Nolan Ryan’s Present And Future

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People are forgetting who Nolan Ryan is and why he has the reputation he does.

As a player, he was an ornery, competitive, strong and silent Texan who let his fastball and his performance do the talking. Now that he’s in the Rangers’ front office, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he’s staking out his territory and trying to control his own destiny by waiting to see exactly where he stands in the new hierarchy. It’s still unknown what his job description is and how far his power extends with former GM Jon Daniels now promoted to President of Baseball Operations; Rick George is running the business side; and Thad Levine—as soon as Ryan’s fate is determined—probably taking over a significant part of Daniels’s former duties in the day-to-day minutiae of running the club. Ryan has a right to stop and say, “Hold awn just a dern second here, pardner,” with his hand on his sidearm and an icy glare at the town politicians who are trying to take away his sheriff’s badge.

It seems that Ryan is being contrary because he’s not sure as to the delineation of the new parameters and wants to be certain he’s still wanted with the Rangers for his experience and advice. Daniels has said nothing will change, but that’s not worth much until there’s a disagreement between the two and Ryan knows that Daniels doesn’t have the power to shrug off what Ryan wants and do as he prefers without approval from his “boss.” Ryan also has an ego as big as Texas and doesn’t want to be seen as a caddy for his 35-year-old underling.

The Rangers baseball people are, by and large, highly educated and stat-centric. That’s not Ryan. While Ryan’s preferred method of developing pitchers deviated from the stat guy template, were Daniels and Levine onboard with what he was doing? Or were they cringing at the medieval methods and went along to get along because Ryan had the owner’s ear and they quietly hoped that no one got hurt or too much damage wasn’t done to the young arms Matt Harrison, Derek Holland, Martin Perez and others as they were pushed harder than the numbers dictate is optimal? If Ryan’s tactics are shunted to the side and more “science” is injected into the equation, it will be clear what was going on with the Rangers. This is independent of whether Ryan’s there or not.

I believe it’s a mistake to let Ryan leave. While he prefers layman terminology and old-school sensibilities, he’s also able to adapt. When he hooked up with Tom House as his pitching coach and advisor in the 1980s-90s, he took House’s penchant for long-winded technical terms and innovations such as throwing a football and made them accessible for everyone. With his resume, if Ryan was doing it it had to be okay. It’s the same dynamic with the stat guys in the organization. He’s not a grumpy old man with no interest nor capability to understand the new metrics. He plays the opposite side from a position of having the experience to know what works and what doesn’t and he won’t be intimidated by condescension and high-end vocabularies. On the other side of the coin, with people who have their own theories and beliefs on building a club, they don’t want to hear the growling, memory-lane laced, “In my day, grumble, grumble…” from someone who doesn’t have the faintest interest nor comprehension of what the stat people are trying to do.

Ryan will not accept being a figurehead and those who are suggesting the Astros hire him away from the Rangers (Johnette Howard and Richard Justice) mention that Ryan couldn’t be a figurehead if the Astros did hire him. But what would he do there? The Astros have taken dramatic steps and made pointed hirings of pure stat people who never picked up a baseball. GM Jeff Luhnow has made no secret as to his intentions with the team and he’s implementing his beliefs as to how to rebuild a dead and dilapidated franchise. Whether it works remains to be seen, but he’s plotted his course and is sticking to it. That blueprint doesn’t include an old-schooler who wants substantial say-so and is used to getting his way in the male-dominated world of baseball in which might makes right.

Teams have plenty of former stars on their payrolls. Willie Mays is listed as a member of the Giants’ front office as a special assistant. Soon to be age 82, how much special assistance do you think Mays is providing? How much interest do you think he has in doing it? Mays is there to hobnob with the people who were kids when he was in his say heyday, want to say, “Wow!! I met Willie Mays!!” and have the money to purchase season tickets, luxury suites and hold corporate events at AT&T Park.  The Yankees bring in their former stars to stand around in spring training, mingle with the fans and help them sell stuff with nostalgia and stories. Sometimes, as was the case with Andy Pettitte, they even come back to play and contribute. But they’re not there with legitimate power, if any at all.

For the Astros, hiring Ryan would be diametrically opposed to what they’ve done since Luhnow took command. While it may make some fans happy for a moment, if they’re inserting Ryan’s methods into their rebuilding process, the inevitable question as to why they were they so hell-bent on tearing the thing down to its brass fittings and putting together a team that will compete for the title of worst in history if they were going to bring in Ryan and his opposite viewpoint as a decision maker?

