No replacing Yoenis Cespedes, so here’s another idea for the Mets

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Yoenis Cespedes, set to have surgery on both heels and expected to miss up to 10 months and perhaps more leaves the New York Mets in a predicament of how to replace his production. He has been riddled with injuries since signing his four-year, $110 million contract to remain with the Mets and the team’s fortunes have spiraled in direct proportion with his absences. When he’s played, they’ve been good; when he hasn’t played, they’ve been bad.

The positive aspect to the announcement is the end to the ambiguity. The Mets had functioned with a daily dread that even when he was deemed healthy, he was one step away from another injury that would keep him out for three months.

So, now they know.

Replacing him is a separate matter, especially considering the uncertainty in the front office with the departure of Sandy Alderson, the current tri-head GM of John Ricco, Omar Minaya and J.P. Ricciardi, and the club’s unknown strategy and payroll going forward.

There are calls for the Mets to tear down the entire structure and rebuild, but such a position is absurd. Trading the likes of pending free agents Asdrubal Cabrera, Jose Bautista, Devin Mesoraco and Jerry Blevins is obvious. Players under team control through 2019 – Zack Wheeler and Wilmer Flores – should be moved if there is a sufficient return, albeit steeper than what they will get for those approaching free agency.

Regarding the idea of trading Jacob deGrom or Noah Syndergaard, what sense does that make when there are three different people who are vying to get the top job and no set plan in place?

If the Mets are truly thinking about trading deGrom or Syndergaard, that is a decision that must be made by the new permanent head of baseball operations, whoever that is.

That brings us to how best to move forward if the Mets truly intend on competing in 2019.

Given the structure of the club being built around pitching and the opportunity to get younger, a spin from Alderson-led strategy of slow-footed, feast or famine players who played station to station and did little other than hit occasional home runs, the Mets have an opening to do something that has not been done full tilt since the Whitey Herzog St. Louis Cardinals of the 1980s: build a team based on speed and defense with the pitchers to back up that strategy.

The Mets have been notoriously slow in recent years. They have been lacking athleticism, devoid of versatility, and shoddy defensively.

The words “small ball” have been largely extinguished if not outright excommunicated from the game like they’re a toxic disease that only anti-vaccination fanatics fail to see the damage they can do, but with deGrom getting losses or no-decisions in 12 starts in which he pitched at least six innings and surrendered 3 or fewer earned runs, would the Mets not have been better-served to get runners on base in the early innings, push the envelope by stealing bases, bunt them along when appropriate, get a lead and force the other manager’s hand to make desperate moves because they cannot fall behind by one run?

This is contingent on starting pitching – something the Mets have in comparative abundance.

Some have indulged in delusional speculation that with the money the Mets will save via insurance payments for David Wright and now Cespedes, they should go big in this winter’s free agent market by pursuing Manny Machado and/or Bryce Harper. Hypothetically, if the Mets were willing to make that level of expenditure, why would players in demand like Machado or Harper want to join the Mets with the club’s reputation for disarray, dysfunction and injury?

More to the point, the type of players who would fit into the aggressive style of play are available should the club be willing to eschew the glossy signing and go for an actual planned construction with players who can do more than one thing.

Ian Kinsler may be 36 and struggling at the plate in 2018, but he remains a superlative defensive second baseman with speed to steal 15 to 20 bases and hit 20 home runs. He’s a free agent, won’t cost a draft pick, nor ask for a long-term contract.

Billy Hamilton is available and despite his poor OPS, he’s a defensive stalwart in center field who, if turned loose, could easily steal 80 to 100 bases.

With Amed Rosario playing better and more aggressively, Brandon Nimmo’s skill at getting on base, the remaining potential in Michael Conforto, hackers like T.J. Rivera and Jeff McNeil who might not bring the precious walks that sabermetrics advocates pine for, but collect hits, would this type of team have a better chance at competing than the ones the Mets have put on the field in 2017-18?

When the club is slumping offensively and is not hitting home runs, what do they do to score? There’s no stopping speed; there’s no viable defense for the panic that ensues when there’s a runner on base who might steal at any moment and the team is aggressively forcing the action with hitting and running, exhibiting derring-do on the bases and showing fearlessness. In games where they’re not hitting or getting on base, their defense will be a contribution.

Since the Mets have failed in every other attempt to fill in and replace costly players who are hurt; with their annual strategies imploding as if that was their intent, how much worse could they be if they did something that hasn’t been done since the mid-1980s – and worked – with their most hated rival at the time that twice sabotaged the dominant Mets teams of Keith Hernandez, Gary Carter, Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry?

