Friday, May 12, 2017

How to Solve Gerrymandering

Even in today's era of political polarization, there should be a few things we can all agree on. Puppies are cute. Arsenic is bad. Broccoli is the devil's food. And letting politicians draw uncompetitive districts for their own benefit is bad for democracy.

Members of both parties have voiced support for taking partisanship out of the process of drawing congressional and legislative districts. And yet, instead of being the rare issue where both parties are eager to get something done, redistricting reform has proven nearly impossible to implement. The latest example of why comes from the great state of Maryland. Republican Governor Larry Hogan has made an independent redistricting commission one of his top priorities. The Democratic legislature passed a redistricting reform bill with strong majorities. But, this week, Hogan vetoed the measure.

The reason is pure self-interest. The Democratic bill would have only switched Maryland's redistricting process to an independent commission if five nearby states did so first; Hogan, contending that this will never happen, is holding out for a bill that would have Maryland unilaterally disarm. That too will never happen. While Democrats may support nonpartisan redistricting in the abstract, Maryland Democrats correctly see it as a threat to their power. Partisan redistricting always favors the dominant party, and a state as blue as Maryland gives Democrats the opportunity to creatively mold several more Democratic seats in Congress than they are entitled to. They’ve done just that, as 87.5% of Maryland’s congressional delegation (seven of eight) are Democrats despite the party receiving just 60.4% of the combined statewide vote in the last round of congressional elections.

Maryland Democrats aren’t alone in this cartographical trickery. Most states gerrymander their districts, to varying degrees of blatancy, including several Republican-controlled states, including Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Texas. Like an arms race in an electoral cold war, neither side is going to give up its advantage until the other one does. And so reform languishes.

The Democratic bill hints at a solution but doesn't go far enough. Would-be redistricting reformers can't just sit back waiting for other states to take action on their own; they have to make a deal. Maryland’s gerrymandering problem won’t be solved in Annapolis. In fact, the key to getting fair districts in the Old Line State actually lies in Indiana.

If the Maryland Legislature is ever going to agree to an independent redistricting commission, Hogan needs to strike a deal with another state legislature—a Republican one—first. If Maryland and a red state both agree to stop gerrymandering, the Republican gain in Maryland and the Democratic gain in the other state would cancel each other out—but elections in both states would be more fair. And as it turns out, Indiana is the perfect partner in such a compact.

Like Maryland Democrats, Indiana Republicans have succeeded at gerrymandering their home state. Although the GOP won only 54% of the congressional popular vote in Indiana in 2016, the party controls 78% of the congressional delegation—seven out of nine seats. Reformers in Indiana have likewise tried to implement an independent redistricting commission, getting a bill through the Indiana State House in 2014. But while the appetite was there, the effort was also eventually killed by entrenched interests. Indiana is also comparable in size to Maryland, making the two states a fair trade. If Indiana switched to an independent redistricting commission, it would likely elect five Republicans and four Democrats. That net loss of two Republicans would balance out the two-seat gain that the GOP would probably see under a fair congressional map in Maryland.

Indiana is the best option on a short list of possible partners for Maryland. Wisconsin and Missouri each seats eight representatives—an even more precise match for Maryland—but Missouri already uses a hybrid redistricting system of legislators plus a commission. Wisconsin Republicans, meanwhile, are unlikely to go along since they risk losing control of this blue-tinged state altogether. Tennessee is another possible choice, with its Hoosier-esque 7–2 Republican congressional delegation, but it is more Republican than Maryland is Democratic.

There are still some obstacles faced by such a “grand bargain” between states. First, congressional incumbents in danger of losing their safe seats would certainly pressure their legislators to vote against the plan. In addition, redistricting affects not only the composition of Congress, but also state legislatures themselves; Maryland Democrats and Indiana Republicans would not be enthusiastic about the prospect of reducing their majorities. Although she might regard the swap of congressional seats as equitable, the average Maryland Democrat probably doesn’t care enough about Indiana that she values a State Senate seat there as highly as one back home. And because the plan would redraw existing legislative districts, there is the reality that some of the people asked to vote for this arrangement would lose their seats as a direct result.

Reformers would still have to lobby lawmakers hard to look past these issues, but they are not the main reason redistricting reform has stalled in Maryland and in state houses across the nation. Reformers cannot expect to make progress asking the majority party to give up leverage without getting anything in return. Perhaps soon the many states failing to end gerrymandering on their own will discover the elegant solution of looking to each other for help.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Is Boston Racist?

By now you've heard about the Adam Jones incident. Twenty-four hours later, the topic was still the news story in baseball, unspooling new sub-threads and inspiring much larger debates (anyone still think sports isn't political?). They'll move on, eventually. But in my hometown of Boston, the incident has exposed an ugly truth and forced a great deal of introspection that will—or at least should—linger.

We Bostonians have an inferiority complex, and one of our most tender spots is when the rest of the country plays the "Boston is racist" card. A cosmopolitan, liberal city, Boston certainly doesn't see itself that way—yet at the same time anyone with a more than passing connection to the city carries around the hidden shame of the city's violent resistance to busing in the 1970s. Within my lifetime, the Boston media, city leaders, and the collective masses were all guilty of a rush to judgment about the murder of Carol Stuart, a young suburban mother-to-be killed not by a black carjacker, but by her white husband. When an African American baseball player is called the N-word at Fenway Park, it's impossible not to draw the connection.

My first impression was optimism that our city was at least viewing Jones's assault with open eyes. Instead of attacking Jones or ignoring the story entirely, the Boston elite faced up to it. The Boston Globe led with the story all day on its website, and Mayor Marty Walsh and Governor Charlie Baker both issued swift statements of condemnation early this morning. Walsh, an Irish Catholic from Dorchester (still a demographic profile that's more associated with Trumpian intolerance than the bleeding-heart inclusiveness of the Cantabrigian university student), had particularly strong words: "If they claim to be a sports fan, they’re not a sports fan—nothing but a racist." Boston finally seemed to be acknowledging that, yes, it had a problem with racism it desperately needed to fix.

