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September 18, 2012

Baseball ProGUESTus

The Agony of Rational Rooting

by Nick Piecoro

Believe it or not, most of our writers didn't enter the world sporting an @baseballprospectus.com address; with a few exceptions, they started out somewhere else. In an effort to up your reading pleasure while tipping our caps to some of the most illuminating work being done elsewhere on the internet, we'll be yielding the stage once a week to the best and brightest baseball writers, researchers and thinkers from outside of the BP umbrella. If you'd like to nominate a guest contributor (including yourself), please drop us a line.

Nick Piecoro is in his sixth season as a beat writer covering the Arizona Diamondbacks for ​The Arizona Republic and azcentral.com. Once an all-glove, no-stick Little Leaguer, he grew up playing APBA games in the suburbs of Phoenix. If he’s not writing or talking or watching baseball, he’s probably listening to or watching or falling asleep to music, movies, or television shows. You can follow him on Twitter @nickpiecoro.

***

When the week began, 18 of baseball’s 30 teams either had a hold on a playoff spot or were within 4 1/2 games of one, meaning the final two weeks could provide as much entertainment for fans as last season’s exciting finish—and maybe more.

And yet here I am tangled up in a world of justice and rationality and reason, searching for balance between my head and my heart.

It comes down to this: I don’t know what to root for.

There are the things that the fan in me wants to see happen. Then there are the things I think ought to happen.

Part of me loves what the Baltimore Orioles have been able to do in giving their passionate fan base reason to care for the first time in 14 years. But another part of me sees the way their season has unfolded and considers it patently unfair that they’re in the hunt for a playoff spot.

It’s nothing against the Orioles, Buck Showalter, or Dan Duquette. It’s just that following the game closely—and spending much of the year talking with like-minded people in the industry—I want to see not only the best teams win, but the ones that have gone about it the right way.

So, as nerdy as this might sound, I guess I’m rooting for positive run differentials and good process. I’m not sure the Orioles have either.

Some of this craziness, of course, is bound to happen. It’s what we love about baseball. Every year a group of scouts and writers I know try to revel in the unpredictability by making what we call No (Effing) Way predictions—or NFWs, for short.

Players and teams come out of nowhere every year—Ben Zobrist OPSing .948 in 2009, Jose Bautista launching 54 home runs in 2010, etc.—and what we do is try to get a jump on them. It goes like this: you make a call on something you think might happen, and it counts as your NFW pick so long as everyone else decides there’s “No effing way” it happens.

If someone would have said the Orioles would be outscored by their opponents by 20-something runs, and that not one of their trio of young starters—Zach Britton, Brian Matusz, and Jake Arrieta—would have a breakout season, that wouldn’t have counted as a NFW. Too believable. But if you’d said all that would happen, plus they’d be a game behind the Yankees atop the AL East on Sept. 17, you’d have heard a chorus of NFWs as well as concerns about your sanity.

That part of their story is kind of neat, but what about the organizations that might deserve it more? Don’t the smartly run Rays, with their shoestring budget, their shrewd deal-making, and their plus-74 run differential seem more deserving? Or, for that matter, don’t the Blue Jays, another well-run organization that was struck by a storm of injuries and/or inexplicable ineffectiveness (yes, you, Ricky Romero)?

What have the Orioles done other than fire a front office that laid the groundwork for this season?

The 2012 Orioles aren’t much different from the 2007 Diamondbacks, the 2010 Padres, or even the 2012 Athletics. These out-of-nowhere teams generally have a few distinct characteristics: they have lights-out bullpens. They are good at hitting with runners in scoring position. They are good in what Baseball-Reference defines as high-leverage situations. And, as a result, they win a lot of one-run games.

But the thing I find frustrating—perhaps irrationally (or overly rationally?)—is the unpredictability and unrepeatability of all of this. Bullpen construction is notoriously difficult, with luck figuring in as a major component of success. Just look at the Orioles. They went into the year with Kevin Gregg expected to fill a prominent late-inning role. He was released last week.

And let’s not even get into the whole clutchness thing.

“I was watching our team win,” said a front-office executive of a recent surprise team, “and it made me question everything. ‘Do I even know anything about baseball?’”

I’m not the only one who finds myself confused about whom to root for this time of year.

“We feel like we need to understand this game and feel like we get it,” a scout said last week. “And then the amazing thing about it is it confirms what we believe at times, and then at times it surprises us. If it never surprised us, it would be boring. We don’t want it to be Tic-tac-toe. There needs to be some degree of that. But I share your sentiment. I don’t want the Orioles to do well. I don’t want this nonsense to continue.

“A lot of times I get so lost and so depressed, it’s almost lose-lose. I try to find someone deserving. For years, that team was the Atlanta Braves. They didn’t have ridiculous amounts of money. They did it the right way. Now, I guess I’m rooting for Texas.”

