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July 18, 2012

The Lineup Card

8 Things About Baseball We No Longer Believe

by Baseball Prospectus

1. I Know a Lot About Baseball
I realize some people feel like the opposite is true, but I prefer beer to wine because of the complexity of flavors. When I taste wine, it's fine and good and whatever, and then I taste it again and I think, this is exactly the same. And I put it down. But with beer, each taste can reveal new flavors. I enjoy that complexity. It makes things interesting. That same complexity is what makes baseball wonderful. Each season, indeed each game, can reveal new flavors, new insights, and new truths that we couldn't have known before. Each year makes us say, "I'd never have thought of that," or, "There's no way I could have seen that coming." If it didn't, I don't know about you, but I'd get bored and move on to something else. Each year is both a lesson in new things and a reminder of what we don't know, a primer on all the knowledge that still remains in the vast, unexplored nebulous space of baseball truths. Each year, I feel like I have a good handle on how things are going to go that season, and each year I'm wondrously wrong. Maybe that's a personal problem, but I don't look at it that way. To me, it's the greatest gift baseball has to give. —Matthew Kory

2. The World Series Winner is the Best Team in Baseball
Someone will win the World Series this year. After all, that's the point. But calling them, unquestioningly, the best team in baseball because of a championship is silly, yet our culture is filled with plenty of ready-made narratives for teams that surprise in October. They were the best "when it counted." Apparently, nothing before October counts in baseball... except for the All-Star Game.

I don't know if this is sabermetric thinking or just two minutes of critical thinking aided by a calculator (same thing?), but let's assume that there was a team that was so good that if they played a billion games against other playoff teams (i.e., those that are actually good), they would win 60 percent of their games. On the 162-game scale, that would be 97-65... again on a schedule entirely devoid of cellar dwellars and mid-packers. This would rank as one of the greatest teams in major-league history. Using a simple binomial function, in a five-game series, our amazing team has a 68 percent chance of winning the first best-of-five round, and a 71 percent chance of winning the best-of-seven LCS, and then the best-of-seven World Series. This means that our ridiculously good team has a 34 percent chance of winning all three rounds... better than any one of the other teams, but not better than all of the rest combined. But let's flip it around the other way. Two-thirds of the time, in a field containing a downright amazing team, some team that is not the best will come through to win the trophy.

If there's something that sabermetrics has shown us, it's that over small sample sizes (like, say, five games), there's a lot of luck involved. It's an odd irony that in a country where success is presumed to be the result of hard work (and hardly of luck) that its national passtime should be so affected by the ever-tinkering hand of chance. It's un-American not to conflate the result (winning) with the input (being the best team). But for all the little edges that sabermetrics has granted those who embrace it, there's another lesson that's true, but oh-so-hard to swallow: Sometmes you do everything right, and the ball doesn't bounce your way. —Russell Carleton

3. There is No Such Thing as a Pitching Non-Prospect
I once interviewed Kevin Goldstein about Angels prospects. This was probably 2008 or 2009, and I kept naming players who had had bad seasons and was trying to write them off. They were too old! They couldn't stay healthy! They didn't walk enough, or if they were pitchers, they walked too often! And every time he walked me back. "You don't want to end a guy's career when he's 21," he said, or something like that, or maybe something not like that. That's what I remember, anyway.

I always thought prospects weren't delicate flowers and that the default was that they would get worse—good prospects would disappoint, and bad prospects would disappear. But somewhere between that conversation with Goldstein and now, Brandon Beachy went undrafted and still managed to turn into a star. Michael Fiers was drafted in the 22nd round in his age-24 season, and he's in the majors pitching well. Sean Doolittle went from injury-prone first baseman to extremely effective reliever in less than a year. It's true that attrition gets a lot of baseball players and swallows a lot of very good prospects. But the unpredictability of baseball works in both directions, especially with young pitchers who, for the first time, are learning from real coaches and really committing themselves to pitching at high levels. If you focus on those guys, rather than the Roger Salkelds and Ryan Andersons, life will seem a lot more generous, and your own future will seem a lot more hopeful. —Sam Miller

4. Gaudy Minor-League Numbers Mean Future Big-League Monster
Years ago, when I first took an interest in minor-league stats, it was so easy to determine who the future stars of the game would be. Guys like Jason Botts, Ryan Shealy, Kevin Kouzmanoff, and Kila Ka'aihue were going to be future major-league mashers, while pitchers such as Kevin Slowey, Yusmeiro Petit, and Jeremy Sowers were going to dominate the game from the bump. I mean, look at their minor-league stats! They have to.

