Monday, October 31, 2005

Theo Epstein

MLB, please pick us a good owner and soon.

Good owner, please fire Jim Bowden and make a contract offer to Theo Epstein soon after that.

No, I don't have anything else to add besides that

Sunday, October 30, 2005

How to Pick a New Manager

(Be sure not to miss this post from SuperNoVa smacking a weak, hanging slider by Tom Boswell so far into the upper deck at RFK it would have stuffed that annoying siren Boz snuck into RFK when he was a geeky teen).

In the offseason I try to replace my daily baseball-watching with reading about baseball, spending time with many baseball books that I have bought but not yet had the time to read. I'm currently in Leonard Koppett's The Thinking Fan's Guide to Baseball, something of a "old school" book that has a lot of good insight, even (gasp!) before the advent of Bill James, Baseball Prospectus and Michael Lewis.

In his chapter on managing, after explaining that there are a good many things a manager cannot do, he sets out the five things a manager does. It's a helpful list, particuarly for evaluating managers. Given that some are speculating that our skipper Frank Robinson might not be around next April, and we might be in the market for a new leader, here's Koppett's list, annotated with my view of how Frank measures up, to give the abstract some more concrete:

He can, and pretty well must, earn the respect of his players -- respect for his technical baseball knowledge, and respect for his integrity in dealing with them as a boss.
Frank's Grade: D. I'm sure Frank has earned enormous respect from his players for being an Hall-of-Famer, Triple Crown winner, and for being the first black manager and role model. Note that none of these are the type of respect that Koppett notes as important.

He can, and must, maintain sufficient discipline to keep it clear that he is the boss (in the limited sense noted above). He may or may not use fines, curfews, little rules or maxims, strict work schedules, and minor punishments to this end, but one way or another he must meet the challenge whenever his authority is flouted.
Frank's Grade: B-. Frank's strength is strength, but an blunt, brute force application of strength, not a nuanced, targeted show of force. Case in point was the ill-conceived ban on music, and his yanking of pitchers in San Diego like a tired, haggard parent dealing with unruly children. Also, all this discipline can cause problems with the third item in Koppett's list.
He can recognize the varying needs of different characters, and treat them accordingly -- without creating a group of special, privileged cases. He must know who has to be pushed, to be encouraged, who can take criticism, who can't, who needs help, and who can't be helped -- all without turning into a babysitter, or a tyrant, or an unapproachable autocrat, or a friendly buttinski.
Frank's Grade: F. "Creating a group of special, privileged cases" is not only something that Frank can't avoid, it's what he's good at, given that he was, and certainly believes himself to be, a "special, privileged case." One special case we saw this year was the "proven veteran non-pitcher" category, of which Vinny Castilla and Cristian Guzman were charter members. And as for the stereotypes Koppett lists at the end of this item, Frank is a hybrid of tyrant and unapproachable autocrat.

He can evaluate correctly each player's capabilities, and try to use them in ways that bring the team maximum benefit. This is probably the most important single contribution he can make.
Frank's Grade: Incomplete. By most accounts Frank delegated this task, his "single most important contribution", to Eddie Rodriguez, so we cannot give him a grade for this. If we were grading Eddie R. he'd be sent to reform school.

He can run the game -- the individual game.
Frank's Grade: C. Frank showed some skill in pulling pitchers and controlling umpires, so he gets some credit here. But his game strategy is awful, unless he is also delegating this to Eddie R., which means Eddie's game strategy is awful.

No surprises here, of course, with respect to Frank, but Koppett's formulation can help us evaluate other managers, ideally ones that might be candidates for the Nats job come next Spring.

Wow, Boswell Could Not Be More Wrong

I meant to write up an analysis of Thomas Boswell's piece in Friday's Post, "White Sox, Astros Give Nats Hope" earlier. It was just so offensive to my sense of, what is the word, reality that it needed a response. However, on Thursday and Friday I was otherwise occupied reveling in the White Sox's World Championship.

Here is Boswell's premise:
When the Nats finally get their new owner, one of the first orders of business should be to examine how the Astros and White Sox, who had the 12th- and 13th-highest payrolls in the game, were able to play for a World Series title while teams with far deeper pockets, like the Yankees, Red Sox, Mets and Dodgers, were left at home.
He further argues that:

What defines the White Sox and Astros, of course, is their exceptional pitching. And that, by luck, is the Nationals' cornerstone as well. Washington, with its lack of a fourth or fifth starter, and a minor league system with few starting pitching prospects, has miles to go before it reaches the level of the Series teams or the Cardinals, who expect all five of their starters to win at least 15 games. Nevertheless, Livan Hernandez, John Patterson and Esteban Loaiza, plus a bullpen with Chad Cordero and several quality set-up men, is a vastly better foundation for the future than Washington fans had any right to imagine at this time last year.
I submit there are no teams in the Major Leagues that are better suited to take exactly the opposite courses than the Chicago White Sox and Washington Nationals.

First principles. The strength of the Nationals was not, like the White Sox, the starting rotation. John Patterson, Esteban Loaiza, and Livan Hernandez had ERA+ numbers of 127, 105, and 100, respectively. Ryan Drese and Tony Armas, Jr. chipped in with ERA+ numbers of 80 and 80 (respectively, of course) Those ERA+ numbers are adjusted for the fact that RFK is probably the second best pitcher's park in all of baseball. Patterson's number shows that he is a legitimately good pitcher (although, at 27, he's peaking). Hernandez and Loaiza are league-average pitchers. Innings-eaters, if you want to damn them with faint praise. Drese and Armas were roster-fillers.

