Seaver, Palmer and Pitcher Injuries

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Tom Seaver made his opinion of pitch counts and innings limits perfectly clear in the New York Daily News. (He’s against them.) Jim Palmer added his own position in yesterday’s New York Times:

Palmer won 83 games from 1970 to 1973, but he hurt his ulnar nerve in 1974 and made only 26 starts. He was healthy enough to throw a complete game in the playoffs, but the Orioles cited his lack of durability as a reason to cut his salary the next season. Pitchers tried everything to grunt through injuries, Palmer said, because it was the only way to be paid.

“It didn’t make us any better than these guys,” Palmer said. “I’m not saying these guys aren’t terrific players who play their hearts out, because they do. It’s just a different era.”

Both are right. Seaver has a valid point in his clear disgust at the way in which pitchers are babied today when it’s not even working. But Palmer hammers home the real reason that pitchers and teams are more willing to work together to allow pitch counts, innings limits and paranoia to trump an employer-employee relationship: money.

If baseball players were still indentured servants as they were during the time Seaver and Palmer were in the nascent stages of their career, you wouldn’t see these protectionist edicts limiting the pitchers from injuring themselves. The clubs wouldn’t care; the pitchers would be more interested in keeping their jobs than being able to pitch when they’re 30; and the agents – if players had agents at all – would shrug their shoulders because they weren’t making that much money off the players either. Palmer had won the Cy Young Award in 1973 and finished second in the MVP voting, was injured in 1974, still made 26 starts and took a paycut for 1975. That’s what players dealt with. It wasn’t take it or leave it. It was take it. Period.

In 1974, Scott Boras was a 21-year-old outfielder/third baseman in his first year of professional baseball with the Cardinals’ Rookie team in the Gulf Coast League. Now he has the power to tell teams how they’re going to use their employees to whom they’ve given multi-million dollars in guaranteed contracts and bonus money.

Last night on the ESPN Sunday Night Baseball telecast, Orel Hershiser stated that The Verducci Effect – a study of why pitchers supposedly get injured by writer Tom Verducci – had been “debunked.” Despite their acknowledgment of the theory, I don’t think any credible person inside baseball or the medical community took all that seriously a random study from a baseball writer for any reason other than to validate what they already wanted to do. In other words, “Here’s a written article to allow me to explain away why I’m shutting down Stephen Strasburg.” I wrote about the absurdity at the time. Now all of a sudden, it’s trendy to question it as more and more pitchers get injured in spite of the attention paid to it and other theories formulated with a confirmation bias.

Are the new strategies making pitchers better? Is weight training good or bad? Do pitch counts help or hurt? Should the chains be removed and pitchers allowed to build up a tolerance to high numbers of innings and pitch counts or should they be babied more? Seaver, Palmer, Ferguson Jenkins, Steve Carlton and countless others pitched inning after inning and never had significant injuries and, back then, Tommy John was a pretty good sinkerballer and not a term that pitchers and teams loathe to hear. We don’t hear about the number of great talents who came up with a non-specifically diagnosed “sore arm” and either lost their effectiveness or never pitched again.

The Mets and Nationals did everything humanly possible to keep Matt Harvey and Strasburg on the mound and pitching. Both got injured anyway. There’s no ironclad method to keeping pitchers healthy; no smoking gun; no pitching coach/manager to blame; no reason for it to have happened. It just did. All the second-guessing and preventative measures aren’t going to change that and baseball is certainly not going back to the days in which pitchers threw 300 innings.

Pitcher injuries are part of life when one chooses to become a pitcher and there’s nothing that can be done to stop it. That was true in 1960, 1970, 1980 and it’s true in 2013. The game may change, but that fact won’t.




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Good News and Bad News: Halladay’s Not Hurt

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The Phillies would be better off if Roy Halladay was hurt. At least that would be a viable explanation for this sudden and cliff-diving decline from what he was to what he is. What makes the lost velocity and increased confidence of the hitters even more frightening is that there’s no physical malady or mechanical hiccup to fix and get the soon-to-be 36-year-old back to the greatness he’s exhibited for the past decade. His mechanics are fine and if he was ailing, the Phillies wouldn’t continue to put him on the mound. That was true in spring training as the “experts” speculated on what was wrong with Halladay and implied that there was an injury that the Phillies were hiding. What possible reason would they have to do that in spring training?

No. He’s not hurt. His arm slot is around where it was when he was at the top of his game with a slight deviation that has nothing to do with pain or compensation and isn’t going to revert him back to what he was if it’s “fixed.” He’s not finished and not in the last days of a great career. He can continue to pitch this way once he learns how to get hitters out more effectively with diminished stuff, but he’s not going to be the unstoppable, grinding, durable force he was. This is evidence of the ravages of time and work. In the past two decades, we’ve grown accustomed to pitchers continuing to perform in their 40s as they did in their 20s and for the most part in cases like Roger Clemens it was due to the evident use of PEDs, but with the new testing the one thing that can’t be quantified is when the body says enough’s enough. Halladay’s seems to be informing him that he has to figure something else out to be effective.

The sheer number of pitchers and players who weren’t simply maintaining their level of work in their supposed primes, but were surpassing it due to the use of certain substances made it seem normal when they should’ve been seen as a rarity. Nolan Ryan and Steve Carlton were anomalies not just because they lasted into their 40s, but for the most part they maintained their effectiveness late into their careers pitching the same way they always did. There was no transition from what they were into something else.

Halladay’s velocity is down from a high of 96 and a consistent 94 at the tiptop of his game two years ago to barely hitting 90 last night. This has been a recurring issue all spring and spurred the worries that are rising with every subpar start. For the hitter, there’s a significant difference between preparing for 96, being used to 94 and seeing 89-90. That’s an eon of pitch recognition time. Add in that he doesn’t have the same pop you get the results Halladay’s produced in his first two starts.

