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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Dealing With The Closer Issue

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Complaining about closers is like complaining about the weather: everyone talks about it, but no one does anything about it. The difference between the weather and closers is that something can be done about closers.

Amid all the talk about “what to do” with struggling relievers Jim Johnson and Fernando Rodney and the references of clubs who have found unheralded veterans to take over as their closer like the Cardinals with Edward Mujica and the Pirates with Jason Grilli, no one is addressing the fundamental problems with needing to have an “established” closer. Here they are and what to do about them.

Veteran relievers like to know their roles.

Managers like Whitey Herzog, Sparky Anderson, Billy Martin and Earl Weaver had the ability to tell their players that their “role” is to pitch when they tell them to pitch. Nowadays even managers who are relatively entrenched in their jobs like Joe Maddon have to have the players on their side to succeed. The Rays are a different story because they’re not paying any of their relievers big money and can interchange them if need be, but they don’t because Maddon doesn’t operate that way until it’s absolutely necessary.

Other clubs don’t have that luxury. They don’t want to upset the applecart and cause a domino effect of people not knowing when they’re going to pitch; not knowing if a pitcher can mentally handle the role of pitching the ninth inning; and don’t want to hear the whining and deal with the aftermath if there’s not someone established to replace the closer who’s having an issue. Rodney was only the Rays’ closer last season because Kyle Farnsworth (a foundling who in 2011 had a career year similar to Rodney in 2012) got hurt.

Until managers have the backing of the front office and have a group of relievers who are just happy to have the job in the big leagues, there’s no escaping the reality of having to placate the players to keep clubhouse harmony.

Stop paying for mediocrity in a replaceable role.

The Phillies and Yankees are paying big money for their closers Jonathan Papelbon and Mariano Rivera, but these are the elite at the position. Other clubs who have overpaid for closers include the Dodgers with Brandon League, the Red Sox with money and traded players to get Andrew Bailey and Joel Hanrahan, the Nationals with Rafael Soriano, and the Marlins who paid a chunk of Heath Bell’s salary to get him out of the clubhouse.

Bell has taken over for the injured J.J. Putz with the Diamondbacks and pitched well. The Cubs, in desperation, replaced both Carlos Marmol ($9.8 million in 2013) and Kyuji Fujikawa (guaranteed $9.5 million through 2014) with Kevin Gregg. The same Kevin Gregg who was in spring training with the Dodgers and released, signed by the Cubs—for whom he struggled as their closer when they were trying to contend in 2009—as a veteran insurance policy just in case. “Just in case” happened and Gregg has gone unscored upon and saved 6 games in 14 appearances.

As long as teams are paying closers big money, closers will have to stay in the role far longer than performance would dictate in an effort to justify the contract. It’s a vicious circle that teams fall into when they overpay for “established” closers. When the paying stops, so too will the necessity to keep pitching them.

Find a manager who can be flexible.

A manager stops thinking when it gets to the ninth inning by shutting off the logical remnants of his brain to put his closer into the game. If it’s Rivera or Papelbon, this is fine. If it’s anyone else, perhaps it would be wiser to use a lefty specialist if the situation calls for it. If Chase Utley and Ryan Howard are hitting back-to-back and a club has Randy Choate in its bullpen, would it make sense to use a righty whether it’s the ninth inning and “his” inning or not?

Maddon is flexible in his thinking and has the support of the front office to remove Rodney from the role if need be. One option that hasn’t been discussed for the Rays is minor league starter Chris Archer to take over as closer in the second half of the season. With the Rays, anything is possible. With other teams, they not only don’t want to exacerbate the problem by shuffling the entire deck, but the manager is going to panic if he doesn’t have his “ninth inning guy” to close. Even a veteran manager like Jim Leyland isn’t immune to it and a pitcher the front office didn’t want back—Jose Valverde—is now closing again because their handpicked choice Bruce Rondon couldn’t seize his spring training opportunity and the “closer by committee” was on the way to giving Leyland a heart attack, a nervous breakdown or both.

The solution.

There is no solution right now. Until teams make the conscious decision to stop paying relievers upwards of $10 million, there will constantly be the “established” closer. It’s a fundamental fact of business that if there isn’t any money in a job, fewer people who expect to make a lot of money and have the capability to make a lot of money in another position are going to want to take it. Finding replaceable arms who can be used wherever and whenever they’re told to pitch, ignore the save stat, and placed in a situation to be successful instead of how it’s done now will eliminate the need to pay for the ninth inning arm and take all the negative side effects that go along with it. Games will still get blown in the late innings, but at least it won’t be as expensive and will probably happen with an equal frequency. It’s evolution. And evolution doesn’t happen overnight, if it happens at all.

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The Diamondbacks Grind Justin Upton Out Of Arizona

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The Diamondbacks sought offers from Justin Upton almost immediately upon Kevin Towers taking over as GM and in all that time—two-and-a-half years—they never gave a legitimate reason as to why. Few could formulate an obvious justification to place a 25-year-old outfielder with speed, solid defensive skills and power on the trade block so publicly.

