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Judge says MASN should pay Nats based on MLB panel decision

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NEW YORK — A judge has ordered lawyers for the Washington Nationals and Baltimore Orioles to submit a proposed judgment of what the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network should pay the Nationals for television rights from 2012-16 based on the decision issued in April by an arbitration panel of three baseball executives.

New York Supreme Court Justice Joel M. Cohen wrote in a decision issued Thursday that MASN should pay the Nationals the $296.8 million recommended by the panel, minus rights fees MASN already has paid for that five-year period. Cohen said the clerk of the court should calculate interest on the net amount from April 15 through the date the remaining money is paid.

Cohen heard renewed arguments Tuesday and denied a motion by the Orioles to reargue the case that led to his Aug. 22 decision to confirm the arbitration award. He said the sides should jointly submit a proposed judgment by Nov. 21 and also said the Orioles are not precluded from seeking recalculations of MASN profit distributions.

The Orioles and Nationals jointly own MASN and have been fighting in court for years. MASN was established in March 2005 after the Montreal Expos relocated to Washington and became the Nationals, moving into what had been Baltimore’s exclusive broadcast territory since 1972. The Orioles have a controlling interest in the network.

MASN paid the Nationals for 2012-16 what the Orioles proposed, $197.5 million, and Washington argued it should be paid $475 million.

The parties agreed in 2005 have disputes over rights fees decided by Major League Baseball’s Revenue Sharing Definitions Committee. The decision by the RSDC in April was made by Milwaukee Brewers chairman Mark Attanasio, Seattle Mariners President Kevin Mather and Toronto Blue Jays President Mark Shapiro.

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Why Zack Wheeler could be the next Gerrit Cole

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Editor’s note: This story originally ran on Nov. 22. Zack Wheeler agreed to a five-year deal worth $118 million with the Philadelphia Phillies on Dec. 4.

The final image we have of Gerrit Cole’s tenure with the Houston Astros was after Game 7 of the World Series, when he was wearing a Scott Boras Corporation cap instead of drinking champagne during a victory celebration.

Still, it was a wonderful two seasons in Houston for Cole, as he shed his previous rep as a talented but inconsistent right-hander to become arguably the best starter in the majors. He went 35-10 with a 2.68 ERA and a ridiculous 602 strikeouts in 412⅔ innings with the Astros — a big improvement over his final two seasons with the Pirates when he went 19-22 with a 4.12 ERA and 294 strikeouts in 319 innings.

Cole is now a free agent, likely to receive the biggest contract ever for a pitcher. Next up for the Astros, or any other team for that matter: Find Gerrit Cole 2.0.

We have a guy in mind. We’ll get to new Phillies starter Zack Wheeler in a moment and why he’s an interesting comp for where Cole was two years ago, but let’s first do a quick synopsis of how Cole made the leap after his trade to Houston.

Cole was the No. 1 overall pick out of UCLA in 2011 and had his best season with the Pirates in 2015, when he went 19-8 with a 2.60 ERA and finished fourth in the Cy Young voting. His follow-up seasons were not as impressive, and the Astros traded four players to acquire him — with a clear idea of how to make Cole better.

The Pirates liked to emphasize two-seam fastballs down in the zone, the better to generate ground balls. The Astros encourage their pitchers — especially those with good velocity — to throw more four-seam fastballs up in the zone, the better to generate strikeouts. Ditching his sinker wasn’t the only change Cole made. He also started throwing his slider and curveball more often — which also helped produce more strikeouts. Here’s his pitch selection percentages with the Pirates compared with those with the Astros:

Pirates, 2016-2017

4-seam fastball: 48.7%
2-seam fastball: 13.7%
Changeup: 8.6%
Curveball: 11.3%
Slider: 17.6%

Astros, 2018-2019
4-seam fastball: 50.9%
2-seam fastball: 4.2%
Changeup: 6.0%
Curveball: 17.3%
Slider: 21.6%

With the Pirates in 2016-17, Cole’s four-seam fastball generated a strikeout rate of 20.7%. His two-seamer generated a strikeout rate of just 9.4%. With the Astros, Cole’s strikeout rate on the four-seam fastball improved to 39.2%, so it’s not just about simply throwing it more often but also locating it better along with the interplay of throwing more breaking balls.

There aren’t many pitchers who have Cole-like potential, simply because there are few starting pitchers who can match his velocity. Among pitchers with at least 100 innings in 2019, Cole had the second-highest average fastball velocity at 97.4 mph, behind only Noah Syndergaard. Wheeler was fourth on the list, averaging 97.0 mph.

Wheeler is not a perfect match for Cole. Most notably, he missed all of 2015 and 2016 with injuries, including Tommy John surgery. He went 23-15 with a 3.65 ERA over the past two seasons with the Mets with 374 strikeouts in 377⅔ innings, numbers that line up with Cole’s final two seasons in Pittsburgh. Wheeler received a five-year contract worth $23.6 million per season. Teams were interested not just because he has been a quality pitcher for the Mets but because of the expectation that there’s some upside the Mets weren’t able to extract.

Check out Wheeler’s numbers from 2019:

Four-seamer: 918 pitches, .241/.309/.341, 29.4% strikeout rate
Two-seamer: 946 pitches: .297/.331/.484, 17.2% strikeout rate

Even though Wheeler’s four-seam fastball was the more effective pitch, he threw the two-seamer more often. So now the Phillies might look at those numbers and advise Wheeler to throw his four-seam fastball more often and perhaps unlock some of that upside.

