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Bissinger and His Flat Earth: Part II

April 3, 2011

A reader of this blog, El Maquino proposed a comparison of Buzz Bissinger’s Three Nights in August and Michael Lewis’ Moneyball. I was more than happy to oblige, see the link above for his take – which is opposite of mine. This is part two of my dissection of the books, the first installment can be found here.

Bissinger really adores Tony LaRussa. He shows it continually throughout Three Nights in August. He talks incessantly about LaRussa without ever questioning the validity, or even the sense behind what he is writing about. For example the book opens up discussing the fact that Albert Pujols finds himself injured. As any manager has to do, this necessitates LaRussa juggling his lineup. He thinks of a lineup without Pujols and its ramifications to others players, he thinks about moving Pujols around the field to reduce the need for him to field, and so on. The sort of thing any manager has to do when faced with anyone needing an off day, or having injuries result. It’s a part of the game. In fairness, it leaves a much bigger hole when that player is Albert Pujols, but we still aren’t talking about anything that other managers don’t have to cope with. Yet when discussing the construction of his lineup, and after some juggling being able to keep the limited but still able to play Pujols in the lineup, Bissinger wrties, “the correct feng shui of the lineup had been restored” (p. 7). This is just an asinine comment that shows the ignorance that Bissinger has regarding the game, something that continually rears its head throughout the book. There is much debate over lineup construction, and LaRussa himself is a tinkerer, using the pitcher in the #8 spot, but I would hope that to LaRussa himself the “feng shui” of the lineup doesn’t have much to do with it. Bissinger is either too lazy or too ignorant to question why he constructs his lineup the way he does.

Bissinger again displays ignorance when he talks about Cardinals pitcher Garrett Stephenson, this time while heaping praise upon Dave Duncan (now first off both LaRussa and Duncan do deserve praise, don’t get me wrong here, but this book credits them in ways not reflective of what they bring to the table). He writes,

“Tonight, Duncan’s trying to do it with Garrett Stephenson. Stephenson has tools. Because he’s a major leaguer, he has tools, and his one breakout season, in 2000, shows what he can do with them:

W L ERA G GS IP H HR BB SO
16 9 4.49 32 31 200.1 209 31 63 123

This season, going into tonight’s game, the numbers are different:

W L ERA G GS IP H HR BB SO
7 12 4.41 27 25 159.1 148 26 57 83

Obviously, they reflect a losing record, but they also reflect Stephenson’s schism: He has given up fewer hits than innings pitched, an increasing rarity among starting pitchers. At this point in the season he has an even better ERA than he had in 2000. It means that he has pitched at certain moments with effectiveness this year. But the numbers also reflect that he has given up twenty-six home runs a horrific number. Which means that there are times when he ends up challenging hitters with that fastball that simply doesn’t pose enough of a challenge, particularly when he throws it high.”

I love that Bissinger uses this example. Because frankly it was the conundrum that I explained in Part I that led me to questioning baseball’s traditional statistics in the first place. However let’s dissect what Bissinger says a bit. First off he says the 2000 line makes it evident that Stephenson “has tools”. If you consider a very low strikeout total, and a 4.49 ERA as tools, then yes by all means Stephenson has them. His ERA was below the NL average (4.63) but was worse than the average Cardinal (4.38), for the season he ranked (among qualifiers) 27th out of 47. His strikeout total ranked 34th in the NL. So it seems the only noteworthy thing really about his 2000 season is that stellar win-loss record, 16-9. Clearly this is important to him as he compares it immediately to the 2003 campaign saying the clear difference is that it reflects a losing record. Well Stephenson had great run support in 2000 (6.0 runs a game). In 2003 through the start in the book, the Cards offense generated (4.2 runs a game). That fully explains how a 16-9 record can turn into a 7-12 record with everything else staying about stable.

In fact it is comical that Bissinger uses this as an example. His strikeout rate in 2000 was 5.5 K/9 and it dropped to 4.7 K/9 in the 2003 season (through the start mentioned in the book). His home run rate which Bissinger highlights correctly as a horrific number is relatively stable comparing the two seasons 1.4 HR/9 to 1.5 HR/9 and his walks went up from 3.1 BB/9 to 3.2 BB/9. Basically, the seasons are virtually identical, Stephenson gets fewer guys out via strikeout, allows a few more walks and home runs, but the record is a disaster. What is funny, is that this is a subject covered in great detail in Moneyball when Lewis describes the realization by Voros McCracken that pitchers control only three things, how many guys they strikeout, how many guys they walk, and how many home runs they allow. Ultimately, this is proven as when you look at the total records from 2000 and 2003 and compare the two, you see that Stephenson benefited in 2003 from a great BABIP (.248) but the difference was the home run rate increased, the strikeout rate lowered, the walk rate increased and that equated to his FIP going from 4.97 in 2000 to 5.48 in 2003. Case closed. Of course Bissinger doesn’t see it this way, he thinks a few wise words from Duncan or LaRussa and your ERA lowers itself.

