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2003-08-09 01:45
by Mike Carminati

Isolated and comfortable in their sleepy backwater, where the calm was disturbed only by the Christians with their obscure sectarian quarrels, the Carthaginians reacted with horror to the news of the sack of Rome in AD 410 at the hands of Alaric the Goth. The barbarians had been looting and pillaging all over the Empire for decades, but now that the unthinkable had happened and Rome had fallen, it seemed only a matter of time before the whole gigantic, bureaucratically complex structure of Roman civilisation would fall apart and take everybody down with it. Darkness and death seemed inevitable.

Augustine's reaction was to offer a way of escape... in a book called The City of God. This work, which offered a complete set of rules for living and an integrated structure for Christian society, was to influence Christian thinking for a thousand years. It showed how, since the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden of Eden, there had been two 'cities' in human society, one allied to God, the other to Satan. These had taken the form of Church and state. Augustine believed that Rome had fallen because the Christian Church had been subservient to a pagan secular authority. He advocated the opposite: that the state should obey the moral authority of the Church.

Even as he wrote, the Vandals were crossing from Gibraltar to destroy Carthage and bring the end of Roman rule in Africa. Augustine offered escape to a spiritual life in the monasteries. If the world was not worth study, deserting it for a life of contemplation could only be for the good. Belief was more important than earthly knowledge. Credo ut intelligam (understanding comes only through belief) was the creed which would see the monasteries through the Dark Ages that lay ahead...

[In the middle ages] The rare sight of a passing monk was an event of note. These strange, cowled figures must have seemed to come from another world. They could read and write. They knew things beyond the ken of even the great barons. They lived in fortified stone monasteries, islands of knowledge in a sea of ignorance, protecting themselves where they could against barbarian havoc, preserving what they knew against the day when there would be a world able to make use of it. Guardians of the past, the monks shared their learning among their own kind as the centuries passed. Fittingly perhaps, knowledge spread from monastery to monastery with the recorders of death - monks who spent their lives travelling the countryside inscribing mortuary rolls with details of members of the order who had died. These travelling scribes would bring and take away knowledge in the form of copies of manuscripts from the various monasteries.

-From The Day the Universe Changed by James Burke

What's up with Rob Neyer?

First, there was his piece on Brian Sabean in which Neyer basically kowtowed to Sabean on every point, flagellating himself with epithets of "stupid"-seven in total plus "fool" with "a lack of sophistication" though no "ultramaroons"-resembling a bad case of Tourette's.

Neyer: "Maybe this is just a lack of sophistication in my analysis, but when you look at the stats in USA Today, obviously Barry Bonds jumps out at you, and Jason Schmidt jumps out at you. And there are a few other guys having good years, but I think a lot of people would look at the numbers and ask, 'Hey, how is this happening? How do the Giants have a 12-game lead?' "

Sabean: "Well, that's the problem. That's why it's not a sophisticated analysis. From an experience standpoint, we're off the chart. From the standpoint of veterans who have been through this, we're off the chart. From a depth standpoint, we've certainly been as deep as anyone in baseball. From a confidence standpoint, the bullpen has been nails.

"Thank you, sir. May I have another?" Neyer is becoming such a sycophant that he not only takes Sabean's pretentious yet vapid answer, he likes it.

Neyer is aware of the Pythagorean principle used in calculating expected wins and losses based on runs by a team and by its opponents. By this, the Giants would lead the D-Backs by just 5 games, not 12. So they have had some very good support in the bullpen and have won more than their share of close games, but luck has also played a large part in their extraordinary success.

Besides, if you look at the Giants offense, only Edgardo Alfonso is a liability (.676 OPS) even though Pac Bell is a pitcher's park. Their rotation has been piecemeal but only rookie Jesse Foppertt has been a drag. And their bullpen has been very good (no reliever with over 6 innings on the year has an ERA higher than 4.42, and only one higher than 4.00). Worrell has been lights out as the closer.

Also, Sabean does the following:

- talks of wanting balanced players and yet picked up Neifi Perez last winter (well, then again, Perez is balanced: he can't hit or field)

- says age "becomes a moot point" (how?)

- calls it "revisionist history"-and never addresses the issue, by the way-when Neyer deigns to mention that the Giants have gone through a lot of starting pitchers this year

- says that his scouting reports become "objective" because they all say the same thing, instead of reflecting a mindset that has been ingrained in the organization.

- and calls Billy Beane's "short-term legacy" (whatever that is) "Nirvana". What is Sabean's short-term legacy, Pearl Jam? Beane's reputation is a blissful, unattainable dream?

So how does Neyer respond? With, "Did you read Moneyball?"-his first truly stupid question on the day (though the one to follow the starting pitcher comments surely would have qualified).

Sabean mixes metaphor ("hook, line, and sinker as gospel") and calls it "one man's opinion as to how you can do things", apparently Billy Beane's. However, he says " Billy [didn't mean] to be portrayed that way". And admits that he did not read the book. So A) how does he know what the book is about in the first place and b) how is it one man's way to run an organization if Beane didn't even mean to be portrayed that way?

