The Astros and the Antiquated “Process”

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In this Tyler Kepner piece in today’s New York Times, the Astros and their plan for the future is again detailed. You can insert your own joke about their early spring training activity of practicing a post-victory celebration. By the time we get to August and they’ve likely traded off the rest of the veteran players they have on the roster including Carlos Pena, Bud Norris, Jose Veras, Rick Ankiel and Wesley Wright and released Philip Humber and Erik Bedard, they’ll be so dreadful that a post-victory celebration will be so rare that the celebration should resemble clinching a post-season berth.

What’s most interesting about the piece is the clinging to the notion that the key to success is still the decade ago Moneyball strategy (first put into practice by the late 1990s Yankees) to run the starting pitchers’ pitch counts up to get them out of the game and get into the “soft underbelly” of the middle relief corps and take advantage of bad pitching in the middle innings.

Is it still an effective tactic if everyone is doing it and the opposition is better-prepared for it? There’s a case for saying no.

Back then, most teams were still functioning with a middle relief staff of journeymen, youngsters and breathing bodies. In 1998, for example, the Red Sox won 92 games in comparison to the Yankees 114, made the playoffs, and had as middle relievers Rich Garces, John Wasdin, Carlos Reyes and Jim Corsi. The Indians of 1998 were the one team that put a scare into the Yankees that season and had Paul Shuey, Eric Plunk, Jose Mesa (after he’d lost his closer’s job to Michael Jackson and before he was traded to the Giants at mid-season), and other forgettable names like Steve Karsay, Chad Ogea and Ron Villone.

These were the good teams in the American League. The bad teams starting rotations were bad enough before getting into their bullpens that it didn’t matter who a team like the Yankees were facing, they were going to hammer them.

Today, the game is different. The pitch counts are more closely monitored, but certain teams—the Rangers, Giants and Cardinals—don’t adhere to them so fanatically that it can be counted on for a pitcher to be yanked at the 100-pitch mark. Also, teams have better and more diverse middle relief today than they did back then because clubs such as the Rays are taking the job more seriously.

Waiting out a great pitcher like Felix Hernandez is putting a hitter in the position where he’s going to be behind in the count and facing a pitcher’s pitch. In that case, it makes more sense to look for something hittable earlier in the count and swing at it.

With a mediocre pitcher like Jason Vargas of the Angels, he’s more likely to make a mistake with his array of soft stuff, trying to get ahead in the count to be able to throw his changeup, so looking for something early in the count makes sense there as well. In addition, with a pitcher like Vargas (and pretty much the whole Angels’ starting rotation), you’re better off with him in the game than you are with getting into the bullpen, so the strategy of getting into the “weaker” part of the staff doesn’t fit as the middle relievers aren’t that far off in effectiveness from Vargas.

Teams use their bullpens differently today. You see clubs loading up on more specialists and carrying 13 pitchers with a righty sidearmer, a lefty sidearmer, a conventional lefty specialist, and enough decent arms to get to the late relievers. The Cardinals are an example of this with Marc Rzepczynski as their lefty specialist; Randy Choate as their sidearmer; and Trevor Rosenthal and Joe Kelly, both of whom have been starters, can provide multiple innings and throw nearly 100-mph.

I’m not suggesting hitters go to the plate behaving like Jeff Francoeur, willing to swing at the resin bag if the pitcher throws it, but swinging at a hittable fastball if it comes his way and not worrying that he’ll get yelled at for being a little more aggressive and deviating from the faulty “process.”

The Astros can use this idea of “process” all they want, but the reality is that they may hit a few homers and be drilling it into their hitters from the bottom of their minor league system up that they want patience and don’t care about batting average, but by the time they’re in the middle of their rebuild it might get through that this strategy isn’t what it once was. Waiting, waiting, waiting sometimes means the bus is going to leave without you. Other teams have adjusted enough so it won’t matter if the hitter is trying to intentionally raise the pitch count because it won’t have the same result as it did when the idea first came into vogue with Moneyball. And it’ll go out the window just as the theories in the book have too.

