Thursday, February 16, 2012


Let's begin with some pointed misdirection...

1) Does it seem as though the 2011-12 offseason has been unusually long in unfolding? We are days away from spring training and there is still a considerable amount of activity that hasn't happened yet...someone with time on their hands and some semi-pronounced database skills might just compare the pace of transactions across time, and see if this impression holds up.

2) What is undeniable, however, is the increasing emphasis/investment in foreign players who are expected to step in and contribute immediately at the big league level.

3) Which brings us to Yoenis Cespedes--no, wait, we need to comment about Billy Beane. (It's not as if we haven't been doing this for more than a decade, having been the first to look askance at the much mythified one--even before Michael Lewis brought his meatgrinder to things.)

Billy Beane 2012: in full camouflage mode
Please note that Beane's new extension means that, barring some kind of cosmic disaster (wholesale worldwide nuclear meltdown, Nate Silver running for office, Murray Chass and Darren Viola moving in together...) he will be employed by the same up-down, over-under, sideways-through franchise for 20+ years--the type of IBM-style stability that seemed impossible (at least until someone invented this "slogging" softwear, which theoretically permits someone industrious enough to go on forever, posting post-mortem well after rigor mortis).

It's probably the most counter-intuitive aspect of Beane's entire career profile--at least as the frozen-in-time, Brad Pitt-in-amber-waves of engrained fast-and-loose-with-the-facts-ma'am set of circular signifiers would plop it down in front of you like a cup of ice cream that had been thawed and refrozen a couple dozen times by a mischievously malfunctioning refrigeration unit.

That said, it's as strangely comforting as it is comfortably strange. All of which is prelude to our Mo(e)bius strip meta-analogy, where GMs (and regular folks) embrace what they have discarded, proving that a broken circle (or, in the case of Eno and Cluster, a broken head) can be stapled, glued, or otherwise unceremoniously reaffixed, albeit not without a twist.

SO what is that twist--that ironic echo that makes history into a tail-chasing ouroboros? Well, it's just this: Cespedes, the Cuban star whom the A's have just signed for $36M over four years, is a virtual clone of the Rangers' late-blooming Nelson Cruz. It's rather astonishing that few if any have noted this as yet (but that's why we're here, smirking in the bulrushes) but there you have it: two linebacker-y guys with circular, windmill swings and the Caribbean tendency to flex rather than flow.

Cruz is a product of his ballpark--he's a superstar in Arlington, but close to a replacement-level player elsewhere. A collateral irony is that the Rangers have just tied themselves to an odd contract with Cruz, one that seems likely to pay him the most when he might well be producing the least--the two-year, $15M deal pays out the lion's share of dough in 2013, which is probably the year that Cruz, who's looking a lot like the type of player Brock (Broken Head) Hanke so cannily characterized so many years ago as a "cream skimmer" (a guy with a late, truncated peak that is sort of a "supernova" from a series of power-hitting adjustments at AAA which play themselves out over 4-6 years in the majors).

But there's another, far more interesting twist here. Cruz passed through several teams before he bloomed in the hothouse environs of Arlington. The second of these teams, in fact, was the Oakland A's (2000-04: he never made it to the big club).

Billy Beane, in some earlier incarnation of his restless, listen-to-his-daughter-sing-songs-ripped-off-from-Juno-apparently-before-there-was-a-Juno-to-rip-off, late-mid-early ouroboros phase, traded Cruz to the Brewers for a backup infielder named Keith Ginter. (Ginter is one of Beane's Leggo-that-Eggo-on-my-face transactions, one of several can't-miss rip-off trades that backfired...Charles Thomas is another one.)

Cruz got traded to Texas in 2006 and his swing got tweaked--the circle was broken and reattached, so to speak--and, by 2008 he was a late-blooming slugger. So much so, apparently, that otherwise canny Craig Wright was fooled by his abbreviated 2010 season into thinking he was actually a star (pays to look at those home/road splits, folks--it can happen even to the near-best).

So Cespedes is, simply, Beane reinventing a player that he discarded. Not reacquiring, of course. Reinventing, as a matter of doing what most baseball GMs do--chasing their own tails. (The canny detail in the A's contract with Cespedes is that they can trade him at any time: in the monetized gas chamber within the prison-house of baseball, this is a key detail. It's most important to always be able to break that circle and reattach with as many umbilical kinks as seem appropriate at the time.)

Cespedes, like Cruz, is exciting. He may have a bad ballpark fit (odd corollary fact: Cruz can't hit a lick in Oakland, an irony that falls on the proton side of Beane's charge card: to wit, a .194 BA and a .567 OPS) but he's got that same macho flair. If he hits .250 with 20+ homers (and all of baseball's digital projectionists are grope-thinking at this level of achievement--funny thing, that..), he will get a pass from the reeling A's fan base and should settle into a level of "cream-skimming" that will give Beane sufficient maneuverability as he divines future head-fakes.

Roy Liechtenstein channels the aftermath of Moneyball,
four decades before its invention...
And privately, Beane must be wryly amused at how the term he's been lumpened in with ("Moneyball") has been so thoroughly circularized, broken, reassembled and kinked up to the point where the snake can no longer be sure whether his insides are outside or vice-versa. It now has so many "true definitions" that it can literally mean just about anything to anyone, and the fact that it contradicts itself is its own proof, leading to the type of self-destructive pride that underlies virtually all of the "cling to the model" behavior that those yoked to the delusions of "consultant culture" must play out no matter the cost. It's like what happened when abstract expressionism went "pop": the structures that had allowed a cadre of interlopers to decenter meaning into a self-consuming, chase-its-own-tail myth were slammed up against a meta-ironic backlash that crammed pop culture down the throats of those who would otherwise have stayed in their mom's basements.

Sea-change? Cluster-f*ck? Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose? Yes, yes, yes. But, in the all-too-soon-to-be-Mo(e)bius-ized words of Vittorio Gassman in the great Italian comedy Il Sorpasso, 'tis better to chase tail than chase one's own tail--until, of course, it becomes clear that it's all one and the same.