Friday, March 24, 2006

Book Review: “The Numbers Game”

The Critical Fan
by Matt Sandler


"Schwarz...livens up a subject that even the most ardent baseball fan may feel is not book-worthy."

As many of us prepare for our fantasy drafts, it is useful to remind ourselves where our obsession with baseball statistics began. No sport lends itself to deep statistical analysis better than baseball. The history of this obsession is tracked in an enlightening and informative fashion in the 2004 book by Alan Schwarz, The Numbers Game: Baseball’s Lifelong Fascination with Statistics.

Schwarz, who writes the biweekly column “Keeping Score” in The New York Times, livens up a subject that even the most ardent baseball fan may feel is not book-worthy. The early history of scorekeeping is made interesting, even for those who typically do not read much about 19th century baseball. We learn that the “K” in the scorebook for a strikeout is from the last letter of the word “struck,” as in “struck out.” (This convention was created by the “father of baseball statistics,” Henry Chadwick.) We are amazed at how malleable the early rules of baseball are, at how a walk changed from an out to a hit, until finally settling into its current incarnation.

We are taken through all the important major developments in statistics in the latter 1800s and the twentieth century. We see the final establishment of the rules that are in place today. So many major developments occur due to demand of zealous baseball fans, and sometimes general managers, for ever more statistics. These firsts include the placing of stats on the back of baseball cards, a statistical analyst being employed by a team (Allan Roth of the Brooklyn Dodgers), year-end summaries of the numbers put up the preceding season by all baseball players, a historical compilation of baseball’s greatest players, etc. Of course, the most significant advance in statistics was the development of the Internet in the 1990s. And the workdays of us cubicle dwellers would never be the same.

One of the interesting themes of the book is how much impact military men have had on the development of baseball statistics. People often compare football to war—George Carlin’s “baseball vs. football” routine is the most famous example of this—yet it is baseball that appeals more to the precision of military minds. There seem to be strategies that statistical analyses prove—for instance, don’t bunt with a runner on first unless you need one run late in the game—that perhaps bring to mind the rules of engagement for which those in the military strive.

But for those of us not in uniform (baseball, military, or otherwise), perhaps the game’s statistics simply appeal to our meticulous nature. Schwarz writes about “baseball’s double-entry personality. The sport’s symmetry leaves every hitting event part of a pitcher’s record and every pitching event part of a hitter’s record.” This does not happen in other sports; as beautiful as Michael Jordan’s superhuman jumps were, they were not charged against a particular defender. As many clichés as there are about “winning as a team and losing as a team,” baseball’s central pitcher-hitter and hitter-fielders confrontations provide a precision that is not matched in other team sports.

It is arguable that the most important figure in the field in the twentieth century—other than Babe Ruth—is Daniel Okrent. He plays a role in the two most interesting stories in the book. The first is when he was a freelance sportswriter in 1978, and picked up one of Bill James’ Baseball Abstracts.He wanted to write a full-length profile of James for “Sports Illustrated.” The story got mired in the magazine’s politics for two years. Fittingly with James’ David-fighting-Goliath stance, the magazine couldn’t believe his findings that Elias Sports Bureau’s official statistics were riddled with errors. However, the article eventually came to light, which launched his Abstracts out of the world of self-publishing and into the heights of baseball geek stardom. Most of us would not know the James story—the crankiness directed at old-school traditionalists, the constant questioning of conventional wisdom, the new way of addressing age-old questions like, “Does lineup order matter?” (Answer: “Not really”)—without Okrent thrusting him into the spotlight.

Okrent also figures in the other major story in 20th century baseball statistics, the original source for procrastination at work (before this website): fantasy baseball. He and a few buddies met for weekly baseball talks at the restaurant Rotisserie Francaise in Manhattan in 1980. On a long plane flight around this time, he developed—you guessed it—rotisserie baseball. Has ever a bigger impact on baseball statistics—and the following of the game—been wrought? Of course, there are now plenty of fans that care much more deeply about their fantasy teams than about the teams for which they grew up rooting. Many people reading this review right now are such fans.

Think of the impact that individual player statistics have on our appreciation of the game. Would any of us care that Barry Bonds may have taken steroids if he hadn’t broken the season home run record? And why do we care about the season home run record? That number—73, along with other hallowed numbers, such as 56, 755, and 4,256—are an integral part of our appreciation of the best sport in the world. Meanwhile, I’m just trying to finish in the top half of my fantasy league for the first time. I wonder what the statisticians would say the odds are.

