Sunday, August 22, 2010

On Changing the Approach

I'm not about to link to the bait post written by a certain high-profile columnist on a certain major league home run leader. I won't name him either, lest his hourly self-Googling register another notch on his trollbelt. A classic case of a column turned in drenched with smirking self-satisfaction. Goading bloggers and commenters to take the bait as he proudly turns heel, much to the delight of his editors. A true tourist who likely needs a map to find the Rogers Centre, I don't think his words carry a lot of weight in the Blue Jays clubhouse.

The frustrating part, for me, is that he's a quarter right when he says it's baseball's fault. Baseball's fault for doing nothing to alter the pre-determined narrative that steroids help home runs hitters hit more home runs, ignoring the burden of proof and jumping past the obvious benefactors (pitchers) to cast a pall on a generation of highly-tuned athletes.

We're to ignore a generation that, instead of playing baseball in between harvests at Pa's wheat farm, grew up with specialized trainers and hitting coaches from the age of 13. Ignore the shrinking ballparks and tightly-wound balls and complete irresponsibility of teams when it came to protecting their young arms. Ignore advances in video technology that made everyone a better hitter. At the same time, ignore the ban on amphetamines when anointing this The Year of the Pitcher.

None of that stuff matters because a significant chunk of the writer's association feels — at the behest of their readership, it should be said — that steroids are cheating and cheating is bad. It cheats the game and the fans, and anything that could be described as random must be fishy.

The stupid thing is baseball is the only sport burdened by the "guilty 'til proven innocent, and then still assumed guilty" attitude. Chris Johnson added 50 yards to his yard/game from one year to the next - is he on drugs? Are there whispers? No.

Which brings me to the idea of "changing one's approach." I came into this season doubting Jose Bautista's ability to put up the kind of numbers over time. We're currently approaching one full calender year and some 700-odd of sustained, eye-popping success. At some point a hot streak becomes a little bit more.

I like to think my cynicism had more to do with true talent level not matching performance, so I sought more information. I looked for holes in his game and stayed guarded about his power surge, though the thought of "he must be juicing" never once entered my head. Mostly because I don't care, but I figured muscles aren't the be all and end all. If they were, wouldn't Gabe Kapler win the Triple Crown every year?

When you're a big-time columnist spread thin, you don't have time to look things up or fashion crude MS Paint diagrams. You shoot from the hip and wait for the red light to come on so you can re-iterate the same points. You spent enough time spitting up half-baked thoughts on TV, you can't expect accountability for them all.

Back to Jose Bautista - there is a great deal to be said for his change in approach. As a young player battling for playing time, a guy like Bautista isn't exactly empowered to go for broke in every at bat. Teams smartly discourage their young bats from giving away at bats - put a guy with a quick bat in the midst of enablers who don't mind the odd whiff and strange things happen.

Putting a similar spin on other sports, imagine if a grinder like Steve Begin or Max Talbot suddenly starting playing like Phil Kessel; lingering around the blue line waiting for breakouts, shooting from all angles and at all times. Now imagine a coach sees talent in said glue guy and plays him on the powerplay and pairs him with a setup man of some regard. Suddenly, his numbers skyrocket! HE MUST BE ON DRUGS! Of course not, not when considered within the context provided.

To spit in the ocean a little further, imagine Jose Calderon fancied himself a Spanish version of Allen Iverson circa-2001. He broke down the defense at every opportunity, took 45% of his teams' shots and turned the ball over with reckless abandon. But he averages 28 a night! DRUGS!

Nope, nobody would ever say that about two guys who would certainly benefit a lot more from additional strength and power than somebody trying to decide which pitch thrown at 90 mph from 60 feet away is suitable to hit.

But if you're a "questionable" baseball slugger, you don't get context. You don't get the benefit of thought, let alone doubt. Sudden boost or power? DRUGS. More home runs for the Jays? DRUGS DRUGS DRUGS EVERYBODY! Don't waste your time with details like fly ball rates (increased!), contact rates (increased!), or mechanical adjustments. If a guy like Bautista can hit this many home runs, he'd have been doing it all along! It's that simple, and it's that lazy.

Jose Bautista may never have a season like this again, and we all saw this backlash coming, but that doesn't make what this goof did any less cheap or lazy. Congrats to the editors who reveal in such cynical fan-baiting and encouragement of such insincere bullshit. You must be so proud of your author's willingness to brush aside calls for proof or evidence as "too funny." Considering the source, I'll do well in the future to always assume the worst.

Image courtesy of Reuters via Daylife.


  1. Drew, great take on the issue as always. The more and more I think about it, there's almost no validity in his opinion because he's a HOCKEY WRITER.

  2. wouldn't it be ironic if it turned out years from now that Bautista WAS on drugs? lol

  3. @ Kessticle: I honestly don't even think that's the point.

    Anyway, bravo, Drew. This is a fantastic piece.

  4. Great article Drew. I know a certain high profile writer who could use a few pointers on writing well informed articles.....

  5. It isn't even that he's a hockey writer, he's a lazy writer. Not all hockey writers are bad, but all lazy writers contribute nothing to the discussion.

  6. It isn't even that he's a lazy writer....he's just lazy.

    Steroids aren't the difference between hitting 15 homeruns in a year and 50. I'd guess they're more the difference between 30 home runs and 35 home runs. This has little to do with what Jbau is doing, whether he's on steriods or not. (By the way, you can take credit for starting the Chris Johnson whispers.)

    As for MLB's burden, I think that's overstated. There is a billion dollar industry fourty years in the making in the sports world based on the conclusion that steriods increases power. Why should MLB re-invent the wheel? Because of a couple of rude statistical analyses? No. The proof is in the pudding. If it doesn't help, don't take it.

    But yeah, Cox is an ass.

  7. @ Drew: I didn't mean any ill will towards hockey writers, it's just that it's easy to judge from the outside looking in when he doesn't cover the sport and the Blue Jays day after day. If Cox did, then he'd know about the retooling of the swing, the fulltime play, etc.

  8. Dude is the worst Toronto sports writer. Period. Always has been. I'm surprised anyone bothered to read what he wrote.

  9. @ Mattt

    Finding the worst sports writer in Toronto is a mindless endeavour. If only because the list is never-ending.

  10. Any way to check average bat speed (or even speed of ball off bat) for Bautista this season vs. last season? If the bat speed is the same, the whole point is moot isn't it? It would prove your point about it being the angle of the ball leaving the bat rather than force behind it. Bautista had a violent swing last season, much like this season.

  11. I don't think Hit F/X data is widely available yet.


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