The Alphabet Soup League

January 29, 2009

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I have played fantasy baseball for about a dozen years now. My only regret is that I didn’t get started sooner.

Last year, however, I decided to make a change. I turned my league into an alternative format league. This isn’t particularly noteworthy – there are lots of leagues that use non-standard formats. The particular format I chose, however, was quite unusual.

The key constraint of the league is that a team could not start more than one player for each letter of the alphabet. If Alex Rodriguez was your “R” starter, you could not also start Manny Ramirez. The league was christened the Alphabet Soup League. Like the other leagues I have run, the winner would be awarded a rather cheap trophy. There would be no money involved – simply the pride of a hard fought championship.

The strangeness of the league began with the draft. It was a ten player league, so I randomly assigned each team 10% of the alphabet (2-3 letters). For the purposes of the draft, Q, U, X, Y, and Z were combined into on letter grouping – if you were assigned the “wildcard” letter, you could pick anyone from those letters.

The draft was conducted by email. People simply sent in their choices for each letter. The order was not important, because people were not competing against each other for players (since the other players had different letters). After everyone was done, I assigned another set of letters, and the process continued until we were done.

The draft strategy was a bit unusual. You had to look ahead to see what letters you would have in the upcoming rounds. The letter M, for example, is stacked with good catchers. If you had M in the first several rounds, you were assured of a good catcher and could ignore other catchers. On the other hand, if you had lousy catcher letters for the next several rounds, you be forced to grab a sub-par guy in the current round, just to have an adequate starter.

The draft itself took about a week to complete. Not terribly bad, considering that it was done via email. This seemed like the best option, though. Getting everyone into a chat room at the same time would have been difficult, and the autodraft systems of the major fantasy sites would not know how to deal with the alphabet restriction.

The importance of the uncommon letters (I and N, for example) also became apparent. If you had the first choice of those letters, you could draft a reasonably solid player. If you had last choice of those letters, you got a guy who rides the shuttle between AAA and the majors.

I laugh at what the Yahoo people would have thought if happened to peruse our draft results.

During the season, the game was very much like any other fantasy league, aside from the fact that players that were studs in normal leagues languished in free agency in our league (especially players from the stacked letter R) while players of minimal value in other leagues got some quality at bats and innings in our league.

Unfortunately, there was not a good way to prevent people from violating the alphabet rule. There, I had conduct random audits of teams and penalize them for violations. As a penalty, they had to forfeit all of their points to their opponents. This meant that they were credited with an 0-10 record for the week, while their opponent got a 10-0 record. This is being tweaked a bit in year 2, so that the opponents do not get such a big reward for having the dumb luck to face a violator.

As spring training beckons, I am readying myself the league. I have my copy of Ron Shandler’s Baseball Forecaster, of course. I also have a fantasy baseball magazine. It was chosen, in large part, because it lists the players in alphabetical order.

The bluffer and the bargain

January 21, 2009

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The bluffer – Jason Varitek

When the rankings that are used to determine free agency compensation came out, Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek was ranked as an “A” level player – the top level. When type A players are signed by another team, the team who loses the player typically gets either the first round pick or second round pick of the team who signs him (let’s call this team “Yankees” in order to simplify things), as well as a pick that is sandwiched between rounds 1 and 2 (referred to as a sandwich pick). In the case where a team signs several type A players, the compensation can be less – the team losing the highest rated player would get the Yankees’ first round pick plus a sandwich. The team losing the second highest rated player would get the Yankees second round pick, plus a sandwich, etc. (More information can be found on

One aspect of free agent compensation is that in order to qualify for the compensation, the player’s old team must offer him arbitration, and he must decline (arbitration is a process where each side submit an amount to a panel of arbitrators. The panel chooses one of the amounts as the player’s salary for the next year – they cannot settle on a compromise amount).

The fact that Varitek qualified as a type A speaks to some of the flaws in the system. Varitek will turn 37 next April, and catchers are not the sort of baseball player who age gracefully. The years of squatting behind the player typically catch up with a catcher in his mid 30s, affecting the quality of his play. This is a cruel fact. Add to this the fact that Varitek was coming off a rather lackluster year in which he hit just .220 with 13 homers – by most measures, it was the worst season of his career. Varitek is the captain of the Red Sox and is an emotional leader, so he does have some positives.

The reason why Varitek was a type A player is due to a good 2007 season (the rankings are based on the last two seasons) and a relatively poor group of catchers that he is compared against.

