Saturday, November 22, 2014

Your On The Field of Play Travel Guide

This blog is about baseball. This post isn't.  We'll return to our regular scheduling programming in my next post.

For the past 25 years, I've had a job that entailed a ton of travel. I've probably flown about 1,500 individual flight segments, give or take a couple hundred, in that time. I'm going to give you all my tips in this post. The focus here will be on flying, though I have some other observations as well.


  • I always had my travel handled by a corporate travel agent, so I'm not good at knowing when to buy tickets in order to save money. Airline ticket pricing is dynamic--it changes day to day, sometimes hour to hour, as flights fill and airlines attempt to match supply and demand. Recent research--specifically, this article from the Wall Street Journal in October (may be behind a paywall)--says that the best fares are available on Saturday and Sunday. During the week, the cheapest fares are on Tuesday. I'm not talking about travel dates, I'm talking the day you buy your ticket.
  • A lot of people get their tickets from flight aggregators like Expedia or Travelocity rather than from the airlines. That's fine, but if you have to change planes, I would avoid itineraries that require you to change airlines, which often show up as the cheapest options. For one thing, that's pretty much out of the question if you're checking luggage, as you'd have to leave the secure area, wait at the baggage carousel, collect your bag, go check in for your next segment, and go through security again. But even if you're just carrying on, a ticket on a single airline generally means that the airline will accommodate you if you're at risk of a missed connection. (I've had flights delayed so connecting passengers could make it.) That won't happen if your connection's on a different airline--United won't care that Delta held you up; you'll just be another late person who missed the flight, not their problem.
  • The single best way to avoid delays is to fly early in the day. Studies like this one show that the least delayed flights are the first ones of the day, and the delays grow steadily as the day progresses. 
  • Join TSA PreCheck. If you fly more than once a year, and don't want to waste a half hour or more of your life waiting to get through security, this is the single best tip I have. It's $85 for five years, which works out to $4.25 per flight if you fly only twice a year. For the $4.25, you get to keep your liquids and laptop in your carry-on, keep your shoes and light jacket on, and go through a metal detector instead of the x-ray machine. Seriously, this is one of the best and cheapest time-savers out there. Here's where you can get more information and apply.
  • Don't check bags unless you have to. There are times when it's unavoidable--going away for over a week, going on a ski vacation, etc. At best, checked baggage costs you a lot of time both at check-in and after you land, at a price of $25 per bag on most airlines. At worst, have you ever dealt with lost luggage? If you do check a bag, do something to make your bag recognizable--bright-colored yarn or tape or luggage tag or something like that. When I buy luggage, I look for odd color combinations. (My current rollerboard is red and brown.) Black is not odd.
  • If you must check bags, don't put anything expensive, or anything that you couldn't do without for a couple of days, in them. Electronics and jewelry should go in your carry-on, as well as prescription drugs. Also put items like orthotics (expensive) and your itinerary (can't do without) in your carry-on.
  • Put an empty water bottle in your carry-on. Aircraft are very dry environments, and you should drink fluids in order to stay hydrated on any flights longer than a couple hours. And no, the five ounces of juice or soda that you get on the flight in a glass that's half full of ice doesn't help. Once you get through security, fill the water bottle in a drinking fountain. (Most, but not all, airports have drinking fountains, some with spigots specifically for water bottles.) I have an insulated water bottle and I pack several individual packets of 4C Totally Light 2 Go drink mix (100% of RDA for Vitamin C, sugar-free, masks the sometimes odd tastes of local drinking water) in my carry-on. Or, if you'd rather not pack a water bottle, you can spend $3.49 for a bottle of Dasani once you get past security. Easy choice in my book.
  • Also pack a small bottle of hand sanitizer in your carry-on. More on that later.
  • Select your seats when you make your reservation. The airlines block off a lot of seats and charge extra for tiny amenities like an extra six inches of legroom, so you're dealing with a limited selection to start out with. If you think you're going to have to use the bathroom during the flight, take an aisle seat so you don't have to climb over people. If you don't, take a window, so people won't have to climb over you to get to the bathroom. I also avoid exit row seats (which you generally can't book in advance anyway) because, trust me, if there's an emergency, you will be the last people off the plane, which isn't worth the extra legroom for a few hours as far as I'm concerned. I like the seats the row in front of the exit row. They don't recline, but you are absolutely guaranteed of not having a screaming child who pulls your hair in the row behind you.