Part of our confusion stems from our own biases, from what we think is the right way to go about putting a team together and what we think defines a good team. But who says that scout has all the answers? Who says I do?

I’m nearing the end of my sixth season as a beat reporter covering the Diamondbacks, and every season has surprised me. Every single season. I thought they’d merely be competitive in 2007. They won 90 games. I thought they’d be even better in 2008. They won 82 games. I thought they’d bounce back in 2009. They lost Brandon Webb and 92 games. I figured they’d be competitive in 2010. They lost 97. I didn’t see 94 wins coming last year. I didn’t see merely a .500 team coming this year.

“Perhaps,” said Dylan Hernandez, the Dodgers beat writer for the Los Angeles Times, “this says something about you.”

Dylan was being a smartass. But he’s right, too.

I certainly don’t think I know it all. And I don’t mind being surprised. I love that in our sport, we get a leading projection model in PECOTA that is far from perfect and yet, the system’s creator, Nate Silver, can go on to accurately predict 49 of 50 states’ presidential voting results.

Maybe it’s the Greek in me that wants order out of chaos. Or maybe it’s the fact that I’ve gotten to know smart, hard-working scouts and executives who have dedicated their lives to figuring this game out. People whose jobs can disappear if things don’t go their way.

I just want to see the best teams win. I want to see the best decisions—good process—pay off in the end. I want to believe, despite all the things in the world that tell us otherwise, that good work is rewarded in the end.

Too often, that doesn’t seem to happen in baseball. But I guess if it did, we wouldn’t have anything left to debate. And what fun would that be?

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

BP Comment Quick Links

Behemoth

The flaw in your argument is the idea that you want the best teams to win always. One of the joys of baseball is that nobody is truly out of contention in the long-term - if you look at the last five years, pretty much every team in baseball (except for the Royals) has been involved in a playoff race, and that's what keeps it fresh and interesting. Always wanting the best team to win keeps things predictable and dull, because there's a greater correlation between money spent and being the best team than there is between money spent and winning divisions or world series.

Sep 18, 2012 03:10 AM
rating: 0
 
R.A.Wagman

When in the last five years (ten years) were the Jays really in contention? Their records were generally decent, but nowhere near contention past the All Star game.

Sep 18, 2012 06:40 AM
rating: 0
 
Behemoth

OK, but it doesn't change my fundamental point. The Jays don't really have the same air of hopelessness that, say, the Royals or, until very recently the Pirates have had.

Sep 19, 2012 07:04 AM
rating: 0
 
Drungo

I used to want the best teams to win, the playoffs to be minimized so that random chance was taken out and skill dominated.

But then I realized that would result in the Yanks winning the pennant 8 times out of 10, and the Red Sox or Angels winning the other 2. And that's not just wrong, it's soul-crushing.

If I had to wait for Peter Angelos to assemble a team "the right way" and overcome the Yankees and Sox and their built-in market advantages I'd probably be dead before I actually enjoyed baseball. And if baseball isn't fun, then what's the point? Why should large groups of baseball fans be eviscerated for generations on end because MLB lets idiots own their favorite team?

If someone out there doesn't enjoy the O's David-versus-Goliath season, then I thumb my nose in your general direction.

Sep 18, 2012 13:54 PM
rating: 4
 
CSPitt17130

If you had to wait for an Angelos-owned team to build a winner the right way, then it would take a while. However, look at how competitive the Rays are every year and how good the Jays should have been this year before their entire rotation along with an MVP candidate hit the DL. Angelos had the opportunity this past offseason to put someone in charge who could do that. He chose not to do so. The Orioles have enough money to supplement their team in a way that the Rays cannot. That financial flexibility could make the Orioles a perennially competitive team with the right person making decisions.

Sep 18, 2012 14:06 PM
rating: 0
 
jsh2185

I think Angelos did just fine in who he hired to rebuild the organization.

Sep 19, 2012 05:18 AM
rating: 1
 
Johnson Magic

I don't give a rat's patootie that the O's aren't *supposed* to win; I'm enjoying September baseball for the first time in a decade-and-a-half. I'll take it.

Sep 18, 2012 05:31 AM
rating: 1
 
rwinter

Loved this. well done Nick

Sep 18, 2012 07:46 AM
rating: 1
 
robustyoungsoul

Is it unpredictability, or are there factors that we have yet to discover?

Sep 18, 2012 07:47 AM
rating: 1
 
rileybreck

Outstanding work, Nick.

