29 May 2015

MASN Dispute: Final Arguments

Abstract: It appears that the court is giving credence to MASNs arguments and that MASN may win this lawsuit. Given that the alternative is having legal battles for the foreseeable future, it makes sense for the sides to agree to a compromise. One compromise could be that MLB is reimbursed for the $25 million it loaned to the Nationals; MLB agrees that the Nationals should be eligible for revenue sharing and everyone agrees that the established methodology is Bortz.

The final arguments for the court case between MASN and the Nationals were held on May 18th. If MASN, the Nationals and MLB are unable to come to a settlement, then Justice Marks will decide at a later date whether to uphold or vacate the RSDCs decision.  Eric Fisher from the Sports Business Journal has suggested that the loser will simply appeal to the NYS Court of Appeals, the State’s highest court, and that this case is far from over.

The fundamental points of the dispute have previously  been explained by Federal Baseball and Camden Chat. To summarize, MASN argued in court that the RSDCs decision should be vacated because the established methodology wasn’t used, MLB was biased due to the $25 million dollar loan they gave to the Nationals and because there were ex parte communications between the RSDC and Proskauer. The testimony on Monday further fleshed out the relevant points and provided insight into Justice Marks’ thoughts. The best starting point is why MASN felt the established methodology wasn’t implemented in this case.

MASN claims that the arbitration panel made a decision in error because they didn’t use the “established methodology” otherwise known as the Bortz Methodology. The RSDC uses the Bortz Methodology to determine rights fees for all other team-owned RSNs and therefore should use the same for MASN. MASN argues that if MLB decides to change its methodology, then they need to do so for all team-owned RSNs and not just for MASN.  The Bortz Methodology has not forced any team-owned RSN that has ever earned a 20% baseball profit margin to accept less than a 20% baseball profit margin. NESN, a team-owned RSN, received a 21.9% baseball profit margin proving that some team-owned RSNs receive more than a 20% baseball profit margin according to the RSDC and the Bortz Methodology.

Justice Marks wanted to know why the settlement agreement didn’t explicitly state that the Bortz analysis needs to be used and whether this case is different than other team-owned RSNs due to the Orioles’ control of most of the network. He also asked whether MASN would be happy if the decision was vacated and sent back to the RSDC with a direction to apply the Bortz Methodology.

The Nationals argument consisted of two points. The first is that the “established methodology” made no reference of the twenty percent baseball profit margin and therefore MASN doesn’t deserve that profit margin. The second is since the RSDC decision was closer to the Orioles request rather than the Nationals request that the decision must be fair to MASN.

Justice Marks noted, like Camden Depot, that the Nationals request was larger than what the Yankees actually receive. It is difficult to tell what would be an acceptable answer to that question, but it is reasonably certain that answering “absolutely” was probably not the best answer. Justice Marks concluded that the Nationals were in-fact high-balling the figure and it is likely that he doesn’t agree with their argument.

The main debate about this point is whether the “established methodology” should be Bortz and therefore MASN should receive at least a 20% profit margin like every other team-owned RSN or whether MASN doesn’t deserve a 20% profit margin because the “established methodology” wasn’t defined in the contract and therefore the RSDC can choose its methodology as it pleases.

I question whether it would make sense for the contract to promise MASN a 20% baseball profit margin. This agreement will last in perpetuity and promising MASN a 20% baseball profit margin would make it impossible for MLB or MASN to adjust the contract. It seems more reasonable to include language that would treat MASN like any other team-owned RSN and therefore allow flexibility.

There has been an overwhelming amount of evidence introduced that suggests MASN deserves a baseball profit margin of at least 20%. The Nationals submitted an article from SNL Kagan that states that the average RSN profit margin has increased from 30% in 1995 to 40% in 2014. Ed Cohen, a senior Nationals official, stated that MLB gave him a presentation where they stated that the RSDC decision was inefficient because it caused hundreds of millions of lost value to both clubs referring to the loss of asset value due to MASN receiving a 5% baseball profit margin instead of a 20% baseball profit margin. All of the pro formas written by Allen and Co on behalf of MLB to determine terms for a possible sale of MASN presume this new network would receive yearly profit margins between 30-40%.

This is crucial because the RSDC decision hinges on the argument that RSN profits are going down and therefore MASN should receive reduced baseball profit margins. If team-owned RSN profit margins are increasing and every other team-owned RSN receives at least a 20% baseball profit margin, then this indicates that there are problems with the RSDC decision.

Even if Justice Marks decides that the RSDC decision is erroneous, it doesn’t mean that he will vacate the RSDCs decision. The Nationals made the argument that as long as the RSDC made a decision in good faith, then the decision shouldn’t be vacated by the court. Their argument is that both sides agreed that the RSDC should be the arbitrator and part of the risk of arbitration is that the arbitrator may make a mistake. This is why the second and third arguments are important.

The second argument MASN made is that MLB was biased due to a $25 million loan that they made to the Nationals with the understanding that it would only be repaid from any additional funds that the Nationals may receive from an RSDC award. If the RSDC decided to issue a decision using Bortz then the Nationals would not need to repay the loan and the loan would be a gift.

Justice Marks stated that the delay was in the interest of both the Orioles and the Nationals. Since the RSDC decision was known, albeit not issued at that point, it was reasonable to give the Nationals that money to compensate them for the long delay in issuing the arbitration award. MASN attempted to counter by stating that the RSDC decision was still subject to the ultimate confirmation by MLB and that MASN deserved a formal opportunity to argue its case directly.  After MLB decided to loan the Nationals money and make repayment contingent on a favorable RSDC award then it was unlikely that he would rule against the RSDC decision because they had a $25 million stake in ensuring that the decision was upheld.

