April 20, 2014

‘Damaging’ Media and MLB Free Agents: Is Scott Boras Right?

“I am angered that numerous baseball executives have blatantly and intentionally violated our collective bargaining agreement by offering to ESPN comments about free agent values of Stephen Drew and Kendrys Morales. These statements undermine the free agent rights of the players and depress the market values.”
Tony Clark, Executive Director of the MLB Players’ Association

I’ve read a couple of interesting articles lately about player compensation in the MLB. A debate on the topic started this winter when draft-pick compensation rules were limiting free-agency spending, and the discussion has become much more aggressive this last week.

A slew of articles, particularly this one by Jon Heyman, caught my attention. They cover the feud between Scott Boras, the MLBPA, and big media and the MLB. An interesting twist, Heyman’s includes a direct response to Buster Olney’s controversial April 9th piece on the MLB market’s puzzling lack of employment for household-known, free-agent players.

This discussion is a complicated one. The battle they’re discussing maybe new, but the labor war in Major League baseball is not. It had just temporarily fallen off the front page, but it seems like it’s ready to return.

The words between Olney and Boras are nothing new, and this latest feud follows the same controversy we saw erupt from the Prince Fielder anonymous comments Olney released to the world.

For the most part, coverage on MLB labor relations has been lighter over the past few years. There hasn’t been much fruitful to talk about aside from drug testing, as the sport has enjoyed such wild growth. There’s not much to argue about when both sides are fat and happy.

But, as we’ve seen in the past, media coverage will spike on this silent battle during certain periods. Sometimes it’s topics like drug testing, player safety or expansion that attracts the spike in media coverage. But more often in this sport, it’s antitrust and anti-competitive practices that are the spark.

Scott Boras’ clients Kendrys Morales and Stephen Drew are unemployed. And many of his other clients (Edwin Jackson, Kyle Lohse) have reeled in much less wealth than they expected based on spoils comparable players took home in past years. Because they’re well-known players, that are worth millions of dollars on the open market, there’s already something fishy in the air. No doubt, the draft-pick ties to players that turn-down qualifying offers has a significant effect. But is this keeping Morales and Drew unemployed? How? Even Nelson Cruz, whose image was crippled by PED use and his price tag plummeted due to draft-pick compensation inked a one-year $8 million contract.

There’s already some tinder here for a smoldering fire. Buster Olney’s article though, provided enough gasoline to illicit a loud response from an already-fired-up Scott Boras and representatives of the MLBPA. Now, there’s more serious courtroom talk than usual. 

The Background

Let’s go in order.

Scott Boras strongly dislikes Buster Olney, and believes he has been burned a lot lately by the negative publicity Olney points at his clients.

 Numerous articles have been published this winter and spring about the obvious effect draft-pick compensation has had on free-agent player salaries. The league is going younger, as players effective ages are increased with every new injury, physical talent is at its peak during the early/mid 20′s, and poorer young players have much more incentive to play harder than older free agents that have already accumulated a $100 million worth of comfort.

Last week, Olney proposed the already well-known theory that the MLB’s labor rules are favoring owners/investors/derivative holders relative to players/agents (also other investors and other derivative holders).

Olney observed that brand-name free agents like Kendrys Morales and Stephen Drew weren’t signed this offseason, despite displaying the characteristics that would earn them hefty amounts of open-market money in past winters. For instance, they both have above-average wOBA figures for their positions.

To answer the question why? And, to see if the answer supported the theory on the table, Olney interviewed a number of powerful executives and team officials with insider information.

What Olney failed to adequately illustrate to his sea of readers, is that he offered only a one-sided  account of a two-sided war. And because that one-side he offered had insider information, and because one of this conflicts WMD’s is media airwaves, he got shelled.

Boras and the MLBPA fired back at Olney, ESPN, and big media’s marriage with big leagues.

Did Olney’s Article Undervalue Morales and Drew?

He also happens to be the agent of Kendrys Morales and Stephen Drew, two players that Olney specifically involved in his article appraising their value, that only included interviews from an opposite side of a business deal.

Last year, Stephen Drew and Kendrys Morales were both approximately three-win players in terms of Baseball Reference’s rWAR methodology. However, there was a range in their values based on other calculations. They were within 1.6 of that mark according to the algorithms by Fangraphs (fWAR) and Baseball Prospectus (WARP).

Cleveland Indians intern Lewie Pollis calculates that the open market pays about $7 million for each win (adding 1.0 rWAR). We’re talking about $/WAR, which is an effective representation of the value of a player’s marginal product of labor/performance. And what Pollis found is that team’s pay about $7 million dollars for each win they buy on the open free agent market, in the current baseball economy.

Tom Tango’s projection algorithm doesn’t estimate what free-agent players will get like Pollis’ does, it instead estimates what they should get based on their adjusted predicted performance. Essentially, Tango finds that players who sign free-agent contracts, consistently perform below standards. It’s worth noting that this behavior is consistent with economist Edward P. Lazear’s theories on long-term-contracted workers shirking/slacking once they have guaranteed money, and are being paid closer/above the value of their marginal product of labor. In fact, the MLB labor economy so closely fits his model that steeper earnings paths are generated by service-time-based, and players peak in performance in years 2-4 in service as predicted.

Anyway, I used both of these methodologies to calculate what we should expect Morales and Drew to be paid on the free agent market. And then, I compared my findings with the salary estimates stated by the eight baseball officials in Olney’s April 9th interview.

My findings are in the following three tables. The first two tables provide estimations for what we can expect Morales and Drew to earn based on Tom Tango and Lewie Pollis’ methods. The third compares the mean salary estimations for each player with the average figure that the interviewed executives provided in his article.

