The Royals Should Not Sell

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One you reference Joe (the Twins should’ve drafted Mark Prior over Joe Mauer amid dozens of other analytical baseball travesties) Sheehan as the basis for your logic, your foundation is built for collapse. In this SB Nation posting, Rob Neyer suggests the Royals throw the towel in on the season while they’re still within reasonable striking distance of first place by trading Ervin Santana, Greg Holland and Luke Hochevar. Needless to say, I’m not swayed by the Baseball Prospectus playoff percentages that are used as tenets to make these moves and I really don’t care what Sheehan says about anything.

The Royals have disappointed this season. They made a series of deals to try and win now and they’ve been hit or miss. James Shields has been good; Wade Davis inconsistent; Wil Myers, now with the Rays, is looking like the hype was real. The Royals haven’t scored in large part because their approach has been atrocious and Mike Moustakas has played poorly enough that they might want to consider sending him to the minors. But wouldn’t a sell-off of Santana, Holland and Hochevar be giving up on a season when they are still only seven games out of first place behind the somewhat disappointing Tigers? That’s an eight game winning streak away from getting it to three games. They have a large number of games against the White Sox, Mets, Mariners, Twins and Marlins. They have a lot of games left with the Tigers as well. Is it out of the question that they can get to within five games by September 1? If it were a team run by Sheehan or Neyer, would it be justified to give up on the season while still within five games of first place with a month left? Or is the loathing of general manager Dayton Moore so intense that it clouds their judgment to try and get him fired?

It appears that the hardcore stat guys have still not learned the lesson that taking every single player at a certain position and lumping them into a group as what teams “should” do with them based on that position is not analysis. It’s hedging. The lack of consistency in the suggested strategy and examples are conveniently twisted. At the end of the piece, Neyer writes, “We know what the A’s and Rays would do, though” when discussing why closers are disposable. Neyer writes that Holland is “probably worth more now than he’ll ever be worth again.” Yet the Rays, who got the best year of his life out of Fernando Rodney in 2012 and had him under contract at a cheap rate for another year, didn’t trade him when he was in a similar circumstance. The Rays had traded for a big money closer in Rafael Soriano before the 2010 season, much to the consternation of the “pump-and-dump/you can find a closer” wing of stat guys. Which is it? Is there consistency of theory or consistency when it confirms the bias as to what “should” be done?

I also find it laughable when people like Sheehan and Neyer have all the guts in the world to make these decisions while sitting behind a keyboard simultaneously having no responsibility to try and adhere to the various aspects of running a club—doing what the owner wants, attracting fans and keeping the job.

There’s an argument to be made for making deals to get better for the next season if the situation calls for it. If not an outright fire sale, a concession to reality by dealing marketable commodities is the correct move when a team is underachieving. The Blue Jays are an example far more relevant to the concept of giving up in late July than the Royals are. The Blue Jays have a GM, Alex Anthopoulos, who thinks more in line with what the stat people think and is probably more likely to be fired after the season than Moore.

With Neyer, Rany Jazayerli and presumably Bill James (even though he now works for the Red Sox), I can’t tell whether they’re providing objective analysis based on the facts or they’re Royals fans hoping the club comes completely undone because they don’t like Moore and would like someone closer to their line of thinking running the team. If that’s the case there’s nothing wrong with that if one is honest about it, but it’s somewhat untoward and shady to be using stats and out of context examples to “prove” a point.

Regardless of how they’ve played, the Royals are only seven games out of first place. That’s no time to start clearing the decks of players they might need to make a run. And numbers, hatred of the GM and disappointments aside, a run is still possible, like it or not.

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The Astros Blueprint Begins To Fade

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For the Astros, all of a sudden the blueprint isn’t as simple as plugging a bunch of numbers into the machine and achieving the desired result. With the resignation of CEO George Postolos there’s speculation that the Astros “united front” of rebuilding by detonating the entire organization isn’t as united as it was portrayed to be. There’s also talk that Nolan Ryan now has an opening with the Astros to be the team president since the Rangers have mitigated his CEO role and he was unhappy about it.

To put an end to the speculation on both ends, Postolos is not a baseball guy. He’s a business guy who assisted Astros owner Jim Crane in getting the franchise. Losing him is irrelevant.

Ryan has ties to the Astros fans from his days pitching for them, but think about it logically: He would be leaving the Rangers because his say-so was supposedly undermined by the promotion of GM Jon Daniels to head of baseball operations and Ryan is now seen as a figurehead, but going to the Astros and working for GM Jeff Luhnow and placating the fans who are angry at the team being so supernaturally terrible would be the epitome of a figurehead move. Luhnow certainly wouldn’t listen to Ryan’s old-school baseball theories and the stat people in the front office would roll their eyes at him when he was out of the room. It wouldn’t be a lateral move, but a step down into the “old man” status he so clearly loathes. In actuality, the one place aside from public relations in which Ryan could help the Astros is on the mound. Since he could throw 90-mph years after his retirement, there’s a pretty good chance that he could still throw in the 80s even at age 66 and would have the pitching savvy to do better than what the Astros are currently tossing out there.

