Category Archives: MLB

Regular columns, news and views on Major League Baseball all year long: Spring Training to the World Series and back again!

Yelich gets $215m Beer Money from Brewers

Christian Yelich and the Milwaukee Brewers brought hope to many a so-called small-market fanbase this week in coming to terms on a new nine-year, $215 million contract. It’s a 7-year extension on top of his current deal and could keep him with the Brew Crew until he is 37 years old.

It’s fair to say that, had Yelich continued his recent MVP-type form over his remaining seasons before hitting free agency, he could have made a lot more money. But by all accounts it was Yelich who sparked the talks. 

“It’s a large sum of money and people are always going to ask the ‘what-if’s’ — did you leave [money on the table] or not? — but I play the game to win, and to be a part of a place that I feel comfortable and I take pride in representing. For me, this is that place.

“That’s how I made this decision. It wasn’t one that I took lightly. I spent a lot of time talking about it with my family and my representatives. At the end day, we felt that this was right.”

Yelich, as reported on

There are two parts to the story, of course. One is in the Milwaukee Brewers stepping up to lock down a true franchise player, and you have to give some credit to their principal owner Mark Attanasio in being prepared to do this, as the team has ‘had a go’ in previous years such as in the CC Sabathia and Zack Greinke trades. 

But the main story comes back to Yelich and what he wanted to do in being prepared to accept less money to stay somewhere he and his family are happy, in the knowledge that the money he will earn should still be more than he’ll never need. 

It doesn’t mean other players are wrong to look at it differently and want to get top dollar at free agency. Because they have the fortune to play this great game for a living, it’s easy to overlook that for almost all players free agency is the first time they’ve had any say whatsoever in where they get to play their baseball. 

Had Francisco Lindor ended up with the Dodgers or the Yankees as a prospect years ago, with no say himself on it, he wouldn’t have had to worry about a home-town discount on a contract extension. He’s hardly being greedy to think ‘if I was with another team I could get $100m more, so why not go to free agency in two years’ time’. However, the Yelich deal does add another factor to the situation.

We can all look askance at billionaire ownership groups coining it in and we should constantly hold them in suspicion when they start pleading poverty. But is it really true to say ‘every team’, including the Brewers, Indians, A’s and Rays can afford your Bryce Harper style $330m deal, or Gerrit Cole $324m? Maybe it’s not just carrying water for the owners in saying no, however, a multi-year deal such as Yelich’s ($215m with some deferrals) absolutely is possible for every single team. 

If the player, such as Lindor, wants to get full market value then I’ve no issues with that whatsoever, but if you love where you are from a playing point of view and a personal point of view and they offer you $200m+ guaranteed, it’s a big decision to turn that down.

More on the White Sox, AL West, and NY Yankee injuries

I will be a complementing my Weekly Hit Ground Ball columns with a regular video series on our Oakland A’s UK YouTube channel looking at news from around the Majors, or as I like to refer to it, “The Other Lot”.

The videos will cover the main news story or comment piece written about here, the Yelich contract extension in this case, with some additional commentary on other topics that caught my eye from the past week.

Sometimes they will be pre-recorded productions, as with this debut episode, and sometimes they will be recorded as a live-stream on our YouTube channel on a Sunday morning. Subscribe to the Oakland A’s UK channel to be notified when new videos are published and when live-streams begin.

Here’s the first video, handily embedded below:

Oakland A’s UK Podcast: Episode 3

Spring Training has begun! Episode 3 of our A’s UK podcast looks at the A’s first Cactus League game and previews the upcoming schedule.

The ‘Bring Your A’s Game’ feature in this edition looks back at the first game played by the Oakland A’s, from 10 April 1968.

You can subscribe to the podcast on Apple, Spotify and TuneIn or can listen directly using the media player below.

Oakland A’s UK Podcast: Episode 2

In Episode 2 of our new A’s UK podcast, I take a look at the latest news as the A’s pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training camp.

