Tuesday, April 19, 2011

"Glittery pieces that don't fit right..."

One of my pet peeves about baseball writing is the tendency for some writers to attribute to "heart" or "courage" or "guts" things which are better attributed to "small sample size" and "luck." And the tendency to try to make baseball fit the "working together/chemistry" model that does work with football and hockey (and even basketball, to a lesser extent). Here's a splendid example from Peter Abraham, writing at the Boston Globe's Red Sox blog. This was written on Saturday, so it pre-dates the Red Sox three game winning streak. And I'm willing to cut a little slack, because it's hard coming up with something new and interesting to say, and the need to post even when there's nothing interesting to say can lead to cliche and bad analysis. But one part of this really irritates me.
The catching situation has become glaring. Jarrod Saltalamacchia is hitting .138/.297/.250. The pitching staff has a 3.46 ERA when Jason Varitek catches, a 7.93 when Saltalamacchia is behind the plate.

To be fair, that is based only only 76 innings for Saltalamacchia and 26 for Varitek. But a small sample size is all we have to go on. Opposing base-stealers are 10 for 12 against Saltalamacchia, too.

Saltalamacchia has a strong arm but his throwing mechanics are hit or miss. He double clutched a throw in the seventh inning tonight and fired the ball into center field. The Jays were baiting him to throw to first at one point because they had a runner on third.

Carl Crawford looks like a player in desperate need of a day off. But Jacoby Ellsbury (.195/.250/.366) hasn't been the answer atop the order, either. This team so far looks like a lot of glittery pieces that don't fit right.
Uh, no. This team looks nothing like "a lot of glittery pieces that don't fit right." If that were the case, the hitters would have high averages, and the pitchers low ERAs, and they'd be losing anyway. They'd have created more runs than they actually scored, with individual stats that looked better than the team stats. They'd have outscored the opposition while losing more than they won.

None of that is true. What they've actually looked like is a team with a lot of terrible pieces. You can't write that Carl Crawford is hitting .137/.185/.157/.342 and Jacoby Ellsbury is hitting .195/.250/.366/.616 and then claim that the team looks like "a lot of glittery pieces that don't fit right" without somehow making the case that the speedy left-fielder and speedy center-fielder can't play well together in the same lineup, a case for which there is exactly zero evidence, and which he doesn't try to make anyway.

Is the fact that the pieces "don't fit right" responsible for Clay Buchholz' 6.60 ERA? Bobby Jenks' 8.31? Daniel Bard's 9.64? Daisuke Matsuzaka's 12.86? Dan Wheeler's 14.54? John Lackey's 15.58? If so, how? If not, then the claim's nonsense, isn't it? If those pitchers continue to perform that way, they aren't "glittery pieces." If they don't, then the alleged lack of "fit" won't continue to manifest itself.

The only way to claim that the team looks like a lot of "glittery pieces" is to acknowledge that, "hey, these players have always played better than they're playing now," at which point the team looks - again - like a good team off to a bad start. I know, it was a throwaway line. But it irritates me, because it's indicative of a mindset that I find foolish. Baseball's a team game in that there are multiple players playing at the same time. But the vast, vast majority of what takes place on the field is determined by an individual match-up - one pitcher vs. one hitter. Period. The idea that you could somehow construct a lineup of great hitters and then not score runs over the long haul because they don't "fit right" is ... well, it's silly. There's some interaction required on defense, but very little for which it matters who the other guy is. There's some offensive interaction, virtually entirely dictated by the manager1. For the most part, the team with the better players is going to win more than the team with the lesser players, regardless of "chemistry" or "fit."



1 - This is a big part of the reason that the baseball All Star game can be a great game, while the NBA, NHL and NFL all star games are pure exhibitions.

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