Friday, December 28, 2012

A think piece on the Hanrahan trade

1) This looks like a salary dump.
Dejan Kovacevic quite explicitly stated that he thinks it is. And there's great logic to back that notion, what with Neal Huntington doling out extravagant contracts to extraterrestrial walk machine Francisco Liriano and slow-fuse time bomb Russell Martin, on top of handing Charlie Morton $2 million for what will probably amount to a half-season's worth of rehab starts. The Pirates could afford to pay Hanrahan the $7 million he'd probably be awarded in arbitration, but that's not how they do business, so they have to offset some payroll. In a vacuum, I agree with the idea that it's not wise to drop $7 million for one year of Joel Hanrahan at this stage of the game. But the fact of the matter is that if the Pirates were interested in getting good return on Hanrahan, they would have traded him in either of the previous two offseasons, like we here at FTC have been straight up shouting for them to do. Franco said it in June of 2011. I said it a month later. I made a specific request earlier this year, too. I don't think the Pirates could have done much better in trying to move a 31-year-old relief pitcher who is due $7 million after spending all of last season in marriage counseling with his slider, as his BB/9 rates returned to normal after two solid years.

2) There's a bigger problem here.
Something I don't think I've seen called to attention in all of the wretched, knee-jerk analysis of this trade is that when the Pirates acquired Hanrahan from Washington, they bought low on him. That used to be something we talked about a lot around here. The Pirates bought low and sold high. In that deal, they sold high on Nyjer Morgan and Sean Burnett -- and everyone freaked the fuck out because they traded the quirky lunatic with the weird eyebrows -- and bought low on Hanrahan and Lastings Milledge (one quirky lunatic begets another). People here thought of Hanrahan as a throw-in when that deal went down, but a cursory glance at his major league strikeout numbers and pedigree (second-round draft pick, 9.4 K/9) suggested that the flaw in his game (5.1 BB/9) was something the Pirates thought they could fix. And for two years, they did. Between 2010 and 2011, Hanrahan's K/9 stayed steady, but his BB/9 fell to 2.7 over that two-year period. That's an astonishing drop. Now I'm clearly on-record as stating that Neal Huntington is a stupid asshole who needs to be fired, but let's give credit where credit's due: someone in the Pirates' front office looked at Joel Hanrahan and said to Huntington, "get this guy," and Huntington listened.

The methodology I used to believe existed in the Pirates' front office breaks down, in this case, when the Pirates repeatedly neglected to sell high on Joel Hanrahan. Relief pitching might be the single most expensive commodity in baseball. Teams overpay for it like mad, and the absurd contracts teams continuously give to closers are evidence of this. A strong closer can fetch you a princely sum, either at the deadline or in the off-season. Were the Pirates interested in keeping with the methodology of replacing expensive pieces with younger, cost-controlled talent the club could retain for multiple years, Hanrahan would have been traded a long time ago. That's how savvy teams operate. By that same token, it's not as though there are no other strong-armed relievers doing battle with their breaking pitches who might benefit from changes of scenery out there. The Pirates need to do a better job of finding and acquiring that next guy. For a front office that's done such a good job of putting together quality bullpens out of rubber bands, bits of cyanide and scotch tape, I can't imagine why they'd hesitate to trade a high-value, totally replaceable piece like Hanrahan if it meant addressing more pressing needs, such as, say, finding anyone at all who can hit.

3) A quick note on the relevance of closers
Hey, how about a holiday metaphor? Closers are the Santa Claus of baseball.

Generally speaking, I agree with the argument that closers aren't as important as they seem. As evidence, I cite that every baseball game played from the beginning of time until the save became an official statistic in 1969, all ended. Just as Christmas somehow existed long before Santa Claus.

The gist of it is this: if you, are good, but not so good as to lead by more than three runs with one inning left in the game, or less than one inning left in the game and ahead with the tying run either on base, at bat or on deck, an overweight man with terrifying facial hair and job-specific music will appear out of left field (or left-center) in a cart driven by a team employee who might sometimes be dressed as an animal. The special man will come and help you win the ball game. If you're up by more than three runs and these conditions don't apply, congratulations. You have learned the true meaning of baseball, which you find to be reward enough itself, invalidating all the extraneous window dressing.

That said, I don't think having a closer is a gross misuse of resources, nor do I think it's out of the question to pay extra for a closer if your team is close to contending. Players develop roles on teams, and that's become a big one in baseball. 

4) Grading the trade
The Pirates give:
  • Joel Hanrahan, a likable chap of considerable heft whose goatee and exploits are well-documented
  • Brock Holt, who, even on the day he walks his only daughter down the aisle to give her away to a successful doctor or lawyer or future Nobel Laureate, will probably still wish he was two-thirds as good as Daniel Descalso (.245/.318/.337)
The Pirates get:
  • Jerry Sands, a 25-year-old 1B/OF who went to the Red Sox from the Dodgers in the biggest payroll dump of all-time, and whose minor-league numbers, lack of big-league playing time and overall background make me think he's the second coming of Andy LaRoche
  • Mark Melancon, a 27-year-old right-handed reliever who was terrible last year, but whose peripherals suggest that he's a pretty good bounce-back candidate for 2013 -- a more than serviceable replacement for Chris Resop, who could also close if Grilli falters.
  • Stolmy Pimental, a 22-year-old righty starter whose stock as a prospect has shriveled since Neal Huntington tried to get him in the Jason Bay deal in 2008 -- real eye for talent, that Neal -- and who has spent the last two full seasons pitching in Double-A. For those of you unfamiliar with how the minor leagues work, two years in Double-A is shit-or-get-off-the-pot territory for prospects.
  • Ivan de Jesus, Jr., a scrub utility player who will forever fight to escape the shadow of his father's career .649 OPS
Official FTC TradeGrade: Whatever.

Friday, December 21, 2012

FTC Scouting report on Francisco Liriano

The Pirates have agreed to contract terms with LHP Francisco Liriano on a two-year deal worth a reported $14 million.

