Picking Splinters: No Certainty in October

October 11, 2006 4:16 PM0 comments

That’s it. I’ve learned my lesson. I’m done with predictions. Apologies to Jim Le … er, “The Marlboro Man” from last week’s column. I clearly know nothing about the game of baseball.

The Yankees lost. The A’s won. The Mets overcame their gimpy pitching staff thanks, in part, to the Dodgers’ inconceivably bad base running. And, oh yeah, anyone who was going to learn the name of the Padres’ Chris Young did so because he managed to pick up the Padres’ only “W” as San Diego bowed out to St. Louis in four games.

All of this, of course, made me look about as smart as Lloyd Christmas after a paint-chip buffet for picking New York, Minnesota, San Diego and Los Angeles to advance. Miss Cleo, I am not.

I wasn’t alone in my predictions, which is why the Tigers’ win has been deemed so shocking. And since the first round, most of the media has been content to fall back on the observation that you simply can’t predict the postseason. Fox has fully bought into the notion that you can’t script October, touting that truth with a pre-ALCS Game One spiel from a character who appeared to be some sort of cross between Moses and Tim, the magician from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”

If these opening series have proved anything, beyond an apparent need to dust my crystal ball a little better, it’s that there is absolutely no such thing as a universal truth.

The adage “good pitching beats good hitting” is a favorite in the arsenal of sportscasters during this time of year. The Tigers’ stifling of the Yankees’ vaunted lineup of sluggers would certainly seem to point to its validity. In case you haven’t heard yet, and at this point I think the message has even gotten through to Beethoven who was deaf and is dead, New York’s nine hitter was vying for the batting title. Nevertheless, Justin Verlander, Kenny Rogers and Jeremy Bonderman bottled up the Yanks and propelled the Tigers on to the American League Championship Series. On the other hand, the Oakland A’s took Game One of their series from Johan Santana, arguably the best pitcher on the planet at this moment. For those unfamiliar with the A’s lineup this season, they batted a collective .260, the fifth lowest team average in the majors. That’s very mediocre hitting beating very dominant pitching.

At first glance, the Tigers’ turnaround from 91 losses in 2005 to Yankee killers in 2006 seems to indicate that the philosophy of slow growth from within, paired with a few key free agent signings, has Detroit not only poised to win a World Series this season, but, with a core staff of Bonderman, Verlander, Fernando Rodney and Joel Zumaya, for the next several as well. Of course, the Pittsburgh Pirates and Kansas City Royals have been restocking their systems for years and what do they have to show for their efforts? In the Pirates’ case, they have 14 years of sub-.500 baseball and the fourth pick in this year’s draft.

It should go without saying that there are a thousand factors that go into creating a winning franchise. Similarly there are a thousand factors that contribute to winning a series, or for that matter a single baseball game. Yes, there’s the pitching and the hitting, but there’s also the playing conditions and the umpire’s interpretation of the strike zone. There are managerial moves, but there are also lucky bounces.

For whatever reason though, people have a tendency to overlook the entirety of that picture in favor of nitpicking a few parts of the whole equation … paging the New York media.

A day after New York’s loss to Detroit, there was no shortage of excuses as to why the $200 million Murderers Row Redux couldn’t get the better of a team that finished the season with four-straight losses to Toronto and Kansas City and choked away the AL Central lead to the Twins. Manager Joe Torre failed to make the right moves. Jaret Wright is a weak link. Johnny Damon was laughing in the dugout. Alex Rodriguez’s ego, or maybe it’s just his good looks, is curbing his ability to hit in the playoffs.

I’m kidding about that last one, but blaming a manager who has won four World Series for the Yankees since 1996 and a player who has averaged almost 40 home runs and 119 RBI during his three-year tenure with the Yankees is just as ludicrous. That hasn’t stopped pundits and fans for calling for Torre’s ouster and a trade of Rodriguez. For those in the new-blood camp, keep in mind that four of the Pirates’ recent sub-.500 seasons came under the watchful eyes of genius-of-the-moment Jim Leyland.

Could this Yankees team have won the World Series with its current roster? Absolutely. They won 97 games this season, including five of seven over the Tigers. Come crunch time though, the Tigers made the clutch pitches they needed and drove in the runs the Yankees, for three games out of 166, could not.

If you look at any of these first round series, there are hundreds and hundreds of “ifs” that, if changed, could have yielded a different result. Similarly, there are hundreds and hundreds of variables associated with winning next year’s World Series. To hone in on only the most obvious of those variables in the belief that those few alterations will bring a certain result would be as foolish as trusting a Picking Splinters betting guide.

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