Jay Urban Is On Notice

Normally I reserve the “On Notice” (the idea which I’ve stolen from Stephen Colbert) board for crotchety old journalists like Bill Conlin who lash out at people who do his job better, but in this case, I’m expanding it to include people who make indicting statements about the “steroid era” on false grounds. Jay Urban of Bleacher Report wrote an article with a long title that reads “Gammons In Denial” before it hits the comma.

Most of the time, I will simply ignore articles like this and not even waste my time on it, but this one in particular is about a subject I feel strongly about, as it is a subject with loads of misinformation.

Mike Greenberg’s replacement that day, Erik Kuselias, reported that at the current rate Major League Baseball will produce 1,000 fewer home runs than two years ago. He then asked the baseball expert why this was ocurring.

I also asked this question not too long ago. The factor that seems to affect the offense the most is simply the weather. It’s typically cold and rainy in April and early May, so balls don’t carry as well.

Let’s take a look at last year’s New York Yankees who had the best offense in baseball. Their OPS by month…

March/April: .768

May: 782

June: .802

July: .916

August: .848

September/October: .841

That’s one example, but generally speaking, you will see a positive correlation between offense and higher temperatures. The current season hasn’t yet gotten into “high” temperatures.

In a laughable response, Gammons answered that the main differences were strategically motivated. Teams are thinking smarter and focusing on developing young pitching and that baseball nutrition was also undergoing a revision. Teams have been steering their players toward more versatile hitting bodies modeled after the winningest teams.

Come on. Was this a joke?

I don’t see what’s so egregious about Gammons’ response. In fact, it makes a lot of sense.

Are teams thinking smarter? It seems so, as Sabermetrics become more and more accepted in Major League circles. Teams still, unfortunately, utilize the sacrifice bunt in the wrong situations and offer a superfluous amount of intentional walks, but that has been a constant.

Are teams developing young pitching? It seems so. If you take a look at the best pitchers in baseball so far, a lot of them are under the age of 25: Edinson Volquez, Tim Lincecum, Zack Grienke, Fausto Carmona, Jair Jurrjens, Scott Olsen, Cole Hamels, John Danks, Felix Hernandez, John Lannan…

Are teams improving nutrition? How could they not? Nutrition is a science and science is always advancing. Additionally, Yankees manager Joe Girardi’s ban on candy and ice cream is an obvious focus on his team’s nutrition.

Have teams been focusing on “versatile hitting bodies”? That I cannot definitively say yes or no to, but if you think about it logically, I don’t know how it can be false. Teams don’t raise their draft picks to end up looking like Dmitri Young, do they?

The dramatic drop in home runs is a function of fewer steroid and growth hormone users, which in turn, is a function of more stringent testing procedures coupled with stiffer penalties.

This seems like a cogent correlation, but, unfortunately, it is not. Take a look at the numbers:
AL home runs per game, 2007: 0.99

AL home runs per game, 2008: 0.86 (-0.13)

NL home runs per game, 2007: 1.04

NL home runs per game, 2008: 0.95 (-0.09)

Unless Jay Urban thinks that they’ve only enforced strict drug testing on American Leaguers, he’s patently wrong here. The drop in home runs can be attributed to the cold weather and randomness.

However, even if both leagues had a significant drop in offensive production, Urban and others would still have to heed the “correlation does not imply causation” axiom.

Furthermore, Urban assumes that steroids and HGH are positively correlated with power hitting, but there has never been any direct evidence that shows this. In fact, HGH has been shown to not be performance-enhancing:

So far, no one has been able to connect the increase in lean body tissue caused by HGH with enhancement of athletic performance. Unlike steroids, growth hormone hasn’t been shown to increase weight-lifting ability; in the lab, it has a greater effect on muscle definition than muscle strength. And it doesn’t seem to help much with cardiovascular fitness, either.

As far as steroids enhancing performance, I make the argument that if they do, then so do Cortisone shots, over-the-counter and prescription drugs, protein shakes, and the like.

So, Urban is wrong on a host of fronts.

