Matty -- Okay, So in Some Ways, I Was Wrong, Okay?

by Gregg Pearlman

Sunday, December 21, 1997

I received a very constructive, well-thought-out and helpful e-mail some weeks ago suggesting that I at least address the fact that Matt Williams didn't tear up the American League in 1997 -- nor, more to the point, did the guys the Giants acquired for him put us in mind of Kim Batiste and Jose Bautista. It's been hinted here and there that I offer supplication in the form of multiple mea culpas, but why? As the e-mail in question said, "I wasn't wrong at the time" -- "the time" meaning "before the fact," which is when I spent lots of energy ripping Brian Sabean, Jeff Kent, Jose Vizcaino, Julian Tavarez, Brian Sabean, J.T. Snow, and Brian Sabean.

Last year, on November 14, the day after the Williams deal, I wrote "The You-Know-What Hits the Fans." I said that the trade was "proof positive that, in the business of baseball, the fans do not enter the equation on any level except as the forkers-out of way too much money. Clearly we are to be counted, but not heard; what we want does not matter, and what we want is not what happened on November 13."

There's not much I can do to defend that, beyond going, "Who knew?" Clearly I didn't. Sabean and certain sportswriters are feeling pretty smug about their predictions that the Williams and J.T. Snow deals would work out like butter for the Giants, but there's really no reason -- based on available evidence, in the form of established career patterns, i.e., statistics -- it should've gone that way. I'm thrilled it did, but even that's not good enough for people who have said, "Sure, being happy about being wrong gives you an out; it's tantamount to saying you weren't wrong." Of course, if it turns out that after 1998 or 1999, these guys were obvious busts, in the way that Rick Wilkins was, I've learned that not only will no one say, "Huh. I guess Gregg was right, in the long run," but also that if I said such a thing, I'd be shouted down because of 1997. And you know what they'd say? "Who knew?"

It's a clear Rule One situation -- Rule One being, "You can't win," and "you" being Gregg.

Obviously I'd rather be right than wrong, but I'm not one to refuse to admit to being wrong. When I am wrong, there's nothing I like better than being shown what's right, and coming to understand that. It's just that it's not as black and white as all that -- and I'm not big on absolutes anyway. But I still feel called upon to eat crow, and I just don't see this as a situation where crow need be served -- and it's hard to even say that without thinking that it sounds like I'm just refusing to admit to being wrong. Oh, well; Rule One. But I think the main things I learned from these deals, and the 1997 season, are:

About the individual players the Giants acquired for Williams, I said:

Okay. I pretty much bombed with these, though I was a little closer to the mark with Tavarez than the other two. He didn't show himself to be nuts or anything, but his problems in April and May were largely due to his inability to pitch inside. Come June, he was untouchable. His late-season ineffectiveness, I believe, were due more to overuse than anything else. To me, the big concerns are (a) the fact that he doesn't strike out anybody, and (b) the longer he pitches in a game, the worse he gets -- almost exponentially. This concern tells me that unless he's learned to build up a little endurance as a starter in winter ball, he should be a one-inning pitcher, tops -- maybe a setup man.

Kent, well, he didn't play third base even for a nanosecond in 1997. And he did just fine at second. Lots of hustle, no doubt -- though not as much range as I became used to, spoiled as I was by Robby Thompson. (I believe he actually did hit one home run less than Todd Zeile, but Zeile is a third baseman.) Kent, I think, really endeared himself to Giants fans as the year wore on. His all-out style of play and three early grand slams contributed to this. He was seen by many as the Giants' MVP -- the San Francisco Examiner's Henry Schulman even referred to him as the Giants' "best" player (which is wrong, but the point is that somebody thinks so, whereas I was convinced he'd slurp.)

Vizcaino -- the only member of the triumvirate in whom I had any faith at all, when the trade came down -- had a pretty typical Jose Vizcaino offensive season (though his batting average was down): no power, no speed, no walks -- no good reason for Dusty Baker to bat him second most of the year. Where a year ago he was the only one of the three whom I would have remotely welcomed, he's now the only one I'd be happy to see leave, and he has. Now he's the Dodgers' problem. I hope -- hell, I hope they make him their leadoff hitter. I believe that Rich Aurilia will provide everything Vizcaino did, and maybe more.

In last year's piece I said, "Somehow I doubt that the Giants' front office appreciates, or is even aware of, the regard in which Matt Williams is held by the fans. We appreciate a guy who plays hard, plays well, appears to put the team first, and wants to stay in San Francisco. He's really grown on us. That's why the losses of Hank Greenwald, Robby Thompson, and now Matt Williams are a bit much to bear."

