Rays Diary: 2015 Season

     With all of the injuries to the Rays pitching staff and the dependence on so many rookies this past season, an 80 and 82 record is “not bad’ by Major League Baseball standards.  The players never gave up.  They hustled and maintained a professional attitude through some really tough slumps, rebounding in fine fashion even in the last games of the season with nothing to play for except pride in their team.  Too bad they couldn’t escape the same unbalanced corporate/ management system that has plagued them since that magical year that they went to the World Series.

     When asked how the Rays could have performed so miserably in one run and extra inning games, Manager Cash became tongue tied. Unfortunately it’s not just his tongue that was tied.  How does a manager win close games with one hand tied behind his back as well?  He’s not allowed to bunt late in games, to advance runners or to avoid record numbers of double plays.  In fact, so little effort was allowed to be expended practicing “smallball” that even when players attempted to bunt or hit and run or to simply put the ball on the ground, it often looked comical.  Worse yet, certain players are obviously not allowed to bunt even in 100% obvious bunting situations.  Better, I guess, to strike out , pop up or hit into a double play in the eighth or ninth inning then to advance the runners into scoring position.  Poor Cash’s silence was deafening, because so many of those late inning games were won by opposing teams’ successful execution of bunting and “smallball.”

     This is not a well coached team!  Nor is it a team that has mastered sabermetrics, despite corporate arrogance in thinking it is as simple as turning on an inert machine and magically finding answers to questions that were never programmed into the computer.  To ask the computer for the right answer, one has to ask the right question!  To ask the right question, one must know something about the actual history of baseball, i.e. what “works” and what “doesn’t work,” what has been successful in the past and what has failed. Oakland’s Billy Bean’s ignorance, for instance, in disdaining the bunt because he refuses to give up an out for a base is born out of the concept that “ the more runners a team puts on base, the more runs they will score.”  This is a true statement, but it assumes that in a tie game, in the bottom of the  ninth inning, that more than one run is needed to be victorious.  The same goes for “insurance runs.”  How many times have the Rays passed up a lone insurance run, so important to the highly leveraged reliever, to try to get three or four runs instead?  And how many dozen times have they failed?  No wonder manager and corporate suits are tongue tied.

     I’ve said many times that I considered Andrew Friedman, dollar for dollar, the best general manager in baseball.  I consider Matt Silverman to be just as talented.  There is little doubt that year after year the Rays seem to get more “bang for their buck” than any other organization in baseball, but it’s not because they know more about baseball than other clubs, it’s because they know more about the business of baseball.  I’m sorry, Mr. Sternberg, Mr. Silverman, you’re not professional baseball people.  Billy Bean is not a professional baseball person.  He too is a businessman.  As businessmen, you put together the best team that you can, given your budget.  You’re not the Yankees, the Dodgers or the Mets.  You have to collect young pitchers, speed, and defense and you can’t afford veteran power hitters.  That means that if you continue to assemble a team that is “made” for “smallball’ (e.g. like the Giants), then quite obviously you have to play smallball at appropriate times.

     Some years ago, after an obviously successful year in which the team went to a World Series, a year in which a number of position players had career years, it was decided that batting coach Steve Henderson needed to be replaced, apparently because non baseball professionals in corporate suits had prayed to some sort of computer gods and heard heavenly voices telling them that there was a magic formula for scoring more runs without hitting the ball.  Now, I don’t really know if Derek Shelton is really responsible for the amateur hitting philosophy adopted since Henderson’s departure and finally, I hope, abandoned in the last few months, or if it is due to incompetent corporate policy.  In fact, I would wager that Mr. Shelton used to know quite a bit about actual hitting in his time before the strange voices.

     If people think that I am being too critical, then consider Jim Hickey, generally regarded as one of the best pitching coaches, if not the best, in all of baseball.  Corporate suits prayed again to the computer gods and heard voices or maybe they received an email from a devious Yankee or Red Sox fan telling them to pull starting pitchers after only five innings, even with low pitch counts, to minimize their stress.  In the past, teams tried to avoid pulling pitchers too early unless they had to.  Even Joe Maddon finally learned this lesson after wiping out his bullpens year after year, mostly by having them throw hundreds of extra, needless warmup pitches.  Undaunted, amateurs forced their professional pitching coach to accede to something about which they had no expertise at all!  They did it with hitting and now they decided to do it with pitching.

     Last, but not least, certain things are so obvious that sooner or later they have to be addressed.  There seems to be a reluctance by the offensive coaching staff to teach basic hitting technique, especially since Steve Henderson was summarily dismissed for some reason or other.  B.J. began to sway about a foot and a half back and forth, moving his head and eyes completely off the ball, losing a hundred points in his batting average.  Carlos Pena went back to keeping his left (back) elbow up in the air again, refusing to drop it into “the slot” like every other hitter in baseball, losing eighty points off of his average and destroying his home run prowess.  Zobrist was reduced to a Punch and Judy hitter with the bad advice to use his hands more in his swing instead of hitting the myriad of outside corner pitches “the other way.”  John Jaso was not told to keep his weight back and to explode into the ball instead of keeping his off balance, ridiculously wide stance. He actually had to go to another ball club to learn how to hit.  And, one of the most talented individuals that I have ever seen play baseball, Evan Longoria, still stands, off balance, in a non athletic stance, so far back in the box (with both feet on the back line as if he’s afraid of the ball) that he can’t reach breaking balls by right handed pitchers.  Worse yet, he crushes the ball when he is able to take a short stride, but so often, when he has to take a huge stride forward to reach the ball, he ends up swinging off of one leg, the front one (the wrong one) nearly falling down.  This is what leads to his “warning track power.”  I won’t even get into the “hitch” or the “loop” or the uppercut trajectory of his swing.  Obviously his so called “coaches” are thrilled that he hits his twenty home runs and seventy RBI’s a year.  I wonder if  Evan is satisfied with his mediocre hitting performance?

     To be successful the Rays will need to put a “team” on the field.  I know the players are willing and able, especially with so many injured starting pitchers on the mend.  I think Kevin Cash is smart enough to learn from whatever mistakes he may have made this year.  I hope that he can stand with his players and not be bullied by the “corporate suits.”  I am a strong believer in the value of metrics in professional baseball, but I do not believe that businessmen are qualified to use the metrics without considerably more knowledge of baseball itself.  Does anyone really believe that a Walter Alston or a Joe Torre or even a Joe Maddon would really need a computer to use metrics?  Believe me, they could all do it in their heads!  To be successful, Rays corporate management needs to step back and do its job in the office and let manager and coaches do their jobs on the field.

Al Finkelstein, Concerned Rays Fan, 10/9/15