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Thursday 21st Sep 2017

With two weeks remaining in the 2017 Major League Baseball regular season, it seems a good time to check on the races for the top pitching awards in the American and National Leagues, the Cy Young Awards.

If the annual recognition was decided by algorithms instead of via the votes of selected members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, what we might get is results similar to a tool that runs on ESPN’s website.

The “MLB Cy Young Predictor” formula, borrowed from sabermetric pioneer Bill James and Rob Neyer, includes innings pitched, earned runs, strikeouts, walks, saves, shutouts, wins, losses and provides bonus points for a division title. The intent is not to determine the best pitcher, but instead to best predict where the voters will land.

In all fairness, the formula seems to work pretty well compared to the human vote. In fact, nine of the last 10 winners over the last five years were correctly predicted. The one miss was a second-place finisher.

Here in 2017 in the Junior Circuit, 2014 winner and 2016 third-place finisher Corey Kluber of Cleveland has a sizeable lead over Boston teammates Chris Sale and Craig Kimbrel. Interestingly, those same two clubs have all top five spots locked down, with Carlos Carrasco (CLE) fourth and Drew Pomeranz (BOS) fifth.

It may be painful for San Diego fans to be reminded that both Kluber and Pomeranz were dealt away by the Padres, though in all fairness, the trades were six years apart.

Fame can be fleeting, as Boston’s Rick Porcello, the 2016 AL Cy Young Award winner, is not among the current top 10.

In the National League, the picture is also very different from a year ago, yet in a way quite familiar. In 2016, Clayton Kershaw was out of the race, having missed over two months due to injury before a September return. That cleared the way for Max Scherzer of Washington, who was also the 2013 American League winner while with Detroit and has another pair of top-five finishes.

In 2017, Scherzer is again among the favorites, though clustered with my bounceback player of the year, Arizona’s Zack Greinke, at third and fourth, respectively. Given the gap between these two and the top pair, their chances have to be considered slim.

It is almost a dead heat at the top of the NL Predictor list between three-time winner Kershaw and his club’s closer, Kenley Jansen. The Dodgers’ ninth-inning man was also close to Scherzer a year ago in the ESPN formula, but finished a distant third in the sportswriter voting, with the Cubs’ Jon Lester also slipping by.

History suggests a reliever would need help (in terms of less-dominating starters) to win, with the last bullpenner to take home the hardware being another Dodger, Eric Gagne in 2003. In the baseball circle of life, it seems fitting that Gagne attempted a comeback this very spring, with success in the World Baseball Classic for Team Canada, followed by a less-positive and career-ending (again) stint with the independent Long Island Ducks.

An AL closer hasn’t won since Dennis Eckersley in 1992, back when he had Prince Albert hair. (Never mind. Strike that last comment!)

Another more tangible reason Jansen should not be counted out is a recent turn of events during which Kershaw has suggested he is mortal. The lefty was charged with four earned runs allowed in two of his last three starts while taking his third and fourth losses of the season to go with 17 wins. The latter is tied with Greinke and Kluber for the MLB lead. Kershaw’s ERA is “up” to 2.26, still the best among all contending starters.

However, one reliever has an especially low ERA of 1.27 – Kershaw’s teammate Jansen.

The Curacao native continues to be the best lockdown closer in the game. Since his last blown save two months ago, Jansen has one win and 13 saves. In that time, he has tossed 21 1/3 innings, yielding just two earned runs, for an 0.84 ERA. The 29-year old fanned 32 against just five walks and 15 hits allowed.

While the NL race may go down to the wire, any intrigue over the identity of the American League winner appears to be over.

Brian Walton was the 2009 National League Tout Wars champion, scoring the most points in the league’s 18-year history. He also holds the all-time NL Tout single-season records for wins and saves. His work can also be found daily at TheCardinalNation.com. Follow Brian on Twitter.

As another regular season of my baseball columns here at Mastersball nears its end, it seems the ideal time to look ahead to this fall and share an open invitation to a special conference held each year, First Pitch Arizona.

