Wednesday, 30 March 2016

A Fond Farewell

As we prepare for the 2016 baseball season, I have some good and bad news to share with loyal readers of this humble little blog.

The good news? Well, I'm moving to a brand new site that will showcase all of my very best baseball writing in a far more professional manner. It's called The Pastime, and it already features most of my work from down the years on this blog. There, I'll be able to format and promote my work in a far more satisfying fashion, while reaching a larger audience. So, exciting times lie ahead.

The bad news? Suicide Squeezin' will no longer be an active blog. At least not at this address. The essence of this blog will thrive as I'll still be covering baseball in the same fashion, and with even greater regularity, but the name isn't making the move, and we'll no longer be updating this page. 

I started this blog as a simple hobby in the summer of 2013, when I had some spare time and plenty to say about baseball. Since then, it has attracted a dedicated following, and has been the platform for my opinions and memories. However, as I've started to pursue a professional career writing about baseball, the limitations of this platform have become apparent. At this point, I need a stronger provider with better options for maintaining a large readership and creating a better appearance. I managed to achieve that with the new site. Please take a look

So fear not, dear readers. All of your favourite articles from this blog have been transported across and enriched with fancy formatting and a more amenable reader experience. I'll also keep Suicide Squeezin' alive as a stand alone web page, as a tribute to what it once meant to us all.

Now, though, I would be honoured if you would make the journey across to the new site with me. I really value your continued interest and support, and The Pastime is built to reward you, too. I believe my writing is of a tremendous quality, but formatting here at Suicide Squeezin' has often been poor. Moving forward, I hope to rectify that, while rewarding your faith with easier ways to follow, interact with and share my content.

So, in closing, I would like to thank you for all the memories we made here, and welcome you to the new site.

Please subscribe to The Pastime for free so you never miss an article, and let's build something even greater. Something fit for the future.

Farewell to the past, and hello to the future.
Kind regards,
Ryan

Monday, 22 February 2016

There's More to Baseball than WAR

I love baseball statistics. The way we harbour records for every conceivable event is admirable and imaginative. However, the recent trend towards boiling a player's value down to one solitary number, like some kind of grocery store bar code, is having deleterious consequences for how we interpret the game.

As one tool in a wider evaluation arsenal, Wins Above Replacement is very effective. In a practical sense, it allows for a concise overview of production, while also representing true advancement in the field of baseball analysis. Yet, despite being a progressive statistic, WAR can also lead to a somewhat parochial view of the game from fans. Nowadays, our natural opinions are too frequently modified by this one number, which stifles the romance of baseball with an arrogant absolutism. We now seek permission from charts and graphs before experiencing the game's natural emotion, as baseball is reduced to a distorted idealism.

Of course, Sabermetricians will disagree with my view, and that is understandable. Their quest is to develop new ways of attaining total objectivity when analysing baseball. I have no issue with that. In fact, I encourage them wholeheartedly and often use the fruits of their work to substantiate my opinionated writing. However, I don't agree with WAR totally monopolizing our interpretation of players, teams and history, as has noticeably been the case in recent years. That goes against everything baseball is supposed to represent, and even threatens to undermine the progress being made elsewhere in Sabermetrics.

Naturally, some will say that the onus falls on individual people to exercise their own judgement with regard to baseball statistics. Nevertheless, that's difficult when every television show or podcast refers to WAR almost as a proxy for genuine analysis. Again, this could be viewed as innovative and forward-thinking, but also lazy and damaging to the idea of baseball as a broad, multi-faceted and idiosyncratic pursuit.

You see, for many of us, baseball is the highest form of escapism. It's a game. We fall in love first with its nuance and atmosphere, then graduate to its tactics and technicalities. There's a cultural mystique to baseball, an implacable magic that exists regardless of what mathematicians believe. It spawns folk heroes, like Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle, who were beloved not for data on a page but for big swings and bigger personalities. Sure, that data can validate their work and place it in historical context, but it shouldn't necessarily override the essence of their being, nor the spirit of their play. First and foremost, they were icons who captured the public's imagination. Their assault on baseball history contributed to the legend, but that was an ancillary concept. People loved them for who they were and what they represented, not solely for what they achieved on the isolated diamonds of Major League Baseball.

Even when playing devil's advocate, there are unavoidable problems with using WAR as the ultimate indicator of player worth. For instance, the Baseball-Reference model places a value of 71.8 wins on the career of Derek Jeter. That ranks just 88th all-time. How on earth are we supposed to take that seriously? How can we trust a system that says Larry Walker, Mike Mussina and Chipper Jones were more valuable than Derek Jeter? Perhaps that's the case after hours spent cooking up a statistical potion in the lab, but instinctively, there's no way any of those players outranks the Yankee captain. We're talking about a true legend of this game; a guy who grabbed the baton passed down from Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio and Mantle, then led the New York Yankees to five World Series championships with amazing contributions on the biggest stage. Only five guys ever to lace a pair of cleats amassed more hits than Jeter, but you're telling me Chipper Jones was more valuable? That's incomprehensible.

Ultimately, we all like different aspects of the game in unique ways. Some people love the smells and sounds of a ballpark, while others are fascinated by the numbers. Of course, these two concepts aren't mutually exclusive. A statistician can love beer and crackerjack in the bleachers, just as a baseball purist can enjoy mining troves of data on his favourite players. However, when our thoughts and feelings are predetermined by WAR, part of baseball's mystique is lost, and part of the game day experience is diluted. Moreover, I feel that people who don't worship at the altar of Wins Above Replacement are being marginalized and viewed as somehow less intelligent or passionate about baseball than those who do.

In this regard, the cult of advanced analytics is becoming dictatorial. It's their way of the highway. Increasingly, we're told which players to idolize, which trades to like, simply because of one number, one WAR rating. Admittedly, that number represents the finest work ever done to codify baseball performance, but I believe it should still be secondary to our own feelings conceived naturally while watching a game, not implanted while scrolling through the Twitter feed of a data analyst. Many will argue that listening to the statistical chorus is optional, but that's my point: baseball analysis has been almost totally consumed by analytics, to the point where WAR is held aloft as an omniscient force, and there's little time for breakdowns of the physical game at hand.

In the modern age, any player with a negative WAR is shunned, discarded, written off as irrelevant. We only have time for dynamic players who excel in a multitude of areas. That is arguably a positive thing, because it concentrates our attention on what truly matters, but again, what if the casual fan just loves the excitement of home runs and doesn't care that Chris Davis is less than adequate in the field? There has to be a place for that. We must be allowed to like certain players and certain teams on a personal, spiritual level, without earning the scorn of number-crunchers, who are keen to steer us down a path of righteousness.

Now please don't misinterpret my stance. I'm not some crusty scout bearing a grudge. But if fans don't trust their own eyes and instead rely on recycled, metric-ordained opinion, we're going to lose sight of baseball's soul, which assuredly was never about digits on a website. By all means, use analytics to support your views and enrich the debate, but please don't regard WAR as the one and only starting point for opinion. It is a starting point, and people are entitled to use it freely as such, but its recent transformation into the definitive conscience of baseball is selfish and dangerous.

Baseball can't be reduced to one number. This is a wonderful game that has beguiled millions of people for hundreds of years with the breadth of its variety and the depth of its unpredictability. There has to be room for the art, as well as the science; for the human, as well as the computer. By no means should we disregard WAR or admonish those who work so hard to defend its sanctity. But we also shouldn't lose grasp of our instincts, or tease those who view baseball through a more traditional prism.

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Registering Concern About Exploding Player Salaries

There's something mildly egregious about the $30 million plateau in relation to annual player salaries. It's a big, bad number that makes you gulp, like Barry Bonds' 73 or Alex Rodriguez' 687. Yet $30 million is the new norm for elite ballplayers, which is very disconcerting even for the most liberal of fans.