Dismissing the departure of Postolos and the talk of hiring Ryan, the Astros are coming to the inevitable conclusion that the fans being onboard with this expansion-style rebuild was fleeting. They’re not going to pay to see a product that is so blatantly and intentionally not of Major League quality, nor are they going to sit happily while the owner scoffs at the fans wanting him to spend more money to at least make the team cosmetically better. It’s easy to draw up the plan for a teardown and reconstruction without accounting for the blowback from such a decision. There’s support for what Luhnow and Crane are doing and that support will not waver in places like the halls of Baseball Prospectus and Keith Law’s house, but that doesn’t mean they have carte blanche to do whatever they want with the fans merrily going along with it sans complaints. Ryan might quiet them briefly if he was hired, but how long would that last while his suggestions were being ignored and Crane was trotting him out as a human shield to protect him from fan and media vitriol? Fans don’t go to the park to see the team president do his presidenting. Most probably didn’t know who Postolos was and while they’d know Ryan, that wouldn’t perfume the stink that these Astros are generating.

The key for Crane is twofold: 1) can he stand the constant attacks he’ll be under as the team gets worse before it gets better? And 2) Can Luhnow find the talent to make the club viable again?

On the first front, Crane is probably not accustomed to people talking to or about him the way they currently are. Rich, successful businessmen aren’t pleased about criticism and when it’s an alpha-male Texan where any small concession is seen as a sign of weakness and can cost money and clients, it’s magnified.

Regarding Luhnow, because the Astros are going to have so many high draft picks and are pouring most of their resources into development, it will be hard not to get better and show signs of significant improvement eventually. Whether that will yield the results that are expected in a replication of the Rays or the new “genius” in the Moneyball sense remains to be seen and it’s not guaranteed to happen. Already there should be concerns that their hand-picked manager Bo Porter is starting to look overmatched and was rightfully mocked because he didn’t know a fundamental rule of the game last week against the Angels. To make matters worse, his coaches didn’t point out to him that what he was doing was illegal either. That he got away with it only made it look worse.

There are similarities between another Texas team that was purchased by a brash rich man who didn’t want to hear what didn’t work in the past as Jerry Jones bought the floundering Cowboys from Bum Bright in 1989. Jones said some stupid things as Crane has, but he also had the foresight and guts to fire Tom Landry and hire Jimmy Johnson to put him in charge of the entire on-field operation. Of course it helped that Troy Aikman was sitting there as the first pick in the 1989 NFL Draft and that Johnson was a ruthless wizard with moving up and down the NFL draftboard and dispatching those who couldn’t or wouldn’t help him achieve his goals as rapidly as possible. But the key for those Cowboys was the Herschel Walker trade in which Johnson fleeced the Vikings for a bounty of draft picks that he used to put a Super Bowl team together in four years.

Jeff Luhnow is not Jimmy Johnson in terms of personality nor intensity, can’t trade up and down the MLB draftboard, and he doesn’t have a Herschel Walker equivalent on his roster to trade. Porter is not Johnson in terms of on-field strategic skill and in threatening and pushing his coaches and players to get it done or else.

Unless there’s some past business animosity between the two, I wouldn’t be surprised if Jones has called Crane as Al Davis used to call Jones during the Cowboys’ 1-15 season in Jones/Johnson’s first season running the team and told him to keep his chin up. By “chin up” I don’t mean Jones is suggesting to Crane to have the ill-advised, multiple plastic surgeries Jones has had as he’s aged, but to keep his chin up in response to the raking he’s getting for the atrociousness of his team. Not only does Crane need to keep his chin up, but it had better be able to take a punch as well because they’re starting in earnest now and won’t stop until there’s a marked improvement in the on-field product. And that’s a long way away.

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The Astros Reality Is Beginning To Sink In

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We’ve come a long way in a month. On opening night in Texas, the Astros beat up on the Rangers 8-2. Following the preseason prognostications as to how bad the Astros would be (I had them at 45-117), that one game inspired an absurd belief that they wouldn’t be all that bad. There were orgasmic reactions to GM Jeff Lunow’s in-game interview on ESPN with the response being, “He has a plan!!! He…has…a…plaaaannnnnnn, ohhhhhhh!!!!”

Owner Jim Crane made some arrogant and obnoxious statements in a Wall Street Journal article that went largely unreported and uncriticized (except for me); he was lauded for providing every player with an I-Pad like his players were a group of Unfrozen Caveman Lawyers given a “frightening new information machine.” Luhnow made an absurd projection that manager Bo Porter might be managing the club for decades. On and on.

