Wednesday, May 7, 2014

A star lefty, in decline

Over the last three years, including thus far in the 2014 season, this highly touted ace has seen his ERA rise almost a full earned run between both 2012 and 2013, and 2013 and 2014, and is now solidly below average. He's been victimized by a decline in ground balls (53% in 2012 to 42.6 in 2014) and a lot more fly balls leaving the park (15.7% in 2014, compared to a 9.4% on his career).

On baseball fandom, modern society, and poverty

This is a rather random observation, starting with a spectacular infographic from the New York Times which mined Facebook information to map out which places root for which baseball teams.Seriously, go play around with that map. Right now.

Not to get overly dramatic, but the map of baseball fandom can really lead to some conclusions about America as a whole. Before we start wildly speculating, an important caveat for this map. The percentages are calculated based on how often baseball teams are being mentioned in a Facebook post. It does not look at overall levels of support for baseball compared to other sports or activities, so those percentages should be read as numbers specific to posts regarding baseball.

First, the west is settled by transplants, who are taking their previous allegiances with them. People living close to west coast teams at 50-60% support in their highest counties, whereas east coast teams like the Red Sox, Yankees, Braves, and Phillies are in the 70-80%. This isn't surprising; people aren't moving to Boston from California too terribly often, at least in comparison to migrants in the other direction.

The Halo Effect
Red Sox support surrounding Boston (darker=higher)
 Additionally, we can see some interesting effects surrounding major cities, such as Boston. I've only shown Boston as an example, but similar patterns surround St. Louis and Philadelphia. What we can see is that the areas surrounding the city actually have higher support for the local team than the city itself. If folks from elsewhere in the country are moving to these areas (and bringing their baseball allegiance with them), they're more likely to move into the major metropolitan areas, rather than the suburbs. So what we see is a halo of higher local team support surrounding the city center.

Tigers support surrounding Detroit (darker=higher)
Not all cities follow this pattern though. Take Detroit, for example. Instead of having a lower level of support in the city center, we see a halo of lower support surrounding the city center, which has higher support than the surrounding suburbs. We can use the level of support for the local team as a proxy for the amount of people moving into the area from other parts of the country. So in Boston, if you're moving into the area, you're staying close to the city, but if you're in Detroit, you're moving into the suburbs north and west of the city. This difference shouldn't be too surprising, as Detroit is a classic example of white flight from a major metropolitan area.

Local Support and Poverty
We can see in Detroit a higher poverty level in the core city center, compared to the surrounding suburbs. This is a pattern you see in almost every city in the US, but it is particularly marked in Detroit. I think the implications are simple - if an area has a very high poverty level, new transplants to the city are less likely to move there, which in turn will maintain higher levels of support for the local team.

This pattern also holds true in western cities, such as Los Angeles. It shouldn't be too surprising that we see higher poverty rates in city centers - this is a pattern that holds true in all cities across the country, even in very high income cities like San Francisco. However, the association between poverty and home team support seems to be more marked in poorer cities overall.

If you'd like to look at poverty rates in the US, here is another nice infographic from the New York Times.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Are qualifying offers broken or are free agents miscalculating their own value?

Nelson Cruz recently signed a one year, $8 million deal with the Orioles, Ubaldo Jimenez had to wait for ages to sign his 4 year, $50 million deal, and Stephen Drew and Ervin Santana remain unsigned. This has led to some claims that the qualifying offer system is broken, and the head of the players union, Tony Clark, is concerned about the system. The new system has teams extend a one year offer based on the highest salary for the top 125 players. The player can accept the one year deal, about $14 million, or decline it. If a different team signs that player, they forfeit their top draft pick, with the top 10 picks being protected. This new system has hurt some players, particularly ones who are not true stars.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Saving the Dempster money for a big splash?

The Red Sox have many options on how to spend the windfall, but the best one that comes to mind is acquiring Cliff Lee from the Phillies at some point this season. Acquiring Lee at midseason would use up the $13.25 million freed up by the Dempster semi-retirement. Thanks to the large amount of cap room, it wouldn't preclude other acquisitions as well. It would also give the Red Sox a true ace for the next 2.5 years that Lee would be under contract.

Despite their massive payroll ($170 million, 3rd highest in baseball), the Phillies are not expected to contend - ESPN ranked them as the second worst team in baseball. From the Phillies' perspective, dealing Lee would give them a great deal of additional financial flexibility in the next few years and would get them under the luxury tax threshold. The Lee's contract is one of the only large ones the Phillies could really move. The ink is still drying on the recent extensions to Cole Hamels and Chase Utley, and the deals to Ryan Howard and Jonathon Papelbon are pretty much unmoveable - Howard's contract was ranked at the third worst in the majors last season. Lee's contract is really the team could trade while acquiring real prospects.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Dempster decision simultaneously clarifies 2014, and opens up possibilities

Almost out of nowhere, Ryan Dempster has decided not to play this season. He stopped short of an official retirement, but coming off one of the worst seasons of his career and a lingering neck injury, it wouldn't be shocking if he didn't pitch again in the majors.

The move takes away the Red Sox pitching depth - prior to the decision Dempster was one of six pitchers competing for a spot in the starting rotation, with the 5th spot probably down to Dempster and Doubront. Now, the Red Sox starting 5 is set, and they still have good depth in the high minors with Brandon Workman, Allen Webster, and Rubby de la Rosa. This move probably impacts Workman more than anyone, given his success in the majors last year, both as a starter and a high leverage reliever. Now, he would be the first to step in to the rotation in case of injury or ineffectiveness (at least from Doubront), and the path to him staying a starting pitcher is much clearer. It also means he'll likely stay in the minors to start the season.

This also gives the Red Sox some substantial financial wiggle room. According to Scott Lauber, of the Boston Herald, the Red Sox had about $7 million of salary room before they'd hit the luxury cap threshold. If Ryan Dempster were placed on the restricted list, likely given his decision not to pitch this year, the Red Sox wouldn't be responsible for his $13.25 million salary, nor would it count against the luxury tax threshold. Now, the Red Sox have about $20 million to play with, allowing them to either resign Stephen Drew or give them the flexibility to make multiple major in-season acquisitions without surpassing the threshold.

Finally, best of luck to Ryan Dempster in his future endeavors. At 36 and dealing with nagging injuries, it is completely understandable that he is ready to put his family first. It is also remarkable that he is willing to give up $13 million because he doesn't think he can do an acceptable job pitching this year. He's already made almost $90 million in his career, so hopefully his family will be set for generations to come.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it

Ruben Amaro Jr. recently discussed the ill-fated Ryan Howard contract. It probably wasn't the most pleasant thing to have brought up in his interview with Ken Rosenthal, but given how the deal has backfired, it is understandably a topic of conversation. Of course, this isn't exactly surprising. The deal was fairly universally panned at the time, including in one of my earliest posts, for many reasons. Howard couldn't play defense, his skill set (often called "old player skills" - lots of walks, home runs, and strikeouts) tended to decline rapidly, he was rather old for his service time as he had been blocked in Philly by Jim Thome, and perhaps worst of all, it was made almost two full seasons before Howard was going to be a free agent. Ryan Howard's most similar players through that stage of his career were Cecil Fielder and Richie Sexson, both of whom flamed out fast and hard in their early 30s, and Howard was 30 at the time of the extension. Quite simply, there was absolutely no reason to make that decision at that point.