The Nationals, players’ only meetings and automaton managers

MLB

Martinez RizzoWith the Washington Nationals reeling and desperately trying to turn out of their accelerating death spiral, the club held a players’ only meeting after yet another loss. As manager Dave Martinez faces scrutiny for the underachieving club whose championship window is not just closing but is about to be blown out of its frame, he seems at a loss for words with the following comment:

“We were a pretty good team in May. Not very good in June, but we’ll get better.”

“I know we’re going to get better. We’re going to continue, and we’re going to win a lot of games.”

This while the inevitable and perfectly reasonable question is being asked as to whether the Nationals would be in this position right now had they not decided to move on from Dusty Baker for the younger, more pliable and cheaper Martinez.

This is a repeat of the Nationals’ previous attempt to hire the cookie-cutter manager who did what he was told, Matt Williams, to replace the veteran and somewhat headstrong Davey Johnson. To compound the growing sense of “what might have been?”, Johnson came out in his book saying that he was basically an unwilling accomplice to “Incident X” in the Nationals downfall from would-be dynasty to historic underachiever: the 2012 shutdown of Stephen Strasburg.

Even more troubling is Jim Riggleman, the manager who Johnson replaced because he was a veteran caretaker manager whose role was to oversee the rebuild and keep the young players in line, is enjoying a renaissance as the manager of the Cincinnati Reds, having turned the club from 110-loss oblivion to playing around .500 ball under his stewardship following their atrocious 3-15 start under Bryan Price.

Martinez epitomizes the preferred manager in today’s game where collaboration takes precedence over competence and experience; where following orders is at or near the top of the job description when it wasn’t even included in the list of requirements before front offices took center stage as the hub around which entire organizations orbit.

To blame Martinez, Mickey Callaway or Paul Molitor for the poor seasons of their clubs and to credit Dave Roberts, Aaron Boone or Gabe Kapler for a club’s success misses the point of how managers are handled – not hired – handled today.

Martinez merely serves as the latest case study of why these new-age managers are largely interchangeable. His statement above is indicative of not knowing what to do while knowing what he’s allowed to do. He’s a figurehead and the players know it. The team meeting is a signal that they’re taking matters into their own hands to stack sandbags and prevent the flood from worsening because, judging by their history with Williams, they’ve seen this natural disaster before and are acting before it’s too late.

This is a grand distance from a Billy Martin explosion with the food table being flung across the room; a Lee Elia expletive-laced rant; or even Jim Leyland screaming at the players and telling the GM – his “boss” – to get the hell out of his office and stop telling him how to do his job and getting away with it.

Don Zimmer once started a team meeting by screaming at his players before coming to a dead stop and telling them that it wasn’t their fault that they stunk and couldn’t play, so there was no reason to yell at them for it.

None of this happens in today’s game even with the remaining veteran managers like Mike Scioscia, Buck Showalter and Ron Gardenhire who have a certain amount of leeway in dealing with the players.

Disposable managers with entry-level contracts know their place. Martinez appears devoid of passion not due to natural stoicism, but through borderline catatonia that was drilled in as a prerequisite for the job. That’s essentially the logical conclusion of hiring a manager whose role is to take orders and who, should he deviate from that, will be replaced by another manager who takes orders. When the Nationals caved and hired Baker, it was because they could not afford to hire another Williams and Baker was willing to take short money for the opportunity. After two years, two division titles, and two close-call Game 5 losses in the NLDS, the Nationals felt sufficiently emboldened in their arrogance that they were talented enough to win on cruise control and could hire another manager like Williams. The results are eerily similar not just on the field but with the players’ action and reaction.

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The 6-Man Rotation: Its Wisdom And Its Flaws

MLB

Had the Washington Nationals implemented a 6-man starting rotation in 2012, there’s a very real chance that they would have won the World Series that year. The predetermined innings limit on ace Stephen Strasburg that led to him being shut down in mid-September of that year could very easily have been avoided had the Nats taken the lesser of evils by implementing a 6-man starting rotation. They chose not to do that, sat a submissive Strasburg down, and lost in the National League Division Series to the St. Louis Cardinals.

There’s no guarantee that the Nats would have won that series with Strasburg. Ace pitchers are generally hit or miss when it comes to the post-season – just look at Clayton Kershaw. For the 2012 Nats, it was the bullpen that betrayed them as they were set to close it out. But having Strasburg made the Nats a better team and they didn’t have him not because he was injured, but because they were paranoid and they did something absurd to feed that paranoia and shield themselves from criticism in case he got hurt. That he’s never fulfilled that massive potential is a secondary negative to his career. The protection was, basically, useless.

In hindsight, the Nats still insist they did the “right” thing because admitting to anything less is seen, in the macho and stupid world of sports, as a sign of weakness. Then-manager Davey Johnson was out of the Earl Weaver school of managing and wanted nothing to do with babying his players, but was overruled on the matter. Suffice it to say that had Strasburg been available, Johnson would have been happy to have him on the mound for game 1 or 2 of that series.

