Parity Over Logic: Should the NHL Switch its Regular Season Format?

Pickup basketball is often played in such a fundamentally incorrect way that it distorts how the game should be played. In most settings, every made basket inside the three-point line is worth one point. Shots worth three in the NBA count as two points. So rather than a 50% increase, the 100% bump dramatically changes the way people play the game.

Extending this tedious analogy to hockey, the construct is similar. If a game ends after sixty minutes, the winning team gains two points in the standings while the loser suffers stagnating embarrassment. This is how the three other major professional sports settle their single-game disputes, regardless if the game ends in regulation or extra time (albeit, the NFL does allow ties after 75 minutes of gameplay). The NBA, MLB and NFL all award the same number of “points” per victory regardless of when it is achieved. Concurrently, losses garner no value in the standings, predictive measures underscoring their frequency aside.

But the NHL uses the 1s and 2s model. For each game tied after sixty minutes, a total of three points are dispersed, two to the winner and one to the loser. It makes these games worth more, diluting the standings and severely changing the way teams play. In the 2013-14 regular season – which concluded on Sunday – approximately 25% of the games went to overtime, meaning a quarter of the NHL regular season was weighted more heavily based solely on the time it took to complete it.

The positives of this format are evident when examining the standings: the eighth, ninth and tenth seeds in the Western Conference were separated by just three points (the top eight make the postseason). In the East, eight points made up the difference from fifth (the New York Rangers) to 11th (the Ottawa Senators). The format, affectionately known as the “loser point”, artificially creates parity by inflating the value of losing outcomes, and this is what the NHL wants. Closely contested playoff battles make late-season games in April mean something (driving ticket sales, hockey-related-revenue and in a roundabout way, the salary cap).

If one were to remove the April games from the slate – with the caveat that trades, effort, lineup construction, injuries and unbalanced scheduling would significantly alter the results – 15 of the 16 playoff teams now would’ve been guaranteed an extra two home games. Only the Dallas Stars, which bested the Phoenix Coyotes by two points this year, would’ve been on the outside looking in (though again, their 2-1 loss to Phoenix in their last game of the season – after already having clinched a playoff spot — would’ve been played under extremely different circumstances).

The handful of April games mean something, but the inclusion of the third point still keeps most teams from gaining significant ground in the regular season’s final weeks. It also turns the late stages of tied games into boring slugfests, in which both teams sit back and play for overtime. Aggressiveness in the final minutes of regulation could lead to a game-winning goal, but it could just as easily turn into an odd-man rush the other way. Playing 55 minutes of solid hockey and leaving with nothing to show for it could be discouraging, especially when two division rivals could both gain ground on you, even if one of them loses. While no team could’ve made the playoffs by exclusively losing in overtime this year, the Detroit Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets each finished with 93 points; so theoretically 12 wins and 70 overtime losses would’ve been worthy of a postseason bid in the Eastern Conference.

How can the NHL fix this problem, and should it?

A number of proposals – from extended overtime (it’s currently 5 minutes of 4-on-4 followed by a shootout), to incorporating the long change – attempt to solve the gameplay element of the equation. But how about solving the impetus for said gameplay? Here’s a look at the results of the regular season under a 3-2-1 format: three points for a regulation win, two points for an overtime/shootout win and 1 point for an overtime/shootout loss. Each game would be worth three points. However, the results look quite similar:

NHL

Under this new design (using 13-14 regular season data), the same eight teams would’ve made the postseason. Point values would’ve been different, but only two matchups in the Western Conference – and none in the East – would’ve changed due to the format switch. The parity argument would lose some steam as well, since the lottery teams would’ve fallen further behind (four points would separate Dallas and Phoenix while there are currently only two, and nine points would separate Detroit from the Washington Capitals while the difference is currently three points).

Removing those April contests would have a similar effect. Under the current design, Phoenix would’ve had the final Wild Card spot with 84 points (seven better than the Winnipeg Jets which finished 13th). With the 3-2-1 proposal, Dallas’ 114 points would’ve been 16 points better than the Jets. By comparison, the difference in the East would be wider.

Again, a major caveat in the study is its small sample size – just one year – and the very nature of weighting past performance against new criteria. If three points were available for a regulation win, teams would likely be more aggressive in the final minutes, especially those trying to make up ground in the standings. For example, the Nashville Predators – tenth in the West at 88 points, would’ve gained 16 points in April alone under the 3-2-1, as opposed to the 11 they took home under the current rules. Another five points would’ve gotten them into the playoffs.