Now that Upton has been traded to the Braves, it’s being said that the Diamondbacks wanted more “grinders,” and that Upton wasn’t that type of player. This would be fine if they were exchanging an easily replaceable player who didn’t fit into the clubhouse dynamic they were trying to create, but Upton isn’t a journeyman player. He’s not even a potential All-Star if all breaks right. He’s an MVP candidate in his mid-20s, signed to a reasonable long-term contract worth $38.5 million through 2015.

The pat excuses—lack of money; clubhouse malcontent; rebuilding—didn’t fit with the desperation to trade Upton, so it appeared as if they were trading him just for the sake of it. This all goes back to the hiring of Towers and the 2011 division title. I doubt that when Towers was hired he expected a few bullpen moves and the pieces that were already in place would result in a stunning NL West title. There was no rebuilding project to undertake because they won immediately with the remnants of what former GMs Josh Byrnes and his interim replacement Jerry Dipoto had left for Towers and manager Kirk Gibson to work with.

That division title might have hypnotized the Diamondbacks into thinking they were better than they actually were; into believing that the edited, simplistic version of Towers’s resume and the four playoff appearances and one pennant he won as GM of the Padres were accurate as a final determinative factor of his quality of work. In reality, the NL West was a weak division that the Padres won in back to back seasons in 2005 and 2006 because they were the best of a rotten bunch. Somehow, Towers garnered a reputation that he never truly earned. He’s a competent executive to be sure, but as for someone whose every word should be adhered to because he has a “track record of success,” it’s highly presumptuous. Towers’s executive accomplishments may be true, but they’re not 100% accurate.

All the speculation that there might have been off-field issues with Upton (because there was no other possible explanation for this obsession to trade him) were rendered moot when it was strategically leaked that he wasn’t intense enough to suit Towers and Gibson. As a response to search for reasons to the publicly inexplicable solicitation of offers for Upton, the Diamondbacks found one that can’t be quantified, therefore not disputed as anything other than an opinion.

Because Gibson was a run through the wall, football-mentality type doesn’t mean that’s what every player has to be in order to be successful. I’m not of the mind that the manager is a faceless, nameless functionary installed to implement front office edicts, but I’m also not of the mind to bend over backwards to adjust the roster to fit what the manager wants to do, especially when it involves trading a player who has the ability to win the MVP. The recent death of Earl Weaver and the accompanying tributes and obituaries discussed his love for the 3-run homer, defense and pitching, but Weaver was also able to adapt when he didn’t have the personnel to play that way. Gibson is not Weaver and sounds as if he’s distancing himself from the implication that he wanted tougher players than Upton.

Here’s the impression I get from the way this entire mess played itself out: Towers arrived as Diamondbacks GM, looked at the prospective 2011 roster and felt there were too many holes to fill through making small trades and affordable free agent signings. He sent feelers out regarding Upton hoping for a massive haul to rebuild the team and contend in perhaps 2012-2013. No massive offer came and they held onto Upton. Things went perfectly in 2011, they won the division with Upton finishing fourth in the MVP voting and they were suddenly viable contenders for the immediate future. After trading for Trevor Cahill and making a bizarre signing in Jason Kubel, they were going for it all in 2012. But they didn’t win it all. The pitching had injuries and the rotation and bullpen weren’t as good in 2012 as they were in 2011. They wound up at .500.

Who was to blame? Judging by what they just did it was Upton and his lack of fire. 2012 and the ongoing saga notwithstanding, the damage was done in late 2010 when Towers tossed Upton out there as a negotiable entity. Upton seemed perplexed and hurt by the trade talk but was great in 2011. In 2012, he played through injuries and his numbers suffered. This didn’t stop Diamondbacks’ Managing General Partner Ken Kendrick from calling out Upton and Stephen Drew for substandard play. Never mind that it’s been revealed that Upton had an injured thumb or that Drew was returning from a ghastly ankle injury, they weren’t playing up to Kendrick’s standards and he tore into them.

The Diamondbacks still had Upton on the table at mid-season 2012 and made their intentions clear when they signed Cody Ross for three-years and a whopping $26 million. There was nowhere for Upton to play. Towers traded for Heath Bell, whose main skill at grinding is grinding on the nerves of teammates, coaches, managers and front office people.

Clamoring for a shortstop, Towers traded his own former top draft pick Trevor Bauer to the Indians in a three-team trade that brought them Didi Gregorius from the Reds. Towers immediately compared to Gregorius to Derek Jeter. Then he agreed upon a trade of Upton to the Mariners knowing that the Mariners were one of the teams on Upton’s no-trade list and having been told beforehand that Upton was not going to okay the move under any circumstances. Like an undaunted explorer, Towers was formulating new ways to venture to the point of no return.

In the trade with the Braves, he sent Upton and Chris Johnson to Atlanta and acquired another shortstop Nick Ahmed along with Martin Prado, Randall Delgado and Zeke Spruill.

He’s got the young Jeter in Gregorius, I’m waiting for him to compare Ahmed to Nomar Garciaparra to have his very own late-1990s, inter-organizational war as to who’s better, Nomar or Derek.

