Chemistry? Yeah, chemistry

A week ago, the Houston Astros fired Cecil Cooper, their manager. Simply put, the Astros are not very good. They’re 72-83, en route to a fourth- or fifth-place finish. At over $102 million, the team’s payroll is eighth in the Majors, and they’re the second-biggest disappointment to the Mets in terms of dollars spent vs. success on the field.

In the world of baseball, Cooper was doomed. When a team performs that poorly, the manager bears the brunt of the blame, and although the General Manager and ownership are generally responsible for the product on the field, the manager is the figurehead. He represents the Front Office to his players, and if he “loses the team,” in the parlance of the game, his days at the helm are numbered. That is exactly what happened to Cooper.

In the wake of the firing, my good friend Tommy Bennett at Beyond the Box Score challenged the narrative of the managerial firing. His argument is that managers just don’t matter that much. Generally, a team doesn’t play better or worse under one manager than the next. The determining factors remain the quality of the General Manager and the make-up of the team on the field. Firing the manager is simply a public relations move. “Do front-offices think fans are so stupid to be satisfied — like vengeful gods — with human sacrifice?” Bennett asked.

I offered something of a rebuttal to this approach. Recognizing that the numbers do not show improvement, sometimes players need a change in the person coaching them. Over my baseball life, I played for a variety of coaches. Some of them had great styles, and others were coaches with whom I could not click. When the latter arrive, it is tough to gear up mentally for the game. Once the first pitch arrives, though, anyone playing baseball generally puts issues with coaches behind them and plays as their baseball instincts teach them to do. The manager might not impact the play on the field much more beyond a handful of strategic bunting and relief pitching decisions, but players may feel better playing for one coach over another.

These ramblings on managerial changes bring me to the topic of team chemistry. In the non-sabermetric world of baseball narratives, team chemistry is popular motif. Teams that have fun together play better together. Or something like that.

This season, we’ve seen the team chemistry narrative surround the New York Yankees. A.J. Burnett and his walk-off pies are creating a looser atmosphere, and Nick Swisher is so care-free. A-Rod is walking around without a gorilla on his back, and Johnny Damon says the 2009 Yankees remind him of the 2004 Red Sox, the kings of chemistry. Plus, Melky Cabrera‘s and Robinson Cano‘s obvious enthusiasm for the game and for their teammates is so hard to mess.

Leave it up to Derek to rain on this parade. During the post-game, post-clinch interview last night, Joe Morgan and Jon Miller asked Jeter about team chemistry, and his response was telling. “I think winning has a lot to do with that,” Jeter said. “The more you win, the more fun you have.”

Straight from the horse’s mouth comes the definitive word on chemistry. It makes for a compelling story, but that’s all it is. The chemistry narrative is one that helps fans relate to a team they see winning. But just as a group of 11-year-olds playing Little League have more fun when they win, so too do a group of professional baseball players. Winning creates chemistry; chemistry does not create winning.

Joba Joba Joba

Three months ago, I would have been excited about a mid-season match-up between Jon Lester and Joba Chamberlain. After all, these two young pitchers – one a lefty, one a righty – could be the faces of the Yankees/Red Sox rivalry for years to come. While most Yankee fans are down on Joba right now and many of us see a match-up with Lester as, well, a mismatch, we can still look to tonight’s game as a sign of things to come.

The Red Sox and Lester know what their plan is. Supplanting Josh Beckett as the team’s ace, Lester will start Game 1 of Boston’s ALDS series, and he deserves it. He’s 14-7 on the year with a 3.33 ERA. In 30 starts spanning 194.2 innings, he has allowed 176 hits and 60 walks while striking out 215 or 9.9 per 9 innings pitched. For the Sox, Lester has been better and more consistent than Beckett. Still, those two are a fearsome duo atop Boston’s rotation.

Against the Sox tonight, the Yanks are countering with their fourth or perhaps fifth starter. We know how bad Joba has been; we don’t need to rehash the numbers. But Joba knows that he is pitching tonight with something – pride, a postseason roster spot – on the line. In a conversation with Mark Feinsand, Joba stressed his desire to “set the tone” for the weekend matchup.

“It’s great for everybody to get that feeling, to play in that atmosphere,” Chamberlain said. “October is a little different, so it helps being able to play teams like Boston in this kind of series. Coming down the stretch, trying to finish strong and set the tone will be good. People are going to be getting excited for October, so it’s going to be crazy.”