Many pitchers dislike the 6-man rotation, but given the dueling agendas of front offices and on-field staff, there are few other options that make sense. Currently, there’s an ongoing debate as to what the New York Mets should do with their enviable surplus of starting pitching. Veteran Dillon Gee is the low man on the totem pole and had a conveniently-timed groin injury. Rafael Montero had a shoulder injury. These issues allowed the club to recall Noah Syndergaard slightly earlier than planned. Syndergaard has nothing more to prove in the minor leagues and has been dynamic in all aspects of the game since arriving in the majors, even hitting a tape-measure home run against the Philadelphia Phillies while tossing 7 1/3 scoreless innings in his Wednesday afternoon start.

They could send Syndergaard down, but he’s earned his position in the big leagues. The Mets would like to be rid of Gee, but don’t want to give him away. Clearly what the Mets are doing for the foreseeable future is giving extra and unwanted (from their perspective) rest to Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Syndergaard, Jon Niese and Bartolo Colon while simultaneously showcasing Gee to try and get something of value for him when they trade him. It’s easy to say “just get him outta here,” but sometimes it makes sense to wait for teams to grow desperate as general manager Sandy Alderson did when he pried the Mets’ future second baseman Dilson Herrera and righty reliever Vic Black from the Pittsburgh Pirates for rejuvenated journeyman outfielder Marlon Byrd and catcher John Buck. While it’s unlikely they’ll get anything of use for Gee, they might if they wait. The subpar deals that they can make now will still be there a month from now barring an injury or terrible performance.

Akin to the 6-man rotation, pitching once a week is the norm in Japan and it could be the change in scheduling that has negatively affected Masahiro Tanaka as he’s battling numerous injuries with the New York Yankees. In Japan, their workloads are heavier, but they get more rest. In North America, with all the medical expertise and studies that are used to decide how best to keep pitchers healthy, there are still an alarming number of injuries sabotaging these plans and schemes that look retrospectively ridiculous when the foundation of the decision was to keep them healthy and it’s not working.

Suffice it to say that the Mets five main starters want nothing to do with this arrangement, nor would there be any chance of a Strasburg-like shutdown of Harvey if the Mets are in playoff contention down the stretch. Both pitchers are represented by Scott Boras, but that’s about where the similarities end. Boras had a hand in the Strasburg shutdown with an eye toward the future contract his charge is set to command. If he had his choice with Harvey, he’d probably prefer the pitcher take a similarly acquiescent route as Strasburg did, listening to orders and acting like Boras’s brainless dummy, but that’s not going to happen. Strasburg meekly agreed to the shutdown, only resisting in a perfunctory fashion when he saw the public and professional backlash he faced for the perceived selfishness. If the Mets tried that with Harvey, he’d simply tell them that either they let him pitch or they trade him. No pitcher in baseball wants the playoff spotlight and accompanying attention that comes with it more than Harvey and he’s not going to shun that for the protective embrace that the innings limits are supposed to provide, but rarely do.

These are the options:

A) shutdown at X number of innings

B) ignore the research and let them pitch regardless of the workload

C) go with the 6-man rotation

Which is best?

The Nats and Strasburg are headed toward a parting of the ways after the 2016 season as his free agency beckons. They might trade him before that. His talent has been largely wasted at the time in his life when he should have been at the top of his game and pitching for his team in the playoffs. Other teams noticed how badly that situation was botched and are trying to find different ways to protect their young pitchers, adhere to medical recommendations, and still have them available for the entire season without blowing off the innings limits and placing themselves under the microscope for “abusing” their young arms. Some teams simply don’t care what others say and live by the old-school credo. That worked for the San Francisco Giants. The Mets aren’t doing that, but they don’t want to shut down their pitchers either. With all that in mind, the best option of all the questionable options is to go with a 6-man rotation for a few turns to naturally keep the innings down while trying to move Gee. They really don’t have any other viable choice.

Matt Harvey vs. Stephen Strasburg: who’s actually better and why?

MLB

The answer lies not in their stats, but in their swagger.

In 2009, Stephen Strasburg came out of San Diego State University as the consensus number one pick in the nation. The Washington Nationals, at the time, were fortunate in that there was very little brain work that needed to be done to find the player they were going to take with that first overall pick. Comparing and contrasting that with what happened to the Houston Astros with Brady Aiken and it’s not to be disregarded how the appearance of a once-in-a-generation talent can help a club to make the decision. When there is debate as to who the number one pick should be, it’s not only about their performance as their careers move along, but how making the wrong pick can cost people their jobs. Had there been another, less heralded prospect available and the Nationals had felt strongly enough about him to shun Strasburg, then it would have been a big story that could either have exploded in their faces or turned into a massive victory. Looking at the 2009 first round, the Nationals might have chosen to take Dustin Ackley – a bust – first overall. Or they might have fallen in love with a player who’d fallen to number 25, Mike Trout.

With hindsight, whom would they prefer? The answer is simple and it’s Trout.

Obviously any team with a conscientious scouting staff and general manager who’s in tune with the realities of developing players will perform due diligence before making the pick. Factors such as physicality, makeup and ability will dictate that “this is the player we want.” It certainly helps to have that consensus number one sitting there so there’s a built-in excuse if he doesn’t make it: “Anyone else in our position would have picked him too.”

