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The ESPN Factor

Last week ESPN laid off about 100 people. The list included big names like Jason Stark, and people behind the scenes who are not recognizable to the general public. It was a strong signal that the sports landscape is about to change.

ESPN made billions at the sports gravy train. As DVR’s proliferated, ESPN benefitted because they controlled one of the last “DVR-proof” properties- live sports- and they charged advertisers and subscribers massive amounts for it. They also fought very hard to keep those properties, inking enormous rights deals with all the major leagues, except the NHL, and creating things like the Longhorn Network, a channel exclusively devoted to the University of Texas. But then a funny thing happened, technology went beyond the DVR to online streaming services like Netflix and Hulu. Suddenly, people started wondering why they had cable when they could just watch all their shows online and they started canceling it. This was a double whammy for ESPN as they get paid by the cable companies based on their subscribers, and they get paid by the advertisers based on their ratings. Fewer viewers hits both of those revenue streams and that is why 100 people lost their jobs last week. But this is just the start of something that will transform sports.

MLB and the other leagues are going to have to negotiate new TV deals in the future and they are going to have a harder time finding networks willing to shell out money for them. Cable companies, under increasing consumer pressure to lower costs, are going to aggressively question why they are shelling out big bucks for channels that relatively few people actually watch. (It’s true, there are a lot more sports haters than sports fans out there) This means that leagues are going to see a pretty significant loss in revenue from TV. And while things like MLB.com can certainly make some of that up, it’s worth remembering that MLB receives about $1.5-billion a year in TV rights right now. That’s 15-million subscribers at $100 a pop, or a higher number of subscribers than average viewers of the 2015 World Series, so don’t count on it.

This will have a profound affect on team revenues, but also on team valuations which are essentially multiples of those revenues. Payrolls should decrease and ticket prices will probably have to as well, as ticket sales and concessions become a bigger part of the revenue that teams earn. All of that could be a good result for the average fan. But, owners are not going to like this one bit. And owners who spent billions, only to see the revenues they based those investments on dry up, are going to agressively look to replace those revenues and that means new stadiums and expansion. I would expect that as the TV revenues shrink, owners will look to the taxpayer to give them better ballparks and new owners to give them fat expansion fees. So we could end up with a lot more teams in a lot of terrible locations, all to keep owners happy.

Teams would be smart to be very, very cautious throwing money around in the next few years because the future doesn’t look as bright as it once did.

Dial it Down

Aaron Judge may be the best story in baseball right now. He has amazing power and he is showing it prolifically, but unfortunately people are getting stupid with their comparisoions and need to stop.

Judge isn’t Jeter or, and I can’t believe I have to say this, Mantle. Jeter was 22 when he broke in and Mantle was 19. Judge is 25. He could still improve, but 3,000 hits or 500 homers are very, very, unlikely so let’s set the expectations a bit lower.

Judge looks like he could be a very good player for the next decade and the best Yankee rightfielder since Dave Winfield. That would make him “better” than Paul O’Neill, which should be more than enough for Yankee fans. The immortal Yankees are safe, everyone else is in play. Let’s just enjoy it.

Managing Mystery

I have no problem with what Joe Girardi did in the tenth inning today, my problem is with what he did in the ninth inning. Let’s go through it.

The Yankees entered the seventh trailing 4-2. Girardi went to his usual guy for the seventh, Tyler Clippard. They entered the eight in the same sport and Girardi did the same thing, calling on Betances. They entered the ninth in the same spot and here is where Girardi went off the rails bringing in Mitchell.

He had already used Holder, Clippard, and Betances, and Warren was not available, so there are three pitchers left in the pen- Chapman, Layne, and Mitchell. Choosing Mitchell is the absolute wrong choice of the three. Pick Chapman, your best choice for a clean inning, and you hope to score two in the ninth and tie things. Choose Layne, a guy who can only go one inning, and hope he gets you through the ninth still trailing by two. But choosing Mitchell, your only long guy in the pen locks you into a quandary. If you tie the game, but don’t win it, what then?

Girardi correctly determined that Chapman was the best chance to get through the tenth and have a chance to win it. The problem was, he had already used Mitchell and Layne couldn’t give him multiple innings. So he got creative and moved Mitchell to first. That allowed him to use Mitchell as a pitcher again later in the game, but cost him his DH, and current first baseman, Chris Carter. It was a creative solution, but one he could have avoided by thinking a couple of steps ahead in the 9th inning.

But in the bigger picture, the Yankees are 15-8. That’s about as great a start as anyone could have imagined.

A Fortunate Flip

I watched tonight as the Yankees dug a 9-1 hole. I stopped watching there and turned to other things. So I was shocked when I pulled the game up on my IPad later that night and found out that it was tied at 11 and the Yankees had runners on in the tenth.

A quick flip of the channel gave me one of the greatest rewards I have had as a Yankee fan. Holliday parked it, and we celebrated our best win of the season.

