Captainship in Baseball

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The Yankees name Derek Jeter captain and it’s part of their “rich tapestry of history.” The Mets do it with David Wright and it’s foundation for ridicule. Neither is accurate. What has to be asked about baseball and captaincies is whether there’s any value in it on the field or if it’s shtick.

The three current captains in baseball are Wright, Jeter and Paul Konerko of the White Sox. In the past, teams have had captains but the most prominent in recent memory have been Jason Varitek of the Red Sox and Jeter. The Mets named John Franco the captain of the team in May of 2001 and he had a “C” stitched to his jersey like he was leading the New York Rangers on the ice for a game against the Philadelphia Flyers. Varitek was named captain of the Red Sox after his somewhat contentious free agency foray following the Red Sox World Series win in 2004. The Red Sox couldn’t let Varitek leave a week after losing Pedro Martinez to the Mets, but they didn’t want to give him the no-trade clause that Varitek had said was a deal-breaker. Varitek’s pride was at stake and the unsaid compromise they made was to give Varitek the captaincy and no no-trade clause. Whether or not Varitek was savvy enough to catch onto the trick is unknown. It reminded me of an old episode of Cheers when—ironically—the fictional former Red Sox reliever Sam Malone and two other workers walked into the boss’s office seeking a raise and were met with a surprising agreeability and open checkbook as long as they didn’t ask for a title. They got the titles and not the raises.

Is the captaincy worth the attention? Will Wright do anything differently now that he’s officially the captain of the Mets—something that had been apparent for years? Probably not.

The Mets have had three prior captains. Keith Hernandez was named captain, similarly to Jeter, while he was the acknowledged leader and the team was in the midst of a slump in 1987 with management trying to fire up the troops and fans. An insulted Gary Carter was named co-captain in 1988 as a placating gesture. Then there was Franco. If the captain had any legitimate on-field value than for its novelty and “coolness” (Turk Wendell wanted the “C” in Franco’s jersey for that reason), a closer couldn’t be an effective captain and then-Mets manager Bobby Valentine certainly would not have named Franco his captain considering the difficult relationship between the two. Valentine’s reaction was probably an eye-roll and, “Yeah, whatever. Make him captain. As if it means anything.” Franco never got over Valentine taking the closer job away and giving it to Armando Benitez while Franco was hurt in 1999 and he got his revenge when, due to his close relationship with the Wilpons, he helped cement the decision to fire Valentine after the 2002 season. Franco could be divisive, selfish and vindictive when he wanted to be.

While the Yankees exhibit a smug superiority as to the “value” of their captains, there’s a perception—probably due to silent implication that the truth doesn’t feed the narrative of Yankees “specialness”—that the three “real” captains of the Yankees in their history have been Lou Gehrig, Thurman Munson and Jeter. But did you know that Graig Nettles was a Yankees captain and thought so little of the “honor” that he angered George Steinbrenner by saying, in his typical caustic realism:

“Really, all I do as captain is take the lineups up to home plate before the game.” (Balls by Graig Nettles and Peter Golenbock, page 20, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1984)

Of course Steinbrenner had a fit:

“The captain is supposed to show some leadership out there. That’s why he’s captain. To show leadership.” (Balls, page 21)

Nettles, the “captain” and so important to team success because of his leadership was traded to the Padres in the spring of 1984 after signing a contract to remain with the Yankees as a free agent after the 1983 season in large part because of that book.

Before Gehrig, the Yankees captain had been Hal Chase. Chase was a notorious gambler and repeatedly accused of throwing games. The Yankees would prefer Chase’s name not be affiliated with them in their current incarnation. Chase wasn’t a “Yankee,” he was a “Highlander.” Two different things I suppose.

After Nettles, the Yankees named Ron Guidry and Willie Randolph co-captains and then Don Mattingly as captain. The team didn’t win in those years and the captaincy didn’t help or hurt them toward that end. The teams weren’t very good, so they didn’t win.

The Yankees made a big show of the captaincy because Steinbrenner liked it. He thought it was important in a similar fashion to his rah-rah football speeches and constant haranguing of his field personnel with firings and entreaties to “do something” even when there was little that could be done.

Depending on who is named captain, it can matter in a negative sense if the individual walks around trying to lead and gets on the nerves of others. For example, if Curt Schilling was named a captain, he’d walk around with a beatific look on his face, altered body language and manner and make sure to do some “captaining,” whatever that is. But with Wright, nothing will change, and like Jeter and Konerko, it won’t matter much. It’s not going to affect the teams one way or the other whether the captain is in a Yankees uniform and has become part of their “storied history,” of if it’s the Mets and the world-at-large is waiting for the inevitable cheesiness that is a Mets trademark. It’s an honor and it’s nice for the fans, but that’s pretty much it.