There was also a common thread in Walsh's and Baker's words, as Globe columnist Renée Graham pointed out: "This is not what Massachusetts and Boston are about." So maybe the sensitivity remained. Walsh and Baker were acknowledging that Boston has racist elements, but also insisting that, at its core, Boston was a welcoming and tolerant place. Well, OK. They're politicians—they are going to believe (or at least say they believe) the best about their constituents. But it's worth noting that Walsh's administration last year kicked off a series of town halls "aimed at bringing conversations about racism, healing, and policy work into all Boston neighborhoods." At one of the meetings, Walsh said, point-blank, "Boston has an issue with racism." Whether he thinks "racist" or "tolerant" is a more fitting adjective for Boston in 2017, Walsh clearly understands that there is still racism left to overcome in the city.

That was the city's elite, however. How did the hoi polloi react? Twitter unfortunately became the instrument by which this was measured, and the results were mixed at best. Liberal baseball Twitter pounced upon this tweet by NFL writer Albert Breer that summed up the denial of many Bostonians: "Is it horrible to want some proof? I dunno. I've probably been to 200 games at Fenway in my life. Never heard a slur yelled at a player." (Never mind that Jones had no reason to lie, and Boston fans have a reputation for racial taunting among African American athletes.) However, I saw just as many tweets from Bostonians (not to mention my own reaction) expressing their unqualified disgust for their fellow Red Sox fans in the bleachers Monday night, so I hardly think Breer's viewpoint is universally held here. Twitter attracts a broad element of society, including its dregs. You can find pretty much any opinion on there if you're looking for it. Overall, I think Boston took responsibility for the incident, as it should have—as it must have if we're going to make sure it isn't repeated.

It would be nice if that were the final word. But that inferiority complex is acting up again, because even those of us who own up to the racism of drunk Red Sox fans can't help but get defensive about the resurgent blanket narrative that "Boston is racist." We object to the very logic that people accuse us of: that our entire community should be stereotyped by the actions of a foolish few. This is unfair, of course; most people in Boston are not racist, as illustrated most recently by the classy standing ovation Red Sox fans gave Jones at Tuesday's game. The ovation did not undo what happened to Jones, but neither does what happened to Jones negate the ovation. Clearly, Boston has a racist underbelly, but what percentage of a city's residents have to belong to that fringe in order to say the city as a whole is racist? One bigot does not a racist city make, but a place doesn't need to be 100% pure-grade racist either.

This is something outsiders fail to realize when they smugly ask how Boston can be considered one of the most liberal cities in America while still struggling with racism. The two facts have little to do with each other. Massachusetts isn't a monolith where 100% of its citizens are latte-sipping progressives who nonetheless harbor secret racial animosities. Yes, it's true, 60% of Bay Staters voted for Hillary Clinton in November, more than 45 other states. But that means 33% voted for Donald Trump—at least some of whom were motivated by prejudice. (Trump also won the state handily during the primary.) And yes, some Democrats are racist as well, even if only in subtler ways. It was in dark blue Cambridge that someone called 911 to report that famed African American Studies scholar Henry Louis Gates looked suspicious as he attempted to open the jammed front door of his Harvard Square townhouse. These uncomfortable truths do nothing to change the fact that Massachusetts has been at the forefront of the progressive movement (inaugurating, among other things, same-sex marriage and Obamacare), including on issues of racial justice, which aren't abstract to them either: Massachusetts was home to the first black U.S. senator and the second black governor ever to be elected.

The question is whether Boston is racist with tolerant elements or tolerant with racist elements. And I honestly don't know which is correct. Boston hasn't earned the benefit of the doubt with its history; in addition to the nationally publicized busing crisis, Celtics players including the great Bill Russell confronted blatant racism here during the 1970s and '80s. But Boston is also a very different city than it was back then, and the racist reputation it earned 40 years ago gives us only an incomplete picture of the present day. The Jones incident did elicit a disturbing comment out of fellow African American ballplayer C.C. Sabathia, who said he has "never been called the N-word" anywhere but Boston (albeit not since before 2009); "when you go to Boston, expect it." Former MLB outfielder Vernon Wells chimed in that he "was only warned about two stadiums where racially motivated comments could occur...Fenway was one." In 2007, Gary Matthews Jr., then of the Angels, called Boston "one of the few places where you hear racial comments." But then that reminds you that other fan bases have brazenly engaged in bigotry as well. Athletics outfielder Rajai Davis—who has never played for the Red Sox and has no apparent reason to hold back about the city—said Tuesday, "It's not a Boston problem. It's a national problem."

And there's another confounder. As we learned seemingly nonstop for eight years after we supposedly overcame it by electing Barack Obama, the United States is still infested with latent racism. Other cities—Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, DC—have racial records as troubled as Boston's. Heck, it's not even limited to this country—the last time Adam Jones was subjected to racial slurs, it was in Toronto during last year's Wild Card game. All this makes it even harder to determine whether Boston is a particular hotbed for bigotry or merely part of a wider problem, from which even coastal liberal bastions are not safe. Of course, the fact that other cities are racist too doesn't make Boston not racist.

So is Boston racist? Ultimately, it's semantic. I have a hard time disagreeing with someone who says Boston is racist according to a certain definition of the term. Personally, though, I would say instead that it has a race problem. So does the entire country—that shouldn't be controversial. Is Boston's worse? I don't know. It certainly was historically; it might still be. We've made enough progress since the 1970s that we're now in a gray zone where the slurs directed at Adam Jones could plausibly be either the residue of Boston's prejudicial past or a symptom of a national trend. But it also doesn't really matter, because neither is good enough. Even after Monday night's vulgarity, I love my hometown. I love it because of all the things it does right—ranked at or near the top in education, medical care, economic vitality. With that pedigree, there's no excuse for having even nationally average levels of racism. We are the City on a Hill, meant from our founding to be an example for the rest of the world to strive toward. The same self-righteousness that makes Bostonians so protective and such easy targets for the rest of the country should be a unique motivator to clean up our act. If you think, in the face of so much evidence, that Boston is already perfect, you're interpreting this Hub of the Universe thing wrong. Instead, it's the nagging conviction that we should be better that propels us there.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Predicting the 2017 Season—American League

Though the baseball season is well underway, I still have preseason loose ends to tie up. Earlier this month, I issued my usual—and simultaneously unusual—National League predictions for the 2017 baseball season. For those new to the blog, these aren't your average team previews. Instead, I predict the final win-loss records in each division but also issue a few wildly specific predictions for each team. Then, at the end of the season, I'll look back and see how insightful—or hilariously off the mark—I was. Here's part two of this doomed exercise: the American League.

