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 Yankees Saved Hughes For His Next Team

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If the innings limits and protective strategies had worked at least once, I’d say there’s a basis for having them, but this applies to Phil Hughes, Ian Kennedy, Joba Chamberlain, Stephen Strasburg and any other pitcher who’s been held back in the interests of clubs “protecting” their investment: THEY DON’T WORK!!!!

The Yankees placed these rules on all their young pitchers they drafted highly and valued to keep them healthy. Neither Hughes nor Chamberlain stayed healthy and they haven’t been particularly effective either. So what was the point? The false, weak argument will say, “Well, we had no idea about that then; we were following doctors’ advice; we studied the numbers and history; we’d do it again.”

Isn’t the point of drafting and developing pitchers to have them pitch and pitch well for the team that drafted them? Hughes is going to be 27 in June and has a solid won/lost record for his career of 52-36. The record is a byproduct of having pitched for the Yankees for his entire career in an era when they won over 90 games on an annual basis and were loaded with offense and a deep bullpen that doesn’t blow leads. His peripheral numbers are mediocre and the same logic that qualified Ivan Nova’s 16-4 record in 2011 as not entirely accurate also applies to Hughes with the main difference being that the Yankees didn’t use the same strategies on Nova and didn’t think much of Nova, yet he’s been just as good as a pitcher they did tie up, Hughes.

That’s bad for the perception, so it’s ignored.

Yesterday Hughes was diagnosed with another injury, a bulging disk in his neck, said to have occurred during infield practice. It’s not the Yankees’ fault, but it’s an example of the fragility of athletes in general and pitchers in particular when they’re performing the occasionally dangerous and stressful activity of baseball.

What have they gotten with all the developmental rules? With the numbers that they, hopefully, didn’t extrapolate from Tom Verducci? With the constant shifting of roles, shutdowns, break periods, and pitch counts?

Nothing.

This is not to pick on the Yankees. Many teams are doing the same things with similar results, but Hughes’s latest injury makes him a worthy example. Hughes has been a mediocre pitcher who could have been a star had they just left him alone. Like Kennedy, Hughes will have to develop elsewhere and be allowed to pitch the 200 innings that, after six years in the big leagues, he’s yet to do. He’s a free agent at the end of the season and there will be a team that looks at Hughes and says, “We’ll sign him and let him pitch,” and will be rewarded with, at least, more than the Yankees have gotten from him.

Teams are paranoid and afraid to do something different from the current orthodoxy and self-proclaimed experts sitting behind computers, crunching numbers and waiting for an opportunity to critique. The Giants, with an old-school GM Brian Sabean, have built one of the best pitching staffs in baseball—one that’s brought them two World Series titles in three years—and they did it by drafting two high school pitchers (Madison Bumgarner and Matt Cain) and one pitcher who was too small and had such a unique motion and training regimen that teams didn’t want to touch him (Tim Lincecum). What do the Yankees have? Two failed would-be stars and another top prospect who almost won the Cy Young Award for the Diamondbacks two years ago.

The Moneyball concept of not drafting high school pitchers because of the “risk” has thankfully been tossed overboard. The Verducci Effect is in the process of being phased out. (For the record, if my GM said he was using the arbitrary research of a sportswriter to develop and dictate how he used his pitchers, I’d fire him.) Teams are looking at the reality and realizing that maybe young pitchers might be better-served to be allowed to throw innings and incorporate other factors rather than the numbers handed to them by Ivy League graduates armed with an algorithm. Isn’t this is why there are pitching coaches, managers and scouts: to determine a pitcher’s tics, movements and mechanics to decide when he’s tired; when he’s at risk for injury; how he should be deployed?

Pitchers are fragile, but instead of using that fragility as a basis to freeze them for a later date, perhaps the opposite would be a better strategy: let them pitch while they can pitch and move on when they can’t. A team deciding to do that will certainly get better results than the Yankees have with Hughes, who is probably counting the days until he can get out of the Yankees constraints and go to a club that will let him enjoy his prime years as something other than a what might have been. Currently, he’s a failed experiment in building a young pitcher and a case study of those poor decisions creating a pitcher who can be found on the market cheaply to be used and discarded.

