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March 22, 2010

Baseball Therapy

There Goes My Hero

by Russell A. Carleton

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To say that baseball and American culture are intertwined is cliché. There is an entire genre of American rhapsodic poetry reserved for reflection, reverie, and remembrances of baseball, in general used as a subplot or an allegory to some other major story line from 20th-century American history in the foreground. How the game of baseball affects and influences American culture is a fascinating field of study, one traversed by many before me.

Where, then, are the folks who look at the reverse? How does American culture affect the game of baseball? Here, I don’t mean "how did baseball come to be a revered national past-time within American culture?" I want to ask the question of how American culture directly (or indirectly) influences decisions that are made on the field of play. It may strike you, reader, as a strange question, since you are most likely an American yourself. It’s hard to answer questions like this, or even recognize them as questions worthy of asking, because to look at something, you have to be able to get some distance between yourself and it. Where is there a space where someone can step outside "American culture?" Ever ask a fish to comment on water or how it affects his life? He can’t. It’s all around him and all he’s ever known. But with a little training and a good shot of perspective, it’s possible to look at American culture (and baseball) from the outside… and to see how silly some things are when you look at them from a new vantage point.

As a quick example, take the batting average-versus-on-base percentage debate that happened some years ago, following the publication of Moneyball. Consider how many decisions were (and still are!) made based on batting average, a stat which was born from a cultural quirk.

Batting average is basically what happens if you take on-base percentage and ignore walks (yes, and HBPs too...). Why on earth would someone ignore walks? Alan Schwarz, in his outstanding book The Numbers Game (if you haven’t yet, go read it right now), discussed how it came to be. A batter, it was thought, didn’t really deserve credit for a walk. He was just a passive bystander while the pitcher made four mistakes. In American culture, there’s a great deal of value on people who take action and get things done, not those who wait for things to come to them. We have plenty of leadership academies and business schools, but few teachers of patience. So walks are, in a sense, un-American. I’d argue that, at some level, the reason that the A’s were able to exploit the market’s inefficient valuation of OBP was, that at some level, they recognized the cultural assumption and, on further reflection, realized that it was silly.

There are other places in the game of baseball where the influence of American culture is lurking, but still very much influencing decisions that are being made on the field and in the front office. In this article, I propose to look closely at one of them, and to show how it has a several effects on how a team operates.

Hero worship

Quick. Name the five greatest baseball players of all time. Go. Now, name the five greatest baseball teams of all time. Go.

I’m guessing that if you actually made the first list, you made a list of seven or eight players and agonized over which ones to cross off. Your second list probably reads "1927 Yankees…" and likely didn’t make it much past that. Who’s actually on the list is irrelevant. Everyone has their own views of what makes someone the "greatest." The point is that the individuals come to you much quicker than the teams. In fact, if I asked you to tell me why you picked the 1927 Yankees, you’d probably mumble something about "Well, they had Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig." Back to the individuals, eh? Strange, because baseball is a team game and generally, people form allegiances to teams ("I’m a Cubs fan"), not individual players. Or so we say.

Did you ever stop to wonder why we have a Hall of Fame for players, but not teams? American culture values the individual over the collective. It’s one of those truisms that doesn’t shock you to hear it, but it might not be something that you’ve ever consciously considered. It’s a cultural assumption, and often those just go unquestioned. It’s time to start asking some questions and to see whether the answers make any sense.

This focus on the individual works its way into the very language of speaking about baseball. Consider the pitching stats that go with each game. One pitcher gets a win, another a loss. Absent a complete game, does the starter really deserve all the credit (or blame)? No, but someone—emphasis on the one—has to be given the credit (or blame) for something that ultimately is a team achievement. Even laying aside the fact that wins and losses are a poorly constructed stat, why does one pitcher have to be singled out to begin with? And why the pitcher, for that matter?

Then there’s the save. The guy who shuts down the other team in the ninth inning gets one. The guy who does it in the eighth gets none. They both pitched a 1-2-3 inning in a close game, but only one of them gets mentioned (and only one of them will get the $10-million contract while the other gets the $3-million contract). Only one of them can be the hero. 

Hero? If you want to know how people really feel about something, listen carefully to the way that they speak about it. How often is a really good active player or a famous retired player referred to as a "hero"? Someone who saves the day. Someone who’s a little more than a mortal man. He’s a hero! He stands out. He’s a little more than the others. Why can’t we have multiple heroes? Well, having too many heroes kind of takes away from the whole point of having heroes, doesn’t it? One unfortunate side effect is that it sends fans and front offices alike into a tizzy this time of year worrying about the hero roles, like whether their team has a "legitimate ace" or a "shutdown closer." Of course, it’s not a bad thing if the team does have one (or both) of these. But at what price? 

