Mid-Season Break

Here we are at the All-Star Break again.

It happens every year: four days with no meaningful baseball. Monday isn’t too bad. The Home Run Derby isn’t baseball, but it’s close enough to fill the need. Tuesday is the All-Star game itself. Real baseball, even if it doesn’t mean anything*. Wednesday is manageable. There are off days scattered through the entire season. Thursday is tough. Two days in a row with no baseball at all. As I’ve said before, it’s a great day to check out your local minor league team.

* Yeah, OK. World Series home field advantage. It’s a significant edge–Beyond the Box Score pointed out last year that the home team wins 60% of World Series games–but it’s only relevant to two teams. And at this point, nobody knows which teams they are. (That same article picked the Angels and Nationals, both of whom lost in the Division Series to the eventual World Series Royals and Giants.)

MLB has been tinkering with the rules for the Home Run Derby, trying to make it more competitive. While I’m usually suspicious of rule changes to promote competition, I’m completely behind this one. The event is totally meaningless, so why not tweak it a bit to make it more exciting? Before this year, there was no upper limit on the number of home runs the players could hit–players’ rounds ended when they had ten swings that didn’t result in home runs. The result was players wearing out in the early rounds and not hitting in the later rounds.

This year, players had a time limit–four minutes–and competed head-to-head in a playoff-style bracket instead of a single large pool. The result was that every single pairing had an element of drama, and the home runs continued all the way through*. The rules could use a little more tweaking. Awarding bonus time for long home runs is a nice idea, but rather than giving a flat thirty seconds for hitting two over 425 feet–a level every single player reached–how about giving fifteen seconds for each 425-footer? That way the players who specialize in hitting long shots get an actual advantage. That would counter the penalty they incur waiting for each hit to land before they can swing again.

* Hey, remember Kris Bryant? The Cubs did call him up in mid-April as expected. And with less than three months of major league experience, he competed in the Home Run Derby. He lost in the first round, as one would expect for a Cub, but didn’t embarrass himself. Nobody expected him to beat Albert Pujols, but his nine home runs was almost respectable. And he got major cool points by having his father as his pitcher. Can you imagine that conversation? “Hey, Dad, wanna come down to the ballpark Monday night and toss me a few balls? No big deal, just you, me, and 60,000 screaming fans. Sound like fun?”

That penalty is, I suspect, a safety measure for the kids chasing balls in the outfield. Wouldn’t do to have someone get set to grab a ball at the warning track only to be taken out by a sharp line drive out of nowhere. And yes, some of the kids did make nice catches last night. Good to see.

Moving on.

Since we’re at the official mid-point of the season, let’s take a look at my first-day predictions about the playoff teams.

National League

Mets – Currently second in their division, two games back of the Nationals, they’re well-positioned for a second-half run into the playoffs.

Reds – The Reds are 39-47, fifteen and a half games back in their division. They’ve got some serious work to do if they’re going to get past St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and the Cubs.

Rockies – Almost as poorly-placed as the Reds. 39-49, eleven back is not where you want to be at this point.

Wild Card – I called the Cardinals and Phillies. St. Louis currently has the best record in baseball, so they’re in good shape for the Wild Card if the Reds do make a move on the division. Philadelphia needs to pour it on: right now they’re twenty games out of the Wild Card.

American League

Red Sox – Well… Sure, they’re five games under .500 at 42-47, but they’re only six and a half out of the division lead. Overcoming that is totally doable.

Royals – 52-34 and a four and a half game lead in the division. Good job, guys!

Mariners – Sigh. 41-48 and trapped in a “win one, lose one” cycle. Not looking too good, guys. As with Boston, they’ve still got a shot, but the odds aren’t too hot.

Wild Card – The Blue Jays are only one game under .500 and four games back in the Wild Card race. Not great, but not too horrid either. And the Orioles are right at .500, half a game ahead of Toronto. Those in-division head-to-head games remaining could be a problem for both teams, but don’t count either of them out yet.

