Cover baseball for a living and people tend to ask you questions about the team you cover. They assume you’re an expert and can answer any question. Fans want to know what you think about the starting rotation or how many games the team might win. Do you think it would be a good idea to go after a free agent? And when a team adds players someone is sure to ask; what about the new guys?
If I’m being totally honest the answer to most of those questions is: "I don’t really know."
Take playing general manager; I try not to do it because I’m well aware that I don’t have enough information to know if a particular signing makes sense. Sure, I can go to a website, look at a new player’s numbers and speculate about how he fits into a team’s game plan, but there still a lot I don’t know.
Like:How’s the new player’s personal life? I’ve heard of teams avoiding a player who was going through a divorce; the player’s focus might be elsewhere and that might affect his on-field performance. Who does the player hang with? If he’s running with a crowd that concerns you, that might change things. Did the player making his off-season workouts? If a guy’s put on 20 pounds because he’s been skipping his workouts that also changes things. I once had a player tell me he just flat lied when he got an off-season call from his team asking about his weight. If a guy’s been crushing Big Macs and fries all winter, fans might want to lower their expectations about what the guy will bring to the team. Does the team have a coach who thinks he can help the new player improve? Fans might wonder why a team was interested in a guy with mediocre numbers, but if the team has a coach who thinks he can fix the player, that might explain things. If a team becomes convinced a coach can make a difference, that changes how they evaluate a player. Is the new player a partier? Say you’ve got some guys who like to go out at night (I hear that happens in the big leagues). But staying out until 2 AM hammering vodka shots might not be the best prep for a ballgame. Is the new guy going to add to the problem? And he might be able to handle the nightlife, but drag down a teammate who parties with him. How smart is the new player? A coach on another team once told me that he thought maybe seven of his guys actually knew the team’s signs. Big league ballplayers not knowing signs is more common than you might think. When Manny Ramirez was accused of stealing another team’s signs, then-Red Sox manager Terry Francona defended him by saying Manny didn’t know his own team’s signs; there wasn’t much chance Manny was going to steal anyone else’s. On the other hand, last season I was told Jamey Carroll had been with the Royals about a week and he was already giving the signs back to the coaches to confirm he understood what was happening. Guys like Manny Ramirez can get away with missing signs because they’re going to produce big numbers. Guys like Jamey Carroll stay in baseball by executing the small stuff and that includes knowing the signs. How will the new player affect his teammates? Some guys make their teammates better. I don’t know if it’s a regular occurrence, but when Tampa Bay was in Kansas City I saw centerfielder David DeJesus positioning right fielder Wil Myers. DeJesus was making Myers a better player by making sure Myers was standing in the right spot. Put a space cadet in centerfield next to a right fielder who needs help and the right fielder gets worse. Is the new player a hard worker? The smart guys—the guys who will be around a while—get to the park early. They go over scouting reports and watch video to prepare for that night’s ballgame. It’s easy to know what an opponent has been doing overall—it’s up on the scoreboard—but do you know what he’s been doing over the last week? Do you know what he did last night? A guy with a bad season average might be smoking hot right now and a player with good numbers overall might be in a funk. You need to know that stuff before you decide which guy to pitch to. If a player makes a habit of showing up late and doesn’t do his homework, he might not be fully prepared to play that night. Is the new player selfish? Say a Royals starting pitcher has a long inning and needs a breather. The starting pitcher on the other team sees that and might figure the Royals hitters are then going to take some pitches to allow their guy to rest. That means the opposing pitcher can get away with grooving fastballs down the middle while the Royals hitters watch them go by—they’re sacrificing at-bats to let their pitcher catch his breath. If a player is selfish he doesn’t want to get down in the count, so he goes up hacking. His concern for his own numbers might hurt his team’s chances when his starting pitcher gets no rest and is back on the mound too soon. Is the new player a tough guy? Watch outfielders and some of them will pull up when they hit the warning track—they don’t want to get hurt by slamming into the wall. Some middle infielders bail out early on the double play—they don’t want to get taken out by a hard slide. And some runners peel off early because they don’t want to get hurt by a collision with a middle infielder turning a double play. Guys without fear rob hits from the opposition and get their team extra outs by breaking up double plays. Is the new player a team leader? Big leagues players have more control over what goes on than fans might think. If a player is showing up late or blowing off workouts, there’s not much a coach can do about it unless he has the backing of the manager. And there’s not much the manager can do about it unless he has the backing of the front office. Bench a player to make a point and the owner might want to know why he’s paying a guy $6 million to sit. A veteran player can have an impact if he’s the kind of guy who will tell a teammate to clean up his act.
If I was smarter I could think of more examples, but you get the idea. Without this kind of information any opinion I have about a player will be incomplete. If you watch a player long enough and know what to look for (I’ll write about that soon) some of this stuff becomes obvious. But for now, if you want to know what I think about the new guys the honest answer is I don’t really know.
But I’ll get back to you.