When news spread Wednesday afternoon that Fox Sports’ Jon Paul Morosi had written an article featuring some inflammatory quotes from Indians closer Chris Perez, my first reaction was merely rolling my eyes. At this point, Perez’ departures from normal standards of how to speak to the press (or opposing fans) seem almost like clichés. Perez seems like a thoughtful guy, but he feels very strongly about his opinions and he’s known for wearing his emotions on his sleeves, even at inopportune times. We know that by now. It’s old hat.
But while Perez has crossed some pretty bad lines before—cussing out a fan is generally considered a no-no—his comments to Morosi were a horse of a different color. This time, Perez offered his suggestions on how the Indians could be better and generally called out several of his employers for being unfit to run the team. And even if his remarks hadn’t been completely impolitic, that’s a choppy sea for a player to wade into.
You see, there’s a difference between being good at baseball and actually understanding baseball. Chris Perez doesn’t need to know what xFIP and wOBA and UZR are in order to do his job. For that matter, he could eliminate ERA from his vocabulary and still be an effective pitcher. The concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic doesn’t need to know how to write a symphony, but his inability to compose wouldn’t make him any worse of a violinist.
So let’s take a look at what Perez said and see how well it holds up to the reality test.
“We were there, too, up until a month and a half ago,” said Chris Perez, closer of the small-market Cleveland Indians. “Then the bottom fell out.”
This is an accurate assessment. No one thought these Indians were a great team, but they played well in the first half and headed into trade deadline season looking like legitimate contenders. Remember this quote for later.
So what does Perez think would cure what ails the Tribe? Specifically, why are they looking up at the Tigers in the AL Central?
“Different owners,” Perez said frankly, in reference to Detroit’s Mike Ilitch and Cleveland’s Lawrence J. Dolan. “It comes down to that. They (the Tigers) are spending money. He (Ilitch) wants to win. Even when the economy was down (in Detroit), he spent money. He’s got a team to show for it. You get what you pay for in baseball. Sometimes you don’t. But most of the time you do.”
First off, there’s another big difference between the Indians and the Tigers: the fans. Most Cleveland fans would probably agree that the Dolans don’t spend as much money on the team as they should, but they have to meet the owners halfway. Tribe fans’ attendance over the last two years has been pathetic. In 2012 the Indians’ average attendance is the third-lowest in baseball, ahead of only the Rays and the Athletics. Even when they were winning, the fans just didn’t show up. And there’s no question that Chris Perez knows this, because he called out Cleveland fans for their conspicuous absences at the stadium just a few months ago.
Moreover, Mike Ilitch may be spending money on his team, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. The Tigers signed Prince Fielder to a nine-year, $214 million deal this winter; they got a great hitter, but it’s a total albatross contract that the team will almost certainly come back to bite them. Reckless spending is a terrible foundation on which to build a team (unless you’re the Dodgers and money is meaningless to you), and Perez’ desire for the Indians to emulate Ilitch’s approach of fiscal irresponsibility is a real head-scratcher.
But the Dolans weren’t the only targets of Perez’ fury. He went on to call out the people who actually put the team together.
“You can’t miss,” Perez said. “You have to be right. That’s why I say it’s not just ownership. They don’t make the trades. It’s the GMs. It goes hand in hand. The GMs can only spend the money the owners give them, but they pick who they spend it on or who they don’t. They pick. The owners don’t pick.
Let’s leave aside the fact that Perez is like a large number of casual Cleveland fans in his inability to understand that Mark Shapiro has been the team’s President for two years and is not co-GM with Chris Antonetti. It’s not as though Antonetti & Co. have simply sat on their thumbs and waited for this team to win.
They went out and traded for Ubaldo Jimenez last year, a deal that most Indians analysts saw as a win for the team. They traded for Derek Lowe this offseason, which looked like a steal at the time. (Say what you want about that deal, but Lowe’s utter implosion was unpredictable.) The Casey Kotchman and Grady Sizemore signings look like failures now, but at the time was it actually realistic to expect Kotchman to OPS .631 and Sizemore to miss the entire season? What did you think about those deals at the time, Mr. Perez? And what did you think about them when you were still in the race—which, as you said earlier in the interview, you were through the first half of the season?
But Perez wasn’t just speaking in generalities. Using the benefit of hindsight, he was able to pinpoint a specific decision that the Indians got wrong:
“Josh Willingham would look great in this lineup. They didn’t want to (pony) up for that last year. … That’s the decision they make, and this is the bed we’re laying in.”
Heading into the offseason, Willingham was coming off his worst performance since 2008. He was a 33-year-old mediocre fielder with a good-not-great bat and a history of injuries. Why would the Indians have wanted to give him a $21 million contract that would take him through what was likely to be the decline phase of his career? No one knew Willingham would emerge as an elite hitter this year. Knowing what we know now, letting him go looks like a mistake. But there’s no way Antonetti knew that he would break out in 2012, and there’s definitely no way Perez could have predicted it.
There’s no question that the Indians have made some regrettable decisions in the recent past, and it seems unlikely that they’ll ever be able to build a team that can compete for several years without a truly competitive payroll. But it was inappropriate for Perez to make such criticisms—especially when delivered with a snooty combination of stridence and retroactive judgment—and what’s more, a lot of what he said was simply wrong. At least he’s assured that he’ll have a new employer to kick around in 2013.