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October 14, 2003

Prospectus Today

The Politics of Glory

by Joe Sheehan

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If you were a Yankee fan looking for a sign that Game Four was going to go differently than Game One did, Alfonso Soriano leading it off with a walk wasn't a bad one. Unfortunately, Soriano's was just about the last good plate appearance the Yankees had all game. As in Game One--and for that matter, as in most games this postseason--the Yankees treated their outs like the mashed potatoes at a Vegas buffet: eat all you want, someone will refill the tray. There was no refill, though; 27 outs later, the Red Sox had tied the ALCS at two games apiece.

This isn't the same team that scored 877 runs during the season. The Yankees are drawing about one fewer walk per game, which doesn't mean much in a four-game sample. The quality of their at-bats has fallen through the floor, however. With the exception of Bernie Williams, Yankee hitters have been jumping at the ball the whole series. They're exhibiting no patience, especially with runners on base, throwing away at-bat after at-bat after at-bat. Look at the way they're swinging: they're out in front of everything and trying to hit every ball out of the park. It's exactly the opposite of how they got here in the first place.

Right now, the Red Sox are playing better baseball than the Yankees are. They're hitting for power and their pitchers are exploiting the Yankees' sudden need to be the Cubs. The Sox won last night's game not with the sacred little things, but with the big things: home runs, good starting pitching, dominant relief.

Come to think of it, that's how everyone is winning. The relentless bray of some analysts aside, success in this postseason is directly the result of doing the big things:

  • Teams that have outhomered their opponent are 15-3
  • Teams that have more baserunners (hits plus walks) than their opponents are 21-5
  • The team whose starter posts the higher game score is 23-4
  • The team with more sacrifice bunts in a game is 5-7

I recognize that some of the above is tautological. (E.g., teams win by allowing fewer runs than they score, which is reflected in game scores; teams tend to sacrifice when they're behind.) However, in an age when you can't get away from the invocation of the blessed little things, shouldn't the above be taken as some evidence that winning really is about getting on base, hitting for power, and stopping the opposition from doing the same, and not bunting, stealing, situational hitting and baserunning? If a handful of idiotic plays by the A's are evidence that they can't win in the postseason, the above data should be a hell of a lot more convincing that big things are what matters, and I concede that it's a small sample of games.

In addition, the little-ball tactics we've seen have been largely ineffective. Base-stealers in the playoffs are 27-for-38, a 71% success rate. That's slightly above the historical break-even point and probably a little under what you need in the current run environment. Just sitting here and going through game logs, I see a number of caught stealings--including some goofy attempts to steal third base--that cut innings short, and few steals that had an impact. Any number of potentially big innings have been gutted by sacrifice bunts that stopped offensive momentum and provided a teetering pitcher a much-needed out.

In The Politics of Glory, his excellent 1994 book about the Hall of Fame, Bill James argued that the reason writers in the 1940s and 1950s elevated Phil Rizzuto above Vern Stephens, despite Stephens' superior performance record, was to show that they appreciated the more subtle skills demonstrated by ballplayers.

Stephens was a tremendous hitter for average and power who put a ton of runs on the board, many more than Rizzuto did. He didn't have Rizzuto's teammates, however, and so his season usually ended a week or two before Rizzuto's each year. Rather than acknowledge that the Red Sox had a better shortstop but the Yankees a better team, the writers latched on to the idea that the things Rizzuto did better than Stephens made up all the ground between the two as players. It was a ridiculous notion; Rizzuto's small-ball skills and defense were very good, and at that, there was still no way he was Stephens' match as a ballplayer.

The idea took hold not because it was true, but because it created the illusion the writers knew something about the game that the fans didn't. They could share that knowledge and appear to be more sophisticated in their appreciation of baseball.

The current fascination with little ball--which is at its peak among ex-players who work as analysts--stems from the exact same place. It's a way of showing that you understand the game beyond home runs and strikeouts, the elements that impress the casual fan. It's analysis that is perfectly comfortable with being counterfactual as long as it remains loyal to its core principle: that the things you cannot see from the outside are much more valuable than the things you can. You need a former ballplayer to tell you what is, or what should be, happening, because you can't grasp the subtleties sitting in your living room.

It's a lie. Not since the earliest days of the 20th century have tactics, one-run strategies and the like, been more important to winning baseball games than the big things are. The most rudimentary understanding of baseball--hitting the ball hard and far is good, stopping the other guys from doing those things is good--unadorned by any input from what passes for mainstream analysis would be better than what fans get from 95% of the former players paid to comment about baseball in various media.

