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September 8, 2005

Prospectus Today

Taking a Back Seat

by Joe Sheehan

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Monday, I closed my column with the words, "Enjoy September. It's the game's great gift to us." I was thinking of a day like yesterday when I wrote that. In a seven-hour span, we saw:

  • The A's come back from a 7-3 deficit in the ninth inning to win, 8-7.

  • The Astros, down 6-5 and on their last strike, win 8-6 by beating ex-teammate and shutdown closer Billy Wagner for the second straight night.

  • The Braves, down 2-1 in the ninth and 3-2 in the tenth, also on their last strike, win 4-3.

  • The Dodgers, down 8-6 in the ninth, get just the second home run of the year from Oscar Robles to tie, then win 9-8.

  • The Yankees, Red Sox and Twins all overcome early deficits (4-0, 3-0, 5-0, respectively) to come back and win.
Don't let anyone every tell you any differently: this is the golden age of baseball fandom. Nearly all of those comebacks, those dramatic finishes in a playoff race, were available on satellite or cable or over the Internet. Ten years ago, you had to watch highlight shows or pick up the morning paper--and hope that the latter had the late scores--to get all the baseball information you wanted. Now, you can watch the drama unfold in real time, see the Phillies and Mets spiral into the wild-card drain, catch the Dodgers and A's salvaging desperately needed wins to avoid a similar fate, and track the latest chapters in the Yankee/Red Sox rivalry.

It's a truly remarkable time to be a baseball fan. I think the wild card has been a net loss for the game, taking away races between truly great teams, but all we can do is play the hand we're dealt, and what we've been dealt is a September in which more than half the teams in MLB find themselves with some shot at the postseason, with 8-10 games every single day having serious playoff implications. That's what Bud Selig wants, and at least in 2005--remember, it doesn't always work this way--that's what he has.

I'm focusing on the excitement in part to avoid making predictions. I got this e-mail earlier this week:

Well, now we've had FIVE months of baseball to see the trends, and it would be interesting to see if you can pick the playoff contenders with one month left to play. As your Giants column pointed out, it will certainly come down to who gets hot down the stretch, but we'd still love to hear who you think will emerge. The Cardinals and, to a slightly lesser extent, the White Sox, are gimmes, but what about the rest? Do the Padres hold serve? Braves repeat again? Who wins the AL Wild Card? And the NL? Just a column idea from a loyal reader. --P.B.
Well, let's look at what I was saying just a week or so ago (not all of these were in columns; most were radio/TV comments):

  • I thought the Mets and Phillies would take control over the wild-card. The Mets have lost seven of eight, the Phillies five in a row.

  • I though the Astros would struggle to score enough runs to stay competitive in the NL wild-card chase. They've won seven of nine, swept the Phillies in Philadelphia and lead the race.

  • I figured the Dodgers had a real chance to make a move in the NL West. They got swept by the Rockies.

  • I thought the A's were the strongest AL West team; they lost Bobby Crosby and regressed to their April/May form, nearly getting swept by the Mariners.

You can reach one ot two conclusions from this stuff: either Joe Sheehan is an idiot, or predicting what will happen in the short term among baseball teams that are of comparable quality is virtually impossible.

Come to think of it, those aren't mutually exclusive.

P.B., I can't help you. We can do all the analysis we want, and quite frankly, I stand by the analysis that led me to the conclusions above. The Phillies do appear stronger to me than the Astros, and I think the Mets are a distinct disappointment (in no small part due to a dysfunctional lineup). The losses of Crosby, Mark Kotsay and Rich Harden are killing the A's, who at full health would be in first place in the West.

A lot of the criticism of so-called "statheads" stems from the misguided notion that they don't appreciate the game on the field. Actually, most of us do appreciate it, and also understand that you need more than a series or a week or a month to reach conclusions about teams. The last two seasons have been a great lesson for me in just how wide an angle you need to take in evaluating what a team is, and the corollary to that is that trying to predict how good they will be in the short term is folly. We just don't know, and even if we could predict short-term ability, predicting what record might come of that ability is impossible. The game just doesn't work that way; the teams are too closely bunched, and it comes down to…well, it comes down to Craig Biggio turning around some 100-mph heat, or Braden Looper's inability to get lefties out, or some of your best players getting hurt at the wrong time.

Performance analysis is a powerful tool for figuring out what happened and for building a winning team, but the time frames for applying the information stretch over seasons. Over days, over weeks, over a September pennant race, guys like me take a back seat to the people on the field. That's dissatisfying for someone who wants to have answers, or for someone like P.B. who's asking for them, but it is also the thing that keeps the game fresh. If the Astros couldn't surprise us and the Mets couldn't disappoint us, what would be the point of watching?

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

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