January 22, 2014
Do the Astros Deserve to Be Shamed?
On Aug. 8, 1950, the Boston Braves’ star hitter Bob Elliott motioned toward base umpire Al Barlick and asked him to move. Barlick, standing behind the pitcher, was in Elliott’s line of vision and distracting. Barlick obliged.
That gave Eddie Stanky an idea. The Giants’ second baseman walked over to the spot Barlick had vacated. Over the next four games against the Braves and Phillies, he would intermittently go back there and do what the newspapers called The Eddie Stanky Semaphore Wave, or, simplified, the Stanky Maneuver. He’d wave his arms, mimic the pitcher’s motion, and do all manner of distracting dances, from directly behind the pitcher’s release point.
“Umpire Al Barlick said the arm waving tactics ‘made a farce out of the game,’” according to one newspaper account at the time. Phillies manager “Eddie Sawyer, generally calm, called the action illegal, unsportsmanlike; labeled it ‘bush league’ baseball.” Stanky, shamed, briefly agreed to stop doing it, but after a Phillies player slid hard into one of his teammates (knocking the fielder unconscious), he went back behind the mound in the fourth inning on August 12th. “The antics had provoked a storm that upset players, umpires, team managers and fans,” the Associated Press reported that week. “It indirectly led to one of the stormiest free for alls in Shibe Park history. It caused a game to be played under protest. It resulted in $25 fines against two players who started the fracas." It was, though, totally legal.
So what do we think about Stanky? He was doing everything he could to try to win. He was within the limits of the rulebook. He was ingenious. He was entertaining. He showed hustle. He had a drive to win, and a responsibility to his team to try to win, and anything less than he did would have been shirking this responsibility and betraying this drive.
But, also: Ugh. The Stanky Maneuver wasn’t a real strategy. It was tacky. It was bad manners. It was a loophole that existed only until somebody exposed it, at which point it would be closed for good, either by rule (it was) or by shaming and unwritten rules. The rest of the league perhaps hadn’t thought of it, because it was silly; or perhaps had thought of it and hadn’t used it, because it was unsporting. Either way: Stanky went somewhere nobody else was willing to go. He did it to win, but is that enough of a justification? Can there really be no obligation that a participant has to the game other than complete commitment to victory?
In 2002, Jonah Keri introduced the Success Cycle. You might recognize it from such baseball articles as practically every transaction write-up, fake trade proposal, team preview, team review or free agent analysis written in the 12 years since. The idea is simple, intuitive, unimpeachable: A team that is rebuilding has different short- and long-term incentives than a team that is on the cusp of competition.
Recognizing a team's place in the cycle is perhaps the key element in any team's game plan, because it drives decision-making. If a GM misreads his team's place in the cycle, he may get overaggressive and commit too much cash in an effort to win before a core is in place, and quickly fall back to the rebuilding stage. On the other hand, being too passive with a team ready to win can cost the franchise a shot at a pennant.
Intrinsic in this idea is permission to punt. We all, every one of us, can I’m sure agree that in at least some cases a team with a very poor short-term outlook and more promising long-term outlook can be forgiven for getting somewhat worse—trading a veteran for prospects, passing on free agents, perhaps carrying a lower payroll than the franchise’s fundamentals might actually allow—in the interest of the long-term health of the franchise. We condone getting worse to get better. I think we all agree on that. What we don’t necessarily agree on is how far this allowance goes.
The Astros, of course, are the purest implementation of this idea that we’ve ever seen. They went into the 2013 season with a payroll that was very nearly the theoretical minimum; they managed to shed even further as the season went on, trading their two of their only players with actual service time: Bud Norris, two and a half years from free agency; and Justin Maxwell, three and a half years removed. For this, they generated an almost trademarkable brand: The Houston Astros, Rebuilding The Right Way.
They lost 111 games. Since MLB expanded to a 162-game schedule in 1961, there’s one team that has had a worse three-year run than that, and it’s the expansion Mets. Houston would have to win 74 games this year—a 23-game improvement—to avoiding having the worst non-Mets four-year stretch. “The team hit rock bottom yesterday,” owner Jim Crane finally said, after a 15-game losing streak to end the season. And as the season went on my impression was that a competing viewpoint was getting louder: This is no way to win.
We had never seen a team try so aggressively to be bad. Now we have. So, after a year of watching the Astros go full-measure on badness, and after an offseason that suggests they are finally (maybe) trying to pull out of it and move into the next stage, we have to ask whether this is the right way to win, or whether it’s just another Stanky Maneuver: bad form, bad for the game, a loophole that existed long enough to be exposed but, ultimately, something that needs to be prevented.
Were there moments that were shameful? Like, outright “we oughta be ashamed of this”-ful?
Probably. Like in September:
According to television’s official scorekeeper, nobody in the 20-county Greater Houston area watched the Astros’ game Sunday at Cleveland.
If that sounds bad, consider this: according to that there news account, they weren’t even watching the Astros game at Big Woodrow’s or Lucky’s Pub. Not even at Big Woodrow’s! This is, as shameful data points go, pretty shameful. The point of professional baseball, after all, is to be observed by interested people. Or, another way: If three Astros infielders chase a pop-up and comically crash into each other before one throws the ball 40 rows into the stands and nobody is there to GIF it, did it really happen?
