Draft Day Rant Understated

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I’m not going into my usual rant about the attempts by Major League Baseball to turn the draft into an extravaganza along the lines of what the NFL does. The differences are obvious and conveniently glossed over. The most glaring being:

  • The game of football from college to pro is essentially the same.
  • The players are recognizable to a vast majority of people who follow both versions of the sport.
  • It’s easier to project what a player is going to be when he gets to the NFL than it is for a baseball player transitioning from amateur to pro.
  • And in the NFL (and NBA for that matter) the player is walking out of the amateurs and into the highest level of play he can achieve—there are no minor leagues and evolutionary climb along with the favoritism that’s shown to a higher draft pick who has a lot of money and hype invested in him in the other sports.

In addition, most of the “scouting reports” you get from the “experts” in the media is regurgitated trash that they’ve heard from someone else or have accumulated by watching a five minute clip of a player and using buzzwords and catchy phrases designed to make the statement sound in-depth when it’s anything but.

The most refreshing thing I read today regarding the draft came from a GM the stat guys have grown to loathe, Dan Duquette of the Orioles. Duquette was asked about the draft age son of the player he signed for the Red Sox, Manny Ramirez, and Duquette replied, “I don’t know much about Manny’s boy.”

If it were a GM with a pretentious reputation to protect like Billy Beane or a media draft “expert” like Keith Law, a load of facts, figures and analysis would’ve been rattled off as if it was only a matter of flipping through brain files, finding Manny Ramirez Jr. and providing a biography, a comparison to his dad, his positives and negatives, and projection of what he can be. Most of it would’ve come from the aforementioned brief clip of film, information from someone else that was memorized because they knew they’d be asked about him, or foundational statements that couldn’t be proven or disproven due to their all-encompassing randomness.

Here’s the truth: while a GM for a big league club follows the amateur players who are the potential high draft picks, the grunt work is left to the lower level scouts who find the players. They send information up to the cross-checkers to sift through the recommendations and verify what the scouts are saying. It’s then sent up through the ranks to the upper level of the organization to give a yay or nay to the top picks. Once it gets down to the later rounds, the players who aren’t in the top echelon become names in a barrel with some kind of skill or attribute—a searing fastball, a good eye, speed, home run power, a great glove—that makes it worth drafting them knowing that a player drafted from beyond the tenth round probably isn’t going to make it past Single A and if he does, it’s a fluke.

Duquette’s personality (or lack thereof) isn’t such that his ego has to be stroked with others marveling about what he “knows” because he’s perfectly willing to admit what he doesn’t know about the son of a player he himself gave $160 million to join the Red Sox. There is simply too much for a GM to do running the organization to watch every single draftable player and come to an assessment. There aren’t enough hours in the day. The GM will go and look at the top tier players, but apart from that, it’s left to the underlings. It reflects on the GM who he hires to be the scouting director and the methods in which they find players, but to blame the GM or give him credit? Not even the scouting directors are able to look at every single player past the projected first ten rounds and come to an ironclad conclusion as to what a player will be. It comes down to talent, development, opportunity and luck.

You’ll hear a lot of names today and vanilla scouting reports from the draft-watchers that they got from a guidebook, magazine, website or via the whispers of someone who’s supposed to know what the players can do. Most of those names you’ll never hear again. Then we’ll start the process all over again next year with the same wasted time and energy listening to people who are making money quantifying the unquantifiable exercise known as the MLB Draft.

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Dusty Baker Has No Leverage With The Stat People

Games, History, Management, Media, Players, Stats

The problem with bloggers, armchair experts and even beat reporters is that they think they know everything based on the numbers, the statements of the participants and history even when they don’t know and much of their critique is based on personal feelings and not facts and reality.

Yesterday the Reds lost to the Pirates in the eleventh inning after manager Dusty Baker didn’t use closer Aroldis Chapman in what is referred to here on HardballTalk as “high leverage situations.” The same piece also asserts that Baker “utilizes his bullpen according to the save rule.”

I have no problem with criticism if it’s accurate, but “managing according to the save rule” is an all-encompassing accusation that is used to hammer home the indictment against Baker even if the numbers defy it. Baker has used Chapman in 27 games this season. 16 were in save situations and 11 weren’t. The statingest of stat-loving clubs have similar numbers with their closers:

Fernando Rodney, Rays: save situations – 16; non-save situations – 9

Grant Balfour, Athletics: save situations – 13; non-save situations – 11

Jose Veras, Astros: save situations – 13; non-save situations – 12

Taking into account that the Reds are 35-22 and have had more opportunities to use Chapman in save situations than the other clubs and that the Reds have had 12 games that are classified as “blowouts” in comparison to the A’s having had 16, the Rays 18, and the Astros 19 (mostly on the losing end), is there a significant difference between people who the stat guys think are managing correctly and what Baker’s done? Add in that for most of the season Baker has had two former closers Jonathan Broxton and Sean Marshall to pitch the eighth inning and the argument for using Chapman in the eighth inning becomes weaker.

In order for Baker or any other manager to not manage according to the save rule would require a shifting of the entire bullpen to a perfect world scenario of varied arms and no particular role for any—the bullpen-by-committee. The bullpen-by-committee could work if there are young pitchers who can’t complain about their roles, veteran journeymen just happy to have a job, and a manager who’s comfortable in working in such a manner. This confluence of circumstances is hard to come by. In fact, in baseball today, it doesn’t exist.

