The RAB Realignment Plan

As you’ve probably heard by now, the Houston Astros will be an American League club in a near future. It won’t be next season, but they will officially be part of the AL West in 2013. Major League Baseball intends to create two 15-team leagues with three five-team divisions, which unfortunately means interleague play all season long. The league also seems determined to create a playoff system with two wildcard teams.

Realignment proposals have been part of the baseball media scene for years now, as people have tried to figure out a way to punish the big market teams for making more money than everyone else while rewarding the poorer teams. I figured it was my turn to do the impossible, to come up with a way to make everyone happy with baseball’s schedule and competitive balance and all that. Easier said than done doesn’t do this task justice. Let’s dive in…

The Leagues

We’re going to stick with the two 15-team leagues idea, basing the six divisions on simple geography. Here’s the breakdown…

Obviously those divisions don’t look very fair (poor Orioles and Mets), but I’m going to explain why that doesn’t matter in just a second.

The Schedule

With the two distinct leagues, we’re going to completely eliminate interleague play. The only time an MLB East team will meet an MLB West team will be in the World Series, like I think it should be. Those “natural” rivalries Bud Selig tried to create with interleague play (Yankees-Mets, Cubs-White Sox, Giants-Athletics, etc.) still remain intact.

With interleague play out the window, we’re free to balance the schedule. Under this plan, every team would play the other 14 teams in its league 12 times (six games at home, six on the road). That creates a 168-game regular season, so six additional regular season games and three more home dates for owners to line their pockets fans to see their team. This isn’t the NFL trying to expand the season from 16 games to 18 games (a 12.5% increase), the baseball season would be lengthened by less than four percent (3.7% to be exact). The balanced schedule means the division alignments are just for show, so that big bad Northeast division is all talk and no action.

The odd number of teams per league means someone will have to be off everyday, unless they schedule doubleheaders. MLB could make events out of them, think about it. They could have the Red Sox play the Mets in CitiField at noon then the Yankees in Yankee Stadium at 7pm. They could do the same thing with Oakland and San Francisco, or Chavez Revine and Anaheim, or the north and south sides of Chicago. That would be a serious draw. Every team would have to play one doubleheader for every eight series they play to make it work, which is seven doubleheaders per team for the entire season. That’s one per month with an extra one thrown in somewhere, make it September with the expanded rosters.

The Playoffs

Forget this two wildcard teams per league stuff. Since the schedule is nice and balanced, the teams with the four best records in each league qualify for the postseason, regardless of division. Like I said, the divisions are just for show. The one seed plays the four seed and the two seed plays the three seed, with home field advantage going to the club with the better regular season record. Head-to-head record is the first tiebreaker, run differential the second tiebreaker. That goes for the World Series too. All rounds are best-of-seven series with off days for travel only (after Games Two and Five).

The All-Star Game

Since home field advantage in the World Series is determined by regular season records, the All-Star Game goes back to being what it’s supposed to be, a glorified exhibition. It shouldn’t count for anything. With no interleague play, the East vs. West matchup becomes a lot more intriguing because you’re seeing great players you don’t ever see together right there on the same field. That’s how the All-Star Game used to be, it was pretty awesome.

The Homerun Derby has to be overhauled, mostly by actually getting homerun hitters to participate in it. I want to see Mike Stanton and Adam Dunn take their hacks, not Rickie Weeks and Matt Holliday. Also, let’s shorten the thing up please.

Real World Problems

All of this sounds great on paper, but I’ll be the first to admit it’s far from perfect. For one, The Yankees, Red Sox, and Phillies are huge draws on the road, and none of the MLB West clubs will ever see them in their ballpark. Those game have a very real financial impact. All of the big market teams are in one league as well, so there’s a total imbalance of power. Great idea on paper, but in practice, trying to schedule all those doubleheaders? Not so much.

* * *

I’m interested and also afraid to see what will happen to baseball 18 months from now, with the constant interleague play and two wildcard teams and whatnot. Then again, Selig could make it all better by abolishing the whole “let pitchers hit” thing to make a) life easier for everyone, and b) the game much more enjoyable. I doubt that will happen, but we can all dream.

