Yesterday I penned Part 1 of my thoughts on the social culture around the baseball world, specifically focusing on how reporting can impact perception of a club. My musings were prompted by topics introduced by Houston Chronicle writer Evan Drellich in his excellent article, "Radical methods paint Astros as 'outcast'." Predictably, my editorial generated reaction from both sides of the opinion fence. Please consider both Parts to be one piece, separated for your convenience.
Dismissiveness & Ignorance
Have you ever met somebody that diagnoses everything and everybody, even though they aren't qualified? "Oh her? She must be bipolar." "I can tell by his cough that he has bronchitis." "He obviously is suffering from depression." I'm not a doctor, they say, but I just know.
Oftentimes, we read about a ball player disparaging something - defensive shifting, tandem rotations, the way a team is using him, but its obvious to those who study carefully or have a more removed point of view, that that player does not have the information needed to make an informed judgement. Baseball players are often part of the uninformed populace. This is why their quotes need to be taken with a grain of salt, just as with writers offering their opinions (like me). What is their agenda? What is their perspective? Do they have an axe to grind? Do they misunderstand a concept? Or...are they right?
"I don't think anybody's happy. I'm not," one Astros player told the Chronicle recently on the condition his identity not be revealed. "They just take out the human element of baseball. It's hard to play for a GM that just sees you as a number instead of a person. Jeff is experimenting with all of us." (Drellich)
Baloney. There's not a shred of credibility in this statement, and it reeks of a disgruntled person with diarrhea of the mouth sounding off inappropriately. Nobody is happy? Really? I find that pretty hard to believe. Maybe you aren't happy, son, and maybe your best buddy isn't. But you have no right to speak for everybody, especially if you are too spineless to put your name on your quote. If I'm an employer, I'm finding out who said this to the media, and I'm firing/trading them. Such an attitude can be cancerous in the clubhouse - an opinion presented as fact that is disparaging of what the employer is trying to accomplish.
Former Astro Bud Norris has a similar opinion-laden statement.
"[The Astros] are definitely the outcast of major league baseball right now, and it's kind of frustrating for everyone else to have to watch it," said former Astros pitcher Bud Norris, now with the Orioles. "When you talk to agents, when you talk to other players and you talk amongst the league, yeah, there's going to be some opinions about it, and they're not always pretty."
No, Bud, they aren't always pretty. But if you talk amongst executives, fans, and OTHER players and agents, they admire what the Astros are doing. This stuff is old news - remember Moneyball, the book that came out over a decade ago? The A's have been doing this stuff for a long time, and most other clubs have emulated them. Is it frustrating for everybody to have to watch what the Astros are doing with their club? Apparently not - it doesn't frustrate me...it fascinates me. But maybe I don't count as part of 'everybody else'.
Former Astro Jed Lowrie has a more reasonable take:
"It is a purely statistical analysis. I think you can't have that approach and expect to have good personal relations. That seems like a hard balance to strike, when you're judging someone strictly on numbers and nothing else, and I'm not talking about whether it's a good guy or a bad guy. But there are certain intangibles, and the perception is the numbers are trying to drive out (the importance of) those intangibles." (Drellich)
Even so, Lowrie's statement starts from the straw-man premise that the Astros are purely about statistical analysis, to the exclusion of intangibles, scouting, or traditional measures of baseball performance. Lowrie may be 100% correct in his assumption, but there is no evidence to back it up, and statements like this contribute to the growing lack of perspective among the uninformed populace. It would be just as credible (but no more provable) if Lowrie had said, "All that stats stuff - the Astros don't use it at all. They're old-school all the way, and have no use for spreadsheets. Intangibles matter most." No doubt my made-up quote is untrue, but just as with the others cited above, it is no more than speculation on the part of one person or of a group of people. The fact that these guys are "insiders" is largely irrelevant - they are not partial to the decision-making process of their employers. I am an integral and necessary part of my company. But I do not know the underlying decisions that drive the business strategy, and so any speculation on my part would be just that - speculation. Let me go on record - I seriously doubt that the Astros have eschewed consideration of intangibles.