We’re now up and available on Apple, Spotify and TuneIn. If you use another podcast service, please let us know and we will look at adding a link to that service too. Alternatively, you can listen to the latest episode below:

MLB.TV Subscriptions 2020

This article has been an annual tradition for many years, rounding up the MLB.TV offerings for UK-based fans. Yesterday’s announcement of the 2020 MLB.TV packages meant I needed to write up this year’s edition; however in truth, the excitement in doing so is not what it once was.

That’s not to suggest any reduction in my love for the service, or for baseball more widely. As I’ve written many times before, there are a lot of things I would give up if money was very tight before I even gave a thought to maybe cancelling my auto-renewal.

No, the issue here is that MLB.TV is so good that there is little scope for improvement.

Ten years ago this part of the pre-season was eagerly anticipated because we were waiting to find out what new features would be introduced. From promise of a potential HD-type quality, to Mosaic allowing you to watch multiple games at the same time, there was always something to get excited about. There were a few mis-steps along the way, such as the switch from Adobe Flash player to Microsoft Silverlight that soon gave way to HTML5, but generally the changes worked out for the better.

MLB Advanced Media were so successful in their development of their streaming capabilities that they become a lucrative world leader in the technology. For MLB.TV, they aced their refinement of the service over the first 10 years or so (2005 was the first year I bought it) so that, beyond technical tweaks behind the scenes and support for new connected devices, there isn’t much that they can add.

What do you want for your money? The ability to watch MLB games live or on-demand at a good video quality for a fair price. That’s exactly what we’ve had for years and that’s what we’re going to get in 2020. (And, just to be very clear, this is not a complaint!)

I’m sure there will be extras that could be introduced in the years ahead, especially in regard to incorporating StatCast data and graphics; however there’s nothing that the service really lacks. The biggest issue is the black-out rules in North America that block access to games depending on your location, often to a ridiculous extent. That situation has evolved slightly in recent years with some Regional Sports Networks allowing streaming access to the games if you are paying for their TV package, yet there is still plenty of way to go in knocking down what feels like an arcane policy.

It’s not a policy that applies to us, though, so we’ve always been able to access the full list of games, and that’s the case again in 2020.

This year, the US price has increased by $3 to $122. We have to add 20% VAT on to that so it works out at approximately £112.70 GBP, just a couple of pounds more expensive than last year.

It’s not yet entirely clear if the single-team package ($94, so approximately £86-£87) will be a North America-only product, but that’s been the (annoying) situation in recent years so I would assume so unless and until MLB officially confirms otherwise.

No great fanfare, no amazing new features, no complaints.

Just Spring Training games, every one of the 2,430 regular season games and all of the play-offs too live and on-demand for approximately £113.

The Astros’ Sign-Stealing Scandal

I’ve put together some thoughts in a video on our Oakland A’s UK YouTube channel about the fall-out so far from the sign-stealing scandal from the past week.

Some of those thoughts come in the form of a song, re-appropriating the Elvis classic “You Were Always On My Mind” to instead become “You Were Always Stealing Signs”.

Take a listen here:

Electronic Strike Zones and VAR

I’ll start this column by referring you on to someone else’s. I had jotted down some notes on this topic a week ago, but didn’t have the chance to write up the article. Then Jayson Stark, one of my favourite baseball writers, published a column on The Athletic looking at what the 2020s might bring in MLB and included some of the points I was going to make.

This does mean that the column can serve two purposes: one in explaining my own thoughts on the issue of electronic strike zones and two in recommending The Athletic as a great value subscription website, which I planned to do anyway given the news this week that their baseball writing staff added ex-ESPN prospect expert Keith Law to the roster.

Anyway, I can bring another angle to the seemingly inevitable change in MLB that, at some point in the next few years, balls and strikes will cease to be called by the Home Plate Umpire and instead be left to a computer. That angle comes in the form of the scourge of the 2019/20 English Premier League season: VAR (Video Assistant Referee).

The basic element of offside, with a few caveats as explained in the laws on the FA’s website, is that an attacking player is ruled offside if “any part of the head, body [not including hands and arms] or feet is nearer to the opponents’ goal line than both the ball and the second-last opponent” at the precise moment a forward pass is played.

Whilst referring to someone as being “just” on or offside is commonplace, sticklers have always noted that this is not true. The ruling, as per the letter of the law, is absolute: you’re either onside or offside.