On the other hand, the White Sox got strong starting pitching pretty much across the board. Buehrle, Garland, Garcia and Contreras had ERA+ numbers of 143, 127, 115, and 123, respectively. Yes, that's right, John Patterson would be tied for the second best starter on the White Sox. Esteban Loaiza would be both be no more than fifth starters for the Sox, and that is only if you do not consider Brandon McCarthy (110 ERA+, 3-1 with a sub-2 ERA in 7 late season starts) as the "true" Sox fifth starter.

The true comparable point between the teams is the bullpens. The Sox and Nats had strong bullpens. The Nats' bullpen was so good that it dug the starters out of the deep hole they created, bringing the overall team ERA+ to 103. Meaning, as a whole, the Nats' staff was average. The Sox staff, by contrast, had an ERA+ of 123.

Not content to inaccurately surmise the Nats' pitching situation, he suggests that the Nats' lineup was the equivalent of the Sox lineup:

The White Sox lineup in this Series started with Scott Podsednik, Tadahito Iguchi, Jermaine Dye, Paul Konerko and A.J. Pierzynski. This isn't even a Muggers Row. . . .

Suddenly, a Washington lineup in '06 that includes a healthy Jose Vidro, Nick Johnson, Jose Guillen, Brad Wilkerson and, sometime soon, Ryan Zimmerman, doesn't seem so overmatched, as long as the first-rate Nats pitching gets even better.

There is a kernel of truth here; both the White Sox and Nationals sport below average offenses. The Sox posted a team OPS+ of 95. The Nationals posted a team OPS+ of 96. Yes, the Nationals have a slightly better offense than the World Champion White Sox (I just love typing that, by the way).

But the White Sox offense is by no means a blue print for the Nationals. Despite the popular reporting about Smart Ball, Ozzie Ball, or small ball, the Sox were a team nearly wholly dependent on the long ball. They hit the fourth most home runs in the American League, dropping 200 bombs on their opposition. These home runs largely came at the expense of doubles, as they hit a league-low 253 doubles. The White Sox stole a lot of bases (137), but were caught enough times (67) that the beneficial effects of those stolen bases were washed away.

The Nationals, on the other hand, have an offense built more on long-sequence scoring, i.e., single-single-single to score 1 run. While that type of offense is pretty to watch, it's a lot harder to reproduce. The Nationals hit 311 doubles, which were good enough for fourth in the league. On the other hand, they were last in home runs, knocking out only 116. The difference is the ballparks - RFK turns home runs into doubles and outs; U.S. Cellular turns doubles and outs into home runs.

The key, then, is for the Nationals offense to go exactly the opposite way as the White Sox. They need to find players who are critical to a long-sequence offense, namely, those who get on base a high percentage of the time, even if they do not have a lot of power. Ironically, a guy like Scott Podsednik - who gets on base about 36% of the time, but hits for little power - would fit the Nationals mode. The Nats already have such a player in Nick Johnson. Luis Castillo, Placido Polanco, and Brady Clark all fit that mold. Arguably, the market value of these players is lower than their overall OBP suggests, and that they can be had in trade for either: (1) the guys who do not fit the overall scheme, such as Jose Guillen; or (2) a retread pitcher who the Nats have RFK-rehabilitated.

In any case, the Nats need to get away from the White Sox model as far as they can, and embrace the model that fits their park.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Real Live Online Journalism

Blogging, like most things on teh Internets, is prone to glib, overheated, breathless statements about how it is going to revolutionize journalism as we know it and bring the "MSM" (mainstream media, for you luddites) to its knees. This off-the-cuff sloganeering hides the fact that 99.9% of blogging (including this one) is half-thought-out rantings of the ill-informed, and can't compare to actual reporting and fact-finding, including through real sources who have first-hand knowledge of things.

Nationals Farm Authority, however, is the real deal, and shows it with this interview of Nats minor-league pitcher Shawn Hill, which is of high quality, and shows that bloggers can compete with "real" journalists on their own turf. Brian's questions to Hill put him in the 95th percentile of sportswriters I have read (for proof, write down the questions at the next press conference you watch in full -- idiots on parade), and, as a result, they elicit real answers from an apparently bright and insightful young ballplayer. Blogging the way it oughta be.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

$21,452.52

According to a reputable source (how do I know it's reputable? It's on teh Internets, isn't it?), this blog is worth $21,452.52. We are willing to consider any offer in that ballpark. Expensive, you say? What else are you gonna do with that money, buy 4,300 autographed photos of Cristian Guzman?

ERV Boxscore for Game 4: Chicago at Houston

Well, that's a wrap. Congratulations to the White Sox. They certainly deserved it, with their impressive team.

But most of all congrats to my buddy SuperNoVa. Unlike Reinsdorf, Ozzie, Konerko, and the rest, he's been with the White Sox his entire life, and is one of the most deserving fans I have ever met. Enjoy it, pal!

ERV Win: Garcia
ERV Loss: Ensberg

3 Most Valuable Plays:
(1) Jermaine Dye's single in the 8th (1.88)
(2) Uribe's nice play on the last out (-1.73)
(3) Vizcaino's groundout in the 8th (-1.22)

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

x-ERV Boxscore for World Series Game 3: Chicago at Houston

x- late game.

(Look at me, I'm just like a real sports page!)

UPDATE: Here it is. Hard to comment on the last 5 innings, as I was sound asleep through them. Phil Garner has been taking a lot of heat, and rightly so, particularly for the fifth inning, where he never came out to calm Roy Oswalt down or at least give him a moment to collect himself.

