A few nights ago, I flipped to the fairly-new MLB Network during a commercial. Harold Reynolds was moderating a discussion about this year’s World Baseball Classic. There were two analysts, one of whom I did not recognize. The other was former Cincinnati Reds shortstop Barry Larkin, who made a point with which I strongly disagree. Here’s what he said:
REYNOLDS: How is Team USA approaching the WBC differently this year compared to last time around?
LARKIN: I think the key difference is that this year, Team USA has moved away from taking just the best players, and instead has taken the best team. You’ve got guys like Mark DeRosa, who you can move around a bit and who’s willing to do the little things for the team. You’ve got to have players who are willing to put a bunt down, hit behind a runner, and play situational baseball. You’ve got to have those players who are willing to sacrifice their personal stats for the good of the team.
I think Larkin’s assessment demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding of how baseball works. In baseball, more so than any other major sport, it is more important to have the best players instead of the best “team.” This is because baseball is, essentially, a long and exhausting series of one-on-one encounters. Baseball is the pitcher versus the batter, and then versus the next batter, and so on and so forth until the first pitcher becomes tired or ineffective. Then, it’s the new pitcher versus (usually) the same batters as before. The outcome of each individual encounter is either something that helps create a run or detracts from its creation. If a lineup is comprised of nine players who are good at not making outs, and a pitching staff is comprised of players who are good at getting the opponent out, then you have a good team.
Larkin’s argument makes much more sense for sports like basketball and football. In these sports, the team with the best talent does not always succeed. These sports, unlike baseball, require constant communication with teammates, understanding of where to be on the court/field, and the ability to react to opponents’ tendencies within the team context. A basketball team can have all the talent in the world, but if communication, placement, and preparation are lacking, it will lose to a more cohesive unit.
Baseball requires these abilities too. A pitcher must communicate with his catcher to decide upon a pitch. Fielders must carefully adjust their positioning according to the hitter’s spray chart. Hitters must know which pitch he is most likely to see in a certain count, given the pitcher’s repertoire and tendencies. But these requirements are all secondary to individual talent – the ability to get on base, and the ability to prevent batters from getting on base.
The last sentence in Larkin’s argument makes the least sense. It implies that unselfish players are the key to a winning team, when in fact selfish play barely exists in baseball. I’m not even sure what an example of this would be. In baseball, there isn’t (or shouldn’t be) any sacrifice of personal statistics for the greater good of the team, because no sacrifice is necessary. If a batter gets on base, he did a good thing and the team benefits. If he makes an out, he did a bad thing and the team suffers. “Selfishness,” if it exists in baseball, is a good thing. In basketball, if a point guard dribbles across half court and launches a 30-foot jumper, that’s selfish and that hurts the team. In football, if a linebacker whiffs on the big hit instead of wrapping up for a sure tackle, that’s selfish and that hurts the team. This can’t happen in baseball. Hitters try like hell to get on base, and pitchers try like hell to keep them off. If either group is successful in its accumulation of personal statistics, the team benefits.
I’m opening up the floor to you. Am I missing something, and it is possible to be selfish in baseball? Is there a situation in which you wouldn’t want a lineup of the best hitters and a rotation of the best pitchers? Please, feel free to share.