LONDON — Apologies in advance: This one is going to have a lot of baseball in it. In fact, it will be inside baseball. Maybe in time it will relate to the odd decision to use Ryan Lochte as the anchor leg in the 4×100 freestyle relay the other day. Maybe it is just an excuse to write about the Kansas City Royals from London.
Last year — as a side note to yet another lost season — the Royals had two players who were having surprisingly good years. Anyway, it was a surprise to me. The first player was an outfielder named Melky Cabrera. The second was an outfielder named Jeff Francoeur.
They were about the same age — both were born in 1984, Cabrera a few months after Francoeur — and they came into the season with more than 2,500 lifetime plate appearances, and they had similarly gruesome lifetime statistics. Batting average doesn’t tell much of a story, but Cabrera’s average was .267 and Francoeur’s was .268 and neither one drew enough walks or hit with enough power or ran well enough to add much to the picture. They were precisely the sort of run-of-the-mill veterans that the Royals had spent way too much money to acquire through the years.
But this time, for whatever reason, both veterans flourished. Cabrera hit .305 with 44 doubles, 18 homers and 20 stolen bases. Francoeur hit .285 with 47 doubles and 20 homers and 22 stolen bases. The two were fun to watch, and the Royals scored quite a few runs, and it was a pleasant surprise, all of it. Of course, that meant that the Royals had to make a decision about this season. They decided to keep one of them.
Francoeur has had an odd career. You probably know this. When he first came up to the Braves, he was so hot that Sports Illustrated put him on the cover and wondered if he might be “The Natural” come to life. The next year, he posted a .300 on-base percentage, which is beyond terrible, but he hit 29 home runs, so many chose to think positive. The year after that he hit .293 with 40 doubles and won a Gold Glove for his outfield defense. He was 23 years old. The future looked good … if people wanted the future to look good. And people did.
Trouble was, the next year he had a spectacularly awful season, one of the worst of the decade. He hit .239 and slugged .359. He was, by Baseball Reference’s formula, two full wins worse than a replacement player that the Royals could’ve found in Class AAA or on the waiver wire. Another great baseball site, FanGraphs, placed his worth at $3.5 million, which doesn’t sound too bad until you realize that FanGraphs was saying that he should have OWED THE BRAVES $3.5 million. He was so bad that the Braves traded him to the Mets (even though Francoeur was an Atlanta native). After some stops and starts, he was so bad with the Mets that they traded him to Texas. He had a nice couple of weeks with the Rangers, but that organization is not easily fooled, and they let him go at the end of the 2010 season.
That’s when Kansas City picked him up.
There is something else about Francoeur that is important: He’s a great guy. Everybody thinks so. He plays the game with unflagging joy. He is everybody’s favorite teammate. He always has time for the fans. He is absolutely impossible not to like. Royals general manager Dayton Moore was working in Atlanta when Francoeur came up, and he loved the kid as much as anybody, maybe more. When it was clear that Francoeur’s time was over in Atlanta, people all around baseball knew that Moore would get him. Moore was coy about it for a while. But, in time, they were right.
Cabrera’s first few years were very different. The Yankees signed him when he was 16 years old in the Dominican Republic. He was OK in the minor leagues, not great, certainly not a phenom like Francoeur. But he came along just when the Yankees needed outfielders, and so, at 21, he was an every-day player for baseball’s most famous team.
The first year, he hit reasonably well. After that, he did not. But the Yankees stuck with him anyway. He was a likable guy, too. He could play all three outfield positions, and — here was the big thing — the Yankees were so loaded with talent that they did not need Cabrera to be a star. They did not even need him to be pretty good.
In 2009 when they won the World Series, Cabrera was the Yankees’ every-day centerfielder — the place of DiMaggio and Mantle. Then the Yankees traded him to Atlanta, where his weaknesses as a player were not masked by Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez and the rest. Melky was exposed. The Braves released him at the end of the year.
That’s when the Royals signed him.