The Nationals were lucky to be in that position two straight years in 2009, the year they selected Strasburg, and 2010 when they took Bryce Harper.

Along with that consensus number one status comes a lot of pressure on both the player and the club. That and the combination of recommendations from supposed experts, formulas and paranoia is what led to the Nationals babying Strasburg to the degree they did. He wound up getting hurt anyway, missed a large chunk of the 2011 season after Tommy John surgery, and, in what is now known as a notorious decision, he was shut down at a prescribed innings limit in 2012 as the Nationals were heading toward the playoffs.

Strasburg acted as if he was upset about the shutdown, but he went along with it through the prodding of his agent/puppeteer Scott Boras as well as the Nationals’ staff. Had he truly demanded that the shutdown not have occurred and demanded to pitch, what could the Nationals have done?

Matt Harvey, on the other hand, was a known prospect but wasn’t as obvious a star. Picked seventh overall in 2010 by the New York Mets former front office regime led by the unfairly maligned and savvy talent evaluator Omar Minaya, Harvey was drafted before recognizable names Chris Sale and Christian Yelich. Even as he made his way through the minors, no one knew he’d develop into a pitcher whose attitude and stuff are comparable to a young Roger Clemens.

Amid all of Strasburg’s obvious talent with a searing fastball, knee-buckling curve and superior changeup, there’s a wishy-washiness to him that indicates a troubling lack of intensity and that he’d be just as happy working as a stockbroker making big corporate bucks as he is being a star athlete. To him, baseball appears to be his job and he’s out to maximize the amount of money he makes from it. His agent, that his free agency is pending after 2016, and that the performance hasn’t lived up to the expectations – in large part because of injury and babying – make him a trade target. He’s allowed the subjugation of his personality and career to his agent and bosses. He lets that agent be the hatchet man and his bosses dictate to him how he’ll be used when a true competitor would stand up for himself in ways that Strasburg has been reluctant and unwilling to do.

To Harvey, baseball is not only his job but a means to be famous and recognized as the best at what he does. There’s an attention-whore aspect to Harvey that is irritating many in the Mets organization and leads to public embarrassments after which the team has to do its best to clean it up, but it’s also a way to make the organization money with the now ubiquitous “Harvey Day” promotional device. While it’s Derek Jeter who Harvey purports to emulate, his behaviors have been compared to Jeter’s nemesis and bizarro counterpart, Alex Rodriguez.

Like Strasburg, Harvey needed Tommy John surgery. Strasburg accepted it as a matter of course in a cold, analytical way. Harvey demanded to try and rehab it without surgery so he could pitch. That’s not just a medical plan of action, but an insightful indicator of what makes the two young stars tick.

It isn’t a matter of “Which one’s better?” but of “Which one would you rather have?” It’s not connected to contracts, agents (both are represented by Boras), age, team control, and ability. It’s about who you want on the mound in a big game. Strasburg had more hype coming out of college, but Harvey has the “it” factor in that he would neither allow himself to be shut down as his team is charging toward the playoffs, nor would he let the glare of the post-season spotlight shock him into terror.

Harvey’s nickname is the “Dark Knight of Gotham” and he’s embraced that nickname. He loves being the center of attention in New York, relishes the love and lust he engenders (on and off the field), and wants heads to turn when he struts by. Strasburg’s nickname is “Stras” and his only apparent interest in darkness is that it be dark enough that no one’s able to see him. He’s allowed himself to be co-opted by his agent and organization and hasn’t fulfilled the promise he showed when he was drafted and everyone knew who he was and what he could be.

This isn’t about stuff, WAR, and draft status. It’s about the individual. Going by those factors, there isn’t one team in baseball – including the Nationals – who wouldn’t pick Harvey over Strasburg.

Ricky Nolasco Proves the Market Rewards Mediocrity

CBA, Cy Young Award, Draft, Fantasy/Roto, Free Agents, Games, History, Hot Stove, Management, Media, MiLB, Players, Prospects, Stats, Trade Rumors

The Ricky Nolasco contract with the Twins was announced last night. I haven’t looked at the reactions yet, but presumably they range between indignation, head shakes and grudging acknowledgements that “that’s the market.” Whether or not he’s worth that money is beside the point. Nolasco is a better pitcher than he’s been given credit for and he’s durable. He’s not the pitcher you’d prefer to have starting opening day or the first game of a playoff series, but he’s a professional arm who will provide innings and competence. In today’s market, that’s going to get him $50 million. I’m not judging it one way or the other. It just “is.” Personally, I’d prefer Bronson Arroyo to Nolasco. But Nolasco is certainly a better risk than Masahiro Tanaka. It’s all about context.

It’s not a free money policy in an industry that is flush with cash that is causing teams to make seeming overpays for slightly above-average pitchers. It’s the overall culture of wastefulness that has permeated baseball through ridiculous developmental rules for pitchers that make necessary the purchasing of whatever is on the market for the going rate due to supply and demand.

Teams and analysts talk out of both sides of their mouths – as well as other orifices – when they put forth the pretense of running the organization as a business and then toss uncountable amounts of money at mediocrity, wondering why they get mediocrity when that’s what they bought.

