Monthly Archives: September, 2013

On the Second Wild Card, Redux

The Nationals made things interesting for a while, but we now know for certain which five NL teams are going to the postseason. Atlanta, LA, St. Louis, Pittsburgh (yay!) and Cincinnati are in. The other 10 will be playing golf in a week.
Moreover, the division winners are all but decided. With tonight’s win and the Reds’ and Pirates’ losses, the Cardinals trimmed their magic number to win the Central to one. The Cardinals need only win one of their last three games to punch their ticket to the NLDS.
Home-field advantage, though, is still at stake, and that leads to an especially interesting (if unlikely) scenario.

The Reds are four games back in the Central with three to play; in other words, they’re out of contention. They’re going to be in the one-game Wild Card playoff no matter what happens; the only question is whether it will be at home or on the road. The Reds are also playing the Pirates, who still have a theoretical shot at winning the division, in their final three-game series of the season.

In football, we often say that certain teams “control their own playoff destiny.” Right now, the Reds control their own destiny, in a manner of speaking. What they do in the next few days will determine their home-field advantage.
The obvious course of action for the Reds is to try to take at least two from the Pirates, thereby securing the first Wild Card and getting home-field advantage in the one-game playoff.* The Reds have a pretty serious home/road split this year with a .645 winning percentage in Cincinnati and .500 elsewhere, so that’s not insignificant. You can bet that that’s what manager Dusty Baker will try to accomplish in this series
*If the Reds were to win exactly two games, both teams would have identical 92-70 records, but the tiebreaker would favor Cincinnati.
I wonder, though, if the Reds could pull off something even better by losing all three games.
Remember, the Pirates are still theoretically in contention for the NL Central. If they win all three of their remaining games and the Cardinals suffer a sweep at the hands of the Cubs, Pittsburgh and St. Louis will end up in a tie for the division. They’ll then have to play a one-game playoff, with the winner advancing to the NLDS and the loser facing the Reds in the Wild Card game.
In other words, if the Reds mail it in for the next three games, rest their starters and re-set their rotation, they could theoretically take an extra day off while the Cardinals and Pirates play (burning their best available starters in the process) that playoff game. The one downside is that Cincinnati would have to play the actual Wild Card game on the road, but I’d still give them better than even odds to win given the circumstances.
Now, this is an admittedly unlikely gambit. It would take something resembling a miracle for the Cubs to sweep the Cardinals in St. Louis, and even if the Reds tryto lose all three games, they could very well screw up and win one. The Reds have a deep rotation with no true ace, so it’s not as though they can benefit disproportionately from throwing their best pitcher out there in a one-game playoff. Odds are good that trying to beat the Pirates and secure that home-field advantage is the right move.
The fact that this scenario is even on the table, though, is proof positive that the second wild card needs to go.

Addendum: The more likely issue that bothers me about this situation is that, unless the Pirates and Reds split the first two games of the series, the final game will be meaningless. If either Cincinnati or Pittsburgh takes the first two, Game 162 will be absolutely pointless. The Wild Card spots will be set and neither team will be particularly trying to win; instead, they’ll both be resting up for the winner-take all rematch in game 163.

What’s the point of that?

On Great Teams

Baseball teams just don’t win like they used to.

Well, that’s not entirely true. In the aggregate, teams are winning exactly as many games as they always have, since every game has to have a winner and a loser. Some teams win more than others, of course, and some win or lose a lotmore than others. In the last eight years, what we’ve seen is a serious decline in the teams at the upper extreme. Winning 100 games is much harder now than it was a decade ago.

I find myself thinking about 100 wins today because the Red Sox just lost their 63rdgame of the season. In the grand scheme of things, that’s not likely to mean much; the Sox still have the best record in the league. However, it means that for the second straight year, no team will win 100 games.

Does this matter? Objectively, no, but baseball fans love round numbers. On some level, we know that the difference between a guy who hits 39 homers and a guy who hits 41 is almost nothing, yet we celebrate the 41-homer guy much more because he crossed an arbitrary threshold. For pitchers; the difference between 18 wins and 20 is tiny, yet there’s a mystique attached to the 20-game winner that the 18-game winner doesn’t have. Likewise, there’s very little difference between a 98-win team and a 100-win team, but that three-digit number carries some special significance in our minds.

What happened to the 100-win team?


Let’s go back to the beginning of the Wild Card era. In 1995, the Cleveland Indians* were the only team to win 100 games. That’s a bit misleading, as the 1995 season was only 144 games long; still, no other team in either league was on pace to win 100 in a full-length season.

*That Cleveland team was absolutely stacked. The lineup was deep enough to bat Jim Thome sixth and Manny Ramirez seventh. Albert Belle hit 50 home runs and 50 doubles – speaking of round numbers – and somehow lost the MVP to Boston’s Mo Vaughn. I guess the voters figured Belle’s team was good enough to make the playoffs with or without him, and they may have had a point; the Indians won their division by 30 games.

In 1996, no team won 100 games, though the Indians came about as close as possible with a 99-62 record (one game was rained out). In 1997, the Braves won 101. A year later, threedifferent teams won more than 100 games, led by the Yankees with an incredible 114. The others were the Braves (106) and the Astros (102).

What happened? The main culprit, it seems, is the 1997 expansion, which lowered the overall quality of competition by adding two new teams to the league. It also helped that the defending* world champion Marlins blew up their entire roster; they were the worst team in the big leagues, behind even the expansion teams, with 108 losses.

*There needs to be a better term than “defending world champions” for the 1998 Marlins, since they quite clearly did nothing of the sort. The most common antonym for “defending” is “attacking,” but considering the Marlins traded away their four best offensive players, that doesn’t seem terribly appropriate either. I think I’ll refer to them as the “retreating world champions” from here on out.

In 1999, two teams won 100 or more. Amazingly, the Diamondbacks did it in only their second season in the league, finishing at 100-62. The Braves did it again with 103 wins.

2000 was a bit of an anomaly by the standards of the time with no 100-win teams and no 100-loss teams. The next year, though, the Mariners set a Major League record with 116 wins, and the Oakland Athletics somehow managed to win 102 in the same division. The A’s remain the only team in the Wild Card era to win 100 games and not win their division (the 1993 Giants and 1980 Orioles did it in the pre-Wild Card era).

Then, in 2002, things went insane. Three different teams, the Braves, Yankees and Athletics, won 100 or more. The same thing happened a year later as the 2003 Yankees, Braves and Giants all hit triple digits. In 2004, the Cardinals and Yankees did it.

In all, we saw ten 100-win teams in just four years and fifteen in the span of seven. The game had changed, or so it seemed..

Then in 2005, the Cardinals won exactly 100, which seemed almost mundane after the previous four seasons. For the next two years, no team won 100 games. The Angels won 100 in 2008, the Yankees broke through with 103 in 2009, and the Phillies won 102 two years later. That’s it.

Put another way, in the eight seasons from 1997 to 2004 (yay, arbitrary endpoints!), there were sixteen 100-win teams. The complete list:

1997: ATL (101-61)
1998: NYY (114-48), ATL (106-56), HOU (102-60)
1999: ATL (103-59), ARI (100-62)
2000: None!
2001: SEA (116-46), OAK (102-60)
2002: ATL (101-59), NYY (103-58), OAK (103-59)
2003: NYY (101-61), ATL (101-61), SFG (100-61)
2004: STL (105-57) NYY (101-61)

In the eight seasons from 2005 to 2012, there were four.


When I started working on this piece, I assumed that the 100-win teams owed their success to the really badteams that they had the opportunity to play against. Certainly there’s some truth to that. The Yankees, for instance, benefited greatly from having the Devil Rays as punching bags throughout their run. The NL teams all had plenty of games against the hapless Pirates. The Tigers rather famously lost 119 games in 2003, a performance so bad that another perennial cellar-dweller, Kansas City, actually managed to post a winning season by beating up* on Detroit.

*That’s not entirely fair to the Royals, as they also posted winning marks against Cleveland (13-6), Minnesota (11-8) and Texas (7-2). Still, their 14-5 record against the Tigers played a big role in their 83-79 finish.

That’s all well and good, but we’ve seen plenty of terrible teams from 2005 on as well. The Devil Rays were still awful in ’05, ’06 and ’07. The Nationals were a laughingstock for several years. The Royals went back to being bad and stayed that way until this season. The Mariners had some horrendous seasons. The Pirates, of course, didn’t stop being terrible until this year. The Astros and Marlins have lost 100 already, and the season isn’t even quite over.

In the past eight years, we’ve only seen four 100-win teams, but we’ve seen eleven 100-loss teams, plus two more this year. Would-be dynasties have had their share of opportunities to rack up cheap victories.

Another possibility is the high-flying offensive environment of the late ’90s and early aughts. When everybody’s scoring and allowing more runs, the differences between the good teams and bad teams get bigger. That’s very likely a factor, but it’s not the only factor.

A bigger culprit, I think, is the way teams have handled free agents.


Free agency in baseball has been around since 1972, but I’d argue that it reached its peak two decades later. That was when the greatest pitcher on the planet and the greatest position player on the planet hit the market at the same time.

In 1992, Barry Bonds was the National League MVP for the second time in his career. He led the league in OPS for the third straight season, took home his third Gold Glove and third Silver Slugger, scored 109 runs, belted 34 homers and stole 39 bases. His dominant performance led the Pirates to their third straight NL East title. He was 27 years old.

That same year, then-Cub Greg Maddux made the leap from very good young pitcher to dominant ace. He led the league with 20 wins and 268 innings pitched, posted a sparkling 2.18 ERA and took home his first Cy Young Award; for good measure, he also collected his third Gold Glove. He was 26.

The baseball world had never seen anything like it. Two superstars, both just entering their prime years, were available to the highest bidder. For nothing more than money, all 26 teams had a shot at a player to build around.

Bonds signed with the Giants for six years and $43.75 million, which seems almost laughable today but was a record then. Maddux went to the Braves for five years and $28 million, which again was a very large contract at the time.


Six years later, the game’s most dominant left-hander was set to hit the market for the first time. Randy Johnson’s path to stardom was a little rockier; for several years he was an average- to above-average pitcher who struck out a ton of batters but also gave up far too many walks. As he got older, though, he learned to find the strike zone with more consistency, and in 1993 he broke through with a league-leading 308 Ks. Two years later, he became the first Mariner to take home a Cy Young Award. Two years after that, he won 20 games for the first time in his career.

In 1998, with free agency coming, the Mariners traded him to Houston, where he proceeded to spend two months mowing down the entire National League. He started 11 games, won 10 of them, posted a 1.28 ERA and helped the Astros put the finishing touches on their 102-win season. Between Seattle and Houston, he led the Majors with an incredible 329 strikeouts.

In the off-season, he signed a four-year contract worth over $52 million with the Arizona Diamondbacks.


While the Mariners watched one of the greatest left-handers in the history of the game develop, they also witnessed the rise of a Hall of Fame-caliber infielder. After short stints in Seattle as a teenager, Alex Rodriguez burst onto the scene by winning a batting title as a 20-year-old in 1996. For the next four years he was one of the game’s top players, flashing Gold Glove caliber defense at shortstop while hitting like a first baseman.

In 2000, Rodriguez was set to hit free agency at the ripe old age of 24. He ended up in Texas on a 10-year contract worth $252 million; at the time, that was far and away the richest contract in sports history.

Of course, the Rangers found themselves unable to pay Rodriguez a few years later, and so they sent him to the Yankees by trade in the 2003-04 off-season.


In 2001, Jason Giambi was arguably the most feared hitter in the American League. After winning the MVP the year before, he followed up by blasting 38 home runs, leading the league in walks and OBP for a second straight season and making his second straight All-Star squad. He was also just 30 years old, still at his offensive peak.

The small-market A’s couldn’t afford to keep him, of course. He signed a seven-year, $120 million contract with the Yankees.


In the span of less than a decade, five legitimate superstars, including four inner-circle Hall of Famers, had changed teams at the peaks of their respective careers. What happened?

The 1997 Braves won 101 games. Greg Maddux was worth 7.8 wins above replacement (WAR).

The 1998 Braves won 106 games. Maddux: 6.6 WAR.

The 1998 Astros won 102 games. Randy Johnson: 4.3 WAR.*

The 1999 Diamondbacks won 100 games. Johnson: 9.2 WAR.

The 2002 Braves won 101 games. Maddux: 4.4 WAR.

The 2002 Yankees won 103 games. Jason Giambi: 7.1 WAR.

The 2003 Giants won 100 games. Barry Bonds: 9.2 WAR.

The 2003 Yankees won 101 games. Giambi: 4.8 WAR.

The 2004 Yankees won 101 games. Alex Rodriguez: 7.6 WAR.**

*That’s Johnson’s WAR in his 11 games as an Astro. Including his pitching for the Mariners earlier in the year, he posted a 5.8 mark on the season.

**Giambi was on this team as well, of course, but he was injured and contributed essentially nothing. On the year, he posted -0.1 WAR.

With the possible exception of the ’98 Braves, those nine teams, statistically, would not have reached 100 wins without their superstar free agents. Between them, these five players were responsible for more than half of the 100-win teams in that historic stretch from 1997 to 2004.