This is the same as baseball: we may refer to a high strike, a borderline strike, a pitch “just a bit outside”, but when it comes to the laws of the game it is a binary position: a strike or a ball.

The thing is, the application of what is a black-and-white decision when written in black-and-white has never been black-and-white in practice.

It is impossible to apply the offside law with exacting precision, not through a “human element” of mistakes but that the fluid nature of the game means the assistant referee is rarely able to be exactly in line with the defenders, that the act of the infraction (exactly when the pass is played) is in another part of the pitch (i.e. you can’t look at both at once) and that the assistant referee is usually in motion at the time too.

All of this has meant that whilst the law is absolute, its application and, most importantly, how it affects the game has always had a level of tolerance built into it. The practice in the EPL of applying the law exactly using VAR, pausing the footage at the precise moment the pass is played and then accurately plotting points on the bodies of the attacking player and the defender, has proved that this unwritten tolerance is an essential part of the law functioning as intended.

Consequently, it is probable that the law will be amended in the summer to correct this, either in amending the offside law overall or in defining what a “clear and obvious” mistake amounts to in the context of a review for a potential offside.

That brings us to the electronic strike zone and Jayson Stark’s comment that its ultimate introduction likely will be done in conjunction with a change to the definition of the strike zone.

Presently the zone is specified in the Definition of Terms section of MLB’s Official Baseball Rules (annoyingly published as a pdf) as follows:

“The STRIKE ZONE is that area over home plate the upper limit of which is a horizontal line at the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants, and the lower level is a line at the hollow beneath the kneecap. The Strike Zone shall be determined from the batter’s stance as the batter is prepared to swing at a pitched ball”.

Right from the off, we should accept that the definition is more fluid than that of football’s offside, not least because the actual area changes based on each individual hitter’s height and batting stance. What we end up with, though, is a definition of a strike zone that, when you really consider it, doesn’t seem like the strike zone we are all used to. For example, the top of the zone is usually judged (not just by the umpire, but those playing and watching) as just a bit above the belt.

None of this is to rail against the use of technology: if it’s cost-effective and reliable then why not take advantage of that for things like the strike zone and offside which are ‘yes/no’ decisions rather than requiring an element of judgement?

The point is, applying the written rule with electronic precision will fundamentally change the strike zone as we have always known it. Change isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but, as Stark notes in his article in referring to the trials that have taken place so far, it should not be underestimated how significant the impact will be. Pitches that have never been called strikes, and what players and fans have never thought of as being a strike, will suddenly become so.

Just as we’ve seen with offside in the EPL, decisions are going to be ‘right’ but the effect they have will feel wrong. And whilst there are usually only a handful of significant offside decisions to review in a single football game, there are usually a couple hundred ball/strike calls (taking out fouls and swinging strikes) to make in a baseball game.

Even though pretty much everyone is unhappy with the way VAR is ruling on offsides, or how VAR is being used incorrectly in the eyes of the International Football Association Board (Ifab), it’s equally accepted by most that changing anything mid-season would be wrong. That’s a fair and logical position to take, although if you think of it that way in regard to an electronic strike zone it becomes painfully clear how disastrous it would be for MLB if they had to stick with a zone no one likes for a full season when it is introduced.

The lesson learned here for baseball is that full and effective testing is of paramount importance. In particular, they shouldn’t underestimate the potential need to adjust the strike zone definition as part of implementing the system so that the end result is something that looks and feels ‘right’.

They’ve got years of pitch data, the type that is already used to assess umpires, so that should be the first part of the process to determine how the average zone is called and how the current definition needs to be adjusted to make it match.

They should then ensure MLB players have ample opportunity to trial the zone, installing it in big league ballparks (if it doesn’t use technology already there) so it can be used in pitcher side-sessions and batting practice-type scenarios, and so that they can provide feedback. We all know there will be biases within that – pitchers wanting a bigger zone, hitters wanting a smaller one etc – but this would at least tease out where there’s broad consensus of anything that stands out.

It also needs to be trialled for fans and the media. As we’ve seen in the EPL, if the vast majority of people vehemently hate what they’re seeing, piously telling them the decisions are correct doesn’t solve the matter and, in fact, only means the benefits are wiped out and and leads to a clamour for the system to be scrapped entirely.

