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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The Mets, Mickey Callaway and whether 100 losses automatically costs the manager his job

MLB, Uncategorized

Mets

By now, any realistic fan, media member, indifferent observer and anyone in between who has paid attention to the nose dive of the New York Mets must realize that there’s no recovering from it and they’re either going to lose 100 games or will come close to it. Since the team has come undone and general manager Sandy Alderson has stepped away due to a recurrence of cancer and he all but said that he will not return, the focus has been on how the Mets might function under the tri-headed interim GM of John Ricco, J.P. Ricciardi and Omar Minaya.

A background note is the status of manager Mickey Callaway.

One can only guess how the Mets season would have proceeded as they sat at 12-2 and let a five-run eighth inning lead against the Washington Nationals slip away with five outs to go and Jacob deGrom on the mound. About to go 13-2 and beat the reeling Nats for the fourth straight time, right there was the season-changer. Callaway’s poor choice of words in the aftermath of the bullpen implosion, saying what was clearly in the back of his mind with the word “tailspin”, only exacerbates the missed opportunity for 2018.

But that’s irrelevant now.

For those who are defending Callaway by saying this isn’t his fault and he should not take the fall for a flawed, injury-prone and shorthanded roster, nor for the dysfunctional organization and mediocre at best farm system, they have a point. That said, while he is not the problem, he is a problem. His strategic gaffes, total lack of awareness of what to do next, and borderline delusional statements when speaking to the media cannot be ignored when assessing whether he should return or even finish out the season.

Should the Mets lose 100 games or close to it with a new GM coming in, the manager will be a point of contention. Further muddling the Callaway situation is the looming presence of Joe Girardi as he waits for another opportunity to manage. Were Girardi – a true star manager – not available, it’s an easy argument to pardon Callaway and leave him alone with this as a learning experience, hoping he’ll be better for it. But like the question as to what would have happened had the Mets won that fateful game against the Nationals, reality is what it is. They lost and Callaway appears in over his head to the degree that he could feel a certain sense of relief should the Mets pull the plug.

Girardi will not turn this current team around, but he’s a known quantity in New York and throughout baseball with a winning pedigree that goes beyond being the Yankees manager and accruing wins, but by either achieving what the talent on his rosters said they should achieve or drastically overachieving based on talent available. He’s a selling point for the organization to say they’re not tolerating the status quo and are taking steps to alter their image.

The situation begs the question of whether 100 losses should automatically cost the manager his job. The answer is not a simple yes or no. The circumstances largely dictate what an organization should and will do. If it is a proven manager and there are mitigating circumstances as to how they fell so far, the manager gets a break.

While they did not lose 100 games in 2017, the San Francisco Giants and Bruce Bochy fall into this category. Bochy did not get fired after the Giants – team with which he won three World Series – lost those 98 games. He has built up enough capital in his near quarter-century as a manager to know what he is.

Teams that set out to lose 100 games by tanking cannot justifiably blame the manager if he succeeds in their unacknowledged goal by losing those 100 games. However, some managers are simply placeholders until the team is ready to contend when a preferable or proven manager will be hired. Dale Sveum lost 101 games for the Chicago Cubs in Theo Epstein’s first year running the club and it was by intent. Sveum had been a popular managerial contender and, in an almost impossible situation with the Milwaukee Brewers when he replaced Ned Yost in September of 2008, brought the Brewers to the Wild Card before losing. Sveum lasted another season with the Cubs before he was fired. Epstein cited various concerns in firing Sveum and they went beyond the club’s record. The team was undeniably awful, but the manager was still held accountable. Epstein is notably ruthless and discarded Sveum’s replacement, Rick Renteria, when Joe Maddon came available.

In his first managing job with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Maddon himself oversaw back to back seasons where he lost a combined 197 games. The organization was undergoing a radical change with a new ownership and pure outsiders, led by Andrew Friedman, running the baseball operations. Using financial terms like “arbitrage”, the Devil Rays – newly christened the “Rays” for 2008 – simply let the roster fulfill its logical conclusion without taking overt steps to improve it in 2006 and 2007. Since the roster was horrible, they lost a lot of games by natural selection. Maddon was hired as part of the solution and not because he was expected to win with a team that could not have won no matter who the manager was. Because Maddon was so experienced as a minor league manager and major league coach, there was a reasonable justification to give him a pass for the endless losing. If the manager is making mostly the right moves – even as he learns on the job – and the players play for him; if he handles the media; if he maintains his focus and has answers even if those answers don’t yield results any better than they were before, there’s reason to retain him.

