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Jeff’s Top Braves Prospects (20-16)

20. Brett Cumberland

A power hitting switch hitting catcher is always intriguing and after slugging 16 homers his Junior year at Cal, the Braves selected Cumbo in the 2nd round. The Braves sent him straight to Danville and he was a little below average there. I caught him catching Ian Anderson in Instructionals and saw a minor league catcher. He isn’t ever going to win a Gold Glove, but he’s built like a catcher and is quick enough on balls in the dirt (Anderson was a little wild that day) only giving up 6 passed balls in nearly 400 innings last year. He only started at catcher about half of the time, DHing the rest of the time. He absolutely crushed in Rome – 10 HR, 176 wRC+ and a .269 ISO in 55 games in the Sally League before being promoted to Florida. He continued to hit for average in the pitcher friendly league and, though he only hit 1 homer in his 56 games in the sunshine state, he still managed a 127 wRC+. His bat went all the way down under this winter, and though he played most of his games in the outfield there, he kept on hitting with 7 homers and a .980 OPS in 26 games. It will be interesting to see where Cumberland starts 2018, I doubt they give up on him this fast behind the plate, but the Braves are flush with young backstops. Herbert and Jackson will need help in Florida and Mississippi respectively and Cumberland can always DH.

 

19. Jean Carlos Encarnacion

An unheralded signing back in 2015, JCE burst onto the scene in 2017 after a unspectacular 2016 DSL campaign. A big kid at 6′ 3″, I took notice of him when he continued to start at third over many highly touted infielders signed in 2016. He hit for power, played a solid third base and ran the bases well for someone his size. After mashing to the tune of a .937 OPS in 27 GCL games, he was promoted to Danville where he regressed slightly in 23 games only posting a .671 OPS in 23 games. However, he still made plenty of contact hitting for a .290 average. At 20 years old, it wouldn’t shock me if he opened as Rome’s Opening Day third baseman.

18. Freddy Tarnok –

A pop up guy if there ever was one, Tarnok didn’t even start pitching until halfway through his Junior season. Committed to the University of Tampa as a shortstop, he’s a gifted athlete and once scouts saw his 6′-4 frame pumping fastballs in the mid 90s he shot up draft boards. Similar to the Ian Anderson pick and the Sean Newcomb acquisition, Tarnok is a rare low mileage arm from Florida with as much upside as any pitcher in the system. With a fastball that sits 91-94 and as high as 97-98, with a plus hook and a feel for a change, he should be a fun guy to watch in 2018. With him most likely starting in Danville, I should get to see him a lot in Extended Spring Training.

17. Kyle Muller –

The 44th pick in the 2016 Draft, Muller was part of the “Big 3” of that draft class, where the Braves picked 3 prep pitchers in the first 70 picks. Muller however has been on a different timeline than his draft mates, while Ian Anderson, Joey Wentz and Bryse Wilson all headed to Rome to start 2017, Muller stayed back in Florida. He pitched decent in 47.2 Gulf Coast League innings. I caught one of his starts and though he looked healthy and smooth on the mound his velocity was noticeably down from his high school stuff. Reports of his high school coach overusing him causing the dip in velocity have surfaced, but just yesterday Driveline Baseball posted a video of Muller hitting 95.3 MPH off the mound. Hopefully that is a sign of things to come. As Brian Bridges likes to say Muller is “Just what they look like”

16. Patrick Weigel

I hate that Weigel got hurt last year, and if he comes back anywhere close to where he was before that, 16 will look foolishly low. Unfortunately injuries happen, and it usually takes almost two years before a guy is fully back to his old self. If anybody can beat that timeline though I believe in the big right hander as he’s bounced from D1 to JUCO and back again to D1 to 7th round pick. Weigel has taken his big fastball all over the place and turned into a real pitcher with plus stuff and a frame to last. I saw him spin a 7 inning one-hitter in Rome with none other than Josh Brown back in 2016, and caught him again in relief of Kolby Allard in ML Spring Training. There is no question about his stuff, it’s just a matter of getting healthy again. His floor is a big league reliever and in my opinion it’s only up from there.

 

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We the fans…

“Man, if we could just get Clayton Kershaw. “ 

“You know, we should really start loading up the box.” 

We won the World Series!”

The pronoun “we”, when referring to a sports team, is synonymous with die-hard fans. And for the die-hard fan, “we” is used as if they were Liberty Media or Arthur Blank, even though this isn’t even close to the truth. We didn’t suit up and step across those lines. We didn’t walk the sidelines whispering to a defensive coordinator that the team should swap to a 4-3 base from a 3-5-3. And we certainly didn’t buy the team or pay to build the stadium (unless we’re counting taxes).

So why do we do it? Why do we say, we?

There are instances when this very personal pronoun, when applied as such, is accurate. High school and collegiate athletics are an example. I’m an Alabama Crimson Tide fan (Roll Tide), I’m a Kansas State Wildcat fan (EMAW), and I’m an Arizona State fan (Forks Up). I say “we” for every one of those schools. I’ve never set foot on the campus of the University of Alabama. While I’ve been on to the campus of Kansas State University, I was never a student there. Ironically, I’ve never set foot on the campus of Arizona State either, but I’m a full-time online student working on my BA in Mass Communications and Media Studies. While I work my actual job with the US Army, I never went to West Point. However, I have absolutely NO PROBLEM saying “we” concerning the Black Knights, Sun Devils, Wildcats or Crimson Tide.

Rabid fans of sports teams use this word as if they have some incomparable insight; as if the team calls upon them to discuss lineup adjustments, which free agents to sign, or who to trade. We often say “we” like we’re paid staff members. That’s not an ignorant oblivious perception of reality. We know this is inaccurate, a fallacy, and a fantasy. We know our paychecks aren’t signed by the Atlanta Braves or the University of Alabama.

So, again, why do we say … “we”?