It seems unlikely that the Justice Marks will consider this a reason to vacate the RSDCs decision. The contract does state that the RSDC is in charge of making the final decision and therefore it isn’t clear whether the Commissioner would reverse their decision even if it was made in error. Furthermore, after years of discussion, it is reasonable to presume that MLB had plenty of time to understand both the Nationals and Orioles opinions and formulate their own opinion about the RSDC decision. If they agreed to make the loan then they probably felt the RSDC decision was acceptable. It is likely that whether the Justice decides that Proskauer’s involvement biased the result will be extremely relevant if not decisive. Most of the testimony was about this point.

Proskauer itself has had a long relationship with MLB and other major sports. The Sports Business Daily in 2001 discussed how Bud Selig often turns to Proskauer when he needs legal advice. When the baseball players’ strike of 1994 erased the World Series and dragged on for months, Selig brought in a former Proskauer lawyer, Randy Levine, to negotiate a settlement. Selig recruited multiple Proskauer labor lawyers to his staff and the article noted that those lawyers that leave to move into the offices of teams and leagues often refer business back to their mentors. Bradley Ruskin, the Proskauer lawyer that represented the Nationals in this case, has worked with MLB since at least 2000.

Dan Halem joined MLB as a Senior Vice President and General Counsel, Labor in 2007 after previously being a lawyer at Proskauer. MASN argues that Mr. Halem was very actively involved in the negotiations in this case and had a significant role. Likewise, Steve Gonzalez also joined MLB in 2007 after previously being a lawyer at Proskauer and had a role in the negotiations in this case. My understanding is that Proskauer became MLBs primary outside council in 2007 and at that point began to receive a significant amount of work from MLB.

A 2009 article from the Sports Business Daily, discusses how Proskauer has significant power in all four major sports leagues including MLB. Howard Ganz, the co-head of Proskauer’s Sports Law Group, represented MLB in its collective bargaining negotiations with the MLBPA. Howard Ganz noted that he “principally deals with the inside lawyers who are in charge of bargaining, such as Rob Manfred and Dan Halem (another former Proskauer lawyer) at baseball.” Rob Manfred stated that Ganz was at the table some of the time in 2002 and less so in 2006 but is deeply involved whether he is at the table or not.

Furthermore, Mr. Manfred was personally represented by Proskauer from 2001 to 2009 in the Phillips case. MASN noted that the Major League Baseball Collective Bargaining Negotiations ended on December 23rd, 2011 or about two weeks before this arbitration began and argues it was a huge career-builder for both Mr. Manfred and Mr. Halem and that they needed to work hand in glove with Mr. Laccese (the chairman of the Proskauer firm) to accomplish this, only to have him show up two weeks later for the Nationals in this arbitration. MASN also noted that during the arbitration process, Proskauer had 49 matters open for Major League Baseball; 27 of those involve the very same litigators, the very same Proskauer partners who were representing the Nationals in the arbitration.

MASN noted that Commissioner Selig was represented by Proskauer in connection with his $22 million a year employment contract with Baseball at the same time that these arbitration negotiations started. Given the importance of this matter to Mr. Selig, it seems reasonable to suspect that this could make him inclined to listen to Proskauer advice while disinclined to hurt them by disqualifying them from the MASN arbitration. MASN also noted that Proskauer did legal work for the three teams on the RSDC.

This shows that Proskauer Rose is an extremely powerful law firm with significant influence over all of MLB, Mr. Selig and Mr. Manfred, and the relevant clubs over a long period of time and therefore allowing the Nationals to use Proskauer as their lawyers potentially gave them a significant advantage. Likewise, Proskauer Rose had an interest in ensuring that their clients didn’t lose a case completely to ensure that they receive future business from the Nationals and other MLB clubs.

It is worth noting that Justice Marks seems to agree with this argument. He stated that “Lawyers are not ordinary service providers. They are not like caterers. It’s a different relationship.” My understanding is that this means that lawyers are accustomed to giving their clients legal advice unlike an average service provider that simply doesn’t. There is difference of authority between a broker or a lawyer and a florist.
This explains why MASN was concerned about the fact that Proskauer was representing the Nationals as well as the clubs on the RSDC. MASN claims that it did agree that the RSDC would be the arbitrator and that MLB would potentially have a role, but they didn’t agree that Proskauer would be able to represent either side. MASN felt that the Nationals should have used counsel that wasn’t as connected to MLB as Proskauer and that this should warrant vacatur.

It’s important to understand that MASN only needs to meet the “reasonable person” standard to determine whether there was bias in this case. The definition of this is: "Evident partiality will be found where a reasonable person would have to conclude that an arbitrator was partial to one party to the arbitration."
The Nationals argued that there needs to be direct proof indicating that there is evident partiality and that mere allegations of bias simply aren’t enough. My understanding is that Justice Marks disagreed with statements such as “You would never have something like that”, “Look, I can’t believe the rule is that extreme” and “You know something, if that’s the law, with all due respect, that doesn’t make any sense.”  They also argued that this is an RSDC arbitration and therefore one should expect close relationships between the parties and the arbitrators. It only makes sense that the parties would use the law firms that they are familiar with. I don’t believe that Justice Marks agreed with that argument either as he claimed that the law requires the extent of the Proskauer representation to be disclosed.

