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Greatest Hits Vol. II: Commandments

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A reader asked me to re-publish this list of guiding principles from 2003. Thank you for remembering.

This is the 18th installment of the Pinstriped Bible on the web site of the YES Network and the 135th chapter since this series began many ballgames and web sites ago. Like politics, religion, and baseball, which is a marriage of the previous two, the PB is about disputation and pacification, which is to say that in this space, we propose, we argue, and in the end we hope to agree, or failing that, disagree like gentlemen (and ladies).

Since the PB joined YES, the season has been previewed ad infinitum, the players rated and graded (if you’re just joining us, previous columns are available out in the lobby next to the popcorn stand, just to the right of the MP*). Now, after the longest winter since 1941-1942, opening day is finally upon us. Before the rising tide of the 2003 championship season swamps all boats, it’s time to review some of the themes we’ve been stroking like chinchillas since the beginning and to which events will compel the inevitable return. What I have in mind for this week is the Pinstriped Bible Bible, or "How to Be a More Informed Baseball Fan: Alienate your Friends, Annoy your Neighbors by First-Guessing Practically Every Move, Policy or Performance Of, For, or By the New York Yankees and Lesser Baseball Clubs."


We speak of ten commandments, but if you check out the original bible there are actually 613 of those divinely ordained buggers in there. For baseball we need just 19, and they’re hardly divinely ordained unless you consider Lawrence, Kansas to be akin to Mt. Olympus. Still, learn these simple precepts and you’ll be a more knowledgeable baseball fan than many sportswriters, most broadcasters, and just about every know-it-all fan that you meet on the street, the local tavern, or at Sally’s bat mitzvah. You will be able to go through life smug with the feeling that you understand the national pastime better than the average Joe. On the downside, the average Joe will have no longer have any clue what you’re talking about, and vice-versa. Such is the price of wisdom.

If some of the following are obvious, forgive us; you’d think some of those other commandments, like "Thou shalt not murder" would be obvious too, but we know from sad experience that they are not. Also, the commandments are assertively stated. That’s why they’re called commandments; very few commandments worth their salt waffle on their main points. "Do not bear false witness. At least, you probably shouldn’t," just doesn’t have as much authority as the simple declarative version.


1. It’s how often a player reaches base and how much power he has that’s important, not batting average, not RBIs.

Sayeth the prophet Rickey Henderson: "Walks have been under-appreciated. It's lost in the stats sheets. It lost its appeal somewhere. Another thing lost in the stats is on-base percentage. That's the most important thing in baseball. If nobody's on base, nobody scores."

2. Remember league and position averages: numbers have meaning only in context.

In 1998, Tino Martinez hit .281 with 28 home runs and 123 RBIs. His OPS (on-base plus slugging) was .860. This sounds pretty good on the surface, but American League first basemen as a whole had an OPS of .843, so Martinez was just average. Fully nine first basemen out-hit Martinez that year.

In 1996, Mariano Duncan of the Yankees hit .340, but walked only nine times, resulting in an on-base percentage of .352. The American League as a whole had an OBP of .352, meaning that despite his high batting average, Duncan was only a whisker better than minimum proficiency at reaching base. In both cases, there is much less here than meets the eye.

3. RBIs are opportunistic; RBIs are a team stat and are not indicative of a player’s ability.

Match a good slugging percentage with a high number of runners on base and you’ll get good RBI totals. There is really no such thing as a "Good RBI man." It’s all about how many chances you get.

Throughout baseball history there are dozens of seasons that make matched pairs. Try Hal Lee, 1932, and Ducky Wucky Medwick, 1933:

PLAYER   YEAR  TEAM        G    AB   R   H   2B  3B  HR RBI    AVG/OBP/SLG
Lee 1932 Phillies 149 595 76 180 42 10 18 85 .303/.343/.497
Medwick 1933 Cardinals 148 595 92 182 40 10 18 98 .306/.377/.497

Or how about:

PLAYER        YEAR  TEAM        G    AB   R   H   2B  3B  HR  RBI    AVG/OBP/SLG
Joe Torre 1969 Cardinals 159 602 72 174 29 6 18 101 .289/.361/.447
C. Chambliss 1977 Yankees 157 600 90 172 32 6 17 90 .287/.336/.445

In each case, the paired players recorded nearly identical seasons. The only difference, RBIs — the difference being in where they batted and who was in the lineup in front of them. Another way to think about this would be to ask why Jeff Kent had higher RBI totals than Barry Bonds in three of his five years with the Giants. The answer is that the Giants haven’t had a leadoff man in years, and while Bonds batted behind Soup Du Jour, Kent batted behind Barry Bonds.

