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Tiger: A Counterpoint

You may know that this is not the first time my great good friend Michael Rosenberg and I have disagreed on the future of Tiger Woods. Yes, Michael is back again to shout that Tiger Woods will be great again and really soon. A year or so ago, Michael wrote that people who write off Tiger Woods are dead wrong … and doing him a personal favor by giving him extra incentive. I disagreed with both points. I thought the people who wrote off Tiger — depending on what we mean by “write off” — were more likely right than wrong, and anyway I never thought Tiger Woods has done well in an “us against the world” scenario. I don’t think he’s a guy who feeds of disrespect. I think he likes it best when everyone knows that he’s the best player going.

At that time, my opinion was a pretty distinct minority. I certainly wasn’t alone on the “Tiger will probably never be the same” airplane, but I do know there were plenty of empty seats and plenty of overhead storage available.

In the last year, though — a year in which Tiger spit on the green, threw clubs, blew a four-shot lead in his own tournament … when his average finish was 25th (not even counting the time he missed the cut or the time he withdrew) — the conventional wisdom has certainly shifted. Nobody seems willing, and nobody should seem willing, to call Tiger Woods finished. He’s earned more respect than that. He’s been too great for that. But the majority opinion now seems to be that Tiger probably won’t ever dominate the game again.

In other words, I admire my guy Rosenberg because now his opinion seems to me to be in the minority. He believes that Tiger is on the brink of another great run. And he absolutely could be right. But I don’t think he is right. And I have three reasons:

* * *

1. Age.

I can, in three steps, make a case that C.C. Sabathia will win 400 games.

Step 1: Sabathia has 157 wins, and he is 30 years old.

Step 2: Jamie Moyer won 233 games after he was 30 years old.

Step 3: Sabathia is better than Jamie Moyer.

So there you go. Add Moyer’s 233 to Sabathia’s 157 — that’s 390 victories. Sabathia’s better so he should get at least 10 more wins. That’s 400 victories.

So what’s wrong with that logic? Everything. There’s is almost zero chance that Sabathia will win anywhere close to 400 games … 300 will be tough. People age differently. Mariano Rivera is the best closer in baseball history, but that doesn’t mean he will pitch in his 40s the way Hoyt Wilhelm did. Michael Jordan was the greatest basketball player who ever lived, but Karl Malone was a better player in his late 30s. Dan Marino might be the best pure passer in the history of the NFL, but at age 37 or 38 I’d have taken Rich Gannon first.

So to say that because Angel Cabrera won a Masters at age 40 that Tiger Woods can do the same rings like a false argument to me. To say that Phil Mickelson won three majors after he turned 35 is interesting but doesn’t necessarily relate to Tiger (Mickelson won two of them the year he was 35, by the way).

History suggests that golfers decline noticeably in their mid-to-late 30s, and while there are exceptions they are just that … exceptions. Could Tiger Woods be an exception? Sure. But he’s 35 now, and he does not seem to be off to a roaring start. His best finish as a 35-year-old is 10th.

Oh, and I have to call Michael on one of my pet peeves — the statistical misdirection. In the piece, he mentioned that seven of the last 16 Masters winners were 35 or older. Always beware when you see a strange-looking number like “16” in a statistic.

Yes, it is true that seven of the last 16 Masters winners were 35 or older — Mickelson twice, the gracefully aging Vijay Singh and Mark O’Meara, the old timers with one more burst of glory Faldo and Crenshaw, and the aforementioned Cabrera. But there’s a reason that Michael cut it off at 16. It’s also true that only eight of the last 32 Masters winners and only 10 of the last 45 Masters winners were 35 or older.

Anyway, Tiger Woods will age how he ages. Does he have bursts of glory left in him? I would guess yes. Great golfers can have magical weeks long after their prime has set. But that’s not really what we’re talking about. Will Tiger win again? Sure. Will he win another major? Probably. But the question is: “Can he become the best player in the world again?” And that’s a whole different thing. And the odds are against him.

One thing that entertains me, I must admit, are the people who say Tiger will age well because of his grueling training regiment. Maybe. On the other hand, I’m not sure you can make the argument that that Tiger Woods has lived a particularly restful life up to now … or that he’s a young 35.

* * *

2. Swing changes

One thing Tiger and the people who believe he will be dominant again like to point out is that he’s been through slumps like this before. For instance, after he won the Masters in 1997, he then went through a series of swing changes and did not win a major for more than two years … a period that some people seem to be referring to as a slump.

He had another 2 1/2 year major drought from mid-2002 to the Masters in 2005. Again, people call it a slump. As Tiger has said: “I’ve been through this before.”

Only … he really hasn’t. Those “slumps” were very different. In 2003 and 2004, he won six times, won more money than anyone except Vijay Singh, finished in the Top 10 some 25 times. It was only a “slump” in the remarkable world of Tiger Woods. And in 1998 and 1999, he won nine times, won more money than anybody in the world, and he was only 23 years old.

This is fundamentally different. He’s older. He’s had serious knee surgery. he’s been caught from behind. He’s not changing his swing — like he did at 23 — with an eye on immortality. He’s changing his swing now because he’s hitting the ball into nearby fast food parking lots. And he’s just not playing well. It’s not that he’s not playing well for Tiger Woods — he’s not playing well for a top PGA Tour golfer. He has not won a tournament of any kind since 2009 even though he only plays tournaments that are custom built for his game. Since finishing fourth at last year’s U.S. Open, he has finished out of the Top 20 more often than he has finished inside the Top 20. He has only finished in the Top 5 once, and that was at his own tournament when he blew a big lead.

And there’s something else: Tom Watson famously changed his swing after winning his first British Open in 1975. This led to a disappointing 1976, only Watson was not disappointed because he felt certain that his new swing could help him become the best player in the world. He was right. In 1977, he out-dueled Jack Nicklaus at Augusta and Turnberry. He became the best in the world and was PGA Tour player of the year six of the next eight years.

When Watson started to struggle a bit with his game — he won his last major at 33 — he changed his swing again. And the swing changes worked beautifully. Watson will tell you he hit the ball better at 40 than he he did at 30, might have hit the ball better at 50 than he did at 40. Approaching 60, he could still hit the ball so well he almost won a British Open for the ages.

But, even a master of ball-striking like Tom Watson did not win any more majors after 33. He could not sustain his place on top of the golfing world. You know why: He stopped sinking putts. Tiger Woods’ putting and chipping — long the most underrated part of his miraculous game — no longer seems quite as sharp. If that part of his game drops even a little bit … well, as one pro golfer once told me: “We’re all two eight-foot putts a day away from the championship. And we’re all two eight-foot putts a day away from getting real jobs.”

* * *

3. The Harshness of Golf Reality

You have probably seen the famous footage of an old Joe Namath holding his hand up as he runs into the end zone. The hand up is a clear, “Don’t hit me I’m absurdly old,” gesture. And the defensive players — out of respect, I assume — don’t hit him.

Other sports offer a human element that is not really present in golf. Derek Jeter might be struggling with his own age issues, but it is true that he will face pitchers who grew up idolizing him. He will face teams that will respect him for all that he’s done. He will be judged by home plate umpires who admire him. This isn’t to say that anyone will take it easy on him — that obviously won’t happen — but it is to say that Derek Jeter, the name, does still carry a bit of weight in baseball.

