Jeremy Giambi vs. David Ortiz

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The 2002 Red Sox won 93 games, only to finish 10 games behind the Yankees in the AL West and six back of the lone wild card. They named Theo Epstein the GM that November and allowed him to begin reshaping the team, then led by Pedro Martinez and Manny Ramirez.

The Red Sox didn’t make any big splashes that winter. Their biggest free agent signing was Ramiro Mendoza, who got $6.5 million for two years. They also signed Mike Timlin and Bill Mueller (who played behind Shea Hillenbrand at third initially). They traded for Todd Walker. They stole Bronson Arroyo off waivers.

What Epstein did totally overhaul was a first base-DH situation that held the team back the previous season. 2002 trade deadline pickup Cliff Floyd exited in free agency, as did disappointments Tony Clark and Jose Offerman.

Brought in was a three-headed monster of underappreciated, high-OBP, Moneyball-type players. First, the Red Sox traded Josh Hancock to the Phillies for Jeremy Giambi, who had just hit .244/.435/.538 in 156 at-bats after coming over from the A’s at midseason. He hit .272/.402/.475 in 684 at-bats total between 2001 and 2002, and he looked like he was still very much in his prime at age 28.

The day after the Giambi trade, the Twins made the move to release David Ortiz. No one pounced, though, and Ortiz remained unsigned for a month before joining the Boston on a one-year, $1.25 million contract. Ortiz, who was entering his age-27 season, hit .272/.339/.500 in 412 at-bats for the Twins in 2002.

While that was going on, the Red Sox were working to bring in Kevin Millar for first base. Millar hit .306/.366/.509 in 438 at-bats for the Marlins in 2002 and was even better the previous season, but he was a poor outfielder and third baseman and the team already had Derrek Lee at first base. So, the Marlins, rather than trade Millar for a player, sold him to Japan for some much-preferred cash. Millar, not realizing that he was a desired commodity around the league, went along with the plan. That’s when the Red Sox broke an unwritten rule and claimed Millar off waivers. It turned into a long ordeal, but the Red Sox were finally able to land Millar in February by buying him from the Marlins.

I remember at the time being most excited about the Giambi acquisition. He couldn’t play defense and he had gotten himself exiled by the A’s for some transgression the previous year, but he looked like an awesome offensive force with his terrific power and ridiculous walk rate. Ortiz was certainly worth taking the chance on, too, but I thought Giambi would be better and leave Ortiz with little to do.

Indeed, Giambi started over Ortiz on Opening Day. However, both got off to lousy starts and Giambi’s playing time quickly diminished. Giambi finished April at .125/.288/.292 in 60 plate appearances, starting only once in the final week of the month. Ortiz came in at .212/.311/.346 in 61 plate appearances.

Both players found their strokes at the beginning of May. For Giambi, though, it amounted to all of about two weeks of success. He peaked with an .828 OPS on May 16. Ortiz’s build was slower, but it lasted. He had a .942 OPS in May, a .961 OPS in June, a .987 OPS in July and a 1.097 OPS in August before plummeting all of the way to .977 in September. He finished 5th in the AL MVP balloting despite playing about half the time the first two months.

Giambi, finding himself more starved for at-bats after Ortiz heated up, landed on the DL in late June with a bad shoulder. At the time, it looked like it might have been a made-up injury to get him playing time in the minors for a spell. It wasn’t. He returned a few weeks later, but he still wasn’t right. He made his last appearance on Aug. 1, going 0-for-3 against the Orioles. He landed back on the DL and then underwent surgery to repair damage in his labrum and rotator cuff.

As it turned out, Giambi never played in the majors again. As he was trying to come back from the shoulder surgery the next spring, he developed back problems. He played in 17 minor league games with the Dodgers in 2004 and nine with the White Sox in 2005. That was it for him, and he was done at 30 years old. In early 2005, he admitted to using BALCO-provided steroids and said that he regretted it. The strength training likely played roles in both his emergence and his downfall, given the breakdown of his body.

Things worked out a little differently for Ortiz…

Ortiz through 2002 (age 26): .266/.348/.461, 108 OPS+ in 1,693 PA
Giambi through 2002 (age 27): .269/.381/.437, 114 OPS+ in 1,549 PA

Ortiz after 2002: .290/.386/.570, 148 OPS+ in 8,387 PA
Giambi after 2002: .197/.342/.354, 81 OPS+ in 156 PA

And those 2003 Red Sox? Well, they won 95 games, which was good enough for the wild card this time. Still, they lost to the Yankees in seven games in the ALCS. They were still one year away.

Goose Gossage, Pete Rose and “unwatchable baseball”

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There are a lot of things that, in my view and in the view of many others, are suboptimal in today’s game.

You’ve either heard me go on about them in the past year or two or you’ve heard others go on about them, but a short, non-exclusive list includes the view that there are too many home runs and strikeouts now, bullpen use has changed the nature of the game in less-than-great ways, and the game-going and sometimes merely game-viewing experience has become prohibitively expensive for some and annoying in many respects to everyone, to the point where it has become a barrier to even enjoying the product in the first place.

While I never hesitate to make my views known on these matters, I also acknowledge that I do not have a monopoly on wisdom with respect to them. Indeed, there’s a lot to be said about all of these issues — both in support and in pushing back against my views on them — to further the discussion. Baseball has been around a long time, it changes more often than our nostalgic view of its history suggests, and all of us have our blind spots. The only way to deal with that stuff is to talk more about it, to add more voices to the conversation and, perhaps most importantly, to accept that we’re never gonna settle on anything definitive. One person’s ideal game is one person’s “unwatchable” game and it has always been thus.

