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.

No comments: