Bill James doubles down on the Joe Paterno defense


Yesterday we looked at Bill James’ initial comments defending Joe Paterno. His take: Paterno did what he was supposed to have done circa 1998 and what more could possibly have been asked of him? You know, apart from doing a single thing to prevent Jerry Sandusky from raping more children in the Penn State football facilities, which James apparently believes would have been some sort of super-human, above-and-beyond kind of thing.

One would figure that James would stop with that, but today on Doug Gottlieb’s ESPN Radio show, James doubled down. Not only does he continue to erroneously assert that Paterno did everything he could have done back in 1998, but he insists that the Sandusky coverup was the media’s fault. And that, sure, grown men showering with boys was something that was totally common 40 years ago.

The audio — about 15 minutes worth — is here.  The Big Lead transcribed the more critical bits, which included the following:

“[Paterno] knew less about [Sandusky] than everyone else there … He had very few allies. He was isolated. He was not nearly as powerful as people imagine him to have been … they kept it quiet because they had no idea what was happening … they just thought they were dealing with a little misunderstanding … people who are responsible for it are the media. The media created this smokescreen behind which Sandusky operated, and then they’re trying to blame Paterno.”

There are no words.

Wait, there are words: stop it, Bill. You’re talking total nonsense. You’re being a contrarian because you like being a contrarain and you hate what you consider to be rushes to judgment, mob mentality and piling on. But this is one case where your instincts are failing you and you’re making yourself look like a fool.

If people don’t think anything particularly bad is happening, they do not commit a coverup of the magnitude and nature of the coverup which was committed at Penn State. And even if one thinks that Joe Paterno’s power within Penn State was somehow less than what is generally assumed — which is silly, as the man was the closest thing to a God at that institution — what difference does it make?  One need not have some exalted status to pick up a phone and call the police. Indeed, the grand jury investigation which eventually uncovered all of this ugliness was launched by a phone call from the parents of one of the victims.

Any number of people could have stopped Sandusky. It has been conclusively proven that Paterno and many other members of the Penn State hierarchy had sufficient information as far back as 1998 and without question as soon as 2002 that could have and should have put Sandusky in prison and which would have spared countless young boys from his evil. Paterno chose not to act. All of them did. And they didn’t do it because they were ignorant and powerless. They did it because they feared bad publicity for their beloved football program, their own reputations and their careers.  They were rank cowards and, it very well appears, criminals in their own right.

How James, a man who can see so much that others cannot see, can fail to see this is beyond me. One need not muster some sort of moral outrage or make the worst assumptions about anyone to see what is plain with respect to Paterno and Sandusky and all that happened and didn’t happen at Penn State. One must merely look at the emails exchanged between the men who committed the coverup. To see what they cared about and what they didn’t care about, what they did and what they didn’t do, and what those acts and omissions allowed to happen.

It was the media’s fault? Please. That’s a pathetic canard when it’s deployed in normal circumstances. To cite that here when there are so many obvious people worthy of blame — real, damnable blame — is perverse in the extreme.

Of course, what James considers acceptable in all of this is eluding me anyway:

At the 14:10 mark Gottlieb asks James, “have you ever showered with a boy? Do you know anybody who has showered with a boy?” James says “Yes, that was actually quite common in the town I grew up in. That was quite common in America 40 years ago.”

Again. No words. This time I mean it.

UPDATE: One clarification here. That last bit comes off slightly cheap on my part. I don’t mean the curt response to be the equivalent of “gosh, look at that weirdo who thinks it’s cool for men to shower with boys.”  And I would prefer that the comments here don’t trend in that direction, because I don’t think it’s what James meant. And I don’t think Bill is saying that as a means of defending Sandusky’s actions or even Paterno’s coverup.  I think, though, that the answer is a tell that Bill doesn’t exactly understand what he’s commenting on, and that it remains significant for that reason.

