Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Breaking up the criticism

I never really intended this site to become a sounding board for sounding off on sports journalism; beyond the fact that it's done elsewhere (and well, in many cases), it's also not the most difficult thing in the world to do. There are lots of ridiculous things said on a daily basis, and to constantly point them out would be both exhausting and disparities. This is not to say I won't do it again, or discourage others from doing so themselves. It's only to say that I'm going to try and aim higher, when an opportunity to do so presents itself.

Tonight, I want to discuss the playoffs, and those in particular belonging to baseball. Among the many fascinating things brought to light in Michael Lewis' Moneyball, which I believe is the single-best book on sports I've ever read (and, yes, I read both Breaks of the Game and Ball Four, among dozens of other sports-related books over the course of my life), is Billy Beane's attitude toward the playoffs. I will not repeat that particular philosophy here, because it is oft-discussed by those on the sports media universe, often —tragically — by people who haven't read the book or didn't really understand what it was they were reading (or somehow felt that admitting Beane had anything worthwhile to say would somehow constitute an admittance on his or her part that perhaps his or her "knowledge of the game" may not be as absolute as he or she likes to present it to the reading and watching public). Anyhow, when I first read it, I shook my head. Like others, I had been raised to believe that the best teams were the ones that performed in the playoffs, a group that was not to be confused with regular-season wonders who could win a lot of games in April, but crumbled under the weight of expectation and pressure and chilly autumn air and Tim McCarver's incessant prattle.

In the seasons that have transpired since my reading of that book (which included some time for a re-reading) I have come to believe that not only was Beane onto something, but he was unequivocally right. The playoffs are a total, utter, fucking crapshoot. This year's postseason has pretty much sealed the argument, as far as I'm concerned. Of the four teams remaining in the playoffs, only one — the Mets — could have been said to be the favorite in its respective divisional series. The Athletics, Tigers and Cardinals were all, as far as I can tell, underdogs of a significant order, respective to the implied overall quality expected from playoff teams (for example, when taking into account that all playoff teams are expected to be good-to-great teams, I firmly believed that the difference between the Padres and the Cardinals, as playoff series go, was equivalent in scale to the difference between the Reds and the Cubs in a regular season contest ... I hope this makes sense).

Yet, it is not simply the fact that three underdogs won that has convinced me of the absolute truth of Beane's assertion. It was the how. The Padres, while far from a redux of the Bronx Bombers, were a capable hitting team all season and a particularly excellent hitting team outside of Petco park this season (the Friars led all NL teams in road OPS). Yet, the Padres couldn't hit a Jeff Weaver fastball come playoff time. Am I to think think that men such as Brian Giles, Mike Piazza and Adrian Gonzalez are somehow "chokes?" I think that's patently absurd, my personal distaste for Piazza notwithstanding. Or how about the case of the Minnesota Twins, one of the better defensive teams in the Major Leagues on a consistent basis? Am I to believe that perpetual Gold-Glover Torii Hunter, a man who obarreledlled through an outfield wall during his minor league career to catch a flyball, is some kind of shrinking violet once the postseason begins? I believe anyone who says such a thing should be forced to say as much to Hunter's face. And, finally, what of the Yankees, a team that featured perhaps the single most imposing lineup ever assembled in the history of the game, one with two AL MVPs of the current decade, the probable 2006 AL MVP, the greatest hitter in the history of the Japanese Leagues, a leadoff hitter who had been central two years prior to the Red Sox's stunning WS victory, a veritable OBP machine in Bob Abreu and a host of other hitters who would all comprise some part of just about any other team's heart of the lineup? Yes, the Tigers' pitching staff is excellent my any measure, perhaps even better than last year's WS-winning White Sox staff across the board (that's only the case if you, like me, place a premium on high-K power pitching [and, yes, I realize that Kenny Rodgers is a member of the staff]) but you would have had to drug me to have me say with a straight face that it would have taken anything short of the Return Of Jesus Christ Himself to allow the Tigers to win that series 3-1 (and how!).

Yet, if we are to believe that playoff performance is somehow indicative of a team's actual ability, then we must re-examine just about everything we know about baseball. What is a 162-game season if it's not the ultimate test of a particular team's quality? Is one to tell me that the Cardinals' performance in four games against the Padres told us more than a month-long swoon in which they almost pulled off a collapse of historic proportions (and don't tell me that Jim Edmonds' return to the lineup made that much of a difference ... this was not 2004-grade Jim Edmonds in that lineup come playoff time)? I find myself incapable of believing that alone. When you add that to the improbable defeats suffered by the Yankees and Twins, I fail to see how anyone can come to a different conclusion without suspending disbelief completely.

Here's the bigger question: Does anyone really feel differently? I'm curious to know just how much I'm preaching to the choir here.

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