Monday, April 23, 2012


Although Louis Phillips pushes past what even Satire Kings Jim Murray and Thomas Pynchon would make the reader swallow when he concocts a shaggy dog baseball tale about T.S. Eliot, the fact remains that April really is the cruelest month, particularly if one reads the early-season pronouncements, ersatz rhapsodies, and feeble muckracking (dull roots) that drizzle across the written landscape (a particularly toxic spring rain).

So down down down Eliot's spirits fell. By turning away from baseball (and sequestering himself in the Harvard Library writing a dissertation on F.H. Bradley), he missed the poetry of the 1912 season, a year that would have redeemed all his suffering. Fenway Park christened, Smoky Joe Wood's incredible thirty-four wins and ten shutouts. A second Boston World Championship. Alas, Eliot saw none of it.

We have a lot of baseball writing in April that goes nowhere, possibly a higher percentage than in any other has to do with the fallacy of ascribing meaning to what are clearly too-enclosed events, ones which seem overloaded with signs and symbols, whose significance is more about signifyin' than actual substance. When one gets caught up in these symbols, their meaning can become attenuated even as the writer/protagonist/seeker of agency merges into it, not recognizing how meaning itself remains muted, elusive--a phantom lot number that glows with a random radiance.

Oedipa tore open the seal and gazed mesmerically on the items in Lot 49...they were a series of wiring diagrams festooned with pornographic doodlings, labyrinths criss-crossed with nude headless women, all leading to a junction or connection that linked its bizarre design to a designated, numbered page. But then she noted, with a slight, shivering shrug as she sensed the four men approaching her from each corner of the auction room, that none of the pages was numbered.

So, yeah, the lost Lot 49 denouement is one more Buddha-wrinkle for the young(ish) master of the muted post horn, who knows that small samples are the surface disturbances that make the skin tingle, the eyes glisten, the lips part with silly utterances--all in the name of an ardent but addled devotion.

All the "Two Daves" photos out there on the Net were a bit too, er,
cloying for inclusion here in di-a-tribe land, so as our designated
proxy we give you: The Two Jakes.
There are so many of these: is it fair to single one out? Of course, and of course not: it's a stacked deck. Let's be paradoxical, and single two out (or is that single with two out?).  So what the heck, let's take a muted swipe at the Two Daves.

First, Cameron. We're aware that it's bad form to criticize someone with a well-known life-threatening illness; however, as you know, we've always preferred bad form to bad content. Dave decided that three games' worth of  PitchFX data for the Rangers' latest strap-on, Yu Darvish--data from his first three starts--constituted Evidence Sufficient Unto The Day™to intimate crisis and to pronounce that Yu wasn't fooling anyone--and that would include me, you, a dog named Boo and--most prominently, course--Dave.

Even though, of course, Darvish must have fooled someone in that third start, since he allowed only two hits over six innings. Nothing in the game logs or video replays indicated that Yu was getting outs with mirrors that day; the number of line drives he surrendered against the Tigers on the 19th (two) was the lowest total in all three of his starts.

Joe Garagiola, reliving...
...his errors of enthusiasm.
Dave was correct in noting that Darvish was showing "command" problems--his walk totals are quite high, and it's true that if this continues, it's going to be hard for him to be consistently dominant. It's true that many starters from Japan have struggled with the strike zone in the early going once they reach the U.S., but a sizable number of them have adjusted successfully.

[UPDATE 4/24: Darvish threw 8 1/3 shutout innings vs. the Yankees tonight, striking out ten and walking just two.]

In Cameron's case, it's more the haste to be the first to make an observation (a marked tendency in his work) that prompted the overstatement. It's based on something resembling a genuine attempt to use new data, however, and while it's clearly premature, it's what Joe Garagiola used to call the "errors of enthusiasm." So we'll perform just a slight eye roll for this one. (And after all, Fangraphs has been much more egregious of late in the Jump the Shark sweepstakes with those lamentable "Power Rankings" for SI--the magazine where several generations of neo-sabes have gone to Spin the Fin.)

Cecil Fielder could not get his wife's perfume off his mind,
so he named his son after Prince Matchabelli...
Second, Schoenfield. The man who made Rob Neyer into a "mon-stah!" slid into Rob's vacated slot in the ESPN batting order last year, barely raising a dust cloud at the time...but there's been a delayed reaction in all of that musical chairs fin-spinning and so Dave has now fully channeled his errors of extrapolation (one of the most common "oopsies" in writing about baseball: Cameron had a lovely one to his credit last year, when he anointed the Colorado Rockies as NL West victors in May...the Rox turned into gravel promptly thereafter, losing 21 of 29 and finished 73-89.)

So this year it's Schoenfield's turn. His approach when indulging in the errors of extrapolation is to toss together a set of analogies that have a kind of "spray-on" empiricism (sort of the Prince Matchabelli of saber-inflected soothsayers...):

The two most perfect teams of the past 15 years were the 1998 Yankees and the 2001 Mariners. Those teams won 114 and 116 games respectively, as they steamrollered opposition with a combination of starting pitching, offense, bullpen, speed and defense. The [2012 Texas] Rangers remind of those two clubs as I can't find a weakness. Entering Monday's action, the Rangers lead the majors in runs scored and fewest runs allowed. Their run differential is an amazing +52 already, a bigger differential than the Yankees, Blue Jays, Tigers, White Sox and Indians added together (the other AL teams with a positive run differential).