Now, acquiring a superstar domestic free agent certainly isn’t the only way to build a 100-win team. The Athletics and Cardinals both did it with homegrown players and trade acquisitions. The ’98 Yankees and ’01 Mariners were historically great because they started with outstanding homegrown cores and added big-time free agents (in New York’s case) or an incredible Japanese import (in Seattle’s case) to make that final push.

It’s possible to build a 100-win team that way, but everything has to break right. The Athletics, for instance, had six outstanding players (Eric Chavez, Miguel Tejada, Barry Zito, Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and the aforementioned Giambi) hit their stride all at the same time; that required tremendous skill on the part of GM Billy Beane and also some pretty incredible luck. The Cardinals likewise enjoyed the peaks of Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen and struck gold with a historic run of dominance from Albert Pujols.

It’s much, much easier to build a competitive core and then acquire a free-agent (or free agent-to-be, or recent free agent on a huge contract) superstar to push it over the top, as the Astros did with Johnson and the Yankees did with Giambi and Rodriguez. Alternatively, you can sign a superstar free agent and find the pieces to fill in around him, as the Braves did with Maddux.* The Giants essentially mixed the two approaches; they became a 100-win team immediately after signing Bonds, took a step back, then built around their superstar to become a dominant force in the early ’00s.

A final option is to do what the Diamondbacks did: build a fantastic team entirely out of free agents and salary-dump trade acquisitions. It’s really incredible how quickly they assembled that ’99 squad, though of course they hadn’t been around long enough to build it any other way.

The trouble with all these approaches is that they only work if superstars are hitting free agency. Today, they aren’t.


In the past 12 seasons, 17 different players have won MVP awards. Of those, only seven have changed teams at all since winning their awards. Only four of those changed teams through free agency: Miguel Tejada, Vladimir Guerrerro, Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton. Only one, Tejada, made the jump while still at his peak.

Former Cy Young winners have moved around quite a bit more, but again they’ve typically hit free agency in the twilight of their careers. Pedro Martinez had one good year left when he signed with the Mets. Randy Johnson was 41 and rapidly losing effectiveness when he became a Yankee. Barry Zito crashed and burned as a big-ticket free-agent signing in San Francisco.

In the past 10 years, only two pitchers have won Cy Young awards with teams they joined as free agents, and they were Roger Clemens and Bartolo Colon way back in ’04 and ’05. Likewise, only one free agent signed* in the last decade years has won an MVP with his new club: Vladimir Guerrerro in ’04.

*Here I’m excluding players who reached free agency but ended up returning to their previous teams

A few high-caliber players are still switching teams via free agency, but they’re almost exclusively pitchers. CC Sabathia’s story was remarkably similar to Randy Johnson’s; he won a Cy Young with his original club (the Indians) was traded midseason to a National League team (the Brewers), dominated for two months and signed a lucrative free-agent deal with a different squad (the Yankees). Sabathia’s former teammate, Cliff Lee, also changed teams as a free agent a few years after winning his Cy Young. Both have been effective since (though CC just wrapped up the worst season of his career), but they’re exceptions, not the rule.

Of course, players like Maddux and Bonds were exceptions in their day, but today they’d be impossibilities. Look at the young and youngish players who’ve taken home hardware in the last five years:

Buster Posey: Signed through 2021
Ryan Braun: Signed through 2019
Joey Votto: Signed through 2023
Justin Verlander: Signed through 2019
Felix Hernandez: Signed through 2019
Joe Mauer: Signed through 2018
Dustin Pedroia: Signed through 2021

That’s six MVPs and two Cy Young winners (Verlander won both awards) locked up through their primes and beyond. Another, Clayton Kershaw, is almost certain to get a long-term extension from his team before he hits free agency, and we haven’t even looked at Evan Longoria and Troy Tulowitzki and Andrew McCutchen (who may well win an MVP this year) and a half-dozen other young stars on very long-term contracts.

If Greg Maddux, Alex Rodriguez and Barry Bonds came up today, it’s certain that they’d either sign long-term extensions with their original teams or get traded to teams that could afford to extend them. There’s no way to get a player of that caliber on the open market now.


Free agency isn’t dead, of course. In the American League in particular, a half-dozen free agent acquisitions (Shane Victorino, Adrian Beltre, Hisashi Iwakuma, Hiroki Kuroda, Bartolo Colon and David Ortiz) are playing at All-Star levels. In the NL, the Pirates and Nationals are benefiting greatly from the Russell Martin and Jayson Werth signings, to say nothing of the dozens of former free agents who are now useful role players and regulars.
Still, there’s no longer an easy way to get a superstar. That may not have killed 100-win teams, but they’re back to being a rare breed, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

On New Stats

I love baseball, and I love math.* It’s only natural, then, that I love baseball statistics. One of the amazing things about baseball is the way it lends itself to analysis; it’s a series of discrete events, most of which are one-on-one battles between a pitcher and a batter, and those battles are much easier to break down than the team-on-team clashes involved in, say, basketball or football.

*Generally. I make exceptions for complex analysis and differential equations, both of which were banes of my existence.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about my views on some traditional statistics, and I touched several times on the philosophies behind those stats. Most critics of newer stats, as far as I’ve seen, argue that things like WAR and FIP are not rooted in the realities of playing and observing baseball in the same way traditional stats like ERA and BA are. However, if you take a closer look at some of those newfangled stats, you’d find a lot in common with the ways that players, coaches and fans have been talking about the game for generations.


Let’s take that closer look.


Quality Starts (QS): I tend to call less familiar statistics new rather than advancedbecause some of them aren’t terribly advanced. Quality starts aren’t advanced at all. In fact, they’re significantly simpler than the stat they’re designed to replace: pitcher wins.

A starting pitcher is awarded a Quality Start if he pitches six or more innings and gives up three or fewer earned runs.

That’s it. Start the game, pitch six innings, allow no more than three runs and you have a quality start. Anyone with a basic understanding of baseball can get that in about 30 seconds.

When people inside the game talk about great pitchers, they won’t often talk about winning a lot of games; after all, a pitcher may pitch well and lose or pitch poorly and win. Rather, they’ll say that a great pitcher always stays in the game and gives his team a (good) chance to win.

If a pitcher gives his team a quality start, his team has a good chance to win.

The most common criticism I’ve heard of quality starts goes like so: If a pitcher pitches exactly 6 innings and gives up exactly 3 earned runs, his ERA for the game is 4.5. Granted, that’s not especially good, but:
  • That’s the bare minimum for a quality start. The average across all quality starts is less than half that.
  • A 4.5 ERA isn’t good, but it’s not terrible either. The league ERA for all starting pitchers is about 4.2, so we’re talking about a difference of three tenths of a run per nine innings.
  • Put another way, a hypothetical pitcher who pitched exactly six innings and gave up exactly three earned runs every time out would end up with 192 innings pitched (in 32 starts) and a 4.50 ERA. Most teams would take that from a fourth or fifth starter.
  • In fact, our Mr. (Just Barely) Quality Start would have outperformed at least one starter on eight of the last 10 World Series champions.
Quality starts are far from perfect, and there’s a reasonable case to be made that the bar should be raised to exclude the bare-minimum performance. Even as defined today, though, they’re a quick way to see whether a pitcher consistently keeps his team in the game. Isn’t that exactly what teams are looking for?


Defensive Runs Saved (DRS): For many years, the only fielding stats anyone cared about were errors and fielding percentage. I’ve talked a bit about the definition of an error before, but let’s briefly revisit it now: A fielder is charged with an error when he misplays a ball that he should have turned into an out with ordinary effort.

As written, this definition makes some sense. If a fielder doesn’t make a play he should have been able to make, we charge him with an error. Fine. The problem is that the rules don’t really define what constitutes ordinary effort, leading to some very strange scoring decisions. For instance:
  • If an outfielder loses a ball in the lights and it falls out of his reach, that’s a hit.
  • If an outfielder loses a ball in the lights, catches sight of it at the last moment, reaches out to make a catch and has the ball bounce out of his glove, that’s an error.
  • If a shortstop fields a ground ball cleanly but hesitates before throwing, allowing the batter to reach safely, that’s a hit.
  • If a shortstop fields a ground ball cleanly but makes a high throw that pulls the first baseman off the bag, allowing the batter to reach safely, that’s an error.
  • If a third baseman reaches out to catch a ball that slips under his glove, that’s a hit.
  • If a third baseman reaches out to catch a ball and then bobbles it on the transfer to his throwing hand, that’s an error.
You get the idea. The problem with errors isn’t that the official scorers are making bad judgment calls, although that doesn’t help. The real problem is that the stat requires a judgment call in the first place. If we had a clear, objective definition of ordinary effort, errors would work just fine.

Now, let’s talk about Baseball Info Solutions. BIS uses video scouting to figure out exactly what the league-average (in other words, ordinary) defender does on every possible batted ball. They categorize every ball hit in play during the year based on its direction, distance, speed, and type (i.e. ground ball, fly ball, line drive, bunt and ‘fliner’ – somewhere between a fly ball and line drive). Based on this data, BIS determines the probability that a given fielder will make a play on each ball and assigns a plus/minus value.

For instance, the BIS data may indicate that the average shortstop makes a play on a hard-hit ground ball that’s heading right for the normal shortstop position about 90 percent of the time; in other words, it’s basically a sure thing. If Stephen Drew misplays a ground ball that fits that description, he’s docked .9 points in the plus/minus system.

The great thing about this methodology is that it gives credit for good plays along with bad plays. The data may say, for instance, that a shortstop only makes a play on a soft ground ball three feet to his left 20 percent of the time. If Drew fields a ball that’s hit there and gets the out, that’s an excellent play, and he’s credited with .8 points in the plus/minus system.

Under these rules, it doesn’t matter whether Drew makes a spectacular diving catch to stop that ball or gets a good jump and makes it look easy. It doesn’t matter whether he charges and barehands the ball or throws with his feet planted. The only thing that matters is the only thing that should matter: making the out.

Now, this plus/minus system is in terms of plays made, not runs saved. It doesn’t quite get to the point of defense: run prevention. There’s a lot of math that goes into turning Plus/Minus into Defensive Runs Saved, including adjustments for extra-base hits, runs saved on bunts, double plays, outfield assists and more. Advanced defensive stats have come a long way, but they still have a long way to go, and right now we need three years’ worth of data to really understand how good (or not) a player is in the field.

My point, though, is that the core of the system is objective, thorough observation of actual plays. Coaches and managers say all the time that “you have to see him play” to understand his defense. Well, the folks behind DRS haveseen him play.


Base-Out Runs Added (RE24): Okay, one reasonable strike against this stat: Its full name is pretty unwieldy. Fortunately, the abbreviation RE24 is much easier.

Anyway, let’s talk about base-out states. There are eight possible base states:
  • Bases empty
  • Runner on first
  • Runner on second
  • Runner on third
  • Runners on first and second
  • Runners on first and third
  • Runners on second and third
  • Bases loaded
Likewise, there are three out states: nobody out, one out and two out. Combine the two and we have the 24 base-out states: nobody on/nobody out, nobody on/one out, nobody on/two out, runner on first/nobody out, runner on first/one out and so on.

As baseball fans, we intuitively know that each base/out state has a certain run expectancy, even if we can’t attach a number to it. With nobody on and two out, we don’t expect our team to score at all; it could happen, but it’s unlikely. With the bases loaded and nobody out, we expect a big inning, and it’s actually pretty disappointing if only one run scores. The only difference between RE24 and these casual observations is that RE24 uses thousands of games’ worth of data to actually quantify those expectations.

Every time the base/out state changes, the batter gets (or loses) credit for the change. Suppose Dustin Pedroia comes up to bat leading off an inning; with nobody on and nobody out, the run expectancy is about half a run. If Pedroia belts a double, the run expectancy goes up to about 1.1, and he gets credit for the difference, .6 runs. If he makes an out, the run expectancy drops by about .25 runs, and he’s debited the difference.

When an actual run scores, the batter is awarded a full run in addition to the change in base-out states. For instance, if David Ortiz comes up and drives in Pedroia with a single, the run expectancy changes from about 1.2 (runner on second, nobody out) to about 0.9 (runner on first, nobody out). Ortiz is awarded .7 runs on the play, which is 1 for the run that scored minus .3 for the change in base-out states.

All sort of things that baseball people love are incorporated into RE24. If a player consistently makes productive outs, that shows up in his RE24; if he executes on a hit-and-run, that shows up in his RE24; if he hits the ball behind the runner to get an extra base, that shows up in his RE24. When a walk is as good as a hit (e.g. with the bases empty), it’s as good as a hit in RE24. When a walk is not as good as a hit (e.g. with a runner on third), RE24 reflects that reality, too.

If DRS is a better fielding percentage, RE24 is a better RBI. It’s rather like measuring three feet with a yardstick instead of estimating using your arm: The intent is the same, but the result is much more useful.

If you want to know how much a hitter contributes to scoring actual runs, look no further.


