Author Archive

It’s Time for Adley To Come Home for Christmas

Adley Rutschman
Reggie Hildred-USA TODAY Sports

The other night, I had pie for dinner and watched a Hallmark Christmas movie (HCM). It was a solid hang, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. On a night when my brain felt like mashed potatoes and my body refused to accept that it was 7:00 p.m. and not 11:00, I warmly welcomed the sugar rush, in both the literal (pie) and figurative (HCM) sense.

Despite the pleasantness of the evening, I do not intend to adopt an all-dessert diet and swear off the movie theater. I might make it three days before becoming so starved for substance that my mind and body start acting out a horror movie in rebellion. While sugary sweets and romcoms provide enjoyment, they lack staying power.

Which naturally brings me to Adley Rutschman and the Orioles. Rutschman currently stars in an HCM, written and produced by the Orioles’ front office and ownership group, in which he attempts to woo O’s fans and save Christmas (aka their postseason aspirations). Adley receives support from a promising ensemble cast, but their inexperience shows in their performance, particularly when asked to stretch their ability for an intense scene during the movie’s climax. Meanwhile, the story’s B-plot (starting pitching) felt a little thin, like they might need to resort to a cringy musical number to fill time, and the C-plot (bullpen) started out as a bright spot to relieve tension but threw a surprise twist in the mix that went unresolved. Read the rest of this entry »

The Anti-Hero of the Aging Curve Calls It a Career

Nelson Cruz
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

As the professional baseball career of Nelson Cruz flashes before my eyes, no single image emerges to define his legacy. He served as a leader in the clubhouse, was devoted to off-the-field humanitarian efforts, proudly represented his Dominican homeland, consistently hit the baseball so hard that he earned the nickname Boomstick, and did all of it at a high level for more years than any aging curve would have dared to predict.

Last week, after 19 seasons in majors, Cruz announced his retirement on The Adam Jones Podcast. He also addressed the second-most important topic pertaining to his career: the origin of his nickname. Back in 2009, while playing as himself in a video game for some sort of promo event, Cruz hit a home run and referred to his bat as the Boomstick. The name circulated amongst fans and stuck. Read the rest of this entry »

Relievers Are No Caged Birds and No Net Ensnares Them

Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Some birds make great pets. My great Uncle Bob and Aunt Marge had a green parrot named Stanley. (I’m using the past tense since Marge and Bob have passed on, but Stanley may very well still be alive, since Amazon parrots can live long enough to collect social security.) This particular parrot could make a noise that sounded just like the ringer on Bob and Marge’s landline telephone. He said “Bob” in the exact intonation that Marge used when calling across the house to her husband. And while Stanley could be a bit of a chatterbox, when they pulled the cover over his cage for the night, he quickly quieted down until morning. Stanley epitomized (epitomizes?) repetition, consistency, and longevity.

Relievers are not like Stanley. Relievers, particularly good ones, are rare and exotic birds, with comparatively short lifespans. They prove tough to even spot, much less capture and domesticate. Bird watchers go to all sorts of extreme measures to finally hear the song of a Bewick’s wren, or spot the scarlet tanager that eludes them despite living in its native land. Meanwhile GMs and Presidents of Baseball Operations (POBOs) employ all sorts of strategies to bring in quality relievers. But try as they might, the phantom late-inning aces ignore their calls.

Because of the inherent volatility of relief pitchers, decision-makers must build their bullpens using small tidbits of information gleaned from observation. In their dreams, POBOs compile collections of lights-out closers, but in the real world, the goal is to gather a flock of average or better performers who compile innings. Thus, moving forward, this article will define a productive or “good” reliever season as one where the pitcher throws at least 40 innings and posts an ERA- of 100 or lower. Read the rest of this entry »

When They Say He’s Got That Dawg in Him, This Is What They Mean

Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Language barriers typically involve speakers of two different languages, but barriers can also exist between people who speak the same language. The evolution and expansion of language over many centuries and cultures provides a googolplex of options for communicating a given message. That’s why I’ll never understand how we settled on referring to an effective pitcher as having “good stuff.”

With oodles of options for depicting our day-to-day experiences, it makes sense that our diction be dictated by the shared jargon of our peers. Gamers have their n00bs and POGs, literary types their dichotomies and postmodernism, coders BSODs and buffer overflows. But beneath the glittery phrasing is almost always a nugget of substance anyone can relate to. Programmers teach computers to solve problems in terms of zeros and ones, while authors use binaries as metaphors to explore opposing forces in their characters lives, and gamers wage the battle between good and evil in their ever more challenging boss fights. We use different words, but we share the same notions. Read the rest of this entry »

The Decision: A Future Where Draft Prospects Take Their Talents to the SEC

Max Clark

Starting around five or six years old, adults begin to demand that children declare what they want to be when they grow up. Despite the imprecise language used to frame the question, it’s generally understood that the question does not refer to the human qualities they wish to develop, but rather how the child plans to sell their time so as to afford the ever-increasing costs of existing in the world. At that point in time, kids know about roughly half a dozen jobs: doctor, teacher, lawyer, firefighter, dentist, and whatever their parents do for work. These jobs have clear-cut career paths with specific college degrees, certifications, and post-grad programs. So once a child with an underdeveloped brain makes a declaration regarding the rest of their life, they know the exact steps to follow to achieve their dreams.