A.J. Burnett was the epitome of a pitcher who was overpaid based on need and availability. Having missed the playoffs in 2008 and desperate for starting pitching, the Yankees threw money at their problems and it worked. One pitcher they signed was A.J. Burnett. Burnett was always the epitome of the “million dollar arm, five cent head” pitcher, one who could throw a no-hitter striking out 18 one game and give up a three-run homer to the opposing pitcher in the next game. For that, the Yankees doled a contract worth $82.5 million for five years. They kept him for three, paid the Pirates $20 million to take him off their hands and didn’t even get useful prospects in the trade.

The galling aspect of Burnett’s three year tenure in pinstripes was that there was a belief that he’d arrive and suddenly fulfill his potential just because he was a Yankee. In truth, he pitched in the same frustrating, aggravating way he always pitched. It was the height of Yankee arrogance to think they were going to get anything different. During his whole time as a Yankee, when the media and fans screamed about his inconsistency, I responded with an identical and more logical scream that I gave when they signed him: This is what you bought!!! This is A.J. Burnett!!!

The reason the Yankees needed pitching that year was because their attempts to “grow their own” in an effort to save money over the long-term by not having to buy other teams’ arms failed miserably with Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy either getting hurt, pitching poorly or fluctuating in their roles in 2008. With 20/20 hindsight, the Yankees and other clubs who use the pitch counts/innings limits/overprotectiveness for their young pitchers can examine these failures, the need to spend their way out of trouble to purchase breathing bodies who can eat innings and ask whether or not it was worth it.

I don’t want to hear about injuries, changing roles, unsuitability for New York and the other excuses that are proffered to explain away the failures of these three pitchers – that’s all part of why they failed. The fact is that for 16 combined seasons from Chamberlain, Hughes and Kennedy, the Yankees got an 80-68 won/lost record, a 4.37 ERA and wasted years when they were in their early-to-mid 20s and should have been at their strongest and most useful. Don’t start looking for advanced stats either because that’s only going to make the case for the way the Yankees used them worse. They could have been good and weren’t. It’s not hard to figure out why.

If you combine the draft pick compensation that many teams are unwilling to surrender to sign pitchers, the number of pitchers on the market declines even further. That absence and the number of top-tier talent who sign long-term deals to stay with their current teams leads to pitchers like Nolasco getting $50 million deals. Nolasco was traded at mid-season meaning he wasn’t subject to being offered arbitration, therefore there’s no draft pick compensation. Arroyo wasn’t offered arbitration by the Reds. Tanaka won’t cost anything other than money. That’s why they’re attractive.

The Giants were roasted for signing Tim Lincecum to a two-year, $35 million contract rather than let him go as a free agent, but now the decision looks astute. You’d be hard-pressed to find any stat person willing to give Giants general manager Brian Sabean credit for anything, but he kept Lincecum. It was wiser to do so considering the options of trading young players to get an arm or offering Lincecum arbitration hoping he’d take it and no one would offer him a Nolasco-style deal. In retrospect, it was simply easier and better long-term thinking to keep him. The Giants also signed Tim Hudson to a two-year contract. Without compensation attached to him and with the deal Nolasco just signed, Hudson might have lowballed himself by signing so early even at age 38.

Are teams really so in love with Tanaka that they’re willing to give upwards of $150 million to secure his rights and sign him? Or is it that there’s no other payments necessary apart from the posting fee and signing him to a contract? To sit and claim that Tanaka is a sure thing is ridiculous considering the attrition rate of pitchers who arrive with similar hype and expectations. Again, it’s the market and the desperation to hold true to draft picks, luxury tax and other aspects that are influencing which pitchers are getting big money and which aren’t.

The Rays have the right idea with their own pitchers: they use them without overt abuse or overprotectiveness; they don’t sign them to long-term contracts; and they trade them at their highest value for a package of prospects. It’s easy to say, “just copy the Rays” but how many teams have the freedoms the Rays do? How many teams are able to say, “We can’t pay him and it makes no sense to keep him for that extra year when these offers are on the table in a destitute market?” For all the credit the Rays get for their success and intelligence, a substantial portion of it is directly because they have no money; because they’ve been able to win under their tight financial circumstances; because they don’t have a brand-new ballpark with three million fans in attendance; because the media doesn’t go crazy when they trade Matt Garza, James Shields and listen to offers on David Price.

When a team needs 200 innings and isn’t going to get it from their top pitching prospects due to an arbitrary number of innings they’re allowed to pitch to keep them healthy, they have to buy it somewhere else. Stephen Strasburg is entering his fifth season in the big leagues, will be a free agent after 2016, will demand $150 million and as of now still hasn’t broken the 200-inning barrier. Unless the Nats pay it, another team will benefit from the protective cocoon he’s been in. Oh, and he got hurt anyway. Scott Boras will be more than happy to use the hammer of the Nats having signed, paid and developed Strasburg and won’t want to let him leave to force them to pay more money than his performance indicates he’s been worth.

For every Clayton Kershaw or Chris Sale who are allowed to pitch, there are five Strasburgs and Chamberlains who aren’t. And who benefits from the absence of arms? The Nolascos and Tanakas. Production be damned. They have what teams are looking for because most teams – through their own short-sightedness and stupidity – can’t make it on their own.

