Lessons of 2003
Knowing Not What We Don’t Know and Vice-Versa
As you struggle with that most recursive of subtitles, let?s look back on what the year in baseball in 2003 AD has added to our perspective on the National Pastime?and facets thereof.
I?m going to call these items ?lessons,? though some of these will doubtless be taken in some other light.
1) It?s time to discard (or completely overhaul) the current popular concepts of ?competitive balance.?
2) The Great Rivalry is alive but not well?and it will get more of each, possibly at baseball?s expense.
3) Collusion is dead; long live Collusion!
4) Steroids or no steroids, Barry Bonds has put himself on a par with Babe Ruth?but we?ll never admit it.
5) ?Advanced analysis? is still mired in its predictive slump, and might need to be sent down for more seasoning.
6) A great post-season can almost redeem a boring regular season, but a great off-season is an end unto itself.
7) It may be longer than the number of years Leonard Koppett lived before we are able to find a suitable replacement for him in the mainstream press.
OK, those are the ?slug lines? for the ?lessons of 2003? (and you can take that phrase any way you choose?); now let?s elaborate (and, quite possibly, belabor).
1) Remember a few years ago, when the most recent labor war was full of smoke and brimstone, and Budzilla enjoyed telling everyone that baseball?s ?competitive balance? was so bad that a small-market team couldn?t even win a single game in the post-season?
Those comments were fighting? words back in 2000-01, but you?ve probably noticed that such ideas are suddenly conspicuous in their absence as we head into 2004. The reason? Mid-market and low-market teams have been making it into the post-season and knocking off the hated Bronx Bombers with regularity over the past three years.
No, the Arizona Diamondbacks were not a low-budget team, but they were a leveraged mid-market expansion franchise that seized its moment via a myriad of player acquisition strategies?and, by cracky, they put a stop to the Devilish Dynasty.
In 2002 (the year of the healing palindrome, as we called it here, prior to the last-minute labor settlement), the Anaheim Angels sent George, his boys, and his bankroll home early, lifting one of the game?s less fabled ?curses? in the process by winning the World Series.
And, of course, this year, we were treated to the phenomenon of Flying Fish; the Florida Marlins effected a Lazarus-styled resurrection after what appeared to be a stagnating youth movement was ostensibly left gasping for breath in a tiny dinghy. Here, at last, is the small-marketeer?s vindication, but from the most unlikely source possible.
And this doesn?t even include the fact that two other small-market teams, the Oakland A?s and the Minnesota Twins, have made six post-season appearances in the past four years.
We can only conclude that our original notion was correct: Budzilla?s comments were disingenuous and superficial, and that in baseball, it?s not cream that rises to the top, but the man willing to live more or less permanently with egg on his face.
In many respects, baseball may have evolved into a more-or-less ideal version of ?competitive balance,? where a perennially strong Yankee franchise galvanizes the rest of the teams into various incarnations of innovation and largesse in an effort to frustrate the so-called ?evil empire.? Having moved past the suffocating purity of the single pennant race into a more free-wheeling post-season, baseball has opened up the role that chance can play?and this fact cannot be demonstrated more strongly than by noting that for the first time in baseball history, two wild card qualifiers have won the World Series in consecutive seasons.
Of course, this perspective isn?t the only one, but it?s arguably more reasonable than the popular view pining for a return to the pre-1996 free agency period, when the Yankees weren?t so much a factor. However, that particular nostalgia trip into a utopia of competitive balance, like many so-called ?sabermetric? concepts, has been somewhat oversold.
When we examine the 1982-95 time frame, during which the Yankees made no post-season appearances, and the 1996-2003 time span, when they didn?t miss the post-season at all, we see that the number of teams winning at least ninety games once isn?t all that much worse than in the so-called ?golden age of parity.? In the AL from 1982-95, twelve of the fourteen teams won 90+ games at least once, and ten won 95+ games at least once. In the AL from 1996-2003 (about half the time span as in the earlier period), ten teams have won 90+ games at least once, and eight have won 95+ games at least once.
