Friday, April 30, 2010

Word Gets Around

There's a bruhaha brewing in Los Angeles, where GM Ned Colletti called center fielder Matt Kemp on the carpet this week and told the press it was because he wondered whether Kemp was resting on his laurels after signing a long-term, eight-figure contract, rather than giving 100% effort on the field. The esteemed ESPN.com columnist Rob Neyer responded on Wednesday by criticizing Colletti for ripping Kemp, the league's leading run producer this April, for some shoddy fielding just because the whole team had a lousy week on the road.

I didn't have a strong opinion about Colletti's actions, but I did feel strongly about the effort--or lack thereof--I saw from Kemp during Wednesday's doubleheader in New York. Neyer noted that despite the Gold Glove awarded to Kemp last season, he isn't that good a fielder, implying that we really shouldn't be expecting him to be Willie Mays out there. In the "Comments" section attached to Neyer's blog, I wrote the following:

"After watching the Dodgers against the Mets on Tuesday, I was appalled by Kemp's outfielding, but not as measured by putouts and errors. The appalling thing was his lack of effort. Two balls in the gap that should've been doubles went for triples because Kemp didn't run hard to retrieve them. Kemp even allowed Henry Blanco to go from first to third on a routine single. Blanco looked at Kemp and saw that he was loafing to the ball, and took an extra base on him that helped set up a key four-run rally. So I think the issue is not whether Kemp has talent or is capable of playing well, but whether the things that aren't measured in the box score (or even in SABRmetrics) are the true measure of the man. For my money, he's loafing. I have no idea whether it's because he's sitting on his salary, because he was tired in the second game of a doubleheader the Dodgers were destined to lose, or because he didn't think the Mets were going to take advantage of it. But it was plain as day. He didn't hustle, and it costs his team several runs if not outright defeat."

Neyer took my view and ran with it in another blog posted last night. Here is the heart of his response:
"I went back and looked at the three plays in question, the two triples and Blanco's first-to-third dash:

In the bottom of the first, Jason Bay drove a hanging knuckleball over Kemp, a little toward left field. After Bay slid safely into third, Keith Hernandez said, "And Kemp, look at this! Kind of loafing after it! He loafed from the beginning, and that's the reason Bay got the triple." Hernandez was right. Kemp never did break into a full sprint to retrieve the baseball. If he had, Bay presumably pulls up at second base.

"Henry Blanco led off the bottom of the sixth with a single. One batter later, Angel Pagan singled up the middle, just a little toward right field. With the play in front of him, Blanco motored around for third base. Kemp had to collect the ball, then turn his body for the throw to third base, where the play wasn't close. Could Kemp have charged harder? Yeah, maybe. But I would rate this one 15 percent Kemp's loafing, 85 percent Blanco's hard-and-smart baserunning.

"Also in the sixth, David Wright slammed one into the gap in right-center. Kemp didn't get a good read on the ball, but once he realized where the ball was going he went after it. This ball was hit to a triples spot and Wright's a lot faster than Jason Bay. No play at third base, triple all the way.

"I see three possibilities here:
  • One, we're imagining things.
  • Two, we're not imagining things but Kemp was fatigued, or nursing an injury.
  • Three, we're not imagining things and Kemp simply wasn't giving his best effort."

That's a fair analysis. Rob agreed with the consensus that Kemp loafed on Bay's triple, on which, incidentally, Bay hustled out of the box from his first step, thinking triple. Rob disagreed with my description of Wright's triple, and I'll concede this much: once Kemp misjudged the hit and saw it rolling to the fence, he knew that the game was pretty well lost (it was about to be 10-3) and that it would most likely be a triple no matter what. So we're in agreement on the triples.

The big difference is in our view of the single that sent Henry Blanco from first to third. I'll go along with Rob's math, that Kemp's hustle was 15% shy of what it could've been, and that Blanco's aggressive hustle was the more important factor. But here's the thing. I would say that Blanco's 85% would have been moot without Kemp's 15%. If Kemp had run hard to field the ball, Blanco would have stopped at second. There's no doubt in my mind about that.

