Why Applegate is the best thing to happen to MLB all season

Hey, Mr. Belichick, would you mind scooching over for a quick second there? Thanks.

Who, you might be asking, would ever want to sit next to Bill Belichick? Why, the other Boston coach caught illegally surveilling players, of course–the Boston Red Sox trainer who used illegal technology to steal the Yankees’ signs.

And for clarification, I am not talking about real signs; Hanley Ramirez isn’t running away with Yankee Stadium’s right field Casio billboard. I’m referring to the hand signals that ballplayers and coaches use to communicate on-field strategy, such as which pitches to throw, when to steal, when to swing, etc.

Earlier this week, a formal complaint was filed by Yankees GM Brian Cashman and the New York Yankees with the Commissioner’s Office accusing the Boston Red Sox of using a combination of instant replay footage and Apple Watches to steal their signs. Major League Baseball corroborated these claims shortly after, and the Red Sox have since admitted to having their instant replay guys text sign info to a trainer in the dugout via Apple Watch to be relayed to players before they stepped in the batters’ box.

Of course, the scandal here is not sign stealing, as attempting to steal opposing teams’ signs has been both legal and commonplace since practically the inception of Major League Baseball. The scandal here lies in the technologically based method the Red Sox used to steal these signs–having a runner on second base pick up a sign using his view of the catcher is fair game; relaying external instant replay footage in between swings is not.

So far, the Commissioner’s Office has not issued any formal statement or repercussions to the Red Sox. The delay is most likely a result of the fact that this situation falls in a baseball grey area–there are no clear guidelines about how far a team can go to steal another team’s signs. Technically, no outside resources are allowed in this practice; but because sign stealing is a legal practice to begin with, just how wrong the Red Sox were is up for debate.

Media reaction has been mixed, from writers joking about the incident to expressing genuine outrage. The Ringer’s Michael Baumann believes the Yankees themselves are “suckers” for allowing the Red Sox to steal their signs, while Fanrags columnist John Heyman asserted that the Red Sox should forfeit all games where they used the Apple Watch technique.

Applegate invokes the question of how baseball’s gamesmanship will evolve in the face of today’s technologically savvy world. After all, technology has already infiltrated the field; from the birth of baseball’s instant replay to computerized data dictating defensive shifts, baseball is hardly immune to technological advances. Yankees’ Didi Gregorius tweets highlights in an emoji language, for crying out loud! If that isn’t technology infiltrating baseball, I don’t know what is.

The Commissioner’s Office could go two ways with this situation: either stay silent and set a precedent that other teams can follow the Red Sox example; or punish the Red Sox, which would uphold the no-technology tradition of the sign stealing practice.

But before we all jump to the greater implications of Applegate for the future of baseball, can we all just take a second to laugh at it? Because I, for one, cannot stop laughing at the imaginary image of Belichick, Farrell and their assistant coaches sitting at Sunday dinner discussing all of the ways in which New England teams can cheat. Whatever you think about the situation, you have to admit–it’s hilarious. If you don’t agree, just watch The Ringer’s modified rendition of Sweet Caroline, which changes the words of the song to chronicles the Applegate scandal.

Perhaps, when considering punishments for the Red Sox, the Commissioner’s Office should consider just how funny–and how marketable–the situation is. They should consider that non-baseball fans find Applegate outrageous, hilarious, and everything in between. With this scandal, baseball can connect with the NFL base by referencing Belichick’s Spygate, and with the NBA base because, well, NBA fans are used to drama.

Morals be damned. The MLB should capitalize on Applegate because it can help Make Baseball Fun Again.

In drafting a statement and punishments, the Commissioner’s Office should attempt to walk the fine line between fairly punishing the Red Sox–because they definitely deserve some form of punishment–and upholding the general hilarity of the situation. The biggest mistake they could make is to treat this situation too seriously. The Commissioner’s Office would benefit from exercising a sense of humor–reprimand the Red Sox as quietly as possible and with the least amount of fanfare. Don’t turn the punishment into a saga. Give the Red Sox exactly what most people think they deserve and move on. Besides, the social suicide of having to wear an Apple Watch was already half the punishment.

Illegal or not, Applegate is the funniest thing to happen to baseball since Yogi Berra’s pizza cutting joke. Let’s not ruin the fun, okay?

