Baseball postsFriday April 16, 2010
MLB Predictions: Rigged National Pastime Edition
It's a bit late to make predictions about how the baseball season, now in its second week, will turn out. Rob Neyer made his predictions over a week and a half ago, for example.
But I was more or less in Vietnam when the season started, and anyway my predictions have less to do with crunching players' batting and pitching numbers than, as per this post last autumn, looking at payrolls. And I needed to wait long enough to make sure the payroll numbers were set.
So, based on payroll, here are your winners in the American League, along with overall payroll ranking within the league:
East: New York Yankees (1)
Central: Detroit Tigers (3)
West: Los Angeles Angels (5)
Wild Card: Boston Red Sox (2)
Based on past performance since 1995, the AL team with the highest payroll has an 80% chance of making the post-season; no.s 2 and 3, a 60% chance.
And here's the National League:
East: Philadelphia Phillies (2)
Central: Chicago Cubs (1)
West: San Francisco Giants (4)
Wild Card: New York Mets (3)
I know: Cubs and Mets. But the correlation between payroll and playoffs isn't as strong in the NL. Based on past performance since 1995, the NL team with the highest payroll has a 46% chance of making the post-season; no.s 2 and 3, a 53% chance.
Anyway, it'll be interesting to see how close I get, without trying, compared to those who spent hours and days and weeks crunching the numbers.
What "Yankees" Really Means
"Detailed early maps of Newfoundland show a body of water called Dildo Pond, named for its shape by the British garrison stationed in North America more than 300 years ago. In the colonial period, the word dildo evolved into doodle, British barracks slang for male genitalia. And to yank something meant exactly what it means now. Thus, to the British, a Yankee Doodle was one who yanked his doodle. A Yankee Doodle was a first-rate greenhorn—too thick and dim to realize the joke was on him. The Americans didn't recognize the English slang, and, to the astonishment of the British, instead made 'Yankee Doodle' their anthem. Then the Americans began calling themselves Yankees generally, and eventually [that became the name] of their greatest baseball team."
—from "The Empire Strikes Out: How Baseball Sold U.S. Foreign Policy and Promoted the American Way Abroad" by Robert Elias
Which means the New York Yankees should really be called the New York Jackoffs. As we suspected all along.
Met Stadium Memories
In honor of the opening of Target Field and the return of outdoor baseball to Minnesota yesterday, here are some of my earliest, slap-dash, Cesar Tovar-like memories of Minnesota's last Major League outdoor stadium, Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington, Minn.
- ...signs of all the Major League teams on poles in the voluminous parking lot as a means of finding your car again. “I believe we parked in the Orioles lot,” etc. In the first game I went to, probably age 4 or 5, we parked in the Cleveland Indians lot. That image, for whatever reason, sticks with me, and still feels magical, no matter how politically incorrect. I was also disappointed that we never got to park in the Twins lot because it was on the other (south or east) side of the stadium. We always came from the north. Like good Scandinavians.
- ...going to a game with my grandfather, my father's father, a gentlemanly ship's architect from Denmark, and sitting about 30 rows back from homeplate. This was before they put up the netting to catch foul balls whizzing back and we got our share, including one that bounced off Bedstefar's armrest. My father, brother and I immediately complained that he hadn't caught the ball—he who may never have been to a baseball game in his life—and for much of the rest of the game I mimicked how I would've trapped it, with my lightning quick reflexes, against the armrest. Forgive us, Bedstefar. I wish I could say we knew not what we were doing.
- ...going to a game with my grandmother, my mother's mother, who for 30 years worked at Black & Decker in Finksburg, Maryland, and watching her team, the Baltimore Orioles, pummel my Twins. Don Buford led off the game with a homerun (off Jim Kaat?), and the Orioles won 8-0. Well, it made Grammie happy anyway.
- ...Tony Oliva hitting a ball out of Met Stadium. Records will show this never happened—records will show that the longest homerun hit at Met Stadium was by Harmon Killebrew, 500+ feet, into the upper deck in left field—but I remember it clearly. Watching that white ball rise and rise and finally leave the park altogether. Maybe I was watching a bird.
- ...sitting in the right field bleachers when Tony Oliva tossed a batting practice/fielding practice ball into the stands. For the rest of batting practice/fielding practice, all of the kids shouted “Tony! Tony! Tony!” when the ball came his way. It felt so greedy and declasse, yet resulted from an act of kindness. I couldn't wrap my mind around this seeming contradiction. Plus I wanted a ball myself.
