The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Archive for the category “Baseball Commentary”

A Mets Post Mortem

Let me begin by congratulating the Kansas City Royals on their first World Championship season in 30 years.  I also want to acknowledge my pre-season error when I predicted that the Royals were probably a fluke last year, and would be unlikely to repeat as A.L. champions this season.  The Royals appear to be a team whose sum is greater than the whole of their individual parts, but baseball being a team sport, they were well-constructed and expertly managed.

As for the Mets, the Royals did a fantastic job exposing and exploiting each of their weaknesses.  Specifically, a team built around starting pitching will probably be most vulnerable once those starting pitchers are removed.  In this day and age, when complete games are largely a thing of the past, this means that a bullpen cannot, then, play second-fiddle to a young and talented starting staff.

There needs to be a virtually seamless level of pitching talent from the first through the ninth innings.  After all, major league baseball is not a seven inning game.  If the manager signals, time after time, that he would rather trust his tired starters to pitch an inning longer than they should probably be allowed to instead of going to fresh bullpen arms, (and worse, if he allows himself to be talked into doing so by his spirited starters), then the final third of every game will inevitably become the Achilles heal of what should be a strategic advantage.

If I’m putting too fine a point on it, use the damned ‘pen at the beginning of an inning, not once an overworked starter has inevitably put a man or two on base.

The Mets infield defense is sub-par, and it’s difficult to imagine, quite frankly, how the Mets made it this far in the playoffs with not one above-average defensive infielder.  If your pitchers have to strike out eight to ten batters per game to keep the ball out of play (at least as far as the infield is concerned), you are A) forcing your starters to throw too many pitches through the first six innings to gain those 4-7 pitch strikeouts (vs. those one or three pitch ground-outs), and B) you are allowing the defense to become too comfortable, so that when a ground-ball is hit, the fielders are potentially less ready to make the play.

I love Danny Murphy for his bat, and yes, even though his homer total during the first-two rounds of the play-offs was fluky, the man can hit.  But an actual second-baseman (as opposed to a hitter who happens to play second-base) would be preferable to the current option.  If Murphy is allowed to move on elsewhere as a free agent, I would have to count that as a potentially positive move for the Mets, IF it results in an over-all improved infield defense (no sure thing at this point)

With the advent of sabermetrics, especially over the past fifteen years or so, a new orthodoxy has taken over most baseball teams.  Don’t run much, forget the sacrifice bunt, go for the long-ball, and take your walks.

Oddly, though, the original premise of (at least Billy Beane’s version) of sabermetrics wasn’t so much to enshrine any particular strategy as baseball’s version of the New Testament.  It was to exploit those aspects of baseball being neglected by your financially wealthier opponents. Which aspects of a given player’s skill-set were being undervalued, and how could a relatively poor team exploit those undervalued skills in the baseball marketplace?

Mets General Manager Sandy Alderson was (at the helm those aforementioned A’s teams) one of the earliest proponents of this philosophy of baseball, and translated to the (oddly) mid-market Mets, this philosophy has appeared to pay dividends in 2015.

Yet, as the Kansas City Royals have shown, there is apparently more than one way to win a World Championship.  The Royals offensive strategy, such as it is, is to play a kind of pre-1920’s baseball, when putting the ball in play, running with apparent abandon, and disrupting the other team’s game-plan (arguably the bete noire of sabermetrics) becomes the whole point of the game.

In other words, perhaps the movement of modern baseball G.M.’s to (at least appear to) embrace particular tenets of sabermetrics has become the new, already calcifying religious orthodoxy that, in turn can be exploited by a small market, 21st-century ball-club.  In effect, meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

While there is not necessarily a correlation between age and the ability to adapt to new realities, it is worth raising the point that with Sandy Alderson turning 68-years old later this month, and manager Terry Collins reaching his 67th birthday next May, are they the right men to have at the helm of a team composed of players who could be their grandchildren?  Will they be able to objectively evaluate the structural deficits of this team through the baseball lens of 2015, or will their baseball strategy perpetually reflect an era that might already be coming to an end?

Obviously, the payroll level Mets ownership settles on during this off-season will go a long way towards defining this team’s future, both immediate and long-term.  What can they afford to pay, for example, outfielder Yeonis Cespedes, and what will his asking price be?  Certainly, Cespedes uninspired post-season performance (12 hits in 54 at bats with one walk and 17 strikeouts) won’t help drive up his asking price, but do the Mets commit a very substantial chunk of payroll to him, pursue a different free agent outfielder, or go another route altogether?

Meanwhile, while it would certainly be tempting not to tamper with that young, talented pitching staff, would it make sense to trade one of those arms for a highly talented position player?  After all, as we saw in this World Series, a solo homer here or there is perhaps not the best way to achieve a balanced offense.

Finally, from a Mets fan point of view (and I’ve been one now for over 40 years), it should be noted that only two Major League teams were still playing meaningful baseball on November 1st, and the Mets were one of them.  From that perspective, and for the happy memories this team provided for their fans of the playoff series against both the Dodgers and the Cubs, we have to count 2015 as among of our all-time favorite, most enjoyable baseball seasons.

Thank you, New York Mets, for all your efforts this season, and let’s look optimistically forward to the 2016 baseball season, as I’m sure baseball fans of every team will also be doing.

Let’s Go Mets!

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Meet the Matz

Yesterday afternoon in Queens, New York, starting pitcher Steve Matz, making his Major League debut against the Cincinnati Reds, watched as the first batter he ever faced, Brandon Phillips, smacked a lead-off homer over the left-field wall.

The home crowd of 29,635 could never have guessed what would happen next.

Matz, apparently, had the Reds right where he wanted them.

The Long Island lefty, who grew up a Mets fan, quickly recovered his composure and shut down the Reds the rest of the way (other than a Todd Frazier solo homer in the 4th) on two runs and five hits through seven and two-thirds innings pitched.  Matz fanned six while walking three.  Of his 110 pitches, he threw 72 for strikes.

That manager Terry Collins let Matz go out and start the eighth inning after Matz had already thrown 90+ pitches through seven innings had as much to do with the Mets tired bullpen as it did Matz fine performance.

Or maybe it was Matz’s bat that Collins did not want removed from the game.

Matz became the first pitcher in the past hundred years to produce three hits and four runs batted in during his Major League debut.  His double in the second inning over the outstretched glove of Billy Hamilton plated the Mets first two runs of the game.  Matz also singled in the fifth inning, then lashed another single to center in the sixth-inning, driving in yet two more runs.

Neither Matz hitting nor his pitching performances in this game can easily be written off as flukes.  Before his call-up, Matz was batting .304 in Triple-A Las Vegas, and his earned run average through 14 starts this year was 2.19 with 94 strikeouts in 90 innings.  Said Vegas manager Wally Backman, “Matz is just bored down here.”