A Pitching Clinic-UPDATED

It finally happened, the Yankees and Red Sox played a game in under three hours. All it took were two of the best pitched games you will see.

Chris Sale was better, at least until his manager made him try the 9th inning when he was looking a bit gassed in the 8th, But Tanaka got the win because he kept the Red Sox off balance all night. Their biggest threat was a runner on second with 1 out, and Tanaka retired the final 14-straight.

So the Yankees take the abbreviated series and now have the first place Orioles coming for a visit. It should be an exciting weekend.

UPDATE Never had heard this used before, but a complete game shutout that takes under 100 pitches, is apparently called a “Maddox” in honor of the great Greg Maddox. Tanaka got earned that tonight.

All Rise

Aaron Judge had a pretty good 25th-birthday. He hit a pretty nice opposite-field homer and added a great catch diving into the stands. Chapman came close to throwing it all away, but the Yankees prevailed 3-1.

I want to gripe about replay. Judge’s play in the stands was an easy call to miss as an umpire, but also an easy call to reverse upon viewing a replay. For whatever reason, it took a long time for the MLB replay crew to reach the right conclusion.

Here’s my idea, have a lot of people watching the games in the “pod” in NYC and reviewing any close play before a replay challenge is made. Yes, you would be reviewing calls that may never be challenged, but hopefully you would cut down on the interminable time it takes to review and adjudicate a call which seems to be an easy one on replay. If MLB is serious about speeding up games, they have to speed up replay.

Lastly, a word about Luis Severino. A night like tonight shows you why the Yankees think he can be a frontline starter. His development will be one of the most important things to watch in 2017.

Big Series?-UPDATED

The Yankees head to Fenway tonight for a three-game set with the two teams separated by just a half-game in the standings. So, you could make the case this is a big series. But, it is April. And no matter what happens, I am pretty sure that the team that loses his series will be able to recover over the final 144 games. So, I would say no, but I think there are some very interesting things to watch.

1- Judge and Bird at Fenway. Bird has played thre before, but he is off to a bad start and needs to get going. Judge is tailor-made to do damage at Fenway. The most impressive power I have ever seen there was the 1999 home run derby when McGwire was hitting moon shots over the monster. (sidenote, Andy and I were there in person and may have started a rumor that the state police were closing the Mass Pike because they were afraid balls would hit cars). Judge has some amazing power and could send a ball well into the night.

2. Sale versus Tanaka. Andy is ready to build a statue of Sale on Yawkey Way And Sale has dominated the Yankees in his career. Meanwhile, Tanaka has scuffled against Boston. Will this be the mismatch it appears to be?

3- How does Girardi manage these games? Is he going to treat them as bigger than a usual April game? By using Betances and Chapman for multiple innings maybe? Or will the fact that the Yankees have first place Baltimore on the schedule next, keep these at April intensity?

4- Severino in Fenway, part 2. He got shellacked there in his first try last August. Can he do better this time?

5- Which Yankee will Matt Barnes unnecessarily head hunt? I kid, I kid. Enjoy the games!

UPDATE We have a rain out, so we are going to have to wait for the series to start, and only see two games this week. The game will be made up as part of a day-night doubleheader on July 16th.

The Big Picture

At 1-4, we thought disaster was imminent. At 9-5, we can dream of October baseball. But I think the rational fan realizes this is the likely future- they will lose a bunch, they will win a bunch, and they most likely end up around 85-wins. Yes, you can make more optimistic arguments and more pessimistic ones, but let’s move beyond that and focus on the critical issues about this season. There are four big issues the Yankees need to solve between now and the end of the season-whenever that is.

1- What is the 2018 rotation?
If you buy the premise that the next championship is in the future, you need to think about this. Tanaka can opt out. Pineda and Sabathia are going to be free agents. That means the Yankees have to find solid internal replacements in 2017. Are those Severino and Montgomery? We shall see, but if not, how long can they afford to wait before trying out someone else? And if Sabathia or Pineda scuffles, how long is the leash?

2- Who are Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, and Greg Bird? At their best, they are the middle of the lineup for years to come. But none of them have shown that ability over even half a season. Can they produce at those levels for a full year?

3- Will the prospects turn into players? Some are off to great starts, some are not, but this is a critical year for a number of the Yankees prospects. Can Frazier make it to the Bronx? Can Sheffield throw himself into contention for a 2018 roster spot? Will Mateo rebound from a rough 2016? Is Andujar ready to challenge at 3B? These performances will dictate the Yankees moves at the deadline and in the offseason.

4- Who is the manager and GM of the 2018 Yankees? I suspect that both Girardi and Cashman will be back, but what if this team loses 90 games? Then what?

So enjoy the wins, and try not to get too down about the losses. The big picture is that 2017 is about building a better future.

Opening Day!

It’s finally here, the start of the baseball season. And for the first time in ages, the Yankees will be starting a lineup with more guys in their 20’s than any other decade.

