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July 11, 2011

Prospectus Hit and Run

Heroes and Villains

by Jay Jaffe

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Once upon a time, their roles were unmistakable, the storylines obvious. David Ortiz was the hero of the underdog Red Sox. Benevolent, affable, even beloved, and of course, clutch. Alex Rodriguez was the villain, the epitome of the so-called "Evil Empire," at least after a certain trade fell through. Self-centered, publicly awkward, often loathed, and of course, unclutch. Seven seasons removed from when those narratives began taking shape, their roles are changing, perhaps faster than their public perceptions.

On Friday night, in the eighth inning of a 10-3 rout of the Orioles—a game that had been decided when the Red Sox rolled up eight first-inning runs against Zach Britton—Ortiz was ejected for his part in a brawl. This followed a sequence in which Orioles pitcher Kevin Gregg threw three consecutive inside pitches at the slugger, the last of which had him taking a few steps toward the mound in anger, causing both dugouts and bullpens to empty while catcher Matt Wieters and home plate umpire Mike Estabrook attempted to restrain him. Tensions remained high as order was temporarily restored, but with Ortiz apparently eager to show up the pitcher and the opposition despite the seven-run cushion, he took a mighty hack at Gregg's 3-0 offering… and popped out to center field. When he merely glaciated towards first base, Gregg pointed his glove at Ortiz, calling at him to run it out. Instead, Ortiz rushed the mound and threw several punches at the pitcher, none of which appeared to land with full force, before the two could be separated. Both were among the four players ejected.

This was not the first time this season that pitching inside to Ortiz has caused controversy. Last month, in the midst of a sweep of the Yankees on their home turf, the otherwise humiliated Bombers did what they had been unable to steel themselves to do in 159 previous contests against the Red Sox: hit the slugger with a purpose pitch. To that point in the series, more than half of the Yankee regulars—Derek Jeter, Curtis Granderson, Mark Teixiera, Rodriguez, Robinson Cano, and Russell Martin—had been plunked by a Boston pitcher without recourse, but even more egregiously in the eyes of the Yankees, Ortiz had shown the Yankees up with a bat flip following a home run off Hector Noesi in the opener (his first of two in the series), inciting Joe Girardi's ire. Fellow heavyweight CC Sabathia did the deed with a 97 mph fastball into his hip, his fastest pitch on the night. Ortiz responded to the complaint about his bat flip by telling the Yankees to "take it like a man," then blamed the media for the fact that he himself had been forced to, ahem, take it like a man with the retaliatory plunking.

Connect the dots between the two incidents of good ol' country hardball and you have a slugger who comes off as having an increasing sense of entitlement about the inner part of the plate, resentful of his opponents' willingness to back him off of it even after he has done his damage. Swap out Rodriguez or Manny Ramirez for Ortiz as the principal bat-flipper or mound-charger in those two scenarios and the soapbox derby would be endless, with columnists and talking heads moralizing about overpaid egomaniacs acting as bullies instead of playing the game the right way. Were it A-Rod or Manny, somewhere in those missives would be a reminder about their past connections to performance-enhancing drugs and perhaps even some yahoo shouting from the cheap seats citing the incident this was a textbook example of 'roid rage. Ortiz, of course, has been connected with PEDs as well, outed—as both Rodriguez and Ramirez were—as one of the players on the supposedly anonymous 2003 survey testing list. The former later admitted to using, the latter subsequently tested positive for banned substances not once but twice, and both have worn the black hat ever since—as if their nine-figure contracts hadn't granted them such status already. Ortiz, who vehemently denied buying or using steroids, skated away with his public image largely unscathed, and has quite possibly enjoyed the softest public landing of any player implicated as a user.

The 35-year-old designated hitter is enjoying a fine season thus far, hitting .304/.391/.579 with 19 homers and a .330 True Average, fifth in the American League. He is in the final year of a five-year, $64.5 million deal with the Red Sox, having staved off a premature burial or two, but failed to receive the extension he lobbied for last summer; his future beyond this season is up in the air.

Ortiz apologized for the Gregg incident a day later. "That's not what the fans come to see. That's not part of my personality," he said. "I apologize to our fans for that kind of show." Even so, he couldn't resist a bit more chest-pounding. "After I hit the fly ball, he started screaming at me. I ain't gonna take that like a little bitch, you know what I'm saying?... I mean, you saw the argument before, and after that you're gonna act like you're my daddy?" He's likely to face a suspension for his part in the altercation, but given that he's headed to Arizona to play in the All-Star game and captain the AL Home Run Derby squad, such justice likely won't be meted out until after the festivities.

