More than anything else, baseball allows us to tell stories. Even after we think about all the factors, analyze performances, and form our opinions about baseball, our experience of baseball moves beyond that realm of calculation. While there is not much that happens on a baseball diamond that cannot be quantified — in fact, I’d say everything that happens in a ballgame can be quantified — most of our excitement about the game moves into a world that cannot be fully spoken. A world of sheer hope, of impending doom, of improbabilities; we experience ranges of emotions and the anomalies of the game in ways that allow us to thread our knowledge with stories and reflection. Regardless of what the numbers say, we often just feel a certain way.
I’ve had narratives on my mind for the better part of this week, given that MLB handed us two huge offseason events to think about. Throughout the threads of fan debate and fluff articles about Zack Greinke and James Shields, the main lesson was loud and clear: “we want to win.” According to MLB.com, that was Magic Johnson‘s response about his franchise’s spending spree; according to MLB.com, that was Ned Yost‘s explanation of his club’s inexplicable trade:
“It just got to a point where we wanted to win baseball games. [...] And these two guys have winning flowing in their veins.”
Joe Posnanski published an intriguing feature on Dayton Moore that echoes Yost’s sentiments: the Royals are changing the way that they approach the game, and they are stepping forward to change the atmosphere in Kansas City. As Posnanski writes, the club needed certain types of winning players to accomplish that; Moore used his prospects to get his guy, and finalize his plan to move forward.
Brewers Rebuilding and Competing
As a Brewers fan this week, it’s easy to get lost in all these stories about clubs winning now. What do we see? Well, during the winter meetings, MLB.com published an interview with Ron Roenicke about the Brewers standing pat; JSOnline published an article about the Brewers keeping their payroll around $80 million following last year’s record collection of salaries. In an environment where teams are making bold, astonishing moves to win, it suddenly feels difficult to win in Milwaukee.
The narrative of the Brewers’ club is the narrative of a franchise that spent the most money of any Brewers team, ever, and promptly ran into a series of season-ending injuries and replacement woes. Last year’s story was supposed to be, “Can the Brewers replace Prince Fielder by (a) improving 3B offense, (b) improving SS defense, and (c) giving Mat Gamel his shot?” Can the sum of these parts equal Fielder’s impact? It’s infamous, ancient history by now that the Brewers didn’t even get the chance to answer questions (b) and (c) last year, as April injuries destroyed the club’s everyday batting order and fielding arrangement. As players went down, though, some startling replacements eventually occurred; suddenly, the Brewers had a Japanese veteran seizing a right field role, and an unknown rookie with a slow fastball taking a rotation spot. These roles solidified, and as the Brewers became healthier, their club improved.
Our Milwaukee nine can ride the narrative of 2012 all throughout 2013: seize jobs, seize opportunities, and mostly, hit the crap out of the ball while stealing the crap out of bases. When you get nervous about the Brewers’ lack of movement this offseason, think about the rebuilding campaign they worked through during April, May, and June last year. The Brewers, in a way, worked a series of micro-seasons to shift the focus of their roster and give younger players chances to succeed. When those players surprised us all and succeeded, the Brewers suddenly had an embarrassment of riches for their 2013 starting rotation.
There is no narrative of “win-now” in Milwaukee, and we should be thankful for that. When the fluff pieces stop rolling in, when the fanfests close, the questions bubble to the surface and overtake our feelings about winning now. Or, our feelings about where the club is headed. Right now, compared to Brewers fans, Kansas City Royals fans sure feel relevant; there is absolutely no price for that, and I know it as a Brewers fan that saw my club sign Jeff Suppan, trade for CC Sabathia, and most recently, trade for Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum. The same can be said about the Los Angeles Dodgers’ spending spree and their ridiculous string of veteran acquisitions. Certainly, the Dodgers and Royals have better narratives than the Brewers right now, and they’re certainly more relevant. But, who has the better clubs?
Here at Disciples of Uecker, I feel like we’ve had a stretch of articles scrutinizing and testing the limits of the club. I think we all know that the Brewers have a ballclub with talent, but also a lot of questions; this should be expected when going ahead with a young starting rotation and brand new bullpen. We have a lot of questions:
(a) Can Wily Peralta maintain his late-2012 improvements?
(b) Can Fastballer Mike Fiers and Marco Estrada continue their ability to limit the damage throughout a full workload?
(c) What happened to Rickie Weeks during that slump? Now that his ankle is healed, can we expect a better season?
