Biggest Loser from the COVID-19 Fallout: Mookie Betts

He was supposed to be baseball’s next $400 million dollar man, and rightfully so. Mookie Betts was in pole position to have a monster offseason, where he would become the most sought-after unrestricted free agent.

The Red Sox had reportedly made several attempts to restructure the contract with Mookie. In 2016, he declined a five-year, $100 million deal. Following the 2017 season, Betts again turned down an offer of an eight-year, $200 million dollar contract. After his 2018 AL MVP season, Mookie was offered a ten-year deal, worth $300 million in the offseason. Mookie counter-offered with twelve years at $420 million. In an effort to recoup something in return for Betts, Boston dealt him away after the 2019 season. He was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers after insisting on hitting the market in search of his desired price tag. 

Like every other business, the market for athletes is dependent on the total market revenue. With the stoppage of play, each team will be affected differently. According to the New York Times, the LA Dodgers are currently at $232 million in local losses, with teams like the New York Mets, Chicago Cubs, and Boston Red Sox close behind with $214 million, $199 million, and $188 million in losses, respectively. 

Even if there is an abbreviated season, teams will lose out on a significant amount of revenue. This will take away from their ability to pay out contracts after the season, and the market will see an overall dip.  The Athletic’s Peter Gammons suggested that Betts would be “lucky” to earn a deal worth $250 million in the current market.

While it was unforeseeable during prior negotiations, Betts must be kicking himself over what could have been. He might not command the $420 million dollar price tag he was in search of, but he has a lot to prove if baseball is to be played this year. 

Does Boston now have the ability to offer Betts a competitive contract offer, due to the expected market dip?

Remembering Athletes Who Served in the Military

On this solemn day, it is a time to remember the servicemen and women that made the greatest sacrifice possible. Throughout history, there are a handful of patriots who were both heroes on the frontlines, and in between the lines. In honor of Memorial Day, we will look at some notable athletes who risked their lives for our country.

Pat Tillman, defensive back for the Arizona Cardinals

In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, Pat enlisted in the Army to serve his country. He passed up an opportunity to sign a 3-year deal worth $3.6 million with the Cardinals to enlist. Pat served in Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, and he was subsequently deployed to Afghanistan. Pat tragically lost his life in 2004 due to friendly fire in the Khost region, near the Pakistan border. In the wake of his death, his family started the Pat Tillman Foundation, which provides aid, resources, and scholarships to support veterans.

Ted Williams, outfielder for the Boston Red Sox

Ted fought in two wars. After winning the Triple Crown in 1941, Ted was required to miss the prime years of his career due to selective service during WWII. Ted joined the Navy Reserve on May 22, 1942, and went on active duty in 1943 as an aviator. After returning to baseball, he was again recalled for service during the Korean War when he was in his 30’s.

He almost lost his life on one of his missions in Korea; he flew over a village and his plane was met by small arms fire. As his plane bled fuel, he refused the protocol to eject. He believed that if he ejected, he would damage his legs due to his large frame. His decision to land the plane was a precarious one… As he descended, his landing gear malfunctioned and his plane slammed into the runway. The husk of what was the fuselage skidded for more than a mile on the runway, but it came to a stop at the edge with feet to spare.

Rocky Marciano, Boxer

The heavyweight boxing champion was one of the few athletes to get his start in his respective sport from his time in service. He was drafted in 1943 and served with the 150th Combat Engineers on the European Front. He boxed regularly in amateur matches towards the end of his tenure in the Army. After he failed to break out of the Chicago Cubs’ minor league system, he began his career as a professional boxer.

Yogi Berra, catcher for the New York Yankees

Yogi enlisted after the Pearl Harbor attacks in 1941 as a Gunner’s Mate in the Navy. At this time, his minor league career was picking up traction, but he still made the decision to enlist. He was among the many who stormed the beaches in Normandy on D-Day. He earned a Purple Heart for his actions and finally made his major league debut in 1946.

