On a cold, cloudy day in Chicago, Addison Russell brightened for the Cubs fans at Wrigley Field by hitting a three run homer to cap a four run 9th inning rally. The Cubs won 7-4 and finished its first homestand of the season, 4-5.
Chicago is (8-7) and is not exactly setting the League on fire. But it is cold and the bats are just waking up. The Cubs pitching has been less than impressive but there is talent and one has to hope the pitching staff will come around. Today Addison Russell came around on a pitch thrown by Naftali Perez that landed in the bleachers in left. A lot of Cubs greeting Russell as he touched home plate. It was an exciting win that heralds more in this unique season: The first that the Cubs play as defending World Series Champs.
Kris Bryant got the RBI that tied the game at 4. He has yet to find a groove to his swing. But it is coming.
One thing for sure, this team knows drama. They’ve won a couple of exciting games in the past few days. Baseball is a game of ebb and flow, of quietness and then sudden fierce action. Baseball features the circus catch in deep center-field ala Wille Mays, the deep blast to rightfield, and the outfielder throwing home to the plate in hopes of catching the runner as he slides in.
There are the endless foul balls hit by a batter trying to solve a pitcher. Then the pitcher throwing over to first to keep a runner close to the base. It all happens in this game, and it could happen soon.
The season is underway, the Cubs are 8-7 and heading to play the Reds for the Division lead. This isn’t the hot start that the Cubs had in 2016. This is a club that is revving up the engine for the long haul of summer.
Richard Kagan is a featured writer on “A View From The Bench”, which has been recognized by Major League baseball as one of the top 100 blog sites.
I originally wrote this article in January of 2015 shortly after the Hall of Fame voting and the announcement of the players to be inducted. I am reposting this article to bring to your attention a very big change in who will be permitted to vote from now on to enshrine players in Cooperstown. Look at the four changes that I call for in how the voting is done. The second one listed has in fact been changed for the 2016 voting! There will be 100 less “writers” allowed to cast a ballot this year. The Hall of Fame has decided that if you have not actively covered baseball for the last 10 years then you lose your right to vote. It is no longer a lifetime privilege. Good job by the Hall of Fame Committee because that one issue really needed to change. The 2016 Hall of Fame inductees will be announced on January 6th 2016. Ken Griffey Jr. is a lock to get elected. Trevor Hoffman may have to wait another year or two.
It was a lot easier in 1936 when the BBWAA ( Baseball Writers Association of America ) first got together to vote in the first class of hall of famers. Those first 5 inductees were Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Christy Mathewson, Honus Wagner and Walter Johnson. The term “no brainers” comes to mind so you would think that the first class of inductees and the voting that elevated these fine players to HOF status would be without controversy. I looked at the voting for that first class and managed to have a raised eyebrow at what I saw. Cy Young failed to get in by only garnering 49% of the vote? Young had 511 wins pitching over a 21 year career, a record that will never ever be broken. What does a guy have to do to get a little respect? Cy Young was later inducted of course and the award given out each year for the best pitcher in each the National and the American League was named after good old Cy after the 1955 season. “Shoeless” Joe Jackson received two votes on that first year ballot even though he had already been banned for life from the game with no eligibility for reinstatement or election to the Hall of Fame. This was as a result of Jackson’s alleged involvement in the 1919 Black Sox scandal. The scandal implicated 8 players on the Chicago White Sox that were believed to have been losing intentionally and being paid off by gamblers to do so. Joe Jackson was a .356 career hitter during the “dead ball” era and hit .375 with 1 homerun and 6 RBI’s in the 1919 World Series. There have been issues and controversies nearly every year since the voting the Hall of Fame started over 70 years ago.