  • If you are checking baggage, you'll need to check in at the counter. Allow yourself a lot of time, as this can be painfully slow. You'll need your photo ID, so have it ready. You can also save time by pre-paying for checked bags when you check in online.
  • Getting through security: Join TSA PreCheck, for crying out loud. Either way, the only things that you should put in bins are your heavy coat (or, if you don't have PreCheck, your lightweight coat) and, if you don't have PreCheck, your laptop (by itself in its own bin) and your bag of fluids. (Your tablet is not a laptop. Leave it in your carry-on. And if you don't know what I'm talking about re your bag of fluids, you need to get out more.) Don't put luggage in bins; it's unnecessary and wastes time for you and everybody else. Don't put your shoes in bins; it's rude because it means that the crud on the bottom of your shoes will get all over somebody else's coat or laptop. Get PreCheck so you don't have to take off your shoes. If you don't have PreCheck, your laptop goes in a bin by itself, everything else (coat, fluids) in another bin, and your luggage and shoes directly on the conveyor belt. If you do have PreCheck, put your metal (coins, keys, iPod, cell phone) in your carry-on. If you have items that won't fit in your carry-on (e.g., a belt with a big metal buckle) you can use a bin though I prefer one of the round "dog dishes" that they have, usually stacked up on top of the x-ray machine. If you don't have PreCheck, you need to take everything out of your pockets, including scraps of paper, gum, and other things won't set off a metal detector before you enter the x-ray.
  • I go easy on fluid intake before a flight, because I think airplane bathrooms are disgusting. Also, on a lot of flights, you'll have limited, if any, opportunities to leave your seat. Drink from your water bottle during the flight, but go easy beforehand. 
  • If you're likely to need to power up your phone or laptop or tablet or MP3 player at the
    I have one of these. It's cheap.
    airport, I strongly recommend that you pack a grounding outlet adapter in your carry-on, like the one pictured here. A lot of airports don't have enough outlets, and if you have one of these, you can share an outlet with others. I used to carry a power strip, but that was overkill and a waste of space. A 1-to-3 adapter like the one at right will do the trick and everyone will marvel at how clever you are.
  • Airport food gets a bad rap but I think a lot of it's OK. Packing your own food's fine if you disagree. Sandwiches, fruit, and stuff like that don't count as fluids when you go through security, so you can put them in your carry-on. I try not to eat a lot before or during flights anyway.
  • Airport etiquette: Almost every flight is at or near capacity these days, so all the seats by the gate will be taken. Don't be a jerk by putting your coat or carry-on on an empty seat, or another jerk like me will come by and say, "Is that seat taken?" and make you move it all. And I know people will disagree with me about this, but if you fly Southwest, those big padded chairs should be used by people who have electronics to plug in. They have both power outlets and USB ports. 
  • Now that I've encouraged you to be nice in the seating area, I'm going to encourage you to be a jerk while boarding: Carry-on space can be really competitive. If you have a rollerboard and a bad seating group number/letter, it's OK to sneak ahead of people. Now, don't cheat. If you're in boarding group 5, trying to get on with boarding group 4 is pure evil and should get you consigned to hell. (The gate agent will hold you back anyway.) But get to the front of boarding group 5. (Ignore this if you don't have a large carry-on.) On the other hand, if you have time to kill when you land, and the gate agent asks for volunteers to check their bags, do it. There's almost no chance your bag will get lost unless you have a really tight connection--that generally happens between the front check-in counter and your airplane--and you'll save yourself the bag fee.