ERV Win: Blum, Jenks and Marte
ERV Loss: Taveras

3 Most Valuable Plays:

(1) Blum's HR in the 14th (3.34)
(2) Lane's run-scoring double in the 5th (2.73)
(3) Taveras' K with 1 out in the 9th and runner on 3rd (-2.49)

Sunday, October 23, 2005

ERV Boxscore for World Series Game 2: Houston at Chicago

What a game! The ERV Boxscore is a mess. For example, I debited Scott Podsednik for his terrible throw home in the 9th, so he lost 2.95 WV. Of course, his game winner earned him back 5.04, and he ends up with 0.26 WV, and the reason he didn't get a share of the ERV win.

There were so many imporant plays, I'm listing the top 6 rather than 3. I feel bad for Andy Pettitte and Lance Berkman, who for two games in the past week have played excellent baseball and put the Astros in a position to win, only to see it blown by the bullpen.

Although Houston has Oswalt going Tuesday, and should win that game, it is an uphill battle for them now. The White Sox seem like a team of destiny, having benefitted from another missed call by the home plate ump, and a game-winning homer by a guy who was neck and neck with Jamey Carroll for dingers in the regular season. They are a tough, resilient team, and betting against them now seem foolish. But that's why they go back to the NL park on Tuesday, where the Astros made a very good Cardinals team finally make too many mistakes. They'd better do the same to the Sox.

ERV Win: Konerko and Crede
ERV Loss: Qualls and Lidge

6 Most Valuable Plays:
(1) Konerko's grand slam in the 7th (6.35)
(2) Podsednik's homer in the 9th (5.04)
(3) Burke's slide to tie the game in the 9th (2.95)
(4) Berkman's 2-Run double in the 5th (2.26)
(5) Crede's single in the 2nd (1.29)
(6) Vizcaino's single in the 9th (1.08)

Saturday, October 22, 2005

ERV Boxscore for World Series Game 1: Houston at Chicago

"It's not dead, it's resting." Yes, you are looking at an ERV boxscore for Game 1 of the World Series. I finally debugged my spreadsheet and cleaned it up, and it works well again. So I'll be doing them for the Series.

This was a very good game, well played and exciting. What killed the Astros was their 4-5-6 hitters, especially Morgan Ensberg, who failed repeatedly to bring home runners in the late innings.

For the White Sox, Joe Crede played well, but he did not make the most valuable plays. His defense was good, but the balls were hit right at him, and most decent third basemen would have made those plays, so I did not give him fielding credit for those. (BTW, I'm working on a system that would give fielding credit on routine plays as well as outstanding plays and errors -- if this were in effect now, Crede would have an additional 0.15 runs of WV). Bobby Jenks strikeout of Jeff Bagwell and his ninth inning was more valuable.

While the Astros lost, they are probably not too disappointed, given that Clemens went out early and they still kept it close. Winning tomorrow, though, becomes much more important for them, if not paramount.

ERV Win: Bobby Jenks
ERV Loss: Ensberg and Everett

3 Most Valuable Plays:
(1) Berkman's 2-Run Double in the 3rd to tie it (2.03)
(2) Lamb's strikeout with 1 out in the 8th (-1.84)
(3) Bagwell's strikeout with 2 outs in the 8th (-1.63)



Friday, October 21, 2005

From the (Car) Seat of His Pants ...

The baseball education of my son continues apace -- a transcript of our conversation on the way to preschool this morning:

Little DM: Did the Astros win last night?
Me: They didn't play. The World Series starts tomorrow night. I thought you were rooting for the White Sox?
Little DM: No, the Astros. I know three guys on the Astros: Lance Berkman, Mike Lamb and Roger Clemens. Is Roger Clemens the goodest guy on the Astros?
Me: Sort of.
Little DM: I don't know any guys on the White Sox. Who's the goodest guy on the White Sox?
Me: Umm ... Paul Konerko.
Little DM: Is he a pitcher?
Me: No, first baseman.
Little DM: Like Lance Berkman! And Nick Johnson!
Me: Yes.
Little DM: I want to go to the World Series.
Me: Tell you what, maybe we can stay up late tomorrow night and watch the game.
Little DM: No, I want to go to the stadium.
Me: It's too far away. It's in Chicago.
Little DM: We could take an airplane.
Me: It's too expensive, plus we don't have tickets.
Little DM: How many tickets do we need?
Me: One for each of us, but they're expensive.
Little DM: Is Mr. [SuperNoVa] going to the World Series?
Me: Maybe.
Little DM: We could go with him.
Me: No, it's still too expensive. When the Nationals are in the World Series, we can go to a game then.
Little DM: No.
Me: Why not?
Little DM: The Nationals aren't very good.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Hooray for Baseball

I started watching the Astros-Cardinals game last night just about the top of the 7th inning, which was just about right to catch the amazing amount of excitement created by the game. As excited as I was about the White Sox's victory on Sunday night, that's about how amazed I was by last night's 5-4 Cardinal victory.

First, Lance Berkman puts the Astros ahead with a 3-run home run in the bottom of the 7th inning. Now, you can say that the Crawford Boxes are an abomination, the apocryphal short porch of this offensive era. And I would probably agree with you. However, that does not make what Lance Berkman did - reach out and essentially cue Cris Carpenter's low, outside pitch into the seats in left. If it was not a home run (and it really would not be anywhere else), it still would have been a bases-clearing double and an Astros lead. A tremendous piece of hitting by Berkman and use of the field. (Note - On Baseball Tonight, one of the jokers suggested that the pitch got too much of the plate. Why is every home run a mistake by a pitcher? That was a low and outside pitch. Give Berkman some credit).

