Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Some Thoughts About Baseball

It's been no secret on this site that I am a huge baseball fan.  I love the sport.  I played it when I was a kid, and I continue to follow the local nine into my adulthood.  I particularly enjoy listening to baseball games on the radio (which, as it happens, is the only way for me to have access to baseball games, since I don't have cable television).  Today in my Facebook feed the Minnesota Twins posted the above image, noting that Santana's number equaled the amount of days until opening day, and I got excited.  I can't wait for another year of baseball.  Aside from my general excitement about baseball, it seems as though the sport has come up in my life in a few ways over the past week or so, so I thought I'd put fingers to keyboard to keep track of them for posterity.

1. Last week I called the commissioner of the local city baseball league and asked him if there was still time to sign up my son to play baseball this summer (sign ups were in early January - oops).  He said there was, and I should meet him at the local community center to get signed up.  The commissioner of the league also happens to be my coach from my 1993 team, when I played for the White Sox.  I enjoyed getting together with him again - and he even remembered me!  It was fun to see him, and I'm excited that Jamie will get to play in a league that he's running, since he's a great guy and was a great coach for me.  He really helped me grow as a player.  I especially remember one time when I was in a slump (which was odd for me, as I was - in my own humble opinion - the best hitter on the team), he made me practice bunting.  He wouldn't allow me to swing the bat, but just hold it out there to make contact with the ball.  It was incredibly humbling and I felt like such a loser just having to practice bunting instead of swinging away.  But he knew what he was doing, and it got me out of my slump.  If I could go back and relive a year of my life, it would be that year, and it would be for the purpose of playing on that team again.

2. I read an article just today that Challies linked to that gave 10 reasons why parents should have their kids play city ball rather than traveling ball.  Based on my experience as a player when I was a kid, and a bit in high school, and now as a parent, I think he's absolutely right.  City ball is where kids can grow for their love of the game and actually have fun instead of having to perform or to work to the extent that the game isn't fun anymore.  Before my fabled 1993 season I tried out for the West St. Paul traveling team.  I didn't make the cut, and I was told after that there was some discrepancy that was due to the fact that I wanted to play baseball in West St. Paul but actually lived in St. Paul.  Anyway, I was cut from the traveling team and relegated to a city team.  This was the best thing that could have possibly happened to me, for several reasons, some of which I've described in point 1 above.  But also, the city team I played for that year was absolutely phenomenal.  It was coached by John Pelano (the aforementioned current commissioner of the West St. Paul league) and was made up of (presumably) all of the kids that didn't make the traveling team.  For whatever reason, we were an unstoppable force.  We annihilated every other city team.  Coach Pelano even entered our city team into traveling league tournaments around the Twin Cities (this was not part of the city league program, but we were so good that he shopped us around to traveling tournaments), and we won every single game.  We were undefeated in city league play and even in the traveling tournaments.  In hindsight, I'm grateful that I didn't make the traveling team.  If I had, I almost certainly wouldn't have had as good a year as I had with the White Sox.  I hope my son will have a similar experience some time in his childhood.

3. Last week I started reading listening to the book Moneyball by Michael Lewis.  A movie of the same title was later released.  I realize I'm extremely late to the game when it comes to this book and its subject matter, but I just happened across a copy of the audio book, and I figured that it's about baseball so I would probably enjoy it.  I saw the movie when it came out too.  If you're not aware, the book is about making baseball decisions via an "objective" standard such as statistics rather than on impressions of talent, and how this process played out in the Oakland A's baseball club in the early 2000's.  It's a fascinating read, although I have to admit that I am not totally sold on the idea of saber metrics as being a reliable method for managing baseball teams (in fact, I'm not convinced that an "objective" method for managing baseball teams is even possible, as so much of the game is psychological - even though I know there are many who disagree with that).  I'm also aware that I'm very late to the party when it comes to this discussion, but who cares.  For one, I don't see the formula developed by Billy Bean as having paid off in the long run.  The A's still aren't that great, and haven't been.  And many of the players that Bean drafted as a result of his formulas haven't panned out - not even by a long shot.  I'm sure there are counters to these arguments, and I'd be interested to know them.  Sure, there are some benefits to using saber metrics (such as infield/outfield shifts), but I can't see operating the whole game by them.  There's just too much psychological unpredictability, and that's part of what makes baseball so unique and such a great game.

4. Finally, related to the item above, is this interesting article I read a few weeks ago.  It talks about the decline of the use of pitch-outs, sacrifice bunts, and intentional walks in major league baseball, arguing that, statistically speaking, none of these things is worth doing in the long run - that is, they serve no advantageous purpose to a baseball team.  I read the article, and I understand the statistics, but it seems to me that the statistics fail to take into account (in the case of pitch-outs) the psychological affect it has on the runner: perhaps he's less inclined to run if he knows a pitch-out is possible.  There's only so much statistics can do and predict.  Baseball is a very psychological game (consider, for example, the incredible "mind game" played by the pitcher and the batter over each pitch.)  Also, if teams begin to not us the pitch-out, sacrifice bunt, and intentional walk, soon nobody will sue them, and then using them would become sort of a "trick play," catching the offense/defense off guard, thereby creating an advantage (such as the famous "Eephus Pitch" - it's ridiculous, but nobody expects it, so it works!)  My prediction: pitch-outs, sacrifice bunts, and intentional walks will always be a part of the game even if they aren't statistically advantageous.  They're still part of the incredible mind game that is baseball.

Bring on opening day!


Luke Johnstone said...

From one baseball fan to another, I say...Go Rays!! 😃

Joel said...

Luke - Considering the season the Twins are having this year, I might say the same thing!