Wednesday, March 25, 2009

New Baseball Prospectus 2009 Tons of Reading Fun, But Could It Help Joe Torre Win a Game?

Baseball Prospectus 2009: The Essential Guide to the 2009 Baseball Season (Penguin/Plume, 628 pages, $21.95)

This may seem to be a dotty notion, but I’ve long believed that I could manage a major league baseball team. In fact, I think there are a lot of regular guys all over the country who could manage a major league baseball team with some success. Or at least as much success as Manny Acta had with the Washington Nationals in 2008 (59-102).

But even if I’m selling Acta a little short—the Nats have hardly any talent to speak of, so maybe 59 wins was a miracle—raise your hand if you are convinced that you could manage a baseball team much better than Dusty Baker. Baker (somehow—oh yeah, Barry Bonds) got to a World Series in ’02 with the Giants, lost it, then went over to the Cubs the next year, oversaw the Bartman game, and proceeded to manage them completely into the ground. Now he’s pulling boners with his pitching staff in Cincinnati, and ya gotta ponder why anyone would hire this guy. Is the good-ol’-boy system more important than winning, even?

And now I see a lot of hands have gone up in the room.

So it makes you wonder. Why do the Los Angeles Dodgers pay Joe Torre a few million dollars a year to be the team’s manager, when they could pay me to do it and save a boatload of cash? Given that I’ve spent my life as a writer and musician without hitting the big time in either, I’d gladly take, oh, say, $75,000 (easy, but plus expenses) to manage the Dodgers, and consider myself a comfortable, happy guy.

Now, I’ve also been a lifelong baseball fan, so don’t let the artsy profile fool you. I know baseball. I even coached Little League once upon a time. I could write out a lineup card. I could make a pitching change. (Yeah, yeah. I’d consult with my bench coach and ask how many pitches my starter has thrown. To keep the front office happy.) I could send Matt Kemp up to pinch-hit for Clayton Kershaw. I could give the hit-and-run sign. I could order Rafael Furcal to lay down a bunt.

Now, presuming all the players on the Dodgers don’t intentionally play crappy just because I’m their manager—"Who does this guy think he is? Walter Mitty?” Manny Ramirez might mutter to no one in particular around the batting cage—I think I could get through the year okay and win a lot of games. I mean, do professional baseball players actually just lie down on the job if they don’t particularly like their manager? Seems like they’d try to do well always, since sucking on purpose could cost them money down the road. (Would Russell Martin actually think, “I hate that little turd. I’m going up there and strike out on purpose just so he’ll fail”? Seems unlikely.)

But what I’m also wondering is, if (and when) the Dodgers come a-calling, would I use the new edition of Baseball Prospectus to help me in my decision-making?

For the uninitiated, Baseball Prospectus is an annual guide to major league teams, their managers and players, including up-and-coming minor leaguers who may very well make the big club this season. This year it features the glib input of 16 baseball experts, all of them steeped in modes of statistical analysis that make Bill James and his pioneering Sabermetrics look like first-grade arithmetic.

The BP guys (and one girl) are obviously totally committed to this stuff, which requires a Ph.D, not in math really, but in acronymology. In between their determinedly know-it-all commentary on the players’ abilities and chances for success in 2009, you get a solid dose of SNLVARs (“Support Neutral Lineup-adjusted Value Above Replacement”), VORPs (“Value Over Replacement Player”), and WARPs (“Wins Above Replacement Player”). Not to mention BABIP (“Batting Average on Balls in Play”) and WXRL (“Wins eXpected above Replacement and adjusted for Lineup faced”). I have another personal favorite, Pythag +/-, which tells you how many games a team should have won, even if it’s less than the number they actually won.

(According to the BP guys, the 2008 Houston Astros’ record of 86-75 was a mirage. Actually, the team should have been 77-84, if only they had played to their BP-projected ability. I guess manager Cecil Cooper didn’t get the memo. For which I’m sure the Houston fans are grateful. Alternatively, the Cubs should have won two more games than they actually did, a supposition that would only make their fans head yet again for the nearest bar. Sorry, BP guys, the Cubs really only win what they win. Twenty years in Chicago taught me that.)

