A Year-Round Conversation About the Game We Love

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Meet Barney Nugent — A Major League Master of Pain

As promised, I’m bringing in some behind-the-scenes folks from the world of professional baseball to share their insights with us. You'll also be able to ask questions that we pass on to our distinguished guests by posting a comment below.

Meet Barney Nugent. From 1993 through 2003, he was a trainer for the San Francisco Giants. Barrel-chested with a hybrid Boston-Philly accent, he is refreshingly direct. Now retired, he said he had nothing better to do and agreed to be interviewed by Infinite Baseball via telephone from his home in Cave Creek, Arizona.

“I strongly agree with the baseball saying that the worst day in the majors, is better than the
best day in the minors” Nugent proclaimed. He would know. Prior to working 11 years as a Major League trainer, he spent 16 seasons working his way up through the minor leagues.

After graduating with a Masters Degree in Physical Education with an Athletic Training
Specialization from Indiana State University, he got his first job in professional baseball in 1977 as a trainer for Winston-Salem, a class-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox in the Carolina League. For you baseball movie buffs, that's one of the cities in the league featured in the classic film Bull Durham.

“It wasn’t exactly a big payday, around five hundred dollars a month, only during the season, plus seven dollars a day for meal money on the road. The owner asked if I would also be willing to drive the team bus but I nixed that idea.” Nugent said.

He spent six seasons at Winston-Salem where he also met Denise, his vivacious wife. Their first date  should be in the Romance Hall of Fame. After a rainout, the team went out to eat where Nugent was involved in what he described as “a quiet food fight”.

On the bus ride back to the hotel, wearing the spoils of his battle, he decided this was the right
time to ask Denise, who also worked for the club, for a date. She agreed but only on the condition
that he shower first. He kept piling on the charm taking her to “a sort of hardware store/bait
shop where they also had a few tables. ” Who could resist after that dreamy evening? The couple married in 1980.

Nugent explained that sports medicine was considerably less sophisticated when he got into the game than it is today. “There were no MRI’s, no Tommy John or arthroscopic surgeries. In fact, most training methods at the time were geared towards football. You kind of had to figure out how to handle baseball stuff yourself.”

He added that “he learned a lot in the minors about the game, its players, and the clubhouse.” In 1983, he switched organizations and progressed through the Phillies farm system, climbing the ladder from the Single-A Peninsula Pilots in Hampton Virginia to the AAA Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Red Barons.

After the 1992 season, he received a fateful call from Scranton General Manager Bill Terlicky who said that Giants GM Bob Quinn had inquired about Nugent’s availability and would be calling him soon.

“I only had one phone line with no call waiting or answering machine. I kept getting calls from
everyone I knew asking whether I had heard from Quinn yet. I quickly said no to each one and hung up not wanting to miss his call. He finally called and offered me the job, which I immediately accepted. I then asked what the pay was and learned it was less than I was making at AAA. I couldn’t have cared less; I was going to the big leagues.”

His 1993 signing with the Giants was somewhat obscured by the hullabaloo over the club signing
somebody named Bonds as well as the joy over the fact that the team was still playing in San Francisco, having nearly moved to Tampa Bay in the off-season.

Nugent said his first regular-season game in St. Louis on April 6, 1993 was “truly special”. He
still has the official lineup card from that game. His first appearance rushing onto a Major League field to tend to an injured player was also memorable. I remember watching it on TV. Maybe you do too.

Giants rookie pitcher Greg Brummett had a ball lined off his foot and head trainer Mark Letendre ran
out towards the mound to attend him. After realizing Giants star Will Clark had also been injured on the play, Letendre suddenly veered towards first shouting to Brummett: "Barney will be right here." The quick course change was noted by Giants television announcer Mike Krukow and replayed several times.

With the possible exception of clubbies, short for clubhouse attendants, no one in the major leagues works longer hours than trainers do. Nugent describes the job as "sort of an endless process of setting things up and then packing them up" as the team moves from city to city. Spring Training is extra busy for trainers because of the larger number of players on the roster.

As the assistant trainer, he spent the early part of games in the clubhouse mostly getting relievers ready. When I asked if he had any unusual training methods, he said "Not really," then went on to describe a routine he had with Giants pitcher Russ Ortiz that some might consider out of the ordinary.

