MLB’s Expanded Replay—Did They Miss Another Call?

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Baseball’s incurable habit for getting things wrong has grown so common that even when they get something right, they can’t win. In cases like the performance enhancing drug investigation, their crackdown is almost a doubling-down on the wrong to trample on players’ rights and the collective bargaining agreement. The players brought much of it on themselves, but from the time the 2003 PED test results were leaked, there’s been a concerted effort on the part of baseball to “get” the players who are using PEDs even if that means trusting someone so furtive and lacking in credibility as Anthony Boesch. That’s not a defense of Ryan Braun, Alex Rodriguez or any other player who went to Biogenesis, just an analysis that MLB’s methods weren’t exactly clean themselves. They got down in the dirt to get the dirty, exhibiting audacious hypocricy for cracking down on a culture that they cultivated themselves. Now they’re dirty—well, dirtier—too. They’ve gotten their results, but it comes at an obvious cost that’s yet to be determined.

As the fallout from the Biogenesis suspensions continues to be felt with A-Rod’s continuing soap opera, MLB finally got something right on the money with their expansion of instant replay. The details of what they’re doing can be found here, but the gist is:

  • Managers will be given one challenge for the first six innings of the game and two from the seventh inning on.
  • There will be no challenges on judgment calls such as balls and strikes, check swings and hit by pitches.
  • The plan was created with significant guidance from Joe Torre, Tony LaRussa and John Schuerholz.
  • The players, owners and umpires still have to approve it.

I think this is as close as MLB or any sports organizing body can come to getting it right. The arguments that have been presented against it are selfish and weak. Mike Francesa had callers complaining about it yesterday.

One said that he didn’t want to have to wait for a challenge to be upheld or rejected before celebrating if Derek Jeter hits a game-winning single to win game seven of the World Series. I don’t think he’s got anything to worry about regarding the scenario he presented considering that the Yankees aren’t making the playoffs and Jeter is building a lavish home on the disabled list. As far as the spontaneity, it’s far better than the umpire getting the call wrong and having a respectable career sullied for it as Don Denkinger did for his gaffe in the 1985 World Series between the Cardinals and Royals with the Cardinals losing their chance to win a title.

Another caller complained that the manager-umpire arguments wouldn’t be as prevalent or intense. I don’t think there will be that great a decrease in the number of ejections and probably slightly fewer arguments. If you watched Bobby Cox for his entire managerial career, you’ll know that the vast majority of his record number of ejections came as a result of arguing ball and strike calls. That’s not reviewable and will still be fodder for great debate until MLB takes the next logical step and implements a universal strike zone and forces the umpires to adhere to it. The human element will still be in baseball, but it won’t result in calls so badly blown that teams wind up losing because of them. The number of managers who put on a great show as Lou Piniella, Earl Weaver and Billy Martin used to are gone. And trust me, there will still be enough mistakes made that arguments will happen.

This system won’t take a lot of time, it won’t interfere with the game, and it will make the calls more accurate. It’s not 1960, 1980 or even 2000. Baseball was so resistant to the implementation of a logical replay system that they did nothing to contradict the reputation of the game as stuck in a different century—the 19th. The bottom line is that no matter what they did, there would be a percentage of people who would complain about it for its own sake. They’ve made the game better with this decision. That’s all that counts.

Now, to do something about getting the DH put into the National League. Then we’ll be in business.

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No Managerial Replacements Means No Managerial Changes

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If there was an obvious choice replacement manager or two (or three) sitting on the sidelines it’s very possible that both the Angels and Dodgers would have made changes by now. Instead Angels manager Mike Scioscia has received multiple votes of confidence and the speculation surrounding his job status has been qualified with the “it’s not his fault” lament. For the Dodgers, the club has been ravaged by injuries, none of which are the fault of manager Don Mattingly. For both teams, if they turn their seasons around, it will be the steady veteran experience and failure to panic on the part of Scioscia that will be referenced as a reason; with Mattingly, it will be his experience of seeing so many managers on the hotseat in his time as a Yankees player and coach as well as his unending positive enthusiasm (almost bordering on delusion) that the Dodgers will steer out of the spiral. The Angels’ situation is far worse than that of the Dodgers. They’re 11 games out of first place and have shown no signs of life apart from the brief boost they got from Astros manager Bo Porter’s strategic gaffe a week ago that lit a short-term fire under them. Since the three game win streak, they’ve settled back into the dysfunctional mess they’ve been all season. The Dodgers are only 5 1/2 games out of first place so there’s a logic to say that once they get their players back and GM Ned Colletti follows through on his usual burst of mid-season trade activity, they’ll be right in the thick of the race.

We’ve seen from history how worthless votes of confidence, logical explanations as to why it’s not the manager that’s the problem, and positive vibes in the face of adversity are—if teams are under enough pressure and their seasons are on the brink, they’ll withstand the fire for “lying” and make a change. But who would be the replacements for managers like Scioscia and Mattingly?

