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Monday, August 27, 2012

The system is effed up.

Last week,  I read a short news article on baseball player Stephen Strasburg. If you don't know who he is I will give you a quick description of who he is and why he is significant to this particular blog. 

Born on July 20, 1988, Strasburg is currently 24 years old. In 2009 at age 21, he was called the "most-hyped pick in draft history" by ESPN and the "most hyped and closely watched pitching prospect in the history of baseball" by Sports Illustrated. Those are very lofty claims, considering the prospects that have come before him.  Both he and his agent, Scott Boras, knew he was in for a big payday. Boras is known as a menace to management who will hold a team ransom to get the best deal for his client. In this case,  he did exactly that. In reality, that is his job and you can't hold that against him, unless of course you value the game of baseball and the reason they are supposed to play the games, which is to entertain the fans. At least, that seemed to be the reason they played the games in the past. But more about that later. 

"This is going to sound crazy, but he still has a lot to learn."

-Tony Gwynn, Strasburg's coach in college and a twenty year major league player and Hall of Famer, in 2009, before he was drafted
The team that drafted him, the Washington Nationals, had been the worst team in baseball for about 10 years by 2009. The Nationals weren't always the Nationals. In fact, from 1969 to 2004, they were known as the Montreal Expos. The Expos were a fairly successful franchise, both in terms of winning and as well in attendance. That is, until player salaries skyrocketed and they could not afford to keep their star players anymore.  In a nutshell, they were forced to move because of the reality of escalating salaries of players. That is nothing new, as most small market teams now face this reality. As the Nationals had been the worst team, they received the top pick in the draft and chose Strasburg. They really had no choice either way. He was, as mentioned earlier the best prospect to come along in many years, maybe ever. They knew they were going to have to pay, and even if they didn't want to, they had no choice. So, they drafted him.

 As the days went by, it was clear that Strasburg and Boras were going to blackmail the Nationals into giving him the biggest contract ever awarded a draft player. While it was acknowledged that Strasburg did already have "major league ready talent" and could step in right away, that was clearly not in his best interests, both short term and long term. It has been accepted that he needed seasoning and while he had great stuff, his motion needed to be honed and altered to avoid injury. That didn't end up happening for the reasons to be mentioned in this blog. Anyway, if they didn't sign him by the established deadline, he would simply go back into the draft and the Nationals would lose out. Boras and Strasburg both knew that wasn't an option the Nationals could take, and by drafting him they were admitting they would have to pay, and then rush him to the major leagues to get a return on their hefty investment.
And..when push came to shove...they did both of those things.

 On August 17, 2009, he signed a record-breaking four-year, $15.1 million contract with the Nationals, just 77 seconds before the deadline. Now the Nationals had a choice to make. Do the right thing and keep him in the minor leagues to develop properly, or bring him up to the majors and start getting a return on their investment. 
They did start him in the minor leagues, but while he was sent there to start out, it was clear he would not be there long, or long enough. He was paid as a top notch pro, and for better or worse (in this case much much worse) he was on a very fast track to the majors. The fans wanted to see him and since the team was horrific at that point, the fans were going to get what they wanted. 
 Strasburg was assigned to the Double-A Harrisburg Senators to begin his minor league career in the spring of 2010. Just one month later, on May 4, 2010, he was promoted to the Triple-A Syracuse Chiefs. Strasburg made his major-league debut one month later on  June 8, 2010, against the Pittsburgh Pirates. A Sports Illustrated columnist termed it "the most hyped pitching debut the game has ever seen." In just two months he had gone from a completely untested prospect to the major leagues, with expectations that he was to dominate the professionals, and all the pressure that goes with that hype and contract.
While he was very dominant in his first 3 outings, it wasn't long before reality caught up with the Nationals and Strasburg.
Strasburg was placed on the disabled list with an inflamed right shoulder in July 2010. He returned to action on August 10th, but in his third game back, on August 21th, he was removed with an apparent injury. On August 27th, the Nationals announced that Strasburg had a torn ulnar collateral ligament, requiring Tommy John surgery, and about 12 to 18 months of rehabilitation.
He returned in August of 2011 to make 6 minor league starts and five major league starts, winning 1 of them. In the 2 years since he signed his contract, he had basically contributed very little to the Nationals in terms of winning games that meant anything. On the other hand, he had completely risked his future by stressing his pitching arm long before he was ready to do so. As well, two years of valuable development time had been lost, which would become relevant in the very near future. Neither the Nationals or Strasburg benefited from this course of action.
Who is at fault for this? Is it the Nationals, who have pushed him? Is it the system that forces the Nationals and other teams to pay ridiculous sums for unproven prospects to the point they need to get a return on their investment long before they are ready and capable to give it?
In reality, it is both. But more about that later.
Through history, you can find many examples of the type of thing that is magnified in the Strasburg situation. I have chosen three to focus on the different ways to handle it and the results you can expect to get.

