Baseball players aren’t always the smartest individuals on the block. We’ve seen any number of examples of that, especially in this day and age of social media. But this week two players, two Justins, have shown they’re brighter than the average bear. Or the average MLB owner at least.
At a time when the league is coming off its lowest attendance in 15 years and when over 100 of 164 free agents remain unsigned to contracts with the gates to Spring Training camps creaking open in less than three weeks, the league management continues to stick its head in the sand.
2018’s total attendance dropped to below 70 million for the first time since 2003. It was the second year in a row the number of people saying “take me out to the ballgame” dipped noticeably. Granted, the situation isn’t yet dire. The 69.6 million attendance is still miles above the barely 60 million that passed through the gates as recently as 1996. But no way should the business minds that run the sport be ignoring the fact that the average game’s crowd in 2018 was 1200 people shy of what is was in 2017. Nor that 17 of 30 teams saw their totals drop last season.
Yet, that’s more or less what they are doing. MLB officials told Forbes magazine that the drop in ’18 was “primarily connected to the historically bad weather we faced in spring” and added that 102 games took place in a temperature below 50 F (10 Celcius.) Rob Manfred continues to fret about the length of time between pitches and defensive shifts. Oooh,he hates “the shift”… if only he could ban that, fans would flood back in record numbers, he’s sure.
Now, I will say that the weather early last year was terrible in many cities. It was a cold spring through much of North America, and even in cities with climate-controlled stadiums (aka Toronto, Milwaukee) , there might be an incentive to stay home if getting to the stadium means heading out in -10 weather or traversing icy roads. But the problem with that is that so far, this winter is as cold as last so there’s a good chance April might be just as cold again in Minneapolis, Chicago, even Dallas and Atlanta, so that part of the problem may not self-correct. And the league is exacerbating the problem by scheduling games earlier than ever in March. The average overnight temperature in Minneapolis, for instance, is 25F in March. Chances of pre-Easter night games at Target Field being played in comfortable conditions are next to nil.
But for all that, MLB is missing the obvious. Let’s turn it over to the two Justins.
“There is a lot of the league that rather makes money than win,” new New York Mets reliever Justin Wilson noted, adding “if you’re a player (that) isn’t very fun because we play this game to win.” Grammar aside, he makes a great point, and could add that it’s not “very fun” for fans either! Over to superstar Justin Verlander, earlier this week in a Houston newspaper:
“The biggest detriment to our game right now is the non-competitiveness of two-thirds of the league,” according to the Astro. “That’s why you’re seeing free agents not get signed.”
Bingo! MLB quickly fails to mention that for the first time ever last year, 8 teams lost 95 or more games. With ticket prices rising constantly, there’s not a lot of incentive to go out and cheer on your home team when it’s a nice Sunday in May and they’re already 20 games out. Let alone on a chilly, rainy night. Nor when teams are only trying to win enough to be able to dump the talent. Take the Blue Jays for example, whom the league itself mention on their website assessment of bullpens, that if Ken Giles repeats his good pitching (after being traded to Toronto) of last summer, he can be traded before July 31. What a glowing endorsement for Canuck fans to flock to Rogers’ Centre!
Verlander’s dead on accurate. About one third of the whole league is interested in trying to win in 2019. Even that might be a wee bit optimistic, as teams like the White Sox have some talent but seem a ways away but despite making loud proclamations of having money to spend and a will to go all the way, have done very little to add to the roster this off-season. As it stands now, unless your hands are regrettably damaged you can count the realistic threats to win the World Series on your fingers.
The obvious answer is for the other two-thirds of the teams to try and be competitive and have stars not just for the purpose of jettisoning them for minor league talent. Of course that’s easier said than done. I have however, one suggestion that might help that happen.
Change the draft. Right now, the MLB draft for young talent follows the time-honored tradition in most sports. Let the worst teams pick first. The teams pick in reverse to their records, thereby letting the worst team have the first shot at the best college-aged player around. In theory, it should help the bad teams get good fairly fast. It’s an especially good incentive as we keep seeing better prepared young kids thanks to baseball academies, better understanding of workout techniques and diet and so on. Phenoms like Ronald Acuna (20 last year with Atlanta) and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (20 this year and already on many experts lists of ten best hitters in the game despite not being in one big league game yet) seem to be coming around more frequently and increasing the hunger for that first, second or third (at worst) draft picks. Pity the Red Sox and Yanks, who try to win annually and end up picking 29th or 30th!
