140715-Adam-Wainwright2

Adam Wainwright follows the rules and pays the price

94 Comments

source: Getty Images

MINNEAPOLIS — Baseball has so many crazy unwritten rules that it’s really almost impossible to keep up. For instance, if you ask Hall of Famer Joe Morgan about a moment in baseball he really regrets, he will likely talk about the time he swung for the fences on a 3-0 pitch against an aging Jim Palmer with a seven-run lead. That’s not something you or I would have likely noticed, but the way Morgan sees it that just wasn’t respectful to a great pitcher. After the game, he apologized to Palmer, who Morgan says both understood and accepted the apology.

Here’s another one: One time, the legendary Stan Musial was picked off second base. Later he went over to the second baseman who tagged him out and said: “Don’t ever embarrass me like that again.”

And one more: Pete Rose had a 44-game hitting streak ended in a 16-4 loss against Atlanta. After the game, he ripped the Braves pitchers — particularly closer Gene Garber — for not throwing him fastballs. I’ve been stunned how many people I’ve talked to in baseball who think Rose actually had a point.

Yes, there are unwritten rules.

And so, when St. Louis ace Adam Wainwright threw a 91-mph fastball over the plate against Derek Jeter to lead off the All-Star Game Tuesday night in Minnesota, and Jeter cranked that pitch to right field, I immediately texted a friend: “He totally grooved that pitch.” Well, it seemed obvious. He was utterly following the unwritten rules of the game.

[ MORE: Wainwright admits grooving pitch to Derek Jeter ]

What was the point of this night, anyway? It was to celebrate the legend of Derek Jeter. It was respectful and joyous and over the top. Before the first pitch, the National League catcher and umpire backed away from home plate to give him the full stage. Cheers rained down, and he waved his helmet uncomfortably, and it lasted for a long time. Later, Jeter had another moment when he came off the field.

So what was Wainwright going to do for this game? Throw the curveball that embarrassed Carlos Beltran? No, he was going to throw a fastball over the plate. Now, before going any further into this, we should define what a major league “grooved fastball” really is. A grooved fastball is not a batting practice fastball. It’s not anything improper. It’s a style of pitching, something pitchers will do sometimes when they have a lead, something pitchers will do when they are trying to conserve pitches, something pitchers will often do when facing hitters at the bottom of the lineup. Pitchers know: It’s not that easy for someone to hit a 91-mph fastball.

All Wainwright was doing there, in my opinion, was pitching Jeter exactly as he should considering the moment and the game. Let’s face it: He wasn’t going to try and trick Jeter. He wasn’t going to try and break him down and strike him out. This was Derek Jeter’s last All-Star Game, and Wainwright (like any other pitcher, I suspect) was going to throw a 90-or-so mph fastball over the plate and see if Jeter could hit it.* On this night, it turns out, he could hit it for a double.

*It is worth noting that afterward Jeter called it a “98-mph two-seamer that stayed on really good.” It was actually a 91-mph four-seamer that stayed up. It’s always fun to see the way hitters describe the pitches they hit.

[ MORE: Watch Derek Jeter’s pregame speech to the AL All-Stars ]

As it turned out, Wainwright didn’t have it Tuesday night. He gave up a triple to Mike Trout — Jeter came around to score — and a home run to Miguel Cabrera. That was a three-run American League inning. The American League won the game by two runs, 5-3.

Anyway, that double was a cool moment for Jeter, for the fans, for baseball. He scorched a major league fastball to right, ran it out; hey, it’s the bleeping All-Star Game and that’s what this is supposed to be about.

Only two things happened that kind of created a minor mess.

One of those things happened Tuesday, shortly after the Jeter hit. Wainwright admitted he grooved the fastball. Wainwright’s a good guy, a stand-up guy, a thoughtful and fun guy –and it’s clear that he simply did not see how his comments would come out. “I was going to give him a couple of pipe shots,” he said, referring to pitches down-the-pipe. “I just thought he deserved it. I didn’t know he was going to hit a double or I would have changed my mind.”

