Friday, November 29, 2013

2013 Connie Mack Award

Every year, the BBA (Baseball Bloggers Alliance) selects noteworthy individuals in the game to win end of the year awards.  There are a number of different awards given away by the BBA.  You can find a list of the awards and my picks for each on my ballot here.  I was waiting for the BBA and Major League Baseball to announce their awards before I posted my breakdowns so I could compare them.  But it has happened, and without further ado I present my breakdown explaining my choices for the Connie Mack Award, which is comparable to the Manager of the Year.

Let’s start with the easy one.  In the National League I gave the award to Pittsburgh Pirates manager, Clint Hurdle.  The Pirates, as everyone knows, finally broke into the ranks of the winning, finishing with their first season with more wins than loses in about 20 years.  They also made it to the playoffs for the first time since 1992.  They locked up the first wildcard slot and beat the Reds to win their first playoff series since 1992 as well.  So this was a huge year for them.  They’ve been improving each year over the last three seasons, but this was the year they finally broke through.  Ever since Clint Hurdle took over (in time for the 2011 season) the Pirates have improved their winning percentage and win total.  As a team, they gave up almost 100 fewer runs, improving their run differential to +57.  So this guy, since he’s been there, has clearly improved this team.  He’s made them better.  He’s made them believe.  And while the last two seasons has seen this young team falter and fall apart in the second half, he was finally able to turn that around and give this city a winning season and some playoff baseball.  So while Don Mattingly did some fine work turning around what looked like a lost season in LA, and Mike Matheny and Fredi Gonzalez guided their teams to the postseason as well, this is easily Hurdle’s award.  He changed the culture in Pittsburgh over his years there, and helped this team overcome their final demon and drastically improve from last year to this year.  All you had to do was watch the playoff games in Pittsburgh to see how this fan-base was re-born.  And with the talent on this young team, Hurdle has now got group of winners ready to compete each year.

The AL award was tougher to pick.  There were a few names to consider.  Joe Maddon always does an incredible job with young talent and limited resources.  Bob Melvin had similar circumstances to Maddon and did a nice job in Oakland for the second straight year, winning the division.  Jim Leyland guided his team easily to the playoffs, in a season where the expectations were through the roof for the Tigers.  Not an easy thing to do.  Even more impressive, in my opinion, was the job Joe Girardi did in New York with that mess.  The injuries piled up and the team turned to subpar youngsters and has-beens to keep them competitive.  And to finish a season over 500 with weak players and no farm system to back him up is truly impressive, especially in the biggest media market with an insatiable sports news market and some of the most intense, expectant and irrational fans in America.  Joe Girardi truly did a phenomenal job.  But he comes in third on my list.  I really was stuck between two candidates:  Terry Francona in Cleveland and John Farrell in Boston. 

Francona was out of baseball last year, after Boston fell apart at the end of the 2011 season.  They continued to languish under the misguided tutelage of Bobby Valentine.  But Francona was labeled as the scapegoat when the team fell short of the playoffs and then the Boston media widely circulated that the clubhouse was a caustic environment filled with beer and fried chicken on game days.  In order to keep the fans behind the players (all of whom couldn’t be traded) and the front office, Francona was the one who was blamed and he was let go.  After a year in the broadcast booth, he was the most sought after managerial candidate and he went to the Cleveland Indians and turned their fortunes around.  He helped this team move from fourth place to second and gain 24 wins.  Their run differential went from -178 to +83.  And they did all this with a subpar group of starters and new offensive players.  Francona was instrumental in signing Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn, and those players combined with Kipnis, Santana, Cabrera and the rest of them fought hard to take the first wildcard slot.  They won 10 straight games to end the season and made the playoffs without a single pitcher notching 15 wins.  They were all good with ERAs under 4, but no ace with a sub 3 ERA to lead them.  It was an impressive turnaround for a team with no expectations and a lot of new faces.  Francona was the glue that held them together and turned them into winners.  And the year Francona left Boston, they were a mess and last year before Francona, this team was a mess.  So it’s obvious that Terry Francona is not a beneficiary of an over-abundance of talent.  But while he did an incredible job, I had one manager just edge him out.

And that was Boston Red Sox manager John Farrell.  The Red Sox went from worst to first this year in Farrell’s first season managing in Beantown.  The former Red Sox pitching coach got some managing experience in Toronto before the firing of Francona and Valentine.  Farrell came in and stopped the backslide of this proud franchise.  After the last minute crash in 2011 and the destructive, poisoned season of 2012, they needed to change things.  Ben Cherington, who took over as GM for Theo Epstein in 2012, shipped off a lot of the “problem” players at the end of 2012 and then brought in high character guys to re-invent this clubhouse.  Not sure how much that did.  But I do know that Farrell’s return helped these former All Star pitchers find their way back to relevance.  They were lost without Farrell’s tutelage, and with his return, Lester and Buccholz found their All Star forms.  On paper, worst to first looks better than Cleveland’s fourth to second, but that’s not the only reason I went with Farrell.  The Red Sox play in Boston, one of the most intense media markets that demands success from their baseball team.  The city expected this team to be better, despite their last place finish.  And Farrell helped this club get there.  The World Series title is nice too, though my ballot was in before the playoffs were completed so that didn’t enter into my thinking.  So while Francona was impressive, and other coaches were as well, I think Farrell taking the Red Sox from worst to first in an intense media market with expectations and a rabid fan base earned him this award.