What I learned is that time really does heal wounds. Maybe not all wounds, but a lot of them. I still miss all these guys, but I don't lament their departure. I guess I mourned enough.

I mean, Matty will always be one of my favorite Giants, and it grieves me to no end that he's now an Arizona Diamondback, which will enable him to hammer God knows how many nails into the Giants' coffin next year, but I can't envision myself ever not having that soft spot for him. Ditto Robby, who clearly was through, and I think that's what bothers me the most about him. His body betrayed him, and that's a damn shame.

I still like Hank better than Jon Miller -- but heck, it didn't even take all of 1987 to get used to Ron Fairly. Human beings are great adaptors.

I also said this last year: "Now, Ben points out how horribly Al Rosen got ripped for trading Kevin Mitchell to Seattle, and I'm one of the ones who ripped him. Now, sure, I was wrong, and it just points to the notion that you can't evaluate a trade right away. [Emphasis added. -- GP]." I should have listened to myself then -- it might have saved me some hand-wringing.

To my mind, the Snow deal was "the other shoe dropping." We'd heard that Sabean was looking into guys like David Segui (for whom the Expos supposedly requested Shawn Estes -- hahahahahahahaha!) and Greg Colbrunn (for whom the Marlins reportedly would've taken Jim Poole, which suddenly doesn't sound so bad). I said that many considered Snow "the worst offensive first baseman in the major leagues who isn't J.R. Phillips," and now their tune has changed -- to the extent, on the newsgroup, of frequently referring to "the alien that inhabits J.T. Snow." I'm skeptical and pessimistic enough to think that's probably a good call, especially given how awful Jate was against lefties, but man, I cannot and must not fail to give him credit for a damn good 1997 overall. (I've mentioned this elsewhere in EEEEEE!, but do you realize that the first two infielders to win Gold Gloves in each league are J.T. Snow and Matt Williams?)

I expect relapses by Kent and Snow, but a lot of that is the Giants fan in me, and some of it has to do with the fact that when a player exceeds expectations (based on career history), he tends to slide back the next year. I think a dropoff is more likely for Snow than Kent, because in most respects, Snow far outperformed his established performance levels, especially in terms of walks, ergo OBP and OPS. Both men racked up a lot of RBIs, and that's kind of an interesting topic in itself. RBIs are scoffed at by serious baseball stats folks, to the extent of even being deemed irrelevant. Lots of other fans, though -- the people who harbor tremendous bigotry for statheads, mostly -- believe RBIs to be the only relevant offensive statistic. To this I can only state my firm belief -- a belief in something that many consider to be an objective truth anyway -- that RBIs (or, more accurately, RBI opportunities) are almost entirely dependent on where a player hits in the lineup, and who the other players are in that lineup.

Let me digress a bit. In constructing lineups, you do your best to figure out who's best suited for what spot. Guys who hit leadoff are generally fast and, in theory, reach base a lot. That's not an accident. Barry Bonds fits that profile, and indeed he spent a lot of time hitting leadoff for the Pirates early on. Once Jim Leyland figured out that while Bonds is indeed very talented at reaching base, he's even better at moving people along. In other words, while Bonds' OBP was impressive, his slugging percentage was more so. This led Leyland to understand that Bonds should bat lower in the order -- for the Pirates, he generally batted fifth. By the same token, you don't put a Darryl Hamilton in the fourth slot and assume he'll drive in runs simply by virtue of being the cleanup hitter. Early on, it was seen that his offensive strengths, such as they were, had way more to do with reaching base and being fast than having any power. (In fact, such a perception was probably never really correct, because Hamilton doesn't walk much -- in his good years, he was a fairly empty .300 hitter. And now, he doesn't steal bases either, so there's no compelling reason whatsoever to bat him first.) A better example than Hamilton is Rickey Henderson, who has been phenomenal at reaching base, and quite good at moving runners along -- indeed, the Yankees once experimented with batting him third, and I have no doubt that if he were not such a devastating base-stealing threat, he'd have been a fine number-three hitter. But generally it was recognized that to be a devastating offensive player, he needed to bat first -- so he could reach base and, in many, many cases, help cause himself to be moved along.