Neyer could have pointed out that Beane is portrayed as a man who does use his scouting evaluations first and foremost, but who also relies on statistics to get an edged due to a limited budget. He has an approach based on acquiring players who he feels will be the most cost effective, i.e., ones with high on-base percentages. And Sabean admits that his organization looks into a player's "statistical trends". He probably does not have Beane's financial constraints but perhaps his approach does spring from the same source-it's just directed differently.

Maybe this is possible without having read Moneyball. Perhaps it's not the moral imperative for a GM that Neyer makes it out to be and perhaps if Neyer got the gist of Moneyball , he would not see it that way. The book is more a case study of how the A's leveraged their small payroll using somewhat unconventional means to become winners. Surely not all the lessons learned are transferable to, say, Brian Cashman.

After this lackluster performance Neyer turns his attention to the NL Cy Young race and promulgates closers Eric Gagne and, to a lesser degree, John Smoltz as candidates. Neyer doesn't see a strong candidate-or at least not a strong enough candudate-among the starters.

Basically, the guys with the ERA's don't have the wins and the guys with the wins don't have the ERA's. Which theoretically leaves the door open for the closers.

Neyer employs some specious logic along the way that would make even Joe Morgan's head spin:

But what if you take the fourth-best pitcher in the league, and give him credit for four more victories? It seems to me that you've got to seriously consider the possibility that he might actually be the best pitcher in the league.

Well, maybe he really wasn't the fourth best pitcher in the NL last year. Just because the vote fell that way does not prove anything. Besides, victories don't equate to saves, blown or otherwise. Well, Neyer does allow this:

Ah, but it's not quite that simple. When we're looking at starters, we tend to focus on wins and losses, and ignore just about everything else. And when we're looking at closers, we tend to focus on saves and blown saves, and ignore just about everything else.

He then compares Smoltz to Gagne:

Smoltz hasn't been nearly as "dominant" as Gagne, but he's also been getting the job done... At the risk of being overly simplistic, it seems to me that in addition to looking at the walks and the strikeouts and (especially) the saves, we should also look at losses plus blown saves.

And in this case, Smoltz and Gagne are dead even in that category, with four apiece.

Does that make them equals? Hardly. Gagne's strikeout rate is historic, and more than balances Smoltz's outstanding control. Smoltz has more saves, but that's situational and shouldn't be used against Gagne in a decent court of opinion.

Gagne's strikeouts per nine innings are truly historic:

Eric Gagne200314.96
Billy Wagner199914.95
Armando Benitez199914.77
Billy Wagner199814.55
Billy Wagner199714.38
Byung-Hyun Kim200014.14
Rob Dibble199214.08
Matt Mantei199913.64
Rob Dibble199113.55
Dan Plesac200113.50
Randy Johnson200113.41
Tom Gordon200113.30
Pedro Martinez199913.20
John Rocker200013.08
Armando Benitez199713.01

Gagne is slightly ahead of Billy Wagner's 1999 rate. As far as I know, it never earned Wagner a Cy Young, and he appears three times in the 5 highest rates.

Gagne is more "dominant" than Smoltz says Neyer. Why? Yes, he's allowed fewer hits and has struck out a great deal more. But the name of the game is runs-especially runs prevented if you are a reliever-and Smoltz has allowed fewer runs, ten to six (and Smoltz's new goal is not to allow another run all season).

As a matter of fact, Bill James, Neyer's one-time mentor, developed a means to evaluate relievers in the New Historical Abstract based on runs prevented weighted for era. If we take Baseball Prospectus's runs prevented above replacement level and assign wins according to James' formula, and then compare the results to BP's SNWAR (Support-Neutral Wins Above Replacement) for the starters, we can put all of the pitchers on an even field. (Note that I used the formula for Fifties relievers for the middle relievers, the closest approximation available.)

Nomo 3.5

So an unconventional choice does appear to be the best candidate, but it's not Gage as Neyer offers, but rather Brandon Webb, the nearly unheralded Arizona rookie. Who cares if he has pitched fewer games? He has helped his team win more games than any other NL pitcher. He has a low ERA in a hitter's park but is only 7-5. Even if he goes on a lucky tear and wins his remaining eight or so starts, he still won't have more than 15 wins. So his candidacy does not have a snowball's chance in Tempe.

However, the point is that he is arguably the best starter in the NL and no matter how well the modern closer(or as I prefer to refer to the followers of Eckesley, the post-modern closer) have done, they just are not as valuable objectively. Neyer is a sabermetrician-he should know this. He thinks that all GMs should read Moneyball to be well informed about their industry: how about sabermetricians reading Bill James?

I've been reading Neyer since the mid-Nineties when he started his old Chin Muzak article for back when was little more than a blog at the ti8me. Neyer took the teachings of James (some would say plagiarized) and like a Benedictine monk following Augustine in the Dark Ages, he followed those teachings faithfully.

So I can't help but feel that Neyer is having a crisis of faith here. I'm not sure what caused it but it's been some time coming, what with the general decline in his ESPN articles and his literally phoning in interviews on a regular basis. But like a Rick Ankiel walk-a-thon, Neyer's aimlessness has to be fixed quickly or perhaps it's best for him to be given the rest of the summer off. Unfortunately for Neyer, I don't think there's a Crash Davis to his Nuke LaLoosh on his baseball horizon ready to teach him to stop hitting the Durham Bull whenever he pitches. He seems to be hitting the bull on a regular basis when he pitches.

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