Counting him out is silly. Pitchers like Carlton, Bert Blyleven and Jack Morris have been labeled as “finished” and come back to be productive, even Cy Young Award contending arms at Halladay’s age and beyond. He still has his intelligence and his stuff is good enough to get hitters out, but he’s got to learn how to do it and it doesn’t happen overnight.

On another note with the Phillies, the Charlie Manuel contract situation is going to get messy. Were it not for a blown save by Greg Holland of the Royals in which he couldn’t find the strike zone, the Phillies would be sitting at 1-6 with a lame duck manager, an angry fanbase and ominous speculation concerning the age of their roster. Manuel has no intention of walking quietly into the night at the end of the season as the Phillies clearly want him to do and he’s working with his clear heir apparent, Ryne Sandberg, on the coaching staff.

This has happened with Manuel before. With the Indians in 2002, his contract was up at the end of the season, he wanted to know where he stood and basically told them to give him an answer or fire him. The Indians were in a similar position then as the Phillies are now with an aging core and an unavoidable rebuild beckoning, so with the club 39-47 and far from playoff position, they fired him. Manuel deserves better from the Phillies after all he’s accomplished—an extra year on his contract as severance even if they have no intention of him fulfilling it and not having to look at the guy who’s going to replace him every single day—but he’s not going to get it and if this thing spirals out of control, Sandberg will be managing the Phillies by June 1st.

Or sooner.

Extended discussions of this along with 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.com, Smashwords, BN and Lulu. Check it out and read a sample.

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Bobby Valentine—Sympathetic Figure?

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The Red Sox have done the impossible. They’ve made Bobby Valentine, one of the most polarizing people in baseball this side of Barry Bonds, into a sympathetic figure.

Valentine has not done a great job with the Red Sox this season, but, in an appropriate analogy, he walked in to the clubhouse trussed like a chicken about to be placed on the spit ready for the rotisserie. And rotisserie them they have.

As soon as he was hired it started with players complaining about him without even knowing him or considering that he might have mellowed from his time as Mets’ manager. It was never entertained that the players themselves were the ones who forced the club into dumping the laissez-faire Terry Francona and set the foundation for the hiring of Valentine.

Has Valentine mellowed? We don’t know because he was on the defensive immediately and instead of preparing to run the team, was spending much of his time negotiating the landmine-strewn clubhouse and having anything and everything he said and did turned into “evidence” that Valentine was still Valentine and the baggage he carts around like an unwanted appendage would sabotage his tenure before it began. If anything, he was being marinated for the roasting he’s experiencing now.

It does appear that the 10 years away from MLB and the 20 years away from managing in the American League have negatively affected his well-known (and self-pronounced) strategic wizardry. The game’s changed from the time Valentine last managed. With his reputation as a paranoid micromanager and cold, callous, vindictive personality combining with a spoiled clubhouse of enabled stars who feel entitled (Josh Beckett) or just want to be left alone (Adrian Gonzalez) among other self-involved people from the top of the Red Sox structure to the bottom, this arranged and forced marriage was doomed from the start. The excuses and lukewarm defenses aside, no one wants to hear Larry Lucchino blaming the “jaded and cynical media” for the club’s poor performance and unprofessional behaviors on and off the field.

What we’ve learned is that you can’t just pull in the reins and expect the new rules to be taken at face value without resistance from certain quarters. The players were allowed to do what they wanted as long as they won and if that meant the starting pitchers not pitching that day sat in the clubhouse eating and drinking beer, so be it. That type of activity isn’t isolated. Starting pitchers not pitching that day are pretty much left to their own devices (within reason) everywhere; Steve Carlton used to go in the clubhouse and sleep, for example. The Red Sox lost and Francona was blamed, so it became a “reason” when it really wasn’t. It didn’t matter when they won, so why should it matter when they lost?

The lack of discipline under Francona was actually an attractive aspect of the club as they were left to its own devices. “This guy will leave you alone and let you do your job.” When that was the case, it was a positive. When they began losing and Francona’s way was seen as a detriment, the players were essentially told, “You can’t behave when we treat you like adults, okay then, deal with Valentine.” But you can’t discipline the undisciplinable. Much like the strength and conditioning coaches—since dismissed in a purge—couldn’t force the likes of Beckett and John Lackey to adhere to a physical fitness program, what precisely was Valentine (or Lucchino or owner John Henry) supposed to do to stop the freefall that began long before Valentine arrived?

Injuries? Injuries happen when players are older and are no longer able to use *special means* to stay on the field; when they’re unwilling to take the extra steps to make sure they’re in shape to play every single day. Beckett and Jon Lester have pitched poorly and if they’d pitched as they have in the past, the Red Sox would be close to first place? You can look at any team that’s underachieving and find a reasons such as that. Or you can look at a team that’s playing well and wonder where they’d be if X player was doing Y. It’s a loser’s lament.

Joel Sherman, adhering to his daily template of baseball ignorant idiocy, suggests the Red Sox consider hiring Jason Varitek as the new manager in the event that Valentine is dismissed. The basis of this is that first time managers such as Robin Ventura, Mike Matheny and Don Mattingly have done well in their rookie managing seasons and that Varitek knows the terrain in Boston and is “respected” in the clubhouse. It’s a logical fallacy to think that because the new managers are doing well in the standings, then it would also work for the Red Sox. It’s also ignorant of the Red Sox issues as they stand now. Since they didn’t listen to Varitek in his waning days as a player and captain of the team (and was out-of-shape himself), it’s foolish to assume that they’re going to listen to him as manager.

