SportsProf

(Hopefully) good sports essays and observations for good sports by a guy who tries (and can sometimes fail) to be a good sport.

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Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Thank You, Donovan McNabb

Thanks for all that you did for the Philadelphia Eagles.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Biggest Lies are the Ones that We Tell Ourselves

Phillies GM Ruben Amaro should heed this advice.  As one area columnist put it this morning, quoting Bill Parcells, "You are what your record says you are." 

So Ruben Amaro is telling himself that despite a frequently anemic offense and a bullpen that has Venus de Milo stand-ins are members, the Phillies somehow can contend for a wild-card berth.  Rest assured, Amaro is not alone in his thinking.  Callers into local sports-talk radio stations who either don't follow the Eagles or cannot admit that their baseball season will have an unhappy ending also are arguing that with a few of the right additions the team can contend.  They point to 2007, where the team unloaded veteran OF Bobby Abreu near the deadline and actually played a lot better.  They think that the starting pitching will continue to toss quality starts, that the bullpen will improve and that the offense will get better.  So, they want to be buyers, and they don't want to give up.

It's admirable that no one wants to give up, so to speak, and it's better to be a buyer than a seller, because that means that you are in contention.  But with ESPN's Jayson Stark offering that this year is one of the worst buyer's markets in history, it makes all the sense in the world to evaluate whether it makes sense to be a seller and the effects on the near- and long-term if the team is a big seller now or not.  So, here goes.

1.  Reasons to be a big seller.  First, the team already is at a disadvantage, because one of the best opportunities they could have had was to try to peddle Cliff Lee to a desperate Rangers' team whose window is closing for a title.  The Rangers gave up at least one very good prospect (3B Mike Olt) to the Cubs for Garza.  It says here that the Phillies would have gotten more from the Rangers, perhaps not the mother lode they coveted in 2012, but more.  Having dispensed with that, let's look at the problem statement -- the team is trying to rebuild itself so that it can contend again as quickly as possible.  It's had a steady decline since '08, going from World Series champion to not making the playoffs in '12 (getting older and more injured).  Its offense has declined, its starting pitching has improved, but its bullpen has plummetted. 

So, you have a nucleus of the following few:  OF Domonic Brown, SS Jimmy Rollins (he's still one of the best SS's in the game) and starting pitcher Cole Hamels.  You also have some very nice parts in C Carlos Ruiz (whose contract expires after this year and who, despite not-so-great results, still has enough reputational value to draw serious interest), 2B Chase Utley (a rumored Utley to Oakland deal could bring 3 prospects, and his contract expires, too), 3B Michael Young (viewed as a nice piece and veteran leader), P Cliff Lee (he could really make a difference for any team and could put the right team over the top) and closer Jonathan Papelbon (in a bit of a slump, but still a very elite closer who could draw several prospects).  Doing the math, you could draw for this crowd 9-12 prospects, at least half of whom could be in the Baseball Prospectus top 101 (even if at the back end).  That nucleus -- a good mix of position players and pitchers -- could leave you fortified to rebuild quickly, assuming that some of the few minor-league prospects you have actually pan out.  You'll also have a lot of money available, as you won't have the contracts of Lee, Utley and Papelbon (who make a collective $45-$50 million a year).  And, perhaps you'll have a (finally) healthy Ryan Howard to begin next season (after two years of struggling).  Sure, Howard won't be the Howard of old, but at least he'll be healed.   In two years, you'll have great competition for jobs and a chance to do some damage.  Clean house, the reasoning goes, shed contracts, get prospects, perhaps sign a few free agents, and, voila, you'll get younger and more formidable.

Yes, you might suffer at the gate.  You're already suffering this season, and you'll definitely suffer next season.  But. . . you're going to suffer this season more most likely anyway.  And, if you do that, you'll suffer next year under the other scenario because you'll be a year older and creakier.  So, the gate should not be a huge consideration -- it's going to be bad for a number of years.  Under this scenarios, perhaps fewer than under the next one.

