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April 22, 2013

Manufactured Runs

The King in Cubbie Blue

by Colin Wyers

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Robert W. Chambers was one of the more successful authors in what may well have been the heyday of written fiction in America at the turn of the previous century, and he’s an interesting example of how writers were far less constrained to a single genre back then. During his lifetime, Chambers was mostly known (and read) for his romantic fiction, which produced several bestsellers. He also wrote war stories and historical fiction, as well as a handful of illustrated children’s books.

Nowadays, to the extent he’s remembered at all, it’s for his contributions to the field of horror. His best-remembered work is a collection of short stories called “The King In Yellow,” which contains several stories about a play titled (yes) “The King In Yellow.” Chambers only ever quotes from the first act, which characters describe as banal and innocent. The second act, however, is so terrifying and horrible (and so filled with awful truths) that it drives those who read its text or see it performed utterly insane. Chambers never reveals the contents of the second act in full, only hinting at its contents obliquely:

He mentioned the establishment of the Dynasty in Carcosa, the lakes which connected Hastur, Aldebaran and the mystery of the Hyades. He spoke of Cassilda and Camilla, and sounded the cloudy depths of Demhe, and the Lake of Hali. "The scolloped tatters of the King in Yellow must hide Yhtill forever," he muttered, but I do not believe Vance heard him. Then by degrees he led Vance along the ramifications of the Imperial family, to Uoht and Thale, from Naotalba and Phantom of Truth, to Aldones, and then tossing aside his manuscript and notes, he began the wonderful story of the Last King.

The idea of a book or performance that can drive one mad has been borrowed and tweaked by countless horror writers since, most notably H.P. Lovecraft and his legions of imitators. Now, most tropes in horror literature can be linked to real-life phenomena that serve as inspiration. Stories of vampires, for instance, draw their inspiration from diseases like anemia and porphyria, and also the pre-Victorian practice of burying people before they had in fact actually died. The notion of the haunted house owes much to the sounds houses make as temperatures shift, as different building materials expand and contract at different rates and make creaking noises in the night. Stories like “The King in Yellow,” then, seem to find their closest real-life analogue in Cubs baseball.

I would be accused of many things (not least of which is a lack of self-awareness) if I were to say that the madness produced by Cubs baseball affects only the team’s managers, but it seems to affect them with a particular ferocity. There is of course Lee Elia’s profanity-laced tirade (if you’re somewhere where Elia’s tirade will not cause problems with co-workers or family, you can listen here). Dusty Baker made comments that at best caused raised eyebrows, like when he talked about how African-American and Latin-American baseball players could withstand warm weather better than white players. A beleaguered Lou Piniella coined the term “Cubbie occurrence” to describe the numerous problems that befell the team during his tenure. At one point, it was decided that one man was simply not enough to manage the Cubs and an entire college of coaches was tried (rather disastrously it should be noted).

Now the insanity bug seems to have hit manager Dale Sveum. When asked about his team’s two key players, Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo, he talked about how if players don’t perform they “lose their jobs.” Sveum continued to talk in this vein:

“Find options,” Sveum said. “If people keep playing like that, you have to find options. Give people playing time at Triple-A to figure this stuff out.”

No one believes the Cubs would demote Castro, who is hitting .304, or Rizzo, who is at .190 but leads the team with five home runs.

It’s their defense that has Sveum up in arms.

“You have to perform,” Sveum said. “You can’t not keep performing.”

But those players are the alleged core of the team.

“The bottom line is you have to perform,” Sveum said. “Whether you need more development or you decide all those kind of things. ... There’s still that accountability. Many, many people throughout the history of the game (have been demoted).

"It’s a performance-laden occupation. That’s what makes the world go round. That’s what makes this country what it is.”

Those are tough words from a manager. They’re also not ones that seem likely to help the Cubs win any ballgames, now or in the future.

What has Sveum up in arms is the many fielding errors the team has committed; they’re tied with the Washington Nationals for the MLB lead with 15. Castro is a serious contributor to this, leading the team with four errors. (Desperation third base option Luis Valbuena and starting pitcher Scott Feldman are next on the list with two errors apiece.)

But are the errors a problem, much less the most serious problem, for the Cubs? It seems unlikely. The Cubs are middle-of-the-pack (actually slightly above-average) in measures like Defensive Efficiency and PADE, suggesting that if you look past the errors what you’ll actually find is a capable defensive team. And defensive efficiency is a much better measure of team run prevention than errors; DER has an R-squared of .38 with team runs allowed from 1993 through 2012, compared with an R-squared of .13 for errors per game.

Defensive efficiency would seem to suggest that fielding is not the problem with the Cubs’ run prevention, and a cursory look at the team’s overall stats suggests that run prevention is not the team’s biggest problem anyway. If you paired the Cubs’ runs allowed per game with the league average runs scored per game in place of the team’s actual run scoring, Pythagenpat returns an estimated win percentage of .486, which is not a good record, to be sure, but is about as good a record as the 2013 Cubs should have expected heading into the season. Meanwhile, if you pair the Cubs’ runs scored per game with the league-average runs allowed per game, you get an estimated win percentage of .406. The Cubs’ offense has been far more responsible for their bad start to the season than their run prevention.

(It should be noted that even taken together, their offense and defense should be expected to have put up a better record than the 5-11 the Cubs have had so far; general manager Jed Hoyer may have been alluding to this when he said the Cubs had “underperformed” to start the season.)

The Cubs probably won’t ever be a good hitting team for the 2013 season, but it shouldn’t take a whole lot for them to improve. And the activation of Darwin Barney gives the team actual infield depth, which is likely to boost the Cubs’ ability to score runs.

What is seriously unlikely to help the club is losing a shortstop who’s hitting .304/.324/.478—there is pretty much no position where a team could afford to scoff at that kind of a hitting line, much less a premium fielding position like shortstop. Castro is a special talent, and the Cubs barely have enough infielders to put a team on the field as it is. Losing him would cause well more problems than it would solve. As a first baseman, Rizzo’s offensive production expectations are higher than Castro’s, and he hasn’t been as impressive. Any time one’s batting average is below the Mendoza line, certain questions are raised. But Rizzo has still been an above-average hitter despite his low average, with the second-highest walk total on the team and more home runs than any two other Cubs combined.

It’s easy to understand Sveum’s frustrations—he’s the person currently on the Cubs who is most likely to be held accountable for the team’s record, in spite of probably having the least control over what that record actually is. And Sveum was pretty clearly baited into this controversy by some leading questions from beat writer Paul Sullivan.

But at the same time, Sveum can’t hit, he can’t field, and he can’t pitch. He’s not in charge of the roster, he doesn’t have a lot of options as to who goes where on the field and in the lineup, and it really doesn’t matter in which order his middling relievers come out of the bullpen. So Sveum seems to have three primary responsibilities on this team: to encourage his young players and continue their development, to keep his team motivated and playing hard over a long and likely difficult season, and to be the team’s face to the media. It’s hard to see how throwing the team’s two most promising young players under the bus accomplishes any of those things, no matter how much prompting he was given to do so.

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

Related Content:  Cubs,  Dale Sveum

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