Thursday, September 27, 2007

What Baseball Players (Don't) Know About Baseball, Part II

SI Players Poll: "Which individual hitting statistic is the most meaningful?"

Runs Batted In: 41%
On-base percentage: 19%
Batting average: 13%
On-base plus slugging: 11%
Runs: 6%

So in a landslide, MLB players would rather have Julio Lugo (73 RBI) at the plate instead of Derek Jeter (71), Ichiro Suzuki (68), Barry Bonds (66), or Alfonso Soriano (65).

(These people voting are the guys who will be managing your favorite team in 20 years.)

Monday, September 03, 2007

Thanks for the (Results Based) Analysis

This is why so many baseball fans watch the game but have no clue what’s happening or why it’s happening. It’s not because of clueless announcers talking about the need for the hit and run, or even the constant use of irrelevant stats, it’s this article. Well ok not just that article in particular, but having been a baseball fan for 15 years I’ve essentially read that article 10,000 times already, except maybe never with the cancer twist before.

The piece in question starts to turn south at the title “Lester limits damage by showing will.” Now it might only be because the Red Sox haven’t had a left handed pitching prospect in about 50 years but let me say I’m a big Jon Lester fan. And by big I mean probably the biggest. I’ve seen 2 of his AA starts, about 10 of his AAA starts, and every one of his 22 major league starts (most of them multiple times). Out of all of those, if I had to pick the worst one, it would definitely be the latest performance in question.

So why are we reading an article about him using his will to limit the damage and “getting out of it”? It’s because he only allowed 2 earned runs in 6 innings, and got the win next to his name. Now I’m not saying had I wrote the article I would have entitled it “Jon Lester Really Sucked Out There and We All Hope the Cancer Comes Back.” Instead I probably would have the written equivalent baseball-speak “Lester Uneven in Return to the Majors (And Buchholz Fans Secretly Hope the Cancer Comes Back)”.

I would never want a negative article written about one of the home team’s players in the home team’s newspaper, it should be all support, all the time. The rival town’s papers will push them down, don’t also let it happen from within. The problem is the incessant assigning of responsibility to the player for everything that happens on the baseball diamond. There is no room in these baseball writer’s minds for the inherent variance in the game. In other words there’s no room for any statistical knowledge in a head filled with old timey baseball clichés. There’s no logic to a ball being smashed right at the third baseman, or a few feet to the left or right, so in one case the guy is a hero and in the other he choked. On TV we watch replay after replay of a batter being jammed to hit a bloop single but do they ever replay the perfect swing that resulted in a lineout to the center fielder, no way, why would you replay “failure”?

On to the garbage:
Control is lacking, but he’s aggressive in return

What does that mean? How can a pitcher be aggressive aside from throwing strikes or throwing pitches at people’s heads? Lester threw 90 pitches and only 50 of them strikes, and not a single ball at someone’s head.

The emotional return to the Red Sox was all well and good for Jon Lester, but the cancer-beating lefthander needed some tweaks after six inconsistent starts. So the Red Sox sent him down to Double A Portland for a start, and he returned yesterday afternoon with something the big club hadn't seen before. The emotional return to the Red Sox was all well and good for Jon Lester, but the cancer-beating lefthander needed some tweaks after six inconsistent starts. So the Red Sox sent him down to Double A Portland for a start, and he returned yesterday afternoon with something the big club hadn't seen before.

That’s not even what happened, the Red Sox chose Tavarez over Lester in his last start because the White Sox hit better against lefties than righties and he went to AA instead of AAA because it was Buchholz’s schedule day to pitch. And Lester doesn’t just need some tweaks, he needs a lot of them. His regression in AAA stats in his second year is the ultimate red flag for a supposed pitching prospect with plus stuff and his major league performance his very consistently left a lot to be desired. Also he's a great guy, a great example of how disease doesn't discriminate, and optimistically faced the terrible treatment without asking "why me?" but did Lester beat cancer or did years of medical research, highly paid doctors, and his pre-existing sound health beat it? I guess a lesser, or poorer man, would have laid down and died?

"You could tell from his bullpen before the game that he had a different mind-set and was very aggressive," said catcher Kevin Cash. "As far as his overall tempo, it was just night and day compared to what I've seen in the past."

Did his own catcher even watch the game? Seeing as how he immediately fell behind the free-swinging Tike Redman 3-0 to start the game and then walked him, I sure hope he enters his next start with an entirely different mindset. Anyone watching definitely noticed the difference in tempo, i.e. Lester took much less time between pitches than he normally does, but if anything all that did was make him rush his delivery. Faster doesn’t exactly equal better in pitching. He consistently missed with pitches way high and away to righties, whereas he traditionally pulls pitches down and in to righties, throwing unnaturally way across his body.

But Lester nonetheless gave a strong outing, earning the win in a 3-2 Red Sox victory with six innings of escape artistry.

Yes because Lester artistically got a rocket down the line in the first, which would have been a double or triple if not for the leadoff and then artistically coaxed Tejada into hitting a bullet to right field for the final out of the inning. In his one big chance to really pitch well under pressure (after he loaded the bases with walks and a single with no one out in the 4th), he hurriedly fell behind Mora by trying to overthrow two fastballs. Then with the count 2-0 he threw 2 BP fastballs right down the middle which Mora watched with a dreamy disinterest. Then on 2-2 he threw the same pitch he always does when he’s in trouble, a cutter, which surprised Mora (for some reason) enough that he hit a soft liner. Had the liner been a 2 run single Lester probably would not have made it out of that inning, and the outing would have been labeled another clunker.