How is that a wise business model?




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Mattitude?

Games, History, Management, Media, MiLB, Players, Stats

The Nationals are reportedly going to name Matt Williams as their next manager. This comes as no surprise since Williams has long been rumored for the job due to his relationship with Nats GM Mike Rizzo from their days together with the Diamondbacks when Williams was a player and Rizzo was their Director of Scouting. Let’s look at what the Nats can expect from Williams.

Running the games

In 2007, Williams managed very briefly for the Diamondbacks organization in Double A. He managed in the Arizona Fall League last year. He’s been a coach in the Major Leagues with the club for four years. As much as experience is routinely ignored in the hiring of managers today, it matters.

Williams doesn’t have much managerial experience. For a team like the Nats, a concern for an inexperienced manager will be handling the pitching staff and making pitching changes – something Williams has never done and initially might not be adept at. He’ll need an experienced bench coach and pitching coach who he’ll trust and listen to and not men who are selected for the oft-mentioned “loyalty to the organization.” Those guys are generally there and will be there whether the manager succeeds or not creating the potential for mistrust.

It hasn’t been decided whether pitching coach Steve McCatty will return and Randy Knorr, who was passed over for the managing job, was the bench coach for Davey Johnson over the last two seasons. One would assume that both will stay.

The relationship with Rizzo

Rizzo has had high-profile dustups with the two managers he hired as Nats GM, Jim Riggleman and Johnson. Riggleman quit after 55 games in 2011 when he wanted his contract option exercised and Rizzo refused. Johnson disagreed with the Stephen Strasburg shutdown, openly chafed at the overseeing he had to endure in today’s game and threatened to quit/dared Rizzo to fire him. Had Johnson not been retiring at season’s end, it’s likely that Rizzo would have done just that at mid-season and replaced him with Knorr.

If Williams is thinking that the prior relationship between the two will put him in a better position than Johnson, he’s mistaken. Rizzo is in charge and he lets the manager know it. Considering Williams’s quiet intensity as a player, a disagreement between the two could become a problem. He’s not going to simply nod his head and do what he’s told.

The team

Williams is walking into a great situation that probably won’t need much hands-on managing. With the Bob Brenly-managed teams that Williams played for with the Diamondbacks, there wasn’t much for Brenly to do other than write the lineup and let the players play. The veterans policed the clubhouse and Brenly was sort of along for the ride. The same holds true for the Nats. Apart from tweak here and there, the lineup is essentially set. The starting rotation and bullpen are also going to be relatively unchanged.

The one mistake Williams can’t make is to walk in and decide that he has to put his stamp on the team by doing “something” like deciding they’re going to rely more on speed and inside baseball. Writing the lineup will be more than enough. The decision to consciously keep his hands off what doesn’t need to be changed is a window into a manager’s confidence. While Brenly wasn’t a good manager, his style was similar to that of Barry Switzer when he took over the powerhouse Dallas Cowboys in the mid-1990s – he knew enough not to mess with it. It worked and the team won. Of course, no other team was going to hire either man to manage/coach for them, but that didn’t have a bearing on the job they were hired to do and they did it.

Williams is going to benefit greatly from the improved health of Bryce Harper and Wilson Ramos; he’ll be free of any constraints with Strasburg; the team is loaded. All he needs to do is be the serious, stern competitor he was in his playing days and he’ll be fine. Saying it and doing it are two different things and with a brand new manager who’s never done it before, there are still a lot of traps he could fall into and won’t know how to get out of. That’s what he has to look out for. Apart from that, it’s a great opportunity…as long as he doesn’t screw it up.




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Seaver, Palmer and Pitcher Injuries

Award Winners, CBA, Cy Young Award, Draft, Fantasy/Roto, Free Agents, Games, Hall Of Fame, History, Management, Media, MiLB, MVP, Players, Prospects, Stats

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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Mike Morse, the Mariners and Jack Z

Ballparks, CBA, Draft, Fantasy/Roto, Free Agents, Games, History, Hot Stove, Management, Media, MiLB, MLB Trade Deadline, MLB Waiver Trades, Players, Playoffs, Prospects, Stats, Trade Rumors

Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik was roundly roasted when he made the three-way trade with the Athletics and Nationals to acquire Mike Morse. The trade to get Morse was considered about as bad as the trade Zduriencik made at mid-season in his first year at the helm that sent Morse to the Nationals for Ryan Langerhans. In truth, the reacquisition was an understandable deal.

The Mariners sent John Jaso to the Athletics and the Athletics sent young pitchers A.J. Cole, Blake Treinen and Ian Krol to the Nats. This was a trade that made sense to all sides. Despite the stat guy lust for Jaso that would make one think the A’s were getting Johnny Bench, he’s a mediocre defensive catcher who has some pop and gets on base. The Mariners were intent on taking a long look at Jesus Montero, had Mike Zunino on the way and signed veteran Kelly Shoppach. They needed a power bat more than they needed Jaso and thought they were getting one in Morse. Morse had hit 31 homers two years ago and appeared to have figured out how to use his massive size effectively. He hit eight homers in April, three in May and then spent a month on the disabled list from early-June to late July with a strained quadriceps.

