There is no rationale for denying Jim Thome entry to the Hall of Fame, unless you are playing a very irresponsible game.
Jim Thome hit home runs number 599 and 600 last night, in the process raising his season’s rates to .254/.359/.497, very nice numbers for a 40-year-old in any season. The big round number will probably cue another recapitulation by handwringing Hall of Fame voters mooing that Thome should not be a Hall of Famer, or isn’t a Hall of Famer to them, or some variation thereof. It’s silly stuff on any level, particularly given the wide variance in standards the BBWAA voters have shown over time, never mind the various Veterans Committees. If the Writers could conceptualize Rabbit Maranville, Luis Aparicio, and Tony Perez as Hall of Famers, then it doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to come up with a definition of Hall of Famer that applies to Thome, unless you’re playing politics of an entirely misplaced kind.
The knocks on Thome will be his lack of black ink and major award hardware, as well as the era in which he played. He didn't win an MVP award, and correctly so—look at his season by season WARP: In a big offensive era, he was often outgunned by other players (ironically, for some recalcitrant voters who will tar Thome with the brush of the steroids era just by dint of his having played through it, the fact that he did not ascend quite the same heights as some of his contemporaries should serve as a kind of negative proof that Thome himself was clean). In his long career, he had only four seasons in which he finished in the top 10 in WARP, and was only twice in the top five, in 1996, when he finished fourth, and in 2002, when he was a close second to Alex Rodriguez. The MVP voters chose Miguel Tejada that year. Thome hit .304/.445/.677 with 52 home runs to Tejada’s .308/.354/.508 and 34, but the latter was a shortstop on an A’s team that won 103 games, while Thome was a first baseman on an also-ran Indians club.
Because Thome so rarely led the league (he does have the 2003 NL home-run title to his credit, as well as three seasons leading the AL in walks) but was more often just “there,” he will be dismissed as a decent player, somewhat short of stardom, who simply hung around for long enough to put up big numbers. Yet, while the term "compiler" is often uttered with disdain by Cooperstown aficionados, I don't accept the stigma. In baseball, longevity is an accomplishment in itself, but Thome has been no mere Ancient Mariner (to invoke either Coleridge or Diego Segui, whichever you prefer) hanging balefully around the banquet, not a Bob Hope doing unfunny television specials into his late 80s, but a solid producer throughout. That is a different kind of accomplishment than dominating a league and winning the big awards, but it's an accomplishment nonetheless in a league in which most players flame out by their early 30s.
Daniel Murphy's MCL is gone, but at least the Mets were able to see that he had value before he was lost.
I come to you today from a recumbent position as I continue to recuperate from a back injury—my lumbar region has been downgraded by Standard & Poor’s, not to mention Dun & Bradstreet, Abbott & Costello, Sacco & Vanzetti, and Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn. This accounts for why my hotly-anticipated “trade deadline losers” piece (maybe you weren’t excited, but the cat was psyched) did not appear on time. I will confess to you that I have seen very little baseball this past week as I have discovered that painkillers make me sleepy—a handy but very dangerous thing to know. I did, however, rouse myself long enough to see that the Mets lost everyday utility-man Daniel Murphy for the remainder of the season with a torn MCL.
Murphy was having a Billy Goodman kind of year, playing all over the field and hitting .320 while doing it. It was a heartening performance given that Murphy had missed all of 2010 with, ironically, an MCL tear—his other knee. His season was not only a credit to the player himself but to circumstance; the team’s impatience with Brad Emaus in the early going and the long injuries to Ike Davis and David Wright created opportunities. The initial breakthrough, which came at second base after Emaus failed to hold the job following an extremely short trial, speaks well of manager Terry Collins, a coach I’ve not often reviewed favorably. Despite having obvious reasons to doubt Murphy’s ability to field the position—his minor-league experience was limited to 19 games—Collins accepted the defensive hit he would inevitably take in return for a better bat than the standard utility infield options would have provided—indeed, more than Murphy’s successors Ruben Tejeda and Justin Turner have provided.