 

 Methodology 1 (Approximate Based on Observed $/Win)

 Player  fWAR  Estimated Total $alary  WARP  E$  rWAR  E$
 K. Morales  1.2  $8.4 (millions)  2.0  $14.0  2.8  $19.6
 S. Drew  3.4  23.8  2.9  20.3  3.1  21.7

 

Methodology 2 (Based on Predicted Player Performance)

 Player  fWAR  Estimated Total $alary
 WARP  E$  rWAR  E$
 K. Morales  1.2  $4.9 (millions)  2.0  $8.2  2.8  $11.5
 S. Drew  3.4  14.0  2.9  12.0  3.1  12.7

 

Sketchy Business? Estimated $alary Market vs. Olney Article

 Player  Mean Estimated $alary  Olney Mean $alary  Difference
 K. Morales  $11.1 (millions)  $6.9 (millions)  $4.2
 S. Drew  17.4   7.9  9.5

 

On the surface, Boras’ accusations/assertions are justified. And when we did deeper, they’re still justified, just less so.

We now see that the interviews were vastly more favorable for the team’s side of the deal than the free-agent player side. Not only were the commenters anonymous, their views were unchallenged by equally bullish estimates, and this elementary analysis shows that they followed their predicated behavior (bearish wage estimates).

In the ESPN article, Morales was appraised at $4.2 million below what he was worth in predicted salary, and Drew was appraised at a whopping $9.5 million below. Now, because there are only 8 observations, each person interviewed was anonymous, we can’t be too confident and weighting effectively is impossible. But these numbers do paint a picture. They clearly indicate that the article strongly devalued the two players. In Morales’ case, the highest estimate was $9 million, and the median was $7.25 million, which are both still significantly below his $11.1 million estimated salary.

In Drew’s case, he was even more drastically undervalued–over $9.5 million below what he’s projected to produce in 2014. His median was $7.5 million and most team officials suggested $7-7.5 million.

Of course, draft-pick compensation plays a huge part in player compensation as well. Here, both players turned down qualifying offers, tying them to first-round picks for 2/3 of the team that would bid for their services. So, signing them is essentially trading a draft pick as well, and picks in this range are generally worth between 0.5 to 1.8 fWAR over a six-year span.

Accounting for these issues helps explain Morales’ unemployment, and makes Boras’ argument less visible in this case. However, Drew’s nearly $10 million difference is hard to buy on those factors alone. And, as both players are still unemployed, there’s even a strong possibility that both players are seeing a much stronger effect from the negative media coverage.

Numbers aside though, the article even reads negatively regarding both players. For instance, Buster’s second interview question: 

Would the fact that they haven’t had a spring training and would need time to get game-ready factor into your offer? 

It’s just one sentence but if you read the entire article, you’ll see that there’s few positives that support the case to sign Drew or Morales.

To me, either free agent has plenty of enticing qualities if I’m trying to put together a winning team. Neither is my cup of tea, but I see enough skills and low enough cost to take a chance if I’m in GM shoes. Again, that’s what’s so puzzling now that they’re salary demands are so reduced.

Morales, though not a premium hitter, boats plenty of valuable skills in todays game. Having to spend his home games in the league’s two toughest parks on hitters during his MLB career hasn’t stopped him from posting a .207 ISO at home. And last year, while playing for a terrible lineup without protection, the switch hitter put together a .277/.336/.449 line. That kind of pop would translate nicely to Camden Yards or US Cellular for instance. And while his injury history is troubling, I wouldn’t be all too worried on a short-term deal. He played 134 games in 2012 and 156 last year.

As for Drew, I would pretty much discount the player he was up until 2011 when he fractured his ankle and tore multiple ligaments in a nasty injury. And judging by his short stays in Oakland and Boston, and the way he left Arizona, it doesn’t seem to be a sure thing that he’s good in the clubhouse. However, on paper, the player he is now is very useful. He plays positions up the middle with shallow talent pools, and he offers solid average or better defense all over the infield. He gets on base at a solid clip (.333 in 2013, .326 with the A’s in 2012) and he’s one of the relatively few available middle infielders that can give you a .150-.200 ISO while playing reliable defense.

 

Why? It’s Business.

Olney’s article was one-sided. After all, he did solely interview executives and team officials despite the topic being the market value of players. Obviously, as Econ 101 teaches, price is largely determined by supply and demand.

The interviewed executives had a clear, obvious incentive to provide low-ball salary predictions and estimates. It’s part of their job. They represent the teams that bid on these free-agent players, and are those directly involved in the deal. If they sign a player for less, they are rewarded for a job well done by their own employers:

Congrats Brian, my wonderful GM! You saved me a ton of money by signing Edwin Encarnacion well below the value of his performance. 

Or

You signed Jaret Wright, Carl Pavano and Rafael Soriano for how much!? You’re fired!

Or

John, you signed Manny Ramirez, Omar Vizquel and Sandy Alomar before arbitration eligibility. By taking some extra risk, we we will be vastly rewarded! 

You get the point. The guys Olney interviewed have strong incentive to undervalue both Drew and Morales. Major League Baseball is a show, and a public relations powerhouse.

Image matters for everyone, but especially ball players. It’s hard to hand someone a big contract ignorant of what the future brings.  So teams analyze players harder than anyone–as if they have tens of millions on the line. So, rumors aren’t harmless, and negative media certainly isn’t. Because public image is such a large part of the equation and there’s so much money on the table, articles like Olney’s on ESPN make the salary depression effect even more powerful.

Is it intentional? Most likely. It’s a poker game. There’s plenty of elbow-elbow, wink-wink, colluding going on. And there’s plenty of outright effort to beat the system. What would you do to make millions of dollars? Tens? Hundreds?