  • Move it. There are a lot of people who have to get on the plane, and your pilot can lose your flight's take-off slot if everybody takes their time boarding. Now that I have TSA PreCheck and I don't have to fume at people who are morons in the security line (putting their bags and shoes in bins, not removing their fluids, carrying more than 3.5 ounces of liquids, putting other items in the bin with their laptop, not emptying their pockets before going through the x-ray), I save my fuming for people who are morons boarding the plane.
  • I have gone back and forth on this a lot, and I know there are plenty of people who are going to disagree with me, but if you put anything other than a rollerboard or similar suitcase in the overhead, you're a selfish jerk. I don't care if you're 6' 6", put your damn briefcase or pocketbook or canvas bag or whatever on the floor of the seat in front of you. There's a limited amount of overhead space. Don't be selfish. If you put your skinny little briefcase in the overhead, I'm going to try to put my rollerboard right on top of it, and I hope I crush your laptop and the headphones for your iPod. ("Oops, sorry, I'm only 5'9", I didn't see them there.") Screw you.
  • More practically, have anything you might want during the flight--laptop, reading materials, MP3 player--on the floor in front of you. If you put it in the overhead, you stand a chance of not being able to get it during your flight.
  • Put nothing in the seatback pocket. Airplanes are loaded with bacteria and germs, and no place has more than the seatback pocket. I have seen people with colds sit on flights and spend the entire flight shoving their used tissues into the seatback pocket, and heard about parents putting dirty diapers in them. Do you want to put your paperback or tablet or water bottle in there, or dig your hands down there? I didn't think so. Seriously, I never, ever use them.
  • One exception: Get out the safety card and look it over. You probably can figure out how to fasten your seat belt, but I always try to memorize (1) how to open the doors and windows in an emergency and (2) whether, in the case of a window exit, I'm supposed to slide down the front or the back of the wing. (It depends on the model of the plane.) I've never had to use this knowledge, but that's OK. After you review it, put the card back, and wash your hands with your hand sanitizer. 
  • Get your large stuff in the overhead, your small stuff on the floor in front of you, then sit down and pull down the armrests next to your seat. Most airlines put the armrests up for boarding. Pulling them down is the best way you can stave off a space incursion by the person sitting next to you. The armrest has saved me from being assimilated on some flights. (Note that this rule doesn't apply if you're sitting next to friends or family members. At least most of them.)


  • If the light's on saying you should stay in your seat, then stay in your damn seat. This shouldn't be tricky. The pilots don't leave the light on because they're messing with you. There was a United flight a few years ago on which a passenger got up when the fasten seat belts light was on, the plane hit turbulence, and the passenger hit her head and died. You do not have a Constitutional right to go to the bathroom or get your laptop out of the overhead (where you shouldn't have put it in the first place). And if I'm in the aisle or middle seat next to you, I'm not unbuckling my seat belt to let you out. So just wait.
  • Don't be these people: The kid who plays the MP3 player so loud the sound leaks out of the headphones. The person who watches a movie or plays a game on their tablet computer without headphones. (If your electronic device emits sounds of any kind, either mute it or use headphones.) The parent who lets his or her kid (1) play some electronic game that emits noises or (2) speak in a loud voice. The parent who not only lets their kid speak in a loud voice, but speaks in a loud voice as well. Inside voices, people. A lot of passengers on your flight are doing work, or trying to sleep, or just enjoying a respite from their phone. Don't be a selfish oaf and ruin it.
  • Whether to recline your seat or not has become a controversial topic. Me, I never do it (unless the person behind me is being a jerk), and I'm not fond of people who do it. Airplane seats are more comfortable than most chairs, and the recline they offer isn't enough to, say, make sleeping easy. By the same token, though, I can see why some people like it. But if you recline your seat, you should check whether the person behind you is using a laptop, and if so, give them a warning. I've almost had the screen of my laptop snapped off more than once by quick seat reclines in front of me.
  • As I said, airplanes are germ factories, and the longer the flight, the worse. Do everything you can not to touch your mouth, eyes, or nose during flights unless you wash your hands with hand sanitizer first. 


  • I do one last hand sanitizer wash before I leave the plane. 
  • If you need to use the bathroom, the rest rooms closest to your gate are probably going to be crowded. Keep walking to less busy parts of the airport. If you're changing planes, you'll probably find one en route. Food court bathrooms are usually pretty un-crowded. If you're leaving the airport, and there's a bathroom near baggage claim (my airport has one), that's usually the best bet to avoid crowds. 
  • If you're catching a cab or renting a car, walk briskly. You want to get there ahead of all the other people doing the exact same thing.