Those Cardinals ran wild on the bases, caught the ball, and won three pennants in six years. This is a preferable strategy to the Mets trading their cost-controlled faces deGrom or Syndergaard for “Random Prospects X, Y and Z” and the team couldn’t be any worse than it is now. They’d certainly be more interesting.

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Dealing With The Closer Issue

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Complaining about closers is like complaining about the weather: everyone talks about it, but no one does anything about it. The difference between the weather and closers is that something can be done about closers.

Amid all the talk about “what to do” with struggling relievers Jim Johnson and Fernando Rodney and the references of clubs who have found unheralded veterans to take over as their closer like the Cardinals with Edward Mujica and the Pirates with Jason Grilli, no one is addressing the fundamental problems with needing to have an “established” closer. Here they are and what to do about them.

Veteran relievers like to know their roles.

Managers like Whitey Herzog, Sparky Anderson, Billy Martin and Earl Weaver had the ability to tell their players that their “role” is to pitch when they tell them to pitch. Nowadays even managers who are relatively entrenched in their jobs like Joe Maddon have to have the players on their side to succeed. The Rays are a different story because they’re not paying any of their relievers big money and can interchange them if need be, but they don’t because Maddon doesn’t operate that way until it’s absolutely necessary.

Other clubs don’t have that luxury. They don’t want to upset the applecart and cause a domino effect of people not knowing when they’re going to pitch; not knowing if a pitcher can mentally handle the role of pitching the ninth inning; and don’t want to hear the whining and deal with the aftermath if there’s not someone established to replace the closer who’s having an issue. Rodney was only the Rays’ closer last season because Kyle Farnsworth (a foundling who in 2011 had a career year similar to Rodney in 2012) got hurt.

Until managers have the backing of the front office and have a group of relievers who are just happy to have the job in the big leagues, there’s no escaping the reality of having to placate the players to keep clubhouse harmony.

Stop paying for mediocrity in a replaceable role.

The Phillies and Yankees are paying big money for their closers Jonathan Papelbon and Mariano Rivera, but these are the elite at the position. Other clubs who have overpaid for closers include the Dodgers with Brandon League, the Red Sox with money and traded players to get Andrew Bailey and Joel Hanrahan, the Nationals with Rafael Soriano, and the Marlins who paid a chunk of Heath Bell’s salary to get him out of the clubhouse.

Bell has taken over for the injured J.J. Putz with the Diamondbacks and pitched well. The Cubs, in desperation, replaced both Carlos Marmol ($9.8 million in 2013) and Kyuji Fujikawa (guaranteed $9.5 million through 2014) with Kevin Gregg. The same Kevin Gregg who was in spring training with the Dodgers and released, signed by the Cubs—for whom he struggled as their closer when they were trying to contend in 2009—as a veteran insurance policy just in case. “Just in case” happened and Gregg has gone unscored upon and saved 6 games in 14 appearances.

As long as teams are paying closers big money, closers will have to stay in the role far longer than performance would dictate in an effort to justify the contract. It’s a vicious circle that teams fall into when they overpay for “established” closers. When the paying stops, so too will the necessity to keep pitching them.

Find a manager who can be flexible.

A manager stops thinking when it gets to the ninth inning by shutting off the logical remnants of his brain to put his closer into the game. If it’s Rivera or Papelbon, this is fine. If it’s anyone else, perhaps it would be wiser to use a lefty specialist if the situation calls for it. If Chase Utley and Ryan Howard are hitting back-to-back and a club has Randy Choate in its bullpen, would it make sense to use a righty whether it’s the ninth inning and “his” inning or not?

Maddon is flexible in his thinking and has the support of the front office to remove Rodney from the role if need be. One option that hasn’t been discussed for the Rays is minor league starter Chris Archer to take over as closer in the second half of the season. With the Rays, anything is possible. With other teams, they not only don’t want to exacerbate the problem by shuffling the entire deck, but the manager is going to panic if he doesn’t have his “ninth inning guy” to close. Even a veteran manager like Jim Leyland isn’t immune to it and a pitcher the front office didn’t want back—Jose Valverde—is now closing again because their handpicked choice Bruce Rondon couldn’t seize his spring training opportunity and the “closer by committee” was on the way to giving Leyland a heart attack, a nervous breakdown or both.

The solution.