Matt Sandler's column, "The Critical Fan," appears alternate Fridays

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Gary Sheffield: Malcontent

by Scott Silversten

Here is one quick question about a story that does not deserve more than a few seconds of attention...does everyone realize that Terrell Owens will actually make MORE money next season in Dallas than he would have made in Philadelphia with the Eagles?

I guess it really proves that the more talented you are, the more you can get away with. A perfect case in point is Gary Sheffield. As the clock ticks toward the start of the baseball campaign, Sheffield is once again proving himself as a guy who just doesn't get it. In fact, in his 11 years at the helm of the New York Yankees, Joe Torre has really only dealt with these type of players on two prior occasions (more on those later). The difference this time is that Sheffield is actually a valuable member of a team favored to win the world championship.

It somehow seems ironic that on the day Al Leiter said goodbye to his on-field career, once again an off-the-field story broke concerning Sheffield. Leiter, from his early days with the Yankees to stops across town with the Mets and in Toronto and Florida, has always been one of the most likeable players in the game.

Sheffield, on the other hand, is an Owens-type player, somebody you can root for only if he is on your team. And even then it’s difficult. He purposely committed errors to get himself out of Milwaukee in his first major league stop, and years later criticized the Los Angeles Dodgers organization, essentially forcing a trade to the Atlanta Braves prior to the 2002 season.

Now comes spring training 2006, a time in which Sheffield can’t decide whether or not he is happy as a member of the Yankees. In one breath, he is telling reporters he wouldn’t be able to push himself outside of New York. In another, like Sunday, he's feeling disrespected because the Yankees have yet to pick up his 2007 option.

"I’ve really never got comfortable,” Sheffield told several Florida reporters on Saturday. "I’m not comfortable. I’m not allowed to be comfortable. That's the reality of my situation. I always play with my back against the wall."

Sheffield’s back has only ever been against the wall while playing the outfield. And if he is truly still not comfortable in New York, maybe that’s his own fault. While stars such as Alex Rodriguez, Jason Giambi and Roger Clemens attempted to fit into the Yankees’ approach in recent years, it seems Sheffield is the only big-name acquisition who has gone out of his way to cause trouble.

In a memorable New York Magazine article a year ago, Sheffield famously said, "I know who this team feeds off. I know who the opposing team comes in knowing they have to defend to stop the Yankees. I know this. The people don’t know. Why? The media don’t want them to know. They want to promote two players in a positive light, and everyone else is garbage."

It didn't take much deductive reasoning to conclude that he was talking about Rodriguez and Derek Jeter. And while Sheffield hasn't caused the clubhouse dissension that Owens did in Philadelphia, that’s probably a credit to Torre, who seems more adept than most at putting out locker room brush fires.

Since Torre took over the Yankees, only two players prior to Sheffield had trouble adjusting to the "team" concept. The first was Ruben Sierra, whose continued rips of Torre got him shipped to Detroit at the trading deadline in 1996. On his way out the door, Sierra proclaimed, "I don’t like the Yankees. All they care about is winning."

Obviously Sierra was right, because that deal landed Cecil Fielder, a key component in that fall's World Series win over Atlanta.

In another ironic twist, Sierra learned from his mistakes and to returned to the Yankees only to become involved in another bizarre situation when he was sent in to pinch hit for Raul Mondesi in a July 2003 game against the Boston Red Sox. Upset at being yanked from the game, Mondesi stormed off the field, changed and showered and left the clubhouse. He traveled to the next series in Anaheim on his own and within two days was traded to Arizona.

The selfishness in Sheffield has become apparent in recent years, but the difference is that, unlike expendable spare parts in Sierra and Mondesi, the Yankees need their right fielder. They need another 30 homers and 120 RBI this season to help their offense overcome a shaky and aging pitching staff.

The Yankees won't be dealing Sheffield this season, simply because he's too valuable to their chances of winning the World Series. Instead, they must say goodbye to Leiter, whose valiant efforts after re-joining the team last summer helped produce an eighth straight American League East Division title.

"I have only wept two times," Leiter said on Sunday following his final appearance in a major league uniform. "Today, when I walked off the mound and Game Five (of the 2000 World Series) when I was taken off the mound."

All Yankees fans should shed a tear as well for Leiter, because teammates like him don't come around too often.

Scott Silversten's column appears every Thursday

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Spaghetti Arms

by Sarah (The Fanatic's Wife)

This week on Wild Card Wednesdays, we explore the true price pitchers pay for zipping a ball 60 feet, 6 inches for years on end: horribly contorted arms!



