Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Thoughts on the 2017 Veterans Committee Ballot, as well as Managers in the Hall

It's December, which means that it's the most wonderful time of the year: Hall of Fame season. No joke, this is actually probably my favorite time to write about baseball, at least based on the number of ideas I always seem to come up with around now each year. And in that fine tradition, I again have a whole bunch of ideas lined up; hopefully I'll get through all of them. For the time being, let's start with the one most relevant to this week, the Veterans Committee results.

Let's just clear something up right now before going any further: despite their recent reforms to the process, the Veterans Committee has a whole bunch of issues still. Most notably, the math of the group doesn’t work out. You know how everyone always gives the BBWAA ballot a hard time for being structured in a way that forces voters to leave off players that they think are deserving? The Veterans Committee is that on steroids (pun intended).

For those who don’t know, the committee right now is 16 people, 12 of whom have to support a player in order to induct them. They each get a ballot of 10 names, and can name up to 4 names. That means there are up to 64 votes going around, so up to 5 names can make the cut (64/12=5 remainder 4). But that’s assuming voters are allocated to get everyone to only 12 votes; in real life, the VC still has unanimous inductees, like John Schuerholz this year. One unanimous choice immediately cuts our pool of votes down to 48, so that’s all of our “remainder” ballots. Hopefully everyone is in total agreement over the other four names that merit induction, or else we have no chance at maximizing inductees.

And in real life, we can get more than one unanimous choice. It almost happened this year, with Bud Selig falling a vote short. Two unanimous choices leave the other eight candidates to fight over 32 votes, making it hard for anyone to build up a following, and impossible for more than two more inductees to make it. We’ve even had three unanimous choices as recently as 2014! (Tony La Russa, Joe Torre, and Bobby Cox, all of whom I think we can agree were more than deserving). You can clearly run out of spaces very quickly.

You’ll note that all of those names aren’t players, which makes sense. The names going on a Veterans Committee ballot couldn’t make it on the BBWAA ballot, so they probably won’t get a unanimous vote here. Meanwhile, all executives and managers are inducted exclusively here, from the best of the best to the ones that people will look at in ten years and ask “who?”. Those best-of-the-best types, though, will always be picking up votes first and squeezing the players out, which seems to defeat the entire purpose of the VC.

But I’d argue this year that it went even further; even the managers were getting squeezed out of ballot slots. Because this year's "executive" category was like that "La Russa/Cox/Torre" manager class from 2014. John Schuerholz was unanimous for a reason; he played a major role in building the 1980s Royals, a powerhouse of a system, and then went on to build the 1990s Braves, who you may have heard had a couple of playoff appearances.

And then there’s Bud Selig. I think Craig Calcaterra lays out a pretty good case for why he didn’t deserve induction, and I think that I wouldn’t have voted for him if I had a say, since it was such a crowded ballot. Of course, I also probably wouldn’t have gotten a ballot with that stance, but let’s ignore that for a minute. Just speaking objectively, Selig was getting inducted. Baseball commissioners have been pretty…not great, overall, so he’s at the very least near the top of the rankings in that category. And the Hall has made it clear that they’ll vote for any commissioner with a moderate-length tenure or more; they even inducted Bowie Kuhn, who’s most notable achievement was getting steamrolled as he tried to hold back the advancing tide of free agency. There was no way Selig wasn’t getting in, and probably with more than the minimum twelve votes.

As mentioned, that leaves us ~32 votes to play around with, and we haven’t even discussed anyone with hard stats (we also haven’t discussed owner George Steinbrenner, who was a much weaker candidate than Selig or Schuerholz, but had a decent case all the same). Manager stats aren’t anywhere near as comprehensive or accurate a view as player stats, but we can at least look at wins, championships, playoff titles, awards, winning percentage, and so on. So now we’re left trying to compare not just Lou Piniella to Davey Johnson or Mark McGwire to Will Clark, Albert Belle, Orel Hershiser, and Harold Baines, but all of those against each other (with Steinbrenner still in the mix). That is a very diverse group that can make it hard to pick stand-outs. How do you allocate those ~32 votes left among such a group?

So that’s why I think Piniella and Johnson saw almost shockingly-low levels of support. On my ideal ballot, I think I would have included both of them, plus McGwire (who I’ve written about in the past in a Hall of Fame context) and Schuerholz, with Selig on the outside looking in.

