There’s a new movie coming out called Million Dollar Arm that stars Jon Hamm, the lovely Lake Bell, the incomparable Alan Arkin, and the utterly forgettable, yet ever-present, Bill Paxton. You may have heard of it.
It circles around the true story of two Indian cricket players who are recruited to play big-league baseball. History seemed to have proven that these two gentlemen did not, in fact, have million dollar arms, but it’s a term that is bandied about quite a bit. It actually has less relevance than it used to, since a major league pitcher that makes only a million dollars a year probably isn’t that great these days–rookie contracts not withstanding.
Regardless, this is one of numerous phrases used in baseball to describe a player. To say someone has a million dollar arm is to appropriate value to that person. Not a monetary value, per se, but a descriptive value. We know what a million dollar arm means, or at least we think we do. It’s a shortcut, a way to quickly identify what a player is or isn’t.
But below the surface, under the thin veneer of that label, there lie questions. Just like many of the other labels in baseball, it gets messy the deeper you dig.
One of the actors in Million Dollar Arm is Greg Pitts. According to IMDB, he plays a scout. Pitts has had a fairly successful career as an actor, with bit parts and series arcs on network television shows that span over a decade.
But anyone who sees Pitts in Million Dollar Arm most likely will not recognize him from Grey’s Anatomy, Weeds, or Sons and Daughters. They will see him on the screen and think, “Hey, it’s the ‘Oh Face’ guy from Office Space.”
That character–his name was Drew, for what it’s worth–has more or less defined Pitts. This is not said to be disparaging, but it’s most likely his reality. I imagine that when he gets recognized on the streets of L.A., it’s for that small role from a low-budget comedy made 15 years ago.
Pitts is an accomplished actor of sorts–I’m sure many would love to have his CV–but that label, the “‘Oh Face’ Guy,” has and probably will continue to define him throughout his career. It may have hurt his chances at other work, it may not. I don’t have that sort of inside information. But the scarlet O he wears on his chest is no less there, with all the trials and tribulations inherent therein.
Baseball players aren’t actors. However, they still can get labeled for past performances. We have a plethora of numbers and statistics with which to create a profile for a player. Player A strikes out too much. Player B walks too many guys. Player C doesn’t have enough power for his position.
These aren’t necessarily unfair, and certainly are used by front offices when attempting to create rosters every year. There is nothing wrong with classifying a player based on an observed skill set, but it becomes tricky when the player goes about changing that skill set.
When the Pittsburgh Pirates traded Jose Bautista to the Toronto Blue Jays in 2008, Toronto basically was acquiring a corner infielder/outfielder who had some on-base skills, a modest amount of pop in his bat, and poor fielding ability. In other words, replacement level. His highest wRC+ logged when he was traded was 97. His career WAR was -1.3.
The Pirates thought so little of Bautista, they traded him for a player to be named later. That player ended up being catcher Robinson Diaz who split time in Double- and Triple-A in 2013, his age-29 season.
Bautista continued his ways in 2009, his first full season with the Jays. He was still striking out a lot, but he was getting on base and hit 13 home runs, finding a good deal of power toward the end of the season.
Bautista came away from that season with a 102 wRC+, his highest yet. He provided a little value, but not much more than a bench player. Still, not a bad swap for a career minor league catcher.
In 2010, Bautista completely transformed. Well, perhaps not completely. He didn’t suddenly steal 85 bags and patrol center field like Joe DiMaggio. But he did his power, the skill that could make up for his sub-par fielding and high strikeout rate.
And find his power, he did. Bautista credited a change to his swing mechanics, but whatever the reason, he became a power plant for Toronto, ending the year with 54 home runs. He also lead the league in ISO, beating out a second-place Miguel Cabrera by .061.
Bautista doubled his ISO from the previous season to an astonishing .357, the highest single-season ISO in the post-Barry Bonds era. He batted 65 percent better than league average that year and was awarded with his first All Star appearance.
He hasn’t replicated that performance, but Bautista still is considered one of the bigger power threats in the league. And he made the jump from middling bench player in just one season.
Bautista is perhaps one of the most extreme recent examples of shaking off a label, but it can happen more subtly, as well. In 2008, Ervin Santana was one of the most valuable pitchers in the league. He struck out nearly a batter per inning and was posting a career-low walk rate. He ended the year worth 6.0 WAR, according to FanGraphs.
During spring training the following year, Santana was shut down with a sprained ulnar collateral ligament in his throwing elbow. He would battle this, along with a triceps strain, for a good deal of the season. He ended 2009 having pitched only 139 innings, striking out nearly two fewer batters per nine innings than the season before, and walking over three batter per nine.
Santana’s ERA jumped by one and a half runs. Though he did not require Tommy John surgery, it’s pretty clear that something related to his elbow was affecting his performance. His flyball tendencies were coming back to bite him since he was putting more men on base and getting fewer strikeouts.
Santana just wasn’t the same pitcher any more. So he changed. It was nothing drastic. He didn’t learn a knuckleball or start pitching underhand. But something changed.