Pedro will make $10,875,000 this season. I say, pay the man! Look at the sacrifice he makes for his sport: his arm is just about to fly out of its socket. Anyone willing to give up a limb for their job deserves the big bucks.







Ugh! Who is this guy? I don’t even know. Whoever he is, however much he gets paid, pay him more. His arm is on backwards...in fact, it looks like his head may be on backwards and everything else is the right way. Either way, it’s unnatural.





Here's some poor young soul playing for Doug's favorite Moneyballers, The A's:


We all know that this guy isn't making jack. He definitely tore some ligaments throwing this one. If I were his agent, I would demand a raise. One that's worth a human arm.






What are they doing to their players in Oakland? Arms are not supposed to bend back like that. It looks like his arm is sprouting out from his spine. Yuck.










It’s bad enough that this is happening in America…don’t let it go global! For the love of everything holy...we must contain this!





I doubt that when little boys try out for little league that their dream in life is to make it to the majors only to wind up crippled, one-armed, has-beens. Never let any child see these pictures. Seriously, they are gross. Maybe it’s the maternal instinct in me, but I hurt when I see these freeze frames of twisted, mangled, Gumby limbs. Thankfully, you cannot see this stuff at regular speed. So, in conclusion, unnaturally deformed limbs=$$. It’s as simple as that!

Look for my next column which will discuss the surreal event that is "Fantasy Draft Weekend." Until then, this is Sarah, the fanatic’s wife, being ignored by her husband because of this site since 2006.

Wild Card Wednesdays appear every Wednesday

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

On Children, Grown Men and Baseball

by Alan Eliot

Alan Eliot discusses the inner child of every baseball fan, in light of recent allegations against Barry Bonds and other suspected steroid-users.

Baseball, they say, is a child's game played by grown men.

And what a child's game it is.

I'm brought back to vivid memories of my own youth, and to baseball's indelible impression on this boy's upbringing. I loved baseball, purely, passionately, without question. I knew precious little about strategy, or pitch selection, or lineup placement- except from schoolground experience, where the "slugger" hit clean-up and where the weaker hitters ( i.e. me) occupied the latter numbers. But what I lacked in knowledge, I made up in enthusiasm, in deep love, and in a fiery memory for statistics that I felt were useful.

Today, I may understand OPS, and the double switch; I may feel that I could manage my team better than my local idiot manager or smiling buffoon GM; I may in fact have accumulated enough baseball neurons to fire off a column here once every other week. These things and more my adult self can do. These things and more add to my tremendous love and affection for the game of baseball. Nonetheless, stripped of these cerebral abilities acquired later in life, I can still say, without a doubt, that I loved watching baseball as a kid. Even more so, no less than I enjoy watching it today.

Little Alan followed the Mets religiously on ol' WWOR-TV (Secaucus, NJ). Like a boy, I cried when the Mets made the final out in Game 7 of the 1988 NLCS against the Dodgers- comforting my distraught young psyche with one phrase, repeated again and again: "I guess it wasn't meant to be."

God, that hurt.

And you can bet that bright and early on Saturdays you could find precious li'l Al in his backyard with Jon, the other little baseball fanatic in his grade. What child-like perfection we created with our ingenious system, Jon and I! One of us, at the makeshift plate, hitting balls out to the other, poised in the field, ready to shag down the routine fly balls, or to dive- bodily harm not a concern- for that super-spectacular play that would echo in both of our memories all year long. In this way, week in and week out, the two of us would play baseball for so long, that we'd routinely watch the shadow of the large tree completely turn to the other side by day's end. And we couldn't have been happier.

Nostalgic yet, anyone?

However, children are far from innocent. Children have yet to develop beyond rudimentary ethical systems. As demonstated by Kohlberg, and others, it takes emotional maturity to develop beyond doing things to avoid punishment or to get a reward. This is why children lie so often: to avoid getting in trouble. Before you object to my overgeneralization with examples of your past saintliness, tell me this: when you knocked your first baseball into Mr. Wilson's window, did you scatter for the hills, or did you "do what was right" and own up to your responsibility? I thought so.

But this is natural, too. Physician and famed lecturer Dr. Edward Goljan claimed (I am paraphrasing here), "Any child who doesn't lie isn't normal."

So OK. Kids are simple-minded creatures. Love baseball. Not so ethical. So what?

It is with this mindset that I processed the recent incriminating evidence against Barry Bonds- and how the explosive season and home run chase of 1998 convinced him to "give in" to steroids. A man playing a child's game. A grown man drawn to cheat because he saw how others cheated and prospered. A grown man drawn to drugs, because Mark McGwire did drugs and was insanely popular. And boy, did Barry want to be that popular.