Are there are limits to who we should talk to about all of this, though? For example, do we really need to know what Goose Gossage and Pete Rose have to add to this conversation? Bob Nightengale of USA Today thinks so. Here’s Gossage:

“I can’t watch these games anymore. It’s not baseball. It’s unwatchable. A lot of the strategy of the game, the beauty of the game, it’s all gone. It’s like a video game now. It’s home run derby with their (expletive) launch angle every night.”

Rose:

“It’s home run derby every night, and if that’s what they want, that’s what they’re going to get. But they have to understand something … Home runs are up. Strikeouts are up. But attendance is down. I didn’t go to Harvard or one of those Ivy League schools, but that’s not a good thing.”

As a matter of editorial philosophy I question whether it ever makes sense to ask Goose Gossage and Pete Rose about anything that is not specifically about Goose Gossage or Pete Rose and even then I’d exercise caution. Gossage has spent the last ten years as every writer’s go-to for easy quotes hating on anything that has happened in baseball since 1988. Rose, in addition to being a loathsome human being who is banned from the game, is also one of those dudes who thinks his generation and his generation alone Played the Game the Right Way. The less we hear from them on this stuff the better, as far as I’m concerned.

Yet, they’re not wrong.

At least they’re not wrong as far as what they’re saying above. That’s how frickin’ messed up baseball is right now. Even Goose Gossage and Pete Rose are on my side of the matter. It’s enough to make a guy sit down and take stock, ya know? At least it’s enough to make me want to be more specific and objective about what it is that bugs me about the game today, so as not to lazily fall into an “everything is new sucks” stance, which I suspect is what animates these two particular stopped clocks.

I think it helps to break it all down into two categories, which lead to very different conversations. One category is the aesthetics of baseball. The other is the structure of baseball.

On the aesthetic side we’re dealing with how any given game plays out. How, on any given night, it seems, that we have nearly a dozen 14-7 games in which the bat boy, or someone quite like him, hits three homers while also taking the mound and striking out 14 guys but somehow getting the loss anyway, with the game ending a crisp four hours and sixteen minutes after the first pitch. This is a slog. It has a lot to do with the juiced ball and the manner in which both hitters and pitchers have been selected for thanks to analytical trends, changes in the strike zone and all of that.

On the structural side we’re talking about the business, economics and leadership of the game and how it has led to a situation in which multiple teams are tanking — telling their fans that, at best, they’ll be competitive two or three out of every ten years — while fielding a roster of players who would have at least a moderate fight on their hands to ensure first place in the International League. This while still charging ridiculous prices for tickets, concessions, and parking while making the games harder and harder to watch on TV without paying for premium cable plans. Nightengale notes that attendance is down something like 800,000 overall so far this year, coming off last year’s 15-year low in attendance. None of this is an accident, of course. When you tell fans you’re not going to try to win while giving them no other incentive to come to the park, you’re going to have fewer fans coming to the park.

As I said, these are two different areas of complaint. I’m open to the idea that my aesthetic distaste for what’s going on in baseball right now is merely my opinion. I’m a middle aged guy and, even if I work extra hard to not be some nostalgic, sentimental simpleton, I’m not immune from falling into that trap of “everything was better when I was 12.” I probably do that more than I care to admit. I don’t think I’m alone in hating the juiced ball game right now, but I also have to nod in deference to people who love it, as I’m sure there are many.

Where I start to become less “it’s all good, everyone’s opinion is valid” about all of this, though, is when observe that a lot of the aesthetic stuff is a direct product of the structural stuff.

  • We have home run fests because we have a lot of guys pitching who have no business being out there but are because a lot of teams are tanking. I think it’s OK to feel differently about a game that has changed because a non-trivial number of teams aren’t interested in competing;
  • We have home run fests because the ball is juiced. MLB denied this for a while and then when it became undeniable they accepted it and claimed it was an accident but now it’s gone on so long it’s an accident that they seem to have no interest in fixing whatsoever. I think it’s OK to feel differently about a game that has changed because of a juiced ball;
  • We have a legion of high-velocity strikeout pitchers because that’s who front offices have all, almost uniformly, decided to favor, and it’s been helped along by a redefinition of the strike zone — there is no wide strike anymore — that has made control or finesse pitching close to impossible. I think it’s OK to feel differently about a game that has changed because of a lack of creativity and a lack of latitude to be creative when it comes to talent development;
  • We have front offices who see no incentive to be creative when it comes to talent development because — thanks to baseball revenues being substantially detached from winning baseball games — there is no upside to going against the prevalent orthodoxy and/or taking any financial risks. And with that, we go back up to bullet point number one.

Again, it’s OK to like the current state of baseball. It’s OK to presume that some of us — be it Goose Gossage, Pete Rose or me — are turned off by it to some extent because we’re just crotchety old dudes who hate change. But it’s fair to say that, like most change in baseball, it has not been exclusively organic. Like most change it is the product, at least in part, of a change in circumstances and incentives. Though, in this case, that change is not necessarily benign. It’s driven by a bottom-line mentality that, while always present in baseball, has far more of an impact on the game on the field than it has in a very, very long time because it’s a bottom-line mentality that can afford to be indifferent about the winning and losing of baseball games.

Maybe history will prove me to be a crank when it comes to this stuff. But I feel like it’s worth examining the roots of the aesthetic issues in baseball via reference to what led to them. If it’s garbage-in, is that which comes out not garbage?