There is no such thing as a free lunch.

The Most Overrated Position in Baseball That’s Actually a Position

I read an article this morning about the closer being the most overrated “position” in baseball. I would say that closer is not really a position. But anyway, a similar argument was made in the book Moneyball, which described how the Oakland A’s routinely exploited the overvaluation of the closer across the MLB to make lopsided trades.

Jonathan Papelbon and Jason Varitek

Then, driving home after work there was a discussion on sports radio about the struggling Jason Varitek. Varitek is a beloved sports icon in Boston – he’s a gritty, blue-collar type of player, and by all accounts a great clubhouse guy. There’s a reason why he wears the C on his jersey. And who can forget how he roughed up A-Rod with a mitt to the face a few years back. But I also think that since 2005 he has been the most overrated player on the Red Sox. He batted .122 in June, .197 in July, and he’s at .220 on the year with an OBP of .310. The last couple of years he has batted .238 and .255. I’ll stick up for him because he’s a veteran leader on this team and a class guy, but his offensive numbers are what they are – bad. But when he gets criticized for his offensive production, fans passionately defend him for what I believe are nonsensical reasons. The most common arguments I hear are “Oh, but look at the way he handles the pitching staff.” Or, “he calls a great game.”

How much is a pitcher really affected by the way he is “handled?” What happens if you take an average pitcher and put Jason Varitek behind the plate? Does this make him an above average pitcher? I don’t think so. I think if you substitute the real Varitek with a cardboard cutout, Red Sox pitchers would perform comparably (of course discounting the fielding plays that a real catcher would have to make). Maybe there’s some degree of pitchers being comfortable with their catcher, but I imagine they can get over that in 2-3 starts. Also, if Varitek is so badly needed to handle the pitching staff, is he to blame for Josh Beckett and Hideki Okajima’s lackluster performances this year? Are they the same pitchers as last year and Varitek is just not handling them as well?

As for the aspect of calling games, I’m sure Jason Varitek knows all the batters in the league and their strengths and weaknesses. But anyone can learn that information. In some crucial situations, pitches can called in by the coaching staff from the dugout anyway. It ultimately comes down to how good the pitcher is. Give me Johan Santana and the worst catcher in the minor leagues and I’ll take that combination over anyone on the Red Sox staff throwing to Jason Varitek right now.

Before I get a deluge of comments about my ignorance in regard to this matter, I admit, I have never played pro baseball. I have little idea of what it’s like to be a pitcher in pro baseball. I mostly rode the bench in high school. But it just doesn’t make sense to me. I think that the intangible abilities of a catcher are overrated, much like they are with a closer. It seems like the biggest non-offensive contribution a catcher can make is throwing some guys out at 2nd base. So I’d like to see a study showing the effect of catchers on pitchers. What happens when pitchers move around the league and play with different catchers? What happens when a team’s regular catcher gets injured? How does that affect the team’s pitching staff? Bill James, if you’re reading this, I’d like to hear your take.

August 6, 2008   4 Comments

The Best Sporting Event (to Watch)

Recently I had a discussion with friends about which sporting event is the best to watch. First, let’s define a sporting event. For the purposes of this blog post, I’ll define it as any game, match, contest, or series of games, matches, or contests, which can be referred to collectively and which occur over a time span of at most two months. So one possible “sporting event” could be the Super Bowl, or it could be the NBA playoffs – both would qualify under my definition. I’m also writing this from mostly an American perspective so the FIFA World Cup, for example, doesn’t make the cut (although that is one hell of an event and rivals my #1 and #2 choices in some aspects). Maybe if the U.S. started having better results in soccer it would be a different story.

With that said, here is my list of the best sporting events to watch:

  1. The Olympics. Summer, then Winter. The key to having a great sporting event is drama. There’s just something incredibly dramatic about watching the best athletes playing for their country on the world stage. I’m talking about when some athlete you’ve never heard of before from some country you’ve never heard of before, wins a medal and proceeds to cry his or her eyes out. And this is something that happens almost every day in the Olympics for 3-4 weeks. Even watching USA Basketball obliterate their opponents is something to see, but even more so is watching some country that has no business beating the USA in basketball play like it’s the last thing they’ll ever do. I put the Summer Olympics first because there just seems to be more of a mystique about the summer events (with the exception of hockey in the Winter Olympics). Also, the fact that the Olympics happens only every four years puts more pressure on the athletes and makes for more drama.

  2. The NCAA Basketball Tournament. The next best thing to watching athletes play for their country is watching them play for their college, especially if it’s some podunkt college you’ve never heard of. In the tourney, there’s always a Cinderella, and there’s always a powerhouse team that loses to Cinderella. Also the television coverage is usually fantastic. There are no fancy camera angles, no gimmicks, no silliness – the next game begins just before the previous one ends so it’s nonstop basketball from the start of the broadcast to the finish.

  3. MLB Playoffs. Baseball is the National pasttime, period. There is such a great history and tradition in baseball, and history and tradition creates drama. The 2004 ALCS between the Red Sox and the Yankees might have been the greatest thing I have ever seen in sports because no team had ever come back from a 3-0 deficit and the Red Sox had never beaten the Yankees in a big game and the Red Sox hadn’t won a World Series since 1918. That kind of statement doesn’t make sense in any other sport because the other major sports aren’t that old, or they were played totally differently in their early stages. With the exception of steroid usage, baseball is the same sport as it ever was and the statistics and records are applicable going back 100 years.

  4. NFL Playoffs. The NFL Playoffs beats out the NBA/NHL because succeeding seems like so much more of a struggle due to the violence of the sport. Watching a dog-tired running back fighting for a few more inches to get to the first down marker as the 4th quarter winds down is some serious drama. The Super Bowl is sort of lumped in here, but I would not count the Super Bowl itself as a great event. It has just become too much of a spectacle, and there’s too many people that watch the game who don’t care, which takes away from the pleasure of watching for people who do care.

  5. Major Tournament Golf. Again, golf has great history and tradition. It also currently has the most dominant athlete in any one particular sport since Michael Jordan. Tiger Woods is that good and he is liable to do just about anything on Sunday when the Masters, the U.S. Open, the British Open, or the PGA Championship is on the line (see this year’s U.S. Open at Torrey Pines).

  6. NBA Playoffs. With the exception of hockey, this sport raises its level of play the most when the playoffs start. The first month of NBA Playoffs are incredible – multiple games every night of the week, going into the wee hours of the morning with the west coast games.

  7. NHL Playoffs. Yeah it’s a Canadian sports but the level of play goes through the roof in the playoffs. I love the new rule changes implemented after the strike but the league is in serious trouble. I’m sure the ratings were pretty good for the Bruins-Canadiens playoff series, and even Detroit-Pittsburgh was a great final this year. I’d suggest skipping the regular season unless you can stomach a steady dose of your favorite team playing a stretch of games against the likes of Columbus, Anaheim, Phoenix, Tampa Bay, Florida, Nashville….ugh. The NHL needs to send some teams back to Canada and get the whole U.S.-Canada rivalry thing going again.

  8. EOT

August 5, 2008   11 Comments