Monday, May 25, 2015

Who Will Win the 2015 Scripps National Spelling Bee?

(Note: This piece is intended to be a lighthearted take on a fun event; those looking for serious bee analysis should look elsewhere.)

There isn't a sporting event I look forward to more every year than the Scripps National Spelling Bee. (Maybe the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.) Lest you think I'm being sarcastic, try tuning in this year—it airs Wednesday and Thursday on various ESPN affiliates, with the finals in primetime at 8pm Thursday. It's nothing less than the purest form of human drama, as the best of us—our children—grapple with the worst: fear, crippling expectations, fainting (yes!), crushing defeats (no!), and, of course, the maddening phonetic rules of the English language. The tics, the techniques, the aha moments, the dulcet tones of Dr. Jacques Bailly—these are what help make the bee surprisingly spellbinding television.

Of course, for one* child a year, the pressure forges something special; the lights go up, their shoulders untense, and they are named national spelling bee champion. (*Except last year, when co-champions were controversially crowned for the first time in 52 years.) Two hundred and eighty five contestants will walk into the Gaylord National Convention Center this week, but so many are just there for window dressing. Close bee watchers know the prize will come down to one of the few favorites, many of whom are already well known in this universe; there's Vanya Shivashankar, whose sister won the 2009 bee; Gokul Venkatachalam, who finished third in 2014; Tejas Muthusamy, who turned heads with a phenomenal rookie performance last year; and a short list of others.

So who should you bet on this year? (Note: Please don't bet on how smart a kid is.) It's all about who has tended to win the bee in the past. Thanks to the spelling bee website's official speller roster, complete with bios and a statistics page, we can compare each participant's profile to those of past winners. Obviously, the bee is a competition for who is the best at spelling, not at who checks the most demographic boxes. But just for fun, we can paint a pretty good composite portrait of a bee winner, based on the following characteristics of the past 17 champions:
  • Race. We might as well start here, since everyone else does. I shouldn't have to tell everyone not to use racial stereotypes in predicting a bee winner, but the fact remains that Indian Americans dominate the bee. Thirteen of the past 17 champions, including the last eight in a row, have been of Indian descent; the remaining four were white. How you interpret that is up to you.
  • Gender. Eleven of the past 17 winners were male, while six were female. However, four of the last seven have been girls. (Fun with arbitrary endpoints!) Again, please be reminded that these are not causal relationships and that this whole exercise is tongue-in-cheek. For what it's worth, the list of 2015 bee finalists actually features more girls (146) than boys (139).
  • Age. As you might imagine, the older, the better. Fourteen of the last 17 champs were eighth-graders, the oldest you can be to qualify for the bee. (This is a much higher proportion than the share of eighth-grade participants, which this year is 41.5%.) The remaining three were seventh-graders, so it would be pretty shocking to see anyone in sixth grade or below take home the trophy.
  • Experience. Closely related to age is a contestant's prior experience on the national level. All but one of the past 17 winners had been a national bee finalist before, making it quite likely that we've seen 2015's champion on that stage already. The more times you've been to the national bee before, the more it helps, although second-timers do just fine, accounting for six of the 17. There are 57 returnees this year, including 17 on their third, fourth, or fifth try. (If you're looking for a shortlist of favorites, you could do a lot worse than those 17, who are all also in seventh grade or older.)
  • School type. Perhaps surprisingly, champs have been most likely to go to public school. Nine of the past 17 were enrolled in public school, six were enrolled in private school, and two were home-schooled. However, when you compare this to the overall list of contestants (at least this year's), that's actually an underrepresentation of public-school kids (who are two-thirds of the overall pool) and a dramatic oversampling of private- (23.9%) and home-schooled (4.6%) students.
  • Hometown. Finally, there is pretty good geographic diversity among the last 17 champs: three Californians, two New Yorkers, two Texans, two Hoosiers, a Floridian, a Missourian, a Kansan, a Coloradan, a Minnesotan, a New Jerseyan, a Pennsylvanian, and an Ohioan. Nothing really to go off here.
So, if you subscribe to past as prologue, you'd expect an Indian American eighth grader who has been to the bee before to emerge as the winner on Thursday night. Of course, when you watch the bee, it's worth remembering that all these kids are already winners, even if they're eventual losers at the bee: virtually guaranteed to go on to elite schools and careers, they're sure as heck smarter than all of us!

Monday, May 4, 2015

The Big, Bad, Colorful Chart That Explains State Constitutional Offices

Next election, spare a thought for the poor constitutional officers. The statewide elected officials not titled “governor” are little more than an afterthought for most election watchers, but, as I’ve argued before, they shouldn’t be: they make more policy than Congress these days, and they’re surrounded by every bit as much drama. (For an example, look no farther than the incredible fallout over Missouri Auditor Tom Schweich's suicide.) Oh yeah, and they often rise to become more than just constitutional officers.

Basically, we should keep better track of them—but, in fairness, that’s hard to do. Every state has different constitutional officers and different ways of choosing them, making the constitutional-office picture much messier than, say, the U.S. Senate. To solve that problem, I wanted a source that laid it all out visually—so I created this giant chart, also embedded at the bottom of this page. (A huge assist for this goes to Ballotpedia, where I researched all this data.)

