Weekly Hit Ground Ball: Unhappy Pirates fans, Unhappy players, Happy MLBTV fans

We’re another week closer to pitchers and catchers reporting to Spring Training camp and, other than a few minor deals, we still haven’t seen much movement on the free agent market.

The continued deadlock is prompting plenty of discussion.  One comment included in a recent Jon Heyman article (attributed to a “player-linked person”, a phrase that tickles me more than it should) made me think more than most:

“MLB has done a good job convincing fan bases not to demand winning … Fans used to only care about winning. Now they say, “Is (the player/deal) worth it?”.

The juxtaposition of that sentiment with the fevered nature of the football January transfer window is striking.  Football fans always want their club to spend money (“if we could just sign one more striker …”) and normally only object to a rumoured deal if they think they should be buying someone better instead (i.e. someone costing more money).

We have to set that in the context of a pyramid league structure in which the threat of relegation means every team has a reason to spend – stoking the market as a result – but the potential for relegation also creates a risk of financial devastation (Portsmouth FC would be a good example for any Americans not familiar with such tales).

Such a risk doesn’t exist in MLB.

Every team has a budget and a bad decision or two on a free agent contract can hamper efforts to build and/or maintain a competitive roster for smaller market teams. No fan wants to see their team chucking money away on bad players. However, I’m beginning to wonder if some fans are increasingly more interested in how their team stacks up in the immediate analysis awards (praised for a good free agent deal, hammered for prospect package given up in a trade etc) than what the transaction will could their team regardless of the cost to the owners.

In 2018 the small market Tampa Bay Rays can afford to give San Francisco $14.5m to go towards Evan Longoria’s salary when they trade him away. Every MLB team is worth hundreds of millions of dollars and every MLB owner or ownership group has huge financial resources, more than enough to cover a bad free agent contract for a few years whilst still maintaining a competitive payroll.

This is no criticism of the data-led, evidence-based conversations on transactions, but maybe there is an argument that rather than creating greater scrutiny on team spending, it’s actually giving front offices and owners an excuse not to take chances and keeping money out of the pockets of players (who ultimately are the ones generating the record levels of revenue) and keeping it in the pockets of the owners.

Pirates fans want owner to walk the plank

You can pour over advanced statistical metrics, consider future payroll commitments and analyse potential success cycles in your division all you want; whatever the facts are, for fans none of them ease the feeling in their stomach – and their heart – when they see one of their heroes sat in a press conference wearing another team’s cap for the first time.

Pittsburgh Pirates fans knew that the day was going to come when Andrew McCutchen would be suiting up for another team, yet that hasn’t made it any easier. Coming hot on the heels of Gerrit Cole being traded to the Houston Astros, McCutchen’s departure to the San Francisco Giants has landed Pittsburgh in a depression broken only by anger.

Fans can accept players leaving, but what has come out this week is the bottled-up frustration of those that feel the club’s owner Bob Nutting refused to open the purse strings between 2013 and 2015 when the team made three consecutive play-off appearances.

The team had been in the bottom four of MLB payroll for all of the nine years prior to 2013 when they rocketed up to 25th of 30, followed by 27th in 2014 (no better way to celebrate your first play-off appearance in 21 years than by reducing your competitiveness) and then the heady heights of 24th in 2015 (where they’ve stayed in the two years since).

ESPN’s Buster Olney among others has made the fair point that just a few results could have changed everything: the NLDS Game 5 decider in 2013 and then the two Wild Card game defeats that followed.  Spending money to add another player or two would have not guaranteed anything either; however nothing’s worse than feeling that your team got close and then didn’t really try to give itself the best chance of going all the way.

A petition has been started that calls for MLB to force Nutting to sell the team, but sadly that request exposes the reality of the situation.  MLB ultimately is the 30 ownership groups and unless you’re really bringing embarrassment on the game – such as ex-Dodgers owner Frank McCourt – such local angst is of no concern to them.

