So, I’m reading Why Does E=mc˛ (and why should we care?) which you will note is different from E=mc˛: A Biography of the World’s Most Famous Equation. I read that one too. It’s interesting, at least to me, that I have enjoyed both books immensely even though I still have no idea — NO IDEA — what E=mc˛ really means. I am so mathematically challenged. It’s ludicrous that I keep messing around with baseball statistics.
The reason I suppose I’m so fascinated by the formula — and this is something that the book I’m reading now does a marvelous job of explaining — is just how utterly counterintuitive Einstein’s thinking (and the various breakthroughs that led to Einstein’s thinking) really was. And still is. These bizarre concepts that time and space are not constant (and that they blend together), that there is no such thing as absolute motion, that mass and energy are interchangeable. It is literally beyond my understanding that if you could somehow travel at 99.999999999% of the speed of light, you could make it to Andromeda galaxy and back in 100 years — but 6 MILLION years would pass on earth while you were gone …
Like I say, I still don’t understand it. But some remarkable experiments back it up. Our world has changed dramatically and our understanding of the Universe entirely because of the way Einstein imagined the world. And even all these years later, it makes NO SENSE to the human mind (or at least to my human mind). It’s so completely contrary to how our minds have been trained to think and work, that it does not seem possible that scientists and mathematicians were smart enough, imaginative enough and (perhaps most of all) rebellious enough to find these brilliant concepts.
So … what the heck does that have to do with baseball? Well, nothing … except, yes, I continue to think about this whole idea of being unconventional in baseball. The other day, I wrote a column about Bill James with the core idea being that baseball teams can bury themselves by being what he calls “too professional.” A few people have wondered what he meant by “professional.” Brilliant Reader Stewart explains it this way: “Most people don’t really want to win at all costs. People will say that, but it doesn’t stand up. If you gave people two options, with A being to lose but look good doing it, and B being to win but have everyone laugh at you or criticize you for how you did it, people would SAY B, but really when given the option in everyday life will come a lot closer to A.”
I would take Stewart’s thought one step further. I DO think people would take Option B if they were GUARANTEED to win. But that’s an impossibility. There are no guarantees. And it seems to be that people are so afraid of Option C — losing AND having people laugh at you — that trumps everything. I think people throughout baseball would rather lose conventionally than risk losing unconventionally.
Like this: You’re a high school loser (or, wait, no, that was me). You could (A) not ask anyone to the prom and more or less go unnoticed, (B) ask out the most beautiful girl in school (the one you’ve had the crush on since the 5th grade) and maybe have her say yes and make you suddenly the coolest guy around or © ask the most beautiful girl in school and become the school punch line.
My guess — and my experience — is that C would scare most people enough that they would not even try B. They would stick with A and stay home and watch War Games again. Not that I know anything about this.
So it goes. I feel certain that if a team was absolutely guaranteed a pennant if they went to a four-man rotation, that team would go to to a four-man rotation. But unless Mr. Applegate comes along, you can’t get those guarantees and the heaping amount of abuse that would come down on any team that would fail with a four-man rotation* keeps everyone in line.
*Pitchers going down like bowling pins! Union grievances! Free agents refusing to even talk to you! Columnists and talk radio hosts calling for your head! Mass hysteria!
And that’s a real shame because it’s almost certain that if you got together a few bright baseball minds who were willing and eager to go against convention, to break these unwritten rules, they could probably reinvent the way baseball is played and win themselves some trophies along the way. Several brilliant readers reminded me of this wonderful piece by Malcolm Gladwell about how underdogs can win. It gets to the heart of things better than I am here.
But I guess what strikes me as I read about Einstein conceiving an entirely new universe is that if we could be so far off about something seemingly as fundamental as time and space and motion, how likely is it that teams are totally wrong about the most effective ways to win baseball games?