The Red Sox want John Farrell? Is he going to fix things? The Blue Jays are again underachieving under Farrell and haven’t overcome similar injuries to those that have befallen the Red Sox. Even if Farrell is respected by the players and media, his strategic calls as Blue Jays’ manager haven’t been particularly impressive and it’s possible that the Blue Jays will be willing to part with him—if that’s the case, then buyer beware. My first question if the Blue Jays are open to letting him go (to a division rival no less!) would be to ask why.

Both Varitek and Farrell are examples of clinging to the past, placating the tantrum-throwing players and media, and haphazardly plastering over fundamental problems that have to be repaired correctly in order to move forward. They’re chasing championships as they did when they were legitimate contenders, but now they’re only speeding their descent and postponing the inevitable.

Buster Olney implies that the turmoil surrounding the Red Sox will prevent free agents from wanting to enter the cauldron. This is why it’s nonsensical to look at teams that are having issues and call them a permanent wasteland where players won’t want to go. It was only a year and a half ago when players wanted to go to the Red Sox because they paid well and the team had a chance to win. They were controversial and a target of media scrutiny, but it wasn’t as perceptively negative as it is now. Of course players aren’t going to want to go there when they have options.

It’s not about Valentine. This is going to get progressively worse unless the Red Sox make substantial changes to the clubhouse and I don’t mean in the manager’s office. It’s the players. Not the manager. And if anyone from Francona to Farrell to Varitek to Whitey Herzog, Dick Williams, John McGraw or Walter Alston were managing this group, they wouldn’t be any better than they are now.

If I were Valentine, I’d be keeping a diary of this season for a book because, barring a miracle, he’s not going to be back in 2013 to fulfill the second year of his contract and he can make a significant amount of money telling the world exactly what’s going on in that clubhouse and disintegrating organization. He can call it “Fifty Shades of Red” and refer to the players’ eyes from crying; the fans’ faces at their anger; the media’s fire stoking; the front office’s embarrassment; and the bloodletting that’s most assuredly on its way.

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The Hall of Fame Debate Has Grown Tiresome

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Barry Larkin was the only player elected by the writers.

Jack Morris’s percentage has risen to 66.7%.

With two years left on the writers’ ballot, Morris might get enough support to make it in by conventional vote. If not, he’s got a great shot on the Veterans Committee.

The debate will rage on until then.

You can make an argument for Morris (post-season hero; innings-eating winner and one of the dominant pitchers of the 1980s) or against him (high ERA; stat compiler).

Nothing’s going to change the minds of those who are for or against him.

Tim Raines received 48.7%.

Raines is seen as a no-brainer by stat people; others think he became a part-time player from his early 30s through the end of his career and he’s a “floodgate opener” whose election would necessitate the serious consideration of the likes of Johnny Damon and Kenny Lofton which would diminish the specialness of the Hall.

Lee Smith received 50.6% of the vote.

I don’t think anyone with an in-depth knowledge of baseball and from either faction whether it’s stat-based or old school thinks Smith belongs in the Hall of Fame.

No matter how convincing or passionate an argument made for the supported players, the other side is unlikely to put their prejudices, personal feelings, stereotypes or ego aside to acknowledge that they may be wrong; and they’re certainly not going to change their votes.

So what’s the point?

What’s made it worse is the proliferation of the younger analysts who may or may not know much of anything about actual baseball, but think they do based on calculations and mathematical formulas who are so adamant that they’re right, it’s impossible to even debate with them.

Bert Blyleven made it to the Hall of Fame, in part, because of the work by stat people clarifying how he deserved the honor and wasn’t at fault for a mediocre won/lost record because of the teams he played for. Another part of his induction, I’m convinced, is that a large chunk of the voters were tired of hearing about him and from him—Blyleven was an outspoken self-advocate and it worked.

I’m wondering what’s going to happen with a borderline candidate like Curt Schilling. Blyleven had likability on his side; Schilling doesn’t; and it’s going to be hard for Schilling to keep his mouth shut if he doesn’t feel he’s getting his due in the voting process. He’s not going to get in on the first shot.

Short of Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton, Ty Cobb and the other luminaries, you can make a case against any player no matter how great he was; on the same token, you can make a case for a player like Bobby Abreu, who is not a Hall of Famer.

Even Greg Maddux went from being a dominating pitcher from age 22-32 and became a durable compiler with a high ERA who begged out of games after a finite number of pitches and benefited from pitching for a great Braves team to accrue wins.

Of course Maddux is a first ballot, 95+% vote getter when he becomes eligible, but could a motivated person come up with a case against him? How about “he only struck out 200 batters once; he had superior luck with amazingly low BAbip rates; he only won 20 games twice; his Cy Young Awards all came in a row and he never won another; and he pitched for a great team in a friendly pitchers’ park for most of his career.”

It can be done for and against anyone.

Does Tommy John deserve recognition for the surgery that bears his name? I think he does. Others don’t.

Then there are the PED cases like Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds—Hall of Famers both—who are going to have trouble getting in because of the writers’ judgments that they “cheated”.

At least they were implicated. Jeff Bagwell never was and he’s on the outside looking in with 56% of the vote this season. (He’s going to get in eventually.)

So which is it?

What makes a Hall of Famer?

Is it being “famous”? (Reggie Jackson)

Is it a long and notable career? (Don Sutton)

Is it the big moment? (Bill Mazeroski)

Is it being great at a particular part of the game? (Ozzie Smith)

Is it numbers? (Hank Aaron)

Is it propaganda? (Blyleven, Phil Rizzuto)

Is it the perception of cleanliness? (Al Kaline)

Is it on-field performance? (Carlton)

Is it overall comportment? (Stan Musial)

Is it domination over a time period? (Sandy Koufax)

There’s no specific criteria, so there’s no single thing to put someone in or keep them out.