The Houston Astros went beyond arbitrage under Jeff Luhnow and gutted the entire organization as if it was an expansion team. When Luhnow took charge, the team had just finished a 106-loss season under former GM Ed Wade, so it wasn’t as if much needed to be done to make them worse. After retaining the manager he inherited, Brad Mills and firing him during that first season, Luhnow hired Bo Porter as his manager. Porter might have survived the rebuilding process and been the manager in charge once the Astros turned the corner had he known his place and maintained some semblance of control over the clubhouse. He did neither. Adding in tactical and technical gaffes, Porter openly challenged Luhnow and tried to go above his head to the owner with his complaints about how the organization was being run. He was deservedly fired. Replaced by A.J. Hinch, the Astros are now a powerhouse not because Hinch had a better resume, but because he was part of the solution rather than a glitch that needed to be removed.

Obviously, a large portion of how the manager is judged is based on the players. But there are mitigating factors to consider.

So where are the Mets in this context?

Can they justify retaining a manager who is still learning how to do the job amid an enraged fan base and an indifferent roster? Or should they send a signal to the fans and players that there is the accountability that Callaway continually referenced from the time he was hired and tried to implement?

If there is accountability with the Mets, it has already led to Alderson’s ouster even though his illness is cited as the reason for his departure. If he wasn’t ill, it’s unlikely he would be back for 2019 with how all – not some, all – of his 2018 acquisitions have faltered.

That should only extend to the manager if they’re replacing him with Girardi. Short of that, hiring another no-name who might not be any better is a waste of time. And based on the above criteria, the Mets should not wait. Girardi should be hired to assess the team for the remainder of the season so the club can get a head start on fixing a fixable mess for 2019.

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.

Theories on Tony LaRussa’s sabermetrics rattling

MLB

It’s been impossible to find an actual transcript about what Tony LaRussa said as a guest at the 2015 SABR Analytics Conference. Given what was tweeted and mentioned on other social media forums, it’s clear that LaRussa in his position as Chief Baseball Officer for the Arizona Diamondbacks, hasn’t altered his stance on certain aspects of sabermetrics. Let’s look at how LaRussa’s anger might be explained and if there’s any chance to understand rather than ridicule.

The grumpy old man defense

If you’ve dealt with a person who’s growing older, it’s inevitable that they’ll forget the way they behaved and the things they did when they were younger. Their worldview will harden and as the lines of propriety shift, even what was once the most liberal mind will begin to sound like a neoconservative.

LaRussa believes what he believes. He sees what he sees. He knows what he knows. If someone who he’s worked with or competed against and respects provides him with a new formula to gain an advantage on how to win a baseball game, he’ll listen. If Jim Leyland, Lou Piniella, Joe Torre and even someone with whom he doesn’t have the warmest and fuzziest of relationships like Dusty Baker, comes to him and advocates a new theory, he’ll be all ears because it’s guys talking baseball. If some baseball outsider walks up to him waving a computer printout or shoving an iPad in his face simultaneously telling him what he does is wrong and why he’s a moron for doing it that way, he’s going to react and ignore what they have to say. He’s going to rail against them to retaliate.

As someone who’s older and has seen pretty much everything there is to see in baseball on a practical basis, he might not believe that he needs to have a mathematical calculation to tell him what’s what. In part, it might be that he doesn’t want to have to work to change his opinion based on the numbers, but will make the change without admitting to why he’s making it. It’s a tacit admission and about as close someone like him will come to saying, “Hey, you were right and I was wrong.” That might be viewed as laziness, but at 70-years-old, don’t expect exhaustive study into WAR or wOBA.

The new age people better have a resume…in baseball

LaRussa is still friends with Sandy Alderson. It was Alderson who brought a large segment of sabermetrics into baseball. He’ll listen to what Alderson has to say. On the other side of the spectrum, having managed Billy Beane as a player and knowing Beane’s real life story and not some fictionalized version designed to make him into a superhero, LaRussa’s portrayal as the stripped emperor in Moneyball will automatically result in him balling his fists and lashing out at anyone involved in the book. His character was impugned as that of an antiquated, over-powerful dinosaur living off of an unfounded reputation as the original genius when the “real” genius (according to the book) was, in fact, Bill James and his pseudo offspring, specifically Beane for implementing the numbers to the degree he did.