 

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Sabermetrics: wOBA

For my second sabermetrics post, I thought I would talk about a complex sabermetric that combines many simpler, more widely understood statistics: wOBA, or weighted On-Base Average. An improvement from the tradition triple slash-line, the goal of wOBA is to assess a player’s “offensive value” in measuring how capable a hitter is of moving himself and his teammates around the bases to generate runs.

Before I attempt to explain wOBA itself, however, it is important to understand the simpler stats that factor into wOBA. Batting average measures how often a player gets a hit, but does not factor in walks. On-base percentage measures how often a player reaches base, regardless of how. Slugging percentage weighs how many bases a hitter covers per hit, but does not include walks. wOBA attempts to combine all of these stats into a number that takes into account not only how many bases are covered per hit, but the odds of a hit also removing another play from a base, so it takes walks into account.

The formula itself uses average weights of how valuable a type of hit is to the overall possibility of said type of hit generating a score in order to correctly factor in all ways of reaching base (walks, hits, homers, getting hit by pitch) to calculate what a player contributes offensively.

With that in mind, I’ll let FanGraphs present the wOBA formula:

wOBA = (0.690×uBB + 0.722×HBP + 0.888×1B + 1.271×2B + 1.616×3B +
2.101×HR) / (AB + BB – IBB + SF + HBP)

**FanGraphs specifies that the weights in this formula are for the 2013 season, and change slightly each year.**

It is important to remember that wOBA does not take into account disparities in ballparks (some ballparks are considered “hitters ballparks,” meaning it is easier to hit a home run, for example, based on the outfield configuration/ length of the outfield than other ballparks) or in-game context (this includes runners on base or the score of the game during the player’s at-bat).

In general, an average wOBA is about .320, with anything above that being about average to excellent; excellent is .400. There are a number of MLB players currently with season wOBA averages significantly above even the excellent mark. They are all in close contention,  none of their names are surprising, and some have absolutely fabulous haircuts. Joey Votto (.429), Bryce Harper (.427) and Aaron Judge/Paul Goldschmidt (.426) are the current 2017 wOBA leaders. These players, then, are exemplary in scoring production solely from the plate–stolen bases and other on-base events do not factor into wOBA, so these guys are some true productive sluggers.

Cue Bryce Harper hair flip.

Reluctantly, what we can learn from this year’s Home Run Derby

Despite my many qualms with the event, I was guilted into watching last night’s Home Run Derby and reluctantly agreed for mostly for one reason: Aaron Judge.

I have to say, I enjoyed watching him participate, even if I still despise the general idea and fairness of the Derby itself–I’m looking at whoever booked Mr. Worldwide as the pre-Derby talent. And although I was sufficiently entertained by the spectacular display Judge put on,I still hate the Derby. As talented as Sano and Bellinger were, I would have been bored without Aaron Judge.

But this article is not about whether or not Judge changed any of my Derby opinions–this is about what Judge, and the Derby itself, may have just taught the world of baseball.

What did we learn from this year’s Home Run Derby? Just ask Yankees’ reliever Dellin Betances, who reacted to one of Judge’s 500+ foot homers the same way one might expect to react to witnessing a literal nuclear explosion. Rather than cheering for Judge or exhibiting jubilation or pride like most any Judge fan or friend would, Betances’ gut reaction to Judge’s sheer power was one of confusion, awe, and even, perhaps, fear.

So what exactly is that something? Betances’ memorable expression was not caused by a number–as well as Judge performed during the Derby, he was far from the most impressive statistical competitor to ever participate in the event. Marlins’ own Giancarlo Stanton, knocked out early last night by underdog and Yankee catcher Gary Sanchez, won the 2016 Derby in a record 61 home runs;  Judge only launched 47 last night. In 2007, Josh Hamilton recorded a historic 28 homers in one round; Judge halted at 23. And while Judge recorded the longest home runs of the evening, home run tracking technology has not existed long enough to decisively comment on whether or not anyone else had ever hit multiple 500-footers at a Home Run Derby.

But even though none of the biggest Derby records were broken last night, everyone, including the ballplayers, is acting like we had never seen a Derby performance like Judge’s.