There is no solution right now. Until teams make the conscious decision to stop paying relievers upwards of $10 million, there will constantly be the “established” closer. It’s a fundamental fact of business that if there isn’t any money in a job, fewer people who expect to make a lot of money and have the capability to make a lot of money in another position are going to want to take it. Finding replaceable arms who can be used wherever and whenever they’re told to pitch, ignore the save stat, and placed in a situation to be successful instead of how it’s done now will eliminate the need to pay for the ninth inning arm and take all the negative side effects that go along with it. Games will still get blown in the late innings, but at least it won’t be as expensive and will probably happen with an equal frequency. It’s evolution. And evolution doesn’t happen overnight, if it happens at all.

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Early Season Underachievers: Washington Nationals

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Just a note: these “underachievers” are based on what the majority of the prognosticators thought prior to the season and not what I thought. For example, I had the Phillies at 79-83 in my book (which, for the record, is now available on I-Tunes). The majority of the predictions I saw had the Phillies as contenders. I had the Nationals winning 103 games.

For a team as loaded as the Nats to have a .500 record after almost 20% of the season is unexpected. Is it something to be overly concerned about though? The answer is no.

Both Adam LaRoche and Danny Espinosa are proven players who are batting under .200. That won’t continue. The starting pitching and bullpen are deep and diverse and as the season moves along, GM Mike Rizzo will find a lefty specialist somewhere—Wesley Wright, Mike Dunn—because several will eventually become available.

That’s not to say there’s not potential for things to go wrong. They’re leading the Major Leagues in errors and manager Davey Johnson made a typical Davey Johnson managerial move when the Nats were playing the Mets two weeks ago and it neatly summed him up for better or worse. With the Mets leading 2-0 in the top of the eighth inning Mets reliever Scott Rice gave up a single to Steve Lombardozzi, walked Denard Span, and went to 3-0 and Jayson Werth. Werth was given the green light, swung at a low, outside pitch and grounded into a 6-4-3 double play. The Mets won the game.

That’s Johnson. It’s always been Johnson. It always will be Johnson. With the Mets in the 1980s, the lack of discipline, overaggressiveness and arrogance in believing that the fundamentals would be unnecessary as long as they pitched and hit home runs cost them playoff spots multiple times to teams like the Cardinals who were schooled in playing the game properly. Whitey Herzog’s hardline treatment of his players was well-known and if they didn’t do what they were supposed to do when they were supposed to do it, they didn’t play.

Is it a problem for the Nats? Yes and no. One of the reasons he’s been so successful is that the players love him and know he’s going to put the game in their hands. There wouldn’t be a debate if Werth hit the ball out of the park. It’s not the strategy that was the issue, but the execution. Werth was overanxious and swung at a bad pitch and criticizing him or Johnson won’t matter because telling Johnson what he did was wrong is only going to accomplish one thing: he’s going to do it more just to prove how smart he is and how dumb his critics are.

The Nats are too talented and deep to play in so mediocre a fashion for much longer.

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David Wright’s Keith Hernandez Moment

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No one will ever confuse the aw shucks, golly gee image of David Wright with the overt leadership of the cigarette smoking bad boy and manipulative architect of clubhouse politics, Keith Hernandez; but the similarities between Wright bypassing his 2013-2014 opportunity at free agency and sign with the Mets for what amounts to 8-years and $138 million—NY Times story—and Hernandez staying with the Mets in 1983-84 are underlying and significant.

When Hernandez was traded from the Cardinals to the Mets, Whitey Herzog was in part seeking a relief pitcher he’d always coveted in Neil Allen and in part had had enough of Hernandez, his lazy work habits, sense of entitlement, and poor attitude. As a result of the confluence of events, Herzog shipped Hernandez out of St. Louis. At the time, Hernandez was bitter and angry about the trade and certainly didn’t want to go to the perennial last place Mets, a team that he and the Cardinals had openly laughed at when they saw the slogan “The Magic is Back” in the early 1980s. In later years, after the butting of the heads of two strong-willed men subsided and the competition between the Mets and Cardinals was nothing but a memory, Hernandez and Herzog reconciled with Hernandez admitting that his attitude was terrible and Herzog was right to trade him; he also said that next to his father, no one taught him more about the game of baseball than Herzog. The two are close to this day and Hernandez has referred to Herzog as a “dear friend.”

In 1983, however, no one wanted to go to the Mets. As much of a loonybin as the Yankees were, their crosstown co-residents (because they weren’t rivals) were, as Hernandez said in his highly underrated 1986 book If At First, the “Siberia of baseball.”

In that same book, on pages 10-11, Hernandez discussed the difficult decision to remain with the Mets after the 1983 season:

Frank Cashen, the Mets’ general manager, realized that I wasn’t thrilled with my new circumstances. He also knew the Mets would have nothing to show for the trade if I became a free agent.