It’s hard to say exactly what, however. He may have utilized a two-seam fastball more, he may have increased the velocity of his slider a little, or it may be a combination of that or something totally different. There isn’t a number in the peripherals that jumps out and says, “HEY! Look at this!” But the results do jump out.
Santana was able to change his M.O. and become a different kind of pitcher. He had a slight hiccup in 2012, when he allowed nearly two home runs per nine innings, but that seems like more of an aberration now, as he’s brought his HR/FB numbers back down to earth and provided the most value in terms of wins since his 2008 season. Santana applied a new label to himself, and it might be a label that will help land him a lucrative contract this offseason.
When a moniker is strictly calculable, when it can be devised by some fairly basic math, we are able to re-label a player more easily. When the situation is more anecdotal, it may become more difficult–and take longer–to change the general perception.
These situations may arise for a player even before he is a major leaguer. There are tales galore about a player’s off-the-field ventures, and those stories can affect development and draft position.
In the early part of 2013, Houston Astros prospect Jonathan Singleton was suspended for 50 games after testing positive for marijuana use. MLB’s stance on drugs can be confusing at times, but it’s fairly understandable. Baseball doesn’t want it’s young players getting mixed up in bad stuff early in their careers. It’s bad for the players and it’s bad for baseball.
MLB also is leery of the drug situation in general, as the league slowly pushes to remove the tarnish of the recent past. But 50 games is a lot of games for a player to lose, especially in the developmental stage.
Singleton is a highly-touted prospect, a first baseman with a tremendous amount of power potential. But his development was slowed by this ruling. He most likely was not going to see time in the majors in 2013, but it isn’t difficult to imagine he would have competed for a spot in 2014. Now, due to his lack of playing time and the resulting rust on his game that he needed to work off, he is most likely going to start next year in Triple-A.
Meanwhile, current major leaguer Chris Perez had pot delivered to his home, but he did not receive a suspension because he was on the disabled list at the time. Perez got arrested for his escapades and was rewarded by signing a $2.3 million deal with the Dodgers.
Singleton failed a test and, while we don’t know yet if this will affect him long term, the suspension–if not part of a direct mention of his makeup issues–was mentioned on every prospect list I saw. He’ll have to work hard to shake that reputation.
Yet, Singleton took what MLB calls a “drug of abuse.” This includes things like marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, etc. But that term is curious–drug of abuse. It’s certainly installed to help differentiate between recreational drugs and performance-enhancing drugs. We want to make sure we dole out the right flavor of finger wagging, after all.
But it’s still odd. Because nowhere on that list is the biggest drug of abuse out there–alcohol. Alcohol isn’t illegal if one is above the age limit, so there certainly is a difference here. How much of a difference is tough to gauge. In almost every case, a player- young or not–only gets in trouble in regards to alcohol if he does something illegal while under the influence of alcohol.
Matt Bush comes to mind. Bush’s case is a tragic and extreme one, but there must be hundreds of untold stories of minor leaguers getting plastered and doing something that put themselves or others in danger. These are young kids, after all.
A player getting busted for pot is a stupid move since he knew the consequences. But a player can get drunk after a game, and as long as he doesn’t crash his car or accost a waitress or teammate, no one raises an eyebrow. Singleton peed into a cup, and they found traces of weed. He got in trouble and hopefully has straightened himself out.
Would Bush’s life–never mind his career–been different had he been required to take a Breathalyzer after returning home? Would an earlier intervention have stopped him from ruining his life, as well as the lives of others?
This country always has had a weird relationship with drugs. I’m not here to provide answers to that issue. With the exception of Prohibition, alcohol basically has been a totally acceptable mind-altering substance in the eye of American culture.
But a kid with a drinking problem doesn’t seem like he has it together any more than a kid with a weed problem. Yet the latter are the only ones in the minor league system who get punished for their indiscretions.
This isn’t to say that a guy intent on smoking weed while he should be focusing on his game doesn’t have things to work out. Dedication to the craft is certainly something the organization, and baseball in general, should be promoting.
But what if he smoked only during the offseason? What if he lived in Colorado, where recreational marijuana use is legal, or he had a medical prescription for it due to issues with pain or depression?
Colorado is the first to fully legalize pot, but more states certainly will follow. Does a young guy have a makeup issue if he legally smokes weed? Is his problem any worse than a guy who legally drinks?
This extends further back on the timeline, as well. Minor leaguers may get in trouble, but at least they already have a job. If they take their lumps and keep their noses clean, they still have a shot at the big time. High school kids looking to get drafted have a very real chance of dropping in the draft and losing millions if they screw up, not to mention a fringe guy falling off boards altogether due to makeup concerns.
Off-the-field issues aren’t the only things that can follow a prospect, of course. Take two outfielders, for an example. Both have great speed and promising swings. But one had surgery after his sophomore year to clean up a meniscus injury. Which one gets drafted higher? Does one get drafted at all?
It sounds strange, but health–or perhaps durability is the better word–is a skill of sorts. And it could be something that pushes one prospect over another–or one under another to be more accurate–when a team is filling out a draft board.