Essays, predictions, player analysis, under the radar fantasy picks, breakout candidates, contract status of all relevant personnel—GMs, managers, players—and anything else you could possibly want to know is in my new book Paul Lebowitz’s 2013 Baseball Guide now available on Amazon.comSmashwordsBN and Lulu. It’s useful all season long. Check it out and read a sample.

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My Annual MLB Draft Rant

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I tuned into the draft coverage on the MLB Network last night for a brief moment as they were up to pick 40 or so.

When talking about the newly minted MLB draftees, Harold Reynolds had the same look on his face as Sarah Palin when she discusses neuroscience.

And among the panel on the MLB Network, Reynolds was the eloquent one.

Reynolds himself was the 2nd pick in the 1980 MLB Draft. To get a gauge on how convoluted the draft was back then, Reynolds was taken in the secondary phase of the June draft. It’s safe to say that if he’d been taken in the regular phase, Reynolds would not have been the second overall pick when Darryl Strawberry, Darnell Coles and Billy Beane—prep school standouts all—were in the draft.

Reynolds was a good big league player, but not worth such a high pick under any circumstances. That analysis is, of course, in retrospect.

He might’ve been drafted that highly because no one–no….one–knows what 99.9% of the drafted players are going to become. There are so many variables that it’s impossible to know. And that’s the point.

John Hart was also on the MLB Network panel and he has a unique perspective into the draft because he’s been a baseball man and run two different organizations. That perspective should have led Hart to toss his hands up in the air and say, “Who knows?”

Hart was one of the GMs who passed on Derek Jeter in 1992. In the case of the Indians (Hart’s club) it was in favor a right-handed pitcher named Paul Shuey.

Was it the ghastly mistake that hindsight suggests it was? Or did the Indians and the other teams who let Jeter “slip” by see something in another player that made those players preferable to Jeter?

There are very few players who are consensus first round picks and can be expected to be star big leaguers. It didn’t take much effort to look at Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez, Bryce Harper or Stephen Strasburg and anoint them as future megastars. For Jeter, who would’ve looked at that skinny and somewhat funny looking high school kid with the fade haircut and expected him to become what he’s become?

No one. Not even the Yankees.

Hart knows this. The armchair experts don’t.

Most of the draft comments I saw were coming from people who don’t know anything about MLB itself, so what are the odds they’re going to know anything about the draft?

What I found laughable was what passed for “insider” analysis from people on the web. They were regurgitating stuff they read in a scouting directory or saw online and treating it as if it’s gospel. If the inside baseball people don’t know what a player is going to be, then you can be pretty sure that a guy sitting in front of his computer and never picked up a baseball doesn’t know either.

There were players being compared to Willie Mays.

Willie Mays!!!

Willie Mays is, by many estimates, the best player ever. So some 17-year-old kid is going to be the next Mays? Really?

I can tell you right now that the odds of that happening are zero point zero zero zero zero zero zero zero.

In other words, it’s not going to happen.

Then imaginary controversies were created. What did it mean to Jose Iglesias that the Red Sox drafted a shortstop with their first pick?!? Did it mean they no longer believe in Iglesias?

No. It means that they saw a player they had use for—in some way as a player, as a trade chip, as a guy they didn’t want and decided to draft to save the money for next year’s draft, for whatever—and selected him. A shortstop can be moved anywhere on the field and play adequately. Bret Saberhagen was drafted as a shortstop who’d pitched a bit in high school and the Royals decided that he was going to pitch after they’d drafted him. Two Cy Young Awards and a World Series MVP later, a potential Hall of Fame career as a pitcher had been derailed by injuries. Saberhagen would not have been what he was as a shortstop if he even made it to the big leagues at all.

