Baseball is, as many of you may have gathered, my first love. I’ll be posting a fair bit about it in this, the best of all months on the sports calendar. I know a lot of people regard baseball as slow and boring, and sometimes it is, but that sometimes slow pace turns into unbearable tension come playoff time. There’s nothing like it.
Of course, if the Yankees are eliminated early, depression might put a crimp in my posting, but I’ll do my best.
One other thing – how sports media cover big time athletics is, of course, a primary interest of mine, and that’s the filter through which I typically write about sports. This month, I’ll deviate from that a little more than usual, though I’ll still do my best to watch the professional watchers.
OK, a few notes as we head to the postseason:
1) I don’t have much to add to the voluminous commentary on the Mets’ collapse. I am not a fan, (though some of my best friends are) and I feel their pain. Losing a seven game lead in seventeen days is brutal. And, in similarly dramatic, though more concentrated, fashion, the Padres have been vanquished by the Rockies, whose 14-1 surge to the finish line was nothing short of incredible (and, no, there’s no way Matt Holliday touched home plate in the thirteenth inning last night).
Not that it matters, because there is a bottom line in sports – winning, but I share Gary Hucakaby’s take on these matters:
The Mets didn’t lose the NL East because of a failure of character. They didn’t lose because they were somehow less virtuous than the Phillies. They didn’t lose because of some grand plan of an incomprehensible God. They lost because they just didn’t play good baseball down the stretch, and they got beat. Tom Glavine’s got some postseason experience (if it matters — I don’t know if it does), and has proved his worth in the game a thousand times over. No matter how big the strike zone was for him during his career, he’s a deserving Hall Of Famer. And today, he just got pounded. Not because of some mystical rubbish that allows those of us with access to a keyboard or microphone to pass judgment on players like some sort of meddlesome scold, but because he just got beat up.
2) With the fantastic finish of the Phils, and the equally extraordinary closing run by the Rox, Jimmy Rollins and Matt Holliday appear to be all alone in discussions of the NL MVP. Both had tremendous seasons, and I will talk more about awards down the line, but both also have weaknesses in their candidacies that, I am confident, will receive little or no attention from the mainstream media. For all the talk of the sabermetric revolution – and it has taken hold in many front offices – it’s still only selectively understood and applied among most people who cover the sport.
Rollins had a terrific season – a league leading 139 runs scored, 30 homers, 20 triples, 38 doubles and 41 steals among his stat line. Where Rollins’ game does not stand out is inhis ability to get on base. He walked only 49 times against 716 at bats, turning a very good .296 batting average into a merely pretty good .344 on-base percentage. Largely because of that OBP, Rollins adjusted on base plus slugging percentage is 120. That’s very good, well above average for all national leaguers. It’s just not quite as stellar as the counting statistics make it look like. Of course, I think it’s fair to say that the Phillies are damn happy that Rollins plays for them. He’s not Hanley Ramirez with the stick, but Rollins can also field his position, whereas Ramirez probably needs to be moved.
Overall, Baseball Prospectus’ Wins Above replacement measure, which takes into account all contributions – offensive and defensive – has Rollins at about 9-10 wins above a replacement player. Translation: a helluva season, though not quite the best in the National League. Of course, the fact that Rollins’ team surged down the stretch and that he played a pivotal role in that surge is going to count for a lot.
Which brings us to Matt Holliday. Holliday also had a whale of a season, and was a monster in the closing weeks as the Rockies made their own historic push to the post-season. Holliday led the NL in batting and RBIs, and the latter statistic is the one that voters most value in MVP voting (despite the protestations of many voters that they “look beyond the numbers.”But, Holliday’s numbers are legitimately eye-popping – 137 RBIs, 50 doubles, 36 homers, and a .341 batting average. And, despite having badly misplayed a ball in the eigth inning last night, he’s a very good left fielder. What’s the catch? Well, to the extent that there is one, it’s that Holliday’s numbers are somewhat inflated by playing in Coors field. The park doesn’t play like the ridiculous numbers-inflater it used to be, when it made guys like Dante Bichette look far better than they were. But, Holliday does get an advantage from playing in Coors. For example, he walloped 25 homeruns this year in Denver, and 11 on the road. And, especially notably, he slugged .722 at home and .485 on the road. Not to get overly wonkish about this(OK, I know I’ve already past the point of no return), but not all of that difference is attributable to the park. In other words, Holliday hits better at home than other guys do in Denver, which means he’s still helping the team. But, to some degree, everyone’s numbers are better in Denver, which requires discounting the value of his statistics. Overall, Holliday’s OPS plus (which accounts for one’s home park), was 150, an outstanding total, and sixth best in the National League. Holliday rates slightly higher in wins above replacement than Rollins.