When I was growing up in the 1970's, one of the top pitchers in baseball was Bob Gibson. He had been around for a very long time by then and was very good, if not great, just about every year he was in the major leagues. He was as good as anybody,  and in reality, if their had been an Amateur draft when Bob Gibson was young and the kind of demand you see today, he could have commanded at least double what Strasburg asked for and got, relative to the pay scale of the day. But there wasn't and in those days you had to get signed, go to the minors, prove your worth and that you belonged in the majors, and then earn your position over a few years. Only then, would you get paid the kind of money Strasburg commanded as an unproven prospect.
Gibson attended Omaha Technical High School, where during his time he participated on the track, basketball, and baseball teams. He was named to the All-State basketball team during his senior year  and soon after won a full athletic scholarship for basketball to Creighton University.
As his graduation from Creighton approached, Gibson had concurrently garnered the interest of  the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team and the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team. In 1957, at age 22, Gibson received a $3,000 bonus to sign with the Cardinals. He delayed his start with the organization for a year, playing basketball with the Harlem Globetrotters, earning the nickname "Bullet" and becoming famous for backhanded dunks. Gibson continued to play basketball even after starting his career with the Cardinals, until Cardinals general manager Bing Devine offered Gibson $4000 to quit playing basketball during baseball's off-season. After accepting the offer, he attended spring training with the Cardinals in 1958 before spending the remainder of the season in the minor leagues.
 Gibson was assigned to the Cardinals' big league roster for the start of the 1959 season, recording his Major League debut on April 15 as a relief pitcher. Reassigned to the Cardinals minor league affiliate in Omaha soon after, Gibson returned to the Major Leagues on July 30 as a starting pitcher, earning his first Major League win that day. Gibson's experience in 1960 was similar, pitching nine innings for the Cardinals before shuffling between the Cardinals and their Rochester affiliate until mid-June. After posting a 3-6 record with a 5.61 ERA, Gibson traveled to Venezuela to participate in winter baseball at the conclusion of the 1960 season. Cardinals manager Solly Hemus shuffled Gibson between the bullpen and the starting pitching rotation for the first half of the 1961 season. The Cardinals new manager in July 1961, Johnny Keane, who had been Gibson's manager on the Omaha minor league affiliate several years prior, saw his now developed talent and moved Gibson into the starting pitching rotation full-time. Gibson proceeded to compile an 11-6 record the remainder of the year, and posted a 3.24 ERA for the full season.
In contrast to Strasburg, Gibson spent almost 4 seasons in the minors, learning and developing and at the age of 26 in 1961 was brought to the majors for good. He went on to have a Hall Of Fame Career, pitching 15 solid seasons for the Cardinals, being a 9 time All Star, winning 9 Gold Gloves, twice being the Cy Young Award winner as the best pitcher, winning two World Series and being the MVP in both of those as well, and winning 251 games to only 174 losses.
He was only the second pitcher in the history of baseball to strike out 3000 batters, and to date there have only been 16. 
 He is generally regarded as one of the greatest pitchers in the history of baseball. He was not rushed nor was he pushed when he wasn't ready. If he was born in the modern day and received a contract similar to Strasburg's, then he likely would have been rushed and may have not had the career he did. He excelled and so did his team, because they took the time to bring him along. Money was not the issue.
At around the same time that Bob Gibson was being developed, a young phenom named Sandy Koufax burst onto the scene. While Gibson was given time to develop, Koufax was rushed.  

"despite an elbow permanently damaged, in excruciating pain, before he had learned to pace himself."

-from the above clip on Sandy Koufax  

Sandy Koufax played his entire 12-year Major League Baseball  career for the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers. He retired at the peak of his career, and in 1972, he became, at age 36, the youngest player ever elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Many feel that he should have still been pitching when he entered the Hall Of Fame, just as Bob Gibson was.

However, that didn't happen as arthritis in his left elbow ended his career prematurely at age 30 in 1966.

