Please check out the Hippeaux's weekly posts at SNY affiliate, It's About The Money.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Reading Dan Rosenheck (and vice versa): The Continuing Search For Pujols Comparables

To make sense of what follows, it's probably sensible to read Dan's original column and my unnecessarily condescending response.

Upfront I'm going to admit that there were some aspects of my argument which were ill-conceived and underdeveloped.  Some of this has to do with my own limitations when if comes to advanced sabermetrics, more has to do with my haste in posting.  The following points I concede without hesitation.  I'll let Dan take it from here:

1.) "If you don't 'timeline' - that is to say, credit today's players for a higher quality of play relative to the past - then absolutely anyone with access to a calculator would rank Gehrig as the top first baseman in MLB history."

2.) "Pujol's baseball-reference WAR is inflated...Ultimate Zone Rating, which needless to say is a far superior statistic, puts him at a much more reasonable 62 runs above average for his career, which is consistent with 'outstanding defensive first baseman' rather than 'God with a mitt.' So Let's knock off those nonexistent 45 runs/4.5 wins, and drop Pujols down to 79.3 WAR."

3.) "Cherry-picking a few players who had decent seasons at age 40 is no more convincing than if I randomly named three players who were cooked by 40."

4.) "PECOTA was designed to project on season ahead, not ten...I would gladly bet my life savings that Pujols underperforms the career WAR total implicit in that projection - it's downright crazy."

5.) "Hmm, why did Greenberg and Mize only have 44 WAR each by age 30?  What possibly might have prevented them from playing in the major leagues for some of those years?  Here's a hint...what does WAR spell?" (Very tasteful snark.)

5.) "My last name is Rosenheck, not Rosencheck." (Though I got it right 9 out of 10 times, as somebody with a somewhat uncommon Eastern European last name, I should be more conscientious.)

After those concessions, we are left with a few substantive disputes.  I'm going to address these in order of what I'll call "intensity of dissent":

1.) Is is fair to compare?  Or, as Mr. Rosenheck puts it, to "timeline"...
"First off, the size-of-the-player-pool argument is pretty overblown.  The US population was about 130 million in the 1930s, versus 300 million today, an increase of 130%, while the number of major league teams has risen from 16 to 30, an increase of 87.5%.  After counting segregation and Latin America, there were probably 6.5 million people per team in the 1930s, and 11 million today.  That's a significant difference, but I don't think it's so vast as to support a claim that older comparables are completely irrelevant.
"Second, as for better training and nutrition and equipment, etc., of course that's true, but if you put Hank Greenberg in a time machine to 2011, he would presumably benefit from the same advantages as well.  
"Third, I wasn't willfully ignoring more recent or non-white players in my analysis - there just weren't any first baseman in Pujols's league from about 1950 to 1990 (and I have no idea why not).  If you want to expand your consideration set to all position players from more recent time, then leaving aside Bonds (who I discount due to chemical enhancement), their track record is no better - none of Schmidt, Rickey, Morgan, Boggs, Brett, Carew, Griffey, etc. did much at age 39+.  
"Finally, the whole thing is irrelevant if you ask me, because even if you concede that the quality of play is higher than it's ever been and therefore Pujols is the greatest player ever because he's the greatest active player, the same is true of his opponents.  If he is likely to age better than his predecessors because he is a modern player, then so will all the pitchers he has to face, and the hitters he will compete against for batting an HR titles, etc.  In figuring how much a team can afford to pay a player, all that matters is his value relative to his cohort - in which case players from the 1930s or even the 1890s are every bit as useful as those from more recent times in projecting his future.  Indeed, the single best-case scenario for the second half of Pujols's career is probably Cap Anson, is it not?"
Obviously the meat of our disagreement lies in this idea of "timelining."  I've got strong feelings about this, as I've expressed previously in these pages, but I haven't really gotten into it for years, so this seems as good a time as any to attempt to lay out the argument in detail.

I'm pretty certain that upon further reflection, Dan would agree that, even if his figures are dead-on accurate (which is a near impossibility), an increase of 69.2% in terms of potential players per franchise represents a radical alteration in the level of play.  (5-10% shifts in potential employment pools are frequently more than enough to effect massive upgrades in the proficiency of labor markets.) Baseball considers itself a pure meritocracy.  Whether it is or not is certainly up for debate, but the politics and economics of the game are definitely build upon this assumption.  Meritocracies are designed upon the express idea that increasing the size of the employment pool is the most effective way of making the system more productive and/or efficient.  For this very reason, since the days of integration, franchises have been highly motivated to increase their allocation of resources to scouting in Latin America, Japan, Korea, Europe, and, most recently, China and India.

I won't argue that baseball is fully globalized, but the search for talent definitely extends beyond the Americas.  Which is just one reason I think Dan's "people per franchise" figures are conservative.  In fact, I think statistics are inherently misleading in this situation.  Those statistics have to be based, after all, on census data.  In America, especially prior to the revolutionizing of sampling protocols in the 1940s, census data was a long way from accurate.  And, as historians like Margo Anderson have shown, the census frequently inflated white populations and deflated minority populations, by as much as 30% in some regions, for obvious reasons (let's just start with the fact that census data effected political districting).  Dan, as a former bureau chief covering Mexico, Central America, and the Carribean for The Economist, will know better than I, but I suspect that population statistics for many of the baseball-rich countries of that region are still less than stellar.  [Dan adds, "I've never heard any suspicion or doubt about Latin American population statistics (as opposed to economic statistics, which are indeed sometimes poorly compiled or willfully doctored).]

Moreover, and specific to the baseball argument, we must remember a few significant cultural differences between the pre-WWII game and that of today, which no doubt influenced franchises' ability to fully exploit what player pool was at their disposal.  For starters, scouting was in its infancy.  Dodgers GM, Larry MacPhail, and manager, Leo Durocher, were frequently responsible for fleshing out new talent, in addition to, obviously, their management of the major-league club.  The absence of commercial airlines and the infancy of highway travel meant that even parts of continental U.S. were inaccessible to baseball scouts in any meaningful way.  Obviously, great players did frequently find there way to the majors by way of barnstorming and semi-pro ball, but one could hardly argue that the system for finding and developing talent was anywhere near as efficient as it was today.

Not only that, but the dramatically different labor structure under the "reserve clause" meant that professional baseball was not "a gentleman's game."  To be a baseball player meant almost certainly being without an income, without a profession, and without any meaningful job training by the age of 35.  For this reason, as Ken Burns so often points out, the teams were comprised mainly of farmboys and street urchins, men with little education and few other prospects.  One of Dan's examples, Hank Greenberg, was, of course, famous for being among the few college-educated men in the major leagues and, as Dan pointed out, for leaving the game at something of an early age, in part because he wanted to get into the business side of things.  Again, a competitive meritocracy which does not pay a competitive wage in relation to other fields is going to be extremely inefficient at acquiring the greatest talents.

Moving on, I want to reiterate something Dan says - there just weren't any first baseman in Pujols's league from about 1950 to 1990 (when we get Frank Thomas and Jeff Bagwell, more on them later).  Dan and I actually agree about more than we disagree (more on that later), in part because we're both fully prepared to acknowledge that there are few precedents for Pujols.  From Dan's perspective, that means you have to go all the way back to the Depression.  From my perspective, that means you have to stop looking and start considering that we may be dealing with a true outlier, at least as far as first base is concerned.  I will point out that I am not alone in seeing the Cardinals current offer as underwhelming reasonable projections.  See Rob Neyer and Dave Cameron.

I know I've been using the word efficiency a lot in this rebuttal, but it is exactly why I don't agree when Dan says "value relative to cohort" is inherently relevant, regardless of era.  Inefficient systems are bound to yield a different pattern of results from efficient systems.  The contemporary game is, I believe without doubt, far more efficient at identifying, developing, and retaining the highest level of talent.

Hopefully, the meritocracy is still moving towards more efficiency (by way of scouting new populations, increasing longevity, etc.), however, I doubt we will ever see the rate of efficiency increase as drastically as it did in the first boom decades of professional baseball.  Think about how many paradigm shifts altered the game during the careers Gehrig, Foxx, Greenberg, Williams, et al.  You've got the ascendency of the power-hitter, you've got the popularization of baseball via mass media, you've got the interruption of the war, and, last but not least, integration.  All the while, the model for running a franchise is improving, technology is improving, etc., etc.  Although it would be difficult for me to display this in meaningful statistical terms, I think you can see why this era was operating under wildly different constraints from those with which we're now familiar.  This alone could explain why players of the '30s and '40s had shorter careers.  If the game keeps getting better by leaps and bounds, most veteran players are likely to have a hard time keeping up.  Unless we discover a large baseball-playing community in the remote regions of China or Argentina, I sincerely doubt Pujols is going to face a radical change in the level of competition over the next ten seasons.

If one were not in favor of "timelining," Cap Anson wouldn't be a horrible analogue for Pujols's upside.  From 31 to 40, Anson accumulated  60-65 WAR, which would make him worth about $220 Million, which is more than the Cardinals have offered, but not quit "A-Rod money."  I'm going to assert instead that, since I don't "discount," Barry Bonds is closer to my ideal of Pujols's upside. Certainly, I don't expect him to peak in this later thirties.  But Bonds, even pre-allegation Bonds, was roughly the same player from 31 to 35 (8.3 WAR/YR), as he was from 26-30 (8.5 WAR/YR).  [Bonds in his 20s lost some games to the strike, but Bonds in his 30s lost roughly the same number of games to injuries.]  I think Pujols could easily have 3-5 more years where he is as good, if not even a little better, than he has been so far, followed by a gradual decline into his early 40s.

