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July 18, 2012

The Lineup Card

8 Things About Baseball We No Longer Believe

by Baseball Prospectus

1. I Know a Lot About Baseball
I realize some people feel like the opposite is true, but I prefer beer to wine because of the complexity of flavors. When I taste wine, it's fine and good and whatever, and then I taste it again and I think, this is exactly the same. And I put it down. But with beer, each taste can reveal new flavors. I enjoy that complexity. It makes things interesting. That same complexity is what makes baseball wonderful. Each season, indeed each game, can reveal new flavors, new insights, and new truths that we couldn't have known before. Each year makes us say, "I'd never have thought of that," or, "There's no way I could have seen that coming." If it didn't, I don't know about you, but I'd get bored and move on to something else. Each year is both a lesson in new things and a reminder of what we don't know, a primer on all the knowledge that still remains in the vast, unexplored nebulous space of baseball truths. Each year, I feel like I have a good handle on how things are going to go that season, and each year I'm wondrously wrong. Maybe that's a personal problem, but I don't look at it that way. To me, it's the greatest gift baseball has to give. —Matthew Kory

2. The World Series Winner is the Best Team in Baseball
Someone will win the World Series this year. After all, that's the point. But calling them, unquestioningly, the best team in baseball because of a championship is silly, yet our culture is filled with plenty of ready-made narratives for teams that surprise in October. They were the best "when it counted." Apparently, nothing before October counts in baseball... except for the All-Star Game.

I don't know if this is sabermetric thinking or just two minutes of critical thinking aided by a calculator (same thing?), but let's assume that there was a team that was so good that if they played a billion games against other playoff teams (i.e., those that are actually good), they would win 60 percent of their games. On the 162-game scale, that would be 97-65... again on a schedule entirely devoid of cellar dwellars and mid-packers. This would rank as one of the greatest teams in major-league history. Using a simple binomial function, in a five-game series, our amazing team has a 68 percent chance of winning the first best-of-five round, and a 71 percent chance of winning the best-of-seven LCS, and then the best-of-seven World Series. This means that our ridiculously good team has a 34 percent chance of winning all three rounds... better than any one of the other teams, but not better than all of the rest combined. But let's flip it around the other way. Two-thirds of the time, in a field containing a downright amazing team, some team that is not the best will come through to win the trophy.

If there's something that sabermetrics has shown us, it's that over small sample sizes (like, say, five games), there's a lot of luck involved. It's an odd irony that in a country where success is presumed to be the result of hard work (and hardly of luck) that its national passtime should be so affected by the ever-tinkering hand of chance. It's un-American not to conflate the result (winning) with the input (being the best team). But for all the little edges that sabermetrics has granted those who embrace it, there's another lesson that's true, but oh-so-hard to swallow: Sometmes you do everything right, and the ball doesn't bounce your way. —Russell Carleton

3. There is No Such Thing as a Pitching Non-Prospect
I once interviewed Kevin Goldstein about Angels prospects. This was probably 2008 or 2009, and I kept naming players who had had bad seasons and was trying to write them off. They were too old! They couldn't stay healthy! They didn't walk enough, or if they were pitchers, they walked too often! And every time he walked me back. "You don't want to end a guy's career when he's 21," he said, or something like that, or maybe something not like that. That's what I remember, anyway.

I always thought prospects weren't delicate flowers and that the default was that they would get worse—good prospects would disappoint, and bad prospects would disappear. But somewhere between that conversation with Goldstein and now, Brandon Beachy went undrafted and still managed to turn into a star. Michael Fiers was drafted in the 22nd round in his age-24 season, and he's in the majors pitching well. Sean Doolittle went from injury-prone first baseman to extremely effective reliever in less than a year. It's true that attrition gets a lot of baseball players and swallows a lot of very good prospects. But the unpredictability of baseball works in both directions, especially with young pitchers who, for the first time, are learning from real coaches and really committing themselves to pitching at high levels. If you focus on those guys, rather than the Roger Salkelds and Ryan Andersons, life will seem a lot more generous, and your own future will seem a lot more hopeful. —Sam Miller

4. Gaudy Minor-League Numbers Mean Future Big-League Monster
Years ago, when I first took an interest in minor-league stats, it was so easy to determine who the future stars of the game would be. Guys like Jason Botts, Ryan Shealy, Kevin Kouzmanoff, and Kila Ka'aihue were going to be future major-league mashers, while pitchers such as Kevin Slowey, Yusmeiro Petit, and Jeremy Sowers were going to dominate the game from the bump. I mean, look at their minor-league stats! They have to.