Like a biblical tome and its followers, who cares whether it’s true? LaRussa does.

With some justification, LaRussa doesn’t want to hear from some 25-year-old kid who went to M.I.T. suddenly referencing an algorithm as to why LaRussa shouldn’t have bunted with his team down a run in the bottom of the ninth inning after the batter leading off the inning doubled. Experience counts and LaRussa has been doing this for more than 50 years.

While LaRussa still rails against Keith Law for the apparent – and factually inaccurate – belief that Law cost Adam Wainwright the National League Cy Young Award, the anger at Law is not just about that incident. As irrational as his dislike for Law is, he’s not the only baseball insider, young and old, veteran and newbie, who views Law with disdain. He’s just the only one who says it openly. Law’s resume is bolstered by having worked in a Major League front office with the Toronto Blue Jays, but when he was there, he was a numbers guy. It’s a false and circular “if-then” addition to his credentials. He left the front office, went to work for ESPN and suddenly became a “scouting guru.” It’s up to the reader and listener to determine whether or not his assessments are coming from a place of knowledge or if he’s simply soaked up information from actual scouts and is regurgitating them. I’m in the latter camp. Presumably, so is LaRussa.

The stat guys saying, “You don’t understand the math” is the same thing as LaRussa saying, “You never played the game.” Both have a basis in truth. To say that it’s just LaRussa and baseball that has chafed at the supposed outsider’s numbers-based intrusion, one need only look at Nate Silver’s ouster/departure from the New York Times as evidence that this is not a narrow experience limited to sports in which people who are in the trenches throw haymakers when the value of their work is called into question. There are ways to get others to listen to a differing viewpoint without alienating them and there’s a lack of people skills and deftness on both sides causing a din and drowning out what could be a profitable back-and-forth.

For someone like Law to imply that he could manage a game better than LaRussa or an experienced political reporter having his or her work denigrated by Silver is a petri dish for contentiousness and sniping. It’s no surprise that these figures are so polarizing when intruding into someone else’s life’s work.

The mirror image

The problem with many stat people is identical to why LaRussa doesn’t want to hear from them and why LaRussa’s early reputation was one of pompous arrogance: they come across as condescending and smug if you dare disagree with them. The group mentality and anonymity of the internet protects them from being called out on what they say and, when challenged, they’ll retreat to snark saying things they’d never say to the person were he or she standing in front of them.

When LaRussa was coming up as a manager, no one was doing what he was doing. The shifts; the frequent pitching changes; the lineup juggling; the spitting in the face of “this is the way we’ve always done it” made him a lot of enemies. Once he was successful, it was quickly and surreptitiously copied without an admission that he might have been right. The same thing has been happening with sabermetrics.

The two-faces

While he might be set in his ways, LaRussa’s not stupid. He knows that many of the people in the crowd at the saber conferences will politely ask questions, request pictures and autographs, tell him how much they admire him and then retreat to their laptops at a local Starbucks to write a 1,000 word blog post as to why he’s a fool.

For someone who has been in the masculine, testosterone-fueled world of baseball for almost his entire life to have to deal with these collateral sneak attacks is a personal affront as a professional and as a man. It’s LaRussa who advocates the use of beanballs as retaliation; it’s LaRussa who is so feisty a competitor that he almost had fistfights with opposing managers Baker and Buck Showalter; and it’s LaRussa who hears about or reads everything said and written about him to see if there’s the need to start a new vendetta.

Why he came back

At this point in his life, LaRussa could enjoy life in retirement, work in his various charities, make money as an adviser to teams, do some analysis and broadcasting work, and just take it easy. Perhaps he took the Diamondbacks job out of sheer competitiveness. Maybe he wanted the money. Or it’s possible that he wanted to prove to the world that an old-schooler like him could still show these interlopers a thing or two.

It’s no secret that he and Houston Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow butted heads when Luhnow was hired to overhaul the draft for the St. Louis Cardinals as scouting director. A sheer outsider who’d never played baseball at a level higher than high school telling LaRussa about baseball? No. People undermining the pitching philosophies of guru Dave Duncan? Double no. Having Walt Jocketty forced out because he also resisted the insinuations of the Luhnow brigade? Triple no.

