Tuesday, April 30, 2002

Bud Selig Never Calls

Quote of the Week

"The fact of the matter that they're winning on the field doesn't solve their problems."

-- Baseball Commissioner Bud $elig, referring to the early season success of contraction targets Minnesota (one game out of first place) and Montreal (leading their division), essentially admitting that the owners’ professed concern about competitive balance on the field is nothing more than a smokescreen.

Speaking of Bud Selig, I have a complaint to make. Last December, ESPN’s Rob Neyer ran an anti-Bud column which precipitated a telephone call from the man himself. On Friday, Baseball Prospectus’s Doug Pappas got the ring. I ask you, what does a guy have to do to get yelled at? I’ve been taking pot shots at Bud and his cronies for weeks now, and I’ve heard bubkis. If I still haven't heard anything by Memorial Day, I’m gonna have to start calling myself.

At any rate, is it just me, or does anyone find it incredible that the leader of a multi-billion dollar enterprise is taking the time to harass sports columnists just because they disagree with him? Does he really think he can convince smart guys like Neyer and Pappas that they’re wrong, or is he simply that insecure? All I know is that if Bill Gates started calling the guys at Slashdot every time someone made fun of his operation, people would start wondering whether the boss was making the best use of his time.

Ground Chuck

While we’re quoting, here’s one more:

"Prototype size and speed...has a very large wingspan...has the speed and motor to chase...explosive at a good pad level...massive widebody..."

No, it's not marketing copy from Lockheed Martin’s strike-fighter catalog. It's a collection of quotes lifted verbatim from scouting reports on ESPN.com's "NFL Draft Tracker". The Draft Tracker (and any number of other draft supplements like it) compiles tons of important information about the future elite of pro football. For example, it tells you that Julius Peppers, a defensive end from the University of North Carolina, "shows the ability to bend at the knees." Thank goodness for that. One thing it doesn’t seem to do too well, however, is tell you whether or not young Peppers and his fellow draftees can actually play the game of football.

The modern NFL draft and its attendant analysis have turned twenty-two year old kids who thought they were football players into cuts of meat, stopwatch times, and IQ-test results. This failure to see the forest for the trees has transformed pro football from a beautiful game of strategy and physical prowess into the freakshow of a sport it has turned into today. If he were coming out of college in 2002, Joe Montana would go undrafted because he lacks scrambling ability. Walter Payton would slip down the list due to a hundredth of a second lag in his 40 yard dash time. Lawrence Taylor would be knocked for not having an adequate "wingspan."

In evaluating talent, baseball has largely avoided the worst excesses of the NFL. Unfortunately, there are more and more scouts and GMs out there leaning towards the NFL approach. It's becoming increasingly common to read about players being analyzed in terms of their "tools": raw abilities like speed, arm strength, and power. The thinking of the "tool" school is that anyone with a healthy combination of these raw talents can be transformed into a great player.

Obviously, anyone who runs a baseball team wants players who are fast, powerful, and can throw. But more often than not, teams fixated on "tools" have had a terrible track record developing players. They routinely dismiss short, weak-armed guys who just happen to hit the cover off the ball (like Pittsburgh’s all-world outfielder Brian Giles, inexplicably let go by the Cleveland Indians) in exchange for fast, powerful, good-throwing guys who can’t play baseball very well (like Ruben Rivera, Juan Encarnacion, and Alex Escobar). Toolsy players look great in uniform, but most of the time they don’t do much to help their teams win ballgames.

Call me naive, but I can’t help thinking that the best indicator of a player’s ability to do well in the majors is how well he did in the minors, and in high school or college before that. How much he can bench press or how fast he can run a 40 yard-dash should be a secondary concern at best.

And Then There Were Three

Another week, another manager fired, with Colorado’s Buddy Bell biting the dust on Friday evening. Not counting Montreal’s lame duck Frank Robinson, that leaves three guys (Tony Muser, Mike Hargrove, and Hal McRae) as sure bets in my dead pool.

What to say about Buddy Bell? Not much. Like this season’s other two casualties, he was dealt a losing hand before the season began. No one was going to do anything with that team in Colorado, and now that Rockies’ management has figured that out, maybe it’s time to get creative. One hot rumor floating around last week was that the Rocks were considering trading pitcher Mike Hampton and outfielder Larry Walker to the Red Sox for Manny Ramirez. I don’t really see that happening with the Red Sox in first place, but wouldn’t that be a humdinger of a trade? Manny could hit 80 home runs in Coors Field. Short of that, the Rockies could consider giving more playing time to guys who could actually help them instead of screwing around with dead wood like Terry Shumpert.

Cool it, It’s Early

My spot-on managerial predictions notwithstanding, I received an email from a reader the other day asking if I was willing to recant my preseason predictions in light of the fast starts by the Pirates and Expos, and the slow starts of the Astros and Braves.

Look, I love and respect all twelve of my readers, but buy-high-sell-low guys like that are the ones who end up working three jobs into their 80's because they screwed up their IRAs. It’s April. There’s tons of baseball to go. Besides, even if I'm wrong all down the line with my predictions, do you think I'd throw away a perfectly good post-season column idea ("Why It Wasn’t My Fault That I Was Wrong") by admitting it now? Patience, grasshopper, the truth of the season will be revealed in time.

And There’s no Santa Claus Either

Last Thursday, my wife was out to dinner with clients (she always was the harder working Calcaterra), leaving me at home with a turkey sandwich, a couple of beers, and an Atlanta Braves game. Even better, it turns out that my most favoritist baseball player in the whole wide world -- Greg Maddux -- was pitching that night. I sank into my Eames lounger to watch the artist at work.

Maddux got creamed. How bad was it? This bad.

My idol allowed eight runs and walked four batters in a nightmare of a fifth inning. Maddux normally goes a month without walking four guys. Always the perfectionist, he’s notorious for launching F-bombs at the top of his lungs when his pitches miss their mark (and by his definition, missing a mark means being three inches outside). On Thursday he could do nothing but watch as his stuff went wherever the hell it wanted to go.

You can't read too much into one start, and Maddux's recent back troubles may go a long way towards explaining his feebleness. Still, watching him struggle that night was like watching someone whup your old man. I wouldn't wish the feeling on...Bud Selig.