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September 18, 2012

Baseball ProGUESTus

The Agony of Rational Rooting

by Nick Piecoro

Believe it or not, most of our writers didn't enter the world sporting an @baseballprospectus.com address; with a few exceptions, they started out somewhere else. In an effort to up your reading pleasure while tipping our caps to some of the most illuminating work being done elsewhere on the internet, we'll be yielding the stage once a week to the best and brightest baseball writers, researchers and thinkers from outside of the BP umbrella. If you'd like to nominate a guest contributor (including yourself), please drop us a line.

Nick Piecoro is in his sixth season as a beat writer covering the Arizona Diamondbacks for ​The Arizona Republic and azcentral.com. Once an all-glove, no-stick Little Leaguer, he grew up playing APBA games in the suburbs of Phoenix. If he’s not writing or talking or watching baseball, he’s probably listening to or watching or falling asleep to music, movies, or television shows. You can follow him on Twitter @nickpiecoro.

***

When the week began, 18 of baseball’s 30 teams either had a hold on a playoff spot or were within 4 1/2 games of one, meaning the final two weeks could provide as much entertainment for fans as last season’s exciting finish—and maybe more.

And yet here I am tangled up in a world of justice and rationality and reason, searching for balance between my head and my heart.

It comes down to this: I don’t know what to root for.

There are the things that the fan in me wants to see happen. Then there are the things I think ought to happen.

Part of me loves what the Baltimore Orioles have been able to do in giving their passionate fan base reason to care for the first time in 14 years. But another part of me sees the way their season has unfolded and considers it patently unfair that they’re in the hunt for a playoff spot.

It’s nothing against the Orioles, Buck Showalter, or Dan Duquette. It’s just that following the game closely—and spending much of the year talking with like-minded people in the industry—I want to see not only the best teams win, but the ones that have gone about it the right way.

So, as nerdy as this might sound, I guess I’m rooting for positive run differentials and good process. I’m not sure the Orioles have either.

Some of this craziness, of course, is bound to happen. It’s what we love about baseball. Every year a group of scouts and writers I know try to revel in the unpredictability by making what we call No (Effing) Way predictions—or NFWs, for short.

Players and teams come out of nowhere every year—Ben Zobrist OPSing .948 in 2009, Jose Bautista launching 54 home runs in 2010, etc.—and what we do is try to get a jump on them. It goes like this: you make a call on something you think might happen, and it counts as your NFW pick so long as everyone else decides there’s “No effing way” it happens.

If someone would have said the Orioles would be outscored by their opponents by 20-something runs, and that not one of their trio of young starters—Zach Britton, Brian Matusz, and Jake Arrieta—would have a breakout season, that wouldn’t have counted as a NFW. Too believable. But if you’d said all that would happen, plus they’d be a game behind the Yankees atop the AL East on Sept. 17, you’d have heard a chorus of NFWs as well as concerns about your sanity.

That part of their story is kind of neat, but what about the organizations that might deserve it more? Don’t the smartly run Rays, with their shoestring budget, their shrewd deal-making, and their plus-74 run differential seem more deserving? Or, for that matter, don’t the Blue Jays, another well-run organization that was struck by a storm of injuries and/or inexplicable ineffectiveness (yes, you, Ricky Romero)?

What have the Orioles done other than fire a front office that laid the groundwork for this season?

The 2012 Orioles aren’t much different from the 2007 Diamondbacks, the 2010 Padres, or even the 2012 Athletics. These out-of-nowhere teams generally have a few distinct characteristics: they have lights-out bullpens. They are good at hitting with runners in scoring position. They are good in what Baseball-Reference defines as high-leverage situations. And, as a result, they win a lot of one-run games.

But the thing I find frustrating—perhaps irrationally (or overly rationally?)—is the unpredictability and unrepeatability of all of this. Bullpen construction is notoriously difficult, with luck figuring in as a major component of success. Just look at the Orioles. They went into the year with Kevin Gregg expected to fill a prominent late-inning role. He was released last week.

And let’s not even get into the whole clutchness thing.

“I was watching our team win,” said a front-office executive of a recent surprise team, “and it made me question everything. ‘Do I even know anything about baseball?’”

I’m not the only one who finds myself confused about whom to root for this time of year.

“We feel like we need to understand this game and feel like we get it,” a scout said last week. “And then the amazing thing about it is it confirms what we believe at times, and then at times it surprises us. If it never surprised us, it would be boring. We don’t want it to be Tic-tac-toe. There needs to be some degree of that. But I share your sentiment. I don’t want the Orioles to do well. I don’t want this nonsense to continue.

“A lot of times I get so lost and so depressed, it’s almost lose-lose. I try to find someone deserving. For years, that team was the Atlanta Braves. They didn’t have ridiculous amounts of money. They did it the right way. Now, I guess I’m rooting for Texas.”

Part of our confusion stems from our own biases, from what we think is the right way to go about putting a team together and what we think defines a good team. But who says that scout has all the answers? Who says I do?

I’m nearing the end of my sixth season as a beat reporter covering the Diamondbacks, and every season has surprised me. Every single season. I thought they’d merely be competitive in 2007. They won 90 games. I thought they’d be even better in 2008. They won 82 games. I thought they’d bounce back in 2009. They lost Brandon Webb and 92 games. I figured they’d be competitive in 2010. They lost 97. I didn’t see 94 wins coming last year. I didn’t see merely a .500 team coming this year.

“Perhaps,” said Dylan Hernandez, the Dodgers beat writer for the Los Angeles Times, “this says something about you.”

Dylan was being a smartass. But he’s right, too.

I certainly don’t think I know it all. And I don’t mind being surprised. I love that in our sport, we get a leading projection model in PECOTA that is far from perfect and yet, the system’s creator, Nate Silver, can go on to accurately predict 49 of 50 states’ presidential voting results.

Maybe it’s the Greek in me that wants order out of chaos. Or maybe it’s the fact that I’ve gotten to know smart, hard-working scouts and executives who have dedicated their lives to figuring this game out. People whose jobs can disappear if things don’t go their way.

I just want to see the best teams win. I want to see the best decisions—good process—pay off in the end. I want to believe, despite all the things in the world that tell us otherwise, that good work is rewarded in the end.

Too often, that doesn’t seem to happen in baseball. But I guess if it did, we wouldn’t have anything left to debate. And what fun would that be?

31 comments have been left for this article.

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