  • Car rentals: If your schedule allows you time to do this, you can generally save money on car rentals by renting from any location other than the airport. For example, I just checked on the Hertz website, and it costs $62 per day to rent a Corolla at the San Francisco airport for a couple days the week before Christmas. If you pick up and return to the Hertz location on Ellis Street in San Francisco, it's $45 per day. You need to balance the savings against the cost of getting to the non-airport location, of course.
  • Driving: If you regularly visit a city that has toll roads with the option of a transponder (e.g., EZPass in the Northeast, FasTrak in California), get the transponder even if you don't live there. You'll save time and, in most cases, money on tolls.
  • Trains: Amtrak has its issues, but it's a lot more comfortable and, in most cases, convenient than air travel. It can be subject to delays, though, so if you have a tight connection, I recommend going to the Amtrak website and click the Status tab to check the on-time performance of the train you're thinking of taking. (It's archived for the past several days.) Also, I strongly recommend booking two one-way tickets rather than one round trip unless you can save money going round trip. Amtrak recently changed its policy on changes and cancellations, and while it's nowhere near as onerous as the stuff the airlines pull, it's sufficiently byzantine that I find it preferable to deal with my reservations one at a time. Incidentally, Amtrak gives AAA members a 10% discount provided you book three days in advance, which is a nice perk.
  • Ground transportation: If you visit a city regularly that has public transportation that doesn't use the same roads as cars (subways, elevated trains, light rail), it pays to know how they work and to have a fare card. If you need to get from the East 50s in New York to a train at Penn Station at rush hour, you're better off taking the E train than a cab. Ditto CTA's Blue Line to O'Hare, or the BART to SFO, or the METRO Blue Line to MSP. 
  • Hotels: If you're not already a member, join a hotel's frequent stayer program before you make a reservation with them. That way you'll get any perks (e.g., expedited check-in, a nominal gift on arrival, free wi-fi in your room) immediately. Also, check carefully for discounts when you make a reservation, but also check the discounts against the regular rates. For example, Omni Hotels (which has a great frequent stayer program) offer a senor citizen discount starting at age 55. On the other hand, some hotels will run specials that aren't available if you use discounts, so the regular rate on special could be lower than the senior citizen or AAA or AARP rate to which the special doesn't apply. Oh, and tip the housekeepers every day you're in a hotel. They have a tough job, they do it well, and they get paid peanuts.
That's it. Just follow those 34 simple rules and you can be as annoying to family members and fellow travelers as I have all these years.

Friday, November 21, 2014

What's Going On With: A.J. Burnett

Phillies starter A.J. Burnett had a bad year in 2014. He took $4.25 million less from the Phillies to sign with the Pirates, with whom he had good years in 2012 and 2013. Can he be reasonably expected to return to that form?

He's had an interesting career. He was drafted by the Mets in 1995 then traded to the Marlins in 1998 for Al Leiter during one of the their hey-we-won-the-World-Series-let's-blow-up-the-team purges following the 1997 season. (Mission accomplished: the team went from 92-70 in 1997 to 54-108 in 1998.) Burnett was a 22-year-old rookie when he got seven starts in 1999. After seven years with the Marlins, he became a free agent and signed a three-year contract with Toronto for $28.6 million after the 2005 season. He went 38-26 with a 3.94 ERA over 80 starts for the Blue Jays and became a free agent again, signing with the Yankees for five years at $16.5 million per year in December 2008. That didn't go so well. He was OK his first year in the Bronx, going 13-9 with a 4.04 ERA in 2009, below the league average of 4.45, and getting a win in the second game of the World Series that year. It spiraled downhill from there, with ERAs of 5.26 in 2010 and 5.15 in 2011. The Yankees gave up on him, sending him and most of the cash needed to pay his salary to Pittsburgh for two minor leaguers who've never appeared in the majors.

In Pittsburgh, he had a renaissance, going 16-10 with a 3.51 ERA in 2012 and 10-11 with a 3.30 ERA in 2013. Going into the 2014 season, when he'd be 37, a lot of folks figured he's re-sign with the Pirates, but the Pirates didn't offer what he wanted, there were stories of hurt feelings, and he signed a contract with Philadelphia that paid him $15 million last year. His contract gave him a $12.75 million option for 2015, but he declined it and instructed his agent to negotiate a deal with the Pirates, saying, "I've got one more [season] in me. There's no other place I'd rather be to finish my career," and "I want to be in a place where I'm really happy...this is where I belong." He signed for $8.5 million, effectively taking a $4.25 million pay cut to go back to Pittsburgh.

Here are the stats for Burnett's past five seasons: Two with the Yankees, two with the Pirates, one with the Phillies.

2010 33 NYY 10 15 .400 5.26 33 33 186.2 204 118 109 25 78 145 19 16 82
2011 34 NYY 11 11 .500 5.15 33 32 190.1 190 115 109 31 83 173 9 25 83
2012 35 PIT 16 10 .615 3.51 31 31 202.1 189 86 79 18 62 180 9 10 107
2013 36 PIT 10 11 .476 3.30 30 30 191.0 165 79 70 11 67 209 9 12 108
2014 37 PHI 8 18 .308 4.59 34 34 213.2 205 122 109 20 96 190 16 9 81
Generated 11/21/2014.

ERA+ measures ERA relative to the league average, adjusted for home park. So Burnett's 108 in 2013 means he was 8% better than average. His 81 in 2014 means he was 19% worse.

