On Jason Heyward, the Cubs and Theo Epstein’s philosophy

MLB, Uncategorized

Heyward

Baseball general managers have their philosophies that frequently blur the line between belief systems and biases. The struggles of Jason Heyward are indicative of how Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein relies on that foundation to repeat similar mistakes made in the past — mistakes he should have learned from. Now the club is essentially trapped in the current situation with few alternatives but to accept and adapt.

The defenses and excuses for Heyward have run out. In 2016, his dreadful first season in Chicago was camouflaged by the Cubs run to the World Series and “saved”€ by the folk tale of his inspiring rain delay speech that roused the reeling Cubs from their punch-drunk stagger after the Indians had tied World Series Game 7 with an eighth inning rally. In 2017, the afterglow of that championship and Heyward’s supposed role in winning it saved him from the deserved vitriol that otherwise would be directed at such a monumental bust.

Although it’s still early in the 2018 season, the number of fixes, repairs, glitches, hitches and flaws that have befallen Heyward and their attempts to return him to some semblance of the player the Cubs thought they were getting have grown moldy, repetitive and tiresome like that preposterous story from the World Series. Two-plus seasons of popgun offense and admittedly still superlative defense have settled into the acceptance stage of the grieving process. This is what he is. Maybe he’ll give them 10 home runs and a .710 OPS –€“ if they’€™re lucky. Apart from that, there is a reasonable argument to say that he should not even be an everyday part of the lineup.

For all the statements about objective analysis as the driving force in decisions made in today’s game, Heyward’s 8-year, $184 million contract is the only thing saving him from being a defensive replacement in the late innings as the Cubs hope to get something of use from him apart from his glove and his “leadership” — something that, in most cases, the sabermetric community scoffs at.

When the contract was signed, the non-SABR community was bewildered at why a good but not great player with a history of injuries who didn’€™t appear to like baseball very much was so in demand. This is not to blame the Cubs. The Cardinals, Nationals and Yankees had interest in Heyward. Had the Cubs not paid him, someone else would have. That a player who was never mentioned as elite got to that point speaks to the overemphasis on statistics, projections and the intangibles — the latter of which SABR advocates downplay when it is inconvenient to their argument.

Heyward was a cumulative player whose age and widespread talents accrued enough production that his wins above replacement (WAR) was high enough to assuage any legitimate concerns about him.

He didn’€™t hit a lot of home runs, but he was a Gold Glove-caliber right fielder who could also play center field. He didn’€™t hit for a high average, but he walked a fair amount. He stole double-digits in bases and had a solid success rate when he did run. He was 26. It’€™s doubtful the Cubs or any team is planning on the worst-case scenario when paying a player so lucratively, but in Heyward’€™s worst-case scenario, they’d get great defense, some speed, some pop and an overall good player who would contribute to what they were building.

But now it is the worst-case scenario in that €™they’re stuck with a minimally productive player who’s in the lineup almost solely because of his salary.

This is wedded in Epstein’€™s theoretical-based way of constructing his teams. He attaches himself to certain players and won’€™t let go. In Boston, it was Hanley Ramirez who was traded while Epstein was in time-out after a tiff with Larry Lucchino and who he repeatedly tried to reacquire once he returned to run the Red Sox. Ben Cherington –€“ an Epstein acolyte — eventually made it happen once Epstein was gone and the results have been up and down. In Chicago, he’€™s had John Lackey, Jon Lester and Anthony Rizzo –€“ all of whom were or are successes in Chicago. However, that attachment has also led to players like Heyward being hopelessly overpaid for what they provide amid embarrassingly transparent excuses continually proffered as to what the unseen contributions are with cherrypicked numbers used as justifications for his undeserved playing time.

Epstein’€™s resume will get him elected to the Hall of Fame. He’ll have earned enshrinement. Breaking two longstanding curses€ and winning long-awaited World Series in both Boston and Chicago accord him an impenetrable shield. That does not mean he can do no wrong and that he doesn’€™t make mistakes. Heyward is one of them and the Cubs will be paying for it through 2023.

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Gabe Kapler and his bad start for the Phillies

MLB, Uncategorized

 

New Philadelphia Phillies manager Gabe Kapler has had a rough first week. With the strategic and technical bullpen gaffes, meandering explanations for those gaffes, and an arrogant attitude that is off-putting, he has done himself no favors, especially in a city like Philadelphia.

