Billy Beane has long maintained that the season is played out in three acts:the first two months are spent figuring out what each team has, the next two months are spent trying to get what they need and the last two months are the race to play in October.
So while the All-Star Break is a traditional midpoint, it is actually the far turn in Act II, the respite before the two week push to the trading deadline which completes the two-month search for what is needed.
It is also the point where the seasonal storylines are essentially validated: the rise of Manny Machado, Chris Davis and the Orioles is established; the Biogenesis War is set to be waged, and we have found our new MannyLand L.A. Theme Park in Yasiel Puig.
National League West general managers unanimously appreciate that the Dodgers are going to be a major factor the remainder of the season, even if Matt Kemp continues to be slowed by his left shoulder.
To surround Clayton Kershaw they have gone the way of the free agent market to sign Zack Greinke, gone the international route to sign Hyun-jin Ryu and the trade market to get Ricky Nolasco, and one divisional GM says “I wouldn’t be surprised if they still got Matt Garza and another reliever.”
That same GM actually thought they might be able to take on the $2.5-$3M on Matt Thornton, but the Red Sox beat them to the 36-year old lefthander who has held lefthanded hitters to a .173 average and .232 on base percentage.
The All-Star Game is a showcase.
We all get the fascination with Puig’s spectacular tools. We all get why most baseball people ask to wait and see what he’s going to be, someone akin to Yoenis Cespedes or somewhere between Bo Jackson and Mike Tyson in Dodger Blue? But the vote for the final All-Star roster spot, which has turned out to be a spectacularly successful marketing ploy, reached levels of vitriol that at times were unseemly.
Freddie Freeman belongs on the All-Star team, the Braves MVP from April on to Citi Field, but this vote isn’t about the right of a May callup to be on the team, it was about the fun Puig has brought to Dodger Stadium and the excitement he has created.
Asking Yasiel Puig to be Freddie Freeman runs counter-intuitive to Puig’s culture.
Years from now, will we go to Baseball Reference and calculate that he was a better player than Freeman? No one knows. But it didn’t have to get nasty. It’s about who gets one at-bat in a showcase.
There are many around the Dodgers who are wary of how the Puig phenomenon plays out, how he converts to the American baseball culture, whether he listens to the voices around him.
Look at two important contributors to the Rays’ run at their fifth 90 win season in six years, Yunel Escobar and James Loney. When Escobar got to Atlanta in 2009, he put up 4.0 WAR, bettered by only two National League shortstops, Hanley Ramirez and Troy Tulowitzki. He fell out of favor with the Braves, and did not exactly invoke Tony Fernandez comparisons in Toronto. But when Tampa Bay took the chance on the 29-year old, he got to the right people at the right time, Joe Maddon, Andrew Friedman, Stuart Sternberg.
“I understand that Yunel can be a little demonstrative on the field, I get that,” says Maddon. “But he’s from a different baseball culture. That’s all right. He can be reminded of certain things, but he’s fine with it. This isn’t 1910. It’s all right to have fun, it’s all right to play with some flair.”
Maddon has never been to a La Isla-Industriales playoff game in Havana, but if he goes, he will see baseball played at a beat that might rile “purists,” even in a time when Major League Baseball touts its internationalism and every year presents its World Baseball Classic that showcases a myriad of different baseball cultures. Maddon gets it. The game isn’t the way it looked in the grainy black-and-white footage in the movie “Cobb.” It isn’t played the way it’s talked in press rooms.
Loney is another example. This is a guy who in 2006 batted .380 in the minors and was a Baseball America Prospects kid, even with eight homers. He did hit .331 with 15 homers as a 2007 Dodger rookie, but the power was never enough. While Don Mattingly patiently reminded folks that Loney was simply a good hitter and productive in situations, one Dodger official says “there was such an obsession with him hitting for power he veered away from being who he is.”
Loney was thrown out with the bath water in the $262M deal with the Red Sox, walked on in Tampa as a free agent, and is headed to the break with a .316 average and an .837 OPS and a significant role with the Rays.
“Trying to get James to hit for power and speed up is counter-intuitive to his nature,” says Maddon(somehow I don’t remember Herman Franks using the expression “counter-intuitive to his nature”).
“What impresses me so much about James is how calm he is at the plate and in the field, in whatever situation arises,” says Maddon. “He is a great thrower at first base because of that calmness. He’s never rushing to stay away from hitting with two strikes.”
Joe Maddon is different in a fascinating way. He does things that sometimes makes opposing managers cringe. Yeah, like Yunel Escobar. “But I’m fortunate,” he says, “because Andrew (Friedman) and Stu (Sternberg) look at the game and the people in the game as I do, and give me the latitude to be who I am.”
In the heat of the last month, there have been some umpire-player-manager confrontations that seemingly exceeded bounds. Several managers have complained about the umpires brought up to fill in during the well-earned comp time for veteran umpires, and there are legitimate concerns about the development of umpires.
All you have to really know about umpire development can be found in “As They See Them,” the book about minor league umpires and their lives by Bruce Weber. If an umpire is breaking into short-season or low A leagues, their pay and conditions are abysmal, brutalized by penny-pinching league officials, and MLB has done a poor job taking the initiatives to spend the necessary money to teach and develop good officials.
Like it or not, replay has to come, because there are so many television angles that the credibility of the sport takes hits during the season. But Buck Showalter has an interesting idea about bringing solid baseball people into the umpiring world. “Each major league team should be required to find a player—a Triple-A veteran, whomever—who knows he’s at the end of his quest to be a big leaguer and sponsor him to be an umpire. Pay for him to go to umpiring school. Help fund him through the minors. We need guys who understand the game, understand situations and how and why things happen. I’ll guarantee you, those guys will shoot through the minors. It’s part of making the game better.” And while owners make hordes of money, they do have a responsibility to spend some of that profit for the overall good of the game.
The limits on international signing bonuses have produced a system full of holes, not to mention allow 23-year olds from Cuba or Taiwan to get far great bonuses than the top players from the United States because of the new draft cap system.
The Rays did it last year, the Cubs this year: they exceeded their bonus limits, which means they cannot sign a player the next year for more than $250,000, but still allows them a slot bonus that instead of going to players can be used to trade for major league talent. Then because any Cuban player can get signed for whatever the market bears once they turn 23, there has aleady been one instance of a player being suspended by the Cuban Federation for faking papers claiming that he is 23 before his time. The incentive is to lie about their ages, that is until it is time to start drawing the MLB pension.
On All-Star break eve...
Of course, Jim Leyland should name Justin Verlander to the game; he’s been a face not only of the sport, but of the spirit the Tigers have brought to a city that has to fight back against decades of decay, a man who beat the A’s in the ALDS Game Five to eventually get the World Series back to downtown Detroit. WAR or no WAR.
Did you think the Cubs would have a better run differential than the Dodgers, Nationals or Giants?
Amidst the morass of leaks, threats and grievances that will storm over the Biogenisis suspensions, a question: where is the emerging leadership among ownership or the Players Association?
Where is a Jerry Reinsdorf or Joe Girardi going to emerge?
Bud Selig’s uncanny ability to build consensus and manage the industry has brought unpredecented wealth and stability, but beginning this week, when suspensions are announced and the lawyers begin counting their hours, the issue of the next generation of leadership is going to be fascinating to watch.