LaRussa, with his experience at sharp-elbowed infighting and inter-organizational politics, won the power struggle and Luhnow’s influence was eventually mitigated in favor of the LaRussa faction. Ironically, both departed the organization after that World Series. Both deserved a share of the credit for the last team they were involved in building, the 2011 World Series champion Cardinals. Luhnow left to run his own team and LaRussa left because he was going out on top and could leave validated that his way won. But that wasn’t enough. Now he’s trying to prove he can beat them at the front office game they’ve largely taken over and he’ll do it his way. He’s either going to win big his way or his archenemies will be proven “right.”

In truth, it’s a combination of both experience and new age numbers that are necessary to build a successful team. Neither will admit it and LaRussa is so egomaniacal and is immersed in the above issues that he’ll stick to his familiar rants to maintain the veneer of the original genius.

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.

Cashman vs. A-Rod: The War To End All Wars

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The funniest part about Brian Cashman’s statement to the media that injured third baseman Alex Rodriguez needs to “Shut the <bleep> up” is that at the conclusion, it sounded as if he stormed off saying, “I’m gonna call Alex right now,” in a frenzied desire to directly tell his player the same thing he muscularly told the media, then couldn’t get A-Rod on the phone and told him….by email!!!

How’d that go?

Dear Alex,
Shut the <bleep> up.
Love, Brian

Did he then return to the media and declare that he couldn’t get A-Rod on the phone, say that he sent him an email instead and add, “Yeah, well. Maybe I didn’t speak to him directly, but he got the message!!!” jabbing his finger for emphasis?

Since being a GM has become such a prominent role and transformed from a bunch of nameless, faceless men who got the job because they were former players or sycophants to the owners into the corporate, power-suit wearing, catchphrase uttering, recognizable and approachable entities they are now, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a GM tell a player—especially one of A-Rod’s stature—to “shut the <bleep> up.” Not even the most outspoken loose cannons since the GM job has changed like J.P. Ricciardi went that far, and Ricciardi was about as hair trigger as it gets. When Dallas Braden got into his public back-and-forth with, not-so-shockingly, A-Rod, it went on for awhile before A’s boss Billy Beane said he’d speak to the player. He did and it stopped. There was no public, bullying pronouncement from Beane that he called the player onto the carpet and reamed him out.

From the old-school GMs who have been in the game forever to the new age stat thinkers, can you name one—one!!!—who would say such a thing about a player to a media as hungry for a headline as that in New York?

Dave Dombrowski? Brian Sabean? Dan Duquette? Beane? Sandy Alderson?

I’m not even sure Jeff Luhnow uses foul language period, let alone saying something like that about a player before speaking to him and storming off in a huff with a “I’m gonna go call him now!!” and trudging away with the corners of his mouth twisted downward and a fiery look in his eyes like a child sent to time out. (That’s how I envision Cashman anyway.)

Plus, was A-Rod’s tweet this big of a deal? Or is it a big deal because it’s A-Rod?

Cashman’s goal since leveraging full control of the Yankees’ baseball operations has been to be seen on a level with Beane and Theo Epstein as “geniuses” whose vision led their particular organizations to success rather than a checkbook GM who covers up for mistakes by using endless amounts of Yankees cash (it’s like real money, only more cold, corporate and drenched in a self-anointed superiority). Yet the professionalism and CEO-style is lacking. He’s a caricature and a bad one at that. It’s satirical more than evolved.

Cashman’s behavior in the Louise Meanwell scandal was embarrassing to an organization for whom being embarrassed is the last thing they want and he’s still acting like a brat in a mid-life crisis, desperate for credit and the off-field perks that come with a powerful position, but unable to behave in an appropriate fashion when they arrive.

Maybe that’s why A-Rod is such a continuing source of irritation: he embarrasses them. But the solution to A-Rod’s continuous penchant for making headlines isn’t for the GM to make it worse by trumping A-Rod’s headlines with his own. And in this case, what exactly did A-Rod do that was so terrible? The doctor said he was ready to start a rehab assignment and the Yankees haven’t signed off on it. So? All Cashman had to say was, “The doctor who made that call is an outside doctor and the organization’s medical staff will decide when A-Rod’s rehab will begin. It could be next week or it could be next month.” Instead he decided to vent his anger at the easiest target he has in A-Rod and make a new mess simultaneously making the usual villain, A-Rod, look sympathetic.

We can speculate what would have been said if Derek Jeter has made a similar statement and then go into the litany of differences in tone and public perceptions between Jeter and A-Rod, but when digging underneath all of refuse that has piled on during A-Rod’s tenure in pinstripes, it’s not all that different and Cashman most certainly wouldn’t have told Jeter to “shut the <bleep> up.” If anyone needs to follow that advice, it’s the GM whose own tenure is growing more pockmarked by his attitude, statements and behaviors by the day. And he hasn’t done a particularly great job running the team sans the aforementioned “Yankee money” either.

