Why A Sixth Grader From Brooklyn Should Manage Your Baseball Team

May 29, 2010

Early last week, three of my sixth graders and I played a game of Apples to Apples. One of them, whom I shall call “Freddy,” had to pick which red card matched up best with the green card featuring the word “best.” I forget what all three red card submissions were, but one of them was “home runs.” After some careful thought, Freddy chose the “home runs” card, which predictably incited a small riot amongst his peers (baseball is not their favorite sport).¬†The riot soon died down, but my curiosity endured. “Why did you think ‘home runs’ went with ‘best’?” I asked.

“Because hitting a home run is the best thing you can do to help your team,” said Freddy.

Quite honestly, I was stunned by the intelligence of his response. Not that Freddy isn’t a smart kid, because he is. But given that all of my students had a minimal or non-existent interest in baseball, it was a remarkably incisive and – most importantly – accurate assessment. Despite what you might hear from current and former players, analysts and reporters, home runs are not “rally killers” or in any way less valuable than walks or a series of base hits. They are the single best thing a hitter can do, and conversely, the single worst thing a pitcher can allow. That may seem obvious to you or me or even Freddy, but it’s not always obvious to mainstream media and fans.

I’m telling you this because I find that Freddy’s intuition stands in stark contrast to the popular beliefs and practices present within baseball today. This kid is more or less totally cut off from the game of baseball. He doesn’t watch it, doesn’t play it, doesn’t have any interest whatsoever in it. But what he is interested in is winning. Most of my kids are ferociously competitive, and Freddy is no different. He couldn’t care less about the actual or unwritten rules of the competition, but he sure as hell wants to win it. And because of that desire and because he’s generally a smart cookie, he understands the value of things like home runs. To Freddy, they are a key to victory, which is the ultimate goal.

When you compare Freddy’s outlook to that of major league managers, it paints a pretty bleak picture for the latter group. Managers will uniformly tell you that they want to win today’s game. Maybe not at all costs, because they do have a difficult job in that they must balance the importance of present and future victories. But they say they want to do whatever they can to win today’s game because, after all, tomorrow it might rain. That’s what they say.

But if actions are any indicator of true intent, then it’s pretty clear that someone like Freddy is more serious about winning than a major league manager. Take today’s game between the Indians and the Yankees. The Yankees had a 10-5 lead in the top of the 7th inning with David Robertson entering to pitch. He gave up a run, making it 10-6 Yankees. Not a huge cause for alarm just yet. Then, after a trainwreck of managing by Joe Girardi that I’m not even going to try to describe, Joba Chamberlain enters the game with the score still 10-6. He clearly had nothing, and the score is soon 10-7 with plenty of runners on base. Now Michael Kay is wondering how the Yankees bullpen is going to get to Mariano Rivera in the 9th inning, since the unit is currently decimated by injuries and recent use. Meanwhile, I’m wondering how the Yankees are going to get out of this situation right now (three-run lead, bases loaded, ineffective reliever on the mound).

It is at this juncture in the game when I would rather have Freddy managing my team than literally any manager in baseball. Freddy, in his oversized baseball uniform because he’s 12 years old, would turn to Yankees pitching coach Dave Eiland and say “who is our best reliever?” Eiland would surely reply “Mariano Rivera,” and Freddy would equally surely say “put him in the game.” And if Eiland questioned him, Freddy would probably tell him to shut up because he’s the boss. Conversely, every other manager in baseball would look to their pitching coach and ask “who is the best reliever to use right now, excluding our absolute best reliever, because it’s not yet the 9th inning?” And the pitching coach would offer his suggestion, which would be someone other than the team’s best reliever, because we all know that that reliever doesn’t pitch unless the team has a relatively small lead in the 9th inning. But Freddy wouldn’t care about this, because Freddy just wants to win the ballgame and go home and play Xbox.