David Robinson, center for the San Antonio Spurs

As a first-round pick out of the U.S. Naval Academy, David was widely considered the best athlete in the 1987 NBA Draft. There was one caveat the Spurs drafted him with— it was that his mandatory military obligations could span up to five years. David spent most of his time at a submarine base in Georgia, but he trained often while on duty. He participated in some international basketball tournaments, and managed to stay in shape for his eventual NBA career. In the end, he only served two years of active duty, and in 1989 he was allowed to join the San Antonio Spurs.

Arnold Palmer, Golfer

Arnold served in the Coast Guard from 1951 to 1953. He joined as a means of escaping the pain associated with the loss of his college roommate, who died in a car accident while the two were enrolled at Wake Forest. In the Coast Guard, he served as a photographer but spent his weekends golfing.

Catchers Are Quietly Changing Baseball

One of the few good things to come out of this pandemic is that the hiatus in live events has allowed for a time for reflection. Re-runs of classic games have taken the primetime slots where live games would have normally aired.

One of the striking aspects of this unique situation is how it displays the full context of any given game without the soundbites or short clips associated with these famed moments in baseball history. It allows for the full breadth of a game to be watched in its entirety, and many differences can be seen when compared to today’s game.

One of the games recently aired was Roger Clemens’ 20 strikeout game. In the early innings, the announcers were ecstatic over the fact that Clemens had been throwing over 90 mph on the day and how his off-speed was working well.

Today, it is expected that every pitcher can consistently throw over 90mph. How has the game changed that much since then?

There are two players in frame for every pitch and it’s evident that pitchers aren’t the only ones who have changed.

If the act of receiving a ball would be interpreted as an art form, Tony Peña should be considered the Claude Monet of catchers. He displayed a strange stance back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but others didn’t start emulating it until recently. This catching style is here to stay and it is changing the very fabric of the game for the better.

Without runners on base, Peña adopted a bizarre and unorthodox stance. He had one leg stretched out while he kept the other leg tucked beneath his torso. He was never known for his bat, but his defensive qualities kept him in the game for all of his 19 seasons. His longevity is a remarkable feat, and surely his unique stance allowed him to endure at a physically demanding position.

Baseball has always been a traditional sport; there will always be a crowd that is opposed to change. Up until recently, catchers were conditioned to use traditional methods when receiving a pitch. 

Catchers had typically used the “formal” two-stance setup. When a catcher gives signs to the pitcher, his feet are closer beneath his torso to hide the calls from wandering eyes. When the pitch is delivered, the right leg shifts behind to a staggered position as the feet are widened.

Catchers have long been the recipients of physical trauma (see Buster Posey). Donning the “tools of ignorance” has weathered many, especially the lower half of their bodies. Few catchers finish their careers behind the dish due to the physicality of the position, and many see their knees wear down eventually. Deep squatting puts a lot of stress on the joint, as it pulls on the tendons and squishes the cartilage. Rising from this position can put even more pressure on the joint.

Peña’s unprecedented take on receiving pitches genuinely gives himself and his team an advantage over others. By using this “informal” setup, he conserves energy, saves his knees from great stress, and most importantly has the ability to better frame the ever-so-important low strike.

Many players today have adopted a similar stance from one knee. Salvador Perez, J.T. Realmuto, and Gary Sanchez are among the best catchers in the game. They are also some of the players that adopted this style of “informal” catching.

El Gary isn’t an elite defensive-minded catcher, so this offseason he aimed to improve his framing. According to Baseball Prospectus, he was a below-average blocker in 2017 and 2018, and only slightly improved for the 2019 season. The Yankees recently brought in new catching coach, Tanner Swanson, to aid his receiving abilities.

Swanson was stationed up in Minnesota during the 2019 season, where he drastically improved Mitch Garver’s defensive capabilities. Garver adopted this “informal” stance under Swanson’s tutelage. Garver consistently dropped down to one knee, even with runners on base.

The most important factor in using this new stance is the ability to “steal” the low pitch. 

Having a lower base gives the illusion to umpires that the pitch is higher than it really is. If the same exact pitch is thrown and someone with a higher stance stabs downward at it, while another from one knee sweeps upwards to catch the ball, the latter will always be called a strike over the former. 

It’s an optical illusion and learning to play to the umpires’ tendencies is something that is critical to finding success in the Sabermetrics Era.

