You Were Expecting More From The 2013 Mets?

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For what the Mets lack in on-field success in recent years, they make up for in agendas and alibis. The alibis are coming from the team itself; the agendas from the fans and media. The media loves to roast the Mets for their play and personnel moves (perfectly fair) and for their business dealings such as entering into an innocuous agreement with Amway (unfair and self-serving). The fans either wallow in self-pity, hope the team loses so Sandy Alderson and Terry Collins will be fired, or have secondary benefit from the self-flagellation of being a Mets fan as if punishment in this life of baseball fandom will lead to paradise in the next. Opposing fans who need to worry about their own issues point to the Mets as everything they perceive as “wrong.”

If there’s some paradise a pious Mets fan is looking for, the only virgin they’re likely to run into in a sports-related heaven is Tim Tebow and he’s probably no fun to hang out with; the only Kingdom they have to look forward to is in a storybook.

The key question is this: What were you expecting?

They’re in year three of an acknowledged rebuild.

They have a starting rotation of Matt Harvey, Jon Niese and a mix-and-match array of journeymen.

They have one outfielder (who’s actually a first baseman) in Lucas Duda who can hit and has a 25-30 foot radius of balls he’ll catch, block, kick or swallow.

They have one high potential reliever in Bobby Parnell, two decent veterans Scott Atchison and LaTroy Hawkins and more bad journeymen.

One of their main power hitters, Ike Davis, takes the first two months of every season apparently contemplating the mysteries of life in a “what does it all mean?” hypnotic state as he counts the seams of the next low, outside curveball he’ll swing and miss at while batting .150.

They have the foundation for a decent middle infield with Ruben Tejada and Daniel Murphy, a star at third base in David Wright, and a catcher in John Buck who’s hitting like Johnny Bench when he’s closer to Barry Foote.

Their top catching prospect Travis d’Arnaud, acquired in the R.A. Dickey trade, is out with a broken foot and has had his Flushing debut stalled probably until September; their top pitching prospect, Zack Wheeler, acquired for Carlos Beltran, is embarrassing himself with a little league-level whine about not liking it in Las Vegas and is throwing a tantrum hoping to be sent to a more preferable location.

These are the facts.

What gives you the impression that Wally Backman, John McGraw or Connie Mack as manager; Dave Duncan, Rick Peterson, Leo Mazzone or Mel Harder as pitching coach; and Branch Rickey as GM would make any difference whatsoever with this group?

Judging by the lack of moves they made last winter and the removal of the last pieces of the Omar Minaya regime (Jason Bay was dumped and Johan Santana’s Mets career is over with his injury), did you truly in your heart of hearts expect a shocking Athletics/Orioles 2012-style rise for the Mets in 2013?

This team is playing up to its potential and that potential is currently not good. No amount of screaming, yelling and pronouncements of what would “fix” them or what “I’d do” is going to change it especially if your prescriptions are buried in the simplicity of faux expertise and blatant idiocy that’s ten times worse than anything Alderson’s done or will do. The organization has all but said they’re playing for 2014 and beyond when they’re supposedly going to have some money to spend and the prospects they’ve been acquiring and cultivating since Alderson took over will begin to bear fruit.

These are your 2013 Mets. This is it. Deal with it. Or get into therapy. Or just shut up.

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

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

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

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

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

Or was it a combination of everything?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pitching Coach Pep Boys

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How much of what a pitching coach says to his bosses when analyzing a potential trade target is legitimate and how much is said for their validation and consumption?

Is it accurate when a coach says, as Rick Peterson reportedly did when the Mets were considering trading Scott Kazmir for Victor Zambrano, that he could fix Zambrano “in ten minutes”?

Is it the arrogance inherent in so many coaches, managers, executives and players?

Or is it bluster based on reputation?

Needless to say, Peterson did not fix Zambrano in ten minutes. Nor did he fix him in ten months. And he wouldn’t have fixed him in ten years.

On Thursday, the Nationals completed a trade for Athletics lefty Gio Gonzalez.

Gonzalez’s wildness has been well documented and is in black and white for all to see. 183 walks in two years speak for themselves.

Did the Nationals hierarchy discuss Gonzalez with big league pitching coach Steve McCatty? And did he tell them the truth as he saw it or was he influenced by the club’s clear desire to get their hands on Gonzalez at whatever cost?

