Pitching Clock

Pitching Clock Violation? Picking Up The Pace of Play In Baseball

by JDCam 01.26.15

Baseball is losing its audience.

Melodramatic perhaps, but also true. TV ratings for professional baseball continue to wane. New Commissioner Rob Manfred has officially taken over from Bud Selig, (who is finally retiring after 17 seasons at the helm of Major League Baseball and shuffling his frail Mr. Burns-like frame into a sweet sunset to the tune of a $6 million a year retirement package). Manfred will face several pressing challenges. Although it could be argued that Selig has presided over one of the most successful and financially innovative eras of America’s pastime (interleague play and wild cards have made nice bank for MLB) baseball as America’s national pastime is in danger of becoming exactly that, a fading product, an echo of its former dominance and glory.

Bud Selig has enjoyed record prosperity in his tenure as MLB Commish

Bud Selig has enjoyed record prosperity in his tenure as MLB Commish

’12 1.7 2,500
’11 1.8 2,744
’10 1.8 2,700
’09 1.8 2,700
’08 2.0 2,900
’07 2.3 3,312
’06 2.4 3,348
’05 2.6 3,606
’04 2.7 3,727
’03 2.7 3,600
’02 2.5 3,445
’01 2.6 3,377

Manfred must battle to keep baseball relevant and exciting. As TV ratings suffer and live viewership dwindles baseball is no longer top dog in the American sporting landscape, or even second. The NFL is in poll position now, with a shorter regular season, explosive and faster paced games and the promise of a revised and expanded playoff format which will create even more TV revenue and financial opportunities for its owners.

While the NFL and College Football continue to tweak and innovate (pro football changing its overtime format and the inaugural college football playoff to name but a few examples) baseball continues to lag behind, hamstrung by blindly clinging to tradition at the expense of innovation, excitement, efficiency and accuracy (how long did it take to give video replay a shot exactly?) This is no longer ‘The Golden Age of Baseball’, folks don’t score games live anymore. Baseball’s expansion has resulted in a huge plateau of mediocrity which fans are not willing to pay $20 to see and spend 4 hours watching. The competition is huge and still baseball has thus far been slow to take a risk.

One of the biggest issues hampering baseball is the length and pace of games. There is no other sport where the game has the potential to be such a side show. Football, basketball and hockey all have structured intervals. Football, despite its frequent stoppages has a play clock that dictates the re-focusing of its audience. A half inning in baseball on the other hand, can range anywhere from 3-30 minutes, with no definite way for fans to determine when their concentration should be fully allocated to the game. The average length of a MLB game sits at around 3 hours and 11 minutes and while a typical NFL game is extremely similar, more structured breaks in play as well as timeouts, stoppages between quarters and a 16 game regular season make this seem much more bearable. One solution would be to simply clone 150 Mark Buehrle’s and have every rotation trot out five versions of the one man ‘game accelerator’. More seriously, MLB needs to institute their proposed pitch clock and they need to do it now.

The premise is simple, it operates the same way a shot clock does in basketball or a play clock does in football. The pitcher has a 20 second window to deliver the pitch before an automatic ball is assessed by the umpire. I love this idea. As well as moving the game along the pitching clock also invests the casual viewer and draws attention to crucial parts of any given game. MLB experimented with the pitching clock in the Arizona Fall league this year, which resulted in shaving 26 minutes off an average MLB game length. Other changes MLB experimented with including standardizing and limiting the time between innings to 2 minutes 30 seconds (love this one) and having managers give a four-finger signal for an intentional walk instead of having the pitcher deliver the pitches (not sure I like that one as it removes the occasional crazy play that can occur during intentional walks).

There were mixed reviews to the pitch clock from players and fans. While some pitchers complained about not being able to get set fast enough, most naysayers fall into the ‘it just doesn’t feel like baseball’ category. I can’t stand this position. It only ‘doesn’t feel like baseball’ because baseball and the MLB are notoriously slow to innovate. I don’t want baseball to be the same as it was in the 1920s, 40s, 60s or any other era. Surely one of the primary goals of any given professional sport should be to attract new fans and meet the needs of its fans rather than cling to tradition purely for its own sake. New Cub’s acquisition Jon Lester recently came out as strongly opposed to a pitching clock. It would, he said ‘take the beauty out of the game’. Lester went on to comment that an integral aspect of the game to pitchers is forcing the opposing hitter to alter his timing. A valid point, but surely an aspect of pitching that would still be able to be accomplished and accommodated after pitchers had adjusted to the timing of the clock?

Jon Lester has declared himself adamantly opposed to a pitching clock in baseball.

Jon Lester has declared himself adamantly opposed to a pitching clock in baseball.

Lester also commented that there are simply ‘different things that fans and people who have never played the game simply don’t understand’.  This is also definitely true. From a fan’s perspective however Jon, here’s something you don’t understand, athletes are also entertainers, entertainers whom fans pay, albeit indirectly. Baseball as an entertainment product, purely in terms of its viewership is diminishing. It is the responsibility of the governing body of the sport to find ways to increase that viewership and that level of entertainment. The key here isn’t necessarily lessening the length of a game by 10 minutes, but more enabling fans to focus their attention on the most critical parts of the game.

With Double A and Triple A scheduled to utilize the clock for the first time this season, and with MLB looking to trim the time between innings, it seems that MLB is finally prioritizing the pace of its games to catch up with the other innovators of the American sporting landscape.