Justice Marks ultimately told the Nationals that MLB could have strongly encouraged Proskauer to get off the case and that doing so would have meant that there would be nothing wrong with the panel. He told MLB that “if I were the Nationals involved in this dispute, I could see why I would want to retain Proskauer to represent me in this proceeding. There might be a perception that they would have more influence over the outcome than some other law firm might have because they are so immersed in kind of what goes on in the day-to-day operations of Baseball. So it’s not a completely far-fetched premise.”

This seems to indicate that Justice Marks believes that allowing Proskauer Rose to represent the Nationals was problematic.

It seems to me that MASN has at minimum a case that the RSDC decision was made in error possibly due to Proskauer’s involvement and therefore it is at minimum plausible that Justice Marks will vacate the RSDCs ruling and send it to another venue for arbitration. If nothing else, MASN will be able to appeal an unfavorable decision to a different court which could possibly rule in their favor and would almost certainly delay any final verdict for years. Given the uncertainty in this case, it would seem reasonable for both sides to try to come to a settlement.

It seems reasonable to presume that MLB and the Nationals had little incentive to give concessions before this court case got to this point because they felt they had the stronger hand. It wasn’t clear whether MASN would decide to sue in order to have the decision vacated and it certainly wasn’t clear that MASNs case would be seen this favorably by the court. This explains why MASN was willing to consider the possibility of a sale and also potentially giving the Nationals a larger stake. At this point, it seems that things have changed considerably.

A fair compromise could look something like this. MASN could agree to reimburse MLB for the $25 million that they gave the Nationals in order to buy time to look into selling MASN to Comcast. While one could argue that they did this without MASNs permission or knowledge and therefore deserve nothing, it seems reasonable to argue that they had good intentions. Furthermore, it is unlikely that MLB will agree to any deal where they aren’t reimbursed for that money.

It is clear that MLB offered to give the Orioles a large share in MASN because they recognized the harm caused by placing another team into their television territory and the impact that this would have on the Orioles revenue. It is also clear that by doing this, MLB caused the Nationals harm because they don’t control their media rights. Therefore, this is a problem that should be addressed by MLB. MLB currently considers the Nationals’ to have the twelfth largest market in MLB. This is problematic for the Nationals because teams in the top 15 markets are not eligible to receive revenue-sharing payments and also need to pay more money for supplementary revenue sharing. A reasonable concession for MLB would be to agree that the Nationals shouldn’t be considered a large-market club unless they regain control of their television rights.

There is a precedent for this decision. The Oakland Athletics are considered to share the seventh largest market with the San Francisco Giants, but are allowed to receive revenue sharing funds until they receive a new stadium. If it is possible to agree that the Athletics should be able to receive revenue sharing funds until they have a new stadium, then it makes sense that the Nationals should be able to receive revenue sharing funds until they regain control of their television rights.

In return for all of this, MLB would need to agree that Bortz is the established methodology, that the RSDC decision should be vacated and that the arbitration should be administered by a neutral party like the AAA.

One problem with just sending the decision back to the RSDC is that the MLB now definitely has a bias to ensure that MASN pays the rights fees suggested by the RSDC to ensure that they are repaid for their $25 million to the Nationals. It is possible to argue that MLB wasn’t biased when they made the loan because the decision was already decided and they could have decided to publish the decision at any time. If the decision is vacated then that argument is no longer true and MLB has a stake in ensuring that MASN pays the inflated rights fees.

It would be reasonably simple for the RSDC to corrupt the Bortz Methodology to ensure that MASN pays elevated rights fees. One thing that they could decide is that MASN should be charging a higher subscriber fee and thus that MASN should be receiving higher revenue. By allowing MASN to receive a 20% baseball profit margin on unfairly inflated revenue would force MASN to pay inflated media rights fees. In short, there are a number of problems that could occur if the RSDC was allowed to decide the results of this arbitration instead of a neutral body.

It seems likely that MASN has a reasonable case to have the RSDC decision vacated. Without a compromise, it will take years for this situation to come to a resolution during which neither the Nationals nor MLB will receive the money that they claim they deserve. Therefore, it makes sense for each of the parties to work together to come to a mutually beneficial resolution.

28 May 2015

The Orioles Were Right Not to Re-Sign Nelson Cruz

This is a guest post by Luis Torres. Read more of his work at Taking Back Baseball. You can also follow him on Twitter.

During the first game of the Mariners/Orioles series at Camden Yards, I was perusing my Twitter feed and came across a conversation between Jon Shepherd and Matt Kremnitzer. They were discussing the frustration that O's fans have had over their team's inability to re-sign Nelson Cruz during the offseason. Their frustration with the organization's lack of major acquisitions this past offseason reached a boiling point when Cruz hit a home run off of Miguel González that night. Meanwhile, Orioles' corner outfielders have all been performing at replacement level this season.

It's easy to overreact when you see that one of the best offensive contributors for your team last season is hitting dingers against that very same team this season. With the AL East being as close and competitive as it has been, one could assume that Cruz could've been a difference maker. However, you can't draw such a conclusion six weeks into the season, and you certainly can't draw conclusions on a four-year contract seven weeks into year one.

Contrary to popular belief, trades and free agent signings are to be evaluated when they are announced. Not during, and not after the contract is up, but before the player's first game is even played. In baseball anything can happen, including good results from bad decisions. The only fair, logical way to evaluate acquisitions is to go by the information that you know at the time. Let's take a look at what we knew about Nelson Cruz when the Mariners signed him.