That’s the reason for optimism if you are a Yankees fan. There will be frustrating times, but this lineup should be significantly better than last year’s. Bird and Sanchez are much better bets now than Teixeira and A-Rod were in 2016. Judge, Didi, and Castro are all ascending, while Gardner and Headley are not declining significantly- yet. The biggest questions are Ellsbury and Holliday. Ellsbury because of bad performance and Holliday because of age. I expect Holliday to be fine, while Ellsbury continues to haunt the Yankees.

But the reason for pessimism is the other side of the ball. The Yankee rotation is a mess. It starts with an ace, Tanaka, but goes way downhill from there. Sabathia, a second starter only in name, is years away from his peak. Pineda has never put together a full season that matches his ability. Severino is an unknown and the Yankees haven’t named a fifth starter yet. Add it all up, and most days will see the Yankees turning to the bullpen early.

Luckily, that’s a strength. They have a quartet of relievers they can trust and plenty of intriguing arms behind that. This is a team that should dominate close games. But the rotation will stress the bullpen and the Yankees have to hope that Severino becomes a frontline stater while the farm system provides help.

Add it all up and you have a .500 team. They will flirt with both contention and irrelevance, but in the end I think they squeak out an 83-79 record that puts them in third in the division and out of the playoffs.

The Crystal Ball

The Yankees and Rays open the MLB season in less than 48 hours, so it is time for me to make my annual predictions.

AL East
1-Boston
I liked them a lot more before Price came down with elbow problems because I think Sale is going to have a tough transition to Boston and Price’s absence will only heighten the pressure. Still, they have the most talent in the division. I think they squeak out the AL East with 89 wins.

2-Toronto
They will be right on Boston’s heels, but ultimately fall just short. I still think they get a wild card spot

3-Yankees
I will go into this more tomorrow, but I have them 3rd and missing the playoffs.

4-Baltimore
I think the East will be the most competitive division in baseball and the Orioles will be above .500.

5-Tampa
It’s too big a leap for me to consider them anywhere else than last.

AL Central
1-Cleveland
Clearly the class of their division by a lot. Probably the easiest path to the playoffs in the game,
2-Kansas City
I think Jorge Soler has a big year, but they aren’t going to challenge Cleveland.
3-Minnesota
This is a team that I think can surprise a lot of people with some young bats. Byron Buxto and Miguel Sano will form the core of a new emerging power in the division.
4-Detroit
I just don’t see a lot to like on the Tigers and I only picked them 4th because of the reality of the 5th team in the division.
5-Chicago
Full rebuild on the South Side and if they get good performances from players they will trade them at the deadline.

AL West
1-Houston
They dwelled at the bottom of the league for a long time, but all of those top draft picks are rounding into form. Also added some solid veteran presence with McCann and Beltran. The best team in the AL.
2-Texas
Still very good, but a step behind the Astros. I think they earn the other wild card.
3-Anaheim
It is a shame that Mike Trout has to languish on a so-so team.
4-Seattle
Felix Hernandez worries me. There are a lot of innings on that arm. I also don’t think Cano repeats last year’s success.

Playoffs
Toronto over Texas in wild card game
Houston over Boston in ALDS
Cleveland over Toronto in ALDS
Houston over Cleveland in ALCS

NL East
1-Washington
I love the Mets rotation, and I worry about Strasbourg, but the Nats edge them out in the end,
2-Mets
Thor may be the best pitcher in the game outside of Kershaw and they have plenty behind him even with Matt’s elbow woes. Look for Zach Wheeler to make a successful return from TJ surgery. They get a wild card.
3-Philadelphia
I think they have a lot of young talent and they play competitive baseball until the end.
4-Atlanta
New stadium and a lot of young guys. They will be back in the middle of things soon.
5-Miami
My pick for the biggest disappointment in the league.

NL Central
1-Cubs
The class of MLB and plenty of youth to stay that way for awhile.
2-Pittsburgh
I think they edge out the Cards for this spot.
3-St. Louis
Always solid if not spectacular.
4-Cincinnati
I think this is the year Billy Hamilton steals 100 bases.
5-Milwaukee
I think Johnathan Villar won’t be far behind Hamilton.

NL West
1-LA
That is one tough rotation and they have Saeger at short for the next 15 years.
2-San Francisco
Good enough for a wild card, but not the division. I think Matt Moore really enjoys his first full year in the NL.
3-Colorado
Lots of nice talent and I think the Desmond signing works. Keep an eye on Jon Grey.
4-Arizona
I think they edge out San Diego for 4th.
5-San Diego
Not really sure what they are doing, but they are the only game in town with the exodus of the Chargers, so hopefully the fans come out.

PLAYOFFS
Mets over Giants in wild card
Dodgers over Nats in NLDS
Cubs over Mets in NLDS
Cubs over Dodgers in NLCS

And Cubs over Astros in the World Series. After all they won back-to-back in 1907 and 1908, so why not again?