So Much for “Clubhouse Atmosphere”

For years, we have heard the importance of a good clubhouse atmosphere, particularly from proponents of old-school baseball (and usually opponents of Sabermetrics). Despite years of mediocre offense made to look gaudy by a .300-plus batting average, Michael Young earned high marks from many across the sport for providing leadership in the clubhouse. Ostensibly, Young’s “intangibles” were part of why the Phillies acquired him from the Texas Rangers.

The reasoning behind the Young acquisition, now, looks very questionable as the Phillies have since brought in Delmon Young and Carlos Zambrano. Young was arrested last year on a hate crime harassment charge, and had previously thrown a bat at a Minor League umpire in a fit of rage. Zambrano is famous for having fought with teammates (namely Michael Barrett), beating up a Gatorade cooler with a bat, and flipping out at umpires regularly.

Prior to injuring his shoulder in 2008, Zambrano was legitimately among the best pitchers in baseball. Between 2003-08, the right-hander posted an aggregate 3.39 ERA with a 20 percent strikeout rate. In the four years since, he has maxed out at 28 starts in a season with an aggregate 4.10 ERA, an 18 percent strikeout rate, and a ballooning walk rate. He turns 32 on June 1.

Assistant GM Scott Proefrock described the signing as “low risk, hopefully high reward”. It’s true in a vacuum — signing Zambrano to a Minor League deal costs the team next to nothing, and Zambrano still has the potential to provide value at the back of the starting rotation. However, it flies in the face of everything the Phillies have stood for over the years. Adding Zambrano has the potential to disrupt the finely-tuned clubhouse led by Charlie Manuel. Four years ago, this move never would have been a possibility. Remember the media outrage over the relatively-tame Jayson Werth? Mandy Housenick wrote this in 2010:

But what worries me more is the way he acts in the clubhouse, something the organization prides itself in. I read about what he did in Chicago….totally uncalled for.

On Friday night after Ryan Madson gave up a game-winning home run in the eighth, Madson answered reporters’ questions. My understanding is it wasn’t a long interview (everybody can’t be as professional and cordial as Brad Lidge), but Madson stood there and did his job when I’m sure it was the last thing he felt like doing.

The same can’t be said for Werth.

He walked by the crowd of reporters who had just spoken to Madson and said, “Nice interview, guys.”

Nice attitude, Jayson.

To Delmon Young‘s credit, he hasn’t done anything remotely stupid thus far though he has only been in town for two and a half weeks. Maybe he is a changed man, and maybe Zambrano is, too. It’s a gamble, though, one that has the potential of making the Phillies’ clubhouse atmosphere look worse than the 2011 Red Sox. Remember this the next time Amaro puts down Sabermetrics and talks about intangibles like “clubhouse atmosphere” and “leadership”.

The Phillies aren’t the only ones to do it, though. The Rays have a rapist in their bullpen (Josh Lueke). The Cardinals employed Tony La Russa despite his having been arrested for a DUI. The Braves let Bobby Cox direct a team despite being a wife-beater. Miguel Cabrera‘s DUI and domestic abuse incidents were swept under the rug because he could hit dingers. On a less serious note, the Rays kept Matt Garza and Dioner Navarro around despite a heated mound conference that resulted in a dugout shoving match between the two (and those Rays would eventually make it to the World Series!). Mets outfielder Jordany Valdespin seemingly has no friends on the roster — not even his own manager — but he is kept around because he provides value on the field.

Any team will divert their attention away from your inability to follow rules and create a positive atmosphere if they think you can help the team. Claims of intangibles are simply euphemisms for poorly-defined, flimsy-evidenced beliefs about baseball. The Phillies are simply providing the latest example of the discrepancy in publicly-stated beliefs and actions.

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