Just a few years ago, however, yesterday’s amazing performance was not an event that anyone would have readily predicted.  In 2010, Matz underwent what these days seems to be the inevitable Tommy John surgery.  It took him nearly two years to fully recover.  While many pitchers tend to recover and return to full health, surgery on a young arm is surgery, and no two cases will ever turn out exactly the same way.

So it was with great joy yesterday, for his family and friends in attendance as well as for Mets fan everywhere, that all of Matz’s hard work over the past few years has paid off with such unexpected dividends.

The Mets, who now enjoy one of baseball’s finest young rotations (if not the best) of Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard, Jacob DeGrom and now Steve Matz (as well as veteran lefty Jon Niese and Jabba the Bartolo Colon), along with the currently recovering from T.J. surgery, Zack Wheeler, have Mets fans everywhere giddy over what the future may hold for New York’s senior circuit franchise.

While it is obvious that the Mets need to go out and get a bat, in the meantime no one could blame manager Terry Collins if he is tempted to use Steve Matz as a pinch-hitter.

That the 40-37 Mets (who have now won four home games in a row after enduring a terrible road seven-game losing streak) are still in the playoff hunt nearly halfway through the season is a testament primarily to their fine pitching.

Historically, this has nearly always been the case with the Mets when times are good.  Steve Matz and his mates in the rotation could take this team further than anyone, including this writer, would have predicted at the beginning of this season.  This might not be ’69 or ’73 all over again, but God knows it’s not 1963, 1981 or 2014, either.

That Matz was born and raised less than fifty miles from, and shares a birthday with this writer only makes me want to root that much more for this 24-year old phenom.

The only question is, what could he possibly do for an encore?

 

Invisible People, and the Noise They Make

Imagine if Wal-Mart opened for business today, but barred customers from entering their stores. Imagine a new radio station going on the air, but not advertising as to where to find their signal. Imagine a public election being held, where, due to distrust of (some of) the citizenry, the people were not allowed to vote.

Imagine a baseball game where the fans were not allowed to attend.

This bizarre, yet thoroughly American turn of events will occur this afternoon in Baltimore in a home game scheduled against the White Sox.  Does a team still have home-field advantage when no one’s home?

In Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, “Slaughterhouse Five,” the protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, becomes “unstuck” in time. Pilgrim’s life plays out randomly, the normal linear progression of events mixed up and occurring haphazardly.  One event does not lead to the next, but could, in fact, circle back to a prior event. Normal cause and effect cease to have any meaning.

What we appear to be witnessing today in Baltimore is the progeny of a business-law enforcement alliance where privatized public spectacles are now shielded from the public itself.  Corporatism in America has become “unstuck” from the citizenry.  Normal cause and effect no longer have any meaning. Business decisions are unmoored from the real world concerns of local municipalities.

Banks are bailed out, but not people.  Corporations magically become citizens, while much of the citizenry lacks the basic necessities of life.  The Dignity of Work is summoned to shame those who’ve lost their jobs to overseas competition.  And people who lack the ability to buy shoes for their children are lectured to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

In many ways, this is not a new development, but is, in fact, the inevitable outcome of what happens when a political system is entirely consumed by corporatism, leveraging the power of law enforcement to corral, contain and coerce those elements of the citizenry written off as undesirable, irredeemable and politically powerless.

Many, perhaps most of the chattering class and the interests they serve will describe the current unrest in Baltimore this week as primarily a law enforcement issue.  After thirty years of a War on Drugs, Zero Tolerance Policies, and Three Strikes and Your Out legislation (the irony of which will certainly fail to find fertile ground in the imaginations of those who decided to play a baseball game today to empty stands), and over a million African-American men and women having been incarcerated at one time or another in their lives, it appears that American society remains more comfortable providing them with a ticket to prison than a ticket to a baseball game.

Last year, an elderly rancher named Cliven Bundy and his Gang-That-Couldn’t-Think-Straight were heralded by many in the media as heroes for individual liberty, property rights, and the idea that no white man, however delusional, should be denied his moment of public heroism, even as some of his supporters aimed their weapons directly at law enforcement officers.

That law enforcement officers were deemed “jack-booted thugs” when attempting to enforce the laws of the land in that situation out west, while the “thugs” are now the young men and women of Baltimore armed with bricks, and the police have been magically transformed once again into the thin blue line separating respectable society from those that would do us harm is familiar territory here in America.  Yet familiarity, as they say, breeds contempt, and contempt is the jet fuel of social unrest.

All of which brings us back to a baseball game later today in Baltimore.  Camden Yards and the area in which it is situated was the product of the sort of palatable corporate urban renewal that has become fashionable over the past quarter century or so, where gentrification (the removal of the undesirables) in favor of public and private investment that overwhelmingly favors the upper middle class has become the only politically expedient investment in existence.

Will it make money for a fortunate few, perhaps even at the expense of others?  If so, that’s a price that has been deemed acceptable, once you are able to hide the losers from view.

But now the “losers” are in full view on our round-the-clock cable news networks where the well-fed and well-groomed simultaneously engage in hand-wringing analysis that mimics concern while also condemning the inevitable rage that burns wherever people are marginalized.  But the system must be allowed to continue operating under any and all circumstances, because the system, after all, is its own reward.

So a professional baseball game will be played today for the first time in baseball history without a single fan to witness it.  The human element has finally been rendered obsolete.  The beast has eaten its fill.

In America, people are the raw material that feeds the system.  When the system no longer requires your contribution, or even your existence, the expectation is your silent acquiescence to a permanent state of invisibility.

Thus, in a stadium in downtown Baltimore, in a park that seats 45,971, ushers will serve no one, ticket takers will stare out at empty parking lots, and players will hit doubles that no one will cheer.  No one will stand up and stretch in the seventh inning, and the Great American Game will reflect the emptiness at the heart of a broken system where to be invisible is the price you pay for being born poor and powerless.

Banana Bread and George Theodore’s Sweet Tooth

My grandmother, of Slovak origin, made certain foods I could barely pronounce, let alone digest.  Among these old-world favorites (at least in eastern Slovakia, near the Ukrainian border), were bobalki, halushki and sirecz (pronounced “cidets.”)  I dare you to try to find any of these items on your friendly neighborhood menu.  Go ahead.  I’ll wait.

Even other Slovak-Americans (whom I rarely came into contact with, but they do exist), sometimes hadn’t heard of these foods.  In fact, I’m left wondering if these particular victuals weren’t native to simply one small neighborhood in a hidden quarter of a half-forgotten farm village left over from the Hapsburg Empire.  Kind of like the Mets fan rumored to live on the northern side of Staten Island, just beyond the ferry terminal.  He’d likely also have been a fan of Mets outfielder George Theodore.

