To the Mats with Eduardo Nunez hate mail

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To the mats with reader mail and Nunez-inspired hostility.

On Monday I wrote what I expected to be an innocuous post regarding two New York Yankees transactions: They placed closer David Robertson, one of the most effective relievers in baseball but for all that not irreplaceable, and they traded erratic utilityman Eduardo Nunez, recently designated for assignment, to the Minnesota Twins, a team known for the fine, discerning taste in ballplayers that has seen them finish an average of 27 games out of first place in the American League Central since 2010. In return, the Yankees acquired a 20-year-old left-handed pitcher named Miguel Sulbaran, a prospect so promising that Baseball America has seen fit to never, ever mention him subsequent to his March, 2012 signing with the Dodgers.

Oddly -- at least to me -- my comments on the Nunez deal met with all kinds of hostility, some in flavors that I have not seen since the Stats vs. Scouting skirmishes of the early 2000s. Even before those days and for many years after, I did a regular feature called "To the Mats with Reader Mail." It was a chance to have a dialogue with the readers before chats became a regular part of my life and the exchange paradigm moved from mail to comments and the world turned into YouTube. Nevertheless, this one occasion seems to call for a return to the mats. Most of the following is taken from the comments section of the column itself, one from email.

I'm withholding names, because the intention is education, not mockery. At least, that's my intention. I'm not perfect, and neither , as we will see, is Yogi Berra, master of time, space, dimension, and seven secret spices. Finally, all typos are from the originals.

1. "Nunuez: 270-game conspiracy pretending that he was a major league player"
Nunez hit .267 over that time. Only a completely ignorant person would say that is pretending to be a major league player. That's the problem with the internet, people who were not even good enough to play little ball well can pretend to be some sort of expert on the game.  Yogi Berra had great praise for Nunez. So, who knows more about the game, Yogi Berra or some nerdy douche bag who probably doesn't know how to hold a baseball? I'll stick with Yogi's opinion as that of an expert. Go play some video games, that's the extent of your baseball knowledge. -- Cy

Thanks for writing, Cy. I'll take your points one by one:

"Nunez hit .267 over that time." So, there's this thing called on-base percentage that... No, that's not the right attitude to start with. Batting average, it's pretty well accepted these days, is not the best way to express a player's offensive production. Players have two functions when hitting: getting on base and moving runners around the bases. The former is expressed as on-base percentage and the latter as slugging percentage. Batting average is just the percentage of times a player makes a hit when he has an at-bat. Higher is better, obviously, but it's not the end-all be-all of production. Harmon Killebrew hit only .256, but he had a .376 OBP and slugged .509, so we can safely overlook his daily 1-for-4.

Nunez's OBP is .313. The AL average during his career was .322. His slugging percentage is .379. The AL average was .408. I assume you see where I'm going with this.  Just to finish the triangle, during Nunez's Yankees career, the league hit .257. Nunez hit .267. Rounding up, that's 26 percent versus 27 percent. You know, in monetary terms, a quarter plus one penny or a quarter plus two pennies. This is not something to brag about outside of numismatic circles.

Eduardo_nunez_fumbles_medium Eduardo Nunez, typical pose. (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

"Only a completely ignorant person would say that is pretending to be a major league player." Let's say, just for argument's sake, that hitting .267 is a really big deal. Let's also say, just to keep our "Yellow Submarine" psychedelic fantasy vibe going, that Nunez's slugging and on-base percentage shortfalls aren't a problem. That still leaves the problem of an infielder who has made 30 errors in just 1150 innings at shortstop and 11 errors in 539.1 innings at third. The Yankees used to talk up Nunez as the heir to Derek Jeter, even though his minor league numbers are even more depressing, particularly at the plate. If a player doesn't hit and he doesn't field, he's not really helping. Nunez steals bases reasonably well, but absent other skills we call that a pinch-runner.

Due to advances in defensive metrics, we now have a very good idea of the value of defense. Andrelton Simmons hit only .248/.296/.396 last year but was still worth about seven wins above replacement because he was so spectacular in the field. Nunez's subpar fielding, combined with his weak bat, put the Yankees in a worse position than a hypothetical player who hit, say, .220 but had an average or above-average glove. Last year, Brendan Ryan hit .197 in 349 plate appearances for the Mariners and Yankees but fielded well. Baseball-Reference pegs him at 0.4 wins. Nunez hit .260 in 336 PAs and fielded poorly. The same site says he was worth -1.7 wins.

I leave the "completely ignorant" part to you. I'm not particularly good-looking either, and I could stand to lose a few pounds. Well, a few hundred pounds. None of those things really change the nature of Eduardo Nunez, though.

