Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Hot Stove Myths and Truths

In the words of Public Enemy (and Jim Thome), "Don't believe the hype"

by Matthew Taylor

"The Baltimore Orioles plan to pursue several high-priced free agents ... at baseball's winter meetings. Orioles executives are looking to add a top-notch starting pitcher and a power hitter in the lineup."

Sound familiar? It should. That's what was being reported by the Associated Press on Dec. 8, 2004, when Carlos Delgado (a power-hitting first baseman) and Carl Pavano (a presumed ace) topped the Birds' off-season wish list. Replace the surname Delgado with Teixeira. Now replace the surname Pavano with Burnett. You've just described the O's 2008 off-season.

So it seems the more things change, the more they stay the same, and not just when it comes to the Orioles' free-agent needs. The stories of how the team might acquire players to meet those needs often remain the same as well, and they tend to take on the form of Hot Stove myths.

Fans following the Birds' off-season efforts to bring Mark Teixeira and A.J. Burnett into the nest would be wise to remember a couple of favored narratives that consistently occupy the front burner of Hot Stove sports coverage.

Hot Stove Myths

The Hot Stove season is to baseball what the draft season is to the NBA or the NFL - an off-season event that generates lots of excitement and armchair general managing. Fans focus intensely on an extended period of non-action and journalists fill the void with extended analysis based on a collection of rumors, tidbits, leaks, and occasionally even firm information.

Sports reporters find themselves in a role similar to that of the TV anchor in a 24-hour news cycle who tries to piece together news as it happens or, in many cases, before it happens. Faced with this circumstance, journalists rely on familiar narratives and over time myth-making occurs.

You could argue that fans prefer these familiar narratives and myths because they provide reason for optimism even as they obscure the true business side of the equation. We therefore have good reason to continue following the free-agent sweepstakes on every sports site's Hot Stove page and to employ the logic of Lloyd Christmas: "So you're telling me there's a chance."

Here are two common Hot Stove narratives that are used in Baltimore to examine our chances for success with top-notch free agents and to explain our failure with said free agents after the fact.

Narrative/Myth #1: We're an attractive destination for a top free agent because we have an "in" with him (aka "The Hometown Discount"/"Hometown Hero" Effect).

The thinking here is that a player's relationship to the city, the team, or its personnel will propel him to take a below-market deal with the Orioles. This favored narrative applies to cases where we're trying to keep a guy in the fold (i.e. the hometown discount) or to bring him into the fold (i.e. the hometown hero). Mike Mussina was an example of the former, Mark Teixeira is an example of the latter. A.J. Burnett, whose wife is from the Baltimore area and who has an off-season home in Monkton, could also fit into the latter category.

One need only look back to the 2004 offseason to see an example of the failed logic of the hometown hero narrative, and it applies to Burnett, no less. Here's what The Washington Post had to say
on Dec. 16 of that year about the O's prospects with Burnett:
"A safer choice may be Burnett, who would require less in a trade than Hudson, but is also a free agent after next year. The Orioles and Florida Marlins have begun preliminary discussions for Burnett, who has close ties to the Baltimore area and said, through agent Darek Braunecker, that he would be open to signing a contract extension. Burnett's wife is from Baltimore and the couple rented a house near the area this offseason.

'They spent the entire month of November in Baltimore and he loved it,' Braunecker said. 'There was a certain comfort level with the area.'"
Mussina left Baltimore, Burnett still isn't here, and Teixeira remains a longshot. Kids may dream of one day playing baseball in their home city, but Major Leaguers tend to replace the stars in their eyes with dollar signs.

The "having an in" theory goes beyond hometown connections. Consider again the 2004 off-season, this time with Carl Pavano.

From The Post, Nov. 5, 2004:

"If the Baltimore Orioles were looking for any kind of advantage with prized free agent pitcher Carl Pavano, they may have found it in agent Scott Shapiro, a diehard Orioles fan virtually since birth and a friend of owner Peter Angelos. The Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, the two wealthiest franchises in baseball, are expected to bid on Pavano.

'I know that Carl and I have talked about [the Orioles],' Shapiro said. 'The Orioles are a team he thinks are building a winner. He thinks he could be a part of that. . . . The Orioles are going to be one of the teams we'll be spending a lot of time with. The Orioles are a franchise that we're
interested in exploring the possibilities.'


Pavano, from New Britain, Conn., has close ties with a couple of people in the Orioles organization. In the mid-1990s, Kenney, then a member of the Red Sox' minor league department, helped develop Pavano as a prospect.

