Lots to cover in today’s newsletter, so let’s get to it.
At The Athletic
The Baseball 100 rolls along. I don’t know if you like for me to individually link to each Baseball 100 story or would just prefer clicking on the Baseball 100 page, but I’ll keep on linking until you tell me to stop.
No. 78: Clayton Kershaw — I was surprised to get more backlash about where I ranked Kershaw than where I ranked Jeter … but so it was.
I was glad that Brooks Robinson ran today … after that Astros mess yesterday. He might just be the nicest man to ever play Major League Baseball.
I also wrote a little something about the Browns’ giving the reins to Paul DePodesta and letting him try Moneyball II in Cleveland.
What I’m Doing
— I’ll be in Columbus from Thursday, January 16, through Saturday to take part in the awesome magic convention Magi-Fest. I believe the event is sold out, but if you’re in the area — it’s really a lot of fun. Magicians from all over the world come and talk about magic, performance, wonder, I love it so much. I’ll talk a bit about this book I wrote, don’t know if I mentioned it.
— Last week, I turned 53. I am not super happy about it but, yes, it is better than the alternative and I am supposed to be getting a ping pong table as my gift, which is awesome.
Hinch by Hinch
I’m not going to rehash the whole deal, but there is one thing about the Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal that has me stumped. If you read the report — which is about as scathing as any of these kinds of reports I’ve read — you know that A.J. Hinch was suspended for a year by MLB (and later fired by Astros owner Jim Crane) though he, and I’ll quote, “neither devised the banging scheme nor participated in it.”
He was, however, well aware of every aspect of it. This is not in dispute.
And this leads to the part that I can’t quite figure: If he knew about it, how did he feel about it? According to the report, he strongly disliked it and “attempted to signal his disapproval of the scheme by physically damaging the (sign-stealing) monitor on two occasions, necessitating its replacement.”
OK, he disliked it enough that he was willing to do some vandalism. But the report goes on to say that he neither tried to stop his players from doing it or even took time to “notify players or (Alex) Cora that he disapproved of it.”
How does this work again? How can you make sense of BOTH of those actions? I mean, he was the team’s MANAGER. You’re telling me that he looked at his options and thought that the best he could do was destroy Astros equipment to express his disapproval of a widespread cheating program? What about the option of just telling his players to stop?
This vexing question has been bugging me a lot. Why would Hinch smash the monitor but not just order his players to stop? There’s something missing here. It is, you might say, a donut inside a donut.*
*Knives Out not getting an Oscar nod still depresses the heck out of me.
I have come up with three theories. I readily admit that any of them could be true, all of them could be true, and it’s even possible that none of them could be true though that seems unlikely. The point is, I don’t know. I don’t have any inside information here. I’m speculating because it’s driving me crazy.
Possibility 1: Hinch is lying.
Well, I use lying in the broadest sense — he could be hedging or covering up or not telling the whole truth. And he could be flat lying. It’s possible that Hinch didn’t smash the monitor at all, though that seems pretty easy to track.
A more likely scenarios is that, yes, he smashed the monitor but it was NOT to express disapproval of the cheating. Maybe he was mad after a loss and thought his players were too distracted by their cheating. Maybe he didn’t think his players were cheating hard enough. Maybe he was mad about Knives Out not getting an Oscar nomination.
There are countless reasons he might have smashed the monitor; so he absolutely could be fabricating the idea that he did it to show how angry he was about the cheating. You can’t write off that possibility: Hinch has hardly covered himself in glory in his public statements. He has lied and covered up in agonizing ways — I mean, look at this statement he made in 2019 during the ALCS when the Yankees charged the Astros with sign-stealing by whistling:
"Man, I'm glad you asked that question, and I thought it would come up today. We talked about this the other day, and in reality, it's a joke, but Major League Baseball does a lot to ensure the fairness of the game. There's people everywhere, if you go through the dugouts and the clubhouses and the hallways, there's like so many people around that are doing this. Then when I get contacted about some questions about whistling, it made me laugh because it's ridiculous. Had I known that it would take something like that to set off the Yankees or any other team, we would have practiced it in spring training, because apparently it works even when it doesn't happen."
That he said this after he KNEW the Astros had been sign stealing all during the 2017 World Series run by hitting garbage cans tells you that he’s capable of saying anything. There are so many people around baseball who admire Hinch, think he’s a great guy, and I found him to be charming when he played for the Royals and in various other interviews.
But as pal Michael Schur says: “Winning is one helluva drug.”
So, yes, it’s possible that Hinch basically invented the whole smashing monitors theme to try and make himself look better.
Possibility 2: The players didn’t respect or listen to Hinch.
There is one line in the report — already quoted — that kind of stopped me cold. It’s that part that states Hinch did not “notify players or Cora that he disapproved.” Why did they specifically mention Cora here? On the one hand, it’s obvious that Commissioner Rob Manfred has concluded that Cora is the ringleader here. Do not be surprised if, when it’s done, Cora is permanently banned from baseball.*
*Even if he isn’t permanently banned, I don’t believe Alex Cora will ever manage in the big leagues again.
But on the other hand there’s this: Cora was Hinch’s FIRST YEAR BENCH COACH. He had been a broadcaster before when Luhnow hired him.
You’re telling me that Hinch was out there smashing monitors but he would not have even one conversation with his own bench coach about it, not even one, “Hey, man, I think this sign-stealing system is out of control, we need to stop that stuff.”
Or was Hinch afraid of Cora? Was Cora the de facto manager the club? Did those two not like each other?
