Tim Kurkjian Hates The AL

A friend who has a minor philosophical disagreement with our blog sent us this recent piece by Tim Kurkjian. It’s clobberin’ time!

Outfielder Billy Butler is one of the game’s best hitting prospects and, by most accounts, the best hitter in Royals camp.

The first paragraph is not finished and there’s already a major factual error. Butler is good, but Alex Gordon is the number-one position player prospect in all of baseball, and Mark Teahen is pretty money also.

There’s no doubt he’s ready to hit in the big leagues, but by all accounts, he is a bad defensive player. He’s a good kid who tries, cares and wants to improve, but if he were better defensively, he’d play every day for the Royals at age 20.

Fair enough. Even sabermetrics people agree on this, but his projected .279 EqA in Kansas City should more than make up for it. Let me see a better example.

Third baseman Ryan Braun was the story early in Brewers camp: He hit three homers in his first two exhibition games, and in batting practice sessions he regularly tore holes in the sky. Third base was an open competition coming into camp, and if Braun were more adept defensively, he might have been the Brewers’ opening day third baseman. But he has throwing issues, mostly because he rushes his motion. “He’s a good athlete; I’d put him in center field,” one GM said of Braun.

Wow, that’s pretty much the exact same story you just told me: a good player whose hot bat should easily negate his crappy glovework.

It won’t be long before Butler and Braun are marvelous hitters in the major leagues, but these stories of defensive inadequacy are too familiar. The Devil Rays are trying to find a position for B.J. Upton, but it doesn’t appear that it’s going to be shortstop, third base or second base. “I saw him in right field this spring,” a scout said, “and he looks like he belongs [there].”

Okay. That makes sense: put your worst fielder in the least demanding outfield position where he can do the least damage. Why is this even an article?

Toronto outfielder Adam Lind, Angels second baseman Howie Kendrick and Padres third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff came to the big leagues more advanced as hitters than defenders.

All three of these guys are actually adequate fielders (in the range of plus/minus 3 Fielding Runs Above Average). Kurkjian, you impress me less and less with each sentence.

Two of the largest free-agent contracts in this offseason went to Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Lee, who can really hit, but do questionable work on defense.

Are we just picking on players who came up in the AL now? Soriano actually had a good glove in left field last year, thanks to his speedy range and aggressive outfield assists. Carlos Lee will be playing in front of the Crawford Boxes in the craziest outfield ever (good luck with that). But they can both “really hit.” So, yeah.

The best young power hitter in the game, Ryan Howard, is also nothing special defensively at first base.

Has anyone ever been anything special defensively at first base? It’s first base. It’s like playing catch. Sometimes you have to jump, and sometimes you have to bend down a little, but it’s pretty simple. This is where you put beasts like Ryan Howard (.344 EqA), Albert Pujols (.353), and Lance Berkman (.337).

One of the best young hitting catchers in the majors, Victor Martinez, has trouble throwing.

Really? Is it like crazy Knoblauch-style trouble? Oh, people just stole on him alot. That’s not really “trouble,” it just means he doesn’t have a sick arm like Yadier Molina (who I love despite his exquitely bad .209 EqA). By the way, aspiring sportswriters, now you know: exalt non-hitting catchers with great arms/game-calling ability, berate well-hitting catchers with subpar defense.

Baseball always has had its share of hitters only,

They’re called “designated hitters.”

but this is the most confusing part: the game is an athletic sport — highly underrated in that respect — and today’s players are bigger, stronger and faster than they’ve ever been.

You’re right – that was the most convoluted sentence I’ve ever seen on ESPN.com. Are you trying to say baseball is underrated or less popular compared to other sports? That the atheticism in baseball is underrated compared to the athleticism in other sports? Are you designating it an athletic sport, as opposed to an unathletic sport like stock car racing or golf? Simply put, what?

So, why aren’t more young players better defensively? Why don’t more of them run better? And why don’t more of them throw better?

Oh God. Is this going to turn into a reactionary ode to smallball?

“Where are all the athletes?” Phillies first base coach Davey Lopes asked last year.

Um, there are 25 of them on each club’s roster. Sometimes 40. Based on this quote, I’m officially changing my NL East Division pick to the Mets.

“We’re losing them to other sports,” says Royals GM Dayton Moore.

Hopefully the athletic sports.

“In the draft, impact position players are off the board by the fifth round: we see an athlete, we take him.” One GM said there will be only 20 shortstops — usually great athletes — in this June’s draft. But there will be plenty of hitters.

Isn’t there some saying about how the hardest thing to do in all of sports is hitting a major league fastball? So why is it bad that there are plenty of people who can do that?

“For some guys, their bat is two levels ahead of their defense,” said Brewers GM Doug Melvin. “You look in the yellow pages, you see ads for batting cages and hitting instructors. But you don’t see many for infield instruction.”

Who hasn’t been to batting cages? It’s fun as hell. Endlessly taking groundballs is a good idea for professional athletes, but it’s probably pretty boring for John Q. Citizen. Next time I’m at the minigolf course or batting cages, I’ll pass on the idea for the ball-shagging field. Get a prize for a .962 fielding percentage!

We’re in an era of prodigious slugging, of ESPN highlights, of raising the roof after a 450-foot home run.

Tim Kurkjian just got payed $350 extra for mentioning the parent company within his column. Good work, Tim!

Chicks dig the long ball, and the game has encouraged that for nearly 15 years.

I’ve always wondered where that phrase came from, and now I know. Despite the cute pop-culture reference, this is still misleading. It’s not like home runs were invented in 1992. The soon-to-be runner-up in all-time home runs, Hank Aaron, played half of his career in the relatively stagnant 1960’s, including a 29-homer year in the legendarily low-scoring 1968. And after the strike, did MLB really have any choice but to milk every last drop out of the 1998 home run race?