OK, most of my picks are not where I’d like them to be at this point, but there’s still a lot of baseball remaining. Nobody’s been mathematically eliminated yet, not even the woeful Phillies with their .319 record. I’ll be holding onto my hope for now.

Bits, Bitches, and Bites

First, allow me to apologize for the late–and brief–post. I spent the bulk of my morning resurrecting a dead computer. Well, more comatose than dead. I could boot Windows, but not Linux, and of course it was the Linux installation that had the information I needed.

I’m still not sure what went wrong, but the forensic evidence absolves the computer of all responsibility and points to the root cause having been something stupid I did.

Key lesson: if you have to keep vital information on a standalone computer instead of a network server, make sure you at least put it on a drive accessible from all operating systems on the machine.

Or write it down.

Moving on, a quick update to Tuesday’s piece about Kris Bryant.

Over at FanGraphs, Nathaniel Grow has an explanation of the legal constraints the MLBPA would have to overcome in order to successfully challenge the Cubs’ action.

Unsurprisingly, there’s an arbitration clause–what legal agreement this days doesn’t include mandatory arbitration?–and at least two different dispute resolution processes, depending on whether MLBPA wants to start from Bryant’s current status as a minor league player or his future status as a major league player.

Well worth a read–I won’t spoil Grow’s conclusions about the MLBPA’s eventual actions.

And, with that out of the way, I promise I won’t say another word about baseball.

Until next week, anyway.

Finally, I have to comment on the latest weirdness coming out of Google’s Trends page.

Did you know they’re tracking calorie searches? Neither did I. As I write this, the top five “How many calories are in X?” queries are:

  1. A Banana
  2. Pumpkin Pie
  3. An Apple
  4. An Egg
  5. An Avocado

Am I the only one who finds this list more than a little disturbing?

I mean, a banana? Seriously? More people are worried about the calorie counts of bananas than any other food? The only proper place for a banana is in a banana split, and if you’re eating one of those, the calorie contribution from the banana is hardly significant.

Why is pumpkin pie so high up on the list? Are people still trying to finish off their Thanksgiving leftovers? If so, the number of calories should not be their major concern.

Apples? OK, what kind of apple? With or without the skin? Fresh or dried? Google’s answer, for what it’s worth is that there are 95 calories in a “medium (3″ dia)” apple. Presumably that’s for a standard apple. Note that a Google Standard Apple is not the same as a NLEA* apple. Nor, I presume, an Apple Standard Apple (these days, I believe that’s an iPhone 6).

* Nutritional Labeling and Education Act, the law that establishes the rules for the nutritional information you find on food packages in the United States. An NLEA apple offers 126 calories.

“An egg”? Does anybody really eat a single egg? As a standalone food item, eggs are almost as bad as potato chips for traveling in groups. That aside, I have to think that the cooking method will have a major effect on an egg’s calorie count. The number of people eating raw eggs has to be too small to matter.

I am pleased to see avocado make the list. I’m sure the avocado growers are delighted as well. But again, “an avocado”? Nobody eats a whole avocado as a standalone food item. Half, sliced on a sandwich or in a salad, sure. Several, mashed in guacamole, absolutely. But peel, de-pit, and munch? Uh-uh. Go ahead, tell me I’m wrong. I won’t believe you, but go ahead and tell me.

(I’ll leave the commentary on the rest of the list as an exercise for the reader. Feel free to use the comments to share your reaction to the second five: “a cheeseburger,” “a Big Mac,” “watermelon,” “an orange,” and “a slice of pizza”.)

Mind you, if the contents of the list are disturbing, the fact of its existence is at least unsettling. Remember: if Google is collecting this information, they’re sharing it with advertisers. Keep asking for calorie counts for bananas, pumpkin pie, and eggs, and its only a matter of time before your browser starts showing you ads for stomach pumps.

Perfectly Logical

How about that?

The MLB season hasn’t even started yet, and we’ve already got our first major controversy.

Interestingly enough, it has nothing to do with a new rule. Last year we had controveries over three new rules (the so-called “transfer rule,” blocking the plate, and instant replay). That’s enough to hold us for a couple of years, so it only makes sense that we’d wind up fighting about something else this season.

