A friendly disclaimer because I gather this is a sensitive subject for some: truly nothing in here is a personal attack! My intention isn’t to call the folks engaged in this behavior stupid, or bad analysts. I can 100% guarantee that many of the people who’re looking–perhaps myopically–at barrels are better at quantitative analysis than I am! This isn’t so much a math issue as it is a marketing and psychology one, I think. All that said, I do think that the current fascination with “barreled balls” is a mistake, and one that speaks to the larger problem of “statistics as marketing tools” in Major League Baseball.
Naturally with that disclaimer, I’m going to ignore baseball for a minute and talk about my day job. I do analytics for a large-ish publisher. In some ways, my job could be described as “do math about screwing around on the Internet all day,” and it’s a lot of fun. There’s nothing in the following anecdote that isn’t public knowledge, but I think it’s instructive.
One of our sites is called Quartz–it’s ostensibly a business site, though you’ll occasionally find stuff on there that isn’t, to turn a phrase, strictly business. Such as an article that went up early on in its lifetime–an article about Colony Collapse Disorder in honeybees, titled “Scientists Discover What’s Killing the Bees, and It’s Worse than We Thought.”
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On Opening Day (or Opening Day: Part 2, or whatever you want to call Monday), the Reds put up the above image when Joey Votto came to bat. Pay special attention to the “advanced stats” section on the right side of the scoreboard. Seemingly at random, the Reds grabbed a handful of sabermetric stats and threw ’em at fans. I’m told the description (explaining only OPS+ in the image) rotated on carousel to explain each stat. Which is nice, and a pretty good use of a modern scoreboard. The Reds should be commended for trying.
Yahoo Sports’ Jeff Passan heralded this as a lesson: “the nerds always win.” It wasn’t meant as a pejorative–it was a celebration of the triumph of so-called baseball nerds over baseball jocks.
But Passan’s wrong, unfortunately. The nerds haven’t won. The nerds have had their message co-opted because being seen as a nerd is now an asset rather than a liability, and people with more marketing sense than mathematical sense are busy setting back sabermetrics. MLB’s aggressive marketing of unvetted advanced metrics isn’t a win at all, and it risks worsening our understanding of baseball.
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Here’s a needlessly elaborate version of a hypothetical first proposed to me by sometimes Double Birds contributor Adam Felder: On Sunday evening, just before the Cardinals open the regular season against the Cubs at Busch Stadium, an Omnipotent Time-Traveling Baseball Genie appears before you in a blinding seraphic vision. He offers you a deal: he will guarantee that the Cardinals win 100 games and the World Series this season, but they will do so at the cost of having traded away or released every single player in the organization over this past offseason. Tell the genie to snap his fingers, and the Cards will open play on Sunday night with an equivalently talented roster full of random major-leaguers—some you like, some you don’t, some you’ve never really thought about or even heard of—and will go on to be World Series champions. If you want, the genie will wipe your memory to maximize your enjoyment of their title run, and there will be no adverse effects on the organization’s long-term outlook.
If there were ever a time that Cardinals fans should want to take this deal, it’s now-ish. The Big Three who formed the competitive heart and cultural soul of the team for almost a decade are nearing the end of the line; one of them is already gone, and the other two will be before long, one way or the other. There’s some above-average young talent on the roster and plenty of promise in the farm system, but nothing that quite yet resembles a new core. The Cubs look to be in a dominant position in the NL Central for years to come, and few things would be sweeter than immediately answering their first world championship in 108 years with the Cardinals’ twelfth.
Still, there’s no way I take the deal. For me, the experience of watching the Cardinals and the thrill of seeing them win—whether it’s a World Series or a division title or a getaway-day game against the Brewers in mid-June—has too much to do with the connective tissue between the present and the past. I’d ultimately rather watch Alex Reyes and Carlos Martínez and Matt Carpenter and, yes, a mobility-scooter-riding Yadier Molina try to battle their way into contention in the next few years than watch a guaranteed world champion full of players I’ve got no history with. My love of the Cardinals depends on the sense—even if it’s really more of an illusion—that there’s a naturalistic order to who they are and how they came to be, that they’re not just an arbitrary collection of interchangeable run-production and -prevention machines.
