The Bad and the Ugly on Bleacher Report

*Warning: This post has nothing to do with baseball or the Phillies. You may have ascertained that by the title, but it’s worth mentioning before a 1,400-word essay.*

If you’re one of my followers on Twitter, you’ve probably seen me make and re-tweet snarky comments about Bleacher Report. For the uninitiated, Bleacher Report “provides news and fans’ opinions of sporting events”, per Wikipedia. Essentially, if you have a pulse, know what sports are, and have a computer with an Internet connection, you are qualified to write for Bleacher Report — just as you are with typical blogs.

Regular bloggers and mainstream media types, often in opposition to each other on many other subjects, seem to agree that BR is a travesty and an eyesore. One need only peruse the home page to get a feel for the quality of content provided at BR. Some examples as of this writing:

  • Full Scream Ahead: 10 Teams With the Most Momentum Heading Into 2011
  • Dwight Howard Trade Rumors: 10 Moves Orlando Magic Can Make To Keep Him Happy
  • Penguins Show the NHL Who has the Biggest Johnson

For more examples, check out Dustin Parkes’ list of the “Top Eight Worst Bleacher Report Baseball Posts Of All Time Ever In The World”.

Just a cursory glance at BR provides a window into the authors’ thought processes:

  1. Think of a player, team, or issue that is interesting or in the news (Dwight Howard)
  2. Think of a way to talk about it in list-form (Trade rumors)
  3. Think of things to put in a list (Trade proposals, realistic or not… mostly not)

(And the irony of the above list hits… now.)

BR’s style encourages thoughtless list-making. Anybody can make a list. Anybody can Google “Dwight Howard trade rumors” and find a picture of him on Google Images. One need possess no writing skills and no analytical skills to publish a post at BR. Most people do not have elite writing and analytical skills, so BR is a perfect venue for them to see their name in a byline, unchallenged. That makes BR a content factory.

This is why most bloggers and mainstream writers dislike BR. For the mainstream guys and gals, they (and I speak entirely in generalities here) had to go into debt to earn a college degree in journalism and worked long hours covering high school field hockey for a small-town newspaper before landing their professional baseball/football/hockey/etc. gig. They constantly have to answer to editors and superiors when their work is subpar, and must adhere to strict journalistic standards.

The blogosphere is a meritocracy, as Will Leitch famously said on Costas Now on HBO. For the most part, bloggers with poor writing and/or analytical skills do not succeed because people will end up going to the blogs with better writing and/or analytical skills. There are exceptions, of course, but for the most part this holds true. Most bloggers pay money out of their own pockets to purchase a domain name and to acquire server hosting (or otherwise join on with an already-existing blog), spend many hours per week writing and editing multiple posts, and following up with commenters because their writing is a passion.

Bloggers have to earn their keep. Phillies Nation didn’t become the best Phillies blog on the planet (R.I.P. The Fightins) by making top-ten lists of arbitrary names and details. They certainly didn’t start out with over 125,000 Facebook followers. At the start, they were a passionate group of Phillies fans who had to prove themselves to the community, just like everybody else.

What BR provides is a platform of equal significance to the best and worst of the community. Better writing and analysis is not rewarded in the slightest, which means the bad writing and analysis is subsequently rewarded.

Thumb through the biographies for BR authors. On most of them, you will find self-admitted “aspiring writers” looking to break into the sports writing business. They are on BR for fame and notoriety; they are not there out of genuine love of sports and writing about them. In other words, they are leeches feeding on BR’s ability to put them in the spotlight, deserved or not. Are these the people you want to shine a light on and say, “Yeah, this is what we’re all about”?

Furthermore, a requisite of list-making is having a pre-developed idea. This list is titled “10 Current Players Freddie Freeman Could Develop Into” and authored by Will Brown, who is “going to school in hopes of being a sports journalist in the future”.

Why ten players? Why not nine or eleven? Obvious questions, but being beholden to round numbers is the bane of solid analysis. What if there are only seven legitimate players to compare to Freeman? The additional three are thrown on arbitrarily to suit the list format.

What is the criteria for comparison? Flipping through the slideshow yields no answers. The one thing in common is that they mostly play corner infield spots and are well-known players. Most likely, the author went to a leaderboard for MLB players, sorted it by 1B and then 3B, and picked out a few recognizable players haphazardly.

