Monday, June 08, 2009

Meanderings

* Steve Phillips took a lot of hits on the internet (and rightfully so) for his petty and relentless attack on Carlos Beltran during the May 17 Sunday night game on ESPN between the Mets and Giants, and rightfully so. However, I personally felt that his comments on May 24 during the Brewers/Twins game were even more absurd.

ESPN had a graphic showing the number of major leaguers who were in the Armed Forces during World War I and World War II. Instead of simply thanking those men for their service, or praising the "Greatest Generation" or something else that most normal people might do when discussing World War veterans, Phillips used this as a soapbox to savage today's generation of players for steroid use. No joke.

I have no idea how long his monologue went on; it might have just been the one brief comment. I was watching the Cavs game anyway and was just flipping to baseball during the commercials. I immediately flipped back to hoops, even if that meant enduring another Cialis commercial.

Phillips said something to the effect of "A few generations ago we had all these players serving their country, and now we have players using steroids. What has happened to our game?" Gee Steve, I don't know. Your graphic showed the large number of players who were in the service during World War I as well. And less than one year after World War I ended, a group of eight players threw the World Series. What on earth happened to our game in the eleven months between the Armistice and the 1919 World Series, Steve?

* Steve Phillips has given me a new-found appreciation for Joe Morgan. I apologize for all of the complaints I've ever lodged about Morgan's announcing, his misunderstanding of who authored Moneyball, everything. Please let us have the two-man booth back.

More broadly, though, I really think that color commentators need to be put out to pasture after ten or fifteen years. Even the best eventually become little more than caricatures of themselves (I always enjoyed listening to John Madden, but I always had a nagging suspicion that if I as serious a NFL fan as I am of MLB, I would have considered him in the same class as an aforementioned commentator with the initials JM).

Since most color commentators are former players, they cannot immediately devolve into "good old days syndrome". If only five years have passed since your retirement, it's hard to complain too much about "today's players" since you played against most of them. Give it another five or ten years and the only players left are the rookies from when you were a grizzled veteran, and that you probably shook your head at even then. Now it's a lot easier to wax poetic about how great baseball was when you played. Give it another decade and, well, you get the idea.

Now of course not all color commentators are insufferable worshipers of yesteryear, and I'm not REALLY suggesting a mandatory retirement age. But I definitely feel that in general it is better to have a younger man in the booth.

* It's only fair to balance out criticism of TV commentators I don't like with praise of those I do. One in particular is John Hart on the MLB Network. It does seem a little odd that he's still a consultant to the Rangers (just a slight conflict of interest), and as a Cleveland fan I have mixed feelings about Hart (love the building part of his tenure, hate the attempting to sustain part). But he is very good for a TV commentator, and hurray for MLBN for hiring a GM who actually had success rather than one who was largely a failure as ESPN did.

MLBN has its share of obnoxious folks, of course--Dan Plesac is unbearable, Harold Reynolds is still himself, Mitch Williams is really annoying, while Jon Heyman and Joe Magrane rub me the wrong way. But Al Leiter and Barry Larkin are both excellent, relatively speaking, and I can tolerate Bill Ripken, Sean Casey, Dave Valle, and Tom Verducci. Among the anchors, Matt Vasgersian is okay although he tries to be too clever, Greg Amsinger is enthusiastic if nothing else, and Victor Rojas is solid. All told, MLBN's team is light years better than ESPN's. The only Baseball Tonight personality I'd really like to see on MLBN is Peter Gammons.

Also refreshing is Saturday Night Baseball, using local telecasts and actually (gasp) sometimes choosing games that feature west coast teams playing at home.

* It's time for All-Star voting again, which means we will be subjected to a number of columns about how so-and-so got snubbed. As with so many things, I think that Bill James cut to the heart of the matter when he asked whether the purpose of the All-Star Game was to honor the players or to entertain the fans. If it is the latter, then the hand-wringing is completely unnecessary. The fans will vote for whichever players they want to see. Does that mean that the voting system is perfect (or even anything more than a gigantic mess)? No. But it means that you can quit with the phony outrage about players getting snubbed.

What's funny about the yearly phony outrage from columnists is that it is usually focused on the fans for making picks that don't mesh with the first-half stats, rather than having questionable preferences in players over the long haul. If, say, Raul Ibanez is not voted in, there will be columns pointing out that he's leading the league in home runs and RBI. There is comparatively little phony outrage directed at consistently voting in an Alfonso Soriano over more deserving players, and other similar cases that demonstrate an odd notion of player value (Of course, since it is a popularity contest, there are other elements in play than simple value, but popularity and ability are certainly positively correlated.)

Left unstated is the premise that the purpose of all-star selection is not just to honor the players, but to honor the players for their first half performance. If this is the point of view you want to take, that's fine, but you need to recognize that there is no prescribed definition of what an all-star should be. There's nothing stopping another fan from believing that the all-star game should be to honor the "best" players (and the myriad of different corresponding definitions of "best" muddies things even more), another from believing that it is to honor the players who have had the best careers, and another from believing that it should be a celebration of the Houston Astros.

