A clarification, not a review, of “Astroball”

Books, MLB, Uncategorized

Luhnow

Some – not all, but some – of Astroball by Ben Reiter came about because of the author’s half-joking prediction in 2014 that the then-worst team in baseball if not one of the worst teams in baseball history, the Houston Astros, would ride their rocket scientists, mathematicians, corporate veterans and Ivy League college graduates who permeate their front office to baseball dominance and a World Series win in 2017.

The story would be interesting but not so easily salable had that freak guess not happened to come true.

But it did.

To his credit, Reiter acknowledges the lightning bolt nature of that prediction/guess/divine intervention– whatever you want to call it – coming to fruition. However, the remainder of the book serves as a love letter to the architect of the Astros’ rise, general manager Jeff Luhnow, to the degree that even his wrongs turned out to be not so wrong; even his mistakes contained a method behind the perceived madness; and any glaring gaffe stemming from arrogance, ignorance or coldblooded inhumanity could be mitigated and explained away.

As the Astros and Reiter bask in the afterglow of the achievement of their ultimate vision, it’s ironic that the relentless criticisms of the organization that had receded into the background rose again with the near simultaneous release of the book and, within 20 days, the club’s acquisition of closer Roberto Osuna who was only available from the Toronto Blue Jays because he was under suspension by Major League Baseball for an alleged domestic violence incident for which he was arrested with the case still pending in Toronto.

In one shot, the Astros regained their reputation for putting performance above people; for indicating that profit takes precedence over right and wrong.

In the immediate aftermath of the trade for Osuna, the handwringing on Twitter and outright criticism by columnists and radio hosts made it seem as if the Astros had never exhibited this type of borderline sociopathic tendencies in the past when it is precisely how they behaved to get so far, so fast. The World Series title and the narrative of how it was achieved gave them an “it worked” safety net.

Suddenly, the intriguing stories of Carlos Correa, Justin Verlander, Carlos Beltran and Sig Mejdal – for the most part, positive portrayals of generally likable people – were jolted back to the ambiguity of some of the Astros’ clever, manipulative and underhanded tactics used to achieve their ends.

What cannot be denied and was shown again with the Osuna trade is the Astros did and do treat human beings as cattle whose survival is based on nothing more than their current usefulness; that any pretense of acceptable and unacceptable behavior hinges on cost and usefulness. The book’s attempt to humanize Luhnow and his staff in contrast with the manner they run the team was immediately sabotaged by acquiring Osuna.

The big questions about “Astroball” should not center around what’s in the book, but what’s not in the book.

Those who are either not invested in the concept of the Astros’ new way of doing things being the wave of the future or did not walk into the movie when it was half over and remember exactly what happened during the reconstruction will wonder about the following:

  • How is the name Andrew Friedman mentioned once for his role as president of baseball operations for the Los Angeles Dodgers and not as Astros owner Jim Crane’s first choice to be the Astros GM – with Luhnow the second choice?
  • How is it possible that the name Jon Singleton, who received $10 million for nothing, is nowhere in the text?
  • Why were the circumstances under which manager Bo Porter was fired completely ignored and treated as part of a planned process?
  • Why was the rushed trade for Carlos Gomez a shrugged off mistake with one sentence dedicated to it?

One man’s reasonable explanation is another’s farcical alibi. Depending on one’s perspective and agenda, both can appear true.

The drafting of Brady Aiken and subsequent attempt to lowball him following an agreed-upon contract was adapted to show how brilliantly conniving Luhnow was for offering the precise bonus amount to benefit the club in the subsequent draft should Aiken reject the offer as they knew he would – in fact, there’s an attempt to make Luhnow look benevolent for how Aiken was treated.

The release of J.D. Martinez is an admitted mistake…but then-manager Porter was blamed because he only gave Martinez 18 spring training at-bats the year Martinez arrived touting a new swing as if Porter was not being told what to do and had any choice in the matter as to who played.

“He (Porter) also couldn’t fail to provide someone like J.D. Martinez enough at-bats for the organization to make an informed decision about him.” (Astroball, page 143)

Are they seriously saying that Porter did not have it hammered into his head what the front office wanted and which players were to be given a closer look; that he was not an implementer of front office mandate with little-to-no actual say-so?

The above quote is one of many in the book that provide a between-the-lines elucidation of what the entire goal of the book is: to tie all the loose ends from that 2014 prediction to the prediction coming to pass, objective truth be damned.

Porter’s firing, rather than being due to the clear insubordination and an attempt to go over Luhnow’s head to Crane regarding how the team was being run, was mystically transformed into a preplanned decision.

Porter and numerous veteran players had an issue with former first overall draft pick Mark Appel being brought to Minute Maid Park for a bullpen session with pitching coach Brent Strom to see if they could fix what ailed him. (They couldn’t.) It was then that Porter and Luhnow were at an impasse and Luhnow was right to fire him. But part of the “process”? After Porter’s hiring when Luhnow made the preposterous statement that he might manage the team for two decades? How does that work? How is this explained away other than it being ignored?

It’s these and many other subtle and not-so subtle twisting of reality that call the entire book and its contents into question on a scale of ludicrousness and goal-setting to cast the Astros in the best possible light, all stemming from that silly prediction from 2014 when it was an act comparable to casually throwing a basketball over one’s shoulder with eyes closed and somehow hitting nothing but net.

One cannot discuss “Astroball” (the figurative New Testament for the reliance on statistics in baseball) without mentioning the Old Testament, “Moneyball”.

“Moneyball” gets a passing mention as the text that kicked open the door for baseball outsiders with ideas that were once considered radical and antagonistic to baseball’s ingrained conventional orthodoxy, but the two stories are intertwined like conjoined twins for whom separation would mean unavoidable death.

Reiter takes clear steps to avoid the same mistakes Michael Lewis made in “Moneyball”. Instead of it being an overt baseball civil war where the storyline was old vs. new and Billy Beane sought to eliminate the antiquated, Luhnow is portrayed as integrating the old guard and formulating strategies to quantify their assessments.

Whereas “Moneyball” took the MLB draft and turned Beane into a “card counter”, Astroball acknowledges nuance and luck in the draft.