The key question for the Pirates and their fans is whether Burnett can return to his 2012-2013 form. Over at Gammons Daily, David Gobiewski wrote a great piece summarizing Burnett's prospects in general. I want to focus on what went right in Pittsburgh and what went wrong in Philadelphia.

I'll start with a table. GB% is the percentage of the balls in play off Burnett that were ground balls. GB/FB is the ratio of ground balls to fly balls. HR%, SO%, and BB% is the percentage of batters who hit home runs, struck out, or walked against him. HR/FB% is the percentage of the fly balls he allowed that went over the fence. The last four columns are pitch mix: FB% is fastballs, SI% is sinkers, CH% is changeups, and CU% is curveballs.

Year Age Tm GB% GB/FB HR% SO% BB% HR/FB% FB% SI% CH% CU%
2010 33 NYY 44.9% 1.20 3.0% 17.5% 9.4% 11.6% 49,5% 19.9% 3.2% 27.4%
2011 34 NYY 49.2% 1.52 3.7% 20.7% 9.9% 17.0% 41.8% 13.9% 11.2% 33.1%
2012 35 PIT 56.9% 2.35 2.1% 21.2% 7.3% 12.7% 24.6% 35.6% 5.7% 34.1%
2013 36 PIT 56.5% 2.33 1.4% 26.1% 8.4% 9.1% 21.8% 36.7% 6.1% 35.4%
2014 37 PHI 50.9% 1.78 2.1% 20.3% 10.3% 11.3% 14.9% 44.5% 7.3% 33.0%
Provided by (HR%, SO%, BB%), FanGraphs (GB%, GB/FB, HR/FB%), Brooks Baseball (FB%, SI%, CH%, CU%)

It's pretty clear what happened in 2012 when Burnett came over from the Yankees: The Pirates had him ditch is four-seam fastball in favor of his two-seam sinking fastball. They've done that before. As a result, he went from being a moderate ground ball pitche (21st of 43 ERA qualifiers in GB%, 19th in GB/FB in 2010 with the Yankees) to a ground ball machine (fourth of 46 ERA qualifiers in in both GB% and GB/FB in 2012). With the Phillies, he produced fewer ground balls. 

Additionally, the Pirates have one of the more analytically-oriented front offices, and they shifted their infielders 500 times in 2013, usually moving them to the right of second base when a lefty swinger who tended to pull was at the plate. Shifting helps ground ball pitchers record outs. When Burnett joined the Phillies, he went to a team that shifted only 45 in times to 2013. They bumped that up to 291 in 2014, sixth in the league, but still well below the Pirates. So it's reasonable to think that he lost some ground ball outs when he moved across Pennsylvania.

Plus, the Pirates play in one of the toughest parks in the majors in which to hit home runs. PNC Park depressed home runs by 30% in 2014. The Phillies play in Citizens Bank Park, which boosted homers by 18%.

So that's what happened to Burnett: He generated fewer ground balls, which were hit into an infield that was less well-positioned to field them, in a home park that helped homers.

That doesn't really tell the whole story, though. He relied on his sinker more in Philadelphia than he ever had before, which should have kept his ground ball rate up. Instead, it fell. And while his home run rate rose from 2013 to 2014, it was lower than it was in 2012, when he was good.

I think there were two problems. First, his sinker failed to generate the same results: 13.2% of his sinkers resulted in ground balls in Pittsburgh, and just 9.7% in Philadelphia. As a result, it became easier to hit, as he allowed 29 doubles, three triples, and 11 homers off the pitch in 2014 after allowing 30 doubles, four triples, and 14 homers in 2012 and 2013 combined. 

Second, he had problems with the strike zone. His percentage of pitches in the strike zone fell from 51% in 2012 to 49% in 2013 to 47% in 2014. More importantly, batters stopped chasing his pitches outside the strike zone, as his percentage of swings on pitches outside the strike zone fell from 29% in 2012 and 31% in 2013 to 27% in 2014. That resulted in a big boost in his walks (he led the league in walks allowed), and more baserunners resulted in more runs scoring.

So I wouldn't expect anything magical from Burnett's return to Pittsburgh. Yes, he'll benefit from being a tougher park in which to hit a home run. And playing with a shifted infield behind him (the Pirates led the league in shifts last year) will take away some of those base hits. But pitching coach Ray Searage's focus won't be on changing the pitches that Burnett throws as much as changing their effectiveness--specifically, throwing more of them in the strike zone and locating them in order to induce more ground balls. Doing that with a pitcher who turns 38 in January won't be easy. I expect an improvement but not a return to Burnett's 2012-13 heyday. 