Koufax was the first major leaguer to pitch four no-hitters (including the eighth perfect game in baseball history). Despite his comparatively short career, Koufax's 2,396 career strikeouts ranked 7th in history as of his retirement.
    Koufax was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1936. In 1951, at the age of 15, Koufax joined a local youth baseball league known as the "Ice Cream League." He started out as a left-handed catcher before moving to first base. In 1953, while playing first base for his high school's baseball team he was spotted by Milt Laurie, the father of two of his teammates and a baseball coach. Laurie recognized that Koufax might be able to pitch, and recruited the 17-year old Koufax to pitch for the Coney Island Sports League's Parkviews.
    Koufax  then attended the University of Cincinnati.  In spring 1954, he made the college baseball varsity team.  Bill Zinser, a scout for the Brooklyn Dodgers, sent the Dodgers front office a glowing report that apparently was filed and forgotten.
    After trying out with the New York Giants at the Polo Grounds, Koufax did the same for the Pittsburgh Pirates at Forbes Field. During his Pirates tryout, Koufax's fastball broke the thumb of Sam Narron, the team's bullpen coach. Branch Rickey, then the general manager of the Pirates, told his scout Clyde Sukeforth that Koufax had the "greatest arm he had ever seen." The Pirates, however, failed to offer Koufax a contract until after he was already committed to the Dodgers. Dodgers scout Al Campanis heard about Koufax from a local sporting goods store owner. After seeing Koufax pitch, Campanis invited him to an Ebbets Field tryout. With Dodgers manager Walter Alston and scouting director Fresco Thompson watching, Campanis assumed the hitter's stance while Koufax started throwing. Campanis later said, "There are two times in my life the hair on my arms has stood up: The first time I saw the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and the first time I saw Sandy Koufax throw a fastball." The Dodgers signed Koufax for a $6,000 ($52,000 today) salary, with a $14,000 ($121,000 today) signing bonus. Koufax planned to use the signing bonus as tuition to finish his university education, if his baseball career failed.
    Because Koufax's signing bonus was greater than $4,000 ($35,000 today), he was known as a bonus baby. This forced the Dodgers to keep him on the major league roster for at least two years before he could be sent to the minors.
    Koufax made his major league debut on June 24 1955, at age 19, against the Milwaukee Braves.
    Koufax's first start was on July 6. He lasted only 4 23 innings, giving up eight walks. He did not start again for almost two months, but on August 27, Koufax threw a two-hit, 7–0 complete game shutout against the Cincinnati Reds for his first major league win. Koufax made only 12 appearances in 1955, pitching 41 23 innings and walking almost as many men (28) as he struck out (30). His only other win in 1955 was also a shutout.
    Clearly, although he was very talented and today regarded as one of the greatest pitchers of all time, he was not ready to play in the major leagues, and only did so because of the contract he signed. In essence, very similar to the Strasburg situation and circumstances. 
    In 1956 his results  weren't very different from 1955. Despite the blazing speed of his fastball, Koufax continued to struggle with control problems. He saw little work, pitching only 58.7 innings with a 4.91 ERA, walking 29 and striking out 30. He was rarely allowed to work out of a jam. As soon as Koufax threw a couple of balls in a row, Alston would signal for a replacement to start warming up in the bullpen. 
    By 1957, at age 21, Koufax already had arthritis in his left elbow. To prepare for the 1957 season, the Dodgers sent Koufax to Puerto Rico to play winter ball. On May 15, the restriction on sending Koufax down to the minors was lifted. Alston gave him a chance to justify his place on the major league roster by giving him the next day's start. Facing the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field, Koufax struck out 13 while pitching his first complete game in almost two years. For the first time in his career, he was in the starting rotation, but only for two weeks. Despite winning three of his next five with a 2.90 ERA, Koufax didn't get another start for 45 days. In that start, he struck out 11 in seven innings, but got a no-decision.
    Over the next three seasons, Koufax was in and out of the Dodger starting rotation due to injuries. In 1958, he began 7–3, but sprained his ankle in a collision at first base, finishing the season at 11–11 and leading the NL in wild pitches. In June 1959, Koufax set the record for a night game with 16 strikeouts. On August 31, 1959, he surpassed his career high with 18 strikeouts, setting the NL record and tying Bob Feller's major league record for strikeouts in one game.

    All this time, Bob Gibson continued to develop his skills at a slower and less pressurized pace. Seven years later, Koufax was forced to retire while Bob Gibson was a superstar at the peak of his career, and helped his team to win the 1967 World Series against the Boston Red Sox. Gibson would go on to pitch another 8 seasons after that.
    In early 1960, Koufax asked Dodgers GM Buzzie Bavasi to trade him because he wasn't getting enough playing time. By the end of 1960, after going 8–13, Koufax was thinking about quitting baseball to devote himself to an electronics business that he'd invested in. After the last game of the season, he threw his gloves and spikes into the trash.