On the strength of Berkman's homer (it probably was the third most dramatic home run in Astros history, behind Chris Burke's home run to win the 18 inning game last Sunday and Billy Hatcher's home run in the 14th inning of Game 6 of the 1986 NLCS), the Astros take the two-run lead into the top of the ninth with closer extraordinaire Brad Lidge on the mound. Mostly, Brad Lidge's "stuff" is described as "filthy," which, in today's jargon, is the highest compliment that can be made. He gets two strikeouts, and two strikes on David Eckstein, the Cardinals' last chance. The champagne is on ice, and the Astros' lockers are covered by plastic...and Fox is cutting to shots of Nolan Ryan and other Houston notables getting ready to celebrate the Astros' first World Series appearance.

Then, what can only be described as baseball magic happened. Eckstein hacks at a low slider, makes contact, and it bounds almost knowingly between and past the Astros' third baseman and shortstop - a ball that perhaps had less than one degree of clearance in the 90 degrees between the baselines.

Jim Edmonds walks on five pitches, none of which were strikes (he offered at a slider in the dirt).

At this point, the tension is high. I'm watching the game with my wife, whom I inform that Albert Pujols is by far the best hitter remaining in the playoffs. She even knows that, by God, Pujols is already a legend. Without hesitation, I audibly suggest that the Astros' best course of action is to walk Albert Pujols. It would be damned unconventional, and would violate every traditional rule about not putting the tying run in scoring position, and not putting the winning run on base. But I really had a sense that Albert Pujols was not to be disturbed in this situation.

He was. After fooling Pujols on a first-pitch slider, Lidge tried another slider. It was up and out over the plate and Pujols pujolsed it. I use the newly-invented verb pujols (gerund, pujolsing) because none of the other verbs in the English language I've tried (destroyed, shattered, obliterated, annihilated) adequately did it justice. I watched the home-run contest in Houston last year and am familiar with how balls travel there. Nothing during that contest traveled as far as fast as Pujols' home run. If it wasn't for the plexiglass of the dome, that ball would have safely traveled 600 feet, if it had not already achieved escape velocity.

I give some credit to the Fox announcing team - they described the reaction of the Houston fans as having a vacuum created as 43,000 gasped for air. Now it's the Astros' players that will be gasping for breath in this series. It's tough to take a gutshot like that and survive. The California Angels took a gutshot like that and they were cooked in Games 6 and 7 of the 1986 ALCS by a score of 18-5.

The Astros have Oswalt and Clemens for Games 6 and 7. But that just reminds me of the Cubs in 2003, where their battle cry in Game 5 was "even if we lose, we've got Wood and Prior going in Games 6 and 7."

I love baseball.

Monday, October 17, 2005

May the Best Team Win

With the White Sox victory over the Angels in the ALCS, the team with the best overall record in the American League will represent the league in the World Series. If the Cardinals come back from 3-1 down against the Astros to win, the best overall record in the NL will be in the Series, and for the first time since 1999 the teams with the best overall records in each league will meet in the World Series.

Below is a list of the teams from each league with the best overall record (National League listed first) for each year since divisional play in 1969. In bold are the teams that actually made it to the World Series. Note that where there was a tie for best overall record, I've listed both clubs, and I've listed best overall record for the strike years in 1981 and 1994. As you would expect, the increase in playoff teams has decreased the chance of the best teams meeting in the Series, and Atlanta would have a lot more World Series appearances. I find it interesting to look at a list like this and think of what Series I would have liked to see.

I've also put in lines when the playoff format changed. From 1969 through 1984, it was Best of 5 for the LCS, from 1985 through 1993 it was Best of 7 for LCS. Since 1995 we've have the LDS and LCS in a Best of 5, Best of 7 format. Again, as you would expect, under the original format, the "best" teams met 7 out of 16 years. In the "Best of 7 LCS" years, the "best" teams met 2 out of 9, and in the current playoff structure they've met 2 out of 10, not including this year (if the Cards win, it would be 3 out of 11).

Ranking the "best" teams by number of World Series appearances "missed":

Atlanta - 5
Yankees - 3.5 (counting the tie in 2002 as a 0.5)
Baltimore - 3
Pittsburgh - 3
Oakland - 2.5
White Sox - 2
Cubs - 2
Houston - 1.5
St. Louis - 1.5

2005 St. Louis vs. Chicago White Sox
2004 St. Louis vs. New York Yankees
2003 Atlanta vs. New York Yankees
2002 Atlanta vs. New York/Oakland
2001 St.Louis/Houston vs. Seattle
2000 San Francisco vs. Chicago White Sox
1999 Atlanta vs. New York Yankees
1998 Atlanta vs. New York Yankees
1997 Atlanta vs. Baltimore
1996 Atlanta vs. Cleveland
1995 Atlanta vs. Cleveland
------------------------------------------
1994 Montreal vs. New York Yankees (No World Series played)
------------------------------------------
1993 Atlanta vs. Toronto
1992 Atlanta vs. Toronto
1991 Pittsburgh vs. Minnesota
1990 Pittsburgh vs. Oakland
1989 Chicago vs. Oakland
1988 New York Mets vs. Oakland
1987 St. Louis vs. Detroit
1986 New York Mets vs. Boston
1985 St. Louis vs. Toronto
----------------------------------------------
1984 Chicago Cubs vs. Detroit
1983 Los Angeles Dodgers vs. Chicago White Sox
1982 St. Louis vs. Milwaukee
1981 Cincinnati vs. Oakland
1980 Houston vs. New York Yankees
1979 Pittsburgh vs. Baltimore
1978 Los Angeles vs. New York Yankees
1977 Philadelphia vs. Kansas City Royals
1976 Cincinnati vs. New York Yankees
1975 Cincinnati vs. Oakland
1974 Los Angeles vs. Baltimore
1973 Cincinnati vs. Baltimore
1972 Pittsburgh vs. Oakland
1971 Pittsburgh vs. Baltimore
1970 Cincinnati vs. Baltimore
1969 New York Mets vs. Baltimore

Baseball the Way It Oughta Be

That was the slogan of the 1986 Mets. It is problematic in that context, given that cocaine-induced frenzy is usually not an essential ingredient in quality baseball. But in the context of today's top of the ninth inning in Houston, it is exactly apt. That half-inning was the best baseball I have seen in a long time.