Change the mascot

What’s in a Name? The Washington R-ds-ins and a History of Blindness

by JDCam 1.21.15

The name of Washington’s NFL team has been heavily scrutinized in recent months, with the controversy surrounding it coming to a slow rolling boil. Washington’s atrocious on field play, the off-field ‘Days of our Lives’ drama surrounding RG3 and his perceived emphasis on self-image over team and development as a QB have acted as the only distractors from Washington’s naming issue coming to a head. Washington’s problem has been only magnified by their geographical proximity to the nation’s political decision makers, who have not shied away from confronting the issue.

In May of 2014 Senator Harry Reid tweeted Commissioner Roger Goodell asking him if he believed he ‘had the authority at act against racism in the NFL the same way Mr. Silver did in the NBA’. Reid is of course referring to the lifetime ban from the NBA Silver handed out to former LA Clippers owner Roger Sterling after racially disparaging phone conversations were leaked to the press.

While both sides of the issue have enjoyed recent victories, the FCC ruling that Washington’s name was not offensive for broadcasting purposes but their name being ruled as disparaging by the US patent office, leading to the cancelling of several trademarks. Despite this back and forth there has been unwavering stoicism from Washington owner Dan Snyder, who was quoted as saying the team will ‘never change its name’.

Dan Snyder has declared that Washington will never change its name

Dan Snyder has declared that Washington will never change its name

Several players past and present have chimed in with their own opinions, including Jason Taylor who called for the team to change their name. Snyder himself has maintained that the word is inoffensive. After a 4 month research project in which he visited 26 tribal reservations he began a foundation to benefit Native Americans. While Snyder maintains that the foundation was set up to combat issues within Native communities around the country the cynical among us may see this as currying favor and attempting to deflect attention away from Washington’s naming issue. In Snyder’s open letter to the fans of Washington he frequently quotes Native Americans who are not offended by the word. If Snyder really wanted to convince the general public of the integrity of the word then why did he not seek out Native people who ARE offended by the word to varying degrees? If Snyder felt complete confidence in the name of his franchise – those would be conversations he would not only be comfortable having, but would pursue.

The word ‘r-ds-in’ originally seems to have been a self-referrer for Native Americans but was quickly appropriated by settlers for a much darker and more violent purpose, famously by author L. Frank. Baum in a pair of editorials calling for the, ‘extermination of all remaining Native Americans’. A plethora of examples also dwell in Earl Emmons volume ‘Redskin Rimes’. I would challenge even the most desensitized reader to take even a cursory glance and not be thoroughly offended. Needless to say the book is indicative of a period of history at the end of the 19th century where the word r-ds-in went from being ‘an identifying term to a derogatory slur’.

How could one reasonably argue that Washington’s name is not offensive given a history associated with millions of deaths, displacement and political manipulation as well as current circumstances that Snyder himself described in his findings as a ‘high incidence of alcohol and drug abuse, depression and suicide as well as a poverty rate of around 29% according to the census bureau’? A recent poll suggested that only around 11% of Americans found Washington’s name offensive, a statistic alarming in the apparent indifference it intimates.

Washington’s naming issue certainly isn’t the first brush with racial controversy for the franchise. In Richard C. Crepeau’s book ‘NFL Football – A History of America’s New National Pastime’, Crepeau details some of the issues that confronted the franchise in the early 1960s. In 1961 there was an increasing influx of African American players into the NFL, the league supporting 83 black players at that time. Washington was the only franchise to resist this transition. Then owner George Preston Marshall was quoted as saying ‘We’ll start signing Negroes when the Harlem Globetrotters start signing whites’. Despite considerable pressure from the Kennedy administration Marshall continued his one man attempt to prevent full integration of African Americans in the NFL. Marshall was only forced to alter team policy when Washington began playing home games at D.C Stadium in December of 1961. The stadium was financed by public funds which prevented it being used by anyone actively practicing hiring discrimination.

Prominent writers have been drawn on the issue, such as Rick Reilly, who in a piece for ESPN argues that White America is assuming offense to the term on behalf of Native Americans. Reilly, similarly to Dan Snyder himself, speaks to an array of Native Americans who are either unoffended by the word or ‘wear it with fierce pride’, rather than seeking out those who might be offended to understand the nature of the offense. Reilly also asserts that if the name of Washington’s NFL team can be deemed offensive we should similarly revisit the names of other teams who names derive from Native America, such as the Kansas City Chiefs or Atlanta Braves. Hold the phone Rick, the R word and the word ‘chief’ or ‘brave’ don’t seem to carry them same level of offense. If those names do offend then that certainly is a discussion we should seek out, but to group the three terms as comparable seems tenuous at present. While Reilly cites a lot of potential offense at these other Native derived names with only one concrete example, these pale in comparison to a petition authored by 50 senators, a national media campaign (Change the Mascot) or a slew of research papers published on the subject as well as organized protests in Minneapolis.

Roger Goodell has not been drawn the the Washington naming issue.

Roger Goodell has not been drawn the the Washington naming issue.

