Saturday, January 12, 2008

IN CASH WE TRUST?

(Pete Abraham, the Yankees' beat reporter for The Journal News, ran an abridged version of the piece below on his blog on January 11, 2008. Much thanks to Pete for the opportunity)http://yankees.lhblogs.com/2008/01/11/pinch-hitting-the-yankees-republic/

February 4, 2008, will mark the 10th year of Brian Cashman’s tenure as the Yankees’ General Manager, the longest period anyone has held the position in the Steinbrenner era, in itself an accomplishment. With celebration however anniversaries also invite reassessment. Accordingly, the milestone begs an appraisal of Cashman’s record.

The first problem, of course, is how. In business, labor and management, for better or worse, bow to the same arbiter—the profit margin. In baseball, however, the very numbers that are a GM’s lifeblood offer no reliable, objective index of his proficiency, only his players’. The most obvious index, his team’s wins and losses, owes to too many variables beyond his control-- payroll, injuries, meddlesome owners, a manager’s folly, the vagaries of players’ production, and sheer luck — to gauge his performance by this measure alone.

Two further complications bedevil the task of evaluating Cashman. First of all, he has benefited from the foundation of young, championship-caliber players his two predecessors Gene Michael and Bob Watson assembled. The core of whom, Jeter, Pettitte, Posada, and Rivera, even today, underpin the Yankees’ success. Secondly, Cashman bore the title of GM in name only through his first eight years, not assuming the position’s full power and authority until November 2005.

Still, Cashman has stamped his signature on enough of the organization’s management structure, personnel, and philosophy to suggest an informed, if hardly definitive, assessment. A record, I judge, in sum, an equivocal one: far less prodigious than the genius nomaas.org, for example, regularly credits him with; but far more able and momentous than the incompetence Mike Pagliarulo’s crude tract smeared him with last year. http://www.myspace.com/baselinereport

No place is this checkered ledger more evident than the Yankees’ major league roster. Where a history of shrewd position-player acquisitions have secured and fortified the dynastic foundation Cashman inherited while a disastrous succession of inept, aged, and frail pitchers have squandered and undermined it. Compare Justice, Ventura, Olerud, Matsui, A-Rod, Damon, and Abreu, on one side, with Weaver, Karsay, Brown, Vasquez, Contreras, Wright, Pavano, Farnsworth, and Igawa, on the other. Even the exceptions, largely, prove the rule. George and his Tampa cronies account for the Mondesi, Wommack, and Giambi acquisitions, on the one side, and propelled the Mike Mussina and Roger Clemens’ signing, on the other. And if we can quibble with wisdom of some of the above acquisitions, or even who accounted for them, the overall pattern speaks for itself: ├ęclat with position-players, folly on pitchers.

Now, in Cashman’s defense, a neglected, depleted farm system and a bear free-agent pitcher market often confined his options to overpriced starters and regressing veterans. And to his credit he recognized why. In a sport flush with cash, beholden to new revenue sharing arrangements, and plagued by a scarcity of pitching talent, only the rare preeminent starter reached free-agency while still in his prime. Even small-market teams jealously guarded their proven pitching talent. They began to sign their best starters to cheaper, long-term contracts before they qualified for arbitration, enabling them, as such, to hold on to their pitchers for two or three years past their free agent eligibility.

Witness Dan Haren’s contract with Oakland. Haren would have attained the six years of service free-agency requires after the 2008 season. But in 2005, the A’s signed him to an extension through 2009, with a 2010 club option, besides. Apart from enabling them to retain Haren longer, the A’s increases his trade value. This explains why Haren commanded four highly rated Diamonbacks prospects when Twins’ GM can’t seem to obtain more than two for Johan Santana. Haren, now, likely won’t reach free-agency until, at the very earliest, he’s 30.

The lesson Cashman learned from all of this is that the Yankees had to return to drafting and cultivating their own pitchers. Their woefully deficient farm system hadn’t produced a starting pitcher since Andy Pettitte in 1995. But once granted full authority in 2005, Cashman remedied the deficiency with considerable dispatch. In just three years, his infusion of premiere, minor-league pitching talent raised the Yankees organizational ranking from 27th in 2004 to 5th in 2007 in Baseball America’s annual survey.