I saw Liriano pitch before his first Tommy John surgery. Until Stephen Strasburg came along, I'd never seen any pitcher at any level with better stuff. In a repertoire of four or five pitches, he threw a fastball at 96 miles an hour that danced all over the strike zone. Those days are long gone.

Here's the current scouting report on Francisco Liriano:
1) He will walk or strike out every hitter.
2) Every ball in play he allows is a home run.
3) Control is an illusion.

I've always had a bit of a soft spot for Liriano as a player. His stuff is amazing, and he's kind of a headcase. I don't even dislike the length of this contract. But to give a 29-year-old lefty who walks five guys a game $14 million strikes me as weirdly desperate, especially with guys like Chris Leroux, Kyle McPherson and Jeff Locke -- all younger, all cost-controlled and all with substantially lower walk rates -- at the ready, this seems strange. Ostensibly, Liriano is a shorter, crazier Oliver Perez. I don't hate the signing, but I don't think it makes any particular sense. This guy can be fun to watch and he has a reputation for being kind of a hothead, but he's not very reliable, and he walks a ton of hitters.

Whatever. I'm sure the Pirates and their mental conditioning can whip Franky into shape.

Too Much Homework Makes Me Sick

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Lies and more lies

In attempting to answer my question about Kyle Stark and Larry Broadway's lack of qualifications and experience, Neal Huntington said that Mitch Lukevics, Tampa Bay's director of player development, had little or no prior experience before taking that job.

Here's the account of it on the Pirates' official site:

For instance, one gentleman cited the apparent contradiction of stressing player-development yet having it run by two men -- assistant GM Kyle Stark and Larry Broadway, director of Minor League operations -- "with no experience in player development."
After defending the qualifications of Stark and Broadway, Huntington asked the fan for his choice of MLB's best player-development program. When he quickly picked Tampa Bay, Huntington said, without skipping a beat, "Mitch Lukevics, who runs their system, had no prior experience with that. Some people have training in their background, others get very good at it on the job."
Here's a quick look at Mitch Lukevics's professional history:
Mitch has spent 38 years in professional baseball as a pitcher, coach and Minor League administrator.  He has been Tampa Bay’s Director of Minor League Operations for the past seven seasons, overseeing one of the most productive Minor League systems in baseball. 
Lukevics joined the then expansion Tampa Bay Devil Rays in November 1995.  During his 17 years with the club, he has also been a pitching coach (1996) and the Assistant to Player Development and Scouting (1997-2005).
Mitch was a second round draft pick of the Chicago White Sox in 1975 and pitched six seasons in their Minor League system.  He was released as a player and hired as a coach by the White Sox on the same day in Spring Training 1981.  Lukevics spent the next four seasons as a pitching coach in their system. Following the 1985 season, Mitch moved into Chicago’s front office as the Minor League Administrator. 
After 14 years with the White Sox, Lukevics then worked from 1989 through 1995 as the Director of Minor League Operations for the New York Yankees. 
So, yeah. He had basically no experience when he joined the Rays in 1997, except for his first 22 years -- six as a player, four as a coach, and then another 12 years in various front offices.  No real experience.

Agitate, agitate, agitate

Bob Cohn of the Trib wrote it up straight, which is kind of a shame, because I've always wanted to claim my quotes were "taken out of context" so that I could apologize "if I offended anyone."

The Pirates‘ controversial Navy SEALS training program for its minor-league players escaped mention during season-ticket holders‘ questions to team management Friday at PirateFest. But then there was Saturday‘s Q&A at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center open to the so-called “general fans.”

One of them, Matthew Wein, 30, of Pittsburgh, raised the point while challenging the qualifications and expertise of assistant general manager Kyle Stark and director of player development Larry Broadway. Among his questions and comments, Wein cited “the techniques these guys are using in the minors, the militaristic garbage to train baseball players.”

In hindsight, I should have pressed with specifics on the year-round activities, like lugging telephone poles up and down beaches. My secondary goal, though, was to raise the issue without appearing confrontational or excessively interrupting anyone's answering of questions. Again, I think it worked because Greg Brown never cut me off. And I think I succeeded in my primary goal, which was to keep from appearing as the full-blown lunatic that I am.

In the face of widespread criticism, Pirates owner Bob Nutting last month said the program would be discontinued. But with the subject raised again, general manager Neal Huntington again was put on the defensive, explaining the motives and concepts behind the program. The Pirates are committed “to the best physical, best mental, best personal development we can get,” he said. “So if borrowing from the elite of the elites is a bad thing, I‘m puzzled by that.”

The scariest part of this quote is that Huntington believes every word of it.

Huntington asserted that “130 collegiate and Olympic teams have gained valuable insight, gained valuable experience from the Navy SEALS. We‘re not alone in our belief that these techniques work. As a matter of fact, these are the scientifically proven techniques that help young men grow, that help young men develop.”

Scientifically proven. By science, using science. Which is why being roused from your bed at 3 a.m. to conduct a scavenger hunt is a healthy part of every great ballplayer's game.

Later, unprompted, Pirates president Frank Coonelly also defended the training methods.

The full quote Coonelly used here was, "We'll never apologize for any affiliation with the U.S. military in our mental conditioning. That said, we don't have any actual SEALS involved, just their techniques."

Brennan and I discussed this as we were leaving the convention center, and he made a pretty apt comparison to CrossFit, which he calls a "cult of injury." Doing a lot of any physical activity will get you in shape. But if you're not smart about it, you're going to get hurt. You can turn into an absolute monster of a person by getting a part-time job moving pool tables, but if you're training to run a marathon, that's not the kind of thing you want to be doing. Your body will fail you. These guys are professional athletes. Their training regimens should be very specifically tailored to the sport they play because their bodies are their most important assets. Not only is it nonsensical to have them doing military-style training, it's straight up detrimental. The catastrophic injury rates for actual Navy SEALS in training is absurdly high, and those guys are training to be SEALS. 