Compounding his situation is that the Phillies’ opportunistic aggression in the free agent market by signing Carlos Santana, Jake Arrieta, Pat Neshek and Tommy Hunter created unrealistic expectations for the season, some of which suggested that they were a playoff contender.

In context, it’s only a few games and he is a rookie manager who is coming at the job from a different viewpoint, one in which the numbers take precedence and the manager has his thumb on everything the players do. However, there are worrisome signs that could place his position in jeopardy even at such an early stage in his tenure.

His style comes across as stifling, going beyond the basics of being the boss when in the clubhouse and on the field to player nutrition and what seems like an attempt at 24/7 influence on the players’ conduct.

It’s notable that Kapler’s sole managerial experience came in A-ball as he took a break from his playing career and worked on the Boston Red Sox organization. In the low minors, it’s necessary to keep a tight rein on the players for disciplinary purposes. In the majors, even with a young team, it is not. Certainly, discipline and teaching are important with a young major league club, but this is not a group of pure rookies who need to have the manager constantly on their asses. The Phillies free agent signings should preclude such an overbearing attitude as Santana and Arrieta are both high quality people on and off the field and come from winning organizations with managers in Joe Maddon and Terry Francona who should be the ideal for all new managers not in their strategic maneuverings, but in how they give the players room to breathe, something Kapler has yet to learn how to do.

Kapler is intense and highly opinionated. He wants things done his way. But it’s not “my way or the highway” as much as it’s “my way, you’re a moron.” It’s the difference between philosophical disagreements and outright derision of the other perspective.

There’s a learning curve to managing in the majors and Kapler has quickly veered onto the shoulder of that road. There are six months to get it back under control. However, it does not take long to lose support not just of the fans and media – that’s to be expected no matter who the manager is – but of the players and the front office. Phillies GM Matt Klentak undoubtedly expected some growing pains and given his stat-centric style, is willing to give Kapler time to grow. Team president Andy MacPhail has literally been in baseball since birth and has adapted to the current generation as a means of survival. For someone who has seen everything in baseball, it is thoroughly understandable if MacPhail is watching Kapler and asking, “What the fuck is this guy doing?”

Initially, Kapler will get a break on that. If it continues, he won’t. That can be a negative influence not just on the young players the Phillies are trying to develop, but for the veterans in the clubhouse who, like Santana and Arrieta, have played for managers who do know what they’re doing and can see the signs of those who don’t. It can impact players wanting to come to Philadelphia as free agents and be a hindrance rather than a help.

Smart men have failed and stupid men have succeeded based on nothing more than their handling of people and adapting to the situation. If Kapler fails to adjust and fast, he could be the former and be out of a job before he realizes what happened and what went wrong, even if it’s clear to everyone but him.

Jose Fernandez and politically correct delusion

MLB

Jose Fernandez

The only shocking part of the news that not only was Jose Fernandez on the speedboat at 3 a.m., drunk and high on cocaine, but that he was driving the boat is that there are a great number of people who are surprised.

In the initial hours after his death, there were the long-distance eulogies and lamentations over the unfairness of a life being snuffed out so senselessly and suddenly. After the toxicology report was released revealing that he had been using cocaine it evolved into a “yeah but” implying that he placed himself in that situation, but it does not diminish what a good person he was. Now the goalposts are moved again. Eventually, when it’s more palatable, there will be more and more voices saying that Fernandez did this to himself and, unfortunately, he took two others with him; that it’s lucky he didn’t kill any innocent bystanders who happened to cross his path amid his recklessness.

The cause and effect of his death places the onus squarely on Jose Fernandez. Had he not been on a boat, speeding over the coal black water, high on cocaine and drunk, he would not have died. It’s that simple. That’s not an indictment of his abilities or his overall good-heartedness and enthusiasm, but a bare fact that is being obscured within the attempts to make him into something more than what he was: a 24-year-old who did a stupid thing that a lot of 24-year-olds do and had the money to do bigger and riskier, stupid things that he’d probably done before and gotten away with, but didn’t this time.

Of course, there are teams that know their players are indulging in recreational drugs and fans will wonder why they don’t do something about it. The answer is simple and comes in the form of a rhetorical question: What are they supposed to do? Had the Marlins known or found out about Fernandez’s drug use, whether it was recreational or he was an addict, and ordered him to go into rehab, what if he said no? If the Marlins told him he’d be out of a job were he to refuse their order for him to get treatment, there would only have been 29 other teams for whom he could work and wouldn’t just give him a chance, but would fight over his services and pay him a lot of money to play for them, drugs or not.