In my last column, I wrote that if being a General Manager is an art, then it is the art of turning today’s dross into tomorrow’s hope. The same is true in a different way of managers. Sometimes a manager needs to be able to see what a player can’t do, so he will stop asking him to do things of which he’s incapable. Conversely, at other times the manager needs to overlook what a player can’t do so he can use those skills a player does have. Sometimes, even adept talent evaluators miss the forest for the trees. According to legend, the evaluation of Fred Astaire’s first screen test read, “Can't sing. Can't act. Balding. Can dance a little.” This was all true, sort of.
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The Cardinals, who simultaneously put a bad situation out of its misery and increased their postseason chances, lead the parade of trade deadline winners.
In over a decade of writing professionally about baseball, I have never stooped so low as to write a “trade deadline winners and losers” piece. Normally, I run from a cliché like the Wehrmacht withdrew from a battle, attacking even as I back away. This is probably why I have never been invited to many parties. Normally, the July 31 non-waiver trading deadline is such a violent anticlimax that there isn’t much to say, making it acceptable to dismiss it as if it were a guest-star on Downton Abbey, issuing no more than a single word, a hostile glance, and a pregnant pause. The 2011 trading deadline was so active it demands a more thorough going-over. Today winners, tomorrow losers, and Wednesday I will be invited to the King’s Charity Ball (but no one will tell me it isn't a costume party).
Winners Atlanta Braves Between injuries and disappointing performances, the Braves were being strangled by their outfield. The unit as a whole has done less hitting than that of any team in the league except the Padres. Center field was a particularly sore point, as it has been for a number of years—in 2008, Braves center fielders ranked eighth in the NL in True Average, then dropped to 13th in 2009, 15th last year and again this year. Bourn isn’t Ty Cobb, but should represent a serious upgrade for the Braves in the center-field line, as he ranks fourth among all NL center fielders in TAv (250 PA and up department). Braves leadoff hitters have also been among the worst in the league, having hit .254/.306/.365 overall. Weird stat alert: In 57 plate appearances at Turner Field, Bourn has never drawn a walk. Having hit only .218/.289/.348 against southpaws to date, the Braves needed a right-handed bat and didn’t get one, but Bourn’s value should hardly be dismissed in light of that. They gave up two solid pitching prospects, a third that should be rated a throw-in, as well as an outfielder that has proved he can’t play in the majors, at least for them. That’s not a bad deal for a part they needed so badly and who also remains under contract. Baltimore Orioles
Unlike some rebuilders who pretended they had no need to sell (hellooooo, Cubs!), the Orioles got something, moving the underrated Koji Uehera and the superannuated Derrek Lee in separate deals. The returns aren’t particularly special. Chris Davis will give the lineup the left-handed power it has been missing all year, but potentially nothing else—he’s arbitration-eligible after the season and has a strike zone wider than a rhino’s buttocks. Tommy Hunter pitches to contact and thus will be undermined by the league’s worst defense. Aaron Baker is a 23-year-old first baseman in High-A ball, which likely means we will never hear his name again. Nevertheless, a roll of the dice is better than standing pat with decayed assets.
Boston Red Sox
Theo Epstein got off to a shaky start, giving up future Generic Second Baseman Yamico Navarro and a Standard Model Reliever for Mike Aviles, which seems like a high price to pay for a 30-year-old defense-second infielder who has hit .222/.261/.395 this year. Given Jed Lowrie’s shoulder injury, Kevin Youkilis’ frequent day-to-dayness, and Marco Scutaro being, well, Marco Scutaro, it’s understandable that they felt they needed more depth, having already been forced to resort to Drew Sutton and an ahead-of-schedule Jose Iglesias. Still, Aviles is a sneeze away from being out of the league altogether, whereas Navarro has some long-term value.
The door is slammed on an era, but it's not the same as a door opening on a new one.
I suppose it should be unsurprising that for the Mets, so much of this year has been about undoing Omar Minaya’s legacy. Minaya took over the team on the last day of September, 2004 and vacated his chair on October 4, 2010. He took over a 71-91 club, but that club was not without hope, for even before he began, the 2004 Mets had broken the seals on two outstanding young players, both 21 years old: shortstop Jose Reyes and third baseman David Wright. The Mets were rebuilding, but the foundation was already in place.