I don’t think I need to defend Schueholz’s candidacy, nor do I feel like rehashing yet again why I support Mark McGwire for Cooperstown (he’s a yearly fixture on my “50 Best Players Not in the Hall of Fame” lists, if you want a starting place of where to look for those), so I might as well hash out my cases for the managers.

Let’s just get this out of the way right off the bat: no, neither of them are on the level of Joe Torre or Bobby Cox or Tony La Russa. But, much like the Hall of Fame standard for the players isn’t Willie Mays or Babe Ruth, those three are not the standard for Hall of Fame standard for managers. For example, every manager with 2000 career wins is in the Hall, but that set only represents half of the 22 inductees. Every manager with three or more World Series titles is in, but that’s only nine individuals; meanwhile, eight only managed their way to a single title in their careers.

Basically, this is even more fluid than electing players. There are some automatic figures, but also a lot of subjective arguments. So let’s start with Davey Johnson, because I think he has the stronger objective arguments.

Johnson managed the 1986 Mets to a World Series, and generally speaking, the only hard and fast requirement for managers so far seems to be that they must have one championship, so we’ve got that out of the way. Additionally, Davey Johnson is the most games over .500 for any manager in history to not be in Cooperstown. At a .562 winning percentage, he’s 301 games over; the other 18 names with 279 or more are all in the Hall, although some of them are inducted more for their times as players or executives. Still, it’s a strong argument.

Coincidentally, the second highest games over .500 mark for a non-inducted manager is Billy Martin, and I think both should be in for similar reasons. Not only were they successful, their success seemed to follow them. Martin is best known for his time with the Yankees, but he managed in a lot of other places too. The Twins went from 79 wins in 1969 to 97 and an ALCS appearance the following year when he took over. He left after that season, and the Twins would post one more similar season before returning to mediocrity. Same with the Tigers, who jumped up 12 games when he joined in 1971 and fell 13 when he left. The Rangers were similar as well. We’ll never be able to run seasons twice with different managers as controls, but seeing him win across so many teams, with several of them sliding back when he left…maybe it’s not a definite sign that he was skilled as a manager, but that sounds like what we would be looking for if we wanted to make that argument.

Johnson seems the same. The Mets won 90 games in his first season after seven straight of under 70. The year after he left, they fell back to 77 wins after winning 87 or more every year he was there. The Reds went from fifth place to two straight first place finishes with winning percentages of .579 and .590 with him, and right back to third place and a .500 finish without him. The Orioles’ only playoff appearances, not to mention winning seasons, between 1994 and 2012 came with him at the helm. The Nationals had their first good season in Washington under his watch, a 98-win season which they haven’t matched even going back to their Montreal days, and which broke them out of a decade and a half of mediocrity. Like I said about Martin: after a certain point, winning in so many circumstances, while others can’t quite measure up to your success…that all seems to indicate that there was something special about that manager, even if we can’t quite quantify it yet.

And then, there’s Lou Piniella. Again, he had a single title to his name, meaning he meets that requirement. He didn’t quite get to 2000 wins, but he got close at 1835. The only manager with more wins than him and no plaque in Cooperstown is Gene Mauch…but that’s not really a great comparison. Mauch had a losing record with a career .483 winning percentage (to Piniella’s .517), and for as much as people make at time’s about his lack of postseason success given the strength of his teams, at least Lou has a title, unlike Mauch. And even if it isn’t as good as a title, I think Piniella deserves some extra credit for his miraculous 116-win season with the 2001 Mariners.

Actually, let’s look at those Mariners more closely for a second. I feel like he gets grief for not winning more with them. After all, look at all the great players they had: Ken Griffey, Jr.! Alex Rodriguez! Randy Johnson! Ichiro Suzuki! Edgar Martinez! And so on. How do you not win with talent like that?

Well, I think it is worth mentioning a couple of things. First, even with the lack of a title, it’s the most postseason success Seattle has ever seen. No non-Piniella manager has ever taken the Mariners to the postseason, let alone three ALCS matchups.

