What’s Wrong With The A’s?

I can’t really improve on the title of Rob Neyer’s article on the Oakland Athletics’ downward spiral. Neyer rebuts Columnist Monte Poole’s contention that Oakland GM Billy Beane’s decision to let shortstop Miguel Tejada walk after 2003 and sign third baseman Eric Chavez to a 6-year deal after 2004 is a big part of the reason.

Neyer fails to mention a point which bolsters his case: In 2003, the A’s had Jermaine Dye signed to a big deal which didn’t expire until after 2004. Tejada was a free agent after 2003, but the A’s cash flow – never noted for its voluminous flow – didn’t have space to sign a big free agent until after 2004, when Dye’s deal was up. Chavez’ contract status dovetailed nicely with Dye’s departure, but Tejada’s did not.

Nonetheless, I myself can’t shake the feeling that there’s something awry with Billy Beane’s strategy of running the A’s. The great A’s teams of the turn of the millennium were primarily driven by some great players drafted by the previous administration (Giambi, Tejada, Chavez, Hudson, Mulder). Beane did a fine job filling in the gaps around those players, but as they departed, Beane has largely replaced them with more good gap-fillers, rather than franchise players. While he’s had some bad luck in this regard, the A’s draft record under Beane does not look particularly strong.

Beane’s strategy in a broad sense has been described as looking to exploit inefficiencies in the “market” for baseball players. To be fair to Beane, the market has gotten a lot more efficient over the last decade (a point I believe he’s made himself) as the rest of the league as adopted and adapted his strengths. However, I think the inefficiencies he’s tried to exploit have gone from major facets (on-base percentage), to secondary skills (team defense), to relatively minor factors (signing Jason Giambi cheaply in the hopes that he’s not quite done). In the meantime, the A’s lineup features a number of fairly pedestrian hitters who are markedly devoid of power – a skill which is arguably overvalued, but which is still quite important. Guys like Jack Cust and Kurt Suzuki are nice complementary players, but they’re not guys to center your team around.

While the A’s have had plenty of bad fortune, I think Neyer goes a little wrong in pointing out that the Red Sox and Dodgers have made plenty of mistakes and they’re doing okay. One thing that a high payroll buys a team is more flexibility to cover for their mistakes (not infinite flexibility, but more). The Red Sox and Dodgers have that, the A’s have less such flexibility than almost any team in the Majors.

“What about the Rays? They traded Edwin Jackson for Matt Joyce!” says Neyer. Yeah, but the Rays look a lot like the team that Beane was piloting back in 1999-2000. Can they keep it up without one of the larger payrolls in baseball? It’s too soon to tell.

As for the A’s, given their financial situation it’s hard to say what they should be doing differently other than having a little good luck for a change. But somehow they’re on a downhill slide, while the Minnesota Twins – who have been a comparable team in many ways throughout the decade – continue to remain contenders, in a genrally stronger division. So the task shouldn’t be insurmountable.

Maybe it is just a matter of luck.

What a Series!

The first Red Sox/Yankees series of the year concluded, and it’s hard to imagine later series getting any better than this one!

Unless you’re, uh, a Yankees fan. Because the Red Sox swept the 3-game series at Fenway Park.

Friday’s game one was a 12-inning affair in which the Sox were down 4-2 in the bottom of the 9th, Jason Bay tied it with a 2-run homer, and then Kevin Youkilis hit a walk-off shot to win it. Joba Chamberlain and Jon Lester pitched well to start the game, but two of the better relievers on both teams (Mariano Rivera and Hideki Okajima) imploded later on.

Saturday’s game two was epic. I’d expected the Josh Beckett-A.J. Burnett matchup to be the series’ best chance for a pitcher’s duel, but it was anything but: Beckett imploded, giving up 8 runs in 5 innings. The Sox were down 6-0 in the 4th, but closed to 6-5 in the bottom half thanks to Jason Varitek’s grand slam. Burnett also ended up giving up 8 runs in 5 innings. The bullpens provided little relief (Okajima got hit hard again), but the Yankees’ bullpen completely melted down, leading to a 16-11 Sox win, in a little under 4-1/2 hours.

Game two included such plays as Johnny Damon being picked off base, Jorge Posada getting caught in a rundown heading for home plate and tagged out at third when two runners ended up at that base, and Jacoby Ellsbury reaching base on catcher’s interference.