Of course, it is not that simple. You have to break down when Wheeler threw all those pitches. He threw almost an equal amount in hitters’ counts — 201 four-seamers, 194 two-seamers (both were hit hard). The big difference came in pitchers’ counts (0-1, 0-2, 1-2, 2-2). The results:

Four-seamer: 330 pitches, .151/.160/.258, 52.5% strikeout rate
Two-seamer: 363 pitches: .297/.300/.469, 30.5% strikeout rate

Again, it’s clear that Wheeler’s four-seam fastball was the much better pitch in 2019. While this suggests a repertoire change, à la Cole, it might not be quite so simple. In 2018, Wheeler’s two-seamer was the better pitch, at least in terms of damage:

Four-seamer: 1,238 pitches, .249/.327/.357, 23.8% strikeout rate
Two-seamer: 427 pitches, .200/.239/.295, 13.8% strikeout rate

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Wave of non-tenders puts squeeze on lower-tier free agents

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The perception among agents has long been that teams manipulate the service time of superstar prospects by deferring the date when they are called up to the majors — Kris Bryant, they say, is one example among many. And in recent winters, older players have lost some of their earning potential, as clubs shied away from getting locked into pricey long-term deals with veteran free agents, especially those over 30.

Now the club efficiency weapons seemingly are aimed at young players who are arbitration eligible. On Monday, teams faced a deadline by which they had to decide whether to tender contracts to players not yet eligible for free agency. By the time 8 p.m. Eastern rolled around, 54 players were effectively released, including Blake Treinen, one of baseball’s best relievers in 2018, and Addison Russell, the Cubs infielder who struggled in his return after serving a suspension under the sport’s domestic violence policy.

Players in this situation are referred to in the industry as non-tenders, and the 54 non-tenders were the most in this decade, according to the numbers compiled by Paul Hembekides of ESPN Stats & Information.

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Adding Cole Hamels latest sign Braves mean business this offseason

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Give Atlanta Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos credit for acting quickly and decisively in the offseason while many of his peers wait out the market hoping for bargain-basement deals. A year ago, he signed Josh Donaldson in late November to a one-year contract while other top free agents didn’t sign until spring training had started. This year, Anthopoulos has added free-agent left-hander Cole Hamels on a one-year contract, according to reports, in addition to previously signing Giants closer Will Smith, re-signing reliever Chris Martin and signing former Rays catcher Travis d’Arnaud.

It has been a sneakily active offseason for the Braves — and what could be a very effective one as they push for a third straight NL East title after winning 97 games in 2019. The free-agent game isn’t as simple as identifying potential targets and offering fair-market contracts. You have to close the deals. If you wait too long on one player, your backup plan may end up signing with another team. There’s a clear advantage to locking up the player you want as early as possible.

Hamels will turn 36 this month, but he hasn’t lost all that much from his peak days with the Phillies, going 7-7 with a 3.81 ERA in 27 starts for the Cubs in 2019, missing a month with an oblique injury. His adjusted ERA+ of 117 isn’t far off from his career average of 123, so he still projects as a solid No. 2 or 3 starter — and, specifically for the Braves, a veteran lefty to help lead a young staff and replace free agent Dallas Keuchel in the rotation.

Hamels has lost a tick off his fastball, averaging 91.7 mph in 2019, but he had full command of the vintage Hamels changeup, as batters hit just .170/.237/.270 against it. Opponents hammered his four-seam fastball to a 1.009 OPS, but the odd thing is he still threw it more often (36% of the time) than any season in the previous five years while throwing fewer two-seamers in the process. It will be interesting to see whether a new pitching coach and new analytics staff try to transition him into throwing more two-seamers and cutters.

The Braves needed to add a starting pitcher, as they have to replace Keuchel and free agent Julio Teheran — that’s 52 quality starts missing from the 2019 rotation that ranked seventh in the NL with a 4.20 ERA. While a lot of analysts and fans earmarked Madison Bumgarner as the veteran lefty who would go to the Braves because Bumgarner is from North Carolina, the Braves were never going to be in that game. Bumgarner may command a deal close to $100 million, and the Braves ranked 27th in the majors in free-agent money committed in the 2010s. (The one big contract they gave was B.J. Upton for $72.25 million.) The franchise owners at Liberty Media simply don’t go after the big free agents, so getting Hamels on a one-year deal fits their priorities.

There’s hope that the rest of the rotation can be a little better in 2020 as well, especially since Mike Foltynewicz found his form down the stretch (at least until that final game against the Cardinals) after dealing with shoulder issues in spring training and a stint in the minors. Mike Soroka had a 2.68 ERA as a 21-year-old rookie, and Max Fried had a solid first year in the rotation with 17 wins and a 4.02 ERA. Options for the fifth spot include Sean Newcomb, Bryse Wilson and Kyle Wright, or maybe another lower-cost veteran free agent.

Of course, there’s still a big hole in the lineup if Donaldson doesn’t return — and it’s going to take a multiyear deal to get him this time. He hit .259/.379/.521, played good defense, and while Ronald Acuña Jr. and Freddie Freeman received more attention and finished in the top 10 of the National League MVP voting, Donaldson was every bit their equal on the field, actually topping both in Baseball-Reference WAR.

The Braves do have a potential in-house replacement for Donaldson’s bat in Austin Riley, who moved to left field in the big leagues and started out mashing like Chipper Jones when he hit .324 and homered nine times in his first 18 games. Big league pitchers eventually exploited his aggressive approach, however, and he finished at .226/.269/.471, including a lowly .676 OPS against right-handed pitchers. There’s certainly big-time power potential there, but right now, going from Donaldson to Riley at third projects as at least a four-win downgrade — the margin by which the Braves won the division over the Nationals.

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