FIRE JOE MORGAN: Small-Ball?

FIRE JOE MORGAN

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Thursday, March 30, 2006

 

Small-Ball?

More like Smell-Ball! Yeah, I said it. I think Small-Ball should be called Smell-Ball. Because it smells smelly, like a bad smell does. And while that's perhaps the stupidest thing a human being has thought, uttered, or written in quite some time, it's no less valid an argument than much of the drivel in Thomas Boswell's Washington Post article For Many Teams, Small-Ball Efforts Are Being Richly Rewarded.

Thomas?

Welcome to the era of baseball on a budget. It's time for brains and judgment to have their day, not just juice and financial muscle.

Cool! So you're going to talk about brains like Billy Beane's and Terry Ryan's? Guys who use their judgment to build good baseball teams on a budget? Tell me you're going to do that, Bozzy old friend.

This period in the game's history is just beginning and none too soon. But you can see it everywhere, from the mid-market teams in last year's World Series to the fundamentally sound, unselfish teams that dominated the World Baseball Classic.

Oh, Boz. Why? You're going to talk about the White Sox, aren't you? And chemistry? We're going to be lectured on chemistry and oh, maybe sparkplugs and table-setters and nobly giving yourself up for the good of The Game.

The Yankees, Red Sox, Mets, Angels and a few other mega-market teams won't be joining the rest of the sport in the frugal fun. They know that big money will still have years when it can buy the pot, as it always has. Big is still better. But not nearly as much better as it has been in recent times. For many other franchises, especially the 15 or so teams that are not among the very richest or the very poorest, these are days when dollars well spent can put you in the postseason. Or, as the White Sox and Astros proved last October, get you a date in the World Series.

White Sox. Check. And wait: your premise is that mid- and small-market teams will experience a Renaissance for some reason? I'm sure you have a well thought out explanation for all this bluster.

As if to underline the point, the WBC illustrated every theme from last year's postseason. The small-ball and off-speed pitching masters from Japan and South Korea, as well as the divinely precise, unselfish Cubans prospered while the U.S. team went home early, beaten by Canada, South Korea and Mexico as the rich Americans waited for home runs that didn't arrive often enough.

No! No no no no no. The WBC showed that in a single-elimination baseball tournament, weird, dumb stuff can happen. It was fun, sure, seeing a team of shaggy-haired Korean dudes beat down A-Rod and Jeter, but does anyone think that South Korea actually fielded a better baseball team than the United States? Not even you, Thomas Boswell, an 89-year-old man with Nostalgia Glasses on, could believe such a thing. And let's address once again the argument that Japan won the tournament with small-ball, guts, and math-related sneak attacks. Japan hit 10 home runs in 8 games. The U.S., 9 in 6 games. The U.S. finished second in SLG, Japan third. Japan finished second in OPS to Canada (!). And those scrappy, crafty Japanese contact hitters averaged more strikeouts per plate appearance than the selfish, steroided-up U.S. sluggers (0.144 to 0.132). Probably waiting for those home runs to show up. (An argument that I've never understood. Who waits for anything in baseball? You're telling me Vernon Wells goes up there thinking, "F this, I'm just gonna strike out and then wait for Griffey to hit a home run. I'm a lazy dum-dum.") As for Japanese pitching: yeah, I bet there aren't as many Japanese pitchers who can bring the nasty like American WBCers Roger Clemens and Gary Majewski, but who was the MVP of the whole tournament? Japanese pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka, who throws 96 mph cheese on a good day. And wait a minute, just how "divinely precise" were the Cubans? Last I saw them, Yuliesky Gourriel was chucking a ball into the dugout and they were leading the tournament in errors.

In the first inning of the WBC title game, Japan paved the way to its championship with four runs without a single hard-hit ball. You'd have thought that Scott Podsednik, Tadahito Iguchi, Jermaine Dye, Paul Konerko and A.J. Pierzynski -- the modest top five hitters in the White Sox' order last October -- were playing for Sadaharu Oh's club. Draw a walk, lay down a bunt, steal a base, hit behind the runner, beat out an infield hit, then murder 'em with a five-hop ground ball into center field.