AL East


1. Boston Red Sox (102–60, 1st playoff seed)
  • Pablo Sandoval will scream back to relevance with 25 home runs and a positive number of Defensive Runs Saved.
  • Blake Swihart will rake in AAA as Sandy León sits below the Mendoza line. A change will be made by Memorial Day.
  • All of Boston's unreliable starting pitchers from last year, including Drew Pomeranz and David Price (when he pitches), will right the ship. While Price is out, Eduardo Rodríguez will provide similar value.
  • Boston's staff will lead baseball in complete games and shutouts.
  • Carson Smith will return as the AL's best reliever in the second half.
  • The Red Sox will defeat the Nationals in a five-game World Series. More Boston fans than Washington fans will attend the games in DC.

2. Toronto Blue Jays (87–75, 1st Wild Card)

3. Tampa Bay Rays (85–77, 2nd Wild Card)
  • Chris Archer will again be one of the best pitchers in baseball, and Blake Snell will join him in a monster breakout year. The Rays will have the league's best rotation.
  • Jake Odorizzi will pitch a shutout over the Blue Jays in the Wild Card game, but then Tampa Bay will be swept by Boston in the ALDS.
  • Steven Souza will finally have the 20/20 breakout season everyone expected, Colby Rasmus and Matt Duffy will both match their career-high WARs, but the Rays will still have the division's worst offense.

4. New York Yankees (83–79)
  • Greg Bird and Aaron Judge be the mini modern Mantle and Maris, going back and forth all season as the Yankees team leader.
  • Luis Severino and Michael Pineda will both lower their ERAs below 4.00.
  • Clint Frazier will be traded away at midseason for rotation help after not conforming to the "Yankees way."

5. Baltimore Orioles (80–82)
  • With a .330 average, 40 home runs, 120 RBI, and a Gold Glove to satisfy traditionalists and 8.5 WAR and 30 DRS for the stat nerds, it will finally be Manny Machado's turn for an MVP award.
  • Every Oriole starting pitcher except Wade Miley will give up more runs in 2017 than in 2016—yes, even Ubaldo Jiménez.

AL Central


1. Cleveland Indians (93–69, 2nd playoff seed)
  • After the injury bug bit nearly their whole rotation last fall, the 2017 Indians will become the rare team to use only five starting pitchers the entire year. It will be a big factor in getting them to the ALCS.
  • On the strength of his creative bullpen use, Terry Francona will win a second straight Manager of the Year award.
  • Michael Brantley will get injured again and finish the year with fewer than 200 plate appearances.

2. Kansas City Royals (82–80)
  • Jorge Soler will lead Kansas City position players in WAR.
  • Eric Hosmer will have the 20th-best season for a first baseman in the American League—and will get the first-largest contract for one this offseason.
  • Another injury-plagued season for Lorenzo Cain will end up being a blessing in disguise for the Royals, who will afford to keep him this winter after all.
  • With a 2.50 ERA and 240 strikeouts, Danny Duffy will win his first Cy Young Award.

3. Detroit Tigers (76–86)
  • Jordan Zimmermann will rue signing with Detroit as he becomes a pure contact pitcher (setting a career low in strikeout percentage), but the Tigers' league-worst defense fails to convert them into outs.
  • After the Tigers' 10th blown save of the year—in May—Brad Ausmus will finally be shown the door.
  • With the team hovering around .500 at the trade deadline, ownership will finally give the OK to blow it all up and rebuild.

4. Chicago White Sox (73–89)
  • Tim Anderson will respond to his recent contract extension by virtually evaporating as an offensive force. He will show next to no power, will walk fewer than 10 times, and will split the season between pinch-running duties and AAA.
  • Carlos Rodon will shave a run off his ERA and step neatly into the role of White Sox ace after José Quintana is traded.
  • Lucas Giolito will put it together at AAA and make a tantalizing White Sox debut: giving up two runs and striking out 14 over seven innings (in other words, he will finally be the Stephen Strasburg clone Nats fans always wanted him to be).

5. Minnesota Twins (68–94)
  • This will be the year that José Berríos and Byron Buxton right the ship. With them leading their respective sides of the ball, the Twins will begin to look like a franchise with a direction again.
  • Brian Dozier will be a completely different hitter, hitting just .210 with 10 home runs and nearly 200 strikeouts.
  • Miguel Sanó will slug 40 homers but have a WAR of 1.0 thanks to atrocious defense.

AL West


1. Houston Astros (89–73, 3rd playoff seed)
  • For his next trick, José Altuve will captivate America this summer with a hitting streak that hits 50 games.
  • Alex Bregman won't be terrible, exactly, but he'll put up a decidedly meh first full season in the bigs.
  • Carlos Beltrán will continue sipping from the fountain of youth. His full-time DH-hood will enable him to hit 30 homers.
  • For the third straight year, Lance McCullers will put up an ERA of 3.22—but he'll do it over 200 innings and lead the AL in strikeouts.
  • Chris Devenski will step into the starting rotation and post a 1.50 second-half ERA.

