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MLB shows ‘saber’ teeth

By Chad Finn
Globe Staff / December 9, 2011
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The 10-year, $254 million contract that Albert Pujols agreed upon with the Angels yesterday drew gasps of shock and awe among baseball fans and analysts that probably sounded much like the reaction to one of his majestic home runs.

But while the conventional reaction to the Angels’ stealth blockbuster - Pujols was thought to be headed to the suddenly free-spending Marlins or back to St. Louis - was to wonder how many home runs he will hit in the American League or how the lineup will shape around him, those with an analytical bent immediately wondered how soon the contract for a 31-year-old first baseman already showing signs of decline will reach a point of diminishing returns.

In fact, well before Pujols became an Angel for roughly a quarter-billion dollars, the innovative MLB Network program “Clubhouse Confidential’’ had made its well-researched conclusion clear: The back end of a long-term contract for Pujols would almost certainly be a regrettable one for the team that signed him.

“We wanted to know how many good $100 million contracts have there been,’’ said host Brian Kenny, who joined MLB Network in September after more than a decade at ESPN. “And so we looked at the $100 million contracts, and when you put it into free agent contracts, which means you’re getting an older player, we found that of the 16 $100 million free agent contracts, four were what you could consider good contracts for the team. [One was the eight-year, $160 million deal Manny Ramirez signed with the Red Sox before the 2001 season.]

“So when you see that - that only 25 percent of these $100 million deals work out - the next question is obvious. Why? And we found that the why is usually a misevaluation of the player’s skills, ignoring the evidence of the trends, or age.

“So what’s the worst combination? A guy on the wrong side of 30, a big slugging first baseman, whose trends are going down.’’

Kenny laughs, knowing the description fit one particular free agent like an old glove.

“Who am I talking about?’’ he said. “It’s staring us in the face.’’

(Note: This conversation took place Wednesday.)

“You look at all of the components and see where they are trending. And Albert Pujols, not just his walks, his declining walk rate, his rising strikeouts, and his declining power, he’s chasing more and more pitches out of the strike zone.

“These numbers that we’re kicking around, is it fascinating to a fan? Well, it’s worth tens of millions of dollars, knowing this information and not ignoring this information.

“We’ve done a lot on Pujols, and everything points in a certain direction. And it’s that the Cardinals got his greatest years already. His best half of his career is not to come.’’

Kenny, who was prominent and respected at ESPN for his contributions to boxing coverage as well as his baseball knowledge, joined a new team himself recently. He came over to the MLB Network in part for the opportunity to host and shape “Clubhouse Confidential,’’ which is touted as “a stats-based look at the baseball news of the day.’’

The program, which Kenny calls “my baby,’’ does a remarkable job of making sabermetrics - the objective analysis of baseball through empirical, statistical evidence - accessible to fans who may be intimidated by advanced statistics. It airs weeknights at 7:30.

“This is not math class, I often stress,’’ said Kenny. “This is looking at baseball the modern way, the way a team now looks at its team, the way a front office does its business.

“I think a lot of fans out there are cognizant of the new wave and new approach, but they don’t know exactly how it works. And so, this show is to show them. This is the way to think about baseball, this is the way that the industry is now thinking about baseball. Well, most of the industry, anyway.’’

More ‘Classic’ stuff

Last season’s “24/7’’ reality series that featured the Penguins and Capitals in a four-episode arc culminating with their clash in the NHL Winter Classic, would have been extraordinary television even if then-Washington coach Bruce Boudreau did not obliterate HBO’s record for four-letter words, previously held by Tony Soprano. So it is with high expectations that the second season of the behind-the-scenes peek debuts Wednesday when the first episode of “24/7 Flyers/Rangers Road to the Winter Classic’’ airs at 10 p.m. While this season lacks the superstar power of a season ago - Claude Giroux and Brad Richards are no Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin - the candor captured by HBO’s cameras is sure to make it captivating television. And there’s this: Rangers coach John Tortorella, who does not suffer fools gladly or quietly, might make Boudreau sound suitable for the Disney Channel.

Getting real

Comcast SportsNet New England did an exemplary job during the NBA lockout of filling its programming void. Of course, that’s coming from someone who could watch Game 7 of the 1988 Eastern Conference semifinals - with the epic fourth-quarter shootout between Larry Bird and Dominique Wilkins - on an endless loop. But it must be a relief for the local television home of the Celtics to have live NBA action on the horizon, and the network is wasting no time beginning its coverage. CSNNE will broadcast “Celtics Training Camp Live’’ from the team’s first practice today at 8:30 p.m. The Celtics’ preseason matchups versus the Raptors Dec. 18 and Dec. 21 will air on CSNNE. The first of the network’s 55 regular-season broadcasts will be Wednesday, Dec. 28, versus the Hornets.

Chad Finn can be reached at finn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globechadfinn.

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