04 May 2008

Third Base Propaganda

There is a difference between what a thing is and the image that thing has in a person's mind. It is rare to perceive something as it truly is. We have filters and biases and preconceptions. What is the gap between image and reality?

Enter LaRoche, last year. He is the spectacular and promising numbers on the page, until he comes up to the big leagues. With the Dodgers he will create his image, either good or bad. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas; only the big league numbers are real. His first game is good; all is well. But then there is a slow slide. His batting average hovers just north of .200, there is no power, and the one positive he brings to the plate, walks ( which are boring and passive enough already ) are discounted because he often bats eighth. The initial image of LaRoche in the mind of many is now BUST. I do not think they would say this, not openly, for it is clearly too soon, too hasty, to judge after fewer than 100 at bats and yet, and yet, this is the image that LaRoche must now fight. How hard is it to dislodge an initial impression?

Enter DeWitt, this year. He is the answer to the emergency. His previous numbers are okay but do not bear close scrutiny --- I do not know how to project minor league numbers into major league expectations but I know that an 0.804 OPS in A and a 0.722 OPS in AA cannot project very high in the major leagues. DeWitt does well his first game. He starts out hot, then cools off, until his average dips to a LaRochian level. But people won't look at DeWitt and see promise unfulfilled if he struggles: they will see, instead, an emergency averted. His defense is competent, and quickly his batting average ticks up toward 0.260, and his hitting seems competent. After his recall his batting average goes yet higher. The initial image of DeWitt in the mind of many is now SAVIOR. Savior of the third base emergency. And it's worth contemplating that half the cause of the emergency was LaRoche getting hurt. Even if it wasn't technically his fault --- well, it could have been his fault, right? He had those back issues last year that were kind of his fault --- things like that linger in the mind.

Of course Torre wasn't around last year. But people talk. Tell me about this LaRoche kid, he asks this spring. Oh, he blew his chance at the end of last year because he didn't take care of his back. And all he did when he did play was draw some walks batting eighth. Never saw his power. He wasn't ready for the big stage. Maybe he'll never be. Kid's got a big head. I hope nothing like this was said, but who knows? Things like this have been said before of young players, unfairly. Of course Torre could watch him in spring training, make up his own mind. But then the injury came, and the emergency started. The rules are always different during an emergency, and DeWitt has benefitted.

Of course, even DeWitt the savior couldn't keep his job when the veteran Nomar returned. All Nomar had to do to convince people that he was ready to be the everyday starter at third was to collect a few RBIs. A few clutch hits and a veteran is golden. A few anti-clutch outs and a rookie is leaden. Is that really true? Probably not, but that's the image of the decision makers that I have in my mind. Biased against the unproven players, ready to give the veterans a mile-long rope. I've seen Loney and Kemp and Ethier jerked around too much not to just dismiss this stereotype of Ned and the Dodger braintrust. How many dimmed prospects have they shipped out for a return of only a few washed-out veterans? It doesn't bear thinking of.

I wish I knew what Colletti and Torre really thought of DeWitt and LaRoche --- and Nomar too. What does it mean that LaRoche was assigned to AAA? Is DeWitt now ahead of LaRoche? If he is, it's all about image, and not reality. The image projected by less than 100 major league at bats, and by differing situations. You compare LaRoche and DeWitt last year and LaRoche comes out far ahead, in raw stats and level of competition. That's reality. What kind of image does that reality make in the minds of the Dodger decision makers?

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