2.  Be buyers.  You only go around once in life, so you should go for it, and building for the future is for the teams that never get there.  You have a fan base to honor, a loyal fan base, and one that will walk if they have to watch Freddy Galvis and John Mayberry, Jr. in the lineup too much together.  Buy veterans, who cares if you get older now, and who cares if you give up some of the top prospects (they aren't that good, anyway, as only one is in the top 101 of Baseball Prospectus).  Fortify the bullpen, get another bat, and then watch the Braves and Nationals wilt and then win enough to get to 86 wins and get the second wild card.  Then toss Lee, Hamels and perhaps a healthy Roy Halladay out there, and you'll have a good chance.  Look, the Cards teams that have won it recently got hot at the right time and weren't all that good, so this team will have a chance, even if it means getting nothing for Ruiz and Utley and keeping Michael Young.  Yes, you will not get all of the prospects suggested above, but you'll keep your gate in check, make a good run, keep the fan base excited and worry about the next three-to-five seasons after this season.  Ruben Amaro always has something up his sleeve, you'll still have a lot of room on the payroll, and perhaps we can pick the right cornerstone free agents and build a new team with just them and not with all of the additional prospects we could get, too. 

No, we cannot suffer at the gate this eason, and next season is a different day.  We have a great stadium and good fan base, so we don't expect to fall much below the loss of 8,000 fans per game we suffered this year, even if the team is older, creakier and worse.  We'll still get a pass for a few years as we straighten things out, and who says that we'll have a drought of more than a year or two anyway? 

There are some big assumptions with both strategies:

1.  Who knows which free agents will be available and whether ownership can lure them to the Bank?
2.  Teams will be willing to trade very good prospects for some of our pieces.
3.  If we trade Cliff Lee, the team to which we trade him will take all of his salary.
4.  If we make trades now, we'll be able to get some bullpen help without giving up a lot.
5.  People will give us serious prospects for each and every piece.
6.  Lee's and Papelbon's most recent (and disastrous) performances haven't diminished their value.

There also aren't some big assumptions, but some givens:

1.  The Phillies' farm system is not very good.
2.  The gate has suffered, so it stands to reason that if there is no significant improvement, it will suffer worse.
3.  The team is getting older, and, as it has aged in the past, injuries increase.
4.  The Phillies will have much less in contract obligations after this season.
5.  It's vague as to which Roy Halladay will return in August and whether he will return this season.

So, which way do you go?  You're in second place, but you're about 7 out, and that's just in your division.  The wild card spots seem to be more of a reach.  You're older, but the NL isn't that strong a league.  It's a seller's market, so you could get overpaid for your players. 

It's a tough call, but Ruben Amaro gets paid to make them.  If he were to ask me, I would advise "sell," because I think that it's somewhat delusional to think that as currently constructed this team can make a serious run for a World Championship.  And, given it's age, it's time to sell and start the rebuilding process.  I don't think that when Pat Gillick unloaded Bobby Abreu in '07 that he figured he'd win the World Series that quickly (in '08).  Correspondingly, it stands to reason that the sooner you move forward, the faster you'll have a chance to make a deep run in the post-season.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Next Wave of Baseball Analytics

I really like all of the stats that the baseball math experts have come up with.  The sport is so rich with data that good mathematicians can have a field day with analyzing who is an effective performer and who is not.  While my friends and I did not come up with nearly the detailed analysis that the current crop of experts has (we were in high school at the time), in the 1970's we came up with some numbers -- on-base percentage for hitters and on-base percentage yielded for pitchers) that helped us figure out who were the best players to take in our annual mid-summer Strat-o-Matic draft.  Around the same time, a great high school athlete in California, Billy Beane, was doing the same thing. 

My friends and I did not pursue our interest in baseball numbers.  At the time, baseball was full of gruff, mistrusting guys without college degrees who didn't like anyone who wasn't like them and who were more concerned with tools and the "good face," than with numbers that would have made someone with a body along the lines of a Kevin Youkilis stand out (that Youkilis became a star and one-time Phillies first-round draft pick, an OF from Chicago named Jeff Jackson who was taken fourth overall did not must gall many any old-school scout, including those in the Phillies' front-office at the time).  There just didn't seem to be a market for that type of stuff, and we just didn't have the sophistication to market it. 