Because the “deans” of managers—Joe Torre, Bobby Cox, Tony LaRussa, Lou Piniella—are all 69 and older and have shown no interest in managing again, who is there to replace a manager on the hotseat to ignite the fanbase and tell the players that something different is going to be done? Torre and Cox are through with managing. LaRussa might be able to be convinced to come back but it won’t be this year for the Angels where, if he succeeded, he might hinder his close friend Jim Leyland’s last chance at a title with the Tigers; he likes to be compensated lucratively and the one thing the Dodgers have to offer along with spending on players is a lot of money—they’d pay him and Dave Duncan handsomely to come and Mark McGwire is already there. Piniella has also said he’s not interested in managing anymore, but he also likes to be paid, was in line for the Dodgers job once before and might be dragged out of retirement.

These are maybes contingent on the whims of the men who no longer need the job or the aggravation. Who is there that could replace any manager who’s on the outs with his current club and who would definitely jump at the job offer? If the Angels wanted to go with the polar opposite of Scioscia (as is the strategy teams like to use when firing their manager) they could hire Ozzie Guillen and wouldn’t have to pay him all that much because the Marlins are still paying him for two-and-a-half more seasons, but that would not be reacted to well by the players. Perhaps that’s what the underachieving bunch needs, but Guillen, LaRussa, Piniella or anyone else isn’t going to fix the Angels biggest problem: pitching. Scioscia’s been there too long, it’s no longer his type of team, a change needs to be made whether they admit it or not, but a change really won’t help in the short term.

If Terry Francona had chosen to sit out another year, he would be mentioned with every job that could potentially be opening, but he took the Indians job. Bobby Valentine can pretty much forget it after the 2012 disaster with the Red Sox. Combining the competent and functional retreads like Jim Tracy, Phil Garner, Larry Bowa and Don Baylor who would love to have a job and probably wouldn’t make much of a difference and the lack of a guy next to the managers on the bench who are viable replacements, it’s easier for the Angels, Dodgers and other teams who might consider a managerial change to just leave it as is and hope it gets better until something has to be done. And by the time something has to be done for cosmetic purposes more than anything else, the season will be too far gone for the new manager to turn around club fortunes. At that point, they can stick whomever they want in the manager’s office and see what happens with zero chance of it helping the team for the rest of this season one way or the other, then decide what to do for 2014.

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Zack Greinke Reverberations and Madness

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Zack Greinke has reportedly agreed to terms with the Dodgers on a 6-year, $147 million contract. Let’s look at the reality and reactions.

The money

For those looking at the Greinke money, comparing him to pitchers from years past and wondering what they would’ve earned had they entered free agency at the same age as Greinke, it’s a stupid question and argument. What would Sandy Koufax get? What would Pedro Martinez get? What would Greg Maddux get? What would Randy Johnson get?

Does it matter? Had they been free agents at age 29 in 2012, they would’ve gotten more money than Greinke. But they’re not. So it’s meaningless speculation.

Then there are the complaints that it’s “too much” money—not in context of pitchers who were better than Greinke, but in context, period.

The pitchers listed above weren’t available. As for the contract itself, how is “enough” quantified? Would $120 million be acceptable? Why is $147 million “too much” and what amount is “just right?”

Greinke is the best pitcher on the market, found a team willing to pay him, and he got the most money. If and when Justin Verlander is a free agent (and he probably won’t be), he’ll set the market. That’s capitalism. That’s baseball.

The media

Joel Sherman exemplifies the half-wit media by saying the following on Twitter:

I know timing/supply-demand determine $, but if you had to pick 10 SP to win game for your life, would Greinke even be in the 10?

First he says essentially the same thing I said and made perfect sense in saying it regarding supply and demand. Then he ruins it by making a ridiculous assertion about a “game for your life” that there’s no way to prove its veracity one way or the other until after the fact. Greinke pitched poorly in his one post-season chance, but he was no Kenny Rogers—a thoroughly overmatched, frightened, and non-competitive performer for both the Yankees and Mets who no one could’ve thought he’d turn in the masterful work he provided in the 2006 playoffs and World Series when he was all but unhittable.

Was Dave Stewart a post-season ace before he became one? Was Curt Schilling?

You don’t know until you know. It’s not as if Greinke is tricking people with a pitch that could abandon him at any moment. Like the aforementioned Johnson and Martinez, they know what’s coming and can’t hit it.

This type of “analysis” is a desperate search to be contrary and not based on fact at all.

For the rest of baseball

The “haves and have nots” argument no longer applies as teams like the Athletics and Rays have shown the way of keeping their players or trading them away at their high value to maintain realistic cost while contending. The idea that Billy Beane’s strategies stopped working is accurate. Other teams caught onto what he was doing, souped it up and spent money for the undervalued assets he was able to get on the cheap before. The Rays adapted and overtook the A’s as the team that maximized what they had and could afford with new data and not the old “on base percentage as the Holy Grail” and “counting cards in the draft” idiocy.