One of the topics often maligned by current and former players is the use of the defensive shift. Last season, Lucas Harrell took exception to them, saying:
"We're trying some new things with our defense, and I thought they worked against me tonight," Harrell said after the game. "The ball that Dirks hit was up there forever, and I thought someone might have caught that one. He hit it hard, and that's my fault, but I was hoping someone would get there."
Dirks' ball was hit to one of the deepest parts of Comerica Park and bounced over the wall in right-center, but Harrell's comments raised more questions about whether defensive shifts are helping Houston's defense at all. (AP: "Bo Porter, Lucas Harrell have talk")
Harrell believed that the shifting was a detriment because of a few balls that fell for hits that would have been caught had the defense been in a traditional alignment. What he was dismissive of were all the hits that didn't fall because batters hit them right into the shifted defenders.
Baseball Info Solutions' John Dewan wrote on Twitter this month that the Astros had already saved seven shift runs - "similar to adding a 10th fielder who happens to be elite." (Drellich)
Jarred Cosart, who seems to be maturing into a professional before our eyes, says,
"Everyone has their own opinion," Cosart said. "We do it a lot more and a lot more frequently. … (The front office is) not going to not shift, so if I did have a problem with it, there's nothing I can do about it, as a lot of the older guys have told us." (Drellich)
I do like Cosart's quote. He registers his own skepticism without projecting it onto others. He recognizes that he has a job to do, whether he agrees with it or not, and he leaves room for the possibility that there may be information he's not partial to or that he doesn't understand.
Oddly, the piece of information that some players and writers seem to forget is that the Astros aren't doing anything new with defensive shifts, no matter what Harrell thinks. Shifts have been around for decades, and were even used against Ted Williams to try to neutralize his strengths. Perhaps shifts are more extreme now, or perhaps they are used more often. But nothing here is breaking new ground.
We've heard from multiple places that some pitchers do not like the tandem rotation situation, where one pitcher starts the game and another "starter" enters in long relief after a certain number of pitch counts. Rumor has it that #1 overall draft pick Mark Appel has a beef with the piggybacking scheme, though I have been unable to find any credible quotes verifying this -- it seems born of speculation on the part of fans and the media when Appel was sent back to extended spring training last month. Other pitchers, like prospect Mike Foltynewicz, have been more vocal in their distaste for the system.
Hard-throwing Astros prospect Mike Foltynewicz said in spring training he thought the tandem might have contributed to arm soreness last year. (Drellich)
In Tommy Stokke's extended look at why he thinks Foltynewicz should be recalled from AAA, he writes:
Admittedly by just about any pitcher you ask, pitching in the Astros’ piggyback system can be a hassle..."I’ve been a starter my whole [career/life]," [Foltynewicz] said. "It’s a whole different approach mentally starting to relieving. You don’t know when you’ll get the call. You don’t know how long you have to warm up. You have to use all your pitches right away because you won’t see the hitters two or three times."
From a personal standpoint, it's easy to see Foltynewicz' point, and agree with it, although I cast serious doubt on Stokke's "by just about any pitcher you ask" claim, since he cites only one pitcher. However, there are other factors involved in the tandem rotation than just the personal comfort of a few top prospects. Per Fangraphs, there are 99 pitchers who have made starts in the Major Leagues this season, and 162 who have pitched in relief. A large percentage of those relievers were once starting pitchers who, for whatever reasons, were unable to succeed as starters in the big leagues. The tandem rotation is in part designed to give quality starting pitchers the experience to pitch out of the bullpen, a lesson that more likely than not they will need to learn to advance their career.
I can understand why Foltynewicz would not care about that at this point in his career. He's a starter, gosh darn it. Not a reliever. Know who else used to be a full-time starter? Brad Lidge. Joe Nathan. Francisco Rodriguez. Goose Gossage. Mariano Rivera. Jon Papelbon. Etc, etc, etc. Although Folty (and likely all the other top starting pitching prospects) will get an opportunity to succeed as a starting pitcher, as he should, there is still an excellent chance that he will pitch out of the bullpen for most of his major league career. Not because people consider him to be a reliever, but because that's the reality of pitching in the major leagues for many players.
