Musings on an expanded playoff format

The business of baseball is alive and well right now. The sport is drawing in well over $6 billion in revenues; attendance is at an all-time high; and the players and owners are enjoying unprecedented riches. In fact, considering the game’s prosperity, a casual fan would be hard-pressed to know that the Collective Bargaining Agreement between the players and owners expires this year.

In essence, it’s a good time for the CBA to come due. While players might agitate for a higher minimum salary and bigger cut of those billion-dollar revenue totals, the biggest complaints concerning the game’s economic structure right now involve draft pick compensation for free agents and, of course, knocking down the Yankees. The Bombers have not been deterred by revenue sharing or luxury tax payments, and in fact, they’ve kept on spending at higher and higher levels.

But the Yankees are a minor issue in the grand scheme of the game. As David Pinto noted earlier this week, baseball’s big issues “seem to be settled.” Pinto instead wonders if the CBA negotiations might be more macro in scope. How would a group of owners and players redesign the game if they were starting from scratch today? Can, he asks, baseball restructure itself to “give teams more of a chance of making the playoffs?”

It seems as though one of the ways baseball will try to reinvent itself is with another playoff seed. Toward the end of 2010, we heard that a fifth team from each league would qualify for a playoff game or series against the traditional Wild Card team. This would allow more teams to reach October and would sustain interest in the game throughout the fall. Would it help?

Out of idle curiosity tonight, I took a look back at the recent AL playoff picture. While baseball on the whole doesn’t really have a major competitive balance problem, the AL does, and right now, the American League East is ascendant. A team from the East has reached the ALCS in each of the last four seasons. In three of those four years, the AL East team has reached the World Series, and in two of those four years, the AL East has won the World Series.

The Wild Card lately too has been dominated by the American League East. Since 2003, an AL East team — the Yankees, the Red Sox or Rays — has won the Wild Card every year except 2006. Three times since 2003, the two AL East teams have faced each other in the American League Championship Series. In other words, nine of the last 16 ALCS teams have come from one division, and based on the distribution of talen within the American League, it’s tough to see this outcome changing over the next few seasons. The Yankees and Red Sox have the clear financial edge, and the Rays have put together a front office capable of building perennial contenders on a budget. Only the fact that these two teams play each other so often will give anyone else a slight opening.

The extra Wild Card would solve this problem to a certain extent. Only in 2010 and 2008 would three AL East teams have reached the playoffs with a second Wild Card. The AL West would have captured the crown four times and the Central once with a split in 2007. The second Wild Card then would generally ensure that some team that isn’t the Yankees, Red Sox or Rays reaches the playoffs.

So is that a solution to improving baseball? I’m not in love with the wild card nature of a Wild Card playoff, and it would open up the field to a bad team having a hot month. But absent a tricky realignment based perhaps on economic clout or a steeper penalty against the rich teams, it might be the best baseball can do right now. Either way, hearing about creative ways to improve the game will be far better than rumors of a strike. I can easily live with labor peace.

Open Thread: Granderson goes down under

I didn’t even know they had a basketball league in New Zealand, and yet there’s Curtis Granderson chucking souvenirs into the stands during one of the games. The Grandyman is in the country as part of MLB’s International Ambassador program, which Anthony McCarron wrote about yesterday. He’ll be there for another week or so, and will hold clinics and make several appearances in the meantime, including one at a big youth tournament. This is Grandy’s fourth time in the program, as MLB has sent him to Europe (2006), South Africa (2007), and China (2008). C.J. Wilson (South Africa) and Prince Fielder (Tokyo) are also involved in the program this year, and you can see a video of Granderson’s experience at his blog. What a life, eh?

Anyways, here is tonight’s open thread. The Rangers, Isles, and Devils are all in action, plus the new season of Parks & Rec starts tonight. The FJM’er formerly known as Ken Tremendous co-created that show, you know. It’s pretty awesome, I recommend it. Talk about whatever, enjoy.

Kevin Long on MLB Network’s Diamond Demo

Yankee hitting coach Kevin Long made an appearance on the MLB Network yesterday, showing off some of the drills he does with Alex Rodriguez and Robbie Cano. The four-and-a-half video can be seen here, and it comes highly recommended.

The screen drill with Cano is something to behold. I was lucky enough to see them bust out the screen and a bucket of balls when I was in Tampa for the Sept. 13th-15th series, and it was seriously just homer after homer into rightfield. All you’d hear was crack!!! off the bat and then thud!!! when the ball hit the seats a few seconds later. Here’s a half-decent picture I took of the drill. You can see the ball in flight (in front of where the second baseman would be) and Eduardo Nunez waiting his turn off to the left.

The Yankees bullpen, in perspective

Earlier today Mike put the Yankees bullpen in perspective in terms of performance. They’re going to have quite a crew out in right-center field. It won’t come cheap, either. The entire bullpen figures to cost around $34 million, which is more than some entire teams’ payrolls. Today at FanGraphs friend of RAB Eno Sarris puts that in perspective. That $34 million represents just 17 percent of the team’s overall payroll. In 2009, that percentage would have put them right in the middle of the pack among MLB teams. The Reds, for instance, spent 29.21 percent of their payroll on the bullpen that year. The Yanks are shelling out tons, but in relation to the rest of their payroll it’s actually not that high of a figure.

(Then again, not many figures are high relative to a $200 million payroll.)

