The Case for Rewarding Walker Buehler in His Upcoming Arbitration Battle

The following is a submission in the 2020 National Baseball Arbitration Competition, held annually by Tulane University School of Law. This brief is a part of Western New England University School of Law’s submission.

Introduction

This brief analyzes the assets and contributions of Walker Buehler (The “Player” or “Mr. Buehler”) to be reflected in his 2020 contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers (“the Club” or “The Dodgers”).  The Major League Baseball (“MLB”) Collective Bargaining Agreement (“CBA”) governs this arbitration hearing and sets the following criteria for determining the player’s award: (1) the quality of the Player’s contribution to this Club during the past season; (2) the quality of the Player’s past compensations; (3) the record of the Player’s past compensation; (4) comparative baseball salaries; (5) the existence of any physical or mental defects on the part of the Player; and (6) the recent performance of the Club, including, but not limited to, its League standing and attendance as an indication of public acceptance.  For competitive salary purposes, the arbitration panel shall give particular attention to the contracts of Major League service not exceeding one annual service group.

Walker Buehler has accrued 2.168 years of Major League service, surpassing the threshold for Super Two status thus allowing him to be eligible for arbitration.  Mr. Buehler filed for a salary of $4,300,000 while the club has filed for a salary of $3,200,000, creating a midpoint of $3,750,000.  The evidence will show that Mr. Buehler had (1) a phenomenal platform season in spite of a small sample size, and (2) an elite career performance showing consistency and stability, among the best in the league since he began at the Major League level.  Moreover, Mr. Buehler should be rewarded for his gritty performance in the 2020 Playoffs, being a critical component of the Dodger’s unorthodox and untraditional usage of pitchers in the abbreviated season in their quest to become World Series Champions.

Quality of Player’s Contribution During the Platform Season

At first glance, Mr. Buehler’s contributions in his platform year and rankings among his competitors seems underwhelming.  Mr. Buehler seems to be caught in a statistical paradox, where his record does not show the whole picture of his contributions towards his team in this abbreviated and unusual season due to a small sample size.  He did not qualify for any leaderboards in 2020, and thus has diluted rankings.  In order to qualify, a pitcher needs to throw more innings than games his team played in (60 innings for the 2020 season).  In fact, there were only 40 pitchers across the entire league who did qualify, but none of these pitchers played for the Dodgers; a testament to Dave Roberts’ unorthodox usage of the opener in the 2020 season.

Another factor in Buehler’s failure to qualify among pitchers for the leaderboards was the expanded rosters for the 2020 season. Coinciding with COVID-19 protocol, clubs relied more on young players who would typically be on the cusp of making their rosters in a normal year (i.e. Garrett Crochet, Randy Arozarena, Sixto Sanchez, etc.). The expanded rosters thus injected a lot of young blood into the league, but by doing so took away opportunities from players like Walker Buehler. On the Dodgers, young pitchers like Dustin May, Tony Gonsolin and Brusdar Graterol all competed with Mr. Buehler for time on the mound. All of these pitchers were comparable to Mr. Buehler in age, but with less service time. They all recorded significant usage in 2020 with 56, 46.2, and 23.1 IP respectively, which undoubtedly took away opportunities from Mr. Buehler.

Considering his contributions in his platform season, he was given the nod to start in eight games but he was given the opportunity to record a decision in only half of those starts.  Where a decision was available, he was typically pulled in the 5th inning, and never beyond the 6th.  Recording one decision through eight starts is not ideal; however, with the implementation of the opener throughout the league, he fit this mold for the Dodgers when healthy.  

Where Mr. Buehler shined, it showed.  His SO9 was among the elites, edging many top-tiered veterans like Charlie Morton and Mike Clevinger in 2020 with an average of 10.3.  He also had an outstanding BAbip (batting average on balls in play), at .198.  This shows that Mr. Buehler proved to be an instrumental part of their rotation and subsequent success in the shortened regular season, even when paired with a below-average defensive team.  The Dodgers’ defense had a total fielding percentage of .982, which was below the league average.  A very low BAbip paired with a low fielding percentage is typically a volatile combination; however, Buehler’s individual attributes make him a valuable component to his team’s rarely-found success.