2.) Is there a more recent precedent?
"Lining up Thomas's raw offensive stats with Pujols's is silly, since the first half of Thomas's peak was in a significantly lower run environment.  Thomas was a slightly better hitter, as OPS+ will tell you.  Furthermore, I don't know what you're talking about in terms of durability--Thomas averaged 154 games a season during his peak.  But of course there's a significant gap in defensive and baserunning value, making Pujols's best seasons around 0.8 wins per year better than Thomas's.  And obviously Thomas's body type suggested the early decline he eventually suffered. 
"WAR through age 30 is a pretty poor metric to assess Bagwell, since he debuted at 23 and didn't develop his power stroke until 26.  Bagwell averaged 8 WAR a year from ages 26-30 (remember to adjust for the strike), which is a perfect match for Pujols's production in those years.  Bagwell had his last star-caliber year at 34, and was out of baseball by 37.  In my article I say Pujols is probably a good risk up through age 37."
I'll admit, I'm jumping to conclusions about Pujols durability in comparison to Thomas in large part because of "body type" and quickness.  Thomas was incredibly durable early in his career and quite to opposite from 2001 on.  The "triceps tear" which ended his '01 season may have had something to do with that.  That said, Thomas was still far more than a "fringe" player even at the age of 39, at least when he was on the field.

The reason I was attentive to "WAR through age 30" stats is that I do think Pujols early ascension and success at the major-league level is relevant to his contract negotiations.  Maybe if Bagwell had been promoted earlier he could've had a comparable career to Pujols, but he wasn't, and the evidence suggests the Astros were right in delaying his arrival.  After all, his first three seasons (averaging 4.3 offensive WAR) were excellent, but not Pujols-esque (7.4 oWAR), even though he was several years older.

While I do think that Thomas and Bagwell played under similar enough circumstances to make the comparison justifiable, I don't think either lives up to that comparison.  Pujols was better earlier that either of them, has sustained that pace for longer than either of them, and has a wider diversity of talents than either of them.  Now, could Pujols's elbow be his Achilles heel, like Bagwell's back or Thomas's foot.  Sure, it could.  But if the Cardinals bring that to the negotiating table, they've hardly got a leg to stand on, because the elbow is reportedly fixed and even when it was bothering Pujols it barely effected his production.  The possibility of catastrophic injury exists with all players and cannot be accurately accounted for.

3.) Why do terms matter?

Dan says, "Why does it matter how they structure the contract?  The only thing we care about is net present value."  But, actually, as I'm reading this from the perspective of labor negotiations, there are other things I care about.  Several writers, as well as Tony LaRussa, have speculated that the major roadblock in the negotiations is that Pujols, his agent, and the MLBPA are looking to set a new bar.  It's a completely rational strategy when you're dealing with a player who is arguably amongst the best ever and is pretty much universally regarded as the best right now.  Moreover, unlike Alex Rodriguez, Bonds, or many of the other groundbreaking players of the free agency era, Pujols comes free of PR problems.  He's hard-working and charitable, has a highlight reel smile when he's signing autographs and a demon scowl when he's sizing up his opponents.  Prior to these negotiations there's been pretty much zero indication that Pujols does anything wrong...ever.  If a player like Pujols can't get a groundbreaking deal, the union is in trouble, and the agent should look for a new job.

(Sidebar: Why is it that we keep hearing about how Pujols is disloyally handcuffing his franchise, but we never hear about how by not paying Pujols what he's worth, the Cardinals are stealing from the Pujols Family Foundation, the down syndrome charity to which Albert is so avidly committed.  How about this headline: Billionaire Owners Withholding Millions From Retarded Kids.  Just because Pujols doesn't need $300 Million for himself, doesn't mean he should give it to Bill DeWitt.)

The reason creatively structuring the contract matters is that it could provide an avenue for both sides to save face.  For instance, the Cardinals could offer Pujols $200 Million over seven years.  That way, the contract would have the highest average annual value in history, but the Cardinals wouldn't be on the hook much past the point when, as Dan suggests, the risk might outweigh the reward.  There is also the option of building in incentives, vesting options, opt-outs, etc. on the backend, thus protecting the Cardinals from the catastrophe scenario, while giving Pujols the assurance that he will continue to get paid according to his market value in the waning years of his career.

4.) What's the riskiest risk?
"Yup, marquee/brand value is indeed the great unknown.  I'm skeptical anyone can contribute $80 million above and beyond their on-field playing value--that's a significant chunk of the purchase price of an entire team. What did I write to suggest I was 'tickled' by a 'discovery' that three solid players were worth the same as Pujols?  I just used them to illustrate the comparison to a combination of players with the same on-field value but no marquee value.  And I don't see why there's significant extra value in concentrating your WAR in fewer roster spots for a mid-market team like the Cardinals.  Sure, it frees up more room to buy more valuable players, but you'd also have to pay those players more money.  (I do think it matters for teams like the Yankees with no real payroll ceiling, who just want the best team money can buy).  Moreover, I can't understand your risk analysis for the life of me.  Surely you have less risk (and less potential reward) with three two-WAR players than you do with one six-WAR player!  Just from an injury standpoint, assuming the players have an equal risk of going down, if one of the two-WAR players get hurt, you still have four left, whereas if the six-WAR guy goes down, you're out the whole package.  The converse of this is that it's much less likely that you'll have three players all outperform their projections and give you a combined MVP-type year than it is that you'll have one star put together some magical season.  Finally, of course I wouldn't recommend signing any of Harang, Matsui, or Johnson to an 8-year deal.  But unless you expect the free agent market to be more overpriced in the future than it is in the present--and I don't see why that would be the case--then there's no compelling reason why signing a series of short-term free agent deals is a worse idea than signing one big one is."

First off, in snide terms, I was merely observing that Aaron Harang, Kelly Johnson, and Hideki Matsui seemed particularly likely to appear to NYT readers as "fungible" players and therefore make Pujols demands seem more ludicrous.

Now, assuming all players have the same risk of injury, would you rather have three relatively inexpensive two-WAR players or one ridiculously-expensive six-WAR player?  There are logical arguments on both sides, which, as Dan suggests, have a lot to do with the franchise's market, budget, player development system, and the make-up of the rest of their roster.  A couple weeks ago Jason Rosenberg made a pretty compelling argument, based upon the A-Rod/Rangers debacle, that no team should use more than 25% of their payroll on a single player.  The Cardinals have yet to top the $100 Million mark as a franchise, so giving Pujols $25+ Million a year would be breaking Jason's rule.

The reason I prefer the "Pujols risk" to the "Johnson/Harang/Matsui risk" is that my team gets not only his WAR, which we're presuming is roughly equal to that of the other three players combined, but WAR from additional positions (preferably occupied by cost-efficient homegrown or at least cheaply-acquired talent).  Assuming the health of all parties, in the Johnson/Harang/Matsui equation we are topping out at 2-3 wins per roster spot, while in the Pujols equation that's the bottom line.  Yes, Johnson/Harang/Matsui will come cheaper and are almost certain not to decline to 0 WAR over the short term, but they are more likely to fall short of 6 WAR.

Obviously, as Johnson/Harang/Matsui would cost substantially less than Pujols, you could spread the money around even further and, in many situation and many offseasons, that may be the most sensible way to build a team.  However, it is misleading to treat Johnson, Harang, and Matsui as fungible commodities.  The Rockies recently brought the term "cost certainty" into the common parlance of baseball media by wrapping up Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki in long-term contracts.  The "Johnson/Harang/Matsui risk" is part of the reason why.  There is little certainty that you can consistently identify and sign even two-WAR players on the free agent market.  In Pujols, presumably, the Cardinals have a player in whom they are confident, who has done nothing but flourish in St. Louis, and about whom they know pretty much as much as any franchise can know about a player.  When you're constantly buying free agents, not only are you subjected to the whims of the market, you are also constantly being "sold" on players.  Nobody can sell the Cardinal the "Pujols factor."  They know not only how he contributes to production on-the-field, but his box office draw, his public relations value, his clubhouse chemistry assets, his relation to other players, coaches, etc.

Generally, it's safer to bet on the devil you know, as it were.

5.) Whose side are we on?
"When did I ever say how much money I though Pujols 'should' be paid?  I don't have any opinion on what the morally correct outcome is.  My column was about how much money the Cardinals could offer him and still make a profit on the contract."
The problem here is that Dan's column fell under two different headlines on the NYT website, which were "Albert Pujols May Be Asking Too Much of Cardinals" and "Asking For a Lot, Perhaps Too Much, from St. Louis."  Dan did not choose these headlines, but they inflect our reading of his research with a "morally correct" overtone.  Such headlines fit right into the evolving narrative (at its most ridiculous extremes in the commentary of Seth Everett and the similarly simple-minded), which accuses Pujols of "disloyalty" and "greed."