Yet how Cashman accomplished this feat will leave perhaps a more enduring legacy on the franchise than will even the players themselves. He streamlined the management structure, reasserting his supremacy, clarifying executives’ domains, reconciling the Tampa and New York factions, and restoring accountability. Next, he dismissed scouts, hired new cross-checkers, and re-invested money and manpower in the amateur draft. And finally, he expanded the use of quantitative analysis to vet prospects, to identify unsung talent, and to preempt subjective, scouting reports, plagued by human bias, with empirically verifiable data. Enter Moneyball; Exit Prodigal George.

Some of Cashman’s recent comments, however, raise worrisome questions. Has he, like the sculptor Pygmalion, fallen in love with his own creation? The Daily News’ Bill Madden reported, during the Winter Meetings, that Cashman rebuffed an offer of Phil Hughes, Melky Cabrera, Jeff Marquez and Mitch Hiligoss for Johan Santana. “"I'm definitely fully invested in a lot of young talent. You get attached to it," Cashman said. Raising the question: has the GM succumbed to the very irrational bias he embraced sabermetrics to curb and proceeded to overvalue Hughes, among others? Economists would call the “attachment to Hughes” Cashman revealed his “endowment bias”— peoples’ tendency to demand more to sell what we possess than what we’d pay to buy it.

Would Cashman value Hughes equivalently were he another team’s prospect? Why, for example, do the Yankees alone seem to project Hughes a can’t-miss, bona-fide ace? Former Blue Jays’ Assistant GM Keith Law regards him no better than a #2 starter. http://myespn.go.com/s/conversations/show/story/3007436

But more importantly, is Hughes so valuable that he’s worth the price of forgoing Johan Santana? Santana, after all, already is a bona-fide ace, if not the best pitcher in baseball, and pitcher, moreover, capable of giving the Yankees 200 innings the following two seasons. (Whereas Hughes won’t contribute more than about 150 to 170 innings the next two years; that is, if the Yankees honor their professed plan to cap his innings.)

An organization that once mortgaged its future, and bartered away all its young talent-- now that they abound with prospects-- runs the risk of overcompensating and idealizing them. The latter danger Cashman risks is especially prevalent because so many aging superstars compose the Yankees major league roster. How many more prolific years do a 38-yr-old Rivera, a 36-yr-old Posada, a 33 and 32 yr-old Jeter and A-Rod really have left? (And though teeming with young pitching, a recent Baseball America podcast identified the Yankees farm system as having scant hitting talent.) Yet Cashman, nonetheless, plans to entrust 60% of his pitching 2008 rotation to three unproven, rookies with inning caps. Does an aging Yankee lineup, where only two hitters, Cano and Melky, are under 30, have the luxury to wait for them to ripen?

Given Cashman’s history on pitchers, I wish I could say I trusted his judgment. I wish I could say I agreed with his decision to forego both the best pitcher in baseball while still in his prime and with it, the Yankees best chance to overtake the Red Sox next year. But on the future of Hughes and the fate of Santana will hinge the final reckoning.

Monday, January 7, 2008

J'ACCUSE: THE MITCHELL BLACKLIST

"Ninety-eight in New England was a summer of exquisite warmth and sunshine, in baseball a summer of mythical battle between a home-run god who was white and a home-run god who was brown, and in America the summer of an enormous piety binge, a purity binge... reviv[ing] America's oldest communal passion, historically perhaps its most treacherous and subversive pleasure: the ecstasy of sanctimony. In the Congress, in the press, on the networks, the righteous grandstanding creeps, crazy to blame, deplore, and punish, were everywhere moralizing to beat the band: all of them in a calculated frenzy with what Hawthorne identified in the incipient country of long ago as 'the persecuting spirit.'" --Philip Roth, The Human Stain

Well, baseball fans, it appears "the persecuting spirit" has returned because the "righteous grandstanding creeps" are at it again: the self-appointed arbiters of morality; the pious windbags bloated with their superior virtue and repressed envy; the sanctimonious hacks who presume themselves the guardians of the national pastime because some tabloid accords them a corner between advertisements to retail their pablum.

Baseball's Moral Guardians are out deploring and villifying and haranguing again. Only now they've come armed with a list of sinners. And to Inquisitor's altar they've gone, to ostracize and to punish, to blacken reputations and to tarnish legacies, to purge the accused from the record books and to restore to baseball some long lost, wholly imaginary purity.

