No Walk In the Park

The following article could be seen as a rant or attack on Jays’ catcher J.P. Arencibia, but is not really intended as such. It’s just that his struggles this year and his attitude about these bring up some larger issues about baseball – what’s important in it, how it should be played and so on – that I wanted to comment on. Before going any further though, I want to make two things clear:

1) I don’t dislike Arencibia at all. In fact, so far in his still young career I’ve generally liked him in a personal, subjective way, been pulling for him as a fan. I don’t know the man, but he seems to be an outgoing, humorous, friendly sort, the kind of person who gets involved with the community where he plays, tries to do some good, is popular with his teammates and fans. In short, he seems to be a good guy and Lord knows we need more of those.

2) Believe it or not, this article was not provoked by the recent war of words between Arencibia and Sportsnet commentators Gregg Zaun and Dick Hayhurst. I’ve been intending to write about Arencibia for some time now, I just haven’t found the time. However, the recent outburst makes this post more timely and has some relevance to what I wanted to say, so I’ll certainly comment on it.  

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Most would agree that at the very core of baseball lies the constant battle between pitcher and batter. There are other aspects of the game like base-running, fielding, strategy and so on, but these all stem from this central confrontation – nothing can really happen in baseball until the pitcher releases the ball and the hitter reacts. It’s also pretty clear that the pitching side has constantly had the upper hand, even in eras where it seemed the hitters were getting a mite uppity, like 1925-32, or the home run-happy 1990s. It’s easy to see why; the batter works alone whereas the pitcher, along with his own considerable bag of tricks, has a catcher working in tandem with him and seven other players behind him, fielding and doing their best to put the batter out. So, even the best of hitters fail 65 to 70 percent of the time.

Within this core is another smaller core, that imaginary box known as the strike zone. How umpires see it, pitchers command it and hitters judge it are all keys in how the drama between the guy with the rock and the guy with the club will play out, it’s what we all watch for. The pitch-count is like a ledger sheet, balls are credits to the hitter and debits to the pitcher, strikes vice versa. We all know this, it’s the ebb and flow, the very currency of the game. However, some of us know it better than others, and that goes for players too.

The explosion of statistical analysis and knowledge beginning in the late ’70s and now generally known as sabermetrics has made for some changes in how baseball is played, and the biggest of these might be called “on-base revolution.” Everyone is now much more aware of the important link between getting men on base, scoring runs and winning games. On-base percentage is now an officially kept stat, it’s even making it into the mainstream press, whereas nobody really understood it (or had even heard of it) 25 years ago. What this all boils down to in terms of hitting is a greater emphasis being placed on walks, a greater awareness of their value. Batting average and of course power and speed are still really important, but if a player falls short in these, he can still increase his productivity and his team’s chances by simply refusing to swing at bad pitches. This has a number of obvious benefits. It can put the count in the hitter’s favour, which increases his chances of getting a hit. It forces the pitcher to either throw strikes or more pitches, which wears him down. And it can often end in a walk, which results in a base-runner and increases a team’s chance of scoring, without costing an out.

This on-base revolution has implications on both sides of the baseball, but so far the hitters are ahead of the learning curve and have actively adopted it as a strategy, whereas pitchers have lagged behind and been more passive, they seem to be in denial. I don’t think there are that many hitters going up to the plate with the express intention of drawing a walk, they’re still trying to get a hit of some sort, or at least a pitch to hit. But there are more and more players, and teams such as the Red Sox and Yankees, who grind out at-bats, taking pitches, making the pitcher throw more of them and taking the walk if the pitcher won’t throw strikes. This has largely worked for teams and hitters, but hasn’t been too healthy for pitchers, it has evened things up a little between the two sides in their age-old battle. Some think the on-base business has been overemphasized and don’t like it because it’s slowed the game down. They long for the days when baseball was quicker and guys would get in there and swing the bat. My answer to this (and to pitcher’s complaints along these lines) would be: if you want a quicker game with more action and fewer boring walks, then try throwing some strikes. It may take a while, but pitchers will eventually figure this out, but in the meantime you can’t blame hitters for taking the walk if a pitcher won’t throw strikes. It beats striking out swinging at anything, it’s the smart thing to do.

