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What we talk about when we talk about Yasiel Puig

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After reading one really, really bad Yasiel Puig column and one really, really good one this morning, I stopped to think about what really animates people about this guy. And I decided that, while it isn’t racism as we’ve come to think about it — I don’t for a second think that everyone who gets on Puig’s case is a racist or a bigot — there is certainly a barrier, borne of passive ethnocentrism, at work.

If you go back and look at the commentary about a young Roberto Clemente or, really, almost any other young Latin superstar in baseball history, you see a lot of the same things being said about them that are being said about Puig. Many of the actual words are different — I don’t think anyone these days actually calls them “hot-blooded” or anything — but there is this presumption, it seems, that most young Latin ballplayers are some breed of wild horse that needs to be tamed. Contrast this to young American ballplayers who mess up sometimes and are talked about as if they need to grow up. We assume age-appropriate immaturity in the latter that will inevitably be grown out of and assume culturally-determined otherness in the former that must be beaten out of them via discipline and disapproval.

It’s an unconscious thing, I think, fostered by the cultural differences, even if it isn’t necessarily inspired by them. I mean, take race out of the mix as the reason why someone may be critical of Yasiel Puig. Let’s call it an aversion to his youthful brashness and perceived arrogance. Bryce Harper had a lot of that said about him when he first hit the scene too. The cover of Sports Illustrated. The bold and unorthodox move to bypass the usual rites of passage in high school or college. The taunting of opposing pitchers in the minor leagues. Harper is getting endorsements and kudos all the time now, but a couple of years ago he was spoken of as Everything That Is Wrong With Kids Today.

Except we’ve seen a decided turn in the commentary about Harper since he burst on to the scene. We’ve seen it because writers and observers have gotten to know Harper, his motivations and his back story. The real person behind the image to which many had an initial aversion. We have met his family and know some about his religion. We’ve seen him interact with his teammates and elders in the game like Chipper Jones.  It has allowed us to change our perception about him.

That entire process is much, much harder with Puig. He doesn’t speak our language nor do most of us speak his. Because he’s from Cuba, his background is much harder to know and what we do know of it is told more like a fantastical tale than just a story of a kid growing up. We aren’t as privy to his interactions with elders in the game because we can’t necessarily understand his conversations veteran Latino players. There’s an otherness to his experience and maturation in the game which makes it harder to know him.

The result: stuff like references to him “jetting off to join a South Beach conga line for the winter. Party on!”  The conga is a dance that broke big in the 1930s. Would we have ever assumed a 22 year-old American would “jet off to Peoria, Illinois” to Fox Trot? Of course not. Because we know his culture and don’t make such ham-handed references. And because, before we ever think to, we work to understand him a little bit before we assume he was a monster.

Maybe Puig is the worst. Maybe he’s a jerk who is arrogant and untamed and in need of a good lesson. It’s totally possible. No one saying such things, however, has put forth any evidence justifying such a conclusion. Jimmy Rollins was fined for being late to the ballpark several years ago and I don’t recall anyone writing deep thought pieces about how he needed to be benched. Jeff Francoeur missed plenty of cutoff men when he played for the Braves due to the confidence he had in his arm and he was never pilloried for it.  Just recently, Adam Eaton slid into home when he hit a walkoff homer and no one carried on about it like they have with Puig.

People didn’t because it’s easier to know those players and their motivations. Because they’re easier to talk to after the game. In contrast, it is so very difficult to really get to know Yasiel Puig to see what makes him tick. For that reason people fall back on assumptions and generalities that are rotten with centuries of racial baggage, even if the people making the assumptions are totally unconscious that they’re doing it.

My suggestion: before concluding that Puig is a major problem in need of solving, figure out whether he’s a problem in the first place. That may take a bit longer and may require some extra work — and that, in turn, will keep you from writing a pithy column during a week when Puig is in the news — but it may help stop this dumb cycle of misunderstanding Latin ballplayers for large parts of their career.

Indians sign reliever Tommy Hunter to $2 million deal

Baltimore Orioles relief pitcher Tommy Hunter throws to the Miami Marlins during the seventh inning of a baseball game in Miami, Friday, May 22, 2015. (AP Photo/J Pat Carter)
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Paul Hoynes of the Cleveland Plain Dealer reports that right-hander Tommy Hunter has agreed to a one-year, $2 million contract with the Indians. It’s a major-league deal, so Hunter gets a spot on the 40-man roster and will be in the Opening Day bullpen if he’s fully recovered from core muscle surgery.

Hunter split last season between the Orioles and Cubs, totaling 60 innings with a 4.18 ERA and 47/14 K/BB ratio. He had a sub-3.00 ERA in both 2013 and 2014, and has generally been a setup-caliber reliever since shifting to the bullpen full time.

He has good control and a mid-90s fastball, but Hunter has never missed many bats despite the big-time velocity and often struggles to keep the ball in the ballpark. He’ll likely fill a middle relief role in Cleveland initially.

“YER OUT!” Jenrry Mejia permanently suspended for a third positive PED test

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You knew someone would be dumb enough to do this eventually, you just didn’t know who. Now we do: MLB just announced that reliever Jenrry Mejia has been permanently suspended after testing positive for Boldenone. That was his third positive test and under the Joint Drug Agreement that means his career is more or less over.