I’ve read a few psychological pieces speaking to this very thing. One particular article I liked characterized it simply as this: We see ourselves as an extension of that team. And perhaps, for all intents and purposes, we are.

Players come and go all the time. They come here, stay a while, and move on. They get traded, leave in free agency, or retire. The players are temporary, the fans are forever. It’s passed from generation to generation. Father to daughter, mother to son, grandfather to grandson. These teams feel like they are a part of our heritage, we become emotionally involved, as if they’re one of our children or perhaps we are one of theirs. We celebrate every walk-off with them. We hang our heads with each heartbreaking loss. We cry when our favorite player gets traded, and rejoice when they sign a big time free agent contract (except for BJ Upton).

But it’s not just the legacy either. We buy in to the product. Not only the product on the field. Tickets, jerseys, memorabilia, and even tuning in to the local cable channel. Kind of makes you think, what happens if the fans stop going or stop buying in. We as a collective group of fans, buy “stock” in an idea of identity and relationship shared from the team’s brand, investing in part ownership in the teams themselves. We has now become a verb: a word used to describe an action, state, or occurrence. We are the occurrence and we are the action.

Sports bring people together for a bigger purpose than themselves and even shares with them an identity. Sports teams that represent cities share a common interest and brand for a shared geographical identity. The advent of social media has expanded the fan’s presence and the idea of “we” as a body of fans. I haven’t met, in person, 99.9999% of the “friends” I have on social media that I share my Braves fandom with. Yet, I feel like some of them I have known my whole life.

The shared identity and mutual relationship fans have together does not mean WE always agree, but when the team sprints out of the dugout on opening day we are certain that for the next 3 hours we will run the gamut of emotions together through our shared relationship with the team and our shared experience as fans. We will high-five, throw fists into the air, and might even hug after a Free-Bomb. This is the personification of “WE”. It has nothing inherently to do with the men or women on the field or court. It has everything to with the men and women in the third deck, cheap seats, sitting and standing all around you.

Yes, we love our sports. We love our teams, and we may even love those players. But, when it all comes down to it, at the end of the day, you… “we”… are the fans. “We” are prideful. “We” are the veins that lead to the heart. “We” are the 12th Man. “We” are the 26th man on the roster. “We” are #KnockahomaNation! “We” are #InBrotherHood.

No matter your team, no matter your town. We is a term of pride and you speak it with conviction. You may not have signed a contract to play, but you have probably signed your life in time, attention, and your identity and emotions, away to the undulating highs and lows that come with being a fan. Maybe the reason fans feel like they are an extension of the team is because, well, we are.

Maybe the team should think of you, the fans, as an extension of themselves. Is the product that they sell us the team on the field or is it the identity and emotion of the fan in the stands?  You… “we” are a massive force. We shift the tides of momentum and can be the difference between a pitchers nerves, a quarterback’s composure or even a referee or umpire’s call.

We are a family. We are the pulse of a franchise. We bigger than our individual selves or the specific players on the team. We the fans.

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TICK. TICK. TICK.

The clock is ticking for MLB, and it’s ticking fast.

In 2017, the average baseball game took 3 hrs 5 minutes and 11 seconds to play. Since 1978, the average time of an MLB game has increased 38 minutes. That’s an average increase of almost 51 seconds per year.  At that pace, in 15 years, MLB will be pushing a nearly 3 hour and 20 minute game. This would surpass the time of the average NFL game (3 hours 12 minutes).

Tick. Tick. Tick.

Currently, baseball is a network television driven business. Regional sports brands spend big bucks to leverage their channels from the value of team brands. This creates value for their entire channel and brings in revenue, not only through commercials during live games, but also through advertising on their other programming they are able to subsequently attract game viewers to consume. Think of it this way, Fox Sports South isn’t just getting Braves fans’ attention for Braves games, but also for episodes of Driven, College Football games, replays of Braves games, and much more. For these television networks, it is of vital importance that the game of baseball continues to attract fans to their broadcast format. This creates a sense of urgency for MLB to continue to regulate the game in a way that best packages the sport for network television formats and storylines that keep the undivided attention of its audience.

Tick. Tick. Tick.

There are a lot of different causes and solutions tossed about for why the game is ‘slow’ and how to most effectively speed it up. Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred and the MLB front office have attempted to take multiple steps to try to increase the pace of play within the game itself. Last year, they removed throwing pitches for intentional walks, instead giving free passes to first base. In spite of these changes, the average game actually increased 4 minutes and 30 seconds in 2017 compared to 2016.

MLB is likely to enact more pace of play changes like a pitch clock, allowing only one trip to the mound by a catcher per pitcher per inning, and raising the bottom of the strike zone. The players’ union has declined these changes for now, but they are likely to happen even without the players explicit permission. Manfred is even going to test the idea of starting extra innings with a runner on 2nd base (this is an incredibly dumb idea). While I think that some of these things might speed up the pace of play by a couple of minutes per game, at some point we must begin to question how much they change the integrity and nature of the game itself. There are many peripheral elements that affect the flow of the game.

The average MLB game you watch on TV will consist of more than 70 commercials. SEVENTY COMMERCIALS. If you’re an Atlanta Braves fan you know half of those commercials are the creepy don’t drink and drive commercials by the State’s Office for Highway Safety and the other half are for Cooks Pest Control.  

Those seventy commercials will make sports networks like Fox Sports South somewhere between $8-15 Million per season. Just one of those regular season spots can cost somewhere between $1200-$2500 depending on the teams playing.

In a 9-inning game, there will be 17-inning changes, (one after the top of the first, another at the bottom, etc) that create natural breaks in the game. Since the game began, the use of relief pitchers has gone up at an average of 1% per year. That seems pretty low, but we are all the way up to 3.2 relief pitchers per team per game now, that’s just shy of 7 pitching changes per game. If Walter Johnson knew it would come to this he would have pitched until he was 70. Not only does the pitching change itself take time, but the multiple mound visits by pitching coaches, catchers, and ultimately the manager, makes this a drawn out drama that can bring a baseball game to a grinding halt.

