More Kansas City Royals. I keep meaning to write about some other teams … but the Royals just keep doing amazing things. Amazing things.
Here’s the thing — and, I’ll admit, this might be a bit of a flaw — but I tend to believe that there aren’t many stupid people running sports teams. Maybe it’s because I see how hard they work. Maybe it’s because I know how much they went through to get to their jobs. Maybe it’s because I do get to talk to many of them, and in the comfort of conversation most people in sports sound reasonable and most explanations are at least plausible. Maybe it’s because — probably it is largely because — I want to see the best in people. I hope that is my personality.
But every so often I see something that seems so blindingly stupid that, in all honestly, I find myself wondering if I’m wrong about all that, wondering if it is possible that, yes, the people who make sports decisions can simply lose their bleepin’ minds.
This was the thought going through my mind as I watched the sixth inning Wednesday between the Royals and Twins. Of course, a day earlier I wrote here about the sheer wonder I had felt watching Royals manager Trey Hillman pinch hit Luis Hernandez for Tony Pena and then Tug Hulett for Luis Hernandez. A couple of brilliant readers pointed out that the trio at this point is slugging .370 COMBINED, which might be the most remarkable statistic in the history of the world. I didn’t understand the deck-chairs-on-the-Titanic pinch-hitting strategy and it felt silly, but I thought it was mostly harmless fun by a manager who frankly doesn’t seem to have any idea what to do anymore.
Wednesday’s jaw-dropper, though, was much more ominous. Start here: If you’re a Royals fan, you have probably read Rany Jazayerli’s screed about Royals trainer Nick Swartz. It’s pretty strong — I don’t happen to believe Swartz is the problem, I believe that at the end of the day the trainer only advises and it’s the team decision makers that make calls. But I would not argue with Rany’s basic points … or his three main examples:
1. Joakim Soria apparently had some shoulder trouble. The Royals decided to keep it quiet — no, more than quiet, manager Trey Hillman decided to LIE about it — to gain some sort of illusive competitive advantage that, frankly, I never understood. They didn’t pitch him in a couple of key games, which made HIllman look like he had no idea what he was doing, and then the Royals pitched him, and then they admitted Soria was hurt and rested him, and then they pitched him AGAIN and THEN they put him on the DL. And this is one of the Royals’ CORNERSTONE PLAYERS. Bad, bad, bad.
2. Shortstop Mike Aviles was apparently hurting, the Royals kept that quiet too. He was preposterously bad, and then they admitted he might be hurt, and then they rested him, and then they played him, and then they put him on the DL and now it appears his right elbow is destroyed. He needs Tommy John surgery, which — let’s be honest — puts his whole career at risk.
3. Coco Crisp’s shoulder was apparently hurting, the Royals kept downplaying it. That’s a key word here: Downplay. You know, most baseball players will downplay their own injuries … it has been that way for a hundred years. Teams have to take responsibility. Crisp said his shoulder was fine and the Royals said his shoulder was fine but there was room for doubt. Even during spring training, some of Crisp’s throws were so preposterously weak that, as we often said, he made Johnny Damon look like Roberto Clemente. Seriously, he was four hopping cutoff men on SLOW ROLLERS UP THE MIDDLE. It was absolutely clear that he could throw the ball farther with his left arm … he HAD to be hurt. But then he would uncork a merely way-below-average throw and you thought, “OK, well, maybe he’s not hurt too bad, maybe he’s just getting his arm warmed up for the season.”
I tend to think now that Crisp was badly hurt all year. People point out that he was playing quite well in the first month, but I think that’s kind of revisionist history. He was pretty effective but it was mostly because he was (surprisingly) walking quite a bit. His batting average was still lousy. He was chasing down fly balls brilliantly but his arm was a huge liability. He was using his speed better — stealing bases more effectively — but let’s not go making him out to be Rickey Henderson. I think his shoulder was hurt all along. But whatever the case, the shoulder apparently kept getting worse and worse and Crisp started playing worse and worse. The Royals (are you catching the trend?) would rest him for a little bit, put him back in, say things were OK, rest him a bit more, say he couldn’t bat left-handed and finally they put him on the DL where they found (voila!) that he had a torn labrum. Out for the year. Rany suggests that there was some SERIOUS malfeasance here … and it’s hard to argue the point.