Washington’s current naming issue and their checkered history of racial intolerance are exacerbated by the league’s refusal to be drawn into confronting the issue. Crepeau explains that ‘In the 1960s commissioner Pete Rozelle reacted by trying to avoid the problem (of Washington’s refusal to hire black players), saying that ‘it was a club matter not a league matter’. In a 2013 interview, commissioner Goodell was quoted as saying ‘if one person is offended, we have to listen. Ultimately, it’s Dan’s (Snyder) decision’. What an eerily similar nod to the past Goodell’s comments were. If the actions of Adam Silver and Goodell’s horrific handling of the Ray Rice situation have taught us anything, it is that major sports can have an equally positive and damaging impact on the most difficult to confront issues that plague society such as domestic abuse and racism. The NFL has shown in recent years a disappointing reticence to be a proactive agent of tolerance, justice and fairness, despite being in a position to do so. Dan Snyder, desperate to cling to the current name of the franchise for reasons unknown, seems to be stuck in his own bog of blind indifference. Roger Goodell could begin to mend the wounds of the NFL’s poor example in dealing with issues of social justice. Goodell has the opportunity to be the arbiter of positive social change as a leader of his sport by stepping outside the confines of what is known and comfortable. He should seize it. This team is in need of a name; right now it has a label.

MLB Playoffs

Baseball’s Playoff Problem

by Conway West 1.17.15

In the age of parity in baseball, has competitive balance driven teams to mediocrity?

In my experience as a baseball fan, I have never seen a winter quite like this one. I am not talking Polar Vortex round 2. I am talking the active lifestyle of every major league franchise’s front office. Virtually every team is making moves– every team in baseball completed at least 5 moves to their big league roster in the month of December alone. All teams but the Diamondbacks, Rangers and Brewers completed Major league contracts with Free Agents, with the D-backs and Brewers completing trades of accomplished big leaguers. The Rangers were the only team that stood pat, but their fans have more DL days than any other team coming back in 2015 – Prince Fielder, Shin-Soo Choo and Yu Darvish could be better than signing free agents.

Baseball postseason this year has been fun. As JD Cam pointed out, it has brought life into some franchises that desparately needed it. Along with the Padres, the White Sox have done some massive retooling, and the Blue Jays, Cubs, and Red Sox have pushed all-in with huge commitments. The Mariners, Pirates, and Marlins set themselves up for success in the past couple years, and invested big money in winning now. Even the Twins and Mets pushed money into veterans in hopes of hitting the lottery on a winning season. At this point in the offseason, only the Phillies, Braves, Astros and Diamondbacks can be looking at 2015 as a “rebuilding year”. 26 other teams can go into spring training with hopes that this is “their year”. These teams may not be off base, looking on previous results.

Last year’s AL champs, The Kansas City Royals, won 89 games and were projected for 82 to start the year. The MLB champs, the San Francisco Giants, won 88 when projected for 83. Both only mildly overperformed during the regular season, and neither team had a wildly overperforming roster- the Royals played great defense and didn’t strike out, and the Giants relied on a couple stars to beat up on bad NL West foes. Both teams did about what was expected of them, but over-performed their expected W-L (by run differential) by a couple games during the season to scratch out wild card berths.

The Royals proved that any team can 'get in and win'.

The Royals proved that any team can ‘get in and win’.

This proved to be all they needed, as both teams caught fire in October. And while this made for exciting times in Kansas City (and some irritating enjoyment out of San Francisco), it further frustrated other fan bases with loaded teams. Fans of the Nationals and Tigers must feel wrecked – they have had some loaded teams for a couple seasons now, with nothing to show for it. Now they both face the reality that their cores won’t stay in their prime forever. Rebuilding looms in the future for both squads.

Since the MLB playoffs expanded to 8 teams in 1995, we have seen 6 wild card world series champs. From 2002 to 2007, there was at least one wild card that made it to the World Series. There has actually been research (and Freakonomics articles) to show regular season wins do not correlate to postseason success.

This offseason shows the direction of baseball as we move toward the future. For starters, it says that Major league baseball is doing very well financially. That much is clear when guys like Kendrys Morales get multi-year deals after being vastly below replacement level in 2014. The other thing it says is that there is no incentive to being great in the MLB right now. None. No home field advantage in the playoffs, no ensured success in the playoffs. Only 3 of the last 20 World Series winners have been from the best record in the league. The sample size of the playoffs is just too small to have any certainty that your loaded team will win.

The MLB playoffs are essentially a lottery. The best team doesn’t win much more often than it loses, and almost anything can happen in a series less than 5% the length of the regular season. So it has turned into a random event. We haven’t had a back-to-back winner since the Yankees won 3 straight from 1998-2000, and teams are beginning to realize that spreading out your wins over many seasons ensures that each year you are getting a chance at that lottery.  Teams are setting themselves up for a chance at 88 wins, without sacrificing their future to do so.

The reward of having a 95-win team over the risk of giving away your future just isn’t worth it. So many of the teams that made big moves this season (Padres and Mariners to name two) felt like they did so without breaking the bank nor giving away tons of their best young talent. The goal isn’t to win 95 for 3 years then rebuild, it’s to win 88 every year.

The most obvious and excellent example of this philosophy is Oakland. The Athletics pushed all their chips in the pot last year – huge trades for stud starting pitchers, and all their offensive pieces hit their prime in May of 2014. Unfortunately, some of their hitters stopped hitting (or got banged up), their middle infield stopped fielding and what appeared like a 100-win team in early July turned into a team that scraped into the last playoff seed.