2. Seattle Mariners (83–79)
  • Félix Hernández will post a career-low strikeout rate and flirt with his career-low ERA of 4.52 from 2006. 
  • Drew Smyly will make up for it, though, pitching to a 3.20 ERA thanks to an uber-low BABIP driven by the M's' great outfield defense (40+ DRS).
  • James Paxton will finally pitch to his 2.80 FIP.
  • Jean Segura will be be huge bust. Without the aid of an inflated BABIP and Chase Field, he will return to the .270-ish wOBA that has characterized three of his five MLB seasons. Mitch Haniger will turn out to be the more valuable addition from that trade, even in the short term.
  • Prospects Tyler O'Neill and Dan Vogelbach will be on-base machines from the time they are promoted to the majors. Only with them playing significant roles will the Mariners be a complete enough team to break their playoff drought, now at 16 years. 

3. Texas Rangers (77–85)
  • A team that benefited from incredible luck last year will be one of the unluckiest this year. They will have a losing record in one-run games, and they will lead the AL in days spent on the DL.
  • Jurickson Profar will win the batting title.
  • Carlos Gómez will revert back to his Astros form, and he will begin losing playing time to a resurgent Delino DeShields Jr., who will sport a .350 OBP and 30 stolen bases.
  • Andrew Cashner and Tyson Ross will both be lucky to post ERAs under 5.00 in Arlington.

4. Los Angeles Angels (75–87)

5. Oakland Athletics (73–89)

Monday, April 10, 2017

Predicting the 2017 Season—National League

They may be a week late, but it will take more than an ill-timed cross-country roadtrip to keep me from cogitating on the upcoming current baseball season. I don't do season previews in the usual sense—no doubt you've already read a zillion of those from analysts more plugged in than I. Instead, I predict the final win-loss records in each division but also issue a few wildly specific predictions for each team. Then, at the end of the season, I'll look back and see how insightful—or hilariously off the mark—I was. First up: the Senior Circuit.

NL East


1. Washington Nationals (97–65, 2nd playoff seed)
  • Bryce Harper will post another monster season even better than his 2015. He will surpass Mike Trout with over 10.0 WAR. He'll again be the runaway MVP.
  • Over half of the Nats' lineup will be worth more than 4.0 WAR: Harper, Adam Eaton, Trea Turner, Anthony Rendon, and Daniel Murphy. Jayson Werth, improbably, won't be far behind, with one last gasp as an offensive catalyst.
  • For the third straight season, Mike Rizzo will swing a deal for a closer at the trade deadline—and this time it will be for no less than Drew Storen. Disaster will, predictably, ensue.
  • Washington will advance beyond the NLDS for the first time and defeat the Cubs in a thrilling seven-game NLCS. Unfortunately, they'll run into a buzzsaw in the American League champion.

2. New York Mets (91–71, 1st Wild Card) 
  • Jacob deGrom will be fully healthy and join Noah Syndergaard as a top Cy Young contender, as both exceed 200 innings (and 200 strikeouts).
  • Steven Matz will also break out with an ERA below 3.00. Matt Harvey will be respectable again, but that will only make him the team's fourth-best starter.
  • With Lucas Duda suffering through lingering back problems, Jay Bruce will play a lot of first base. He will finally win over Mets fans by giving them a .750 OPS there, as well as enabling a strong season by Michael Conforto with the move.
  • Amed Rosario and Asdrúbal Cabrera will end the season on the left side of the Mets' infield, with José Reyes banished from Flushing for good.

3. Miami Marlins (77–85) 
  • World Baseball Classic number-eight hitter Giancarlo Stanton will be the first Marlin ever to top 50 home runs, leading the National League.
  • While Wei-Yin Chen will return to a 120 ERA+, Edinson Vólquez will again have negative value.
  • Led by Kyle Barraclough's 5.0 K/BB ratio, the Marlins will trail only the Dodgers for the NL's stingiest bullpen.
  • By the end of the season, Jeb Bush will be the proud new owner of the Marlins.

4. Atlanta Braves (71–91) 
  • Jaime García will finally pitch a full season and do it well, setting himself up to be one of next winter's better free agents.
  • Jim Johnson will fall apart for the second time in his career, as his fastball velocity dips to below 90 miles per hour. Opponents will hit .350 off him before his midseason release.
  • The safest prediction on this page: Dansby Swanson will be your 2017 NL Rookie of the Year.
  • Traffic woes and shoddy construction will get SunTrust Park off to a rough start. Attendance will be well below estimates; the park will draw fewer fans than Turner Field did last season.

5. Philadelphia Phillies (64–98) 
  • Vince Velasquez will prove he belongs in the starting rotation, pairing his well-known 25% strikeout rate with 18 quality starts.
  • Velasquez, Jeremy Hellickson, Aaron Nola, and Jerad Eickhoff will at times this spring resemble a poor man's Phearsome Phour, but how many of them will be around at the end of the season? The guess here is not Nola (Tommy John surgery) or Hellickson (traded).
  • Clay Buchholz will lead the league in home runs allowed (32).
  • The no-name offense will be the lowest-scoring in baseball.

NL Central


1. Chicago Cubs (100–62, 1st playoff seed) 
  • Wade Davis will struggle with his control in his recovery from injury. By the end of the season, Koji Uehara will have more saves.
  • The rotation will be the closest thing to a weakness on the North Side. Kyle Hendricks will regress to league average, and the fifth starter's job will remain unsettled for most of the year.
  • Jason Heyward has a big bounceback in him. He'll hit .290/.350/.450, paired with his usual 20 Defensive Runs Saved, for a 5.0 WAR season.
  • Ben Zobrist, on the other hand, will run into a brick wall. His modest value with the bat will be offset by the worst defensive season of his career.

2. Saint Louis Cardinals (89–73, 2nd Wild Card) 
  • Yadier Molina's pedestrian .250/.300/.380 slash line will inaugurate the decline phase of his career.
  • Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha will both rebound to above-average ERAs (say, 3.70), and Lance Lynn will pick up where he left off before surgery, but Carlos Martínez has permanently supplanted them as the Cardinals ace.
  • A bone-headed strategic move by Mike Matheny will be the reason for the Cardinals' extra-innings loss to the Mets in the Wild Card Game.