The breaks between innings and pitching changes alone attribute to 24 breaks in a baseball game. Much of that time can’t be compressed, as you need time for the teams to change sides, and for pitchers to stretch. However, if you could remove just one 20-second commercial per break you could easily decrease a game’s time by more than 5:40 minutes. However, removing those commercials would be an obvious loss for network tv resulting in the loss of millions of dollars of potential revenue over the course of a 162-game season. Obviously, it is unlikely such a solution would be pursued.

I’ve often suggested that moving to a soccer style of production, where the game doesn’t stop for television, could work. Of course that would open the door to the slippery slope of sponsored jerseys, sponsored teams, and create the necessity of cut away commercials. And of course it is doubtful this works for profit reasons as well. Let’s be real, network television and MLB don’t have a real problem with the length of games as much as what they consider the pace of play. The longer a game the more time and space for commercials, green screen spots, and in-park advertising, and I can guarantee you that MLB doesn’t mind that.

Tick. Tick. Tick.

What about instant replay? While I will always love the days of Bobby Cox getting tossed from the game, as well as the pitcher, batter, and half the team, replay has had some advantages. It gets calls correct, or at least it should. Replay takes a pretty good beating because it frequently takes so long. I can empathize with the fan who is willing to excuse the occasional bad call for the sake of living in the moment. I can’t imagine hearing Skip Caray call the famous “Sid Slide” and then having to wait for a replay break to confirm if he was safe or out. However, I can also appreciate the value of my team getting the benefit of having a play called correctly. At the end of the day, replay probably slows the game down slightly, but if you take into account the time it takes to restore order, get coaches back into the dugout after arguments with umpires, and continue the flow of the game prior to the implementation of replay it’s probably a minuscule difference. We can have a separate debate about replay’s role in the game today, but in regards to time, it’s a pretty small leak of total minutes.

Perhaps what is more fascinating, is the underlying philosophy that illustrates MLB’s dramatic shift in sacrificing the nature of its on-field product, a vital part of which has always been the uniqueness of the umpire, for the sake of accuracy that fits the television model’s values more effectively. Sometimes the greatest stories are the ones with the best embellishments.

While MLB is constantly evaluating ways to speed up the game and make its complexion more television friendly, I think we still are missing the actual problem that MLB has with pace of play.

Tick. Tick. Ti…………

Network Television is dead and the internet killed it.

In my opinion, MLB continues to go to the dentist when it needs to see a proctologist. The dentist can keep your teeth clean and your smile happy, but if the problem is the stick up your ass, then a proctologist is better suited for the job. Simplified, I think MLB’s ticking time problem has nothing to do with the pace of the game.

It is estimated that by 2021, 30% of all adults in the United States will not have traditional pay TV. That’s more than 81 million people. If you’re like me and are a cord cutter, you are very aware of how little traditional sports organizations have done to embrace you as a consumer. MLB (like most other sports organizations) drags its heels at every opportunity to empower its future audience to build rhythms that include baseball into their new consumer habits.

In 2017, traditional TV was still the most-used medium for that consumption with the average consumer taking in 170 minutes of TV viewing per day last year.

The internet – 140 minutes per day.

Estimates show that this could narrow to just a 7 minute gap by the end of 2018.

After that, traditional network television is dead.

The reason MLB is falling into this trap is that as network television becomes scarcer, the rates people are paying for prime advertising slots continue to skyrocket. Playoff games last year often cost advertisers more than $500,000 per commercial. Network channels like TBS and FOX paid more than $12.4 BILLION for the rights to carry the playoffs and All-Star games for 8 years. That is $1.5 Billion per year. The trap is being set for MLB by its own success. MLB is being paid more than ever for commercials because there are so few other avenues where people actually still sit and are forced to watch commercials.

Here’s the rub, if you eat the cow that you milk, eventually you run out of milk and meat. If MLB (and other sports) continue to build their entire product model based on meeting the needs of the dying goliath of network television, they are tying themselves to their own death anchors.

Not only is MLB already behind on cord cutting and how it has changed the media consumer landscape, future technologies are about to radicalize the way we think about consuming products even more dramatically. Virtual Reality technology is already changing how players prepare for games, but it’s only a matter of time before the statcast data, advanced analytics that are used to analyze every play in a game, and technologies like virtual and augmented reality are harnessed to alter the consumer experience. Consumer attention spans haven’t shortened, as the pace of play argument would suggest, instead, consumers have changed their expectation for how their attention is used on those things they consume.

MLB and teams must begin to think in ways that follow their end user market; can they imagine fans paying for season tickets to enjoy the Braves via virtual reality? What if the Braves could create a way for fans to digitally stand in the batters box beside Acuna as he faces Max Scherzer? What would fans pay for that experience? Sound futuristic? It’s not. The technology is already within grasp to augment the audience reality with instant stats like the spin rate on the pitcher’s curveball, or the distance a player runs to make a diving catch. MLB audiences would salivate at the opportunity to zoom in to watch replay through their augmented reality devices to see the player’s foot touch the bag from 3-inches away. There is no lack of innovation, there is a lack of pursuit of that innovation by MLB. These things are not far fetched they are all technologically attainable within the next ten years, but only if MLB prepares for them.

However instead of pursuing innovation, regional networks and MLB are more focused on pissing contests over blackouts and area coverages. If you’re a Braves fan living in Atlanta, you can’t even watch your favorite team if you cut the cord. This is the epitome of stupidity. Piss off, or at the very least ignore, your future base to feed your dying bloated giant cash cows their last meals.  While MLB thrives on fat television deals from those dying giants, there is an inherent problem. In 15 years, will those TV companies even still exist? Many fans expect the Braves to  save themselves in the competitive market with some miraculous new TV deal in 2027, but the truth is, will there even be a TV company around to be interested?