I think, on these counts, actually, Dan and I are in full agreement.  1.) Pujols has every right to negotiate according to recent market precedents like Alex Rodriguez, Ryan Howard, and Mark Teixeira.  In comparison to those precedents, there's no denying that the Cardinals offer is short.  2.) The Cardinals would be completely within reason if they decided that they could not afford pay any player, even the best player, $300 Million, considering the constraints of their market.  3.) If the Cardinals don't make Pujols an offer approaching at least $25 Million/yr., somebody else will.

You can assume "asking too much" is an allegation of unreasonable greed on Pujols part.  Or, you can read it as an acknowledgement of the Cardinals limitations.  For some reason I assume the general public read it in the former fashion.  But I could be wrong.

Finally, thanks so much to Dan Rosenheck for reading and responding in such great detail and with such a generous and perhaps undeserved level of collegiality.

Cubs Optimism Is In The Air; Infecting Even Jaded Sabremetricians

On his podcast earlier this week, Jonah Keri asked Rob Neyer what was going to be the biggest surprise of the 2011 season and his answer was...the Chicago Cubs.

I'll allow a moment for the shock to subside.

His rationale is interesting.  Simply put, he expects the Cubs to get better production out of at least five or six positions.  And, he believes the addition of Matt Garza and the return of Carlos Zambrano will make up for the loss of Ted Lilly and the general uncertainty at the backend of the rotation.

Not bad points.  Here's what Rob is talking about in more detailed terms:

Cubs C '10: .257 AVG, 70 R, 19 HR, 75 RBI, 774 OPS (#4 in NL)
Cubs 1B '10: .254 AVG, 91 R, 20 HR, 74 RBI, 722 OPS (#14)
Cubs 2B '10: .257 AVG, 69 R, 7 HR, 45 RBI, 644 OPS (#13)
Cubs 3B '10: .262 AVG, 85 R, 25 HR, 96 RBI, 771 OPS (#7)
Cubs SS '10: .303 AVG, 78 R, 3 HR, 56 RBI, 744 OPS (#5)
Cubs LF '10: .261 AVG, 83 R, 26 HR, 92 RBI, 795 OPS (#6)
Cubs CF '10: .286 AVG, 93 R, 14 HR, 75 RBI, 770 OPS (#7)
Cubs RF '10: .250 AVG, 82 R, 27 HR, 86 RBI, 789 OPS (#8)

That's truly abysmal production.  Conventional stats aren't the greatest indicators, obviously, but it's never good when no position produces either 100 R or 100 RBI and only two positions manage an average above .265.  No position provided 30 HR.  No position managed an OPS above 800 (32 NL players had 800+ OPS in 2010, two per team).

I'm willing to take for granted that a full year of Aramis Ramirez, who was plenty productive when he got back from the DL, will give the Cubs at least one sizable upgrade.

I'm also excited to see more of Geovany Soto.  Soto was great in 2010 (890 OPS), but Lou Pinella severely limited his ABs against right-handed pitchers and his splits show why (796 OPS v. RHP, 1072 OPS v. LHP).  Still, he's a hell of a lot better than Koyie Hill, no matter which way the ball is coming from, though his '10 rates might be slightly misleading.

Beyond that, there is a lot of uncertainty.  One hopes that Starlin Castro will be even better in his first full season, but sophomore slumps are hardly unusual, especially when we're talking about a 21-year-old who played a grand total of 57 games at AA and zero at AAA.  The Cubs actually got decent production from shortstop last year, because Castro was very good in the second half and Ryan Theriot was pretty good early in the season, prior to Castro's promotion.  I certainly wouldn't guarantee an improvement in 2011.

One expects that free-agent acquisition Carlos Pena will give the Cubs some pop at first base, something they were sorely lacking in 2010.  But, Pena actually posted a 732 OPS last year, worse than Derrek Lee, to go along with his sub-Mendoza batting average.  He was reportedly nursing injuries, so I'm willing to embrace an optimistic position towards his 2011, but he's hardly a sure thing.

Alfonso Soriano is actually coming off one of his best seasons since he joined the Cubs.  He got more plate appearances than he has since 2007 and seemed more comfortable after finally being moved down in the order.  However, now 35, Soriano's 30/30 potential has all but vanished and the Cubs should probably be thankful if he merely repeats his 2010 line for a couple more years.

For Marlon Byrd, it was a tale of two seasons.  He made the All-Star team based on a first half in which he hit .317 with an 845 OPS.  After the break he hit .261 with a 682 OPS.  Is Marlon Byrd really better than a league-average hitter, which is more or less what his overall production made him in 2010?  I don't believe so.

In 2010, four replacement-level players shared second base: Theriot, Blake DeWitt, Mike Fontenot, and Jeff Baker.  This spring the Cubs are working out DeWitt, Baker, Darwin Barney (708 career OPS in the minor leagues), and a smattering of non-roster invitees, the most recognizable of which is Augie Ojeda, a 36-year-old journeyman who most recently posted a 486 OPS (not a misprint) with the D-Backs.  Seeing potential for improvement here is like betting on a coin flip.

The biggest wild card for the Cubs in 2011 has to be in right field, where Chicago is presumably prepared to go with Tyler Colvin full-time, after the rookie earned his way into the starting lineup over the course of last season.  The scouting reports are extremely mixed on Colvin.  Like Castro, he spent very little time in the high minors.  He showed great power right off the bat in the majors (20 HR, .500 SLG), but his plate discipline is very suspect (100 K in 358 AB, .316 OBP).  If Colvin matures quickly he could be Adam LaRoche or even Adam Lind, but he could also be a forgotten flash-in-the-pan by this time next year.

Of the rotation, I'm cautiously optimistic.  I'd say Garza has a really strong chance of becoming Ted Lilly upon his transition to the NL.  In three-and-a-half seasons with the Cubs, Lilly went 47-34 with a 3.70 ERA and a 1.14 WHIP.  He averaged 31 starts and 196 innings per season, providing stability, but not brilliance.  As I've said before, Garza is young enough that he may still prove himself to be more than that, but I wouldn't bet on it.

Assuming Garza makes up for the loss of Lilly, Ryan Dempster and Randy Wells hold steady, and everybody stays healthy, a full year from the revitalized Zambrano, who went 8-0 with a 1.41 ERA after returning to the rotation down the stretch, should make the rotation substantially better in 2011.  And it wasn't that bad last year.

Our problem was the bullpen.  Even with a truly outstanding seasons from Carlos Marmol and Sean Marshall, the Cubs bullpen ERA was the second worst in the National League.  Jim Hendry addressed this problem this offseason by rehiring Kerry Wood.  Undoubtedly, he's expecting greater contributions from youngsters like Esmalin Caridad, Andrew Cashner, and Casey Coleman as well.  Again, the best I can muster is "perhaps."

Keep in mind, Neyer did not say he expected the Cubs to win the NL Central, merely that they were capable of making a 10-12 win improvement on last season's 75-87 record.  That's not beyond the realm of possibility.  The Cubs had some seriously bad luck in 2010.  Ramirez missed time.  Zambrano melted down.  Lee fell off the table.  Byrd disappeared in the second half.  Had they been spared a few of these misfires, one could easily see them as a .500 team.

The Cardinals, a team who's lack of depth cost them dearly in 2010, failed to competently address their glaring holes this offseason, then lost their Ace in the opening week of Spring Training.  So, the perennial NL Central juggernaut is plenty vulnerable.  However, both the Brewer and the Reds are balanced, stacked franchises.  I just can't see the Cubs making a run at either of them.  Would a .500 record really be surprising?  For a team boasting a $135 Million payroll?  For some reason, I can't even summon my usual springtime sanguineness.

Friday, February 25, 2011

A Call To Fantastic Followers

I've got at least one and maybe more openings in the SPH 640, a highly-competitive, ridiculously deep (16 teams, 40-man rosters) keeper league now entering its fourth season.  If you're interested in playing against Hippeaux and numerous other obsessive baseball fans, drop me a line at You would be taking over a team, so you would have to deal with a previous owners management/mismanagement, but since the league only allows 6 keepers from year to year, there is plenty of opportunity to buoy your franchise with a good draft.

Monday, February 21, 2011

The Search For Pujols Comparables or "What's Ted Williams got to do with it?"

I'm going to take on this column by Dan Rosenheck in the style of Fire Joe Morgan.  Don't expect the same level of hilarity, but it seems the best way to approach the multi-layered ignorance imbedded within.
Ever since Albert Pujols’s self-imposed deadline for a new contract with the St. Louis Cardinals passed Wednesday without a deal, speculation has been rampant about whether he will re-sign, how much he could command as a free agent and whether he will be worth it. He is reportedly seeking $300 million over 10 years, and his employers are believed to have offered less than $200 million — a gap that is bigger than the entire value of all but a handful of contracts in history.
Honestly, I don't know where Rosenheck's getting his information.  Maybe he has an inside source or maybe he's just suffering from the general lack of credible information on the size of the Cardinals offer.  I've seen everything from 7 yrs./$200 Million to 10 yrs./$240 Million, but I have yet to see anybody (except Rosenheck) reporting under $200 Million.  If he's correct, I think it actually makes his argument weaker.