So the lesson here really is: don?t be too hasty to judge, and don?t decide that ?drastic measures? are necessary to solve ?problems? that may work themselves out on their own.
2) While baseball as a whole is better off now than it was in 2001?mostly due to the (temporary) elimination of the Damoclean labor/management impasse?the same may not be the case after 2004 as a result of the re-heating of baseball?s biggest, baddest rivalry, and the actions being taken by the two teams in question (the Yankees and the Boston Red Sox) who are now fully within its thrall.
After having started out with a ?sabermetric? approach to beating the ?evil empire? with undervalued talent and arcane insights, the Red Sox appear to have been so agitated by their Game Seven ACLS defeat that they are either downplaying or outright abandoning such a strategy.
Perhaps the Sox management realized that despite all of the effort and attention given to ?advanced analysis,? and in spite of some short-term gains in generating offense (most of it in Fenway Park), that the actual amount of improvement achieved as a result was small (two more wins than in 2002).
Knowing this, and aware that the Yankees would move boldly to shore up areas of their roster that were vulnerable due to potential free agency and/or age, the Red Sox apparently felt justified in making Yankee-like trades (i.e., prospects for proven veterans).
The likelihood of a snowball effect from this toe-to-toe showdown isn?t as great as it was in the early days of free agency, because the business aspect of baseball has become more clearly stratified since the 1994 strike. But it is now possible to object to such actions on aesthetic and ethical grounds; the spectacle of grown men indulging themselves in such an obsessive pursuit is already unseemly, and it only threatens to get worse.
And that it did, with the Alex Rodriguez affair, an overwrought mess that came about in large part due to the clashing of the Red Sox? ?two constituencies? (see a related article at the Big Bad Blog for more details). Having apparently decided that the middle-of-the-lineup players who carried them within a single game of the World Series were no longer ?operational? (and, yes, that is a reference to a Nixon other than Trot...), the Sox inner ellipse then embarked on a series of intricate but inept negotiations designed to squeeze a few million dollars from a pinched-dry turnip. (The Sox were apparently trying to keep under the payroll limit for the ?luxury tax.?)
As a result, the dormant animosity between the owners and the Players Association was re-awakened. Fortunately, what has issued from this is, for the moment at least, little more than the baring of fangs; but one can see a multitude of ways the matter could have been handled that would have avoided this.
In any event, the main result of all this is that the Red Sox, so intent on beating the Yankees, are falling victim to one of life?s most common and chilling ironies: they are turning into what they profess to hate.
That?s why separating the two teams from each other?via a badly-needed redesign of baseball?s leagues and divisions?is becoming less and less unthinkable.
3) Despite the feather-ruffling that has occurred as a result of the Alex Rodriguez affair, it is almost certain that in the emergent new age of labor-management relations in baseball, we will never again see litigation concerning owner collusion.
Why? Because both sides have demonstrated that they now understand and at least grudgingly accept their mutual interdependence, and that it will only make their still-tenuous ability to work together that much harder if they cannot settle their disputes without litigation.
That said, we are still living in an age of collusion, where teams will look for every contract loophole available to them, and will do their utmost to use the rules in a way that will decrease the potential value of free agency without challenging it directly. The flowering of the ?non-tendered? free agent in the 2002-03 off-season is a phenomenon that is almost certain to become more prominent over the next few years, and it?s possible that the Players Association will decide to live with it instead of looking for ways to counteract its impact on salaries.
In fact, it will be more evidence of what we might term ?meta-collusion? if, in 2006, there is nary a peep from the Association concerning this issue.
The internal pressures over what will eventually amount to so many ?backroom agreements? between labor and management will eventually build until there is another cataclysm, but it appears likely that this ?meta-collusion? will keep the lid on things until shortly after 2010 or so.
4) I?ve written a lot about Barry Bonds already, but thanks to another stellar performance in 2003, there?s still more to be said.
First, Barry managed to have a greater season at age 38 than the former late peak champion at that age?Ted Williams. Barry?s OPS+ for 2003 dialed in at 231, which not only edged Teddy Ballgame (a 226 OPS+ in 1957) but also made him the first player since Babe Ruth to post three consecutive seasons with > 200 OPS+ at such an advanced age.
