Randy Levine Is Not George Steinbrenner

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George Steinbrenner is dead. Hank Steinbrenner has been muzzled like one of the Steinbrenners’ prize horses. Hal Steinbrenner is almost Derek Jeter-like in his ability to speak and say nothing at the same time. That leaves team president Randy Levine as the team spokesman with whom the media feels it can light a fuse and ignite an explosion.

The fact remains that Randy Levine is not George Steinbrenner. Whether or not this is a good or bad thing is in the eyes of the beholder. It’s a natural occurrence for memories to focus on the positive after someone is dead and gone. The truth is that George spent a lot of money, fired a lot of managers and had long stretches of dysfunction and embarrassment surrounding his organization. That’s before getting into his two suspensions. The Yankees rebuilt with George suspended for the Howie Spira affair and it’s unlikely that the young players who were part of the Yankees five championships over the past 18 years would have been allowed to develop as Yankees had he been around amid all his impatient bluster. He would have traded them. Through fortuitous circumstances, he returned to a team on the cusp of a championship and his public profile grew from a raving dictator who’d ruined a once-proud franchise into the generous general who led the club and gave his employees everything they needed to be successful.

The Yankee fans who started rooting for the team, conveniently, when they won their first championship of the era in 1996, only remember the “good” George. He was irreplaceable in a multitude of ways, positively and negatively. Writers miss him because their newspapers and websites would be filled with threats, missives, irrational screaming sessions that could just as easily have come from the pages of Mein Kampf, and demands that the team play better with no excuses. The fans miss him—with some justification—because if he were around, there wouldn’t be an $189 million limit on the 2014 payroll and they wouldn’t be trotting the array of cheap and limited no-names at catcher, at third base, at first base and in the outfield as they have so far this season.

But he’s gone. Now there’s a college of cardinals in his place with an interest in making money above winning. They don’t have the passion for the game and competition that the father had. Perhaps it was inevitable that once he was gone the edge would be gone too. The fear that accompanied working for the Yankees has degenerated into a corporate comfortableness. The sense of urgency has disappeared and there’s no one to replicate it.

In this ESPN piece, Wallace Matthews tried to get some answers from Levine and walked away with nothing. Levine has been under fire in recent days because of his comment that the team has the talent to contend. Whether or not he really believes that is known only to him. He’s not a baseball guy, but the Yankees’ baseball guys haven’t done a particularly good job either and that’s something that George would’ve latched onto and, also with some justification, gone into a raving rant wondering why the young players that were supposed to be the cornerstones to the future have, by and large, faltered. If it was George, he’s openly ask why the Rays, A’s, Pirates and others are able to win without a $200 million payroll and his team can’t. It’s obvious, from Hal’s statements, that he too is wondering the same thing. The difference between him and his father is that he’s acting on it by slashing payroll. Levine is the front man, nothing more. He’s not able to do the George thing and cause earthquakes with his bellowing. People sort or roll their eyes at him and/or ignore him.

Levine also failed to give votes of confidence to general manager Brian Cashman and manager Joe Girardi. Was that by design? If it had been George in his heyday, both would be in serious jeopardy. The ground under Cashman’s feet should be teetering regardless of whether it was George, the Steinbrenner kids or Levine making the decision; Girardi deserves a better fate and if they fire him, he’ll have his choice of about four to six jobs almost immediately, some very tempting like the Nationals, Angels and his hometown White Sox. Dismissing Girardi would speed the team’s downfall. Dismissing Cashman would probably be a positive given the team’s new financial circumstances and the GM’s clear inability to function under this template.

Levine sounded as if he was trying to be positive and not be controversial. Because he’s not George and because the media and fans are looking for fire and brimstone, they’re clutching at what Levine said, as innocuous as it was, and what he didn’t say. That makes it a no-win, meaningless situation. Nobody really cares what Levine says because he doesn’t have the surrounding lunacy that was a George hallmark. There’s no George Steinbrenner anymore. He’s not coming back. And as things stand now, neither are the Yankees that George’s money built.

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The Royals Should Not Sell

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One you reference Joe (the Twins should’ve drafted Mark Prior over Joe Mauer amid dozens of other analytical baseball travesties) Sheehan as the basis for your logic, your foundation is built for collapse. In this SB Nation posting, Rob Neyer suggests the Royals throw the towel in on the season while they’re still within reasonable striking distance of first place by trading Ervin Santana, Greg Holland and Luke Hochevar. Needless to say, I’m not swayed by the Baseball Prospectus playoff percentages that are used as tenets to make these moves and I really don’t care what Sheehan says about anything.