Mejia’s three strikes came in pretty rapid succession. On April 11, 2015 it was announced that Mejía had been suspended for 80 games after testing positive for use of stanozolol. On July 28, 2015 it was announced that Mejia had failed a test for Stanozolol again and Boldenone to boot, giving him a 162-game suspension, which he’d still be serving at the beggining of the season. Now this third test.

Mejia has played five seasons in the big. He started with so much promise, looking like a great prospect coming up. His performance only matched the promise in fits and starts, however, resulting in a 9-14 record with a 3.68 ERA and a K/BB ratio of 162/76 in 183.1 innings, all with the Mets.

Per the rules of the Joint Drug Agreement, Mejia can apply for reinstatement after being banned for two years. But it would obviously require him to spend two years doing a lot of smart things he hasn’t been doing in the past year. And it would also represent a near-unprecedented comeback. It could happen, I suppose, but it’s a far safer bet that his career is over.

I’m going to break it to you: some teams will stink this year. Like every year.

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There’s an AP story out today talking about how — brace yourself — some teams are going to be bad this year. It’s true. There are some teams, such as Atlanta, Philly, Colorado, Cincinnati and probably Milwaukee who seem certain to lose a lot of games.  The article’s author notes that, while a lot of money was spent in free agency this winter, not everyone was spending. He says “for some clubs, 2016 is basically over before it starts when it comes to contending.”

That sort of framing sounds pretty familiar, doesn’t it? Isn’t it exactly the sort of thing we heard back in the early 2000s when people were still stumping for salary caps? Boston and New York were outspending everyone, the low money teams couldn’t keep up and, as spring training dawned, the season was over before it even began for half the league at least. There were scads of articles like that written 10-15 years ago. Bud Selig and others even used that exact construction — teams going to spring training already knowing they couldn’t compete — as points of rhetoric in the leadup to the 2002 labor battle with the players. Indeed, here’s the exact language from the 2000 Blue Ribbon economic report that Bud Selig commissioned which, by the way, should be read as a piece of labor propaganda, not as an actually useful or illuminative report:

What has made baseball’s recent seasons disturbing, and what makes its current economic structure untenable in the long run, is that, year after year, too many clubs know in spring training that they have no realistic prospect of reaching postseason play. Too many clubs in low-revenue markets can only expect to compete for postseason berths if ownership is willing to incur staggering operating losses to subsidize a competitive player payroll.

Different circumstances, obviously, but the same general bogeyman: some teams have no chance to compete!

Using that as the concern for whatever ails baseball has never made much sense to me as there will always be teams that are bad. Really, go look at any year’s league standings going back to the 19th century and there will be bad teams. It’s sort of the other side of the coin of good teams. Hard to have one without the other. And it’s probably a good thing to have some good and some and teams. Who wants a total crapshoot every year? What is this, Lake Woebegone, where every team is above .500? God, how boring.

The real issue is not that some teams will be good and some will be bad. It’s why they’ll be good and why they’ll be bad and whether the dynamic which creates good and bad teams is itself positive or negative for the game.

In the 40s and 50s, almost the entire American League knew that it had no chance to compete with the Yankees but they kind of liked that because they were making a lot of money not fielding competitive clubs. That was bad. In the late 1990s maybe some felt the same way too and it was because of no revenue sharing or incompetent management. Not great, and a lot of tweaks were made. Now a small handful of teams can’t compete because they’re doing wholesale rebuilds which some people call “tanking” and others think is not an issue.

As I recently wrote, to the extent people do think “tanking” is a problem, it’s important to (a) put it in perspective; and (b) look at the incentives teams have to tank and talk about whether they should be adjusted. As far as the perspective part goes, I’d say that only having five or six out of 30 teams with no realistic shot is actually pretty good compared to other points in baseball history. There’s a lot more parity now than there used to be. As far as the incentives: look at the dumb draft rules which were imposed to save owners a buck when it came to paying amateurs but which GREATLY increases the importance of picking high and thus losing.

The AP article touches on that, but it’s buried fairly deep down, well after the hand-wringing about teams entering spring training with no chance to win. As spring training progresses, there will likely be a lot of talk of just how bad some of these rebuilding teams will be as well. Most of that analysis will stop at the current state of the team and the hopelessness the fan bases are supposed to be feeling.

As a critically-minded fan, don’t let it stop there. If your team stinks, think about why it does and why it’s pursuing the course it is. Twenty years ago you could probably be safe in saying “well, my team’s GM is dumb and the owner is cheap.” That’s not really the case for most teams now. Now, I think, it’s far more about the incentives in play which make putting a lousy product on the field in the short term preferable to not doing so. Call it tanking, call it whatever you want, but if this is concern for you — and if this is a problem for Major League Baseball — the focus needs to be on the incentives.  Not on the fact that some teams are going to stink. Because teams will always stink. The important question is why.

Marlins sign left-hander Craig Breslow

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After spending the past four seasons in the Red Sox’s bullpen left-hander Craig Breslow has signed with the Marlins on a minor-league deal.

Rob Bradford of WEEI.com reports that the contract comes with an invitation to spring training and will pay $1.5 million if Breslow makes the Opening Day roster.

Brewslow has struggled in back-to-back seasons, posting a 5.96 ERA in 2014 and a 4.15 ERA last year. At age 35 he’s not a great bet to bounce back in a huge way, but Breslow posted a 1.81 ERA as recently as 2013 and is certainly still capable of being a useful middle reliever.