Out of the millions of words I've read about baseball, I hold one thought by Bill James above all the rest:
"It’s a characteristic of bad front offices to obsess about the secondary characteristics of their best players."
It's a great quote because you can replace "front offices" with "writers," "bloggers" or "fans," and it's just as true. Or you can apply it to different aspects of life by replacing "players" with "partners." Or "bosses." Or "bars." Basically, anyone who weighs in on the value of anything should keep this in mind. Demand too much of a good situation and you'll likely find yourself worse off.
And that brings us to Mark Gonzales' article about Alexei Ramirez, which is, at the very least, a curious place to start sifting through the wreckage of the 2011 season. Especially when they key sentence says the Sox "must have improvement from middle class players like Ramirez."
There were too many times in 2011 that flies hit to shallow left and left-center field fell safely. Those incidents no longer can be blamed on left fielder Juan Pierre if he does not re-sign with the Sox. And defense should be a point of emphasis next spring with center fielder Alex Rios, who also took some adventuresome routes on drives that sailed over his head. [...]
But there were too many instances where a throw to second base would sail into center field, with Ramirez in the vicinity but not able to catch it. Instead of a runner potentially being wiped out, he would wind up at third base where he could score on an array of plays.
These instances have kept occurring even though catcher A.J. Pierzynski called out Ramirez in the tunnel of the Metrodome in July of 2009.
If I had to sum up the problems with this article in one sentence, I'd just say that in order to construct a case against Ramirez, Gonzales has to associate him with the defensive shortcomings of three other players. Pierre was so timid in left that he yielded to Brent Morel on a normal-depth fly. Rios was shaky in all directions, but he had big-time problems on shallow breaks.
And Pierzynski ... well, first of all, I could probably count on one hand all the throws that "sailed" into center field. More likely, they skipped or trickled past a falling Ramirez after one or two hops on the wrong side of second. On top of that, the next time Pierzynski points the finger at himself will be the first. Ozzie Guillen didn't really stand for much in his final year, but one of his finer moments came when he told Pierzynski to own up to his miserable success rate.
That's not to absolve Ramirez entirely, because he has his flaws. He's not a versatile hitter, which leaves him prone to slumps. He's exceptionally unphysical, which makes his errors feel worse because they have an element of giving up on the play.
But if the Sox "must have improvement" from Ramirez in order to compete in 2012, they're screwed.
Some players are just naturally frustrating. J.D. Drew, for instance, performed like the model player during his prime. Swinging, running or throwing, everything he did looked perfect, and nobody could quibble with his rate stats, either. But he also had a natural habit of missing 20-40 games a year, which led observers to fill in the gaps on their own. On top of that, he came off as passive and uninterested, and so they were more than satisfied to pin the underachievement on him.
Ramirez has similar holes in the game, in that they leave a lot to the imagination. If he held his ground around baserunners ... if he didn't fall into deep slumps ... if he didn't have those occasional lapses on routine plays ...
... yeah, and if only he weren't 30 years old.
Granted, we had to give Ramirez a little more ceiling than normal because of his international status. We didn't have reliable stats and extensive scouting from his Cuban League days, so we had to project off what he showed right in front of us. He switched positions, he made some visible offensive adjustments, and that delayed the final verdict of his game.
But his 2011 confirmed what he showed over his first three seasons. He makes more plays than just about anybody on the edges of his range, but will give back of a little of that gain on misplays around the bag. He's not an offensive centerpiece because his bat will hibernate for a month of the year. Despite his flaws, he still contributes more than enough at a demanding position, which makes him one of the team's most valuable players -- especially since he's still delivering more than he's getting paid for.
That doesn't mean he's beyond reproach. Alligator arms are a failing, and should be regarded as such when they make an appearance. When he grounds into a 5-4-3 double play because he can only hit the ball in the direction of the third baseman, he should be treated no differently than Alex Rios on his grounders to the left side.
But what we -- the media, bloggers, the Sox -- shouldn't do is rely on him for more than he's shown. If he hasn't blossomed into a four- or five-tool guy by now, why would he start after turning 30?
And what we definitely shouldn't do is hold him accountable for chief flaws of his teammates. When Alejandro De Aza replaced Pierre in left, his assertiveness in the outfield was readily apparent. While Pierre repeatedly glanced at players in front of him before making up his mind to try to catch a shallow fly, De Aza played traffic cop and called off Morel and Ramirez before they even had a chance to get in the way. And then there's Tyler Flowers. He isn't a defensive stalwart, but he didn't have Pierzynski's problems throwing out basestealers because he put his throws on the right line, and often in the air, too!
If I had to make a list of the players who "must improve" to put the White Sox back in contention, it would start with Adam Dunn and Alex Rios. Followed by Gordon Beckham and Morel. Then John Danks, Jake Peavy and Gavin Floyd. Matt Thornton, if Chris Sale moves to the rotation. Dayan Viciedo, and then De Aza (who must improve on Pierre's production, not his own).
Basically, you get through half the returning roster before Ramirez even enters the picture. The White Sox have too many real problems to deal with, so why waste time addressing ones they don't have?
*If I were trying to convince somebody of the legitimacy of WAR, I would avoid bringing up Ramirez. First, there's a massive discrepancy between the two kinds. According to FanGraphs, he contributed a team-leading 4.9 WAR. According to Baseball-Reference, he was second to Paul Konerko with 3.3 WAR. Either number underscores the fact that Ramirez gave his team plenty in spite of his deficiencies, but that's a difficult difference to explain to a skeptic.
And then you have his defense. I thought his glove was slightly sturdier in 2010, but FanGraphs and UZR give him enough credit for defensive improvement in 2011 to tip the WAR scales. I'm not sure which one's right, but I know I can make the same point without opening that box. So with players like Ramirez, I think it's better to leave WAR out of it unless everybody's speaking the same language.
*Since Ramirez didn't improve around the bag much, can we pin the blame on Omar Vizquel?
*In a double-whammy, on a day that we get analysis that leaves a lot to be desired from the city's biggest paper, we also learn that we're losing the services of the most open-minded White Sox beat writer around.
CSNChicago.com decided to let go of our friend Brett Ballantini, which really creates a void in coverage since he was the most social/conversation of the bunch. As I tweeted earlier, he's the only beat writer who consistently treated bloggers -- and non-bloggers -- like adults. If you had a good question, he'd answer it or find out in pretty quick order, instead of waiting for a monthly mailbag. On the very rare occasions he made a mistake, he would draw attention to the correction to make sure the right info was clear, instead of pretending like it never happened.
And if you raised a unique and worthwhile point, he gave you credit in one form or another, whereas some beat writers will repurpose the insights and pass it off as their own.
The stat stuff is great, too, because too many people seem to be afraid of FanGraphs or Baseball-Reference.com unless it backs up a conclusion they already drew. But that takes a backseat to the fact that he appreciates his readers and shares a mutual enjoyment in the game. Throw in his visits to South Side Sox, and he was really a full-service beat writer.
Hopefully Brett will move on to a bigger and better gig, which hopefully won't prevent him from dropping in here and giving us a deeper understanding of the guys we're watching (and, at this time of the year, hypothetically trading away). And hopefully his participation with his audience made an impression on his peers. I understand why beat writers aren't particularly joyful about their jobs, because it can grow taxing and monotonous in a hurry, but when everybody shares the same root interest, it doesn't take a whole lot of effort to form a connection.