Obviously, none of these players turned into stars, and only a few had semi-lengthy stays in the bigs.

As these players began to fail, I learned that maybe the projection and prognostication of minor leaguers isn't so easy. I've been careful not to use the word prospect, because many of the players I became enamored with were more suspects than prospects. I didn't yet understand the concept of mistake hitters, or fully grasp how good control could mask a lot of shortcomings of minor-league pitchers.

Before the days of Twitter and the Up and In Podcast, learning was more than hearing Kevin Goldstein and Jason Parks caution that minor-league stats mean very little. There is a reason scouting hasn't gone the way of the dodo, even with the advances in statistical analysis. Sure, scouts and prospect coverage outlets can be wrong. Of the players listed above, Slowey, Petit, and Sowers were all considered notable prospects at one point in time. You can add names likes Brandon Wood and Andy Marte to the list that had big prospect accolades, but failed to realize their lofty expectations in the majors. That said, it's not about what a player has done, it is about what they are going to do at the highest level. Using stats in isolation simply doesn't do a sufficient job of separating the minor-league journeymen from the future major-league stars. —Josh Shepardson

5. The Athletics are Going to Win it All... Or Just Compete
Sabermetricians have long lauded ballclubs that should be due for a breakout. Before the Tampa Bay Rays, and thanks, in part, to Moneyball​, we had the Oakland Athletics. In my formative years, I knew there was this looming giant in the AL West waiting to spring doom on the rest of the league. The problem is, the magic has largely worn out since 2006, and the A's have since become about as relevant as Notre Dame football, which has also taken a real South Bend since 2006. Rooting for the A's has become something like listening to a Knute Rockne locker room speech gone wrong. Yeah, Oakland will get its opponents on the run in the beginning of the season when they have their regular players around, but after the trading deadline, they tend to fall far short of the goal line.

Despite finishing above third place just once since '06, prognosticators still seemingly project big things for the Athletics. And the circumstances surrounding the team's poor luck isn't entirely the A's fault. They've consistently had young talent, but due to the stadium situation, the club hasn't been able to settle down. Once a player's stock rises, he's usually sold to the highest bidder. Now the A's have to compete with two super powers in the Rangers, who are already good and have a superb farm system, and the Angels, who have guys like Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, and C.J. Wilson locked in long-term.

So the last six years have busted the myth of the always-contending Athletics for me. Unfortunately for the A's, their stadium situation doesn't look like it's going to be resolved anytime soon. Even more unfortunately for them, baseball doesn't have 35 bowl games to help everyone go home with a trophy. —Stephani Bee

6. Kansas City is the Baseball Hinterlands
I'll admit, when I made my first-ever baseball trip to Kansas City for the All-Star Game earlier this month, I thought I was going to sport's hinterlands. The Royals haven't been to the postseason since winning their lone World Series in 1985. No other major-league club has suffered a longer post-season drought. Heck, the Royals have had only one winning season in the last 17 years, a Pittsburgian-type feat. Yet what I found during my time in Kansas City is a town that not only has very friendly people and great barbeque—order the burnt ends at Gates and thank me later—but a passion for baseball and a very underrated ballpark.

The Futures Game has failed to root beyond hardcore fans, yet scenic Kauffman Stadium was packed for the event, and 40,000-plus hung on every plate appearance by Royals prospect Wil Myers. While the fans went a little overboard in their booing of Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano for not selecting Royals designated hitter Billy Butler to compete in the Home Run Derby, it was noble that they showed so much passion in voicing their disproval of the move. The All-Star Game was almost over before it started, as the National League scored five runs in the top of the first inning, yet the vast majority of fans stayed in the stands until the end and still seemed to have a great time.