Tiger Woods certainly cashed in on his name through the years — many golfers, seeing his name on top of the leaderboard, would subtly change their games. This was especially true on Sunday. Golf has never had a better frontrunner than Tiger Woods.

But golf, the game itself, does not bend to Tiger’s will. He will be exactly as good as his score, no better and no worse. it doesn’t matter if he gets mad, if he feels confident, if he tries harder, if he believes that he’s read the putt well … none of it matters except how many swings it takes for him to put the ball in 72 holes. Golf is a cold game that way. Tiger Woods could be in the best place mentally of his entire life. But if he shoots 74, he shoots 74. If his putt lips out, his putt lips out.

That harshness has always suited Woods. He’s never been sentimental about golf. The first time he showed up in Augusta he was a 19-year old amateur, and he was asked what he hoped to accomplish his first time around. “To win,” he said. He knew exactly what he was doing, and he knew exactly where he was going.

Now, though, I don’t think Tiger Woods is quite sure. This Masters feels like a big tournament for him. If he can contend — if he can win — it will once again make him the biggest story in sports. And that could springboard him right back to the sort of run that Michael is talking about. It would be foolish to say that’s not possible.

But “possible” and “likely” are two different things. And if Woods hacks it around a bit in Augusta, never really works into contention, plays the way he has played for the last year or so, well, I think it’s just one more sign that we’re all getting older. The years tend to go in only one direction.

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Poscast with Mike Vaccaro

So, I did my second Poscast … this time with longtime friend and brilliant man Mike Vaccaro, sports columnist of the New York Post, author of three wonderful books along with just being a gentleman, scholar and noted Godfather expert.

I should say that Mike and I once hosted our own radio show. Once. The only thing I remember is the beginning which went roughly like so:

Me: Welcome to the show. I’m Joe Posnanski.
Mike: And I’m Mike Vaccaro.
Me: Um …
Mike: (silence)
Me: OK, now what are we supposed to do?
Mike: (silence)

So you will definitely want to tune into this one.

I’m still getting the feel of the Poscast — in other words, I have no idea what I’m doing — but this one is more of a rambling conversation about many things from the Knicks to baseball to Tiger Woods and the Masters. I think I’m still pretty early in the process in figuring out exactly how these things will go. I’m not saying that I’ll ever figure it out.

Three things: One, the sound quality on this one is a little bit better than last week, I think — thanks in large part to the brilliant production work of Margo Posnanski — but we still have not set up the Poscast studio. Hope to set that up sometime this week so that the next Poscast will not sound like it was broadcast in the Holland Tunnel. We’re working on it.

Two, I’m told that the Poscast should be on iTunes by the end of the week. There’s a process you have to go through to get such things done, and good folks like Jake, Larry and my wife Margo are working all that out.

Three, congratulations go this week to Alex Birdsall for recording the first Poscast theme song titled, wonderfully, “I Have No Idea What I’m Doing.” For recording the Poscast theme, Alex will get all sorts of wonderful prizes or a couple of autographed books. Thank you to all the people who entered — yours are still being considered for future Poscast themes — and if you would like to record a theme song and potentially win fabulous prizes, send me an MP3 of the song to the Poscast email.*

*Along those lines, I’d like to give a little shout-out to brilliant reader Jonah and his band The Cinammon Fuzz. Got a great 80s sound, which of course gets me every time. They are trying to win the Billboard Battle of the Bands, and they’re pretty great, and I’m pretty sure I can get a Poscast theme song from them for this plug.

Sports Poscast with Mike Vaccaro

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The Madness of March

Basketball is probably the most predictable of all our team sports. Well, it only makes sense. Everything in basketball is on a smaller scale in basketball. The court is smaller. There are fewer players on each team. There are fewer players on each roster. There are fewer angles, fewer moves, fewer countermoves. One great basketball player can make a larger impact, I suspect, than one great player on any other team sport.

If you need proof of basketball’s predictability — look at the NBA. While baseball fans complain endlessly about the lack of competitive balance and while the NFL constantly legislates new ways to make its game fair and balanced, the NBA is more unbalanced than Charlie Sheen*.

*Charlie Sheen jokes never get old, do they?

How predictable is the NBA? Here are three NBA facts that might blow your mind:

1. Of the last 59 NBA Finals, 38 of them featured either the Celtics or the Lakers, often both.

2. Since 1984, only seven different teams have won an NBA title. Seven! And only one of them — the Miami Heat — won only one title.

Let’s put this in a little bit of perspective:

Number of teams that have won their championship since 1984:

World Series: 18
Super Bowl: 14
Stanley Cup: 13
NBA Finals: 7

3. By my quick count, there are 10 NBA teams — admittedly, some of them are expansion teams but still — 10 NBA teams that have not even reached an NBA Final in the city where they are playing. That’s one-third of the league that has not even been to a final … ever.

By contrast, only four NFL teams — Cleveland, Detroit, Houston and Jacksonville — have never been to a Super Bowl, and Cleveland and Detroit won NFL Championships before the Super Bowl. By contrast, only Seattle and Washington have not been to a World Series, and almost every team (other than the lamentable Cubs) have been there in the last 35 years.

Basketball is just a game for dynasties, for predictability, for sameness. One great player — one Michael Jordan, one Tim Duncan, one Larry Bird, one Kobe Bryant — can order the cosmos. One great collection of players under the tutelage of Red Auerbach or Phil Jackson or John Wooden can dominate an entire generation.

And that’s the genius — the absolute genius — of March Madness. In a best-of-seven playoff system, basketball will be stunningly predictable. In a rigid seeding system where you give the very best team a first-round bye and and an easy schedule and ask them to win only four games to win the championship, you will get UCLA winning 10 championships in 12 years.

But what happens if you put 64 teams in a field — no, make it 68 — and no teams get byes and even the best regular season team has to win six games in a three-week free-for-all? What happens if seeding is really random because after a certain point you don’t REALLY know who is the 34th best team in the country and who is the 11th best, and so the No. 1 seeds sometimes face great teams while the No. 4 seeds sometimes don’t? What happens if you devise a tournament where the goal is not exactly to identify the BEST team in America but instead to create a monthlong celebration of basketball and hope and upsets and buzzer beaters and the spirit of college sports fans?

Here’s what happens: Every now and again, when the fog clears, you will get Butler against Connecticut, a bright young coach against a street-smart old one, a team of small-town Indiana kids against a team led by a charismatic New Yorker who is one of the greatest players in the history of the tournament. Nobody can really think that Butler and Connecticut — two teams that were not ranked among the top 20 teams for part of the year — are the two best teams in America. And, at exactly the same time, nobody can really think that Butler and Connecticut are NOT the two best teams in America. That’s the wonder of March Madness. It has redefined what “best” even means. It has turned basketball unpredictable.

* * *

Coaches cannot stand unpredictable things, by the way. Unpredictability is a coach’s biggest enemy. Coaches spend a hundred hours a week going through every scenario they can conjure up, even the most implausible — especially the most implausible — because there’s nothing scarier to a coach than being surprised. The thing that keeps them awake at night is not that their players might fall on their faces. It is, instead, that something will happen that they never saw coming.