And don't even bother trying to question Brennan's credentials on this; not only is he in amazing shape, but yesterday, he bought and immediately changed into Jose Tabata's pants.

After Huntington‘s answer, Wein left the microphone uttering “Hoka Hey,” the infamous calling card of the controversy taken from a motivational email sent by Stark.

/drops mic

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Pirates management is above you and not afraid to remind you of it

The annual management Q&A took place at PirateFest today. A few notes:
I went in with a list of ten questions. My thinking was that I would pick one based on the nature and tone of the conversation set by those who asked questions ahead of me. 

A gentleman from Kentucky who was two spots ahead of me in line asked a series of questions about player development as it relates to the Pirates' fundamental failures at the big-league level. Neal Huntington answered this question by stating that a lot of the Pirates' players in both the majors and minors had come from other teams' development systems, and that the Pirates weren't responsible for their development. I was tweeting at the time and didn't get the quote verbatim. If anyone has it, please post it in the comments.

Once more: Neal Huntington blamed other teams for how crappy the Pirates players are. 

Apropos of that, when it was my turn, I went with a question about said development: Neither Kyle Stark nor Larry Broadway have any background in developing baseball players at any level. What makes either of them qualified for the jobs they hold?

Huntington simply started out by defending Stark and Broadway, then weaved his way into rambling nonsense for a minute or so. He defended Stark's baseball background, citing his few years with Cleveland's organization. This happens to be be Stark's only baseball experience, unless you count playing college volleyball, which I don't. 

Huntington went onto extol the professional virtues of Larry Broadway, a career minor-leaguer who serves as the director of minor league operations. In doing so, Huntington seemed to make a pseudo-logical jump from my questioning Stark's qualifications to the notion that I did so because Stark had never played organized baseball. I'd said no such thing -- in fact, I don't even recall thinking it. But that didn't stop Neal from telling me that one didn't need to have a baseball background in order to be successful in baseball. He then defended Broadway's qualifications by saying that he'd played professionally. Yes.

Huntington then said that Broadway might be more qualified for a baseball job than he himself is, simply by virtue of having played. I'd say this is where he lost me, but I'd be lying. It was long before that. He also mentioned that Broadway is a very smart guy who attended Duke University.

"Did he study player development?" I asked.

Huntington scoffed and made an uncertain reference to Bill Belichick, then asked me which team I thought had the best minor league system. I said Tampa Bay. I don't actually have opinion on the matter, and I don't rank minor league systems. But I could have said I thought the Cubs did, and he would have used the opportunity the same way: to name the guy who runs player development for the organization I selected, then by saying that even that guy had to start somewhere.

I followed up by asking if player development didn't warrant a greater allocation of resources, and would it not behoove the Pirates to spend some money on pursuing established professionals? He danced around that one, too.

That's about when the crowd got sick of the conversation. A few people started shouting "next question!" But Greg Brown, who was nominally serving as moderator, let it go on and made no effort to advance the program. By the same token, Huntington's tone in responding to me was so defensive and he had so much he seemed to want to say, that he didn't appear to want to cut me off, either.

During the final segment of the back-and-forth, I brought up what I called "this military garbage." Huntington said that it was about mental toughness, and was "scientifically proven" to work. He rambled some more insanity about it, and I took one step away from the microphone to indicate to Greg Brown that I was going to hear out Huntington's answer, then go sit down. Huntington talked about how all sorts of organizations use military training, completely glossing over the militaristic culture which Bob Nutting had to acknowledge existed in the first place so that he could order it ceased. 

When Huntington finished, I took one step back toward the mic, said "Hoka Hey" to the gentlemen on stage, and walked right back to my seat.

A few minutes later, a fan who described himself as statistically inclined referenced WAR and asked Huntington where he thought the Pirates were going to get the 20 or so other wins the need to be competitive. Huntington referenced Fangraphs, but said that the organization has its own internal metrics for player evaluation, and then said, "We're not trying to get to 98 wins." Again, I was tweeting and didn't get the entire quote verbatim, but that had my jaw on the floor. The goal, he said, was somewhere in the mid-80s.

We all look at the same peripherals. The Pirates were overperforming last year when they were 16 games over .500, and Huntington knew that. But I'd bet anything that if someone had asked of last year's collapse, "Did you guys see this coming?" They would have either flatly denied it or turned it over to Hurdle, who would have made told an anecdote about a truck stuck in the mud or some such nonsense.

Later on, seemingly eager to speak, Frank Coonelly brought the military training aspect back up, gestured toward me and referred to me by name as having called it "military garbage." He then lied to everyone in the room when he said that the training took place over a three-day period and ONLY over a three-day period -- which can only technically true if the retired Navy SEALS were only there for three days. The very direct implication, though, was that this was not year-round practice. All of the reporting on the subject contradicts that notion.

Coonelly then went for the aggressive, shameless pander, saying that the United States military is a wonderful organization and that we're all proud of them, and that nobody should feel shame for associating with the military. In effect, the Pirates are training players for a 162-game war -- a comparison Coonelly actually made. I can't imagine a more back-handed compliment to actual soldiers.

He topped it off by directly insinuating that I was an unpatriotic asshole for questioning the Pirates training methods, and said he would never apologize for associating with an organization as great as our country's armed forces. That drew a frightening amount of applause.

Moments later, Hurdle suggested that evidence the Pirates were getting better was obvious from the changes in the nature of fans' complaints. More pandering in the form of congratulating the fans for their loyalty was stomach turning.

The rest of the session saw no pointed questions about the Pirates player development, draft strategy, free agent acquisitions, trades, or anything else. The most commonly asked question was along the lines of "what are you going to do to get better?" and it was answered, time and again, "we're going to play better." Several people expressed great satisfaction with the signing of Russell Martin, and an equal number of people began their time at the mic by thanking the management team for being so great. 