What a gift to a general manager, but in the end it didn’t count for much. Over the following six seasons, Minaya would endeavor to find the pennant-winning pieces to go with his budding All-Stars. The farm would fail to produce what was needed, and much of what did come up through the system, however mediocre, was used as fodder in trades, some good, most inconsequential. The best of them brought veterans such as Johan Santana, Carlos Delgado, and Luis Castillo at low costs. These players were part of a constant influx of veterans. Free agent signings included Pedro Martinez, Billy Wagner, Moises Alou, Jason Bay, Francisco Rodriguez, and Carlos Beltran, just dealt to the San Francisco Giants.
K-Rod, not so much a poor signing as an expensive and unnecessary one, has already been deaccessioned in return for two Brewers to be named earlier this month. Beltran departs with roughly eight weeks left on the seven-year, $119 million contract he signed back in mid-January, 2005. Bay, by dint of his poor performance and the $35 million yet due him, is likely a permanent part of the collection. Santana too will stay on exhibition even as he returns to the mound after shoulder surgery, legal problems, and declining results. He will earn $22.5 million this year and a minimum of $34 million through the end of 2013. Some things cannot be undone.
What makes the M's special isn't their losing streak or their poor hitting, but their similarity to last year's team.
Just a few more days to go. On Monday night, the Seattle Mariners lost their 16th consecutive game, falling to the Yankees in a sloppy 10-3 contest that saw them make two errors and numerous other misplays. It was not an atypical game for a team that has scored just 2.7 runs per game during this stretch while allowing 6.1. And yet, the Mariners’ freefall must run another six games before they break the American League record of 21 straight losses set by the Orioles in April 1988, and they have to toss up another eight in a row before they dethrone the 1960 Phillies and their 23 straight losses.
The 2011 Mariners have a lot in common with that long-ago Phillies club. The roster contained more than its share of has-beens, never-weres, and never-would-bes; throughout that season they added solid contributors like Johnny Callison, and Tony Gonzalez, who would star on the ill-fated but still quite successful 1964 team that won 92 games. In the same way, the Mariners have added Dustin Ackley and Michael Pineda. Of course, the Phillies lost 95 games that year and 107 the next before they finally broke through and posted the first of what would be six years of winning records.
Until then, the Mariners remain a team that can pitch, even if they aren’t doing so right now, but can’t hit at all. Their offense is so bad that you might say it’s historic. They have nine players with over 100 plate appearances batting under .230, and nearly half of them are under .200. According to WARP, their best player is Brendan Ryan, a sweet-fielding but light-hitting shortstop who was lightly dispensed with by a Cardinals team desperate for middle infielders. Even the ageless Ichiro Suzuki is scuffling, and Justin Smoak, who looked as if he was going to justify his part in the Cliff Lee deal early on, has completely disappeared, hitting .206/.296/.358 since April ended.
A.J. Burnett gives Steve hairballs, but he's not yet the worst pitcher on a (hypothetical) championship club.
Watching A.J. Burnett frustrates the heck out of me. Now, keep in mind, I’m a very spoiled guy. For more than 10 years I’ve been paid to watch and write about the Yankees over at the Pinstriped Bible, and the Yankees have put out a consistently entertaining product in that time. Had I been hired to write the Kansas City Royals Bible, I might have jumped off a bridge by now, having lost the will to live after watched 1,198 losses in 2,040 games. I really have no right to complain about any single pitcher.
Yet, A.J. drives me nuts. Part of the aggravation derives from Burnett being a pitcher with great stuff but inconsistent results. On any given day, he may emerge from the bullpen with no-hitter stuff. More often, he emerges with very limited command of that stuff, and you know you’re doomed to watch a pitcher fight himself for six innings. In 2009, the first year of his Yankees tenure, he was actually effective more often than not, turning in 21 quality starts in 33 attempts, though he also had only a good-not-great ERA of 4.04 because of some spectacular meltdowns, particularly in key games against the Red Sox, who hit .291/.417/.608 against him, leading to an 8.85 ERA.
