The Futility Infielder

A Baseball Journal by Jay Jaffe I'm a baseball fan living in New York City. In between long tirades about the New York Yankees and the national pastime in general, I'm a graphic designer.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006


A Little Chin Music, Please

Delayed by a day due to technical difficulties -- a real drag due to the time-sensitive nature of the material -- the Prospectus Hit List went up today at BP with a new team in the top spot: the New York Mets, on the strength of their best 11-game start ever (at 13 games, they were still tied with the '86 Mets, but with tonight's loss, they've fallen behind the pace).

The Yanks came in at #3 despite their ho-hum 6-6 record because they've been scoring runs in bunches, winning big but losing small:
Feast or famine: in the Yanks' six wins, they've outscored opponents 64-21, with a minimum of nine runs scored in each and all but one win by at least six runs. In their six losses, they've been outscored 31-16, yielding more than six runs only once and losing three one-run games.
As I apparently have to keep reminding certain readers too thick to parse either the intro explaining the methodology or the footnote which reads, "The Prospectus Hit List rankings are derived from Won-Loss records and several measurements pertaining to run differentials, both actual and adjusted, from Baseball Prospectus Adjusted Standings through the close of play on every Sunday. For more on the Hit List, see this article..." IT'S ABOUT THE RUNS, PEOPLE, not about my bowing in front of the awesome power of any team's reputation, prior accomplishment or preseason hype level.

I swear to HoJu, the next White Sox fan who emails me to complain about their team's ranking without RTFM-ing will be ritually humiliated in this space, then publicly disembowled on a live webcast, with his entrails fed to the pigeons in Tompkins Square Park and his family forced to enter the Federal Witness Relocation Program due to excessive taunting. I sang this song last week, and now I'm done holding every respondent's hand through the methodology; hereafter, "How can you rank ______ all the way down at #___?" and other variants thereof will be considered a Stupid Question, and I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance simply to amuse those of us who Get It (and those who dig my cold-ass Jules Winnfield impressions).

Sorry, got a little carried away there.

In all seriousness, it's April, folks. Taking any stat or set of stats too seriously -- including a ranking -- is a recipe for trouble. The Tigers may rank #2 in the rankings this week, not because I think they're better than the Yanks, Red Sox, White Sox, and the Moose Jaw Diamond Dogs, but because Chris Shelton's putting up a 1.600 OPS and the pitching staff is doing a good job of preventing runs. Now, I don't expect young Mr. Shelton to maintain said level of production any more than I expect the Tigers to finish the year at #2, but damned if I'm going to worry two minutes about it. I'm happy to see his name on the leaderboard (especially as he hails from my godforsaken hometown of Salt Lake City), and willing to let him enjoy his moment in the sun.

The Hit List is a Power Ranking, but it differs from its competitors in that I'm resolute about following the numbers in the rankings and confining what I have to say about the actual merits and context of those numbers to the comments rather than fudging the rankings based on where a team "should" be. As I wrote about the Rockies (#5):
Artificial High: the Rox are still riding the run differential of their three-game drubbing of the Padres; in all other contests they've been outscored 48-42. Still, it's rare to see this team with a winning record or a sub-5.00 ERA (4.46 through Sunday), so you'll have to forgive our gawking at anomalies like Jose Mesa's 0.00 ERA or Brad Hawpe's .739 SLG. Like the Two-Headed Goat, such oddities are not long for this world.
At this time of year, the Hit List, like any set of stats, is a conversation-starter, not the final word on quality. Soon enough, teams will rise or fall to approach their true levels of ability, and lying awake at night worrying that it hasn't happened yet is a waste of time. Embrace the Museum of April Oddities rather than fight it.

• • •

Spent this past weekend in Milwaukee with my wife's family. No Sausage Race this time, no ballgame at all as the Brewers were in New York (a trade Omar Minaya worked out, me for Ned Yost's team and a retro '82 jersey, just for the weekend), but the town is definitely abuzz with the fact that it's a new, Selig-free era where their team has a fighting chance.

Even with my rag arm still in a recuperative state, I had a great game of catch with my two brothers-in-law (Aaron and Adam, both of whom I've traveled with in the name of baseball), tossing the ball around for 30 minutes, reliving old glories on the diamond. No matter how many times I've heard it, the one that always wins is Adam's Bob Wickman story.

Adam was the better of the two brothers as a ballplayer, and even spent a couple of years on his college team at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, a Division III school (last year they won the D-III title). He didn't get to hit often (lifetime stats: 1-for-4), but he occupied a rather odd niche that this futilityman -- whose career ended when I was cut from my freshman high school squad -- can admire. In UW-Whitewater's conference, there's a rule that allowed (not sure if it still exists) for the catcher to have a designated runner once he's on the bases as a means of expediting play; no waiting around for somebody to buckle their shinguards for those cheeseheads. Adam was the designated runner for a D-III All-America catcher who got on base fairly often, and thus saw enough playing time to steal several bases despite his few trips to the plate. Not quite Herb Washington, but still close. And much further than I ever got.

Anyway, during the winter, Bob Wickman, one of two UW-Whitewater alums to play in the majors (the other is Gene Brabender of Ball Four fame), would work out with the team. Wickman, who must have been coming off of his rookie '92 season with the Yankees (6-1, 4.11 ERA in 50.1 innings over eight starts), was throwing batting practice to the varsity one day when Adam stepped into the cage. He was supposed to lay down bunts on the first two pitches before swinging away, as was the style at the time. Alas, he didn't get the memo and swung away on the second pitch. He connected and lined a shot which rattled off the screen protecting Wickman.

The hurler was not happy. On his next pitch, he buzzed the tower. "The pitch came right underneath my chin," recounted Adam with a laugh and a demonstration of the ball's trajectory. "I was shaking after that."

Chin music from Bob Wickman. You have to love that story.

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