More Notes

April 22, 2016




The so-called “Daily Fantasy Sports” have been in the headlines for quite a while now, namely over whether the game should be legally constituted as gambling. This point has been beaten to death (the major DFS companies have applied for gaming licenses, their payout structure is exactly the same as online poker, etc) and the answer is most definitely “yes”. It is a game of some skill but then so is poker and black jack, both of which are gambling games. Requiring skill does not disqualify anything from being gambling.


This was from an article in the New York Times:
“A recent study in Sports Business Daily found that over the first half of this year’s Major League Baseball season, 91 percent of daily fantasy sports player profits were won by just 1.3 percent of the players. In fact, on average, the top 11 players paid $2 million in entry fees and made profits of $135,000 each while accounting for 17 percent of all entry fees… Many of those players use automated processes that let them change hundreds, if not thousands, of lineups in seconds, a decided advantage when last-minute changes are made in the real lineups of professional football, basketball or baseball teams… The true minnows account for 80 percent of the millions of daily players, and they lost, on average, $25 on entry fees of $49.”


Sounds suspiciously like gambling.


No, my problem is with calling it “fantasy”.  The original creators of fantasy sports, whether you go back to the Rotisserie restaurant in NYC or a bunch of professors at U of Michigan or any number of origin stories that have legitimacy, the one thing they all had in common is that the participants felt they could do a better job of managing a major league team than the current GM was doing and so they developed a simulation game. They fantasized about being a GM. That meant controlling/paying players for the entire season. That was the fantasy. No one has ever fantasized about being a GM for one day, simply because if given only one day absolutely nothing useful could be accomplished in that position. That’d be like fantasizing about becoming a rock star for one second. No, anyone who has ever wanted to be a GM has wanted at least the full season, which is why real fantasy games encompass the entire season. So calling a game that allows you to contract players for only one day is not exactly a fantasy. 


The other aspect about this game, and it’s an opinion I first heard from Joe Sheehan, is that it would not be any fun if there was no money involved. So in that respect, it’s becomes even more like black jack or poker.


DFS is gambling and should be regulated as such, and it needs to stop calling itself “fantasy” because it’s absolutely no one’s dream. It should be re-labeled as “Gambling-Amplified Sports”: GAS. Seems more fitting.



Vincent Velasquez

After a trade that sent him from the Astros to the Phillies, Vincent Velasquez has taken his opportunity in the NL and run with it, even though the team he pitches for figures to be pretty bad by the time the season concludes. Based on his minor league record and his stuff, one should expect him to continue with a strong strikeout rate but the others aspects of his performance so far are very likely to be the best we’ll see this year.


First of all, until the Mets offense got on tracked last week he had not faced a serious offensive challenge all year. He struck out 16 in a match-up against a Padre line-up without Matt Kemp. I was asked who else could have dominated that line-up the way he did. Frankly, the number might surprise you. Clayton Kershaw held them scoreless and to just one hit in the opener, Scott Kazmir did the same thing the next night and Kenta Maeda held them scoreless on four hits the night after that. Jerad Eickhoff held them scoreless on four hits as well. So that totals five pitchers in their first ten games. Given that we still have 140-150 to play, I’d place the over under on the number of starters who can dominate that line-up this year at around thirty. Look at the regulars in that line-up. Jon Jay was a 4th outfielder for St. Louis but is their starting centerfielder. Jabari Blash is a Rule 5 pick with a history of contact troubles. Cory Spangenburg has almost no power. Yangervis Solarte is a utility player on any other team. Melvin Upton was a 4th outfielder on this team last year and hasn’t been a productive regular since his days in Tampa. Wil Myers was a highly regarded prospect but hasn’t shown much since his rookie season. Honestly, even with a rejuvenated Matt Kemp this offense might be lucky to score 600 runs this season.


The other team Velasaquez shut down was the Mets, who through the first two weeks had the worst offense in the NL. Last season, they were in the same situation for much of the first four months until Yoennis Cespedes was acquired and went on an epic tear. They will be better than they were in the first half last year because Michael Conforto is a very good young hitter, but is Neil Walker that much of an upgrade over Daniel Murphy? Is Asdrubal Cabrera more productive than Wilmer Flores was last year? Honestly, the biggest difference will be Cespedes over Lagares in center, but if Cespedes reverts to career averages the Mets offense is middle of the pack at best, especially if David Wright can’t stay healthy. Even so, in their second match-up against Velasquez, they teed off for four home runs in the game (two against Velasquez) and knocked him out before the end of the fifth inning.