While ““Moneyball”” treats the postseason as an uncontrollable crapshoot, “Astroball” implies the same thing without trying to eliminate any responsibility for continually losing as the Athletics have done repeatedly.

Astroball does its best to inclusive, albeit in a borderline condescending way, while “Moneyball” sought to toss anyone not on the train under it and then, for good measure, backed over them to make sure they were dead.

To that end, Astroball is somehow more disingenuous than “Moneyball”. “Moneyball” is how the old-schoolers are truly viewed in the new-age, sabermetric circles while their extinction is pursued opaquely in Astroball, making it easier for them to carry it out.

Those invested in the story being considered true will not give an honest review, nor will they ask the questions as to why certain facts were omitted even if they know the answers.

With that, the narrative of the Astros and their rise under Luhnow and Crane presented in Astroball is complete and a vast portion of readers and observers will believe every single word of it just as they did with “Moneyball”. They get their validation. And it’s irrelevant whether that validation was the entire point, as it clearly was.

Discarding facts from the past aside, the Osuna acquisition drops an inconvenient bomb right in the middle of their glorification. It’s that wart that shows who the Astros really are. If they just admitted it, they would deserve grudging respect. They claim to care about a player’s conduct and give hedging statements as to “zero tolerance” with that “zero” only existing when he’s an Astros employee. In short, they don’t care about Osuna’s alleged domestic assault just as they didn’t care about Aiken; they didn’t care about Porter; they didn’t care about Martinez; they didn’t care about any of the people who were callously discarded because they did not fit into the tightening circle of those who believe what they believe or will agree to subvert their own preferences as a matter of survival in a world they neither know nor understand.

For those who have a general idea of what is truly happening in baseball front offices and do not take these tall tales at face value, the book is entertaining enough in a televised biopic sort of way as long the creative nonfictional aspect is placed into its proper context. That context goes right back to the 2014 “prediction” that would have been largely ignored had it not happened to come true.

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Fixing the Mets’ problems starts with two words: enough’s enough

MLB

mets.jpg

Like a gambler who walked into the casino and embarked on a searing hot streak in which he accrued a significant bankroll and then remained at the table repeatedly doubling and tripling down when it was clear that the early luck had deserted him, the Mets have squandered an 11-1 start to the season and are now under water at 27-28. To make matters worse, the cracks in the club’s foundation and worst case scenarios have become a reality. Had the season started like this with the catastrophic bullpen woes, a startling number of injuries, managerial gaffes, player underperformance and the same rampant dysfunction that has been a hallmark of the organization for much of its existence, then it might have been easier to accept it and move on. However, after tearing out of the gate and stirring hope in even the most pessimistic Mets observer, they have settled into the mediocrity most have come to expect.

It can be fixed if they accept what has gone wrong and finally – finally – take the necessary steps to make it right.

In the 2017-2018 offseason, the objective reality is that the Mets were one of the higher spending teams in terms of free agents. That’s if the acquisitions are assessed based on the money spent. Still, the signings were economical and market-related. Due to the barren free agent landscape in which so few teams were willing to spend big money and the heaviest hitters – the Yankees and Dodgers – staying predominately out of the fray to get below the luxury tax for 2019, the Mets got discounts on players who otherwise would have been out of their price range.

Jay Bruce, Todd Frazier, Anthony Swarzak, Jason Vargas – all were imported to fill holes. On paper, it made sense. Early in the season, it appeared that the club had spent wisely. As the season wore on and the injuries began, the same symptoms of the condition that has afflicted the club for that past decade recurred and they retreated to the “if this, then that” malaise with no margin for error. Until they tacitly decide to treat the condition rather than briefly arrest it so they can function for a day or two, nothing will change over the long term.

Manager Mickey Callaway was hired for multiple reasons – all of them solid. A respected pitching coach, he could work with the Mets pitchers and maximize them; having spent his career with experienced and well-regarded managers as a player (Mike Scioscia, Buck Showalter) and as a pitching coach (Terry Francona), he could not help but absorb the lessons they taught practically and theoretically; and as a younger man, he would more adept at understanding and implementing available advanced information than his predecessor Terry Collins was.

After that great start, the pitfalls of hiring a manager who has never managed before are showing. His inexperience has led to numerous strategic and verbal gaffes. He’s done things that are legitimately bizarre with the latest being the dueling press conferences where general manager Sandy Alderson focused on the positive and Callaway lamented the negative with each seemingly saying the opposite of what the other said. Not long after expressing his belief that team meetings were unnecessary, he called a team meeting. He appears frustrated and at times lost, haphazardly jumping from one tactic to the other hoping that he hits on one that works. If the Mets had a greater margin for error or a more proactive response to fixing issues, then they might be able to gloss over any flaws their new manager might have and needs to correct. But again, as has become customary, they don’t.

Mets fans do not want to hear about the Yankees. They do not want to be compared to them and they certainly don’t want to be told, “Well, the Yankees wouldn’t do it that way.” But there are times when the Mets should look at the way they Yankees operate, take notes and copy it. A prime example is how the Mets have defended and retained Mike Barwis as the senior advisor for strength and conditioning despite the litany of injuries from which the players continue to suffer.

No outsider can know how much Barwis’s methods have contributed to the Mets’ injuries. Every player has his own team of trainers and gurus, so to place the onus on one person is profoundly unfair. Regardless of fault, the overriding feeling that the Barwis program is problematic will not go away. The number of injuries – especially to players’ backs – that keep happening is a clear signal that the ongoing narrative must be interrupted. In 2007, when the Yankees were dealing with back and hamstring problems for their veteran players and they seemed to coincide with general manager Brian Cashman’s bizarre decision to hire a new strength and conditioning coordinator Marty Miller, a guy he’d found at a country club and had not worked in baseball for a decade, no one in power was overtly blaming Miller, but the Yankees acted anyway by firing him, swallowing his contract.

Whether the Mets think that Barwis is a problem or not, making a change for its own sake is neither capricious nor unfair.