And I thought the general rule of thumb was to use the closer at home if the game is tied or there’s a close deficit in the top of the ninth inning. If Baker was indeed holding Chapman out for the save opportunity, was it that terrible a decision if just about everyone—barring an emergency—does it? The “everyone” I’m referring to includes teams run by Billy Beane, Andrew Friedman, Theo Epstein and Jeff Luhnow who are idols in stat circles.

It got worse when Baker replied to a question as to why he didn’t use Chapman by saying, “That’s a manager’s decision,” he said. “You can’t put in Chapman all the time. I was saving Chapman for the (save). It’s easy now to say. I don’t know, man, maybe you should come down and manage.”

Chapman hasn’t pitched since Monday and has only pitched twice this week as Keith Law snarkily tweeted:

#allthetime RT @JYerina5: Dusty on why Chapman didn’t face Jones: “You can’t put in Chapman all the time” He has pitched twice this week

Let’s put Law in to manage a club somewhere and see how long he lasts with the amount of abuse the players would heap upon him as a non-player who’s really short, pompous and obnoxious before he ran away crying; how long he was able to take the scrutiny and sudden enemy status of those he thought were “allies” when he has a deer-in-the-headlights look at dealing with everything a manager has to deal with.

The critics wanted Baker to use Chapman in the eighth inning to pitch to Garrett Jones instead of having had Broxton do it. Broxton gave up a game-tying homer to Jones so this is the classic second guess. Is the strategic preference advocated by the “leverage” theory accurate? Yes, I suppose it is if the Reds had a dual-headed closer and used Chapman/Broxton interchangeably to get the admittedly meaningless stat save it would be, but they don’t. No team uses more than one closer, not even the Rays, A’s or Astros. Chapman has not pitched more than one inning since last August and needed to be shelved for a brief time in September because of shulder fatigue. Maybe he can’t pitch more than one inning.

The real culprits to Baker not using a lefty to pitch to Jones is the fact that he doesn’t have Marshall, who’s on the disabled list with a sore shoulder and that the Reds don’t use both Broxton and Chapman to close. If he had Marshall, we’re not talking about this because he would’ve had a lefty to pitch to Jones. If he used either Broxton or Chapman, Chapman might’ve started the eighth inning.

The question then becomes this: Would Baker have gotten ripped for using the myriad of alternatives because he didn’t have an explanation that suited the aesthetic of the critics who tear him to shreds no matter what he does or doesn’t do?

Don’t you think that Baker would’ve found a game to get Chapman into this week if he had the opportunity to get him some work? Chapman pitched on Monday May 27th and on Saturday night recording saves in both games. The game on Sunday was an afternoon game. Could it be that Chapman has something bothering him with his shoulder or elbow and is a bit tender if he’s used too much? He had shoulder problems last season, so it’s not out of the realm of possibility that there’s something tweaked and he was only available for one inning.

Could it be that Baker, in an admittedly clumsy fashion as evidenced by the response that was in the linked piece on HardballTalk, was trying to deflect that Chapman might be having some sort of an issue that the Reds don’t want anyone to know about? One that isn’t a long-term problem but could affect the way opposing teams stack their lineup and prepare their bench for the eventuality that Chapman might be used? The easy thing to do for the bloggers and “experts” is to take the decision and manager’s statement as to why he made the decision at face value and go to town in one of their favorite pastimes: unleashing on a manager they despise. It fits into the biases and beliefs of their constituencies that others could do a better job than the actual manager of the team whether they have the whole story or not.

Or maybe it was just a “manager’s decision” as Baker said, one he made based on the players he had available, the ones he didn’t, and the roles that have been assigned to relievers not just by him, but by every team in baseball. It just so happens that stat people hate Baker and use him as their case study of what’s “wrong” with managing. Except it’s everywhere and everyone else does pretty much the same thing.

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Rethinking the GM, Part III—American League West

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Click on these links to read part I and part II.

Texas Rangers

Jon Daniels is a popular and well-respected GM today but that wasn’t the case when he took over for John Hart in October of 2005 and one of the first big trades he made sent Adrian Gonzalez and pitcher Chris Young to the Padres for Adam Eaton and Akinori Otsuka. That will go down as one of the worst trades in the history of the sport.

If he was able to rebound from that and craft the Rangers into an annual contender with a reasonable payroll and deep farm system while dealing with the alpha-male presence of Nolan Ryan and navigating his way through the financial woes of former owner Tom Hicks, then he’s got something on the ball.

Daniels got the GM job very young at 28 and clearly wasn’t ready for it, but grew into the job and is not a stat guy or scouting guy, but uses every outlet at his disposal and is also able to do the dirty work mentioned earlier to consolidate his power.

Oakland Athletics

Just ignore Moneyball for a moment when thinking about Billy Beane. Look at his body of work without the accolades, best-selling book and ridiculous move to accompany the star status Beane’s cultivated and persona Beane has created and look at his work objectively. Is he a good GM who worked his way up through the ranks from scouting to assistant GM to GM to part owner? Yes. Would he be as lusted after without that ridiculous bit of creative non-fiction known as Moneyball? No.

It can be argued that Moneyball has done an exponential amount of damage in comparison to the good it did in introducing the world at large to statistics that they would not otherwise have realized existed. Due to Moneyball, everyone thinks they can study a spreadsheet, calculate some numbers and suddenly run a big league baseball team. One of the under-reported aspects of Moneyball is that Beane played in the Major Leagues with a nondescript career as a journeyman when he was talented enough to be a superstar. It’s part of the narrative that made the Beane story so fascinating, but now that he’s become this totem many of his worshippers probably aren’t even aware that he played at all.