I mentioned Bill James again … you know that he said he could throw 10 wildly unconventional ideas at me right off the top of his head, but he only actually mentioned one: The off-the-wall idea that maybe some team (say the Pittsburgh Pirates) simply decides that they will stop scouting and acquiring anyone who throws 90-plus mph. Just stop. You throw 95? Good for you, we’re not interested.
I will repeat: Bill wasn’t saying a team should actually do this. He was saying that a team COULD do this, though. I mean, seriously, what would happen? Let’s run a little thought experiment: You’re running the Pirates. And let’s say this was true:
50% of all potential big league pitchers who throw 95 mph will be good big league pitchers.
2% of all potential big league pitchers who throw 83 mph will be good big league pitchers.
I’m sure those percentages are way skewed — no way that half the 95-mph throwers are good big league pitchers, and I have no way of knowing about the 2%. But you can fill in any number you want … the point is we say there are 100 potential pitchers who throw 95, and in this scenario 50 of them will be good pitchers. OK, well, you’re the Pittsburgh Pirates. How many of those 50 do you think you’re going to get? You are competing against 29 other teams that also want guys who can light up the radar gun. The vast majority of those 29 teams have more resources than you do, more scouts poking and prodding those prospects, more money to sign them, more clout to draw them in, more status among players and their families and their agents.
So — my guess? You’re not getting any of those 50. Zero. Oh, you might get some of the 95-mph throwers who WILL NOT be good big league pitchers. And, sure, there’s a chance you could luck into one. But it would take luck. Best bet: A big fat zero.
No, look at the other side. There is much larger pool of pitchers to pick from who top out at 83 mph, or 81 or whatever. Say there are 500 of those. By this formula, 2 percent of them could pitch effectively in the big leagues — that would be 10 pitchers (maybe you don’t believe ANY of them will be good … we’ll get to that in a second). Now, you’re the Pittsburgh Pirates — what are the chances you would get any of those 10?
Well, again, I’m guessing here: But my feeling is that if you have decided to just stop looking at the 95 mph guys and focused ALL YOUR ENERGIES on these slow-throwing guys, well, I think the chances are pretty good that you would get some, most or even all of those 10 pitchers. Why? Because, generally speaking, other teams are not investing much effort in scouting people who top out at 83. They are not scouting those players, they are not making much effort sign those players, they’re not spending draft picks on those players. They simply do not VALUE those players. if you focus all of your effort on it — and you believe in what you’re doing — you will probably figure out which of those slow-throwers has the command, quirkiness, control or movement necessary to get big leaguers out. And if you choose to value command and quirkiness and control and utterly devalue the radar gun, you should be able to corner that market.
Now, there would be people who would say this is a pointless market to corner — that 83 mph pitchers is a dry well. Maybe that’s true. But MAYBE it’s not true. Maybe you can find a cool study that suggests an 83-mph fastball down and away is just as effective a pitch as an 94-mph fastball down and away. Maybe you can point to a collection of ineffective pitchers who can throw really hard (Exhibit A: The Kansas City Royals bullpen) and conclude that speed isn’t all that compelling when it comes to getting out big league hitters. Maybe you would do the math and find that the best slow-throwers would make a better staff than one filled with bottom-third hard-throwers.
Maybe. Look, this is only one idea, and nobody (and especially not Bill) is saying it’s a great idea. But what the heck, it COULD work. And if over the last decade you are the Pirates, the Royals, the Nationals, the Reds, the Orioles … what has worked for you?
One idea. I brought up the other day this idea of building a team of great defenders with absolutely no concern whatsoever for their hitting. Seattle has tried something like this, and it has worked surprisingly well. The Mariners can’t hit a lick, but defensively they are 77-runs better than average according to the Dewan, and they are still above .500 despite scoring the fewest runs in the American League (and only San Diego has scored fewer runs in baseball). What if you took this idea up another notch, and tried to get 100 runs better than average. Or 150 runs better than average. What if you simply found great defensive players at every position? I don’t know. What?*
*Not to bring the Royals back into this … but apparently the Royals have gone on a full-fledged assault to try and win left fielder David DeJesus a Gold Glove. I mean, my friend and Royals TV announcer Ryan Lefebvre talks about this EVERY NIGHT now. They actually had a text poll asking Royals fans who is the best Royals outfielder this decade — DeJesus, Carlos Beltran, Jermaine Dye or Johnny Damon (and in one of the sadder moments in Royals fan history, DeJesus won). Royals PR guy Mike Swanson is sending out fliers to managers and coaches pushing David as a Gold Glove candidate. Dick Kaegel at MLB.com is writing about it.