4. Stolen bases just don’t matter.

Sayeth the prophet Earl Weaver, “The key to winning is pitching, fundamentals, and three-run homers.” Note that stolen bases don’t figure in the equation. This is a recent development, only true since about 1920 and the emergence of Babe Ruth as an everyday player. Simply put, in the age of the cheap home run, having a player trot home from second rather than first isn’t worth the risk of losing him altogether.

The steal, like the bunt, is a tactical tool, not a reason in and of itself to play a player. Rickey Henderson would have been tremendously valuable without the steals; Vince Coleman was worthless with 100 of them a year. To those who say a leadoff man must be speedy, two words: Wade Boggs.

5. The main function of the batting order is to distribute plate appearances.

The prophet Bill James: “How many ways are there to make a nine-man batting order from a twenty-five-man lineup? The answer is 269 quadrillion — 269,022,818,211,840,000 to be exact. One year, Casey Stengel used them all.”

Casey Stengel’s lineup from October 8, 1956, the day of Don Larsen’s perfect game. Point of reference: American League 1956 batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage: .270/.347/.434.

                         AVG/OBP/SLG   SB CS
Hank Bauer, RF         .241/.316/.445   4  2
Joe Collins, 1B        .225/.313/.347   3  1
Mickey Mantle, CF      .353/.464/.705  10  1
Yogi Berra, C          .298/.378/.534   3  2
Country Slaughter, LF  .281/.354/.392   2  1
Billy Martin, 2B       .264/.310/.397   7  3
Gil McDougald, SS      .311/.405/.443   3  8
Andy Carey, 3B         .237/.310/.339   9  6
Don Larsen, P          .241/.294/.380   0  0

Stengel was a managerial genius. His batting order was all wrong. It just didn’t matter. The difference between the best batting order and the worst is small; the difference between the optimal batting order and one that’s okay but for Tony Womack at the top of it is even smaller. The real question the batting order forces the manager to confront is, who do you want to bat more often — Gil McDougald or Joe Collins? Who do you want to get the most plate appearances — Alfonso Soriano, or Derek Jeter? The answer to this question, rather than, “Who’s the fastest guy on the team?” should dictate the batting order, because the #1 hitter is going to bat 750 times, the #2 hitter 740 times, the #3 hitter 730 times, and so on down to the #9 hitter, who might only reach the plate 600 times.

6. A strikeout is just another out.

Call this the “Jorge Posada don’t get no respect” commandment. When a batter strikes out, there is a small loss on offense due to the failure to advance runners. This loss is more than offset by double plays that are not hit into. Another good point to keep in mind in conjunction with this rule is, “Each batter gets a lot fewer sacrifice fly opportunities than you think.”

7. Placing good bats on the right side of the defensive spectrum is one of the keys to winning.

Back in the days when giant baseball analysts roamed the earth, Bill James codified the Defensive Spectrum, “an arrangement of defensive positions according to raw abilities needed to learn to play each.” From left to right the spectrum reads: designated hitter, first base, left field, right field, third base, center field, second base, shortstop. Catcher is not part of the spectrum.

Good-field/no-hit players are found on the right of the spectrum, while the lumbering big bat/iron glove guys go left, it being easier to find a slugging first baseman than it is a slugging shortstop. That’s why the Derek Jeters of the world are so valuable. When you have one, it’s baseball’s equivalent of Free Parking; you’ve worked in a left side of the spectrum bat at a right side of the spectrum position.

These kinds of juxtapositions have been the strength of the Yankees for years. With Jeter, Chuck Knoblauch, Alfonso Soriano, Bernie Williams (and Jorge Posada at catcher, another position at which it is difficult to find offense), the Yankees have been loaded on the right side. When Paul O’Neill, Tino Martinez, and Scott Brosius stopped hitting and left field was manned by Knoblauch’s desiccated remains, the Yankees kept rolling because of their productivity at the positions where you more ordinarily expect to find Rey Ordonez, Pokey Reese, and Juan Pierre.

8. The 27 outs of a ballgame are precious. Managers should not give them away lightly.

The stolen base and the sac bunt are not worthwhile gambles except in high leverage situations. This rule also applies to defense and the profligate use of the intentional walk. In an era in which almost anyone can hit the ball out of the park it makes little sense to self-inflict a baserunner; the days when teams started a lineup of Ralph Kiner and eight singles hitters are long gone. The NL game also makes far too much of walking the #8 hitter to get to the pitcher. Rey Ordonez has 64 intentional walks in his career. On his own, his career OBP is .275. There’s no defensible reason to give up an easy out by helping hitters of this caliber to do what they are not capable of doing themselves.


9. A player’s offensive and defensive contributions must be in balance.

The prophet Casey Stengel said: “I don’t like them fellas who drive in two runs and let in three.” What Stengel also should have said, “I don’t like them fellas who save two runs and strand three.” Either way, you’re down one run. Fortunately, the distribution of chances on defense are such that a player has many more opportunities to contribute at the plate than he does in the field. Thus, a good bat/mediocre glove is always preferable to a good glove/mediocre bat.