That paragraph-ending addendum is one of those rhetorical perversions which mainstream journalists are supposed to be immune to.  How many contracts can you fit in your hand?  Apparently, Rosenheck can fit about 26, because that's how many $100+ Million contracts have been handed out in "baseball history."  By the way, that's also the number of $100+ Million contracts that have been handed out in the last 12 years.  That doesn't sound quite so damning, does it?  Inflation's a bitch, I know, but Pujols is only asking for 9.1% more money than A-Rod got two years ago.  He's the best player in the game right now and he's younger than A-Rod was in '08, so everybody knew this was coming.  You can table your pretended horror.  
Pujols, 31, is baseball’s undisputed top player. He is far and away the best hitter in the game, he is an elite defensive first baseman; and he runs the bases well. Moreover, he is extremely durable, averaging 156 games a season. Over his first decade in the majors, St. Louis won around 80 more games than they would have with a typical scrap-heap first baseman (say, Mike Jacobs), an average of eight wins a year. Eight wins is a typical mark for the winner of a Most Valuable Player award.
So promising!  He doesn't exactly say it, perhaps for fear that Murray Chass might stalk him into the men's room at the NYT's next holiday party, but Rosenheck is using WAR to estimate Pujols value.  Not batting average.  Not World Series rings.  An actual legitimate baseball metric.  Wow.
The first question for the Cardinals is how Pujols will age. The standard approach is to examine the careers of similar players. Few players, however, have been as great as Pujols, and even fewer were first basemen.
The only one who could outhit Pujols was Lou Gehrig, the greatest first baseman ever. Jimmie Foxx is a fairly close match for Pujols, particularly because they both started as third basemen, and Johnny Mize and Hank Greenberg were not far behind. But none of them had Pujols’s defensive value.
Oh for fuck's sake.  We really shouldn't need to do this anymore.  I'll ignore the "greatest first baseman ever" bullshit, because it's a New York paper, but one of these things is not like the others.  Anybody?

When looking for players who resemble a Dominican-born slugger who's played his entire career in the 21st-century, the natural comparisons are always Caucasian guys whose careers ended during the Truman administration.

None of them have Pujols defensive value!?!  That's the difference between Jimmie Foxx and Albert Pujols?!?  Can we start with the fact that if Albert had been Jimmie's contemporary, he would have been ineligible to play in the major leagues.  Pujols plays in an era when not only are all Americans eligible for the amateur draft, but baseball is pulling from an increasingly global player pool.  Comparing 1940s stats to 2000s stats is like comparing Liechtensteinian politics to American politics.  Not only is there a difference in kind, there's a difference in scale.

That said, Pujols still eats all these whitebread sluggers for lunch:

WAR Through Age 30 (from Baseball-Reference):

Pujols (83.8)
Foxx (78.2)
Gehrig (76.2)
Mize (44.4)
Greenberg (44.2)

More recently, Frank Thomas may have been an even better hitter than Pujols during his peak, but he was brittle and immobile. Jeff Bagwell, another minor league third baseman, had a similar all-around game to Pujols’s but was a clear cut below him offensively.
Okay, well, at least these guys played the same damn game.  Yes, Thomas was downright lethal during his peak, a stretch from '91 to '97, between the age of 23 and 29.  I wonder how Pujols compared in that same age range:

Thomas: .330 AVG, 1056 OPS, 250 HR, 823 RBI, 1016 G, 46.0 WAR
Pujols: .337 AVG, 1075 OPS, 295 HR, 855 RBI, 1081 G, 63.9 WAR

As hitters they were relatively similar, although Thomas played in a somewhat friendlier home ballpark, had the luxury of some "off-days" at DH, and still missed substantially more time than Pujols.  Besides having a better track record for durability, athleticism, and defense than the Big Hurt, Pujols entered the league earlier and has been forced to face some especially pitching-rich competition in his most recent seasons.

Bagwell?  I'll set aside the fact that Pujols WAR is more than 30 games better than Bagwell's through age 30 and just point out that this comparison could actually work to Pujols' benefit.  Several of Bagwell's best seasons came after the age of 30 and setting aside his back (a problem Pujols doesn't share), Bagwell was still producing at a pretty impressive rate by age 36.

Still, I think the point of Pujols $300 Million demand is that there is no precedent.
At first glance, that group does not bode well for Pujols’s future: not one of them had a superstar-caliber season after age 35. But three had their careers cut short by unusual circumstances. Gehrig contracted the disease that now bears his name. Foxx had sinus and vision problems after a beaning and was a heavy drinker. Greenberg simply decided he preferred a front-office job. Of the remaining three, Thomas’s physique makes him a poor match for Pujols.
Expanding the list to include corner outfielders provides some more hopeful cases. Stan Musial, whose first 10 years (adjusting for World War II) were almost identical to Pujols’s, remained a star through age 37, and even batted .330 when he was 41. Hank Aaron also dominated until 37, and hit very well at 38 and 39, as did Frank Robinson. Ted Williams was the best hitter in baseball when he retired at 41. But even Pujols is not Ted Williams.
What seems clear is that expecting star-caliber play after 37 is folly. The only position players who played well enough after 38 to justify three or more years under contract at top dollar were Barry Bonds, Honus Wagner, Willie Mays, Williams and (oddly) Luke Appling. The first four all have an argument as the best player ever.
You're right, Dan.  Pujols isn't Ted Williams.  You see, if Ted Williams were playing today, he'd be Matt Holliday.  You see what I'm saying?  He'd be Pujols' sidekick.  I know it stings, but there's a strong chance there isn't a single white man among the top ten hitters in the history of the game.  Riddle me this, if the white hitters of the "golden age" were so damn good, how come the best white hitter of the last twenty years is Chipper Jones?  Who's the greatest white hitter since Mickey Mantle?  Is he one of the top five hitters of his generation?

Again, Williams best seasons came prior to integration and even the latter half of his career was hardly played against the kind of competition Pujols has seen constantly since he entered the league.  Certainly, Williams was by far the best player of that generation.  And he probably would still be outstanding (as is Matt Holliday).  But Pujols has, thusfar, been as good as any player in the history of the game.  That includes Williams, Mays, Bonds, Musial, Robinson, you name it.  Why should we be judging him against anybody else?  Rosenheck seems to be taking for granted that Pujols doesn't "have an argument for best player ever."  Certainly, he'll need a few more years to cement himself in the discussion, but ten years is a lot of data, and all that date suggests he very much belongs in that conversation.

As Dan points out, many of the guys in that conversation were very productive into their late 30s and even early 40s.  That's one reason why Pujols can rationalize his enormous contract demands.  He can also point to the fact that he lives in an era of vast improved medical technology, conditioning technique, etc.  Players routinely have career years in their mid-thirties.
Over all, the historical evidence suggests that over the next seven years, Pujols will play about 30 percent worse than he has until now, which would make him worth some 42 wins — still the best first baseman in the game, but not necessarily a perennial M.V.P. contender. After that, he is likely to be merely above average at 38, average at 39 and a fringe player at 40.
My, we throw around the term "evidence" with abandon these days?  Where exactly did this case get made?  Did I miss a few paragraphs?  "Fringe player at 40," really?

How many HOF caliber players are actually reduced to "fringe" status by 40?  Especially in this era.  (I'll leave aside the Bonds-Clemens contingent.)  Is Jim Thome a fringe player?  He's coming off a year in which he posted a 1039 OPS.  By age 40 Omar Vizquel was clearly in decline at the plate (but he was never a superlative hitter), but his defense still allowed him to post a 1.4 WAR, which is better than "fringe."  Kenny Lofton stole 23 bases and hit .296 at age 40.

Also, as many writers have pointed out, the Cardinals don't have to pay Pujols the same money when he's 40 as they do when he's 35.  They could frontload the contract.  They could make it an eight-year deal.  What they do have to acknowledge, however, is that in order to retain the best player in the game, they're going to have to give him an average annual salary substantially larger than what the Red Sox just gave Carl Crawford or what the Yankees gave Mark Teixeira.  Obviously, Crawford's a great player, but Pujols is substantially more valuable, even though he's two years older.  And, frankly, Teixeira, who's the same age as Pujols, isn't even in the same ballpark (career WAR of 36.7).

You probably don't have much use for statistical models like Baseball Prospectus's PECOTA, seeing as they use massive amounts of data, give precedence to relevant recent information, and have a really high rate of accuracy.  But, just for kicks, you might take a look at the projections for Pujols.  You see, although PECOTA certainly forecasts a decline, particularly in Pujols homerun-hitting ability, it expects him to post a 900+ OPS well into his 40s.  Will he be baseball's Steve Nash?  Only time will tell.
The second question for the Cardinals is how to translate Pujols’s on-field performance into dollars and cents. The common statistical approach is simply to use the average amount general managers pay in the free-agent market to improve their teams by one win, and multiply that by the number of wins a player is expected to contribute. But most free agents wind up being bad values because they are systematically overpaid, as a result of younger players’ being bound to their clubs.
At the current market rate, building a 95-win team with free agents alone would cost $230 million — even more than the Yankees’ payroll. Clearly, a midmarket team like the Cardinals has to be very cautious in the free-agent market, particularly since they have signed Matt Holliday to a bloated $120 million contract.
The proper way for a cost-conscious team to evaluate free agents is by their effect on the club’s bottom line. In 2011, the Cardinals’ revenue will probably increase by $3.5 million for each additional game they win. Assuming they remain a contender, that figure should increase in line with the sport’s overall growth over the next decade, which lately has been a shade under 8 percent a year. That suggests Pujols’s playing value from 2011 to 2017 would be around $180 million.
Of course, this isn't how teams are built.  Not by a long shot.  What sportswriters so often overlook is that free agents, arbitration-eligible players, and team-controlled players are three very different, but related commodities.  You pay more for free agent production for several reasons, not the least of which is that it's very hard to build a contender exclusively with homegrown talent.  A 7-8 WAR/YR. player on the open market should not be subjected to the same value models as players who remain under team control.

