Robinson Cano can go to Hall, Mark Cuban's pitch and MLB's next big thing

ByBradford Doolittle ESPN logo
Friday, May 18, 2018

Breathless reactions aside, we can at least agree that Robinson Cano has done a very stupid thing, even if he's genuine in his explanation. A professional ballplayer in his 14th major league season has to know what is being put into his body. If he wanted, someone like Cano could afford to pay a nutritionist, a personal trainer and a medical doctor just to follow him around. Now, because he failed a drug test, he is going to miss half of the 2018 season, less whatever time he would have missed because of his hand injury. And he's losing $11 million in the process.

Cano is one of the foundation players for Seattle. The Mariners are in their 42nd season and as yet have never won so much as an American League pennant. They aren't favored to do so this season, either, but with a 24-18 start, it's within the realm of possibility for the M's to make a run. That is made more difficult by Cano's absence. And even if Seattle gets into the postseason, Cano won't be eligible to aid the quest.

That is the tangible fallout from Cano's suspension, and it can be evaluated and weighed someday when we look at Cano's career for its Hall of Fame merit. When we do, we must also consider that he's likely to finish with more than 3,000 hits and already has surpassed 300 homers, 293 of which have been hit as a second baseman. That's an American League record. We must also consider that he's won two Gold Gloves, five Silver Slugger awards, played in eight All-Star Games and finished in the top 10 of the MVP voting six times. We must consider that, according to JAWS, he ranks seventh all time among second basemen and could finish in the top five.

This is the résumé of a clear Hall of Fame player. These are all facts embedded in baseball's permanent record. To my knowledge, they have not been stricken or asterisked in any way. Evaluating these facts in the context in which they were established is the primary task of the Hall voter. Many might say it should be the only task.

ESPN's Jerry Crasnick laid out the reasons Cano's Hall chances are now greatly diminished with this week's news. That's almost certainly true. My stance is that it shouldn't be.

The problem there is that nebulous clause in the criteria laid out in every Hall ballot: "Voting shall be based upon the player's record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character and contribution to the team(s) on which the player played."

If you ask 100 different people how they delineate and define the concepts of integrity, sportsmanship and character, you are sure to get 100 different answers. Those who won't vote for, or support, proven or suspected PED users wave these words around like a matador's muleta. To me, they shouldn't be in there, but they are. Fine.

Are we going to say that because Cano failed that drug test he now lacks integrity, sportsmanship and character? Look him up on your favorite search engine. His foundation has helped numerous underprivileged children in the Dominican Republic, New York City and Seattle. There is a school in the Dominican bearing his initials and number, built with funds raised by the foundation he established with his parents. Cano has twice been a finalist for the Roberto Clemente Award. Regardless of how worked up you get about performance-enhancing drugs, if we are going to evaluate the character of a person, shouldn't these things be considered as well?

All we can really do when evaluating a player's Hall worthiness is to weigh the objective. When it comes to his playing record, that's relatively straightforward, as long as you have the requisite analytical skills to understand performance in context. As for the rest, there is only one thing to consider: Is he eligible to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame?

Not everyone can get onto the Hall of Fame ballot, prepared each year by a Baseball Writers' Association of America screening committee. You have to have played for at least 10 seasons. You have to be retired for at least five. If you've been on the ballot before, you have to receive a certain amount of support to stay on it. You can stay on it for only 10 years. And, most pertinent to today's rant, you cannot be on baseball's permanently banned list.

That last part is crucial. You can, in fact, be permanently banned for PED use. Even if he had been pitching like Justin Verlander for 20 years before he was banned, we could not vote Jenrry Mejia into the Hall of Fame (unless he is reinstated, which could happen). If a player is not on that list and meets the other qualifications, he is eligible to be enshrined in Cooperstown.

That's the bottom line. A player's statistics and accomplishments are his statistics and accomplishments, unless baseball makes the decision to retroactively take them away. And if a player is on the Hall ballot, then it's OK to put him in the Hall, if those statistics and accomplishments merit doing so. Why is it OK? Because he is eligible. If it's not OK to put him into the Hall, then take away his eligibility.

In other words, we can consider the effects of Cano missing 80 crucial games and the playoffs because of an irresponsible act. Beyond that, I don't see why this week's news should prevent him from eventually getting into the Hall of Fame. Let's vote on what we know. Not on what we don't.

