How To Make Lousy Teams Watchable

Joey Votto is almost enough to make the Reds watchable on his own. (via Chris Miller)

Let’s talk about the have-nots in baseball. The near-unwatchables. The teams that only a mother could love. The tankers, rebuilders, win-laters—call them what you wish.

Let’s talk about the have-nots, because everyone is already talking about the haves. We know that major league baseball’s upper crust—the Astros, Dodgers, Yankees, Red Sox, Cubs, Nationals and Indians—is populated by teams loaded with current talent, future talent and financial clout (Cleveland excepted). The haves are eminently watchable.

The have-nots, however, feel particularly unwatchable in 2018. Maybe it’s the fact that front offices are unabashedly communicating clearly to their fans: we aren’t going to win this year. Maybe it was the languid free agent market, which win-later clubs ignored save for a Duda here or a Maybin there. Maybe it’s that so much in baseball feels transactional and calculated; this offseason showed that all 30 teams are closely aligned in their player valuations, and a deluge of numbers and projections make the game feel fatalistic to stat-savvy fans. Or maybe we say this every April. Geez, these bad teams sure look, well, bad.

Whatever the cause, there is a problem that needs fixing. Enduring 162 games when management would like nothing more than to lose 100 of them is a rather tough draw for fans. No matter how promising the hypothetical 2020 team might look, baseball fans year for more than updates on an 18-year-old lefty pitching for the Tri-City Dust Devils to get them through the year.

That’s where we come in. We have identified four teams in need of an entertainment value makeover, and we have a plan for how to make each of them not only watchable, but rather riveting through to game 162.

Our teams are (with redeeming qualities parenthetically noted):

So what’s the plan? We’ve chosen a franchise record for each of our have-nots to break, and crafted a plan for how to break it. Roster decisions, in-game strategy, even altering field dimensions—we’re making an art out of chasing stats.

Why would a team do something like this? Because it’s fun. It gives fans something to root for, to care about, to discuss. Plus, it makes the season memorable. In a strange way, yes, but it creates a vibrant atmosphere around an otherwise terrible team. It entertains, which is ultimately what we want out of our sports. And finally, why not? These teams have all but declared they plan to lose 90-plus games in 2018 anyway. That’s 162 games with almost zero stakes. This creates stakes. It’s something tangible. It’s not next year or 2022 or the prospect who might never emerge. It’s good, clean fun, and it’s manna to fanbases starved for excitement.

Let’s get to the teams.

San Diego Padres

Congratulations on 50 years in the bigs. Not every team meets that milestone in the same city in which it was established. Good job navigating six ownership groups and three stadiums.

I’m sure you are well aware that over the last six seasons you have averaged 88 losses, and that the streak you are most likely to keep this year is that of a third consecutive 90-loss season. It is true your fans will bear it, because they don’t know any better. Hell, you sold 2.1 million tickets in 2017 while fielding a roster featuring three Rule 5 draft picks.

Remember, this is a fan base so beloved that owner Joan Kroc wanted to donate the team to the city. Who does that? That is crazy talk. Turns out it was—owners nixed the idea. Nevertheless, this is you, San Diego; you are significant, you matter, a wealthy woman tried to let you own your sporting identity, and that’s pretty cool. Which is why in your 50th year it is time to give your fans what they have long been waiting for … no, no, not that. Be reasonable.

For you, we see only one option: to finally throw a no-hitter.

Despite existing since 1969, you are the only franchise without a no-no. Not even a combined one. You’ve only had one shutout since the start of 2015. But we’re not going for style points here; we’re just trying to get you on the board. Plus, the Ryan Express days are over; a 150-pitch complete game is so last century.

Seven Innings? Seven Innings!
If we're going to change the rules, let's make it count.

So how to get you that first no-hitter? Let’s start with roster construction. You’ll need to carry 14 pitchers to maximize the fresh arms available at any given time. If you finally break through, you can be sure it will be a collaborative effort, so there’s no shame in stacking the deck. Despite your lack of good starters, we recommend a six-man rotation. In the bullpen, give preference to hurlers with extreme platoon splits. But how do we actually make this work?

