Open Thread: Getting after it

Randy Winn, Marcus Thames, and Jon Weber making plays at the wall today. All photos by Kathy Willens, AP.

It’s snowy in New York, but sunny in Tampa. Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain threw to real live batters today, even though they only bothered to swing at 11 of 60 combined pitches. Games are just five days away, though it’s likely one of Al Aceves, Chad Gaudin, or Sergio Mitre will start that opener according to Joe Girardi. Just 37 more sleeps until Opening Day…

Here’s your open thread for the evening. You get to pick between the Knicks and the Olympics, though the Canada-Slovakia hockey game will determine who faces USA in the Gold Medal game. Enjoy the night, and the thread.

Thames has an opt-out clause

Via Chad Jennings, Marcus Thames has a clause in his contract that allows him to opt out and become a free agent if he doesn’t make the team out of Spring Training. Veterans on minor league deals almost always get clauses like this, allowing them to look elsewhere for a job instead of getting stuck in Triple-A all season.

Thames and Rule 5 Draft pick Jamie Hoffmann are essentially fighting for one bench spot, and it looks like whichever one loses that battle will head elsewhere. The decision comes down to whether the Yankees prefer Thames’ power against lefties (and basically nothing else) to Hoffmann’s ability to play all three outfield spots proficiently, steal some bases, and maybe even be a non-zero with the bat.

Will Burnett work in more changeups this season?

We can count on a few stories to pop up multiple times every spring. Some players show up in the best shapes of their lives. While that’s probably the most common spring cliche, pitchers developing new pitches over the off-season ranks pretty close. The attached assumption is that another pitch means another weapon. Many pitchers, however, never implement this new pitch. They can work on it all off-season, but until they start throwing it in games they won’t really know how it works. And since throwing it in games can cost runs, some pitchers shy away.

We won’t know until April whether A.J. Burnett will use his changeup more in 2010, but he certainly worked on it this off-season. In fact, as Carig tells us, he worked on it harder than in any previous off-season. Adding a dependable changeup to his arsenal could keep hitters even more off-balance when his curveball is working well, and could provide a backup plan on days where his curveball falls flat. But even given his hard works and the effect it could have on his success, Burnett won’t commit to mixing it in more often. “Whether I throw it or not, I don’t know,” he said.

To help him better develop the changeup, Burnett sought out 40-year-old Reds reliever Arthur Rhodes. It sounds perfectly normal for pitchers to seek advice from their elders, especially when they live nearby in the off-season. Rhodes has been a fine pitcher over his 18-year career, striking out nearly a batter an inning while maintaining a 4.15 ERA (107 ERA+). Without the 82 innings he’s pitched against the Yankees, though, that would be a 3.88 ERA. He has also allowed eight runs in 6 playoff innings against the Yankees, though seven of those runs came during two games in the 2000 ALCS.

I’d love to see Burnett work in a third pitch, but it’s not a simple process. I assume he’ll throw it a bit more often once the spring games start to see if he can get a feel for it. But even then he might not have enough confidence, no matter how much progress he’s making. Without full confidence in a pitch we can’t expect a pitcher to use it, no matter how much it could potentially improve his arsenal. With Burnett, I’ll expect another season of fastball-curveball, and take any further changeup usage as a bonus.

Photo credit: Kathy Willens/AP

Crazy Ideas: A major MLB realignment

If it weren’t snowing on a Friday in late February, I probably wouldn’t give Ken Rosenthal’s latest the time of day, but this 36-hour snow storm can cloud our better judgment for a few minutes. His thesis: The Yankees and the Red Sox are too good to be in the same division, and it’s bad for baseball to keep them both in the AL East. Thus, when the CBA comes due in December 2011, baseball should push to realign the American League.

Nutty, right? After all, why would Major League Baseball want to lessen the impact of its greatest rivalry? Why would Bud Selig take his Boston/New York cash cow — the two teams funding the vast majority of this year’s record-setting $433 million revenue sharing outlay — and stick them in separate divisions? The Red Sox and the Yankees play each other 19 times a year simply because it’s so good for the sport.

Rosenthal’s piece is hard to wade through. He’s writing one-sentence and sentence-fragment paragraphs, and his radical realignment plan is really far out there. He would flip the Red Sox and the Nationals. Boston would wind up in the NL East and the Nationals in the AL East. The league-flipping doesn’t stop there. The Rays would join the NL, and the Mets would move to the AL. The White Sox and Royals would move to the NL while the Pirates and Reds, two of baseball’s oldest clubs, would join the Junior Circuit. The Rangers would become an NL team, and the Dodgers and Giants would play in the AL. It would shock the baseball world.

Yet, on an individual level, for the Yankees and the Red Sox at least, the move might make sense. He writes:

The Yankees and Red Sox violently oppose the most obvious way to level the economic playing field — by putting a third team in New York and second team in New England. They will howl if they are asked to give a dollar more to penny-pinching teams such as the Marlins. But neither could protest too strongly if baseball assigned them to separate divisions.

