Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Only Valid Opinion Concerning Willie Randolph

I know that it has been a while since I have done anything, and I know that I chose a dark time abandon the cause, but I hope that I can begin to start to make it up by laying down the one true opinion on Willie Randolph, in comparison to which all other opinions on Willie Randolph will appear as the feeble nonsense that they truly are.

Background: Primitive tribes would often find themselves a Witch Doctor, Medicine Man, or something to ensure favorable weather. Whenever the weather was good, they would talk about how they were really lucky to have such a good Witch Doctor. If the weather was bad, they would call in to the local radio stations and yell about how the Witch Doctor was a moron. Indeed, when examining the function of the Witch Doctor, it becomes obvious that he was mainly there to provide an illusion of control, a figure to either praise or blame as a way of avoiding the horrifying existential reality: that they were utterly at the mercy of the random workings of chance and nature and that there was noting that they could ever do to change that. Sometimes, after long periods of truly bad weather, they would decide to expel the Witch Doctor from their primitive community, just so they could feel like they were doing something to address the problem; sometimes, following such an expulsion, the weather would change and sometimes it wouldn’t. Lacking actual job skills, the expelled Witch Doctors were forced to wander the countryside alone, until they found a baseball team to manage.

If SamsMetsBlog had a set of core beliefs (and it doesn’t), one of them might be that what happens on sports teams is mostly about the players playing the game, and not so much about the managers or coaches directing them. Particularly in baseball, the areas in which a manager can actually impact the performance of his team are minimal. Teams win when they are getting on base and throwing strikes, and the manager does not contribute to any of that directly.

Randolph makes things a little more complicated by messing up the parts of the game that he can effect semi-regularly. However, anyone who thinks that Mets are a mediocre embarrassment because of the half a dozen times when Willie left Heilman in for a few batters to many or sent the up the wrong pinch hitter is insane. The Mets are in trouble because their offense is miserable and their pitching has been completely underwhelming.

The maddening thing is that there is every reason to think that the Mets, as presently constituted, could be one of the best teams in the National League. The players haven’t played as well as their past performances would lead one to hope. They’ve caught a lot of bad breaks. Carloses Delgado and Beltran have hit a lot of hard line drives at infielders; over the course of 162 games a lot of those will go a foot or two to the left or right and be extra base hits.

The opposing theory, I guess, is that Randolph should be able to inspire in his team the kind of intensity and focus that would prevent defensive lapses and make them fight their way back into games. However, I think many people are mislead by the strength of their desire for the Mets to appear more focused and passionate, which leads them to overemphasize the role that Randolph could play in the situation. Even if there is a deficiency of character on the part of the Mets it does not, in any way, follow that replacing the manager would make it better and not exaggerate it. Specifically, it seems that a different manager might be able to elicit better performances from Jose Reyes, who has a history of having been influenced by the people around him, such as Jose Valentine and Ricky Henderson. But it is not at all certain that a change would have a positive influence on Reyes and not a negative one; and by far the most important factor in Jose Reyes’ performance is Jose Reyes, and not whoever is managing him.

Thus, I think that the question that Randolph posed to a Bergen County Record reporter (in what he claimed to believe was an off the record conversation) regarding his portrayal in the media and the public’s resulting view of him, “is it racism?” is, at the very least, a fair question. There are really only two basic pieces of information about Randolph that are universally known: 1) that he is the manager of the New York Mets and 2) that he is a black man. If the response on the part of the public to perceived lackluster performances on the part of the Mets is to demand the ousting of the manager, it seems fair to wonder which of the only two facts generally available about Randolph they are responding to, particularly if you are of the (only reasonable) view that the role that the manager plays in any team is limited, and take into account that Randolph’s tenure has included successes as well as failures.

In the controversy that ensued in the wake of Randolph’s comments, the New York Post’s Joel Sherman pointed out that Yankee’s manager Joe Girardi, a white man, is not any less likely to be fired than Randolph if his team fails to perform. I would view the example of Girardi in a slightly different light. Before coming to the Yankees, Girardi was fired by the Marlins in the same year that he won the National League Manager of the year award. Girardi was entrusted with a lot of young pitching in with the Marlins, none of whom have performed as well since Girardi’s tenure, leading some to suspect over or mis-use on the part of the manager. The Yankees major strength, right now, is young pitching, and their goal is not so much to win with it right now, as to get it ready for the future. If I were a Yankees fan, I would wake up every day hoping to find out that Giradi had been fired on a Stienburner whim, particularly as the team undertakes the unprecedented, mid-season conversion of Joba Chamberlin from a starter to a reliever. Right now, the Yankees are pretty much exactly as bad as the Mets, and the fact that there is a louder cry for Randolph’s head than for Girardi’s tends to support an assertion that race plays a role in the conversations surrounding them.