The big money clubs who’ve spent wildly haven’t distinguished themselves with annual championships; in fact, many of the clubs have turned into overpriced embarrassments who, like the Yankees, are paring down to avoid luxury tax penalties and are rapidly heading toward a collapse because they tried to copy the Rays and even the Red Sox in development and failed miserably. The Red Sox, Angels, Marlins, and Phillies spent madly in the last several years and the results varied from disastrous to mediocre.

Teams that want to prevent Greinke-like contracts have to take the risk and do what the Rays have done with Evan Longoria, the Pirates have done with Andrew McCutchen, and the Rays and Mets have done with Matt Moore and Jonathon Niese—sign them early and hope they make it worth the team’s while to do it.

For the Dodgers

The Dodgers spending spree doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll win in and of itself, but they do have some semblance of continuity backed up by the new money their ownership is spreading around, much to the anger and chagrin of all observers due to jealousy or the simple desire to complain.

It made no sense to pay $2 billion and then try to create a winner with an $80 million payroll and prove how much smarter their baseball people are than everyone else. It made no sense to hire Stan Kasten as team president and have Magic Johnson as a front man and not let them do what they do the way they know how to do it.

Kasten is a professional dealmaker and, unlike Randy Levine across the country with the Yankees, isn’t despised and openly meddling with the baseball operations implying that he knows more than he does (and Kasten is a qualified baseball man, unlike Levine). Kasten helped build the enduring Braves playoff dynasty using development and Ted Turner’s money to keep his own players, trade the minor leaguers for veterans, develop youngsters for the Braves’ use, bolster the club with Maddux-like stars, and let his GM John Schuerholz be the GM and the manager Bobby Cox be the manager.

He’s repeating the process with the Dodgers, Ned Colletti and Don Mattingly.

Comparisons to the aforementioned clubs that spent insanely is not accurate as a “that didn’t work, so neither will what the Dodgers are doing.” The Dodgers spent a ton of money and are asking their manager Mattingly, “What do you need?” whereas the Angels, with a new GM Jerry Dipoto who didn’t hire Mike Scioscia had different theories on how a team should be run; the owner Arte Moreno betrayed what it was that made the Angels a beacon of how to put a club together as he spent on players who simply didn’t fit and created a glut and altered identity, leading to the image of dysfunction and disarray.

The Red Sox made a mess in 2011, compounded that mess in 2012, and are getting back to their roots with questionable decisions currently being made by Ben Cherington when the jury is still out on whether he’s one of those executives who was better off as an assistant.

Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria has the countenance and behavior of a character straight out of a Dickens story with barely concealed greed and unrepentant evil, while Magic is the charming frontman to bring the fans in and impress the players with his star power.

Star power.

Magic was a Lakers star with a star coach Pat Riley and a glittery style that inspired the moniker “Showtime.” It wasn’t just a show. The Lakers were a great team with star talent surrounding Magic in the form of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, underappreciated stars like James Worthy, and gritty tough guys like Kurt Rambis. Magic is the epitome of cool who knows everyone, gets invited to every party, has access to all the trappings of Los Angeles with the age and wisdom to advise players what and whom to avoid. He’s got an eye not just on winning, but winning in the Hollywood fashion with stars and style. He’ll fill Dodger Stadium and make it the cool place to go again; he’ll recruit the players; he’ll represent the team to make everyone money; and he won’t overstep his bounds into the baseball ops.

They didn’t buy it as an investment to flip in a few years; they bought it to turn it into a greater financial powerhouse and increase its value. That’s what they’re doing and Greinke is a cog in that machine to achieve the end.

And for Greinke

No one will ever know whether Greinke, whose past emotional problems are given far too much weight considering they six years ago and haven’t cropped up since, could’ve dealt with New York, Boston or Philadelphia.

Going to the East Coast with the pressures and expectations inherent with the Yankees/Red Sox/Phillies wasn’t a good fit. But the Angels weren’t matching the Dodgers’ cash and the Rangers were the main competition for the pitcher’s services and were a winning, positive locale for him and his former Dallas Cowboys cheerleader wife. But they were outbid and have other, more reasonably priced options via trade.

That left the Dodgers. It’s a laid back atmosphere as a matter of course; they already have an ace in Clayton Kershaw so the pressure won’t be as great for Greinke to win 25 games; and no one will bother him as they would in New York, Boston, or Philly.

He got his money; he’s a great pitcher; and will continue to be a great pitcher for a Dodgers team that is a legitimate championship contender.

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The Blue Jays Managerial Search and the ESPN Disease

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Jim Riggleman isn’t a bad idea as manager for the Blue Jays, but he hasn’t heard from them. You’d never know that unless you followed the story after what Buster Olney said on Twitter:

The Jays are close to announcing their next manager. Two of the final names they discussed were Jim Tracy and Jim Riggleman.

