Monday, May 5, 2008

Things that make me crazy

Jonah Keri, writer for (and before that, Baseball Prospectus), recently penned a column on what he termed "failure dynasties": Teams that have created and sustained a persistent culture of losing. One of the five teams he spotlighted in the article was, unsurprisingly, the Pirates. I took a look at the piece, and I spotted this gem:
Failing to rebuild the farm system, the Pirates tried to compensate by dishing out big contracts to mediocre players (Mike Benjamin! Pat Meares!! Kevin Young!!!) and gigantic contracts to players a step above mediocrity. The six-year, $60 million contract he gave Jason Kendall remains one of the worst deals of an entire generation.

The lack of perspective there is breathtaking. Allow me to provide some context.

Jason Kendall signed his extension in November of 2000. He had just turned 26 in June, and for his career he had put up a batting line of .314/.402/.456, good for a 121 career OPS+. Just entering his prime, the three-time All-Star had successfully completed his return from a gruesome compound dislocation of his ankle in 1999 with no ill effects.

This is the player Keri is describing as "a step above mediocrity"? The third-best catcher in baseball? Let's look at a little more context:

Mickey Cochrane is one of the all-time greats. A Hall of Fame catcher for the Philadelphia A's and Detroit Tigers, he won two MVP awards and led his teams to five World Series, winning three rings, before his career was ended in untimely fashion by a beanball. Through the age of 26, Cochrane put up the following batting line: .314/.398/.460 (117 OPS+).

Huh. How about that? Let's look at another one.

Bill Dickey is also considered one of the all-time greats. The catcher for the powerhouse Yankee teams of the '30s and '40s, the eleven-time All-Star won seven World Series in eight tries, and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1954. Through the age of 26, Dickey hit .322/.368/.476 (122 OPS+).

Hmm. That's interesting, but those guys are from the olden days, when batters were hitting a dinosaur skull with a mastodon tusk. How about someone more recent?

Joe Mauer was the first overall pick in the 2001 draft. Playing for his hometown Twins, the native Minnesotan won a batting title in his All-Star 2006 campaign, and is generally regarded as one of the game's brightest young stars. Mauer hasn't reached the age of 26 yet, having just turned 25 in April. Nevertheless, his current career batting line of .314/.394/.457 (125 OPS+) may be somewhat illustrative...

It's indisputable that the Kendall deal did not turn out as well as the Pirates might have hoped, but to try and retroactively confine Kendall to the same transaction ghetto as dreck like Mike Benjamin and Pat Meares is misguided, at best. When evaluating past decisons, and seeking to learn from them, it's important to separate considerations of outcome from considerations of strategy of process. I have a buddy who's a professional poker player, and one of the iron laws of his profession is that you can get beat even if you make exactly the right decision at the time, based on the knowledge that is available to you at that point. It will happen to you every day. In fact, it happened to him on Saturday: Playing a tourney, he was all in with the nuts, and he got beat when the other guy sucked out a flush draw. It happens, and when it does, you don't have any choice but to pick up your coat, push in your chair, and start thinking about tomorrow's game.

On the Kendall deal, the Pirates had the nuts: A long-term contract with a young catcher, who at 26 was just as productive as Yogi Berra (125 OPS+) or Gabby Hartnett (118 OPS+) or Gary Carter (117 OPS+). Then, the wrong card flopped on the river, and they got a bad beat, courtesy of the Baseball Gods. It happens. Kendall tore a ligament in his thumb during the home opener, secretly played through the pain all season at the behest of management (who didn't want to lose their top drawing card), and in all likelihood did permanent damage to the hand. He ultimately needed at least three operations, including a transplant of a wrist tendon to replace the damaged ligament, and he never hit for power again.

I shouldn't get so upset about this kind of stuff, but I still do, years after the fact. Whenever a national writer doesn't care enough about the Pirates to get the story right, it's a microcosm for every time the team has been ignored or slighted by the national media. Every undeserving outfielder who went to an All-Star game while Brian Giles watched it at home. Every time ESPN didn't bother to show highlights of the Pirates game during SportsCenter, so we could get another five minutes of Yankees-Red Sox fluffery. Every sub-literate message board trade proposal where we get three utility infielders and a broken bat for Ian Snell. The worst part about it is that Keri was, of all things, an Expos fan. If anyone should understand how irritating it is to be marginalized and ignored, it should be him.

I guess we can take solace in the fact that we saw the young Kendall playing when he was in all his plate-blocking, base-stealing, line-drive-to-the-gap glory. If some writer wants to retroactively try and cut that memory down to convince himself that he was right not to pay attention, then screw him. He'll never know what he missed.


hyzduhq said...

That article somewhat got me crazy too. The part that irked me was "Selling to franchise to Kevin McClatchy". Is this to imply we would have been better off with felon John Rigas owning the team. I would think that it should have been as with some of his other teams, "Keeping McClatchy around as CEO too long." If McClatchy did not buy the team, we may not have one, like his Expos, or at the very least we'd be ridiculed even more by having Rigas and a bunch of white collar criminals owning the team.

brooklynpirate said...

Almost everything I read about the Pirates in the national press annoys me. And it's not just the national press -- I used to live in LA, and listening to "experts" like Vin Scully habitually substitute bland (and often wrong) truisms for actual analysis or reporting was maddening.

Agree with you about the Kendall contract. I also think Kevin Young's deal gets a bad rap. When we signed him he was coming off two very good years, and was relatively young. Seemed like a good idea at the time, but just didn't work out.

RichieHebner said...

It has driven me nuts for years. There was a time when we were the news in baseball, and I miss it. No one remembers when Pittsburgh was at the center of baseball.

What can one expect, when the people who work for the team don't know anything about the team's heritage? I read an interview with Richie Hebner recently. He asked the Pirates for an interview to talk about a position in the system. Huntington spoke to him, and passed him on to Kyle Stark. Stark had no idea who he was. (I heard Stark on the radio just after he was hired, and he sounded like a twit).

Huh? You can't even be bothered to Google a former major leaguer who won a World Series ring with the team you profess to want to help return to its former glory, before an interview with him?