McCatty famously slammed his hand into the dugout wall when Stephen Strasburg threw that fateful pitch in 2010 in which he tore his elbow in an injury that required Tommy John surgery. I’ve long said that because Strasburg was injured while the Nationals were following organizational edicts and stringent limitations on his innings and pitch counts, no one could be held responsible for the injury; this made it something of a relief when he did get hurt. There was no documented evidence of abuse; no outrageous pitch counts; no “arm-shredding” reputation for anyone.

This in spite of the fact that then-Nats manager Jim Riggleman was the manager in charge when Kerry Wood was overused and abused during the Cubs run toward the playoffs in 1998.

Somehow the onus for Wood and Mark Prior fell two Cubs managers later and Dusty Baker.

It’s about perception.

Will altering Gonzalez’s mechanics give him better control?

Perhaps.

But will doing so make him easier to hit?

Sometimes when a pitcher has funky mechanics and doesn’t know where the ball is going, it contributes to him getting hitters out. Not only does Gonzalez walk a lot of hitters, but he strikes out a lot of hitters as well; and he doesn’t allow many hits or homers.

The funky motion and wildness could be a large portion of that, so making a change that the pitching coach sees as “fixing” him could damage him.

Such was the case with the Pirates when the fired Joe Kerrigan.

Kerrigan was fired, in part, because of the mechanical adjustments he made to former Pirates number 1 draft choice Brad Lincoln.

The main transgressions on the part of Kerrigan were: A) that he was a quirky personality who made his presence felt and imposed on his already weak manager, John Russell; and B) the changes didn’t work.

What did they hire a name pitching coach for if they didn’t want him to do what a name pitching coach does in trying to address issues he may see in a pitcher’s mechanics and approach?

If he didn’t do anything and the pitchers didn’t improve, would he have been fired for that?

Of course.

Anyone can stand there and do nothing.

For years, Leo Mazzone was seen as the “brains” behind the Braves brilliant starting rotation. Then he went to the Orioles and couldn’t repair their pitchers; he hasn’t been able to get a coaching job since.

Why?

Maybe it’s because you can’t make an Astrovan into a Ferrari; you can’t make Kris Benson and Daniel Cabrera into Greg Maddux and John Smoltz.

Peterson and Tom House have theories, stats, stick figures, computer simulations and innovative techniques to help their charges, but they’re also selling stuff.

It’s hard to take people selling stuff at face value.

In spite of his documented and long history of success, Dave Duncan has never auctioned his services to the highest bidder; he’s never sought a managerial job; he’s shooed away anyone who even approached him with the idea that he manage.

He’s a voice you can trust because he’s not hawking a load of junk.

The others? I have my doubts.

I wouldn’t want a yes-man overseeing any part of my organization; nor would I want someone whose main interest is maintaining a reputation at the expense of doing his job. The attitude I prefer is “don’t ask me a question you don’t want the answer to” and with today’s pitching coaches, I wonder whether they’re of the same mind and working to make their charges better or hiding behind a curtain of agreeable self-protection by interpreting what the front office wants to hear and tailoring their responses to that in order to save themselves.

And that’s not how a team should be run.

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The Johnny Sain Travel Guide

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Here’s a quote from Ball Four by Jim Bouton:

Every once in a while there’s a guy that doesn’t fit into the coaching mold, a man with an original idea or two who’s not afraid to express them, a guy who would like to have some influence on the club. I mean a guy like Johnny Sain. And what happens to him? He moves around a lot. He has to, because as soon as he asserts himself the manager wants to get rid of him, no matter how good a job he’s doing. (Ball Four by Jim Bouton, page 287.)

I thought of this as soon as I read that Brad Arnsberg had been fired by the Houston Astros.

It’s hard to get a gauge on Arsnberg because there are publicly differing opinions about him.

After he was fired by the Marlins in their 2003 purge, he was savaged by the club for his reaction to the firing. It wasn’t temperamental owner Jeffrey Loria who made negative statements about Arnsberg, but respected GM Larry Beinfest who accused the former pitching coach of being unprofessional and bordering on violent to the point where he wasn’t allowed into the stadium to pick up his belongings—Sun Journal Story, 5.12.2003.

It certainly didn’t help Arnsberg’s cause that the Marlins went on to win the World Series that year with new manager Jack McKeon replacing Jeff Torborg and pitching coach Wayne Rosenthal replacing Arnsberg.

