Baseball Cities 2013: Where Major Leaguers Come From

Bautista
Jose Bautista, from the baseball factory of Santo Domingo.

In March, the Dominican Republic won the 3rd ever World Baseball Classic, becoming the first club to go through the tournament undefeated. That they have become a baseball powerhouse is not news, but the small, 10 million person island’s prowess becomes evident when you look at the hometowns of more than 800 Major League Baseball players on opening day rosters in 2013.

A couple of thousand miles to the north, an equally rabid fan base has enjoyed success. Red Sox Nation has celebrated two World Series titles in the past decade, and has grown to be a business empire to rival its long-time rival the New York Yankees. Yet, for all the club’s success, it has precious little opportunity to cheer for home-grown players. The Boston metro area, 10th largest in the nation at 4.6 million strong, produced a mere 2 players on opening day rosters. The entire 14.5 million population of Red Sox Nation/New England – including the disputed (with the Yankees) territory of Connecticut – produced 21 players.

The tiny Dominican, in contrast, produced 83 players; the capital, Santo Domingo, 26 – 2nd most of any metro anywhere. Contrast that with the New York City metro, twice the Dominican’s population, but home to just 15 players – less than 1/5 the tally of that country. Cities of just a few hundred thousand produce more ballplayers than some of North America’s biggest baseball cities like Boston, Philadelphia, and Toronto.

This is just one illustration of the shift southwards, beyond the U.S. border and into Central and South America, of where big league ballplayers are coming from today. The big states along the southern U.S. border – California, Texas, and Florida – produce the bulk of major leaguers, with the odd pocket throughout the north. The Dominican Republic and Venezuela punch above their weight in delivering players to the majors.

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Boston (and New England) is home to a passionate fan base, but sends relatively few of its own to the majors.

In the United States, Southern California rules. Los Angeles produced more than twice the number of any other metro, and San Diego (2nd per capita behind Santo Domingo) and the Inland Empire also show well.

Looking at metro areas of more than 1,000,000 residents, here are the top 10 overall:

Baseball Metros Overall

And the top 10 per capita:

Baseball Metros Per Capita

The overall rankings see the northern metros of New York and Chicago – 1st and 3rd largest in the U.S. – crack the Top 10, but no place further north than Northern California or Virginia shows up in the per capita rankings.

Here are how the 26 metro areas with Major League clubs rank. 7 of 8 Sun Belt markets are in the top 11, and cold weather places dominate the bottom half:

Baseball MLB Markets

That warmer weather cities dominate shouldn’t be a surprise. It makes sense that kids growing up in cities with warmer weather, more conducive to outdoor ball, would be at an advantage in terms of development. However, just how weighted the player pool at the top level is towards those cities was a shocking to me.

A city like Boston or Philadelphia may yet see a World Series before any of the baseball factories on these lists, but the odds heavily favour the fact that their players will come from California, Florida, or Latin America, not from their backyards.

Baseball’s Best Month: 2012 Edition

Under the Lights

The baseball playoffs are underway, with the first ever Wild Card games going today, before the League Division Series commence the first proper round tomorrow afternoon. The wild card play-in is an innovation I quite enjoy. Not only does it add two more games, but it adds an incentive to winning your division. Do that, and you’re guaranteed entry into the best-of-five division series. Come up short, and instead be forced to go through a single-game elimination, where anything can happen.

I love playoff baseball (as I do with nearly every form of baseball). Rarely does a year pass by without at least one or two signature, memorable moments. Last year gave us the Chris Carpenter-Roy Halladay duel in Game 5 of the NLDS, the unforgettable Game 6 of the World Series (with David Freese’s heroics), and other great moments. We don’t know what this year holds, but there are many exciting players and teams involved. Here’s what I’ll be watching for in October.

Before that, a word about the teams that just missed the playoffs.

The Los Angeles Dodgers accomplished two things that I appreciate. First, they took a bunch of bad contracts off the Red Sox’s books. Second, they rehabilitated Hanley Ramirez’s fantasy value after acquiring him at mid-season. Yet, I’m glad they missed the playoffs. With an ownership group that’s willing to spend a ton of money, they’ll likely be a regular playoff team for the foreseeable future. So, it’s nice to see some different faces, as we’ll soon get tired of seeing the Dodgers every October.

Across Orange County, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim are another perennial playoff team, so seeing them miss out isn’t too disheartening. Yet, after what must be the greatest rookie year of all-time, I would have loved to see Mike Trout get a chance to continue that effort in October. Trout was also a part of one of my personal favorite moments at a ballgame.

At a Rangels-Angels game in Anaheim at the start of June, Trout managed to steal the show. He hit a triple that keyed the Angels’ comeback win, and when taking his spot in center field the next inning, our section in right-center gave him a standing ovation. Love little moments like that that won’t show up on the TV broadcast.

I do, however, feel bad for the Tampa Bay Rays. Despite finishing 2nd in the AL in run differential (and 3rd in MLB), they finished 3 games out of a playoff spot, behind the Orioles, whose run differential was 113 runs worse. There’s talk they’ll lose James Shields from the rotation, and while they’ll still have key players like Evan Longoria and David Price, their window to win on a small budget narrows every year they miss out.

Now, for the playoff teams:

Wild Card
As a child of the ’90s, it’s nice to see the Atlanta Braves back in the playoffs, and the Ted rocking at playoff home games. Closer Craig Kimbrel has had an outstanding year, after he looked burned out by Manager Fredi Gonzales’ poor handling of the bullpen down the stretch last year. It’s also Chipper Jones’ last season, and I’ll take as many bonus Chipper games as I can get. He’s been one of the best players I’ve seen, and one of the first I’ve been able to follow for his entire career. Seriously, I even had his Score rookie card as a draft pick in 1990 draft (I remember also having Mike Lieberthal, Steve Karsay, and Todd Van Poppel ones that summer in 1991). Suffice to say, he was on my radar even before he cracked the big league club. I’d love to see him go out on a high note.

On the other hand, I’ll be happy with St. Louis, one of the game’s great franchises, moving on as well. It’s nice to see them thrive after letting Albert Pujols go, only finishing 2 games of their 2011 pace.