“Tell us after the year, Keith, how you feel,” he said. “Give me two weeks before the winter meetings. If you want, we’ll trade you. We don’t want to lose you for nothing.”

That was fair. I owed it to them.

***

The state of the ballclub was my chief consideration. I wouldn’t have signed with a sure loser for any sum.

***

My father, a former minor-leaguer with baseball connections all over, checked with scouts around the league and reported back about some great young arms in the minors, just about ready.

I decided the Mets had a chance to be a better ballclub in 1984, maybe fourth place, but I also feared I would be signing up for six years of sixth place—dead last. It was a scary thought.

***

In the end, I gambled. After making any number of wrong decisions over the years, I decided to go against my natural instinct. I wanted to leave, so I stayed instead.

I had never met Dwight Gooden or Ron Darling.

Wright isn’t the man the reporters go to for off-the-record quotes ripping teammates, coaches, managers, and front office folk as they sometimes did with Hernandez. The first baseman, cigarette in hand, would give the on-the-record, canned reply and then utter the truth that he wanted out there as an unnamed source. It wasn’t a chicken method either; Hernandez would also directly inform the objects of his ire what he thought. Using the media was a last resort and done so because the man-to-man approach wasn’t yielding the desired effect. That was the key with Keith: he used the media; the media used him and everyone knew the parameters of the relationship and the deal.

Hernandez had star power on and off the field and, at the time, was the coolest guy in New York. Wright is cool in a geeky, good boy way. Wright isn’t the cagey operator that Hernandez was. He’s the unambiguous leader of the current Mets on and off the field, lets his teammates know when they’re not pulling their share of the load or are behaving in a manner he sees as unprofessional, and is popular throughout baseball with everyone from opposing players, to coaches, to managers, to GMs, to owners, and umpires.

Wright was faced with the same dilemma Hernandez was: a team that has long been the butt of jokes; few free agents willing to come unless they were drastically overpaid and had no other option; and limited resources in comparison to other clubs, specifically the one across town. But there were reasons and advantages to staying as well. They got their money pre-free agency without having to sing for their supper and endure the yearlong questions as to their intentions; the alternatives might not be all that enticing considering what happened with big spending hot stove champions the Red Sox, Angels, Phillies and Marlins who signed players like Albert Pujols and Wright’s friend and former teammate Jose Reyes to big deals only to degenerate into absurdity that had heretofore been the Mets’ primary domain.

Would that money be there a year from now? Would the Mets be forced to trade Wright if he didn’t sign? And what about the young pitchers Jonathon Niese, Matt Harvey and the onrushing Zack Wheeler?

Wright and Hernandez are light years away from one another as people, but they had a similar choice to make in moving forward with a “might be” rather than move on to what “is.” And both made the right call in staying with the Mets.

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Bobby Valentine—Sympathetic Figure?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fit Or Fat, Pretty Or Productive

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Look at this image of CC Sabathia from yesterday as he’s in mid-delivery.

Sabathia’s innings go up every single year, he racks up the marketable statistics and he’s money in the playoffs. He’s been fantastic this year even though his luck on ground balls in 2011 hasn’t been particularly good with a .254 BAbip (batting average on balls in play). In comparison both James Shieldslink, and Justin Verlander are at .177—link.

In short, he’s one of the top 5 pitchers in baseball and the Yankees don’t have to worry that he’s a pitch away from getting hurt.

Does Sabathia’s durability have something to do with his frame and, um, generous proportions?

It’s not something to ignore or accept as a baseline, but it’s something to consider.

David Wells was another corpulent pitcher who’d prefer to get beaten up by men half his size in a drunken late night foray to a Manhattan diner than come within two inches of a treadmill.

Babe Ruth would’ve used a Cybex machine as a bed.

On the other side there are pitchers whose physiques were something out of Muscle and Fitness but spent their entire lives on the disabled list for extended periods of time. Kevin Brown was shredded but had multiple injuries throughout a stellar career; there was an ad during the Athletics-Marlins game yesterday promoting the return of Rich Harden—he of the estimated 2% bodyfat. He’ll be back long enough to injure another part of his body and go back on the disabled list.

Mechanics and genetics have something to do with it, but could it be that—amid other factors—the extra weight is providing padding and protection that a more picturesque athlete doesn’t have?

This isn’t a suggestion to find players who aren’t considered aesthetically pleasing as an end unto itself, but to reconsider what’s considered “in shape” to walk on the beach and “in shape” to throw a baseball repeatedly and not injure oneself.

In his curmudgeonly way, Whitey Herzog once said (in around 1989) that if players “drank a beer or ate a steak” once in a while, maybe their ribcages would stop tearing off the bone.

