Monday, August 28, 2006

Bob Klapisch Watches Baseball

Over the past few weeks, I've written criticisms of mainstream columnists and their outlandish opinions about what they perceive to be sports. This brought my some degree of joy, because I feel that poor writing needs to be exposed as such. Even if I'm only reaching 150 people with this message, it's 150 more people who understand the lamentable state of mainstream sports writing.

A recent discussion with a much more popular blogger brought something to my attention, however. Instead of extolling the virtues of good sports writing, what I'm doing is merely pointing out bad writing and offering snarkiness in place of a solution. This can be funny to a degree, but in the long run, it's rather meaningless. No one is going to remember that someone pointed out how markedly terrible Writer A was. It's an ephemeral practice that, while entertaining, shouldn't be overdone.

I'm taking the same idea in a different direction today. I'm sure there are plenty of over-dramatic and under-analyzed columns this morning, plenty of which are prime for a ripping. But, to paraphrase vintage Bill Simmons, what does that prove? Why do I want to make a name nitpicking other writers? Wouldn't I rather accomplish something original? And wouldn't I rather do it in a positive manner?

As fun as ripping columns was, it's just not the direction in which I'd like to take the site. If there is something that really sets me off, as was the case with the original Mike Vacarro column, I'll probably rip into it. But this will no longer become a weekly witch hunt for poor writing. It's out there. You know it, I know it, and it doesn't take a web trawler to pick out a few.

So, as my closing segment, I present you with a fine piece of sportswriting. You may not agree, and there may be some flimsy analysis mixed in. However, no one's perfect, and this column does a good job of analyzing a situation with reason and logic, which is all I ask for from a sports columnist. I'm not going to rip this one, but I will quote a bit from it and comment. I urge you to click the link and read it in it's entirety.

Subway Series winner? Read on
By Bob Klapisch

NOTE: I got a complaint or two about the [MORE] button not working. It works from this computer. If you are having a similar problem, hit "reload" and then try it again. If, for some reason, it still doesn't work, just click the post title. They're always linked to the permalink.

[MORE]Willie Randolph was dead-on accurate last week when he nominated the Mets as the National League's premier team. All the evidence supports his theory – stats, personnel, momentum and, perhaps most significantly, the dramatic three-game sweep of the Cardinals, who were supposed to be one of the Mets' only obstacles to the World Series.

If they could crush Tony La Russa without Pedro Martinez, Tom Glavine and Orlando Hernandez, it's hard to imagine the suddenly resurgent Dodgers having better luck in October. So if the Mets are theoretically headed to the Fall Classic, how would they match up against the Yankees?

Introduction, evidence, thesis. This is a pointed, relevant column from the beginning, giving it two more legs than most mainstream columns I've read in the past, oh, decade.

Granted, this is a presumptive question, since the Bombers will have a tougher time than the Mets in winning the pennant. Still, there are moments, like in the Yankees' five-game sweep of the Red Sox, when another Subway Series seems inevitable. And unlike the five-game 2000 edition, which was a mismatch between an aging Met team against a Yankee club that was in the latter stages of its late-90s dynasty, Round 2 would be a fiercer battle.

And a concession, as to not say, “this is going to happen! The Yankees WILL win the AL!” Klapisch understands the nuances of baseball, and isn't a guy who needs to make a bold prediction in order to garner attention.

The Yankees have better starting pitching, at least until the Mets prove they're healthy. The Yankees have a more dangerous offense, and they'll have the home-field advantage this year. But the Mets are younger and more athletic; certainly they play better defense. Their bullpen is more dependable, too. But most of all, Randolph's club has a certain charm that is periodically bestowed upon a team that seems destined to win it all.

The only thing I don't like about that paragraph is the blurb about the Mets “certain charm.” But that's just the objective analyst coming out in me. To deny that intangibles affect a team to a degree is to lose contact with what is human. I just don't like harping on these intangibles, since there's no real way to prove that 1) they exist and 2) the degree to which they affect the team. Thankfully, this “certain charm” is not the focal point of the article.

STARTING PITCHING: Chien-Ming Wang doesn't have quite the same bite on his two-seam fastball from earlier in the season, but his 3.13 ground ball/fly ball ratio (best in the AL) is still good enough to throttle the Mets. Wang's only demerit is his anemic strikeout percentage (2.96 per nine innings), which is the result of hitters swinging early in the count. That keeps his pitch-count low, but too many balls are put in play – which is always a potential threat with Alex Rodriguez 90 feet away.
Of all the Mets' starters, it's rookie John Maine who has the arm strength to neutralize the Yankees; he's the only one who throws hard enough to get swings and misses in the strike zone with his four-seam fastball. Everyone else is relying on deception and change of speeds. That's risky business against one the AL's more potent lineups.

Not only does Klapish quote the numbers, but he puts them into perspective. And when numbers don't tell the whole story, as in the case of John Maine, he sticks to relevant rhetoric and analysis. That's the main reason why this column is superior to its peers: relevancy.

