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October 26, 2010

Expanded Horizons

Lessons from the Flags

by Tommy Bennett

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Now that our pennant winners are set, let’s congratulate the San Francisco Giants and Texas Rangers. After all, flags do fly forever. There is no taking away the joy a pennant brings to a fan base (not to mention the concomitant increase in revenues to the team). For the rest of us, though, there’s an unfortunate side to pennant winners being set: we’re stuck with them until next spring.

Just like the old adage that, in a democracy, you get the leaders you deserve, baseball gets the pennant winners it deserves. This happens not through any electoral process but through projection—the reduction of a team’s strengths and weaknesses to PowerPoint bullet lists in a never-ending attempt to identify the next 2010 San Francisco Giants. (I believe, though I can’t be sure, that there are good men and women still out there searching for the next 2008 Tampa Bay Rays.)

In an attempt to obstruct, or at least forestall, the inevitable onslaught of wisdom-nuggets derived from the respective success of the Giants and Rangers this year, I’d like to preview what they may be. With that knowledge in hand, we can debunk each talking point as either (a) factually untrue, or (b) simply unrepeatable.

Lessons from the Giants

“You have got to acquire veterans for stretch runs to build chemistry in the clubhouse.”

The interpersonal relationships and the off-field attitudes of the players undoubtedly affects the success of a baseball club. It’s notoriously difficult to say by how much, though. Even granting that the impact is a close win or two, how do we know which guys are good to get? Pat Burrell and Cody Ross were, with the benefit of hindsight, terrific additions to the Giants roster that were undoubtedly helpful down the stretch and in the playoffs. But then why wasn’t there more interest in them when they became available? And why didn’t they help the Rays and Marlins, respectively—both arguably on the cusp of playoff contention in 2009—get to the playoffs?

But here is a trickier question. Let’s try to guess, for next year, which players are going to be veterans who bring experience to the clubhouse. If we could have any degree of accuracy, what smart GM wouldn’t go sign them? Asking for the ability of some repeatable foresight, above and beyond random guessing, is the barest minimum of a persistent trait.

So then what do we make of Ross and Burrell? How do we explain their success? Here’s what is definite about Burrell: he hit .266/.364/.509 for the Giants in 2010. For his career, he has hit .254/.362/.475. He was 33 years old this season, which is only just at the beginning of the decline phase in most hitters’ careers. Likewise, Ross hit .288/.354/.466 for the Giants. His career line? .265/.323/.466. He’s even younger at 29, so a little extra batting average pizzazz after departing Dolphin Stadium was entirely predictable. So what’s the rule? Acquire sluggers who have struggled recently but have solid career numbers and are still in their peak years. Wait a minute!

What about the age factor? The Giants hitters, at least, were older than average. Weighted by plate appearances, their average batter was aged 29.4 years (ninth-oldest in the majors). By innings pitched, their pitchers were much younger, though, at 27.9 years (ninth-youngest). But maybe you want veteran hitters who have been to the playoffs before, since that’s how you win in the playoffs? Trouble is, the Phillies had the oldest lineup in baseball (31.1 years) and their sluggers had plenty of playoff experience. They still lost to the Giants. What about young pitching—how could anyone disagree with young pitching? Ask the Padres! They had a staff nearly a year younger (27.2) than the Giants and all they got was this lousy round of October golf. So what’s the rule? Teams win by being good, and while age can be an aid in projecting performance, it is by no means the most important factor.

One last factor that may be cited more than any other to explain the Giants success is the success of their pitching staff in September. Collectively, it pitched 259 1/3 innings, struck out 259, walked just 70, and allowed just 18 home runs. That’s a great bit of pitching, to be sure, but what possible value could it have going forward? Is there a GM in baseball who wouldn’t love his pitchers to find a new gear in September? I’d like a Shetland pony, too, since I think it would go well with Tim Lincecum. Unless the claim is that the Giants pitchers did something intentionally to get in a groove in September—in which case why not build the entire plane out of it?—it’s hard to see the explanatory value. 

Lessons from the Rangers

Young Turks, hit and run tonight! Time is on your side! The Rangers, led by Elvis Andrus, were one of the younger lineups in baseball (28.3 years old, eighth in the majors). But we already said age isn’t the only concern, and it’s easy enough as it is to forget that Ian Kinsler is 28, Josh Hamilton is 29, and Nelson Cruz is 30.

What about baserunning? The Rangers have strong runners who can tire out a defense and keep pressure on pitchers. That has got to explain at least some of their playoff success, right? In the ALCS against the Yankees, the Rangers had a total of nine stolen bases against just two caught stealing. Moreover, they ranked third overall in our Equivalent Base Running Runs report—paced by strong showings from Andrus (8.2 runs), Kinsler (5.0 runs), Hamilton (3.0 runs), and Cruz (1.5 runs). But even this impressive season total netted the Rangers only the equivalent of one extra win, hardly enough to help put them in the playoffs. Pro-rated to the course of a six-game series, it would be hard to argue that was the decisive skill they possessed.

What about shutdown closers? Certainly Neftali Feliz has serious gas (and Brian Wilson, questionable facial hair decisions to one side, is no slouch in the velocity department himself). Sure, it helps, but tell it to Heath Bell (who ranked second in our WXRL report), or Rafael Soriano (who ranked fourth), or to poor Joakim Soria (first).

It’s Gotta Be The Defense

The one category in which the Rangers and Giants finished the season first and second is Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency (PADE). At 2.16 for the Rangers and 2.04 for the Giants, each team turned more than two percent more balls in play into outs than the league average (after adjusting for park). Maybe, then, all teams have to do is develop ways to measure and acquire defensive skills.

Hey, I bet that’s exactly what the Rays had in mind when they hired BP alum James Click, the inventor of PADE, to be their Coordinator of Baseball Operations! Ah, and yet, the Rays finished just sixth in PADE this year. But listen, Tampa Bay, I have some good news for you. Flags fly forever.

More damning is the fact that the Giants had the league’s best PADE last year, too, and before that it was the Cubs. Like young pitching, veteran hitting, and baserunning, no single factor of team quality is a sine qua non of a pennant winner. Instead of looking for the next Giants or the next Rangers or the next 1994 Montreal Expos, we should embrace the many ways in which baseball teams can be great.

Question of the Day

Are there useful lessons in team building that we can glean from the examples of the Giants and Rangers? Is there any one talent that is absolutely indispensable for a pennant team to possess?

Related Content:  Giants,  The Who

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