Well, Billy Beane seemed to look at the Royals success and say “why not us?” He traded away his players he deemed had peeked in value – Brandon Moss, Josh Donaldson, Derek Norris – and ones with expiring contracts – Jeff Samardija, John Jaso. He traded all these players for guys that won’t lose too much in the present, but should make the team better past 2016. Ultimately, Oakland went from a team projected for 86 wins, to a team that is projected to win 85. This isn’t too bad, all while shaving a few dollars off the payroll. They are well within that 88-90 win threshold it should take to make the postseason. Whoever uses the term ‘rebuilding’ is wildly misinformed.

After several strong additions, could the White Sox follow the Royals path to success?

After several strong additions, could the White Sox follow the Royals path to success?

The formula for success seems simple – build a roster that every year has a chance to make the playoffs. Then roll the dice to see if your team comes up big. The White Sox have Chris Sale and Jose Abreu – who says those guys can’t do in 2015 what Madison Bumgarner and Pablo Sandoval did in 2014? All they have to do is get into the postseason. Their moves this offseason, along with the moves of 25 other clubs, are not only reinvigorating a fan base, but also purchasing that lottery ticket for the World Series Title.


Preller Making Moves in San Diego

by JDCam 1.12.15

The San Diego Padres have been consistent in their mediocrity in recent seasons, winning 77, 76, 76 and 71 games in the last 4 season and failing to record a winning season since a surprising 2010 season in which they recorded 90 wins and still missed the playoffs after being beaten out by a Giants team still riding the last of Tim Lincecum’s outstanding pre-pubescent coattails.

The only other constant in San Diego in recent years other than a constant 72 and sunny is that they have been boring. That’s right, the Padres are dull, they are not great at anything, and they are not the worst at anything. In a sport literally struggling to keep pace with more explosive and fast paced competition in the NFL and NCAAF the Padres have been the epitome of why folks are tuning out of baseball and into…well, anything else.

Enter A.J. Preller, a brilliant, workaholic, Cornell graduate who, in a brief 48 hour stint at the 2014 Winter Meetings in his teams’ city, demonstrated that he understands one of the most critical off the field tenets of turning around a downtrodden sports franchise, reigniting the fan-base.

While risky, Preller's aggressive approach has reignited the Padres fan base

While risky, Preller’s aggressive approach has reignited the Padres fan base

The Padres OF was terrible in 2014. Upgrading his OF and acquiring more right-handed power for the spacious confines of PETCO Park was the number one item on Preller’s off-season bucket list. RH power-hitting was in short supply this offseason, with bats like Alex Rios (Royals), Nelson Cruz (Mariners) and Billy Butler (Athletics) commanding some pretty heft salaries in the free-agent market. Preller pursued OF via trade in an incredibly aggressive manner, acquiring Matt Kemp from the Dodgers, Wil Myers from the Rays and Justin Upton from the Braves (all teams that had a reason to trade an OF) whilst holding onto the Padres consensus top 3 prospects Austin Hedges, Matthew Wisler and Hunter Renfroe,

These moves immediately make the Padres OF a threat. In 2014 there OF trio combined for 29 HR, 141 RBI, and combined OPS of just .654. Assuming Myers, Kemp and Upton remain the starting OF trio in 2015, the 3 combined for 60 HR, 226 RBI a .791 OPS and combined WAR of 3.5 (which may not seem like much, but Myers -0.9 from an injury riddled season skewed that stat, his 2013 1.9 maybe a more realistic expectation assuming he can stay on the field). That is not to say that these moves aren’t a huge risk. Upton could ultimately turn out to be a year-long rental, Myers has struggled to remain healthy after a balky wrist derailed him after a strong rookie campaign and Kemp has been reduced to a walking sick note in recent years, despite a last 28 days if the regular season in which he belted 8 HR and had a slash line of .314/.341/.674. All of these players come with questions but Preller knows one thing…meekness has not paid off for the Padres of the last 5 years.

Preller’s Wall Street aggressiveness does come at a price as the Padres now have a dearth of extra OFs and very little leverage in moving any of them. Seth Smith, Cameron Maybin  and Will Veneble constitute a group of good-not-great outfield options that the Padres need to move at least one probably two of to keep their roster balanced (Smith has since been flipped to the Mariners for bullpen arm Brandon Maurer). There are certainly teams in need of OF help, the Orioles being one (after the departure of Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis), but given the Padres army of surplus bodies, they may not receive much of a return.

One deal that has kept the hot stove bubbling since the Winter Meetings is the potential of reeling in former World Series MVP and home-town stud Cole Hamels for a package centered around Myers. If Preller was able to pull off this move, the Padres would have their ace and be an undeniable contender in a not-that-great NL West. Had Myers been healthy and produced throughout his second full season with the Rays, a deal might seem much more probable, I wouldn’t put it passed Preller to pull a fast one on Ruben Amaro who has been a year behind in rebuilding a Phillies franchise burdened by age and some ridiculous contracts (looking at you Ryan Howard)

Remarkably, Preller has pulled off this improbable series of moves whilst keeping his 3 top prospects. Catcher Austin Hedges, pitcher Matthew Wisler and OF Hunter Renfroe all remain with the organization. This is not to say that the Padres won out in all their deals, they dealt several excellent prospects, including speedy SS Trea Turner to the Nationals. My point here is simply that rebuilding/crappy teams always seem so reticent to deal excellent prospects. How often do ‘high upside’ prospects pan out? Matt Bush, Rocco Baldelli, Bubba Starling, Josh Vitters, Bryan Burlington. OK, I’ll stop. Obviously I chose some high profile examples to prove a point. All these names were at one point or another consensus stud prospects. Some showed flashes of brilliance, some did very little, some most baseball fans have never heard of. I admire Preller’s balls for taking a risk.

