Memo to mainstream media: Girardi relying on hitter-pitcher matchups is not sabermetrics

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With a few exceptions the media members in New York are ripping Joe Girardi to shreds following the Yankees’ lackluster showing in the ALCS and many of them are focusing on the fact that Girardi places a great deal of importance on hitter-pitcher matchups, often mocking the material contained in his “binder.”

Along the way many of those same media members have somehow convinced themselves that Girardi is engaging in sabermetrics by focusing on those matchup numbers, which allows them to do the two-birds-with-one-stone thing and rip both Girardi and stat-heads.

Here’s a prominent example, from Bob Klapisch of FOXSports.com:

Girardi’s over-reliance on numbers failed the Yankees time and again in the final week of the season, revealing a lack of trust in his own instincts. As a result, the Yankees never found that “on” switch in Game 6, because Girardi didn’t know how to ask for it. It’s not in his nature to peel away the layers of his players’ psychological flesh. Instead, the manager relied on matchups, trends and data–all the trimmings of the sabermetric era.

Here’s the problem with that notion: One of the basic tenets of sabermetrics is that individual hitter-pitcher matchups with track records consisting of some small number of plate appearances has very little predictive value. Girardi isn’t alone in relying on those small-sample numbers and in fact it’s a common practice among big-league managers, but doing so is the exact opposite of sabermetrics.

Klapisch sees Girardi looking at numbers and simply assumes those numbers equal sabermetrics, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Any decent sabermetrician would tell you that one batter being 1-for-6 with three strikeouts and another batter being 3-for-8 with two homers versus the same pitcher over the span of multiple seasons has close to zero value and in fact Girardi’s reliance on such data has been criticized by various stat-friendly Yankees writers and bloggers.

If media members want to criticize and mock Girardi for making decisions based on hitter-pitcher matchups and for keeping that data in a binder, go right ahead. Just don’t attach that type of thinking to sabermetrics.

MLB Network airs segment listing “good” and “bad” $100 million-plus contracts

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On Wednesday evening, Charlie Marlow of KTVI FOX 2 News St. Louis posted a couple of screencaps from a segment MLB Network aired about $100 million-plus contracts that have been signed. The list of “bad” contracts, unsurprisingly, is lengthier than the list of “good” contracts.

As Mike Gianella of Baseball Prospectus pointed out, it is problematic for a network owned by Major League Baseball to air a segment criticizing its employees for making too much seemingly unearned money. There’s a very clear conflict of interest, so one is certainly not getting a fair view of the situation. MLB, of course, can do what it wants with its network, but it can also be criticized. MLB Network would never air a similar segment in which it listed baseball’s “good” and “bad” owners and how much money they’ve undeservedly taken. Nor would MLB Network ever run a segment naming the hundreds of players who are not yet eligible for arbitration whose salaries are decided for them by their teams, often making the major league minimum ($545,000) or just above it. Similarly, MLB Network would also never think of airing a segment in which the pay of minor league players, many of whom make under $10,000 annually, is highlighted.

We’re now past the halfway point in January and many free agents still remain unsigned. It’s unprecedented. A few weeks ago, I looked just at the last handful of years and found that, typically, six or seven of the top 10 free agents signed by the new year. We’re still at two of 10 — same as a few weeks ago — and that’s only if you consider Carlos Santana a top-10 free agent, which is debatable. It’s a complex issue, but part of it certainly is the ubiquity of analytics in front offices, creating homogeneity in thinking. A consequence of that is everyone now being aware that big free agent contracts haven’t panned out well; it’s a topic of conversation that everyone can have and understand now. Back in 2010, I upset a lot of people by suggesting that Ryan Howard’s five-year, $125 million contract with the Phillies wouldn’t pan out well. Those people mostly cited home runs and RBI and got mad when I cited WAR and wOBA and defensive metrics. Now, many of those same people are wary of signing free agent first baseman Eric Hosmer and they now cite WAR, wOBA, and the various defensive metrics.

The public’s hyper-sensitivity to the viability of long-term free agent contracts — thanks in part to segments like the aforementioned — is a really bad trend if you’re a player, agent, or just care about labor in general. The tables have become very much tilted in favor of ownership over labor over the last decade and a half. Nathaniel Grow of FanGraphs pointed out in March 2015 that the players’ share of total league revenues peaked in 2002 at 56 percent, but declined all the way to 38 percent in 2014. The current trend of teams signing their talented players to long-term contract extensions before or during their years of arbitration eligibility — before they have real leverage — as well as teams abstaining from signing free agents will only serve to send that percentage further down.

Craig has written at great length about the rather serious problem the MLBPA has on its hands. Solving this problem won’t be easy and may require the threat of a strike, or actually striking. As Craig mentioned, that would mean getting the players all on the same page on this issue, which would require some work. MLB hasn’t dealt with a strike since 1994 and it’s believed that it caused a serious decline in interest among fans, so it’s certainly something that would get the owners’ attention. The MLBPA may also need to consider replacing union head Tony Clark with someone with a serious labor background. Among the issues the union could focus on during negotiations for the next collective bargaining agreement: abolishing the draft and getting rid of the arbitration system. One thing is for sure: the players are not in a good spot now, especially when the league has its own network on which it propagandizes against them.