If the Mariners were expecting a mid-lineup basher when they acquired Morse, they made a significant mistake in judgment. Morse has tremendous power, but he’s vulnerable to power pitchers and has trouble laying off the high fastball and low breaking stuff. He’ll hit mediocre-to-bad pitching and average fastballers.

With the Orioles, he’ll probably have better success playing in a smaller ballpark. For the Mariners, it was a calculated risk considering what they were giving up and the chance that Morse would be motivated to repeat his 2011 season in his free agent year in 2013. The end result of trading Jaso is that the Mariners wound up with a speedy fifth outfielder in Xavier Avery. The Rays are widely regarded as the smartest organization in baseball and when they traded Jaso to the Mariners, all they received was Josh Lueke with his character issues and 7.50 ERA as a Ray. The difference is they made a worse trade than the Mariners did and were shielded from criticism due to their perception.

If anyone got the best of this deal, it’s the Nationals. Morse was worth a gamble for the Mariners and it didn’t work out.




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Matt Harvey’s Elbow Injury Fallout

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No matter what happens with his elbow, Matt Harvey of the Mets is still going home to this:

Anne_V

I’m not using that image of Anne V. in an attempt to accumulate gratuitous web hits, but as an example of Harvey being perfectly fine whether he has to have Tommy John surgery or not. The reactions ranged from the ludicrous to the suicidal and I’m not quite sure why. There’s being a fan and treating an athlete as if he or she is part of your family and cares about you as much as you care about them.

Let’s have a look at the truth.

For Matt Harvey

The severity of the tear of his ulnar collateral ligament is still unknown because the area was swollen and the doctors couldn’t get the clearest possible image. Whether or not he can return without surgery will be determined in the coming months. It’s possible. If you run a check on every single pitcher in professional baseball, you can probably find a legitimate reason to tell him to shut it down. Some are more severe than others. Harvey’s probably been pitching with an increasing level of damage for years. The pain was  manageable and didn’t influence his stuff, so he and his teams didn’t worry about it. This surgery is relatively common now and the vast number of pitchers return from it better than ever. The timetable given is generally a full year, but pitchers are now coming back far sooner.

“That’s so Mets”

This injury is being treated as if it’s something that could only happen to the Mets. The implication is that their “bad luck” is infesting everything they touch. But look around baseball. How about “that’s so Nats?” Both Jordan Zimmerman and Stephen Strasburg required Tommy John surgery in spite of the Nationals’ protective measures and overt paranoia.

How about “that’s so Red Sox?” Clay Buchholz has spent much of two of the past three seasons on and off the disabled list with several injuries—many of which were completely misdiagnosed.

How about “that’s so Yankees?” Joba Chamberlain and Manny Banuelos had Tommy John surgery; Michael Pineda has had numerous arm injuries since his acquisition.

How about “that’s so Braves?” Tim Hudson, Kris Medlen, Eric O’Flaherty, Jonny Venters (twice), Brandon Beachy and Alex Wood have all had Tommy John surgery. The Braves are considered one of the best organizational developers of talent in baseball.

Dave Duncan warrants Hall of Fame induction for his work as a pitching coach and had Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter undergo Tommy John surgery. You can go to every single organization in baseball and find examples like this.

The Mets kept an eye on Harvey, protected him and he still got hurt. That’s what throwing a baseball at 100 mph and sliders and other breaking pitches at 90+ mph will do. It’s not a natural motion and it damages one’s body.

The Twitter experts

Some said the Mets should not only have shut Harvey down earlier, but they also should have shut down Jonathon Niese, Jenrry Mejia, Zack Wheeler and Jeremy Hefner. Who was going to pitch? PR man Jay Horowitz? Others stated that they were planning to undertake research into the pitching mechanics technique of “inverted W” (which Harvey didn’t use). I’m sure the Mets are waiting for a layman’s evaluations and will study them thoroughly.

Of course, many blamed the Mets’ manager Terry Collins and pitching coach Dan Warthen. That was based on an agenda, pure and simple. Some have been pushing for the Mets to bring back former pitching coach Rick Peterson. They’re ignoring the fact that Peterson is now the pitching coordinator for the Orioles and their top pitching prospect, Dylan Bundy, had Tommy John surgery himself. Is that Dan Warthen’s fault too?

To have the arrogance to believe that some guy on Twitter with a theory is going to have greater, more in-depth knowledge than professional trainers, baseball people and medical doctors goes beyond the scope of lunacy into delusion of self-proclaimed deity-like proportions.

Bob Ojeda

With their station SNY, the Mets have gone too far in the opposite direction from their New York Yankees counterpart the YES Network in trying to be evenhanded and aboveboard. Former Mets pitcher Bob Ojeda should not have free rein to rip the organization up and down  as to what they’re doing wrong. This is especially true since Ojeda has harbored a grudge after former GM Omar Minaya passed Ojeda over for the pitching coach job and openly said he didn’t feel that Ojeda was qualified for the position.

