Monday, February 27, 2012

Baseball Philosphy

I used to think I knew a lot about baseball. When I actually played I was a student of the game. I wasn't great but I loved it. I still love watching it, I love the strategy of it. Like Kissenger said, most of the action takes place in your head.

There's a lot to love about baseball. I love the Yankees. I love certain players. My favorite all time player is Lou Gehrig. I was a first baseman through most of little league and high school, but I was more of a defensive first baseman with a decent obp but not much power. I might have had a chance as a middle infielder if I could have thrown a runner out from the hole. I had the hot glove, but the arm wasn't there. But even though I'm right handed I love first base, and I took it very seriously. If a throw got past me I was ashamed. I don't care if it was in the dirt or five-yards wide, I knocked that fucker down or it was my fault, errors be damned.

Another thing I loved about baseball was baserunning. I loved Ricky Henderson. Stealing bases just seemed like such an incredible feat. Talking a walk, stealing second and scoring on a single is so beautiful it feels like cheating. Stealing third and scoring on a flyout is like money from home.  I was no base stealer, but I loved smart baserunning. Watching for fielders out of position, getting an extra base, I was all over it.

When I moved to Kansas City in 2000, it was really great because I was a 20-minute drive from the K. Kauffman Stadium was where the Royals played, and you could go there 82 times a year and see a baseball game. You could see the Yankees and the Orioles and the Red Sox. You could even see the Cardinals if you didn't mind a big crowd. (The Yankee crowds were the next biggest, for sure.) I saw just about every AL team in the three years I lived there. It was ten bucks for a bleacher seat, and I could leave my house at 7:00 for a 7:30 game and still see some warm-ups.

In KC I started following a baseball writer named Rob Neyer. Rob published a lot of baseball columns, and he did a personal column about the Royals, of whom he was a fan. He was a disciple of Bill James and talked a lot about sabermetrics. SABR is the Society of American Baseball Research, and learning about sabermetrics was a real eye opener to me. Sabermetricians basically believe that baseball players and games can be broken down to statistical probabilities based on a players numbers. And that certain numbers are much more important than others. Like on-base percentage and slugging versus batting average and RBIs.

The thing that stung the worst is that defense and baserunning, especially steals, are not important statistics in sabermetrics. That hurt. I loved defense and baserunning, and considered them a quintessential part of the game. Yet here I am learning they are essentially meaningless in the eventual outcomes of the game. This sounded like crazy talk. How could I be so wrong?

Well, of course baserunning and defense matter. They just don't matter enough. In general one player is not statistically better enough at baserunning or defense to outweigh a possible difference in any meaningful offensive statistic. Remember how I was a superior defensive player and put a lot of emphasis on baserunning? It didn't get me far, because those qualities just don't matter as much as being able to put the bat on the ball and making it go a long way. Period. Especially at a position like first base.

Steals are the same. Risking a baserunner that can score on the next extra-base hit costs more than would have been earned by the extra base stolen. So you have to steal successfully at a rate better than 50 percent to make it worthwhile. A great deal more than 50 percent. The risk is generally not worth it.

I always hated the whole "bloop and a blast" philosophy of guys like Earl Weaver, but while old Earl didn't know diddly or shit about sabermetrics, yet he was closer to right than a team that tries to leg out a single, bunt him to second then attempts to poke him in with a line drive. The math just doesn't bear that philosophy out. Walks and slugging are more important priorities.

And walks are insidious. Making the pitcher throw pitches is valuable. Get him tired and hit the hell out of him. Sure there are bullpens full of fresh arms, but bullpens get exhausted in long series, and that brief period when a pitcher starts to get tired are opportunities that cannot be overlooked.

I was completely wrong about what was really important about baseball. Crash Davis said, "strikeouts are boring, besides that they're fascist." Called strikes, balls and taking walks are boring too, but going deep into counts and drawing walks makes it far more likely your team will win. Everyone loves to see an amazing defensive play, a diving catch in the outfield or a shortstop that goes miles into the hole and makes the throw. But those plays are just for the highlight reels, they aren't that important in the long run.

I still love baseball. I can't wait for the season to start. One of the best parts of being a baseball fan is that there's still so much to learn about the game. More opportunities to be wrong.

1 comment:

Josie said...

I'm sure the red sox drew more crowds than the skanky probably didn't attend many sox games is all. No accounting for good taste!