Velasquez certainly has the velocity and secondary pitches to stifle an offense but walks have been an issue before this season and the Phillie defense will be in flux all year with so many mediocrities getting their opportunity for playing time behind him. The bullpen will not be very good either, which means that a substantial number of the runners he leaves will end up scoring. Enjoy the strikeouts; just don’t expect a pocket ace, at least not this season.



Adam Wainwright

Speaking of aces, it might be time to sell on Adam Wainwright. He sent out a tweet telling people not to panic and there are some good reasons to heed his advice. For one, he’s been pitching in cold weather, which suppresses velocity and makes it difficult to get a feel for his best pitch, the curve. So there might be something to that.


But his velocity is significantly down. While the average velocity shows that he’s down about a mile per hour from last year, the range shows that he’s more than two miles an hour off the upper end. Could that be due to cold? Perhaps.


Another concern is that Wainwright is a remarkably consistent pitcher from year to year and from month to month. If you look at a breakdown of his career by month, there isn’t a huge difference in performance for any month; his April numbers are almost identical to those of any other month in ERA, WHIP, K/BB and strikeout rate: roughly a 3.16 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 3.5 K/BB rate and roughly about 7 Ks per 9. However there have been some years where he got out to a shaky start and in those years ended up not typical Wainwright years. He struggled with consistency in 2012 and in 2007. What makes 2012 informative is that came after a year missed due to injury, just like he did last year.    


Perhaps more concerning is that his rough starts this season have come against an anemic Braves offense and a Reds offense that ranked 26th in hard hit balls last season. Why should that concern Wainwright owners? Because this year 41% of the balls that are being hit off him are classified as hard hit, up from his career average of 26.3%, and only 9.8% are softly hit (down from 17.5% for his career). If teams that don’t hit hard are pummeling him, what is going to happen when he starts facing the Cubs and Giants and Nationals?


So maybe it is a good time to exercise patience but there are enough red flags that one can be forgiven for pushing the eject button on Wainwright. In fact, given his history, even if he turns it around this likely won’t be a typical Wainwright year. Expect the underwhelming.



Trevor Brown

There is a theory that it’s a good idea to take anyone who backs up Buster Posey because Posey spends some of his days playing first base. So when Trevor Brown got off to a hot start, hitting three homers in a week, the movement to drop Andrew Susac in favor of Brown was palpable. Wrong move.


Brown hitting three homers in a month, much less in a week, is news in and of itself. With a career slugging in the minor leagues of .316 – you read that right – he’s not exactly the second coming of Mike Piazza. Even in college using aluminum bats he posted slugging percentages of .316, .245 and .427. He doesn’t strike out a lot so he has that going for him as long as pitchers are throwing pitches over the plate, but he doesn’t walk excessively either which leads me to believe that he’ll be getting himself out on pitches he shouldn’t be swinging at. Brown’s value will probably last another week or two, but I suspect after that the choice will be Susac again.



Houston Astros

With apologies to the guys who’ve done a very good job building their farm system, the Houston Astros are one of the worst constructed teams in baseball. Their rotation is comprised of almost exclusively soft-tossers (primarily right-handed, at that) with the lone exception being Lance McCullers who’s been sidelined with shoulder issues. That kind of injury is not one that suddenly goes away forever without either surgery or an extended rest and quite often both. Their bullpen is comprised of largely cast-offs and re-treads, which can be fine if the rotation is capable of using up a healthy number of innings but that won’t be happening in Houston because soft-tossers usually have to throw more pitches to get through innings generally. The Astros did have some hard-throwers in the minor league system, but the most promising ones other than McCullers – the aforementioned Velasquez, Mark Appel – were traded away, or like David Paulino, Francis Martes or Michael Feliz, are not advanced enough to help in the near future. So they are basically Dallas Keuchel (another soft-tosser but a lefty) and… hello?


With the exception of Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve, their offense is comprised of a lot of swing and miss power which makes consistent production a difficult enterprise. Last year they were extremely lucky out of the gate because when they did make contact it just happened to be a homer and in the perfect situation. Being that clutch consistently year after year is hard enough for an individual player but for an entire team is nearly impossible to replicate. Sure, they will draw their fair share of walks but the science is in that teams also need to hit the ball consistently in order to score runs every game.  And as should have been expected, the Astros’ offense faltered down the stretch, ranking 7th in the AL after the break and 8th in September despite playing in a hitter’s park. Their struggles have merely continued this year and do not figure to abate until there is some significant reconstruction.


So in summation, they can’t stop teams from scoring runs with their rotation and they can’t score runs consistently with their offense. That sounds suspiciously like a last place team.  In a way, Brian Kenny is right when he describes the franchise as the “team of the future” because that is what they will be playing for every year until they modify their philosophy.