Being On The Team

There is so much the average fan doesn’t know. If you don’t believe that, turn on any sports related talk radio show. People propose trades and free agent signings as if they were still kids trading baseball cards. They report of the correct batting stance a struggling hitter should try instead of his current one he’s using. They suggest that a pitcher should stop throwing a curveball if it’s not hitting the strike zone that night. Basically these people are just ignorant – plain and simple.

I believe there might be a new breed of sports fan though that is not ignorant like the radio talk show caller but that might have a common weakness. I’m speaking about the baseball stat guys. These are the guys that come up with neat little stat charts that display possible tendancies of players concerning whether they are likely a good person to trade for or trade away as the case may be. Other times a devised mathematical tool will be presented which only serves to overcomplicate the issue. Statistical tools and number crunching are not wrong, so let’s make that perfectly clear. However – are the results actually predictive of a player’s performance on the field? I’d say the results are mixed. For consistent players, it works but that’s sort of a no brainer even without the stats since they are steady in their results. Game situations seem to back up the advice that stats will give. For example, there is some trustworthy advice such as bunting in certain situations typically doesn’t pay off enough to be worth the sacrifice. Statistics seems to support the idea of having your teams closer come in and face the other team in the 8th inning instead of the 9th inning since usually the heart of the other team’s batting order hits in the 8th. That particular one actually can be a case for both sides since it hasn’t really worked to this point. Most teams haven’t sent their closer in to pitch two innings. Related to this is the idea that a closer isn’t really needed at all. The idea there is that a team would try to have a group of two to three solid relievers that would be used situationally in the 8th and 9th inning but that none of them would be the stopper every night. Boston tried this a few years back but failed and went to the traditional closer. A few teams have went with so called closer-by-committee, but this is usually not a conscience choice since it’s usually due to their closer getting hurt.

Anyway, I’ve flown off on a wild tangent. Back to the matter – what do the radio caller and the more sophisticated stat guru have in common? What are both of them possibly missing? Often times, neither one of them have ever been an active participate in organized sports. And if they have, many of their last experience was little league.

Sometimes I feel like baseball fans are similar to fans of People magazine. We follow our favorite players and/or teams and watch as the drama unfolds. We live through them vicariously. There is nothing wrong with that necessarily since baseball is primarily entertainment, but it’s just like the Hollywood stars – we don’t really know these people. We can make predictions about what role they’ll play in their next movie and we can guess as to whether they will be bad or whether they’ll take home the Oscar. We can look at their previous movies of the same type and try to decide if they’ll be good in a similar role. Well, following baseball is similar to that in a way. They follow the drama and the stories. However, they don’t really know what it’s like to sit in the dugout waiting for your chance to pinch hit. They don’t know what it’s like to practice with the team and have a pitcher practice bunting and work on something he screwed up last game. They don’t know what it’s like to watch tape of a pitcher you’ll face the next day. They don’t know what to look for that might help them get a couple hits. There is so much that goes on behind the scenes. Relationships happen between the players. Did you know that Albert Pujol has had his two best friends traded by the Cardinals to other teams? What was the reaction to that which we didn’t see? Was there a reaction at all or was it strictly business to Albert and the Cardinal organization?

So I guess the primary question of this topic is: Have you played on a competitive, adult sports team?

I believe this is vital to understanding what I’ve started to call “the other side of the stats” equation. Without this aspect, many stat predictions and indicators are at least halfway incomplete. There are stats for batting average, but there aren’t proper measurements for whether a superstar hitter will give advice to younger rookies. There are pitching stats, but there isn’t a measurement of worth for the excellent pitching coach that effectively teaches a pitcher a new pitch to give himself a new strikeout pitch. Stats don’t cover that same pitcher as he attempts to use his new pitch in live games either. It may take him a few months to make that pitch effective. Managers have a huge impact on non-stats results. Tony LaRussa has a style that works with some types of players and their personalities. Joe Torre has a completely different method and way of doing things. Some players may think their manager is an idiot and another player may see him as the greatest thing since sliced bread. Does that affect game results? You bet it does. Back to your personal experience, have you played on both a winning team and a losing team? The atmosphere in the dugout can lift up an entire team if things are going well – slumps drift away, pitchers press less, and I’m sure the meetings and preparations off the field are much more loose and comfortable. If the team is losing – everything is tense and serious. If a couple losses collect, the team as a whole gets into a funk and has to convice themselves that it’s just a temporary phase. The influence of psychology is huge.

We don’t really see that on ESPN though. We see feel good stories, highlights, and commentators that try to be funny. That’s about it to be honestly. The enormous amount of day to day stuff that happens with a team doesn’t come together and form a good, quick news story. But there is reality in the details. Things aren’t clear such as what if a newly traded player has trouble gell’ing with his new teamates. Does that affect the team or his performance? We’ll never know unless we are part of the team likely.

So it seems that I am continuing a series of baseball essays about the aspects that are missing from statisical analysis and general baseball knowledge. It’s been an interesting exercise to explore the other half of baseball that we don’t see very much of. A lot of what I propose is obviously speculative, but I don’t think I’m too far from reality. In any case I have one more post that is similarly related to the psychological and social side of baseball. As a preview: Why has Dave Duncan had so much success with struggling pitchers?


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