In a recent column by Jeff Pearlman of espn.com, he delved into Barry's complicated psyche:

With Griffey's framed memorabilia as a backdrop, and Mark McGwire's obliteration of the single-season home run record a fresh memory, Bonds spoke up as he never had before. He sounded neither angry nor agitated, simply frustrated. "You know what," he said. "I had a helluva season last year, and nobody gave a crap. Nobody. As much as I've complained about McGwire and Canseco and all of the bull with steroids, I'm tired of fighting it. I turn 35 this year. I've got three or four good seasons left, and I wanna get paid. I'm just gonna start using some hard-core stuff, and hopefully it won't hurt my body. Then I'll get out of the game and be done with it."


"Barry yearned to be the Michael Jordan of baseball, the icon of the game," says one ex-teammate. "He knew he was better than McGwire and Sosa, and at that point he was, factually, better. But everyone loved Mac and Sammy, and nobody loved Barry."

And down Barry went, down a road of deception, of lies, of cheating. Mountains of evidence support what we only suspected all these years, watching a 40-year old Barry dwarf the accomplishments of a 30-year old Barry.

Barry always claimed he knew he was the best. We now claim in hindsight that we always knew he was the best, even before 1999, when he supposedly started with "the juice". But is that supported by the facts?

Not many people remember the "All-Century Team" put together in 1999, by a panel of experts hired by Mastercard. A panel of experts chose the 100 best players of all time, which was to be whittled down to 30 based on fan-balloting. Yes, fans are notoriously bandwagon when it comes to these voting things- i.e. Piazza and Ripken in later years- but one would imagine that arguably the best player of his generation, Barry Bonds, would get some sort of nod. Sure, he wasn't liked, but eight previous All-Star nods, and three MVP's, give creed that the fans and experts, respectively, knew what they were doing when it came to Barry. They couldn't be that biased against him.

Or could they?

Mark McGwire made the team. Ken Griffey, Jr. made the team. Barry didn't even come close- his 173,279 votes fell way short of the last-place outfielder chosen- Stan Musial, who had 571,279. Seventeen outfielders in all garnered more votes than poor Barry. And fan stupidity can't be held 100% to blame- the expert panel held the right to select players overlooked by the fans into the final 30- which they did, with 5 players. But none were named Barry Bonds.

Barry Bonds. We say we knew he was the best, even then. Maybe we should concede the fact that maybe we didn't. Perhaps hindsight, in fact, isn't 20/20.

Perhaps being the only man in the 400/400 club at that time didn't appeal to us as we remember. We were bedazzled, like children, to the shiny home run. Few stats mattered more in that crazy era of the mid-to-late 90's. Homers brought back baseball after the fans left, frustrated. No one was better all-around than Barry. But who wanted all-around? We wanted dingers!

And there it was. The insecure man-child did what all children do best, fall to peer pressure. He wanted adoration, he wanted attention, and he wanted it now. And he got it- ethics aside, but he got it. The best player of his era who couldn't make the crummy "best-players" list was suddenly king of baseball, and then arguably the best ever. Not top 30. Numero uno.

No doubt that Bonds, and anyone else who succumbed to the golden promises of steroids after that magical 1998 season, knew what they were doing was wrong. Baseball technicalities aside, many brashly claim that there were no rules against steroids at the time in MLB. True. But if such an argument is indeed valid, why hasn't any (non-shamed) player actually publicly made that statement in his own defense? Now that the window is smashed, we see the players running for the hills, like kids. And when caught red-handed, lying under oath. Or blaming others. How grotesquely juvenile.

I love this game. And that little boy in me fuels that fire. I can still close my eyes and imagine a time when things were simpler, when baseball was essentially pure. I know such a vision is rose-colored. However, I'd like to think that baseball appeals to the boy in each one of us, the same boy who once sat wide-eyed, watching the first home run he's ever seen leave the park. The same boy in each of us who still jumps up and down with antsy energy as the fate of the game hangs in the balance- 2 outs and the tying run in scoring position.

The same boy who now has to deal with his heroes- not men, but children themselves- trading their baseball purity for the merest sniff of more- more home runs, more hits, more millions, more adoration. And as we close the chapter on perhaps baseball's ugliest era, we are left with fallen heroes, gods who have proven to be as petty as you can ever remember yourself being.

But you were eight.

Cry, little ones, for your mightiest have fallen.