Yu Got the Right One, Baby, Uh Huh

The last time the Yankees turned their attention east for a starting pitcher, the club got burned pretty badly. In the wake of the Red Sox’s inking of Daisuke Matsuzaka, the Yanks bid $26 million for Kei Igawa, a lefty with good strike out numbers in Japan, and paid him another $20 million over five years. He lasted all of 16 Major League games and was removed from the 40-man roster in 2008, never to return to the Bronx.

For Brian Cashman and the Yanks’ baseball brain trust, Igawa was the mistake that wouldn’t go away. The Yanks never traded him in order to avoid paying luxury taxes on his salary, and Igawa refused to quit or head back to Japan. He toiled away in the minor leagues as the Yanks moved him around based on roster needs before he eventually became the winningest pitcher in Scranton history. That’s some dubious achievement.

This year, the hype over a Japanese pitcher has returned in the form of Yu Darvish. The groundswell of hype hasn’t been this constant or loud since Matsuzaka made the jump, and in fact, we’ve heard about Darvish for years. We know how great he is in Japan, and we’ve heard varying degrees of success predicted for him in the States. He’s different, they say. His goal has been to pitch in the Majors. He knows what it takes. He will not flame-out.

Meanwhile, hesitation rules the air. American baseball fans have seen Japanese pitchers come over with so much hype and fail to meet expectations. Hideki Irabu was the Japanese Nolan Ryan. Daisuke Matsuzaka and his famed gyroball were to be unhittable. Even Hideo Nomo turned into an average-to-below-average pitcher after his first two stellar seasons in the States.

Yet, these past failures (or successes, as in the case of Hiroki Kuroda) tell us nothing about Darvish’s potential, and the Yankees, burned by their desire to snatch up Igawa, seem to recognize this. While speaking with reporters on Wednesday, Hal Steinbrenner spoke about the club’s process. “Every person is different, every player is different,” the Yanks’ Managing General Partner said. “We’re going to look at every single one, we’re going to look at every single option and we’re going to analyze it. We look at each person as an individual, and that” — previously failures with Japanese pitchers — “is not going to be a factor, at least not with me.”

As The Times and others have noted, the Yankees do not figure to be front-runners for Darvish. That status belongs to the Angels and Rangers, two teams engaged in an AL West arms race. But the Yankees will hover on the periphery, aware of what Darvish can do and not afraid of him because of past failures. That’s the kind of process a team that is looking to spend smartly should follow, and it’s a good sign for the long-term future of the club.

Last week, I explored how the Yankees should take aggressive risks with their dollars this year. Even though we still don’t know if Darvish will be posted this year, the Yanks should plan to be among the leaders for his services. They have laid the foundation for a competitive bid, and they have the money to spend. Armed with the right knowledge, it’s a risk worth taking, and the process should tell them as much.

Thanks as always to Tyler Wilkinson for the graphic. You can find him on Twitter right here.

Eric Chavez intends to play in 2012

Via Mark Feinsand and Pete Caldera, Eric Chavez‘s agent informed Brian Cashman that his client intends to play next season. Chavez was reportedly giving retirement serious consideration, but he also indicated a willingness to return to New York should he not hang up the spikes.

“I loved everything about him,” said Cashman, who also hedged his bets a bit by saying he wasn’t sure if there was a match between the two sides. The Yankees are going to need a caddy for Alex Rodriguez next season and it’d be nice to have a left-handed bat off the bench, two birds that could be killed with one Chavez stone. I don’t think there will be much a rush here though, I would be surprised if there’s a high demand for his services.

Open Thread: Cole Hamels

(Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)

Joe wrote about the idea of trading for Cole Hamels yesterday, and explained why it’s extremely unlikely to happen. The Phillies are in win-now mode, and keeping Hamels in their rotation will help them a lot more than a fistful of prospects and mediocre big leaguers who plug holes. Kevin Goldstein wasn’t having any of that though (or at least his editors weren’t), so today we put together some trade packages that could pry the lefty away from Philadelphia.