Franchises are, in the vast majority of cases, paying the latter player substantially less than their market value.  Considering how few players, in the grand scheme of things, have careers much beyond their first six years, the whole nature of baseball's labor situation demands that premier players, like Pujols, get the opportunity to balance the scales in free agency.  I'll admit, it's not a perfect system, but that's what we've got.

Rosenheck's mistake here is a common one.  He wants the Cardinals to pay Albert "what he's worth," according to WAR, for the next ten years.  I think $180 Million is probably a very conservative projection, but $300 is probably fairly liberal.  What Rosenheck doesn't acknowledge, not even fleetingly, is that, according to those same methods by which he's guessing Pujols future worth, Pujols has already been worth upwards of $150 Million more than he's actually been paid.  It was his first contract.  He gave the team a discount in exchange for stability.  Fine.  But, why should a free agent settle for a low-end estimate of his future worth, when he's been underpaid at every step of his career up to that point.  We don't like to admit it, but free agency is about what you've done not what you're going to do, because that's the standard against which your market is created.  That's how baseball's CBA is built.  If you don't like it, than you're going to have to start paying young players more and giving out guaranteed contracts earlier.  If the Cardinals want to keep Pujols, they're going to need to reimburse him for some of the time he's already given them.  Why is the responsibility for loyalty only on the players side?
If he is set on a 10-year deal, the three twilight seasons would be worth only $40 million more. That still suggests he is asking for $80 million more than he is worth.
The final factor is the hardest to evaluate: Pujols’s off-the-field “marquee value” to the franchise. Do the Cardinals sell more tickets or jerseys — or, more important, would a potential buyer pay a higher price for them — if they get seven wins a year from Pujols rather than from, say, a combination of Kelly Johnson, Aaron Harang and Hideki Matsui? It’s reasonable to give Pujols some credit for his iconic status. But $80 million is a lot of warm fuzzies.
Because the public has no access to the baseball's books (thanks Oliver Wendall Holmes), nobody actually knows how much the Pujols brand has been worth to the Cardinals, so much of this latter paragraph is just pure masturbation on Rosenheck's part.  $80 Million may not actually be very many warm fuzzies.  Since we don't have the opportunity to analyze the profits of MLB franchises, we actually can't make very accurate judgments about how much history-making players are worth.

Rosenheck is so very tickled by his discovery that three players as mediocre (in his eyes) as Johnson, Harang, and Matsui were worth about 7 WAR in 2010.  But, obviously, as cute as this supposition is, seven wins from Pujols is not the same a seven wins from this trio, if for no other reason than it takes three roster spots instead of one.  That's two roster spots from which you can't be earning additional production.  Moreover, and most obviously, Johnson, Harang, and Matsui represent three different "risks," each of which potentially keep you from getting to your goal.  Assuming all players are created equal in terms of the likelihood of injury, you are essentially tripling your risk of falling short of your WAR goal every season.  Of course, all players aren't created equal, and Pujols has proven himself as close to risk-free as any player in the major leagues.  

In addition, since I assume Rosenheck would not endorse signing Matsui, Johnson, and Harang to 8 year contracts, if they followed his advice, the Cardinals would have to go out and replace each of them at least once or twice over that span.  That means submitting yourself on an annual basis to the whims of free agency, probably overpaying (since, as we've shown, free agents are inherently less cost-effective) for half a dozen players instead of just one, and being completely without consistency in the roster (fans like it) or cost certainty (owners like it). 

As I said last week, if the Cardinals decide that spending 25-30% of their payroll on Pujols is untenable, I completely respect that.  It's a very rational argument.  However, arguing that Pujols is overstating his own value is entirely different.  As I pointed out above, he's essentially saying he's 10% better than A-Rod.  And, from that perspective, he's probably being generous.

Arguing that Pujols is asking for too much based on the precedence of Ted Williams and Lou Gehrig, that's just asinine.    

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Fantastic Thoughts: "Bill Hall is Jose Oquendo with power." (Fantasy Baseball Second Base Preview)

Although the depth at second has improved dramatically in the last few years, it is still a relatively sparse fantasy position.  Shortstop is shallower.  Catcher is by a slim margin.  And third base is close to neck-and-neck.  The sparsity of the infield "skills" positions leads fantasy owners to overpay for the guys at or near the top of the pile.  We'll routinely treat Hanley Ramirez as fantasy royalty, even though he has only one season of 30+ HR, only one season of 100+ RBI, and only two seasons batting above .301.

I, personally, rarely pay premiums at scarce positions.  So, in the middle infield I generally look for "sleepers" and value well as flexibility.

Especially in deeper leagues, when you take a moderate risk by making Aaron Hill or Neil Walker your primary second-baseman, with similar players at SS and/or 3B, you want to back them up with some low-risk options off the bench, preferably guys who play several positions.  Here's a quick look at some interesting "eligibility" guys for this coming season

Bill Hall - Houston Astros - 2B, 3B, SS, OF

Depending on what your league regulations are, Hall may have as many as four position eligibilities.  He actually played seven different positions for the Red Sox last season, including one appearance at pitcher.  More importantly, he currently looks like an everyday player for his new team.  While he's not going to do your team average any good, he should be good for 20+ homers and double-digit steals over a full season and shouldn't cost much more than $1 bid or a late round flyer.

Sean Rodriguez - Tampa Bay Rays - 2B, 3B, SS, OF

Again, you league's eligibility requirements will determine what he gets (5+ games at all the positions listed above), but he'll definitely qualify at 2B and OF.  Rodriguez is only 25-years-old, slated for pretty much full-time at-bats in a loaded lineup, and had a AAA slugging percentage of .620 in 750 plate appearances.  He's got premium power, decent speed (13 SB in '10), and shouldn't decimate your average (.298 at AAA).  Unlike Hall, he won't come free, especially in deep leagues, but might be worth chasing nonetheless.

Jed Lowrie - Boston Red Sox - 1B, 2B, SS

It wasn't that long ago that the Red Sox considered Lowrie their top prospect, ahead of guys like Jacoby Ellsbury, Clay Buchholz, and even Jon Lester.  In 2010, he finally showed a flicker of that promise at the major-league level.  From July 26 to the end of the season he got relatively regular playing time and hit .294 with a 936 OPS.  He closed off the year by hitting a pair of homers against the Yankees, pushing them into second place (and the Wild Card) behind the Rays.  It was a small victory, but one that surely didn't go unnoticed in Red Sox nation.  There's no clear place for Lowrie in Boston, but Marco Scutaro may be on a short leash and, of course, Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia don't haven't the greatest track records for staying healthy (nor does Lowrie).  He's worth stashing in deep leagues and worth following in shallower ones.  I expect him to be a starter by August.  

Now, on to the rankings...

1. Robinson Cano, NYY
2. Chase Utley, PHI
3. Rickie Weeks, MIL
4. Ian Kinsler, TEX
5. Dan Uggla, ATL
6. Brandon Phillips, CIN
7. Dustin Pedroia, BOS

It's actually a pretty crowded field at the top of the second-base rankings.  Following an MVP-caliber 2010 season, which coincided with injury-plagued campaigns from Utley and Pedroia, Cano is the clear #1 option at the position, but don't fret if you miss out.  Utley had a excellent stretch run at the end of last year and should be primed to bounce back in 2011, at a slightly reduced price.  There's also little reason to believe Pedroia and Kinsler aren't capable of returning to form, but be aware, in terms of 5X5 fantasy production, Brandon Phillips is very nearly their equal and comes without the injury risk, having played 140+ games in each of the last five seasons.

8. Kelly Johnson, ARZ
9. Ben Zobrist, TBR
10. Aaron Hill, TOR
11. Martin Prado, ATL
12. Neil Walker, PIT

This group can be summarized by the phrase "one good year."  For Johnson, Prado, and Walker it was 2010.  For Zobrist and Hill, 2009.  All of the players from this group have surprisingly power potential, especially for the middle-infield, but otherwise their strengths vary.  Zobrist and Johnson can get you stolen bases.  Prado hits for a high average.  Walker is young enough that there may still be room for development.  Unfortunately, there's not a lot of safety here and it will probably be at least another year before we can confidently say which of them was a fluke.

13. Brian Roberts, BAL
14. Chone Figgins, SEA

Speedsters a renowned for their expeditious declines.  Roberts and Figgins, both 33-years-old, are coming off disappointing seasons which could signal that descent has begun.  On the other hand, in limited opportunity following his return from the D.L., Roberts still showed good speed (10 for 12 in SB attempts), though absent his usual power (.405 SLG).  Figgins managed to pile up the steals (42), even though his season was in nearly every other capacity the worst of his career.  Advantage goes to Roberts primarily because he'll be hitting atop a revitalized lineup, whereas Figgins plays in the offensive wasteland of Seattle.  Both are heavy in the risk department, but they should come much cheaper than they have in the past and therefore might be worth the gamble.