From November 2-5, the 2017 FPA event will run in Phoenix, Arizona. Founded by Ron Shandler and expertly run by the BaseballHQ team headed by Ray Murphy and Brent Hershey, FPA offers a mix of baseball forums with a fantasy focus in a classroom setting along with the opportunity to watch a number of Arizona Fall League games in the glorious desert outdoors.

Speakers include many prominent names in the fantasy baseball industry as well as selected outside baseball experts. Pretty much all the name-brand analysts you have followed for years participate as well as several professional scouts. The fare includes insight on which future stars to watch in AFL games as well as helping you get a head start on fantasy baseball preparation for 2018. There are main tent sessions as well as smaller group meetings enabling in-depth interaction, discussion and analysis.

Unlike many other events, in which speakers show up for their allotted time and leave, the vast majority of First Pitch speakers attend the entire three days and are available for questions and talk at breakfast, lunch, breaks and even during the games!

One annual special benefit is that the First Pitch schedule is aligned with the AFL’s Fall Stars Game, held this year on Saturday, November 4. This event, televised nationally on MLB Network, enables us to get up close with all the top prospects in the AFL in one contest.

First Pitch’s early bird fee is $399 (available through September 15 only), which includes the conference and AFL game admission. The enrollment does not include your hotel room, but special rates are offered. Next spring, attendees will also receive free copies of the 2018 Baseball Forecaster and Minor League Analyst, a $59 value.

During FPA, we hold the annual draft of the Xperts Fantasy League, or XFL. Not only does the 15-team keeper format league have the earliest industry draft each year, it is the manliest of settings. We conduct our fast-paced auction draft in front of a live and satellite radio audience completely without materials, other than standard 40-man rosters. That is a wonderful challenge, one that I have yet to master.

There is no doubt about my highlight of the Arizona trip - the AFL itself and the discussions with friends, old and new, that occur during the games themselves. Please join us this year at First Pitch Arizona. You will be glad you did.

Brian Walton was the 2009 National League Tout Wars champion, scoring the most points in the league’s 18-year history. He also holds the all-time NL Tout single-season records for wins and saves. His work can also be found daily at TheCardinalNation.com and thecardinalnationblog.com. Follow Brian on Twitter @B_Walton.

If you weren’t a Major League Baseball fan already, you probably did not notice MLB’s Little League Classic, held in Williamsport, PA on Sunday night. Still, ESPN and MLB did their best to promote the event, designed to help reconnect the game with youth - which oddly included Commissioner Rob Manfred walking around in the stands like a wayward hot dog vendor, passing out commemorative pins.

Numerous features on many individuals during the telecast of the Pittsburgh Pirates-St. Louis Cardinals game included the same messages - adults loved their time playing Little League and grew up to be successful, whether future Major Leaguers or the President of the United States.

The crowd, announced at 2,596, easily filled the tiny short-season Class A ballpark, with most attendees seemingly connected to the Little League World Series being played in town. Of course, most visible to the television camera were the brightly-colored uniforms sported by the LLWS participants from around the world.

But, what did the game really accomplish?

It seems to me that tip-of-the-iceberg youth audience in the stands is already as committed to baseball as any kids could be. Just because this Sunday night game was televised nationally, same as any other week, did large numbers of other youths watch it and wish they could play, too?

I really wonder about that.

At the conclusion of the game, something happened that last occurred in a MLB game (coincidentally also involving the Cardinals) back in 2004. In the universal gesture of sportsmanship, the two teams lined up to shake hands.

Why? Because the Little Leaguers do it and it would look bad for the big leaguers to act otherwise.

In doing so, MLB clearly reminded the youth of the world, “Do as I say, not as I do.”

Canadian hockey aficionado (of course) and unofficial member of the Hall of the Very Good, Larry Walker, proposed the opponent hand-shaking idea to St. Louis manager Tony La Russa during the 2004 National League Division Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers. The two sides agreed, regardless of the outcome, and carried it out after St. Louis eliminated Los Angeles on October 12, 2004.

