Baseball Toaster Bad Altitude
Introducing the Two-Man Roundtable of Power
2008-03-02 20:46
by Mark T.R. Donohue

So it's March, and in March we do previews. The last couple of years I've pretty much opened one tab in my browser to the spring roster of a different team each day and wrote whatever came to mind, but change is in the air in Colorado. One man's semi-informed opinions on a bunch of baseball teams just wasn't going to cut it this year. We're doubling the number of voices in the Hastily Assembled Previews '08. That's twice as much genius, people. Meet Ali Nagib. I call him The Research Department, but he's really just my baseball-crazy best friend (1992-). We're going to talk some baseball, you're going to read it, and maybe along the way someone somewhere will have an accidental insight or two. Team-by-team discussions will begin tomorrow, but today we're just running one of those state-of-the-league things the major sports websites like so much. Merely follow the link below and you'll get two highly exceptional brains' takes on competitive balance, the next phase of the steroid mess, realignment, Baseball Prospectus 2008, new revenue streams, and baseball's troubling lack of star power.

WESTERN HOMES: Last year, Arizona, Colorado, and Cleveland all made the playoffs, but going into this season, the favorites in every division are teams with $100 million payrolls -- if you consider your division favorites to be the Dodgers, Cubs, Mets, Red Sox, Angels, and Tigers as I do. Whether that's a stretch or not (I imagine fans in Cleveland and Milwaukee, not to mention Denver, would take issue with it), the major stories this offseason all seemed to involve the rich getting richer. The Mets landed Johan Santana, the Tigers brought in Miguel Cabrera, the Dodgers Andruw Jones, the Cubs Kosuke Fukodome, and so on. Meanwhile the two teams that more than any others carried the banner of small-market competitiveness in the last several seasons, Minnesota and Oakland, are unquestionably in rebuilding mode. Was the variety of payroll classes seen in 2007's postseason an outlier?

RESEARCH DEPARTMENT: I don't think last year was an outlier, in the sense that in any year you'll probably have between one and three small- to medium-market teams in the playoffs. This year it might be only one, if Detroit edges out Cleveland instead of the other way around. But Detroit made a short-term gamble to improve for this season that could clear the way for Cleveland to dominate the next several. The Dodgers, Cubs, and Tigers are all no more than two- or three-game favorites in their respective divisions, and in each case the next team down is a lower-payroll club: Arizona, Milwaukee, and Cleveland.

WH: I guess the way I framed the question made it seem worse than it is. Like you said, few of these "favorites" are exactly strong locks, and what does it really mean to be a preseason division favorite anyway? While Oakland and Minnesota seem out of it for the forseeable future and will be missed, it's not like new teams that haven't been taken seriously in ages aren't stepping up to fill the void. Milwaukee isn't going away. The Rockies have to be respected given that they return practically the entire roster that won the National League last season. And Tampa Bay is getting talked up! The Rays!

RD: I think this season looks fairly similar to the last one. You're going to see big-payroll teams winning divisions, but not without stiff challenges from younger, poorer rivals. There isn't one overwhelming trend either way. The Mets increased their edge, and probably won't choke away the division this year, and the Angels have gotten stronger while the rest of the AL West has gotten weaker. But the NL West is a three- or four-team race and the Cubs and Brewers will fight it out for the Central.

WH: And now the unpleasantness. The introduction to the new Baseball Prospectus (more on that later) argues that most of last season's best young stories and emerging stars were completely free of suspicions about performance-enhancing drug use. Obviously there are too many storylines from the Mitchell Report that have yet to play out for us to say that this whole season will pass without any unpleasant new steroid news. But is it too soon to say that the tide is turning?

RD: I think the media got riled up because of the Bonds indictment and the Mitchell Report. Other than a possible Clemens indictment -- while he's not playing -- there's not much more of that caliber that can happen. Eventually the story will just get old. The same handful of marginal players will get busted but I don't see where any new fuel comes from to keep the fire going.

WH: I think if I'm an up-and-coming player nowadays I simply don't feel the same pressure to juice. I don't think my livelihood depends on it, and I don't feel as if everyone against whom I'm playing is cheating. Not to mention all of those guys in the same system as me with whom I am competing for advancement and playing time.

RD: That's probably true, but even under the old pressure, there weren't that many people doing it, compared to, say, the NFL or cycling. All the testing they've done has found single-digit numbers of players getting caught. I don't think there was ever really the perception that everyone was doing it, and you had no choice as a player but to do so as well.

WH: I disagree. I remember reading all sorts of quotes from players and coaches who felt like the percentage of dopers in the majors was as high as 70-80%. But that was a few years ago, and of course they were almost certainly wrong.