Preller is assuming a mythical quality in San Diego

Preller is assuming a mythical quality in San Diego

His moves may not pay off; this season may become an unmitigated disaster with sloppy infield and a weak rotation. What Preller has brought to the table in San Diego is potentially much more valuable. A real enlivening of a stagnant franchise. For a man whose legend has taken on an almost mythical MacGyver/Chuck Norris like quality (see AJ Preller facts Twitter account). Every mention of his name and the Padres makes them slightly more relevant and interesting than previously, in spite of whatever their performance maybe on the field. Give the man a paperclip. He may just stop a missile timer and put together a division challenging team at the same time.

Playoffs meme 2

Evaluating Playoff Formats in the Big 4

by Conway West 1.7.15

A couple weeks ago, my colleague JD Cam published an article reevaluating the college football playoff system. As Tony Kornheiser once wrote, “College Football would be the most popular sport in the United States if the NCAA didn’t get in the way.”

While college football has revamped its postseason format, most professional sports ranks are much, much slower to amend their processes. Baseball has made 4 changes (with only 3 involving number of teams) to the postseason format in 114 years. The NFL, king of innovation if it makes an extra buck, was met with vehement disapproval when they attempted to expand their playoff system (although playoff expansion now seems inevitable ahead of the 2015/16 season). The NHL and NBA have made only minor changes recently.

This does not mean the playoff formats all fit their sport perfectly. When I think about the effectiveness of a playoff format, I think of two main variables:

  • Adequacy of transition from regular season: Does the regular season do a good job of demonstrating the quality of the teams in consideration? Does it separate out the good/bad while still remaining vital and engaging? Do the teams that make the postseason deserve to be there?
  • Pace and purpose: Does the best team usually win? Does the format allow for variability while moving efficiently enough to not be redundant? Does every team have a chance to win it all? Should they?

Winning percentage standard deviation comes up big on this topic for me. Reasoning is explained here, although the article focuses on competitive balance. For my study, I care about standard deviation only because I DO care about random variation. The NFL’s shorter season results in higher deviation than MLB’s, for instance, but this proves my point that the best teams don’t always make the postseason.

Sport: NBA

System: 30 teams play 82 regular season games, to determine 3 division winners plus 5 wild cards in each conference. Playoffs consist of 4 rounds of 7-game series.

Pros: Long playoffs and season ensure little random variation in winners.

Cons: Both season and playoffs drag on; many inferior teams make the playoffs.

Basketball is a graceful, athletic game, but also a grueling one. While not at the same taxing level as football, basketball takes a lot out of the athletes who play, and is hard to maintain energy and consistency over the 8 month season. Players (sometimes even whole teams) take nights off, and this results in diminished product in the regular season. All 82 games just don’t matter.

A single basketball game does a decent job at showing the best and worst teams each game. This is supported by the standard deviation of win percentage: .254 is by far largest of any of the sports. This means the bad teams are bad, but they also show they are bad every night. The teams that make the playoffs would rise to the top in far fewer than 82 games.

The playoffs for the NBA are far too long as well. As I said, the best team typically wins in basketball, which is supported by the number of times upsets occur in the playoffs, as well as the distribution of championships within the sport. With each of those figures being so low, there is no need for 7 game series every round of the playoffs. Once again, this diminishes the product. It does make for higher profit, and so the 3 month NBA playoff marathon is here to stay. Another issue is the amount of teams that make the playoffs: 16 of 30 teams is a whole lot, and the bottom 2-3 teams usually aren’t very good. This has been made worse by the disparity of the conferences in the past decade or so. With the West being so much better than the East, there is an undeserving team or two that makes the playoffs in the east. Conversely, the west is loaded and has a couple good teams missing out. Look at last season for a real case of that.

Solution: have the NBA season start at Christmas, run 60 games, and cut the first two rounds of the postseason to best of 5, at the least. Another possibility is modeling the NFL postseason, giving top teams byes from the first round, and cut the number of qualifying teams in each conference to 6 or 7. Also, get rid of conferences for playoffs and have playoff qualification only determined by best record.

Sport: NFL

System: 32 teams play 16 games, which determine 4 division winners and 2 wild cards in each conference. 4 rounds of single elimination. Top 2 qualifiers in each conference get first round bye.

Pros: Short, exciting season; fast playoffs; excellent playoff size (12 of 32 teams make playoffs); incentive for regular season performance in playoffs (home-field advantage, first-round bye).

Cons: The best teams don’t always make the postseason; division winners can be inferior due to scheduling anomalies; short season leads to higher random variation.

The NFL’s regular season, as compared to basketball, is far too short. It does not get the best 12 teams into the playoffs every year, by virtue of random variation. But, given the nature of the sport, this isn’t a bad thing: people like football for the “Any Given Sunday” approach. It is fun to think that your team has a decent shot every year. With that being said, the recent (and not so recent) discoveries of health risks make it ignorant to write convincingly that football should expand its regular season in order to better justify the entrants to postseason. It just isn’t worth the extra health costs (even though the league will keep trying).