15. Gordon Beckham, CWS
16. Howie Kendrick, LAA
17. Mike Aviles, KCR
18. Sean Rodriguez, TBR
19. Eric Young Jr., COL
20. Danny Espinosa, WAS
21. Ryan Raburn, DET

The next class of potential breakout second-baseman is led by two highly-touted prospects who, as yet, haven't put it all together at the major-league level.  Beckham got off to a horrid start in 2010, but had two strong months in July and August (.332 AVG, 941 OPS) before his season was cut short by injury.  Rodriguez and Young won't get as much attention, because they don't offer a divers toolset, but Young has premium speed and Rodriguez premium power, so you could do worse in deep leagues.  The diamond in the rough here is Mike Aviles, who could be this year's version of Martin Prado.  In most leagues he'll be eligible at three infield positions (2B, 3B, SS) and has the ability to hit over .300 with 10-15 HR and 20+ steals, if he can hold down an everyday job.  Wilson Betemit and Mike Moustakas are waiting in the wings, so Aviles needs to get off to a hot start.

22. Orlando Hudson, SDP
23. Freddy Sanchez, SFG
24. Omar Infante, FLA
25. Juan Uribe, LAD
26. Ty Wigginton, COL
27. Bill Hall, HOU
28. Mark Ellis, OAK
29. Carlos Guillen, DET

In most league you won't want anything to do with these guys, but in deep leagues, one has to plow the depths of the middle-infield ranks.  Infante had a "breakout" season in 2010 which prompted his selection to the All-Star game, but his excellent average (.321) didn't bring much along with it (65 R, 8 HR, 47 RBI, 7 SB) and I have serious doubts there is any upside at age 29.  Wigginton, who has legit power, could benefit from his move to Colorado, except that there is no clear place for him to play.  If a Colorado infielder suffers an injury, he could jump up the list.

30. Dustin Ackley, SEA
31. Daniel Murphy, NYM
32. Luis Valbuena, CLE
33. Alexi Casilla, MIN
34. Jeff Baker, CHC

This is the deep sleeper contingent.  Seattle seems prepared to hand a full-time gig to their top prospect following his dynamite Arizona Fall League performance, but his full season totals from AA and AAA were less than thrilling (775 OPS).  I'm not convinced he's ready, but if you can get him on the cheap there is obviously tons of upside.  The Mets Daniel Murphy experiment is probably destined for failure.  It is the Mets after all.  But if Murphy does prove himself able to handle the position switch, he has the offensive talent to be a top 15 fantasy second-baseman.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Fantastic Thoughts: "First base is deep, but not that deep." (Fantasy Baseball First Base Rankings)

I've discussed the "three threes" strategy before, most recently in my 2010 BLOGZKRIEG! Auction Diary, but heres a quick refresher.

My theory is that first-baseman, besides consistently filling up the stat sheet, are less frequently injured than players who play more strenuous positions.  So, I aim to get as many 1B/DH types on my roster as possible, three at minimum: at first, corner infield, and utility.  If you have an instance, as we did in 2010, where a former third-baseman or outfielder is being moved to first (i.e. Adam Dunn, Troy Glaus, etc.), but still has eligibility at their old position, than that opens up the possibility of getting even more.

Here are the numbers, by position, of players who got at least 600 plate appearances in 2010:

C: 0
1B: 21
2B: 9
3B: 11
SS: 10
LF: 10
CF: 14
RF: 11
DH: 4

This was actually an even more pronounced distribution than I've seen in years past, but 1B is almost always the runaway leader.  Keeping your players on the field is one of the most important and least predictable aspects of playing fantasy baseball and this is one way I seek to exert a little bit of control.

This season, however, the class of first baseman is not as deep as it has been in the recent past.  There are a few reasons for this.  No fewer than ten teams are currently planning to go with young first-baseman, either rookies or sophomores.  Some of them are quite promising, but there is always risk involved with young players.  Furthermore, we have a couple of premier hitters - Justin Morneau and Kendry Morales - who are coming back from injuries and whose production, especially in the early months of the season, could be effected.  Several players who were formerly considered safe producers - Carlos Pena, Derrek Lee, etc. - are coming off bad years.  It's hard to feel comfortable predicting a rebound.  And, on the other side, guys like Paul Konerko and Aubrey Huff just posted career highs.  What can we expect from them?

It's a tough crop to gauge, which is one reason why the elite first-baggers, always among the most expensive players on the board, may be even more sought-after.

1. Albert Pujols, STL
2. Miguel Cabrera, DET

Not only are they the clear leaders at the position, they are, in my mind at least, the two most valuable players in fantasy baseball.  If it weren't for Pujols, we'd probably hear a lot more about the historical precedence of Miggy's seven-year stretching of averaging .317 - 100 - 34 - 117 - 4.  But, of course, Prince Albert's stretch runs to ten years at .331 - 119 - 41 - 123 - 8.  Sick.  Just sick.

3. Prince Fielder, MIL
4. Joey Votto, CIN
5. Adrian Gonzalez, BOS
6. Ryan Howard, PHI

Many would scoff at putting Fielder ahead of the 2010 NL MVP, but remember we're not paying for last year's stats.  History has suggested, that short of legends like Pujols and Bonds, it's really hard to maintain MVP-type numbers from one year to the next.  I'm not saying Votto won't continue to be productive, but I expect a modest decline from a player who, to be honest, set career highs is basically everything in 2010.  Fielder is the same age as Votto, but with a much longer and more impressive overall track record and, coming off a slightly down season (.261-94-32-83-1), in a contract year, and playing for a serious contender, he's got everything to prove.

7. Mark Teixeira, NYY
8. Justin Morneau, MIN
10. Kendry Morales, LAA
11. Adam Dunn, CWS

Note that, absent from this group is Kevin Youkilis.  If he were here, I would probably rank him ahead of Teixeira, but as he will be spending most of the season at the hot corner, following the Adrian Gonzalez trade, that's where I'm going to rank him.  Again, it has to do with wanting to focus on the guys that have the luxury of playing baseball's least taxing position.  This is a class of players who are all clearly superb hitters and could very well end up out-producing several players in the tier above them, but all give us reason for pause.  Morales is coming off a broken leg that cost him almost all of 2010.  Morneau looked like he was heading for his second MVP award, but concussions cut he season short at the halfway point.  Teixeira dealt with minor injuries and still produced at a high level, except in terms of batting average, which fell to a career low (.256, is probably just a fluke, based on his .268 BABIP).  Batting average is also the concern for Dunn, who actually was above his career norms in his two years in Washington.  The move to Chicago could be good for his power totals, but changing leagues might cause him to backtrack in terms of average and strikeouts.  Again, it's possible any one of these guys could give you a top-five caliber performance, but there's some minor uncertainties.

12. Billy Butler, KC
13. Paul Konerko, CWS
14. Aubrey Huff, SFG
15. Adam Lind, TOR

This is where the first substantial dropoff happens.  All of these guys have certainly proved themselves capable of putting up big numbers, but their ability to do it consistently in the question.  After mediocre showings in '08 and '09 it looked like Konerko was entering his decline.  Then, just before his contract expired, he posted the best season of his career, at age 34.  Though a year younger, Huff's situation is similar.  2010 was, in many respects, his best showing since 2003 (although he also had a very respectable year in 2008).  Lind was an MVP candidate in '09, but fell apart last year.  In 2011 he'll be 27-years-old and playing a new position.  Could it spark a comeback?  With all these players, the issue is not whether you want them so much as what you have to pay for them.  In the early middle rounds of your draft or for around $20-$25, they're reasonable investment, but don't reach.  On the other hands, if one of them slips or can be had for under $20, get after him.

16. Matt LaPorta, CLE
17. Kila Ka'aihue, KCR
18. Justin Smoak, SEA
19. Daric Barton, OAK
20. James Loney, LAD

These players are defined by what I'd call "unrealized potential."  Matt LaPorta was the cornerstone in the C. C. Sabathia trade a few years back.  At the time he was presumed a future All-Star, but his performance thusfar has been frankly pathetic (596 OPS in 162 games).  He's still young.  Ka'aihue has hit at every minor-league level, but for some reason the Royals were reluctant to promote him.  Now, at age 27, he'll finally get a shot to prove himself, but the Eric Hosmer era is just on the horizon, so there's little room for error.  A year ago, everybody thought Smoak was "a sure thing," then he hit .218 in half a season with Texas and Seattle.  Still, he's a tailor-made post-hype sleeper.  Barton finally got a firm hold on the A's first base job last year, as many had long been expecting, but he still hasn't shown much power, and much of his "real" value comes from his OBP and his defense, neither of which shows up on most fantasy stat sheets.  Many predicted Loney to be a future batting champion after he hit .321 with a 915 OPS in his first two seasons (446 AB).  In the past three he's hit .279 with a 751 OPS (1759 AB) and patience is wearing thin in L.A.

As you can tell, this is why I have some skepticism about the depth of this year's first-base class.  There's plenty of talent in this tier and those that follow, but it is very, very unproven.

