Purgatory Online

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

I've been thinking a lot this morning about what, if anything, a baseball team owes its fans. And it's a hard call - it's tough to say that the fans aren't owed something, some measure of respect for sticking out the tough times, ponying up cash for tickets, paying out in frustration and broken hearts over the years. At the same time, though, fans are fans for their own reasons - because rooting for a particular team fulfills in them some need to associate, or because they just like seeing a game played at its highest level. The relationship is symbiotic; to that extent neither side owes the other anything. To be sure, the fans' willingness to stick by their team makes certain that ballplayers, and everyone else associated with a Major League Baseball team, are able to live a lot more comfortably than they would otherwise. But that's ultimately because the demand for ultra-talented ballplayers far exceeds supply. If, for example, baseball's pay scale underwent a radical revision overnight, and the highest-paid player made, say, a million dollars per year, how many of them would quit baseball to engage in some other profession? Ignore the obvious arguments about how so-and-so would quit out of protest to make more money in broadcasting or endorsements - those kinds of options are made possible only because they made so much money playing baseball already. The fact is that if fans suddenly stopped caring about baseball, and the average player's salary was more along the lines of a mechanic or a teacher, quite a few of them would still be taking the field. For some, that's because it's the only thing they know how to do really well, but most, I suspect, would do so because it's just a really good job. Sure, there's a lot of travel, and time away from your family. But you also get half the year off, and it's a game, for Christ's sake. Dolts wearing "Baseball is Life" shirts notwithstanding, it's a game. The greatest game ever invented, but a game.

But if a team doesn't owe a fan anything, precisely, it still relies on its fans to keep it competitive. Take the Montreal Expos, for example, who must perpetually discard its best players just to stay afloat financially, because they can't rely on their fan base to support them through the lean times, and they can't risk paying their good players without a guarantee of success. The business of baseball at the individual team level requires that the fan be kept happy.

Normally, what keeps the fan happy is the team accomplishing its goal: winning. But sometimes - hell, all the time, really - the mechanism for that accomplishment is, to a greater or lesser extent, a subject of contention. On one side we have the team, personified in various circumstances by the manager, coaches, general manager, owner, and others, who makes the ultimate decisions regarding strategy and tactics. On the other are various groups of fans, whose opinions shift in both nature and prominence. Since the decision-making function is held entirely by the former group (properly, of course, DWL), when there's a sufficiently large disagreement between the two the fans react in the only ways available to them. First, they voice their frustrations - either by booing, writing scathing letters to the editor of the local paper, or, now, blogging about it. If a team's fortunes are sufficiently bad for a sufficiently long time, however, and the fans are frustrated beyond endurance, some of them simply stop being fans. Like investors sick of watching a stock go into the tank - or Arte Moreno sick of watching Kevin Appier pitch - they cut their losses and move on to something else.

Like I said, the power to make short-term decisions on the level we're talking about is really one-sided. A determined manager will put that 0-for-24 righty in against left-handed relievers over and over again no matter how lustily the crowd boos, and there's nothing they can do about it except boo harder, or quit showing up for games. But, like all disagreements between parties where the decisions are being made by one side alone, a simple explanation can go a long way. Say you give your unemployed brother-in-law fifty grand to start a business marketing a meat-based tofu substitute called "Nofu." And say that after two months he's sold $6.50 worth of product, all to the Army for use in the Guantanamo Bay confinement camp. You'd be a little annoyed, right? But what if your brother-in-law showed you evidence that a new species of bean curd weevil was poised to wipe out traditional sources of tofu, and that everyone who loves the freakish texture and disturbing cubism of tofu will be forced to buy his product at a premium in a month?

Which brings me - Jesus, finally - to Ramon Ortiz.

I can't add a great deal to what?s being said on the other Angels blogs about Ortiz's performance last night. To say that it was terrible is true. To say that it was a vindication of my earlier comments about the importance of first-pitch strikes is also, sadly, true. But at this point, things have gone beyond recriminations about poor performances, or gratuitous credit-taking for pointing out the obvious. Ramon Ortiz made me feel something last night that I haven't experienced as a baseball fan in a long time. He made me feel embarrassed to be an Angels fan.

Let me make one thing clear before proceeding: I will always be an Angels fan, for so long as this franchise exists. Such is fate; this part of me was instilled when I was very young. There is no danger that I will stop caring about this team's fortunes. But Ramon Ortiz proved last night that there's still a part of me that remembers very well the days when John Farrell took the mound with some regularity, days that I was literally afraid to read the box scores. Oh, sure, there have been times since then that I've winced because of something or other (I mean, come on - Bengie Molina was thrown out at first last night on a ball the shortstop had fly out of his hand and fall to the ground; like one of the Rangers announcers said, Ichiro would have been on second base). But that kind of thing is transitory; this is a deep and abiding wound of the psyche. Ramon Ortiz, I'm being told, is the best we can throw out there.

