MLB Prejudices: How to See the Game Clearly, Guest-Starring Mariano Rivera

Steven Goldman@GoStevenGoldmanMLB Lead BloggerMarch 19, 2012

Mariano Rivera: The One and Only.
Mariano Rivera: The One and Only.Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

In the first half of the 20th Century, the cranky “Sage of Baltimore,” H.L. Mencken, published a series of books called “Prejudices,” in which context “prejudice” meant not “an irrational hatred of an ethnic, religious or racial group (although Mencken had those—with Ty Cobb and Mencken, today is apparently my day to invoke morally-indictable forebears)," but rather signified a series of highly opinionated pieces about things that Mencken may or may not have been qualified to comment upon.

Today, I invoke that same term in reference to the rules by which I evaluate the game.

Back in 2003, when I was a younger man and had more working parts—what was it Obi-Wan said? “He’s more machine now than man. His mind is twisted and evil.”—I compiled a list of 19 “Commandments” for my Pinstriped Bible, common sense rules that often fly in the face of the way the game is reported and analyzed in the mainstream media, even now, nine years later.

I’ll keep the commentary limited for now—for extended reflection, see the original piece linked above.

1. It’s how often a player reaches base and how much power he has that’s important, not batting average, not RBIs. You can’t score runners that aren’t there, can’t move runners around the bases with singles.

2. Remember league and position averages: numbers have meaning only in context. Extreme example: In 1930, the average National Leaguer hit .303/.360/.448. As such, future Hall of Fame first baseman George Kelly’s .308/.336/.432 isn’t all that special. In fact, it’s not good at all.

3. RBIs are opportunistic; RBIs are a team stat and are not indicative of a player’s ability. The number of runs a player drives in is inevitably a function of the number of runners on base when he comes to bat—each year, a few hitters will muscle up and exceed the league average with runners on, but for the most part, nothing heroic is happening.

4. Stolen bases just don’t matter. This was more true then than now, when offensive levels were higher. Stolen bases remain a tactical weapon in a home run-era, however. The risk of moving up one base at a time just isn’t worth the risk when the runner still routinely gets to trot home.

5. The main function of the batting order is to distribute plate appearances. The higher up you bat, the more you play. That’s it.

6. A strikeout is just another out. For a pitcher, they help a great deal. For the hitter, they’re an acceptable price to pay for hitting home runs and staying out of the double play.

7. Placing good bats on the right side of the defensive spectrum is one of the keys to winning. When I was a kid, the late Bobby Murcer used to say things like, “What the Yankees need are hitters who can hit.” Murcer later developed into a broadcaster who would avoid such obvious tautologies, but in this case he was almost right: what every team needs is middle infielders and center fielders who can hit; that takes pressure off of the corner bats.

8. The 27 outs of a ballgame are precious. Managers should not give them away lightly. They say baseball is the only major sport without a clock. Wrong. The clock is made of outs, and each one a manager gives away moves the game one stroke closer to ending.

9. A player’s offensive and defensive contributions must be in balance. There aren’t enough balls hit to the shortstop to justify playing a fielder who doesn’t hit at all. Conversely, playing a designated hitter in the field may end up costing the team a good deal of his offensive production in missed outs. There are exceptions to each rule—Ozzie Smith-level fielding, Manny Ramirez-level hitting.

10. The difference between the best and worst defender is not as large as you think. This goes back to the distribution of batted balls. There are only so many chances for a bad fielder to hurt you, only so many for a good fielder to help you.

11. When formulating expectations for your team’s latest veteran acquisition, keep the aging curve in mind. Because it’s easier to remember players who stick around forever, it’s easy to forget that most of them are aging faster than you think.

12. The best indicators of growth potential in a hitting prospect: (1) Age vs. level: the greater the proficiency, the younger the age, the higher the level, the better the prospect. (2) Strike zone judgment.

13. The best indicators of growth in a pitching prospect: (1) Does he throw hard? (2) Strikeouts to innings-pitched ratio. (3) Workload. (4) Mechanics and Injury history.

14. Relievers are fungible. Reliever performance is highly variable, and the field of best hurlers changes from year to year. With the exception of a few reliable performers, the very top of the class, a general manager is taking a bad risk when he signs a standard bullpen arm to a multi-year deal. There is only one Mariano Rivera; almost everyone else should be treated with skepticism.

15. The odds are on the closer’s side. It’s because of the way the saves rule is written. Even the worst pitcher in baseball, asked to get three outs before giving up three runs, generally will. For this reason, in most years the difference in save conversion rates between the best and worst closers is very small.

16. The increasing reliance on situational pitchers (such as situational lefties) is actually counter-productive. The LOOGY shrinks the roster, pushes better pitchers to the minor leagues, places a greater burden on the remaining relievers, and ends up facing too many right-handed hitters to justify his place.

17. The manager’s primary job is shaping the roster so that the 25 players fill identifiable roles. What I meant was that a manager’s roster-making decisions are more important than any in-game strategy he might try—most of those involve giving away outs and are therefore counterproductive. Having seen managers hamstrung by “roles,” I should also add that I meant that all 25 players should have some obvious use. “Thirteenth pitcher” and “third catcher” are not uses, they are security blankets.

18. A player’s character and leadership contributions are emphasized in inverse proportion to his actual contributions on the field. The Jason Varitek Rule.

19. Being a fan of a player or team does not mean sacrificing your critical judgment. Paraphrasing G.K. Chesterton, saying, “My team right or wrong!” is like saying, “My mother, drunk or sober!”

I’ll add another favorite just for this occasion:

20. Decide When to Rebuild, or God Will Decide For You. Try to push an aging roster a little too far and you get, in a worst-case scenario, the Baltimore Orioles—or, perhaps, next year’s Phillies.