Baseball lacks ‘star power’…abolish the draft to fix it

Major League Baseball is lacking star power. Mike Trout, the undisputed best player in the game since at least 2013, has the name recognition of maybe the 50th best NBA player. Since Derek Jeter retired, there arguably isn’t a single baseball player capable of crossing over into popular culture.

There are structural reasons for this. Baseball players don’t have the same ability as their football and basketball counterparts to dominate a game. Tom Brady touches the ball almost every offensive play–same with LeBron James. Meanwhile, baseball pitchers don’t even play in 80 percent of their own games, and hitters only bat one out of every nine times.

Baseball players also play almost every day, limiting their time for promotional and marketing appearances. Also, don’t underestimate the marketing strength of basketball’s shoe culture and fantasy football.

Still, I reject these structural issues as a full explanation for the lack of marketable baseball players. Less than a generation ago, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were the most well-known American athletes. Others like Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey Jr, and Cal Ripken were nationally known. The world has changed since then, but it hasn’t changed that much.

In 1992, a high school baseball player named Derek Jeter wanted to play for the New York Yankees, who picked sixth in that year’s draft. To achieve this, he lied to the first five teams picking in the draft, telling them that he planned to attend the University of Michigan on a baseball scholarship. The ruse worked and the rest is history. The Yankees and Jeter were a perfect marketing match–the most storied baseball franchise in America’s biggest city drafted a mature, biracial team leader with an uncanny ability to make memorable, clutch plays.

What if every player were able to choose his team?

Take Trout, an electric player on the field but a complete bore off of it. Angels fans love him, but he’s miscast in Southern California, which has its own unique definition of what it takes to be a star. Trout is a blue collar guy–he belongs in a blue collar city where a willingness to shine only on the field is an asset. Put him in Philadelphia (which is his hometown, btw). His persona would be immediately transformed. He would define the city and be more easily marketed playing on the East Coast.

The perfect star for LA isn’t Trout, it’s…and I hate to say it…Bryce Harper. Harper was raised in Las Vegas with a flare for the dramatic, and he’s a natural in front of the camera.

Baseball doesn’t have the wrong players. It has the right players in the wrong places.

I realize proposal this is highly unlikely. Teams will be remiss to give up the only democratic means they have to distribute talent. Any proposal to abolish draft will have to come with spending caps to prevent baseball from reverting to the 1950’s–a clone of college football where Alabama signs whoever they want.

But there are benefits. The incentive to tank for draft picks is entirely gone. And teams will be penalized for engaging in perpetual rebuilding projects–top prospects will only want to sign with teams actually trying to contend, or teams that are close to contending. Also, teams will be forced to treat their minor leaguers better since they’ll be recruiting them.

Abolishing the draft would be a bold move. But if baseball truly believes they’re facing a crisis of irrelevancy, perhaps a bold move is necessary.

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Do Nationals fans still love Bryce Harper?

Early in his career, either 2013 or 2014, Bryce Harper did a short stint on the disabled list. In his first game back, he played left field and fielded a ground ball single in the top of the first inning. Instead of lazily throwing the ball back in to the infield, he charged it and fired the ball into first base, hoping to catch the runner not paying attention. It was a one in ten thousand type baseball play–the type of thing fielders rarely ever do.

Harper didn’t get the runner. In fact, the throw was a little off target and the Nats’ first baseman was caught off guard–he had to dive to stop the ball from flying into the stands. The whole sequence was unexpected, bizarre, and–above all else–exciting. Some tweeter on my timeline simply wrote “yup. Bryce is back.”

That was the bargain with an early Bryce Harper. He’d do crazy things you didn’t expect. Take second base on an otherwise routine single when the outfielder casually fielded the ball. Try to throw out runners where no other sane fielder would try. And they weren’t all good things. Bryce would routinely get himself ejected. He’d run into outfield walls. Most of all, he didn’t care what anybody thought. He didn’t mind that opposing fans thought he was a preening pretty boy when he’d flip his hair after a home run, and he’d keep arguing with umpires when it was completely counter-productive. In spite of, and often because of, all these flaws, Nationals fans loved him and defended him when it seemed all 29 other fan bases and the national media didn’t like him. For better it worse, he made a repetitive game like baseball a little more thrilling. The game was different when he was involved–you could immediately tell when “Bryce was back.”

Now Bryce Harper is on what seems to be a death march through his last three months as a National. He is struggling at the plate–he’s currently hitting .213–but something else seems different as well. His ubiquitous presence has receded, and fan loyalties have been distributed to other more “accessible” players like Max Scherzer or younger players like Juan Soto. There is no way to measure this, but fans seemed resigned to him signing elsewhere and it’ll no longer be a cataclysmic event when it happens.