Beane had a perfect storm when he took over as GM. There had been a brief Sports Illustrated profile of him and his transition for player to scout and he was known in MLB circles as an up-and-comer, but the Athletics were so bad and so consistently bad for several years due to financial constraints that Beane was able to implement the strategies of statistics into his player procurement. It worked because no one else was doing it or paying big money for players who didn’t just get on base, but had undervalued attributes.

Beane’s “genius” has been a media creation. He’s been smart, he’s been lucky and he’s also been unlucky. He’s crafted the image of the brilliantly cold corporate titan when it’s not true. He’s a former player who entered the front office, took advantage of the opportunities presented to him and has been successful. A large part of that is due to the circular nature of Moneyball giving him the freedom and leeway to make bad trades and have half-a-decade of futility in which he blamed everyone but the man in the mirror and still kept his job.

Los Angeles Angels

Jerry Dipoto has two issues that are tarnishing his reputation as a GM. One, people don’t remember that it was Dipoto, functioning as the interim GM of the Diamondbacks after Josh Byrnes was fired in 2010, who made two trades that have paid significant dividends to the current Diamondbacks by acquiring Patrick Corbin and Tyler Skaggs for Dan Haren and getting Daniel Hudson for Edwin Jackson. Two, he’s overseeing an Angels team that has played better recently but is still in rampant disarray with overpaid, underperforming players; a manager who has had his own power within the organization mitigated by the hiring of Dipoto; and is trying to rebuild the farm system in his own way with scouts he knows and a new school sensibility while the owner wants a championship now and the manager has a contract to 2018. It’s highly doubtful that Dipoto wanted to commit so much money and so many years to the likes of Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton.

Dipoto was a journeyman relief pitcher who scouted and worked in many front offices with varying philosophies before getting the Angels job and is a qualified baseball man. It’s difficult to know what he’s wanted to do with the Angels and what’s been forced upon him. If the situation really comes apart, he might be cleared out with the rest of the Angels hierarchy and have to wait to get another opportunity due to the damage done to his reputation with what’s happening with the Angels.

Seattle Mariners

The ice is cracking under the feet of Jack Zduriencik and if he is eventually dismissed he will be a cautionary tale that no one will listen to when anointing the next “genius” by giving credit for that which he had nothing to do with. After the fact, if you ask Zduriencik what his biggest regret is, it’s likely to be that the Mariners had such a luck-filled rise from 101 losses the year before he arrived to 85 wins in his first year on the job. It accelerated the process spurring the trade for Cliff Lee and drastically raised the expectations.

Unsurprisingly the expectations were not met; much of Zduriencik’s subsequent moves have gone wrong and if he is indeed fired, the next GM will likely benefit from the farm system seeds Zduriencik planted. That brings me to the next point: there are GMs who are better-served as assistants, farm directors, scouts, and other lower-level positions in an organization. It may not be as flashy, but is no less important and for all the talk of “GM prospects,” it must be examined whether or not the person will be able to do all aspects of the job as an overseer rather than as an underling.

Houston Astros

Jeff Luhnow is not only getting a pass for the horrific Astros club he’s put together—that is on a level with an expansion team—but for the Cardinals fertile farm system that is continually producing players. The draft is a communal effort and not one person deserves or should receive all of the credit in the same manner that a GM shouldn’t get the blame if drafts go poorly. Luhnow didn’t work his way up in baseball and was a private businessman when Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt hired him. This infuriated the old-school people in the Cardinals organization namely Walt Jocketty, Tony LaRussa and Dave Duncan and created factions between the stat people and the scouting people that eventually resulted in Jocketty’s firing. Luhnow also lost the power struggle to LaRussa in the months prior to leaving the Cardinals to take over the Astros. If nothing else, it was the experience in trying to transition into a baseball front office that has shaped Luhnow’s building of his Astros staff and construction of the roster from the top down as he’s got people who are going to do things in the stat-based way and are told before they’re hired how it’s going to be or they’re not going to get the job.

Of course the portrayal of Luhnow as the newest/latest “genius” and musings as to when (not if) he’ll be the subject of the new Moneyball are absurd. In four years he could be in the same position as Zduriencik or he could be Andrew Friedman. Know this: Astros owner Jim Crane is not going to accept failure and if the Luhnow project doesn’t work all the trust and belief that Crane has put into the Luhnow experiment will be quickly forgotten if the team doesn’t show concrete results on the field.

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The Mouth That Roared By Dallas Green—Book Review

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Given his reputation throughout baseball as a straight-talking, old-school baseball guy, if Dallas Green was going to put his career in perspective with an autobiography, he had to go all-in.

Green doesn’t disappoint in The Mouth That Roared: My Six Outspoken Decades in Baseball written with Alan Maimon.

From his time as a journeyman pitcher who was constantly on the fringes of being sent to the minors, Green was a players’ player who worked as both a union representative in the nascent days of the MLB Players Union and saw the geographical shift from the owners controlling everything to the unfettered free agency that accompanied Marvin Miller, Curt Flood, Catfish Hunter and Andy Messersmith. His feelings on the matter have swung from decrying the players’ indentured servitude, clamoring for some say in their careers, battling for a crumb of the pie from ownership to today wondering how much good the $200 million contracts are doing for the game.