21. Brandon Allen, ARZ
22. Gaby Sanchez, FLA
23. Freddie Freeman, ATL
24. Ike Davis, NYM

Some will go a little gaga over Sanchez and Davis because they were considered Rookie of the Year candidates in 2010.  But, let's be honest, as far as fantasy first baseman go, their numbers sucked.

Sanchez: .273 AVG, 72 R, 19 HR, 85 RBI, 5 SB
Davis: .264 AVG, 73 R, 19 HR, 71 RBI, 3 SB

Base on their minor-league records, I'm not convinced either is going to rapidly improve.  If you're paying only a dollar or two, as you probably were last year, that's fine.  But for the $15+ you might need to pay this season, I'd rather wait and take a cheap flyer on one of this year's rookies.  Allen and Freeman are probably the best of the 2011 class.

26. Derrek Lee, BAL
27. Carlos Pena, CHC
28. Adam LaRoche, WAS
29. Lyle Overbay, TOR
30. Todd Helton, COL

Boring, boring, and more boring.  That said, each of these guys will end up outperforming several of the young players I've listed ahead of them.  They're basically 75 R, 20 HR, and 75 RBI in the bank (presuming health), but with potentially low averages.  That ain't great for a starting first-baseman, but then again, only 11 players did substantially better in 2010.  In a year light on "sure things," it might not be a bad idea to go boring with one of your low-end selections.

29. Mitch Moreland, TEX
30. Brett Wallace, HOU
31. Leslie Anderson, TBR
32. Brandon Belt, SFG
33. Chris Carter, OAK
34. Chris Davis, TEX
35. Yonder Alonso, CIN

The young player grab bag.  You know the deal.  Lots of upside.  No certainty.  No guaranteed playing time.  Moreland and Wallace get the upper hand only because they appear destined make Opening Day lineups.  Will they survive April?  That's harder to tell.

Cardinals Offer To Pujols Is Borderline Insulting

ESPN is reporting that Albert Pujols and the St. Louis Cardinals will not reach an agreement to extend Pujol's contract before the self-imposed deadline this afternoon.  Assuming these reports are accurate and that Pujols remains firm in his stated refusal to negotiate during the season, this makes it a near certainty that the best player in the game will become a free agent.

ESPN does not report what exact offers the Cardinals made, but does speculate that they met Pujols demands for length (presumably between 8 and 10 years), but not for annual value.  A "source close to the negotiations" claims, "The Cardinal's offer would place Pujols in baseball's top 10 in salary, but not in the top five in average annual value."  For the record, assuming this "top 10" only includes active players, that means the Cardinals offer had an average annual value of somewhere between $19.5 Milllion and $24.9 Million (based on salary stats at Cot's Contracts).

Pujols and his agent are perfectly justified in turning down such an offer, would even be justified in characterizing it as something of an insult.  According to FanGraphs calculations, Pujols has been worth more than $25 Million in each of his last six seasons and seven out of his last eight.  In most cases, worth significantly more, peaking at $41.7 Million in 2008.  But you don't need any such metric to recognize that Pujols is worth substantially more than Ryan Howard ($25 Mil./yr.), Mark Teixeira ($22.5 Mil./yr.), and even Alex Rodriguez ($27.5 Mil./yr.).

The Cardinals are pressuring Pujols to give them a "hometown discount," which is fine, except that he gave them a massive hometown discount with his last contract.  I'm not quite clear on why St. Louis believes that it is their right to pay arguably the best player in the history of the game less than his market value for the entirety of his career.  Tony LaRussa thinks Pujols is being pressured by the MLBPA.  Tony LaRussa should definitely keep his mouth shut.  But he may be right.  The Union will look weak if the best player in their fold fails to bring home a contract worth at least $250 Million.

The Cardinals need to wake up.  The offer they have on the table is clearly unreasonable in an open market.  Certainly, they can justify deciding that for a team with their budget, $250 Million just isn't an option.  Maybe they are worried about the fact that Pujols would almost certainly have entered into a moderate decline by the end of the deal.  Fine.  End the negotions.  Start bracing yourself for the fact that the Red Sox, Angels, Giants, and Cubs could drive the bidding into the $300 Million range next winter.  But don't pretend like you're negotiating in good faith and paint your franchise icon as greedy just because you're unwilling to pay a competitive price.

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Unintentional Martyring of Barry Bonds

Thanks to loyal reader, Tim, for drawing my attention to this impassioned argument from Crashburn Alley and SweetSpot contributer, Bill Baer.  And, thanks to Jason Rosenberg of It's All About The Money for promoting this very thoughful response from Bill of The Platoon Advantage.  Ok...acknowledgements complete.

Caveat preemptor: Barry Bonds was, is, and always will be my favorite player. Though my vision is not so rose-tinted as to give me the ability to deny that he is, as are we all, quite fallible and undoubtedly has several causes for regret following his controversial career, I continue to believe that he has been more foully treated by the press and the baseball establishment than is warranted by his own admittedly foul treatment of others. He was, I grant, on many an occasion, a mean-spirited motherfucker, but he is certainly not alone in that habit among sublimely talented athletes.

Consider my bias acknowledged.

Now, Bill of The Platoon Advantage (as distinguished from Mr. Baer, also Bill) wisely begins his argument against Bonds collusion case by citing the definition of collusion in MLB's collective bargaining agreement. The moneyshot sentence is, "Players shall not act in concert with other players and clubs shall not act in concert with other clubs." Bill accurately observes that a strong legal case would probably require some documentation - a letter, a recorded conversation, maybe an email - in which somebody from a front office or from MLB was expressly telling a competitor not to negotiate with Bonds or his agent. For such a document to exist (especially some three years later) would bely an extraordinary act of incompetence and lack of foresight.

It should be noted, however, that in the previous instance of proven ownership collusion there was no such document, but the cased hinged largely on the deathbed admission of an owner who was in the room when commissioner Peter Ueberroth instructed an assembly of owners to stop offering long-term contracts to free agents. In this day and age it is almost impossible to keep a secret of this sort buried permanently, so, if there was in fact widespread and systematic collusion against Bonds, I think it's safe to predict that somebody's tongue will be loosened at some point down the road, though it will obviously be of little consequence to Bonds and maybe even to the MLBPA when it happens.

Not to resort to pedantry, but let's highlight that tidbit atop the last paragraph:
the previous instance of ownership collusion. In the words of Mrs. Broflovski, "What-What-What?!?!" Yes, in the mid-eighties, an ownership contingent who still remembered the tremendous profitability of the indentured servitude which existed prior to free agency decided they'd bring back the glory days by agreeing that each owner would only offer contracts to his own players. They succeeded in this transparent fraud for three full seasons before getting caught and forced to pay a fine of some $280 Million (that's in 1980s dollars, by the by). Commissioner Peter Ueberroth is long gone. And surely none of the men who spearheaded this deeply anti-American scheme which gave The Pastime an additional black eye are still in positions of power.  Right?  Um...well, besides Ueberroth, two men were generally regarded as the ringleaders. In the AL it was Jerry Reinsdorf. Yes, he's still the owner of the Chicago White Sox. And in the NL it was Bud Selig. Yes, that Bud Selig.
(For more on the '80s collusion situation read Andrew Zimbalist, among others.)

If you can collude against an entire Union for three years and only get caught due to the guilty conscience of a cancerous whistle-blower, how hard would it be to collude against a single controversial player?

Bill frames his argument in terms of six questions to which I'd like to play devil's advocate (perhaps a poor choice of phrase when defending Bonds).

1.) How good was Bonds in 2008?

Bill doesn't have much of a leg to stand on here and he basically admits as much, so I won't dwell too long on the facts. Yes, Bonds was turning 43. Yes, he wasn't much of an outfielder any longer. Sure, his league-leading .480 OBP may have been inflated a touch by the intentional walks earned in part by reputation and in part by a paucity of lineup protection. But the simple fact is Bonds posted a 1045 OPS in 2007 and had a 1025 OPS over his previous three seasons. If Osama Bin Laden posted a four-digit OPS, some AL GM would almost certainly take a chance on him at Designated Hitter, dialysis machine and all.

Was Bonds still the best hitter in all of baseball in 2007? Probably not. Was he still part of that conversation? Most definitely.

2.) How much did he want to play, really?

A part of me, the part of me who watched Bonds religiously for two decades, wants to paint this question as ridiculous. Bonds was (and is?) an obsessive competitor who, though he had broken Hank Aaron's home run record, still had lots of personal milestones to shoot for. He needed 65 hits to get to 3,000. He needed four RBI to get to 2,000. It was not out of the question that he could be the first ever to make a run at 800 HR given a couple more years of good health. But, more importantly, the only thing tarnishing his baseball resume was the fact that he hadn't won a World Series. I think it's safe to say he would've
paid an organization for another shot at the postseason, if the CBA allowed for such a thing.

But Bill does make some interesting points. The statements made be Jeff Borris, Bonds' agent, were perhaps hyperbolic (a sports agent exaggerates, what is the world coming to). Maybe
Joe Posnanski is correct. Maybe Borris did not write a letter to Kansas City GM, Dayton Moore, specifically offering Bonds services for the league minimum. The question then is, did Dayton Moore, upon hearing that offer in the press, consider calling Borris and taking him up on it? Why not? The hoopla would've been good for the Royals. Just the people coming to boo and throw syringes and hold up asterisk signs could've doubled K.C.'s attendance.  