The Royals have disappointed this season. They made a series of deals to try and win now and they’ve been hit or miss. James Shields has been good; Wade Davis inconsistent; Wil Myers, now with the Rays, is looking like the hype was real. The Royals haven’t scored in large part because their approach has been atrocious and Mike Moustakas has played poorly enough that they might want to consider sending him to the minors. But wouldn’t a sell-off of Santana, Holland and Hochevar be giving up on a season when they are still only seven games out of first place behind the somewhat disappointing Tigers? That’s an eight game winning streak away from getting it to three games. They have a large number of games against the White Sox, Mets, Mariners, Twins and Marlins. They have a lot of games left with the Tigers as well. Is it out of the question that they can get to within five games by September 1? If it were a team run by Sheehan or Neyer, would it be justified to give up on the season while still within five games of first place with a month left? Or is the loathing of general manager Dayton Moore so intense that it clouds their judgment to try and get him fired?

It appears that the hardcore stat guys have still not learned the lesson that taking every single player at a certain position and lumping them into a group as what teams “should” do with them based on that position is not analysis. It’s hedging. The lack of consistency in the suggested strategy and examples are conveniently twisted. At the end of the piece, Neyer writes, “We know what the A’s and Rays would do, though” when discussing why closers are disposable. Neyer writes that Holland is “probably worth more now than he’ll ever be worth again.” Yet the Rays, who got the best year of his life out of Fernando Rodney in 2012 and had him under contract at a cheap rate for another year, didn’t trade him when he was in a similar circumstance. The Rays had traded for a big money closer in Rafael Soriano before the 2010 season, much to the consternation of the “pump-and-dump/you can find a closer” wing of stat guys. Which is it? Is there consistency of theory or consistency when it confirms the bias as to what “should” be done?

I also find it laughable when people like Sheehan and Neyer have all the guts in the world to make these decisions while sitting behind a keyboard simultaneously having no responsibility to try and adhere to the various aspects of running a club—doing what the owner wants, attracting fans and keeping the job.

There’s an argument to be made for making deals to get better for the next season if the situation calls for it. If not an outright fire sale, a concession to reality by dealing marketable commodities is the correct move when a team is underachieving. The Blue Jays are an example far more relevant to the concept of giving up in late July than the Royals are. The Blue Jays have a GM, Alex Anthopoulos, who thinks more in line with what the stat people think and is probably more likely to be fired after the season than Moore.

With Neyer, Rany Jazayerli and presumably Bill James (even though he now works for the Red Sox), I can’t tell whether they’re providing objective analysis based on the facts or they’re Royals fans hoping the club comes completely undone because they don’t like Moore and would like someone closer to their line of thinking running the team. If that’s the case there’s nothing wrong with that if one is honest about it, but it’s somewhat untoward and shady to be using stats and out of context examples to “prove” a point.

Regardless of how they’ve played, the Royals are only seven games out of first place. That’s no time to start clearing the decks of players they might need to make a run. And numbers, hatred of the GM and disappointments aside, a run is still possible, like it or not.

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Cliff Lee And The All-Star Look

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If there are a trail of bodies or body parts scattered from Cleveland to Philadelphia to Seattle to Texas and back to Philadelphia, be on the lookout for this man.

cliffleeallstar

What is Cliff Lee’s problem? Never mind that his All-Star look was more appropriate for a man awaiting a decision as to whether or not he’d get the death penalty and the question as to whether he’d ever learned to fake a smile and tip his hat. This isn’t about that face which would make a hardened criminal or sociopathic dictator think twice before messing with him, but it’s about the repeated trades of Lee and how he’s seemingly always up for discussion in trade talk. We’ve seen instances of him glaring at teammates who make errors behind him and even confronting them as he did with Shane Victorino. Much like the B.J. UptonEvan Longoria incident when Longoria questioned Upton as to why he didn’t hustle on a ball hit in the gap, it obviously wasn’t the first time that players, coaches and the manager spoke to Upton regarding his lackadaisical play. Lee’s name prominently featured in trade talks, his strange history as a journeyman in spite of how good he is and that face make it a viable question as to whether he’s worth the aggravation unless he’s pitching like an All-Star.

Is Lee a clubhouse problem? While his teammates appear to respect his commitment and status as one of the top pitchers in baseball over the past five years, it reverts back to wondering why he’s always a negotiable topic in trade discussions. With the Indians the trade to the Phillies was spurred by his contract status, that the team was rebuilding and they wanted to maximize his value rather than lose him for nothing a year-and-a-half later. With the Phillies, the club got the idea that he wanted to test the free agent waters after the 2010 season and they preferred someone who was with them for the long-term in Roy Halladay while simultaneously maintaining some semblance of a farm system. Lee denied that he told the Phillies he didn’t want to negotiate an extension prior to the trade.