Green has the breadth of experience from functioning as a player clinging to his career with arm injuries and poor performance to a minor league director to a manager to a GM. He helped Paul Owens build the 1970s Phillies who almost but not quite made it over the hump from annual division winner to championship club, then went down on the field at the behest of Owens when the soft, inmates running the asylum approach of Danny Ozark was no longer working, got into the faces of veteran players, benching them, threatening them, ripping them publicly and dragged them to a World Series title in 1980—the first championship in Phillies’ history.

One interesting footnote from 1980 is that with all the complaining from closers of yesteryear about the one-inning save in today’s game, Green didn’t adhere to it during that championship season because nobody adhered to it until Tony LaRussa implemented it in 1988 with Dennis Eckersley. Pitchers like Tug McGraw, Bruce Sutter, Rollie Fingers and any closer worth anything pitched multiple innings. That had drawbacks that aren’t discussed by the “in my day” crowd (Green isn’t one of them) as McGraw pitched two innings in the first game of the World Series, had worked very hard including three innings pitched in game 3 of the NLCS and appearances in games 4 and 5, plus game 1 of the World Series, and wasn’t available to close in game 2 of the World Series with Ron Reed doing the job. That would never happen today.

The original intention was for Green to take over for Owens as Phillies GM with managing only a short-term gig. Owens had no plans to retire as the Cubs came after Green calling—repeatedly with consistently sweetened offers—to take over as their GM with carte blanche to run the team as he saw fit. He turned them down multiple times before finally saying, “Yes.”

With the Cubs, Green turned a perennial loser into a division champion with smart trades in getting Ryne Sandberg, Rick Sutcliffe and Ron Cey. However, as should be noted in today’s game where there’s the perception of the GM with absolute power, it doesn’t exist for anyone and never really did at any time. Even today’s luminaries like Theo Epstein and Billy Beane answer to someone. After his first season as the GM in 1982, Green thought he had a handshake deal in place that would land Dodgers free agent first baseman Steve Garvey for the Cubs. As a corollary to that trade, the Cubs would have traded Bill Buckner (a player Green didn’t want on his team because of selfishness and in whom he took a certain perverse amusement when the 1986 World Series was lost by the Red Sox in part because of Buckner’s error) to the Phillies. The Cubs upper management didn’t okay the deal and Garvey wound up signing with the Padres who, ironically, beat the Cubs in the 1984 NLCS with Garvey helping significantly. It was then that Green learned what he was dealing with working for a corporate ownership in the Tribune Company. It was Green’s constant pursuit of putting lights in Wrigley Field that played a major role in the stadium being saved by their installation in 1988.

After the Cubs won the division and appeared to be on their way up, it became a case of too much too soon. Green’s plan was to use his own long-term contract to rebuild the Cubs’ dilapidated farm system, sign key free agents, change the culture from one that accepted losing, and make wise trades to have a consistent pipeline of talent. When the Cubs won the division in 1984, it was expected that they were going to win a World Series shortly thereafter and when they took a step back in 1985 and came completely undone in 1986 and 1987, Green was fired. The signal that it wasn’t going to work as Green planned with the Cubs occurred when an executive with the Tribune named John Madigan began going to baseball meetings, learned and used the terminology and started interfering with baseball moves. From Green this was an example and a none-too-subtle shot at people who have no baseball experience thinking that learning a few catchwords is a substitute for knowing the game itself through experience.

Following his firing the Cubs won another division title in 1989 with a team comprised of players that Green had acquired and drafted. By then, he was managing the Yankees.

For all the enemies he hammers in the book like Bobby Valentine (“He thinks he knows more about the game than anyone else.”); Gene Mauch (“lack of people skills”; “inherent mistrust of younger players…”); Joe McIlvaine (“I ended up hearing through the grapevine that he might be spending a lot of time on non-baseball activities in Atlantic City.”); and Buckner (“Buck was happy to put his numbers up, but he was never truly content. And he most definitely never embraced the idea of baseball as a team sport.”), Green never took overt shots at George Steinbrenner from his brief tenure managing the Yankees.

No one who knew Dallas Green and George Steinbrenner could possibly have thought it was going to work not just because of the clash of personalities of one person who wanted things done his way and the other one who wasn’t going to take crap (you can pick which would be which), and it inevitably and quickly failed with Green fired in August. It didn’t help that the 1989 Yankees plainly and simply weren’t any good and wouldn’t be good again for another four years in large part because of Steinbrenner hiring people like Green and not letting them do what it was that got them hired and made them successful in other venues in the first place.

Green then joined the Mets as a scout and eventually took over as a “clean out the barn” manager. He couldn’t get through to many players from veteran Hall of Famers like Eddie Murray and young Jeromy Burnitz, but he did forge decent relationships with and got good performances from Bret Saberhagen after a rough start and John Franco. He stated openly that his experience in developing players with the Phillies told him that the Mets heavily promoted trio of “Generation K” Jason Isringhausen, Bill Pulsipher and Paul Wilson weren’t ready for the big leagues as the centerpieces when they were pushed as such. He’s right when he says all three needed more time in the minors to learn how to pitch.

An interesting aspect of Green’s career is the influence he’s had and how players who may have hated him while he was managing them took his lessons into their own management careers. Larry Bowa couldn’t stand Green and felt he was too openly critical of players. The relationship wasn’t bad enough to prevent Green from acquiring Bowa in the Sandberg trade to play shortstop for him with the Cubs and to trust him to mentor top draft pick Shawon Dunston. Nor did it stop Bowa from becoming a manager whose style was nearly identical to Green’s. As a player he didn’t like to be yelled at; as a manager, he learned that some players need to be yelled at. Like Green, he got fired for it.