Of course, we were far from alone.  Sabremetics came into existence around that time, Bill James too.  Still, we didn't have the internet then, and we didn't know who else was doing what except that the one guy who belonged to the Society for American Baseball Research kept us informed. 

Fast forward to today, where the world is rife with all sorts of data, the culmination of which is the annual publication of Baseball Prospectus.  That book is great at predicting outcomes and great at analyzing data.  What it doesn't touch upon is whether a player is so wired that his performance cannot change regardless of whether he changes his behavior.  The data suggests that both front offices should change their behaviors behind drafting (my hometown Phillies love toolsy players, great athletes, but name one outside Domonic Brown who has emerged in the past thirty years) and that players should change their behaviors regarding hitting and pitching . . . so that they will change trends, reverse them and, as a result, steer their careers from the inevitable career graveyards of hitters who cannot get on base and pitchers who walk too many batters or get hurt too much.

As for hitters, let's look at Brown, who, up until this year, was a big disappointment.  Projected to be a hitter in the heart of the order, Brown struggled.  That is, until he worked tirelessly with Phillies' hitting coach Wally Joyner (who, ironically, went to the same high school as Brown years earlier) to shorten his swing (taking a page out of teammate Chase Utley's book) and become a demon at the plate.  It probably was clear to the Phillies' brass and Brown that were Brown to have continued with his long, loopy swing, he would have had a mediocre career as a fourth outfielder whose power numbers belied his size and athleticism.  So, Brown, in a way, used his data to change his approach.  Smart thinking.

Pitchers are a different breed.  To his credit, a middling prospect named Charlie Morton of the Pirates wasn't satisfied with his results, so he tried to copy Roy Halladay's motion.  The good news for Morton was that at the beginning (say a third of a season) he put up Hallday-like numbers.  The sad news was that, thereafter, he got hurt, imploded and performed, well, like an injured Halladay performed before he went on the DL this year (or worse).  Morton's decisions perhaps were a bit extreme.  His numbers prior to adopting the "Be Like Roy" strategy did not project success in the Majors, but perhaps he needed to change his approach versus imitating someone else.  So, for example, Morton might have adopted a different training regimen (yoga, flexibility training a la the 49ers) and concentrated more (such as perfecting a changeup), and that might have worked.  In the end, though, he's been another oft-injured starter, and the window for him shut pretty quickly.

Perhaps where Major League teams stand today is that they need to do something with the data other than characterize players as also rans or trade them.  They invest heavily in prospects, so they might want to invest heavily in changing approaches.  It shouldn't take much, for example, to get a kid who has struck out 150 times a season for the past two seasons at AA to change his swing, especially if he walks enough and his power is decent.  That type of change might dictate whether he becomes another Crash Davis or has a successful Major League career.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

When You Are Not Entitled to Fundraise for Your Travel Sport

I was driving through my town today after a great workout at the gym, en route to the local Starbucks for a simple indulgence of a soy mocha and a breakfast wrap.  At every street corner, I saw girls and parents with signs hailing that the "local" soccer team (the blast, explosion, tornado, cyclone, whatever) is going to nationals!  And, they have open cans to let you show your appreciation and support them, too.  What a joy to face during your "me" time early on a Saturday morning.

I walked by them with such a sense of purpose that they knew I wasn't interested.  I also didn't want to engage them in a dialogue regarding why I wouldn't think of giving them a plugged nickel, unless the circumstances for a single player were so unique that she alone warranted support (more on that later).  Put simply, they have a lot of nerve asking for anything from anyone.  Here's why:

1.  If they are from the town, then they really are selfish.  Why?  I won't give you my zip code, but suffice it to say that we are well above the poverty level.  So, translated, you want to go to some godforsaken, overheated place in the midwest to play in "nationals" (which is a euphemism because, as with many sports, there are many such "national" tournaments), then pay for it yourself.  You have the money to do so, and, if for some reason this is a tight economic year for you, then don't go out for dinner so much or don't take your family for a week at the South Jersey shore.  In other words, sacrifice one comfort or luxury for another.  You just don't warrant my support.

