Oakland's Reliance on 'Little Things' Tested in Baseball Playoffs

As football and baseball overlap at this time of year, one inveterate channel surfer is struck by the big difference between them, which is The Big Play. Your football team can score six points i

Jerry Dowling

As football and baseball overlap at this time of year, one inveterate channel surfer is struck by the big difference between them, which is The Big Play.

Your football team can score six points in one glorious 75-yard pitch and catch. At the end of 60 minutes, an entire game can be won or lost by one event that comes from nowhere. The most thrilling games include eight or nine such events, sometimes one right after another.

The events of football are big, thick events, the outcome of 22 people hitting their hardest, running their fastest and throwing their longest. Football events are isolable and discrete. They show up in the box score as touchdowns, fumbles, interceptions and return yardage, even if the underlying mechanisms and strategies aren't so transparent.

The Big Play lives in football, which is why the big country never stops watching. The next play might be The Big Play.

Immediately, a baseball fan will respond that baseball also has The Big Play, for what's a grand slam if it's not a big play?

One swing of a bat with the bases loaded turns a 3-0 loss into a 4-3 win. That's really big.

But the grand slam doesn't come all at once, so it's not one big event. It's lots of little events, maybe 30 of them, balls and strikes, a hit-and-run, a batter beating out the back end of a double play, walks, outs, singles and sacrifices to load the bases. The grand slam is the cumulative result of numerous small occurrences rather than one discrete, atomic event.

Yet many baseball fans will protest, for the events of baseball are discrete and isolable, otherwise the game couldn't be so well enumerated in statistics. In reality, though, the game isn't that well expressed in stats.

For example, the problems in quantifying defensive performance go well beyond the subjectivity of a hit-or-error scoring decision, and these ambiguities bleed into the statistics measuring a batter's performance. The smash hit down the first-base line is a double when the first baseman plays his regular position, but it's an out when the first baseman is holding a runner.

Examples and illustrations, arguments and counter-arguments can and should continue for another 50,000 words or so, but, as a favor to the reader's patience, we'll get to the point. Baseball professionals and pundits continuously bicker in the background about the correct way to understand and play the game. At the heart of this conversation lies controversy as to the value of statistics. In the foreground, we now see the Major League playoffs, the true setting for the discussion.

Cincinnati fans join the conversation as they cheer or jeer about constant harping on "little things" by Reds manager Jerry Narron. To those analytic fans who seek the fate of their ball club in accumulated statistics and probabilities, Narron speaks gibberish. To those initiates who view baseball synthetically and intuitively, he speaks wisdom, for the "little things" are so little they aren't even quantified.

If you've watched the playoffs half seriously, you know Narron doesn't pass unwitting judgment against his own performance when he says the Reds need to be better at little things. Indeed, facility with the little things in baseball is the exception rather than the rule. The Minnesota Twins and New York Yankees lost in the first round largely because they were abysmal at little things, the Los Angeles Dodgers were abysmal at little things and would have lost even if they weren't and the San Diego Padres were just abysmal in general.

The remaining clubs all bring their unique attributes and tendencies, which will play out against each other in fascinating combinations. Broadly speaking, the New York Mets are the best remaining club, the Detroit Tigers are the most compelling story and the St. Louis Cardinals have the best player in Albert Pujols. But the Oakland Athletics have the most to say, for their function — in addition to seeking the World Series championship — is to test a big idea.

From the works of Bill James, Athletics General Manager Billy Beane, the Society of American Baseball Research, the editors of Baseball Prospectus and their enthusiasts, we might gloss the big idea like this:

A perspicuous rendering of statistical data into information reveals that clubs improve their chances over the long haul by accumulating bases and not giving away outs. A batting order of hitters who reach high on-base percentages by hitting, walking or both accumulates the most bases. A club that eschews sacrifice bunts and stolen base attempts proportionally minimizes outs.

The big idea might be right. Despite low payrolls, Beane has consistently built successful regular season clubs on the big idea. But not until last week did his Athletics win a playoff series.

Over the long haul of a 162-game season, the big idea works. The A's prove it almost every year. But one suspects that the big idea won't prevail in the postseason because the big idea is built for the long haul, which includes several dozen games against inferior competition, and the postseason is three short hauls against the very best clubs.

It's true that Oakland swept through Minnesota's more traditional approach to baseball last week, but that's largely because the Twins uncharacteristically failed their traditional approach. They did the little things poorly. At some point, the A's will run into a ball club that won't beat itself.

Let's see how the A's test this hypothesis: The strategies that work over the regular season long haul lose in their translation to the specific, limited circumstances of the postseason. In the right now of the postseason against good baseball clubs playing well, the cumulative probabilities of the long term are next to useless.

When you need a run right now, you must be able to drop a bunt or swipe a base, put the other pitcher on edge, take a chance. Being mostly unpracticed, the A's won't often enough succeed in those endeavors when they're needed.

Watch closely. The A's would merely support the hypothesis by losing, but they'd utterly refute it by winning. In that event, baseball's background bickering takes a big turn favoring the big idea.

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