The Diamondbacks finished off their Upton gaffe and obviously didn’t learn the error of their ways when, with Prado, they announced that they planned to sign him to a long-term contract to prevent his free agency after 2013. How about talking to his agent first and seeing what he wants before boxing oneself and making Prado’s contract extension a necessity rather than a desire?

Then it became public that they were going to try and trade for Rick Porcello of the Tigers. The Diamondbacks are a club that operates under the pretext of going beyond full disclosure to overexposure without understanding what kind of damage they’re doing to their plans (if they have any).

There’s been no acknowledgement of what got them in this situation in the first place: The Upton rumors that started when Towers first took the job. If there’s no accepting and admitting of the problem, then the problem can’t be solved. Towers wanted a shortstop in exchange for Upton and was trying to get Jurickson Profar from the Rangers. When the Rangers said no, he turned his attention to minor leaguers like the ones listed above. His current big league shortstops are Cliff Pennington, Willie Bloomquist and John McDonald—none of whom are any good.

Are they rebuilding? Are they trying to win now? Is Towers undoing what was there when he arrived and trying to tailor a club to fit his manager even though the manager is the first one to go when things come undone?

The Diamondbacks put themselves in this position and rather than climb out of the hole they’ve dug, they’re continuing to dig hoping that digging deeper yields an escape route. Logic dictates that it won’t and they’ll keep making things worse until it won’t matter what kind of team they want because the players they have aren’t good enough.

Upton was good enough. He’ll be showing that with the Braves in 2013 and beyond as the Diamondbacks grind themselves into the ground.

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Earl Weaver (1930-2013)

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Glenn Gulliver exemplifies what it was that made Earl Weaver different as a manager from his contemporaries. It wasn’t Jim Palmer, Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson, Eddie Murray, Cal Ripken Jr.—all Hall of Famers. Nor was it Ken Singleton, Boog Powell, Dave McNally, Mike Cuellar—consistently top performers. It wasn’t Steve Stone or Wayne Garland—pitchers who had their best seasons under Weaver; it wasn’t Gary Roenicke and John Lowenstein (an MVP-quality platoon) or role players Benny Ayala and Terry Crowley; it wasn’t even the one year Weaver had Reggie Jackson on his team and punctuated Jackson’s arrival by screaming in his face because Reggie wasn’t wearing a tie on the team plane. (Brooks Robinson found him one and explained how things worked in Baltimore—Earl’s way or…well, it was just Earl’s way. Reggie behaved that year.) It wasn’t the frequent ejections, the foul mouth, the chain-smoking, the public ripping of players, his longevity and consistency.

It was none of that.

It was a nondescript third baseman whom the Orioles purchased from the Indians prior to the 1982 season and who played in 73 big league games, 50 under Weaver. Gulliver, more than any other player, shows why Weaver was ahead of his time. If he were playing today, the two things Gulliver did well would’ve gotten him a multi-year contract as an in demand asset because he: A) walked a lot; and B) could catch the ball at third base.

Gulliver batted .200 in his 50 games under Weaver and walked so much that he had a .363 on base percentage. Weaver saw this, knew this, and could only wonder about the stupidity of those who questioned why Gulliver was playing at all with his low batting average.

Twenty years before Moneyball and everyone thinking they were a genius because they watched baseball for five minutes and knew how to read a stat sheet, Weaver was an actual genius and innovator by using a discarded player who other clubs had no clue was so valuable.

For all the talk of Weaver’s use of statistics, riding his starting pitchers, putting a premium on defense and battles with Palmer and Davey Johnson, the concept that Weaver was a dictator who didn’t know how to be flexible is only half-true. He was a ruthless dictator off the field, but on the field, he was willing to go to whatever lengths he needed in order to win.

Weaver’s teams were always near the top of the league in certain categories. They weren’t always the same. Many times, at the plate, it was on base percentage. On the mound, it was complete games and shutouts. Weaver was known not to be a fan of the riskiness of the stolen base, but as he looked at his transitioning club from 1973-1975 and realized he wouldn’t have the power to win, he let his players loose on the basepaths because he had no other alternative and during those years they were at or near the top of the American League in stolen bases.

If Weaver were managing today, that would be seen as “evolution,” or “adapting.” It wasn’t any of that. Often, the question has been asked how Weaver would function today if he were managing; if the old-school techniques of, “I’m the boss, shut up,” would fly with the multi-millionaire players who can get the manager fired if they choose to do so.

Like wondering why he was using Gulliver, it’s a stupid question. Because Weaver was so ahead of his time as a manager using statistics and that he adjusted and won regardless of his personnel, he would have won whenever he managed.

If a player had any talent to do anything at all, Weaver found it and exploited it for as long as he could, then he discarded them. He did so without apology.

Old-school managers who tear into the absence of the human element, increase of instant replay, and use of numbers are doing so because these techniques are marginalizing them and potentially taking their jobs away. Do you really believe that Weaver wouldn’t have wanted expanded instant replay? To have a better method to find tiny advantages over his opponents through numbers? The older managers who’ve subtly changed have hung around. The ones who couldn’t, haven’t.