The BBA agreed with me and gave their awards to the same men I chose. You can find their breakdown here.  The official Manager of the Year Award, given by the BBWAA, was a little different with Hurdle taking home the NL hardware, but Terry Francona taking home the AL award. I liked Farrell better, but I’m okay with Francona notching the win also.

Monday, November 25, 2013


The circus that is Alex Rodriguez continues to plague baseball.  Like a train wreck, we can’t help but watch when all we want to do is look away.  He should not be the offseason focus, yet Yankee third baseman and his trial continues to steal headlines in the slower offseason where news is harder to come by.

The current drama with Alex Rodriguez stems from his hearing about taking PEDs.  MLB has gone hard after Rodriguez due to his supposed affiliation with the Biogenesis Clinic in Miami, which allegedly sent PEDs to a number of players, including Ryan Braun, Jhonny Peralta and Nelson Cruz.  Most players named by the clinic received a 50 game suspension after baseball’s investigation and missed the rest of the year, though some returned for the playoffs.  Ryan Braun, who spent the offseason before last successfully avoiding a suspension (albeit on a technicality) on an appeal of a positive PED test he produced, was banned for the rest of the year, which was 65 games at that point.  He took the punishment because baseball came after him hard and his image was pretty much in shambles.  In addition, he is a young guy in the prime of his career, and he didn’t want to risk losing a lot of prime playing time fighting the league office. 

The longest suspension went to Alex Rodriguez who got a 211 game ban for seemingly no reason.  A-Rod has never tested positive for PEDs, though he admitted taking them in 2002, before the current drug rules were in place.  The league office claimed to have overwhelming evidence against A-Rod in the Biogenesis case, placing A-Rod among the most egregious PED users and claiming he attempted to interfere with baseball’s investigation.  That was the reason given for the overwhelming number of games in the suspension, which was far more than anyone else received.  A-Rod appealed and case headed for arbitration once the season ended. 

We know little about the arbitration.  What we do know has come from A-Rod’s legal team, which claimed that baseball failed to meet their burden of proof in claiming A-Rod took PEDs from Tony Bosch of the Biogenesis clinic.  Rodriguez’s camp also says the chief evidence against A-Rod was the testimony of Bosch, a highly suspect character with no credibility and everything to gain from helping baseball.  (Helping guarantees a good word from the league as he goes into his criminal hearing…. that’s right…. the only person who broke an actual law is the star witness of Major League Baseball). 

So what’s the big news that has changed things recently?  Well, last week A-Rod stormed out of the arbitration hearing after arbiter Fredric Horowitz ruled that Bud Selig did not have to testify in the hearing.  Alex said this ruling was the straw that broke the camel’s back in a process that, he claims, is designed to ensure the player fails.  It’s a strong, though not overly unfounded, accusation from a man who is somewhat over dramatic himself, and not the most credible individual to ever stand trial.

So what do we make of it?  Well there are a couple of things to bear in mind.  Neither party is clean in this mess.  After realizing that his legacy would be the commissioner of the steroid era, Bud Selig has made the end of his tenure all about cracking down on PEDs and giving baseball the most stringent drug testing policies in professional sports.  And, as often happens with over the top, irrational decisions, Selig has focused on nothing else in his pursuit to clean up his image, often making things worse for that same image he is trying to save.  For example, hearing that A-Rod intended to appeal his suspension in order to play last season, Selig contemplated using the “best interests of baseball” clause to keep A-Rod off the field during the appeals process.  This clause is a broadly worded fail safe for the league, seemingly designed to specifically avoid due process in disciplinary matters.  But even with it’s overreaching rhetoric, the application to A-Rod’s case was tough to make,.  Backlash made Selig think better of it, but the point was clear.  Baseball is now stanchly against PEDs, as opposed to about 10 years ago, and will be seen as nothing less than the ultimate defender of the integrity of the game, no matter the cost.

So does that mean A-Rod is the good guy?  Unlikely.  He’s taken PEDs in the past and cares about nothing more than his image, which he hopes is to be the home run king and one of the best players of all time.  So it is not at all outside the realm of possibility that he took PEDs again.  It’s even easier to see that as a possibility now that his skills are diminishing, but he’s so close to so many of the records he desires.  He would have no qualms about doing anything necessary to break the records he wants to break, including taking PEDs and blatantly lying about it.