Jameis Winston Does Not Belong in the NFL

The former Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback shouldn’t have much to complain about nowadays. He was ousted by the only team he had ever known but was supplanted by the GOAT in what turned out to be the biggest headline of this NFL offseason.

He recently signed a 1-year deal with the New Orleans Saints in a quarterback market with little options. In an offseason where Brady, Rivers, Prescott, Newton, Tannehill, Mariota, and Bridgewater sought suitors, it is a surprise that Winston settled with a team with a comfortable QB room over a higher paycheck.

As we all know from Blue Mountain State, being the backup quarterback is the best position in all of sports, but Jameis should seriously consider all of his options before hitting the market again.

ESPN’s Field Yates reported that he can earn up to $3.4 million in incentives, but he is owed a base salary of $1.1 million. While it is applaudable that he showed humility in passing on higher offers to sign a grossly undervalued contract with the Saints, it seems that he is punting on the 2020 season in search of another opportunity when the market is less competitive in 2021.

The Saints have notably re-signed future Hall of Famer, Drew Brees, to a 2-year deal prior to signing Winston. In addition to Brees, the Saints also re-signed Taysom Hill to a 2-year deal, worth a whopping $21 million with $16 million guaranteed. Hill is a Swiss Army knife and shouldn’t be listed as simply a quarterback, but regardless, the position is crowded heading into the season. While Winston can see some time if Brees can’t stay healthy, Brees is expected to be the outright starter with Hill staying in the gameplan.

Where does this leave Jameis?

In 2019, he broke the kinds of records no one wants to have. He finished the season with the most passing yards in the entire league with 5,109 yards, and he threw for 33 touchdowns. But with Dr. Jekyll, comes Mr. Hyde.

Winston’s 2019 campaign saw him throwing 30 interceptions, landing him at 7th on the all-time list for most interceptions in a single-season. He became the charter member of the 30 TD/30 INT Club.

Jameis clearly has the talent to be an elite quarterback and he might find some success under the tutelage of Drew Brees, but his issues lie in his tendency to force throws into closing windows. He tries to overcompensate, and he can’t find consistency in his game. Perhaps his recent Lasik surgery can help him see farther downfield, but he should look for a new frontier to dominate in instead.

Many forget that Jameis was a two-sport athlete at Florida State. He played his freshman and sophomore years on the varsity baseball team as a two-way player. He played every position in the outfield and was the Seminole’s primary setup man from the bullpen.

Throwing a much heavier football for half of a decade has undoubtedly kept his baseball arm in good shape. Pitchers in the Cape Cod Baseball League have been known to throw a football around mid-game to stay loose, and his rigorous football training should help him in a less physically demanding sport. His talents can still translate to the diamond; he isn’t too far removed from that environment.

In his freshman year, he appeared in 50 games and saw 119 ABs. His offensive splits are nothing to write home about, as he hit .235 with a .345 SLG percentage. As a switch hitter, his objectively bad offensive stats could be attributed to a lack of training from one side of the plate.

As a pitcher though, he found a modicum of success in his freshman year. He appeared in 17 games and posted a record of 1-2, but had an ERA of 3.00. He struck out 21 batters and only let up 12 walks.

His sophomore year perpetuated both his strengths and weaknesses— his offensive stats don’t need to be mentioned beside his dismal .128 batting average through 39 ABs…

Where he did shine though, was on the mound. He appeared as a closer 24 times, and logged 33.1 innings. He had a stellar pitching season; he posted an ERA of 1.08 while striking out batters 31 times. He was a lights-out closer in a very strong ACC conference.

Stars at the collegiate level don’t always translate into stars at the professional level. In fact, the turnaround for players who are drafted out of NCAA that even see a professional baseball field is laughably low: 10.5 percent of NCAA senior male baseball players will get drafted, with even less breaking past the minors.

Jameis is different though… He has the physique to make an impact on a Major League team if he were to work upon his game. During his time in college, he was an imposing figure on the mound. His 6’4” frame yielded an arsenal of pitches— a fastball in the low-to-mid 90s with downward projection, a hard slider, and 12-6 curveball with bite.

