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Yankees School of Witchcraft and Wizardry

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Every now and again — well, let’s face it, pretty much every day now — I get another email telling me that Vernon Wells — Vernon Bleepin’ Wells — just got another two hits with another homer with another three RBIs and so on.

The emails are from Michael Schur, Parks and Recreation executive producer, and the emails have a purpose: Michael is convinced that it is time that I just admit that I am wrong, and he is right about the New York Yankees being a magical species, not unlike house elves. He is fairly enraged that I will not just admit defeat. I picked the Yankees to collapse under their own weight this year. He thinks I’m a flat-earther who will not face the obvious truth — that the Yankees will always, continuously, endlessly, constantly, incessantly and unceasingly win forever and ever, amen. He thinks it is way past time for me to admit it doesn’t really matter who is actually ON the Yankees — doesn’t matter if every single baseball player on earth gets hurt and they are forced to have Shecky Greene hit second and play centerfield. In this case, Mike is convinced that Shecky Greene would hit .289 with 24 homers and win a Gold Glove.

His latest evidence for this Yankees sorcery is, of course, Vernon Wells, who at this moment for the Yankees is hitting .299/.349/.526 with nine homers — he’s ninth in the American League in home runs per at-bat after a career of never once being in the Top 10 in that category. He is roughly on pace for 100 runs and 100 RBIs, something he did only once, a long time ago, when he was 24 and full of promise.

Vernon Wells, the last two seasons, made a compelling a case for being the worst semi-regular player in baseball. I don’t think it was quite a winning case — it seems to me there are probably a half dozen players like Adam Dunn and the ever popular Yuniesky Betancourt* who were worse — but the point is he was in the discussion.

*Four times this year — FOUR TIMES THIS YEAR — the Milwaukee Brewers have hit Yuniesky Betancourt in their cleanup spot. There … um … you know … it seems … but … the thing … I’m sorry, the mind’s spluttering, I can’t even come up with a joke for this.

How bad was Wells? Well, usually you can’t define someone by a single number but Wells’ on-base percentage in 2011 and 2012 was .258. That is not just bad. That is legendarily bad. At the very core of offensive baseball is the game’s golden rule “Do not make outs.” Vernon Wells has been one of the great transgressors in baseball history.

Adding to the Wellsian knot was the seven-year, $126 million deal Toronto gave him beginning in 2008. Wells was a pretty good player in 2008, but he was also 29 years old and he only played 108 games. Bad signs sparked like fireworks. But by then the deal was signed and it was too late. He was fairly dreadful in 2009, a good player in 2010, and then the roof caved in, but not before Toronto managed to unload him on the Angels, who seem desperate to corner the market on terrible contracts. You can almost imagine an Angels-inspired movie, sort of the anti-Moneyball, with Bruce McGill as a GM shouting, “How in the heck did Philadelphia beat us on this terrible Ryan Howard contract? Were you guys even paying attention? Was the bank closed that day?”

Wells hit 25 homers for the Angels in 2011 but posted an astounding .248 on-base percentage, which was the lowest for a corner outfielder since the legendary George Barclay, nicknamed Deerfoot, posted a .241 OBP in 1904. Wells only played 77 games in 2012, hit about the same in those games, and then then Angels were so desperate to get rid of him they gave him to the Yankees and agreed to pay about 70% of his remaining contract.

It should be added that the Yankees were so injured and desperate, that they took Wells and agreed to pay 30% of his remaining salary, which still comes out to $13 million, which still would be a huge overpay for the Vernon Wells of the last two seasons.

But, Michael — a huge Red Sox fan who has watched such Yankees miracles from a front row seat — immediately predicted that Wells would end up having a really good year. His prediction was not based on Wells looking good in spring or being in the best shape of his life or anything like that. It was simple math. The Angels are in that low funk where everything they do is just kind of stupid. And the Yankees, of course, are magical.

And it seems that Michael, despite what seem to me obvious flaws in his thought process, is right again.

Not that he ever doubted it. Michael now includes a list of players in his Vernon Wells emails. You look at this list and decide:

1. Shawn Chacon. He was a generally struggling pitcher for the Rockies who in 2004 had gone 1-9 with a 7.11 ERA. The league slugged .500 against him that year. In July of 2005, the Yankees — who hovered only a few games over .500 and in second or third place all year and were desperate for starting pitching — traded for Chacon. His first start, he threw six innings of shutout baseball. His first seven appearances, the Yankees won six of them. They were battling for first place. And in mid September, Chacon threw back-to-back starts of eight innings, zero runs, as the Yankees overtook first place and, eventually, won 95 games. The league hit .225 and slugged .348 against Chacon with the Yankees.

The next year, Chacon returned to being  generally struggling pitcher.

2. Aaron Small. A Michael Schur favorite. He was 33 years old and in that same year, 2005, and he had started all of three games in his big league career. He started nine games for the Yankees and the Yankees won eight of them. In September that year, he threw a five-hit shutout against Oakland and came in against Toronto in the second inning and threw 6 2/3 shutout innings. His record, that year, was 10-0.

