The Mariners have watched a string of players leave the organization and immediately play better for a new one. Derek Zumsteg examines the phenomenon.
Derek Zumsteg takes a closer look at Boston’s Mientkiewicz-to-second-base experiment, and likes the risk-taking by the Sox.
The Mariners today announced the retirement of Edgar Martinez, one of the best hitters of his generation and arguably one of the best right-handed hitters of all-time. To celebrate Martinez’s career, we’re re-running this special edition of Derek Zumsteg’s Breaking Balls from last October, when it first looked like Edgar would hang ’em up.
But I’ve come to realize that they’re inseparable: Tweaking the rules is a smaller move in philosophy, but in implication and consequence can be just as large as the sweeping one. Which in turn is why this is such a fascinating discussion for me.
I’ve been avoiding columns on columns lately, because I feel like every time I try, I dig myself in ever-deeper. But I got a ton of email on Tuesday’s column, and it ran about:
33%: “That was hilarious, loved it.”
33%: “I don’t get it.” or “I’m tired of your ranting.”
33%: “How can you say that Derek Jeter’s the AL MVP when he’s only ninth in overall offensive value and your own metrics….”
So skip ahead a couple paragraphs to get to the baseball if you’d prefer not to hear the meta stuff.
To 66% who didn’t get it: the column was intended to make fun of the sports talk radio Jonah and I had to listen to while we were driving back and forth to the Baseball Prospectus business meetings in San Diego last week. I don’t even remember the names of the personalities, but between San Diego and Los Angeles, every time we hit the seek button to get away from one of these guys, we ran into another broadcaster spewing the same stuff. They all talked in circles as they tried to figure out what they were going to say, and when they finally got to the point, you’d think, “I waited two minutes for that?”
Look, we pulled down the Berlin Wall, and it was once controversial to speak out against that. I like to think time will prove me right. It has in the past, I think that’s going to continue. Ideas come and go, and you have to look at them and if their time is past, then so be it, that’s how it goes. You can shoot the messenger if you want, but I’ve been shot at before and I’m still here, still talking to you.
I got mad once when Ken Griffey Jr. admitted that he didn’t try for every ball. If his team was far ahead or behind in a game, he wouldn’t try to scale a wall to bring back a home run. It’s almost offensive to a fan to see players not try. I can know that the cost of a ticket’s not that high, historically speaking, and that it might not have any effect on the outcome of a game. It doesn’t matter. I want to see those ground balls run out. Unless the hitter’s injured.
The more I watch games, though, the more I’m convinced Griffey was right. Derek Jeter’s dive into the stands was dramatic and everything else people said about it, but it was also immensely dangerous. How big of a gap is it, really? When the Mariners told Edgar Martinez not to run out ground balls unless it was really important, was that worth it?
The team isn’t playing that badly. They’re unlucky, not untalented. They’re hitting the ball hard, but right at people. It’ll turn around. We put together a competitive team, but losing streaks happen to even the best teams. We have all the pieces. See, Monday we had pitching, and Tuesday our bats came up big, and on Wednesday we played solid defense. It’s just that we can’t put it all together. You can see that once we’re firing on all cylinders, we’re going to win a lot of games.
I wrote a whole column last Thursday about how players don’t owe it to their teams to waive their no-trade clauses. One weekend later, Randy Johnson comes out and says that if, maybe, he were to think about leaving Arizona, well… “The only way I’d probably want to leave is if a trade would benefit the Diamondbacks by my leaving. And maybe the way to do that is if they wouldn’t have to pay my salary and it could go to some other players that would help them–and if I got to a situation that was going to work for me.”
Randy’s now saying he’d require that:
The Diamondbacks wouldn’t have to pick up his salary
They would have to get players back who’d help them
His new team would have to be contending
Sure, there are players who have emotional ties to an organization and a city such that they’d like to see their soon-to-be-old team do well. Some players have tried to make sure that their new team doesn’t give up too much. The most obvious example of this was Ken Griffey, Jr, who when demanding a trade from the Mariners to the Reds seemed to be actively involved in who’d be traded for, which is kind of weird since he instigated the whole thing. It’d be cool if us average people could do that for our jobs. (“I’ve decided you’re going to offer me $125 grand to watch baseball and drink beer in the comfort of my house, and you’re going to pay for the recliner.” “Remember not to put your breakable mugs on the bottom of the box when you clean out your desk, because you’re fired.”)