Today as he’s an assistant in the Phillies front office, he sees the way deals are made with a nearly nonexistent focus on people and a detrimental focus on numbers with the money players are being paid and the almost misanthropic nature of the people making the decisions today in a cold, corporate atmosphere and yearns for a time when baseball people made baseball decisions when he says, “Many general managers today only know how to evaluate talent in front of a computer.”

The final chapter of the book is dedicated to his granddaughter, nine-year-old Christina Taylor-Green. Christina was one of the people killed in the Tucson, Arizona assassination attempt on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. The old-school baseball man Green is also old-school when it comes to the right for responsible people to bear arms, but his case for gun control is coming from someone who doesn’t see any reason for automatic weapons designed for one purpose—to kill people—continue to be sold and has lost a loved one to make this point tragically clear.

While it would have been easy for the book to degenerate into a treatise on the superiority of the old school both on and off the field; for it to turn into a Richard Nixon-like unfettered attack against his lengthy enemies list, Green manages to state his case as he sees it with a matter-of-fact tone that has no hallmarks of a vengeful attack or manufactured controversy designed to create buzz and sell books.

A person whose life has been steeped in in-the-trenches baseball will see their beliefs validated, but those who are relatively new to the game and think they’re experts after learning how to calculate OPS+ will also find value if they read it rather than use it as an indictment of the old school and take what Green says to learn from his successes and acknowledged mistakes.

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Billy Beane As Doctor Doom

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billybeanegeniusdoompic

It’s amazing how Billy Beane’s “genius” fluctuates based the Athletics’ record. While the A’s were consistently losing despite his best efforts at being a “genius” from 2007 through half of 2012, there weren’t many lusty articles, stories, poems or manuals written as to his management style. His followers were lying in wait for the opportunity to restart their version of the Crusades and they got it with the unlikely, almost inexplicable comeback from 13 games out of first place on June 30 to win the AL West.

With the combination of the early 2012 release of the movie version of Moneyball and the A’s comeback, he’d reacquired the title of “smarter than the average bear” or whatever other adjectives his supporters and those who benefit from the perception of “genius” want to use. Of course there was no connection between Moneyball and how the 2012 A’s were built, but that doesn’t matter when appealing to the casual baseball fan—some of whom decided, “Hey, I went to Harvard. Even though I never watched or played baseball, it’ll be a fun thing to do!!”—and actually managed to get jobs in the game as the new era of “experts” who came late to the revolution.

The 2013 A’s are under .500 after losing to the Mariners yesterday and without their 6-0 record against the historically dreadful Astros (Bo Porter does know the rules regarding wins and losses, right?) and 5-1 record against the staggering Angels, they’re 8-19 against the rest of baseball. Will the “genius” mysteriously return if and when the A’s start winning again?

Beane, a fan of English Premier League soccer/football, said in an NBC Sports piece with fellow stat-savvy writer Joe Posnanski that he’d like baseball to adopt a system similar to the one used in the Premier League in which the team with the best record gets the title. It’s a idiotic idea for baseball based on the fantasy of accruing that ever-elusive championship that he’s yet to achieve in spite of the best efforts of his biographers, mythmakers, and “check your brain at the door” worshippers, but why not? Truth was twisted at Billy’s and Michael Lewis’s combined mighty hands, maybe they can alter the fabric of what’s made baseball what it is today and eliminate the post-season entirely to suit the flesh and blood Billy and the fictional “Billy.”

When he uses the term “gauntlet of randomness” he sounds like Doctor Doom who, in Marvel Comics, is a power-hungry megalomaniac who speaks as if he’s narrating his own life because he is narrating his own life and referring to himself in the third person said, “Every utterance of Doom must be preserved for posterity.”

Maybe it’s because the public version of Beane is a fictional character whose exploits are neither realistic nor real. Those who took Moneyball and transformed it into the stat geek’s New Testament treat is as a basis upon which to live their baseball lives and consider any who protest to be infidels to the new order. Except it’s just a story.

The comic book character analogy is appropriate because Beane uses whatever the situation currently is to determine how he’ll present himself. The A’s were losing, so he became the everyman who was just trying to make his way in the world. They started winning again with a supernatural timing to coincide with the movie being released on DVD and he’s able to turn water into wine, stone into bread, and Brandon Moss into Jason Giambi. There seems to be the impression that Beane was sitting in his darkened office late at night in May of 2012 with his fingers tented and an evil laugh slowly building from his diaphragm on up and in a Dracula voice saying, “Mwaahahhaaa!!! De vorld iz ah-sleep. Ven dey leest expect it, I vill unleash de terrrifyink weh-pohn ov….Brrrrandon Mossss!!! MWAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!”

Except the longtime journeyman Moss was in the minor leagues for the first two months of the season while the A’s messed around with Kila Ka’aihue and Daric Barton at first base. If Moss was such a known contributor, why was Beane hiding him while the team was floundering? No answer is given because the answer doesn’t suit the narrative, so the question is ignored but for the results: Moss has played great as an Athletic, therefore Beane is a genius for “discovering” him.

The 2013 A’s are struggling because as a team they’re not hitting home runs with the frequency they did in 2012 in large part because Josh Reddick—32 last season, has one this season and is now hurt. The 2013 A’s are struggling because the starting pitching was very good last season and hasn’t been good this season. You want math? Here’s the math: 12th in home runs and 12th in ERA=one game under .500 in 2013; 6th in home runs and 2nd in ERA=a division title and the GM being called a “genius” in 2012.