Wins Above Replacement (WAR):Right now, WAR is probably getting more attention than any other advanced stat, and that attention is only going to increase once the season ends and the Cy Young/MVP debates begin. Many fans dislike WAR, I think, because its calculations seem so obscure: Some math nerd just throws a bunch of stats together and gives you a single number that sums up a player’s entire value.

Let’s look at WAR from the most fundamental perspective. Baseball, like most sports, consists of offense and defense. Offense can be further broken down into hitting and baserunning, while defense consists of pitching and fielding.

One of the fundamental assumptions of advanced baseball analysis is that a run scored on offense is equivalent to a run saved on defense.* Like most things analytic, this isn’t a crazy assumption. Considering great pitchers and great hitters get comparable contracts, I think it’s fair to say that baseball teams hold pitching and hitting in roughly equal esteem. As far as fielding is concerned, how many times have you heard a coach or manager say that “even when he’s not hitting, he’s saving runs in the field” or the hyperbolic “he saves 100 runs a year** with his glove?” Incidentally, 100 runs is about the amount you’d expect a good hitter to score or drive in.

*This actually isn’t quitetrue – runs saved are very slightly more valuable than runs scored. That’s because runs saved hit an absolute lower bound: If you give up 0 runs, you’re guaranteed to win (or at least to not lose). Conversely, a great offense can’t completely ensure victory; it’s possible to score 20 runs and still lose.

**Taken extremely literally, this is true. If, say, Stephen Drew went out to play shortstop without a glove, the Red Sox would almost certainly give up 100 more runs over the course of the year.

WAR just takes all of a player’s contributions on offense and defense and puts them together. When Miguel Cabrera produces runs with his bat, they go into his WAR bucket; when he gives runs away in the field, they come out of the bucket. When Andrelton Simmons saves runs with his glove, they go into his bucket. When Michael Bourn produces runs with his legs, they go into his bucket. There’s also a positional adjustment: A first baseman who hits 30 home runs is good, but a shortstop who can do that is much, much better.

One of my favorite things about WAR is that it makes it easy to compare players with wildly disparate skill sets. According to Baseball Reference, Dave Parker and Dave Concepcion are perfectly tied at 40.0 WAR. Apart from their shared first name, those guys had almost nothing in common: Parker was a slugging outfielder who won two batting titles and belted over 500 doubles; Concepcion was a slick-fielding shortstop who hit .267 for his career. They produced their value in completely different ways, but when you add it all up, they were worth the same number of wins to their teams.

Now, WAR is not perfect by any means. The defensive component is especially suspect, at least in small samples, because it uses one year’s worth of data; as I mentioned above, we really need three years’ worth of information to accurately assess defensive value. WAR doesn’t account for clutch* performance the way RE24 does, and there’s reason to believe it significantly underrates catcher defense. As with all advanced stats, WAR has a margin of error; the difference between a 6.7 WAR player and a 7.1 WAR player is small enough that we can’t conclusively say which is the better player. Certainly, nobody in the analytic community is arguing that we should just blindly give the MVP award to the player with the highest WAR.

*Much has been made of the idea that people who like advanced stats think “clutch” doesn’t exist. The actual issue with clutch is that it’s not an especially repeatable skill; many hitters have great clutch performances one year and poor performances the next year. WAR ignores clutch performance by design because it’s intended to help us understand a player’s true talent level; it ignores things that are likely to fluctuate and focuses on things that the player can directly control.

Nevertheless, WAR is the best stat available to tell us, in the aggregate, how good (or not) a player is. It’s a stat that invites further conversation: Once you know that Mike Trout is worth 9 wins to his team, you’re likely going to wonder how he does that. How much of that is from his hitting? How much comes from his baserunning? How much is defense? How much is his positional adjustment?

There’s a lot more to understanding a player than his WAR (or, for that matter, any other statistic), but every one of these tools makes our picture a little more complete.

On Realignment

Yesterday, I suggested realigning both leagues into two divisions each as a means of making the playoffs fair. I went back through the last 12 seasons to see what would have happened if they were aligned that way.

Since we’re looking at a time before the Astros moved to the AL, the alignment I used is a little different than the one I suggested in yesterday’s post. Here’s the breakdown:

AL East: BOS, NYY, TBR, TOR, BAL, DET, CLE

AL West: LAA, TEX, OAK, SEA, KCR, CHW, MIN

NL East: NYM, PHI, PIT, ATL, MIA, WSN, CIN, MIL

NL West: COL, SDP, LAD, SFG, ARZ, HOU, STL, CHC*

*I put the Cubs in the West mainly to have both Chicago teams in the same region, and also to preserve the long-standing Cubs-Cardinals rivalry. It would make just as much sense, geographically, to switch them with the Brewers.


Obviously this is an imperfect exercise because realignment would have changed every team’s strength of schedule. Still, I think it gives us an idea of what to expect.



2012
AL East: NYY (95-67) and BAL (93-69)
AL West: OAK (94-68) and TEX (93-69)
Actual playoffs: NYY, OAK and DET (88-74), plus a one-game playoff between TEX and BAL

Well, that’s about as fair as it gets. The four best teams in the league would have been the four teams in the playoffs. The 88-win Tigers would have missed the postseason entirely in favor of superior teams.


NL East: WSN (98-64) and CIN (97-65)

NL West: SFG (94-68) and STL (88-74)
Actual playoffs: WSN, CIN and CIN, plus a one-game playoff between STL and ATL (94-68)

Okay, that one didn’t go as well. The 94-win Braves would have finished third in the East and out of the playoffs.


2011

AL East: NYY (97-65) and DET (95-67)
AL West: TEX (96-66) and LAA (86-76)
Actual playoffs: NYY, DET, TEX and TBR (91-71)

Under this scenario, the Rays and Red Sox would have missed the playoffs despite having better records than the Angels. It’s certainly not egregious, but it’s less than ideal.


NL East: PHI (102-60) and MIL (96-66)

NL West: ARI (94-68) and STL (90-72)
Actual playoffs: PHI, MIL, ARI and STL

On the other hand, the NL gives us a playoff featuring the four best records in the league. This is the first case in which the realigned playoff teams would be the same as the actual playoff teams.


2010

AL East: TBR (96-66) and NYY (95-67)
AL West: MIN (94-68) and TEX (90-72)
Actual playoffs: TBR, NYY, MIN and TEX

Those four teams had the four best records in the league. That’s exactly what I’m looking for, and it’s what the old system gave us as well.


NL East: PHI (97-65) and either CIN (91-71) or ATL (91-71)

NL West: SFG (92-70) and SDP (90-72)
Actual playoffs: PHI, CIN, ATL, SFG

We have our first (or last, since I’m going in reverse order) one-game playoff under the proposed system, as the Reds would have faced the Braves in a fight for second place in the East. Again, the five postseason teams would have been the five best teams in the league.


2009

AL East: NYY (103-59) and BOS (95-67)
AL West: LAA (97-65) and TEX (87-75)
Actual playoffs: NYY, BOS, LAA and MIN (87-76)

We would have seen an exciting race for that last playoff spot, as Seattle, Detroit and Minnesota all finished within two games of the Rangers.


NL East: PHI (93-69) and FLA (87-75)

NL West: LAD (95-67) and COL (92-70)
Actual playoffs: PHI, LAD, COL and STL (91-71)

This realignment would have left out both the Cardinals and the Giants even though they had better records than the Marlins. Again, that’s bad but not egregious.


2008

AL East: TBR (97-65) and BOS (95-67)
AL West: LAA (100-62) and CHW (89-74)
Actual playoffs: TBR, BOS, LAA and CHW

In real life, the White Sox beat out the Twins in a one-game playoff for the AL Central. In this scenario, they would have played for second place in the AL West. The Yankees would have missed the playoffs with a better record than either team (as they did in reality), but only by a margin of one game.


NL East: PHI (92-70) and MIL (90-72)

NL West: CHC (97-64) and either HOU (86-75) or STL (86-76)
Actual playoffs: PHI, CHC, MIL and LAD (84-78)

This is a weird one. The NL West was pretty terrible in 2008, as the Dodgers won the division with that meager 84-78 record. My proposed realignment would give the division three superior teams in the Cubs, Astros and Cardinals.


Now, the actual 2008 Astros only played 161 games because of Hurricane Ike. Since they finished the season in third place and out of the Wild Card race, they didn’t bother making the odd game up. Under my proposed realignment, though, they would have finished just half a game ahead of the Cardinals for second place in the reimagined NL West.


The Astros would have had to make up that last game. With a win, they’d be in the playoffs with an 87-75 record. With a loss, they’d end up tied with St. Louis, and they’d play a one-game playoff for that final spot in the Division Series.


Either way, realignment would have kept the 84-win Dodgers far, far away from the postseason. So much for Mannywood.


2007

AL East: BOS (96-66) and CLE (96-66)
AL West: LAA (94-68) and SEA (88-74)
Actual playoffs: BOS, CLE, LAA and NYY (94-68)

Realignment would have left the 94-win Yankees out of the playoffs while letting in the 88-win Mariners. As a Red Sox fan, I’m good with this. Objectively, I’ll admit that it isn’t terribly fair.


NL East: PHI (89-73) and NYM (88-74)

NL West: ARI (90-72) and COL (90-73)
Actual playoffs: PHI, ARI, COL and CHC (85-77)

In this realigned NL, we still would have had that thrilling Game 163 between the Rockies and the Padres; it just would have been for second place in the West rather than the Wild Card spot. Meanwhile, the 85-win Cubs would have been pushed aside, and the 88-win Mets would have been in. It’s a small improvement, but an improvement nonetheless.


2006

AL East: NYY (97-65) and DET (95-67)
AL West: MIN (96-66) and OAK (93-69)
Actual playoffs: NYY, DET, MIN and OAK

Other than differences in first-round matchups, the AL playoffs would have been exactly the same in a realigned league as they were in a three-division league.


NL East: NYM (97-65) and PHI (85-77)

NL West: SDP (88-74) and LAD (88-74)
Actual playoffs: NYM, SDP, LAD and STL (83-79)

The 83-win Cardinals infamously won their division and went on to win the World Series. In a realigned NL, they would have finished third in the West and out of the playoffs.


2005

AL East: NYY (95-67) and BOS (95-67)
AL West: CHW (99-63) and LAA (95-67)
Actual playoffs: NYY, BOS, CHW and LAA

As with the 2006 AL, these are the four teams that actually made the playoffs in the old three-division system. Even the first-round matchups would have been unchanged in this case.


NL East: ATL (90-72) and PHI (88-74)

NL West: STL (100-62) and HOU (89-73)
Actual playoffs: ATL, STL, HOU and SDP (82-80)

If the ’06 Cardinals were the worst world champions in recent memory, the ’05 Padres were the worst playoff team in recent memory. Realignment pushes them out in favor of the 88-win Phillies.


2004

AL East: NYY (101-61) and BOS (98-64)
AL West: MIN (92-70) and ANA (92-70)
Actual playoffs: NYY, BOS, MIN and ANA

Every now and again, I’ll still hear someone say that the ’04 Red Sox weren’t legitimate world champions because they didn’t win their division. To this, I’ll always point out that the Sox won 98 games that year, giving them the second-best overall record in the league by a wide margin. It’s not their fault that the one team with a better record happened to be in the same division.


At any rate, the playoff teams in the realigned AL match the playoff teams in the actual AL for the third straight year.


NL East: ATL (96-66) and PHI (86-76)

NL West: STL (105-57) and LAD (93-69)
Actual playoffs: ATL, STL, LAD and HOU (92-70)

Adding the Reds, Pirates and Brewers to the East in a year that all three teams were terrible certainly doesn’t look like a great move in hindsight. Four teams (HOU, SFG, CHC and SDP) would have missed the playoffs despite better records than the Phillies.


2003

AL East: NYY (101-61) and BOS (95-67)
AL West: OAK (96-66) and SEA (93-69)
Actual playoffs: NYY, BOS, OAK and MIN (90-72)

Here, realignment essentially swaps out the 90-win Twins for the 93-win Mariners. That seems like a good move.


NL East: ATL (101-61) and FLA (91-71)

NL West: SFG (100-61) and CHC (88-74)
Actual playoffs: ATL, FLA, SFG, CHC

The best four teams made the playoffs under the old rules. The best four teams would still have made the playoffs with the proposed change.


2002

AL East: NYY (103-58) and BOS (93-69)
AL West: OAK (103-59) and ANA (99-63)
Actual playoffs: NYY, OAK, ANA and MIN (94-67)

In this case, realignment exchanges a 94-win team for a 93-win team. That’s not good, but it’s fairly minor, especially given that the Twins played in an awful division that year.


NL East: ATL (101-59) and MON (83-79)

NL West: ARI (98-64) and STL (97-65)
Actual playoffs: ATL, ARI, STL and SFG (95-66)

Okay, this is the biggest strike against realignment we’ve seen. The change replaces the 95-win Giants with the 83-win Expos. (On the plus side, the poor Expos could use the break.) Two other non-playoff teams had better records than Montreal.


2001

AL East: NYY (95-65) and CLE (91-71)
AL West: SEA (116-46) and OAK (102-60)
Actual playoffs: NYY, CLE, SEA, OAK

Even the first-round matchups would have been exactly the same. Nothing to see here, folks. Move along.