The chart provides info on every constitutional office in the 50 states: which states have which offices (and what they’re called—a frequent local quirk); whether they are Democratic-held (blue), Republican-held (red), independent-held (yellow), vacant (gray), or nonpartisan (white); how they’re selected; and, if elected, when the next election will be. It lists the biggies—lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state, and treasurer—but also the underappreciated of the underappreciated: labor commissioners, school superintendents, and mine inspectors (well, mine inspector, singular)—all the "individual dudes" in state government. (Corporation commissioners, public utility commissioners, railroad commissioners, and elected members of other statewide boards aren’t included.)

The chart illustrates some really important lessons that constitutional officers can teach us. First and foremost, it is proof positive of the Republican stranglehold on state government these days; the GOP has the edge in the partisan breakdown of every single constitutional office (viewable at the bottom of the Google doc). Democrats do OK in comptroller (5–4) and insurance commissioner (6–5) races for some reason, but they get clobbered when it comes to agriculture commissioners (11–1) and, strangely, labor commissioners (3–0–1). It’s also fascinating how all partisan superintendents and land commissioners elected in presidential years (four of 'em) are Democrats, yet all partisan superintendents and land commissioners elected in midterm years (10 of 'em) are Republicans. It really goes to show how constitutional offices can serve as weather vanes for which way the political winds are blowing.

I hope you'll play around and learn a little more about these forgotten offices, and keep your eyes peeled to this blog for more coverage of constitutional offices in this off year.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Hate the New Metal Detectors? Petition MLB

I've been through MLB's new metal detectors several times now. Once I had my wallet in my pocket and it didn't go off. Once I had nothing in my pockets and it did go off, and the wand the security staff waved over me proceeded to spaz out willy-nilly. Every time, though, it's been at least a mild delay and a nuisance.

Commissioner Rob Manfred claimed the other day that MLB hasn't heard any complaints from fans or teams about the enhanced security, which seems really hard to believe given that all we have heard are complaints. To me, the most infuriating thing about the metal detectors is how they don't actually make anyone safer. These aren't airport-quality detectors, and even in my two-week experience with them, they've failed to consistently detect anything. The kicker, though, is how bags still bypass the detector and get only a mild rummage or feel before they're cleared to enter the park. The only real argument for the detectors is that they protect MLB against a lawsuit—the most perverse of arguments, and one that only resonates with maybe 100 people who work at 245 Park Avenue.

I'm of the strong belief that it's in everyone's interests, including theirs, for MLB to remove the metal detectors and go back to the security measures that have worked perfectly well (rate of terror incidents at ballparks: 0%) for years. If you feel the same way, I hope you'll sign this petition that was started to ask MLB to do just that. The petition reads:
Whereas:

-- 2015's tighter security measures have led to major delays and fan inconvenience;
-- Experts agree that the enhanced security does nothing to actually make fans safer;
-- The new searches are overly invasive and a violation of fans' privacy;
-- The security checkpoints are major failures of customer service and turn fans off from MLB (baseball fans do not want to be treated like they are at an airport);

We ask MLB to rescind the new requirement that all fans must go through airport-style security screenings before entering a ballpark.
Please share the petition widely on your social media of choice, and thanks!

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Arte of War (on Drugs)

Arte Moreno is displeased. After a panel rightfully declined to suspend his left fielder, Josh Hamilton, for a recent drug relapse, Moreno's Los Angeles Angels issued a statement not supporting Hamilton, but rather castigating him for his disease. It smacked of sour grapes from the loser of what was essentially a proxy war between the owners and the union—a literal inside-baseball dispute. Still, it should have been over at that point—Hamilton had won, and he was destined to return to play for the team for 2015.

Moreno wasn't willing to leave it there. Without any provocation from Hamilton or the union, on Friday he lobbed a second grenade into the fray—this time from him personally. "I will not say that" Hamilton will ever suit up for the Angels again, the owner proclaimed, asserting that the Angels held a clause in Hamilton's contract annulling the deal in the event he turned back to drugs. The union immediately returned fire: such a contract provision could not exist (and, according to NBC Sports, does not exist) and could not supersede the collectively bargained Joint Drug Agreement. In other words, no matter how much they'd like to, the Angels can't void their deal with Hamilton over his personal failings.

The conventional wisdom is that Moreno is motivated by one thing: cash. The Angels inked Hamilton to a five-year, $125 million deal before the 2013 season, and they've regretted it ever since; the injury-plagued outfielder has hit just .255 with 31 home runs and 3.0 WAR in the two years hence. If Hamilton had been suspended by the drug-enforcement panel, or (obviously) if the Angels were able to void his contract, the team wouldn't have to pay him to continue to hit like Garrett Jones for the next three years. That's a powerful motivator, but to the extent Moreno is setting the tone for the whole organization, I don't think it's what drives him. I suspect it's a matter of pure morality to the staid Angels owner.

Moreno is a private man, but one of the few things we know about him is that he is a dyed-in-the-wool conservative. Born in 1946 and coming of age during the 1960s, Moreno voluntarily enlisted in the US Army at the height of the Vietnam War. This was likely a man with nothing but disdain for the anti-war or counterculture movements; all the ingredients were there for Moreno to develop a deep hatred for drugs and those who used them.

