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July 20, 2004

Breaking Balls

Holding Back

by Derek Zumsteg

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I got mad once when Ken Griffey Jr. admitted that he didn't try for every ball. If his team was far ahead or behind in a game, he wouldn't try to scale a wall to bring back a home run. It's almost offensive to a fan to see players not try. I can know that the cost of a ticket's not that high, historically speaking, and that it might not have any effect on the outcome of a game. It doesn't matter. I want to see those ground balls run out. Unless the hitter's injured.

The more I watch games, though, the more I'm convinced Griffey was right. Derek Jeter's dive into the stands was dramatic and everything else people said about it, but it was also immensely dangerous. How big of a gap is it, really? When the Mariners told Edgar Martinez not to run out ground balls unless it was really important, was that worth it?

Looking at Runs Above Replacement Player, we can see how good a player is over a scrub that's going to replace him in an emergency. If during his prime Griffey ran into a wall to snag a home run, hurt himself and was replaced by a replacement-level player, the team would have lost about half a run a game overall. In Jeter's best season (1999), he was right there too. That's an insane amount of value these superstars can add to their teams. Even the second-tier guys who aren't in the top 10 in league performance hang out at about a quarter-run/game over their worst possible replacement.

So before making any play, the fielder should consider:

  • How good am I, measured objectively?

  • How good would my replacement be, overall?

  • What are the chances I will be injured making this play?

  • How severe would those injuries be?

  • Would there be any other effects on the team due to my injury?

Then the player should estimate the cost/benefit of the play as (run expectation for successful play) - (mean time lost to injury per attempt * value cost of being injured). So, for instance, say Jeter's after a foul, and he figures "I'm having a good season, my replacement would stink, and if I dive after this, I'll be out a week...is this ball worth three runs to my team?"

He lets it drop, and everyone praises him for thinking of the team and the larger picture. It's why he's the captain, you see.

No, of course he shouldn't do that. And yet...trying to look at this from a value standpoint, it's obvious that if a game is truly out of hand and the manager hasn't pulled his valuable players to prevent just such an injury, even good players should dog it sometimes, and great ones should dog it more often. Barry Bonds running out a routine grounder (which I don't think he hits any more) isn't worth it to Bonds or the Giants if there's a 1% chance he'll pull something and miss significant time.

Strictly looking at the numbers, maybe Griffey was drawing the line about right. Maybe players really do know when to pull up and let the fly drop in front of them. That's still not what anyone wants to think, though, and I'm not sure I even want to know if players often do this.

We know when players are dogging it. You see a two-hour night game where both teams are going to hit their charters immediately and hack at every pitch. Infielders discuss their dinner options as a ground ball skips by them. It's frustrating, and it's part of why we want players to try all the time. For a player on a losing team, it's one more blowout in a season he'd rather was over. For the fans, though, it's one of the few games they're likely to see that year, and we don't get half our ticket purchase back if the players are giving half an effort. We pay to see a competition between two teams, not some tacit agreement that the lopsided score in the third will stand up.

It's part of the love fans have for Jeter, or for other relentless players who concede nothing, no matter where they are in the standings or the numbers on the scoreboard. I don't like the Yankees. I'm not a particular fan of Jeter's game. His oversized reputation grates on me when some work up purple prose to argue for his amazingness.

But I have to tip my hat to him. Part of the reason his play is so admired and makes strong-minded men go weak-kneed is that he never makes that calculation on the fly, and I've never seen him not try. While my team might be better off with a player who dogs it occasionally, I'd rather have the guy who goes all out, all the time, not just because it's a better value for my money or more exciting, but because that kind of dedication is far more inspiring than yawning at the double bouncing over an outfielder's bored head. It's not as if Griffey's philosophy has kept him injury-free anyway. And if that kind of headless play inspires admiration and perhaps an irresponsible evaluation of a player's skills, who am I to begrudge that? I'm a fan first, just like the rest of us.

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<< Previous Article
Premium Article Teams: A Critical Guid... (07/20)
<< Previous Column
Premium Article Breaking Balls: The Fi... (07/15)
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Breaking Balls: I'm a ... (07/27)
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Premium Article Can Of Corn: Yankees P... (07/21)

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