The answer, and yes, people in places like Miami and San Diego won’t like it, is to eliminate the structure of the draft being tied to win-loss records. Pick the teams randomly, through a bingo ball drop or computer algorhythm or whatever, so that the Red Sox would have an equal chance to the Orioles or Royals at going first.
Although it might seem unfair at first, it’s really the only way to prevent teams from deliberately “tanking” – being as bad as they can be in order to hopefully get better players in the draft and “someday” being ready to make a run for the roses. Because that seems to be the current philosophy in most team offices. The reasoning seems to be “well, if we spend a little and try, we’re maybe going to be able to win 82, 83 and finish third. So why not put out a trashy team, try to go 60-102 and get some good players for our minor league teams and maybe 5 years from now, we may be good and then we can bring in a $30M a year stud to help us win it all before tearing down again.” A philosophy which sucks if you’re a fan … and ultimately harms the bottom line of the team, salary dumps notwithstanding, as fans stay away and resist buying those flashy new caps or jersey the team tries to entice them with. Which results in less money for those teams and less chance of them getting in free agents who can help or even keeping around 4th or 5th year players they’ve developed.
Failing that, maybe the only thing that will work is taking the talented Mr. Verlander off the mound and dumping him in the Commissioner’s chair.
and the AL awards picks continue, with
Cy Young Award- Blake Snell , Tampa Bay. the southpaw really came into his own in his third big league season, going 21-5 with a stellar 1.89 ERA through 31 starts. That ERA is not only about half what his prior career number was but was also a third of a run better than any of the 64 other AL hurlers who made it to 100 innings. His 96 MPH fastball helped him to 221 K compared to just 64 BB; opponents hit under .200 and slugged only .300 against him. Hard to argue with the league’s wins and ERA leader… although some have tried. Only knock against him is that he didn’t pitch as many innings as some, 180 2/3 to be exact. Granted, it would be nice to see a few more outs per start from him, but that’s more a function of the Rays managing strategies than his ability. And you can’t argue with success, which he had, helping the Rays to a solid third place in the toughest division in baseball. Take away his decisions and Tampa would be more or less a .500 club, not one that was in contention for a Wild Card spot.
Runner-up – Justin Verlander, Houston. Not long ago it seemed JV was nearly washed up on a moribund Tigers team. His velocity was down, ERA was up and he no longer instilled fear in batters on deck waiting to face him. Well, maybe it’s Kate Upton, maybe it’s being on a winning team… somehow Justin’s found a Fountain of Youth and is back to near his prime. This year he tied teammate Dallas Keuchel for the most starts (34) and was second in innings pitched, 214, and finished 16-9 with a 2.52 ERA. His heater is back up to 95 and he led the league with 290 stirkeouts. More suprising, he walked only 37, twenty less than his best total in a 200 inning season before.
Following him, a toss-up between Corey Kluber of Cleveland (20-7, 2.89, league-leading 215 IP) and Gerritt Cole of Houston (15-5, 2.88 through 32 starts.)
Coming next– the all-important MVP!
While I’ve of course focussed primarily on the Blue Jays when discussing the upcoming trade deadline this month and the possibility of players moving around, most if not all of the 30 MLB teams will be busy in the next twelve days. some will be adding, others subtracting (albeit, with an eye to adding to their future selves.) Only a few – Oakland, Washington, for instance- are in a place where they’re not clearly buyers or sellers. Which leads us to the first big. blockbuster trade of the July madness- yesterday’s confirmation of a long-rumored deal sending superstar infielder Manny Machado to the LA Dodgers. In return, Baltimore get back 5 minor league players, a pretty hefty payback compared to most July trades. Who’s the winner?
Well, like most good trades the answer is quite probably “both.” the Dodgers greatly enhanced their chances not only of holding onto the NL West division but returning to the World Series this fall whereas the Orioles, who have nothing much to hope for in the 2018 season (at 28-69, even catching Toronto for 4th place in the AL East is a longshot and their only real objective perhaps would be to best their 1988 mark of 54-107, worst in their team history) should win down the road, assuming even one of the 5 young ‘uns turns into a reasonable major leaguer down the road.