Obviously, none of these players turned into stars, and only a few had semi-lengthy stays in the bigs.

As these players began to fail, I learned that maybe the projection and prognostication of minor leaguers isn't so easy. I've been careful not to use the word prospect, because many of the players I became enamored with were more suspects than prospects. I didn't yet understand the concept of mistake hitters, or fully grasp how good control could mask a lot of shortcomings of minor-league pitchers.

Before the days of Twitter and the Up and In Podcast, learning was more than hearing Kevin Goldstein and Jason Parks caution that minor-league stats mean very little. There is a reason scouting hasn't gone the way of the dodo, even with the advances in statistical analysis. Sure, scouts and prospect coverage outlets can be wrong. Of the players listed above, Slowey, Petit, and Sowers were all considered notable prospects at one point in time. You can add names likes Brandon Wood and Andy Marte to the list that had big prospect accolades, but failed to realize their lofty expectations in the majors. That said, it's not about what a player has done, it is about what they are going to do at the highest level. Using stats in isolation simply doesn't do a sufficient job of separating the minor-league journeymen from the future major-league stars. —Josh Shepardson

5. The Athletics are Going to Win it All... Or Just Compete
Sabermetricians have long lauded ballclubs that should be due for a breakout. Before the Tampa Bay Rays, and thanks, in part, to Moneyball​, we had the Oakland Athletics. In my formative years, I knew there was this looming giant in the AL West waiting to spring doom on the rest of the league. The problem is, the magic has largely worn out since 2006, and the A's have since become about as relevant as Notre Dame football, which has also taken a real South Bend since 2006. Rooting for the A's has become something like listening to a Knute Rockne locker room speech gone wrong. Yeah, Oakland will get its opponents on the run in the beginning of the season when they have their regular players around, but after the trading deadline, they tend to fall far short of the goal line.

Despite finishing above third place just once since '06, prognosticators still seemingly project big things for the Athletics. And the circumstances surrounding the team's poor luck isn't entirely the A's fault. They've consistently had young talent, but due to the stadium situation, the club hasn't been able to settle down. Once a player's stock rises, he's usually sold to the highest bidder. Now the A's have to compete with two super powers in the Rangers, who are already good and have a superb farm system, and the Angels, who have guys like Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, and C.J. Wilson locked in long-term.

So the last six years have busted the myth of the always-contending Athletics for me. Unfortunately for the A's, their stadium situation doesn't look like it's going to be resolved anytime soon. Even more unfortunately for them, baseball doesn't have 35 bowl games to help everyone go home with a trophy. —Stephani Bee

6. Kansas City is the Baseball Hinterlands
I'll admit, when I made my first-ever baseball trip to Kansas City for the All-Star Game earlier this month, I thought I was going to sport's hinterlands. The Royals haven't been to the postseason since winning their lone World Series in 1985. No other major-league club has suffered a longer post-season drought. Heck, the Royals have had only one winning season in the last 17 years, a Pittsburgian-type feat. Yet what I found during my time in Kansas City is a town that not only has very friendly people and great barbeque—order the burnt ends at Gates and thank me later—but a passion for baseball and a very underrated ballpark.

The Futures Game has failed to root beyond hardcore fans, yet scenic Kauffman Stadium was packed for the event, and 40,000-plus hung on every plate appearance by Royals prospect Wil Myers. While the fans went a little overboard in their booing of Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano for not selecting Royals designated hitter Billy Butler to compete in the Home Run Derby, it was noble that they showed so much passion in voicing their disproval of the move. The All-Star Game was almost over before it started, as the National League scored five runs in the top of the first inning, yet the vast majority of fans stayed in the stands until the end and still seemed to have a great time.