That comment about men and boys 40 years ago came in response to a direct question. James, as is his wont, answered it directly. He didn’t provide any expanded context — Does he mean causally? Does he mean coaches and players? Fathers and sons? Innocently, as a means of water conservation? — but he answered it.  I think he’s the type who will answer any direct question you put to him directly, no matter how uncomfortable it makes the questioner. Maybe the more uncomfortable it makes him the better.

But again, I think this was a situation in which James is completely missing the forest for the trees and being a bit too cute in his answer. He had to know when he’s being asked that question that the host was referring to showering with boys in a sinister, untoward manner. When we speak of showering with boys and the Penn State scandal, we obviously cannot forget what we know. More to the point, what Paterno clearly knew as of 2002. That’s what James was being asked about and I think he decided to simply answer the question as if he was talking to a historian about the strange folkways of 1950s Kansas rather than a child rape scandal.

That’s really my criticism of James here. I don’t think he supports Sandusky at all or even Paterno to any serious degree as much as he finds it intellectually interesting to defend him. But I think his focusing on a couple of legalistic points misses the entire real point of the story, and the shower question is a microcosm of that.

2018 Preview: Washington Nationals

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2018 season. Next up: The Washington Nationals.

The Nationals stood tall in the NL East last season, winning 97 games and taking the division crown by 20 games over the second-place Marlins. While the Marlins got markedly worse, the Braves, Mets, and Phillies – winners of 72, 70, and 66 games, respectively – made some improvements and should be more competitive. Still, this is a division the Nationals are heavy favorites to win despite a relatively quiet offseason.

Max Scherzer, winner of back-to-back NL Cy Young Awards, leads the rotation. The right-hander had the best year of his career, going 16-6 with a 2.51 ERA and a 268/55 K/BB ratio over 200 2/3 innings. Scherzer is now 33 years old but has yet to show signs of slowing down. In fact, he’s gotten better over the last three years, improving his already stellar strikeout rate from 30.7 percent to 34.4 percent.

Stephen Strasburg will follow Scherzer in the rotation. He made 28 starts instead of 33 due to an elbow impingement, but otherwise had a terrific season. He went 15-4 with a 2.52 ERA and a 204/47 K/BB ratio in 175 1/3 innings. He finished third in Cy Young balloting. Strasburg’s chances of winning a Cy Young Award are sadly slim since he not only plays in the same league as Scherzer, but shares a team with him. And, of course, there’s four-time Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw on the Dodgers. Strasburg will settle for being an elite No. 2 starter.

The rest of the rotation features Gio Gonzalez, Tanner Roark, and A.J. Cole. Gonzalez was excellent last season, finishing with a 2.96 ERA and a 188/79 K/BB ratio in 201 innings. It wasn’t a flawless season as his walk rate at 9.6 percent rose to its highest point since 2011 and his fastball velocity dipped just below 90 MPH on average. And his strikeout rate, while solid, isn’t indicative of a sub-3.00 ERA. Gonzalez benefited from a .258 BABIP and a high strand rate at 81.6 percent, both factors that are likely to regress to the mean in 2018. Roark struggled to a 4.67 ERA based on a horrible strand rate at 66.3 percent, which is likely to regress in the other direction. Cole impressed across eight starts and three relief appearances, posting a 3.81 ERA in 52 innings. His control will be an issue – he walked 27 – but if he can master that, the Nationals will have a scary starting rotation.

In the bullpen, Sean Doolittle will get the lion’s share of save opportunities. The lefty spent his 2017 with the Athletics and then the Nationals following a trade, enjoying great results with both teams. Combined, he accrued 24 saves with a 2.81 ERA and a 62/10 K/BB ratio in 51 1/3 innings. Doolittle has been slowed by injuries in recent years, so that remains a concern going forward for the Nationals, but when he’s on the field, he’s a dominant closer.