Two years ago, Hamilton may have been a former drug addict, but he was also a poster child for religion and conservative values bringing redemption and leading to a healthy, clean life. That might have appealed to Moreno when he took the risk of committing nine figures to him. But now that Hamilton has fallen from that pedestal, Moreno may be less willing to forgive. (People are likely to react even more nastily than usual when they feel betrayed—say, denying your employee a physical space at his place of work.) It may also explain Moreno's seemingly irrational behavior of insisting he can sever ties with Hamilton even when there is pretty clearly no legal basis for doing so.

Moreno wouldn't be alone in such an anti-drug crusade. Once the young Arizonan made his fortune in the billboard industry, he became a commensurately generous donor to the Republican Party. According to Influence Explorer, over the years Moreno has given:
  • $8,200 to Rep. Matt Salmon (R-AZ), who has supported drug tests for employees—and making them ineligible for unemployment insurance if they fail and are fired;
  • $5,000 to presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who cultivated a reputation as a tough-on-drugs governor by increasing drug penalties on Bay Staters and funding schools that drug-tested their students;
  • $4,500 to former Rep. Bud Shuster (R-PA), who wrote in 1992 that the War on Drugs was working;
  • $2,300 to presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani, who as New York City mayor oversaw an exponential increase in the number of marijuana arrests;
  • $500 to former Senator John Ashcroft (R-MO), who told Larry King he wanted to "escalate the War on Drugs" when he was the freshly appointed attorney general in George W. Bush's administration.
Of the Hamilton situation, Moreno himself has said, "It's not about money." With this record, maybe we should believe him.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Predicting the 2015 Season—American League

There's a reason I issued my NL predictions first; the American League is simply a mess this year. There are legitimate three-, four-, even five-team races for all three division crowns; the entire AL East, for instance, is evenly matched enough that the entire one-through-five order of finish could be determined totally by luck. By comparison, the NL is a picnic.

But despite the sad futility of it all, I'll still make picks the same old way. Here are your full win-loss projections for the American League in 2015, plus my Patented, Guaranteed, Can't-Miss Fearless Predictions.

AL East


1. Tampa Bay Rays (89–73, 2nd playoff seed)
  • In a division without any clearly dominant physical talent, bet on the brains. The Rays' continued ability to employ players with the most upside—even with Andrew Friedman on another payroll—will set them apart in the AL East.
  • Drew Smyly and Nate Karns (sub-3.00 ERAs and 200+ strikeouts each) will come out of nowhere to become two of the best young pitchers in baseball. Along with Alex Cobb and Chris Archer, the Rays will have the AL's best pitching staff by a country mile.
  • Flyball pitcher Jake Odorizzi will also take a step forward, thanks in no small part to a top-notch outfield defense. Kevin Kiermaier will amass 25 Defensive Runs Saved and lead the league in Web Gems.
  • The offense still won't come easily, but better luck (.241 average, .279 BABIP last year with runners in scoring position) in clutch situations will help—as will facing their pitching-challenged AL East opponents 76 times a year.
  • Leading the charge on offense will be a revitalized Evan Longoria (.290/25/90) and AL Rookie of the Year Steven Souza (.260/20/80).
  • The old Ernesto Frieri will reemerge. With Jake McGee out, he'll seize the closer's job and never relinquish it. He'll be emblematic of baseball's most improved bullpen overall—one of the best in the AL.

2. Baltimore Orioles (86–76, 2nd Wild Card)
  • In a strange twist, despite losing Nick Markakis and Nelson Cruz, the Orioles' bats won't skip a beat. Virtually every other slot in the lineup will improve from down years in 2014. They'll match their 705 runs scored from last season, and they'll again lead the majors in home runs.
  • Matt Wieters and Manny Machado will have productive full seasons. Jonathan Schoop's .244 OBP in 2014 was simply the result of being overmatched at age 22; he'll no longer be an automatic out.
  • JJ Hardy will remember how to hit home runs again, while Chris Davis will remember how to hit, period. His 2013 was a career year, but he's very capable of putting up his 2012 numbers of 33 home runs and 121 OPS+—or even better, as his patience at the plate continues to improve.
  • Kevin Gausman will finally live up to his potential and give the Orioles the ace that many have complained they do not have.
  • Baltimore pitchers will regress, but not by as much as most are projecting. Their ERAs will continue to outpace their FIPs due to a top-two AL defense and, in the case of the bullpen, the shrewd management of Buck Showalter.
  • Surprisingly, yes, Steve Pearce is for real.

3. Boston Red Sox (83–79)
  • There will be trouble in the outfield as Hanley Ramírez gets injured, Rusney Castillo is a flop, and Shane Victorino shows his age. I'd love to believe Mookie Betts will be an instant superstar, but common sense simply dictates there will be a learning curve.
  • The good news: Xander Bogaerts will post the highest OPS of any AL shortstop. The bad news: it'll only require a .750 figure to do so. But hey, the Sox will take it.
  • It won't so much be the lack of an ace that does the Bloody Hose in, but the fact that no starter will be better than "not bad." Justin Masterson, however, will be straight-up "bad."
  • Robbie Ross and Anthony Varvaro will headline a surprisingly strong bullpen.
  • The next pitching phenom to take SportsCenter by storm will be second-half debutant Henry Owens—affectionately known as HONK (Henry Owens, Next Koufax).