Maybe he was right.

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Batting Orderlies

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Neil Paine of Baseball-Reference.com writes a piece on batting orders in today’s NY Times—link.

It brings up an interesting set of questions as to whom should be batting leadoff and why.

Rickey Henderson was probably the best all-around leadoff hitter in history—a fulfillment of perfection for which all leadoff hitters and clubs should aspire; as such, it’s naturally unrealistic to think that you’ll be able to find someone with the combination of keen batting eye, patience, speed and power that was Rickey.

There has to be a balance and factoring of what the rest of the lineup can and can’t do—how they’re most comfortable and best-utlized.

Carl Crawford, for example, doesn’t like hitting leadoff. In some circles, there’s the thought of, “Yeah? So?” when confronted with a player disliking or whining about a position in the batting order or on the field.

In some cases, I’m a huge advocate not of, “Yeah? So?”, but of, “What’re they gonna do about it?”

In others, it would influence me as to whether a player—specifically a struggling veteran like Crawford—is happy and comfortable in his spot.

If you look at the clubs that were mentioned as not using their leadoff position optimally, the other players matter greatly.

Is there anyone who’s better-suited to bat first? And if they are, would they help the team more in that spot rather than their other spot?

The Mariners batted Ichiro Suzuki leadoff last season and he had the third highest on base percentage for leadoff hitters at .358. I’m not getting into another debate about Ichiro batting down in the lineup; that he could and should hit for more power; but Ichiro’s OBP and speed did the Mariners absolutely no good because they literally had no one to drive him in last season. He scored 74 runs because the Mariners offense was historically horrible.

Marco Scutaro and Jacoby Ellsbury combined for a .301 OBP from the leadoff position for the Red Sox last season, but this is taken out of context. Scutaro’s OBP batting leadoff was .336 and he scored 86 runs; Ellsbury had a .211 OBP in an injury-ravaged 2010 season and this dragged the club’s overall percentages down drastically.

Scutaro is nowhere near the hitter Ichiro is, but he scored 86 runs batting leadoff with an OBP .17 lower than Ichiro because there were hitters behind him able to drive him in. I’ve long said that Ichiro’s lust for singles and stat compiling would be far more palatable were he playing for the Yankees or Red Sox and had people capable of knocking him in.

Henderson’s value wasn’t solely dictated by his on base ability in and of itself; he scored plenty of runs because he got on base, stole second and sometimes third and was suddenly able to score without benefit of the subsequent batters doing anything aside from hitting a fly ball.

Look at the 1985 St. Louis Cardinals. Vince Coleman burst onto the scene as a terror on the basepaths, stole 110 bases and scored 107 runs with an OBP of .320. Once manager Whitey Herzog realized what he had on his hands, the top of the Cardinals lineup went as follows: 1) Coleman; 2) Willie McGee; 3) Tommy Herr; 4) Jack Clark.

McGee was no on base machine; he batted .353 and won the MVP that year, but had an OBP of .384; Herr was no masher, but he benefited from Coleman and McGee when they were on base because Coleman would get on, steal second and third and be served up on a plate for Herr to drive in. In fact, based on the preferred argument as to whom should be batting first, Herr should’ve batted leadoff in that Cardinals batting order; but it’s hard to imagine the team scoring more runs that way than they did with the construction as it was.

It was confluence of events and the emergence of Coleman that led to the big RBI year from Herr and the Cardinals pennant. Nor did it hurt that Clark was behind the top three hitters and pitchers didn’t want to walk Herr and run the risk of a big inning with the powerful Clark coming to the plate.

The 1985 Cardinals won the pennant, led the league in runs scored and were 11th (out of 12 teams) in homers.

A batting order isn’t unimportant, but you can’t pigeonhole anything into the category of “s’posdas” based on individual achievement and ability; you have to look at the whole picture before coming to an ironclad conclusion and crediting or criticizing.

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Abandonment

Hot Stove
  • The Joba Ruination leads to opportunity:

The Yankees should make Joba Chamberlain into a starter.

They should do so without constraints or rules.

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

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

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

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

And they still have time to fix it.

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

Has it worked?

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

You never know.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chamberlain should start.

He should be allowed to pitch.

That’s the only way to save him now.

  • Viewer Mail 1.16.2011:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jeff at Red State Blue State writes RE Kyle Farnsworth:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Fierman writes RE Soriano and Joba:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gabriel writes RE GMs and full autonomy:

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

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

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

Monolithic systems end up coming apart.

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

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

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

Joe writes RE Billy Beane and the Athletics:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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