Last year, the wheels came off completely, but even then he would tease with better games. In June he had an ERA of 11.35, in July it was 2.00, in August it was 7.80. He wasn’t pitching hurt, he was just pitching A.J. And therein lies the other source of the frustration: The Yankees vastly overpaid to get Burnett and now they have to live with him. Compensated generously at $16.5 million per year through 2013, you might be able to trade him straight up for a lemon contract like Alfonso Soriano’s, but that’s about it. As a result of this, a young pitcher like Ivan Nova, no future $16.5 million man but a more effective hurler than Burnett can be at this time in his career, was banished to Triple-A.
Managers often find themselves seduced by the lure of high save totals and set roles, but it's to their own detriment.
Today’s sermon was inspired by a discussion about politics, but it is not about politics but managers. In this blog post, noted scholar-of-virtually-everything Garry Wills relates the current ideological inflexibility of one of our political parties to a practice in Britain known as “instruction,” in which candidates for office ran for office having sworn to maintain certain positions. As Wills points out, this was problematic:
What's in an All-Star game or a career that spans 60 novels and 35 films? It all depends on the fleeting retention of public memory.
Every now and again in my career as an editor, I have come across a writer who thinks that they are Charles Dickens or William Shakespeare, by which I mean that they operate under the delusion that the little baseball doodads that they write will be remembered for more than three seconds after they stop doing them. It must be a pleasing delusion to feel so self-important, but it’s a blinding one. Better to believe, as Abraham Lincoln said in the Gettysburg Address, “the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here,” and then have time prove you wrong than to assume the opposite and go through life under the misapprehension that there is a Hall of Fame for scribblers.
Yes, I am aware there is a so-called “writer’s wing” at Cooperstown. I will get back to that in a moment.
Several years ago, I saw a television editorial by Harlan Ellison, an excellent writer I would hope will be remembered. His theme was that a writer’s glory is fleeting (you can see the second half of it here, though the clip largely omits what I am about to discuss; I would also like to point out that the bowdlerizing of, believe it or not, Lassie he refers to in the video is also being done today with The Great Gatsby). In it, Ellison mourns the total obscurity of one Clarence Budington Kelland. He returned to Kelland in a 2008 interview with the Onion’s A.V. Club:
It's all a matter of perspective: life, death (baseball).
Between the incident in Arlington and the death of Dick Williams, I’m in a rather black mood, not really sure what I can say about either. In the case of the former, I can talk about the wasteful tragedy of dying for a foul ball, even if, especially if, you were trying to get one for your kid. As for the latter, I could give you a career retrospective that you’ve seen elsewhere and probably don’t care much about anyway. There are things about the world and our lives in it that I don’t like, or understand, and don’t know how to write about, and maybe I shouldn’t try.
I grew up in a large apartment complex. When I was very young, it was a clean place to live with decent people, family people, fathers and mothers and children, but even in a prosperous suburban town, a section can go rapidly downhill and you don’t see it happening until after it’s too late. The family people moved out. My parents wouldn’t or couldn’t leave—they were involved in their own lives and didn’t really understand what was happening, couldn’t see the thugs or the drug dealers coming in, didn’t understand that I stopped playing outside after a certain point because of the risk of being accosted—“accosted” is a nice way of saying getting beaten up and having your bicycle stolen. Before that, I had friends. We’d trade baseball cards, and parents would call across the pond at dusk when it was time for the children to come home.
There were two young people I didn’t know well who I would see around the development sometimes, one a 15-year-old boy, the other a 6-year-old girl. The boy didn’t belong there. He didn’t live in the complex, but he knew people who lived there, I guess, and would loiter about. He didn’t seem bad, just aimless and immature in his red Adidas shirts. The girl was the youngest in a family of five. She had brothers who were much older, rough, dangerous-seeming guys—I stayed away from them—and a wiry, worn leather father who seemed to hold some sort of menial job that afforded the time to be angry. I don’t recall seeing or hearing about a mother. The girl seemed a typical 6-year-old. Unremarkable, though perhaps with a bit of an edge to her already given her family. She had long black hair and a missing front tooth.