Wainwright was doing what Wainwright does, just talking from gut, having a little fun, being self-deprecating. But this quote was about to go into the Twitterverse, and it was not going to look good there. Stripped of the context, the history, the way baseball turned the game into a Derek Jeter Love Fest, it sounded like Wainwright was saying that he purposely laid down. I don’t think he did that at all. He threw a fastball over the plate and challenged Jeter to hit it.

Worse for Wainwright, though, in short form it also sounded like he was disrespecting Jeter, suggesting that Jeter is some kind of charity case whose greatness has earned him the right to have fastballs grooved to him in the All-Star Game. Again, I feel sure this wasn’t at all what Wainwright intended to say. But he said the words.

[ MORE: Derek Jeter’s final All-Star game ends in fourth inning ]

After that, he went on FOX to try and salvage something by backtracking and, unfortunately, by bashing social media. I felt terrible for him, but he knows as well as anyone that this is the world we live in. If you say what people see as the wrong thing at the wrong time, the backlash is fierce and it’s immediate. Wainwright knew that before Tuesday night.

The second thing that messed things up, though, actually happened a dozen years ago. That was the All-Star Game tie. It was such an embarrassment for the game that Bud Selig and company decided they had to do something drastic, something to make the All-Star Game count — “This Time It Counts” was even their slogan — and so they decided to give the league that won the All-Star Game home-field advantage in the World Series.

On the surface, this wasn’t such a bad idea — after all, before the change home-field advantage was simply alternated — one year the American League would get it, the next year the National League would get it – and that’s obviously ridiculous. So, sure, tying it to the All-Star Game was random but no more random than the previous system.

Only, that’s wrong. It IS more random. The All-Star Game doesn’t count. It doesn’t matter. Nobody cares who wins. Nobody plays to win. Nobody manages to win. Starting pitchers go one inning. The best players sit. Every team sends at least one player. You don’t have to say anything other than this: Derek Jeter started in the All-Star Game even though he has an anemic .322 slugging percentage this year. That’s because the All-Star Game is not a game. It’s a show, it’s a celebration, it’s for fun.

By throwing in this ridiculous home-field advantage twist, the game now is less fun. Adam Wainwright throws fastballs to Derek Jeter because it’s his last All-Star Game. Now, Game 7 of the World Series will be in Oakland or Detroit or Anaheim or Baltimore or Toronto or, dare I say it, Kansas City? How is that good for the game in any way? It would actually make MORE sense to have the game somewhere because it’s an even-numbered year.

Wainwright may have sparked the pipe-shot mess with what he said after he pitched. But he was just doing what baseball players have been doing forever — treating the great older players with respect they have earned. Bud Selig and the people of baseball caused the mess by attaching too much meaning to a game that doesn’t count, shouldn’t count and never will count.

Video: 2016 will be a season to remember

Carlos+Correa+Houston+Astros+v+Arizona+Diamondbacks+Ctyu5RiU3SWl
Christian Petersen/Getty Images North America
Leave a comment

MLB.com put together this very cool video montage reviewing the 2015 season and setting us up for what should be a wild 2016. Young stars, veterans chasing milestones, unpredictable divisional races.

It’s so close to spring training. Let’s do this.

Reds hire Lou Pinella as a senior advisor to baseball operations

pinella
1 Comment

The Reds announced on Twitter that the club has hired former manager Lou Pinella in a consultant capacity as a senior advisor to baseball operations. John Fay of the Cincinnati Enquirer adds that Pinella will also spend time with the team at spring training.

Pinella, 72, was last seen with the Giants in 2011, also in a consultant capacity, but he spent only the one season there. He has 23 seasons of experience as a manager, with his most recent four coming with the Cubs between 2007-10.