The proposal has some merit in deterring boring late-game hockey and avoiding overtime, two major worries for the NHL’s owners. While the shootout’s novelty certainly draws casual fans in, its importance in determining playoff participants is seen as problematic by many around the league, especially the New Jersey Devils, which missed the playoffs mostly due to their ineptitude at the skills competition.

While such a dramatic change is unlikely to be implemented anytime soon – at least in part because of those “exciting” playoff races this season – it may eventually take hold as the league looks to inject the excitement of the shootout into the actual game itself.

A Case Study in Surplus Value: Amazon FireTV

For the hypothetical purposes of exemplifying the television content provider market, suppose that none of it existed. That the content applications – Netflix, Hulu, HBO GO, etc. – had no means of prominence on a television screen.

If this were the case, and it most certainly is not, the new Amazon Fire TV announced today would be revolutionary, an innovative vessel that would rival tablets and phones and computers. Television would be unburdened by its channels and physical media, open to an expansive and seemingly never-ending library of films and television shows and documentaries.

But this isn’t 2007, when the first Apple TV was released. Or 2008, when the Roku entered the market. In 2014, there are simply so many viable options on which to view streaming content that Amazon’s new device will start at a significant damage. Amazon found incredible success with the Kindle because it was unique and started the shift toward digital books. Digital television is arguably reaching its apex (or already has).

At $99 (and available today), Amazon’s Fire TV is understandably an attractive purchase. It offers a wide variety of streaming applications, from its own Amazon Prime service to Netflix and MLB.tv. It boasts under-the-hood specifications that rival any current platform. Outside of its lack of HBO GO compatibility (which almost certainly will be rectified in the near future), and the case can be made that Amazon Fire TV meets or exceeds the benchmarks of its closest competitors.

Amazon TV

But those same competitors have had a significant head start. Apple and Roku have both been available for more than five years. Microsoft’s Xbox One and Sony’s Playstation 4 provide the same services as ancillary bonuses for spending upwards of $400 to play video games (and $40 or more per year for their memberships). Yes, Amazon Prime costs $80 per year, but it’s not a requirement to use the Fire TV, only Amazon’s free streaming library. This device appeals mostly to Amazon loyalists and first-time set-top purchasers. Apple fans have Apple TV, gamers have their platforms, and anyone who has a smartphone would be better off grabbing a $35 Chromecast, which serves as a gateway between the phone and the television. Smart televisions and cable provider set-top boxes will begin including these services as well (some already have). While the evidence may be suspect, many publications have reported on Netflix’s dominance during peak viewing hours, meaning that most Neflix users already have access to their favorite service. Where’s the market for this device that offers features everyone already has?

While interface may not play a major role, Amazon’s continued support of the Android operating system is somewhat of a negative for its gaming hopes. The Amazon Fire TV offers a controller (an additional $39.99), which will allow consumers to play Android games as they become available for the Fire TV. It’s a nice perk, but Android has yet to prove it has the processing and programming capabilities for controller-based games that aren’t abjectly terrible.

The Fire TV isn’t the only sign, but it’s clear that Amazon has bet heavily on an increase in the prevalence of streaming content (or at least streaming content aficionados). By releasing its own set-top box – at a competitive price point with performance power that could set it apart – Amazon understands that the living room (or any room with a TV) will be the main battleground for media content companies. If the day comes when Amazon decides to create more content than it licenses, the Fire TV may be the only set-top device with the allowance to broadcast those shows and movies.

More likely, this is Amazon’s toe-in the-water approach for determining the best method to deliver live television streaming through an internet connection. If it can create an easily-accessible and well-received interface for static content, it can experiment with augmenting that for ever-changing programming. If the hardware in the machine becomes a problem, Amazon can develop better technology prepared to face the rigors of handling both live and streaming offerings simultaneously. This is their Trojan horse: develop a system in a market with no need for it to one day topple competitors and reinvent the market. Perhaps they could’ve been more ambitious, but if the Fire TV is just the first step, the proceeding ones will have greater value.

The Fire TV may be a loss leader, though Amazon did not disclose the cost to create the product at its launch event. However, with Amazon Prime the likely gateway into a wider array of services (or channels, or programming, etc.), the device most commonly associated with it can grow alongside it. Amazon has built in surplus value into its machine because users of the Fire TV are nothing more than market researchers or beta testers.

Again, if Amazon wants nothing more than to compete with current iterations of the Apple TV or Roku, this device has little to offer that’s not currently available and likely already purchased. But, if the impetus is to build the eventual bridge from Amazon to internet television, the Fire TV is a worthy, albeit limited, first step.