"It's all on me," Lester said. "It's not like I'm just going out there giving up hits, which I can swallow. If I'm going out there and getting whacked around a little bit and getting the bases loaded, that's a little easier to take than walking the bases loaded.

Even Lester himself even knows he can’t keep walking guys like he does. He knows main flaw in his pitching is his erratic delivery, and I hold out hope that he can get it under control in the next few seasons.

"He's young and sometimes doesn't command the way he will," said manager Terry Francona. "He can get himself into some spots. But as we've seen so many times, he can get himself out of them, too. His will to pitch and compete is really really exceptional for a young pitcher."

Most pitchers, especially young pitchers, don’t even try to compete, it’s really a shame. Clay Buchholz for instance didn’t pitch out of one jam in his start, really disappointing.

Although Lester's day ended earlier than he would have liked, it was a positive development, building on his stint in the minors. Lester made one start for Portland, allowing one run over six innings and concentrating on his delivery.

Um I don’t know about that, he looked pretty terrible in that AA outing as well, walking 4 hitters and getting help from a runner being throw out at home.

It's a given that whenever a pitcher struggles but doesn't give up many runs for whatever reason, it's labeled as a gutty or gritty outing. What’s truly unfair is when the opposite happens as did with Lester, when a starter pitches very well in a big start but due to circumstances outside of his control he gives up several runs and gets the loss. All you can do as a pitcher is execute as many pitches as possible and let the bounces decide whether you were gritty or gutless.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

This Debate Ended 12 Years Ago and the Wild Card Won

After a final week of August stacked with excellent match-ups between division contenders, there are still writers complaining that the races to October aren’t as exciting as in the good old days. This latest bit of garbage comes from the incomparable(ly old) Murray Chass of the New York Times.

The complaint? The Yankees are involved in 2 races: the wild card race that they have a pretty good shot of taking, and a far less likely but what the hell who knows division race against the Red Sox. If you are a Yankee fan this seems like a great thing because as Chass concedes,

“Anything can happen once a team reaches October (There’s only one October,” Major League Baseball tells us incessantly.)”

That last part seems like an innocent shot at Fox’s latest attempt to sloganeer baseball to death. But you should know something about this man. You see, Murray Chass actually believes in two Octobers. One he calls “October Prime.” An October where the Yankees make the post-season and all is right with the world. The other? “Nega-October.” A blackened hell-scape where the Yankees are banished to a non-playoff limbo, while an 8-armed, dead-eyed madman he calls The Octo-Clops ascends from the abyss to raze cities and kidnap orphans.

Anyway. Chass complains that in all likelihood Boston and New York are both making the post-season this year. As of today Baseball Prospectus’ handy post-season odds page puts their playoff chances at 99% and 71% respectively. If you are a fan of either team you can relax (or do whatever the Red Sox fan equivalent of relaxing is.) So what’s the problem?

Apparently the Wild Card is since most of the article is a baffling indictment of it. Like me you’d read this and say, “We’ve been living with the Wild Card since 1995! All of a sudden it’s a problem because an arbitrarily defined Yankee ‘surge’ won’t knock the Red Sox out of the playoffs?” Well you’d have a point.

Unfortunately, Murray Chass has a New York Times column and a rudimentary grasp of the mimeograph.

Even though Chass acknowledges that Wild Card teams are plenty capable of post-season success, he continues:

Not that there’s anything wrong with a second-place team emerging on top, especially when that team may have a better record than some other division champion, and not that there’s anything wrong with keeping teams in contention deeper into the season than they would otherwise be. And not that there’s anything wrong with putting more people in the parks in September and creating more revenue for more teams and increasing the television ratings.

All of those reasons are why Commissioner Bud Selig loves the wild card, which was created by necessity when the leagues went to three divisions. But Selig the baseball fan would have to acknowledge that the wild card detracts from the division races.

“Not that there’s anything wrong with a second-place team emerging on top” and “deeper into the season than they would otherwise be” drip with condescension, and the second part is just flat out obnoxious. THE WILD CARD HAS BEEN AROUND FOR 13 SEASONS THESE TEAMS ARE EXACTLY WHERE THEY SHOULD BE.

Also, cynically bringing up revenue and TV ratings, and appealing to Selig “as a baseball fan” to make the Wild Card seem like a coarse money-making scheme by a commissioner who doesn’t care about the sanctity of the game is ridiculous. Yes. It is factually correct that Wild Card era baseball has seen a significant boost in September attendance since the format was instituted (around 30% according to BP’s recent “It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over” book.) But a real fan of the sport would be excited about increased interest in baseball and hell, just the extra number of games it creates.

The Wild Card, by definition, adds a competitive element to September. Even if it might seem to the misguided older fan that it has taken something away by altering the traditional “winner take all” division race, it has created a new cross-division race that can be just as exciting.

If Murray Chass can brace himself for a second, there is a whole world of baseball outside of Boston and New York and hacky attempts to force a “Ghost of 1978” narrative on the season. The National League right now is a picture of parity, with no 2nd place team trailing by more than 4 games, one division in a tie, and the Wild Card race pretty much a toss-up between any decent non-Central team. The Wild Card brings hope and success to a wider net of teams, and resultantly a wider net of followers. That seems pretty exciting to me, the baseball fan.

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