and to fans the game seemed like it was entering the future. Parks would be smaller, players would be bigger, scores would be higher, stadiums packed, contracts astronomical. A year later Bonds broke the homerun record with 73, while walking nearly as much intentionally. Baseball was forever a different game.

The steroid scandal rocked the sport shortly after and by 2003, baseball would finally have mandatory drug testing. Testing has greatly improved since 2003 and today’s game looks radically different from baseball at the turn of the century. In the last 3 years combined 13 teams have scored more than 800 and only one, the 2009 Yankees, scored more than 900. Last season two players, Jose Bautista (43) and Curtis Grander son (41), topped 40 homers. What happened? Either today’s pitchers have gotten significantly better (maybe), the sabermetric trend is greatly favoring pitchers (probably somewhat) or steroid testing has significantly affected baseball.

The numbers are backing it up, and it is showing up in the games as well. Apart from a few players, guys like Adam Dunn and Albert Pujols, the average major leaguer is smaller today. Small ball is making a comeback. In 2011 teams stole 3,279 bases, up about 350 from the 2000 season. 400 fewer errors were made last year compared to 2000 as well, which means that the value being placed by front offices everywhere on defense is grading out. Only one team in 2000, Cincinnati, converted over 70% of batted balls into outs while last year we had 10 such teams.

Today’s players are slimmer, faster, and more athletic which means more dynamic defense. Some of this movement has to be related to testing. With fewer players having unlimited power due to steroids, it means that on any given night in ballparks around the country players are flashing the leather. Fewer complete liabilities on defense are getting jobs. Gone are the days when you could go to the park and see Barry Bonds or Gary Sheffield in left, Big Mac or Greg Vaughn at first. You may still have a Prince Fielder or David Ortiz, but these guys are going to be getting DH at-bats, but every year more guys like Sam Fuld and Brett Gardner are stealing hits away.

It’s simple really, when steroid testing entered baseball most teams changed their approach. Run prevention is the new name of the game and you’d better get used to it again.

CC and 300

There are 24 pitchers in the entire history of baseball to win 300 games, every one of the pitchers who has come up for vote into the Hall of Fame has been enshrined. The 4 pitchers in the 300 club who are not, Randy Johnson, Greg Maddox, Tom Glavine, and Roger Clemens are modern day pitching icons and will all probably be enshrined. (Clemens may not, we will see what the voters think about his steroid use, the rest are all no doubters.) The requirements to get to 300 seem to be pitching a lot of innings on a team with a good offense while resisting injury throughout the entirety of your career or pitch in the deadball era. If we take a look at the today’s players only 1 truly stands out as a good bet to get to 300. That man is CC Sabathia, the New York Yankee ace.

CC Sabathia has 176 wins in his major league career so far and he has the type of repertoire and throwing motion that are built to last for the next 124. CC throws a smooth and easy fastball that tends to sit between 91-94, with the ability to dial it up to 97 when needed, a plus slider, plus changeup, and a seldom used sinking fastball. His big 6’9”, 290 pound frame allow him to maintain a consistent, smooth delivery that seems to be injury resistant. He never moves too quickly through his windup, and it almost looks effortless watching him hurl a ball at 94 mph.

As Jonah Keri pointed out earlier today, Sabathia is the only pitcher in baseball to pitch at least 230 innings in the last 5 years. CC easy delivery, the Yankees training staff, plain old luck, or some combination of the three have giving the hefty lefty superb injury resistance and allow him to pile up innings and wins. This sort of durability is necessary for any pitcher looking to join the 300 club.

The longer a pitcher stays in a game the greater the chance he has of picking up the win. CC averages about 7 innings per outing meaning that there is less chance for the bullpen to implode, and more chance for his own team and their terrifying lineup to come back. The powerful Yankee lineup, which has finished in the top two each of the last 3 seasons in runs scored, is a massive advantage for Sabathia in his quest for 300. Since joining the Yankees he has been able to win no fewer than 19 games, topping out at 21 in 2010. Only one other time in his previous 8 seasons had CC reached 19 wins and that was in his Cy Young season of 2008, and even though some of his Cleveland teams could hit well, they weren’t the Yankees of the past 3 seasons. The Yankees have surrounded him with the ideally opportunity to chase greatness and he will have a chance for another 6 years to continue to pile up wins. If he averages 19 a year that would give the big lefty an even 290 career wins with his contract at its completion. He would be age 36 and more than likely a shoo-in to the 300 club at that point.

Other pitchers like Justin Verlander could get to 300 but right now he is only at 107. Roy Halladay could also make a run as well but he is 4 years older than Sabathia and only has 12 more wins. Each of the pitchers are true aces and probably Hall of Famers, but CC Sabathia looks to be the most likely to be a 300 game winner.

6 years for McCutchen. Will Pittsburgh Win?

With the signing of Andrew McCutchen the Pirates finally appear to be making a move toward building a winning team. Ideally through the length of the contract, from both parties perspectives, the team is able to improve their win total for the next two seasons, then start competing for wild card spots and maybe even the division. But will the Pirates be able to acquire enough talent over the next 6 seasons, be it through trade, free agency, or internal development to actually win? Let’s take a look.

Over the past 19 seasons the Pittsburgh Pirates have been the worst professional franchise in North American sports history, with a losing record in every one. Last season Pittsburgh was precariously in first on July 19th only to have the wheels fall off finishing the year 24-43 with a .358 win %. The team was a paper tiger a during that midseason run to the top of the NL Central, and their second half slump was more indicative of their true talent level. The Pirates scored only 610 runs, good for 4th worst in baseball and their hitters averaged an OPS+ of 87, 10 points below the league’s equilibrium of 97. And that woeful production included McCutchen’s stellar 127 OPS+, 23 steals, and 23 homers. McCutchen did slump massively in the second half last year hitting .216/.330/.392 after an All-Star caliber start to the year.

