Jason Bay and the Mets: Fact and Fiction

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Like a marriage of convenience, the Mets and Jason Bay wound up together before the 2010 season because the Mets were desperate to make a splash in free agency and needed a bat and Bay had nowhere else to go. They had something akin to a prenuptial agreement in terms of a 4-year contract. Since it went badly from both sides, they mutually ended their relationship yesterday as the sides agreed to an early termination of the contract. Bay will collect his full salary of $21 million and the Mets will get some relief due to deferments. Bay will be a free agent.

Of course, upon this news, the “experts” on social media who “predicted” Bay’s disastrous tenure with the Mets popped out of the woodwork and sought to bolster their credibility by referencing that which they “knew” would happen.

They didn’t predict anything. Let’s look at the implications at the time of the signing and the reality of Bay’s time with the Mets to see—factually—what went wrong and why.

The Mets overpaid for a flawed player with injury questions

I was onboard with the Bay signing. Having put up consistent power numbers in a bad hitters’ ballpark with the Pirates, handling the pressure and having an MVP caliber season and a half with the Red Sox, and being a well-liked individual made Bay a reasonable signing for the Mets. Much has been made of the Red Sox decision to let Bay leave after his 2009 season in which he had 36 homers and a .921 OPS and won a Silver Slugger. These power numbers were not a byproduct of playing in Fenway Park either because his home/road splits were relatively even with more homers on the road than he had at home. Bay’s health was said to be in question with the Red Sox doing what the Red Sox do and ripping a loyal player as he’s heading out the door. “His knees were bad; his shoulders were bad; and he was a poor outfielder.”

At least that’s what the Red Sox leaked. In its aftermath, Peter Gammons discussed the Bay situation on a radio show. You can read the transcript here and never once was his production said to be a worry. They didn’t avoid him due to an expected statistical decline; they didn’t sign him because they didn’t think he’d stay healthy. With the Mets, he spent substantial time on the disabled list, but it wasn’t because of his knees or shoulder—he kept running into walls and banging his head. He played the outfield well and was a good baserunner. He just stopped hitting and walking.

Health-wise, Bay had played in at least 145 games from 2005 through 2009. Injuries were not an issue until he got to the Mets and the injuries that the Red Sox were supposedly concerned about were non-factors in Bay’s stints on the disabled list with the Mets.

Options at the time and the Mets situation

The other big name outfielder on the market was Matt Holliday. Holliday has been a great offensive player with the Cardinals and received three more guaranteed years from the Cardinals with $55 million more in guaranteed money. He’s a hideous outfielder and was not going to the Mets unless they blew away that contract, which they were not going to do. At that time, the Mets were still perceived as contenders and their GM Omar Minaya knew that he was on his last chance in the job. He did something desperate that wound up being a mistake, but was it “predicted”? Maybe some thought Bay would struggle in the latter years, but no one—no one!!!—could have expected his dreadful three years as a Met in the way it happened.

Questionable assertions of predictably declining skill sets

More nonsense.

I was once in the camp of comparing players to one another based on factors that bypassed the individual and it is occasionally applicable, but the Yu Darvish debate changed my mind. Many were implying that they weren’t going to pursue Darvish because of the failure of another highly promoted Japanese import Daisuke Matsuzaka. But think about how ridiculous that is. It’s like saying a player with first round potential from North Carolina is automatically excluded because Brien Taylor was from North Carolina, got hurt and was a bust for the Yankees. It makes no sense.

If a player was a PED creation, then it was a predictable fall. Bay has never been implicated with PEDs, although anything is possible. Bay was a 22nd round draft choice of the Expos in 2000 who suddenly blossomed. He bounced from the Expos organization to the Mets to the Padres to the Pirates before getting a big league opportunity at age 25. Was there something we don’t know that accounted for his burst? Maybe. Unless there’s a PED revelation, Bay will be saddled with his career coming undone on its own merits or lack thereof.

Bay was a player who hit home runs and walked. There are reasons a slugger accomplishes this. First, he has to have a good command of the strike zone. Second, the league has to realize he has a good command of the strike zone and know that he’s not going to chase pitches. Third, he has to hit the ball out of the park making it necessary for the pitcher to be careful with him for fear of making a mistake and giving up a home run, leading to more walks.

With the Mets, once Bay displayed that he couldn’t catch up to a good fastball, pitchers challenged him. His numbers plummeted. This is not a new phenomenon with power hitters whose skills erode. Some, like Raul Ibanez, are able to cheat on fastballs by starting their swings earlier and still produce. Others, like Bay, are unable to adapt. This was a roll of the dice to see if he’d maintain some semblance of usefulness to the Mets in the last two years of his deal and he didn’t. Would it be reasonable to look at his numbers and suggest that he’d drop from 30 homers to 18; in RBI from 120 to 85; and slow down in the field? Yes. Would it be reasonable to think he’d hit .165? No. It’s idiotic second guessing.

