HOUSTON -- After the 2001 Yankees lost the World Series to the Diamondbacks on Luis Gonzalez’s broken-bat hit in the bottom of the ninth inning, a lot of the Yankees players were circumspect in defeat. Arizona had generally dominated the Yankees for the majority of that World Series, and New York was somewhat fortunate to even be in position to have a shot at a fourth consecutive title. Additionally, some of the older members of the dynasty understood that this would be the end for them; it was the last game ever played by Paul O’Neill and Scott Brosius, the last game for Tino Martinez and Chuck Knoblauch before they reached free agency. Even Mariano Rivera -- who allowed the Gonzalez hit -- spoke evenly, in defeat.
Not Derek Jeter. Afterward, teammates recalled him stewing in the athletic trainers’ room -- where he nursed what would be diagnosed as a broken foot -- and absolutely furious over the defeat, enraged by the fact that the Yankees had lost despite being just a few outs away.
His competitiveness and confidence were at the core of what made him great as a player and will undoubtedly drive him as he assumes control of the Miami Marlins' business and baseball operations. According to the Miami Herald, he has already dictated change, pushing out longtime Marlins staffers Jack McKeon, Tony Perez, Andre Dawson and Jeff Conine.
Perez and Dawson are Hall of Famers who have been with the Marlins for many years, and they were fired over the phone. Perez was the only Cuban-American staffer in their baseball operations department and was dumped almost a year to the day that Jose Fernandez died. Jeter has not commented publicly on the decisions and may not until his group is formally approved by other baseball owners.
Even before Jeter finished his playing career, he had made it known to others that he wanted to own a baseball team someday, and it makes sense that Major League Baseball would want Jeter in a role like this. He was a superstar player, well-known to casual fans, and he would seem to have as good of a shot as anyone not named The Rock to rebrand the Marlins’ franchise.
But as Jeter begins his second career, two questions nag for me:
Why would Jeter want to take on the Marlins’ problems?
Since he’s the man in charge -- and far more than a complementary figure -- how prepared is Jeter to handle what might be baseball’s most complicated set of obstacles?
Because having a unique ability to hit the other way and excel in October baseball doesn’t necessarily translate into business success.
Others who have seen the Marlins’ books all say the same thing: The unpopular franchise is saturated with debt. The club’s current television contract runs out in a few years, and it’s unclear how much growth the Marlins can expect, given the club’s struggles on the field. A lot of Miami baseball fans have been unhappy with the way that the team’s relatively new ballpark was funded, and they have stayed away from a place that isn’t easy to access before games and isn’t easy to leave on those rare nights when a sizable crowd appears.
The challenge facing Jeter and the incoming owners is to completely alter a community’s perception of the organization, and change ingrained habits of fans.
Right away, Jeter and his group have an enormous and almost impossible quandary. A lot of the club’s debt is tied to the heavily backloaded contract of record-setting slugger Giancarlo Stanton, who will make $295 million over the next 10 years.
If the Marlins keep Stanton, they may have too little payroll left over with which to maneuver and build a winner. If the Marlins trade Stanton -- who is likely to finish first, second or third in the NL MVP race -- they’ll tear open old scars for Miami fans frustrated by years of seeing their best young players, such as Miguel Cabrera, traded away. Additionally, the work of dealing Stanton will be difficult in itself, because the Marlins might have to choose between eating a lot of money or taking a deal with few prospects just to dump the onerous contract.
The Marlins are a mess. If this were a horse race, Jeter has bought into a fat nag with a bad leg.
Through Jeter’s star power, he has been able to somehow convince folks with a lot of money to allow him to assume day-to-day control of the franchise without much of his own dollars at stake, so he’s taking very little financial risk.
However, Jeter has one shot to form a first impression as a baseball executive and part-owner. He’ll assume the challenge with his full complement of competitiveness and with confidence, and time will tell if he has the business acumen needed for this incredible task, or whether he has bet on a loser that will pull under his reputation as a businessman.
If Jeter in fact outsourced the firing of highly respected, well-known, modestly paid employees, he has made his first mistake under circumstances in which he’ll have very little margin for error.
Launch angle hitters are in trouble
The electronic strike zone would crush a generation of ‘launch-angle’ hitters.
A really smart executive asked a really smart rhetorical question the other day as he discussed the high rate of home runs and strikeouts: If a hitter trains himself to angle his swing upward, what is the highest pitch he can consistently reach within the strike zone?
He wasn’t referring to the likes of Kris Bryant, who developed his unusual swing as a child, or Josh Donaldson, who has a special ability to lift the ball. He was talking about the average major leaguer, and he answered his own question.
“If you’re talking about getting to the ball with an angled swing,” the executive continued, “the highest -- the highest -- might be mid-thigh, or at the [groin].”
With that kind of swing, the executive continued, the launch-angle hitters are effectively conceding the upper half of the strike zone in an era in which umpires are calling more high strikes -- and are graded on properly calling the high strike.
“It’s not working for the hitters,” said the executive, who believes, like many players, coaches and managers, that the baseballs are smaller and harder this year. “Home runs are way up, but I think that’s the ball. How about making contact? How about putting the ball in play?”
Last week, MLB hitters smashed the record for most homers in a season, crushing the mark set in 2000, in the heart of what will always be remembered as the steroid era. In that 2000 season, 101 batters hit 20 or more homers. This year, 111 batters have 20 or more homers, with a week to go.