Among his team, Walker Buehler did not appear in many games when compared to others.  Because his season was hampered by blisters in an already shortened season, two 10-day IL stints made it tough to find consistent starts during the regular season.  Considering his small-sample sized averages, his BAbip was among the best on his team, with two ahead of him in the team rankings having pitched less than 5 IP each.   

Mr. Buehler was almost exclusively used as an opener in all of the games that he pitched in the 2020 Postseason.  Still haunted by his continued blister issues, he gutted out stellar performances in every start he made.  In his only World Series appearance, he struck out 10 in 6 IP during Game 3.  Mr. Buehler became the youngest pitcher since Josh Beckett (23 y/o in 2003) to strike out double-digit batters in a World Series Game.  Accruing a total ERA of 1.8 and a very low WHIP of 1.2 across all competitions in the 2020 Playoffs is outstanding, and he deserves to be rewarded for being the Dodger’s most consistent starter in the playoffs.  

Length and Consistency of Career Contributions

Mr. Buehler was considered a top prospect out of the 2015 MLB June Amateur Draft. Drafted 24th overall from Vanderbilt University, he was compared to Roy Oswalt due to his build. He possesses an arsenal of pitches; four-seam fastball, curveball, slider, cutter, and sinker. His fastball ranked within the 88th percentile for velocity among the MLB. Additionally, his BAbip remains phenomenal and trends downward. He also shows a pattern of having a mature sense of control over his pitches, with low H9, BB9 and HBP statistics throughout his career. His career BAbip (of .270), but especially his platform season BAbip (of .198) will show that he knows how to force weakly-hit balls that will likely be a put-out.

Past Salary Compensation

Comparative Baseball Salaries

It remains to be seen how much the 2020 season will impact the careers of many, but for some, it brought great success.  One of the fortunate people to benefit from the abbreviated season was Mr. Buehler.  When compared to other arbitration eligible starting pitchers, Mr. Buehler had a (1) fantastic platform season when given the opportunity to play, and an (2) elite, top-tiered career performance showing consistency and stability.  This shows that he is more than deserving of a salary above the midpoint of $3.75 million.  Dallas Keuchel’s agreement for a salary far above the midpoint represents a ceiling that Mr. Buehler smashes with his dominant platform season and career averages.  Mike Clevinger, Gerrit Cole, and José Berríos represent pitchers who were statistically among the best in the game by the time their platform seasons had concluded.  Each of these players are blown out of the water in almost every substantive category by Mr. Buehler, despite the fact that they settled for less than the midpoint.  Among every other first-year arbitration eligible player, including the aforementioned ones, the evidence will show that Mr. Buehler is markedly better in almost every way.

  1. Dallas Keuchel

One pitcher that emulates Mr. Buehler’s style is Houston Astros pitcher Dallas Keuchel.  Although he throws with his other hand, Mr. Keuchel provides a baseline for awarding a player over the midpoint.  He and the Astros avoided arbitration, after settling for $7.25 million, far above the midpoint.  

Considering the much smaller sample size for Mr. Buehler, he possesses a better H9 (5.9 to 7.2), SO9 (10.3 to 8.4), WHIP (.955 to 1.017), and BAbip (.198 to .269) than Keuchel in their platform seasons.  Seemingly contrary to these statistics, Keuchel has the edge over Buehler in ERA (2.48 to 3.44), however the strength in their respective defenses are a factor to be considered.  The 2015 Houston Astros were objectively better on defense as a team, with a fielding percentage of .986 to the 2020 Dodgers’ .982.  With more defensive support, a lower ERA may have been attainable for Mr. Buehler in the 2020 season.

Despite not having the edge over Keuchel during their respective platform seasons, Mr. Buehler’s track record is more impressive when compared to Keuchel’s as a whole.  In less games, Mr. Buehler leads Keuchel in ERA (3.15 to 3.58), WHIP (1.028 to 1.25), H9 (7 to 8.9), BB9 (2.3 to 2.5), SO9 (10.3 to 7) and BAbip (.270 to .298).  

  1. Mike Clevinger

Another starting pitcher that represents a similar style with similar pitches is Cleveland Indians pitcher Mike Clevinger.  While Clevinger elevates with some velocity in his fastballs, he relies more heavily on deceptive pitches.  He displays a more aggressive, attacking style of pitching than Mr. Buehler does, with an exceptional 12-6 curveball.  Mike Clevinger and the Cleveland Indians agreed on an amount slightly below the midpoint, at $4.1 million.  