Sunday’s game three will be remembered for some months for Ellsbury stealing home on Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada, mainly because the Yankees had the shift on for J.D. Drew and Pettitte wasn’t really paying attention. (Video recap here.) It hardly mattered since Drew hit the next pitch for an automatic double, and the Sox won 4-1. Justin Masterson started for the Sox and pitched quite well against one of the better offenses in baseball, and then two rookie pitchers combined to shut down the Yankees the rest of the way, allowing just one hit over 3-2/3 innings. Ellsbury’s accomplishment is being overrated by fans and the media, but stealing home happens so rarely it’s quite a thing to see. Masterson was the true Sox MVP of the day.

Three hard-fought games, and the “right” team won them all (well, as far as I’m concerned!). What a great weekend of baseball!

Oh, and Sox manager Terry Francona seemed pretty happy, too:

Happy guys!

Red Sox Days

These past two evenings have been taken up with two trips to Oakland to see my Boston Red Sox in their only trip to the area this year.

Monday night we took my friend Joar and his wife Karin to their first baseball game since they moved here from Sweden a couple of years ago. We’d meant to go last year, but it never happened (mainly, I think, due to my own sloth). I don’t think either of them are really sports people, but obviously they’ve heard about the game and Joar’s seen my own enthusiasm for it on display plenty.

I explained the basics of how baseball works, which is a bigger challenge than I’d expected: What innings are, what outs are, the fielders and the batting line-up, how balls and strikes work, what foul balls and home runs are, and how outs are actually made. That doesn’t even get to things like stolen bases or double plays or pitching changes or any of that. Never mind the Seventh Inning Stretch.

All this was much easier once the game began and I could point out how the umpire indicates balls and strikes, where the foul lines are, how the runners move around the bases, etc. It really brought home how I take the play of the game for granted, having absorbed it mostly through watching a whole bunch of games as a teenager.

I think they enjoyed the game more than they’d expected, especially Karin who was watching the game quite intently as it progressed – which is saying something because it was a pretty mediocre game, as the A’s clubbed the Sox’ pitching into submission and rolled to an 8-2 victory. But we had great seats in the second deck behind home plate (and Joar nearly got his head taken off by a foul ball, but it was deflected at the last second), and it was a fairly warm night. We even saw the Red Sox pick off not one but two runners from first base in the same inning, which I don’t think I’ve ever seen before.

Next I’ll try to get them to a Giants game, hopefully for a weekend day game so they can appreciate Pac Bell Park.

Debbi and I went back last night for the second game of the series, which was considerably less fun, because the temperature was in the 40s and the wind was in the 20-30 MPH range, so it was goddamned freezing, even with the extra layers we wore. Hot cocoa and Irish coffee only staved off the chill for a few minutes.

Which is too bad because it was quite a good game: Sox starter Daisuke Matsuzaka melted down in the first inning (and went on the DL today), but Justin Masterson held the A’s scoreless for 4 innings, and the Sox came back to tie it 5-5. Finally we got too cold and left in the middle of the 8th, and the game was still going on by the time we got home and went to bed. I learned this morning that the A’s won 6-5 in 12 innings, so I’m rather glad we didn’t stay to the bitter end.

Of course, the Sox saved the best for today’s day game, which is a bummer, but at least they won one. I’m just sorry I wasn’t able to see it.

And even more sorry they won’t be back for another visit later in the summer. Darn the unbalanced schedule anyway!

Fantasy Baseball 2009

If it’s April, then we must have had our fantasy baseball draft by now, right? Right!

Here’s the team I ended up with:

Pos Player Team Round/
Pick
Age Comments
C Jarrod Saltalamacchia TEX 5/78 23 Another year with a tandem of two half-decent catchers. At least they’re both young this year!
C Jesus Flores WAS 13/206 24
1B Albert Pujols SLN Kept 29
2B Kelly Johnson ATL 1/14 27
2B Mark Ellis OAK 21/334 31
2B/SS Clint Barmes COL 10/158 30 Wonder how long he’ll have a starting job?
3B Ryan Zimmerman WAS 2/30 24 He’s going to break out some year, right?
3B Bill Hall MIL 15/238 29
SS Derek Jeter NYA 4/62 34 As a Red Sox fan, I’m happy his bat is declining rapidly. If he does have one more great year in him, though, it’d be great if 2009 is it.
OF Daniel Murphy NYN 6/94 24
OF Chris Young ARI Kept 25
OF Josh Hamilton TEX Kept 27
OF Mike Cameron MIL 11/174 36
OF Michael Cuddyer MIN 19/302 30
OF Juan Rivera LAA 22/348 30
SP James Shields TBA Kept 26
SP Hiroki Kuroda LAN Kept 34
SP Zack Greinke KCA Kept 25
SP Edinson Volquez CIN Kept 25
SP Paul Maholm PIT 7/110 27
SP Andy Pettitte NYA 8/126 36
SP Jon Garland ARI 14/222 29
SP Anthony Reyes CLE 16/254 27
SP Ross Ohlendorf PIT 17/270 26
SP Doug Davis ARI 18/286 33
SP Jordan Zimmermann WAS 9/142 23 Should be in the Majors in a few weeks.
RP Jonathan Broxton LAN 3/46 24
RP J.J. Putz NYN 12/190 32
RP Bobby Howry SFN 20/318 35
RP Justin Masterson BOS 23/361 24

