Malcolm On Base: Feb. 13, 2018

Welcome to Malcolm On Base, a daily rundown of baseball as I see it. You’ll get (flowery) essays, (mediocre) statistical analysis, (crude) opinion and (oh get on with it) nostalgia.

1. Goose Gossage: Fear and loathing the future

Why do we give space to Goose Gossage? The Hall of Fame pitcher, whose real name is Richard, says something every year that’s considered “controversial,” which is a relatively weak word to mask the more direct assertion that what he says is awash in fear.

Two years ago, as this piece reminds us, he ranted against Jose Bautista’s bat flipping, calling the hitter a “fucking disgrace to the game.” Last year he attempted to devalue Mariano Rivera because he only pitched one inning at a time, despite the fact that Rivera was head and shoulders better than other late-game pitchers of his or just about any era. Gossage’s beef this year is about being denied an invitation to Yankees spring training as a guest instructor. He’s angry at New York General Manager Brian Cashman for not respecting his generation of ballplayer, claiming instead to put a premium on “a nerd in uniform.”

All of this bluster points toward the truth that Gossage seems to be living in perpetuity: Respect this old white male.

“The game is so different today,” he told a reporter with NJ.com. “Like I said, real baseball guys for years made a career out of baseball. You’re not a coach anymore. You have to be their best friend.”

I’d like to unpack Gossage’s words, because while we ask “Why do we give space to Goose Gossage?” I’ll answer that it’s important to understand his problem, because it festers still, and it’s necessary to understand him before we move forward without him.

“The game is so different today” may be true from a fuzzy distance. To get into it, let’s start with his Rivera issue from last year: Relievers throw not only one inning at a time, but frequently one or two batters at a time, and more recently are being further devalued as bullpens expand.

That’s a threat to Gossage because it’s a threat to his legacy. In 1977, Gossage’s first year with Pittsburgh, he threw 133 innings over 72 games; 13 times that season he completed at least three innings in a game, including a five-inning run in Chicago. one August afternoon. In 1984, Gossage’s first year with San Diego,  he threw 102.1 innings over 62 games, including another five-inning stint on a June evening against Atlanta. But as his career waned bullpens changed, thanks in part to Tony LaRussa’s management of the Oakland Athletics group in the late 1980s and 1990s. In 1988, LaRussa’s top reliever Dennis Eckersley threw 72.2 innings in 45 innings, and two years later he threw 73.1 innings in 63 games. Gossage was the last of a breed, the relief ace who was asked to come in when the heat rose. Once he was in, it was his job and his alone to finish.

But the game was “so different” before Gossage, too. In the game’s early days relievers were practically all mop-up arms, used only when a starter was knocked out. Before the 1950s relief aces were becoming more common, but teams still shifted pitchers to and from the rotation in a less structured system. Gossage was part of the first real structure of bullpen usage, which was streamlined by LaRussa and managers of the 1990s and refined in recent decades.

But let’s wade through the fog: The game isn’t actually very different from the past in this respect. Yes, how managers use relief pitchers has changed since Gossage, but managers regularly use relief pitchers, which is something they did during Gossage’s time, and is something they didn’t do as regularly 100 years ago.

Gossage also had a problem with Bautista and bat flipping, saying his defiant statement in Game 5 of the 2015 ALDS was a black eye for baseball. In his opinion, to celebrate in such an ostentatious way, regardless of the context, was to piss all over the sanctity of baseball. And that he wasn’t disciplined for the flip must have further shown Gossage that leadership these days is soft. Where’s the manager who’s benching Bautista? Where’s the pitcher throwing to his head? Where’s the man-to-man combat?

Gossage may say the game is different because a bat flip like Bautista’s wouldn’t have lived to tell the tale in 1977. But celebrating a big home run isn’t anything new, from Kirk Gibson’s World Series fist pump in 1988 to Mike Schmidt’s little shuck-and-jive move on his 500th home run in 1987. Bautsita’s shot in 2015 was, and probably will be, the biggest home run of his life. Why is that a big deal?