The 2015 class of Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz and Craig Biggio is a good one for the most part except for Smoltz. John Smoltz is a first ballot hall of famer? I don’t even think he is a hall of fame worthy player at all but to put him in on the first ballot? He had one very, very good season when he won the Cy Young Award in 1996 going 24-8 with the Atlanta Braves. Other than that Smoltz had a very good career not a hall of fame career. When they change the name of the building to the Hall of The Very Good then Smoltz should be a first ballot inductee. Mike Piazza is one of the top hitting catchers of all time and it looks like he won’t get in until his fourth year of eligibility next year. I will get back to the Piazza issue in a moment. Biggio has been labeled a “compiler” by his detractors but I have an answer for that as well. Let’s not diminish a player’s career that included durability, versatility, longevity and productivity over 20+ years because he did not hit 30 homers a year. What Biggio did is very hard to do make no mistake about it. Only 27 other men that ever played the game have reached 3000 hits. I for one will not diminish any of those players careers. What Biggio did is hard to do, it is unique and it is Cooperstown worthy, case closed.
The biggest problem facing the voters the BBWAA is how to handle the steroid era and the players that put up video game type stats during it. It is a conundrum of major proportions but I know what I would do if I had a vote. Players that have steroids attached to their names should be separated into 2 categories.
Category 1 – The users and abusers
These are the guys that have either failed a drug test, admitted using or have such overwhelming evidence against them that it can’t be ignored. The most notable ones are Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro and Roger Clemens. Manny Ramirez and Alex Rodriguez will be eligible in the future and are in the category as well. These players changed the game and its statistical records so much that they have altered the game in a way that can only be fixed by vacating the stats which will never happen. They made the millions and took the health risks and now have to live with the results. No Hall of Fame for these players, ever.
Category 2 – The locker room whispers
The players that come to mind are Mike Piazza, Jeff Bagwell, Gary Sheffield and Jeff Kent. These are the guys that players, fans and writers whispered in corners of the room about but no hard evidence ever came forward. There is a 5 year waiting period after a player retires before he is eligible for Hall of Fame. If the evidence did not present itself during a players long career plus the 5 years after then I have to measure the player based on his performance on the field and steroids does not enter into my thought process.
In addition to deciding what players should or should not be on the ballot there are big problems with the the Hall of Fame voting process. It is riddled with issues that need to change. Here are the main ones that I would like to see changes in:
- Members of the BBWAA select players that are eligible to be on the ballot from a list of all players that have been retired for 5 years. This is done via a “special screening committee”.
I can’t explain how these writers could put Aaron Boone, Tom Gordon, Brian Giles, Tony Clark or Darin Erstad on the ballot with a straight face but they did. No disrespect intended as these players had nice baseball careers but in no way shape or form should they even be considered Hall of Famers. This process needs to be a little more transparent to the public so the fans know how these players are being justified to appear on the ballot.
- Members of the BBWAA that have been a member for 10 years and covering baseball then have a ballot that they can cast. They are permitted to vote for up to 10 players each year.
Some of these members have not been covering baseball for a very long time but once you become a voter it is basically a lifetime job. This makes little to no sense to me. If a writer is no longer actively writing about baseball I think his credentials should be reviewed each year to ensure that the guy voting is qualified to do so. Voting for the Hall of Fame is a privilege not a right. The 2015 voting results revealed that Troy Percival, Tom Gordon, Aaron Boone and Darin Erstad all had support. Each received 2 votes except for Erstad who only received 1. I don’t know if it was 7 different writers that cast these ballots but whoever it was he should no longer have the ability to vote in my mind.
- The board of directors at the Hall of Fame decide how players are elected. Currently and since 1936 they have relied on the BBWAA to vote on players.