But more importantly, those teams weren't quite as good as memory would lead us to believe. Let’s set aside the four years where Seattle made the postseason and lost, as I think chance plays a little bit too big a role in the playoffs to definitively say that all of those failures are Piniella’s fault. But what about the other six years?*

*For those wondering, that would be 1993, 1996, 1998, 1999, 2002, and 1994, when there were no playoffs but the Mariners weren’t positioned to make them had there been. Although it’s also worth pointing out that not all of those were bad years. Most notably, they won 93 games in 2002 but still missed the playoffs, as the 103-win A’s and 99-win Angels finished ahead of them. In another division, the Mariners probably make it a fifth time.
Well...the short story is that, even with all those big names, the Mariners weren’t as deep as you’d remember. They weren’t super teams, despite the star power, as the stars didn’t perfectly overlap. A-Rod didn’t debut until 1996, and Ichiro didn’t debut until 2001. Griffey left after 1999. Edgar Martinez missed most of 1993 and 1994 with injuries. Jay Buhner probably wasn’t as good as you remember. It was good, but also not exactly Murderer’s Row.

On top of that, the rotation was frequently shaky after Johnson, which was devastating when he was injured in 1996 and left Sterling Hitchcock as the staff ace (at least until they finally picked up Jamie Moyer at the deadline). A lot of the rotations looked like this year’s Orioles, and let me tell you, that was not a fun rotation to watch. Without the bullpen, things would have been even worse…speaking of which, Piniella wasn’t working with a relief corps nearly as good as Buck Showalter. Results varied from “okay” to “very much not okay” The Mariners finally sorted the rotation issues out towards the end…after Johnson, Rodriguez, and Griffey had all left and as Buhner was wrapping up his career. Nothing seemed to line up exactly like they needed it to.

How much of that lack of depth is Piniella’s fault? Maybe some of it, but it’s not enough for me to think his tenure in Seattle was a disappointment in the end. He wasn’t a guy squandering superteams, he was just a guy doing pretty decently with very top-heavy rosters. And in the end, he’s still the most successful skipper the team has ever seen, even if they didn’t win him a second trophy.

Anyway, this piece has gone on for much longer than I anticipated, so I should probably start wrapping things up. In the end, until the Hall of Fame decides to change up the process by which the Veterans Committee functions (yet again), we’ll probably be stuck seeing manager- and executive-heavy classes of inductees and not many players, which is a shame. And until they remove the per-ballot vote cap, we’re going to continue to see deserving candidates like McGwire and Piniella and Johnson squeezed out in favor of higher-profile candidates. Considering that the VC was intended to help exactly those sorts of cases, this seems like a massive design flaw.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Prepare Yourself for More Droughts Like the Curse of the Billy Goat

As you may have heard, a certain team recently ended a World Series drought of 108 seasons. In a clash of two historically unfortunate teams, the Chicago Cubs ended their record-setting (across all sports, even) streak of futility. And like I wrote about it at the time, this World Series was a historic meeting that will remain at the top of its category for some time.  It's mathematically guaranteed until 2047, at the very least. And even in just comparing the misfortunes of individual teams, the Cleveland Indians have another four decades until they match where the Cubs just were. Even the second-longest drought of all time, that of the Cubs' crosstown rivals the White Sox, fell two decades short. It seems like such an outlier in all regards, doesn't it?

Yes, it will be sometime before we see another World Series drought in similar length to the Cubs'...but it is almost guaranteed to fall, and probably sooner than you would first believe. Even that record-setting 174 years of combined drought in World Series competitors is probably less safe than it seems like it should be, and could very likely fall within your lifetime. Historic droughts are going to start becoming more common; it's really just a simple question of math.

Just think of the question as a basic algebra question. There are currently 30 teams in Major League Baseball, so let's give them each a given probability of 1/30 for winning it all in any given year, or approximately 3.33% if you prefer it in percentage form. That might seem overly simplistic; you wouldn't give, say, the Cubs and the Braves equal chances in 2017. But if we take a long-term view of things, the odds even out pretty well. We have zero clue what the 2026 versions of either team will look like, so just assigning every team a 1/30 probability is probably a reasonable assumption.

Conversely, that would mean that any team has a 29/30 chance of not winning in a random year, or 96.67%. Now, if we wanted to see the odds of a team not winning in either year one or year two, we'd just multiply the probability of not winning in either year, or 29/30^2. That gets us to a 93.44% chance of a given team not winning in either of two seasons in a row.

So let's extrapolate from there. The chance of a given team not winning for 100 years in a row would be 29/30^100, which works out to about 3.37%. If your first reaction to that might be "that's not so bad", compare that to the initial 1/30 odds. That means there is a (marginally) better than 1-in-30 chance of a team going a century without, which, given that there are currently 30 teams, means that you would expect (on average, if you could set it up like an experiment and run it a bunch of times) at least one to go 100 straight seasons without winning it all.