We're not quite into May yet, but Schoenfield is more-than-implicitly suggesting that the Rangers are going to be a team that wins upward of 110 games based on their 13-3 start and a +52 run differential. We wonder if he considered looking at some actual facts regarding team records at the start of the season and their end-of-season WPCTs. (Or the frequency of such high performance over 16-game stretches that don't coincide with the beginning of the season.)

Let's take the second idea first--which dovetails with all of that "singling two out" schtick that we were messing around with above--how many times in 2011 did a team have a 16-game stretch where they won at least 13 games?

It happened 102 times. The earliest incidence of it in '11 was in April, when the Cleveland Indians went 13-3 from April 3rd to April 20th. We wrote about the Tribe last year right around this time frame, but at no point did we suggest that they would sweep their way to a division title (even though they sported a run differential of +44 over those games). What we did say was they were a virtual lock to finish over .500, because teams with such types of starts had winning records more than 95% of the time.

Feel free to re-check the 2011 AL Central standings, and please note that the Indians finished--that's right--80-82.

It turns out that the team with the very highest run differential over a 16-game stretch in 2011 was--yes, you guessed it!--the Boston Red Sox, who went 14-2 from June 3rd to June 20th (run diff: +70). They had stumbled around for the first month of the year, so no one really expected them to win 110+ games any more, but it certainly seemed as though they were back on track to give the Yankees a run for the AL East.

We all know what happened there.

Schoenfield is probably not alone in failing to recall that over a sixteen-game stretch that straddled the All-Star Break in 2011, the very same Texas Rangers went 14-2 and outscored the opposition by 62 runs. Of course, they hadn't been doing quite that well prior to July 4th, so it was understood that they wouldn't be seriously threatening to join the '98 Yanks and '01 M's in the pantheon of single-season behemoths.

For goodness' sakes (cue your Mae West retort here...), even the Minnesota Twins had a stretch in 2011 where they went 13-3.

Here's the full list of teams that managed that at one point or another last year:


Note that half these teams made the post-season, while the other half did not.

But what about teams that start the season 13-3 or better in their first sixteen games? Don't they do better than 50-50 in making the playoffs?

No, not really. A little bit. There have been 50 of those teams from 1901-2011. They've reached the post-season 27 times. That's 54%.

OK, what about teams that had a run diff of +50 or more over those first 16 games? Surely they did well, right?

Right. Here's a spot where Schoenfield can hang his work shirt (oops, sorry, wrong guy: it's so hard to keep 'em straight without a scorecard). Those eight teams made the post-season six times (75%) and had an aggregate .625 WPCT (which, prorated to 162 games, works out to 101 wins).

The full breakout is at right. These all do strongly tend to be good teams...but taken as a whole they don't show a strong trend in making the post-season.

But, yes, the Rangers are in a category of fast-starting team that is much more highly correlated and are good bets to win 100 games.

Just not 110.

Finally, what about the starts for those two most perfect teams, the '98 Yanks and the '01 M's? How did they do in their first sixteen games? Are they in the "fast-starting" group?

Oedipa Maas, lettin' it all hang out before
Lot 49 cried to her--note the suspicious
Monica Lewinsky-like stains on the dress...
No. The M's started 12-4. (That was accompanied by a run diff of only +23; by way of contrast, the '01 Red Sox also started 12-4 with a run diff of +56: they finished 82-79). The '98 Yanks were one of five teams that started 11-5. (Of those five teams, they had the worst run diff: only +13. Two of the other four teams that started 11-5 finished under .500 for the year).

The teams from 1998 and 2001 that are in the "fast starting group" were the '98 Padres (98-64, NL pennant winners, swept by the Yanks in the WS) and the '01 Twins (85-77, missed the post-season entirely).

Maxwell's Demon seems to be invading
a film noir locker room...and here we thought
that the Sixties were all about day-glo colors.
The M's and the Yanks' unique greatness really began to manifest itself early in May during those years: the '01 M's went 36-12 in games 33-80; the '98 Yankees were 35-13.

So, to stick with the double-single thing (part of the mind-body Oedipa Maas meets Maxwell's Demon literary licorice stick that we've been wavin' around here...) it's a doubly premature comparison: first, too soon to anoint the Rangers as that kind of team--a special 110+ win team--and second, too soon for such greatness to be manifested (hey, even the 1984 Tigers, who started 35-5, won "only" 104 games!)

Let's check out the Rangers after they've played 48 games and see where they are. If they sustain their pace for the next 36 games, they would equal the fastest start in baseball since 1901: the 39-9 mark posted by the 1928 Yankees. We wouldn't want to put even the smallest paper demonination (oops, denomination...) on the chances of that happening, but if you were born to follow in the wayward footsteps of Oedipa's husband, Wendell "Mucho" Maas, and ingest a legendary amount of hallucinogens, then...