Yeah, about those modest top five hitters ... I don't know if you follow baseball (you seem like more of an architecture guy), but Paul Konerko hit 40 home runs last year. 41 the year before. In fact, he hit a home run every 14.4 at bats, good for 6th in the AL. But you're right, Scott Podsednik is modest.

Why, the style reminded you exactly of the best feel-good story of the first five months of the '05 season -- the spunky, one-run wonder, low-payroll Nationals fighting for a playoff spot before they got tired, got hurt and got on each other's nerves.

Is that what happened? They got on each other's nerves? Are you sure it wasn't the fact that they were beating their Pythagorean by a significant amount (probably through blind luck) mid-way through the season, and then that the cruel reality that they were allowing more runs than they scored finally set in, no matter what they currently measured on the Thomas Boswell Spunk Meter?

No, you're right. Nerves.

In this post-steroid era (with the number of positive drug tests finally under 1 percent), it has become clear that pitching and defense, as well as more versatile, diverse offenses, once again have a place at the top of the sport. Especially in tense, lower-scoring venues like the late-season playoff races, the chilly postseason and the WBC.

This is clear because a) the White Sox won the World Series one year and b) Japan won the WBC, a tournament in which they went 5 and 3. (Korea was 6-1; the Dominican Republic, a team of monstrous home-run-hitting sluggers if there ever was one, was 5-2.) Game, set, match, Boswell.

In other words, if you can't afford a $100 million payroll, it's a viable time to be an affluent but not obscenely rich team. For example, clubs like both the Nats and Orioles should, in the future, be able to pay enough to compete on this more level field.

You haven't remotely proven that things are any different now than they were, say, three years ago.

It's no accident that the rise of mid-market teams has coincided with the decrease in performance-enhancing drugs. The artificially inflated sluggers and strikeout pitchers of recent years commanded the most astronomical salaries. Plenty of the richest didn't cheat. But too many did. To reach the top of the heap, some teams had to hold their noses and pay inflated salaries for superstars with muscles-from-a-bottle. Now, that's changing.

A hand-waving argument. Actually, most hand-waving arguments would be ashamed to be in the same room as this argument. According to Game of Shadows, Barry Bonds didn't start juicing until after the 1998 season. We can assume that some guys were doing it before then (McGwire, Sosa, I'm looking at you). But were those guys' teams winning championships? Were the Yankees' dynasty teams loaded up with "artificially inflated sluggers and strikeout pitchers"? It doesn't seem like they were helped all that much more than other teams were by steroids. It seems like San Francisco, St. Louis, and Chicago were the main beneficiaries. Plus, look at who's won championships since 2000: the D-Backs, the Angels, the Marlins, the Red Sox, and the White Sox. Besides the Sox and their offensive juggernaut, where are the 'roided-up mega-rich franchises that you say ruled the world until last year?

Because of this transition from power ball to a more balanced blend of brawn and moxie,

You still haven't proven that. And moxie? Who are you, a guy in a film noir movie?

we're entering a period of semi-frugal baseball. No, the rich teams still aren't like the rest of us. But they're closer. The sport doesn't have parity. (Who wants it? Too boring.) But the Marlins did win the '03 title with an Opening Day payroll of only $48,750,000, less than a third of the Yankees whom they beat in the Series. And the Twins and Athletics, among others, have contended often with modest payrolls.

Right. So you're saying the new "semi-frugal" period started in or before 2003? What?

The teams that spot the next trend most quickly and adapt their rosters to capitalize on it will get the most value for their dollars in coming years. So far, the Nationals and Orioles certainly seem to be early adapters.

And the next trend is fielding a team of Pod-eck-ggins-es, if I'm not mistaken. And signing a guy to play a position he doesn't want to play. A guy who can't get on base to save his life. With a .265 OBP away from Ameriquest Field last year. And who made $7.5 million last year. That's value.

Baltimore has decided to build around its five-man pitching rotation of Daniel Cabrera, Erik Bedard, Rodrigo Lopez, Kris Benson and Bruce Chen, coached by ex-Braves pitching maestro Leo Mazzone. Adding Benson to replace disappointing Sidney Ponson was the team's top offseason priority, rather than getting more power hitters to replace Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro. Look what rotation depth did for the White Sox, whose five starters completely shut down foes last October.