Because of this, single elimination tournaments can make coaches crazy. North Carolina’s Dean Smith always wanted to point to his team’s remarkable consistency during the regular season — his Tar Heels won 17 ACC Championships, won more than 20 games and reached the tournament every year from 1975 to 1997 — as a TRUE measure of his team’s ability. Coach after coach, after losing in the tournament with great teams, have talked about the tournament as a crapshoot, have talked about wanting their players and fans to be proud of their great seasons.

But, to be honest, the randomness of the NCAA tournament has blunted much of that. Only North Carolina fans remember the ACC titles. Dean Smith is remembered much more for his two national championships — both with odd finishes — and all the ones his teams didn’t win. Kansas this year — after losing its three best players to the NBA — went 32-2 during the season, won its seventh straight BIg 12 championship, won its fifth Big 12 tournament in six years. And you know what people will remember? Kansas lost to VCU in the Elite Eight. The season is widely viewed as a disappointment — in many quarters the season is viewed as a HUGE disappointment. One bad game. One poor match-up. One day shots don’t drop. This is March. And it is Madness.

But we love it. That’s why it works. We love it. College football attempts to win over fans with what it calls the best regular season in sports … but despite the overwhelming popularity of college football almost nobody loves the college football ending. The BCS has the popularity numbers of influenza. Before VCU and Butler played on Saturday in probably the most unlikely Final Four game yet, several people said they were thinking about TCU’s undefeated football team and how it did not get its shot at the championship. There’s something about the NCAA basketball tournament that seems FAIRER than any other … even though you could argue that it’s not especially fair at all.

“There’s almost no advantage for being good during the season,” one Division I coach says. “I’m not complaining about it, but that’s just a fact. If you finish first in your conference or third or fifth, you pretty much start in the same place when the tournament begins. If you have a great year where your team comes together and plays great basketball but then have a player get injured or run into a team that makes 15 three-pointers, most people won’t see that you had a great year.

“All that said, the tournament is so great for our sport. I mean, it’s really great. It’s fun and everybody gets into it. We all know the deal. In football, your job is to go undefeated for the whole season, if you can. In basketball, your job as a coach is to do your best to get your kids ready to play, hopefully, six games in March.”

* * *

Only the NCAA Tournament could have given us a final like Butler and Connecticut. You know their stories. Butler, after coming together and becoming the unlikeliest team to reach a national championship in a quarter century, lost its best player to the NBA and then CAME BACK. Connecticut, after a turbulent up-and-down year led by the spectacular Kemba Walker, won five games in five days to win the Big East Tournament and came out of that flurry with a belief that it cannot be beaten.

This kind of thing doesn’t happen in other tournaments and playoffs. You probably could not get N.C. State beating Houston on a last-second dunk or Villanova making just about every shot in the second half against Georgetown or the rise of a program like Duke in other sports. In a country that loves the underdog, and thrives on the unexpected, and believes in the theme that it’s never too late to become great, the NCAA Tournament fits us better than almost anything else.

Now, we get this wonderful final … and one more time it’s hard to know what to expect. Connecticut did not begin the season in the Top 25. It played brilliantly at times during the season and also lost four of five and entered the Big East tournament as a No. 9 seed. Connecticut’s Walker really is having one of the greatest individual seasons in recent memory and belongs in the conversation with Magic Johnson and Danny Manning and Pervis Ellison and others in the way he has carried his team to this point. The rest of the team is mostly made up of young and raw players — freshman Jeremy Lamb has, at times, been a phenomenon — and so the Huskies have been good and inconsistent, hot and cold. They have surprised a lot of people.

Now, though, the Huskies are expected to win the national championship. That’s how fast it turns — underdog one day, sure thing the next. Well, the underdog role for this game is adamantly Butler’s. After last year’s miracle run, the Bulldogs often looked like a team that would not even make the tournament this year. They did make it as a No. 8 seed, and they promptly rode the March flying carpet — beating Old Dominion by two, surviving the foul-frenzy of the final seconds and beating Pittsburgh by one, persisting through a battering game against Wisconsin, overcoming Florida in overtime and finally smothering a VCU team that, on its biggest night, missed a whole bunch of layups.

Butler has its own terrific players, of course. Shelvin Mack is a 6-foot-3 guard who poured in 30 against Pittsburgh and 27 against Florida and seems to enjoy matching up against more famous and celebrated opponents like Kemba Walker. Matt Howard is a 6-foot-8 forward who coaches unanimously adore because of how hard he plays and how he always seems to grab a rebound or dive on a loose ball or score around the basket when you need it most, and how, like Traveler’s Insurance, he can take the scary out of life. The other Butler players seem to know exactly what they are supposed to do … and come March they do it.

So what happens? We don’t know what happens. That’s the beauty. Even more: That’s the point.

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A Celebration of Day 2

Few people celebrate the second day of the baseball season. Opening Day is flooded with remembrances and celebrations, reveries about spring and fathers and the timelessness of the game. Opening Day sparks packed stadiums, filled with color and pageantry and grass that is jarringly green and familiar scents and children pulled from school. And scorecards! How many people keep score on Opening Day? Everybody, it seems, and the scorecards are crisp and they are neat, every line drawn with care, every home run filled in with the precision of the SAT Test circles. Opening Day brings out the overwrought poet in baseball fans everywhere. By Day 2, though, the poetry ends. It’s a long season, and the second day is when baseball fans begin to settle in.

I suppose this gets to the heart of things. Opening Day is about hope … beautiful, glorious and irrational hope. And second days are about the slow and irretrievable loss of that hope. Opening Day is about being young. And Day 2 is about getting old. Stadiums in many places are now half-filled … no child gets to skip school to catch the SECOND game of the season. The lifers remain. Scorecards are creased and smeared and abandoned by the fourth inning. The drumbeat sounds. The long march of the season begins. The three-hit first day, in the slow and sure way of inevitability, morphs into that .263 batting that was preordained by the martial law of 600 plate appearances. The flawed teams begin their steady descent into the standings.

I’m a big fan of irrational hope. Every year, when I was columnist at The Kansas City Star, I would write a column about why the Kansas City Royals would win the American League Central. It was homage to an old Kansas City humor columnist who every year would pick the Kansas City Athletics to win the pennant. Neither of us ever got it right, of course. It was homage to Opening Day and limitless possibilities and that irrational hope that Opening Day inspires.

And then Opening Day passes, and it’s Day 2, and what’s left then?

You know who used to love the second day of the baseball season? Buck O’Neil. Today’s a good day to remember my old friend. You have, I suspect, heard Buck’s story about the three times in his life when he heard a sound unlike anything else he ever heard. Still, it’s worth telling again because it takes us through his life.

The first time he heard the sound, he was just a kid in Sarasota, and he was standing behind the outfield wall in the hope of getting a few baseballs being hit by the Yankees in batting practice. He suddenly heard a booming sound — like a cannon being fired, he would sometimes say — and he climbed to the top of the wall to see. And there he saw Babe Ruth in the batter’s box.