The phony outrage is even worse in the all-star case than it is in the interminable MVP discussions at the end of the year, because at least the MVP is defined by some nebulous criteria. Even with those guidelines in place, there are folks who demand that all others accept their own personal, narrowly-defined definition of MVP.

Granting for the sake of discussion the position that the all-stars should be the players with the best year-to-date performances, one must remember that the voting begins in May. How does a fan voting on May 6 predict who will have the best statistics come July 1? The best answer is to take the results to date and add in a heavy amount of regression...which in the end is much the same as just voting for whichever player you feel has established himself as the best.

But it all provides a nice fodder for columnists. And to be fair, I suppose it also provides fodder for bloggers to shake their heads at the fans and mainstream media.

* I suppose that in order to maintain my credibility as an Indian fan I should comment on their dismal start, specifically whether or not Eric Wedge should be fired.

The short answer is "I don't care". I generally don't feel that most managers are fairly interchangeable, and I don't think there's any reason to believe that the team's fortunes would be significantly altered were Joel Skinner or Torey Lovullo in charge.

Here are some of my disjointed thoughts on various aspects of Wedge's record:

1. Bullpen management

This is not so much a complaint about the Indians' horrific bullpen in 2009. If anyone can be blamed for that, it is the front office. While I thought the bullpen would be average-ish when looking at it on paper (and I still think it would be if all of the pieces were healthy and Rafael Perez hadn't fallen off a cliff), it is clear now that there is a lack of organizational depth. Thus, when unexpected things happened, Cleveland was forced to patch things up with people like Vinny Chulk, Matt Herges, Luis Vizcaino, and Greg Aquino. But that's not Wedge's fault.

I do think, however, that Wedge is a below-average bullpen manager. He is one to fixate on a couple of horses and ride them for all they are worth. I'm not saying he overworks them and causes subsequent declines in effectiveness--that's possible, but I'm not willing to assert it. What it does, though, is prevent an effective second-line of relievers from being developed.

Once Wedge loses confidence in a reliever, he has a hard time sending him out to the mound in any game which is still within a +/- 3-4 run deficit. An example was Craig Breslow, who sat unutilized in the pen for the first month and a half last year before the team finally had to cut bait (of course, his recent release by Minnesota suggests that Wedge is hardly the only manager that doesn't trust him). If you're not in the back four, you might as well not even show up to the ballpark if you expect a close game.

2. Player relationships. This falls squarely under the category of BSing, since I can't possibly know what goes on behind closed doors, and I am very skeptical of reports of what does because there really is no such thing as an objective source. Anyone who tries to tell you about what goes on in a baseball clubhouse has some angle of their own.

So I think this can easily be overblown. His critics like to bring this up, primarily focusing on the cases of Milton Bradley and Brandon Phillips. While at the time I thought Wedge's spring-training blowup with Bradley was a bit excessive, Milton has now become persona non grata with enough organizations to make it pretty clear that Wedge was not uniquely wired to snap at him. Perhaps a bit quick, but that's impossible to judge.

The Phillips situation on the other hand does look bad, but it's just one case. There are a lot of managers perceived as good, like Tony LaRussa, who has had just as many problems getting along with his players. This may be a weakness of Wedge, but I'm far from convinced that it is a crippling one.

3. I believe, generally, that Wedge does not overreact to small sample sizes to excess. Key words: "generally" and "excess". I know that there will be a large number of Indian observers who disagree with me completely on this count, and I understand that. This season has seen some silly tinkering out of desperation, but I think that's the outlier in Wedge's behavior. He will occasionally try to ride a hot hand in lineup position (like batting Ben Francisco third in the first half last year), but I don't get the impression that he really buys it. And lineup tinkering is a great way to appease the "Do SOMETHING!" crowd without actually doing anything drastic.

People like to complain that he kept running David Dellucci and Jason Michaels out to left field, but that's another issue for which the primary blame must fall on the front office--they seem to regard corner outfield spots as unimportant (although I am a Shin-Soo Choo fan). Cleveland fans may have had an unrealistically rosy assessment of Ben Francisco's talents, but I think now they are seeing that he is a fourth outfielder and nothing more. Unfortunately, he's also embarked on a hot streak that will probably secure his place in the lineup (although with the injury to Sizemore, there's not really a better center field option).

This year he dropped Grady Sizemore to second in the lineup after his slow start, which I don't think was necessary but also is not a disastrous move. If it any way caused Sizemore to press less (please note, I'm not saying it did or will), then it would have been justifiable. (In fact, batting your best hitter #2 is not such a bad idea anyway. I am NOT saying that Wedge is a subscriber to that school of thought.) There have been isolated oddities like Mark DeRosa at first base with Ryan Garko in left, and the decision to juggle the infield after a month is reminiscent of the Tigers' flailings last year (although I would argue that in both cases the key moves were the right ones). Again, though, I think that the front office bears a great deal of responsibility on this score. I never understood why DeRosa was acquired to play third rather than second in the first place, and why Luis Valbeuna has been deemed ready to be the starting second baseman. It is safe to assume that Wedge had input on those decisions, but he hardly has the authority to make them on his own.