This winter, we've already seen Zack Greinke given the highest yearly wage in baseball history at $34.4 million. Meanwhile, David Price comes in third at $31 million, joining Miguel Cabrera, Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer in smashing through what was once an unthinkable barrier. When the typical household income throughout America is a shade over $50,000, that's a lot of money. Greinke will earn over $1 million per start in 2016, shedding fresh light on the fantasy economics at play across Major League Baseball.


Now don't misinterpret my approach. I'm not some crusty idealist who begrudges people their opportunity to create a better life. On the contrary, I've an undying love for baseball and regularly highlight the phenomenal grind these guys endure each year for our entertainment. However, if salaries are spiralling to a level with which even I'm uncomfortable, the damage to casual fans may be irreparable.


We're now discussing truly stratospheric numbers, which makes it difficult to relate to these players. I've always been comfortable with guys earning in the $15-$20 million range, because that appears to be fair and manageable, a legitimate reward for their talent but not so excessive as to inspire greed. Yet now, decidedly average players are commanding those figures and superstars are contemplating double that. With all bias and politics removed, in what objective world is that justifiable?


I would never seek to impede a players' right to earn as much as possible. They deserve that opportunity, just like everybody in the world, regardless of the industry in which they work. If the money is there, very few people would decline it. However, my problem is with the thorough insouciance of team owners and league executives who are reckless at best when trying to divide a revenue pool of $9 billion. Their outlook is incredibly myopic, and has led baseball to an unpalatable fiscal environment distinctly removed from reality.


Some experts argue that baseball players are actually underpaid, in relation to the percentage of revenue the game generates. Salaries have exploded in the past twenty-five years, but team income has outperformed even that exponential growth. Nevertheless, it's difficult to argue that men who earn millions for playing a game should be granted an even larger slice of the pie. That's just pedantic and unconscious. In real terms, baseball players earn more than the average person could ever dream of. Therefore, what we should focus on is how that can be regulated without strangling their rights, and what can be done to bring baseball back into the realm of financial believability.


Obviously, our passion and interest fuels the economy, with television money and merchandise sales flooding the market. And, of course, it's better for that income to trickle down to players rather than line the pockets of faceless businessman. But I feel there has to be a way to distribute this money more fairly and responsibly, to close the vast dichotomy between haves and have nots that presently persists.


Players could surely be paid handsomely, but not ludicrously, and more of the income could be used to address chronic imbalances in the landscape. For instance, can we do more for the minor leaguer who earns less than the national poverty level and who struggles to put food on the table every night? Can we do more for the rookie who receives the Major League minimum and who shares a clubhouse with guys earning sixty times his salary?


Can we do more for little league kids and youth ball coaches, smoothing the path to big league glory? What about international play, new stadiums and television blackouts? Can we use these resources more intelligently to create a game of greater equality, enjoyment and opportunity?


Of course, the revenue cycle of elite sports is a self-perpetuating monster. Once salaries have gone so far, it's extremely difficult to reverse the trend without labour squabbles and work stoppages. Some people argue for an NFL-style salary cap in baseball, but that method often stifles the quality of play by flattening the field entirely. Alternatively, the other end of the spectrum is also pretty murky, with baseball suffering a dark history of owner collusion. We never want to revisit those times.


Ultimately, then, I'm not entirely sure what the solution is. Amid an offseason that has sounded many alarm bells, I just needed to register my concern, to highlight the problem. We should never victimise individual players for maximising their earnings, but we should lament a deeply unimaginative system that has inspired salaries to shoot beyond a fair threshold.


If left unchecked, this dilemma will see ballplayers earning $40-50 million per year before long. And regardless of your outlook, that would be difficult to rationalise and almost impossible to comprehend in a world where poverty is still a legitimate concern.

Thursday, 10 December 2015

On Baseball, The Unsolvable Game

"In baseball, you don't know nothing," the inimitable Yogi Berra once said. And, like many of his famous malapropisms, that strikes at the very core of this game we love. Indeed, baseball is the ultimate conundrum wrapped in an enigma. We never know what's about to happen; we can't predict its future with any degree of certainty. It's somewhat unattainable, like a famous work of art. It's designed to frustrate and confound, beguile and mystify. It's the unsolvable game, the kryptonite of millions from innumerable generations. Baseball will never be totally mastered, which makes it an ideal font of escapism.

On the diamond, there are a set number of outcomes to every play. A batter can reach base or be retired in various ways. But, within that framework, chaos reigns, like a luxurious lottery, a crapshoot for elite athletes.

For instance, there is something satisfactorily grand and pleasingly anachronistic about a mammoth 162-game season being required to distinguish great from good, good from mediocre, mediocre from bad, and bad from terrible. In baseball, the margins between victory and defeat are so fine, the sheer unpredictability of outcomes so large, that teams are forced to play almost every single day from April to October for a worthy champion to be determined. On any single day, and in any individual week, a great team can struggle or a woeful team can succeed. Only after such an interminable campaign can the residue of luck be sufficiently subdued. 

Somewhat amazingly, fans buy tickets months in advance, when there is almost no way of telling what will happen. Sure, we know broadly which teams figure to be more competitive than others, and the various ballpark experiences are well documented, but when anybody wakes up and drives to the stadium, a world of unknown entertainment awaits. You could witness history as a no-hitter or perfect game is thrown. You could see the hometown nine walk-off in exciting style. You could experience a mesmeric pitching duel for the ages. Yet, conversely, you could also see a messy loss, or even have the entire game rained out. There is no way of knowing, because, to a large extent, the fate of any isolated baseball game lies in the hands of Lady Luck, with only slight influence and suggestion from the talent of those players involved. 

As the great Ted Williams once explained, "baseball is the only field of endeavour where a man can succeed three times out of ten and be considered a good performer." Indeed, Williams came closer than any player in history to solving the unsolvable game; his .482 career on-base percentage the greatest of all-time. Thus, in 2,292 Major League games, even Teddy Ballgame, the finest hitter who ever lived, had a 52% fail rate, which exemplifies the dominion of luck over ability in baseball. Even the immortals had, at best, a tenuous grasp of the game, a capricious ability to master its nuances. 

When success 48% of the time constitutes genius, it's clear that the task at hand is marvellously bewitching. When the absolute best fail six times in every ten, there's something humbling and unspoiled about the subject matter. When the same riddle has perplexed millions of people for hundreds of years without being decoded, interest is piqued, minds are engaged, hearts are opened. Baseball quickly becomes an obsession, a lifelong quest for answers and understanding.

I'm totally besotted by this disparity between success and failure. In baseball, the dividing line may be thinner than in any other sport. The brightest superstars are able to engineer only a fraction of daylight between the two extremes, to wrestle a semblance of autonomy away from fickle fortune. 

Accordingly, Joe DiMaggio's remarkable 56-game hitting streak in 1941 is perhaps the greatest accomplishment in athletic history. In a game that induces chronic failure with ease, Joe managed to succeed for fifty-six consecutive days, a tremendous fest of skill and determination. A research paper by Don Chance of Harvard University once found that DiMaggio's streak was a 1-in-3,394 occurrence. Moreover, Chance concludes that the probability of a 56-game hitting streak coming from any of the top one hundred hitters of all-time was 1-in-22, and that, on average, the top fifty hitters ever had just a 1-in-124,341 chance of hitting safely in fifty-six straight games at any juncture of their career. 

Thus, it's easy to see how DiMaggio's record transcends baseball and reaches far beyond sport. What he did was more than collect a base hit every day for almost two months. More accurately, he upset the balance between success and failure more profoundly than any ballplayer before or since. In a game where opportunity is perpetually killed, Joe DiMaggio ripped a hole in the luck-time continuum. For fifty-six days, he hacked the system, seized control of sporting fate, and presided over the machinations of baseball like an omnipotent, omniscient being. People often call Joe DiMaggio a God, and in the wonderful summer of '41, that's exactly what he was, juggling the balls of baseball probability in his cool, commanding hands. For that, he deserves our eternal fascination.