It will be crazy, but that’s besides the point. Joba Chamberlain is pitching for more than just a crazed crowed of 49,000 fans tonight. Fair or not, he’s pitching for his reputation. The truth is that if he doesn’t throw 5 innings of two-run ball, Yankee fans will not be happy to see Joba Chamberlain enter this game or exit the game. Even though Joba will reach 150 innings tonight, even though he’s never thrown this many innings in one season, it’s still do-or-die for him in the eyes of he fans.

We won’t write off Joba. He turned 24 this week, and despite his bad end to the season, he acquitted himself nicely during this year against the American League. He will make 31 starts, and he will have stayed healthy throughout the season. As he grows up and matures, he’ll only get better. As the game starts tonight, though, look at Jon Lester and think about what another year can do. If Joba can improve as Lester has each year in the Majors, this disappointing end to 2009 will in time be forgotten.

On judging a ballplayer’s effort level

“He doesn’t try hard enough. He’s not putting in enough effort. That guy’s just lazy, and we see it all the time.” These are common refrains from fans when good players and teams perform poorly. From high up in our ivory towers, we levy judgment on these players, deeming their efforts unworthy. It is apparently our divine right as fans, to decide whether a ballplayer is giving his all or is dogging it.

The reason we do this is simple: humans love narrative and hate the unexplainable. Oftentimes, a slump is unexplainable. Coaches might point to a mechanical flaw, but even then it’s usually not at the heart of the issue. Over the course of a 162-game season, players will streak and slump. It’s the nature of the game, and it’s been going on since its inception.

Rather than accepting that slumps happen, writers, reporters, and fans tend to concoct an acceptable narrative. Depending on the player, it might be that the player isn’t trying. This seems to be the case with Joba Chamberlain, as my man Moshe Mandel of The Yankee Universe notes. Media like blogs and Twitter have given fans a stronger voice, and too frequently they’re using it to express feelings of disgust towards players. Unfortunately, these narratives usually don’t line up with reality. I’ll let Moshe explain.

Unless a player is obviously dogging it, it is impossible to discern whether a player is giving his all by watching on television. We can try and interpret the events on the field, but ultimately, we just do not have enough information about the player’s level of preparation, will to improve, or willingness to try new things. Usually, a player who is not performing or is making the same errors repeatedly is trying to change, but cannot execute. Does anyone truly believe that these players are satisfied with failure on the largest stage for baseball in the world? The assumption should be that the players are attempting to avoid failure unless they clearly show otherwise.

Emphasis mine. Yes, there are players who dog it. Undoubtedly. I would think that most of them would get weeded out before they make the majors, though. There are only 750 major league roster spots. Eventually, if a player isn’t giving a solid effort, his performance relative to those 750 players is going to drop off. Sure, the player might have a ton of promise, and might be on a team that is more concerned about the future than about the present. But eventually either the team is going to have to care about the present, or else the player will grow older, thus removing the “young” part of young and promising. Removing the “promising” tag doesn’t come long after.

R.J. Anderson of DRays Bay covered this topic in depth last week. He took a bit different angle, trying to divide ballplayers into castes. Some, like our own Derek Jeter, are unassailable. Yet there are others, like Joba and B.J. Upton, with whom we grow frustrated. They don’t say the right thing — whatever that may be — at the right time. Even more so, they’re usually a talented lot who make hard things look easy at times. So when things aren’t going right, it’s easy to criticize them for dogging it, because their effortless demeanor isn’t translating into results.

These two paragraphs from Anderson really hit home for me:

Imagine practicing an instrument nearly every single day since you were 12-years-old. For more than half your life, all you know is playing that instrument. You play some concerts, some shows at a club, and as it turns out, people like you. The club starts paying you upfront and things look great, but you’ve been doing this for 12+ years. What drives you to continue? It wasn’t the money until recently; it isn’t the fame because you have little. Is it the desire to master the craft?

Upton has put in more hours at a baseball field than most of us will our entire lives. By suggesting that he doesn’t care about the game you’re suggesting that most of his life is irrelevant to him. I suppose it could be true, but why the hell would he continue to play if he hated and was disinterested by it?