By gaining together, and using ESPN’s massive sounding boards to undervalue Drew and Morales as a group, downward pressure is placed on these player’s expected compensation–for the benefit of teams individually and also the owners as a whole.

If the contract values of players fall, the overall market price for their skills falls. This same effect is what makes the Yankees so dangerous in free agency, to not only small market teams but to themselves and the entire MLB. Because their pool of wealth is so much larger, if they bid $40 million higher than the next guy to get C.C. Sabathia, that pushes considerable upward forced on free agent prices for them and everyone else moving forward.

Obviously, to make it a more objective depiction, a neutral writer would provide a two-sided piece–or would at least explicitly acknowledge the bias.

 

And that’s what Boras, and the MLB Players Union has a problem with.

Is Buster Olney out to get Scott Boras and MLB players? Of course not. However, it is worth noting that the richer, more powerful side of the owners and players battle is the former. And if I’m a media organization that is vying for an even larger cut of my already dominant market share, who is it in my best interest to side with?

More than anything, it’s the system.

Commenters on free agency are protected by anonymity, which does have its pitfalls. It keeps reduces accountability, and while this is an essential part of free speech and press, it’s also very exploitable. The imperfect information in the deal between free-agent player and employer team is unbelievably expensive and risky–lots of guaranteed money. Allowing either side a forum to influence the deal’s outcome and providing anonymity is a recipe for dirty pool.

 

What They’re Saying

As players are regulated to adhere to the new Collective Bargaining Agreement rules on drug testing, and draft-pick-tying, Boras believes franchise owners should be equally accountable for breaking league rules by suggesting lower player values and depressing markets/wages for players with damaging publicity.

In Jon Heyman’s article, Boras said that he plans on pursuing a grievance against the league, evening discussing the use of subpoena power to unearth the identities of the anonymous sources that provide these comments.

“It’s a clear violation of the CBA. As many as five executives continue to use ESPN as a conduit to violate the collective bargaining agreement…The bell is rung…Kendrys Morales and Stephen Drew were damaged by these comments. The integrity of the game is challenged when players of this stature have yet to have a negotiation due to the system.”

 

Tony Clark and the MLBPA addressed the Commissioner’s Office as well, asking them to launch an investigation regarding the comments made in Olney’s article. Clark released this statement in a press release:

“I am angered that numerous, anonymous baseball executives have blatantly and intentionally violated our collective bargaining agreement by offering to ESPN comments about the free-agent values of Stephen Drew and Kendrys Morales. These statements undermine the free-agent rights of the players and depress their market value. Today, I have called upon the Commissioner’s Office to investigate immediately and thoroughly the sources of these statements and to take appropriate action to enforce our agreement.”

 

Boras supported Clark’s earlier statements by stating his belief that there needs to be a “remedy” for the two free agents, and changes to the system overall.

As mentioned before, Boras has been vocal on this topic for a long time, and he’s already had his share of words with Olney. In his July interview with Tom Haudricourt, he discussed the similarly negative and anonymous comments clouding Prince Fielder’s image Olney posted on his blog. Boras pointed out, that both sides of the story weren’t adequately portrayed, and he painted Fielder as a victim:

 

“This stuff about a ‘bad body’ is bull…[Fielder] may be a thick guy but he’s an athlete. He certainly is not the worst first baseman in the league like they say. It’s all hearsay. I’m tired of unnamed sources…Nobody mentioned that he just tied the club record for consecutive games played…They didn’t talk about that…People who know Prince know about his work ethic, what he’s like in the clubhouse and the attitude he takes out there every day, wanting to win. It has nothing to do with his body type. All of those things boost his value.”

Boras is no stranger to airing his gripes, even when they seem to be a stretch, or overly dramatic. In this case, he has a firm leg to stand on, but it’s a difficult matter that doesn’t have a clean solution on the table.

 

OPINION: Arguments for fighting in NHL weaken in face of player safety

“It’s a part of the game.” 

“It protects players.”

“Players should stick up for their teammates.”

“It helps teams win games.”

If these phrases look familiar to you, it’s because the pro-fighting contingent of hockey fans has pounded you over the head with them like haymakers.

Here’s the thing about those claims–they aren’t true. None of the logic commonly used to defend fighting in the NHL is fact-based or proven in any way. In Wednesday night’s game between the Washington Capitals and the Philadelphia Flyers, the mini-line brawl triggered all these excuses and more.

Fighting is not a part of the game.

Yes, violence is a part of the game, and hockey is an inherently violent sport, but fighting is a part of the game the same way the shootout is a part of the game, if you choose to subscribe to that logic.

The shootout wasn’t always a part of the NHL, and at some point in time, will no longer be a part of it. (The shootout doesn’t have much in common with fighting aside from disrupting the flow of a game, but the point still stands.) The same goes for fighting. Just because it is there now, and has been in the past, doesn’t mean it should be, needs to be, or always will be a part of it.

Fighting does not protect players.

The notion that fighting “protects” players is ridiculous. Teams that dress less-skilled players and deploy them for 4 minutes a night — in the name of ”protecting” their star players — usually end up just retaliating for clean, hard hits or incidental contact on their goalie. These players serve no other purpose than to physically maim their opponent. For want of protecting a teammate, they could end someone else’s career with several well-placed punches. Most of these guys can’t play. They are dead weight.

Cheap shots, slashing in retaliation, slew-foots, etc. have been in the game for a century, and remain today. No amount of “protection” or “enforcing” has managed to drive this nonsense from the game. Honest, legitimate player safety rules, enforced on the ice, by the league, and by teams themselves, is the only answer. To this point, the league has allowed certain teams to dictate policy when it comes to fighting and violence in hockey.