In the American League, it was great to see the big spending Texas Rangers pushed into the wild card playoff after getting swept by Oakland in the season’s final series. I hope we see lots of shots of a frustrated Nolan Ryan in tonight’s playoff game.

Baltimore, with a +7 run differential, has to be one of the luckiest playoff teams ever. As an underdog, they’re hard not to like. Any vitriol I had against them for eliminating the Red Sox last year has since been redirected towards loathing the Sox themselves. That said, putting a finesse pitcher like Joe Saunders against a right-handed heavy, mashing Texas Rangers lineup is asking for trouble. I’d love to see an upset (tonight, then against the Yankees), but I’m not counting on it.

Jeter

Division Winners
The New York Yankees never seem to go away. If they win, I’ll be happy for Ichiro, and that’s it.

The Detroit Tigers are star-heavy, with Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera and ace Justin Verlander leading the way. Cabrera’s triple crown is a remarkable feat. It hasn’t happened in 45 years, and a batting triple crown is roughly twice as rare as a pitching one, which speaks to its difficulty to achieve.

It’s hard not to cheer for the Oakland A’s. They’re in the playoffs for the first time in 6 years, with their first true post-Moneyball playoff club. Still strapped with a small budget, they no longer have an underappreciated statistic to exploit (as far as we know). Instead, Billy Beane is exploiting the oldest market inefficiency in the game, general manager decision-making ability. He got Yoenis Cespedes for $9M/year, accumulated loads of young pitching talent in return for the old core of his rotation, and poached 30-homer Josh Reddick from the Red Sox for closer Andrew Bailey. While Reddick broke out, Bailey’s highlight (as far as Sox fans go) was his extended stay on the DL. Seriously. He posted a negative WAR in his brief appearance post-DL.

On another note, your heart has to go out to this A’s club. Brandon McCarthy was in life-threatening condition after taking a line drive in the head just over a month ago. Then, on the day the A’s clinched the division, he tweeted this photo and note about his dad’s terminal illness, which will probably make you cry at least a little bit. Then, that night, horrible news that Pat Neshek and his wife lost their son less than 24 hours after he was born.

In the National League, the San Francisco Giants are back two years after winning the World Series with a very similar team. They have a strong starting rotation, and Buster Posey, a successful rookie in 2010, is now a bona fide star. His recovery after a leg injury has been remarkable.

The Cincinnati Reds have finally cracked the playoffs, behind young stars like Joey Votta and Jay Bruce, and their pitching staff led by Johnny Cueto’s breakout year, and lights-out Aroldis Chapman in the bullpen. I’m happy to see them doing well after so many tough years. Mat Latos has been an excellent addition to their rotation, and it’s nice to see that his trade worked out for both sides exactly as it should. He has helped them to the playoffs, while the Padres are building around the young talent they got in return, such as Yonder Alonso and Yasmani Grandal.

However, I’m rooting for the Washington Nationals. I have an affinity for them as the zombie Expos, and I got to see perhaps their most exciting game of the year in person (like Trout, Harper hit a key triple that was absolutely thrilling to see in person). They have an exciting young team, and are building a following in what has been a tough market for baseball (they lost the Senators twice, and had few bright spots when they did have a team). Bryce Harper has started to break out in the past month (too late to save my fantasy team!), and even with Strasburg shelved, their rotation can compete with anyone. A World Series run from this team would be exciting for the sport as a whole, in my biased opinion.

Whoever wins, though, I think we’re in for an exciting month of baseball. It will be a great finale, then the wait for the first day of spring training will begin.

Orioles and Game Theory

Camden Yards

Derek Thompson of The Atlantic makes a great point:

Should Orioles throw tonite’s game? Tying Yanks to force a rotation-busting 163rd game will hurt them going forward, no matter what.

They’re using Chris Tillman (the de facto ace) tonight in a game where they don’t control their own destiny, in hopes of being thrown into the randomness of a one-game playoff at home against New York that would win them their division, thus avoiding the wild card game and getting home field in the playoffs. They would then play the wild card winner in round one (New York or today’s Oakland/Texas loser).

However, if they lose, or if both Baltimore and NYY win tonight, Baltimore gets today’s Oakland/Texas loser on Friday in the randomness of a one-game playoff (at home if Baltimore wins today, on the road if they don’t). If they win that, they’ll play New York/Texas/Oakland without home field. MLB.com breaks it down.

Based on their rotation, if Tillman goes tonight, they’d start Tommy Hunter and his 1.40 WHIP tomorrow against New York (if necessary). Hunter or Joe Saunders are the likely starters Friday if they don’t win tomorrow’s hypothetical game.

Sportsmanship aside, it strikes me as a fascinating bit of game theory. Would they be better off using a spot-starter tonight and saving Tillman for a hypothetical one-game playoff tomorrow, or a certain one Friday? Either way, they’re playing the Yankees, A’s, or Rangers in round one or the Wild Card/round one if they win, and playing at least one one-game playoff to get there. So, in a sense, their strategy is built around how you put your odds of both you and the Red Sox winning tonight, then how much you value playing on your home field in the playoffs.

Baseball’s Great Crescendo and New Beginning

I have become a baseball modernist.

This is no small evolution. Though I’ve been a fan longer than I can remember, I really started to embrace the history of the game, and the off the field aspect around the age of 12. In those years (1994-95, for those keeping score at home), I learned about the history of the game through books such as the Encyclopedia of Major League Baseball Team Histories, David Halberstam’s Summer of ’49 and October 1964, and Roger Kahn’s classic The Boys of Summer. I learned more about the business side of the game – and how we got to a place where the 1994 season was just cancelled – reading Lords of the Realm.

This growing interest occurred at a time when the game was going through significant structural changes. In 1994, the 25 year old two division format was replaced by a three division structure, with an additional wild card team (non-division winner with best record) qualifying for the playoffs. Revenue disparities between big and small market clubs were starting to become more apparent, especially when the uncrowned champions of 1994 – the Montreal Expos – traded most of their best players upon the end of the strike in what can only be described as a fire sale.