The clock problem that MLB has is not a problem with the pace of the game, but a problem with their inability to move their behemoth of an organization off it’s spoiled fat rump to keep up with the pace of the changing environment and habits of their primary future consumers. And the primary consumers they have forgotten are fans, not TV executives.

TICK. TICK. TICK.

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Jeff’s Top Braves Prospects (30-21)

30. Jefrey Ramos – Ramos is one of the few guys signed on July 2nd, 2016 still with the Braves. He has crazy raw power and showed it hitting 6 homers in Gulf Coast League play before being promoted to Danville where he spent most of his time in the cleanup role, but only hit one home run there and seemed to tire down the stretch. He was also only 18 in the Appy League, he may start there again this year, but I could see him ending up in Rome with a strong showing in Spring. He hit .323/.366/.532 in his first 41 games, so we’ll see if he can duplicate that next year with another full offseason. He is strictly a left fielder, but that is just fine if he can continue to crank out extra base hits.

 

29. Ricardo Sanchez – Will 2018 be the year Ricardo finally breaks out? He was solid as a 20 year old in the pitcher friendly Florida State League last year, and it will be interesting to see if the team pushes him to Double A or lets him repeat the level to try and improve on things. His K-rate ticked up from ’16 to ’17 while his walk rate stayed roughly the same. The ground ball % went up an impressive 8%, while his strand rate and HR/FB ratio stayed the same. While he has an impressive curve ball, he always seems to struggle to get through the lineup a 3rd time. Obviously, 21 is way too early to give up on a promising starting pitching prospect, 2018 could be a huge year one way or another for the young Venezuelan.

 

28. Braulio Vasquez – Signed as a smallish glove-first, speedy shortstop on July 2nd, 2016, Braulio has bulked up since then and looks poised to have a breakout season in 2018. 40 stolen base potential with expanding gap power, he should be one to keep an eye on this year. With the loss of so many of his 2016 international classmates I could see him making the jump to Rome to start out at 19.

 

27. Travis Demeritte – I was as high as anyone on Demeritte despite the ever present high K-rate. He started out well, but seemed to fade when the team shifted him off his natural 2B to 3B. He is a plus-plus fielder at second and that skill alone could carry him to the bigs as a utility guy. The question is will he be Jack Wilson or Dan Uggla. If he can start putting bat on ball he’ll make me look stupid for having him so low. (He had a stellar final month after moving back to 2B)

 

26. Dustin Peterson – A guy who looked like he might challenge for a spot as Atlanta’s 4th outfielder last spring, faced the cruel wrath of the baseball gods when an errant pitch broke his hamate bone in the middle of Spring Training and sidelined him until the middle of May. He struggled at Gwinnett last year and his already limited power was completely sapped. I like Dustin and could see him making the bigs one day, but as a guy limited to the corner outfield with a career high of 12 homers he’s not bound for much more than a bench role.

 

25. Lucas Herbert – The best defensive catcher in the system by a lot. Herbert did exactly what you’d want to see in his second tour at Rome in 2017. There’s never been any question about the glove, next year will be interesting as I think he’ll start at Florida and have a shot to move quickly if he shows he can continue to hold his own against more advanced pitching.

 

24. Drew Lugbauer – Slugbauer! An 11th-round draft pick who went on to hit 13 homeruns in 60 games and is solid enough as a backstop to let his hit tool/power carry him to the big leagues. Another guy I haven’t seen much in person, so I’ll just go with – big man carries big stick.

 

23. Huascar Ynoa – Prospecting is all about projections, guessing, hoping and wishing. I’ve never caught Ynoa pitch, just watched video clips, but his numbers show enough that he seems to progressing well for a young guy and he has the stuff/ build to carry on as a starter. Time will tell, as this is as guessy of a guess as there is on this list.

 

22. A.J. Minter – I think most of you have gotten to see why he is on this list by now. If not go watch some highlights and come back to read about #21

 

21. Tucker Davidson – The first time I saw Tucker was in extended spring training in 2016. He came on in relief of Ian Anderson and was throwing harder than the first rounder. One of the coaches mentioned he had 4 pitches and seemed impressed with the lefty. He started last year in the Rome bullpen, then took off as a starter. I was excited about seeing what he could do in 2018 with a full season as a starter then JJ Cooper went on Road 2 Atlanta and got me even more hyped when he put them in the same tier as Bryse and Wentz. Look out for Tuck Tuck y’all.

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My center fielder.

For two years we’ve heard the Andruw Jones comparisons. Writers and fans alike have compared Ronald Acuña to the greatest center fielder of all time – former Atlanta Brave, Andruw Jones.

The Andruw comparisons all started with Randy Ingle and Chipper Jones. Randy Ingle, up until recently, had been the manager for the Rome Braves since 2006. The man has over 30 years of experience in minor league ball (and… fun fact – Randy Ingle holds the record for highest career BA at Appalachian State University) so I think he’s qualified to make such a comparison. Chipper Jones is not only a Hall of Famer, but he played with Andruw Jones himself for a decade, so he is also qualified to make such a comparison.

Since Chipper and Randy made the comparison two years ago, so far (knock on wood) their comparisons look pretty darn good. Ronald Acuña is flying through the minor league system in the same fashion as Andruw Jones did, they have freakishly similar numbers, they have virtually the same swing, they both hit for power, and scouts say they have the same glove.

So, would you actually put “Andruw Jones 2.0” anywhere but center field? Please. I don’t think so.

Keep in mind, Andruw played right field when he was first called up to the Major Leagues. Unless something weird happens with Ender Inciarte, Ronald Acuña will do the same, making his baseball journey even more freakishly similar to the man he’s compared to.

Let’s talk about the elephant in the room. Ender Inciarte is a 27-year-old Gold Glove center fielder who can rake. In my opinion (and I don’t care that he doesn’t hit for power) he’s top 3 best all-around center fielders in baseball. But here’s the crazy thing – If the scouting reports end up being correct, if Ronald Acuña really is the next Andruw Jones (as crazy as that may sound), then Ronald Acuña is going to be better than Ender Inciarte. It’s that simple.