    Koufax decided to try one more year of baseball and showed up for the 1961 season in better condition than he had in previous years. Years later he recalled, "That winter was when I really started working out. I started running more. I decided I was really going to find out how good I can be." During spring training, Dodger scout Kenny Myers discovered a hitch in Koufax's windup: he'd rear back so far that his vision was obstructed and he couldn't see the target.
    That was something that likely would have been picked up and corrected had he been in the minor leagues where he belonged for 3 or 4 years, and if it had been corrected, might have saved his arm from the troubles he had. Again, because of the money he received to sign, he was pushed and forced into a situation he was not ready for, and basically contributed very little to his team anyway.
    For the next seven years, he was the most dominant pitcher in baseball, and possibly the most dominant the game has even seen.  
    In 1965, at just age 29,  Koufax awoke one morning to find that his entire left arm was black and blue from hemorrhaging. Koufax returned to Los Angeles to consult with doctors, who advised Koufax that he would be lucky to be able to pitch once a week and that he would eventually lose full use of his arm. Koufax agreed not to throw at all between games—a resolution that lasted only one start. To get himself through the games he pitched in, Koufax resorted to Empirin with codeine for the pain, which he took every night and sometimes during the fifth inning. He also took Bute for inflammation, applied deep heat ointment before each game, and soaked his arm in a tub of ice afterwards.
    This is the treatment that is used to keep old,  broken down racehorses racing until they can't walk anymore. Mostly, it is done because they were pushed too young, just as Koufax was.
     Despite the constant pain in his pitching elbow, Koufax pitched 335⅔ innings and led the Dodgers to another pennant. He finished the year by winning his second pitchers' Triple Crown, leading the league in wins (26), ERA (2.04) and strikeouts (382; the highest modern day total at the time. Koufax captured his second unanimous Cy Young Award. He held batters to 5.79 hits per nine innings, and allowed the fewest base runners per 9 innings in any season ever: 7.83, breaking his own record (set two years earlier) of 7.96. Koufax had 11-game winning streaks in both 1964 and 1965.
    In April 1966, his doctor told Koufax it was time to retire and that his arm could not take another season. Koufax kept the doctors advice to himself and went out every fourth day to pitch. He ended up pitching 323 innings, a 27–9 record, and a 1.73 ERA. After the World Series, Koufax announced his retirement due to his arthritic condition.
    In his 12-season career, Koufax had a 165–87 record with a 2.76 ERA, 2,396 strikeouts, 137 complete games, and 40 shutouts. He was the first pitcher to average fewer than seven hits allowed per nine innings pitched in his career (6.79) and to strike out more than nine batters (9.28) per nine innings pitched in his career. He also became the 2nd pitcher in baseball history to have two games with 18 or more strikeouts, and the first to have eight games with 15 or more strikeouts. 
    At the peak of his career, he was forced to retire, in my opinion, because he was rushed at the start of his career and ruined his arm.
    Sound familiar?

     Balor Moore (born January 25, 1951) was a pitching phenom in the same vein as Sandy Koufax. He was the first player drafted by the expansion Montreal Expos in the 1969 Major League Baseball Draft (22 overall). While he was never regarded in the light of Koufax,  he was treated in exactly the same way, with terrible results and consequences. Certainly, the lesson of Koufax was not learned in this case. Nor has it been headed these days.
    Moore tore up the Gulf Coast League and Florida State League his first professional baseball season, going a combined 9-1 with a 0.41 earned run average at the Rookie and High A levels. After going 3-0 with a 0.72 ERA for the High A West Palm Beach Expos to start the 1970 season, Moore made the jump all the way to the triple A Buffalo Bisons. He made his major league debut on May 21 against the Pittsburgh Pirates.  In less than one calender year, he went from being drafted to facing major league hitters. He faced one batter, Willie Stargell, who lined out to left field. He pitched a total of 9.2 innings in the majors that year, going 0-2 with a 7.45 ERA.
    Moore struggled in 1972, going 2-11 with a 6.33 ERA for triple A Winnipeg. After a year in the army, Moore went 5-3 with a 0.63 ERA for the double A Quebec Carnavals in 1972 to earn a second promotion to Montreal.
    Upon his return to the majors, Moore was roughed up in his first four starts, going 0-3 with a 6.45 ERA. He turned his season around on July 14 with a complete game 9-1 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers. From there, Moore went 9-6 with a 2.94 ERA, including a 25 inning scoreless-inning streak  For the season, Moore made 22 starts and struck out 161 hitters in 147.2 innings. The talent that got him signed as a phenom was certainly there.
    That winter he pitched a perfect game for San Juan in Puerto Rico, the first nine-inning perfect game in that league's 36-year history. Moore's record dipped to 7-16 in 1973, mostly due to an increase in walks (109 compared to 59 the previous season). Still Moore struck out an average of 7.71 batters per nine innings, second in the National League, and held batters to a .233 batting average, tenth in the league. At this point, he should have still been in the minors and just getting ready at age 22 to make his major league debut.
    Moore hurt his ankle during Spring training 1974, and his arm shortly into the season. He went 0-3 with a 10.20 ERA in six rehab for the triple A Memphis Blues before getting elbow surgery during the off-season. At this point, his career was basically over.

