Ian Kinsler's misplaced priorities

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Jon Daniels may or may not be "a sleazeball," but Kinsler's outrage over losing his best clubhouse buddy is a great example of a ballplayer putting other considerations ahead of winning.

The loss of perspective, the inability to see the world accurately for the emotions that buffet us, is one of the ways we defeat our ability to reason. Far too often objective fact yields to pure feeling, a hypnotic energy that tells us to fight for what feels good rather than what is right. How do we know Detroit Tigers second baseman Ian Kinsler has reached that point? It's not necessarily his calling the man who traded him, Rangers general manager Jon Daniels, "a sleazeball" -- Kinsler is entitled to his opinion. No, it was his deploring the December 2012 trade of "one of his closest friends," Michael Young, to the Philadelphia Phillies:

It hurt us," Kinsler says. "He held everything together." The Young trade was, in Kinsler's view, a misguided move that left a leadership void in the clubhouse.

As a baseball player, the recently-retired Michael Young was the Doc Cramer of the 2000s. Cramer, also known as "Flit" because he supposedly had the same effect on flies as a popular insecticide of the day, was a .296 career hitter in the 1930s and 40s who piled up 2,705 hits in the big leagues. A five-time All-Star, from time to time he would hit .330 and show up as a down-ballot MVP candidate. He played all or part of 20 seasons in the majors. For a few years after his retirement he picked up a few votes in the annual Hall of Fame elections. In short, some observers looked at Cramer, saw a guy who hit for good averages, played what was reputed to be good defense, and they believed he was valuable.

They were, as best we can tell at this great remove, wrong. Cramer's .300 averages came without power, walks, or stolen bases, and were compiled at a time when high batting averages were easy to come by. His career OPS+ was just 87, and even in his best years he never got that far above 100. Going by the metrics, his toxicity to flying things was overstated as well. Total WAR for 2,239 games: 8.6. At his best, Michael Young was a better player than Cramer, but his best didn't come all that often. Yet, observers, and particularly his teammates, liked him and were incensed when he wasn't around, even if that meant letting him gobble up outs like they were Pac-Man pellets. He hit an even .300 for his career and made nearly 2,400 hits, like Cramer doing so at a time when there was a lot of cheap offense going around baseball. He looks superficially better than the Cramers of the world because we compare him to the thinner ranks of shortstops and third basemen rather than center fielder supermen like Cramer contemporaries Earl Averill and Joe DiMaggio, but the relationship is roughly the same.

As much as Kinsler might have enjoyed playing with Young, the trade of the latter shouldn't have been at all controversial. Young was no longer at his peak but rather was a position-less 35-year-old coming off of a .277/.312/.370 (80 OPS+, or 20 percent below league average) in an oh-god-fire-Ron-Washington-now 651 plate appearances. You don't need to believe in wins above replacement (not sure why you wouldn't, but we know there are people who don't just like there are still flat-Earthers) to know that Young in 2012 was as toxic to his team's chances as drinking a gallon jug of cool, fresh West Virginia tap water.

The Phillies subsequently affirmed this evaluation of Young by dealing him to the Dodgers on August 31, and then Young himself tacitly admitted he couldn't do it anymore by retiring. He heads into the mists of legend with the aforementioned .300 career average, good enough for the top 200 all time, give or take, and the fourth-worst fielding stats in history.

With his comments published, Kinsler has backed away from them:

"I thought that was a little ridiculous," he told Detroit reporters. "It seems a little childish. But that's what's written, and there's nothing I can really say to reverse that or reverse people's opinions. It is what it is, and that's basically it." Kinsler did tell the reporters that he was unhappy with the story and that he felt it was written for "drama" and "a little out of context."

Hey, when you express that much hostility, it's going to get played as drama. That's what drama is, after all, conflict plus time (compelling, Shakespearian dialogue like ""He's a sleazeball" a plus). If you want to go unnoticed, never say anything remotely controversial. Bag the, "I hope they go 0-162. I got friends, and I love my friends, but I hope they lose their ass" stuff and just blow kisses at everyone. Kinsler's regret, then, is just another example of his being angry enough over the trade and the way Nolan Ryan was ushered out of the team's front office to have let his emotions preempt his better judgment. In fact, the totality of his comments, about Daniels, Young, and the rest -- the story makes it sound as if telling players not to wear their earrings in the weight room was a major psychological burden for Kinsler -- demonstrate yet again that ballplayers, the guys we rely upon for color commentary and insight into the game, are often not the best positioned to understand how the game works.

You don't even need to be emotional to lose your perspective; you can simply have the wrong vantage point. It's tough to describe the elephant from inside the elephant, tough to calmly explain the workings of a live volcano when you're standing in the caldera dodging flying chunks of rock and inhaling superheated gasses.

Young is by all accounts a great clubhouse presence. Kinsler is not the only player to praise him in this regard. Yet, it is also worth noting that with all or part of 13 full seasons in the majors, all of that leadership resulted in just four postseason appearances (2010-2013), the last of which, the 2013 Dodgers, Young had precious little to do with, and another, 2012, in which his performance was tantamount to rowing his team away from success with all the strength he could muster. He was also often a poor postseason player, posting a .261 on-base percentage and .364 slugging percentage in 43 October games.

Michael_young_retires_medium Michael Young retires. (Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports)

None of this is to say he wasn't a good player at times -- as Derek Jeter demonstrated repeatedly, a shortstop who hits .331/.385/.513 (as Young did in 2005) is going to be pretty valuable even if several bushels of singles sneak under his outstretched glove. Rather, in baseball as in all things, we have to know when to let go. If the goal is winning, we often have to part ways with our favorites. That is true of fans, who would keep certain players in uniform into their 60s if they could, and of players, managers, and executives as well. If the Rangers were to maintain their momentum and eventually beat their opponents and win the first championship in franchise history, they needed a more productive designated hitter/everyday utility guy/whatever Young's role was supposed to be (one suspects it was officially "Ron Washington's Favorite Toy"). If the goal was to win the race for best clubhouse morale, that's different, but it's a mistake to think that the pursuit of one is always equivalent to the pursuit of the other.

As important as the clubhouse is, games are resolved on the field. The Rangers decided their best chance of winning was to do without Young and acted accordingly. Daniels also decided they'd be better off without Kinsler, and one suspects that's what truly rankles the second baseman. Sure, maybe Nolan Ryan got the bum's rush, and it was certainly wrong that Kinsler found out second-hand that he'd been traded rather than hearing it from Daniels (one of his other gripes), but in the end, the this comes down to a breakup, and breakups are very difficult to parse if you're the one being dumped. Whether the reasons are right or wrong they always seem wrong, you're always the victim, the other person the insensitive clod. You lose track of the proper order of things.

Thinking the Rangers should have prioritized friendship, should have prioritized retaining Michael Young's dead glove and extinct bat, is a great example of that.

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