It can be argued that, of all the people on a baseball field, only one really has true control over what happens: the pitcher. According to the old adage, great pitching always beats great hitting, and most occurrences of hitting success can be attributed to a hurler missing his location. However, if an ace put every pitch exactly where he wanted, with the movement and velocity he desired, the game would die. Averages would tumble and scoring would plummet, as pitchers painted the corners to perpetual success. That obviously isn't the case, nor has it ever been in the history of baseball, which endures largely because humans make mistakes. As Curt Schilling once said, "I was always in control of everything until I let the ball go." Without natural mistakes, there would be no Shot Heard Round the World, no Ralph Branca and Bobby Thompson, no Tim Wakefield and Aaron Boone. There would be no baseball.

We're mesmerised by those rare occasions when a pitcher is flawless, when a perfect game is mixed into the frenetic chaos of baseball history. In June 2012, Andrew Mooney wrote a piece for Boston.com exploring the phenomenon, and he discovered that, at the start of any one big league game, an average pitcher facing a lineup of average hitters has a .000983 percent chance of throwing a perfect game, based on historical OBPs and averages. That roughly translates to one perfect game every 34 seasons.

Additionally, Mooney found the likelihood of four perfect games occurring in a four-year period to be 1.77-in-100,000. Thus, the general probability of perfect games is 1-in-56,497. Working with those numbers, Wendy Thurm of SB Nation subsequently calculated that an amateur golfer has more chance of striking a hole-in-one than a professional Major League pitcher does of hurling a perfect game. Therefore, is there any wonder why we're so engrossed by this whole baseball thing? The nuance is endless.

There's something deeply humanising about baseball, something sweetly debasing. For a slugger, who is a millionaire, but who fails routinely before 40,000 pairs of eyes. For an umpire, who misses a solitary strike and is admonished from the stands. And for the fan, who regularly sees his or her predictions, tethered to no solid fact, backfire spectacularly. 

As a human race, we're drawn to things that may never be completed or solved. Mystery and intrigue are the great refreshers of our daily experience. Baseball offers those elusive qualities, nourishing the soul. We can never have a complete understanding of the game, or how to succeed at it. Nonetheless, we still endeavour to find out more, to discover new paradigms and unearth new theories. In this regard, baseball fandom is fairly analogous with religion; the pursuit of an unseen, intangible dimension of understanding giving us meaning, occupation and identity.

Without doubt, people have tried to solve the equation and crack the code for over a hundred years. There have been thousands of attempts by equally as many people to build a winning ballclub, and we still don't know the formula, we're still not precisely sure what it takes. The old maxim that 'good pitching beats good hitting' is generally true, and has been a basic guide for owners and executives since 1900. However, in the modern era, postseason baseball is a crapshoot, and even the best pitching doesn't always succeed, as recently proved by Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and the Los Angeles Dodgers. Thus, we're still searching for answers to the largely unanswerable.

In many respects, Branch Rickey can be considered the godfather of this quest. A trailblazing executive, he ushered in a new era by inventing and honing the farm system in the 1920s, '30s and '40s. Under his guidance, the Cardinals owned as many as forty minor league teams at one time, which gave them a huge pipeline of talent, protected by the reserve clause, which bound players to one team for their entire career, barring trade or release. Therefore, Rickey was also able to indoctrinate a certain style of play, The Cardinal Way, and create a culture that yielded nine pennants and six World Series titles between 1926 and 1946.

In 1965, Major League Baseball took a first step to regulating the minor leagues and restoring competitive balance by instituting the first-year player draft, which became a controlled chute into the professional game. The draft order was based on the won-loss record, with the weakest teams picking first. This eradicated attempts to monopolise the best young talent, and once again restored a certain nuance to the art of building winning rosters.

The demolition of the aforementioned reserve clause catalysed another chapter in the odyssey to snatch control away from the Gods. Prior to 1975, rosters were largely stocked with homegrown talent, plus rough gems spotted while barnstorming and guys acquired by occasional trades. Yet, with the dawn of free agency, that changed almost over night, to a situation where teams could suddenly spend their way to glory and tilt the balance of power like never before. Of course, George Steinbrenner and the New York Yankees dominated this domain, signing superstars like Reggie Jackson and Catfish Hunter, cramming as much talent as possible onto the books and forging a critical mass that inevitable erupted into championships. Free agency gave teams greater freedom, and the richest organisations suddenly had a larger crumple zone in their increasingly audacious attempts at conquering the sport.

Once free agent spending spiralled out of control, and a great chasm developed between the big, medium and small-market teams, MLB conceived the luxury tax, designed to penalise front offices that spent too much. For instance, if the Yankees blew through the pre-determined salary ceiling, they would then be punished at 50% for every additional dollar spent. This made for a much more structured and disciplined environment, which naturally increased the difficulty of simply buying a championship ring.

Nonetheless, there was still a great disparity between the minnows and the giants, between the Athletics and the Yankees. For Billy Beane in Oakland, baseball wasn't only a highly unpredictable game, it was a grossly unfair one, played within the arena of luck, yet also on an uneven field skewed towards the elite. Faced with the daunting proposition of competing against New York and Boston with a fraction of their budget, Beane famously turned to Bill James' Sabrmetrics, the study and use of advacned analytics to find hidden value and market efficiencies. In essence, Beane's Moneyball philosophy was an attempt to decipher under-appreciated skill at a reasonable price, but also the most serious assault on the baseball vault we've seen in modern times. With the use of statistics and by looking at the problem from an entirely different angle, Beane came agonisingly close to cracking the code, before everybody caught up, imitated his vision, and restored the timeless equilibrium. 

Now, baseball is defined by the unending quest to find the next market inefficiency. Just as Beane prized on-base percentage while everybody else valued counting stats such as home runs and RBI, teams are now devoted to the idea of unearthing the next great difference-maker in the overall pursuit of baseball domination. The Pirates excavated pitch-framing, while many teams are currently working on a clearer understanding of injury prevention. These initiatives, these journeys into uncharted territory, are a major part of the overall tapestry to corral baseball and its slippery elusiveness.

Even now, what one team covets, another team may disregard, a concept present throughout the game's history. For instance, the 1990s Atlanta Braves were built around the tremendous pitching of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, but only managed to win one World Series title in that era. Similarly, the Seattle Mariners were built around incredible lineups boasting, at different times, Ken Griffey Jr, Alex Rodriguez, Ichiro Suzuki and Edgar Martinez, but they too failed to make an impression in October.

The great dynasties of baseball history, those teams that were able to upset the odds for consecutive years at a time, all seem to have one implacable, untouchable, ineffable quality that can't be measured or simply bought: team chemistry and cogent organisational culture. Think about the Red Sox teams of the 1910s; the Yankee teams from 1930-50; the 1940s Cardinals; the 1970s Reds and A's; and the millennium Yankees. In each case, there was a sense of brotherhood between twenty-five men who spent more time together than with their own families. There was a mutual sense of expectation, a guideline of style and effort laid down by the forebears in that tradition. Gehrig learnt from Ruth; Mantle watched DiMaggio. They explained how to comport oneself when representing that team. They set the precedent.

You see, beneath the numbers and money, the stats and contracts, baseball is a human game played by real men on a genuine field. It, just like all of us, is prone to whim and inconsistency. That's why we can never accurately know what will happen, just as we can't in everyday life.

Largely, Major League managers are tasked with putting out fires before they are lit. Throughout baseball history, field generals have tried to create their own style of play, but it can be argued that, at best, each only moved the needle three or four percent. Indeed, as the great Casey Stengel once said, "Most ballgames are lost, not won," which conjures images of Grady Little, who had the ability to lose his team the game by leaving Pedro Martinez in, but whose plan to help the Red Sox win extended little beyond sitting tight and hoping for a break.

