MLB commissioner Rob Manfred pauses before answering a question about the Houston Astros while holding his press conference during the "Florida Governor's Dinner" marking the start spring training at the Atlanta Braves' CoolToday Park Sunday, Feb. 16, 2020, in North Port, Fla.
Photo: Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Marcus Musings: MLB’s Astros debacle, Luke Fickell picks Cincinnati over Michigan State and more

After missing a week, we’re back with some thoughts on the latest comings and goings in the sports world… 

  • I am amused that whenever schools have to vacate an NCAA championship, I see over and over again that is dumb and meaningless, but there seems to be a consensus the Houston Astros should be stripped of their 2017 World Series title after an MLB investigation found they were systematically cheating for multiple seasons. I realize it is not exactly apples to apples, but the point is maybe actually being able to claim a title matters after all, huh?
  • Hard to believe how badly commissioner Rob Manfred and the Astros themselves have handled this whole thing. I understand Manfried’s hands might have been tied as far as punishment of the players because of the CBA and what was specifically against the rules, but don’t try to downplay whether or not they actually deserved to be punished for cheating if you concluded they cheated. 
  • Normally I am big on personal responsibility, but the Astros completely failing to take any of the blame also reflects poorly on the commissioner. A more competent leader might have done something behind closed doors to make sure there was a united front expressing contrition on the first day of spring training so everyone could move on. In other words: The players should understand how fortunate they are not to have been punished and at least pretend to be grateful they are still allowed to play. Fake it ‘til you make it at least? I never thought PR was that complicated, at least in terms of non-serious things like sports and entertainment, but I am continually reminded that must not be the case as athletes, coaches, commissioners and celebrities continually step on that rake. 
  • Trevor Bauer’s criticisms of the Astros and Manfred are headline stuff and rightly so, but I’m surprised he thinks someone can’t be both a billionaire and an idiot. Seems to be a lot of evidence getting rich doesn’t require brains. And staying rich? Even less so… 
  • Beyond that, Bauer made another a great point that will probably get lost: Baseball has the most diverse workforce of all the major sports and does the worst job of promoting that. READ MORE (via The Athletic): Trevor Bauer was asked about the Astros. He didn't hold back...
  • Bauer and Manfred are becoming quite the antagonists. Bauer already has criticized MLB’s numerous ideas for changing the game, some of which are worse than others. I endorsed the pace of play initiatives first floated a few years ago, and I like the idea of the three-batter minimum, but The Athletics points out it probably won't make games shorter and might make them longer. It might not even reduce the number of pitching changes much because these situations occur less than you think, and if a guy gets shelled he’ll be taken out anyway after facing three batters instead of one or two. However, something this story does not consider is the potential to change the general ethos of bullpen management. That is to say the overmanagement of bullpens popularized by our old friend Tony LaRussa. What if another consequence of this rule would be continuing the trend of managers putting in guys to, ya know, get multiple outs? Pitching is pretty much in crisis right now because teams are clueless in terms of developing pitchers. Throwers they know, but pitchers are another matter. Managing pitch counts has not prevented arm injuries, but it has taught guys to artificially limit what they think they can do, and there’s a big trickledown effect from that. Challenge guys to pitch through adversity and you just might have more reliable pitchers, which could also necessitate fewer pitching changes on its own. 
  • The same author also had a piece arguing for changing the strike zone. I like the idea, but I also think it gives pitchers a little too much credit. One reason strikeouts are up is many batters have a terrible approach. Chasing homers, they take too many good pitches looking for great ones and set themselves up to strike out by letting the pitcher get ahead in the count. (This is another ethos problem baseball has developed over the past two decades that has made the game less entertaining.) Raising the bottom of the strike zone might also further the velocity problem (teams being too obsessed with it is ruining scouting, development and young arms while also failing to actually produce as many good pitchers as the league needs) by encouraging guys to try to blow people away up in the zone, of course. 
  • I’ll conclude the baseball portion of this blog with this: Never forget the team that is apparently most obsessed with analytics also felt it had to cheat to win. Great endorsement for their revolutionary approach, eh?
  • So more than a few people seemed to be surprised Luke Fickell chose to stay at Cincinnati rather than go to Michigan State. I was not. As many have stated by now, Fickell is not your typical coach looking to get as high up the ladder as quickly as he can. There are a lot of reasons to think for Fickell the Cincinnati job is as good or better than the Michigan State job at this point in time. Aside from Ohio State or Notre Dame, I’m not sure many jobs would pull him from the Queen City in the foreseeable future. I could really see him being at UC for 10 years or more as long as there are not major changes such as the school officials deciding they no longer want to be committed to greatness. Everyone is different, but there is something to be said for doing things your way and being happy with what you have. UC is a place where a good coach can make a good living and win consistently even if the national championship is a long shot. But here’s the thing: The national championship is a long shot everywhere, so if you are job-hopping with that as a major factor, you might want to rethink your motivation. 
  • Beyond that, I don’t think the whole situation now has as many parallels to 2007 as people assumed. I’m not sure Michigan State is nearly as good a job as people seem to think, but there is no doubt Cincinnati is a much better job than it was in 2007. Mark Dantonio and Brian Kelly raised the bar for Bearcats football, and the administration has answered the call multiple times since then when it comes to investing in the stadium, facilities and staff. 
  • Dantonio improved the Spartans, obviously, but the peak likely is not sustainable — and the peak would be the main attraction from a competition standpoint. The 2013 team was legitimately very good on both sides of the ball by the end of the season, but the ’14 and ’15 teams were not nearly as good defensively. The ’15 team making the College Football Playoff, in which the Spartans were totally outclassed by Alabama, required four one-score top 10 wins, including the wacky walkoff blocked punt touchdown return at Michigan, and the program has never shown it can recruit at the level of the Wolverines or Penn State, let alone Ohio State. Michigan being good (yeah, not great, I know, but good) is also a big problem for the Spartans as those two rivals have pretty much never been good at the same time. 
  • While there are fears an elite handful of teams are separating themselves from the rest of CFB, I see the middle class getting bigger. That is bad for Michigan State and good for Cincinnati. 
  • Bottom line: Fickell can build a similar roster, face a weaker schedule at Cincinnati and reap the rewards of winning 10 games every year. When the CFP inevitably expands, he might actually have a better chance of making it if he has to beat half as many ranked teams to win his league with fewer than two losses. 
  • Speaking of college football, Marvin Lewis has joined the Arizona State staff. Lewis as CFB recruiter could be pretty fascinating. Like Jim Tressel, I get the impression he’s much different with the media than he is in any other setting. A lot of personality there he just chose not to reveal.
  • And lastly: The Browns seem to have hired a defensive coordinator with a better resume than head coach, but I guess that’s better than the Bengals, who hired a linebackers coach with a better resume than theirs.

“Marcus Musings” is a semi-regular feature here at the blog. While most of our other coverage is concentrated on news and analysis, this is a place to share opinions on various stories permeating the sports world and (hopefully) have some fun. Have your own thoughts? Send them along to marcus.hartman@coxin.com or find us on Twitter or Facebook.   

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About the Author

Marcus Hartman
Marcus Hartman
Marcus Hartman has been a digital sports columnist and reporter at Cox Media Group Ohio since 2016. 
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