The A’s may have a similar second half hot streak as they did in 2012 (and 2002 and 2003 for that matter), but there’s no connection between that and any mystical foresight on the part of the GM. They had a lot of high draft picks, traded for other clubs’ high draft picks, found players who fit certain roles, and they got lucky. If they make a movie about that however, expect it to be more of the same Lewis Moneyball nonsense with the only thing salvaging it is to put Beane in a Doctor Doom costume and having the Fantastic Four put an end to its production before the world is engulfed by the terrifying wrath of the dramatization that people who know nothing about baseball or reality think is all too real.

Thingclobberintime

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Bo Porter’s Secret History

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Bo Porter makes up a new rule, a precedent for that rule and gets away with it.

You have to admire it.

Last night, in the top of the seventh inning with the Astros leading the reeling Angels 5-3 and going for a series sweep, Astros manager Porter called lefty specialist Wesley Wright in to replace righty Paul Clemens. When Angels manager Mike Scioscia countered with righty bat Luis Jimenez hitting for J.B Shuck, Porter decided to yank Wright before Wright threw a pitch. That’s not allowed but for some reason, the umpires allowed it. Scioscia went bonkers and when the umps still let Porter to make the move, Scioscia sent Scott Cousins up to hit. Nothing came of the inning on the field as the Angels didn’t score. The Angels came back to win the game and the win might’ve come as a direct result of the spark they got from this series of maneuvers and mistakes.

There are multiple levels of “what?!?” “where?!?” and “why?!?” in this story.

What?!? Porter didn’t know the rule that a pitcher had to pitch to at least one hitter when called into the game?

What?!? He saw Davey Johnson do the same thing last season?

Where?!? In a dream he had?

And most importantly, why?!? Why, why, why would you look at a team and a dugout that was as dreary, sleepy and resigned to their 2013 fate as the Angels and do anything that could possibly wake them up? Scioscia’s fiery reaction to the umpiring decision looked like it gave his team a boost. Of course the Astros are so terrible that without the call and the protest, there’s a chance that the Angels would’ve come back to win anyway, but if that one moment galvanizes the Angels to save their season, the rest of baseball can blame Porter and his ignorance of the rules and clinging to the numbers that he had to play lefty-righty-lefty and poke the sleeping bear.

What the Astros have Porter doing is managing scared because he has orders coming from the stat heavy front office that he has to adhere to or else. This creates a manager who’s paranoid and sticks to the script of lefty/righty, matchups and percentages to the detriment of any feel for the game itself. Porter, who was a longtime player and coach, has very little managerial experience (107 games in the minors) and when he took the job was not in a position to exert his theories or his will on anyone. With the Astros, as is their right, they wanted a manager who would be willing to follow orders and accept that that particular job is a joint entity in conjunction with the front office and he’s there to implement what the front office wants. It’s the MoneyballArt Howe story except in this case, it’s real. In Moneyball it was Michael Lewis searching for an old-school “villain” to exemplify how the “genius” Billy Beane was altering every part of the game from top to bottom and found one by attacking the liked and respected baseball man Howe with a sadistic and absurd caricature.

An experienced manager would have known the rules and would have looked across the field at an Angels squad that was staring at 11-23 with an expensive and star-studded roster, ready to pack their bags and go to Chicago for what might’ve been the last road trip for Scioscia as Angels manager, and just let it be hoping that the Angels bad luck would’ve extended to Wright retiring Jimenez. Oh, and Jimenez is 1 for 9 against lefties this season so the numbers didn’t even fit to yank Wright.

The umpires letting him do it doesn’t absolve Porter for trying to do it in the first place. Who knows? Wright might’ve gotten Jimenez to pop up or struck him out. It was overmanaging and “look how smart I am guys” gazing toward the front office by acquiescing to edicts as if he’s a prisoner to his new job and wants to make sure and please his bosses by doing what he’s told.

The umpiring decision was bad and it was a mistake, but what Porter did was worse because it indicated an institutionalized tone that he’s no longer a baseball man on the field. He’s a functionary and doing what the stat people want him to do. Running a team that way is not all that hard. In fact, it’s not managing at all.

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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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Beane and Zduriencik: Mirror Images

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Who would play Jack Zduriencik in the movie version of the Mariners rise if it were to occur and one were to be made? I’m thinking Paul Giamatti with glasses and a shaved head. Right now, though, it won’t matter unless they choose to make Moneyball 2 and have Zduriencik as a character in a supporting role. If they really decided to make an accurate version of Moneyball 2, it would center on the amount of luck that Billy Beane had in becoming the worldwide phenomenon he did and why the opposite end of the spectrum is exemplified by Zduriencik and what’s happened with the Mariners.

Zduriencik is running out of time. In his fifth year on the job, the Mariners may have a better farm system than the one he inherited; they might be cheaper; but they’re still losing and he’s in the last year of his contract. An 8-15 record is bad enough, but when the record is accompanied by losing 2 of 3 to the historically horrific Astros; by the offensive players they acquired to improve their run totals failing to produce; and by their home attendance hovering between 10,000 and 15,000 per game, it’s not hard to see what’s coming next: a new regime to enliven the fan base. If a change is made, I could easily see a Pat Gillick return as a short-term solution for two years with Mike Arbuckle as his heir apparent.