Rotation depth did nothing for the White Sox. Their top five starters combined for 152 starts, so they didn't really need any depth. That's right. 152. Brandon McCarthy started the other 10. Oh, you're talking about having five good starters, not guys who can start outside the top five? Five starters who "completely shut down foes last October"? Well, I know for a fact that the White Sox only used four starters in the playoffs because I looked it up using a computer that talks to other computers through a cable in the wall.

In Washington, the Nationals are totally committed to the thesis that times have changed. Will the Nats move in the fences at cavernous RFK Stadium? "No way," said General Manager Jim Bowden who has spent the last year retooling his personnel to suit his park. "We want line-drive gap hitters with extra-base power who can have a high average, not fly ball [home run] hitters," said Bowden. "There are a lot of hits out there in our [big] outfield. The long fly balls get run down. The line drives don't."

I would have liked it better if the paragraph ended "No way," said General Manager Jim Bowden, who has spent the last year making horrendous, arbitrary trades, optioning promising hitters like Ryan Church, jettisoning OBP machines like Brad Wilkerson, acquiring OBP/clubhouse poison like Alfonso Soriano, and generally making a mess of things and ruining the future of baseball in our nation's capital. "There are a lot of hits out there in our [big] outfield," said Bowden.

It's no accident that Vinny Castilla, Preston Wilson and Wilkerson -- who all fit the mold of big-fly all-or-nothing sluggers who will never hit close to .300 in a big ballpark -- have left the organization. The Nats don't think they suit the dimensions of RFK or the new Nationals Park, which has been designed at the team's request to be "a pitcher's park."

Brad Wilkerson has a career high of 32 home runs, and in the three years before he went to Washington, he OBPed .370, .380, and .374. That guy is a total cancer, an all-or-nothing jerkwad who can't stop swinging for the fences like some preening juiced-up monster who hates team unity and grit and sweat and hustle-heart. He once promised a sick kid in the hospital he would sacrifice bunt a guy over but then swung for the fences and hit a home run like some kind of asshole.

If the Nats play with the team unity and fundamental soundness of the first half of '05, then all these theories may have some meaning.

They'll be about .500 if they do that.

However, if their defense remains as unfocused as it has been in Florida and if their lineup lacks internal chemistry, as it did in '05, then all the Nats' smart talk won't count for much.

Internal chemistry? Internal chemistry??? I think that's the name of the new Bush album. You guys listen to Bush, right? Hello? 1996, are you there?

Why some lineups are combustible and others are inert is still one of the game's mysteries. Who'd have thought obscure Podsednik and Iguchi were the proper table setters for a world champion?

I like that after all that, he chalks up the potency of a baseball team's offense to "hey, guys, it's just one of those mysteries!"

Don't count out the power of a buck in any sport, certainly not baseball. But, as Opening Day arrives, at least 20 teams are firmly convinced that their budgets will not prevent them from making the playoffs. Once you reach October, as teams like the '02 Angels, '03 Marlins and '05 White Sox showed, nobody weighs your wallet before handing you the World Series trophy.

And nobody weighs your brain before you write an article about baseball.

Hold on, I just got an email with the subject "Re: Tom Boswell's brain weight." It's 1375 grams. Huh. That's about average. How about that.

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posted by Junior  # 3:35 PM
Comments:
My good friend Mr. M. Stone, Esq., B.A. (Harvard U.), M.A. (Columbia B.S., Class of '08), whose reticence in re: posting for this blog is one of the great mysteries of my life, made an excellent point today, namely: no one has talked about the fact that Japan might have won the WBC in part because their pitchers have kind of crazy deliveries, some of them, and when you have to face pitchers with crazy deliveries for the first time it is often hard to hit them. (C.f. Nomo, Hideo, and Willis, Dontrelle, and Duque Hernandez, El.) Also, they hit more HR than any team in the tournament. But what do we know?
 
South Korea, too. Let's not forget Kim, Byung-Hyun (a.k.a. Kim, B.H. and for some reason a.k.a. Kim, B.K.). It seemed like every South Korean and Japanese pitcher had an unorthodox delivery or at the very least, a weird hitch in their windup.
 
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