Thursday, July 25, 2013

Don't Like This Team

Fellow Jays fans, I feel your pain.

If I have spent much of the last seven seasons looking on the sunny side of things, and finding the lightness where most saw dark, and providing my optimistic sense of the rationale behind the Blue Jays' long term plans, then maybe my current state of mind will catch you off guard.

But man...I really don't like this team.

I don't like the starting pitching. I don't like the defense. I don't like the approach to at bats. I don't like the lack of progress shown by some, and the regression from all-star calibre to replacement level by others.

I don't like that many of the most flawed elements of the current roster are not the result of a long term erosion in talent, but rather the result of bringing in players with skills that are either in decline or were never that great from the outset.

I don't like J.P. Arencibia's oblivious griping about the media, and his wish that there would be more cheerleaders helping to "teach fans" about the game, which I suppose means enthusiastically telling the unwashed masses across Canada who have never been exposed to baseball that they don't understand how valuable a sub-.260 on-base percentage can be.

I don't like Brett Lawrie's hands at the plate. I don't like that as the ball is being released, Lawrie gives a final energetic jerk of the bat, which he then has to pull back towards himself in order to begin moving the bat through the hitting zone, zapping all the strength out of his swing. I don't like that a player who was positioned as a face of the franchise has the same flaws in his swing as a dude on my softball team from ten years ago.

I don't like that Brandon Morrow has never been healthy for a full season since he came to the Jays, and that I don't ever believe that he will be.

I don't like that the team traded too many top prospects for a starting pitcher who was a good story, and had a very fine year in 2012, but who realistically wouldn't be one of the top 20 pitchers in the game in spite of his Cy Young Award. 

I don't like listening to R.A. Dickey talk.

I don't like how Josh Johnson picks and nibbles around the zone, trying to elicit swings at junk that Frank Tanana would be ashamed to serve to hitters.

I don't like José Reyes' defense, or the fact that it makes me nostalgic for Yunel Escobar.

Moreover, I don't like that the cost of acquiring Reyes included sending more prospects and big leaguers plus taking on Mark Buehrle's stupid contract.

I don't like that the starters have pitched poorly enough that the relievers have faced work loads that are too taxing, and that the result of this might be that the lone bright spot in the first half of the season might erode quickly from here.

I don't like Melky Cabrera's approach at the plate, which is essentially to swing at everything, and hope that he can foul off enough pitches to stay in the at bat until the pitcher makes a mistake. And I really don't like that this approach has been plunked into the number two spot in the lineup, because of the need to "shake things up".

Mostly, I don't like that nearly everything that Alex Anthopoulos has touched in the last three years seemingly has turned to dust. And I don't like that I don't feel as though I can trust his judgment.

Mostly, though, I don't like what I see when I look ahead to 2014, or beyond. I don't like that the team will likely have to ride it out with Dickey, Morrow, Ricky Romero, and perhaps Johnson slated to be part of the rotation picture next year, accompanied by players like Kyle Drabek and Drew Hutchison who have yet to establish themselves as big leaguers.

Every team has flaws, so it probably doesn't do a whole lot of good to enumerate every last one that our side has. In the process of building a winner, there are always bumps in the road, and the hope is that the good elements of the team are enough to navigate past them. But as good as a few players have been, they certainly haven't been enough to help get past this year's obstacles.

What I like the least about the past few months is this nagging suspicion that the bumps in the road are actually sinkholes, and that the Jays are on the precipice of falling into oblivion.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

"Does This Team Suck?", and Other Unanswerable Ponderances on the Eve of the Second Half

Photo courtesy the revelatory Flickr stream of @james_in_to.

Maybe it's a touch harsh to say that the 2013 Toronto Blue Jays "suck". The team itself is not so awful as to be unwatchable, and has actually been rather entertaining at various points of the season.

(I'll pause here while you instinctively summon up an argument about the team's "consistency". And I'll silently judge you for doing so, though I am sympathetic and realize that it is not your fault seeing as though you've spent your whole life being fed the load of hooey about "consistency" by people in the business of creating noise about sports. But really, you should stop complaining about foolish consistency. It's the hobgoblin of small minds.)

The 2013 Blue Jays are not nearly the omnishambolic catastrophe that we saw unfold painfully before us in 2012, befallen by injury miseries compounding underwhelming performance miseries compounding bullpen implosions compounding behavioural miseries compounding the general misery of Farrellball.

This year's edition of the team has hit better, fielded well enough and features one of the most reliable bullpens in recent memory. So it's not all drudgery and burden to watch them play.

It's just...they were supposed to be so much better than this, weren't they?

