April 14, 2008
There is no question that the toughest time of the year for me, from a writing standpoint, is the first two months of the season. It's just so easy to fall into the trap of putting far too much stock in a minimum of information, proffering analysis of nothing, solutions to nonexistent problems, and writing things that look absolutely ridiculous two months down the road. As I read through each day's baseball news, I see so much coverage that bugs me, from overanalysis of a few innings of pitching to overreaction to a two-week slump to ascribing far too much importance to three games.
This, I suppose, is the downside of the popularity of baseball, and my writing about that downside can be described as, to some extent, biting the hand that feeds me. After all, were it not for the explosive growth of the game and the Internet, side-by-side, I'd probably be a mid-level editor at a minor publishing house right now. Still, I can't help but cringe when I see that one of the key lessons of sabermetrics-that small samples of baseball are not valuable analytically-has made such little penetration into the mainstream. That Philip Hughes has had two bad starts, or David Ortiz two bad weeks, or that the Diamondbacks swept the Rockies, just doesn't mean a whole lot for what those entities will do going forward. We have more information than that, and whether the new information runs counter to our beliefs or supports them, it's important that we keep it in perspective.
The important information at this time of the year comes from the manager's office, comes from the trainer's room, comes from the GM's chair. How is playing time being distributed? What roles are being shared, are being changed, are being defined well or poorly? What are teams doing in reaction to injuries? What are they doing in reaction-or better still, in non-reaction-to small samples?
So it doesn't matter very much to me that Corey Patterson is batting .262/.304/.667, two expected numbers and a very odd one. What matters is that Dusty Baker has made him the leadoff man against righties, a role for which he and his low OBP (.326 this year, .306 career) is wildly ill-suited. Having Patterson's low-OBP, high-SLG act in the #1 spot means the Reds' offense runs inefficiently, as their power hitters in the middle of the lineup bat with fewer runners on base than they would if an OBP guy were atop the lineup. This will cost the Reds runs throughout the season.
It doesn't matter to me that Joey Votto is hitting .308/.308/.308, although I do wonder what effect Dusty Baker's March criticisms have had on a take'n'rake hitter. It does matter that Votto has gotten consecutive starts just once, over the weekend in Pittsburgh. Baker has twice played Juan Castro over Votto against lefties, moving Jeff Keppinger across the diamond to make the alignment work. That's criminal. Young players need playing time; if Votto is going to start four days a week, he'd be better off in Louisville. Baker has already derailed the career of a similar player in Hee Seop Choi, using him in a similar fashion in 2003 after Choi returned from a midseason concussion for the Cubs.
It doesn't matter that Alberto Gonzalez is 5-for-13 with a couple of doubles in a week's worth of playing time in Derek Jeter's absence. What matters is that Joe Girardi, faced with the first real decision of his tenure, made a strong one. The talk about moving Alex Rodriguez to shortstop and playing someone else at third base would only have made sense if the Yankees had a valuable "someone else" to give the playing time to. They don't; neither Wilson Betemit nor the current version of Morgan Ensberg is so good as to force that kind of realignment. Since Gonzalez arrived Wednesday, he has batted ninth and played shortstop in every game, and that's the correct play for a Yankees team that can sacrifice some offense for defense.
I'm curious how managers will continue to address the situations that arise. Manny Acta was using injuries to Wily Mo Pena and Elijah Dukes to get Felipe Lopez playing time in left field. Lopez as a left fielder is a pretty good pinch runner. Now that Pena is back, will Acta take a long hard look at his current leadoff man and shortstop, Cristian Guzman, and find him wanting? Guzman, a career .264 hitter, is at .322 so far, but with just one walk in two weeks. When the BA falls, as you can expect it to, he'll be a problem atop the lineup. Lopez struggles defensively, which is why he's behind Guzman and Ronnie Belliard in the middle infield. However, he has leadoff-hitter skills, and the Nats have a .306 team OBP. Something will have to give. How will Acta balance offense and defense for a team with no clear choice in the leadoff spot, and two flawed shortstops?
Poke around a bit more, and you find that for one night, Lou Piniella moved Kosuke Fukudome into the two hole, putting his best OBP guy into a great OBP spot, and breaking up a string of right-handed bats atop the lineup. With Reed Johnson settling in as the center fielder and #2 hitter against lefties-and credit Jim Hendry for a pickup that fit well onto his roster-will Piniella go back to Fukudome against righties? Piniella has used eight lineups in 12 games, none more than twice, so it's clear he'll be experimenting for some time to come…or until Brian Roberts gets to Chicago. For that matter, what has a combination of a hand injury and a stretch of southpaws against the Cubs done for Felix Pie's development? He's started just once since April 4.
Take a look at what Bruce Bochy has done in San Francisco. An injury to Dave Roberts has cleared a path for Fred Lewis to make five of six starts in the veteran's absence. Eugenio Velez is chipping away at Ray Durham's playing time at second base. The next move is to put Rich Aurilia into a platoon role-or no role at all-and let Dan Ortmeier play first base. It's not that the younger players are stars-in-waiting; in each case, though, they are better than the veterans in their way, and have better chances of contributing to the Giants beyond 2008. Bochy may be coming around to that mindset.
It's not about performance in April, not on the field. The wins and losses count, the homers and hits all go into the final record, but because all players can do just about anything in two weeks of play, the numbers don't have meaning. To learn in April, you have to follow the lineups, and the reactions by management, and the way roles change. That's the stuff that is meaningful, for good and bad.
Thanks to Baseball Reference for…well, everything, including the ability for me to research this piece.