Pick Your Pop Culture

So, I've like written about music for 25 years, and like I've got a lot to say and not enough people to pay me for it, and like I like to write about TV, and books, and movies, and stuff like that.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Tis the Season

I just got in from walking the dogs. Ugh. It’s cold, wet, gloomy, and generally no fun to be outside. And in something like ten days, baseball season begins.

There’s nothing I look forward to more than opening day, because that’s when the rhythm kicks in. You’ve got a game almost every day or night to either watch, hear, or read about. And that’s just the Cardinals. Thanks to the miracle of fantasy baseball, I also get to care about lots of other games, too.

I’ve gone through periods of intense devotion to baseball, and intense disregard. I have virtually no nostalgia for the Whitey Herzog era of the Cardinals, because I didn’t pay any attention between the end of the 1982 season and the beginning of the 1994 season. Now, I think I’m at a perfect middle ground, liking the game without worshipping it.

The more I’ve learned to appreciate how the game is played, the less I can stand hearing any of the so-called experts in the media talk about it. Baseball announcers are virtually incapable of saying anything that contradicts either the home team spin or the conventional wisdom clichés we’ve heard a million times before. And, sportswriters aren’t interested in figuring anything out, either. They tell us the score, they describe a play or two, and fill their space with quotes and conjecture.

Baseball, more than almost anything else ever devised, lends itself to analysis. Because seasons are so long, because players have so many opportunities to do what they do, there is enough of a sample size to look at statistics which actually explain something about the quality of each player’s contribution to his team. But, because people remember some things more than others, and because few people like to contradict what they learned from their father at an early age, the truth which can be unearthed is often ignored and frequently denigrated.

Which brings me to “Baseball Prospectus 2005,” the latest massive tome of truth and analysis. It’s a book which has expanded beyond its annual 500 pages to a daily updated website with thousands of words per week expended on this game which holds such fascination for me. (To read most of www.baseballprospectus, you need to pay a small annual fee, but there are a number of articles put up for free to entice you to buy more.)

There are things most baseball fans insist upon which Baseball Prospectus consistently denies. But, Baseball Prospectus only makes claims which can be supported by evidence. Does it make sense to have a batter with anything more than a .200 average bunt to intentionally make an out while allowing the runner on first base to move up to second? I forget the statistics from the study they conducted last year, but it most clearly did not make sense. Unless the hitter is completely hopeless, the odds of scoring a run actually go down slightly when the bunt is successfully executed. So, almost every time you hear an announcer go on about how great it is that so and so gave himself up for the team, it turns out that he gave himself up for no reason.

You see, the most precious commodity in baseball happens to be outs. You only get 27 of them per game, 3 per inning, and once you’ve used them up, you can’t score. Anything that does not produce an out increases your chance of scoring. They’ve shown tables which let us see exactly what the statistical odds are of scoring a run in every possible situation of the game. And, in almost every one of those situations, the odds go down if you give up an out.

Speaking of batting average, guess what? Who cares? Well, not really, but who cares in a vacuum? Again, what matters is not how many hits one gets, but how many outs one makes, so in that respect, a walk really is just as good as a hit. Those of us who couldn’t hit a lick remember coaches and fellow players telling us that all the time when we were younger. But, really, on-base percentage and slugging percentage tell us a lot more about a player’s contribution to the team performance than batting average does. Hitting .300 without any walks and without any power is actually pretty poor performance, and, it turns out, average is about the least predictable element of the game. Players with good on-base percentage and good slug tend to repeat themselves; players with good batting average can move all over the map. This makes sense because a) a small number of balls falling in exactly the right or wrong place per year can cause a major fluctuation in batting average and b) official scorers can make odd decisions.

Reading the book is a joy. “Baseball Prospectus 2005” is filled with extensive analysis of what went right and wrong for each team in the 2004 season, along with speculation about what to expect in 2005. And, there are complete statistics for every player in the majors, and all the key players in the minors, over the last four years, with witty and insightful analysis about each.

So, you’re wondering about this upcoming season. Can the Cardinals repeat as National League Champions, and can they win the World Series this year? (I’m sure every truly decent human being roots for the Cardinals, right?) Well, first of all, let’s point out that despite what the conventional wisdom likes to blather on about heart and guts and dynasty and all that, becoming either the National League or the World Series champion is something of a crapshoot. Any team can win any four out of seven games. The worst teams in baseball tend to win 65 games out of 162, so at any time, they can win four out of seven. And, the teams that make the playoffs tend to be among the best teams in any given year, which makes the chance of a random winning streak even greater.

That said, according to Baseball Prospectus, the Cardinals have one of the best four-man hitting line-ups in baseball history. That would be Larry Walker/Albert Pujols/Scott Rolen/Jim Edmonds. Riding the backs of these four hitters can take a team very far. The starting pitching is questionable but plausible cases can be made that it will hold its own. The bullpen should be good, but not as good as last year. Losing Tony Womack and Mike Matheny is always a good thing, even if their replacements are not guaranteed to be better. Losing Edgar Renteria was sad, but not as terrible as you might think, especially considering the money he wound up commanding. And, the Cubs are worse than last year, and the Astros are about to dive-bomb into mediocrity.

This means the Cardinals will almost certainly go to the playoffs, barring a major injury to any of their best players. There is, of course, no real certainty, only odds. Baseball Prospectus can teach us to understand the odds way better than we did when we thought good and bad seasons were flukes.

Bring on the season. This should be fun.

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