There are other arcane stats, which vary for hitters and pitchers—DERA, EqH9, EqBB9, EqA, EqBRR, etc.—plus defensive metrics for position players, and, for patient readers, they’re all explained in the book’s all-important statistical introduction.

Sometimes, though, the BP geeks will overlook describing a term. Hence, blithely and randomly reading along, we learn that Dodgers reliever Joe Beimel is a LOOGY, but no one explains what a LOOGY is. So I sought out this answer elsewhere. It stands for “Lefty One Out GuY.” (Just a guess here, but I’ll bet Joe Beimel’s mom doesn’t want her son being called a LOOGY. Sounds kinda gross.)

For the average fan, the BP individual position-player stats for a single season are slightly frustrating. They cover the past three years of play, and include projected numbers for ’09 (the latter a pretty clever gimmick based on the so-called PECOTA system, which I leave to you to investigate on your own). But they don’t tell you how many games the guy appeared in (G), or his total number of at-bats (AB), nor the total number of hits he achieved (H). Instead we get PAs (plate appearances), plus doubles, triples and homers, then RBIs and walks and strikeouts, and then a line of BP specialty stats that play into the think tank’s overanalyzed sense of smug self-satisfaction, beginning with the Holy Trinity of latter-day baseball numerology: average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. You are left on your own to compute the ultimate New Age Holy Grail stat: OPS (that’s on-base percentage + slugging percentage).

The short, essay-like thumbnail sizeups for each player are interesting, to be sure—soundly premised, usually crafted with grabby flair and infused with witty one-liners and ripe sarcasm—and really, for bathroom (or less casual) reading you won’t find a cooler book. The inside dope on the younger players poised to make a splash in ’09 will definitely intrigue the devoted fan.

Now, if only the games were played in the heads of the BP staff, and not on the field. Then Baseball Prospectus would make perfect sense. But part of the beauty of baseball is that games are won between the lines, and sometimes the most unlikely players are transformed into heroes while the statistics are defied.

The BP metrics also don’t really factor in the concept of clutch. I imagine these guys would have all sorts of reasons for determining that former Dodgers and Cubs third-baseman Ron Cey (1971-1987) was a bit of a stiff, with his mediocre batting averages, his slow feet, and his limited range in the field. But Cey hit when it counted, almost all the time. Even uber-stats-ology can’t account for that kind of magic.

The BP badinage also tends to be snobbishly dismissive of certain players when a modicum of realistic understanding is required. How else to explain their rap against the Dodgers’ Juan Pierre? His lack of power is well-known, but Pierre is seen through BP eyes almost as a cipher of a ballplayer. Yet in eight full seasons, Pierre has four 200-hit campaigns, a lifetime average of .300 and also a World Series ring, and at age 31 has nearly 1,600 hits. So...has this guy been wasting his time in MLB?

Regrettably, the book has two serious strikes against it. 1) There's no index, so you'll be driven nuts sometimes trying to find players that got traded or signed with other teams in the off-season. If you dig hard enough, and remember their 2008 teams, you can find 'em, but still...why give that headache to a baseball fan? 2) The foreword is by Keith Olberman (or Olbermann, the book spells it both ways, which is kind of funny given how famous he thinks he is). KO is a cretinous knee-jerk liberal political bigmouth masquerading as a sports fan, and he should be encouraged by thinking people to partake of neither. For what it's worth, I skipped his blowhard contribution and am no worse for wear.

That said, Baseball Prospectus 2009 certainly is engaging in its own ways. The specific (and important) critiques aside, it’s still pretty smart, eminently readable, hiply humorous, and packed with enough “regular” stats to satisfy guys who collected baseball cards back in the day but may not go for all this “Eq” stuff. (It's also probably a boon to all those fantasy players.)