RD: In the last five years, I think that the significant majority of players knew that there was cheating going on, but it wasn't all that widespread and it certainly wasn't required. I'm sure some teams were dirtier than others, and of course if you were hanging out with Jose Canseco, you thought everyone was doing it. But it was a self-fulfilling prophecy that just couldn't reach that far, because the reality was not that many people were doing it. It's like high school -- the reason that kids think that everyone is having sex is because by the time they graduate half to two-thirds of them will have. If it was really only 10%, the perception would be different.

WH: Do you feel as if the math has changed? Like, the chances of getting caught are greater, so much so that they now outweigh the benefits, particularly so given the additional assumption that fewer players than before are now juicing?

RD: I don't know what the relationship of new drugs to testing is. Obviously going from no testing at all to a lot of testing is big. But until and if they go to blood tests, things have somewhat stabilized. There's a potential Catch-22 in place where if fewer players really do resort to doping, there's more of an advantage to cheating for those who choose to risk it. You might not feel as if you're doing it to survive; the risk-reward is different. When Canseco started doing it, it was about getting ahead, not about keeping up with the Joneses.

WH: But even if you don't have a positive test in your history, everyone's radar is up in a way it wasn't before. Journalists are no longer looking the other way. Whether it's fair or not, recent events strongly suggest that when it comes to suspicions of doping, where smoke is there's almost always fire. Players who have defended themselves like Tejada and Clemens have zero credibility, even without positive tests on the record.

RD: Those guys have problems in part because they're denying doing it during a period when there was no testing at all. That's part of the NFL's advantage -- regardless of whether they have a good testing program or not, they've at least had something in place for over 15 years. If there's just smoke around a player he can point to an entire career's worth of negative tests as evidence.

WH: I think anyone with a basic grasp of chemistry gets that the drugs are always going to stay slightly ahead of the tests for them. But -- and I don't know whether this is good for baseball or fair to the players -- there is no need for a positive test for steroid use to ruin a guy's future earnings potential. Even if there is no test for what you're doing, if one reporter finds a paper trail, that could cost you MVP votes, All-Star votes, Hall of Fame votes. Testing isn't the only disincentive -- in fact, it might be the weakest one.

RD: The minor leagues have had testing for longer than the bigs have, so any young-ish player has to know the score. He's not going to pay for a big shipment of HGH by personal check. That's what the players who didn't have to worry about testing until they were 40 did. I'm not saying that more players are going to cheat than before, but there are factors both ways no matter how good the testing is.

WH: I think that the biggest thing that has changed is that reporters are more motivated now. I don't know a single person who claims to enjoy reading performance-enhancing drug stories and yet Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada are what pass for superstars in the sports journalism world. ESPN seemingly has a whole street team drawing salaries explicitly to ferret out more baseball steroid dirt. The players might get more clever but the reporters are going to be more aggressive and devious too. This could be personal bias speaking, but whom do you think is going to be smarter, a baseball journalist or a AAA shortstop?

RD: The league has made a big push against personal trainers in the clubhouse and such. It's not going to be as easy for it to spread. But that's all they can really do. They can try and stop players who are already cheating from helping other players to cheat, and be fairly effective. But they can't stop individual players from cheating. Unless a big, young group of stars gets caught eventually there aren't going to be any new stories to tell, and people are going to lose interest in the activities of retired players 10-15 years ago. The reporting side of it (which always made the problem out to be far bigger and more widespread than it really was) swings like a pendulum, and eventually with no more big revelations they'll stop paying attention.

WH: If that's the case maybe we ought to be rooting for a few busts of current players, going forward, to keep everybody vigilant.

RD: We don't want to get too far afield about what will happen with the media in the future, because there are so many other factors affecting that. Like, will the major sportswriters of the future be new versions of Jay Mariotti and Bill Plaschke, or will they be more famous versions of Rob Neyer and Joe Sheehan? That goes into things well beyond baseball, in terms of what the media will be like 20 or 30 years from now. I don't know how easily we can speculate on that.

WH: In fact I do want to discuss that topic a bit. I think that the way the league is covered is an important issue. It seemed for a little while like the statheads and the old-line newspaper guys had reached a bit of a détente, but now I am worried that they are completely ignoring each other. And that's not good for either side. Since you were nice enough to get me a copy for my birthday, let's talk about Baseball Prospectus '08 for a second -- I have noticed that the quality of the writing in the BP annuals has been going sharply downhill for the last few years.

RD: I've noticed that too.

WH: Because BP has become an institution, they can pick and choose their writers, and they've made a conscious effort to hire people with mathematical or scouting expertise -- at the expense of style. And that makes it a lot harder to win new people over to their cause, since to an ever-increasing extent the whole point of BP is to pimp out PECOTA, which is their cash cow thanks to fantasy wonks. BP '08 doesn't work as a gateway drug to stathead-dom the way the earlier editions did for folks like you and me and the old Bill James Handbooks did for the people who working for Prospectus now.