Film By Numbers: Analytics in a Big Picture World

Sabermetrics has become both the analytical study of baseball and a demonized term reserved for anyone who values concrete evidence over look and feel. Because passionate people tend to like sports (shocking, right?), the process of deriving quantifiable values to anything and everything has pushed the sport into two rival factions: the dorks and the jocks (because clichés live in sports). The warring sides lament the other party, cast aspersions on others’ conclusions and make the act of simply watching baseball without full investment somewhat dirty or lazy.

In reality, once everyone accepts that a blended approach of analytics and advance scouting create a better, more enjoyable product by pitting the best and most likely to succeed against each other for our collective enjoyment, this so-called “war” can end. Numbers will never encapsulate the entirety of baseball – or basketball, hockey, football, etc. – but by incorporating the data into what is already known or frequently ascertained, executives have more tools at their disposal to make informed judgments.

And analytics isn’t confined to sporting events, as the film industry has terrifyingly shown. The sabermetrics of film has already started and it’s only getting more prevalent with each passing day.

It was written in this space back in October 2012 that the film industry had begun valuing a certain type of product. It wanted only – to use another baseball analogy – Miguel Cabreras and Mike Trouts. The best of the best. The Cabreras, peak performers compensated as such, are tent pole films; the blockbusters, action movie franchises, superhero, sequel and megastar-led products that represent the highest grossing (and most expensive) films on the market.

Of the ten highest-grossing films of 2013, only two arguably didn’t fit this mold: Gravity and Frozen. Given the nature of both films – and the fact that both cost at least $100 million to create – and you’d have to drop down to the 15-20 range to find movies that cost less than $50 million but made three times as much. These are the Trouts, the films that so enormously out-perform their expected values based on production costs that they’re revered among the industry as incredible performers.

But very little in the film industry happens by accident. Frozen may have netted the Walt Disney company more than $1 billion in ticket sales during its five month run, but its pre-Thanksgiving release, subject matter, voice talent and budget ($150 million) suggested that Disney had high hopes for the movie. Disney was able to track the results of past films in that space and time Frozen’s release to net what studio executives believed would be its maximum value.

In 2012, distributor Buena Vista saw Wreck-It Ralph soar to a $189 million payday domestically ($471 million total) due to a strategic November release. The same distribution company was behind the 2010 hit, Tangled, released the day before Thanksgiving and responsible for raking in $201 million in the US and nearly $600 million worldwide.

What do these two films have in common with Frozen? They are the top three films released under the Disney Animation Studios umbrella. Ever. Numbers four and five on the list – Bolt and The Princess and the Frog – were also released in November. All five doubled their production costs, if the number provided courtesy of Box Office Mojo are to be trusted.

This isn’t a coincidence. There’s a reason the most popular and highest-grossing films are often released in the summer and December. Why January and September are barren wastelands that threaten to swallow middling movies whole. When numbers are literally the difference between life and death – or having a job and not having a job – studio executives will look for any and every advantage in order to be in the black at year’s end. Analytics are just part of the game.

Of course, getting people to the movies has become more and more difficult. With the rise in online viewership, more content, Netflix, lower physical costs (TVs, entertainment units, computers, etc.), people don’t need to head to their local theaters. Why pay $10 (not to mention concession fees, gas, a babysitter for those with children) to watch The Monuments Men in February when you can get arguably a better viewing experience for $5 on demand in April at home broadcast on your 50” television? As it turns out, people have been abandoning the theater for quite some time.

According to MPAA annual statistics released this week, frequent moviegoers in the 12-17 and 18-24 age ranges fell by 15% and 21%, respectively, year-over-year in 2013. Data from The Numbers supports this as well: total tickets sold in 2013 were 1.33 billion, down from 1.36 billion in 2012 and 1.55 billion in 2003. The 14% decline in a decade would be a huge red flag for the industry, but they had already priced in the drop. Ticket prices jumped from $6.03 to $8.16 last year, resulting in gross sales approaching a record $10.9 billion, up almost 17% since 2003.

The global movie industry has never been better, at least financially. According to the Los Angeles Times, global sales rose to $35.9 billion, with foreign markets accounting for about 70% ($25 billion). With China improving its film capabilities and other countries actively welcoming US productions, more and more movies become franchises due to widespread international appeal.

A movie like Pacific Rim, which only netted $102 million at the US box office on a $190 million budget, would’ve been seen as a colossal failure, had it not been for the fact that international sales more than tripled the domestic number. Now Pacific Rim is a $400 million-grossing worldwide smash hit, with a  sequel almost assuredly on the way (though it’s still subject to studio red tape that can delay and derail just about anything). Studio executives now want films that appeal to both US audiences and international moviegoers, which is why 300: Rise of An Empire, itself a sequel, will likely see a predecessor in the near future.