The Mariners are paying $58 million for the age 34-37 seasons of a player who is a slow, poor outfielder, and is likely to age poorly due to his lack of athleticism. He's basically a DH who is a low OBP, high SLG hitter. I won't go into too much detail as to why I didn't like this deal for the Mariners, suffice it to say that their general manager, Jack Zduriencik, keeps paying for power when his team has finished last in the AL in OBP in four of the last five seasons and were second to last in the other.

By being smarter than Zduriencik, the Orioles avoided paying $58 million to an aging slugger and got a compensation pick in the process. That may be of little consolation to Orioles fans right now, but the thing is that Cruz is grossly overperforming and is going to come back down to earth. Remember him doing the same thing last year? Through May 2014, Cruz enjoyed a 27.9% HR/FB ratio and .324 BABIP, which fueled his outstanding .440 wOBA and 19 HR. Seeing how his career rates consisted of a 16.6% HR/FB and .302 BABIP going into that season, it was obviously unsustainable and proved to be so. From June 1 through the rest of the season, those rates dropped to a 15.9% HR/FB and .272 BABIP, resulting in a .331 wOBA and 20 HR. In other words, he turned back into Nelson Cruz. Not that Cruz playing like himself was a bad thing, especially for only $8 million. It was actually one of my favorite signings prior to the 2014 season.

Cruz is currently hitting .341/.398/.688 with 17 HR, which is good for a .458 wOBA and 2.2 WAR. He's leading the AL in AVG, SLG, HR, Total Bases, and wOBA. His OBP is second only to Miguel Cabrera. He's even better than he was at this point last year, and like last year, it's because of even higher and flukier batted ball stats. He currently has a whopping .376 BABIP and 30.9% HR/FB! This is all without any significant changes to his batted ball rates, too. For how much longer is it reasonable to believe that he's going to continue hitting almost one-third of his fly balls over the fence? Cruz is grossly outperforming even his 90th percentile PECOTA projections of a .351 wOBA by 107 points!

About all those home runs -- let's take a look at the pitchers who gave them up to Cruz. The following numbers are the pitchers' ZiPS projections going into this season.

Collin McHugh
at Houston
Miguel González
at Baltimore
Brett Anderson
at Oakland
Wandy Rodríguez
at Texas
Phil Hughes
Dan Otero
at Oakland
Tyler Clippard
at Oakland
Luke Gregerson
at Houston
Matt Shoemaker
at Los Angeles
David Huff
at Los Angeles
Brandon McCarthy
at Los Angeles
Ross Detwiler
Frank Garces
San Diego
Marco Estrada

There are a few good pitchers in there, but overall it's an underwhelming group.

At the time of the signing, Dan Szymborski, who is also an Orioles fan, tweeted out his disdain for the deal. In the tweet, Szymborski included the ZiPS projections for Cruz's years with the Mariners, assuming he'd be their primary DH. Remember that projections are not predictions. They are a measure of true talent level. Here's an excerpt from that table:


While I'm not a fan of the generic $/WAR metrics out there because I believe that they're too oversimplified, $58 million and a first round pick for 4.3 WAR is a pretty bad deal. Furthermore, the ZiPS model may be overestimating the number of games that Cruz will play. He's been a bit injury prone in his career, having played over 130 games in a season only twice. Obviously, getting older isn't going to make that any better. Even with his poor defense, he'd still be an upgrade over the poor corner outfielders that the Orioles have been trotting out there, but it'd come at a high price. By the time his contract enters its third year, Cruz is likely to be just as bad as those guys anyway.

OK, those were the numbers, so now let's take a look at the scouting information. Mark Anderson wrote up a scouting report for Baseball Prospectus this past October. I won't go over it in detail, but I will show the scouting grades. For those of you who are unfamiliar, these grades come from the 20-80 scouting scale.


Nelson Cruz is currently playing like an 80 hitter with 80 power. Those players are incredibly rare. The only player in today's game who fits that description is Miguel Cabrera. There's only a handful of players who fit that description in the past 20 years: Albert Pujols, Manny Ramírez, Barry Bonds, Frank Thomas, and...that's it. It truly is a uniquely special talent to be able to combine an 80 hit tool with 80 power. Is it really reasonable to believe that Cruz has turned himself into this class of player over the course of one offseason? I doubt that these grades come as a surprise to anybody who has seen Cruz play. From a qualitative perspective, he has big power but is only a mediocre hitter, and his speed and fielding have gotten to the point where he should be at DH as much as possible.

I hate to have to discuss this, but because somebody is going to bring it up, I don't believe that steroids have turned Cruz into a completely different player. We know for a fact that he's taken them in the past, and if you check his Fangraphs page, you'll see that he's never hit like this before. In fact, his success on the Rangers is better explained through his hard work and openness to instruction. Out of all the admitted steroid users, none of them ever turned from average to Miguel Cabrera overnight.

It is possible that Cruz has found a way to tap into some more power, though at the age of 34 that's highly unlikely. I can, however, absolutely guarantee you that Cruz didn't suddenly become an 80 hitter. Going from a 50 to an 80 hitter requires an enormous increase in the skills required to hit for average. It just doesn't happen outside of young prospects that are still developing.

Matt Kremnitzer did a nice job of explaining the Orioles' corner outfield problem recently. Even a Nelson Cruz performing at his normal levels would be an upgrade over what the team has been trotting out there, but not as much as you'd think. Cruz gives back a good chunk of his offensive gains as a result of his poor defense. He already has a -5 DRS and -7.6 UZR. His poor DRS adds up to a -0.8 dWAR, which is pretty bad for a full season, let alone seven weeks into it.