So that’s where we are … this organization has shown a consistent pattern this year of the “rub some dirt on it” medical approach. In a certain book that is coming out on 09/09/09, I write at length about a pitcher, Gary Nolan, who was a GREAT young pitcher. He started feeling terrible pain in his arm, and he told the Reds about it, and the Reds management did not believe he was hurt. They believed he was soft. They believed he should toughen up. Not to stray too far off track here, but at one point the Reds actually sent him to a DENTIST to have an tooth removed — they said this would relieve the pain in Nolan’s shoulder. This was the sort of witch doctor medicine of 1975. Nolan missed almost two full years and eventually he went to Dr. Frank Jobe — right around the same time that Tommy John went to see Jobe — and they found there was a one inch bone spur in his shoulder. Jobe said that he could not even imagine how much pain Nolan had to be going through to pitch with that thing in his shoulder.
That’s how it was in 1975. And the Royals seem to be from the 1975 school of medicine.
All of which takes us back (finally) to Wednesday. Gil Meche was pitching, and you may or may not know that Meche has been battling with a balky back and a dead arm this year. Even so, he has made 17 starts — he leads the American League in starts — because he has become what baseball people like to call a warrior.
Unfortunately, the warrior had been terrible his previous two outings — terrible, in fact, ever since Trey Hillman left him in to throw 132 pitches in a shutout against Arizona. I want to make clear here that this is NOT about pitch counts. Bill James and I wrote some about pitch counts already, and we both said that we are skeptical about the way teams use pitch counts now and we’re open to Nolan Ryan’s plan to extend pitchers. You could argue — pretty persuasively, I imagine — that having a pitcher who has been dealing with a stiff back throw 132 pitch might not be the wisest move ever. But hey, Meche is a grown-up, he insisted on staying in there, he finished the job, I would not second guess it.
BUT then that familiar pattern emerged one more time. Meche struggled badly his next start. And he struggled badly again his next time out. His velocity was down. He felt lousy on the mound. The Royals said he had a bit of “dead arm,” which I’m pretty sure is not a modern medical term. To be blunt, that sounds like something John McGraw would have said. You had to wonder if the Royals planned to treat the “dead arm” with leeches and by drowning a witch.
But OK, hey, dead arm, and Meche (who also downplayed things — guy’s a WARRIOR) said that maybe there was a little “built up tendinitis” and some “fatigue.” He decided to take a couple of days off — not even pick up a baseball. Sounded like a wise thing to do. At first, there was some doubt if he would even make his Wednesday start, and frankly I have NO IDEA why the Royals would even let him make his Wednesday start. Skip a start, make sure he’s OK, I mean it’s not like the Royals are in the heat of a pennant race here.
But OK, Meche said he felt good after his two days off. And as Hillman said: “He’ll know with his experience.” Meche said he wanted to go Wednesday … OK, let him go. “No reservations,” Trey Hillman said. Pitching coach Bob McClure, a sensible soul, was a bit more cautious.
“I would say we’ll probably monitor how many pitches we’re going to let him throw,” McClure said.
Well, sure. Of course. I mean, you wouldn’t let a guy with a dead arm and bad back throw a lot of pitches. That’s OBVIOUS, no? Meche went out and, good to see, his stuff looked pretty good. He was throwing in the low-to-mid 90s again. His curveball looked pretty sharp. He did walk five guys in five innings, and he did labor, and he did throw 99 pitches in those five innings which I think is probably a few more than you would want him to throw. But hey, he only allowed one earned run and the Royals were in the game and Meche seemed to be back on track … Mission accomplished.
Only then … Gil Meche walked out the mound to start the sixth inning.