Sep 18, 2012 08:12 AM
rating: 0
 
Agent007

You appear to be too deeply wedded to stats, so much that you dislike those who don't match your statistical bias. Sometimes there are exceptions. If the team's stats don't reflect your preferences (i.e. Orioles), they should not win. Rather you should be examining why they are succeeding in spite of the stats. I don't think it's fluke. Neither is it due to old management.
Duquette signed a lot of unappreciated/undervalued players (stats people should like that!)... Chen, Wada, Gonzalez, McLouth... and resisted making trades for short-term (maybe) gain (a few times he said the players he could have landed did not appear to be better than the options within the organization), leaving the Orioles with players to carry them through injury. I think Duquette has shown that he's an astute judge of talent. They did not trade Tillman (not traded) and Gonzalez (unexpected signing) arrived and pitched well when the young arms failed (and Hammel was injured). He brought up Machado (instead of trading for Headley). Sometimes it appears that Showalter overmanages (his pitching rotation this month) but I think the Orioles are better than their run differential suggests.

Sep 18, 2012 08:41 AM
rating: -1
 
jsh2185

Those that keep getting caught up in the O's run differential narrative remind me of the people who were mocked for using AVG and RBI.

I also don't understand why the Blue Jays would be more deserving than the Orioles. The O's have a better run differential and they've had to deal with injuries and "inexplicable ineffectiveness" as well.

Sep 18, 2012 08:48 AM
rating: 0
 
andykaylor

Anyone who thinks the Orioles haven't won in "the right way" hasn't been watching them play this year. Sure, their success undermines the whole sabermetrics process, but they've been a great team to watch and a great team to root for. You'd prefer, maybe, a team that spends $150 million dollars on an all-star lineup?

Sep 18, 2012 08:50 AM
rating: 0
 
Bryant

As a San Diegan, I would love it if this was required reading for all Padres fans. Great work, Nick.

Sep 18, 2012 09:06 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jason Parks
BP staff

I love Nick.

Sep 18, 2012 09:28 AM
 
CSPitt17130

Do you really think Gregg was slated for a late-inning role at the start of the season? Buck used him in mop-up duty from Day 1.

Sep 18, 2012 09:45 AM
rating: 2
 
dee150586

This is best. Kudos Nick!

Sep 18, 2012 09:54 AM
rating: 0
 
juniusworth

Right way, wrong way, whatever. it's Spetember, it's baseball and it's awesome. Good stuff.

Sep 18, 2012 10:06 AM
rating: 2
 
Ruhee Dewji

I am generally an emotionally biased sports fan. I enjoy playoffs more if I have a horse in the race, so when (not if, sadly) the regular season ends without my team making it, I pick a team. Then I root loyally for them until they win or are axed. I find this way more exciting than just watching games without much bias.

Because of this, situations like the Athletics and the Orioles are more compelling to me. As a fan of an AL East team (the Blue Jays), watching the Orioles at the start of the season was gut-wrenching, because it hurt my team's chances and made things even more difficult in an already tight division. Now, out of contention, nothing is more fun than watching the Orioles continually mess with the New York Yankees. And that's why I want them to win. Chaos is exciting. September 28th, 2011 was exciting. That kind of thing speaks to me.

Run differential and effectiveness are always interesting, especially in the cases where teams appear to flagrantly disobey the general rule. But I think it's less fun if those are the only things used to determine who to pick. Order from chaos often yields surprising results, but the chaos is the best part.

Sep 18, 2012 10:20 AM
rating: 3
 
McNulty

So you want to reward good process with good results -- I think everyone can get on board with that.

I'm an O's fan, so take the rest of this in that context, but I have to admit I'm disappointed. I can remember growing up and having nothing but the Orioles. It was all anyone talked about. Angelos destroyed a ton of that, evidence of which is still present (see attendance at the recent White Sox series).

I've tried to quit the Orioles for the very same reasons you referenced here. They made bad decisions, hired and trusted some incompetent folks, had incredible poor development/scouting/FA signings/FO personnel, etc. But I always came back. Always. Its part of my childhood, family and friends. I love baseball and the Orioles *meant* something to me growing up.

There are thousands like me. So why not reward *that* process? I'm 32 and they haven't had a non-losing season since I was in high school. This is the first time I (and my entire hometown) have seen meaningful baseball in 15 years and you can't simply be happy about that? Wow. I know you are well intentioned here, and I'm not missing the point, but I think what you need to be questioning is your enjoyment of the game.

Sep 18, 2012 10:33 AM
rating: 3
 
BayCityM

I really enjoyed this article. If anything I think the O's performance this year is the exception that proves the rule.

Sep 18, 2012 11:07 AM
rating: 0
 
deckholm

Very good read, thanks Nick. The comments left to this point, however, decided less so. Seems some people completely missed the point.

Sep 18, 2012 11:28 AM
rating: 0
 
therealn0d

It seems like quite a few people have misunderstood the tone and point of this article.

"Too often, that doesn’t seem to happen in baseball. But I guess if it did, we wouldn’t have anything left to debate. And what fun would that be?"

Nick is actually telling you that the uncertainty is what makes it fun. Certitude would make it easy. To quote a famous baseball movie: "Hard is what makes it great. If it were easy, everyone would do it."