There’s sufficient ambiguity in this tweet to explain it away after Riggleman’s own agent said there had been no contact between the Blue Jays and Riggleman. He also said that Riggleman would be very interested in the job. It could be said that the name was kicked around by the Blue Jays; that the two sentences are unconnected; that Olney has a source telling him this; or that ESPN told Olney to say something provocative regarding the Blue Jays while they’re a hot topic to accumulate some webhits to ESPN.com.

I like Olney. He’s got a thick skin; he can take a joke without freaking out in a “how dare you question me?!?” tantrum; and he writes his columns and reports without vindictiveness or self-promotion, but the ESPN Disease pops up on occasions in which he and other mostly respectable reporters toss something out there that they know is, at best, a twisted exaggeration. One would assume that they’re enacting an editorial order. Similar to a few years ago when there was a “rumor” from somewhere that the Cardinals and Phillies had discussed a trade of Albert Pujols for Ryan Howard, there was a brief uproar with factions arguing and screaming about the mere concept; with Phillies’ GM Ruben Amaro Jr. livid at having to answer questions as to the possibility of a story he knew nothing about. Olney was a guest on ESPN News at its height and the host asked him something to the tune of, “How close is this to happening?” as if, barring a zombie apocalypse, it could’ve happened. And I can picture a drooling zombie looking at Pujols and Howard and grunting, “Nooooooo!!!!” in between guttural growls and throaty sputters. Even zombies know better.

The ESPN employees go along with the program, entertain the nonsense, talk about Tim Tebow, and “report” this stuff because it’s their job, but what they miss is how this style of journalism diminishes quality people and their credibility when they’re forced to engage in cheap attention grabs.

As for the Blue Jays managerial search, the two names that Olney dropped—Tracy and Riggleman—would actually be good choices for that situation. The Blue Jays need to hire an experienced manager and, with the collection of talent they now have, it doesn’t have to be someone with the resume of Joe Torre for it to work. It just has to be someone who knows the terrain; who has managed in the big leagues; who won’t tolerate the same terrible fundamentals as former manager John Farrell did; can deal with the press; and will be respected by the veterans.

Riggleman has the baggage from his resignation from the Nationals hovering over him, but he’s always implied that there’s more to the story than we know. If he’s going to be interviewed for a big league managerial job, he’d better have a ready and reasonable explanation why he walked away from the Nationals amid the perception that he was throwing a tantrum because the club refused to exercise his 2012 option.

Tracy, despite his critics, is a good manager who got a bad rap with the poor endings in his prior stops managing the Dodgers, Pirates, and Rockies. He has all the attributes I mentioned above, the players have always liked him and played hard for him, he’s sound strategically, and is good with the press.

If I were making the decision, before anything else, I’d call Tony LaRussa and see if he’s bored with retirement and if he is, would Dave Duncan like to come along as well? They already reportedly inquired with Bobby Cox and Cox said no, so why not LaRussa? It’s a tailor made situation for him with a rabid fanbase and the new challenge back in the American League. He might be competitively recharged after a year away. He surely seemed to enjoy himself at the All-Star Game.

The Blue Jays cannot make the same mistake they did with Farrell. In addition to all the other problems Farrell had in his two seasons, his eyes were cast back toward Boston with a lusty gaze and the players didn’t think he knew what he was doing. They were right. He didn’t. This Blue Jays team can win, but they’re more likely to fail if they hire a cheap, convenient alternative to manage the club rather than someone who’s got the bona fides to maximize their talent.

That could be Riggleman; it could be Tracy; it could be LaRussa; or it could be someone else—it had better be someone who has the known ability to do the job unlike the last manager GM Alex Anthopoulos hired, Farrell. After so many years of expectations and waiting and hoping, 2013 is the Blue Jays chance and they can’t afford to blow it, especially on an unknown field boss.

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Walt Weiss—Another Manager With No Experience

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The Colorado Rockies have followed the recent trend of hiring managers with no managerial experience whatsoever as they have tapped former major league infielder Walt Weiss to replace Jim Tracy. Weiss played for some great managers in his career including Tony LaRussa and Bobby Cox. The 1988 American League Rookie of the Year for the pennant winning Athletics, Weiss was known as an intelligent and fundamentally solid player who was mature beyond his years. Whether that translates into managing is the question. This is the third manager in the past year that has been hired with zero managerial experience. The Cardinals hired Mike Matheny to replace LaRussa; the White Sox hired Robin Ventura to replace Ozzie Guillen. This strategy is becoming a regular occurrence when it probably shouldn’t.