All of which means that as time marches on, Barry Bonds is becoming more and more comparable to the Sultan of Swat. While it?s hard for many to accept such a fact?for cultural reasons if nothing else?it?s nonetheless true, and those who want to nitpick about it are probably just having trouble reconciling those facts with their feelings.
What will Barry do in 2004? Here?s a list of the ten players with the best OPS+ at age 38, showing their OPS+ from age 35 to age 40:
Player 35 36 37 38 39 40
BARRY BONDS 191 262 275 231
TED WILLIAMS 192 203 164 226 173 113
BABE RUTH 212 223 205 180 165
TY COBB 171 134 126 170 131
WILLIE STARGELL 148 125 155 138
CY WILLIAMS 131 136 132 155 130 119
HONUS WAGNER 168 131 154 146 115 94
FRED CLARKE 128 125 105 146
FRANK ROBINSON 156 130 153 144
HANK AARON 179 147 190 143 173 126
As you?d expect, eight of the other nine players on the list are in the Hall of Fame, and the other guy (Cy Williams) is one of the game?s most notable late bloomers. As you can see, however, age 39 was a bit problematic for those who did well at age 38: Ruth, Williams, and Hank Aaron thrived, but everyone else either declined or had their season severely shortened by injuries.
Here?s one more list, which shows the best OPS+ performances at age 39 in baseball history:
Player 38 39
HANK AARON 143 173
TED WILLIAMS 226 173
BABE RUTH 180 165
WILLIE MAYS 128 142
EDDIE COLLINS 137 141
BRIAN DOWNING 119 138
WILLIE STARGELL 155 138
JOE KUHEL 118 136
JIM OROURKE 127 133
WILLIE McCOVEY 131
REGGIE JACKSON 94 130
EDDIE MURRAY 85 130
CY WILLIAMS 155 130
As you might have expected, the list is topped by four players who can have credible claims made on their behalf as having been the greatest hitter of all time.
If Barry beats out Hank and Ted for best at age 39, it?s going to get even harder to hold out on the idea that he is the greatest hitter of all time. As it stands, he is firmly in the top five, probably ranked number three at this moment, with his late finishing kick probably pushing him past Williams and aiming him squarely at Ruth. We?ll know for sure in the next two to three years…
5) As we move further and further into the ?neo-sabermetric? age, it becomes clearer and clearer that the precepts inherited (some would say ?transmogrified?) from the great eighties popularizers have not provided any advances in predicting the outcome of pennant races. While we have a glut of ?projection systems,? mostly for hitters, the last several years have made it clear that ?advanced analysis - at least in terms of predicting the fortunes of teams as opposed to individual players - remains at best a matter of hindsight.
The number of people who predicted the rise of the Angels in 2002 was something that could be counted on the fingers of one hand; for the Marlins in 2003, a lone middle finger?from yours truly?was the only hint of such a transformation prior to the start of the season. Rob Neyer can tell us how clear it is (in retrospect, of course) that the Angels would decline in 2003, while carefully failing to note that it was virtually impossible for anyone slavishly using the ?sabermetric toolkit? to have anticipated their rise in 2002.
The problem is that the two fronts of ?sabermetrics? as it is currently constituted?pure research and applied insiderism?are becoming increasingly incompatible.
What should be clear now is that the rush to bring ?advanced analysis? into the mainstream is more about careerism than it is about credibility, and that snake oil is snake oil no matter what one uses to cover the scent.
It is probably best for us to simply avert our eyes from all this, and wait for the piranhas to devour themselves. The overselling of ?advanced analysis? will almost certainly produce a backlash that will be as unanticipated by those stalwart careerists as the rise of franchises such as the Angels and Marlins was to those selfsame ?analytical experts.? As always, this is both the hardest lesson to learn, and the most difficult one to swallow.
6) In some respects, the special class of baseball fan that has come to populate sites such as this one is often more interested in the off-season machinations of teams than in the actual results of on-field play. In that subculture, a great off-season, with its ever-increasing chaos of player movement, is far more enjoyable than witnessing the actual results that ensue from the thicket of transactions (mostly due to the ramifications of lesson #5).