In summary, Huntington was defensive, Coonelly was aggressive and Hurdle was running for mayor.

It was disgusting and sycophantic, and I'm shocked that no other angry fans turned out to voice their displeasure. Free tickets to PirateFest, just like free tickets to Pirates games, are not difficult to come by. I know there are people out there as angry about this as I am. What's it going to take for you sons of bitches to get mad enough to look these guys in the eye and tell them you don't approve of their bullshit? 

Questions for Pirates management

1. One thing you guys have done very well the last few years is fashion effective bullpens from minor league free agents and spare parts. That said, is it wise to tie up $10 million in payroll in two relief pitchers?

2. As a statistically inclined fan, I pay attention to peripheral numbers, such as xFIP and BABIP, and how players' performances match up against their historical numbers. I know you guys are aware of and pay attention to that stuff, too. All those numbers say that this team was madly overperforming in mid-July last year, and that a collapse was possible, if not inevitable. Did you guys see this coming?

3. Would switching Starling Marte and Andrew McCutchen in the outfield both help to save runs and preserve Cutch's body?

4. Is the marginal improvement of a Martin/McKenry duo over a McKenry/Sanchez duo worth $8.5 million a year? And why do you feel that Tony Sanchez, despite being 24 and posting good minor league walk rates, is not major league ready?

5.Neither Kyle Stark nor Larry Broadway have any background in developing baseball players at any level. What makes either of them qualified for the jobs they hold? 

6. The military methods you allow your development staff to employ have drawn a lot of criticism over the last few months. Do you feel that developing baseball players is overrated?

7. Neal, in September, you said, "There are a lot of really good baseball people in the industry who feel very differently than our fans do about what we‘re accomplishing.” By what standard does that not constitute your calling everyone in this room too stupid to understand "what you're accomplishing?"

8. Clint, what if any stock do you put into what Dan Fox has to say?

9. Why should anyone here believe anything you say or do?

10. Neal, as I'm sure you're aware, there is little to no meaningful correlation between pitcher performance and the individual who catches the game.  Why have you tolerated, and in some cases promoted, the nonsense that a guy's ability to "handle a staff" is of value towards winning?

Monday, December 10, 2012

Turnovers are overrated

I'm ready to call this one. It's time to blow up the Steelers defense and start over. Here's a list of the guys I keep: Cam Heyward, Steve McLendon, Keenan Lewis, Cortez Allen

The defense is really what has kept the Steelers viable for as long as they have been the last eight or so years, while the offense has been kind of an all-or-nothing proposition since Ken Whisenhunt left. We've covered this. In previous seasons when we've seen Ben Roethlisberger miss games due to suspensions or ouchies, the Steelers have emerged no worse for the wear because they've had stellar defenses and capable, short-term replacement quarterbacks. Now, they have neither. And to posit that the Steelers' record would be two games better now than it would be if they had Matt Moore or Jason Campbell or the decaying carcass of Donovan McNabb in there is to neglect the fact that this team lost to Tennessee (4-9), Oakland (3-10) and San Diego (5-8). And that's not even counting what should be considered a bad loss to Cleveland (5-8), who gets the benefit of the doubt for being a division opponent with a stacked front seven.

This isn't about Dick LeBeau being too old or the game passing him by or anything like that. LeBeau is a well-deserved Hall-of-Famer whose credentials as a player, coach and innovator are impeccable and well-chronicled. But the defense is old. The players on the defense are old. The base 3-4 the Steelers run is a very difficult defense to staff, and over the last several drafts, they've done a shitty job of restocking. On top of that, they way LeBeau has adjusted the defensive approach has seen them all but completely give up on trying to pressure the quarterback, and focused on tackling the catch. That's why the Steelers don't force turnovers and have ceased to be as a disruptive force. Organized chaos is no longer on the menu. I don't necessarily think the Steelers need to abandon the 3-4, move to the 4-3, or adopt some kind of amoeba hybrid like a lot of teams are using, but it's clear this iteration of the Steelers defense is a conservative one which lacks depth on the line, at linebacker and -- in a big way -- at safety. The defense needs a major facelift. That said, LeBeau should hop on the boat for Valinor and let LB coach Keith Butler, who has turned down job offers each of the last three offseasons to stay in Pittsburgh with the idea that he would ultimately succeed LeBeau, finally succeed LeBeau.

Ben Roethlisberger is 30 years old and takes a pretty steady stream of physical abuse. How long a window of time do the Steelers have to win another Super Bowl with Roethlisberger at the helm? Four years is realistic. Five is generous. As Ben ages, the guys chasing him don't. The rest of the league doesn't. The Steelers are about two years away -- certainly no more -- from needing to start looking for Ben's replacement. What's allowed the Steelers to succeed so much since drafting Roethilsberger -- apart from the man himself -- is that when he took over the starting job, the defense was ready to go. Half the football team was already built to compete.

The Steelers offense isn't in terrible shape. There's good depth on the offensive line. They have one of the game's best young centers, a solid guard and a guard prospect, and a couple of interesting project players at tackle. Their tight end is the best balanced one in the game. One capable running back and one more receiver and this is a solid unit. If the Steelers begin the rebuild the defense now, they'll not only maximize Roethlisberger's remaining years, they'll set themselves up to succeed immediately once they're ready to transition from Ben to whomever's next. This needs to happen.