But with the industry teetering on an imbalance of wide-released pictures, the decline in attendance will likely worsen. For the most part, studios have dropped their offerings in an attempt to capitalize on their limited wide releases. Why risk acquiring and promoting 40 films, each with budgets above $60 million, when the results could be disastrous? Instead, production companies have decided to limit the number of films they release, offering major movies with huge overhead that will likely rank in the top 10-15 at the end of the year. With those profits locked in, they can afford to spend between $20 and $40 million on passion projects, comedies or award-likely films, hoping that word of mouth and Q scores can pack theaters. Examples such as The Heat, We’re the Millers and American Hustle fit the Trout-type film category, and they finished 15th, 16th and 17th respectively at the US box office.

But what does this mean for the industry going forward? More sequels, with a reliance on quality or well-read source material to attract fans. Executives will look to draw on literature, comics, video games and television, with the goal of building a franchise from the ground up. Remakes fit in this area as well, given the source material is literally an existing movie. Smart studios will look to partner with Netflix or Amazon to obtain some of their proprietary metadata with hopes of finding popular content that may cost little to acquire and/or create.

As long as the blockbusters rake in the cash, studios will still commission low budget or net-negative alternatives to serve as palate cleansers and break the explosive monotony. Again, with the right actors, directors, casting directors and premises, those films can often make more money on a cost/revenue basis. Horror movies will continue in perpetuity for this very reason.

This is analytics. Of course it doesn’t always work, but that’s usually because some don’t understand how to do it. The Lone Ranger is a remake, so Disney believed the trend would pay off. It forgot – or failed to infer based on the metrics at its disposal – that actors rarely drive films in the present day (and also that no one was clamoring for a Lone Ranger film. Of course, because of the international markets, The Lone Ranger recouped its $215 million production budget by grossing more than $260 million.

Studios will continue to analyze market trends and plan accordingly, but eventually lower foot traffic will mean lower revenues, as ticket price increases will prove that demand is not inelastic. The convenience of home viewing offsets the allure of the theater already, so as costs decrease and home technology increases, theaters will be basically competing against themselves.  The theater must market itself as a destination for an experience, one that the home can never provide. Between overpriced concessions and rising ticket prices, that’s certainly an uphill battle.

There’s no secret answer to curtail the loss of foot traffic, only the realization that something must be done. Analytics has turned the theater into a series of superstars and top prospects, but it’s also turned the savvy moviegoer into a less frequent attendee.

Comcast is the Future of Entertainment

Much has been made about the proposed merger between Comcast and Time Warner Cable.

“It’s ruthless capitalism.”

“It’s bad for business.”

“This is a monopoly.”

“I don’t know what we’re yelling about!”

The merger, still pending FCC approval – or more realistically, enough lobbyist pressure – sets up Comcast as the de facto controller of the broadband internet and digital cable markets, with 35 million customers for television and likely even more for internet. The deal has positioned Comcast as the gatekeeper to the future of television, or at least television in its current state. For those looking to enter the space, Comcast’s stamp of approval is likely mandatory.

Given the changing landscape of both broadcast television and internet control, today’s Wall Street Journal report that Apple has undergone discussions with Comcast about an internet-based television service seem like an inevitable conclusion.

Both industries have taken up significant prominence in this space in the recent past, as has the concept of severing the ties between television content and service. Given Comcast’s impending increase in power, the benefits of a monopoly will make it extremely difficult for any company to successfully bypass its control in order to provide a better means of television viewing. Comcast, if it doesn’t already, will soon have the lobbyists and corporate support to push forward legislation or litigation that further powers itself, like Staypuft the Marshmallow Man gorging off the ingenious ideas of the little guys.

Apple, somewhat stagnant in recent years, has considered internet-based television a passion project since before Steve Jobs’ untimely death. Fewer viewers watch practically any scripted show during its intended window, as digital recording devices and internet services render appointment-viewing obsolete. This has contributed to the rise in sports television contract prices, one of the few must-see tv avenues left that actually feel necessary to watch in real time.

Initial speculation (and it was pure speculation) suggested – or to use a more appropriate term, hoped – that an internet television offering would be completely devoid of Comcast’s influence. This was probably foolish in the abstract; a company as large and now-powerful as Comcast would likely either force its way into the agreement or sabotage the deal. Unless a company with enough money like Amazon or Apple seriously wanted to build its own pipeline into peoples’ homes and cut deals with the wide scope of content providers in the marketplace, the dream of internet television had little foothold in reality. Include the fact that Comcast owns NBC, and it’s a foregone conclusion that Comcast’s monopolistic footprint would crush even the worthiest of challengers.