It's not like the Orioles don't have their own player who is overperforming. I won't go into the same detail that Matt went into when he wrote about Jimmy Paredes, who has taken over for Cruz this season as the team's primary DH for the most part. He currently has a .394 BABIP and 23.1% HR/FB. Those numbers will certainly regress, but thanks to his work with Robinson Canó during the offseason and changes in his approach, it's possible that his true talent level is better than the 73 wRC+ that ZiPS projected going into this season. However, I'm sure that it's nothing close to his current 155 wRC+.

Regardless, depending on whether you're going by Fangraphs or Baseball-Reference, Cruz has only been approximately half a win to one win better than Paredes so far. The reason why that difference isn't larger is the defense. Although Paredes certainly won't be winning any Gold Glove awards, his defense is a full grade better than Cruz's. It's also worth noting that Paredes is making the league minimum. Cruz, on the other hand, is making $12.5 million this season.

So for those of you out there who are still mad at the Orioles for not signing back Cruz, given all the information that I laid out here, let me ask you: Do you really think that Cruz is going to continue hitting like this for much longer? Would you risk four years and $58 million on an aging slugger to find out? Or would you rather just spend the money elsewhere and take the draft pick instead?

27 May 2015

Outfield Reinforcements Won't Be Coming From the Minors

The play of Baltimore’s corner outfielders has been a hot topic lately. Last week, our own Matt Kremnitzer wrote about their struggles in an article for MASN, while Matt Perez followed that up with a piece that looked at potentially swapping Bud Norris and Tommy Hunter for the Red Sox's Shane Victorino. Yes, the non-Adam Jones outfielders currently on the Orioles roster are not performing, both offensively and defensively. Here’s how they stack up against the rest of the league in terms of wRC+ and DRS.

OK, so they actually haven’t been playing bad defense, it just seems like it after seeing Delmon Young, Alejandro De Aza, and Travis Snider out there on a regular basis. Matt Perez’s suggestion to trade for Victorino is certainly an interesting one. And while we’re almost 2 months into the 2015 season, it’s probably a little too early to expect any sort of trade that would bring back a major upgrade to the ballclub in one of the outfield corners. Furthermore, despite rumblings that Chris Parmelee may be called up from AAA to provide some offense in the outfield, an upgrade is unlikely to be found in the Orioles minor league system. Let’s take a look at what’s available.

Outfielders on the 40-Man Roster

All of them are actually already on the major league roster. I could end this section right there, but that would be lazy. Just because a player isn’t listed as an outfielder on the 40-man roster doesn’t mean that he can’t play the outfield. However, even taking that broader view, that still doesn’t leave the team with many options. Other than the obvious candidates, there is Jimmy Paredes and Henry Urrutia. We know that Paredes can hit (at least he has this year), but he’s only logged just over 400 innings in the outfield during his major league career, producing -4 DRS (-7.7 UZR/150). As for Urrutia, I don’t think Baltimore views him as an outfield option anymore (on the 40-man roster, he’s listed as a DH).

Outfielders Not on the 40-Man Roster

The table below shows how the options at Norfolk are performing so far in 2015.

As you can see, no one is exactly lighting the world on fire down there, except for maybe Parmelee, and he’s not even listed as an outfielder on the Orioles website. As Matt Kremnitzer noted, it’s not as if Parmelee would even be an upgrade, as he owns a career 97 wRC+ in the major leagues (901 PAs) and has been -7 DRS in just over 1,050 innings in the outfield.

Let’s take a look at how the outfielders in Bowie are hitting.

The stat lines of these players look slightly better, but they’re also another level further from the major leagues. Quincy Latimore is a former Pirates prospect who is now 26 years old and has never played above AA. Glynn Davis is having a promising season, but he is only in his first full year of AA, and is not considered a prospect (MLB.com left him off their top 30 list prior to the season). The best of this bunch is Mike Yastrzemski, who was ranked the 10th best prospect in the Orioles system before the season by both Baseball Prospectus and MLB.com (Baseball America had him 9th and he didn’t make the cut on Keith Law’s list). Still, both MLB.com and BP see Yastrzemski as a slightly below average player at his peak, so it’s unlikely he’d be a difference maker, especially in 2015.

Purchasing the contract of one of the players not on the 40-man roster shouldn’t be an obstacle. But if that’s the route the team decides to take, they’ll need to clear a spot to make room for Matt Wieters when he comes off the 60-day disabled list (he’s currently rehabbing in Bowie). At that point, they’ll risk losing whoever they remove from the 40-man roster to any of the other 29 teams on waivers.

With no help down in the minors and the trade market still in its earliest stages of development, the Orioles best option in the corner outfield positions may be to just stand pat. The return of Jonathan Schoop and/or Ryan Flaherty should allow Steve Pearce to return to an outfield position, where hopefully his batted ball luck will regress in the positive direction, providing some much needed production. Sometimes the best course of action one can take is to wait.

26 May 2015

Why Hasn't Manny Machado Taken More Walks?

As many of the Orioles' position players have slumped in recent weeks, one has gotten stronger: Manny Machado. He's hit 34% than the major-league average in May; along with Jimmy Paredes, he's provided all of Baltimore's offense in the current month. His .287/.350/.427 overall line, good for a .357 wOBA and 127 wRC+, makes him a formidable hitter, and gives off the impression that he's finally realized his potential.