When this is going to happen depends on how antsy Chuck Armstrong gets and whether ownership tells him something needs to be done to make it look like they’re doing something. The Mariners are better than this, but unless it shows on the field, that won’t matter. The downfall for Zduriencik that has him heading toward being fired stems not from the Mariners’ poor record and dwindling attendance, but that the expectations were driven upward due to his status as a scout who was also willing to use the new metrics. This led to the hapless columnists like Joel Sherman to refer to him as a “truly Amazin’ exec” in an attempt to bash the Mets while simultaneously bolstering his skewed and ignorant view of how a team “should” be run. Zduriencik’s potential for success was made worse by the Mariners’ leap from 101 losses in 2008 to 85 wins in 2009. That it was a byproduct of luck didn’t matter when penning the narrative. He won, therefore he is a “genius.” It was puffery to further a stat-based “revolution” that created the legend of Jack Z and it’s the reality that it’s not so simple to find players based on sabermetrics that will bring him down. Sometimes the numbers don’t result in players performing.

This relates to Beane in the following way: Beane’s “genius” was crafted by a clever and crafted storyline, Moneyball, that eventually wound up being a movie of the same name starring one of the most bankable stars in the world, Brad Pitt. That the book was twisted and the movie was ludicrous doesn’t make a difference to the lay-fan who believed every word and screen movement as if it were coming from the mouth of God himself and if Michael Lewis is that God, I’ll pull a maneuver straight out of Paradise Lost.

Ironically, when the movie was released, the A’s were tumbling and spiraling like a wounded bird. At that time the only people still clinging to the “Beane as genius” narrative were those who had something invested in it still being seen as accurate. Beane has taken the portrayal and adapted it to the front he puts up. He’s an actor in a show. When his stock was down, he became the passive, “aw shucks,” everyman who did little more than take advantage of market inefficiencies and happened to be the subject of a best-selling book that he didn’t have anything to do with other than allowing Lewis access. It was rife with significant dramatic license, but Beane still took full advantage of his newfound fame. While the team lost, no one wanted to hear it from him other than the aforementioned Beane-zealots. Then when the team started winning again, out came the blustery, Type-A personality to shove it in the faces of those who doubted him and his fickle “fans” reappeared. He’s out there again and is the go-to guy for quotes and validation on subjects aplenty, and they don’t just have to do with baseball.

Beane’s reputation was gone by mid-season 2013. He wanted to go to the Cubs after the 2011 season, but the Cubs preferred Theo Epstein over him. He was with the A’s and stuck with the A’s. Beane and the franchise were like a longtime married couple maintaining the pretense for mutual benefit, to save face, and because there was nowhere else to go. They’d settled into a comfortable, mundane day-to-day existence hoping to win the lottery with their young players and cheap free agent signings. Then, like a family in debt and on the verge of bankruptcy and divorce, they inexplicably did hit the lottery.

How else do you explain Brandon Moss? Beane saw it coming with the failed-with-four-franchises journeyman Moss? Then why was he in the minors for the first half of the season while the A’s messed around with Daric Barton and Kila Ka’aihue? Was he saving Moss as a secret weapon?

Of course not.

It was luck.

The young players they acquired in gutting trades from the previos winter—Ryan Cook, Jarrod Parker, Tommy Milone, Josh Reddick—all developed and contribued at once.

Luck.

They came back from 9 games under .500 on June 10th and 13 games out of first place on June 30th to win the division.

Luck.

They were talented, but they took advantage of a Rangers team that had grown complacent and whose main star, Josh Hamilton, was in the midst of a dreadful slump in which he looked like he didn’t want to play.

And they were lucky.

The public doesn’t want to hear the details of how a baby’s made or about genetic good fortune to make said baby into a handsome 6’4” star athlete and number one draft pick like Beane or the same genetics that made Zduriencik a 5’11” infielder who never got above A ball, hit .140 in a brief minor league career, and grew pudgy as he aged. The public just wants to see the baby. With Beane, he’s had an endless stream of good fortune to maintain this veneer; with Zduriencik, he hasn’t been so fortunate. That’s what it comes down to.

The flickering memories of the days of Zduriencik as the next “great” GM are dimming as rapidly as the desperate leaping from the caravan those who created the myth. Now the same people who called Zduriencik the new breed of GM, spending his formative years in scouting and eventually educated in stats, are calling for his dismissal.

If the Mariners start hitting and the back of their rotation pitches better, they’ll play better. If they don’t, they won’t and Zdruiencik is likely to be out of a job at the end of the season or sooner.

It’s better to be lucky when one is closer to the end than at the beginning because if it’s at the beginning, it will be expected; if it’s at the end, it was just luck. And you might save your job.

The A’s sudden rise in 2012 might buy Zduriencik some time as an example of what can happen if a little patience is exhibited, but given the way his tenure has mirrored Beane’s, the luck won’t be present in Seattle and unless they make a drastic turnaround, nor will Zduriencik for much longer.

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Robinson Cano Puts His Money Where His Heart Is

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The initial reaction to the splashy headline that Yankees’ second baseman Robinson Cano fired agent Scott Boras and replaced him with rapper Jay-Z was that I would follow suit and hire a literary agent with my first choice being comedian Dave Chappelle.

Of course Jay-Z isn’t going to be Cano’s agent in spirit where he’ll be sitting across from Brian Cashman and exchange numbers for the upcoming Cano mega-contract. The media is being politically correct by saying how smart Jay-Z and great a businessman Jay-Z is—and they’re right—but he’s not an attorney and he’s not an agent even though he recently received a temporary license to represent baseball players. This is a business expansion on the part of Jay-Z as a frontman and recognizable name to garner street cred with his athlete-friends and entirely unlike the idiotic decision on the part of former NFL player Ricky Williams who, in 1999, was drafted fifth overall with first overall talent and decided to hire Master P as his agent and signed what has been referred to as the “worst contract contract for a player” in NFL history.