A good analyst would have a defined system for comparison. So if the results yielded James Loney and Daric Barton rather than Michael Young and Ryan Zimmerman, the author’s conclusion isn’t affected since it wasn’t made beforehand, despite that those players aren’t as interesting or noteworthy. Even better, perhaps he learns that his hypothesis is wrong and goes back to the drawing board, rather than publishing a flawed theory.

BR recently hired King Kaufman, a former writer and editor for Salon.com. In his first post from his new home, he talked about BR’s reputation, admitting some of BR’s faults, and change. “My main job here is to try to help improve the overall quality of the writing,” he wrote.¬†Many have poked fun at him for trying to put lipstick on a pig.

I’ve had no contact with Kaufman other than participating in a Scoresheet league with him last year (and I stopped paying attention to my team in May), and he certainly didn’t ask for my thoughts on his project. From what I’ve read of his work, he seems like a smart guy and a great writer — a perfect candidate to tackle an enormous project like this. But if I had to offer some unsolicited suggestions to him, they would be:

  • Lose the slideshow/list format. Entirely. Prove that your community is not comprised of page-view scavengers. Some of them — more than I gave credit to, probably — are in it for “the love of the game”.
  • Do not judge the writing based on page views and comments. They are not great indicators of quality. Remove the page view counters on each article.
  • Hold writers to a standard. Maybe you lose page views from the lack of “WAG” posts featuring pictures of scantily-clad women, but you bring your website up several notches in credibility. And, you know, you lose that whole misogynistic, objectifying women thing. I’m not a businessman, so maybe this idea is foolhardy.
  • Feature writing, not pictures. This kind of goes hand-in-hand with losing the slideshows, but compare BR’s main page to that of Baseball Prospectus. On BR, I am being enticed to read articles for the subject; on BP, I am being enticed to read articles for the content. A subtle distinction, yes, but it does make a difference — especially for a website that wants to foster a community.
  • Reward better writing with better real estate. Have real BR moderators (community-based or hired) read posts and reward the better ones with “featured” status and being listed on the front page. It’s basically the system they have in place now, but with some legitimacy behind it.

Bleacher Report can continue being nothing but a content factory. They can continue to call upon average Joes to be, as Dustin Parkes called them, “boner providers” — luring men to click on more pages and more ads with the allure of scantily-clad women and top-ten lists. If, however, King Kaufman wants Bleacher Report to have any future credibility as a first stop on the Internet highway for quality sports content, then he needs to clean slate and take away the incentives for his content providers to be lazy and incompetent. Or, more accurately, the disincentives for them to be hard-working and competent.

Maple Street Press Phillies Annual 2011

With pitchers and catchers due in Clearwater in a week, 2011 season previews will start sprouting up like spring flowers. Not one of them, however, will rival the output of the Maple Street Press Phillies Annual 2011. As you can see on the image to the right, this year’s edition will feature content from some of your favorite Phillies writers, including:

What’s included in the 128 pages of advertisement-free Phillies coverage? Just about everything under the sun:

  • Pitch-level scouting reports revealing the strengths, weaknesses, and tendencies of every key player
  • In-depth looks at all the Phillies’ NL East rivals for 2011
  • Ryan Howard cut down on his strikeouts, but where’s the power?
  • Roy Halladay’s no-hitters, and the best pitching performances of the year
  • Hollywood once again: How Cole Hamels got his groove back
  • Interview: Doug Glanville on life in, and after, baseball
  • The top 30 Phillies prospects and a look at the Sally League champion Lakewood BlueClaws
  • Culture change: The Phillies dynasty, where it ranks with other great teams, and how it has affected the Philly mindset

In my article, I broke down in specific details Roy Halladay’s perfect game and NLDS no-hitter. I had a blast researching and writing the article, and I hope it comes through when you read it. I’m thrilled to have my name alongside an All-Star cast of writers.

If you’re interested, follow this link directly to the Maple Street Press website where you can place an online order for $12.99. They will be shipped beginning on February 17. If you would rather pick it up in person, the Annual will hit newsstands on March 1.