I wanted to rub my eyes, you know, the way they do in the movies when they see a ghost or really beautiful woman. I looked back at my computer — yep, he’d thrown 99 pitches. I retraced my steps: Yes, Meche did say he had a dead arm, yes there was some stiff back issues, yes everyone said the Royals were going to be cautious, yes, check … and then I looked back on the screen and there was Meche, or at least some guy with Meche’s name on his jersey, on the mound. What? Gil Meche has two-and-a-half years left on his $55 million contract. Gil Meche was the Royals opening day starter. Gil Meche is absolutely one of the critical players if the Royals are EVER going to dig out of this hole …
It couldn’t be. Nobody would send Gil Meche out there. Nobody would do that. Nobody would do that. Nobody would do …
On the second pitch of the inning (101st pitch overall) Carlos Gomez cracked a vicious double down the left-field line. Well, in a way, that was good. Carlos Gomez does not hit many vicious doubles … surely now Hillman would come and take Meche out and end this preposterous …
No. Meche stayed out there. He struck out Nick Punto*. He got Denard Span to fly out on the first pitch of an at-bat (yay Denard!). So Meche had 105 pitches and might get out of this without it being a total disaster.
*So, is Nick Punto the new odd/even guy? I mean, Punto is not an especially good offensive player at any point, but in even years he seems to be passable, especially for a versatile guy who can play numerous positions. In odd years, not so much:
2006: .290 average, .352 on-base percentage, 17 stolen bases.
2007: .210 average, .271 slugging, 52 OPS+.
2008: .284 average, 99 OPS+.
2009: .212 average, 51 OPS+.
No sir. Matt Tolbert then worked Meche for an eight-pitch at-bat which led to a walk. Meche was now up to 113 pitches with two of the best lefty hitters in the American League — Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau — coming up. Well, yes, that was a disaster, but at least now Meche would get taken out of the game and …
No. Meche stayed in to face Joe Mauer. It leads to one of the great questions of philosophy: At what point does idiotic become criminal? Jamie Quirk, who was color commentator on television, talked about how Meche wanted to stay out there. Well OF COURSE Meche wanted to stay out there, but that’s why you have a MANAGER, someone who MANAGES to walk out to the mound and say, “Great effort Gil, but you know, I had to be insane to let you pitch the sixth inning in the first place, I have to get you out of here now.”
But Meche stayed out there. He got ahead of Mauer 0-2, then threw a ball, then Mauer singled, scoring a run. Meche was up to 117 pitches now. Hillman finally went to the mound. We had driven past the lunacy exit about four miles back … we were now in lawsuit territory. Could there be any explanation — ANY explanation — for pitching your wounded Opening Day starter 117 pitches?
Wait for it.
No, wait for it.
Hillman walked back to the dugout and left Meche in the game to face Morneau.
I don’t know. Maybe at some point, when you’re SO FAR down the wrong road, you just go: “What the hell, might as well keep going and hope we run into something good.” Maybe it would have been more damaging to have Meche throw 117 pitches and then pull him before the inning was done. I don’t know. I really don’t know. We are in such la-la land here, there can be no logical questions … these are like “How would you wash a unicorn?” questions. I do know that Meche threw four more pitches and did get Morneau to fly out to right.
And the final tally: Gil Meche, who four days earlier was not sure he was going to start, who three days earlier was going to be watched closely, who one day earlier was talking about how he hoped he had his velocity back … threw 121 pitches. The explanation afterward seemed to be that Meche wanted to … and his stuff was good. Or something.
And look: Meche may be fine. As my friend Bob Dutton likes to say when he sees something that seems beyond any and all logic — “Well, hey, it COULD work.” Covering the Royals for years will do that to a man.
The weirdest part of all might have been a camera shot of Hillman sitting next to trainer Nick Swartz in the dugout while Meche was on the mound. They were not talking … they were both looking out at the field, manager and trainer, side by side in concentration. I could not help but wonder what they were looking at.
Were they looking out there and thinking, “Hmm, you know, it might not be the world’s best idea to let this guy throw 121 pitches?”
Were they thinking, “Hmm, hey, you know, someone might want to actually count this guy’s pitches so we could know how many he has thrown?”
Were they thinking, “Boy, I hope this works and doctors don’t find out tomorrow that Gil has a serious injury because that would mean both our butts?”
Were they thinking … at all?