"After I helped stretch out his legs, Russ and I would trade punches in the stomach or ribs." Apparently, these were not love pats. After seeing one of their exchanges during the 2002 World Series, teammate Kenny Lofton shouted: "You can't do that." But it was one of those routines baseball people get into and it continued even when the two were no longer teammates. At the 2003 All-Star Game after Ortiz had been traded to the Braves, Nugent said he waited for just the right moment, and then "I really gave him one."

Ironically, he said the best and worst memories of his time in the Major Leagues took place during the 2002 World Series. "I was so excited about being there, it was awesome." But he added: "it was really brutal losing the series after being so close." He noted that he and Denise exchanged "feels familiar" comments after watching the sixth and seventh games of this year's series.

His major league career came to an end after the 2003 season when he was diagnosed with myasthenia gravis, an autoimmune, neuromuscular disease. Though treatable, the extreme fatigue brought on by this condition made it impossible for him to continue working the demanding hours and handling the physical strain of being a Major League trainer.

He and Denise now live quietly in their Arizona home. He follows the Giants on television and keeps in touch with some of his old teammates. When asked to name a favorite player, he said: "It's impossible. There were just so many good guys. It kind of went in eras. In the early 90's, there was Robby Thompson, Matt Williams, Kirt Manwaring, Willie McGee and Rob Beck. Later it was Robb Nen, J.T. Snow, Rich Aurillia and Marvin Benard." He mentioned not only players but all the coaches, front-office personnel Brian Sabean and Ned Coletti." He described longtime Giants Clubhouse Manager Mike Murphy as "the nicest guy I have ever met."

Summing up his baseball career, Nugent said he was really glad he did what he did. "I never took being one of only sixty Major League trainers for granted." He added: "I'm very happy to have worked in the Major Leagues for eleven seasons. The minors were fun too.'

If there are any questions you would like to ask Barney Nugent, drop em in the comments box and I'll pass them along. Let's talk baseball!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Lefty Discrimination?

Depending on the study, it is estimated that 8 - 13% of the world's population is left-handed. Now before all you righties click off, there is something for you in this post that relates to Major League Baseball.

Other than playing first base, most infield positions are clearly off-limits to southpaws because of the awkwardness for left-handed players to make standard throws from them. Shortstop or second base, no way. There's not a great case for lefties playing third base either despite the advantage of having the gloved-hand closer to the line.

But between the large number of switch-hitters and right-handed catchers who bat left-handed, I think the near-total lack of left-handed catchers at the professional level is more related to baseball tradition and prejudices than anything else.

I have not seen any statistics that suggest that right-handed catchers throw out any more or fewer runners attempting to steal depending on whether the hitter is batting left or right-handed. [If you know of any such stats, please pass them along]

In my opinion, left-handed catchers have better throwing angles to first or third base on balls hit in front of the plate. Throwing to first base, there is no need for them to throw around runners who are supposed to run outside the line. [Full disclosure: - observe the picture of me catching in an amateur game in the right column of this blog.]

Perhaps the best argument for not having left-handed catchers is that it is slightly more awkward for them to make plays at the plate because of the need to move the mitt across their bodies to get runners who again run mostly outside of the line. But the difference in time is small and how many close plays at the plate are there in an average game?

Where I think baseball's unjustified discrimination against left-handers is more apparent and costly is on the mound. Sure there are tons of southpaw pitchers in the game. And it often seems that clubs will give any lefty with a pulse the chance to win a relief job, even if they have long histories of being ineffective.

More than anything else, I think left-handed pitchers get a raw deal from umpires. Dusty Baker, summarized the difference between left- and right-handed pitchers when he said: "Have you ever played catch with a lefty? They just can't throw the ball straight."

He's right. Who knows why, but generally right-handers tend to throw the ball more over the top while lefties tend to throw more across their bodies. Since human beings are not symmetrical inside, perhaps it just has something to do with how people throw.

Because their balls tend to have more sideways movement, you would think pitches thrown by left-handed pitchers would have a greater chance of crossing the plate at some point, compared with righties, who throw straighter.

In my experience charting tens of thousands of pitches for both left- and right-handed Major League pitchers, the opposite is true. Lefties get fewer called strikes on borderline pitches, particularly inside ones.

