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July 6, 2006

Prospectus Today

Moneyball II

by Joe Sheehan

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This is why you write and don't manage. The game has no DH. The fans select Ortiz, the players select Thome. Having someone who has played more than 4 games at first base this season is pretty important. The game matters. Especially to a team like the White Sox who may actually get there again. Since fielding can be real important Konerko is a great choice as someone very comfortable at first base in pressure situations which may easily happen in this game. Hafner is a great hitter but since it doesn't come with a glove it makes him far less valuable in this particular game. Another great hitter in a sea of great hitters is far less important than a capable defensive player who also happens to hit pretty well.
--B.P.

I just read the first couple of these, but after the number reached double digits, I figured I had to write about it. It's amazing to me how many people are justifying the selection of Paul Konerko over Travis Hafner based on defense, or more specifically, the number of DHs already on the AL All-Star roster.

Let's be completely clear about this: You don't pick All-Stars to be defensive replacements, or for tactical value at all. Otherwise, we should have an All-Star roster with Mike Myers and Joey Gathright and Todd Williams. Tactical considerations end at "do I have multiple players at each position?" and that's the way it should be, even in the counting era.

Beyond that, this isn't a case of choosing one very good player over a slightly superior one. This is a manager taking two of his guys over vastly superior ones, and in fact, arguably the best hitter and pitcher in the league. The defense argument is the extent of Konerko's case over Jason Giambi, a superior hitter and inferior fielder, and I'm not convinced Giambi didn't get (pale) hosed. Hafner isn't just some guy; he's the best hitter in the league. That guy has to make the All-Star team, even if it means Jim Thome stays on the field in the late innings. It's not like the guy is a DH for any reason other than Konerko, anyway; he played 186 games at first the past two seasons in Philly and would have been the team's first baseman had Konerko left in free agency.

I got some pushback on my criticism of the selection of Mark Buehrle over Francisco Liriano, mostly because I'm the guy who doesn't like making a guy an All-Star based on a few good months. I'm also not a fan of consistency for consistency's sake. Buehrle is actually in line behind Curt Schilling and Mike Mussina, as far as I'm concerned, but the comparison to Liriano is most interesting because the Twins' lefty leads the league in ERA, or he did when the selections were made (he's not currently qualified for the title, but will be again after his next start). His ERA is barely half of Buehrle's, and frankly, he'd be a heck of a lot more interesting to see in Pittsburgh next week.

My advice to Sox fans? Embrace it. It's the spoils of victory, although that doesn't make it right. Citing Joe Torre's violations in this area--another common theme in my inbox--isn't justification for what Guillen did in making his choices, but it's marginally better than explaining them away with talk about the value of three innings of defense at first base.

Oh, one more thing…there are a lot of very good reasons why I "write and don't manage," but I can guarantee you that an inability to optimize a roster is not one of them. If there's an area where your average stathead could consistently and significantly improve on the way things are currently done in MLB, roster construction is it. Say what you want about the limitations of simulations such as Strat-O-Matic, but those games teach you pretty quickly about the perils of a wasted roster spot.

With that said, take a good look at the White Sox under Guillen. He hasn't always had the best benches, but he's a manager who isn't going to waste a spot if he can avoid it. He works his bench into the lineup and will establish a rotation at a position if he thinks it will help. The stability of the 2005 White Sox didn't allow Guillen to show this as well as his 2004 and 2006 teams have. His approach is more obvious with his pitching staff, where he seems willing to use most of his pitchers in significant roles. I watched a game a week ago where he used Agustin Montero and Matt Thornton in the seventh and eighth innings with a one-run lead. Guillen doesn't have a player on his roster who he's unwilling to use in a high-leverage situation. That's one of his defining baseball traits, along with an ability to get innings from his rotation without abusing the pitchers and what I see as an ability to adapt his approach to the available personnel.

If this looks strange to you, I assure you that you're still reading Baseball Prospectus. It may be hard to remember, but we were praising Guillen back in 2004 for his handling of the starting rotation, and last year for his use of the bullpen. Three years into his tenure, it's become clear that Guillen is one of the best managers of pitching in baseball. Forget smallball; it's the pitching where Guillen has made his greatest impact on the Sox.

With Guillen one of the few managers who actually brings something to the table, and Kenny Williams' development from a bumpy start to become one of the better GMs in the game, the White Sox have one of the best management teams in baseball. There's absolutely no way I would have expected that two years ago, and quite frankly, there's probably a terrific book in examining how these two men have ascended to the top of their profession. Williams' career path--from Todd Ritchie to Jim Thome--is one of the most fascinating I can think of for an executive.

Moneyball II, anyone?

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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Related Content:  The Who,  Roster Construction

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