Last winter the Atlanta Braves extended Ender Inciarte to a 5-year $30.5MM deal. In my opinion, this is the best thing John Coppolella did during his time in Atlanta. The Braves are sitting on a gold mine with Ender Inciarte.

Now, I know what you’re thinking… “So, Josh… you’re saying the Braves should trade Ender Inciarte?” Not really. Plus, I don’t think the Braves have plans to. Here’s my two cents. I think the Atlanta Braves keep Ender Inciarte, eventually move him back to right field in 2019 and move Acuña to center. Ender has a cannon, and in 2015 he won a Fielding Bible Award playing primarily right field for the Arizona Diamondbacks.

In short – The Braves call up Ronnie around April 13, put him in RF (RIP my favorite right fielder), they move him to CF late in games throughout the season (and the occasional Ender off-day) just to flirt with your hearts and move him there permanently in 2019. Put that in your pipeline and smoke it.

If I’m completely wrong and the Atlanta Braves stick Acuña in right field for years to come, it’s certainly not the end of the world. Braves fans will basically be watching two Gold Glove center fielders playing next to each other. I can imagine much worse things to watch.

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It’s Time for the Big Reveal; Dan’s 2018 IBWAA Hall of Fame Ballot

With the BBWAA and Hall of Fame announcement coming Wednesday, as well as the IBWAA’s, I thought it a good time to share my Hall of Fame ballot.

When I started writing my opinions and publishing them for the world to see, I never thought it would take me to where I am today. After about a year, though, I discovered the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America (IBWAA). It didn’t take long for me to become a lifetime member. We aren’t affiliated with the BBWAA, the guys and gals who actually have a counting vote for the Hall of Fame itself, but we still cast votes for it and end-of-the-year individual awards. This will be my third time voting with the IBWAA, and I’m sharing my ballot here, with you 80-Grade Knuckleheads.

First, I need to give a little background. You won’t see Vlad Guerrero or Edgar Martinez on my list. These gentlemen were voted in on last year’s ballot for the IBWAA. Because we aren’t associated with the BBWAA and the Hall of Fame, our ballots differ. However, our votes and selections are very similar.

The IBWAA isn’t some second rate organization either. Many of the industry’s top writers are members of the IBWAA. Writers like Jim Bowden, Jim Caple, Jerry Crasnick, Jon Heyman, Brian Kenny, Grant McAuley, Ken Rosenthal, and many others. So, even though the Hall of Fame doesn’t acknowledge the IBWAA, we still have some big names on the roster.

Oh, I almost forgot, last year, the IBWAA voted to expand selections from 10 to 15.

Now, on with the selections.

This year was pretty easy for the first 9 or 10 choices. The last 4 or 5, however, were a little bit more difficult for me, personally. Of course, with the option of voting for 15 players, I displayed a little bias. The first three names checked on my list were Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones, and Fred McGriff. As Braves fans, we all know the reasons why these three should be allowed admission in the Hall.

The next four off the list were Jim Thome, Omar Vizquel, Billy Wagner, and Larry Walker. Thome and Walker don’t really need a disclaimer either. Vizquel was one of the most dominate defenders in his time, and for a middle infielder, he could hit a little bit. Vizquel’s overall WAR for his career is 45.3 in 24 seasons. His dWAR (28.4) nearly matches his oWAR (32.2). Vizquel also had (still has) probably the fastest hands I’ve ever seen.

Next, I have Mike Mussina, Scott Rolen, Curt Schilling, and Gary Sheffield. Sheffield and Rolen are probably the stretches in this group of four. Sheffield’s offensive output is not the problem, though. His 79.9 oWAR is proof of that; what is an issue, is his defense. A dWAR of a -28.6 kind of hurts him. But, if the writers can elect guys like Ozzie Smith, who’s defense practically got him in, then why not the heavy hitters who’s claim to stardom was their offense?

Now, for the final four names. Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Trevor Hoffman, and Jeff Kent. Again, I shouldn’t have to really go into the first three names. However, Kent probably warrants some explanation.

Kent, aside from having an MVP, 4 Silver Sluggers, and 5 All-Star appearances, was a pretty good second basemen. He falls at number 20 on the JAWS scale. In overall WAR, Kent has a 55.2 and good for 19th among second basemen. Above him, in the HOF, are Joe Gordon (18), Jackie Robinson (17), and Craig Biggio (16). Robinson Cano and Chase Utley are still active, but rank 13 and 15, respectively. Above those guys, are Roberto Alomar and Ryne Sandberg, both Hall of Famers.

Kent is in the top 20 best second basemen ever, and even guy big time players below like Bobby Doerr, Nellie Fox, and Bill Mazeroski fall well below that magical JAWS line.

So, his WAR is pretty good, at least good enough to be the 20th best in baseball history for second basemen. Lets look at some other numbers though that might help Kent’s case.

Kent is 13th among ALL second basemen in runs scored, 12th in hits, 4th in doubles, 3rd in RBI, 5th in OPS, and 1st – among any second basemen to play the game, including Rogers Hornsby – in home runs; he had 377. Hornsby had 301. Kent also sustained a .290 career batting average. His biggest knock offensively, second (only to Biggio) in career strikeouts with 1522.

So, there you have it. My 2018 IBWAA Hall of Fame ballot.

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Prospect rankings aren’t Gospel.

Ranking baseball prospects is fun. I’ve done it. Our podcast even had some Braves prospects experts on this past week to wax philosophic about numerous prospects in the Atlanta Braves system. So this isn’t meant to be a hit piece on anyone who ranks baseball prospects.

