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September 18, 2007

Prospectus Today

September Surprises

by Joe Sheehan

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We do a lot of analysis and a lot of thinking about baseball here at BP. For nearly a dozen years, we've been trying to figure out what makes a winning baseball team, what decisions make sense, how to evaluate talent, how to run an organization, even an industry. The work we've done here has had an influence on the way the game is covered, affected the way some teams are run, and added to the enjoyment of baseball for many fans.

The longer I do this, though, the more I come back to the idea that while the work we do is valuable across careers and even seasons, it breaks down in a pennant race. I just don't think we can apply the principles of performance analysis to a couple of weeks' worth of games, because what happens in a small sample comes down to human beings playing a difficult game under trying circumstances, and we just can't predict outcomes of individual games or stretches of games. The teams that survive these close races and go on to play in October will do so in part because they win games over these next two weeks, and how they win them-by great pitching, hitting, and defense, or just by catching some breaks-will be much less important than that they do. It's the golf maxim "They don't ask how, just how many" that reverberates in my mind as I watch each day's dramas unfold.

Take last night, for one. The Tigers, clinging to life in the AL Central and AL Wild Card races, jumped out to a 5-1 lead over the Indians in the opener of a critical three-game series. A win would have cut the Indians' edge in the Central to 3 games, and given the Tigers a chance to get out of Cleveland down just 1 with nine games to play. Up 5-2 in the eighth, though, the Tigers' 2006 hero, Joel Zumaya, allowed a walk, a single, and Jhonny Peralta's three-run homer to tie the game. The Tigers waited all year for Zumaya to return from a finger problem, but the right-hander hasn't been last year's version since coming back: nine runs allowed, with just eight strikeouts, in 13 2/3 innings. His failure to hold last night's lead would doom the Tigers, who eventually lost the game in 11 innings. With the Yankees' win over the Orioles, the Tigers are now 3 games back in the Wild Card standings as well. They're not officially doomed, but they lost a game last night that they should not have lost, and at this point in the season, that's deadly.

The Cubs were on the flip side of that last night. Trailing the Reds 6-4 in the ninth, they took advantage of David Weathers for three runs to pull out a win that kept them ahead of the Brewers, who had already won, for one more day. In addition to taking advantage of a middling relief pitcher dubbed a "closer" for a bad team, the Cubs caught a break when Norris Hopper, playing center field for the Reds, made both a mental and a physical error on a fly ball hit into the gap by Aramis Ramirez with two on and no one out. Had Hopper played the ball conservatively, he might have held Ramirez to a single, or perhaps a double, with just one run scoring. Instead, his decision to dive was a high-risk, high-reward play that directly led to a Cubs win. What made it worse was that he overran the ball, letting it fly over his outstretched left arm as he dove past it.

There's no annotation in the standings for "in first place by dint of a fourth outfielder's bad decision and misplay," so the Cubs go into today's action up by a game. We can, of course, analyze the likelihood that the Cubs will beat the Reds on any given day, and some of what goes into that will be the Reds' doing things like closing with David Weathers, and their treating Norris Hopper like a center fielder. But when a hard-hit ball is flying the air on a cool late summer night, the difference between a win and a loss isn't something I, or anyone, can quantify. That ball hit the grass, the Cubs won a game they should not have won, and at this point in the season, that's manna from heaven.

Note that this isn't a chemistry argument. There's no case to be made here that the Cubs have some ineffable quality that the Tigers lack, and that's why they won their one-run game while their AL counterpart didn't. No, this is an argument for the unpredictability of baseball, the way the game resists analysis even as the number of people breaking it down grows exponentially. It's actually an argument against the whole idea that a person's character can have some effect on the outcome of games. Baseball is too complicated, too detailed, too intricate for that, and reducing the results to ancient cliches about heart and desire and clutch does the game and everyone who loves it a disservice. The Cubs aren't better people than the Tigers. They just had the better outcome on one night. One critical night.

This is a time of year when I'll analyze the game to the best of my ability, and when that's done, sit back and just enjoy it all. Understanding that Joel Zumaya doesn't have his overpowering stuff, and for that reason the Tigers should have bolstered their bullpen in July, or knowing that the Reds are susceptible to flyball-hitting teams because their outfield defense is lousy-thinking about those things doesn't detract from my ability to stare open-jawed at a ballgame when Zumaya's fastball gets turned around, or when Hopper dives just a bit too far. I can recognize that I'm watching flawed teams that are playing relevant games only because of the realignment and playoff expansion of 1994, and still appreciate that the games are relevant, and that the baseball is entertaining, if not excellent.

The ads tell us that there's only one October. The secret, however, is this: there's only one September, and that it's even better.

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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