With the Mariners, the club was in the midst of a disastrous season in which the planned dual-aces at the top of their rotation with Felix Hernandez and Lee wasn’t working out and they traded him to the Rangers for a large package of youngsters. Lee certainly didn’t look any happier with the Mariners than he did during the All-Star introductions.

He went back to the Phillies after the 2010 season, spurning the Rangers and Yankees. Whether or not Lee is a clubhouse problem or is just an introverted, intense competitor who lets his emotions get the better of him is known only to his teammates and the organizations he’s played for. With Lee, though, there’s been a smirking shrug when things aren’t going his way as if it’s not his fault.

The Phillies’ decision to trade Lee once was based on pure business practices. When the parties reunited after backbiting and back-and-forth accusations as to what went wrong the first time, it was viewed as Lee liking Philly better than New York and the Phillies offering more money than Texas. For the Phillies it was an overt admission of the initial mistake in trading Lee. Given their continued willingness to listen to offers on Lee, it’s clearly evident that the relationship is still a business one. Lee didn’t want to bring his family to New York where his wife had a bad experience during the playoffs against the Yankees while he was pitching for the Rangers. The Phillies wanted to build a juggernaut. Both got what they wanted.

Currently there is speculation that the Phillies might trade Lee if they decide to sell at the trading deadline, but they’ve said they’re not going to. It’s not because they’re in love with Lee, but because they think they’re still in contention for 2013 and will be in contention in 2014, so they’ll be a better team with Lee than they would be with the prospects he’d bring back or the players they could sign with the money freed up after getting his contract off the books. Lee doesn’t sound as if he’s all that bothered by the trade talk. His attitude and that face indicate he’s treating the game as a business and if he’s traded, that’s part of the deal. He’ll get paid and will escape another town and use his glare to scare off onlookers yet again in a new venue.

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Manny Ramirez’s Last(?) Fight

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Manny Ramirez will either wind up like Muhammad Ali or George Foreman. With Ali, his final comeback attempt (not counting a last-last, this is definitely the last fight in 1981 in which he lost to journeyman Trevor Berbick) came when he took a ferocious beating from a reluctant, in-his-prime heavyweight champ Larry Holmes. Ali went to great lengths to show what great shape he was in prior to the fight by getting back to the weight he fought at when he defeated Foreman in Zaire. But the fact that he was in shape didn’t matter. Holmes battered him in a perfunctory manner and, by the end, was screaming at the referee to stop the fight before he seriously injured Ali. Ali certainly didn’t need the money nor the increased number of blows to his already damaged brain, but he couldn’t stop himself from seeking the limelight and that one last shot at glory doing the one thing he truly knew how to do better than anyone else.

With Foreman, he was ridiculed when he came out of retirement and is still looked at with a jaundiced gaze by saying God told him to do it. He was overweight and old, but the laughter ended when he showed he still had the punching power and savvy to win fights. He put up a great show when losing to Evander Holyfield and eventually knocked out Michael Moorer to regain the title he’d lost twenty years earlier to Ali in 1974.

With Ramirez, he is returning after a stint hitting against, in boxing parlance, tomato cans in Taiwan. In Taiwan, they’re professionals and they’re talented, but they’re not on a level with a good Double A team in North America. While there, he was hitting subpar pitching in accumulating a .352 average, .422 OBP, and eight homers in 49 games. Abruptly leaving his Taiwanese team—the EDA Rhinos—Ramirez was rumored to be heading to Japan before deciding he’d like another shot with an MLB team. No one seemed interested until the Rangers decided to take a chance on him. The question is, can he help them?

Ramirez hasn’t played with a major league team since he went 1 for 17 for the Rays in 2011 before walking away and subsequently being caught failing another PED test. Amid much fanfare in an otherwise dreary off-season for the Athletics in the winter of 2011-2012, he was signed to a minor league contract. At that point, the A’s were embarking on another rebuilding project and for half the season, played as poorly as predicted before a sudden hot streak vaulted them into the playoffs. No one knew they could achieve those heights when they signed Ramirez and they needed him to sell a few seats with the mere hint of him being in the big leagues as a sideshow. In a best case scenario, he’d attract a few fans and hit well enough for the A’s to trade him to a contender (because not even Billy Beane thought they’d contend in 2012); worst case, they’d release him. He batted .302 in 63 at bats for Triple A Sacramento with no homers. The A’s released him last June and he went to Taiwan.

