Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Who Is Jason Michaels?

Who is Jason Michaels, and why are they saying all of those terrible things about him?

Houston Astros fans know him as a reserve outfielder who plays too much; one who contributes little to what is now the worst team in Major League Baseball. Many Houston fans feel that Michaels has limited and questionable skills and should not be taking up a roster spot that could be filled by a young player with more promise.

This topic is a source of continuing frustration for Astros fans. With the recent purge of star players being traded away, Michaels has seen more playing time, which is something of a mystery to Astros fans. The young players called up from the minors have been more productive than Michaels, yet the man known as J-Mike has not only played more than in the past, but he has been a frequent starter lately in right field.

The decisions to play Michaels have rankled Astros fans such as those in the Facebook group The Houson Astros #1 Fan Page . Fans on that page tagged Michaels with several colorful nicknames such as ‘Auto-out’, and ‘Why Am I Here’ Michaels.

Essentially a fringe player for his eleven-year big league career, Michaels has hit .263 in 1016 games, with 59 home runs and 298 RBI. Now 35 years old, Michaels has hit only .232 in three years with the Astros since being signed as a free agent. For a man who makes $900,000 a year, one would expect more than a three year total of 14 home runs and 51 runs batted in.

Michaels’ career began with promise, as he was a star with the University of Miami baseball team. According to Michaels' Wikipedia page , he was elected to the U of M Sports Hall of Fame in 2010 for his prowess as a college hitter. Michaels hit .396 during his two-year Miami career; good enough for the 3rd best batting average in Miami history. He holds several single season records, including hits, doubles, and total bases.

Michaels was drafted several times by Major League teams, but chose to stay in college until 1998 when he was drafted and signed by the Philadelphia Phillies. He played for the Phillies, Cleveland Indians, and Pittsburgh Pirates before signing with Houston. At his best, he hit 10 home runs in 2004 for Philadelphia; .304 in 2005 for the Phillies; and 55 RBI in 2006 for Cleveland – all seasons in which he was a part-time player; never appearing in more than 123 games and 494 at bats.

Michaels ran afoul of the law while playing for Philadelphia in 2005 when he was accused of punching a police officer. He served 100 hours of community service with six months probation for the offense. The following year while a member of the Cleveland Indians, Michaels was nominated by the Indians for the Roberto Clemente Award – an honor afforded the Major League player who best exemplifies the high standard of community service demonstrated by the late Clemente. It is not clear whether the Indians realized that Michaels’ community service was not voluntary, but court ordered. Regardless, Michaels did not win the award.

Michaels has played 671 games in the outfield over his career, and he has thrown out 34 runners on the bases. By comparison, fellow Astro Carlos Lee – a man with substantially less range than Michaels - has thrown out 161 base runners in 13 seasons and 1840 games. Lee is not considered an especially good outfielder, but he fares better than Michaels in this comparison. Michaels’ former Miami teammate Pat Burrell has played 1383 games as a big league outfielder in 12 seasons and thrown out 114 base runners – more than three times Michaels’ total. J-Mike’s predecessor in Houston’s right field, Hunter Pence, has already thrown out 57 base runners in only 5 major league seasons.

His career numbers show Michaels to be an average hitter and something less than average as a fielder. Those numbers show a definite decline in effectiveness in the past few years. 

These facts do not sit well with Astros fans – especially now with young players promoted to the big club; players who have more promise to be star players than Michaels has. The argument is clear: why play a man who, at age 35, possesses limited and declining skills, and is much less productive than men much younger and arguably much more talented than he is?

Houston fans continue to puzzle over the fact that Michaels receives so much playing time. His length of Major League service prevents the team from sending him to the minor leagues without his consent. His salary probably precludes the team from simply releasing him, as the Astros would still be required to pay him.

During a recent game, one fan commented on a social media web site in reaction to Michaels’ receiving playing time: “What a wasted at bat…”, and “Let the young men play!” in reference to the young, recently promoted Astros, who are already proving themselves as players with promise.

Ultimate Astros blogger Chip Bailey commented: “At this point in a lost season, Jason Michaels shouldn’t even be the first pinch hitter off the bench.” Bailey went on: “Frankly, there are too many younger players who should be in the lineup.”

Michaels has started 25 games this year; his playing time has been primarily in right field – a position for which he is not highly qualified. His lack of arm strength and accuracy are more suited for left field – a position now occupied by the obviously more talented rookie J.D. Martinez.

At the plate, in 74 games this season with 136 at bats, Michaels is hitting .199 with 2 home runs and 9 RBI. His strikeout to walk ratio is about 3 to 1 – that is, he strikes out about three times more often than he walks. As a pinch hitter – a difficult task even for the best hitters - he has been virtually ineffective, hitting .139 in 36 pinch-hit appearances, with no home runs and just one RBI.

All things considered, one must wonder why Jason Michaels occupies a Major League roster spot at all. He is the least effective hitter on the worst team in baseball. His skills do not warrant the salary he earns, and as most Astros fans will be happy to tell you – Michaels is simply taking up a spot that some more deserving young player should have.

So why is he still a Major League player? Astros fans continue to scratch their heads in wonder. One can argue that even the worst Major League player is a far better baseball player than the average human. However, it seems clear that the least effective player on the worst team in MLB would not likely hold a roster spot on any other team and so, does not deserve the playing time he receives.

What this likely comes down to is that Michaels makes too much money to release him, his value is not sufficient to trade him, and he cannot be sent to the minor leagues. What else do you do with a player like that? The Astros in their infinite wisdom just let him play, while promising young men with half the income and twice the potential sit on the bench.

It makes sense for a team such as Houston in a lost season that they would give playing time to the young talent – not the aging veteran who has little to offer on the field. The fact that Michaels plays at all, limiting playing time for the younger, more talented players simply defies logic.

All of which seems to fit perfectly with the miserable 2011 season though which the Houston Astros and their fans are suffering.

Larry Manch is an author, teacher, guitar player, freelance writer, and columnist. His books include: 'The Toughest Hundred Dollars & Other Rock & Roll Stories', 'A Sports Junkie', 'The Avery Appointment', 'Between the Fuzzy Parts'.

He also writes about baseball for Climbing Tal's Hill, food and travel on Miles & Meals, and music/guitars on The Backbeat, and is a member of the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America.

He lives in Central Texas with his wife and family.

1 comment:

  1. I don't know Jason Michaels personally. I have met several people who know Jason from his days in Philly, and several people who work with the Astros. What I'm hearing from these people is that Michaels is a good teacher, has a calming demeanor, and works well with rookies and young players. I'm one who has questioned why Michaels is here, but after listening to what I've heard from these people, I believe that the reason he's still is here is for those reasons. That's only a guess, personally, I like Michaels leadership.