Astros lead 2-1 to start the inning, with their superb closer Brad Lidge on the mound. Pujols falls behind 0-2 but fights a base hit into center, which caroms off Tavares but Lane in RF is backing up to keep the runner at first. Walker also falls behind, but battles until he singles to right, moving Pujols to third. Reggie Sanders grounds to Ensberg, who charges the ball and makes a nice throw to Ausmus to get Pujols at home, keeping the lead. But then, Walker, who had gone to second, sneaks over to third when the Astros don't confirm the timeout, as Ensberg had to leave his post to get the out at home. A great defensive play followed by a great baserunning play. So there's 1 out with runner on first and third. Then, to cap it off, Bruntlett, Everett and Berkman combine for a 4-6-3 double play off a slow ball hit by John Mabry that is just in time -- if it was a hair slower the game is tied. If you have access to a replay, watch Berkman on that play. He was playing in to cut off the run, went to his right (away from first base) to start to field the grounder, but then reverses field to get back to first in time to stretch and complete the twin-killing.

What makes a great inning? To me, when every player plays to his best with no mistakes, and it combines for a high energy, tense finish. That one had it all.

Congrats also to the White Sox, who not only displayed the best starting pitching anyone has seen in decades, but have also endowed A.J. Pierzynski with mind warp powers that can make opponents (or maybe just the Angels) do really dumb things. (SuperNoVa is justifiably enjoying himself right now.)

Sunday, October 16, 2005

After Further Review ...

Saturday night in the ALCS the home plate umpire missed another call that went to the detriment of the Los Angeles Angels. In the bottom of the second, Steve Finley's swing was obstructed by AJ Pierzynksi's (who else?) glove, which should have awarded Finley first base, leaving the Angels in a bases loaded, one out situation. Instead, Finley, who still hit the ball despite the interference, grounded into a double play, in part because he was arguing the catcher's interference as he ran down the basepath.

Both this call and the one Wednesday night have prompted calls for the use of instant replay in baseball to correct errant calls by the umpires. I'm not a supporter of instant replay, but neither am I strongly against it. (Why do my views matter, you might ask? After the Revolution, I will install myself as Minister of Speech, and aggrandize to that position regulation of all sports, so I'll be like Bud Selig, Paul Tagliabue and David Stern wrapped into one ... except with an army. So pay attention). The recent controversy has prompted me to start thinking about how you would implement instant replay into the game.

As a threshold matter, among all sports, instant replay seems most easily included in baseball, given the number of natural pauses in the game. We wait for pitching changes, visits to the mound, broken bats, rain, beach balls ... hell, we even waited for Mike Hargrove to fix his batting gloves ... every single pitch. We can wait for the umps to check the replay.

But how would it work? What types of calls could be reviewed? Here's my list of things that could NOT be reviewed: balls and strikes, balks. That's it. I think foul tips, hit batsmen, dropped third strikes :-) should all be fair game, as should everything else. I can't think of any other call that would be difficult or useless to review, so let 'em all in.

If you can let nearly all things be reviewed, then you need some control on when plays get reviewed. I think an umpire's discretion rule might work, meaning that it is solely the umpires' call whether to review a play. Managers could request a review, but unless the umpires' agreed, no review.

If you wanted to give the manager's some control, you might do like the NFL and give them a set number of challenges. I think 2 is the right number. They could be used at any time. If you get it right, you only lose the challenge. But what happens if you get the challenge wrong? What should be the penalty? How about this -- you must replace a player on the field or in your lineup if you are wrong. This would be the kind of penalty that does not directly affect the game -- like an automatic out or ball/strike, but it would be serious, especially late in the game. That would probably deter most frivolous challenges.

What do you think? I've put about 8 minutes of thought into this plan, so it must be foolproof. :) Clever or humourous suggestions will be rewarded with a sinecure in the future Ministry of Speech, Office of Sports Regulation.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Nats Pitching Strategy Alert!

[I hate Blogger, I previously lost this post]

DM, Dexy's and I have talked at length both on and off Nats Blog about the optimal use of the extreme nature of RFK stadium as a pitcher's park. In short, the strategy is this:

(1) RFK is an extreme pitcher's park

(2) With the exception of Citizen's Bank in Philadelphia, the other parks in the NL East are neutral or good pitcher's parks. (Pro Player is 94/95, Shea was 99/99 in 2005, but has been consistently a pitcher's park, Turner Field is traditionally neutral). Thus, the Nats play about 70% of their games in good pitcher's parks. (81 RFK, 9 Pro Player, 9 Shea, 3-6 SBC, 3-6 Petco, 3-6 Dodger Stadium)

(3) As a result, the Nats' pitchers will have lower ERAs than their peripherals would suggest, thus artificially inflating their value.

(4) The Nats can use the artificially inflated value of their pitchers to trade for other teams' prospects or valuable position players.

