Expansion Teams in Baseball

I was not planning on posting this today, because I was—am?—still working on it. But there was some baseball news last night that prompted me to export what I had to try and get this live.

For a little while now I’ve been wondering why a number of baseball stars, albeit in their later years, are still looking for employment. Some are pretty obvious in that they are facing legal troubles. Some may have high demands that ball clubs are not willing to meet. Some may have reasonable demands but the clubs are just being incredibly cheap. Or it may be none of those. Or some combination of those. But when you see some of the players some teams put on the field each night, you can’t tell me some of these free agents wouldn’t be better options.

Separately, I also tend to think baseball needs to expand and add some new clubs. But they won’t until the Oakland Athletics and Tampa Bay Rays resolve their stadium issues.

But what if…

Well a normal expansion would include two teams to keep an even balance. The new teams would likely use some kind of draft to select players from the rosters of other teams, with a certain number of players almost certainly protected. But what if we just used those unsigned ball players?

Anibal Sanchez is the guy messing this up. He’s been a free agent for some time now but is reportedly going to sign by the end of this week, perhaps today. So with him and everyone else, could we field two expansion teams?

Kinda, yeah.

First up, the Charlotte Piedmonters.

The Charlotte Piedmonters could also be looking for a new name.

Not a great team—nor would we expect it to be as all the really good free agents have already been signed. But these former stars, award winners, and fan favoutites may have just enough left in the tank to make for some competitive games if all goes well. My readers who happen to be fellow baseball fans will probably recognise most of these names, though I’ll admit a number of the relief pitchers are new to me. I can figure out basically everything but a centre fielder. But you could probably get somebody from an independent league or international league or just convert somebody.

I used projected Wins Above Replacement (WAR) to determine how good the players would be. For non-baseball fans, WAR is a value you can use to determine how good a player is relative to an average replacement player. Somebody with the value 0 to 1 is a scrub or bench player. Take any average ballplayer and sub them in and you wouldn’t know the difference. 2s and 3s are solid role playing guys, but not likely stars. Stars get into the picture around 4 and your best players are probably 5 to 6 or higher.

In Charlotte, nobody has a WAR higher than Rick Porcello’s 1.4. In other words, he’s a better than average pitcher, but not by much. Tyler Flowers: a better than average catcher, but not by much. Homer Bailey: barely better than average starting pitcher. Everyone else, generally you could sub them out and not know the difference. But, crucially for our purposes, they are not below average players. Some of those are still on the market, but I didn’t assign them to Charlotte.

Now if Charlotte gets a team, so does Portland, Oregon: the Portland Lumberjacks.

Again, I’m open to name suggestions.

Here you can see Anibal Sanchez as the third man in the rotation. You can also see that the rotation here is the weakest part. For Charlotte you could get away with a bullpen game every five days. But two bullpen days? Well, take a look at the Boston Red Sox in 2020 and that pitching dumpster fire and you’ll see what having only two or three starters can do. (Though the relief starters they did use were all worse than the people on these lists, which just makes my point that there are talented if not star-level players available.)

Neither of these teams would be good. You can imagine a team like Charlotte getting beat almost every night in the AL East—except by Baltimore. The NL East might be a bit easier. And Portland in the NL West would be similarly a punching bag—except by Colorado probably. But dump either into the AL or NL Central and who knows.

Two teams is clearly a stretch. So what if we just made one? What if we brought back the Montreal Expos? Sure, it messes up the schedule, but we get to pick the best players from Charlotte and Portland.

No new name needed.

The result is a team that is significantly improved. That doesn’t mean very good. These Expos wouldn’t make the playoffs. But the rotation is full of guys who could be, at best, solid middle- to, more likely, back-end starters. The lineup, well, the lineup would still be mostly replacement level players, a.k.a. scrubs, with two exceptions. But with past track records, it’s not impossible to imagine a few of these players having a better than projected year.