These factors grew as the ’90s went on. Baseball traditionalists like Bob Costas decried the changes to the playoff format, and the introduction of interleague play a few years later. Criticism of those changes, and previous innovations such as the Designated Hitter, resonated with me.

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Fenway Park on a Sunday afternoon.

Many would argue that much of baseball’s appeal is tied to its history and tradition – and romantic notions thereof. This is probably best exemplified through the great ‘People Will Come’ speech from Field of Dreams:

As I get older, I realize that, like with most forms of nostalgia, baseball romanticism harkens back to a past that probably never truly existed. The game has a great past in many ways, and the tradition and history adds value and a dimension that’s lacking in sports that don’t celebrate it to the same extent, but baseball must be enjoyed for its present and future as well. I’m still a traditionalist in some respects – for example, I believe that the Dodgers’ rightful home is Brooklyn. But I have come to appreciate that, like anything else, baseball must continue to try to evolve, and the game (both on and off the field) will change.

The 2012 seasons marks the start of a transition period in baseball, as it comes out of one era and will soon begin another, spurred by changes in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement. In 2013, an extra wild card team will be added, and the Houston Astros will move to the American League; which means that interleague play will now become a normal, regular feature of everyday baseball. The introduction of a bonus pool for the amateur draft and international signings will impact a competitive advantage many teams have built up by spending in these areas. It’s worth noting that it’s not just the big clubs who spend big these days on amateur signings – perennial low-payroll bottom-feeders like Pittsburgh and Kansas City have built strong farm systems (that are just starting to pay off for the big club) by investing heavy in draft signings. These changes, and the end of the high-slugging steroid era make me believe that the game will shift again, and we’re entering a new era.

Zimmerman at Bat
Ryan Zimmerman of the Washington Nationals, who have built a team poised to content contend in the next few years.

Given that, it gives the great finish to the 2011 season additional meaning to me. It was, without a doubt, one of the most exciting finishes to a season, a wonderful crescendo of an era soon to pass. The last night of the regular season produced unparalleled drama. 4 of 7 playoff series went to the deciding game (in total, 38 of 41 possible playoff games were played). The St. Louis Cardinals’ run to the title produced a handful of legitimately great moments, from Chris Carpenter’s complete game shutout in Philly to win the NLDS, to the amazing finish in Game 6 of the World Series, where the Cardinals were down 2, and on their last strike – twice – tying the game both times before winning on a walk off home run in the 11th. David Freese’s triple to tie that game in the 9th is one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever seen, given that the game looked over at the start of the inning.

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It would have been different if the new playoff rules were in place. The four teams vying for two wild card spots – the Rays, Red Sox, Cardinals, and Braves – all would have clinched their spots by the last night in a two Wild Card per league system, taking away all the drama of that evening. Those teams would have faced off in one-game play-ins, which – while exciting in their own right – would have had a cascading effect for the winners going forward. Had the Cardinals moved on, the added workload on their pitching staff might have shown up in the Phillies’ series, and tipped the scales away from them. In this way, there’s a neat parallel to the 1993 season, last before the wild card era, where the Braves beat the Giants in an epic NL West pennant race that would never have happened under the new system.

I have reservations about some of the changes coming. I think the more teams you add to the playoffs, the more it dilutes the value of the regular season. I’ve grown to be agnostic on interleague play itself, but I do like the way it happens at specific times – treating it as a special event, rather than being an everyday occurrence. I’ve enjoyed following how teams use the draft and signings to build, and as a competitive advantage, and I’d hate to see that diminished.

Yet, I’m optimistic. There will still be exciting races for the wild card (even if it’s for the second spot). Given the randomness of a one-game playoff, I hope it will add emphasis on the value of a team winning its division. I know that interleague becoming a normalized part of the schedule won’t take away from the more intraleague matchups, and rivalries that have come out of that. It will also add a quirk to the schedule every day, highlighting an uncommon matchup. I also know that well-managed teams will find other ways of gaining an edge through the draft and international signings. Speaking of, I’m excited to see if the promising new hires in the Houston Astros front office can in time make them the Rays of the West, competing with and beating the big payroll Angels and Rangers.

This season will almost certainly not live up to last in terms of excitement down the stretch. Yet, I will enjoy the games, and root for the Red Sox, and without a doubt there will be memorable moments and performances along the way. I’m also trying to prepare for the new era of the game, and approach it with optimism – the belief that not only will it be different from the past, it will also be better.

But, if nothing else, there is this to provide comfort and excitement:

Today, Sunday, February 19, pitchers and catchers report.

One Night in September

It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart.

The words of former baseball commissioner, and lifelong Red Sox fan Bart Giamatti echo through my mind as I replay a 10 minute sequence that ended baseball’s regular season. Sure, a couple teams played on, but for all intents and purposes, the season came to a rare, dramatic climax late in the September evening along the Atlantic coast.

As Joe Posnanski wrote so eloquently yesterday, baseball largely revolves around anticlimax. More often than not, the predictable happens. Then sometimes, you get events like Wednesday night. Everything held to form for a while, but some time around 9:30 EST, when it starting raining in Baltimore, the script went out the window (ESPN has a timeline of the major events). About 3 hours later, the dust settled on one of the most unpredictable, memorable nights in baseball history.

I won’t go into detail recapping the events. St. Louis dominated Houston, capping a marvelous September run to the NL wild card. Atlanta’s worn out bullpen faltered when it needed to come through, the culmination of Atlanta’s own September dive, driven by a pitching staff beset by injuries and overwork. Tampa Bay, behind their ace David Price, fell behind 7-0 to a less than full strength Yankees club. With all but the scrubs out of the New York lineup, the Rays rallied, scoring 6 in the 8th, and hitting the game-tying homer with 2 outs and a 2 strike count in the 9th. Boston gripped to a 1 run lead from the 5th inning on as their closer, Jonathan Papelbon, took the mound in the 9th. After getting the first 2 men out, 3 straight doubles by Baltimore scored 2 runs to end the game. What felt like seconds later, Evan Longoria homered to win the game in Tampa Bay, ending Boston’s season. What had been a 10 1/2 game lead 4 weeks earlier was gone.