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Reggie In Time-Out

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One amazing thing you’ll find about Reggie Jackson is how little he’s evolved from his playing days.

When looking for a Thurman Munson quote regarding Reggie’s famous “straw that stirs the drink” comment I found this William Nack Sports Illustrated profile from 1980 that is almost identical to the piece this week that’s gotten him placed into time-out by the Yankees organization.

The quote I was looking for, attributed to Munson, was an incredulous, “For four pages?!?” at the suggestion that Reggie’s “straw” comments in Sport Magazine were taken out of context.

When the latest Sports Illustrated piece came out, I wrote essentially that Reggie was Reggie before Manny was Manny (Manny Ramirez); that he was going to do what he would do, say what he would say and backtrack when faced with the consequences for his “candor”; that he was goaded into saying those things by the reporter.

Is his relationship with Alex Rodriguez damaged beyond all repair? Are the disparaged Hall of Famers and their families offended? Will he be allowed to hang around the Yankees again at his leisure?

Here’s the cold-blooded answer: what’s the difference?

A-Rod is very intelligent and calculating. He’s attention-starved and brings on much of his problems himself, but a large chunk of his issues stem from the hypocrisy he saw with Derek Jeter and Joe Torre among others. The “Jeter does no wrong” brigade is shocked when Jeter acts as if he was hit by a pitch when he really wasn’t and takes his base as the umpire instructs; the “St. Joe” label attached to Torre conveniently hid how calculating, money-hungry and manipulative the former manager could be. With A-Rod, when he used the gamesmanship of yelling “HA!!” in Howie Clark’s ear to distract him when trying to catch a pop-up, it was A-Rod being a bush leaguer; when he opted out of his contract—clumsily—it was A-Rod listening to his Svengali agent Scott Boras and being greedy.

I doubt A-Rod was seriously bothered or surprised by what Reggie said. He’s smart enough and cynical enough not to be offended by it long-term.

You might see Kirby Puckett’s and Gary Carter’s family reply to what A-Rod said; for Jim Rice to start his “why me?” act; but they’ll have their own reasons for doing so. In the case of Puckett and Carter the families will presumably reply to the question when it’s asked. With Rice, he’s still looking for validation that he presumably felt would fill that void when he was finally (deservedly) elected to the Hall. But he’s still hearing the same old debates about whether or not he belongs and now it’s coming from a peer and rival.

As for the “adviser” role Reggie has with the Yankees, his influence died with George Steinbrenner. Reggie’s position is similar to Johnny Pesky with the Red Sox when the club let him be involved without any real power other than that of a treasured former player—i.e. an old man who hung around. He was popular with the fans and wasn’t bothering anyone. Along with the Boss’s other circle of “advisers”—Billy Connors, Dick Williams, Clyde King, Dick Moss, Randy Levine, his sons, sons-in-law and whoever else managed to gain his ear for a period of time, it’s not the way it used to be with the Yankees. Gone are the days when Steinbrenner listened to the last voice he heard (validating a Boss rant with sycophantic agreement) and reacted by dumping a player the baseball people wanted to keep and getting a player that no one else would take.

Reggie’s mistake is that he is bothering the club by creating a controversy for no reason. It’s a hallmark of his life. Whereas it would once be brushed off and handled by the Boss, now with Brian Cashman in charge, Hank Steinbrenner effectively muzzled and subdued and the more thoughtful Hal Steinbrenner holding sway, how much of Reggie’s advice is actually taken? How much of it is listened to? How much is he even around and does anyone notice when he is or isn’t?

Notice.

That’s what Reggie wants. It’s always been that way and clearly from the latest SI piece and fallout, that’s never going to change.

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Jorge Posada and the Hall of Fame

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Jorge Posada is reportedly set to announce his retirement. Let’s take a look at his Hall of Fame credentials.

Comparable players.

Catchers are held to a different standard because they have to handle the pitching staff; throw out basestealers; be the prototypical “field general”; and if they’re going to be in the Hall of Fame conversation, they have to hit.

Statistically, there are the no-doubt Hall of Famers like Johnny Bench, Yogi Berra, Bill Dickey and Mickey Cochrane.

Then you have Gary Carter and Carlton Fisk who are in the Hall of Fame, but didn’t waltz in in their first year of eligibility.

There are the upcoming catchers who will get in because of a superior part of their game counteracting the weak spots and questions. Mike Piazza has power numbers that no catcher has ever posted; Ivan Rodriguez is close to 3000 hits, over 300 homers and was a defensive weapon who stopped the running game by his mere presence.

