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Goodbye and Thank You

More than 10 years ago, my first piece of published baseball writing appeared on the Community Blog at FanGraphs. It was on Adam Wainwright’s curveball. About five years later, I joined FanGraphs as a part-time contributor. I read the offer email in line at Costco of all places. A few years after that, I joined the staff full-time. For nearly six years, I’ve written almost every day, doing work I love focused on a sport I care deeply about. It is a privilege to work at FanGraphs, and while I’m not tired of the work, I’m moving on. I’m leaving the site to join the Major League Baseball Players Association as their Senior Analyst for Economics and Collective Bargaining.

As I was writing this piece, I thought about the others staff members who have moved on and read through the many farewell posts to grace this site since I joined (remember correlation doesn’t equal causation). Managing editors and writers like Dave Cameron, Carson Cistulli, August Fagerstrom, Corinne Landrey, Kiley McDaniel, Chris Mitchell, and Jeff Sullivan went to work for teams. Writers like Mike Petriello, Travis Sawchik, Eno Sarris, and Kiley McDaniel (again) pursued other jobs in media. Some, like Paul Swydan, pursued other dreams. While every post represented the individual writing it, the goodbyes generally contained three themes: the people here, the work, and the opportunity.

David Appelman created a site for people who love baseball. FanGraphs helped me to appreciate baseball more than I did as a kid growing up on baseball cards,
Sports Illustrated, and a playing career that peaked at the age of nine. As a writer at FanGraphs, I’ve gotten the opportunity to work for and with some amazing people in a welcoming environment fostered by David and all those he’s hired over the years.

I’ve had three Managing Editors, all uniquely brilliant. Dave Cameron interviewed me, sent the email hiring me, and helped shape many of my early posts as I was getting my footing. Carson Cistulli spent considerable time editing my words, and to this day, uses the Socratic method if I ask him a question about baseball. Meg Rowley takes great care in her work and encouraged me to use my own voice. Many others have edited my words, their work is mostly unsung. Hopefully I’m not missing anyone, but I owe a debt to Robert Sanchez, Paul Swydan, Dylan Higgins, Brendan Gawlowski, Rachael McDaniel, and Jon Tayler, as well as Christina Kahrl at ESPN. Read the rest of this entry »

Craig Edwards FanGraphs Chat – 1/28/2021

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Nationals Add Brad, Land Hand

One of the early surprises of the offseason was Cleveland opting to pay Brad Hand a $1 million buyout rather than spend $10 million to pick up his option for the 2021 season. Perhaps even more of a surprise was that Hand cleared waivers, which meant every other team in baseball opted not to commit $10 million despite him putting up his fifth straight one-plus win season even in a shortened slate of games. While Hand was likely seeking more than a one-year deal in free agency given his performance (and both the crowd and I predicted as much), he still did better than the option, getting a $10.5 million deal with the Nationals as first reported by Jon Heyman and Jeff Passan.

Including the buyout, Hand will receive $11.5 million this year, or $1.5 million more than he would have if Cleveland had simply retained his services. Eric Longenhagen wrote his profile in the Top-50 Free Agents piece, noting both the positives and negatives for the lefty:

His velocity fell for the second consecutive year (it trended up throughout the season) but Hand still struck out more than 30% of opposing hitters for the fifth straight season and had a career-best 2.05 ERA and 1.37 FIP. He’s a funky, low-slot lefty who can throw his trademark curveball for strikes whenever he wants and consistently locate it just off the plate to his glove side for swings and misses.

Aside from some elbow soreness that sidelined him late in 2019 (and perhaps limited his workload throughout that season), Hand has also been remarkably durable for a reliever, pitching in excess of 70 innings every year from 2014 to 2018, some of those in a swingman role. His lower arm slot gives Hand rather pronounced platoon splits, which means he may not be universally deployable in high-leverage situations, but his curveball quality and his ability to execute it consistently should still enable him to be a second or third bullpen banana for the next several years, even if his velocity keeps gradually sliding.

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Craig Edwards FanGraphs Chat – 1/21/2021

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Amid Toronto Rumors, Michael Brantley Stays in Houston

The Blue Jays made the biggest free-agent move of the offseason late Tuesday night by signing George Springer. By the next morning, they looked like they were on the verge of adding his friend and former teammate Michael Brantley too. But reports early Wednesday that he had put pen to paper turned out to be a bit too aggressive, and while he did end up signing by day’s end, it wasn’t with Toronto. Instead, Brantley is returning to Houston on a two-year, $32 million contract, as first reported by FOX 26’s Mark Berman.