Mike Clevinger relies more on striking out the opposing batter, and thus leads Mr. Buehler in SO9 (12.1 to 10.3).  He may have had a better platform season as a whole, however Mr. Buehler has the lower WHIP (.955 to 1.056) and H9 (5.9 to 6.9) which are valuable individualized statistics.  

In their short careers, Mr. Buehler blows Mike Clevinger out of the water.  Walker Buehler has the edge over Clevinger in almost every meaningful statistic.  Mr. Buehler leads in ERA (3.15 to 3.58), WHIP (1.028 to 1.25), H9 (7 to 8.7), BB9 (2.3 to 2.5), SO9 (10.3 to 7), and BAbip (.270 to .298), despite the difference in sample size due to the shortened year.

  1. Gerrit Cole

Another highly touted prospect out of college, Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Gerrit Cole, had far lesser results in his platform year than Mr. Buehler.  Despite the small-sample size from Mr. Buehler’s platform season, he led Gerrit Cole in every metric possible.  While Gerrit Cole may have deserved to settled for far less than the midpoint, agreeing to a $3.75 million deal with the Pirates, Mr. Buehler’s performance significantly outweighs Gerrit Cole’s and therefore he deserves to be rewarded for a stellar platform season.  

Similarly to his dominance during his platform season, Mr. Buehler leads Gerrit Cole in a substantial number of important categories, like ERA (3.15 to 3.23), WHIP (1.028 to 1.205), H9 (7 to 8.5), SO9 (10.3 to 8.4), and BAbip (.270 to .321).  Because Cole had more BF (2378 to 1469), the average-based statistics should be considered with more weight, but a consistent trend is otherwise shown for Mr. Buehler.  He has averaged a significantly better ERA, WHIP, H9 (7 to 8.5), SO9 (10.3 to 8.4), and BAbip ( .270 to .321), giving the edge to Buehler by a significant margin.

  1. José Berríos

In his platform season, José Berríos unarguably made more contributions towards his team when considering the whole season.  With the Minnesota Twins, he received a decision in 22 of his 32 starts, with only 8 losses.  This is a good return for a young player, but Berríos and other pitchers on the Twins were given a tremendous amount of run support in 2019. The Twins broke the record for homeruns in a single-season and, accordingly, José Berríos’ sub-par ERA of 3.68 does not correlate with his amount of wins. Therefore, like some of the aforementioned players, José Berríos rightfully settled below the midpoint with an agreement for $4.025 million with the Twins.  While José Berríos had worse stats over a larger sample size in his platform season, Mr. Buehler is remarkably better in every category besides BB9 (2.7 to 2.3) and HR9 (1.7 to 1.2).  We believe that Mr. Buehler’s season, despite an abbreviated one, greatly outweighs José Berríos’ modicum of successes.  

Mr. Buehler has proven to be at least a class above Berríos over the span of their careers, as he has a significant lead in WHIP (1.028 to 1.262) and ERA (3.15 to 4.21).  José Berríos does not have the experience through career achievements, but because Buehler is the more disciplined pitcher, he accordingly deserves to be awarded above the midpoint.

Existence of Physical of Mental Defects

A factor that plagued Mr. Buehler in his platform year is that he dealt with a recurring blister issue on his throwing hand.  He was placed on the 10-day IL twice, once in late August, and early September.  Effectively missing out on at least 20 days in an already-shortened season had a detrimental effect in reaching the 60 IP threshold to qualify for leaderboards.  In addition to the blister issues. Walker Buehler had suffered an injury in his rookie season when he was hit in the chest by a linedrive.  He was placed on the 10-day IL with bruised ribs in June of 2018.  

Other than these unpredictable and unforeseeable injuries, the club and the player would agree that Mr. Buehler has sustained a healthy career up to this point, and there is no reason to suspect any significant issues concerning Mr. Buehler’s physical or mental state in the future.

