Saturday, April 3

My impression of aggression

"Agressive" is not the same as "good."

That is the basic thesis of this post, right there at the front for you to see, as it pertains to sporting tactics. There's this creeping tendency among sports commentators and writers to reflexively praise good play as "aggressive" and suggest enhanced aggression as a sort-of panacea for poor play. Why, even Nick went so far as to support new manager Manny Acta for being "agressive," and as much as I hate to disagree with a Senior Columnist, I'm not sure that's the best way to run a baseball team.

Let's start with basketball, where I hear AC and various national broadcasters frequently speak of the need for players and teams to be aggressive. I agree that it benefits teams to be able to dictate the pace of the game, play defense in a manner that causes maximum disruption to the opponent's offense, and make strong moves to the basket, all things that can be described as "aggressive." But it's not enough just to ratchet up the aggression, and I've noticed that announcers never point out the bad things that can happen as a result of aggressive play: turnovers, off-balance shots, fouls, falling for shot fakes, trying (and failing) for steals, and so on. My point is that it's overly simplistic to fall back on being "aggressive" as a proxy for good play. Winning teams play with intensity, but it's a controlled intensity, and I'd like to see those who cover the games describe winning basketball with more precision and specificity.

Quickly onto football, where "physical" is the preferred adjective. Nothing tells me less about a football game than an announcer describing a team or the game itself as "physical." No kidding it's physical - it's football. OK, fine, I know they're saying that a team hits hard, but they're subtly implying that skill/finesse teams are less...good. Yep, teams like the recent Super Bowl Champion Saints and Colts. Physical schmysical.

Baseball is, to me, an even more troublesome place to suggest aggressive play, largely because of my exposure to sabermetrics. Being "aggressive" is usually code for saying that a club's manager likes to execute hit-and-run plays, bunts, try to "move the runners along," and steal bases. These are not necessarily good things. If you are stealing bases at less than an 80% success rate, you are not "stealing bases" so much as you are "giving away outs." You're not so much "being aggressive" as you are "being dumb." Likewise with bunts - some baseball guys love bunts because they seem like you're "manufacturing" runs, not just waiting for things to happen - making them happen, being aggressive. Bleh. The bunt as an offensive tool has been pretty thoroughly debunked, so I don't need to go into detail here, but be wary when you hear someone single out a manager for "aggressive" tactics. Especially if it's Ozzie Guillen.

I'm picking on Nick a bit here, but I was a bit surprised to hear him drop "aggressive" about Acta (Editor's note: Nick txted me mid-writing this to say that Acta will start runners more than bunt, but whatever, he said aggressive, I heard it) especially in light of what I've read about Manny, particularly on the late great FIREJOEMORGAN, the greatest sports blog ever written. Acta on bunting:

Bunting is pretty outdated. Everybody scores so many runs nowadays, it doesn’t make sense to play for one run unless it’s late in the game and it’s close. I hardly ever bunt early in a game, unless it’s with a pitcher. A big inning can win you a game. One run in the third inning can’t, unless you have Pedro pitching.

Like that. I once read in a book by George Will (I know, right?) that in roughly 70% of MLB games, the winning team scores more runs in a single inning than the opposition does all game. Want more?

It's been proven to me that a guy at first base with no outs has a better chance to score than a guy at second base with one out. That has been proven to me with millions of at-bats. I don't like moving guys over from first to second unless the pitcher is up or it is real late in the game.

And stealing bases?

We will run selectively. I think one of the things that doomed this club last year is that they were first in caught stealing. I am not going to be running all over the place just because 25,000 people in the stands are saying I am aggressive while people are getting thrown out on the bases. Not everybody will have a green light here. The guys who are going to run are the guys who are going to prove to me that they will be successful most of the time trying to steal a base.

I wonder if he knows anything about on-base percentage?

Acta said his preference for the second spot in the lineup ideally would be determined by on-base percentage... "You can't steal first base. That is the main thing for me. You have to get on in order to score."

Quotes like this make me look forward to Acta piloting the Tribe, because I in fact think he will be aggressive, but far more importantly, he will be smart. I am a staunch believer in statistics, and eschew tactics that are shown historically to typically be low-percentage, but by the same token, I never liked Ken Macha's A's clubs never running or bunting. I think you gain competitive advantage by playing percentages and also striking a balance - as Acta says, "run selectively." Granted, for me that balance tilts towards not making outs on the basepaths, because you still only get 27 of them, but I don't see a reason for absolutism. Based on his remarks, I think Acta feels the same way - I think he'll make the decisions for the club that make the most sense with an eye towards the numbers, but at the same time avoiding being dogmatic, taking into account the context of individual players and game situations. Is that too much to ask? I've got trust in Manny to get it done.

It's 60 degrees outside. Let's play ball. I can't wait to listen to the Indians' opener at 9 pm European time or, more likely, not be able to do that for currently-unknown technical reasons.

Go Tribe!

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