Hughes keeps getting hurt; he’s the Yankees’ fourth starter; he’s leaving at the end of the season because the Yankees won’t want him back at the money he’ll ask for and the pitcher would probably like to get a fresh start. With all of these facts, tell me, what was the point of the rules they used as a garrote to strangle his future?

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Stephen Strasburg Book Excerpt

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Below is an excerpt from my new book, Paul Lebowitz’s 2012 Baseball Guide.

This section is about Nationals’ star Stephen Strasburg.

Stephen Strasburg is considered the “ace” of the Nats staff, but it’s impossible to be an ace if a pitcher can’t be expected to throw at least 200 innings. In 2011, in his return from Tommy John surgery, Strasburg threw 44 innings.

This season, his limit won’t be any higher than 150-160 innings.

I’m not getting into my usual rant about the idiotic “Verducci Effect” and the other excuses (not reasons, excuses) for random limitations placed on each and every pitcher that comes along in a paranoid attempt to keep them from getting hurt and shield the organization from the inevitable criticism that would come from such an eventuality.

But here’s a flash: the Nats had Strasburg on a limit when he first got to the big leagues and he got hurt anyway.

They’re controlling every aspect of Strasburg’s career like a monolithic Marv Marinovich and protecting him to the point of sticking him in a plastic bubble.

It’s not the way to develop. They have this young man in a straitjacket and it’s going to hinder him as a person and as a pitcher.

Davey Johnson will adhere to the edicts, but he was never one to baby his pitchers and would probably like to loosen up the restrictions.

It’s not going to happen.

On the mound, in his 24 big league innings, Strasburg looked even better than he did as a rookie. He struck out 24 hitters and walked only 2! He allowed 15 hits and no homers. His fastball reached the upper 90s, he showed his great curve and changeup.

Strasburg could contend for the Cy Young Award this season and if they took off the handcuffs, the Nats would be title contenders immediately.

But they won’t.

Click here for a full sample of team predictions/projections. My book is now available on Kindle, Smashwords and Lulu with other outlets on the way.

Click on the above links to purchase a copy.

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Stop Enabling Billy Beane

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Just stop it.

It’s enough already.

The latest set of alibis for Billy Beane and Moneyball comes from Tyler Kepner in today’s NY Times and—in the greatest insult to our collective baseball intelligence yet—they’e being utilized in the same way to excuse his mediocrity as they were to build the foundation for his myth of genius.

He didn’t have any money and had to figure out a different way to compete; he doesn’t have any money now so that’s why he’s losing.

He was in a small, relatively unappealing market where players wouldn’t go unless they had no other choice; he can’t get players to come to Oakland.

He didn’t have a state-of-the-art ballpark with modern amenities; he doesn’t have a state-of-the-art ballpark with modern amenities.

There were stupid people in baseball; the stupid people have suddenly gotten smart and are using his innovations.

What’s next? Mediocre reviews of the film or a lack of connectivity between book and movie are turning players away from joining a club that partakes in such dramatic license in the interests of propping up a story? The old ballplayer line of rejecting a job based on cinematic liberties?

Why is there this investment from the media in trying to salvage what’s left of the farce that was the appellation of “genius” on the part of Beane?

Beane’s justifications are taking on the ludicrous nature the type you’d hear from a bust on To Catch a Predator.

“I just came to talk to her.”

“I wanted to explain that she shouldn’t be meeting men on the internet.”

“She needs to do well in school, study hard and get into a good college.”

It’s not believable; in fact, it’s nonsense.

This isn’t to imply the issues of revenue, venue and increased knowledge from his counterparts aren’t hindering Beane’s efforts to maintain a competitive team—of course they are—but you can’t use the same arguments to create the illusion of brilliance as you do when explaining away mistakes. It doesn’t work that way.

The biggest irony is the “kinder, gentler Billy” persona that Beane—quite the actor himself—is putting forth.

