Thursday, June 02, 2011

Turning Baseball Into Roullette

Albert Pujols currently leads the league in grounding into double plays.  There are a number of factors playing into this:
  • The Cardinals have gotten a large number of runners on base ahead of him, giving him more opportunities.
  • Pujols generally hits the ball hard, and hard-hit balls often end up as double plays.
  • Pujols is right-handed and pulls the ball a lot, and ground balls to the left side of the infield result in double plays more often than ground balls to the right side.
  • Pujols has been hitting more ground balls than fly balls generally.

Another factor, one that likely plays a bigger part in my mind than in reality, is that Albert Pujols does not run out ground balls.  He is a tremendous athlete, as evidenced by his defensive performance at first base, and his work at third base on occasion this year.  He can be a daring and fast base runner.  But it seems that any ground ball he hits with a runner on first results in a double play, with the play at second being closer than the play at first.

As a Cardinals fan, as defined as someone with an interest in the Cardinals being successful, this makes sense.  Albert Pujols, even in this “off year”, is a tremendously valuable player, and losing him for any length of time would have a large negative impact on the Cardinals’ chances of winning a division title this year.  It makes no sense for him to risk injury by busting down the line to try to save one out in a game in the spring time.  

At the same time, as a baseball fan, it stinks.  I want to see the best players in the world competing at the highest level to win.  I don’t want to see players half-assing it to preserve themselves for some future game I’m not watching right now.  The essence of sport is competition, and jogging down the line after hitting a ground ball is the opposite of competition.  I used to tell myself that this impacts the culture of the team and results in other players whose present/future value ration is not so low, not exerting full effort, but I’m not so sure about that anymore.

Yes, it’s true that at a strategic level, teams don’t go all out to win every game.  Pitchers are saved for future games, regular players are given days off, and these things lower a team’s chance of winning today’s game for a better chance in some future game(s).  This is an accepted part of the game.  And I don’t mean plays that look like hustle but are ultimately ineffective, like Skip Schumaker’s unfortunate habit of diving into first base on close plays.  Still, on a micro level, you want to believe that each player is executing each individual play with an interest in winning that particular game.  When it’s not, it’s something else.

So this is where I am entering into the debate about Buster Posey’s injury, whether a runner barreling into the catcher is a dirty play, and whether it makes sense for a catcher to try to block the plate and set himself up to get clobbered.

On my rational side, I completely get that home plate collisions are not an essential part of the game, and it makes no sense for a player as valuable as Posey to put his career in jeopardy to save one run in May, even the go-ahead run in a one run game.

But on the other hand, I hate it.  It may be true that home plate collisions are not a central part of the game, but they are one of the few plays in baseball that is about physical courage and hustle rather than simply random chance.  If that throw arrived a half-second earlier, and Posey was able to collect the ball, apply the tag, and get himself in a better position to avoid injury, he would have been a hero.  If the Giants subsequently went on a winning streak, people would have looked back at that play, when their best player put his body on the line to win a game, as sparking them.

Maybe it would all be BS.  But I’d rather be a baseball fan in that world than in this world:

Bringing me to my beef with ongoing beef with sabermetrics.

To begin with, they have been mostly right about most things, with few exceptions.  On base percentage is more valuable than batting average.  Most standard statistics are not as valuable, in particular when you fail to adjust for things like park factors and teammates.  “Clutch” hitters probably don’t exist, and if they do, they’re not who people think they are.  Given a choice between a surly slugger who draws a lot of walks and seems to play with indifference, and a guy who never walks and always has a dirty uniform and signs a lot of autographs, you probably want the surly slugger on your team if you want to win.  And yes, it doesn’t make sense for a catcher to put himself in the path of a runner coming in at full speed to save one run.

But still, they’re kind of the “well, actually...” guy at the party.  It’s fun to root for players who seem to hustle.  It’s fun to talk about which players can handle pressure and which ones can’t.    Jerry Seinfeld once said that with all the player movement, rooting for a professional sports team is like rooting for laundry.  It seems that in the sabermetric world, it’s more like rooting for a number on a roulette wheel.  Which is something only an insane person would do.

So are we in a better place, now?  By the measure of truth, it seems that we are.  By the measure of it being enjoyable to be a fan, I don’t think so.   Something has been lost.  And if as we learn more and more about what really matter about the game, we take more and more “hustle” plays out of the game, we make it less appealing.