The draft this year was really weird: We got down to the end of the draft, where last year I took Paul Maholm and Zach Duke with my last two picks, and the year before I took Josh Hamilton with my last pick. This year, though, there was no one left I wanted, not role players with guaranteed starting time, not second-tier prospects, nothing. So I passed my last 5 picks. I’m not sure whether the player pool is smaller this year for some reason, or if the league as a whole is drafting better. Or maybe I’m just too picky. But I felt I’d do better waiting to see how roles change in April than drafting guys with those last 5 picks.

As usual I ended up with a bunch of quality hitters, and a pretty weak pitching staff. It seemed like the pitchers I wanted kept getting taken just before I wanted them, and there was always a good hitter I wanted more than the next other pitchers. I had especially hoped to get Josh Beckett with my first-round pick (14th overall), but he went 2 picks before me.

I feel like the rest of the league is passing me by in drafting prospects who stick, as it’s been a while since I’ve drafted a young impact player at a premium position, so I keep spending early picks on 2B, 3B, SS and even catcher (although the “two decent catchers in tandem” strategy has worked surprisingly well). And I still haven’t worked out how to draft pitchers.

But I don’t think I have a bad team. And I did finish in third place last year (out of 16), and I finish in the top half more often than not.. So maybe I’m overly pessimistic.

The Power to Believe

Great article by Joe Posnanski about Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols. (via Rob Neyer)

One thing fantasy baseball does for me is gives me a little more connection to players I’d otherwise be somewhat indifferent towards – well, to the extent that one can be indifferent towards the best player in baseball. Back in 2001 during our league draft I decided to take a flyer on a guy named Pujols, who had spent most of 2000 in A-ball, and was filling in at third base while Bobby Bonilla was on the DL.

Someone in the room said, “They’ll send him down as soon as Bonilla comes back.”

A couple of weeks later, Bonilla came back. Rather than sending down Pujols, the Cardinals released John Mabry. Pujols has since gone on to beat the living daylights out of National League pitching.

I drafted Pujols in the 16th round that year (this is a keeper league, so that’s like taking him in the 21st round in non-keeper leagues). Overall he was the 248th player taken in the draft – 362nd if you include the keepers.

And I’ve had him on my team ever since.

Anyway.

If anything, I think Pujols is underrated. He’s been hurt in one way or another for most of his career – he has a bad elbow which may eventually need reconstructive surgery, and for which he had surgery this offseason to correct a nerve problem and hopefully alleviate the pain he feels in it. That’s the main reason he plays first base, to avoid aggravating his elbow by having to throw more often. He came up as a third baseman and played all four corners (first, third, left field, and right field) his first two seasons. Last year he played one game at second base. Okay, events like that are flukes. But still. How great would it have been if he’d been able to spend his career at third base or in the outfield and been fully healthy?

The only thing he can’t do is pitch. As far as we know.

Since I don’t believe in god (in my Facebook profile my “Religion” field reads “unbeliever/heathen”), it’s strange for me to read about his clearly deep religious beliefs. It’s an aspect of him I can’t realte to or even really understand. “He played baseball, and he went to church, and that seemed about all that interested him.” On the other hand, if it works for him and his life, then that works for me.

I hope – for his own peace of mind – he’s telling the truth that he doesn’t care whether people believe that he’s not using steroids. The steroid witch-hunt has been such a disaster for baseball – to my mind much worse than any actual use of steroids has been. I hope the reigning Best Player in Baseball can escape the witch-hunt. Because I just want to see him play.

MVP Notes

We’re in the thick of baseball awards season, and it’s made for some interesting reading.

In the National League, Albert Pujols won the MVP in both the Internet Baseball Awards (by a very wide margin) and the official voting (by a narrower margin). This seems only natural since Pujols was far-and-away the best hitter in baseball – and it wasn’t particularly close. While you could argue that Hanley Ramirez or Chase Utley might be more valuable because of their position, they had to make up a good amount of ground compared to Pujols’ advantage with the bat, and while Pujols does play the easiest defensive position on the diamond, he’s a plus defender there, too. He came up as a third baseman, and has also played both outfield corners; he’s only at first base due to his bum elbow which his team naturally wants to protect as much as possible.