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More than a year ago, the LGBT-focused sports website Outsports broke a disturbing story: former Cardinals minor-leaguer Tyler Dunnington, who came out as gay after his retirement, revealed that he had experienced anti-gay bigotry throughout his time in baseball, including during his brief professional career with the GCL Cardinals in 2014. “Two teammates in particular,” reported Outsports’ Cyd Ziegler, “questioned their straight teammate on how he could possibly be friends with a gay person, even his brother. They even mentioned ways to kill gay people.”
“Each comment felt like a knife to my heart,” wrote Dunnington in an email to Outsports. “I was miserable in a sport that used to give me life, and ultimately I decided I needed to hang up my cleats for my own sanity.”
Dunnington’s allegations made local and national headlines—briefly. In a Post-Dispatch story the next day, Cardinals GM John Mozeliak called the reports “very disappointing” and pledged to “look into this further” and “take this very seriously.” A week later, the P-D ran a brief update on a separate allegation involving one of Dunnington’s coaches at Colorado Mesa University.
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This offseason marked five years since Albert Pujols, quite possibly the greatest Cardinal ever, turned down an incomprehensibly lucrative offer to remain a Cardinal for life in favor of a slightly more incomprehensibly lucrative offer to go elsewhere. The occasion passed without much notice, but if you’ve listened closely enough, you may have heard some doubt start to seep in at the edges of the prevailing narrative of Pujols’ departure—i.e., the largely positive one, in which the Cards made off with bucketfuls of prospects and payroll space while cutting bait on an aging star at exactly the right time. Maybe, it’s whispered, it would’ve been worth it to be able to watch an all-time great continue to rack up accolades and milestones and contribute to contending Cardinals teams, even if things would’ve gotten a bit ugly on the back end of the deal.
That’s once again a relevant question for the Cardinals, who are in the middle of having to make a series of decisions regarding three players who have formed the core of the franchise for almost a decade. The first of these, of course, resulted in the club’s borderline nonsensical refusal to engage Matt Holliday in any kind of extension talks at all, and his subsequent signing with the Yankees for chump change. That stings for some of us, and it will sting a lot more if he bounces back in the Bronx and the Cards’ outfield proves as thin as it looks, but as a player who didn’t join the Cards until age 29 and will debut for his new team at age 37, Holliday was probably always going to be the easiest of the three to let go.
Next up, though, is Yadier Molina, who could be a free agent as early as the end of this year, if either he or the club chooses not to exercise a mutual option for 2018. Drafted by the Cardinals in 2000, Molina is already the franchise’s all-time leader in games caught, a mainstay behind the plate all the way from the MV3 days through two World Series titles and the departures of Pujols and Tony La Russa and into whatever is coming next. Though his streak of eight consecutive Gold Gloves and seven consecutive All-Star nods came to an end last season, a second-half surge helped him post his best offensive numbers since 2013 while catching a career-high (and frankly insane) 1,218⅓ innings.
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On Saturday, in response to a question from ESPN’s Mark Saxon, Dexter Fowler voiced his opposition to the Trump administration’s failed attempt to ban entry to the U.S. by nationals of seven Muslim-majority countries, including Iran, where his wife Darya was born and many of his extended family still live. The story got picked up on social media, and Fowler quickly became the target of waves of criticism and abuse.
The volume and intensity of the backlash was shocking. Here’s just a small sample of some of the comments made in response to the story: “We pay your salary. I don’t give a shit about your political views!” “Maybe he should have brought them over sooner then he wouldn’t have a wet diaper.” “Fuck fowler who cares what he thinks.” “Why is it that the only athletes that are displeased with the President are black? Who’s the one’s being racist?” “Why the hell do these over paid actors and sports figures think WE GIVE A FUCK WHAT THEY HAVE TO SAY. Just do what you are paid to do and that is to entertain normal Americans.” “I have no patience anymore for dumbass stupid ass people who keep assisting that illegal aliens are simply immigrants.” “Many Presidents have done this, even Obummer. Fowler is just butthurt.” “He can share all his contract money with the immigrants.” “I don’t want to hear that b******* we pay him to play ball and that’s it.” “Fowler deserves a fastball right between his racist eyes.” “Shut up and go enjoy your $80 million how stupid.” “You’re paid to play, not to spew your political bullshit.” “Uneducated about what the Pres is trying to do for Blacks. Too bad.” “Move to Iran Dexter.” “I guess Dextor was thrilled with all the killings in Chicago last year, as he didn’t post anything about that.” “Wow another overpaid minority has an issue with a Republican?? Shut your ass up.”
