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Wednesday, March 24, 2004
The many misguided

By Rob Neyer
ESPN.com

You know, we humans have an amazing capacity for self-delusion.

"Generally speaking, I've done better in some of the bigger stadiums," Chris Stynes recently said. "Playing in bigger stadium stops me from trying to hit home runs, which is not my game. I just try to spray the ball around and drive in as many runs as I can."

Well, that's interesting. Two of the better parks for hitters -- and, perhaps not coincidentally, the two parks in which Stynes has played more than any others over the last three seasons -- are Coors Field and Fenway Park. Here's what he did in Coors and Fenway from 2001 through 2003, and what he did in the other however many ballparks:

                  AB   OBP Slug
Coors/Fenway     388  .358 .485
Everywhere Else  611  .306 .354

Chris Stynes
Third baseman
Pittsburgh Pirates
Profile
2003 SEASON STATISTICS
G R HR RBI SB AVG
138 71 11 73 3 .255

I don't mean to pick on Stynes. It's actually somewhat endearing, watching somebody's emotional defense mechanisms kick in. And PNC Park, his new home, really is a pretty good place for right-handed contact hitters, so he really might do moderately well there.

Elsewhere, though, things are not exactly looking rosy for the Pirates in the near term. Last season, when the Pirates were certainly respectable (75-87), three of their four best players were outfielders Brian Giles, Reggie Sanders and Matt Stairs.

Giles, Sanders and Stairs are all gone. The Pirates' other best player was Jason Kendall, and they're trying to trade him. Who would that leave? Raul Mondesi, who takes over for Sanders in right field, is still a pretty good player. And rookie Jason Bay, who came over last summer in the deal that sent Giles to San Diego, might be great. But the future doesn't look good for the Pirates, who have a few fine pitching prospects in the minors but virtually no young hitters of note. That's a scary ratio, because young hitters pan out more often than young pitchers.

Also scary: the prospect of Jose Mesa in the role of Pirates "closer." I tend to pull for the Pirates, because of their long history and what looks on TV like a beautiful ballpark. But gosh, if there's a light at the end of the tunnel I sure can't see it.

************

As a couple of faithful Mariners fans pointed out, I got one number wrong in Monday's column about Eric Chavez and the A's. I wrote

Over the last three seasons only one team (the Yankees, and just barely) have won more games than the Athletics have. Only two other teams (the Yankees and Braves) have reached the postseason in each of the last three years (all three clubs are actually working on four-year postseason streaks). In 2004, the Athletics are considered (at least) co-favorites to win the American League West.

All of that is true, except the first parenthetical statement about the Yankees. I got that wrong because apparently I can't even read my own Excel file, which -- I'm looking at it now -- I simply misread. Here are the top five, wins from 2001 through 2003:

Mariners  302
Athletics 301
Yankees   299
Braves    290
Giants    285

If we go back four seasons, to 2000, the rankings are exactly the same (with the M's still exactly one win ahead of the A's). Oddly enough, over that span the Mariners trail the A's, Yankees, and Braves in postseason appearances, 2 to 4. That's due, of course, to the combination of winning 116 games in 2001 and playing in a great division in 2002 (when they won 93 games, but had the third-best record in the West).

Before we leave the A's -- and I might come back to them again later this week, with regard to Chavez and his apparent inability to hit left-handed pitching -- I want to close with something that should not, at this late date, need to be said but unfortunately still does ...

Tim Hudson
Hudson

Mark Mulder
Mulder

Barry Zito
Zito

A few days ago, a writer in St. Louis penned a newspaper column in which he argued, "(W)ith all due respect to (Billy)Beane's 'genius,' the foundation of the A's success can be explained in three simple ways -- Barry Zito, Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson. There is nothing inventive about the pitching principle, it's as old as baseball time."

This has been repeated so often by so many people that it's nearly as shopworn as the shopworn clause, "with all due respect" (and by the way, when you surround the word genius with quotation marks, then it's clear that no respect, due or otherwise, is intended, so why bother?).

As I'm sure I've repeated too often, to suggest that the general manager of a franchise has nothing to do with the success of that franchise's young pitchers is truly preposterous. Beane was the A's assistant general manager in 1997, when Hudson was drafted, and he was general manager in 1998 and 1999 when Mulder and Zito were drafted. Are Beane's detractors living in some bizarre alternate baseball universe where GM's aren't held accountable -- or in this case, credited -- for who's drafted? Are GM's not to be held accountable for employing the pitching coaches who nurture the young pitchers? Are GM's not to be held accountable for establishing workload limits for the young pitchers?

Apparently not. What's funny is that Beane has done all sorts of things with which we might quibble. Those contracts given to Jermaine Dye, Scott Hatteberg, and (especially) Terrence Long look pretty silly now, and one might reasonably argue that Beane didn't get enough when he traded Eric Hinske to the Blue Jays (even if he wound up with a year of Keith Foulke and two high draft picks). But instead of doing a little homework and finding Beane's real screw-ups, his detractors essentially blame him for drafting, developing, and keeping healthy three great pitchers.

This St. Louis writer -- OK, his name is Dan O'Neill and he works for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch -- concludes,

A computer model didn't go out and find Zito, Mulder and Hudson. Scouts did that, scouts who have a talent for finding talent, men who have spent their adult lives on baseball diamonds, playing, watching and absorbing. Their memory is not measured in gigabytes but in calluses, tobacco stains and stirrup socks. There isn't a program that can duplicate them.

But this awkward adaptation to 'Moneyball' is foolishly compromising these men and dissolving this time-honored culture. The new trend in baseball is to trim scouting staff while making room for the technical operatives. That is cause for alarm.

Alarm.

Elsewhere, O'Neill writes that making "statistical input ... gospel is dangerous."

Dangerous.

You know, I've met nearly every baseball executive who this guy's talking about, and I can tell you with absolute confidence that not one of them believes he can run his organization without help from guys with calluses and tobacco stains. What a lot of these addle-minded writers refuse to acknowledge is that some scouts don't know what they're doing. That shouldn't be hard to understand; there are incompetent scouts, just as there are incompetent doctors, incompetent tree-trimmers, and -- yes, Dan -- incompetent sports columnists. The point isn't that intelligent baseball executives want to get rid of scouts. The point is that intelligent baseball executives want to identify which scouts are getting the job done, and trim the rest. Is this manifestly sensible policy really so hard to understand? (For an answer to that question, see the first sentence of this column.)

Senior writer Rob Neyer writes three columns per week during baseball's offseason. This spring, Fireside will publish Rob's next book, "The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers" (co-written with Bill James); for more information, visit Rob's Web site. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.