Rather than statistics, it was Judge’s aesthetics that illustrated why his performance was so unique, so spectacular, so superhuman. Visualize–or watch–the ease with which Judge clobbered multiple homers in a row. Judge’s hands were quiet, leg kick almost completely absent, and his swing short. Unlike other contenders, such as Sanchez and the Dodgers’ Cody Bellinger, who utilize multiple exhaustive strategies to power their home runs, Judge swung easily.

Compared to the other guys, Judge seemed to exert little to no force when smashing long, high dingers. And by the end of the Derby, when other bats were sagging, hands dropping and mechanics failing, Judge’s remained smooth, consistent and energized.

Dellin Betances acted as if he had never seen a ball swung at so easily that was hit so hard and so far–probably because he hadn’t. None of us have…until Aaron Judge.

The stats did not explain the magnitude of shocked awe that was every person’s reaction to last night’s Home Run Derby. The footage did. So perhaps what this year’s Derby showed was a taste of the baseball to come: a game played so well that a collection of saber metrics is but a mere companion to the awe-inspiring talent that we only need our eyes to see.

I hate the Home Run Derby

Well, the names are officially out. The eight players who will participate in this year’s Home Run Dery have been announced–not without excitement, and not without some rare but headlining drama. And I have to admit, it’s a damn good lineup. The appearance of the two hottest young coastal sluggers, Aaron Judge and Cody Bellinger, is reason enough to watch the whole damn, hours-long event. Add in last year’s winner Giancarlo Stanton and the seeming underdog Gary Sanchez, and you’ve got a Home Run Derby that may just shape up to be as memorable as that one very warm and fuzzy Derby that showcased a rising-from-the-ashes Josh Hamilton a few years ago.

This year, there are so many stars–and not just stars but breakout stars–not just breakout stars but electric, record-breaking breakout stars–that I guess I’ll have to watch. I guess I am obligated to begrudgingly plop down with a bag of extra-buttered popcorn and endure my least favorite baseball-related event.

Why begrudgingly, you ask? Simple. I hate the Home Run Derby.

Now, if you would be so kind as the peel your incredulous jaw off the floor, and before you start with the “who doesn’t love to watch home runs!?” B.S., allow me to explain.

I hate the Home Run Derby because I never want my favorite players to participate in it in the first place. Call me paranoid or overly traditional, but I do believe that the concern of the Derby being detrimental to a player’s swing mechanics, late-season production or even health is a valid one. The statistics backing the drop in production of Derby participants is substantial, even if not proven. So I never understood why an event that has less signicance than even the All-Star Game–which really is saying something–is worth the risk of adversely altering one’s sacred swing mechanics or perpetuating injury due to multiple over-swings.

Mike Trout has passed on the Derby for this very reason; former sluggers such as Bobby Abreu–laugh all you want, he did have the numbers at one point–have substantially lost power after participating in the Derby.

Some managers buy it, some don’t, but the risk is still there. So to me, it’s just not worth it.

Because not only is the Derby unimportant, it is also painfully boring. It is perhaps the only event in sports in which the same motion takes up hours of so-called competition. There is no variation in athletic movement; just swing after swing after swing after swing after swing after swing after…continue for approximately 50,000 more words and you get my point. So the entertainment factor isn’t there.

And don’t try to tell me the Derby is one of the few times when baseball players get to be “fun.” This is not the NBA, folks. The outlandish guestures of sweat-wiping and child head-patting, the joking competition and even the petty drama–I’m looking at you, Logan Morrison–is just not interesting enough.

In fact, this theatrical aspect of the Derby illustrates exactly what is wrong with baseball: only a select few–and by a select few I mean Bryce Harper–can get away with the theatrics in a genuine manner. Theatrics are not part of baseball, and no effort of the league to make baseball “funnier” or more “dramatic” is realistic. Smeared pie on a player who has hit a walk-off or cleared benches during a brawl are as theatrical as baseball can get. The Derby is an excellent example of baseball trying desperately, for the sake of ratings, to be something that it is not. And I, loving baseball just the way it is, cannot stand it.

So, on second thought, not even the great Judge and Jury could sentence me to watching the Home Run Derby. Someone just call me if Judge smacks at 600-footer, and I’ll watch a highlight of it the next morning.

But even that incredible event could not be as historic as it should, because it will have taken place during the Home Run Derby. It’s just not real.