Sunday, January 13, 2013

Reluctantly Looking at Cooperstown on a Lazy Sunday

I had no intention of writing about this year’s Baseball Hall of Fame voting. None. Zip, zilch, zero. Felt it was already extensively covered elsewhere, and the comments on other articles I’ve seen approach the insanity that has only been replicated at the bottom of CNN/FoxNews articles about the recent presidential election. Figured I’d find a much better way to spend my time. But then the unthinkable happened; not only did the Baseball Writers Association of America not elect a single candidate to the Hall this year, they also allowed Kenny Lofton to fall completely off the ballot. So with an equal combination of frustration, anger and reluctance, I approached the keyboard late this week to at least get my thoughts down on “paper,” submitted for the world to see. If you’re completely over the Hall debate and have absolutely no interest in discussing or reading about this anymore, I totally understand. Good news is you’re still getting a Lazy one this week, and I’m saving the Hall stuff for the very end so you can pull the ripcord before that point if you’d like. We’re still going to have a nice Sunday chat about Trevor Bauer, Spring Training, and even a little Jeanmar Gomez thrown in for good measure. So whether you’re in for the whole show this week or not, here’s a meandering effort for you to digest with your morning coffee, fresh waffles and crispy bacon on this unseasonably warm Lazy Sunday…

Newly-acquired starting pitcher Trevor Bauer has already had himself a busy 2013. First, he had his new club’s big-league skipper and GM visit him in Texas to have a chat and observe his unique training regime. As if that weren’t stressful enough, the a player who is shy and quiet by his own admission flew to Cleveland to take part in the Indians winter development program, and as a result was put through his paces by the assembled host of media in his first interviews for his new baseball city. As I’ve indicated previously both in this space and on Twitter, I’m all-in on Trevor Bauer and am really looking forward to watching him pitch in an Indians uniform. But part of the reason the Indians were able to acquire the talented youngster was his perceived “weirdness” in the Arizona clubhouse. It got to the point where Bauer actually contacted his D-Backs teammates in the offseason to ask them what he did to rub them the wrong way. So this initial interaction with the cantankerous Cleveland media had the potential to be ugly, or at the very least awkward. Judging by the articles that have been coming out, the complete opposite occurred. Both Anthony Castrovice and Jordan Bastian put out their usual excellent pieces on Bauer, and both had interesting and good things to say about the 21-year old righty. I wrote about my thoughts on Bauer’s issues with the Diamondbacks in a previous Lazy Sunday, so I’m not going to extensively rehash them here. But if you’d like to see some of the…interesting pregame activity that Bauer has become known for, there’s a video embedded into both Castro and Bastain’s articles that are linked above.

Bauer is a bright kid, the son of an engineer who is interested in not only the results but in the raw mechanics of pitching. He’s come right out to say that he’s been somewhat shy all his life, and teammates throughout the years have sometimes mistaken that shyness for arrogance. He’s clearly bothered by that impression, and it seems like he’s really taken steps to identify and mitigate those issues. The bottom line is that if Bauer comes out and pitches effectively, then his personality quirks, unique pre-game and pre-inning warm-up routine will become “colorful” and “fun.” If he struggles, then people will question whether he “needs” to throw long-toss, or crow-hop to fire in his first warm-up toss between innings. I’ll rely on the classic baseball film Bull Durham here, as Crash Davis made his point to Nuke LaLoosh about success allowing for a little extra freedom to be different:

“Your shower shoes have fungus on them. You'll never make it to the bigs with fungus on your shower shoes. Think classy, you'll be classy. If you win 20 in the show, you can let the fungus grow back and the press will think you're colorful. Until you win 20 in the show, however, it means you’re a slob”