One day, I hope, if fighting does still exist in the NHL, the “goons” are not just goons. I believe that every player on a team should possess actual hockey skill and contribute to the team in other ways besides propelling their metacarpals into someone else’s skull.

Hockey is a physical sport, and any time the human body is subjected to any extreme force, including a hard body check, it causes trauma to the brain. Now think about the force exerted by a fist to someone’s head. Over time, that can lead to undiagnosed concussions and traumatic brain injuries.

While we can’t completely rid the game of hitting, and nor would we want to, shouldn’t we want to see the amount of potential brain trauma reduced as much as possible? The answer is yes.

Fighting does not help teams win games.

Sure, a fight can boost momentum, that much is true, at least. Hockey is an emotional game. But what matters at the end of a game is the score on the scoreboard. The team with the most goals wins the game, not the team that spars the hardest.

There are no moral victories in hockey.

On many occasions, I’ve seen the losing team praised for showing “grit” and “heart” because they came out on the winning end of a couple fights. “They were trying to get the bench fired up,” it is then said. Do you want to know another way to “fire up the bench”? Score goals. Finish your checks. Play smart hockey. Don’t break another guy’s orbital bone,  because that doesn’t improve your place in the standings. In fact, it’s probably sending your team to the penalty kill, where your opponent will likely score a goal. You are putting your team at a disadvantage, and thus making it less likely they will win a game.

Most people who know me, or at least follow me on Twitter, can attest to how outspoken I am about fighting in hockey. I cannot count the amount of times I’ve heard the prior arguments and more, including being urged to find a new sport, and being told that I should find a new sport to watch. What you and these other people may not realize is that I, too, was once a fan of fighting. It’s exciting. It boosts your adrenaline.

But at some point, I realized that the toll taken on the athletes who play these types of roles is not only detrimental to their long-term health and longevity in the sport; it’s detrimental to the game. People I’ve spoken with who are not hockey fans have told me they are turned off by seeing line brawls and fights whenever they turn on a game. As many people as are attracted to hockey because of fighting, the same proportion are alienated by it.

If the league wants to reduce the amount of head injuries to players,  why not rid the sport of something that is probably the main cause of it? It’s a gross double standard.

The NHL has clearly started thinking about it, instituting rule changes that require all players entering the league to wear visors, and penalizing players for taking off their helmets prior to a fight (they’ve also started doling out penalties to those who think they are clever by removing their opponents helmet before a fight, as well). It will be years before fighting is phased out of the league, but the NHL is taking baby steps toward protecting the health of its players and the sport as a whole.

The health of the players who play the game we love to watch should be considered paramount. The long-term effects of continued brain trauma are well-known, the emotional and psychological effects of it are probably not thought about too much. It’s time to start thinking about it.

_________________

Katie Brown is a Staff Writer for District Sports Page covering the Capitals. She grew up in Virginia and Maryland, currently resides in Arlington, VA, and developed a love for the sport of hockey as a youngster while watching her brothers play. She combined her enthusiasm for the game with her love of writing after college. Katie has covered the Capitals as credentialed media for two seasons for several area blogs before joining the DSP staff. Katie works at a nonprofit organization by day but the rest of her time is devoted to watching, writing, and talking about hockey and perfecting her mean one-timer. You can follow Katie on Twitter @katie_brown47.

OPINION: Redskins fire Shanahan — Where do they go from here?

After meeting with owner Daniel Snyder Monday morning, while the players were in the locker room answering to the media following their eighth straight loss ending a 3-13 season, the Washington Redskins fired head coach Mike Shanahan and his entire coaching staff. Where the team goes from here is literally anybody’s guess.

The move comes as absolutely no surprise. Shanahan compiled a 24-40 record over four seasons — reason enough to dismiss the veteran coach and start over, were the problems with this franchise limited solely to the playing field.

Shanahan’s teams in four seasons finished with double-digit losses three times, and the sole time they did not, they started the season 3-6 and in Shanahan’s press conference following the sixth loss, a 21-13 decision to the Carolina Panthers, he essentially gave up on the season, saying that over the course of the season he’d find out who belonged and who did not.

The Skins then went on an improbable seven-game winning streak to win the division and make their only playoff appearance under Shanahan — a loss at home to the Seattle Seahawks, one in which the franchise quarterback, Robert Griffin III, was allowed to return to the game when his right knee was obviously compromised, only to blow it out completely requiring extensive surgery, causing him to miss all of the offseason workouts, training camp and preseason.

During the rehab process, and indeed, even after the season started, Shanahan and Griffin’s camps were divided and fractious, with the player having lost trust of the team doctors, his head coach, and by extension, his offensive coordinator, Kyle Shanahan, Mike’s son.

What was left was a tenuous situation at best, with an obviously rusty Griffin not succeeding on the field and left warring with his immediate supervisors, all under the same big tent as Snyder — and General Manager Bruce Allen — sat silently, out of the spotlight watching all the ugliness unfold: all the ugly losses, the leaked reports citing “unnamed sources”, the headlines in the national media and the degraded play of the previous season’s Offensive Rookie of the Year, ultimately leading to Shanahan benching a seemingly healthy Griffin for the team’s last three games of the season.

So Shanahan — and the $7 million that remained on the original five-year contract he signed — ride off into the sunset, his reputation and legacy further clouded by the stench of three double-digit loss seasons, the pandering nepotism, and the ceaseless turmoil and divisive media leaks that could only have come from within his camp as this season wound down.

But he’s not the Redskins’ problem anymore. Where, exactly, do they go from here?

The Redskins head coaching gig should be a prized position. Despite the 3-13 season — and the lack of first round draft picks the next two seasons, the new coach will have a presumably healthy and motivated Griffin to work with. That will be the new guy’s primary responsibility: repairing the damage this franchise has done to Griffin, both physically and psychologically.