A generation of hitters have been raised who spend their day pumping tokens in a batting cage (or, more and more often, hitting in the cage in their back yard) rather than developing their entire game. Not as many complete players are being sent to the major leagues.

“Guys get paid to hit, and if you hit, you play,” said Cardinals hitting coach Hal McRae. “Over the years, base running has really suffered. Defense has suffered. Baseball instincts have suffered. I think it’s all the home runs, especially in the American League.

I’m really glad that they interviewed McRae for this article. Not only do I get to link to the best coach tirade ever a second time, but the quote undermines everything that has happened to this point in the article. If players “get paid to hit,” then why shouldn’t they learn to be really good at it?

“Having 30 teams has changed things. Back when I came through [McRae’s first year was 1968], if you couldn’t play defense, you didn’t play. They would send you back to the minor leagues.”

McRae was one of the first pre-eminent designated hitters because he was a also below-average fielder; he’s actually the all-time RBI leader as a DH. And again, there wasn’t much you could do in 1968 besides play defense because the league batting average was .243.

Throwing a baseball is a God-given ability, but a young player’s arm won’t get stronger if he doesn’t throw. “You should see Carlos Gonzalez throw,” said Diamondbacks manager Bob Melvin of one of his young outfielders. “He can throw with Ichiro.” You just don’t hear that much anymore. Maybe it’s because teams rarely take infield before games. Without infield, when does an outfielder practice cutting loose and throwing as hard as he can to a base? The Cardinals are one of the few teams that work on it during batting practice, but it’s not the same as taking infield every day as was done in Larry Bowa’s day.

Oh, boy.

“If we didn’t have infield before a game because the tarp was on the field, I’d get nervous,” said Bowa, the current Yankees third base coach who during his playing days led the National League in fielding percentage six times and won two Gold Gloves primarily as the shortstop for the Phillies. “I’d go to an indoor cage and play pepper to get the feel for the ball off the bat.”

Flawed statistics and a meaningless award = Larry Bowa is the most experty expert on fielding ever. He also has a career .233 EqA and a smashing .300 OBA, so maybe he should’ve spent some time on the other end of the cage.

Players just don’t do that anymore. But the accent on offense seems to be changing slightly. Over the last few years, there has been a slow re-emphasis of pitching and defense rather than three-run homers.

Great. So why are you still complaining?

Albert Pujols has something to do with that: The best player in the game has developed into a terrific defensive first baseman, and other great young hitters are starting to take notice.

Albert was noticably great at first base last year, but is he really going to suggest that Pujols is responsible –

Phillies second baseman Chase Utley has gone from a subpar defensive player to average at worst.

Yeah, he’s giving Pujols credit for Utley’s marginal improvement in the field. Imagine the scene at this imaginary Phillies-Cardinals game: Utley hits the ball hard through the infield, but Pujols makes a great stab to rob him of a base hit. Crushed, Utley sulks back to the dugout. But as turns, Pujols makes eye contact, lifting his head in acknowledgment and pumping his fist against his chest. And Utley realizes: “Yes. I know what I must do.”

Reds outfielder Adam Dunn — once athletic enough to be recruited to play quarterback at Texas

— and still athletic enough to hit 40 home runs a year —

said this spring that he was determined to become a better defensive player. And then there is the story of Braves right fielder Jeff Francoeur.

Oh no.

Francoeur is a phenomenal athlete.

That’s why he’s playing professional sports.

He was a great high school football player who could have played at Clemson. He is a fabulous golfer.

Neat.

He was in the major leagues at age 21 as a five-tool player who could do everything, especially throw. Last year, he had a good year, hitting 29 homers with 103 RBI.

He also had a VORP of -1 and an EqA of .249. And the third most outs in the National League.

But he had one stolen base, the same as Greg Maddux.

I think this is more indicative of the power of Greg Maddux than Francoeur’s lack of speed. (Try typing “Francoeur” five times fast.)

Francoeur is 23 years old and weighs 220 pounds.

This has more unnecessary biographical information than a George W. Bush appointment speech.

He can really run, but on a team that led the National League in slugging percentage in 2006, he stopped running. As he prepared for a spring training workout in late February, Francoeur said with regret, “I lost a step last year. I lost some of my athleticism. There’s no reason that I shouldn’t steal 20 to 25 bags.”

I know a reason! (You only got on-base 29% of the time.)

“I need to be more athletic.”

Tim Kurkjian has brainwashed Jeff Francoeur. I’ll spare you the unnecessary paragraph about Francoeur’s work with the NFL combine players; basically, in the space of four sentences, he gets his athleticism back. Woo-hoo.

Maybe this is the start of something. It is encouraging that a great athlete has determined that slugging isn’t enough.

Slugging isn’t enough; you have to get on base also. So it is encouraging, but not in the way Kurkjian thinks.

The game is an athletic one.

You said that already.

There is room to run, to throw and to play defense. Maybe others will follow.

When he says “others,” does he mean “other things” there is room to do in baseball, like getting on-base and hitting for power? Or “other young players” who will be obsessed with sheer arm strength and speed? I really hope it’s the first one. But I know it’s not. Sigh.

The game is great now, and the players are unbelievably talented.

I’m really surprised no one has said the PED-word yet.

But it’s time for some of them to become more complete.

This honestly could have been alot worse. It could have exalted some great fielders who can’t hit in both leagues. But this hang-up over the landscape shifting from fielding to offense seems a century too late.

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One Response to Tim Kurkjian Hates The AL

  1. Chris says:

    Chris

    Great site! i\’m looking forward to reading more.

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