The Cycle: Olympic Letdown, Innings Limits, Superior Leagues, and a Provincial Pity Pot

Posted: August 15, 2012 in ALL II
Tags: , , , , , , ,

With the baseball-less Olympics in the rear view mirror, I can return to some real athletic competition with four stories that caught my eye over the last week in baseball.  That’s “The Cycle.”

Single: Baseball Voted Out The Olympics and Is Not Coming Back In 2016 Either

Perhaps I am quite sensitive about Olympic events because tennis is also under fire as a sport that should be eliminated from the purist athletic competition in the world, but baseball’s absence is truly remarkable.  Consider that baseball was eliminated as an Olympic contest on a vote that took place in 2005, making it the first sport to be voted out since polo’s abrupt exit in 1936 (it began consistently as a Olympic sport in 1984 in Los Angeles – surprisingly, not).  Simply put: if the International Olympic Committee (IOC) decides you are a sport (or more accurately termed an event), you stay an event.  Lest you are baseball.  So what did them in?  A 2008 interview with current IOC leader Jacques Rogge, who allegedly led the charge against removing baseball, softball, and the modern pentathlon, suggested baseball had work to do to return to the games: “You need to have a sport with a following, you need to have the best players and you need to be in strict compliance with WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency). And these are the qualifications that have to be met. When you have all that, you have to win hearts.”

This quote raises several noteworthy points that should be taken into context of an overwhelming reality that baseball and softball are quintessentially American sports.  Yes, baseball is incredibly popular in the Caribbean and Asia but at its core it screams American.  North American.  First, baseball does have a following but that following is not throughout Europe, where most of the IOC members represent.  This is something that cannot be pupu-ed and  is a genuine problem for the International Baseball Federation  to overcome.  Over 300 athletes could not compete from 16 different teams base on 2008 figures but the teams that routinely medal are Cuba, USA, Japan, and South Korea.  No European nations.  Big issue and one that isn’t going to be solved soon I imagine.  The reasonable counter argument is the nations that do play baseball bring massive audiences with North America and Asian nations representing a healthy part of the viewing audience.  Also, most of the current Olympic events don’t exactly attract huge audiences (fencing, trampoline, any shooting or rowing event, or synchronized anything to name a view).

Second, Rogge wants the best players in the world.  That means professionals.  That means MLB players and that’s a huge issue as the Olympics happens right in the middle of the MLB season.  Now this is quite the quandary since the NBA is attempting to scale back participation of huge stars in favor of under 23 year olds (like soccer where the Men didn’t qualify).  The Editor-in-Chief of this blog would be more amenable to supporting tennis as a sport if they had amateurs.  It seems hard for the IOC to be concerned when the multi-millionaires play against amateurs but want MLB players need to be involved to get a sport to return.  For what it’s worth, the MLB season can be shortened but an interruption every four years to compete for your country should be acceptable.  The dirty little secret in this mess is Bud Selig’s World Baseball Classic and under no circumstances does he believe playing for gold should compete with his questionably successful offseason tournament.  It’s exactly what David Stern wants to do with his World Cup of Basketball (which, for the record, would also be successful).  I doubt owners or MLB will get on board to get talent to the Olympics which will hurt the bid.  Counter: use amateurs in the spirit of the Olympics.  It was fine before and will be fine going forward.

Third is this crap about complying with the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).  I don’t think anyone is moved by the WADA standards because they clearly are doing a great job preventing doping in sports.  How is that working in cycling?  Oh I hear its doing fantastic with track and field.  That’s a crock.

The only thing worse than that mess is the final point about winning the hearts.  I don’t know what the hell that means but since it came from the IOC, I imagine it means absolutely nothing than something sinister.  Don’t you dare tell me that the triple jump wins the hearts of people.  It sounds like forking over some extra money and proceeds to the IOC.  Not to be cynical but I rather hang with the integrity of Lane Kiffin, Alex Rodriguez, and Lance Armstrong than anyone with the IOC.

