Tuesday, March 25, 2008

ESPN.com Polls

I'm always interested in a chance to make some predictions for the forthcoming season, if only because it gives me a chance to make some well-documented mistakes before the first pitch of the regular season is thrown (at 6 AM eastern time). ESPN.com is gauging the nation's response to some big issues going into the 2008 season, so I decided to weigh in with my answers and see what the rest of "SportsNation (c)" is thinking.

Q: Who will win the NL East?

WK (Whiz Kid): Mets

SN (SportsNation): Mets (60.7%); Phillies (21.7%); Braves (14.3%); Nationals (1.6%); Marlins (1.4%)

I agree with the prevailing wisdom here, and my reasons will be detailed in my next article, which will be a full-scale round of win-loss predictions for the 2008 season. But suffice to say that the offense is good enough, and if the pitching staff was good enough to come close last year, Johan pushes them over the top. The Phillies will make it interesting, but it's hard to see how any of their off-season gains offset Johan even a smidge. If the Mets lose, it won't be because of the Phillies; it will be because of injury.
A lot of people are jumping on a "Braves as contenders" bandwagon, and while I consider them dark horses, I just can't seriously discuss them as topping the Phils and Mets. Tom Glavine looks spent, and while there's some breakout potential in the lineup, it's not enough to offset Andruw. And anyone who actually utters the phrase "Mike Hampton, starting pitcher," should have their writings relocated to the sci-fi/fantasy section. I know there's enough optimism around baseball this time of year to make a self-help guru barf, but this is off the charts-crazy.

Q: Which year will 2008 resemble, power-wise?

WK: 2007 (4,957 HR)

SN: 2007 (4,957 HR) -- 76.7%; 2006 (5,386 HR) -- 23.2%

It's almost impossible to predict trends, but it seems to me that power numbers will continue levelling out, if only slightly. Losing RFK Stadium will drive up the numbers somewhat, but not enough to close the gap.

Q: How will the revamped Tigers fare in 2008?

WK: Reach ALCS

SN: Reach ALCS (40.0%); Reach ALDS (23.2%); Win World Series (14.9%); Reach World Series (14.1%); Miss playoffs (7.5%)

Wow, I'm plugged into the zeitgeist. Well, not really, I just love saying "zeitgeist." It's like "poltergeist," but much less threatening.
Anyhow, I agree with SportsNation that the Tigers stand a good chance of making it to the postseason and winning there at least once. But I'm not bullish on them as the best team in the AL, or even the best team in baseball. I've written before that their gains (Miguel Cabrera) could be offset by the regression of some of last year's overachievers (Polanco, Ordonez, and maybe Granderson). Their pitching staff looks good on paper, but I wouldn't trust that bullpen with much, not with Todd Jones closing. The back end of their starting staff is shaky (Kenny Rogers?) and even some of their go-to guys (Bonderman, Robertson, Willis especially) are questionable.

I'll take this opportunity to discuss Miguel Cabrera's new contract, an 8-year deal worth slightly less than $160 million. My reaction in short? I wouldn't give any baseball player an 8-year, $160 million deal. But if I had to give it to someone, Cabrera would be my first choice. Take that for what it's worth.

Q: Which team will win the AL East?

WK: Red Sox

SN: Red Sox (76.8%); Yankees (23.1%)

Nobody else was an option, and realistically, that's about right. I was watching Baseball Tonight the other day and somebody -- I think it was John Kruk and Tim Kurkjian -- were talking about the Blue Jays as contenders and comparing them to the Yankees. Like the Braves, I see the Jays as a pretty extreme dark-horse, but not one to really take seriously. The Jays have just as many rotation questions as the Yankees do, without the ace closer, and their lineup comes up laughably short. The only position on the field where the Jays might edge the Yankees is in center field (Vernon Wells over Melky Cabrera) -- and even that's no sure thing. Once again, sportswriters are confusing exciting baseball players (David Eckstein) with good baseball players. And the injury bug has already started to rear its ugly head (Rolen, Ryan), and we're not even started yet.
So, if we can agree that it's a Yankees/Red Sox fight for the division, I take the Sox along with the SN. Yeah, it's the safe option to go with the defending champions, but as I mentioned in my AL East preview, there are several areas where the Sox are likely to get better and not many where they're really vulnerable. The Yanks, with an old lineup and young rotation, are much more high-risk. Now, the potential is certainly there for the Yankees to win, but the Sox are a much safer bet. The Yankees need a lot of things to go right in order to contend in '08; the Sox can pretty much just keep on keepin' on.

Q: Which manager will fare better with his new team?