Here’s your rule. Any time your starter gets close to three clean innings, you start warming up the ‘pen. You should have six to eight relievers available (depending on who pitched yesterday), three starters on their throw days, plus tomorrow’s starter. Forget tomorrow, it’s all about today, baby. Now the game becomes a matchup-fest for the next six innings. First, try to get six outs from Brad Hand—he threw two full innings four times in 2017, and he is a former starter, so we suspect he can do it. That gets you through the fifth inning. Now you’ve got between eight and 12 available pitchers with whom to get the final 12 outs. Rock the matchups hard, and painstakingly bullpen-dial your way through it.

Will this be a miserable game to watch? It depends what kind of fan you are. Sitting through nine pitching changes sounds unbearable, but then again, the average team these days uses 4.6 pitchers per contest, so it’s a run-of-the-mill sort of unbearable. Plus, these are high-stakes relief appearances—with half a century of forgettable Padres history adding gravity to every moment. But even if it is miserable, isn’t that fitting? It seems appropriate that you, the Padres, would find a way to make even a no-hitter agony.

What is there to lose? Seriously, if you are going to lose 90-plus games again this year, you might as well give the fans their first no-no. Plus you’ll surely use enough pitchers to break an obscure record: Houston’s six-pitcher combined no-hitter. If you’re concerned this will make every Padres game into exquisite torture, fear not. Here’s how many times over their first 10 games Padres starters have thrown a hitless first three innings: zero. It hasn’t happened. There will be limited opportunities to deploy this strategy, so it should be pure excitement when it is a possibility.

Go get your no-no!

Kansas City Royals

Let’s take a moment and rewind. Allow yourselves to drift back in time to November 1, 2015. Your glorious World Series win. The moment that broke a dam of catharsis for Kansas Citians, that redeemed the previous season’s Fall Classic, and that capped off the long-ballyhooed “Best Farm System Ever” rebuild.

But things are different now. Pull yourselves out of that blissful memory and into the cold reality of 2018. Gone are Eric and Lorenzo and Jarrod, and, quite tragically, Yordano. It’s going to be a long road back to contention, so we have a suggestion on how to make that slog more bearable—the long ball.

Even casual fans are aware that the ball is flying out of ballparks at an unprecedented pace; 2017 set the record for a season with 6,105 home runs. With all those long balls, many additional records were set: August alone saw 1,119 round trippers (which broke the newly minted one-month record of 1,101 set in June), 117 players hit more than 20 dingers (more than double the amount of players from 2015), and two teams saw sluggers set franchise single-season home run marks.

One that we’re all very aware of is now in pinstripes—Giancarlo Stanton—while the other took an $11 million pay cut and returned to his home team as The Home Run King of Kansas City: Mike Moustakas. Until 2017, the Kansas City Royals home run record stood at 36. And that number was not owned by the likes of Brett, Tartabull, Jackson, Mayberry, Beltran or Dye. It was Steve “Bye Bye” Balboni who owned that Herculean 36 before Moustakas finally set the new mark with 38 last year.

Cynics will claim, “You can’t just hit a home run every time up,” and that is true, but you can hit one every 14.6 times at bat. Before tearing his ACL in 2016, Moustakas had started to display an increase in power; improving upon his 2015 rate of 24.9 at-bats per homer to 14.8 AB:HR. It was a small sample size—only 104 at-bats—but it was the glimpse at what 2017 would become.

Moustakas has adjusted as a hitter multiple times; when teams shifted due to his pull hitting in 2014, he went the other way and became an All-Star in 2015. Then he went back to pulling the ball, but added a more drastic launch angle, and started putting the ball where they ain’t.