It’s laughable that the same character who ranted, raved, cussed, broke things and bullied subordinates is now a cerebral, down-to-earth, somewhat resigned caricature who’s using those ridiculed excuses from above as a protective cloak to shield himself from all criticism; what makes it worse it how he’s being willfully assisted by the sycophants in the media and his remaining apologists whose agenda is clearly in line with their so-called “stat revolution” that was supposed to turn every Major League Baseball front office into something resembling a combination Star Trek convention and Ivy League school reunion.

I’ll bet that the “Billy Beane” in the film, played by the likable Brad Pitt, won’t be smashing any chairs on-screen. The Beane in the book is not likable at all. The character in the book was tearing into conventional baseball wisdom and running roughshod over the old-school scouts and antiquated thinkers who were invested in their own version of running a team; the movie person will be more palatable to the mainstream audience it’s seeking to attract.

Is the objective reality that so often referenced as to why Beane did what he did?

Beane was supposedly too smart and too much of an analyst to make it as a player, so he transferred his self-destructive intensity into the front office and turned it into a positive while simultaneously flipping the world of baseball upside down; but now he’s finding the same varied list of whys to maintain the veneer that his terrible team is not his fault.

Whose fault is it?

Beane had his chance to go to a big market club when he agreed to take over as GM of the Red Sox and backed out.

I’ve repeatedly stated how much of a disaster that would’ve been as his plans included trading Jason Varitek and signing someone named Mark Johnson to replace him; moving Manny Ramirez to permanent DH, precluding the signing of David Ortiz; signing Edgardo Alfonzo who was near the end of the line; and sending Kevin Youkilis to the Athletics as compensation for Beane joining the Red Sox.

Luckily for the Red Sox, Beane walked away from the deal and chose to stay in Oakand. Michael Lewis’s story was that Beane finally had a monetary value placed on his work with the Red Sox offer—documented evidence of what he could get were he to auction his stud services to the highest bidder. That was enough for him and he returned to the A’s. Family considerations played a part in Beane’s decision to remain with the A’s, but there were other, unsaid factors.

Isn’t it easier to stay somewhere where the expectations are muted and you’re treated as a demagogue? Where you’re about to be given a portion of a billion dollar business all as a result of this concept of being a genius? Where there are always ways to stickhandle around any missteps with the financial/ballpark/venue/competitive problems? Of existing in a vacuum?

If I hired a “genius”, I’d expect the miraculous. I’d expect him to figure it out regardless of what obstacles stand in his way.

Beane isn’t, nor was he ever, a genius. He filled a gap and exposed a market that was rife for exploitation. Once everyone else figured out what he was doing and started using the same techniques he did, he was right back where he started from. Genius is innovation and in that sense, there was a shred of “genius” in what Beane did; but he’s no innovator in that he created something new. He found a weapon and used it like some megalomaniacal James Bond villain.

He’s been able to gloss over repeated rebuilding projects where he traded away the likes of Nick Swisher, Dan Haren, Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder for returns that have been weak or abject failures. He’s dispatched managers for shady reasons—but if the managers don’t get credit for the wins, nor should they be saddled with the losses. His “card-counting in the casino” approach to the draft was the stupidest thing in the book and has been proven to be an utter absurdity with continually terrible drafts. His pitchers have gotten injured over and over; wouldn’t a “genius” find a series of preventative measures to keep his players healthy apart from referring to the idiotic Verducci Effect—which Beane says he does?

How long is this going to last?

Is it going to last until the movie is in and out of theaters when the bloom is off a rose that’s existed far too long and has been protected from reality in the interests of selfish motivations? Will others join me in stating the obvious? Will Beane finally be seen for what he is?

Or will there still be pockets of protest trying to refurbish the crumbling facade of Moneyball?

Moneyball lives, but in a different form; it’s a shape-shifter; a chameleon bent on survival at whatever cost.

I tend to think, as the A’s stumble to a 90 loss season, there will be other voices saying the same thing I do.

But I said it first.

Beane’s corporate terminology and sudden reliance on the reviled “subjectivity” to protect his legacy and fairy tale status has failed in theory and practice.

No one’s buying it anymore.

They’re just waiting until after the film to admit it.

And that only makes the subterfuge and self-indulgence worse and those documenting it less and less credible.

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