Both teams draw well at home regardless of who they are playing; reducing the number of games between them would have minimal impact financially and benefit both competitively. The Yankees and Red Sox could forge easier paths to the postseason if they did not play each other so often.

Fans love Yankees-Red Sox games. The sport’s television partners, including FOX, love the ratings that the rivalry produces. Still, it’s not as if the teams would never play under an unbalanced schedule, and the networks are more concerned with the postseason, anyway.

In a certain sense, Rosenthal’s plan complements our look at the over/under lines. The AL clearly has something of a competitive balance problem. Early season indicators put the three best teams in the AL East, and they’re the best by a significant margin. (For what it’s worth, PECOTA’s Depth Charts agree.)

Furthermore, when the CBA negotiations commence, the Yankees and Red Sox are going to dig in. These two teams will push hard to overhaul revenue sharing rules. They’ll want to overturn the charitable contributions they make on an annual basis to the Marlins and Pirates of the game, but they’ll probably have to settle for a soft salary floor and the promise that revenue sharing will go toward improving the on-field product. The economic carrot of something new could placate these richer owners.

This major realignment though won’t happen. Would the Nationals consent to moving in with the Yanks? Or would the Mets, for that matter? Why would the Phillies, Braves and Marlins agree to compete in the same division with the Rays and Red Sox? Yankee fans would love to see Boston and Tampa elsewhere, but would anyone else? As the snow falls, it’s intriguing to contemplate these crazy plans, but when the skies clear and baseball is back, no one will think it a realistic solution to a problem that might not need fixing.

RAB Live Chat

Looking at minor league run environment

I’m a little late to the party on this one, but Justin Inaz at THT took an in-depth look at the run environments of the 21 different minor leagues. The Yankees’ six stateside affiliates play among the ten pitcher friendliest leagues in the minors, including the top three. Since 2007, batters in the Florida State League have hit .256-.324-.374, which means Jesus Montero‘s .356-.406-.583 batting line at the level last year equals a 142 OPS+. That’s impressive for anyone, let alone a teenager.

As advanced as Major League stats have become, we’re still a long ways away from having the same kind of information available for the various minor leagues. The most important thing is establishing context, which is what we have here. Without context, what good are stats anyway?

The initial over/under American League

Who’s smarter: baseball projection systems such as PECOTA and CHONE or good old fashioned Las Vegas sports books? It’s an interesting question to ponder in an age in which statistical analysis has taken center stage in the game, and the two options are one side of the same coin. Out of Las Vegas’ efforts to predict, via smart wagers, sports outcomes arose statistical analysis and more advanced projection systems.

I pose this question today because a few of the bigger sports books have released their initial over/under lines for the 2010 baseball season. Vegas Watch has the full league table, and I’ve broken down the American League by division. The Yankees, as you’ll see, win the over/under AL East but only by a hair.

AL East
Yankees – 94.5
Boston – 94
Tampa Bay – 89.5
Baltimore – 72.5
Toronto – 71

AL Central
Chicago – 82
Minnesota – 82
Detroit – 81
Cleveland – 73
Kansas City – 71

AL West
LAnaheim – 84
Seattle – 83
Texas – 83
Oakland – 78

In perusing this table late last night, I was struck by how few of these win totals I would bet on right now. When a team’s over/under lines up with the bettor’s estimated wins for that team, it’s a bad bet. Would you take the “over” on the Yanks and hope for a 95+ win season amidst a very competitive AL East? The initial line on the Yanks last year was 97.5, and I doubt many people took the “over” in February, March or even April.

I’m further intrigued by the relatively weak AL Central and West divisions. At first glance, we wouldn’t assume that two division winners would be pegged at win totals in the low 80s. After all, the Angels won 97 games last year, and even the Twins topped their 2010 line by four victories through 162 games. In fact, the AL hasn’t sent two sub-90 win teams to the playoffs since 1998 when both the Indians and Rangers failed to top 89 victories. Yet, of the teams pegged to compete for those division titles, I would place a bet only the Rangers, and then, I’d be inclined to take the over. Texas should have a team better than 83 wins, especially in a division as weak as the West.

Right now, though, these lines are published to encourage bets, and they don’t represent the true Vegas predictions. For every $1000 placed, the lines will move half a point. If one team’s win total is grossly under-predicted, the line will quickly move upward to compensate as bettors take the over, and that’s where the crowd-vs.-computer debate takes over. As the lines shift and settle over the next few weeks, can early season oddsmakers and those willing to place bets beat the projection systems? The results should look fairly congruous by year’s end.

In my heart, I want to take the over on the Yankees, and David Pinto wants the under on Boston due to the team’s injury risk. But odds are good the AL East will be a dogfight. First team to 96 wins takes the crown.

Here’s your obligatory disclaimer: These lines and my thoughts are for entertainment purposes only. Don’t bet on baseball with my advice in mind, and if you or someone you know has a gambling problem, please contact the National Council on Problem Gambling.