I think there is a pretty simple explanation for this. Because their pitches come in toward right-handed batters, some umpires are susceptible to being taken in by exaggerated reactions of hitters who raise their arms or fall away on inside pitches, ostensibly to avoid being hit.

For several seasons, I worked with a left-handed pitcher named Brian Anderson who pitched in the big leagues for 13 seasons, and won a World Series ring with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2001.

I can't tell you how many times when charting his video that I saw Brian make good inside pitches with a lot of movement that caught part of the plate but were not called strikes.

Like many finesse pitchers who work with a small margin of error, Brian would sometimes gave up a hit on subsequent pitches after not getting a called third strike he deserved. And you know what can occur when innings are extended unnecessarily. I think this happens a lot to left-handed pitchers, who must be able to work the inside of the plate in order to be effective.

But what do you think? Have you observed anything like this? Let's talk baseball!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Sanchez for Cabrera - Filling a Need, Maybe?

"If you want a guarantee, buy a toaster." — Clint Eastwood
Okay, Giants fans, we got some good off-season news and something to talk about. I begin by confessing that as a National League-aphile, I don't know much about Cabrera, who has only spent one season in the Senior Circuit, where they play by real baseball rules.

In the 2010 Division Series against the Braves, all I remember about Cabrera was that he seemed a bit pudgy, which apparently he was. His time with Atlanta was pretty forgettable (BA .255, 4 HRs, and 42 RBIs in 448 at-bats). The Braves felt the same way letting him go after only one season.

After getting into better physical condition, he rebounded last year and had the best season of his young career, posting some impressive numbers with Kansas City (BA .305, 16 HR's, and 87 RBIs in 658 at-bats). He also had 20 steals though he was thrown out 10 times, not a great success rate.

Cabrera's four plus seasons with the Yankees were similarly inconsistent. From 2006  to 2009, his RBI totals jumped around from 50 in 2006, to 73 in 2007, 37 in 2008 and 68 in 2009. He doesn't walk often, which accounts for his relatively low career on-base percentage of .331. But he also doesn't strike out much, averaging around only 60 Ks per season. The 102 runs he scored last season are an encouraging sign of growth in that regard.

So these numbers and his .275 career batting average suggests he can hit, but you would hardly call him a prototypical leadoff hitter, something the Giants desperately need. Overall, he looks like a somewhat upgraded version of Andres Torres, who he is likely to replace in center field. He is definitely better offensively but probably not as good defensively, which is Torres's strong suit.

His value to the Giants may come down to how they choose to use Cabrera and whatever other moves they make in the off-season. Although the early speculation is that he could be a potential Giants leadoff hitter, in KC, Cabrera mostly batted second in the lineup. His career numbers so far suggest he would be more effective hitting somewhere other than in the leadoff spot.   

Now let's look at the other side of the equation in what the Giants gave up to get Cabrera; a decent but inconsistent starting pitcher in Jonathan Sanchez, and minor-league pitcher Ryan Verdugo. Don't know a thing about Verdugo. Maybe the best sign he will probably not be a major loss to the Giants is that the Royals apparently wanted lefty reliever Dan Runzler, who has still not proven he can pitch in the big leagues, but instead settled for Verdugo.  

Sanchez, on the other hand, is a much better known but frustrating commodity. His four seasons as a full-time starter with the Giants showcased his Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde baseball personality. He has excellent stuff and can get hitters out, as evidenced by opposing hitters batting only .231 against him during his Giants career.  But he has serious control issues, with a high 1.39 career WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched), and at times he seems to lose focus on the mound.

More importantly, Sanchez hasn't seemed to improve as his career has unfolded. He indeed pitched some memorable big games for the Giants, notably his 2009 no-hitter against the Padres and a playoff-clinching, last-game-of-the-season win in 2010, also against San Diego. But his 38 — 46 lifetime won-loss record with the Giants is a good indicator of his inability to win consistently.

So this is a deal that has some question marks in it, mostly about Cabrera. Can he repeat the numbers he put up in his breakout season last year with the Royals? Can he hit National League pitching? Can the Giants find a spot in the lineup that makes sense for the abilities he has shown thus far in his big-league career?

Overall, I think it was a deal worth making. At 27, Cabrera is still a young player who has shown enough talent to warrant some optimism that this trade will work out for the Giants. For a team that needs a lot more offense, adding a good hitter like Cabrera is a plus. But I still think the Giants need to find a true leadoff hitter.