2.  If they are not from the town, then they fail to realize that I am support them enough (and they really don't care about my town, it's just that the local organization recruited them and they are mercenaries benefitting from our taxpayer-support fields, too).    Yes, that's right.  Travel has cannibalized all local rec leagues, the poor justifications being a) that everyone else is doing it, b) that college is expensive so let's try to give our kids the advantage by perhaps getting a college scholarship (although the money is not nearly as available as people think) or c) (actually no one says this), but mom and dad don't have the most thrilling lives so this gives them something to do, something to brag about, something to have some power over or in, by being the head of some local athletic association or a coach.

But I have digressed.  Local towns will try to tell taxpayers that their "user" fees make sure that they more than break even from local "athletic" associations and that non-residents pay a lot more, so that local kids are preferred.  But they're not really telling you everything.  First, when's the last time they've asked those associations for an accounting?  Perhaps never, even though at least once a year you see a newspaper article reporting that a local treasurer of an association in the area was charged with siphoning funds to pay for European vacations, a boat or Eagles tickets.  Second, they have no clue as to the breakdown of the township kids who play and the non-township kids who play, for whatever reason (in one case where I live, both travel's cannibalism of rec leagues and the egos of the travel bosses have shrunk the matriculation in the rec leagues, and the sad irony is that the state is giving the local association, which is politically connected, a grant to build more fields -- even where they are not needed!)  Third, the "out-of-town" user fees are not a deterrent to keeping out wandering Hessians and preferring local kids; yes, they can be more, but not by a staggering sum.  (To me, charging $1,250 for a resident and $1,650 for a non-resident doesn't present a deterrent; charging $1,250 for a resident and $3,000 for a non-resident might).

All of this -- emphasis on travel, kids quitting the sport because they cannot afford travel, their parents don't have the time to commit or they are not good enough and suffer from neglect from the organizations, rec league's being left barren or just being dissed by travel families -- is in the face of the fact the the world is fatter and getting more obese and diabetic.  Too many kids are inactive, the U.S. is the second most obese country in the world (Mexico just  beat us out for first), and we're worried about fielding "elite" travel teams populated with non-residents?  Why?  Not for the good out a town's kids or for the good of the town, but for the good of the egos that have hijacked the local organization for their own purposes.  But if you're not from my town, you really don't give a rodent's rear end what town's name is on the front of the jersey so long as the team gives your kid a good chance to get to the next level.  And that means that a local kid isn't getting a chance, and that also means that my tax dollars already are supporting you.  And that means you are as equally unentitled to my donation as a township resident with a kid on the team.

And, finally, so as to show that I am not a total grump on this point:

I would contribute in the following circumstances:  show me a kid whose living in a single-parent family, who is a very good talent and kid, whose single parent works more than one job to support the family.  I'll give you a lot more than a token buck or two to help you get halfway across the country, because you deserve the help.  That said, if that kid does exist, then the other parents of kids on the team should step up and help pay for that kid, especially the ones who drove the BMW SUVs to the street corners where they were asking for money.

But, somehow, people who show up to these corners in vehicles that cost $50,000 or more aren't worth stopping for.  That doesn't mean that they aren't good or caring people.

It just means that they're making a mistake here.

Charity is for the needy.

And not for already advantaged, entitled reasonably affluent travel athletes.

Rome fell, and I would suggest that we all study why, because stuff like this suggests a significant erosion of values and priorities.

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Why Do So Few Care About Professional Tennis?