Of course, managerial methods and playbooks have changed down the years, subtly in places, dramatically in others. In the early-20th century, when a ball was used until it was dark and soggy, strategy was absolutely crucial. In low-scoring games, the essence of baseball was different. Teams attempted to bunt, move runners, sacrifice, suicide squeeze, steal bases, and execute hit-and-run plays in an attempt to push runs across the board. Altruism, not egotism, was key, as Ty Cobb reigned with terror, contact hitting and ferocious speed. 

The Deadball Era was a product of its environment. Pitchers spat on the ball, scuffed it with sandpaper and long nails. Prior to 1901 in the National League and '03 in the American, every foul ball was a strike against the batter, making life immeasurably more difficult. And the stadiums! Boy, the stadiums were huge, like gaping canyons in the desert.

On thirteen occasions between 1900 and 1920, the league leader had fewer than ten home runs. Yet, by 1921, such profligacy ended almost as abruptly as it began. Scoring increased 40% and home runs soared by 400% as a livelier ball was introduced and certain pitches were outlawed following the fatal beaning of Ray Chapman. But the greatest contributing factor to baseball's changing landscape was the Colossus of Clout, the King of Crash, the Great Bambino: George Herman Ruth.

With his gluttonous swing for the fences and unprecedented strength, Babe Ruth changed the way baseball was played forever. After moving to the Yankees from Boston, Ruth hit 54 homers in 1920, breaking his own record of 29 set the previous year. No American League team hit more during the entire season, and only the Phillies managed ten more in the Senior Circuit.

When Lou Gehrig came along, crashing balls into the deepest bowels of the new, palatial Yankee Stadium, a new ethos of baseball management was born: playing for the long ball. Naturally, the Bronx Bombers' style drew criticism from traditionalists, who thought Ruth was cheapening the strategic war of attrition that was pre-war baseball. There was Cobb and Wagner and Shoeless Joe sliding hard, moving runners, taking outrageous gambles just to painstakingly help their team one play at a time. Then, there was Ruth, rocking up to the plate, overweight and loquacious, pounding one five hundred feet into the distance. Many thought the home run surge invalidated the game's minutiae, so long cherished, and amounted to a thumbing of the nose towards the establishment.

Nonetheless, sluggers became an integral part of the game, and little advancement was made until the 1940s and 50s. Since then, a race has ensued to find efficiencies and, to a certain extent, reinvent the wheel, in an attempt to solve baseball. The Oriole Way stressed fundamentals; The Big Red Machine hustled to glory; and Charlie Finley's Swinging A's did just that, hitting balls out of parks around the league.

In 1968, the Year of the Pitcher, Carl Yastrzemski won the batting title with a .301 average, such was the dominance of pitchers. It was clear that, somehow, moundsmen had titled the balance of control beyond a comfortable limit, so officials lowered the mound, perhaps artificially resorting balance to baseball's chaotic universe. 

The 1980s saw a huge increase in the specialisation of relief pitching, with the number of saves outstripping the number of complete games for the first time, as managers spied a new advantage. Tony La Russa led the way, introducing the one-inning save and, in some cases, the one-out lefty specialist. Again, this altered the distribution of dominance beyond the natural spread, until everybody else caught up and bullpen specialisation blended into the ever-unfurling portrait of a befuddling pastime.

In the 1990s and 2000s, the thirst for baseball autonomy and subsequent glory drove men to illegal steroids and other performance-enhancing substances. Once more, baseball's organic order was artificially distorted, only for rigorous testing to be introduced, nixing yet another method by which cheaters sought a head-start.

All of these attempts to change the way baseball was played had fleeting success, but a definitive equation for guaranteeing World Series titles was never discovered, and likely will never be. At best, a player, manager of executive can create something new, which will be unique for a year or two if they're incredibly lucky. Baseball is a copy-cat industry, and others will adopt vogue concepts if they see their rivals enjoying success.

Of course, due to the game's wild unpredictability, glory is often capricious and unexpected. In 1991, for instance, the Minnesota Twins went from last place to winning the World Series. The Red Sox went from worst-to-first-to-worst between 2012 and 2014, sandwiching a championship between 93 and 91-loss seasons. Of course, a decade earlier, Boston authored the most shocking comeback in sports history, coming back from a 3-0 ALCS deficit to beat the Yankees, who were one win away from winning their seventh pennant in nine years.

The examples of inexplicable success are endless. The 2008 Tampa Bay Rays not only went from cellar dwellers to pennant winners; they went from losing 90 or more games every season in club history to fighting for a World Series crown. To that point in their existence, the Rays had lost 97 games and finished 34 out of first place, on average, every year. Their best ever season produced just 70 wins, while the closest they ever came to first place was 18 games back. Thus, for Joe Maddon to coax a division flag from his $43 million, amid competition from the $209 million Yankees and $133 million Red Sox, was nothing short of miraculous.

In baseball, even money no longer guarantees glory. In 2015, the Dodgers spent $314 million on player payroll, a record for North American sports. However, despite spending at least $95 million more than any other team, Los Angeles only managed to reach the NLDS, before bowing out weakly. By comparison, the Mets spent $195 million less and won the pennant, while the Royals spent $189 million less and claimed the World Series. Moreover, in the past three years, the Dodgers have spent over $800 million in player salaries and won just eight playoff games, proving that money has only a slight impact on success in baseball.

One team that knows this too well is the Chicago Cubs, who've been searching for a conducive formula for over a century. As everybody on the planet knows, the Cubbies haven't won a World Series title since 1908. Chicago has lived through Al Capone, Michael Jordan and Barack Obama without snapping the drought, as a succession of executives and players have come up short. The Cubs have tried every trick in the book, experimented with every ingredient in the cupboard, but somehow come up empty every time. That, in an of itself, is emblematic of baseball's puzzling core. You just never know.

The Yankees' eternal success seems to fly in the face of everything we know about the game. The Bronx Bombers have partook in 36% of all World Series ever played, winning 40 pennants and claiming 27 titles. Between 1921-1964, they won 29 of 44 pennants on offer, for a staggering 65%. The Yankees longest ever wait between championships is just 22 years, from the team's inception to its maiden crown in 1923. Such facts are amazing, and speak to that team's thorough domination of baseball history. You could argue that the most predicate thing in the realm of this unpredictable game is that the Yankees will always win, no matter what.

Yet, ultimately, the whole concept of unpredictability in baseball rests on one fact: hitting a baseball is, scientifically, the most difficult thing to do in sports. With a pitcher throwing 95-miles-per-hour from 60 feet 6 inches away, a batter usually has 0.4 seconds in which to compute pitch type, location and speed, then go through the mechanics of a swing. If he gets everything right, the ball will hit the barrel and fly into the distance. But if he is a half-second early or late, the ball will hit a quarter of an inch above or below the sweet spot, resulting in a harmless pop-up or a routine groundout to second base. Thus, human skill and instinct can only take you so far in baseball. Talent can only account for so much. Luck has to play a factor. It just has to, when the margins are so ridiculous, when the mathematics are so incomprehensible.

In order to succeed, players must strike a perfect balance between science and art, calculation and reflex. That's why every home run is a minor miracle within itself. Over 18,000 men have played in a Major League Baseball game, but only 6 since 1900 have ever reached base more times than they made out in a single season. More than any fact or stat, that legitimises their immortal skill, and illustrates the monumental difficulty of their trade. Seriously, what game is harder than baseball?

Another layer of nuance is formed by ordinary players doing extraordinary things, by mortal beings producing moments that live in eternity. Take Bucky Dent, for example. A banjo-hitting shortstop, his average was .243 in 1978 with the New York Yankees, coupled with five home runs. Nevertheless, his pop fly dinger against the Red Sox in the legendary one-game playoff ranks amongst the most legendary swings ever taken. Likewise with Aaron Boone in 2003, when a man who finished with only 126 home runs in a 12-year career won the pennant with a soaring drive into the Yankee Stadium abyss, into indelible history.

Again, we see that, on any given day, any one player can achieve any one feat. That's why we're familiar with Bill Mazeroski, who averaged ten home runs per year through seventeen seasons, but who won the 1960 World Series with a famous blast. That's why we remember Jim Abbot, who no-hit the Indians in 1993 despite only having one hand. And that's why we recall guys like Jose Jimenez and Phil Humber, who tossed their own no-hitters amid chronically awful careers.

