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Daily Box Score 8/6: The End of Our Statistical Innocence


If you're close to me in age and you are reading this website, we probably had similar experiences with baseball growing up. You started with baseball cards: buying them one pack at a time, trading them with your friends, until eventually you had a formidable collection. When you grew tired of sorting them (by team, batting average, All-Star appearances, year, company), you probably moved onto Strat or some other card-based game. You played baseball video games (RBI Baseball and Ken Griffey, Jr. Major League Baseball, those were your jams).

Eventually, these sims gave way to fantasy baseball and spring annuals to pore over. When it came out, you read Moneyball, because, let's face it, you wanted to read every book about baseball. Eventually you took your baseball fandom online, spent hours at baseball-reference and here you are now. Sound about right? 

Well I've got bad news for you. It's all crumbling away.

Baseball Cards

Yesterday, the New York Times reported that Topps will become the exclusive provider of baseball cards for Major League Baseball. Upper Deck, Topps' main competitor in the market, has been dropped from MLB licensing deal. According to MLB and Topps, this will invigorate the market for baseball cards. Topps CEO Michael Eisner (formerly CEO of Disney) said,

"Topps has been making cards for 60 years, the last 30 in a nonexclusive world that has caused confusion to the kid who walks into a Wal-Mart or a hobby store. It’s also been difficult to promote cards as unique and original."

I don't remember it being terribly confusing. I remember it being pretty cool that there were so many different kinds of cards. David Pinto put it well:

Baloney. Kids are more than capable of keeping track of the various card companies. I suspect this is more about limiting supply so the company of a former major league team owner can make more money.

Upper Deck still has an agreement with the Players' Association, but is now unable to use team logos or uniforms on its cards. It reminds me a bit of what happened with video games when EA lost its contract with MLB. I still miss MVP Baseball.

I wonder if, without as much exposure to baseball cards, as many kids will find themselves immersed in baseball statistics. Or do you think B-Ref and FanGraphs are picking up the slack?

The End of Moneyball (Part 973)

It has been said too many times to count, and I'm willing to guess this won't be the last, but two recent columns are seemingly proclaiming the end of Moneyball parity between big and small market teams. 

First, Buster Olney says the rich are as rich as ever (Insider sub. req.):

In recent years, teams such as the Red Sox have paid more than the slotting recommendations to sign top-round talents in the middle rounds such as Ryan Westmoreland. "The small-market teams could always rely on that stream of talent to gain their advantage," one team executive said. "That's down to a trickle now."

These kinds of gradual shift[s] are causing increased consternation within the offices of small- to mid-market teams.

The draft and slotting system is certainly stupid, but I've never quite been able to understand why all teams aren't willing to go above slot, even the relatively impoverished ones. The internal rate of return on these prospects is the same for all teams, and compared to the amount that must be spent on free agents, it's usually a relatively small sum. 

Joe Posnanski (who has just been hired by Sports Illustrated to be a senior writer) riffs on a similar theme but sees a possible way out for small market teams, albeit a risky one. The inefficiency small market teams can exploit now is time, he argues:

The big-payroll teams want to win right now. More than that, they HAVE to win now. They are spending too much money not to win now. They are leveraged. But most of the low-payroll teams -- say teams with payrolls of less than $75 million -- have come to the conclusion that they are NOT going to win now. The one thing they have is time. And so, they're trading time.

By trading away away their win-now players, small market teams like the A's and the Pirates can hope to cluster prospects together by age, so that they all reach the majors around the same time. Once they do, those players form a core around which a very competitive team can be built.

To make it all worse, the guy Moneyball built up as the oracle of Kansas, has now been accused of being complicit in a steroid coverup. The timing of his article on the subject of PEDs and the Hall of Fame, combined with the revelations that David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez were among those who tested positive under MLB's ostensibly anonymous 2003 testing system, has led some to raise questions. Leading the charge is Washington Times columnist Thom Loverro:

Did James know that this news was about to break (questions are often asked by reporters days or even longer before an article will finally appear) and finally react to the steroid controversy to diffuse the impact on his employer and the legacy of the franchise he works for? I don't know. But it's a far more reasonable leap of faith to believe that than to believe that if "we can look into the future we can reliably foresee a time in which everybody is going to be using steroids or their phamaceutical descendents."

McSteroids -- look for the golden syringe.

Actually, James spelled "descendants" properly, but it seems unfair to accuse Loverro of purposefully misspelling a word while quoting James simply because it just so happens that the one word he misspelled in his article came during the James quote. Doesn't it? 

So What's a Young Boy to Do?

Don't worry, sportsfans. All is not lost. On Rob Neyer's blog, baseball card writer Josh Wilker has a seven-step reminder of how to let it all go. The key, he says, is to linger on that seventh step:

There is no eighth step describing how the taste of the gum will fade, and how the jolt of discovery will settle into the same familiarity that coats the surface of everything like a fine gray dust, and how life will proceed in its customary monotonous fashion. There are only seven steps, so enjoy it while you can. Chew the new gum, and when you get to Step 7, stare for the first time directly at the new card and feel the sunshine coming from it as if it is coming from some better world, some wider moment. Even if this is the only world, even if this is the only moment, for once it's more than enough.

I can't wait for this guy's book, which is to come out on Opening Day 2010.

Discussion Question of the Day

I'm trying out a new feature with the Daily Box Score. I'll pose a question, either of my own choosing or one that has been posed elsewhere on the web, and ask you readers to offer your answers in the comments. Today's question is courtesy of the Seattle Times' Larry Stone. He wonders who is the fastest player of all time. Previously, he nominated Willie Davis, but also considers Deion Sanders and Herb Washington. 

For my part, I'll nominate Tim Raines. What do you think?