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Francisco Cervelli leads ballplayers in joining Venezuelan protests

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Venezuela has nearly ground to a halt over the past several weeks as opponents of President Nicolas Maduro have taken to the streets to demand his removal from power. They have good reason to protest too, as Maduro and his party have mounted a virtual coup, working to bypass the results of elections which gave his opponents a legislative majority and to fend off a referendum aimed at ousting Maduro himself from office.

All of this comes as the country finds itself in an economic crisis which has led to severe food and medicine shortages. Violent crime has spiraled out of control and blackouts have become a daily occurrence. The protests themselves have turned violent as well, with hundreds injured and thousands have been arrested. Maduro stands defiant, employing the military to hold on to power and crack down on his opponents.

While most of us don’t tend to think all that much about what happens in Venezuela, there are over 70 major league baseball players from the country and many more minor leaguers. They all have family and friends down there, many of them suffering and in danger. Yet they still have to find a way to go about their business every day, playing a game, while their country burns.

Many of them are not simply trying to put it out of their mind. As Stephen Nesbitt of the Post-Gazette reports, many are lending their support and joining in protests of Maduro and the deteriorating situation in Venezuela from afar. Leading the charge: Pittsburgh Pirate and Venezuela native Francisco Cervelli:

Before the Pirates played the Milwaukee Brewers on May 5, Cervelli spoke with Hernan Perez during batting practice. They started to hatch a plan. They got together after the game and began contacting some of the 70 other Venezuelans currently on active rosters. They called. They texted. They asked players to send videos voicing their support of the protesters.

Three days later, Cervelli posted a video on his Instagram page, which has more than 181,000 followers, that featured messages from 13 players from three teams. The caption, translated, read, “THAT’S ENOUGH! THE CRIES OF MILLIONS OF VOICES FOR VENEZUELA.”

Nesbitt talks to Cervelli and shares his words and those of other Venezuelan players who are not content to remain quiet and stick to baseball while their homeland is in crisis.

The article is definitely worth your time and their efforts are definitely worth our admiration.

Astros exemplify the player-unfriendly bent of analytics

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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.