Apr 07, 2009, 06:27AM

Give Me Back My Baseball Innocence

Increasingly accurate statistics makes rooting for a losing team even more fatalistic.

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There are two options for this year’s baseball season: ignore everything you’ve learned, throw history and statistics to the wind, play the ignorant fool or resign yourself to another lost season, another doomed failure without a scrap of hope. Can you feel the excitement?

This is the least excited I’ve ever been for a baseball season of watching my beloved Baltimore Orioles. I have no one to blame but myself (and maybe Bill James) for my Faustian quest to understand the game of baseball. Soccer may be the beautiful game, but baseball is the perfect game, structured, measurable at every turn. Luck is but a whim in baseball, washed out over the course of the six-month, 162-game season. The cream rises to the top. There is a marvel in all of this, almost a feeling of justice—finally, a true meritocracy in a cruel, unfair world.

Like many fans, my first introduction to the world of statistics came via Michael Lewis’ Moneyball, a profile of innovative general manager Billy Beane. It unearthed a bevy of statistics that Beane was using to measure the performance of players around the league—statistics that weren’t necessarily new, but certainly weren’t part of the mainstream baseball management discourse. I was fascinated. It was a startling revelation: maybe everything I grew up thinking and knowing about the sport was wrong. With so much information, fans were at a crossroads: understand the game fully or retreat to blissful nothingness. I chose the latter, but I don’t know if I chose correctly.

The next step was my foray into the world of Baseball Prospectus, a team of math nerds/savants that have boiled stats down to a series of acronyms that provide a nearly exact measure of each facet of a baseball player’s output. It’s gotten to a point where the combination of players’ offensive and defensive stats can be converted into the amount of wins that an individual player brings to his team. By comparing the statistics of today to the trends of the last 100 years, they can pretty accurately predict a player’s output from year-to-year. Thus, they can pretty accurately predict a team’s record from year-to-year.

And here is where the loss of innocence comes in. Check out Baseball Prospectuspredictions for the 2008 season. Now, compare those to the actual records. They can’t predict everything, but for the most part, they are soundly able to nail down the basic records of each team. They even were ahead of the curve in predicting a winning season for Tampa Bay Rays.

Day to day, these predictions and stats don’t necessarily hinder the game-watching experience. Even the worst clubs win at least 60 games a year, and some of those are against far superior teams. Being able to understand why Manny Ramirez is a great player beyond the visible “Wow, I am terrified of his hitting ability” definitely enhances the interaction with the game. For teams clustered at the top, these predictions and statistical anomalies become nearly irrelevant when you’re talking about two teams with stellar projected records duking it out over the game or two that separates both their hypothetical ability and their actual win total.

But if your team is stuck in the cellar, your hopelessness only gets magnified. While statistics provide little comfort to the top, they smother the dreams of those at the bottom. You can’t hope for miracle seasons because there just isn’t any evidence that they actually happen. “Surprise” teams like last year’s White Sox only seem to creep up in divisions where the teams are clustered around the middle. Last year’s AL Central didn’t have a single projected 90-win team. What’s so disheartening is the seeming inability for projected lower tier teams to break through to the top.

The Rays and White Sox were projected as average/slightly above average teams that caught a few breaks to accelerate their progress—there were no teams projected in the bottom third of their respective league that were able to make a leap beyond their expectations.

If the Orioles start off terrible, continue to play terrible, and end the season being terrible, it won’t matter what this year’s lousy projections were, it will just be a terrible season. But if they start playing well at some point, as they did in the first half of 2005, then I won’t be able to get excited like I once could. After that disastrous season, I began delving into the world of modern baseball knowledge. I realized then that you can’t overcome fate or statistics. Those Orioles were destined to be lousy and they were, despite a tantalizing blaze of hope. And now, the Orioles’ 2009 season of inevitable woe is likewise already written in stone. Although this year has just barely begun, the only thing left to do is hold out hope for next year.

  • I think that you can still have your optimism. If you look at the 2008 projections and actual results, they really weren't that impressive. They missed on a number of playoff teams, for example. If your O's get hot, who's to say they can't make a run. (Of course, they can't make a run this year, because their pitching won't be able to carry them, but we're talking about optimism here). I don't think the projections take anything away from you on that end, at least any more than traditional predictions could.

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  • Did you catch the article in this week's Sports Illustrated about increasingly accurate defensive statistics? They take a lot of the myth out of judging players defensively, which previously was difficult to do. Derek Jeter, for example, sucks. And Torii Hunter is getting old. Like you, I fear for the day that human GM's are replaced by computer programs.

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  • Jeter's been under fire from statheads for about three years now, especially after he absurdly won gold gloves. And so now the bandwagon has started. I don't think Jeter "sucks" in the field; he has little range and should probably be moved to the outfield, but he's not exactly a liability on the Jason Giambi scale (who, by the way, looked a lot older in last night's A's opener). And like him or not (and I don't), Jeter's still a clutch guy at the plate.

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  • I'm not saying he isn't a good hitter. But according to SI, he cost his team 16 runs (I think) over the course of 2008 that the average shortstop could've prevented. If that doesn't earn me the right to say that he sucks, then I don't know what does.

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  • Amen, you're preaching to me! I can't stand Jeter and all the hero worship of him, not only in New York, but on ESPN and Fox. He'll be one of the most overrated Hall of Famers.

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  • Checkin in 4 months later. Our O's are sucking this year as predicted. But as a fan of baseball every game at the stadium is a new day. Groundhog day perhaps, but there's always hope and that will never die. Oh, but we beat those damn Yankees on Opening Day this year. Suck it!

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