There's another reason for the tandem rotation as well, and that's to give chances to a greater number of pitchers. As I talked about in Part 1, Rudy Owens was given a chance to pitch in the major leagues last week because he was as deserving as anybody else. But to have the chance, he had to be in a position to have it. During the bloggers' question-and-answer with Luhnow and Rowin, somebody asked what they thought about Thomas Shirley. Shirley is a pitcher in at AA Corpus Christi who currently boasts a 1.51 ERA with a 27% strikeout rate and a tiny 6% walk rate. When the question was asked, both men lit up with genuine pleasure over Shirley's success. Luhnow admitted that prior to this season, he knew little about Shirley but he seemed very impressed with the young pitcher.
He’s a guy that’s gone level-by-level, system-by-system, and I think he’s benefitted from piggybacking in tandem last year when he got a chance at Lancaster." -- Allen Rowin, Assistant Director of Player Development.
Last season, Shirley made nine starts for the Lancaster Jethawks as a part of the piggyback rotation scheme. He finished the season with a 3.35 ERA. But had the Astros used a standard 5-man rotation setup, Shirley would have been too deep on the depth chart to ever make one start. Among the "better prospects" above him were Aaron West, Luis Cruz, Brady Rodgers, David Rollins, Tyson Perez, Chris Devenski, Mike Hauschild, Colton Cain, Mike Foltynewicz, and Kyle Smith. The tandem system gave Shirley, a 9th-round draft pick out of basketball haven Xavier University, an opportunity, and now he looks like a guy who might have a good future at the back end of a major league rotation. Perhaps he never makes it to that lofty height. Perhaps, as I alluded earlier, he goes the route of starter-turned-reliever. But we fans would not even know his name had it not been for the tandem rotation.
The tandem rotation isn't for pitchers like Foltynewicz, who through excelling as amateurs have earned their right to be tried as a starter. It's for the other guys - guys like Thomas Shirley. Ultimately, professional ball players are just that - professionals; meaning, somebody pays them to play baseball. And employers have requirements, whether the employee likes it or not. Drellich had it right when he said:
If a minor league pitcher doesn't like the tandem rotation, he's still an employee. In the first month of the season, minor league pitchers threw every time out in a piggyback system, either starting ahead of or relieving behind a partner pitcher. (Drellich)
This leads into another topic that I know I am not alone in being aggravated over - the sense of entitlement that some athletes feel. We all know the stereotype - wunderkind blows away his competition during little league and high school. Wows scouts, fans, and opponents. Parents and friends feed his ego by telling him, "you're the best!". Impatient fans cry for his arrival to the big leagues, as if he's the savior who will carry their team to glory upon his strong shoulders.
Luckily, most professional athletes aren't like that. Dallas Keuchel told the bloggers twice, in a self-deprecating tone, that he knew he was lucky to get to "play a kids game" for his job (his words, not mine*)
*Quick aside - did you know Keuchel majored in "Apparel Studies" at the University of Arkensas? Apparently, he plays the role of fashion police inside the locker room. He seemed to shudder when he joked about his teammates wearing tennis shoes when travelling. I restrained from commenting that a degree in Apparel Studies at Arkansas shouldn't take very long, because how long does it take to say "Camo and Flannel?" (Proving, that I'm an equal-opportunity teaser, my own alma mater of LSU would only study camo and orange jumpsuits in that degree program, so it's not like I'm coming from a position of superiority here.)
Unfortunately, a few players don't seem to realize that they are privileged to play a game for a living, and that getting to do so isn't their right. In Stokke's article, it says of Foltynewicz:
"Considered a longshot at best to make the team out of camp, Foltynewicz thought he did enough to earn a Houston Astros jersey."
Ok, I have no problem with that, at all. I think highly of my own skills and think I have the ability to deserve a promotion as well. No issues with Foltynewicz thinking the same of himself. However, it goes on:
The question everyone wants to know is if he will be called up this year. So why not ask him?
"Should I? Yes. Will I? Probably not."
That one makes me less happy. It implies that Foltynewicz thinks he knows better than men who have practiced, played, studied, and taught baseball for their entire adult lives and who are responsible for developing him into a big-league pitcher. Confidence is one thing. Casually insinuating that you know better than your superiors to a member of the media/blogosphere is not.