This also serves to highlight the Indians much-heralded Winter Development Program, the brainchild of Indians team president Mark Shapiro 18 years ago. The program serves to acclimate some of the top prospects in the organization to the city of Cleveland, Progressive Field, major league training staffs and facilities and of course, dealing with the media. The players that have gone through the program in the past have always given it rave reviews, and it really makes a difference in preparing the prospects to move up the organizational ladder. This year, the players will have an opportunity to interact with GM Chris Antonetti and Terry Francona, and featured speakers will include ESPN’s Buster Olney and…wait for it…Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer. Meyer was actually a pretty good baseball player in his youth, having been drafted out of his Ashtabula high school in the 13th round by the Braves back in 1982. Meyer played just two years of professional baseball, never making it out of Rookie ball and posting a career OPS of just .585 in 110 at bats. So Meyer’s presentation will hopefully be more motivational than batting practice. Participating in the program this year are 1B Jesus Aguilar, RHP Shawn Armstrong, C/1B Yan Gomes, RHP Preston Guilmet, RHP Trey Haley, LHP T.J. House, OF Tyler Holt, SS Francisco Lindor, RHP Fabio Martinez, OF Carlos Moncrief, SS Ronny Rodriguez, RHP Danny Salazar, LHP Gio Soto, and SS Tony Wolters. All of those players are going to appear in the top half of my upcoming prospect countdown. Some are still quite a ways away from the MLB roster, but all will benefit from the knowledge and experience gained in the program this offseason.  

In a relatively minor deal earlier this week, the Indians dealt pitcher Jeanmar Gomez to the Pittsburgh Pirates in return for outfield prospect Quincy Latimore. Gomez was designated for assignment to make room for outfielder Nick Swisher, and became expendable after the Brett Myers signing. The soon to be 25-year old Gomez went 5-8 with a 5.96 ERA in 90 2/3 IP for the Indians last year, and has a career WHIP of 1.510 in 206 2/3 big league innings. Gomez is probably most known for throwing a perfect game for AA Akron, and has the upside of a #5 starter in the big leagues. A switch to the NL might help his numbers, but the raw talent just isn’t there for Gomez to be anything more than a rotation filler in the Show. He’s out of options, so if he doesn’t make the Pirates 25-man roster out of spring training then he’ll have to be exposed to waivers again in order to be assigned to Pittsburgh’s minor league system. So if I were Gomez, I wouldn’t exactly start house hunting in the Steel City just yet.

Latimore (not Lattimer) was the Pirates 4th round pick in 2007 out of a North Carolina high school. Last year in his age 23-season, Latimore hit .252/.321/.433 with 15 HR, 71 RBI and 10 SB for AA Altoona. He was repeating the level, and did show a lot of growth from 2011 by improving on his average, OBP, SLG, RBI, SB, BB and cut down his strikeouts from 140 in 2011 to 105 in 2012.  I’d be lying if I told you I knew anything about Latimore prior to this week, so I perused some Pirates blogs to get a flavor of their thoughts on the trade. No one seemed to broken up over losing him, calling him an organizational player and criticizing his approach. Hopefully the drop in strikeouts from 2011 to last year was a trend rather than a one-year aberration, but I’m not exactly penciling Latimore in as the Indians LF of the future. I’d expect him to start in AA Akron next year but have a chance to progress to AAA Columbus fairly quickly if he can get a hot start out of the gates. He’s got intriguing power potential, but will need to cut down on the strikeouts to turn the raw power into more consistent game power.

One of the most exciting days of the year for me is the day I book my annual Spring Training trip. Earlier this week I scheduled my flight, rental car and hotel for Goodyear, and will be down in sunny Arizona from March 21-26 (departing 67 days from today…not that I’m counting). If you’ve never been, I highly recommend it as it’s one of my all-time favorite experiences as a baseball fan. I’ve been three years in a row now, so this upcoming March will by my fourth trip in as many years. There’s as much free baseball as you want if you’re interested in the minor league games, and the lawn seats in the outfield for the MLB games are cheap and plentiful. If anyone else is going to be down during the week I’m there, let me know and we can meet for a pop or two during or after a game.

As promised, we waited till the end to delve into the Hall talk. By its very nature the Hall debate is an extremely subjective one. A player can be a grizzled sportswriter’s Hall of Famer but a sabermatrician’s replacement player and vice versa. Setting aside the Jack Morris/Tim Raines debate for now, I’d like to put one statement out there that I think everyone can agree on; the Baseball Hall of Fame exists to commemorate and record baseball history. There are some players, most notably “Shoeless” Joe Jackson and Pete Rose, who have been banned from baseball for their actions and have been declared ineligible for inclusion into the hallowed grounds of Cooperstown. While there’s debate over whether or not those two players should be eligible, the fact is they are not and no one is allowed to vote for them. With the recent attention (note; not recent USE) on performance enhancing drugs in baseball, there’s another debate raging between sportswriters and fans, this one focusing on whether or not players who have been conclusively linked to the use of performance enhancing drugs should be elected into the Hall of Fame based on their on-field accomplishments. Even worse, there’s a debate as to whether players not conclusively linked to PEDs, but who played in the “PED era” should be voted into the Hall of Fame. This hypocritical self-righteousness of the writers voting for the Hall this year has resulted in zero players reaching the 75% threshold necessary for induction.

