We got the Bubble-headed bleach-blond, comes on at 5….

I have been pre-occupied with life outside of baseball for a couple months. However, the second half of the season is officially underway and a major trade deadline comes in just 10 days. I’ll write a post about that in a few days, but for now I decided to bitch about the FOX television coverage of last week’s All-Star Game.

images[4]I hate watching sports programs on Fox Sports, but my dislike for Fox Sports has nothing to do with the political leanings of its parent company. However, like its “news” operation, Fox Sports has mastered the art of over-producing live sports and over-regulating its announcers. As a consequence, Joe Buck has become today’s version of the “bubble-headed bleach-blond” that Don Henley sang about two decades ago.

Those of you who know me have heard me rant about this before, but no one in TV land seems to care. Baseball fans mindlessly listen to the scripted drivel the spews from the Fox TV announcers as they “call” the baseball game. Let’s get one thing straight: Ernie Harwell was a baseball announcer. Ernie Harwell was not a friend of mine, but I listened to him for nearly a decade. Joe Buck, you’re no Ernie Harwell.

I often turn down the sound when I listen to Fox TV games because the announcers are so awful, but last week I subjected myself to a few innings of drivel because it was the All-Star Game and there are a number of young stars that I am curious about. True to form, the Fox producers could not help themselves and they ruined a perfectly good game.

Here is an excerpt for those of you who missed it….

Felix Hernandez enters the game in bottom of the 3rd inning. He gets the first out after two pitches.

Harold Reynolds [color commentator], “You know I asked Felix a few years ago, ‘What is your best pitch?’ and he said ‘all five. I can throw all five any time I need to.'”

Tom Verducci [another color commentator]: “And to borrow from Todd Frazier (the Cincinnati hitter who was on deck), that would be like asking Sinatra what his favorite song was. I mean, so many to choose from. I think it’s his changeup, the power change.”

Joe Buck [alleged play-by-play announcer]: “Sinatra also from NJ, Hoboken. Frazier, the Jersey kid.”

Meanwhile, the game is continuing. Andrew McCutchen strikes out and Todd Frazier comes to bat and they play Sinatra signing “Fly me to the moon” on the PA system at the ballpark.

Excuse me while I puke.

And so it went… When Madison Bumgarner, the San Francisco starting pitcher came into the game, all we heard were a litany of statistics from Joe Buck about Bumgarner’s performance in last year’s World Series, and how the KC All-Stars who were batting that inning (Lorenzo Cain and Salvador Perez) performed against Bumgarner eight months ago. Then, we were treated to several video clips from the 2014 World Series.

Every inning there is a new script. Very little time is spent talking about the game and there is almost no analysis of what is happening on the field.

My favorite baseball announcers – Ernie Harwell and Vin Scully — actually held a conversation with the fans as they explained events on the field. They understood the pace of the game and knew how to tell stories. The flow was natural and you followed the game as you followed the conversation, and the story never interfered with the game.

In stark contrast, the Fox crew receives a pre-game script and sits prepared to read it when instructed to do so. The perfectly-scripted coverage is boring because it is trite and predictable. The art of calling a game has been replaced by over-produced vignettes that have diminished the need for anyone who understands the game.

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In my dreams I see a fat man…

Pablo Sandoval is too fat to play 3B.

Sandoval is not the source of all the Red Sox problems this spring, but he is a good place to start analyzing what has gone wrong with a team that sports a $173 million payroll. After several good, but not great, years in San Francisco, Sandoval hit the jackpot this winter when his agent convinced the Red Sox to pay him $95 million over the next 5 seasons. Sandoval’s calling card is that he is a clutch hitter in the postseason. He played on 3 World Series Championship teams for San Francisco. His postseason statistics tell it all; .344 BA, .389 OBA, and .545 SLG. He has been unstoppable in the postseason and that is what made him so attractive to Boston.

Unfortunately, what makes him unattractive (in professional terms) is that he eats too much and doesn’t work out enough. In San Francisco he was a fan favorite and earned the moniker Kung Fu Panda because of his round shape. When he showed up in spring training for Boston this spring he looked more like a player on a beer league softball team than a major league infielder. Still, people gave him the benefit of the doubt, “Let’s see how he plays.”

Well, 55 games into the season the results are pretty obvious. Sandoval is sporting a .239 BA, .306 OBA, and .352 SLG. Much worse, his defense is among the worst I have ever seen. Last Sunday, he made two errors in a game at Texas and did not get to another infield ball that any average 3B would have fielded. His defense was the reason the Red Sox coughed up a lead and lost in the bottom of the 9th. On Thursday night, he made two more errors that cost the Red Sox another game. With a .239 batting average, we have seen enough. The remedy is to put him on the DL (obesity) and send him to the minors to work on defense, conditioning, and hitting. When he is in shape and has learned to play adequate defense, he can return to the majors. Until then, he can earn $19 million a season riding the bus to AAA ballparks.