Stick to Sports? NEVER! The Intersectionalist Manifesto

Fans wait for autographs from Atlanta Braves players during a spring training baseball workout Friday, Feb. 15, 2013, in Kissimmee, Fla. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
27 Comments

At Baseball Prospectus on Friday, Rian Watt wrote something which opened my eyes. The article was entitled “What Comes After Sabermetrics.” It was not really about sabermetrics as such. It was about what we do here at HardballTalk and have done for a few years now. And what some others writers I admire have been doing as well. I had no idea until reading Watt’s article, however, that that’s what we were all doing, but we are and I think it’s worth talking explicitly about what that is and why it’s important.

But let me start at the beginning.

Watt starts off talking about what a lot of people have said in the past few years: sabermetrics has gotten stale. Or, since so many great analysts have been hired by teams and since most of the bleeding-edge stuff has moved in-house with clubs, maybe it’s just that sabermetric writing has gotten stale. There’s a sense that all of the big discoveries and insights have been made and that most of what happens in that realm now is niggling around the edges in ways that don’t lend themselves to big, broad engaging writing like Bill James used to do. Or, maybe, to written eviscerations of non-believers like Fire Joe Morgan or Joe Sheehan specialized in back in the day. Which, no matter what you thought of them on the substance, were entertaining reads.

I can’t really opine on the “all the big insights have been made” part. I’m no stathead. I also know well enough about how science and analysis works that to say that there won’t be something groundbreaking tomorrow or next year with any sort of certainty is a fool’s game. Someone with a database may very well revolutionize statistical analysis of baseball tomorrow. No one saw DIPS coming, for example. Voros McCracken is sneaky like that. There might be a major breakthrough on defensive metrics. There probably will be. But it is safe to say, I think, that sabermetrics is now a mature area of study and mature areas of study are in a lot of ways less exciting to lay people. When that big breakthrough on defense happens it will be great, but when people are merely refining established areas of any science, it’s mostly of interest only to the scientists.

So Watt asks: what’s next? What’s the next area of baseball writing that might be vital and might give us new insights or different things to talk about that haven’t been talked about at length — or with serious depth — before? The answer:

I think that a second major paradigm shift is already well underway. It’s being missed, however, and taken for something other than it is, because it’s not about sabermetrics, and it’s not about statistics at all. (How could it be, if those things form the bedrock of the existing paradigm?) It is, instead, about sports within the context of the broader society, and about the renewed humanity of the game.

The best baseball writing I’ve read this year has been about more than baseball. It’s been about politics, and race, and gender, and sexuality, and money, and power, and how they all come together in this game we love. It’s placed the game in its social context, and used it as a lens to talk about ideas that are bigger than the nuts and bolts of a box score or a daily recap. It’s engaged with difficult questions about how to be a fan when players you love are disappointingly flawed and human, and how to be a human being living in an often unjust world.

Watt calls those who do this sort of writing “Intersectionalists.” People who write and talk about the places where the sport and the lives of its participants, its fans and society at large intersect. About the business of baseball, labor relations, the culture of fandom and allegiance, the enjoyment of sports as entertainment and the prioritization of sports in people’s lives. Off-the-field things too.

This is exactly the sort of thing I have found the most interesting and about which I have written most passionately in the past several years. I had no inkling that it was part of any kind of paradigm shift — I have always simply written about what interests me — but having thought about it for the past 24 hours or so, and having thought about all of the baseball writing that I read and the writers I most admire, I think it’s safe to say that it is.

Since Friday, there has been a lot of discussion, some of it angry discussion, about Watt’s article. He has taken to social media to try to clarify what he meant and make clear what he was not saying. I and others have likewise had conversations about it and, not surprisingly, some of them have turned into arguments. That’s sort of inevitable with Big Insights like Watt’s, I suppose.

It’s the sort of thing that calls for some sort of declaration of principles. A manifesto or three. Some carrying on of the conversation beyond its introduction. So let’s do that, shall we? I think Q&A format is the best way to handle it.

Major League Baseball Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations Joe Torre, center, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Dec. 2, 2014, before the Senate Commerce Committee hearing on domestic violence in professional sports. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, the West Virginia Democrat who chairs the panel, says he called for Tuesday's hearing because "until very recently, the leagues' records have not been very good" on the issue. Torre is flanked by Deputy Managing Director for the?National Football League Players' Association Teri Patterson, left, and Counsel for the Major League Baseball Players Association Virginia Seitz. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Q: So, is this some sort of repudiation of sabermetrics? Do the statheads and the intersectionalists have to fight now?