Fact is, sometimes you can overanalyze everything, and then life starts to be less fun.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Conference Tournaments Still Blight NCAA Selection Process

The message is now clear to every NCAA men’s basketball conference: Get yourself a season-ending conference tournament—and then manipulate the system.

Conference tournaments suck. They’re stupid. Their existence invalidates the regular season conference schedule. And they were doubtless founded solely to generate cash. But according to the ESPN news story, Mississippi State, with its victory over Tennessee on Sunday, was “celebrating the league title.” Gee, I thought that honor went to LSU, with its 13-3 regular-season record against all SEC comers.

Mississippi State won the conference tourney, not the league title, but where the SEC is concerned that’s a damn fine thing. Because without it, one of the best (or apparently only formerly best) conferences in the nation would have had only two schools placed into the Big Dance—Tennessee and LSU. So in this case, the season-ending tourney helped the SEC, and thank God for that. Otherwise, the Atlantic-10—with Xavier, Dayton and Temple—would’ve placed more teams in the NCAAs than the SEC.

So maybe the SEC commissioner should issue a secret memo:

Dear SEC basketball coach:

Beginning with the 2009-2010 NCAA basketball season, any SEC team that is already assured a berth in the NCAA Tournament will purposely lose in the first round of our season-ending tourney.

There are three reasons why we are issuing this edict:

1) By losing early, teams already guaranteed an NCAA slot will get some needed rest, and avoid injury, as they prepare for the Big Dance.

2) All of our lesser teams will automatically improve on their records and enhance their chances as bubble teams or possibly as NIT candidates.

3) This will guarantee an additional SEC team’s automatic berth in the NCAAs as our tourney winner.

Let’s face it: That’s the way this thing works. And if you can’t trust the NCAA Selection Committee—the Big Ten has seven entries this year, while the SEC has three (make sense to you?)—then you gotta go along with everybody else and cook the books.

Consider the case of the Horizon League, which features such stalwart schools as Youngstown State (11-19), Detroit (7-23) and Valparaiso (9-22). The Horizon has one acknowledged first-tier team, Butler. According to the experts, Butler was already guaranteed a slot in the NCAAs. But for some reason, this dinky conference is awarded an automatic NCAA berth to the winner of its year-end conference tourney. So what happens? Butler loses in the tourney championship game to Cleveland State (the third-best squad in the Horizon), and now both schools are off to the Dance. If Mississippi State hadn’t pulled off its SEC tourney win, the Horizon League would’ve had as many schools in the NCAAs as the SEC.

Does anyone really think Cleveland State is better than SEC also-rans Auburn, or South Carolina or Florida?

The big schools who tanked in their conference tournaments made the smart play. North Carolina, Pitt, UConn, Michigan State, Oklahoma, Kansas, Wake Forest—they all get needed rest by bowing out early. And by doing so, they also leave a path open for their conferences’ lesser schools—like bubble-team Maryland in the ACC—to pad their resumes and enhance their Big Dance chances.

Frankly, I don’t know what Louisville and Duke—who advanced to their leagues’ title games—were thinking. Why waste all that energy—and why risk injury playing a game that means nothing—when a high seed awaits them anyway?

Conference tourneys should have no bearing on determination of the best teams in the country. But since they do, and since good teams in lesser conferences (e.g., St. Mary’s, Creighton) get screwed by the Cleveland States under the system, then it’s time to level the playing field.

What the heck. It’s time for the Ivy League to add that conference tournament. This year, its rep in the Big Dance is Cornell, 21-9 and clearly the class of the league. But if they had a year-end tourney, then maybe they could add another school to the postseason. Maybe 9-19 Brown would’ve gotten hot and won the automatic tourney bid. Wouldn’t that be fun...

There are two possibilities here: Either the SEC really sucks this year, or the system remains as flawed as ever. That said, the NCAA choices look acceptable in their typical way. Yet more reform is needed.

In the meantime, I’m all for that SEC secret memo. What’s the worst that could happen? Double secret probation??