NL East: ATL (88-74) and PHI (86-76)

NL West: HOU (93-69) and STL (93-69)
Actual playoffs: ATL, HOU, STL and ARI (92-70)

Man, the NL East was terrible back in the early aughts.



In this analysis of 24 league-seasons, we’ve seen the following:

Realignment would have made the postseason pool stronger in the 2012 AL, 2009 AL (just barely), 2008 NL, 2007 NL, 2006 NL, 2005 NL, 2003 AL


On the other hand, realignment would have made the postseason pool weaker in the 2012 NL, 2011 AL, 2009 NL, 2007 AL, 2004 NL, 2002 AL (just barely), 2002 NL and 2001 NL.


The postseason pool would have stayed the same in the 2011 NL, 2010 AL, 2010 NL (mostly), 2008 AL, 2006 AL, 2005 AL, 2004 AL, 2003 NL and 2001 AL.


In all, we have seven league-seasons in which realignment would have made a stronger postseason pool and eight in which it would have made a weaker postseason pool. The remaining nine league-seasons would have seen no difference other than the addition of a one-game playoff in the 2010 NL.


You’d get slightly different results by realigning the league in different ways, but the point is that the two-division system is more or less a wash with the old three-division system. I still prefer the two-division setup, though, because it eliminates all of the most unqualified playoff teams of the last 12 years: the ’05 Padres, the ’06 Cardinals, the ’07 Cubs and the ’08 Dodgers. The worst team to make the postseason in my reimagined league: the ’02 Expos in an insane down year for the non-Braves members of the NL East. The second-worst: the ’06 Phillies, who replace the aforementioned Cardinals.


Compared to the issues introduced by the second wild card, though, this realigned setup looks pretty excellent.


As far as this year is concerned, we’d have the following standings:

AL East: BOS, DET
AL West: OAK, TEX

NL East: ATL, PIT

NL West: LAD, STL

Really, the only race worth watching in a realigned league would be the fight for the NL East. The Reds would trail the second-place Pirates by just one game, and both would have a legitimate shot at the first-place Braves. Out West, the Dodgers and Cardinals might flip-flop at the top, but both would go to the postseason; the same could be said for the A’s and Rangers in the AL. As far as the realigned AL East is concerned, the Tigers could make a run at the first-place Red Sox, but even that is a long shot, and both teams would make the playoffs either way. It would take a pretty impressive run for the third-place Rays to get in.


Such a league wouldn’t be terribly exciting in September, but we’d be guaranteed to see the best eight teams in the playoffs, which makes for excellent October baseball.



Look, there’s only one perfectly fair playoff system. Eliminate divisions entirely, have every team in each league play all of the other teams the same number of times and pick the best X teams to go to the postseason. Since baseball is never going to use such a system again,* we have to find a way to work with divisions and keep things mostly equitable.

*I say again because this was exactly the system used in the pre-expansion era. There were two leagues, and the best team in each league went to the World Series. I like that the current playoffs include more than two teams, but I think the intent there was good.


In realigned leagues with two divisions each, we’d create a more balanced schedule while keeping the big geographic and historic rivalries (Yankees/Red Sox, Cardinals/Cubs, etc.). Interleague play would be easy to manage as well, either throughout the year as it is now or as a short stretch in the middle of the season as it was previously. Finally, it would require expansion, which means more baseball. Who doesn’t want more baseball?


Of course, we could also just go back to the old rules. Just please get rid of the second Wild Card.

On the Second Wild Card

So, we’re a week into September, and there’s not a ton of drama left in the 2013 season. I’ll acknowledge right off the bat that what little drama we do have comes largely from the second wild card.

First, let’s define exactly how the second Wild Card works. Right now, the playoffs in each league include three division winners, all of which go straight to the best-of-five Division Series (ALDS or NLDS). Before that kicks off, the two best non-division winners in each league play each other in a one-game playoff, the Wild Card game, with the winner joining the division winners in the Division Series. Under the old rules, there was just one Wild Card team that advanced straight to the LDS; the one-game playoff was only used to break ties.


Because there are now two Wild Card spots, quite a few American League teams are still in contention. If there were just the one spot, as we had before the 2012 season, only the Rangers, A’s and Rays would really still be in the race (the Tigers and Red Sox have more or less won their races), and even the A’s would be more or less assured of a playoff spot by division title or Wild Card. Sure, the second Wild Card has made things more interesting.


In the National League, we’d still have the Cardinals, Pirates and Reds slugging it out, but it would be a fight for two guaranteed spots instead of one guaranteed spot and two spots in a play-in game. I suppose one could argue that the current format makes that race marginally more interesting than it would be with just the one Wild Card.


The thing is, I’m not sure we should pick our playoff system in terms of what provides the most drama. I’d rather see the best teams in the postseason, and the second Wild Card does nothing to make that a reality.


Here, as I see it, are the three main issues with the second Wild Card as currently constructed.

A) Lopsided matchups. If the two Wild Card teams have wildly different records (say 95 wins versus 85 wins), it seems unfair that the weaker team has a chance to knock off the stronger team in a one-game playoff. I’m aware that the Division Series often features lopsided matchups as well, but at least it’s a series. In one game, anything can happen. Martin Perez can out-pitch Felix Hernandez. Josh Reddick can belt three home runs (he has just 10 on the year). In a best-of-five, anything can happen, but the more talented team is more likely to rise to the top.


B) Intradivisional matchups. Okay, it’s not exactly fair to compare records across divisions. A team that wins 87 games in the stacked AL East may well be better than a team that wins 90 in the weak AL Central. When both Wild Card teams come from the same division, though, we can unequivocally see which team played better all season long. Why should we have a winner-take-all game when one team has clearly beaten the other already? It’s a bit like that kid who yells “next shot wins!” when he’s down 30-20 in a pickup basketball game.


C) Unfair advantages. The whole purpose of seeding in the playoffs is to give stronger teams a better shot at the title; after all, they’ve earned it! The team with the better record, for instance, usually has home-field advantage. In theory, the second Wild Card helps the stronger teams because, as division winners, they don’t have to play in the one-game playoff. In some scenarios, though, the Wild Card game can actually give a team with a lesser record some significant advantage.


That’s theory, though. In practice, how do these issues shake out?



Let’s take a look at the only season we’ve got in which the second Wild Card was actually used, then retroactively apply it to every other 21st-century pennant race, 2001-2011, and see what would have happened. I’ll note here that we obviously can’t KNOW what would have happened because certain aspects of each season (especially deadline trades) could have gone down quite differently if more teams were in contention. Still, I think it’s a useful exercise.

2012 NL

Division Winners: WSN (98-64), CIN (97-65), SFG (94-68)
Wild Cards: ATL (94-68) and STL (88-74)
Issues: A (Lopsided)


Right off the bat, we see a case in which one Wild Card team had a substantially better record than the other. Despite being outplayed by six games during the regular season, the Cardinals had a shot to knock the Braves out of the playoffs with a single win. That, of course, is exactly what they did.


2012 AL

Division Winners: NYY (95-67), DET (88-74) and OAK (94-68)
Wild Cards: BAL (93-69) and TEX (93-69)
Issues: None

On the other hand, the American League gave us a perfectly fair matchup; the two Wild Card teams finished with identical records. The second WC didn’t make a whit of difference here, as Baltimore and Texas would have played a one-game playoff under the old rules, too. The real travesty is that the Tigers had one of three guaranteed spots in the ALDS even though they were, by record, the seventh-best team in the league.


2011 NL

Division Winners: PHI (102-60), MIL (96-66), ARI (94-68)
Wild Cards: STL (90-72), ATL (89-73)
Issues: None

It’s funny that the year before the second wild card was implemented, the NL looked like the Platonic ideal of a season under the new rules. The three best teams in the league would have gone to the NLDS, and the play-in game would have featured two teams with almost identical records from different divisions. So far, the second wild card doesn’t look so bad, but it won’t stay that way for long.


2011 AL

Division Winners: NYY (97-65), DET (95-67), TEX (96-66)
Wild Cards: TBR (91-71), BOS (90-72)
Issues: B (Intradivisional)

I’ll grant that the two Wild Cards in this matchup were only separated by one game, but it still seems a little silly to have a one-game playoff between teams that finished with different records in the same division. Much as it pains me to say it, the Rays beat the Sox out fair and square during the regular season. Why should they have had to beat them one more time in the Wild Card game?


2010 NL

Division Winners: PHI (97-65), CIN (91-71), SFG (92-70)
Wild Cards: ATL (91-71), SDP (90-72)
Issues: None

The 2010 NL looked remarkably similar to the 2011 NL. I’d point out, though, that the Reds would have made the playoffs outright while the Braves, with an identical record in a stronger division, would have been stuck in a one-game playoff.


2010 AL

Division Winners: TBR (96-66), MIN (94-68), TEX (90-72)
Wild Cards: NYY (95-67), BOS (89-73)
Issues: A, B

Well, the current rules would have made a royal mess of things. The Yankees had the second-best overall record in the league. They missed winning their division by a single game. The second WC would have given the Red Sox, who finished well behind New York in the same division, a chance to knock those Yankees off in a one-game playoff.


I hate the Yankees, but even I have to point out that this scenario would have been completely unfair.


2009 NL

Division Winners: PHI (93-69), STL (91-71), LAD (95-67)
Wild Cards: COL (92-70), FLA (87-75)
Issues: A

This isn’t the worst matchup we’ll see, but it’s bad. The Rockies actually had a better record than one of the division winners, yet they would have had to face a clearly inferior Marlins team in a one-game playoff.


2009 AL

Division Winners: NYY (103-59), MIN (87-76), LAA (97-65)
Wild Cards: BOS (95-67), TEX (87-75)
Issues: A

Here we have our first dual one-game playoff scenario. The Twins and Tigers played an actual one-game playoff to decide the Central, and Boston and Texas would have played a one-game Wild Card playoff. This would have been even more lopsided than the NL matchup; the Red Sox finished eight games ahead of the Rangers.


2008 NL

Division Winners: PHI (92-70), CHC (97-64), LAD (84-78)
Wild Cards: MIL (90-72), NYM (89-73)
Issues: None

Well, this Wild Card game would have been pretty fair. I would be (and was) far more upset about the Dodgers’ sneaking into the postseason with 84 wins.


2008 AL

Division Winners: TBR (97-65), CHW (89-74), LAA (100-62)
Wild Cards: BOS (95-67), NYY (89-73)
Issues: A, B

This certainly would’ve been a wild one, as the White Sox and Twins played an actual one-game playoff to go with the hypothetical one-game playoff the Sox and Yankees would have played. Again, one of the Wild Cards beat out the other by a substantial margin, yet the Yankees would have had a chance to knock off a clearly superior regular-season team by winning one game.


2007 NL

Division Winners: PHI (89-73), CHC (85-77), ARI (90-72)
Wild Cards: COL (89-73) and SDP (89-73)
Issues: None

Like last year’s AL, the 2007 NL would have proceeded exactly the same way under the new rules as it actually did under the old rules. The Rockies and Padres tied for the single Wild Card and faced each other in a play-in game for a spot in the NLDS. Under today’s rules, one team would have been the “first” Wild Card, the other the “second,” and they would have played a one-game playoff for a spot in the NLDS.


2007 AL

Division Winners: BOS (96-66), CLE (96-66), LAA (94-68)
Wild Cards: NYY (94-68) and either DET (88-74) or SEA (88-74)
Issues: A

With identical records, the Tigers and Mariners would have played a one-game playoff for the second wild card, with the winner facing the Yankees in the actual Wild Card playoff game. Of course, the Yankees were clearly superior to both teams.


2006 NL

Division Winners: NYM (97-65), STL (83-78) and either SDP (88-74) or LAD (88-74)
Wild Cards: Either SDP or LAD and PHI (85-77)
Issues: C (Advantage to Lesser Team)

’06 wasn’t exactly a banner year in the National League, as only one team won more than 90 games. The second wild card, however, would have made things decidedly more interesting.


Under the old rules, the Padres were awarded the division title and the Dodgers the Wild Card based on head-to-head records. It didn’t especially matter, since the Wild Card team went to the NLDS anyway. Under the new rules, though, the Padres and Dodgers would have had to face each other in a one-game playoff, with the winner taking the division and the loser hosting the Phillies in the Wild Card game.


Here’s my biggest issue with the second Wild Card: In a scenario like this, a team with an inferior record gets the upper hand. The Phillies, with their second Wild Card spot already sewn up at the end of September, would have had the opportunity to rest their starters and re-set their rotation in the last few regular-season games. Then they would have had an additional day off while the Padres and Dodgers faced each other, likely burning their best pitchers in the process. The Wild Card game would’ve featured the well-rested Phillies and their ace against a fatigued Dodgers or Padres squad.


Even though the Phillies would have played that last game on the road, it’s easy to see a scenario in which they’d knock off a better team in a single game.


2006 AL

Division Winners: NYY (97-65), MIN (96-66), OAK (93-69)
Wild Cards: DET (95-67) and CHW (90-72)
Issues: A, B

In yet another season, a strong Wild Card team with a better record than one of the actual division winners would have had to face a challenger with a clearly inferior record from the same division.


