Marty Lurie Talks San Francisco Giants Baseball

The Era of Extravagant Mediocrity

The Era of Extravagant Mediocrity
Rick Kaplan
Staff Writer
OAKLAND (January 6) – Twinkle, twinkle ANY star, how I wonder where you are.
Once upon a time, free agency was synonymous with names that sizzled, like Pedro Martinez and Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson. But those names and skills faded. At the same time, credible advance scouting mysteriously disappeared from front offices throughout major league baseball.
Suddenly, anonymity, profound ordinariness, and–most strangely–durability seemed to come to define the standards for pursuing free agents, especially pitchers.
Following the 2005 season, Oakland GM Billy Beane signed Esteban Loaiza, an eleven year veteran with a career .500 W/L and 4.60 ERA– and, most importantly, a ‘workhorse’ who presumably could be depended on for 200 innings, until, that is, he spent more than a month on the DL for the A’s–to a three year, $22 million deal.

The die had been cast for 2007:
Miguel Batista is a 68-79 career loser with a lifetime 4.46 ERA. But he’s good for 180-190 innings a year, and that gets him $25 million for the next three years from the Mariners.
Ted Lilly, another innings eater, W-59 L-58, 4.60 ERA, he’ll be making $40 M/4 yrs. from the Cubs for showing up every fifth day; Gil Meche, 55-44, 4.60 lifetime, but an "impact" pitcher according to K.C. scouts, $55 M/5 yrs. from the Royals; Jeff Suppan, 106-101 (that’s a lot of mediocre innings), 4.61, $52 M/5 yrs. from the Brewers.
(If nothing else, after witnessing these events I thought I could now understand a little better the Red Sox spending $50 M just to be able to talk to Matsuzaka–and another 40-50 M or so to sign him– the Japanese pitcher who looked like a real winner in the World Baseball Classic. But then I look at the $126 million wacko deal the Blue Jays gave to Vernon Wells and I again realize that these GMs learned nothing from the Mike Hampton and Kevin Brown debacles, except, perhaps, to become obsessed with finding healthy hurlers.)
Physically fit career .500, 4.6 ERA pitchers, hang on! Being a very hittable re-tread who can consistently show up for work and hang on into the middle innings has gotten really lucrative in the big leagues.
Then there’s Barry Zito. We’ve heard a lot about how durable he is, and "durable" seems to have replaced "effective" in today’s zany market. Better than 220 innings on average over his six plus seasons in the bigs. Never missed a start.
Durable, indeed.
But the hype doesn’t say too much about the 55-46 record and a 3.9 ERA in the four years since his Cy Young season in 2002, on a club that had the second best record in baseball over that span.
The Oakland A’s won 368 and lost 280 games from 2003 through 2006, a winning percentage of .567. Zito was at .545 during that time.
What kind of front-of-the-rotation starter isn’t even as good as his own team?
So, did the Giants spend $128 million merely to get a guy who will go out there every five days for seven years like clockwork and give you .500 results? (And someone, incidentally, who cannot hit a lick, or barely field his position, both of which he will need to do in the non-DL small ball-oriented NL)
No, they want more than a break-even guy. They are paying for an ace. They remember 2002. Actually, we have all seen flashes of that brilliance every so often since that exceptional season, such as Zito’s stellar performance against Johan Santana in game 1 of the 2006 ALDS.
In this writer’s opinion, Barry does have No. 1-type stuff. And brains.
But not a No. 1 killer instinct.
The great players thrive on expectations and challenges. They are drawn to the glare of the the spotlight.
The upstart AFL’s Broadway Joe Namath told us he would beat the NFL’s Colts in the third Super Bowl. Everybody laughed at him, and he did just what he said he would do.
Michael Jordan came out of retirement because four NBA championships weren’t enough, and he won two more. Sandy Koufax soaked his left arm in an illegal and highly toxic veterinary pain killer so that he could endure pitching the Dodgers to a World Series title in 1965.
Reggie Jackson was Mr. October. Dave Stewart was The Bulldog. Muhammed Ali told us He Was the Greatest. And he was.
Meanwhile, Zito is busy trying to stay under the radar.
Zito told the Bay Area media last week: "My friends are telling me: Don’t try to live up to everything. Be yourself."
"When you start trying to be a superhuman cartoon character because of the dollar sign that has been branded on you, that’s when things go wrong."
No, things go wrong when you don’t get the ball over the plate, and when you make excuses after every mistake.
Like when Zito and the rest of the Gang of Five scapegoated Ken Macha for their failures after the ACLS–and Barry’s grudge over Mach "not having his back" after Zito removed himself in that crucial Angels’ game in 2004– rather than taking responsibility for their collective collapse against the Tigers.
Kerry Wood of the Cubs told his fans, after blowing a lead during a crucial game of the 2004 pennant race, "I choked." There’s something really powerful about honesty. Now, I hope that kid makes it back through all his injuries to the greatness that was expected of him, and I know he’s trying.
