September 8, 2005
Taking a Back Seat
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:
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):
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?