The new head coach, offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach have to iron out Griffin’s footwork, keep him better protected, and put him back in a position to succeed, not simply live out the OC’s desire to prove he’s smarter than everyone around him.

That means, among other things, they have to fill the playbook with screens, picks and slants — like most teams with young quarterback do. They have to design plays intended to get the ball out of Griffin’s hands as quickly as possible and allow players more suited for the rigors of NFL contact to take that punishment on a regular basis.

Griffin’s legs are a weapon, yes. But they don’t have to be the only trick in the book. Griffin should run when he feels the pressure to escape the rush, where he’s able to break down defenses on the edge with his speed and natural ability. He just doesn’t have the frame to withstand running the ball off-tackle, where 300-lb linemen and 250-lb linebackers can neutralize that speed due to more-confined spaces.

There’s a really good reason the option doesn’t work on the professional level as a basis for an offense.

It also means the Skins have to fine several offensive linemen that excel in pass blocking. The group they currently have are decent-enough run blockers, but as a group — especially the interior – they aren’t proficient enough in the passing game.

That task should fall to a new talent evaluator as well. The Redskins have had enough experience with “my way or the highway” coaches to realize that a traditional system, with a GM that acts as talent evaluator and head coach that manages that talent, should be the way to go. The new coach is going to have enough trouble getting Griffin’s career back on track.

And once and for all, Mr. Snyder needs to stay away from the field. He needs someone to help him finally realize that fraternizing with the players, though a perk of ownership, should be confined to team holiday parties and special occasions like the Homecoming Luncheon. He needs to finally realize that his relationship with individual players undermines his coaches and lowers opinions of him throughout the league.

Mr. Snyder needs to hire a competent GM and let him do his job. He needs to allow the GM to hire a head coach, preferably and up-and-comer, not another “big-name” retread looking for a golden parachute. He needs to allow the head coach to hire his own coordinators and assistants, with the guidance of the GM. And he needs to step away and enjoy his product from the comfort of his suite AT ALL TIMES, instead of hanging around on the sidelines at practice like a giddy fanboy.

Or else we’ll just be back at this again in another couple of years.

OPINION: Wilson’s hit the type league should legislate out of the game

The NHL Department of Player Safety issued its decision about Washington Capitals forward Tom Wilson’s hit Tuesday night on the Philadelphia Flyers’ Brayden Schenn, saying that no supplemental discipline would come as a result of the play.

My opinion of the matter was well documented in my column that evening. I am quite surprised that Wilson did not receive supplemental discipline. While Brendan Shanahan’s explanation is thorough and exhausting, I still believe the hit was unnecessarily violent and should not be tolerated in the game.

In my interpretation of the play, Wilson was neither forechecking or playing good hockey; he was looking to drive Schenn through the boards — which he did — in an effort to simply deliver a noticeable big hit. The on-ice officials saw fit to award a major penalty and game misconduct to Wilson, which I agree with fully.

Obviously, the league and Caps brass don’t agree with my assessment of the play.

Also, and this is a pretty fine point to make, but there’s a huge difference between a “legal” hit by the definition of the rule book and a dangerous one that should be eliminated from the game nonetheless. Wilson had to know that if he delivered the hit in the manner he did that the primary consequence would be Schenn’s limp body being thrown into the end boards. Schenn was very clearly skating parallel to the goal line and was just primed to be driven into the boards as the result of this hit.

Wilson disregarded the dangerous aspect of his actions and carried through with the hit regardless.

Just image if this was Zac Rinaldo hitting Nick Backstrom in this manner. Only you can answer how your opinion might change or not were the situation reversed.

This is not to say I believe that Wilson is a “dirty” player, or that this was a “dirty” hit. I don’t believe Wilson attempted this play with the intent on injuring Schenn. What I do think is that this play was dangerous and violent and could have resulted in catastrophic injury for Schenn. It is those types of plays that I very much believe the league should try to legislate out of the game.

By failing to impose supplemental discipline to Wilson, the league is sanctioning the type of play Wilson engaged in, setting a precedent for these hits to continue to be “legal”, despite the danger they pose to the players on the ice. I get that hockey is a contact sport at this level, and a significant portion of the fan base enjoys the violent aspects of the game. I’m not espousing that the league be legislated into a non-contact league.

But I am perfectly happy to sacrifice some of the violence in this league to make it safer and to promote the hockey aspects of the game instead of the violence. And I believe the type of play Wilson engaged in is part of the dangerous and unnecessary violence in the league.

I guess it all depends on what kind of hockey you want to watch.

I’m afraid I’m in the vast minority on this point. I hope that we never have to see a day where we’re writing an obituary for a player who dies on the ice from a hit such as this.

OPINION: Rizzo steals Fister from Tigers for spare parts

You don’t need me to tell you that the Washington Nationals flat-out stole Doug Fister from the Detroit Tigers on Cyber Monday.

But I’m going to anyway.

If you’re a baseball fan, you’ve no doubt by now read dozens of opinions that Mike Rizzo absolutely robbed his counterpart, Tigers’ GM Dave Dombrowski. Actually, most of the professional comments have been more of the bewildered sort than any other trade in recent memory.

Let’s not mince words here: The Nats acquired one of the top 25 pitchers in all of baseball, under contract for two more years at a reasonable rate, for a Quad-A middle infielder, a LOOGY with maturity issues, and a mid-level left-handed pitching prospect.

This gives the Nationals a starting rotation with four of the top 25 starters in the game.