  • Heath Miller and Keenan Lewis are the only guys on this team who are pulling their weight week-to-week, and they're unquestionably the team's MVPs. If I gave a shit, I'd suggest the Steelers give them both Week 17 off, and have all the other players chip in and get them gift certificates to some really nice restaurants or something. Let them take their wives or girlfriends or parents or whomever to nice dinners. And yes, I feel like an appropriate reward for playing football well should be that you don't have to play football any more than absolutely necessary.
  • 2012 has been a terrible year for music. I have a friend with whom I always exchange end-of-the-year best-of lists, and when I went to start making mine this year last week, I struggled to come up with 30 songs I even liked this year. Five albums is going to be a chore.
  • A word to people who drive around with giant menorahs strapped to the roofs of their cars: stop it. The people who do this want to have it both ways. Anyone who puts a giant menorah on top of a car is observant enough to know that Hanukkah is the most ostensibly meaningless holiday on the entire Jewish calendar. The bastardized version of Hanukkah people celebrate today has nothing to do with historical or religious relevance and everything to do with Jews feeling left out whenever Christmas comes around. Knowing this full well, they're taking that holiday and assigning undue importance to it because 1) they don't like feeling excluded, but 2) they also don't like the thought of driving down the street without obnoxiously reminding people that not everyone celebrates some religious, secular, cultural or commercial iteration of Christmas. In essence, they're saying, "I want to be included in all this, but how dare you include me?" It also strikes me as madly hypocritical that the most religious faction among a people -- the ones dead-set on not assimilating -- would falsely augment the importance of a totally arbitrary holiday for the purpose of feeling less left out -- which, let's face it, is what they're doing.
  • I'm going to let you all in on a lunch meat secret. The Santa Fe Turkey in the deli at Giant Eagle is unreal. On top of that, it's lower in salt than nearly other lunch meat typically found at said deli counter, and it's not terribly expensive. It's flavorful, zesty and spicy, but not too spicy. I like to go with a few slices of that on whole wheat toast with lettuce, tomato, a slice of provolone and a few dashes of hot sauce.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Sports columnists are the only Americans who have any respect for human life

What's the first thing you thought when you heard that Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher murdered his girlfriend, then drove to Arrow Stadium to do himself in?

If you're one to see the bigger picture -- the NFL's ongoing narrative of neglecting mental illness, brain damage and the warning signs thereof, you probably had the same thoughts I did.

Oh man, there's another one.

For whatever it's worth, one of Jovan Belcher's friends got in touch with Deadspin, which posted on this very topic earlier today. To wit:

We asked about the concussion, alcohol, and prescription medication mentioned above: 
When it comes to prescription medication it is unclear from my perspective whether it was diagnosed and authorized by the team or not. However I know he was under the influence of narcotics for pain and I'm sure the toxicology report will reflect this. However, Jovan drank ALOT. On a nightly basis. This is not a mystery as he did so in public and private. 
When it comes to his concussions; if you review the footage of the Cincinnati game he took a few hits to the head directly [...] he was dazed and was suffering from short term memory loss. He could not remember the events that had taken place prior to that game or what he had said to get Kasi to return home.

Nobody who does what this guy did is of sound mind or in possession of all their faculties. I'd go so far as to say that at the time of his actions, this man was mentally ill. I don't think I'm going out on a limb in suggesting that.

Oh, sure it's tragic, too. I'm legally obligated to say that, because if I don't declare that which we all know to be painfully fucking obvious, you can accuse me of condoning murder. But who in their right mind would do that?
 I'm with  on the Jovan Belcher topic. Guy was a dirtbag murderer, not someone to honor.
This popped up on FTC's Twitter feed during the Steelers game yesterday, and I take issue with this because it makes a character judgement of someone who I don't believe was in control of his thoughts or actions. And I said so.
  That's hardly fair. The man was obviously mentally ill. It's not all one or the other.
See, I don't really think that's fair to make character judgments of someone so very obviously brain damaged. I think if you can't make the distinction between someone who kills another person for selfish reasons and a guy whose brain was damaged to the point where it not only shut off his self-preservation instinct but had gone into total self-destruct mode, you don't really understand what you're talking about. And I said as much.

"How can you defend this guy? Your posts are reprehensible!"

My posts remain on our Twitter page, along with these exchanges in their entirety. I'd challenge Cory or anyone else to point out where I defended Belcher or condoned his actions. But that's not the point.

If there's any single thing sports writers love more than crushing the pregame spread in the press box, it's an opportunity, no matter how shaky, to take the moral high ground. This isn't just well-chronicled, it's practically a foundation of the sports blogosphere. You can stand up and condemn this as a senseless act of murder, but then you're not only doing a disservice to the event, to your readers, and to your publication but also to the essence of the issue at hand and to morality on the whole. To ignore the complexity of this event in the name of validating your own overly simplified viewpoint -- namely, that murder is bad -- is not just offensively stupid, it's abjectly selfish.

And because you're so, so sure of how right you are on this one thing, there's no room for discussion of any kind. Yours are the final, definitive words on the topic. Murder is bad, and anyone who does anything other than agree with your second-grade assessment of the circumstance  is automatically wrong, simply by virtue of how right you are. Apart from being small-minded, it creates a false dilemma.

Giger's original issue was that the Chiefs shouldn't have honored Jovan Belcher, either prior to or during this week's game, because a person so terrible deserves no such mention. I'll take that a step further. The Chiefs should not have played their game against the Panthers today.

We see deaths among active athletes from time to time. It happens. I have vivid memories of Joe Girardi, then the Cubs catcher, tearfully announcing to the crowd at Wrigley Field that a game was canceled because of "a tragedy in the Cardinal family," one night in 2003, after Darryl Kile was found dead in his hotel room. The Angels postponed a game after pitcher Nick Adenhart was killed in a car accident in 2009. When Hornets guard Bobby Phils died in a car accident in 2000, the league canceled two of his team's games. These events, and dozens more like them, are all tragic, but they happen. Car accidents happen. People have inexplicable heart attacks or are killed by drunk drivers. People drown. And most of the time, the people affected are lucky enough to just hear about these things happening rather than see them happen.

That isn't the case here. This guy drove to the stadium and shot himself in front of the coach and GM. 

And his team still played today. But why shouldn't they? Why should an incident of senseless violence and gore on the premises prevent people from getting their football? 

The Redskins played the week after Sean Taylor was murdered. If the Broncos had been a playoff team in 2006-07, they'd have played after Darrent Williams was killed. That's football. And that's why it was so ironic and absurd that before he killed himself, Belcher thanked Chiefs Head Coach Romeo Crennel and GM Scott Pioli for all they'd done for him.