Jabba_medium Your host? (Getty Images)

That's the problem with the internet, people who were not even good enough to play little ball well can pretend to be some sort of expert on the game. While others feel they have the expertise to comment on their opinions. I feel there is an irony you are missing here, Cy. Also, did you know that Dr. Robert Oppenheimer did not personally pilot the Enola Gay? He knew zip about how to pilot a plane or how to operate the Norden bombsight. He sure as heck knew how to build an atomic bomb, though. Similarly, I regret to say that Peter Gammons did not bat cleanup for the '75 Red Sox, "Bill James" is not Frank White's penname, and Edward Gibbon never met Nero, Diocletian, or Alaric the Visigoth.

Yogi Berra had great praise for Nunez. "Appeal to authority" is a fallacious form of argument that says "Yogi Bear says that blueberry pies are the best pies. Yogi Bear knows a lot about pies. As such, blueberry pies are definitely the best pies, the pies you like be damned." Sometimes, Yogi Bear's opinion is not definitive, even in his field, or in truth he's speaking outside of his area of expertise, in this case the undefinable area of personal taste. Like all of us, Yogi Bear has days when he's just wrong.

Yogi Berra played, coached, or managed in roughly 3,240 professional games and obviously has a great deal of expertise about the game, or at least experience, which isn't always the same thing. Either way, citing his opinion rather than actual evidence proves nothing. Further, when you are going on 89 years old and your job is to make the odd goodwill appearance at Yankee Stadium, no one is really asking you to render an honest critical judgment of any player, and it's not remotely in one's interest to do so given that if you show up and say, "Good Lord, Al Douglas is terrible," then they stop asking you to come around and cut back your honorarium.

So, who knows more about the game, Yogi Berra or some nerdy douche bag who probably doesn't know how to hold a baseball? One of the great thrills of my career was getting to talk with Yogi a bit at old Yankee Stadium. Yogi was listed at 5'7" when he played, but he's not that tall anymore, and I'm 6'1", so it was disconcerting to tower over him given that metaphorically he is the much larger figure. I spoke with Phil Rizzuto briefly a couple of times -- him I expected to be taller than. Hank Bauer was funny and cantankerous in a way only a combat veteran can be, and I will always be happy I got to ask him about the time the Orioles vetoed a trade he had arranged of Mike Epstein for Billy Williams -- his swearing by itself made the trip worthwhile. I'm pretty sure I was the last person ever to interview Hall of Famer Country Slaughter. I spent a morning talking ‘40s and ‘50s baseball over coffee with Jerry Coleman, who was just as charming in person as he was on the air. I chatted with Bob Feller for about 15 minutes years ago, and he was a gruff, no-nonsense guy who spoke grudgingly but I cherish the time.

Not everyone I've talked to has since passed on, of course -- I'm not the Robert Todd Lincoln of baseball, I hope. Some of the best conversations I've had were with players like Kevin Maas and Steve Balboni, who weren't Hall of Famers, but were just very friendly guys, happy to talk baseball for a little while. I loved watching Jesse Barfield and Dave Winfield play and I've gotten to speak to both of them. Rickey Henderson and Don Mattingly, too. I got to do long radio interviews with Jimmy Wynn, Billy Pierce, and Alice Cooper (big D-backs fan, very cordial). I interviewed Randy Newman and asked about the score to "The Natural."

What I'm trying to say is, if that's what being a nerdy douche gets you, I'm happy and grateful to answer to that description -- and that too changes nothing about Eduardo Nunez or whether Yogi's opinion of him matters even slightly.

Steve_balboni_swings_medium "Bones" Balboni blasts one. (Getty Images)

I'll stick with Yogi's opinion as that of an expert. He knows a lot about Yoo-Hoo too. You should definitely check him out on that. Good stuff, Yoo-Hoo. I wonder if there's a Mexican version made with real sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup.

Go play some video games, that's the extent of your baseball knowledge. Just one game, actually. Fortunately, it was the 1983 Infocom game Zork IV: No Exit from Sportsman's Park, co-written by Roger Angell and Simone de Beauvoir. You could pick up a lot from that sucker, especially about Chris von der Ahe and the very early Cardinals. Also, the video game thing -- that's a very original line of attack.

2: "Classic Bullying"
This is the part of reporting that is completely ignorant. If writers are allowed to post this form of bullying by adults to one another then they are teaching our young to do the same. Imagine if this were a post on Facebook from rival high school sports towns. And one baseball player reporting on anothers fielding skills. Its disgusting and unnecessary.-Edgar A. Poe

You mean I'm supposed to tell you that Eduardo Nunez was traded without explaining why? No player has had a lower fielding percentage in as many games at shortstop since Alan Bannister (.933, played from 1974 to 1985) and Derrel Thomas (.937, played from 1971 to 1985). That's not an attack, it's the key fact in the story; if Nunez were a decent fielder, it would have been Eduard-yes instead of Eduard-no. As for what we teach our young, I like the idea of telling them the truth and helping them learn that quite often in life you have to face unpleasant facts with your head held high.

