Monday, April 25, 2011

Playoffs or Regular Season? Which should decide?

There is speculation that the major leagues will expand its playoffs by adding a second wild card team. It is instructive to look back at recent seasons to see what this would do.

In the American League:

2010 - Yankees and Red Sox, 
2009 - Rangers and Red Sox
2008 - Yankees and Red Sox, 
2007 - Yankees and (Seattle or Detroit)
2006 - Tigers and White Sox
2005 - Indians and  Red Sox
2004 - Oakland and Red Sox
2003 - Seattle and Red Sox
2002 - Anaheim and (Red Sox or Mariners)
2001 - Oakland and Twins

Its important to realize that the Red Sox were the wild card team 5 of the 7 times they are on that list. The Yankees were the wild card team in 2 of 3 times they appear. This is not, as some have argued, a plan to help those two teams get into the playoffs. But what is interesting is that in 3 or 4 of those ten seasons, the wild card playoff would be between the second and third place team from the same division. There is a similar pattern in the National League. In these instances you are substituting a one or three game playoff for the results of a 162 game season. 

If baseball wants to expand the playoffs, they ought to go back to 4 divisions. Then let the second and third place teams in the divisions play each other for the chance to play the division winners. Eliminate "wild cad" teams altogether and let the regular season competition in each divisions decide who makes the playoffs. Would anyone really care if the 4th place team occasionally has a better record than the other division's third place team? I don'[t think so, not unless the 4th place team happens to be the Twins. This would restore the prestige of winning the regular season and it would create real competition within the divisions with teams battling one another for the opportunity to get into the playoffs.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Bonds belongs in the HOF, McGwire doesn't.

Barry Bonds belongs in the Hall of Fame, despite having been found guilty of obstruction of justice. In fact the trial outcome should make no difference. Anyone with any sense knew that Bonds was using steroids. Some sports writers are now doing their best impression of Claude Raines in Casablanca, "Shocked, shocked to discover" steroids were being used. Some are saying they won't vote for known steroid users. This seems to be applying a simple standard, don't get caught. Because many of these writers can make a list of players they think were using steroids, but its only the ones who have been publicly exposed by someone other than Jose Canseco who are to be chastised. 

Use of steroids in this fashion was not only cheating, it was illegal. There are no rules against having someone break your opponents leg before a big game because we don't need rules to prevent that. The same with steroids. Their use was illegal, even if baseball had no explicit rule against them. But then drinking was illegal for a long time while baseball players, including Babe Ruth, were well-known for their love of demon-rum (and whiskey and beer and ...). The difference with steroids is that players who used them got a huge advantage over players who didn't. So we don't rule out players who break the law. 

So if using steroids isn't an automatic HOF rejection,  why not McGwire? Because his only real HOF credential is his breaking Maris's record and his ranking among career home run leaders. Both of those "accomplishments" are clearly the result of steroid abuse. Absent McGwire's late life steroid induced home run binge, he would be remembered as a guy who was never able to repeat the year he had when he broke in. 

By  contrast, Barry Bonds was already a Hall of Fame certainty, even before his obvious foray into steroid abuse gave him the home run records. His only major handicap was his surly reputation with the media who vote for the Hall of Fame. 

Perhaps the most telling testimony in Bonds trial was by his former long-time girlfriend as she described the effects steroids had on him. The changes in mood, the injuries, shrinking testicals, acne etc. More than anything it made the case for why steroid abuse is banned. It demonstrated clearly the cost to players if they are forced to use drugs in order to compete with those that do. Bonds in many ways is a perfect example. It appears he took up steroids to show the world he was a better player than his long time Bay are rival, Mark McGwire. 

In some ways, Bonds is as much a victim of the steroid era as he was one of its perpetrators.   

Friday, April 01, 2011

Twins Past Their Prime? Not Hardly.

One of our local sports writers is getting ahead of himself. He suggests that the Twins are an aging team and therefore should expect to finish behind the White Sox and Tigers. But, in fact, the Twins remained one the younger side teams in baseball last season. According to baseball reference the average age of their hitters and pitchers was each only slightly over 28. Bill James, back in the mid-80's did a study that players' best year was somewhere between 27 and 28. That is also the average age of major league players. But baseball reference uses a weighted average based on how much a player played. The raw league average age is pulled down by young players who get brief callups. And if you look at performance by age, it is not a bell curve. In fact, players averages hit their peak around 27 or 28 and plateau until age 30 or 31 and then start to decline.

Using baseball reference ages, the Twins hitters on average were the 10th youngest team in baseball, only Cleveland in the Central Division was younger. Its pitching was slightly older than average at 28.6, the major league average was 28.4. That put them at 22nd in terms of pitching. In the division, KC,Detroit and Cleveland were all considerably younger. The White Sox pitching was almost a year older.

Of course, that was last year. The only hitters over the average age last year who will be back are Jim Thome (who pulled the average up a lot with 108 games and 340 at bats),MIchael Cuddyer and Justin Morneau. Players who pulled the average up that are gone include Orlando Hudson, Nick Punto and Brendan Harris. From this year's Twins lineup, based on their age last year, you would expect four players Span,Young, Valencia, Casilla and Nishioka to be better than last year. You would expect Mauer, Kubel and Morneau to be in their primes, neither much better or much worse and you would expect declines only from Cuddyer and Thome. The bench has Butera who should improve, while Repko and Tolbert are in their primes. That is not a formula for decline. In fact, the Twins offense should get slightly better based on their age last year and the fact they got younger in the offseason.

On the pitching staff, Pavano and Nathan are the only returning players who are past their prime based on age. Rauch, Guerrier, Fuentes pulled the average up and they are gone along with Jesse Crain who was right at league average. Baker and Blackburn are in their primes at 28, the same age as Crain. Slowey, Duensing and Liriano were all below league average in age. As were Capps, Mijares, Perkins and Manship who will be with the team this year. Again, the Twins got rid of a lot of aging players over the off-season and restocked with young players.

Based solely on their age, you can expect declines from Pavano, Nathan, Cuddyer and Thome. You can expect Mauer, Kubel, Morneau, Baker and Blackburn to perform at about the same level. And you can expect Span, Young, Valencia, Casilla, Nishioka, Capps, Mijares, Perkins and Manship to improve. Of course age is not the only factor. If they are healthy, Nathan and Morneau will probably be more productive than last year.

So our local sports writer's claim that the "ravages of age" are catching up to the Twins is wrong. He knows better and is just stirring the pot. What this actually shows is one reason the Twins have been successful for so long. The Twins are constantly replacing aging players with younger ones. That was part of what prompted the middle-infield makeover this off-season. Where he is right, is that the Twins two MVP's, Mauer and Morneau, are no longer up-coming young players. But he ignores the likely emergence of Delmon Young into that group of stars that provides the basis for a championship team. And, as I said at the start, he is way ahead of himself. The Twins may be headed for decline in the future if guys like Young, Gibson, Hicks and Sano don't blossom into superstars like Mauer and Morneau. But that is not going to happen in 2011.

MLB Twins Updates