The next year, he pitched 11 games with an 8.46 ERA and did not pitch another big league game.

3. Raul Ibanez. One of my favorite people in the game, Raul has had a nice career, but he was 40 years old his one year with the Yankees. He hit 19 homers in 384 at-bats. But veterans will sometimes do that, you know, swing for the fences and give a team a few home runs. What made Ibanez magical was the time. In October he was like a walking miracle. Against the Red Sox on Oct. 2, with the Yankees in a huge fight for their postseason lives, Ibanez hit a two-run homer to tie Boston in the ninth then hit a walk-off RBI single to win it in the 12th.

A week later, in the ALDS against Baltimore, he pinch-hit for A-Rod in the bottom of the ninth with the Yankees down one and hit the game-tying homer. Leading off the 12th, he homered again to win it.

Three days later, with the Yankees losing to Detroit by two in the ninth, he homered again to tie the score..

For about 10 days, Raul Ibanez was Roy Hobbs. “Could this have happened on any other team but the Yankees?” Michael asks.

4. Eric Chavez. He was a terrific player as a young man, but once the injuries started it seemed like they would never end. After winning six Gold Gloves and hitting 227 homers before he turned 30, Chavez did indeed turn 30 and for the next three years he played only 64 games and hit .222 with three homers. He was thoroughly done, and then the Yankees got him, Then, at age 34, last year, he hit 16 homers, slugged .496 and helped the Yankees reach the postseason again.

5. Ichiro. He was 38 years old last year.

Ichiro for Seattle in 2012: .261/..288/.353.

Ichiro for Yankees in 2012: .322/.340/.454

6. Bartolo Colon. He did not pitch at all 2010 and had not made 25 starts in a season in six years. He made 26 starts for the Yankees and the team won more than than half of them, and while there was all sorts of talk about HGH and stem cells and various other nefarious methods that Colon might have used to get back, Michael is convinced it was simply Yankees black magic.

Now, at this exact moment, the Yankees are by any objective measure a dreadful team. Look at a typical lineup.

Leading off: Brett Gardner (CF). Missed almost all of last year with injury.

Batting second: Robinson Cano (2B). Truly great player.

Batting third: Vernon Wells (LF), who the Angels paid $29 million to go away.

Batting fourth: Travis Hafner (DH), who is 36, and hasn’t slugged .500 in seven years. He’s slugging .500 now.

Batting fifth: Ichiro Suzuki (RF), who the Mariners dumped last year. Batting FIFTH?

Batting sixth: Jayson Nix (3B). Thirty-year-old on his fifth big league team, replacing injured Kevin Youkilis who was dumped by both Red Sox and White Sox last year.

Batting seventh: Lyle Overbay (1B). Thirty-six year old on his fifth team since 2010. He’s slugging .480.

Batting eighth: Alberto Gonzalez (SS). Thirty-year-old backup shortstop for five teams, he replaced Eduardo Nunez, who was hitting .200 while replacing Derek Jeter, whose ankle may or may not be getting better.

Batting ninth: Christ Stewart (Cat.). Thirty-one year old backup catcher for fifth organization.

Now, seriously, what if that team was playing in Kansas City. Or Seattle. Or Milwaukee. Take away Cano, and you can imagine it very easily. How many games would that team win? More to the point, how many would they lose? Ninety-five? A hundred? In New York, that lineup — and a pitching staff with 41-year-old Andy Pettitte and 38-year-old Hiroki Kuroda trying to get the game to 43-year-old Mariano Rivera — is in first place with the best record in the American League.

I continue to tell Michael It won’t last. But the truth is, I’m losing faith in the science-based baseball world. I know that sooner or later, Mark Teixeira and Curtis Granderson and Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter will return. And, I must admit, that’s magic even I have no choice but to believe in.

Adams homers in 16th to lift Cardinals over Dodgers 4-3

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ST. LOUIS — Matt Adams homered in the 16th inning to lead the Cardinals to a 4-3 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers on Friday night for St. Louis’ season-best fifth straight victory.

It was the second consecutive game that the Cardinals won in their final at-bat. They beat the Padres on Thursday after scoring a run in the ninth inning.

Adams homer came with one out off Bud Norris (5-9), who gave up six runs as a starter in an 8-1 loss at Washington on Wednesday.

Seth Maness (1-2) picked up the win with a scoreless inning of relief for St. Louis, which was playing its longest game of the season.

Jedd Gyorko hit a two-out homer off closer Kenley Jansen in the ninth to tie the game 3-3.

Justin Turner and Howie Kendrick homered for the Dodgers. Los Angeles has lost four of six. The red-hot Turner has seven homers and 17 RBI this month. He hit two homers in a 6-3 win over Washington on Thursday.

Turner blasted his career-high 18th homer of the season off Seung Hwan Oh in the ninth to break a 2-2 tie.

Corey Seager had four hits and drove in the first run of the game. He had hit in seven successive at-bats before flying out in the ninth.

Kendrick’s solo shot in the sixth tied the game 2-2. He has hit in 14 successive games trying Colorado’s Charlie Blackmon for the longest current streak in the majors.