On paper, they still wouldn’t be as good as the worst team in baseball (by WAR), the Pirates. But Pittsburgh also doesn’t have a centre fielder, so…

Anyway, I was going to try and do some more analysis beyond using WAR, but I wanted to get this out before Sanchez signed this week.

I also got to add Oliver Perez, who despite having a good year was released by Cleveland today. Boston needs a solid lefty reliever for the middle innings, and I hope they pick up Perez and option Josh Taylor down to Worcester.

Credit for the piece is mine.

The Super Short European Super League

Sunday night, news broke that a number of European football clubs were creating a rogue league, the European Super League. My British and European readers—and Americans who follow football—will know the names of Manchester United, Liverpool, AC Milan, Juventus, Real Madrid, and the others.

To put this in perspective for my American readers, imagine the Yankees, Dodgers, Red Sox, Astros, Padres, Mets, Cardinals, Phillies, Angels, and Nationals saying that they were leaving Major League Baseball to go and form their own new baseball league. That they were doing so to “save the sport”. But in so doing, they also guarantee they all make the playoffs every year.

My frequent readers and those who know me will know I’m a fan of the Boston Red Sox. I should point out that the owner of the Red Sox, John Henry, owns both the Red Sox and Liverpool through his company Fenway Sports Group.

Of course, the analogy doesn’t quite hold up, because there are some significant differences between American sports and European football. Relegation is a big one. Personally, I wish American sports had some way of using relegation to incentivise teams to not intentionally suck.

The basic premise of relegation. Take English football. You have four levels of play and in theory any team can exist in any level. Each year, the worst teams move from their current level down one whilst the best teams move up. And for the top level, the top teams get to compete in lucrative European-wide matches. That is a bit simplistic, but imagine that at the end of last year, the Pirates, Rangers, Tigers, and Red Sox became AAA minor league teams and the four best AAA minor league teams became MLB teams. MLB teams would theoretically try to do everything they could to stay in the MLB and not drop to AAA, because that would mean a loss of money. After all, the Yankees would no longer be heading to Fenway nor the White Sox to Detroit. Would seeing the Detroit Tigers play the Woo Sox really be worth the ticket prices you pay at Comerica Park?

But that’s not how American sports work. And so a few American owners, namely those of Manchester United, Arsenal, and Liverpool, want to ensure a steady stream of money. By creating their own league where their teams cannot be relegated, they guarantee that revenue stream.

In other words, this is all about the owners of these Super League teams making even more money.

Because, during the last year, teams have been hurting without fans in attendance. And that gets us to why I can write this up. Because the BBC in an article about this new league addressed the fact that most of these teams are heavily in debt.

This graphic, however, is a bit misleading. Look at Liverpool. There is no available data for how much financial debt the club holds. So why is it placed between Chelsea and Manchester City? It could well have more debt than Tottenham. Liverpool should really be left off this chart and included in the note, because its placement suggests that it has little debt, when that may well not be the case. This is a really misleading graphic when it comes to how Liverpool fits with the other 11 clubs.

From a design standpoint, I’m also not clear on why the x-axis line extends beyond the labels for £-200m and £600m.

I’m not going to touch all the data labels. That’s for another piece I’ve been working on off and on for a little while now.

At this point I should point out that I was going to post this article later, but in the last 18 hours or so the whole thing has fallen apart as the English teams, followed by the others, have been dropping out under immense pressure from the sport and their fans. To bring back my analogy above, imagine MLB retaliating and saying that if those teams created their own league, the players would not be allowed to play in any other matches and the teams would be locked out from all other competitive baseball games. It’s a mess.

Credit for the piece goes to the BBC graphics department.

The Armchair General…

Manager.

Of the New England Patriots.

As many of my long-term readers know, I am really only a one sport kind of guy. And that sport is baseball. American football, well, I’ve seen one match live and in person and it was…boring. But it’s a big deal in America. And this is the time of the year when teams begin signing free agents.