What the numbers say:

Taking one several for the team

There have been a lot of words spilled already this season about the extreme environment in which baseball circa 2018 is being played. Most of those words seem to be aimed at the rate of strikeouts, which once again is almost certain to be higher than it has ever been before. And we also were transfixed by April, when for the first time in baseball history, we had a month with more strikeouts than hits. We're past the halfway point of May, and the race to repeat that "feat" is a close one: Through Wednesday's games, there had been 3,643 hits and 3,615 strikeouts.

However, there is another all-time, league-level record we're on pace for, of which not as much has been written: plunks. Do people still use that word? I'm talking about hit by pitches, or HBPs. So far, there has been an average of .39 HBPs per team per game this season, putting us on pace for 1,903. The record for the modern era (since 1901) is 1,890, set in 2001.

The MLB leader so far is the Cubs' Kris Bryant, who has been plunked nine times during Chicago's 40 games. That's a pace of 36 HBPs for the season. That wouldn't be the record, but it's a lot. The only player from the modern era to have more is Montreal's Ron Hunt, who established the big league record of 50 in 1971. Hunt was a master of getting hit by pitches, much like Ernie Pantusso. He led the National League in every season from 1968 to 1974.

The trend is not without its casualties. Bryant already has missed time after he was hit in the head by a pitch. Atlanta's Freddie Freeman missed some time after being hit in the hand. Both MVP candidates got off relatively easy in that they didn't go on the disabled list. Others have not been as lucky: Cano, Milwaukee's Eric Thames and the Dodgers' Justin Turner have all hit the DL after being hit in the hand or wrist areas.

Why is this happening? Two obvious theories: In response to the home runs, pitchers are going inside more often. Or the body armor hitters are wearing in greater numbers these days, including the increasingly popular C-Flap, is leading to more crowding of the plate.

As for Bryant, when he was injured, both he and Cubs manager Joe Maddon didn't feel there had been a difference in how he's being pitched this season. Maddon did say that it was a situation he would monitor. So will we.

Since you asked:

Cuban: Kids are abandoning baseball

As commissioner Rob Manfred has moved forward with initiatives meant to enhance the popularity of the sport he oversees, it's led to a lot of discussion about just what baseball in the digital age should look like. Manfred's efforts to speed up pace of play have been controversial. Pitch clocks. No-pitch intentional walks. Putting a runner on second base to start extra innings, at least in the minors. A finite supply of mound visits. These concepts have been hotly debated.

Such discussions all fall under a larger philosophical debate: What is baseball? Can baseball continue to grow in an age when its games are getting longer and attention spans are getting shorter? Is baseball losing its appeal with younger generations? Should baseball evolve to dovetail with changing technologies? Or should it double down on the aspects of the game that traditionalists cling to?

This week, the landscape of professional sports in this country, including baseball, began to shift, perhaps in a major way. As I tried to sort out the potential fallout from the Supreme Court decision that opens the door for coast-to-coast sports betting, I came across a quote in USA Today from NBA team owner Mark Cuban. Not the widely shared comment in which Cuban estimated that every major sports franchise instantly doubled in value, but this one: "It could finally become fun to go to a baseball game again."

You can deduce from that quote that, apparently, baseball games are not fun to go to now. As you might guess, as someone who goes to between five and eight games a week -- doubleheaders! -- I'm not exactly on board with that assumption. But over the next few weeks in this space, I want to have a conversation about these larger topics of how much, if at all, baseball needs to evolve to best position itself in the long term. Starting that discussion with an outside perspective seems like a good way to get the ball rolling.

With that in mind, I reached out to Cuban. From my days covering the NBA, I know he can always be counted upon to provide frank answers and opinions. As an NBA team owner, he always has been outspoken, often to the detriment of his own pocketbook, but it's always in service of the betterment of the basketball industry. During an email Q&A, Cuban was indeed as frank as you might imagine while offering a pretty harsh critique of the state of baseball and where it's headed.

Cuban had been involved in attempts to buy an MLB franchise before, though it's apparently unlikely he will try again. That's too bad. Baseball does not have a Mark Cuban-like character in its current ownership ranks. I think the sport would be better if it did.

Implicit in saying that "It could finally become fun to go to a baseball game again" is that it's not fun to go now. What do you see as the biggest challenges for the in-game experience of fans at a baseball game?