Here’s a fact: Had Fernandez gotten through his wild night of partying unscathed, he would have done it again. And if the Marlins had known about it or his drug use, they would have shrugged amid the reality of not being able to stop it.

This is a concession in every sport and for every organization.

Sports is a moneymaking, performance-based endeavor. While there is a façade of uprightness and fan-friendliness, it comes down to winning and making money. If the players are performing in such a way that they can do their jobs and help the team make money – hopefully even playoff money – then the organization will turn its head and look the other way because it benefits them.

So after all the tears and the what might have beens about Fernandez’s career, it ends with him having been directly responsible for the crash that led to his death.

None of that diminishes the gifts he possessed and what the baseball world will be deprived of because he’s gone; that his newly born infant daughter will not have her father and she won’t even have a chunk of his fortune because of the wrongful death lawsuits that the family is destined to lose – and probably settle out of court – because of this new information. But it does place into context a fundamental truth that the mythmakers of the Spartan ideal of athletes would have the customers believe and openly promote while knowing what’s really happening behind the scenes, one that should have been discarded long ago.

Dan Jennings represents a new threat to uniformed baseball people

MLB

Widespread bafflement and undisguised anger has simmered from the Miami Marlins’ stunning decision to replace fired manager Mike Redmond with general manager Dan Jennings. The results in Jennings’s first three games at the helm have mirrored what they were under Redmond with discombobulated losses and puzzlement as a team that many had considered a World Series contender looks closer to a club that’s heading for the number one pick in the 2016 draft. While owner Jeffrey Loria and his front office staff are loath to admit this sad fact – and probably won’t – it’s the flawed roster that’s the problem and not anything that the manager did or didn’t do.

That aside, Jennings put himself in this difficult situation by accepting the job. Uniformed baseball people have been anonymously expressing their dismay that the field is now being invaded by “suits.” While the Marlins situation is different from most other clubs in that there is a known quotient of dysfunction from the top down and has been for years, the Jennings hiring isn’t only offensive to those who have dedicated their life to the on-field, nuanced, “you can only learn by watching” portion of the game. It symbolizes the final infiltration of the last enclave in which players and “baseball people” held sacred and thought was safe.

To make matters worse, the Marlins aren’t even a pure sabermetrically-inclined team from whom this type of blurring of the lines of accepted propriety was possible or even likely. The Marlins under Loria are more Steinbrennerean than sabermetrican, lending credence to the idea that stat people are watching closely for the reaction to Jennings among the players, media and fans to see if they too can get away with a non-baseball person going down on the field and taking charge just as they’ve overtaken a large portion of big league front offices.

Uniformed baseball people accepted the new age front offices and statistical adherence not by choice, but out of necessity. These faceless, suit-clad front office people have no qualms about going into the clubhouse as if it too is their domain and they’re free to make “suggestions” to players, coaches and managers that are orders disguised as options. Now, with the Jennings foray down to the field, it might be making its way into the clubhouse completely.

The difference between uniformed personnel who work their way up through the minor league system as players, then coaches, then managers and finally find themselves on a big league staff or are actually in the manager’s office and those who are permeating baseball’s front offices today is that those who are in the front office have options for other forms of employment that will be just as, if not more, lucrative than being a GM or scouting director. Often, uniformed personnel can’t do anything else besides baseball. So it’s either accept the new reality or get a job at Wal-Mart. Another threat they have to parry is presenting itself and they’re resisting it.

The chipping away of the aura of the once insular and sacred realm of “baseball people” began with the widespread popularity and acceptance of the ludicrous stories in Moneyball. It blew up from there and is still multiplying like a disease meant to wipe out those who probably can’t formulate an algorithm, but have an innate sense of when their pitcher is out of gas. It’s easy to see why they’re chafing at Jennings being in uniform.