I don’t know: This whole thing just makes me sad. I would say that David DeJesus is a good left fielder. He makes a lot of nice plays. And he doesn’t have an error, which is nice. Yes, the Dewan plus/minus has him at exactly 0 and ranks him the 15th best left fielder in baseball, making him as average as average can be. But his UZR is quite good — plus-11.8 run — and ranks him third in the league. From my own observation (not that my own observation means much), the UZR tells a fair story; he’s a good left fielder. And anyway, managers and coaches don’t look at all that Dewan and UZR stuff. And when you compare him to every other fielder on the worst-fielding team in baseball, yes, he looks positively Yaz-like out there.
But we all know that:
1. Left fielders almost never win Gold Gloves. Nor should they in the current system — left fielders are there almost exclusively because they aren’t as good defensively as the center fielder and can’t throw as well as the right fielder. The last American League left fielder to win a Gold Glove was Rickey Henderson in the strike year of 1981. That would be 1981. That would be when David DeJesus was 2.
2. He’s in left field because he wasn’t good enough to play center.
3. He’s unquestionably not even the best left fielder in the league — NOBODY would rank him ahead of Carl Crawford. Nobody. I mean NOBODY. Please. NOBODY could watch those two guys play and say “Oh yeah, DeJesus is better.” NOBODY. I mean it. And Carl Crawford has NEVER WON A GOLD GLOVE. OK? The defense rests. Court is adjourned. Thanks for coming.
So, how in the heck is he going to win a Gold Glove? If they gave out TEN American League Gold Gloves to outfielders, he wouldn’t get one. And he wouldn’t deserve one. I do appreciate that we’re in the dwindling days of a lost Kansas City season. And I like David DeJesus. And look, there’s no harm in trying to win a likable player an award. But this just seems about as productive as mowing your driveway. Focus all your energies and Greinke and the Cy Young — that’s the one thing that should happen and could bring some brightness to this dark season.
One idea. Hire Bill James. It’s interesting, several people made the point (a couple of people made it rather angrily in fact) that if Bill spends so much time thinking about how to be unconventional and beat the system then why does he work for the Boston Red Sox, a rich team that doesn’t need to beat the system. It’s interesting because Bill made the EXACT SAME point during the game we were watching. “In many ways,” he said, “I work for exactly the sort of team that doesn’t need me.”
Here’s why he works for the the Boston Red Sox: They hired him. They were smart enough to do that. They were smart enough to believe his voice could help make them better. It wasn’t like there were 30 teams banging on his door. Bill James has lived 40 miles from Kauffman Stadium since the park opened, and he probably was the most prominent Royals fan in America until Rush Limbaugh because Rush Limbaugh, and he was reinventing the game. And when things started to go bad for the Royals, they didn’t hire him to be GM or assistant GM or some whole new position. All these teams that NEEDED the ideas of Bill James and NEED them still … well they were afraid to get laughed at. And they stayed home on prom day.
One idea: Dump the five tools as a scouting device. Just dump them. Create a whole new way of scouting players. This was some of the thinking behind the famed 2002 Moneyball draft — which made up some very entertaining pages. You might remember the A’s drafted Nick Swisher, Joe Blanton, Ben Fritz, Jeremy Brown, Stephen Obenchain and Mark Teahen in the first round.