    Moore returned in 1975, but never was the same. He was 1-3 with a 4.00 ERA for Memphis when his contract was sold to the California Angels. He earned a September call-up to the Angels in 1977, going 0-2 with a 3.97 ERA. After just one season in California, Moore's contract was sold to the Toronto Blue Jays.
    Moore spent the final three seasons of his career with the Blue Jays, going 12-17 with a 4.96 ERA. He spent 1981 in the minors with the Brewers and Houston Astros before retiring.
    While Koufax was able to overcome, most are not. Balor Moore certainly didn't and there is a long history through the modern era since big time signing bonuses for amateur drafts has come to be the norm.
    Of course, I am not saying that the type of thing that is happening with Strasburg didn't happen in the past. It certainly did with Sandy Koufax and Balor Moore, with differing results. I don't think that it can be disputed in any case that Koufax would have had a longer career and Moore would have had a longer and more successful one. For the most part, the Gibson example was the standard. Sign the player and let him develop over a number of years until proven worthy of being in the Majors and then a fairly long successful career.
    Because of the money demanded these days, teams just can't afford to be that patient with talent.
    They demand these big upfront contracts and then they are forced to perform before they are ready. Then ruined. Some make it and survive, but a lot don't.
    By the time they are ready to mean something, they are either worthless or injured and the money has been wasted. In many ways, it is a very bad investment and way to protect your investment.

    The system is effed up.
    The system is backwards.

    We don't let talent develop anymore. We don't let kids be kids.
    There are beauty pageants for six year olds. Horses racing at max efforts as two year olds. Teen singers used and burned out by the time they are 17. Different Strokes showed us just how destructive that can be.

    Yes, this is nothing new. Teen singers, young phenom athletes, young horses, there has always been some of that to some degree, but today, it is the rule, not the exception. There is very little care these days taken and most of the time, the Strasburg's of the world don't make it. In fact, it is actually a poor investment, on a risk reward continuum.

    And now we come back to Strasburg. He is now 24, and should just be hitting his stride and contributing to the Washington Senators cause, in their quest for the playoff and playoff success.

    Read more at:

    Below is an excerpt from the above link.

    When he's done, he's done. The Nationals still plan to shut down Stephen Strasburg at the end of this season, and the right-hander will not return to pitch in the postseason, according to's William Ladson. Strasburg is reportedly also expected to miss two or three regular season starts as a result of Washington imposing an innings limit on the 24-year-old. Strasburg's reported innings limit has been debated time and time again throughout this season, especially with the Nats in line to grab a playoff spot. Now that the season is growing older and the righty's innings count continues to increase, baseball fans have been left wondering whether the Nationals will actually go ahead and shut down the hurler. All things considered, it would be a bold move by the Nationals. It's understandable that they don't want to jeopardize Strasburg's long-term health a season after he underwent Tommy John surgery, but the backlash from Nats fans could be intense.

    So, they don't want to jeopardize his long term health? Of course, it is likely that they have done the exact opposite all the way along to this point. Now, as mentioned earlier, they were backed into a corner and forced to do exactly that, by a system that is completely backwards. Much like 6 year old teen pageant stars, 2 year old racehorses and teeny bopper singers, the Strasburg's of the world are now viewed as disposable, mostly because of the money that is involved.

    The "I want it..and  I want it now" thing that permeates society these days. Nobody wants to pay their dues anymore. Do the dirty work. Hone their craft. Get the payoff when you prove you are deserving of it.
    The system is effed up and we can expect to see a lot more of this behavior, not less as time goes on. Sandy Koufax was signed in 1955. That was 57 years ago. Nothing has been learned from this, and likely, it never will. A movie which put all this in perspective is where I will close. A story about money, player agents,  greedy players and team owners.

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