It is not 1936 anymore so I think with all the media outlets in our lives today it makes more sense to open up the voting to others. Broadcasters and website writers come to mind. Although there has been some progress on allowing certain website writers gain eligibility to vote I do think more is needed. My real issue here is the broadcasters. Vin Scully has been broadcasting the Dodger games since the 1950’s. The man has met Babe Ruth for crying out loud. He has probably watched more games live and in person then any member of the BBWAA. Scully is a good example of a guy that I feel should have a vote. Others that come to mind here in New York where I live would be Michael Kaye or Howie Rose. Kaye is a Yankees broadcaster and Rose is a Mets broadcaster. I would trust that these gentlemen would take the vote serious and do the due diligence before casting a ballot. It is time for new voices to enter into the process.
- Players stay on the ballot for 15 years and must get at least 5% of the votes each year to remain on the ballot during the 15 years. After that time has passed the only way a player can get in is via the “veterans committee”.
This committee is all living Hall of Fame players and they vote every two years on players that are no longer on the ballot. This is how players such as Bill Mazeroski and Phil Rizzuto got inducted. They both had decent careers but in neither case are they Hall of Fame worthy. Rizzuto should be in as a broadcaster but not as a player. I think it is a dangerous thing when players start to vote on other players. The players and the voters get older and start to get more and more nostalgic about a player’s career which can start to cloud good judgment. I would eliminate this committee. 10 years should be the max amount of time that a player should be on the ballot.
These are just a few of the changes that I would make. The board of directors of the Hall of Fame have to decide what kind of hall of fame they want as well as who should be voting on the inductees. I have visited the baseball Hall of Fame numerous times over the years and it is a great place to recall some of the great players and moments in the history of the game. It is just time to review the entire process to ensure that only the best and most deserving players are being honored.
Jason Heyward after signing an 8 yr. / $184 million contract with the Cubs. Photo by Yahoo Sports.
The mysterious stat known as Wins Above Replacement or WAR as it is more commonly referred to. You hear about it more and more every day in baseball circles as another way of determining a player’s value or impact to the teams win total. MLB sabermetric supporters, writers and analyst are using this stat to judge players more so it seems then using the traditional statistics that have been around since the first pitch was thrown in the 1800’s. I have been trying to understand the relevancy of this “new” statistic for quite some time now and I still have a hard time judging a player using this method. First let’s all get on the same page with a short and not so simple definition of what WAR is.
WAR – “A single number that represents the number of wins a player added to a team above what a replacement player would add.” I will use Jayson Heyward as my example since he was my inspiration for writing this article. Heyward had a WAR of 6.5 in 2015. He was 10th in MLB and Bryce Harper was 1st with a 9.9 WAR. Keep in mind that Kevin Kiermaier had a 7.3 WAR ( good for 7th in the majors ) in 2015 and he hit .260 with 10 HR’s and 40 RBI’s. The caveat here is that the replacement player would be a minor leaguer not a free agent that hit 40 homers or won 20 games last year. It is a player that would replace the player “at minimal cost or effort.” A more detailed explanation of WAR can be found by going to the Baseball-Reference.com website www.baseballreference.com/about/war_explained.shtml
The calculation of WAR is where the fuzzy math starts to kick in for me. I am a firm believer in a player having more value than what his traditional stats are. Some players provide significant contributions in many areas where we, the fans, just can’t go on line and look at a stat for it. The best that I can figure out about WAR is that the stat revolves around runs produced on offense by a position player and runs prevented on defense for the same player combined. More emphasis is placed on defensive play at key defensive positions such as catcher vs. first basemen. In the case of a pitcher it would be more about runs prevented obviously. Sounds great, the problem is that the calculation methods look more like rocket science to me. You or I would not be able to take out our IPhone and use the calculator to figure out a player’s WAR while sitting at the ballpark on a Sunday afternoon. We can figure out a players batting average pretty quickly and sometimes without a calculator. If you want some mind numbing formulas to look at then here is the link to the Wikipedia page where they “clearly” show you how some of the calculations are arrived at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wins_Above_Replacement