Matt Wieters, Jim Sundberg, Russell Martin, Francisco Rodriguez, Eric Hosmer, and Melky Cabrera can make your hair fall out.
Thou Dost Protest Too Much, Wieters Apologist Started off my Independence Day holiday with this in my in box:
You REALLY nailed that Wieters is an all-time bust! Bottom Line is that he is the best fielding catching with no passed balls / best arm /calls a great game. While no one will confuse Matt with Joe Mauer—in terms of hitting, keep in mind his hitting production is about 3rd or 4th best for all catchers in the AL. Russell Martin—now there's a piece of sh*t!—W
Let’s try this one more time: I’m very happy for Wieters’s many defenders that they found a great defensive catcher under their Christmas tree, but that’s not what they were looking for. If it were, the Orioles could have saved their bonus money four years ago and signed Henry Blanco for the major league minimum. This was a first-round draft-pick, rated the best amateur position player in the country at the time of his selection, who hit .343/.438/.576 in the minor leagues. That the Orioles wound up with a potential Gold Glover who is also an average-at-best hitter is the consolation prize, not something to crow about. The man was supposed to be a switch-hitting Yogi Berra and you got Jim Sundberg instead. Congratu-bleepin’-lations.
The Mariners throw out arbitrary innings limits in favor of something much more mellow and nuanced.
In the early days of BP, the group had a catch-phrase for young pitchers coined by Gary Huckabay: TINSTAAPP: There Is No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect. I’m not sure if Gary picked it up from Robert Heinlein or Milton Friedman, both of whom got some mileage out of “There Is No Such Thing As A Free Lunch” back in the last century, but regardless of the inspiration, Gary’s point was that young pitchers are so susceptible to both injury and random fluctuations in performance that you could never take their prospect status at face value.
In the days since, teams have done everything they can to prove Gary wrong, often by treating their young pitchers with kid gloves. Gone are the days when a Dwight Gooden would be allowed to throw nearly 500 innings in the majors before his 21st birthday. Now many young pitchers are subject to arbitrary pitch counts and innings limits in order to forestall the point of injury—as if anyone knows specifically where or when that point lies.
While we can credit some common sense decisions about pitch counts—today a manager doing what Dallas Greendid to a 23-year-old Al Leiter in 1989 would be tarred and feathered—with reducing injuries to young pitchers, it is foolish to say that we can know with any specificity that it’s the 751st pitch of the season that is going to break a kid and not the 603rd or the 811th and how much that particular pitch matters versus the pitcher’s mechanics, the weather he’s pitching in, the stress of any particular inning in that chain of 800 pitches, or if a butterfly is flapping its wings in Patagonia. There is really only one surefire way to protect a pitcher from injury and that is to seal him in Mylar, stick him in the basement with your comic book collection, and never let him anywhere near the mound.
As Paul McCartney sang in "Too Many People," he took his lucky break and broke it in two.
Vanity is a sin not because our self-approval hurts others, but ourselves. It blinds us to our own limited value, which is a particularly handicapping set of blinders to wear in the workplace. Many of us have fought the impulse to quit a job with which we have grown frustrated, thinking, “No one else does what I do here, or can do it as well as I do it even if they tried; let’s just see how they get along without me.”
Don’t ever let yourself think that; unless you’re the star of an eponymously-titled television program, the business might experience some temporary turbulence as the result of your absence, but chances are it’s going to be just fine in the long term. Most of us are, no matter how talented, dispensable. There might not be someone exactly like us ready to take our place, but Mr. or Miss Close-Enough is always right around the corner, and in most cases close enough will do just fine.
In baseball, there is the well-known tale of Charlie Dressen, best related by Bill James in his underappreciated Guide to Baseball Managers. Dressen, a former manager and longtime coach with undeniable baseball acumen, took over a successful Dodgers team in 1951 and won two pennants in three years, narrowly missing the third when he bollixed up the playoff game against the Giants that ended with Bobby Thomson’s “shot heard ‘round the world.” At this point, his Dodgers record was 298-166 (.642).