Besides the lack of certainty that the best teams make it into the playoffs, the NFL postseason is about as close to perfect as one could hope, and perfect for the nature of the game. Football is meant to be a game where one game matters a lot (whereas the opposite is true for a sport like baseball). The NFL postseason moves fast (4-5 weeks), has a perfect amount of teams (12 feels right), and ends with a wonderful blend of variability and predictability (the best teams “usually win”, but not anywhere close to “always win”). My personal favorite part is that NFL postseason creates incentives for in-season performance: a bye-week in the postseason can be immensely valuable, and while some debate the effectiveness of the bye-week incentive, data supports that the bye week matters.

Does the NFL have the best playoff format?

Does the NFL have the best playoff format?

Some will also complain that poor division winners can host playoff games (like the Panthers with 7 wins this year.) This is a valid concern, and one that could easily be fixed: take away the division winners and just have the best 6 records make the postseason from each conference. But, due to the method of scheduling the NFL uses, I believe this could unfairly reward teams who are fortunate enough to play easy schedules. A 6-win division winner is not ideal, but they did win their division, which should be viewed in the same manner as a conference winner in the NCAA Basketball tournament.

Possible Solution to format: Create a world where football is unquestionably safe from long-term crippling effects. Then, expand the regular season to 20 games. The NFLs proposed changes include expanding Wild-Card Weekend with an additional two teams and giving only the top seed in each conference a bye and having the rest play seeded match-ups.

Sport: NHL

System: 30 teams play 82 regular season games, to determine top 3 in each division plus 2 wild cards in each conference (8 teams/conference). Playoffs consist of 4 rounds of 7-game series.

Pros: Long season ensures little random variation in qualifiers; best trophy in sports

Cons: both season and playoffs drag on, and many inferior teams make the playoffs; unbalanced conferences create unequal opportunities to make playoffs.

Hockey has a similar issue to NBA – it is the only sport with a longer season in terms of calendar days between the beginning and end of season. It also has a similarly long playoff format. Hockey is also a physically taxing game, and the long season takes its toll on the players – Hockey players deal with a high injury rate, with some of the data suggesting its games are the most dangerous when considering the length of season hockey players endure. Hockey players also have the second-highest concussion rate out of all sports, once again exacerbated by the frequency of games in a season. The applicability of this data in the playoff conversation is that hockey teams vary greatly as the year progresses, thus parity is huge in the league. It also speaks to the necessity of the entire hockey season – if the NFL season shouldn’t be at 20 games for injury concerns, how can we justify hockey’s 82 games?

Playoff Meme

In addition to roster turnover creating parity, the sport itself has high variability at the professional level. Only baseball has higher playoff parity, which speaks to the nature of hockey that the best team doesn’t always win. This data may support the idea that while the regular season is too long, but the already long hockey playoffs are perhaps too short to determine the true deserved winner. This contradiction, in my opinion, lies at the center of the waning interest for hockey in North America.

Possible Solution to format: Since hockey is losing interest from the general public, I propose something wacky altogether for their playoff format. First, balance the two conferences, which were realigned and unbalanced just 2 years ago. Then, do a drastically shorter regular season. Maybe create a huge, 24 team playoff, with convoluted bye week schemes and seeding. Or, go back to what Lord Stanley wanted and have challenge games for the cup.

Sport: MLB

System: 30 teams play 162 regular season games to determine 3 division winners, plus 2 wild cards in each league (conference). 2 Wild cards play a one-game series, followed by 5, 7, and 7 games for the next series.

Pros: Long season eliminates outliers from postseason contention; Addition of second wild card creates strong incentive for winning division, leading to more meaningful games

Cons: Success in postseason has very little correlation to success in postseason; long season can lose casual fan.

Let me first say that I love MLB’s regular season. While it may not be the most vital nor engaging, I think it is incredibly valuable to have such a huge sample size, and generally leads to a playoff field that deserves it – if you are not in the top 5 in each league after 162 games, no length of season should save you. The addition of the second wild card is huge for the regular season in the sport – no sport has a higher percentage of meaningful games in the regular season.

What is gained in the regular season, though, may be lost in the postseason. Postseason parity in baseball makes the playoffs a different sport. The huge increase in off days means that one pitcher has a much larger effect (see Madison Bumgarner in 2014), and a dominant bullpen of 2-4 arms is more valuable (see Kansas City Royals, 2014). Managers have to manage games differently, and roster needs are different. This is fun – it makes each game of the MLB playoffs feel more like the Super Bowl – but can punish teams built for regular season success. Additionally, the 1-game wild card playoff feels strange for baseball. It brings drama but baseball is a game of winning series, not individual games – what could be more deflating than losing a one game playoff to determine true post-season entry after having an excellent 162 game record.

In addition to the game frequency, weather becomes a huge factor on the edges of the baseball season. Expanding the playoffs is not an option since no one likes the idea of playing baseball in snow. Therefore, whatever additions to the current structure that is proposed (3 -game wild card playoff) should be met with far less off days in the postseason.

Solution: Cut the regular season to 145-150 games. Expand playoffs to be a 3/7/7/7 format, with less off days between.


Harbaugh Hiring Will Make B1G Impact

by JDCam 1.2.15

In early December I penned an article criticizing Nebraska’s lack of ambition in their hiring of Mike Riley and appealing to Jim Hackett to continue to bring back the revival of the BIG10 with a huge hire at Michigan, boy did he deliver.

On Tuesday Michigan introduced Jim Harbaugh as their new head coach. Slam dunk, high five, drop the mic.