That Mighty Fine Starting Rotation

Yesterday was quite an important day in the United States. Many got together with friends and family, cooked food, downed a bunch of beers, and enjoyed each other’s company on a most joyous occasion. Not the Super Bowl — it was Ronald Reagan’s 100th birthday!

Kidding aside, if you were busy yesterday with that game of hand-egg, you missed ESPN’s incredibly poor decision in handing me the reins to the SweetSpot blog for an entire day. In Rob Neyer’s stead, they called upon us bloggers to fill in while they search for a new queen- or kingpin. In my first article, I looked at how historically great the 2011 Phillies starting rotation could be. Using WAR, I concluded that only two starting rotations included four members compling at least 4 WAR apiece: the 1991 and ’97 Braves. With a little bit of luck and good health, the Phillies could be the third to accomplish the feat since 1960.

I spoke with Dan Szymborski, of ZiPS projection fame, about these awesome front-fours. He wrote about his projections for the current batch of Phillies back in December — he has them slated to post 19.8 WAR. Szymborski notes that that would be the 13th-best among front-fours in the past 41 years and the third-best since 1993 according to his calculations. It would also be more than five WAR better than the Phillies’ next-best rotation, found in ’83. That rotation featured future Hall-of-Famer and four-time Cy Young award winner Steve Carlton, the ’83 Cy Young winner in John Denny, Charles Hudson, and Marty Bystrom.

The 1993 rotation, which included Curt Schilling, Danny Jackson, Tommy Greene, Terry Mulholland, and Ben Rivera (the quintet remarkably made 152 of 162 starts), came in fourth at 12.8 WAR according to Szymborski. I don’t think there’s any doubt that the current amalgamation of starters vastly exceeds the ’93 bunch, but the Phillies would love to mimic that exceptionally clean bill of health such that their front four are able to accrue 200+ innings individually. And looking backwards, the Phillies have one-third of baseball’s top-12 pitchers in 2010.

PECOTA is here, by the way. Let me just say that I am very excited about the projections for Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt, and Cole Hamels. Joe Blanton, too.

It’s going to be a fun year. One week left until pitchers and catchers report!

The Overlooked Bullpen

Rob Bradford of WEEI posted his Major League bullpen power rankings this morning. Naturally, the first thing I did was a Ctrl + F for “Phillies”. Much to my surprise, they were in the top one-third, but the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. Lost in the talk about the Phillies’ four aces and how many innings they ought to accrue, the bullpen is actually quite formidable.

Faithful readers of the blog know how highly I think of Ryan Madson, but even outside of him, there are quality pitchers capable of getting outs reliably. But let’s start with Madson and get him out of the way.

Madson is awesome. It aggravated me to no end to see him shunned for an apparent inability to close games despite never really getting a fair shot. He was not given the benefit of the doubt when a small sample size can produce a wide variety of results irrespective of skill. During the 2010 season, he posted a 10.9 K/9 and a 2.2 BB/9. His 4.9 strikeout-to-walk ratio was ninth-best in the Majors among relief pitchers, sandwiched by Luke Gregerson and Billy Wagner, two very highly-regarded bullpen arms. And among relievers with at least 50 innings in Phillies franchise history, Madson joined Doug Jones as the only ones to post a 4.9 or better strikeout-to-walk ratio. His 2.49 SIERA was 12th-best in baseball. His change-up is arguably the best in the Majors — even better than Cole Hamels‘. If there’s a Phillies reliever you don’t want to face, it’s Madson.

How about Brad Lidge? He is cast aside as a reliever at the end of his career with not much left to offer. As I mentioned yesterday, the Phillies need to decide on what to do with the closer situation, and it likely won’t include Lidge going forward. Still, he is a well above-average reliever. His 3.55 SIERA was right there with highly-respected closer Andrew Bailey and a tenth of a run behind Mariano Rivera.

Lidge’s 2010 season turned around after Ryan Zimmerman of the Washington Nationals hit a walk-off home run on July 31. To that point, Lidge had a 5.57 ERA with a BB/9 of an even 6.0. After the game, Zimmerman hinted that Lidge was tipping his pitches. From August 1 through the rest of the season, Lidge corrected his flaws and posted a 0.73 ERA with a 3.6 BB/9. Baseball is a game of constant adjustments. Lidge appeared to make the correct adjustments in the final two months last year, and he can only learn from that and benefit going forward. He is not by any means a washed up reliever; in fact, he is still among the most feared in baseball.