Mark Cuban: It's slow. Excruciatingly slow. Unless you're a baseball geek (like I used to be as a kid) and keeping score and really into the strategy of a game, it's brutal. Innings are too long. Breaks are too long. First thing I would do is start the next inning immediately. Five warm-up pitches, max, and not throwing the ball around the infield. When the batter can get to the plate, with a short TV break maximum of three minutes, the inning starts.

No other sport has a warm-up beyond the halftime break. Basketball, football, hockey all come right off the bench and play. [In baseball], the mounds are all standard. Add the DH to the NL, and pitchers can warm up underneath [the stands] or in the bullpen between innings to stay warm and loose. I'm not the arm expert, but I'm guessing there are a variety of options available that eliminate any risk to their arms.

How much are those challenges for baseball exacerbated as a television and digital product?

MC: They aren't. Reduce the time between innings by 80 percent, and everything changes for the better. If the game moves, broadcasts move.

Are you still interested in owning an MLB team, and if not, what has changed over the past few years to make that a less attractive prospect?

MC: No. First, I had kids. So that changed my time availability. Then my kids got old enough to play baseball, and what I saw shocked me.

Other than the coaches' kids and maybe one other kid, no one [had] watched baseball or knew the rules. Watch a [Little League] game, and a ball rolls a foot to the side of a kid in the field, and they don't know they should move to get it. They have no clue about the positions. I was shocked.

That is baseball's biggest fundamental issue. When my son has kids, I will be shocked if baseball is even a consideration to be played by most kids.

If so, what sort of initiatives would you introduce to sell the game to younger and more diverse audiences?

MC: You have to change the rules dramatically to speed it up and make it fun in youth leagues. No throwing the ball between innings. Fouled third strike is an out. Batter on deck goes immediately to the plate. No throwing the ball around the horn after an out.

Those who resist change in baseball often point to things like the game's leisurely pace and historical continuity as being the sport's strongest selling points -- the things the industry should embrace and promote rather than seek to tweak. Is there something fundamental about baseball that will always most appeal to an older demographic?

MC: That's the challenge for every disrupted industry. Read "The Innovator's Dilemma," [by Clayton M. Christensen]. If the goal is to shrink, they are right.

Is there anything to the notion that baseball can market itself as an antidote to some of the consequences of this age of hyperconnectivity? Such as, for example, promoting itself as a vehicle for digital detoxing?

MC: LOL. No. It's the exact opposite. The fact that it's so slow connects it at the hip to connectivity ;) . Drink, eat or talk works one out of every three or four innings. The rest, people are thankful they have their phones.

In a 21st-century, hyperconnected context, what do you see as baseball's best selling points?

MC: It's an affordable family experience. Make games two hours max, and people fall in love again.

Among the major sports, do you see any special advantage for baseball in lieu of the Supreme Court decision on sports betting, if only because of the sheer volume of games?

MC: Yes. Every action is discrete. So everything is bettable.

Coming right up:

Mick's mark stands test of time

Anniversary time: Friday marks 52 years since Yankees Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle became the all-time leader in home runs by a switch-hitter. He set the record with his 136th homer, breaking the record of Ripper Collins, who, among other things, was a member of the "Gashouse Gang" Cardinals teams of the 1930s.

Mantle went on to hit 536 career home runs, which still stands as the big league record, 32 more than Eddie Murray. Recently retired switchers Chipper Jones, Carlos Beltran and Mark Teixeira all topped 400 career dingers, but other than Murray, no one has really challenged the Mick's mark. In fact, it will be a very long time before someone does. The active career homer leader among switch-hitters is Detroit's Victor Martinez, who has 240. He's 39 years old. After Martinez, the active switcher with the most homers before age 30 is Yasmani Grandal, 29, who has 96.

This all brings to mind a fascinating thing about this year's home run leaderboard:

Manny Machado, 14

Ozzie Albies, 13

Mookie Betts, 13

Khris Davis, 13

Joey Gallo, 13

Bryce Harper, 13

J.D. Martinez, 13

Jose Ramirez, 13

Francisco Lindor, 12

Mike Trout, 12

Albies, Ramirez and Lindor are all switch-hitting middle infielders age 25 or younger. None of them really became power hitters until they were major leaguers. The all-time leader for homers among switch-hitting middle infielders is probably Jimmy Rollins, who hit 231 homers, two of which came as a pinch hitter and the rest as a shortstop.

Mantle's mark seems out of reach for any active switch-hitter. But perhaps one of the young middle infielders hammering the ball this season can someday catch Rollins.