I don’t know that Hackett could have made a better hire. Harbaugh is a coach who has enjoyed success at the lower and elite college level as well as a remarkable run of consistency in one of the toughest divisions in the NFL. Harbaugh even appeals to a particularly hard to please minority of Michigan’s snooty self-righteous alumni base who after the Rich Rod experiment failed continued to assert that Michigan could only be led by ‘A Michigan Man’ (remind me of how Rich Rod did at Arizona this year, compared to your Michigan Man, Brady Hoke?)

Harbaugh’s credentials are unquestionable professionally, geographically, hell even genetically. Harbaugh’s father Jack coached at Michigan. Jim himself attended Pioneer High School, literally a stone’s throw from The Big House. Harbaugh was the starting QB for legendary coach Bo Schembechler for three seasons, highlighted by a 1985 Fiesta Bowl win over then-powerhouse Nebraska and a top 2 finish nationally. Harbaugh went on to have a successful 14 year NFL career spanning stops with 4 NFL franchises.

Harbaugh brings an impressive track record to Ann Arbor

Harbaugh brings an impressive track record to Ann Arbor

Harbaugh’s coaching career has been truly impressive. In his first head coaching opportunity with the University of San Diego he went 7-4 in his first year, followed by consecutive 11-1 conference winning seasons. In his first major head coaching position with Stanford, Harbaugh guided the Cardinal from 4-8 in 2007 to 12-1 with an Orange Bowl win over Virginia Tech in 2010.

Most remarkably perhaps, Harbaugh did not slow when he entered the NFL ranks. In his first 3 seasons in the NFL Harbaugh made at least the NFC Championship game on each occasion and despite losing to the Giants in 2011 and the Seahawks in 2013 made the Super Bowl in 2012 – ultimately losing out to his brother John and the Baltimore Ravens. Even with the 49ers mediocre season in 2014 he went 44-19-1 in 4 seasons, a remarkable accomplishment in a challenging division.

Harbaugh is a proven winner at every level and it could be argued there has never been a coach that has made a more seamless and successful transition between college and the NFL. Yes Pete Carroll won a Super Bowl in 2014 but also had tough years with the Jets and Patriots and had two losing seasons in Seattle before the emergence of the dominant Legion of Boom defense which propelled their 2014 Super Bowl run.

Harbaugh won’t come cheap. His contract is valued at $35 million over 7 years (compared to around 6 years and $18 million for Hoke), yet it may end up being a bargain for Michigan, re-awakening this sleeping CFB giant, their increasingly distant fans and alumni base. After a successful first two seasons at the helm for Michigan, Harbaugh’s predecessor, Brady Hoke, amassed the 6th ranked recruiting class in the nation in 2013 (ESPN insider required) with 15 players ranked in the ESPN 300. After an extremely disappointing 7-6 2013 season Michigan’s class ranking dipped to 18th, with a noticeable drop in recruits (just 16, compared with 27 the previous year). Their 2015 class doesn’t even rank in the top 40, while Penn St, Wisconsin, Michigan St and Nebraska all feature. Who could possibly be surprised by this, after an excruciating 5-7 record and failing to qualify for a bowl game for just the third time since 1975.

Harbaugh could instantly change this. His track record as a college and professional coach, his experience working with the quarterback position and his dogged winning mentality may well influence many of Michigan’s remaining top targets. Don’t be surprised if Michigan’s 2015 recruiting class is salvaged to the tune of a top 20 ranking.

While Harbaugh will have instant impact at Michigan he will certainly have catching up to do. Since being hired in 2012 after the Jim Tressel debacle Urban Meyer has laid the foundation for Ohio State to be a perpetual national powerhouse. Meyer has cemented Columbus as the destination of choice for outstanding recruits to play in the Midwest, with recruiting classes consistently in the top 10 and boasting countless blue chip players. Anyone who doubts Harbaugh’s ability to go into Urban Meyer’s stomping grounds in Ohio and land top targets need only listen to his Tuesday introduction to the press. Harbaugh really believes in Michigan and what it represents. There is no more effective salesman than someone who truly loves what they are selling.

Harbaugh’s hire affirms not only the growing relevance of BIG10 programs profiles, particularly with regard to the quality of their coaching. Harbaugh joins Urban Meyer as the highest profile of the BIG10 coaches, with Mark Dantonio following close behind. Habaugh interestingly, joins a conference in which an increasing number of head coaches are heading up their alma-mater (Harbaugh, Chryst) or, as Meyer does a major program that is geographically meaningful to them (Meyer was born in Toledo and attended Cincinnati). These trending geographical roots add not only to these coaches ability to recruit strongly in their own backyards, but also to the storied rivalries of the BIG10.

Interim AD Jim Hackett deserves a huge amount of credit for his hire of Harbaugh. The BIG10, being pioneers of the ‘conference TV network’ still leads all Power 5 conferences in revenue, with 12 of its 14 teams expected to pull in approximately $45 million annually through the 2017/18 season under their new TV deal. Hackett knows well that spending some of this massive revenue on a big name coach is a worthy investment which may pay dividends for years to come in Ann Arbor. Originally Hackett offered Harbaugh $8 million per year. Harbaugh already showed he has his priorities in order by turning down that paycheck to allow assistant coaches to make more money, an area the BIG10 falls alarmingly short in compared to the SEC and PAC12.

Harbaugh’s homecoming to Ann Arbor, despite its fanfare has been classy and understated. There were no brash promises; Harbaugh would not be drawn on statements to Michigan’s rivalry programs. Harbaugh is playing a smart game, tempering expectations in Ann Arbor. Don’t be fooled if the Wolverines ascend back to greatness ahead of schedule.


