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Ongoing Debate: The "Hidden" Value Of Veterans?

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What better way to start off the weekend than to discuss a topic where two sides inevitably can't agree, won't change their minds no matter what is said, but will become heated to the point of speaking sharply with a tone that artfully blends agitation and petulance? Tomorrow's post: "Pro Choice Or Pro Life: Come On, You Know You Want To Change Your Opinion."

The debate begins when a team signs a Russ Springer (one example of "a Russ Springer" would be Russ Springer) or trades for a Kevin Millwood, and includes their "veteranness" as part of the perceived value they will bring to the team. The Millwood trade, and Baltimore's comments about the importance of bringing a "veteran presence" to the pitching staff, sparked the 912th debate on AN as to whether the "mental side" of the game has any actual impact on performance on a statistical or real level. Or is it just the usual psychobabble musings of a group too lazy or too into "vegan chi in yoga sauce" to realize that your ability to locate a fastball is more important than your ability to find a good pre-game warmup routine?

My thesis today (and it's my thesis that it is, and it's mine, and it's smaller in the beginning, then much much bigger in the middle, then smaller again at the far end, and it's mine) is that the value guys like Springer and Millwood (and Justice and Gant and Karros and Giambi) bring to a team is not all that "intangible" -- it comes in the form of teaching far more than it comes in the form of "presence and osmosis."

We know that pitching coaches, infield/outfield coaches, bullpen coaches, and roving instructors, all exist in order to teach, instruct, and mentor players. But baseball involves a lot of "peer teaching" too, and sometimes the teachers who are best equipped to help a young player understand how to grip a cutter, or handle an inning that is getting out of hand, or use batting practice well when they're in a slump, or read the movement of a pitch in order to get a quick first step on defense, is an active player who has "been there" and is even still "there" -- but who has, as part of their toolbag, the best teacher of all: Experience.

Some of the help Millwood offers the Orioles may be abstract and of arguable reality: "I watch the way he carries himself after a bad outing and I learn so much." But much of the help veteran players offer is concrete, in the form of conversations in the dugout or bullpen, or on the field during batting practice, about hitting, fielding, pitching, about late movement on pitches or a trick for blocking the plate, about how to get your hands to be quicker through the strike zone or how to use your lower body to add and subtract on your fastball.

These sound like the kinds of conversations and impromptu tutorials coaches should be having, but a lot of coaching comes from veteran peers. It's the nature of major league baseball and smart GMs know it. Billy Beane has brought veterans in to provide "more than just their physical skills" nearly every year for 10 years, and he does it for a reason. And it's not even that abstract or intangible -- it's just the nature of how a lot of teaching is passed on in major league baseball.

And just about everywhere else, too. I've learned some over the years by being taught, and I've learned a ton over the years by watching, and listening, while around colleagues whom I admired and respected. Why should baseball be any different?