On the other hand, Weaver wouldn’t have responded well to agents calling him and complaining over a pitcher’s workload; or to have a kid out of Harvard walking up to him and telling him he should bat X player in Y spot because of a reason that Weaver was probably already aware of and dismissed; or bloggers and the media constantly haranguing, second-guessing and criticizing managers and GMs endure today. But he always altered his strategy to the circumstances and he would’ve continued to do so if he managed in any era.

Interestingly, Weaver retired very young at age 52, then came back to manage a terrible team for a couple of more years before finally retiring for good at 56. In a day when Charlie Manuel, Jim Leyland and Joe Torre managed in their late-60s and early 70s, and Jack McKeon won a World Series at 74 and came back to manage again at 81, could Weaver had continued on? Could he have taken a couple of years off in his 50s and returned? Absolutely. He would’ve been well-compensated and just as successful as he was when he was in his 30s and 40s for one simple reason: he knew what he was doing. And that’s about as great a compliment that a manager can get.

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Strasburg Ambiguity Mars The Nationals’ Magical Season

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How can anyone involved with the Nationals justify looking into Stephen Strasburg’s face and telling him that while the team is on its way to the playoffs and is a legitimate World Series contender that because of a random number of innings and the edicts of one person’s dictatorial, unchecked authority, he can’t be a part of it?

The number (supposedly 160 innings or thereabouts), so random and capricious with no ironclad guarantee that it’s going to help him stay healthy over the long-term, predicates that Strasburg should resist and use his power over the situation to escape it.

There are so many compelling stories with the Nationals that the looming shutdown of Strasburg is marring all they’ve accomplished and it’s coming down to the self-proclaimed final word, GM Mike Rizzo. Given the number of GMs who’ve been celebrated in recent years and either found themselves fired (Omar Minaya); on the hotseat (Jack Zduriencik, Dan O’Dowd); or seen their reputations shattered (Billy Beane), Rizzo might not even be there in 2015. Manager Davey Johnson and pitching coach Steve McCatty are going along to get along, but Johnson’s style in his prior stops and the atmosphere in which he spent his formative baseball years—the Earl Weaver Orioles of Jim Palmer throwing 300+ innings—do you really think Johnson, at age 69, wants to hold back on the once-in-a-lifetime arm of Strasburg when he might be writing his ticket to the Hall of Fame with another World Series win? A win that could hinge on Strasburg being allowed to pitch? Do you believe that McCatty, who saw his own career demolished by Billy Martin’s and Art Fowler’s abuse, doesn’t understand the limits of a pitcher and when he needs to have the brakes put on? It’s inexplicable to hire qualified people to do their jobs and not let them do them; to have experienced baseball people whose in-the-trenches understanding of the game are dismissed in the interests of self-protection and “I’m not gonna be the one that’s blamed if he gets hurt.”

That’s what Rizzo is doing. It’s got nothing to do with studies or protecting the player; Rizzo is protecting himself. No one else.

The implementation of pitcher workloads has become a circular defense and is a logical fallacy. Because Jordan Zimmerman underwent the same Tommy John surgery as Strasburg and was limited to 160 innings last season, it’s presented as validation for Strasburg’s final number of 160 or so innings. But they’re two different pitchers with two different levels of talent and two different thresholds along with dozens of other variables that aren’t being publicly accounted for in the interests of a short and sweet, salable list of “reasons” to place Strasburg on the sidelines as the kid who has to take his piano lessons while the other kids in the neighborhood out enjoying the sun and playing ball.

No one’s saying to abuse him as the Cubs, chasing a dream and trying to slay ghosts, did to Kerry Wood in 1998. But to just say STOP!!! and be done with it is a different form of abuse.

Strasburg doesn’t want to have his season ended prematurely, but if the Nats get to the playoffs or World Series, he’s not going to be a participant; or if he is, it will be after a month of barely pitching. It’s ludicrous and could also hinder his career rather than save it. Strasburg has to have some recourse. Saying all the right things and being a willing accomplice are separate. If I were Strasburg and his representatives, I’d push back. Agent Scott Boras, no stranger to hardball as a former player and negotiator, knows the terrain of arm-twisting organizations in the interests of his clients. Strasburg and Boras have a large share of the say-so in this situation. The point of power is to use it. If it’s put out publicly that Strasburg won’t sign any long-term deal with the Nationals if they continue to put their constraints on his career, what’s going to happen? Strasburg could refuse to report to the club next season and force his way out of Washington; he could be a test case because the Nats are not operating in his best interests. The blowback of Strasburg tearing at his chains legally and in a public relations blitz would be fierce and Rizzo wouldn’t have a choice but to back down.

The number of great players in sports who have been part of teams that made it to the pinnacle of team achievement or came thisclose but didn’t close the deal are legion. Ernie Banks, Don Mattingly and the new Hall of Famer Ron Santo are three of dozens of examples who would’ve traded years of their careers for a title shot.

Exacerbating this travesty is that the Nationals—or simply Rizzo and Rizzo alone—didn’t take steps such as the 6-man rotation to specifically prevent the need to end Strasburg’s season in September.