Now Ojeda is using the Harvey injury as a forum to bash the Mets’ manager and pitching coach and claim that he had prescient visions of Harvey getting hurt because he was throwing too many sliders. I don’t watch the pre and post-game shows, so it’s quite possible that Ojeda said that he felt Harvey was throwing too many sliders, but if he didn’t and kept this information to himself, he’s showing an insane amount of audacity to claim that he “predicted” it.

He needs to tone it down or be removed from the broadcast.

Player injuries can happen anywhere

The winter after his dramatic, pennant-clinching home run for the Yankees, Aaron Boone tore his knee playing basketball. This led to the Yankees trading for Alex Rodriguez and Boone not getting paid via the terms of his contract because he got hurt partaking in an activity he was technically not supposed to be partaking in. Boone could’ve lied about it and said he hit a pothole while jogging. The Yankees wouldn’t have known about it and he would’ve gotten paid. He didn’t. He’s a rarity.

On their off-hours, players do things they’re technically not supposed to be doing.

Jeff Kent broke his hand riding his motorcycle, then lied about it saying he slipped washing his truck. Ron Gant crashed his dirtbike into a tree. Other players have claimed that they injured themselves in “freak accidents” that were more likely results of doing things in which they wouldn’t get paid if they got hurt. Bryce Harper, shortly after his recall to the big leagues, was videotaped playing softball in a Washington D.C. park. Anything could have happened to injure him and he wouldn’t have been able to lie about it. Boone told the truth, but no one knows exactly when these injuries occur and what the players were doing to cause them.

With Harvey, we don’t know how many pitches he threw in college; how many softball games he played in; how many times as a youth he showed off his arm to the point of potential damage. This could have been coming from the time he was twelve years old. In fact, it probably was and there’s nothing anyone could have done to prevent it.

The vagaries of the future

The Mets were counting on Harvey for 2014. They have enough pitching in their system that it was likely they were going to trade some of it for a bat. If they wanted Giancarlo Stanton, Carlos Gonzalez or any other young, power bat they were going to have to give up Wheeler and/or Noah Syndergaard to start with. Without Harvey, they’re probably going to have to keep their young pitchers. That could turn out to be a blessing in disguise. Or it could be a curse if either of those pitchers suffer the same fate as Harvey or don’t pan out as expected.

If Harvey can’t pitch, it’s a big loss. That’s 33 starts, 210 innings and, if he’s anywhere close to what he was this season, a Cy Young Award candidate and potential $200 million pitcher. But they can take steps to replace him. They can counteract his innings with other pitchers and try to make up for a lack of pitching by boosting the offense. In short, they can follow the Marine training that GM Sandy Alderson received by adapting and overcoming.

Harvey is a big part of the Mets future, but to treat this as anything more than an athlete getting injured is silly. It happened. There’s no one to blame and when he’s ready to pitch, he’s ready to pitch. Life will go on.




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An All-Around Bad Year for Rizzo and the Nats

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Mike Rizzo said that the Nationals have a “run left in us.” There’s a precedent for teams coming out of nowhere in the final month of the season and making the playoffs. The Rays and Cardinals both did it in 2011 with the Cardinals winning the World Series after having trailed the Wild Card-leading Braves by 10 1/2 games on August 25 of that year. The Cardinals and Reds are currently the National League Wild Card leaders. The Cardinals have been ravaged by injuries; the Reds haven’t played consistently; and the NL Central leading Pirates are still young and collapsed in both 2011 and 2012. There’s some justification for Rizzo not to quit. Prior to yesterday’s game, the Nats claimed David DeJesus from the Cubs. It was seen as a signal that they’re still trying to add to win now and perhaps have a player in DeJesus they can use in 2014.

The assertion that the Nats are still “in it” would likely have been better-received had the team not gone and immediately responded to the GM’s confidence and gotten hammered by the Cubs 11-1. The DeJesus acquisition wouldn’t have looked like Rizzo and his staff are a bunch of screw-ups if there was a hint that they truly wanted DeJesus and it wasn’t a waiver claim mistake that they tacitly admitted by placing DeJesus back on waivers immediately after getting him. And the team might have had a better shot in 2013 if they had played like a cohesive unit with a definition of purpose from the first day of the season rather than an arrogant, self-important group that believed winning a division title in 2012 automatically meant they were going to be a playoff team every single year based on talent alone.

Rizzo isn’t going anywhere, but manager Davey Johnson won’t be back in 2014. This was meant to be his final year in the dugout with the hope that it would be a logical step in the innocent climb from first round playoff loser to World Series winner with Johnson’s experience being a key. Instead, Johnson’s warts—his riverboat gambler’s mentality; the trust in his players; open insubordination—reared their heads. Barring a late-August hot streak, Rizzo might relive him of his duties for the final month in a similar fashion as the Phillies did with Charlie Manuel. The Phillies wanted to have a look at Ryne Sandberg. The Nats might want to do the same with Randy Knorr.

The Nats are dysfunctional mess. The Stephen Strasburg shutdown from September of 2012 is being used to symbolize the organizational hubris and it’s a perfect example of why nothing can be taken for granted.  In 2013, they don’t have to worry about any innings limits or shutting anyone down because the rest of baseball is doing the job for them by sending the Nats home, far from where they thought they’d be and currently having more questions than answers as to where they go from here.




