Aaron Judge is not baseball’s savior. Just let him play ball.


Sixteen years ago, The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract was published. It’s full of James’ legendary wisdom and insight, but one bit that I come back to, over and over again, is this:

When a young player comes to the major leagues and has success right away, writers will almost always write about what a fine young man he is as well as a supreme talent. Never pay any attention to those articles or those descriptions . . . Sportswriters, despite their cynicism or because of it, desperately want to believe in athletes as heroes, and will project their hopes onto anyone who offers a blank slate. The problem with this is that, when the player turns out to be human and fallible, people feel betrayed. It is a disservice to athletes to try to make them more than they really are.

The baseball establishment has gotten on board with most things James has said over the years, but it still constantly ignores this passage. The latest example of it can be seen in the coverage of Yankees slugger Aaron Judge.

Yesterday Bill pointed out the silly hyperbole which is beginning to sneak in to Judge’s coverage. Today John Harper of the Daily News writes the column I’ve been anticipating for a few weeks now:

. . . it was Maris who hit those 61 home runs in 1961, famously breaking Babe Ruth’s single-season record of 60. And while Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds have since obliterated that number, their totals are so egregiously steroids-tainted that, in my mind and I believe millions of others, Maris’ 61 still stands as the unofficial record.

Wouldn’t it be something if Judge took a serious run at that?

It’s a paint-by-numbers piece if ever there was one. A healthy dose of criticism of the players of the 1990s and 2000s followed by a whole lot of “what a fine young man this Aaron Judge is,” all in service of a “baseball truly needs this!” and “it’d be a great story!” jazz.

It’s bad enough that we continue to see this kind of shade thrown on guys like Bonds, McGwire, Sosa and their contemporaries. The PED era was what it was, but my memory of it, and the memory of almost everyone who isn’t a tut-tutting sports writer, is that it was a lot of fun. Those homers happened, they counted and they provided a lot of entertainment for a lot of people. Think whatever you want about the record book and the ethics of it, but don’t assume for a moment that the majority of people who enjoyed baseball of that era are demanding that their memories be saved from some dark shadow.

The worst part of it, though, is sportswriters seem to forget how often they have played this game. And how naive they look to have played it in hindsight. Remember this story about Alex Rodriguez from the New York Times in 2006?

The cause of Bonds’s physical changes has been endlessly scrutinized; he has repeatedly denied knowingly using steroids, and baseball only began testing for them in 2003. The worst accusation against Rodriguez is that he bragged too much about his workouts in an interview last spring. Whatever people think of him personally, the legitimacy of Rodriguez’s performance has never been questioned … If he continues to avoid injury, the home run record could be his. If Bonds is the man whom Rodriguez is chasing, it is safe to say baseball will be rooting for him.

Tyler Kepner wrote that. He’s one of baseball’s smartest and best writers and even he couldn’t resist the lure of the [relatively] blank slate and the promise of a Great Clean Hope presented by Alex Freakin’ Rodriguez of all people. It’s almost impossible for sportswriters to resist it whenever a new talent bursts onto the scene.

If we have learned anything in the past fifteen years or so we’ve learned that that talking up ballplayers as ideals of wholesome virtue is idiotic. We don’t know them, not really. They’re all human. They all have faults and foibles. Some — like Albert Pujols, who James referenced in that passage 16 years ago — defy the odds and manage to remain citizens in good standing. Some remain that way during their playing career and then are revealed later to be guys who are not so great. Some, like Alex Rodriguez, fall off that pedestal onto which they were placed while still in their prime. Since we don’t know them, we don’t have any way of predicting who will and who will not turn out to be good men. Hell, even the ones who seem to be good may simply be great at hiding dark secrets.

The point, however, is not that we should be cynical and suspicious of everyone. The point is that we should not put people we do not know on such pedestals in the first place. Placing them there is an exercise in baseless hero creation and knocking them off — with disingenuous claims of personal betrayal — is an exercise in self-righteousness. It’s unfair to them and it’s, at best, naive of us. More often it comes off like cynically contrived theater.

Aaron Judge is having a fantastic season. He may have a fantastic career. He is unquestionably the most enjoyable part of 2017 so far and I hope he continues to do what he does because it’s damn fun to watch. Yankees fans are lucky to see him every day and they should not, for one moment, be expected to stifle their excitement, let alone question Judge’s character. He’s a baseball player and they should be allowed to enjoy his baseball feats without worrying about it.

But nor should they, or anyone else, put anything more than that on Aaron Judge’s shoulders. Just because John Harper or some other sportswriter has unresolved issues about past heroes turning out to have feet of clay doesn’t make it Judge’s problem. And it certainly shouldn’t give him more responsibility to them or to the game of baseball than he already has.

2018 Preview: Tampa Bay Rays

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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 Tampa Bay Rays.

A lot of teams start one season looking very different than they did at the end of the previous season. Usually you can see those changes coming as early as August or September. What the Rays look like now, on the eve of the 2018 regular season, however, is very different than the sort of change we assumed as recently as the Winter Meetings.