Whimsical example aside, I am entirely serious about this. In-game management has evolved to a point where winning the game more than occasionally becomes secondary to preserving roles and appeasing egos. Managers can’t see this, because they’re in too deep at this point. They are the ones brushing shoulders with the players whose roles they are trying to cement and whose egos they’re trying to leave undisturbed. And the result is often similar to the result of the Indians-Yankees contest, where a struggling second-tier reliever is left in the game to protect a small lead in a hugely important situation simply because “the book” says that the best relievers don’t pitch until the 9th inning. In this particular example, Chamberlain was left in until the score was 12-10 Indians. Now, with the highest-leverage moment over and the lead totally relinquished, there is virtually no chance that Rivera will be seeing any action. This situation happens every day in baseball, and it is gross mismanagement that reflects little seriousness about the goal of winning the game.

Freddy may have no idea what a double-switch is, or how to call for a pitchout, but at least he knows what factors contribute to wins and losses.


Equilibrium

April 2, 2010

A few days ago, I did something that was probably kind of rude. I had just spent the afternoon in St. Augustine, Florida with my girlfriend, her sister, and their mother. We were driving back to Gainesville when I sheepishly warned everyone that I was putting my headphones on to listen to a podcast. No one seemed to care except for my girlfriend, who asked what the podcast was about. I told her it was Bill Simmons and Keith Law discussing baseball, a particularly interesting combination because of their wildly divergent perspectives on the sport. Simmons has been reluctant to embrace newer baseball statistics, even projecting some snark their way, while Law (who is snarky in his own right) is a sabermetrically-inclined scout and analyst. Anyway, my girlfriend wished me the best, and I tuned in.

Fast forward to today, when I was killing some time while my girlfriend tried on some clothes in shop here in Gainesville. I was poking around on Twitter when I saw this message. It was a pretty clear suggestion: Bill Simmons – the longtime baseball traditionalist, user of pitcher wins, RBIs, advocate of grit, guts, and heart – had finally come around on sabermetrics as a valid, useful, and pretty darn accessible method of evaluating baseball. Naturally, I immediately read Simmons’ column to make sure this had actually happened. And while it does indeed appear that Simmons has seen the light, reading his column did require some patience and understanding on my end. For example, the ease with which one can grasp a statistic is extremely important to Simmons. But he criticizes OPS+ for being inaccessible while touting VORP even though, and I quote: “only the robo-nerds know exactly how to calculate it.” Simmons also admits to having disliked sabermetrics because they were some combination of intimidating, threatening, and hard to comprehend, which tested my patience. I decided, however, that I admire his honestly because those are the reasons that I think most sportswriters and analysts are reluctant to embrace sabermetrics. It takes fortitude to say “these things were too daunting for me to explore, and that’s why I’ve been sticking to my guns” – even if it was an irritating admission to read. No matter what, it’s good to have Simmons aboard. He has a huge audience, and I’m hopeful that his embracing of sabermetrics will encourage others to at least consider the possibility of a world outside traditional baseball statistics.

In my ecstasy, I hollered to my changing room-enclosed girlfriend “Bill Simmons is cool with new baseball stats now!” To this she replied “maybe Keith Law rubbed off on him!” This is why I love her.

Of course, the universe does seems to tend towards equilibrium, which means that I was due for a dismaying bit of news in the coming days. Sure enough, I came upon this tragic (there is no better word for it) bit of news from the New York Mets’ camp. Off-season pickup and Kansas City Royals castoff (red flag!) Mike Jacobs will be batting cleanup on Opening Day, which presumably means that he’ll be occupying that spot for at least a few weeks. As a Yankees fan, this is wonderful news. As a fan of intelligence, this is heartbreaking.

Let’s ignore, for a moment, the studies showing that optimizing lineup construction in baseball isn’t all that important. By that I mean that the difference in production between a lineup constructed “optimally” and a lineup constructed randomly isn’t all that great. Instead, let’s focus on the widely-held idea in baseball that the fourth spot in the batting order should be one of the best hitters on the team. Every team in baseball puts the player that it considers to be its best or second-best hitter in the fourth spot. The Yankees hit Alex Rodriguez fourth. The Phillies hit Ryan Howard fourth. The Brewers hit Prince Fielder fourth. Excellent hitters – or at least the best hitter a team has to offer – hit fourth.