Or let’s take it one step further: Was Hinch so wildly disrespected and disregarded by his players (and specifically team leader Carlos Beltran, who is the only player mentioned in the report) that he knew he couldn’t actually get them to stop cheating? Did his ineffectiveness in the clubhouse leave him with no choice but to make a symbolic (and stupid) gesture of smashing the monitor?
And by the way, doesn’t smashing the monitor, in fact, tell the players that Hinch disapproved? Or did he do it secretly?
Possibility 3: The scheme was being run by the front office all along.
The report somewhat clears Astros GM Jeff Luhnow of any participation in the scheme — a point Luhnow made a bit too strongly in his defiant and generally terrible “I am not a cheater … they are” statement.
Luhnow insists he knew absolutely nothing about it (MLB did not back this as strongly, saying only that they found no evidence that he knew). He insists that if he had known “I would have stopped it.” You can write your own commentary on that.
But if it is indeed true that the Astros front office — which seemed to run every aspect of the operation — was unaware, then we have to go with one of the first two options: Hinch was almost certainly either lying or powerless. He either approved of the scheme (and made up stuff to say that he didn’t) or he did not feel like he had the sway in the clubhouse to stop it.
But we have to consider the third possibility — the thing that really fills the donut hole — that this whole thing was front-office sanctioned.
Add that one simple element, and suddenly you can understand why Hinch would have felt powerless. You can understand why he would only feel free to express his frustration by bashing the monitor. You can understand why he wouldn’t feel empowered to say anything even to his own bench coach, who was hired directly by Luhnow. You can understand why MLB would have suspended Luhnow for a year and why Crane would have fired him minutes later.
Obviously this is the most controversial theory because, as the report says, no evidence emerged that shows Luhnow knew anything, and Luhnow fervently denies knowing anything, and Hinch obviously didn’t say any of this to the commissioner and so on.
But if you’re a fan of Occam’s razor, the principle that the simplest answer is most likely the right one,” well, it’s clear what the simplest answer is here.
HOF: The Almosts
These were the players who had really fantastic careers but didn’t quite make it to the final round of on my ballot.
Adam Dunn: I just love the Big Donkey. Yes, even with 462 home runs, I knew that I would not vote for him. But from 2005-2008, he did one of the coolest things in baseball history: He hit exactly 40 home runs each year. This is a man who knew what he was about. He walked, he struck out, he hit home runs. That’s it. He practically invented the whole idea of the three-outcome player.
I once wrote a piece about how Adam Dunn and Willie Bloomquist were precisely the opposite player, and I should go back and find that.
Jason Giambi: He could have made it all the way to the final round — he’s one of the best hitters I ever saw — but in the end I knew that his career was not quite enough. From 1999-2002, he hit .326/.452/.612 and averaged 39 homers and 125 RBIs per season. What a force. In 2000, he won the MVP. He was better in 2001. But shortly after that he turned 32 and hit just .238 and slugged .474 the rest of his career.
His brother, Jeremy, looked like he might become a pretty special hitter (he didn’t), and it was kind of funny because neither of them had any interest in playing defense. We used to joke about how there must have been baseball bats in every room in the Giambi household when they were growing up but just one glove that they kept in a shoebox they could never find in the garage.
Raúl Ibañez: Well, I said it all here. He remains one of my favorite people in the world.
Paul Konerko: He ended up with some pretty elite numbers — more homers than Andre Dawson, more RBIs than Robin Yount, more total bases than Wade Boggs, more extra base hits than Roberto Clemente — and he did it by just going out there day after day after day and doing what he did. There was nothing at all fancy about Konerko. He just hit his 30 home runs — a few more some years, a few less others — drove in his 100 RBIs, did the best he could at first base and on the bases (he did not have a natural knack for either), and earned the enduring respect and admiration of everyone around him.
Cliff Lee: He’s one of the best I ever saw. He began as a hard-throwing and wild lefty thrower. He finished his career as a pitching guru. At his best, he hypnotized batters. I think the best thing that can be said about him is what his manager Charlie Manuel said after he threw a complete game against the Yankees in Game 1 of the 2009 World Series: "Most of the time when he starts a game, and he's in control of the game, and everything around it he's controlling -- he's throwing strikes and he's getting the ball, what I call he handles the flow of the game, if you know what I mean. Everybody about it. The flow of the game, the way the game goes. Not only does he have command of the game, but he has the flow of the game. To me he sets the tone by his rhythm, getting the ball back, and he knows what he's going to throw. I like the way he pitches. I like everything about how he goes about it. But that's part of his success, too, is the fact that's how he handles the game." I don’t know what any of that means, but I agree with thoroughly.
Andy Pettitte: He has some big fans among the Hall of Fame voters, and it’s easy to understand — he won 256 games against just 153 losses, he started more postseason games than any pitcher ever and was often fantastic in those starts, he was a key figure in EIGHT World Series, etc. He’s lower on the list for me than others, I admit. But it was unquestionably an amazing career.
Alfonso Soriano: What a strange and wonderful blend of talents and flaws. Soriano is one of just four players in baseball history to hit 40 homers and steal 40 bases in a season (and he fell one home short from doing it in an earlier season). But do you know what team he did it for? You probably don’t: It was for a bad Nationals team, his one year in Washington.
He basically never walked. He had as many homers as walks in four different seasons, putting him the same company as famous non-walkers Dave Kingman and Juan Gonzalez. He was, by the numbers and reputation, an atrocious fielder except for a couple of years in the middle of his career when he was suddenly good and was being pushed for a Gold Glove. He made the All-Star team in seven of his first eight seasons and never made it again. He hit more than 400 homers in his career, stole almost 300 bases, is in the top 60 all-time in extra base hits and yet might not get one Hall of Fame vote.