3. Toronto Blue Jays (83–79)
  • The Jays will be undone by 2014-Red-Sox-itis: overreliance on young talent. Aaron Sánchez, for example, will find that a stellar fastball alone does not equal success as a starter. However, you can count on Drew Hutchison taking a substantive step forward, cutting a full run off his ERA.
  • Dalton Pompey won't be winning the Silver Slugger anytime soon, but I foresee a Fielding Bible Award (and a Gold Glove too, if it were truly merit-based).
  • Three 30-home-run-hitters (José Bautista, Edwin Encarnación, and Josh Donaldson) will push the Blue Jays just past Boston for the league lead in runs scored.
  • Toronto's moribund relief corps—the worst in baseball by ERA—will cause the team to underperform its Pythagorean record. Paging Rafael Soriano?

5. New York Yankees (78–84)
  • Alex Rodríguez is back—with a vengeance. The guy is still one of the best hitters who has ever lived, and he'll show it by hitting 20 home runs with a .330 wOBA.
  • You won't have to hold your breath with every Masahiro Tanaka pitch for long. He'll leave his Opening Day start with elbow soreness and go under the knife by the end of the week.
  • Conversely, Michael Pineda will be fully healthy and completely dominant. Finally, after three years, a winner will be declared in the Pineda-Jesús Montero trade.
  • With Chase Headley, Didi Gregorius, and Stephen Drew around the horn, this is one of the best defensive infields in baseball. That'll help CC Sabathia pick up the pieces and become a serviceable starter once again.

AL Central


1. Cleveland Indians (85–77, 3rd playoff seed)
  • Carlos Santana is a dark-horse MVP contender as his average comes back but his walks are unaffected. With a .900 OPS, he'll reclaim the title of Cleveland's best player from Michael Brantley with ease.
  • Jason Kipnis, again falling short of his miraculous 2013, and Lonnie Chisenhall will only hurt the Indians with their gloves, but the other positions should be passable enough to keep them out of the bottom five in Defensive Runs Saved.
  • In turn, this will help each starting pitcher shave a little off their 2014 ERAs—yes, even Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco. The staff will also limit the potential damage by fielders by becoming the first team in major-league history to strike out more than a batter per inning.
  • Terry Francona will win yet another Manager of the Year award that would have been more deserving during his Boston days.
  • In a very close division race with Chicago, the once-again elite bullpen may be the Indians' one true advantage.

2. Chicago White Sox (83–79)
  • There's one guaranteed way the White Sox will improve in 2015: not having Paul Konerko, who cost the team 3.2 wins over the past two years, per FanGraphs.
  • Melky Cabrera will also be a huge shot in the arm, but where they'll really need the help is the infield. Alexei Ramírez's, Conor Gillaspie's, and Tyler Flowers's regressions will offset Cabrera's gains.
  • Hope that Robin Ventura learned from his experience giving away all of Adam Dunn's value playing him in the field, even a little; otherwise, Adam LaRoche could waste another 124 OPS+ season with a sub-1.0 WAR, effectively replicating Dunn.
  • The difference-maker in the Central will be how quickly the White Sox call up Carlos Rodón, who will dominate hitters from his first big-league fastball to his final September slider. If he's up by May, he'll cement the rotation as the division's best and lead Chicago to the playoffs. If July, it'll be too late.
  • Adam Eaton will be the most valuable center fielder in the American League (non-Trout division).
  • José Abreu can't possibly repeat his insane .317/.383/.581 with 36 home runs from 2014. He'll hit only .300/.370/.550 with 33 home runs.

3. Kansas City Royals (80–82)
  • Eric Hosmer will finally hit the 20-HR mark KC fans have always dreamed of, but it won't help a dismal offense that will be lucky to match its 651 runs scored from last year's incredible ride.
  • Alex Ríos will be far less productive and valuable than the (cheaper) man he replaced, Nori Aoki.
  • No one's ERA will rise this year as much as Edinson Vólquez's. Even Kauffman Stadium can't save the groundballer.
  • Yordano Ventura will be the latest brightest young thing to tear a UCL and undergo Tommy John surgery.
  • After going four months without one to start 2014, Wade Davis will give up an extra-base hit in his very first appearance of the year.

4. Minnesota Twins (77–85)
  • There's real talent here, but the Twins' super-conservative management style will prevent it from being deployed in winning ways. The more the team puts its exciting young players on the field, the better Minnesota will fare.
  • Exhibit A: The Twins will actually benefit from Ervin Santana's PED suspension, as it will eventually pave the way for Alex Meyer in the big leagues. (The fact that they're currently moving ahead with Mike Pelfrey in that rotation spot is Exhibit B.)
  • The Twins will surprise everybody with the division's best offense. Danny Santana and Kurt Suzuki won't be quite as good, but Brian Dozier will be even better. Oswaldo Arcia will become a legitimate middle-of-the-order threat.