But I jest.

Where Bill runs a little astray is when he says that after the regular season started "you might forgive baseball's front offices for being a little reticent to go out and hire a guy entering his mid-forties who, as far as they know, hadn't played baseball for nearly a year." Seriously? For the league minimum, you don't think anybody had a cause, maybe even a responsibility, to kick the tires on a seven-time MVP whose last homer was less than a year old? These are the same front offices who didn't hesitate to bring back midseason versions of Roger Clemens and Pedro Martinez, who jumped on the opportunity to employ a 40-year-old Jim Edmonds following an layoff of nearly two years, who continue to find reasons to pay Mark Prior, who hasn't pitched at the major-league level in five years, who brought Rickey Henderson back for the independent leagues at age 44. I do not forgive their reticence, Bill, nor to I believe that thirty men, at least half of whom are either 1.) very bright or 2.) very risk-averse, and a few of whom may be both, actually made such a decision without intervention.

3.) Was there anything to all those off-the-field concerns?

Were there ever to be a real collusion investigation, this is where Bud Selig and his league of blundering gentlemen would hang their hats (Seriously, do all the incompetent rich guys end up owning baseball teams? I'm looking at you Fred Wilpon...and Tom Hicks...and Frank McCourt...). There is, of course, genuine reason to be skeptical of a player with a federal indictment hanging over his head. And, at the time, it wasn't entirely obvious that the indictment was drummed-up by overzealous publicity-hungry thrillseekers from the DEA and DA's office who wouldn't hesitate to throw millions of taxpayer dollars at an unwinnable case. Go, go gadget government. But that's another story.

Still, it was pretty clear that even if the case were absolutely rock-solid, it wasn't going to go to court during the '08 season. You didn't have to be a legal expert to see this, though I'm sure that every franchise does have a few legal experts in their rolodex, just in case they want that type of confirmation.

I don't have time to list all the players who've faced prosecution, sometime even on violent felony charges, at some time or another during their playing careers. I'm going to assume that even the most casual sports fan can bring three examples to mind in under a minute's reflection. Do you think if K-Rod had been a free agent this offseason, nobody would've made him a cheap addition to the back of their bullpen? Has anybody fired Milton Bradley yet? Seriously, anybody? In the wake of the
Moneyball revolution, there wasn't a single GM who saw a promising risk-to-reward ratio in adding Barry Bonds for the same price as, say, Alex Cora?

One of the circumstantial pieces of evidence that was so troubling during the 2008 offseason was that in an era where anonymously-sourced rumors get floated more or less constantly (Haven't you heard, Carmelo Anthony's going to the Lakers.), there were curiously few speculative reports about teams even talking to Bonds agent. Borris, who is, granted, a somewhat unreliable source, confirmed after the fact that what few discussions he did have about Bonds were always begun by him. That's just weird.

4.) Who should have wanted him?

Short answer, of course, is EVERYBODY. Remember that four-digit OPS. Yeah? 193 players got 450+ plate appearances in 2007. Nine of them had a 1000+ OPS and only two of them, A-Rod and Big Papi, had a higher OPS than Bonds. If you don't want a hitter like that on your team, you obviously don't belong in a baseball front office. Bill points out that many teams already had players slotted into left field and/or DH and, sure, if you were one of those teams, like the Red Sox, for instance, who had studs at both positions, you could be forgiven for passing on Barry, but have you noticed how many teams employ multiple DH types these days? How many players are in the Rangers LF/DH rotation right now? How about the Orioles? Twins? Frankly, most GMs would seem to be of the opinion, when you have a shot at a premium hitter, you take it and figure out how the pieces fit together later.

5.) Why hasn't a grievance been filed?

Bill believes that because the MLBPA has not recently released any statement regarding the collusion allegations, which they last claimed to be investigating in the winter of 2008, they must not have found anything. Of course, Bill's own point, about the difficulty of legally proving collusion, is one explanation for the delay. It could easily take more than two and a half years for usable evidence to surface. As mentioned above, it took longer than that
the last time this happened, and one would expect that Selig & Co. might have learned something from getting caught.

There are other factors here as well. In case you haven't noticed, the MLBPA has had some other things on its plate recently. There's that whole Scarlet S thing and then there's a regime change and there's some fishy stuff going on down in South America and the league is trying to get leverage to change the amateur draft and there's been some tension within the union and Selig is generally regarded as one of the most powerful commissioners in the history of the game (but he can't stay in office forever right) and there's those other two leagues which are about to go on strike/get locked out and it might be really nice for everybody involved in baseball to be on the side of the one major American team sport (hockey doesn't count) not embroiled in ugly labor strife for once. You get the picture.

Be mindful, there is no statute of limitations as to when the MLBPA can come back to the collusion argument.

6.) Would collusion have made any sense to anybody?

I really like Bill's point here:

"Here's the thing, though: it only takes one chiseler. One Andrew Friedman or Billy Beane to decide that no, he doesn't believe that, and that he's going to sign Bonds anyway, the cartel be damned. If that single GM doesn't believe the central premise upon which the collusive agreement is based, there's absolutely no motivation for him to join in the agreement. Likewise, because the other teams have no way of keeping that one team in check, there's no motivation for them to collude in the first place; if the 30 teams agree, they'll simply act accordingly without actually colluding about it (tacit collusion, remember?), and if one of them doesn't, then there was nothing to be done for that at any rate.
The only scenario under which this does make some sense to me, then, is one in which it's not really the thirty teams driving the illicit behavior, but rather some central authority -- we'll call him Spud Cheelig, just because -- who exercises some power over the teams in order to coerce back into line those that might otherwise not obey."

Bill's right, this is territory where one has to tread carefully. There are sharks in the water, which is why, at this point, I want to make a critical distinction. When Bill takes up the question of collusion, the assumption he makes from the start is that we are discussing the potential of legal repercussions; that, to be called "collusion," it must fall clearly within the definition outlined by the CBA. Basically, it's not collusion if no court could reasonably be expected to call it that. And on these grounds I think Bill has a strong case. It will take more evidence than is currently available to the general public for Bonds to make his case stick with a judge or an arbitrator and by the point that evidence surfaces (if it ever does) he may be so sick of courtrooms he wouldn't even want to bother with it.

But, let's go back to Mr. Baer's original article which concludes as such:

"Whether MLB and the owners care to admit it or not, they colluded against Bonds to keep him from playing baseball after the '07 season. That, not the rampant steroid use during the 1990s and early 2000s, will be what ultimately leaves a black eye on baseball's history." 

Mr. Baer's casual use of "collusion" was, by my reading, not a legal argument, but rather a historical one. And, though MLB may never be formally charged with collusion, the court of history gives circumstantial evidence much greater credence.

The "black eye on baseball's history" will not necessarily be founded upon unsealed documents, courtroom transcripts, payrolls, statistics, and deathbed confessions, it
may, like many episodes in history, bear only a passing resemblance to truth, but it may go something like this:

Cue Yo-Yo Ma performing a sombre B-minor version of 'Take Me Out To The Ballgame'; Samuel L. Jackson narrates over footage from Bonds record-breaking '07 season.

Barry Bonds, one of the most controversial, most popular, and most talented players in the history of the game, was forced into retirement following a season in which he broke the most hallowed record in professional sports, a record formerly held by his Commissioner's hometown hero. Bud Selig, who ceaselessly voiced his admiration for former home run king, Hank Aaron, was reluctantly on hand to see the record broken and stood somberly, hands in his pockets, as Bonds celebrated #756 with his teammates, his young son, and the ecstatic fans of his longtime team, the San Francisco Giants.

As Jackson and Ma continue, Ken Burns pans and scans across pictures from the Congressional hearings, Bonds' trial, and Selig's press conferences.

Although there was nothing to suggest that Bonds' considerable powers as a hitter had been dramatically reduced, he was unable to find another job following the season. Impeding his search was an ill-timed federal indictment (the case was eventually thrown out of court) and the Selig-sponsored Mitchell Report, released in the winter of 2007. The Mitchell Report, which was not comprehensive or legally binding, named Bonds alongside 80-some other players who allegedly used steroids during the 1990s and 2000s. In the wake of the report, designed to be the last word in the PED scandal (it wasn't, not by a long shot), Selig and much of the baseball establishment were eager to put the so-called Steroid Era behind them. Although no allegations against Bonds ever lived up to the courts' burden of evidence, he became, along with Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire, and Andy Pettitte, one of the faces of the "Steroid Era." It seemed incompatible with Selig's eagerness to move past the scandal for Bonds to remain on the field, adding to record-setting totals which many, including the Commissioner, believed to be of dubious origins.

The narrative jumps forward to footage of Alex Rodriguez in pinstripes, generally looking pleased with himself.

A decade later, a player whose career overlapped with Bonds and who admitted using steroids, though he was never named in the Mitchell Report, managed to break Bonds career home run record in the final year of his career, though he was but a glimmer of his former self. Bonds and Selig were both on hand to honor A-Rod's fete, though neither could disguise their ambivalence. Rodriguez, PEDs or not, never put together a season on par with Bonds at the peak of his powers and many baseball fans are forced to wonder what Bonds career would've been like had he been allowed to end it on his own terms.

The camera retreats from the number 25 affixed to the outfield wall in at San Francisco's PacBell Park.

End scene.