Among the penalties brought upon accused and convicted players thus far, the most potent has been fan reaction.

Right now Barry Bonds is unemployed, as is Sammy Sosa. Considering the difficulty that several American League teams are having putting runs on the board (this means you, Detroit Tigers), it would seem that these players still have a lot of value as designated hitters. Despite this, these players have been chosen as scapegoats to bear the sins of everyone else that broke the rules during this era.

Again, Urban makes a frivolous correlation: Bonds’ and Sosa’s assumed PED use is why they’re not on teams. Of course, Urban ignores that both are old and injury-prone, and that Sosa was merely league-average last season. Teams can get league-average offense in the DH spot from a number of places that don’t involve signing 40-year-olds that are essentially just taking at-bats away from younger, more deserving players.

The Bonds signing is almost definitely due to collusion, as the sage John Brattain explains. It’s not just the claim that he may have taken PED’s that is keeping teams from signing him, it’s that no one really likes him. He’s never been media-friendly (and oftentimes, rightfully so) and has always been independent.

Instead, the finger needs to be pointed in the direction of the news and sports media who have chosen to ignore the real issues that if covered, would have kept baseball accountable.

Generally, I agree with the sentiment that the media hasn’t done its job but this issue is not one such area.

PED’s were banned discreetly in 1991 via a memo, and hardly anyone knew about it. As Tom Farrey wrote for ESPN The Magazine:

In truth, steroids have been banned in baseball since 1991 — in a policy baseball officials made little effort to publicize. A source provided a copy of the seven-page document to ESPN The Magazine on the condition of anonymity.

[…]

ESPN spoke to five GMs from 1997, three of whom (from the Royals, Dodgers and Rockies) couldn’t recall that a steroids policy even existed — not that it would have mattered. “I hate to say this, but it didn’t do a whole lot of good to know the policy,” says Herk Robinson, the Royals’ GM during 1990-2000. “You weren’t going [to] solve anything. You couldn’t test. You couldn’t walk up to a guy and say, ‘What are you taking?'”

If you’re an anti-PED person, then you can only blame the guys at the top of Major League Baseball in 1991.

If you’re a more rational person who realizes that steroid and HGH use is only a controversy overinflated by the pharmaceutical industry that pays our politicians millions upon millions of dollars every year to pay attention to otherwise meaningless drug issues, then you blame… lobbyists and our easily-bribed politicians.

Instead of opening up the book and brokering a deal with major league baseball and the fans by explaining the full extent of the scandal, the media perpetuates the same fantasy that only a few were users.

Only a few were users! We haven’t even gone into the thousands (probably not even into the 500’s) with PED users, and there are close to 10,000 Major Leaguers every decade if my rough estimate is anywhere close. That would make 5% of the league over the last 10 years PED users. That’s not a big number at all. Perhaps Urban would like to present a more comprehensive list than those already compiled that include players suspended under the new anti-drug rules and those named in the Mitchell Report and whatever garbage is flowing out of Jose Canseco’s mouth.

These are periodically scapegoated in order to appease the fans who know that they were sold a lemon for over ten years.

Fans weren’t given a lemon because players were willing to put their future health at risk so they could put on a better show. The fans in the Steroid Era were given a magnificent show — the film Casablanca or Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro if you will — and it’s a shame that so many people are willing to taint their own memories because of a manufactured controversy.

The real reason for lack of home run production is well-known and the answer points to an answer that few are willing to accept. (WARNING: the next sentence will seem outrageous to those who live in a fantasy world) A majority of players in MLB from the early 1990’s to the recent past were users on some level.

As shown above, the real reason for lack of offensive production is basically the cold weather and randomness. Go back to this article after the season and see if it still makes sense.

You know we’ve told you before
But you didn’t hear us then
So you still question why
No! You didn’t listen again
You didn’t listen again

Rush, “Lessons”

BDD: Ryan Report; Also: Rush References!

The fifth installment of The Ryan Report is up for your amusement at Baseball Digest Daily.