Not flawed investigative methods; not selective, geographically-biased targets; not tenuous, circumstantial evidence; not witnesses of dubious character and suspect credibility testifying under prosecutorial duress; not the absence of an impartial judge or jury; not the suspension of the most basic procedural safeguards against false testimony, uncorroborated accusations, the right to confront hostile witnesses or to be notified of the specific charges-- no ambiguity has chastened their zeal to prosecute; no doubt has shaken their moral certitude.

No, like the Inquisitions into Communists in Hollywood and Witches in Salem, someone making his confessions before the Mitchell tribunal only need name you to exonerate himself before Cotton Mather's scribblers find you guilty and the mob comes clamoring for your neck.


  • "Chad Allen, who has admitted using steroids, was a teammate of [Bart] Miadich. He said that Miadich’s size, muscle definition, and tightness of skin indicated to him that Miadich was using steroids." --- Mitchell Report, 12/13/ 2007

  • "Well the Communist party functionaries, when they are such, are always secretive. They never announce themselves as Communist Party functionaries. But they have a quality of authority, a quality of talking with knowledge, and one makes the surmise that [Andrew Overgaard] is some kind of functionary." --Clifford Odets, House Un-American Affairs Committee Hearings, 05/19/1952

As Arthur Miller once wrote, "The witch-hunt capture[s] some significant part of the American imagination...most startling [is] the similarities in the rituals of defense and the investigative routines... should the accused confess, his honesty could be proved precisely the same way-- by naming former confederates...normal evidentiary proof [is] either de-emphasized, left in limbo, or not required at all... in the end, the charge itself, suspicion itself, all but becomes the evidence of [wrongdoing]... "

POPE GEORGE: THE INFALLIBLE
But as if the Mitchell's Blacklist wasn't reckless enough in accusation, indiscriminate enough in targets, unsound enough in method, and shoddy enough in evidence-- as if this wasn't outrage enough alone, Baseball's Scribes defended its fairness and justice in a contortion worthy of Alice-in-Wonderland.

Through the looking glass, implication became proof of guilt. Witnesses, facing federal indictment, epitomized forthright probity. And George Mitchell-- former politician, lobbyist for big tobacco, and card-carrying member of the ownership group that somehow acquired the Red Sox without the highest bid (from whom Mitchell drew a salary until 2006)-- was elevated into a paragon of virtue, wisdom, and infallibility.

After all, didn't Senator Mitchell broker peace in Northern Ireland? Well, yes. Did the Moral Guardians somehow forget that Bill Clinton brokered the Oslo Accords? The role of elder statesman however hardly immunized the former President of errant judgment, ulterior motives, ethical improprieties, or even flagrant lying, as the Lewinsky scandal dramatized.

How quickly the media sheds its cynicism for politicians when it suits their ends. All the better to dismiss the complaints that Mitchell's ownership affilliation suggested a conflict of interest and/or explained his zeal to smear players, variations in evidence notwithstanding.

THE BLACK HERRING

But why let a few equivocal facts, troublesome conflicts, or moral ambiguity inhibit the ecstasy of judgment when Baseball's Clerisy has a national pastime to purify, a blacklist to enforce, a laity to incite, column space to fill, and a pulpit to fulminate from on television.

  • "We are probably at the darkest moment in baseball history, even worse, to me, than the 1919 Black Sox scandal." Bob Klapisch, "Yankees Hot Stove", YES Network
  • "This is worse than the Black Sox scandal. This is worse than the Pete Rose betting scandal."-- Kevin Kernan, The New York Post
  • "This makes April 15, 1947 [the day Jackie Robinson graced Ebbets Field] the greatest day in baseball history. George Mitchell's mass public shaming of cheats and frauds leaves December 13, 2007, running a close second." -- Ian O'Connor, The Bergen Record
  • "These were the drugs that... ultimately damaged the games as anything that has happened to it since the Black Sox of 1919." --Mike Lupica, The Daily News

The tragic irony, or rather the ironic tragedy, is that any writer so obtuse, reckless, or hysterical as to conflate steroid use with throwing a World Series actually has a forum to purvey his canards in the first place. To miss the critical difference in the two transgressions, both in their underlying motive and the harm inflicted is to betray an intellectual shallowness, moral sophistry, and historical ignorance that alone should disqualify them as authorities fit to render judgment.