Night
The Red Sox’s season died on a Wednesday night in Baltimore.

The rationale side of me, the pure baseball fan, loved Wednesday’s drama. There were three memorable games with lots at stake. If I could show last night to everyone who wonders why I love baseball so much, they wouldn’t wonder anymore. The night ended with small market Tampa Bay, one of the best run organizations, winning on a walk-off from one of the game’s best players. Even a Red Sox fan wouldn’t begrudge the Rays.

But that’s the thing. I’m also a Red Sox fan. And being a fan of a specific club is inherently irrational. There is no reciprocity in this relationship. I don’t get input into who the club signs or trades, the club doesn’t know I exist, and I doubt it cares about me any more than any other data point in its market research. I’m okay with that. As I said, being a fan requires a suspension of rational thinking.

But the highs of being a baseball fan Wednesday were tempered by the lows of being a Red Sox fan. Given their state, had they advanced, the Sox were likely to go out in the first round. This doesn’t take away the success of 2004 and 2007. But, it is a low point I haven’t felt since Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS (which was much much worse). The Sox built a team to win in 2011, but they fell far short. They didn’t have the depth to recover when injuries cut into their pitching staff. One of their star acquisitions played like a league average outfielder. Many of their hitters went silent down the stretch.

What lingers is the feeling of lost opportunity, and the worry that the opportunites may not come again, or may be fewer and far between. They haven’t won a playoff game since 2008. They play in a division with the ever-powerful Yankees, the talented Rays, and the ascending Blue Jays. With aging players at key positions, success may be hard to come by for Boston these next few years.

Meanwhile, the games go on. Baseball fans, myself included, look forward to 4 weeks of playoff competition. Tonight, Detroit ace Justin Verlander tries to steal a win at Yankee Stadium. Saturday, Milwaukee – the smallest market in the game – kicks off their pennant run against young, surprising Arizona. It’s Milwaukee’s last chance to win before star slugger Prince Fielder, a free agent to be, likely leaves for greener pastures. Philadelphia, behind it’s stellar rotation, will try to win the championship – which would be the first for aces Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee. Texas aims for a repeat trip to the World Series, and St. Louis tries to squeeze another run out on aging core, one that could break up as soon as this off-season if Albert Pujols moves on. The next 4 weeks will surely produce more memorable moments; if any of them approach Wednesday night, baseball fans are in for something special.

And then next year in the spring, as Vin Scully says, “everything old is new again”. Hope and promise will return. Maybe the Red Sox will rebound, and this collapse will be an aberration, not a return to form. But in the meantime, I’ll just enjoy being a baseball fan these next 4 weeks.

Playoff Predictions:
Yankees, Rays, Phillies, Brewers.
Brewers over Yankees in the World Series.

Priority of Cheering in the Playoffs:
1. Brewers
2. Phillies (for Halladay to win a World Series)
3. Rays
4. Tigers
5. Rangers
6. Diamondbacks
7. Cardinals
8. None of the Above
9. Yankees

The Last 42

Mariano Rivera

Earlier today, Mariano Rivera set the all-time saves record, eclipsing long-time San Diego Padres closer Trevor Hoffman. Rivera, in his 16th season with the Yankees (and 15th as their closer), figures to add to it if he can stay healthy, and surely will be inducted into the Hall of Fame when he retires.

Now, I’m firmly in the ‘saves are overrated’ camp. All 27 outs in a game are equal, and it doesn’t make sense to save your best pitcher(s) for a hypothetical situation an inning or two ahead. But, that’s not Rivera’s call to make, and he’s done what has been asked of him at an elite level for a decade and a half. Even disregarding saves, Rivera has some impressive accomplishments:

– His career WHIP is 0.99, an incredible achievement. He also averages 8.2 KO/9.
– In his 16 years of relief pitching, he’s had a WHIP of 1.1 or greater only twice.
– In 94 career playoff games, he averages 7 KO/9, has an era of 0.71, and a WHIP of 0.766.
– He has appeared in at least 45 games every season since 1996, never missing a substantial part of any season. It’s rare for a pitcher to stay so (relatively) healthy so long.
– That consistency is remarkable. Anyone who plays fantasy baseball will tell you how erratic relievers are from year to year.
– His 94 career playoff games are roughly equivalent to adding a season and a half to his workload over 16 years. That he’s remained healthy and consistently excellent is also remarkable.

One of the neat things about Rivera is that he will be the last player to wear the number 42, Jackie Robinson’s number. In tribute to Robinson, MLB decided a number of years ago that every team would retire the number, meaning that no other player (except those wearing it at the time, who were grandfathered in), would ever wear it. Rivera is the last one, and his on-field impact is a fitting tribute to a man who wasn’t just a pioneer, but a great ballplayer.

As an aside, one of the things I enjoy about soccer is how certain jersey numbers carry a significance, and are considered an honor to wear. For example, goal scorers are issued the number 9 (Newcastle United calls it the Shirt of Legends), and the number 10 jersey is an honour reserved for playmakers and leaders on the field. Wouldn’t the ultimate tribute to Jackie Robinson be to do something similar with the number 42? That only players who had accomplished great things got to wear it? For example, in addition to Rivera, the Cardinals could have Pujols wear 42, Roy Halladay would be Philly’s 42, and there would be discussion right now about whether Justin Verlander deserved the #42 jersey. It would also make for a fun term when discussing truly great players, arguing whether or not a player was a ’42’. Anyway, I digress.

I’ve appreciated Rivera’s talent and performance since he broke into the majors. The first time I saw him was in a relief appearance in Game 2 of the 1995 ALDS, when he toyed with Seattle Mariners hitters and pitched 3.1 scoreless innings. He’s been a part of some of the most memorable moments of the past 15 years, amazingly in a losing role for some. He blew a save in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series, which seemed unfathomable at the time. As a Red Sox fan, I have fond memories of him giving up the tying runs in Games 4 and 5 of the 2004 ALCS. I’ve also had the pleasure of seeing him pitch in person. I caught a Yankees-Mariners series at Safeco Field in 2009. Seeing Rivera warm up then walk in from the bullpen gave me chills. Later in that series, he was part of a great moment at the ballpark.