I happened to be reading the Boston Globe for news on the Red Sox, my team, when I saw a link to this interactive tool allowing users to build their own roster with free agent signings.

Go Pats

Conceptually, the piece is fairly simple. There is a filterable list of free agents, broken out by whether their forecast signing values falls into the high-, middle-, or low-end of the range. Plus a draft pick.

I root for the Patriots. However, if you asked me to name a single player on last season’s roster, I could only name Cam Newton. Apparently he wasn’t great. I really and truly don’t follow the sport.

The piece displays the available free agents, along with those no longer available. (Though, the piece does offer you the option to go back to the beginning of free agent season and pretend reality didn’t happen.)

I have no idea who any of these people are.

I went through and began semi-randomly picking names. I’d heard of some of them, and others were blind choices. Once you’ve selected within the budget, you can choose a draft pick. They all appear in list format to the right with the ability to remove them via a small X button.

Nope, not a clue.

Once you’ve confirmed your choices you’re taken to a screen that reviews your selection. You are able to either tweet it to the world—which I did not do—or start over again. I would do that, but I wouldn’t do any better than how I just did.

I hope I did at least okay.

Overall, the piece felt intuitive and I never had any issues selecting my free agents. Of course, it would help if I knew anything about the sport. But that’s a user problem.

Credit for the piece goes to Ben Volin.

Farewell, Cardboard Cutouts

In 2020, baseball did not permit fans to attend regular season matches. (They changed this for the playoffs.) Instead, many stadiums opted for cardboard cutouts: fans often paid a fee and submitted a picture that the team printed on cardboard cutouts. Like so many things we will say about 2020, it was surreal.

But in Philadelphia at least, cardboard cutouts are out, and human fans are in. The state government in Harrisburg and the city government will allow 20% capacity at outdoor stadiums and 15% for indoor stadiums.

The Philadelphia Inquirer created a small graphic for its homepage to capture this news.

I cannot wait to safely attend a live match. C’mon, vaccines.

I intentionally included other site elements in the cropping to show how the graphic fits into the broader site. The extra white space around the image helps focus attention on the datagraphic over the numerous photographic elements for each article. Clicking on other tabs in the section brings up full-component-width graphics.

To the graphic itself.

Still can’t wait…

My guess would be this was a quick turnaround piece. There are a few things going on here. The first and most obvious one, the squares as spectators. Now I confess this confused me at first. I was not entirely certain what the coloured squares meant; they mean in-person attendees. Was this supposed to be an overall stadium? Or was it a representative seating section?

The quick turnaround becomes important, because this is probably how I would have first conceptualised the graphic. But, with more time, I may have attempted to incorporate the shape of the playing field, be it a baseball diamond or basketball court, or hockey rink—I know all the sports terms!—and surrounded them with shapes representing a certain number of spectators. Squares might not work in that case because of the curves. Circles? Hexagons? Regardless of the shape, the filling of occupied seats would be the same as here, but it would perhaps be clearer to some readers, i.e. me.

Second, we get to the table below the graphics. Here we have a subtle design decision. Note that here the designer greyed out the normal capacity figures. The new figures at that 20% and 15% rates are what appear in black bold text. My usual instinct is to use typographic weight, regular vs. bold, in these situations. But the grey here works equally well.

Third, and this also involves the table, we have the first game data. We talked about the comparison of the capacity and permitted attendance. But I wonder, did the date of the first game with fans needed to be displayed in the same way as the permitted attendance? Because the news isn’t the dates of the first games—at least not as I read the news—but the numbers of attendees. And because of that, maybe I would have reduced the size of the type for the date of the first game. Or, conversely, set the type for the new attendance in a larger point size.

Overall, I enjoyed seeing this news presented visually, even if I was left confused.

Credit for the piece goes to John Duchneskie.

Trading Andrew Benintendi

Yesterday, one year to the day the Boston Red Sox traded Mookie Betts to the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Red Sox made another big trade, sending Andrew Benintendi, their starting left fielder, to the Kansas City Royals as part of another three-team trade—last year’s three-team part fell apart, but initially involved Boston receiving a quality reliever from the Minnesota Twins.