We're drawn to these stories, these possibilities, like a moth to light. Baseball, this uncut gem of a sport, has changed subtly through the eras, like anything else. But its propensity to surprise, and unwillingness to be mastered, remains intoxicating to this very day. There's no way of truly knowing the fate of any game or inning, which is a soothing concept in a digital world of omniscience. We love baseball because it frustrates us, because it cannot be controlled. We cherish its unconquerable core and salute its unsolvable spirit. Without baseball, the world would be a far more predictable place, our minds much quieter. You see, this game makes you contemplate, then tricks you at the brink of knowing. And that, dear friends, is why we always go back for more.

Monday, 23 November 2015

A Winter of Dreaming and Scheming: MLB Offseason Preview

This winter, there is more talent available, via trade and free agency, than ever before. There is also a wider swathe of teams with the means and desire to spend money than at any stage of the modern era. At the confluence of those two trends, a record-breaking offseason is about to unfurl, and it has the ability to dramatically alter the baseball landscape for years to come.

So, let's take a deeper look at the main offseason protagonists.

Red Sox Reconstruction
Every winter, one team overshadows the rest in terms of aggression and desperation to upgrade its roster. This year, that honour falls to the Boston Red Sox, who hunger for elite pitching to rebalance their lopsided depth chart.

Under the aegis of Dave Dombrowski, an overhaul has already begun on fabled Yawkey Way. Craig Kimbrel, one of the game's premier closers, was prised from San Diego in a trade that reverberated throughout the industry. Boston's newfound willingness to sacrifice the homegrown prospects of tomorrow in order to acquire elite performers for today amounted to a signal of intent. The Red Sox mean business, and they're heading straight for the jugular.

Following two successive last-place finishes, and one postseason berth in six years, Dombrowski was drafted in as an agent of change. The Theo Epstein bloodline of considered intellectualism ran dry in Boston, and a shift in philosophy was needed. Rather than merely accumulating materials, the Red Sox needed to build something, so they hired one of baseball's most proven architects. Dombrowski surveyed the landscape in 2015, discovering what needed to be addressed. Now, at long last, he has been granted planning permission, and construction on the next Fenway monster is well underway.

All major building projects need a cornerstone, a platform on which to build. In the Red Sox' case, that central nucleus will need to be a genuine ace pitcher, something Beantown has lacked since Jon Lester was traded midway through 2014. Last winter, Ben Cherington took an outrageous gamble when electing to construct a starting rotation of distinctly average pitchers, with Clay Buchholz being the de facto ace and various shades of mediocre following. Despite atrocious seasons from Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval, Red Sox were dynamic and often explosive offensively, as Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts and Blake Swihart formed an exciting new core. Undoubtedly, pitching was Boston's Achilles heel, which makes it Dombrowski's number one priority this winter.

Fortunately for the Red Sox, this is arguably the greatest free agent pitching class of all-time. David Price and Zack Greinke, Cy Young Award finalists in their respective leagues, are the headline-grabbing names, but Johnny Cueto and Jordan Zimmermann lurk in a strong second tier, and Doug Fister, Scott Kazmir, Mike Leake and Jeff Samardzija round out an intriguing pool of talent.

Dombrowski has already indicated that the Sox will be heavily involved in the ace market, with Price seeming to fit Boston immaculately. Regardless of who they eventually chose, the Red Sox are potentially one big acquisition away from boosting their failing rotation and surging back into immediate World Series contention.

Anaheim Rejuvenation
When Jerry Dipoto resigned as Angels GM amid chronic infighting last year, the outcry was vociferous. A narrative was spawned that few executives would willingly work between meddlesome owner Arte Moreno and taciturn manager Mike Scioscia, who wields more power than any field general in the game.

However, this is a mammoth oversimplification. Yes, the win-now environment created by Moreno can be tough, and yes, Scioscia's traditional style can grate, but the road to glory is rarely smooth. Contrary to popular belief, the Angels are a tantalising prospect to many within the game, not least because they possess, in Mike Trout, one of the most talented players in baseball history.

Earlier this winter, Billy Eppler was hired as Dipoto's successor and, more importantly, was tasked with enacting a vision and building a team around Trout, the greatest of all building blocks. A longtime assistant to Brian Cashman with the Yankees, Eppler has a strong reputation, and it will be interesting to see his simultaneous belief in advanced analytics and traditional scouting come to fruition in Anaheim.

Eppler has wasted little time this offseason, already trading for uber-talented Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons, who will team with Trout and Albert Pujols to create an irresistible core. However, while such additions allow Angels fans to easily dream of their team becoming a superpower, the prospective 2016 roster does have plenty of holes, most notably at catcher, third base, left field and the starting rotation.

Nonetheless, if Moreno loosens the pursestrings for his new GM, and the Angels compete in the elite free agent market, plus maybe swing another trade, Anaheim could become a perennial contender pretty fast.

Tweaking in Seattle
After leaving the Angels, Dipoto spent some time in the Red Sox' front office, before succeeding Jack Zduriencik as the Mariners' GM. He inherits a talented roster, but also the longest active postseason drought in Major League Baseball. Seattle hasn't been to the playoffs since 2001, and last year's capitulation when heavily favoured was a familiar story.

Hoping for a swift retool, Dipoto hired a new manager, Scott Servais, and has already pulled the trigger on trades for Nate Karns, Leonys Martin, JoaquĆ­n Benoit and Luis Sardinas, filling a number of gaps on his roster.

While these new additions, plus a fresh manager setting a different tone, may enable the Mariners to rebound in 2016, a free agent pitcher or everyday left fielder would go even further to restoring optimism. After all, the Mariners have a very strong core, namely Felix Hernandez, Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz, but the complementary pieces have all too often been unbalanced and inconsistent. Perhaps another elite performer, and another veteran leader, could push Seattle over the edge and force the Mariners to finally deliver on their enormous potential.

Giant Ambition
In 2016, the Giants will aim to secure their fourth straight even-year world championship. However, the roster that sets off on such a quest may have a distinctly different feel to recent times, as San Francisco seeks new blood and fresh impetus. Brian Sabean will have more payroll flexibility this winter, following the departure of Tim Lincecum, Tim Hudson, Mike Leake, Marlon Byrd, Jeremy Affeldt, Ryan Vogelsong and others. Accordingly, the Giants may play a major role in setting the free agent weather this offseason, which should be refreshing to watch.

Most notably, San Francisco yearns for an elite starting pitcher to pair with Madison Bumgarner in the creation of a deadly one-two punch. Thus, many within the industry expect the Giants to be heavily involved in the David Price sweepstakes, while Greinke of the rival Dodgers remains a fascinating possibility. If those aces ultimately become too expensive for San Francisco, they'll likely wade into the market for Cueto, Zimmermann, Leake or maybe even Samardzija.

In addition to a top-of-the-rotation arm, the Giants will also add starting pitching depth, while the need for a power bat in left field is glaringly obvious. In this regard, Justin Upton may be a possibility, and Yoenis Cespedes appears to fit San Francisco's preferred profile of strong contact hitting and impressive defence.

With two or three key additions, on the mound and in the field, Sabean may once again equip the Giants to compete deep into October. The difficult part will be inserting new players into the clubhouse without compromising the tremendous culture that has underscored the team's success in recent years.

Dodger Decisions
Last year, the Los Angeles Dodgers crashed through the $300 million payroll plateau, spending more money than any North American sports team ever has in a single season. Yet, quite disturbingly, Don Mattingly could only steer the Dodgers to defeat in the National League Division Series, a third straight failure that cost him his job.