There’s a decent chance of that, since the top name they got back was Yusneil Diaz, an outfielder from Cuba the Dodgers had spent over $30 million on so far, between signing bonuses, legal fees to get his immigration from Castro’s island approved and completed and so forth. Athlon sports noted the 21 year old was “talented” and “hit .332 in AA debut last year”. The others are two pitchers, and two infielders, neither considered sure-things but all rated as having adequate potential. A team winning less than 30% of its games is sure to benefit from even ordinary talent into its system.
For the Dodgers, the payoff is obvious. They’ve been heating up of late, finally overtaking Arizona for first in their division after winning 12 of their last 20, but at 53-43 and with only a half game lead, they’re far from a shoo-in to even make the post-season again, let alone make it back to the World Series for a second straight year. Although leading the West, if they dropped one game, they’d be behind Arizona and behind Atlanta for the final Wild Card spot. Where almost any team would benefit from a solid-hitting, smooth-gloved Machado, LA seems especially likely to see it pay off as their regular star shortstop, Corey Seager is on the DL and not likely to even return this year, recovering from elbow surgery. Since he went down, Chris Taylor’s been filling in, with so-so results. He’s hitting .253 with 11 homers and a .786 OPS and has been caught stealing more times than he’s succeeded. All the numbers are down from last year for him. He’s been of decent, but unspectacular glove in 60 games at short.
Machado will therefore keep playing SS, which he says he prefers over his past spot at third, and where he looks quite at home. So far in Baltimore this year, he’s been just a bit shy of Mark Belanger-ish with his glove at the new position, with only 8 errors but a very sharp 54 double plays turned in 91 games. He looks like a Gold Glove veteran in his first year at that spot, but even if he were lead-gloved, his bat alone would be enough for most teams to want him in the lineup every day.
So far in ’18, Machado’s en route to a career year, hitting .315, with a .575 slugging percentage and .963 OPS, all career highs. His 24 homers and 65 RBI put him on a pace to better his 2016 highs of 37 and 96. While there could be a couple of caution signs for LA to watch for ( for instance, he hits far better in hitter-friendly Camden Yard than on the road, with him hitting only .274 on the road this year and only 7 of the longballs coming outside of Baltimore) there are more reasons to be optimistic (for instance, he improves with runners in scoring position, hitting .352 in such at bats. And last year,he improved after the All Star break, hitting 60 points higher and driving in more runs despite that part of the year being 10 fewer games for him.) All things considered, he’s bound to drive in more runs for LA than Taylor … and add a spark.
It’s tough to over-estimate the effect the addition of a star to the lineup can make at the mid-summer break or just after. It shows the players their bosses have confidence in them, brings more cheering fans to the stands and in many cases brings in a new level of work ethic or enthusiasm in the dugout. Last year’s World Series champs knew it, picking up aging Justin Verlander just minutes before the final trade deadline. Justin looked rejuvenated, pitching like the 2011 MVP version of himself, going 5-0 with a microscopic 1.06 ERA in September, then continuing on to be a rock in the playoffs, with a 2.21 ERA in five starts and one relief appearance. (since joining Houston, he’s a cumulative 18-6 with a 2.09 ERA through 31 starts). There’s little doubt the Astros would not be World Champions without his addition late last year. Likewise, the 2016 World Champion Cubs benefitted no small amount by solidifying their bullpen at the end of July by bringing in fireballing Aroldis Chapman who did the best pitching of his career through August-September of that year, picking up 16 saves, striking out 46 in just over 26 innings and boasting an ERA barely over 1. He was a bit iffy for Chicago in the playoffs, but it’s highly doubtful they’d have made it to Game 7 of the Fall Classic without him.
Will the Dodgers benefit similarly come October? Well, there’s still a lot of baseball to be played and surprises always happen, not to mention more players to be traded. But I think they greatly enhanced their chances to win it all and have all but locked up the NL West again this year. I didn’t expect Arizona to hang onto the division before, now they’re going to really have to up their game- and probably their payroll via trades- to have a ghost of a chance. Going into the post-All Star period, I now see LA as being the National’s most likely champion and about on par with Boston as the likeliest to be partying come November.
My current predictions on team’s chances to be World Series champions are like this (number is percentage chance, which I arrive at by chances of winning division or wild card,then of winning the league playoffs)
LA Dodgers , Boston 17%
New York Yankees 12%
Chicago Cubs 10%
Arizona, Atlanta, Washington 4%
Seattle, Philadelphia 3%
Oakland, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Colorado, San Francisco 2%
That of course could easily change with a Cole Hamels going here or Adam Jones there! Bring on the “Second Half”!