Upton is an apt example here because of last night’s game. He caught a lot of crap for apparently dogging it on a few fly balls. Because he didn’t appear to be busting it on these plays, many fans thought he was just dogging it. The problem with this narrative is that there is a well-known physical issue behind Upton’s play. He recently sprained his ankle, and was removed from the game because he re-aggravated it. Yet even with this information in hand, many will still chalk it up to a lack of effort and write off the injury as some sort of excuse.

I understand why people love narrative — who doesn’t love a good story? — but I still can’t understand why people use them to demonize ballplayers. Is it jealousy? Anderson used a great real life example there, but that’s not the case for most of us. We labor away at jobs we dislike, and yes, sometimes we dog it. But, as with the musician, it’s different for the ballplayer. In most cases, it’s all they know how to do. If Joba Chamberlain didn’t play baseball, what would he do? Does he know how to do anything else?

This isn’t a knock on Joba. In fact, it’s a high compliment. I’m not sure about everyone, but I’d love to have one thing I was really good at, better than most of my peers. Because once you can identify that in yourself, you can work at that harder than anything else. Then maybe you can break the monotonous 9-to-5 cycle and do something you love. Yet most of us don’t get a chance to do something we love. And maybe that’s where envy sets in, because these ballplayers do what they love every day, and they are paid handsomely for it.

None of this will stop anyone from criticizing ballplayers for dogging it. I just think that overusing this line of criticism takes away from situations where a player actually is dogging it. Don’t get me wrong, they do exist. But the natural market forces at work in baseball will weed them out eventually, whether in the minors, for the less talented portion, or in the majors, for those so exquisitely talented that they can play among the 750 best players in the country without giving their all.

Ballplayers slump, and ballplayers struggle. Always have, always will. It happens to the best, and it happens to the mediocre. Our natural inclination is to set a narrative to the players’ failures, and all too often that narrative accuses the player of not putting enough effort into a game they’ve played at a high level since they were teenagers (at least). Most times there is no concrete explanation to these slumps and struggles. They’re the natural ebbs and flows of the game. It’s tough to accept, but it’s the truth.

I realize there are a few instances of “we” in here, and I just want to be clear that I use it in the most general sense. Just so there’s no confusion, and no specific finger pointing. That’s not the point of this post.

Derek’s greatest hit

The summer before I started college in the fall of 2001 was one of travel. I went to Europe as a high school graduation present with my parents and sister and then took a road trip with a good friend of mine to 12 baseball stadiums in ten cities. Everywhere I went, I took a backpack into the Stadium and saw few security measures, if any at all.

Everything changed during my second week of classes when terrorists flew airplanes into the World Trade Center. I woke up to a bewildering voice mail from my dad telling me that a plane had struck the Twin Towers, and then I went to class. By the time I was out, the two buildings in Lower Manhattan had collapsed, and life as we knew it was over.

That fall is a bit of a blur in my mind. As I adjusted to life at college away from the city and my parents, I found myself on the road. I went home the weekend after Sept. 11 to be in the city and around family. I traveled up to Boston in October to visit some friends (and watch the Yanks run over the Mariners in the ALCS) and went back to school for the World Series after a stop in New York. Through it all was baseball.

When play resumed after a week off in September, the Yankees continued their march to what we hoped would be a fourth straight World Series title. After two quick losses to the A’s in New York, it seemed as though the aging Yankee had finally met their Billy Beane-inspired match. But then Derek Jeter saved the day.

That Play — the one that spawned my favorite sports column of all time — is how the baseball world knows Derek Jeter best. With Jeremy Giambi lumbering around the bases and Shane Spencer digging a ball out of the corner, Derek Jeter came out of nowhere to save an errant throw and shuttle-pass the ball of Jorge Posada. Giambi didn’t slide; Posada tagged the runner; and the Yankees’ season was saved.

Jeter will soon hold the Yankees’ all-time hits record. He’ll become the first New York Yankee to top 3000 hits. Yet, his defining image will always be The Play to save the season in 2001. His baseball instincts are just tremendous.

After that ALDS, the Yankees tore through the winningest team in AL history and drew a match-up against the Diamondbacks. New York City and I continued to heal. The city came together for a celebration of the Yankees, and the Yanks seemed predestined to win the World Series. I went to game three that year with my sister, and while the Yankees won, it was the least climactic of the games played in the Bronx.

