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Baseball: the only sport people expect to be stuck in the past


These two tweets came from ESPN’s Howard Bryant yesterday morning. They came exactly three minutes apart:

The first tweet: a smart reminder to NCAA fans and hand-wringers that the future is not to be feared, that the past is not the only way to do things and that people and institutions adapt to change. The second tweet: a complaint that baseball isn’t like it was several years ago when managers barking loudly and creating controversy was the rule rather than the exception.

That second part is endemic to baseball analysis: “Baseball was best before, and these new things are going to send the sport straight to hell.” Most of the time, you’ll find, baseball was best was when the speaker was a kid. Or, sometimes, when they were a young writer making their first mark in the industry.

I mean, ask yourself, do we seriously compare sprinters, tennis players, basketball players, football players or soccer players to those of the past? Maybe by analogy, but in those sports everyone appreciates that Rafael Nadal, transported back via a time machine, would never lose if he played in the 70s, that a college long-jumper would sweep the medals in the 1956 Olympics, or that if we put Bill Walsh or Bill Belichick in charge of a team in the 50s that they wouldn’t win several consecutive championships. They don’t think like that with respect to baseball, though. No, people still seriously think Babe Ruth would hit .360 with 60 homers if he were facing today’s pitchers. It’s ridiculous, of course, but we allow such magical thinking in baseball for some reason.

And, as Bryant’s tweet shows, it applies to broader analysis than analysis of just the sport on the field. The old, headstrong barking managers like Ozzie Guillen, Dusty Baker and Lou Piniella either barked themselves out of jobs or burnt themselves out and front offices have almost uniformly decided to go in a different direction. In any other sport it’s characterized as innovation or evolution. In baseball, whoa, this is the end of the world.

If you dig down into the conversations Byrant’s tweets spawned, you’ll see that his larger point is that baseball is scared to death of losing young fans and thus, the change to what he calls “science” and what he thinks is “boring as shit” is the worst thing to do. I suspect he believes this applies to broader sabermetric thinking and not just manager choice.

If so, I’d ask him to think about who was leading the game, who the managers were and what the game’s character was as it slid into unpopularity. Brad Ausmus and Matt Williams — two company men cited in the Ken Rosenthal article that inspired Bryant’s tweets — aren’t responsible for that. Lou Piniella and Dusty Baker were on baseball’s scene from the 1960s-on. Which isn’t to say it was their fault either. It is to say, however, that baseball’s popularity and demographic challenges are bigger than the philosophical orientation of a handful of managers and general managers.

And in no event are the solutions to baseball’s problems more likely to be found by looking harder at the past than at the future. Because that’s not the case for anything.

Report: Barry Bonds under consideration to be the Marlins hitting coach

Barry Bonds

This shouldn’t cause any controversy, lead to a lot of people saying dumb things or provide fodder for jokes at all. Nope, none whatsoever:

In what promises to be a bombshell move, if executed, all-time great slugger Barry Bonds is under consideration to become Marlins hitting coach.

Team higherups have quietly been discussing this possibility for weeks.

That’s Jon Heyman, who reminds us that Bonds has worked with the Giants in the spring in recent years. And who, no matter what else you can say about him, was one of the greatest hitters the game has ever seen. Also worth remembering that despite his controversial past, that greatness came not just from physical gifts, naturally or artificially bestowed. It came from his approach, preparation and strategy at the plate. No one can teach a hitter to hit like Barry Bonds, but you’d think that hitters could be taught to try to approach an at bat the way Barry Bonds would. And who better to do it than Barry Bonds?

That is, if Bonds is willing to drop his seemingly ideal retired life in San Francisco, move to Miami and work for Jeff Loria for nine months a year. Which, eh, who knows? But the possibility of it is pretty fascinating to think about.

Yadier Molina’s new backup: Cardinals sign Brayan Pena to two-year deal

Brayan Pena Reds
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Veteran catcher Brayan Pena has agreed to a two-year, $5 million contract with the Cardinals, who’re investing much more than usual in their backup for Yadier Molina.

After bouncing around for a decade without getting even 250 plate appearances in a season Pena signed with the Reds and topped 350 plate appearances in both 2014 and 2015. His production didn’t improve any, as Pena hit .263 with five homers and a .652 OPS in 223 games as a regular.

Pena’s best skill is rarely striking out, which enables him to hit for a decent batting average, but he has very little power and swings at everything. He struggled to control the running game this season at age 33, but has a decent throw-out rate for his career.

Making a multi-year commitment to Pena suggests the Cardinals are no longer counting on Molina being the same type of workhorse behind the plate, which certainly makes sense given his age and injury history. Pena will replace Tony Cruz, who’s been Molina’s understudy since 2011 while hitting just .220 with five homers and a .572 OPS in 259 games.

While we wait for free agent signings: Andrew McCutchen stars in a one-act play

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It’s a pretty slow offseason so far. We’ve had a couple of minor signings. I guess Jordan Zimmermann is sort of a big deal. But it’s a lot more quiet so far this year than it was this time last year. I suppose there’s no real rhyme nor reason for it. Baseball offseason is long, there is no salary cap and thus there’s no rush to do things too quickly.

So, while we wait, here’s Andrew McCutchen doing his best to kill time until spring training starts:

Red Sox sign outfielder Chris Young

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Veteran outfielder Chris Young thrived in a platoon role for the Yankees this past season and now he’s headed to the rival Red Sox to fill a similar role, signing a multi-year deal with Boston according to Ken Rosenthal of

Young was once an everyday center fielder for the Diamondbacks, making the All-Star team in 2010 at age 26, but for the past 3-4 years he’s gotten 300-350 plate appearances in a part-time role facing mostly left-handed pitching. He hit .252 with 14 homers and a .773 OPS for the Yankees, but prior to that failed to top a .700 OPS in 2013 or 2014.

Given the Red Sox’s outfield depth–Mookie Betts, Rusney Castillo, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Brock Holt even with Hanley Ramirez back in the infield–Young is unlikely to work his way into everyday playing time at age 32, but he should get another 300 or so plate appearances while also providing a veteran fallback option. And it’s possible his arrival clears the way for a trade.