2005 NL

Division Winners: ATL (90-72), STL (100-62) and SDP (82-80)
Wild Cards: HOU (89-73) and PHI (88-74)
Issues: None

Okay, this Wild Card matchup would have been pretty fair, though both Houston and Philadelphia were much better teams than division-winning San Diego.


2005 AL

Division Winners: NYY (95-67) or BOS (95-67), CHW (99-63) and LAA (95-67)
Wild Cards: NYY or BOS and CLE (93-69)
Issues: C

Here we have essentially the same scenario as the 2006 NL. The Yankees and Red Sox would have faced each other in a one-game playoff (with admittedly awesome ratings) for the AL East, with the loser taking on the Indians in a second one-game playoff. The same advantages enjoyed by the Phillies above would have gone to Cleveland here.


2004 NL

Division Winners: ATL (96-66), STL (105-67) and LAD (93-69)
Wild Cards: HOU (92-70) and SFG (91-71)
Issues: None

The NL gives us nothing to be upset about under the new rules. Two strong teams with comparable records from different divisions would have played in the Wild Card game. That’s fair enough.


2004 AL

Division Winners: NYY (101-61), MIN (92-70) and ANA (92-70)
Wild Cards: BOS (98-64) and OAK (91-71)
Issues: A

On the other hand, this is the sort of Wild Card matchup that I really don’t want to see. The Red Sox were an elite team that year. They had the second-most wins in the entire league, well ahead of the Central and West division winners. The 91-win Athletics were very good, sure, but it’s dumb that they would have had a chance to knock off the Sox in a one-game playoff.


Just in terms of the strength of the two Wild Card teams, I think this is the second-most egregious matchup. It’s a distant second, though, to one that’s coming.


2003 NL

Division Winners: ATL (101-61), CHC (88-74) and SFG (100-64)
Wild Cards: FLA (91-71) and HOU (87-75)
Issues: A

In what’s becoming a familiar refrain by now, a strong Wild Card team with a better record than one of the division winners would have had to play a team with a lesser record from a weak division.


2003 AL

Division Winners: NYY (101-61), MIN 90-72) and OAK (96-66)
Wild Cards: BOS (95-67) and SEA (93-69)
Issues: None

The eighth AL season we’ve retroactively examined is the first in which the Wild Card matchup would have been especially fair. Both teams were likely superior to the AL Central champion Twins.


2002 NL

Division Winners: ATL (101-61), STL (97-65) and ARI (98-64)
Wild Cards: SFG (95-66) and LAD (92-70)
Issues: B

This is another intra-divisional Wild Card matchup, and those are always fraught with issues. The Dodgers were a good team, but the Giants were three and a half games better over a full season. Why should Los Angeles have had a chance to erase that by winning one game?


2002 AL

Division Winners: NYY (103-58), MIN (94-67) and OAK (103-59)
Wild Cards: ANA (99-63) and either BOS (93-69) or SEA (93-69)
Issues: A

Like the 2007 AL, this season would have seen a one-game playoff for the right to participate in a one-game playoff. Both second Wild Card teams were quite a bit worse than the 99-win Angels.


2001 NL

Division Winners: ATL (88-74), HOU (93-69) or STL (93-69), and ARI (92-70)
Wild Card: HOU or STL and SFG (90-72)
Issues: C

The whole point of the second Wild Card is to make winning one’s division meaningful. The downside, as we see here, emerges when we have a tie for the division lead. Despite having tied for the best record in the whole league, Houston and St. Louis would have had to play a one-game playoff. The loser would then have had to play a strong but inferior Giants club in a second one-game playoff.


2001 AL

Division Winners: NYY (95-65), CLE (91-71) and SEA (116-46)
Wild Cards: OAK (102-60) and MIN (85-77)
Issues: A

The 2001 Athletics were a fantastic team. They won 102 games, which easily gave them the second-best record in the league (the Yankees were third with 95 wins); it just so happened that an incredible 116-win Seattle squad played in the same division. If anything, the A’s were even more impressive because they won all those games despite facing Seattle 19 times. The Mariners beat the living daylights out of every other team in the American League that year, but they went “only” 10-9 against the Athletics.


Under the rules at the time, Oakland went to the playoffs as the one and only Wild Card. Under current rules, Oakland would have faced 85-win Minnesota in the Wild Card game. The second-best team in the Majors would have faced the 14th-best in a single elimination contest while teams with much weaker records went straight to the Division Series.


That should not be possible in any sport that makes sense.


Over 24 league-seasons, we have:

11 cases of issue A – the Wild Card game would have been an especially lopsided matchup because the first team was at least four wins better than the second. This includes the absurd case of the 2001 AL.


5 cases of issue B – the Wild Card game would have included two teams with different records in the same division.


3 cases of issue C – the Wild Card matchup would have given an advantage to a team with a lesser record.


8 cases in which the Wild Card game introduced none of those issues.


The problems I’ve identified with the second Wild Card, then, aren’t just hypothetical scenarios. They seem to come up more often in the AL than the NL, but they’re common to both leagues. Every single season in the past 12 would have seen at least one of these issues in at least one league.


Moreover, even in the seasons with no issues introduced specifically by the second wild card, there were issues with the playoff system in general. Teams like the ’06 Cardinals, the ’05 Padres and the ’12 Tigers really had no business being in the postseason at all, let alone getting a free pass to the Division Series. An 85-win team in a weak division is not more playoff-worthy than a 95-win team that happens to share a division with an even stronger team.


How can we fix these issues?


My first proposed solution requires no real changes to the current structure. Keep the three divisions in each league, the three division winners and the two Wild Card teams. Put all five of those teams into one bucket and seed them in order of overall record.

The #1, #2 and #3 teams go straight to the Division Series. The #4 and #5 teams face off in a one-game playoff to get the final spot in the divisional round.


If there’s a tie for the #5 spot, play a one-game playoff see who is in and who is out. If there’s a tie at any other point in the seeding, use the following tiebreakers:

  1. Division winner over Wild Card
  2. League record
  3. Head-to-head record

Under these rules, last year’s NL playoffs would have been the same, with the Braves facing the Cardinals in a one-game playoff. The AL, however, would have pitted the Tigers against the Rangers in that one-game playoff, as Baltimore outplayed Texas against other AL teams.

A more extreme version of this same system would be to ignore division winners entirely (except for tiebreakers) and just take the five best records in the league. Under this system, the Tigers would have missed the playoffs entirely, with the Rays taking their place in the play-in game. I actually prefer this option because it eliminates clearly unqualified teams like the ’05 Padres, but I understand that baseball wants to see every division represented. Either option is better than what we have now.



My second proposed solution is more involved, but I think it makes the playoff system almost completely fair. Realign both leagues into two divisions like so:


AL West: LAA, TEX, HOU, OAK, SEA, KCR, CHW, MIN

AL East: BOS, NYY, TBR, TOR, BAL, DET, CLE

NL West: COL, SDP, LAD, SFG, ARZ, CHC, MIL, STL

NL East: NYM, PHI, PIT, ATL, MIA, WSN, CIN

Of course, the divisions are unequal sizes in this setup, so the league would need to expand* to include two more teams. Right now the open slots are in the East, but it would make geographic sense for the Brewers, Cubs or White Sox to switch to the East and open up slots in the West instead if necessary. (Either way, we’d have more baseball!)


*The alternative, I suppose, would be to contract two teams. I don’t think too many fans would miss the Marlins, but I can’t really see a good contraction candidate in the AL right now.


The new playoffs would just feature the top two teams in each eight-team division. In the first round, we’d have the first-place team in the West play the second-place team in the East and vice versa. With such large divisions, strength of schedule wouldn’t vary as much, so actual records would be more representative of team strength. Sure, it would mean fewer Red Sox-Yankees matchups, but the league would more than make up for its loss by adding 162 games to the season for the two extra teams. (Again, who doesn’t want more baseball?)


This isn’t a system built to produce drama, but that’s OK. MLB is not the NFL, where “any given Sunday” is king. In baseball, there are more than enough games to separate the great squads from the also-rans. Giving lesser teams a chance to sneak into the playoffs anyway undermines the whole purpose of playing the games.


Let’s turn October baseball back into what it’s meant to be: a showcase for the best of the best.

On Scoring Eight Runs

Last night, the Red Sox beat the Detroit Tigers 20-4. That’s the sort of baseball score that could be a football score, although it’s admittedly difficult to score exactly 4 points in football. Scoring 20 runs pretty much requires a big inning, and in last night’s game, that big inning was the sixth. The Sox batted around and put eight on the board en route to their rout of the Tigers.
 
Baseball is a funny sport in that pretty much anything is possible, but some things are very, very rare. The eight-run inning is certainly a rare thing, and it’s always fun to break down something unusual and try to figure out what happened. Here’s the play-by-play.

Daniel Nava walks on seven pitches.
 
My first question: What was Rick Porcello still doing in the game? He’d given up five runs in five innings to this point. He’d served up three big flies. Manager Jim Leyland had to know that if his relievers could keep the Sox contained, his team could still pull off a comeback; heck, the Tigers have the second-best offense in baseball, and they were only down one run. Granted, the Tigers don’t have an especially good bullpen, but just about anyone would have been better than last night’s version of Porcello.
 
Nevertheless, Leyland let his starter pitch to Nava, who promptly worked a walk. Porcello, to his credit, made him earn it… sort of. After getting ahead in the count 1-2, he missed with three straight to put the lead runner on.
 
Also, Nava has now reached base safely in 39 straight starts. That’s the second longest such streak in team history.
 
Mike Napoli doubles on the first pitch. Nava to 3rd.
 
Well, that went from bad to worse in a hurry. Napoli bashed his 33rd double of the year, which is a personal high by quite a lot.
 
Stephen Drew is intentionally walked.
 
For the record, I despise the intentional walk. I think it’s one of the worst strategic moves in any sport. Look, even the best hitters make an out more than half the time. Giving one of those outs away is a terrible idea, and it’s one that backfires more often than not.
 
Having said that, in this case I can sort of understand the logic. Stephen Drew isn’t an especially great hitter, but he’s having a very good offensive season. Moreover, he’s done pretty much all of his damage against right-handed pitchers (.864 OPS versus just .613 against lefties), and that split has been pretty consistent throughout his career. Porcello, a right-hander, was still in the game (again, why?) and Drew had already taken him deep once. Light-hitting backup catcher David Ross was on deck. First base was open.
 
So, okay, I can see why it made sense to put Drew on. I probably would have gone to the bullpen for a lefty instead of just giving the Sox a free baserunner, but in that situation the intentional walk wasn’t a horrible move.
 
It may have even worked, except that as a backup catcher, Ross is an ideal candidate to be pinch-hit for with the bases loaded. John Farrell went to the bench, which led to…
 
Mike Carp walks on five pitches. Nava scores.
 
What, were you expecting a grand slam? Porcello threw nothing but fastballs and still couldn’t find the strike zone. This finally, mercifully, meant the end of his night, as Leyland put right-hander Al Alburquerque in the game.
 
Will Middlebrooks hits a grand slam.
 
Oh. Maybe going to the bullpen wasn’t such a great idea after all.
 
It’s been a rough year for Middlebrooks, but he’s been on fire since being called up in August. In 22 games, his line stands at .343/.413/.529. That won’t last – he’s batting an unsustainable .412 on balls in play – but it’s good to see him hit the ball hard.
 
Jacoby Ellsbury strikes out swinging.
 
One out. It looked like, perhaps, the Tigers could limit the damage to “just” the five runs. A 10-4 deficit is pretty bad, of course, but no lead is safe at Fenway Park. Just get out of the inning, and maybe Detroit still has a chance.
 
Shane Victorino is hit by a pitch.
 
Victorino was immediately pulled for pinch-runner Quintin Berry. As far as I can tell, that was just a precaution.
 
Dustin Pedroia called out on strikes.
 
Two out. The Tigers were just one play away from ending the inning without putting the game completely out of reach.
 
David Ortiz doubles. Berry scores.
 
Or not. The double was Papi’s 2,000th career hit. That was also one full turn through the lineup, bringing Nava up to bat for the second time in the inning.
 
Daniel Nava homers to right field.
 
Runs seven and eight were on the board. Apparently, Leyland had seen enough of Al Alburquerque, who’d given up two home runs, a double and a hit batter in just two thirds of an inning. Right-hander Jeremy Bonderman came in for Detroit.
 
Mike Napoli strikes out swinging.
 
Tigers pitchers struck out the side. Well done.

On Reaching .500

The Pittsburgh Pirates just won their 81st game of the season, which means their historic streak of 20 consecutive losing seasons is finally, mercifully, over. Odds are good that in the next few days, maybe as soon as tonight, they’ll get number 82 and have their first winning season in two decades officially in the books. They’re in first place in the NL Central and a near-lock to at least capture a Wild Card berth, if not a division title, which means we’ll see them in October for the first time in a generation.

