keyboard_arrow_uptop

“Get your head out of a stat book and watch a game once in a while.”

Do this gig for any length of time and you’ll get that, or some iteration of it. It’s amusing, because the performance analysts I know watch an insane amount of baseball. They have the Extra Innings package and partial season-ticket plans, and almost no day goes by when I don’t get an e-mail from someone who saw something at some game, majors or minors, the day before.

You can get yourself in trouble trusting your eyes, though, because the human brain isn’t wired to sift through observations and accurately detect patterns. We remember highlights, snippets, things that touched an emotional nerve. It’s exactly that flaw in our makeup that makes using statistics–the record of all occurrences over time–so important. The separation of the numbers from the individual moments that can distort our evaluations is most of the value of a performance record.

I’m going to forget that for the moment.

Last night, the Mariners and Athletics opened a big four-game series in Oakland. The M’s have led the AL West since the middle of April, and the A’s have pretty much had a stranglehold on second place since then as well. With the A’s just six games out coming in, this series looked like it would be a pretty good indication of whether they would be making their patented second-half run or not.

The first game was a beauty. Jamie Moyer tossed six no-hit innings and was nearly matched by Aaron Harang who allowed just two runs in seven frames. With the M’s up 2-0 in the bottom of the seventh, the A’s loaded the bases with one out against Moyer and sent up Ramon Hernandez to pinch-hit. Moyer had fallen behind the previous three hitters, allowing two singles and a five-pitch walk to Adam Piatt.

Hernandez took a change-up for a ball, then proceeded to swing at five consecutive pitches, looping a soft liner to Carlos Guillen for the second out. With Moyer on the ropes, Hernandez did exactly what Moyer needed: he got himself out. When Terrence Long grounded out three pitches later, the threat was over.

The next inning brought more of the same. The A’s knocked Moyer out with consecutive one-out hits, the second a single by Scott Hatteberg that made it first-and-third with one out. Arthur Rhodes came in to pitch to Erubiel Durazo and threw four pitches out of the strike zone to load the bases. If you were paying attention, you might have noticed that it was the sixth consecutive hitter Rhodes had allowed to reach, following a disastrous 16-pitch, four-hit, one-walk performance Sunday in which he coughed up five runs and a lead in the ninth inning.

Miguel Tejada stepped in and swung at the first pitch, hitting a two-hopper to third base that Mark McLemore (in for Jeff Cirillo, who was ejected after mistakenly believing the exception to the baseline rule applied to all Mariner infielders with the initials “J.C.”) turned into a 3-2 forceout. Eric Chavez, showing Tejada’s keen grasp of inside baseball, also hacked at the first pitch, tapping a slow roller to second base that ended the rally and, effectively, the game.

I know I shouldn’t let this happen, but those two at-bats, those two pitches that the A’s best two position players hacked at to let a struggling pitcher out of a jam, completely changed my opinion of the AL West. I’ve been operating under the assumption that this team would drag its offense out of the bottom of the AL, that it would get better performances from its highly-paid hitters, that Billy Beane would acquire a .300 EqA outfielder, and that the A’s would catch and pass the Mariners.

I’m not saying that won’t happen yet, but after last night, I have serious doubts. The A’s best players don’t carry to the plate an approach that will allow them to be consistently successful in the long term. Tejada, who won an MVP award last year largely by taking advantage of the observational effects I described above and Crash Davis’ “one hit a week” tack, is a badly flawed player unfit to bat in the middle of a good team’s lineup.

It’s time to stop thinking of Chavez as a superstar. His control of the strike zone peaked at 22, and he gives away at-bats–like last night’s–in every game. Moreover, he can’t hit lefties, and if Ken Macha isn’t going to pinch-hit for him with two outs, the bases loaded, and Arthur Rhodes on the mound, he’s never going to lift him. That means A’s opponents will consistently get free shots at him from the sixth inning on, and you’ll be able to gauge the competence of opposing managers by a simple test: do they let Chavez face a right-hander in any meaningful late-game at-bat?

As smart as the Big Three is on the mound, that’s how clueless their counterparts are at the plate. Maybe that’s why Billy Beane can’t watch the games.

I know it’s just one game, and I know all the problems inherent in drawing conclusions based on the observation of a small sample. I also know that good baseball teams don’t do what the A’s did in the seventh and eighth innings of last night’s game. For now, consider me skeptical that 2003 is going to look like 2002.

Who knows? Maybe I’ll get e-mail telling me to turn off the television and look at a stat book once in a while.