While the likelihood of Jameis being the next Michael Lorenzen or Shohei Ohtani type player is slim to none, he has the physical ability to be an effective relief pitcher for an MLB team. Aside from success, it should be an attractive proposition from his perspective because he could command more money as a reliever than a backup quarterback. The market for relief pitchers is very depleted, and he would be in demand once again.

Jameis does not belong in the NFL due to a lack of talent… He certainly possesses the requisite ability to be an elite quarterback, but he isn’t quite at that echelon yet. Whether he will reach that level is yet to be seen.

He does not belong in the NFL because he would be a great pitcher in the MLB, and would command more money as a reliever.

Baseball money is nuts.

Baseball’s Ability to Shine in the COVID-19 Era

Like many others, I am an ardent fan of the game and I wish to see it return in some capacity this year. Even though I want to see baseball played, I can’t help but think that there are various geopolitical issues surrounding this pandemic and the proposed plans by MLB.

Each affected area has a unique position that they must deal with, and playing baseball in each of these affected areas has the potential to go south, very quickly.

Baseball has the opportunity to be in a position in which it hasn’t been in for decades: it can unite our country in a time of need.  The sport has the ability to be a driving force for the return of commerce (in some capacity) to our economy. While the idea of an untraditional season is intriguing, we need to have the utmost caution before returning to play. The proposed plans for the Florida-Arizona season might be our best shot at returning to play, but it needs to be modified. 

These globalized commercial areas in the Northeast (like New York and Boston) are why this virus spread so quickly, and why certain areas have been hit so hard. These areas’ economies and cultures are incredibly globalized, and have dense populations that rely on others for transportation, employment, and food. This undoubtedly is one of the many reasons why there was an uptick in these urban areas, and the person-to-person contacts commonly associated with living in an urban area is what makes dealing with this pandemic in an urbanized setting so difficult.

The plan to return baseball to teams’ home cities is not the answer.

Traveling amidst the pandemic is the largest issue surrounding a return to play… Players can’t be expected to bounce from potential hotspot to hotspot throughout the season, even at a lesser rate than a normal season. Players would inevitably opt-out and forgo their contracts and sit out the season if they think they or their families are put in harm’s way, which will have a ripple effect throughout the sport.

As we saw with Blake Snell’s recent comments, players are feeling apprehensive about returning to play. Aside from financials, health will remain the priority. If All-Star caliber players opt to sit out, what would be the point of having a season at all?

Baseball can be played in 2020, but how can we have a season without putting players in harm’s way? 

In terms of the game played between the foul lines, this season has the opportunity to be an experimental one. 

I have long been a dissident of “robot umpires,” but I think in light of this situation it would be the right call (pun intended). 

With robot umpires, it would mean that there is one less person on the field, and the person-to-person contact with players and outsiders would be minimized. The contact between the catcher and umpire would be eliminated completely; it would be one less avenue for infection to spread while the umpires could still maintain their jobs and perform remotely from the booth.

Another change that I have vehemently opposed in the past is the universal DH. With a tight timeframe for the season, it is imperative that managers have the capacity to make personnel changes with their players’ bodies in mind. While some NL teams would be at an immediate disadvantage compared to AL teams with currently established DH hitters, having the flexibility roster-wise would outweigh any drawbacks from roster issues. 

In addition to the universal DH, expanded rosters should be in play. The need to fill a roster spot with a minor leaguer who had to travel to camp would be a big question mark amidst this crisis, so having a reserve squad training and isolating with the major league team would be necessary. 

The biggest of the many challenges that baseball faces in 2020 lies in determining where the season should be played. Having a season outside of teams’ home ballparks is a strange concept, but if there aren’t fans in attendance, why risk having players travel?

If baseball is to be played this season, it needs to be at a localized facility with multiple fields that can be used simultaneously. A rural complex with ample infrastructure in the form of hospitals and hotels located in a warm area is crucial if a season is to be played. If the MLB can find a site that has the ability to host an entire league, it can be a great way to pump some revenue into a local economy. Even though aiding a localized economy would only be the tip of the iceberg in this crisis, the league could pave the way for other major sports to finish their leagues.

Before any game is to be played, players would need to isolate for 2-3 weeks prior to preseason training. If early July is circled on everyone’s calendar, this plan needs to be hashed out posthaste. 