There are many reasons why this might be case, but perhaps one of them is the fact that Bryce himself is different. Those “youthful indiscretions” on the baseball field that were charming in 2013 are both less frequent and less forgivable considering Bryce is supposed to “all grown up” now and a team leader. In any event, the experience of watching Bryce Harper is noticeably different and, for what it’s worth, Bryce doesn’t appear to be enjoying himself as much either. Eventually, Bryce won’t “be back” and it’ll be less painful than we ever imagined it would be.

Was last night’s comeback against the Marlins a “turning point”?

Let’s get this out of way: last night’s game was fun. It was the biggest comeback in Nationals history and it came at the perfect time. It was a cathartic moment for a fan base that badly needed one. More importantly, it put the team back at .500 and a little bit closer to the top.

Ok, now that we’ve established that, can we be real for a millisecond? The Nationals didn’t score 14 straight runs because they had a “players-only” team meeting the day before. They didn’t give up 9 straight runs because of the team meeting either. To paraphrase a President from an Aaron Sorkin liberal fantasy, post hoc ergo proctor hoc does not apply.

The Nats won because they finally put hits in close enough proximity to each other to push runs across the plate. They scored runs because the Marlins’ starting pitcher stumbled the third time through the Nats order and generally ran out of gas. And the Nats finished erasing the 9-run deficit because the Marlins bullpen started throwing batting practice in the 6th inning.

It’s an old trick to hold a “players-only” meeting right before your star pitcher takes the mound or you face a bad team. It just so happens the Nationals finished a tough 3-game series against the best team in baseball–the Red Sox. And before that, it was the Phillies, who would be in the playoffs if the season ended today.

Here’s another thing to consider. The Nationals had a brutal 7-16 stretch in April that started their season on a sour note. The poor record in that stretch was a bit of a mirage–the Nats lost 8 straight one run and extra inning games. Results in close games tend to regress towards the mean, and they did. After April 28, the Nats went 8-2 in one-run and extra inning games, a stretch that briefly put the Nats in first place and 10 games over .500. The luck reversed. In their 4-13 stretch before last night, the Nats lost 6 straight one run and extra inning games.

The trend will again regress to the mean. Maybe it’ll happen this weekend against Miami. Maybe not. That’s the thing with luck–we don’t know.

But we do know a bad team came to town, and the Nats recent losing skid isn’t exactly what it appears to be. A turning point was likely–“players-only meeting” or not.

By all means, enjoy the comeback. It was a memorable night of baseball. If it inspires this club, that can only be a good thing. You were bothered by the losing–I promise you it bothered them more.

I’m rooting for a big winning streak. But unless the “players-only” meeting involved steroids, we’ll have to find a more logical explanation.

Strikeouts are fun

Last night’s Nationals game was a fun one, as far as sparsely-attended midweek May games against terrible opponents go. With the score 3-2 and two runners on base with one out, closer Sean Doolittle blew away two consecutive Orioles quad-A hitters with mid 90’s fastballs to lock down the victory. After the last strike 3, Doolittle turned towards centerfield and uncharacteristically let out a guttural scream while Pedro Severino pumped his fist behind the plate. It was a fun display of emotion from both and provided the Nats a signature moment in the young season.

Would the moment have been more fun had Doolittle acquired the last out through a routine pop up? Would Doolittle have reacted in the same way if he was forced to wait for an outfielder to catch the ball? Would it have been more or less satisfying for the fan watching on tv?

There’s been quite a bit of hand-wringing this season about the drop of “balls in play” across Major League Baseball. Pitchers are getting better and batters are caring less if they make contact. Strikeouts are up. Ground balls and pop flys are down.

Is this a reason for worry? Last night’s experience with Sean Doolittle suggests that it’s not. Strikeouts are fun. There’s something immediate and primal about a strikeout. It’s instantaneous satisfaction. When Dootlittle let go of the ball, it could have been a walk off home run or game ending swing and miss. The fan gets the answer right away. That’s the essence of sports. It’s the baseball equivalent of shot at the buzzer or 4th down throw into the end zone. That’s why Doolittle let out his scream. The game went from uncertainty to finality in a fraction of a second. It was exciting.

It also provides Doolittle, and the fans, the the gratification of conquering an opponent. Baseball is unique among sports that the majority of the action is Mano a Mano. It’s an individual sport masquerading as a team sport. Ninety percent of the time, its just pitcher against hitter. We repeat until one team has 27 outs. It’s a series of individual duels bundled into one “game.” A strikeout is the purest form of that duel.

Strikeouts provide us our best moments. Think about Stephen Strasburg striking out the side in the 7th inning of his first start. People would have cared less had he induced 3 straight ground balls. Max Scherzer’s 20 strikeout game in 2015 is another great franchise moment. Plenty of Nats pitchers have compiled 20 outs via ground balls and pop flies, but you never bother to remember them. Teams track “K’s” on the scoreboard–they don’t track ground balls. Fans stand and applaud when a pitcher gets two strikes–they’re not doing it because they’re rooting for a pop fly.