George “The Stork” Theodore was a Utah native best remembered perhaps for colliding with Mets center-fielder Don Hahn during their improbable pennant winning season of 1973.  Theodore’s best season came in 1971 when he batted .333 with 28 homer runs and 113 RBI in 507 plate appearances.  He also scored 112 runs, and stole 15 bases in 17 attempts. Unfortunately for the Mets, that performance came in the Single-A California League in Visalia when George was already 24-years old, which is sort of like an 18-year old dating a 9th-grader.

George liked marshmallow milkshakes, or so the back of his 1974 Topps baseball card informs us.  I, on the other hand, loved my grandma’s banana bread.  In fact, from Bridgeport, Connecticut to Portland, Maine and then down to Greenville, South Carolina, I’ve never had banana bread quite the equal of her moist, sweet yellow cake.

She passed away over a decade ago, leaving the world with more apps than they can download while waiting for their tires to be balanced at your local Tire Kingdom, but all the poorer regarding the existence of a nice, satisfying little snack bread. Which, as far as I’m concerned, pretty much sums up the 21st-century.

I’m sure that if George Theodore had visited our house on Bridgeport’s west side in the mid-’70’s, he, too, would surely have enjoyed her banana bread.  In fact, it is even possible that the back of his card would have read “George loves Mets Fan Bill Miller’s Grandma’s Banana Bread.”

It would have been quite the coup for Topps, and Mets fans everywhere would want to know where exactly Colorado Avenue in Bridgeport really was.  A perhaps mythic location akin to the Elysian Fields in New Jersey, or the Schaefer beer brewery  on Kent Avenue in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn (which closed down in 1976, a pretty respectable year for the Mets.)

As far as I could tell, Slovaks generally didn’t go in for baseball.  In fact, as a species, Slovaks seem primarily to have thrived on the concept of not being noticed at all, which is what happens when you’ve spent around 500 years having been conquered and pillaged by one invader or another.  My ancestors did try to warn Jonathon Harker, however, away from Dracula’s castle, but who ever listens to a Slovak?  (“The Slav natives Harker meets along the way to the castle likewise incur his disdain.”  Dracula, page 33.  Ouch.)

Ya Gotta Believe! became a popular battle cry in Mets Land in ’73 precisely because Tug McGraw wasn’t mostly Slovak.  Not even a little bit, in fact.  And I’m fairly certain he’d never had bobalki at Easter or Christmas, but that was his loss.  Still, having the American League affiliate of the Hapsburg Empire nearby in the Bronx, led by the despotic Teutonic House of Steinbrenner, we Slovak-American Mets fans knew a thing or two about playing second fiddle to the Yankees while biding our time.  The uprising at Shea Stadium in ’73 wasn’t unlike the Glorious Revolution that swept Europe in 1848, but with slightly less bloodshed, at least if you weren’t seated in the bleachers.

For me, George Theodore represented that unlikely euphoric atmosphere which engulfed much of the Tri-State area that summer.  Yes, Tom Terrific was the valiant warrior, and Bud Harrelson slugging Pete Rose after a hard slide into second base was the iconic moment, but George Theodore was the any-man who’d known mostly nothing but mediocrity or worse suddenly finding himself in a goddamned ticker-tape parade in the canyons of New York City, eating his banana bread and marshmallow milkshakes with a big ear-to-ear grin on his face as he sat in the back seat of a Lincoln Continental filled with confetti.  Or so I’d like to believe.

George is 68-years old now, around the same age that my grandma was when my parents, my brother and I left her and my grandpa behind and moved out to the suburbs.  I think Dante mentioned some sort of appropriate punishment for people like us who did that sort of thing in his “Purgatorio.”

With that move, all remaining Old World smells, tastes and fears were left behind for the stilleto-capitalism of the Reagan ’80’s, by which point Spielberg had almost single-handedly buried the blue-collar ethnic working class under the scrap-heap of American cultural history with his schmaltzy, two-dimensional paeans to paleo-Eisenhower suburbia replete with market-tested hairstyles and product placement marketing.  Even the ’86 Mets, I now have to admit, were a bit more like New Coke than The Real Thing of ’73.

Tomorrow is Easter Sunday, and my wife and kids and I will drive on out to my parents’ house and enjoy a nice, unnecessarily gargantuan Sunday meal.  It will taste delicious, and we’ll all have a great time.  I may not remember to take a few moments tomorrow to remember the old ethnic foods my grandma made forty years ago, the foods that are probably built into my DNA, but a 1974 Topps George Theodore baseball card does sit in the glove compartment of our Toyota.

Once, my older son found it in there, and asked me why I keep such an old card just lying around with the gas station receipts and the loose change.  I told him because it helps me remember things I don’t dare forget.

 

 

 

American League Predictions for 2015

Now that the 2015 baseball season is just right around the corner, it’s time to once again take a look at which teams will be the pretenders, and which will be the contenders this year.

I normally have no idea how my predictions turn out from year to year, because I typically forget all about them by about April Fool’s Day.  So I decided to go back and take a look at last season’s predictions, and, strangely enough, I did pretty well.  Of the ten teams that made the playoffs last season, I correctly forecast eight of them:  Baltimore, Detroit, Kansas City, Anaheim, Washington, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and Los Angeles.

The ones I got wrong?  I picked Tampa Bay to win the A.L. East, and they turned out to be terrible.  Instead, the A’s made the playoffs as a Wild Card team.  In the N.L., I somehow thought the Reds looked strong enough to capture a Wild Card slot, but the Giants once again assembled just the right mix of players to vaunt all the way to the World Series, where Madison Bumgarner took things into his own hands.

With the Red Sox alternating horrible years with World Championship seasons, it’s always a challenge to predict where they will finish in the A.L. East, which then makes it difficult to slot the other divisional teams around them, but we’ll have a go at it anyway.

A.L. East

To begin with, I don’t think there’s a 90-win team in this division.  Whichever team wins this division will probably finish with around 87-89 victories.

1)  Red Sox (they finished last in 2014, so….)

2)  Tampa Bay (may win anywhere from 78-85 games.  I’ll go with 83 wins.)

3)  Toronto (will one win fewer games than the Rays.)

4)  Orioles (will finish right at .500.)

5)  Yankees (will win around 80 games.)

A.L. Central

The primary question here is whether or not the Tigers have enough left in the gas tank to pull out yet another divisional title.

1)  White Sox (Some nice moves over the winter, and a division ripe for the taking.)

2)  Tigers (Still enough left to win up to 85 games, but no longer the favorites to win.)

3)  Indians (Will look more or less like last year, a competitive team without enough horses.)

4)  Royals (Significant regression here.  Perhaps not even a .500 club.)

5)  Twins (Not quite a minor league team; we’ll call them a Four-A club.)