Whether that's true or not is a subject of some discussion. Certainly the fans seem to have seen enough of him; my small but smart contingent of colleagues in the Angels blogosphere are united in their desire to see Ortiz replaced in the rotation with Kevin Gregg, Scot Shields, or Aaron Sele. A thread on the Angels' web site's message boards, started by someone defending Ortiz, has drawn only derisive responses from the denizens thereof. And most telling of all, the fans last night were booing Ortiz, and booing him loudly. There was a time when no one at Angels games cared enough to boo, but expectations have been raised, and the fans are not going to put up with being embarrassed again (at least not in silence). Speaking for myself, I'll confess that I turned the game off shortly after Kevin Gregg replaced Ortiz. Those innings from the top of the third to the end of the game were the first I've missed this year. And I missed them not because of a scheduling conflict, or because I needed the sleep (though I did), but because I had reached my disgust threshold.

My question, and the question of everyone in my situation, is obviously this: where is Scioscia's disgust threshold? Certainly he was quick enough with the hook last night; Ortiz started very well, but once he began his death spiral he received very little opportunity to pull out of it. In reading Scioscia's comments in today?s L.A. Times, however, I'm more than a little disturbed as the prospect of seeing him again in five days.
Ortiz earned a starting job despite his rocky spring (2-0, 6.66 earned-run average) because Scioscia liked the way he was throwing and thought Ortiz's track record - a 44-33 record over the last three seasons - warranted the final spot over veteran right-hander Aaron Sele.

This is an accurate depiction of Scioscia's rationale for putting Ortiz in the rotation. I apologize for not finding a quote from the man himself, but on several occasions he did give that reason: Ortiz won 16 games last year, so he must be good. But wins, as any of the new breed of baseball statisticians will tell you (at length, and snottily) are one of the least telling measures of a pitcher's effectiveness. In Ortiz's case last year, they were the result of a lot of run support - more than seven runs per game - and despite his effectiveness as a pitcher. His ERA was 5.20, up from 3.77 in 2002. He surrendered 209 hits in 180 innings pitched, as opposed to 188 hits in 217.1 innings pitched in 2002. His pitches per at bat went up, his pitches per start went down; his opponent's average, opponent's OBP, and opponent's slugging all went up, his strikeouts per nine innings and strikeouts per walk both went down. By nearly every objective measure, Ramon Ortiz was a worse pitcher in 2003 than he was in 2002. Except one. Except wins. In 2002, Ramon Ortiz won 15 games.

So I guess Ramon Ortiz was better in 2003 than he was in 2002, huh?

More from the Times, this actually a Scioscia quote:
"Everyone is aware of those options [replacing Ortiz with Gregg, Shields, or Sele --Sean], but what's best for our club is to give these guys the opportunity to see what direction they're going to go," Scioscia said. "Ramon is going to take the ball again."

"We feel the guys who are struggling in our rotation now are going to be real shining spots for us as the season goes on. We're going to let it play out until we feel they're not where they need to be. But it's far too early for that."

As I mentioned before, it's only too early to make that decision if you start looking at the data compiled from the beginning of the 2004 season forward. But these starts don't exist in a vacuum; they exist continuous with his 2003 season and the spring training starts he made, in which he gave no indication - at least statistically - that he's any better than what we've seen.

That's not my main complaint, though. I have enormous respect for Mike Scioscia as a manager, and I absolutely believe that he has earned some amount of trust when it comes to making these kinds of decisions. That said, I also believe in one of the fundamental tenets of argumentation: extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. If someone tells you they can jump sixty feet into the air, you're going to demand to see it for yourself, or to see notarized affidavits from the Pope and Judge Judy. Simply saying that "we feel the guys who are struggling in our rotation now are going to be real shining spots for us as the season goes on" just doesn't overcome what we've seen with our own eyes over the course of the last year. If Scioscia were to say "look, Ramon's had some lousy outings, but we feel he can be effective because..." and here my imagination fails me, because I can't come up with any plausible reason. But if Scioscia could somehow fill in that blank with a reason that made sense, I'd probably believe him. At this point, however, what I'm hearing is that if all the kids in the world clap their hands, and really, truly believe in fairies, Tinkerbell will come back to life.

It would be really, really swell to have the old Ramon Ortiz back. His 2002 was, without question, an excellent season, one that no one would dispute was integral to the Angels' championship run. If he could be even close to that effective, it would be worth all the frustration - even the embarrassment - of watching him run off the rails in his first few starts; I'd be the first to apologize for calling for his release (and yes, that's what I think they should do), and I'd probably even be a little ashamed about it.

There's just one problem.

There's no such thing as fairies.