The Mets have seemed satisfied with what they have and fail to go all-in to improve and ensure that they can at least contend should injuries and other stumbling blocks come up as they always do. The Astros gutted their team and accrued a litany of young, high-end talent. Once they felt they were ready to win, they started spending money and resources to buttress that young talent. The Mets have not done that to the nth degree as they could and should have.

This is not to imply that the Yankees and Astros never get it wrong, but they give themselves better coverage for being wrong because they’re willing to acknowledge those mistakes and move on from them while having the depth to handle it. It was the Astros who rushed to trade for Carlos Gomez when the Mets saw issues with his medicals as they backed out of a trade near the 2015 deadline. That trade cost the Astros Josh Hader, Domingo Santana and Brett Phillips. It was also the Astros who decided, just over a year later, that it was not going to get any better with Gomez and addition by subtraction was the best course of action. They released him.

Would the Mets have done that? Or would they have tried to squeeze every single ounce of whatever Gomez could have provided them to shun accepting that they screwed up and it was best to move on?

On May 22 of this year, the Mets marked the twenty-year anniversary of acquiring Mike Piazza from the Florida Marlins shortly after he was traded there from the Los Angeles Dodgers. Initially, when Piazza was on the trade block and it was only a matter of time before the Marlins moved him, the Mets declared that they were not interested before even getting involved with the negotiations. Then-general manager Steve Phillips went into a long diatribe about “chips,” how the Mets already had a catcher in Todd Hundley, and if they spent those chips to fill a hole they did not have, they would not have them available to fill a hole they did have.

Technically, he was correct. Those Mets, though, were dull and lacked an identity. They were good enough to contend with the caveat that everything – including Hundley returning from reconstructive elbow surgery – was predicated on hitting the bullseye with their eyes closed. When they caved to public pressure and acquired Piazza, everything changed and the Mets became a legitimate player for all the big names – all from that one deal they didn’t really want to make. Not only that, after the 1998 season, Hundley the “chip” netted them Charles Johnson and Roger Cedeno from the Dodgers. Cedeno was a key component to the Mets 1999 NLCS club and was eventually traded as part of the package to get Mike Hampton which led to the 2000 pennant; Johnson was spun immediately to the Orioles for Armando Benitez, who was predominately very good for them as a setup man and closer.

Would the Alderson Mets do these things?

Alderson was hired for his deliberate nature and that he would not behave reactively or panic as other New York general managers have. That sensibility can also be problematic. Alderson is risk averse to the point of paralysis. The hedging nature stifles creativity and has prevented the Mets from rolling the dice on players who might be superfluous and create a logjam despite the knowledge that logjams can be worked out just as the 1998 Mets did with Piazza and Hundley.

Should it be that a New York-based team is never, ever in on the big names in free agency? The Mets are never considered as an option for the brightest stars because they will not go as far as they need to go to get them. We’re not talking about Bryce Harper here. But is there a reason that the Mets should not be in on Manny Machado? Machado was mentioned as an all-but guaranteed Yankee, but the Yankees do not really need Machado now or in 2019 and beyond. As they are already having buyer’s remorse on another player they did not need, Giancarlo Stanton, are they prepared to spend money just to spend it and it could be better utilized to fill their starting pitching holes?

Even if the Yankees do get in on Machado, so what? Should the Mets recede into the background because of competition for a date to the prom from the big, bullying brother? If they make themselves attractive and offer as much if not more, there’s zero justification for them to steer clear apart from conscious choice.

And if they want to push the shaky excuse of having a shortstop in Amed Rosario and a third baseman in Todd Frazier, no one wants to hear it. Like with Piazza and Hundley, they can figure it out. If Machado is willing to go shift back to third base, Frazier can be moved to first base or traded. If Machado wants to stay at shortstop, Rosario can be moved to second base or traded. These are sticking points only because the Mets make them sticking points.

On the trade front, it’s somewhat understandable that the Mets do not get involved in the biggest names simply because they do not have the cache of prospects to allow them to trade the few marketable ones they do have. But spending money? That should not be an issue.

Yet it still is. It’s irrelevant whether that is due to the residue of the Wilpons’ financial problems post-Bernie Madoff, because Alderson does not want to spend the money, or a combination of the two.

The only time the Mets have fully invested in pursuing the top notch free agents under the Wilpon ownership was when Omar Minaya convinced them that it was necessary to do so. Not only did he pursue the likes of Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran, he proved it was not for show with Mets trying and failing, happy to come in second as if they deserved credit for it. Minaya pursued those players with a vengeance and got them. In doing so changed the image of the Mets as bystanders in the free agent market to an organization the best players would consider because they knew the Mets were serious.

The time for longwinded explanations and shrugging of the shoulders is over. It’s enough. Everyone seems to know it but them. Until that light comes on and they awaken from their slumber, they will be mocked for flaws of their own making not just because of their actions, but because of their inaction. The result is what we are seeing now. It’s not going to change unless they too say enough’s enough.

Aiken’s injury doesn’t validate the Astros

MLB

While there are factions using the news of the apparent injury to unsigned former Houston Astros first round, first overall draft pick Brady Aiken to validate general manager Jeff Luhnow’s plan, the truth is that this neither reflects on Aiken, nor does it justify the Astros’ brutal attempt to reduce the bonus Aiken was offered after an issue was seen on Aiken’s elbow in his post-draft medical examination.

This story is being used to its maximum benefit by those who are invested in the success of the Astros’ blueprint of ruthless adherence to running the club as a business, setting lines on how much they spend, and defying conventional wisdom to the degree of risking a top prospect being lost with their attempts to allocate money wisely.

Of course, each side will have its own version of events and try to spin it to its best advantage. The problem the Astros face in running the club as a business is that a conventional business isn’t under the public scrutiny that a sports organization is with real time criticism and a lack of accountability for those making their critiques. No one’s going to apologize either way. They’ll gloat or stay silent, but the arrogance and egomania that comes with being a self-proclaimed “expert” hinders any real analysis as to the turn of events.

In a broader context, when it comes to immediate reaction, long-term assessment, hindsight and a grudging acknowledgement of having been right, this situation is similar to what happened with the Boston Red Sox, Roger Clemens and Dan Duquette after the 1996 season.

