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Last night, the White Sox came back from a 9-1 deficit in the seventh inning
to tie their game with the Astros 9-9 in the ninth. They went on to lose in 13
innings, but it was an amazing display, nonetheless. The Sox got homers in the
seventh, eighth and ninth innings, the latter two from Tadahito
Iguchi
, bombs that were responsible for all eight runs they put on
the board during the comeback.

Now, they lost the game, but I’m still left wondering: where are all the
stories about how the 2006 White Sox are changing the game with power? Why
aren’t we reading, on a daily basis, how hitting the long ball has pushed the
Sox to the second-best record in baseball and how their embrace of the home
run heralds a new era in baseball?

See, it was just about a year ago that the White Sox were cruising along with
the best record in the game. Riding along with that mark was a flood of
stories about how they were winning, stories that rarely mentioned that
historic defensive performance and their reliance on the home run, but rather
emphasized their use of the stolen base and sacrifice bunt. The Sox did
attempt a lot of steals and lay down a lot of bunts in 2005, but those things
had much less impact on their record than did the amazing defense and the 199
home runs.

Regardless, the Sox’ success with a nominally smallball approach, coupled with
a leaguewide drop in power and run scoring–one correctly labeled a blip in
stathead circles–in the wake of increased penalties for steroid usage, drove
the defining meme of 2005: that the game had shifted out of a power era and
into one in which manufacturing runs, speed and defense would again be
paramount, The Blessed Little Things ascendant. It was nonsense, but it was
easy-to-write nonsense.

We’re approaching the halfway mark of the 2006 season, and it’s clear that
this gamewide shift to lower run scoring and less power isn’t actually
happening. League slugging and isolated power marks are nearly identical to
what they were in 2004, and higher than they were in 2003, back when almost
everyone in major league baseball did steroids on a daily basis because the
game was a lawless pit of self-interest and chemically-enhanced greed.

More to the point, it’s clear that if you want to be successful, you have to
hit the ball a really long way. The White Sox, who were among the teams most
reliant on the longball to score last year, are even more power-oriented in
2006. They lead the majors in homers and are second in slugging. By
acclimation, the three best teams in baseball are the Sox, Tigers and Mets.
Those three are all in the top five in homers, slugging and isolated power;
keep in mind that the latter two play in pitchers’ parks.

During the White Sox’ evisceration of the Cardinals last week, one of the Sox
fans in the group said, and I paraphrase, “I don’t care what percentage of
runs we score on homers, I love this team.” It was reference to the statistic
that we publicized heavily last season that showed the White Sox to be one of
the MLB teams most reliant on the home run to score. They’re among the leaders
in that stat again this year as well.

The thing is, we don’t much care, either. The information contained in that
stat is interesting, but it’s not indicative of team quality in any meaningful
way. We made it a big deal as a counterpoint to the incessant coverage of last
year’s White Sox as if they were the 1985 Cardinals or some John
McGraw
creation, leading the charge to new age of outmaking-as-art, 2
½-hour 3-2 games and, with a little luck, affordable health care for everyone.

Those stories are missing this year, the endless column inches about a new
era, about how the sound of bats driving baseballs into the seats is burying
smallball. When the situation was reversed, when the best team in baseball
was, at least on the surface, a smallball team, the revolution was upon us.
Now that the winningest teams in the game are power teams, though, there’s no
mention of a paradigm shift, no discussion of how the little guys are more
important than the brutes. Just an awkward sllence from the peanut gallery.

I’ve written about this before, but I think the contrast between the way in
which the 2005 White Sox and the 2006 version–along with the 2006 Tigers, who
might as well have Earl Weaver on the bench–have been covered is illustrative
of an insititutional blind spot. For whatever reason, there’s a morality
attached to various forms of playing baseball; teams that succeed with power
are considered in many circles to be inferior to those that succeed using
smallball. I think this is a generational thing; many people in the game and
covering the game had their worldview shaped by the baseball of the Second
Deadball Era and the years immediately after, when scoring was very low,
pitching dominated and smallball tactics were most effective.

There’s also an element of something Bill James discussed in “The Politics of
Glory” in a chapter comparing Phil Rizzuto and Vern
Stephens
. People want to be perceived as savvy, and showing an
appreciation for less-obvious skills is one way in which they do that. Anyone
can be impressed by homers, but it takes a true student of the game to
understand how steals, sacrifices and baserunning contribute to a winning
team. Rizzuto won an MVP award, and eventually made it into the Hall of Fame,
because this thought process is so dominant within baseball.

Let me get off track here just for a second. Think about the last game you
watched on television. Was there a leadoff double at any point, or perhaps a
leadoff single followed by a stolen base? With a runner on second and no one
out, the broadcasters will invariably talk about how the batter has to get the
runner over to third. If he does this with a groundball to the right side, not
only will there be effusive verbal praise–even in the first inning–but there
will be a camera shot of the player walking into the dugout after making his
out and being greeted with enthusiasm.

If the player lines a single to left that scores the run, though, you’ll never
see that shot. You’ll see him getting a pat on the rear from his first-base
coach, while the guy who scored slaps hands with 30 people in the dugout.

It’s a small point, but I think it’s one of those ways in which events that
actually reduce run scoring become ingrained in our minds as positive ones.
That sequence–and look for it in the next game you watch, I guarantee you’ll
see it–costs a team runs on balance (fractionally, but it’s a negative-EV
event), but is treated as a terrific baseball play. Multiply those
congratulatory shots by 2,000, and you can understand why it’s hard to
convince people that it’s a bad play.

The assembly of a baseball team and that team’s approach to the game have no
moral element. All that matters are runs, scoring them and preventing them in
sufficient quantities to win, and the paths to doing so are well-trod: get
guys on base and hit for power, and prevent the other team from doing so. You
can gain on the margins through one-run strategies, but you can’t make a
mediocre team good that way.

The White Sox were a very good baseball team in 2005. I wonder how many people
realize, given the lack of attention paid to them in the absence of a hook
like “smallball,” that they’re better than they were a year ago.

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