Given this widespread belief, one that every team in baseball practices, it stands to reason that the Mets believe Mike Jacobs is one of the best hitters on their team. This is the same Mike Jacobs who hit .228/.297/.401 in 2009 (.254/.313/.476 career, with a declining OBP in each of his five seasons), and who did so with average luck (BABIP) and a line drive rate that is perfectly aligned with his career norms. In other words, Jacobs received little luck either way in 2009 and was still awful. There are no underlying indicators of future success here. Jacobs is a terrible hitter, an out machine, and will be entrusted with perhaps the most vaunted of the nine lineup spots on a team that fancies itself a legitimate contender.

There is no excuse or justification for the Mets’ choice in this day and age. Fundamental statistics like OBP and SLG are no longer cutting edge nor at all difficult to understand. They are everywhere and simple, intuitive and essential. It has been suggested a few times that there are two teams in Major League Baseball that are paying no attention to the sweeping changes in performance analysis that the industry has undergone in the past decade: the San Francisco Giants and the New York Mets. Decisions like this one reinforce that notion, and indicate that the Mets have no idea what they’re doing.

Maybe Omar Minaya should hire Bill Simmons.


Experience and the NCAA Tournament

March 31, 2010

Sherron Collins' experience allowed him to go 4-15 with 5 turnovers in the biggest game of Kansas' season

Even for a square, pop culture-ignorant guy like me, a neat part of living in Manhattan is the occasional celebrity sighting. I ran into Bill Cosby on the corner years ago. I saw Matt Damon wheeling a stroller – with, presumably, a child in it – down my block this past winter. I’m also beginning to think the entire cast of “The Wire” lives on the Upper West Side, because I’ve seen Seth Gilliam (Carver) taking his kid to school, Wendell Pierce (Bunk) outside Lincoln Center, and John Doman (Rawls) on the 3 train. Does it make me feel cool to write all this? Yes. Yes it does.

The famous person I see more than anyone else, however, is current broadcaster and former NBA player Len Elmore. He must live in the neighborhood, because I see him everywhere. I owe my first interaction with Mr. Elmore to my father. We were walking up Amsterdam Avenue several years ago when a gigantic figure emerged from Caesar’s Palace Pizza on 84th Street. My dad, a University of Maryland fan and graduate, quickly recognized his fellow Terrapin and gushed to me “that’s Len Elmore!” Naturally, my dad introduced himself to Elmore, and the three of us continued uptown together in varying degrees of shock – dad at meeting Len Elmore, Len Elmore at being met by my dad, and me at my dad’s hidden reserves of childlike enthusiasm. It was three blocks of bliss for my dad, who reluctantly parted ways with Elmore at 87th Street.

Obviously, with the NCAA Tournament in full swing, I haven’t seen Elmore around so much in March. But since he’s returned to the broadcasting booth, I’ve noticed a tendency of Elmore’s that I had never noticed before. More than most broadcasters I can think of, and certainly more than any other college basketball analysts, Elmore talks about the importance and significance of experience in the game of basketball. With Elmore, persistent shooting slumps and steady ball handling are attributed less to a simple cold streak or superior dexterity, and more to the absence or presence of a player’s experience. He’s not a radical. He’s not one of these analysts or fans that makes judgments about a player based on their look, their swagger, or any number of other arbitrary criteria on which intellectually complacent folks rely. But he really does seem to like himself some experience in a player.

As you can well imagine, I don’t think experience matters all that much when it comes to in-game activities. I suppose it matters when it comes to mental and physical preparation, but the number of variables affecting an athlete’s play in a game is so high that it strikes me as problematic to pin a player’s success or failure on the slippery and amorphous quality of “experience.” With all other factors being equal, yes, I would prefer an experienced player over an inexperienced one. The chances of “experience” being the deciding factor in any given game, however, seem quite low to me. Read the rest of this entry »


A Christmas Miracle

December 24, 2009

Hours ago, I was on the uptown 1 train, heading to Washington Heights. There my girlfriend was napping, blissfully sheltered from the Christmas frenzy that makes New York so chaotic in late December. She does not celebrate Christmas, but it only seemed right to pay her a visit before the strict, family-only attendance policy was put into effect for the next 24 hours or so. So, there I was on the subway – again.