WK: Joe Girardi

SN: Joe Torre (58.5%); Joe Girardi (41.4%)

Finally, an area where I part from the conventional wisdom, although even then, this question is open to interpretation. I was answering the question strictly from a win-loss/contention perspective. There, I think the Yankees have an edge over the Dodgers, who look like they're running 3rd in a 4-way race in the NL West. But from a more esoteric point of view, my bet is that Joe Torre will have much more fun with his job and be much better received. There's been a lot of talk about high hopes for the Dodgers this year, and while I think that's true, the public's ire will mostly be directed at ownership and upper management if the Dodgers disappoint them again. Torre has an L.A.-style honeymoon, which includes long walks on the beach and strawberry daiquiris. Girardi gets an NYC-style honeymoon, which involves being thrown under the "A" train in June.

Q: How will the Mitchell report ultimately affect baseball?

WK: Mildly: steroid/PED usage continues with few changes, penalties are mild or rare

SN: Moderately: steroid/PED usage continues to a lesser degree, penalties are moderate (58.3%); Significantly: steroid/PED usage is rare, penalties are harsh (21.3%); Mildly (20.3%)

It's tough to whittle down the Mitchell Report controversy to one question, and I don't think ESPN.com did such a good job. They're asking how we think steroid/PED usage will change in 2008, which isn't necessarily the same question as asking how much the Mitchell Report will do the changing.
I said "mildly" because I think the practical effect of the report will be significant, but ultimately mild, very mild. SportsNation answered moderate, but this is a good time to remember who "SportsNation" really is. These questions are being answered by serious baseball fans, those with the time and desire to visit ESPN.com's baseball section and answer multiple questions. So, these are your serious baseball fans who are more likely to be connected with mainstream media coverage of the sport. This profiling is supposition on my part, but I suspect that these fans are a) more likely to worry abouts PEDs and b) incredibly outnumbered by the casual fans, who are concerned about steroid use, but won't let it stop them from spending $250 on a ballgame.

Q: Would you want your favorite team to sign Barry Bonds?

WK: Yes.

SN: No (78.3%); Yes (21.6%)

This doesn't surprise me. The sabermetric community has been the least sanctimonious about Bonds or the problems facing him, and therefore less likely to get all het up about signing him. I concur and wonder why people don't bat an eyelash when Jose Guillen gets $36 million, but raise their nose in the air at Barry.
But there are two caveats to this question: one, obviously, is: who is your favorite team? If you love the Red Sox, you don't need Barry Bonds. Sure, Bonds's presence would improve any team, but if you've already got a left fielder, DH, and first baseman who are more than satisfactory why risk damaging the clubhouse? If it ain't broke ...
My favorite team is the Atlanta Braves. The Braves could really use a left fielder, especially one with the game-changing capabilities of Bonds. The Braves have some good outfield prospects coming up, and Bonds would be a great short-term fix to help the team compete in the meantime. But I realize, of course, that the team of Jon Schuerholz and Bobby Cox wouldn't go there in a millennium.
The other -- but more important caveat -- is: for how much? This influences things even before you consider answering the question! Even the Braves might consider signing Bonds for, say, $1.5 million. But nobody -- not even the A's -- will take him and his baggage and pay $12-15 mil. for the favor. I 95% guarantee you that if Bonds dropped his asking price low enough, he'd have a job by August. But I'm sure there is a number below which Bonds won't go -- and that's what will determine his retirement, not any alleged collusion. Bonds isn't the victim of vengeful white owners; he's the victim of cost-benefit analysis.

Q: How many games will the Rays win in 2008?

WK: 76-85

SN: 76-85 (41.1%); 66-75 (39.3%); 65 or fewer (12.2%); 86-95 (5.2%); > than 95 (2.0%)

Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA predictions came out not too long ago, and they have the Rays winning 89 games. I s*** you not. That's the kind of eye-popping prediction that gets people excited. And to be honest, I think sabermetricians sometimes like to make outlandish statements like that, even if they don't completely believe them, just to get people thinking. And in that respect, PECOTA is on target; SportsNation is seriously underestimating the Rays if more than 50% of the respondents think they'll win less than 75 games and 92.6% of the respondents doubt they'll top 85.
But Nate Silver (PECOTA's godfather) is sticking to his numbers. There was a similar controversy last year, when PECOTA predicted the White Sox would lose 90 games. The Sox were coming off of an 88-win season in 2006 and were just two years removed from their 2005 World Series Championship. The numbers hit the papers, GM Kenny Williams laughed it off, and Ozzie Guillen yelled at people (even moreso than usual).
The Sox lost exactly 90 games last year.
In that light, we could look at the Rays' prediction and say that PECOTA is ahead of the pack once again. I predicted last year's White Sox to win 80-something games, so I was just as surprised as anyone when PECOTA was vindicated.
So am I going to bow to the superior predictive properties of PECOTA?
Not so fast.