One of the things I enjoy most about seeing games live is the little things television doesn’t pick up. Watching players (teammates and opponents) interact, the way players move and shift defensively, and seeing the impressive feats some can pull off in batting practice are a highlight of any visit to the park. After the Sunday afternoon game, where the Mariners won comfortably. After the game, all the unused relief pitchers (including Rivera) left the bullpens and walked back towards their dugouts. Along the way, the Mariners bullpen stopped Rivera, surrounding him and chatting with him for a few minutes:

Rivera and Mariners Bullpen

I can only imagine what they asked him, but this gesture struck me as the ultimate sign of respect. There would only be a handful of players who would be treated in this way. When I think of Rivera and his achievements, the numbers come to mind, and tell most of the story. But the reaction of a handful of opponents, the last, and one of the best to wear number 42, says a lot about what he means and what he’s accomplished too.

2010 Baseball Preview

It Breaks Your Heart. It is Designed To Break Your Heart.

If you follow me on Twitter, or know me reasonably well, you’re well aware that I am a big baseball fan. It’s my favourite sport by far, and all winter I look forward to opening day.

It reminds us of all that once was good, and it could be again.

Before we start, I recommend two of my favourite soliloquies about baseball: Terence Mann’s speech in Field of Dreams, and the late commissioner of baseball, A. Bartlett Giamatti’s beautiful essay “The Green Fields of the Mind”. Stop, listen to and read them, let them sink in, and then start reading again.

Okay…we’re back.

By my own admission, I’m not an expert, but I will make a few predictions nonetheless, and note a few things I see as worth watching. You base your fantasy baseball strategy or gambling decisions on them at your own peril. Rather, I see predictions as a fun way to document what I was thinking at a point in time. Here are some players/teams/stories worth watching over the next six months.

Three Recommended Purchases to Enhance Your Baseball Fandom
The Baseball Prospectus guide (and web subscription), and MLB.TV, which gives you every game on demand, in high-definition quality, for the price of $120US. How can you say no?

The More Things Change…
As you’ll see from my predictions later in this post, I don’t foresee much of any movement at the top of either league – in fact, I predict the exact same 8 teams will make the playoffs. Uncreative? Maybe. I think we’ll see more movement in ’11 and ’12, but the best teams from ’09 had good off-seasons, and I’m not sure any of the next tier of teams have closed the gap. In the AL, New York and Boston had good off-seasons, and I give them the edge over Tampa Bay because of the likelihood they’ll make in-season moves to shore up any weaknesses, while the Rays won’t. Minnesota is the class of the AL Central, even without Joe Nathan, while Detroit and the ChiSox have too many holes. In the AL West, I see the Angels hanging on, even without Lackey and with questions atop their rotation. Seattle may be a trendy pick, but I see weaknesses on that club as well, and Texas is still a year or two away from having the pitching to win.

Yankees Celebrate
Repeat? There’s a good chance.

In the NL, the Phillies are steady. Minor regression as their core group of stars ages is expected, but that should be off-set by improvement from younger guys like Werth, Victorino, and Ruiz, as well as a full season of Roy Halladay (over 1/3 of a season of Cliff Lee), and some improvement from Cole Hamels and the bullpen. St. Louis has weaknesses, but so does everybody in the NL Central. If they can keep their 4 star players healthy – a big if as far as Chris Carpenter goes – they should coast to a division title. They’ve also demonstrated a willingness and ability to make in-season moves as well. In the West, Colorado is going to be good for a long time, and Los Angeles is still a top team.

If you got used to the parity of the ‘00s, where we saw 8 different teams win the World Series between 2000 and 2009 – and 14 teams appear in at least one World Series – you might want to adjust your expectations.

That being said, seasons never play out exactly how we expect them too. So here’s some more fodder or potential for surprises.

Teams That Might Surprise You
Florida Marlins: their pitching is fronted by two power arms who should take a step towards ace status (Josh Johnson and Ricky Nolasco), and their offense is led by SS Hanley Ramirez, one of the best players in the game. But, I’m not sure there’s enough supporting them this year to make a run. I think they’ll stay in wild card contention until the end, but until young roster players like Cameron Maybin can take a leap forward, and top prospects Logan Morrison and Michael Stanton crack the big club, I don’t think they’re good enough to overtake a healthy Phillies club. Watch for them in ’11 or ’12 though.

Texas Rangers: They have a great lineup, but are still waiting on their pitching to develop. If it arrives ahead of schedule, look out.

Tampa Bay Rays: if their young pitching takes a big leap forward, look out. They’re deep and talented, but I do worry when Matt Garza is your second most experienced starter.

Baltimore Orioles: they won’t compete for a playoff spot, but they have a lot of young talent, and will be a team to watch in the next couple of years. In any case, if their young players progress ahead of schedule, they could be a real spoiler in the second half.

Teams That Might Disappoint You
Seattle Mariners: every year, somebody makes a bunch of off-season moves and gets buzz as a team to watch, then flops. That team is Seattle this year. Their defense should be really good, and King Felix and Cliff Lee are probably the best 1-2 punch in the game. But can the rest of their pitching staff, and their hitters, contribute enough? This is a team that is relying on Jose Lopez, Milton Bradley, and Ken Griffey Jr’s corpse for meaningful production all year. I see a .500-ish club at mid-season, and one that decides to sell at the deadline.

Philadelphia Phillies: as the Baseball Prospectus guide points out, they’re farm system is bereft of talent, beyond Domonic Brown. If some of their players struggle, or they are hit hard by injuries, they don’t have the depth to make moves to compensate.

Atlanta Braves: they’ve looked good this spring, and are getting a lot of buzz as a Wild Card or division winner. They have some good players, but I worry about a team relying on Chipper Jones and Troy Glaus at the corners, and a black hole in LF. They should be good, but I can’t see them getting to the 88-90 wins they’ll probably need for a playoff spot.

