Learning from Children

It’s been a while since my last post.  Part of the reason for that is that I’ve been spending a lot of time coaching my daughter’s softball team.  Of course, I kept full stats on all of the girls on the team.  I hope that the girls learned something from me, but learning is a two-way street.  I learned a lot from watching and coaching these girls that can be applied to Major League Baseball.  Some of the things I learned may be obvious, but it seems like everything is amplified in games played by children.


Here are 5 things I learned:


1.      A lineup of 9 above average players is better than a lineup of 3 superstars and 6 below average players.


The 1998 Yankees were the best example of a team filled with above average hitters.  Chad Curtis was slightly below average with his OPS+ of 90, and you could call Bernie a superstar with his 160, but every other regular with the exception of Knoblauch (102 OPS+ is basically average) would be considered an above average hitter. 


The 2001 Mariners had Edgar Martinez (160 OPS+), Brett Boone (153) and John Olerud (136).  I don’t know that I’d consider all three of them superstars, but they were all great that season.


Compare the ’98 Yanks to the ’01 Mariners:  The Yankees had an OPS+ of 116, the Mariners 117.  The slash stats for the Yankees were .288/.364/.460, the Mariners’ were .288/.360/.445.  The Yankees scored 965 runs in 1998.  The Mariners scored 927 runs.  The Yankees had a 2.5% higher OPS (with most of the difference coming in the less important SLG category), but scored 4.1% more runs.  Why?  Because their lineup was more evenly balanced.  They had a lineup where each player got on equally well as opposed to a few guys who got on significantly more than their teammates.


Incidentally, all of the girls on my softball team had an OBP greater than .412 and as a result scored 10 or more runs in more than half of our games.


2.      Batting averages should not be ignored.


When I was younger everyone ignored OBP and only looked at batting averages.  Thanks to some great work by many sabermetricians the importance of OBP has grown over the years.  Unfortunately, they’ve done too good a job and sometimes it seems like many people have gone the other way.  Recently, so much focus has been placed on OBP by many who subscribe to the importance of sabermetrics that batting averages tend to be completely ignored.


Going back to the softball team, many of the girls who had high batting averages drove in the bulk of the runs.  These girls did not necessarily have the highest OBP, but walks do not help drive in runs unless the bases are loaded.  Teams with high OBP and low batting averages will tend to leave a lot of runners on base and not score as many runs.  The 2008 Rays finished the season at .260/.340/.422.  The 2008 Twins finished the season at .279/.340/.408.  The Rays had a 14-point lead in OPS and grounded into 31 less DPs.  The Twins scored 55 more runs than the Rays.  Why?  They had a 19-point lead in batting average.  Don’t get me wrong, OBP is the most important simple stat in all of baseball, but it’s wrong to look only at OBP (or SLG or even OPS) and ignore batting average.


3.      Players with high OBP and low batting averages tend to be under appreciated by average fans, most coaches, and even themselves.


Towards the end of the season I asked one of my assistant coaches who should make the all-star team.  He gave me a list of girls who had the highest batting averages, many of whom were in the lower half of the team in OBP.  I asked my wife the same question.  She gave me the same list of names.  I had many conversations with parents who attended all the team’s games who praised the hitting of these same players.


My daughter led the team in walks and was 2nd in OBP with a ridiculous .667.  She batted .182.  One day she expressed to me that she thought she stunk.  One of her friends batted .375 with an OBP of .483.  Now .483 is nothing to sneeze at, but it’s nowhere near .667.  My daughter thought that her friend was much better than she was.  It took me a long time to convince her that she is just as valuable to the team, if not more, because she makes less outs and keeps more innings going.


All of this got me to thinking about Nick Swisher.  Early on he was phenomenal, but he came back to earth.  Swisher is currently 23rd in the majors with a .368 OBP.  No one in the top 40 is even within 10 points of having a batting average as low as his .239.  Swisher has definitely helped the Yankees offensively this year.  (Coincidentally, he just hit a game-tying HR with two outs in the 9th as I was typing that sentence.)  Yet, many Yankee fans don’t appreciate his contributions because of his low batting average.


4.      Errors can be forced by running hard and being aggressive on the base paths.


I saw many examples of this while I was coaching, but I saw it play out in the majors when the Yankees were playing the Mariners.  Mark Teixeira who has been absolutely stellar in the field this year made a throwing error when he tried to throw out Ichiro at first with the pitcher covering.  Ichiro’s speed made Tex rush his throw resulting in an error. 


I saw this happen a lot when Rickey Henderson (congratulations on being inducted to the Hall) was with the Yankees.  I don’t have the stats, but I would bet that Rickey reached base on an error more times than anyone in the history of baseball (at least he did a lot early in his career).  Why don’t most players run hard up the line?  This brings me to the final point:


5.      Many major leaguers set a bad example for kids.


Let’s forget all of the off the field stuff.  I spent a lot of time teaching the girls to catch the ball with two hands, but every time they watch a game they see players trying to catch the ball with one hand.  Rickey Henderson was famous for his snatch catch.  Louis Castillo became infamous for trying to make a one-handed catch.  I’ve even seen Derek Jeter, one of the most fundamentally sound players in the game make one-handed catches on occasion. 


I’m not saying that major leaguers should start catching everything with two hands just to set a good example for kids (although it is a noble proposition), but fundamentally sound baseball leads to less errors which leads to more wins.  I would love to see all major leaguers practice sound fundamentals on every play.



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