This wasn't the first time I've locked horns with Cincinnati's Citybeat sports columnist Bill Peterson. Peterson's take on baseball is both old-fashioned and over-simplified, but I felt that he outdid himself in this week's edition of the Cincinnati alternative newsweekly. Peterson offered a flawed, skewed, and misleading defense of the Reds' hiring of Dusty Baker. Now, I often disagree with Peterson, but as I said, I think he outdid himself with inaccuracies and oversimplifications in the article linked above. So I sat down (somewhat fuming) and typed out a letter to the editor at Citybeat in response. (I should note that I have had one of my letters published in Citybeat back in 2004. That too was a response to a Peterson column. There, he stated that the only difference between the Reds and the Cardinals -- well on their way to 105 wins -- were a few relief pitchers. I blew a gasket.)
To the Editor:
In response to Bill Peterson's column "Dusty Baker the Right Manager for the Reds at Right Time," Peterson has unfortunately distorted the facts in his support of Dusty Baker, even going so far as to brand Baker's detractors "brainiacs and bigots." I'm used to writers polarizing issues and demonizing the opposition, but this is unbelievable. I don't think I'm a bigot, so I guess I'm a "brainiac," because I'm opposed to Baker's hiring as Reds manager.
I looked in Peterson's article for a reasoned argument in favor of Baker and didn't find it. His first mistake is to assume that he knows why us "brainiacs" hate Baker, devoting half his article to Baker's poor performance in the postseason. I don't care so much about his postseason problems, and (if I can speak for them) neither do my fellow "brainiacs."
The more substantive charges against Baker are much as Peterson describes them: "...that he works his pitchers into the ground" and he "won't let young talent flourish." Peterson then claims to examine the arguments, although he never mentions the latter point again. So let me present the "brainiac" side of the argument: Baker has a horrific misunderstanding of how baseball games are won, insisting on playing otherwise talentless speedsters while letting legitimate hitters sit on the bench. He doesn't believe in walks -- they "clog up the bases," according to him -- and thinks that a player reaches his peak "somewhere between thirty-two or thirty-six and beyond." Both statements are not only demonstrably false but potentially disastrous misconceptions for a man who has to make out the lineup card every day.
Peterson asks if we can name "a single pitcher, with real confidence, who Baker has destroyed?" I can: Mark Prior. But while Peterson mentions Mark Prior and Kerry Wood he then explains (with sound reasoning) that Baker can't be fully responsible for Wood's injuries. But he never mentions Mark Prior again. Prior had one really promising season, in 2003, before Baker's high pitch counts (very high compared to the treatment of other young pitchers) wore him down. We can't say for sure what derailed Prior's career, but there's a great deal of research proving that high or abusive pitch totals significantly heighten the risk of injury.
Peterson also mentions that Carlos Zambrano, another young pitcher who debuted under Baker, survived his high workloads. That's true, but it's not instructive. The old saying, "Whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger" does NOT apply to a pitcher's arm (just ask Orel Hershiser, Fernando Valenzuela, Dwight Gooden, etc.). And it should also be said that Zambrano has had injury and fatigue issues, even if they haven't significantly affected his performance (although just because it hasn't happened yet doesn't mean it won't happen).
Then Peterson has the gall to make two statements that are not only patently untrue but so misleading as to question the process that allowed them to be published. Both statements are in one confusing sentence: "But then Zambrano is more efficient with his pitches for being less reliant on the strikeout." This is so comically incorrect as to be negligent. Carlos Zambrano is the ANTITHESIS of an efficient pitcher; only one pitcher in the entire National League (Jake Peavy, 4.1) threw more pitches per plate appearance than Zambrano in 2007 (4.0). In fact, over the past 4 seasons, only 4 pitchers in the NL were less efficient than Carlos Zambrano's 2007.
Putting the statistics aside, it should also be said that if you watch Zambrano pitch, "efficient" is probably the last adjective you'd use to describe him. He's regularly among the league leaders in walks AND strikeouts, which makes for a lot of pitches and a lot of strain on a young arm.
It's hard to understand the last part of Peterson's statement; is he saying that Zambrano is less reliant on the strikeout? Because that's untrue. Zambrano has averaged about 194 strikeouts per season the past 4 years, which is more than almost anyone else in the league. He's also not an extreme groundball pitcher, so he's not getting any easy outs there. I'd say that once again, the complete OPPOSITE of Peterson's statement would be accurate: Carlos Zambrano relies on strikeouts more than almost anyone else in the National League.
Peterson never does deal with the charge that Baker neglects young talent, but he does say that "he's never managed young talent such as the Reds will present to him." Again, wrong. The Reds have some young talent, but they're not going to be next year's Colorado Rockies, for goodness' sake. And the Cubs of Baker's tenure had MUCH more young talent than the 2008 Reds will have; those Cubs had Prior, Wood, Zambrano, Corey Patterson, Matt Murton, Mark Bellhorn, Ronny Cedeno, Jason Dubois and a number of other talented youngsters who were benched for such all-time outs leaders as Tony Womack, Jose Macias, Juan Pierre, Cesar Izturis, Rey Ordonez, John Mabry, Lenny Harris and a host of other players obviously unfit for regular starting duty. So while Peterson is right in saying that GM Jim Hendry didn't give Baker a lot of talent to work with, it must also be said that when Baker did have a choice between players, almost without fail he would choose the older and less productive player. If you can run but can't hit, slug, walk, or play defense, send Dusty your resume.
Peterson ends his article by attempting to dramatically polarize the issue. Apparently, "To say Baker isn't the right manager assumes the Reds are rebuilding. The hiring of him says they're not." Actually to say that Baker isn't the right manager assumes nothing except that . . . well, he's not the right manager. But I do agree that his hiring means the Reds aren't rebuilding -- decomposing would be more accurate.
But the worst aspect of Peterson's article is A) that he tries to polarize the issue and demonize Baker's opponents as "brainiacs and bigots," and B) his inference that being a brainiac just might be the worse of the two. This isn't just inaccurate and misleading, it's an offensive attempt to scare people with broad-based name-calling that does nothing to advance his argument.
I'm disappointed with Peterson but even more disappointed with Citybeat for letting this and other articles get published with what seems to be little or no oversight.
Let's hope this one makes it into print, just so the Cincinnati alternative newsweekly of record has at least one dissenting voice lodged to Peterson's column.