Despite this, folks like Thomas Boswell thinks Ryan Howard should have been the league’s MVP. I like Boswell’s writing, his book The Heart of the Order is among my favorites, but his whole argument is just ridiculously wrong. That he’s bringing up RBI and the position the player’s team finished as anything other than a tiebreaker is just plain silly, and, well Joe Posnanski writes a nifty refutation of Boswell’s position which says all that and more.

I think people still underestimate just how valuable it is for a hitter to not make an out. Pujols is the complete package as a hitter in a way that no other active player is. He’s really that good, and it’s amazing that people seriously question whether he should have been the MVP.

Over in the American League, I was mildly surprised when Red Sock Dustin Pedroia won the IBA, and even more so when he won the real deal.

This was a tougher award to pick. Pedroia was third in the AL in VORP, behind Alex Rodriguez and Grady Sizemore. Pedroia logged significantly more plate appearances than most of his competition (only Sizemore logged more, and Josh Hamilton was a little behind). And most of the competition also played difficult defensive positions (Pedroia plays second base). There were also some good pitchers in the mix, as either Cliff Lee or Roy Halladay would have been a credible MVP.

I think you could build a reasonable argument for any number of these players being the MVP. I think the reason Pedroia won the actual award is that he plays for a high-profile playoff team, and he put up what was probably his career year. Voters like those sorts of things.

Rob Neyer picks Twins catcher Joe Mauer as his guy, and I think he’s a credible choice, too, although I don’t think he’s clearly better than Pedroia. Mauer did get overlooked by voters in each pool, although I think he was swimming uphill given the tendencies of the voters. I think Neyer’s right that he just never had the buzz, and with so many credible candidates he needed something to make him stand out in their minds. Additionally, I think there’s a perception that Mauer’s been a little disappointing since he hasn’t developed big-time power. Of course, he’s only 25, so he still has time.

(Boswell suggests that Francisco Rodriguez and his newly-minted saves record should have been the MVP, which is just absurd, as K-Rod wasn’t even the best reliever in his league, or particularly close to being so, and his record was due to the peculiar circumstances of his being on a good team in a poor division. His comparison to Dennis Eckersley‘s 1992 season doesn’t hold water either, since Eck was considerably more dominant than K-Rod was. Even then there were many better candidates among both the hitters and the pitchers.)

I think the awards are partly to honor players who reached the pinnacle of their profession in a given year, and partly to give us fans something to argue about. There’s plenty of red meat to chew on for the AL award, but I’m sure Pedroia and his fans are just happy to have made it this far. (Two years ago a lot of people wondered if he’d ever hit enough to be a solid Major League regular.)

But on the NL side I think we should just sit back and appreciate Albert Pujols as the greatest active hitter (and he’d be the greatest hitter of his era if he hadn’t spent the first few years of his career competing with one of the two greatest hitters of any era). At this point it looks like the only thing that can stop him is his own elbow.

Congratulations to the Phillies

Congratulations to the Philadelphia Phillies and their fans (including my cow-orker Todd, and my sister and her son) on winning the World Series! After a 2-day rain delay (no, really!), they beat the Rays 4-3 in the clinching game, winning 4 games to 1.

The Phillies are a long-suffering team, having existed in the shadow of the Philadelphia Athletics until the A’s left town in the 50s. They’re the only team in existence with more than 10,000 (that’s ten thousand) losses. And they’ve won a single World Series in their 126-year existence, back in 1980. But they’ve been a pretty good team in this decade, and they finally managed to vault past the Mets and Braves and push through the playoffs for the win.

In a sign of my own prognosticative skills, I did pick the series to end in 5 games – but I predicted the Rays would run over the Phillies. Instead the Phils won both of Cole Hamels’ starts, won a close one in game 3 in a wild 9th inning, and brought out the big sticks to club the Rays in game 4.

As for the Rays, well, they’re going to be a good team for years to come, so I don’t feel too badly for them. They’re going to make things tough for my Red Sox. But it ought to make for some exciting games.

And So It Ends

The Red Sox almost did it again, having forced Game 7 after falling behind 3-1 in this year’s ALCS, but it came to an end last night when the Rays beat the Sox 3-1 in the decisive game.

Ultimately, the Sox just had too many injuries to overcome: David Ortiz hasn’t been the same since he hurt his wrist, Mike Lowell went out for the year at the end of the ALDS due to his hip problems, Josh Beckett wasn’t the same for whatever reason (whether his oblique injury or something else). The Sox had – and used – a lot of depth this year, but they just didn’t have enough to cover for all of that. Despite those problems, they nearly managed to pull it out and go to their third World Series in five years, but couldn’t quite get over the hump.