One of the major factors behind this leap? Walks. Writing for FanGraphs a few weeks back, Jeff Sullivan noted that:
[...I]n terms of out-of-zone swing rate, Machado is showing by far the largest decline between 2014 – 2015, at more than 14 percentage points.
Since then, Machado's regressed to the mean slightly, but he still maintains a superb eye at the plate. After yesterday's game against Houston, a mere 58.1% of the pitches he's seen have been strikes; thus, 9.6% of his 178 plate appearances have ended in a base on balls. This massive increase in walks (he took free passes at a 4.6% rate prior to 2015) accounts for most of his breakout.

Something about this doesn't smell right, though. Out of 173 qualified hitters, Machado's 2015 strike rate comes in at 12th; his walk rate, by contrast, only ranks 57th. A similar disparity existed before this year — from 2012 to 2014, his 65.0% Str% was 173rd in baseball, while his aforementioned BB% was 210th. In his first three seasons, he underperformed his (for lack of a more descriptive term) expected walk rate, and that phenomenon has carried over into his otherwise vastly different fourth season.

To figure out the causes of this, let's take a dive into Machado's splits. The first three years of his career saw him swing more often as the count went into his favor:

Balls in Count O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing%
 0 25.1% 53.1% 36.2%
1 39.9% 77.4% 55.0%
2 47.7% 84.3% 63.8%
3 54.7% 81.3% 67.7%

Such increased aggression would certainly explain why Machado accrued fewer walks than expected — he'd work the pitcher, make him throw a ball or two, and then pounce. And lo and behold, he's done the same thing in 2015:

Balls in Count O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing%
 0 20.8% 47.3% 31.7%
1 23.4% 58.4% 36.8%
2 25.3% 75.0% 45.7%
3 61.5% 71.7% 67.1%

Most of the numbers themselves have obviously gone down, as Machado's become more patient overall, but the trend remains. Additionally, we see that in three-balls counts, Machado hasn't altered his approach at all, and offers just as much as he used to. Thus, like before, he's earned free trips to first much less frequently than his strike rate would suggest.

Does Machado's output with more balls in the count justify this erosion of restraint? Earlier in his tenure, it did, to a certain extent:

Balls in Count wOBA*
0 .301
1 .318
2 .329
3 .223

Machado hit better and better as the count became more hitter-friendly — until he got to three balls, at which point it all fell apart. These results would seem to condemn his strategy as a whole; in some ways, it worked, but the net production could have been better.

In case the numbers above don't make a convincing argument, Machado's 2015 marks probably will:

Balls in Count wOBA*
0 .328
1 .300
2 .302
3 .299

*Excluding walks

Aside from a possibly flukish jump at the beginning of the count, Machado has hit just as well with one ball as he has with two or three. (The major-league average wOBA without bases on balls usually sits around .280.) Based on this, Machado doesn't appear to benefit from his swing uptick.

Perhaps, if Machado maintained his moderation as he went deeper into the count, he'd see fewer hittable pitches, and his production later in the at-bat would drop off. But would the losses there compensate for the gains made by walking more often? We won't know unless he decides to try, and with the Orioles swinging as much as ever, that looks less and less likely every day. While Machado has the ability to garner free passes at a high clip, he may never realize it with this club.

25 May 2015

The Camden Highball (Episode 11): Talkin' Bats with Juan Baret

Brian Matusz partakes in some "shenanigans"
This week, Pat and Nate talk to Juan Baret, the owner and operator of Baret Bats, which specializes in handcrafted custom made wood baseball bats.  We talk to him about his inspirations for beginning his business, the types of materials he uses, the Emerald Ash Borer, and more.  We also discuss the growing legend of Mike Wright and the shenanigans of Brian Matusz that will likely lead to his suspension.

As with our previous episode, we begin the podcast with a song by a local musician.  This week's show begins with "productivity" by Maryland artist p.zorito.  You can find his music on his Bandcamp website, and follow him on twitter at @diarrhea.

Camden Highball (Episode 11): Talkin' Bats with Juan Baret

0:00 - p.zorito - "productivity"
3:50 - Pat demonstrates his commitment to the podcast
6:04 - The amazing Mike Wright
14:15 - Brian Matusz prefers a high SPF for sun protection
20:00 - Juan Baret of Baret Bats joins the show
23:19 - Types of wood Juan uses to make bats
24:46 - Juan gives his thoughts on white ash and the Emerald Ash Borer
26:31 - Customizing Baret Bats
33:48 - Juan's thoughts on the AL East

22 May 2015

Two Starts by Zach Davies

Zach Davies. Photo courtesy of Les Treagus / Norfolk Tides.
The Orioles' farm system is deepest in starting pitcher prospects. Three of these prospects have been or are at AAA Norfolk in 2015. Mike Wright struggled at Norfolk for the first three-quarters of 2014, but has since pitched well there - including six starts in 2015 - and earned his first major-league start. Tyler Wilson came up to Norfolk in July 2014 and pitched well; he returned to Norfolk for 2015 and, like Wright, has been promoted to the Orioles. And Zach Davies, the Orioles #6 prospect according to Baseball America, joined Norfolk this season.

Zach Davies was the Orioles' 26th-round draft pick in 2011. He was signed to an over-slot bonus and began his professional career in 2012. He has risen through the Orioles system, spending one full season at each minor-league level. As he rose through the Orioles' system, he rose on BA's prospect list, climbing from 31 to 20 to 11 to 6.

Davies is a smallish pitcher, listed at 6-foot, 150 pounds (although that was his weight before the 2013 season, and may not be accurate today.) As we would expect, he doesn't have a great fastball and succeeds with command and control. I've worked two Zach Davies starts, and I'll share my observations and conclusions.

