TSN Baseball Insider Steve Phillips answers several questions each week. This week topics include the new and improved John Gibbons, the new home plate collision rules and Jon Singleton's controversial contract.
1. John Gibbons is not getting a lot of ink, but he is managing a first place club and he's not simply handing in a line-up card and leaving it to the players. Can you compare the current John Gibbons with the previous version of Gibbons that managed the Toronto Blue Jays to disappointment?
Being a major league manager is a vey difficult job. How do you motivate multimillionaires to perform to the best of their abilities?
It is not uncommon to wonder if a manager is managing better when his team is playing better. Everybody looks smarter when the team is winning. The same moves that a manager made with a losing team may work when the players are playing better. Is that better managing? I guess so.
Alex Anthopolous brought John Gibbons back for a second stint as Jays' manager because of the familiarity and comfort he had with him. As a young GM, Anthopolous wanted a manager whom he could trust and whom could help develop young players at the big league level.
The 2013 Jays went 74-88. They started the season with great expectations, but injuries and underperformance crushed their year. Gibbons did all he could to hold things together, but as the season progressed, the losses mounted. The offence and defence struggled early on without Jose Reyes. Despite any efforts, no one could replace Reyes. Then, Jose Bautista was lost for the last month-and-a-half of the season. If a team loses its stars for months at a time, they are likely to struggle, especially if they don't have much margin for error. Gibbons did a great job in building a bullpen despite the second-worst starting rotation in the majors.
This season, so much is going right and Gibbons looks smarter. He is working the match-up to his benefit using platoons when necessary. He is seemingly pulling pitchers at the right time and picking the right relievers for the necessary situations. He has worked around injuries at the closer's role. When he puts the shift on for pull hitters, the opposition seems to hit it into the teeth of the defense. He shifted Brett Lawrie from third to second and handled the emotions that came with it. He is doing a heckuva job.
The Xs and Os in baseball are not always that complicated. The situation often dictates the appropriate move. Where managers make their money is in creating an environment where players are held accountable and can thrive. This is where Gibbons has made his most progress. And to think there was a time when Gibbons was with the Mets and I thought he was too calm and too nice. I worried he didn't have the bite in him that managers sometimes need. He proved me wrong in his first stint, as he had a few run-ins with players and more than a few with umpires. He is calmer this time around. He is more mature. He is in control of his emotions much better now. He handles adversity with patience and ease. I don't anticipate any Shea Hillebrand and Ted Lilly-like issues now.
I actually think the review system that is in place now has also helped Gibbons immensely. He doesn't have to lose his cool when he feels wronged by umpires anymore. He can just challenge the call and hope to have it overturned. This has helped him keep the environment intense without building tension.
Edwin Encarnacion got off to a slow start this season, but because Gibbons had created an environment, starting last year, that allowed for progress, not perfection, it allowed Encarnacion to work out his issues and now he is thriving.
The Jays are flying a bit under the radar and so is their manager. I believe teams take on the personality of their manager. The Jays' personality is tough, aggressive, hard-nosed, intense, consistent and resilient.
I believe in taking advantage of second chances. So does John Gibbons.
2. Oakland A's left fielder Yoenis Cespedes made a great throw this week to nail a Los Angeles Angels runner at the plate, his league leading 8th outfield assist. It was a nice demonstration of the new play at the plate rules, with Derek Norris just barely having his foot in front and applying the tag without fear of getting hammered. What are your thoughts on how it is working so far and are any tweaks required based on what you have seen? And who had the greatest outfield arm you've ever seen?
When the Commissioner's Office announced the new home plate collision rules, I thought they got it exactly right. They instituted rules that disallow baserunners to attack a catcher when he isn't blocking the plate and disallow a catcher from blocking the plate without the ball. These eliminated the unnecessary contact at the plate.
Major League Baseball could make an instructional video for all teams to view of the play at the plate when Yoenis Cespedes's laser throw from left field cut down Howie Kendrick. A's catcher Derek Norris left the plate uncovered while he waited for the ball to arrive. Kendrick headed for the open plate as he should have, going in feet first. Norris caught the strong throw and applied the tag. No one was injured and we now remember the great throw and not an injury acquired by unnecessary contact at the plate.
Baseball got this one right. It is a perfectly crafted rule.
Cespedes certainly showed tremendous arm strength on the throw to the plate. He showed off a bit more the next night when he gunned down Albert Pujols trying to advance to third after having misplayed the ball in the left field corner. Cespedes is a five-tool player. He has average to well-above average speed, arm strength, fielding, hitting for average and power.
Great arm strength is not as common as it once was. Nowadays, young player learn baseball more in batting cages than in pickup games on a field. Today's players don't long toss and stretch out their arms like they used to do.
The best outfield throwing arms I have ever seen belong to Hall of Famer Andre Dawson and former Boston Red Sox right fielder Dwight Evans. I remember Dawson catching a fly ball at the warning track and the third base coach holding the runner out of respect. I remember being a kid at Tiger Stadium in Detroit and seeing Dwight Evans climb the right field wall and rob a home run and then rifle a throw to the plate to cut down the runner tagging from third.