Now, so much was made of the A’s taking Jeremy Brown in the first round — you will remember him as the fat catcher from Alabama — that it has gone fairly unnoticed that A’s actually did quite sensationally with their picks. Nick Swisher has a career 114 OPS+ and, if you prefer more solid numbers you can say that this will be his fourth consecutive season with at least 22 homers, 80 walks, and probably 80 runs. Will he become the star he flashed in 2006 when he hit 35 homers, walked 97 times, drove in 95 runs and scored 100? Maybe not. But he was taken 16th overall and he’s the best every day player taken from that point until the end of the first round.
Blanton is a very solid pitcher … and I’ll just admit it, better than I thought. I expected him to get beat up in Philadelphia. He has a very solid 3.77 ERA, and he has been sensational since the end of May (7-3, 2.49 ERA, 94 Ks, 25 walks). True, Matt Cain was the very next pick … and Cain is a better pitcher. But Cain was a high school pitcher, and the A’s had determined that high school pitchers were too big a risk for them to take. I’ve always thought that was a bit misunderstood too: Billy Beane was not saying that high school pitchers would never become stars. What he was saying was that the risk of taking a high school pitcher was too great for a team that did not have the resources to gamble. What he was saying was that the A’s did not claim to have the supernatural powers to predict which high school pitcher (or player, for that matter) would be good four or five or six years into the future.
The next four high school players selected after Cain were Sergio Santos, John Mayberry (who did not sign), Greg Miller and Matt Whitney. And that’s the point.
Ben Fritz, Jeremy Brown and Stephen Obenchain did not pan out for various reasons. But Mark Teahen is a pretty good big league baseball player — the best selected in the final 15 picks of the first round. To get three every day players in the first round of a draft is remarkable. And it’s especially remarkable when the team doesn’t pick until the 16th overall pick.
Point is: The A’s really did have success by going against conventional wisdom on scouting. But another team could take it even deeper I think. Break some eggs. Destroy some traditions. Throw stuff against the wall. I think a few brilliant readers made the point very well: Even the stuff that people call “unconventional” in baseball is really tame stuff like hitting the pitcher eighth or using your closer for two innings or hitting away with a tie score in the ninth and a man on first. That stuff is really barely coloring outside the lines.
Why not try the four-man rotation again? It worked for a long, long time. Even long relievers pitch on three days rest all time? Why not try it?
Why not try a 10-man pitching staff? Give yourself an actual bench, give the manager a chance to go with real platoons, give yourself more of a chance to match up on the OFFENSIVE side rather than the DEFENSIVE side.
Why not hit your best hitters second and fourth because certain well-formed statistics show those are more important spots in the batting order than third? Why not dedicate your entire organization to being the best in all of baseball at one small thing like going first to third and second to home (like the Angels do) or throwing strikes (like the Twins do)?*
*Another ridiculous aside but: I love the fact that year-in, year-out the St. Louis Cardinals have excellent fielding pitchers.
Dewan Defensive runs saved by Cardinals pitchers
And runs saved by Baltimore pitchers over the same few years.
What does this actually mean? I have no idea. Maybe nothing. But I like it … I’m moved by the fact that it is important to the Cardinals that their pitchers field their position well and it hasn’t meant squat to the Orioles. The Cardinals have won a lot of games over those years.
None of these ideas that I’m mentioning are particularly unconventional. A team could play a four-man outfield or a five-man infield. A team could insist that every single one of their players switch-hit. A team could create a team where the shortstop would come into pitch when necessary and the pitcher would go to short, like in little league. A team could do all sorts of crazy and interesting things in an effort to beat the stacked odds.
And … I wish a team would. I fully appreciate that there has only been one Albert Einstein … and nobody running a baseball team would be confused for him. But just reading more about him and his universe-shaking formula reminds me once again: We really don’t know much about anything. The things that baseball people accept as certain truth almost certainly is NOT certain truth. You wish these small-market GMs who have been stuck in this spiral of losing for so long would take a chance, break away, try stuff that will shock the system.
Or as another genius Jerry Seinfeld once told George Castanza: “If every instinct you have is wrong, then the opposite would have to be right.”