Fister is one of the more underrated players in the game today. By all metrics, he ranks among the most durable, consistently excellent starters in the bigs. He’s a ground ball machine, and going to be playing the next several seasons with the best defense he’s had behind him. He doesn’t walk batters, and he very rarely gives up home runs.

There are two reasons he’s largely been ignored when the discussion of the best starters in the league comes up: his fastball sits around 89 MPH and he doesn’t put up gaudy strikeout totals. His career average of 6.3 per nine is rather pedestrian, but coupled with a career walk rate of 1.8, his K/BB rate of 3.46 is awesome.

Number one on Baseball-Reference’s “Similarity Score” for Fister, which compares players based on statistics accumulated and projected, is Jordan Zimmermann. Enough said.

But to get, you have to give. What did the Nats really give up?

Let’s discuss Robbie Ray, the only player the Nats gave up that might have a ceiling, first. The 6’2″, 170 22-year old just completed his 4th minor league season, split between A+ and AA. He posted a combined 11-5 with 3.36 ERA, 1.254 WHIP and 10.1 K/9. He pitches in the low 90s and can hit mid-90s when he dials it up. His command though is still a work in progress, as his BB/9 was 3.9.

He was ranked as the Nats’ third or fourth highest pitching prospect depending on who you like to listen to, but if he can’t develop his changeup in the next year or two he’s going to end up in the pen.

We had Ray as the Nats’ 12th overall prospect and the sixth pitcher behind Cole, Giolito, Karns, Solis and Purke.

Ray could develop into a quality MLB starting pitcher, a lefty to boot. He could end up a quality arm in a big league bullpen. He could be a LOOGY. He could get exposed at Triple-A, where he has yet to throw a pitch.

But we know that Doug Fister is a quality Major League starter.

What about the two roster players the Nats gave up?

I want to be kind here, as I know that Steve Lombardozzi has more than his share of fans in the D.C. area. But he’s exactly like his father with regards to his potential as a big leaguer: he’s already reached it. He is — at best — a utility middle infielder, and really nothing more than a backup second baseman. He barely has the arm strength to cover second at the big league level, let alone trying to make the long throw at short. It’s just not there, not to mention his lack of range.

At the plate, Lombo is a “Punch-and-Judy” slap hitter, devoid of any power whatsoever. He has no plate discipline, and can’t run. What gets him by is his unwavering work ethic and willingness to play anywhere the manager puts him, however out of position that might be. Shoot, he was the emergency catcher last season.

Ian Krol, the “player to be named later” in the Michael Morse trade last season from Oakland, has a decent power lefty arm, but should never be allowed to face a right-handed batter. He is the very definition of “replacement player”.

Lesser starting pitchers than Fister have been acquired via trade the past two seasons for far more quality than the Nats gave up in this deal. The Royals gave the Rays Wil Myers for James Shields, and Fister is every bit Shields’ equal, if not better.

Perhaps Dombrowski knows something about Fister health-wise we don’t. Maybe Fister spent his off-season kicking babies and throwing rocks at people at charity events. Who knows? But what we do know is that Fister is one of the top two dozen or so MLB starting pitchers, and he’ll be wearing a Curly W next season, making the Nats rotation one of the top-three in the league.

And all they gave up to get him was a backup middle infielder, a LOOGY and a marginal lefty starter prospect.

OPINION: Square peg Erat wants out; McPhee will comply

Never a dull moment for the Washington Capitals.

First came the report on a Czech language site. Then the confirmation from the horse’s mouth: Martin Erat demanded a trade from the Caps. After, GM George McPhee indicated he was willing to comply with the veteran player’s requests. Then, coach Adam Oates confirmed McPhee’s opinion that with Brooks Laich healthy, Erat just had a hard time fitting in on the Caps roster.

Obtained (along with center Michael Latta) for former first round prospect Filip Forsberg at last season’s trading deadline, Erat now arguably represents McPhee’s biggest acquisition blunder.

Erat, 33, has been a top-six forward on every team he’s been a part of. Eight times in his career he’s scored better than 16 goals in a full season, and he started this one relegated to fourth line minutes with the likes of a 19-year old rookie and Latta, the player he was traded with, in his first stint in the NHL.

It’s no wonder he was dissatisfied with his playing time.

When McPhee made the deal last season, Laich was still out, rehabbing from his groin injury and surgery. Now skating full-time minutes, Laich has recaptured his old spot in Oates’ lineup, to the detriment of Erat’s minutes.

Both McPhee and Oates mentioned Laich’s health as a key to Erat’s playing situation, as if neither player were capable of filling a different role.

At the start of the season, Laich resumed play on the second line, pushing Erat past the third line on his way to less than 10 minutes of total ice time in each of the team’s first four games and five of its first seven. At some point early in the season, Erat met with McPhee to discuss the situation, confirmed by both men Monday after practice. Erat’s minutes have picked up recently, but still dissatisfied, Erat reiterated his concern and requested a trade to a team that will utilize him in a manner more customary to his career norms. According to McPhee, Erat has been “really flexible” on the teams he may be traded to, with respect to his full no movement clause.

That led us to the bombshell Monday morning.

This is very clearly a situation where this organization trusts the history and past performance of Laich, a player to whom they gave a six-year, $27 million contract two seasons ago. What remains to be seen, however, is if Laich will return to the 20-goal, two-way player he was before his groin injury or not. So far this season, it’s not. In 24 games, Laich has recorded three goals and two assists, fifth on the team in total time on ice, while Erat has a measly six assists in his 23 games.

A lot of folks did not like the Erat trade from the very beginning, as the Caps were very obviously trying to plug a hole in a playoff run while surrendering the team’s second-rated prospect in the process. McPhee said at the time it was not a rental; that Erat had two more years on his deal and that the team was looking long-term when they made the trade. On Monday, McPhee reiterated the organization didn’t know if Laich would be ready for the start of this campaign, and when he was, Erat then became the odd man out.