3: Wonder Dog the Mighty?
First you say that Rivera was Wonder Dog the Mighty, then you say that, basically, closers are irrelevant. -- General Lew Wallace

I said "Rivera was an all-time great closer, but now that's over, and Robertson will or won't pitch well and eventually the Yankees will find someone to fill that role." Rivera was indeed great, but let's not get confused as to what that greatness was about. Putting his personality and his postseason work aside (we're concerned with the regular season right now), Rivera was extraordinarily consistent at a very high level for a very long time. Most relief pitchers, even closers, are far more variable, fading in and out of focus rather quickly. That doesn't mean, however, that Rivera was or is irreplaceable; the Yankees demonstrated that themselves in 2012, when Rivera was hurt and Rafael Soriano saved 42 games.

Soriano was a veteran, but closers are made, not born; teams mint new ones every season based on necessity. Sometimes they don't work out. Sometimes a team will go through an entire season without finding one and they blow a lot of leads another team would have converted. If you look closely, though, these are the outliers; the gap between the best closers and the worst in terms of actually finishing games is fairly small, and most of the time teams may not get a Rivera out of the deal, but they find someone at least transiently functional.

Rin_tin_tin_medium As the Clash sang, "That's Montgomery Clift, honey!" No, wait -- that's Rin Tin Tin, wonder dog, honey. (Getty Images)

That leads to a great deal of turnover. Last year, Jim Johnson was the first pitcher to lead the AL in saves for two years in a row since Francisco Rodriguez in 2005-2006, and K-Rod tied with Bob Wickman in the former year. Before that, you have to go all the way back to Dan Quisenberry in 1984-1985. There has been a bit more stability in the NL, with Craig Kimbrel leading in each of the last three seasons, but he shared the title with John Axford in 2011 and Jason Motte in 2012, pitchers who, whether through injury or inconsistency, have already been replaced by the teams they were with. The way the job is structured, a team should, under normal conditions, be able to find someone to close. Thus there is no contradiction in saying Rivera was great but Rivera is also replaceable.

Same point, different way: Rivera's career save conversion rate was 89 percent. Joe Nathan's is currently 90. It wasn't Rivera's invulnerability that was unique, but his longevity and consistency.

4: "Worst article I've read in a long time" (Avenging Sulbaran)
You're a writer who's probably never played a baseball game past tee ball. Keep up. You say that Sulbaran hasn't impressed as a prospect probably because you haven't heard of him and none of your non athletic writer buddies have ever written about him, so you end your research there and say he's not impressive. Well last year Sulbaran went and started 16 games and had an era of 3.00. He was very good, that's impressive. Who are you?-Isaac Asimov

I'm Margaret Bloody Mitchell, award-winning author of Gone With the Wind. Who are you?

Let's talk about Sulbaran for a moment. He's a 5'10" lefty, and if you have followed baseball for any length of time, aside from the odd Billy Wagner, an identically-sized left-hander who threw approximately hard enough to break the sound barrier, baseball men are about as interested in undersized lefties as they are in contracting herpes. P.S.: No one is saying Sulbaran throws as hard as Billy Wagner. Last year he was traded to the Twins for Drew Butera, a career .180/.228/.260 hitter. Whereas many observers enjoy disparaging the work of Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti, it should be understood that not even he would knowingly trade the next Clayton Kershaw for the Bill Bergen of the 21st century.

Despite Baseball America never listing Sulbaran anywhere and Baseball Prospectus's prospect guys treating him like the invisible man, MLB.com's Jonathan Mayo did rank him as the Twins' 14th-best prospect at the end of last season. Somewhere between then and now he dropped him -- he's on neither the Twins' nor the Yankees' 2014 list. Here's what he said about him last year:

Sulbaran has a good feel for his low-90s fastball and can add and subtract velocity from it as needed. His curveball is his best offspeed pitch and both his slider and changeup show promise. Sulbaran, who gets a Wandy Rodriguez comp, has been developed as a starter, but his stuff could also make him a dominant left-handed reliever.

Before continuing, a couple of small corrections to Isaac's comment above: Last year, Sulbaran didn't start 16 games with an ERA of 3.00, he started 20 and relieved in seven others, totaling 112.2 innings and an ERA of 2.96. I wrote, "Sulbaran hasn't impressed as a prospect" in part because no one has seen fit to rank him despite decent stats, but more importantly he's twice been traded for players who are 25th men at best despite decent numbers. That suggests the valuation that scouts are putting on him. It could his height, combined with the "low-90s fastball" cited above being more like a high-80s, or that none of those offspeed pitches have developed. It could be something that has nothing to do with on-field results at all.

Gary_cooper_medium

Another movie where the ending really doesn't work?Meet John Doe. At least it's a fun trip getting there, you have Barbara Stanwyck along with you, and Coop plays an ex-pitcher. (Getty Images)

Sulbaran maintains a strong strikeout-walk ratio. He is also very young and has never pitched above A-ball. He offers the hope of something for a fungible player, and that's a victory for the Yankees just as it was for the Twins. If he becomes a lefty spot reliever or even fringe starter, great, but there are a lot of lefty spot relievers and fringe starters.

And you know what there are even more of? Reserve shortstops who can pick up a grounder without throwing it away.

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