Duquette stayed silent after setting an amount he was willing to pay to keep Clemens with the Red Sox as he entered free agency season and let the pitcher depart to the Toronto Blue Jays. Clemens won two Cy Young Awards in Toronto, was traded to the New York Yankees and signed as a free agent with the Astros, winning two more. He was a prime example of the value of hard work and determination.

All the while Duquette kept quiet, endured the glares from Clemens and the overt hatred of his club’s media contingent and fan base not just for allowing Clemens to leave and denigrating him by saying he was in the “twilight” of his career, but watching as Clemens went to the hated Yankees, won the World Series that – to that point – had still eluded the Red Sox, and maintaining the dull, passionless monotone that indicated he didn’t care about baseball in the visceral way that was a hallmark of being involved with the Red Sox.

Through what was promoted as a dedication to an intense workout regimen, a laser-like focus to one’s craft and a determination to prove Duquette wrong, Clemens set the standard for a late-career renaissance, defying age and predictions of a decline with a high-level performance into his 40s.

Of course, in retrospect, it was all a lie. Clemens is widely believed to have achieved his late-career heights through a combination of pitching knowledge, hard workouts and a significant amount of performance enhancing drugs. Duquette’s failures with the Red Sox are now viewed in a different light. He was moderately successful given the circumstances. For laying a large part of the foundation he gets lukewarm credit from those who portray John Henry as the club’s savior and Theo Epstein as the youthful genius and architect of the Red Sox three championship teams from 2004 to 2013 since it was Duquette who traded for Pedro Martinez, Jason Varitek and Derek Lowe, signed Manny Ramirez, and drafted Kevin Youkilis.

Ironically as Clemens plummeted in the eyes of the public and became a baseball pariah – he settled his defamation lawsuit with former trainer, whistleblower and PED provider Brian McNamee just this week – Duquette has gone from a running joke who couldn’t get a job in Major League Baseball to winning Executive of the Year as Baltimore Orioles general manager, rebuilding the team back to relevance after years of embarrassment as a wasteland for over-the-hill veterans desperate for a job and final payday, and was the main target to take over as president of the aforementioned Blue Jays.

1996 seems like a long time ago because it is a long time ago. But it’s a long time ago both literally and figuratively. While Clemens was at the height of his powers and a testament to his love of baseball, competing and greatness, Duquette was viewed as someone who would never again helm a big league team.

Duquette never gloated publicly, but he didn’t have to. In the end, all the vitriol, hatred and criticism is meaningless because in hindsight, he won.

The point of all this isn’t just to point out how Clemens rose and Duquette fell after that fateful decision to let Clemens leave the Red Sox and Duquette’s honest statement that he didn’t believe the then-34-year-old was ever going to regain his dominance. It’s that the perspective of being “right” or “vindicated” can’t be known until the story is told – truthfully and in its entirety – as to what really happened.

The reality of the Aiken situation isn’t linked to prescience on the part of the Astros. If that were the case, why did they only reduce the offer upon which they had a principal agreement with Aiken from $6.5 million to $5 million? Was that an amount of money they felt comfortable blowing on an injured pitcher just to save face for drafting him first overall? And if face-saving is the objective, what does that say about their attachment to numbers and business principles?

The Astros, by then, must have been keenly aware that they’d blown $3.25 million on Jesse Crain, not receiving one single pitch from him in the minors or majors.

The money wasn’t the issue.

The fact is they saw an opportunity for themselves to save that $1.5 million, sign two other players they wanted – Mac Marshall and Jacob Nix – and get Aiken at a discount. If Aiken signed and needed Tommy John surgery, so what? The vast proportion of pitchers who have the ligament replacement procedure are not only able to come back, but they come back even better than they were before. For a pitcher like Aiken who was compared to Clayton Kershaw and who Astros scouts said had a chance to be one of the best pitchers in the history of the game, $6.5 million is a minuscule amount to pay when calculating all the factors into the equation. If they were really worried, why didn’t they do what the Texas Rangers did with R.A. Dickey after he was a first round draft pick who, it was discovered, didn’t have the ulnar collateral ligament in his arm at all and lower his bonus at the same percentage the Rangers did when they reduced Dickey’s offer from more than $800,000 to $75,000?

They wanted Aiken. They wanted Nix. They wanted Marshall. The elbow might have been a slight worry, but it wasn’t so terrible that they walked away from the player. In the end, they might have been right to be concerned, but they weren’t right because of the concerns. They were simply trying to be clever and may have been justified by Aiken getting hurt.

Those among the Astros and in their media and fan base who are doing a full 180 and chortling over Aiken’s misfortune and the Astros’ foresight probably shouldn’t be too impressed with themselves. After their first several years of being shielded by the stat-centric media like some (sober) Secret Service and a fanatical fan base buying into the talking points as if they’re gospel presented from the baseball Gods like a hypnotized constituency hoping and praying that they’ll benefit in the end, the clock is finally ticking on Luhnow and his staff. They have to show on-field improvement this year or there will be a call for changes in the front office and how they conduct business. The Aiken injury might give them some breathing space, but not much and not for the right reasons.

In the next decade, we’ll see who was smarter and whether or not Aiken fulfills the promise or winds up flaming out as a broken down bust. The Astros and their remaining avid supporters would be better-served to keep their mouths shut in public and in private rather than celebrating over an injury to an 18-year-old as a means to prove that they were “right” and hammer home the rightness of a plan that is still yet to yield any tangible, on-field benefits.

Ryan Vogelsong’s experience with the Astros has a familiar ring

MLB

Even though Brady Aiken and Ryan Vogelsong are at radically different stages of their careers, there’s a damning similarity to their dealings with the Houston Astros. They didn’t sign for basically the same reason – team concerns about their physicals and an attempt on the part of the organization to get a financial discount because of them – and their situations are comparable in the amount of damage that can be done to the organization over the long and short term because of the fallout.