Truth be told, the 2003 season was pretty boring, unless you are a devotee of East Coast soap opera, baseball style (the Red Sox). As the year progressed, it turned into a virtual repeat of 2002, with four of six divisional races winding up in the hands of the incumbent champion, with one 2002 wild-card team (the Giants) gliding past a snake-bit Arizona squad. It was only in September when things started to get interesting, as the Marlins and Cubs emerged from a sizable group of solid but unspectacular teams to make the post-season.
And the extent to which baseball is now dependent on a post-season that rises to the occasion has never been better demonstrated than in 2003. (Miraculously, that makes three years in a row when the drama of the unexpected has charged in on a white horse to galvanize the game; even with that, baseball?s box office receipts are still relatively stagnant.)
Would baseball have been better off, market-wise, had the Cubs and the Red Sox made it into the World Series? Possibly, but in some respects the Marlins made a clearer and more interesting story?though it?s one that barely poked its head above the collective noise of narcissistic nostalgia. (Witness the grand old man of the New Yorker, Roger Angell, simply discarding the Marlins en route to a tired and predictable wallowing in the Yankee-Red Sox rivalry.)
Amidst all of the fixation over the Red Sox and the Cubs, there were other stories that deserved more attention. Baseball?s apparent reliance on a matte-painted mythology, however, left us woozy in contemplation of two teams that play in the two oldest remaining ballparks, with the most collective baggage in baseball history.
How fitting, then, in terms of our continued ?metaphysical comfort,? that they both were forced to carry their bags home again prior to the Big Show.
How perfect, in fact, for the ongoing fodder needed for future post-seasons, that these two franchises remain on the outside looking in, leaving intact their auras (however misshapen they may actually be).
And how perfect for the off-season, where each team can retool for what is apparently their Sisyphean function in American popular culture.
The off-season, however interesting, really should not command more attention than the actual season itself. In the mainstream world of baseball fandom, we?re not quite at that point?yet?but in other circles, we are already well past it. Those who have crossed over to the other side of the teeter-totter may be lost forever?in fact, they may not care if they never come back…
...but that doesn?t mean that the rest of us have to follow them.
7) The biggest baseball publishing event in February 2004 will not be the arrival of any ?baseball annual,? but instead will be the unveiling of an affordable paperback edition of the most valuable one-volume history of baseball yet created.
Unfortunately, it will be the last such effort from a baseball analyst/historian who single-handedly bridged an ever-widening gap between art and science in the swirling sub-universe of ?baseball literature.? That man, Leonard Koppett, died last June at the age of 79?and there is no greater gap in baseball today as a result. The distance between team payrolls is miniscule by comparison to the gap between Koppett?s theoretical understanding and historical sweep and those who would presumably inherit his mantle. Koppett?s perspective was one mostly unburdened by the ideological warts afflicting subsequent generations of baseball writers/analysts.
The book?Koppett?s Concise History of Major League Baseball?has appeared before, in a 1998 Temple University Press hardcover edition that was shamefully overlooked. The new version, which features updates through 2002, deserves to be on the top shelf in the library of any well-tempered follower of baseball, and will remain the definitive history of the game for the foreseeable future.
Koppett?s understanding of baseball as a game and as a business is shaped from having been present as both elements evolved into what they are today; unencumbered by pre-conceived notions, he is the best possible guide for those in search of a clear-eyed, as-objective-as-possible chronicle of the game and the business as it evolved from its pre-Civil War underpinnings into a monolithic and often self-contradictory media monopoly.
While we were robbed of Koppett too soon, this final legacy is as good a payoff as we could hope for in the wake of his all-too-conspicuous absence. It will probably take another 79 years?as long as Leonard was here with us?to produce another baseball writer with his unique combination of abilities, so you?d better start hunkering down with the Concise History of Major League Baseball as soon as you can, if only to have digested its lessons, which are far, far greater than any of the ones we?ve covered above.
Posted: January 05, 2004 at 05:00 AM | 13 comment(s)
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