This brings us to J.P. Arencibia who, intentionally or not, seems to be waging a determined, one-man crusade this season against the unmanly and dastardly walk, the craven notion of reaching base except by way of a hit. None of this namby-pamby on-base percentage stuff for him, no sir. He prefers the more macho swinging-strikeout-chasing-a-ball-in-the-dirt, the gallant hitting-into-a-double-play-on-the-first-pitch-with-runners-in- scoring-position……..

……..OK, OK, that was a bit of a rant, I’ll try to be more measured from now on. It’s just that with all the other things that have gone wrong with the Blue Jays this summer, Arencibia’s been driving me just a little bit crazy. Not that he can be blamed for the team’s underachievement; he can’t be held responsible for the inconsistent and injury-prone starting pitchers sporting a collective ERA around 5.00, or the other guys in the lower half of the batting order all hitting about .210. No one guy is entirely at fault, it’s just that Arencibia’s struggles seem like a lightning rod for those of the team. As you’ve no doubt heard or read, Arencibia is having a sort of “all or nothing” season, leading all big-league catchers with 15 home runs, but also heading into the weekend with the worst on-base percentage in the game, a woeful .245. Through the 76 games he’s played, Arencibia has struck out 92 times, with just 9 walks, a dismal ratio of about ten to one. In case you’re thinking he’s making up for this lack of strike-zone judgement with spiffy defense, think again: he has more passed balls (10) than walks.

This shouldn’t really bother me all that much, because Arencibia has never really shown much strike-zone judgement so far in his three years with the Jays, he’s always struck out a lot while seldom walking. In his rookie 2011 season he hit .219, with 133 strikeouts and just 36 walks, good for an OBP of .282. However, he set a rookie record for home runs by a catcher with 23, drove in 78 runs and I thought…Well, okay, he strikes out a lot and his defense needs work, but power-hitting catchers don’t grow on trees, I like this guy. In his second season he missed some time with injury, as will happen with catchers. In about 100 fewer at-bats, he hit 18 homers and drove in 56 runs. He struck out 108 times, with just 18 walks, a batting average of .236 and an OBP of .275, about the same. It’s far worse this year though and he’s not a kid anymore. He’s in his third season at 27, an age when players should be entering their prime, solidifying themselves, but he’s regressing. He’s gone from a ratio of 4 K’s per walk in 2011, 5 per walk in 2012, to 10 per this year. This is not good. The upside is that he could hit 30 home runs and drive in 85 this year, which would be great. The downside is he’s striking out (very easily) once or twice a game, while walking about once every seven games. If he keeps this up he’ll strike out 180 times this year, while walking maybe 25 times, which is unacceptable at the major-league level.

To be fair to Arencibia, he’s had a lot to adapt to this year, with three new starting pitchers to adjust to in Dickey, Buehrle and Johnson, not to mention the revolving door of others lately. This is not easy and of course the experiment of having him catch Dickey’s knuckleball was over after the season opener, this inflated his unsightly total of passed balls. He seems to have made some progress in handling the other pitchers, especially Buehrle and Esmil Rogers, who have both pitched well in recent weeks. Buehrle has given him some credit for this, as have Buck Martinez and Pat Tabler on the TV broadcasts. Like the rest of his teammates, he’s also had high expectations to live up to and appears to be pressing, which could account for the ungodly number of strikeouts.

The frustrating thing about him though is not just that he’s striking out way too much, but how it’s happening and how bad he looks doing it. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen him strike out after working the count full, then swinging wildly at pitches up around his eyes, at his ankles or a mile outside. All too often he’s getting himself out, making it much too easy on the opposing pitchers, looking like he has no plan at all up at the plate. If he’d just stop swinging at these unhittable pitches, he’d have fewer strikeouts, more walks and a higher batting average, not to mention there would be fewer outs and rallies killed, the team would score more runs. This is basically how Adam Lind’s recent hot-hitting streak began, with a greater commitment to having an eye at the plate. He stopped swinging at bad pitches, began walking a ton, started seeing better pitches to hit and drove his average up about 70 points in the process. He was struggling mightily too and I’m not saying his turnaround was easy, just that it began with better strike-zone judgment and Arencibia should take a page out of this book. The thing that drives me crazy is that in Arencibia’s case, this wouldn’t involve doing something, but rather not doing something, i.e. not swinging at bad pitches that would be ball four.