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Reality Check: The Gold Glove Awards

On November 8, I received my 2015 edition of The Bill James Handbook. I wrote a lot about the Handbook last winter, and I will again this year. It's a fun book. I'll find myself going through it, looking at the pages, all the way until the 2016 edition's delivered next November. It contains career records for every player who appeared in a major league game in 2014 as well as all sorts of features on pitching, managing, fielding, hitting, and baserunning. Want to see how much Phillies starter Cole Hamel's fastball slowed down last year? (It didn't; he's been around 90-91 mph each of the past eight years.) Wondered who got thrown out trying to take an extra base most frequently? (The Dodgers' Yasiel Puig, which isn't a surprise, and the Brewers' Carlos Gomez, which sort of is; both with nine.) Which AL manager called the most sacrifice bunts? (Trick question; the Royals' Ned Yost has a reputation for being bunt-happy, but he trailed Cleveland's Terry Francona, Tampa's Joe Maddon, Baltimore's Buck Showalter, Toronto's John Gibbons, and Seattle's Lloyd McClendon.) You can order it here or at your preferred book retailer. I really like it.

The first thing I do every year when I get the Bill James Handbook is check out the Fielding Bible Awards. These are fielding awards voted by a panel of twelve baseball experts. You've heard of several of them, probably: Bill James, ESPN analyst Doug Glanville, MLB Network host Brian Kenney, sportswriter Peter Gammons. The voters receive data from John Dewan's Baseball Info Solutions, which compiles and distributes baseball statistics to teams and consumers, to help them make their decisions. The two key differences between the Fielding Bible Awards and the Gold Glove Awards is that the former are voted by baseball experts who use statistics, while the latter are voted by managers and coaches. I like to compare how the more empirical vote does compared to the more intuitive one. The stats vs. scouts storyline is a false dichotomy, and the Gold Glove voting includes a statistical component, but I always look to see how the Gold Glove winners do in the Fielding Bible voting to get a read on how the much the two views of the game are diverging.

There is one Fielding Bible Award per position, while the Gold Gloves are awarded to a player in each league. Here's the rundown:

FIRST BASE: Adrian Gonzalez of the Dodgers won the Fielding Bible Award. The Gold Gloves went to Gonzalez in the NL and Kansas City's Eric Hosmer in the AL. Hosmer finished in a three-way tie for twelfth in the Fielding Bible vote. He was tied for sixth in the American League, which was led by the Angels' Albert Pujols, so there was a pretty big disagreement there.

SECOND BASE: Boston's Dustin Pedroia won the Fielding Bible Award and the Gold Glove, with the NL Gold Glove going to the Rockies' D.J. LeMahieu. LeMahieu was the top National League vote-getter in the Fielding Bible balloting, so there's no disagreement here.

THIRD BASE: Oakland's Josh Donaldson won the Fielding Bible Award, edging out Colorado's Nolan Arenado, who was the top National League vote-getter for the second straight time. The Gold Gloves went to Arenado and Seattle's Kyle Seager. Seager was ninth in the Fielding Bible voting, behind Donaldson, Chase Headley (who split his season between the Padres and Yankees), Texas' Adrian Beltre, and Baltimore's Manny Machado among American Leaguers. 

SHORTSTOP: Brave sensation Andrelton Simmons was a unanimous Fielding Bible Award winner for the second year in a row, and he took the Gold Glove too. Baltimore's J.J. Hardy won the AL Gold Glove and was the top American League shortstop in the Fielding Bible voting. No controversy.

LEFT FIELD: The Royals' Alex Gordon was a unanimous Fielding Bible winner, besting the Marlins' Christian Yelich. They won the Gold Gloves too. No disagreement.

CENTER FIELD: Juan Lagares of the Mets got all but one first-place vote to win the Fielding Bible Award. He won a Gold Glove, along with the Orioles' Adam Jones. Jones is probably the one player for whom the analysts and the managers have the widest disagreement. He has a strong arm and he can go over the fence to rob a homer, but he's well below average at getting to balls. He finished behind six American League center fielders, led by Boston's Jackie Bradley, in the Fielding Bible vote, en route to a 13th place finish overall. Big continuing dispute here. 