Ranking prospects is great. For one, it’s a way to get us baseball nerds through the cold off-season. It’s also a fun way to educate ourselves about the future of our beloved sport, and raise our hopes for our favorite team’s future. As we all know, baseball has a farm system like no other sport, which lends itself to pretty honest process (if you’re good, you advance, if you’re not, you don’t), and it’s a blast to follow. A player gets drafted or signed, they make their way up through the system in hopes of one day playing in an MLB stadium in front of tens of thousands (unless you play for the Marlins). So, ranking that talent and making predictions on that talent is great.

Not only is ranking prospects a grand old time, but lists like the Baseball America top-100 end up being fairly accurate. Some of the game’s greats were top prospects at some point along their respective journeys. Harper, Trout, Griffey, Jr., just to name a few.

According to Andy Harris, of Outfield Fly Rule, players in Baseball America’s top-10 have an MLB success rate of around 90%. Players ranking from 90-100 come in at around a 35% MLB success rate. Andy says that the record is generally better for ranked position players versus pitchers (because of injury risks). Andy goes on to say that of those #1-10 ranked prospects, only 35% end up being elite performers. In short – On any given year, that Baseball America top-10 prospects list you’re looking at only has a few potential stars.

It’s important to remember that prospect rankings are not always the GOSPEL. One of the best things about our sport is that it can be unpredictable. Not only is the game itself unpredictable, but the talent can be, too. Case and point – Ronald Acuna signed for $100,000 in 2014 and is now heralded as the best prospect in the game, and rightfully so.

Sure, Baseball America and guys like Keith Law have certainly gotten it right over the years. But it’s also important to remember that there have been many great ballplayers who were never ranked. Some even had Hall of Fame caliber careers – Jim Edmonds, Jose Altuve, Jeff Kent, Mariano Rivera, Curt Schilling, Tim Wakefield, Robinson Cano, Josh Donaldson, Daniel Murphy and James Shields were never top-100 prospects according to Baseball America, just to name a few.

The opposite of this is also true. Especially if you, like me, grew up collecting baseball cards. How many guys with “rated rookie” or “future star” on their baseball cards ended up being completely forgotten about? Baseball’s weird.

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Make hay while the sun shines.

The Braves should sign Mike Foltynewicz to a long term contract.

Mike Foltynewicz.

If you’re a Braves fan, the name alone probably brings an opinion to your mind. Bust. Future. Superstar. Wild. Emotional. Overrated. Underrated.

The 26-year old pitcher the Atlanta Braves acquired from the Houston Astros in 2015 for Evan Gattis and James Hoyt is entering a crucial year for his career. In his past 2 years at the Major League level, Folty has been the epitome of unpredictable. His splits vary from month to month, sometimes lefties have dominated him, sometimes he’s owned them. Then suddenly right hand hitters come out of nowhere to be back on top of his stuff. In one month, he goes from being one of the best pitchers in baseball and nearly completing a no-hitter, to forgetting how to throw baseballs the very next month.

Ridiculed as being “too emotional,” Foltynewicz, is a fiery 6’4” 220 lb. righty that brings the heat. He often sits in the upper 90’s well into the sixth or seventh inning, when he lasts that long. His numbers follow his performance pretty accurately, sporadic to say the least. Since joining the Major League rotation, he has seen a dramatic increase in his Homerun/Flyball rate, he’s been caught accidently tipping pitches, and at times he seems to forget how to pitch in certain counts.  

All of that being said, I still think the Braves should sign him to a minimum of a 5 year, $37 million dollar deal.

Wait. What?

Well my papa used to tell me, “Boy, you make hay while the sun shines.”

For those of you who have never baled any hay in the south, you cut it when you don’t expect rain… often even if  it’s not completely ripe and 100% ready to be cut. Because perfect hay is worthless if you can’t get it up off the ground without it getting wet. If it rains on hay, you have to ted it all back out (using a machine to re-scatter it), wait on it to dry in the sun, rake it again, and then bale it. Sometimes the weather doesn’t cooperate and you can lose the whole crop because of too much rain.

Baseball contracts for mid-market teams are like baling hay. You make hay while the sun shines. Meaning, if you’re a mid-market team, like the Atlanta Braves, who really can’t compete with the ‘big boys’ on huge salaries and contracts, then you have to find a way to gamble on the hay while the weather is nice. Right now, the weather on Mike Foltynewicz is really nice.

The Braves currently have Folty under team control for 4 more years. This is his first year entering arbitration and he is going to get either $2.2 or $2.3 million. This sounds pretty cheap, but when you look at how arbitration figures scale it gets a bit more complicated. $2.2 million for one year certainly isn’t a bad deal, but when you realize someone like Arodys Vizcaino received roughly $850,000 for his first year you realize that $2.2 million for a first year arbitration guy is not cheap.

Arbitration scaling is a bit wonky to say the least, but basically each year it scales up based on performance, league comparisons, and which year of arbitration you are in. Josh Donaldson just received $23M for his final year of arbitration from the Blue Jays. You can see, simply having team control doesn’t automatically mean a cheap contract.  

But why should the Braves sign Folty to a 5-year deal? Julio Teheran may have the answer.

Julio Teheran is what mid-market teams dream of. It’s not that he’s the best pitcher ever; I would even argue he’s probably not a #1 starter on most teams – more of a 2 or 3 sort of guy. But if there is one thing Frank Wren did right for the Atlanta Braves, it was signing Julio Teheran to a 6-year, $32.4 million dollar deal back in 2014. That contract is a gold mine (regardless of his divisive 2017 numbers).

Much like Ender Inciarte’s deal, that John Coppolella negotiated, buying out a young player’s arbitration and giving them a serious deal with your team can be brilliant. Especially for mid-market teams. When Frank Wren locked up Julio Teheran long-term, he had completed just one year of pitching for the Atlanta Braves. One year. While his year entering arbitration had been a bit more consistent than Folty’s was, it’s also important to remember that he had a serious baseball staff behind him that made the playoffs. He was backed by arguably the best modern day defensive shortstop in Andrelton Simmons, had Justin Upton and Evan Gattis smashing homeruns, and Craig Kimbrel closing it down.

