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June 26, 2006

Prospectus Today

Driving the Story

by Joe Sheehan

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Last night, the White Sox came back from a 9-1 deficit in the seventh inning to tie their game with the Astros 9-9 in the ninth. They went on to lose in 13 innings, but it was an amazing display, nonetheless. The Sox got homers in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings, the latter two from Tadahito Iguchi, bombs that were responsible for all eight runs they put on the board during the comeback.

Now, they lost the game, but I'm still left wondering: where are all the stories about how the 2006 White Sox are changing the game with power? Why aren't we reading, on a daily basis, how hitting the long ball has pushed the Sox to the second-best record in baseball and how their embrace of the home run heralds a new era in baseball?

See, it was just about a year ago that the White Sox were cruising along with the best record in the game. Riding along with that mark was a flood of stories about how they were winning, stories that rarely mentioned that historic defensive performance and their reliance on the home run, but rather emphasized their use of the stolen base and sacrifice bunt. The Sox did attempt a lot of steals and lay down a lot of bunts in 2005, but those things had much less impact on their record than did the amazing defense and the 199 home runs.

Regardless, the Sox' success with a nominally smallball approach, coupled with a leaguewide drop in power and run scoring--one correctly labeled a blip in stathead circles--in the wake of increased penalties for steroid usage, drove the defining meme of 2005: that the game had shifted out of a power era and into one in which manufacturing runs, speed and defense would again be paramount, The Blessed Little Things ascendant. It was nonsense, but it was easy-to-write nonsense.

We're approaching the halfway mark of the 2006 season, and it's clear that this gamewide shift to lower run scoring and less power isn't actually happening. League slugging and isolated power marks are nearly identical to what they were in 2004, and higher than they were in 2003, back when almost everyone in major league baseball did steroids on a daily basis because the game was a lawless pit of self-interest and chemically-enhanced greed.

More to the point, it's clear that if you want to be successful, you have to hit the ball a really long way. The White Sox, who were among the teams most reliant on the longball to score last year, are even more power-oriented in 2006. They lead the majors in homers and are second in slugging. By acclimation, the three best teams in baseball are the Sox, Tigers and Mets. Those three are all in the top five in homers, slugging and isolated power; keep in mind that the latter two play in pitchers' parks.

During the White Sox' evisceration of the Cardinals last week, one of the Sox fans in the group said, and I paraphrase, "I don't care what percentage of runs we score on homers, I love this team." It was reference to the statistic that we publicized heavily last season that showed the White Sox to be one of the MLB teams most reliant on the home run to score. They're among the leaders in that stat again this year as well.

The thing is, we don't much care, either. The information contained in that stat is interesting, but it's not indicative of team quality in any meaningful way. We made it a big deal as a counterpoint to the incessant coverage of last year's White Sox as if they were the 1985 Cardinals or some John McGraw creation, leading the charge to new age of outmaking-as-art, 2 -hour 3-2 games and, with a little luck, affordable health care for everyone.

Those stories are missing this year, the endless column inches about a new era, about how the sound of bats driving baseballs into the seats is burying smallball. When the situation was reversed, when the best team in baseball was, at least on the surface, a smallball team, the revolution was upon us. Now that the winningest teams in the game are power teams, though, there's no mention of a paradigm shift, no discussion of how the little guys are more important than the brutes. Just an awkward sllence from the peanut gallery.

I've written about this before, but I think the contrast between the way in which the 2005 White Sox and the 2006 version--along with the 2006 Tigers, who might as well have Earl Weaver on the bench--have been covered is illustrative of an insititutional blind spot. For whatever reason, there's a morality attached to various forms of playing baseball; teams that succeed with power are considered in many circles to be inferior to those that succeed using smallball. I think this is a generational thing; many people in the game and covering the game had their worldview shaped by the baseball of the Second Deadball Era and the years immediately after, when scoring was very low, pitching dominated and smallball tactics were most effective.

There's also an element of something Bill James discussed in "The Politics of Glory" in a chapter comparing Phil Rizzuto and Vern Stephens. People want to be perceived as savvy, and showing an appreciation for less-obvious skills is one way in which they do that. Anyone can be impressed by homers, but it takes a true student of the game to understand how steals, sacrifices and baserunning contribute to a winning team. Rizzuto won an MVP award, and eventually made it into the Hall of Fame, because this thought process is so dominant within baseball.

Let me get off track here just for a second. Think about the last game you watched on television. Was there a leadoff double at any point, or perhaps a leadoff single followed by a stolen base? With a runner on second and no one out, the broadcasters will invariably talk about how the batter has to get the runner over to third. If he does this with a groundball to the right side, not only will there be effusive verbal praise--even in the first inning--but there will be a camera shot of the player walking into the dugout after making his out and being greeted with enthusiasm.

If the player lines a single to left that scores the run, though, you'll never see that shot. You'll see him getting a pat on the rear from his first-base coach, while the guy who scored slaps hands with 30 people in the dugout.

It's a small point, but I think it's one of those ways in which events that actually reduce run scoring become ingrained in our minds as positive ones. That sequence--and look for it in the next game you watch, I guarantee you'll see it--costs a team runs on balance (fractionally, but it's a negative-EV event), but is treated as a terrific baseball play. Multiply those congratulatory shots by 2,000, and you can understand why it's hard to convince people that it's a bad play.

The assembly of a baseball team and that team's approach to the game have no moral element. All that matters are runs, scoring them and preventing them in sufficient quantities to win, and the paths to doing so are well-trod: get guys on base and hit for power, and prevent the other team from doing so. You can gain on the margins through one-run strategies, but you can't make a mediocre team good that way.

The White Sox were a very good baseball team in 2005. I wonder how many people realize, given the lack of attention paid to them in the absence of a hook like "smallball," that they're better than they were a year ago.

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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