We knew they’d let Alex Cobb walk in free agency and they did. But we did not expect them to trade Evan Longoria, to designate Corey Dickerson for assignment coming off an All-Star year, to trade 30-homer outfielder Steven Souza, or to trade Jake Odorizzi as spring training was getting underway as opposed to some time later when, perhaps, he could bring more value. The baseball justifications for some of these trades were better than they were for others, but the way they were done and the timing of it all cast a pall on the offseason, appearing as they did to be payroll slashing moves. The certainly didn’t impress the MLBPA, which filed a grievance against Tampa Bay last month, accusing them of pocketing revenue sharing money instead of trying to make the team better.

None of that played well, but if you take a couple of steps back, it’s possible to defend it all by realizing that even with all of those guys, the Rays were an 80-win team last year and would not have had a huge amount of upside this year if they had kept it all together. I’ll leave it to prospect experts, number crunchers to decide whether the Rays did a good job of tearing it down — and I think they could’ve done better than they did with stopgap measures until their minor league talent matures — but it’s at least understandable that they wanted to tear it down and start anew.

Until the fruits of those deals — and the fruits of a minor league system which has been pretty darn good in recent years — are ripe, though, the big league Rays are going to have a lot of question marks.

On offense the biggest question mark is health and durability. Here’s a pretty plausible Opening Day lineup Kevin Cash may send out there:

DH Denard Span
3B Matt Duffy
CF Kevin Kiermaier
RF Carlos Gomez
2B Brad Miller
C Wilson Ramos
1B C.J. Cron
SS Adeiny Hechavarria
LF Mallex Smith

Not terrible, but not durable or, in some cases, consistent. Kiermaier has had some freak injuries, but the nature of his play — hard, fast and diving for stuff — makes that a hazard and, as such, he’s really only played in one full season. Matt Duffy missed all of last year and, let’s face it, has never struck fear into the hearts of opposing pitchers. Wilson Ramos knows the disabled list like few others. Meanwhile, Carlos Gomez, C.J. Cron and Brad Miller have had fairly substantial swings in production across recent and within recent seasons. Adeiny Hechavarria and Mallex Smith are not serious offensive threats.

It’s easy to squint and to imagine Span, Kiermaier, Ramos, Gomez and maybe Cron forming the nucleus of a respectable attack, but it’s also easy to see half of that lineup playing in only, like, 107 games, Cash penciling in dudes like Jesus Sucre and Daniel Robertson a lot or putting Denard Span out in the outfield more than he should to cover for whoever. The Rays featured the 14th-best offense in the AL in 2017. I can see a case for it improving a tad, but not by much, and if the injury fairy flies through the window, this could be really bad.

On the upside, most of these guys can pick it pretty well, so the defense should be pretty decent and potentially even superior. The pitching is good on paper too, but there is gonna be some weirdness afoot if Cash sticks with the plan he outlined earlier this month.

Even with the departure of Cobb and Odorizzi — and even with the season-ending surgery to top prospect Brent Honeywell — the Rays have five good starters in Chris Archer, Nate Eovaldi, Blake Snell, Jake Faria and Matt Andriese. Except they’re not going to use all five starters in their rotation. They’re going to go with a four-man rotation and a bullpen game every fifth day. At present it appears that Andriese, who started 17 games last year, is the odd man out and will be part of the all-hands-on-deck crew on day 5, whenever that comes up.

Early on this should not make a difference. There are a lot of off days in the first month of the season, so the need for that bullpen day will be pretty limited. One wonders, though, what this will do to their effectiveness and durability as the temperature rises and the season wears on. Yes, “bullpenning” got a lot of press in the postseason, but the idea that a bullpen can stay fresh with such a high-level of use for 5-6 months with few days off is a questionable one. That’s especially the case when three of the Rays’ four starters — Eovaldi, Faria and Snell — pitched limited innings last year and can’t be expected to go six or seven innings per start in 2018 (who can anymore?). Maybe Archer is a horse, but the rest of your games you’re going to need three relievers to finish things up based on how life works these days. Maybe more.

In light of that, is the bullpen going to be able to handle nine innings once every five days? Color me dubious. I think they’ll be fried by July. At least if they truly do use that fifth day as a true bullpen day and don’t, say, just call up a new fifth starter every week and a half and use that slot to audition organizational depth before ultimately just handing it over to Andriese. Indeed, now that I’m thinking about it, I’d wager that the fifth day plan morphs into that pretty quickly and that we’ll be smiling at the notion of a true bullpen day by the All-Star break.

As for the arms in that bullpen, Alex Colome is the closer, mostly because the Rays couldn’t find anyone to deal him to this past offseason. In support are old hands Daniel Hudson and Sergio Romo, neither of whom have been relief aces in recent years, even if Romo did do well for the Rays after coming over late last season. Dan Jennings, Jose Alvarado, Ryne Stanek and a cast of similarly anonymous guys will take the ball a lot. Even Johnny Venters, who had three Tommy John surgeries, could be in the mix at some point. The cast will be as big as “Love Actually.” Whether they are as annoying depends on who you’re rooting for.

Where does that leave the Rays? It leaves them with some serious dice rolling in the lineup, some good defense, some respectable pitching but a potentially odd and possibly detrimental approach to its deployment. It leaves them with a still very good farm system and a roster that looks really nice for 2020. I think it leaves them in some pretty serious trouble for 2018, though, especially in a division as top heavy as the AL East.

As far as on-the-fly rebuilds go, it’s not a bad one, but it’s still one that’s gonna leave the Rays in the low-80s win-wise at best, with some pretty serious potential downside.

Prediction: Fourth Place, AL East.