12 April 2010

The Narrative

I'm going to again respond to a comment in a new post, because it is just so fascinating, and so representative of certain ways of thinking about baseball players. I think it bears further investigation. The argument is about Russ Ortiz and whether he belongs on the Dodger pitching staff. On one side is me, maternal basement dwelling blogger* and on the other side is an anonymous commenter. Basically, my case against Russ Ortiz is that the last time he pitched well was 2004. My opponent replies to the stats with a narrative, and I respect that. This is the only rational way to argue Russ Ortiz's case, I think. Here is the narrative in support of Russ Ortiz:

I'm sure you don't know much about Ortiz' pre-Tommy John injury to the rib cage when with the Diamondbacks that affected his mechanics. I'm also sure you don't know how eager Leo Mazzone (who worked with Ortiz when he was with the Braes) was to pick him up with the Orioles, still before his surgery. You can't possibly know how he was jerked around by the Astros, yanked in and out of the bullpen (which doesn't work for a lifetime starter), then waived -- then Cooper (the real problem) was fired himself by management for mis-management of the staff. You probably didn't see how quick both New York and Colorado (both competing for playoff spots) wanted to secure Ortiz in their systems last spring. You also have no idea how his arm is now, how much he's recovered, and how well he's throwing -- like hie did when he had the type of experience most Dodgers just dream of...of pitching critical games in the World Series - VERY effectively.

This, to me, reads much as a Spring Training Piece would. We are given all the reasons why a player is about to turn it around, why he hasn't been able to fulfill his potential before, but now! Now! Things are different. And, you know, they might be. I like a good turn-around story. But I never would have cast Russ Ortiz as the lead in that turn-around story.

Ortiz is the hero in this proposed story, and like any good story the hero must face adversity. Injuries. Surgery. Teams jerking him around. He's had a fall, from near World Series hero** to yet another example of the folly of giving out big free agent contracts to starting pitchers. So, fate has been unkind to him. But also, people believe in him! Contenders wanted him last year. Legendary pitching coach Leo Mazzone wanted him. And now the Dodgers want him. So there is this tension, between what he could be and what he was made to be by circumstance. The end to this story is supposed to be that Russ Ortiz has had it in him all along to be a good pitcher, and this season he will finally show it. Something like that, right?

But I just don't buy this story. I don't find the proposed ending believable. Because, you know, I've seen it before. You can tell the same story ( or a similar one ) about lots of washed up pitchers every year. He's finally healthy. He's finally fixed his mechanics. He's finally away from the assholes on that other team who just didn't use him right, who didn't really believe in him. This is not a new story. I know how it ends, more than 90% of the time, at least. It ends with the pitcher still not being very good. And the thing is, I can't remember any other pitcher coming in to the Dodgers with a worse track record in his previous 5 years than Russ Ortiz. It's epic! I've seen pitchers come in and do well after one or two years in the wilderness. But it needs to be one hell of a narrative to convince me that Ortiz has something left and this one just doesn't do it.

Is there any possible rebutting narrative that could convince me to ignore five years of terrible stats? It would have to be a drastic change. Maybe if he had suddenly become a knuckleballer, and worked on perfecting his command of the chaos pitch all offseason. Or if they had invented some new kind of surgery to fix him, Russ Ortiz surgery, and now he was coming back with a fully repaired arm, a modern day Tommy John. But he's just a 36 year old pitcher who hasn't pitched well since he was 30.

So there it is. The Narrative is just not compelling enough. I think the commenter has done about as well as he or she could do with the material there is to work with, but it just wasn't to be. We will see how well Ortiz pitches this year, and I am sure he will have games where he gets the job done. He already has. But I think the Dodgers could have done better, even with all the injuries to relievers they have faced. I think he will have a lot of bad games.

If he does turn out to be a good pitcher, I think that will be one hell of a story.

* -- It is a huge basement, and also completely above ground, and miles away from the rest of my mother's house, but there are those who say that we never really escape the shadow of our parents, so maybe in some symbolic way it is my mother's basement. But I don't have dialup. I mean, come on.

** -- Shouldn't Russ Ortiz have some responsibility for the jinx game ball that Dusty Baker gave him in game 6 of the 2002 World Series? He could have refused it, right? He could have said, "Dusty, what are you doing? The game isn't over yet! You can't give me a game ball! You'll invite the wrath of the baseball dryads and we'll lose!" Instead he took the ball and the doom of the Giants was sealed. Let no one say that I don't appreciate Russ Ortiz's intangible role in the Giants coughing up the World Series in 2002. ( On a more serious note, as long as what he did in the World Series counts, he was terrible in game 2. Gave up 7 runs. )