From the time Luhnow was hired, the media has squealed in pre-teen girl delight as if they were at a Justin Bieber concert at the new metrics permeating the organization from top to bottom. They’re a pure stat guy club complete with the bizarre titles (Sig Mejdal—Director of Decision Sciences); multitudes being hired from various stat guy sources (Baseball Prospectus); a mutually beneficial “interview” of Keith Law for a position in the front office in which the ESPN “expert” made a great show of “choosing” to stay at ESPN when a job may not have even been offered; and the new, unapologetic manner in which the Astros are shunning any and all old-school techniques preferred by veteran baseball people.

There won’t be any inter-organizational squabbles and questioning of Luhnow’s credentials as there were while he was with the Cardinals and Tony LaRussa played sharp-elbowed politics to mitigate Luhnow’s influence and win the turf war. He’s in charge. It’s his baby and, admirably, he’s doing it his way and hiring people who will implement his vision.

In the end, it’ll work or it won’t. If it does, it will have more to do with the team accumulating years and years of high draft picks because they were so historically awful than because of any undervalued finds on the part of the front office. That’s just reality. It was so with the Rays, will be so with the Astros and is a fact that those looking to anoint the next “genius” will conveniently brush to the side when embarking on an archaeological dig for reasons to twist the narrative in their preferred direction—exactly like Moneyball.

Now the mainstream media—especially those who are unabashed stat guys who defend Bill James’s most ludicrous statements regarding Joe Paterno and think Billy Beane’s bowel movements are objects of worship—are not only catching on as to how bad the 2013 Astros will be, but are speculating as to whether they can rival the 2003 Tigers and 1962 Mets in terms of historic awfulness. The Astros are this bad with a few useful veterans on their roster. Imagine what they’ll look like in August once they’ve dealt away Bud Norris, Lucas Harrell, Wesley Wright, Jose Veras and maybe even Jose Altuve. They’ll have a legitimate chance to reach the depths of the Cleveland Spiders of 1899. And I’m not kidding.

The media can present the contextualized explanations as to what the Astros are doing (“What’s the difference between winning 40 games and 60 games?”) and they’ll kindasorta be right. It doesn’t make much difference. But to the fans of the club who’ll have to endure this and listen to the mantra of “trust us, we’re smart” from Crane, et al., it’s going to get tiresome quickly as they’re being abused. Crane is going to need a thick skin to get through the amount of cow refuse he’ll have flung at him as the season moves along. As a loud and brash Texan, he talks like he’s ready to withstand the criticism, but when it starts coming from those who were supportive as part of their own personal agenda and they leap from the plummeting rocketship in self preservation, we’ll see if he lashes out or stays the course. I have a hunch that it will be both. Then there will really be some good stuff to write about as Crane is saying derogatory things to critics/fans because his team is so dreadfully, embarrassingly bad. He’s used to people kissing his ass and they’ll be kicking it instead. That adds up to an explosive response that will come sooner rather than later.

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Lusting For Luhnow, Part II

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The narrative of Jeff Luhnow having been the scouting director who drafted the most players who opened the 2013 season on a Major League roster is taken far out of context in the effort to create a pithy and simple-minded conclusion that he was the mastermind behind the Cardinals and is a guarantee to rebuild the Astros in a similar manner.

Is it technically true that Luhnow has the most draftees on big league rosters in 2013?

Yes.

Is it accurate in its basest sense?

No.

The drafting of players is such a random thing and their making it or not making it is based on so many factors that have nothing to do with talent that it’s a meaningless assertion to make to credit any one person for it. How many high draft picks have flamed out and not made it to the degree they were supposed to? How many late-rounders became stars? Albert Pujols was with the Cardinals club that Luhnow supposedly built and was a 13th round draft pick. Chris Carpenter was a first round draft pick of the Blue Jays who was a combination of bad and injury-prone before he came under the tutelage of Dave Duncan and Tony LaRussa and was completely rebuilt into one of the best pitchers in baseball over the past decade.

No one in their right mind is going to try and take credit for Pujols as a 13th round pick and say they “knew” what he was. His selection was a combination of a late-bloomer, luck and who knows what else? The scouting director is the one who receives the credit, but in reality it’s the cross-checkers and in-the-trenches scouts who find the players to begin with and recommend them to the front office who decide which player they want. Much of it is innate talent, happenstance, teaching, and opportunity. To think that any club believes a player drafted from the 8th round and beyond will do anything significant in the majors is absurd. The ones who do are an anomaly, the product of a trick pitch, late growth spurts or PEDs.