Jose Contreras finished 2010 with a 3.19 SIERA, certainly a great accomplishment as it was his first full season as a reliever. He averaged just over a strikeout per inning and was stingy with the free passes as his 2.5 BB/9 indicated. He even induced a good amount of ground balls (45 percent) to help limit the damage. Because he is not in a glorified position with its own title, such as “set-up” or “closer”, Contreras is assumed to be just another reliever, but he is good enough to close on quite a few teams. He may have worn down towards the end of the season as his second-half ERA was more than a full run higher than his first-half ERA, but now that he is going into his second full season as a reliever, he can make the proper adjustments in terms of preparation and conditioning.

J.C. Romero is responsible for the poorly-groomed fingernails of many a Philadelphian, but I insist it’s not his fault. As mentioned various times here on the blog, Romero should be used strictly against left-handed hitters. His xFIP against lefties is a paltry 3.61, but against right-handers, it rises to an unacceptable 5.34. Charlie Manuel has limited Romero’s use to lefties more and more, but never entirely. It would behoove Ruben Amaro to demand that Romero never be used against a right-handed hitter in a meaningful situation. When used properly, Romero is a remarkably effective lefty.

Antonio Bastardo will likely be the team’s second lefty out of the bullpen. He seems to have been given this reputation as a good-but-not-quite-good-enough reliever, but in limited action, he posted a 2.90 SIERA. He can attribute that to an incredible 12.5 K/9 (in about 19 innings), which is not a fluke. Over his Minor League career, he posted a 10.3 K/9. Bastardo’s goal should be to limit his walks, but he is right now an MLB-capable reliever. Consider that his 4.3 BB/9 last year is comparable to Lidge’s 4.1 career average. Those walk rates are not good by any means, but you accept it with the amount of swings-and-misses they induce.

The bullpen will round out with a slop-throwing long reliever (probably Kyle Kendrick) and perhaps a young arm. Scott Mathieson is one such candidate whom I feel hasn’t been given a fair shot at keeping a job as a Major League reliever. He had all of one and two-thirds innings in 2010 including one appearance in mid-June in which he struggled and was immediately jettisoned to Triple-A Lehigh Valley. The kid, fully recovered from Tommy John surgery, has done just about everything he can possibly do in the Minors — he’s thrown 566 innings in the Minors with a 9.0 K/9, 2.9 BB/9 and 3.82 ERA — so it’s time to use him or lose him.

Another name to keep in mind is Justin De Fratus (he’s on Twitter!). The 23-year-old has been nothing short of impressive in his brief professional career. Last year, between Single-A Clearwater and Double-A Reading, he posted a 1.94 ERA with a 9.8 K/9 and 2.2 BB/9. ESPN’s Jason Grey is very high on De Fratus as well:

De Fratus absolutely looks like a big league bullpen arm, with a 92-95 mph fastball that touched 96 mph once when I saw him, and good tilt on an 83-85 mph slider that can get strikeouts. A strong pitcher with a good frame who uses his lower half well, De Fratus does a good job finishing his pitches. De Fratus isn’t far from a call-up and looks like he could fill a seventh- or eighth-inning role at the big league level, and from there anything can happen. Then again, he’s also in an organization that left Scott Mathieson behind to dominate Triple-A hitters all year.

The Phillies are expected to have a formidable offense and baseball’s best starting rotation, but don’t forget about the bullpen. Their role may have been condensed, but they still have a say on exactly how successful the Phillies will be in the regular season and how far they will advance in the playoffs.

Potential July Departures

There is next to nothing going on in the baseball world right now, but the Phillies could be very busy come July. With eight potential free agents in 2012, the Phillies may want to move some players before they walk away. Who are they and under what circumstances could they be moved?

