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.

Instead of talking about A-Rod talking, let’s just talk about A-Rod

Spring Training went a bit differently last year. The players reported earlier because of the WBC, and by February 26 were already playing games. In fact, Alex Rodriguez hit a homer in his spring debut exactly one year ago today. This year we’re still in the batting practice and press conference mode, and that too has a different flavor than last year. That happens when you’re addressing a PED scandal one year and a World Series championship the next.

Want to read about what A-Rod said? You can find stories, quotes, and even full audio on basically any other Yankees-related website. If you want a quick summary, he basically repeated everything he said last year. The team felt like a family, he put all distractions aside and focussed on baseball, his hip feels great, etc. In fact, the most interesting part of the press conference came not from Rodriguez himself, but instead from MLB.com’s Anthony DiComo.

Now, with eight seasons and some $216 million — plus a few historic incentives — remaining on his contract, Rodriguez is about to embark upon a most critical segment of his career. These next few seasons are the ones that will define him in history — either as a very good player who did a few special things, or as one of the most sensational, remarkable talents to play the game.

I’ll echo Craig: That undersells A-Rod. By the numbers he’s a Hall of Famer right now. Not just because he has 500 home runs, but that he hit 344 of them as a shortstop, one behind Cal Ripken for the all-time lead. He’s currently 22nd on the all-time third baseman home run list with 229, remarkable considering he’s only played the position for six seasons. His 99.1 career WAR ranks 21st all time, and he should pass Cap Anson sometime in April. In terms of Yankees lore, in 2005 he became the first Yankee right-handed hitter since Joe DiMaggio to hit 40 home runs in a season.

DiComo is right that the next few seasons will define A-Rod. Very good, however, is out of the question. He’s already a great player. Without hesitation I’d define him as one of the most sensational, remarkable talents to play the game. The next few years will decide whether he’s among the 10 best players of all time. Will he hit another 131 home runs as a third baseman, placing him third all-time? Will he add another 50 to that and become the career home run leader? Will he pick up another 469 hits to reach 3,000?

Most importantly, at least to us, will he win another championship? Another two? Three? How greedy are we? As greedy as A-Rod himself, I suppose. “It becomes an addiction,” he said of winning the World Series. If he keeps doing what he’s done during his first six years in New York, he’ll play his part in future championship efforts. Maybe he’ll even break a few records along the way.

Photo credit: Kathy Willens/AP

A preliminary look at Heritage Field Park

Last night, we discussed briefly how the city’s Public Design Commission had given preliminary approval to the Parks Department’s plans to commemorate Yankee Stadium at the new Heritage Field Park. No aspect of the old stadium — not Gate 2 or any part of the frieze — will be incorporated into the park, but according to Jesslyn Moser, a spokesperson for the department, the design of the field “will allow patrons to visit the past.”

She sent me the renderings seen above and below as well as a statement on the design: “The proposed commemorative design elements, which received preliminary approval from the Public Design Commission [this week], include signage, benches, engraved plaques with historical narrative, viewfinders that allow participants to glimpse past events and an audio tour.”

The Parks Department website on the Yankee Stadium redevelopment plans has more info about the makeup of the various parks. Old Yankee Stadium and its surroundings will feature the following:

Three championship-quality grass ballfields, an all-weather soccer and football field surrounded by a 400-meter competition-quality track, four basketball courts, eight handball courts, a skate park, a playground, fitness equipment and a waterfront esplanade linking a picnic area, play area, tennis center and sixteen tennis courts along the Harlem River.

This diverse array of sporting venues will replace Macombs Dam Park, formerly home to baseball fields, basketball courts and football and soccer fields. When the park opens next year, the neighborhood will finally enjoy greenspaces taken from it four years ago when the Yanks started construction on the new stadium.

Keep in mind that these images are simply preliminary plans. The Department will release more detailed renderings after the Public Design Commission gives it its final approval. It’s a shame that old Yankee Stadium, renovated in the early 1970s or not, isn’t a bigger part of this park. That stadium witnessed decades of baseball history and deserves to live on in more than just video clips, viewfinders and an audio tour.

