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October 12, 2010

Expanded Horizons

Brooks Conrad

by Tommy Bennett

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“The flood had made, the wind nearly calm, and being bound down the river, the only thing for it was to come to and wait for the turn of the tide.” —Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

There’s something vaguely literary about the failures of second basemen. Consider the failure of pitchers, which invokes deep anger and questions about their sanity; Mark Wohlers and Rick Ankiel didn’t just get the yips, they underwent nuclear meltdowns of the first degree. The failure of sluggers, though not without its own literary pedigree, is more discrete and limited by the time it takes to turn over the batting order. Second basemen, though? All they have to do is pick up the ball from the ground and throw it the shortest of distances—and to a guy standing still! Get your skirt down, the inner overbearing Little League coach screams, and make the play. The slow unraveling of second-base defense plays out in repeating, downward-spiraling fashion. The development of the second baseman’s hamartia takes place over five acts.

Brooks Conrad is the kind of guy you could have imagined being the beneficiary of a minor-league freedom campaign (“Brooks No Quarter!”—or perhaps “If Brooks Could Kill!”—the silkscreened tees would read). In 2005 and 2006, the Baseball Prospectus annuals noted that he had useful skills and that a change of organization might help him shine. The next year, we noted that he led the minor leagues in extra-base hits. In 2008, his 28 bombs for the Athletics' Triple-A affiliate received praise. As the years progressed, though, evaluations of his defense went from “underrated” (2006) to a warning that he had found no “defensive home in the infield” (2010).

Conrad has played the keystone since his college days at Arizona State. He was twice an all-Pac-10 second baseman. In 915 of his 1,058 (!) minor league games, he made featured appearances at second. There was no doubt that, prior to this year, Conrad’s baseball card would have listed him as a second baseman. He’d committed 113 career errors as a minor-league second baseman, sure, and his more advanced defensive numbers ranged from bad to worse. But that was the deal with Conrad—such was his package of skills.

“The most you can hope from [life] is some knowledge of yourself—that comes too late—a crop of unextinguishable regrets.”

Entering Sunday’s NLDS Game Three against the Giants, all remaining illusions of Conrad’s defensive prowess had been dispelled. Despite the fact that the Braves tied themselves to Conrad’s mast by releasing a second baseman—Kelly JohnsonBobby Cox played Conrad primarily at third base. After committing a series of disastrous throwing errors from the hot corner in consecutive Braves games 159 through 161, Cox swapped Omar Infante with Conrad across the diamond. With Martin Prado done for the season and Troy Glaus hampered by a lingering knee injury, Infante and Conrad represented the only available options for second and third base this side of Diory Hernandez’s career .190 major league on-base percentage. Put simply, Conrad was nobody’s first choice for the Braves’ second-base position.

After an ugly error in Game One of the NLDS, Kevin Goldstein noted the trouble with Conrad’s package of skills: “Conrad does not have 'the yips.’ He's always been a poor defender, which is why he hasn't gotten the MLB chances his bat has earned.” Conrad managed to avoid any embarrassing moments in Game Two, but the respite would prove all too brief. It was against this background of extremely limited expectations that Conrad signed his unconditional release.

It’s hard enough being a bad defensive player with the first name “Brooks,” but the implosion Conrad underwent on Sunday evening was something few would wish on their worst enemies. He committed three errors—one throwing, one fielding a ground ball, and one trying to catch a shallow fly ball—that demonstrated the breadth of his futility. By now, he has been a trending topic on Twitter and his inner monologue has been overdubbed by Adam Sandler. As the errors continued to come, Goldstein reprised his refrain: “People always wondered why Conrad didn't get more of a chance during season-after-season of good minor-league numbers.  Now you know why.” The motif is revisited.

What impact did low expectations have on our collective reaction to Conrad’s failure? Consider this photograph, taken shortly after the last, costliest, and most Bucknerian of his errors. The photo depicts a dejected Conrad sitting alone in the Braves dugout; it is perversely similar to one you might see of a pitcher who is maintaining a perfect game or no-hitter. My (admittedly informal) poll suggests that the photograph elicits nearly universal sympathy for the benighted Conrad. Some observers blamed Cox for keeping Conrad in the game for the ninth over the more sure-handed Hernandez. Others blamed Frank Wren for releasing Johnson, who went on to hit .284/.370/.496 with—ahem—plus defense this season.

What few were willing to do was to blame Conrad. After all, what use is there in expecting a lead-gloved minor-league masher to be anything other than what he is? So long, Brooks, and thanks for all the walk-offs. Thirty-year-old rookies are supposed to make great stories, not be scapegoats. These guys don’t get the kind of scrutiny that stars get—what fairness would there be in that?

When, during last year’s NLCS, Chase Utley committed a series of throwing errors, fans were angry and confused with the All-Star’s uncharacteristic lapses. When Dan Uggla committed a record three errors in the 2008 All-Star Game, his defense was dubbed “Uggly.” But what separates multimillionaires like Utley and Uggla isn’t just their odd placement in the indices of baseball almanacs, it’s their overall value as ballplayers. We fans and analysts simply expect more from All-Star second basemen, and when they fail we heap criticism on them.

Meanwhile, Conrad and his fellow bat-first brethren get saddled with the tyranny of low expectations. Risk-averse decision makers will avoid performances like Conrad’s at all costs, and thick-bodied infielders will continue to toil uncelebrated in the minor leagues. Perhaps the biggest disadvantage of this arrangement is that, from time to time, these players will be sacrificed on an altar of errors just to prove the rule. We will watch, unable to avert our gaze, as the natural order reasserts itself—through no fault of Brooks Conrad.

“An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest. The air was warm, thick, heavy, sluggish. There was no joy in the brilliance of sunshine. The long stretches of the waterway ran on, deserted, into the gloom of overshadowed distances.”  

Related Content:  Dan Brooks,  Brooks Baseball

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