Baseball is a traditional game. It also is a business, and in business, traditional thinking is not necessarily wise, or cost-efficient.
For a generation, the scouting of pitching has been about finding the live power arms and the big rawboned kids who light up the radar guns, signing them and plunking them down in Pocatello, Medicine Hat or Fort Myers, then waiting for the first surgery.
This is not a college/high school argument, although it is relevant to look back at Roger Clemens in high school. John McLaren, now the Devil Rays' bench coach and then a Blue Jays area scout, remembers going to see Clemens' high school in Katy, Texas and "seeing Rich Luecken, who was a No. 1 pick, and Rayner Noble, a second rounder [now the coach at the University of Houston], and the third pitcher was a heavy kid who wasn't a prospect -- Roger."
Derek Lowe has been helped greatly by the Red Sox's new way of conditioning.
Clemens developed at San Jacinto Junior College under coach Wayne Graham and then at the University of Texas, partly because of talent, partly because of his extraordinary will and partly because he was developed properly. But there is a rule of thumb that many in the game believe is a truism: if a kid is throwing 95 at the age of 18, he'll most likely be throwing 85 when he's 23.
Why? Some of the reason may be physiological, but baseball has traditionally waited to deal wth injuries rather than address biomechanics and development from the beginning. This is what Oakland pitching coach Rick Peterson -- through his work with Dr. James Andrews, Dr. Glen Fleisig and the scientists at the American Sports Medicine Institute in Birmingham -- has addressed in the prehab program they developed and use with the Oakland pitchers.
It's a complex program of exercises specifically designed for the biomechanics of pitching, balance drills (throwing with eyes closed, as well as throwing off balance beams) and closely monitored 10-day throwing cycles, all with the help of Dr. Fleisig's video analysis. The Red Sox, with another Dr. Fleisig student, Chris Correnti, running their strength and conditioning program, have begun similar drills for their major leaguers, which have helped Derek Lowe's career and changed the body of Pedro Martinez. Then when Red Sox farm director Ben Cherington went to Birmingham accompanying minor-league pitcher Manny Delcarmen when he had Tommy John surgery last month, he was so impressed with the A.S.M.I. program that he and the front office decided to send their best minor-league prospects to the institute for offseason evaluations and begin the prehab work from the bottom up.
Which begs the question: Why hasn't this business thought about prehab rather than rehab in a time when brilliant minds can apply science to innings pitched? "It's one of those questions I ask all the time," says Correnti. "I don't get the answers."
Which brings us to "Moneyball." The reaction through the baseball community to Michael Lewis' book following A's GM Billy Beane has been humorous, especially since a lot of the sniping comes from people who either read excerpts or heard second hand about the contents.
At least twice a day, I hear comments about "Billy Beane's book." Oh, my. Understand, Beane has been embarrassed by some of the reaction, and some of what was in the book, and while he may have made a mistake by giving a brilliant writer too much access without having any say over the contents, anyone who reads the book from start to finish is highly entertained (surprise, surprise! Lewis is a best-selling author) and realizes that this is Lewis' interpretation of Beane and his operation. What is most amusing is that some of the tobacco-chewers are so threatened by the novel concept that past performance is a factor in predicting future performance, and while some hard-working, talented scouts may take offense, a company with limited resources cannot be taking $1.5 million gambles on a kid with tools from Iowa whose first high school game is May 25.
Beane has called some GMs that he felt may have been offended, such as the Mets' Steve Phillips and the Indians' Mark Shapiro, and says that some contexts may create misunderstandings. "The one area that isn't quite right involved my negotiations with Boston," says Beane. "Michael and I hadn't had as much contact at that point in time, and the three or four people in the game that talked to me several times that day I changed my mind know what I was going through."
Some of the strongest comments have come from Oakland's former scouting director, but he hadn't read the book. Grady Fuson said Beane was quoted as saying that he ordered the drafting of Barry Zito, when it was the A's great scout Dick Bogard who was quoted. And while Beane did order the drafting of Zito, it was not a Zito/Ben Sheets decision based on money, everyone who was close to that draft knows it was because Beane was convinced Zito was special. Oh, by the way, thankfully Beane did order them to draft Zito, as he did Mark Mulder over Ryan Mills.
