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April 16, 2012

Out of Left Field

The Worst Baseball Discussions We Have

by Matthew Kory

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Just before spring training ended, an email arrived from two friends of mine. They’re both Philadelphia Phillies fans. As you are likely aware, the Phillies have the greatest starting pitching staff in the history of ever, but they aren’t without problems elsewhere. Ryan Howard’s recovery from a ruptured Achilles and Chase Utley’s on-going knee injuries have ripped the heart out of an offense that was once the National League’s best. Their stranglehold on the NL East is now in doubt.

None of that was discussed in the email. Neither was Jonathan Papelbon’s ridiculous contract, or the disintegration of the farm system, or the aging nucleus, or even Charlie Manuel, possibly the funniest manager in baseball history. Nope, none of that.

What do two ravenous Phillies fans email about if it isn’t the offense, the pitching, the bullpen, free agents, age, the Phillie Phanatic (it wasn’t the Phillie Phanatic) or the manager with the corn-pone accent? I’ll tell you what it’s about, but you have to promise not to stop reading. Deal? OK.

Juan Pierre and Scott Podsednik.

Pierre and Podsednik were hoping to join a Phillies bench that included noted Millard Fillmore advocate (he’s old) Jim Thome, who offers the same defensive value as a tipped-over chair. Thome’s role as pinch-hitter extraordinaire placed an increased strain on the other members of the bench. Namely, they had to be able to do things. Fortunately Laynce Nix is a certified member of the Utility Players of America (motto: “Sure thing, boss!”), meaning he’s not one of those uni-positional guys who specializes in me-first attitudes and egotistical behavior like demanding to play the same position all the time. So he’s in. Brian Schneider hasn’t hit a baseball since the Carter administration but he knows how to strap on a chest protector and wiggle fingers in between his legs (and he’s single, ladies! Or not! I have no idea!) so he’s in, too.

Between Thome the pinch-hitter, Nix the jack of some trades, and Schneider the guy who can catch balls thrown directly at him, you’d think all the positions would be covered. You’d think so, but you’d be totally wrong. You’d be wrong because you forgot about an outfielder. Silly you. Well sure, Nix can [airquotes] play the outfield, the same way I can cook food: dangerously (and I’m single, ladies! Or not! I have no idea!). If Laynce Nix ever plays an inning in center field the players union will file a grievance alleging A) an attempt to cut salaries by not paying for a center fielder and B) pitcher abuse.

That’s where my friends’ email comes in. 

Any thoughts on the Pierre v Podsednik debate?

Oh, God, really? Do I have to choose?

Juan Pierre is 34 while Podsednik is 36. Both players are old, because this is the Phillies bench we’re talking about. Former members of said illustrious club from just the past three years include (but are not limited to) Ross Gload (35), Greg Dobbs (32), Juan Castro (38), Chris Coste (36), Mike Sweeney (36 going on 80), Paul Bako (37), Miguel Cairo (35), and of course the borderline immortal Matt Stairs (41 or 177 in dog years*). Five of those players ended their careers on the Phillies bench. Okay, only four. Somehow Juan Castro scratched out 19 more plate appearances with the Dodgers before realizing his true calling was to not play baseball anymore.

*You are thinking that seven times 41 does not equal 177, and I don't know how to calculate dog years. But no sir, it is you who does not know how to calculate dog years.

The similarities don’t stop with age. Both Pierre and Podsednik are within an inch of height and 10 pounds of weight (if Baseball-Reference is to believed) of each other. That makes sense, because both play a similar style of game, that being the athletic-looking-but-not-actually-very-good-at-actual-baseball-playing style.

Here is a graph showing the True Average (TAv) by year for both Podsednik (in blue) and Pierre (in red):

True Average is scaled to batting average, so as the glossary says, Miguel Cabrera’s .342 is excellent, Alex Rodriguez’ .300 is good, and Austin Jackson’s .260 is average. As you can see, both Podsednik and Pierre bounce around between bleeeeeeeaaaah and uuughhh. Podsednik’s career TAv is .253 and Pierre’s is .249.