The NFL has little more regard for its players than most militaristic despots do for the people they rule over. The league has been extremely lucky up to this point, in that a great many of the players whose brains have initiated self-destruct sequences realized something was wrong. Some of them, like Dave Duerson, have left notes to that effect, while others, such as Junior Seau, have merely gone to the trouble of not shooting themselves in the head so that their brains could be sent to Boston and studied. The NFL is not always going to be so lucky, and Belcher's final actions yesterday show as much.

Giger said the Chiefs shouldn't have recognized Belcher during their game today; that such a horrible dirtball of a person was undeserving of a moment of silence before the game or at halftime. The notion that the Chiefs wouldn't address the fact that the back end of a murder-suicide involving one of their starting linebackers took place at the stadium just a day before is patently absurd. And I guess it is worth mentioning, for the sake of the dimmer-witted, that it's possible to separate a troubled, ill man from behavior over which he had clearly lost control. Giger's brand of self-righteous chest-thumping diverts attention from what should (but probably won't) be the real issue here. Thanks to discourse like this, we don't learn anything, and we don't make any headway into diagnosing or fixing real problems. So you can forget about catching the next Jovan Belcher before he snaps; that's the price we pay for letting self-important reactionaries feel good about themselves.

This noise does accomplish something, though. It allows us to conveniently ignore the width and breadth of the problem. The NFL is more than fine with this because the last thing it wants is a challenge to a status quo which affords it a license to print money on the backs of players who burn out faster and harder than anyone else, and do so without the benefit of guaranteed contracts, serviceable pensions or even so much as a second thought. Our curiosity doesn't extend into which players have secret alcohol and narcotics addictions, and we don't care about a player not receiving medical attention if they don't appear on the injury report -- their inability to remember last week's game has no discernible bearing on the performance of our fantasy teams. We just sit there, feet up, beer in hand, content to begin and end our understanding of the tragedy with "THE VIOLENT BLACK MAN IS BAD."

For Jovan Belcher, who, in the weeks leading up to his end, had been dazed and exhibiting symptoms of severe head trauma, who had been abusing pain pills and alcohol and whose personal life appeared tumultuous at best, only to have all of it go totally neglected until he killed his girlfriend and himself, I'd say a moment of silence before a game is the absolute least anyone could have done. 

As is always the case when dealing with questions of players' health, their safety, their families and their humanity, the least is all Jovan Belcher could reasonably expect, and ultimately, all he got.

Friday, November 2, 2012

FTC's Presidential Endorsement

After careful consideration of all the candidates, their qualifications, their views, positions and accomplishments, FTC is proud to endorse Ike Taylor with this hastily completed photoshop job.
We genuinely do like Ike. He's an excellent defensive back who can cover pretty much anyone competently, has excellent physical skills, and even when he plays poorly, doesn't get discouraged. He picks himself right back up and plays his ass off. In a year where the defense -- particularly the secondary, particularly the safety play -- has been atrocious, that's the kind of leadership we need.

If there's one man who can save this season, fire everyone in the entire Pirates' front office, end the NHL lockout, lower unemployment, revive the middle class, get "Community" back on the air and exile Zooey Deschanel to China, that man is Ike Taylor

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Rod Barajas is dead. Long live Rod Barajas.

Rodrigo Richard Rodriguez Barajas Rodriguez Dominguez y Tu Mamá También
"That Asshole"
1975 - 2012

Sic transit gloria adipem qui adprehendit Mexicanae veteris.

And now, FTC presents a photo montage looking back at the life and career of Rod Barajas

I almost gunned that guy down at second!

I prefer fly outs because if they're in the air long enough, I'll get pass third base on the jog back to the dugout, which is a nice change of pace. It's pretty neat over there!


The Cubs play so rough. I won't miss the NL Central.

Almost had him!

These guys went on to win the World Series, so you can't really blame me for this one.

Oh, man. I had NO chance at that one.

Rod Barajas was nominated for a Golden Globe for his role as Fat Serpico.

Barajas followed up "Fat Serpico" with a masterful performance in "Fat Platoon."

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Pirates hire my childhood hero

I don't know what tangible effect a hitting coach has on a team. In my limited experience covering baseball, I've found a good hitting coach is someone who can help bust players out of slumps by getting them to slow down and better understand their swings. Maybe he'll help them make an adjustment. It's not unlike therapy.

I don't believe a hitting coach can make someone better, but a good one can at least help a few guys squeeze a little more out of whatever talent they have. Whatever. It's not like this team is a hitting coach away from winning the division.

That said, I'm glad the Pirates have brought in Jay Bell as the new hitting coach. He was my favorite player growing up; the progenitor to Jack Wilson, the capable and sure-armed shortstop whose sidearm action to first I tried to imitate, much to the chagrin of my little league coach. He was a completely average ballplayer in nearly every respect -- the kind of guy the Pirates would have killed to have on the team last year.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Post-mortem on the bloggers' round table

Here are some highlights from the bloggers' round table that Dejan Kovacevic initiated and Charlie hosted over at Bucs Dugout for the purpose of discussing the news on SEALgate. The following block quotes are Dejan's answers to a variety of questions asked about the sorts of issues that we've harped on with regard to the Pirates front office. I'm going to skip over the Gregory Polanco injury timeline stuff because I don't think it's pertinent to the overarching point. The full discussion can be found here.