Now, Andrew Friedman, Farhan Zaidi and Josh Byrnes, otherwise known as the most intelligent and trailblazing think tank in the Major Leagues, are faced with making difficult decisions that will have serious ramifications for the Dodgers' future. After spending astronomically to mitigate the parsimony of previous owner Frank McCourt, the Guggenheim group now wishes to transition away from boom-or-bust economics and towards a more sustainable model centred around younger players. Amid those overarching parameters, the front office will hope to provide a nimbler, more versatile team for incoming manager Dave Roberts.

Accordingly, it's difficult to tell whether Friedman will spend shamelessly to keep Greinke in Dodger Blue. Los Angeles likely needs to fill two or three slots in the starting rotation, so how those funds are distributed by ownership will go a long way to setting the tone for this offseason, in Chavez Ravine and far beyond.

The Dodgers would also like to perform surgery on a schizophrenic bullpen, while second base is currently vacant following the departure of Howie Kendrick and Chase Utley. Thus, all things considered, we may see the Dodgers be more active on the trade scene rather than the free agent market. Friedman certainly has a stash of tantalising assets, ranging from Yasiel Puig to Andre Ethier to Alex Guerrero, from which to potentially deal, meaning there is little restriction to his creativity in upgrading the most expensive team in history.

Captivating times lie ahead for the Dodgers, and thus for the baseball universe they so freely dominate these days.

Cardinal Crossroads
For generations, the St Louis Cardinals have been held aloft as the great paragon of consistency in Major League Baseball. The Redbirds have only missed the playoffs four times in the last sixteen years, and have reached nine National League Championship Series' in that span, all in a relatively small market, all with a fairly middling budget.

However, change appears to be on the horizon within the Cardinals' unique ecosystem, as the club generates more money from ventures such as the marvellous Ballpark Village, and prepares to benefit from a new $1 billion television rights deal that comes into effect in 2018. Furthermore, St Louis now operates in an ultra competitive division alongside the Chicago Cubs and Pittsburgh Pirates, two brainy organisations geared for long-term success.

Within these parameters, GM John Mozeliak also faces concerns about the tremendous core that has set the cultural temperature and delivered the statistical goods at Busch Stadium for so long. Matt Holliday will turn 36 before the 2016 season begins; Yadier Molina underwent thumb surgery this winter and has rarely played at peak physical condition in the past three years; and Adam Wainwright may struggle to carry an ace's burden moving forward. Furthermore, glaring holes exist in right field and first base for St Louis, while upgrades at shortstop and centre field wouldn't hurt.

Therefore, the Cardinals may be set to spend more money than ever before, as they seek to replenish an ailing core and extend their window of contention to match that of Chicago and Pittsburgh. Naturally, Jason Heyward makes perfect sense to satisfy St Louis' desires, while a run at one of the elite starting pitchers may be advisable.

Ultimately, these are the St Louis Cardinals. They always find a way, always concoct some kind of magic potion down on the farm that turns average prospects into elite performers. Nonetheless, some new energy may be needed if Mozeliak wishes to keep up with the player development juggernauts spawned by his division counterparts.

Theo in Transition
Last year was an untethered delight for the Chicago Cubs. Jake Arrieta dazzled en route to winning the Cy Young Award; Kris Bryant sparkled as Rookie of the Year; and Joe Maddon cajoled a 24-win improvement from his mercurial team to claim Manager of the Year. Throughout the strenuous rebuilding plan, Cubs fans dreamed of such days, but the rapidity with which they arrived was a pleasant surprise.

In 2015, the Cubs played postseason baseball for the first time in six years. However, they were swept by New York in the NLCS without so much as holding a lead in any of the games, bringing about a 107th straight fruitless fall on the North Side, which is sure to disappoint Theo Epstein, whose sole objective is to build a powerhouse capable of quenching sports' most fabled thirst.

So, where do the Cubs go from here? The Plan, to cram as much homegrown, cost-controlled talent onto a roster as possible, is already ahead of schedule. Bryant is testament to that, as are Kyle Schwarber and Addison Russell. Furthermore, the next phase of the systematic rebuild, calling for external supplementation, began in earnest last winter with the acquisition of Jon Lester, Miguel Montero and Dexter Fowler. Now, having demolished and rebuilt, it's time for Theo to furnish his mansion. It's time to transition to a new level. It's time to go all-in.

In 2015, the Cubs spent only $82.4 million, placing them fourteenth in baseball. Of course, they play in one of the league's largest markets, while the commercial rebuild to enhance revenue streams at Wrigley Field and through television rights is also coming on apace. Epstein has already said the Cubs may need to get "creative" this winter rather than simply throwing money around, but it would be logical to conclude that Chicago will feature heavily in the free agent market, seeking to compliment its prized core with pieces that may turn a swept NLCS team into a pennant-winning one.

Dreams in the Desert
To many baseball analysts, it feels like the Arizona Diamondbacks have spluttered and stumbled through an accidental rebuild in recent years, suffering an identity crisis but somehow tripping unconsciously into a window of opportunity. Even now, I'm not entirely sure if Dave Stewart and Tony La Russa know what they want to do with this franchise, but it appears to be cycling towards something big, if industry whispers are to be believed.

In Paul Goldschmidt, Arizona has a generational building block, the first homegrown superstar to help make the Diamondbacks marketable in the mainstream. The present team also has some pretty competent outfielders, but right now, the pitching just isn't good enough to enable competition with the richer Dodgers and Giants. Therefore, one wonders whether Arizona may swallow hard and become a stealth contender in the elite free agent pitching market this winter.

We already know that the Diamondbacks really like Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati's flame throwing closer, so a game-changing trade may also materialise. Certainly, there appears to be sentiment within the Arizona offices to alter the landscape, change the outlook, and finally try to narrow the gap to San Francisco and Los Angeles in the chaotic NL West. What that looks like, and who that nets them, remains to be seen, but watch out for the Diamondbacks this offseason. They could be poised to strike, consciously or not.

Planning in Purgatory
As is the new norm in this age of two Wildcards from each league, many teams are still undecided as to their philosophical constitution heading into the key winter months.

In the Bronx, Hal Steinbrenner has taken it upon himself to impose relative austerity on the New York Yankees, which seems fairly egregious given the astronomical revenue their global brand continues to generate. It's perhaps understandable that Brian Cashman will look to implement a new core of Greg Bird, Luis Severino, Rob Refsnyder, Gary Sanchez and Aaron Judge while the humongous contracts of Alex Rodriguez, CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira run down, but willingly refusing to spend from their endless resources represents a departure from Yankee tradition that should be cause for concern.

Meanwhile, in Toronto, the exit of Alex Anthopoulos and arrival of Mark Shapiro throws fresh doubt onto the plans of an organisation that was reborn in a flurry of stupendous bat flips last year. Will Shapiro take his customary cautious approach when Toronto is clearly geared for immediate gambling, or will he grasp the opportunity and continue striving for rapid success?

In Detroit, Al Avila and the Tigers are also teetering on the brink of a massive decision, as their window for continual contention narrows considerably. Will they continue to push for that long-awaited title, or begin transitioning to a nimbler, more cost-effective plan now that Dombrowski has left town?

Similarly, the White Sox, Twins, Rays, Orioles, Marlins and Padres find themselves in the annual quandary of whether to stick or twist. Each of those teams has finite resources and a tentative view of where they want to be in a few years' time. How they get to the Promised Land remains an eternal mystery.

Bottoming Out
Finally, we come to those teams who will likely feed the trade market with what valuable pieces remain under their control. The current Collective Bargaining Agreement has created an environment where it's actually profitable for certain teams to shed assets and 'tank' in the hope of amassing a poor record and securing high draft picks with which to build a new core. The Astros and Cubs took this route, and many other teams are trending that way.

Most notably, Atlanta is selling anybody with a pulse. In the space of twelve months, the Braves have traded away Evan Gattis, Justin Upton, Jason Heyward, Alex Wood, Bronson Arroyo, Chris Johnson, and Andrelton Simmons. In 2015, that group produced 13.4 WAR, which should raise eyebrows around the league. It's understandable that the Braves are looking to retool ready for the opening of their new stadium in 2017, but at what point does their persistent scrapping of Major League talent become anti-competitive?