The Cardinals were a unique and advantageous position with their circumstances at the end of the 2011 season. They won a completely unexpected World Series giving them a significant amount of capital to possibly struggle in the aftermath; LaRussa retired and Albert Pujols departed for the Angels; and the fans and media following the Cardinals are intrinsically supportive of the team no matter what. Had the Cardinals fallen back under Matheny, it would have been an expected and accepted transition as so many drastic changes are made. The LaRussa people continue their exodus with Dave Duncan departing before the season and Mark McGwire leaving after. It’s morphing into Matheny’s team and his analysis for what he does begins next season. For 2012, he was a caretaker who took the team to game 7 of the NLCS with LaRussa’s team.

The White Sox were exhausted from the constant electroshock style of Guillen, had a disappointing 2011 in which they were expected to contend and didn’t, and the talent was present to make a rebound likely with a manager who wasn’t going to drive everyone crazy and have them all on edge. Ventura filled that bill. The White Sox faltered down the stretch and blew their playoff spot, but they weren’t expected to be there to begin with, making it a net positive for Ventura.

Weiss is not in the position of either Matheny or Ventura. The Rockies were a disaster in 2012, losing 98 games. They tried a new pitching template i with shorter rest times for their starting pitchers and designated relievers who were expected to pitch multiple innings. Are they going to continue with that or will they revert to conventional baseball strategy? Is Weiss going to be a conduit to the front office? Are the Rockies going to maintain their new deployment of pitchers with a series of starters and relievers all functioning within a pitch count and no concern over statistics? It was said to be front office dictates and changes that spurred Jim Tracy to resign before they could fire him. Weiss isn’t in a position to complain and worked with the Rockies from 2002-2008 as former GM Dan O’Dowd’s special assistant, but that was four years ago and the Rockies were good then. Presumably he understands his parameters and knows what he’s walking into, but if you think that the success of Matheny and Ventura is an indicator that Weiss will experience a similar result, you need to think again. Hiring a manager with no experience is becoming popular, but that doesn’t make it good.

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The Yunel Escobar “Slur”

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Perhaps this was a joke that went awry. Since players no longer use a tube of black gunk as eye black and it’s now a clean stick-on, a few teammates could’ve taken Yunel Escobar’s supply of eye black stickers, wrote the offensive terms on them in an ink that doesn’t activate until it reaches a certain temperature—presumably from sweat—and watched as hilarity ensued.

Except it wasn’t hilarity to those who saw it or had their attention drawn to it by the media.

If Escobar did this himself, then it’s piling onto the problems of the multi-talented Cuban since he came onto the scene with the Braves and repeatedly angered Bobby Cox and his teammates with his pouting and brainless play that led to the Braves trading such a gifted athlete to the Blue Jays in the first place.

Is this that big of a deal? It’s offensive, but the controversy from 2011 when Braves’ pitching coach Roger McDowell openly mocked fans with homosexual allusions in coarse terms with children nearby was exponentially worse than clubhouse humor that was meant to be a joke among teammates and turned into a huge mess. In the confines of the clubhouse, where teasing about sexual orientation and playacting in such a way is a regular occurrence, it’s not a big deal at all.

What those who are taking such great offense to this are missing is that baseball players are baseball players and sports clubhouses are sports clubhouses. Because there’s greater scrutiny, closer inspection and analysis of what happens on the field, and a larger number of outlets to bring stories to the our collective attention, it doesn’t alter the man’s world that is big time sports. The world is no longer insular; women aren’t relegated to being secretaries and receptionists; players are making their views on society more known and whether it’s due to religion or the macho sensibility that is prevalent among Latin players, this is going on publicly and privately.

Are there gay athletes in every sport from baseball to football to European soccer to hockey? Of course. Do they laugh along with the joking while putting up a front for appearances and to possibly keep their jobs? Absolutely. Is there anything that can be done about it? No.

That Escobar is a Latin player isn’t to be ignored. It was the same term as what was written on Escobar’s eye black—maricón which means “faggot” in Spanish—that was the genesis of one of boxing’s most storied and tragic events when Emile Griffith beat Bennie Paret to death in what could only be described as a visceral rage that isn’t present even in the most hotly contested fight. Paret, at the weigh-in prior to the bout, had called Griffith a maricón. It’s about as big an insult as can be tossed at a Latin. There’s a large amount of one-upmanship and perception that still remains in big time sports. When the Marlins signed Jose Reyes and told Hanley Ramirez that he was moving to third base to accommodate the new acquisition, it wasn’t simply that Ramirez’s position of shortstop was being usurped, but the idea that his territory was being threatened. Whether it was good of bad for the team was secondary to issues that have more to do with a mentality and culture than anything else.

Despite only two of these incidents being known to the masses in recent history, it’s not indicative of an isolated instance. There are higher-educated and self-described “enlightened” people running around professional sports teams than there were in the past. As recently as 15 years ago, baseball executives in top posts were all male and were almost all former players, legacy cases, or men who worked their way up in one form or another. More diversity doesn’t imply greater enlightenment. There will still be people who think women shouldn’t be involved with the men making baseball decisions; there will still be people who allow their own personal feelings to interfere with whom they hire as on-field staff.

