April 4, 2008
Lean Times by the Bay
I tuned into the Giants game on Tuesday night and was confronted with a scene that, I believe, provided a foretelling of the San Francisco season in microcosm. There was Matt Cain, struggling away in the fifth inning of a 0-0 game. Better get used to those goose eggs, Matt--a year of non-support from your teammates is your lot.
While PECOTA has the Giants scoring 650 runs--a very low total in the modern era, as we shall see--don't you have a hard time picturing them denting the plate even that few times? When a team's cleanup hitter is Bengie Molina, a 33-year-old catcher with a career .410 slugging average, isn't it hard imagining them scoring even 500 times? That's much too extreme, of course. It's been ages (36 years, actually) since a team scored way down in the low threes--or under--per game. In 1972, one National and four American League teams were under 500 runs. (You see why the Designated Hitter came about?) Without starving to that extent, the Giants do seem like a good bet to break into this list of modern era clubs that have scored the fewest runs:
Lowest runs per game since 1996
San Francisco's PECOTA puts it just north of this list, at 4.01 runs per game. Any shortfall will land the Giants in its lower (upper?) tier. If AT&T Park was no longer neutral and suddenly started playing like the pitcher's haven it was during its PacBell infancy, then we could almost guarantee a Giants appearance on this list. While I loathe extracting too much from a season's first fortnight, San Francisco's opening series with Los Angeles certainly fulfilled everyone's fears of a season of offensive deprivation. Scoring zero, two, and one runs in a three-game set are bound to be the rule and not the exception.
Pulling a Brantley
This, of course, is an open invitation for the Giants to score seven, five, and eight runs in Milwaukee this weekend. If they do, we should call this a Brantley, in honor of Reds broadcaster Jeff Brantley's now-infamous assertions about Edwin Encarnacion's lack of clutchness immediately prior to Encarnacion's launching a three-run walk-off homer against Arizona on Wednesday. Of course, all of us in this business have pulled Brantleys. We've all written or said things that very soon thereafter were followed by results directly opposed to our confident assurances. What sets Brantley apart, though, is the timely and dramatic fashion in which fate skewered him; that and the fact that he did it in the YouTube age. Oh, and the fact that he was so adamant about his position, almost to the point of zealotry.
What is curious about his conversation with Thom Brenneman is that one doesn't usually hear a team announcer eviscerating a hometown player like that. While very few broadcasters go the Hawk Harrelson route and anoint every home team guy a golden god, most you'll hear in the booth practice skilled diplomacy when discussing the shortcomings of their employer's on-field charges. The guy with the .183/.211/.246 line? Struggling, perhaps, but never terrible. The pitcher doubling his career ERA? Caught a couple of bad breaks maybe, but certainly not terrible. That Brantley would go to such lengths to call into question Encarnacion's character (for what is "clutch," if not a measure of character?) was very surprising to me. One might expect it from a national announcer--maybe--but the local guy? The guy on the team payroll? It's shocking, really. How often have you heard this sort of thing--apart from Harry Caray after one too many liver lubricators, of course? There is the curious case of Steve Stone and the Reds' own Dusty Baker, then skippering the Cubs back in 2004. Brantley better hope that Baker has developed a higher tolerance of public criticism from inside the house since then.
The Encarnacion at-bat and Brantley's reaction to it encompass a number of key points in the ongoing debate between analytical vs. by-the-book managing. Encarnacion was bunting with two men on and with his team down by two runs. Forget for a moment that had he sacrificed successfully it would have been the first time in his big league career that he had done so. (In the minors he had three sacrifices as a 17-year-old in the Gulf Coast League, and then another three spaced out on his way up the ladder. We have no idea how many times he has tried and failed to sacrifice.) Even if he was a skilled bunter, was this a smart play? I asked Bil Burke to come up with a list of sacrifice bunts in similar situations (eighth or ninth inning, team trailing by two runs with runners on first and second and nobody out). He found 25 instances since 2000 where the team trailing went on to win. I haven't had time to check to see if all 25 victories came as a direct or indirect result of the successful sacrifice, but I will and probably do an Unfiltered post on it shortly. Of course, this doesn't take into account the times it was tried where the trailing team didn't go on to win. For the time being, I remain convinced it's a stupid play, especially when considering Encarnacion's demonstrated bunting inability.
The other topic germane to the at bat is the concept of clutch. While Brenneman suggested numbers proved otherwise (he mentioned his .300 career batting average with runners in scoring position), Brantley insisted Encarnacion was not a clutch player. On what was Brantley basing this observation? Had he never personally witnessed Encarnacion doing anything that could be defined as clutch? Was he aware that Encarnacion's "close and late" career line is .251/.328/.393, a drop from his overall career line of .273/.348/.450? Those of us who don't buy the concept of clutch as a skill probably wouldn't put much store in any argument he chose to make, but it would still be interesting to know the origin of his conclusion.
I'd really love to talk to you about my fantasy team. We're off to a great start. It's an exciting, young club with guys like Justin Upton, James Loney, Chris Young, Ian Kennedy, and Joe Saunders. Not only that, but we've got a wonderful second line waiting in the wings in the persons of Evan Longoria, Jay Bruce, and Adam Jones. Wait…you say you don't really care? That's OK. I don't really care about your team, either. You see, that's the problem with fantasy baseball--it's a very personal affair. While we value our teams as important entities in our own lives, nobody else really wants to hear about it. They're either too focused on their own teams, think fantasy baseball is silly and juvenile, or (horrors) they don't care about baseball at all. If you want to clear a room at a party, start pontificating sometime about the virtues of your outfield. Ever wonder why your colleagues stopped asking you to go to lunch? Maybe it's because you spend the whole hour recapping what your lineup did the night before. Talkative fantasy team owner = social pariah.
This brings me to my latest in a long line of surefire money-making schemes. Since people love to talk about their fantasy teams and since nobody wants to hear about them, what's a chatty owner supposed to do? My solution is a 1-900 line where a fantasy team owner calls and talk to his heart's content about the ins and outs of his team. The operators will have enough baseball knowledge to offer advice if it is asked for, but, mostly, they will just be there to lend an ear. (Actually, "lend" isn't quite right; I am proposing rates of $4.95 for the first minute and $1.95 for every minute thereafter.) In the end, a good listener is just what a fantasy owner wants, someone to take an interest in how his starting pitcher got hosed out of a win by an incompetent reliever, or how he deftly benched his left fielder just before he began a prolonged slump.
The operators will give praise ("Clever move!"), offer encouragement ("Stay strong!"), and commiserate when fate seems to be throwing owners a curve ("I hate it when that happens!"). Tell me this wouldn't work! As for the poor saps who have to listen to this drivel all day long, they will be well-compensated. I think $25.00 an hour is a fair wage for doing nothing more than lying around your house and talking on the phone.