- ... my father catching a foul ball off the A's Sal Bando along the third base/left field side. He was waiting for my brother to come out of the bathroom, the ball sailed over his head, and he played it on a hop off the wall, “like Roberto Clemente,” he said, after returning triumphant to our seats.
- ...Bat Day. With real bats. And finding hundreds of them below the third base/left field bleachers.
- ...Camera Day. Hanging on the warning track and seeing the players up close. It's where this picture comes from. Do they do this anymore?
- ...arriving late to the first game of a doubleheader—and missing seeing Harmon Killebrew hit a grand slam in the 5th inning. Dad!
- ...leaving early during a tie game between the Twins and A's (my father was a classic “beat the traffic” guy), and, on the ride home, hearing George Mitterwald hit a homerun to win it. Dad!
- ...attending “Vida Blue Day” in 1971. I was for seeing the rookie phenomenon but against having a “day” for an opposing player. I was also critical of the buttons they gave you at the gate if you wore blue clothing. Or did you get in for half-price if you wore blue clothing? Either way, this is what was stamped on the buttons: “Roses are red/My clothes were blue/When I was there/To see Vida Blue.” Even at the age of 8, I knew “blue/Blue” was a pretty lousy rhyme.
- ...getting a cold headache from a Frosty Malt on a hot summer day.
- ...Harmon Killebrew hitting two homeruns. Always.
Good-Bye, Mr. Snappy
"What was the worst thing that Michael Jordan could do to you? He can go dunk on you. He could embarrass you. What's the worst thing Randy Johnson can do to you? He can kill you."
—Jeff Huson on the fear of facing Randy Johnson, who retired yesterday with a 303-166 record, 3.29 ERA and 4875 strikeouts against only 1497 walks. First ballot Hall-of-Famer in five years, he'll go in, unfortunately, as an Arizona Diamondback. More wins as a Mariner but those Cy Youngs stacked high in Arizona. Some links:
- From the Seattle Mariners site. Includes audio and video of RJ announcing his retirement and talking about his career.
- A nice video retrospective from "Baseball Tonight" when he won no. 300 last summer.
- Here's RJ by the numbers, courtesy of ESPN.com.
- Bob Finnigan's Seattle Times' piece from Game 5, 1995
- Every Seattlite remembers this one from the "Almost Live" program: How much of a chance do you have of winning the Washngton State Lottery?
I'd include more but MLB.com makes it difficult to find video (no rebroadcast, kids, without express written consent), and then you have to sit through a 30-second commercial for a 12-second clip. But we know the highlights. The no-hitter in 1990. The Kruk at-bat in the '93 All-Star game. The one-game playoff with California in '95. Coming in from the bullpen ("Welcome to the Jungle") in Game 5 against NY. The Larry Walker All-Star at-bat. Striking out 19. Striking out 20. Coming in from the bullpen in Game 7 against NY. The perfect game. No. 300.
Good-Bye, Mr. Snappy. We hardly saw ye.
The Rigged (National) Game
Since the New York Yankees and their $208 million payroll won the 2009 World Series in six games over the Philadelphia Phillies and their $111 million payroll, there’s been renewed debate among fans and journalists about how much money matters in baseball.
One side reminds us that for all the money the Yankees spent this decade—and they spent a ton—they only have two titles to show for it. There was even one year, 2008, when they didn’t get to the post-season. So how can money matter so much? Just look at the Mets. They’ve been the biggest spenders in the National League every year since 2003 but made the post-season just once, in 2006, and didn’t even get to the World Series that year. Yankees smart, Mets not, and even money-plus-smart guarantees nothing, so everyone quit your bellyaching.
The other side, led by folks like Joe Posnanski at Sports Illustrated, reminds us that it’s less a matter that the Yankees are outspending other teams than by how much they’re outspending other teams. The Mets may have outspent the Cubs (no. 2 in the N.L.) by $15 million in 2009 but the Yankees outspent the Red Sox (no. 2 in the A.L.) by $80 million. They outspent them, in other words, by the entire Toronto Blue Jays payroll. That $80 million difference between the Yankees and the Red Sox is the difference between the Red Sox and, well, no other team in the American League, because no other team in the American League had a payroll $80 million less than the Red Sox. (The Athletics were $59 million behind.) In terms of payroll, in other words, 1st and 2nd are further apart than 2nd and 14th. That’s the new math in baseball.
Posnanski also reminds us that baseball is a game where dominance can be obscured. The best teams lose a third of their games, the worst teams win a third, so the real battle is for that final third. Add in the two tiers of playoffs, including a best-of-five division series, and almost anything can happen.
