Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Rays 2010 Post-Mortem: Someone Started a Few Playoff Games and Two Crime Scenes Broke Out

If Boston's performance in the 2004 American League Championship Series taught us nothing else, it's that even a team down to single-game elimination can surge back to win it all. I have no doubt that, given a time machine and some clever disguises, the 2004 Red Sox could have done that in the ALDS this year. Unfortunately, the team I'm talking about is the 2010 Tampa Bay Rays, and obviously it's over. For regular fans watching at home, it might have been over the moment Rocco Baldelli limply struck out with the bases loaded in game one.

For most web-savvy fans it probably ended the moment their RSS feed binged and brought the news of the starting rotation for the ALDS. Manager Joe Maddon slated James Shields to start game two, something that writer Joe Posnanski outlined as a BAD IDEA pretty neatly:

[He’s] starting James Shields in Game 2? My buddy Ed Price has a piece up at Fanhouse quoting Maddon saying that while Shields’ more obvious numbers like ERA and home runs allowed and such were dreadful (he led the league in runs, hits and homers allowed), his “deeper numbers” were better. And his xFIP — what is basically his expected ERA if you take fielding out of the equation – is a very good 3.72, better, in fact, than CC Sabathia’s.

I certainly appreciate the nod to xFIP, but I can’t help but think that the REAL reason why the Rays are starting Shields is because of that absurd “Big Game Shields” nickname that someone stuck on him. And while I love Maddon being unconventional, I can’t help but worry that he’s overdoing it. Joe Maddon is really smart. I just hope he doesn’t think he’s smarter than that.
For fans of old Warner Brothers cartoons, the title says it all. Wile E. Coyote bore the title "Super Genius" around on a business card whenever urbanely introducing himself to somebody, and still he spent every waking moment of his life being incidentally murdered by himself due to a dumb bird.

Posnanski left out three things and got one thing wrong.
1. He should have mentioned that Shields hadn't won a game since August, which is not really a good sign when all your other significant stats are that bad.
2. He omitted how little "Big Game James" has done to earn that title: one postseason run that was basically "good" and not the sort of thing that caused other teams to say, "Holy shit, how the fuck are we gonna hit off James Shields?"
3. Maddon has always tended to have "his guys," and to favor projects of his or old loyalties beyond what a lot of people consider reasonable. On the last note, he kept starting Dioner Navarro this year despite Navarro's inability to hit anything. And when it comes to "his guys," Maddon sometimes evinces this prickly capriciousness about people he thinks are underrated standouts from spring training or people he thinks the press has incorrectly valued and that are due to surprise everyone. Whether he does this out of vanity is anyone's guess, but it would be surprising if that weren't a little factor.
That last thing flows into what I think Posnanski got wrong: namely, that Maddon really does think he's smarter than the average bear, in on something we don't know and so crafty that he may have to seem stupid. It's what I alluded to when I talked about his incipient LaRussa-ness. Consider this rundown from St. Petersburg Times sportswriter John Romano:
They started a designated hitter [in Game 1] who had five hits in the big leagues this season. They started a rightfielder [in Game 2] who has four hits in his entire major-league career. They used a rightfielder at first base and a No. 9 hitter at leadoff. Their Game 2 starting pitcher gave up more hits, home runs and earned runs than any pitcher in the American League this season.
These are not good ideas.

But the problem with Maddon's incipient LaRussa-ness is that he gets covered in much the same way as LaRussa. The foreordained narrative with him is that he's a smart guy, on some totally different baseball plane, so, like, who are we to judge anyway? When laptops were expensive and clunky and no one else in baseball was using computers, Maddon carried one with him everywhere and constantly consulted printouts. He likes riding bikes, traveling in Europe and is an amateur oenologist, all too happy to flatter sportswriters' sense of sophistication and wasted intellect by interrupting a clubhouse interview to discourse on merlot.