Like Rollins, Holliday had a great year, and was a pivotal player in his team’s historic drive to the post-season. David Wright, based on all the numbers I’ve seen, was a better player this year than either of those two, and had his team not collapsed down the stretch, likely would have been the MVP. He’d still get my vote if I had one. But, the nice thing about this year is that both Rollins and Holliday are good candidates. They’re not quite as good as they appear, but they’re each good enough to be worthy MVPs.
3) I am loathe to make post-season predictions, especially in baseball, which is the most unpredictable of all the sports. Over 162 games this season, the Boston Red Sox were the best team in baseball. They were 210 runs better than their opponents, and are the only team in the post-season that has both a first-rate pitching staff, and a first-rate offense. And, they finished tied for the best record in baseball with the Cleveland Indians. But, this means not a whole lot in baseball’s postseason. The last time the team with the best regular season record won the World Series was in 1998, when the 114 win Yankees pulled off the feat. Before that, you have to go back to the 1989 Oakland A’s.
I only heard the American League run down this morning on Mike and Mike – but Steve Phillips and the Mikes evaluated each American League team based on their starting pitching, their offense, their manager and their bullpen. The Yankees were deemed best in two categories – offense (unquestionably true), and bullpen (much more questionably so). Phillips logic was that the Yankees’ back end is now the strongest of the four teams, and this may be true, with the so far unhittable Joba Chamberlain setting up Mariano. Bullpens in general, and closers in particular, are over-rated in some ways during the regular season. But, given the schedule of off days (and there will be more this October) in the playoffs, and the extent to which top relievers are used (often averaging an inning a game during the playoffs, the equivalent of pitching 162 innings during the regular season), they have a huge impact. However, you still need more than two guys, and whether the Yankees have more than two is unclear – Kyle Farnsworth stinks, Luis Vizcaino is shaky, and beyond that, the Yankees have questions marks. What I found strange about Phillips’ discussion of the Red Sox bullpen (which I think is the deepest of the AL clubs in the playoffs), which he ranked second, was his characterization of them as having lots of experience. Actually, the key guys have almost none. Okajima has never pitched in the postseason. Papelbon pitched four innings in middle relief in 2005, and Gagne’s pitched a grand total of three innings. Manny Delcarmen has never pitched in the playoffs. The only guys with significant post-season experience in the Sox pen are Mike Timlin and Julian Tavarez, and neither of those is the reason why the Sox have a good bullpen. For my money, experience is over-rated. It also is not characteristic of this year’s Sox relievers.
Yes, I am still avoiding making predictions. I can’t do it when the Yankees are in the playoffs. I can say this – the fact that the Yankees went 6-0 in the regular season against Cleveland this year gives me no comfort. Sabathia and Carmona are superior to the Yankees’ two best starters – Wang and Pettitte. And, need I note the huge expectations/burden that hangs over Arod. Boston and Anaheim are really different teams, and really good. I can’t remember the last time all four playoff teams in one league were this strong.
The NL is really a toss-up.
4) Finally, about Phillips, I have picked on him and his predictions a lot. So, I have to give him props now, and pick on myself. He did predict, in early August, that the Rockies would make the postseason and the Mets would not. Of course, he conceded the division to the Mets three weeks ago, so I am not sure whether this counts as a correct prediction, and the Rockies’ getting in was the result of a miraculous final two weeks that no one saw coming. But, here we are – with the Mets home for October, and the Rockies moving on.
OK, so it’s not the most gracious mea culpa, but it’s the best I can do. Seriously, the Rockies really are a good team. In addition to Holliday, they’ve got a terrific rookie shortstop in Troy Tulowitzki, a no-name but very good bullpen, productive players in Todd Helton and Brad Hawpe. So, kudos to them.
More to come.