Now he’s back.

Can the Rangers expect anything from him? Like the decision on the part of the A’s to sign him, this is a test case for team benefit. The Rangers are contenders and need a righty bat. The trade deadline is July 31st and the Rangers are aggressive and active in improving their team. With a month to go before the time comes when they’ll have to make an acquisition along the lines of Mike Morse to boost their righty power, it’s cheaper and zero risk to look at Ramirez and get an answer as to whether he can still hit. Like Ali’s last fight, it could be a “would you stop it already?” moment. Or it could be an out-of-shape former star who shows he can still perform as Foreman did. The odds are it’s the former and even if the evidence is clear that Ramirez needs to hang it up, he probably won’t. Either way, there’s no risk for the Rangers to have a look.

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MLB Trade Deadline: A Phillies Selloff Makes No Sense

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The discussion of a possible Phillies selloff is promoted by the media for the idea that some of the sexiest potential trade targets are on their roster, namely Cliff Lee and Jonathan Papelbon. Unless Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. is blown away by an offer, Lee’s not going anywhere. Papelbon is the name to watch, but he’ll get them financial relief and won’t yield a bounty of prospects in return. Apart from that, the Phillies’ situation—both financially and practically—has to be examined before stating with unequivocal certitude of what they “should” do while not being in Amaro’s position.

The Phillies are not a good team and it’s not due to injuries or age. It’s because they’re not very good. They would’ve been a good team if they had Roy Halladay pitching in the form he did in his first two years in Philadelphia, but he’s not that anymore even if he’s healthy. If Halladay was healthy, they’d be mediocre and nominal playoff contenders. With the Braves and Nationals in their own division and the Pirates (who are for real), the Cardinals and Reds in the Central division, snagging one of the two Wild Cards is a delusion for the Phillies in their current state. Ordinarily, that might predicate a housecleaning of pending free agents and marketable veterans. But it again returns to the Phillies’ situation and it leaves them with few options.

Because the Phillies went all-in in 2010 when they were, on paper, playing the same way they are now and traded for Roy Oswalt to spur a blazing hot streak over the final two months of the season, there’s a dreamy hope that they’ll repeat the process in 2013. The difference is that they don’t have any prospects left to trade for a pitcher of Oswalt’s stature and the rest of their club isn’t underperforming, but is performing what they’re currently capable of because they’re beaten up and old.

They can move Michael Young and I think they will, but they’re not going to get much for him. They can offer Chase Utley around, but he’s a pending free agent and despite the fact that a new setting and a legitimate pennant race will wake him up and possibly revert him to the MVP-status he enjoyed during the Phillies years of NL East dominance, teams won’t go crazy for a rental and give up the prospects to justify the Phillies not keeping Utley, trying to sign him to a reasonable deal to stay or letting him leave and taking the draft pick compensation. Delmon Young might be a reasonable acquisition for an AL club that is going to be in the playoffs so he can DH and do one thing he does well: hit in the playoffs. Carlos Ruiz is a free agent at the end of the year and he too would help a legitimate contender, but again, they won’t get bring back stud prospects.

That leaves Lee and Papelbon.

I don’t believe the Phillies are going to trade Lee. It doesn’t make sense considering the rest of the roster being entrenched in trying to win over the next couple of years while the club begins rebuilding their gutted farm system that was neglected as the available money for development was allocated for the big league product. Teams that do what the Phillies did in trading all their top prospects to try and win now and simultaneously ignore the draft know they’re mortgaging the future with a balloon payment. That balloon payment is due soon and they’re going to have to pay it.

Amaro is not going to do a full-blown rebuild because he can’t afford to have an empty park waiting five, seven, ten or however many years it takes for the team to be good again. It’s easier to hope that they’ll get a resurgence with the veterans under contract and slowly start resuscitating their minor league system. Realistically, what would they get for Lee? He has a limited no-trade clause so there are only eight teams to which he can be traded and he’s owed $62.5 million through 2015 not counting his salary for the rest of 2013. To get viable prospects to make the deal worth the Phillies’ while, they’d have to pick up a chunk of his money. To get out from under his full salary, they’d have to take nothing back in return. Then what? They’d need pitching for next year to try and win with the players they still have with none as good as Lee on the market. So it makes no sense to even speculate about in any manner other than to garner attention for something that’s highly unlikely to happen during the season.