DK on the militaristic culture of the Pirates development system:

The difference is not just in the practice but also in the preaching. These guys Kyle Stark employs, almost without exception, are these buzzcut military types who behave like drill sergeants year-round. In many cases, they’re underqualified for their posts but were hired more because they can be good-soldier types.
Let me put it another way: It’s weird...and it’s needlessly dangerous. And potentially demoralizing, too.
A team can get a bang out of stuff like this if they treat it like one fun weekend. But when it’s all year round, it can make people bitter and resentful.
...And rather than focusing on what damage comes from it, I choose to focus on what’s the benefit here. I’m not seeing a more disciplined group of players coming up the ladder, so that’s out. I’m not seeing more productivity. And I’m not seeing — this is huge given the nature of drafts — results from ALL THAT PITCHING they drafted.
I’m not sure why. I can’t be sure. Only a true person on the inside would know. But I hear from THOSE people, and they’re VERY down on the way pitchers are handled.
It’s an oversimplification to just count up sports teams that do this and say why not the Pirates? This team isn’t nearly good enough in its system at the things it MUST be good at to be trying stuff like this.
And it most definitely isn’t good enough to be doing this stuff just so some grown men can get their jollies at youngsters’ expense.
Every team is going to do this stuff differently. From what I’ve found — and feel free to prove me wrong — the overwhelming majority of these practices are one weekend and the exercises aren’t stupid things like the hand-to-hand combat that hurt Taillon or the logs or the hose or whatever.
The Penguins’ Sidney Crosby and Ryan Whitney both described an exhausting round of jumping jacks as the most strenuous activity at West Point in 2007.
Jumping jacks.
The Pirates are all military all the time in the minors. If you don’t believe me on this, ask them. They’ll gleefully acknowledge it. 
Kyle Stark seems egotistical and slightly insane.
That happens a lot in baseball. People get power-hungry. They control people’s lives on a daily basis. I’ve seen a little bit of that in nearly everyone I’ve covered in the sport, except maybe Neal Huntington, who’s a genuinely good man and always down to earth.
Stark, without question, has gone too far.
This “Hoka Hey” garbage is sensational and absurd and all, but why isn’t there more attention being paid to the fact that Kyle Stark has nothing resembling a baseball background? He goes from playing college volleyball to somehow being a college pitching coach, then working for the Indians. He has an MBA. This guy seems qualified to do so many things that aren’t run a baseball farm system. How does this guy have this job? At least Broadway has a baseball background. He’s a failed prospect himself. But Kyle Stark? I can’t find any evidence that this guy has any background in or knowledge of baseball at all.
I am honestly stunned that the paragraph about Larry Broadway had as little impact as what I gathered today. Almost all of the focus was on the sand, trash cans and Polanco.
But think about this for a moment: Stark had two years as a pitching coach at St. Bonaventure — yeah, that St. Bonaventure — before joining the Indians’ staff. He was never a coach or instructor. Broadway was a player through 2009, then spent two years as area scout, then was placed IN CHARGE OF THE SYSTEM.
I’m sorry, but that’s nuts. And trust me when people talk about the system being a joke, they’re talking a lot more about this than they are Hoka Hey. The latter just adds whipped cream on top.
Are Stark’s development methods really the problem, or is it drafting?
We can’t answer that definitively, other than to say it’s pretty clear the Latin American end has held up. That’s it. And Huntington himself invariably describes all this in the collective. Even in terms of trades and fre agents — a lot of people don’t know this, but I’ll blurt it out here — Stark has been his right-hand man, even before the promotion.
If the whole thing has gone sour, the answer is to change the whole thing.
Frankly, other than sustaining Latin America, as was done after Littlefield, I don’t see how this could be done piecemeal.

To what extent do you think that the discussion of the Pirates’ player development is being driven by issues of style, rather than substance?
The best way to answer is to go back to what I wrote above, not just about how it’s weird but also about how a lot of people — inside and outside — view the guys running this team. They think these guys largely don’t know anything about baseball, not even in the sabremetric/analytical sense, so they see this military stuff as more of a defense mechanism, a way of hiding that.
Go back to 2007-08, and recall that Stark pretty much cleared out the entire system of coaches. In one case, you diehards might recall, he replaced an established pitching coach at a low level with someone (name slips my mind) … oh, wait, Brian Tracy … who was 23 and just stepped off the mound.
I called Tracy a clipboard-holder then, based on what I’ve heard, and that ended up becoming all too common.
They want to be tough guys, revolutionary guys. And I don’t care about that. I want to see baseball results.
Did you say that Kyle Stark actually functions as Neal Huntington’s right-hand man? As in, chief adviser? Go-to guy on baseball decisions?
And could you clarify this?
They think these guys largely don’t know anything about baseball, not even in the sabremetric/analytical sense
Answer to the first question is yes. For years now.
Answer to second is that I’m describing a general — not universal — mindset. It’s one that quieted when the team was doing well this summer, but even then not much.
Say whatever you will about Keith Law, but he’s one of the VERY few who openly, boldly predicted the collapse. I didn’t. Most didn’t. But he nailed it. His position on the management and operations was among the few that didn’t waver.
What’s Dan Fox doing? Do they just not listen to anything he says? Clint Hurdle definitely doesn't listen to Dan Fox.
This is true, actually. Not sure if you’re being hypothetical there, but you’re right either way.
From what you can discern who sets the tone (evidently a negative one) in the Pirates organization? Coonelly?
You guys will hate this answer, but it starts with the GM in this case. No boldness, no goals set, no confidence exuded, no real presence around the team.Rolly your eyes if you want, but you’re asking about tone. That’s an intangible.
If you can keep a straight face in explaining to people in September that this team SHOULD have been only eight games over at its peak … there’s a time for that, when you’re sipping coffee with Dan Fox, and there’s a team to lead the team.

Kyle Stark will race you up Curahee!

We've been pretty silent here for a while. I'm sure you can figure out why. No matter how much we saw it coming -- AND WE DID -- the Pirates' August-September collapse was the most deflating, painful baseball hurt anyone 'round these parts has felt for the better part of two decades.

But the revelations from Dejan Kovacevic's column in today's Tribune-Review have inspired in us some weird amalgamation of anger and amusement.

When this Hoka Hey crap started leaking out during the season, it seemed kinda harmless. Plenty of teams do military-led or military-inspired training. Hell, Michel Therrien had the Pens doing drills at West Point back in 2007. No big deal, right? 