Roy Oswalt

Oswalt is due $16 million in 2012 but the Phillies can buy out that final year for $2 million and let him walk. There is some speculation that he could retire as well. If the Phillies are in contention for the playoffs, which is nearly guaranteed, there is no way Oswalt is moved. But, if the Phillies anger the baseball gods and fall out of the hunt by July 31, Oswalt could waive his no-trade clause and agree to be traded to a team in contention for a few prospects or a Major League-capable left fielder that would be under team control beyond the 2012 season.

If the Phillies are very strong in 2011, they will just keep Oswalt on board through the ’12 season. No reason to break up the four aces if you don’t have to, right?

Brad Lidge

Like Oswalt, Lidge has an expensive price tag for the 2012 season but the Phillies can buy him out for $1.5 million. Due to his struggles in ’09 and the early part of last season, the Phillies may be more comfortable with Ryan Madson in the ninth inning going forward. The only way Lidge would be an attractive trade target, though, is if he is healthy and pitching well, and if that is the case, the Phillies are going to want to keep him through the post-season. So for Lidge to be moved, he would need to be healthy and pitching well and the Phillies will have to be out of playoff contention.

The haul for Lidge wouldn’t be too impressive — perhaps a Ben Francisco-esque jack-of-all-trades outfielder at the most; more likely a fringe prospect or two. The Nationals may have ripped off the Minnesota Twins last year in getting prospect Wilson Ramos in exchange for closer Matt Capps, but don’t expect the Phillies to get such a deal.

Raul Ibanez

Ibanez’s availability will depend on the progress of Domonic Brown, particularly the rookie’s performance in spring training. Essentially, if Brown impresses enough in spring training to merit a full-time job in right field, the likelihood of an Ibanez trade increases. Based on what the organization has said publicly, though, expect Brown to platoon in right field with Ben Francisco. In that case, if both Brown and Francisco produce, Ibanez does become expendable if and only if Ibanez agrees to waive his trade protection.

The problem is, of course, finding a market for a 39-year-old corner outfielder. The American League, where Ibanez’s shoddy defense can be hidden, is the place to look. Unlike Oswalt and Lidge, the point of trading Ibanez would be to recoup some of the $11.5 million he will be owed in 2011. The Phillies would be willing to trade Ibanez for next-to-nothing as long as the receiving team takes on the remainder of his salary, which would be about $4 million.

Ryan Madson

Thinking about this breaks my heart, but there is a possibility that Madson won’t be wearing Phillies red in 2012. He will earn $4.5 million this year, the last leg of his contract. Given his age and great performance over the last four years, it’s hard to imagine the Phillies not wanting to keep him around. However, Madson’s agent is Scott Boras, who may not advise his client to sign another team-friendly contract like he did in January of ’09.

Madson, who turns 30 at the end of August, is among the best relievers in the game but is not regarded as such. His strikeout-to-walk ratio was ninth-best among relievers last year and his 2.49 SIERA ranked 12th among pitchers with at least 50 innings of work. Despite that, Madson has never had an extended opportunity to close, and in the scant opportunities he has had, no one was impressed by his performance.

His age and overall good performance in the set-up role should allow the Phillies to get a couple of useful prospects, but I would be shocked if GM Ruben Amaro doesn’t have Madson, Rollins, and Cole Hamels signed to two- and three-year extensions before it’s too late.

Shane Victorino

As with Ibanez, Victorino’s availability depends a lot on Brown’s ability to transition into the Majors. Because Victorino is a center fielder and the Phillies have never seemed enthused about having either Brown or Francisco in center, such a trade would have to involve a center fielder coming back. The Dodgers’ Matt Kemp will be named in trade rumors until he is actually traded or signed to an extension and would be one such trade target for the Phillies. Kemp will earn $550,000 less than Victorino this year and will likely match Victorino’s $9.5 million salary in 2012, his last year of arbitration eligibility. Many have felt that a change of scenery would benefit Kemp and the Dodgers, so the thought has some merit — just not much.

If you’ve been keeping tabs on the caveats throughout this article, it’s quite obvious that such trades aren’t likely and involve a confluence of factors to actually occur. A team like the Phillies, built to win now, can’t really afford to sell off their parts, even if it means swallowing a net loss in terms of prospects and draft quicks left on the table. Stranger things have happened, though, like last year when the Phillies appeared to be throwing away the season and Amaro traded for a tractor-loving pitcher named Roy Oswalt.