At first glance, the Astros’ failure to sign 2014 first overall draft pick Aiken will be viewed as the bigger gaffe and could be exponentially more ruinous to the organization than their failure to sign the veteran free agent righty Vogelsong. This is especially true if Aiken develops into anything close to the pitcher Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow compared him to, Clayton Kershaw, when he’s drafted again this June. However, it would be unwise to dismiss the failure to sign Vogelsong as meaningless especially with the revelation as to why a deal suddenly came apart with Vogelsong going back to his former team, the San Francisco Giants, and implying that the negotiations broke down in a manner that the veteran Vogelsong had never seen and couldn’t believe.

The careers trajectories of Aiken and Vogelsong couldn’t be more diametrically opposed. As a pending first round draft pick, Aiken will be given every opportunity to make it to and stick in the Major Leagues until his arm turns to shreds. Vogelsong bounced from team to team and country to country trying to find a place where he could make the most of an opportunity and he did so with the Giants.

The real story that Vogelsong cryptically alluded to at the time of the breakdown of negotiations is that the Astros repeated the process with him that they did with Aiken: after coming to an unofficial agreement on a contract, they spotted issues in his physical that led to an attempt to reduce the value of the deal. Like Aiken, Vogelsong chose not to sign. The loss of Aiken culminated in the failure to sign other draft picks – Mac Marshall and Jacob Nix – who were set to be signed but whose deals were contingent on the singing of Aiken. Like unintentional and unexpected collateral destruction, once Aiken’s deal collapsed, so too did the deals with the other two draftees. The Astros looked petty and foolish adding to the implication that they don’t know how to treat people or do know how to treat people, but just don’t care to do so. The constant upheaval, repeated firings, exodus of marginalized employees and total lack of humanity has left Luhnow and his staff needing to show dramatic improvement in 2015 to validate their method of running the franchise. The sense of urgency to succeed is increasing as their image tumbles.

The Astros are a very data-centric organization with a wealth of highly intelligent people in charge. The fact that their resumes are impressive when it comes to numbers, formulas, education and degrees and that they’ve become media darlings in certain circles for their unabashed immersion into sabermetrics and constant search for new innovations to achieve their goals doesn’t make them people savvy and it doesn’t make them street smart.

Given his rise from a career in the business world as the president of marketing for Petstore.com among other positions, it’s a legitimate question as to whether Luhnow truly understands that an athlete who has reached the pinnacle of his profession isn’t the equivalent of a damaged box of kitty litter, a display shoe, a piece of meat that is close to its expiration date, or a used car. You can’t get a discount because of a slight amount of wear and tear on a human being, especially one who can go somewhere else and get the money he wants.

The last two analogies are perfectly fitting for the way the Astros are acting. Trying to get a discount on Vogelsong is the equivalent of a ruthless assessment of any veteran athlete as a piece of meat close to being past its sell-by date. Calling Luhnow a used car salesman is also apropos given the questionable manner in which he runs his operation, uses slick and ambiguous terminology, and treats people as if they’re fungible pieces to be discarded at his convenience.

While there’s a logical explanation for them to have tried to reduce the amount they were set to pay Vogelsong and Aiken, it won’t be seen in the same logical context by players and agents. Perhaps the club is so scarred by the $3.25 million they donated to Jesse Crain in 2014, receiving a nice round number of innings (zero), that the front office decided they’d never repeat that mistake again no matter who the player was. Maybe owner Jim Crane made it a point to tell Luhnow that he’s not in the habit of tossing that amount of money into the toilet and it had better not happen again. Or maybe their attempt to remake baseball into an entity that is on a similar plane with your regular run-of-the-mill corporation and will treat their employees as if their skills are eminently replaceable is clouding their judgment and hindering the reality that the number of people who can play Major League Baseball is minuscule compared to finding a mid-level employee to replace another mid-level employee to work at Petstore.com.

The Astros are trying to run their club in a manner identical to how a conventional business does. But baseball is not a conventional business. While some aspects of what Luhnow did at his jobs outside the realm of baseball are applicable and can be transferred, others can’t. They’re trying to save money, but what they’re actually doing is costing themselves more money in the long run when they try to sign veteran players who have options. The situation in which they’ve placed themselves will limit them to a certain type of player who: has nowhere else to go; will sign with the Astros for a short-term deal knowing that he’ll get a chance to play to replenish or establish value; they have to overpay to get. This past off-season, they had the high offer on the table for Andrew Miller and he decided to go to the New York Yankees for substantially less money. Was that because of the Yankees’ history? Probably yes…in part. But did the Astros’ image throughout baseball also influence Miller? Obviously.

Vogelsong can express himself intelligently, is well-liked by other players, isn’t known as a complainer and has been everywhere from coast to coast and even in Japan trying to establish himself. For him to say that the Astros’ behavior was unbelievable that it would shock others when he told the story will carry some weight. Add in that it wasn’t just Vogelsong they’ve done this too and it becomes a pattern of behavior that could be a problem for them going forward.

Veterans will avoid them for their treatment of Vogelsong. Amateurs will take note of what they did to Aiken and rue the day they’re forced to deal with the organization. This isn’t nitpicking over a way an organization does business, it’s an issue that they’ve cultivated with their borderline anti-social, inhuman view of players. That reputation is nearly impossible to shake. Winning a few games in 2015 will help, but the difficulty of the American League West and that they’re relying on so many young players doesn’t guarantee they’ll improve much, if at all, from the 70 wins in 2014.

While they have all the explanations for their tactics at the ready, they’re missing out on the fact that there’s no complicated MIT-level algorithm to calculate the devaluation their organization might suffer from due to negative reputations and whispers that are clearly going on with players, agents, and baseball people worldwide. Players talk. Agents talk. No player wants to be viewed as a necessary evil to achieve the front office’s ends, but that’s exactly how the Astros treat their players. The Vogelsong incident is more evidence.

Crane’s Astros expectations: positive vibes or implied threats?

MLB

Houston Astros owner Jim Crane expects his club to make the playoffs this year.

Well, he thinks they can make the playoffs.

It’s a goal.

Or he believes they’ll make the playoffs this year.

Perhaps it would be better stated to say they’d better make the playoffs this year.