Ryan could have been governor of Texas if he’d chosen to. He has neither the time nor the desire to stand around talking to people he doesn’t know and being the former hero who’s there to make everyone smile at the memories he created with his power fastball, longevity, and intensity. He wants to work. That may be possible with the Rangers, but it’s completely off the table for the Astros. The Rangers should make sure Ryan feels wanted because they need him to stay with the organization for his presence and his knowledge.

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Pitching Coach Pep Boys

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How much of what a pitching coach says to his bosses when analyzing a potential trade target is legitimate and how much is said for their validation and consumption?

Is it accurate when a coach says, as Rick Peterson reportedly did when the Mets were considering trading Scott Kazmir for Victor Zambrano, that he could fix Zambrano “in ten minutes”?

Is it the arrogance inherent in so many coaches, managers, executives and players?

Or is it bluster based on reputation?

Needless to say, Peterson did not fix Zambrano in ten minutes. Nor did he fix him in ten months. And he wouldn’t have fixed him in ten years.

On Thursday, the Nationals completed a trade for Athletics lefty Gio Gonzalez.

Gonzalez’s wildness has been well documented and is in black and white for all to see. 183 walks in two years speak for themselves.

Did the Nationals hierarchy discuss Gonzalez with big league pitching coach Steve McCatty? And did he tell them the truth as he saw it or was he influenced by the club’s clear desire to get their hands on Gonzalez at whatever cost?

McCatty famously slammed his hand into the dugout wall when Stephen Strasburg threw that fateful pitch in 2010 in which he tore his elbow in an injury that required Tommy John surgery. I’ve long said that because Strasburg was injured while the Nationals were following organizational edicts and stringent limitations on his innings and pitch counts, no one could be held responsible for the injury; this made it something of a relief when he did get hurt. There was no documented evidence of abuse; no outrageous pitch counts; no “arm-shredding” reputation for anyone.

This in spite of the fact that then-Nats manager Jim Riggleman was the manager in charge when Kerry Wood was overused and abused during the Cubs run toward the playoffs in 1998.

Somehow the onus for Wood and Mark Prior fell two Cubs managers later and Dusty Baker.

It’s about perception.

Will altering Gonzalez’s mechanics give him better control?

Perhaps.

But will doing so make him easier to hit?

Sometimes when a pitcher has funky mechanics and doesn’t know where the ball is going, it contributes to him getting hitters out. Not only does Gonzalez walk a lot of hitters, but he strikes out a lot of hitters as well; and he doesn’t allow many hits or homers.

The funky motion and wildness could be a large portion of that, so making a change that the pitching coach sees as “fixing” him could damage him.

Such was the case with the Pirates when the fired Joe Kerrigan.

Kerrigan was fired, in part, because of the mechanical adjustments he made to former Pirates number 1 draft choice Brad Lincoln.

The main transgressions on the part of Kerrigan were: A) that he was a quirky personality who made his presence felt and imposed on his already weak manager, John Russell; and B) the changes didn’t work.

What did they hire a name pitching coach for if they didn’t want him to do what a name pitching coach does in trying to address issues he may see in a pitcher’s mechanics and approach?

If he didn’t do anything and the pitchers didn’t improve, would he have been fired for that?

Of course.

Anyone can stand there and do nothing.

For years, Leo Mazzone was seen as the “brains” behind the Braves brilliant starting rotation. Then he went to the Orioles and couldn’t repair their pitchers; he hasn’t been able to get a coaching job since.

Why?

Maybe it’s because you can’t make an Astrovan into a Ferrari; you can’t make Kris Benson and Daniel Cabrera into Greg Maddux and John Smoltz.

Peterson and Tom House have theories, stats, stick figures, computer simulations and innovative techniques to help their charges, but they’re also selling stuff.

It’s hard to take people selling stuff at face value.

In spite of his documented and long history of success, Dave Duncan has never auctioned his services to the highest bidder; he’s never sought a managerial job; he’s shooed away anyone who even approached him with the idea that he manage.

He’s a voice you can trust because he’s not hawking a load of junk.

The others? I have my doubts.

I wouldn’t want a yes-man overseeing any part of my organization; nor would I want someone whose main interest is maintaining a reputation at the expense of doing his job. The attitude I prefer is “don’t ask me a question you don’t want the answer to” and with today’s pitching coaches, I wonder whether they’re of the same mind and working to make their charges better or hiding behind a curtain of agreeable self-protection by interpreting what the front office wants to hear and tailoring their responses to that in order to save themselves.

And that’s not how a team should be run.

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