07 May 2009

Managing Illusions

Hinch is such a desperate choice. What does his unusual hire say about our front office? AJ Hinch went to Stanford, which by this point, it's pretty clear is awfully important to Josh Byrnes. The Haverford alum's staff is famously dotted with similarly credentialed grunts from Harvard and MIT. It's not so much that Melvin (Cal) didnt make the grade, it's just telling, that for all the usual candidates milling around with managerial experience - even some within the org - our ivied brain trust opted for a Stanford man who never managed a team in his life.

It's a form of insecurity, and defiance, I think. The idea that "people near Josh" are somehow better qualified to manage a ballclub than, say, people who've managed ballclubs. In a way only "they" can understand. It reminds me of George W Bush's nomination of his personal counsel, Harriet Miers , to the United States Supreme Court, and may reveal an insulated, perhaps even bunker, mentality digging in on Jefferson Street.

The other "statement" here regards so called player development. Hinch was in charge of minor league progress. Melvin was criticised for not furthering those production arcs, most recently by CEO Derrick Hall, who observed the team has "grossly underperformed" for more than five months.

While it's true that regulars, young and old, endured miserable Aprils, the fact is several youngsters blossomed under Melvin's watch. Mark Reynolds came from nowhere to be a serviceable, if errratic, major league starter and is likely to hit thirty homers. Stephen Drew broke out in 2008. Prior to his mysterious ailment, Conor Jackson transformed himself from an inadequate first baseman to a base stealing, left fielding OBP mainstay. Justin Upton, amidst a fourteen game hitting streak, appears to "finally" be on the cusp of superstardom, at all of 21. And Max Scherzer is perhaps the greatest starting pitcher in major league history never to win a game.

Maybe this team has grossly underperformed for five days or weeks (maybe it hasnt), but the claim of five months is predictable, self-serving, front office swill. If Derrick Hall genuinely felt the final four to five months of the 2008 season represented "gross underperformance", wouldnt this winter have been the appropriate time for the newly minted CEO to part with the inadequate Melvin? Why would you stick with a skipper, responsible for nearly a season's worth of "gross underperformance" if you're serious about competing with the Dodgers, with this marvelous, kick ass team of yours? Wouldnt that be counterproductive? To let him screw up April as well?

What's closer to the truth, is that Bob Melvin's being scapegoated for a slow, injury-riddled start and for the strategic "sins" of his bosses. Scapegoated for structurally anemic rosters fashioned by Josh Byrnes and reluctant financier, Ken Kendrick. Scapegoated for pie in the sky fan "experience" and expectations, unabashedly oversold by Hall.

Hall and Byrnes, some may remember, inked two of the lengthiest contracts in the game for themselves. (At the time, only Alex Rodriguez had more job security in baseball). The pair of alarming eight year deals, terms undisclosed, were bestowed by the dynamic duo's mentor, Jeff Moorad, the brazenly conflicted chief of your San Diego Padres. Curious gestures, to say the least, for a GM outscored by opponents during his tenure in a terrible division, and for a CEO leading a firm that doesnt make any profit for its principals. Or so the story's told.

Bob Melvin, or more likely unbelievable short term luck, propelled one of those outscored mediocrities to ninety wins and an NLCS, in one of the game's truly historic anomalies. You'd think that might earn a guy some security. It turns out, about five months worth - three inhabiting first place. Five months of alleged "gross underperformance". Not just poor performance. Under-performance, by Josh Byrnes' brilliant, cant miss phenoms.

The truth is, Josh Byrnes' phenoms have been missing for years. More accurately, our front office has stubbornly misdiagnosed their naturally youthful shortcomings and failed to sufficiently temper that with enough veterans worth a damn. Eric Byrnes had a nice 2007. Orlando Hudson was a solid player. But our leaders failed to pay for, or recognize (Quentin, Uggla, Hairston) significant inherited talent to help Josh's kids with the heavy lifting. Several (Upton, Jackson, Reynolds) were brought up before their time, or in the wrong positions, to save paying established stopgaps a million or three, while the chosen ones muddled along for pocket change. For years, the Diamondbacks front office has cloaked a sorry, shallow collection of veteran positional players behind excellent pitching and an illusion of ready for prime time offensive phenoms who really werent.

Bob Melvin finally took the fall for that illusion, courtesy of entrenched political operators who crafted it and strung it along. They've not only politely blamed Bob for their underlying failures (and deceptions), they've timed his departure to virtually ensure another self-serving illusion: the short term success of their hand-picked replacement. Hinch will open at home, against the league's weakest team, the Washington Nationals (no relation to the Washington Generals apparently), followed by the non-revolutionary Reds.

It's tougher after that, but that should get Hinch off on better terms than if he had encountered BoMel's last dozen opponents (Matt Cain @ home, Cubs @ home [3], at Milwaukee[4], at LA [2], at Jake Peavy and at Chris Tall Young). Melvin went 6 and 6 there, nothing great, but a solid indicator his team is playing better than the 6-11 start to open the season. Justin Upton appears ready to be a franchise player. The pitching staff is one of the best in the league, again. Last year's most valuable position player (Drew) will come off the DL shortly. The team's most valuable pitcher (Webb) may be available after that. Manny is out for 50 games. There is little question the Diamondbacks will play better than their 6-11 start. They already were, and should continue to, regardless of manager. This very public change isnt about playing better ball.

It's about taking credit for it.


Jeff said...

Hinch is an integral part of the D-Backs' "who gives a shit anyway" philosophy. Well done.

Michael Norton said...

Hey, Matt, do you know if Russell has given up the ghost? His blog link says his blog has been removed.