Baseball Crank
Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
October 21, 2002
BASEBALL: Lessons From The 2002 World Series Teams

Originally posted on Projo.com

In baseball, success is often imitated. Every year, general managers look at the teams that won it all, or won the pennant or division, and ask themselves what those guys are doing right that we need to try. Some people dismiss this as mindless groupthink - the herd mentality - and it can be, particularly if dumb GMs ape the superficial features of the winners (like Steinbrenner's ill-fated early-80s decree that the era of power hitters was over and he was going to rebuild the Yankees as a team of speedsters) without capturing the important parts. But it's also a useful evolutionary process, and hey, animals run in herds for a good reason. Last year's pennant winners offered lessons that were easy to understand and hard to imitate, like the value of having the two best (healthy) pitchers in baseball, or the importance of Mariano Rivera. But imitation is all the more tempting when the winners exceeded expectations. What lessons can we take from the Angels and the Giants?

1. Valleys Are At Least As Important As Peaks
Look over the Angels lineup, and the striking thing is not strength but the absence of weakness. The average AL team scored 4.81 runs/game this season. The Angels scored 5.25, fourth in the AL but really in a 4-way knot of teams behind the Yankees at 5.57. STATS, Inc. does runs created per 27 outs calculations, which have some fancy math but are basically a well-established estimate of what a team of 9 of this guy would score. They're not perfect - the stat takes little note of baserunning other than steals and caught stealing, and doesn't adjust for park effects - but it's been proven in multiple ways to be a highly accurate estimate, and takes account of the whole spectrum of offensive accomplishments, like GIDP and HBP.

12 Angels batted more than 100 times this season, and only two of them created less than 4.7 runs per 27 outs: Darin Erstad, a little under the average at 4.4 on account of the fact that he hit for no power (10 HR, 28 2B), didn't draw walks (27 in more than 650 plate appearances), and didn't compensate by hitting over .300; and Bengie Molina, the one weak link at 2.7. (If you're wondering, the team leaders were Tim Salmon at 7.3, Brad Fullmer at 7.0 and Garret Anderson at 6.3 - nobody in the range of Bernie Williams (7.8) or Jason Giambi (9.9)).

How 'bout the Giants? Well, the average NL team scored 4.45 runs/game; the Giants scored 4.83, third in the league. Among the Giants' 7 regulars - the guys with 400+ at bats -- four ranged between 4.1 (Rich Aurillia) and 4.7 (David Bell), and Reggie Sanders at 5.1 isn't very far ahead. The one weak link is Tsuyoshi Shinjo, 3.8 over 362 at bats, and he's batted just once in the postseason. 8 other Giants have batted between 100-200 times, and again only two (Shawon Dunston at 2.6 and Pedro Feliz at 3.1) are truly non-hitters, while the tops is Kenny Lofton at 5.3.

But the Giants do have one top offensive star -- 2000 NL MVP Jeff Kent at 7.4, a bigger number in an NL pitcher's park than, say, Salmon's production - and Barry Bonds at 21.4. (Yeah, you read that right, a team of Barry Bondses would score over 21 runs a game).

Turn to the rest of the squads, and it's the same story. Of the guys who have started games in the postseason for these teams, none is a true superstar, and the biggest star is probably Jarrod Washburn. Not exactly Maddux, Schilling or Mussina here. But the highest ERAs are Kevin Appier (3.92) and Livan Hernandez (4.38, but 6-0 lifetime in the postseason). Virtually all of the two teams' relievers have been effective.

The lesson: sometimes, the way to win pennants is by removing weaknesses as much as creating strengths. It's not glamorous work, but in a game that requires a team to use 18-20 players in large or important roles on a regular basis, it adds up.

2. Just Showing Up Is Half The Battle
Check the numbers above: 7 Giants batted more than 400 times, and the low man in at bats in the group was Bonds, who also drew 198 walks. NINE Angels topped 400 at bats. Besides 4 starts for rookie Kurt Ainsworth, the same five guys started all of the Giants' games; the Angels replaced Scott Schoenweis (who went to the bullpen) with rookie John Lackey in mid-season, and those two and the other four top starters made all but 7 turns for the Halos. Anaheim had 5 relievers with at least 37 appearances, the Giants six. These teams were remarkably healthy all season, and they were rewarded.