There’s no threat of the pure sabermetric front offices or even sabermetrically-leaning front offices having their current baseball bosses go down on the field as happened with the Marlins and Jennings. You won’t see Jeff Luhnow, Theo Epstein, Andrew Friedman, Brian Cashman or any of the other GMs who are stats-obsessed pulling on a uniform to run the team on the field. But is it possible that there’s a group of 20-somethings making a load of money in the stock market looking to buy a team with it in their minds to be the next subject of a book by having a non-baseball guy go on the field and win a World Series? The ego and arrogance that has led to the transformation of an endeavor that was once meant to be a plaything – a sports franchise – into a big business in which non-athletes can become sports celebrities. It’s treated as such. It provides a spotlight that these Masters of the Universe wouldn’t get by being mentioned on Bloomberg as a CEO with a $150 million bonus and a mansion in the Hamptons.

This is why the Marlins and Jennings could have unintended consequences throughout baseball. The Marlins are being deservedly ridiculed for what they’ve done. Jennings is a baseball guy, so It’s not “ridiculous” in the context of Bill Veeck’s midget Eddie Gaedel or Ted Turner going down on the field to manage the Atlanta Braves. It is, however, an intrusion into what the uniformed people felt was their domain. If one team does it, another team might do it. That’s what the uniformed people are rightfully afraid of more than they are offended by the Marlins’ breach of accepted protocol.

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.

Josh Hamilton’s relapse: Is it really a surprise?

MLB

Josh Hamilton’s sobriety was always hanging on a spindly tendril that was capable of snapping at any time. For all we know, it had snapped several times including the incident in which he was photographed drinking and partying in a bar and this latest one in which he’s admitted to Major League Baseball that he’d used cocaine and alcohol over this off-season.

Are you surprised?

Really?

I can accept sadness, hope and even religious introspection in response to this news, but surprise? No. You’re not surprised because if you’ve kept an eye on Hamilton from the time he got back into baseball, you’ll know he was always teetering on the verge of another free fall. If you’ve paid attention to Hamilton from the time he was the first overall pick of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in the 1999 draft, nearly demolished his career and life with his self-abuse and got clean making a triumphant and inspiring return to baseball, you’ll know that he’d traded one dreamlike state for another. First it was the empty, false bliss of self-anesthetizing through alcohol and drugs, then it was repeated references to Jesus and his faith. Whatever you believe in terms of religion, it was obvious that Hamilton was still shunning full blown personal responsibility.

The dream-eyed, glazed over, “nothing is in my control therefore nothing is my responsibility” was destined to fail. The same media people and fans who are “praying” for Hamilton and writing impassioned pieces regarding their hope for his return to health are showing their hypocrisy after either publicly or privately rolling their eyes when he made such patently ludicrous statements that God told him he was going to hit a home run in the World Series. Now there are again references to an all-powerful being that has seemingly abandoned Hamilton when he needed “Him” the most.

There was hope that Hamilton would stay straight, but the signs have been there for years that he wouldn’t and it goes beyond the first few years of his professional career, frittered away in the spiral of addiction.

While the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim – Hamilton’s current employer – will express support for Hamilton on his road to wellness, they’d like nothing more than to speed up time to run the clock out on his contract’s expiration after the 2017 season. While the Texas Rangers placed Hamilton in a cocoon as he blossomed into an MVP and superstar, they refused to go beyond a certain level in what they offered him when his free agency arrived because they knew that it was a realistic, if not inevitable, possibility that he’d fall off the wagon. They seemed somewhat relieved that he left. In fact, they basically pushed him out the door. The Cincinnati Reds and the Tampa Bay Rays – the other teams that employed Hamilton – did everything they could to help him.

Not one did any of this out of care for a fellow human being.

While there might have been a speck of humanity in the decisions on the part of these organizations, there was also the matter of Hamilton’s natural gifts making him worth the risk. Those natural gifts made him the first overall pick in the draft. Those natural gifts got him another chance and, to his credit, he took advantage of it. But to suggest that these teams tolerated the danger of Hamilton falling off the wagon through benevolence, charity and human kindness ignores reality. The fact is that if Hamilton had been a 12th round draft pick who had these same problems, he would have been dispatched and gone from baseball forever with nary a concern as to whether he lived or died, let alone cleaned up. Teams placed him in a protective box because they felt they could take the chance to use his ability to literally do anything on a baseball field. For the Reds and Rangers, it worked. For the Angels, it hasn’t.