The train filled up at 96th street. A very large man pulled up next to me in the depths of the car. He was at least 6’3″ tall, with a big bulky frame. Other than his sheer size, his other notable characteristic was his attire. I would classify it as somewhere between a vibrant urban statement and a gaudy eyesore. His outfit’s coup de grace was his hat. Imprinted all over the brim and body was the New York City subway map, blindingly adorned with some combination of real and fake jewels. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. Unfortunately, it was at this moment when he turned me and asked “does this train go to 125th street?”

Then I heard myself say: “You could consult your hat.”

My eyes widened. I had said a stupid thing. For all I knew, this man was under tremendous duress. He could be down to his very last dollar and fearing for his financial future. He could have just spent all day scouring the city for an evasive and rare gift, and grown pugnacious because of his failure to find it. He could have an apartment full of unpleasant, imposing, and unwelcome inherited family at home, and he was down to his absolute last nerve. Any and all of these things were possibilities. Plus the guy was huge. I braced for a right hook to the jaw.

He recoiled for half a second. Then he grinned sheepishly. “Yeah,” he said with a conciliatory chuckle “I guess I could, couldn’t I?” He removed his hat, found his answer, and braced himself for the train’s impending movement. We stood side by side until he got off at 125th street with a cordial “Merry Christmas.”

That I still have all my teeth is truly a Christmas miracle.


What Happens When Baseball Season Is Over And The Giants Had A Bye Week

November 21, 2009

I make new and exciting soups. All by myself (Editor’s note: not true).

I apologize for the recent lack of posts. Two things have caused this. The first is obvious, which is the end of baseball season. This has created a huge void in my life. When I’m not working, I can be found shaking in the corner of a subway car (usually the 2 or 3 train), rambling on about OBP, VORP, and WXRL while other passengers pretend not to see or hear me. I’m kidding, of course, but it is harder to find material at this time of year. If I don’t consider myself well-informed about a subject, I struggle to work up the courage to write about it. I don’t always consider myself well-informed about football or basketball, which results in droughts like this.

The second cause is my job. I teach sixth graders in Brooklyn that are in dire, dire need of literacy help. They are wonderful and hilarious kids (I really should start a competitor to Overheard In New York called “Overheard In Kevin’s Classroom”), engaging and inspiring on their good days but infuriating on their bad ones. Unfortunately, this week has seen more of the latter in my classroom. I inevitably take such days to heart, assuming that they happen because I am some combination of a bad teacher, an unsympathetic person, and an abysmal lesson-planner. These days throw me into a frenzy that lasts until the next morning, when I circle the wagons and try to do better. If the next day goes poorly, well, it’s hard for me to do anything but worry and work until another period of prolonged success occurs. I had four straight of those bad days this week, and most other aspects of my life were left unattended.

Here are a few thoughts I’d like to share: Read the rest of this entry »


Slumbering Umpires

October 21, 2009

1train

Shortly after getting on 1 train at 181st street this morning, I noticed a slumbering passenger. This is not particularly unusual for the New York City subway system, or any form of public transportation. His arms were crossed, head leaned back, mouth agape – an oldie but a goodie as far as sleeping positions are concerned. But this is not why I noticed him. Emblazoned on his shirt’s left breast was “New York Umpires School.” I was both intrigued (wow, an umpire!) and disgusted (ugh, an umpire…), but now I’m mostly just confused, because apparently this school doesn’t exist. Fine. That wasn’t the point of my story anyway.

The train pulled into 157th street five minutes or so after I got on. The Slumbering Umpire jerked his head forward and groggily opened his eyes. The doors opened, people exited and entered. He looked around lethargically. The doors remained open, but it was now in those four or five seconds when you know they could close at any time. The Slumbering Umpire tilted his head back as the doors closed. Then, he jolted awake, clumsily sprint-weaved his way between standing passengers, and arrived at a door that had been closed for several seconds already. He hung his head, remaining there until he could get off at 145th street.

I don’t know what this means, but I found it incredibly funny. This is probably because my encounter came on the heels of a Yankees-Angels game in which umpires blew three calls, two of which were outrageously bad (find the game highlights here for the gory details). Umpire Tim McClelland erroneously called Nick Swisher out for leaving third base early on a sacrifice fly, even though replays showed McClelland wasn’t watching third base at all. He then somehow concluded that Robinson Cano was safe at third base, even though he was tagged by catcher Mike Napoli while nonchalantly standing off the base. Both these calls made me genuinely angry, so I took more than a little pleasure and found more than a little irony in the plight of this morning’s Slumbering Umpire. At least he had company. Tim McClelland might as well have been asleep in making those two calls.