Moving on with the Blue Jays, Arsnberg was widely credited with the work of veterans Ted Lilly and A.J. Burnett, along with youngsters Shaun Marcum, Dustin McGowan and Jesse Litsch; it’s not hard to look smart when working with Roy Halladay.

Arnsberg was basically pilfered by the Astros after the 2009 season. Star pitching coaches are generally in demand due to reputation and a prior record of success. Sometimes it works—as has been the case with Larry Rothschild and Rick Peterson; other times it hasn’t as was the case with Leo Mazzone.

It’s fleeting and based on results.

Or other factors.

The Astros pitched well last season. Brett Myers rejuvenated his career; J.A. Happ was solid after being acquired from the Phillies; Bud Norris has been good; Mark Melancon has blossomed.

Who knows what was going on inside the Astros organization and clubhouse? Did manager Brad Mills feel threatened by Arnsberg? Was there a falling out? Did they feel like doing something to try and wake up a struggling (and pretty poor) club.

“Philosophical differences” is a convenient excuse for a change and it’s of a similar vein to the “lack of communication” absurdity that’s often used when there’s no explicable reason.

I have no problem with a GM saying, “I wanted to make a change”. He doesn’t have to give a reason. He’s the boss.

But clubs don’t see it that way. They think they have to give something tangible to the media and “feeling like it” doesn’t cut it.

Years ago, when the Marlins had several pitchers on the disabled list with injuries to different parts of their bodies, I suggested that perhaps Arnsberg was the common denominator.

I’ve evolved from this view.

Very rare is it that a pitching coach will have training techniques that deviate from the norm so egregiously that pitchers will take part in them to begin with; and if they’re so unusual, it’s hard to see any manager allowing them to be utilized or the pitching coach to make it up to the big leagues.

It goes back to the Johnny Sain travel guide and the main tenet: don’t usurp the manager’s authority by disagreeing with him.

There are pitching coaches like this still floating around. Dick Pole has bounced from team-to-team, usually working for Dusty Baker. None other than Greg Maddux has said that it was Pole who taught him a great deal about the mechanics and mental aspects of pitching that Maddux used to forge a Hall of Fame career.

But Pole is as much-traveled as Sain was.

And Arnsberg is on the way to catching up to these men with their honorable, but short-lived reputations for accumulating frequent flyer miles and different mailing addresses.

Go along to get along or get fired for “philosophical differences” and “lack of communication”.

Some men are willing. Others aren’t. Those that aren’t tend to move around a lot and have extreme reputations. From the outside, this appears to be the case with Brad Arnsberg.

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And When I Slam Down The Hammer…

Spring Training

…can you feel it in your heart?

Much appreciation for the title to the patron saint of the misérables, Morrissey.

Being it’s simultaneously Valentine’s Day and the opening of spring training camps all over baseball, it’s time for me to do what I do best—yank the hearts out of the collective chests of overly-enthusiastic (in some cases delusional; in some cases addled) fans and media members, give them a brutal dose of reality and show them their still beating hearts before they hit the ground.

As teams outlooks evolve, there will undoubtedly be others added to this list to shatter their myths, but pitchers and catchers have just reported; the spring is still young!!

Give it time.

The “gurus” don’t have all the answers:

Dave Duncan is quite possibly the best pitching coach ever and he’s had his failures. Rick Ankiel and Todd Van Poppel come immediately to mind. Both had their own issues that couldn’t be solved by a simple tweak here and there. Ankiel was a time bomb and even though Tony La Russa and Duncan played a part in the expedited explosion in the 2000 playoffs, it was going to happen regardless; Van Poppel’s stuff wasn’t that good.

Duncan’s work with so many pitchers gives him the cachet to be anointed as the best at what he does, but it’s not as if he never misses.

Larry Rothschild is being doled similar accolades as a pitching coach now; the Yankees are pinning their hopes on him “straightening out” A.J. Burnett more than anyone else.

Here’s a flash: no matter how well Burnett and Rothschild “connected” when they met after Rothschild was hired, the only person who can straighten out Burnett is Burnett; and if you think that the pitcher Burnett has been since he arrived in the big leagues—oft-injured; running the gamut between unhittable and awful with little in-between deviation—is “fixed” because of a new pitching coach, forget it.

The pitching coach can only do so much and one has to wonder how much front office interference he was willing to accept when he took the job. It’s not Rothschild’s decision as to how many innings Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova are going to pitch; it’s GM Brian Cashman and his charts, graphs and medical reports used as a basis to “protect” their young arms that will determine how they’re deployed. Rothschild will have a say, but Cashman has become so wood-headed and invested in the organizational edicts and adherence to numbers that he’s got the last word.

