Rounding the Bases: More awards and potential postseason changes

MlbHlSqThis week in Major League Baseball was dominated by the latest round of 2009 awards, with rookies, managers and pitchers being celebrated.  There were no notable transactions, but the ongoing private discussions between teams and agents are occasionally creeping out into the public domain as both sides are keen to shape the agenda by commenting on specific players and the financial health of MLB organizations.   Meanwhile, Bud Selig is considering changes to the postseason schedule. 

Rookies of the Year

The A’s relief pitcher Andrew Bailey took the American League Rookie of the Year award ahead of the Rangers’ shortstop Elvis Andrus and the Tigers’ pitcher Rick Porcello, while the Marlins’ outfielder Chris Coghlan won the NL award in front of the Phillies’ pitcher J.A. Happ and the Braves’ pitcher Tommy Hanson. 

Oakland are in a re-building phase and while Major League success for the team may be a little way off, seeing one of the organization’s many youngsters win the ROY award is a nice little victory of sorts (his team mate Brett Anderson came sixth).  Bailey’s rise from relative obscurity is a great story.  He had pitched as a starter in the Minors before hitting a brick wall in Double-A last year and the A’s decided to try him as a reliever instead.  The results were stunning and after beginning the 2009 season in a limited relief role, he soon took over as closer and made it on to the AL All-Star roster.  For those of you who didn’t see much of Bailey this year, Harry Pavlidis has written an excellent article about the way he pitched, utilizing data from MLB.com’s Gameday (PITCH/fx) service, on the Hardball Times website

The Florida Marlins are another team who rely on bringing through young players, both those they draft and prospects acquired when dealing away established Major Leaguers.  Coghlan is the latest in a long line of rookies who have played for the Fish in recent years and the staggering rate at which he picked up hits (100 in his last 59 games) caught the attention of many of the voters.  That he hit so well despite having to learn a completely new position (left field) was a credit to his hard work.

All of these awards are based on the opinions of a select group of people and they will always be the subject of much debate as a result.  Within the ROY stakes, the one candidate who could perhaps feel a little hard done by was the White Sox’s Gordon Beckham.  Few could deny that he performed brilliantly in the Majors, but he wasn’t called up until 4 June and, justifiably in my view, didn’t receive any first-place votes as a result.  If you’ve got a vested interest in a team, be it as a fan (Bailey’s award was heartily cheered by this A’s fan) or a writer, then it’s natural that you will want your players to do well in these things.  One Chicago writer took offence at Beckham’s vote tally, although the way he dismisses Elvis Andrus’ excellent defensive reputation on the back of his fielding percentage and error count alone damns his whole argument.

Managers of the Year

There was less debate over the two managerial awards: the Angels’ Mike Scioscia in the AL and the Rockies’ Jim Tracy in the NL.  Scioscia has guided his team to five division titles in the last six years, helping to instil a style of play throughout the organization that leaves every player knowing what is expected of them. His team’s success in 2009 was particularly notable as it came despite the crushing blow of young pitcher Nick Adenhart being killed in a car accident at the start of the season.  Helping your team cope with such a tragedy is something no manager would want to have to go through, but Scioscia brought his team together and got them playing again while honouring the memory of their fallen teammate.

Jim Tracy completely turned the Rockies’ season around when he became interim manager on Friday 29 May.  Colorado had stumbled to an 18-28 start under Clint Hurdle, which left them bottom of the NL Central and already fourteen games behind the Dodgers.  Tracy took over and had an instant impact as the Rockies went 21-7 in June and their 74-42 record under their new manager was enough to earn the NL Wild Card.  Unsurprisingly, his award was accompanied by the news that he had signed a three-year contract with the Rockies, marking an incredible change of fortunes for a man whose managerial reputation took a battering after a disappointing last season with the Dodgers in 2005 and two years struggling with the Pirates.

Cy Young winners

The award for the best pitcher in each league went to Zack Greinke in the AL and Tim Lincecum in the NL.  Both were welcome examples of the voters recognising two pitchers who had fantastic seasons despite the disadvantage of playing for poor teams.  