While Brantley would have helped Toronto’s offense, he’s a bit of a better fit for the Astros. After signing Springer, the Jays already had four major league-quality outfielders in him, Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Teoscar Hernández, and Randal Grichuk. Adding Brantley would have meant putting him at designated hitter every day (or trading a good player away), which would hurt roster flexibility if Vladimir Guerrero Jr. can’t handle third base and also taken playing time away from Rowdy Tellez. Brantley wasn’t a horrible fit, but given the options still available and potential needs in the infield and the rotation, the Blue Jays didn’t have to have him.

Where he plays is less of an issue for the Astros, who already have a regular DH as long as Yordan Alvarez is healthy. What they really needed was a leftfielder, and Brantley was far and away the best option on a market full of replacement-level options. He was a DH more than he was on the field last season, but that was more out of convenience than necessity due to an early-season quad injury that cost him a dozen or so games, the emergence of Kyle Tucker, and the presence of veteran Josh Reddick. Since 2017, Brantley has graded out as average by UZR and well above-average by DRS, and his -8 Outs Above Average at Statcast make him a roughly average corner outfielder. His defensive skills will decline as he ages, and his speed is gone, but he should still be able to handle playing in the field. And he’s been relatively healthy the last three years after suffering through multiple injuries earlier in his career.

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Yankees Raise Ceiling With Corey Kluber

The Yankees’ big free agent signing last week came when the team brought back DJ LeMahieu for six years and $90 million. That deal raises both the floor and the ceiling in the Bronx next season. LeMahieu is a dependable player who should be average at a minimum, ensuring the infield doesn’t have a black hole, while a repeat of his performance since the beginning of 2019 would elevate the Yankees’ chances of a great season. The Yankees’ other signing last week came late Friday in the form of Corey Kluber. Kluber does less to shore up the Yankees’ floor given his recent injury history; indeed, there’s a non-zero chance Kluber doesn’t contribute much to the Yankees at all this year. What Kluber and his two Cy Young awards do manage to do is substantially raise the Yankees’ ceiling, as the team should face a tough battle in the AL East.

Jeff Passan was first with the news that Kluber would be signing with the Yankees for one year and $11 million. Kluber’s contract sits between my $9 million prediction and the $12 million median crowdsource estimate from our top 50 free agent ranking. Despite making just eight starts over the past two seasons, including just a single inning last year, a couple factors worked in Kluber’s favor in securing a decent pillow contract. The first is that Kluber threw for scouts and impressed. The second relates more specifically to the Yankees.

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Craig Edwards FanGraphs Chat – 1/14/2021

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In Liam Hendriks, White Sox Get Free Agency’s Best Reliever

While there were plenty of good options in this year’s free-agent reliever class, with Trevor May, Brad Hand, Archie Bradley, and Blake Treinen representing the near-top tier, there was just one ace available: Liam Hendriks. That elite reliever is now off the board, with the White Sox continuing their aggressive offseason by signing the former A’s closer to a four-year deal worth $54 million. Yahoo Sports’ Tim Brown was the first with the news of the signing, and ESPN’s Jeff Passan was the first to report the unusual structure of the deal: Hendriks will be paid $39 million in the first three years, with the remaining $15 million coming either as a fourth-year team option or as a deferred buyout if the option is declined.

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Should MLB Worry About Its New Deal with ESPN?

In 2014, Major League Baseball roughly doubled its national television money in deals with ESPN, FOX, and TBS that expire at the end of this season. Over the last few years, new agreements with FOX and TBS created a nearly 50% increase in annual rights fees, totaling nearly $9 billion dollars from 2022 through ’28. Understandably, the general expectation was that MLB’s new contract with ESPN would follow suit with a similar jump, securing roughly $2 billion per year in national television money alone. But the league’s dreams have been dashed: As Andrew Marchand and Joel Sherman of the New York Post reported last month, ESPN’s rights deal will be smaller than its previous agreement, with Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic adding last week that the total package will be $3.85 billion for the next seven years  — a substantial drop from the $5.6 billion over eight years that the Worldwide Leader forked over last time.