Yet here we are. No matter what Luhnow does, it’s treated as if he’s reinventing the game and receiving undue credit for his new thinking. But we can’t avoid the reality that his current club is going to lose somewhere between 105 and 115 games in 2013. Does that not matter?

The fervent and evangelical support he’s receiving is akin to George W. Bush abandoning the pretense of Constitutional separation between church and state and holding up a Bible saying he answers to a higher authority while mega-churches prayed for his election and turned out en masse to make it happen. Instead of the New Testament, Luhnow is metaphorically holding up a copy of Baseball Prospectus and answering to that “higher authority” and plucking people from its staff to function as his assistants.

It’s sort of like Mitt Romney’s binder of women only it’s Luhnow’s paperback of stat geeks.

They have their impressive degrees, theories and worship from the masses who see them as examples of what they believe as if that’s the final word on what’s right. This is a conceit that is growing prevalent as its supporters are emboldened by increased validation, accurate or not. The congregation—the like-minded media, bloggers, and social media “experts”—spread the gospel and make ham-handed and pompous fumblings with “conversion.” It maintains the undertone of an insecure, “we don’t really believe it” desperation and whininess asking why others don’t see the “truth.”

Because Luhnow is adhering to his beliefs and has the support of the likes of Keith Law, he’s receiving a pass for this monstrosity into which he’s crafted the Astros as they play, not to compete, but to accumulate draft picks. The teams that have had success in recent years but have done it in a decidedly old-school manner and told the outside “experts” to take a hike, namely the Giants and their GM Brian Sabean, are not credited for what they’ve created with the GM failing to get the accolades he deserves. Instead, before the champagne in the carpet of the Giants’ clubhouse had even dried, the media made it a point to search for someone, anyone in the Giants organization who would bolster them and render meaningless the argument that Sabean’s old-school methods worked. What they found was Yeshayah Goldfarb who is the Giants “Moneyball” guy in a Moneyballless organization. Goldfarb, who few even knew existed before he was dragged into the spotlight, was the behind the scenes wizard who pulled Sabean’s strings and “really” crafted the Giants into a World Series winner in two of the past three years.

At least that’s how the story was framed.

So how’s it work? If the GM fits the aesthetic as Luhnow does, he’s a hero and if he doesn’t (like Sabean), he got help from a guy in a darkened room recommending the team sign Juan Uribe? If the storyline doesn’t translate neatly into some singular person being a “genius,” by believing what the baseball revolutionaries believe, a Goldfarb has to be found somewhere?

The Luhnow rhetoric stems from what “we’d” do with the “we” being the aforementioned bloggers, media and people on Twitter. But because the “we” agrees with what someone is doing doesn’t make it right; it doesn’t make it unassailable; and it doesn’t make someone a “genius” before they’ve accomplished anything at all other than accumulate a load of worshipful hype, driven payroll down as low as it can possibly go and put together one of the worst clubs in history.

Let’s wait on the smiling bust of Luhnow to be placed in the room of every would-be GM who’s memorized the latest edition of Baseball Prospectus and thinks that somehow qualifies him or her to be a GM and tell experienced baseball players, coaches, managers, and executives how to do their jobs. He’s done nothing up to now other than demolish what was admittedly a crumbled infrastructure. But anyone with a wrecking ball and sufficient motivation could’ve done that. So far he’s a media creation and nothing more.

Paul Lebowitz’s 2013 Baseball Guide is now available on Amazon.com, Smashwords, BN and Lulu. Check it out and read a sample.

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Lusting For Luhnow, Part I

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We’re about a week away from a Jeff Luhnow bowel movement being encased in a climate controlled, clear reinforced plastic viewing chamber to be marveled at and admired 50, 100, 200 years from now in Cooperstown as if it was the work of a genius and not a bran muffin and coffee he had for breakfast on a particular morning in April of 2013.

For now, the adoration lavished on the Astros GM is limited to orgasmic sighs, lusty Twitter comments, and Hardball Talk postings about the I-Pads all the Astros’ players were given, beatific grins at the catchphrase in the clubhouse (“Process”), Baseball America columns discussing the number of Luhnow draft picks that opened the season on a big league roster, and the method in which Luhnow is rebuilding the Astros as if they’re an expansion team.

Of course it’s nonsense. With the free hand Luhnow’s been given by Astros owner Jim Crane, he’s in an enviable position on multiple fronts. First, the owner isn’t expecting results immediately and is letting the GM do whatever he wants in every aspect of the organization. Second, the media is rolling around and contorting itself into a pretzel to allow Luhnow a wide swath of absolution in spite of formulating a 2013 club that is going to be among the worst in the history of the sport. Third, his resume is being taken so drastically out of context that it won’t be long before he’s given credit for the Cardinals busting through from the team that constantly lost in the playoffs under Walt Jocketty/Tony LaRussa pre-2006 to the one that won two World Series in 2006 and 2011 with Luhnow as the scouting director. Fourth, he has the support of one of the largest growing constituencies in all of sports: the bloggers and social media “experts” who think they can run a club, scout, and analyze because they play fantasy baseball and can read a spreadsheet, yet never picked up a baseball in their lives and wouldn’t know what to do with one if they did.