He suggested the Phillies look for four pieces in return: a starter to replace Hamels in the rotation, bullpen help, middle infield help, and a low-level prospect with upside. You can read the article at either ESPN or Baseball Prospectus, but you’re going to need a subscription either way. Here is his suggested Yankees trade package….

New York Yankees: Manny Banuelos, LHP; Hector Noesi, RHP; Austin Romine, C; Mason Williams, OF.

Banuelos is one of the best left-handed prospects in the game and, like Hamels, his best pitch is a changeup, but Banuelos has plenty of other offerings. He should be ready at some point in the 2012 season, while Noesi can start or relieve right now. Williams is exactly the kind of young, athletic outfielder the Phillies covet, and Romine could develop into a replacement for Carlos Ruiz. “The Phillies need a long-term catcher, and their top catching prospect, Sebastian Valle, is not a sure thing,” said the executive.

So what do you think; too much, too little, just right? I’d prefer to swap out Banuelos and Noesi for Dellin Betances and either David Phelps, Adam Warren, or D.J. Mitchell, but that’s just me. The Yankees have catching depth and can afford to give up Romine, and I don’t really sweat losing kids in short season leagues, not even ones as good as Williams. He’s so far away, so much could go wrong. Yeah, it’s a lot to give up for one year of a pitcher, but Hamels is one of the best out there and he’s in his prime. Joe explained it yesterday, he’s basically another CC Sabathia, just four years younger.

Anyway, here is tonight’s open thread. The Devils are the only local hockey team in action, so you’re going to be stuck entertaining yourselves tonight. Have fun, talk about anything here.

Need Help: Brian McElhinny, who runs the great Pirates’ blog Raise The Jolly Roger, is up for a scholarship and needs some votes. Please just take a second (it literally takes about three seconds) to go here and vote, it’ll be a big help. The poll closes one week from today. Thanks.

Report: New CBA to include hard cap for international signings

Via Melissa Segura, the new Collective Bargaining Agreement will include both a hard cap and floor for international free agent signings. It’s unclear when this would be put into place. I have to think veterans from Japan would be excluded since MLB has traditionally treated those players like big league free agents, not amateurs.

The hard cap is very bad news for the Yankees, who are annually among the top spenders in Latin America and really build the backbone of their farm system through international free agency. I also have no idea how MLB intends to promote the game internationally by imposing what amounts to a salary cap for players outside of the United States. Just doesn’t make sense to me, but I guess that’s why I’m not the one calling the shots.

Report: Type-B Free Agent Compensation Likely To Be Eliminated

Update (4:30pm on 11/16/11): Sherman corrected himself today, and there will in fact be Type-B free agent compensation this offseason. It’s almost certainly going to be eliminated going forward, but the rules will not change this winter. The Yankees will still received a supplemental first round pick for Freddy Garcia if they offer him arbitration and he signs elsewhere.

Original (4:30pm on 11/15/11):
Via Joel Sherman, baseball’s new Collective Bargaining Agreement is likely to eliminate Type-B free agent compensation this offseason according to a pair of executives familiar with the negotiations. Type-A compensation will be unchanged for top tier free agents (Jose Reyes, Prince Fielder, etc.), though some tinkering may be done to help the lower ranked players (Octavio Dotel, Kelly Johnson, etc.).

Freddy Garcia is a Type-B free agent, so the Yankees will lose out on a draft pick if the system is indeed changed and he signs elsewhere. On the bright side, they wouldn’t have to offer him arbitration to secure the potential pick, so there’s no worry about him possibly accepting and receiving a salary they club would be uncomfortable with next season. The new CBA has not yet been announced, but the clubs have been kept abreast of potential free agent compensation changes so they move forward with their offseason plans. The current deal expires on December 11th, but the new one should be wrapped up before the end of November.

Under the current system, clubs receive the signing team’s first round pick plus a supplemental first rounder in exchange for losing a Type-A. Type-B’s return just the supplemental first rounder. The up-to-date 2012 draft order can be found here.