My most enduring memory of the festivities, though, came as I was riding the elevator back up to the press box from gathering interviews in the clubhouses following the All-Star Game. The elderly gentleman operating the elevator asked if I had a good time in Kansas City. When I answered in the affirmative, he said, "Well, then come back and see us again. We'd love to have you." I am going to take him up on that offer. —John Perrotto

7. Baseball Fans are Egalitarian in Their Assessments of Other Sports
Okay, I don’t really believe that, but this seems as good a place as any to get this off my chest. I am generalizing in all of these comments. You may or may not know that I also write for Prospectus on the NBA. In fact, I’ve written about 500 times as many basketball pieces for the company than baseball pieces. You might not know this because as a baseball fan, you don’t have any tolerance for what you perceive to be lesser sports.

Before Basketball Prospectus, I was strictly a baseball guy when it came to my professional endeavors. During the five years that I’ve straddled sports, I’ve noticed numerous times how quickly seamheads are to write derisive comments about other sports. (The NBA? Does that involve some sort of orange ball? I’ve heard ’em all.) I’ve only become aware of this during the two years I’ve been on Twitter, where I follow mostly various species of sports pundits. About the only sports event that I haven’t seen seamheads trash is European soccer. If they allow themselves an indulgence in other sports, that’s the one that seems to be bearable. With the ramp-up to football season about to begin, I fully expect to see a fresh torrent of anti-non-baseball-sports Tweets in the coming days. (I’ve seen a couple already.)

Look, I love baseball. Love. It. I also love the NBA. L-O-V-E. If you put a gun to my head and told me I had to focus on one sport or the other, my brains would probably end up on the wall because of indecision. Somewhere along the line, as I became more sensitive to silly NBA dismissals and took notice of seamheads dissing other sports, I had an epiphany. You see, I used to make fun of certain other sports as well. Soccer was one. Sometimes the NFL. Always NASCAR. Then I realized: They are all the same damned thing. In the Big Picture, they all are means to the same end. I’d rather have my teeth pulled with a garlic press before I’d watch a NASCAR race, but that’s my preference. There is no objective reason why my sports are better than those sports. No one is making me watch them, so I don’t. And I see no particular need to ridicule anyone for the particular diversion they’ve chosen. Liking baseball does not make you special.

Now, I ask you: Am I the only one that has noticed this kind of snobbery when it comes to baseball fans? Have you seen it from the fan bases of other sports? When it comes to the NBA community, I can honestly say I’ve seen very little of this kind of pseudo-elitism. —Bradford Doolittle

8. It's Fair to Compare Individual Baseball and Football Game Ratings
Every year, we’re treated to whole host of stories that draw comparisons between football TV ratings and baseball TV ratings. These stories usually focus on the fact the football ratings are higher. And they are higher—that’s indisputable. What is disputable is whether that ratings disparity tells us anything about the balance of power and popularity between the two sports.

Many writers interpret the ratings gap as evidence that football is ascendant and baseball is on its last legs, often making some snide remark about baseball’s dubious claim to the title of “national pastime.” What they tend to ignore is that baseball is in better shape than ever—it may lack its previously privileged status on the American athletic landscape, but it’s hardly about to go under because some of its fans discovered other sports. More importantly, these writers ignore the fact that baseball and football games aren’t created equal.

In football, each team plays 16 times, usually on the weekend and with a week’s worth of buildup between contests. In baseball, each team plays 162 times. It shouldn’t be surprising that football draws more viewers on a game-by-game basis, since each individual game has much higher stakes. Football games are nationally televised. Most baseball games aren’t. That means that football fans are more familiar with teams in other markets (and thus more willing to watch them) than baseball fans are, even when baseball games are on national TV. There are other factors: Football playoffs are single elimination, rather than best of five or best of seven. Football is bigger for gamblers. Baseball has to compete with more outside activities, since it mostly takes place during better weather. This is about to turn into a George Carlin routine, so I'll stop there. You get the idea.