He didn’t say “or else” but it’s clearly implied. Crane’s growing impatience and ambiguous statements as to what he thinks the Astros are going to accomplish this season are having a blatant influence in his front office expediting their veteran acquisitions to try and get better in a hurry in 2015. The hurry that Crane is in might not correspond to what his hand-picked front office led by general manager Jeff Luhnow had in mind when he started the teardown to an expansion-level entity and that, along with the variety of missteps that Luhnow has made in his time as GM, could lead to major structural changes if the team doesn’t show enough improvement to suit Crane.

Going from 72 wins to 82 wins would constitute a marked improvement. It’s unlikely in the American League West. Combine that with Crane’s clear edict to make a playoff run and this team is in trouble before spring training starts. His expectations are not reasonable even with their acquisitions and moderate improvements. And that’s the problem that the organization faces in trying to placate the owner and sell a media and fan base on believing the unbelievable. Faith is one thing, delusion is another. Right now, the owner is deluded.

Even staunch supporters of the front office are looking at this winter with confusion as to what the plan is and whether it’s changed. Surrendering two of their top ten minor league prospects – Michael Foltynewicz and Rio Ruiz – as part of the package to land Evan Gattis was puzzling and indicative that the speed with which the team is trying to get better doesn’t coincide with what the stat guys in the front office would have preferred.

That seems to stem from ownership edict.

While Crane might understand that winning in baseball or sports in general is not a simple matter of improving one’s farm system with high draft picks, by trading veterans for other teams’ top prospects, and acquiring useful veteran players when the time is right, that realization is in conflict with the hammering he’s taken since he bought the team. After three years of telling the fans to wait with the justification for their patience being prospect handbooks and nods of approval in the stat-centric faction of the media, it’s still not enough to yield on-field results greater than going from 107 losses in 2012 to 90 in 2014.

Yes, they’re younger. Yes, they’re cheaper. But are they ready to contend as Crane is openly stating he wants them to? And how much is their front office’s plan being damaged by the none-too-subtle influence from the owner that he wants noticeable results sooner than they would otherwise have had if they’d stayed the course and not made these questionable deals like trading for Gattis and Luis Valbuena and signing Luke Gregerson, Pat Neshek and Jed Lowrie?

The problem with diving headfirst into the management style of Luhnow with his coldblooded adherence to numbers and clumsy handling of any issue that requires a touch of humanity is that there was always that chance that it wouldn’t be one smooth rise from dreadful to dreaded.

Can they achieve the heights that Crane expects this season? If everything goes exactly right and every single move they made works perfectly, then they can hover around the fringes of contention as they’re currently constructed. In today’s game, the “fringes of contention” doesn’t mean what it did 20 years ago when that meant a team that won 88 to 93 games might not make the playoffs. The term today means that the team might win 81 games and have a chance in late September to steal a Wild Card spot. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not the definition of a prototypical “playoff contender.”

It’s easy to say that if Crane was going to go so far against the grain of what was conventional in baseball that he had to fully commit to it for a full five years. But as the extremely wealthy people who own sports franchises quickly learn, their critics are not intimidated by their wealth and success as those who they’re doing business with are; they don’t bow to the dollar as politicians do; and they don’t care if a person has made billions by creating, building or investing. That can lead to shellshock and reactive maneuvering, which is what appears to be happening with the Astros as they pivot into what the owner expects will be a contender when that likelihood is moderate at best.

Their margin for error is nonexistent and, given what the owner wants, so is that of Luhnow and his staff. If this doesn’t work, then it’s clear that the owner is going to make changes. They might be nuanced to a more conventional baseball approach with an sprinkling of people who are not running their teams by the numbers and a stripping of Luhnow’s nearly all-encompassing power. Or it could be drastic with an influx of people who are old-school baseball people led by someone whose hiring as a powerful baseball voice in his organization will automatically take the heat off the owner: Nolan Ryan.

To think that this team will be a playoff contender in the American League West and pronounce that to the public is an owner putting his front office into a terrible position in which they’ll be blamed if it doesn’t work. But maybe that’s what he wants. Maybe he’d like to make a change and doesn’t want to take the blame for a strategy that didn’t work. So he’ll make this demand in the face of all realism and then make the changes with the justification that he currently doesn’t have. He doesn’t want to take the blame even though, in the end, he’s the one who’s responsible because he’s the one who gave Luhnow the green light to do what he did at the start, then forced his hand to alter the template before it was wise to do so.

American League Remaining Schedule and Playoff Chance Analysis

2013 MLB Predicted Standings, Ballparks, Football, Games, History, Management, Media, Players, Playoffs, Stats, World Series

Let’s take a look at the remaining schedules for all the teams still in the hunt for an American League playoff berth.

Boston Red Sox

Record: 89-58; 15 games remaining

Current Position: First Place by 9.5 games, American League East

Remaining Schedule: 1 game at Rays; 3 games vs. Yankees; 3 games vs. Orioles; 3 games vs. Blue Jays; 2 games at Rockies; 3 games at Orioles

The Red Sox have the best record in the American League by five games. They’re going to have a significant say in which team gets the second Wild Card given their six games against the Orioles and four against the Yankees. They’re not going to lay down as evidenced by manager John Farrell’s somewhat odd – but successful – decision last night to use Koji Uehara is a tie game that meant nothing to them. I’m wondering if Farrell has received advice from Patriots coach Bill Belichick on going for the throat at all costs because it was a Belichick move.

They don’t seem to have a preference as to whether they knock out the Yankees, Rays or Orioles. They’re playing all out, all the way.

Oakland Athletics

Record: 84-61; 17 games remaining

Current Position: First Place by 3 games, American League West

Remaining Schedule: 1 game at Twins; 3 games at Rangers; 3 games vs. Angels; 4 games vs. Twins; 3 games at Angels; 3 games at Mariners

The A’s lead the Rangers by three games and have three games with them this weekend. Strength of schedule can be a dual-edged sword. This isn’t the NFL, but teams whose seasons are coming to a disappointing close are just as likely to get some motivation by playing teams that have something to play for as they are to bag it and give up. The Angels have played better lately and the Mariners can pitch.