Performance of the Club

The 2020 Los Angeles Dodgers finished the season with the best record in all of baseball while possessing a subpar defense.  As stated prior, the 2020 Dodgers’ fielding percentage was .982. They were successful in their endeavor to become World Series Champions, after foiled attempts in 2017 and 2018.  For reasons previously stated, Walker proved to be a critical piece of the 2020 Playoffs run, as he made pivotal appearances in big games.  The Dodgers won their division outright, topping the San Diego Padres who had the third-best record in the league (43-17 to 37-23).  The Dodgers eventually beat the Padres in the playoffs, sweeping them 3-0.   

Conclusion

In both his major league career and platform year, despite being forced to have a small-sample size for both metrics, Walker Buehler shows that he is more than deserving of receiving a salary of over the midpoint.  This is shown by considering Mr. Buehler’s statistics among other starters, such as Dallas Keuchel, Mike Clevinger, Gerrit Cole, and José Berríos.  Buehler is the player that aligns most with Keuchel, who settled for well over the midpoint, despite having far better stats than Keuchel.  Clevinger, Cole, and Berríos all represent high-quality pitchers that failed to meet Buehler’s echelon of play, serving as a baseline of what is deserving of a salary below the midpoint.  Mr. Buehler has a significant advantage over each of the aforementioned players, and his salary should reflect his dominance.

Note: H/t to fellow WNEU Law students Andrew Fernandes and Erik Scalzi for their help on this project!

Why Trading Mookie Betts Was the Right Move

Betts, who recently observed his 28th birthday, received a long extension with the Los Angeles Dodgers at $365,000,000 over 12 years. It’s needless to say that he’ll have some coin once his playing days are over with some rings to pair…

With his performance in the playoffs as of late, the front office in Boston has come under much scrutiny from media and fans for trading a highly regarded player like Mookie. Much of the outrage focuses on the fact that Mookie is a generational piece, but Boston sought sustainable success with talented, young ballplayers after the decimation of the farm system by former GM Dave Dombrowski in an effort to chase a ring.

In analyzing the deal, we must consider the contracts of the players involved… At the time of the trade, Mookie was set to hit free agency at the end of the 2020 season. In an interview with David Ortiz for the World Series, Mookie suggested that he saw himself staying in Boston for the rest of his career. However, he omitted the most significant part: He wanted to be rewarded with one of the highest contracts in the league.

Mookie made it clear that he wanted to be paid as a top player in the game, but never committed to Boston explicitly until after the fact.

He quietly rejected multiple offers from the Red Sox before the pandemic, the last of which was comparable to his current $365mil deal with the Dodgers. In a pre-COVID market, this was still a massive deal– but he sought $400mil as a free agent. His unwillingness to settle for anything less than what he valued himself, made it clear that he was not tied to Boston.

Admittedly, I was initially in the boat that thought the trade was lopsided for Betts at first… Verdugo and Graterol for an elite player like Mookie surely was a joke, right?

While Brusdar Graterol will be a cornerstone reliever in the near future, there might have been some misrepresentation of whether he was a starter or reliever. His inclusion in the deal was ultimately voided and instead, the Red Sox got a crop of young talent with infielder Jeter Downs and catcher Connor Wong, in addition to Verdugo.

Mookie Betts had no immediate intention of re-signing with the team. The Red Sox effectively gained “free talent” for an expiring contract when the race for the playoff was muddied by a very tough division with the Rays and Yankees in the hunt. The Red Sox effectively punted on the 2020 season by preempting an imminent exit with a trade that effectively locked up their middle-infield for the next 5 years. They also gained an every-day outfielder who can play all three outfield positions.

In his very short career, Verdugo has shown that he can replicate Betts’ offensive output (with slightly less power). In his career spanning over four years with 211 games underneath his belt, his career slash line is .290/.345/.458. It is impressive by itself, and he is gaining confidence at the plate– he has a very high ceiling.

Drooling Meme GIFs | Tenor

Jeter Downs is also a name to remember… The SS/2B was a highly touted prospect within the Cincinnati Reds organization until the Dodgers traded for him specifically. The 2018 trade that sent Jeter Downs to the Dodgers was the blockbuster that sent Yasiel Puig, Alex Wood, Matt Kemp and Kyle Farmer to Cincinnati. They, along with $7 million in cash, were packaged for Jeter Downs (then a 7th-ranked prospect), Josiah Gray (then a 20th-ranked prospect) and Homer Bailey. The Dodgers clearly valued Jeter Downs heavily and parted ways with him to get their dude in Betts.