Jay-Z didn’t get where he is being arrogant enough to think he’s capable of juggling all of these endeavors and handling the nuts and bolts. It’s a business deal with a legitimate agency, Creative Artists, that represents such diverse clientele as Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt (the real Pitt, not Billy Beane) and has also recently negotiated Buster Posey’s contract extension. Cano didn’t do something stupid here. He hired an agency to: A) get him paid; and B) keep him a Yankee, not necessarily in that order.

Cano’s personality never lent itself to Boras and the Boras style of negotiation with the current club portrayed as the enemy rather than an employer with whom to engage in a give-and-take to come to a reasonable agreement. It had already started with the Yankees making a conciliatory decision to forego their longstanding policy of not negotiating with players prior to the contract expiring by making what was termed a “significant” offer for Cano to preemptively sign. Boras scoffed at the offer. No one knows what it was, but it was probably a genuine, signable, framework deal to cobble something together. This is the Yankees we’re talking about so there wouldn’t be a Jeffrey Loria bout of lying and cheapness. They’re perfectly willing to pay their players. Presumably, Cano hired Boras because of the name recognition and the likelihood that other players were telling him, “Yeah, hire Scott. He’ll get you paid.” But if I, you or Jay-Z was functioning as Cano’s agent—and doing the actual agenting—we could get him $200 million from the Yankees. Alex Rodriguez, who knows more about the positives and negatives of having Boras as his father-figure and Svengali representative than anyone, might have told Cano that if the situation continued down this path, he’d be in a Dodgers’ uniform after the season. Cano doesn’t want to leave the Yankees and Jose Cano is his father. Cano is subdued, quiet, definitely not an overt leader, and relaxed to the point of appearing zombie-like. He didn’t need the uncertainty all season.

This will spur talk that Boras’s power base is evaporating; that players are no longer willing to follow the Boras plans and schemes to extract as much money as possible from someone whether it’s in their preferred locale or not, but these are exaggerations. There will always be players hypnotized by the Darth Vader-like fear that Boras’s name engenders throughout the industry and his history of coming through more often than not. In the end, Cano hired Boras in what was a clear preparation for free agency and saw his agent and club being at loggerheads with the potential of having to leave the only baseball home he’s ever known whether he wanted to or not over a negligible (at that level) amount of money. Perhaps Cano realized that when the offers are $230 million and $250 million, there’s really not much of a difference and decided to make the move to not move where he’s comfortable and happy. Cano wants to be a Yankee and the hiring of Jay-Z essentially assures that he’ll be a Yankee and that the negotiations will progress with an agreement likely sooner rather than later.

Please check out my new book Paul Lebowitz’s 2013 Baseball Guide, now available on Amazon, Smashwords, BN, and Lulu.

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Keys to 2013: Oakland Athletics

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Starting Pitching Key: Jarrod Parker

With the departure of Brandon McCarthy and the questionable status of Bartolo Colon (he’s getting blasted in spring training following his suspension for PED use), the A’s need Parker to step in and be a top-of-the-rotation starter with 200 innings and ace-level performance to match his abilities. Once he harnesses control of his live fastball and gets his changeup over the plate, he can be a star. He has to mature sooner rather than later if the A’s have any chance to repeat their success from 2012.

Relief Pitching Key: Ryan Cook

Grant Balfour is streaky as the closer and in 2012 lost his job to Cook. He regained the job and held it during the team’s magical run to the division title. While Balfour will start the season as the closer, he’s a free agent at the end of the season and will be looking for more money than the A’s are willing to pay. Maybe something can be worked out that’s agreeable to both sides for Balfour to stay. Balfour must be cognizant of the crashing market for closers and understand that the A’s aren’t married to the concept of the highest paid arm automatically closing based on his salary. Cook is the cheap closer for the future if Balfour’s gone and maybe even if Balfour’s still there.

Offensive Key: Josh Reddick

Anytime there’s a player who surpasses what could reasonably have been expected in a realistic scenario, it’s unwise to think he’ll repeat it. That could be said of Brandon Moss and it could be said of Reddick.

In spite of Billy Beane playing up the journeyman Moss and refusing to discuss him in trades, the sudden display of power from Moss might disappear as rapidly as it happened. With Reddick, the A’s got him for his superior outfield defense and figured he’d hit 15-20 homers if he played every day. Instead, he hit 32. They’ve bolstered the offense with the acquisitions of Jed Lowrie, Hiroyuki Nakajima, John Jaso and Chris Young. Even with that, they need at least 25 from Reddick in 2013 to mitigate Moss’s unavoidable fall to earth.

Defensive Key: Hiroyuki Nakajima

It’s unfair to pigeonhole Japanese imports because of the failures of their predecessors, but if something repeatedly happens, it has to be factored into the equation. Neither Kazuo Matsui nor Tsuyoshi Nishioka could play shortstop well enough defensively to stay there. Matsui could hit a bit and was moved to second base, having a few productive years after he left the Mets; Nishioka was a disaster for the Twins.

Nakajima will get the first shot at shortstop for the A’s, but they acquired Lowrie because they know he can handle the position defensively. If Nakajima hits but proves to be another Japanese player who can’t cover the ground on grass that he did on the preferred surface in Japan, turf, he’ll play at third or second with Lowrie taking over at short. How long the A’s stick with him at short if he can’t play the position adequately is the question. Given the way Beane runs the team, it won’t be long before a move is made if Nakajima can’t do it.

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