But the back-and-forth has become vitriolic and dismissive with eye-rolling and condescension. If you even dare to suggest that Jim Rice is a Hall of Famer, your case is automatically ignored regardless of how organized and intelligent it is.

That’s not debating. That’s waiting to talk.

Simply because you disagree with someone doesn’t make the other side “wrong” especially in a judgment call like the Hall of Fame.

But there’s not much hope because few—especially in sports—are willing to listen to the other side, let alone allow themselves to be persuaded.

This is where we are and there’s no use in fighting it.

So why try?

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Ryan Leads The Way For The Pennant-Winning Rangers

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As affable as he is in interviews, Nolan Ryan is neither subdued nor calm; he’s a relentless competitor who was an ornery and conservative cuss as a pitcher and has transferred that competitiveness to the front office while still putting forth that veneer of someone you’d like to have a beer with…provided you don’t mess with him.

In contrast to the way the Yankees babied their young pitchers to middling/poor results (and presumably will continue to do so with Manny Banuelos and Dellin Betances), the Rangers pushed their starters to go deeper into games as they did during Ryan’s day. It’s not as extreme as Ryan having thrown 200 pitches in a start, but they’re not automatically removed when they reach an arbitrary number of pitches. And if one happens to get hurt, the coaches can explain to Ryan exactly what happened and why and not worry about being fired to keep up appearances to the general public.

This belief—that pitchers can and should be made to do more than was considered “optimal”—is permeating the organization; the Rangers haven’t had the spate of arm injuries other clubs have had. Any perceived connection would have to be studied in depth, but they’re doing something different because Ryan has allowed them to do something different.

Ryan has the cachet to tell his baseball people to loosen up on the pitch counts; his baseball people are stat savvy and scouting-oriented to find players who are either going to make it in Texas as Rangers or be trade bait. Stats have met old-school. Ryan is in a unique position that Billy Beane—née “genius” in name and creative non-fiction only—isn’t. Ryan can say, “I’ve been here before so don’t try that big league stuff on me”, but can add the addendum that he was actually good at it, unlike Beane. In fact, Ryan was one of the best and most durable pitchers ever.

Ryan’s station as president of the club lays the blame or credit at his desk if it doesn’t work or if one of the pitchers get hurt. Part of the reason teams like the Nationals are so protective of Stephen Strasburg isn’t due to any random, layman silliness like “The Verducci Effect” by that noted pitching expert Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated, but because they don’t want to be held responsible if and when an injury does occur due to deviating from the preconceived “norms”.

This is why you’re likely to see Neftali Feliz, currently one of the game’s best closers, shifted into the starting rotation once and for all in 2012 as they sign or trade for a relatively inexpensive and established closer along the lines of Heath Bell or take a chance on Francisco Rodriguez. They’ll do it because they can do it and because it makes sense to have an arm like Feliz starting rather than relieving; and now, after closing in big games, he won’t have the “deer in the headlights” gaze when he runs into trouble in the third inning of a game in June.

Ryan was an innovator with his proper use of mechanics; as one of the first pitchers to integrate weight training into his regimen; and was borderline vicious on the mound. If the man running the team understands what’s being done and will comprehend why an injury occurs, there won’t be any fear of trying something different as if some lower level staffer’s job is on the line.

The Red Sox circumstances are different from the Yankees, but would’ve been handled by Ryan as well. Their pitchers don’t generally suffer arm injuries if they follow the Red Sox prescriptions, but their off-field behavior was tolerated by the club and led to the rampant dysfunction and infighting that are now coming out as part of the collapse that prevented them from making the playoffs.

In the waning years of his career, Ryan himself had a special arrangement with the Rangers that he wouldn’t accompany the club on certain road trips when he wasn’t pitching; this led to friction between manager Bobby Valentine and other old-school veterans like Goose Gossage who chafed at the preferential treatment and said so. Pitchers like Steve Carlton were known to go into the clubhouse and sleep on days they weren’t pitching. Had the Red Sox been doing “man stuff” like messing around with groupies or simply napping, no one would’ve complained; instead, there was a shadow government feel to the starting rotation and a sense they could do things that could be deemed as blatantly disrespectful to the organization and tore at the fabric of clubhouse harmony by drinking beer, playing video games and eating fried chicken.

One would be a “boys will be boys” activity of chasing girls and keeping that within the realm of the man’s world of baseball clubhouses; the other is simply childish and destructive. Ryan would absolutely have put a stop to that nonsense, presumably by removing the video game apparatus and beer from the clubhouse. The disconnect between on-field management and ownership was as responsible for the Red Sox disaster and any individual.

When he was pitching, Ryan was the intimidator who stalked the mound and would throw at anyone for impropriety. (Bunting on Ryan and making him run were ill-advised.) That has incorporated itself into the way he’s run the Rangers.

There’s a continuity with the Rangers because of Ryan and they’re able to withstand such controversies off the field as Josh Hamilton falling off the wagon and drinking before the 2009 season and manager Ron Washington having failed a drug test in 2009. It may or may not be subservient to authority figures to say, “if Nolan says it’s okay, then it’s okay”, but it’s working. They’ve been aggressive in their trades to beef up the bullpen; they built up the farm system and signed players who fit into what they’ve tried to construct rather than the biggest names out there; and they’re doing it with a $92 million payroll.

They’ve won back-to-back pennants and beaten the Yankees and Red Sox at their own game by using techniques and strategies implemented and allowed by the president and CEO of the club (and also a Hall of Fame pitcher), Nolan Ryan.

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The Red Sox Snipe-Fest

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These Red Sox chemistry problems weren’t discussed until after the fact; until after they’d completely come apart.

Before then, no one said a word about how unlikable and dysfunctional the Red Sox were; about the accusations of pitchers drinking on days they weren’t scheduled to start; about rifts, disputes, factions and selfishness.