In the meantime, the Red Sox should move Hanley Ramirez from LF back to 3B, where he is at least adequate defensively. I was disappointed when the Red Sox signed Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez (4 years $88 million, with a $22 million option) to huge contracts this winter.  Ramirez, an infielder with a long history of injury and attitude issues, agreed to play LF to accommodate the Sandoval signing. The problem is that he never played in the OF and he looks completely lost. Last week he let a ball drop in front of him that an average fielder would have caught. The next play, the rookie RF from Cuba – Rusney Castillo, came in on a ball before retreating and turning a routine fly ball into a double. Because the two misplayed balls in the OF were never touched by Ramirez and Castillo until they hit the ground, they were scored hits (not errors). On Thursday, Ramirez let a ball sail over his head and land on the warning track in LF. The LF wall in Fenway is 312 feet down the 3B line, meaning that you can play shallow and still get back to anything that lands short of the wall – unless you are a SS/3B by training.

Plenty has gone wrong for the Red Sox this season, but defense is at the top of the list. FanGraphs tells us that Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) measures what a player’s ERA would look like over a given period of time if the pitcher were to have experienced league average results on balls in play and league average timing. It relies on the things that a pitcher can control – home runs, walks, hit batters, and strikeouts. Pitchers cannot control what happens to a ball hit in the field of play. The outcome for a ball hit in play is determined by defense, luck, and timing. In contrast a pitcher’s Earned Run Average (ERA) is a function of pitching and defense. While it excludes runs scored that are attributable to errors, ERA will count as “earned” any runs that are scored when a player misplays a ball (as in the Ramirez and Castillo plays described above) or does not have the range to get to a ball (as in the Sandoval example above). So, FIP is a more precise indicator of what the pitcher can control. Moreover, ERA and FIP use the same scale, so that the league average FIP is equal to the league average ERA.

Given this primer, a comparison of a pitcher’s ERA and FIP is one indication of how much a pitcher has been hurt or helped by defense, timing, and luck. Consider the top four starters of the Boston Red Sox — Clay Buchholz (3.82 ERA, 2.94 FIP); Wade Miley (4.97 ERA, 3.72 FIP), Rick Porcello (5.01 ERA, 4.49 FIP), and Joe Kelly (5.83 ERA, 4.37 FIP). In each case, the Red Sox starters have inflated ERAs because of poor defense, and perhaps a little bad luck. But luck and timing tend to even out over time.

The decision to field a team with players who cannot get to balls in play has a significant impact on the pitcher’s performance. In the game last Friday when the outfielders misplayed balls that would have been the second and third outs of the inning, the Red Sox not only gave up 4 runs that should not have scored, but they also caused the pitcher to throw an additional 15 pitches, a typical inning worth of pitches. When teams can’t play defense, they put a lot of pressure on the pitching staff and they give up a lot of runs that should have been prevented.

The Red Sox pitching has not been very good this season and the hitting has been a huge disappointment, but the defense is unacceptable for a major league team that earns $173 million a year. While Hanley Ramirez is being asked to play out of position, Pablo Sandoval is being permitted to play out of shape. No wonder, in my dreams I see a fat man….

Money can’t buy you love (or championships)…

images[9]The business side of baseball has always fascinated me. In fact, following the offseason trades and contract negotiations is as interesting to me as watching the games during the spring and summer. Although the business of baseball remained relatively stagnant for over 100 years, Curt Flood’s challenge of the “reserve clause” in 1969 brought about a sea change in the acquisition, retention, and compensation of baseball players.

Before free agency, players had no control over their compensation or where they would play. Owners traded players and established the salaries. After the 1969 season, Curt Flood had the audacity to refuse a trade from the St. Louis Cardinals to the Philadelphia Phillies. Although Flood lost his legal challenge, arguing that he should be entitled to determine where he played, he paved the way for others who followed. Four years later, Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally were declared free agents after they played a season without contracts. The reserve clause enabled owners to reserve the rights to a player who was under contract, but after Messersmith and McNally played a season without contracts, the reserve clause no longer applied. Their successful challenge to the rules that had governed baseball for a hundred years ushered a new era in the management of baseball teams.

Once free agency arrived, players demanded higher salaries and had a right to choose where they would play. MLB realized that it needed a new system and negotiations with the Players Association resulted in a complicated set of rules that governs the movement and compensation of players. Before free agency, there was little risk that owners and general managers would make colossal financial mistakes. Owners controlled players and salaries, and the only risk was making a lopsided trade with another team (think Babe Ruth). However, after free agency, the business of baseball became much more complicated and dynamic.