The media is acting indignantly at Escobar because they’re supposed to act indignant. Certain new age segments are turning ashen, shocked that such a thing could exist and be accepted in this day and age. These are entities that are either ordered to write about a situation that’s become known and aren’t surprised and those who don’t have the faintest clue about what’s customary inside a big league clubhouse.

MLB is investigating the Escobar incident because they don’t want to alienate a large segment of the population. It’s a business and uttering slurs against any bloc is bad for business. But considering what inside baseball people know of what’s normal in the sanctity of a clubhouse, I’m sure there are many who are shrugging and saying, “It’s just a dumb baseball player or a joke that went wrong.”

Escobar will be punished because MLB has no choice in the matter, but this type of thing is reality that wound up in the news. It’s as monolithic as the farm system, advance scouting, and players complaining about their contracts. One punishment for show is not going to make it stop.

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Leo Mazzone’s Criticism of the Nationals’ Handling of Stephen Strasburg Invites a Strong and Selective Reaction

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Leo Mazzone’s reputation as a pitching coach guru was bolstered by having three Hall of Famers and a pretty good background cast of characters with the Braves and was subsequently ruined by going to the Orioles and functioning without much talent. Like most coaches (and managers for that matter), it’s more about the talent than it is about any set of principles implemented by the coach or organization.

When Mazzone had Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and John Smoltz, he looked smart. He had Rodrigo Lopez and Kris Benson with the Orioles and therefore, didn’t look as smart.

That said, it can’t be ignored that Erik Bedard had his two best and healthiest seasons working under Mazzone; that relatively pedestrian pitchers Denny Neagle, Kerry Ligtenberg, Greg McMichael, Mike Remlinger, and John Thomson blossomed with him as their pitching coach and did nothing notable anywhere else; that Kevin Millwood and Steve Avery developed under Mazzone; that Russ Ortiz, John Burkett, Jaret Wright and Mike Hampton all experienced a renaissance under him; or that the Braves came undone after Mazzone left.

Was it talent? Was it Hall of Famers? Was it technique? Was it Bobby Cox? Was it that the Braves in those years were super good and could’ve shuttled anyone out there and had them look better than they were?

Or was it a combination of everything?

Or is it something that can’t be defined as “this is why”?

Mazzone hasn’t gotten a pitching coach job since he was fired by the Orioles which leads me to believe that his reputation as someone who doesn’t adhere to organizational edicts—a version of going along to get along that’s been in place forever—is preventing him from being hired. Or perhaps it’s something else.

I don’t know and nor do you. This is why it’s silly to take Mazzone’s quotes about the Nationals’ parameters and much-discussed decision to limit Stephen Strasburg as the ranting of a has-been baseball dinosaur by referencing Steve Avery as “proof” (as Craig Calcaterra does here on Hardball Talk) that Mazzone’s way is one of the past and his opinions carry zero weight.

With the proliferation of self-proclaimed experts, stat sites, and insertion of viewpoints available at the click of a button, it’s hard to know which end is up. Everyone’s knows better than the previous person whether that person is an experienced baseball man or not. Dave Righetti and the Giants’ methods involving their young pitchers functioning similarly to the Braves of the 1990s drew old-school respect as Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum flourished. But Lincecum wasn’t working under the Giants’ program and was essentially left on his own. So where does the credit lie? Is it Lincecum’s dad? Is it the Giants for their willingness to let Lincecum pitch without limits? And who gets the blame for his poor season and decreased velocity? Does Righetti get the accolades for Cain and Madison Bumgarner? How does it work?

The Yankees can provide reams of printouts and cutting-edge medical recommendations for their treatment of their young pitchers, but all are either hurt (Jose Campos, Manny Banuelos); inconsistent or worse (Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain); stagnant (Dellin Betances); or have the fault shifted elsewhere for the Yankees’ shoddy assessments (Michael Pineda).

Did Avery get hurt because of the Braves’ overusing him or would he have gotten hurt anyway? Avery was another pitcher who learned his mechanics from his dad and was left to his own devices. It was only after he got hurt that those mechanics were deemed as the culprit. And now, years after the fact, Mazzone’s getting the blame.

Would he have gotten hurt anyway? Judging from the way pitchers are constantly injured—clean mechanics or not—it’s a pretty safe bet that he would’ve.

Will Strasburg get hurt? He was babied from college onward and still needed Tommy John surgery.

Some pitchers are overused at a young age and get injured; others stay healthy. Why doesn’t Calcaterra reference Maddux, who as a 22-year-old was handled by another old-school manager Don Zimmer and pitching coach, Dick Pole, and allowed to throw as many as 167 pitches in a game in 1988? Maddux credited Pole for teaching him proper mechanics and Pole has bounced from team-to-team because he—guess what?—asserts himself and doesn’t go with the organizational flow.