But of course that overstates things. The Astros’ attendance, for instance, actually went up from 2012. Boosted, no doubt, by the team’s first tour as an American League club, and by the 40,000 fans who showed up for Mariano Rivera’s final game (or, at least, final time in uniform). But the Astros outdrew the Rays and the Indians. This was an embarrassing season, no doubt, but it set no new thresholds for empty stadiums. Some people spent money and, presumably, enjoyed themselves.
You’ll argue that this is still pretty pathetic for a team that was, a decade ago, in the league’s top 10 in attendance. But consider the Mariners. A decade ago, Seattle led the league in attendance. Since then, the Mariners have arguably tried too many times to be competitive, and yet for all those good intentions they drew all of 110,000 more fans than the Astros last year year. With Felix Hernandez, with a team that won 20 more games than Houston, and with nearly quadruple the opening day payroll of the Astros, they drew 1,000 more fans per game. Losing is losing, apparently, as far as fans are concerned. If the Astros have truly turned their city’s franchise into farce, it isn’t obviously apparent. (The Astros still wallop Congress in public opinion polls!)
So if they’re not the shame of the city, are they at least the shame of the league? It’s not, after all, appropriate for major-league teams in pennant races to be playing against Triple-A clubs that just aren’t trying. The A’s and Rangers went 32-6 against the Astros. How can this be allowed to stand?
But of course every division has a team that, at least by the end of the season, just isn’t trying to some extent. They all have a team that traded veterans away for prospects. We’re talking about scale here, about the line when acceptable tanking/acceptable sucking becomes embarrassing tanking/embarrassing sucking. Did the Astros really get there? They lost 111 games, but that’s not all that different from 105 losses (seven non-Astros teams in the past 14 seasons) or even 100 losses (19 non-Astros teams since 2000). It looks worse that the Astros have been this bad for three years in a row, but so long as they don’t truly test the limits of bad play then the persistence of their badness is between them and their fans. If instead of losing 106, then 107, then 111, the Astros had lost 90, then 95, then 139 games, it would be something that baseball would have to deal with. As is, they were shockingly competent, considering they weren’t trying, like at all.
So, yes, the A’s and the Rangers went 32-6 against them. But we’ve already, for some reason, accepted unbalanced schedules. The presence of the Astros didn’t throw the schedules completely out of orbit or anything; it was just one bad team in a division. And these head-to-head records can overstate the mismatch. The Angels went 9-10 against the Astros. The Tigers went 15-4 against the Indians.
So in both roles—as entertainment draw, and as competitive opponent—the Astros were terrible, mockable, but basically, barely, credible. They weren’t the worst team of the century; they weren’t the least-watched team of the century. They probably justified the strategy: With only the faintest nod toward actual effort, they managed to not actually break anything.
But man was it hard to watch. Harder than I expected, and even harder in retrospect.
Look at this dope:
A few months ago, writing about swapping corner outfielders every few batters to capture a defensive platoon advantage, Russell Carleton wrote this:
In United States culture, it’s not nice to look like you’re trying too hard, especially for such a small reward and when you look weird doing it.
The “small reward” isn’t applicable here, but the optics of trying too hard (in this case, to try not at all) are. No team had gone alllll the way with this strategy before, I have to imagine, because when you go stand behind the pitcher and start dancing and being sort of a dick it looks terrible. People don’t want to look terrible, but also: when something looks terrible, or annoys everybody, the loophole gets closed, for good. (Once you lose Gammons, it’s a fair guess that you’ve lost the industry.)
Jonah’s Success Cycle forgives a degree of tanking, but there is a point where tanking will go too far. If, for instance, the Astros had refused to let their young pitchers actually pitch at all, because why waste their precious few pre-labrum-tear bullets on games that don’t matter? Or if they hadn’t let their pitchers throw sliders. Or if they had kept every single player with an option in the minors, rather than start their service times. If they had traded Jose Altuve to a competitive team for a prospect and a PTBNL, and the PTBNL was Altuve. If they didn’t let their baserunners slide. If they’d lost 139 games, something would have to be done.
We saw the closest a team has gotten to that point, and now we get to decide what we thought of it—to decide whether this was too far, whether we want other teams to do this, over and over, cycling through waves of failure that offer no pretense of in-game competitiveness. And I think, at this point, you can respect the Astros for their commitment and ingenuity; they almost certainly didn’t have a better and realistic way to get competitive in a (relative) hurry. Three years ago, they were arguably the worst big-league team in the league and they had arguably the worst farm system in the game. (This fantastic piece at Crawfish Boxes imagines what the Bizarro Astros would look like now if Luhnow had never traded a single veteran piece. Answer: Bad, hopeless.) And, to their credit, the guys in uniform tried to win. Their September lineups were filled with regulars; Jonathan Villar and Altuve played every game in September.
But you can respect them for their commitment and ingenuity without applauding it, and without wishing to ever see another team try it. I don’t ever want to see a team like the Astros again. If there aren’t going to be rules against this, then I’m coming around on shame.