As someone who makes a living writing about baseball, I’m more sensitive than most to any suggestion that the game is in decline. But regardless of which sport you support, you should be able to spot the obvious flaws in the rehashed ratings argument. Football may have more fans, but pointing to TV ratings is a pretty poor way to show it. —Ben Lindbergh

15 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

Dave Scott

I very much enjoy this format using the entire team of writers providing succinct writing on solid topics. Thanks.

Jul 18, 2012 08:51 AM
rating: 3
 
ScottyB

I am also a big football and basketball fan, and love seeing a live hockey game. however, my blood boils over when people talk about pro soccer. grrrrrrrrrr.

Jul 18, 2012 09:14 AM
rating: 0
 
Llarry

Fans of most sports will be glad to talk up their favorites, to share what they love about them, especially to those who don't understand the attraction. (I've done it, with such a spread of things like hockey, cycling, Canadian football, Australian football, biathlon...) There may be cracks about other sports, but it's rarely mean-spirited.

I have, however, heard baseball fans who seem genuinely offended that other sports might be going on at the same time, as if this detracts from baseball.

There are such Pez-heads everywhere, but it seems like I have indeed seen a few more around baseball...

Jul 18, 2012 10:52 AM
rating: 0
 
Screamingliner

I'm perfectly fine with football, so long as it's not played on the same field as baseball. It cheeses me off to see yardlines in the outfield, and I'm sure football fans get annoyed by seeing the infield on the 50. Thankfully, this slowly disappearing, but it still happens, even in San Francisco. Get off my lawn.

Jul 18, 2012 12:38 PM
rating: 7
 
koopbri

I think all kinds of sports fans trash-talk other sports, usually in a spirit of banter and fun.
I'm mostly a baseball and soccer fan - thus I fit one of the author's stereotypes - so I usually notice when my sports are being trashed, usually it's American football and hockey fans doing it (we're Canadian, eh, so pro basketball gets about as much interest as pro lacrosse). Baseball is slow-paced and boring, with games taking forever and with fat old players who aren't "real athletes". Soccer is a low-scoring game where "nothing ever happens" and players are diving, injury-faking wimps.
Of course anyone who takes this stuff seriously needs to remember its just entertainment and to each their own.

Jul 18, 2012 12:43 PM
rating: 0
 
eighteen

Things are not the same simply because they are means to the same end.

And there IS an objective reason baseball is better than other sports: It's baseball. The others aren't.

Since you haven't seen a "seamhead" trash soccer, here ya go: Soccer is a stupid game that doesn't allow use of the one instrument arguably most responsible for our species' dominance - that marvel of nature, the human hand. Except the goalie. In a game where teams rarely score even 3 goals in 2 hours, the only guy who can use his hands is the one tasked with preventing scoring. Don't even get me started on the weenies who play that insipid pastime.

Jul 18, 2012 14:57 PM
rating: 7
 
drawbb

I've come to enjoy World Cup soccer (just that variety) quite a bit in the last few years, but this is still a funny comment...and most of the complaints about it are largely true.

As for the other sports...college football is fantastic, but I'd dearly love to lock all the incessant NFL coverage and its mindless zombie fans away in a closet somewhere so I wouldn't have to hear about it anymore. Its existence doesn't bother me, but the absolutely relentless assault of trying to shove it down the throats of people who clearly don't care makes overkill look understated.

Basketball is a painfully dull sport period, and that's the one bad thing about where I live now: It's the first serious NBA town in which I've resided. Wow, do I ever wish that would just go away. I'll admit to openly despising the NBA and its mere existence.

Hockey is fine as a casual endeavor, but it'll never be more important than as an occasional distraction. I'd gladly watch tennis any day over the NFL or NBA, and while I can't watch golf I do admire their skills. Redneck pseudo-sports aren't really irritating because they mostly keep to their own little worlds.

Jul 18, 2012 17:42 PM
rating: 1
 
Chucko

All I can say is that I was a bartender in a sports bar in Manhattan until recently, and that I wore a Red Sox hat pretty much every shift. I was routinely heckled for doing so, miracle of miracles. What amazed me was not that I survived unscathed (Yankees fans are typically nice folks, but then again I was holding the whiskey). The real shocker was that 90% of the shit I got was for repping baseball instead of football! If it had been a Pats jersey instead of a Sox cap I probably would have been in fights AND been given more respect.