A few quick facts about the Pirates’ last postseason appearance in 1992:
  • The last pitcher to record a playoff win for the Pirates is Tim Wakefield. Now, that doesn’t seem like a big deal given that Wakefield was still active just two years ago, but in 1992 he was a 25-year-old phenom wrapping up a season that put him third in the Rookie of the Year voting. He hasn’t pitched for Pittsburgh since 1993.
  • Taking the loss for the Braves in that game was left-hander Tom Glavine. He’ll be eligible for the Hall of Fame next year.
  • The 1992 Pirates’ best pitcher was Doug Drabek, who was then 29 years old. Today, his son Kyle is in his fourth major league season with the Blue Jays.
  • Their best position player, of course, was NL MVP Barry Bonds.
  • Bonds led the team with 34 home runs. No one else had more than 14, and only two other players even cracked double digits. The Pirates’ 106 home runs would tie them with the Cardinals for 13th place in the National League today – and that’s 162 games’ worth of home runs for the Pirates against the Cardinals’ total through 137. They finished fourth in the league in 1992.
  • Put another way, the Pirates’ .381 slugging percentage would tie them with the Padres for 12th in the NL today. In 1992, that mark was good for fourth place.
It’s been a while.


In 1992, the American and National Leagues still weren’t completely merged. Each league had its own president, and interleague play (except for the World Series and All-Star Game) did not exist. There were only two divisions in each league and just two rounds of playoffs; no Wild Card, no Division Series.

The New York Yankees had their fourth straight losing season, and owner George Steinbrenner was still banned from baseball. The Toronto Blue Jays won their first of two straight World Series

The Montreal Expos not only existed, but were actually pretty good in 1992. They won 87 games and finished second in the NL East – behind, of course, the Pirates.

The AL MVP was Dennis Eckersley, who remains the last relief pitcher to take home that award. The NL Cy Young went to Greg Maddux, who was still a Cub.

Sammy Sosa was a 23-year-old outfielder who had yet to post even average offensive numbers at the Major League level. Mark McGwire was a 28-year-old former Rookie of the Year who’d flashed occasionally dominant but inconsistent offense.

Jamie Moyer was out of the big leagues and looked completely washed up at age 29.

Robin Yount, Nolan Ryan and George Brett were still active players.

It’s fair to say that was a different time.


Plenty has happened in baseball since 1992, as you’d expect in any 20-year stretch. 

Since the Pirates were last in October, we’ve seen Chipper Jones’ entire Hall of Fame career and the rise and fall of Manny Being Manny Ramirez.

We’ve seen four new teams join the league in the Rockies, Marlins, Diamondbacks and Rays. All have been to the Fall Classic, two have won, and the Marlins have won twice.

Speaking of the Marlins, they’ve had three fire sales since 1992. Build it up, burn it down.

Ten different players have joined the 500-homer club since the Pirates’ last winning season. Four pitchers have joined the 300-win club. The all-time home run record has fallen; the single-season record has fallen twice.

Three different pitchers (Lee Smith, Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera) have broken the all-time saves record. Hoffman racked up every single one of his 601 saves after the Pirates’ last postseason appearance.

Since 1992, we’ve seen the entire trailblazing career of Hideo Nomo and the subsequent wave of Japanese players. Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui, Yu Darvish… none of them would have had a shot at the big leagues when the Pirates last finished over .500.

The Angels have changed geographic affiliations three times (from California to Anaheim to Los Angeles of Anaheim) without ever leaving their home city.


Baseball has changed tremendously in the last two decades. Every other franchise, even the Yankees, has had good years and bad years since 1992. We’ve seen historically great offensive seasons and historic runs of pitching dominance. We’ve seen the rise and fall of great players, great teams, great dynasties. For young fans, myself included, who have only been conscious of baseball for 20 years or less, it can be tough to keep up.

Through it all, though, the Pirates have been the constant. Whether the top sluggers are blasting 60 homers or barely reaching 40, whether the best pitcher in the game is Johnson or Martinez or Verlander or Kershaw, whether the Yankees or Marlins or Red Sox or Giants are world champions, baseball fans know one thing for certain: The Pittsburgh Pirates are always, always, always losers.

Until 2013.

I’m happy for Pittsburgh fans, because after so many years of futility, they deserve a winner. I’ll be cheering for the Pirates all the way through the playoffs (well, at least until they meet my Red Sox in the Fall Classic). I’m a little sad, though, because one more constant in my life as a fan is gone.

At least the Cubs haven’t won the World Series yet. I’m pretty sure the world would end.

On Baseball’s Bird Brains

Don’t ask me why, but baseball fans love to honor the history of the game. I can’t offhand think of any more entertaining way to celebrate that history than assembling an all-time team, especially one that’s put together for totally frivolous reasons.

Almost from its inception, baseball has been associated with birds. Today, three teams (the Blue Jays, Cardinals and Orioles) are named after types of birds. The most successful team in the history of the sport, the (bleh) Yankees, actually started their history as the original Baltimore Orioles. Moreover, dozens upon dozens of major league players have shared their names or nicknames with birds.

Here, I’ve endeavored to create a full 25-man roster (plus GM and coaching staff) consisting entirely of bird namesakes.

The rules for eligibility are simple. To qualify for the team, a player must share a first name, last name or nickname with either birds in general or a particular type of bird; a nickname is noteworthy enough for inclusion if it appears on the player’s Baseball-Reference page. To qualify at a field position, a non-active player must have at least 400 games played in the major leagues (or, in one case, the Negro Leagues) at said position. There’s no equivalent games or innings minimum for pitchers.

With that in mind, on to the All-Bird Team!

Starting Nine

Catcher: George “Birdie” Tebbetts – One of the  joys of putting together a team like this is discovering great baseball men who have been mostly forgotten by history. Birdie Tebbetts is our first such man, a very good catcher for the Tigers before and after World War II and a very good manager, scout and executive after his playing career ended. Though he was no slugger, Birdie found his way onto four All-Star rosters thanks to his excellent defensive reputation and respectable batting averages.

First Base: Jake “Eagle Eye” Beckley – Two positions, two players I’d never heard of before assembling this team. Beckley was one of the best hitters in the turn-of-the-century big leagues, a star first baseman for the Pirates, Reds and others. Over the course of 20 seasons, he racked up 2,934 hits (this was before anyone cared about reaching 3,000), a total that was second only to Cap Anson at the time. More than 60 years after the end of his career, he was finally inducted into the Hall of Fame via the Veterans’ Committee.

Second Base: Dustin “Muddy Chicken” Pedroia – Now, here’s someone I know! The first active player on the squad, Pedroia has already picked up a Rookie of the Year award, an MVP, four All-Star nods, two Gold Gloves, a Silver Slugger and a World Series ring in his career at the keystone. He’s one of the top second basemen in the league, and he’s likely to remain so for years to come.

Third Base: Robin Ventura and Ron “Penguin” Cey – Third base was the first really difficult decision in assembling this squad, as these two boast rather similar careers and similarly avian names. Ventura, of course, was an excellent all-around player with great contact skills, some power and top-notch defense in his prime. Cey’s raw numbers don’t look quite as great, but when adjusted for his lower-scoring era he actually comes out better with the stick (121 vs. 114 OPS+), albeit a little worse with the glove. The All-Bird manager will likely maximize production at the hot corner with a lefty-righty platoon.

Shortstop: Robin Yount – If third base was one of the toughest choices on this team, shortstop is likely the easiest. Yount needs no introduction as a two-time MVP, member of the 3,000 hit club and deserving first-ballot Hall of Famer. He also famously moved to the outfield midway through his career, but as we’ll see, this squad has little need for his talents out there.

Left Field: Turkey Stearnes – Besides being a collection of some of the greatest talents in baseball history, the pre-integration Negro Leagues were absolutely packed with great nicknames. One of the best belonged to Norman Thomas Stearnes, who earned his unusual moniker by flapping his arms as he rounded the bases. In spite of his oddball behavior – he was known to occasionally talk to his bats – Stearnes was feared throughout the league for his powerful bat. He hit a Negro League-record 176 home runs against top competition and hundreds more against barnstorming teams, and he batted over .400 three different times.

Center Field: Tris “The Grey Eagle” Speaker – Widely known as one of the greatest players of all time and rightly so, Tristram E. Speaker starred for the Boston and Cleveland teams of the early 20th century. With the Red Sox, he teamed with Duffy Lewis and Harry Hooper to form the famed “Million-Dollar Outfield.” After being dealt to the Indians in one of the worst trades in major league history, he remained one of the top players in the game for the better part of a decade, finishing his career with over 3,500 hits and a sharp .345 batting average. His 792 doubles represent one of baseball’s most unbreakable records.

Right Field: Andre “The Hawk” Dawson – Right field has likely the least accomplished starter in this outfield, but fortunately for the Bird-men, the weakest link is still a Hall of Famer. The Hawk’s career accomplishments include eight All-Star appearances, eight outfield Gold Gloves and an MVP award earned in spite of playing for a last-place Cubs team in 1987. A noted power/speed threat, Dawson was the third player to join the 300-300 club and wrapped up his career with 438 home runs and 314 stolen bases.

Designated Hitter: Leon Allen “Goose” Goslin – No, the DH rule didn’t exist during Goslin’s career, but on this team, he has to play somewhere. Besides, as his position’s all-time leader in errors, he’d likely relish the chance to stay off the field. Fortunately, his bat more than made up for the occasional defensive miscue, as Goose helped the Senators to a world title in 1924 and hit a league-leading .379 four years later. His career .316 batting average ranks in the top 75 all-time, and he made the Hall of Fame by way of the Veterans Committee in 1968.

Lineup: On a team that’s this loaded, the batting order doesn’t matter all that much. Still, I’d maximize production with the following lineup card:

DH Goslin
CF Speaker
2B Pedroia
LF Stearnes
SS Yount
1B Beckley
3B Ventura/Cey
RF Dawson
C Tebbetts

It seems strange to have the designated hitter leading off, but Goslin’s high batting averages and good eye made him one of the best on-base threats of his era, and he was far from a liability on the basepaths. I’m a firm believer in having the best hitter on the team bat second, and Tris Speaker certainly fits the bill. Pedroia would get on base plenty in front of the team’s big boppers, Stearnes and Yount, and Beckley acts as a secondary leadoff hitter for the bottom of the order. With the platoon advantage, Ventura and Cey provide balanced offense in the seven-hole, and Dawson is right there to drive them in. Tebbetts is far and away the weakest hitter on the team, but he’d still get on base enough to set things up for the top of the order.


The Bench

Outfielder: Joe “Ducky” Medwick – Medwick completes a rather loaded pasture for the all-Bird team, as all five outfielders are in the Hall of Fame. In his prime with the Cardinals, he was among the NL’s top hitters, leading the league in a pile of offensive categories in 1937 and remaining a force to be reckoned with for several more years. His career was derailed, however, by a beanball from former Cardinals teammate Bob Bowman just six days after Medwick was traded to Los Angeles. Though he was never quite the same player again, Ducky still managed to rap out 2,400 hits and earned his trip to Cooperstown in 1968.

Infielder: Jay Bell – While he’s a bit of a step down from the men he’s backing up, longtime Pirates shortstop Jay Bell was a fine player in his own right. Though he was primarily known for his fielding, topped by a Gold Glove award in 1993, Bell rises above the pack of utility infielders with bird-based names thanks to his offense. Throughout his career, he hit for respectable averages, took plenty of walks and found occasional power, as evidenced by his 38 home runs in the high-flying 2001 season. His league-average 101 OPS+ is quite impressive for someone who played nearly his entire career at short.

Catcher: Jay “Nig” Clarke – Apparently, it was pretty common for dark-skinned players in the pre-integration era to be nicknamed “Nig,” for reasons I won’t explain in detail here. A backstop who provided pretty decent offense for his era and shared his given name with a type of bird, Clarke had two big moments in his career: He hit eight home runs in a minor league game in 1902, and he caught Addie Joss’ perfect game in 1908. Still, he’s on the team by default – other than Tebbetts, Clarke is the only qualified catcher with a bird-based name. That makes a certain kind of sense.


Pitching Staff

The Ace: Robin Roberts – Until the ageless Jamie Moyer passed him by way of sheer longevity, Roberts’ most famous accomplishment may have been his record 505 home runs allowed. It takes an excellent player to set an all-time record, even in a negative category, and Robin Roberts is certainly no exception. The Phillies ace led the league in games started every year from 1950 to 1955 and pitched over 300 innings every year. Pitching for some terrible squads left him just short of the vaunted 300 win club, but he was still elected to the Hall of Fame in 1976.

Number Two: Jay Dean – Wait, who? Odds are you know this guy by his nickname: Dizzy. Though his career basically consisted of five and a half seasons, those seasons represented one of the greatest stretches of pitching in baseball history. With the Cardinals, Dean led the league in strikeouts four times, complete games three times and wins twice while racking up 36 WAR. Despite the brevity of his career, he was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1953, just six years after he threw his last pitch.

(I did consider adding Dizzy’s brother, Paul “Daffy” Dean, to this squad, but ultimately decided that if he qualifies for his nickname, so does every player named Donald, Huey, Dewey or Louie. Sorry, Paul.)