A.L. West 

Baseball’s best division.  The A’s might still have enough to steal a Wild Card, and the Astros will make a significant leap forward this year.

1)  Angels (Still the deepest team, and Garret Richards is coming back mid-April.  My early choice for A.L. Cy Young winner.)

2)  Mariners (Wild Card, but consider:  Only twice in his career has Nelson Cruz ever topped 130 games played.  Yes, he’ll mostly D.H., but guys like him find ways to get hurt.)

3)  A’s  (One of two teams in the Bay Area it is foolish to completely rule out.  More wins than losses again this year.)

4)  Astros (Could push 80 wins, but I’ll call it 79, nine more than last year.)

5)  Rangers (Seem to have declined in a hurry.  Sub-.500.)

 

Next time, my N.L. Predictions.

 

Pitchers Who Tossed a Shutout and Earned a Save in the Same Season

In days of yore, before the set-up man, the LOOGY and the closer, you had pitchers.  Sometimes, these pitchers mostly started.  Sometimes, they mostly relieved.  Beyond that, there was often a great deal of flexibility regarding at what point a pitcher entered any particular game.

A bit like the uncle you grew up with who could remove an entire engine from a car, take down a gnarled old tree in his backyard, teach the neighborhood kids how to grip a curve-ball, and, in his spare time,  re-wire your house, pitchers of earlier generations were not above tossing a complete game one day, then coming in to pitch 1 2/3 innings of relief a couple of days later.

One thing I happened to notice while looking at the career stats of some pitchers from earlier generations is that several of them managed to toss a shutout and pick up a save in the same season.  At first blush, it might not seem to be that big a deal, but if you stop to consider how few pitchers today are used as “swing-starters,” pitchers who might be used as a fifth-starter, and who would pitch in relief in between, shutouts and saves are not a combination we are used to modern pitchers producing.

I have compiled an admittedly random list of pitchers who did earn a save in the same year they pitched a shutout.  Some of the names may surprise you.  Some of the pitchers may be men you’ve never heard of before.  Each of them demonstrated a flexibility that we don’t see much anymore.

1)  Tom Seaver – In Tom Terrific’s sophomore season, 1968, he made 35 starts and pitched 278 innings.  On July 7th, at Philadelphia, Seaver was tapped to close out the second game of a double-header.  With one runner already on base when he entered the game, Seaver struck out Dick Allen looking, then retired Johnny Callison and Tony Taylor on fly-balls.   It was the one and only save he recorded in his entire career.  That same season, Seaver hurled five shutouts.

Catfish, Billy, and Brad Gulden

Catfish, Billy, and Brad Gulden (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

2)  Jim “Catfish” Hunter – Oddly, 1968 was the year Catfish Hunter also recorded the only save in his career.  The first season the A’s were in Oakland (having moved from Kansas City), the 22-year old Hunter was already in his fourth Major League season.  Though Hunter had pitched a few games in relief in his first couple of seasons, by ’68, he was a regular starter in the A’s rotation.  Jack Aker led the A’s with only 11 saves that season, so the A’s didn’t really have a closer, per se’.  Hunter just happened to be in the right place at the right time.  Incidentally, he also threw a couple of complete game shutouts that year.

3)  Bill Bonham – In 1974, 25-year old Cubs right-hander Bill Bonham led the N.L. with 22 losses.  He really wasn’t as bad as that.  His FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) was 3.12, while his actual ERA was 3.86.  In other words, he was particularly unlucky with balls in play.  Regardless, in addition to his 36 starts, of which he completed 10, he also appeared in eight games in relief.  He had already recorded a total of ten saves during the previous two years, but he would record his eleventh and final career save in the ’74 season.  His two shutouts in ’74 provide some indication that he was not a useless MLB pitcher, despite his 22 losses.

4)  Walter Johnson – For sixteen consecutive seasons (1908-23), Johnson recorded at least one save in each season, posting a high of four saves in 1915.  In each of those 16 years, he also recorded at least one shutout, tossing a career high of 11 in 1913.  In addition to his all-time record of 110 shutouts, he also saved 34 games.  For good measure, he belted at least one home run in 12 of those sixteen seasons, hitting nearly as many home runs as he surrendered.  Oh, and he managed 41 career triples as well.

English: Baseball pitcher Rube Waddell in 1901

English: Baseball pitcher Rube Waddell in 1901 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

5)  Rube Waddell – When not chasing fire trucks, being distracted by shiny objects or going fishing without telling anyone, Waddell started 36 games for the 1908 Browns, and made seven relief appearances as well.  In his last outstanding season, the 31-year old Waddell pitched five shutouts, and posted a 1.89 ERA.  He also saved three games, which led the team.  He also hit a homer in ’08, one more than he surrendered  the entire year.

6)  Lynn McGlothen – McGlothen pitched for several teams during the decade 1972-82, most successfully for the Cardinals, where he was named to the 1974 N.L. All Star team.  Used almost exclusively as a starter for the first seven years of his career, he landed on the Cubs for the ’78 season, and 1979, he was a swing-man, alternating between the bullpen and the rotation.  He completed six of 29 starts, posting a record of 13-14 along the way.  One of those complete games was a shutout, one of 13 he would pitch in his career.  That same season, he recorded the only two saves he would ever earn.  Three years later, at the end of the 1982 season, McGlothen was killed in a fire in a mobile home while visiting his girlfriend in his native Louisiana.   According to his New York Times obituary, she died when she ran in to save him after saving her daughters.  In his lifetime, it would have been the only save that truly mattered.

7)  Steve Barber – Barber was a very good pitcher for the Orioles during the early to mid 1960’s, winning a career high 20 games in 1963.  In 1961, he won 18 of 34 starts, leading the A.L. with eight shutouts.  He also appeared in three games in relief, saving one ballgame.  The previous season, he had saved two games while throwing one shutout.  After the ’61 season, despite playing for thirteen more years, he would never again toss a shutout and save a game in the same year, though he recorded more of each category in different subsequent seasons.

8)  Rollie Fingers –  It’s hard for me to think of Rollie Fingers as anything but a relief pitcher.  But even Mariano Rivera made ten starts (in his rookie season), so obviously things can change drastically, given enough time.  Fingers appeared in 944 games in his career, but started only 37 times.  About half of those starts (19) came in one year, 1970. Fingers tossed one shutout in eight starts in 1969, and one more shutout, again in eight starts, in 1971.  Those were the only two shutouts of his career.  He would save 12 and 17 games, respectively, during those two years, on his way to 341 saves for his career.

English: Phil Niekro signing an autograph in 1982.

