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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25 and 40: crash course on MLB’s 40-man roster

September 1 is a milestone–and not just because my gym membership runs out that day.

By September 1, MLB rosters freeze in anticipation of the postseason–trades and call-ups from the minor leagues halt, and major league rosters expand from 25 men to 40 men.

This roster expansion, often referred to as the “September call-up” period, is meant to allow teams seeking postseason runs to load up their teams with young talent and extra depth. In case of postseason injury, for example, a minor leaguer on the 40-man-roster may be added to the 25-man roster and could be eligible to play anywhere from one inning to the entire rest of the postseason, because up to 40 men can suit up to play. Major League Baseball can accomplish this drastic roster growth each season because, unlike other professional sports leagues, there is no salary cap in the MLB–only a limit on the number of players eligible on the active roster at any given time.

The 40-man roster period is often the culmination of a volatile month in many players’ seasons, where clubs are hasty to trade, call up and send down players seemingly on a whim. If a team needs an extra arm to rest a fatigued rotation, a secondary infielder from their farm system or still wants to claim a player off waivers, players can be uprooted multiple times before the Sept. 1 deadline.

From a strategic standpoint, this complex trade/roster system makes crafting a roster for an MLB team both uniquely exciting and challenging. Even post trade-deadline, player movement is not only possible but highly probably–just ask Curtis Granderson, who was claimed off waivers and headed to the Dodgers just last week. Minor leaguers are perhaps the most frequently uprooted–for example, Yankees’ starting pitcher Jordan Montgomery, who was sent down to Triple-A in mid-August in order to clear a roster spot for CC Sabathia, will again return to the Yankees as a member of the 40-man roster on September 1.

So while the unique MLB roster expansion is fascinating, it makes for some of the most volatile Septembers for minor leaguers.

However, it can also make for the most exciting career debuts–because many professional careers begin on the postseason 40-man roster. Just another reason to be excited for September/October baseball.

 

 

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.

Sabermetrics: BABIP

I thought I would start with a stat that is slightly more obscure than, say, WAR, but is both useful and extremely relevant: BABIP. BABIP stands for Batting Average on Balls In Play, which is a measurement of how many non-home run “balls in play” end up as hits. In other words, the stat provides a numerical measurement of how many balls put in play by a specific hitter end up as, for example, seeing-eye singles versus ropes straight to the center fielder. The numbers factored into the BABIP equation include strikeouts, hits, home runs and fly outs (I cannot BELIEVE I’m doing this, but here is the equation below, courtesy of FanGraphs).

BABIP = (H – HR)/(AB – K – HR + SF)

“The numerator is the number of hits minus the number of home runs and the denominator is at bats minus strikeouts and home runs with sacrifice flies added back in.” – FanGraphs

There are three major on-field factors that influence BABIP: defense, luck and talent. If the batter is facing a more skilled defender, perhaps one withs faster reflexes or a stronger arm, then the ball in play might become an out rather than a single. The luck of whether a batter hits  into a shift, for example, or hits a ball slightly out of a fielder’s reach, is also a factor. And, of course, talent-based factors such as exit velocity and the ability to hit both sides of the plate also play a role in BABIP.

BABIP is a difficult stat to use on its own because of these uncontrollable factors that go into whether or not a ball in play ends up as a hit. Therefore, BABIP is best used in context with a given hitter’s average BABIP over many at-bats. Because the league BABIP average is .300 for a hitter, it is safe to say that a player whose career average BABIP is significantly above .300 is especially skilled at turning contact into hits. Whereas an altered BA over the course of a few weeks most likely signifies either a slump or a streak, the fluctuations of BABIP over a few weeks or a month could be the result of bad luck or good defense rather than talent.

The BABIP stat also exists for pitchers, but requires about a season more of stats to calculate than would an accurate career hitting BABIP. Pitching BABIP is also much more reliant on the pitchers’ team, as his own defense plays a significantly higher role in his BABIP.

Interestingly enough, both Jose Altuve and Aaron Judge, two vastly different players in terms of build, position and overall strengths, boast the third and fourth highest BABIPs in the Majors right now, respectively (behind Chris Taylor and Ben Gamel). Judge is a dominant outfielder and loping power-hitter; Altuve is a small and quick, but still boasts 15 home runs and a .367 season BA. It is likely that Altuve’s speed and Judge’s power (exit velocity) produce similar BABIP results.

In other words,  there is more than one way to put balls in play.

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.