Yankees agree to terms with Andruw Jones

Via Jon Heyman, the Yankees have agreed to terms with outfielder Andruw Jones on a one-year contract. The former Brave will earn a $2M base salary with another $1.2M in incentives.

This move has been rumored for a few days, and it was only a matter of time before it happened with Scott Boras in town for Rafael Soriano‘s press conference. Jones steps into the Marcus Thames role as the lefty mashing fourth outfielder, except now they have a guy that can actually play defense. No, he’s not the defender he once was, but Andruw won’t embarrass himself out there either. It’s a nice cheap move that improves the bench and outfield depth considerably.

The 40-man roster is already full thanks to Soriano, so someone’s going to have to get the axe once Jones passes his physical and the deal becomes official. Joe and I talked about who the 40-man roster casualty might be in today’s podcast.

The RAB Radio Show: January 20, 2011

When the Yankees officially announced the Rafael Soriano signing, he became the 40th man on the 40-man roster. That means when they want to add Andruw Jones or Andy Pettitte, they’ll have to remove someone from the 40-man. Mike and I run down some names you might recognize, and then talk about who is the first to go.

The podcast centers on the 40-man, but we hit some pretty decent tangents. Find out when Mike saw the Giants use Randy Winn at third base, and why I enjoyed Ian Kennedy’s debut more than I did Phil’s and Joba’s.

Podcast run time 35:22

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About that bullpen

Much has been written about the Rafael Soriano signing and for most part it’s been for all the wrong reasons. The contract itself has been criticized, the way ownership drove the deal has been criticized, Brian Cashman‘s comments at yesterday’s press conference have been criticized, you name it and it’s been criticized. Let’s move away from the criticism for a second and look at something that hasn’t gotten much attention since Soriano agreed to come on board: the Yankees have a fantastic bullpen right now.

Say your prayers little one. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Barring trade or injury, the Yanks will open the season with Mariano Rivera filling his customary closer’s role and Soriano serving as his primary setup man. That pushes both David Robertson and Joba Chamberlain into middle relief roles, essentially filling the gaps between the starter and Soriano. Boone Logan and Pedro Feliciano will take care of the tough left-handed batters. The seventh man in the pen figures to be a low-leverage long reliever, ideally Sergio Mitre. We know what Mo brings the table and there’s not much to say about him that hasn’t been said over the last 15 years. He gives the Yankees a clear advantage over every other team in the league, so let’s focus on those middle innings instead. That’s where a ton of games are won and lost anyway.

The table to the right has the strikeout rate of the team’s three right-handed middle innings guys over the last three years, as well as their rank out of the 171 qualified relievers (min. 100 IP). Robertson trails only Carlos Marmol (12.99 K/9), Billy Wagner (12.41), and Jonathan Broxton (11.94) in strikeout rate, and those three are all closers. If we remove the now retired Wagner, just five teams will go into the 2011 season with more than one of the top 25 strikeout relievers (Yanks, Red Sox, Dodgers, Cubs, Padres), but the Yankees are the only club with three. You’d have to stretch the list to the top 33 if you want to find another club with three top right-handed strikeouts guys, and that’s the Padres.

If we look at just overall reliever FIP with the same 100 IP minimum, the Yankees own two of the top ten over the last three years. Joba (2.71) is ninth and Soriano (2.78) is tenth, but remember, we’re not counting Rivera here, and his 2.56 FIP is sixth best over the last three seasons. The Padres are the only other team with two of the top ten FIP’s when you remove the closer position. Robertson isn’t exactly an FIP fiend because he does walk quite a few, but his 3.40 mark since 2008 is 39th best in the game. Among the top 40, the only clubs with at least four relievers on the list are the Yanks, Padres, and Rangers, and two of Texas’ guys are lefty specialists. The Yanks and San Diego are the only clubs with four right-handed relievers in the top 40 FIP over the last three seasons. Clearly, those two clubs are heading into the season with some dynamite righty relief.

Shifting over to the lefties, well, we can’t do much with Logan. His record of big league success is basically the second half of 2010, about 12% of his career innings. He’s just as likely to tank in 2011 as he is repeat that second half performance, and that uncertainty is why the Yankees went out and got Pedro Feliciano. Over the last three seasons, only three lefty relievers can top Feliciano’s 2.80 FIP against left-handed batters (Hong-Chih Kuo, Matt Thornton, Randy Choate (grrr)) and only eight can top his 9.61 K/9. One of those eight is Logan at 10.34.

There are obviously quite a few benefits to having so many relievers of this caliber, and an important one is rest. Not that Joe Girardi has had a trouble spreading the workload around in the past, but now he can back off guys and not sacrifice much, if any quality. This will come in handy particularly with the 41-year-old Rivera, who can forget about working back-to-back-to-back days or multiple innings until the playoffs. That was a big part of Joe Torre’s problem, he’d wear his top relievers down during the summer and they were toast come playoff time.

In the past, before Cashman altered his bullpen building strategy, we watched as the Yankees chased that elusive bridge to Rivera, often focusing on one quality setup man while the middle relief suffered. That should not be any problem this year, as Girardi will be able to employ what amounts to two above-average, high strikeout setup men in the middle innings while mixing in one of the game’s top lefty specialists as needed. Once those innings are taken care of, it’s hammer time with Soriano and Mo. Of course this is all on paper, we know who quickly a bullpen situation can change, but right now the Yankees are remarkably deep in quality relief arms.