If you put Folty in front of the same kind of staff that Julio had in 2013, I think you’d see quite an uptick in his numbers. Not to mention the fact that at times last year, Mike was the closest thing to a number 1 starter the Atlanta Braves had, and often got matched up that way. Mike is a big guy that has never had serious injury concerns. He did have a fluke blood clot steal some weight and time from his first season, but as far as the arm is concerned he’s had no real issues. He’s built big, and he threw 150+ innings last year and probably could have thrown more had his control been a bit better and had Manager Brian Snitker been a bit slower with the hook. He’s a power pitcher who is going to eat innings, a lot of them.

As a mid-market team, the Atlanta Braves have to make gambles to increase the value of their assets. Julio Teheran will be paid $8 million to pitch for the Braves in 2018.  On the open market, even if evaluated as a #2 or #3 starter, it is quite easy to imagine him getting $15M+ per year (probably higher). That is a lot of value in a long-term contract that the Braves can either happily sit on and be content to pay someone much under what they are worth, or they can trade and reap quite a bountiful harvest in prospects and other players based on his value. Either way, for the Atlanta Braves, Julio Teheran is a gold mine.

This is why the Braves should lock up Mike Foltynewicz, yesterday. And there is reason to speculate this may be just what they’re doing.  When the Braves and Folty filed for arbitration literally $100K apart, many Braves fans rolled their eyes. However, this feels fishy. It feels like both parties may have simply said “just file a number while we get a bigger deal worked out.”

If the Braves paid Folty a front-loaded deal, meaning the more expensive years were on the front side of the contract, I think the Braves could create another Julio-type gold mine. Five years for $37 Million is roughly $7.4M a year. This sounds expensive compared to the $2.3M he could make this year, but if you balance it all out and Foltynewicz hits as a true #2 or #3 innings eater, you have struck gold. On top of this, if the Braves front-load the contract so they pay him the most now, while they have some payroll flexibility, it allows them to absorb the cost and manage the risk of the contract in years to come. 

If you look at the state of contracts in MLB in the last 5 years, you will see what I mean. In 2012, the average MLB salary was $3.21Million; in 2017, $4.47 Million. Those numbers don’t sound too far apart, but when you look at it through another lens that is an increase across the board of nearly 72% (stats from Statista). That is insane. Next offseason, arguably the best class of free agents to ever hit the open market will do so, and there is little doubt that average salary numbers are going to continue to skyrocket. If I told you that I could sign a player for about 25% over his current value for the next 5 years that sounds silly, but if I then explained that across the board salaries were going to go up 75% so that at a minimum you were looking at a 50% savings by the end of the contract, I think you would sign up in a heartbeat and that’s the basis of my argument.

Of course the fear is, what if Foltynewicz is a bust? The Atlanta Braves paid R.A. Dickey $7.5M last year at age 42 to pitch for them and be mediocre at best. They paid Bartolo Colon $12M at 43 years old to be complete trash for them. I would much rather see a guy like Folty working through bumps with a chance to build value while eating innings, than guys from a nursing home trying to pad their retirement fund with zero chance of them creating future value.  

The other thing about Folty is this – his stuff is still really good.  He is not a very cerebral pitcher. He’s not going to out-think too many guys, he’s not Greg Maddux and he’s not going to set you up in the first because he’s got a plan of attack for you in the seventh. But his fastball is legit. Let’s say he bombs out as a starter. A guy that can throw 98 in the 8th on his 106th pitch can easily touch 100 if you move him to the bullpen to throw 20 pitches. Not to mention a bullpen role would allow him to narrow his pitches to a smaller mix, and only face hitters one time. (Mike’s stats currently seriously suffer his second and third time through the lineup).  

If Folty busts out and is forced into the pen, the contract still isn’t trash (especially if you front load it). If he develops into a top-tier reliever, you might still have a golden contract; if a mid-level reliever, he might be slightly overpaid, but at the rate of inflation in Major League contracts, even that is doubtful. If he is a total bust, then sure the contract stings, but at the end of the day it’s $37M over 5 years. This isn’t the biggest financial hit this team would have taken by a longshot (see Melvin Upton, Dan Uggla, Matt Kemp, etc).

For mid-market teams, you have to take gambles to make up the gap in money. The Braves have made some really smart financial gambles over the years, like Teheran, Freeman, and Inciarte. I think Mike Foltynewicz should be another one. He’s not perfectly ripened, he’s still a little green in places standing in the field, and there is a risk he won’t be quite as good as the hay down the street, but sometimes you have to mow the hay and bale it while it isn’t raining before it’s perfectly mature. I don’t know if Foltynewicz should be in the Braves rotation 3 years from now, or even in their bullpen, or even on the team, but what I do know is that if you make hay while the sun shines you’re more likely to feed the cows come winter. And if the Braves sign Folty to a long-term deal, they’re more likely to enjoy the value that contract creates than to regret the minimal risk associated with it.

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Bill James has lost his damn mind.

This past week it was brought to my attention, by my replacement-level podcast co-host Ken Hendrix, that Bill James said Johnny Damon was more Hall of Fame worthy than Andruw Jones. Upon hearing this, I laughed and thought that my redneck co-host was just being silly.

I was terrified to learn, after doing some quick searching on James’ Twitter timeline, that what Ken was telling me was the God’s honest truth.

I’ve never been completely blown away by Bill James, but I have always respected the man for his sabermetric research. James is very much the modern predecessor to websites like FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus, and he’s done so much for the game that we all know and love. Bill James’ mantra is simple: Gather as much data as possible and then analyze it in a clear and accurate way to make the best possible decision.

How then can a man who preaches this way of thinking honestly believe that Johnny Damon is more Hall of Fame worthy than Andruw Jones? How can such a respected man be so obtuse?