Barry, you could be worth every penny of that $128 million–or you could be Jeff Suppan. It’s your choice.
And lose the innocence. Nobody forced you to cross the Bay.
Billy the Beane Counter
The idea that Moneyball is primarily about winning–and working with a limited budget to produce a winner–is misleading and naive. This is like saying that G.M. is restructuring and downsizing to try to ward off Toyota out of pride alone. In fact, G.M. and Ford and Toyota have billions of dollars at stake, and that is why they want to "win."
Moneyball is about money. Let’s not be sentimental about its penetration of baseball, or Billy Beane and Lewis Wolff.
Toronto and Anaheim and New York are playing Moneyball too. Moneyball is just a business model–one applied to the business of baseball in order to reduce a beautiful game to a matter of charting, efficient use of assets, and profit. It just happens that in Oakland recently that has meant working within a modest budget.
That condition is now going change with the association with Cisco and Fremont. There will probably be much greater profits. But it will still be Moneyball. And it will still be about mainly about making Money.
Are we fans of money or baseball? Moneyball is teaching a generation of baseball fans to look at numbers and profits before they look at the game itself. Who needs to bother watching a guy take his lead or play the hop if you can get his WARP 3 from Stats, Inc. and his market value from ProTrade?
I would go so far to say that there is a spectator sports climate now where, for a growing constituency, a kind of buzz and vicariousness and knowlege about the deals and the contracts and the money is replacing knowledge of–and love of–the playing and watching of the game itself.
Billy Beane, Athletics’ GM and minority owner, is associated with an internet game, ProTrade, which reduces ballplayers to trade-able commodities and is explicitly modeled af
ter the Stock Market. As a consequence of this kind of influence many fans, who primarily experience baseball through statistics, the internet, fantasy games, and opinionated sportswriters such as myself, may have a somewhat specious sense of knowledge about the game. They can tell you everything about a Devil Rays’ Low A southpaw’s VORP and WHIP, but something tells me they wouldn’t recognize him if they having a catch with the kid.
And then there are the Moneyball fans who don’t give a hoot about baseball. "I actually don’t care for baseball," began one Wall Street writer–among virtually an endless number of similar tributes online and print–which all go on to say that Moneyball is an important and innovative book about business that is ‘changing the business world the same way it has already changed baseball.’
Moneyball, and its philosophy of reducing baseball to a formula, where players–and fans–are mere assets in profit and loss statements, is now required reading at thousands of corporations, business schools and on the nightstands of efficiency experts and go-getters around the world.
And, whether you like it or not, Moneyball and it’s ruthless, profit-driven philosophy of interchangeable parts and faceless inventory, has changed baseball and has probably even expedited the kind of lunacy that we are seeing in the free agent markets, where traditional skills and measures of success, such as ERA and W-L records and ability to play in crucial games–and, possibly even more importantly, the traditional aesthetics and grace and charisma of the game–seem to have become weirdly unattached to market value.
Thus, we have the MBA Moneyball baseball of Brian Cashman and Theo Epstein and and J.P. Ricciardi and Ken Williams and Billy Beane, followed by unimaginable wealth for the likes of Esteban Loaiza and Jeff Suppan and Gil Meche.
Now we learn that Beane has recently been named to the Board of Directors of NetSuite, Inc., a company interested in applying Beane’s strategy for allegedly "using the power of statistics in building a winning baseball franchise (and) trying his approach with a fast-growing software company."
I say ALLEGEDLY because there is a big difference between ‘profitable’, which the A’s definitely are, and ‘winning’, which in the case of the A’s–who have come close but have not won a title under Beane–is a debatable adjective.
A Letter From SOBR
I recently received a letter from Adolph Cacciatorre, the chair person of SOBR (The Society for Oldetyme Baseball Reporting) that contained an interesting proposal. The Sobermetricians would like to see all statistics normally displayed at MLB parks removed, with the exception of the score (runs), balls and strikes, outs, and innings. Fans would be on their own in watching the game and enjoying its intrinsic beauty and wisdom, claims Cacciatorre.
Another of SOBR’s proposals would remove players’ names from uniforms (a la the Yankees and Dodgers admirable tradition). Of course, there would be no MPH on the scoreboards for the pitchers, so if you need to know how hard Rich Harden is throwing you’ll be bringing your own radar gun.
Scorecards and pencils would be allowed under the proposed rules. Let me know what you think.


1 Anonymous { 01.08.07 at 7:21 pm }

This article was right on point. Keep your opinions coming.

from the only guy who called you ‘ Baby All- aaamerican.

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