Bissinger’s problem is that he takes something that I believe is very real, the way a manager manages a clubhouse and the competing personalities, and the hunches that do come into play even in the face of conventional statistical approaches and makes that everything. Likewise he thinks that us stat geeks merely look at actuarial tables and determine instantly what to do in every given situation. The past few days as I’ve live blogged the first two A’s games of the season, I have discussed the shift employed against Jack Cust. I’d love to see him lay down a bunt for a hit. This statistically is a disaster, looks like a guaranteed failure. But really it is to keep the other team honest (I don’t want him doing this against Oakland of course) and Joe Maddon used this with Carlos Pena in Tampa Bay to great success. LaRussa is amazingly inventive, I’ve discussed in quite detail on this blog his idea regarding how we change the use of starting pitching, yet these ideas have statistical merits behind them. Perhaps LaRussa lucks into them but the statistical analysis makes it clear why these ideas are intriguing. Yet, Bissinger is unwilling to accept that the advanced statistics merely show us what has worked in the past, they provide us valuable information, no different from the hitter vs. pitcher numbers that LaRussa pores over prior to games, they aren’t a gospel. If a certain situation is successful only 6% of the time, it still works 6% of the time, and in some circumstances it might be worth trying to surprise an opposing team and trying that strategy. Sabermetrics gets this, and understands it. We aren’t machines, we are fans and we value taking risks at times etc. But Bissinger just doesn’t understand the game itself, he highlights LaRussa’s against the grain risk taking by highlighting the decision to leadoff Bo Jackson in the 1989 All-Star Game saying,

“when LaRussa managed the American League in the 1989 All-Star game, he took his theory of danger a step further when he put Bo Jackson in the one-hole. LaRussa once again had the luxury to do so, because just about everybody on the team was a dangerous hitter. But still, Jackson wasn’t your prototypical lead-off hitter. He had great wheels, but he struck out a lot: a natural-born cleanup hitter. His power carried danger though: the ability to change the dimension of the game right away. When Jackson hit a 455-foot home run off Rick Reuschel in the bottom of the first, LaRussa again saw what that danger can do to an opposing pitcher: rattle him and keep him rattled. When the next hitter up, Wade Boggs, who had everything but power, homered off Reuschel, it only confirmed to LaRussa why explosive danger at the top is a good thing.”

I just have trouble believing Tony LaRussa put this much thought into the lineup at the All-Star game but also it is laughable to think that this even matters, or that there is a skill involved in managing the All-Star team (even if you argue that nowadays “it means something” it didn’t in 1989). But also, the fact that Jackson hit a home run and “rattled” Reuschel leading to Boggs’ home run is nonsense. If this were truly the case why isn’t LaRussa now rattling National League staffs by having Pujols lead off? Can’t ease into that game. If you argue that Rickey Henderson reflected this line of thinking, you only have to look at his 1,406 stolen bases as demonstrative of how he rattled pitchers. Yeah he had the lead off home run thing but he was at the top of his order for stolen bases. If you look at any of LaRussa’s lineups this seems to hold true. Aside from the unique talent of Henderson, he didn’t seem to go with his “confirmed knowledge” of power atop the lineup.

To be continued in Part III…

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 4, 2011 12:40 am

    Nice article. I had some of the same thoughts when I read it. Overall, I find it a nice study into the strategic mind of Tony LaRussa a bit. But I have actually had people try to debate me that Pujols should lead off.

    • April 4, 2011 5:53 am

      Jon –

      Thanks for the comment. What I do like about the book is hearing about things you don’t catch a glimpse of. I loved the interactions described between him and Kerry Robinson where he says something to the effect of “you’re not an everyday player and if you become one I hope we play you a lot”. I loved hearing about how he managed the team following the death of Darryl Kile (a cancelled game I incidentally happened to be at – my first at Wrigley after years of visiting Chicago when only the White Sox were in town). But I thought Bissinger really let down readers by merely accepting everything LaRussa did as fact. To a degree Lewis did the same with Beane but to me it was more a book about a revolution/evolution in thinking versus just one guy.

      It’d be an interesting idea having Pujols lead off. Maybe something to try in interleague games so you have a few more guys on base. But the thinking of maximizing his at bats has merit.

      Thanks for reading!

      David

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