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They come to us, it seems, fully formed, Venuses rising on shells of hype. When they arrive in town next week, the Cubs and White Sox will seem set, their lineups solid from top to bottom, their pitching shaky but for the moment stable, and, of course, ever optimistic. They’ll seem like the teams we’ve been waiting for, and their rosters will seem to make sense, as if any other moves were unnecessary at best or, at worst, downright stupid. Spring training, viewed from Chicago, is merely a sign of spring. It means little to our appreciation of the ball clubs. Yet the Cubs and White Sox, we must remember, have already been playing six weeks. They’ve arrived at their rosters through constant analysis and checks, playing someone in center field who really doesn’t belong there just to see if he can do it, trying a sore-armed starter in the bullpen. In other words, the Cubs and White Sox picked up where they left off last September — experimenting — only this year they hope to have some final products of their experiments by opening day.
Still, for those of us locked in Chicago, unable to travel to Florida or Arizona, the teams that come to us in April offer our best chance at playing armchair manager — or, better yet, general manager. The statistics of spring training do not count and therefore, we believe, neither do the experimenting or the findings. We have, at last, access to the statistics — last year’s complete stats, the books on this and that, this pitcher and that hitter — and the teams this spring will find out nothing we don’t already know. During the season, a manager — as Earl Weaver shows in his book Weaver on Strategy — makes his lineup from stats available to only the privileged few: stats such as how a batter hits a certain pitcher or on a certain field or under the lights or in the afternoon. These are stats we only get glimpses of during the regular season; we have no chance to pore over them. We only occasionally hear, from a manager defending a decision, that so-and-so bunted because he was 0 for 24 lifetime against the pitcher but that his glove was needed for the late innings so he had to bat and from there bunting was the only option. Managers are in a privileged spot because they not only have access to the stats but they know the players and — ideally — can tell when they are feeling confident or unconfident.
During the season, the statistics are in flux, as are the abilities of most of the players. We will never get that sort of information, but armed with the new stat books — which examine last season like a murder (as it was in these parts), determining culprits and heroes — we think we might, and that we could do a better job than the managers and general managers we see supposedly mismanaging our teams. Which is the crazy point of view — typical of the baseball fan — that he knows more about this simple and yet unendingly complicated game than those in power — but we will defend ourselves by paraphrasing that guy who said: We aren’t crazy, we’re simply harboring a few illusions.
The best stats book — the one that best convinces us that we could better the Dallas Greens and Hawk Harrelsons of the world (as if we needed any convincing about the latter) — is the Bill James Baseball Abstract, but due to its relatively late publication date well have to rely on Seymour Siwoff’s Elias Baseball Analyst for this year’s early-April prognosticating. James’s book is a better read — he’s really a pretty sharp writer — but there is another essential difference. James’s genius is in his faith in his ability to find the essence of the individual player in his stats; he believes that individuals and, more than that, their personalities can be found within their statistics. Siwoff, on the other hand, begins with the team and hopes to find the individual’s role within it, thus the large charts showing won-lost records by position and place in the batting order.
For instance, to begin with the White Sox, when Carlton Fisk played left field last season, Siwoff shows that the Sox won 9 games while losing 20. As a catcher, however, Fisk produced a 31-34 record. The error of the figures is shown in the construction of the last sentence. No doubt, the Sox were better with Fisk behind the plate than in left field, but does that one alteration turn the Sox from a last-place team to a near-.500 team? Does Carlton Fisk “produce” a team’s record by playing in a certain position?
These records can be interpreted in any number of ways and almost always show some deceiving results (the Sox, for instance, were 20-9 with Bobby Bonilla starting in left field), but they can also be telling. Even in a volatile, arbitrary system such as this, not a single member of the White Sox “produced” a winning record by batting lead-off, even though they tried six players in the spot. In addition to the woeful performance of the White Sox as a team against left-handers, the lead-off spot is one of the two glaring problems on the team. The stats show that the Sox helped themselves in neither category by obtaining Gary Redus from the Philadelphia Phillies. A lead-off man must get on base, and Redus’s .343 on-base percentage is no improvement over John Cangelosi’s .349. Likewise, although Redus’s on-base percentage goes up against lefthanders (Cangelosi’s plummeted), he does not hit better against them, nor does he hit them with greater power. In fact, just the opposite: his slugging percentage last year was .455 against righties and .385 against lefties. Meanwhile, Redus hit only .211 on grass last year, as opposed to .257 on artificial turf — stats the White Sox had better hope were screwed by his mere 71 at-bats on grass. (A fly-ball hitter, Redus shouldn’t show such a noticeable difference, but nevertheless the trend is consistent over the last three seasons. We’ll have to see.)