Number Three: Jered Weaver – Besides helping me find some underrated and not-so-underrated baseball players from the annals of history, making this list has taught me that there is, in fact, a type of bird called a weaver. Per Wikipedia: “The Ploceidae, or weavers, are small passerine birds related to the finches.” Hence, the younger Weaver brother, owner of the 2010 AL strikeout title and recipient of Cy Young votes in three consecutive seasons, more than qualifies for this team. Though he’s having a bit of a down season by his own high standards, the Angels hurler likely has a few more good years left to solidify his place as the third-best bird-named pitcher in history. I won’t be shocked if he passes Dean by way of longevity.

Four and Five: Mark “The Bird” Fidrych and Paul Byrd – It’s tough to think of two more disparate pitchers than the men who fill out the starting rotation on this team. The Bird burst onto the scene as a rookie phenom with the 1976 Tigers, leading the league with a 2.34 ERA and pitching an incredible 24 complete games. Sadly, he hurt his arm midway through the next season and was out of baseball completely by the end of 1980. Paul Byrd, meanwhile, had a long and unspectacular career to match his avian rotation-mate’s short and spectacular one. Known for his utter aversion to bases on balls, the Louisville native racked up 109 wins in parts of 14 seasons and stayed a tick above league average with a 103 ERA+.

Closer: Rich “Goose” Gossage – One of the top firemen of the 1970s and 80s, the Goose intimidated hitters wherever he went. From his younger days of pitching 100 or more innings out of the bullpen to his mid-career stretch as a more modern closer, Gossage racked up 310 saves and struck out over 1500 batters. As a testament to the number and quality of innings he pitched, he reached double digits in wins four different times and finished his career with an impressive 124, all but nine of which were earned out of the bullpen. The BBWAA honored him with election to the Hall of Fame in 2008.

Setup: Clay “Hawk” Carroll – Owner of one of baseball’s most ubiquitous avian nicknames, Carroll was a closer in the old-school mold. From 1966 to 1975 he pitched more than 90 innings every year, receiving MVP votes in two seasons and setting an NL record in 1972 with 37 saves. As good as he was during the regular season, Carroll saved his best work for October: He had a sparkling 1.39 postseason ERA and pitched nine shutout innings over four appearances in the 1970 World Series.

Setup: Jay Howell – An effective reliever for the Yankees, Dodgers and Athletics in the late ’80s, Jay Howell was a three-time All-Star who chipped in 155 career saves. Though he picked up a World Series ring with Los Angeles in 1988, Howell’s most noteworthy moment of the postseason came when he was ejected from the NLCS for having pine tar in his glove. He returned for the Fall Classic itself, taking the loss in Game Three but earning a save in Game Four en route to the championship.

Setup: Phil “The Vulture” Regan – Like so many  firemen of his era, Phil Regan began his MLB career as a struggling starter before finding himself in the bullpen. In 1966, he hurled 116.2 innings for the Dodgers, picking up 21 saves and 14 wins. Regan was so good at collecting wins in late-inning situations that teammate Sandy Koufax started calling him “The Vulture,” a nickname that earns him a place as the team’s only scavenger.

Bullpen: Doug Bird, Tim Byrdak, Aaron Crow – A fine reliever and spot starter for the Royals  in the late 1980s, Doug Bird started 100 games, finished 199 and picked up 60 saves. Longtime lefty specialist Tim Byrdak, most recently of the Mets, will reprise that role here as the lone avian southpaw. Finally, young Royals reliever Aaron Crow is the team’s second and last active player, bringing his heavy sinker and impressive 9.0 career K/9 rate.


Leadership

Manager: Earl Weaver – Appropriately, the skipper for this squad is known for his work with the Baltimore Orioles on top of owning an avian surname. Owner of four AL pennants and one World Series ring, Weaver is widely considered one of the game’s greatest managers, and he earned his call to Cooperstown in 1996. In addition to his rather… colorful vocabulary, Weaver was known for his extensive use of stats, and he famously built his teams around “pitching, defense and the three-run homer.”

Pitching Coach: Art Fowler – Forever associated with fiery manager Billy Martin, Art Fowler followed his good friend to seven coaching stints with five different teams. Wherever he went, Fowler was among the game’s more highly regarded coaches, and he helped Ron Guidry to his Cy Young-winning season in 1978.

Hitting Coach: Mickey Hatcher – I’ll admit that Hatcher’s qualifications for this team are shaky at best, but the only noteworthy hitting coach with a more worthy name is the aforementioned Jay Bell, and he’s already on the team as a player. Birds lay eggs, eggs hatch, and that’s good enough for me. Hatcher’s credentials include almost 12 seasons coaching for the perennially successful Angels, including the 2009 squad that set a franchise record with 883 runs scored.

Executive: Frank Wren – Atlanta’s current is one of the more respected front-office men in the game today, and his handiwork speaks for itself. Taking control after disappointing 2006 and 2007 seasons that saw the team’s long run of dominance atop their division come to an end, Wren presided over a reloading process that brought the Braves back to contention in just his second year at the helm. Though they’ve run hot and cold throughout the year, Wren’s Braves are currently well in the lead for the NL East title, which would give them their third playoff berth in four seasons.

On Stats

One thing I’ve noticed about baseball fans is that we all love stats. Some are more in love than others, but I’ve never met a baseball fan who didn’t at least mention batting average or RBI or wins or something. (By comparison, I know several football fans who don’t care about the numbers at all, except the number of games their favorite team wins.) Even fans who say they don’t like stats usually use them to back up their arguments.

When I write about baseball, I write about stats often. I have strong opinions about many common (and not-so-common) stats and about how they should be used. Some stats are good as they are, some are OK but often misused, and a few are flat-out useless.

Let’s take a moment to define the two major types of baseball statistics.

counting number stat is a record of how much or how many of something a player produced. Obviously, counting numbers depend on playing time. A lesser player who has a long career may accumulate higher counting numbers than a more talented player with a shorter career; Harold Baines, for instance, racked up over 200 more career hits than Ted Williams. 

Counting numbers measure what has happened, which makes them useful for picking award winners at the end of the season or evaluating candidates for the Hall of Fame.

Common counting numbers for hitters: HR (home runs), H (hits), RBI (runs batted in)
Common counting numbers for fielders: E (errors), A (assists), PO (putouts)
Common counting numbers for pitchers: IP (innings pitched), W (wins), K (strikeouts)

rate stat is any stat that’s normalized for a certain length of time – for instance, per at-bat, per fielding chance or per nine innings. Rate stats are great for comparing players who have different amounts of playing time, but in small samples, they tend to vary a lot. It’s not at all uncommon for a hitter to maintain a .400 batting average over the course of a week or even a month. It’s much, much harder to bat .400 for a full season. 

Once we have enough data for the stats to stabilize,* though, rates can be projected forward, which makes them very useful for predicting future performance.

*Just how much data is required depends heavily on the stat we’re talking about. Strikeout rates, for instance, tend to stabilize pretty quickly: A month’s worth of data is usually enough. Fielding stats, in contrast, are subject to huge variation: We need three years’ worth of information to really get a grasp of a player’s true talent level.

Common rate stats for hitters: BA (batting average), OPS (on-base plus slugging)
Common rate stats for fielders: Fld% (fielding percentage), RF (range factor)
Common rate stats for pitchers: ERA (earned run average), OBA (opponents’ batting average), WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched)

Now that we’ve got some definitions down, on to the stats!

Batting Average (BA or AVG): Shorthand for hits divided by at-bats. Batting average tells us one thing: how often the batter gets a hit of some kind when he comes to the plate. In situations where the team really needs a hit, but any hit will do (say, a runner on third with two out), batting average is very important.

Batting average probably shouldn’t be the one stat that we’re shown when we look at the lineup at the start of a game – OPS, for instance, would work much better. Still, it plays a non-trivial role in our understanding of the game and the talents of individual hitters.

The problem with batting average is that analysts and commentators use it as shorthand for a hitter’s overall prowess, which is absurd. First of all, batting average doesn’t include walks, even though coaches have been saying that a walk is as good as a hit for generations. Second, batting average treats all hits the same; a home run counts just as much as a single. Clearly, a hitter’s batting average doesn’t give us a complete picture of how skilled (or not) he is.

My proposal: Instead of batting average, call it “hitting average.” That tells us exactly what the stat means: how good the batter is at getting hits. We already informally say that the league leader in batting average is “leading the league in hitting” and that a high BA player is a “.300 hitter,” so why not make it official?

On-Base Percentage (OBP): Here’s one of the core truths of baseball: Baserunners are precious. On defense, your goal is to not allow runs, and the most foolproof way to keep the other team from scoring is to keep your opponents from reaching base. On offense, your goal is to score runs, which requires getting on base. On-base percentage, then, is one of the most important stats in the world.

OBP is pretty simple to calculate: It’s just times on base divided by plate appearances.* It suffers from some of the same drawbacks as batting average in that all hits and walks (and hit-by-pitches) count the same, but at least the name of the stat tells us exactly what it’s supposed to describe.

*Technically, OBP doesn’t count a few things that are considered plate appearances, namely catcher’s interference and fielder’s obstruction. Those calls are so rare at the major league level, though, that it makes very little difference. As an aside, I tend to think OBP should count interference calls as times on base – Jacoby Ellsbury, who leads the Majors with four times reached on interference this year (no one else has more than one), would probably appreciate this.

My proposal: The one thing that irks me about OBP is that it charges the batter with an out when he reaches on an error – though that’s more of an issue with errors (see below) than OBP itself. If no actual out is recorded, it shouldn’t count as an out on the batter’s record; if you’re not going to call it a time on base, at least remove it from the OBP equation.

Runs Batted In (RBI): There are many stats that I like, and many that I dislike. RBI are definitely in the latter column. In fact, I’d call them my third-least-favorite stat (see below for one and two).

The first strike against RBI is that they’re actually pretty complicated to count. The batter is awarded an RBI when:
  • A runner who is already on base scores on a hit, without the aid of an error.
  • The batter hits a home run, thereby batting himself in.
  • The batter hits a fly ball that’s caught for an out, and a runner on third base tags up and scores (this is called a sacrifice fly).
  • A runner scores on a ground ball that’s turned into a single out, but not a double play.
  • The batter draws a walk or is hit by a pitch with the bases loaded, forcing in a run.
So, okay, the definition of an RBI is convoluted. That’s not the main reason I don’t use the stat, though. RsBI* are a poor measure of hitting ability because they depend more on the skill of the batter’s teammates than the skill of the batter himself. Like all counting numbers, RsBI depend on playing time, but even if we adjust for games played or plate appearances, RBI chances are not distributed evenly. Every at-bat is a chance to get a hit, but (home runs aside) not every AB is an RBI opportunity.

*Another strike against RBI: I’m never sure what the plural is. RBIs sounds wrong. Technically the singular and plural could (and should) both be RBI (Run Batted In versus Runs Batted In), but if I want to make it clearly plural, that’s no good. RsBI it is.

Someone who bats behind players who are great at getting on base will have the opportunity to drive in more runs than someone whose teammates are bad at getting on base. Moreover, there’s baserunning skill to consider: If I hit a double* with Jacoby Ellsbury on first base, I’ll almost certainly get an RBI. If I hit a double with David Ortiz on first… yeah, probably not.

*Let’s leave aside for a moment the absurdity of saying that I could ever hit a double against an MLB pitcher… or an MiLB pitcher… or even a decent Little League pitcher…

The league leaders in RBI are almost always cleanup hitters on good teams. Now, often those guys are good hitters, but there are better ways to measure their hitting skill than counting runs batted in. As constructed, the RBI is a useless* stat.

*I draw a distinction between “useless” and “meaningless” here. No stat is truly meaningless. If you ask me to choose between Hitter A, who has 120 RBI, and Hitter B, who has only 80, giving me no other information, I’ll take Hitter A and I’ll be right more often than not. However, we live in a world where we have access to better stats than RsBI, which means they serve no real purpose.

My proposal: Really, I’d like to just stop counting RBI altogether. If you insist on keeping them, though, I’d institute a rule that a batter can be awarded no more than one RBI on a single hit (perhaps allowing for a second if the hit is a home run). There’s really no material difference, as far as the hitter is concerned, between a hit with runners on second and third and a hit with just a runner on second – they’re both base hits with runner(s) in scoring position. Why should one count as double the other?

Slugging percentage (SLG): Remember how batting average counts all hits the same? Slugging percentage is the answer to that problem. It’s calculated the same way as batting average, but doubles count double, triples count triple and home runs count four times as much as singles. Alternatively, take a batter’s total bases and divide by his at-bats.

The problem with SLG, such as it is, is that it overcompensates for that flaw in BA. A home run is clearly more valuable than a single, but is it four times as valuable? Put another way, would you say that a batter who hit a home run and struck out three times had as good a game as someone who hit four singles in four at-bats? SLG says yes. I’m guessing all but the most homer-crazy fans would say no.

Still, a batter’s slugging percentage is a good measure of a valuable skill: his ability to drive in runs. Somewhat ironically, SLG does a much better job of describing a batter’s RBI prowess than his actual RBI totals.