First, I was fortunate and saw Davies pitch well in each start:

April 22
May 9

The following is the results of each pitch in the two games. 

April 22
May 9

The April 22 game is very interesting. First, over 40% of the pitches batters didn't swing at were called strikes. Second, nearly half of the pitches batters did swing at were put in play. For whatever reason - perhaps batters didn't see the pitches well; perhaps Davies was doing a good job not throwing what the hitters were expecting; perhaps Davies was putting pitches on the corners where batters couldn't hit them anyway - the batters were not swinging at a lot of strikes. And the batters weren't "spoiling" good pitches by fouling them off. In that game, Davies impressed not only me but several other longtime baseball observers.

The May 9 game has a more typcial distribution of pitch results. The increased number of balls and fouls led to an increased pitch count, and Davies threw more pitches in five innings than he did in the six innings of the April 22 start. Again, I don't know why he threw more balls and more pitches were fouled off - but it is clear that Davies will have to consistently be very sharp if he will be a successful pitcher. He doesn't have much margin for error.

Finally, I broke down Davies' results according to whether the batter was on the 40-man roster of the opponent's parent club. I reasoned that players on the 40-man roster are more likely to be (eventually) promoted to the major-league team, and so are more likely to be the players Davies (and other pitchers) will eventually face in the major leagues. It's not clear that the players on the 40-man roster are better hitters than the players not on the 40-man roster, and so it's not clear what, if anything, the breakdown will reveal. I include it as food for thought and perhaps to stimulate more research.

April 22, On 40-man
April 22, Not On 40-man
May 9, On 40-man
May 9, Not On 40-man

On the whole, Zach Davies is a moderately interesting starting pitching prospect. Most pitchers like him, who rely on command and control to make up for average-at-best stuff - don't have long careers. There are two points in his favor. First, at his best he was such an extreme example of his type that he may be an exception. Second, if he moves to the bullpen he may pick up some more velocity in shorter stints. I think he's got a chance to be a fairly good major-league pitcher, but I don't think he's going to be a difference-maker.

20 May 2015

How to Solve the Orioles' Corner Outfield Problem

Matt Kremnitzer wrote an article yesterday for MASN about the Orioles' corner outfield problem. Matt noted that none of the five corner outfield options have been hitting the ball well and that they should really be categorized as "spare parts". Snider has been the best offensively but is inconsistent defensively. Lough has the best defense of the five but has only received 29 PAs and has received a huge offensive boost by being hit by two pitches. Take those out and he has an OBP of .270 with only one extra base hit. De Aza is adequate defensively but has struggled offensively despite minimal at bats against left-handed pitching. Young and Pearce have struggled offensively and aren't known for their defense. So far, the Orioles' plan of signing a whole bunch of outfielders and hoping that a few would have good years hasn't been successful and therefore the Orioles need to come up with a new plan.

The problem is that the Orioles seem to have their payroll maxed out. The Orioles recently traded away two international draft picks in return for a fringe prospect. They've also traded away a competitive balance pick in order to add a few fringe prospects and dump Ryan Webb's salary. It's possible that the Orioles are trying to clear money in order to have resources to make a huge splash at the trade deadline. It's also possible that the Orioles have spent all that they can on payroll and need to cut expenses.

The Orioles also have a mostly barren farm system. Baseball America ranked the O's system #29th this year with only two prospects ranked in the Top 100. The fact that one of them, Hunter Harvey, is currently injured just further limits the Orioles' options. It doesn't appear like the Orioles will be able to spend a lot of money or offer prospects in return for that outfielder that they need.

That is why I think the Orioles' best option may be to trade for Shane Victorino. Shane Victorino is in the last year of a three year contract and is earning $13 million this year. After an excellent 2013, Victorino was hurt for a large chunk of 2014 and has been unimpressive so far in 2015. He only is hitting for a .212/.339/.308 line with a wRC+ of 83. However, he also has three stolen bases and does have good defense in right field. If he can bounce back then he can be the leadoff hitter this club needs that allows Machado to bat second or he can be an excellent threat in the ninth spot in the order. With one year remaining on his contract, the Orioles wouldn't be taking on a huge risk by trading for him.

Even better, the Red Sox have a surplus of outfielders and could afford to let him go. They already have Ramirez in left field, Mookie Betts in center field as well as Holt and Nava as possible replacements in the majors while having Castillo, Bradley and Craig in the minors. Given that they already have Ortiz at DH, Napoli at 1B and Sandoval at 3B, the Red Sox simply have too many position players for too few spots and would probably be open to trading a player or two.

If the Red Sox have position players then what they lack is pitching. Their rotation has been terrible so far this year. Their best starter has an ERA of 4.26. Clay Buchholz has an FIP of 2.91 but an ERA of 4.93 and has always struggled to stay healthy. Their bullpen has arguably been even worse. Their closer, Uehara, has been solid. Tazawa has had good results so far with a 1.56 ERA but only a 4.48 FIP. They only have four relievers with positive fWAR and as a whole their bullpen has been worth negative WAR.

They do have a considerable amount of pitching depth in the minors but they have a lot of holes to fill and could use some major league talent. Meanwhile, the Orioles' pitching has struggled but has plenty of arms in the majors and minors. Trading a starter would simply open up a spot in the rotation for Gausman. The Orioles have a number of relief prospects in the minors and could therefore afford to consider trading a reliever.