English: Phil Niekro signing an autograph in 1982. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

9)  Phil Niekro – In a way, Niekro was the Walter Johnson of his era.  What I mean by that is even though Niekro was generally the ace of the staffs on which he pitched for many years, his team was not afraid to use him in relief, even in save situations a surprising amount of times.  In fact, in eight seasons Niekro recorded at least one shutout and one save.  He recorded a high of nine saves in 1967, a season in which he made 20 starts and pitched in relief in 26 other games.  He tossed one shutout that season.  Several years later, in 1974, he threw a career high six shutouts in 39 starts, yet also managed to find the time to save one game.  In his 24-year career, Knucksie threw 45 shutouts and saved 29 games.

10)  Hoyt Wilhelm – Wilhelm didn’t throw his first shutout until he was already 35-years old, with the Orioles in 1958.  Earlier that same year, he also pitched for the Indians, where he was credited with five saves.  In 1960, still with the Orioles, he threw one more shutout, the last of his career, and saved seven games.  Already 37-years old at this point, his career wasn’t even half over.  Wilhelm would go on to record double-digit saves nine times over the next decade, on his way to over 1,000 appearances in relief.  By comparison, he started just 52 games, and recorded five career shutouts.

11)  Roy Halladay –  O.K., so there is at least one modern pitcher who recorded a shutout and a save in the same season.  In the second year of his career, 1999, Halladay pitched in 36 games, divided exactly evenly between starting and relieving.  He pitched one complete game shutout that year, and recorded the only save of his career.  After the 2001 season, Halladay would never pitch in relief again, making 390 starts in his career, and completing an impressive (for our era) 67 of them.  Twenty of those were shutouts.

12)  Bill Lee – In his first four seasons with the Red Sox, Lee was primarily a relief pitcher, managing just nine starts in his first 125 appearances.  Not necessarily the team’s closer, however, he also recorded just eight saves during those four years.  In 1973, however, Lee was a full-time member of the Red Sox starting rotation (supplanting the aforementioned Lynn McGlothen, who was traded to St. Louis.)  Lee made 33 starts, against just five relief appearances, pitching 18 complete games, including one shutout.  He also saved one game in those five relief appearances.  From that point on, Lee threw nine more shutouts in his career, and saved ten more games, on his way to a record of 119-90.

I’m sure you can come up with many more pitchers who recorded a save and a shutout in the same season at least once in their careers.  Let me know who you find.

 

 

 

Player Narratives, and the Hall of Fame

Do me a favor.  Take a look at these final career numbers, and tell me if you think the player who compiled these numbers is probably in the Hall of Fame or not.  Do not try to guess who the player is, because we’ll come back to that later.  Please allow the numbers to speak for themselves:

2,460 Games

2,490 Hits

441 Doubles

493 Home Runs  (27th)

1,550 RBI  (42nd)

1,349 Runs

1,305 Walks

4,458 Total Bases (50th)

1,704 Runs Created (49th)

Triple Slash Line:  .284 / .377 / .509

OPS+    134

1,447 Assists (10th at his position)

1,775 Double Plays Turned (5th at his position)

I’m choosing not to include this player’s WAR because it has become too easy to simply go directly to that one statistic and form one’s judgment based on that stat alone.  I will tell you that it is better than some HOF’ers, and not as good as some others.

At this point, you are probably withholding your final judgment based on who the player is.  I would probably do the same.  But why do we do that?  Why does the player’s identity matter so much in our final evaluation as to whether or not he belongs in The Hall?  Shouldn’t the numbers speak for themselves?

The truth is, we tend to place a great deal of weight on the player’s particular narrative.  Did he play for one team his entire career?  Was he beloved by millions, or was he a surly jackass who alienated press and public alike.

Certainly, we want to know, too, in which era the player performed.  Were his numbers special for their time, or were they more representative of a good but not necessarily a great player?

What about intangibles such as playoff performance, overcoming significant personal or professional handicaps, being a suspected cheater, or suffering a tragic, career-ending injury at a relatively young age?

What position did he play?  Historically, more offense has always been expected from outfielders and first basemen than from middle infielders or catchers.

If I told you the numbers listed above belonged to Duke Snider, (they do not, but they plausibly could have), you, too, would probably choose to enshrine the well-respected slugger from the legendary Boys of Summer.  The Brooklyn narrative and the lure of baseball’s so-called Golden Era would be too strong to resist.  Mickey, Willie and The Duke, and all that.

Similarly, if I told you those are Willie Stargell’s numbers, (again, they are not), once again, you would allow that those statistics are sufficient to make the case that “Pop” Stargell, the lifelong Pirate and spiritual leader of the 1979 We Are Family championship ball-club, belongs in the Hall of Fame.

On the other hand, if I told you that these numbers belonged to Dick Allen, Jose Canseco, Carlos Delgado, or Joe Carter, for various reasons, you might very well come to an opposite conclusion regarding their HOF-worthiness.

The truth is, when it comes to whom we deem to be HOF-worthy, we love our narratives.  We tend to work backwards, I think, and use statistics to rationalize our preconceived prejudices regarding who does or does not belong in The Hall.

Certainly, there are a handful of players who obviously belong in The Hall, are there not?  Lou Gehrig comes to mind.  Gehrig slugged 493 home runs, (as many as the player whose stats are listed above.)  He died young and tragically, and was a fabled member of the ’27 Yankees.

Mike Schmidt also comes to mind.  A dominant player in his era, Schmidt compiled 54 fewer total bases than did the mystery player joining us today.

No one I’ve ever heard of has ever argued that Willie “Stretch” McCovey doesn’t belong in The Hall.  A tremendous run producer, McCovey drove in just five more runs in his career than did our soon-to-be revealed player.  McCovey topped 30 homers seven times.  Our Mystery Player accomplished that feat ten times in his career.

Here’s another example.  When I was a kid growing up in the 1970’s, it was clear and obvious to all of the neighborhood boys that Catfish Hunter was a Hall of Famer long before he became eligible, while Bert Blyleven was merely a fine pitcher, but not a particularly interesting one.

For those of us now in our early 50’s, that narrative remains powerful to this day.  While more recent stats point to Blyleven being far more valuable than Hunter, all I remember about Blyleven is that he pitched in Minnesota for lots of bad Twins ball clubs.  It wasn’t until later that I became aware of his reputation as a great prankster, though I doubt even that information would have been enough to sway my opinion of his worthiness for the Hall of Fame.

I now see that as far as his numbers are concerned, Bert Blyleven does belong in the Hall of Fame.  Yet, although I recognize that Hunter’s numbers may ultimately appear to be lacking, his narrative remains superior.  He was the mustachioed ace of first the great A’s clubs of the early ’70’s, then the ace of the fine Yankees teams of the later ’70’s.  He had a great nickname, was always good for a quote, won at least 20 games five consecutive seasons, and died relatively young at age 53.

Therefore, I have come to the conclusion that there’s room for both pitchers in the Hall of Fame.  Sometimes, if we remain open-minded enough, life can be a win-win.