3. Pittsburgh Pirates (81–81) 
  • The most important question for the 2017 Pirates will be answered early, when Andrew McCutchen wins Player of the Month for April. He'll finish with a classic McCutchen season: .300/.400/.500.
  • Jameson Taillon will zoom past Gerrit Cole as Pittsburgh's best pitcher, and his 2.50 ERA will put him squarely in the Cy Young conversation.
  • The Pirates will have the NL's best outfield—but its worst infield.
  • Jung Ho Kang's personal and legal problems will prevent him from returning to the Pirates, and the once-revelatory third baseman will wash out of Major League Baseball.

4. Milwaukee Brewers (72–90) 
  • Yeah, Keon Broxton and Domingo Santana may strike out a combined 300 times, but who cares? They will both be fantasy studs, especially in OBP leagues. Look for 20 homers and 30 steals from Broxton, and a mirror-image 30/20 season from Santana. Both will get on base at .350 clips despite .250 batting averages.
  • As quickly as Jonathan Villar's stock rose, it will come crashing down. He'll hit just .240, and his runs scored and stolen bases will both be slashed in half.
  • Junior Guerra may not be the second coming of Zack Greinke, but he'll continue to give the Brewers a chance to win every time out. He'll be the Jordan Zimmermann of Milwaukee's rebuilding effort: not the best pitcher on their next winning team, but still good enough to contribute to it.

5. Cincinnati Reds (61–101) 
  • Anthony DeSclafani will endure another frustrating season of injuries. His recovery from a sprained UCL will last nearly all season, until he debuts in late September—and throws a no-hitter in his one and only start.
  • This will finally be the year that gets Bryan Price fired. Then again, if 2015 and 2016 didn't do it...

NL West


1. Los Angeles Dodgers (92–70, 3rd playoff seed) 
  • Every Dodgers starting pitcher will miss at least eight starts. Even last year's reliable Kenta Maeda will be plagued by some of the "irregularities" found in his physical when he first signed out of Japan.
  • Every year, Clayton Kershaw has found a way to top his seemingly untoppable season from the year before. How will he do it this year? By tossing a 21-strikeout perfect game—by every measure, the best pitching performance in baseball history.
  • A 2.79 ERA. 6.3 hits per nine innings. A 9.7/4.8 K/BB ratio. Kershaw's first full season, or Julio Urías's?
  • Yasiel Puig will match his 137 wRC+ from September of last year, after a demotion to the minor leagues.
  • LA's uncertain left-field situation will be solved when Cody Bellinger forces himself into the lineup in mid-siummer.

2. San Francisco Giants (84–78) 
  • Despite the addition of Mark Melancon, the bullpen will still be a weakness for the Giants. Ironically, their fans will look on longingly as the likes of Santiago Casilla and Sergio Romo dominate elsewhere in California while the San Francisco relief corps comes in below average.
  • Handing starting jobs to Eduardo Núñez and Jarrett Parker will prove to be a fatal move for a team in need of offensive help. As age saps talent all around the diamond, San Francisco will post its worst offensive season since the 2011 squad's 91 OPS+.
  • On the bright side, one Giant will finally get his due: Madison Bumgarner will take home the Cy Young trophy.

3. Colorado Rockies (83–79) 

4. Arizona Diamondbacks (74–88) 
  • The D'Backs will be better almost automatically, as Greinke, Shelby Miller, and A.J. Pollock all revert to the mean.
  • Robbie Ray will take a huge step forward, shaving more than a run off his ERA and leading the league in strikeouts.

5. San Diego Padres (68–94) 
  • Even with the help of Petco Park, the Padres will have the worst rotation in baseball. 
  • In just 30 innings pitched, Carter Capps will have the highest WAR of any Padre pitcher.
  • The Padres will run out 61 different players in 2017, breaking the MLB record for most men deployed in a season.
  • Travis Jankowski will pull a Kevin Kiermaier, amassing eye-popping value on the strength of defense alone. Oh, and he'll lead Major League Baseball in stolen bases.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Wisconsin Superintendent Race Rated 'Safe Evers'

Hands-down the strangest regularly scheduled statewide election date is the first Tuesday of April in the year after a presidential election. Every four years, Wisconsin voters use their annual "Spring Election" to choose a new superintendent of public instruction—the only constitutional officer in the nation who never appears on a November ballot. And the next incarnation of this political Leap Day will soon be upon us.

On Tuesday, April 4, Wisconsinites will go the polls to choose either Tony Evers or Lowell Holtz to be their state superintendent for the next four years. Although the position is nonpartisan, the campaign has featured all the drama and wedge issues of a high-profile gubernatorial race—attack ads, backroom deals, and alleged conflicts of interest among them. That makes it a worthy pit stop for my ongoing project to handicap not just superintendent elections, but all constitutional-officer elections nationwide. Here's the state of play in the Badger State:

Heading into the campaign, Evers might have had good reason to doubt his ability to win a third term at the helm of the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. The incumbent has enraged Republicans in Madison with his liberal views, including his support for Common Core. His traditional backers in the Wisconsin Democratic Party appear weaker than ever, having failed to carry the state for either Hillary Clinton or Russ Feingold (both expected to win handily) last November. One of Evers's staunchest supporters in his first campaign, the Wisconsin Education Association Council, has been weakened by Wisconsin's anti-labor Act 10. National trends have also been dire for Democratic state superintendents: after their latest decimation on the local level in 2016, Democrats no longer hold a single superintendent post chosen by partisan election, and Evers is one of just three left-leaning nonpartisan superintendents.

Meanwhile, conservative education advocates threatened to spend big money to elect a Republican identifier to the seat. Two filed to run in the February jungle primary: Holtz, the former superintendent of the Beliot School District, and John Humphries, an educational consultant. The two couldn't seem to get out of each other's way: just before the primary, Humphries alleged that Holtz had offered him a $150,000-a-year job in his administration and a private driver if Holtz would drop out and endorse him. Each accused the other of being a liar; only Evers stayed above the fray. In the first round of voting on February 21, Evers took a full 70% of the vote, with Holtz at 23% and Humphries at 7%. Evers and Holtz thus advanced to the April runoff.

