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March 22, 2002

6-4-3

Maybe You Pushed, Maybe I Jumped

by Gary Huckabay

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There are a lot of things I want to get to, some from the news, some from an overflowing mailbag, so let's just jump right in:

Derek Bell and "Operation Shutdown"

Reporters salivate over a guy like Derek Bell. In case you're the one person who missed it, Pirates outfielder Bell threatened to instigate something called "Operation Shutdown" if he found out he's in a competition for what he believes is his starting right-field job.

Here are Bell's performances over the last three years, and this spring:

 

G     AB     AVG     OBP     SLG
1999     128    563    .236    .306    .350
2000     144    617    .266    .348    .425
2001      46    181    .173    .287    .288
2002(Sp.) 12     34    .148    .226    .148

So this begs two questions:

 

  1. If Bell does start "Operation Shutdown," how will we know?

     

  2. What part of Dave Littlefield's anatomy will he throw in to close a deal in which Bell ends up somewhere else? My money's on a kidney.

Maybe I should just stick to my role.

Your 2007 St. Louis Cardinals

In a recent ESPN.com chat, I was asked who I thought the five best third basemen in baseball would be in five years. After thinking about this for approximately 30 seconds, I answered with:

 

  1. Hank Blalock
  2. Adrian Beltre
  3. Eric Chavez
  4. Troy Glaus
  5. Sean Burroughs

Since then, I have received more than 200 e-mails from very angry Cardinal fans, asking why I hold Albert Pujols in such low regard. The answer is pretty simple: I don't. I thought about including Pujols, but I didn't, because I don't think he'll be playing third base during the 2007 season. That's the only reason, folks. I'm actually a big fan of Albert's. Really.

Technology and Umpiring

I received a bunch of e-mail on last week's column, in which I suggested that it's a good idea to employ technology in the calling of balls and strikes because of the limitations inherent in having someone do that job under the constraints necessary to avoid interfering with play. What's interesting about these e-mails is the very different view of whether or not calling balls and strikes is technologically feasible:

S.P. wrote:

 

In short, determining a ball's exact position while it is traveling at 100 MPH over 60 some feet as it passes through a relatively small "box" (accounting for variations in a pitcher's release point, etc.) is EXTREMELY difficult technologically and does NOT give a great level of accuracy when we are talking about matters of a few inches. It's an extraordinarily complex thing technologically. If you want to say, great within six inches or so...great that can be done (pretty expensive and subject to failures)--but is that an improvement?

And, on the other side, C.L. wrote:

 

The technology to do this is already in place in many installations, and with an accuracy level that dwarfs what unaided humans can do. Questec's system is static, and its accuracy is pretty solid. Other setups can get accuracy within a small fraction of an inch, and at a cost that's surprisingly low.

So, aside from accuracy, utility, and cost, we're all in agreement, I guess.

In addition to the e-mails, the response to this piece was different because it resulted in a couple of phone calls. A couple of technology companies wanted to demonstrate their wares, so I may be making a little drive, digital camera in hand, to see a demo in the next few weeks. Sales creatures are highly persistent beings. It's a nice skill to be able to wear someone down on the phone to the point where they'll say anything to get you to hang up.

To me, the most surprising thing about the response to this piece was the unanimously favorable reaction from umpires, who I thought would blow a gasket, and come after me with belt sanders and rubbing alcohol:

Anonymous writes:

 

Thank you. I work as an umpire in the minors, and you would not believe how much whining we hear about balls and strikes. I'd love an indicator or something, if it could be done quickly without slowing down the game. Thanks for sticking up for us.

D.G. writes:

 

Gary, as an ump for 11 years at the Little League and high-school levels I say THANK YOU for this article...your average fan or even the players themselves cannot comprehend how difficult ball/strike umpiring can be. I have been advocating for a number of years that uniforms be required to have a stripe to denote the upper end of the strike zone; the knee is easy to see, but the "midpoint between the waistline and the shoulder" (as defined in NFHS rulebook) isn't easy to discern, and is even harder to keep consistent since there's no reference point. You also bring up a great point about the angle...typically, we view from the inside on the catcher's mask, so our angle to the plate is skewed. If we try to go above the catcher's head (standing upright), it skews the vertical view, making the lower part of the zone difficult to call. On top of that are the other factors...breaking balls, our eyesight, and the fact that we ARE human and frankly, in an average game even the best umps miss about five or six ball/strike calls.

I just hope that articles like yours will help people understand that it really ISN'T as easy as it looks on TV.

One person, whose e-mail I've unfortunately lost, made the excellent point that I may not be following my own doctrine, and am trying to find a solution to a problem that doesn't really exist. After all, baseball is entertainment, and dynamic, inaccurate, and controversial sells better than consistent, accurate, and dull.

Touche.

Transaction Analysis

Oakland Athletics

Signed GM-R Billy Beane to a contract extension through the 2008 season.

Normally, we wouldn't think much of signing an outfielder who's drawn a grand total of 11 walks in his career--and had only one season in which his OBP exceeded his batting average--to an extension that takes him through his 46th birthday. We'd probably rake the Oriole front office over the coals. In this case, however, the A's have made the best signing of the off-season, for reasons we've detailed here and in the book for several years.

While other front offices are scrambling to reach some sort of consensus on what should be done, much less how to do it, the A's, under Beane's leadership, have not only developed an outstanding plan, but executed it well. A's fans can breathe a sigh of relief. We'll miss Jason Giambi, but losing Beane could, theoretically, have been a crippling blow, had his replacement been someone external who doesn't get it. Kudos to Ken Hoffman, Steve Schott, and Michael Crowley for showing the dedication to winning that so many in the press bemoaned as lacking when Giambi signed with the Yankees.

San Diego didn't do badly for themselves, either, signing Kevin Towers to an extension through the 2007 season. And no, I can't be contracted to stuff Bruce Henderson into a container ship bound for a former Soviet Republic.

Simple Machines

It's leverage season! Don Fehr and MLBPA reps are making the rounds in Arizona and Florida, advising players that they should save their cash and prepare for a "possibly extended" work stoppage. Bud Selig's turning every crank in the office to load up on negotiating chips, but without much respect for accounting principles or reality. There's not a lot of good faith going on between these parties, and both sides are better prepared for a work stoppage than they've been in the past. The owners have created a sizable reserve to meet financial obligations should revenue streams suddenly get dammed up, and the players will be socking away as much liquid cash as they can to deal with the potential loss of a season's worth of salaries.

Please don't bother creating some lame-ass organization with a nifty acronym that supposedly represents the fans' interests. There's only so many evening newsmagazines that'll give you your 15 minutes of fame, and baseball fans will continue to come back after a stoppage, no matter how loudly the alarmists squeal.

I suggest taking the same tack as the players: see and hear as much MLB baseball as you possibly can now, and store it in your cheeks to get you through any potential interruption of play. If the season or World Series is cancelled, go watch and play local baseball. It'll get resolved eventually, and we'll produce Baseball Prospectus 2003 in a special long format that takes the entire season to get through--perhaps a "Stars of the CBA Negotiations" swimsuit calendar, where you can mark off the days as the return of MLB gets closer and closer.

If it makes you feel better, you can convince yourself that Mr. June, Gene Orza, is wearing a mohair sweater with his Speedo. Or at least you can try.

Gary Huckabay is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Gary's other articles. You can contact Gary by clicking here

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