A decrease in rights fees to the tune of $150 million per year is going to raise alarm bells about the state of MLB, ESPN, and cable television on the whole. But while the decrease is cause for concern — and there are certainly some broader issues at work outside the sport — MLB still finds itself in relatively good position. To start, ESPN, FOX, and TBS will combine to pay MLB an average of $1.81 billion over seven years starting in 2022, an increase of 17% over the previous deal (and a growth in total value despite those earlier agreements being a year longer and a year from being over).

Even better for MLB, it still has rights to sell, with or without expanded playoffs. As reported by both the Post and The Athletic, the ESPN deal cuts in half the number of regular-season games broadcast by the network, essentially keeping Sunday Night Baseball and a few other marquee games as well as the Home Run Derby but ditching the majority of the weeknight games. If we assume ESPN keeps 40% of the TV rights from the previous deal and that there’s 40% more value in airing Sunday Night Baseball plus a little extra compared to the 50 or so Monday and Wednesday night games that are being let go, then the network will see a similar increase in cost as FOX and TBS.

The problem for MLB is that while those Monday and Wednesday night games do have some value, it likely won’t be as much as the $300 million or so ESPN was paying annually for them. As the Sports Business Journal has reported, FOX wasn’t interested in MLB’s asking price, and TBS (which will air a Tuesday night game starting in 2022) doesn’t want more mid-week games. To sell these games, MLB will need to lower its asking price with FOX, seek another traditional outlet like NBC or CBS (both of which have cable sports networks), or explore a streaming route like Netflix, Amazon, YouTube TV, or Hulu. Whether the league will have to settle for a fraction of ESPN’s prior price or get something close to it (or even increase it) remains to be determined.

Without accounting for those rights or potential increases due to expanded playoffs, here’s what the national television money for MLB looks like for the past 20 years as well as through the end of the 2028 season. Note that DAZN’s three-year, $300 million contract was included for 2019 only with the assumption that no payments were made last year or in 2021, which might or might not happen. All long-term deals assume a 4% annual increase over the life of the contracts.

While it is isn’t likely to happen, if no deal for more weeknight games materializes, MLB could see a drop of over $100 million from 2021 to ’22. The good news for the league is that after that, it will move closer to the same financial trajectory it has been on for the past few decades: Once the smaller package of games is sold, the last section of the graph will move up and present a more continuous increase. It will likely move even higher if MLB gets its way with expanded playoffs.

ESPN, meanwhile, isn’t likely to see much in the way of revenue reduction as a result of this change: The network has a huge roster of live sports and is maintaining its already significant investment in baseball. ESPN could possibly devote more resources to MLS, whose rights deal expires in 2022, at a considerably lesser cost than MLB and still keep similar hours of live sports on air in the summer. The ESPN/MLB relationship is still a strong one, and the league still owns a 15% share of Disney-owned BAMTech, with ESPN’s corporate overlord purchasing 75% of the tech company for more than $2.5 billion in 2016 and ’17.

In his piece, Rosenthal also notes that the Marlins and Brewers still do not have rights fees locally for 2021. That pair of teams is already at the very bottom when it comes to local television revenue, and it will be interesting to see if they re-up with Sinclair Broadcast Group, which controls both RSNs. They might not have many other options anyway. MLB could step in, given that it has the capabilities and experience to run an RSN and was interested in buying them when they were up for sale a few years ago. Liberty Media could be interested in starting up some RSNs before potentially launching their own network with Atlanta. The most likely scenario, though, is a continuation with Sinclair and an increase in rights fees that doesn’t significantly change the fortunes of the two franchises. Nor will it alter baseball’s RSN landscape as a whole: A vast majority of franchises already have long-term deals and stakes in the networks that broadcast them. Cord-cutting, increases in streaming, and hardball tactics from Sinclair that increase blackouts on those services threaten the future of the game in the long-term, but in the immediate future, Sinclair is projecting nearly a billion dollars in revenues above expenses on their RSNs despite the pandemic.

The ESPN contract doesn’t look great on its face, but it isn’t as bad as it appears. MLB will still see an increase of its rights fees in these next sets of deals, and the league has some inventory it can sell in its mid-week games. Nationally, MLB is now also insulated from a collapse in rights fees for nearly a decade. And while there are some areas of concern locally, most of the league looks to be in very good shape for the next decade. The sport still faces questions about long-term growth, particularly when it comes to attracting new fans in a more segmented video marketplace, but this lessened ESPN deal shouldn’t be of great concern for the sport.

Craig Edwards FanGraphs Chat – 1/7/2021

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