After that, you have the players trapped in the “are they or aren’t they” limbo. They have credentials for enshrinement, but reasons to keep them out. Thurman Munson, Bill Freehan and Javy Lopez (seriously) can state cases for the Hall of Fame that wouldn’t elicit an immediate “no”, but won’t get in.

Posada is borderline and hovering between the Carter/Fisk wing and Munson/Freehan/Lopez.

Offensively.

A switch-hitting catcher with a career batting record of 275 homers; .273 average, .374 on base percentage, .474 slugging percentage; and an .848 OPS/121 OPS+ has better overall numbers than Fisk and Carter. Fisk’s numbers were bolstered by playing seven more seasons than Posada.

Bench hit nearly 400 homers; Piazza was an offensive force; Cochrane batted .320 for his career with a .419 on base, had power and rarely struck out.

Rodriguez benefited from a friendly home park and, like Piazza, is suspected of PED use. Piazza was never implicated on the record; anecdotal evidence and the era have combined to put him under the microscope and he’s considered guilty due to his rise from a 62nd round draft pick as a favor to Tommy Lasorda to perennial MVP contender. Rodriguez was implicated and there’s statistical evidence in the decline of his power numbers from before testing began and after.

No one ever mentioned Posada as a PED case.

Defense.

There’s more to catching than baseline numbers like passed balls and caught stealing percentage.

Posada’s career caught stealing percentage was 28%. During his career, the Major League average has been between 26% and 32%. Posada was average at throwing out runners. The pitchers quickness to the plate, ability at holding runners and reputation are factors that have to be accounted for. Rodriguez didn’t have people stealing on him; Posada was dealing with some slow-to-the-plate pitchers like Roger Clemens and David Cone and he wasn’t catching much of the time that Andy Pettitte was pitching—runners didn’t steal on Pettitte because of his ability to keep runners close.

If you’d like to compare the pitchers’ results based on the catcher, you can’t say that Posada was “worse” than his nemesis/partners/backups. In 1998, the numbers were better with Posada than they were with Joe Girardi.  In 1999 they were nearly identical with Posada and Girardi.

By 2000, Posada was catching nearly every day.

The managers play a large part in that perception of good or poor defense. Joe Torre was a former catcher who wasn’t going to compromise defense behind the plate for offense. With the Cardinals, it was Torre who replicated the move he made as a player himself by shifting Todd Zeile to third base and installing defensive stalwart Tom Pagnozzi as his catcher. When managing the Braves, Biff Pocoroba was a better hitter than Bruce Benedict, but Benedict was far superior defensively and that’s who Torre played.

When he took over the Yankees, in a concession to the way Torre liked to run his team, GM Bob Watson took the unpopular step of replacing the beloved Mike Stanley with Girardi and it worked exactly as planned.

Torre was not going to play Posada if he was inept behind the plate and it wouldn’t have mattered how much he hit.

Posada’s defense and game-calling became an issue after Torre left and Girardi took over as manager. The relationship between Posada and Girardi was never good. It was an understandable byproduct between two very competitive people who wanted the same job when they were playing; but when Girardi took over as manager, it was his job to get the pitchers and Posada on the same page and he didn’t do it; he allowed younger pitchers like Joba Chamberlain to join in the chorus of complaints about Posada’s game-calling led by CC Sabathia; it should’ve been squashed; that’s on the manager.

Ancillaries.

Posada has five championship rings. The first one, in 1996, had nothing to do with him; but he was a key component in the other four. Feisty and fiery, Posada’s leadership was more understated than that of his counterpart Derek Jeter; it was Posada who was Jeter’s thug and the muscle who enacted Jeter’s edicts; if a player was acting up and Jeter wanted him spoken to, it was Posada who carried out the order.

He was an All Star and Silver Slugger winner five times.

Posada was drafted as a second baseman and converted to catching in the minors. There’s long been a myth that there was a grand plan on the part of the Yankees to build from within and a prescient ability to spot talent led them to Posada, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera (three-fourths of the “core four” along with Jeter) as late rounders and free agent signees. Reality sabotages that story.

Much like the Cardinals didn’t know they were getting this era’s Joe DiMaggio when they drafted Albert Pujols on the 13th round of the 1999 draft, the Yankees didn’t know what they were getting when they selected Posada in the 24th round and Pettitte in the 22nd round in 1990. Had George Steinbrenner not been suspended in the early 1990s, it’s unlikely that Posada or Pettitte would have become the stars they did, at least in Yankees uniforms. The team was lucky that Gene Michael and Buck Showalter had the opportunity to rebuild the team correctly and give these players a chance to develop, the players took it from there.