For kids who dream of becoming professional baseball players, the path to the majors is a well-traveled, multi-lane interstate. The big league superhighway has several lanes moving at different paces — some with deep ruts, others with potholes, and quite a few that become exit-only without providing enough advance notice to merge left. Despite the difficult travel conditions, the route itself is quite clear.

Or at least it has been under the present system. But small shifts within the sport at the amateur, collegiate, and professional levels may open up additional routes to those looking for an alternative to sitting in rush hour traffic. In the current era of baseball, prospects drafted by MLB organizations are near locks to sign, with the only exceptions tending to involve college commitments or medical uncertainties. Conventional logic dictates that the most efficient path to the majors is getting into a major league system as early as possible and start working your way up the ladder. Some parents might feel more comfortable with the backup plan built into the college route, and players do on occasion move into that lane, but players with the singular goal of playing in the big leagues want to don an affiliated uniform the first chance they get.

That’s the current calculus done by most draft prospects, and that is likely to remain the calculus moving forward. But shifts within the sport don’t happen with the swiftness of a Google Maps reroute to avoid a pile-up ahead. Typically, progress is incremental, with a few innovators on the fringes making moves that, if successful, eventually become mainstream. In recent years, a series of subtle changes suggest a widespread shift may be on the horizon, depending on how those directing traffic within the sport choose to respond. The contraction of the minor leagues, the reduction in rounds within the draft, college programs innovating within player development, and the broadening of financial opportunities for college athletes have the collective potential to change the decision-making process for draftees. Read the rest of this entry »

Stealing Bases Isn’t the Uphill Battle It Used To Be. Can Defenses Maintain the High Ground?

Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

As we know, baseball is a bit of an oddball relative to other ball-centric sports for several reasons. Prominent among them, the defense controls the ball at the start of each play, whereas in basketball, football, soccer, and hockey, to be on offense is to be the team with the ball. There exists a mindset difference between playing offense and playing defense, or rather between controlling the ball versus not controlling the ball. One is proactive, the other reactive. As players develop they, whether consciously or not, sort themselves into positional groups partially based on their preferred mindset (alongside their natural skills and physical attributes). Some need the comfort of control, while others thrive on guessing their opponents’ next move.

Pitchers and catchers fall in the proactive category, selecting pitch types and locations to best baffle hitters. Position players react both at the plate and in the field. On the basepaths, the roles reverse. Runners make the active decision to advance, leaving pitchers and catchers to react. It’s an abnormal experience for everyone involved.

Season four of Stranger Things hit Netflix on May 27, 2022; around Opening Day of the 2023 major league season, you finally got “Running Up That Hill” by Kate Bush out of your head. (If you don’t watch Stranger Things, just know that the song features prominently throughout the show’s most recent season.) And as the new season dawned, baserunners went wild on the basepaths and all the chatter about running wormed “Running Up That Hill” right back into your brain. Much in the way the show revived a song from the 1980s, changes to MLB’s rules regulating base sizes and pitcher disengagements revived ‘80s-esque stolen base rates. Read the rest of this entry »

Building MLB an International Face Station

RVR Photos-USA TODAY Sports

I’m a Pete Davidson fan. No wait, fan isn’t the right word. I’m obsessed with Pete Davidson? Fascinated by Pete Davidson? Transfixed by Pete Davidson? I don’t know. But what I do know is that I have spent a confounding amount of time thinking about Pete Davidson. He’s a math equation where I need to solve for x and just when I think I’m getting close, he produces more exes. The strangest part is how I consumed a cornucopia of content about this man before ever consuming any of his actual work. Eventually, I watched a few Saturday Night Live clips and his stand up special and Set It Up, and now I’m a regular Pete Davidson connoisseur. But I only know about Pete Davidson at all because he transcended the comedy corner of entertainment and elevated himself to being a full pop culture icon.

Though Davidson is a pop culture icon, he doesn’t have any obvious ties to baseball (I mean, Set It Up is a baseball movie, but Davidson doesn’t feature in the main baseball scene), so what’s he doing occupying the intro to an article on a baseball website? Well, this particular article is the last of a three-part series on marketing the game of baseball in service of growing the sport, and Pete Davidson is a marketing savant, whether intentional or not. But before further succumbing to the gravitational pull of Davidson’s charismatic wiles, why does growing the game matter at all? Doing so would generate more revenue, but team profit margins really only matter to those with a financial stake in a team. Still, growth matters to those of us with a non-financial stake in the sport because it holds the potential to improve the overall product. For example, more games on national television, more and higher quality media coverage, more kids playing, more teens choosing baseball as their primary sport thus leading to a larger pool of stronger prospects, more folks getting involved with baseball research, and so on and so forth.