RD: I don't know the math, but I would wager that they're making relatively more online and less from print than in the past. I don't think that it's necessarily a problem, because not all baseball writers work for the same kind of organization. All baseball teams have 25 major league roster spots, but there's a big difference between being a baseball writer for Baseball Prospectus and for the New York Times. I think that BP needs to make sure that if they want to keep the book the way it has been they have their best pure writers working on it the most.

WH: I don't know how many more good pure writers they have left. And if the text to the book is going to be this bland, there's not much point in doing an annual at all -- if you sign up for BP premium you can download an up-to-the-minute PECOTA spreadsheet any time you feel like it.

RD: The move away from general-interest writers towards various experts is an organizational choice that's theirs to make. And I don't know if they want to keep the annuals the way they were, or even if they should. They might be better served transitioning the book into something slightly different and focusing even more on online and stand-alone, single-subject books.

WH: What worries me about BP's gradual slide into full-on wonkiness is that it simply reinforces the claims of stooges like Tracy Ringolsby that people who care about park effects and defensive metrics are pointy-headed losers who are destroying "real" baseball. I respect the mathematical skills in play but if they keep trending towards unreadable, uninteresting number-crunching they're setting back the cause of rank and file baseball fans who merely want to have a better understanding of the game we're all so nuts about.

RD: There's a lot more competition in the marketplace. A few years ago BP was the biggest and only real kid on the block. That's been changing. Not only is there competition from other publications but also there's more organizations inside and outside of the game vying to hire from the same talent pool as the Prospectus does.

WH: That's true. But still I would rather there was one book that came out every year that I could read cover to cover like a good nonfiction bestseller. BP used to be like that. Sorting through a half-dozen custom-designed reference books each catering to a slightly different point on the stats-scouts spectrum just seems like a headache. I realize it's becoming an increasingly marginalized position, but I feel compelled to speak for the few remaining literate people in this country. There are not one but TWO uses of "it's" for "its" within the first thirteen pages of BP '08!

RD: Other than the team info, I'm not sure that all of the information that's in the book now couldn't just be online. Look at what did with John Hollinger -- 90% of the content from his old books is now available on the website. Sometimes not in the easiest form, but it's all there.

WH: That's an excellent transition point, because I was just about to say, "Well, you can't take a laptop to the ballpark," but of course now you can. Coors Field has Wi-Fi and I know a lot of other parks are starting to as well. The new ballpark being built for Oakland is supposed to have premium seats with built-in Internet terminals chilling out right in front of you.

RD: If there's one place where MLB has been ahead of the curve, it's with using the Internet and the associated technology.

WH: I think that the way people's relationship to technology is changing -- increased interactivity all around -- benefits baseball more than the other team sports. The more you try and get into the nuts and bolts of football, the less fun it is to watch. And you can't stop watching a basketball game long enough to check someone's PER on the Internet without missing something. But baseball, as you and I know obviously know, could have been designed for the Web 2.0 information addict.

RD: Football is also played in the cold. Nobody wants to have a laptop out when it's -5 wind chill and snowing. I think basketball has some potential, but not as much.

WH: Okay, let's imagine that baseball isn't controlled by a bunch of reactionary flat-Earth oligarchs for a few seconds. If you could reshape the leagues in your own image, what would you change? More teams? Fewer teams? Should the playoff system be reconfigured?

RD: I think they have about the right amount of teams. There really isn't anywhere to expand. They may have to move a team or two, but they don't really need to contract, either. Honestly, the only change that I would make is to make it 15 teams per league, five per division and play interleague year-round. I'd also trim way down on the number of "natural rivalry" interleague series -- maybe six or eight and then the rest of the interleague schedule would just be random.

WH: I think that the situation in Miami makes it pretty obvious that there aren't any markets out there without Major League Baseball that are desperate to get it. If there was any soft landing place out there for the Marlins they would have moved ages ago. And I agree with you about equalizing the number of teams in each league. I've been saying for years they should put Houston in the AL West. That wasn't my idea, it was Bob Costas's. But seriously, if we're going to have interleague play at all there's no reason we can't have it the whole year round. And having six teams in the NL Central while there's only four in the AL West is plainly stupid.

RD: I agree with the analysis Nate Silver did a while back (link requires BP premium) -- the only places where a baseball team could succeed that don't have one already are Charlotte, Alternate Universe Havana, and maybe San Juan.

WH: No love for PDX? I think how soon we will see expansion again depends in large part on the economy but also on what happens with that new park in Fremont. A lot of teams that have built new stadiums recently, like Pittsburgh and the Rockies, would probably go back and do what the A's are doing if they had the chance now -- build way smaller.