La Russa’s post-game remarks at the time are indicative of the old-school machismo thinking that remains today and can turn off fans and youth alike.

"I'm not sure how it's perceived, but I'm sure it's a good thing," La Russa told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Apparently the perception does not matter 364 days a year – except when MLB is packaging itself as youth-friendly. Then – and only then – it is ok to demonstrate being a good sport – by shaking the hand of someone other than those wearing the same uniform.

I doubt the players are the inhibitor.

Most of today’s ballplayers seem to care little about the game’s odd and archaic unwritten code, such as subdued on-field celebrations and no fraternizing with the opponent. In fact, no one says a word about in-game chatting between baserunners and defenders, which is the rule today, not the exception.

Just this past week, I was at Fenway Park. During one of the contests, St. Louis catcher Yadier Molina doubled and then carried on a long dialogue with Red Sox second sacker Eduardo Nunez. What really caught my attention is that between every pitch for more than one subsequent Cardinals batter, Nunez would leave his defensive position to walk over to Molina on the bag to continue the yak-fest.

The idea of showing sportsmanship at the conclusion of games between Major League Baseball players was put in the deep freeze from 2004 until resurfacing in Williamsport this past weekend. It is likely to disappear again just as quickly.

That would be a shame. It is long past time for this unwritten rule to bite the dust, and if so, this could be one clearly positive outcome derived from the Little League Classic.

Of course, it alone will not bring the millions of soccer-playing youth to pick up baseball, but it is the right thing to do regardless. So, let’s shake on it!

Brian Walton was the 2009 National League Tout Wars champion, scoring the most points in the league’s 18-year history. He also holds the all-time NL Tout single-season records for wins and saves. His work can also be found daily at TheCardinalNation.com and thecardinalnationblog.com. Follow Brian on Twitter @B_Walton.

One of the quickest actions to drive me out of a league is when commissioners and league members decide to make up rules on the fly and enact them during the season. Such an example was brought to Mastersball’s attention this week.

Here is the background from the affected owner:

“My league is 5 years strong with daily active participation amongst team owners,” he wrote. “It's a FAAB waiver wire that in the past has allowed waiver wire pickups to be 25th round keepers. (Each year keepers move up a round)

“We follow ESPN undroppable rules and had an interesting scenario play out today.

“The team owner of Bryce Harper dropped him today as he was taken off the ESPN undroppable list and it so happens that he has retained the most auction money to this point of the year and plans to pick him up tomorrow by out bidding all other teams and thus Bryce Harper becomes a 25th rounder for his team.

“How would you guys handle a situation like this?

“We have already come up with solutions going forward but team owners aren't thrilled allowing Bryce Harper to become a 25th rounder, however no rules were broken, should we allow this (as it was beautifully planned and executed within league rules) and make change in the future season?”

Todd Zola and I answered very differently. He was of a mind to talk Harper’s owner out of the move.

“The canned answer is rules are rules and the league should live with the consequences and fix the loophole,” said Zola. “My guess is that would be the majority answer.

“The ploy had to be in the conscious of the league since that's what the no-drop protects.

“That said, if the league is more for fun, with just bragging rights on the line, I'd approach the team and ask them to reconsider, even if it means adding Harper back, reversing the drop.”

I came out on the opposite end in my advice to this league owner.

“Todd likely knew what I was going to say,” I wrote. “The rules are the rules and they were not broken. The owner in question saved his money all year, passing up other players. He had no idea if/when ESPN would make Harper droppable. There is no chance there was cheating or collusion.

“As you said, you already have plans to close the loophole going forward, but in the interim, there is no reason he should not get to do what he is intending to do. Whether the league is for fun or for money does not matter. Either you back your rules or you don't. Personally, I don't want to be in leagues in which rules are made up on the fly.