(5) The cycle can repeat itself as the Nats pick up replacement-level pitchers, have RFK deflate their ERA's, while the same time declaring the Nats' pitching coach is a Mazzone-esque "genius" who "turns pitchers around."

I've identified the first real catch of this strategy. Victor Santos became a free agent after he refused an assignment to the Brewers' AAA team. Santos, who was 29 this year, posted a 4.57 ERA this year and a lackluster 4-13 record. His ERA+ was 92 in pitching-neutral Miller Park. He does not walk an extreme number of people - he walked 3.85 per 9 in 2005 after walking about 3.2 per 9 in 2004, and is flyball/groundball neutral. He's got an 11 win season in his past with Milwaukee in 2004.

To me, Santos is the perfect guy to sign as a test of the strategy. The Nats sign him for $500,000 with an option for $1.5 million the next year, have him go 6-7 in the 5th starter slot with a 4.00 ERA, and then flip him to a contender who needs rotation help in July for a prospect or a hitter, and laugh all the way to the bank as Santos blows up for his new team. Then find the next Victor Santos.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Lessons on Leadership

Basil over at The Blog Formerly Known as Nationals Inquirer has a great post fisking a Bill Ladson interview with Nats Prez Tony Tavares. Tony basically slams Hall of Famer Frank Robinson for failing to instill proper work ethic in the team and, generally, for a lack of leadership, especially down the stretch. All of which is very true.

But in reading Basil's piece, a thought struck me: Why are we surprised? Why should we have thought anything differently about Frank Robinson? He wasn't a particularly effective leader as player -- notoriously prickly and aloof, as if he, first and foremost, wanted to make sure that everyone knew how great he was. There was no indication that he was a mentor to younger players -- you don't often hear players from the next generation how Frank showed them the way. Nor has he shown that trait in his many previous mediocre managerial stints. Have you ever heard Frank quoted as saying "I just love being around the ballplayers, especially the younger guys, teaching them to play the game the right way."?

Someone once said leadership is the ability to inflict pain and get away with it. Unfortunately Frank is expert in only one of those things.

Mike and the "Mechanic"

As most of you probably saw, the White Sox defeated the Angels last night thanks to a controversial call. With 2 outs in the bottom of the ninth, A.J. Pierzynski appeared to have swung and missed at strike three, a low ball apparently caught by Angels catcher Josh Paul. Home plate umpire Doug Eddings makes a flat, outward motion with his right hand, which seemed to indicate swing with no contact. He then, after a pause, brought his right hand up to a fist and pumped it down in the classic out movement. Apparently no verbal call was given at any time. Pierzynski, in a heads up play, runs to first. Paul simply got up, trotted toward the dugout, and rolled the ball towards the mound. With Pierzynski on first, Eddings calls him safe, ruling that the pitch hit the ground, and thus the Angels needed to put Pierzynski out at first base.

The replay, to my mind, shows pretty clearly that Paul caught the ball cleanly. But that's not really relevant. The real question is what should have been done on the field at the moment. Eddings, in a brief postgame press conference attended with two advisers, said his call was his typical third strike "mechanic", but did not clarify whether he called the batter out or not. He also said something else interesting: he said "I was watching the players for their reactions to the play." This is probably exactly the right thing to do, given that he could not see the play himself as he was screened by Paul. But Eddings mistake was to rely on Pierzynski's reaction, because Pierzynski could not see the ball either. Only Josh Paul knew at the time whether the ball was caught, and Eddings should have relied on his reaction, which was consistent with a catch.

In my view, Eddings thought the ball was caught, and made that call with his fist, but panicked when he saw Pierzynski run, and changed his mind. Credit should also be given to the White Sox Paul Konerko, who a few innings earlier struck out on a check swing that looked like a non-swing. Eddings made a quick call on that, without looking for help. Konerko complained bitterly all the way back to the dugout about Eddings making such a quick call, and I think put some doubt in the umpire's mind about whether he got it right. That doubt prompted his confusing reaction to the play in the ninth. That's why you argue with umpires over close calls -- to get them thinking the next time around, and maybe get them to go your way in their indecision.

Ultimate credit, though, should go to Angels skipper "Mike" Scioscia. He objected to the call on the right grounds -- that Eddings switched his call -- but more importantly refused to dwell on that play and criticized his team for their play elsewhere in the game. He knows that it is more important that his team get over this loss and focus on the next game, rather than whine about the bad break. He is focused on his team's mental preparedness and approach, rather than a particular detail. He is, in many ways, dramatically unlike our manager, Frank Robinson.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Mr. September

The curtain on the Yankees season had been closed only a few moments before the members of the chattering classes began issuing scathing reviews of the revue and its various dramatis personae. The main object of their ire is, of course, the incredibly rich newcomer, Alex Rodriguez, who is learning the hard way that becoming incredibly rich in places like Texas and Seattle doesn't really rate with New Yorkers. Rave reviews were issued for their beloved dandy, Derek Jeter, who apparently can satisfy his crowd merely by making sure the Yankees lose by 2 runs instead of 3 in important games. A-Rod, on the other hand, by failing to produce in the 7th and the 9th has earned a spot in whatever sub-pantheon houses the monument to Dave Winfield.

Though these post-mortems are in the wheelhouse of sportstalk radio, like most things in New York, I can only shrug my shoulders at this whole debate. Maybe I'm being too cold and calculating here, so much so that I'm sucking the fun and life out of post-season baseball. But here's my train of thought: If it is true that the outcome of these short post-season series is essentially a crapshoot , especially with two evenly-matched teams, what are we saying about the role of an individual player in determining the outcomes? As I mentioned in number 4 of this post, it takes a while for a player's talent to actually influence the success and failure of a team, and in a short series, a player only gets a relative handful of chances to make a difference. And even the best like Ruth or Mays or Mantle -- hell, even Roy Hobbs or Syd Finch -- can run into a bad stretch of 20 or 25 at bats at a moment's notice. The post-season, it turns out, is more like the drama of Greek mythology, where mortals are subject to the fits and whims of the gods, and to think otherwise, no matter how many ultimately meaningless homers Derek Jeter hits, is true folly.