St. Louis Cardinals: an extended injury to any of Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday, Chris Carpenter, and Adam Wainwright, and they’re in trouble. If this comes to pass, you may only need 82 wins to take the NL Central.

Minnesota Twins: their lineup will rake, but questions abound regarding their pitching.

NY Mets: there are question marks surrounding every one of their pitchers, Carlos Beltran is out for 1-2 months, David Wright is coming off a down year and a concussion, Jason Bay may not be able to handle LF, and Jose Reyes is still struggling with injuries. Let me be succint: I came this close to slotting them behind the Washington Nationals and in last place in the NL East.

Breakout Players
– Tampa Bay Rays’ young guns in their rotation – at least one of them will make the leap (Garza, Price, Davis)
– Matt Wieters, C, Baltimore (I hope, having picked him high in my fantasy baseball draft)
– The Uptons – Justin, OF, Arizona, and BJ, OF, Tampa Bay.
– Detroit’s hard-throwing young righties – Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello
– Jon Lester, SP, Boston, who will make the jump and becoming a true ace.

Players to Watch on a Regular Basis
– Joe Mauer, C, Minnesota, whose swing is a thing of beauty to watch
– The Philadelphia Phillies’ 1-6 hitters, who can absolutely mash the ball
– Stephen Strasburg, SP, Washington, once he’s called up, because he’s the most highly-touted RHP of my lifetime.
– Mariano Rivera, RP, NY Yankees, because he’s probably the greatest relief pitcher of all time. One of my favourite baseball moments was after a Yankees-Mariners game last year, seeing the Mariners relievers conglomerate around Rivera as they walked back to the dugout (picture below). You don’t pay that respect to just any player.
– Tim Lincecum, SP, San Francisco, for his crazy (and crazy effective) delivery.

Five Out of Left Field Predictions about The 2010 Season
1. With Seattle a long shot for both the division title and the wild card, Cliff Lee will be traded at the deadline – I’m predicting that Colorado will surprise everybody by picking him up, ahead of favoured destinations such as LA and New York.
2. Francisco Liriano will make the all-star game in July.
3. San Francisco will fire GM Brian Sabean and Manager Bruce Bochy after a disappointing season.
4. AJ Burnett will stay healthy for a (probably record) second consecutive season.
5. Not only will Tampa Bay let Carl Crawford walk after the season, but by September there will be open discussion about moving the team elsewhere.

Rivera and Mariners Bullpen

Award Winners
MVP: Joe Mauer (AL), Albert Pujols (NL)
Cy Young: Jon Lester (AL), Roy Halladay (NL)
Rookie of the Year: Scott Sizemore (AL), Stephen Strasburg (NL)
Manager of the Year: Ron Gardenhire (AL), Joe Torre (NL)

Predicted Standings

AL East: 1. NY Yankees 2. Boston (Wild Card) 3. Tampa Bay 4. Baltimore 5. Toronto

AL Central: 1. Minnesota 2. Detroit 3. Cleveland 4. Chicago White Sox 5. Kansas City

AL West: 1. LA Angels 2. Texas 3. Seattle 4. Oakland

NL East: 1. Philadelphia 2. Florida 3. Atlanta 4. NY Mets 5. Washington

NL Central: 1. St. Louis 2. Milwaukee 3. Chicago Cubs 4. Cincinnati 5. Houston 6. Pittsburgh

NL West: 1. Colorado 2. LA Dodgers (Wild Card) 3. Arizona 4. San Francisco 5. San Diego

Playoffs
DS: NY Yankees over Minnesota, Boston over LA Angels, Philadelphia over Los Angeles, Colorado over St. Louis

LCS: NY Yankees over Boston, Colorado over Philadelphia

World Series: NY Yankees over Colorado

Alright, let’s play ball!

Draft Picks Matter: Why Scutaro Makes No Sense for Boston

If reports are to be believed, the Boston Red Sox have agreed to a two-year deal (plus option) with free agent shortstop Marco Scutaro. Scutaro, a 34 year old journeyman coming off a career season, will be expected to hold down the SS position – one that has been a revolving door in Boston the past few years.

Despite the challenges the Sox have faced at SS, I’m not impressed with this deal. I don’t mind the cost at all. Even if he regresses to utility infielder quality, his salary shouldn’t affect Boston’s ability to acquire other players in order to improve the roster. Furthermore, I recognize that Scutaro is a top-tier defensive player, and that he’s excellent at working the count. Nonetheless, I don’t believe this is a good move for the Sox.

Scutaro is graded as a ‘Type A’ free agent, meaning that the team who signs him surrenders their first round pick in June’s amateur player draft (and if Boston signs another ‘Type A’, such as Matt Holliday, they will lose their second round pick as well). A comparable player could likely be had for less by other means – signing a free agent not graded ‘Type A’, giving up lesser prospects or considerations in a trade, or sticking with who they have internally. On that note, will Scutaro be that much better than Jed Lowrie over the next few years? PECOTA projections put the two players in the same territory, and being nine years younger, Lowrie is more likely to improve over this period. If they want an upgrade in the middle infield, why not pursue Orlando Hudson to play second and move Dustin Pedroia to short, as Peter Gammons infers that they considered doing? Hudson would cost them nothing beyond his salary, seeing as he was non-tendered as a free agent and has no compensation attached?

Coming back to the draft pick Boston will give up, teams are not allowed to trade picks. The only way they exchange hands is through compensation for free agent signings. The importance of hanging on to draft picks is increased in the current economic climate, where the Sox are one of a handful of teams that can bid on top-tier players such as Roy Halladay, Josh Johnson, Felix Hernandez, or Adrian Gonzales should their respective teams put them on the trade market. Having more assets to a) offer in a trade, and b) ensure there is still depth remaining in the farm system should you be successful in making a trade, is critical. I don’t think Scutaro justifies giving up a draft pick in this context. Even though that pick is at the bottom of the first round, Boston is likely to get a player ranked higher than their spot on the board since they are one of a few teams who generally pays players above the MLB slot recommendations for salary. This means that some teams will be scared off from the highest ranked players, letting them fall to the big spenders such as Boston, New York, and Detroit.

