Week of July 26, 2019

It’s a TOB Only Week: Exactly one year after this amazing photo was taken, these two lovebirds are tying the knot this weekend. Congrats PAL and NML!

Why Are We Still Discussing This? MLB Needs to Mandate Immediate Extension of Protective Netting to the Foul Poles

Last weekend, a 3-year old was struck by a foul line drive off the bat of Francisco Lindor of the Cleveland Indians. At this time, the extent of the child’s injuries are unknown, but he was seen rushed up from the stands in the arms of an adult, presumably his father. This incident came on the heels of a similar incident in May, where the Chicago Cubs’ Albert Almora, Jr. fouled a ball off that struck a toddler in the head. That child, we now know, suffered a fractured skull, subdural bleeding, brain contusions, and brain edema. The child was lucky to survive. After these incidents, Lindor and Almora were each visibly upset. After their respective incidents, Almora and Lindor joined the growing chorus of people calling for MLB to expand protective netting all the way to the foul pole. 

Last season, MLB mandated protective netting to the ends of the dugouts. It was a good move, but it was not enough. Since then, injuries have continued to occur. In a story that did not get much press, a woman was killed after she was struck in the head by a foul ball at Dodger Stadium last year. Countless others have been injured, some severely.

The hesitancy doesn’t even make sense to me. Why? Is it because MLB is worried that high paying customers will object? It would appear so. In June, after the Almora incident, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said:

“We do have fans that are vocal about the fact that they don’t want to sit behind nets. I think that we have struck the balance in favor of fan safety so far, and I think we will continue to do that going forward.”

But that doesn’t fly when they already have protective netting for the highest paying customers. And has anyone heard fans raising a stink about the extension of netting to the ends of the dugouts? No. Have fans stopped paying for seats there? No. Why? Because if you’ve ever sat behind home plate, you know that you don’t notice the netting after just a few seconds in your seat. 

In defense of his defenseless inaction, Manfred also blamed “structural issues”:

“It’s very difficult given how far the clubs have gone with the netting to make changes during the year because they really are structural issues.”

Whatever that means. This year, season, two teams made the decision and completed and then completed installation of netting to the foul poles, so we know it’s not impossible. One of those teams is the Chicago White Sox, and White Sox pitcher Lucas Giolito applauded the move:

“I think it’s great. I see the counter-arguments like, ‘Don’t sit there’ or ‘Just pay attention to the game.’ Dude, no matter how much you’re paying attention to the game, if that thing’s coming in 115 miles an hour with tail, no matter if you have a glove this big, it could hit you right in the forehead.

Well put, Lucas. I recently sat in the lower bowl behind the dugout at a Giants game, solo-parenting with my two boys, ages 5 and 2. We were behind the netting, but high enough that foul balls can loop over the net. I can tell you that while I paid attention to the game, and I was on very high alert for foul balls, throughout the game there were many times where the boys were distracting me and my eyes were not on the field; and there were two instances where that occurred when a ball was hit in our general vicinity. That split second when I could sense (by crowd reaction) that a ball was on its way toward us but couldn’t locate it was terrifying. In those instances, I jumped out of my seat to block the kids, having no idea where the ball was. Does that sound like fun?

So I ask: WHY ARE WE STILL DISCUSSING THIS? Extend the netting! -TOB

Does a Purpose Pitch Serve Its Purpose?

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Eno Sarris has quickly become one of my very favorite sportswriters. In addition to answering my emails asking for fantasy baseball advice (seriously) his writing blends analytics with scouting to explore some of the most previously opaque concepts in baseball. This week, he tackled the “purpose pitch”.

His jump-off was about a recent spat between the Pirates and Cubs. Cubs manager Joe Maddon got angry when a Pirates pitcher threw a ball high and inside to Cubs’ star Javier Baez:

“[W]hen your guys keep getting thrown at their head, that’s another thing, too. It’s not just us. It’s an industry-wide concept that we know that they’re into, and I have it from really good sources.”

What is this industry-wide concept? The purpose pitch. And what is it and why does everyone know the Pirates are “into” it? Here’s an explanation from Travis Sawchick’s 2015 book, Big Data Baseball:

“[P]rior to the 2013 season [the Pirates] found that pitching inside would indeed have a psychological effect on batters that would create even more ground balls and further enhance the plan. The numbers showed that opponents were more likely to pull outside pitches on the ground after being pitched inside earlier. … After being pitched inside, players were less willing to aggressively lunge at outside pitches. Now the coaching staff had the data they needed to get their pitchers to pitch inside, but would the pitchers execute the plan?”