RIGHT FIELD: The Braves' Jayson Heyward was a unanimous Fielding Bible winner and he took the National League Gold Glove too. He's now a Cardinal. In the American League, there was another Oriole-related difference, as Tampa Bay's Kevin Kiermaier was first, followed by Oakland's Josh Reddick and Boston's Daniel Nava, ahead of Baltimore's Gold Glove winner, Nick Markakis

CATCHER: Jonathan Lucroy of the Brewers barely edged out the Pirates' (now Blue Jays') Russell Martin, who in turn was just a bit ahead of the Cardinals' Yadier Molina in the Fielding Bible vote. Molina won the Gold Glove, as did the Royals' Salvador Perez, who was the top-rated AL catcher per Fielding Bible. Close enough.

PITCHER: I've always been skeptical of fielding awards for pitchers because the sample sizes are so small. The Fielding Bible Award went to Houston's Dallas Keuchel, who also won the Gold Glove. The NL Gold Glove went to the Dodgers' Zach Greinke, who was third, behind the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw and the Marlins' Henderson Alvarez in the Fielding Bible vote. 

So that wasn't all that controversial, was it? There was a big disagreement between the Fielding Bible votes and the Gold Glove voters for the AL center field and first base awards, and a smaller disagreement over third base and right field in the American League. But that's pretty much it. Every Fielding Bible award winner got a Gold Glove other than Lucroy and Donaldson. 

It wasn't always this way. What this is saying is that the empirical view and the intuitive view are getting closer together. I'll leave it to you to figure out who's influencing whom.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Risk of Giancarlo Stanton

The Miami Marlins have signed their star right fielder, Giancarlo Stanton, to the longest and richest contract in baseball history: 13 years, $325 million. The 25-year-old Stanton can opt out of the deal after the 2020 season. We don't know the details of the contract, i.e. how the dollars are spread around over the years, but I'll go out on a limb and say that at an average value of $25 million per year, he's going to be paid a lot of money every season. Stanton, who turned 25 earlier this month, was an All-Star and finished second in MVP balloting in 2014, leading the National League in home runs (37), total bases (299), slugging percentage (.555), and, in a statement both of his talent and that of the Marlins lineup surrounding him, intentional walks (24). He's tied for tenth all time in home runs through age 24:
1 Eddie Mathews 190 1952 1956 732 3141 2634 497 735 119 24 492 471 443 .279 .388 .559 .947
2 Alex Rodriguez 189 1994 2000 790 3515 3126 627 966 194 13 595 310 616 .309 .374 .561 .934
3 Mel Ott 176 1926 1933 983 3978 3367 680 1059 195 31 711 537 258 .315 .412 .548 .959
4 Jimmie Foxx 174 1925 1932 810 3270 2750 612 923 159 57 667 460 377 .336 .432 .625 1.056
5 Mickey Mantle 173 1951 1956 808 3491 2944 642 907 136 43 575 524 578 .308 .412 .560 .972
6 Ken Griffey 172 1989 1994 845 3606 3180 518 972 194 19 543 374 477 .306 .379 .541 .920
7 Frank Robinson 165 1956 1960 735 3155 2741 501 818 145 27 449 321 427 .298 .380 .552 .932
8 Albert Pujols 160 2001 2004 629 2728 2363 500 787 189 9 504 304 279 .333 .413 .624 1.037
9 Orlando Cepeda 157 1958 1962 764 3220 2987 471 922 163 16 553 172 463 .309 .350 .532 .881
10 Giancarlo Stanton 154 2010 2014 634 2640 2288 350 619 138 8 399 318 742 .271 .364 .540 .903
11 Johnny Bench 154 1967 1972 782 3229 2887 421 781 142 12 512 288 470 .271 .334 .488 .822
Generated 11/18/2014.

As you can see, he got there in fewer plate appearances than anyone on the list (among players with 100 or more homers through age 24, only Mathews, Pujols, Bob Horner, and Willie Mays went deep more often than Stanton's 5.8% of plate appearances), and he's also struck out more than the others. 

The contract has resulted in predictable reactions.