In this year’s trade, the Red Sox receive an outfielder, Franchy Cordero, from the Royals and a pitcher, Josh Winckowski, from the New York Mets. Boston is sending $2.8 million to Kansas City to help defray the costs. Using data from Baseball Trade Value, we can make a quick graphic to show how this trade shakes out for the teams involved.

How the trade looks, with incomplete data

At first glance, we see that the Red Sox and the Royals are giving up more than they are receiving in value. The Mets look like the clear winner here, by a long shot.

And it could end up that way this time next year.

But, there is one enormous question mark—or maybe three. The Red Sox are also acquiring one player to be named later from the Mets and two from the Royals. Players to be named later are usually not the high end of prospects, but instead of low to middle value. And what appears likely in this case is that the Red Sox will be presented lists of players from both teams and Boston can choose which ones they like. The key here is that this could take a few months to sort out, because Boston wants to see how these players perform in the minor leagues. In 2020, there was no minor league season and so teams have very little to no information on players, which makes it nigh impossible to accurately assess their skill sets.

And so yes, we can make graphics like this and talk about how the Red Sox lost this trade. But in reality, we’ll need to wait a few months to see the last three players of the deal to see how badly—or how well—Boston does in the end.

Credit for the piece is mine.

Shipping Out of Boston

Monday was the trade deadline for this year’s attempt at a baseball season. The Red Sox actively sold off parts of their roster. You may remember that just two years ago, the Red Sox won the World Series, the sport’s national championship. One would imagine that two years later, most of that championship calibre roster would remain.

You would be wrong.

Well over half that roster is gone. And to prove it, I bought a t-shirt to celebrate. The t-shirt’s design featured the World Series roster on the reverse. (To be fair, there was a mistake as Brandon Workman, who had been on the ALDS and ALCS teams was removed for Drew Pomeranz. But Pomeranz is also gone and so what do you know, the math still works.) I simply crossed out who is no longer with the team.

Some people retired, like Steve Pearce, who, despite being World Series MVP, had his body simply give out and could no longer play the sport two years later. Others, like Blake Swihart, were really only on the roster so that they would not be lost to waiver claims. Still others, like Joe Kelly, understandably left in free agency for deals that were probably way overpriced. And others like Mitch Moreland were simply traded at the end of their contracts for potential prospects to build the next winning team.

And then there are the others.

Brock Holt, a fan favourite super utility, a verifiable Brockstar, who the Red Sox never really entertained any notion of retaining this past off-season. Jose Peraza is no Brock Holt.

And of course, last but certainly not least, we have the Mookie Betts situation. Because ownership has got to make its millions. A homegrown, fifth-round draft pick who was originally slotted into second base. As he began to rise through the system the thought was to trade him, because Dustin Pedroia blocked him in that position. Well someone, somewhere (probably no longer in the organisation) had the idea of let’s try him in the outfield. 2018 MVP much?

But he was traded to the Dodgers this off season because ownership wouldn’t agree to an extension, a pricey one to be fair, but one that an ownership group and a particular owner that includes (in whole or in part) the Red Sox, Fenway Park, NESN, Roush Fenway Racing (controls two NASCAR cars), and in the UK, Liverpool FC, and Anfield, home of Liverpool FC. So, you know, they have some money. But they wouldn’t commit to paying a homegrown star his due to have him play his entire career in Boston.

So they flipped him to the Dodgers for a few prospects and one player, Alex Verdugo, who has a checkered past with allegations of being present near a sexual assault (though he is not alleged to have assaulted the victim, being as he was reportedly in the other room) and then more directly recording on Snapchat the beating of aforementioned victim by two other women who were in the room. None of this has been proven in court, however, because none of it was thoroughly investigated, allegedly because the Dodgers and their director of player development, who would later go on to manage the Phillies and now the Giants, did not really want it fully investigated. And by all accounts, the incident will never be fully investigated and so we’ll never really know what happened in that hotel room.