It’s somewhat appropriate that his public fall occurred while playing for a team located in Southern California. There’s an unrealistic fantasy that athletes, actors and anyone else who has addiction issues will be able to recover their sobriety and live their lives in a fairy tale of the power of treatment and redemption. Much of this is a crafted tale to promote an agenda and adhere to editorial mandates to push feel good stories to the masses and perhaps inspire those who have the same issues to seek treatment and hold to their sobriety. Whatever the reason, this is no shock.

For those who say “pray” for Hamilton or that he hit a hiccup in his sobriety are also taking the responsibility away from where it belongs: Hamilton. No one forced him to place himself in a situation where he might use again. No one held him down and poured alcohol down his throat. He did this to himself. Perhaps he deserves sympathy. Maybe he’s worthy of pity. But for someone who had been granted a gift to play baseball better than nearly anyone in this generation to take steps to destroy it, make it back well enough to receive $150+ million in guaranteed contracts, and go back to using is the same self-destructiveness that almost ruined his life and career 15 years ago.

According to all accounts, Hamilton is a gentle person; a nice man; someone who cares about his teammates, fans and helping others. On the field, the Angels made a mistake in giving him that contract. Off the field, it was an act of blatant stupidity that was destined to blow up in their faces. It did.

He doesn’t deserve an endless array of entreaties to “pray” for him. According to Hamilton, he did plenty of that himself and it didn’t work. There are many people in the world who deserve prayer if you believe in that sort of thing. Josh Hamilton isn’t one of them.

The Yankees’ strategies are justified and destructive at the same time

MLB

The New York Yankees signing Kyle Davies in the same week they passed on James Shields shows just how far they’ve come from the days in which every high-priced free agent could go to the Yankees to either use them as a bargaining tool or get the highest bid to come to New York.

While they were finally serious when they said they were opting for fiscal sanity and an actual plan they would adhere to, the dichotomy between the players they signed then and now is more than a simple matter of looking at their strategies of the past and present and accepting them at face value. If ever there was a simultaneously practical and atmospheric change in the way the Yankees do business, it’s now. Although the current landscape dictates that they had to do something different and the adjustments they’re making are justified, that doesn’t mean the new plan and holding true to it will revert the team back to the one it was in the 1990s and early-2000s. Similar to the change the team had to make from the way they built their clubs from 1920 to 1965 to the era of drafts and free agency, it might take some time and more than a little luck to return to contention, let along dominance. Back then, it took a decade. It took 15 years for them to get back after the Yankees of Reggie Jackson, Graig Nettles, Ron Guidry and Goose Gossage ran its course.

Five years ago – even one year ago – is there any doubt that at least two to three of the big name free agents or available names on the trade market would somehow, some way have ended up with the Yankees? Draft picks and prospects be damned, they would have taken on the entire contract of Troy Tulowitzki; signed Max Scherzer, Jon Lester and/or Shields; and tried to trade for Chase Utley and Cole Hamels. While these deals were destined to create splashy headlines, sell season tickets and placate a spoiled fan base, history has proven that they would not, under any circumstances, have guaranteed a championship. After last year, it became clear to the Yankees that it wouldn’t have been enough to guarantee a playoff spot. In fact, they weren’t even legitimate contenders in 2014 for any reason other than the parity permeating baseball and that they overachieved thanks to the yeoman work done by manager Joe Girardi.

They’re changing their tactics, but not in the old way. George Steinbrenner used to come up with various plans of attack and abandon them, firing everyone in sight, if they didn’t yield immediate dividends. That strategy worked in the late 1970s to the very early part of the 1980s and then it stopped working as other teams wised up and adapted. The Yankees were no longer a trendy destination as they discovered the money and lore of the pinstripes couldn’t mitigate a poorly run, bad team with a terrible reputation. As the Yankees empire collapsed in the late-1980s, it was only Steinbrenner’s second suspension from baseball that allowed general manager Gene Michael to rebuild the club from the bottom up drafting, signing and developing the likes of Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, Bernie Williams and Andy Pettitte. He sprinkled in players who fit into what he and Buck Showalter were trying to build with power and on-base skills combined with fiery competitiveness.

After the team had been rebuilt and the foundation was in place, they were able to flex their financial might to surround their young core with established veterans. As the years passed, the developmental train stopped and they became a star-studded entity that was more interested in signing the biggest names on the market in lieu of finding players who fit into the template. They were beyond fortunate in the longevity and health of that core group and that, more than money, was why they maintained contention and didn’t fade.