Going back 30 years, there weren't as many choices on TV.  Almost no one had cable TV, and we weren't as crazed with kids' sports as we are now.  Wimbledon and the U.S. Open riveted us -- McEnroe, Connors, Borg, Gerulaitis, Orantes, Vilas, Nastase -- they played roles, some had outsized personalities.  They wore white, used wooden rackets, and the balls had just changed over from white to optic yellow or green.  People liked watching the women, too -- first, Billie Jean King, the pioneer (few remember that her brother, Randy Moffitt, was a very good closer for the San Francisco Giants), then Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova.  Billie Jean was talented and determined, Chrissie was everyone's cutie, and Martina was a force of nature. 

Around the same time, some of the golfing greats were aging just a bit -- Jack Nicklause, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Lee Trevino.  Ben Crenshaw didn't quite emerge as the next great one; neither did Tom Kite.  The Big Four, as it were, enjoyed great popularity, but at the time one might have predicted that tennis would have taken off and golf might have waned.  Why?  The simplest reason of them all -- the lack of a superstar that people would have wanted to follow.  Tom Watson was good, but he didn't have the people pushing him that the Big Four did.  Johnny Miller was great for a while, but he was somewhat irascible to Watson's bland style.

But what happened was entirely different.  Sure, in both sports the training methods became more sophisticated and the equipment "better".  "Metal" woods have taken over in golf; graphite racquets in tennis.  Courses got longer in golf so as not to be rendered a joke through long drives and short irons into greens.  Tennis courts didn't get bigger, but serve and volley players who could rocket 140 m.p.h. serves became a norm, too.  Sampras, Federer and Nadal are all great players, but it seems now that tennis only has room for a single great one, and if he doesn't have a temper like McEnroe or fire like Connors or hair like Borg, well, he doesn't pack 'em in (unless the 'em are already part of the initiated who were raised on tennis and will love it no matter what).  For a U.S. fan, there are a lot of foreign women, and, truth be told, many Russians and Eastern Europeans for whom English cannot be their first language and whose names are hard to announce and even harder to remember.  Fans remember Anna Kournikova, but for her looks and bald-faced attempts at sex appeal, not for her game. 

It's probably the case that the USGA did a better job attracting juniors than the USTA.  It's also probably the case that golf is more of an event to play and perhaps has some allure, whereas tennis might involve playing on local courts that need to be swept, dried out or resurfaced to take away the ability of weeds to grow in cracks.  On a more serious note, kids get scheduled for team sports quite a bit, so perhaps after academy soccer, rec league basketball and club lacrosse, there isn't a whole lot of time for anything more.  Many parents seek out teams so that their kids know what teamwork is and eschew the solitude that tennis guarantees, especially if you are any good.  It's just hard to become buddies with the kid whose brains you have to crush in order to climb the ladder and get a better ranking.  Finally, the advent of video games hurts, too, as many kids would rather play Madden and talk about it over a wireless mike to their friends than actually get out there and rally on a tennis court.

But the biggest reason is that it seems that the USGA has done a much better job of  branding golf than the USTA has done with tennis.  First, golf courses can be beautiful and set at destination locations.  Almost all tennis courts look the same.  Second, the USGA seemingly does a better job of branding its stars.  Third, the USGA seemingly does a better job of branding, period.  But, to me, the stars are the thing. 

A McEnroe-Connors match was a thing to behold.  A Sampras-Agassi had some of that because of Agassi, but the latter had so much difficulty beating Sampras that you really couldn't have called the rivalry a great one (and, sadly, sometimes the greatest get anointed so because of the quality of their competition -- Muhammad Ali beat many great fighters; his former sparring partner and a successor as world champ, Larry Holmes, fought very few if any, so it's hard to tell how good he really was).  After Federer and Nadal, it's hard to get interested in anyone, and it's doubly hard to get interested in any tournament that's not a major.  Sure, those tournaments fill ESPN's air time at curious hours, but that's about it. 