O.K., enough of that.  Who is our Mystery Player?

He is none other than Fred “Crime Dog” McGriff.

Fred McGriff was well-respected, and generally well-liked, and his numbers appear to be worthy of HOF induction, but there are a few problems with his narrative.

For one thing, unlike Schmidt, McCovey, Gehrig, Gwynn, Ripkin, Kaline, Clemente and so many other Hall of Famers, it is difficult to associate McGriff with any one team.  He started out as an extremely productive Toronto Blue Jay, became a highly productive Padre, then moved on to become a reliably productive Brave.  Once he left Atlanta, he moved on to Tampa Bay, where, now in his mid-30’s, he provided solid punch in their batting order.

At age 38, clearly his best years behind him, all he did was slam 30 homers, drive in 103 runs and slug .505 with the Cubs.  He hit his 490th home run as a Dodger, then retired as a Devil Ray at age 40 in 2004.

McGriff also had the misfortune to have his best seasons in the first half of his career (pre-1994), when hitting 35 homers per season still meant something.  By the time he got the opportunity to play before a national audience on TBS with the Braves, every third player seemed to be enjoying 30 homer seasons.  His production began to be viewed by that point as ordinary, the norm of what a first baseman should be producing.

That McGriff finished in the top ten in MVP voting six times, that he reached an OPS+ of at least 140 in ten seasons, and that the first time he went on the Disabled List was in his 18th season at age 39 (talk about an Iron Man) is apparently no match for the overall lack of gripping drama, personal tragedy, or single-uniform predictability that sports fans love.

Fred McGriff has now been on the HOF ballot five years.  Last year, he was named on just 11.7% of all votes cast.  At this point, it seems unlikely that McGriff will be voted into the HOF anytime soon.  You, too, may believe that McGriff just doesn’t quite belong in the Hall of Fame.

But if that’s the way you feel, ask yourself this.  Is it the numbers or is it the narrative that prevents you from considering him to be a worthy Hall of Famer?

Tampa Bay Devil Rays first base coach Fred McG...

Tampa Bay Devil Rays first base coach Fred McGriff during a Devil Rays/New York Mets spring training game at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

 

 

Top Ten Things For Which Mets Fans Can Be Moderately Satisfied

Though I’ve been a Mets fan since 1974, and have been writing this blog for nearly five years now, I don’t often indulge myself in all things Mets (probably because there’s not a great deal for which to indulge.)  Yet, given the declining interest among the fan base (do they still make Mets fans?), I thought I would do my best to try to cheer up my fellow refugees here in Mets-Land.

English: Citi Field with Shea Stadium's Home R...

English: Citi Field with Shea Stadium’s Home Run Apple (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To that purpose, here is my list of the top ten things for which Mets fans can be moderately satisfied:

1)  Through 276 plate appearances, Curtis Granderson has not yet hit into a single double-play this season.

2)  Jon Niese’s 2.67 ERA ranks 8th-best in the N.L., and his 1.15 WHIP ranks 11th in the senior circuit.

3)  Compared to the San Diego Padres (210 runs scored), our offense (273 runs scored) looks like the ’27 Yankees.

4)  Through 274 plate appearances, Mets prospect Brandon Nimmo has an outstanding .449 on-base percentage in Single-A for the St. Lucie Mets in the Florida State League.

5)  Matt Harvey is still undefeated this year.

6)  If it’s true that with age comes wisdom, then Mets G.M. Sandy Alderson (66), manager Terry Collins (65), and team owner Fred Wilpon (77), are Major League baseball’s version of the Oracle at Delphi, if the Oracle at Delphi featured poor infield defense, and looked at lots of 2-1 fastballs down the middle.

7)  The Mets home attendance average of 27,823 fans per game (17th-best in MLB), means that there is normally plenty of leg and elbow room for the fans who actually do show up, not like out in San Francisco, where the park is 99.5% filled to capacity.  Being a Mets fan attending a game at Citi Field is, then, like enjoying a first-class deck cabin on the Lusitania.

8)  Mets third baseman David Wright still has a perfect driving record.  And, according to another blog I read recently, Wright plays baseball “above the neck.”  That might put him at a competitive disadvantage, however, in a league where most other players use their hands, feet, legs and arms.

9)  No Mets pitcher appears to be on track to match the team record of 24 losses in a season accumulated by retired Mets pitchers Roger Craig and Jack Fisher.  Zack Wheeler currently has just seven losses to lead the team, so he’ll have his work cut out for him if we wishes to join Craig and Fisher in the pantheon of Mets infamy.

10)  With just six triples as an entire team so far this season, the Mets appear to be on pace to at least match the all-time team low of 14 triples the team legged out in 1999.  But at least management will have to spend less money on footwear during the next off-season.  No doubt they’ll put that money to good use signing marquee free agents for the 2015 season, and beyond.

 

 

 

 

 

Strange and Interesting Baseball Facts and Stats For 2014

In every baseball season, unexplainable  situations and statistics occur.  Despite all that we know and understand about the game, including all the advances we can attribute to sabermetrics, the human element still has a way of intruding on the actual outcomes of the ballgames.  Large sums of money are paid to athletes both for what they have accomplished and for what a hopeful team expects them to accomplish in the future.  Obviously, the best laid plans…well, you know how it goes.

Having said that, here are some weird numbers I’ve noticed as I’ve researched the 2014 season to this point.  Of course, the season is still young — we’re only a quarter of the way through it — and some of these players and teams will revert back to their norms, but the fact remains that odd and fascinating things have been happening all over baseball this season.

For example:

Prince Fielder, who has hit 288 home runs in his career and has a career slugging percentage of .522, has “slugged” just .360 this season, 95 points lower than Mets second baseman Danny Murphy, who is slugging a career high .455.  Fielder has three homers and 16 RBI.  Murphy has three homers and 17 RBI.

Francisco “K-Rod Rodriguez has recorded 17 saves in the 42 games the Brewers have played this season, meaning he has saved a game in 40% of the games they’ve played.  In 2008, when the set the Major League record for saves in a season with 62, he recorded a save in 38% of the Angels 162 games.  So basically, K-Rod is on pace to break his own single-season save record.

Dodgers second baseman Dee Gordon is on pace to steal 100 bases this year.  No one has stolen a hundred bases in a season since Vince Coleman last did it for the Cardinals in 1987.

Averaging 7.6 strikeouts per walk this season, Mets pitcher Bartolo Colon has the best K/ BB ratio of his career (38 strikeouts against just five walks.)  Yet, by almost every other measure, he’s having one of his very worst seasons thus far:  2-5, 5.84 ERA in eight starts, 1.439 WHIP, ERA+ of 58.  Perhaps one really can be too careful.