What’s frustrating to Caps fans, now, is that the team gave up a player that made Nashville’s opening night roster and would be playing top-six minutes there — at age 19 — were it not for a nagging upper-body injury, for a player that recorded a total of nine points in his short stint with the Capitals.

Trades are always difficult to judge until time has passed from the event, but this deal now has unmitigated disaster written all over it, unless McPhee can flip Erat for a first round pick or a player that can slide into a top-four spot on the defense, which will be highly unlikely now that the player’s desire is open in the public. There are teams that will take Martin Erat and what he can bring on the ice, but his return will be pennies on the dollar for what McPhee had to give up to acquire him.

It’s unfortunate asset management for a team that is hamstrung by salary cap implications — like Brooks Laich’s $27 million deal.

OPINION: Washington Capitals have too many holes to trade for one “difference-maker”

On Wednesday, Mike Harris of The Washington Times espoused his opinion that the Washington Capitals should shake things up and trade for a Norris Trophy-caliber defenseman. Presumably, Mike was talking about the “Rod Langway” type of Norris winner, and not the type of candidate Mike Green was when he was twice-nominated.

I’ll let Mike explain himself: [Read more...]

OPINION: Banishment of fighting is coming, and it’s none too soon

Monday night, the Washington Capitals went up to Boston to take on the Bruins in a seemingly meaningless preseason game. The Caps took their full second line and their top goalie, but that’s just about the reach of NHL talent that went on the road trip.

What happened, then, when a bunch of young guys and career minor leaguers trying to make names for themselves went up against the big, bad Bruins? You guessed it — Fight Night!

There were five fights in all, two by Joel Rechlicz, who makes his living doing just this sort of thing in Hershey, one by Aaron Volpatti (trying — probably in vain – to earn a coveted forward spot on Opening night), and one each by minor leaguers Michal Cajkovski and Dane Byers.

Coming on the heels of the debacle in Toronto Sunday night, this was just yet another embarrassment for the league and everyone involved.

I should confess — I don’t like fighting. I think it’s unnecessary and outdated. It’s a tie to the dark ages of the game when stick swinging and other nefarious acts were perpetrated on rinks from PEI to Saskatoon. Well, we’ve still got that crap too, as we saw Zack Kassian try to decapitate Sam Gagner Saturday night.

Here’s a gratuitous picture of Gagner’s face following the incident.

The league has had continual problems with intentional head shots, elbows, stick swinging and concussions, and the fighting that’s supposed to curb that doesn’t seem to do a damn thing. It never has.

Fighting continues because it’s part of the entertainment value of the game. Pure and simple.

Let me rephrase — I don’t like staged fighting. If two guys get tangled up or are pushing for position and they start to swing at each other out of aggression naturally and organically, I’m okay with that. That’s part of the game. It’s physical and fast and there are occasions when guys are going to be overcome with adrenaline or feel they’ve been taken advantage of.

I don’t want to take checking out of the game. I don’t want to take away the contact. I want the stupidity removed.

The retribution fights, and the “momentum” fights and the fighting for fighting’s sake fights, or the immature stupidity on display Sunday in Toronto? That’s the part of the game that we can, and should, live without.

I’ve heard ad nauseum the adage that if you take fighting out of the game, headhunters will have a field day. Well, let me tell you, Rene Bourque is still employed even with the fighting. If staged fighting was eliminated, all the league would have to do is enforce rules ALREADY ON THEIR BOOKS about head shots and intentional attempts to injure.

You injure a player with an illegal hit? You suffer the consequences of suspension and loss of paycheck. Repeat offender? Sit the rest of the season. Third offense? You miss the following year. Get where I’m going with this? But it will be up to the league to take the suspension process seriously.

The league instituted the silly rule this season that players cannot remove their helmets to fight. Coupled with the new visor rule for all incoming players, it’s supposed to be a deterrent from staged fighting. But we’ve already seen in the preseason where combatants are removing their opponent’s headgear before proceeding to pummel each other into early retirement. It would be comically asinine, except for the early dementia, depression, drug addiction and early death for so many of these multiply-concussed fighters.

The league doesn’t have the, ahem, testicular fortitude to ban fighting — yet — because they are painfully aware that a large segment of their fan base wants to see the violence. In its rich history, the league has yet to have a player die on the ice from a fight. It’s only a matter of time, unfortunately.

With the concussion problem, and former fighters dying at still-young ages after their playing days are over, the league knows they have to do something. They’ve seen the results of the NFL concussion lawsuits. It’s only a matter of time before those lawyers organize retired NHL players for their own suits. Think I’m crazy? You haven’t been around enough plaintiff’s lawyers. A $650 million settlement for the NHL, as was the case for the NFL, would kill the league as we now know it.

As much lip service as the league is giving “player safety”, the real reason for the helmet law is to set a timeline that limits the statute of limitations for lawsuits. Banishment of staged fighting is coming, whether you like it or not. It can’t come soon enough for me.

OPINION: Stats, taken in context, help us understand the game better

In my guest blogging gig for MASNSports.com today, I wrote about Bryce Harper’s eighth inning sacrifice, Win Probability Added, and human evolution. It was a bit of a rambler, but my biggest point was this:

 You don’t get to pick and choose which stats you think are the right ones. They all are.

It drives me absolutely crazy to hear fans, players, managers or executives dismiss certain statistical evaluators, like we’re fabricating these numbers or pulling them out of thin air. WAR, or WPA, or wOBA, or wRC+, or ISO, or FIP, or UZR… all of those numbers are in the game every bit as much as batting average or earned run average.