Exhibit #1: last night's game. In the seventh inning, the Red Sox loaded the bases with one man out. Jason Varitek hit a soft line drive to the shortstop, a ball on which the Yankees got a force play at second base but didn't turn the double play, costing them a run.

What was said was that Derek Jeter had made a good play just to get one out. As is typical for the mainstream media--and almost a fetish with anyone working for Fox--Jeter was praised for what he accomplished, and the task he didn't assumed to be beyond the scope of any shortstop.

What actually happened was something far, far different. Jeter fielded the ball on one hop while moving to his right. Unable to pivot off his right foot, he took two more steps to his right before releasing a sidearm throw that had very little on it. Basically, with a choice between a quick flip and a couple of steps to set himself for a strong throw, Jeter had chosen both.

Second baseman Alfonso Soriano took the throw as he was coming across the bag towards third base. Without a baserunner particularly close to him. Soriano had no reason not to get off a strong throw. Nevertheless, rather than plant and get something on the ball, he flipped it off his back foot, and the weak toss was a heartbeat too late to get Varitek at first base.

The Yankees' brutal middle-infield defense had cost the team a critical run in a playoff game, and the only analysis being performed was not just wrong, it was Orwellian doublespeak. A good middle infield turns that double play. If either Jeter or Soriano--either one of them, not even both!--had their footwork together to make a strong throw, the Yankees would have gotten two outs and been out of the inning without a run scoring.

But hey, at least that run didn't matter much.

I've lost any ability to understand the Derek Jeter thing. For years, statheads who pointed out how Jeter ranked at or near the bottom of every defensive statistic every single year were derided for being critical of such a great player. I actually understood the difficulty in getting the idea across to people. Jeter is a smart, athletic player with excellent physical tools. He would often make good-looking plays, relying largely on his strong arm. It is hard to convince people that a player who looks very good isn't; the defensive metrics aren't easily explained and they come with many caveats, and there's an ingrained bias against evaluating defense with statistics.

Now, however, Jeter looks terrible. The Yankees give up hit after hit up the middle on balls that average shortstops handle easily, and it passes without mention. The standard line you hear is that Jeter's shoulder--the one he injured on Opening Day--is affecting his play. That may be so, but the fact is this is the same defense he played before the shoulder injury. He has had terrible footwork for his entire career, and I believe that his outsized defensive reputation has been a considerable barrier in getting him to improve that, actually.

That Tim McCarver can look at Derek Jeter and praise his defense is something I do not and cannot understand. This isn't about stats, it's about competence. If you can't look at Jeter and see that he's completely overmatched by the defensive demands of shortstop, then why should I believe anything you have to say about baseball? You've made up your mind based on a set of criteria that you believe is important, and which has little to do with how Derek Jeter plays shortstop.

Baseball is a relatively simple game. If the people who get paid to explain it to the masses use that position to advance ideas that are wrong--not just uninformed, but counterfactual--while perpetuating a myth of complexity that only creates a demand for more erroneous opinions of ex-players, they do the game and their audience a disservice.

--

I'm tempted to not make predictions for tonight, but it's not like I have a real good record to sit on. No one ever asked out of the lineup to protect a .250 batting average.

As I write this at about 1 a.m., there's a question as to whether David Wells or Jeff Weaver will start Game Five for the Yankees. There's a huge difference there, and it has nothing to do with Weaver's perceived emotional shortcomings. The Red Sox don't hit lefties as well as they hit righties, and save for a five-hitter sequence against Barry Zito, they've been shut down by left-handed starters in October.

If Wells can't go, the Sox get their second huge break of the series. The first, the rainout, pays more dividends today when Derek Lowe takes the mound. Lowe has been more effective at home than on the road this year, and while some of that is probably normal variance, I think some of it is that the park suits him. The slow infield swallows his many ground balls, and his susceptibility to left-handers is mitigated by Fenway's spacious right field.

If Wells goes, I think the game is a toss-up, with the Yankees having a slight edge. If it's Weaver, all bets are off, and the Sox could put up a big number.

In Chicago, Mark Prior tries to win himself free drinks for life throughout Illinois by pitching the Cubs into their first World Series in 58 years. I think Prior is amazing, and I wouldn't mind seeing a Trojan have a moment like that. However, I have a nagging feeling that tonight is the night we see some fatigue in Prior's right arm. I'd like to be wrong, but I think we've got one more doubleheader ahead of us this year. Marlins, 6-4.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

Related Content:  Derek Jeter,  The Who,  Yankees Fans,  Tactics

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