Even for a high payroll team like the Red Sox, good decisions and allocation of resources are critical. I don’t feel that Scutaro justifies what they are giving up; I hope it’s an outlier, not a trend, of how the club will be managed going forward.

2009 Baseball Playoff Preview

I love baseball. I love everything about it. The sight of the green field, the sounds of a bat cracking, a ball hitting leather. It’s my favourite sport, by far, and one of my favourite things in the world.

I’ve learned a lot of things about baseball in over 20 years of following it, and the first one is this: I’m no good at making predictions. So this preview will not focus on why I think the Yankees will beat the Cardinals in the World Series – a rematch of the epic 1964 series that was so good that the late, great David Halberstam wrote a book about it. No, instead this preview is more of a viewers’ guide to the baseball playoffs that will be going on for the next 3-4 weeks.

Yankees Celebrate
To my chagrin, this will likely be a common sight over the next few weeks.

Who Are the Teams in the Playoffs This Year?
The New York Yankees have floundered, relative to their high expectations, the past few years. They haven’t won a World Series since 2000, or appeared in one since 2003. They missed the playoffs last year, and exited in the first round the previous three. They’ve rebounded this year, posting the best record in the bigs. Most will chalk this up to the signings of front of the rotation starting pitchers CC Sabathia and AJ Burnett, and all-star 1B Mark Teixeira. They’re half-correct. The other key to success is the shoring up of the bullpen in front of Mariano Rivera, with youngsters Phil Hughes, Phil Coke, and Brian Bruney providing a solid bridge to The Sandman in innings 7 and 8.

Their first round opponent, the Minnesota Twins, won 17 of their final 21 to catch the Detroit Tigers, winning the division in an epic 12-inning tiebreaker game yesterday. Their catcher Joe Mauer is having a season for the ages after missing the first month due to injury, OF Denard Span is an emerging star, and young pitchers like Brian Duensing, Scott Baker, and Nick Blackburn are coming into their own. Unfortunately, they’re missing all-star 1B Justin Morneau, and are totally outmatched against the Yankees. They’ll be lucky to win one, but they might make the games interesting.

The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim survived a series of injuries to their starting pitchers early, and the tragic death of young starter Nick Adenhart. They have a solid rotation, a deep, balanced lineup, and something to prove after perennially underachieving since their 2002 World Series win. Despite winning the AL West most years, they are a shoo-in to go out quietly in the ALDS, or in a good year, the ALCS. Will this be the year they break out of their underachieving?

The Boston Red Sox won the 2007 World Series, took the Tampa Bay Rays to Game 7 of the ALCS in 2008, and somehow took the Wild Card in 2009 despite the early struggles of Jon Lester, and age catching up with stars such as David Ortiz and Mike Lowell.

This season was notable for the success of Jason Bay and Dustin Pedroia, and the emergence of Jacoby Ellsbury as both a star player, and as my newest favourite Red Sox (I’ll be buying his jersey soon). As a Sox fan, I’m hoping for the best, but I have trouble seeing them get past the Yankees if they do win their ALDS matchup with the Angels. On the other hand, they have two aces in Beckett and Lester, which makes them dangerous in any series.

In the NL, the defending champion Philadelphia Phillies are back in. I always find the playoffs more exciting when the defending champs are a contender. You feel like the other teams have to earn it by going through them. The Phillies bring back most of their championship team, albeit having subbed Raul Ibanez for Pat Burrell in LF, and added a second ace in Cliff Lee. Cole Hamels, the star of ’08, has struggled, and their bullpen – a rock last year – is somewhat shaky.

The Colorado Rockies are attempting to replicate the 2003 Marlins’ run to the championship. They fired their manager early in the season, bringing in a veteran skipper (Jim Tracy). They have an emerging ace in Ubaldo Jimenez, and a deep, balanced lineup. They’re an underdog, but I wouldn’t discount them.

The Los Angeles Dodgers of Chavez Ravine won the West, despite losing Manny Ramirez to suspension for a couple of months. They have a number of talented young players in the field to complement veterans like ManRam and Casey Blake, and their rotation is serviceable at worst. They finally won a playoff series last year, their first since their World Series win in 1988, but bowed out to the Phillies in the NLCS. They’re back for another crack at it, but it’s hard to say if their team is much if any better this year than last.

The St. Louis Cardinals won the Central, powered by all-world 1B Albert Pujols and bolstered by the mid-season pickup of OF Matt Holliday. They also have two aces with Adam Wainwright and a resurgent Chris Carpenter leading the way. They appear to lack depth on paper, but could still be dangerous.

Who Should I Cheer For?
The Red Sox. Best franchise in baseball. But if you’re looking for sentimental favourites, I’d go with St. Louis. You have Matt Holliday, looking for his first ring, and the great comeback story of Chris Carpenter. Carpenter, the former ace, underwent Tommy John surgery in 2007, and looked to be finished, making a few unimpressive starts in 2008, and suffering additional injuries then and in his second start of 2009. He came back in late May and has been dominant. posting a 2.24 ERA and 1.01 WHIP while winning 17 games. I had him on my fantasy team this year, and it’s been such a pleasure to watch him bounce back. Seeing him win another World Series would be an amazing way to cap off the year.

Alternately, if you like underdogs, root for Minnesota and Colorado.