Mookie is a great talent, but not someone you build around. He is, at best, an ancillary piece, who could turn a team into a super-team. His glove is elite, but he is not the best “complete” outfielder in the league. I don’t think he even breaks the top 5 (Trout, Acuña, Yelich, Bellinger, Judge all have slight advantages).

We will thank the Red Sox’ front office for making this trade in the near future, even though it is not apparent at the moment. The Dodgers’ World Series win validated that they “won” the trade, but who is to say the trade can’t be mutually beneficial?

Fear the Sox

No, not the other Sox…

Recently, the Chicago White Sox have been true to their name— white hot. At the time of writing this post on August 30, they are in second place in the AL Central, behind the Cleveland Indians by one game. This dominance harkens back to 2005, when Paul Konerko led the team to a World Series sweep against the Houston Astros (then in the National League).

An overpoweringly deep lineup, paired with an above-average rotation is always a recipe for success. One difference from 2005 however, is that the core of young blood on the team is under contract for the next few years, so they can only improve with key players.

Just last week, the Sox broke the MLB record for the most home runs in a 7-day span (Elias Sports Bureau).

The prolific Tim Anderson has been marketed as the AL Central’s star for a few seasons now, and he is finally filling that mold. Through 97 ABs, he is hitting an average of .361 with a staggering 1.048 OPS. To compliment that stat, he has been a catalyst in the lineup with 26 Rs. With only TWO errors on the season through 195 innings, he is assuming stardom with ease on both sides.

Slimmed down, Jose Abreu has found quite a bit of success this season, with a 2.0 WAR. Abreu dropped 12 HRs, driven in 30 RBIs, and has even scored 23 Rs. He has the second-highest OPS on the team at 1.006, behind Anderson.

Additionally, the young Yoan Moncada has been very versatile, appearing all across the infield. While his 2020 offensive stats are slightly below his career averages, his defensive modularity has been key to the Sox.

The bread is in the Sox’s outfield though… A core of Eloy Jimenez, Luis Robert, and Nomar Mazara produces many of their offensive output. Eloy and Robert have 11 and 8 HRs on the season respectively.

Luis Robert has bona fide GROWN MAN POWER!

The Sox also sneakily have the best platoon of catchers (in the entire league) behind the dish– both Yasmani Grandal and James McCann would each be the everyday catchers on contending teams. Yas is the third-best catcher (both offensively and defensively), and McCann has a case to break the top-ten.

While it is not their greatest asset, the starting rotation of Giolito, Keuchel, Cease, Gio Gonzalez, and Lopez has bite. The first three in the rotation all have sub-3.00 ERA.

Foster and Colome coming out of the ‘pen is the kiss of death for opposing teams. With a 1.23 and 0.79 ERA respectively, they have been lights-out.

With the surging Slam Diego Padres looming over the Dodgers, the race to the World Series is becoming a little muddier. The Yankees have been hampered with injuries, and they suddenly seem vulnerable in the big picture. The White Sox could be the world-beaters in the AL at least, and they might be the ones to topple the apparent kings in the Bronx.

Slugging White Sox could be ready to eclipse Cubs in Chicago

It’s Make or Break for the MLB

Eight Marlins players have tested positive Monday morning since their matchup against the Phillies on Sunday. Counting previously known positives, the number of known cases in the Marlins’ clubhouse is currently at twelve.

This obviously doesn’t bode well for any team… The Marlins are dangerously close to losing their entire starting lineup to this virus.

Miami announced it was delaying its trip home ahead of the series against the Orioles which was supposed to start tonight but instead was postponed earlier this morning. MLB also announced it postponed tonight’s Yankees-Phillies match up at Citizens Bank Park where the Marlins had just been.

While we can lament about why the season was not played in a bubble location, we still would have needed to play through the spread of this virus through clubhouses. Other teams will inevitably have more asymptomatic carriers until this season ends.

Whether it ends prematurely or on time, the status of this unprecedented season depends on how we tackle this first hurdle.

If we can find a way to get through this week, we may find a way to complete the season if we develop reliable protocol. Whatever the future holds, it will look more like what we are experiencing now but in greater volume.