I would be more willing to accept Arencibia’s struggles if I had a sense that he at least cared about the on-base problem, or was taking some steps to improve it, but his reaction to criticisms on this front seem to show exactly the opposite. A couple of weeks ago he was quoted in a local newspaper that he didn’t think his job was to get on base, but rather to hit with power and drive in runs. Oh, really? First of all, it’s not his place to decide what his job is, publicly or privately. It’s up to his manager and ultimately his employers to decide what his job is and whether or not he’s doing it.

And secondly, he’s wrong. It’s everybody’s job to get on base whenever possible, to not give up outs too easily. Ultimately, it’s every ballplayer’s job to help his team win games and frankly, Arencibia’s numbers say that he’s not doing this nearly often enough. If he sees part of his job as driving in runs, then his logic is also skewed. If everyone else on the team took his cavalier attitude toward getting on base, then just how many runs would he drive in with his precious homers? Say, maybe 40 RBI with 30 bombs on the year, how would that look? How about maybe taking a few walks J.P., instead of just giving away outs, then maybe the next guy up might hit something and who knows……even drive you in.

Arencibia took his public reaction to media criticism to a whole new level last week on a radio sports talk show. Tiring of criticism from Sportsnet commentators Gregg Zaun and Dick Hayhurst, he alerted his social media followers to tune in and then proceeded to take a verbal flame-thrower to these two on air. I didn’t actually hear the show, but all kinds of coverage reported his comments, which seem immature, peevish, overly personal and sensitive, not to mention ill-advised. Among other things, he said that nobody in the Jays’ clubhouse has any use or respect for Zaun or Hayhurst (despite the fact both played for the Jays not that long ago) and that neither was in a position to offer criticism because they weren’t very good players themselves, which teeters well toward arrogance. To many, he then crossed a line by bringing up that Zahn was mentioned in The Mitchell Report as a possible steroid offender and that no one with the Jays has any use for these types (with the possible exception of Melky Cabrera of course.) Naturally, he neglected to mention that Zahn had never failed a drug test in his career and was the catcher on a World Series-winning team. His general conclusion was that neither Zahn or Hayhurst really know the game, because neither played it very well.

This was stupid and just plain wrong on his part, it will probably get ugly and won’t end well for him. Firstly, it’s the job of both Gregg Zaun and Dick Hayhurst to offer commentary on the Blue Jays, it’s what they were hired to do. They’re both good at it, especially Zaun in my opinion, who’s never shied away from telling it as he sees it, taking people to task for failing to do their jobs. But he also delivers praise when it’s due and has done so many times this season. They wouldn’t be doing their jobs if they chose to give Arancebia a pass for his continued sub-par performance. Moreover, it’s also part of any professional athlete’s job to deal with the media professionally, it comes with the environment, like it or not. Arencibia can’t expect to bask in the praise for his power-hitting and RBI-production while hoping his horrible batting average, strikeout-to-walk ratio and on-base percentage will escape mention. I mean, not only do those low numbers not lie, but they don’t go unnoticed either. He’s smart enough to know this, isn’t he? Actually, I’m beginning to wonder about this. If I had a .217 batting average, 9 walks and 92 strikeouts, I’d be inclined to keep my mouth shut and maybe hit the batting cage for some extra work.

Ballplayers have sometimes adopted the arrogant stance that writers and fans aren’t really qualified to comment on baseball or judge performance, because only those that really play the game can understand it and how hard it is. Apart from being self-serving and biting the hand that feeds them, this is utter nonsense, but Arencibia has taken it a step further. He’s saying people like Zaun and Hayhurst don’t really know the game either, aren’t qualified to criticize him because they didn’t play it very well. So, what…..he’d only accept criticism from really good ex-catchers like Carlton Fisk, Jorge Posada, Jason Varitek or Mike Piazza, even if they pointed out the same obvious weaknesses?

To carry his reasoning to its logical conclusion, then it follows that the very best players, the superstars, know the game better than anyone. Well, if that were the case, then why haven’t more of them had more successful careers as managers? Babe Ruth never managed in the majors, neither did Stan Musial, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron or scores of others. Some pretty good ballplayers have had success managing, like Joe Torre did, and Don Mattingly and Kirk Gibson are now, this shows it can be done. But by and large, the best managers have been either ex-catchers, or guys who had very limited success as players in the majors, or none at all. Earl Weaver, Gene Mauch, Don Zimmer, Dick Williams, Tom Kelly, Sparky Anderson, Danny Murtagh, Tommy Lasorda, Tony LaRussa, Bobby Cox, scores of others. Or John Gibbons for that matter. One wonders if he was a good enough player in Arencibia’s eyes to have the temerity to criticize him, to warrant maybe a listen.