And that's just using the most simplistic view of the problem. In real life, we have several confounding factors to deal with. For example, not every team is going in to every season with 1/30 teams; a team that gets saddled with below-average management will see even worse odds for some years in that stretch. Additionally, Major League Baseball isn't done expanding just yet. We've been hearing some rumblings of possible new teams for a little bit now, which makes sense given that 1998 (the last season with new teams) to the present represents the longest the league has gone without growing since the initial 1961 expansion. As soon as we hit 32 or 34 or more teams, each individual team's odds will continue to drop.

On top of that, each team isn't starting at the same place. If we had thirty brand new teams in a hypothetical competitor league start this season, we'd (on average) expect one to have a barren century. But not all MLB teams are starting at zero. The Indians, as mentioned, would only need to go four more decades to match the Cubs, which works out to just over a one-in-four chance (25.77%). The Rangers and Astros, at 56 and 55 respective years without a championship, come in at just under one-in-six, and then there's a trio of teams approaching the half-century mark on top of them.

That's not to say that they'll be quite as...extraordinary as the Cubs' streak. After all, the Cubs pulled off half of that in a pre-expansion era of only sixteen teams. A "mere" fifty years of not winning with 1/16 odds (6.25%) is actually roughly as likely as not winning for a hundred years in a thirty-team league, so any future "hundred-year rebuilding plans" won't have been as statistically improbable as the Cubs' recently-ended one unless the new team eclipses their mark in length. Of course, I'm sure that fact will do a lot to comfort whichever team's fans finds themselves on the wrong end of a century of ultimately coming up short.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Best Active Players Without a World Series

Once again, in honor of the World Series, I released a new Sporcle quiz: the Best Active Players Without a World Series Title. I’ve released ones like this before, so I decided to update it for 2016. If you want to play it, just follow that link. I also have some writing on the subject below. There are some spoilers, so only click on the “read more” link when you aren’t as concerned with those. Also, pretty much all of this post was written before the end of the series so that it would be ready to go ASAP, so please excuse any hypotheticals I may have forgotten to edit out.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

A Sporcle Quiz and Other Assorted Trivia for the 2016 World Series

In honor of the World Series starting, I released a new Sporcle Quiz: Can you pick the World Series match-ups? It’s pretty difficult, but also a lot of fun.

Also, as a follow-up on my 2016 Drought Report: it’s been a pretty good year. We got one of the sixteen possible World Series match-ups that had never occurred before, but that's just the start of it. The Cubs and Indians (1908 and 1948, in case you need a refresher) represent not just the two longest active championship droughts in the playoffs this year, but in baseball overall. In fact, in all of the North American sports leagues, the only way you could construct a longer combined title drought right now is if the Cubs somehow faced off against the Arizona Cardinals (naturally; who else would the Cubs face but a Cardinals team?) in what I only presume would be the World Championship of Calvinball.

With a combined 174 years of drought between them, the 2016 World Series’ record is guaranteed to stand for a little while, because one of the two longest droughts is guaranteed to end. The Cubs (as of right now) by themselves automatically make any potential match-up third on this list. If they go, we’re going to need to wait for the Brewers, Padres, or Nationals to catch up. Each of those three is yet to win it all since being founded in 1969, tying them for second longest championshipless streak in the National League. If the Indians and one of those three were to not win until their combined droughts topped 174 years, we’d be waiting until the 2047 season.

But even if the Indians triumph and leave us the Cubs’ drought, we’ll still have a few years with the record at minimum. The next possible match-up to top 174 years would be a 2023 Cubs-Rangers World Series, with a Cubs-Astros series tying the record (those 1960s expansion teams have had it rough, overall).

And again, that’s assuming not only that we get those very specific matchups, but also that none of those three teams win in the interim; they all seem poised to be strong for some time, and as we’ve seen, any team can get hot in October. And it wouldn’t be unheard of for one or both of these teams to have a sustained run of success after this season. Just look at the runner-up matches on that list: the Red Sox, Cardinals, and Giants all appear, and have combined for seven of the past twelve titles.