Forty years after free agency began, the gap between the financial resources of big-market and small-market teams has never been greater. While fans of small-market teams often complain that the big name free agents are attracted to large media markets and teams with resources, those resources make the big-market teams more susceptible to colossal mistakes.

Recent examples abound. Just before the start of the 2012 season, the Detroit Tigers lost Victor Martinez to a season-ending injury. Super agent Scott Boras pounced on the opportunity and soon had his prize free agent, Prince Fielder, Jr., signed to a 9-year, $168 million contract. Two years and two unproductive postseasons later, the Tigers dumped Fielder’s bloated salary and excess weight on the Texas Rangers and acquired All-Star Ian Kinsler in return. Fielder was injured and missed the 2014 season in Texas, though he continued to receive his $24 million annual salary.

In July of 2012, the Boston Red Sox realized that they erred in signing Josh Beckett and Carl Crawford to huge free agent contracts. They engineered a 9-player trade that sent Beckett, Crawford, and Adrian Gonzalez to the Dodgers, along with $288 million in salary commitments. For some unknown reason, the new Dodgers ownership group, flush with cash and eager to make an impression with fans, agreed to a trade that involved a quarter of a billion dollars in payroll commitments. Although Gonzalez continues to play at a star level, Beckett’s contract was excessive given his deteriorating skill set, and Crawford has never lived up to the hype that preceded his $154 million deal with the Red Sox.

This season, things got even stranger. Back in 2012, Angels owner Artie Moreno made headlines when he signed 32-year old Albert Pujols to a 10-year, $240 million contract. The next year, the Angels signed 32-year old Josh Hamilton to a 5-year, $116 million contract. After a disappointing season in 2013 and an season-ending injury early in 2014, Hamilton had a relapse in his battle against alcohol. The Angels attempted to have Hamilton suspended so they would not have to pay his contract. The case proceeded to arbitration and the arbitrator ruled in favor of Josh Hamilton. Artie Moreno, who was committed to preventing Hamilton from playing for the Angels, traded Hamilton back to the Texas Rangers and agreed to pay almost all of his remaining salary. In essence, the Angels dumped the player and kept the salary! For the next three seasons, the Angels will be paying Hamilton to compete for a division rival. Now, there is an owner with more money than common sense!

The inability of small-market teams to compete for high-end free agents insulates them from the colossal financial mistakes that have become commonplace among big market teams. Teams like St. Louis, Kansas City, Tampa, and Oakland understand how to compete with modest budgets that force them to exercise greater discipline than big-market teams. The results are impressive as small-market and mid-market teams have appeared in the World Series 13 times in the 20 years. In contrast, the Yankees have sported a $200 million payroll in recent years, but only have one World Series appearance during the past 11 seasons, proving that money can’t buy you love, or championships.

“Time is our side….”

Jose AltuveIt is Derby Day and that means that we have seen enough games to take an early look at the baseball standings. Of course, there is always a reason to take a look at the baseball standings, but Derby Day means that we have completed the first month of the baseball season. The biggest surprise this spring has been the play of the Houston Astros who started with a 16-7 record. The Astros are led by 25 year old 2B Jose Altuve who has established himself as one of the best players in the game. Because he plays in Houston, however, he has not yet received much national attention.

Last year, Altuve led Major League Baseball in batting average (.341) and hits (225), and finished second in stolen bases (56). Altuve is off to a great start again this season, batting .376 and stealing 9 bases in his first 23 games. If the Astros continue to play well, Altuve should gain national prominence by the time former Astros 2B Craig Biggio is inducted into the HOF later this summer.

At the other end of the spectrum, the Milwaukee Brewers are already 11.5 games behind the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Central Division. The sharks are circling and rumors of a June fire sale have begun. While it is a bit early to throw in the towel, the prospects for a winning season in Milwaukee are bleak. It is a good thing that the fans have not grown tired of brats and beer….

Cleveland has also started very slowly, but with their young talent, manager Terry Francona, and the eventual return of star catcher Yan Gomes, the Indians should improve as the season progresses. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the Texas Rangers and Philadelphia Phillies. Both teams were expected to struggle this season and both suffer from a few aging players who are tremendously overpaid for their services. Although it would be helpful to shed some of those older players, finding teams willing to accept large contracts at the trade deadline will be difficult. The good news is that these teams may be in line for a great player in next year’s draft.

“You Can’t Always Get What You Want…”

Pedro MartinezPedro Martinez was the best pitcher to ever wear a Red Sox uniform.  During seven seasons with the Red Sox, Pedro won the Cy Young Award twice and finished second in the voting two other times. Pedro led the league in ERA four times as a Red Sox and won 117 games against only 37 losses. In 1999, I mooched a couple tickets to the All-Star game that was played at Fenway Park and watched Pedro retire all six batters he faced (including swinging strikeouts of Barry Larkin, Larry Walker, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, and Jeff Bagwell). Five years later, Pedro led the Red Sox to their first World Series Championship in 86 years. That success was made possible because of a commitment to acquiring Pedro via trade and then signing him to a very expensive contract. It was the best investment Red Sox history.