The Days of the Prototypical Leadoff Hitter Are Numbered

In a rapidly evolving landscape, the traditional build of a leadoff hitter is hard to find in today’s game—the days of the Rickey Henderson-type leadoff hitter are long over. 

Admittedly, I looked at my phone screen a bit cock-eyed when I read David Ross’ announcement that Kris Bryant would be the Cub’s leadoff hitter for the 2020 season… He is the closest thing to a five-tool player on their roster and surely belongs in the heart of their order.

The Cubs have notoriously tried 17 different players in the leadoff spot (i.e. Kyle Schwarber and Anthony Rizzo) since Dexter Fowler’s departure in 2016.  Their experiment with Schwarber leading off ended in a dismal season for the outfielder.  In the games that Schawrbo led off, the Cubs won just 26 games and lost 30.  While his ability to hit the longball never left, he saw a slight dip in batting average in the leadoff spot during the 2019 season.  

Kris Bryant, the leadoff hitter, could have made the Cubs a contender again.  Without the virus’ impact on society as a whole, we might have seen this bold move pay off for the Cubbies.

In today’s game, there is a large emphasis placed on a player’s athleticism, and it is expected that most batters in a lineup have sufficient wheels.  Concocting a carefully crafted batting order comes out of necessity in the wake of a hitting revolution.  Metrics like exit velocity, WAR, and OPS have become so prevalent in today’s game, it has streamlined so many facets of the game. Teams need to adapt or die, which forces Darwinism to run its course. 

Maximizing the most out of a given game from the jump is incredibly important, but it is also equally as important to have an explosive and productive back-end of the lineup.  Having the compatibility and effectiveness in any combination of three batters can maximize a team’s ability to produce runs efficiently.  If your most dynamic player is only seeing the batter’s box 4 times per game as opposed to 5, as insignificant as it sounds, it could mean the difference between a win and a loss. 

In the wake of the now-infamous Mookie Betts trade, Boston is left without an outright leadoff hitter.  The only person on the roster who has experience leading off is Andrew Benintendi, who notoriously was experimented with in the leadoff hole during the 2019 season.  The Benintendi Experiment did not last for more than a few weeks even with Mookie on the roster; Benny is not “the guy.”  He had a largely uninspiring 2019 campaign at the dish, posting career lows in BA, OBP, and OPS.  When leading off, Benintendi hit .267 in the first half of the season.  These statistics alone do not discredit his efforts, but he is not the sparkplug that belongs at the top of the lineup.   

One player currently on the Red Sox comes to mind when thinking about those who could benefit from “top loading” the batting order. 

Looking at Xander Bogaerts’ physique, one would correctly assume that he belongs in the heart of the order. His 6-foot, 1-inch frame is well-suited for hitting in the 2-5 holes in the lineup where it would be able to do the most damage by being sandwiched between great hitters. 

When purely looking at his hitting capabilities, Bogaerts has the ability to get behind the ball and drive it to all parts of the field.  He also displays plate discipline beyond his years; not the type of maturity one would expect from a 27-year-old. 

Filling Mookie’s role is no easy task—he was 10th in the entire league in OBP with .391, ahead of some very big names.  One of the players following Mookie at 13th in the league in OBP however, is our boy, Xander.  Bogaerts posted a .384 OBP and saw lots of growth in his batting abilities.  He even posted an OPS that was 14th in the league.  Xander also has the slight speed advantage over Mookie, with Xander posing a 28.0 ft/sec as opposed to Mookie’s 27.9 ft/sec. 

At any level, every ballplayer should be prepared to lead off an inning—even the not-so-fleet-of-foot DHs out there.  Whoever leads off a game is no different.  A leadoff batter’s approach could differ depending on the pitcher, as he could set the tone of the game either by jumping on a pitcher early in the count or working to wear the pitcher down via attrition. The one thing that remains a constant throughout all leadoff hitters, though, is the ability to work the count and get on base often.

“Top loading” lineups with a team’s best five-tool players will be the way of the future.  Shifting players who typically belong in the heart of the lineup to the top of the order will become more prevalent in years to come.