5. Detroit Tigers (76–86)
  • This year, the Old English "D" on those caps will stand for "decline." It'll start with JD Martínez, who will plummet back to career norms in both BABIP and ISO, but also extend to Victor Martínez and Ian Kinsler, who will be sapped by the ever-advancing decay of old age. Folks will look back and point to 2015 as the year that even the great Miguel Cabrera started slipping.
  • The old Justin Verlander is never coming back. The Tigers will only be able to hang their hats on Aníbal Sánchez and David Price in the rotation, and they won't even be as good as Drew Smyly and Rick Porcello will be in their new homes.
  • "Alfredo Simón vs. Joe Nathan: who is worse?" will be a fascinating barroom discussion this summer.
  • His poor bullpen management and failure to meet even basic win-loss expectations will mean Brad Ausmus won't be skippering the Tigers when 2016 starts. He'll take a brief hiatus from managing and will next be seen at the helm of the 2017 World Series champion Astros.

AL West


1. Los Angeles Angels (91–71, 1st playoff seed)
  • Ironically, the salvation of the aging Angels will be a couple of kids: Johnny Giavotella, the underappreciated on-base artist, and Andrew Heaney, Rookie of the Year runner-up. Giavotella will be better than the departed Howie Kendrick and will have a better WAR per 600 plate appearances than Josh Hamilton.
  • The entire rotation will be turned on its head, as ace Jered Weaver pitches more like a #5 and #5 Heaney outpitches him by every rate stat (though his limited timetable will hold him down in counting categories). Erstwhile innings-eater CJ Wilson also still has something left in the tank: he'll be back to 3.0 walks per nine, 8.0 strikeouts per nine, and a 3.50 ERA.
  • The American League MVP may not be who you think! I mean, it's still almost definitely going to be Mike Trout, but it may possibly, theoretically be somebody else. It'll be a bounceback of sorts for the definitely-not-declining center fielder: strikeouts down, steals up, defense back above average.

2. Seattle Mariners (90–72, 1st Wild Card)
  • There are lots of names in the M's bullpen who could close—and at least three will, as Fernando Rodney turns into a pumpkin. The bullpen as a whole will strike out more than a batter per inning.
  • Seth Smith will out-WAR Nelson Cruz, but both will be important parts of lifting the Seattle offense out of the cellar and into the middle of the pack.
  • Rickie Weeks will prove a shrewd bargain-bin signing as the supersub no one expected—filling in for ineffective Logan Morrisons and Dustin Ackleys of the world at first and outfield.
  • In another squeaker, Félix Hernández will beat out Chris Sale for his second Cy Young Award.
  • The seven-game Mariners-Rays ALCS will be the most travel-intensive playoff series in baseball history, with 2,530 miles separating the two cities. But Seattle will be accustomed to the rough travel schedule, and that will be the decisive factor in sending the Mariners to their first World Series.

3. Oakland Athletics (84–78)
  • Jesse Hahn and Kendall Graveman will shine in the early going, but they'll deteriorate around the All-Star break as they hit innings totals they aren't used to. Thankfully, at that point, the A's will have Jarrod Parker and AJ Griffin ready to keep the good times rolling.
  • Billy Beane knows something you don't know on an annual basis. This year it's Ike Davis, who will hit .250/.350/.450 with 25 home runs and 90 RBI—and that's a conservative estimate.
  • Drew Pomeranz will double his career WAR with a breakout season, and Marcus Semien will be one of the AL's better shortstops.
  • The magic will run out for Scott Kazmir and, sadly, Ben Zobrist.
  • Pat Venditte—the switch-pitcher—will finally make the Show, and not as a mere curiosity: he'll post a sub-two ERA in a small sample.

4. Texas Rangers (73–89)
  • Jurickson Profar. Yu Darvish. Who's next? Because the best indicator of future injury is past injury, the Rangers will again lead the majors in days spent on the DL.
  • Adrián Beltré will go from the majors' third-best third basemen to seventh-best (behind Kyle Seager, Kris Bryant, Pablo Sandoval, and David Wright)—still a good player, but one embarking on his inevitable decline, especially on defense. The Rangers should have traded him when they had the chance.
  • Prince Fielder will bounce back to hit 25 home runs; Shin-Soo Choo's resurrection will be milder and mainly OBP-centric, though he'll be a 15/15 man again.
  • Thanks to Leonys Martín and Elvis Andrus, the Rangers will lead the league in caught stealing, killing many a rally and compounding a pair of already-poor OBPs.
  • Derek Holland will have the rotation's best ERA—terrifying, considering it'll be 3.90. Yovani Gallardo will be eaten alive by Globe Life Bank Texas Rangers Suburban Ballpark in Arlington.

