Sports League Relegation in the U.S. – I Can Dream, Can’t I?

With seven games to go in the 2010 Major League Baseball season, fans of the American League are focused on the race between New York, Tampa Bay and Minnesota for the best record in the league.  Just one game separates all three as we head into the last week of the season.  The team with the best record gets home field advantage for both the American League Division Series and the American League Championship Series.

At the other end of the spectrum, just four game separate Baltimore, Seattle and Kansas City from having the worst record in the American League.  However, no one is really watching those teams.  There’s no interest there.

Should Durham Be Promoted to the Major League?

Imagine, however, if the team with the worst record in the league at the end of the season were demoted, or “relegated,” to AAA the following season?  That would make the “race” not to be last more interesting and more impactful on the teams involved.

Imagine, if, correspondingly, the team with the best record in the AAA International League was promoted to Major League Baseball the following year.  For 2011, we would welcome the Durham Bulls, who finished the season one game ahead of the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees.

Fans of European, South American, and Central American football experience such a system every year.  In English football, three teams in the top-tier Premier League are relegated each year to the Championship Level, and four are promoted.  The British system is so robust that this trickles down seven levels to regional leagues.  Similar systems exist in Italy, Brazil, Germany, Portugal, Argentina, Mexico and others.  This system is clearly designed to give smaller teams greater opportunity, although some leagues do have requirements for promotion in terms of financial stability, stadium capacity, and other factors.

The concept is not entirely foreign to the United States.  We take part in several sports world championships with relegation systems, where by only the top flight teams can really compete for the world championship.  For example, in the most recent ice hockey world championship, the United States team, based on its performance, was forced to win games to prevent relegation for 2011.  Tennis’ Davis Cup has a similar system.  The eight teams that lose in the first round of the 16-country tournament must then play the winners of regional competitions for the right to compete the following year for the Davis Cup.

So, why doesn’t this system work in the USA?  Baseball, hockey, and soccer have thriving leagues at lower levels.  Basketball has the NBDL.  Football has the Arena League, the United Football League, and other regional leagues.  Secondary leagues, therefore, aren’t a problem.

The problem lies in how the leagues are historically structured.  Owners buy teams, sign players, build stadiums, and operate based on expectations of revenue and prominence.  Correspondingly, players choose teams based on the team’s ability to compete for the championship and pay them commensurate salaries.  Baseball, basketball and hockey minor league teams are not independent competitors in a lesser league, but are fed teams by the big league clubs.  In soccer or football, the leagues are completely separate and owners are unwilling to consider demotion and relegation.  Based on the current system I don’t blame them.

Changing the system would be a multi-year process, and, in my opinion, is theoretically possible.  It would involve setting requirements and standards for each league level.  It would involve baseball and hockey teams dissociating themselves from the minor leagues, including player contracts.  Rules around developmental squads, drafts, free agents and signing from one league to another, including transfer fees, would be established.  Players associations/unions would have a say in the matter, for fear that salaries would diminish considerably.

Unfortunately for me and many other fans, there is no way that US sports team owners will ever agree to this system.  We can argue that relegation and promotion is more egalitarian and more capitalist and should be in America, the Land of Opportunity.  Unfortunately, sports leagues aren’t equal opportunity.  They are controlled by a tight group of owners who want to maintain their profit base.

Until that changes, we’ll never see the headline “The Hershey Bears win the Stanley Cup,” and we’ll continue our disinterest in the Orioles, Mariners and Royals the coming week.

In Praise of Sports Club Stats

Sports Club Stats is one of the neatest sites for sports fans to monitor the ongoing success of their sports teams as they progress towards qualifying for their league’s playoffs.  Once I found this site, I can say honestly that I visited every day during the last NHL season to watch the progress of the Washington Capitals towards the playoffs and towards capturing the President’s Trophy for the NHL’s best record.

Sports Club Stats keep track of leagues from the first game to the last and tracks the probability of each team making the playoffs and the probability of finishing in a particular spot in the league.  It does this by replaying the rest of the season over and over and over – as in 10 million times each day for major league baseball now.  It replays the season two different ways:

  • “Weighted” – which considers records and home field advantage to predict each game’s likely winner
  • “50/50″ – which gives each opponent an equal chance at winning every game

As I monitored the Caps, “weighted” in mind was a more optimistic view and “50/50″ was a conservative view.  If the Caps looked good under the 50/50, then they were in good shape.  Because Sports Club Stats also shows which games that day have the most impact, fans can determine exactly whom to root for and whom to root against to help their team the most.

