Thursday, April 9, 2009

We're All Thinking It: We Just Don't Say It

Well the Indians got blitzed in Texas and appear to have some serious problems, but for all of our sakes, I'll skip the gruesome recap. I'll just say that it's not hard to believe that a team with just two above-average starting pitchers, two threatening hitters, and a cleanup hitter that can't hit his way out of a wet paper bag, might struggle to win games at the major league level. But I'll save the discussion of the overall roster for another day. Right now, it's the aforementioned cleanup-hitting DH that I'd really love to talk about.

I haven't really said a word about Travis Hafner since the last time his career was at all relevant to my rooting interests as an Indians fan. That was 2007 during the ALCS, and even then, his relevance had little to do with his performance and much more to do with the fact that he was in the starting lineup for a team on the verge of winning a title. Truthfully though, Travis Hafner hasn't been Travis Hafner since 2006. Now listen, by all accounts, Travis Hafner seems like a pretty good guy. His teammates seem to like him, he plays hard every day, and he's never said anything but positive things about the city of Cleveland. However, it has been those same endearing qualities that have shielded Hafner from what, for a less likeable player or one in a more intrusive media market, could have been a firestorm of criticism. Consider the facts:

1. Travis Hafner was not a highly regarded player in his youth. He was a 31st round draft pick out of Cowley Community College in Kansas in 1996 and never really distinguished himself as an elite prospect at the minor league level.

2. Hafner spent 5 years in the late 1990s and early 2000s in the Texas Rangers' farm system. During that period, the Rangers were absolutely loaded with steroid users. Although we can't know the full extent and the depths to which the steroid culture permeated the different levels of the Ranger organization, it is safe to say that during that period, the franchise was becoming the poster team for baseball's dark era. If you played in the Texas system in the late 90's, it's a pretty safe bet that you learned a thing or two about steroids.

3. Here are Hafner's numbers from age 25 to age 31 starting with plate appearances, then batting average, home runs, and finally, OPS:

25: 70, .242, 1, .716
26: 324, .254, 14, .812
27: 573, .311, 28, .993
28: 578, .305, 33, 1.003
29: 563, .308, 42, 1.097
30: 559, .266, 24, .837
31: 233, .197, 5, .628

I'm no statistician but I'd say that's a pretty a pretty steep curve on both sides of the crest. And keep in mind, we're talking about a six-year period here. In the life of an NFL running back, that's an eternity. In the career of a major league DH, six years is nothing, especially when they happen to span the end of player's youth and the beginning of his prime.

4. Baseball sluggers in general are not normally predisposed to such precipitous drops in ability. This isn't Ian Baker-Finch trying to find the fairway at the British or Rick Ankiel trying to throw a fastball for a strike. We're talking about a skill that once a player acquires, he generally continues to possess until his body begins to break down. Of course, there are exceptions to this general rule, but for the most part, All-Star sluggers don't just inexplicably fall off the map when they hit 30.

5. Pronk's decline can't be attributed to a specific injury. Yes, he broke a bone in his hand when he was beaned by C.J. Wilson on September 1, 2006, but that's not the type of injury that just ends a player's career. Plus, he played the entire 2007 season without any mention of that injury. In 2008, after a horrible start, he had his shoulder scoped, but mysteriously, the doctors never really ever found a problem with it. Am I the only one that finds that completely strange? James Andrews spent 45 minutes inside Hafner's shoulder and didn't find a damn thing wrong with it. We were told that the joint was "cleaned out" but were never offered any additional clarification as to what Andrews actually found that could have caused Hafner to lose all of his strength.

6. We've yet to hear of any mechanical issues with Hafner's swing. You'd think that after trying to work out of a "slump" for two years, if Hafner's problems had anything to do with his swing or approach at the plate, he and Derek Shelton would've figured it out by now.

7. Even though his shoulder joint is now apparently "clean," Hafner has lost virtually all of his bat speed. A player who was once perhaps the most feared in the American League can now have the bat absolutely blown out of his hands by a low 90's fastball on the inner-half of the plate. Moreover, even when he does connect, the words most apt to describe his power are "warning track."