Naturally, I sent this anecdote to my commuting girlfriend, who told me that she just had an encounter of her own. An insane, rambling, bearded Jesus freak (not that there’s anything wrong with that, but still) has been known to walk the length of the 1 train throughout the day, telling New Yorkers why we’re going to hell and what we can do to avoid such a fate. If you’re really lucky, he’ll more or less corner you and make his pitch personally. It’s great fun.¬†Anyway, Jesus Man (as he has come to be known) was apparently on the prowl this morning, and I sort of wish that he and the Slumbering Umpire had crossed paths. I’m sure Jesus Man would be much more willing than I am to forgive the Slumbering Umpire and the rest of his kind for their transgressions. Maybe they’d rub off on one another, forming some sort of evangelical umpire. A Jumpire, perhaps?

“And the Lord said… YER OUT!”

Halloween is right around the corner, kids. If you’re looking for an original costume that is sure to make your friends wonder about your sanity, the evangelical umpire is right for you.


David Cross Should Stick To Comedy

September 7, 2009

This afternoon, I returned to Manhattan from Connecticut on a very crowded train. I turned to my iPod for entertainment, but quickly realized that I have added little new music in recent months (suggestions are welcome), and that I am bored with my current selection. There was a cute and especially bug-eyed pug across the aisle, but with me being neither its owner nor adjacent, its fun factor was limited. The same went for another charming dog in the alcove ahead of me. I was a man with few options.

Consequently, I found myself reading my girlfriend’s copies of New York magazine (which included a heartening article by Jay Jaffe) and Time Out New York. The latter contained a barely noticeable excerpt from an exchange with comedian David Cross, who offered his opinions on the New York Mets:

“Oh, man. If you want to talk baseball, I’ll do that all day. I can’t believe they didn’t even make a play for [Victor] Martinez.”

“I feel bad for Mets fans. Now, I don’t really give a [damn] about the Mets – or Mets fans, really – but when you pay that much money for tickets, and then a little over halfway through the season you just say, ‘Nah, we give up. [Screw] it…’ I can’t imagine Minaya being there next year. Just some bad, bad moves. They go in and sign the best pitcher in the majors, and then there is no backup for him? John Maine?”

The most important bit of information here is the Mets’ record at the trading deadline and at the time of the interview. At the trading deadline, the Mets were 49-53 – ten and a half games behind the Philadelphia Phillies in the NL East and 6.5 games back in the wild card. In late August, approximately when Cross was questioned (I’m assuming), the Mets were 17.5 games back in their division and 13 games behind the wild card leader. Also, from the trading deadline through late August, the Mets were without the services of Carlos Delgado, Jose Reyes, J.J. Putz, John Maine, Carlos Beltran, Fernando Martinez, Jonathon Niese, David Wright, and Johan Santana for long stretches. And owner Fred Wilpon has lost millions in the Bernard Madoff scandal. What, exactly, would Cross have the Mets to do combat this litany of problems?

So – and I can’t believe I’m saying this – I think we can all forgive the Mets for not being totally equipped to handle this ludicrous streak of horrible luck. The Mets didn’t make a play for Victor Martinez because they (a) had no money and (b) were 6.5 games out of the division with most of their best players on the disabled list for the foreseeable future. The Mets did not say “[screw] it.” They said “we’re broke, we’re not looking good for the playoffs, and everyone is hurt – we probably shouldn’t trade prospects to take on more money for a lost cause.” Finally, is Cross really criticizing the Mets for not having a comparable replacement for Johan Santana? There isn’t a team in baseball that can replace 200 innings of 3.00 ERA pitching from within the organization.

Look, Mets’ general manager Omar Minaya has made some questionable moves and even more questionable public relations decisions. But everyone – sportswriters, fans, comedians – can feel free to stop piling on the Mets for a legitimately promising season that was derailed by a freakish, unforeseen, and unprecedented rash of injuries.

I know Cross is just a comedian, but give me (and if not me, the Mets) a break.