As for Papelbon, he’s one name who could help a club like the Tigers who need a closer. He could put them over the top and for the Phillies, he’s replaceable if they’re not in the playoff hunt. He doesn’t appear happy in Philadelphia, they don’t seem to like him very much and getting rid of his salary for a couple of mid-level minor leaguers would appeal to everyone. If they’re out of the race in the second half, they could give Phillippe Aumont a look as the closer and after the season go the cheap (and ironic) route and bring back Ryan Madson who, by then, might not have thrown one pitch for another team after leaving the Phillies only to return two years later to have a shot to be the closer again.

The idea behind trade deadline speculation is to formulate a clear-cut scenario of either/or. Either we’re in it and we buy or we’re out of it and we sell. That comes from the Moneyball school of thought with no obstacles other than financial, but that’s fiction just like Moneyball. The Rays can get away with that kind of attitude. The teams with fans who pay to see the team and live and breathe with the idea that they could possibly challenge for a World Series in spite of the odds—the Phillies, Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers—can’t do it that easily. The Phillies won’t sell. They’ll tweak. That means Papelbon will be the one of the whales to go and Lee will stay.

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Dusty Baker Has No Leverage With The Stat People

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The problem with bloggers, armchair experts and even beat reporters is that they think they know everything based on the numbers, the statements of the participants and history even when they don’t know and much of their critique is based on personal feelings and not facts and reality.

Yesterday the Reds lost to the Pirates in the eleventh inning after manager Dusty Baker didn’t use closer Aroldis Chapman in what is referred to here on HardballTalk as “high leverage situations.” The same piece also asserts that Baker “utilizes his bullpen according to the save rule.”

I have no problem with criticism if it’s accurate, but “managing according to the save rule” is an all-encompassing accusation that is used to hammer home the indictment against Baker even if the numbers defy it. Baker has used Chapman in 27 games this season. 16 were in save situations and 11 weren’t. The statingest of stat-loving clubs have similar numbers with their closers:

Fernando Rodney, Rays: save situations – 16; non-save situations – 9

Grant Balfour, Athletics: save situations – 13; non-save situations – 11

Jose Veras, Astros: save situations – 13; non-save situations – 12

Taking into account that the Reds are 35-22 and have had more opportunities to use Chapman in save situations than the other clubs and that the Reds have had 12 games that are classified as “blowouts” in comparison to the A’s having had 16, the Rays 18, and the Astros 19 (mostly on the losing end), is there a significant difference between people who the stat guys think are managing correctly and what Baker’s done? Add in that for most of the season Baker has had two former closers Jonathan Broxton and Sean Marshall to pitch the eighth inning and the argument for using Chapman in the eighth inning becomes weaker.

In order for Baker or any other manager to not manage according to the save rule would require a shifting of the entire bullpen to a perfect world scenario of varied arms and no particular role for any—the bullpen-by-committee. The bullpen-by-committee could work if there are young pitchers who can’t complain about their roles, veteran journeymen just happy to have a job, and a manager who’s comfortable in working in such a manner. This confluence of circumstances is hard to come by. In fact, in baseball today, it doesn’t exist.

And I thought the general rule of thumb was to use the closer at home if the game is tied or there’s a close deficit in the top of the ninth inning. If Baker was indeed holding Chapman out for the save opportunity, was it that terrible a decision if just about everyone—barring an emergency—does it? The “everyone” I’m referring to includes teams run by Billy Beane, Andrew Friedman, Theo Epstein and Jeff Luhnow who are idols in stat circles.

It got worse when Baker replied to a question as to why he didn’t use Chapman by saying, “That’s a manager’s decision,” he said. “You can’t put in Chapman all the time. I was saving Chapman for the (save). It’s easy now to say. I don’t know, man, maybe you should come down and manage.”

Chapman hasn’t pitched since Monday and has only pitched twice this week as Keith Law snarkily tweeted:

#allthetime RT @JYerina5: Dusty on why Chapman didn’t face Jones: “You can’t put in Chapman all the time” He has pitched twice this week

Let’s put Law in to manage a club somewhere and see how long he lasts with the amount of abuse the players would heap upon him as a non-player who’s really short, pompous and obnoxious before he ran away crying; how long he was able to take the scrutiny and sudden enemy status of those he thought were “allies” when he has a deer-in-the-headlights look at dealing with everything a manager has to deal with.

The critics wanted Baker to use Chapman in the eighth inning to pitch to Garrett Jones instead of having had Broxton do it. Broxton gave up a game-tying homer to Jones so this is the classic second guess. Is the strategic preference advocated by the “leverage” theory accurate? Yes, I suppose it is if the Reds had a dual-headed closer and used Chapman/Broxton interchangeably to get the admittedly meaningless stat save it would be, but they don’t. No team uses more than one closer, not even the Rays, A’s or Astros. Chapman has not pitched more than one inning since last August and needed to be shelved for a brief time in September because of shulder fatigue. Maybe he can’t pitch more than one inning.