My most enduring memory of the festivities, though, came as I was riding the elevator back up to the press box from gathering interviews in the clubhouses following the All-Star Game. The elderly gentleman operating the elevator asked if I had a good time in Kansas City. When I answered in the affirmative, he said, "Well, then come back and see us again. We'd love to have you." I am going to take him up on that offer. —John Perrotto

7. Baseball Fans are Egalitarian in Their Assessments of Other Sports
Okay, I don’t really believe that, but this seems as good a place as any to get this off my chest. I am generalizing in all of these comments. You may or may not know that I also write for Prospectus on the NBA. In fact, I’ve written about 500 times as many basketball pieces for the company than baseball pieces. You might not know this because as a baseball fan, you don’t have any tolerance for what you perceive to be lesser sports.

Before Basketball Prospectus, I was strictly a baseball guy when it came to my professional endeavors. During the five years that I’ve straddled sports, I’ve noticed numerous times how quickly seamheads are to write derisive comments about other sports. (The NBA? Does that involve some sort of orange ball? I’ve heard ’em all.) I’ve only become aware of this during the two years I’ve been on Twitter, where I follow mostly various species of sports pundits. About the only sports event that I haven’t seen seamheads trash is European soccer. If they allow themselves an indulgence in other sports, that’s the one that seems to be bearable. With the ramp-up to football season about to begin, I fully expect to see a fresh torrent of anti-non-baseball-sports Tweets in the coming days. (I’ve seen a couple already.)

Look, I love baseball. Love. It. I also love the NBA. L-O-V-E. If you put a gun to my head and told me I had to focus on one sport or the other, my brains would probably end up on the wall because of indecision. Somewhere along the line, as I became more sensitive to silly NBA dismissals and took notice of seamheads dissing other sports, I had an epiphany. You see, I used to make fun of certain other sports as well. Soccer was one. Sometimes the NFL. Always NASCAR. Then I realized: They are all the same damned thing. In the Big Picture, they all are means to the same end. I’d rather have my teeth pulled with a garlic press before I’d watch a NASCAR race, but that’s my preference. There is no objective reason why my sports are better than those sports. No one is making me watch them, so I don’t. And I see no particular need to ridicule anyone for the particular diversion they’ve chosen. Liking baseball does not make you special.

Now, I ask you: Am I the only one that has noticed this kind of snobbery when it comes to baseball fans? Have you seen it from the fan bases of other sports? When it comes to the NBA community, I can honestly say I’ve seen very little of this kind of pseudo-elitism. —Bradford Doolittle

8. It's Fair to Compare Individual Baseball and Football Game Ratings
Every year, we’re treated to whole host of stories that draw comparisons between football TV ratings and baseball TV ratings. These stories usually focus on the fact the football ratings are higher. And they are higher—that’s indisputable. What is disputable is whether that ratings disparity tells us anything about the balance of power and popularity between the two sports.

Many writers interpret the ratings gap as evidence that football is ascendant and baseball is on its last legs, often making some snide remark about baseball’s dubious claim to the title of “national pastime.” What they tend to ignore is that baseball is in better shape than ever—it may lack its previously privileged status on the American athletic landscape, but it’s hardly about to go under because some of its fans discovered other sports. More importantly, these writers ignore the fact that baseball and football games aren’t created equal.

In football, each team plays 16 times, usually on the weekend and with a week’s worth of buildup between contests. In baseball, each team plays 162 times. It shouldn’t be surprising that football draws more viewers on a game-by-game basis, since each individual game has much higher stakes. Football games are nationally televised. Most baseball games aren’t. That means that football fans are more familiar with teams in other markets (and thus more willing to watch them) than baseball fans are, even when baseball games are on national TV. There are other factors: Football playoffs are single elimination, rather than best of five or best of seven. Football is bigger for gamblers. Baseball has to compete with more outside activities, since it mostly takes place during better weather. This is about to turn into a George Carlin routine, so I'll stop there. You get the idea.

As someone who makes a living writing about baseball, I’m more sensitive than most to any suggestion that the game is in decline. But regardless of which sport you support, you should be able to spot the obvious flaws in the rehashed ratings argument. Football may have more fans, but pointing to TV ratings is a pretty poor way to show it. —Ben Lindbergh

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