Friday, September 25, 2009

Yet Another Post About Intangibles

The word, "Intangible," has been bandied about for quite some time in baseball. But the term is much more prevalent in the years following the growing acceptance of sabermetrics (now a generic term for all new baseball stats) and is usually used to refute those newfangled stats. Old timers say, "You can't measure intangibles." Derek Jeter's name is usually a lightning rod for such discussions. But other players whose names are mentioned often are Manny Ramirez (in a negative way), Milton Bradley (ditto), Kevin Millar (the great clubhouse guy) and so on. Two of the players just mentioned were part of the 2004 World Series Champions, the Boston Red Sox. That team's lore has been filled with much "intangible" stuff and is probably as good an example as we can find to examine the word.

The Red Sox team of 2004 entered that season with a championship drought that went back to 1918. The team just couldn't seem to get by the Yankees and their fans had a fatalistic view of life. Frankly, it was much more charming than the bully mentality those same fans have now. Anyway, much mystique has been built around that team. The examples are boundless. The team turned around when they dealt Nomar Garciaparra away. That was an intangible. The team got a spark from Orlando Cabrera, their new shortstop, who was such a positive force. Another intangible. Kevin Millar and his band of idiots kept the team loose and helped them overcome past demons. Intangible. Curt Schilling was indomitable and his bloody sock inspired the team. Intangible.

It's hard to refute those kinds of things. We can't psychoanalyze the players on that team in retrospect. Certainly, a positive mental approach to the game is a good thing. Otherwise we wouldn't have sports psychologists (it seems that Jon Smoltz was a leader in that movement). Kevin Millar is still supposedly a great clubhouse guy. But he had a career year in 2004. He's the same guy for the Blue Jays this year and that team has fallen on hard times and Millar has been terrible. Was he part of the Red Sox success for reasons other than performance? It hasn't worked out that way for him since 2004.

Maybe, just maybe, the reason the Red Sox got past their long-time hump in 2004 had nothing to do with intangibles and had everything to do with performance. Let's start with the Garciaparra trade which also leads us to the addition of Cabrera. The trade was completed at the deadline of July 31, 2004. The team at that point was sitting at 56-46 and in second place (where they ended up by the way). That was good for a .549 winning percentage. They went 42-22 the rest of the way. They then proceeded to beat up on the Angels for a sweep of the ALDS and then made history with the Yankees in the ALCS. The rest was anti-climatic as they swept the Cardinals in the World Series.

It certainly seems that they were a much better team after Garciaparra left. So that intangible must be correct right? Garciaparra was pouting. He didn't get the feeling he was appreciated. He was a negative impact on the bench and blah blah. They got Orlando Cabrera in return. Cabrera was no where near the offensive player Garciaparra was that year. Garciaparra posted a 118 OPS+ for the Red Sox that year. Cabrera finished at 97. The one contribution of the trade was in the field. Cabrera was vastly superior than Nomar at shortstop. That's a measurable and not an intangible. While Nomar's bat was worth a win or so over Cabrera, Cabrera's fielding evened that out value-wise.

So yeah, the team was a .549 team with Nomar and a .636 team with Cabrera. Must be that intangible thing. But again, remember that Cabrera wasn't the offensive player that Nomar was, even at that point in their careers. Yet the Red Sox posted their best team batting stats in August. And that had been building since the beginning of July as July was their second best hitting month. Kevin Millar had an OPS of .762 in the first half and went .975 in the second half. Jason Varitek had an OPS of .818 in the first half and .942 in the second half.

The pitching was outstanding in August as well. They posted their second best ERA month of the season in August behind only April. Their strikeout to walk ratio jumped that month. And the fielding certainly improved. The team gave up far few unearned runs in the second half than in the first half.

To this writer, the only intangible that seems to count was the Dave Roberts walk and stolen base that led to a blown save by Mariano Rivera in Game 4 of the ALCS. That blown save gave the Red Sox the impetus they needed to win the next three games. It was one of the few times in the Fan's life that he knew what was going to happen before it happened. As soon as the Fan saw Roberts cross home plate, the series was over. It just was. There is no other explanation.

But take that with a grain of salt. The Red Sox simply out-performed a flawed Yankee team the rest of the series. Those numbers are calculable for all to see.

So the bottom line after all these words? Perhaps there isn't one. The Fan would like to rule out intangibles as a fallback for any argument. Team chemistry may be worth a game or two in the standings. But for every Kevin Millar, there was a Manny Ramirez, who most would agree, was more a negative clubhouse presence than Nomar ever was. Who knows. Fate could be brought into the argument. The stars aligning could be true too. The only facts we can hang onto are that the Red Sox were slightly statistically better in the second half than they were in the first. They had a very talented team. They had the second best record in the majors, they were first in the AL in OPS and second in the league in earned runs allowed. That's a pretty potent combination that seems like it would have won, intangibles or not.

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