Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Myth Machine That Is Baseball

It's the postseason and I've been watching a fair amount of baseball, mainly the Yankees, but some of the other games too. I watch the games differently when I'm a total fan, as with Yankees, where I cling to the belief that when I root harder, sitting on my couch, 800 + miles from Yankee Stadium, the guys perform better. The imperative to be loyal to your team seemingly demands that sort of connection. So I didn't have a beer till after the game yesterday, as if my cave in on the alcohol would presage the Yankees cave in to the Rangers. In the two previous games I had a beer with the opening pitch. See, it works. No more beer during the ballgames till after this series concludes, and in the World Series too if the Yankees happen to be lucky enough to get that far.

It's different watching other teams play. I watched some of the series between Tampa Bay and Texas. I had a mild interest in seeing Texas win, in spite of the Cliff Lee thing. I thought Tampa Bay had the Yankees number. But I watched those games mainly to get familiar with the players and how they perform. I didn't try at all to personally will the outcome, just take it in, that's all. And I watched a bit of the Halliday-Lincecum match up, because there was so much hoopla around that. It's pretty odd to me that Fox has the National League games for the pennant while TBS has the American League games. TBS had all the games in the previous round. I suppose Major League Baseball has figured out it can make more money this way. But it still seems strange to me.

I've been pretty impressed with the TBS broadcasts . They've got the right mix of folks doing the pre-game with 3 former players of recent vintage: Dennis Eckersley, Cal Ripken, and David Wells, which makes the commentary a little bit pitcher centric, but that's ok. Eckersley and Ripken are both Hall of Famers, Wells threw a Perfect Game while he was playing for the Yankees, and each has participated in the Playoffs on more than one occasion. So they have a players enthusiasm for the venture and give their perspective based on that experience. Really, it's better than having former managers give commentary, because their prior job required them to be overtly dispassionate. (Watching Sabbathia sitting on the bench between innings yesterday, he was pumping his legs up and down just as any nervous person would do. But managers are never supposed to physically show their nervousness. They are supposed to be stoic.) You don't want dispassion in the color commentary. Of the three, Ripken is the closest to that. He's also more reserved in his comments and tries to be thoughtful when he makes those. Wells is a complete flake. He opens his mouth sometimes before he knows what he is going to say, so he gets himself into a little bit of trouble. But he's having fun and if he gets into trouble he fully expects one of the others to bail him out. Eckersley is somewhere in between. All convey it's a lot of fun, even if performing in front of so many people can be kind of scary. (They were in Yankee Stadium doing their show and there seemed to be a mob scene right around them. Also, they talk a lot about the pressure the playoffs put on the players, being on the big stage. So a similar thought must occur to them about their own performance.)

The announcing team during the game is also excellent. I didn't like Ron Darling as an announcer when I first heard him. Something about his voice rubbed me the wrong way. But I've gotten more used to him over time and I think John Smoltz brings outs a lot of Darling's good experience as a player. Smoltz himself is a tremendous all around athlete and a Cy Young award winner. So he too understands competition at a very high level from the player's point of view. But in his demeanor he is a goofball who is looking to make mischief. Ernie Johnson, the play by play guy, is really sharp and knows how to let his color guys be irreverent but then to pull them back in and talk about what is going on.

Smoltz and Darling both have talked a lot about "setting up a hitter" and what pitch to throw in a certain situation. Smoltz is completely of the mind that if a pitcher got a strike on the previous pitch with a fastball, particularly if it was a swinging strike, then the next pitch should be a breaking ball that starts out "on the same plane", because that will "fool" the batter. He's been adamant about this. Rationally, it can't make sense because batters should learn to anticipate that this is what is coming. But perhaps much of the batter behavior is autonomous and instinctive rather than rational. Maybe the batters can't help themselves even if they "know" what's coming on the next pitch, especially since they must swing (or not) in a split second.

Anyway, they call the game from a player's point of view. And here's the thing. When we were kids, we wall wanted to play in the major leagues. We didn't necessarily want to manage there. Having the player's point of view feeds our fantasy. So it is really good that way. Also, I think it matters that they were players until recently. The game has changed over time, so their experience is more relevant. I like Joe Morgan as a commentator and can take or leave Tim McCarver. But Morgan can be a bit reserved at times so there is less of a playful sense listening to him and McCarver has a pedantic aspect that can be grating to listen to.