Now they’re all gone without major league-ready replacements, so they’re resorting to patching and rebooting. To make matters worse, the Andrew McCutchen-type, in-his-prime star player who would have ended up with the Yankees because of finances is choosing to sign a contract extension to stay with his current club, the Pittsburgh Pirates. No longer are teams like the Pirates the equivalent of a big league farm team for the Yankees. The new economics in baseball with cash-cow ballparks, revenue sharing and lucrative television deals has given many clubs the money to sign their players instead of trading them away. New statistics, analytical evolution and implementation has also minimized the financial advantage the Yankees had as teams find players for a fraction of the cost the Yankees are paying the likes of washouts like Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran for the same, if not better, production.

The Yankees have set about either planting new seeds or replacing them with recognizable names. They tried the latter in the past several seasons as one star player after another departed and it failed. Now they’re in the midst of repeating what Michael did and shunning the big name free agents that George Steinbrenner coveted to players who are cheaper, fill needs and, perhaps most importantly, don’t cost them picks in the amateur draft – an area that was neglected for far too long.

While it’s laudable and, again, justified that they’ve closed the vault, it’s not because of an understanding of how the game must be played today to build a consistent winner, but because Hal Steinbrenner looks at teams like the Oakland Athletics, Tampa Bay Rays and Pirates and wonders why he has to spend $220 million a year to field a competitive team while those clubs are hindered by payroll constraints and revenue streams that, combined, probably don’t match those of the Yankees and they’re consistently better. He’s not changing because he’s finally convinced that the use of new metrics, development and wiser spending instead of lavish buying sprees are better. It’s because he doesn’t want to spend the money anymore and that’s something that never would have happened with his father.

What should disturb Yankees fans and leave them more concerned than ever as to where this club is heading isn’t simply that Hal Steinbrenner is not authorizing the spending he did a year ago, but that general manager Brian Cashman is trying to mimic Michael not because he’s his mentor and not because the Michael methods worked, but because Cashman wants to receive credit for being more than a checkbook GM. In a New York Daily News column, Bill Madden said as much with the following:

Cashman, who has always privately detested being viewed as nothing more than a checkbook GM, took pains this winter to eschew the big-ticket free agents like Scherzer, Pablo Sandoval and even James Shields and set about remaking the Yankees in his own image.

Career fulfillment and pride in one’s accomplishments are fine as long as they’re not getting in the way of doing one’s job. Since baseball is now being seen as a business and not a fun diversion for the ultra-rich, it has to be placed into that context. Does the day-to-day boss of IBM have the right to care if his way was the successful one when there are shareholders making demands? Or is he or she supposed to run the business in a successful fashion with ego shunted off to the side?

If Cashman is seeking credit at the same time he’s trying to build a winner, don’t you see the clash between how he’s going to put the team together and what is needed? Who really cares what Cashman detests and doesn’t? The business model for each team is different and the Yankees’ financial strength is one of the main reasons they’ve won as much as they have in their history. Why walk away from that because of selfish desires?

Cashman was hired and retained to run the Yankees, not bolster his resume and compensate for the perceptions he sees as sullying a self-crafted image of a builder on a level with the people who are considered “top” GMs and organizational architects. He’s never been known as a GM whose talent recognition skills and player assessments have been noteworthy unless he’s buying the CC Sabathia-type – the star in his prime. Why would anyone believe he can become something other than what he’s been for almost two decades as a GM?

In truth, there’s nothing wrong with running a team with the checkbook. When an individual’s ego becomes involved with how the job is done, that’s the real problem. It’s not the strategy. On some level, he too is justified in saying that what worked before with spend-spend-spend isn’t working, but that doesn’t mean the hoarding of draft picks, new focus on saving money and avoiding the big ticket items is going to work.

That, more than anything else, should be what concerns Yankees fans as they go dumpster diving for Davies, Scott Baker and other “why not?” signings that were once non-roster invitees who would catch a brief glimpse of Jeter, Rivera, Alex Rodriguez, Roger Clemens and Mike Mussina in the spring training clubhouse before receding into oblivion. Now they’re actually hoping these players can contribute.

This new strategy is reminiscent of 1982 and 1989 rather than 1993. The reasoning behind it, the architects and the implementation are the problems. Unless those factors change, the Yankees are in danger of plunging to depths that the most arrogant and spoiled fans, media members and even club officials could never have envisioned.

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.