Well, the bat flip is a relatively new thing in baseball, but it’s the result of a bigger change in baseball since Gossage’s days: the influx of international and especially Latinx players. In 1977, major league baseball was 70.7 percent white and 11.4 percent Latinx. By 2015, the game was 63.4 percent white and 27.7 percent Latinx. Moreover, the game had been more than 20 percent Latinx since 1996; an entire generation of players from Latin America had been raised on the American game and have become comfortable with playing in the United States. There are now more translators, more acceptance of Latinx culture, and thus a comfort level with expressing one’s self via tossing the bat.

If flipping the bat pisses on sanctity, it pisses on a sanctity created and upheld by a mostly white talent base, executive pool, and ownership cadre. You could see why Gossage would get angry. Like relievers throwing fewer innings, Latinx players flipping bats threatens his (and an entire culture’s) legacy.

That brings us to the nerds. Every front office is now embracing advanced analytics to the point that it’s beginning to change how players themselves are valued in the open market (something we’re seeing this offseason). Further, these front offices are becoming somewhat homogenized as they search for every little advantage. The mostly young men (and some women) who take advanced math courses and are familiar with database technologies like SQL have the advantages over the traditional scouting types. If you don’t know how to code, let alone have trouble understanding what a nerd does, you’ll probably be left out of baseball’s future, at least in front offices.

To Gossage, there likely isn’t room anymore for the guy like him. That leads me to the other part of his statement:

“Like I said, real baseball guys for years made a career out of baseball. You’re not a coach anymore. You have to be their best friend.”

Gossage probably thinks baseball is better off with more guys (they have to be guys, by the way) who played baseball. Because they’ve been in clubhouses, had to deal with fiery managers, rookie pranks, daily injuries with little relief, long bus rides, and talked baseball up close. These guys didn’t need analytics to tell them what was good and bad.

But things change, as Gossage notes. Nerdier guys, and guys from other countries, are driving his kind out of the game.

What has changed in baseball, however, is what has changed in America. Guys can’t just be guys anymore. Managers and bosses can’t assert dominance on their workers. Improvements in technology mean we can better understand the game. Improvements in health care mean we can better take care of players. And yeah, baseball is a global game. People like to play baseball, so they should be able to play it in America, and comfortably, incorporating elements of their own cultures.

All of this threatens Gossage, who seems destined to die on a hill where abusing one’s body, mind and relationships is somehow greener than the present. The guy is scared. His kind is fading.

But we need to give space to him because his kind is the kind that helped send Donald Trump into the White House in 2016. His kind believes the livelihood of all people was better when his livelihood was best. To ignore him is to ignore that his time existed, and then we can’t learn from those mistakes. And no question about it, there are plenty of Goose Gossage mistakes.

2. Bud Norris may be a gem of a back-rotation piece

The Cardinals signed free agent pitcher Bud Norris to a one-year, $3 million contract, deciding on versatility over a starter guaranteed to throw 160 innings per season.

Norris had three starts last year and 57 appearances out of the bullpen for the Angels. He put up a 4.21 ERA and 3.90 FIP, relying on one of the better ground ball rates of his career (44.8 percent). He did this by throwing his fastball fewer than ever (44.7 percent) and going big on his cutter (34.4 percent). And that cutter has been a revelation.

In 2016, Norris didn’t start throwing the cutter until May, and then it clocked in at 88.24 mph. Each month he increased cutter usage, and the velocity began creeping up, as well. By August 2016 he was throwing the pitch 29.85 percent of the time at an average of 90.15 mph.

Onto 2017. Norris started the year in the bullpen and was relatively effective from the onset. He spread out four pitches and preferred the cutter, throwing it 39.22 percent of the time at 90.26 mph in April. His fastball velocity increased, as well, touching 95 through most of the season. By September Norris was throwing the cutter 35.14 percent of the time, still at 90.2 mph.