As a result of the Blue Jays pwning the Phillies in the recent three-game series in Philadelphia and my losing a bet with the guys at Drunk Jays Fans, I have agreed to make Rush references in a week’s worth of posts. There is one in Ryan Report #5 but for your viewing pleasure, here is the video for Tom Sawyer:

Jayson Werth FTW, Literally

Jayson Werth: 3-4, 3 HR, 8 RBI

Jayson Werth FTW!

Werth hit three home runs Friday night in the inter-league opener against the Toronto Blue Jays en route to a 10-3 win. Two of his homers came against Jays starter David Purcey: a three-run home run to open the scoring in the second inning, and a grand slam that gave the Phillies an 8-0 lead in the third inning. Werth tacked on a solo home run off of Jesse Litsch in the fifth inning.

His eight RBI in one game tied a Phillies club record. According to the Phillies website:

The last Phillie to collect eight RBIs in a game was Mike Schmidt on April 17, 1976, in Chicago. The other three were Willie “Puddin’ Head” Jones (Aug. 20, 1958), Gavvy Cravath (Aug. 8, 1915) and Kitty Bransfield (July 11, 1910).

Werth’s eight RBI in one game is one more than his right field platoon mate Geoff Jenkins has all season (Werth has been playing in center field recently, however). Similarly, his three homers in one game is more than Carlos Ruiz, Shane Victorino, and Jenkins have all season.

His night left him with a season total of nine homers, which ties him with Pat Burrell and Ryan Howard for second-most on the team, and his eight RBI bumps him up to 26 on the season, third most on the team behind Chase Utley and Burrell.

Werth’s recent play may give Charlie Manuel food for thought regarding the platoon with Jenkins that was supposed to be utilized. Starting on May 13 in the series opener with the Atlanta Braves, Manuel put Werth in center field and Victorino in right field, which appeared to be a response to some poor defense on Victorino’s part in the previous series in San Francisco. Werth hadn’t played center field much throughout his career, logging 40 games and about 259 innings at that position going into 2008, but has already played 22 games and about 179 innings there so far this season. Jenkins thus far has been disappointing, getting on base below a .300 clip and not showing any power with his .345 SLG.

Answering Murphy’s Question

David Murphy, pretty much the only Philadelphia Daily News journalist that is even tolerable (Murphy is great), wrote a blog today asking the question, “How much does Rollins mean to this team?

Before I get into that, let me do my usual thing of linking you to my latest work at Baseball Digest Daily:

Shameless self-promotion aside, let’s get to the question. I’ll go through what he said in his blog and write my response to it.

[…] I’m convinced that Jimmy Rollins is one of those rare athletes whose presence really can invigorate a team. It’s why I disagree with those who say he shouldn’t have been MVP last year.

Well, unless Rollins’ intangibles can essentially add 30 OPS+ points either to himself or to his team (or both) and turn his defense from mediocre to above-average, there’s no justification for Rollins getting the MVP award last season. It was really between David Wright, Chipper Jones, and Chase Utley.

As to his “presence,” I don’t think there’s any question that he has a positive effect on his team, but that effect is minuscule as we are talking about professional Major League Baseball players — the highest caliber in the world. If they need to be in Rollins’ presence to feel excited about playing, or to be energized in the 7th inning in a getaway game, then it’s likely we’re not talking about MLB players.

But beyond that, I’m convinced his presence made his teammates better. Not in a concious [sic] way. Jayson Werth and Greg Dobbs didn’t walk up to the plate thinking, “I’m going to single now because Jimmy Rollins is here.”

The only other way this works is subconsciously then, and there’s really little difference between the two as both are unprovable.

There’s no question the Phillies are a better team with Jimmy Rollins at shortstop instead of Eric Bruntlett, and they’re better with Rollins leading off so Shane Victorino can hit second, Geoff Jenkins or Werth can hit sixth, Pedro Feliz seventh, and Carlos Ruiz eighth (Murphy explains this later).