From North Dallas Forty To Biogenesis

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Major League Baseball’s ham-handed investigation into the Biogenesis Clinic and the players who might have been involved in PEDs after being named as clinic clients is an attempt to appear as if they’re on top of the situation done in a way similar to how the National Football League would’ve done it. Except the way in which MLB is handling it is the way the NFL would’ve handled it in 1970, not 2013.

The tour-de-force account of how the NFL operated back then was the 1979 film North Dallas Forty as the protagonist, Phil Elliot is struggling through injuries and the refusal to “play the game” and the “game” isn’t football—it’s going along to get along, taking shots of painkillers, playing injured (different from playing hurt), being used and willing to be used to fill the masochistic need to play the actual on-field sport.

In the movie, the North Dallas Bulls with their megalomaniacal and exceedingly wealthy owner, iconic and cold-blooded coach, and hard-partying teammates (*wink wink* at the “similarities” to the Dallas Cowboys) prepare for the next week’s game. Early in the film, Elliot experiences a break-in at his home and catches the perpetrator in the act who threatens Elliot with a gun and flees. In the penultimate scene, the break-in was revealed to have actually executed by a private eye who had been hired by the club to get dirt on Elliot with the complicity of the league to catch disposable, independent-minded players like him smoking pot and using an excess of painkillers in order to exploit the violation of league rules not to pay their salaries when they’re dumped as Elliot eventually was. Left out of the equation was that Elliott was smoking pot with the team’s star quarterback, but the club couldn’t very well function without the star quarterback and cutting Elliott filled the dual function of sending a message to the rest of the team that they’d better behave or suffer the same fate of not only being cut, but also having their reputation sullied throughout the league and face a suspension for drug use if they didn’t do as they’re told.

Elliott’s quote regarding his marijuana use, “If you nailed every guy in the league who smoked grass, you wouldn’t have enough players left to field the punt return team,” still resonates today in every sport and with every drug—performance enhancing and otherwise.

MLB is trying the same type of thing sans the illegalities (that we know of) with the Biogenesis case in their over-the-top show of trying to extract information from the head of the clinic Anthony Bosch to the degree that they’re paying him and, according to other potential witnesses, “bullying” with threats and empty promises of help in a legal case if they cooperate. The problem for MLB is this when thinking about the tactics similar to those used in North Dallas Forty: the movie was from 34 years ago and it was adapted from a book published 40 years ago about the way the game was run in the 1960s.

And that’s what MLB is doing. They’re using methods from the 1960s to garner information in 2013.

The problems with the way in which MLB is reportedly running this investigation is manifold and goes far beyond the Cold War-era strategies. Let’s just say, hypothetically, that this Biogenesis clinic was used by players in today’s NFL and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell who was at the top of the hill in this new scandal instead of MLB Commissioner Bud Selig. Would the entire structure be handled differently? Better? More competently?

Selig is essentially seen as a doddering figurehead whose main job descriptions is that of a functionary. It’s not far from the truth. His performance as commissioner has been a byproduct of what is good for the owners’ pockets rather than what is promoted as good for the game. While the PEDs were rampant throughout baseball and were used with the tacit approval of everyone in an effort to draw fans, restore the game’s popularity following the 1994 strike, and accrue money for the owners and players alike, there was Selig with a faraway gaze either clueless as to the reality or willfully ignoring it. Perhaps it was a combination of the two.

Selig’s performance in front of Congress along with the players who showed up that fateful day was humiliating in a myriad of ways. From Rafael Palmeiro’s finger-wagging lies; to Sammy Sosa’s “me no speaka the Inglés”; to Mark McGwire not being there to talk about the past; to Curt Schilling clamming up after his yapping for days before and after the fact, baseball has never acquitted itself well when self-preservation came to the forefront at the expense of stating the facts.

Has baseball improved since then? Has Selig gotten the message? Let’s just compare Selig with his NFL counterpart Goodell. Only people inside baseball’s front office know how alert Selig is to the Biogenesis investigation or anything else. Perhaps it’s a matter of, “Don’t tell me what I don’t want to know so I don’t have to lie about it later.” But this is an indicator that MLB should’ve tossed someone overboard when the entire PED scandal initially broke to send the message that a new sheriff was in town and things weren’t going to be done the old way. And I use old in every conceivable context of the word when discussing Selig. That would’ve meant that Selig had to go a decade ago, and he probably should’ve.