The big problem with a lack of hustle is that it is so visible. If Keith Hernandez and I went nuts over it from our distance, you know the folks in the Mets dugout were all over it. That sets a tone for the opposition. "Take the extra base on him," teammates remind each other. "Look for that extra base." It's the same as when an outfielder is known to have a sore arm or a tweaked hamstring. Runners know in advance that there might be some physical reason why the outfielder won't be 100% efficient in fielding a ball and getting it back to the infield quickly. Baseball is a game of inches and fractions of seconds. Anything that shifts that balance one way or another is going to be exploited by a hustling team.

So it was, I believe, when Blanco stood on first base. "If the ball is hit to center," he was thinking, "I'm going to keep a close eye on Kemp, and if he doesn't go all-out I'm heading for third." That's exactly what happened. The play was right in front of Blanco, and when he saw that 15% lack of effort from Kemp, he raced to third. The score was 6-3 Mets at that point. That one burst of hustle from Blanco may well have made the difference between a 6-3 score at the end of the inning and the 10-3 blowout it soon became.

Pagan quickly stole second, and Luis Castillo walked. With Blanco planted at second base instead of runners at second and third, the Dodgers would have been more aggressive with Castillo. Let's say he made an out (after all, statistically he was a big favorite to make an out). Jose Reyes, batting with the bases loaded, hit a sharp grounder to short, where Jamey Carroll blew the inning sky-high. With Blanco still 40 feet from the plate, Carroll bounced the throw, which wasn't handled, scoring Blanco and leaving the bases loaded. If Castillo had made the second out, the Reyes grounder would have been an easy third out with no runs scored.

At that, Jason Bay struck out, and there were still only two outs. Wright never should've come to bat in the inning. Instead, he drilled the shot to the gap in right center which Kemp eventually located on the warning track, and by the time he threw it back toward the infield (I say "toward" because it eluded not one but two relay men), the bases were cleared and it was 10-3, over and out.

Later in the series, the Dodgers had a runner on first base when a ground-ball single headed to right field. All else being equal, it looked like a much more likely hit to send the runner to third than the Pagan hit. However, Jeff Francoeur, the Mets right fielder, hustled quickly in to field the ball, and the runner didn't even think about going to third. He slowed down coming into second, took a short turn, and held his place.

That's the difference between Francoeur and Kemp. Francoeur always hustles to the ball, and combined with his strong arm (he's a Gold Glover, as is Kemp) he prevents runners from taking that extra base. Just as Mets runners had to be telling each other "look to take the extra base on Kemp," opponents tell each other, "make sure you've got extra room before you try to take the extra base on Francoeur."

Francoeur is like another Gold Glove right fielder, Ichiro Suzuki, in maximizing his effort to prevent runners from advancing. There is no way of knowing how many extra bases--and runs--Ichiro has prevented over the years by establishing from the outset of his career that he not only had a cannon of a throwing arm but also the desire and technique to begrudge his opponents every single base. That's the kind of fielder I want on my team.

Conversely, outfielders who lack that desire leave themselves and their teams vulnerable. There's no telling how many more runners will take advantage of even a 15% lapse by Kemp in the coming weeks. . .or months. . .or seasons if he doesn't change his approach. Word gets around the league, especially when a player's GM publicly questions his hustle. I don't see enough Dodgers games to be able to track this, but I know some of you do. Join the whole National League to see what he does--or doesn't do--next.


1 comment:

Robin said...

I totally agree with the issue of hustle being such a noticeable thing. For Kemp and his long term contract, it is hard not to think that sometimes that makes a player relax too much. Another example, as a Phillies fan, was Ryan Howard the other night.

Tuesday night's game, just one day after signing his $125mil 5 year deal, Howard starts out the game with a nice hit down into the right field corner. Howard rounds first and heads to second, and clearly lets up on the play. The person who did not let up was Nick Schierholz in the right field corner. Ball bounces back to him, and he throws a strike into 2nd base, picking off Howard without a slide.

After the game, Howard said it was embarrassing. At least he admitted his mistake, and hopefully one that won't happen again. I think what is worse about your story, is that at this point, the player has not acknowledged what so many fans noticed. Sometimes, the best way to diffuse that situation is to come out and say you messed up, and it won't happen again. What else could be reported then? "You guys caught me in a situation where I did not hustle. I challenge you to catch me doing that again in the future." Case closed then.