Thursday, April 5, 2007

Stats (And Staats) Miss the Point on A Rod

I had the unfortunate experience of watching the Yankees' Opening Day 9-5 victory on Monday via the Tampa Bay Devil Rays' local television broadcast. While thrilled with the result, the telecast was the dinner theater-like experience you would expect, highlighted by the insight-free descriptions of onetime Yankee announcer (when they were bad in the 1980s) Dewayne Staats. Not wanting to dispel the cliche of the small-market announcer going for the obvious story, Staats seemed to revel in the crowd reactions to the Yankees' third baseman Alex Rodriguez, noting the boos when he did something wrong and the cheers when he did something right (and the lack of boos when Derek Jeter made an error).

It's lazy journalism to castigate Yankee fans, often cited as the most knowledgeable in baseball, for booing A Rod despite his gaudy numbers. As any true fan will tell you, numbers show a player's ability to hit or pitch, but they don't tell you if that player ultimately performs in key situations and helps his team win games.

I guess that was too nuanced for Staats, who probably figured it was smartest to feed the small-market angst of the handful of Rays fans tuning into the broadcast.

In reality, Alex Rodriguez is a fabulous hitter who puts up great numbers. He is a sure first-ballot Hall of Famer, and, when he's done playing his numbers should be among the greatest of all time. I also concede that after he signed the biggest contract ever (at the time or since) to leave Seattle for Texas after the 2000 season, he has had to endure jealousy and unreasonable expectations. It feels like the fans expect him to hit a five-run homer every time up. He also hasn't helped his own cause, often making remarks to the press that make him seem not only out of touch, but like he doesn't understand what is important in baseball.

But, ultimately, I think most Yankee fans boo Rodriguez for a different reason. Simply put, they recognize that despite the gaudy numbers, he is not a baseball player that performs when you need him most, and he definitely does not do the oft-cited "little things" that help teams win games, especially big games.

Opening Day illustrated the nuances to judging A Rod as a player. According to the box score, he went two-for-five with a home run, two runs batted in and two runs scored. It's so easy for media guys like Staats to ask, "How could Yankee fans boo this guy?" But, that kind of statement is lazy, since box scores and statistics provide the same level of depth in analyzing a game that a Fox News headline gives you in analyzing a political issue.

No, those of us who watched the game (minus Staats) know the truth. Because the great thing about baseball is that the stuff that makes teams win and lose games are not always found in box scores and numbers.

In that Opening Day game, the Yankees were facing the Rays' young phenom pitcher Scott Kazmir. Kazmir is one of the best young pitchers in baseball. Merely mentioning his name will make Mets fans cry as they recall his trade to Tampa for the human M*A*S*H unit, Victor Zambrano (now with Toronto). With a sold-out, Opening Day crowd and Kazmir on the mound, the game had a playoff feel to it.

Terrifyingly for Yankee fans, the home team sent out Carl Pavano, he of the $40 million contract, fourteen-cent body, and one-shilling brain, to start the game. Pavano was pitching in the majors for the fist time since June 2005. He had endured a series of odd injuries and off-the-field problems that had his teammates openly doubting if he actually wanted to pitch. This is a guy who allegedly fired his agent because he thought he was signing a $40 million contract with the Yankees before the 2005 season, but it turned out to be "only" for $39.95 million. Not exactly the type of guy you think of as donning the pinstripes of Ruth, Gehrig and DiMaggio. But for a late Spring Training injury to staff ace Chien-Ming Wang, Pavano wouldn't have thrown a pitch until the fourth game of the season.

As Pavano took the mound, his teammates and manager Joe Torre had to be thinking, "Let's get this guy through the first inning and go from there." After all, Pavano has demonstrated the mental strength of a Hilton sister, and it was easy to imagine him pulling a Wicked Witch of the West on the Yankee Stadium mound, with the Devil Ray hitters providing the buckets of water.

When leadoff batter Carl Crawford singled, you could hear millions of Yankee fans all over the world crying out, "Here we go." After Crawford stole second, you could imagine Joe Torre resisting the urge to get a reliever up in the pen. But, Pavano retired the next two hitters, and he then induced Ty Wigginton to hit a lazy popup into foul ground by the third base dugout. It appeared that Pavano had managed to safely get through his first inning. Unfortunately, A Rod handles popups like Foxy Brown handles retail workers. Rodriguez overran the pop-up and let if fall safely to the ground.

That could have been the moment of the game. Had Pavano surrendered a run-scoring single, the avalanche could have begun. Winning players step up in those kinds of circumstances and bail out their teammates, just like guys like Paul O'Neill and Derek Jeter did when the Yankees were winning four World Series tittles in five years between 1996 and 2000. But Rodriguez did not step up. He laid more pressure on a teammate that was already more jittery than Tim Hardaway at a GLAAD convention. Luckily for the Yankees, Pavano retired Wigginton and got out of the inning. No thanks to A Rod, of course.

Then, in the bottom of the first inning, Rodriguez had a chance to make up for his error and, more importantly, give the close-to-the edge Pavano some breathing room, when he came up with two men on base and one out. Winning players sense the chance to atone for errors. Derek Jeter made an error early in the Opening Day game that led to a run for the Rays, so nobody was surprised when several innings later, with the Yankees down by two runs, Jeter calmly stroked a single to center, driving in two runs and tying the game. A Rod is not Jeter, and with a chance to put the Yankees ahead and take some pressure off of Pavano, he struck out, passing the baton to Jason Giambi, who singled in two runs.