Now Why Do I Want to Watch, There’s So Much Else to Do. Can I Just Tune In For the Final Game or Two?
Because in every playoff, there is at least one game you will not want to miss:
– In 2008, it was the Red Sox’s epic Game 5 comeback in the ALCS.
– In 2007, Game 2 of the Indians-Yankees ALDS matchup featured a swarm of insects descending on Jacobs Field and wreaking havoc with the game. It was a surreal, incredible thing to watch.
– In 2006, Game 7 of the NLCS was an absolute classic, with Endy Chavez’s home run stealing catch in the 7th eventually negated by Yadier Molina’s 9th inning home run, and Adam Wainwright’s picture perfect curveball freezing Carlos Beltran to end the game.
– 2005 was the worst year for playoffs ever. Seriously, nothing exciting happened. There was even a 16 inning Astros-Braves game that featured Roger Clemens in relief, but it was so bad I actually turned it off. And I never turn a baseball game off unless it’s really, really bad.
– 2004 featured the incredible comebacks in Games 4 and 5 of the ALCS by the Boston Red Sox, and the subsequent “Bloody Sock” game.
– 2003 featured an epic ALCS, with the Game 3 brawl that saw Pedro and Don Zimmer throw down, and a Red Sox meltdown in Game 7. Let’s just say “Bartman Game”, and not speak further of that year’s NLCS.
– 2002 saw an inspired Angels comeback, down 5-0 late in Game 6, to win that game and then take Game 7 and the World Series trophy. It was a comeback marred only by the introduction of thundersticks by Angels fans.
– The 2001 World Series, of course, is famous for the Yankees back-to-back walkoff wins against the Diamondbacks and Byung-Hung Kim, and the Arizona side gaining revenge and the championship by winning Game 7 in walkoff fashion.

Aren’t the Games Longer than During the Regular Season?
Yes, but this can also work to your advantage. Once you get to the LCS round, the evening games generally start around 8:20 EST. For me, that’s 6:20 local time, which means I have a decent amount of time to get home, get dinner underway, and be relaxing and watching the game by the time the first pitch is thrown. While the extra commercial breaks and pitching changes mean the game could easily go 3 1/2-4 hours, you can turn this into a positive. For example, if you’re watching with friends, it provides ample time for conversation, baseball-related or not. You can also take breaks every few minutes. It becomes a relaxing way to spend the evening while also getting caught of work, email, laundry, etc.

Who Are Some Players to Watch?
Star Players Who Are Fun to Watch: Joe Mauer (Minnesota), Albert Pujols (St. Louis), Derek Jeter (NY Yankees), Dustin Pedroia and Victor Martinez (Boston), Chase Utley (Philadelphia), to name a few.

Potential Breakout Players: Ubaldo Jimenez and Troy Tulowitzki (Colorado), Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier (Los Angeles Dodgers), Kendry Morales (Los Angeles Angels), Jacoby Ellsbury and Clay Bucholz (Boston), Phil Hughes (NY Yankees), Shane Victorino and Jayson Werth (Philadelphia)

Key Role Players Who Could Come Up Big: Mark DeRosa (St. Louis), Carlos Ruiz (Philadelphia), Casey Blake (Dodgers), Chone Figgins (Angels).

Isn’t the Team With the Best Record Going to Win?
Recent history says not necessarily. Check out this graph; the playoffs should be wide open.

Need more incentive: watch the ‘Beyond Baseball’ commercials, and try not to get excited and/or emotional, depending on the ad. And enjoy the playoffs; it’s one of the best times of year.

4 Days at Safeco

Safeco Field, view from the Left Field entrance.

Safeco Field, view from the Left Field entrance.

As part of my trip to Seattle, I visited Safeco Field to catch some baseball. The New York Yankees were in town to play the host Seattle Mariners from Thursday to Sunday, and I caught all four games between the two teams.

If a picture is worth 1000 words, then my photo gallery from the games tells the full story in 315,000 words. I recommend you check it out. What follows here is a much-abridged summary.

The Games
In case you’re curious, the Yankees won the first one in a blowout, earned hard-fought wins in the second and third, then the Mariners stormed back to win the final game of the series. The roof was closed for the first one (it had rained heavily earlier that day), but we had great weather for the rest of the series, so the roof was open. The games (and the city as a whole) were flooded with Yankees fans for the whole weekend. You couldn’t go anywhere inside the park, or outside of it without seeing Yankees apparel.

The Area
Safeco Field is located near the central district of Seattle. It’s situated south of the King Street Amtrak station and Pioneer Square, and just to the west of the International District. Qwest Field, home to the Seattle Seahawks and Seattle Sounders FC, is directly north of Safeco. The surrounding freeways and railway lines isolate the park somewhat from the surrounding areas, making it tough to tell what, if any, impact it has had on redevelopment in the area. There is the Silver Cloud Hotel across the street, and up the street parallel to Qwest Field and the parking lot between Qwest and the Amtrak station there are refurbished warehouses and infill developments.

The Park
For better and worse, Safeco Field has most of the trappings of the post-Camden Yards ballparks.

First, the good. The brick exterior adds a nice retro touch (it’s designed to mirror Ebbets Field), and also meshes with the character of the surrounding area. Like most of the new parks, the sightlines are excellent, and most seats offer an unobstructed view of the field. There are a ton of food options, everything from hotdogs to sushi. I’m partial to the garlic fries from Grounders’. Also, there is one beer stand that offers imports/microbrews at a reasonable price. I indulged in Bard’s gluten-free beer, which was a pleasant surprise to find.

Mariano Rivera of the Yankees pitches to the Mariners.

Mariano Rivera of the Yankees pitches to the Mariners.

Leaving aside the constant gimmickry with attempts to rally fans on the video screen and through music, my main criticism of Safeco is that it feels like I could be watching a game….well, anywhere. There are a couple of nice touches that distinguish the park. First, from the first base side you get a nice view of the downtown Seattle skyline. Second, the adjacent railroad lines mean you hear a constant (and I mean constant – about every 5 minutes) honking of horns from railway engines as they arrive at or depart from the King Street station. But beyond that, the park itself feels like it could be anywhere. The other post-Camden park I’ve visited is Citizens’ Bank Ballpark, in Philadelphia. It’s also a great place to watch a game, but I’d be hard-pressed to tell you what distinguishes the two once you’re inside and watching a game. Safeco has a retractable roof, while Citizens’ Bank is open air. I guess that would be it.

Final Thoughts
For all my criticisms in the last paragraph, on the whole the experience was really enjoyable. As a huge baseball fan, I’d probably enjoy watching a game anywhere – I even have fond memories of the Big O. Nonetheless, Safeco is a very nice park, and offers a good atmosphere for watching baseball.