Would Goodell be so disengaged to not know every aspect of what’s going on with an investigation of this magnitude? Would he not take steps to control the message and how it’s framed as politicians—like Goodell and Goodell’s father Charles, a former United States Senator from New York—do and did? This is the fundamental difference between MLB and the NFL. Goodell is smooth, smart, and cagey. He’s available yet insulated; touchable but unknowable; protected and in command. Selig on the other hand is cadaverous and scripted, but unable to follow the script; he’s anything but smooth and the disheveled clothes, $10 haircut and bewildered countenance that was once somewhat charming lost its luster as he had to get to work to restore the game’s validity. What makes it worse when having a figurehead as commissioner is that baseball doesn’t appear to have taken steps to place competent people behind the scenes to pull the levers to keep the machine greased and running well. It’s people charging headlong into each other and having the bruises to prove it.

If Goodell makes the implication that the witnesses will be assisted in a criminal investigation as was alluded to in the ESPN piece linked above, you can bet that the NFL and Goodell himself will have the connections to follow through on the promise.

MLB? What are they going to do about it? Are they even capable of helping anyone? Would they know who to call and would that person even take the call as he would if he heard, “Roger Goodell is on the phone,” instead of “Bud Selig is on the phone,”?

Not much thought was put into any of this going back to allowing of players to get away with PED use and then the about-face due to public outcry, the banning of substances and the potential fallout of doing so. They want to clean up the game, but keep it entertaining to the fans. Did it ever occur to them that the reason that so many man games are being lost due to injury stems from the tendons and ligaments becoming weakened from carrying the extra muscle built through chemical means? That players can’t play 150 games and toss 225 innings and maintain performance without chemicals? That they aren’t going to be able to beat out a dribbler on the infield in August by chugging cups of coffee and cans of Red Bull as they would from their trusted amphetamines (greenies)? That the risk/reward for players like Alex Rodriguez, Ryan Braun, Melky Cabrera and anyone else whose name was caught up in Biogenesis was such that there was no reason not to do it?

What’s 100 games in comparison to the half a billion dollars in contracts—just for playing baseball alone and not counting endorsements—A-Rod will have made once his career is over? What’s 100 games in exchange for Braun’s MVP and the minute risk (Braun’s just unlucky, arrogant and somewhat stupid) of getting caught? What’s 100 games in exchange for a slightly above-average talent like Cabrera being given a contract for $16 million almost immediately after his humiliating suspension and public lambasting?

Until MLB does something about the laughable penalties, players will keep trying to navigate their way around the tests and punishments because it’s worth it for them to do it given the likelihood that they’ll get away with it.

Attendance and TV ratings are down all around baseball. In large part it’s because the fans who jumped on the bandwagon at the excitement of the home runs have little interest in watching Joe Maddon outmaneuver Joe Girardi with tactical skill. They want homers and if they’re not getting them, they won’t bother to watch. This new “get tough” policy is falling flat not just because of the maladroit manner in which it’s being implemented, but because there’s no integrity behind it. The owners are interested in one thing: the bottom line. Many are as blind as Selig was to the PED use and only came around when the evidence was plunked on their desks with the widespread demand to “do something” about it to “save the game.”

Using the 1960s as a guideline for running the Biogenesis investigation in 2013 forgets that back then, there wasn’t the constant flow of available information with real time stories, opinions and criticisms appearing immediately and going viral. Back then, MLB would’ve been able to get in front of the story using friendly, like-minded reporters who were willing to do the Max Mercy thing from The Natural and “protect” the game. In other words, they would protect the people who owned the game against the ephemeral presence of the players who come and go and who were using drugs to undeservedly place themselves in the stratosphere of legends that was once rightfully limited to Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Bob Feller. Now there are bloggers, reporters and networks gathering information as it comes in. It can’t be controlled.

For MLB to put forth the pretense of being all-in for the Biogenesis investigation is the epitome of wasteful hypocrisy. They can pound on doors, stand on rooftops and proclaim their commitment to stopping PED use. They can threaten, cajole, demand and make empty promises, but that’s not going to alter the reality that the changes to the game have to be foundational and not a self-serving attempt to clean up a game that has been infested from the top to the bottom due in large part to the inaction of MLB itself.

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Paul Lebowitz’s 2013 Baseball Guide Now Available

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