Now after the wheels came off and the team somehow—inexplicably—missed the playoffs, are we hearing these excuses.

And that’s what they are.

Excuses.

Does it help if teams are all buddies and pal around together and genuinely like one another?

It probably helps morale and makes a more pleasant workplace, but as far as on-field play, the one thing that would’ve helped the Red Sox in September was finding a couple of pitchers who weren’t going to give up 6 runs by the third inning; who weren’t going to tax the bullpen on a nightly basis or force the offense to score 10 runs to win.

Kevin Youkilis said his piece—while protecting teammates whom he clearly knew were drinking during games—in an interview on WAAF radio. He said it reasonably.

David Ortiz is looking to save his job with the Red Sox while clinging to the salable veneer of affable Boston icon Big Papi.

Theo Epstein’s status is uncertain.

This is going to get worse before it gets better. There are going to be significant aftershocks or they’ll examine their circumstances and realize that a full-blown rebuild is out of the question given the length and immovability of certain contracts.

Is it an isolated incident that pitchers were drinking beers in the clubhouse on their off days? No. Steve Carlton—one of the best pitchers in history, but an egocentric recluse—used to sleep in the clubhouse when he wasn’t pitching. Far more players find other ways to occupy themselves during a long season and they’re ignored. There’s little former manager Terry Francona could’ve done to stop the in-game drinking short of removing beer from the clubhouse and with his own status clearly precarious, that would’ve done more harm than good.

The days of a manager being a tyrant are long dead and despite Francona’s two World Series wins and status as a respected baseball man, his power wasn’t as great as one would expect. With players holding contracts worth tens of millions of dollars, they know who has the leverage in the relationship, so any sanctions must be done smoothly and politically; if Francona was unable to reach consensus with certain players, that has more to do with the players than the manager.

Sniping, shifting of blame and alibis are the only post-season this disastrous 2011 Red Sox team has; the in-fighting that is referenced as a large portion of what cost them their playoff spot in September is continuing into a barren October; it’s going to get worse because there are no games played by the Red Sox to function as a distraction. The media is sniffing around for a story. Every utterance by a Red Sox player—past and present—will be a headline until the club’s direction is determined.

Would it be better for Epstein to leave? He’s not going to get the “full autonomy” that’s often a stated fact for a GM who’s joining a new club. He doesn’t have it now; he won’t get it with the Cubs and he definitely won’t get it with the Angels. No GM anywhere has it.

But perhaps he no longer wants to deal with the diminishing returns of being the Red Sox GM where anything short of a World Series is a catastrophe.

They’ve become the Yankees.

They’ve become that which they used to simultaneously envy and revile and it’s permeating the organization from the front office to the field personnel to the fans and media.

And this is just the beginning.

Those who are wondering why Epstein would want to leave the team he rooted for as a child in a town where he’ll forever be known as the man who built the team that broke the curse need to ask a different question.

Given the way this team is no longer enjoyable to be around and is teetering on the verge of a drastic downslide that few—no one—saw coming, here’s a better question: Why would he want to stay?

Because no one has categorically denied the potential for Epstein to follow Francona out the door, that question may be what Epstein himself is asking.

Francona looked exhausted and frustrated.

Would it be such a shock if Epstein felt the exact same way? If he wanted out too?

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The Blame Refrain

Media, Spring Training

When the news of Adam Wainwright‘s Tommy John surgery diagnosis spread across the web, the reactions were widespread and diverse.

“Experts” speculated on how the Cardinals would respond and forecasted their demise; Jonny Gomes of the Reds was accused of celebrating and singing (he denies this); Dusty Baker seemed genuinely saddened by the news in a non-competitive way while still wryly wondering who’d get the blame for the injury; and Rick Peterson promoted his company’s techniques to teach pitching and avoid injuries.

In today’s game there are rules and regulations placed on pitchers to maintain their health; clubs have computer printouts, historical medical reports and such inanities as “The Verducci Effect” to dictate how they treat their pitchers.

One problem.

They don’t seem to be working.

The cacophony of “protective” rules for pitchers is limitless and explainable, but it’s not fostering development; it’s creating an atmosphere of paranoia and self-righteous justification in case the pitchers don’t develop or get injured. There’s a time and place for preventative prescriptions, but taking it too far has yielded the inevitable result.

And it’s getting worse.

Let’s have a look at the frailties of today’s pitching culture.

I’m selling, you buying?

Rick Peterson is a good pitching coach with a fine resume of development and—importantly—keeping his charges healthy. Unlike many other baseball people and would-be experts, he’s willing to think outside-the-box and listen to others. That’s an impressive attribute and a testimony to his confidence and belief in what he does.

He’s also a relentless self-promoter who has a short shelf life for any organization because of his overbearing nature.

Peterson said the following on Twitter when Wainwright’s injury was confirmed:

Sad news for Adam Wainwright, TJ surgery.Avoidable.Get your pitchers to 3P Sports to learn how. ESPN http://es.pn/gx7b65

It contains the essence of Peterson in 140 characters or less. The obligatory condolences for the injury combined with an attempt to sell his wares.

Peterson is a polarizing figure.

When I read his tweets I can almost feel one hand on my shoulder and his other hand covering his mouth in a conspiratorial fashion to prevent the enemy from reading his lips and gaining insight into his skull-sessions.

Peterson’s reputation was made with the Athletics as he mentored Mark Mulder, Barry Zito and Tim Hudson with the Athletics and all three were healthy and productive; he also turned Cory Lidle into a durable winner as a starting pitcher. With the Mets, John Maine and Oliver Perez enjoyed success they couldn’t replicate before or since. And the Brewers, with limited talent, maximized with Peterson handling the staff.