Open Thread: A letter from Safe At Home

That up there came from the thank you letter I received from Joe Torre’s Safe At Home Foundation today. As you probably remember, we donated $1,500 to the foundation as part of our 2009 Pledge Drive a few weeks ago, though I wasn’t expecting any kind of thanks. You can see the full letter here, though it’s tough to read from the pic. Don’t worry, I did transcribe the thing, so you can read it after the jump. It’s not overly personalized or anything, but it’s the thought that counts.

Otherwise, here’s your open thread for the night. No basketball tonight, just the Olympics. You know what to do, so have fun.

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For MLB, 2009 brought money, money, money

Despite a depressed free agency market brought about ostensibly by a bad economy, Major League Baseball enjoyed a banner year for revenue in 2009. According to Maury Brown at the Biz of Baseball, the 30 clubs drew in a combined $6.6 billion in revenue last year, a 1.5 percent increase over 2008. Brown believes that higher ticket prices charged at both new Yankee Stadium and Citi Field are partially responsible for the increase, and MLB retained its spot on the money-making scale right behind football. It will be interesting to see how these figures play out when the Collective Bargaining Agreement expires in late 2011. The money is out there, but many owners are trying to invest more wisely than in the past.

Pondering Sabathia’s opt-out clause

When the Yankees and CC Sabathia came to terms on a contract last winter, the deal was generally reported to be for seven years and worth $161 million. In one sense, that’s true because it’s the total amount the deal could be worth, but in another sense, we should consider the deal Sabathia signed to be for three years at $69 million with a four-year, $92-million player option. That opt-out clause must loom large.

As the Yankees and CC discussed the deal last winter, the opt-out clause was seemingly marginalized. The Yanks put in the deal, in the words of Buster Olney, “just in case” the Sabathia family didn’t like living in the New York area. That phrase seemingly indicates that, if Sabathia is happy, he won’t exercise that opt-out option. I don’t think we should believe that.

Over the last few years, opt-out clauses have come into vogue in baseball. A-Rod earned himself one in 2000 that he triggered in 2007. He walked away with a better deal that guaranteed him a contract until he turns 42. A.J. Burnett had the chance to opt out of his five-year, $55-million deal following the 2008 season. He did so and signed another five-year deal worth $82 million with the Yanks. Similarly, J.D. Drew opted out of his five-year, $55-million deal following the 2006 season and landed another five-year deal worth $70 million. Aramis Ramirez did the same in 2006 and can do so again following the 2010 season.

In a way, the Ramirez opt-out is an important one for the Yankees. He’ll be playing his age 32 season this year, and the market isn’t nearly as robust as it was when he signed his current five-year, $75-million deal. If he doesn’t opt out, he’ll become the first high-profile player not to exercise that option. Yet, on the other hand, his deal isn’t comparable to Sabathia’s. He’ll be leaving only one guaranteed year on the table and a club option. CC will be just 30 and will have four guaranteed years on the table when the 2011 season wraps up.

The Yankees have to be moving ahead with the idea that Sabathia will opt out. They are basically three scenarios. In one, he gets injured or unpredictably declines such that four years and $92 million are his earnings ceiling for those four years. In another, he uses the threat of an opt out to secure more money from the Yanks. In a third, the economy will be so bad that a lefty ace coming off his 30-year-old season can’t find more than $23 million and four years. The last is a possible but unlikely scenario.

So the Bombers will pay careful attention next year to the free agent pitchers. Josh Beckett will hit the market, and Cliff Lee will be available. Brandon Webb too will be out there for the taking, and the Yanks will have to move on a pitcher with an eye toward this opt out and beyond.

I hope Sabathia stays in New York. I hope he continues to lead the team deep into October, and I hope the winning is an antidote to the option to leave. But I know that money will play a big role in his decision, and the Yanks knew that last year. It might be a little too early to know what Sabathia is thinking, but Brian Cashman and the Yanks will have to plan for that worst-case scenario as much as we don’t want to consider it.

Photo Credit: AP Photo/Kathy Willens

Listen: Mike on The Shore Sports Report

Just a heads up, I’m going to be on The Shore Sports Report with Mike Krenek and Joe Giglio today at 4:05pm ET. You can listen in on either FOX Sports 1030 AM or WOBM 1160 AM, and I’m sure you’ll be able to stream it online via one of those links as well. This is going to be a weekly gig for us. We’ll be discussing basically whatever is going on with the Yankees at the moment, so don’t miss it!