The next 24 hours will be the most critical part of this season to date – we could see changes to protocol, more players opting out, or things much worse…

A Pyrrhic Victory for Baseball Fans as MLB Agrees to Return to Play

The MLBPA and owners agreed upon a return to play plan, as a result of Manfred’s vested powers from the March 26th agreement. The long stalemate lasted a whole three months, but in the end, an agreement surrounding the current CBA could not be found. The waters have muddied between the owners and Players Union, and the current agreement is set to expire after the 2021 season.

Even though the ramifications from this failure to reform the current CBA will be far-reaching, this season’s implications can be especially significant due to this inaction.

If the trend continues with the rising numbers of COVID-19 cases in current states, a 2020 season will not happen. Caution will always prevail, and an increase in confirmed cases seems inevitable.

Like we hold politicians accountable for every action or inaction, the owners and union should be held liable for the three months of inaction. The blame should rest on both sides for the inability to mediate on a regular-season, when the preseason should have been played in a bubble location during negotiations.

The return to play plans should have been made during the denouement of the first wave, and the first phase of returning to play should have coincided with the reopening phase. Thats means that now, the time frame to have a feasible season is long over. The window to play is expiring.

No matter the degree at which the coronavirus becomes a threat, it is inevitable that the virus will spread far and will find its way into clubhouses- because it is already in many.

The plans to play in 2020 were finalized far too late, and are going to be implemented when the virus is resurging on the heels of the reopening phase. Remaining cautiously optimistic, I am anticipating an exciting and pivotal season for the sport.

The Analysis of Sports Amidst COVID-19

After a long and argumentative time span in May and June, the NBA and MLB have concluded that the season will resume in the month of July.

For the majority of sports fans, it is a pleasure and a sign of hope that sports will finally be on television again. For the opposite side of the scale, there is reasonable doubt, as well as reasonable concern, for the continuation of sports.

In a world that seems to change relentlessly on a daily basis, the sports scene is certainly no exception and the above-average sports fan has certainly been starving for some sort of entertainment on television.

For a while, there was a considerable crowd that was highly invested in “The Last Dance” documentary, which then transitioned into a less than entertaining golf match between all-time rivals of Tom Brady vs. Payton Manning and Tiger Woods vs. Phil Michelson. Even though these two isolated programs attracted a considerable crowd, the background of the continuation of sports was still up in the air.

Fast forward to late June when Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred reached an agreement with the MLB Players Association to play a 60-game season in specified, semi-neutral locations to minimize travel. Similarly, the NBA reached an agreement to colonize the since-abandoned Walt Disney World to accommodate the players and their respective staff.

The NHL has released a schedule in which the remainder of the season – including the postseason – will be played without any solidified ramifications or logistics of how, when, or where the games will be played. Lastly, the NFL is still up in the air in regards to gameplay, although the presence of fans crowding into a stadium seems highly unlikely.

Essentially, I would like to analyze the intent and the possible outcomes of sports returning in the disastrous year that is 2020.

In a year where a pandemic was not plaguing the entire planet, the average sports fan would be just finishing the NHL and NBA postseasons and beginning to get a feel for their current MLB team before the all-star break to identify any changes that may need to be made to make a playoff run. Additionally, that same average sports fan is more than likely already thinking about football, imagining the outcome of the team they support after all the final trades and personnel changes have been made. Maybe they’d even be pooling the final contestants in the annual fantasy football league.

In 2020, baseball seemed nonexistent given that the peak of the epidemic and shelter-in-place orders began on what would have been opening day for several different programs, but furthermore, the climax of the NHL and NBA seasons was about to be in full swing.

Having said that, the question then becomes “If a franchise were to win a championship this season, what will be recorded in history?”

In my observation of the NBA, the season will resume. But there have been several players – even all-star players in fact – that have contracted the disease and are absolutely subject to miss a portion of this season. That will then affect a coaching strategy going forward; not to mention the health and wellbeing of the other players and staff.

Hypothetically, if the Lakers were to finish the remainder of what would be the 2019-2020 season as champions, this season would be the first dynamic of its kind and will be deserving of an “outlier” distinction. This same paradigm applies for the NHL and even more so for baseball given that the season will be played with less than half as many games as a normal season.