It's possible that the Rays will win 89 games next year. And their odds may be about the same as Toronto's. But while that's possible, it's much more likely that they won't. I mentioned the Yankees earlier as a high-risk team when it comes to predicting wins, but the Rays are as volatile as any team in baseball. They've got the high-end talent to make a run at 89 wins, but they're just as likely to end up sitting in the cellar with Baltimore with all that potential circling the bowl. And, please -- consider the Rays' track record and tell me which is more likely.
In order for the Rays to win 89 games, it would require a huge contribution from rookies who have spent either very little time in the majors or no time in the majors. How can any responsible baseball analyst possibly predict that so many prospects will reach maturity in one year? The Rays' pitching was horrific last year; it would take a miracle for them to be merely average. And even if their rookie pitchers leap safely to the majors, the bullpen still stinks, and the defense is only marginally better than the execrable 2007 squad.
Mr. Silver, I respect you and your PECOTA system. But I'm not following you off this particular cliff.

Q: Where is the Rockies' true talent level?

WK: 90 or more wins

SN: Somewhere in between (72.3%); 81 or fewer wins (16.5%); 90 or more wins (11.0%)

Hey, where's the love? Off all the people likely to overestimate the Rockies, I'd expect SportsNation -- with its fair share of front-runners and guys with a man-crush on Matt Holliday -- to be at the top of the list. Instead, 89% of respondents doubt the Rockies will win 90 games.
I can sort of understand that. The Rockies did have a lot of good luck last year, and they probably weren't the best team in the NL. But they're a team that's getting better this year in a division that's generally getting worse. The Giants will give everybody in the NL West a whipping boy, so that's a plus. I doubt that the Padres will be there at the end again this year, and the Dodgers will likely screw themselves into an 85-win season once again. The Diamondbacks are the only other team in the division likely to improve as much as the Rockies, and they'll have to just to be as good as they looked in 2007.
I thought America was jumping on the Rockies' bandwagon last year with their "clutchiness" and the Matt Holliday love-fest, but maybe I was wrong. Dang. I was all set to rain on their parade, and instead I have to be the one standing alone and supporting them. It's a lot more fun the other way around.

Q: Are young players justified in wanting more money at an earlier stage of their careers?

WK: Yes

SN: No (62.6%); Yes (37.3%)

I'm surprised the SN voting was that close. I mean, really -- ask the man in the street any question concerning sports players getting paid more and what is the knee-jerk response likely to be?
There are two schools of thought on this one. One is "shut-the-hell-up." Some argue that these guys are already making 6 or 7 figures, even in arbitration, and they just have to wait out their apprenticeship to get rich.
I guess I take a more nuanced view. The arbitration system is the players' union's concession to the teams; we'll give you three years of slave labor and three years of cheap apprenticeship if you'll let us get filthy rich afterwards.
When the arbitration system was born, the owners originally requested a ten-year arbitration process. The players rejected that, of course, because what percentage of baseball players have a ten-year career? We have to get the mid- and low-level players a big payday if we want to drive up salaries.
But part of that argument still holds weight; how many baseball careers last six years? It seems like most guys in the big leagues are around six years, but that's because the great majority of major leaguers have forgettable careers and are, thus, forgotten. Yeah, there are dozens of guys who last six or ten years, but there are hundreds more who just get one or two. And don't those guys have a legitimate gripe that they have to wait six years -- an eternity for a marginal player -- to get paid market value?
To be fair, most of the players making noise about salaries this year have not been marginal players. There's nothing marginal about Prince Fielder, Jon Papelbon, and Ryan Howard. Yes, these guys are underpaid now, but for them it's just a phase. Prince Fielder will get at least one big-time contract, maybe two; the same goes for Papelbon. That is, unless they get hurt. . .
Ahh, yesss ...

