Barry Zito

MLB talent level at its nadir

Have you ever watched a professional sporting event and been shocked at the level of play from the athletes? That’s nearly a nightly experience when it comes to Major League Baseball. There are hundreds of baseball players in the bigs right now who have no business being in the Show. But it’s not their fault, because with 30 teams, the talent has been watered down to an embarrassing level. As the years go by, and we lose more athletes to other sports (including rising ones like soccer), I fear we may soon see the collapse of fundamentals altogether.

Former Giants broadcaster Hank Greenwald, a guy I admire very much, once made a poignant observation about baseball. In remembering his quote the best I can, he said, “We have better athletes playing the game today. You’ll see a Willie Mays catch every night on ESPN. But we have worse baseball players. No one can bunt. There’s bad base running. And nobody ever throws the ball to the cut-off man.” Hank is correct that the players are bigger, faster, and stronger now. They stay in shape all year and treat their bodies better in the offseason. And the number of pitchers throwing 99 mph is at an all-time high. The only problem is that most of them were rushed to the Major Leagues.

The entire concept of paying someone your hard-earned cash to watch them play a sport is slipping away in baseball. Just look at the 2015 Oakland A’s: Marcus Semien is learning how to play shortstop at the big league level. Sam Fuld can’t hit .200 to save his life. Billy Butler is a double-play machine. The bullpen has no idea how to get anyone out. And they’ve started guys like Aaron Brooks, Felix Doubront and Cody Martin on the mound — all three of those guys should pay to play, not the other way around. Then yesterday they had Barry Zito pitch again, which was beyond pointless.

I was all for the gimmick game at the Coliseum last Saturday when Zito faced his old chum Tim Hudson. But why would the A’s start him again against the Angels? L.A. is fighting with Houston for that last Wild Card spot and the A’s pitched a guy who was retired a fortnight ago. I know the rotation has been decimated, and with Sonny Gray being shelved the last week of the season, all five original members from Opening Night are now all gone. But still, this game was no gimmick — it had a direct impact on the pennant race. Thank goodness Oakland won.

This is where we are now. Guys like Zito get starts mainly because the talent level in baseball is at a new low. I know people who are bragging about a guy on the A’s because he’s hitting .250. Is this what we have come to? Our standards have dropped so low that we think it’s cute when Eric Sogard hits one solitary home run for the entire season. We’ve come to accept it, and it’s disturbing. If a player can’t hit, then get lost. If a pitcher can’t get anybody out, then please leave. If a player can’t field a ground ball, then hit the road! What the hell are we paying our money for? Worse yet, what are we spending our time on? I know baseball is a game about failure, but it shouldn’t be about abject, humiliating failure.

Baseball hit rock bottom yesterday. And it’s only going to get worse, because we continue to put up with it. Still, I’ll be back at spring training, excited like I always am, because I love the A’s. It’s just a sour, little secret we all keep to ourselves: that most baseball players really stink. Fans and the media will continue to make excuses for them. Shhh. Don’t ruin the fun.

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