  • It's too much money. Yes, it's the biggest contract in baseball history in total dollars, but not in average annual value. Miguel Cabrera, Clayton Kershaw, Alex Rodriguez, and Justin Verlander are in contracts that pay them more than an average of $25 million per year, and the $25 million average equals the current contracts of Ryan Howard, Josh Hamilton, and Felix Hernandez. There are players whom one might view as more valuable than Stanton (Mike Trout and Andrew McCutchen, to name two), but Stanton's contract isn't out of line with those of the players on the $25 million-plus list.
  • No, I mean, it's too much money for a player. Sports Illustrated's Joe Sheehan has pointed out that the share of baseball revenues going to player salaries has steadily declined since the turn of the century. Given that no teams were going bankrupt in 2000, and that fans would probably rather watch Stanton hit than watch his owner, Jeffrey Loria, count money, I can't see a problem with the players getting a bigger slice of the pie.
  • No, seriously, we can pay a baseball player that much and we can't pay schoolteachers and firefighters? This argument will make sense when kids walk around wearing their teachers' replica jerseys and firefighters negotiate with regional sports networks to televise their rescues.
  • Thirteen years is too long. There's no question that's a risk. But Stanton will be 38 when his contract ends. Cabrera's will pay him at least through age 40, possibly a couple years longer, depending on options that vest based on his MVP vote. Rodriguez is under contract through age 41. Same with Albert Pujols. It's a long contract, but not ridiculously long. 
  • He won't age well. Stanton is 6'6", 240. One could easily see him slowing down as he ages, moving from right to left to, eventually, first. He's in the National League, so he can't become a DH. But here's the thing: Historically, players with "old player skills" (home runs, walks, strikeouts) tend to flame out relatively early. Stanton last year was first in the National League in homers, second in walks, and sixth in strikeouts. On the other hand, Stanton is a good athlete. He grades out as an above-average right fielder and was 13-for-14 as a basestealer in 2014. He's not just a slugger.
  • His owner's crazy. Well, that's true. He's "the most hated man in Major League Baseball." The Marlins' payroll last year was $42.4 million, last in the majors. The average annual value of Stanton's contract equals nearly 60% of that total. It doesn't make sense to pay that much to one guy while doing everything else on the cheap. Is this indicative of a willingness to spend? If so, the Marlins, who have a lot of promising young players, could contend. But we've been down this road before with Loria, when he added players after the 2011 season only to unload them after a disappointing 2012. But say this for Loria: His sins have consistently been of being penny-pinching, not profligate.
Rather, there are two things that I worry about with Stanton:
  • Durability. Stanton's first full year in the majors was 2011. He played 150 games that year. He hasn't matched that total since. In 2012, he missed 39 games due to knee pain that required surgery in July. He also had oblique and shoulder injuries that year. He missed 46 games in 2013 due primarily to a strained hamstring but also with shoulder soreness and an ankle sprain. Last year he was healthy until September 12, when he was hit in the face by a Mike Fiers fastball in one of those can't-watch-it injuries, suffering multiple facial fractures. Hard tissue injuries (bones) tend to fully heal and are as much bad luck as anything. Soft tissue injuries (muscles, ligaments, tendons, cartilage) can be recurring. Toronto shortstop Jose Reyes, for example, has been on the disabled list five times, and day-to-day several other times, with hamstring problems. Stanton's been on the DL only twice in is career (the hit-by-pitch last year was in September, when teams don't bother disabling players), and he had a healthy 2014 until the Brewers' Fiers beaned him, but his record isn't scot-free. (All injury data from Baseball Prospectus.)
  • Sustainability of revenues. The reason baseball revenues have grown dramatically in this century is television. With the proliferation of DVRs, consumers can record the programs they like and watch them when they want, fast-fowarding through the commercials. Sports are one of the few events consumers watch live. So they see the ads for beer and trucks and insurance while watching a game that they skip while watching sitcoms. That has made sports programming particularly valuable to advertisers and, therefore, for the networks that carry them. Additionally, TV broadcasting has shifted from national networks to regional sports networks (RSNs), like NESN in New England, YES and SNY in New York, and MASN in Baltimore/Washington. Teams have national contracts with ESPN and FOX, but they also have local contracts with RSNs that can dwarf the national contracts. Cable subscribers pay to have RSNs bundled with other channels. However, there's been a move to "unbundle" cable, letting consumers pick and choose the channels they want rather than the average of 189 that they receive now. Will your great aunt want ESPN, much less the RSNs, if she could pick her channels? And if she doesn't, and many others don't, what will happen to RSN revenues? The prospects for unbundling, as well as the savings it might yield, are unclear. But Stanton's contract assumes a stable economic model in baseball. In my role as a financial analyst, I've often said that Wall Street has a penchant for seeing a point and drawing a line through it. Baseball's doing the same thing with its current revenue mix. What works today may not in 2027, the last year of Stanton's contract.
Overall, I can't get too excited over Stanton's contract. Baseball's rolling in dough; might as well give it to a marquee player. I question what the Marlins have in mind longer term, and I worry about his injury risk, but the focus here's on the field of play anyway.