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Industry needs kick in the pants
By Peter Gammons
Special to ESPN.com
Baseball is a traditional game. It also is a business, and in business, traditional thinking is not necessarily wise, or cost-efficient.
For a generation, the scouting of pitching has been about finding the live power arms and the big rawboned kids who light up the radar guns, signing them and plunking them down in Pocatello, Medicine Hat or Fort Myers, then waiting for the first surgery.
This is not a college/high school argument, although it is relevant to look back at Roger Clemens in high school. John McLaren, now the Devil Rays' bench coach and then a Blue Jays area scout, remembers going to see Clemens' high school in Katy, Texas and "seeing Rich Luecken, who was a No. 1 pick, and Rayner Noble, a second rounder [now the coach at the University of Houston], and the third pitcher was a heavy kid who wasn't a prospect -- Roger."
Clemens developed at San Jacinto Junior College under coach Wayne Graham and then at the University of Texas, partly because of talent, partly because of his extraordinary will and partly because he was developed properly. But there is a rule of thumb that many in the game believe is a truism: if a kid is throwing 95 at the age of 18, he'll most likely be throwing 85 when he's 23.
Why? Some of the reason may be physiological, but baseball has traditionally waited to deal wth injuries rather than address biomechanics and development from the beginning. This is what Oakland pitching coach Rick Peterson -- through his work with Dr. James Andrews, Dr. Glen Fleisig and the scientists at the American Sports Medicine Institute in Birmingham -- has addressed in the prehab program they developed and use with the Oakland pitchers.
It's a complex program of exercises specifically designed for the biomechanics of pitching, balance drills (throwing with eyes closed, as well as throwing off balance beams) and closely monitored 10-day throwing cycles, all with the help of Dr. Fleisig's video analysis. The Red Sox, with another Dr. Fleisig student, Chris Correnti, running their strength and conditioning program, have begun similar drills for their major leaguers, which have helped Derek Lowe's career and changed the body of Pedro Martinez. Then when Red Sox farm director Ben Cherington went to Birmingham accompanying minor-league pitcher Manny Delcarmen when he had Tommy John surgery last month, he was so impressed with the A.S.M.I. program that he and the front office decided to send their best minor-league prospects to the institute for offseason evaluations and begin the prehab work from the bottom up.
Which begs the question: Why hasn't this business thought about prehab rather than rehab in a time when brilliant minds can apply science to innings pitched? "It's one of those questions I ask all the time," says Correnti. "I don't get the answers."
Which brings us to "Moneyball." The reaction through the baseball community to Michael Lewis' book following A's GM Billy Beane has been humorous, especially since a lot of the sniping comes from people who either read excerpts or heard second hand about the contents.
At least twice a day, I hear comments about "Billy Beane's book." Oh, my. Understand, Beane has been embarrassed by some of the reaction, and some of what was in the book, and while he may have made a mistake by giving a brilliant writer too much access without having any say over the contents, anyone who reads the book from start to finish is highly entertained (surprise, surprise! Lewis is a best-selling author) and realizes that this is Lewis' interpretation of Beane and his operation. What is most amusing is that some of the tobacco-chewers are so threatened by the novel concept that past performance is a factor in predicting future performance, and while some hard-working, talented scouts may take offense, a company with limited resources cannot be taking $1.5 million gambles on a kid with tools from Iowa whose first high school game is May 25.
Beane has called some GMs that he felt may have been offended, such as the Mets' Steve Phillips and the Indians' Mark Shapiro, and says that some contexts may create misunderstandings. "The one area that isn't quite right involved my negotiations with Boston," says Beane. "Michael and I hadn't had as much contact at that point in time, and the three or four people in the game that talked to me several times that day I changed my mind know what I was going through."
Some of the strongest comments have come from Oakland's former scouting director, but he hadn't read the book. Grady Fuson said Beane was quoted as saying that he ordered the drafting of Barry Zito, when it was the A's great scout Dick Bogard who was quoted. And while Beane did order the drafting of Zito, it was not a Zito/Ben Sheets decision based on money, everyone who was close to that draft knows it was because Beane was convinced Zito was special. Oh, by the way, thankfully Beane did order them to draft Zito, as he did Mark Mulder over Ryan Mills.
It's comical that scouts trash Blue Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi as another stats freak, since J.P. is one of the best talent eyes of the last 20 years. Does he have Harvardian Keith Law working with him? Of course. He gathers every bit of information he can have. This spring, one veteran coach said, "Boston has that Chuck James stat guy running the team." How afraid. Does Red Sox GM Theo Epstein use Bill James? Of course, more than half the teams in baseball have stats advisors and researchers. But Epstein is a huge scouts guy who relies heavily on Bill Lajoie -- speak of the best evaluators of the last 40 years -- as well as Craig Shipley. "What's wrong," asks Epstein, "with having every opinion and piece of information one can have in evaluating a player?"
Nothing. Tools are terrific. Drew Meyer, the Rangers' No. 1 pick last year, has tools. He's supposed to be a center fielder in time. But at 22 he also has a .290 on-base percentage, playing in Class A. Picking six spots behind Texas, Oakland took another center fielder, Nick Swisher. Same age, same league, he has a 1.007 OPS.
An industry that has wasted millions upon millions in drafting high school players should worry more about evaluating its practices, because if it did it wouldn't need people in New York to be trying to rig signing costs. Spending $5 million on Josh Beckett may have been a great idea, but in his fifth season since being drafted, he has 10 major-league victories. Zito was drafted seven spots behind Beckett, is 53-19 and exactly two years older.
Around the majors
This and that
"He reminds me of David Henderson," says Ricciardi of Wells. "He reads the ball really well off the bat, and is one of the best defensive players at that position, He's a better hitter than most of the other center fielders and is tougher to get out. He's going to be one of those guys who hits .280 to .300-something, hits 20 to 30 homers, knocks in 100 runs and is a great outfielder.
With Kotsay out, Towers brought up center fielder Jason Bay, who had a dozen homers at Triple-A Portland. Bay was acquired from the Mets for reliever Steve Reed last July.