While almost everyone in baseball and in the media rolls their eyes at Dr. Mike Marshall—former big league pitcher, Cy Young Award winner, journeyman extraordinaire, iconoclast and egomaniac—Peterson has met with him to discuss pitching techniques.

Peterson’s style has a short shelf-life. Eventually his pitchers tune him out, but he does have important contributions to make to development.

If you look at a pitching coach or “expert”, you must examine their agenda. Are they trying to get you to buy what they’re hawking as Tom House does? Or do they have a legitimate history of success underpinning their theories as Peterson does?

Blame Dusty.

Baker was only half-kidding when he openly wondered who’d get the blame for Wainwright’s injury. Baker is considered to be an arm-shredder; Tony La Russa and Dave Duncan seen as modern geniuses whose reputations allow them to get away with things that would cost other baseball people their jobs.

One out-of-context example of the different terrain upon which La Russa operates was that 20-inning affair against the Mets last season. What would’ve happened had then-Mets manager Jerry Manuel inserted an infielder to pitch and lost the game? La Russa did it with Felipe Lopez and it was okay because it was La Russa. He wants to hit the pitcher eighth? He has data to back him up and he gets away with it because he’s La Russa.

Such is the nature of the benefits of being a Hall of Famer as opposed to someone hanging onto his job by his fingernails and maintaining an unfair reputation as an abuser of pitchers that Baker has.

Was Baker to blame for the injuries to Kerry Wood, Mark Prior and Edinson Volquez?

It’s a major misapplication of blame to say Baker was at fault for Wood—it was Jim Riggleman who pushed Wood in the Cubs frantic run to the playoffs in 1998. Prior was a mechanical nightmare from the start and his subsequent and repeated breakdowns have had nothing to do with Baker; one would think that he’d be healthy by now; Volquez was allowed to throw pitches in the 120 range numerous times, but it’s a stretch to connect the number of pitches he threw to his eventual Tommy John surgery.

There are a different set of rules for La Russa than there are for Baker because one is La Russa and the other is Baker and it has nothing to do with results or injuries; it has to do with the way they’re perceived.

Front office edicts absolve the blame.

You can believe the propaganda and romanticized notions uttered by the likes of Michael Kay if you choose to, but think about it.

When C.C. Sabathia had a no-hitter going against the Rays early last season, Yankees manager Joe Girardi made it a point to insinuate himself into the debate by saying that Sabathia wasn’t going to throw an outrageous number of pitches strictly in the interests of pitching a no-hitter.

It was a moot point because the no-hitter was busted up before a decision had to be made. But Kay came out with his own take on the situation, quoting Girardi as if his word was gospel, “We’re not about (individual achievement) here…”

As delightful as such a thought of  all-for-one is, baseball is like anything else with fiefdoms, turf-battles and agendas. Girardi can never be blamed for a pitcher’s injury because he has little-to-no say in their use. He makes his own idiotic bullpen/pitching change decisions mid-game, but apart from that, he works in defined parapenters.

He does what the front office says and that’s what GM Brian Cashman wants; it’s why Cashman didn’t want Lou Piniella as the replacement for Joe Torre—because Piniella would’ve ignored him and was unfireable as a manager.

It’s the same situation in Washington with Stephen Strasburg. I’ve said repeatedly that there have to be people with the Nats who were relieved that Strasburg blew out his elbow while under the constraints of “protection”; there was no one to blame for the injury, therefore it was okay.

Naturally, they’d never admit it openly. Nor should they; but put yourself in their position with a once-in-a-lifetime arm placed in your hands. Do you want that on your resume that you’re at fault for his injury that cost him a year? No.

Joba Chamberlain? How have the developmental techniques worked?

Pedro Martinez was traded from the Dodgers because team doctors were convinced he was going to break down as a starting pitcher. He was so small, threw so hard and had such a violent delivery that it wasn’t absurd to harbor such a belief.

Three Cy Young Awards later, where are we?

Conjecture and after-the-fact, unprovable allegations are easy. How about we go back to Sandy Koufax and wonder how great he would’ve been had he been on a pitch/innings count from the time he began his career. Would he have been more durable? Who knows? There’s no way he would’ve been better than he was.

Bob Gibson must be sickened by the way pitchers are babied today. The same goes for Juan Marichal, Gaylord Perry, Jim Palmer, Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton and any of the other greats who pitched until they could no longer pitch and produced into their late 30s and early 40s.

Some of today’s pitchers look like they’re ready for a bodybuilding competition and spend half their days wiling away on the disabled list; Greg Maddux had pipe cleaner arms, skinny legs, a paunch and was the most durable pitcher of his generation who never had an arm injury. Maddux had picture-perfect mechanics and trained specifically to throw a baseball, not to look good in his uniform.

Nolan Ryan is implementing a new strategy in developing pitchers and getting attention for it. If it fails, if they get hurt it’ll be taken as a mistake; if it works, others will follow suit with the techniques.

Fear is a motivating factor for change, but it’s not conducive to making a successful pitcher. But fear is what we have; blame is what we have; and failure is what we have.

It’s not working and doesn’t look like it’s going to change anytime soon because of self-involved stupidity.

At least there’s the fail-safe retort: Blame Dusty.

Abandonment

Hot Stove
  • The Joba Ruination leads to opportunity:

The Yankees should make Joba Chamberlain into a starter.

They should do so without constraints or rules.

He should be allowed to pitch until he either is no longer effective or his pitch count has expanded to a maximum reasonable number—and that is contingent on his mechanics and how manager Joe Girardi and pitching coach Larry Rothschild think he looks.

The Yankees organization has done a nearly flawless job in taking a hot prospect with All Star ability, making him feel entitled; turning him into a paranoid and intrinsically frightened worrywart (“I can’t get hurt!!”); demoting him; and now they appear to be on the verge of taking offers to dispatch him.