Alan Eliot's column, "The Stories We Tell", appears alternate Tuesdays

Monday, March 20, 2006

NY Times' Murray Chass is Losing It

by Doug Silversten

In baseball, as in all sports, one of the biggest myths is that "experience" can be the difference between success and failure. Obviously, the same applies to sports writing.

According to his biography, Murray Chass has been writing for the NY Times since 1969. For the sake of all long-time loyal NY Times readers, I hope that the quality of Chass' work from 1969-2005 was vastly superior to what he has had to offer so far in 2006. If you just began reading Chass this year, you would honestly have to wonder if he were new to the game of baseball. Where do I come up with such a claim? I'll use evidence, something Chass often fails to do.

First off, let's look at a January 20th column, where he discusses the press conference where Theo Epstein returned to the Red Sox as GM:

They spoke of having "bonds of a shared vision for the organization's future" and of becoming "a more effective organization in philosophy, approaches, and ideals." These are the people who built a team that reached the playoffs the past three years and won the World Series for the star-crossed franchise for the first time in 86 years.

Are they going to eclipse that record in the next three years? Not likely. They'll be lucky to get back to the World Series once in that period. Will they even be able to eclipse the Evil Empire? If they do, it will very likely result more from the Yankees' shortcomings than from the improvements the Red Sox make through their newly forged lovefest.

Whoa. Where did that last paragraph come from? Since John Henry’s management group purchased the Red Sox, the Red Sox have won a total of 288 games to the Yankees 297, or three fewer games a season. Three. Championships during that span? Red Sox, 1. Yankees, 0. Oh, and the Yankees spend almost $100 million more each year. Yes, $100 million. Let's put that money difference in perspective: the difference between the Yanks and the Red Sox 2005 payroll is MORE than the difference between the Red Sox and the lowest payroll in baseball (the Devil Rays). Think about that for a second before we move on.

So, despite having far fewer dollars to work with, the current Red Sox management team has, at the very least, matched the Yankees the last few years. Yet, Chass gives the Sox little chance of topping the Evil Empire again. And he states this in a column right after an announcement that the same Red Sox management team that recently toppled the Yankees is going to remain intact. I'm confused here. Help? Anybody?

On February 7th, Chass wrote a piece criticizing the Moneyball craze. Okay, fair enough. There are some valid criticisms, but if you are going to criticize something, please, please please provide some shred of credible evidence that makes your point. The blogosphere did such a good job shredding the February 7th column to pieces that I do not have anything original to add. For the best shredding, definitely check out Fire Joe Morgan’s excellent line-by-line analysis.

Maybe Murray just had a bad first two months of the year. Let's see if he improves in March. Let’s check out the opening paragraphs of his March 8th piece:

Miracle on ice? How about miracle on grass?

How else to explain Canada's 8-6 victory over the United States on Wednesday in their second game of the World Baseball Classic? If the Tampa Bay Devil Rays won the World Series this year, it would not be as stunning.

When I read this, the first thing I did was send the above to my brother with the statement, "Is that not the most ridiculous thing you have ever read?!?!" A few hours later, my father (who knows I read the NY Times religiously) called and stated, "By the way, you read the opening paragraphs of Murray Chass’ column, right? Was that not the most ridiculous thing you have ever read?!?!?"

You might be thinking, "OK, dumb statement by Murray, but no big deal." But writing something like that shows a complete lack of understanding of the basic fundamentals of the game of baseball. It makes you question why I should ever read a baseball column by this man again. Yet, I read on...

A few days later in a March 12th column, Chass returned to more unsubstantiated bashing of Moneyball when discussing John Schuerholz’s new book Built to Win. Chass comes up with this brilliant line when supporting Schuerholz’s anti-Moneyball claims:

Although the Oakland Athletics were the star of Michael Lewis's book, they have not gone beyond the first round of the playoffs in recent years.

THAT is the evidence you use to knock the A’s/Beane/Moneyball? That a team that spends $150 million less than the Yankees, $30 million less than the Braves, and yet has managed to average over 90 wins has failed to go "beyond the first round of the playoffs in recent years."?!?!? SCANDAL! Every reader of Moneyball should demand their $25 back for the book.

There are teams like the Mets who spend double the A's, who sign a bunch of top free agents and they barely break .500. Meanwhile, the A's lose their top players to free agency each year or are forced to trade them before they inevitably leave anyway, and yet consistently break 90 wins. Look, maybe it isn't Moneyball, but something is going right in Oakland.

Not much, however, is going right in Chass' columns.

Doug Silversten's column appears alternate Mondays
"I've had a pretty good success facing Stan (Musial) by throwing him my best pitch and backing up third base."
- Carl Erskine

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