It’s easy to suggest that what the Nats have built will be sustainable and they’ll have multiple opportunities to make it back again and again; that with Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman and the young pitching staff, they’ll be contenders for years to come. Facts and history say otherwise. It’s not true that they’re absolutely going to have chance after chance. Ask Dan Marino if he’s stunned by never having made it back to the Super Bowl after his sophomore season in which he demolished the NFL record books and carried the Dolphins to the NFL’s ultimate game. Then ask him if he’d have sat by quietly if the coaches and front office decided that he’s thrown too many passes after 13 games and they were sitting him down to lengthen his career. You can say it’s not the same thing, but it actually is the same thing. Strasburg is a baseball player; he’s a pitcher. Sometimes, regardless of how they’re handled and babied, they get injured as happened with Strasburg two years ago. Nothing is to be gained by sitting him down with numbers that have no basis in reality. Yet that’s what the Nats are doing and it’s not about protecting anyone other than the GM of the team, which makes it exponentially worse.

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There’s No Rift In Anaheim

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Speculation about a rift between Angels’ manager Mike Scioscia and the new GM Jerry Dipoto rose greatly when—to the displeasure of Scioscia—hitting coach Mickey Hatcher was fired earlier this week. The two are clearly not on the same page as to how a club should be run. The chain-of-command that had been present with the Angels for Scioscia’s entire tenure is broken. The slow start combined with these structural changes could lead to a parting of the ways following the season.

It’s understandable from both perspectives.

Athletes in general will try to exert their will over their titular “boss”. In today’s game, there are no managers with the cachet to do and say whatever they want; to discipline their players; to run the club as if they’re in complete command. The days of Earl Weaver ruling his Orioles with an iron fist are long gone. Back then, Weaver was going nowhere. Everyone in the Orioles clubhouse knew it and reacted accordingly. Scioscia himself spent his entire playing career with the Dodgers and Tom Lasorda who was similarly entrenched.

It’s the way it’s been with the Angels for his managerial tenure.

But with a new GM and new club construction come changes everywhere—not just in payroll and playing style. Angels’ owner Arte Moreno had businesslike intentions when he signed Albert Pujols. After signing Pujols, the Angels agreed to a lucrative television contract with Fox Sports worth $3 billion for 20 years. He’s turned the Angels into a cash machine as George Steinbrenner did with the Yankees. But in the process, Moreno unwittingly made his cohesive club into a 1980s version of the Yankees with the requisite expectations of immediate gratification and demands to “do something” if those expectations aren’t met.

Hiring Dipoto as the GM was well-received following the resignation of Tony Reagins. Reagins’s tenure is pockmarked by the disastrous trade of Mike Napoli for Vernon Wells and his public firing of respected scouting director Eddie Bane, but Reagins also did many good things as Angels’ GM by signing Torii Hunter and trading for Mark Teixeira.

DiPoto is more of a stat-based, coldly analytical GM than Reagins and his predecessor Bill Stoneman were, but he does it with scouting savvy and the ability to express himself to the media and get his point across with the various factions that permeate an organization in today’s game.

But he wasn’t an “Angel”. He didn’t come up through the ranks with the Angels. He hasn’t been working with Scioscia, nor is he a part of the Angels’ culture. A new GM brings in a new set of principles and it’s clear that Dipoto won’t adhere to the oft-heard lament, “This is how we’ve always done it.” Time will tell whether that’s right or wrong, but from Scioscia’s point-of-view, his power base is gone and with it is a large amount of the sway he held in the clubhouse as a result of being seen not just as the manager, but as a boss.

For a manager like Scioscia to have his hand-picked hitting coach fired out from under him is emasculating, but the firing also altered his perception. The same players who kept inner turmoil in house and had each other’s backs are seeing the new dynamic of me-me-me overtaking the club. And that’s not good.

In order for there to be a rift, there had to have been a connection. With Dipoto and Scioscia, they’re working together; doubtless they respect one another; but they might not be suited to a long-term partnership.

That’s what both men have to decide upon in the next four—and the Angels hope—five months. (A fifth month would mean they made the playoffs.)

Judging by the first month-and-a-half, it’s going to be four. Then the Angels’ foundation will rumble and it won’t be because of an earthquake.

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A.J. Burnett’s Yankees Epitaph

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There are some pitchers who need to be left alone.

Because pitching coaches are pitching coaches, they feel the need to jump in whenever they see something amiss or the results are lacking and adhere to mandate of “do something” even if there’s really nothing to be done other than letting the pitcher try to straighten himself out or wait for him to come and ask for help.

Upon his arrival at Pirates’ camp, A.J. Burnett made a few comments about his time with the Yankees that have been taken as criticisms of the Yankee organization.

Here’s Burnett’s quote from this piece in the Washington Post:

“I let a few too many people tinker with me, maybe,” Burnett said. “When you let that happen, you start doubting yourself sometimes. You wonder, ‘Am I doing it right? Is this how it’s supposed to feel?’ and things like that. In ‘09, nobody messed with me. I was able to do what I wanted to do on the mound, whether it was turn around, close my eyes and pitch upside down. Then you have a few bad games and you start changing and listening.”