A: NO! As Watt notes, intersectionalist writing is not a rejection of sabermetrics, it’s an evolution that builds on what came before. Sabermetrics was a total game-changer that made people fundamentally reevaluate how we look at baseball. To reject old orthodoxy and take a fresh look at what was really going on in the game. Without that splash of cold water snapping us out of a century of baseball cliche and often-faulty conventional wisdom, intersectionalists would never even be able to ask the questions or to discuss the topics we discuss. Instead of taking a fresh look at, say, hitting, intersectionalism takes a fresh look at the athlete as role model. Or the allegedly hard and fast pillars of the culture of the game. Bill James asked “why are RBI so important?” An intersectionalist might ask “why should I care if the batter flipped his bat?” or “why should fans root for a guy just because he plays for their favorite team?” or “should the fact that a player committed a crime change the way we or his team look at him?”

Maybe the best way to think about it is through a somewhat old term: “The Liberal Arts Wing” of sabermetrics.” Former Baseball Prospectus editors Steve Goldman and Christina Kahrl coined that term to talk about the writers at BP as opposed to the number crunchers. I think it has wider applicability to describe people, like me, whose baseball fandom was energized or reenergized by sabermetrics and whose brains are wired that way but who aim our brains at other questions instead of analytics. I’ve often used the phrase “fellow traveller” of sabermetrics. Liberal arts works too.

 

Q: STICK TO SPORTS!

A: NO! That’s exactly what we will not do. And what we have never done here at HBT. The entire point of it is to understand and appreciate that sports are part of the real world, impact the real world and that the real world impacts sports as well. Why not talk about how they do so and what it means, both for sports and the real world? If you really want to be that dude who keeps their sports fandom hermetically sealed and, within their world of sports fandom, sports are everything, go ahead and be that dude. Just know that you’re boring. You’re David Puddy from “Seinfeld,” unironically painting your face at the game and making your friends uncomfortable. You’re the guy who calls in to talk radio and angrily rants about how some player is “stealing money” because he didn’t hit as well as you had hoped. You’re that guy Fox catches on the camera crying at the ballpark when your boys lose. Don’t be that guy. Even if you follow sports for escapism, understand that sports don’t take place in a vacuum. Understand that it is just a ballgame, that you can LOVE the ballgame with every ounce of your being and that we do too, but that the ballgame is not your entire life nor should it really be and that the players are themselves human beings with human failings. Understand that, once you make that realization, it’s interesting to talk about what sports means for life and what life means for sports.

 

Q: But I don’t want politics in my sports writing!

A: First of all, it’s not just politics. It’s sports culture.  It’s players’ lives off the field. It’s uniform upgrades and new ballparks. It’s TV deals and the business of the game. It’s drugs and addiction and punishment. It’s a team’s role in the community and a player’s status as a role model. It’s Billy Bean’s outreach for diversity in the game, Major League Baseball’s antitrust exemption, Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities initiatives and the treatment of women as fans by teams in promotions and marketing. Politics comes up sometimes too, but intersectionalism relates to any conceivable aspect of the game, as it in turn relates to the real world in which its participants and its fans actually live.

But you also have to face facts: politics impact sports and sports impact politics. I write about that stuff sometimes. But with all of these issues, it’s still baseball that is the starting point. Baseball and what’s going on with the game that may invoke some political or cultural discussion is the driver, not the shoehorning of politics and culture into a baseball context or using baseball as a pretext for our political hobby horses. But the fact remains: baseball has a labor union and labor politics are relevant. Major League Baseball has a lobbying apparatus with direct contact with Capitol Hill. Major League Baseball is, by its own admission, concerned and interested with expanding outreach to minorities and women. Sometimes, quite often actually, legal and political stuff touches on the game too. The people who run the game contend with that on a daily basis and it directly impacts the product with which you the fan are presented. It’d be foolish for us not to talk about that.