My proposal: Call it slugging average – I realize some people already do, but as far as I’ve seen it’s called a percentage much more often. It’s not a percentage of anything, though; it’s an average.* More to the point, calling it an average clearly presents SLG as an alternative to BA.

*This would apply to OBP too, but at least OBP has a reasonable excuse. If we called it on-base average, we’d have to abbreviate it OBA, which would get confused with opponent’s batting average for pitchers.

On-base plus slugging (OPS): Just add up a batter’s OBP and SLG and you have his OPS. There are multiple issues with OPS (the denominators are different, for one), but it gives you a much better at-a-glance look at a hitter’s overall skill than his batting average. I’ll cite OPS pretty often.

Earned Run Average (ERA): On the surface, a pitcher’s ERA is easy to calculate: just take his earned runs allowed, divide by his innings pitched and multiply by nine. The issue lies in the concept of an “earned” run.

An earned run, essentially, is a run that scores without the aid of an error or a passed ball. If a batter reaches on a fielding error (say the shortstop makes a high throw) and then comes around to score, ERA argues that that run isn’t really the pitcher’s fault. Thus, it doesn’t show up in his statistics.

The thing about ERA is that it tries to do something awesome. It acknowledges that the pitcher isn’t completely responsible for every run that scores; some of the blame falls on the defense behind him. Then it attempts to edit out the impact of the defense and focus solely on runs that are the pitcher’s own responsibility.

Unfortunately, ERA does so in an incredibly ham-fisted and ineffective way.

First of all, let’s look at the definition of an error. It’s defined in MLB rule 10.12, which is far too long to reproduce here, but the short version is that a fielder is charged with an error when he fails to make a play that could have been made with “ordinary effort.”

Central to the definition of an error is this concept of “ordinary effort.” I think the intent of this rule was to judge defensive players against the league average; if Robinson Cano fails to pick up a ball that the average second baseman would have reached, he’s charged with an error. In practice, fielders tend to be judged against themselves: If Cano isn’t quick enough to make a play at all, it’s scored a hit rather than an error.

In most cases, an error is scored when a fielder touches the ball (or comes very close to touching it) and then makes a physical misplay.* For instance, making a wild throw counts as an error. Dropping a ball after catching it on the fly counts as an error. Picking up a ground ball and then bobbling it counts as an error (unless the fielder recovers to get the out anyway). Failing to get to the ball, even if it’s a fairly routine play, doesn’t count as an error.

*Curiously, mental mistakes are not considered errors. If the shortstop throws to the wrong base, thereby allowing a run to score, that run counts against the pitcher’s ERA; if the shortstop makes a high throw to the correct base, thereby allowing a run to score, that run doesn’t count against the pitcher’s ERA. Likewise, if the first baseman is pulled off the bag to catch a wide throw, it’s an error; if he fails to cover the bag, it’s a hit.

Thus, if a pitcher plays in front of fielders with good range who make the occasional catching or throwing mistake, it’s all good: Runs that score on those errors don’t hurt his ERA. If a pitcher plays in front of a bunch of slow, rangeless liabilities* who don’t make many errors because they don’t get to the ball in the first place, tough luck: Runs that score on the hits that sneak past them do hurt his ERA.

*Oh hello there, Detroit Tigers! (Though the addition of Jose Iglesias remedies much of this issue.)

It’s bad enough that errors themselves are seriously flawed, but what the official scorer is asked to do with those errors is borderline insane. To determine whether a run is earned or unearned, the scorer must reconstruct the inning as it would have gone without the error or passed ball. Essentially, he takes out the errors, assumes that everything else would have gone the same way and goes from there.

In some cases, this makes a degree of sense. If a runner on third scores on a passed ball* and the next batter hits a single, it’s considered an earned run on the grounds that the passed ball made no difference; the runner would have scored on the single if he hadn’t come home already. In other cases, though, reconstructing the inning requires some assumptions that are flat-out stupid.

*Passed balls, by the way, are arguably even dumber than fielding errors. Quick definition: A pitch that isn’t caught and allows a runner to advance is called a passed ball if the catcher could have caught it with “ordinary effort” and a wild pitch otherwise. A wild pitch is charged to the pitcher (and thus any runs that score count against his ERA); a passed ball is similar to an error on the catcher (and thus runs that score don’t count against the pitcher’s ERA). I used to think this was a reasonable distinction; then I saw some rather sound evidence that pitchers have more influence on passed balls than catchers do – in fact, they have more control over passed balls than wild pitches. The official scorers may as well be flipping coins.

Consider the following scenario: With one out, Batter A hits a single and advances to second base on a throwing error. This brings up dangerous Batter B with a runner in scoring position, and he’s intentionally walked to bring up light-hitting Batter C. In this case, it backfires, as Batter C slugs a three-run homer. Batters D and E strike out to end the inning.

All three runs that scored on that play are earned. The official scorer assumes that Batter A would have held up at first without the error, that Batter B would have walked anyway, and that Batter C would have brought them all home with the big fly. In other words, according to the rules, the error didn’t matter.

Of course, this assumption is ludicrous: Batter B was intentionally walked precisely because there was a runner in scoring position and first base was open. Take the error out of the equation, and the other team would have pitched to B with first base occupied, possibly changing the entire course of the inning. He may have struck out or even hit into a double play. He may have also walked, but we can’t know for sure.

That exact situation is unusual, but it speaks to the larger problem with ‘reconstructing’ the inning as though the error didn’t happen. Individual at-bats are not independent events. Pitchers throw differently with runners on base. Hitters change their approaches depending on the game situation. Managers call for sacrifice bunts to advance runners who reached on errors. Assuming that everything that happened after the error would still have happened without the error is absurd.

Just as ERA treats individual at-bats as separate events, it also treats individual innings as separate events. If Stephen Drew misplays a ground ball that would have been the third out of the inning and Felix Doubront proceeds to give up five home runs in a row, none of those runs are considered earned because “the inning would have been over.” Really? Doubront isn’t even a little bit responsible for that?

Moreover, while ERA tries to filter out the effects of defensive miscues, it doesn’t do anything to adjust for the effects of excellent plays. If Jon Lester gives up a fly ball over the right field fence and Shane Victorino makes an awesome leaping grab to pull it back in, shouldn’t Lester, by the same logic, be charged the runs that would  have scored on a homer? He’s responsible for the batted ball, and he had nothing at all to do with the catch.

I can’t quite hate ERA, even after all that, because I really do love the intent of the stat. A for effort. F for execution.

My proposal: Just drop the E and use Run Average (sometimes called RA9). It’s simple to understand and accurately describes what happened on the field. There are better stats like FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) that actually do what ERA attempts to do.

Saves (SV): Saves are the marquee stat for relief pitchers – specifically for closers. The definition of a save is tough to explain, so I’ll just quote the rules. A pitcher is awarded a save when:
  • He is the finishing pitcher in a game won by his team.
  • He is not the winning pitcher.
  • He pitches at least 1/3 of an inning.
  • One of the following:
    • He enters the game with a lead of no more than three runs and pitches at least one inning.
    • He enters the game with the tying run on base, at bat or on deck.
    • He pitches for at least three innings.
Strike one against the save is that the definition is so arbitrary and convoluted. It’s my second-least favorite stat, though (and it’s a close thing with the one I’m about to get to) because of the impact it’s had on the game.

While I tend to think that statistics are primarily for fans and front-office types, they also impact the way managers run their teams. In many cases, that impact is a good thing: Earl Weaver, for instance, rather famously understood the value of on-base percentage in constructing his lineups. The save, however, has led to some very… questionable bullpen usage patterns.

How many times have you seen a manager hold his best reliever out of a tie game, even well into extra frames,* because he’s waiting for an arbitrary save situation? How many times have you seen a lesser reliever cough up a lead in the seventh or eighth while the closer sits on the bench? It’s crazy.

*The most egregious example of this in recent memory, and possibly ever, came on April 17, 2010, when the Mets played the Cardinals in a game that lasted 20 innings. Mets manager Jerry Manuel had closer Francisco Rodriguez warming up in every inning from the 9th through the 18th, only to sit him back down because the game was still tied. By the time K-Rod finally took the mound in the 19th inning, he’d thrown more than 100 pitches in the bullpen; unsurprisingly, he gave up the tying run.

My proposal: I really like the way the Rolaids Relief Man Award distinguishes between a regular save and a “tough save,” although I think their criterion (the tying run must already be on base) is too restrictive. I’d propose the following addition: A reliever who records at least twice as many outs as the size of his team’s lead is awarded a tough save. Thus, getting the last two (or more) outs of a one-run game would count, as would the last four outs of a two-run game, the last two innings (six outs) of a three-run game and so on.

Wins (W): Here’s the first issue with pitcher wins: They’re defined even more arbitrarily than saves. On the surface, granted, it’s a pretty simple definition: The pitcher who’s in the game when his team takes a lead that holds up for the rest of the game is awarded the win. A starting pitcher must also go at least five innings to be eligible for a win; a relief pitcher, though, merely needs to record at least one out.

Wins made some sense back in the days when pitchers were expected to finish what they started. Today, though, each team uses multiple pitchers in almost every game, and the value of the win as a statistic has gone down accordingly. At least saves are always awarded to the guy who closes the door at the end of the game; often, the pitcher who gets the win contributed little to his team’s winning effort.* If the starter pitches seven shutout innings, but his teammates don’t score until after he’s relieved in the eighth, should a one-inning pitcher be awarded the win over the seven-inning pitcher? Really?

*A few years ago, Alan Embree actually earned a win without throwing a pitch. He entered the game in the eighth with two outs and immediately picked a runner off first base to end the inning. The Rockies took the lead in the next half-inning, and Embree was the pitcher of record. Now, I think that’s actually sort of cool, but it also speaks to the silliness of the win as an individual stat.

More to the point, if the starter leaves the game with a lead, a relief pitcher promptly coughs up that lead, and then the offense takes the lead back… should the win really be awarded to the reliever who blew it? It’s absurd, yet this actually happens on a pretty regular basis. We call it a “vulture win.”

My biggest issue with the win as a statistic, though, isn’t a quibble with particular wins – it has to do with the nature of baseball. Pitchers don’t win games, nor do they lose games. Even a guy who pitches a shutout relies on his offense to score at least one run and his defense to make some plays in the field. Even a hypothetical pitcher who strikes out all 27 batters he faces and hits a home run* needs someone to catch his pitches.

*This has never happened in real life – at least, not in organized baseball – but it did rather ludicrously happen at the end of the movie “The Scout.”

When we award a win to a pitcher, we’re assigning a false significance to his accomplishments – or more accurately, things that we perceive to be his accomplishments. Even people who’ve been following baseball for a long time can assign too much value to wins because, well, they’re called wins. Hey, Bartolo Colon won 21 games!* He must be the best pitcher in the league! Give that man a Cy Young!

*Sorry, Johan, your teammates weren’t good enough for you to be the best pitcher in baseball. Better luck next year.

However, people who understand baseball are starting to realize that wins aren’t so important. From the writers’ perspective, Felix Hernandez’ Cy Young a few years ago showed that W-L record is no longer the be-all, end-all of awards voting. More encouragingly, I saw an interview recently in which 10 current and recent MLB players shared their thoughts on pitching statistics. Not one of them cited wins as the most important stat, and several pointed out that individual wins are pretty flawed.

No, my concern about wins is for the new fan, the fan who’s just starting to understand the game. When we say that a pitcher won 15 games or lost 15 games, we’re implicitly saying that pitching is the be-all, end-all of baseball, rather than one of three critical components. What we choose to call the stat says more about us than it does about baseball itself.

My proposal: It pains me to say this, it really does. In case it’s not already clear, I love the history of the game, and so much of that history is bound up in individual stats. The 300-win club is one of the most exclusive in all of sports, and with the steroid taint* on some of the game’s other great milestones, it may be the most cherished achievement we have left.

*I’m aware, of course, that one very prominent member of the 300-win club is caught up in the PED scandal. However, I don’t get the impression that fans view the 300 win milestone as diminished in any way by his inclusion. Compare that to hitting 500 home runs, which doesn’t seem anywhere near as impressive today as it did a generation ago.

More so than any other individual stat (yes, including home runs), pitcher wins tell us how much baseball has changed from generation to generation. In the early decades of baseball, it wasn’t at all uncommon for great pitchers to rack up 30 or more wins per year. A generation later, 25 was the gold standard, then 20, and now it’s not unusual for the best pitchers in the league to end up in the mid-teens. Cy Young gave us one of the most storied records in all of sports with his 511 wins;* today, great pitchers struggle to even make it halfway to that total.

*It should be noted that while Young’s win record is his most famous, it’s probably not his most unbreakable. Cy Young pitched an unbelievable 749 complete games; the active leader, Roy Halladay, has less than 1/10 as many. The only other pitchers to even start that many games, ever, are Don Sutton and Nolan Ryan. If Greg Maddux, arguably the greatest pitcher of the last 30 years, had finished every game he started, he still would have been short of the record.

I hate pitcher wins, and I love pitcher wins.

My proposal, for real: Stop counting them. It’ll hurt, but it’s for the good of the game.