The next night, I was watching the game with some first-year friends and a few upperclassmen, and despair settled among the room when the 9th inning rolled around. The Yankees were just three outs away from going down 3 games to one against a Diamondbacks’ team led by two fierce pitchers. But Tino Martinez delivered a huge two-run home run into the night, and the Yankees were alive.

In the tenth, the clock at Yankee Stadium struck midnight, and for the first time in baseball history, the World Series reached into November. It was a cool, crisp night, and Byung-Hyun Kim quickly got two quick outs. Then, Derek Jeter came up. Jeter worked the count full and then some. On the ninth pitch of the at-bat, Jeter swung and the ball soared into the night. Reggie Sanders tried to track it down, but the Stadium erupted as Jeter raised his fist in celebration. The Yankees had won an improbable game, and we were jumping for joy and disbelief.

Of course, the Yankees were do it again the next night before faltering in the desert. As Luis Gonzalez’s single fell past a misplaced infield, New York’s World Series hopes died. To me though, that home run — Derek’s only RBI of the 2001 World Series — was Derek’s greatest hit. It brought the city unimaginable joy at a time when it needed it the most, and as I settled into college and Derek’s ball into the right field stands, I knew everything would be okay.

A health-ful perspective

By the time the 2008 season ended for the Yankees, the team could have been considered among baseball’s walking wounded. According to Baseball Prospectus’ Will Carroll, last year’s Yankee team lost 1460 player days to injuries, and many of the old Yankee corps were trending into the red for 2009. Yet, the Yankees have stayed remarkably healthy, and because of that, they are in a prime position for a run deep into October.

Last year started out on a bad note for the Yankees’ overall health. On the first day of the season, Jorge Posada hurt his shoulder throwing down to second. He would go onto play just 51 games all season, and the Yankees’ catcher spot would never recover. Jose Molina, Chad Moeller and Ivan Rodriguez were inadequate replacements to say the least.

Posada, though, wasn’t the only Yankee to miss time last year. Hideki Matsui made it through just 93 games before his knees gave out. A-Rod hit the DL with a quad strain in late April. Chien-Ming Wang went down with his career-derailing foot injury.

Outside of the time lost to the disabled list, the 2008 Yankees featured its fair share of banged-and-bruised players. As Tyler Kepner details in this excellent profile of Derek Jeter, the Yankee captain battled a lingering quad injury and a hand injury for much of the season. Joba Chamberlain had a shoulder issue, and Andy Pettitte‘s arm didn’t last the year. While the 2009 Mets take the injury cake, the 2008 Yankees were no slouches.

This year, though, the story has been entirely different. Alex Rodriguez missed the first six weeks with injury; Jorge Posada missed a few weeks with a hamstring strain; Chien-Ming Wang has been a non-factor all season; Xavier Nady, we hardly knew ye. Outside of those injuries — and just two of them had a long-term impact on this season — Mariano’s sore groin is the most significant pain to hurt the Yankees in recent months.

Now, I don’t mean to downplay Nady’s or Wang’s absence. The Yankees, though, have managed to overcome those problems. Nick Swisher has been one of the team’s most productive hitters this year. In fact, it’s hard to imagine Nady topping Swisher’s numbers. That leaves Wang as the most significant missing piece this year. So instead of missing their starting catcher, number one starter and DH for much of the season, they’ve been short a mid-rotation starter, and that’s it.

Meanwhile, the banged up Yankees haven’t been feeling it this year. While, for example, Paul O’Neill limped to the end of his 2001 season, Jeter, Damon and Pettitte, the guys who always play hurt, have been feeling great. I don’t need to analyze the numbers for us to know that their contributions have all been much greater this year than last. We see it everyday.

In the end, the Yankees’ 2009 success so far has rested primarily on the fact that Darrell Rasner and Sidney Ponson were replaced by CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett. The defense, with Mark Teixeira at first and Nick Swisher in right, is far superior too than last year’s. But the Yankees’ medical staff deserves some credit too. It isn’t easy to keep a team of position players mostly all on the wrong side of 30 healthy, and so far this year, Gene Monahan and crew have.

Inside the world of New Era caps

Around New York City — and the world, really — Yankee hats are forever popular. While I’m a big supporter for the on-field 59Fifty New Era cap in midnight blue with the white interlocking NY, some fans look for caps of every stripe and color. While we would rather forget it, Spike Lee originated the red Yankee cap made infamous by Fred Durst in the late 1990s, and that marketing stunt has led to atrocities such as this one.