When the Red Sox decided to offer arbitration to Varitek, it seemed like an obvious attempt to bring him back at 80% of his 2008 salary (a player cannot receive a pay cut of more than 20% through arbitration). His 2008 salary was $10.4 million; 80% of that is $8.32 million). It should not have been hard for the Red Sox to win an arbitration case. In fact, it seemed that the smartest thing for Varitek to do would be to accept arbitration. If he declined arbitration, the team signing him would have to forfeit a draft pick to the Red Sox – and also overpay for Varitek (since he does not appear to be worth $8.32M).

Needless to say, I was stunned when Varitek declined arbitration. He now has two options:

1) Negotiate a deal with the Red Sox. It seems difficult to imagine that he’ll be able to negotiate a salary of more than $5 million per year, especially with the Red Sox holding most of the cards (see option 2)

2) Sign a free agent contract with a team willing to forfeit the draft pick and pay him the money he ways (again, he walked away from a $8.32 million salary for next year). For 11 teams, this would mean forfeiting a first round pick. For 17 teams, this would mean forfeiting a second round pick. For the Braves, this would mean forfeiting a third round pick, and for the Yankees, this would mean forfeiting a fourth round pick (because they Yankees have already signed three higher ranked free agents). Realistically, this limits his options to the Braves and Yankees, neither or whom seem to be jumping at the chance to overpay for an aging catcher. In fact the Yankees already have one aging catcher (Jorge Posada, who will also be 37 next year)

Essentially, Varitek tried to bluff the Red Sox by declining arbitration. While it is true that they would need to find another catcher if they lose Varitek, they could make a move and trade a prospect for a young catcher and then use the compensation picks to replenish their system.

The most likely scenario is that Varitek will be forced to sign a contract with the Red Sox for less than he would have received through arbitration – or he will try to sit out part of next year in hopes that a new suitor emerges.

[Update: there has been some confusion about whether or not a player can receive a pay cut through arbitration. Some sources have said that a player cannot receive a pay cut through arbitration. This is completely false. Others have said that a player can receive no more than a 20% pay cut, which is what I based this post off of. However, this only applies to players who are in pre-free agency arbitration (i.e. players who do not have the 6 years of service time necessary to be a free agent). For this group of players, they cannot receive a pay cut of more than 20% of their last year’s salary or 30% of the salary of two years previous (apparently in an attempt to avoid having teams reduce salaries 20% each year) – although this restriction is waived if the player had won a 50% pay raise in arbitration the previous year. This is outlined on page 15-16 of the CBA – article VI.F.3.c.i-ii.

However, for pending free agents, this is not applicable. Page 72 (XX.B.3) of the CBA clearly states “ … the rules concerning maximum salary reduction in article VI shall be inapplicable …”
So my statement about the Red Sox having to submit an offer of $8.32 million is not correct. It appears that they could have submitted any offer of $400,000 or more ($400,000 is the minimum salary for MLB). However, this does not change my opinion that he would have received more in arbitration that he will as a free agent. It is very unusual for a player to receive a substantial pay cut in arbitration, and I think it is quite likely that he could have gotten $7-8 million (if he had been smart and submitted an amount in this range).

In a report on NESN, Varitek said that he was not aware that other teams would be required to compensate the Red Sox if they chose to sign him (effectively reducing the number of suitors). I find it absolutely incredible that he didn’t know this. Even if his agent (Scott Boras) didn’t mention this to him, you would think someone in his circle of family and friends would be aware. Perhaps he could have had a short chat with Red Sox union representative Kevin Youkilis about his options. I’ll admit that I’m geeky about free agency compensation and such, but it seems crazy that Varitek wasn’t aware of the compensation.]

The Bargain – Andruw Jones

Center fielder Andruw Jones signed a two year deal with the Dodgers worth a total of $36.2 million before the 2008 season. He then proceeded to stink up the joint, hitting just .158 with 3 homers and 14 RBI in 209 at bats. He was dreadfully bad. Then he got hurt and missed most of the season.

The fact that Jones had a bad season wasn’t a huge shock to some people. After all, his 2007 season wasn’t particularly good – he did stumble into 94 RBI, but hit just .222.

Recently, the Dodgers severed ties with Jones. They restructured his deal to pay him the remaining $22 million over the next six years, with no interest. Then they cut him. The Dodgers have a glut of outfielders on their roster and didn’t feel that Jones would be a contributor for them.

Any team that signs Jones will only have to pay him $400,000 for 2009 – the major league minimum – since his salary is being paid by the Dodgers. This seems to be an excellent reclamation project for someone. The downside is fairly small. Jones does want a major league contract (rather than a minor league contract) so it would necessitate a roster move to make room on the 40 man roster. However, it would not necessarily mean losing another player to make room – if a player still has “options” remaining, he could be optioned to the minor leagues without passing through waivers. This would, of course, use up one of the player’s three (in some cases, four) allowed option years.