The second time he heard the sound, he was a young first baseman for the Kansas City Monarch of the Negro Leagues. He would become a fine player, a good defensive first baseman, a batting champion. He would always say he was getting dressed when he heard that sound again, the boom that sounded like Babe Ruth, and he raced outside to take a look. And there he saw Josh Gibson in the batter’s box.

The third time he heard the sound, he was a longtime scout, one of the most respected in baseball. He had already lived a full baseball life. He had managed the Monarchs. He had been the first black coach in baseball history. He had played a huge role as a scout or an advisor or simply a friend for Ernie Banks and Lou Brock and Billy Williams and Bob Gibson and Joe Carter and too many others to count. This time he was out at the ballpark to watch a player people were already calling the most remarkable physical talent in the history of baseball. Buck O’Neil watched him crush an impossibly long home run the first time he swung the bat. And, yes, that sound boomed again. That was Bo Jackson.

Buck used to say he would go out to the ballpark every day because he wanted to hear that sound one more time before he died. He never did, or at least he never said that he did. But he heard a lot of pretty great sounds. He saw a lot of pretty great things. That’s the wonder of Day 2. Hope might fade. But you never know what you’re going to hear.

But that’s not the Buck O’Neil story I’m thinking about now. No. Bill James has a favorite Buck O’Neil story that fits Day 2. I happened to be there when Bill’s story happened. I had set up a baseball panel discussion at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. Bill James was there, New York Post columnist Mike Vaccaro was there — the second co-host for the Poscast, incidentally — and former Kansas City Royals assistant general manager Muzzy Jackson was there. I was the moderator. The conversation bounced around many different topics, but no Kansas City baseball conversation is complete without at least a mention of the New York Yankees and their dominance.

The Yankees have long been something of an obsession for Kansas City baseball fans. This goes back 70 or 80 years. The Kansas City Blues were for many years a New York farm team — in many ways the Blues were THE New York farm team. It was in Kansas City that Mutt Mantle threatened to take his son Mickey back to the mines in Oklahoma because he was not handling himself like a man. It was in Kansas City that Walter Cronkite, as he long remembered, used to catch Blues games featuring players like Phil Rizzuto and Jerry Priddy and Frenchy Bordagaray and then long after, late at night, play games of drunken hopscotch with the boys from the wire services. The Blues and Yankees were inextricably knotted together; Kansas City was Yankees territory.

When the Athletics moved from Philadelphia to Kansas City, the idea was that Kansas City would become its own territory. But that did not exactly happen. The early A’s, for various reasons, sort of continued to be a Yankees farm team. The A’s did not develop or acquire too many good players in the early years, but those few who did blossom tended to find themselves wearing Yankees uniforms before too long. The most famous of these was Roger Maris, but the list of useful players the Yankees took from the A’s is actually quite long, and this did not really change until Charlie O. Finley bought the team and began his zany reign.

Finley had his own Yankees quirks. For instance, he was told at one point that the real secret to the Yankees success was Yankee Stadium. So, naturally, he tried to retrofit Municipal Stadium in Kansas City so that its dimensions were precisely the same as Yankee Stadium. This did not work on any level, including the most basic “architectural level,” and the A’s continued to stink until Finley finally convinced baseball to let him move the team to the untapped market of Oakland. People in Kansas City have no fondness for Finley. But they will generally concede that he did not kowtow to the Yankees.

Then the Royals came to town, and from 1976 to 1980 they had a rivalry with the Yankees that matches anything in baseball history. Four times in five years, they faced each other in best-of-five playoff series to determine the American League pennant. “I hated the Yankees,” George Brett said. “I mean that sincerely. I HATED those guys.” One series ended on the famous home run of Yankee Chris Chambliss. Another ended with Kansas City’s Fred Patek in the dugout, his face red with tears. The only Royals victory of the four was clinched when Brett turned on a neck-high fastball from Goose Gossage. There were fights, there were titanic performances, there were famous moments like when Cliff Johnson threatened to fight Kansas City’s spiritual leader Hal McRae before one game, to which McRae replied: “I don’t fight extra men.”

Around 1994, the Yankees took on a new and sinister meaning in Kansas City — they came to represent the monetary unfairness of the game. This was probably always true, but the numbers had grown more stark, and the Royals were at the bottom of the starkness. More and more, Kansas City baseball fans felt like poker players with a perpetually short stack of chips. “How can we compete?” Royals fans shouted while management traded away Johnny Damon and Jermaine Dye and Carlos Beltran and anyone else who was deemed too expensive. The answer seemed to be: “You can’t.” The Yankees, meanwhile, seemed to buy whatever player they wanted.

So that’s what we were talking about on the panel — the Royals utter inability to compete with the Yankees — when suddenly Buck O’Neil raised his hand. He was in the crowd, and he stood up, and here’s what he said: “OF COURSE we can beat the Yankees.” Everybody in the room stopped, because that’s what Buck’s voice did to a room. I don’t have his words memorized, but he said something like this:

“OF COURSE we can beat the Yankees. It’s not even a question. The Yankees can only play nine players at a time. They can’t sign all the good players out there and play them. They can’t use more than one pitcher at a time. They can’t play two shortstops or three center fielders. They have nine guys, we have nine guys. They might be able to get nine more expensive guys, but that doesn’t mean they get nine BETTER guys.

“Baseball is the fairest game in the world. It doesn’t matter if the other guy is bigger than you or taller than you or stronger than you or faster than you. The only thing that matters is who plays the game better. I’m sick of excuses. People say we can’t beat the Yankees. That’s ridiculous. We beat the Yankees before when we had players like George Brett and Frank White and Amos Otis and Willie Wilson and Hal McRae. Yeah. We just need to find the players and develop them into good players. If we don’t do that, it’s not the Yankees fault.”

This might not quite as good if you can’t hear Buck O’Neil’s voice saying it. But it had a mesmerizing effect on the room … as I say, Bill James will never forget it. Buck was the most optimistic man I ever met. To him baseball wasn’t about the pomp and circumstance of Opening Day. It was not about irrational hopes that this player might have a career year or that player might suddenly reach his potential or any of that. For Buck, the baseball season about Day 2 and beyond, and no excuses, and his heartfelt belief that if you put nine good men on the field you could beat anybody. Baseball is the one game where the really bad teams win 40% of the time. Baseball is the one game where the very best teams will lose 60 times a year. Sure, over long seasons, good teams tend to be good, and bad teams tend to be bad, but that doesn’t make it predestined.

“We could win it all this year,” Buck would say, and he would say it long after Opening Day.

To borrow another man’s words, Buck never thought there was anything irrational about hope.

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Top 32 Players In Baseball

This should go big on the Sports Illustrated site tomorrow, but if you would like an early look .. here is is my 11,000-word monstrosity on the Top 32 players in baseball.

The 32 Best Players In Baseball For 2011

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An Interview With UZR

Brilliant Reader Jon sent in this story by my friend Pat Reusse called “You can take your UZR and …”

The story is actually quite a fun read. I mean, yes, there are a couple of shots at statistics and the people who love them. So what? My friend Dave Krieger in Denver wrote about me being abducted to Planet Bill James (the cable channels up there are INCREDIBLE). I sometimes wonder why anybody in this crazy business of sports would take him or herself too seriously.