The site is fascinating because, by replaying the season and calculating the probable records, it automatically takes all the games and the specific opponents.  This means that teams are both eliminated from consideration and clinch playoff spots on Sports Club Stats long before they “officially” clinch in media outlets.  This also leads to some intriguing information (from this morning’s “weighted” scenario):

Sports Club Stats Says the Yankees Have a 95.5% Chance of Making the 2010 Playoffs

  • The Padres and the Rangers are the most likely teams to make the playoffs at 98.4%, higher than the Rays (97.5%) and Yankees (95.5%), which both have better records than the Padres and Rangers.
  • Because of the Rays’ and Yankees’ records, the Red Sox only have a 6.7% chance of making the playoffs.
  • Even though the Rays and Yankees have the best records, the Rays have a 20% greater likelihood of finishing first than the Yankees.  This may reflect an easier schedule and more home games for the Rays going forward.
  • The Cardinals can go 15-23 the rest of the way and still make the Wild Card in one scenario and can go 30-8 in another scenario and miss out on the playoffs entirely.

Sports Club Stats cover the major college and pro leagues in the US and soccer leagues from around the world.  (For what it’s worth, Chelsea, Blackpool, Manchester United, Aston Villa and Blackburn all have over a 9% chance of wining the Premier League title in England, but it is early days.)  Unfortunately for some, it looks like their auto racing tracking has lapsed a bit.  You can also can give the site with the league structure and schedule of your fantasy league, and the site will run projected finishes.

There is a lot more detail than I can possibly explain here.  If you like over analyzing your team’s chances and knowing exactly where they stand, you will enjoy the site as much as I do.

For example, I know that the Cardinals chances at the playoffs drop from 52% to 45% if they lose to the Nationals tonight.  If the Cards win, the likelihood increases to 56.4%.   As I write, the game is 10-10 in the 12th.

What If Clemens Had Apologized in 2007?

Roger Clemens Testifying Before Congress in 2008

Former Major League Baseball pitcher Roger Clemens was indicted last week for obstruction of justice, making false statements, and perjury based on testimony he gave to the U.S. Congress in February 2008.  Clemens had appeared voluntarily to answer questions about his possible use of illegal steroids and human growth hormone.  If found guilty, Clemens could face up to five years in prison per perjury charge.

I’ve wondered for some time whether admitting drug use and apologizing makes any difference at all in the perceptions of the fans, the baseball community, and the Hall-of-Fame voters.  I think it can, but for Clemens it’s too late now.

Imagine if, in December 2007, Clemens had held a press conference, surrounded by his family, and said this:

I am embarrassed by the facts released in the Mitchell Report, but they are true.  In order to compete against stronger batters in my career and to stave off the effects of age, I knowingly took steroids and human growth hormone.  I have no one to blame but myself.  I wish it had never happened.  I respect the opinions of the fans and the baseball community.  I honestly did what I felt was necessary to compete.  I now understand this was very wrong.  For all the young kids and baseball players, I urge you not to follow my example.  Let your natural talent take you where it will.  For other players named in the Mitchell Report, I urge you to step forward and admit what you’ve done, if you are guilty.  Let’s not continue the sins of the past.

Had Clemens taken this course of action, it might have changed things.  Clemens could have been viewed as a sympathetic figure.  He could have been given further opportunities to rehabilitate himself through speaking engagements and interactions with baseball players.  Clemens could have started down the path towards improving public opinion and, possibly, a spot in the Baseball Hall-of-Fame.

At the same time, it might not have mattered at all.  Pundits would have vilified Clemens for his actions.  He would have been ostracized from baseball for at least a short time.  But, at least the issue would have been put to rest once and for all, opening the door for longer-term rehabilitation.

Timing is critical in the apologies.  Mark McGwire apologized in 2009, eight years after his career ended.  Too late.  The anger built up over the years by fans and writers is too great.  His chances of getting into the Hall-of-Fame are generally believed to be zero.

Had Clemens Listened to One Republic's Lyrics, History May Have Changed

Andy Pettite and Alex Rodriguez apologized during their career, and the issue became a non-story, coming back up only on occasions of milestones or Hall-of-Fame discussions.  No longer can a reporter ask either whether they did steroids.  Question asked and answered.

Clemens, Barry Bonds, Rafael Palmeiro, and Sammy Sosa have let the denials go on too long for apologies.  Unless exonerated by a higher court, they have no opportunity to undo sins of the past.