5. Houston Astros (72–90)
  • When the Astros lead the AL, if not MLB, in strikeouts, a columnist will inevitably blame the Ks for the ugly Houston offense. That won't be fair. For every Evan Gattis and Matt Domínguez who strikes out because he doesn't know how to hit at the major-league level, there will be a George Springer or Jon Singleton who is a net positive to the lineup despite the whiffs.
  • Colby Rasmus will parlay his resurgent year in 2015 into a four-year, $50 million contract next offseason.
  • Dallas Keuchel will add a full run of ERA (the groundballer won't be a fan of Jed Lowrie's shortstop defense); Collin McHugh, half a run. But the blow will be softened by a much-improved bullpen.
  • The Astros rookie de la année will be Colin Moran—not Mark Appel, who will blame his poor performance during a September callup on the clubhouse's hostile environment.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Predicting the 2015 Season—National League

Last October, I organized a playoff pool at the office. After examining everything from starting rotations to weather conditions, I picked the Nats to beat the Tigers in the World Series. A woman I work with doesn't know anything about baseball, so she made her picks based on which teams had the coolest-sounding names. I warned her how unlikely it was but eventually recorded her pick: Giants over Royals.

The lesson here is that, sometimes, ignorance is bliss. We can study all the stats we want; we can make the most finely calibrated projections for the season; we can memorize every player and every split and every transaction. It won't help us make a prediction about baseball that's any better than a shot in the dark by someone totally out of the loop.

So I said, what the heck. I'll make my team-by-team win-loss projections as usual. I'll declare some "fearless predictions" for each team, and for many individual players, like I've always done. But I'll make my World Series pick based on a comedic prophecy dreamed up in a studio lot almost 30 years ago. Read on to see who I mean.

NL East


1. Washington Nationals (95–67, 1st playoff seed)
  • Expect the 2014 Nationals to keep on showing up in Southeast DC for 2015, with pretty much the same results. Jayson Werth (age) and Anthony Rendon (regression to the mean) may each be worth one fewer win, but Bryce Harper will fill in the gap with at least a two-win improvement over 2014. That one monster season may never come, but something close to his 2013 will do perfectly well.
  • The team will again lead the majors in ERA, with Max Scherzer playing the role of Tanner Roark and finishing second in Cy Young voting. (Roark himself will unhappily post a 4.00 ERA and enter career purgatory as he is jerked around from assignment to assignment.)
  • Also in line for regression: Denard Span, whose injury-hampered .250/.300/.320 season will make the Nats regret losing AL Rookie of the Year contender Steven Souza.
  • Yunel Escobar will not be the solution at second base. His rapidly deteriorating defense will make him unplayable at times.

2. New York Mets (85–77, 1st Wild Card)
  • Zack Wheeler's Tommy John surgery is bad news for Wheeler, but not necessarily for the Metropolitans. Wheeler's 3.54 ERA last year was actually below average. In contrast, his de facto replacement in the rotation will be the very definition of an ace: Matt Harvey.
  • For a team whose strength is starting pitching, there's still a lot of room for improvement. Bartolo Colón and Dillon Gee will be supplanted around midseason by Rafael Montero and Noah Syndergaard, who will rank first and second (in some order) among NL rookie pitchers.
  • Lucas Duda's power and on-base ability is for real. Travis d'Arnaud will also realize his potential, hitting 20 dingers and stretching his .272/.319/.486 line from his last 69 games over a full season.
  • David Wright will double his 2014 home run total, but more importantly he will remember how to take a walk. It'll restore his OPS+ to a more Wrightian 125. With actual production now from left field (Michael Cuddyer), the Mets will be an above-average offensive team for the first time since 2011.

3. Miami Marlins (81–81)
  • The Dee Gordon trade actually made the Marlins worse. He'll post an OBP below .300, which will halve his stolen-base total.
  • Michael Morse will prove the team's shrewdest acquisition. He'll be healthy for the entire season, and the move to first base will mean that his defense will finally not negate his entire offensive value.
  • The Miami outfield—Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich, Marcell Ozuna, and, yes, Ichiro Suzuki—will post the highest WAR of any in baseball.
  • Dan Haren will ride a 4.0 strikeout-to-walk ratio and an abnormally low HR/FB ratio to his best season since 2011—and will retire on top.
  • Following a two-year pattern, Jarred Cosart will scuffle in the first half, prompting a trade at the deadline. He'll then finish the season with an ace-like 10-start stretch for his new team.

4. Atlanta Braves (70–92)
  • Shelby Miller will evolve into the ace of the Atlanta staff, and this is the year Alex Wood becomes a household name. But after them and Julio Teheran, the rotation will fall off a cliff. No one else will make more than 14 starts.
  • Craig Kimbrel will be traded at midseason for a package that nets the Braves their next number-one prospect.
  • A feckless offense will lead the majors in shutouts and strikeouts. Only Freddie Freeman will register a offensive WAR above 1.0, and the team will finish with the fewest runs scored of any team in a non-strike-shortened season since 1971.

5. Philadelphia Phillies (63–99)
  • This is the year the Fearsome Four become the Noisome None. Cliff Lee won't pitch all year, and Cole Hamels will be traded by July 31. By September, 2014 draftee Aaron Nola will be leading Philly's rotiation. So, um, progress?
  • There will be significant hurdles to the Phillies' so-called youth movement, as Maikel Franco, Freddy Galvis, and other newbies play like minor leaguers.
  • The league's most porous team defense will cause the Philadelphia pitching staff to lead the league in unearned runs.