It's comical that scouts trash Blue Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi as another stats freak, since J.P. is one of the best talent eyes of the last 20 years. Does he have Harvardian Keith Law working with him? Of course. He gathers every bit of information he can have. This spring, one veteran coach said, "Boston has that Chuck James stat guy running the team." How afraid. Does Red Sox GM Theo Epstein use Bill James? Of course, more than half the teams in baseball have stats advisors and researchers. But Epstein is a huge scouts guy who relies heavily on Bill Lajoie -- speak of the best evaluators of the last 40 years -- as well as Craig Shipley. "What's wrong," asks Epstein, "with having every opinion and piece of information one can have in evaluating a player?"
Nothing. Tools are terrific. Drew Meyer, the Rangers' No. 1 pick last year, has tools. He's supposed to be a center fielder in time. But at 22 he also has a .290 on-base percentage, playing in Class A. Picking six spots behind Texas, Oakland took another center fielder, Nick Swisher. Same age, same league, he has a 1.007 OPS.
An industry that has wasted millions upon millions in drafting high school players should worry more about evaluating its practices, because if it did it wouldn't need people in New York to be trying to rig signing costs. Spending $5 million on Josh Beckett may have been a great idea, but in his fifth season since being drafted, he has 10 major-league victories. Zito was drafted seven spots behind Beckett, is 53-19 and exactly two years older.
Around the majors
The Steve Phillips Watch is in full battle regalia in New York. Even if Mets assistant general manager Jim Duquette takes over, it could be on an interim basis. Houston's Gerry Hunsicker, one of the most respected in the business, has been discussed, and there has been media speculation that Gene Michael would cross town once his Yankees contract is up at the end of this season. George Steinbrenner might send weapons of mass destruction to Shea Stadium to prevent that.
Incidentally, Mets pitchers' lavish praise for Vance Wilson's work behind the plate -- the most recent from Tom Glavine -- could be interpreted as the lobbying for Mike Piazza to move to first base.
Rangers folks have been telling other clubs the Cardinals have been wearing them out trying to acquire Ugueth Urbina. For those who want him with the Yankees: 1. Ugie is a free agent and wants no part of setting up, and 2. harbors ill feelings towards the Yankees, who a couple of years ago agreed to a deal for him from the Expos, then voided the trade claiming he flunked a physical. That was 80-something saves ago.
Whoops. Columbus players told other players that when Jose Contreras was told last weekend that he was going back to New York, he protested, and told teammates he preferred to remain in Columbus, where he is more comfortable. Hey, the $8 million is the same in Columbus or New York.
There was considerable speculation that Darin Erstad's hamstring was so bad that it bordered on season-ending. But on Sunday Angels manager Mike Scioscia said, "He's running and finally progressing, and may be back with us in 10 days or so. Don't worry. We'll be all right. We'll be back."
Raul Mondesi is running faster and harder than he has in five years. No one can ever accuse of him dogging it.
The Brewers have handed their center-field job to Scott Podsednik, and are trying to trade Alex Sanchez (Detroit is very interested). "I think that with a rebuilding team like ours that it might be wise to try to make a couple of moves earlier rather than later," says Brewers GM Doug Melvin. He wants to keep Mike DeJean, who has an option for 2004 and is a relatively cheap closer, but has listened to the Yankees' siren song for bullpen help. Curt Leskanic is the more likely pitcher to be traded, with Boston having already made one offer for him.
Derek Jeter is still struggling to get to pitches inside because of the separated shoulder he suffered on the first day of the regular season, but insists "I never think about it when I'm playing, whether it be sliding or diving for a ball."
Bernie Williams was in excruciating pain before finally agreeing to go on the disabled list. His CD is being released, and he's negotiating with the Boston Pops to play with them next winter. Five years ago, Williams played on the Boston Symphony Hall stage as part of an ESPN piece.