With Humphries out of the race, Holtz, a supporter of school vouchers, hoped to attract national education-reform groups (and their money) to his cause with an issues-driven campaign. Instead, though, it was a liberal group, One Wisconsin Now, that made the biggest impact on the race with a well-coordinated opposition-research effort. Through a series of open-records requests, One Wisconsin Now unearthed a slow drip of stories questioning Holtz's competence and ethics. First, it was revealed that Holtz used his school (and therefore government) email address to solicit political support. Then it turned out that, as superintendent of the Whitnall School District, he donated some of the district's old football bleachers to the private school his own children attended. Performance evaluations revealed that Holtz had retired after a falling-out with the school board over his poor communication skills. The same problems appeared evident in his previous gig at Beloit, where he was reprimanded for a "lack of communication with the Board regarding significant matters," including his attempt to hire his wife for a position with the district without fully briefing the board.

Evers seized on Holtz's ethical shortcomings in his first TV ads this week, and they are likely to keep coming: as of the last campaign-finance reports in mid-February, Evers had $238,000 cash on hand compared to Holtz's $15,000. Although the conservative has reported $64,500 more in late contributions since then, it remains to be seen whether it will be enough for him to go up on TV—and it is certainly not enough to match Evers's resources.

No polls have been released on the race, but given Evers's dominating showing in the jungle primary, he appears poised to defeat Evers by at least double digits, and perhaps up to 40 points. What's more, Evers's strong lead in fundraising and Holtz's terrible press make a conservative comeback unlikely. There's no reason to rate this race anything less than Safe Evers.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Free-Agent Fantasy Baseball: 2017

Is it just me, or was this the longest hot-stove season ever? The other day, Pedro Alvárez—a 22-home-run hitter who in any other year would have been snapped up—finally signed a contract for 2017. He's not an anomaly, either; such big names as Jake Peavy, Ángel Pagán, and Jonathan Papelbon remain free agents well into spring training (and the WBC).

Hence the delay in publishing this post. A new tradition here at Baseballot is annually building the best possible 25-man rosters solely from the ranks of free agency. Then, at the end of the season, I look back and see how my "fantasy" team fared. Last year, my stint in the GM chair was an unqualified bust: my best estimate for my team's record was 65–97, and I saddled my imaginary franchise with a couple stinkers of a contract. So, naturally, I resolved to give it another whirl. Now that the offseason is complete, I've gone through the winter's entire crop of free agents and "signed" whom I deemed to be the best investments (and shrewdest bargains). This article, then, will be a unique tour through the best free-agent deals of 2016–2017.

Here are the ground rules for our little game. The goal is to simulate the real job of being a GM as faithfully as possible: our pretend team signs any free agent to the actual contract that he agrees to with a real major-league team. We have to fill every position on our team as if it were really taking the field: five starting pitchers, a bullpen with options from both the left and right side, one starting position player at each position (including DH), and a bench that can back up every spot on the field. Like a real GM, I forced myself to stick to a budget: the $195 million luxury-tax threshold that many teams are using as a de facto salary cap. And like a real GM, I made myself interact with events in real time, as they happened; I didn't allow myself to look back at the end of the offseason, after the market had played out, and choose the cheapest options. Instead, after news of a signing broke, I gave myself 48 hours to think it over and decide whether to add that player (and that contract) to our books—with no knowledge of any signings that came after.

Finally, to properly incentivize me not to mortgage the future with burdensome long-term contracts, I didn't just start a team from scratch. Instead, I carried forward the "franchise" that I started last year, inheriting its talent as well as its payroll obligations. Seven men from the 2016 edition of our team are under contract for 2017 as well: Jason Heyward, Hyun Soo Kim, Jed Lowrie, Álex Guerrero, Chase Headley, John Lackey, and James Shields. My first executive decision of the offseason was to release Guerrero, who had just one year and $5 million left on his contract. As a major-league bust now playing in Japan, he's not going to provide any value to our team, and his roster spot will be better used on someone new.

The team also held options on two other players: Hisashi Iwakuma and Jason Hammel. Again, to simulate real life most accurately, I chose to do what their true-life teams (the Mariners and the Cubs, respectively) did: pick up Iwakuma's option for $14.3 million and decline Hammel's option for a $2 million buyout. Iwakuma thus took Guerrero's place in the gang of seven carryover players.

But wait, there's more! According to the arcane rules of baseball transactions, I also had two more players who were not technically "under contract" but were still under team control for 2017: José Abreu and Nori Aoki. Were I a real major-league team, I would have had the choice to either non-tender them or enter the arbitration process to sign them for 2017. The non-tender and arbitration process happens over the winter right alongside the free-agent season, but from the beginning I never really doubted that I wanted to keep these two valuable, affordable players. Aoki eventually avoided a possible non-tender by agreeing to a one-year, $5.5 million contract with the Astros—a cheap price for an extremely consistent above-average hitter. Meanwhile, Abreu and the White Sox avoided arbitration by agreeing to a one-year, $10.825 million contract. Of course, I'd have been willing to pay up to twice that for this 100-RBI slugger.

Add it all up, and I entered the offseason with nine names already penciled in for 2017. Once the price tags for Aoki and Abreu were officially set, I had $123,358,333 in predetermined payroll obligations for 2017. Given our budget of $195 million, that meant I had $71,641,667 to spend on free agents for the remaining 16 spots on our roster: two or three starting pitchers, an entire bullpen, a starting catcher, a starting second baseman, a starting outfielder, a DH, a backup catcher, a backup infielder, and a "wild card"/utility player to fill any final holes.