Parts I and II of this series approached growth from the perspective of MLB and its teams, making the case for original content to supplement live games by using expanded storytelling situated on the right platforms and with an appropriate level of investment and access to captivate potential converts. Part III plans to take on growth from the perspective of individual players. While individual players would surely feature in the storytelling approach described in the first two parts of the series, here the focus shifts to strategies players might undertake independent of the league or their team. Read the rest of this entry »

MLB: Surviving and Thriving

Max Verstappen
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Previously on MLB:Drive to Survive, the first part of this three-part series on growing engagement with the sport via content beyond live games: we enumerated a few of the different types of supplementary media the league and teams might use to awaken interest in dormant fans and highlighted the potential benefits of doing so based on what has worked well for other sports. Since executing a game plan is just as important as the game plan itself, here in Part II, the conversation will shift to what makes supporting content effective.

For every individual, different aspects of sports resonate and keep them returning game after game. In a 2022 Ted Talk, Kate Fagan argued that the many things that give sports their gravity organize themselves into one of two categories: stakes and storylines. “This is what burns at the center of sports. In the Olympics, we have all agreed: a gold medal matters. Same with the World Cup. And now paired with these agreed-upon stakes, we also have even deeper storytelling. Which is how we end up teary-eyed after a three-and-a-half minute NBC vignette about a Romanian gymnast.”

Content designed to drive interest in a sport needs to tell a story and emphasize the stakes. Compelling stories contain developed and dynamic characters, several coats of conflict, and settings with character arcs of their own. Good stories are crafted with precision; they make us feel, contain universal truths, teach us things we didn’t know and didn’t realize we were missing. They meet us where we are. Read the rest of this entry »

MLB: Drive To Survive in a Competitive Market

Aaron E. Martinez / American-Statesman / USA TODAY NETWORK

No one asked me, but given the trends in attendance, the average age of MLB fans, and the fluctuations in ratings over the past few years, along with the dwindling page space and airtime given to baseball by mainstream media outlets relative to their coverage of other sports, it seems undeniable that baseball no longer holds the “America’s Pastime” title, but rather the considerably less catchy moniker: “America’s Third or Maybe Fourth Favorite Sport.” The battle for consumers’ time and attention wages on, and while baseball started in the pole position, it scraped the wall a few times and now sits a lap down.

The entertainment market is oversaturated. Viewers easily scroll through endless options and click away from any selection that doesn’t immediately spark joy. “The only game in town” marketing strategy simply no longer suffices. So again, while no one asked me, I’m here to offer some unsolicited advice to MLB on how to better sell their game and the characters, settings, and themes that make up its stories. In other words, I’d like to improve their drive to survive within a competitive market.

This article is the first of a three-part series. This edition will provide an overview of alternative forms of supplemental content the league might use to entice new viewers and the potential benefits such content yields. Part II will explore the specifics of how to make supplementary content effective, while Part III will shift the perspective to focus on marketing strategies for individual players at all levels of baseball. Read the rest of this entry »

Evaluating This Season’s Rule Changes From a Game Design Perspective

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

This is Kiri’s first piece as a FanGraphs contributor. She lives in the Pacific Northwest while contributing part-time to FanGraphs and working full-time as a data scientist. She spent five years working as an analyst for multiple MLB organizations.

By this point, you’ve undoubtedly consumed considerable content regarding the rule changes arriving in the majors for the upcoming season. You know all about the pitch clock dictating when hitters must ready themselves in the box and when pitchers must start their deliveries, as well as the wrinkle this introduces to pickoff attempts. You’ve also heard about the bigger bases and the limits on defensive shifting. Analysts have projected which players stand to be impacted most by the changes, while players who feel the changes make their jobs more difficult have voiced their concerns, and early spring training action has showcased the growing pains of adoption. With much of the existing commentary zooming in on the micro effects for particular players and game situations, let’s take some time to zoom out and ponder the macro effect on the game as a whole. More specifically, let’s ruminate on what makes a game or sport objectively appealing and how the rules — and subsequent changes to them — influence the appeal of a game.

At the most basic level, games are defined by rules dictating play. For those of us who struggle with authority, rules often feel restrictive. It’s no wonder, since rules come across as real haters, with all their “Don’t do this,” and “Don’t do that,” and “You can do this, but no, no, not like that.” That said, we needn’t have such an adversarial relationship with rules. In his book exploring the game of basketball, Nick Greene notes, “Games are peculiar. They are the only pursuit in which rules are used to facilitate fun.” To better understand the dynamic between rules and fun, Greene interviews a game design professor, Eric Zimmerman, who explains, “One of the paradoxes of game design is that the creativity of play is made possible by play’s opposite, which are rules. Rules are in essence constraints, but games don’t feel that way. […] When the rules are activated, what follows is fluid, unpredictable magic.” The rules of any game are finite, but the universe is infinite, implying that infinitely many possibilities exist in the space not covered by the defined rules. The fun in any game lies in the creativity used to explore the infinite space outside the boundaries set forth by the rules. Read the rest of this entry »