Anyway the core of Pat Reusse’s article is an interview with Jim Fregosi, and it’s clear that Fregosi has a pretty good sense of the stats. And he makes some excellent points about the right and wrong way to use them, like this quote:

“If I’m looking for a leadoff hitter, I don’t care about a combination of numbers — don’t care about his slugging percentage. I want to know how often he gets on base and if he can run.”

If the manager for my big league baseball team ever said something that sensible, I would jump up and down and buy a new team cap to wear around town. I’m not kidding. I’m so used to managers saying that they want leadoff hitters who can “handle the bat” or guys who “will fight up there” or some other vague trait that doesn’t mean anything. A few weeks ago, Royals manager Ned Yost was explaining to Bob Dutton why he plans to hit Mike Aviles in the leadoff spot.

“He’s a guy who has a chance to hit .300. He’s a guy who can steal bases. He’s a guy who will give you a decent at-bat, and he finds a way to get on.”

Mike Aviles’ career on-base percentage is .327. That’s below league average. He has walked 42 times in more than 1,000 big league plate appearances. He didn’t walk much more than that in the minors. He has been hit with pitches three times. I think Mike Aviles is a very useful player, and he might even be the Royals best option as a leadoff hitter. But he most definitely DOES NOT find ways to get on. And when you say stuff like that you make it pretty clear what your priorities are — and on-base percentage is not the priority.

So, I like Fregosi’s summation of a leadoff hitter: “I want to know how often he gets on base and if he can run.” That order. I like it. And he also said: “There are too many things that can’t be seen through statistics.” I agree entirely with that too. He talked about how OPS is not especially relevant when he’s looking for a utility infielder. Agree with that too. Almost everything Fregosi said in the article, I agree with.

Fregosi then said that he despises UZR — Ultimate Zone Rating, one of the advanced defensive metrics out there. “I can watch any player for three days and tell you if he has range,” Fregosi said. “And I’ll tell you more accurately than a chart in a computer.”

Jim Fregosi absolutely may be right here too. There are real issues with Ultimate Zone Rating. But I will say one thing … we only ever hear from people like Fregosi on this topic. That is to say we are constantly hearing from baseball people who know how to measure defense better than some statistic like UZR. We are constantly hearing from people who, through well-honed powers of observation and years of visual training, can determine a player’s range and skill and defensive production better than UZR. They don’t need any statistic to tell you who can or cannot play defense. As the headline says, you can take your UZR and …

And you know who we never hear from on this topic? That’s right: UZR herself.

Q: Thank you so much for joining us. I understand this is your first interview.

UZR: Well, I’ve been jumping from mother’s basement to mother’s basement, and I really have not had any free time.

Q: I’m glad you …

UZR: Oh the underwear I’ve seen.

Q: Right. So let’s get right down to it. You are a defensive statistic and one of the more prominent ones out there. First, can you explain yourself.

UZR: What I try to do is determine how many runs a fielder saves his team over the average player. I look at the players arm, his range, his errors and the number of double plays he helps turn.

Q: So you are trying to ruin the game?

UZR: Is this going to be one of those interviews?

Q: No. I just wanted to see how you would react. By the way, you look good, have you been dieting?

UZR: Well, I’m park adjusted.

Q: I thought so. So, you’ve heard what people say about how imprecise you are … what do you say those people.

UZR: I’d agree with that wholeheartedly. I’m a defensive statistic. There are all sorts of quirks and blips involved with measuring defense. I always tell people never to use just a year of me. You have to use at least three years to get real value out of my numbers.

Q: Three years?

UZR: Oh yes. AT LEAST three years. Defense is a complicated matter you know. If I may, I heard what Jim Fregosi said about me, and let me say that I’m a big fan of his. We met once, years ago, but he wouldn’t remember … anyway, I don’t doubt that he could watch a player for three days and determine if the player has range. I bet he could watch a player for two days or one day and say if he has range. I could never do that.

But that’s not what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to tell you how much a defensive player is helping his team. And I’m doing it with numbers. The managers look at Derek Jeter and tell you he’s a great defensive player, right? They give him the Gold Glove every year. Well, he might be a great defensive player by the eyes. He might be the smartest player in the world. He might have a sense that no other player on earth has. But I rank him 42 runs below average since 2002 because that’s how the numbers add up. I don’t judge based on how good or bad he looks. I mean, he looks good, he’s Derek Jeter, come on. I don’t care if he dives or doesn’t dive. I don’t care about any of that stuff. Does he make the play? Does he get to the ball? Does he turn two? These are the data points in my statistic.

Q: So you’re saying …

UZR: I’m saying that the human mind is better for writing poetry. The closest thing I’ve ever come to poetry is this: “Hat … Pat … Sat.” I’m still thinking a name for it. The human mind is better for literature, for music, for art, for comedy. The human mind is better in billions of different ways that I could never conceive. The human mind is especially better at narrative.

But by being better at narrative, the human mind can and will shift things to make them fit. The human mind will find trends in randomness, and stories in fog, and that’s one of the beautiful parts. I can count better than you can. I don’t mean that in a bragging way. I just can. I can count better, and I can ignore unnecessary data better, and I cannot be influenced by beauty or awkwardness. If you have one day to determine if a guy can play defense, or a week, or a month, you are better off to use your eyes because I need more than three days. If we have five years of data, I’m pretty sure I’ll beat your analysis every time.

Q: Do you understand why people take shots at you?

UZR: Sure I do. I sometimes spit out numbers that don’t match up to what the eyes suggest. It’s not personal with me. But it is personal with baseball fans, and it should be. They are watching the game with love. And they don’t want to be told that their eyes are misleading them, that they might not see the game as well as they think, that their hero doesn’t get to nearly as many balls as they believe.

I tell people that I’m a tool. See, a person would never say call herself a tool. Heh heh. That’s statistical humor. It breaks them up at the conventions. Point is, I’m not perfect. I’m not close to perfect. I’ve gotten better since I was young, and I will keep getting better. Baseball defense has been widely miscalculated for many, many decades. People have judged players on whether or not they fielded ground balls that hit their gloves, or made throws that sailed over their targets. People have judged players on how far they ran to catch a ball or how spectacular their dive. That’s all wonderful to watch, but that’s not what defense is about. Defense is about preventing runs. Defense is about turning batted balls into outs. Over seasons, I believe I can tell you which players are good and not so good at doing that. And I believe I can do it better than you can do it with good eyes and a great memory.

Q: OK, before you go, tell us … which of the advanced statistic is the best.

UZR: Oh, I could never choose, they’re all my friends. But I can tell you that VORP is hilarious — I told you stats are not very funny, but VORP is the exception. He told this one the other day … let’s see if I can remember it: How many RBIs does it take to change a light-bulb? Who cares — RBIs are context-based stats that overstate the importance of certain middle-of-the-lineup hitters! Oh, he had us rolling in the aisles with that one. Also WAR does a great Dave Krieger impression.

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Sports Poscast Theme Song

So, here’s the deal. The Poscast needs a theme song. Well, if you want to get technical about it, the Poscast needs a better studio host, an iTunes home, better sound quality, crazy sound effects like they used to have on the old Hanna Barbera shows, and, of course, free Buffalo wings for everyone.

