Saturday, July 3, 2010

Rolling the wrong way

My initially-shallow well of useful information to dispense about a Phillies loss has been now been completely tapped, so I won't even make the effort this time.

I will instead reveal a troubling realization I made a mere 12 hours ago: Jimmy Rollins does not represent what I believe to be a model baseball player - particularly as a leadoff hitter, the role he's occupied for the majority of his career.

My discovery of this was first made possible from Jimmy's own mouth and strengthened by my current reading of "Moneyball," Michael Lewis's bestseller, which I'm utilizing to sharpen my baseball knowledge and observations of the game. The information I've soaked in has cast the game in an even more negative light than the Steroids Era.

It started with an interview Bob Costas conducted with Rollins and Ryan Howard for MLB Network in late May. It aired a month later and I finally caught it yesterday afternoon. The interview, like many before it, fell short of my expectations. The majority of Costas's questions were fluff-dominated, and Howard gave his usual cliche answers without a hint of clarity or intellect (I get more substance out of high school athletes), while J-Roll did his typical job of looking cute for the camera and the audience.

The only meaty question Costas aimed at the stars concerned an infamous incident in 2008 when Rollins got chewed out by Charlie Manuel for not hustling down the line on an infield pop-up that was dropped. At the time, Rollins didn't question his manager's disappointment and immediately owned up to his mistake. While he repeated those words to Costas, he then tried to justify why he didn't charge out of the batter's box. I can't recall his exact words, but no justification should have ever been attempted. You don't hustle, you hurt the team. Period.

Costas remained on this topic for a few minutes and asked Rollins what the point was of walking out of the batter's box and admiring a home run, rather than running on contact to try and reach second base in case the ball didn't leave the yard. Jimmy's response was something like this:

"When you've been around long enough, you get a good feel for which balls are going to be home runs. Sometimes you hit balls that you're not sure if they're going to go out or not, but you've got to make it look like you know."

Before making that ridiculous comment, Rollins had already said what most devoted Phillies fans knew, that his idol growing up was Rickey Henderson. The thing Jimmy loved the most about Rickey was his showmanship; how he worked the entertainment aspect of the game. His cocky statement about admiring home runs only confirmed the fact that he didn't adapt the right aspects of Rickey's game to his own.

It's true that Rickey showed off and he displayed a remarkable mix of power and speed, but the area of the game he absolutely dominated was the very definition of a leadoff hitter - getting on base. In addition to all of his stolen bases, runs and homers, Henderson walked 2,190 times in his career, which was briefly an all-time record before being broken by Barry Bonds (a ton of Phillies fans, including myself, saw his record-setting free pass with the Padres in 2001, as it came in a game against the Phils). Jimmy Rollins' 484 walks barely scratches the surface.

In even more glaring example of the colossal gap separating the two players, Henderson's career on-base percentage of .401 ranks 43rd all-time among non-active players. Jimmy Rollins does not even have the highest career OBP on his team. In fact, of all the starters in the lineup, J-Roll's career OBP of .330 is dead last. As the students of the Bill James School of Baseball will tell you, OBP is the best tool we have of measuring a hitter's performance for his team.

This realization is damning to say the least, but I have always believed that hustle and putting forth your absolute best effort all the time are the highest responsibilities of any athlete. Many baseball players today are too blinded by their bank accounts and star status to give their all on the field, and J-Roll is no exception. We've all watched as his home run totals have ballooned over the past four years (an average of 12 in his first five seasons to an average of 22 from '06-'09), and he most likely stood and stared at each one with a smugness Rickey would applaud. Unfortunately, those shots don't mean much when he's not reaching base with any kind of regularity.

I'm not saying that Rollins isn't a valuable piece of the team, as his MVP year in 2007 will prove, but he could be helping out the Phillies so much more just by making small adjustments most leadoff hitters should perfect in the minor leagues like working the count better and hitting to all parts of the field.

And Jimmy, don't stand and watch the ball. Bust out of the box and think about second base.

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