Return of Bad Brad dooms Phillies

Leave a comment

It was fun while it lasted.
Lidge opened the postseason with five straight scoreless appearances. He put together that kind of streak just once during the regular season, when he saved five in a row from May 26-June 1. Of course, he finished the regular season 0-8 with 11 blown saves and a 7.21 ERA.
It looked like Lidge might be on his way to another flawless inning Sunday in a tie game against the Yankees, as he retired Hideki Matsui on a popout and struck out Derek Jeter to begin the top of the ninth. A Johnny Damon single and then one of the oddest double steals you’ll ever see followed. With Mark Teixeira up and the shift employed, Damon swiped second and kept on going, reaching third easily since third baseman Pedro Feliz had been covering second.
Damon’s presence on third as the go-ahead run appeared to make Lidge nervous about using his slider. He went on to hit Teixeira and then give up a go-ahead double on a fastball to Alex Rodriguez that caught too much of the plate. Jorge Posada followed with a hard two-run single to the gap, and Lidge only got out of the inning because one of the game’s worst baserunners chose to continue on to second and was thrown out by 20 feet. Mariano Rivera finished from there, and the Yankees won 7-4.
It was another well played game until the ninth. CC Sabathia was fine on three days’ rest, surrendering three runs in 6 2/3 innings. Joe Blanton overcame a poor first to keep the Phillies in it by allowing four runs over six innings. Chase Utley homered off Sabathia, and Pedro Feliz tied the game in the eighth with a solo shot off Joba Chamberlain. The Yankees got their runs without hitting a homer. It helped that they really bunched together their hits. All seven runs and eight of their nine hits came in three innings (the first, fifth and ninth).
That the Phillies have gotten so little from the first, fourth and sixth spots in their order has made it very difficult for them to sustain rallies. Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard and Raul Ibanez are all struggling mightily right now. Ibanez was particularly awful tonight. His first at-bat, a strikeout against Sabathia with two on and two out in the first, was the worst that any hitter had all night, and he ended up 0-for-4 with three strikeouts.
The Phillies now face a big uphill climb to come back in the World Series. They’re the definite favorites in Game 5, with Cliff Lee pitching at home against A.J. Burnett on short rest. Still, even if they prevail then, taking two in a row in Yankee Stadium, without having Lee to fall back on, will be extremely difficult.

Astros exemplify the player-unfriendly bent of analytics

Scott Halleran/Getty Images
2 Comments

Even as recently as a decade ago, Sabermetrics was a niche interest among baseball fans. As various concepts began to gain acceptance in the mainstream, players slowly began to accept them as well. Players like Brian Bannister and Zack Greinke were hailed as examples of a new breed of player — one who marries his athleticism with the utilization of analytics. This year, much was made of certain players’ data-driven adjustments, including Daniel Murphy and J.D. Martinez. Both had great seasons as a result of focusing more on hitting more fly balls instead of ground balls and line drives.

Statistics can clearly benefit players. They can also be used against them, and not just by opposing players. The Astros, who are in the World Series for the first time since 2005, are a great example of this. The Astros spent a few years rebuilding after a complete overhaul of the front office, which included bringing in analytically-fluent Jeff Luhnow as GM after the 2011 season. That overhaul instilled so much confidence that, in 2014, Sports Illustrated writer Ben Reiter predicted that the Astros would win the 2017 World Series. He’s only four Astros wins away from being proven correct.

The Astros’ front office, though, took advantage of its players at various times throughout the process. Their success is owed, in part, to exploiting its players. On Twitter, user @chicken__puppet chained a few tweets together exemplifying this:

At its core, analytics is about optimization: getting the most bang for your buck. If you read Moneyball, you know this. Wins Above Replacement (WAR) quickly became synonymous with the field and $/WAR was a natural next step. Sabermetrics defaulted to ownership’s perspective, so highly-paid players who performed poorly were scorned. Cheap players who performed well were lauded.

It is no mere coincidence that once most front offices installed analytics departments, teams stopped handing out so many outrageous contracts to free agent first baseman/DH types. Instead, teams focused on signing their young players to long-term contract extensions to buy out their arbitration years ahead of time, ostensibly saving ownership and the team boatloads of money. Teams began to pay close attention to service time as well. Service time determines when a player becomes eligible for arbitration and free agency, so teams that are able to finagle their players’ service time can potentially delay that player’s free agency by a year. The Cubs tried to do this with third baseman Kris Bryant in 2015, as Craig wrote about.

There is a very real ethical component to covering and being a fan of Major League Baseball, despite the common plea to separate sports from politics. The Astros and Cubs aren’t the only ones exploiting their players; the Angels, for example, made some odd personnel choices earlier this season that happened to allow them to avoid paying some players incentive bonuses. Every front office, in one way or another, games the system because the system is set up to benefit ownership first and players second. And if the likes of Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa can be taken advantage of so freely and openly, what hope does anyone else have?

Fans have been conditioned to group players and owners together as one group of rich people. In reality, the player earning $30 million has more in common with the office worker making $35,000 a year than with team owners. When fans hear about Correa making $507,500 instead of $550,000, or about free agent who wants a nine-figure contract, they wonder why he had the nerve to ask for so much money in the first place. We praise players, like Cliff Lee, who “leave money on the table.” Both the player and that fan, by virtue of existing and participating in this system, are locked in an eternal battle with those who cut their paychecks. Regardless of salary differences, the player deserves to benefit from the fruits of his labor as much as the office worker. Part of being a baseball fan should also include rooting for the players’ financial success and not just the owners’.

Praising the Astros for being smart and savvy will only create more incentive for other front offices to mimic these unethical behaviors. The whole theme of the World Series shouldn’t be about smart, analytically-inclined teams reaching the summit; it should in part be about teams getting ahead with a multitude of exploitative practices against their players.