The lesson

Given the lack of bat speed and inability to hit anything other than mediocre pitching if everything is working right, I wouldn’t expect much from Bay no matter where he signs. Perhaps if he goes to a good hitters park where he can platoon, that club (the Red Sox, Rangers, Orioles) will get something from Bay, but his days as an All-Star and MVP candidate are over. In today’s game, players lose it in their mid-30s. The days of a player getting exponentially better from the ages of 35-40 ended with drug testing. We’ll see more of this unless teams learn not to overpay for players in those years and it won’t be predicted, it will be inherent.

There is no lesson other than making sure that the baseball people are secure enough in their jobs that they don’t do desperate things to save themselves like the Mets and Minaya did with Bay; making sure that players who don’t want to be in a certain location are lured by an amount of money too large to refuse, especially when they have no other options. Like most shotgun weddings, it went badly. It ended prematurely and expensively to the club and to Bay’s reputation. Don’t make it anything more than that.

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New Age Collisions and Matt Holliday

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The photo you see above is Graig Nettles kicking George Brett in game 5 of the 1977 ALCS. The Yankees eventually won the game and the pennant. A brawl occurred between the two teams following this incident. No one was kicked out of the game. (Get it?)

If that happened today, someone would have to be thrown out. I think. Although Roger Clemens was allowed to fling a projectile—a broken bat—at Mike Piazza in the 2000 World Series and didn’t get tossed. It’s a fine line between defending oneself and running the risk of getting ejected.

In last night’s game 2 of the NLCS, on a double play attempt, Marco Scutaro of the Giants was nailed and had his hip injured on a takeout slide by Cardinals’ outfielder Matt Holliday.

You can watch it below.

Holliday was past the base and his specific intent was to hit Scutaro hard enough to prevent the double play. He did it cheaply with a dangerous roll block and raised arm making it doubly treacherous for the infielder. This isn’t little league and there’s a reasonable expectation for hard, clean play. Infielders have their own little tricks they use to prevent this from occurring. In general, they use the base for protection because the runner is technically not supposed to pass the base; they also throw the ball sidearm and specifically aim it at the runner’s head (this is taught) so the runner has to get down to avoid getting beaned. Holliday’s play was arguable in its legality/line-crossing because the ball and Holliday arrived nearly simultaneously and Scutaro didn’t have the time to hop out of the way or use the base as protection, nor could he throw the ball at Holliday’s head. Holliday did go past the base to get Scutaro.

It wasn’t overtly illegal, but it was a legal cheap shot.

On the Fox broadcast, Tim McCarver—a former catcher, no stranger to home plate collisions—compared the play to Buster Posey getting leveled by Marlins’ outfielder Scott Cousins in May of 2011. Posey had his ankle broken, needed surgery, and was lost for the season. It was his absence that set forth the chain-of-events that might have cost the Giants a second straight World Series and forced them to search for more offense and surrender their top pitching prospect Zack Wheeler to get Carlos Beltran from the Mets.

There was no comparison between the two hits because what Holliday did was questionable at best and dirty at worst. What Cousins did was within the rules. Rules and propriety don’t always intersect and if that’s the case, then baseball has to step in and clarify the grey areas.

What creates the controversy is that it’s so rare in today’s game. In the Royals-Yankees annual ALCS matchups (4 times in 5 years between 1976 and 1980), Royals’ DH/outfielder Hal McRae took every opportunity to try and send Yankees’ second baseman Willie Randolph into the left field seats and break up a double play. It’s perfectly acceptable for a runner to run into a fielder if he has the ball and is trying to tag him, but the last player I remember doing it was Albert Belle.

With catchers and runners, it’s an old-school play that some former catchers like McCarver, Yankees’ manager Joe Girardi, and Giants’ manager Bruce Bochy would like to see outlawed, while Angels’ manager Mike Scioscia thinks it’s an integral, exciting, and necessary aspect of competition. No one will accuse any of the above ex-players of being wimps. All were tough, but disagree on the subject. Scioscia relished the contact and was the recipient of one of the most brutal collisions I’ve ever seen in 1985 when Jack Clark of the Cardinals barreled into him. Scioscia was knocked out; Clark was staggered as if he’d been he recipient of a George Foreman sledgehammer punch; and Scioscia held onto the ball.

Nobody runs over the catcher anymore. There’s a commercial playing in New York of Derek Jeter crashing into a catcher. When has Jeter ever run into a catcher? It’s almost never done, and when it is, it turns into a national catastrophe if one of the players gets hurt.

The camaraderie and brotherhood among the players also precludes these hard plays. Everyone knows each other now. With the limited degrees of separation and the amount of money at stake, few are willing to take the chance of ruining another player’s career. You don’t see knockdown pitches; you don’t see take-out slides; you don’t see busted double plays; and you don’t see home plate collisions.

It wasn’t an, “I’m trying to hurt you,” play. But an injury was a byproduct. It was legal, yet borderline. If MLB wants to make it illegal or come up with a way to constrain it, then fine. Until then, it’s acceptable. As long as the people in charge fail to make a concrete announcement and provide a clear-cut mandate to the umpires that certain actions won’t be tolerated, there will be players who are willing to do what Holliday did, injured players, and indignant reactions in its aftermath.

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