The gap to Doolittle will be bridged by veteran Ryan Madson and Brandon Kintzler. Madson, 37, continues to impress as he ages. Between the A’s and Nats last year, the right-hander posted a 1.83 ERA with a 67/9 K/BB ratio in 59 innings. Kintzler, between the Twins and Nats last season, finished with a 3.03 ERA and a 39/16 K/BB ratio in 71 1/3 innings. Kintzler hasn’t been missing many bats lately but has still been finding success inducing ground balls. Behind Madson and Kintzler, the Nationals will call on Koda Glover, Shawn Kelley, Enny Romero, and a rotating cast of characters including Matt Grace and Sammy Solis.

Offensively, it’s hard to start anywhere but with Bryce Harper in right field. The 2015 NL MVP was limited to 111 games last season due to a knee injury suffered when he slipped on a wet first base bag. He was on his way to, potentially, another MVP award, as he finished the year batting .319/.413/.595 with 28 home runs and 87 RBI in 492 PA. The 25-year-old is in his final year of club control and is expected to test free agency after the season. He’ll be hoping to lead the Nats to a World Series beforehand.

Michael Taylor will handle center field. The speedster swiped 17 bases while hitting .271/.320/.486 with 19 home runs and 53 RBI in 432 PA last season. Taylor is also outstanding defensively, giving the Nationals nothing to worry about at this position.

Adam Eaton will finally return and handle left field. The 29-year-old played only 23 games last year after suffering a torn ACL and meniscus. He has been eased back into action this spring but is expected to be fully ready by the start of the regular season. When healthy, he provides speed and defense while hitting for a high average. In 2016 with the White Sox, he stole 14 bases while hitting 29 doubles, nine triples, and 14 home runs in 706 plate appearances.

Moving to the infield, MVP candidate Anthony Rendon will handle third base. Rendon was one of the best players in baseball last season, accruing 6.0 Wins Above Replacement according to Baseball Reference. He batted .301/.403/.533 with 25 home runs and 100 RBI while playing terrific defense. It was certainly a career year for the 27-year-old, but it wouldn’t be unrealistic to expect similar production in 2018.

Trea Turner will stand to Rendon’s left at shortstop. He put up average offensive numbers but stole 46 bases in 54 opportunities. Turner can also play in the outfield or at second base in a pinch. He’s only 24 years old, so there’s plenty of room for growth. He has the skillset of someone who could develop into an MVP candidate.

Daniel Murphy was expected to reprise his role at second base for the Nationals, but he still hasn’t gotten back to 100 percent after undergoing a debridement and microfracture surgery on his right knee last November. He has been limited to batting practice and fielding grounders hit directly at him. The Nationals hope he’ll be ready at some point in April. For now, veteran Howie Kendrick will handle second base. Kendrick, 34, had an excellent 2017 campaign, batting .315/.368/.475 across 91 games with the Phillies and Nationals. The Nats are certainly glad they signed him to a two-year, $7 million contract in January.

First base belongs to 33-year-old Ryan Zimmerman. After a forgettable 2016 season, Zimmerman made some adjustments – and was healthier – to lead him to one hell of a bounce-back year. His OPS in 2016 was .642; in 2017, it was .930. He made a more concerted effort to put the ball in the air, resulting in 36 home runs and a .573 slugging percentage. It seems like a reasonable assumption that Zimmerman can repeat those results. Needless to say, the key to another big season for him is staying healthy.

Matt Wieters, coming off of a down year, will be the regular catcher once again. In 123 games last season, Wieters hit .225/.288/.344, easily the worst offensive performance of his career. He still played good defense and handled the pitching staff with aplomb, so it’s a position at which the Nationals can accept subpar offense. He’ll likely be backed up by Miguel Montero with Pedro Severino waiting in the wings.

FanGraphs (89) and PECOTA (88) are both projecting fewer than 90 wins for the Nationals. I’m usually one not to stray too much from the projections, but that feels light to me. The Nationals won 97 games last year and the club is arguably better, getting Eaton back. Murphy probably won’t be out for too long and a lot of the outstanding performers from 2017 should be expected to be excellent again in 2018. I’m straying from the projections here.

Prediction: 96-66, first place in NL East