The real culprits to Baker not using a lefty to pitch to Jones is the fact that he doesn’t have Marshall, who’s on the disabled list with a sore shoulder and that the Reds don’t use both Broxton and Chapman to close. If he had Marshall, we’re not talking about this because he would’ve had a lefty to pitch to Jones. If he used either Broxton or Chapman, Chapman might’ve started the eighth inning.

The question then becomes this: Would Baker have gotten ripped for using the myriad of alternatives because he didn’t have an explanation that suited the aesthetic of the critics who tear him to shreds no matter what he does or doesn’t do?

Don’t you think that Baker would’ve found a game to get Chapman into this week if he had the opportunity to get him some work? Chapman pitched on Monday May 27th and on Saturday night recording saves in both games. The game on Sunday was an afternoon game. Could it be that Chapman has something bothering him with his shoulder or elbow and is a bit tender if he’s used too much? He had shoulder problems last season, so it’s not out of the realm of possibility that there’s something tweaked and he was only available for one inning.

Could it be that Baker, in an admittedly clumsy fashion as evidenced by the response that was in the linked piece on HardballTalk, was trying to deflect that Chapman might be having some sort of an issue that the Reds don’t want anyone to know about? One that isn’t a long-term problem but could affect the way opposing teams stack their lineup and prepare their bench for the eventuality that Chapman might be used? The easy thing to do for the bloggers and “experts” is to take the decision and manager’s statement as to why he made the decision at face value and go to town in one of their favorite pastimes: unleashing on a manager they despise. It fits into the biases and beliefs of their constituencies that others could do a better job than the actual manager of the team whether they have the whole story or not.

Or maybe it was just a “manager’s decision” as Baker said, one he made based on the players he had available, the ones he didn’t, and the roles that have been assigned to relievers not just by him, but by every team in baseball. It just so happens that stat people hate Baker and use him as their case study of what’s “wrong” with managing. Except it’s everywhere and everyone else does pretty much the same thing.

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The Royals and Confirmation Bias

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If you’d like to rip the Royals for this pathetic backwards plummet they’re on in which they’ve gone from 17-10 to 21-27 in the span of three weeks, then fine. Their horrific run however doesn’t automatically confirm the doom and gloom that was predicted the second GM Dayton Moore made the decision to send a package to the Rays led by top prospect Wil Myers, pitcher Jake Odorizzi and others for pitchers James Shields and Wade Davis. Before starting the “I was right” brigade as if the record and stumble somehow interlocks with their retreat into familiarly rudderless territory and the only hope being that their young players will eventually develop and produce, looking at the real reason the team has played so badly is required.

Manager Ned Yost has received the bulk of the blame for the way the Royals have played since their 17-10 start and his decision to pull Shields out of the game that started the slide on May 6th at 102 pitches can be seen as the impetus to the fall. The whole purpose of acquiring Shields was to have the horse at the top of the rotation who would tell the other players—most of whom are young and inexperienced and have no history with a winner—this is how it’s done; I’ll carry you and show you the way. Yost didn’t accord Shields the opportunity to pitch that complete game against the White Sox after he’d allowed 2 hits and no runs, striking out 9 in eight innings. The game was handed over to closer Greg Holland by rote more than well-thought-out baseball maneuver and Holland blew the game. Then the Royals’ world came undone.

You can say that we wouldn’t be discussing this had Holland had a 1-2-3 ninth inning and the Royals went to 18-10 that day. You can say that Shields might have blown the game in the ninth as well. You can say that the team might’ve come apart anyway and instead of being 21-27, they’d be 22-26. And that type of woulda, shoulda, coulda only hammers home the point that whether they had made the trade of Myers for Shields or not, there’s no connection between them losing 17 of 21 and that the fall is being presented as Exhibit X as to why Moore needs to be fired or, at the very least, they need a new manager.

So what’s wrong with the Royals? The bullpen has been inconsistent; the back of the rotation (including Davis) has been shaky; and they’re not getting any offense from Mike Moustakas or enough offense from Eric Hosmer. That could be due to the two hitting coaches; it could be due to Yost’s familiar overwhelming intensity and strategic gaffes; or it could be due to bad luck. Myers isn’t exactly killing the ball in Triple A for the Rays (.263/.344/.441 slash line with 7 homers in 209 plate appearances) and Odorizzi was recently recalled to the majors. Would the Royals be in better position with those players in their lineup? Maybe, maybe not.

