(This was written on my blog which is not all Pirates fans, but I thought I'd share here. Just wanted to explain the opening sentence. Who knew Aki would stir such debate?)
Many of you probably don't know or care that the Pirates leadoff hitter this season has been a gentleman named Akinori Iwamura. Aki is 31. He's Japanese. By all accounts he's a good guy who cares about his performance and the team's success. Banzai!
Unfortunately for Aki and the Pirates he has one hit in his last forty at bats. Just to shine a light on it, that's .025 in batting average terms. Let's shine a bright light on it. Aki's triple slash line (average/on base percentage/slugging) is .161/.255/.234 as we approach the quarter pole of the season. The Pirates' pitchers are 4 for 57 for the season for a .070 average. Aki's hitting a little better than the pitchers. On the season. In May Aki is hitting .049 and the pitchers are .118, so they've got him there.
Aki is supplementing his hitting with little power and defensively has shown the range of a couch. A big, heavy pullout couch. He plays second as if he has to unbuckle his seat belt every time he starts to move. It's not good. He is coming off a knee injury and that would seem to be having an effect, but all in the know insist that it isn't hampering him--unless something is being lost in translation as Aki uses an interpreter. Maybe "hurts like hell" in Japanese sounds like "fine" in English.
Aki's had a nice career in Japan and in the U.S. to this point. He was the starting second baseman on the Tampa Bay Rays team that made the World Series in 2008 and the Pirates picked him up in a trade this offseason. They also picked up his contract. Aki is getting paid very well. He is making $4.25 million this year, the second highest-paid of all the Pirates. But, it is clear that Aki is not producing, and in today's day and age with every game on television, recaps on all the highlight shows and countless bloggers and talk show people analyzing every move, it's tough to hide somebody's performance. The stats are there for all to see. Which is why this quote from Pirates manager John Russell is incomprehensible:
"Just keep going, that's all he can do," Russell said of Iwamura. "It's got to be a team effort. It's not one guy. Aki not getting on base is not the reason we're not scoring runs."
I'm going to go out on a limb here and say players not getting on base is a very strong contributor to the team not scoring runs. Your leadoff hitter going 1 for 40 is in fact one very large reason you are not scoring runs. I'm going to posit that getting on base is actually the key to a team scoring runs.
The Pirates have enough problems. I recognize you don't always want to be critical of a player when he is struggling, but when your organization is getting ridiculed nightly by the national press--when it cares enough to pay attention--making completely asinine statements brings everything into question and makes your fans think you have no idea what's going on.
Just as a comparison, lets look to Dan Bylsma, coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins. This Bylsma quote is in the same Pittsburgh paper the exact same day, a day after the Penguins unexpectedly got bounced out of the Stanley Cup playoffs when they were prohibitive favorites to beat the Montreal Canadiens. Bylsma is discussing two of the Penguins stars Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury, courtesy of Shelly Anderson of the Post-Gazette:
Coach Dan Bylsma didn't try to cover up the fact that Malkin and Fleury had disappointing years and drew criticism for it. Fleury won 37 games but was inconsistent. "With the status they have, the meaning they have to our team, the quality of players that they are, when things don't go well, you get criticism," Bylsma said. "Evgeni Malkin was roughly 40 points less than last year. There's going to be some questions and some criticisms. I think [Malkin] feels those. We think [Malkin] is a 114-point guy. He wasn't that this year for us."
The new management of the Pirates has made a point of constantly stressing accountability. There will be no scholarships, everything will be done on merit is the motto. That's fantastic. Banzai! And while I have two or three suggestions as to how the Pirates can best solve the problem at second base, I'll save those for another time. What I will suggest is, if the team wants to have any credibility with its fans don't completely ignore the elephant in the room. Address it. The answer doesn't have to be "Aki's terrible and he's killing us." But, take a lesson from the Penguins. Being accountable means discussing things in a reasonably honest fashion.
The organization gets to decide when changes should be made, the fans don't. Maybe the team wants to stick with the player a while longer to see if he can turn things around. Fine. The fans may not like it, but it is the team's decision. But, don't tell the fans that problems don't exist when they are so blatantly obvious. It makes the manager and the organization look like fools.
Okay, one more suggestion. Sayonara means goodbye. Time to cut Aki loose.