That much is tangible, though. Rollins is light years ahead of Bruntlett offensively. The lower in the order Feliz hits, the less outs he makes (he is an outs machine). Bruntlett was hitting second and has an OBP of .308. While Shane Victorino hasn’t been any better (.305 OBP) he has a much higher ceiling and the more you pair him with Rollins at the top of the batting order, the less outs there will be when Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, and Pat Burrell come to the plate, which creates a lot of opportunities to score runs.

But there’s just something about this offense, this team, when Rollins is in the line-up. Everything clicks. Shane Victorino gets to hit second instead of first. That’s where he belongs. Werth gets to hit sixth and bring some speed to the middle of the order. Pedro Feliz gets to hit seventh. Carlos Ruiz gets to hit eighth.

The “Everything clicks” Murphy cites is tangible, as explained above. If he’s going for the intangible — that, in a vacuum, everyone in the lineup is better when Rollins is in there than when he is not — then it’s simply a “God of the gaps” argument, which is basically saying “If we don’t know, then [preconceived notion — in this case, intangibles] is the answer.”

How many times over the past month has the leadoff spot come up with two out in an inning? When Rollins is that leadoff guy, there’s a real potential for something big to happen. In fact, it’s expected.

“He always tells me just to get on,” pitcher Cole Hamels said.

Hamels got on the eight with two out, and Rollins hit a huge home run.

This is a cherry-pick. Why is Rollins somehow a better candidate when there are two outs? Granted, he has a 1.067 OPS with two outs, but that’s in a small sample size: 10 plate appearances. Last season, Rollins’ OPS dropped with every out recorded: 0 outs, .945; 1 out, .867; 2 outs, .768. And given his mediocre OBP (.331 career; .344 last season), I have more confidence in Jayson Werth (.351 career OBP; .404 last season) to extend an inning with two outs. In fact, Werth’s OPS with two outs was better than Rollins’ at .797.

I asked Hamels if we make too much of the impact Rollins brings to the entire team.

“Absolutely not,” he said.

What do you expect him to say? He’s not about to trash his own teammate.

Here’s another thing I think. And again, it’s just me thinking. But me thinking thinks that Rollins returning will help Ryan Howard too. I don’t think the first baseman would ever admit it, but there was more pressure on him with Rollins out. And that may have affected him. Last year he hit .223 when Chase Utley was down. He put some good swings on the ball tonight. Scored a run.

There are a lot of hasty generalizations here. Tangibly, Rollins will help Howard because it’s more likely Rollins will be on base than his replacement (Bruntlett) would have, so when Howard bats, there will be less outs and runners on base, which means Howard will see more predictable fastballs.

Secondly, Ryan Howard did not hit well when Chase Utley was injured because the Phillies played a lot of teams with good pitching:

  • July 30-August 2: Chicago Cubs, 2nd-best pitching in NL
  • August 3-5: Milwaukee Brewers, 9th-best pitching in NL
  • August 10-12: Atlanta Braves, 3rd-best pitching in NL
  • August 14-16: Washington Nationals, 10th-best pitching in NL
  • August 21-23: Los Angeles Dodgers, 6th-best pitching in NL
  • August 24-26: San Diego Padres, best pitching in NL

Understandably, the Phillies went 9-10 against those teams, and 6-3 against teams with bad pitching staves (4-2 vs. Pittsburgh Pirates’ 3rd-worst pitching, 2-1 vs. Florida Marlins’ worst pitching).

Ryan Howard was helped by Jimmy Rollins because he had some good swings and scored a run? Howard scored 8 runs in 18 games (1 R every 2.25 G) without Rollins and 10 runs in 19 games (1 R every 1.9 G) with Rollins — very little difference.

Howard has had some good swings lately, he’s just been a little unlucky (.211 BABiP). His two good swings last night came in his third at-bat against starter Pat Misch with just over 57 total innings of Major League experience, and in his one at-bat against reliever Tyler Walker who is league-average (102 ERA+ this season, 97 career ERA+).

Rollins’ return to the Phillies makes his team better because he’s better than his replacement Eric Bruntlett, not because he’s energetic or motivational or clutch.