Ironically, One Republic had a massive global hit in 2007 with “Apologize.”  The chorus of that song?  “It’s too late to apologize.  It’s too late.”  It’s a shame Clemens wasn’t listening.

Lance Armstrong – Do you have One Republic on your iPod?

In Praise of [name your sport]-Reference.com

In the movie City Slickers, there is an early scene where one of the wives says, “I’ve been to games, but I don’t memorize who played third base for Pittsburgh in 1960 .”  At that point, the characters played by Billy Crystal, Daniel Stern and Bruno Kirby answer in unison, “Don Hoak.”

This has always stuck with me as the epitome of us guys (and some girls) who can’t remember the date we proposed to our spouses, but can remember absurd sports facts.

Don Hoak - Who Knew?

I didn’t know who played third base for Pittsburgh in 1960.  That’s a bit before my time.  However, I do enjoy perusing a lot of meaningless sports statistics and information.  I’m intrigued by what teams players played for, when they were traded and for whom, what numbers they might have worn and other data.  Before all this stuff was on the Internet, Mrs. Spidey bought me a 10-pound book called “The Official Encylopedia of the National Hockey League,” which listed statistics of every player who ever donned an NHL uniform, including their stats in minor leagues and other countries before and after they played in the NHL.  It was fascinating.

Now you can get all this meaningless, yet fascinating drivel on-line, not just for the NHL, but for major league baseball, the NFL and the NBA.  What do I consider “meaningless, yet fascinating drivel?”  Data varies by league, but here are examples:

  • Uniform numbers worn by every player for every team on which they’ve played. Don Hoak wore #43 for the Brooklyn Dodgers when he first came up, but later wore #7 with the Cubs and then #12 for the Reds, Pirates and Phillies.
  • All signings and trades involving each player, including for whom they were traded and who was chosen by future draft picks.  Don Hoak was traded to the Pirates by the Reds in the same deal with Harvey Haddix, who is known for pitching 12 innings of perfect baseball in 1959 and then losing the game in the 13th inning.
  • Whether each player was an all-star, won an MVP or other award, or ranked in annual statistics. Thanks to Baseball-Reference.com, I now know that Don Hoak was 2nd in the MVP voting in 1960, behind teammate Dick Groat, but ahead of more famous players such as Willie Mays (#3), Ernie Banks (#4) and Roberto Clemente (#8).  In that same year, Hoak was 6th in the league in walks, 9th in on-base percentage, 7th in runs scored,  and 10th in RBI.

Enough about Don Hoak – I think you get the point.

With all the links back and forth, I could live on these sites for a long time.  These are among the few sites for which I might actually carry a laptop into the bathroom to substitute for a book or newspaper.

Here are a few other stupid jersey #  facts to whet your appetite for more:

  • Phil Esposito, who wore #7 for the Blackhawks and Bruins and, later #77 for the Rangers, briefly wore #12 for the Rangers for 76 games in 1976 after being traded. #7 was worn and later retired for Rod Gilbert.
  • Hank Aaron’s first jersey # for the Milwaukee Braves in 1954 was #5, before he switched to #44 for the rest of his career in 1955.  No one on the Braves wore #44 in 1954, and no one other than Aaron would after 1955.
  • Mickey Mantle first wore #6 for the Yankees, before switching to #7 midway through the 1951 season.
  • Michael Jordan wore #45 for the Bulls, upon his return from a year of minor-league baseball.  Bizarrely, he couldn’t wear #23, because it had been retired – for him!
  • Franco Harris, the Hall-of-Fame running back for the Steelers in the 1970′s and 1980′s, finished up with the Seahawks in 1984 where he wore #34, not his traditional #32.  #32 was worn that year by Cullen Bryant.  Go figure.

So – before you click on the links below, please tell your spouse or roommate that you’ll be out-of-touch for a while learning about Reggie Jackson’s time with the Orioles in 1976 and Frank Robinson’s short stint with the Dodgers in 1972, learning which World Hockey Association team Wayne Gretzky played for before Edmonton, and finding out that Bill Russell was actually drafted by the St. Louis Hawks and traded on draft day to the Celtics for Cliff Hagan and Ed Macauley.

Enjoy.  Here are the sites:

Hockey-Reference.com

Baseball-Reference.com

Basketball-Reference.com

Pro-Football-Reference.com

Baseball Owners, Why are You Helping the Yankees?

I am a die-hard Yankees’ fan. As a Yankees fan, I’m excited by their pick-ups before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, but I am very surprised by what was exchanged in the deals.