Baseball analysis is hard. That's what makes it great.

Sep 18, 2012 11:34 AM
rating: 1
 
Drungo

Except that the whole article up to that last throwaway line was wailing and gnashing of teeth about how tragic it is that the best teams have to lose to less-deserving lucky teams. Which I suppose is ok in a vacuum, but really is awful for fans of teams that don't pass the "right way" test.

Sep 18, 2012 14:00 PM
rating: 3
 
therealn0d

Turns out I was paraphrasing. The actual quote is:
"It's supposed to be hard. If it wasn't hard everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great."

Sep 18, 2012 12:02 PM
rating: -1
 
TGisriel

Some inaccuracies:

The O's did not "fire a front office that laid the groundwork for this season". MacPhail's contract expired and he chose not to re-sign.

As pointed out by CSPitt, Gregg was never slated for a late inning role this season, or at any time under Showalter.

The O's batting with men in scoring position is below average.

What have the O's done right? Actually, although bullpen construction is difficult, with luck factoring into it, the O's did construct an excellent bullpen by promoting a closer a pitcher who succeeded as a set-up man (Johnson), and assembling a bullpen with a pitcher who had strong physical gifts (Strop), a pitcher with a "gimmick" delivery (O'Day), a pitcher who had a history of success in the AL East (Ayala), and all on a low budget.

The plan for acquisitions from Duquette's signing was increasing depth. The O's acquired a number of veteran's with a track history who were at a low point. Some worked out (McLouth, Ford), some contributed for a bit (Thome, Quintanilla, Betemit), and some didn't work out at all (Tejada, Chavez)although Chavez has contributed in the last few games.

The O's have been willing to try new things to see if they work, such as Reynolds at 1B and Machado at 3B.

The run differential seems to be the only reason to say they are not succeeding in the right way, but the process (this year, and even going back to MacPhail) has been good. It's the 12 years before that when the process was terrible.

Sep 18, 2012 12:19 PM
rating: 3
 
Richard Bergstrom

I chuckle that the Rockies thought they were contenders with Moyer slated as their #2 pitcher but the fan in me hoped it would work. I actually got exposed to BP from Rob Neyer who, along with Rany Janzerali (sp?) had a blog called Rob and Rany on the Royals. Besides it can be easier to analyze when things are going wrong than when they are going well.

Sep 18, 2012 12:19 PM
rating: 0
 
greensox

"the ones that have gone about it the right way".

This is what I question. What is the "Right way"? Ways that agree with your or this site's general philosophy? The sabre way?
There certainly is a wrong way....the ways that lose year after year are the wrong way. I'd put constant "rebuilding" (often applauded) in that category.
But there is no "right way".
Even the beloved RedSox, who do things the "right way" in the sense that they can evaluate and appreciate young talent, were far and away the 2nd highest spenders when they won and wouldn't have come close to a WS had they not spent.

Sep 18, 2012 14:00 PM
rating: -2
 
andykaylor

I guess what I object to in this article is the implicit assumption that the Orioles have gotten where they are this year by dumb luck. I've watched a lot of Orioles games this year. There were some flukish things like Chris Davis pitching two scoreless innings against the Red Sox, but for the most part the Orioles did not win the games they won because of well-timed bloop singles or careless defense on the part of their opponents in critical situations. They won by pitching well when they needed to and hitting well when they needed to. And when they lost, they lost by not pitching well and not hitting well.

From a purely statistical point-of-view I suppose that one expects good hitting and good pitching to be uniformly distributed across a season and not bunched together in rallies. But is it really luck when it doesn't happen that way? Or is it baseball?

I'm not saying I expect the Orioles to be able to repeat this performance next season with the same cast, but give the team some credit. They've done "good work" and they've been rewarded.

Sep 18, 2012 14:56 PM
rating: 5
 
Tyler Bridges

Nick writes: "Part of me loves what the Baltimore Orioles have been able to do in giving their passionate fan base reason to care for the first time in 14 years."

Can't fans deeply care even if their team doesn't have a winning season? I would certainly think so.

Sep 18, 2012 15:26 PM
rating: 3
 
devine

We like to look at run differential across an entire season - it's a reasonable sample size, and corresponds to one of our basic units of baseball.

But do we know how quickly the sample becomes meaningful? And when we might be able to simply treat the runs scored and allowed from previous days, weeks, or months as a kind of "sunk cost"?

We're okay with not using last season's run differential as an indicator of the quality of this year's team, after all. It's a different team! But as someone on this site wrote a while ago, the O's this year have used a higher-than-usual number of players - and thus, really, a higher-than-usual number of "teams". There have been a lot of different O's teams this year; does it really make sense to hold the run differential of April against September's O's?

Sep 19, 2012 10:07 AM
rating: 2
 
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