The issue is the status of Cubs’ prospect Kris Bryant. He stormed through the minors–he started in Class A-Short Season at the beginning of the 2013 season, made it all the way to AAA by June of last season, and wound up being named the minor league player of the year by both USA Today and Baseball America–and capped it by dominating in Spring Training this year (nine home runs and a .425 average in 40 at bats–if he could keep that pace up through a full season, he’d have well over a hundred home runs and the highest average since 1894, the fourth-highest average in history).

Sounds like he should be the Cubs’ starting third baseman this year, doesn’t it? Well, yeah. He almost certainly will be–three weeks from now. See, there’s this little rule, part of the basic agreement between MLB and the MLB Players Association, that says a player becomes a free agent after six years of Major League service. Further, according to that same agreement between the league and the player’s union, a Player accrues a year of service for each 172 days he spends on the Major League Club’s Active List*. There’s some fine print about how to count interruptions in service due to suspensions, military duty, short assignments to the minors, and so forth, of course. There’s also a rule that a Play cannot accrue more than 172 days service in a single season, no matter how long the season actually runs and no matter whether the Club makes the playoffs.

* Yes, the Basic Agreement really does capitalize it that way.

The bottom line is that if Bryant starts the season with the Cubs, he’ll almost certainly accrue 172 days of service this year, and thus–assuming he doesn’t literally fall apart–be eligible for free agency in the 2021 season. By keeping Bryant in AAA until April 16, the Cubs ensure that he can’t get that magical 172nd day of service until next year.

Assuming he lives up to his potential–and there’s always a risk that a player will flame out–Bryant will be a very expensive free agent, so it’s to the Cubs’ advantage to delay his transition, and under the Basic Agreement, they’re permitted to do exactly that. And so they did, assigning him to the minors.

So where’s the controversy?

The MLBPA issued a statement condemning Bryant’s minor league assignment, calling it a “bad day for baseball” and warning the Club and MLB that the decision “will be addressed in litigation, bargaining or both.”* Excuse me? The current Basic Agreement has been in effect since 2012, and teams have been gaming the service accrual clause all along. Why is it suddenly an issue for Kris Bryant? Just because he’s the Number One prospect in all of baseball? That’s an insult to every other player who’s had a late call-up.

* There’s a joke here about the MLBPA prejudicing their case by their failure to use the Oxford comma in their press statement, but I’ll leave it to you to calculate the chances that the judge who eventually hears the case will be an Oxford grad.

Litigation? Good luck with that. Not only is the Cubs’ action legal under the agreement the MLBPA negotiated, but MLB’s anti-trust exemption has historically been the next best thing to a free pass in the courts.

Bargaining? Sure. The Basic Agreement runs through next season. I’m sure the next agreement is already in negotiation. But if the MLBPA wants to change the rules on free agency and service accrual, they’ll have to give something else up–and that’s likely to be something that will affect all players, not just the few expected to be superstars.

You know what’s the worst thing about this contretemps? It shouldn’t even have been an issue. If Bryant doesn’t perform, whether through lack of ability to adjust to the majors, injury, or anything else, his service time is going to be irrelevant. If he does become the star everyone thinks he’ll be, the Cubs are going to offer him a huge deal well before his six years are up. (See, for example, Kyle Seager, who just got a seven year, $100 million contract with the Mariners. He’s only accrued a smidge over three years of service, and his actual numbers aren’t even close to what the Cubs and the MLBPA expect from Bryant.)

There’s a saying that you catch more fly balls with a glove than with honey. By stashing Bryant in AAA for a couple of weeks, the Cubs have effectively handed him a bear-shaped squeeze bottle. How much are they going to have to jack up their eventual contract offer to counteract Bryant’s current disappointment? Let it be noted that his agent is Scott Boras, who’s never been known to undervalue the players he represents.

The Cubs made a perfectly logical decision. It may come back to bite them in their collective ass, but that’s the risk of any business decision.

Would everybody stop posing and go play some baseball?