Other candidates had more wins than Greinke (16) and Lincecum (15), but wins are only a limited measure of how a pitcher performs and are affected by the strength of the team a pitcher plays for (especially their offense).  I’ll look at Greinke’s season in more detail tomorrow as part of my AL Central review (there’s not a great deal else to focus on for the Royals’ 2009 season).  Lincecum’s award makes it two Cy Youngs in a row for the San Francisco Giants’ ace and those awards are going to cost his team a lot of money.  Lincecum is eligible for arbitration in 2010 for the first time and there has never been a ‘Super 2’ player (someone eligible for arbitration after two years rather than the standard three) with two Cy Youngs to his name.  No doubt his agent will see Ryan Howard’s record-setting $10m award in 2008 as the bench mark, which would be a considerable raise over Lincecum’s 2009 salary of $650k.  He would still be worth every dollar though.

Money talks

The Giants will have to budget for that increase as they continue to assess what their 2010 roster could look like, just as the other twenty-nine teams are doing as well.  Friday was the first day on which teams were able to begin full negotiations with all free agents and the lack of completed deals so far should not disguise the amount of work going on behind the scenes. 

Negotiations between teams and agents are being played out over contentious debates on the financial resources available.  Leading agent Scott Boras has been busy telling every reporter within earshot that the teams have not been badly affected by the general economic downturn.  He was reported as saying that some teams are getting $80m-90m from the central fund before they sell a single ticket and that owners are pocketing money (to cover losses from other business interests, or to pay off debt acquired to purchase the franchise – as the Glazers are doing with Man Utd, for example) rather than investing it in their team.  Unsurprisingly, MLB and the owners are dismissing this as a product of Boras’ overactive imagination, with Bud Selig even claiming that some teams made a loss this year.  Both sides have a strong vested interest in their version being accepted as the true account and most fans will struggle to trust either.

Postseason schedule

The main news that caught my eye this week was MLB Commissioner Bud Selig’s statement that he is considering changes to the postseason schedule.  Many, not least Angels manager Mike Scioscia, have complained that it is too drawn out and Bud now agrees, which is always the decider as to whether a change actually happens or not.  It was the Commissioner who altered the schedule in recent years, firstly moving the World Series opener to a Wednesday night and then adding an extra rest day between games four and five of both the Divisional Series and the Championship Series stages. 

The starting point for the postseason schedule is that the World Series dates need to be set in stone.  It is the marquee event of the year and starting a few days earlier if both teams won their Championship Series quickly would be a nightmare from a promotional/marketing perspective.  Clearly you have to plan for the latest starting Divisional Series and Championship Series going the distance (five and seven games respectively) and if teams do clinch their series early then a lull in proceedings is unavoidable.  Adding extra rest days potentially makes those lulls longer, although they do have the benefit of giving you space for an easy contingency plan if a game or two gets postponed due to bad weather.

The move to a Wednesday World Series opener was based on the logic that there is less competition for potential viewers during a weekday evening than there is for a Saturday night start and that if you can encourage people to watch the first few games, they are more likely to stick with the rest of the series.  It’s a sound idea; however it has created a scheduling problem because it wasn’t accompanied by a change to the final day of the regular season.  If you continue to make Sunday the last day of the regular season, moving the World Series opener from a Saturday to a Wednesday means that you either start it three days earlier or four days later.  With the regular season set to finish on Sunday 3rd October next year, starting the World Series on Wednesday 27th, which presumably is the provisional date on the calendar, gives you twenty-three days within which a team would only play twelve games at the most (conceivably thirteen if they participated in a Game 163).  It’s impossible to create a well-paced postseason if you are using that time frame.

MLB are very unlikely to change the final day of the regular season from its traditional Sunday slot, so the only option would be to change the date of the World Series opener.  You could just about cram the games in to start the World Series a week earlier on Wednesday 20th(*), although it doesn’t give you much room for manoeuvre, teams could have to play back-to-back night games twice with travel in between and you would have to use a different division tiebreaker rather than schedule a day for a ‘Game 163’.  The best option would be to give yourself three extra days and go back to starting the World Series on a Saturday (in this case the 23rd), but Bud wants his mid-week opener so that’s not going to happen.  Perhaps starting on the Thursday or Friday (21st or 22nd) would be an effective compromise?

In practice, I suspect the two ends of the Divisional-Championship time frame (3rd and 27th October) will stay the same and the change will be an imperfect fudge.  That’s what MLB does best.

* One possible schedule would be: October 4th: Gm1 (Divisional), 5th: Gm2, 6th: day off, 7th: Gm3, 8th: Gm4, 9th: Gm5, 10th day off, 11th: Gm1 (Championship), 12th: Gm2, 13th: Gm3, 14th: Gm4, 15th: Gm5, 16th: day off, 17th: Gm6, 18th: Gm7, 19th: day off, 20th: World Series opener.

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