I used to cover North Carolina A&T basketball games. A&T is an HBCU team and a low-level Division I squad. At the time they were coached by Jerry Eaves. There could be two reasons that name sounds familiar to you. If you’re a graybeard, you might remember him as a starter for the 1980 Louisville Cardinals team which won the NCAA Championship. If you’re younger, you might be familiar with his talk radio show.
A&T didn’t get a ton of media coverage and perhaps because of that Eaves gave great quotes. If you asked him a decent question, you got a terrific response. Once I asked him why he didn’t call a timeout when his team was struggling at the start of a game. And with the confidence of a guy who had been in that situation numerous times as both a player and a coach, he said simply, “The game always comes back to you.”
Unlike the tyrant coaches, who are only happy when they pull all of the strings, Eaves wanted his guys to figure stuff out themselves on the court, especially if the trouble came early in the game. With enough possessions left before the final buzzer, he knew his guys would pull it together and go on a run. Essentially he was arguing for basketball regression.
“The game always comes back to you.”
As measured by OPS+, there is a tie for the greatest rookie season by a Hall of Famer in MLB history. Carlton Fisk (1972) and Johnny Mize (1936) had identical 162 OPS+ marks, although the way they got there was slightly different.
Fisk had a torrid start but cooled off some the last six weeks of the season. Still, his worst stretch that year was a 7-31 span. As for cold stretches, that wasn’t bad at all and by the time he had it, he had already posted a 1.003 OPS over 309 PA. Fisk was in no jeopardy of getting yanked after getting off to that start.
Meanwhile, Mize got off to a good start, too, but he hit the skids much sooner than Fisk. In late May, he posted a 6-40 span which produced a .175/.233/.350 line. Cardinal manager Frankie Frisch started Mize just once in the next 13 games. Yet he constantly got into games both as a pinch-hitter and a defensive replacement. Frisch didn’t give up on him and didn’t bury him. After that two-week stretch, Mize was a starter for the rest of the year and put up a .341/.421/.579 line over his final 298 PA.
In 1973, Fisk did not come close to enjoying the year he did in his Rookie of the Year campaign. He had several streaks where the hits just didn’t fall in, including a 9-62 stretch where he slashed .145/.172/.194 and for the year he finished with an OPS 159 points beneath what he did in his rookie season. But the Red Sox stayed with him and they were rewarded with one of the top offensive catchers in baseball.
Well, those are Hall of Famers, so maybe you’re not impressed. But just keep in mind that the guys with the greatest rookie seasons among the all-time greats went through bad stretches early in their careers and were allowed to work through them.
Now, let’s flash forward to 2015 and Michael Conforto. Everyone remembers the second game in the majors, when he had a four-hit game. What’s not so fresh in everyone’s mind is that the rookie hit .170 over his next 17 games, including a 4-33 stretch. Conforto didn’t get buried by Terry Collins after this span and went on to post 194 PA and a 132 OPS+ in his rookie season. Maybe he should have been called up earlier than he was and maybe he should have gotten more exposure to LHP in the majors than he did. But the bottom line is they didn’t give up on him after a rough patch.
Wilmer Flores was handed the club’s starting shortstop job last year. He opened the year 4-29 and in addition to hitting a buck 60, he looked pretty shaky in the field. But then he went on a span where he hit three homers in five games. Flores essentially followed this pattern the rest of the year, going stretches where he hit the middle of the ball as often as a four-year-old boy hits the middle of the toilet bowl, followed up by nice streaks.
From July 2 to the end of the year, in 230 PA, Flores posted a .300/.330/.436 line. That could be nothing but a well-timed hot streak. But even if it was, the only reason the club received it is because they didn’t give up on him. The average NL shortstop had a .686 OPS in 2015. The Mets got a .766 mark the final three months of the year from a 23 year old. Most would consider that a good thing.
The Mets went out and paid $18.75 million for two years of a guy who slashed .249/.307/.405 the last three seasons to replace Flores. This same guy had a (-30) DRS over 3,064.1 innings at short the past three seasons. A full season in the field is generally considered 1,200 innings.
Anyone who’s ever read this site will never confuse me as a fan of Flores. An upgrade at SS made perfect sense for the 2016 Mets. But the Mets didn’t get that. Instead they spent money to stand still. Some will argue that this increases their depth and it does. But the Mets paid starter money to improve their depth. And the depth now includes a backup corner infielder who doesn’t have a strong, accurate arm from third and who hasn’t played a game at 1B in the majors. But hey, maybe Flores looked great in those 20 minor league games over three seasons he played the position in the bush leagues.
The only way to realistically spin this as a good move is if the injury he suffered in winter ball is much more serious than they’ve let on. When it happened, it was described as a non-displaced ankle fracture and the typical recovery for a non-athlete for that injury is 6-12 weeks. Flores was going to have more time than that to recover. And let’s not pretend that Flores’ game depended on his speed.
We all know that past results don’t always predict future performance. Maybe Flores’ ankle injury somehow saps his power and he doesn’t come close to what he did in the last three months of the year. Maybe Cabrera hits like it’s 2011 again. Shoot, in the second half of last year, Cabrera had a .916 OPS. Maybe he corrected a flaw.
Or maybe the game just game back to him. May Flores get that same shot.