Eye on the prize

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So much and so little has changed.

It was 10 years and three weeks ago that I discovered Rotoworld.com,
clicked on the contact button and suggested to anyone who was listening
that I was the perfect candidate to write some columns for the site.
Not that this college dropout had any sort of resume. Besides my
willingness to write cheap, I went with the only other thing working in
my favor: I was leading an ESPN baseball contest played by about 50,000
people.

It took nearly four weeks to get a reply, but when it finally did
come, I was welcomed aboard with open arms and I kicked off my
sportswriting career making $25 a week for writing the Strike Zone and
the Prospects Report.

Obviously, things got better from there, or I probably wouldn’t have
made it the 10 years. In January 2000, Rotoworld essentially became my
life, as I took over the baseball, football and basketball news, and
with plenty of hard work and some luck along the way, the site got big.
I gradually received the chance to scale back my workload as we could
hire new people, and I’ve been able to strictly focus on baseball,
always my love, for five years now. We even eventually went corporate,
as the original site owners chose to sell to NBC in 2006. This year, we
started up this blog on NBCSports.com and I’ve been allowed to focus as
much on actual baseball as fantasy baseball for the first time.

I think that’s part of the reason why, 10 years later, I’m again leading that baseball contest, ESPN’s Baseball Challenge.
If I were smarter, I would have switched focuses long ago to a pay game
or two and tried to make myself some real money. But BBC gets more
attention from me than anything else I’ve ever played. When it first
started up in 1997, I got a little obsessed with it, or at least the
chat room attached to it. Among the people I met there was Troy Beech,
who later joined me at Rotoworld and who became very important in
helping the site grow in the early part of the decade.

As for the game itself, I’ve always loved the way it saps luck from
the equation. 10 different players, every single day. No worries about
injuries or players simply falling off a cliff. It comes down to
knowledge and dedication when you have to make 900 picks to win.

And I was really good at it, of course. BBC has always been two
contests per year: one pre-All-Star break, one post. In 1997, I
finished second in the first half and first for the whole year, though
that didn’t count for anything. In 1999, I went on to win the first
half, earning myself a big-screen TV. Ever since, I’ve been on the
leaderboard more often than not, though I’ve never really been in a
position to win coming down the stretch, at least until this year. I
think it’s partially because I’m less burned out on fantasy stuff than
usual, but I’ve been sitting in first place since the third week of the season.

The lead has fluctuated. It was almost 150 points at one time, but it
got down as low as 15 points last week and could have disappeared
entirely if not for a poor outing from Chad Billingsley (unlike most, I
went with Josh Outman and the A’s staff on Friday, only to cringe when
he was forced from the game in the second inning due to a sore elbow).
While the nine hitters account for the majority of the team’s points,
it’s still the pitcher that makes or breaks most days.622

We’re down to the final three weeks now. There are no more flukes high
on the leaderboard, and several of the names below me have won or
challenged for the title before. I’m not going to mind losing if that’s
how it works out; I play the game because it’s a tradition and it’s
still fun for me, even if there are days that I don’t feel like picking
my team. Plus, there’s the added bonus now that it keeps me on my toes
and gives me a good reason to check over every box score even on those
days that my job no longer requires it.

That was convincing, right?

OK, so I want to win. I want to pummel everyone by 200 points. I
want to tease Matthew Berry about it afterwards. I want ESPN to not be
able to interview their two-time champ because, in doing so, they’d be
promoting Rotoworld and NBCSports.com

And I like that the old standby hasn’t changed. The rest of the
daily routine is different, the house is new and the job is nothing
like what I originally signed on for. But six months of the year, I
still spend 20 minutes or so every night writing down the matchups,
checking tomorrow’s weather and then picking my BBC team.

Now that I’ve gone public, I’ll provide weekly updates through the end of the first half.

Did Tony La Russa screw Jim Edmonds’ Hall of Fame candidacy?

2011 World Series Game 4 -Texas Rangers v St Louis Cardinals
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Yes, that’s a somewhat provocative question. But it’s still an interesting question, the relevancy of and merits of which we’ll get to in a second. I pose it mostly so I can tell you about some neat research a friend of mine is doing and which should make Hall of Fame discussions and the general discussion of baseball history a lot of fun in the coming years. Bear with me for a moment.

There has long been a war between metrics and narrative. The folks who say that so-and-so was great because of the arc of his story and his career and those who say so-and-so was not so great or whatshisface was way, way better because of the numbers. Those views are often pitted as irreconcilable opposites. But what if they weren’t? What if there was some data which explained why some players become narrative darlings and others don’t? Some explanation for why, say, Jim Rice is in the Hall of Fame while Dwight Evans isn’t despite having better numbers? An explanation, that isn’t about voters being dumb or merely playing favorites all willy-nilly? What if there was some actual quantitative reason why favorites get played in the first place?

That’s the thesis of the work of Brandon Isleib. He has just finished writing a very interesting book. It’s not yet published, but I have had the chance to read it. It sets forth the fascinating proposition that we can quantify narrative. That we can divine actual numerical values which help explain a player’s fame and public profile. Values which aren’t based on some complicated or counterintuitive formula, but which are rooted in the very thing all baseball fans see every day: games. Wins and losses. The daily standings. Values which reveal that, no, Hall of Fame voters who made odd choices in the view of the analytics crowd weren’t necessarily stupid or petty. They were merely reacting to forces and dynamics in the game which pushed them in certain ways and not others.