There was no guarantee that Sanchez would perform well enough to regain a spot in the starting rotation. Their current fifth starter options, which probably include Barry Zito, do not exactly inspire confidence. But the upside potential Cabrera has, along with Sanchez's lack of upward progress seem to make this trade a gamble worth taking.

But what do you think? Let's talk baseball!

Friday, November 4, 2011

2012 San Francisco Giants — World Champions or Also-Rans?

"The charm of baseball is that, dull as it may be on the field, it is endlessly fascinating as a rehash" - Jim Murray, Legendary LA Times Sportswriter
All right, let's do what baseball fans love to do, especially in these dark wintery days. Let's evaluate what the Giants prospects are for next season and speculate on what moves they should make to regain their championship form.

Before we look forward, a final look at the 2011 season might be helpful in determining how close or far the team is to returning to the playoffs and another chance at baseball's big prize.

After their electrifying and unexpected 2010 playoff run and World Series triumph, obviously some disappointment arose with the team's performance this past year. Winning 86 and losing 76, the 2011 Giants finished six games off their 2010 championship 92 — 70 regular-season pace.

Conveniently for our analysis, that's exactly one win fewer per month. A game a month really amounts to very little. In fact, they only finished four games behind the World Champion Cardinals (90 - 72) in the race for the National League wild-card spot.

The team's woeful offense this past season seemed to magnify the comparatively small differences between their 2010 and 2011 performances. High and probably unrealistic expectations also contributed  to what many might consider a disappointing season. But before we get too downhearted, we need to remember exactly how competitive Major League baseball really is.

A good example is the Atlanta Braves who between 1991 and 2005, made the playoffs every year, an incredible 14 season run. [Because of the strike, there were no playoffs in 1994] But despite being at the post-season dance all those times, the Braves won only one World Championship in the strike-shortened 1995 season.

After winning the championship in 2010, the Giants understandably brought back most of their players, some of whom under-performed significantly in 2011 compared with the previous season. Probably the biggest culprit was Aubrey Huff who saw his 2011 numbers drop precipitously. He batted .246 with 12 HRs and 59 RBIs compared with hitting.290, 26 HRs and 86 RBIs in 2010.

Many analysts said the Giants overpaid Huff [two years at $10 million each) to bring him back after a "career-year". But a closer look at his lifetime numbers suggest 2010 was hardly a career-year for Huff. At .290, his batting average surpassed his career average (.279) by only 11 points. His 86 RBIs marked only his fifth-best season totals and his 26 homers, only his fourth-best season high.

The margin between victory and defeat in baseball can be very small. A bad hop, a bad call or other bad breaks can change a player or a team's fortunes in a hurry. With injuries to key players like Buster Posey and Freddy Sanchez, the 2011 Giants certainly had their share of bad breaks.

Still the club needs to improve in some areas. With their outstanding pitching staff still intact, the amount of upgrading they need to do in order to field a more competitive team is relatively small. Sure fans would love the team to sign another big hitter or two but limitations brought on by having to carry salaries for unproductive players like Barry Zito and Aaron Rowand —who's no longer even a Giant, make obtaining a big-time free-agent hitter unlikely.

Probably their best shot at an available free-agent slugger is retaining Carlos Beltran. Though his slow start and hand injury limited his usefulness to the team in 2011, he also demonstrated his ability to carry a club offensively when he gets hot. If they can re-sign Beltran and add a true lead-off hitter, the team should perform significantly better offensively next season, assuming their key injured players also return to form.

For the Giants to improve in 2012, it's not so much a matter of obtaining new players, as it is staying healthy and putting guys in positions where they can realistically succeed. Andres Torres is not an effective lead-off hitter. He's much too impatient at the plate and although speedy, he lacks significant base-stealing abilities. His poor 2011 performance not withstanding, Aubrey Huff can hit and provide some power but not enough to bat third or fourth in the lineup.  

Though the lack of offense was at times maddening and even though the team didn't make the playoffs, as a season-ticket holder and fan, I still enjoyed the 2011 Giants season. It turned out being mostly a celebration of their magical 2010 Championship year. After waiting more than half a century for that to take place, taking another year to savor it was fine by me.

But what do you think? What are the Giants chances in 2012? What moves do you think they need to make? Let's talk baseball!