Arencibia is proud of his power-hitting, has said that he’s always been able to hit the ball hard. Well that’s great J.P., not everyone has those physical tools, but the idea is to not just do what you’re good at, but to develop a broader set of skills, maybe become more versatile. Sure, playing baseball has to do with a high level of athleticism and physical ability, but there’s also a thinking side to the game and I’m starting to wonder about Arencibia’s baseball smarts.

I realize that home-run hitting is valuable and has always gone hand in hand with striking out a lot. Babe Ruth struck out a lot, so did Jimmie Foxx, Mickey Mantle, Reggie Jackson, Mike Schmidt, Jim Thome and many other sluggers. However, there’s also a tradition of power-hitters walking a lot too. The above guys all walked a ton, so did Ted Williams, Eddie Matthews, Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey and many others, it also comes with the territory. This is partly because pitchers pitched to them very carefully and these guys were smart enough to develop an eye at the plate and take advantage of this. Walking over 100 times a year helped to offset the high strikeouts and allowed them to score more runs as well as driving them in, took their batting averages from .240 to over .300, made them much more dangerous and productive players. I understand there are guys who hit a fairly empty .300 because they don’t have any power, just hit singles and don’t walk much. But hitting .230 is also pretty empty if you don’t walk much, no matter how many home runs you hit. I’m not saying it would be easy, or that I could do it, but learning some strike-zone judgement and getting on base more is what Arencibia needs to do to take his game to the next level. You’d think he would be motivated to do this, because he becomes eligible for salary arbitration after 2014, stands to make some big money if he does this.

I mentioned that Arencibia has regressed in his career so far, and that he’s a heavy user of the social media as something of a virtuoso of Facebook and Twitter. This also applies to two other Blue Jays who have taken backward steps, Brett Lawrie and Ricky Romero, they’ve constantly been on these self-generated airwaves. I’m starting to think it can’t be a coincidence, it’s a concern. If, as Arencibia is so fond of reminding us non-players, baseball is such a hard game, then how and why does he find so much time to be involved with this preoccupation? Especially when he’s struggling, ditto for Lawrie and Romero. I would think it would be a distraction for both them and their teammates, a time-eater, and surely there are enough of those already in the life of a high-profile ballplayer, just dealing with the regular media alone, never mind creating your own. If I were in charge of a major-league team, I’d think seriously about banning the use of all social media during the season. Some may find this extreme or far-fetched, but the New York Yankees have a firm policy against facial hair, and if you want to play for them, you abide it, it’s that simple and many do. Romero’s extreme regression, the recent classless exhibition of pique from Brett Lawrie (plus his frequent injuries) and now this latest regrettable media-bashing episode from Arencibia give one pause, make one wonder about the judgement of those running this team. Who exactly is minding the candy store and what are they thinking? With the team underachieving so badly and still not really making up ground even after an eleven-game winning streak, why isn’t anyone in charge really saying what needs to be said to Arencebia and his other smart-phone pals? Namely: shut the fuck up and play some baseball like you’re paid to do. And if you can’t stand the heat, then get out of the kitchen. 

My work as a musician has occasionally brought me into contact with some famous people and, in observing them, I’ve come to the conclusion that public life is far rougher than most of us can imagine. There are of course perks to celebrity and stardom – big money, fame, maybe a luxurious lifestyle – but these come at a high price, with a white-hot spotlight of pressure, public criticism, accountablilty, and a loss of privacy. Sometimes there’s dirt-digging, scandal-mongering and nasty things are said and printed very publicly, sometimes these even extend to a public figure’s family, which is not fair. It’s surely no walk in the park.

Not to be cute or anything, but in J.P. Arencibia’s case, if he would just learn to literally take a few walks in the ballpark more often, while taking the high road and ignoring the criticism, he might find his life to be easier. I hope that this happens, and it might – I haven’t given up on him, not quite yet. Don’t look now, but he actually walked once in each of the two games he played over the weekend – small steps, but in the right direction, toward first base rather than the dugout.

© 2013 – 2016, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.

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