So Eno sets out to answer the question of whether pitching high and inside is worth it. First, he isolates every pitch thrown by the Pirates that was 6″ above the strike zone and 6″ inside. The Pirates threw 3,409 such pitches since 2015 – 1,113 hit the batter, 106 were ball four, and on seven the batter struck out. Of the 2,000 or so pitches left, Eno analyzed what happened on the next pitch: swings and misses were up. But he wasn’t satisfied, because a lot of that was due to the fact that slider-usage was also way up, a pitch that induces more swings and more misses. So he kept going, and he found that the purpose pitch set up weak contact:

Now you’re seeing that Pirates effect. Slugging percentage goes way down. On-base percentage goes up, of course, since you gave away a ball and got closer to a walk, and it’s even understated by this OBP since a third of these pitches resulted in walks — but it does look like players don’t slug very well once a pitcher throws them a purpose pitch high and tight.

But then Eno talked to players, and they told him that it’s not likely a purpose pitch if the pitcher is behind in the count – they can’t waste that pitch.

Aha! The purpose pitch does work! But, Eno astutely points out that if you add back in the 687 hit by pitches, the OBP soars to .511, and the OPS also rises to above league average. In other words: the purpose pitch doesn’t work unless you are sure you won’t hit the batter. Good stuff, Eno! -TOB

Source: Do ‘Purpose Pitches’ Actually Work?“, Eno Sarris, The Athletic (07/23/2019)

Why Team USA Will Not Be Sending Its Best to the Basketball World Cup

The FIBA World Cup is this summer, and the U.S. team should dominate – in theory. But in reality, we may lose. We may lose badly. Why? We aren’t sending our best players. In recent weeks, every elite American NBA player has dropped out. From last year’s All NBA teams, only Kemba Walker remains; Harden, LeBron, Paul George, Curry, Durant, Kawhi, Lillard, Irving, Blake Griffin, and Russell Westbrook have all dropped out. Invites have been extended to guys like PJ Tucker and Marcus Smart. Woof! So why is this happening: 

First, the NBA season is long, and competing in the Olympics/World Cup removes a large portion of a player’s rest and recovery time each year. Plus, superstars are now paid over $40M a year, and if you’re looking at an upcoming deal in that range, do you want to risk it by playing for free? By winning the Olympics/World Cup, you receive a sense of pride, sure. But how much is that pride worth? Historically, NBA players have seemed to value an Olympic Gold enough to take these risks, but do not value the World Cup in the same way. And why is that?

For whatever reason, as a country we place more value on Olympic basketball than the basketball World Cup (this is not true in many other countries around the world). Compared to the Olympics, there is less media coverage of the World Cup, and thus less praise and less glory for the players. The games are a Sportscenter footnote if you win, and you are ridiculed if you lose. There’s no upside, and a lot of downside. Historically, it has thus been difficult for USA Basketball to convince our best players to attend. To illustrate: 

Team USA has lost five Olympic basketball games in history. The 1972 Gold Medal game, the 1988 Semifinals, and the 2004 team, which lost three times en route to a Bronze medal. They have won 15 of the 16 other Olympic Gold Medals (the lone missing Gold due to the 1980 boycott). In contrast, Team USA’s results at the FIBA World Cup (nee World Championships) are much more spotty: 5 gold, 3 silver, 4 bronze, and five times they did not medal, finishing as low as 6th in 2002.

But in his article this week, The Ringer’s Rodger Sherman sounds an alarm for next summer’s Olympics. Sherman notes a pattern we see in Team USA Basketball: (1) A starless Team USA loses in the Olympics; (2) Every superstar comes out the next Olympics and dominates the world en route to Gold; (3) A few superstars stay home in the following Olympics, having already won a Gold previously, but the team still wins Gold, though less impressively; (4) Team USA’s talent level is way down, but they eek out the Gold; (5) A starless Team USA loses in the Olympics. Repeat.

So where on that cycle will we be in 2020? At this point, it appears either 4 or 5. If we sent this year’s World Cup roster to the 2020 Olympics, we will be lucky to medal. It will be up to Team USA to convince the NBA’s top stars, almost all of whom have won one or two or even three Gold Medals to come back out in 2020. Given what’s at stake for the players, though, it will not be an easy sell. -TOB

Source: The Life Cycle of Team USA Basketball”, Rodger Sherman, The Ringer (07/24/2019)

Video of the Week

-Tour de France rider signs his autobiography for a fan. Haaah

Tweet of the Week

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-Michael Scott

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