Similarly, Cincinnati and Milwaukee look set to tear things down and start over again in the daunting NL Central; Colorado and Philadelphia are about to hit rock bottom as the farm system becomes a priority; and Oakland and Miami must seriously consider their future after fairly disastrous seasons.

Conclusions
Thus, it becomes apparent that Major League Baseball is set for an offseason that could rock its core. Who will bite the bullet and sign Price, floating into almost immediate World Series contention? Who will pull the trigger and pay Greinke or Cueto or Upton or Cespedes? Who will swallow hard in this age of prospect paranoia and execute a deal for Chapman or Sonny Gray or Jay Bruce or Carlos Gonzalez, should those players become available?

Like always in baseball, we have only the merest of inklings. Unpredictability will reign and dominos will gradually fall, revealing a little of the picture that will become the 2016 season. Many teams have expanded budgets and obvious needs. A few teams have a clear goal to lose now for glory tomorrow, and will thus supplement a trade market that shall bubble along nicely.

Essentially, we're set for another offseason of undulating momentum, another winter of dreaming and scheming. The discussion has reached fever pitch. Let the building begin.

Monday, 2 November 2015

Royal Atonement: 2015 World Series Review

Then, just like that, baseball had a new reigning monarch.

With one last rally, one final deluge of hits and heart and hustle, the Kansas City Royals blew the Mets aside and secured their first World Series title in thirty years.

Royal Joy. (Photo credit: AP)
On a fateful night in Queens, Matt Harvey, the embattled hometown ace, dominated for eight frames in Game 5 before coughing up a ninth inning run that sparked yet another Kansas comeback. Eric Hosmer forced extra innings with a daring dash for home on a groundout to third base, then the floodgates opened as the Royals scored five times in the twelfth inning to complete their emotional quest for glory.

In many respects, this World Series was a battle of the bridesmaids, as two perennial underdogs jostled on the biggest stage, beneath the brightest lights. Together, the Mets and Royals have just 99 years of history, most of which has been spent in the cellar. Yet, on this grandest of occasions, that's were the similarities ended. In every facet of the game, Kansas City was firmer, sharper and more confident. Indeed, the Royals were just explicitly better than the Mets, when all was said and done. They were deserving winners.

The tone of this Series was set on its very first pitch, as a drizzle besmirched Kauffman Stadium. Harvey uncorked a fastball to Alcides Escobar, who swatted the first offering deep into the left-centre field gap, where it was booted by Yoenis Cespedes. A breathing embodiment of the Royals' aggressive ethos, Escobar surged around the bases like a prize gazelle, flying across the dish in just fifteen seconds with a stunning inside-the-park home run, a feat unseen in the World Series since 1929. The pattern was set.

Through the entire five-game series, Kansas City pushed the boundaries and asked innumerable questions of New York, which all too frequently was devoid of answers. The Royals out-hit the Mets 47-35; stole seven bases compared to the Mets' one; and took the extra base at almost every available opportunity. The aggression of Kansas City put New York on the back foot. It made the Mets reactive rather than proactive, and reduced their existence to a mere teeth-gnashing fight for survival. A fight they eventually lost, somewhat inevitably.

One of baseball's great truisms is that, in a long series, the team which makes the fewest mistakes will win. In this often bewildering Fall Classic, we saw that play out before our very eyes, as the Mets held a lead in all five games, but were able to win just one of them. New York made six errors; Kansas City made two. While the Royals got almost flawlessly defence from infielders like Mike Moustakas and Escobar, the Mets kicked the ball around mercilessly, with critical errors from David Wright and Daniel Murphy costing them games, and, ultimately, a legitimate shot at the championship.

In the end, the Mets were just a little too satisfied with winning a pennant; just a little too content with enjoying their moment in the sun. By contrast, the Royals were famished for conclusive success. After losing to the Giants in seven excruciating games last year, Kansas City vowed to go one better this time. The pursuit of a world championship, and the banishment of those dark memories, came to define this city and its team. After watching the masters celebrate on their own turf last year, the Royals learnt how to comport themselves, and how to pull the final trigger. This season, they were consumed by a deep determination and a ferocious force of will. Kansas City was hellbent on winning, and the Mets were but a small block in the road, mangled and tossed aside as the Royal juggernaut rolled on through.

In the postseason, Kansas City produced eight come-from-behind victories, a Major League record. The Royals beat Houston in the ALDS and trumped Toronto to capture a second successive pennant. The Astros had more swagger, the Blue Jays more power, but no team had as much singleminded resolve as the Kansas City Royals, who united as one cohesive family behind a common goal: winning the World Series, and ending so many years of hurt.

This win was for Edinson Volquez, who pitched so bravely in the wake of his father's tragic death. This win was for Moustakas and Chris Young, who suffered similar heartache earlier in the year. And this win was for Ned Yost, who is a fitting patriarch for this team, and who finally has a crowning moment to validate forty years of blind baseball devotion.

This win was also for Salvador Perez, who couldn't get the tying run home from third base last year, but who returned to become World Series MVP this time around. No catcher since 1914 has caught more games in consecutive seasons than Perez, who earned his moment the hard way.

In retrospect, the only surprise from this Series was the Royals dropping Game 3. The disparity between the two teams, in terms of experience, readiness and command of emotion, was vast and awkward. Wright, Murphy and Cespedes, the heart of the Mets' lineup, went a combined 11-for-64 in the Series, while the entire offence mustered just seven extra-base hits in five games. When it really mattered, beneath the searing microscope of World Series baseball, New York just didn't have enough. They were an imperfect team that ran out of pixie dust at the worst possible time.

Meanwhile, the Royals had all the required pieces, and Ned Yost finally finished his jigsaw before the midnight bells tolled. It's worth taking a moment to comprehend the sheer improbability of that achievement just five or ten years ago. In the 2000s, Kansas City was a baseball wasteland, cast adrift by fan indifference and consigned to obscurity by a starkly unfair financial system. The Royals didn't have any money, so they were essentially doomed to a life of subservience to the alpha Yankees, Red Sox and Tigers. 

Between 1986 and 2013, there was no postseason baseball in Kansas City. Between 1995 and 2012, the Royals finished 25 games out of first place on average. The team lost more than 90 games in eight of the eleven seasons between 2002 and 2012, and nobody was interested in its plight. At one stage, to watch the Kansas City Royals was to submit oneself to three hours of morbid torture. They were that bad, that boring.

Yet, with such ineptitude came a slew of high draft picks, with which Dayton Moore slowly constructed a winner. Alex Gordon became a Royal that way, as did Hosmer and Moustakas. Young international talent was also acquired cheaply, with Perez and Yordano Ventura, the firebrand ace, coming aboard as teenagers. And so, while the Royals stunk at the Major League level for so many years, this new core, this new monster, was being assembled down on the farm. 

This homegrown team was tutored in a relentless, almost grating brand of small ball, with emphasis on contact hitting, aggressive baserunning and altruistic sacrifice that, hundreds of games later, congealed into a World Series-winning effort on the expansive terrain of Citi Field, New York. 

From the wreckage of constant despair and repeated failure, every single member of the Kansas City Royals organisation bought into one philosophy, united behind one dream. Last night, that philosophy finally delivered, and that dream finally came true. And when it was all over, and the dust of another season settled, the baseball kingdom had been turned on its head, and the most unlikely prince finally occupied the throne.

Monday, 26 October 2015

When Fairytales Collide: 2015 World Series Preview

The 111th World Series will begin tomorrow night in Kansas City, as is seemingly the norm in our post-modern baseball age. Twelve months ago, the hometown Royals played host to the mighty San Francisco Giants at Kauffman Stadium, authenticating a new era in our beloved game. Those upstart Royals were excitable, fresh-faced and raw, a radical by-product of fiscal equality in the Major Leagues. They eventually lost to a sagacious foe in seven attritional games, but, a year on, Kansas City seems wiser and hungrier for the experience. Now, the Royals enter their second straight Fall Classic not as sweetheart underdogs, but as slight favourites over the New York Mets, who have inherited the Cinderella role from their Series opponents.