“P.S. If you want to give the league these kinds of powers to circumvent the rules in the future, you should add a "for the best interests of the league" clause to your constitution. I would highly recommend you not put this in the hands of any one person, however. Consider league majority or maybe even better, three quarters vote.”

To be completely honest, I despise these “best interest” clauses. I know why they are there, but they can be misused to cover laziness or worse.

The “spirit” of the rules is nothing more than someone’s opinion - if not documented in the constitution.

One of the assumptions here is that this has never happened before. Among his many other skills is that Todd is an excellent historian, often remembering past situations in a particular league that could have established a precedent.

However, the best-run leagues don’t have to rely on memory. They put these past situations right into the rules, so next time it will be covered in writing.

Since there does not seem to be a “last time” here, I will move out of my sidebar and back into our story.

Two other commenters agreed with my position and my reply also seemed to resonate most with our owner.

“Thanks guys, I really appreciate your responses,” the owner wrote. “The statement about being a league commish that backs the rules in place really made me set in how this should be handled. As you said a league that can make rules on the fly could be a slippery slope for precedent and other unique situations in the future.”

However, his league mates shouted him down. The disappointed owner shared follow-up news a few days later.

“The league wasn't allowing it and gave him a 7th round value. Booo,” he concluded.

Don’t you wonder how they came up with seventh, instead of sixth or eighth?

I don’t have all the details of how this went down, but from what I can see, had I been participating, this would soon become an ex-league of mine.

Brian Walton was the 2009 National League Tout Wars champion, scoring the most points in the league’s 18-year history. He also holds the all-time NL Tout single-season records for wins and saves. His work can also be found daily at TheCardinalNation.com and thecardinalnationblog.com. Follow Brian on Twitter @B_Walton.

Though Major League Baseball’s non-waiver deadline has passed, we are still seeing important trades occurring in August, such as the Jay Bruce move to Cleveland this past week.

We all play in leagues with varied rules for interleague trading in-season. Chances are that we have disagreed with one or more of them. While rules cannot be changed mid-stream, the best time to discuss potential alterations for next year is now - when the issue is upon us.

In that vein, I asked three industry leaders a series of questions about interleague trading. In doing so, we took a “clean sheet” approach. I asked them, based on their preferences and experiences, this:

“If you were starting a brand new AL-only or NL-only re-draft league and could make the rules, how would you set them up and why?”

While I certainly have opinions, I want to lead with the views of these friends, who also happen to play in and administer leagues in which I compete. They are Fantasy Sports Writers Association Hall of Famer Ron Shandler of ronshandler.com, USA TODAY Sports' Senior Fantasy Editor Steve Gardner and Mastersball’s own Todd Zola.

Here are responses to five questions posed to the group of analysts, with my remarks following.

1) If a player is traded into the league (AL to NL or vice-versa), should he become eligible this season?

Zola: “Yes. As inexact as the FAAB process is, I like the conundrum between spending early and often or waiting for the MLB trading deadline. Further, the trend in recent seasons is for deals to begin earlier than the last week, adding another layer of FAAB management.”

Shandler: “Absolutely.”

Walton: You may think I started with a Captain Obvious question, but there are still some who believe the player set that started the season is the one that should be used the entire way. However, Steve makes a great point about natural pool expansion.

Gardner: “It’s similar to minor leaguers being called up to me. New players to spend FAAB money on. You know that’s a possibility going into the season so you have to plan for it.”

2) Should owners continue to receive stats if a player is traded out of his initial league?

Gardner: “My overriding sentiment is that since the lines between the two leagues are already blurred so much – from umpiring and interleague play throughout the season – there’s really no reason (besides convenience) to separate players. The designated hitter and the rules around it aren’t enough to make any real difference in the way the game is played.

“Previously, the leagues would only see their league’s pitchers and you could say the two leagues were definitely separate. You can’t anymore. That’s why I feel like there really isn’t any difference when players switch leagues. So players’ stats should continue to count.”