A possible deal could be Shane Victorino for Tommy Hunter and Bud Norris. These players have similar salaries combined and therefore money shouldn't be an issue. All of these players have struggled so far this year but each could potentially bounce back.

Bud Norris has been terrible so far this year and is currently on the DL. But he is coming off of a year where he went 15-8 with a 3.65 ERA and a 4.22 FIP. It is possible that once he's healthy he would be able to bounce back. More likely, the Red Sox could immediately slot him in the bullpen and see whether he can be another pitcher that sees success when moved from the rotation to the bullpen.

Tommy Hunter has also struggled so far this year but has been a good reliever the past two years. After having a rough April, he has put together a solid May with a 2.70 ERA over 6.2 innings and could potentially have turned a corner. He is a potential late inning reliever that could help the Red Sox bridge the gap to Uehara. However, the Orioles have a number of good relievers with Britton and O'Day and therefore could afford to trade Hunter.

Shane Victorino would be the player in this deal most likely to make an impact. However, it's unlikely that he could do so in Boston given that he's not one of their top outfielders. And as he'll be a free agent next year, the Red Sox would be well served to move on as quickly as possible given their other options. The thing is that even if Victorino does bounce back, it is questionable whether he can be better than the other outfielders that Boston has.

The interesting thing about this potential deal is that all three players are expendable and therefore this could happen relatively quickly. These two teams wouldn't need to wait until the trade deadline because these players have more use on the other team than their own.

The Orioles need to find a way to increase the production that they're receiving from corner outfielders without spending a lot of money or trading a lot of young talent. Trading for Shane Victorino is a good way to do just that.

19 May 2015

Reviewing Big Data Baseball

Travis Sawchik's Big Data Baseball: Math, Miracles, and the End of a 20-year Losing Streak is the next logical step in the Baseball Sabermetric non-fiction collection, preceded by Michael Lewis' Moneyball and Jonah Keri's The Extra 2%.  Those books took meandering walks through concepts devised by the front office and how those were applied in the clubhouse and on the field while noting it was the perfect collection of personnel at the right time to make it all work. With Big Data Baseball, the premise is largely how there is a great deal of data points out there now and the key is knowing not only what to do with them, but, also, how you communicate what you learn to the people who actually step out onto the field.  It is a story of how do you turn 10 million dollars into 10 additional wins...and having the right people just at the right time.

Perhaps the heart of this book is Clint Hurdle.  He is the Billy Beane of this story.  A man broken by the game and on his way who challenges his own convictions about the game.  Hurdle overcame his failure as a player (if you can call making the Major Leagues and burning out being a failure) and his difficulties winning as a manager to fully embrace a deeper application of what the Pirates' data analysis department was coming up with.  This not only included analytical scouting reports and frequent team meetings, but the actual inclusion of the data science team in the clubhouse and interacting with the players.  This is presented as quite revolutionary.

For the non-narrative readers, the pull is by and large the focus on defensive shifts as well as the player development, acquisition, and application of players who fit the style of defensive shifts they are incorporating.  After experimenting with minor league clubs, the organization decided to more fully adopt defensive shifting.  They are certainly not on an island as other clubs like the Orioles have dedicated themselves to the shift as well.  However, it is certainly true that the Pirates are one of the few teams on the tip of the shifting spear.  Through the use of shifting, they essentially gained the plurality of those added wins.

The rest of those added wins were made up by Russell Martin who was a Yankees castoff.  Martin's ability to pitch frame was able to give many runs back to the team simply by converting a few called balls to called strikes.  This helped keep starters longer in the game by keeping hitters in pitcher's counts.  It is a concept well-written about here at the Depot and elsewhere.  As with shifting, it is also a concept that has become largely mainstream within the game.  The part on Martin does get a little loose as the book tries to describe his pitch calling technique as being like Jazz even though Martin hates Jazz.  It describes his way of calling pitches as for the pitcher to throw what the batter is not expecting, which is actually quite ordered.

The other aspect of the book that I found a little off was that this was a book about data science, but it did not seem to be edited by anyone well-versed in data science.  For instance, a point was made of Pirates pitcher Gerrit Cole and how Cole's father was well studied in baseball analysis.  The major point driven in this aside is how his dad instituted an application of the Verducci rule which largely centers on a gradual buildup of total innings year by year in order to prevent arm injuries.  What is interesting is that the Verducci effect was initially poorly studied with an apparent confirmation bias.  In the years past, it has been resoundingly discredited as being anything useful in application.

Perhaps truthing out the Verducci effect was not the place of this book, but I think it highlights something missing from the book as well as those written by Lewis and Keri.  That would be that Science Fails.  It fails a lot.  It certainly is better than going blind into something, but the marvelous thing about scientific endeavors is that we refine reality as we know it as times moves on.  While the book highlights how we have entered a new era of millions upon billions of data points to digest, it fails to note that having a lot of data points can also be problematic and wind up with a great deal of false positives.  It is that false positive story that is needed here.  Verducci's was a proto-big data false positive.

In the end, what this book does well is deliver a solid narrative with several interesting characters while also introducing many readers to more current thought of data analysis and market inefficiency opportunism.  Travis Sawchik is able to take some relatively complicated concepts and provide a soft, inviting touch for less data obsessed readers.  We are also quite pleased that former Camden Depot writer, Stuart Wallace, is name dropped in the book as a significant hire as the club moves forward.

Big Data Baseball: Math, Miracles, and the End of a 20-year Losing Streak
Travis Sawchik
Flatiron Books, 256 pg