Leadership is a funny thing when it comes to baseball. First, it’s nearly impossible to quantify, which leaves stat geeks like me at a bit of loss. Second, you can’t really lead a team if you are, ya know, bad at baseball; the other players don’t want to rally behind a guy that isn’t any good. Finally, despite all the things a manager can do, he can’t really lead the team by himself: good teams always have players who police the clubhouse, teach rookies how to play the game the right way, and stand up for other players during confrontations.
And this brings me to last night’s situation with the Red Sox. As TD touched on this morning, Josh Beckett was being his normal, jerky self last night. The Indians were probably already looking for some blood after Boston took out Carlos Santana the night before, but Beckett started head-hunting in the first inning, hitting Shelley Duncan. Then, two innings later, Beckett drilled Shin-Soo Choo in the knee.
It was on. The Indians’ bullpen threw at both David Ortiz and Adrian Beltre, and benches cleared.
But who was leading the group? Turns out it was Shelley Duncan and Coach Steve Smith (he of “The Amazing Race.” Indeed.)
So the fracas got me thinking about which players, if any, are leaders on this team. Now that we’ve shipped off most of our veterans, the Indians are a young team, without much major league experience. Let’s vet the leadership candidates.
Asdrubal Cabrera: Manny Acta has nominated Cabrera for the leadership role. The question is whether he can do it. Believe it or not, Cabrera has been in the major leagues for less than three years, making his debut on August 8, 2007. On the other hand, he’s one of the longest-tenured position players on the active roster. That’s some serious turnover.
I like the idea of Cabrera as a leader, especially for some of the young players who are coming up through the ranks. Cabrera had his work ethic questioned early in his career, and was sent down to AAA in 2008. He took the demotion well, worked hard, lost some weight, and came back in better shape and ready to play. That sort of resilience could go a long way with someone like Luis Valbuena and Michael Brantley.
Nonetheless, Cabrera doesn’t strike me as a vocal leader. I remember when Mark Shapiro and Eric Wedge used to talk about Grady Sizemore leading by example. That’s great, but you also need someone to fire up the clubhouse, and quietly going about your business doesn’t seem to do that.
Shin-Soo Choo: If being good at baseball were the same as leadership, we’d look no further than Choo. He is the best player on the team, by far, and works hard every day to get better. I do wonder if Choo is a fiery leader, which might not be entirely fair. He seems so consistent, so level, so quiet, that it’s hard for me to imagine him leading the clubhouse. And there’s also the language barrier, which tends to isolate Asian players especially. I would love for Choo to be the leader on this team, but something tells me that he isn’t.
Shelley Duncan: I have to say, I loved Shelley Duncan getting in Josh Beckett’s face last night. It reminded me of the Spring Training fight he got in with the Tampa Bay Rays a few years back by sliding hard into second base. Another plus? Duncan is the oldest player on the active roster—the only guy born in the 1970s, believe it or not. Maybe the kids will start looking up to Shelley, and he does seem to bring some fire and competitiveness to the team, so that’s a plus.
But it’s hard to rally around a guy who’s spent nearly his entire career in the minors. Despite Duncan’s apparent work ethic and affable nature, he’s never been able to stick on a major league roster, and that has to cost him some credibility with some of the kids. Regardless, I loved his performance last night, and if we can keep him on in a utility role next year, I’d be fine with it.
Grady Sizemore and Travis Hafner: Ahh, the grizzled (and injured) vets. They’re obviously both going to be around next season, and will represent more major league experience than anyone else on the team. They may both be able to offer quiet leadership, but sooner or later they’re going to have to perform on the field, which neither has done for quite some time. And either way, they’re both out of consideration for this season as long as they linger on the DL.
Carlos Santana: Until he was hurt, Santana looked to be the most likely player to lead the Indians going forward. He stepped into the middle of a big league lineup, performed consistently, handled the pitching staff, and even polished his English to the point he could speak with his pitchers and the press. I still believe that going forward, he’ll be a vocal and emotional leader on this team, but there’s still no word on how much time he’ll lose to this injury, and we need leaders now.
Fausto Carmona: Another guy who should be ready to step into a leadership position. He’s been with this club through the highs and lows. He’s had his confidence and mechanics completely overhauled, and now he finds himself as the anchor of the youngest rotation in baseball. These are all good things.
But I find two major reasons to doubt Fausto’s leadership. First, he’s a starting pitcher, which means he doesn’t play everyday. Not that he can’t still lead by example, but it’s hard to have a consistent impact when you’re not playing most of the time. Second, I still don’t know if Fausto has the emotional makeup to put a team on his back. I know I’ve harped on this before, but I still think that Fausto is a fragile guy, and I don’t know if he’s ready for the additional pressure that would come with being a “team leader.”
Chris Perez: Pure Rage. I like his fire and competitiveness. I’m not a huge fan of him throwing people under the bus. Time will tell if he can grow into a leader, but I think it’s safe to say he’s a definite upgrade at the back of the ‘pen. For now, I’ll take it.
Lou Marson: Just kidding.
I’m excited by what this team might become, both for the rest of this season and going into 2011. We’re going to see things that Yankee fans and Red Sox fans rarely do: a group of young players coming together, trying to make an organic team. That mix can take some time to gel, for leaders to emerge. Next season the Indians might be led by anyone. But it’s going to need to be somebody. Someone will need to step up into the void that hasn’t been filled since Victor’s departure.
In other words, we’ll know when this team has a leader when we don’t have to think about it anymore. And I can’t wait.