But what of the home run, Staats would ask? Didn't that help the Yankees win? Not really. In the bottom of the eighth inning, the Yankees were up by two runs and Mariano Rivera was warming up in the bullpen to pitch the ninth inning. Rivera is as close to automatic as a human being can get. The Rays players were mentally beat. As a Rays pitcher with less than ten career Major League innings looked in for the sign against Rodriguez, I said out loud, "Pressure is off; this is A Rod time." Sure enough, in a situation as meaningless as a Bush administration denial, Rodriguez stroked a long home run over the center field wall. The only real effect of A Rod's dinger was that he took a save away from Rivera, since the lead was now four runs, one more than the upper limit for a save situation.

That is why box scores lie. Rodriguez's day of two-for-five with a home run looks real pretty, but baseball fans who watched the game know that when the game was on the line, and when plays had to be made that determined the outcome of the game, A Rod did not help his team win the game.

So, does that mean the Yankees should throw a party if Rodriguez decides to opt out of his contract at the end of the year and head to Chicago to reunite with his man-crush Lou Piniella with the Cubs? I'm sure Staats would draw that conclusion, but I would not. I hope A Rod stays with the Yankees.

No, I am not a flip-flopper. No need to call Karl Rove to have me destroyed (I've never been on a swift boat). As I said, Rodriguez is an all-time talent, and it is worth it to see if he can develop into a player to match his abilities.

I was actually impressed with two things he did in the game. In the first inning, despite his strikeout, he patiently ran the count full, just like several other batters did that first inning. That is Yankee baseball: Run down the starter so he has to exit early, and then take advantage of the traditionally-weaker middle relievers. That's what happened Monday when the Yanks wore down Kazmir, making him throw so many pitches that he was out of gas by the sixth inning.

A Rod also found a way to contribute despite his inability to play defense or hit in the clutch. He singled with the game tied and nobody on base. He proceeded to steal second and hustle home on another clutch hit by Giambi. A Rod's willingness to play a role outside his job description, to steal a run with his feet, showed a dedication to team goals that was encouraging.

That, to me, is the big question. Not if the Yankee fans will warm to Rodriguez, but if he will learn how to develop from a player with great numbers into a great player. His decision on whether or not to opt out will be telling. When he left Seattle for Texas, it was hard to blame a guy for accepting such an enormous contract. But, at the same time, he had to know that it would be unlikely he could win consistently there. He made a choice to take the most money over the best place for him to win. Seattle, a perennial playoff team, had offered him something like $180 million, more than $70 million less than Texas, but still plenty for any one to do whatever they wanted to. It would be hard to imagine a guy like Jeter going to Texas.

I also think that it is very interesting and more than a coincidence that in A Rod's last year in Seattle, the team went 91-71, but the year after he left, the team improved to an incredible 116-46. Who knows, maybe they would have won 120 with A Rod. I doubt it, though. I think with Rodriguez gone, the team was able to play as, just that, a team. Guys like Edgar Martinez, Brett Boone and John Olerud led the way, guys that would have fit in nicely on the Yankee World Series teams of the 1990s. If Rodriguez opts out of his contract at the end of this year, it will feel to me like an admission that he could not adjust to an environment where winning took precedence over individual statistics.

When the Yankees won four World Series titles between 1996 and 2000, they didn't always have the players with the gaudiest batting statistics. In fact, the 2001 Yankees managed to move within two outs in Game 7 of another championship while maintaining a batting average in the Series of .183. And, contrary to the propaganda spewed forth from jealous cities like Boston, Baltimore and Flushing, the Yankees didn't even have the highest payrolls all of those years.

But, those Yankee teams knew how to win. They pitched. They hit in the clutch. And, each player, in any given situation, knew what move they had to make to win a game, whether it was pretty in the box score or not.

To me, a great example of that team's grit and nose for victory was Paul O'Neill's at bat in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 1 of the 2000 World Series against the Yankees' cross-town little brothers, the Mets. The Yankees were down a run, there was one out, and the fireballing-but-volatile Armando Benitez was on the mound. Benitez had set off a brawl two years earlier when he plunked Tino Martinez in the back after surrendering a home run to the previous batter.

O'Neill was clearly overmatched by Benitez's 98-mile-per-hour fastballs and found himself down in the count. But, O'Neill patiently fouled off pitch after pitch, until a frustrated Benitez finally walked him. He later moved to third on singles by two role players (with numbers that don't reside in the same solar system as A Rod's), Luis Polonia and Jose Vizcaino, and scored on a sacrifice fly by Chuck Knoblauch. The box score for that game shows that O'Neill went one-for-four, but anyone who watched the game knows how clutch that ninth-inning walk was. The Yankees went on to win in five games, and many players later pointed to O'Neill's at bat as the turning point of the Series.

It would be hard to picture Rodriguez working out a tough walk when he was overmatched like O'Neill did, or even managing singles like Polonia and Vizcaino did to keep the inning alive. (Ironically, Polonia is the batter that nearly sunk the Yankees in 1996 when O'Neill made the running catch on the last out to seal the game.)

I don't expect Rodriguez to be O'Neill or Jeter, but I do expect him to grow and develop. If he does, he could be a truly scary player, one of the all-time greats. I hope it happens. Maybe Yankee fans shouldn't boo A Rod, but they also understand the difference between a great player that helps his team win and a player that puts up great numbers. Now, if only A Rod could make that leap, he would win over a lot of fans ... and maybe even a couple of rings, too.