It’s just that those “in the game” have been using the traditional statistical evaluators for over a century and some others were “invented” by folks not actually “in the game” in the past two decades.

Just because a statistical evaluator was created by math whiz doesn’t mean it’s any more or less legitimate than those we’ve been using for 120 years.

Each, in their own way, tells part of the story about what’s going on out there. No single statistical evaluator can tell us exactly how efficient a particular player is in his chosen craft. Some of them give us a better idea than others. But each should be taken in the context it is presented.

The “new stats” weren’t created to make following the game more difficult. They were developed to help us more deeply understand the game. Or help us compare players on a more neutral field. Or help us compare current players against the past more accurately. They weren’t created to confuse, but enlighten.

Fangraphs.com has a glossary of many of the “new stats”. They don’t hide their formulas. There’s a lot to take in, but if you take a couple of minutes most of the “new stats” are pretty simple to understand. Sure, there are some concepts that might take a few moments to think about before they make total sense. But they are all as rooted in the game as ERA, which is not a particularly good or accurate method to evaluate a pitcher.

Here’s another chunk of my MASN column to think about:

Back in the old days, they invented batting average and earned run average as a method of evaluating players side-by-side since they weren’t able to watch every game in person.

Yes, there was an era before computers. Before television. Even before radio was popular. If you wanted to know what type of ball player a guy was, you has to see him in person. You had to travel for days and hope for no rain out. There was little scouting and even less statistical evaluation. That’s why they started to keep track of these things, in order to be able to evaluate players without actually seeing them in person.

Even though every single game is now on TV and we have video of each player going back to their middles school games, we’re still looking for more clear statistical evidence to measure a player’s effectiveness. PITCHF/x and batted ball data are taking us into the next phase of statistical evaluation, and it all helps us better understand the game.

Statheads and seamheads have been at odds for decades. They don’t have to be. Each individual statistical evaluator only tells part of the story. Taken in context, they are part of the big picture. If you love the game, it’s worth your while to become more familiar with these concepts. It’s just a little math, that’s all.

OPINION: Doctors and coaches can counsel, but Griffin needs to be “RGIII” to succeed

Robert Griffin III had an impressive NFL debut. (Photo by Brian Murphy)

Griffin, doing what he does, in his NFL debut last season against the Saints. (Photo by Brian Murphy)

Following Thursday’s preseason win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Washington Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan announced that the team’s orthopedist, the renown Dr. James Andrews, cleared quarterback Robert Griffin III to resume full contact and play in NFL games once again. It was a highly anticipated announcement and everyone hopes that Griffin will line up alongside his teammates when the Skins face the Philadelphia Eagles on Monday Night Football to kick the season off on Sept. 9.

However, according to multiple sources today, Dr. Andrews “expressed concern” to the Redskins, Shanahan and RGIII himself about Griffin’s surgically reconstructed knee and counseled the team to limit Griffin’s exposure to “punishment” during games.

First, I wonder if Dr. Andrews realizes he’s talking about a player – a quarterback – in the NFL. Players in this game are exposed to “punishment” on a play-by-play basis. Something as seemingly simple as taking a snap from center and turning to hand the ball off at normal NFL speed places enough torque on the joints in one’s lower body to pull muscles, tear ligaments or tear cartilage.

These athletes are supremely conditioned, so the likelihood of that happening on such a mundane play is limited. But if the center steps back on a quarterback’s foot while he’s turning, who knows? That might be an extreme example, but counseling an NFL player to avoid “punishment” is like telling a gazelle to avoid the lions.

Should Griffin just hand the ball off to Alfred Morris or stay in the pocket when he drops back to pass? He’s just as likely to have a lineman roll up on him and do any sort of damage to his knee, ankle, whatever as it is for him to get hurt running with the ball – planned or not.

RGIII’s game is on the edge of the offense. Everything offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan does is predicated on the idea that Griffin can take off at any moment and pop for 80 yards. Everything.

Griffin separates himself from other zone read quarterbacks with his athleticism and raw speed. How much of that will be hindered by the reconstruction? We won’t really know until he’s under center and opposing NFL defenses are trying to stop him. We don’t know. Mike and Kyle Shanahan don’t know. Dr. Andrews doesn’t know. Griffin, himself, doesn’t know. He’s looked good in practice against his own defense that has been instructed not to make contact with him. But until it’s for real, we don’t know how much “RGIII” Griffin still has.

The Redskins can’t limit the things they run with Griffin. They can counsel him to try to use discretion when he senses impact. There are times he can slide and run out of bounds to avoid contact. But again, for the most part football is an instinctual game. For all the planning and scheming and coaching that goes into it, when you get on the field you have to allow talent and a certain amount of recklessness to take over. You simply cannot play afraid.

It’s very difficult to tell a player not to do the things that have made him what he is.

Then there’s the point of the offense being designed around his particular talents. Almost everything the Skins do on offense is based on Griffin’s innate ability to make plays. The play-action, the quick passes, the zone read… that’s all off Griffin’s playmaking ability and the threat of his raw speed and natural talent. Griffin is a good pocket passer, true. But some of that is benefitted by the defense’s reluctance to attack Griffin in the pocket for fear of him eluding the rush and busting containment. They’d rather he throw than run, for now.

Griffin is smart. He knows what he’s been through to get back to the point of playing again. He is going to have the best idea about his capabilities and his limitations. The team and the doctors can counsel all they want, and some of that will sink in. There are things he can do in certain situations to mitigate the “punishment.”

But they can’t counsel him not to be “RGIII”. It’s who he is. It’s how he got here. And how much of that unexplainable something that makes him RGIII was retained after his knee reconstruction will dictate his future and the foreseeable future of the Redskins.

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