Some of these things are coming, I think. Well, the better sound should be coming once I get my XML Supercharged Micro-fliptometer with balance lock and hypo-dexterity quasi-mixer and, no, I really have no idea what I actually need to make the sound better. I was speaking jibberish* there. But I know I ordered something or other and I have a couple of people helping me so the sound should be better soon enough.

*I am aware, incidentally, that jibberish is actually spelled “gibberish.” I don’t like it that way. I do not mean “gibberish.” I mean “jibberish.”

One thing the Poscast definitely needs is a theme song. We started the first one with some kind of jaunty “From the Wacky World Of Sports!” kind of theme that came free on Garage Band, but we really need something original.

So, that’s where you come in because I know — KNOW — that one thing you definitely were thinking today was, “Hey, I’m a musician, and I have this great idea in my mind for the Sports Poscast theme song.”

So here’s the deal — we’re having a contest. You record your ORIGINAL version of the Poscast theme song at the Poscast number (206.202.3157). And if your song gets picked — and you have to feel pretty good about your chances, I mean how many people do you REALLY think are going to enter here? — you will get one of the following great prizes*:

— Two autographed books from yours truly.
— A new Lexus
— A dream date with someone I know.
— A working calculator

*As selected by me.

You will also by honored by the Poscast, where dozens of people from around America will hear your name and smile.

All musical styles are welcome except for anything inspired by John Tesh. I don’t want to stifle your creativity here, but I will say that if you do decide to go with lyrics that getting the Poscast slogan — “I have no idea what I’m doing” — can only help your chances.

The next Poscast with Bill James will, I hope, be recorded sometime soon. So don’t delay. Act now. Operators are standing by.

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Postscript: Brilliant reader Ryan almost immediately after this post went up wondered why I would make my little joke about John Tesh when he is the man behind this. Well, Ryan’s right. You have to give the man his due.

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The First Sports Poscast

Well, against my better judgment — and the better judgment of anyone who has ever heard me on radio — I have decided to start podcasting. This is not entirely because of my editor, who has been stalking me for more than a year to get me to do it. This is only MOSTLY because of my editor, who has been stalking me for more than a year to get me to do it.

The great thing about doing Sports Poscasts (at least in theory) is that I don’t have to do them alone … and I have the good fortune of knowing some great people who are much better at this than I am. I’m hoping to have them as regular co-hosts so they can carry me. We will see how it plays out.

My first Sports Poscast co-host is with one of those great people — Michael Schur, creator and Executive Producer of the fabulous Parks and Recreation on NBC (Thursday nights, right after The Office). Mike, as you probably know, is also one of the founders of the legendary Fire Joe Morgan Web site and one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. He’s also Paul. We preview the baseball season and, as you might expect based on this blog’s history, go way longer than we intended. Future Poscasts should be shorter. Comments, questions, suggestions, chocolate-covered strawberries can all be sent here.

You may notice, if you listen that long, that when we had the conversation, Bartolo Colon appeared slotted as the Yankees fifth starter. Please feel free to replace those words with the equally frightening words “Freddy Garcia.” Next time, we’ll get the thing up faster.

The next Sports Poscast, I’m hoping, will be with Bill James though I must admit that I’m not entirely sure Bill is completely out of hiding after the Kansas game just yet.

Here is the first Sports Poscast.

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Postscript: I should add here that the Sports Poscast will be on iTunes, hopefully in the next couple of days. Will keep you updated. Also the sound quality should get better when we get all the equipment set up in and in working order. Until then, yes, we do indeed plan on continuing to record our Poscasts through a baby monitor.

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Who Am I To Argue?

My mother cannot quite tell a joke. I think my mother is very funny, and she has a great sense of what is funny, but she cannot quite tell a joke, which is a very different skill. She disagrees, of course, but there is quite a lot of family evidence going back years to the Posnanski famous, “I passed all the cars on the road,” punch-line. She was telling the rather famous joke about the man who is pulled over for speeding and says to the officer: “You think I was speeding? You should have seen the cars I passed.”

My mother’s version was: “You think I was speeding? I passed all the cars on the road.”

In any case, my mother’s favorite joke in my mind involves the correct way to respond when winning awards. That correct way is like so: “I don’t deserve this honor … but who am I to argue?”

In the last few days, I have been getting quite a bit of award consideration, and once again I have to admit I don’t quite know how to handle it. Every instinct in me says to be grateful but quiet about it. What we do as writers is so subjective that awards are pretty silly; the same story that wins an award from one organization can be called the worst story of the year by another. The gap can be, and often is, that wide. Anyway, praise — I believe this wholeheartedly — can be more dangerous than vicious criticism to a writer’s psyche if he or she takes it too much to heart. My awards are in a cupboard under a sink in my basement, and it’s important to me that they stay there. They day I really start believing I’m any good at this stuff, I fear, is the day I stop trying hard enough.

Fortunately, there are always people out there more than happy to tell me I’m no good at this stuff. So I’m good.

Here’s the thing, though: I do realize, that there is another purpose for awards … and that is to shine a light on journalism and writing. The Oscars might be a self-congratulating ego-fest, but because of the Oscars millions more people will see The King’s Speech, and Inside Job, and some of the best work the industry has to offer. The Grammy’s are kind of a joke, but maybe they open up a few more people to Buddy Guy or Arcade Fire or the White Stripes or Danger Mouse.

I believe that we are in a bit of a golden age of writing in America. I would not be able to put that in any great historical context, but I know that there is way too much wonderful longform writing for me to read, and I read a lot. I just listed three Web sites, the first three that came to mind, but there are dozens and dozens and dozens of such Web sites, and the book stores fill with writers like Franzen and Hillenbrand and Eggers and Auster and Maraniss and Roth (still writing at the top of his game) and McDermott and McCarthy, and it’s all too much. There is also incredible sportswriting going on now. This week in Sports Illustrated, if you’re a baseball fan, you will get an all-you-can-eat buffet of greatness, you will get the untouchable Gary Smith on the Philadelphia Phillies rotation and the best baseball writer going today, Tom Verducci, on radar guns. But the beauty of today is you don’t have to only wait for SI to write these stories, you can scan Baseball Think Factory and every day of the year you can find a wonderful story (and a few not so wonderful ones) for inspiration.

Heck, some of the more entertaining and passionate and frenzied writing out there is being done 140 characters at a time.

And yet … I’m not sure we appreciate how good it is out there because at the same time there’s also more terrible work out there than ever before, or anyway it seems that way. That’s the power of technology — there is just MORE, always, everywhere. It’s hard to keep up, and it’s hard to know which way to turn.

So, in this way, I admire the people who give out awards; I appreciate their quest to find quality. I appreciate groups like the NSSA (for sportswriters and sportscasters) that are working hard to encourage good work. I appreciate groups like the APSE that are trying to identify and reward the best sportswriting in newspapers and on the Web.

A couple of weeks ago, I was nominated for a National Magazine Award for this blog. I’m proud to say that I lost to the excellent Marc Tracy of The Scroll blog. And if you look at the smart and serious topic that leads the page now — What Libya has to do with the Holocaust — you will wonder how in the heck a blog focusing on Snuggies and Yuni Betancourt was ever in contention.