Unfortunately, despite establishing a franchise home run record, making the All-Star team, and winning Comeback Player of the Year, the market proved inhospitable. His attempt at free agency led to a pay cut, as no other teams were interested in a power-hitting third baseman in his prime. It might have been the luxury tax threshold, the fact that he has bad on-base skills (34 walks in 2017), or that he sold out for power numbers since it was a contract year. If his 2017 production was due to motivation to get a payday, 2018 has the potential to be another record year for Moose.

The team is projected to lose 90-plus games this year, so why not use Moustakas’ drive and target that elusive 40? To accomplish this, Moustakas will need to reach 600 at-bats, something he has yet to achieve as he’s been moved around in the batting order, mainly hitting second, sixth or fifth. Keeping him permanently in the two-hole will increase his ABs, and though Kauffman Stadium is not kind to power bats, it does not have to be. Baseball park dimensions are unique, and there is no rule preventing the right field fence from being moved 20 feet closer to home plate tomorrow. Fenway Park, Yankee Stadium, and Camden Yards all have short porches in right. It could be known as the Moose Lodge; you could put a beer garden in the new open space and celebrate the power that is Moustakas.

Let the Moose eat!

Cincinnati Red(leg)s

Please, oh please, unleash the speed.

Billy Hamilton is one of the fastest men ever to step foot on a diamond. He flows like rushing water around the bases, at once powerful and effortless. According to Statcast, he’s tied with Byron Buxton as literally the fastest man in baseball. That’s why we’re tasking him with beating the Reds record for triples.

For many, including these authors, the triple is the most aesthetically pleasing offensive play in the game. Daring, aggressiveness, pure speed—the baseball universe just a touch off its axis.

The Reds’ pre-1947 record for triples is 26, set by “Long” John Reilly in 1890. Their post-1947 record, on the other hand, is a very achievable 14, legged out by Vada Pinson in 1963. Breaking 14 would be a nice achievement, but not a massive challenge for Billy. If we look at all players from ‘48 on, Curtis Granderson tops the triples list with 23. That record somehow feels much more attainable than Reilly’s 26, but let’s see if we can figure out how to get Billy to 27.

No one is better suited to racking up three-baggers than Hamilton. Except for one glaring problem: he’s not that good at getting hits. Especially extra-base hits. He’s a career .247 hitter, and 77 percent of his base knocks have been singles. Last year was more of the same, though he did set a career high with 144 hits. He had four homers, 11 triples, 17 doubles and 112 singles. Not a lot of extra-base action to work with there. But we do have some better evidence of gap-power from the Taylorsville Torpedo—his 25 doubles in 2014.

So here’s the plan: Hamilton will attempt to stretch every double into a triple. Every. Single. One. He’ll also need to hunt pitches better, striving to drive the ball instead of slapping singles. For Bryan Price and the Reds, their job is simple: keep Billy in the leadoff spot no matter what.

Let’s do some back-of-the-napkin stuff. Billy should be able to get to 12 triples in a healthy season—he hit 11 last year in just 139 games. So somehow we need to find him 15 more.

It might amaze you to know that Hamilton has never recorded a major league inside-the-park home run. One might say a man with his speed is due. Except this time he stops at third base. One down, now we’re at 13. Let’s figure that in a full season of at-bats, Hamilton could hit 25 doubles again. Under our scheme, every single one of those doubles becomes a potential triple. How many could he stretch to three bags? Does 10 sound crazy? A little. We’ll dial it back a bit and give Billy eight of those 25 doubles turning into triples. That puts us at 21 triples, in need of six more.

If eight of 25 doubles turn into triples, what do the other 17 turn into? The 17 most exciting pickles that Queen City has ever seen, that’s what. How many pickles could Hamilton escape? 10 percent? That would mean either one or two of those pickles turn into triples. What’s that—do I hear 20 percent? That would be three triples. Even if he got to third three times, surely one of those would be on anerror, though, so let’s call this two additional triples. Now we are up to 23, four shy of breaking the record.