There are absolutely pitchers who have to be hounded; some have to be cajoled; others need to be left alone. It’s up to the individual pitching coach to gauge and determine how best to unlock the potential and get the pitcher to be the best he can be or to find a way for him to get hitters out regardless of stuff.

Earl Weaver and his pitching coaches George Bamberger and Ray Miller were great at that. Weaver would spot a flaw in a pitcher, whether it was a pitch he shouldn’t be throwing or a pitch he should throw and didn’t have in his repertoire, and he’d have his pitching coach instruct him on how to throw it; if the pitcher resisted, Weaver would ask him if he wanted to be a loser all his life—but he only intervened as the enforcer and left the tactical and mechanical work to the pitching coaches.

It worked with Mike Torrez, Steve Stone and Ross Grimsley among others.

Greg Maddux openly says that Dick Pole was the pitching coach who influenced him most on his way up to the big leagues, but Pole has bounced from team to team because he insinuates himself on the manager. Some managers don’t like that.

So there’s a limit to what the pitching coach can do and much of it is contingent on the manager and the pitchers.

I’m not blaming Joe Girardi, Dave Eiland, Larry Rothschild, Mike Harkey or any of the other Yankees’ staff members for Burnett’s complaints, but because Burnett struggled with inconsistency for much of his time as a Yankee and again proved why he’s basically a .500 pitcher in spite of having all-world stuff, there could be something to Burnett’s statements. It could be that the Yankees should’ve just tossed their hands in the air and let him be rather than immediately fiddle with him. They tried everything else.

As for Burnett, if this was a problem, he should’ve expressed it earlier rather than be polite and incorporate every little suggestion he received. Tom Seaver pushed back if his pitching coaches and catchers tried to interfere with him when he felt strongly about something. Perhaps Burnett’s lack of focus and lapses in competitiveness stem from his laid back personality. If he were a little more feisty, he and the Yankees might’ve been a lot better off.

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Hammering

Books, Games, Hall Of Fame, Management, Media, Paul Lebowitz's 2011 Baseball Guide, Players, Podcasts

Scott Kazmir‘s precarious position in the Angels starting rotation got me to—again—think about why teams insist on hammering square pegs into round holes.

There are certain belief systems that have to change to maximize the talent a club has on their roster. Did anyone ever stop to think that perhaps pitchers like Kazmir and Rich Harden would be better off as relievers?

After getting past the numerical argument that a decent starter is better than a good reliever, what happens if the pitcher isn’t a decent starter anymore; or if he’s good, but can’t stay healthy? Why does there have to be this ironclad set of rules that pitcher A is a starter and he’s going to stay a starter?

Kazmir and Harden can’t stay healthy as starters; Kazmir is no longer effective as a starter—why not see if he can possibly help out of the bullpen?

An onus is placed over a player who can’t do certain things and it’s at the expense of what he can do. One of the things that made Earl Weaver a genius wasn’t his adherence to stats; it wasn’t his discipline; it wasn’t his utter ruthlessness in getting rid of players who could no longer help him win; it was his conscious decision to put his players in the best possible circumstances to succeed.

He did it with Gary Roenicke and John Lowenstein—separately they could only be described as average players at best; combined, they were one of the most devastating platoons in memory.

So why can’t Harden be placed in the bullpen to see if he can fire his power fastball and slider for an inning or two, not worry about pacing himself and hope he can stay healthy?

If he continues his downward spiral, why not stick Kazmir in the bullpen as the 7th-8th inning man—or even let him close on occasion—and see if the adrenaline rush from being a reliever and never knowing when he’s going to be needed to pitch blows his fastball back into the mid-90s?

Tony La Russa has forever been blamed for the one-inning closer because of the way he deployed Dennis Eckersley; the truth is that Eckersley pitched more than one inning regularly when he first moved to the bullpen and La Russa’s decision to use his short reliever in that manner was based on Eckersley being better that way; it was not some grand scheme that this is how it should be done.

Does anyone think that Eckersley would’ve been of more use had he stayed in the starting rotation as his career was nearly undone at age 32 because he was no longer an effective starter? He didn’t want to go to the bullpen—he had no choice—now he’s in the Hall of Fame.

With the way relievers—aside from Mariano Rivera—are so inherently unreliable, the entire fabric of how to deploy one’s pitching staff has to be overhauled; it would take a gutty front office and manager to do it, but with the new blood permeating baseball and shoving back at conformity with a flourish, someone’s going to say they’re doing it another way…eventually.

Old-school people who repeatedly reference Goose Gossage, Bruce Sutter and Dan Quisenberry as closers who were legitimate relief aces tend to forget that those great pitchers blew games too.

George Brett used to lie in wait for a Gossage high fastball because he was one of the few hitters in baseball who was quick enough to get on top of it. Other hitters with whom Gossage had trouble were fastball hitters like Champ Summers* and Richie Zisk.

*Summers was a piece of work. He was a Vietnam vet who loved—not liked—loved to fight.