Usually outfielders with great arms don't lead the league in outfield assists because base coaches know not to challenge them. Look for Cespedes to get fewer opportunities to cut down runners after this past week's highlights. It's a shame because it is really exciting but you can't blame the base coaches for putting up the stop sign.
3. Last week, Jon Singleton got a long-term deal from the Houston Astros before taking a big league swing. As a former GM, what are your thoughts about that strategy from the team's perspective?
The Astros made a calculated decision about Jon Singleton. They weighed the risk and the reward of signing him to a multi-year deal before he ever saw a major league pitch. They considered the cost and the benefit of committing significant money to a still unproven player.
In the 1990s, the Cleveland Indians were among the first teams to sign their young players to multi-million dollar long-term deals. They bought the players out of their arbitration years and a free agent year or two when possible. The players liked the deals because they got lifetime financial security early in their career and the team got a bit of a discount than if the players negotiated for contracts from year to year. Small market teams have to be creative in retaining their young players because, if not, they end up on the New York Yankees.
Small market teams can't afford power in the free agent market. Power bats and power arms are the most expensive commodities in baseball. Smaller market teams need to develop their own power on their roster. When they finally get it, they need to be creative to afford it and keep it.
The Astros see Singleton as a power hitter in their lineup for years to come. They realize that the young man came from very little money and might be inclined to jump at a shot at security. So they approached his agent and made a deal. The young man is guaranteed $10 million for a five-year contract. It could be worth as much as $35 million if the options get exercised on the back end of the deal. Singleton gave the Astros a discount on the contract to get security today. He may have left as much as $20 million on the table if he becomes the home-run hitter that his potential indicates.
I like this deal from the Astros' perspective. It is a worthwhile risk to commit the $10 million to save the $20 million that was left on the table. I understand why other players might be upset by this deal. Baltimore Orioles pitcher, Bud Norris, a former Astro, chastised Singleton, for taking a deal so much below market. He said it was selfish of Singleton to take such a club favorable deal because it will put a drag on salaries. There is no doubt that Singleton and his agent made this deal against the union's advice. The MLBPA wants every player to maximize every dollar in every contract.
It is nice to see a young player and his agent doing what is right for them and not everyone else. His so-called selfishness may prove to be unselfish if it allows the Astros to keep or sign other players.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Both Singleton and the Astros see green and think it is beautiful.
- The Baseball Hall of Fame turned 75-years-old this week. Happy Birthday! The museum in Cooperstown, New York is a place where the Baseball Writers' Association of America has determined candidates be recognized. The criteria? Eligible candidates' names need to appear on 75 per cent of all ballots cast. Writers are asked to consider candidates “on the basis of playing ability, sportsmanship, character, their contribution to the teams on which they played and to baseball in general.”
These criteria have been applied in considering players for decades. Almost all of the game's great players are recognized in the Hall of Fame. For the longest time, the Hall did not include many of the great Negro League players who were unable to participate in major league baseball. That has been rectified as many Negro League players have finally gotten their due.
The BBWAA doesn't know what to do with the steroid era. They need guidance. Some writers vote for players who have used PEDs and some don't. Some writers don't vote for players based upon guilt by association or speculation, even when there is no failed drug test.
The Hall is a museum. The definition of museum is "a building in which objects of historical, scientific, artistic, or cultural interest are stored and exhibited." In other words, a museum should document history. So the Baseball Hall of Fame is a museum to document the history of the game.
Isn't the steroid era part of the history of the game?
The hang-up that writers and some baseball fans have with the steroid era is that the stats and numbers may not be real. How should the numbers be compared to those of previous eras?
Stats and performance have been enhanced forever in baseball for one reason or another. When Babe Ruth hit 714 home runs, he never had a single at bat against an African American pitcher. He didn't face many of the best pitchers playing baseball at the time because of segregation. Weren't his numbers enhanced?
There was a dead-ball era where the pitchers dominated and homers were hard to come by. Some part of that was because the ball itself was different. When the equipment changed, performance was enhanced.
The pitching mounds were lowered in 1969 and offensive numbers improved. This certainly enhanced performance, yet writers have not been confused about its impact on the Hall.
Most of the news stadiums built in recent years have benefited offence. They are hitters' parks with very little foul territory giving a distinct advantage to offensive players. This has certainly given players an advantage, yet no one factors it in their Hall considerations.
Performance has been enhanced forever just in different ways.
Some say that the steroid era players enhanced their performance by cheating. I understand that may be distasteful. So why is Gaylord Perry in the Hall of Fame? He is celebrated for his use of a spitball. He violated the rules to gain an advantage. It enhanced his performance. Baseball writers voted for him anyway.
Baseball has now banned amphetamines ("greenies" and "red juice"). These drugs fall under the heading of drugs of abuse and not performance enhancement drugs, but have no doubt they were used over the years to enhance performance. Playing 162 games in 181 days is a real grind. Many of the players currently in the Hall of Fame used greenies to recover and focus from game to game. Many of these same players are the ones who cast stones at today's cheaters who use steroids. That is the pot calling the kettle black.
The Hall of Fame needs to instruct its voters on how to handle the steroid era. This era of baseball needs to be accurately documented just like every other performance-enhanced era.
Why not do it now? You are never too old to change, Hall of Fame!