Detroit Tigers

Record: 84-62; 16 games remaining

Current Position: First Place by 6.5 games, American League Central

Remaining Schedule: 3 games vs. Royals; 4 games vs. Mariners; 3 games vs. White Sox; 3 games vs. Twins; 3 games vs. Marlins

The Tigers’ upcoming schedule is pretty weak and they have a good cushion for the division. They can’t coast, but they can relax a bit.

Texas Rangers

Record: 81-64; 17 games remaining

Current Position: Second Place by 3 games, American League West; lead first Wild Card by 3.5 games

Remaining Schedule: 3 games vs. Athletics; 4 games at Rays; 3 games at Royals; 3 games vs. Astros; 4 games vs. Angels

The Rangers are in jeopardy of falling out of the playoffs entirely if they slip up over the next ten games. All of those teams have something to play for and the Rangers have been slumping.

Tampa Bay Rays

Record: 78-66; 18 games remaining

Current Position: Second Place by 9.5 games, American League East; lead second Wild Card by 1 game

Remaining Schedule: 1 game vs. Red Sox; 3 games at Twins; 4 games at Rangers; 4 games at Orioles; 3 games at Yankees; 3 games at Blue Jays

With the way they’re currently playing (think the 2007 Mets) they’re not going to right their ship in time to make the playoffs. They’d better wake up. Fast.

New York Yankees

Record: 78-68; 16 games remaining

Current Position: Third Place by 10.5 games; 1 game behind for the second Wild Card

Remaining Schedule: 1 game at Orioles; 3 games at Red Sox; 3 games at Blue Jays; 3 games vs. Giants; 3 games vs. Rays; 3 games at Astros

There’s a reluctance to say it, but the Yankees are better off without this current version of Derek Jeter. He was hurting the team offensively and defensively. Their problem has nothing to do with schedules or how they’re playing, but with age and overuse. They’re hammering away with their ancient veterans for one last group run. Mariano Rivera is being repeatedly used for multiple innings out of necessity; Alex Rodriguez is hobbled; David Robertson is pitching hurt; Shawn Kelley isn’t 100 percent; Andy Pettitte is gutting his way through. If they’re in it in the last week, will there be any gas left in their collective tanks?

Cleveland Indians

Record: 77-68; 17 games remaining

Current Position: Second Place by 6.5 games, American League Central; 1.5 games behind for the second Wild Card

Remaining Schedule: 4 games at White Sox; 3 games at Royals; 4 games vs. Astros; 2 games vs. White Sox; 4 games at Twins

The White Sox are playing about as badly as the Astros without the excuse of lack of talent/innocent youth. They just don’t seem to care. The Indians’ schedule pretty much guarantees they’ll at least be alive in the last week of the season.

Baltimore Orioles

Record: 77-68; 17 games remaining

Current Position: Fourth Place by 11 games, American League East; 1.5 games behind for the second Wild Card

Remaining Schedule: 1 game vs. Yankees; 3 games at Blue Jays; 3 games at Red Sox; 4 games at Rays; 3 games vs. Blue Jays; 3 games vs. Red Sox

The Red Sox are taking great, sadistic pleasure in hampering the playoff hopes of anyone and everyone and have shown no preference in who they’re beating on. This will hurt and/or help the Orioles. The big games to watch are those four with the Rays.

Kansas City Royals

Record: 77-69; 16 games remaining

Current Position: Third Place by 7 games, American League Central; 2 games behind for the second Wild Card

Remaining Schedule: 3 games at Tigers; 3 games vs. Indians; 3 games vs. Rangers; 3 games at Mariners; 4 games at White Sox

I’d like to see the Royals make the playoffs because: A) they’re a likable young team; B) we need some new blood in the post-season; and B) the likes of Rany Jazayerli, Rob Neyer, Joe Sheehan and the rest of the stat-obsessed “experts” who live to bash the Royals will either have to admit they’re wrong (unlikely) or will join together to play a disturbing game of middle-aged men Twister (hopefully clothed) to justify why they were “right” even though Dayton Moore’s moves worked and the Royals leapt into contention and more.

It will be nice having an experienced arm like James Shields for a one-game Wild Card playoff or for the first game of the ALDS. I have a feeling about the Royals making the playoffs. And it’s gonna be funny.




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Blame Joba?

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You can’t blame both Joe West and Joba Chamberlain for last night’s Yankees loss to the Red Sox. When seeking a responsible party, Mariano Rivera also has to be part of the mix. But since that’s not allowed in Yankee-centric circles, the focus turns away from Rivera to the reviled Chamberlain and the cranky veteran ump West.

There were concession speeches going on when Chamberlain was seen warming up in the bottom of the ninth inning. Not even Michael Kay could muster any enthusiasm – phony or otherwise – to show a small positive notion that Chamberlain would do anything more than what he did: give up a run to lose the game. He gave up the run and took the loss, but it’s not entirely his fault.

It really wasn’t that long ago when there were “Joba Rules” T-shirts all over Yankee Stadium; concerns were expressed that then-manager Joe Torre would abuse Chamberlain as he did Scott Proctor and other relievers to ruin his incredible arm; and near fistfights and lunatic rants as to whether Chamberlain should be a starter or reliever were a daily occurrence and went on for years.

It’s 2013 and rather than swat the Cleveland midges that partially defined Chamberlain’s 2007 coming-out party, he’s gotten so heavy that he simply would eat them to add to his prodigious girth. The Yankees and their fans can’t wait until he’s some other team’s problem. The story has come 75 percent of the full circle.

The midges are an appropriate allegory for Chamberlain’s career with the Yankees. It was sabotaged and missed being something special. Who knows what would have happened had Chamberlain been placed in the starting rotation and allowed to pitch and figure things out on his own rather than be subject to the stifling and counterproductive innings limits and pitch counts that ruined not only him, but Phil Hughes as well? What could he have been if he’d been placed in the bullpen as Rivera’s set-up man and allowed to do his job in the same devastating fashion he did when he was a sensation for two months in 2007?