The greatest show on turf. Image credit: Sporting News.
In 2014, Kansas City enjoyed the affection of the baseball-watching world. Their presence in the postseason was novel and refreshing. Their brand of baseball was alive and enthralling. They were fun. Yet, this season, much of that goodwill has eroded, to the point where neutral fans are likely to root against the Royals this time round. Many observers fell out of love with Kansas City as they brawled and sneered their way to another American League pennant, and many believe the innocent swagger of '14 has transformed into an arrogant strut this year.

Accordingly, the Mets will be the darlings of a nation over the next week. There has always been something inherently lovable about New York's “other team,” but those feelings are likely to intensify as the Amazins' participate in their first World Series since 2000.

In many ways, the Mets are similar in composition and character to the 2014 Royals. Terry Collins' team is young, precociously talented and set for a long run of sustainable success. Whether 2015 will be the first jewel in a potential dynasty remains to be seen, but this fascinating team bringing energy to Citi Field should make for an irresistible Series.

So, aside from the banner storylines, what are the actual keys to success on the field in this Fall Classic? Well, if this age of parity has taught us anything, it's that baseball is perhaps more unpredictable now than at any stage in history. From one day to the next, one pitch to the next, we're unable to predict the outcome of Major League Baseball games with anything approaching certainty. Thus, attempting to preview the World Series can be a perilous task these days, but let's give it a whirl.

First Pitch Boiling Point
The most important aspect of this Series, and therefore the most crucial in trying to predict an outcome, may be the Royals' offensive proficiency early in the count, and how the Mets combat that. New York has a superlative rotation of mesmeric young pitchers. Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz have ice in their veins and fire in their arms, but, on paper, their collective approach would appear to play right into Kansas City's wheelhouse.

The Moneyball enlightenment placed extreme emphasis on working the count deep and seeing as many pitches as possible to draw walks and wear down opposing starters. However, in our advanced age of specialised bullpens, with more relievers throwing 95-mph or harder than ever before, the incentive for knocking an opposing starter out of the game has been significantly diminished. This year, the Royals have eschewed the old approach of patience in favour of more aggression early in the count, when pitchers are often at their most hittable.

During the regular season, Kansas City ranked 29th of the 30 Major League teams in pitches-seen-per-plate-appearance, while their walk rate was the lowest in all of baseball. However, the Royals ranked 3rd in team batting average, 7th in runs scored, and were the hardest team to strikeout in either league. This speaks to an ultra-aggressive approach early in the count, which, coupled with a tremendous ability to put the ball in play, has fuelled the Royals' success.

In addition to being deadly early in the count, Kansas City is also a phenomenal fastball-hitting team. Indeed, only two teams scored more runs on fastballs than the Royals this year. From a New York perspective, this doesn't bode well, because Met pitchers threw a fastball 61% of the time this season, eighth highest in the Majors. On the surface, it appears that the Royals would have ample opportunity to showcase their greatest strength and deadliest weapon: fastball hitting early in the count.

If we dig a little deeper, those suspicions are confirmed. In his career, Matt Harvey has thrown a first-pitch fastball 63% of the time, and opponents have hit .336 and slugged .565 off of him in those instances. So, basically, when the Royals are most ready to hit, with no balls and no strikes, Matt Harvey is very human. You could even argue he's very vulnerable.

This trend is repeated with Syndergaard, who throws a first-pitch fastball just 38% of the time, but who sees opponents hit .333 and slug an absurd .714 off of those deliveries. Admittedly, Noah has only thrown 247 such pitches at the big league level, which is a less than adequate sample size, but this has to be worrisome for the Mets when mapping a strategy.

Steven Matz also struggles with first-pitch fastballs, allowing a .330 average and .550 slugging percentage, but his sample is even smaller than that of Syndergaard, so we can't read too much into those results. Jacob deGrom, on the other hand, is fairly good at minimising first-pitch fastball damage, with opponents hitting .262 and slugging .410 off of those pitches.

Of course, the Mets will have access to this data. They will know the tendencies of their own pitchers and the strengths of a deceptively potent Royals offence. Therefore, New York may alter its approach and gameplan in a different way, perhaps by throwing more off-speed stuff early in the count to get Kansas City off-balance at the plate. And once Met pitchers have indecision in their opponents, they're truly deadly, ranking 8th in strikeout percentage, 2nd in walk percentage and 2nd in WHIP.

Thus, the outcome of this World Series may hinge on the Mets' ability to nullify the Royals' hitters early in the count, and, subsequently, on Kansas City's ability to take advantage of their opportunities or adjust if they seep away.

Shorten the Game
The Royals' blueprint for success in this Series is fairly well known. In aggressive fashion, they will attempt to ambush the opposing pitcher early and put up runs either by running into a home run from one of their big boppers, or by playing small ball with the speed and selflessness native to Ned Yost's philosophy. The Royals then hope to entrust an early lead to their starter, before passing the baton to a formidable bullpen in the sixth or seventh inning. Kelvin Herrera and Wade Davis are an elite one-two punch that rarely coughs up a lead, so the Mets will be hard-pressed to come back once they're down in the late innings.

Therefore, much like last year, the first six innings of each game in this World Series will be crucial. While tremendously talented, the Mets starting staff can be uneconomical at times, throwing too many pitches and creating high-stress situations. In order to succeed, the Mets need to extinguish the Royals' desire for offensive blood early in the game, and get some length out of their own starters. New York has a very good closer in Jeurys Familia, but the bridge to him is shorter and more precarious than that which Kansas City has built to Davis. There is thus more opportunity for the Mets to slip and drown.

Home Sweet Home
Traditionally, a lot has been written about home-field advantage being less important in baseball, compared with basketball, gridiron and hockey. However, the ability to host the first two games of a Fall Classic always strikes me as crucial. Indeed, 23 of the last 29 World Series champions had home-field advantage, which is pretty compelling evidence.

Of course, the Royals hosted four games in last year's Series, including the pivotal opener and the sudden-death Game 7, but were still unable to win. Accordingly, you could argue that the overarching unpredictability of baseball, especially in modern times, is more powerful than any one individual case of home-field advantage, but I still like the comfort of playing in your own ballpark, with the support of your own passionate fans, twice before even jetting off to the other city. It provides a sacred opportunity to complete half the job in familiar surroundings, which anybody would be foolish not to covet.

Who Wants it More?
Once the postseason winds down and we're left with two teams ready to compete in the World Series, I always like to see which team is hungrier. Obviously, every player years to win. The attainment of a World Series ring is the ultimate reward, the Holy Grail of baseball. But once the pennant is won, I'm eager to see how content each team is. Do they celebrate excessively? How strong is their desire to progress even further? How intense is their will to win it all?

This year, the Mets have to resist the temptation to feel happy with all they've achieved thus far. In spring training, they were written-off. By most estimations, the Nationals were slated to win the division flag by ten, maybe fifteen games. Therefore, that New York should upset the odds and experts by storming to the pennant is a titanic achievement, but also one fraught with peril. The Mets are now the lovable underdog, the fuzzy feel-good story. Yet, they must not enter the World Series thinking they have nothing to lose, that they're just happy to be here. That would be the ultimate death knell. Every opportunity to win a ring is precious, as the Mets' fifteen-year pennant drought attests. Thus, they have a lot to lose, just like the Royals. They must forget what they've achieved in the past, and show that their appetite to write another chapter in the fairytale is equal to that of Kansas City.

Prediction
As outlined above, trying to prognosticate baseball is fundamentally asinine. That's why I believe anybody who actually bets on ballgames should receive a free psychiatric evaluation with their receipt. Anyhow, since it's now fashionable to predict a winner before any major sporting event, here's my best effort:

Royals in six.