Jim Bouton wrote about this phenomenon in Ball Four when discussing why Johnny Sain hopped from club-to-club and never lasted very long in any one place. Ego and control are far more important to an organization than getting it right and iconoclasts don’t last unless they have massive success.

Mazzone’s not wrong here. In truth, nor are the Nats. There is no “right” or “wrong”. I disagree with the way they’ve implemented their plan because there were methods to keeping Strasburg’s innings down without going to the controversial extreme of shutting him down when they’re going to need him most in the playoffs (the 6-man rotation for example), but the smug condescension and retrospective denigration of Mazzone’s work is pure second guessing and random outsider expertise to prove an unprovable theory with the selective references to match.

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Don’t Blame Fredi This Time

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What’s wrong with the Braves?

Is it the pitching?

Is it manager Fredi Gonzalez and his coaches?

Is if the offense?

What?

Mike Minor has been mostly dreadful; Randall Delgado inconsistent; Jair Jurrjens was on the trade block and was sent to the minors; and Brandon Beachy was brilliant before he got hurt. They were one of the few teams in baseball that didn’t have a starting pitching issue before the season but are now on the lookout for starting pitching with a pursuit of Zack Greinke in the offing.

Gonzalez has made a conscious effort—in conjunction with the front office—to limit the use of his more trusted relievers Jonny Venters, Craig Kimbrel and Eric O’Flaherty. He’s still done the inexplicable “Fredis” such as when he left Venters in to pitch to Alex Rodriguez with the bases loaded as the tying run at the plate. Naturally A-Rod homered to tie the game and the Braves lost.

With Gonzalez as manager, these gaffes are tacitly accepted and understood.

The Braves’ offense is, statistically, much better and that credit could grudgingly go to new hitting coach Greg Walker. Former coach Larry Parrish advocated an aggressive approach that resulted last season’s .308 OBP and finishing 10th in the NL in runs scored. This season their OBP has risen to .323 and they’re 4th in runs scored.

How much of that is due to Walker and the dismissal of Parrish are realistic questions. Their clubwide pitches per plate appearance ratio is up from 3.79 to 3.87. Dan Uggla and Jason Heyward have improved noticeably in that regard. Is it that the Braves are waiting for their pitches to hit or that they have Michael Bourn for a full season, a healthy Heyward and an Uggla off to a better start? Brian McCann and Freddie Freeman are both far behind where they were last season. Does Parrish get the credit for the good things or just the blame for the bad things? Is that the criteria for Walker and Gonzalez. What’s more important: results, process or perception?

The Braves’ main issues have been on the mound. So does pitching coach Roger McDowell come under fire? Or is it explainable by Jurrjens’ decreased luck and the aforementioned pitchers who are struggling and hurt?

There’s no reason for a team with this level of talent to be barely over .500 and 6 games out of first place. But that’s where the Braves are. Those with an ulterior motive to get rid of Gonzalez for the greater good would love to latch onto this mediocrity as validation to make a change, but in reality if they had Bobby Cox back in the dugout running things, I’m not so sure they’d be much better than where they are right now. Gonzalez’s job could be in jeopardy in the near or distant future, but if they were going to fire him they should’ve done it after the collapse of 2011 and not now.

It would be strangely ironic if Gonzalez survived when he probably should’ve been replaced and is fired for the first half of 2012 when there’s no much he could’ve done differently.

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Melky Cabrera’s Dream Season Is Just That

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Melky Cabrera’s batting average on balls in play (BAbip) is .413 and that’s not going to continue.

It won’t.

So forget it.

He’s been smoking hot this season and is putting up numbers that, on the surface, look like he’s turned the corner. The perception that he’s playing up to his potential is leading to a misplaced belief that Cabrera is now a “star” player for the Giants.

Well, he’s not. His numbers are what they’ve always been and he’s benefiting from the aforementioned inexplicable and unsustainable luck.

Cabrera’s a useful bat with speed and versatility in the outfield; he has some pop; is a switch-hitter; and when he’s committed can produce. He’s not an MVP candidate unless he’s extremely lucky which is what he’s been this season.

This isn’t an assessment based on stats of visual analysis. It’s a combination of both.

It wasn’t long ago that the Braves non-tendered Cabrera after one season in Atlanta because he showed up out of shape, played like he was in a cloud and aggravated Bobby Cox and the Braves’ veterans in a similar fashion as he aggravated the Yankees into getting sent to the minors in 2008. A hallmark of Cabrera’s career has been the dialing down of his effort when he felt secure in his job. When he’s comfortable he gets lazy. After signing with the Royals, Cabrera appeared to realize that his life as a baseball vagabond was never going to be as lucrative as it would be if he showed up to play every day with the necessary commitment.

