Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 9, 2021

Winning Is Still What Matters Most

It began with Henry Chadwick.  That is the consensus about the central role of statistics in the Great Game.  Baseball has been around so long that many elements of its origin story are either lost to history or the subject of competing claims, but Chadwick’s role in helping to popularize the game using various calculations reflecting both offensive and defensive achievement is well settled.  Born in England, Chadwick came to America with his family while still a child and grew up to become a reporter for the long-departed “New York Clipper” weekly newspaper.  His coverage was picked up by other Gotham journals, which helped spread the news about the fledgling sport.  But Chadwick’s lasting contributions came in the development of early stats, many of which, such as batting average and ERA are, with some refinements, still in use today.  He is also credited with developing and publishing the first box scores.  Every fan who sits at a ballpark and marks a “K” on a scorecard when a batter strikes out is carrying on baseball nomenclature originated by Chadwick.

Statistics have evolved profoundly since those early days.  The development of sabermetrics in the 1970s and ‘80s paved the way for an explosion of calculations about every aspect of the game, and that trend has only increased as technology has made more individual events within a contest easily measurable.  Now fans argue about which statistics are truly meaningful with the same intensity that has long marked debates about the relative worth of players or teams from different eras of the sport. 

The one thing that everyone agrees on, from the traditionalists who haven’t budged from adherence to Chadwick’s basic stats to the most data-driven techie, is that the best numbers are those that are most extreme.  It’s not just the highest batting average or lowest ERA that’s a sign of excellence.  Nowadays the question is which batter hits the ball hardest as measured by exit velocity, or which pitcher has achieved the highest spin rate on his deliveries.  So what if the cleanup hitter is in a 1-for-27 slump?  The ball is consistently leaving his bat at over 100 miles per hour, but he’s just smacking those scorchers right at fielders, a run of bad luck that will surely change.

As is usually the case with conventional wisdom, there is an element of truth in that analysis.  Even when the blow being analyzed is an infield grounder in the hole between the shortstop and third baseman, if the ball leaves the bat at 105 MPH rather than 70, it will get to that gap sooner, and should a defender get a glove on it, be harder to handle.  Still, assuming that harder, further, faster and so on always produce the best results ignores the intricacies of a complex game.  That’s a truth fans in the Bronx who stuck out a long rain delay and put up with the manufactured drama of MLB’s extra-inning rule to see the Yankees slip by the visiting Nationals 4-3 were reminded of early Saturday evening.

The weather delay came before the Yankees even took the field, thanks to a forecast of significant rain beginning shortly after the scheduled 1:05 start time.  Ninety minutes of steady if not especially hard rainfall started on cue, and with the time needed for the grounds crew to remove the tarp and make the playing surface ready, it was 3:30 before Corey Kluber finally walked to the mound.

Once he did, the expected pitchers’ duel between Kluber and Max Scherzer came off as advertised.  The Nationals’ Scherzer, winner of three Cy Young Awards, was dominant.  After retiring leadoff hitter DJ LeMahieu on a soft fly ball to right, he struck out the next six Yankee batters.  In the end Scherzer fanned 14 before leaving with one out in the 7th.  Kluber has a pair of Cy Youngs of his own, but injuries have diminished him, such that he came to New York this season as something of a reclamation project.  Still, while not as overpowering as his counterpart, he held the Nats to a pair of runs over 5 2/3 innings.  That effort looked like it might be wasted however, since going to the bottom of the 9th the only counterpunch from the Yankees was a solo home run by catcher Kyle Higashioka that had ended Scherzer’s strikeout string back in the 3rd.

But with both teams’ bullpens now in charge, LeMahieu walked to start the 9th.  Giancarlo Stanton hit one of those rocket grounders right at third baseman Starlin Castro, who had trouble handling the missile.  He still had time to throw out Stanton, but LeMahieu easily advanced to second.  Then Aaron Judge, who can also hit the ball really, really hard, hit a really, really soft blooper down the right field line that was out of reach of three racing Nationals – not to be confused with racing Presidents, as this was not a home game for Washington.  LeMahieu moved to third, and then scored when Gleyber Torres dropped another softly hit ball in front of right fielder Juan Soto.  Had the ball been struck harder, it likely would have carried all the way to Soto’s glove.

With the score tied 2-2, the game moved to extra innings, which meant a runner starting on second base.  The rule is designed to encourage more offense in extra frames, but then so would moving the fences in 100 feet or giving every batter five strikes starting in the 10th.  Both teams plated a run their first time up, then New York reliever Justin Wilson set the stage for the final act by retiring Washington in order in the 11th.  In the bottom half, with LeMahieu at second, reliever Tanner Rainey walked both Stanton and Judge, loading the bases and bringing Torres to the plate. 

Since any ball hit to the outfield would almost certainly result in a score, Washington deployed an unusual, though not unheard-of defensive shift, playing five men in the infield and only two in Yankee Stadium’s vast outfield expanse.  It was a picket line of defenders facing Torres, who looked at three pitches, a ball and two strikes, before swinging at an off-speed offering from Rainey.  The batted ball had a negative launch angle since it dove quickly to the ground.  As for exit velocity, that might have been measured in the single digits.  The soft dribbler meandered perhaps fifty feet in the general direction of third base, bouncing one, twice, three times before a desperate Rainey, the only National anywhere near the little grounder, could get to it.  He bobbled his attempt at a bare-handed grab, but by then LeMahieu was into his slide at home, so the muff was academic.  The Yankees had a walk-off win, though it surely would not impress adherents of the performance measures currently in vogue.  As for Henry Chadwick, he would presumably have recorded the winning single, perhaps noting that it raised Gleyber Torres’s early season batting average by six points.  Needing no further analysis, he would have closed his scorebook and headed home.

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