MIND GAME: David Ortiz, Johnny Damon, Kevin Youkilis, Nomar Garciaparra

MIND GAME: How the Boston Red Sox Got Smart, Won a World Series, and Created A New Blueprint for Winning is a book penned by the writers of Baseball Prospectus, and I am reviewing an advance copy book on Fire Brand of the American League as I read the book.
I. Introduction to MIND GAME
II. Chapters 1, 2, 3 – The Banality of Incompetence; Shopping for Winners; The A-Rod Advantage
III. Chapters 4, 5, 6, 7 – Squeezing the Merchandise, Varieties of Relief, Walking Wounded, Arms and the Man
IV. Chapters 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 – You Want Me to Hit Like A Little B-tch?, The Caveman Cleans Up, The Holy Gospel of On-Base Percentage, A Streak of Insignificance, Nomar’s Spring and Regression to the Mean
Chapter Eight deals with the David Ortiz story. We all know the story, so I’ll bypass that. Some interesting notes is that Bill James created something called the Defensive Spectrum years ago which showed from left-to-right what required the least defensive skill. As players age, their defensive talents tend to shift to the left. 1B-LF-RF-3B-CF-2B-SS. This means that finding a slugging first-baseman is much easier than finding a slugging center-fielder.
Choice quotes:

Eventually, Ortiz, Walker, and Mientkiewicz would all play for Theo Epstein, who, in contrast to the Twins’ limited imagination, acknowledged these players’ faults and moved on, utilizing them in appropiate roles. At times – as in the case of Walker, a butcher at second base but a productive hitter for the middle infielder – the Sox overlooked his faults until they could find someone better, understanding that half a solution to a proble is better than none at all.

Both saw him as a not particularly nimble hitter at the left end of the defensive spectrum … but the Twins focused on what Ortiz couldn’t do – play defense effectively, stay healthy, hit to the opposite field, hit lefties well enough to justify playing time … the Red Sox recognized what he could do – hit for power, take advantage of the unique dimensions of Fenway Park, show reasonable plate disclipline, and become part of an effective rotation at DH and first base. They saw him for what he was, a budding superstar at a bargain-basement price.

The next chapter is about Johnny Damon. Like Ortiz, we know all about Damon, but did you know that in 2004, Johnny Damon saved eight runs on average more than an average centerfielder as measured by Clay Davenport’s (of Baseball Prospectus) defensive translation? His final 2004 numbers made him one of the twenty most valuable players in the league and the most valuable center fielder.

The teams with players at the skill positions- catcher, second base, shortstop, and center field – who can also provide offense even a touch above average have a huge advantage over the opposition. Every team can find a poor-fielding but burly hitter to play first base, so any advantage there is marginal. It’s on the right side of Bill James’ “defensive spectrum,” where Club A has Jim Edmonds in center and Club B has Endy Chavez, that games are won and lost.

We then move to Chapter 10 which is about … Kevin Youkilis. If you look at his minor league OBPs, they are truly staggering. There is a very good case for Youkilis to be the starting third-baseman next year, but did you know that in 2003, Bill Mueller was literally the best 3B in the AL? He had a slugging percentage higher than Eric Chavez! I really think we should bring him back on a modest deal and have Youkilis take time at third and first. Would some time in left be even out of the realm of possibility?
Chapter 11 details the slump the Red Sox went in from May 29 to June 8 of 2004. This chapter talks about the highest winning streaks and losing streaks and how they correlate, and then jump into Pythagorean records. Under this, we have been shafted out of three AL Division titles, and most fustratingly, last year when the Yankees won 101 games but should have won 89. However, Baseball Prospectus contends that the Pythagorean record is ineffective and that the final record is the true reflection of the team.

True believers in the Pythagorean record would view these three seasons as the sad but true results of a capricious game in which the best team does not always prevail. However, while the Pythagorean record is a stronger predictor of future performance during a given season, by the time the sample has grown to 162 games, actual record is as good or better an indicator of the quality of a team.

Chapter 12 is about Nomar. It still hurts a bit to talk about Nomar, and I was proud to hear what he did earlier. This book contends that the wrist injury was his downfall, and it’s probably going to be his downfall the rest of his career. However, one day, it would be excellent to have Nomar back as a utilityman. It’s a shame his career didn’t pan out to what it should have been – based on Equivalency Average, he had an amazing three-year stretch, ranking among the best ever – the second best ever by shortstops starting out (Arky Vaughan … yes, better than A-Rod!). He also ranks fifth and eighth on top single-season EqA by shortstops. He’ll be remembered as a sure-fire Hall of Famer who fell short due to injuries – unless he can turn it around, which I doubt he can.

Nomar Garciaparra … was fading away, becoming a ghost, a memory, right before fans’ and teammates’ eyes.

(On Friday… pictures and video of the final 2005 game, and an update on the ALCS and NLCS. It’s not all Red Sox around here!)