Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Best Team in the National League?

Fangraphs is in the second year of their annual "organizational rankings," which combine current talent, future talent, and general front-office well-being to come up with a highly subjective list of the haves and have-nots in the current baseball landscape. Not surprisingly, the top six teams on this list are all American League teams (as of this writing, not yet unveiled). The American League has been quite a bit better than the National League for most of the last decade now, which is reflected not just in World Series victories (somewhat subject to chance), but the much more reliable interleague play records of both leagues. The last five years look like this (h/t to Wikipedia):

2004 American 126 125
2005 American 136 116
2006 American 154 98
2007 American 137 115
2008 American 149 103
2009 American 138 114

There's some variability, of course, but the trend is clear, and even with Roy Halladay moving from the Blue Jays to the Phillies this offseason, there's little reason to believe 2010 will tell a different story come interleague time.

What may surprise you, however, is which organization topped the Fangraphs list for the National League. That's right, the Colorado Rockies weigh in at #7 in baseball and #1 in the NL. That does not mean that the Rockies are Fangraphs pick to make the World Series, mind you, but it does mean that the organization as a whole is healthy, complete with both a solid and contending Major League roster as well as a generous collection of prospects waiting in the wings. Even a cursory fan of the team would realize that 2010 should be an exciting year in Rockietown, but a slightly longer look nets the conclusion that 2011, 2012, and on for the foreseeable future might also be exciting years.

The biggest problem the Rockies face, as an organization, is not player development, drafting, or intelligent management. While certainly they are an imperfect franchise (the insistence, for example, that Yorvit Torrealba start last season down the stretch, or the insistence that Brad Hawpe is a useful player despite being the worst fielder, hands-down, in Major League Baseball), the Rockies for the most part have things figured out. Indeed, in the mid-2000s, while they wallowed in last place, they already had things figured out, we fans just had to wait to see the payoff in the form of Ubaldo Jimenez, Troy Tulowitzki, and Matt Holliday. What has made the Rockies truly impressive, however, is that they have devised a scheme for continued success despite the loss of Holliday, and despite the collapse and subsequent exit of Garret Atkins. Indeed, there is a legitimate argument to be made for the improvement of the team after losing some of its "best" players.

Baseball fans will recall the Mariners team that lost, in the matter of a couple seasons, Randy Johnson, Alex Rodriguez, and Ken Griffey Jr. That same Mariners team won 117 games the first season without those Hall-of-Famers. Why? Because while individual performance is important in baseball, economical team performance is more important. The Rockies do not have a real MVP or Cy Young candidate on their roster (Tulo and Jimenez are the best players, respectively, but they don't touch Pujols or Halladay). What they have, instead, is a solid producer at almost every position and at every spot in their rotation. The Rockies do not have the best ace in baseball, but they do have a couple of the best four and five starters.

Because we have become so accustomed to basketball and football, we tend to forget that baseball is a sport in which every single player is asked to contribute in one of two primary ways: hitting or pitching (all players are also asked to field, of course). There are not really "role players" in baseball in the way there are in basketball or - even more intensely - football. Positions in baseball matter only on defense; every hitter is asked to do the same thing (not get out). In the end, Albert Pujols is great, but he's only 1/9th of a lineup. Better to have 9 good players than one great one and 8 mediocre ones, it turns out.

Contrast that with basketball. Five amazing scorers would not a successful team make. A basketball team needs players who can rebound, players who can pass, players who can score inside, players who can defend, and players who can shoot. What's remarkable, however, is that there is no need for every player to do every one of those things. Indeed, it is not possible to build a team on which every player is good at all of those things. Specialization is a rule because it's the only way to win.

How much more so in football, where positions are even more discreet than in basketball. A great quarterback can make up for shoddy running backs. A solid offensive line can turn a mediocre halfback into an All-Star. A good coach can tactically out maneuver a superior opponent by using his specialists better.

There is some of this in baseball, but very toned down. When all is said and done, every significant event in baseball begins with a pitcher holding the ball, and a hitter standing in the batters' box. It does not matter if the hitter is the leadoff guy, the cleanup guy, or the opposing pitcher, the potential and desired outcomes are the same. For the offense: don't make an out. For the defense: make an out. That's oversimplifying, of course, but its largely true. In other sports, you might say, the object is to score (or prevent the other team from scoring), but there are so many more ways of making or preventing scores in basketball and football. Those sports are not the equivalent one-on-one of pitcher versus hitter.

All of that makes baseball easier to measure, statistically, and also harder, in an odd way, to manage. Putting together a good baseball team is not about finding specialists, but rather it is about finding players who give you the most production given their skills and the position they play. It's a game about value, when it comes down to it, and value is primarily manifest in the competition between hitter and pitcher.

So the Rockies, the best organization - if not the best team - in the National League, do something a little differently. It's not that they are amazing at pitching, hitting, or fielding. It's not that they have clear-cut All Stars, MVPs, or future Hall of Famers. It's that, position-by-position, they have useful players everywhere. They have good hitters, good fielders, and good pitchers in almost every slot in their lineup and rotation, and that makes all the difference. What few problems they have (Hawpe in right-field; Barmes at the plate) are minimal when you consider that most teams have players who are poor at both hitting and fielding. The Rockies are a good organization because they understand that, in baseball, 9 - or 25 - good players is what wins games, not a handful of great ones and a bunch of scrubs.

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