Consider the following thought experiment: let’s take all 150 starting pitchers in the majors (30 teams times five starters… yes, I know there are more) and split them into the top 30 (the aces), then the next 30 (the second starters), and so on. Now, suppose that you could have your choice between a rotation headed up by a "legitimate ace" and three guys from the third or fourth tier (we’ll call this team the 2005 Toronto Blue Jays) or a rotation composed of four guys from the second tier (let’s call them the 2005 Chicago White Sox). I don’t suppose that it would take much to show that one could built a rotation from the second tier that is measurably better than our ace-high rotation. Yet, people would still be drawn to the Roy Halladay-led ace-high rotation. Adherents will often say things like "Well, but in an important game, whom do you want out there?" If our team with the ace-high rotation makes the playoffs, it’s clear who will pitch in Game One and who they will want on the mound for Game Seven. The designated hero. Our team of "good but not great" pitchers has nothing to recommend one starter over another, even though over the entirety of the series, you never have to settle for a below-average starter. But it offends our sensibilities as Americans. There must be one who stands out! A leader. An ace. That’s the American way.

Does it have to be that way?

Places of Honor

Let’s move over to the batting offensive side of the equation and look at the lineup card. Managers usually put their best power hitters (dare I say, their heroes?) in the 3-4-5 spots in the lineup. Again, we note the language used. This is the heart of the order. A move into one of these spots is considered to be a mark of distinction. The player has made it. He’s now one of the important people in the lineup. There are good, statistically sound reasons for putting good hitters in these spots, particularly if they are power hitters, namely that if the top of the order is doing its job, then these men will come to the plate with runners already on base. That’s a good thing.

Then, there’s the leadoff hitter, which also seems to function as a place of honor for guys who are fast… and sometimes really their only redeeming quality is that they are fast. (That’s a rant for another day.) But those first, third, fourth, and fifth spots are the ones that are filled first with the standout players. The rest of the spots are filled by the lesser players, including those in the two-hole. For some reason, the second spot in the lineup has been relegated to "a guy who’s a good bunter" or a good "hit it to the right side" guy… even if he’s not a good hitter. This is the man who will get the second-most plate appearances on the team. Curious.

Suppose that a team had its second hitter get injured. Why is it that in this situation, it is rare to see a manager elevate his third hitter to the two-spot, but he has no problem putting his eighth or ninth (!) hitter into that spot? Thinking about that for a moment, it makes no sense, yet it happens all the time. The three-hole is a hero spot. The two-spot is not. People become so attached to these hero roles and the people who occupy them that it becomes hard for them to envision that things could be different.

You Can’t Trade Him!

If you haven’t been vacationing in Western Slevetika this past week, you’ve surely read of the rumored Albert Pujols-for-Ryan Howard swap that was floated about last week. The immediate reaction to the idea was generally an uproarious "You can’t do that!" (For what it’s worth, Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. has said publicly that there’s no truth to the rumor). In a chat I did last week, someone asked in what universe this type of trade would make sense. I encouraged him to set aside the names Pujols and Howard and to consider the deal as it would affect both teams.

There is a certain logic to the proposed trade. The Phillies are in a win-now mood, and Pujols would be an upgrade over Howard. Not a huge one, mind you, but big enough to warrant mention. Pujols will be harder to sign long-term, but when a team is in win-now mode, this is not as big a deal. For the Cardinals, Howard is a better bet to be signed long-term, primarily because he’ll supposedly ask for less money than Pujols and because he’s from St. Louis. The Cards would thus be hedging their bets on having an MVP first baseman on their books for the next five years and going for the safer option. There are, of course, a thousand other moving parts to this deal, but on some level, it makes sense. It’s at least not that strange an idea.

Of course, people weren’t analyzing it in that sort of detail. The thought that a team would actively trade a former MVP still very much in his prime was shocking enough. Had such a deal been proposed with mid-range players, my guess is that there wouldn’t have been any controversy concerning the move. But when we get to the designated heroes, people begin to respond with their emotions.

U-S-A! U-S-A!

Americans tend to emphasize the individual over the team. Even within a team game like baseball, we single out individual players as heroes and can tend to see the rest of the players as simply his supporting cast. This leads to decisions which are analyzed not in their relationship to the team, but how they affect the heroes involved. Some of these issues that I have brought up (the importance of the second hitter, for example) have been addressed before, but these examples are just the symptoms. If you really want to understand why these things happen, you have to look for the underlying cause, and oftentimes, it’s something that’s so deeply ingrained in the mind that it’s hard to bring up to the surface.

 Baseball is a team game, and we live in a culture not programmed to see things from a team perspective. What that means, though, is that there’s a blind spot, and a team that can identify the blind spot and work around it has a strategic advantage. The problem is, of course, that it’s not nice to go against major cultural assumptions, and the team will probably incur a little bit of feedback. But they’ll be better off for it.  

Russell A. Carleton is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Russell's other articles. You can contact Russell by clicking here

Related Content:  The Who,  One-hitter,  Managers Of The Year,  Culture,  Ace

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