The possible benefit seems worth the risk, though. Jones is only a few season removed from back to back 40 homer seasons, and he’ll be just 32 in April. His strikeout rate shot through the roof last year (1 strikeout in every 2.75 at bats, compared to one K in every 4.5 AB for his career and one K every 4.14 at bats in 2008). This may point to a problem that is more mental than physical.

In short, I would rather take a risk on Jones and be wrong (and waste an option year on a prospect) than have a division rival gamble on Jones and be right (and get 40 homers out of him). In fact, some teams have some dreadful talent (Pirates, I’m looking at you) that it would seem to be a complete no brainer of a decision.

Review: The Serial Killers Club, by Jeff Povey

January 15, 2009

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The book begins with our hero being attacked. He fights back and kills his attacker in self defense. While looking through the attacker’s possessions, he stumbles upon what he eventually comes to realize is an invitation to a serial killers club. Yes, it’s exactly what it sounds like – serial killers gathering to break bread and share stories. Doug joins the club and eventually goes over to the dark side and becomes a killer himself..

If you’re looking for the next great mystery novel – with strong characters and a dynamic plot – this isn’t it. Nor does Povey attempt to go down that route. This is entertainment, not art. Povey crafts a book that takes an amusing look at serial killers. The plot weaves off onto tangents – a byproduct of the main character’s lack of orientation. The characters are strangely weak – reminiscent of a whiny high school clique. This is a side of serial killers that you don’t often see on TV. Some Amazon reviewers have suggested that the flimsy characters are a flaw with the book. I don’t think this is true – I think they were written this way for effect.

Doug’s decision making process is one of the more interesting aspects to this book. To say that it is flawed in a huge understatement. He has a tendency to make life changing decision with very little thought or preparation. He also has a very broad definition of “normal behavior”, as he glosses over some pretty weird stuff during the narration of the book. In the prologue, he talks about his success in finding the job he was born to do – cleaning up the muck of zoo animals.

This book probably plays a bit more to those of you who are a bit “odd” (or, if you prefer, “eccentric”). If you have a more rigid sense of humor, you might find the humor very sophomoric. If you’re the sort of person who cracks up uncontrollably at Monty Python, you’ll probably enjoy this. All in all, this book was $6 well spent (bargain bin at Barnes & Noble).

Update: I’ve shared this book with several friends since I wrote the initial review. Half of them love it, half of them think it’s pretty dumb – which basically mirrors the split reviews of the book you see on Amazon. Why roll roll the dice and give it a chance?


Stupid criminals, vol 2: Snow

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We had about six inches of snow on Tuesday night. On Wednesday morning, police in a nearby city were responded to a burglar alarm at a bar. The burglar was gone, but he left something behind – his footprints, very clear in the fresh snow. The cops followed the prints all the way to the guy’s house.

Perhaps, if you burglarize a place after a big snow storm, you should use a car for your exit.

Stupid criminals, vol 1: Beer.

January 12, 2009

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I saw the report of an interesting crime in a newspaper this weekend. A grocery store reported the theft of a “pack of beer” around 3:30 PM. It was later recovered. [I’m assuming this was a 6 pack or 12 pack, since “pack” is used instead of “case”]

OK, so not only are you dumb enough to risk a criminal record by stealing 6-12 cans/bottles of beer, but you don’t even escape with the loot? There is no mention of a chase in the newspaper. I’m not sure if this was left out due to sloppy reporting or if the reporting is accurate and there was actually not a chase.

Librivox (free audio books)

January 9, 2009

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Last update June 9, 2009

Editor’s note:  This was originally just a review of Librivox.  However, I noticed that people seem to be stumbling aross this article in an effort to answer two questions

  • Who are the best readers on Librivox?
  • What are the best books on Librivox?

I’m going to a make an effort to answer those question in the first part of this article.  If you simply want to read the original review of librivox, please scroll down!

Question 1:  Who are the best readers on Librivox?

This is really subjective, but I’ll make an effort to answer the question in the coming weeks.  This will be a substantial undertaking, as it will be necessary to sample the readings of the more prolific readers on Librivox.

For starters, I’ll recommend the readers from “Journey to the Interior of the Earth”

  • Vinny Bove
  • Mark Bradford
  • Hugh McGuire
  • Kristin Luoma
  • Mur Lafferty
  • Paul S. Jenkins
  • Alex Foster
  • Kristen McQuillen
  • Michael Crowl
  • Brad Bush
  • Lana Taylor
  • Kara Shallenberg

Certainly some of those readers are better than others, this this is a good starting point.  I will attempt to work my way through all of the more prolific readers at Librivox and select the best of the best.  I will update this article as I move forward on this task – I will update the date at the top and make a note as to my progress.