Here’s where I come down on the debate (if you haven’t already figured it out); I think that anyone not banned from baseball should be eligible for the Hall of Fame based on their on-field accomplishments. Any player who is conclusively linked to or has admitted to PED use who was good enough on the field to be voted into the Hall should have his PED use appropriately reflected on his HoF plaque, right below his batting average, home runs and on-base percentage. If a player is elected and PED evidence comes to light after the election, just appropriately alter the plaque after the fact. Barry Bonds played the game of baseball, and there’s an argument to be made that he played it better than anyone else, ever. Barry Bonds not having a plaque in the HoF does not change that. He should be in there, with his numbers and PED use accurately reflected. So should Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmerio and others. The baseball writers, commissioner, owners and fans didn’t seem overly concerned about PED use when offense (and revenue) was way up and baseballs were flying out of the park at a record pace. Now everyone wants to step up and act like this was the worst thing since the Black Sox scandal? Keeping these players out of the Hall of Fame does not simply wipe out two decades of baseball. The steroid era happened, like it or not. Plugging our ears, shutting our eyes and holding our breath will not make that go away. If you go to the MLB record book, Barry Bonds still holds the home run records. Mark McGwire still broke the long-standing Roger Maris HR record. Not voting for these players doesn’t make history simply disappear.

If I had a ballot (spoiler alert; I don’t), here’s who would have appeared on my ballot this year:
Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire, Tim Raines, Kenny Lofton, Mike Piazza, Edgar Martinez, Curt Schilling, Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio. Under the current rules, you can’t vote for more than ten players in one year. As I indicated before, I think that Raffy Palmerio and Sammy Sosa deserve votes as well. Alan Trammell would probably get my vote too, and I am right on the line as to whether I’d vote for Larry Walker. But those first ten would have appeared on my ballot in 2013. Of those ten, two (Bonds and McGwire) have been conclusively linked to PED use and Clemens has a lot of evidence out there. Bagwell and Piazza have “suspicions” afloat that have less evidence than my claim to have kissed Kate Upton last week. Biggio, Raines and Lofton are speed/defense type guys who’ve never had a shred of suspicion cast their way, at least as far as I’ve seen. Not one of these players was deemed by the BBWAA as worthy of inclusion into the Hall of Fame at this time. Everyone on the ballot this year ended up being punished by the sanctimonious nature of the voters, whether they used PEDs or not. Biggio, Raines, Lofton…some holier than thou voters couldn’t even be bothered to vote for the clean players, because so many had to make a “statement” by sending in a blank ballot. I suppose that if one says “I’m a smug, pompous SOB who bought into the steroid era when it was taking place but now feel the need to retroactively punish everyone who dared play baseball in the 1990’s so people will pay attention me” is a statement, then mission accomplished.

Grantland’s Jonah Keri, far away my favorite Canadian sportswriter, posted a great piece about the Hall voting that I agree with 100%. If you’re interested in the process and how it could (and should) be changed, I highly recommend reading this entire article. I’m not going to sit here and rehash all of Keri’s points, but I’m glad someone with a national voice is pointing out the serious flaws in both the voters and the voting process. Listen, I love the Hall of Fame. Cooperstown is a wonderful little town that I visited with my parents and younger brothers back in high school, and it was my all-time favorite family vacation. I want to take my kids there someday, and I think every baseball fan would enjoy at least one trip to the hallowed grounds at some point in their lives. But this raises a larger point; the Hall is in danger. It lost over $2 million last year, and has lost money in 8 of the last 10 years. The city’s economy revolves around the Hall, and induction weekend is a big part of that economy. This year, there will be no induction weekend. Astros, Expos, Yankees, Giants and Red Sox fans will not descend on the small city in New York to pay homage to the heroes of their youth. That doesn’t help the Hall, much the opposite. The selfishness of the voters is making the Hall less relevant, not more, and that’s a concern.