So long as most owners don’t do anything so rash as spend their own money to try to win – the late Mike Ilitch let that cat out of the bag more than once – they can all sit back as their assets grow in value year on year and then laugh their way to the bank when they cash in.

Pace of play

It was inevitable that further pace-of-play changes would be implemented in MLB for the 2018 season, yet it’s increasingly looking likely that they will be imposed on the players rather than as part of an agreed approach.

The most important point with it all is that those of us that regular watch baseball are not the issue here. The reason Rob Manfred wants to force these changes through is his oft-touted research that pace of play puts off casual sports fans (in the US).  In that context it seems as much about being seen to do something (‘we’ve done x,y,z to speed up the games, come and watch …’) than lopping significant time off the average game length.

I can’t say I’m greatly convinced these changes will make millions more tune into a ballgame, nor do I really see pace of play as a huge problem, but I don’t see any harm in cutting down some of the wasted time where possible.  My main issue is the hitters and pitchers that blatantly take the proverbial when it comes to getting on with their job. Effectively penalising the worst offenders, rather than implementing a blanket pitch clock, would be a better approach in my book.

I thought I’d have a look at that by doing a quick bit of rough research to look at the state of play in 2017. I used FanGraphs’ Pace statistic which is a measure of the seconds between pitches for both hitters and pitchers based on PITCHf/x timestamps, so the numbers come with the caveat that they aren’t recorded in exactly the way the proposed 20-second pitch clock would start from.

For hitters, using 100 plate appearances as the minimum criteria produced a list of 435 hitters.  The Phillies’ Cesar Hernandez and the Mets’ Amed Rosario were quickest at 20.7/20.8 seconds, with the Astros’ Marwin Gonzalez the slowest at 29.3 (not that you needed the stats to suspect he was slowest if you’ve ever watched any of his plate appearances). The median average pace number for the 435 batters was 23.6 seconds. As that’s 3 seconds above the quickest pace number, I’ve used 23.6 + 3 as a cut-off point to see how many (and who) were beyond that, what we might call an acceptable level.

26.6 seconds and above produces a list of 26 hitters (6% of the total hitters in the sample).

Player Team Pace
Marwin Gonzalez Astros 29.3
Daniel Nava Phillies 29
Odubel Herrera Phillies 28.8
Logan Morrison Rays 28.3
Jorge Alfaro Phillies 28.2
Robinson Cano Mariners 28.2
Victor Martinez Tigers 28.1
Mark Canha Athletics 28
Hanley Ramirez Red Sox 27.9
Danny Espinosa (Multiple) 27.9
Kole Calhoun Angels 27.6
Nick Castellanos Tigers 27.5
Mitch Moreland Red Sox 27.5
Alex Avila (Multiple) 27.4
Gerardo Parra Rockies 27.3
Kurt Suzuki Braves 27.2
Corey Dickerson Rays 27.1
Bryce Harper Nationals 27
Avisail Garcia White Sox 27
A.J. Pollock Diamondbacks 26.9
Jett Bandy Brewers 26.9
Ryan Braun Brewers 26.7
Christian Vazquez Red Sox 26.7
Gary Sanchez Yankees 26.6
Evan Gattis Astros 26.6
Martin Maldonado Angels 26.6

Unsurprisingly there are quite a few catchers on this list.

For pitchers I used 30 innings pitched as the minimum criteria, which produced a list of 462 pitchers. The quickest from that group was Milwaukee’s Brent Suter (17.4 seconds) and the slowest was the LA Dodgers’ Pedro Baez (30.7).  So, there’s a bigger difference in pace among pitchers than among hitters, with the pitcher median average being 23.9 (those at the figure included Jake Arrieta and Clayton Kershaw).