Without getting into a Selena Roberts/Alex Rodriguez bit of pop psychology, Chamberlain’s turbulent home life with a troubled mother and polio-afflicted father can be transferred to the way his second home, the Yankees organization, is treating him as if he was their meal ticket only to abandon him when he didn’t immediately become Roger Clemens—the pitcher to whom he was most compared when he burst onto the scene.

Chamberlain’s not blameless here. He hasn’t pitched well; he’s obnoxious and immature; and we don’t know the scope of his off-field antics, but the Yankees are responsible for what he’s become.

And they still have time to fix it.

GM Brian Cashman has repeatedly justified the treatment of the Yankees young pitchers with historical facts, medical reports and analysis that are meant to maximize the talent while minimizing injury.

Has it worked?

When the Yankees “big three” young starters burst onto the scene I, with a prominent memory of the Mets Generation K disaster of Bill Pulsipher, Jason Isringhausen and Paul Wilson, preached caution. You can’t automatically anoint young pitchers as future cornerstones given the same history from which Cashman and his minions conveniently picked and chose their methods of development.

You never know.

Ian Kennedy was supposed to be the most polished and big league-ready from the Chamberlain, Kennedy, Phil Hughes triumvirate; he was the worst of the three in practice. On the field he had no control and didn’t listen; off the field he couldn’t keep his mouth shut and invited the ire of everyone in the clubhouse. He was traded to the Diamondbacks in the deal that brought Curtis Granderson to the Yankees and began to fulfill his potential in the Southwest; but he’s never going to be a top-of-the-rotation starter; nor is he going to be a Greg Maddux-type control artist. His stuff isn’t that good.

Hughes has been held back by his own set of rules and used as a reliever and starter; but there was never, ever any suggestion that he’d stay in the bullpen despite his excellent work there in 2009. He’s a starter; they made him a starter; and he’ll be a good starter for a long time.

The “Hughes Rules” haven’t gone smoothly either as the club appeared to bully the young pitcher out of a start against the Dodgers near his hometown and in front of family and friends in the interests of keeping his innings down; Hughes had a slump—I believe because he lost his groove—immediately after that club-imposed “break”.

It’s stunning to me how quickly the Chamberlain bandwagon emptied at the first hiccup on his way to becoming a star. Cashman is as responsible as anyone because he’s the one in charge, but I can picture the Yankees GM shaking his head in bewilderment at the new push to try Chamberlain in the starting rotation. It wasn’t so long ago that Cashman was ridiculed, lampooned and outright screamed at for his repeated insistence that he sees Chamberlain—with his four pitch arsenal—as a starter. I understood Cashman’s reasoning, but disagreed with it; I thought he’d be a dominant reliever. He was that for a time—that brief and hypnotizing month of September of 2007 when he was unhittable and created a phenomenon that no one could live up to.

In hindsight, having lost to the Indians in the ALDS that season, Cashman must regret putting Chamberlain in that position. Had they won the World Series with Chamberlain as the star set-up man, the entire fabric of his career might have gone differently. In retrospect, since the team lost, it was a long-term hindrance to Chamberlain professionally and personally.

But there’s a glimmer of hope for Chamberlain and the Yankees.

They can start him and they can do it right. They can let him pitch and learn without someone tapping him on the shoulder if he’s rolled through the 4th, 5th and 6th innings, but has reached his arbitrary number of 100 pitches and taking him out of the game.

A pitch count is a guideline that should not be taken to the logical extreme to which the Yankees have taken it with Chamberlain. If an athlete is conditioned properly, there’s no reason he can’t throw 120 pitches and be able to make his next start. It has nothing to do with his arm or how many pitches he’s thrown; it has to do with how hard he’s worked and, more importantly, his mechanics and the assessments of the field personnel—the manager and pitching coach—who should not be beholden to a number, but should have the experience and know-how to accurately gauge their charges.

The stat zombie “revolution” and such idiocies as The Verducci Effect have created a culture of experts who have no in-the-trenches experience to be as smart as they think they are. Studying statistics and reports does not make one an expert. Following a set of rules that have pigeonholed everyone into the same category is factory-created garbage that can be found anywhere. It’s not plugging numbers into a machine and achieving the desired result; these are human beings.

For every pitcher they cite who’s gotten hurt from too heavy a workload at a young age, there’s Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton and Roger Clemens—pitchers who were allowed to pitch and didn’t have the catastrophic arm injuries that have befallen the hot new prospects like Stephen Strasburg or were handcuffed by failed strategies like those imposed on Chamberlain.

Strasburg couldn’t have been more closely monitored and he still got hurt. I’m convinced—and will remain so—that members of the Nationals organization were relieved when Strasburg required Tommy John surgery for the simple reason that they’d adhered to his usage dictate and he got hurt anyway—there was no one to blame.

This is not good. When you have underlings more worried about their own position rather than how their charges do their jobs, you’ve got a disconnect that’s only going to get worse as time passes and more information disguised as prescription comes available.

Chamberlain should start.

He should be allowed to pitch.

That’s the only way to save him now.

  • Viewer Mail 1.16.2011:

Rob writes RE my quote of a lack of fan interest in the Rays:

“A certain freedom comes with a dearth of attention.”

http://www.tampabay.com/sports/baseball/rays/television-ratings-for-tampa-bay-rays-on-the-rise/1111241

The economy is exceptionally poor in Tampa Bay.  Don’t let attendance numbers fool you.  There is plenty of interest in the Rays.

This is a fair point, but Florida has always given the impression of being uninterested in their baseball teams until it’s playoff time; it’s as if they’re saying, “we’ll do this until the football season—college and pro—starts”.