NL Central


1. Saint Louis Cardinals (88–74, 3rd playoff seed)
  • After a 2013 with an abnormally high RISP batting average (.330) and a 2014 with an abnormally low one (.254), the Cardinals will finally settle in the middle of the pack—which means an automatic offensive boost from 2014.
  • Despite claims of a changed approach, Jason Heyward will have a near-carbon-copy of his 2014 season, but that won't be all bad—he'll help St. Louis amass the most Defensive Runs Saved in the NL.
  • Expect middle infielders Jhonny Peralta and Kolten Wong to switch identities: in 2015, Wong will be the one hitting .260/.340/.440 with 20 home runs, and Peralta will scuffle with a batting average below .250 and an OBP below .300.
  • Beware of a bullpen implosion at Busch. Trevor Rosenthal's and Jordan Walden's 5.0 BB/9 rates will lead to chaos as the Cards try to close out games, leading to the majors' worst record in one-run games.
  • Yes, he's still an MVP for his work with the pitching staff, and yes, his output is still good for a catcher, but this is the year Yadier Molina ceases to be useful as a hitter.

2. Chicago Cubs (84–78, 2nd Wild Card)
  • By July 1, all pretenses about service time will be dropped, and this entire generation of Cubs prospects will be in the bigs. Chris Coghlan, Ryan Sweeney, Tommy La Stella, and Mike Olt will lose their jobs, with the only holdout being Dexter Fowler in center field.
  • Javier Báez will again struggle with contact but, as he's done at every level before this, find a comfortable stroke a few hundred plate appearances in. Matt Szczur will be so valuable off the bench—with 15 stolen bases as a pinch runner alone—that he'll earn a spot on the postseason roster. Jorge Soler will sport a .900 OPS but not even be the best rookie on the team.
  • That honor, of course, will go to Kris Bryant, your NL Rookie of the Year. He'll hit a more-impressive-than-it-sounds 23 home runs—not including his decisive blow in the NL Wild Card game off Matt Harvey.
  • As was preordained by Grays Sports Almanac (there are still sports almanacs?) in 1989's classic Back to the Future II, the Cubs will go from 100-to-one shots when the offseason began to World Series champions. Joe Maddon will be the unanimous NL Manager of the Year.

3. Milwaukee Brewers (82–80)
  • A team largely unchanged since 2014 will finish with the exact same record, albeit more evenly distributed throughout the year. The team won't miss its main subtraction, Yovani Gallardo, as Jimmy Nelson will replicate his numbers closely.
  • The rotation will be the definition of average—with Matt Garza, Kyle Lohse, Wily Peralta, and Nelson posting identical 3.70 ERAs—except Mike Fiers, whose ability to strike out four times the number of batters he walks will make him the new staff ace.
  • Even after two years of elite production, I still don't believe in Carlos Gómez. A spate of bad BABIP luck this year will cut his value in half.
  • Ryan Braun still has one good season left in him—and that season is 2015.

4. Pittsburgh Pirates (81–81)
  • Don't expect Vance Worley to keep up the magic that made him Pittsburgh's best starter in 2014. Without master framer Russell Martin, a lot of Worley's advantage will disappear.
  • That's bad news for a team that also lost its second-best starter from last year (Edinson Vólquez) to free agency. Francisco Liriano was third-best and will be again, behind a rejuvenated AJ Burnett and a Cy Young–showing Gerrit Cole.
  • The infield is going to be a mess. Josh Harrison's terrible 4.0% BB% in 2014 was actually a career high, as was his .353 BABIP; he'll slump his way onto the bench by the All-Star Game. Jung-Ho Kang will flop so miserably that no Korean Baseball Organization position player will dare attempt moving to MLB again until the 2020s. Good thing the outfield will be the second-best in baseball, after Miami's.
  • As the best closer on a non-losing team, Mark Melancon will lead the majors in saves for 2015.

5. Cincinnati Reds (72–90)
  • Expect lots of games where Cincinnati scores exactly two runs: a home run by Todd Frazier with Joey Votto on base. Votto is the only player in the lineup who can get on base, and Frazier is the only one with above-average power. Otherwise, this is the division's worst offense.
  • What does this mean for Devin Mesoraco? A bone-headed plan to catch him 145 times a year despite already having concussion symptoms here in spring training will grind him down to a shell of his 2014 self. Like Salvador Pérez in 2014, he'll get worse and worse as the season wears on.
  • Aroldis Chapman's immense talent will be further wasted as he pitches a full-season career-low number of innings—even though he'll remain healthy. He will languish as a closer who barely ever sees a save situation. An otherwise anonymous relief corps will blow a league-high number of leads before they get to the ninth.
  • Johnny Cueto will be his usual brilliant self, but he'll be the only above-average member of the rotation. He'll wind up as some other team's crown jewel acquisition at the trading deadline.
  • Raisel Iglesias will show a lot of promise but run out of gas after five innings on a regular basis—betraying his better fit as a reliever. Jason Marquis will post terrible numbers for far longer than a team with more depth would allow.