Then, DK came out with details, and the Trib published the full text of an e-mail Kyle Stark, the club's director of player development, sent out to the rest of the front office, and this stuff was exposed as outright lunacy. 

Dejan writes today:
Management stressed at the time it was only a three-day event, Sept. 14-16. But it turns out that, even though those ex-SEALS have long since left Pirate City, their methods didn’t. On Oct. 14 at 11:45 p.m., the Pirates’ minor-league coaches and instructors broke the midnight silence by banging on dorm rooms throughout the complex shouting, “It’s Hell Week! It’s Hell Week!" 

This is what happens when you pledge Phi Mega Stupid chapter of Mu Lambda Beta.

Players were told to be dressed in 20 minutes and to meet outside by the 2batting cage. Waiting there were Kyle Stark, the assistant general manager and architect of the team’s “Hoka Hey” ways, as well as Larry Broadway, the first-year farm director who never before held any instructional position at any level of baseball.

This is probably the most noteworthy thing in the entire piece. We'll come back to this.

Broadway told the assembled players this would be their “rite of passage” to become Pirates, then sent them on a two-hour scavenger hunt for envelopes hidden across the complex. 

Technically, they became Pirates when the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball club signed them to contracts to play baseball. I mean, I'm just a guy in somebody's mom's basement, but that's my understanding of how that whole thing worked. They give you you a contract, you sign the contract. BAM! You're a Pittssburgh Pirates! And then they lead you off to a side room where you're measured for a uniform, they take a few pictures of you for the media guide, and then you're given a canvas and an array of oil paints and watercolors, and tasked with creatively writing your name (or if you're Jeromy Burnitz, drawing stick figure animals because let's face it, you're in it for the lulz). 

At 5 a.m., after a wink or two of sleep, they were bused over to Bradenton Beach for a two-mile run, followed by relay races in which they ran back and forth filling garbage cans with sand.

Valuable baseball skill. In fact, new metrics I was just reading about over at FanGraphs suggest that the reason the Rangers have fallen short each of the last three years was that their EqSAND Runs Above Replacement was way out of whack.

On the “Hell Week” finale Friday, with a 10 a.m. road game on tap, the players again were awoken at 5 a.m. This time, it was to perform sliding drills on a still-dark field lit by a solitary quartz lamp. The coaches took turns manning second base and tried — not always successfully — to leap over players sliding into the bag, generally making a mess on the basepaths.

I don't know. Maybe if you're trying to teach rudimentary first aid and you want real-life scenarios for practicing applying tourniquets and setting broken bones, this would be a good way to go about creating a few of those.

Look, this is sheer lunacy. And not because Deadspin and ESPN's baseball guys are calling it that. It's lunacy because there's no reasonable explanation by which this is an acceptable approach to developing baseball talent.

Once players sign professional contracts, whether it's out of high school or college or some ramshackle Dominican town where they're farm-raised for this stuff, those guys are professional baseball players. There's a lot made of how unlike professional athletes in the NBA or NFL, baseball players don't usually have any college experience. A lot of these guys do go right from living with their parents as 17- and 18-year-olds right into the dugout, and so they're not socialized the way most people are, and organizations do take on some of the burden of trying to continue to shape these guys into respectable adults. THIS IS NOT HOW IT'S DONE.

I don't understand -- not on any level -- the notion that these guys need team-building activity. In any given baseball farm system, there are, across five or six levels of play and a couple hundred different players, maybe five or six guys who might one day reach the majors. Perhaps two of them will reach with the club that drafted them. This is out of hundreds of players. The minor leagues are all about individual development. Wins and losses do not matter at all when you're solely focused on trying to maximize the output of every single player -- especially since different players have vastly different needs. 

If one of your minor league affiliate teams puts together a good season, good for them. That's nice. But it doesn't really mean anything. And given that so many guys will never, ever make the majors, that minor leagues jump between levels and organizations on a week-to-week basis, these groups of guys never stay together very long. Trying to instill some kind of immense sense of organizational pride in guys who are here one day and gone the next is like holding practices and collecting advanced data on balls in play to try to improve your ironic adult rec league kickball team.

Here's all you need to know about team chemistry and camaraderie in professional baseball. Good teams have good clubhouse chemistry because they're good teams -- not the other way around. Good chemistry can't help you win, and losing always poisons the room. Good teams have good atmospheres. Bad teams don't. It's that simple.

Finally, and this might be the most important thing, the guys the Pirates have had in charge of player development for the last five years do not come from anything resembling baseball backgrounds.

Larry Broadway was once rated the 12-best prospect in the game by Baseball America, but he never panned out. He spent about four seasons in Triple-A ball, signed with the Pirates as a minor league free agent in 2009, had a shit year, then retired and became a scout with the team. The guy's not even 32 years old and he's the director of the farm system.

Kyle Stark played volleyball in college, then, for reasons I'm still not clear on, became the pitching coach at St. Bonaventure, and somehow parlayed that into a four-year stint in the Cleveland Indians front office. He has a law degree, an MBA and no military background unless you count his haircut. I can't find a single instance of him playing organized baseball. Honestly, this guy just seems like some stupid asshole who watches "Band of Brothers" a lot. And I'm not knocking "Band of Brothers," -- it's great stuff; it just has nothing at all to do with baseball. None of this does. How do you invest the kind of money the Pirates have in players and be so egregiously negligent when it comes to developing that talent? 

I don't know if Nutting is doing an investigation or not. I don't know what he's got planned. But it's abundantly clear that when your unconventional training methods have scared draft picks, their agents, their parents and their parents' agents, and you're regularly conducting non-baseball drills that put your most valuable prospects at risk for undue injury, and when your own players are going to the press to complain that your whole operation is a joke, something's got to change. 

Nutting needs to clean house. These guys are all stupid assholes, and they all have to go.