Hafner is now HALF THE SIZE that he used to be. This is easily the most alarming aspect of the entire ordeal and is also the inspiration behind my decision to write this post. I turned on the Rangers game the other day and almost fell out of my chair. Half is obviously an exaggeration, but for a guy who was once built like a lumberjack, Hafner now looks absolutely scrawny. This type of thing just doesn't happen to elite hitters in their early 30's. If anything, they continue to get bigger. I haven't seen what the Indians are listing Hafner at this year, but honestly, it doesn't make any difference. My eyes work. He's not nearly the same size that he was when he was hitting 30 and 40 bombs a year. Look at the two pictures above. One is from this year. The other is from Hafner's prime. Can you see the difference? If you can't, maybe my eyes are playing tricks on me.

And please, don't tell me that the loss of muscle mass is because of the surgery. He's a major leaguer. Every professional athlete is put through an intense rehab and weight training program after a procedure like the one Hafner underwent. I've yet to hear any reports of any of them suffering from irreversible shrinkage of the chest, arms, or head.

. . .

Now, forget for a minute that we're talking about Travis Hafner. Look at the last eight points but imagine that we're talking about a player for whom you never rooted or for whom you never felt any personal affinity. Play connect-the-dots for a minute. What conclusion would you draw?

So, what does this all mean? Well, I guess it means whatever you want it to mean. The thing is, you can't prove the negative: Hafner can never really prove that he wasn't on the juice. But, at the same time, the chances that any of us will ever be exposed to evidence implicating Hafner are remote at best. Baseball is primed to sweep the rest of the steroid era's dirty laundry under the rug. A few giant fish have been caught and disgraced, and based on the current HR numbers leaguewide, it appears that those who were not caught have been sufficiently deterred. In short, there remains little incentive to keep digging, especially around benign figures such as Pronk. We're just never going to know the answer.

Still, I think there is a point to all of this. We're all free to believe whatever we want to believe, but if you are like me, and are convinced, based on the overwhelming circumstantial evidence, that Hafner was juicing through at least the 2006 season, you have a right to be outraged. Hafner signed a four-year, $57 million extension during the 2007 all-star break. If he knew that the contract was premised on a level of performance that he could not, or perhaps did not intend to replicate, he defrauded the club by signing the deal. Now, the Indians are paying $13 million a year for a guy who has no place in a major-league lineup. If this were New York, we wouldn't care. For a team like the Indians and a city like Cleveland though, if my theory is correct, Hafner has screwed us all.

Finally, if Hafner was in fact roiding through his best years, Shapiro and Wedge had to know about it. That, above all else, is the most compelling defense Hafner's story has to offer. If Hafner was on the juice, a smart guy like Shapiro certainly knew about it; and if he did, it would seem horribly reckless for him to have given Hafner that extension. Of course, there is the possibility that 1) Shapiro suspected but didn't know for sure, and just figured whatever Hafner was doing, he would keep doing it, or 2) he knew exactly what Hafner was doing but thought, based on Hafner's popularity and ability to draw fans, he could squeeze enough out of him over the next four years to make him profitable.

In Conclusion, I don't really know what happened. My theory is based on nothing more than instinct and conjecture. All I know is that a lot of Cleveland fans are still holding out hope that Hafner will return to a level that, for whatever reason, drugs, injuries, or otherwise, I don't think he is ever capable of reaching again. I also know that the Indians are a mid-market team that owes a boatload of money to a guy who can't have more than a couple of months left as a "cleanup hitter," and probably doesn't have more than a couple more years left on a major league roster. And finally, I know that as an Indians fan, I really hope that Matt LaPorta is the real thing. Having watched multiple elite power hitters leave town over the years, and then another decide to stay, only to inexplicably fall off the face of the earth at the very outset of his prime, I need LaPorta to be as good as advertised . . . And unfortunately, unless another power hitter miraculously falls from the sky, the Indians are going to need him if they hope to contend in the years ahead.


Gary Bettman said...

Great post Biff, I'm sure that this is the kind of subject that will divide people right down the line but I for one agree will you 100%.

Unlike most years where I tend to catch at least a few spring training games on TV, this year with the Cavs domination taking precedence I hadn't actually seen Hafner this year until Wednesday nights game. I was SHOCKED. He honestly looks 20-30 lbs. lighter.