Note – you can used the advanced search to search by reader.

Question 2: What are the best books on Librivox?

Librivox contains a great selection of books in the public domain.  At one point, I had a list of books I intended to listen to, but it seems that I have misplaced this list.  I’ll compile a more complete list, but here are a couple to get you started:

  • Journey to the Interior of the Earth (Verne)
  • The Count of Monte Cristo (Dumas)
  • A Tale of Two Cities (Dickens)

I will update both of these sections regularly over the next few weeks.

Original review of Librivox

This is supposed to be a book review post, but I’m going off on a slight tangent. I would like to point out a wonderful site –

If the name looks a bit strange, dust off your Latin.

Librivox has organized volunteers to record their readings of classic literature. Since these works are in the public domain, there are no copyright issues. Librivox contains a library of 2000 books, and this is growing daily. There is absolutely, positively, NO CHARGE to download the audio books! In fact, there isn’t even a place to down, nor are there the invasive ads you see on many free sites. Compare this to the price you pay for audio books of popular contemporary books. I’m in my car for 90-120 minutes every day, so I have become a frequent audio book listener.

The books can be downloaded in MP3 or ogg vorbis format and you can get them via podcast. Personally, I download the MP3s and have iTunes burn them to CD.

When I first became aware of Librivox, my first concern was the quality of the reading. Would the readers have a horrible, monotone reading style? I have listened to one complete book (Journey to the Center of the Earth, one of my all time favorites) and sampled a few others. Really, considering that these are unpaid volunteers, the quality of the reading is quite good. Librivox does have a decent amount of structure in how they organize their projects, utilizing “book coordinators” to make sure things flow smoothly.

Overall, I really had to nitpick to find anything I didn’t like. At the start of every MP3 file (which could be a single chapter or several chapters) there is a notice telling the reader that the file is from librivox, identifying the reader, and releasing copyright (Librivox does not acquire a copyright to the actual recording). At first, this was a minor distraction the continuity, but it quickly became a non-issue.

The other minor issue was the fact that a book often has several different readers. Once again, these folks are volunteers, so it’s not surprising that a single person can’t undertake the recording of a 500 page book. You might actually like the variety of having the different voices.

If you want to catch up on the classics, this is a great way to do it. Not only do these folks have a great idea, but they have also done a good job of executing it. Kudos to Librivox.

The mall kiosk people

January 2, 2009

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There are plenty of fine kiosk merchants at malls. The calendar people are great – you poke around looking for calendars, stop occassionally to ask where one is located, but your calendars, and leave. Essentially, an ideal customer experience.

Then there are the stalker merchants.

These tend to be lotion sellers. They will stray far from their kiosk in an attempt to lure customers (women) in. At first, my wife and I were a bit annoyed by them, but simply altered our path so that we veered sharply toward the edge of the mall walkway to avoid them. We were walking literally a foot from the edge of mall walkway (right next to the “regular” stores). The message really should have been quite clear – we were not interested in buying products from these folks.

They began to stalk us to the edge. One one occassion, there was a mild verbal altercation.

What kind of crazy people do this? If I am actively trying to avoid you, engaging in harassing behavior is probably not going to turn me into a customer.

That is when my wife discovered an interesting fact. The mall office actually did care about this. Not only that, but there was specific language in the merchant leases that forbid this sort of aggressive behavior, with fines for violation.

If you encounter this sort of behavior, fight back.

– Call the mall office, or visit them in person. The office is usually tucked away in a hidden corner of the mall (obviously, the mall operators don’t want to waste the prime retail slots on their offices), but it should be on the directory.

– If multiple people were affected, multiple people should complain. It is great to say that five people were in the group that was harassed, but having five different phone calls will leave a sttronger impression.

– Describe the incident accurately and honestly. It should not be necessarily to embellish your story, and these embellishments could get you into hot water. Stick to the facts.

– Describe how this may affect your future shopping habits. If there is a competing mall (with different management) in your metro area, the suggestion that you may shift shopping to that mall may hit home with the mall operators.

– If you continue to experience the harassing behavior, call back. Keep track of dates and times.

I was at the mall today. As I veered to avoid the lotion people, I realized that they were no longer there. Perhaps the merchant simply decided not to renew their lease … but I like to think that the mall non-renewed them because of their behavior.

Schedule of posts for the new year

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Schedule of posts
Starting in January 2009, I will attempt to stick to this schedule each month. However, life may alter these plans at any time.

Day 1-5: Consumer experiences

Day 6-10: Book review (this will run heavilty toward mysteries and baseball books)

Day 11-15: A general news topic

Day 16-20: Sports – very likely to be heavy on baseball

Day 21 – end of the month: one or two posts on a variety of subjects