Plus, with the number of transplanted New Yorkers in Florida, one has to wonder whether they’re watching the games for the Rays or to watch the Yankees, Mets and whoever else they may have an interest in.

That team is young, good, feisty and well-run. The ballpark is hideous, but they should attract more interest than they do.

Jeff at Red State Blue State writes RE Kyle Farnsworth:

I’m sure you know where my jaw was when I read about the Farnsworth deal.  Looks like $2 million too much… the dude makes me sick, but hell, more power to him.

I have to give the Rays a benefit of the doubt that Royals GM Dayton Moore doesn’t deserve. They’ve replenished so many lost causes in their bullpen that maybe—maybe—they can recreate Farnsworth.

Matt Minor writes RE Joba Chamberlain, Rafael Soriano and the Yankees:

The big question I can’t stop wondering about is whether the Soriano signing will prompt the Yanks to give Joba yet another look for their starting rotation. Let the games begin anew.

Joba is a waste as a middle reliever. I understand the lack of trust in him as a set-up man and why upper management overruled Cashman on Soriano and, as I said above, they have a chance with this signing to make it into something positive for everyone.

Cashman would be wise to hold the line with Chamberlain and say “he’s a reliever” until spring training starts to avoid controversy, then spring it that Chamberlain’s going to start.

Mike Fierman writes RE Soriano and Joba:

“He won’t be a disaster, but he won’t be the savior either.”

um….you had to go there?  No one is remotely calling him a savior or anything close to it…He’s a nice fill in piece. It’s nice for Yankee fans for our team to be able to spend $36mill for a set up man. End of story.

The off-season has been a disappointment obviously because of Lee, but there simply weren’t any SP fallbacks that they missed out on. I happen to like the Russ Martin signing which more might have been made of in the press had the yanks gotten their #1 priority.

I may have misjudged the Russell Martin signing—his throwing has been historically good and that’s been a big problem for Jorge Posada since his surgery. Francisco Cervelli couldn’t throw (or hit) either.

I totally understand the Soriano signing on numerous levels both practically and conceptually. The team had done little this winter to generate any buzz aside from snickers that they lost out on Cliff Lee despite all the talk that Lee was “gonna be a Yankee, period”.

The money itself it irrelevant—they have it, spend it. The opt-outs are stupid and unnecessary as is overreaction at the lost draft pick.

That said, the concerns about Soriano are real. He gives up too many homers and is not the personality type to thrive in a big game. His refusal to pitch more than one inning for the Rays despite manager Joe Maddon’s request that he do so brings back memories to what sabotaged the Yankees in the middle part of the last decade—they had a load of self-interested players like Randy Johnson and Gary Sheffield who didn’t fit into the cohesive unit that was a hallmark of the dynasty.

Gabriel writes RE GMs and full autonomy:

The practice of ownership meddling is prevalent in most professional sports, since sometimes the owners are worried about the course the team is taking, and they feel they have to do something to steer the ship. The (mostly) lack of it is something that I like in the Philadelphia Eagles organization, since their head coach is also their president of football operations, therefore Andy Reid knows exactly what to expect from a player and how he fits in the team. A GM/Manager in baseball would be an interesting concept to explore, and one that will reduce (I think) the meddling of the owners.

Jack McKeon and Bobby Cox went down on the field from the GM’s chair when their clubs were floundering; eventually they had to relinquish the GM title; and that was back in the late 1980s, early 1990s when the job wasn’t as 24/7 as it is now. Whitey Herzog did it too; he actually left the field to go through the Cardinals minor league system to clear out troublemakers and players who didn’t fit into what he wanted to do with speed and pitching. Herzog also eventually gave up the GM role.

It couldn’t happen today in baseball, nor do I think it’s a good idea. I like having a little disagreement and even antagonism.

Monolithic systems end up coming apart.

Jane Heller at Confessions of a She-Fan writes RE the Steinbrenners and Brian Cashman:

I’m glad Hank and Hal overruled Cashman. It’s their money and if they wanted to spend it, so be it!

I know what you’re saying, but it could’ve been handled better. There was no need to undermine Cashman after he said they weren’t interested in Soriano; they could’ve told him that they wanted to come to a consensus regarding the possibility of signing Soriano vs the value of the draft pick and that Cashman shouldn’t say anything publicly that could come back and bite him—as it has.

Joe writes RE Billy Beane and the Athletics:

I never heard that Beane was most likely “forced” to make that trade.  Where did you hear that?

It was in the wind more than anything else, but it was implied on various platforms.

Jon Heyman wrote the following in this Sports Illustrated column in early 2009:

Billy Beane, A’s GM: The legendary Beane, who is one of the smartest people in baseball, followed owner Lew Wolff‘s directive to go for it this year(…)

Also, it was suggested here on Shysterball; and denied adamantly on Yahoo here.

Here’s my take: What is Lew Wolff going to say? “Yes, I told Beane to do this,”? Considering the way the Steinbrenners undermined Cashman, Wolff was not going to do the same thing to his superstar GM who, at the time, was the only marketable and recognizable commodity the Athletics had.

Because the “Beane legend” has grown to such monumental proportions due to the ridiculous Moneyball and Michael Lewis’s creative non-fiction—crafted to achieve his own ends—Beane has to maintain that aura of invincibility even if those who know anything about baseball see through the propaganda and league-wide abandonment of the Moneyball principles.

Wolff wasn’t going to humiliate his guy, but that doesn’t mean he’s sitting by silently as the Beane legend fell apart. For Wolff to be telling people he was tired of losing and to have Beane make a trade that was diametrically opposed to what he espoused and believed makes it an easy assumption that Beane, while probably not “forced” to make the Holliday trade, was influenced heavily by his increasingly impatient boss.