Unfortunately it usually doesn't. Yes, this decade the Yankees spent and spent and have only two World Series championships to show for it; but just one other team, the Red Sox, won as many. It’s “only” two championships if you’re the Yankees. It’s “only” four pennants if you’re the Yankees. It’s “only” eight division titles and a wild-card berth if you’re the Yankees. Eight division titles and a wild-card berth would look pretty good in Kansas City.
How much does money matter? Here’s a chart of how often American League teams, ranked by payroll, made the playoffs since 1995:
No. of A.L. Playoff Appearances By Payroll Rank, Since 1995*
*based on payroll numbers presented in USA Today
Teams that spent the most money went to the playoffs 12 of the 15 years, teams that spent the second-most went 9 times, and so on. Half of the 60 playoff slots have been filled by whatever three teams were the spendiest teams that year. The 11 remaining teams fought over the other half.
Sure, there are certain years, such as 2000, when only one team among the top seven spendiest teams made it (psst: the Yankees). Plus you have certain teams, like the “Moneyball” Athletics and the Gardenhire Twins, who, for a time, can consistently make the playoffs despite low, low payrolls. But that 2000 Yankees and their no. 1 payroll wound up winning the pennant against the upstarts, while the “Moneyball” Athletics and Gardenhire Twins, despite five post-season appearances each this decade, have yet to win even one pennant. So even here, “money” generally matters more than “ball.”
What’s particularly troublesome is how consistent—almost codified—things have gotten recently. In the last six years, the Yankees, Red Sox and Angels, have each been to the post-season five times. During those six years, they were 1-2-3 in league payroll four times (2004-2007), 1-3-5 once (2008, behind Detroit and the White Sox), and 1-2-4 once (in 2009, when the Tigers outspent the Angels by $1 million). The true wild card in the American League is thus whomever wins the Central. That other wild card? It’s ensconced in the East (11 out of 15 times), and, in recent years, it’s almost always the Boston Red Sox.
By the way, if you’re curious about how payrolls and post-season appearance correlate for National League teams, here you go:
No. of N.L. Playoff Appearances By Payroll Rank, Since 1995*
*based on payroll numbers presented in USA Today
The discrepancy between the haves and have-nots of the N.L. post-season isn’t as dramatic—because the discrepancy between N.L. payroll isn’t as dramatic. Yes, it helps that the wealthiest N.L. teams (Mets, Cubs, Dodgers) have sometimes mismanaged their wealth; but it helps more than there's not one team willing or able to outspend every other team by an embarrassing amount in order to cover these mistakes.
All in all, the National League looks like the kind of system that people could defend as “fair enough.” But that’s the system without the Yankees in it. The one with the Yankees is decidedly more skewed.
These are just stats, of course, but they confirm what most of us feel: that baseball, particularly as it’s played in the American League, is a rigged game. In his post-World Series column in The New York Times, William Rhoden wrote the following:
The Yankees are widely despised because they buy players, but as Jeter pointed out, their cornerstones are homegrown: Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte and himself. “We’ve played together for 17 years, including the minor leagues coming up,” Jeter said... “You don’t see that too often, especially with free agency and then guys staying together.”
This argument is often used by supporters of the current system to refute the Yankees’ financial domination. It actually demonstrates it. Four All-Stars, two sure Hall-of-Famers, on the same team for all (or most) of this time? Jeter’s right: You don’t see that too often. And why don’t you see it too often? Because for most teams, there’s always another, bigger team hanging around, checking out its best, young players, and declaring, after a moment or two, and maybe with a nod of appreciation, “He’d look good in pinstripes.” The Yankees kept Jeter and Rivera and Posada, in other words, because it didn’t have to worry about the Yankees.
Every fan of every small- or medium-market team knows this. We develop even one good player—a Joe Mauer, a Zack Greinke, a Felix Hernandez—and the question is always: How long do we get to keep this guy? The answer is usually: Not long. In this way, 20-25 teams feel like farm systems for the other 5-10. For fans, it’s a feeling of increasing helplessness and hopelessness, and it’s destroying the game.
Rhoden ended his post-World Series column in The New York Times this way. It's kind of tongue-in-cheek but mostly cheek:
If Matsui or Johnny Damon do not return, the Yankees may go after St. Louis outfielder Matt Holliday. Need one more starting pitcher? Why not go after the Los Angeles Angels’ John Lackey? Posada has two years left on his contract. Who is to say that as Posada winds down, the Yankees won’t go after Minnesota Twins catcher Joe Mauer? The franchise has its shopping cart out.
Beware. With checkbook in hand, the Yankees may be coming to a neighborhood near you.
That’s so New York. As if he had to tell us to beware. As if we didn’t already know.