The Yankees have no desire to bring him back in 2012 and the relationship between he and the club is strained, but because he’s retiring while he can still contribute as a hitter and won’t wear another uniform to pad his stats only makes his candidacy more palatable to certain voters.

Will Posada be elected and when?

I believe Posada will eventually be elected by the writers but it won’t be on the first ballot; that lofty accomplishment is limited to catchers like Bench. Fisk waited until his 2nd year; Carter waited until his 6th year on the ballot; Posada will probably have to wait at least that long and probably longer.

I’ll venture a guess that it’s going to be nine or ten years and as long as no PED accusations or proof of their use is uncovered, he’ll be inducted.

Jorge Posada had a great career and is worthy of election to the Hall of Fame.

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The Sarah Palin Effect and Baseball Nuance

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The Brewers have hired Johnny Narron as their new hitting coach to replace new Cubs manager Dale Sveum.

This gives them two Narrons on the coaching staff—bench coach Jerry Narron along with Johnny.

I’m not being snarky when I ask whether Keith Law has finally realized that Johnny Narron and Jerry Narron are not the same person.

In 2007, when the Rangers acquired Josh Hamilton, Law wrote a piece for ESPN about the move suggesting that they hire the “former Rangers manager” Johnny Narron as a “support system” for Hamilton given Johnny’s relationship with Hamilton in prior years as he recovered from substance abuse issues.

It made perfect sense.

The problem was that it was Johnny’s brother Jerry who was the former Rangers (and Reds) manager. It wouldn’t have been as glaring an error but for Law’s status as a “baseball insider”.

I wrote a blog posting in my loooong-ago blogging home MLBlogs that was indeed snarky—link.

But I’ve evolved since then. Slightly.

Law’s posting was later edited to correct the mistake. But that’s not the point.

There are factual errors and there’s are screwups.

This was a screwup stemming from an empty vault.

Jerry Narron shouldn’t be an unknown quantity for someone who fancies himself as enough of a baseball expert to comment on everything from scouting to stats to player moves to how stupid GMs of today are. In fact, it was Jerry Narron who, along with Brad Gulden, replaced Thurman Munson as one of the Yankees regular catchers for the remainder of the 1979 season after the Yankee captain’s tragic death in a plane crash.

This reminded me of a brief and not unfriendly back-and-forth I had with a fellow Twitter user about Joe Buck. I’d said something to the tune of, “we all know how Joe Buck wound up in the position he’s in” alluding to his father, Hall of Fame broadcaster Jack Buck. The other user, a relatively known blogger attached to ESPN and angling for a position in a baseball front office, said Joe Buck was in his current position because his dad was a former ballplayer.

How, if you want to be a baseball executive, do you not know enough basic baseball history to understand who Jack Buck was and what he was famous for?

It’s the Sarah Palin effect and the nuance of knowledge.

You can cram all the bits of information into anyone’s brain to try and make them sound like they have a baseline comprehension of whatever’s going on, but that doesn’t imply actual knowing—knowing by observation and retaining information as a matter of course through in the trenches work.

It’s why the armchair analysts who have the audacity to sit in front of their computer screens and criticize Tony LaRussa by implying what they would do were they in his position sound so ludicrous.

It’s not about making the statistically viable decision in every circumstance—it’s about handling people and accessing an accumulated experience to do what might seem unconventional or difficult to explain, but works.

This can’t be accrued by regurgitating scouting terminology and being an “expert” in name only; it comes from years-and-years of involvement. If the former governor of Alaska did something as elementary as reading the newspaper on a daily basis, she wouldn’t have had to go through mock debates with her benefactors on suicide watch and praying for the best possible scenario (or a fire) that she not humiliate them with a ridiculous gaffe that a 2nd grader would know was inaccurate.

It’s the same thing in baseball.

Studying statistics and being able to sound like you know what you’re talking about doesn’t make it so.

It’s why a numbers cruncher has no business walking into then-Padres manager Bruce Bochy‘s office and suggesting he bat pitcher Woody Williams second.

It’s why you have to know who Jack Buck, Red Barber, Russ Hodges and Mel Allen were.

And it’s why you should know who a fringe player who replaced a fallen hero and became a big league manager is and that he and his brother are two separate people.

Either you know it or you don’t; and most of those who are accorded credibility in today’s era of internet journalism and repetitive, circular factoids plainly and simply don’t.

It’s easy to tell the difference if you’re actually listening and know what you’re talking about yourself.

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