Luhnow’s gutting of the Astros is fulfilling a mandate and reacting to the situation he entered. The Astros had bloated contacts, were notoriously thin in talent, and had neglected the farm system to the degree that there were very few marketable prospects for trade or development. He’s essentially running an expansion team in large part because he himself cleared out the house of any and all players that were there when he arrived. It may be a bit much to say they’re trying to lose, but it’s not too much to say they don’t care if they win. It’s a subtle difference and a large factor as to why they’re being allowed to put a team on the field that has a $26 million payroll and will have a dramatic impact on all of baseball with their historic and intentional awfulness.

Is it necessary to strip the whole apparatus down to its brass fittings in order to build it back up? No. It’s not. There are many ways to get where a club wants to go and the days of an expansion team having to take annual beatings for 5-7 years while their draft picks develop ended with free agency. The 1969 Mets and early 1980s Blue Jays were case studies of clubs that built from the bottom up and turned their fortunes around in year eight for the Mets (100 wins and a World Series), and year seven for the Blue Jays (89 wins in 1983 starting off a long run culminating in back-to-back World Series wins in 1992-1993).

However, those were the days before teams spent lavishly on free agents and had the ability to just buy their way into contention. Nowadays, it’s not necessary to wait. The Diamondbacks are the new age case study having won 100 games in their second season and a World Series in their fourth. Strangely, their success has been quantified as “lucky,” “mortgaging,” and “checkbook building” by then-owner Jerry Colangelo; then-GM Joe Garagiola Jr.; and then-manager Buck Showalter. They followed the strategies of Showalter—hired by the Diamondbacks shortly after the Yankees had fired him in 1995—and he took command of the implementation of Showalter-preferred teaching methods from that day forward. They were largely a creation of free agency by signing Randy JohnsonJay Bell and trading for Luis Gonzalez and Matt Williams. This is often referred to with a scoffing eye-roll as if there’s something untoward about signing free agents and achieving rapid success with players drafted, signed and developed by other clubs. Like those who advocate eating organic foods and nothing else, there’s a sense of superiority for a team that developed their own players rather than purchased them. In reality, there’s no difference other than in the mind. The Yankees didn’t develop Babe Ruth. They bought him. So what? Does that diminish what he was? Not in any way.

The “development” attitude is supposed to be sustainable as if the atmosphere is being saved and global warming is being stopped by a player working his way through the organization and making it to the big leagues as a homegrown talent.

In the end, a win is a win is a win and it doesn’t make much difference whether it’s done by a bunch of mercenaries and a $150-200 million payroll or one with a $70 million payroll and the appellation of “genius” attached to the “architect” of the club.

The concept that what Luhnow is doing with the Astros is “right” is based on nothing more than the preferred public perception by the self-styled revolutionaries who feel as if statistics have taken over the game of baseball in an inextricable metamorphosis from what was to what is and what will be.

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The Astros Strip The Spaceship For Parts

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Stat-centric people are looking at the Astros and nodding their heads approvingly at the series of maneuvers that may have improved their farm system and future. GM Jeff Luhnow is implementing the sabermetric template in what’s developing into a case study of how a purely stat-based organization would be run. They’re creating new job titles in baseball circles (Director of Decision Sciences), hiring people from Baseball Prospectus, and gutting the big league club of any and all competent major league players while signing the refuse that’s available cheaply and who have nowhere else to go. If you wanted to see a team that was run by the people at Fangraphs, here are your 2013 Houston Astros sans Jed Lowrie who was traded to the Athletics yesterday along with reliever Fernando Martinez for Chris Carter, Brad Peacock and Max Stassi. The players they received may be assets for the future, but financially they cost a fraction of what Lowrie was going to make in 2013 ($2.4 million).

Whether the Astros’ strategy works or not will take at least three and probably five years to determine. As of now, though, MLB has to take a hard look at what the Astros are doing, and decide if it’s fair to the spirit of competition to have a team with what projects to be a $25 million payroll and won’t just be the worst team in baseball for 2013 (that’s a given), but will possibly be one of the worst teams in the history of the sport. To think that the Astros, who lost 106 games in 2011 and 107 games in 2012 could somehow find a way to sink lower than that ineptitude is mind-boggling, but they’ve done it.

