The Speed Fetish

Have you ever noticed this particular fetish around baseball?

It seems to me that most people throughout Major League Baseball, and even a lot of its fans, suffer from this fetish. Let me define it:

The Speed Fetish seems to be a condition in which a person puts an overemphasis on the need of speed, to the point where it clouds their judgment on the actual value of the player. Juan Pierre stealing second base.

It ties in to the very situation of the Dodgers’ outfield and with, yes, you know who. Here at MSTI, our feelings about Juan Pierre have been pretty obvious: as a person, it’s very difficult not to like him. You’ve heard the common pleasantries associated with him: he’s a hard worker, shows up to work early, leaves late, and takes pride in his job. That’s great and we admire him for it. However, we don’t really care much for him as a baseball player. Not because we necessarily dislike the type of game he plays, but simply because, generally, he’s not really that good at it. Having said that, the main reason for starting him amongst his supporters usually rests on his best asset: speed. Because it’s valuable and he can wreck havoc, this will help the team win.

Essentially, it breaks down to this:

1. Speed is a valuable asset to have in baseball.
2. Juan Pierre has tremendous speed

3. Therefore, Juan Pierre is a good baseball player.

The problem with this logic, of course, is that it doesn’t follow. While speed is definitely a valuable asset to have in baseball, it’s not ALL the tools that make a great baseball player. To make an analogy, if I could hit a great forehand in tennis, does that mean I can now take on Roger Federer or play in the ATP? Or, in golf, if my putting game is good, does that mean I can now compete on Sunday with Tiger Woods? Or if I can make free throws, can I now go one on one with Kobe Bryant? No, because these tools in isolation do not make me a great or even good tennis player, basketball player, or golfer. Saying that it would be wouldn’t be charitable, as there are a lot more skills that it takes to be good in these sports. So, I argue, in baseball, having the ability to run shouldn’t be enough to make someone a good baseball player, a term which I’ll define in more detail later. This also applies to other isolated talents. For instance:

1. Power is a valuable asset to have in baseball.
2. Billy Ashley had tremendous power

3. Therefore, Billy Ashley was a good baseball player.

The goal of any hitter, whether you’re hitting leadoff or 8th, is to get on base and prolong the inning as long as possible. In other words, don’t make an out. By accomplishing these objectives, you will score a lot of runs. So, based on this, it should be pertinent that the hitter get on base by any means possible, be it through a hit, walk, or HBP. All of these statistics, of course, are measured through various statistics, most notably OBP.

Now, all of this is common sense and some of you might be saying: “Yeah, no shit!” Yet, these common principles get lost by most baseball analysts and, sadly, even amongst the game’s managers and executives. On practically a daily basis, you hear people at ESPN or your local newspaper say that player X is good because “he hit .300,” or “so and so needs to play because he had X amount of RBI’s, last year.” Of course, it’s usually the same people who claim not to like statistics, but what do those things mean? “He hit .300?” O.K., did he hit for power? Did he get on base much? Or he won 20 games. How was their ERA, their K/9 ratio? Did they allow many runners on? The point is, these things in isolation only provide a small piece of the puzzle and these numbers in isolation should not justify reasonable evidence one way or the other; and it’s not just statistics, it also applies to the same tired, meaningless, and dumb cliches that’s part of baseball vocabulary. Saying that Juan Pierre should play because he works hard is just as ridiculous as when Joe Torre said before the season that Blake DeWitt would get the 3rd base nod “because of the way he conducts himself.” Now when the latter case hits the crap out of the ball, those things are easier to get on board with, but they still don’t tell the story.

To illustrate my point, when you choose a doctor, do you select one based on JUST whether he shows up to work a couple of hours early or leaves an hour later after work? Or solely because his rates are good? Or just because he serves good coffee in the waiting room with cable TV? I’d venture to guess no. The point is: while both qualities are favorable, and qualities you’d like to have in a doctor, they don’t tell the whole story, and don’t really tell much on their abilities, one way to another. And, once again, it’s not being charitable, for there’s more to being a doctor, just as there is more to being a baseball player.

So, where am I going with this and how does it relate to speed?

Because this fallacy really tends to expose itself with the speedsters of the game. The common thought process tends to be that, if you can run, then you’re best served hitting leadoff, regardless of your actual ability to get on base and hitting abilities. You’re fast, therefore, that’s enough.

Of course, this is illogical and, once again, only takes one ability into account. If the name of the game for an offense is to get on base and score runs, then getting on base is of the utmost importance. Because your leadoff hitter will likely end up getting the most at-bats throughout the season, would it not make the most sense to put the guy who gets on base the most at the top, regardless of how fast he is? One of the few people who seemed to understand this concept was Theo Epstein, who had speedster Coco Crisp hitting 9th last year, while hitting OBP machine Kevin Youkillis at the top of the order. I would hardly say their offense, or season, suffered.