When you look at the slowest pitchers one finding sticks out like a sore thumb (Rob Manfred would tell you a sore thumb caused by changing channel on the TV remote control).  Among the top 76 slowest pitchers, going down to an average of 26.3 seconds, only 7 were either predominantly starting pitchers or, in the case of Joe Biagini, made a decent number of starts.

Name Team Pace G GS
Matt Garza Brewers 27.9 24 22
Matt Andriese Rays 27.8 18 17
Sonny Gray (Multiple) 27.6 27 27
David Price Red Sox 27.1 16 11
Matt Shoemaker Angels 26.7 14 14
Vince Velasquez Phillies 26.3 15 15
Joe Biagini Blue Jays 26.3 44 18

And, yes, just as there were no surprises that Marwin Gonzalez was on the hitters’ list, David Price was a shoo-in to be on the pitchers’ one.

What you see though is that a lot of slower pitchers are relievers.  That’s no great revelation as relievers, due to the way they are used, are more likely to be deliberate with every pitch they throw; however it shows how pace of play can be affected by lots of things.  The increasing use of relievers for strategic purposes is likely but one part of that, due not only to the time taken for pitching changes and mound visits but also the more deliberate style of pitching.

Looking ahead to 2018 MLB.TV

Pace of play isn’t going to influence whether any of us are signing up for MLB.TV this year.

One of the landmark ‘baseball is coming’ moments for many of us every year is the day on which the MLB.TV subscription details are released.  MLB.com announced the packages and prices on 7 February last year, so we should expect to see the details in the next two to three weeks.

The 2017 main MLB.TV annual subscription cost $113.  We have to pay 20% VAT on top (which made it $135.59) and then factor in the dollar/pound exchange rate, so last February/March that worked out at approximately £108.  Things have turned in our favour over the past year on the dollar/pound front (as opposed to previous years of it going against us) and that same $135.59 would work out at at approximately £100, so a bit of a saving.

As part of settling a US lawsuit about TV subscriptions and blackouts in 2015/16, MLB had to agree to only increase their online subscription packages by 3% or the rate of inflation (whichever is higher, currently would be the 3%) year-on-year until 2020.

If we add 3% to the 2017 price ($113 plus $3.39, so let’s call it a US price of $116), include the VAT and take the current dollar/pound exchange rate into account then that would make for a UK cost of £102.  The team-specific subscription would be approximately £79.

We’ll have to wait for the official announcement to see quite what packages they will be selling and the price, so treat those as an educated guess for now; however, in theory the US prices should only go up a small amount and – due to the dollar/pound exchange rate – should actually work out a bit cheaper for us than a year ago.

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4 Responses to Weekly Hit Ground Ball: Unhappy Pirates fans, Unhappy players, Happy MLBTV fans

  1. Roly January 21, 2018 at 10:00 am #

    Hi Matt, I haven’t subscribed for a couple of years but making my come back this year.

    Quick question as I can’t remember – if you go for the team specific option do you get the playoffs? Or if you go for the full package do you even get the playoffs? Just trying to work out what to do

  2. Matt Smith January 21, 2018 at 10:06 am #

    Hi Roly – We in the UK definitely get the playoffs as part of the MLBTV subscription (well, always have done anyway and don’t see that changing).

    I don’t have a definitive answer on how that works with the team-based subscription, unfortunately. I’d assume you would get that team’s play-off games (if in the post-season) but don’t know other than that. My guess would be you wouldn’t just on the basis that the team sub is specifically marketed as for that team, so doubt you’d go beyond that for the playoffs. Certainly I didn’t see any Brits commenting that they had a team sub and could watch the playoffs.

    Current best advice would therefore be to assume you wouldn’t and treat it as a bonus if so.

    • Roly January 21, 2018 at 10:09 am #

      Thanks Matt. l follow the Phillies so its a mute point anyway….!

      • Matt Smith January 21, 2018 at 10:13 am #

        Maybe give it a couple of years! Young talent and potential to spend could well mean you’re back sooner rather than later

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