Pittsburgh’s pitching was slightly below league average last season, thanks to a stellar bullpen, but offense appears to be the more pressing issue. Gerrit Cole was last years #1 overall pick and projects as a very high upside top of the rotation starter according to most talent evaluators. John Sickles believes the team has the 12th best minor league system and Baseball America’s list has 6 of the Pirates 10 best prospects as pitchers. AJ Burnett, who moves from a bandbox in the most brutal division in baseball into the cozier confines of PNC Park and the gentler NL Central, should have a solid 2 years in Pittsburgh. The rest of the pitching staff is a mishmash of retreads, Jeff Karstens, Kevin Correia, Eric Bedard, etc., etc. Ideally the rest of the rotation is further bolstered into one of a competitor from within. Gerrit Cole, Jameson Tallion, and other highly touted prospects will have to make an impact to finally get a winning season.

The team has tried to be a little more aggressive in the last 2 years, upping spending in the draft and pursuing aging veterans, like Derrek Lee via trade. Pittsburgh needs its other young players to continue to improve to rise in the standings. Guys like Pedro Alvarez and Jose Tabata had promising 2010 rookie campaigns, faltered in 2011, and could provide a couple extra wins this year just by taking better at-bats. Alvarez walked 24 times in 262 at bats and Tabata who walked around the same rate in 382 at bats, walking only 40 times. Increase those numbers, put more pressure on pitchers by stealing more bases, which Tabata and McCutchen can do, and Pittsburgh could move up the standings. Neil Walker also looks like a potential solid core player. He hit .273/.334/.408 with 12 homers and 86 RBI’s, good numbers for a 2nd baseman. He is also going into his age 26 season, his 3rd in the bigs, and should be entering his prime.

The Pirates will need to develop talent internally if they want to finally crack the 19 year and counting losing streak. External development appears difficult, because very few player want to go to Pittsburgh, and the Pirates rarely seem to have interest in anyone who can make a substantial improvement in the win column. Pittsburgh appears to be hoping that they can follow Tampa Bay’s model for improvement; sign a toolsy outfielder to a team-friendly, long-term contract, finally capitalize on all your high draft picks, and hope that your playoff window opens within the next 6 years. Pirates success has a time clock now, because I don’t think Andrew McCutchen will want to stick around if it doesn’t turn around soon.

Playoff Blues

Major League Baseball took a big step backward yesterday with the addition of the second wild card in each league. The prevailing idea seems to be that the most exciting scenario in sports is a do-or-die game, so why not guarantee yourself two? Football is immensely popular with its one game playoff system, and baseball’s highest ratings come out of game 7’s and game 163’s, so this seems like a good idea, right? Not in the slightest and here’s why.

The playoff system that will be in place for 2012 and the near future will now include 10 teams, 5 per league, with the division winners automatically advancing to the Divisional Series, and the two wild cards left to battle it out in a one game playoff to win the right to face the #1 seed. Part of the idea seems to be that both teams in the wild card game will be forced to use their best pitching to advance, and the benefactor in this situation is the team who finished with the best record, who will be able to set their rotation up for the highest possible chance to advance to the Championship Series. The system is also designed to reward teams as much as possible for winning their division, making division races important instead of the laughers they can turn into. Particularly in 2010 when neither the Yankees or the Rays seemed particularly interested in winning the AL East and facing Cliff Lee’s Rangers in the first round. Bud Selig, Commisioner, saw the last couple years of division races and decided to go overboard.

This new playoff system seems specifically designed to reward the division winners and prevent situations where the two top teams in each division know they are making the playoffs, so each team rests all their best players down the stretch. This maneuvering allows teams to keep their pitching fresh and rewards each team for having an excellent season and finishing head and shoulders above the rest of the league. Now conceding the division to rest your players would be considered suicidal by most fan bases, because in baseball even the best teams win about 60% of the time, meaning a one game playoff between two competitive teams has the odds of a coin flip. Selig has decided to place the emphasis of all of baseball entirely on the divisions he created, because by winning a division any MLB team gives itself a much greater shot at winning the title.

Another overwhelming flaw in the new system will probably occur in the upcoming season, when a team locked solidly in 3rd place gets a shot at squaring off against a team that beat them handily for 2nd  over the course of the regular season. Looking back at the previous 10 seasons, 4 separate times a one game playoff would have occurred involving a 2nd place team and 3rd place team separated by 5 or more games within the same division. This is completely ludicrous. Why should a 95 win team, who was just edged out for the division title, be required to go against a team that they have beaten soundly during the very long and extended regular season? If we look at some of the teams it includes the 2010 Red Sox(who were 6 behind the Yankees), the 2009 Giants (4 back of Colorado), the 2008 Yankees (the only Yankee team to miss the playoff since ‘95 and trailed Boston by 6 games), and the 2006 White Sox (5 back). In fact, in 2001 the 102-win Oakland A’s would have been required to play the 85-win Minnesota Twins, despite an insane 17 game difference between the two! Baseball has always been the American game that places the most emphasis on the regular season, but now, not so much.

Everything about the system only become more unfair when considering that often the wild card winner also finishes with the second or third best record its respective league. The 2010 Yankees, 2008-09 Red Sox, the 2008 Brewers, and many more all would have finished 3rd or better and been stuck in a 4th place game. In what world does Bud Selig think this makes sense? The new wild card system would have rendered the fantastic night of 162 irrelevant as well. Tampa Bay, Boston, St. Louis, and Atlanta all would have rested their players and geared up for the one game playoff, reducing the most dramatic night of baseball ever to an afterthought. The new system was created to give baseball more excitement but it will more than likely take it away and frustrate fans of winning teams to no end.