Earlier this week, Ken Belson profiled New Era’s efforts at staying profitable in a bad economy. I found the article to be a fascinating glimpse inside one of baseball’s most ubiquitous and successful brands:

The hundreds of embroiderers and stitchers hunched over clattering sewing machines at the New Era Cap factory could be forgiven for thinking these are good times. After all, they churn out 72,000 baseball hats a week, about seven a minute. But modesty has been a byword this recession, and baseball caps are no exception. Consumers are opting for Corollas over Cadillacs, Formica kitchen counters over granite and, it turns out, hats with traditional designs over garish ones.

“We’re seeing a very jittery landscape,” said Peter Augustine, the president of New Era, which has its headquarters in Buffalo, 20 miles north of the factory here. “People are trying to stick to their most conservative plans. Even Yankee hats are down despite the year they are having.”

Sales have slipped 10 percent so far this year at New Era, a privately held company that is the country’s largest sports hat maker and the official provider of on-field caps to Major League Baseball. In the past week, the company has laid off 27 workers at its warehouse in Mobile, Ala., and 40 percent of its workers at its factories in the state because of low demand. Some of them could be rehired when production recovers.

Still, industry experts say that this is only a pause in the hat market, which has more than doubled in the past decade, when $35 fitted baseball caps became must-haves. Baseball caps remain the standard-bearer of the sports apparel market, and New Era, like its competitors, is trying to adapt to changing tastes and tightening strings.

The article goes on to detail New Era’s history in the game. The company first broke into the baseball world in 1934 when the Indians placed an order. The 59Fifties arrived in 1954, but it was not until 1993 that New Era became the exclusive provider of MLB caps. The piece gets into the ways in which various teams order hats and looks at how New Era can offer any color combination for hats.

Of note for Yankee fans though are the sales and stitch numbers. Yankee caps are the game’s top sellers. According to Belson, “Yankees caps..outsell all others by a 3-to-1 margin, not only because of the team’s success on the field but also because the logo has such broad appeal.” Meanwhile, the Yankees have a rather simple logo. According to New Era, one white interlocking NY features just 2,688 stitches, fourth least in baseball behind the Phillies, Pirates and Cubs. The Marlins’ crazy logo features a league-leading 10,966 stitches.

I’m a veteran hat collector. I haven’t missed a new Yankee patch hat since New Era introduced them in 1996. I’m eagerly awaiting the next addition to my collection, and I’m hoping it will be the 59Fifty that comes out with the 2009 World Series patch. I’ll hand over my $35 for those 2,688 stitches.

Making the most out of a trip to Boston

Nearly two weeks ago, the Red Sox left New York reeling. They had just been swept by the Yankees to fall 6.5 games out of first place in the AL East. It was a good weekend for Yankee fans.

Since then, though, the Red Sox have recovered. While the Yankees have gone 7-3 over their last ten games since facing Boston, the Red Sox have also gone 7-3 since leaving the Bronx. They just wrapped up a three-game sweep of Toronto in which they scored 24 runs and gave up just 11. This weekend’s match-up features two hot teams playing for right now.

The Yankees, as we well know, have not had much luck in Boston this season. They’re 0-6 in Fenway, and barring an October match-up, this weekend’s trip will be the last of the season. Tyler Kepner explored how the Yankees have something to prove in Boston.

This weekend, though, goes well beyond something to prove. This weekend will determine the AL East. We’ll find out if the Yankees have to worry about the Red Sox. We’ll find out if the Red Sox can mount a comeback. We’ll find out if the very hot Yankees can come into Fenway and make a statement.

As things stand right now, the Yankees are 6.5 games up, and they can leave Fenway in one of four positions. They could sweep and be 9.5 games up. September would be a cakewalk for them. They can win two of three and head home with a comfortable 7.5 game lead. They could lose two of three and find themselves 5.5 games up. Or they could find themselves on the wrong end of yet another Fenway sweep and feel the Red Sox breathing down their necks just 3.5 games out of first.

Of course, we’ll hope for the three-game sweep but be satisfied with two of three. Even that outcome would strip four games off the Yanks’ Magic Number, and the pitching match-ups favor the Bombers. How will it end is anyone’s guess, but it’s bound to be a wild weekend no matter what. In Fenway, it always is.