There are assertions to be made that the Royals weren’t ready to take that leap into going for it by trading youth like Myers and Odorizzi for veterans like Shields and Davis; that the front office jumped the gun by making that move now before the likes of Moustakas, Hosmer and Salvador Perez proved they needed veteran supplementation to become contenders; that they should’ve given Myers the right field job, kept Odorizzi and given their homegrown group a chance to win prior to doing something so drastic. But to imply the Shields trade is the “why” the Royals are staggering or that had it not been made they’d be in much better shape than they’re in now as if it has been “proven” to be a mistake is confirmation bias for those who hated the trade, hate the GM and hate the manager and are using it as a cudgel to batter their own desires into the public consciousness as if they “knew” it would happen.

I didn’t hear them complaining at 17-10.

It’s as if they were hiding and waiting to boost their own egos and would prefer to be right than be happy, to have their team lose and start the rebuilding process all over again with a new GM, one who will do what they want as if the strategies they prefer are unassailable and guaranteed to work any better than what Moore’s done. The trade was savaged and now the team is playing poorly, but there’s really not a link between the two. When ego and self-justification are involved, though, the reality doesn’t matter and instead of looking for solutions the Royals are getting “I told you sos.” And that rarely helps. In fact, it doesn’t help at all.

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Dealing With The Closer Issue

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Complaining about closers is like complaining about the weather: everyone talks about it, but no one does anything about it. The difference between the weather and closers is that something can be done about closers.

Amid all the talk about “what to do” with struggling relievers Jim Johnson and Fernando Rodney and the references of clubs who have found unheralded veterans to take over as their closer like the Cardinals with Edward Mujica and the Pirates with Jason Grilli, no one is addressing the fundamental problems with needing to have an “established” closer. Here they are and what to do about them.

Veteran relievers like to know their roles.

Managers like Whitey Herzog, Sparky Anderson, Billy Martin and Earl Weaver had the ability to tell their players that their “role” is to pitch when they tell them to pitch. Nowadays even managers who are relatively entrenched in their jobs like Joe Maddon have to have the players on their side to succeed. The Rays are a different story because they’re not paying any of their relievers big money and can interchange them if need be, but they don’t because Maddon doesn’t operate that way until it’s absolutely necessary.

Other clubs don’t have that luxury. They don’t want to upset the applecart and cause a domino effect of people not knowing when they’re going to pitch; not knowing if a pitcher can mentally handle the role of pitching the ninth inning; and don’t want to hear the whining and deal with the aftermath if there’s not someone established to replace the closer who’s having an issue. Rodney was only the Rays’ closer last season because Kyle Farnsworth (a foundling who in 2011 had a career year similar to Rodney in 2012) got hurt.

Until managers have the backing of the front office and have a group of relievers who are just happy to have the job in the big leagues, there’s no escaping the reality of having to placate the players to keep clubhouse harmony.

Stop paying for mediocrity in a replaceable role.

The Phillies and Yankees are paying big money for their closers Jonathan Papelbon and Mariano Rivera, but these are the elite at the position. Other clubs who have overpaid for closers include the Dodgers with Brandon League, the Red Sox with money and traded players to get Andrew Bailey and Joel Hanrahan, the Nationals with Rafael Soriano, and the Marlins who paid a chunk of Heath Bell’s salary to get him out of the clubhouse.

Bell has taken over for the injured J.J. Putz with the Diamondbacks and pitched well. The Cubs, in desperation, replaced both Carlos Marmol ($9.8 million in 2013) and Kyuji Fujikawa (guaranteed $9.5 million through 2014) with Kevin Gregg. The same Kevin Gregg who was in spring training with the Dodgers and released, signed by the Cubs—for whom he struggled as their closer when they were trying to contend in 2009—as a veteran insurance policy just in case. “Just in case” happened and Gregg has gone unscored upon and saved 6 games in 14 appearances.

As long as teams are paying closers big money, closers will have to stay in the role far longer than performance would dictate in an effort to justify the contract. It’s a vicious circle that teams fall into when they overpay for “established” closers. When the paying stops, so too will the necessity to keep pitching them.

Find a manager who can be flexible.

A manager stops thinking when it gets to the ninth inning by shutting off the logical remnants of his brain to put his closer into the game. If it’s Rivera or Papelbon, this is fine. If it’s anyone else, perhaps it would be wiser to use a lefty specialist if the situation calls for it. If Chase Utley and Ryan Howard are hitting back-to-back and a club has Randy Choate in its bullpen, would it make sense to use a righty whether it’s the ninth inning and “his” inning or not?