After a winter in which they emptied out the system to go "all in", acquiring veterans with track records and trophies on their mantles, even my relatively tempered expectations for the team weren't this tepid. And to torture the poker analogy: How exactly do you go all in, bust out and then attempt to all in again the next year?

Next year? Are we already talking about next year? Yes...yes, we are.

It's not an absolute impossibility that the Jays get some decent starting pitching and go on some sort of run that propels them into the crowded mix for an outside chance at a spot at a one-game playoff run. But the smart money is against it, so the question that you're left asking is: What the hell? What's the plan now?

The Blue Jays had a perfectly defensible plan up until this past season. Build through the draft and international signings, and develop the eventual contender through the Eternal Rebuilding Process. But the urgency of winning in the short term led them to empty out the system to bring in the likes of R.A. Dickey, Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle to support Brandon Morrow and Ricky Romero in the rotation.

Needless to say, it hasn't exactly worked out as planned.

The flummoxing question as a fan is not so much one of whether the Jays should be buying or selling - they should always be both, really - but rather, what's the new timetable for contention? Are the Jays ready to start dealing from the shallow depths of their system in order to bring in more major league talent? Does it make sense to take a shot at even more short-term veteran players like Jake Peavy with a view towards contending in 2014?

On one level, it certainly makes sense to attempt to ride out this season with as much of the Major League roster intact as possible. The lineup has been fine, and could be much better if good health and reasonable expectations of progression come to pass. The bullpen is deep, promising and somewhat cost-controllable through the next several seasons, though one can rarely predict reliever performance from one year to the next, and the team will eventually have to make decisions between a few of the bullpen arms.

All of that ponderous re-tweaking amounts to deck chair feng shui on the Titanic if the team can't figure out their rotation, which for 2014 looks to be cluttered with pitchers who might have profiled at some point as aces or number twos or threes, but have recent performance that makes them look more like fours or fives or minor league roster depth.

Do Drew Hutchison or Kyle Drabek factor in as positives for the rotation next season? What - if anything - can we expect out of Brandon Morrow at this point? Is R.A. Dickey's surreal, magical moment over? Does Josh Johnson return on a qualifying offer, and if so, do the Jays get enough out of him in another "contract season" to make him worth their while?

Even if a shard of positive light ekes in through the bottom of the door, what's to say that the bullpen doesn't implode or the lineup doesn't take a step backward?

The step forward into contention this season has been a bit of a bust. Those underwhelming results also augur poorly for next season. Which leaves me as a Jays fan asking this fundamental question: If not this year, and not next year...then when? And for all the hoopla and fireworks of the offseason, are the Jays really any better off than they would have been by staying the course?

Are we getting closer yet?

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Some Candid and Free PR Advice for J.P. Arencibia

Photo courtesy the outstanding Flickr stream of @james_in_to.
First off, let me cop to this: I never played the game.

So yeah, I have a hard time telling a player what he should do when he steps into the batter's box, and when a screaming line drive ticks off of a player's glove, I have to admit that the whistling sound that a baseball makes as it approaches you scares me silly.

But while I don't know that game, I can say that I've been a communications professional for more than 15 years. I've dealt with media and public relations and all manner of dark arts associated with influencing opinion. And over that time, I've learned a thing or two about how the whole machinery of influence works, and how a single negative press cycle can resonate for years, whether if it is deserved or not.

I'm sure that J.P. Arencibia has had lots of rudimentary media training over the years. But seeing his rapid decline from telegenic media darling to multimedia whipping boy, I thought I'd offer up my expertise and give the Jays' catcher some media relations advice.

I offer this up in a spirit of helpfulness. (And also, to fill some empty space on my blog...symbiosis!) I doubt that JPA will ever see it, but if he does, I hope that he takes this as genuine.

-Nobody wins in a knife fight: It was clear from your tweet last night that this was not spontaneous reaction. This is something that you'd been thinking about and plotting out, and you were given your opportunity to get back at the media hecklers for the many injuries that you'd borne over this season.

So you got your licks in. It probably felt good, too. For a moment, at least.

But when you take an angry or confrontational tone in the media - regardless of who your intended target is - it usually only serves to make you look as bad as they do.

In fact, I read a lot of tweets this morning from people who were not inclined to side with Gregg Zaun or Dirk Hayhurst and somehow found themselves incredulous at the fact that they were taking the side of your tormentors over yours. The fact that you took some unwarranted and mean-spirited shots at their baseball careers probably didn't help your case. Remember, this isn't the Jerry Springer show: The loudest insult or most bruising chair shot doesn't win the argument.