In fact, when Gossage signed with the Yankees in 1978, he allowed homers in his first three appearances. It wasn’t all “lights out, ballgame over” when these pitchers came into games, selective memory and factional disputes as to eras aside.

From memory, Sutter was the reliever I feared more than any other because he’d come into a game in the sixth inning and close it out. But Sutter’s greatness was proven to be limiting as well when he left the Cardinals, signed a massive free agent contract with the then-woeful Atlanta Braves and his presence didn’t help them at all because they weren’t any good; the Cardinals won the pennant the first year without Sutter.

A team has to be complete; it has to have all the puzzle pieces arranged correctly. We don’t know what would happen with a Kazmir or Harden if they were made into relievers, but we certainly know what they currently are as starters, so why continue the charade? Why not make a career change and see if it works?

They’re not doing much good now, so what’s the difference if they fail as relievers as well?

And it just might work.

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My podcast appearance with SportsFanBuzz previewing the season is posted. You can listen here The SportsFan Buzz: March 30, 2011 or on iTunes.

I was on with Mike at NYBaseballDigest and his preview as well. You can listen here.

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Paul Lebowitz’s 2011 Baseball Guide is available and will be useful for your fantasy leagues all season long.

I published a full excerpt of my book here.

It’s available now. Click here to get it in paperback or E-Book on I-Universe or on Amazon or BN. It’s also available via E-book on Borders.com.

It’s also out on Amazon Kindle and Barnes and Noble Nook.


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Viewer Mail 3.23.2011

Books, Management, Media, Paul Lebowitz's 2011 Baseball Guide, Players, Spring Training

Jane Heller at Confessions of a She-Fan writes RE The Extra 2%:

The book sounds interesting – certainly a must-read for Rays fans.

If Jonah Keri has to rely on Rays fans and Rays fans alone to buy and read the book, he’ll have a problem with sales.

All kidding aside, this book deserves far more attention than Moneyball because it doesn’t deify the Rays front office or cast them in a light that bears no resemblance to reality. It’s not an “everything they do works because they’re smart and forward thinking while you’re stunted and stupid”; it’s “this is what they did; this is why they did it; here’s what worked and what didn’t”.

Hopefully it’ll tear another stack of bricks from under the Moneyball myth.

The Other Mike in The Bleacher Seats writes RE the Nationals, Jayson Werth and Ivan Rodriguez:

I keep forgetting about Jayson Werth’s completely laughable contract, then I read about it somewhere and my eyes pop out of my head like a cartoon character’s.

As far as Pudge goes, I think the guy’s got something left in the tank. Or maybe I just hope he does. If nothing else, I’m pulling for him to get his 3000th hit. I always loved the guy, for obvious reasons.

Speaking of cartoon characters, Pudge looks like someone inserted a pin into his entire body from when he was with the Rangers to now.

Hmmm…

Pudge can still catch and call a game; he’s a hole in the lineup, but certain teams can carry and use him.

There was an interesting piece about the Nats and their willingness to spend on MLB Trade Rumors. Zack Greinke said he was offered an $100 million extension to accept a trade to the Nationals and he turned it down because he felt the Brewers were closer to winning than the Nats.

I’m growing dubious at that belief considering everything that’s gone wrong for the Brewers so far this spring, but we’ll see.

As far as the Nats go, I have to practice what I preach. The Werth contract is insane, but my criteria for a stupid contract is when a club does something they want to do in lieu of that which they need to do. If Werth’s massive contract was going to preclude them from making other necessary improvements to the pitching staff for example, then it’s a terrible deal; but clearly owner Ted Lerner has money to spend and is going to spend it.

Who cares about the money if it’s not stopping them from going after a Greinke or after any of the free agents set to come available after this season?

If this is their strategy, the Nationals may be ready to make some legitimate noise by 2012.

Gabriel writes RE stereotypes:

I agree. Stereotypes are acceptable if that’s what the club needs, not just because it’s the default way of building a team. However, I think stereotypical players has diminished as part of the evolution of the baseball athlete. Players are better athletes than 30 years ago, which allows for players like Adrian González, Mark Teixeira and Albert Pujols, who are hitting AND fielding machines.

Attention paid to the number of runs a player is going to produce at the plate and cost in the field is a large part of it as well. There weren’t the advanced statistics attempting to count the number of runs a stone-gloved and immobile first baseman would cause 30 years ago.

Of course they’re taken out of context, accepted as unassailable and inarguable in some quarters, but there’s a tool to understanding; a team can debate whether it would’ve been worth it to sign a player like Adam Dunn—especially a National League team—considering his defensive shortcomings.

The days of “stick ‘im at first base and hide ‘im” are over no matter what Mike Francesa says.

Jeff at Red State Blue State writes RE stereotypes and Earl Weaver:

You make a good point. I get stuck in those stereotypical roles myself… thinking that’s the way it’s gotta be. But it’s baseball! It can be anything it wants! Earl was a genius… just wish he could have racked up the rings with Baltimore. People have forgotten about the Oriole Way.

