I cannot get rid of the hurt from losing. But after the last out of every loss, I must accept that there will be a tomorrow. In fact, it’s more than there will be a tomorrow. It’s that I want there to be a tomorrow. That’s the big difference. I want tomorrow to come.
George “Sparky” Anderson
I thought of this quote Friday night after the Reds’ underwhelming loss to the grumpy, slumpy Rockies. You want to believe this team has turned a corner. That like Derby winner I’ll Have Another, the Reds have broken a sweat and are about to gallop away from not just the Cardinals, but maybe even the rest of the National League. Of course, Sparky was managing a well-oiled… well, machine, that whenever they lost, left the manager, players and fans wondering what the hell went wrong that night—and eager to get out there the next day and put the debacle in the rearview mirror as quickly as possible.
The 2012 Cincinnati Reds, despite their recent performance, are not a well-oiled machine. It has been Johnny Cueto + decent starting pitching + a brilliant bullpen = First Place in the NL Central. Yet, the familiar win one game, lose the next dynamic, which has become the long and tired narrative of this club for longer than I care to remember, was broken only by a recent spate of timely HRs, many of a solo variety, a distressing by-product of this team’s collective impatience at the plate. It’s produced a rare and welcome winning streak that is unlikely to continue as long as our manager continues to insist on a Swing Early, Swing Often philosophy, one that has had a particularly detrimental effect on the young and part-time players who are vying for increased playing time–and see pleasing the manager as a vehicle to getting more ABs.
Guidance is critical for the success of a young team. By age, the Redlegs are the kindergarteners of the big leagues, their average age being 28.5 years old. Moreover, when you consider that Arroyo, Rolen, Cairo, Harris, Ludwick and Valdez, who are between 33 and 38 years old, are unlikely to factor into the team’s long term plans, this is a team who will stay young for the foreseeable future.
People often forget that the BRM, even with all it’s veteran creaminess, had holes and younger players who needed an opportunity to prove themselves. A 24 year old kid named Daniel Driessen was one of those players whose opportunity came only after Anderson, struggling the come to grips with the hole at third base (yes, the 1975 World Champions had a third base problem, too) converted Peter Edward into a brutish wall of a third baseman, a controversial move that opened up playing time for Driessen and George Foster.
Which brings me to Chris Heisey.
Heisey is one of the more polarizing players on the Reds. Some see him as an underutilized asset wasting away on the bench. Others see him as a one-dimensional hitter whose role is destined to be a specialized power cog that hits sac flies and the occasional HR.
Chris fascinates me because he’s a player of confounding qualities. He actually had a good K rate and decent walk rate as a young player, but saw his strikeouts increase and walks decrease as he began hitting for power. He’s an above-average fielder with a flair for the dramatic.
Although I have only anecdotal evidence born of watching games, I am convinced that the players on the Reds who swing with the least discipline are those that play the least and feel they must adhere to the We’re Not Going to Walk Our Way Out of This Slump gauntlet thrown down by Baker. Chris Heisey is the poster boy for this poor hitting approach and I can’t help but wonder what he would do if given the job for a month, without having to look over his shoulder like a bad vaudeville act waiting for the hook. Increased playing time of late has seen him quickly bring his average up from the Mendoza Line to as high as .272 a day or two ago.
It’s worth remembering that after Driessen was given the opportunity to play in May of 1975, he proceeded to hit .232 for the better part of 2 months. And while Dan was only a career .267 hitter, because of the support and patience of Sparky Anderson, he became a valued contributor to the Reds. He was the first NL DH and hit .357 as the Reds went on to sweep the Yankees in the 76 Series a year later. Part of his legacy includes his defense, a .995 fielding percentage that Baseball Reference notes ranks him among the best defensive first basemen in MLB history.
Driessen went on to play 150 or more games a season for 5 of the next 6 years beginning in 1977, but the move to get him into the lineup began during the BRM era.
There’s no question in my mind that Chris Heisey has been beaten down by the lack of support by his manager and GM. The acquisitions of Johnny Gomes, Fred Lewis and Ryan Ludwick were attempts to rub the genie’s lamp one more time, hoping that each of these vets had one more special season left in them, all moves made at the expense of Heisey’s playing time and his psyche.
Consider a remark made by Heisey earlier this year:
“I can’t really explain why I’m more relaxed pinch-hitting than I am when I’m up there in a late-game situation after being a starter,” Heiey said. “It just seems to work better pinch-hitting, and I don’t have any reason to explain that.”
That kind of candor probably didn’t help Heisey with the powers that be, but it’s safe to say that any player who knows his starting role is contingent upon producing at a high level every chance he gets the opportunity, is going to be more anxious than occupying the safe role of pinch hitting, a home you know the front office prefers you inhabit.
Heisey’s philosophical moment is reminiscent of something George Foster once said. Foster rode the bench so much in his early time with the Reds, that he openly gave in to the hopelessness of his situation, once saying, “I’ve seen more major league games than anyone else alive. Why, I even know some of the players personally.”
Yes, the kid has holes in his swing. But if it’s true as I’m told—that you don’t learn how to hit breaking balls in the minors, you learn to hit them in the majors—then Heisey’s erratic offense is perfectly understandable. It would be one thing if a demonstrably better option in left field was at hand. But there isn’t. St. Louis, San Diego, Pittsburgh and now Cincinnati have all made a bet that the Ryan Ludwick who had a near-MVP year in 2008 still lurks inside the right handed hitter. But, year after year, teams discover that Ludwick 08 isn’t walking back in through that door.
The Reds need a full time left fielder. Chris Heisey needs a shot to prove he can be that guy.
If not now, when?