Listen, I know I’m a homer. As much as I’d like to think that I can look at Andruw Jones’ career completely objectively, I cannot, but what in the actual hell is Bill James talking about?

Then, there’s more…

Willie Mays has the second-best DEF grade by a center fielder with 170.1. Andruw Jones has the best with a 281.3. You didn’t read that wrong, Andruw grades 111.2 points higher than Willie Mays. It’s not rocket science – Andruw Jones was the best defensive center fielder of all time and it’s not even close.

How in the hell can having the best DEF grade of any center fielder in baseball history (by over 100 points) not garner any Hall of Fame support for Andruw Jones? Either Bill James isn’t as intelligent as we thought he was, or someone has hacked Bill James’ Twitter account. If you’ll notice, his account isn’t verified, so the later is a possibility.

I get it. Defensive metrics can be opaque. I preach this all the time on our replacement-level podcast, but if you honestly think that Johnny Damon was a better baseball player (just because he had more extra base hits), then I just cannot take you seriously anymore. Nothing you say matters anymore.

When it comes to defensive metrics, it’s difficult to say that old school metrics aren’t as accurate as newer ones, because other than errors, there aren’t any old school defensive metrics.  This is Bill James’ biggest argument against Andruw Jones being the greatest defensive center fielder of all time, but it’s also why his argument is so flawed. If “old school” players can’t be measured as being worse than Andruw due to a lack of numbers, then they certainly can’t be measured as being better either.

At the end of the day, if Bill James wants to imply that the defensive numbers lie about Andruw Jones then everything is a farce and nothing matters. Statistically, Andruw Jones is the greatest modern center fielder and according to those same statistics, that James’ so adamantly champions, the greatest center fielder of all time.

Knowing that a guy like Bill James has such a convoluted view of Andruw Jones certainly infuriates me. But, in a weird way, it’s not completely unsurprising. Unless you watched Atlanta Braves games from 1996-2005, you truly might not be aware of Andruw’s greatness, despite his insane Hall of Fame worthy defensive metrics.

Numbers don’t tell you that Andruw Jones started running (in the correct direction) before the batter even hit the ball and numbers don’t tell you that guys never tried to stretch a single into a double because Andruw Jones had a cannon of an arm.

With Andruw Jones, you’re talking about a guy with more career home runs than Mike Piazza who was the best defensive center fielder of all time. Everyone’s got bad takes. But if you completely dismiss Andruw’s defensive metrics (WHEN YOU ARE THE GUY WHO PREACHES SUCH THINGS) then please put down the paint chips.

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The Long Dark.

It was a dark day when they came for them. The screams heard across the nation were heart wrenching. Hopes and dreams shattering in a moment. Looking back, perhaps it wasn’t as bad as it seemed, perhaps it was worse.

The colors of the fall had set in fully. The long days of summer slowly trumpeting their retreat. The summer had been challenging, as most are in the sweet plains of Georgia in recent years. The boys had fought bravely, but still were found licking their wounds from the battles that seemed to never end on those late sunsets in the brutal southern heat. The ground that had been gained over the last few years was slow and tedious, but the future seemed bright.

Then came the Fall.

It seems Fall always bring bad news. I guess it should be expected. The trimming back of the fruitfulness of the harvest. The first hints of beautiful color, sending a foreboding warning that barrenness will soon cover the land. They say hindsight is 20/20, but even now I don’t see how we could have seen it coming. You never expect those dearest to you to fall so far, so fast. When our general suddenly withdrew from battle it was a blow to the morale of all the force, and as expected weak links were quickly exposed. Optimism was rich in many, in spite of the fear that gnawed at the hearts of the faithful, while some quickly drew sabres and cast blame. Who could blame them? I certainly had no idea that the outsiders would take back so much ground so quickly.

But alas, that is how the gods operate. Fickle as they may be, always protective of their beloved and always critical of the outsiders. Fearful that someone might usurp their tedious balance of power. As quickly as they had struck down the general, they set about stripping away all of his glorious works. First one cornerstone and then the next, as they gradually unbuilt the perfectly hewn masterworks of the architect they so despised.

Needless to say, the general had opened the door for this. Otherwise, the people would have revolted against the gods. However, the gods can play in the fields of a man’s heart, so long as man gives him the open door. The general believed in few closed doors.

Following his fall, the winter came quick. Icy polar blasts dropped down from the northern reaches. Darkness swallowing up the day, hour after hour, minute after minute. Fifteen of our men would fall to the cold icy blackness. The screams from that day I’ll never forget. It was as if a child was torn from the arms of mothers, obsequious fathers watching as their babes were cast out and sent to live with other homes, never again to see the lights of the fires of home.  

The darkness was all consuming. All encompassing. It stole your very soul, it’s icy tendrils ripping away at the fortitude of the most well built of places like the violence of time etched in the walls of the pyramids. With the cornerstones of the edifice removed, the buildings cracked and crumbled and questions from the faithful turned to the obsessions of mad men. 

One brief fire illuminated the men with a momentary breath of hope. Or was it hate? Seeing men turn on the shipping out of the wounded, no matter their exorbitant costs, shown a dark light on the desperation of the camp. Survival was becoming the heartbeat, all other motivations found secondary to being free of this weight of darkness.

Seeking semblance of normalcy, some turned to the mindless pursuits of endless bartering proposals with the other tribes, some fell away to more droll calculations of remunerations, and some of the purest of heart even found their eyes wandering to the opportunities of the hurricanes of winter.

The cold was paralyzing. If you stood about thinking too long your breath froze to the strands of your mustache like the persistent leak of thick viscous oil. Stoves went out. Darkness settled. The long winter made every second of every day long and tedious. Never ending. No sun, no hope, no future. No barters were made, no whispers spread, the shadows of the taken lingering large in the empty spaces of the farm. No hope of spring.

 

33 days until pitchers and catchers report. If you’re an Atlanta Braves fan this winter sucks.

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