They repay that flattery with one fueled by confirmation bias. When Maddon does something bizarre and it works, it proves his genius. When it backfires, all too often it's dismissed as part of the game: even a very good batter makes an out two out of every three times he comes to the plate. It takes something exceptional for them to sit up and take notice, like a starting pitcher giving up the most home runs in the American League, wildly plunking a batter in the ALDS, and then making another pitch and falling off the mound.

The mystery of why one thing happened and another didn't, why Maddon expected a chosen result despite using strange inputs, is dismissed as the kind of abstruse stuff unfit for conventional sports recap shows and newspaper articles. Almost all discussion on the more technical moves Maddon makes is ceded to Maddon himself while the responses are marginalized to blogs and message boards and away from the harshly legitimating light of the mainstream. It's too much to explain, overwhelming for the palate of the casual fan.

But this of course surrenders a point that one doesn't need to know about statistics and probability to understand, and that's the fact that people with massive amounts of information can still do things as boneheaded as people with very little. They just don't have as much of an excuse, except for the explanation that too much information can be its own prison, can occlude an issue with complexity when a far simpler reaction can still lead to a really smart decision. One such simple reaction is, "The man who gave up the most hits, runs and home runs in the entire league should not start a short series in which wins are at a premium and the competition more talented than in many regular season games."

Maybe Maddon sensed this and was quick to try to walk back his confidence, because he yanked Shields pretty quickly in Game 2 after he gave up two runs and put two men on base. Rays fans keep screaming about the subsequent three-run homer off reliever Chad Qualls, noting that Rangers third baseman Michael Young's blast occurred after he should have been called out for failing to check his swing. Still, that would have recorded only the second out of the inning, and God knows what else might have happened. Also, who knows what else might have happened if Maddon had brought in someone other than Chad Qualls, who seemed to become a Maddon favorite despite every fan for every other team he's played for watching his every pitch with a knowing sense of dread.

Qualls' outing in the first game of the series made me willing to disavow my criticisms and dismiss myself as an idiot, but he came roaring back in this game as Authentic Chad Qualls, the newer, sleeker version of Dan Wheeler. If you've never followed the Rays, you probably don't know anything about Dan Wheeler, like the fact that his middle name is literally "Fucking." Nor the elegant fact that he is the ideal pitcher to bring in, in relief, if you have a genuine fear that the other team does not yet have enough runs.

Naturally, you never hear anything about this, due in large part to Wheeler's being one of "Maddon's guys." But you might also not hear anything about this because Wheeler's the son-in-law of Rays play-by-play man Dwayne Staats, whose name is derived from an old Dutch word, Staatsbeinholden, which means, "Man who will never say anything critical of Dan Wheeler, even though he fucking sucks." I realize I've gotten off track, but this is my point: everyone knew that Qualls was going to be the new Dan Wheeler; and he was; and no optimistic and self-doubt-inducing outing like the previous game could hold off his chronic recidivism for long.

Of course, it's unreasonable to put all this on Qualls or Shields or Maddon. (But we can still blame Wheeler.) The fact is that the Rays have hit poorly all season, and this short ALDS showed exactly how. While some blame should fall on Maddon and the hitting coach, the fact is that the front office couldn't spring for pricey big-name sluggers — hence picking up only the likes of Qualls at the trade deadline. The one big bat the Rays sprang for was Pat "The Bat" Burrell, who had a terrible .642 OPS with 14 home runs last season, missing 40 games. He was, comparably speaking, the big-money acquisition, and he drastically underperformed, hitting 16 fewer homers and almost .200 lower on his OPS. And perhaps no stat indicates the unfairness of the game quite like Burrell's stats this year for the Rays and Giants:
WITH TB - 24 GMS .202 AVG 02 HR 12 RBI
WITH SF - 96 GMS .266 AVG 18 HR 51 RBI
Part of that jump in stats definitely comes from moving not only to the weaker-pitching National League but also away from the AL East, the toughest division in baseball. But part of it also comes from the fact that sometimes life sucks.