'He was always a prospect from the day we drafted him,' Kenney said. 'Pavano, he's a big man with big legs and a strong body and a great arm.'

In 1998, Orioles Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations Jim Beattie, then the Montreal Expos' general manager, traded Martinez to the Red Sox for Pavano and pitcher Tony Armas Jr.
Who is the source for this information about Burnett and Pavano? Their agents! Agents love to play the media if it means earning more money for their client. Two words: bargaining chip. The Orioles remained in the running for Pavano's services, which helped fuel and even bigger payday in ... New York.

Another example of the "having an in" theory is Leo Mazzone, who, according to conventional wisdom, was going to attract a bevy of free-agent pitchers to Charm City because they had success with him in the past.

From The Post, Oct. 19, 2005, when the O's were courting the pitching coach:
"Under Mazzone, Atlanta's pitching staff ranked either first or second in ERA in the majors each year from 1992 to 2002 and was first in 2004. Mazzone's hiring also could help Baltimore in the free agent market. Free agent pitcher Kevin Millwood, the American League's ERA leader with Cleveland, worked with Mazzone in Atlanta.

'It would probably make anyplace more attractive to a pitcher,' an agent of a prominent free agent pitcher said."
The O's got Mazzone and two of his proteges: Russ Ortiz and Jaret Wright. Conventional wisdom fails once more.

Narrative/Myth #2: We lost out on [name of free agent] because we play in the A.L. East.

After weeks of speculation and optimism, the Birds can't seal the deal. So what happened? A much-relied upon answer goes something like this: "Free agent pitchers avoid Baltimore because they don't want to hurt their numbers by pitching in the A.L. East."

This logic has applied to the Birds' free-agent failures for at least the past decade as pitchers were initially
afraid to pitch against the mighty Yankees; then they feared the Yankees and Red Sox; perhaps now we can add the Rays to the mix. Any way around, the explanation is inadequate. [Note: This thinking sometimes applies to hitters as well, but it seems to be a more popular logic relative to pitchers.]

A free-agent pitcher does have to weigh concerns about run support and the defense that will be backing him up and what those factors could mean to his overall numbers; however, it's an insult to a fan's intelligence
to continually be told that a guy was "really serious about playing in Baltimore" only to be scared off by the prospect of playing against quality competition. The theory holds less water than a broken-down mule.

Once again, current
free agent A.J.Burnett provides an easy example to counter the conventional wisdom. According to The Sun, Burnett has four of the five A.L. East teams on his short list. Apparently his experience pitching in Toronto wasn't enough to scare him away from the big, bad A.L. East.

Major League players didn't reach the peak of their profession by being timid. These guys want to play on the biggest stages the sport has to offer, and they want to cash in as they do so.

What's a guy (or gal) to believe?

These are the truths of free agency
, as I see them, relative to the Orioles:

-Most Major League teams are competing for the same small pool of elite free agents. Demand outweighs supply.

-Free agents know they're in demand, so they use teams like the Orioles as an added bargaining chip to drive up their asking price.

-The Birds aren't going to be a truly attractive destination for free agents until they end the run of losing seasons, put fans back in the seats, and get the media exposure that represents the fruit of their collective labor.

-It will continue to be an uphill climb with free agents, and we're not likely to get the top guys on our wish list very often.

-Even if we land a top-tier free-agent, it won't start a flurry of signings, much less an avalanche.

[See, for example, Miguel Tejada, 2003. The thinking was that Tejada would attract more stars to the Baltimore skyline, particularly Latin players. Tejada signed in 2003, and USA Today had the following to say:
"The Baltimore Orioles, who made the biggest news at baseball's winter meetings by signing free-agent shortstop Miguel Tejada to a $72 million contract for six years, are continuing to negotiate with three other big-name players: Outfielder Vladimir Guerrero and catchers Ivan Rodriguez and Javy Lopez.

'Given the sluggish market, general managers around baseball think the Orioles appear have a chance to get Guerrero, who hit .330 with 25 home runs for the Montreal Expos last season, and one of the catchers.'"
We all know what happened there.]

-Free agents aren't the answer ... yet. The Birds are going to have to continue building a solid foundation before free agency makes a truly discernible difference in their fortunes. In other words, free agency is best used to fix the leaks rather than to replace the plumbing.

Feel free to add you own Hot stove myths and truths in the comments section.

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