This explains why would Apple choose to partner with Comcast, even though the two are theoretically competitors. They have no choice. The Apple Trojan Horse either requires a high-speed broadband connection (DSL could technically work, but its speeds likely render a company like AT&T worthless) or digital cable pipelines. Who owns the majority of both in the United States? Comcast!

This seems sadly like a win-win for both parties. For Comcast, if the company can alleviate the cost and R&D of creating the future platform for television (and yet still reap most if its benefits), it can keep the inevitable cord-cutting customers at bay. Brand management will certainly play a role, and Apple customers will likely flock to Comcast’s services as a force of habit. If Apple TV, or whatever Apple decides to call it becomes the television’s savior, then Comcast will have successfully leeched its parasitic brain onto another glimmering hope for survival.

The deal, if the WSJ’s report is to be believed, represents a marriage in cost-effectiveness. Comcast can allow Apple to broker deals to ensure the content exists while Comcast controls the infrastructure. Apple gets compensated for its legwork by grabbing some retransmission fees while Comcast only has to provide a reliable and fast pipeline.

For consumers, however, the monopoly has little upside. Apple’s version of television will be expensive to provide, meaning that costs will trickle down to consumers. Competition could be destroyed with simple proprietary language in the contracts – networks that want to be on board must promise not to create their own platform and subsequently can’t license their content to rival parties. Netflix, which already suckles at the Comcast teat in the form of privatized access in order to eliminate buffering and lag times, could lose much of its catalog once its current deals expire. Of course, networks will likely curtail Comcast and Apple’s bid to be exclusive: there’s too much money to be made in providing the same show to as many parties as are interested.

For other content providers, the inevitability of having to partner with Comcast should be terrifying. While Time Warner Cable buckled under CBS’s weight last September, the fragmented marketplace means that the current climate of automatic rights fee increases likely dissipates (and sooner rather than later). Few networks have the ratings and the content that provide bargaining power, CBS just happened to be one of them. With little regional competition for any service – as long as Google Fiber remains a passion project – Comcast can throw its weight around and consumers must suffer through potential channel blackouts and lengthy dick-swinging battles over literally pennies on the dollar.

And will Comcast return those saved rights fees to customers? Of course not. They’ll invest that revenue in better pipelines to ensure that potential rivals are at such a disadvantage that they’ll have little recourse to compete.

The partnership between Apple and Comcast still has several hurdles before it becomes even the faintest of realities. Those content deals will take time, as will both the creation of the interface and the infrastructure. However, if both parties remain motivated to bring on-demand viewing to Comcast’s soon-to-be 35 million customers, we’ll have certainly passed the point of no return. It may not be classified as a monopoly by the letter of the law, but the way things are going, Comcast has positioned itself to be the dominant only player in the market.

Fantasy Surprise Round II: 10 Starting Pitcher Sleepers for 2014

When undergoing this hypothetical, predictive experiment last year, the results were rather mixed. Choosing Max Scherzer (2013 American League Cy Young Award winner) and Yu Darvish (runner up) was counterbalanced by permitting Edwin Jackson and Ricky Romero to occupy space in the same list. Overall, the process was beneficial — both selfishly and educationally — so it returns for a second round, with at least one player making a reappearance.

The major difference is that instead of using the MLB.com rankings (which coincided with a failed bid to be a fantasy baseball writer on the site in question), the ESPN.com rankings appear in the 2014 version. The list is constructed to highlight players from all segments and tiers of pitchers, from potential aces to the mid-level and forgotten pools of talent. Also, despite the rise in youth dominating the sport, rookies will be kept off this list, as will players returning from missing most (if not all) of the 2013 season. Without further ado, onto the list:

1. CHRIS SALE, CHICAGO WHITE SOX, (Ranked 9th amongst starting pitchers, 39th overall, according to ESPN)

Of the ten best pitchers in 2013 ranked by Wins Above Replacement, Sale finished with the second fewest wins (11 – only Matt Harvey had fewer). Pitcher wins overrate run support and skew against pitchers on bad teams (the White Sox won 63 games, third fewest in baseball), but they do play an important role in fantasy baseball.

In 2012, two of the top twenty pitchers by WAR, Cliff Lee and Anibal Sanchez, finished with 6 and 9 wins, respectively. Last year, they each won 14 games. While the White Sox may not challenge for a playoff spot, they’re projected to win between 72-80 games, with Sale a likely benefactor of the better team behind him.