 

Q: Great. So the future of sports writing is political rants, political correctness and Social Justice Warriors telling me that I can’t enjoy anything?

A: Of course not. I’m a liberal dude so you usually know what to expect from me, but there is nothing stopping someone from writing about, say, the value of conservatism in baseball. Indeed, baseball is one of the most conservative institutions there is in many ways and, to the extent it has changed or evolved over the years culturally, that change has been led by commissioners, owners and players, the VAST majority of whom are conservative people. Oh, and they’ve made these changes,  in almost all cases, without intervention of the government. For example, there’s a great case to be made that, for all of Bud Selig’s detractors, he perfectly balanced tradition with “progress” however one wishes to define it and presided over the game as it slowly and deliberately evolved pursuant to a consensus which was built up in the community. That’s kind of the textbook definition of small-c conservatism. There’s also a good argument that, if he had done what more progressive types had demanded of him and made changes just to make changes, it would’ve been a bad thing. Anyone writing about that? Oh wait, this pinko liberal did, but others can too.

Yes, I will grant that many of the most prominent voices in intersectionalist baseball writing are liberal. But they don’t have to be. Social and political issues within the sport, as long as they present themselves organically and aren’t shoehorned in, are open for discussion by everyone. At the moment, yes, there is a good bit of writing out there which comes off as “Freshman social science student has SOMETHING TO SAY!” That discourse is improved and liberal doofuses like me will become less complacent if met with reasoned and respectful pushback from people who don’t share our assumptions. That’s how ALL good discourse works. Indeed, it seems to me that there is a great need for dissenting voices to weigh in NOW lest a certain sort of homogeneousness of opinion sets in and calcifies as the only acceptable form of discourse. In short: if I’m wrong, tell me why! Or, better yet, write a response of your own to it and explain why I’m full of crap. I really am full of crap sometimes.

 

Q: So it’s just now gonna be hot takes and opinion writing? Is actual baseball reporting going to continue to be denigrated the way it has been by some sabermetric types?

A: Not at all. Indeed, there is probably a greater need for good reporting than ever before. Reporting, like opinion, is undergoing its own evolution, after all. Off-the-field stories about players used to be used to explain baseball stuff (i.e. he’s a good guy, so he’s a good player). Such reporting was marginalized or denigrated by some after the rise of sabermetrics, thought of as irrelevant or as mere source-greasing (“The analytics can explain baseball. Why are we talking to Shlabotnik? He doesn’t know what makes him good!”). And to some extent there is some legitimate criticism to be made along those lines. There has also been a well-deserved backlash to it.

If anything, intersectionalism needs more reporting. Maybe fewer game stories and scoops — we’ve gone on at length about the diminished value of such things — but more off-the-field stuff about the athletes as people as opposed to gladiators. Maybe more about the business of the game and things like that. There’s a lot of that in existence already, of course. For starters, good traditional baseball reporters — and off the top of my head I’ll cite Tyler Kepner, Derrick Goold, Andy McCullough, Nick Piecoro, Bill Shaikin, Geoff Baker and many, many others — have always made a point to write stories that go beyond just the Xs and Os. They’re not just checking in with baseball bits, dashed off. Good baseball writing like theirs places baseball in context, describes players as human beings and makes the readers care about the game as it fits in their lives. It’s probably also worth noting that The Players Tribune is doing a lot of this too, delivering to us fresh looks at athletes as human beings. It’s probably the case — and you’ll be shocked to hear me say it — that Murray Chass was doing exactly the sort of reporting I’m talking about here with respect to the business of baseball before most of you were born. Yes, dammit, Murray Chass was an intersectionalist. A lot of old school baseball writers were, even if they were often considered oddballs for being so.