4. He's not a terrible strategic manager, IMO. He does like to bunt a lot when the offense is sputtering (and in fairly predictable patterns), but he's not over-the-top crazy about the intentional walk or pitchouts or pinch-hitting (unless he has a clearly defined left-right platoon). I hesitate to say anything more specific than "not terrible", because it would imply a systematic comparison of all thirty managers, and I obviously have not undertaken such a survey. So I'm sticking with "not terrible", and probably about average, standard boilerplate managing.

5. Wedge is sometimes criticized for the Indians' underplaying of their Pythagorean record, but I don't think this is a particularly sound complaint. There is no study that I know of that has indicated any significant relationship between Pythag underachievement and manager. We do know that teams with strong bullpens have a tendency to "overachieve", and that has certainly been a factor in play for Cleveland during Wedge's tenure. In other words, it could be a symptom of the bullpen management problem, not an independent flaw. The notion that Pythag +/- is a managerial measurement appears to have been started by Palmer and Thorn including it in the manager register of Total Baseball, which was probably done in an attempt to include something other than just win-loss record and place in standings. I have never seen a satisfactory explanation of how a manager would be able to impact Pythag +/- other than, again, effective bullpen deployment.

In short, even given a conclusion that the Indians' differential is something other than random variation, it is not safe to conclude that it can be laid at the feet of the manager

6. People also complain about the Indians' slow starts under Wedge, but I don't find that particularly compelling either. It's true that the Indians under Wedge (excluding 2009) have a March/April record of 65-82 (.442) versus a rest of season record of 431-394 (.522). However, if Wedge's first year (which was also his first experience as a major league manager, and with a team that was not expected to do anything at all) is removed, the split drops to .483/.514. In two of six seasons the team has had a better record in March/April, and these are two of the three most recent seasons (2006 and 2007).

If "getting out to a fast start" is something you value in a manager, then you could certainly consider Wedge's track record on this count to be a weakness. But I just don't see it. In the end, all the games count the same. A bad start can certainly bury a team, but so can bad middles and ends to the season.

2008 can better be described as a bad middle. In mid-May, the Indians were in first place, although by a narrow margin and with a record just above .500. Still, the season was far from a disaster at that point. The bottom fell out in late May and June.

If there was a team that went 41-53 in the first half, then made a managerial change and went 40-28 in the second half, I'd imagine that there would be a good number of people praising the new manager and bashing the previous one. Well, there was such a team, except without the managerial change--the 2008 Indians.

Had those splits been reversed, all sorts of ire would have come down on Wedge's head. The average fan is going to be much more exercised by a slow finish than a slow start, and thus I tend to think that people who cite slow starts are actively searching for reasons to complain about the manager. In the end, all the games really do count the same, and while it's possible to dig a whole so deep all hope is lost (as the Indians did last year), it's also possible to recover from a bad April.

As for the organization as a whole, it seems as if the draft has not yielded sufficient talent. Much of the organization's talent has been acquired through shrewd trades, but there has been an apparent deficiency in the team's own development. This helps contribute to the lack of second-line bullpen arms, and while it hasn't seriously hurt the major league lineup, it certainly is an item for concern long-term.

I have seen the complaint that the team never loads up to take a shot in any particular season, but I think this is a sound policy. If I were GM of a team without a lot of money to buy talent on the free agent market, my goal would be to put a consistently competitive team on the field and hope to catch lightning in a bottle one year(as any number of teams have done in recent years. The 2003 Marlins, 2005 White Sox, 2007 Rockies, were not really teams designed to take one shot). I would prioritize consistent playoff contention over the long odds of winning a World Series. Selling out for one year is an extraordinarily risky strategy that is unlikely to pay off even if executed perfectly, due to the nature of the post-season itself.

If this reads as something less than a strong endorsement, that's because it is. I know I sound like a broken record, but I think managers for the most part are fungible, and therefore I don't really care whether Wedge stays or goes.

That being said, I am pulling for him. Not just because I want the team to succeed, but because I find the scapegoat mentality of so many fans to be off-putting. People who want the manager to yell and scream or bench a star player to "send a message" are those that I generally avoid making common cause with. Add in a high covariance between that crowd and the all too common Cleveland "woe is us" attitude, and it gets even easier to be a contrarian.

1 comment:

  1. Patriot: I've long felt that color guys had a sell by date. Glad someone else out there feels the same.

    WRT, I was still young when he started but he was like a breath of fresh air. By the time he retired, I had heard all about turducken and the rest of his act countless times.

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