The Futility Infielder

A Baseball Journal by Jay Jaffe I'm a baseball fan living in New York City. In between long tirades about the New York Yankees and the national pastime in general, I'm a graphic designer.

Friday, January 15, 2010

 

Friday's Child (The Return)

So I'm finally finished with what I refer to as my winter workload, my contributions to the Baseball Prospectus and Fantasy Baseball Index annuals as well as Maple Street Press' Dodgers Annual, edited by Dodger Thoughts' Jon Weisman. All of that stuff is about a month away from hitting the shelves, but I'm back in circulation at Baseball Prospectus with a couple of articles this week.

Today's piece is a recurring feature based upon a chapter I wrote for BP's pennant race book It Ain't Over, "The Replacement-Level Killers." It's about players whose production was so awful that it might have prevented their team from reaching the postseason, yet so easily replaced that it's more an indictment on the managers and general managers who put up with that production rather than solve the problem (though many of these teams took steps to try to address them). Since we're in the middle of the Hot Stove season, I checked in on teams' attempts to remedy these problems and found, to my surprise, that many of them had taken a half-assed approach, likely in connection to economic uncertainty. The Giants were one of two teams to actually fill multiple Killers, and since I hate the Giants, here they are as the excerpt:
Second Base:
Emmanuel Burriss (.211 EqA, -1.1 WARP), Freddy Sanchez (.221 EqA, 0.3 WARP), Giants

The Giants finished last in the majors in EqA, and at no position did they get worse production than at second base, where five players made at least 16 starts and hit a combined .236/.281/.329; remove Juan Uribe (.274/.331/.538 in 35 games at second, less than he saw at third or short) and those numbers become .227/.269/.280. Burriss more or less held the job from Opening Day to mid-June before being sent to the minors and subsequently hurting his foot. The team then spent the next six weeks briefly trying on Matt Downs (.187 EqA, -0.1 WARP), Kevin Frandsen (.086 EqA, -0.5 WARP) and Uribe for size before trading for Sanchez, who strained his shoulder two weeks after arriving and then tore his meniscus upon returning from that injury. All told, the team finished four games behind the Rockies in the Wild Card, a gap that could have easily been narrowed with a competent solution at the keystone.

Remedy (?): The Giants didn't even wait until the World Series was done to re-sign the 32-year-old Sanchez to a two-year, $12 million deal, this despite the fact that the signing has limited them to some fairly cut-rate solutions elsewhere which cast Mark DeRosa as a corner outfielder, Aubrey Huff as a first baseman, and Night Train as the house's top red wine option. Yeah, good luck with all of that.

Right Field:
Randy Winn (.248 EqA, 2.2 WARP), Nate Schierholtz (.249 EqA, 0.4 WARP), Giants

In the final year of a three-year, $23.5 million deal, Winn hit a godawful .262/.318/.353, a performance driven — through a guardrail overlooking a cliff — by a .158/.184/.200 showing in 125 PA against southpaws, the single worst righty-on-lefty performance of the Retrosheet Era (1954 onward). With Bruce Bochy dissatisfied with left fielder Fred Lewis' production (his .348 OBP, second on the team, clashed with the sub-.300 zeitgeist the manager was trying to instill), Winn also saw significant time in left so as to allow Nate Schierholtz (.267/.302/.400) to wave a wet noodle at NL pitchers. If not for Winn's above-average defensive contributions (+15 FRAA) things would have been even worse, but as it was, this debacle and the one at second base were enough to dash the Giants' Wild Card hopes.

Remedy (?): With Winn gone and the team saving its pennies in fear of a big arbitration award for Tim Lincecum, the Giants appear to be vying for an entry on There I Fixed It by letting Schierholtz and John Bowker battle for the right to eat up more outs than necessary.
Writing about ineptitude is always one of the more fun parts of my job, and this one was no exception. Anyway, earlier in the week I wrote a piece arising from a question in last week's chat, is an attempt to answer the question — an important one popularized via Bill James' Keltner Test — of who the best player at each position is outside the Hall of Fame, using JAWS. Five of the 10 position leaders (and two runners-up) are on the current Hall of Fame ballot, and part of the JAWS ticket which went 0-for-7 on Hall of Fame election day. The rest aren't so obvious. Who would have thought I had a good excuse to write about George "Piano Legs" Gore or dust off an old comparison of Bobby Bonds to Reggie Jackson?
Center Field

JAWS Standard: 68.3/44.0/56.1

Best eligible player: George Gore (62.5/44.6/53.6)
Who? "Piano Legs" Gore was a hard-drinking, skirt-chasing character with massive calves. He played center field for Cap Anson's Chicago White Stockings from 1879 through 1886, a span during which he was a key part of five pennant winners; he went on to play for two more pennant-winning Giants clubs. He led the league in walks three times during an era where one needed six to nine balls for a free pass, and was consistently among the league's OBP leaders, hence his strong WARP totals, though they still leave him shy of the JAWS standard in center field. I don't know if the Veterans Committee ever seriously took up his case, but Lord knows there are far less accomplished VC-anointed outfielders in the Hall of Fame; his JAWS numbers crush those of Hugh Duffy, Max Carey, Earl Averill, Hack Wilson, Edd Roush, Earle Combs, and Lloyd Waner, all VC selections.

Runner up: Jimmy Wynn (57.1/47.6/52.4)
The Toy Cannon spent the first 11 years of his career playing in the Astrodome, a godforsaken hitting environment if there ever was one. Properly adjusted for context, he was a helluva hitter, topping a .300 EqA six times during that span, with a high of .348 in 1969. He had two more outstanding years with the Dodgers in 1974 and 1975 before injuries washed him out of the majors at age 35. In the New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, James ranks Wynn 10th all-time among center fielders, and likens him to former teammate Joe Morgan, another small, strong, speedy guy with outstanding control of the strike zone and good defense.