But in this case, he could be as guilty as sin, and, unless baseball proves it, he shouldn’t have to miss a single game.  After storming out of his hearing he had a statement ready (ready suspiciously quickly, almost as if this whole storm out was planned) and he went straight to air with WFAN on Mike Francesa’s show and proclaimed his complete and utter innocence.  It was a bold tack to take, especially if he’s guilty.  In addition, his lawyer, Joe Tacopina, went on the Michael Kay show on ESPN radio and explained that baseball has not met it’s burden of proof and that there is overwhelming evidence that A-Rod is clean. We know that baseball is absolutely singling A-Rod out unfairly and, despite being the least liked athlete in the game, that’s not okay.  And baseball seems to have no reason to suspend him this long.  No one believes that the suspension is fair, though some suggest it was just a way to guarantee that he gets the 150 game ban that baseball really wanted.  Many with knowledge of the case on both sides suggest that that’s where this is headed.

But that’s not where it will end.  A-Rod’s side has released evidence and gone on a smear campaign against the league.  A-Rod claims that baseball paid $125,000 for evidence to bury him, some of which may have been obtained illegally.  While I can’t find definitive proof of this, I can tell you that no one, including MLB, seems to dispute this claim.  In addition, we know that Anthony Bosch is guilty and lacks any shred of credibility.  Yet his word seems to be the lynchpin in MLB’s case.  Rodriguez’s camp has been preparing to sue the league and take this to a higher court should the arbiter rule against him.  And according to A-Rod, his guilt was sealed before he came into the hearing, which is why he stormed out without testifying.

That’s where we are now.  The hearing is done.  Neither Bud Selig nor A-Rod testified, which does seemingly lessen the legitimacy of the process.  And A-Rod’s camp is storming towards a suit in a higher court, where they will seek an injunction against any suspension handed down by MLB and try to prove their case in an actual court of law.

So what will happen?  Who wins?

Short answer:  nobody.

Long answer:  Baseball was slightly out of its mind in their aggressive pursuit of A-Rod.  They pushed caution and good sense to the wind in an attempt for Bud Selig to re-define his image, which is already indelibly chiseled into the stone of our game’s history.  They stopped at nothing to be sure they nailed this guy, and in so doing did more harm than good to their cause.  It’s just about impossible to make the most disliked athlete in America look like a victim, but congratulations to the MLB front office.  It seems they did just that.  They don’t want Alex Rodriguez’s name anywhere near the top of the all time records lists, though the names of McGwire, Bonds and Sosa are fine.  It’s irrational and hypocritical and any time someone is denied due process, most freethinking individuals turn against you.  If you have a case, proceed with it fairly.  If you have a good one, you can follow all the rules and still nail your guy.  If you start to wield undue powers to punish those you deem in the wrong, trust in your establishment erodes quickly.

Now to A-Rod.  He probably cheated.  However I don’t think anyone can prove it.  In addition, he was absolutely unfairly profiled by MLB and this arbitration process does seem to be rigged against those seeking an appeal.  But unfortunately I think that’s where this ends for him.  He is seeking a lawsuit, but it will be difficult for him to get one.  While any punishment beyond 50 games is seemingly outside the scope of the 50/100 game ban collectively bargained by the players’ union and the league office, it will likely stick.  Baseball can argue that non-analytical positives were not a part of that 50/100 agreement, and the union recently admitted that that was true.  In addition, the union agreed to this appeals process as the proper forum for hearing grievances against the league.  The arbitration panel was collectively bargained, just like the 50/100 game ban process for the players.  This isn’t just to protect the players and give them a forum for hearing grievances against the league, but also to protect the league from outside lawsuits, such as the one A-Rod intends to bring.  I think it’s possible that he will get an injunction to have his case heard, but I don’t think that case will be winnable, and his own union’s agreement will likely be his downfall.

Prediction:  Arbiter Fredric Horowitz will hand down a sentence of 150 games.  A-Rod will appeal to a higher court and get an injunction against the suspension.  He will be able to play until there is a ruling, however that ruling will go against him because his fight goes outside the process the union agreed upon to hear grievances.  It thereby breaks the very same collective bargaining agreement that he claims baseball sidestepped in handing down his suspension.  The suspension will be upheld, and A-Rod will be forced to miss 150 games.  He will get some playing time before that happens though, ensuring that neither side is happy.  And, as predicted in the short answer section of this post, nobody wins.  Baseball wins a pyrrhic victory over the most hated player in the game, who misses an entire year of baseball at the end of his career.  He will return as a bench player for the Yankees to ride out the remainder of his contract, but will not make it to 700 HR.  A sad ending for a sad man and an equally sad chapter to the Commissionership of the Steroid Era’s Commissioner, Bud Selig.