Maddon is flexible in his thinking and has the support of the front office to remove Rodney from the role if need be. One option that hasn’t been discussed for the Rays is minor league starter Chris Archer to take over as closer in the second half of the season. With the Rays, anything is possible. With other teams, they not only don’t want to exacerbate the problem by shuffling the entire deck, but the manager is going to panic if he doesn’t have his “ninth inning guy” to close. Even a veteran manager like Jim Leyland isn’t immune to it and a pitcher the front office didn’t want back—Jose Valverde—is now closing again because their handpicked choice Bruce Rondon couldn’t seize his spring training opportunity and the “closer by committee” was on the way to giving Leyland a heart attack, a nervous breakdown or both.

The solution.

There is no solution right now. Until teams make the conscious decision to stop paying relievers upwards of $10 million, there will constantly be the “established” closer. It’s a fundamental fact of business that if there isn’t any money in a job, fewer people who expect to make a lot of money and have the capability to make a lot of money in another position are going to want to take it. Finding replaceable arms who can be used wherever and whenever they’re told to pitch, ignore the save stat, and placed in a situation to be successful instead of how it’s done now will eliminate the need to pay for the ninth inning arm and take all the negative side effects that go along with it. Games will still get blown in the late innings, but at least it won’t be as expensive and will probably happen with an equal frequency. It’s evolution. And evolution doesn’t happen overnight, if it happens at all.

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SI’s Tom Verducci Grades Free Agents A Month Into The Semester

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Of course one month is more than enough time to determine whether or not a free agent is a bust or a boom. So it goes with Tom Verducci (he of the “Verducci Effect” of twisted pitching studies designed to prove the out of context and unprovable) having the audacity in Sports Illustrated to grade players who signed this past winter based on their production over the first month with their new teams.

Not only is it ridiculous, but it’s also out of context.

He talks about expectations with players like Zack Greinke, Josh Hamilton, and B.J. Upton and that Edwin Jackson has been “horrible” for the Cubs. Then there are references to big signings of the past by teams like the Yankees getting CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and Mark Teixeira after the 2008 season.

Yes, Greinke’s hurt. But his injury wasn’t one in which the Dodgers made a mistake by signing a pitcher who quickly tore an elbow ligament—he got run into by a 6’2” 240 pound truck named Carlos Quentin and broke his collarbone. He gets a grade of “C” because he got hurt?

Then we get to the “expectations.” Because teams either misjudged what they were getting by failing to look at the production of the players such as Upton or airdropped a mentally and physically fragile person like Hamilton into the dysfunction trumping all current MLB dysfunctions with the Angels doesn’t call into question the entire process of free agency. Sabathia is “declining?” Where? Teixeira is hurt and has still hit the ball out of the park and played Gold Glove defense when he’s played. The Yankees signed Burnett and got Burnett. They bought a flawed pitcher, they got a flawed pitcher. This is the most prevalent aspect of free agency: teams don’t accept what they’re getting and think they’ll unlock a player’s talent simply by having him put on their uniform. It’s not the money. It’s the misplaced beliefs.

In general, there’s a reason a player doesn’t live up to expectations when signing a big free agent deal. The Braves purchased a player in Upton who had a slash line of .246/.298/.454 in 2012. In 2011 it was .243/.331/.429. In 2010 it was .237/.322/.424. This is also a player who was repeatedly benched and called out by teammates on the Rays for lack of hustle. What’s wrong with B.J. Upton? Nothing apart from that fact that he’s B.J. Upton.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say Upton will start hitting to achieve the numbers he did in the last three years, hit his 18-20 homers, steal a few bases and play good defense in center field. This is what they bought. Now they’re disappointed because he didn’t turn into Rickey Henderson?

Verducci references players as “lemons” like they’re a bunch of used cars because clubs are taking the principle of supply and demand to its logical extreme by paying for a 1998 Honda as if it’s a 2013 Lamborghini. If a club does that, who’s at fault? Is that a “lemon” or a dumb decision on the part of the team that purchased it? The sign says “as is.”

Reading the article, you start to see through the SI scheme of garnering webhits by the linking in the middle of Verducci’s article to a piece “studying” teams over the past decade that “won” the previous winter and how they fared the next season; in the middle of that piece, another linking goes to that bastion of incredibility Joe Sheehan (he of the belief from 2004 that the Twins should have taken Mark Prior in the 2001 draft over Joe Mauer and projected Mauer’s future production to Mike Sweeney’s) looking at the “myth of winning the winter.” It’s only a myth because the media constantly harps on crowning a winner in the winter since they don’t have the imagination to write about anything else in the off-season. As for the judgment of players a month into the season, there are other things to write about. What’s the excuse this time?

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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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