The emblem for both the Angels' health and consistency is Garret Anderson. Statistical analysts of the game have labored long and hard to get more attention for productivity stats like slugging average and on base percentage, and less emphasis on the traditional Triple Crown of Batting-HR-RBI. Anderson, who tends to do well in the Triple Crown categories while hitting for only middling power (in comparison to his vast accumulation of plate appearances) and rarely walking, has thus been a target of (justified) scorn for analysts for some time. But a little balance is sometimes in order as well, and if anybody embodies the idea that you can be a good outfielder without a good on base percentage, without hitting 30 homers regularly, it's Anderson. Yes, Anderson had just a .332 on base percentage, just one point above the league average, which is dismal for an outfielder, particularly one who sometimes plays in the outfield corners. But against that, set this:

-- Anderson has never hit below .285 in his major league career and has had more than 180 hits 6 years running +Anderson has stayed healthy enough to ring up more than 640 plate appearances seven years in a row.

-- Except for 2001, Anderson's slugging average has gone up every year, and has been above .450 five years in a row

-- Anderson hit between 33 and 41 doubles 6 years straight, and then went up to 56 this season, pushing his slugging % to a career-high .539

-- Anderson's LOWS over the past 3 seasons: 28 homers, 117 RBI

-- Add to that, Anderson has grounded into just 23 double plays over the last 2 seasons (1382 plate appearances), while hitting with enough men on base to drive in 246 runs

-- He's a solid fielder who can play anywhere in the outfield as needed.

In short: consistency, durability, flexibility, athleticism, growth over time, and a good batting average. Not a recipe for greatness, but Anderson's a guy you can write in the lineup and forget about, and that's a virtue that shouldn't be underestimated.

(The anti-Garret Anderson would probably be Jeremy Giambi, a wonderful, high-OBP hitter with power who is slow as all get out, has no defensive position, has had various nagging injuries, and has twice been traded by teams that hated his attitude).

Lesson: having the best team on the field starts with having the whole team on the field at once.

3. They Call It "Prime" For A Reason
Neither of these teams is young, but the Angels have avoided aging veterans (including dumping Mo Vaughn, bringing in a younger replacement for Gary DiSarcina, and even trading Jim Edmonds for Adam Kennedy), avoided too many rookies, and wound up with a team in its prime. There are just 2 nonpitchers on the postseason roster over 30 - Tim Salmon's 34, and reserve outfielder Orlando Palmiero's 33 - but also only one (pinch runner Chone Figgins, age 24) under 26. The pitching staff is a bit older, but only John Lackey (23) and Francisco Rodriguez (20) are under 27, while only Kevin Appier (34) and Troy Percival (33) are over 32. The Giants are heavy on pitchers in their prime, although they are also very dependent on hitters who are quite long in the tooth (Bonds, Lofton, Santiago, Kent and Sanders are all 34 and up). Lesson: the Angels, at least, don't have gobs of big-name talent, but except for Salmon and maybe the still-developing Troy Glaus, everybody on the team is as good as they will ever be.

4. Never Stop Tinkering
This season, we can call this the "Rodriguez principle,' and it has two sides. On the one hand, the Angels had a fabulous bullpen; but they didn't rest on their laurels when provided the opportunity to add flamethrowing rookie Francisco Rodriguez. On the other, the Giants were getting just killed by Felix Rodriguez, but they didn't give up on him, and he wound up hot at the end of the year when he finally got his control down. In either case, the team could have been tempted to just look at who had pitched well this season and pushed the Rodriguezes off as projects for next year. Lesson: what matters is who is hot in October, not who had a good first half.

5. Hitting Like Babe Ruth Never Hurt Anybody
OK, this one's not so easy to imitate . . . I won't belabor this point, which has been made elsewhere, but Barry Bonds is the first player to scale the heights that Babe Ruth scaled with the bat in the early 1920s (Ted Williams was close, and for all we know Williams may have peaked as a hitter in 1944, but he wasn't quite Ruth), with on base percentages way above .500 and a slugging average in the .800 range. Obviously, that makes a big difference.

6. Dump Your Problems At Shea
A small point . . . the Giants upgraded to Jason Schmidt after trading away the erratic, frustrating Shawn Estes; the Angels cleared out the unhappy ballast of Mo Vaughn. Both wound up with the Mets. Not that I'm bitter . . .

Posted by Baseball Crank at 10:43 AM | Baseball Columns | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
Comments
Site Meter 250wde_2004WeblogAwards_BestSports.jpg