(d) Carlos Gomez has consistently improved his ability to hit the ball in the air and change the results of his batting approach. Is he ready to play everyday?
(e) How likely are Ryan Braun and Aramis Ramirez to continue their great campaigns?
(f) The bullpen is new, but will its flexible roles result in better performances?
And so on. We could probably figure out 25-to-50 questions if we sat here long enough and thought hard enough. Questions are the vitality of analysis, for they frame our expectations and steer our vision within those sets of baseball stats. Since baseball stats are results that happened on the field, we cannot simply sample them and look at the numbers as numbers; we have to poke and prod at them, and see how the trends unfold. Questions allow us to pick apart our expectations and reconstruct them; in that regard, they’re absolutely the opposite of narratives about baseball. Look at the Dodgers’ win-now narrative:
(a) Zack Greinke pitched one of the best seasons in history in 2009, and after two average seasons, finally put together a better season in 2012. Is that change for real, or will Greinke continue his stretch of anomaly seasons?
(b) Suddenly, Carl Crawford, Hanley Ramirez, and Adrian Gonzalez can’t hit. How are they going to find their stroke in a pitcher’s park?
(c) Can Matt Kemp stay healthy?
(d) How long does Andre Ethier‘s stretch of consistency last?
(e) Josh Beckett has consistently alternated good and awful seasons the last few years. Can we expect a good season in 2013 and a bad season in 2014?
(f) How will Chad Billingsley and Ted Lilly recover from their injuries?
And so on. If you ever feel bad about the Brewers’ chances of competing with an $80 million payroll, look through the recent performances of the players that the Dodgers are paying nearly $230 million in 2012. Three times the money for the same number of questions as the Brewers’ humble ballclub. Those Royals?
(a) Which James Shields shows up? How will he perform outside of the comfort zone of Tropicana Field?
(b) Can Ervin Santana reclaim his success from a few years back?
(c) Will Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Chris Getz, and Jeff Francoeur improve?
(d) Alcides Escobar improved markedly in 2012 without improving his walk or strike out discipline. Can he maintain successful production with his extreme contact approach?
(e) The Royals posted the least efficient defense in 2012. How will that same cast of characters affect the new pitching acquisitions? (Will the new pitchers influence the efficiency of the defense with better batted balls in play?)
(f) Given the nature of relievers, will the Royals’ celebrated young core of arms be able to maintain their 2012 dominance?
(g) Although Wade Davis was not a good starting pitcher, some say his relief stint changed his pitching approach. Will he maintain this approach as a starter?
(h) Ned Yost was renowned by many sources for his tense approach when seasons were on the line in Milwaukee. Will he be able to stay loose to guide his young squad down the stretch?
And so on. If the narrative of winning reflects an inexplicable feeling about the game, perhaps an emotional connection to the diamond and the character of players, the Royals’ roster wins outright. It’s impossible to bet against the feel good story of a gang of young players simultaneously having their best seasons, improving together, while a good-guy not-quite-ace comes into town and leads the club with his personality and bulldog performance. The story is already written; in fact, it almost reminds me of the 2002 Angels, when a rather suspect or aging cast of characters got together and played the very best baseball that they could for one season. No one can argue about the magic of baseball when it all goes right — the 2011 Brewers are a testament to that, too — but in the meantime, we have a lot of questions to frame our expectations for the season.
There is no question that the Royals and Dodgers won this week. Their bold moves are perfect for spilling virtual ink about the virtues of winning now, especially given both clubs’ respective World Series droughts (25 years for the Dodgers, 28 years for the Royals). In a multi-billion dollar entertainment industry such as the MLB, there will always be favorable responses to franchises openly stating that they’re “going for it” this year. Even better when a perennial cellar-dweller like Kansas City proclaims that they’re taking their shot, or a financially embattled club steps out of bankruptcy to show their solvency once more. If baseball is better when the Dodgers are competing, or baseball is better when teams trade their top prospects for “proven veterans,” there is no catchy way to write about staying put. Given the Brewers’ stunning closing narrative of 2012, Brewers fans can ride that brief rebuilding campaign into a quietly confident offseason. By the time the Brewers manage to finish ahead of the Dodgers or Royals, the editors will hopefully have a narrative spin on their story.
Badger State Sports Forum (questions about Dodgers)
MLB.com News. MLB Advanced Media, L.P., 2001-2012.