Monday, October 10, 2005

RFK, Not Surprisingly, A Pitcher's Park

Today is a great day for baseball. Not just because the Yankees and Angels are going to play a climactic Game 5 tonight. Instead, today is the day that Baseball-Reference.com has made the 2005 Major League statistics available. You can really get lost in that stuff.

One thing I pulled out from the Nats' page - click here to get to it - is the RFK park factor. It comes in at Batting-93/Pitching - 94, good enough to be the 2nd best pitcher's park in the National League, behind Petco Park (which had an astounding 90/91 factor).

I cite this mainly to pat Nats Blog on the back. Way back when, in December of 2004, when the Nats were merely a gleam in Linda Cropp's eye, we here at Nats Blog predicted that RFK would play as one of the strongest pitcher's parks in the league, even going so far as to predict a Park Factor of between 93 and 96 (Well, 93.9 and 96.8). I love it when a plan comes together.

RFK's pitcher-friendly atmosphere makes a difference on the value of the Nats' pitching in trades. Livan Hernandez looks like a solid #1 or #2 pitcher to many teams, made good by his RFK-deflated 3.98 ERA. In reality, Livan had a park-adjusted, ERA+ of 100, meaning he was only a league-average pitcher. Good old Esteban Loaiza was league-average, too, with his 3.77 ERA. His ERA+ was actually quite similar to his performance with the White Sox in 2004 (4.86 ERA, 101 ERA+ adjusted for Coors East, US Cellular Field), yet he will rake in much more in 2006 than the $2.9 million he picked up in 2005. Way to take advantage, Esteban!

At some point, the Nats need to take a really strong look at designing the new park to be, a la Petco, an extreme pitcher's park. If they do, they can import low-value pitchers (especially relievers) on the cheap and consistently spin them off for minor league and major league talent. Like the Coors Field effect, opposing GM's have not quite figured out how to adjust for parks when trading talent. And there is no reason the Nats cannot take advantage of the system.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Owner, Owner, Wherefore Art Thou Owner?

Chris over at Capitol Punishment provides a indispensible tutorial on the current state of affairs regarding the Nats ownership situation. It is a must read for anyone who wants to speak intelligently on this issue and have some idea of what might likely happen in the future. Chris (and subsequent commenters, similarly insightful) has his eye on the right subject for observation: the incentives of each of the major players in this game.

My two cents: Always remember that sports teams exist for multiple reasons, and thus have different, sometimes conflicting purposes. To the fans, we want the club to win. To the city, it wants the club to bring in tax revenues, which sometimes requires winning. To the owner, he/she wants the club to make money, which sometimes includes wanting them to win, but mostly includes making money. An instructive example is Dan Snyder, who wants both to win and make money, and probably sleeps OK at night knowing that while the former has eluded him, the latter appears firmly within his grasp. Right now, as Chris ably explains, the conditions are not favorable towards the Nats gaining an owner who has the acumen or desire to reach both goals.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

What I Learned on My Summer Vacation

The Summer Game, as it is called, is over. In a couple of hours we will turn our attention to October baseball, which to my mind is a very different thing than summer baseball, with its focus on the here and now rather than the long, slow season -- a collection of short stories rather than an intricate novel. Before we enjoy that compact brand of baseball (most likely at the local electronic watering hole, Yuda's Gameday Chats), a brief look back at this season, our first with the Nats. I learned how to follow baseball closely in the summer of 1979, when I was 11, but neither that season nor any of the 25 that followed compares to this one, by far my most enjoyable with baseball.

Why was it so enjoyable? For lots of reasons, but mostly because I learned so much about the game -- a game I had thought I was pretty well-versed in before this season. I had read many times that baseball rewards careful study, but had not really enjoyed those rewards until this season. Inspired by D of DCenters DC United Blog, who in a Yuda Chat a few weeks ago laid out what he learned this season, with great insight, here is a list of things I learned on my summer vacation with the Nationals in 2005:

(1) Baseball is, and may always be, a local game -- Having lived in DC for 15 years, I have been forced to follow teams from a far, most recently the Phillies. Even with DirecTV and the Internet, it was not nearly the same as having a team in town, whose games are on the radio, whose caps you see on the street every day, whose games are only a 15 minute ride away. Even the Orioles, whom I followed closely from 1991 to 1998, cannot compare, in large part because they play 55 miles from my home. I often found that the national sports media offered next to nothing in the way of useful information for me about the Nats -- I TiVo'd baseball tonight every night and watched it maybe 3 times all season. My desire for news could only be satisfied by three sources (1) watching the games themselves, (2) Barry Svrugla's excellent reporting in the Post; and (3) most importantly, the fine collection of Nats bloggers, who covered the Nats with a level of detail unavailable from any other outlet. Even local "sports talk" radio was useless -- I often found myself wishing I could access Yuda Chat on my way home from work.