Mariners second baseman Robinson Cano, who over the past five seasons hit 25, 29, 28, 33 and 27 homers, is on pace to hit four this year, as many as Nationals pitcher Gio Gonzalez.

With a record of 6-0, and an ERA of 2.17, Yankees pitcher Masahiro Tanaka is off to a fantastic start.  He also leads the A.L. with an 0.914 WHIP.  Oddly, though, batters are hitting .318 against his four-seam fastball, and a robust .326 against his two-seam fastball.  But they are hitting just .172 against his slider, and only .141 off his splitter.

Through nine starts, Red pitcher Johnny Cueto has an ERA of 1.25 and a batting average against of .135.  In all of Major League history, no pitcher has ever had an ERA that low and an opponent batting average that low through the first nine starts of a season.

The Cubs entire bullpen as recorded just four saves this season.  Meanwhile, Tampa Bay Rays closer Grant Balfour recorded two in one day.

Is it time to start paying closer attention to the season Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki is putting together?  As I type this, he is currently batting .398 with an on-base percentage of .503, and a slugging percentage of .767.   Tulo leads the N.L. in batting, of course, and also in home runs, with 12.  Not only does he have a chance to become the first N.L. player to win the Triple Crown since Ducky Medwick in 1937, but he may become the first player since Tony Gwynn batted .394 twenty-years ago in 1994.  Could even a .400 batting average be within his reach?

Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig, 23-years old, has now logged exactly 600 MLB plate appearances.  Try as I might, I was unable to find any player from previous generations of batters whose stats through their first 600 plate appearances were truly comparable to Puig’s.  He has hit 27 homers, and has posted a triple slash line of .323 /.400/.549.  Puig’s career OPS+ is 165.

One player I did research who also got off to a nice start to his career homered 31 times in his first 675 plate appearances (a rate roughly similar to Puig’s), and posted a triple slash line of .327 / .436 / .609, while playing his home games in a friendlier hitter’s park than Puig’s Dodgers Stadium.  His career OPS+ through his first 149 games (Puig has played 141) was 160, a bit lower than Puig’s 165.  The other player’s name?  Ted Williams.

As far as I can tell, Brewers outfielder Khris Davis has drawn fewer walks per 150 plate appearances than any other player in the Majors this season.  So far, he has drawn just three walks in 152 plate appearances, down even from last season’s 11 walks in 153 plate appearances.  Clearly, the man likes to swing the bat.  On a visceral level, there’s something to be said for a man who takes his chances, who won’t be cheated, and who isn’t satisfied with a mere trot down to first base.  “Felt wrong not to swing.” -Merrill Hess (Joaquin Phoenix), from the movie, “Signs.”

The Mets tenth-highest paid player this season is, (are you ready for this?),  Bobby Bonilla!   Bonilla hasn’t worn the uniform of any MLB team for the past 13 years.  Bonilla, now 51-years old, will continue to be paid one million dollars per year by the Mets (1.19, to be exact), through the year 2035.  He will be 72-years old when they stop sending him checks.  The Mets could have bought him out for 5.9 million in the year 2000, but failed to do so.  On the back of such improbably horrible decisions are legacies made.

If there are any other oddities you’d like to share with me, by all means, please do so.

 

 

 

 

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Small Markets, Large Markets, and the Games Baseball’s Owners Play

We often hear a lot about large market vs. small market teams.  The assumption is that because a team plays in one size market or the other, their available revenue, generated through T.V. deals and fan-bases commensurate with the size of their cities, plays an out-sized role in whether or not that team can hope to realistically compete in the baseball marketplace.

Some teams have called certain cities home for a hundred years or more.  There was a time when some of these cities were among the largest and wealthiest in America.  For some of these cities, growth continued unabated throughout the twentieth-century and into the new millennium.  For other towns, their relative position in terms of population and economic power has declined significantly over that same period of time.

Yet some teams seem content  with their lot, protected from the hazards of free market capitalism by revenue sharing, and by the fact that for most Major League baseball owners, their team is not their personal primary source of wealth (they were wealthy before they ever owned a team), but is, instead a kind of status symbol akin to owning a Picasso or a small island in the South Pacific (though the actual location might be the South Bronx.)

So it might be instructive to take a look at the locations of today’s MLB franchises, and how these cities have grown or declined since the middle of the last century, with an eye toward evaluating the intersection of payroll, demographics and the on-field success of these various franchises.

Below you’ll find a list of each MLB city’s population as of 2012, the rank of each city based on population, and the population and relative position each of those cities held back in 1950:

1)  New York City – 8,336,697 – 1950:  7,891,857, 1st

2)  Los Angeles, CA – 3,857,899 – 1950:  1,970,358, 4th

3)  Chicago, IL – 2,714,856 – 1950:  3,620,962, 2nd

4)  Houston, TX – 2,160,821 – 1950:  596,163, 14th

5)  Philadelphia, PA – 1,547,607 – 1950:  2,071,605, 3rd  (about a 25% population decline over 60 years.)

6)  Phoenix, AZ – 1,488,750 – 1950:  106,818, 99th  (Modern Phoenix is about 14 times larger than in 1950.)

8)  San Diego, CA – 1,338,348 – 1950:  334,387, 31st  (Has added almost exactly one million people.)

14)  San Francisco, CA – 825,863 – 1950:  775,357, 11th

18)  Detroit, MI – 701,475 – 1950:  1,849,568, 5th  (An astonishing 62% population decline.)  

21)  Boston, MA – 636,479 – 1950:  801,444, 10th

22)  Seattle, WA – 634,535 – 1950:  467,591, 19th  (Growing, but at a slower rate than many other cities.)

23)  Denver, CO – 634,265 – 1950:  415,786, 24th

24)  Washington, DC – 632,323 – 1950:  802,178, 9th

26)  Baltimore, MD – 621,342 – 1950:  949,708, 6th

30)  Milwaukee, WI – 598,916 – 1950:  637,392, 13th

37)  Kansas City, MO – 464,310 – 1950:  456,622, 20th

40)  Atlanta, GA – 443,775 – 1950:  331,314, 33rd

44)  Miami, FL – 413,892 – 1950:  249,276, 42nd

45)  Oakland, CA – 400,740 – 1950:  384,575, 27th

47)  Minneapolis, MN – 392,880 – 1950:  521,718, 17th

48)  Cleveland, OH – 390,928 – 1950:  914,808, 7th  (A 57% population decline.)

50)  Arlington, TX – 375,600 – 1950:  7,692, (Not Rated.)  (If you include the nearly 1.2 million people who live just 20 miles away in Dallas, Arlington jumps into the top ten metropolitan areas.)

53)  Tampa, FL – 347,645 – 1950:  124,681, 85th

55)  Anaheim, CA – 343,248 – 1950:  14,556, (Not Rated.)  (L.A. is 33 miles away, making Anaheim more or less a large suburb.  As a stand-alone city, though, it’s population has exploded, and could some day break into the top 50.)