But there’s a flip side to the homers this year: the explosion of strikeouts. During the 2000 season, 58 batters had 100 or more strikeouts. In 2017, 126 batters have 100 or more strikeouts.
These times are different, of course. Pitchers throw harder than they used to, and front offices prefer to use hard-throwing relievers rather than allow a lot of starting pitchers to face a lineup for a third time within a game. But a lot of evaluators believe that many players would be better served by trying to make contact instead of trying to angle their swings and hit a fly ball.
Many players love to pick the brain of Reds first baseman Joey Votto, who is generally regarded as perhaps the smartest hitter in the game. On a podcast recently, Votto talked about how he came into this year devoted to the task of cutting down on his strikeouts. Votto had racked up 135 strikeouts in 2015 and 120 in 2016, and in his effort to reduce that this year, Votto decided to cut down on his swing as he got deeper into the count -- choking up a little more after one strike, and even more on two-strike counts. At times, Votto seems to wield his bat like a tennis player at the net, volleying pitches foul just to stay alive.
The change in his walk/strike ratios has been exceptional:
He is one of only three MLB batters qualified for the batting title who have walk/strikeout ratios of 1/1 or better, and along the way Votto has compiled 35 homers, the second-most in his career.
As detailed in a recent column, the rise in home run hitters may well diminish the value of that particular skill in the trade and free-agent market. And here’s another concern: If the electronic strike zone is implemented in the near future, with a higher ceiling than what has been called by most umpires, a generation of hitters who have designed their swings to lift the ball may be much more vulnerable.
“I think they’re [in trouble] anyway,” said one MLB staffer. “Pitchers are going to continue to carve them up. They are selling out for a home run … I would take gap power with hitters who have the ability to make adjustments. This launch angle thing is terrible for the game.”
Somebody is going to make a lot of money in the next few years as the launch-angle fixer: the hitting instructor who takes a page from Votto and teaches pupils to hit the ball hard and be able to cover more than the lowest portion of the strike zone.
Around the league
The debate about whether to extend the netting at major league ballparks effectively ended when three teams announced Thursday that they would do so. Now teams that aren’t committed to netting beyond the dugout cede the public-relations high ground, but those clubs also are at increased liability, as one baseball official noted, because of the tacit acknowledgment of the risk that has occurred: “If you’re the only team that hasn’t extended its netting and somebody gets seriously hurt because of it, how can you argue [in court] that you didn’t contribute to the risk?”
About the composition of the baseballs and the pervasive belief among a lot of players and staffers that they are different in 2017: Earlier this season, a veteran National League pitcher held out two baseballs that he said he had saved from his previous start, and he noted the obvious physical difference between them. One was notably smaller than the other.The same pitcher mentioned last week that he has taken to simply tossing aside the baseballs that he finds to be smaller than normal. “I’m probably throwing out 40 percent of the balls I’m given [by the umpire],” he said. “I’ve been holding baseballs my whole life, and I know what they’re supposed to feel like.”
Over the All-Star break, Dodgers outfielder Andre Ethier talked with his wife about trying to push through the injury and discomfort he has felt in an effort to come back in 2017. Maggie Ethier knows a whole lot about competition: She was a gymnast earlier in life. “You’ve got nothing to lose,” she told her husband, and last weekend, Andre Ethier related that conversation in explaining his current mindset. He’s in the last days of his long-term deal with the Dodgers, and Ethier, 35, knows that the market for an aging hitter who has had only 55 plate appearances the past two years won’t be robust this winter. So he’s working through his ailments and focusing on doing whatever he can to help the 2017 Dodgers -- and is intent on embracing whatever opportunity presents itself. It’s possible that he’ll get some time as the left fielder in the postseason, and it’s possible that he’ll be used as a pinch hitter -- as he was the other day, when he mashed an opposite-field homer to help beat the Phillies.
When Bernie Williams began his career with the Yankees, Gene Michael protected him -- from some bullying by teammates over Williams’s glasses and quiet demeanor and from owner George Steinbrenner, who grew frustrated during the slow start to the center fielder’s career. When Michael’s memorial service was held the other day, Williams was in attendance.
Baseball Tonight Podcast
Friday: Ross Atkins, Blue Jays GM, on the plans for Josh Donaldson, the area of need for 2018, and the work of fixing Aaron Sanchez’s blister issue; Karl Ravech on the issue of netting at ballparks, and the AL Wild Card race; and Jessica Mendoza on the Brewers and Cubs.
Thursday: Astros manager A.J. Hinch, on the conversations leading up to the Justin Verlander trade, and the impact of the former Cy Young Award winner; Boog Sciambi on the foul ball that hit a young girl Wednesday and the fallout; and Keith Law on the Dodgers’ bullpen and Jake Arrieta.
Wednesday: Eric Thames of the Brewers on why his team is like "The Bad News Bears"; Oakland’s Matt Chapman, about his defensive work and about playing wiffle ball with Nolan Arenado as a kid; Tim Kurkjian on the launch angle fad; and Paul Hembekides on the home run record.
Tuesday: Keith Law on the impact of the exploding home run numbers; Sarah Langs plays the Numbers Game; and Clark Spencer of the Miami Herald on the Marlins’ sale and the plans for Giancarlo Stanton.
Monday: Nationals catcher Matt Wieters and Jerry Crasnick on the Dodgers and Nationals, and the punishment handed down for the Red Sox; and Todd Radom picks the second-best MLB logo of all time before his weekly quiz.
And today will be better than yesterday.