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We Know What’s Wrong With The Nats, But How Can It Be Fixed?

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The Nationals were expected to dominate. Instead, the team that won 98 games in 2012 and seemingly improved over the winter is under .500, out of contention and facing a large number of changes this off-season. It’s not hard to diagnose what went wrong and here’s a brief synopsis:

  • Injuries

The Nationals lost Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth, Wilson Ramos and Ross Detwiler for extended periods.

  • Underperformance

Dan Haren was signed to shore up the back of the rotation and has been awful. Drew Storen is out of his element as a set-up man and wound up back in the minors. Denard Span has been a disappointment. And Danny Espinosa’s numbers (.158/.193/.272 split with a .465 OPS and 3 homers) are worse than those of Cubs’ pitcher Travis Wood (.267/.298/.489 split with a .787 OPS and 3 homers).

  • Bad approach/bad luck

The Nats are seventh in the National League in home runs and next-to-last in the league in runs scored. They’re twelfth in the league in walks and fourteenth in on-base percentage. In 2013, they’re thirteenth in the league with a BAbip of .282; in 2012, they were fourth at .308.

  • Poor defense

The Nats’ catchers have caught 13 percent of the runners trying to steal on them. Anthony Rendon is a third baseman playing second. Ryan Zimmerman is in a defensive funk that’s gone of for the better part of two years.

  • Dysfunction

Manager Davey Johnson has openly clashed with general manager Mike Rizzo. Tyler Clippard ripped the organization for their demotion of his friend Storen. The players appear to have thought they’d have a cakewalk to the playoffs given the hype and star power.

In short, the Nats have gone from an embarrassment of riches to a plain embarrassment. With 2013 essentially over and 2012 long gone in the rearview mirror, what do the Nats have to do to get back to where they were supposed to be? What should they do?

With Rizzo having received a promotion and contract extension, it’s his baby. The luck/design argument is irrelevant. The Nationals happened to be the worst team in baseball two years in a row when once-a-generation talents were sitting there waiting to be picked first overall in Harper and Stephen Strasburg. That’s no one’s fault and to no one’s credit. It just is. Rizzo put a solid team together, but there’s been a semblance of overkill with the signings of Haren and Rafael Soriano. Haren’s performance in 2013 is indicative that his decline that began last season with the Angels was not an aberration. Soriano has pitched well, but he was not really a necessity for the Nats. He was available, they didn’t trust Storen and preferred Clippard as the set-up man. In retrospect, both were mistakes.

The question of who the manager will be going forward is vital. Johnson bears a large portion of the responsibility for this team’s underachievement. As great as his record is and as much as the media loves him for his personality and candor, Johnson’s style was a significant reason the 1980s Mets failed to live up to their talent level. He doesn’t care about defense, he trusts his players far too much in preaching aggressiveness, and the festering anger over the 2012 Strasburg shutdown—that I’m sure Johnson thinks cost his team a World Series—has manifested itself in open warfare between the manager and GM. If Johnson weren’t retiring at season’s end, Rizzo likely would’ve fired him a month ago along with hitting coach Rick Eckstein, or Johnson would simply have quit.

Johnson’s positives (he wins a lot of regular season games) don’t eliminate his negatives (he’s insubordinate and his teams are fundamentally weak). Thirty years ago, Johnson was seen as a computer geek manager. Nowadays, he’s considered a dinosaur. In reality, Johnson is and always has been a gambler and an arrogant one at that. His attitude is that the team he’s managing needs him more than he needs it. He doesn’t want people telling him what to do and he’s never taken well to front office meddling. The Strasburg shutdown and firing of his hitting coach are two instances in which Johnson would like to tell the front office to take a hike and let him run the team his way. Rizzo had problems with Johnson and his predecessor Jim Riggleman. With the next hire, he’d better get someone younger and on the same page. That doesn’t mean he should hire a yes man, but someone who he can work with sans this lingering tension and open disagreements.

With the personnel, a lesson can be learned from the Big Red Machine Reds from 1971. In 1970, GM Bob Howsam and manager Sparky Anderson had built a monster. The Reds won 102 games and lost the World Series to the Orioles. Widely expected to repeat as NL champs, they fell to 79-83 in 1971. With cold-blooded analysis, Howsam realized that the Reds were missing the elements of leadership, speed, intensity and defense, Howsam traded 39-homer man Lee May and starting second baseman Tommy Helms with Jimmy Stewart to the Astros for Joe Morgan, Cesar Geronimo, Jack Billingham, Ed Armbrister and Denis Menke. The clubhouse was transformed and they were suddenly a faster team with Gold Glovers at second base and in center field. In fact, it was that decried move that spurred their run to greatness.

Rizzo needs to look at the team’s deficiencies in the same way that Howsam did and act decisively. If that means getting a defensively oriented catcher, trading Ian Desmond, Clippard and some other names that are supposedly part of the team’s “core,” then they have to explore it. If a team underachieves from what they were supposed to be, there’s nothing wrong with dropping a bomb in the clubhouse. In fact, it’s necessary in order to get back on track. With their youth and talent, the Nats can get back to where they were with the right managerial choice and a gutty trade or two.

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