Oh for kicks, the IOC replaced the gulf created by baseball and softball with golf and rugby.  If anything, adding golf and rugby should deflate any argument for kicking out tennis.  Golf majors are more important than a gold.  Rugby has a widely popular World Cup  like soccer.  Baseball/softball’s next opportunity is in 2020 but there appears to be one spot left for a new sport.  The competition? Karate, wakeboarding, and wushu.  I’ve never heard of wushu.  But that’s what they are fighting against.  Sadly, it doesn’t look good.

Double: How Much More Evidence Do You Need Of League Bias On Stats?

Two case studies need to be examined to highlight for the billionth time that the league one performs in matters and that blind comparisons across leagues is ignorant.  First is former Yankees disappointment A.J. Burnett who recorded above 4 ERAs in all of his Yankees seasons including two of three seasons giving up over five runs a game.  Not good enough.  Doesn’t help that he pitched in a league with superior (SUPERIOR) offensive talent.  Rangers, Red Sox (ahhh, the Red Sox), White Sox, consistent hitting from the Blue Jays, Tigers, and Angels.  You need to bring it every night.  He couldn’t bring it in his demotion to AAA in 2012.  In his first season in Pittsburgh, Burnett is 14-4 with an 3.32 ERA and 1.19 WHIP.  Significantly lower and leading a team with a firm chance to reach the playoffs.  In the National League.  Pitching against a Votto-less Cincinnati, Houston, and Chicago Cubs will help any struggling pitcher get their confidence up.  Burnett, confidence brewing, went 2-0 against the Tigers this year during interleague play but also got the luxury to face the Royals and Indians.  Point being that his retreat back to the National League comes with some softer competition and increased statistical output.  No one should be second guessing themselves in New York.

Conversely, Ryan Dempster has been exposed as someone feasting on National League hitting despite pitching in a hitter friendly park.  Dempster’s no earned runs allowed from June 5 – July 14 buoyed him to the top of pitching prospect available at the trade deadline.  Unfortunately, the Texas Rangers jumped into the fold to pick him up and 1) moved him to another hitter friendly park inside the 2) American League.  In his three AL starts thus far, he surrendered eight earned runs twice (against the Angels and Yankees), and six hits over six inning against the Red Sox.  Defenders counter that he faced the top offenses of the American League and will not always be going against them to conclude the year.  Uhhh, that’s cute but the Rangers didn’t get Dempster to win meaningless games in September.  He was brought in to stabilize a starting rotation looking to go back to the World Series and he WILL be going against superior offenses in the playoffs.  Certainly the Yankees.  Probably the Tigers and/or Angels.  Good luck.

Lesson for the day: If you are not an all-time great pitcher who can perform in any league, then AL à NL = Stats Up and NL à AL = Stats Down.

Triple: Strasburg Being Shut Down Is Good…I Think…

It’s been around two years since Stephen Strasburg underwent Tommy John surgery and the Washington Nationals don’t plan to deviate from its plan to protect their players by shutting them down regardless of the external pressure to win now.  Nationals management ended Jordan Zimmerman’s season in 2011 after 161 innings following his Tommy John surgery at the end of the 2009 season.  This year, Zimmerman 2.35 ERA makes him an anchor for a an elite pitching staff cruising to a NL East title and legitimately contending for a World Series berth.  It’s easy to shut down Zimmerman last season when your team is fighting for third place.  It’s a different question all together when your main ace on your historically good pitching staff is being protected without much sign of current injury.  The Nationals pitching staff is tops in baseball in win percentage, ERA (3.19), WHIP, and opponents OPS according to the fine folks at ESPN Stats and Info.  Clearly there is more to this team than Strasburg but no one can deny that losing him is disastrously bad.

The complicated part of this business comes in the differing positions between the medical community, anecdotal evidence by looking at comparable cases (re: Kerry Wood), and the athlete mentality to show up big when it matters the most.  I won’t pretend to be a MLB insider because that would be disingenuous and Fareed Zakaria is owning that right now.  I encourage everyone to check out Jayson Stark’s Commentary piece on Strasburg which covers all three storylines.  Of note is the strong support the Nationals are getting from the medical community despite no formalized evidence showing that shutting him down is the right move to make.  Stark accurately acknowledges that we can never know if shutting him down “worked” given that half of all pitchers end up on the disabled list and innings differ from each other.