The Rays' streaky hitting spoke to that all year. There's definitely an argument to be made that there is something institutionally wrong with the Rays' hitting instruction — whole collective swoons where the team vanishes due to swinging at everything or nothing, this pendulum arc between group adoption of one extreme of behavior and group adoption of another — but the lion's share of blame/fate still goes to the team's inability to afford the players at the highest premium in the game, the big hitting savant.

With a front office philosophy emphasizing defense, speed and pitching, the Rays can keep their team payroll relatively low, but it also means that they're priced out of bidding on the Adam Dunn, Jim Thome and Manny Ramirez types: lumbering monsters at the plate who present a constant liability in the field and on injured reserve. These are the sorts of people who can help you win a game like Game 1 or Game 2 by slugging one or two monster hits when the rest of your streaky and opportunistic offense somewhat lags, but they can also keep you from affording the pitchers who help you win a lot of regular-season games.

Speaking of team payroll, the team is done, both in the sense that they are out of the postseason and also cease to be as a team. Rays management effectively went "all in" with their payroll this season, meaning that during this off-season they may fail to satisfy a lot of little names, in addition to letting bigger names go to free agency. Of the two big names, Carlos Peña's contract is up, and despite his hitting under .200 this season, there's still his high-quality defense, his good walk rate and an average of 36 home runs per season over the last four years. You'd think other teams might blanche at his hitting for average under the Mendoza Line, but he's bound to improve without a hitting coach whose defining talent seems to be getting a bunch of completely different hitters to fall off the edge of the earth for weeks at a time.

Carl Crawford is similarly a lock to go someplace else. Supposedly friend and Yankee — two things we would normally consider mutually exclusive — CC Sabathia has been lobbying him all season to come up to the Bronx, but it's easy to see how he and Peña could wind up in Boston, where a fed-up fanbase would like to see big off-season moves that won't be nearly as necessary for New York. With Mike Lowell retiring, they could easily move Kevin Youkilis back to third and install Peña at first. Meanwhile, Crawford would be a fine replacement for Boston centerfielder Jacoby Ellsbury, whose contract expires this off-season, and whose signature talents seem to be injury and doing mediocre things at a speed faster than other mediocrities. Some lunatic will surely massively overpay for Rafael Soriano, despite his implosion in the 9th inning of Game 5. And there are a ton of other names potentially departing. (You can look at them here.)

I know I keep saying that it's unfair to blame Maddon too much, but no other condition makes Maddon's roster moves more enervating. Unlike the 2008 Rays, many of their key personnel, including their biggest slugger and their most reliable hitter and baserunner, won't be here next year. In 2008, fans had the luxury of seeing a team go to the World Series for the first time, but they also knew they'd be seeing many of the same people next year. Even 2009's down year still held out the promise of "see ya next year." That won't happen now, with at least one re-tooling year on the horizon (at least), which makes capricious noodling with the roster and embrace of incredibly counterintuitive statistics in short-time high-leverage situations so exasperating. A best-of-five series admits little room for enormous mistakes while allowing the consequences of them to resonate far more severely.

What makes everything more frustrating is the plain fact that the Rays would never have made the postseason without Maddon's managing or the front office commitment to defense and speed. The exact things that proved to be big disadvantages in a short postseason series are the things that allowed the team to play in one in the first place. It's enough to remind a fan of Oakland GM Billy Beane's line about his sabermetrics-oriented teams' failure in the postseason: "My shit doesn't work in the playoffs." Maybe that's true, but it's also true that those Oakland teams beat themselves with boneheaded gameplay: like running to home standing up, on a play that apparently will make Derek Jeter the single greatest postseason fielder for the next 1,000 years. At least something like that is circumstantial, in the middle of the action. At least fans of the A's can't point to Beane starting arguably the biggest pitching liability in the American League.