How does all this relate to Jayson Heyward? Heyward recently signed an astounding 8 yr. / $184 million contract with the Chicago Cubs. While I was watching the analyst on MLB Network break down the contract one of them indicated that Heyward’s WAR stat may have played a role in the Cubs being so high on him. Let me just say I have no issue with Jayson Heyward’s career or play thus far in baseball. He is a nice player but his stats are not exactly eye popping. He has played 6 seasons in the majors and has averaged .268 with 16 HR’s and 58 RBI’s. He has never driven in over 90 runs in a season. He has only hit over 20 homers in a season one time. He does not score a lot of runs and has only exceeded 90 runs scored once. He does have a .350 career on base percentage and steals around 20 bases a year while playing good defense. His WAR average is 5.18 over the 6 seasons which puts him in the “All-Star” category for the WAR statistic. The WAR status categories are as follows: 8+ is “MVP”, 5+ is “All-Star” and 2+ is “Starter” and 0-2 is “Sub”. Freddie Freeman came up in Atlanta about 1 year behind Heyward and both players will turn 26 in 2016. Freeman averages .285 with 21 HR’s and 85 RBI’s per season with an On Base % of .366 while playing a good first base. He signed an 8 yr. / $135 million contract prior to the 2014 season. His WAR average per season is 3.14. Hmmm, that is only “Starter” status. Could this be the difference in the $50 million gap between the two players? I tell you what I think. I think I would rather have signed the Freddie Freeman deal. He is a better contributor in the key categories and it is far less risk and a lot less money. Keep your wins above replacement I will take the additional HR’s and RBI’s at a big discount thank you so much.
Yoenis Cespedes is a free agent and has yet to sign with a club. The Cuban defector is 29 and has played 4 seasons in the majors. His average seasons look like this: .271 with 26 HR’s and 92 RBI’s. He has driven in 100 runs two times and is widely considered a major force in any lineup. He single handedly changed the Mets offense this past summer. He has an incredible arm in the outfield as well so he contributes on defense also. However, his WAR is only 3.95 which is “Starter” status and not the “All-Star” status that Heyward has. It looks like Cespedes will sign a deal for much less than Heyward did age notwithstanding. There are a few questions that you have to ask yourself. Which player do you think would have more of an impact in your lineup between Heyward and Cespedes? Which player has the ability to carry a team for a few weeks? Which player changes the way the others are pitched to around him? For me this is a no brainer. I will take the big bat of Cespedes and the traditional stats he produces over the Wins Above Replacement that Heyward produces every time. So what is WAR good for? Absolutely nothing in my mind.
That is until the player that steals bases signs the big contract! That’s when the base stealing drops off dramatically. This is a trend that I have noticed over the last several years in Major League Baseball. It appears to me that once a player signs his first large deal for tens of millions of dollars you can bet the farm that the stolen base part of that player’s game is only going in one direction, down. Generally speaking the player received that contract, in part at least, because of his ability to steal bases as demonstrated in previous seasons. It is part of the player’s offensive game and surely used by agents as a positive stat during negotiations for that big contract. My research shows that most of the time the player’s stolen base production drops off before the ink is even dry on that deal. Some of them stop running for no known reason such as the case of Mike Trout. Then there are other players that appear to be concerned about injury risks so they reduce the attempted steals. Then there are players such as Bryce Harper who should be stealing 25+ bases a year given his age and speed but simply choose not to run. Harper is still a couple years away from his first big contract. Perhaps he will start running in 2016 as he starts his contract / arbitration drive. Harper is arbitration eligible in 2017. Usually there is a 3 to 5 year window of when players will rack up some pretty good stolen base numbers. After that it is likely the steals will start to go down.
Stolen bases are the one category that a player chooses to either be all in or all out or somewhere in between. Players don’t stop trying to get hits, they don’t stop trying to hit homeruns and they surely don’t stop trying to drive in runs. However, they do eventually stop trying to steal bases at the rate they did before. Maybe the players are afraid to get hurt after signing the big contract and can you blame them? Bryce Harper has already missed significant playing time in his career from injuries sustained while running the bases. Is it possible that the team has asked the player not to steal bases for fear of injury to their big investment? That possibility does exist. I looked at some players that were signed to large contracts and what the trend was with their stolen base production before and after the new contract started. The results of my findings might surprise you.