As for Sale’s improvement as a pitcher, figuring out how to get right-handed batters out will be key. His stats suffered slightly against righties compared to 2012, as he allowed more home runs and a worse weighted on-base percentage. The fact that he often pitches in US Cellular Field doesn’t exactly help in this regard — 3.6% of batters he faced in 2013 hit home runs off him at home, while just 1.8% put the ball over the fence in their own home parks. Of anyone on this list, Sale is the most likely to challenge for a Cy Young Award in 2014, but continued improvement and better home run luck will be keys to his success.

2. MATT CAIN, SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS (17th among pitchers, 75th overall)

Out of all the pitchers on this list, Cain’s potential to rebound may be the lowest. There are plenty of factors that suggest a positive regression in 2014 — an unusually high home-run-per-fly-ball rate, injury concerns that have dissipated, and the fact that from 2006 through 2012, he accumulated 26.8 WAR, good for ninth best in baseball. But Cain will turn 30 in October and has logged more than 1700 innings since arriving in the majors in 2005. Last year was the first time he failed to top 200 innings since 2006.

Cain’s struggles — if not injury related — come from an odd choice in pitch selection and likely hitter familiarity. Batters connected on almost 90% of all pitches swung at in the strike zone against Cain in 2013, the worst mark of his career. While Adam Wainwright finished with a similar number, the players ahead of Cain on the list include “superstars” such as Joe Saunders and Jeremy Guthrie. Over the past three years, Cain has stopped using his changeup as much, opting for a slider  instead. The results — albeit in small samples of course — have been mixed at best. Given his skill and the fact that he isn’t an overpowering pitcher whose potential diminishing velocity with age would likely cause problems, he has a great chance to return to being a top 10-15 pitcher in the majors.

3. JEFF SAMARDZIJA, CHICAGO CUBS (33rd among pitchers, 131st overall)

A quick primer on one of the more important sabermetric statistics: FIP. It stands for Fielder Independent Pitching and it attempts to calculate a pitcher’s worth by subtracting the defense around him, specifically focusing on home runs, walks and strikeouts. Is it flawless? No, but no single statistic tells a complete story. For a pitcher like Samardzija who has posted lower/better FIPs than ERAs in each of the past two seasons, it helps illustrate both the awfulness of the Cubs’ defense behind him as well as his likelihood to post better numbers going forward.

While the Cubs certainly didn’t upgrade their defense this winter, Samardzija has a great chance to have the best season of his career. Despite his age (29), Samardzija has only accumulated 558 innings pitched and is entering his third — magical fantasy trope alert — as a starter. He suffered last season from one of the ten worsts BABIPs in the majors, and fatigued down the stretch after reaching 200 innings pitched for the first time in his career. He allowed home runs on approximately 13.3% of all fly balls, the seventh highest rate in baseball. From 2011 to 2013, only one pitcher repeated their “top-ten” performance in this statistic, and Ian Kennedy now gets to call Petco Park home. While a myriad of factors go into any potential trade, it should be noted that if Samardzija doesn’t come to terms on a long-term deal with the Cubs, he may find himself in a slightly better pitchers’ park than the Friendly Confines.

4. CC SABATHIA, NEW YORK YANKEES (39th among pitchers, 153rd overall)

While it was mentioned above that Matt Cain was 9th in pitcher WAR from 2006 through 2012, CC Sabathia was tied for first (with Roy Halladay) at 41.6 wins above replacement. For his career Sabathia has accumulated 61.5 WAR and while he’s unlikely to reach 300 wins (he turns 34 in July and has 205 victories), he has a decent chance to make the Hall of Fame.

Last year was statistically the worst season of Sabathia’s career. His ERA settled near 5, his strikeout rate dipped below eight batters per nine innings and he kept runners on base at an abysmally low clip. He somehow still logged 211 innings, the seventh consecutive season he’s thrown more than 200. He’s the only pitcher to throw at least 1,600 innings since 2007 (Justin Verlander is at 1,574). The results, when combined with his age, indicate a pitcher forced to establish better command in place of velocity. According to Brooks Baseball, Sabathia averaged 94.2 miles per hour on his fastball in 2008. In 2012, that dropped to 92.4 mph and fell to 91.3 mph in 2013. This has allowed hitters to hold off on his off-speed pitches — batters swung at just 30.6% of pitches outside the strike zone against Sabathia, the lowest mark in four years. Combine that with the highest outside-the-zone contact rate allowed of his career, and it’s easy to see why Sabathia faltered.