Let's leave aside the obvious differences the criminal law would draw between them: that it punishes bribery and racketeering far more harshly than illegal drug use. Or that, as such, that while prosecutors indicted and tried the Black Sox players, no prosecutor has filed charges against steroid users-- unless, of course, like Barry Bonds, they've lie about it. Leave it aside, for a moment, because no one would expect of a baseball writer the critical discrimination of our judiciary.

Still, consider the basic difference in the two offenses' respective motives and in their implications for the very game in which Baseball's Clerisy presumes itself expert.

The Black Sox players, remeber, didn't merely break the rules. They actually preempted them because in a sham competition, the rules are a nullity. The Black Sox players, then, didn't "cheat". By which, we mean, they didn't violate this or that prohibition. No, Comiskey's conspirators defiled the game's entire raison d'etre. They subverted its whole purpose: to enact a competition with an unknown outcome, a game in which both teams strive to win and which either, in theory, could.

The Black Sox players. as such, staged a fiction. Indeed, in identity, the 1919 World Series more closely approximated a theatrical performance where the author scripts the characters' fates before the play actually begins. The Black Sox players then impersonated prefabricated roles to simulate a competition, all the while sabotaging their talent to ensure the result they predetermined.

Performance enhancement, by contrast, springs from the exact opposite motive. Take confessed steroid user, Jason Giambi, for example. Giambi's drug use violates the rules, yes. But his goal is to augment his talent not to compromise it, to help his team win not to guarantee they lose, to realize the fan's expectations not to conspire to thwart them.

Both the steroid user's motive and his transgression still observe and preserve both the game's fundamental spirit, to compete, and its fundmental purpose, to win. If the steroid user distorts the game-- although no one has quantified precisely how as yet--he, unlike the Black Sox racketeers, doesn't subvert its objective or counterfeit its identity. However if steroid use is as prevalent and pervasive as Baseball's Mullahs contend, steroid use may not even offend this much. With enough users spread throughout the game, the drug-enhanced deviations tend to nullify each other and to have no influence on the outcome.

Why does steroid use pale in comparison to rigging a World Series? Just examine the fan's respective reactions. The Black Sox scandal drove fans away en masse for years afterward, nearly causing the sport's extinction. While during the steroid era, baseball's popularity has soared and it has attraced fans in unprecedented numbers.

Which seem to prove Jefferson's old verity about democracy's average citizen having the most developed instinct for justice, where money is the medium which best accumulates his moral sense and renders the fairest verdict. What's the distinction between 1919 and 1998; the altered game, from its impostor? Ask the fan: the former he will pay to see and the latter, he won't.

CHEATERS ANONYMOUS

And really when was the game ever pure anyway? Really, for all Baseball's Clerisy's execration and dudgeon about the blight on the game's integrity and the taint of its record books, how much more does steroid use sully their Platonic Ideal of Competitive Purity than all the unsportsmanlike infractions and rule violations baseball either has condoned or has ignored throughout its history. Doctoring the ball. Corking the Bat. Tarring fingers. Stealing Signs. Manipulative landscaping.

How does one measure the precise effect anyway? Both on the individual player's performance and the team's success in the aggregate.

Jason Giambi testified that he began using anabolic steroids and HGH in 2001 and ceased using them at the All-Star Break in 2003. (Even if you believe nonetheless that Giambi used the drugs after 2003, it is difficult to believe he persisted beyond 2004, when a doctor diagnosed him with a related pituitary tumor and he missed almost the entire season.) However, Giambi's statistics before and after his steroids use don't differ materially from the stats he amassed while taking them.

Non-Steroid Years



  • 1998-- .295/.384/.489 27 HR, 110 RBIs
  • 1999-- .315/.422/.553 33 HRs, 123 RBIs
  • 2000--.333/.476/.647 43 HRs, 137 RBIs
  • 2005-- .271/.440/.535 32HRs, 87RBIs
  • 2006-- .253/.413/.558 37HRs, 113 RBIs
  • AVG -- .296/.421/.556 35 HRs, 114 RBIs

Steroid Years

  • 2001-- .342/.477/.660 38 HRs, 120 RBIs
  • 2002-- .314/.435/.598 41HRs, 122 RBIs
  • 2003-- .250/.412/.527 41HRs, 107 RBIs
  • AVG.-- .302/.431/.594 40HRs, 116RBIs

Is there a statistically significant difference in these numbers? Not to the naked eye, certainly.