(2) There is no good substitute for watching a game in its entirety -- Baseball simply cannot be boiled down in highlights, nor your attention to it isolated to the last 2 minutes of the game, like basketball or football. Key moments can come in the second inning, or in the fourth, or in the sixth, especially when a game is close, and a good pitcher on the mound, or the heart of the order is coming up. At times this year I watched a full game, then caught the highlights on SportsCenter, and was startled at how the few events shown conveyed little of the tension and drama of a game. A good example was the second game against the Angels this year, fondly remembered for the cheater Brendan Donnelly, Frank's glare, Scioscia's whining, and Guillen's meltdown, all of which captured the attention of ESPN. But before all that, the oddly named Ervin Santana was suffocating the Nats offense (not hard to do, it turned out, later in the season), and the game was a much tighter affair, which made the mid-game explosion all the more powerful. Without watching those first 5 innings, the full effect is lost.

(3) When followed closely, the season is not long at all, and the second half goes very quickly when your team is losing its lead -- My last game this year was Sept. 20 against the Giants, and as we walked out of RFK, I remarked to Brian of Nationals Farm Authority that this season went by at light speed -- it seemed like only two weeks before that we were at the home opener. Two guys in front of us turned around and said they had just discussed the same thing. Once you get into the rhythym of the season, its daily routine cause the games to move by at a steady pace. Particularly in the second half, where the games take on more importance -- I still can't quite believe how quickly the games against Milwaukee and Colorado and Houston in July went by, as we lost and lost and slipped back into the pack, soon getting swept in Atlanta and watching the playoffs train pulling ahead without us. It didn't occur to me at the time that our season was ending there, I foolishly thought we still had time in August and September.

(4) It is very hard for individual players to exert much influence on the outcome of a game, particularly in the short term. This lesson was learned from ERV scoring, which impressed upon me that success in baseball is made up of many small successes rather than a few big ones. The relative value of any at bat, even any particular inning by a pitcher, is small. The batting order spreads the opportunity out among 9 batters, pitching opportunties are spread out over a ten man (or in our case) a twelve man staff. Victory comes when a bunch of these small events are gathered up, from different players. Baseball forces the superstar to step aside often, and woe is any team that tries to wait for 2 or 3 players to make the difference. Many times this year we had a lineup that had really only 6 major league hitters in it, and it was painful to watch us go through that black hole in our lineup.

(5) The field manager's role during the game is much more limited that I thought, and if they choose to act, they will more likely cause harm than good -- The game makes it hard for the field manager, primarily because if he replaces a player, he's out for good. Plus his options for the play of the game are limited to things like bunts, steals, hit and runs, intentional walks, all of which are at the margin. As we've discussed here many times, things like the bunt are defensive strategies, not proactive, best used to avoid a worse result. I have been convinced by this season that the manager's primary focus should be on managing the personalities of his club, knowing how to get the best out of each player, and making sure they all understand their role. This is not a strength of our current manager.

(6) The general manager's role in a team's success is much more prominent than I thought -- This flows from number 5, in that the most important thing is to have players who can produce steadily and consistently over the long haul -- isolated success, however dramatic, is misleading, as is steady but below average performance, which slowly but surely wastes opportunities to win games (see Guzman, Cristian). And there is not much a manager can do in game to help offset weak performance by his players -- he can't hide a poor shooter like in basketball, can't call short pass plays for a weak-armed quarterback. And because real talent is scarce and comes at a premium, squandering it can have drastic consequences (see Pitching Depth, Lack of).

(7) Statistics, when used properly, are very illuminating about the game, but that can also be very depressing -- I first learned this in an early April game against the Phils, where we were coming back from a deficit, moving runners around the bases with 2 outs in the ninth. Although the tying run was on base, the ERV table said the average team in that situation does not score enough to win. So, my enthusiasm was dampened, and, sure enough, we lost. Also, we all had a painful lesson in the fickle nature of 1-run victories and the validity of the Pythagorean theroem. Against our better judgment and the cold hard facts, we succumbed to the temptation in thinking that we could be different from all the other teams who don't score runs, and keep winning in spite of that. Going 31-50 after 50-31 made very clear how wrong we were on that. Someone once complained that his adversary "uses statistics like a drunk uses a lamppost -- for support, not illumination." We were guilty of ignoring what was illuminated.

(8) Technology, when used right, can really enhance your enjoyment of the game -- I am one who believes that 95% of claims on how technology can improve your life are overstated and inaccurate, but this season with the Nats probably falls in the other 5%. Several tech things were key to my enjoyment this year: (1) MLB.tv, which let me watch many games, including Nats games on the road; (2) Microsoft Excel, which let me test out ERV scoring, at least until my spreadsheet got too big and I got too busy; (3) MLB on XM, which let me listen to a bunch of games and enjoy many fine radio announcers throughout the league; and, most importantly, (4) blogs, which allowed me to "meet" several remarkably intelligent and witty people who love baseball, and love to share their knowledge and wisdom about the game with each other, and form a community of fans that help form a true connection between myself and the Nats. None of these things were possible (or, highly improbable) even a few years ago, and my baseball education is better for it.

(9) There is something about baseball, at its core, that is powerfully enjoyable -- This I learned from my younger son, who is only 4 but is enraptured by the game. During our first game this year, he looked up at the scoreboard behind us and asked why the Braves were listed on top of the Nationals. I explained to him which team was home and which was visiting. Also in that game I showed him what "bases loaded" meant, and what a "double play" was. From those few things, he has asked dozens and dozens of questions, and now knows all 30 teams, some minor league teams ("little teams" he calls them), how to read standings and scores, what an error is, and what the playoffs are. He always wants to play, and we must always identify the teams playing when we do, and which one is visitors and which one home. He also wants to know who the best player on each team is. I have not pushed this on him, in fact, his obession can be wearying at times. But it is remarkable to watch his face light up as he scans the sports page, and to think how much more fun awaits him.