He has 15-20 home run power, can steal 20+ bases and play all outfield positions competently. But he’s not a star. He’s not going to win the batting title. And he’s not worth the amount of money someone is going to blindly throw at him when he hits free agency after this season based on his luck on balls in play and other attributes. Yankees’ fans in particular are soon going to use Cabrera’s numbers as a bludgeon to attack GM Brian Cashman for trading him to reacquire Javier Vazquez. Cashman’s obsession with Vazquez was blockheaded, insistent and foolish, but trading Cabrera to get him wasn’t a mistake. It was the same with the Royals. They needed an arm for their starting rotation, Cabrera was due a big raise in arbitration and they made a move for the talented and flighty Jonathan Sanchez. It hasn’t worked for them so far. That’s the way it goes.

I liken Cabrera to the former NFL cornerback Larry Brown who won the Super Bowl XXX MVP for the Cowboys by intercepting two passes from Steelers’ quarterback Neil O’Donnell. Brown didn’t make any brilliant athletic maneuvers on those plays. He was standing there, O’Donnell threw two balls to him and he caught them. From that he became a budding “star” and parlayed that misplaced credit into a lucrative contract with the Oakland Raiders that was a ghastly mistake. Cabrera is in shape; is playing hard; and is maximizing his abilities. But like Brown, he’s been in the right place at the right time. A huge contract will be a misjudgment for the team that signs Cabrera just as it was for the Raiders when they signed Brown. They’ll be paying him for what he was at his best and for good fortune and not for what he actually is.

Cabrera deserves the attention he’s getting now, but few should be surprised when he reverts back to form—that form is of a pretty good ancillary player. That’s it.

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Heath Bell’s Blameworthy Disaster

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Before he became a “genius” and a “future Hall of Fame executive”, John Schuerholz was the well-liked and competent GM of the Kansas City Royals. He’d won a World Series in 1985 and was not, under any circumstances, expected to one day be feted as the “architect” of a Braves team that would win 14 straight division titles.

In truth he wasn’t an architect of anything. The pieces to that team were in place when he arrived. Already present were Chipper Jones, John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, Steve Avery, Sid Bream, David Justice and Ron Gant. He made some great, prescient acquisitions such as Greg Maddux, Terry Pendleton and Fred McGriff; had mediocre overall drafts; and was aggressive in making trades on the fly to improve the team.

But he wasn’t a genius.

After a 92-70 season by the Royals in 1989 Schuerholz went on a spending spree that included signing the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner, closer Mark Davis, away from the San Diego Padres to a 4-year, $13 million contract. (It was akin to the Jonathan Papelbon deal of today.)

The Royals had a young closer with Jeff Montgomery and didn’t need Davis.

Amid injuries and underperformance, the team finished at 75-86, 27 1/2 games behind the division winning A’s.

Following the season, Schuerholz left the Royals to take over for Bobby Cox as the Braves’ GM with Cox staying on as manager.

I mention the Davis signing because his nightmare from 1990 echoes what’s happening to Marlins’ closer Heath Bell now.

Bell just isn’t as likable as Davis was.

Yesterday was another atrocious outing for Bell and the unusual step (which is becoming more and more usual for him) of yanking him from a save situation occurred for the second day in a row. Manager Ozzie Guillen’s demeanor in the dugout when Bell is on the mound is becoming increasingly overt with frustration and anger. It’s the exacerbated human nature of the athlete that Bell’s teammates are publicly supporting him and privately saying that it’s enough and he needs to get the job done or it’s time for a change.

Bell’s numbers are bad enough. An 8.47 ERA; 24 hits, 14 walks and only 10 strikeouts in 17 innings and the 4 blown saves don’t tell the whole story. He’s not in a slump. He’s been plain awful.

I called this when I wrote my free agency profile of Bell in November but he’s been far worse than anyone could’ve imagined.

In his first few big league seasons as a transient between Triple A and the Mets, Bell didn’t see eye-to-eye with Mets’ pitching coach Rick Peterson and GM Omar Minaya made a rotten trade in sending Bell away to the Padres. The fact that the trade was bad doesn’t make it wrong that they traded him. The Padres were a situation where he was able to resurrect his career first as a the set-up man for Trevor Hoffman and then as the closer.

The Mets did him a favor.

Bell has a massive chip on his shoulder that indicates a need to prove himself. Perhaps the money and expectations are hindering him. That’s not an excuse. He’s a day or two away from being demoted from the closer’s role by the Marlins not for a few days to clear his head, but for the foreseeable future.

Bell’s locked in with the Marlins for the next 2 ½ years as part of a 3-year, $27 million deal unless they dump him. As of right now, he’s a very expensive mop-up man and the Marlins have every right—even a duty—to use someone else because Bell’s not doing the job. Period.

I seriously doubt they’re going to want to hear his mouth if and when he’s demoted from the closer’s role.

But they will.

Bet on it.

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