At the game, up-close look may add to view of players


The Kickoff

May 23, 2006|By CHILDS WALKER

I've had a curious experience this season, balancing my usual assemblage of fantasy teams with coverage of an actual baseball team in Baltimore.

Mind you, I always watched a lot of real baseball on television and went to maybe seven or eight Orioles games a year. But it was never my actual job to observe baseball players and translate that visual evidence into some assessment of what might happen on the field.

I suspect that's how many people experience baseball anyway. They may flip on a Red Sox game for a few innings and see David Ortiz hit a mammoth home run or poke a two-run single to left to give his team the lead. That observation combined with perpetual chatter from ESPN's talking heads cements a certain image of Ortiz. This image is strong enough that if you're at a bar with casual sports fans and a Red Sox game appears on television, the phrase "great clutch hitter" is apt to be uttered when Ortiz bats.

It's true that Ortiz is a guy you'd want at the plate in a key spot. But for most individual fans, that assumption is based on a few fleeting observations of Ortiz and the consensus opinion of "experts."

Well, I spent the first 20 or so years of my baseball fandom trying to train myself out of such thinking. I learned not to trust my eyes, to dismiss one phenomenal achievement as just that - one achievement.

When I was 7 years old, I watched in person as Mike Boddicker tied an American League playoff record by striking out 14 Chicago White Sox. That remains among the greatest sports nights in my memory. But did it say much about Boddicker other than that he had the best game of his career at an opportune time?

No, I would've said by the time I turned 17, because Bill James' writing had gotten to me. James became my favorite baseball philosopher because he confronted the game's mysteries with reason. He tore down old myths and skewered hasty observations with his insistence on finding evidence. He was a hero to the intellectually rebellious, the baseball equivalent of a punk rocker or avant-garde filmmaker.

And yet over time, James became his own status quo. He begat a generation of followers who seemed almost content to reduce ballplayers to lines of numbers. When Michael Lewis' Moneyball came out in 2003, it served as a sort of manifesto for the statistical movement. Billy Beane was making the old-line thinkers look foolish by applying the theories of James and his descendants to the Oakland Athletics. I remember the euphoria of reading it for the first time, thinking, "Yeah, exactly!" every 10 pages or so.

Of course, Moneyball produced a counter-reformation from scouts and general managers who believe human observation still has a strong place in the game.

As I said, I fell on the stat-loving side of the fence. I still liked going to games, but if I saw Eric Chavez hit two homers against the Orioles, I didn't leave with a heightened opinion of the Oakland third baseman. I knew his stats and they formed the core of my thoughts on him as a player. That was how I operated as a fantasy player, too. I never let passion get in the way of reason.

Well, I don't feel so militant anymore. If Moneyball crystallized the way a lot of us thought about the game, its aftermath has led to a lot of softening. Beane's radical draft philosophies, for example, didn't produce the greatest class of prospects in baseball history. Some of those guys who drew a lot of walks in college ball really didn't have the physical skills to compete in the pros. Maybe the old scouts were right in a few cases.

The guys at Baseball Prospectus, the ultimate think tank for the numbers-loving class, hired Kevin Goldstein, a "judge with your eyes" type, to write their prospect reports.

And in my case, I moved into a new job that has me spending every day with ballplayers. Look, I still don't trust my eyes. In the first series of the season, the Orioles faced two Tampa Bay left-handers, Scott Kazmir and Mark Hendrickson. Kazmir had terrible command and got ripped. Hendrickson changed speeds, hit his spots beautifully and pitched a three-hitter. An Orioles fan watching both games could well have wondered why Kazmir was the more ballyhooed pitcher.

Well, six weeks later, Kazmir is 7-2 with a 2.39 ERA. Hendrickson has been fine as well with a 3.57 ERA. But any fantasy owner who dropped Kazmir in favor of his teammate would be kicking himself at this point.

At the same time, my eyes did tell me something in that series. I came into the season a little skeptical about Jonny Gomes, the Tampa Bay outfielder who hit 21 homers in 101 games as a rookie last season. I looked at his strikeout and walk data and it told me he was a hacker who might struggle over a full season. But I watched Gomes carefully, and my eyes told me he was a guy who waited for good pitches and when he got them, really crushed the ball. I snagged him in a draft the following weekend and have certainly been pleased.

So I guess what I'm saying is this: If as a fantasy player, you rely heavily on what you've seen in person or on television, take a longer look at the statistics. They lend perspective. But if you're a stats lover, take the time to scout players with your eyes as well. Direct observation really can round out your understanding in some cases. Or so I seem to be learning.

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