Any last hopes? Well we have one, and it’s related to the same number as Cincy’s triple record: 27. In this case, 27 years old. It might be an outdated Bill James theory—at least according to the debunking efforts of J.C. Bradbury and Tristan Cockroft—but it’s all we’ve got to go on. Putting our faith in the ancient wisdom of the age 27 offensive breakout, let’s say Billy finds a little more pop, generating a few more gappers and rockets down the line. That could put him within striking distance of Reilly’s 128-year-old record. Or at least put him past Granderson’s modern mark of 23.

And if all that fails, we recommend the Reds follow Travis Sawchik’s advice, and start every game by pinch-running Hamilton, which should give him a real shot at Eric Davis’ modern team record of 80 swipes, if not Hugh Nicols’ of 138.

Run, Billy, run.

Miami Marlins

Everyone exclaims that losing is not fun, but every year there is only one champion, leaving 29 losers waiting for next year. Teams with winning records that fall short of a championship believe they are one player away, but how does a continuous losing record make you feel? I am looking at you, Marlins fan (no, not you, Marlins Man).

The Marlins are the Chas Tenenbaum of major league baseball. The zany younger sibling who dresses in wacky outfits and every once in a while steals the show. Their 26th season looks to be one of the weirdest yet. They started the year with a 25-man roster that totaled a combined 56 years of service time, 31 of which were accounted for by the world-beating quartet of Starlin Castro, Brad Ziegler, Junichi Tazawa and Cameron Maybin.

Since there are only a limited number of diehards in Miami, the focus needs to be on generating excitement. Your number one commodity in this realm is your team sprint speed, and though your fastest player is in the minors for now, there are still fleet-footed athletes in the Show. The league average is 27 feet per second and you have at least seven position players that are better than that, four of those being elite.

Marlins Fastest Players
Player 2017 Sprint Speed (ft/sec) 2017 Stolen Base %
Magneuris Sierra 29.9 (3rd fastest in MLB) 65% (minors and majors)
J.T. Realmuto 28.5 80%
Cameron Maybin 27.9 80%
Lewis Brinson N/A 71% (minors and majors)

In 2002 you established your team record for steals at 177, and a year later Juan Pierre set the individual mark at 65. In a year where you could have fewer wins than Pierre’s ‘03 steals, it might be time to emphasize the only thing your top players have in common: speed.

So how do we break these records, Miami? Three words: green means go.

Management can stress patience at the plate all it wants, but cannot control on-base percentage. It can, however, give the green light to every player who reaches base. The key is sending everyone all the time. Double-steals are great, because they can catch only one guy. So make sure that the runner with the higher steal total gets the better jump each time.

But we have to go further than just sending guys. First, we need to call up Magneuris Sierra immediately. We also need to stack the order with all the speedsters at the top, maximizing on-base opportunities for this rag-tag band of roadrunners.

Sierra needs to hit leadoff, because he’s our best bet. Assuming good health, we can get him close to 600 plate appearances. His career minor league on-base percentage is .339—that would fall significantly at the game’s highest level, but it gives us a decent baseline to work from. Let’s say he can manage a .300 OBP in the bigs. At that rate, he would be reaching base 180 times. And since nothing matters but the stolen base, Sierra will be stopping at first or second base on any hits to the outfield, to maximize his chances to run. He would lose a few chances to home runs, but not more than three or four.

So Sierra is taking off every single time he reaches base. Let’s call it 170 opportunities. He’s a career 68 percent base thief between the minors and majors, but that would surely go down because, A. major league catchers are better than minor league catchers; and B. everyone would know he was stealing. Still, even if we drop that rate down to 50 percent, Sierra ends up with 85 steals, the most since Rickey Henderson in ‘88.

If he gets to 85, his teammates need to come up with “just” 93 swipes among them to break the franchise combined team record. Even if we dial the steal rates of Maybin, Realmuto, and Brinson back to a measly 50 percent, Sierra’s fellow Marlins need just 186 opportunities. These records are clearly falling. Mattingly won’t even need to subscribe to the Sawchik Method to get there.