If I were Prince Fielder, I'd be pissed too. Getting lectured about the "greater good" is all well and good, but we're all entitled to look out for ourselves, too, and to get paid what we're worth while we still can. How many "sure things" and "future superstars" never got to cash in on free agency because of injuries? If Rocco Baldelli had complained about his salary in 2003, he would have been mocked and belittled on national TV. But now, unfortunately, it looks like Rocco, a big-time talent, will never make it to free agency, because of a career-altering disease that came out of nowhere. Yes, most superstar talents will get their pay-day if they'll just wait . . . but not all of them will. And you don't know if it's going to be you until it's too late.
Maybe Prince Fielder looked at the track record of players his size and decided he didn't want to start making money in his late 20's and early 30's. Maybe he knows that now is his peak; now is his time to make money. By the time he's out of the apprentice system, it may be too late.
I hate to make this comparison, which has been beaten to death in the media, but look at his Dad. Cecil Fielder was one of the best hitters in baseball, whose talent profile was much similar to his son's. Cecil didn't get established in the majors until he was 26. Thankfully, he had spent some time in the majors earlier, so his arbitration clock was ticking, and Cecil hit the big money in 1992, when his $4.5 million salary was 5th in the league. He was never really that good again, but he hung around long enough for another big pay-off; a new contract signed after the 1994 season that made him the highest-paid player in the AL for two straight years, making $9.2 million each year. Cecil had a couple more good (but not great) years after signing the deal, but in '97 was reduced to part-time play with the Yankees and was out of the majors after '98. He was 35.
Prince, luckily, got an earlier start than his father, reaching the majors at age 21. If I'm looking at this correctly (and determing MLB service time is its own science) Prince will be eligible for free agency after the 2010 season. He'll be just 26 at the time, still young enough for some prime years even for a player of his size and attributes.
I don't mean to hold Prince's size against him, but the unfortunate fact is that history isn't kind to ballplayers his size. If your body looks like that at age 23, what will it be like at 30? Or 35? People remember Babe Ruth as a fat old slugger, and that was somewhat true, but get a look at the Babe in his mid-20's. He looks positively lithe, if still a little barrel-shaped.
And similar players to Prince have suffered similar fates. The PECOTA system lists Prince's most similar players, at his age, and the list is revealing. Fielder's top three comps are: Boog Powell, Kent Hrbek, and John Mayberry.
Prince is a lot like Boog: strikeouts, walks, and homers. That's good, because Powell was a great player, and nearly a Hall-of-Famer. It's bad because Boog's last good season was at age 33, and he was out of baseball at 35. The same is true for Hrbek, whose last full-time season was at age 31, and who was out of baseball at 34. That's the good news. The bad news is #3 comp. John Mayberry, who only had two good seasons after the age of 26 and was out of baseball at 33.
(Fielder's top 5 is rounded out by Jose Canseco, who was done as an MVP by age 28, but stuck around -- with some help -- until he was 36. Fielder's #5 is John Olerud. The similarity between Olerud and Fielder stops with the first baseman's mitt. It's a gentle reminder that no prediction -- or predictive system -- is perfect).

Hey, I'm not saying this to sentence Prince Fielder's career to a short and nasty death. I'm just saying that Fielder is being perfectly reasonable when he asks for more money now, instead of gambling $100 million+ that he's still hitting like this three years from now. It's no coincidence that another player complaining about his salary is Ryan Howard. Howard is very similar to Fielder except that he's already 27 years old and will just barely reach free agency before he turns 30. Howard's list of comparables is even scarier than Fielder's, especially since he's soon to hit that magic age -- 30 -- at which most players of his type stop hitting like MVPs and spend a lot of time in the trainer's room.
The other prominent complainer? Jonathan Papelbon. Quick quiz: Who's the only person whose future is riskier than two overweight, low-batting-average first basemen? Answer: a high-stress relief pitcher.
Why does Papelbon want more money now? Because he probably remembers Billy Koch. Koch was also a flame-throwing superstar closer. But he went downhill fast after he turned 27 and threw his last major league pitch at age 29. Sure, Papelbon might be better/luckier than Koch and end up more like Boston's last closer, Keith Foulke, who managed to score a big free-agent contract (3 years, about $19 mil.) at age 31. He was lucky enough to sign that contract one year before his career went downhill fast, never to return. If that downturn had happened one year sooner, Foulke would be $19 million poorer, without the security of a three-year deal to cushion the fall. According to baseball-reference.com, Keith Foulke earned about $32.8 million in salary as a major leaguer. More than 50% of his career income came from that last contract, a contract Billy Koch (and so many others) never got. If it were you, would you put off a 3-year, $19 million contract and bet it on something as risky as a relief pitcher's right arm?
Baseball's arbitration system is inherently unfair, and everyone knows it. But it's accepted as a balance to make up for the extreme shift in payroll costs that occur in free agency. It does help the greater good, and it's a safety blanket that helps most players. But most is not all, and we should not begrudge a player the fear that he might fall between the cracks. If you had a $15-20 million talent as volatile as a baseball player's skill, would you wait one extra day for your due -- or six years, for that matter? I doubt that you would.
So don't yell at Prince Fielder. Don't put his face up on your TV show and whine about people being ungrateful; don't bring him up on your talk-radio show so you can sneer at him in the hopes that destroying the lives of powerful people will you give some visceral thrill as a result.
Put yourself in his place. And follow your own advice:

Shut up.

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