Weaver’s brilliance wasn’t limited to his reliance on his strategies, but that he didn’t allow personalities to infect his decisions. He didn’t care about individual achievement or perception—if a pitcher was working on a complete game and the Orioles had a better chance to win by Weaver removing him with 2 outs in the ninth inning, he removed him with 2 outs in the ninth inning; it wasn’t personal, it was business.

He was flexible with his roster, but strict in his discipline. If he had a team with little power, he’d resort to stealing bases even though he preferred 3-run homers; when Reggie Jackson was traded to the Orioles in 1976 and arrived for the team plane looking like something out of Shaft with a turtleneck and leather jacket, he had Brooks Robinson give him a tie, then Weaver pulled Reggie—Reggie!!—aside when they got to the team hotel, screamed at him, told him who was boss and that he’d behave and dress appropriately.

The man knew how to run a team and handle baseball players.

Peter at Capitol Avenue Club writes RE players and injuries:

I think it’s the player’s job to insist he can play through pain and it’s the job of the team’s management and medical staff to determine whether or not the pain he’s playing through is manageable or if it’s going to affect his performance and/or long-term health.

It’s a fine line between insinuating a player is milking an injury or is really too hurt to play. There are the players for whom it’s clear there are ancillary issues (Carl Pavano) along with a practical disinterest in doing everything he can to get back on the field; and others who have something wrong that hasn’t been properly diagnosed.

One such case is J.R. Richard who complained of having a “dead arm” and not feeling right for much of 1980; due to his standoffish personality and team circumstances with the Astros, he was perceived to be malingering and throwing a tantrum—basically pitching when he felt like it.

All questions were answered when on July 30th of that year, Richard had a stroke—NY Times Story–PDF File.

I can’t in good conscience judge when a player is too hurt to play even if the medical staff is insisting there’s nothing wrong. In the end, you can’t force them; in certain cases, there’s an underlying and potentially life-threatening risks at play. All that can be done is to look at a player’s history and decide whether or not he’s reliable.

To implicate someone in the fabrication of a self-serving story when they may truly be hurt or have a medical problem can result in disaster.

I published a full excerpt of my book a week ago here.

The book is available now. Click here to get it in paperback or E-Book on I-Universe or on Amazon or BN. It’s also available via E-book on Borders.com.




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Stereotypes, Safe And Detrimental

Books, Management, Media, Players

Dave Cameron of Fangraphs discusses the stereotypical “types” teams search for in filling positions—link.

I disagree with much of what Cameron says and, more importantly, why he says it; I detect an agenda that he and other stat people maintain to “prove” their way is best.

In this case, the premise is somewhat sound.

I can quibble with the assertion that it’s “harder to find a good hitting shortstop than any other position on the diamond”, but it’s the battle against stereotypes that—presumably—we can agree on.

I loathe the concept that a third baseman and first baseman both have to be sluggers; plodding, immobile, two-fisted maulers can be hidden in left field or first base; that the closer has to throw very, very hard; or that immutable “rules” must be adhered to when building a club.

It’s an old-school, ignorant and safety-first method of running a team.

There are so many factors in a team’s construction that holding onto any one sacrosanct concept is ruinous. What does the club need? Do they have a pitching staff that requires solid defenders? Will the player inserted at third base or first base cost the club more runs defensively than he’d provide offensively? Can the offense carry a non-existent bat?

These are not meaningless questions and they can’t be answered with the simplistic, primordial and inane “third baseman must hit homers”.

30 years ago, shortstop was a defense-first position. Before Earl Weaver shifted Cal Ripken from third base to shortstop, the position was relegated to the Bucky Dent, Mark Belanger, Larry Bowa, Ozzie Smith-type player who was in the lineup for defense and defense alone.

Look at some of the names that played shortstop regularly back in 1982 as Ripken became a shortstop who could actually hit and hit for power: Glenn Hoffman; Alfredo Griffin; Tim Foli. Apart from Robin Yount and Alan Trammell and a few that could hit a bit like U.L. Washington, Rafael Ramirez and Bill Russell, they were primarily no-hit glovemen.

Another interesting note in Ripken’s 1982 shift to shortstop was who replaced him as the primary third baseman for those Orioles. It was a minor league journeyman named Glenn Gulliver. Gulliver couldn’t hit (.200 average with no power that year), but he could walk (his OBP was .363) and field the ball at third base.

This was the ahead-of-his-time genius of Weaver—he didn’t care about perception; he inserted Gulliver into the lineup, batted him second and took advantage of what he had: a big third baseman superstar in Ripken who was quick enough and smart enough to play shortstop and a third baseman who had attributes he could take advantage of to make the team better.

It had nothing to do with clinging to stereotypes of “how things have always been”; it had to do with the hand he was holding and how best to take advantage of it.

Be wary of anything that subverts your will like the “sposdas” because it’s those who grasp frantically at the way things are “sposda” be who sabotage and ignore the obvious even if it’s right in front of their faces.

It’s the safe and stupid option.

I published a full excerpt of my book on Wednesday here.

The book is available  now. Click here to get it in paperback or E-Book on I-Universe or on Amazon or BN. It’s also available via E-book on Borders.com.


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