Steal your way to relevance!

Would these record chases actually be fun? Would they be annoying? Do they pose a threat to the way these baseball clubs do business?

Yes, maybe, and no are our answers. Imagine seeing the Marlins come to town and steal 22 bases off your catcher. That doesn’t exactly sound like the majors, but neither does whatever else Miami is doing right now. The only downsides we can see would be injury, somehow stunting player development, and the most obvious one, the self-deprecating humor these pursuits would require. If Billy Hamilton pulls a hamstring, that’s lousy—for him and for Reds fans, and for all of us who enjoy watching him. But Hamilton missing a few months likely won’t derail the Reds’ long-term plans. And the entire Marlins team learning to steal? At least they’d have one skill. The main hurdle would be how seriously major league teams take themselves.

In the end, all records are kind of silly. But they do shape baseball, through its history and in its the present. Our focus on statistics can suggest an obsession with ultimately meaningless figures. Whether it’s specific records we’ll always know—755, 56, 1.422—or round milestones that hold historical weight—3,000, 500, 300—baseball fandom has been defined by stats for more than a century.

Maybe it’s time we infuse our number fetish with a bit of whimsy.


Asa Beal is a writer, editor, and non-profit brand strategist with boundless enthusiasm for sports and food. He is also co-founder and managing editor of Popularium. Follow him on Twitter at @asakahnbeal. Michael Wentworth is a librarian living in Berkeley and can usually be found hiding out in the non-fiction area listening to the MLB radio app. In his spare time he helps document community histories at northernmonday.com.
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Jetsy Extrano
Member
Jetsy Extrano

Not sure I’d want to watch any of these played out for 162 games, but I got a kick out of the article! And I watched Ichiro in 2004, so I know you have a point.

How about some bad teams gang together and imbalance their teams for more stats fun? One team gets all the speedsters, one gets all the low-OBP sluggers, etc. And read the minor league FA list, it’s always got a dozen fun bad players.

Jetsy Extrano
Member
Jetsy Extrano

I have another unacceptable idea! Call it reverse Russian roulette tanking. Six bad teams get together and play dice. Whoever wins gets all the good players for the season — the hope is that six teams together can assemble one playoff team, but I’d have to look if that’s true… And the losers get to tank that much harder.

Not sure how to deal with stunting the development of good prospects in A ball. Price you pay I guess.

Paul G.
Member
Member
Paul G.

Maybe we could have all four teams pool their rosters and make a “super” team. To be fair, they will play one quarter of their games at each donor city. Name would be the Quad Metro Noble Crimson Fish, Sr.

Any guesses on how good that team would be?

Da Bear
Member
Da Bear

When a tanking team plays against a super team, all they have to do to make the night that much more eventful and exciting is utter four words: “10 Cent Beer Night”.

roydjt
Member
Member
roydjt

Love the Padres no-hitter idea. If we’re sitting here in September with little left to cheer for, let’s pump up the active roster with matchup-centric relievers and just patchwork together 27 outs from as many different pitchers as we can. Us Padres fans won’t care if it’s a No-No by committee, we’ll embrace the oddity!

Lanidrac
Member
Lanidrac

Hamilton trying to stretch every double into a triple is just stupid. If he only gets to second base a little before the throw, then only an error would allow him to reach third safely, in which case it wouldn’t be a triple, anyway.

Also, even if he really could escape a run down 10% of the time (which is highly unlikely, 20% is practically impossible), about half of those escapes are going to be back at second base, so no triples there, either.

Yehoshua Friedman
Member
Yehoshua Friedman

This is an idea only a statnerd could love! I could be amused by it for five minutes every other day. To get more people to commit to watching baseball, either at the park or by media, would need another route. I would suggest that communities, instead of ponying up for yet another new stadium every few years under threat of a team moving on to greener pastures, buy out the ownership and institute Green Bay-style community ownership. The management will commit to doing their best year-in and year-out instead of looking at their balance sheet. People with shares will… Read more »