All signs seem to point to this not only being a unique occurrence in baseball history, but also to it staying that way for quite a while.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Droughts, Expansion Team Series, and Other Trivia on the 2016 Playoffs

Two years ago, I wrote about all of the teams with World Series droughts that would be going to the postseason. I didn’t intend to make it a regular feature back then, but then the very next season, wouldn’t you know it, there was yet another batch of teams looking to bust their drought! (And that postseason actually ended with a drought getting busted, unlike 2014!)

Two years of looking at this aspect of the playoffs was enough to inspire me to look again, and it wound up being yet another interesting set of teams, so it looks like I have a new tradition on my hands here. How does it stack up to years past? Well enough, actually. In fact, once again, the Blue Jays are the third-shortest championship drought in the whole thing, despite last year marking their first postseason appearance in 22 seasons.

Giants: 2014
Red Sox: 2013
Blue Jays: 1993
Dodgers: 1988
Mets: 1986
Orioles: 1983
Nationals: Never (team founded in 1969)
Rangers: Never (team founded in 1961)
Indians: 1948
Cubs: 1908

Comparing that to last year, we lose a little bit at the top (since the Yankees and Cardinals were the most recent winners from last year’s set, with 2009 and 2011 wins, respectively), but the addition of the second-longest active title drought in the Indians more than makes up for that. We once again have two 1960s expansion teams that have never won, although the Nationals are a little younger than the Astros.

How does that look in the larger context of the wild card era?

Yep, once again, this year’s set of playoff teams are some of the longest suffering. With a 39.9 year average drought and a 31.5 median, they stand above every year other than 1998, which was a murderer’s row of suffering teams, between the Cubs, Indians, pre-2004 Red Sox, and the championshipless Astros, Rangers, and Padres…but wound up with the Yankees on top anyway.

Another interesting way to look at this year’s set of teams: throughout baseball history, only 25 times has a World Series drought lasted more than 30 seasons. Eleven of those droughts are active, and for the second season in a row, five of thoes eleven teams are playing in October.

Relatedly, the ten teams left have combined for only 33 titles, which is interesting in its own right. That’s the fewest combined titles for a playoff set since the league expanded to a ten-team finale. Heck, even going back to when only eight teams made it, that’s still the second-lowest combined total ever; the only year with less decaorated teams (both in sum and in average) was 2008, with the Phillies, Cubs, Dodgers, Brewers, Rays, White Sox, Angels, and Red Sox combining for only 20 wins. Granted, this number is a little misleading. The Yankees alone are nearly enough to put any year above this*, with their 27 titles. But it’s interesting trivia all the same.

*Fun fact: the lowest total number of previous World Series titles you can construct for a ten-team postseason set that features the Yankees is 30.

Also, if you’re interested in World Series match-ups as much as I am, this is a pretty good set of teams. With 25 possible combinations available, only 9 of them have previously occurred, and 6 of those haven’t occurred in five decades or more. The nine World Series that have occurred before from this set of teams includes:

Cubs-Red Sox (1918)
Dodgers-Indians (1920)
Dodgers-Orioles (1966)
Dodgers-Red Sox (1916)
Giants-Red Sox (1912)
Giants-Indians (1954)
Giants-Rangers (2010)
Mets-Orioles (1969)
Mets-Red Sox (1986)

So yeah, there’s a greater-than-80 percent chance we see a matchup we haven’t seen since 1920. Whatever happens will more than likely be something that we’ve never seen personally before. It’s also worth noting that five of those pairings involving the Giants or Mets, one of whom will be knocked out after Wednesday, while six involve either the Red Sox or Indians, who are facing off in the ALDS, making the probabilities of repeats slightly less likely.

And lastly, I have to cover the All-Expansion-Team angle, as has also become something of a tradition here. Just because we got our first example last year doesn’t mean I’m going to stop just like that. And while we don’t have five expansion teams playing on like last year (which was a record), we did get pretty close, with four.

Assuming each series has 50/50 odds (which isn’t too far off, to be honest), the AL has a roughly 37.5% chance of being represented by an expansion club (the Blue Jays in the Wild Card game and the Rangers set to face of against the Wild Card game winner). Meanwhile, the NL has similar odds (with the Nationals in the NLDS and the Mets in the Wild Card game), although their set-up is different, meaning that we might either end up with an all-expansion NLCS or no expansion teams moving on.  Put together, that’s a 14.1% chance of our second all-expansion team World Series, or just under 1-in-6. That doesn’t sound great, but it’s not much worse than what we had last year, so it could happen.