So what’s the difference? TAv doesn’t take base running or defense into account. So is one old weak-hitting outfielder better than the other? Probably. Maybe. I don’t know. I know Pierre is the poster child for defense and stolen bases at the expense of what I enjoy in players, the ability to get on base and hit for power. (I’m a child of the ‘90s, what can I say?) There was a time when Pierre was probably that guy or close to him. The guy I saw in spring training this year was different. Bad. Pierre butchered a catchable fly ball in left field into a double, and then his lollipop off-line throw turned it into a triple. He had a series of weakly hit balls, maybe one of which went for a single.

Podsednik was the guy who didn’t homer once during the 2005 season, then hit one in Game One of the ALDS against the Red Sox. I looked it up because I remember it as this soul-crushing blow, but the magic of the internet tells me it was a solo home run that bumped the score from 8-2 to 9-2. Losing is one thing but giving up a homer to a guy who didn’t hit one all year in 568 plate appearances is embarrassing. You’re already lying beaten on the schoolhouse playground. Then, through a bruised eye, you see Scott Podsednik take a big wad of gum out of his mouth, lean over, and smear it in your hair. That’s how I remember it and that’s probably how Podsednik remembers it, too, because other than a spike in 2009, that moment may have been Podsednik’s zenith as a player.

Both Pierre and Podsednik probably don’t have much time left in the majors. Both are former All-Stars who have received MVP votes, but are now just hoping for jobs as role players. They’d both love to be Laynce Nix. Ah, to have that kind of job security. Sure thing, boss!

The strange thing about all this is that anyone cares about it. The last spot on the bench is going to affect the team about as much you or I will. What’s more, there is a high degree of likelihood the winner won’t stick with the team for longer than a few months. Just long enough to show that even one start a week is too much for their abilities.

So why is any of this interesting? Because it’s not. This is the minutia of baseball. It’s utterly unimportant and we all do to. I sure as heck do it. It’s not where the game is won or lost, yet it holds and even demands our interest.

Maybe it’s that way because that is the portion of the roster to which we can actually relate. Few of us have been stars at anything for entire lives, like Chase Utley. Few of us can do anything as well as Roy Halladay pitches or Ryan Howard hits homers. But most of us have been the last one on the team, or the last person at the dance, at least once. Most of us have been unwanted before, and going from that to proving oneself useful is one of the greater experiences life has to offer.

Last year during spring training, the only thing anyone had to talk about regarding the Red Sox roster was, and I'm not making this up, who would be the 25th man on the roster. That was all that a month and a half of spring training was going to determine, so we talked about it for about a month and a half and it was fun. I don’t remember who won the job, but I remember having the discussion for way too long. And enjoying the heck out of it.

In the end, the Phillies picked Pierre and that’s probably about right*. He’s in Philadelphia tearing it up to the tune of .350/.350/.350 in 20 plate appearances. Podsednik was sent down to the Triple-A Lehigh Valley IronPigs where he is crushing at .125/.222/.125. So you can see the Phillies clearly made the right choice. In fact, Podsednik is so important to the team and the organization that his photo on the team page shows him wearing a Blue Jays hat.

*or not

In what is nowhere near the ultimate irony, Podsednik has been mentioned as a potential replacement for the recently injured Jacoby Ellsbury. Wouldn’t that be fun. And no, that wasn’t a question.

Finally, you may be wondering how I really replied to the email that started all of this. This was my answer:

Pierre v. Podsednik? I guess, maybe, if you had to, like were physically forced to, take one of them you'd take Pierre for defensive value… But now that I think about it... oh, my head hurts. Doesn't anyone have Matt Stairs' phone number?

Maybe I should’ve just stuck with that.

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

Related Content:  Scott Podsednik,  Chase Utley,  Juan Pierre

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