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September 21, 2005

Prospectus Today

I (Heart) Baseball

by Joe Sheehan

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I love this game.

You want to create baseball fans? Get people to watch tonight's White Sox/Indians game, because if it's anything like the first two games of this series, you'll be making a fan for life. They don't even need to know the backstory, how the Indians have chopped 11 ˝ games off of the White Sox' division lead, or how the two teams have traded off being the game's "It Team" in each half of the season, or even how both will probably end up in the postseason regardless of tonight's outcome.

Just sit them down in front of television and tell them to enjoy. They'll be hooked. The drama and tension and excitement of this series is greater than any regular-season series in a long time, and while the baseball hasn't been terrific--some sloppy play has been in evidence--it's been good enough.

These games provide a great example of why you simply can't predict what will happen in a small number of baseball games. Individual games, series, playoffs are decided not by the true talent level of the teams, but by small things that can't be measured. I don't mean that in the "character/heart/intangibles" major-media (non)sense, but in the sense that things happen in a baseball game that are essentially not predictable, that fall outside of both our metrics and the observational evaluation that people within the game do, and over a day or a week, it's those things that make a huge difference.

Just pulling from last night's game:

  • Sometimes, an umpire has a bad night. Paul Nauert made one of the worst ball/strike calls you'll ever see on a 3-0 pitch to Travis Hafner in the fifth inning, calling a pitch at least six inches outside a strike. The call was critical, as getting it right would have loaded the bases with one out against Mark Buehrle; instead, Hafner flied out on the 3-1 pitch (making a bad decision himself), and Victor Martinez was retired to end the threat. Nauert made a number of other questionable pitch calls as well, most notably in the tenth inning.

    There was no malice here, no intent to favor one team or the other. You can't predict when an umpire is going to screw up, but we know that umpiring mistakes can shift games, or even championships, from one team to the other. Nauert's bad night was a big factor in last night's events.

  • Sometimes, good defenders make bad plays. On Aaron Rowand's game-tying sacrifice fly in the ninth, Jose Hernandez cut off Casey Blake's throw and attempted to get trail runner A.J. Pierzynski at third base. He made a terrible throw that allowed Pierzynski to score the go-ahead run. It was a decent decision by Hernandez, but awful execution, and might well have cost the Indians the game at that point, but…

    …in the ninth, Rowand, an excellent center fielder, misjudged Martinez's one-out fly ball and played it into a double that allowed Ronnie Belliard to tie the game with a ground ball.

  • Sometimes, the most random people have a night. Joe Crede has been frustrating White Sox fan for years, never meeting expectations that he would be one of the top third basemen in the league. He held his job in 2005 largely because the Sox weren't able to trade for someone, particularly a left-handed-hitting someone, to take some of Crede's playing time away.

    But in their biggest game of the season, Crede hit a pair of monster home runs, one to tie the game in the third, the other to win it in the tenth.

Predict this? Predict an inning-saving ball/strike call, or a cutoff man throwing a ball into left field, or an arguably Gold Glove center fielder turning an out into a double, or a disappointment becoming a hero on two swings?

You can't. You can just enjoy it.

Remember all this two weeks from now, when people like me are making predictions because…well, because we have to. Take them with a grain of salt, because while the analysis that you'll find in playoff previews is relevant, the step from analysis to prediction is a doozy. Keep games like last night in mind when major media is telling you that the winners won because they had more character and heart and are simply better people than the losers. It's not that simple, and the lines aren't nearly so bright.

I want to touch on two other things, one from last night's game, the other related to the White Sox. The first is that, as seems to be the theme this September, the Indians lost last night's game without using their nominal best reliever. David Riske gave up the game-winning homer, while Bob Wickman waited in the bullpen for a save situation that never arrived.

Now, when I made this point about the Twins last week, I got a couple of e-mails pointing out that their closer, Joe Nathan, is probably not their best reliever. You can probably make a similar case that maybe Riske or Bobby Howry is the Tribe's best pitcher; the Woolner numbers are a mixed bag. The point is that the Indians act as if Wickman is their top guy, saving him for what they see as the most-important situations--save situations--and using other pitchers around him. What Eric Wedge did last night, just as Ned Yost did in Houston and Ron Gardenhire did in Minnesota last week, is refrain from using what he sees as his #1 reliever in some of the most important innings of the year because there was no save situation. You can't say it cost him the game--we don't know what Wickman might have done--but you can rightfully criticize the thought process that prevents a manager from using his #1 guy in all but a limited subset of situations.

It's a hell of a way to run a $200 million business, not using what you see as your top asset in a situation that is critical to the company's goals. Sooner or later, the closercentric bullpen is going to give way to a leveragecentric model, and we're going to look back at the 1988-20xx period and wonder what the hell we were thinking.

Watching some of the coverage of the White Sox the last couple of days, I'm struck by how the "Sox are a small ball team" meme just won't go away. They're not a small-ball team! They're about as reliant on the home run as they were a year ago, and among the most reliant on the home run as any team in the AL, as James Click's numbers show:


White Sox Pct. Of Runs on HR

2004: 44.4% (AL: 36.8%)
2005: 41.8% (AL: 36.5%)

2005 Rankings

Rangers    48.9%
Yankees    42.7%
White Sox  41.8%
Orioles    39.9%
Indians    39.6%
Red Sox    37.7%
Tigers     35.4%
Devil Rays 34.9%
A's        32.9%
Twins      31.7%
Angels     31.4%
Blue Jays  30.6%
Mariners   30.4%
Royals     27.9%
That's the White Sox: a team that scores more than 40% of its runs on home runs. You can steal all the bases you want, burn up two or three outs a game on sacrifice bunts and caught stealings, but if you're this reliant on homers to score, you're not a small-ball team.

The White Sox are winning because they improved their run prevention as much as any team in recent memory. They have a much worse offense than they did last year, and that their runs have been "distributed" better--fewer zero- and one-run games--is a product of chance and not design. There's no evidence that certain types of teams do a better job of distributing runs than do others.

The idea that the 2005 White Sox are an Ozzie Guillen creation is misguided, because his approach hasn't made much difference to the offense. Guillen's greatest stamp on this team has been in his handling of the pitching staff, for which he receives very little credit. He works his starters wonderfully, getting innings without being abusive, and he's shown tremendous flexibility in assigning roles to relievers, a trait that Mike Scioscia has displayed in Anaheim to great success. As a manager, Guillen runs an offense poorly, a pitching staff well, and the postgame press conference better than almost anyone. It's that last bit that may mean the most to his longevity.

On the field, though, it's the pitching and defense, and Guillen's handling of them, that are why the White Sox are likely going to be a playoff team. Maybe more games won with walkoff homers will hammer home the point that this isn't a small-ball team, but rather one with OBP issues and pretty good power from eight lineup spots.

I doubt it, though.

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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