It also helps that Darling and Smoltz have a mutual admiration society for all the players in the game. They have a fan's awe of the talent and commitment on display. The general sense of optimism in their commentary is very refreshing to hear. It springs from a heartfelt belief that the game, though only a game, is more important than any of the individual participants, certainly more so than the announcers. It is meant to be enjoyed and they do a great job of making the viewing a festive occasion.

So, just as the various baseball rituals such as throwing out the first pitch, the seventh inning stretch, and the Champagne (or ginger ale) celebration after a team wins a playoff series helps to facilitate the fans view of baseball as myth, the TBS announcers do likewise.

But I'd argue that the myth machine is far more widespread than that. It enters into how the game is played, and in fundamental ways. We, who are not Bill James aficionados first learned about this in MoneyBall, but the discussion in that book limited the scope where myth beat out rationality - mainly the focus was on which players to draft and what talent should be assembled to put together a winning team. There wasn't much if anything on the decision making within games.

Consider the lineup, the order in which the players bat. I'd argue that the Yankees lineup has been determined by myth and that, ironically, the Teixeira injury that has taken him out of lineup has moved the Yankees closer to rationality (and thus has improved their likelihood of winning). Here's the argument.

Ask anyone who is the Yankees best hitter this year and in the post season and they will almost certainly say Robinson Cano. His performance has been phenomenal. Where should the best hitter bat in the lineup? Earlier is better to ensure more at bats and perhaps a little bit down in the order to help drive in more runs. A rule of thumb is that the best hitter bats third, though other considerations, like alternating right handed and left handed hitters and ensuring the best hitter has a good hitter hitting behind him so he doesn't get "pitched around" can possibly affect the designation. (Mantle may have been a better hitter than Maris but Maris batted third and Mantle batted fourth because the psychology between them worked better that way.) Where has Cano batted most of this season? Fifth.

The reason is illuminating. A-Rod has been the Yankees cleanup hitter for several years. Gary Sheffield had been the third place hitter and when he went to the Tigers and Bobby Abreu came over from Philadelphia, Abreu became the third place hitter. Hideki Matsui batted behind A-Rod. In 2009, when the Yankees got Teixiera, he became the third place hitter, and just like Abreu before him he was declared an ideal hitter for that slot, though he is quite unlike Abreu (more home runs, lower batting average). The Yankees lost Matsui to free agency so had to fill his slot, the 5 hole. That's where they put Cano. In other words, the Yankees have treated the slots in the lineup as if an everyday player owns his slot. For the most part they have not changed where the players hit based on their recent performance. (They do change the slots a bit depending on whether the starting pitcher is right handed or left handed.)

Even before Teixiera went down with his hamstring pull, it was known that he was playing with a broken toe and a painful wrist. He did lead the team in home runs and has played admirable defense. But do you want your most important spot in the lineup occupied by a player who is physically impaired by injury? I suppose if the historical practice is that players own their slots, then deviations from the practice could be taken as an insult. (When Joe Torre move A-Rod down in the lineup because he wasn't hitting well, that's exactly how A-Rod took the move.)

But what Darling and Smoltz have made abundantly clear in their commentary is that putting pressure on players tends to worsen their performance. So a hitter who has been struggling might actually benefit from moving down in the lineup, the insult part notwithstanding, because expectations have been lowered and the pressure is a bit less. One could ask whether putting more pressure on Cano by batting him third would be a good thing. My response is that his at bats have been so excellent, that it would seem he can handle it. And yesterday he did hit a home run batting third. My prediction is that Cano will bat third next year. This little unplanned experiment in the post season should encourage that outcome. That's where your MVP should hit.

The other guy in the lineup who is batting in the wrong place is Curtis Granderson, an electric player when he is on, which he has been in the playoffs. He's been alternating between batting second, against right handers, and batting eighth, against lefties. But Granderson has been handling the pitching either way, after being woeful in mid season. It is clear that those problems are behind him. Rightfully he should lead off, since he is the best stolen base threat and he is on a tear. But Derek Jeter now owns the lead off slot and doing so will help him with maximizing his career hits. Jeter used to bat second, and I believe mainly batted in that slot until Johnny Damon slowed down enough where Jeter took over leading off. A good second place hitter often has to take pitches or hit so as to advance the runner, helping the team but not necessarily padding his own stats. I wouldn't predict Granderson as the leadoff hitter next year, but that would seem to me to be part of the best lineup the Yankees can put out there.