The Diamondbacks admit they need a right-handed bat, but can't afford Mike Lowell because they are already spread thin between payroll and deferred contracts. So there is renewed speculation that they might reconsider their stance on a Byung-Hyun Kim-Shea Hillenbrand deal. After all, Arizona's 3.38 runs per game on the road beats only Detroit.
Speaking of deferred salaries: Tampa Bay is paying $10.3 million this season in deferrals to such players as Fred McGriff, John Flaherty and Roberto Hernandez. The D-Rays are also paying Greg Vaughn $9.25 million. And before Ben Grieve was activated over the weekend, they had $8.2 million tied into active players and $8.5 million on the disabled list.
While the Orioles are making a late run at signing Adam Loewen, their first-round pick from last June who likely will be the second player taken in next week's draft if he goes back in, Reds GM Jim Bowden says their unsigned first rounder from last June -- Junior College left-handed pitcher Nick Markakis -- will not be signed. "We went to $1.5 million, and he rejected us," says Bowden. "That's it for us."
Moving up with a bullet is Princeton right-hander Thomas Pauley, a Paul Quantrill clone who may go at the end of the sandwich or near the top of the second round. The Red Sox would love him at the 51st pick because of Princetonian Larry Lucchino, but the Indians and fellow Princetonian Mark Shapiro are four slots ahead of Boston and won't allow him to pass. There are also scouts who like Cornell's 5-11 righty Chris Schott; Cornell has not produced many major leaguers, although Charles Nagy originally went there before transferring to UConn after one semester.
Three different GMs and scouting directors claim that Peabody, Mass., pitcher Jeff Allison is the best high school right-hander since Beckett. High praise, indeed.
This and that
The Blue Jays' four-game sweep of the Yankees this past weekend identifies them as the AL's hottest team, going home to play the White and Red Sox leading the majors in runs scored. Hey, Toronto can really hit, with Carlos Delgado's monster comeback to the very significant addition of Frank Catalanotto to the emergence of Vernon Wells as one of the best center fielders in the game.
"He reminds me of David Henderson," says Ricciardi of Wells. "He reads the ball really well off the bat, and is one of the best defensive players at that position, He's a better hitter than most of the other center fielders and is tougher to get out. He's going to be one of those guys who hits .280 to .300-something, hits 20 to 30 homers, knocks in 100 runs and is a great outfielder.
What is amazing is that between Tom Wilson and Greg Myers, the Jays lead the AL in on-base percentage (.375) and batting average (.299) out of the catching position, and are second to the Yankees in homers (seven) and slugging percentage (.486).
C.C. Sabathia is trying to control his weight as he's hired a personal chef and is working as hard as he can. And his pitching is getting better and better; in his last five starts, Sabathia has allowed six runs in 35 innings, all quality starts. Where his velocity was down in the low 90's early in the season, Sabathia has hit 97 in his last three starts. "The biggest thing," says Indians manager Eric Wedge, "is that he now knows how to pitch."
Padres GM Kevin Towers was conflicted in firing pitching coach Greg Booker, manager Bruce Bochy's close friend. "I hated to do it," says Towers, "but I just haven't seen all the progress I'd like to have seen, going back to Matt Clement. Hopefully, it will make some difference in our young pitchers." Towers has taken some heat as the Padres are hovering in the Tigers' neighborhood, but says, "if our veteran players were healthy, I'd feel differently. But with (Phil) Nevin, (Trevor) Hoffman, (Mark) Kotsay all out and now Ryan Klesko hurt, there's a lot of pressure put on our young players. Heck, Ramon Vazquez has probably been our best player."
With Kotsay out, Towers brought up center fielder Jason Bay, who had a dozen homers at Triple-A Portland. Bay was acquired from the Mets for reliever Steve Reed last July.
Remember Bobby Sprowl, who pitched briefly for the Red Sox and Astros? His son, Jon Mark, is a left-handed-hitting catcher in the Diamondbacks organization who this week had five hits in a game to raise his season batting average to .288.