29 January 2010

Re-examining Webb

Few body parts were examined more in 2009, physically or vicariously, than Brandon Webb's right labrum, but to better understand why he didnt pitch past Opening Day, perhaps one needs to apply the scalpel to conventional wisdom as well.

Or, since this is Diamondhacks, a hammer with blood on the claw should suffice.

Interested parties agree Brandon frayed his labrum, and Diamondhacks editors acknowledge there's a physical issue. No one cuts a magic arm if there's not. But convention further assumes the resulting impingement and pain prevented him from pitching all but the first game last season. We think there's more to it than that. What's never been clear is the severity and functional significance of the injury. Was it sufficiently incapacitating to retire Webb for the season? Or did other factors play into Brandon's decision to sit out 2009?

Let's speculate, for example, that Webby was interested in maximizing career earnings. Sounds crazy, I know, but imagine that was on the unassuming Kentuckian's mind. How might he approach the second half of the 2008 season, immediately after the $54M extension was pulled in June? Secondly, how might he approach the 2009 season, a full ten months after the deal was aborted, ostensibly due to insurance "flags".

The first question seems pretty easy to answer. Webb finished 2008 very strong, going 10-3 with a 3.38 ERA. Does that sound like a physically or psychologically compromised pitcher? Or a healthy, motivated Brandon Webb? Webb appears to have sublimated (or channeled) any lingering anger or disappointment over the contract, by pitching up to his own superlative standard for the remainder of the season.

But what about the spring of 2009? After that affirming second half and a long off season to ruminate. What was his reward for keeping the mediocre Dbacks in the 2008 NL West race, and keeping most of his personal disappointment out of the papers? It was not $54M - or anything resembling that. His reward was $5.5M and the presumable satisfaction of a job well done. Tall cotton for most of us, to be sure, but our established skills dont annually command $15-20M on the open market.

Let's bludgeon that point a moment. After 2008, Webb had accumulated approximately $13.5M in career salary, and according to fangraphs.com his open market value during that time exceeded $80M. That's not necessarily the Diamondbacks' fault - it mostly reflects MLB's salary structure, which generally underpays young stars and overpays tenured veterans. But the purpose of this exercise is to get inside the head of an athlete who, for whatever reasons, was systematically and grossly underpaid in terms of his career production.

An athlete who finally got teased with pay roughly commensurate with performance, and then had that hope quashed by privately held "medical concerns" subject to considerable interpretation. A proud athlete who put all that aside to vastly outproduce his earnings for an additional three months. As he had his entire career.

What was Brandon Webb thinking that winter. Maybe he thought he proved the front office wrong. Maybe he thought the Diamondbacks would finally recognize and reward him as one of the game's most durable aces. He had just capped three consecutive Cy Young caliber seasons, going 22-7 and was - for all intents and purposes - the fourth highest paid starter on the club. He earned several million less than journeyman Doug Davis, barely a third of Randy Johnson's 2008 salary, and lacked the kind of long term extension the club generously granted a younger Dan Haren that August. Webb was pushing thirty years old, arguably the best pitcher in baseball over the previous six seasons...and only Micah Owings made less in the Arizona rotation.

It's hard to exaggerate the extent to which Webb must have felt undervalued, and to some degree, un(der)appreciated, by his employer. And not just in terms of the reneged extension. It must have eventually dawned on Brandon that he was never going to collect that kind of money from the Arizona Diamondbacks. If winning ten of his final thirteen decisions didnt alleviate the brass's medical concerns, what could? That's as good as he can pitch.

If you're 29 or thirty years old, under team control for a couple more years, and feel your employer is never going to pay you anything close to your value, what do you do? One option is you quietly play out your contract. Another strategy is to get away from the Arizona Diamondbacks as quickly as possible. Some athletes demand a trade, badmouth the owner in the papers. Or you can discourage your spendthrift employer from exercising your 2010 option, and a good way to do that is to not pitch. To complain that something you cant quite put your finger on, doesnt "feel good". To elegantly fulfill Jeff Moorad's public prophecy that you present a significant injury risk - and become one.

We're not calling Brandon Webb a faker. We believe he suffered an impingement, and that he and others have pitched through similar soft tissue challenges. Sometime in the winter of 2008 Webb decided it made little sense to pitch through it again in 2009.

Not in Arizona.

Achy shoulder or not, every pitcher possesses a finite number of bullets. Should Webb have pitched his heart out in 2009 for $6.5M, all but insuring he'd pitch in 2010 for $8.5M? Or was it in his career interests to "rest up" in 2009, in hopes the Dbacks passed on his option - opening the door to free agency? Arizona opted to keep Webb, of course, but was that a reasonable way for Webb to perceive things and manage his career? To perhaps rationalize that the front office "owed" him a great deal in unpaid production anyway, to save some bullets and hope for better luck (ie fairer pay) elsewhere.

Reasonable skeptics may doubt that sitting out a season would enrich a player, but due to Arizona's contractual control and established aversion to paying their best players near market value, Webb would gain more by jettisoning the Dbacks a year early, than he'd lose due to generic injury concerns. Dont think so? Ben Sheets sat out 2009 and just signed for $10M plus - and doesnt have the durability or reputation Brandon enjoys. As a free agent, Webb would have garnered far more than the $8.5M he's earning in Arizona.

Even if Arizona picked up the option, Webb saved himself a year's worth of bullets, presumably to shoot another day, under the auspicies of a more generous front office. Today he finds himself in a genuine contract year, however. In terms of monetary reward, it makes sense for him to pitch well on the brink of free agency. A one year hiatus, followed with a stellar, post-surgery year should put most GM concerns to bed, whereas back to back seasons out of commission, or ineffective, could severely diminish Brandon's earning power.

This is good news for Diamondback fans. Well, bad news for fanboys clinging to the fantasy that our beloved Webby would run through brick walls for this organization - and by extension, for us - until retirement or death. But good news for adults, for realists, who understand that professional performance involves so much more than appearances. Convention would have us believe that Brandon Webb's 2009 spirit was willing, but the flesh was weak. We think that's essentially upside down - the flesh was worn but relatively able, and our hero's rational desire, spirit if you will, was systematically compromised.


Jeff said...

Ah... so you are intent on making one think and not just sit back and let things happen as they happen, eh? Slick move there. I'd never considered this topic from this angle before, but it does make sense, that Webb's intentions may not have been as straight forward as: "I'm hurt. I'm done.", which is how I thought it went down.

I guess there's some sort of information gap from all locations west of the Mississippi River... and rarely do I get the whole story because of it.

Damn that Geography!!!

Diamondhacks said...

I think nagging injuries like this may degrade an athlete's competitive will in a couple ways. In the immediate sense, one's arm hurts or doesnt feel "right". But in the longer term, it abruptly acquaints athletes with their mortality and the idea that their time to shine (and earn) is finite.