Starting Pitchers

This year's crop of free agents was notoriously weak, but nowhere more so than at starting pitcher. The best starter on the market was universally agreed to be Rich Hill, who was uninspiring enough to have only merited a one-year, $6 million deal last offseason. This year, he ultimately signed for three years and $48 million—not a bad price, but then you remember that he's basically guaranteed to miss half the year every year with blisters. So who's the second-best pitcher on the market? Probably Hammel, who posted a very characteristic 105 ERA+ last year in Wrigley and has averaged 1.8 fWAR the past three years. Frustrated that I couldn't have him at the very affordable ($12 million) option year from his Cubs contract, I nonetheless targeted him early on to fill out the front end of my rotation.

In the meantime, I tied up the back end with two capable innings-eaters: R.A. Dickey ($8 million) and Bartolo Colón ($12.5 million). Both 40-somethings signed one-year deals with the Braves very early in the offseason. It was appropriate: like the rebuilding Braves, our team was also looking for low-cost stopgaps who won't embarrass us to serve as bridges until more permanent starting-pitching solutions hit the free-agent market in future years.

From those November signings, though, it was a long wait for Hammel. February 1 came and went, and the righty remained unsigned. Did the Cubs know something the public didn't—an injury, perhaps—when they declined that option? Was I saving a slot in my starting rotation for a savior who would never come? Thankfully not—Hammel inked a deal with the Royals just a week before spring training, and it was worth the wait: two years for a mere $16 million, including a $5 million salary in 2017. Against all odds, our team actually saved money by declining that option and resigning him—and now he is under team control for just $9 million in 2018 as well.

Relief Pitchers

This was an offseason that saw the all-time record for biggest contract given to a relief pitcher broken not once, but twice. I don't understand it. Relief pitcher is always the deepest position in free agency, and plenty of respectable pitchers are always available for a fraction of what Aroldis Chapman signed for. The issue is that they're not as consistent as the A-list relievers—but given the small sample sizes involved with pitching in relief (a third of the innings of a starting pitcher for even the most hard-working fireman), is that really so surprising? The key is to find a pitcher who slumped in the previous year but retains strong peripheral stats. I found one such candidate in Casey Fien, who signed with the Mariners for just $1.1 million in early December. Fien struggled to a 5.49 ERA in 2016 despite entering the campaign with a career 3.54 FIP and 4.58 K/BB ratio. An improbable 24.5% HR/FB rate inflated his 2016 ERA, but an elite spin rate on both his fastball and his curve is good reason to expect a bounceback.

Another such candidate I brought on board was Drew Storen, the perpetually unlucky former Nationals closer. In Washington, Storen's two high-profile choke jobs in the playoffs overshadowed a career 3.02 ERA there, and last year his 5.23 ERA between Toronto and Seattle belied a 3.69 K/BB ratio and 3.51 SIERA. Finally, I opted for another former closer in Shawn Tolleson, who signed with the Rays for a mere $1 million guarantee in mid-January. He quickly lost the Rangers' closer job in 2016 on his way to a 7.68 ERA, but that was thanks to a .372 BABIP, 59.9% LOB%, and 24.2% HR/FB percentage. His xFIP was dramatically better at 3.89, in line with his excellent 2014–2015, when he had a 143 ERA+.

For the token lefty in my 'pen, my first choice was Brett Cecil (an awesome 138 ERA+ and 3.98 K/BB ratio the last three years), but he signed for way too much (four years, $30.5 million). I waited patiently for the market to cool off, but it showed no sign. Mike Dunn signed for three years and $19 million, but there were still plenty of names available, so I kept waiting. Boone Logan signed for one year and $6.5 million, but there were still other names available, so I kept waiting. Jerry Blevins signed for one year and $6.5 million, and, well, it was getting late in the offseason, but I had come this far, right? Finally, my patience paid off—one of the last southpaws to come off the board was J.P. Howell, who hitched up with the Blue Jays for only $3 million over one year. Like the rest of my relievers, Howell had a down year in 2016, but by his standards this merely meant "barely below average" (a 4.09 ERA). His K/BB ratio actually improved over 2015 (from 2.79 to 2.93), and his SIERA of 3.36 was virtually unchanged from his career norms.

Leaving my bullpen shopping until the last minute, when players are scrambling for jobs, paid off in another way as well. In mid-February, I got a player I never would've expected to be able to afford at the beginning of the offseason: Sergio Romo. Romo is, without exaggeration, one of the best relievers in baseball, posting a 1.8 fWAR in 2015 albeit missing time with injury in 2016. Nevertheless, according to FanGraphs, he allowed the second-lowest exit velocity on batted balls of any pitcher last year. For a mere $3 million for one year, I got to install the newest Dodgers reliever as my closer.

Finally, I was hoping to snag Joe Blanton to fill my final bullpen slot, but the Mets' signing of Fernando Salas in mid-February (one year, $3 million) was an offer I couldn't refuse. SIERA has been in love with Salas the past few years: 2.82 in 2014, 2.65 in 2015, and 3.72 in 2016. Despite that recent spike, he still posted an above-average ERA last year and finished the season on a 19-strikeout, zero-walk tear with the Mets. Of course, only about two weeks later, Blanton signed for pretty much the same price ($4 million), but that's the uncertain exercise of team-building for you.

Catcher

Initially, catcher looked like the hardest slot on my roster to fill—it's already the scarcest position on the free-agent market, so finding a good catcher there is nearly impossible. When Jason Castro signed with the Twins for $24.5 million over three years, I became worried that the catcher market would be so out of control I would have to play in the shallow end. Fortunately, this ended up not being the case. Wilson Ramos, clearly the best catcher available, fell to the Rays for just $12.5 million over two years due to a torn ACL suffered at the end of 2016. Although he is expected to miss the first half of 2017, having an above-average catcher at an affordable salary for one and a half years after that wasn't something I could pass up.

The rest of the catching market was also super affordable: Welington Castillo for one year, $6 million; Matt Wieters for one year, $10.5 million. At those prices, I was tempted to snag myself another starting-caliber receiver—when else are they going to be this cheap?!—but even those modest price tags proved impossible to fit into my budget so late in the offseason. By the new year, I really only had room for small transactions here and there, so I was forced to turn to a traditional backup catcher: Alex Avila, who had a .359 OBP last year and figures to get a decent number of at-bats against righties in Detroit.