This all brings us to the real impetus for this article, which is the fact that Kenny Lofton garnered less than 5% of the vote (he appeared on just 3.2% of ballots) and is thus removed from future Hall of Fame ballots. Lofton was one of my favorite players growing up, and I truly consider myself lucky to have watched him play in his prime. Having a front row seat, whether at the sold-out Jake or glued to my TV set, to see Lofton’s spectacular catches and overall effect on opposing pitchers once he reached first base was a treat. He was a superb athlete who played at an elite level for the better part of a decade, and was a more productive player late in his career than most people give him credit for. Watching him lay the bat down on home plate and stride confidently to first base after a walk, knowing he’d be able to stretch that base on balls into at least a double. Seeing him use the pad on the bullpen door in CF as a step on a ladder like it was designed for him to rob a home run. I’ll admit that my Lofton vote is a bit of a homer vote, but it’s not like I’m stumping for Andy Allanson here. Lofton has a legitimate case as a Hall of Famer, and I’ll again rely on Grantland’s Jonah Keri (as an independent observer) to provide the explanation. Keri wrote two articles that touched on Lofton’s candidacy, and I’ll cut and paste from them both here for your convenience:
Kenny Lofton: Yes, seriously, that Kenny Lofton. The well-traveled center fielder was a wildly underrated player throughout his career for having Tim Raines starter kit skills during an era in which those abilities were an afterthought. Lofton is one of four modern-era players with 1,500 or more runs scored who's not in the Hall (Rafael Palmeiro, Bagwell, and yes, Raines are the others). He ranks 15th all time with 622 steals, swiping those bags at an excellent success rate a shade under 80 percent. He hit .299/.372/.423 lifetime, and played fantastic defense at a premium position in center field, whether you prefer advanced stats or traditional measures (four Gold Gloves). As with Raines, few monster seasons stand out. Instead, you have a multi-year stretch of excellence, in Lofton's case the first three full seasons of his career, which netted nearly seven wins per year (he hit an outrageous .349/.412/.536 and stole 60 bases in just 112 games during the strike-shortened 1994 season). Lofton slots in nicely among the best center fielders of all time, just a shade below Duke Snider and above the likes of Richie Ashburn and Andre Dawson. He has no chance in hell of induction anytime soon. But he's got my vote.
-----snip----
…starting with the one player who got the biggest screw job of all.
Kenny Lofton (3.2 percent of the vote): Any player who receives less than 5 percent of the vote gets kicked off the ballot. Not only did Lofton warrant more time on the ballot, but he also had a legitimate case for induction. As I wrote in a ballot breakdown, Lofton was one of the most prolific base stealers of all time, an on-base machine who played superb defense at a premium position in center field, had an early-career peak in which he produced MVP-caliber numbers, and slots in just below Duke Snider among all-time center fielders, ranking just a hair below average for center fielders already in the Hall. Like Lou Whitaker and Kevin Brown before him, Lofton's been chucked out of the running after just getting started.


If you’d like a more local perspective, Bastain (who’s not a Cleveland fan, just the beat writer from MLB), wrote a piece on his blog where he started out against Kenny’s candidacy, but ended up convincing himself that he deserved enshrinement after all. Lofton was punished for merely playing in the steroid era, and probably also for his less than friendly attitude to the media in general. If Lofton acted like Sean Casey and provided writers with better soundbites, I have no doubt he’d have garnered enough votes to at least appear on the 2014 ballot. One only need look to the never-ending lovefest towards accused double murderer Ray Lewis in Baltimore to see how friendly the media will treat a player who talks to them and provides interesting copy. The Baltimore and national media virtually ignored the issue while fawning over him after #52 announced his retirement, and the “best linebacker in history” will slide right into a job with the Worldwide Leader when his Ravens lose in the playoffs this year. But a guy like Lofton, who didn’t fall all over himself to cater to the every demand of sportswriters across the country, is punished for it.