Frankly, everybody comes away from this incident looking bad. You smear Zaun with tenuous allegations about his use of PEDs, and undermine Hayhurst's credibility, but you also make yourself look like a petty bully with thin skin who would use the opportunity of a promotional interview for a charity event(!) to show settle scores.

It really wasn't pretty. And it definitely will change how people look at you. And not for the better.

-Respect the media, even when you don't respect the media: There are moments when you'll have to deal with members of the media that you don't care for. Maybe they don't ask pertinent questions, or maybe they torque stories up to make minor things seem worse than they are.

But ultimately, that's what the media does. Their job is to make noise. Maybe there are times where they are not particularly sympathetic or appreciative of the nuance of the story. But that's because part of the function they serve is to deliver messages to an audience in a fast and efficient manner, which means that they don't always have time to fluff up your side of the story to the masses.

When it comes to analysts like Hayhurst and Zaun, you have to understand that they are carnival barkers. They are there to promote the product, and bring people from their living rooms and into the baseball game. Sometimes that means speaking loudly without subtlety or shades of grey.

But whatever the shortcomings are of the media, you have to understand how awesomely powerful they still are in creating your story. Even in this age of disintermediation, where you can work around the media to talk directly to the people, you'll find that the average person is still heavily influenced by what they read or hear or see in the mainstream media.

If you're a public figure, and you're concerned about how you come off, you have to at least respect the media's ability to significantly affect that image.

Even if you think you're being treated unfairly, lobbing insults at the media will probably only serve to confirm to most people that they probably had you pegged right all along.  

-Only talk when it improves on the silence: One of the first things that people learn when they start to deal with the media is that they rarely come off as well as they think they should.

An aspect of this comes from the fact that we as people don't know when to cut ourselves off. We offer too much information that is extraneous to the core of what we really care about, and media can end up focussing on the trivial rather than the pertinent. 

This is why awful PR people like me will tell you not to deviate from your message, or to offer no comment at all. You really don't have a lot of control over the finished product of a media story about you, so your goal is to control the outcome of the story as much as you possibly can.

This can frustrate reporters, and can even even give them a bad impression of you. But ultimately, they can't print what you don't say on the record.

(And if you want a master class in how to do this without looking like a jerk, you should watch John Gibbons' interactions with the media. That dude is like Yoda when it comes to giving them nothing sharp with which they could later impale him.)

On the other hand, when you use the media as a way of venting your frustrations, you open yourself up to all sorts of subsequent questions and follow up and probing.

Trust me on this, J.P.: By the time the cock crows tomorrow morning, you'll have said that you just want to put this incident behind you and move on. But this story is going to keep following you. You'll be asked about it for as long as you're a Jay. And beyond.

-You are not your brand. Your brand is what you do: I would bet that there are 50 social media experts within a five minute walk of the Rogers Centre who would have highlighted you as a person who has developed a tremendous personal brand through social media.

People know that J.P. Arencibia brand. You're young and fun-loving. A bit of a joker. A dude from the south who loves hockey. Scruffily handsome. You've got a dog named Yogi. You're a sensitive guy, and you give your time an energy to noble charitable efforts. (Ahem.)

You've opened yourself up, and let people share parts of what makes you who you are. But all the personal stuff that you share is just scenery. It's background, and maybe it gives us some sense of depth so that we don't look at you like you're a circus animal.

From a consumer point of view, though, you can't forget that the vast majority of your value to us as baseball fans is your output as a baseball player. It's cruel, and unfair. It's dehumanizing, even.

But it's also why you have to separate yourself from the baseball player. You can have pride in your work, but as someone who is a sort of mass market product, you can't chase down every negative review that someone clumsily hurls in your direction.

So what I'm saying is the best way to enhance your image is to just be excellent. And if you can't be excellent, at least be positive.

-A final thought: Most everything that I write is supposed to be from the viewpoint of a fan, so let me close this off with some of that perspective.

As a fan, I always dislike having players emphasize their "otherness" from me. The "you never played the game" line probably works well with your teammates in the clubhouse, because you're all wrapped up within this extraordinary experience of being professional athletes together.

I will probably never understand how hard it is to play the game of baseball at the level you do. But you telling me that I don't understand such things just creates more distance between me as a fan and the players on the field.

In spite of the fact that I am completely and irrationally immersed in this sport, it's moments like this that remind me that I'm a grown man, and should probably be spending my time and money in more productive ways.

And if that's the feeling that a true believer and devoted follower of the Jays is taking away from this whole public relations fiasco, I can't imagine that was your intention when you cleared your throat and rubbed the sleep out of your eyes at 8:40 am this morning.