RELIEF PITCHING: Mariano Rivera has that nearly untouchable postseason resume, although the AL's average against him has risen by almost 50 points from last year and his strikeouts per nine innings are down by 33 percent (9.19 to 6.05). Nevertheless, it's hard to say which team has the advantage in the ninth inning, even though Billy Wagner has converted on 24 of 26 save opportunities since May 3 and has 77 strikeouts in 601/3 innings.

The real separation between the Mets and Yankees is in the rest of the relief corps. The Met bullpen's 3.19 ERA is second in the NL, no small achievement considering the club lost Duaner Sanchez. Scott Proctor has a better fastball than Aaron Heilman, but with his league-high 65 appearances, is there any doubt he's headed for the same doom as Paul Quantrill and Tanyon Sturtze?
The Yankees believe Octavio Dotel will eventually phase out Proctor, but the Mets' secret weapon could be Guillermo Mota. Just a hunch.

Once again, he's talking numbers and putting them in perspective. Though, I would have replaced the phrase “eventually phase out Proctor” with “eventually unburden Proctor of some innings.” And, in a reach of a statement, he purports that Mota could play a large part in the Mets bullpen. But, he makes sure to note that this is a hunch, not something he can prove. Other columnists might make such a statement as if it were fact.

The most interesting comparisons are found on the left side, where Derek Jeter's bat trumps Jose Reyes'. Defensively, Reyes eclipses Jeter in range and in arm strength. Third base is an even more compelling one-on-one. David Wright's post-home run derby drought (none since July 28, .210 average in August) is odd, although not entirely inexplicable. He just looks and plays like he's burned out (or bored), which is a possibility on a team with a 14½-game lead.

Wright figures to recover next month. But will A-Rod? His league-leading 22 errors are baffling, coming from a former two-time Gold Glove shortstop. Rodriguez looks even worse lately swinging and missing at middle-of-the-plate fastballs. If he comes up short in the playoffs – or even more damning, evaporates against the Mets in a Subway Series – he may have to rethink his vow to retire in pinstripes. It might be time to move on.

At second base, we'll take Robinson Cano over Jose Valentin, and at first base Jason Giambi over Carlos Delgado, although just barely.

Behind the plate, Jorge Posada has a better throwing arm than Paul Lo Duca and hits for more power. But Lo Duca is at least an accomplished gap hitter, batting over .300 with 30 doubles. It's a push between the catchers.

If this column wasn't near over, I'd probably cease quoting from it. Everything is presented in an easy-to-understand format, and there aren't any ridiculous, attention-garnering statements strewn within. I think Mike Lupica could learn a lot from Klapisch...even though Lupica broke onto the scene earlier.

OUTFIELD: The Mets are worse off in the corner positions than they were on opening day; the opposite is true of the Yankees. The Bombers have the better rookie (Melky Cabrera over Lastings Milledge, who was sent down last week) and made the more dramatic trade (Bobby Abreu over Shawn Green).

Green is already a crowd pleaser at Shea, but the Mets could still use some of Xavier Nady's home run potential from the bottom of the order. Green's slugging percentage, which peaked at .598 in 2002, has declined steadily to its current .429.

In left field, the Mets were clearly disappointed by Milledge's lack of production, albeit in a small sample, once Cliff Floyd became a non-factor. Milledge will get a much longer look in 2007, but in the short term he's been outplayed by Cabrera. You have to at least wonder if Omar Minaya miscalculated when he refused to consider dealing Milledge as part of a deal for Barry Zito.

Johnny Damon obviously can't match Carlos Beltran's production in center, but between Cabrera and Abreu – not to mention the expected returns of Hideki Matsui and Gary Sheffield – the Yankees have more firepower than the Mets could cope with in a short series.

See what I mean? Does anything here seem egregious? Does he misuse numbers, or blur the lines between opinion and fact? If the most inaccurate statement is that the Yankees expect Sheffield to return, you've got yourself a quality column.

MANAGER: Willie Randolph knows every one of Joe Torre's secrets and tactics, the most important of which is keeping his team calm in the face of relentless pressure. Torre isn't perfect; his Bombers melted in the 2001 World Series, and no one will ever forget the 2003 ALCS collapse against Boston. But beating the Sox five straight at Fenway went a long way in proving Torre still has the right touch in the clubhouse.

Randolph is just as cool and composed, certainly as confident. All that's missing is the October experience.

And he finishes not by lubing Randolph's and Torre's chipmunks, but by noting their flaws and extolling their virtues.

Ladies and gentlemen, if you are looking for well-written, pointed Yankees and Mets analysis, look no further than Bob Klapisch. He may not be perfect, but there really is no perfect writer. I'm just thankful that I can go to a newspaper website and read something smart and insightful, rather than something that's printed merely to push buttons.