As the years passed and the Yankees jerked him from the rotation to the bullpen and back, as Chamberlain himself ate and trampolined his way out of the club’s and fans’ good graces, he’s become the “Oh God, no” pitcher that no one with anything invested in the Yankees wants to see. Last night’s result was what was expected, but it wasn’t due to anything Chamberlain did. While the Shane Victorino check-swing was viewed as so cut-and-dried that it was portrayed an obvious swing and Chamberlain got himself ejected for arguing it after he was pulled from the game, it wasn’t so blatant that the entire episode should be placed at the feet of West.

After the check-swing, Victorino hit a looping single to right field to score Jacoby Ellsbury. Right fielder Ichiro Suzuki’s throw to the plate would’ve been in time to get Ellsbury had catcher Austin Romine held onto it. How are any of the events subsequent to the check-swing Chamberlain’s or West’s fault?

Chamberlain is immature and was damaged by the way the Yankees anointed and babied him since his debut. That said, he still throws a fastball that reaches the upper-90s and has a hard slider that will accumulate a lot of strikeouts if he’s simply allowed to pitch without all the hovering hatred and preordained negativity that follows him around as long as he wears pinstripes. He’s going to go somewhere next season, either be a set-up man or closer and rejuvenate his value simply because that’s what happens with pitchers the Yankees have played up as their homegrown saviors and are tormented and dispatched when they don’t produce results commensurate with the overwhelming expectations.

Don’t be surprised to see both Hughes and Chamberlain with a team like the Marlins on cheap deals and pitching well. Or for Chamberlain to be the Astros closer. Or for the Rays to try to do what they did with Kyle Farnsworth and Fernando Rodney, give Chamberlain the chance to close and coax 50 saves out of him. Then the fans will turn their ire away from Chamberlain to the Yankees themselves for not getting out of him what another team will. He can be of use. It just won’t be as a Yankee and for that, much like last night’s loss, there’s plenty of blame to go around.




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MLB Inches Closer Toward The Trading Of Draft Picks

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The trades that were completed yesterday were a distraction for a slow day. Righty pitcher Scott Feldman was traded from the Cubs along with catcher Steve Clevenger to the Orioles for righty pitchers Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop and cash. The cash in a trade is usually to offset contracts or provide a sweetener to complete a deal, but in this case the cash is international bonus money that the Cubs will use to accrue extra wiggleroom to sign free agents. They also acquired more bonus pool money from the Astros in exchange for minor leaguer Ronald Torreyes. They traded away some of that money in sending Carlos Marmol and cash to the Dodgers for veteran reliever Matt Guerrier.

The trades are secondary to the money exchanges. You can read about the ins-and-outs of why the Cubs, Dodgers and Astros did this here and the details of trading bonus slot money here. What the shifting around of money says to me is that MLB is experimenting with the concept of trading draft picks, something I’ve long advocated. That they’re trying to implement an international draft to shackle clubs’ hands even further from spending makes the trading of draft picks more likely.

With the increased interest in the MLB draft, one of the only ways to turn it into a spectacle that will function as a moon to the NFL draft’s sun and NBA’s Earth is to allow teams to trade their picks. Because amateur baseball pales in comparison to the attention college football and college basketball receive; because the game of baseball is so fundamentally different when making the transition from the amateurs to the pros, there is a finite number of people who watch it with any vested interest and a minimum percentage of those actually know what they’re looking at with enough erudition to accurately analyze it. It’s never going to be on a level with a Mel Kiper Jr. sitting in the ESPN draft headquarters knowing every player in the college ranks and being able to rattle off positives, negatives and why the player should or shouldn’t have been drafted where he was with it having a chance to be accurate. MLB tries to do that, but it’s transparent when John Hart, Harold Reynolds and whoever else are sitting around a table in an empty studio miraculously proclaiming X player of reminds them of Bryce Harper, Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, Matt Harvey, Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez or Dustin Pedroia when they’ve seen (or haven’t seen) a five second clip of him; when Bud Selig takes his mummified steps to the podium to announce the names of players he couldn’t recognize if they were playing in the big leagues now. And don’t get me started on the overall ludicrousness of Keith Law.

There’s no comparison between baseball and the other sports because in baseball, there’s a climb that has to be made after becoming a professional. In football and basketball, a drafted player automatically walks into the highest possible level of competition. With a top-tier pick, the football and basketball player isn’t just a member of the club, but he’s expected to be a significant contributor to that club.

With baseball, there’s no waste in a late-round draft pick because there’s nothing to waste. Some players are drafted to be organizational filler designed to complete the minor league rosters. If one happens to make it? Hey, look who the genius is for finding a diamond in the rough! Except it’s not true. A player from the 20th round onward (and that’s being generous) making it to the majors at all, let alone becoming a star, is a fluke. But with MLB putting such a focus on the draft, that’s the little secret they don’t want revealed to these newly minted baseball “experts” who started watching the game soon after they read Moneyball and thinks a fat kid who walks a lot for a division III college is going to be the next “star.” Trust me, the scouts saw that kid and didn’t think he could play. That’s why he was drafted late if he was drafted at all. There’s no reinventing of the wheel here in spite of Michael Lewis’s hackneyed and self-serving attempts to do so.  Yet MLB draft projecting has blossomed into a webhit accumulator and talking point. There’s a demand for it, so they’ll sell it regardless of how random and meaningless it truly is.

So what does all this have to do with the trading of the bonus slot money? MLB allowing the exchange of this money will give a gauge on the public reaction and interest level to such exchanges being made to provide market research as to the expanded reach the trading of draft picks would yield. If there’s a vast number of websearches that lead MLB to believe that it’s something that can spark fan fascination, then it’s something they can sell advertising for and make money. It’s a test case and once the results are in, you’ll see movement on the trading of draft picks. It’s a good idea no matter how it happens. Now if we can only do something to educate the masses on how little Keith Law knows, we’ll really be getting somewhere.

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Dusty Baker Has No Leverage With The Stat People

Games, History, Management, Media, Players, Stats

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Rethinking the GM, Part III—American League West

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

Texas Rangers

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

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

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

Oakland Athletics

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

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

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

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

Los Angeles Angels

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

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

Seattle Mariners

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

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

Houston Astros

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

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

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