The Larry Rothschild Effect

(Jason Miller/Getty Images)

When the Yankees somewhat surprisingly* hired pitching coach Larry Rothschild last offseason, we heard that he had a reputation for helping his pitchers increase their strikeout rates and decrease their unintentional walk rates. Guys like Ryan Dempster, Rich Harden, and Tom Gorzelanny saw improvement in both categories after joining the Cubs, and those are only three of the most notable examples. The Yankees brought Rothschild aboard hoping he’d coax a few more whiffs out of their pitching staff while reducing the number of free passes.

During the 2009 and 2010 seasons (under Dave Eiland), Yankees’ pitchers struck out 19.65% of the batters they faced and unintentionally walked 8.54%. Those numbers improved to 19.80% and 7.52% under Rothschild in 2011, respectively. The strikeout improvement from just 2010 to 2011 was a bit more substantial, as you can see in the table to the right. That shouldn’t be a huge surprise; the Javy Vazquez and Chad Gaudin and Dustin Moseley types were placed with Freddy Garcia, Bartolo Colon, and Rafael Soriano. Offense around the league continued to drop as well.

On an individual level, a number of Yankees’ pitchers improved their underlying performance under Rothschild this past season. You can see those players in the table to the right, though I left out guys who dealt with significant injury problems (Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes, Cory Wade, Colon, Soriano) and those that bounced between the rotation and bullpen (Joba and Hughes) since the start of 2009. With the exception of relatively small increases in Garcia’s and David Robertson‘s walk rates, all of these guys showed improvement in their strikeout and unintentional walk rates. Some of them, like CC Sabathia (+2.66% strikeouts and -0.94% walks) and A.J. Burnett (+0.99% strikeouts), showed significant improvement. Those two aren’t young kids coming into their own, their veteran guys with long track records.

So that’s great, they’re striking out more batters while walking fewer, but how are they doing it? In an effort to explain, let’s look at the individual pitch breakdown for those fellas…

The fastballs in the table references all kinds of fastballs, so two-seamers, four-seamers, cutters, sinkers, etc. Breaking balls are both curveballs and sliders. I didn’t want to get too nuts with the breakdown of individual pitches because all I wanted to see was the usage of hard stuff compared to the usage of soft stuff. I also left Mariano Rivera out of this because he takes pity on the rest of the league and does not throw any kind of breaking ball.

With the exception of Robertson, all of those guys threw significantly more breaking balls in 2011 than they did from 2009-2010 according to PitchFX (via Texas Leaguers). We’re talking an increase of around four percentage points, in some cases more. Data from Baseball Info Solutions (via FanGraphs) says the Yankees went from 69.2% fastballs and 22.6% breaking balls as a team from 2009-2010 to 66.1% and 26.2% in 2011, respectively. Two different tracking systems, but we’re seeing a similar increase in breaking ball usage, roughly four percentage points.

You can play connects the dots here and say that the increase in breaking balls contributed to the increase in strikeouts, it definitely passes the sniff test. I’m not sure how throwing more breaking balls would decrease unintentional walks though, since many breaking balls are intentionally thrown out of the strike zone. We’d have to look at when the extra breaking balls are being thrown, which sadly is well beyond my PitchFX capabilities. I suspect many of those extra sliders and curveballs are being thrown early in the count rather than later, which has allowed the Yankees’ pitchers to get ahead in the count more often. Sure enough, the Yankees had the highest first pitch strike percentage (61.8%) in MLB this season, up from 58.1% from 2009-2010. That will certainly help explain more strikeouts and fewer walks.

Now obviously correlation does not equal causation. One year of data doesn’t tell us much of anything, whereas the studies linked in the first paragraph cover years of data and thousands of batters faced. The Yankees’ pitching staff showed traits consistent with Rothschild’s track record during his first year at the helm, possibly because they threw more offspeed stuff earlier in the count. We’ll never really know what improvement (or decline) the pitching coach is responsible for and what he isn’t from where we sit, but Rothschild has been doing this for quite some time, and the improved strikeout and walks rates seem to have followed him from team to team.

* Surprising only because we hadn’t heard his name mentioned as a candidate. It really was out of left field.