There’s no “approach” to the draft. It’s not about signability; it’s not about drafting college players who are close to the big leagues to help immediately; it’s not about money in the bottom-line sense. It’s about picking players who you think have talent and hoping they develop to be used as trade chips or to make it to the big leagues and play for the team that drafted them.

The talk about the changes made to the draft in the CBA are irrelevant and missing the main point that it’s the big league players in the union now who screwed the amateurs because they’d had enough of the Harpers and Strasburgs of the world getting money that could have (and in their mind should have) been allocated to established big leaguers. I can tell you the thinking of the big leaguers who were faced with a relatively hard salary cap and teams like the Athletics and Rays telling potential free agents that they only had X amount of money to spend per year on the organization as a whole; Y was allocated to the big league product; Z was going into the draft.

Why would any big leaguer in his right mind want to see a $15 million check handed to some kid out of high school when an agreement could be made to tamp that down as a rule with punishing sanctions dropped on the collective heads of the teams that flout those rules?

The attitude of the MLB union chafing at a player never having played professionally getting that kind of money isn’t wrong. Let them work their way up. Let them deal with constrictions of what they can make.

You’re being sold snakeoil. The draft is important, but it’s not worth all this faux attention given to it by people who don’t know much of anything about the players they’re talking about apart from what they’re fed.

Reynolds, Hart and everyone else used the buzzwords: upside, power fastball, speed, athleticism to cover up the fact that they had no idea who or what the majority of the drafted players were.

It’s a speculative farce.

When he was broadcasting NFL games, Terry Bradshaw used to use a fake player’s name as being in on a tackle every single week regardless of which teams were playing. No one noticed.

I’d love to come up with a fictional player for next year’s draft complete with a bio, photo and video and say that he’s a potential top pick with some array of skills that make him viable not as the first pick in the first round, but as someone who could be taken between rounds one and five. Someone would buy into it’d go viral.

For a player and person who doesn’t exist.

Would anyone notice?

I’m dubious.

That might explain how ridiculous this whole charade is and the attention paid to it would stop.

It would work too. I know it would. And it would absolutely be more entertaining that this current nonsense.

It’s no contest.

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Breaking Not Good

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In today’s NY Times, Tyler Kepner relates the story of B.J. Wallace.

Wallace was one of the players taken before Derek Jeter in the 1992 MLB Draft. Selected 3rd by the Expos, Wallace had promising numbers in his first minor league season with an 11-8 record; 112 hits allowed in 137 innings; and 126 strikeouts. As a lefty, he could’ve had a career in the big leagues even had he not become a star equitable with being the 3rd pick in the draft.

He had shoulder surgery in 1994 and was out of baseball by 1996.

With those strikeout numbers and that hits/innings pitched ratio, Wallace obviously had some talent. But again, as is customary with retrospective critiques, because he and the other players taken ahead of Jeter—Phil Nevin; Paul Shuey; Jeffrey Hammonds; and Chad Mottola—aren’t and never were Jeter, their selections are considered mistakes.

So many things go into a draft choice that it can be justified by truth as much as it’s decried by history and both can be totally wrong.

Kepner cites that the Expos saved $250,000 by drafting Wallace instead of Jeter, but who knows if it was an either/or situation? Maybe they had their eyes on Nevin, Hammonds or whomever rather than a skinny high school shortstop from Michigan with the Kid ‘n Play haircut?

For the same reasons that Billy Beane was considered to be a “card-counter” and was saving money by drafting players who had no other options, were armed with verifiable college stats; full physical development; and were willing to take less money to sign, the Expos saved some money on a pitcher who clearly had some ability but got hurt.

How is that something to reference as if there was an untold amount of idiocy going on in Montreal for passing on Jeter?

The reason Wallace’s name has come up is that he was recently arrested for manufacturing methamphetamine from his home.

His name is in the paper and people know who he is, but it’s not the right section of the paper; nor is it for the reasons hoped for when he was taken ahead of Jeter.

But the two things are entirely separate and shouldn’t be connected as meaning anything. It doesn’t.

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