Thursday, October 23, 2008

A Ray of stupidity.

It's World Series time, and reporters covering the event need plenty of fresh, thought-provoking content to fill those overwrought opening segments before each game, as well as their post-game wrap-ups. So naturally, last night, our local FOX sportscaster was down in Tampa asking his Florida counterpart, WTVT's Kevin O'Donnell, What made the difference for the Tampa Bay Rays this year? For those who aren't aware, the Rays have a ten-year history of abject futility, and in fact finished dead-last in the league as recently as the 2007 season.

O'Donnell didn't hesitate. The Rays of prior years, he said, "had too much negativity." Manager Joe Maddon felt that he needed to "change the culture." O'Donnell spent several moments elaborating on those touchy-feely themes.

Following, for the record, are just a few of the miscellaneous factors that O'Donnell chose to overlook in attributing the Rays' success to culture change, the elimination of negativity and the like:

1. The upbeat side of all those dismal years was that the Rays enjoyed a decade's wo
rth of top draft picks.* Over that stretch, the team managed to accumulate some of the most promising and exciting young talent in the game.
2. Thanks to (1), and also to some canny trades with other teams, the Rays assembled arguably the premier cast of starting pitchers in all of baseball. As any baseball maven will tell you, starting pitching is everything. Just ask the Yankees of recent vintage.
3. One of those draft picks, third baseman Evan Longoria
**, turned into an all-world rookie sensation.
4. Another one of those draftees, rookie pitcher David Price, paid immediate dividends late in the season, and then punctuated the point by nailing down crucial Game 7 against the Red Sox in the just-finished League Championship Series.
5. Tampa Bay imported an experienced closer, Troy Percival. He's hurt now, but he did a credible job finishing Rays' victories for much of the season, saving 28 games.

On second thought, maybe I agree with O'Donnell. With those sorts of things going on in the background, how can you stay negative?

* As in most professional sports, baseball teams draft in the inverse order of finish.

** No relation to a certain actress, pictured above, despite the fact that their names are separated by just a single letter. That's Evan at the top, by the way.


Cal said...

Also in their division, which is supposed to be the most competitive in baseball:

1) The Yankees are aging rapidly
2) The Orioles and Blue Jays tried to go the big free-agent route without successful on the field results, and have had poor farm systems

The Rays are kind of what Billy Beane (of Moneyball fame) wanted to be, but the A's couldn't get through the playoffs. Although I do believe Beane's contention that the 5-game and 7-game series has an element of randomness where upsets can occur.

Steve Salerno said...

Cal, I kinda think everything has a large degree of randomness. For years now I've been trying to get a major sports magazine to publish a "thesis piece" I developed that debunks the meaning of most of the statistics we baseball fans live and die by. Look at it this way: An MLB baseball team plays 162 games. If even 3 percent of those games are decided by random events (and I think the actual "random factor" is much, much larger than that), that's a difference of about 5 games won or lost. And there is absolutely no reason to assume that it's all going to "even out" over the course of a year. One team could get the benefit of all 5 games--gaining 5 wins by pure random chance--and another team could get smacked in the face by that same randomness, losing 5 games for oddball reasons (a gust of wind, a bad hop, a ball lost in the lights, somebody slipping going around the bases, somebody getting a cramp, etc., etc. And that's not even counting things like "accidental" home runs by players who aren't supposed to hit home runs, etc.)

There are many seasons where, if you take 5 wins away from the first-place team, that team goes from being a playoff contender (and possible World Series champion) to a third-place finisher in its own division! It doesn't even get to the playoffs.

So is the World Series winner really "the best team in baseball"? We have no way of knowing. We may be able to say that the first-place team in any given division is probably better than the last-place team. But the rest of the teams in-between? Who knows.

Anonymous said...

There is another baseball team besides the Yankees? I stopped counting how many World Series they won. I just figured they won by default and all the other teams played for fun.