“But wait!” you interject. “Jim Rice and Dwight Evans played on the same dang team! How does Brandon distinguish that?” I won’t give away all the details of it but it makes sense if you break down how the Red Sox did in certain years and how that corresponded with Rice’s and Evans’ best years. There were competitive narratives in play in 1975, 1978 or 1986 that weren’t in play in 1981 or 1987. From those competitive narratives come player narratives which are pretty understandable. When you weight it all based on how competitive a team was on a day-to-day basis based on how far out of first place they were, etc., a picture starts to come together which explains why “fame” works the way it does.

From this, you start to realize why certain players, no matter how good, never got much Hall of Fame consideration. And why others’ consideration seemed disproportionate compared to their actual performance. All of which, again, is based on numbers, not on the sort of bomb-throwing media criticism in which jerks like me have come to engage.

Like I said, the book won’t be out for a bit — Brandon just finished it — but in the meantime he has a website where he has been and, increasingly will be, talking about his quantification of narrative stuff, writing short articles posing some of the questions his book and his research addresses.

Today’s entry — which is what my headline is based on — isn’t really numbers-based. It’s more talking about the broader phenomenon Brandon’s work gets at in terms of trying to figure out which players are credited for their performance and which are not so credited and why. Specifically, it talks about how Tony La Russa, more than most managers, gets the credit for his success and his players probably get somewhat less than they deserve. In this way La Russa is kind of viewed as a football coach figure and his players are, I dunno, system quarterbacks. It’s something that is unfair, I think, to guys like Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen and will, eventually, likely be unfair to players like Adam Wainwright and Matt Holliday.

It’s fascinating stuff which gets to the heart of player reputation and how history comes together. It reminds us that, in the end, the reporters and the analysts who argue about all of these things are secondary players, even if we make the most noise. It’s the figures in the game — the players and the managers — who shape it all. The rest of us are just observers and scribes.

Corey Seager tops Keith Law’s top-100 prospect list

Los Angeles Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager warms up before Game 1 of baseball's National League Division Series against the New York Mets, Friday, Oct. 9, 2015 in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi)
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Yesterday it was the top farm systems, today it’s the top-100 prospects from ESPN’s Keith Law.

As Law notes, there’s a HUGE amount of turnover on the list from last year, given how many top prospects were promoted to the bigs in 2015. Kris Bryant seems like a grizzled old veteran now. Carlos Correa too. Eleven of the top 20 from last year’s list have graduated into the bigs. Are we sure it’s only been a year?

So, obviously, there’s a new number one. It’s Corey Seager, the Dodgers’ infielder. Not that everything has changed. Byron Buxton is still number two. This will obviously be his last year on the list. If you want to see and read about the other 98, go check out Keith’s excellent work.

And yes, like yesterday’s farm system rankings, it’s Insider subscription only. There were comments about how much you all hate that and I am sure there will be many more of them today. I get that. No one likes to pay for content. I was somewhat amused, however, by comments that said things like “hey, maybe if we don’t click it, they’ll have to give it to us for free!” Maybe! Or, more likely, the content simply will cease to exist!

It’s good stuff, folks. There aren’t many paid sites I say that about.

Ozzie Guillen to manage again. In Venezuela

Ozzie Guillen Getty
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With Dusty Baker getting back into action with the Nationals and with there being at least some moderate sense that, maybe, inexperienced dudes might not be the best choice to manage big league clubs, I sorta hoped that someone would give Ozzie Guillen another look. Nah. Not happening.

Not that I’m shocked or anything. I can imagine that, under the best of circumstances, a guy like Guillen is hard to have around. He tends to find controversy pretty easily and, unlike some other old hands, Guillen never claimed to be any kind of master tactician. He famously said that he was bored during games until the sixth or seventh inning when he had to start thinking about pitching changes. Refreshing honesty, yes, but maybe not the sort of dude you bring on to, say, be a bench coach or to mentor your younger coaches or to show your hand-picked manager the ropes. Nope, it seemed like Guillen was destined to stay in broadcasting with ESPN Deportes or someone and that his days in uniform were over.

But they’re not over! Guillen was hired yesterday to manage the La Guaira Sharks of the Venezuelan Winter League next offseason. It’s not the bigs, but it is is first on-field gig since he was canned by the Marlins in 2012.

 

Guillen managed the White Sox from 2004-11 and was voted AL Manager of the Year in 2005, when Chicago won the World Series. He may be a bit of a throwback now, but he knows what he’s doing. While I can’t really say that a major league team would be wise to hire the guy — I get it, I really do — a selfish part of me really wants him back in the bigs. He was fun.

Angels ink Javy Guerra to minor league deal

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Mike DiGiovanna of the Los Angeles Times reports that the Angels have agreed to terms on a minor league contract with right-handed reliever Javy Guerra. The deal includes an invitation to major league spring training.

Guerra was suspended 50 games by Major League Baseball last July after testing positive for a drug of abuse. That suspension is now over, though Guerra is probably ticketed for the Angels’ Triple-A affiliate to begin the 2016 season.

The 30-year-old made just three major league appearances in 2015 for the White Sox before getting outrighted off Chicago’s 40-man roster. He does own a 2.87 ERA in 150 1/3 career innings, but it has come with bouts of inconsistency and unreliability.

Maybe he can get everything going in the right direction with Anaheim.