Evidence suggests that the 94 mph fastball will never return, but Sabathia can still be an above average pitcher and better than someone like Matt Moore, who’s 32nd on the ESPN list. He reported to camp in The Best Shape of His Life (TM, Keith Law), and likely understands the adjustments he has to make to be better than his 4.78 ERA and 4.10 FIP. If his BABIP and strand rate normalize even slightly, Sabathia should have little trouble returning to the 4.6 WAR pitcher he was in 2012.

5. JUSTIN MASTERSON, CLEVELAND INDIANS (51st among pitchers, 194th overall)

Rumors abounded this week that Masterson, a free agent after this upcoming season, would be willing to resign with the Cleveland Indians on a two- or three-year deal worth between $40 and $60 million. The initial reaction was probably disbelief, that someone like Masterson could be worth more than any free agent pitcher in 2013 (excluding Tanaka if the posting fee is included in his contract with the New York Yankees). Taking a closer look, however, and it’s not hard to see why the Indians would be wise to lock up Masterson for something like a 3-year/$50 million deal.

Given his sinker-focused repertoire, it should come as no surprise that Masterson finished second overall in ground ball percentage (of balls in play, of course), trailing only another member of this list. Because of that, he allowed just 13 home runs in 2013 and hasn’t allowed more than 18 in a single season. Joe Blanton may have given up 18 in a game or two last year. A reliance on ground ball outs of course likely contributes to a higher BABIP over time, and a .24 point decrease from 2012 to 2013 suggests a potentially treacherous 2014 campaign, but Masterson’s cause for optimism comes in the form of strikeouts.

After never averaging more than 8.3 strikeouts per nine (or 159 in a single season), Masterson posted a 9.1 mark in 2013, translating to 195 punch outs, 17th best in baseball. The jump likely stems from an increase in slider usage, which jumped by nearly 5% better than his career average. The results show it was more effective than it had been in the past, resulting in batters swinging through it more than 42% of the time. It was more effective against left-handed hitters than it had been in the past — Masterson struck out 19% of lefties in 2013, better than his career mark of about 14%. Continued mastery of the pitch could go a long way into keeping lefties honest and keeping the ball in the park.

Much will be made about the likely switch from Carlos Santana to Yan Gomes behind the plate in 2014, but it’s difficult to truly quantify the impact of a catcher’s ability to influence umpires by “framing” pitches. The metrics — again, in their infancy stages — do show that Santana was basically a DH with a catcher’s mask — so a switch could certainly help Masterson and Corey Kluber (who will appear later on this list), but it’s impossible to quantify the difference and foolish to think a single season’s worth of data will skew a pitcher’s apparent control drastically.

6. RICK PORCELLO, DETROIT TIGERS (64th among pitchers, 224th overall)

While Masterson was second in ground ball percentage, Porcello finished first in 2013, after ending the previous two campaigns in 11th and 16th place, respectively. Because if this, Porcello’s ERA depends greatly on the percentage of ground balls that turn into hits. His BABIP has never settled below .307 in his major league carrier; it was the seventh highest in baseball last season. His ERA will likely always finish higher than his FIP — 4.32 to 3.53 in 2013 — though both have declined in each of his four big league seasons.

Going in 2014, two major factors suggest Porcello could be in line for a breakout year. His strikeout rate has ticked higher, from 4.7 batters per nine innings in 2010 to 7.2 in 2013. He threw his curveball more often in 2013 than in the previous three years combined and generated more swings and misses with it. Since he doesn’t throw terribly hard, he’ll need to continue seeing good results from his offspeed offerings to continue his improvement. It likely helps that the infield defense should be better in 2014 as well. Jose Iglesias, one of the best defensive players in baseball, replaces Jhonny Peralta at shortstop while trading Prince Fielder to the Texas Rangers allows Miguel Cabrera to slide back over to first base. The results may not be great, but if even a few more grounders turn into outs, Porcello may finally post an ERA under 4.

7 . COREY KLUBER, CLEVELAND INDIANS (83rd among pitchers, 305th overall)

The second Indian on this list, Kluber posted strong numbers in his first complete season in the majors. He has four pitches at his disposal, with a hard two-seamer and a changeup that moves faster than his slider. At 147 innings pitched in 2013, he’s not considered a qualified pitcher, but he posted the sixth highest BABIP of all starters with at least 140 innings. This is despite a 45.5% ground ball rate, which suggests a lower BABIP may be in Kluber’s future.