The best way to do that would be to use the system in the couple of exhibition games teams play in MLB stadiums in between Spring Training ending and the MLB regular season beginning. Ideally you’d do that the year before (e.g. exhibition games in 2023, refine it behind the scenes during 2023, then launch in 2024 – years chosen just as an example rather than an expected timeline).

And the final lesson MLB can learn from football is not to give the new system a name, like VAR. Sport is a great way to bring people together, but rival fans uniting to provide an expletive-ridden soundtrack to games about the new technology probably isn’t quite the way authorities would like to see that being demonstrated.

Khris Davis in 2019

The lull between Christmas and New Year’s Day is the perfect time of the year to be reflective.

In planning out a video looking back at the Oakland A’s 2019 season, coming to the YouTube channel soon, I started looking into Khris Davis’s struggles at the plate. The more in-depth part of this felt better suited to a blog post, so here it is.

When considering KD’s power outage, it’s hard to look past the collision he had on 5 May when playing left field at PNC Park. It was a Sunday day-game so I was watching live in the British evening and what initially looked fairly innocuous ended up being an injury that lingered until 1 June.

In 43 games across March, April and May Davis hit 12 home runs; in the 90 games from June 1 on he hit 11. That doesn’t tell the whole story, though, as even in the early part of the season KD was hitting home runs but not much else. It was said throughout the second half that he was healthy, a point picked up on in Shayna Rubin’s column on The Mercury News in early September, so the hunch that he was never quite right after that collision can’t be relied on to explain the struggles away.

Looking for some potential answers, I went diving into the data, firstly heading to FanGraphs.

Khris Davis’s batted ball profiles for 2018 and 2019, as per Fangraphs

If we look at the final section first, there’s very little difference between the two seasons in respect of soft, medium and hard contact percentage. He traded approximately 5% of centre hits for pull-side hits, which may be a sign of him trying to ‘power-up’ whilst mired in a near season-long slump. The interesting bit is in the first section, where we see that his fly-ball percentage dropped off by over 11%. Put simply, he wasn’t putting the ball in the air as often as he had in the past.

When I think of KD in his pomp, I think of a slugger who can wait on a breaking-ball mistake, but more often being someone who can whack fastballs a long way. With that in mind, I turned to BrooksBaseball and looked at what damage was, or more precisely wasn’t, being done to variations on fastballs (four-seams, cutters, sinkers etc).

Here’s the zone chart showing slugging percentage against hard-pitches in 2018, showing it from the catcher’s perspective (i.e. KD, as a right-handed hitter, would be standing on the left of the zone).

The main thing to note is his slugging percentage in the middle vertical column and more generally in the middle and bottom-third of the zone horizontally. Now, compare it with the same chart for 2019:

Other than the pitch high and away that he slugged 1.182 on, it’s a starkly depressing scene. If you want to sum up KD’s 2019 season in one go, grimace at the .208 slugging percentage on hard pitches middle-middle.

What should be middle-for-diddle for a hitter turned into middle-for-diddly-squat.

These two charts do come with the caveat that we’re looking at small sample sizes in each of those squares so they provide food for thought rather than a definitive conclusion. For example, Matt Olson only slugged .304 on hard pitches middle-middle in 2019, albeit doing a lot of damage on pitches in other spots around that area, so for both players some of that will be taking first-pitch or 3-0 strikes. The general trend still stands though: what KD slugged in 2018 he didn’t slug in 2019.

Even if Davis was physically healthy from June on, there could still have been an effect from the lay-off and also the initial attempts to play through the injury affecting his hitting mechanics. Getting out of a slump mid-season is a difficult thing to do, so that’s something Khris and the coaching staff will be looking at over the off-season and into Spring Training.

We were all so excited when the A’s managed to come to an agreement with Davis on a contract extension back in April. He’ll be our most expensive player in 2020 and 2021, earning $16.75m each year, and the A’s more than most teams need that size of a financial commitment to work out.

Hopefully he can get back to being the Krush we know and love in 2020.