Rodriguez was supposedly bound for the All-Star game as well; like Ortiz, he was elected to the starting squad by the fans. He's not going, and instead the Yankees are facing life without him for the next four-to-six weeks. It has been generally known that he's been playing through a right knee injury suffered during a sudden stop on the basepaths on June 19, but he finally underwent an MRI on Friday, with the Yankees revealing on Saturday morning that he suffered a torn meniscus. The news was temporarily overshadowed by Jeter's incredible afternoon as the shortstop not only homered to collect his 3,000th hit but went 5-for-5 with the game-winning RBI. By Sunday it was time to face reality again; having received a second opinion on the injury, he is now set to undergo surgery.

The injury has more or less coincided with the longest single-season homerless drought of Rodriguez's career; he last homered on June 11–96 plate appearances ago. He hit a more-than-respectable .333/.387/.417 in the 22 games since then—at one point going 7-for-7 with two walks and a sacrifice fly in a string of 10 plate appearances with runners in scoring position—but his spate of singles didn't stop the New York Post's Joel Sherman from taking a backhanded swipe in a compare-and-contrast piece that opened, "In this bizarro portion of the Yankees schedule, Derek Jeter is the controversial one and Alex Rodriguez is—wait for it—the singles hitter with 'intangibles.'" Even after lauding signs of Rodriguez's personal growth—avoiding public relations gaffes, mentoring teammates—Sherman put on his Captain Obvious cape to remind readers that that the third baseman will never replace Jeter in the hearts and minds of Yankee fans, and he couldn't resist adding, "Rodriguez is not paid to be a singles hitter, and thus is getting a big break now that Jeter is dominating Yankees coverage."

Nowhere in the piece did Sherman acknowledge the link between Rodriguez's injury and his power outage, a fairly elementary connection to make. "Alex was able to play through it and still get his base hits and be productive," explained Girardi on Saturday, before a final decision on surgery had been made. "I just don't think he has the drive in his back side that he needs to have to be the power hitter that he's capable of being... I don't think you'll necessarily see him drive the ball as much."

Sherman also failed to note that Rodriguez's spate of singles have helped to counteract the ridiculous "too many homers" tendency at which the writer had clucked disapprovingly at back when the Yankees' percentage of runs via home runs was above 50 percent (it's now down around 43 percent, still tops in the majors). The Yankees still rank second in the league in scoring, but their batting average on balls in play has risen as their home run rate has tapered, resulting in a better-rounded offense that has sacrificed little potency.

Nowhere did he concede that despite the singles, Rodriguez's .295/.366/.485 line has made him one of the most productive Yankees (fourth in True Average at .301, but just nine points out of second) and everyday third basemen (second in True Average). Nor did he mention that Rodriguez played through his injury at a time when Jeter was on the disabled list due to a calf strain; with backup Eduardo Nunez already playing shortstop on an everyday basis, A-Rod had avoided forcing the Yankees into the position of playing both Nunez and Ramiro Pena on the left side of the infield, a heroic act if ever there was one.

The Yankees won 14 out of 18 while Jeter was down–their best stretch of the season. You'd think a star playing a key role in that run while battling injury would get a little credit for that, but no. Sherman is one of dozens of writers covering the Yankee beat, but he's an influential one, as well-connected as they come, with perhaps more access to those "unnamed Yankee officials" who tend to plant the bug in a writer's ear regarding the tempest du jour than any other. His writing had others, such as Bob Klapisch, piling on "the $32 million singles hitter" as well.

The Yankees figure to have their hands full filling in for Rodriguez. Eric Chavez, who played well as a backup corner infielder early in the year, is on the disabled list due to a broken foot; he was nearing a rehab assignment, but lately he has been dealing with back issues and may not return at all. Nunez, who outhit Jeter during the latter's stint on the DL, is no threat to do the same to Rodriguez; he's batting .277/.317/.437, and there's some question as to whether he can retain the power he's shown. Pena (.241/.274/.299) is replacement-level dreck even as a middle infielder. Triple-A third baseman Brandon Laird is hitting just .272/.300/.423 at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Available trade targets like Aramis Ramirez (whose $16 million option is exercised if he is traded), Casey Blake (now on his third DL stint of the season), and Kevin Kouzmanoff (who is terrible at baseball) create more problems than they solve, while just-released free agent Melvin Mora appears to be suffering from bat death. In the face of such options, Nunez starts to look better and better.

In any event, the latest twists and turns of these two players' careers serve to remind that they're more nuanced than those longstanding caricatures would have you believe. Big Papi isn't an oversized teddy bear stuffed full of wholesome clutch goodness; he has a temper and some less than laudable impulses when it comes to speaking to the media these days, not to mention some understandable insecurity about his future in Boston. A-Rod isn't history's greatest monster; he has gotten along well in New York for the past few seasons, learned to better blend into the scenery during what figures to be a long stay (he's signed through 2017), shed the burden of his postseason frustrations, and risen to the occasion in more quiet ways as well. Aside from their ability to punish a baseball, they're not exactly two peas in a pod, athletically, socially, or financially, but they're more alike than they've been given credit for before. The verdict is in: they're both human.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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