No one gave a shit about any of these comments, though, because all of them were posted on a Facebook page called “Chicago Cubs True Fans” (I have no idea, either). Here are some more: “Glad he left.” “Traitor.” “That’s why he went to St. Louis.” “Well he obviously dont like winning hating trump and going to the cards.” “Guess it’s time to burn my Cubs Fowler jersey!” “Go to your St Loooey hellhole and stay there… an oh yeah, STFU.” “Thank Goodness we got rid of him, another crybaby…” “Go Cubs! Go Trump!” “Dexter just became the enemy even more now for me.” “Shut the fuck up traitor!! Who cares what you have to say!” “And I care what you think, why??? You overpaid incredibly lucky, person. Glad your no longer in Chicago!!!” “He isn’t worthy of the phrase former cub.” “Glad your gone BLM MAN FOWLER, and in the mean time , just maybe you can get your head out of clintons corrupt ass ? FUCK YOU SNOWFLAKE MFER.”
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For a moment there, right after the Fowler signing, the Cardinals actually managed to convince some of us that they weren’t going to call it an offseason. The club, wrote Derrick Goold, “could become more aggressive than previously believed, turning toward free-agent sluggers Mark Trumbo and Edwin Encarnación as possible pursuits.” Maybe such a change in strategy was actually on the table; maybe this was a bit of empty chest-puffing from an organization that finally sensed some fan discontent over its tight-fisted approach to the free-agent market.
In any case, nothing came of it. Encarnación signed with Cleveland for a lot less than expected; Justin Turner returned to the Dodgers and José Bautista appears to be headed back to Toronto. The Cardinals are reportedly looking to bring a left-handed outfielder and possibly another bullpen arm to spring training on minor-league deals, but what plenty of us knew in our hearts to be true back in December is now beyond doubt: they’re done. Having dumped nearly $40 million in salary via the departures of Matt Holliday, Jaime García, and Brandon Moss, the club enters 2017 on track for not just another sharp drop in revenue-adjusted payroll but a slight nominal decrease in payroll from last year.
It wouldn’t be fair, though, to blame another middling offseason entirely on Bill DeWitt’s spending allergy. That much became clear a couple weeks ago, when the Royals agreed to trade Jarrod Dyson to the Mariners in exchange for right-handed nonentity Nate Karns. The Cards had previously signaled interest in Dyson as a platoon candidate, and as a left-handed hitter and elite defender, he’d fit well into an outfield still lacking for both of those things.
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The Cardinals are a successful and beloved baseball club, and in reading and writing about them we are always eager for new narratives and feel-good turns of phrase: the Cardinal Way, Baseball Heaven, the Best Fans in Baseball. Occasionally, these flights of lyrical enthusiasm will flirt—even if only unconsciously—with the idea that the team and its fanbase are not just closely bonded but one and the same, two components of an indivisible whole. The Cardinals, you might hear someone say, are an integral part of St. Louis. A great asset for the city. A civic trust.
This is always meant metaphorically. That should change. It’s time to municipalize the Cardinals.
In a recent post, I surveyed the history of Bill DeWitt’s ownership of the club, which—while having delivered no small measure of on-field success—has also seen DeWitt and his investment group reap an enormous financial windfall at the public’s expense. The Cardinals, acquired for peanuts and now worth nearly two billion dollars, have consistently ranked among the most profitable clubs in Major League Baseball even as they’ve received hundreds of millions in subsidies and tax breaks, cut workers’ pay and benefits, and under-delivered on development promises.
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