However, the main cause for concern is that fact that no pitcher who threw at least 140 innings allowed more line drives than Kluber. The caveat is that contact falls under one of three classifications — ground ball, fly ball and line drive — which could certainly skew the results and means the data shouldn’t be taken as a single “all-encompassing” explanation. But of the top 30 pitchers classified by line drive rate, Kluber’s .329 BABIP was the highest, but only three other starters posted BABIPs above .320 (and Clayton Kershaw was on this list with a .251 BABIP). This information may mean nothing and Kluber could get pummeled in 2014 when fewer balls fall for hits, but are sequenced to skew his ERA above 5. The point here is that Kluber’s batted ball profile and strikeout-t0-walk ration suggest continued improvement in his age 27 season.

8. EDWIN JACKSON, CHICAGO CUBS (108th among pitchers, 400th overall)

Jackson made this sleeper list last season and then led MLB in losses (18) and posted the fourth worst ERA (4.98). Whoops! The pick made sense at the time. Jackson was coming off a decent season with the Nationals where he posted the highest strikeout rate of his career. His FIP was nearly 20 points lower than his ERA and his walk rate was at a decent level. If he improved just slightly, he could’ve been a top-80 pitcher (he was ranked 93rd by mlb.com before 2013).

Instead, his strikeouts declined, his walks increased, he couldn’t keep runners on base and he pitched in front of what the Cubs called “defense”. He was certainly unlucky — his FIP was more than a run lower than his ERA — but he certainly pitched worse than in 2012. The great thing about being so terrible is that it’s easy to improve. Better luck alone should shave his ERA to 4.50 or better, given his BABIP (.322) and strand rate (63%) were among the worst in the league. From a fantasy perspective, this is purely a value play. Jackson should be better than Joe Kelly (105th) and Kevin Gausman (101st) likely will begin the season in AAA or the bullpen. He may never put it all together, but Jackson can certainly rack up 180 strikeouts with a 4.20 ERA in 2014.

9. TYLER SKAGGS, LOS ANGELES ANGELS (128th amongst pitchers, 470th overall)

Kevin Towers, the general manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks, famously values character seemingly more than any other executive in baseball. He traded Justin Upton for what appeared to be 50 or 60 cents on the dollar and dealt former third overall pick Trevor Bauer in a separate deal after rumors of Bauer’s “poor” attitude leaked to the media. The Diamondbacks weren’t necessarily better because of those trades — they finished 81-81 in 2013. Towers’ decision making returned to the spotlight this offseason, when he dealt Tyler Skaggs in a bid to acquire Mark Trumbo, who specializes at hitting home runs (and hitting little else). Skaggs experienced growing pains in 2013, struggling in seven starts with a 5.12 ERA and 4.86 FIP. He walked batters like Tim Lincecum and gave up home runs like Joe Saunders (yet even worse), but at just 22 there’s plenty of room for improvement.

Moving from Chase Field in Arizona to Angel Stadium in Anaheim should help his gopheritis, as should the reports that he’s fixed his mechanics. He doesn’t have an overpowering fastball, but does have the desired 10 mph difference between it and his changeup. Throw in an above-average curveball, and Skaggs can certainly have a better 2014. Walks will continue to be an issue, but the Angels believe those mechanical adjustments will limit those mistakes as well.

10. EDINSON VOLQUEZ, PITTSBURGH PIRATES (Not Ranked)

Last year, I put Ricky Romero on the list, hoping that he had rediscovered his mechanics and could return to the dominating form he displayed for the Toronto Blue Jays in 2010 and 2011. He was rated as the 222nd best pitcher by MLB.com and barely cracked the top 500 in the preseason rankings, so it couldn’t get much worse. Except that it did. Romero made two starts for the Blue Jays in 2013, allowed nine runs in 7.1 innings and may never return to the majors. So for another shot in the dark, why not choose the pitcher with the worst ERA in baseball last year?

Volquez was somehow allowed to start 32 times for the San Diego Padres and Los Angeles Dodgers, posting a 5.71 ERA (next worst was Joe Saunders at 5.26). His strikeouts plunged, his walks — always a problem — remained high and he couldn’t keep any runners on base (his 63.3% strand rate was the second worst in MLB). While leaving San Diego may seem like an omen, Pittsburgh employs one of the best defenses in the majors. Volquez’s .325 BABIP last season may regress towards his lifetime .306 average, which would in turn push his ERA towards his 2013 FIP of 4.24. Having turned 30 halfway through last season, it’s possible that the velocity declines across the board may continue, which would portend a rocky season with the Pirates. However, if he continues on a trend in 2013 to abandon his four-seam fastball in favor of a sinker — which he threw more than any other pitch last season and at the highest frequency in his career — he may have a chance to do what Romero couldn’t in 2013: stay in the rotation.