All we hear from the team and read in the papers is that Travis "slimmed down" for this season. Why would a DH be so concerned with slimming down for an upcoming season? I know that Wedge wants to run a bit more this year but I sincerely doubt that he had Hafner in mind with those plans.

I guess that when it comes down to it the last thing we need is a witch hunt among our own players. I like Hafner as most of us do and I'm not interested in seeing his name sullied just for the hell of it. It's not like we will be able to get his contract voided if it comes out that he was a 'roider. What I just don't like being played as a fool by the team and media. Fans are not sheep. Contrary to their belief we can come to our own conclusions.

It is a tough situation to deal with as fans and not one with a whole lot of long time precedent. 'Roiding has been such a taboo subject in MLB for a long time up until recently. Hopefully in another 5-10 years when all these ex steroid using players guaranteed contracts come to an end we will be done dealing with this sort of thing for good.

But I doubt it.

Alvaro Espinoza said...

Interesting post Biff - I actually might be in the minority who, having watched these initial games, does not notice a huge difference in Hafner's physical size. I think the circumstantial evidence seems to indicate Pronk may have enhanced in the past - but you and I both know Biff that accusing someone merely on conjecture does not always equal guilt.

I have to admit I was so disgusted by Pavano's pitching yesterday I only-half watched the rest of the game and missed Hafner's home run, but I saw his two initial strikeouts and I still think it's pitch recognition and bat speed which is the issue - two things which my be completely unrelated to doping. I know it's a naive hope, but maybe Hafner really is working himself back into playing form from his long layoff. On the positive side, this home run and the two he had at the end of spring training perhaps show that the power is still there in some form.

On a related note, I heard some rumblings about Canseco potentially accusing Manny about roiding - which is an interesting and I could see some truth to. Thoughts on that?

Biff said...

I don't know. The 90's Indians certainly had their share of dirty players (e.g., Bell, Grimsley, and I would suspect others like Matt Wiliams, Dave Justice, Brian Giles, etc.) but at the same time, if there is one guy that probably didn't need to be on the juice, it was Manny. The guy came out of the woumb with the ability to hit .290 with 25 HR. I go back and forth on this. On one hand, if a lot of other guys on the team were using, it seems illogical that some would've just taken the moral highground and missed out on all the fun. Then again, look at guys like Manny and Jim Thome. Long after it was still safe to clandestinely use steroids (at least aside from HGH), these guys are still producing. Plus, Manny marches to the beat of his own drum. If there was ever a guy who might have just been too aloof to care about what everyone else was doing, it was Manny.

Again, we return to the same conclusion. We'll just never know. But if there are two guys who I think can make a solid case for themselves, it's Thome and Manny, simply because they've continued to put up consistent power numbers past the primes of their respective careers.

Barry Lakin said...

I'm not sure how divisive this issue is. I think at this point most people assume Hafner roided. Huge physical specimen hits a ton. Baseball starts cracking down on steroids. Man no longer hits a ton. This story can be said for a lot of players and I assume they were all on the juice. Maybe I'm wrong.

No way Manny used steroids. He was born to hit baseballs. I doubt he's ever lifted a weight in his life. He never had a steroid body. As Biff said, he is definitely too aloof to roid. The man just hits baseballs.

Thome, I don't know about. He sure put on a lot of muscle since he was a wee lad in our system. He seemed to keep his power though when others lost it after the steroid crackdown. I just don't know about him. I certainly would not be shocked if he did, but I wouldn't accuse him of it.

Willie Two Step said...

Great post. First time I've read the blog, and I'll definitely continue to do so.

It was rather obvious to me Hafner was roiding up, but I haven't seen it laid out so clearly. There's simply no doubt anymore. In my experience, those that deny guys like Hafner used roids (along with Clemens, Bonds, McGwire, Sosa, etc) tend to hate the thought of baseball turning out to be a farce. Willful ignorance, I suppose.

As far as Manny goes, I just don't see it. Way to aloof for roids. His phenomenal swing is whats made him so great.

Alvaro Espinoza said...

hm - I suppose my point about Manny was true .... 50 games. Makes you wonder about all the other former Tribe players - Manny probably just didn't pay attention to what anyone was giving him or doing