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The Reality of Legacies and Latter Round MLB Draft Picks

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As nice and uplifting a story as the Diamondbacks drafting of paralyzed former Arizona State player Cory Hahn in the 34th round of the MLB draft is, it also provides insight as to how little teams think of the draft’s latter rounds and the likelihood of finding useful on-field talent that can make it to the big leagues.

In another pick that got significant attention, the Yankees drafted Andy Pettitte’s son Josh in the 37th round out of high school. Because Pettitte’s son has committed to Baylor University, Josh Pettitte is not expected to sign with the Yankees. That’s probably a relief for them because a 37th round draft pick is not expected to be anything more than organizational filler. If Josh Pettitte was considered an actual prospect, he would’ve been taken by a team other than the Yankees well before the 37th round, commitment to Baylor or not. When the Yankees selected Paul O’Neill’s nephew Michael in the third round, they did so not as a legacy or a favor to the O’Neill family but because he can actually play. The Mets made a similar selection with Lee Mazzilli’s son L.J. in the fourth round. These are players who would have been selected by another club at around the same spot had the Yankees and Mets not made the selections. There’s no doubt that the legacy was a tiny factor in picking the players, but not to the degree that the Yankees selecting Pettitte and this is the difference between players selected in the first 10-15 rounds—for any reason—and those picked after.

For every late-round draft pick who makes it to the majors, there are thousands of others who don’t get past the low minors. Players who are drafted past the tenth round are not expected to make it. Once in a long while you’ll have the occasional freak occurrence like Albert Pujols (13th round), James Shields (16th round), Domonic Brown (drafted as a pitcher in the 20th round), Mark Buehrle (38th round), and Mike Piazza (62nd round as a favor to Tom Lasorda). By and large, the players who make it to the majors are those who are picked in the first 20 rounds with the numbers decreasing significantly as the rounds pass. Players taken in the first few rounds will receive repeated opportunities not just because of latent talent, but because of the money teams invest in them. That’s become even more pronounced with the slotted bonuses and limited amount of money teams are allowed to spend in the draft. They don’t want to toss money away on a player even if, after three or four years, he shows he’s not what they thought he was. In some cases, these players make it to the big leagues so teams can say, “Look he made it to the majors at least,” as if that’s some form of justification for an overall miss on a high draft pick.

Indicative of how little teams think of the latter rounds were the decisions to make these selections of players like Hahn and Pettitte. They create a story for a brief time but devolve into the realm of the forgotten because they weren’t meant to be remembered in the first place.

Should teams spend more time and money on the draft past the initial stages? Are there enough talented draft-eligible players to make it worth their while? It depends. Some clubs don’t want to spend the money and resources it will take to mine through the amateurs for 50 rounds to find perhaps five players that have a chance to contribute. Others, like the Cardinals, have made it a regular occurrence to draft players on the third and fourth days of the draft such as Matt Carpenter, Trevor Rosenthal, Allen Craig, Luke Gregerson, and Jaime Garcia. The Cardinals and then-scouting director Jeff Luhnow have been credited with the Cardinals’ fertile farm system, but perhaps the truth is more of a matter of the conscious decision not to waste late-round picks on legacies and heartwarming stories, instead choosing to draft players who they think might be able to help them at some point.

The Yankees and their apologists can point to the inexplicable luck the team had in 1990 with Pettitte the father (22nd round) and Jorge Posada (24th round drafted as an infielder) as reason to think Josh Pettitte has a chance, but that’s wishful thinking. They got lucky in 1990 just as the Cardinals got lucky with Pujols and the Devil Rays got lucky with Shields. On the same token, teams have repeatedly failed with top-tier picks for one reason or another be it injuries, miscalculation, off-field problems or bottom line bad luck. If the Yankees were going to draft a player in the 37th round who had a miniscule chance of becoming useful to them or the Diamondbacks were going to do the same thing in the 34th round, then why not draft the players they did and accrue some publicity? Overall, there’s no difference because a paralyzed player like Hahn only has a slightly less chance of making it than someone else who was drafted in the 34th round, so the Diamondbacks did something nice and it won’t harm their draft because on the field, it won’t make much difference either way.

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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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