So Andy Martino, over at the New York Daily News, asked this question on Twitter:
“Why do people compare Francisco to Benitez? There have been many bad closers in the intervening years.”
His implication seemed clear, particularly from the writer who once wrote a piece speculating that Mets fans, who adored Jose Reyes and Pedro Martinez, were sour on Luis Castillo because of race, rather than because of his poor play on the field or that dropped pop up against the Yankees.
From my perspective, I am glad Martino is taking a closer look at the role race plays in the perception of athletes. I think it would be too simple to dismiss the role it plays in many instances.
But let’s try and examine what other reasons fans could have for comparing Frank Francisco to Armando Benitez.
First, the idea that the Mets have had “many bad closers” since Armando Benitez left just isn’t true. Since Benitez left, the Mets have had three regular closers: Braden Looper, Billy Wagner and Francisco Rodriguez. The latter two were among the best closers in Mets history. Looper, obviously, was not.
Aha! And Looper is white! So race must be the reason why Mets fans compare Benitez and Francisco, correct?
Well, there are a number of other reasons, too.
Armando Benitez was a heavyset reliever who threw a majority of fastballs. His second pitch was a splitter. He suffered from command issues with his slider pitches, tended to leave those fastballs over the middle of the plate when he got beaten. He was primarily a flyball pitcher whose velocity tended to hover in the mid-90s. He walked well more than four per nine innings, and struck out better than a batter per inning.
All of these things are true for Frank Francisco, too. All of them. They are both a very specific type of pitcher. They also look remarkably similar, facially, and wear practically the same number: Benitez wore 49, Francisco wears 48.
And Braden Looper was a groundball pitcher who barely struck out anybody. Mets fans weren’t fond of him, but it wouldn’t make any sense at all to compare Francisco to Looper, for reasons having nothing to do with race.
Notice also that despite a general dislike of Francisco Rodriguez within the fan base, no one is comparing Francisco to Rodriguez, despite the two of the being of Latin descent.
Like I said at the top, looking at the role race plays in the perception of athletes is worth doing. Throwing assertions and insinuations about it out there, when there are clearly more obvious reasons for fan reaction, diminishes the careful look at an important aspect of analysis and makes the case harder to present when racial motivations really are present. I think Martino does a disservice to such examinations by saying this on Twitter, just as I believe he did with his Castillo piece.