Yesterday, I was told that I won a National Headliners Award for Online Writing. That is given by the Press Club in New Jersey, and it is one of the more prestigious journalism awards in America. This is actually my second one (read Mother’s joke here). Read through the list of winners, if you have a moment, find some of the stories and photos and reporters. There is some amazing work being done.

And this morning I woke up to find that not only did I win the inaugural Baseball Bloggers Alliance writer of the year award but — no, I am not kidding — they are actually NAMING THE AWARD for me next year. The BBA’s awards are now named for Willie Mays, Connie Mack, Goose Gossage, Walter Johnson, Stan Musial and me. Perfect fit, right?

It’s all humbling and makes me feel uneasy, but against my better judgment I’m writing about it anyway because I want to make you aware of these fine organizations and the fine work they are honoring across the board. And, sure, I want to say how proud I am that they honored me too. I’ll do one more bit of name-dropping and irritating bragging because … well, because I’m this far along anyway so I might as well.

A few years ago, I was named the best sports columnist in America by the Associated Press Sports Editors for the first time. It was thrilling, of course, because some of my heroes in sportswriting had won the award before me. But it was also disconcerting. I try to hide my insecurities best I can, but people who really know me know that I never, ever like what I do. Those insecurities can blossom and bloom when people start saying really nice things about me, so I often shut down in those situations.

And, so, I kind of shut down when I won that columnist award. And then I got the nicest call from — here comes the name drop — Tom Watson. He called to congratulate me but, more, to tell me that I should take great pride in being honored by my peers and to allow myself a few moments to bask in the sunshine. He said that when he was honored by his fellow golfers, at first he did not quite know how to take it. He felt unworthy. But then he decided that it wasn’t his business to feel unworthy. It was his business to feel grateful and proud and happy.

In other words: I don’t deserve these honors … but who am I to argue? I guess I passed all the cars on the road.

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Chinese Jibberish

“And then I was looking at the little Chinese lady. There was a beauty to her — she was just a tiny little Chinese lady, I was staring at her because I was fascinated by her. I don’t know anybody like her, and I am SO not a little old Chinese lady.

“Then I look and I think, ‘What are her thoughts?’ That’s what I was burning inside with. ‘What is she thinking right now?’ I can never know. And my dumb brain is telling me she’s just thinking: ‘Ching chung cheeng, chung cheeng chaing.’ That’s how dumb I am, that I think Chinese jibberish that I made up is in her actually Chinese mind.”

— Louis CK

I have several mostly done baseball stat posts — a couple of them completely done — but I haven’t posted them yet. There’s a reason for this. I do think that in the next couple of days, I will put up a a pitcher rating system that I’ve developed with the help and inspiration of Tom Tango and Bill James. I will also post my 32 best players in baseball.

But the reason that I haven’t posted any of them quite yet, I think, is because it just feels to me like there’s this point I can’t quite articulate about the stat vs. gut argument in baseball. I keep feeling like I’m circling the runway. I’ve tried to write a post about why some sportswriters seem to feel unease — if not outright contempt — toward the advanced stats. I’ve tried to write a post about why some baseball managers and very smart baseball people say things that can be so easily proven false by just the quickest glance at the numbers. But, like I say, it still feels like I’m running in circles.

Saturday, doing my usual Baseball Think Factory reading, I came across Dan Steinberg and his blog about a couple of Washington Nationals radio ads, narrated by manager Jim Riggleman. The first ad is a celebration of old-time baseball (“Smart ball,” in Riggleman’s description). The second is a mild repudiation of stats against the power of humanity, not to mention a radio gala commemorating the competitive spirit of Ian Desmond.

Here’s what Riggleman says in the first commercial:

“How many ball games are won by one run? Last season: 732. A walk, a bunt, a well-placed single and a sacrifice fly. You call it small ball; I call it smart ball.”

And here’s what he says in the second:

“In baseball there’s a stat for every situation. Tie game, man on second, Ian Desmond at-bat. In day games, he’s batting .219. That’s what the stats say. Do you pinch hit for him? Absolutely not. Sometimes, you believe in the stats. Sometimes, you believe in the players.”

These commercials, for whatever reason, kind of clarified something for me that has been foggy in my mind: Baseball people really don’t get at all what people like Bill James and Tom Tango and Pete Palmer and the like are doing at all. They might THINK they know. But in the end, they are just assuming that the Chinese jibberish that they make up is what is actually happening in the minds of the most brilliant sabermetric minds.

I actually don’t think the Riggleman stuff here is all that bothersome. I like Riggleman. And he likes small ball. And he likes to stick with his players (a noble quality, I think). And he likes to go with his gut sometimes as a manager. That’s fine. I mean, no, it’s not really “fine” in that that I wouldn’t want him to be the manager of my team, but that’s because I have a particularly strong distaste for small ball (“smart ball”) and overconfidence in gut instincts. The second commercial is particularly silly along those lines … it is touching that the manager would stick with Ian Desmond in that situation because of his faith in the heart, but it should be noted that Riggleman has twice led the league in pinch-hitters used so he apparently buys into day batting averages more than most.

But it’s that .219 day-game average that stands out in the commercials — no self-respecting sabermetric thinker would ever quote a .219 day batting average. This is exactly the sort of thing people MAKE UP when talking about sabermetric thinker. This is Chinese Jibberish. You will hear people, in their mocking voice, say stuff like: “Oh, what does he hit on Thursdays after full moons during Republican administrations?” This is their terrible impressions of stat people.

Only … one of the fundamental principles of sabermetrics is the principle of sample size. If anything, smart people like Tom Tango have a MUCH LARGER sample size requirement than the average person. They believe that there is ALMOST NOTHING to be learned from a few at-bats during the day time, that Ian Desmond’s .219 batting average in 197 plate appearances during the day tells you ALMOST NOTHING.

This is one of the real ironies of stat vs. gut — the gut people often make fun of stats and yet they are the ones most likely to rely on the least telling of them, the ones with small sample sizes (day batting averages, 10-at bat matchups with pitchers, batting average with runners in scoring position) that they probably don’t mean a thing. This is not some side-thing either with sabermetrics; this is one of the founding and fundamental beliefs. BEWARE SMALL SAMPLE SIZE.*

*Advice I wish my beloved SI would have taken before putting Jeff Francoeur on the cover with “The Natural” label.

Take Tango’s invention “FIP.” FIP means “Fielding Independent Pitching” and it’s an effort to measure a pitcher’s performance based specifically on things he is responsible for — these would include strikeouts, walks and home runs.

FIP has taken a beating in the gut-based community because it doesn’t FEEL right. It reduces pitching to its skeleton shape, and we have come to know pitching as something much larger than a skeleton, something beyond just strikeouts and walks and home runs, something ethereal, something artistic, something grand. Reducing pitching to strikeouts, walks and home runs feels, in a way, like Dr. J. Evans Pritchard’s attempts to reduce poetry to a chart in “Dead Poet’s Society.” This is the sort of thing that baseball people despite. This is the sort of thing that suggests to them that stat people are trying to take the humanity and poetry out of baseball.

Two problems with that sort of thinking. One, the FIP concept is right: Pitching IS largely strikeouts and walks and home runs. People seem unable to believe it — I’m often unable to believe it — but starting pitchers have very little control of anything else. There’s a very simple statistic people call BABIP — Batting Average on Balls In Play — and it gives you exactly what it promises, the batting average of a hitter on balls hit into the field of play.