So yes, there have always been people doing this work and doing it well. But we could certainly do with more of it. And, perhaps, from some different sorts of reporters and commentators than those who have done it in the past. More reporters and commentators who question the assumptions of fans, owners, players and league officials rather than defer to them as much as they tend to. More reporters and commentators whose background isn’t necessarily just sports, whose work doesn’t just appear on the sports page and who aren’t necessarily beholden, implicitly or otherwise, to Major League Baseball and the clubs via their access or merely their familiarity and subconscious biases.

Also — and perhaps most importantly — reporters who aren’t so heavily members of the same demographic. There’s no escaping it: there are a lot of white men between the ages of 40 and 60 covering baseball. People with different backgrounds have different perspectives and the entire purpose of intersectionalism in baseball writing is to give us new perspectives. A lot of the sabermetric people were from business and math backgrounds, after all. It took that new look to bring us fresh content. We should strive for greater diversity in baseball writing, not for its own sake, but for the sake of new, interesting work that asks questions which haven’t been asked before and which challenge the assumptions people who look like me or people who see the game only from a press box don’t even realize that they harbor. And, of course, us old white guys can stick around too as long as we appreciate that we do not have anything close to a monopoly on the cultural experience and realize that there is a lot which we try to talk about that, really, we know jack crap about and probably should leave to others who know better.

Children reach to high-five Seattle Mariners' Felix Hernandez after the pitcher participated an instructional clinic that included a game of wiffle ball at the Rainier Vista Boys & Girls Club, Monday, Nov. 16, 2015, in Seattle. Earlier at the club, Hernandez presented $100,000 in total grants to five Seattle area nonprofits as part of the Major League Baseball Players Association/Major League Baseball Joint Youth Initiative Players Going Home program. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

While I didn’t know it had a name before the other day, baseball intersectionalism is very much the sort of thing which has interested me and animated my writing for many years now. Indeed, I find that the topics which truly inspire me are exactly the things Rian Watt spoke about on Friday and constitute the subject matter of the baseball writing I most admire. Likewise, the negative reaction Watt refers too — the “stick to sports” refrains — are exactly the sort of response I have received from detractors when I write about these topics, a response I’ve never truly understood and which constitutes a request I will not honor. Ever.

We need more of this sort of writing. We need more people asking the questions about sports that only a few of us have been asking and we need different sorts of people from different backgrounds and with different worldviews asking them.

More baseball fans and readers of baseball writing should ask why things are the way they are and whether or not the way things are are the way they should be.

We should be asking what we expect from baseball players and why we expect it in the first place.

We should be asking what role sports should play in our lives and in society as a whole.

We should look at sports through the lens of our real world experiences and real world realities and see if, through the lens of sports, we can’t make some insights about the real world in return.

I love baseball. My life always has been and always will be better for its presence. We must realize, however, that it’s a strong, strong institution that isn’t going anywhere. Our questioning it and its foundations and assumptions will not damage it too greatly. We should not be afraid to challenge it and its leaders and its participants and its fans to examine what, exactly, we talk about when we talk about baseball and what it is we enjoy about it and why. And perhaps, if enough people ask enough questions about the world baseball inhabits, it can even be improved a bit. Even if it’s just around the edges.

Fernando Rodney left a Caribbean Series game with leg tightness

Seattle Mariners closer Fernando Rodney celebrates after defeating the Toronto Blue Jays in AL baseball action in Toronto on Saturday May 23, 2015.  (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP
7 Comments

Per MLB.com’s Jesse Sanchez, new Padres reliever Fernando Rodney was taken out of a Caribbean Series game on Thursday due to tightness in his leg. It’s unfortunate timing, as the club’s one-year, $1.6 million contract with the right-hander was also finalized on Thursday.

According to MLB.com, Rodney has logged 2 2/3 innings for the Dominican Republic, allowing three runs (one earned) on three hits and a walk with five strikeouts.

Rodney, who turns 39 in March, posted a combined 4.74 ERA with 58 strikeouts and 29 walks across 62 2/3 innings with the Mariners and Cubs this past season. Most of his struggles came with the Mariners, as he compiled a minuscule 0.75 ERA in 12 innings with the Cubs, but pitched in mostly lower-leverage situations.