I’ll even trot out the Mazeroski argument here; if Bill Mazeroski, noted primarily for his defense, is in the Hall of Fame then how can Kenny Lofton not be? Lofton was a great defender at one of the most important positions in the game and was a FAR superior offensive player to Mazeroski. Don’t believe me? Maz never posted an OPS of higher than .747. 747! His career high in OPS+ was 97.  If you’re not familiar with OPS+, it’s a stat that is normalized so that 100 is league average. This isn’t meant to inflame folks to march on Cooperstown in an effort to de-induct (is that a word?) Mazeroski, only to point out that Lofton has a legitimate case on his defensive credentials alone based on those who were inducted before him. I didn’t think Lofton would be a first-ballot Hall of Famer (not that there should be a distinction between first and second ballot guys, but whatever). I also didn’t think he’d get less than 5% of the vote and fall off the ballot entirely. He was a star in his day who has somehow become unappreciated after his retirement, possibly because he bounced around the league towards the end of his career and didn’t stay in one city for a significant period of time other than Cleveland. It’s a shame, but I still feel grateful for having been able to enjoy his exploits on the diamond for as long as I did.

Just to re-emphasize a point here, I’m not looking for an argument or intense debate about whether PED users should be admitted into the Hall of Fame. I’m not even looking to argue about whether guys like Lofton or Raines or Jack Morris have the stats to grace the hallowed halls. If you’re still with us here at this point of the article, I appreciate your interest in my point of view on the subject, and I’m aware and appreciate that your opinion may be 180 degrees from mine on the subject. The beauty of the Hall debate is that it is subjective, and there’s no “right” way to approach it. This article simply served to put my stream of consciousness on the subject out there for all to see, and I hope that if you disagree that we’re still friends. So with that out of the way, let’s look towards equipment trucks, pitchers and catchers reporting and other signs that spring has arrived, because believe it or not, opening day is less than three months away!


5 comments:

Roger Mazzarella said...

I thought that Tom Verducci over at SI ran an excellent column on why these guys need to be kept out of the HOF - addressing all the made-up supporting excuses (but everybody was doing it, we all turned a blind eye -really?) Every LEGIT major leaguer paid then and will continue to pay now and in the future (read: Kenny Lofton) because the only thing those steroid clowns were thinking about was THEIR bottom line. And don't forget - we the fans are paying for their drug habit (read: David Ortiz and the rest of the Red Sox juicers in 2007) as well. Not to mention paying the multi-million dollar salaries of .250 hitters, salaries inflated by the impossible "achievements" of the roid heads.
Not only that - with Stan Musial's passing - the whole "argument" of putting frauds like Clemmons, Bonds and A Rodriguez in the same county, let alone the same hall as Musial really sticks in my craw.
Every single day I work with college athletes. How am I supposed to keep them following a true sportsman model when they see those cheats not only get their big payday - but also honored "as the best examples of the game they played"?

Roger Mazzarella said...

By the way - we are still friends. I truly appreciate that you do this blog. It is a gift, particularly in the off-season when I (and many others) sorely need a baseball fix. I appreciate your insight and the depth of baseball knowledge on both the Indians and baseball in general.

hawk1228 said...

I agree with you Roger about players setting the bar in terms of salary while playing the game with the help of PED's I feel it has hurt teams in our market more than anything. Sabathia's was determined to get Zito type money, Zito although never publicly has been associated with any PED's, had that huge year before free agency and hasn’t come close to that again. One has to wonder and also one has to wonder had it not been for that contract, would CC have accepted what we were willing to offer. But with all that said, I still believe baseball needs to set the guidelines for this era of time. It should not be in the writers hands to determine who did and who didn’t cheat. All one has to do is look at the stats of today and even more so of the stats of this year now that baseball has been more aggressive in what they are testing for, and compare age of players and statistics or what type of stats that player was putting up and see if there is any drastic change (Kevin Mitchell, Paul Loduca, Brady Anderson,) to get somewhat of an idea to what was happening during that time. Not that there is anyone close to the caliber of a pitcher similar to Greg Maddux, but I can't recall a 42 year old pitcher throwing 195 innings as Maddux did. Nor am I suggesting that Maddux was doing anything to prolong his career, but I am questioning to how we can differentiate the difference, and if the writers are the ones who should be making those decisions. A player like Kenny Lofton who never really had any spike in his numbers or change in his body mass, and stats declined with his age, and putting up numbers that are hall worthy is more of a tragedy to this era than trying to determine who cheated the game.

Al Ciammaichella said...

Thanks Roger, I appreciate the kind words. I see the Hall as a baseball history museum, and like it or not, the steroid era is part of baseball history. That's the main reasoning behind my point of view, but I definitely see how people could disagree.

Totally see your point as well, hawk. It's a shame that we even have to have this discussion, and wish the whole thing had just gone differently.

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