This year, as Pedro is inducted into the Hall of Fame, the Red Sox decided to tack in a different direction. They decided that five mediocre starting pitchers is sufficient to be competitive if you spend enough money acquiring offensive talent. So far, the experiment has been a dismal failure. After 3 weeks, the Red Sox have the worst starting rotation in all of baseball and the team has given up 7 or more runs in 7 of their first 21 games. Six times this season, the team has given up 5 or more runs in a single inning. Absolutely dreadful, but at least it is not costing them much money (by MLB standards). The starting rotation will be paid $40 million, which is a bargain considering the fact that front line starters receive $20 million or more per year. Instead of Pedro Martinez, Curt Schilling, Derek Lowe, Tim Wakefield, and Bronson Arroyo of the 2004 team, the 2015 Red Sox boast 5 starters who would be no better than the #3 pitcher on a good pitching staff.

So, as listened to the Red Sox give up 18 runs on Sunday and watched them give up 11 more tonight, I have been thinking about what it really means to have “5 #3 starters” in a rotation.  Here are my preliminary thoughts…. (1) This is not the greatest approach to fielding a competitive team, (2) They don’t want to really embarrass them by saying they have 5 #5 starters, (3) The guys in AAA are looking better all the time, (4) The guys in AA are looking pretty good too, (5) You need 8 or 9 guys in the bullpen because the starters never go more than 2 or 3 innings, (6) While the other team is “never out of it” your team is “never in it”, (7) No lead is “too big to fail,” and (8) 71 wins – 91 losses, here we come again….

Jackie Robinson Day

Jackie RobinsonApril 15th is best known as the day when your local television news team insists on showing a reporter standing next to a mail box at the local post office as people drive by to mail their income tax returns. With the exception of the idiot who stands in torrential rain and 85 mph wind to demonstrate that the hurricane has arrived, the April 15th coverage of the local post office just might be the lamest thing on television.

However, baseball fans have another reason to celebrate April 15, because it is the day that Jackie Robinson broke the “color barrier” in baseball. Although Hispanic and Native American players preceded Jackie Robinson in the major leagues, April 15, 1947 was the day that Major League Baseball finally confronted the insidious racism that plagued the sport. Robinson played in the Negro Leagues before joining the Brooklyn Dodgers and his story is well chronicled. He was a terrific second baseman and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1962. His 1955 Topps Baseball card is one of my absolute favorites, in part because it was the year that the long-suffering Brooklyn Dodgers finally celebrated a World Series Championship.

The thing I like best about watching baseball on April 15 is that every major league player wears the number 42 (with no name on the back of the jersey) to honor the achievement of Jackie Robinson. For the remaining 161 games of the baseball season, number 42 is reserved for Jackie.

The Future is Here…

Pirates OutfieldI became intensely interested in baseball during the 1970s, at a time when the Boston Red Sox assembled one of the most prolific offensive teams in baseball. By 1975, the Red Sox featured Hall of Fame catcher Carlton Fisk and a trio of outstanding young outfielders. Dwight Evans joined the Red Sox in 1972 and played right field for 20 seasons. He was an 8 time Gold glove winner and had one of the very best arms in the game. He had a .370 lifetime on base percentage and had more than 950 extra base hits. Jim Rice and Fred Lynn established themselves in 1975. Lynn has the distinction of being the first player to win the Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player awards in the same season. Lynn was selected to 9 consecutive All Star Games as a centerfielder and won 4 Gold Glove Awards. In his first full season, Rice finished 2nd (to Lynn) in the Rookie of the Year voting and 3rd in the MVP voting, en route to a 16-year Hall of Fame career. Although Lynn left Boston to play for California after the 1880 season, 1975 was the season that Rice, Lynn and Evans established themselves as the best outfield in baseball.

40 years later, three Pittsburgh Pirates outfielders are poised to establish themselves as well. Andrew McCutchen has already defined himself as the best centerfielder in baseball. He won the 2013 MVP award and finished third in the voting two other times. He has a combination of power, speed and defense that is rarely seen in centerfielders. Starling Marte is entering his 4th season and has established himself as an elite leftfielder. After the All Star break last year, Marte was one of the very best hitters in the game. The wild card in this trio is Gregory Polanco who is a rookie this season. He is 6’5″ and weighs 230 pounds, and has demonstrated prodigious power in the minor leagues. If he develops as expected, and if the Pirates can manage to pay these players  enough to keep them in Pittsburgh, then this outfield could be the very best for the next decade. Time will tell, but this season it will be fun to see how quickly and effectively  Polanco adjusts to major league pitching.