Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Second Thoughts

Yesterday at, Joe Sheehan talked about the Indians-Yankees series. Here's the link, but unless you have a subscription, I don't think you can access it. Sorry.

Joe's a fantastic writer, but what struck me was a common thought expressed early in the story. It's practically a gospel among the baseball scholarly. He suggests that the postseason is a crapshoot and carries that thought to its logical conclusion:

"Perhaps I’m excessively dogmatic on this matter, but to me, the relative emphases placed on the postseason and the regular season are completely out of whack. The latter is a much stiffer test, and a much better gauge, of a baseball team than the former is. Use whatever term you like—"small sample size," "luck," "randomness," "variance," — but the statheads have this one right. Best-of-fives and best-of-sevens don’t do enough to separate comparable baseball teams, and while the winner of one is more often than not the one that played better during the series, playing better over four games is a vanishingly small test."

I myself have spit out similar thoughts often, especially give the Twins postseason futility. But this time I was suddenly struck by something. Namely, that nobody other than baseball fans ever says this.

For instance, the Spurs record last year was much worse than the Mavericks, but the Spurs won the NBA championship, the Mavs went home early, and nobody doubts who was the better team. (Though, I'll admit, Phoenix was a different story.) In the NFL, if a 12-4 team beats a 14-2 team in the Super Bowl – a single game - nobody tries to claim the 12-4 team was better. And when Anaheim marched through the Stanley Cup playoffs last year, they were acclaimed by all sides as a clearly superior team to emulate, despite having the third most points in the regular season.

In other sports, it's assumed that during the grind of a regular season, guys take nights off and injuries skew records. Or that special players wait until the playoffs to turn their games up a notch. Or that some players save themselves for the playoffs, or even play a slightly different game during the regular season so as not to tip their hands to some of the better teams.

And I have trouble seeing where baseball is any different. Is 162 games that much more effective in leveling the field than 81? Is baseball's grind different than the NHL's or NBA's? Is the goal of being one of the top eight teams so much different than being one of the top sixteen? Or twelve? MLB, NHL and NBA playoffs are similar in that they have best of five or seven games series. And the NFL, whose showdowns are just single games, never talks about sample size. So why are we so anxious to write off the playoffs? Why are we tempted to ignore the results when the best play against the best?

There are three obvious answers. Either:
1) There is something inherently different about baseball OR
2) Baseball is right and all the other sports are wrong OR
3) The other sports are right and baseball is wrong.

And for the first time tonight, I started to wonder if the answer is “C”. Maybe studying the stats has warped our view a bit. We look at the records and run differentials and regular season awards and feel like we know which team is best. Those facts mean something to us – we discovered them, we study them, we prove them and we take comfort in them. And from those stats, we crown a best team using 162 games of data. That is something that no other sport can really do with stats, or at least not the way baseball can.

But then that team doesn’t win. And so we have a choice: we can claim small sample size, or we can go back to the drawing board and try again to measure that which seems increasingly (and suddenly) immeasurable.

It’s not difficult to see why we choose the former. But tonight, it’s equally not clear that it’s the right choice.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Suffering from Vertigo

I suppose it's appropriate for the period of mourning to come to an end. Three days seems about right, and there's no use dragging these kind of things out. (Though I do think black suits me. )

It started late Saturday night, appropriately enough at about the time the clock struck midnight, though the Phillies had turned back into pumpkins long before that. It was more painful for The Voice Of Reason than for me, obviously, seeing as she grew up with them.

But for a Twins fan there was a special kind of pain, more of an ache, because you've felt this before. The outsider might theorize that was due to the similarities between this year's Phils and last year's Twins - the whole late charge preceding a quick playoff exit. But Twins fans recognized the familiar stink of a couple of ex-Twins.

In case you missed it, Game 2 was decided when Charlie Manuel made a move that would have left any Twins fan's mouth agape. His pitcher, rookie Kyle Kendrick, had struggled, but was leading 3-2 in the fourth inning. Unfortunately, the bases were loaded. So with two outs, Manuel pulled his starter early and brought in....

..wait for it.....wait for it.....


Blink. Blink.

Just thinking about this makes my ears ring. Are you F-ing kidding me?!? Kyle Freaking Lohse??!!?? Does Manuel know nothing about his career? I mean, has there ever been a pitcher more gifted in putting up crooked numbers than Lohse? Why not just signal for the bullpen to send out a kerosene truck? And a Molotov cocktail? Were they not warmed up yet?

To Lohse's credit, he did manage to throw four pitches before giving up the inevitable grand slam.

And then, in Game 3, the game was tied 1-1 in the bottom of the eighth inning. Flash Gordon had recorded the first out, but a left-hander was coming up, so the Phillies brought in.... guessed it....

JC Romero. Many people will say that Romero has thrived with the Phillies, pointing to his 1.92 ERA. But Romero was thriving with them the way he thrived while throwing 33 straight scoreless innings with the Twins in his last year with the team. He was effectively wild then and had been effectively wild in the National League, walking 25 players in his 26.1 innings in the senior circuit.

To his credit, he didn't walk any in Game 3. And, perhaps to show up Lohse, he did record a single out. And then he recorded three straight hits. Which led to him recording an earned run. Which held up in the ninth to record an "L".

And as a Twins fan, I knew it was going to happen. I'd seen it all before, over and over. And all I could do was play the part of Scottie Ferguson and watch Kim Novak fall off that damn bell tower yet again.

Hmmm..maybe it's not mourning after all. Maybe it's vertigo.