Christmas shopping spree

A week ago I wrote the following:

“The MLB Winter Meetings have begun in San Diego and plenty of people are speculating about what big free agent news will be announced over the next few days (likely very little, based on recent years)”.

You could say I was a long way off the mark with that comment, although maybe I can latch onto the final caveat to save a bit of face.

Over the past two off-seasons there has been considerable discontent among players as to how the free agent market has failed to develop in the way they expected. Both times the fall-out descended into an argument with teams on one side and players and agents on the other. It takes two sides to make a deal. Whether it was the players being greedy or the teams being cheap depended on which side of the fence you were shouting from.

The first month and a half of the 2019/20 off-season can’t help but make you lean towards the players and agents on this one.

Take Mike Moustakas as a prime example. He had to accept one year deals in each of the previous two off-seasons due to finding no multi-contact offers to his liking. This time around he’s signed a four-year contract with the Cincinnati Reds. Whilst we do have to take the qualifying offer, and resulting loss of a draft pick, into account, that doesn’t go far enough as an explanation as to why he suddenly is now worthy of a multi-year commitment. The difference this time is in a greater number of teams looking to add a quality infielder.

It comes back to a topic I discussed just over a month ago, that of the essential element of competition that drives a free agent market. The impasse in the past two off-seasons has come from teams not upping their offers because they knew that they didn’t have to as part of winning the bidding, whilst players and agents were waiting for better offers that they thought should come, but never did.

This year, things have changed.

The Philadelphia Phillies were one of the few teams to make a big push a year ago, not least in the Bryce Harper contract, and the end result was making it eight consecutive seasons without a play-off appearance. The Phillies were never going to stand still after that disappointment and they’ve acted by bringing in Joe Girardi as manager to replace Gabe Kapler and then signing Zack Wheeler to a five-year, $118m contract and Didi Gregorius to a one-year, $14m contract.

Their NL East rivals, the Washington Nationals, were not going to take their foot off the gas after winning the World Series either. Having lost Harper last year, and rightly expecting to lose Anthony Rendon this year, there was no way they were going to let Stephen Strasburg be tempted by another team’s offer. That was why they blew everyone else out of the water with their seven-year, $245m contract offer that Strasburg accepted on Monday. It’s a huge commitment in a pitcher who has had injury problems in the past and, by all accounts, was not looking to leave Washington anyway, but the Nationals were not prepared to take any chances. They could afford to offer that contract, so they did.

This immediately ignited the market for Gerrit Cole. Strasburg’s deal took the other outstanding starter off the board and also helped to set the parameters for the contract Cole clearly was going to command.

A year ago, everyone was waiting for the New York Yankees to jump in and ramp up the bidding stakes for Manny Machado and Bryce Harper. There was no waiting around this year. The Yankees’ record of making the World Series at least once in every decade from the 1920s on came to an end in their ALCS defeat to the Houston Astros. With no Bronx Fall Classics in the 2010s, and a team with a great offence and bullpen but questionable starting pitching, there was no way that the Yankees would allow Cole to go anywhere else. No messing about: they put the largest ever contract for a pitcher on the table, nine-years, $324m, to make sure he became a Yankee.

And that then put the LA Angels on the clock. It was already a source of embarrassment for owner Arte Moreno that his team had squandered the first eight full seasons of Mike Trout, genuinely in the running to be considered the greatest player of all-time by the end of his career, by turning it into just one Division Series defeat. Having given Trout the most lucrative contract ever (12 years, $426.5M) to stay with the team for years to come prior to the 2019 season, there was no way that the Angels could get through this off-season without signing a big-ticket free agent.

With Strasburg and Cole off the market, the Angels immediately offered Anthony Rendon a seven-year, $245m contract. Just as the Nationals couldn’t let Strasburg leave and the Yankees couldn’t let Cole sign elsewhere, the Angels were prepared to offer whatever it took to make sure they didn’t miss out on Rendon.

This is what happens when teams with big pockets are motivated to out-spend each other to win now. Whatever Rob Manfred may try to claim, that has not been the context in which the free agent market has played out over the past two off-seasons.

It’s made for an exciting Winter Meetings and sets up the rest of the off-season perfectly.