Right Field

JAWS Standard: 75.7/46.6/61.2

Best eligible player: Dwight Evans (59.5/37.7/48.6)
Evans spent parts of 19 seasons in the Red Sox outfield (1972-1990), during the prime of which he was overshadowed by Jim Rice and Fred Lynn. He wasn't entirely overlooked, however, cracking the AL top five in the MVP voting twice (1984 and 1987) and winning eight Gold Gloves in a 10-year span (1976-1985). Like many other players here, he was undervalued in his day because a large part of his offensive contribution came via walks; he topped 100 three times and ranked in the league's top three six times in a nine-year span. He lasted just three years on the BBWAA ballot, though, and his numbers, which were once above the JAWS standard, now come up short. They're still ahead of Rice's (34.2/28.5/31.4) by more than one win per year at their peaks.

Runner up: Bobby Bonds (55.2/41.8/48.5)
Barry's father was a pretty fair player in his day, best known for reaching the 30/30 club (homers and stolen bases) five times, an all-time record shared by father and son. A natural center fielder who got stuck in right field by the Giants because he had the misfortune of arriving when Willie Mays was still a going concern, Bonds seemed to spend much of his career under a cloud of bad luck. He and Reggie Jackson were almost exactly the same age and debuted one year apart. Both had power, considerable speed and a ton of strikeouts, and the two players finished with similar career rate stats (.268/.353/.471/.296 EqA for Bonds to .262/.356/.490/.300 for Jackson), Yet one was a superduperstar who won an MVP award and five World Series rings, and stuck around into his 40s. The other never finished higher than third in an MVP vote, played just three postseason games, left the majors at 35, and died young.
The leader at first base, Mark McGwire, had an eventful week, admitting during a Monday media blitz that he used steroids during his career. This was not exactly news; ever since an AP reporter named Steve Wilstein found a bottle of then-legal androstenedione in his locker, we've had plenty of clues that Big Mac was on the juice. He was named in Jose Canseco's book, involved in an FBI investigation into steroids trafficking called "Operation Equine," and last seen in public tearfully tiptoeing around his right not to self-incriminate during the 2005 dog-and-pony show in front of Congress.

It was a dark day for baseball, of course, and an even darker day for journalism, as many of the fourth estate hacks who goaded McGwire to come clean now vilified him for doing so. Via Twitter, Craig Calcaterra, who's been killing it over at NBC's "Circling the Bases" blog, offered a dollar to the first person who caught one of the come-clean camp slamming McGwire for coming clean, and soon claimed his own reward by nailing Jon Heyman, who twattled, "If you lie for 10 years, and everyone knows you're lying, what's the value of finally telling the truth?" Craig asked Heyman directly, "On October 18th you wrote 'its time for Mark McGwire to come clean.' If you don't think there's value, why did you say that?" He got no response.

Which isn't to say that Heyman was the only egregious offender. The ever-idiotic Dan Shaughnessy shat himself in public once again by invoking Hitler, always a popular pastime among morons on the Internet. Even the more reasonable Tom Verducci and Ken Rosenthal spent their time on the MLB Network after viewing McGwire's interview by declaring that now for sure they wouldn't vote for him for the Hall of Fame, because he had removed all doubt about his involvement with steroids. Guh.

McGwire sure as hell didn't cover himself with glory with his admission, and his belief that steroids actually had no effect on his level of accomplishment was laughably self-delusional. It was also, however, a pretty typical display of the athletic mindset, the long-hardened belief in one's own abilities often in the face of directly contradictory evidence ("I still believe I can get hitters out in this league," says the pink-slipped pitcher). Nonetheless, he apologized, showed contrition, cried enough times to make even children uncomfortable, did just about everything short of committing fireside harikiri. Yet it wasn't enough for some.

As is often the case when a big steroid story breaks, I spent about three and a half hours doing morning drive time phoners — 13 in all — for the Fox News Radio network, sparring with some hosts, agreeing wholeheartedly with others and trying to put what was said into context. I found it notable that though he was hired as the Cardinals' hitting coach back in late October, his "Meet the Press" moment, which had to be a precondition for his return from oblivion, occurred after the Hall of Fame election cycle, perhaps so the slugger could avoid the accusation that he was pandering to BBWAA voters or at the very least could avoid overshadowing the other candidates on the ballot. Yet some hosts didn't seem to understand why this genie was coming out of the bottle now.

Some of the hosts were well-prepared and had the news in perspective; the guys on Louisville's WHAS and San Diego's KOGO were especially good. The poor guy on WMT in Cedar Rapids, an admitted Cardinals fan, sounded like he had contemplating throwing himself out of his office window but had realized that it being just the second story, probably wouldn't put him out of his misery. On the other hand, the host on Omaha's KFAB asked a rambling two-minute question in which he tried to connect the steroid culture with President Bill Clinton's infidelity, doing so much pontificating that I thought he was about to kiss a baby and announce a Senate bid. Being a good lefty, I called him on it, accused him of scoring political points irrelevant to the matter at hand and stuck to my talking points. This was not my first rodeo.

So how do I feel about McGwire? Disappointed and saddened but hardly surprised. He's a product of a very specific time in baseball history, one where he made some bad choices in which the MLB Players Association, the owners, the commissioner, the media and fans were quite complicit. It's the height of hypocrisy to hang him for those choices and declare that we need to expunge his numbers from the record book. Hell, if the stats from the thrown 1919 Black Sox World Series — as grievous a crime as has ever been committed against the integrity of baseball — are on the books, then a few tainted home runs can certainly stand. Records record what happened on the field; it's up to us to interpret them properly. Sadder and wiser, we move on with our lives.

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