They traded Mookie Betts, generally perceived in the media as all around nice and humble guy, and also a champion bowler, for saving some money, two minors prospects, and Alex Verdugo.

Credit for the original shirt goes to somebody on either the MLB or Red Sox design teams I would assume. The annotations are, of course, my own work.

When Is an Opener Game in Baseball Really Just a Bullpen Game?

Whenever someone not named Eovaldi or Perez starts a Red Sox game in 2020, that’s when.

We all know the Red Sox are the worst team in the American League. They have only two starters, maybe sometimes a third. And then the last two days of the regular five-day rotation cycle, manager Ron Roenicke throws some relievers at the wall and sees which ones stick that night. Spoiler: Few do.

But as much as I enjoy listening to the three-man broadcasting booth (Remy and Eck make the games fun to at least listen to) the games are unwatchable. And then to hear them try and dress a game up as having an opener? Well, what is the opener?

For the non-baseball fans, most are probably aware enough that some guy goes out to a small hill and throws (pitches) a ball at a batter for most of the night. Then towards the end, when the guy’s energy wanes, he is replaced by some guy who throws really fast. That’s over simplified, but that’s a normal ballgame. A starting pitcher records five, but ideally at least six, innings of work before handing the ball over to an eighth-inning setup man and then a ninth-inning closer. Sometimes a really good seventh-inning reliever sets up the setup man.

A bullpen game, by contrast, is when a bunch of those relief pitchers handle the entire game. Usually this would be after a game went into extra innings (since baseball cannot end in a tie, unless you’re in an All Star game), and the next day’s starting pitcher had to finish the long game by pitching several innings. With nobody available to throw six innings, a bunch of relievers come in and try to cover that by pitching one, two, or three innings each.

The opener game is relatively new. The idea is in addition to the really good closer, a really good opener records the first inning or two (3–6 outs) to deal with the opposing team’s best hitters. He then hands the ball over to a mediocre starting pitcher who throws the next four or five innings, who then hands the ball over to the late-inning relief specialists. Doing it this way, the starter avoids one set of at-bats or plate appearances by the opposition’s best hitters.

But when is an opener just a bullpen game? Well, it’s when that mediocre starting pitcher isn’t really a starting pitcher. And when he doesn’t even throw four or five innings. Basically all the Red Sox games this year.

I made a graphic this morning to contrast those different types of games and compare them to a game I watched two nights ago between the Red Sox and the Tampa Bay Rays. The game was teed up as an opener with a good relief pitcher by the name of Ryan Brasier starting the first inning. But then instead of a mediocre starter pitching four or five innings, we got a mediocre reliever pitching three innings. He handed it over to a guy who was supposed to go maybe two, but couldn’t get through his second inning. He handed it over to another guy, who handed it over to another guy, who handed it over to a final guy. And none of those last guys were the good relievers you would typically expect to see. (Though, to be fair, the Sox weren’t winning, so why use your best relievers?)

What is an opener and how does it compare to a bullpen game?
Different game types compared

Credit for the piece is mine.

Credit for the Red Sox dumpster fire of a season goes to John Henry and ownership.

Red Sox Starting Rotation: A Dumpster Fire in a Dumpster Fire Year

Baseball for the Red Sox starts on Friday. Am I glad baseball is back? Yes?

I love the sport and will be glad that it’s back on the air to give me something to watch. But the But the way it’s being done boggles the mind. Here today I don’t want to get into the Covid, health, and labour relations aspect of the game. But, as the title suggests, I want to look at a graphic that looks at just how bad the Red Sox could be this (shortened) year. And over at FiveThirtyEight, they created a model to evaluate teams’ starting rotations on an ongoing basis.

The Red Sox are just bad.
Look at the Red Sox, one of the worst in baseball.