Zola: “Yes. I understand the argument equating injury-prone players and players with contracts and scenarios rendering them prime trade targets and there are players in both subsets that get hurt or dealt unexpectedly. Still, to me this game should be about generating player expectations, converting to a rank then developing a corresponding draft strategy.

“Playing time is integral to player expectations. I just feel we shouldn't be penalized if a player is dealt to the other league. A trade just feels different than an injury.”

Shandler: “Absolutely. Since the arrival of interleague play, the lines between the leagues have been blurred. Any league that still prohibits keeping players/stats from interleague trades is just being stubborn. It's 2017. “

Walton: Ron hits on a key underlying inhibitor in considering league rules changes – not specific to this one. There is a natural reluctance in some leagues to touch the rules. Some just want to leave things as they always have been. Others are suspicious of their league mates trying to shift the competitive balance through the rules.

That may sound crazy, but I bet you have encountered it!

The third question is moot, since all four of us are in favor of continuing to allow stats from a player traded out of the league. However, I am including the responses for your consideration.

3) If you would allow no stats following the trade, should the losing owner receive compensation?

Ron notes how complicated and potentially unfair this could become.

Shandler: “This is where things start going off the rails. There is no adequate/equitable compensation to an owner for the loss of a player through no fault of his own. Even before interleague trading dulled the lines, I was in favor of keeping players/stats for the duration of that season.”

Zola: “With the caveat I'm against any form of compensation for losing player for any reason, I'd want to keep it consistent with compensation for injured players. If there's no compensation for injured players, then none for traded players. If there is, then the process should be the same.”

Walton: I think Todd’s general point is an especially good one. Consistency in approach is paramount. Having said that, I am against compensation.

4) If you are in favor of compensation, how would you administer this? (Awarding the players the MLB team received in return, FAAB rebate, etc…)

Shandler: “I am not in favor.”

Zola: “If the rest of the league wanted compensation, I'd agree to FAAB. Even if it's more complicated, I'm in favor of a prorated method, using the number of weeks left in the season.”

Walton: I agree with Ron. Steer clear.

5) Does the answer to #4 change if the league is a waiver priority league, rather than one using FAAB? (For example, an adjusted waiver priority for all free agents or on other players coming into the league only)

Shandler: “You're just playing games juggling commodities that are not equivalent to the loss/gain of a player. There is no logical reason to prohibit the retention of a player who crosses leagues.”

Zola: “Hmm, been awhile since I played in a waiver league and it was mixed so I don't have any first-hand experience with this iteration. Thinking through the different possibilities, I don't like giving the owner losing the player the option of picking up the returning player since some will get a stud and some will get a prospect. I also don't like jumping up waiver priority, so unless presented a method that escapes me, I'd prefer no compensation.”

Gardner: “I like the rule we have in my home AL- and NL-only keeper leagues where the owner of the player who goes to the other league has the right of first refusal for the player he’s being traded for. If there are multiple players involved, it goes in order of highest dollar value of the players lost. We use waiver priority in that league, so any trades would supersede the waiver process.”

Walton: As we conclude, we finally see a bit of a variance in opinion. However, it should be noted that the original ground rules of our roundtable specified re-draft leagues. As the stakes are higher in keeper leagues, Steve’s preference to compensate for players lost via interleague trades should be given a fair hearing in those formats. Perhaps we can delve into this variation in a future installment.

No matter how you feel about the interleague trade subject personally, it is always a good idea to take your league’s temperature throughout the season and be ready to engage your peers on potential changes for next season – especially if you are a proactive commissioner!

In closing, I would like to thank Ron Shandler, Steve Gardner and Todd Zola for participating in this discussion.

Brian Walton was the 2009 National League Tout Wars champion, scoring the most points in the league’s 18-year history. He also holds the all-time NL Tout single-season records for wins and saves. His work can also be found daily at TheCardinalNation.com and thecardinalnationblog.com. Follow Brian on Twitter @B_Walton.

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