The cutter moves much like Norris’ effective slider, but he has even better command of it, painting corners against righty hitters. It generates whiffs (around 15 percent) and plenty of ground balls, in some ways being a finer version of a changeup, which Norris has all but outlawed.

The revelation of this cutter makes Norris an interesting option to slide back into a rotation spot. The slider is already an out pitch; adding the cutter means Norris could prove effective in a No. 4 or 5 role.

As of right now one would assume newcomer Miles Mikolas, plus youngsters Luke Weaver and Jack Flaherty, would get first cracks in the back of the rotation. But Norris is a low-cost piece that, while likely an obvious improvement for the bullpen, could prove a five- to six-inning stalwart with surprising shutdown ability.

3. Undervalued Robertson makes sense for many

Veteran Daniel Robertson is one of several dozen quad-A types who will probably get a few reps in 2018. But his numbers suggest he could help a team needing runs in the margins.

The outfielder who turned 32 last season is the quintessential fifth outfielder who you call up when a backup falls victim to injury. In 2017 he started in triple-A Columbus but was called to Cleveland in mid-May when Brandon Guyer hurt his wrist. He stayed with the team through late-June and put together a .225/.287/.338 line with six extra-base hits, plus average play in right and left field (with a little center field sprinkled in).

There seems to be nothing great about Robertson until you look at his contact rate. Among all players with at least 30 plate appearances in 2017, Robertson (with 88) leads everyone in contact (95.1 percent). His swinging strike rate is a paltry 1.9 percent, while he barely ever swings outside the strike zone (16.6 percent, which is the same as Matt Carpenter, of course in nowhere near the same number of plate appearances). Robertson also hits 84 percent of the pitches he swings at outside the zone, which is ridiculous. In short, he doesn’t swing often at true balls, but when he does, there’s a good chance he hits the ball.

The problem with Robertson is that while he has speed, he hasn’t shown it enough in the majors. There’s a blip – May 24, 2017 against the Reds – in which his tools were on full display. He made a running catch to rob Zack Cozart of an extra-base hit – covering 94 feet in 5.1 seconds – made a great assist from right field, and banged out an easy triple.

But that’s it. Robertson stole no bases in 2017. In 2016 for Seattle he had 21 plate appearances – no steals. In 2015 the Angels gave him 80 plate appearances – no steals. And in 2014 he accrued 197 appearances for the Rangers (hitting .271/.333/.333) – six steals. Teams are just using this guy wrong.

In an era where speed is undervalued, players like Robertson should be getting deeper looks. His ability to cover ground in the outfield, cover the plate and swipe some bags could be a real asset for a contending team seeking that last offensive roster spot.

4. To the ballgame: The starting lineup

Every day I’ll highlight a piece of ballpark minutiae because I love ballparks.

When Citizens Bank Park opened in 2004, I salivated over a bunch of little quirks and additions we Phillies fans didn’t get at Veterans Stadium. Ashburn Alley felt like Oriole Park at Camden Yards’ outfield promenade. The exposed brick and steel shooting above you felt like the bones of Fenway Park. And the tiered bullpens and manicured flora felt like the Ballpark in Arlington.

But there was always one thing I needed to see every time I visited Citizens Bank Park: the starting lineup.

At the left field entrance of the park, there’s a lineup of oversized trading cards informing fans of that day’s home batting order. It’s been both the source of elation (“Domonic Brown is in the lineup!”) and frustration (“Michael Martinez again?”), but regardless of how I view the day’s configuration, it’s an obvious and ingenious way to connect the game to the fan immediately. Welcome to the ballpark, get situated, but here’s what you’re going to get today. 

Sometimes the team will call up a prospect and not have a card ready for him, so you’ll get a random Phillie Phanatic trading card. It’s the Phillies’ way of saying the Phanatic is basically a replacement player. His WAR is 0.00. He is you and me. And if that player performs better, it’s just gravy.

More appropriately, no matter what you might expect heading into a Phillies game, you’ll definitely at the very least get the Phanatic. And that’s good enough, right?

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