There’s a line in “Bull Durham” where Kevin Costner encourages his young pitcher to avoid strikeouts and get more ground balls because they’re “more democratic.”

Well, democracy is boring. Give me to the Dictatorship of the strikeout. There’s a reason Napoleon is in every history book.

Washington Nationals Preseason Q&A

Last week, I spoke with the St. Louis Cardinals blog, Cardinals Conclave, to preview the 2018 Washington Nationals.  I am reposting the questions and answers below.  Cardinals Conclave spoke with a number of Nationals blogger-types, so if you’d like to see all the responses, go to their website.  They also have previews for all 30 MLB teams.

What are your thoughts on the offseason? Did the club improve over the winter?

The Nationals only made one significant change: dumping Dusty Baker and replacing him at manager with Davey Martinez, Joe Maddon‘s longtime bench coach. Martinez may or may not be an upgrade–won’t know until they start playing real baseball.

The roster is largely unchanged. Jayson Werth’s contract finally expired, but he’ll be replaced by a healthy Adam Eaton, who missed most of 2017 with an injury. There’s an outside chance GM Mike Rizzo will jump into the static free agent market to get another starter or the Miami fire sale to get catcher JT Realmuto. But right now, the 2018 Nats will look a lot like the 2017 version and that’s not a bad thing.

Is there a position up for grabs and, if so, who is in the mix for it?

Two of the three starting jobs are filled by Bryce Harper and Eaton. The third spot will likely go to NLDS hero Michael A. Taylor, but top prospect Victor Robles may be too good to keep on the sidelines. If Taylor returns to his old habit of not making contact and/or Robles has a huge spring, the battle for that 3rd outfield spot may get interesting. Either way, don’t be surprised if Robles is being talked about as the breakout star of the season by the All-Star break. He’s that good.

What’s one thing people may overlook (either positively or negatively) about this team?

Bryce Harper will be a free agent after the season (more on that below), but people may overlook that GM Mike Rizzo is also in the last year of his contract. MLB GM free agency is rarely a big topic of offseason conversation, but this situation may be the exception. Earlier this winter, Rizzo publicly stated he wants to be paid as one of the top GMs in baseball, which is a signal his renegotiation with ownership on a new contract is either non-existent or not going well. It’s possible the Nats want to see a playoff series win before they pay Rizzo the money he wants. It’s also possible they’ve already decided to replace him with a GM who won’t command as much money. Either way, Rizzo has a lot riding on the 2018 season. If this team gets over the hump and wins the World Series, there could be a major bidding war for his services. If the Nats make another early playoff exit–or miss them altogether–the Nats owners might put their baseball operations under new management for the first time in a decade. This is the most important subplot on the 2018 Nationals.

Who is the one key player, the guy that must have a good year for the Nationals to do well?

Some of the most notable players on the 2017 Nats missed time due to injury last season and they still won the division by 20 games, so I can’t really answer this question. The most important player, though, is Max Scherzer. Scherzer, who won the 2017 NL Cy Young, got hurt on the last weekend of the season, preventing him from making 2 starts in the NLDS. Then he melted down in Game 5, giving up 4 runs and getting the loss in a relief appearance. We’ll never know if the injury played a role in that, but a completely healthy Scherzer probably gets the 2017 Nats into the NL Championship Series. The Nats need Scherzer more than any other player on the roster.

What’s your projection for 2018? Where does the team wind up overall?

The Nationals will win the NL East again absent a complete collapse from them or a miracle season from one of the other division rivals. But we’re at the point where a division title no longer means very much to this fanbase after 4 NLDS losses in 6 years, including three Game 5 losses at home where the Nats had the lead in the 5th inning or later. So while I think the Nats will win the division again–the intra-division competition is dubious at best–I can’t make a playoff prediction. Postseason results are just too dependent on matchups, injuries, or just plain luck. But while the MLB playoffs are indeed a crapshoot, this team has also earned its share of bad fortune, with Game 5 meltdowns (Drew Storen in ’12, the bullpen in ’16, Scherzer in ’17) and questionable managing (all 4 NLDS losses). Until it actually happens, I cannot predict this team go any further than the NLDS.

What’s one question I should have asked and what’s the answer to it?