In explaining himself, Randolph eventually alluded to Isaiah Thomas, which might be a more informative example. Thomas was bad as a coach, and worse as a GM. However, the hostility that he faced was utterly out of proportion to the extent to which he was actually at fault. A basketball coach probably has a bigger effect on his team’s season than a baseball manager, but the Knicks were still bad because the players were bad. If Phil Jackson and Isaiah Thomas had switched places half way through the season, the Knicks would still have been rotten and the Lakers would still have been good. Perhaps Jackson might have managed a few more wins than Thomas, but not as many more as if Zach Randolph had been replaced with a decent power forward, or if they had found a point guard who wasn’t a midget or insane. Thomas did more to deserve the hostility by assembling the god awful players in his role as general manager, but for the most part it seemed that people demanding his head were responding to his role as coach and their bitterness directed at him seemed to have more to do with expressing rage, than a rational understanding of what was going on with the team. (Don’t get me wrong, Isaiah was awful, but probably not that awful.)

Thus, the official Samsmetsblog view (and only sane opinion) regarding Willie Randolph is that he is ok, not brilliant, not a disaster, and not all that important; and also the New York press and sports fans instinct to pile on black coaches/managers is slightly worrisome, but difficult to definitively label as racism. In the end, someone who thinks that the Mets best move is to fire Willie Randolph is like a man who, when asked his view on Bush as a President, talks to you for twenty minutes about how he fucked up the highway system.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

better than no post at all....

From frequent (only) blog commentator” Nigel Fowler:”
Unless you plan to discuss this on the blog, could you please explain to me why Gandolph removed the estimable Vargas and replaced him with the hapless Thielman, who thereafter lost the game?

Could you also explain why Gandolph had Joe Smith pitch to one (1) person, with demonstrable skill, then replaced him?

If I didn't know better I'd wonder if he was trying to throw the game.But perhaps there are things I don't understand.

Unrelatedly, where's the best place to purchase Mets Caps (including a small child's one)? I have a request from England for baseball caps.

I didn’t actually get to catch the game, so I’m going off of the Post, metsblog and gameday (which actually gives you complete play-by-play information for past games, which is pretty cool— if you ever get asked questions about games that you didn’t watch.)

Anyhow, when Vargas was taken out he had thrown 97 pitches, and the Mets seem to like to limit their starters to around a hundred pitches, whenever possible. Pitch counts are very common in baseball now and, if you believe Ron Darling or Comrade Marty Noble, linked to the decline of the West. The theory, naturally, is that by limiting a starter’s pitches you prevent injury and enable superior performances in future appearances. The Mets seem to be a little more interested in limiting a starter’s pitches than most teams, and I get the impression that this is somehow related to a philosophy of pitching that comes from Rick Peterson.

More to the point, Vargas had given up a home run in the 6th inning, and then walked the second batter he faced in the 7th on four pitches-- both of which are generally regarded as signs that a starter is tiring and losing their control. Randolph thought Vargas was exhibiting commonly agreed on portents of a Heilman-esqu meltdown, and for all we know Randolph was right on this.

The decision to leave Heilman in is a little more interesting/almost definitely the wrong thing to do. One factor is that Schoenwisse had been hospitalized for a stomach virus the night before, and was probably regarded as unavailable (he showed up at the park and told reporters after the game that he could have pitched, but whatever). Recently injured relievers Duaner Sanchez and Matt Wise had both appeared in the previous game; Sanchez had been used in the last two games. With a day game on Thursday (meaning that pitchers used in Wednesday’s game would have less time to recover), Randolph’s desire was too get as much as he could out of as few pitchers as possible; he really wanted an inning or two out of Heilman, and was slow to accept that he wasn’t going to get it. And even when it became obvious that Heilman would be unable to perform, they still had to leave him in for another batter or so, while they waited for Joe Smith to warm up.

As for Smith only facing one batter, you seem to be mistaken: all the sources indicate that he also pitched a scoreless 8th, although that was probably not Randolph’s plan. In theory, due largely to the uniqueness of his throwing motion, Smith should be a specialist or situational reliever who is brought in to face specific batters, mainly right-handers. In theory, Hielman is more like a “miniature starter” (he actually began his career as a starter, wasn’t any good at it and got moved to the bullpen, but still dreams about returning to the rotation) who should be able to pitch an inning or two to pretty much anyone. Thus, ideally, Heilman would have finished the 7th and pitched most of the 8th—if another pitcher was needed for the last batter or so of the 8th inning Randolph would have gone to Smith or Feliciano depending on the handedness of the opposing batter. Randolph’s major mistake was not seeing that his ideal scenario was not going to happen soon enough. His only move was to bring in Joe Smith to perform the role that he had planned for Heilman; Randolph did do this eventually, but he probably should have done it sooner.

For what its worth, Randolph is more stuck with Heilman than he is with pretty much any other player. Heilman is one of only a few “homegrown” players on the squad (Wright, Reyes, Smith, and Mike Pelfry are the only others, I believe), and so there are sentimental and financial (he is still on his first contract which is probably fairly advantageous for the club) incentives to retain him. I am pretty sure that he has been on the team too long to be sent to the minors, and most comparable relievers would be more expensive for the team than Heilman.

Willie’s only motivation for throwing a game would be if he wants to get fired. If the Mets don’t do very well this year, and even if they ever go on a serious loosing streak, Randolph will probably be gone. However, he is under contract and “firing” him would probably involve handing him a big wad of cash, so we can’t rule out anything.

Mets caps are available on the web and at the ballpark, and also at a couple locations that sell team merchandise. One of these is located in the big mall in Flushing, the foodcourt of which seems to have a serious dumpling stand.