When Jim Crane bought the team and hired Luhnow, the organization was a barren, expansion-like wasteland. That’s not an excuse for what they’re doing. The days of teams having to endure half a decade of 100-plus losses ended when the Diamondbacks showed that an expansion team can win if they’re truly committed and intelligent about it. With free agency and teams’ willingness to trade, there is no longer 1960s Mets-style acceptance of being a league punching bag until the young players develop. There’s no reason that a team has to turn itself into an embarrassment while they’re rebuilding.

The Cubs are embarking on a similar restructuring and overhaul with people who come from the same mindset (though not as extreme) as Luhnow. Theo Epstein was one of the first to turn his club into a sabermetrically-inclined organization with the Red Sox in 2003, but he also used scouting techniques and a lot of money to create a juggernaut that won on the field and “won” off the field in terms of popularity and profit. The Cubs lost six fewer games than the Astros did in 2012, but while Epstein, GM Jed Hoyer and the rest of the staff alter the way the club is run from top-to-bottom, build through the draft and search for international players to sign, they’re also bringing in veterans like Edwin Jackson and Scott Hairston to join Starlin Castro (whom they signed to a long-term deal), Matt Garza and a few other recognizable players.

In fairness, the Cubs were in a slightly better situation than the Astros when the new front office took charge and the Astros weren’t going to win many more games with Lowrie than they will without him, but the Cubs tried to bring in big league caliber players all winter and the Astros didn’t. The Cubs have more money to spend and a fanbase that’s going to show up no matter what, but the Astros are essentially spitting in their fans’ faces with a team that no one is going to want to go see as a “root, root, root for the home team” group. Houston fans will go to the games to see opponents Mike Trout, Derek Jeter, Yu Darvish and Felix Hernandez, but they’re not going to see their own Lucas Harrell. By July, the Astros won’t be able to give tickets away.

MLB saw fit to intervene when the Marlins used financial sleight of hand to pocket revenue sharing money. They mandated that the money be used to improve the on-field product. Does realistic competence dictate that the commissioner’s office step in and tell the Astros that this simply isn’t acceptable?

The Astros are trying to run their club like a business, but in MLB or any other sporting conglomerate, there’s a responsibility to ensure a baseline of competitiveness not just for the people of Houston, but for the rest of baseball.

Is it right that the four other teams in the American League West will have 19 games each against the Astros while the AL East is so parity-laden? Clubs like the White Sox and Royals in the AL Central—who have an argument to make a playoff run—can deem it wrong that a playoff spot in the West will have an easier path because the Astros are openly presenting a product that has no intention nor chance to win a vast majority of the games they play through sheer lack of talent.

I’ve long been against a minimum payroll in baseball. If a team is smart enough to succeed by spending less, they should be allowed to do so without interference. That, however, is contingent on the teams trying to compete, something the Astros are currently not doing.

It’s fine to adapt outside world business principles to sports, but unlike the outside business world, a sports franchise is not operating in a vacuum as an individual company. Like the battle between pitcher and catcher, it’s one-on-one in a group dynamic. They’re individuals, but are functioning within a group.

Since there’s no such thing as European football-style relegation in MLB where actual punishment is possible, the overseers need to seriously consider creating a payroll floor to stop what the Astros are blatantly doing because it’s hindering the competitive balance that has long been the goal. The Astros are scoffing at that notion and it’s unfair to the rest of baseball that they’re being allowed to do it with impunity.

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Armchair Analysis from Earth to Jupiter

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To highlight the madness surrounding the pigeonholing of players based on factors that have nothing to do with anything, below is a clip from this Joe Sheehan posting on Baseball Prospectus in 2004:

The Joe Mauer Express appears to be steaming down the tracks right now. The 21-year-old Twin has been named the game’s top prospect by both Baseball Prospectus and Baseball America, one of those rare confluences of agreement between the two that mark a player as a future star. ESPN.com had him on their main baseball page on Tuesday, and Peter Gammons wrote glowingly not only of Mauer’s skill, but of the high opinion in which the young catcher is held.

I think Mauer is currently a good baseball player. He’s shown offensive and defensive development in his three professional seasons, and while I still think the Twins should have taken Mark Prior in 2001–how different might their two playoff losses have gone with the big right-hander?–clearly it’s not like they ended up with a bum. Mauer is going to eventually be a productive left-handed hitter; comparable to Mike Sweeney, with maybe a bit more power and patience.

I just don’t agree that Mauer is a future star behind the plate, and it has everything to do with his height. Mauer is listed at 6’4″, and people that height or taller just don’t have long, successful careers at the catching position.

With the freedom of retrospection I can write pages and pages as to why Sheehan’s Mauer projection was ridiculous. Mike Sweeney? Mauer’s height? Mark Prior?

But I’m not referencing this to ridicule Sheehan. Instead, I want to highlight why the Mets’ new catching prospect Travis d’Arnaud shouldn’t be placed into a category due to discriminatory history or his height of 6’2”.