Typically, when you see a team make a trade to pick up an impact player, they have to give something up.

Here in St. Louis, the Cardinals had to do just that, giving up starting right fielder Ryan Ludwick to get starting pitcher Jake Westbrook, whom the Cardinals believe will complete their rotation through the end of the season.  Ludwick was a Silver Slugger winner in 2008 and was hitting .283 with 11 HR and 43 RBI at the time of the trade.  More importantly, perhaps, Ludwick was, by all accounts, an exceptionally positive force in the Cardinals’ clubhouse.  Westbrook is a sub-.500 career pitcher, who is 6-7 with a 4.65 ERA in 2010.  The Cardinals wanted him, however, so they had to give up value.

Lance Berkman in His New Yankees Uniform

In Los Angeles, in order to get Ted Lilly for their rotation, the Dodgers had to give up their starting second baseman, Blake DeWitt, and two minor leaguers.  DeWitt is only 25, has a .980 fielding percentage at second base, and was hitting .277 at the time of the trade.  For this up-and-comer, the Dodgers got Lilly, 3-8 with a 3.69 ERA this year and a free-agent at the end of the season, and Ryan Theriot, the Cubs starting second baseman, a bit older than DeWitt and hitting .283 with only 21 RBI when traded.  To compensate the Dodgers for the loss of a potential superstar, the Cubs also shipped the Dodgers $2.5M to cover some of Lilly’s remaining salary.

To their credit, the Yankees picked up three strong role players for their stretch run:

  • Lance Berkman from the Astros, a switch hitting first basement and designated hitter. Berkman is a career .296 hitter, a five-time all-star, and a good first basemen with a fielding percentage of .995 in 2009.
  • Austin Kearns from the Indians, a steady outfielder and possible designated hitter. Kearns is a lifetime .258 hitter, but he was hitting .272 at the time of the trade and has a career .986 fielding percentage playing all three outfield positions.
  • Kerry Wood from the Indians, who will be given the opportunity to take on the 7th or 8th inning set up role for closer Mariano Rivera. Wood is having an unremarkable season and is just off the disabled list, but consistently has more strikeouts than innings pitched throughout his career.

Unlike the Cardinals and Dodgers, however, the Yankees didn’t give up a single player on the major league roster:

  • For Berkman, the Yankees gave up a AAA relief pitcher Mark Melancon, who has appeared in a total of 25 major league games in his career, and Jimmy Paredes, a minor league shortstop at the A level.
  • For Kearns, the Yankees traded a “player to be named later.”
  • For Wood, the Yankees traded a “player to be named later” or $500,000, if the Indians decide against a player

    Kerry Wood Pitches in His First Yankees Game

Let’s delve a bit deeper into the trades.  The Astros also gave the Yankees $4 million towards Berkman’s remaining 2010 salary of $5.5 million and a $2 million buyout.   The Indians also gave the Yankees $2,172,131 towards Woods’ remaining 2010 salary of $3,672,131.  The Indians did not give any money along with Kearns, but, then again, his entire 2010 salary is only $750,000.

I find this amazing.  The Yankees already have the largest payroll in the major leagues ($206 million in 2010), the most revenues (between $450 and $500 million in 2009), and likely turned a profit even with other operating costs.  Yet the Astros, with $189 million in 2009 revenues, and the Indians, with $170 million in 2009 team revenues, both sent the Yankees money.

Why?  Rational economics suggest the Astros must want to save the $3.5 million they will with Berkman, and the Indians must want to save the $1.5M they will with Woods. The other possible answer is that Yankees’ competitors are in such poor economic shape that they can’t afford the $3.5 million the Yankees will pay Berkman and the $1.5 million the Yankees will pay Woods.  I find either difficult to believe.  All deals end in 2010, so there is no savings or extra payments beyond this season.

In the end, Yankees gave up very little to make themselves much stronger for the stretch run.  ESPN, NBC Sports, Yahoo! Sports, and Sports Illustrated all list the Yankees among the trade deadline “winners.”  In my opinion, they were basically paid to take these players.  Could the Jimmy Paredes for Lance Berkman deal work out as poorly for the Yankees as the Curt Shilling for Glenn Davis deal did for the Orioles back in 1991?  It’s possible, but it will take years to know.

For all the complaining about the lack of a salary cap and complaining about how the Yankees buy championships, I’m amazed that other teams are willing to ship the Yankees money to help them make their team better on another championship run.  To me, it doesn’t make sense.  Good for Brian Cashman, Joe Girardi and the Yankees.  Shame on the rest of the league.

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