Is that deserving championship prestige? I believe history will decide.

Going further, sports have a tendency to bring everyone together. Not just by the overwhelming support for a team or an individual, but entertainment of any kind can cause the looming sensation of melancholy and cabin fever to subside while the game is on.

In that aspect, I cannot wait to be surrounded by sports and the culture alike again. I miss the premise of sitting down with my friends and loved ones and watching a sports game or match. Perhaps even more so, I miss those conversations I have with others about a terrible umpire, an astounding home run, a near-impossible three-pointer, or a rapid-paced power play that can seem to make any problem feel small.

However, sports in that respect are still just a game, but the athletes and the coaches involved in these games are real. In other words, these teams and individuals supporting these teams will be at risk, no matter what safety precautions are put in place.

COVID-19 did not by any means disappear, and will more than likely be amongst the populous of the United States for a lot longer than most are prepared for, especially me. I would rather remain in the comfort of my own home watching the same shows and highlight reels in perpetuity than sacrifice the health or safety of any athlete.

With more athletes testing positive for COVID-19, I am still under the impression that the beginning or resuming of sports this summer is still into question, and if gameplay were to resume, I will remain hopeful that everyone stays safe.

Biggest Winner from the COVID-19 Fallout: The KBO

I have always been a “glass-half-full” kind of guy, so talking about who lost the most from COVID-19 brought no joy. Trying to remain optimistic about the stoppage of society as a whole, we will judge who or what came out of this pandemic stronger.

The jawn that prospered the most due to this pandemic is undoubtedly the Korean Baseball Organization (or KBO).

South Korea has a surprisingly long history of baseball. It was originally brought to the country in the 19th century by American missionaries and found its roots during Japanese rule. Up until the start of WWII, Major League sporadically sent teams in an effort to barnstorm in the country when it was a part of Japan. Babe Ruth actually led a team of MLB All-Stars in Japan, where Korean nationals played for the Japanese team.

Baseball picked up even more traction after the Korean War when Western ideals clashed with Eastern ideals. After the fighting stopped, a culture grew from the ashes left behind and baseball spawned a community in yet another Asiatic country.

It wasn’t until the 1980s however, when the first professional baseball league was launched in South Korea. Six teams were a part of the inaugural league, but it has grown to the ten teams today. In its entire history, the KBO has never reached a global audience until the circumstances brought on by this pandemic.

To fill slots on-air, ESPN picked up the televised rights to the KBO in America. On Opening Day, the broadcast drew in an audience of 173,000, gaining immeasurable exposure to a starving fan base.

The talent level is good, but not great. Some starting pitchers can barely break 90mph on their fastball. The batters don’t have much pop either, as the league actually had to “de-juice” the baseballs in order to give up less home runs.

The league specializes in the video-bites in America through it’s infamous bat flips, and viral presentation of the game (even without fans).

Despite the fact that the KBO will be a distant memory in a few months, the sudden rise in popularity will allow the league to grow. The exposure domestically in Korea will promote the culture within, because legitimizing the sport (remotely) from the Western Hemisphere can bring in funding and further talent to the sport.

Both the league and country has the chance to rival those in other established baseball hotspots, like Japan, Cuba, and the rest of Latin America. As a result of this interest, Korea will soon contend with the rest for a premier avenue for MLB-ready talent.

Biggest Loser from the COVID-19 Fallout: Mookie Betts

He was supposed to be baseball’s next $400 million dollar man, and rightfully so. Mookie Betts was in pole position to have a monster offseason, where he would become the most sought-after unrestricted free agent.

The Red Sox had reportedly made several attempts to restructure the contract with Mookie. In 2016, he declined a five-year, $100 million deal. Following the 2017 season, Betts again turned down an offer of an eight-year, $200 million dollar contract. After his 2018 AL MVP season, Mookie was offered a ten-year deal, worth $300 million in the offseason. Mookie counter-offered with twelve years at $420 million. In an effort to recoup something in return for Betts, Boston dealt him away after the 2019 season. He was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers after insisting on hitting the market in search of his desired price tag. 

Like every other business, the market for athletes is dependent on the total market revenue. With the stoppage of play, each team will be affected differently. According to the New York Times, the LA Dodgers are currently at $232 million in local losses, with teams like the New York Mets, Chicago Cubs, and Boston Red Sox close behind with $214 million, $199 million, and $188 million in losses, respectively. 