I am surprised you did not ask about Bryce Harper. His free agency will be one of the bigger storylines next offseason, and most reasonable Nats fans have accepted that he’s probably going somewhere else. So what do I think about Bryce Harper’s free agency? First, Harper may not be worth the money it will take to sign him. He is one of the youngest players to ever hit the market, and he’s doing it with at least one MVP award under his belt. But aside from his unanimous MVP 2015 season, he hasn’t put together another healthy, complete season. He had a knee injury in 2013, a thumb injury in 2014, a mystery injury believed–but not confirmed–to be a shoulder injury in 2016, and another knee injury in 2017. While we don’t have evidence that any of these (mostly) on-field injuries are chronic, there are enough concerns about his durability to question the wisdom of giving him $400 million. Good luck to whoever does that.

Second, as long as he doesn’t go to a division rival like Philadelphia (they have the money and rebuilding timeline to sign him) or New York (the world is a sadder and lonelier place when the Yankees are winning), Nats fans will wish him well. He was a huge part of this franchise’s rise to prominence, and Nats fans consistently defended his antics when the rest of the baseball world called him arrogant and immature. It’s been really fun watching him grow up and develop, but all things come to an end. If he goes to a place closer to home like Los Angeles for the biggest contract ever, nobody will blame him and no one is booing him on his return to D.C. Finally, the team will be fine without him. There’s a reason the aforementioned Robles was untouchable in trade talks. It’s hard to replace a bat like Harper’s, but this franchise has been developing young talent well, and they’ll have plenty of payroll flexibility to remain competitive. Life will go on.

Quick reaction to the Nationals “firing” Dusty Baker 

I’m not surprised very often when it comes to Nationals. Most big events–free agent signings, trades, firings–are telegraphed ahead of time or rational responses to a known series of events. 

But Dusty getting the axe?  That surprised me.

Maybe it shouldn’t have. Dusty managed the entire season on the last year of his contract–a highly unusual circumstance. But I attributed that to the Lerners being the Lerners.  They always have an unusual way of doing business.  I assumed Dusty would come back as long as the Nationals kept winning. And they did keep winning. Two divisions titles in two years–the only Nationals manager to that, doing what Davey Johnson and Matt Williams should have done considering the talent they managed. 

The story will come out and this will be explained, but one thing is clear: this is Mike Rizzo’s team. When Dusty was hired, I made the observation that Rizzo’s sterling reputation as GM is most marred by questionable managerial hires. He’s back to square one. I said this last time and I’ll say it again: how many chances does he get to find the right guy? 

Another year, another NLDS loss for the Nationals

I wrote this in October 2016:

Here we are.  Again.  Another division championship ultimately means nothing as another team celebrates on the Nationals home field.

Now we’re here again.  Another Game 5 loss at home, again by one run.  It’s harsh to say, as I did last year, that the division title “means nothing.”  Winning the division is always an achievement.  But now it’s four attempts–and four failures–to win a playoff series.  It’s getting old.

This was an epic series with some pretty epic moments, but let’s start with Game 5, one of the most infuriating games imaginable.  Consider the Cubs scored scored on:

-A ground ball

-Another ground ball

-A passed ball

-4 runs in one inning off the best pitcher in the league, including one off a strikeout/passed ball/throwing error and one off a hit batter following a catcher interference–all with 2 outs

-A ball Jayson Werth lost in the lights

-Another ground ball

Also, the Cubs had six walks.

Meanwhile,

-Trea Turner was thrown out at home

-Ryan Zimmerman left 7 men on base by striking out 3 times

-Zimmerman didn’t score from first base on a double hit over the left fielders head with 2 outs

-Matt Wieters left the bases loaded by flying out after Dusty Baker decided not to pinch hit, when Adam Lind and Howie Kendrick were available

-Jose Lobaton was picked off at first base, ending an 8th inning rally with the tying run on 2B

To be fair, the Cubs made a ton of mistakes too–the Nats did not have monopoly on sloppy baseball.  But if this team played even a moderately fundamental baseball game, they’re on a plane to LA tomorrow.

Series are not lost in one day, however.  This team was in a do or die situation because their bats failed to show up in Game 1 and 3.  A baseball team cannot score 0 runs in one game, 1 run in another, and then give up 9 runs in another and expect to win a 5 game series.  These short series are unforgiving and leave no margin for error, as the Nationals know by now.

It’s all so infuriating because this is a huge waste.  They wasted Harper’s heroic home run in Game 2.  They wasted Strasburg’s epic performance in Game 4.  They wasted Michael A. Taylor’s grand slam at Wrigley and 3-run homer in Game 5.  Most importantly, the wasted a potential World Series run with the top three pitching ERAs in the league and an explosive lineup.  This was likely the most dangerous and complete Nationals team yet, and they didn’t get any closer than the previous versions.

There is a whole offseason to think about the player failures and managerial decisions that led to this outcome.  But for now, I’m tired so I’ll leave you with the same thing I wrote exactly one year ago.

The Nats came close, but not close enough.  The best part is we get to do it all again.  Pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training next February.