Do steroid enhance a hitter's performance more than, say, corking his bat or stealing signs? Do they enhance a pitcher's performance more than, say, doctoring the ball?

No expert has performed a long-term study on the precise effect of prolonged steroid use on athletic performance for obvious reasons. However, Dr George Griffing, Professor of Medicine at St. Louis University, has concluded that HGH not only doesn't improve athletic performance, it may actually cause a degradation in a player's proficiency.

"HGH has some definite and proven medical benefits. It is currently approved medically in the United States for two primary indications, short stature in children and growth hormone deficiency in adults. All of these HGH benefits, however, are in individuals with growth hormone deficiency. In people with normal GH levels, HGH does not improve athletic performance in terms of muscle strength, flexibility, and endurance.

In fact, several placebo-controlled studies have been negative. A 4-week, double-blind Swedish study using 2 doses of HGH and placebo found no differences in subjects exercising on a bicycle in terms of power output and oxygen uptake. In another study, a single injection of HGH increased plasma lactate and reduced exercise performance.

In addition to the lack of effectiveness for enhancing athletic performance, HGH has a downside. It can cause dose-related side effects including diabetes, carpal tunnel syndrome, fluid retention, joint stiffness, muscle pain, and high blood pressure."

More recently, a professor of statistics and sociology at the University of Chicago and Columbia University, respectively, drew similar conclusions about the effect of steroids as well. Among the 80+ names, Mitchell's blacklist identifies, the professors compared the statistics of 48 hitters and 23 pitchers before and after the Report alleges they used steroids. (The remaining players were excluded for insufficient data.) Their conclusions are as follows:

For pitchers there was no net gain in performance and, indeed, some loss. Of the 23, seven showed improvement after they supposedly began taking drugs (lower E.R.A.’s), but 16 showed deterioration (higher E.R.A.’s). Over all, the E.R.A.’s rose by 0.5 earned runs per game. Roger Clemens is a case in point: a great pitcher before 1998, a great (if increasingly fragile) pitcher after he is supposed to have received treatment. But when we compared Clemens’s E.R.A. through 1997 with his E.R.A. from 1998 on, it was worse by 0.32 in the later period.

Hitters didn’t fare much better. For the 48 batters we studied, the average change in home runs per year “before” and “after” was a decrease of 0.246. The average batting average decreased by 0.004. The average slugging percentage increased by 0.019 — only a marginal difference. So while some batters increased their totals, an equal number had falloffs. Most showed no consistent improvement, several showed variable performance and some may have extended the years they played at a high level, although that is a difficult question to answer.

Some players improved and some declined. But the pattern for the individuals’ averages was consistent, and the variability of players (with the exception of home run counts) was low. There is no example of a mediocre player breaking away from the middle of the pack and achieving stardom with the aid of drugs. ("More Juice Less Punch", New York Times, Op-ed, December 22, 2007)

Indeed, the overwhelming number of marginal, undistinguished players the Mitchell Report accuses would seem to illustrate the professor's last conclusion.

THAT WITCH DON'T HUNT?

But if Baseball's Guardians really wanted to see fairness restored and justice prevail, they'd spare us their pious moralizing about the game's purity and integrity. The fans, as they have throughout baseball's history, can uphold the game's soundness quite well on their own, policing the game with their pocketbooks.

No, if Baseball's Guardian bleed with compassion for the games' disenfranchised and dispossessed, the cause they should espouse is that of those with no representation: all the struggling, fringe minor-league players who never make the Show because some marginal major leaguer, propelled by performance-enhancing drugs, usurped his roster spot.

Which means the players most deserving of censure are not the all-stars who appear on Mitchell's Blacklist: Jason Giambi, Miguel Tejada, Roger Clemens would have had prosperous major league careers with or without steroid. It's all the anonymous major-league player the Clerisy's crusade never mentions who most deserve sanction. But that's unlikely to happen.

Senators don't target the obscure and Columnists don't denounce the marginal because as Salem, HUAC, Ken Starr teach us, witches aren't worth the hunt unless you fell the mighty.