10. The difference between the best and worst defender is not as large as you think.

There are only so many balls hit in the area of a given position each season. Although there is no way to say definitively how many balls Omar Vizquel can field that Derek Jeter can’t (the number being dependent on the pitching staff, the number of lefty and righty batters faced, the weather, a butterfly coughing in Beijing and dozens of other variables), a reasonable generalization might be that Vizquel makes five to ten amazing stops that Jeter watches go by. Those ten singles are more than offset by Jeter’s offense.


11. When formulating expectations for your team’s latest veteran acquisition, keep the aging curve in mind.

Players peak somewhere around 27. Thereafter they may drop off sharply, and most players are no fun anymore long before they turn 35.

Note that while Barry Bonds continued to channel Babe Ruth at 38 last year, players who turned 35 years old in 2002 included: Marquis Grissom, Kenny Lofton, Moises Alou, Ray Lankford, Albert Belle, Orlando Merced, Bernard Gilkey, David Segui, Mark Whiten, Scott Brosius, Rick Wilkins, John Valentin, Tim Naehring, Darrin Fletcher, Scott Servais, Geronimo Pena, Gerald Williams, Jeff Frye, Brian Jordan, Eric Young, and Hensley Muelens. Players who were 32 last year included Jeff Cirillo, Dave Nilsson, Rico Brogna, Kevin Stocker, Troy O’Leary, Carl Everett, Russ Davis, Mark Lewis, and S.P.O.D.E. poster boy Brent Gates.

This is why signing a 30-year-old free agent of less than Giambi quality is a good way to get it in the neck (see White, Rondell).

12. The best indicators of growth potential in a hitting prospect: (1) Age vs. level: the greater the proficiency, the younger the age, the higher the level, the better the prospect. (2) Strike zone judgment.

13. The best indicators of growth in a pitching prospect: (1) key bit of info: does he throw hard? (2) Strikeouts to innings-pitched ratio. (3) Workload. (4) Mechanics and Injury history.


14. Middle relievers are fungible.

Prophet Jim Bouton said: “A lot of long relievers are ashamed to tell their parents what they do. The only nice thing about it is that you get to wear a uniform like everybody else.” The shame comes from earning big money when the truth is that most middle relievers are a commodity product, one being indistinguishable from the other. Teams often invest in “proven veteran” relievers when a little experimentation can provide a league-minimum replacement: every failed starter in the minor leagues is a middle relief prospect.

15. The odds are on the closer’s side.

A few years ago, Peter Gammons quoted Cleveland GM John Hart on the subject of trading Jose Mesa and signing free agent Rod Beck: “You look at the difference between the closers who have great years and the rest, and there isn't that much difference, not a $5 million-$6 million contract worth of difference.” Hart had observed that even the worst major league pitcher can generally get three outs before three runs score. That’s why the Yankees are going to do just fine with Mo Rivera out.

16. The increasing reliance on situational pitchers (such as situational lefties) is actually counter-productive.

It’s the seventh inning. Your team is protecting a 3-2 lead. The righty setup man, your second-best reliever, is in the game. A lefty comes to the plate. The manager signals for his lefty setup man, his third-best reliever, to come into the game. He gets his man, and now a righty is up. Here comes the manager. In comes another righty, his fourth-best reliever. The batter doubles, bringing up another lefty. The manager signals for his second lefty. He’s now on his fifth-best reliever, a pitcher who wouldn’t be on the staff but for the hand he favors. Due to over-concern about the platoon factor, the manager has now put himself in the position of placing the fate of the game in the hands of his fifth-best reliever. It makes no sense but it happens every night.


17. The manager’s primary job is shaping the roster so that the 25 players fill identifiable roles.

Earl Weaver again: “A manager’s job is to select the best players for what he wants done. They’re not all great players, but they all do something.” In other words, if you have Clay Bellinger or Luis Sojo on the roster instead of a lefty pinch-hitter, there should be a defensible (though not necessarily publicly explicated) reason for doing so. If you carry a 12th pitcher instead of an extra outfielder, that pitcher should have a job. Note to Lloyd McClendon: “third lefty” is not a job.


18. A player’s character and leadership contributions are emphasized in inverse proportion to his actual contributions on the field.

A corollary: a player who can hit AND is a great leader is a tremendous asset. A player who cannot hit and is a great leader is a coach.


19. Being a fan of a player or team does not mean sacrificing your critical judgment.

. . . And this is true of being an American, too. Taking a line belonging to Edmund Burke,  turning it on its head, and applying it to a sport that hadn’t been invented when he said it, Your fan owes you, not his loyalty only, but his judgment; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion.

*Monument Park. You were thinking “Member of Parliament,” right?