Form wise, this isn’t too difficult than what we looked at yesterday. It’s a dot plot with the dots representing individual pitchers. The size of the dots represents their number of total starts. This is an important metric in their model, but as we all know size is a difficult attribute for people to compare and I’m not entirely convinced it’s working here. Some dots are clearly smaller than others, but for most it’s difficult for me to clearly tell.

Colour is just tied to the colour of the teams. Necessary? Not at all. Because the teams are not compared on the same plot, they could all be the same colour. If, however, an eventual addition were made that plot the day’s matchups on one line, then colour would be very much appropriate.

I like the subtle addition of “Better” at the top of the plots to help the user understand the constructed metric. Otherwise the numbers are just that, numbers that don’t mean anything.

Overall a solid piece. And it does a great job of showing just how awful the Red Sox starting rotation is going to be. Because I know who Nate Eovaldi is. And I’ve heard of Martin Perez. Ryan Weber I only know through largely pitching in relief last year. And after that? Well, not on this graphic, but we have Eduardo Rodriguez who had corona and, while he has recovered, nobody knows how that will impact people in sports. There’s somebody named Hall who I have never heard of. Then we have Brian Johnson, a root for the guy story of beating the odds to reach the Major Leagues but who has been inconsistent. Then…it is literally a list of relief pitchers.

We dumped the salary of Mookie Betts and David Price and all we got was basically a tee-shirt saying “We still need a pitcher or three”.

Credit for the piece goes to Jay Boice.

The Mookie Betts Trade

Apologies for the lack of posting the last few months. There are several things going on in my life right now that have prevented me from focusing on Coffee Spoons as much as I would like. I will endeavour to resume posting, but it might not be the daily schedule it had been for at least a little while longer.

Onwards and downwards to the title—one of the dumbest, stupidest, worstest things the Boston Red Sox have done. At least in my lifetime. But also probably in all time. Except Babe Ruth to the Yankees. Also dumb. I’m so upset by this trade I’m using my words good.

The Red Sox had some financial difficulties, or so they claimed. Their payroll was one of the highest in baseball and was over an arbitrary line called the luxury tax, above which teams incur penalties. Repeat offenders pay increased fines, lose draft picks, &c. Boston was a repeat offender and was set to be again with several large contracts on the books.

Instead of sucking it up for a year and fielding a competitive team, the Red Sox dumped a huge chunk of their salary by trading away their star player, maybe baseball’s second best, and their second best pitcher. For a good, not great, outfielder, a fringe-y second baseman, and an even fringier catcher. But mostly they got salary relief. And the 2020 Sox are going to be painful to watch.

Anyway, I made a graphic about this complete suckfest. Because it sucks.

Suckfest 2020.
Suckfest 2020.

Credit for this awfulness goes to Chaim Bloom, the new president of Red Sox baseball operations. But the graphic is mine.

How Worldly Is the World Series?

The World Series began Tuesday night. But, as many people reading this blog will know, baseball is not exactly a global sport. But is it really? CityLab looked at the origin of Major League Baseball players and it turns out that almost 30% of the players today are from outside the United States. They have a number of charts and graphics that explore the places of birth of ball players. But one of the things I learned is just how many players hail from the Dominican Republic—since 2000, 12% of all players.

There are quite a few players from countries around the Caribbean.
There are quite a few players from countries around the Caribbean.

The choropleth here is an interesting choice. It’s a default choice, so I understand it. But when so many countries that are being highlighted are small islands in the Caribbean, a geographically accurate map might not be the ideal choice. Really, this map highlights from just how few countries MLB ball players originate.

Fortunately the other graphics work really well. We get bar charts about which cities provide MLB rosters. But the one I really enjoy is where they account for the overall size of cities and see which cities, for every 100,000 people, provide the most ballplayers.

One of the other things I want to pick on, however, is the inclusion of Puerto Rico. In the dataset, the designers included it as a foreign country. When, you know, it’s part of the United States.

Credit for the piece goes to David H. Montgomery.