The Art of Making a Good Team Better

by Conway West 12.29.14

Andrew Friedman is successful at making other teams feel like they won trades

We have known for at least the past several decades that good GMs are worth their weight in gold. Of course, it is the players on the field that dictate the effectiveness of the front office. But putting those players together, and in a position to succeed, is all the front office. Money helps, but knowing what you are doing matters so much more.

This is why the Dodgers acquired Andrew Friedman, and are paying him player money: $35 million over 5 years, the highest-paid executive in baseball. Friedman inherited a 94-win team from 2014, second most in baseball, and a team with more projected wins than anyone for 2015. This did not stop him from revamping a star-studded roster. The Dodgers had a huge hole at SS if Hanley Ramirez left, no legitimate catcher options, and the need for pitching arms, particularly a durable starter.

The Dodgers couldn’t be farther from the Rays team that Friedman created in Tampa. The Rays consistently finished in the bottom 3 in payroll, and had so little revenue even while they were good. Friedman was able to trade all of his star pieces at high points in their value for other teams’ underrated players. Just this past July, he traded David Price for Nick Franklin and Drew Smiley, two players who did not seem to be worth David Price. In Tampa, Friedman lived for the deals where he makes other GMs feel like they win, only to end up looking smarter in the end. It was the only way he could win with such a small market-team.

Those problems don’t apply with the Dodgers. Seemingly made of money, the Dodgers had a huge (expensive) name at almost every position last year. They had a lot of steals from a scrappy leadoff hitter, and lots of homers from veteran bats. They had the best bullpen 2010 could buy.

Those in the know are aware that wins are not about the fastest, most powerful, or biggest named players: Wins are commodities. They are bought and sold. Friedman knows this well, and saw where the biggest discrepancies were on his roster between actual winning value and perceived value.

First was Hanley Ramirez. An elite hitter (133 career wRC+) in his big-league career, Hanley is a terrible defensive shortstop. So instead of keeping him there, the Dodgers bid farewell to the All Star. Then at Winter Meetings, the Dodgers got really busy, starting by trading Dee Gordon, last year’s leadoff sensation. The ultimately turned into Gordon and Dan Haren for Howie Kendrick and 3 minor leaguers. Even if nothing comes of those 3 minor leaguers, Howie Kendrick looks to be more valuable in 2015 than either Haren or Gordon. Just comparing Gordon and Kendrick: Kendrick has the decisive edge in wOBA (.330 to .293), defense (7 runs saved to -5), all while striking out less and walking more. And it’s not like Kendrick is a liability on the basepaths. The Dodgers traded one of their more overrated players for a high-value one, and got better.

Friedman immediately improved the Dodgers infield at the 2014 Winter Meetings in SanDiego

Friedman immediately improved the Dodgers infield at the 2014 Winter Meetings in SanDiego

Right off the tails of this move, the dodgers acquired Jimmy Rollins. Rollins is not the MVP he used to be, but still a top two-way shortstop with skills that maybe have eroded but have definitely not disappeared. He very well could be an equal with 2014 Hanley, which the Dodgers should and will take gladly. They also signed starting pitcher Brandon McCarthy, who has been someone who underperforms their FIP routinely, particularly in 2014. Depending on your belief in FIP, McCarthy could be looking at a 2014 Phil Hughes situation in 2015, where the change to a better defensive team and better park makes for a monster season.

No move proves Friedman’s philosophy more than the trade of Matt Kemp. Kemp is a polarizing ballplayer. Some love Kemp, some think he is wildly overrated. All should agree he is an really good, oft-injured, expensive hitter that doesn’t really catch a lot of baseballs in the outfield. This trade is brilliant for the Dodgers for three reasons. One, they are trading a player they can afford to lose at the height of his value. Kemp is hurt a lot, right? There is a good chance he will never be worth more on the market than he is now. And the Dodgers have Yasiel Puig, Andre Ethier, Carl Crawford, and my personal favorite, Joc Pederson, still on the roster, with more talented youngins on the way. None of those outfielders were going to get as much in return as Kemp, most likely. Thing two, is they trade Kemp to a bad, bad team. The Padres don’t really get a ton better from this. They have a dreadful infield. They are probably going to trade Ian Kennedy, their best pitcher, in the next 6 months. Matt Kemp gives them a 2-4 win upgrade. They were probably a 70-win team. Should they celebrate that they will pay $75 million more to be a little less bad?

Thing three, and most important, the Dodgers get better without really losing all that much. Yasmani Grandal, the headliner for the Dodgers side, has not put it all together at the big league level like he did in the minors. Even if he is what he has shown in the bigs, a high-walk guy with better than average defense. That profiles to be AJ Ellis, 2012, which is a ton better than AJ Ellis, 2014. His ceiling is much more like Devin Mesoraco, who in case you didn’t see in 2014, was really good. Kemp, as I said, is worth 3 wins, but that isn’t as valuable in a crowded outfield as it is behind the plate for the Dodgers. So even without bashing Matt Kemp, this deal is still a win for the Dodgers.

Friedman is not in baseball because he played and “knows the game”. He is in baseball because he makes teams winners. All these deals, when you take the names out, are improvements to an already good Dodger team. So while the national and local media can scream about how the sky is falling, Friedman will keep the Dodgers winning. And all while making other teams feel good in the process.