The most recent example of a player with dramatic stolen base drop off after signing the big contract is Mike Trout. In the two seasons prior to 2014 he averaged 41 stolen bases. Trout signed a 6 year / $144 million dollar deal prior to the start of the 2014 season. In 2014 he stole 16 bases and in 2015 he was down to 11. Trout has not even turned 25 years old yet. He is a little young to be wasting of one of his strongest talents. Trout has played every day throughout his career and has proven to be very durable. Some other examples of base stealers that stop running from recent years that comes to mind:
Melvin Upton – Padres
In the 5 years prior to signing a 5 year / $73 million deal before 2013 Upton averaged 39 stolen bases a season. In the three seasons after signing the deal Upton now is averaging 13 stolen bases a season.
Matt Kemp – Padres
In the 4 years prior to signing his big contract Kemp averaged 32 stolen bases per year. Before the start of the 2012 season Kemp signed an 8 year / $160 million dollar contract. He stole 9 bases in 2012, 9 in 2013, 8 in 2014 and 12 in 2015. You can safely say that he will never reach 20 SB’s again let alone 30 SB’s a season.
Andrew McCutchen – Pirates
In the 4 years prior and including his MVP season of 2013 McCutchen was averaging 25 steals a season. He signed his first big contract prior to the 2012 season. But in the last two seasons McCutchen is now averaging 14 steals a season. McCutchen is 28 years old.
Starlin Castro – Cubs
In 2011 and 2012 Castro averaged 23 stolen bases as an emerging star in the league. Toward the end of the 2012 season he signed a 7 year / $60 million dollar deal. The following year in 2013 he stole 9 bases. He stole 4 bases in 2014 and 5 in 2015. I think Castro is done running at age 25.
Carl Crawford – Dodgers
In the 8 seasons prior to signing his 7 year / $142 million dollar contract with the Red Sox before the 2011 season Crawford averaged 50 steals per year. He dropped off to 18 in the first year of the deal and has averaged 14 in the 5 seasons since the deal started. He is the poster child for a team never again paying a player for stolen bases. Injuries played a big part in this drop off but the facts remain what they are. He signed the deal and stopped stealing bases.
Jacoby Ellsbury – Yankees
In the season prior to his signing of a 7 year and $153 million deal in 2014 Ellsbury stole 52 bases. He dropped off to 39 in 2014 and then 21 this past season. He might not be done stealing bases yet but it looks like he may be getting close to it.
Michael Bourn – Braves
In the 4 years prior to signing his 4 year / $48 million dollar deal Bourn averaged 54 steals per year. In the first year ( 2013 ) of his first big contract he stole 23 bases. In 2014 he stole 17 and then only 10 bases in 2015. One of the biggest reasons the Indians signed Bourn was his speed. He has already been traded away to the Braves as the Indians certainly did not get the sort of production in steals that they signed up for.
Carlos Beltran – Yankees
This is example goes back a little ways but another example nonetheless. In the 2 years prior to his big free agent signing with the Mets he averaged 41 stolen bases a season. Prior to the 2005 season he signed his 7 year / $119 million dollar deal. His steals dropped off to only 17 that first season of the new contract. He has only reached 20 steals twice since then and has now aged out of the running game. He ran very hard for the money and when he got the money he stopped running.
In all of these cases the drop off in steals in the first year after the big contract is signed is 50% or more. There are many other examples as well. Whether the reasons are injuries, bad offensive season, different lineup etc. the facts still remains that stolen bases should not be counted on by a team when evaluating a player’s contract. The players and agents have no problem running off with the money. It’s the stolen bases they seemed to stop running for.