58)  St. Louis, MO – 318,172 – 1950:  856,796, 8th.  (Not necessarily viewed as a city in decline, but in both relative and absolute terms, it certainly is.)

61)  Pittsburgh, PA – 306,211 – 1950:  676,806, 12th.  

65)  Cincinnati, OH – 296,550 – 1950:  503,998, 18th.  (The ultimate small-market team, Cincinnati is the only Major League city with fewer than 300,000 people.)

The only other MLB franchise not already on this list is the Toronto Blue Jays.  Toronto currently has a population of about 2.5 million people, placing it between Chicago and Houston on this list.

In terms of absolute numbers, local populations have suffered declines in 12 of 30 MLB cities since 1950, representing 40% of MLB cities.  Those cities are:  Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, Boston, Washington D.C., Baltimore, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Cleveland, St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.  Those 12 cities lost a combined 5,049,244 citizens in little more than half a century, with further losses expected in several of those metropolitan areas.  That’s a lot of potential baseball fans.

Overall, 18 MLB towns suffered a relative decline in their demographic ranking since 1950.  That represents 60% of MLB franchises.  In other words, even though half a dozen of these cities gained some absolute population, their numbers did not keep up with other American cities that grew even faster.

The top ten U.S. cities in terms of total population that do not currently boast an MLB franchise are:

1)  San Antonio, TX (1.383 million)

2)  San Jose, CA  (983,000)

3)  Austin, TX  (843,000)

4)  Jacksonville, FL  (837,000)

5)  Indianapolis, IN  (835,000)

6)  Columbus, OH  (810,000)

7)  Fort Worth, TX  (778,000)

8)  Charlotte, NC  (775,000)

9)  El Paso, TX  (773,000)

10)  Memphis, TN  (655,000)

As you can see, other than a couple of mid-western cities, eight of these ten towns are in the south or west (or the southwest.)  I don’t pretend to know which of these towns, if any, would possibly welcome a relocated MLB team (though San Jose is an obvious destination for the A’s), but considering the decline of so many current MLB cities, it’s a bit odd that there hasn’t been more talk in recent years of relocation.

But it’s also true that the size of the local market does not necessarily correlate with the size of each team’s payroll.  For example, New York’s National League franchise, despite its obvious advantage of playing in America’s largest city, and the media capital of the world, with a long and proud tradition of baseball, somehow ranks a scandalous 22nd in payroll, with a budget of a little over 89 million dollars on the books for 2014.

While it’s true that spending lots of money does not necessarily result in a World Championship, it is no less true that failing to invest in one’s product can also harm one’s business.  As their payroll has stagnated (though they did spend some money this off-season) the Mets have experienced five straight years of declining attendance.

Declining attendance means declining revenue.  Declining revenue means (at least in theory) even less money to spend on the product.  Thus, the downward spiral becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Though austerity is all the rage these days, and is often touted as “responsible” budgeting by those who speak in serious tones about reckless, wasteful spending, the fact of the matter is that unless you create the conditions that encourage consumer demand, austerity can be as reckless, if not worse, than the very problem it is intended to fix.  In other words, as they used to say, give the people what they want, and they’ll show up.

Oddly, however, many fans seem to have bought into this austerity fetish, and spend as much or more time defending the penurious inaction of the team owners as they do actually rooting for the actual ball-club to succeed.

All of which raises the question, how does a millionaire team owner (and they are all at least millionaires) cry poverty?  More specifically, what is the relationship between the net worth of a particular owner, and the baseball market he and his franchise inhabit?  Does it matter  — should it matter — that Royals team owner David Glass, whose net worth is said to be around 1.8 billion dollars, has up until recently (they’ve moved up to 19th-place this year) kept his team’s payroll very low?

On the one hand, the Kansas City market, as reflected in the drop in the relative position of Kansas City’s demographics, can be used to justify a small-market payroll.  But, in the context of a deep-pocketed owner, does location really matter?  What incentive would Mr. Glass have to increase payroll if he moved his team to Charlotte, for example?  Revenue is not the same as profit, and Mr. Glass has carefully managed to profit from years of paying out low salaries (first as an accountant, and later as CEO of Wal-Mart, then later as Royals team owner.)

On the other end of the spectrum is an owner who is a throwback to the days when owners were not just businessmen, but were fans as well.  Detroit Tigers owner Mike Ilitch is 82-years old.  His personal fortune is estimated to be about two billion dollars.  Given the state of the city of Detroit, it would be easy for him to claim that there was simply no money available to sign and retain all-star caliber players.  Plenty of owners make that claim.

But Ilitch is a Detroit native, and wants to see his team win a World Series while he’s still alive.  His philosophy is that “Fans want to see the stars, and if you want stars, you have to pay the price.”  The Tigers currently have the fifth-highest payroll among all MLB teams.

They are also fifth in attendance among American League teams, an especially nice showing from the fans who live in a city in serious decline.  Even if the Tigers do not win a championship in his lifetime, it would be hard to argue that Major League baseball in general, and Detroit in particular, are not better off for Mr. Ilitch’s efforts.

It appears, then, judging by how each team chooses to spend its money, invest in its product and connect with its fans, there is no obvious correlation between what we have come to believe are small market vs. large market teams.  Yes, the Dodgers and the Yankees, two teams that operate in very large markets,  spend the most money, and their fans respond in kind.

Yet there are also many examples, some of which I’ve already cited, where team owners, regardless of the health and vitality of the market in which they operate, either spend far more than one would expect under the circumstances, or who spend far less than appears to be justified.

To cite another example, the Cincinnati Reds, playing in the smallest of all Major League towns, rank a respectable 12th in payroll for 2014, and have drawn slightly more fans than have the Mets, despite a much smaller pool of potential fans to draw from.  But the Reds also have a long and proud tradition.  Could that tradition be easily transferred if they were to pick up and move to a larger market?

Finally, though some owners like Mike Ilitch go above and beyond due to personal loyalty to a particular team and city, it would appear to be an ultimately untenable position for MLB to continue to operate so many teams in so many declining markets, regardless of the personal wealth of the owners.  How baseball’s next commissioner decides to address this looming issue will go a long way in determining professional baseball’s long-term health and viability in years to come.

Sources Used for this article:

http://www.citymayors.com/gratis/uscities_100.html

http://www.census.gov/population/www/documentation/twps0027/tab18.txt

http://www.ocalmanac.com/Population/po26.htm

http://www.city-data.com/

http://deadspin.com/2014-payrolls-and-salaries-for-every-mlb-team-1551868969

http://espn.go.com/mlb/attendance

http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/sports/baseball/al/tigers/story/2012-04-11/Mike-Ilitch-Red-Wings-Tigers/54227648/1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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