Even if there is an abbreviated season, teams will lose out on a significant amount of revenue. This will take away from their ability to pay out contracts after the season, and the market will see an overall dip.  The Athletic’s Peter Gammons suggested that Betts would be “lucky” to earn a deal worth $250 million in the current market.

While it was unforeseeable during prior negotiations, Betts must be kicking himself over what could have been. He might not command the $420 million dollar price tag he was in search of, but he has a lot to prove if baseball is to be played this year. 

Does Boston now have the ability to offer Betts a competitive contract offer, due to the expected market dip?

Catchers Are Quietly Changing Baseball

One of the few good things to come out of this pandemic is that the hiatus in live events has allowed for a time for reflection. Re-runs of classic games have taken the primetime slots where live games would have normally aired.

One of the striking aspects of this unique situation is how it displays the full context of any given game without the soundbites or short clips associated with these famed moments in baseball history. It allows for the full breadth of a game to be watched in its entirety, and many differences can be seen when compared to today’s game.

One of the games recently aired was Roger Clemens’ 20 strikeout game. In the early innings, the announcers were ecstatic over the fact that Clemens had been throwing over 90 mph on the day and how his off-speed was working well.

Today, it is expected that every pitcher can consistently throw over 90mph. How has the game changed that much since then?

There are two players in frame for every pitch and it’s evident that pitchers aren’t the only ones who have changed.

If the act of receiving a ball would be interpreted as an art form, Tony Peña should be considered the Claude Monet of catchers. He displayed a strange stance back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but others didn’t start emulating it until recently. This catching style is here to stay and it is changing the very fabric of the game for the better.

Without runners on base, Peña adopted a bizarre and unorthodox stance. He had one leg stretched out while he kept the other leg tucked beneath his torso. He was never known for his bat, but his defensive qualities kept him in the game for all of his 19 seasons. His longevity is a remarkable feat, and surely his unique stance allowed him to endure at a physically demanding position.

Baseball has always been a traditional sport; there will always be a crowd that is opposed to change. Up until recently, catchers were conditioned to use traditional methods when receiving a pitch. 

Catchers had typically used the “formal” two-stance setup. When a catcher gives signs to the pitcher, his feet are closer beneath his torso to hide the calls from wandering eyes. When the pitch is delivered, the right leg shifts behind to a staggered position as the feet are widened.

Catchers have long been the recipients of physical trauma (see Buster Posey). Donning the “tools of ignorance” has weathered many, especially the lower half of their bodies. Few catchers finish their careers behind the dish due to the physicality of the position, and many see their knees wear down eventually. Deep squatting puts a lot of stress on the joint, as it pulls on the tendons and squishes the cartilage. Rising from this position can put even more pressure on the joint.

Peña’s unprecedented take on receiving pitches genuinely gives himself and his team an advantage over others. By using this “informal” setup, he conserves energy, saves his knees from great stress, and most importantly has the ability to better frame the ever-so-important low strike.

Many players today have adopted a similar stance from one knee. Salvador Perez, J.T. Realmuto, and Gary Sanchez are among the best catchers in the game. They are also some of the players that adopted this style of “informal” catching.

El Gary isn’t an elite defensive-minded catcher, so this offseason he aimed to improve his framing. According to Baseball Prospectus, he was a below-average blocker in 2017 and 2018, and only slightly improved for the 2019 season. The Yankees recently brought in new catching coach, Tanner Swanson, to aid his receiving abilities.

Swanson was stationed up in Minnesota during the 2019 season, where he drastically improved Mitch Garver’s defensive capabilities. Garver adopted this “informal” stance under Swanson’s tutelage. Garver consistently dropped down to one knee, even with runners on base.

The most important factor in using this new stance is the ability to “steal” the low pitch. 

Having a lower base gives the illusion to umpires that the pitch is higher than it really is. If the same exact pitch is thrown and someone with a higher stance stabs downward at it, while another from one knee sweeps upwards to catch the ball, the latter will always be called a strike over the former. 

It’s an optical illusion and learning to play to the umpires’ tendencies is something that is critical to finding success in the Sabermetrics Era.