Second Baseman

I flirted with the idea of moving Jed Lowrie to second and signing Ian Desmond to play shortstop, but Desmond's five-year, $70 million deal with the Rockies was just too rich for my blood—plus they signed him to play first base, basically confirming that his shortstop-playing days are behind him. Instead, I put all my eggs in a long-sought-after basket: José Miguel Fernández, the Cuban infielder I've coveted since his first attempt to defect in 2014. Back then, he was a 26-year-old on-base machine, considered the third-best player in Cuba and ready to step onto a major-league team. Unfortunately, politics have since robbed him of two years of his prime. After failing to defect, he was suspended from the Cuban national team in 2015; then, he defected successfully and spent 2016 establishing residency and looking for work. The Dodgers finally signed him this January to a minor-league deal with a $200,000 signing bonus—far less, surely, than he would have received had he arrived in mint condition. At the time, I was elated with the signing; the Dodgers had a gaping hole at second base, and Fernández looked primed to share in or even seize the starting job there. Once I inked Fernández and his bargain-basement contract into my fantasy team's starting lineup, though, the Dodgers pulled a deft double play: they traded for Logan Forsythe and signed Chase Utley to plug their hole at the keystone. That makes our signing of Fernández likely to be a low-impact one, but at least it barely cost us any dough.

Outfield/Designated Hitter

These were the two open spots in my lineup where I knew I needed to add significant offense. Problem was, our budget really only had space for one big-ticket signing. I knew early on that it wouldn't be Yoenis Céspedes—his $27.5 million average annual value would have been a third of my total winter expenditures, all on one player. Instead, I set my sights on the second tier, and I found my man in Carlos Beltrán. With 89 wRC and a 122 OPS+ last year, the 39-year-old has proven that he can produce runs even in old age—yet at $16 million for one year, he's almost half the cost of Céspedes. (And in an advantage over other mid-tier sluggers like Josh Reddick, there's no such thing as a bad one-year deal.)

As the market developed, though, I began to wonder if Beltrán had been the right call. The later signings of Matt Holliday ($13 million) and Carlos Gómez ($11.5 million) to cheaper one-year deals gave me slight buyer's remorse. Meanwhile, I watched as the very best free-agent hitters settled for contracts that were frankly far more reasonable than we've come to expect: Justin Turner for $64 million/four years, Edwin Encarnación for $60 million/three years, and even José Bautista for $18.5 million/one guaranteed year and two option years. None of those deals would have been crippling to our imaginary franchise in the long term, but they all would have significantly broken the bank for 2017. With Beltrán in the fold, I had to look for not only a budget option, but also—given that Beltrán is primarily a DH at this point—specifically an outfielder.

Michael Saunders would have fit the bill nicely, but when he signed with the Phillies, it was for $9 million—a little pricey for a guy who amassed only 262 at-bats in the two years prior to his breakout 2016. I passed, but my options dwindled as the offseason ran its course. ($37.5 million over three years for a guy—Mark Trumbo—with the same amount of fWAR over the last three years as Daniel Nava? No thanks.) By the end of January, it looked like I had painted myself into a corner—but then Colby Rasmus dropped into my lap. Rasmus matched Saunders with 1.4 fWAR in 2016 but, because the Rays waited until he was the last outfielder in the bar at closing time, they snagged him for only one year and $5 million. Rasmus has been a frustrating player: in 2015, he showed offensive potential, hitting 25 home runs with a 116 OPS+. Then he was terrible offensively last year (a .641 OPS) but saved an astounding 20 runs on defense. For $5 million, it's worth taking the gamble that he can combine his 2015 batting value (9.6 runs above replacement), 2015 baserunning value (5.2), and 2016 fielding value (14.9) into another season to rival his 5.1 fWAR showing in 2013.

Bench

The well runneth dry of middle infielders. Only one, Lowrie, carries over from the 2016 team, forcing us to sign someone new to back up not only him at shortstop, but also our new starting second baseman. Unfortunately, the market was historically thin at shortstop; Sean Rodríguez was the only halfway respectable option, and after coming off an aberrant 126 OPS+ season, he ended up costing an unreasonable $11.5 million over two years. So I had to get creative—and I plugged my backup-infielder hole with Cuban amateur Lourdes Gourriel Jr. The son of Cuban superstar Lourdes Gourriel Sr., the younger Gourriel projects as an average hitter with decent pop but, crucially, can play all over the field. He played mostly left field and second base in Cuba and worked out at shortstop and center field in his major-league showcase. The Blue Jays finally signed him to be a middle infielder, "or possibly a third baseman." Best of all, he came cheap: $22 million over seven years, including just $600,000 in 2017. Although his immediate value will be limited (Toronto plans to start him in the minors), that's a huge break for a cash-strapped team like ours.

Clearly Ross Atkins and I think similarly, because his Blue Jays also inked maybe my top target of the offseason: Steve Pearce. Pearce was on my all-free-agent team last year as well, and all he did was hit .288/.374/.492 with 2.0 fWAR. That doesn't even account for his value in position-switching: he covered first, second, third, left field, and right field at various points last year. An excellent lefty masher, Pearce hits well enough to not only back up all around the field, but also platoon with the left-handed-hitting Fernández, Aoki, and/or Rasmus.


So there you have it: the Baseballot all-free-agent fantasy team for the 2017 season. Unfortunately, it ended up costing me slightly more than my allotted budget. Salary obligations for these 25 total up to $200,043,333 guaranteed, with a maximum payroll of $211,193,333 if all incentives are met. Let's say I have a very generous team owner or something; just go with it. Now, with actual, meaningful baseball games just a few weeks away, let's sit back and see how this team performs. Watch this space at the end of the season, when I simulate how a team with their stats would have placed in the standings. Then we'll see if I'm as good at judging baseball talent as I am at sticking to a budget!