The Tampa Bay Rays are young and talented, and most of their players are locked up at bargain prices for years to come, the product of years of drafting near the top of the amateur draft combined with a front office that finally knows what to do with all that talent. Reversals of fortune can happen suddenly in baseball, but as things stand the Rays could be the class of the American League for the next five years. The interesting question will be whether they can build a loyal fan base in Tampa, or whether Florida just isn’t a baseball state.

They’ll face the Phillies in the World Series starting on Wednesday. The Phillies are a pretty good team, but I think the Rays will dismantle them pretty handily. The National League’s teams just haven’t been as good as the American League’s in recent years, and I think the Rays will tee off the non-Cole Hamels pitchers in the Phils’ rotation, while Rays manager Joe Maddon will deploy his formidable bullpen to take advantage of the Phillies’ offensive weaknesses (expect to see David Price strike out Ryan Howard in close-and-late situations a couple of times).

Of course, in a short series, anything can happen, but Rays in five games looks like a good prediction.

Obviously I think Sox/Phillies would have made for a more exciting series. Not least because I could’ve traded jabs with my boss’s boss all week! 🙂

Articles about Nate Silver

An article at New York magazine about Nate Silver, the brains behind Five Thirty Eight, the election web site we’ve all been reading daily of late. (via Daring Fireball)

There’s also an article at the University of Chicago Magazine on Silver’s baseball analysis exploits, as well as his Wikipedia entry.

Since Silver’s stock-in-trade is statistical analysis of real-world phenomena, it shouldn’t be a surprise that he also made a living playing poker during the Internet poker boom. (Maybe he still does, I dunno.)

End of the Season

Yesterday Subrata and I went up to San Francisco to watch the last game of the Giants’ season. It was a belated birthday present for Subrata, as he hadn’t been to a game all year due to getting his infant son oriented to the world.

We were lucky to get tickets, I think, since Cy Young hopeful Tim Lincecum was pitching against the Giants’ nemesis, the Los Angeles Dodgers. Lincecum recorded his first 9 out by strikeout, and ended up striking out 13 in 7 innings. Only 24 years old, Lincecum looks like the next great thing after leading the Majors in strikeouts this year, and finishing 3rd in ERA.

The Dodgers had already secured their playoff berth and had basically nothing to play for, so they ran out a few of their starters at the beginning of the game, and then a legion of scrubs as the game wore on. Manny Ramirez never got into the game. There were nonetheless several hard-hit balls to the outfield, both to “Triples Alley” and one ball that Juan Pierre managed to snag up against the left field wall. Of course, Pierre also managed to botch a catch when the ball came at him out of the sun, to the delight of the bleacher creatures.

We were sitting in the bleachers ourselves, which made for pretty nice seats. It turned out that cow-orker K and another cow-orker were sitting 15 rows behind us, but we never saw each other.

We did get to see Omar Vizquel in what was surely his last game as a Giant, and maybe his final game in the Majors. I remember (dimly) when he was traded to the Indians from the Mariners back in 1993, beginning his tenure on the run of great 90s Indians teams. I don’t think he’s truly Hall-of-Fame caliber, but he has had a noteworthy career.

Anyway, it was a good day at the ballpark. We also watched the scoreboards and noted that the Milwaukee Brewers are going to the playoffs for the first time since 1982. New manager Dale Svuem seems to have done a good job of deploying his talent effectively in the last 2 weeks of the season – including starting CC Sabathia 3 times in 8 days – though he got help from another New York Mets collapse. Meanwhile, the Twins and White Sox ended up separated by 1/2 game, which means the ChiSox are playing a make-up game in Chicago against the Tigers, and if they win, then they play the Twins tomorrow to see who wins the AL Central. (If they lose today, then the Twins get the title.)

Subrata and I agreed that the playoffs should be exciting. In the AL, I think the Devil Rays are solid favorites over either the Twins or White Sox, while the Red Sox and Angels should be a pretty good series (though maybe less good since Sox starter Josh Beckett is hurting.) In the NL, the Cubs are a very good team with some big question marks, but probably still likely to beat the Dodgers. The Brewers and Phillies will probably be a messy series with lots of runs scored.

It’s hard to pick a favorite to go to the World Series. The Cubs seem like the best bet in the NL, but almost anyone from the AL could go. In either case I think the AL team is likely to beat the Cubs, since I think the AL teams are just generally stronger.

But, that’s why they play the games.