NL West


1. Los Angeles Dodgers (93–69, 2nd playoff seed)
  • If you thought Yasiel Puig was good before, just wait until 2015, when he will combine his improved 2014 walk rate with the realization of his 20-homer potential and smoother right-field defense. He'll give the Dodgers the NL MVP to go along with their obvious Cy Young champ.
  • Joc Pederson will be the best non-Cubs rookie in the National League.
  • The fact that Juan Uribe can't walk anymore will prove untenable as an unlucky year brings his average down to .260 and his OBP to .280. The team will finally decide to accept Alex Guerrero's shaky defense to get his electric bat (.330/.380/.480) in the lineup. Hector Olivera will be a non-factor as his health conditions—not properly treated in his native Cuba—keep him off the field.
  • Chinks in the armor could crop up in the rotation due to injury. Expect Brandon McCarthy and Hyun-Jin Ryu to miss occasional time—and be surprised if Brett Anderson manages more than 10 starts.
  • The bullpen will start off as a weakness, especially with Kenley Jansen out for April, but no one knows how to build a strong but cheap bullpen better than Andrew Friedman. By August, it'll be a team strength, probably thanks to guys you've never heard of.

2. San Francisco Giants (83–79)
  • Most World Series–winning teams feature a lot of guys having career years, and that tends not to repeat itself. Joe Panik, Brandon Crawford, and Ángel Pagán lead the charge of guys who will slip from useful to harmful cogs in the lineup.
  • When Casey McGehee regresses to his career .264, suddenly everyone will realize he's a third baseman with zero power. His teammate Brandon Belt will pick him up, though, finally pushing the 30 home runs everyone once expected of him.
  • After throwing 270 innings (including the postseason) last year, Madison Bumgarner will show signs of fatigue with a step back in the regular season—like Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain before him. (And no, they won't be any better either.)
  • Don't listen to anything anyone says right now—Yusmeiro Petit will force his way into a rotation job and, from that date forward, be San Francisco's best starter.
  • At some point, Sergio Romo will win back the closer's role.

3. San Diego Padres (80–82)
  • The Padres' biggest enemy this year will be their own outfield fence. Matt Kemp, Justin Upton, and Wil Myers will combine for just 40 home runs but –40 Defensive Runs Saved.
  • Robbed of his only asset—power—Will Middlebrooks will be the least valuable player in baseball in 2015.
  • Excellent years from Tyson Ross and James Shields will keep this team in the hunt at first—but it won't be able to survive Andrew Cashner hitting the DL for good in July.
  • It's sad, but the writing has been on the wall for a while now: Brandon Morrow and Josh Johnson are finished as viable major leaguers.

4. Colorado Rockies (75–87)
  • The highest-scoring offense in the NL will be at it again in 2015, thanks to a once-in-a-blue-moon event: totally healthy seasons from both Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos González.
  • Nolan Arenado will start getting mentioned in the same sentence as those two as the Rockies' invaluable core players. His big offensive step forward comes this year, and combined with his stellar defense, his WAR will crack 6.0.
  • Of course, the pitching will be even worse than the hitting is good. However, the Rockies won't regret any starts they cede to exciting young prospects Jon Gray and Eddie Butler.
  • Charlie Blackmon won't regress (his 2014 ended up being about average anyway once he cooled down in the second half), but Corey Dickerson will.

5. Arizona Diamondbacks (68–94)
  • Yasmany Tomás will be a mess—although it won't all be his fault. He'll be an incapable defender at third base, and management will delay moving him to the outfield for far too long. However, he'll have one of the game's lowest contact rates no matter where he plays, and his contract will quickly look like a bust.
  • Trevor Cahill will have a surprisingly effective season, making for a nice trade chip for Arizona. A league switch will rob him of Comeback Player of the Year.
  • Ender Inciarte will show he deserves to start in the outfield over David Peralta—and Peralta will do nothing that disagrees.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Follow Local Politics, Anywhere, in One Click

It's not the stuff of major television events, but state government is where the real action happens. With the current levels of gridlock in the federal government, chances are that any new laws that affect your life are being made in your state capitols. Given my obsession with state-level politics, I keep tabs on it very closely via Twitter—all 50 miniature political ecosystems. To share my obsession with the world, I recently organized those Twitter followings into 50 Twitter lists—one for the political reporters and observers in each state. Each state's list is linked below; I encourage you to follow your state's, if not several others you're interested in (I have a feeling Iowa and New Hampshire will be pretty relevant in the year ahead...). If you just want to follow one political news source from each of the 50 states—the Reader's Digest of local politics, if you will, you can do that too.

Alabama
Alaska
Arizona
Arkansas
California
Colorado
Connecticut
Delaware
Florida
Georgia
Hawaii
Idaho
Illinois
Indiana
Iowa
Kansas
Kentucky
Louisiana
Maine
Maryland
Massachusetts
Michigan
Minnesota
Mississippi
Missouri
Montana
Nebraska
Nevada
New Hampshire
New Jersey
New Mexico
New York
North Carolina
North Dakota
Ohio
Oklahoma
Oregon
Pennsylvania
Rhode Island
South Carolina
South Dakota
Tennessee
Texas
Utah
Vermont
Virginia
Washington
West Virginia
Wisconsin
Wyoming