So, here was the decision: You have two 27-year-old players coming off their best seasons, surprising seasons — which one do you keep? Cabrera had the better year, so that might have been compelling. But Francoeur had, perhaps, a better track record. Cabrera seemed more versatile. Francoeur seemed to have more power.
What do such decisions come down to? We often believe that at the highest levels of sports and life, choices such as this are locked down by detailed and cynical machination, by secret meetings in back rooms. But I wonder if the truth isn’t that even smart people often act dumb and often find themselves grasping in the dark.
The Royals decided to sign Francoeur. They traded Cabrera for a pitcher named Jonathan Sanchez.
How did this turn out? This year, by pretty much every advanced baseball statistic, Francoeur is the worst every-day player in baseball. He is even worse than he was in his awful season when the Braves dumped him. That Baseball-Reference statistic shows that he was three games worse than a replacement that they could find almost anywhere. FanGraphs says that, to even things up, Francoeur should pay the Royals $7.6 million.
Meanwhile, Cabrera is hitting .353 for the Giants, leading the National League in hits and was a starter in the All-Star Game. And if this isn’t heartbreaking enough for Kansas City, the player the Royals got in the Cabrera trade, Sanchez, was so bad that midway through the year the Royals dumped him in a trade and ate the part of his salary that they could not unload.
Now, how do professionals — people who have dedicated their entire lives to the game, people who desperately want to win — make a decision that disastrous? Conspiracy? Incompetence? Laziness? Bad luck?
Or is it that even professionals often find themselves looking at the wrong thing? On Sunday night, U.S. swim coach Gregg Troy decided to put Ryan Lochte in the anchor leg of the 4×100 freestyle relay. On the surface, this made absolutely no sense whatsoever. Lochte is not a 100-meter swimmer. He’s a 200-meter backstroker. He swims the individual medley. But 100 meters? He said himself, after the race: “I don’t really swim it. I haven’t swam it in a long time.”
Based on that quote alone, you could make a pretty compelling argument that Lochte should not have been swimming in the relay at all. After all, the U.S. does have freestyle specialists here, including the talented Ricky Berens*, who swam in the morning preliminaries. But to be fair, it is also true that Lochte might be the best overall swimmer in the world, he was coming off an extraordinary performance in the 400 IM, and the team might not have felt complete without him.
*I should qualify this by saying that Ricky’s mother lives right across the street from us and is extremely nice.
Still, even if you decided to use Lochte in the final … why would you have him swim the anchor leg? As it turned out, Lochte was given a fairly sizable lead for that leg, and he went out too fast, and he was chased down by France’s Yannick Agnel and beaten to the wall. But shouldn’t this have been expected? Shouldn’t a group of the smartest swimming coaches in our country have been able to get together and figure out that putting a non-100-meter swimmer like Lochte on the anchor leg made no sense?
You know why I think the Royals kept Francoeur and dumped Cabrera? I think they liked Francoeur’s attitude more. I think they saw Francoeur as more of a leader, more of an inspirational teammate, more of a hustler, more of a “winner.” I told you, he’s extremely likable. And it’s these sorts of vague and virtually unprovable plaudits that seem to drive so many decisions in baseball, in sports, in life. I’m not telling you that I saw Cabrera’s rise or Francoeur’s fall coming — I expected both to fall — but I am saying that the Royals had to see it coming. They had both players. They watched them both play every day for a year. They HAD to see it. But they did not. And NOT seeing that has led the Royals to where they are in the first place.
Same goes, I would guess, with Lochte. I suspect that the coaches evaluated Lochte’s guts, his history as a winner, his Olympic experience, his will for getting to the wall first, and decided that mattered more than the rather blatant fact that he’s not a 100-meter freestyle swimmer. They decided that, with a lead, he would find a way to win, even if this is not his event, even if he is swamped with events. He would find a way because he’s Ryan Lochte.
It actually makes some sense if you look at it that way. The problem, I think, is looking at it that way in the first place.