But the fact that Henderson didn't routinely drive in 100 runs out of the leadoff spot does not mean that he's "not an RBI man," any more than Jeff Kent suddenly became the Giants' "best player" because of all his RBIs. With Barry Bonds and some Barry Bonds clones batting third, fourth, and fifth for the Giants, I have no doubt that at least one of those Barry Bondses would drive in 150 runs, maybe 200. No doubt at all -- even with Darryl Hamilton and Jose Vizcaino batting first and second. (In a similar vein, I think it's possible that at least one of three J.T. Snows in a similar setup could've driven in 100 runs, but not even one of three Jeff Kents.) But that didn't happen. Bonds generally batted third, behind Hambone and Viz, who spent fairly little time actually reaching base to be driven in. But in the papers and on sports talkshows, all we heard was, "What's up with Bonds? He's way off his usual RBI pace. He's just not getting the job done." Well, who was there to drive in? The flip side of this is the tremendous praise Kent and Snow got for all their RBIs -- as if all those walks Bonds drew had nothing to do with them. The Giants would have lost far more by not having Bonds in the lineup than either Kent or Snow.

My point, however, is not to take anything away from these two guys' performances in 1997. They had lots of RBI opportunities, and they both cashed in. They hit lots of home runs, they played fine defense (especially Snow, certainly), and were key elements in the Giants' division-winning season. I do not doubt this one bit. I was one of those who felt, at first, that an infield of Mark Carreon (or even a Dave McCarty/Desi Wilson platoon), Jay Canizaro, Rich Aurilia, and Bill Mueller couldn't have been worse than what the Giants actually put on the field this year. In this way, I'm convinced I wasn't close to being right, even if the numbers that existed at the time did provide reasonable evidence. On the other hand, considering either Kent or Snow the Giants' 1997 MVP is just plain silly.

Now, I wish to be neither stubborn nor conciliatory in expressing my views here, but the fact remains that in saying what I did about these trades, I wasn't wrong -- at the time. This might be better stated as follows: I wasn't wrong-headed in saying what I did; I was merely "proven wrong retroactively" by the results -- which is the main hazard of making predictions of any kind. I don't feel I offered half-baked predictions based on gut feelings and how much I liked Matty compared to the guys we got for him, for instance; my opinions were based on what I'd seen in the numbers. Those who would tell me that this is clinching proof that the numbers are meaningless are, by and large, the same folks who believe fervently in the power of the RBI statistic.

And to those who think it's wrong for me to be happy about the fact that 1997 didn't go as I expected, tough darts. Aren't I allowed the occasional pleasant surprise?

It all comes down to Rule One.

Granted, I did say some very bitter things in EEEEEE!, in the newsgroups, to anybody who would listen. Sometimes I was shouted down by people who felt I was shouting them down; sometimes I was strongly rebuked for being "negative." I'm trying to remember if there was a single case, however, where my bitterness was understood, even partly, as simply an expression of how I felt. I don't mean to use this as an excuse, but frankly, these trades made me angry. They made a lot of us angry. That's a factor, isn't it?

Some would say that we must look at such things objectively and dispassionately. I say, how can we do that when we're dealing with baseball, which lends itself to such strong emotions? In my case, once the anger pretty much subsided, there was at least enough in me to say, "Huh. These guys are doing a lot better than I thought they would. Cool!"

Of course, I still heard this a lot: "Maybe you don't know as much about baseball as you think you do." Well, hell, that's okay. Frankly, I probably do know way more about baseball than, say, 50 percent of baseball fans, but that's because baseball has been a passionate interest of mine for 28 years, and it's something I've spent a great deal reading and learning about. I've formed numerous opinions, of course, as would anyone else. But I also know that my knowledge is dwarfed by that of dozens, perhaps hundreds, who hang out in the Usenet baseball newsgroups I frequent, and -- and that's just newsgroup people. I figure that there are thousands of people who know so much more about the sport than I do as to make me feel very knowledge-free indeed. That's okay too -- I love discovering things; learning's a great thing, even if it's the hard way. Learning is something I strive for, especially after once having, as a boss, a person who said that she intended to send her staff to all kinds of training (which was fine with me), but she wouldn't attend, because she had "nothing new to learn." I remember thinking, "Then you may as well kill yourself." Imagine having nothing new to learn.

It's a fact: Matt Williams wasn't spectacular for the Indians, despite winning a Silver Slugger award; not one of the players we acquired for him did poorly for the Giants; neither did J.T. Snow. In fact, it looks very strongly, after a single year of evidence, that the Giants kicked major butt on both trades. But I won't apologize for how I felt when the trades came down. I won't offer up a single mea culpa. Nor will I let anybody take anything away from me for feeling good about the Giants' season. The only thing I will apologize for is circumstances where I may have made someone else feel stupid, or wrong, for feeling good about these deals.

Copyright ©1997 by Gregg Pearlman

Last updated 12/21/97
Gregg Pearlman,

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