Los Angeles starter Brandon McCarthy allowed one hit and two runs over 6 1-3 innings, the longest of his four starts this season. He left with leg cramps. McCarthy struck out four and walked three.

St. Louis starter Michael Wacha allowed two runs on 10 hits in six innings. He struck out four and walked one.

Dodgers reliever Adam Liberatore recorded his 28th successive scoreless outing by retiring two of four batters in the seventh. He has not allowed a run in 41 of 42 appearances this season.

Minor League Players’ Wage Suit against Major League Baseball suffers a huge setback

The judge's gavel is seen in court room 422 of the New York Supreme Court at 60 Centre Street February 3, 2012. REUTERS/Chip East
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A judge handed minor leaguers looking to hold Major League Baseball liable for underpaying and exploiting them a huge setback today, ruling that the case cannot go forward as a class action. Minor leaguers who want to sue over their pay and treatment still can, but they’ll have to do it individually. The ruling saps the minor leaguers of their leverage, as Major League Baseball would likely be able to fend off individual cases which, by themselves, might only amount to several thousand dollars per claim.

The background: in 2014, former Miami Marlins player Aaron Senne sued Major League Baseball, Bud Selig, and three major league clubs claiming that minor leaguers are underpaid and exploited in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act. He was later joined by former Royals minor leaguer Michael Liberto and Giants farmhand Oliver Odle. Eventually others joined and the suit had been expanded to 22 teams as defendants.

The upshot of the case is that, while the minor league season lasts only part of the year, players are required to do all sorts of things outside of merely playing games for which they are not compensated. Training, meetings, appearances and the like. When all of that time is added up, the players claim, their already low salaries are effectively far below minimum wage in violation of the law. Major League Baseball has countered this by claiming that minor leaguers are basically part time seasonal workers — like landscapers and pool boys — who are not subject to federal labor laws.

Last year the judge gave the case conditional certification, allowing the players to try to establish that it should go forward as a class action. This would streamline the case from the plaintiffs’ perspective and give them the power of collective action by asserting hundreds or more similar cases into one proceeding. The judge’s ruling today, however, was that the cases really weren’t factually similar and thus collective action was not appropriate because figuring out how many hours each player worked and what was required of him varied too greatly among the players.

From his order:

“The difficulties associated with determining what activities constitute ‘work’ in the context of winter training are compounded by the fact that there appear to be no official records documenting these activities. Because it may be impossible to determine from official records the types of conditioning activities in which the players engaged, membership in the state classes based on winter training would depend largely upon the players’ ability to remember, with a reasonable amount of detail, what they did during the off-season (often for multiple years and for many, several years in the past) to stay fit.”

The judge said that, in light of this, each case would be unique and would require “individualized inquiries” to find damages and liability. That phrase –“individualized inquiries” — constitutes magic words which sink would-be class actions. If a company overcharges all of its customers by $8 due to an error repeated a million times, it’s easy to look at one set of facts and judge them together. If you had to look at a million different wrongs, that’s no class action. And so it is not a class action for the players.

As many courts who have dealt with these sorts of cases have noted, for many plaintiffs, a class action is the only practical method of adjudicating Fair Labor Standards Act cases because individual plaintiffs are frequently unable to bear the costs of separate trials. They are, by definition, (allegedly) exploited workers. They’re not going to be able to pay legal costs and fight off a multi-billion dollar business in order to collect the few thousand dollars they were underpaid. At the same time, however, the defendants have rights too and, if the facts of each players’ treatment truly differ (e.g. the Yankees make their minor leaguers do more than the Brewers do) it’s not fair to bind one defendant’s defense to the acts of another.

So, where does this leave the players? Not dead. Not yet, at least. Their claims have not been dismissed on the merits. They have only been denied the right to act collectively. The individual plaintiffs can now file separate lawsuits against their former employers and Major League Baseball under the same theories. It would be harder to land a big blow in such a scenario, but if enough do, it could end up being death by a thousand cuts for the clubs and the league. Their legal fees might go up and, eventually, if they lose enough of these cases, more might be filed. There are a lot of former minor leaguers, after all, and once there’s some blood in the water, more of them — and their lawyers — may enter the frenzy. Decertification is certainly a win for the league right now, but it’s not necessarily a permanent win.

There are likewise some other quasi-collective forms this case could take such as multi-district litigation in which the cases, while individual, are coordinated in a loose fashion. That could lead to some efficiencies for suing players even if it’s not as robust as a class action.

We’ve written quite a bit about minor league pay and treatment in this space by now, so you probably know where we stand on it. We believe that minor leaguers are exploited and underpaid and we believe that Major League Baseball has been happy to exploit and underpay them for some time. Ultimately we believe that this state of affairs cannot and will not persist and that eventually, somehow, baseball will either see fit to pay its workers fairly or, more likely, will be forced to do so by a court or by collective bargaining of some fashion.

Today, however, was a big setback for the minor leaguers. Today’s ruling will give Major League Baseball and its clubs more time and more comfort in which to underpay them. There’s no doubt about it.