Yet, in L.A., our management doesn’t get this. Yes, even the staunchest of critics should acknowledge that Juan Pierre has justified some of his playing time this year and, shockingly, he has been the best center fielder above the horrific play of Andruw Jones. Yet, whether we like it or not, salary plays into the equation and, despite how horrible Jones truly has been (and that’s understating it…), and despite how he deserves to ride the bench, he’s still going to start. Joe Torre has said as much.

The problem is that it has a horrific side effect, especially compounded by the injury to Rafael Furcal: because of the one outfield spot remaining, they instead have felt it’s a good idea to bench one of your best outfielders in place of Pierre, because, somehow, we need speed at the top, regardless of anything else. The simple fact of the matter is, even despite Pierre’s improved play thus far, Andre Ethier is STILL a better player with a lot more value. Because of this, it is inexcusable that he has started 4 out of the last 10 games. It’s a joke.

Not that I need to, but:

Ethier: .306 BA, .299 EqA, 3 HR, 15 RBI’s, .385 OBP, .463 SLG, .848 OPS, 119 OPS+, 2 SB, 0 CS, 8.3 VORP

Pierre: .281 BA, .268 EqA, 0 HR, 12 RBI’s, .360 OBP, .326 SLG, .686 OPS, 80 OPS+, 13 SB, 1 CS, 3.7 VORP

Ethier, despite sitting on the bench for most of the past 10 games, is still outperforming Pierre, and it’s not by a slim margin. Which raises the question: why does this whole debate continue to be one that’s almost become political? This is not a matter of opinion or something relative to what one thinks. It’s an objective fact that Andre Ethier is a better baseball player than Juan Pierre and, therefore, has more value, based on the very definition of a good hitter and what they are supposed to do. The fact that he shows up to work early and leaves late and works hard is irrelevant. I’m sure Ethier works quite hard, as well.

Some of the common defenses from managers and others to this is due to the fact that it “brings a different dynamic,” or “shakes things up.” But is that necessarily good? Does a “different dynamic” or “shaking things up” equate to help winning baseball games? If I had my 5 year old nephew hitting leadoff instead, that would also bring a “different dynamic” to the game that would certainly shake things up. Of course, I doubt anyone in their right mind would argue that it would be a good idea.

Yet, I think this lays as the fundamental problem with Dodgers’ management between Andre Ethier and Juan Pierre. At the very least, they seem to think that Pierre’s game is of equal value to Ethier’s, yet it’s not. A person who hits for power, gets on base at a higher clip and has the ability to get to second base on one swing will always be more valuable than someone without power, where they have to bunt, and claw their way to first base and then steal their way to second. The latter, of course, looks more exciting, yes, but exciting doesn’t necessarily mean better.

The problem with the way the organization has handled things is that they have now easily fallen prey to the Little League mentality, where no one necessarily gets playing time based on whether they deserve it, but, rather, whether they have played or not. Yet that’s how the Dodgers have handled this situation the past two years: like a Little League team. “Come out of the game, Andre, you’re going to sit on the bench for a little bit, because little Juan needs to get his playing time, now!” Some people think this is good, as it keeps people on their toes, yet the other side of it is that, at least in Ethier’s case, it can add unnecessary stress regarding job security and the inconsistent playing time can also lead to becoming rusty. Especially when Ethier hasn’t even been used in pinch hitting duties during his time on the bench.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to say having a speed game is worthless; it’s not. Yet it is absurd to bench arguably your best outfielder with a superior value, simply because the other can run, and therefore, you must have speed at the top. You don’t. What I propose is that more people, when evaluating a baseball player, look at the player’s overall game as a whole, rather than isolating one or two of his abilities. Because, by isolating just a couple of their abilities, you completely misuse statistics and, thus, whatever conclusion you get is distorted. And it goes both ways. Juan Pierre shouldn’t be deemed a good baseball player JUST because he can steal bases, the same way someone like, say, Adam Dunn shouldn’t be deemed a bad baseball player JUST because he strikes out a lot. By cherry picking a few stats, I could easily argue that Albert Pujols is a bad baseball player, because he only stole 2 bases last year, while getting caught 6 times. Those numbers alone don’t prove that he was a bad player anymore than deeming a person great because he had 90 RBI’s. To quote Rod Stewart: “Every Picture Tells A Story,” yet you need the complete picture first before you can tell the story.

- Vin vinscully-face.jpg

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