The problem is exacerbated by the sycophants that surround the players. When a young player is constantly told by his friends, his parents, and the media that he is more deserving, more special, more talented than everybody around him, a message that directly contradicts the lesson of team play, camaraderie, and development being drilled into him by his instructors, he begins to become resentful. Every call-up that isn't him is a slap in the face. Every time he's sent down from Spring Training is an insult that he takes personally. Every time he gives up a handful of walks, it's not his fault - his instructors are making him change mechanics, or focus on a certain pitch, or follow a certain sequence, or pitch out of the bullpen in a tandem system, or, or, or, or. It's always an excuse when somebody is constantly reminded how great they are by people who really don't have any way to objectively evaluate against their peers.
Players ARE numbers
Sounds cold, doesn't it? Says one agent, per Drellich's article:
"Players are people, but the Astros view them purely as property that can be evaluated through a computer program or a rigid set of criteria," one player agent said, echoing others. "They plug players into it to see what makes sense from a development or contractual perspective and it does not engender a lot of goodwill in the player or agent community.
"They wield service time like a sword (in contract extension negotiations) and basically tell a player, 'this is what you are worth to us, take it or leave it.'" (Drellich)
While I cast doubt on the opinion that the Astros view their players as property (that's sure not the impression you get when you hear the enthusiasm with which the front office folks talk about the players who work for them), what this agent is griping about is essentially correct.
But what's wrong with that? Every company, corporation, and sports franchise in the world does the same thing with their employees. Sure, when you're that person, you don't like being passed over for a raise, or moved into a different department to work for that lady who wears too much perfume, or being let go because of downsizing. But from a organizational point of view, those are decisions that always must be made, lest the organization fail. Is there any doubt that Biggio's chase for 2,000, or the cost of Berkman and Oswalt's contracts, had a negative effect on the Astros' ability to field a playoff team from 2007 to 2010? Is there any doubt that the money spent unwisely on Carlos Lee did more to hurt the club's financial flexibility than it did to improve their win-loss percentage?
In 2010, I read an article in the Houston Chronicle that said there were over 120,000 engineering jobs in the city of Houston, but only 80,000 engineers to fill them. As a result, I get five to ten pings a week from engineering recruiters trying to pry me away from my current job (good luck with that, suckas). There is also a shortage of doctors in the country. We could always use more teachers, welders, and policemen.
There is not a shortage of baseball players. A zillion kids grow up playing baseball in this country, and there are currently around 6,900 professional baseball players playing in minor leagues affiliated with MLB who have hopes of reaching The Show. This does not count those in non-tracked play, such as extended spring training and foreign professional leagues. There are another 1,000 or so who have spent time in the majors. Every one of those 10,000-ish ball players have been, at one point or another, the best player in their neighborhood or school. Being the best makes one special enough to reach professional ball. But it does not make you more special than your peers once you get there, and the attitude of entitlement adopted by some of the players will work against them as they move forward in their careers.
"We're not running for election here; it's not a popularity contest," said Luhnow, who seeks feedback from across the organization but said feelings aren't high on his list of concerns unless they impact outcomes. "We're trying to win big league games, and we're trying to produce major league players in the minor leagues, so if those two results are occurring, that's predominantly what we care about. Now of course, any time you've got human beings involved … you want to understand how they're impacted." (Drellich)
Obviously, these posts of mine are editorials, and I welcome comments, whether you agree or disagree. Baseball is a fun sport, but it is one that is as stick-in-the mud about changing traditions as any other entity around. Since the beginning of the sport, players, writers, and fans abounded who have condescendingly sneered at those who have stepped out of line. But the implication that "those who don't do what we've always done" or "those who use decision sciences to improve the product" are somehow traitors to the cause is one that deserves ridicule.
Drellich's article in the Houston Chronicle fascinated me, because it touched on such a broad range of controversial topics, all of which are centered around things that happen away from the field of play. To me, it showed a good spectrum of skepticism, rationality, irrationality, sense, nonsense, tolerance, and intolerance. All of these things create a "social dynamic" of sorts that makes baseball way more fascinating than any other business or sport.