It seemed that there is a prrrrrrretty widely held perception among today's sports fans that football is definitively rad because the players are huge and violent and otherwise epitomize manliness. Ditto MMA. Hockey would be the same except that Americans aren't allowed to play. NASCAR provides fiery explosive death. The NBA provides Metta World Peace, who is strikingly similar to fiery explosive death. But baseball only offers a lot of tubby dudes who wear funny clothes while spending many hours each day hitting a ball with a stick. It's like team golf, and everybody knows that golf ain't cool until you become middle management. And when you get to that point you aren't allowed in sports bars anymore anyway.

Jul 18, 2012 18:43 PM
rating: 3
 
R.A.Wagman

When you get to that point, you don't want to hang out in sports bars, anyway. You might run into one of your employees.
I used to love all sports. Watch, play, study, etc. Then, one summer day as the NFL was gearing up, an offensive lineman for the Minnesota Vikings named Korey Stringer passed out while working out. He had heat stroke and would soon be pronounced dead. Having played rep league football earlier, I was reminded of pre-season training in which teenagers would have to run around the field wearing dark garbage bags over their uniforms until they lost enough weight to make weigh-in. And then I realized that the majority of professional football players were only in the position they were in because they were substantially larger than regular people. In fact, regular sized people were precluded from most positions.
And then I realized that basket ball was the same way. Four out of five positions on the court were taken by people who were expected to be much taller than regular, old 6-footers like myself.
And so I stopped caring about those games. Cold turkey. It took me almost a full decade to be able to stomach the Super Bowl again and I still have no interest in basketball. Nothing against the sport, but I just don't see it.
Now more of my brain is taken up with hockey and baseball. And sometimes soccer.
That said, I see just as many people who love to snark on baseball, whether than love hockey or football or soccer or basketball or no sports at all, as see seamheads snarking on other sports.

Jul 18, 2012 19:19 PM
rating: 1
 
Chucko

"ever-tinkering hand of chance"

Russell Carleton, I want to give you propers for the best baseball wordplay I've ever read... even if it really went Tinker to Evers to Chance.

Jul 18, 2012 18:03 PM
rating: 4
 
BP staff member Russell A. Carleton
BP staff

Hooray! Someone caught it!

Jul 19, 2012 19:16 PM
 
Chucko

The best thing about your phrasing is that it's wonderfully evocative in its own right, even without the double meaning. That's why I stopped to play with it in the first place. Inspired, sir, absolutely inspired.

Now you just need to write a baseball themed murder mystery novel to go with it!

Jul 19, 2012 20:20 PM
rating: 0
 
Dodger300

Anyone who has attended a game at Kauffman, née Royals Stadium, knows it is a special place.

Kansas City had the wisdom to build separate baseball and football stadiums when all the others were building those multi-use monstrosities in the 70s.

At the time, many accused KC of wasteful, duplicate spending. But when the rest ponied up with more financing for new stadiums costing hundreds of millions each, after only 20-30 years of use, leaders in Kansas City were proven to be quite farsighted.

Kauffman Stadium has stood the test of time and reigns not only as the best, but in fact the only, baseball cathedral built during the 70s, much as Dodger Stadium is the only one built in the 60s to have stood the same test of time.

While neither can offer all of the amenities that were introduced later, both very well might still hear the sacred call of "Play Ball!" when they turn 100 years old, joining Fenway and Wrigley in the inner circle Stadium Hall of Fame.

Jul 18, 2012 21:08 PM
rating: 3
 
Bob Stocking

Sam MIller, thanks for reminding us all that the numbers can help spot trends but they don't limit our individual destinies. For ballplayers too.

Another great piece, team.

Jul 19, 2012 10:25 AM
rating: 1
 
AWBenkert

Notre Dame turned out to be pretty good in 2012 - as did the A's.

Dec 12, 2012 03:10 AM
rating: 0
 
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