Joel Sherman makes a similarly broadbased statement regarding former Cy Young Award winners—like R.A. Dickey—who were traded for packages of prospects as if the past is a prologue to the future when developing baseball players who come in different shapes, sizes and ability levels. Matt LaPorta headlined the package the Brewers sent to the Indians for CC Sabathia. Justin Smoak was the main ingredient that led the Mariners to walk away from the Yankees’ offer for Cliff Lee and send the pitcher to the Rangers. The Zack Greinke return to the Royals from the Brewers has done little of note.

What this has to do with Dickey, d’Arnaud and Noah Syndergaard is a mystery.

Or maybe it’s not a mystery. Maybe this type of questioning is undertaken to blur the lines of critique and credit and provide the individual making the distinction some form of credibility for these judgments. This is not to undermine the factual nature of what Sheehan and Sherman wrote, but to show the flaws in the foundation upon which they’re built and the intentions of those who wrote them. Do they really believe this nonsense to be valid or are they appealing to a constituency by being contrary.

I’d hate to think they believe it, but considering their histories, I have a hunch they do. Unable as they are to provide analysis stemming from their own assessments, they have to find “things” like height and “comparable” deals that aren’t relevant or comparable at all. Theoretical science can make a case for anything if one chooses to search for individual occurrences or cherrypicked stereotypes to support it, but use your intelligence and decide on your own whether this makes sense or it’s outsiders digging through the trash for self-aggrandizing purposes.

In what other industry is such a negligible and disconnected set of principles taken as a portent of what’s to come? Sherman’s and Sheehan’s logic is akin to saying that because the Rangers made one of the worst trades in the history of baseball when they sent Adrian Gonzalez and Chris Young to the Padres for Adam Eaton and Akinori Otsuka that GM Jon Daniels is a bumbling idiot; or that because Daniels made up for that horrific gaffe by trading Mark Teixeira to the Braves for a package that included Neftali Feliz, Matt Harrison and Elvis Andrus that he deserves a spot in the Hall of Fame. Or that because James Shields was drafted in the 16th round by the Rays in 2000 means that the Rays’ 16th round pick last season, shortstop Brett McAfee, will turn into a breakout star as Shields did. Or that trading X first baseman for Y relief pitcher and Z young starter will turn into a Keith Hernandez for Neil Allen and Rick Ownbey heist for the Mets and dreadful mistake for the Cardinals.

Or that Mauer shouldn’t have made it as an All-Star catcher and MVP because he’s “too” tall. The same height argument is being made about d’Arnaud now and it’s pointless.

This is why armchair experts are sitting in the armchair and clicking away at their laptops and smartphones making snide comments without consequences simultaneously to experienced baseball people running clubs and determining the value of players; whether they’re worth a certain amount of money; deciding to keep or trade them in the real world. You can’t cover up a lack of in-the-trenches work and knowledge accumulated over the decades with random numbers and baseless statistics. It’s called scouting and it can’t be done with the above attempts to connect the dots, especially when one dot is on Earth and the other on Jupiter.

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The Astros Experiment In Baseball Engineering

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When the Astros offered Tim Bogar a job to be their new bench coach, Bogar turned it down because the deal included a clause that he couldn’t interview for managerial jobs elsewhere. When discussing this somewhat odd demand, Astros General Manager Jeff Luhnow said he didn’t comment on “human resource issues”.

Never before have I heard the words “human resources” referenced in a baseball context, especially by the GM.

This exemplifies the different tack the Astros are taking in rebuilding their club from what amounts to a moribund and barren expansion team. It’s an experiment in baseball engineering that continues from the hiring of Luhnow to the naming of a Baseball Prospectus writer Kevin Goldstein as their pro scouting coordinator, to the unique title they anointed on Sig Mejdal as “Director of Decision Sciences”. Yesterday, they continued the trend of loading their front office with the highly educated when they hired Harvard graduate David Stearns as assistant GM. Whether or not it works will be known only in retrospect, but it strikes me as a reinvention of the wheel. Because Luhnow is so immersed in data crunching, is beloved by stat people for his supposed success in building the Cardinals minor league system into the pipeline for talent, and is running such a horrific and mostly talentless organization, he’s receive carte blanche from owner Jim Crane to do what he wants.