Presumably an old-school pitching coach like Rothschild wouldn’t be totally on board with it, but sometimes one has to go along to get along.

Rick Peterson’s status as a “fixer” wore out with the Mets and was inconsistent with the Brewers; Leo Mazzone—supposedly the architect of the great Braves staffs in the 1990s—can’t find a job. You can list the names and question their results because the only way you know whether something worked is when it actually does work.

If Burnett pitches well, Rothschild will get the credit; if he doesn’t, who gets the blame? It won’t be the pitching coach because the history with Burnett is right there in black and white—he is what he is whether he wins 18 games or goes 12-16.

Place the responsibility where it belongs—on the individual—and we won’t know until we know.

A means to an end:

Orioles fans who are excited over their improved lineup and the full-season presence of Buck Showalter had better understand that: A) they don’t have enough pitching to compete; B) the division they’re in is an utter nightmare; and C) while Vladimir Guerrero‘s contribution to the team will reverberate for years to come, it won’t help them much in 2011.

Showalter’s history of turning his clubs around in his second year on the job aside, you can’t deny the facts.

Much like a hitter can make a “productive out” with a sacrifice fly or ground ball to the right side of the infield to advance a baserunner, the Orioles can have a productive season despite losing 95 games.

If the young players are taught to respect the game and play it in a fundamentally sound, team-oriented fashion, this will be something to build on in years to come when they are ready to take that next step.

Guerrero, with his leadership and positive attitude, can greatly assist in this as a conduit between the manager and the players on how they should comport themselves on and off the field.

The talk from the likes of Keith Law that Guerrero is “in the toaster” if not already “toast” is all well and good (and I don’t agree with it), but the team would lose 95 games without him; they’re probably going to lose 95 games with him.

That’s irrelevant in the long-term. If some of the younger players learn something about winning from Guerrero and it helps them in 2014, then it was a worthwhile signing.

Albert Pujols is not going to the Cubs:

MLB Trade Rumors has this rundown of the increasingly contentious Pujols negotiations here.

Joel Sherman of the NY Post chimes in that an executive told him that Pujols could go to the Cubs.

Did Sherman write that thing on a napkin at Michael Kay’s wedding? Stuffed with plentiful portions of chicken parm? Shocked by the fact that someone is marrying Michael Kay without a shotgun to her head?

It’s almost to the point that the only time Sherman writes something intelligent is when he’s repeating something I’d said days earlier.

Here’s a flash: Albert Pujols is not going to the Cubs.

No way.

No how.

This would be tantamount to Derek Jeter going to the Mets or Willie Mays to the Dodgers.

Money aside, Pujols would never be able to return to St. Louis. Ever.

The betrayal would be so profound; so ingrained that even the instinctively supportive Cardinals fans—for whom memories of their stars are part of the organizational fabric and inherent to the rapport between club and fan—would turn on him.

The Cubs?

Really?

If—if—things go terribly for the Cardinals and Pujols, there are much more appealing options for him and for fans of the Cardinals. The Dodgers, if they get their ownership straightened out; the Mets, if they get their ownership straightened out; the Angels; the Tigers; the Nationals—all are more agreeable locales for Pujols to land than the Cardinals most despised rivals, the Cubs.

Plus if you add in the histories of the respective franchises and how many times the Cubs have made that one move that was supposed to spur them to break the hex that has relegated them to a running joke for 100 years, not even Pujols can cure them.

If he wants to get paid above anything else, I suppose that it’s possible; but isn’t the team-oriented concept why Pujols is so respected whereas Alex Rodriguez was always seen as a mercenary who was only interested in himself?

There never appeared to be a pretense with Pujols; but now that the media is running with the stories of how poorly the negotiations are going; that the club and player are far apart; that there won’t be any talks after the player-imposed deadline and a refusal to allow any talk of a mid-season trade, it’s spiraling out of control.

I still believe, ultimately, he’ll stay with the Cardinals; but if he leaves it won’t be for the Cubs.

If your heart is still safe in your chest, beating as normally because your team wasn’t included in this missive, rest assured I may have something coming very, very soon to drive the electric current of Force Lightning through your entire body.

It’s spring training.

And I’m getting ready for the season too.