Harold Baines hits both righties and lefties fairly well, but Greg Walker’s inability to hit lefties is holding him back from achieving what he once promised as a hitter. Walker has raised his average each season against lefties, but still hit only .235 against them last year. Simply said, he mustn’t bat cleanup against left-handers. With Redus pegged for lead-off, Walker doesn’t figure to get any help in this area this season. With Baines still ailing, the Sox’ attack figures to be as anemic as it was last year.
Pitching plays less well to these statistics; it’s a more difficult art to be consistent in. Even so, the Sox have a pretty good staff on the face of things, and they still can’t be counted out in that poor American League West division. I can’t muster the optimism the team obviously holds for Floyd Bannister and Richard Dotson, but I think Jose DeLeon is a possible 20-game winner and that the bullpen duo of Bob James and Bobby Thigpen will hold the great majority of the few leads they’ll be given. I’ll peg them for fourth, but not without chances for something better.
Everyone talks about the Cubs’ poor pitching and how much of it is attributable to Wrigley Field. The Elias Analyst has some news for those folks who subscribe to that opinion: the Cubs’ earned-run average was worse on the road last year than it was at home, the first time that has happened in the three years of the Analyst and who knows how long before then. Plainly, the pitching stank, but equally plainly it should improve with Andre Dawson in right field rather than Keith Moreland — fewer balls falling in the gap. Dawson improves the Cubs any number of ways — most important he gives the team as well as the fans a reason for hope – -but he does not improve the team’s glaring problem: as with the White Sox, lack of a leadoff man. The Cubs were 19-30 with Bob Dernier leading off last year, and likewise his arm has (finally) been questioned by the Cubs brass. The Cubs won 11 of the 18 games Chico Walker started as lead-off man last year, but that was in September when, for a short time, the team was playing well as a whole, and besides, Walker’s ability as a center-fielder has been questioned. Common sense dictates that Shawon Dunston — whose 21 walks against 581 at-bats raised his .250 batting average to a .278 on-base average — would make an awful lead-off man, but Dunston nevertheless remains a great but unrealized talent who is being squandered in the eighth spot, where he is easy prey for the poor pitches he is being thrown. The Cubs were, to begin with, 22-20 with Dunston leading off last year, and if he were challenged to fill the role that demands he draw more walks, be just might become a better hitter as a result. In any case, if the Cubs don’t get the lead-off man on base, Dawson isn’t worth even the measly $500,000 salary they’re paying him.
Pitching, again, is the problem, and the Elias Analyst offers no answers. (It goes on at no short length to prove that ground-ball pitchers pitch better in Wrigley Field than fly-ball pitchers: thanks, guys.) Pitching remains the mystery that stats only explain in hindsight, and sometimes fail to explain altogether. Left-handers hit .356 against left-handed Steve Trout, who held righties to the (only) relatively low .287. How come? Hidden in those whirling mechanics are the differences between good pitches and bad, winning records and the end of a career. It’s something no stats can explain, something not even Bill James can shine much light upon (his book remains, for the most part, devoted to hitters and offensive stats). It is, unfortunately, the key to the Cubs’ chances. If one believes the Mets will collapse, as I do, then one agrees the Cubs have a chance, but it all depends on what goes on upon the mound. I peg them for third. Within the gyrations of the pitcher, statistics become almost meaningless; the game becomes entirely physical and mental — individual — and this is where we must relinquish control to the managers and general managers, for this is where even they are out of their depth.
In predictions and pools, we turn fandom into sports. We become players and competitors ourselves. Here, there is no waiting for the season to start; the first pitch is already in hand: Phillies and Cincinnati Reds in the National League, New York Yankees and Oakland A’s in the American League, with the Reds beating the Yanks in the World Series.