I definitely support the idea of stretching out starts and providing tons of rest to prolong him reaching the innings ceiling but pitching later into the season.  At this point it seems a bit too late to begin that regimen without fear of negative consequences in attempts to get Strasburg’s arm back up to speed in time for a start spread out between 15 days.  Stark’s piece also addresses this and the good job the White Sox are doing with Chris Sale.  It’s certainly a tough decision.  Understandably, Nationals teammates are not happy with the decision to cap innings and it should be stated that this is GM Mike Rizzo’s decision alone.  It is his reputation on the line and he wouldn’t do it if he didn’t feel it was right.

A consequence of my baseball fandom was considering things in the long-term.  I am always a big proponent of looking at a large sample size and balancing the short term with plans for the future (oh, and I am not a fan of MY Dallas Mavericks excess cap space with no team upgrades).  Nothing is guaranteed with going to the playoffs, let alone having a historically great pitching staff allowing you to reach a Worlds Series.  With that in mind, sacrificing on the front end may yield more chances in the future and that is something I cannot pass up.  Yes, it will be awkward to see Stephen Strasburg on the bench carefully cheering on his team as to not rip any more ligaments but it may help the team win multiple pennants in the future.  Kudos for doing what is best for the player and team despite the skeptics.

Home Run: Boston Red Sox Crap

I was in the middle of outlining a defense of Lane Kiffin before I saw Jeff Passan’s Yahoo! Sports story on Red Sox players complaining and trying to get manager Bobby Valentine fired.  As you know, I am very cautious about ripping coaches and managers because most of their job comes during the hours outside of the primetime cameras.  Bobby Valentine was brought in because ownership believed Terry Francona lost the team with their epic collapse following the 2011 season.  They were probably right that Francona’s player friendly approach softened the clubhouse and didn’t help the lack of leadership evident through the season.  Valentine is not player friendly.  He is an enforcer of rules and often times too smart for his own good.  What he isn’t, however, is a scapegoat for this crap.  What got lost during the epic BoSox collapse was the hitting, while not up to their season figures, was still competent.  Their pitching staff stunk up the joint.  No one could stop the bleeding.  Everyone getting lit up.  That is the primary reason they did not make the playoffs last season.  Pitching.

Fast-forward to this season.  Over $170 million payroll.  Top flight offense – though riddled by injuries.  New leadership.  What do the Red Sox do?  Roll out there and stink it up all season long.  Eating the Yankees exhaust like it’s the late 90s again.  Hell, the Baltimore Orioles come into town and whip em like rented mules.  Pathetic.  What is true of last year is true this year.  While the Boston Red Sox offense is NOT producing like it should (Deadspin’s Jack Dickey points to Pedroia’s WAR going from 7.8 to 2.2 and Adrian Gonzalez’s WAR going from 6.7 to 2.6) they still remain in the top ten in many offensive categories including third in runs, sixth in batting average, and fourth in slugging percentage.  Pitching?  Abominable.  Bottom 10 in ERA, quality starts, and 17th in WHIP.  Beckett and Lester?  ERAs over five.  Pathetic.  Not good enough.

Managers need to manage rosters and oversee good decisions with the players on the roster.  If all the pitchers, it seems, cannot pitch then the manager is pretty screwed.  If the star hitters…can’t hit…there is not much you can do to solve that.  Of course it was Gonzalez and Pedroia leading this meeting about Valentine.  Happily, not all the Red Sox players participated in the traditional throwing the manager under the bus tour but that does not excuse the fact that Valentine’s quirks only feed into player’s unwillingness to look in the mirror.  More importantly, look at that pitching staff.  What in the hell are you spending over $170 million USD on?  Not to be a fluttering .500 team wacked by the Orioles, Mariners, and just about everyone else.  This entire team is corrupted and if the management changed in the clubhouse the next move is to change the players, particularly the inept pitching staff.  Most of this “Bobby V is the problem” ends when the winning begins but that will not happen if the Red Sox continue to grasp for pitching that is not coming through at all.  When will the BoSox learn…

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