RD: There's a line of argument that it will be increasingly financially advantageous for owners to make the stadiums smaller and smaller. I'm not sure I really buy that. I think it's more cyclical -- Fenway and Wrigley are still small parks, but we've seen plenty of fluctuations, mostly trending up, between when they were built and now.

WH: There has to be an inflection point somewhere. This ain't Reaganomics. But if the A's are able to generate big new revenue streams by marketing something completely different from what the Giants are offering across the Bay than we're going to see a lot of copycats.

RD: What exactly about the experience would be totally different?

WH: Like they started to do when they closed off the upper deck at the Coliseum, they're pretty much waving the white flag of surrender when it comes to the casual fan. They want to make their money by getting the diehards to pay more than they've ever paid before. They're not just going to sell you a season ticket and a parking pass, they want to sell you a condo, too.

RD: I think the external stuff is riskier, and subject to a lot of factors that wouldn't directly affect what goes on inside the stadium.

WH: A lot of people in baseball are suffering from the misapprehension that they can't grow the brand any further and they need to keep finding new ways of getting more money still out of the same old fans. And I honestly don't think that that's the reality at all.

RD: I don't see how owners can look at the data and think things are tapped out. Revenues have been going up a lot the last few years.

WH: As have ticket prices. Alarmingly so.

RD: Yeah, but a lot of the money is coming from other places. I'd guess that the majority of the increase in revenues is not directly the result of increased ticket prices. Not counting selling extra tickets, which they've done as well -- each year they set a new attendance record.

WH: But do you think they're making the same amount of money per fan as before only from a larger base of fans, or wringing more dollars each year out of the same existing group? I know that I will pretty much pay whatever they ask for the Extra Innings package, the Gameday Audio service, and my Rockies 20-game plan each year.

RD: Where would the tickets we bought last Labor Day fit in? That game wasn't part of your ticket plan so we bought walkup seats. Is it "making extra money off the same fans" if some fans see an extra game a year, regardless of the prices? In a narrow sense it is, but it's not the same as making more money by charging more for the exact same thing.

WH: There's certainly nothing wrong with making a product so good that your existing customers want to pay more for more of it.

RD: Of course not.

WH: But... the league needs to be more aggressive about promoting its African American and Latin American stars. The games that are broadcast on national television are still chosen based on matching up teams with huge built-in fanbases, all in the name of slightly increasing short-term ratings. For the good of the game, the owners need to sacrifice some dollars in the next television contract and put teams with appealing young black stars on the air. Carl Crawford should be MLB's version of Chad Johnson -- he's a likable guy with a big personality and he's a great player with an exciting style of play. He shouldn't have to wait until he signs with Boston or the Yankees or Anaheim to be a star.

RD: It's been a while since there was a baseball star who was both flashy and fun. I'm looking at the MVP voting list from last year and watching a commercial for the MLB 2K8 video game on "SportsCenter" -- none of the players featured prominently in either even remotely remind me of Chad Johnson or Gilbert Arenas.

WH: This isn't Little League -- baseball needs to be less about fan loyalty to the names on the front of the jerseys and put some emphasis back on the individual players. Obviously going too far in the direction of promoting individuals has had negative consequences for the NBA but you can't err too far in the opposite direction either -- some sort of balance needs to be struck.

RD: I think there's some pushback both from the league and the media that affects players who could have higher "Q" ratings, like David Ortiz. Most of the guys probably act aloof because that's what the culture of the game has led them to believe is expected of them. But it translates to boring.

WH: You can get yourself in trouble making generalizations about Latin American players, but it is true that by and large they don't "push the meter" the way Kevin Durant or Reggie Bush does.

RD: It's not just Latin American baseball players. A-Rod, Prince Fielder, Ryan Howard, David Wright, Beckett, Peavy, Webb... all those guys barely have any personality off the field. (I know A-Rod is sort of Latino, but whatever.)

WH: It's been a bad decade for quirky stars. No Reggie Jackson, no Mark Fidrych, not even a Mickey Tettleton.

RD: It's hard to say how much of it is on the league and the media and how much is just the particular players. Whoa -- just as we were discussing this, Mark Fidrych got a mention on the "Cheap Seats" rerun I am watching.

WH: See, Fidrych barely had a career and he's still remembered 30 years on. Somewhere along the line baseball players got the impression that they're supposed to behave a certain way that's quite opposite from the way basketball and football players get down. It would only take a few guys leading by example to change things -- the 60's and the 70's sure didn't lack for good ballplayers who were great quotes besides. But I don't know if any of the guys who can start that sea change are even in the league right now. A lot of them are probably in the NBDL.

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