The credit for the Cardinals is a shaky premise at best. Luhnow’s entry into baseball was rocky and stemmed from Bill DeWitt’s desire to recreate the club in the Moneyball image. The insertion of a total outsider who’d come from the corporate world was not taken well by the old-school baseball men in the Cardinals organization and eventually sowed the seeds for Walt Jocketty’s firing and Tony LaRussa’s sharp-elbowed infighting in which the future Hall of Fame manager won the power struggle. It’s easily glossed over that Luhnow was stripped of his power after the 2010 season. I wrote of Luhnow’s drafts in this posting immediately after he got the Astros job. The truth about anyone’s drafts is that there are so many factors that go into a player’s development that blaming Luhnow for Colby Rasmus or crediting him for Allen Craig is a partisan attempt on the part of the analyst depending on his beliefs. Supporters will say that Rasmus is a talent who was mishandled by LaRussa, critics will say that Rasmus is badly overrated. The credit/blame game can go on forever. But now Luhnow’s in charge of the Astros and he’s implementing what he believes. It’s admirable, but admiration doesn’t mean it’s going to succeed.

Does Goldstein have the qualifications to do the job for which he was hired? Is there a joint appraisal process in effect and if the scouts disagree with what the numbers say, who breaks the tie and how does he do it? Goldstein comes from Baseball Prospectus which, like the Ivy League, has become a mill for baseball front offices and in the media. BP has a tendency (if you read the back of their annuals) to relentlessly promote what they got right. “Look, we nailed this, that and the other thing” is a selling point without mentioning what they got wrong as if it was a matter of circumstance and if the players, managers, or front office people had done what they were expected to do, the numbers would’ve played out as correct. It’s a wonderful world to live in in which there’s no possibility of being defined wrong due to a constant shifting of the goalposts after the fact to make oneself right.

I’ve had people credit me for being right about the Red Sox pending disaster (I had them at 81-81; no one could’ve predicted 69-93) with Bobby Valentine and am quick to point out that I also picked the 98-loss Colorado Rockies to the win the NL West. To me, it gives more credibility to embrace the negative and understand why it happened and learn from it to be more accurate the next time.

There is no “way” to build a team nor to make accurate projections in a sport. Nate Silver has had his reputation launched into the stratosphere because of his brilliant and right-on-the-money work with predicting the Presidential election on Fivethirtyeight.com. Inexplicably, that has morphed into a validation of his PECOTA baseball system of predictions, but it’s comparing the Earth to Neptune. There’s no connection. Baseball is not politics and in spite of the different algorithms used to come to the results, it’s easier to calculate a voting bloc than it is to determine how Bryce Harper or Mike Trout are going to function as big leaguers; how the Red Sox players would react to Valentine.

Keeping on the political theme, what we’ve seen recently is baseball’s extreme left wing and extreme right wing grapple for a proximate cause as to why the Giants have won two of the past three World Series. Questions and assertions are popping up as to whether Giants GM Brian Sabean’s old-school sensibility and management style signaled the “end” of Moneyball or if Moneyball is still the “way”. Both premises are ridiculous. Assuming that the Giants’ championships discredit Moneyball is presuming that Moneyball was a solidly researched and accurate foundation to begin with instead of a fictionalized and twisted story that was crafted by a skillful and self-indulgent mythmaker, Michael Lewis.

Moneyball was never an actual “thing,” therefore it’s not something that had to be proven wrong because it wasn’t right in the first place.

On the other side, this piece on HardballTalk discusses a stat guy in the Giants’ front office named Yeshayah Goldfarb. The posting lavishes praise on Goldfarb and doubles as an apparent repudiation of anyone who dare question the value of Moneyball and numbers. It’s written that Goldfarb influenced the Giants acquiring and keeping the likes of Javier Lopez and Juan Uribe for the 2010 club.

Lopez? They needed a stat guy to suggest they trade for a sidearming lefty? They got Lopez from the Pirates who was only a Pirate because, in 2009, he was horrendous for another stat based club with the Red Sox and allowed to leave as a free agent where no team other than the Pirates made him a decent offer.

But the stat guy knew!!

Um…no.

The truth is it had nothing to do with numbers. It had to do with Lopez being a breathing left-handed pitcher. Nothing more. If Tony Fossas at 55(?) years old chose to make a comeback, there would be a team to have a look at him because he’s lefty. Period. And Uribe? Really? So the Giants had a brilliant group of numbers people who advised them to keep Uribe in 2010 and he became a post-season hero, but the non-stat based Dodgers signed Uribe after that season, he’s been a disaster, and Ned Colletti’s an idiot? Goldfarb also gets credit for Tim Lincecum and Buster Posey, yet no one other than a Jewish weekly knew who he was. Amazing. Is that how it works?

No. It’s not how it works in any manner other than looking back at what occurred and finding “reasons” to bolster one’s position. The “Yeah, we’re in!!!” aspect of Moneyball still lives as the front offices are infested with people who didn’t play baseball, but have calculations and college degrees to get them in and become the new age hires. But much like Moneyball and the Giants, there’s a clutching at credit for floating principles that can’t be quantified. If the Astros are in the playoffs in 2-3 years, there will be an explanation for it, but the bickering factions will use their own methodology to determine what it is—both might be right, both might be wrong and neither side will admit it.

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