On Old, Terrible Players and the Importance of Letting Go

We’ve all been there, the state where sentimentality overrides rationality. Over time, we grow attached to things, and as a result, overvalue them. This sentimentality leads to irrational behavior and the inability to let go of something that’s outlived its useful lifespan. We’ve all been there with different items: the 30-year-old pickup truck that’s only running on five cylinders and doesn’t have room for your kid’s car seat but moved you cross-country in college. The ratty pair of jeans you won’t throw away because you’ve worn them three days a week for four years and are afraid of other pants. The girlfriend who calls you at all hours of the night because her life is meaningless without you and turns into a life-energy-consuming harpy when you only hang out with her six nights a week instead of seven and…no, I don’t know why the hot chick from my psych class posted on my Facebook wall–it’s probably something innocent like she actually wanted to study for the test…well maybe if you were capable of making friends on your own you’d have something to do while I go to my buddy’s bachelor party…no, you can’t come…just because I’m not sleeping over doesn’t mean I’m cheating on you–I’ve got class in six hours and you won’t let me sleep!

But I digress. Like I said, we’ve all been there, unable to do away with something that really ought to be replaced because of some emotional attachment. We may describe such a state of affairs as being pot committed, or throwing good money after bad, or as path dependence. Right now, Charlie Manuel and Ruben Amaro are all of those things.

Raul Ibanez has been a pretty good player over parts of 16 major league seasons. Not great, but pretty good. Per 162 games, he’s averaged 22 home runs, 94 RBI, and 83 runs scored for his career, with a .282/.345/.473 slash line. Not all-time great numbers from a first baseman and corner outfielder, but decent ones. In a full season, he’s never hit less than 16 home runs or more than 34. He’s never hit over .304 or under .272. He’s been the model of consistency, a veteran leader, and by all accounts a great person throughout his career, despite only playing for three playoff teams in 16 years.

But what we all feared when Ruben Amaro inexplicably gave Ibanez a three-year deal with an eight-figure average annual value going into his age-37 season has come to pass. Ibanez is no longer even a passable major league regular. He’s hitless in his last 27 at-bats. He’s toted an OPS+ of 31 through 92 plate appearances, mostly in the middle of the order, has been more likely to strike out than to reach base, and through only one month, is nearly a full win below replacement level. Taking his career totals into account, at this rate, he’ll have done more damage by the All-Star break than he’s ever done good for an entire season.

Sure, 92 plate appearances is still a small sample size, but this is the continuation of a trend that dates back to June 2009, when Ibanez finally came back to Earth after the best two months of his career. The man is at an age where most major leaguers have either been coaching or running a sports bar for years, and with every fastball he misses with men on base, it becomes more clear that the game has passed him by. With John Mayberry in waiting and Domonic Brown‘s rehab underway, there is absolutely no reason for Ibanez to finish the season as the Phillies’ left fielder other than emotional attachment and the argument that Ibanez’s salary merits playing time.

In Weaver on Strategy legendary Orioles manager Earl Weaver discusses managers’ tendency to fall in love with players who have performed well for them in the past in the face of overwhelming evidence that they will not continue to do so in the future. Weaver cites examples from his own career, and the experience of his predecessor, Hank Bauer. He also says that it’s a habit that can cost a manager his job.

Need further evidence? Look at the bullpen, where David Herndon, Danys Baez and Kyle Kendrick continue to reside, along with Mike Zagurski, whose persistent ineptitude seems to bear no weight in whether or not he keeps getting called up. Listen, we know, beyond a shadow of a doubt that Baez, Kendrick, and Zagurski suck. We’re pretty sure J.C. Romero‘s best days are behind him too. Yet  they all get first crack at the major league roster despite showing no signs of suddenly turning into effective major league pitchers, while the likes of Scott Mathieson and Justin De Fratus languish in deserted Northeast Pennsylvania mining towns, while it took a greater per capita casualty toll than Josh Hartnett’s Army Rangers suffered in Black Hawk Down for Vance Worley and Michael Stutes to get their auditions.

Here’s my take on the situation in brief: Ibanez, Baez, Zagurski, and Kendrick, we know beyond a shadow of a doubt, are pretty awful. Ibanez and Baez are on the downswings of their career, and Zagurski and Kendrick are at old enough that they can’t be expected to make a great leap forward. Dom Brown, Stutes, Mathieson, Worley, and De Fratus are all either young enough or inexperienced enough that they can be classified as unknown quantities. In the face of overwhelming evidence that the veterans aren’t getting it done, why not give a young kid a chance?

In essence, Charlie Manuel and Ruben Amaro are insisting on players they know to be bad rather than players who might be bad, and even if they are, could be less bad in the future. My message to them is this: man up. Throw away the old jeans. Junk the pickup truck. Dump the clingy girlfriend. I know it can be emotionally difficult, but we’ll all be better off for it.

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