There are going to be a lot of trades and trade rumors in the next month. More players will be approached, and more will be confused. I want to see this looked at evenly for once, that’s all. It’s not an issue of players being selfish; sometimes, when they’re choosing between their families and a chance at a ring, it’s an issue of them being unselfish. I’d like to see the story covered that way, just once.
When they brought him on as an instructor, Cashman said that Sojo wouldn’t play for the team–he played anyway. When rosters expanded and Derek Jeter injured his ribs, they signed Sojo to a minor league deal and suited him up for real against the Blue Jays on Sept. 1.
After the season, Sojo signed on to become the Yankees’ third-base coach where, I have no doubt, he’s looking at Enrique Wilson and thinking he could outplay that kid if given the chance.
Though it rarely occurs, this could theoretically happen again, and not just on the Yankees (“Distributing championship rings to the undeserving since 1996!”). Many once-excellent players are hanging around currently-bad teams in coaching capacities, and it’s easy to imagine that in a moment of weakness, a GM might consider a conversion.
How badly can cute and cuddly players hurt their team? With baseball’s new market, more than ever in recent history. If your local community pillar signs for a charitable $2.5 million, in today’s market, that’s two and a half average outfielders on short-term deals. And if your guy got signed before the market crashed…it may hurt just to think about it.
So I went through looking for guys who are killing their teams. While the Rangers paid laughable service to “flexibility” when talking about trading the hugely productive Alex Rodriguez, it’s true that when teams saddle themselves with giant unproductive contracts, it makes it much harder to build a good team on a necessarily limited budget. So here are the guys who are really grinding down their teams. Bonus points for easily replaceable position players, and guys who have huge, long contracts granted by virtue of being popular.
So who’s out there to form our team?
I’ve been getting a lot of e-mail lately that runs like this:
I know you like Edgar Martinez, but don’t you think he should retire? He can’t run, he can’t hit. He should have some pride.
It’s true, I’m emotionally attached. But I know that, so I can recognize it, take a deep breath, and be rational about it.
And my answer is: “I have no business telling Edgar, or any player, to retire.”
If you watch the home team broadcast, almost every start by a home pitcher isn’t just good, it’s great. No, it’s outstanding. Just plain fantastic. It was a gritty, gutty start. And that’s for a six-inning, 9-hit, 4-walk, 2-strikeout start where the pitcher sees four runs cross the plate. He worked himself out of some tough jams. He literally put out some fires (the use of literally to mean figuratively causing writers and English majors across the country to literally grind their teeth).
That’s to be expected. After all, the broadcasts are, first and foremost, marketing tools for the team. I shouldn’t get frustrated when baserunning gaffes are excused, or a hitter’s awful hacks are ignored. I do, but I shouldn’t. When we find nuggets of serious analysis, or discussions that aren’t flattering to the team, or even criticism of botched plays, it’s a bonus.
Earl Weaver in Weaver on Strategy presented a set of guidelines for running a team. The book is the best on managerial strategies and roles I’ve come across, and the respect accorded it is well earned. Don’t play for one run unless it’ll win you the game–James Click’s series on bunting should be required reading for managers. Browsing any day’s box scores shows you examples of managers bunting early, or for no good reason at all.
Weaver’s Fourth Law, from the book: Your most precious possessions on offense are your 27 outs.
This leads to a short rant about bunts, particularly early in baseball games. The concept behind the rule runs throughout the book, though, and underlines the single biggest conflict in the game of baseball: The defense wants to get outs without giving up runs, and the offense doesn’t want to give up those outs.
The state of umpiring today is amazing. While umpires are devoid of the kind of personality that, say, Ron Luciano had, as a group they have improved so markedly since baseball broke their union that it’s amazing to watch old games on ESPN Classic. Umpires today are faster to get into position and more observant. They’re willing to consult other umps who might have a better view of a disputed play. They’re far more professional than their predecessors.
I am more convinced than ever that the umpires have demonstrated the need for better strike zone measurement tools. We haven’t heard much about Questec this year, due in part to Tom Glavine enjoying a bounceback year. But I watch so much baseball it frightens small children, and I see blown balls and strike calls all the time. And I don’t even mean close calls, either, I’m taking about clearly up, down, or off the plate and my favorite, Ye Olde Hit the Target Strike. Like the other parts of the umpire’s game, it’s gotten better, but it’s still not as good as it needs to be.