Let me make one more comment about the myth of allocating player personnel, this time from the defensive perspective. Then Rangers have run wild on the Yankees. Kerry Wood has two pick offs, but I don't believe then Yankees catcher has thrown out a single base runner. In spite of the pick off, I've been very impressed with Elvis Andrus. Like Granderson, maybe even more so than Granderson, he is an electric player. He is getting on base all the time, has many stolen bases, and has made some exceptional plays at short. He has the wrong guy batting behind him, Michael Young, who doesn't like to take pitches. (I don't know who else on the Rangers should bat second. I'm just echoing what the announcers have said about Young.) It seems to me that Andrus could be in the Rickey Henderson/Lou Brock mold as a base stealer, if he got the right support from his team.

Anyway, knowing the Rangers plan to be aggressive on the base paths, and knowing that throwing runners out is a liability for Jorge Posada at this point in his career, I have to wonder whether the other catcher, Cervelli, should be seeing some more playing time. At the moment, there is the peculiar arrangement where when AJ Burnett pitches Cervelli is the starting catcher, but otherwise it is Posada. That Posada remains the regular catcher seems a tribute to all that Posada has done for the team over the years. Maybe he is still the best catcher, but if not, it seems strange to use past glory as a way to pretend otherwise. I recall the Dodgers in the mid 1980s with a reputation of unloading their more mature players, Steve Garvey comes to mind, well before their playing days have concluded, so they wouldn't have to reckon with the nostalgia issue surrounding older players who had past glories that the fans could relish in. With the key four players - Jeter, Posada, Andy Pettitte, and Mariano Rivera - the Yankees are being managed as if being respectful to them is at least as important as putting out the best team on the field.

Let me close with one other observation on this score. It occurred to me only yesterday, after reading that Joe Girardi had caught Kerry Wood when both were on the Cubs, is that the reason Girardi is the manager now is because he caught Pettitte and Rivera, shared the catching responsibility with Posada (and probably mentored Posada when he was breaking in) and was a teammate with Jeter. So these guys could have respect for Joe based on those experiences that probably few others could generate. (Tino Martinez, Paul O'Neill and Bernie Williams also were respected teammates then, but none of them are managing now. Scott Brosius, who came to the Yankees in 1998, coaches in college, at his Alma Mater.) During the first season I saw baseball on TV, 1964, Yogi Berra managed the Yankees. And it seemed that being a former player was a disservice to him as manager, especially in succeeding Ralph Houk, who had more distance from the players (as did Casey Stengel who preceded Houk). But Yogi was always a Yankee. Girardi left the Yankees as a player and established his managerial credentials with the Marlins. So he had the good part of the player connection with the esteemed 4 but the distance to be judged a decent manager based on his record that way elsewhere.

Joe Torre, I believe, was a player's manager (perhaps except if that player was A-Rod). But he didn't overlap as a player with any of the Yankees he managed. When there is such overlap and at least a couple of those players will be in the Hall of Fame, maybe the deference is owed. (Smoltz jokingly said that Rivera has been so good they should waive the mandatory 5 years and let him into the Hall immediately after he retires.) But it enforces the myths that drive much of the managerial decision making.

Girardi is the youngest of the managers of those teams that made the playoffs, the only one to have been born after 1960. Perhaps we need myth more when we're younger to buttress the decisions we do make.

Or maybe that's only true when you work for somebody named Steinbrenner. I know that George thought the best baseball movie ever was Pride of Yankees. He was right on that one.


pumpkiny said...

More on myths...of the player turned manager...former pitchers make bad managers:

Interesting how many catchers are now managers. But they say catchers are more involved w/game management and all aspects of the game as players, so therefore they make better managers...

Lanny Arvan said...

Pumpkin -

For the national anthem at the Giants-Phillies game they had Bob Weir, and Phil Lesh of Grateful Dead fame and one other guy whose name I didn't recognize. Their rendition was...different. So maybe the labor market is capable of going beyond the stereotype. (BTW, I didn't watch the whole game. Saving energy for tonight.)

I wonder if there are aspects of this sort of myth in our own work. We do an awful lot of benchmarking, which seems a good think to me, but it can create a her mentality which perpetuates a myth once that has entered into the collective wisdom.

Lanny Arvan said...

This just in. Maybe baseball is seeing the light.