Bush admits to having his first drink when he was 10 or 11. It’s hard to believe that something alcohol-related didn’t show up on his record when scouts came calling. Was it chalked up to “boys being boys?” Is a promising player who got busted drinking at a high school party on firmer ground that one who got caught with weed in his locker? Both are illegal for minors.
Scouts have to make snap decisions every day. Perhaps tipping a few back isn’t as problematic in their eyes. Perhaps the growing acceptance of marijuana that accompanies the changing laws will alter how scouts file a report in the future. Maybe it will get taken off the “drugs of abuse” list and allow teams to deal with pot use internally, instead of watching a prospect miss out on needed development time.
A player can have a questionable tag placed on him even if he stays away from drugs and alcohol altogether. When the video is analyzed and the numbers are crunched, there is still one huge question looming: “Is this guy going to get hurt?”
It’s certainly a valid question, since no team wants to pay a guy to sit on the disabled list. But it’s still tough to put a finger on what constitutes being injury-prone.
“Some players just have bad luck,” says FanGraphs’ Marc Hulet. “Or are prone to injury because of how hard they play the game, such as an outfielder who has no qualms about running through a wall to catch a baseball or a catcher who will sacrifice his body to block the runner from scoring.”
Luck or not, these labels of fragility or breakability can even follow a player once they’re established in the majors. Jacoby Ellsbury is a player who has had an injury-prone tag placed on him for some time, but as our own Jeff Sullivan writes, Ellsbury’s injuries might not come from a faulty immune system or inferior genetics or poor nutrition:
In the past few years, Ellsbury has missed significant time because of one foul ball and a pair of collisions with grown men,” he writes. “His last rib-injury aggravation was also the result of a collision with another grown man, and what you don’t see are a bunch of groin injuries or hamstring pulls. You don’t see chronic, potentially lingering injuries, like you do with, say, Matt Kemp. You see accidents that could’ve happened to anyone. As such, the history is less of a concern.
Injuries are weird in that they are sort of a trackable number–it’s easy to look up how many days a player missed to injury–but it’s also much more nuanced. There are accidents and there are use injuries. There are surgeries that usher a full recovery and surgeries in which the patient never is quite the same. There are opinions and second opinions and it all seems kind of chancy and unpredictable.
And unlike a groundball rate, previous injuries can not be swept under the rug as quickly by better performance. Because even the smart teams–the ones that can look past ERA or batting average–have no peripherals to look at when it comes to injuries. There are no underlying numbers. There are just days on the DL and medical reports.
Nothing is a given in baseball, and player health is no exception. Sometimes, the smartest move might be to pursue the guys who just haven’t gotten hurt yet.
We can look at numbers to craft a narrative for a player, to assign him a tag fairly easily. But there is a whole other group that can be even more responsible for how a player is viewed that can directly affect attitudes and even compensation: the media.
Each year, members of the BBWAA vote on which players deserve the MVP, Cy Young, and Rookie of the Year awards. These votes, like Hall of Fame votes, seem to have become a yearly point of contention for fans and writers alike.
But these awards, though they perhaps don’t count as much in the cosmic nature of things, mean more than just fodder for Internet bickering. Being a Cy Young winner means something. It can mean more compensation in arbitration hearings, contract extension meetings, and free-agent negotiations.
Voters for the Hall of Fame still look at award finishes when filling out their ballots, ostensibly outsourcing some of their work to other writers from the past. Living in Minneapolis, I still hear griping about Bartolo Colon winning the Cy Young in 2005–beating out the much more valuable Johan Santana and costing Santana a three-year Cy Young steak–and we certainly don’t need to touch on the recent Mike Trout/Miguel Cabrera MVP argument any more.
Voters get things wrong. Sometimes they may pick the wrong guy, sometimes they certainly pick the wrong guy. But when all the hand wringing and eye rolling is over, an award must be given, and the general public sees an award winner as a better player than a non-award winner. But there are some signs of hope.
The 2013 award-voting season saw one drastic change, the way the Gold Glove winners are chosen. It was announced that advanced statistics, provided by the Society for American Baseball Research, would be spun into the voting process by not only providing voters with statistical defensive research, but by also counting for approximately 25 percent of the ballot. The results speak for themselves.
By both standard defensive statistics, 2013 saw the closest gap between Gold Glove winners and best defensive performers. Since 2004, 26 Gold Glove winners have produced a negative DRS in the season they won, and 32 have posted negative UZR.
In 2013, only one winner posted negative numbers, Adam Jones. If the Gold Glove/SABR marriage continues, we should see more deserving players being recognized for their defensive prowess and fewer winning strictly on the eye test or bias of writers.
Labels are not something that will go away time soon, in baseball or in everyday life. But labels always come from information. As we are more and more able to gather better information–and gather it more quickly and easily–characterizations of players could become more fluid.
Drug suspensions and criminal activity always will tarnish a player’s reputation, but if the numbers can make their way into other areas like injury history and award voting, the next crop of talent may get judged much more fairly than in the past.
Labels can be unfair, whether you’re Jonathan Singleton or Greg Pitts, but if a modicum of research can turn Ervin Santana into a groundball pitcher, then the Johan Santanas of the world might get a better shake in the future.