Here are a few pitchers with their career BABIP. See if anything surprises you:

— Mario Soto, .255
— Eric Show, .267
— Jim Deshaies, .271
— Nolan Ryan, .271
— Scott Elarton, .277
— Johan Santana, .278
— Bob Forsch, .278
— Dan Quisenberry, .280
— Pedro Martinez, .282
— Bob Walk, .282
— Eric Milton, .285
— Neal Heaton, .285
— Roger Clemens, .286
— Greg Maddux, .286
— Brandon Webb, .291
— Kevin Brown, .293
— Roy Halladay, .294
— Roy Oswalt, .300

Yep, Jim Deshaies gave up fewer hits on balls in play than Nolan Ryan. Bob Walk had a lower BABIP allowed than Roger Clemens. Hit a ball against Dan Quisenberry’s slow sinker and you had less of a chance for a hit than managing to hit Pedro Martinez’s electric stuff.

And those are CAREER numbers, which means we have bigger sample sizes. If you talk about individual seasons, well, forget about it. The season numbers are stunning and illogical and prove the point that success after hitting a ball in play is largely due to chance and the alignment and skill of the defense. Who was the best pitcher in baseball last year? Probably Roy Halladay. Is this because Halladay broke a lot of bats and forced a lot of easy ground balls and constantly coaxed hitters to put the ball right where the fielders were standing? Nope. Halladay’s BABIP last year was FIFTY SECOND in the National League, behind, among others, Rodrigo Lopez and Brad Bergesen.

Josh Johnson, who led the National League in ERA, had an even higher BABIP — he allowed batters to hit .301 on balls in play.

The numbers point to the simple conclusion: Pitchers don’t have much control over balls in play. It seems impossible to look at the numbers and not draw that conclusion. Even a reliever you would assume does control balls in play, Mariano Rivera, really doesn’t. In his 12 best seasons, the BABIP against him has ranged from .212 to .296. And, believe it or not, the .296 year might have been better than the .212 year.

2003: BABIP .296. 40 saves, 1.66 ERA.
1999: BABIP .212. 45 saves, 1.83 ERA.

Pitchers — especially starting pitchers — have so much less control than we want to believe. This is true in large and small senses. People used to say, with all seriousness, that pitching (meaning starting pitching) is 90% of baseball. Bill James detonated that cliche in one of his funnier essays, but the fact it became a cliche — and the fact that every now and again you will still hear it — tells you its power.

Starting pitching in 2010 is about 25% of baseball. It’s easy to figure that percentage.

Step 1: Figure that run scoring and run prevention are each 50% of the game.

Step 2: Bill James figure that pitching is about 75% of run prevention with defense the other 25%. You can adjust this if you want, but it won’t change the overall number much. Anyway that seems about right.

Step 3: Starting pitchers averaged six innings per start in 2010. You have to go back almost 25 years, to 1988, to find a year when starting pitchers averaged even 6 1/3 innings per start.

Do the math ((.50*.75) *.66) and it means that starting pitching as a whole is about 25% of the game.

I hope that people start using that as the cliche, but they won’t. We want to infuse pitchers with bigger roles and larger purpose. That’s why we assign to them wins and losses. That’s why there seems a visceral reaction to stats like FIP.

I said above that there are two problems with the sort of anti-stat emotion out there — one is that many people don’t seem to realize how logical and well thought out these baseball stats are. They tend to create Chinese jibberish and believe that’s what the stats are really saying.

The second problem is that this stuff isn’t really foreign to baseball people. Tom Tango wasn’t the first guy to attempt to separate the contribution of a pitcher and his defense. No, that attempt goes back more than 100 years.

Introducing the statistic: ERA.

Think about ERA for a moment. Why was it invented? We were already counting runs allowed for pitchers, that was easy. But Henry Chadwick — back when the game was very different — did not want to blame the pitcher for runs that were clearly the fault of the defense (and defense was much more than 25% of run prevention then). Yep, he wanted to give pitchers credit (or blame) for what they did, and defenses credit (or blame) for what they did. This led to the invention of the error and, if you think about it, the ludicrous way that we actually go back and try to reinvent history (“if he makes that play, then the runner doesn’t go to second, and the next guy doesn’t hit the single that drives him in”) and parse runs into earned and unearned categories.

How silly is this? Well, what if I tell you that at the same time the error was invented there was also an attempt to label something called the “Good play.” Here’s how the “good play” would have worked: Someone in the press box would have determined whether or not a defensive player made a good play — that would be a play made that was above and beyond ordinary effort. And if a good play saved a run, that run would be charged to pitcher as an “unscored run.” Yes, we would charge pitchers for runs that did not score.

The previous paragraph, as far as I know, is complete fiction … I just made it up. I don’t think there ever was any effort to popularize the good play. But the good play is just the opposite of the error. It’s another bizarrely simplistic and subjective attempt to separate pitching from hitting. We’ve been living under the quirky nature of ERA all of our lives, and few complain about it despite its obvious biasses and general mindlessness. We credit pitchers for every run they saved except ones when a fielder makes a mistake so obvious that someone can notice it from the press box? That’s how we do it? Really?

Really. And yet, when someone like Voros McCracken discovers through the numbers that pitchers don’t control much beyond strikeouts, walks and homers … when Tom Tango invents a stat that gives us a much clearer view of pitchers … when Bill James invents something called “the strikeout-walk win-loss record” and really shows us that you can judge pitchers fairly and quite accurately based only on those two stats … many people tend to shudder and bellyache about these stat people who care only about how left-handed pitchers do on grass fields recently mowed four days after national holidays against right-handed batters with three syllables in their names and …

Yep. Chinese jibberish.

Back to Riggleman for a moment. In the first commercial he talks about the importance of those manufactured runs in a one-run game. But even in the commercial, even on his own terms, he gets it wrong. He says: “A walk, a bunt, a well-placed single and a sacrifice fly. You call it small ball; I call it smart ball.”

First off, if you give up an out to bunt the runner over to second, you would hope — HOPE — he would score on the well-placed single. It’s like Riggleman doesn’t even get his own manufactured run scenario right.

Second, if you have runners on first and third with one out and only get one run — as the sacrifice fly suggests — you are actually doing worse than league average. Teams tend to score about 1.2 runs in those situations. You are not GAINING runs in smart ball, you are losing them.

Third, they have been playing baseball for more than 100 years. And for more than 100 years, more runs have scored with a man on first and nobody out than with a man on second and one out. This has been true EVERY SINGLE SEASON for more than 100 years. Every single one.

Not only that, but since expansion in 1969, your chance of scoring a single run is better with a runner on first and nobody out than with a runner on second and one out. Get that? Your percentages for scoring ONE RUN is better.

Now, a manager may believe that these so-called numbers are wrong, that hundreds of thousands of innings and at-bats and situations are wrong, that what is right is the manager’s own instinct for avoiding the double play and putting his RBI guy up in the right situation. I don’t begrudge a manager for thinking that or a team for believing in that manager or fans for wanting it to be true. I just wouldn’t call it smart ball.

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