I still do not know why so few care about professional tennis.  I suppose that in addition to the video games' craze and the ability to watch just about anything on Netflix, Americans are more prone to play golf than tennis because, well, they are heavier than they used to be.  So, if you're 15 pounds overweight, you're still much more likely to play golf than to look silly in tennis whites and risk an injury because you are very much out of shape.  If that's the case, then you're more likely to watch golf in the pretty setting than tennis in some stadium baking in the sun somewhere, unless it's Wimbledon or the U.S. Open (I would contend that the diehards will watch the French and Australian, but that's about it).

So, why do so few care about professional tennis?

1.  Watching rallies is less compelling than watching stock cars circle the tracks.
2.  Fewer people play it because they are out of shape.
3.  People are heavier and can play golf while overweight much more easily than play tennis.
4.  The technology of the rackets makes the players more programmed and robotic.
5.  There hasn't been a great American hope on the men's side for a while.
6.  It's not marketed as well.

Take your pick.  What do you think?

Monday, July 01, 2013

The End of an Era

It wasn't going to last forever.

A Hall of Fame GM figured out over a half century ago that it was best to stay young, sell players right after they peaked.  It was hard to figure out when that was, of course, because players are individuals, but he parlayed good players into good players.  His name was Branch Rickey.

We knew in 2008 that the Phillies couldn't keep it going forever.  Sure, they had a good team, and, yes, they had a good farm system.  But they parlayed it for big-name starting pitchers, and the position players got old fast.  And then they added two old position players, Raul Ibanez and Placido Polanco, and they got hurt.  Big contracts entered, and incentives lessened, despite protests that the players were professionals.  Binoculars were found out, as were steroids in the entire game and, also, amphetamines. Recovering from injuries became more difficult, staying peppy for 162 games all but impossible.

They declined steadily.  World Series win in '08, World Series loss in '09, NCLS loss in '10, NLDS loss in '11 and then a failure to make the playoffs in '12.

It is time to break the team up.

You can't trade Ryan Howard because his contracts is dead weight.  He hasn't evolved, and he's becoming yet another argument against long-term deals.  He was rewarded for past accomplishments, not future ones.  You are stuck with him.

But Chase Utley might agree to a trade out west.  The Giants, A's and Dodgers all could use him.  Carlos Ruiz's contract expires; he'd look good in Yankee pinstripes.  Cliff Lee might be the big prize; teams will line up for him.  He can make the difference between a short post-season run and a championship.  Jonathan Papelbon also looms large -- the Red Sox could use his services as a closer.  Michael Young also could be an extra piece for a contender.

All of the above could bring serious prospects to the team -- position players with good OPS potential, pitchers with upside.  Sure, they can say that they'll keep Lee and then build around him and Cole Hamels, and, yes, few might be able to fathom the Phillies without Chase Utley.  But at some point the whole roster will turn over, they'll get very old and either retire or fade from the game after seasons that become so partial as to be almost non-starters.  Father Time will catch up with all of them, so it's time to cash in.

Before it's too late.

While there remains significant value.

While there remains a chance to garner major prospects to re-build the team.

Okay, so it will be easy to get tickets, and, yes, the team will lose concession sales because attendance will plummet.  But at least the fans will begin to look forward to a new era, as opposed to having box seats to a sad slide.  Sure, they'll precipitate a faster downfall, but, also, a faster rebirth.

It was great in '08, wasn't it?  But what happened in '08 suggests that the formula for winning has your team having the right pieces in the right place at the right time -- an aging pitcher telling a starting pitching staff it was good enough, a bullpen without any holes and with a perfect closer, a bench with clout and position players all looking for big deals, a team on the upswing, and with everyone else being talked about at the outset of the post-season, it was the Phillies who smoked Milwaukee, dusted the Dodgers and then finished off the Rays.

Sure, there is a crisis, as the team is struggling, and the potential for awful attendance looms.  But lurking behind the bad news is opportunity -- an opportunity to trade value for future value, and to build for the future.

It is July, and there are 30 more days until the inter-league trading deadline.  It is time for GM Ruben Amaro to put up the "For Sale Sign."

It is time to close the chapter on the Chase Utley Phillies.

It is time to begin the next one.