AL Superiority, Brian Sabean, Warriors for Sale? Roger Federer/Rod Laver
by Glenn Dickey
Jul 15, 2009

THE AMERICAN LEAGUE won the All-Star game again. Surprise. The AL won the inter-league battle again. Double surprise.

The fact is, the American League has been the superior league for many years now, and there’s no reason to think that will change. If anything the edge will widen.

The most obvious reason for AL superiority has been bigger team payrolls which enable them to sign more top free agents, but I’d suggest another important reason: The National League is still wedded to a turn-of-the-century style of offensive play. Not this century but the 20th.

The rise of a new form of statistical review, pioneered by Bill James about 25 years ago has exposed this style of play. Bunting a runner to second? Statistics prove that a runner on first with no outs is more likely to score than a runner on second with one out – and the chances of scoring multiple runs in the inning are sharply reduced. The hit-and-run? It forces the hitter to swing at a pitch that may be out of the strike zone and has a low chance of statistical success. Stolen bases? Greatly overrated.

There are some occasions when these strategies are useful, as in the late innings of a tie game. But overall, they are counter-productive. Yet, this is a style of play that is still popular in the National League.

In contrast, American League teams play for the big inning, and have since the Yankees popularized the style in the 1920s, the idea that in many games, the winner will score more runs in one inning than the loser will in the rest of the game.

A good part of the NL’s style is dictated by the fact that they still let pitchers bat. Every other professional league and colleges use the Designated Hitter, replacing one specialist with another. National League fans, who call themselves purists, ignore the many changes that have happened over the years and insist that this is the way baseball is meant to be played. Good thing they’ve had no control over other sports or Joe Montana would have had to play defensive back and we’d still have a center jump after each basket in basketball.

So, NL fans, get used to these beatings in games involving the two leagues. It will only get worse.

BRIAN SABEAN: I’m amused by the writers who are praising Brian Sabean now because they’re often the same ones who blamed former managing general partner Peter Magowan for Sabean’s mistakes in previous years. Their success now is due to the fact that they finally started paying more attention to the farm system, making administrative changes at the top, starting about four years ago, and it’s paying off now. Didn’t Magowan have something to say about that?

In fact, I think Sabean has always had autonomy. Magowan had to approve contracts for free agents, but the decisions were made by Sabean and his staff. With Magowan gone, the Giants signed shortstop Edgar Renteria to a two-year, $18.5 million this year, a typical Sabean deal, too much money and too long a contract. If they’d signed Renteria to a one-year contract, they could have dumped him after this season instead of being stuck for another year with a shortstop who has zero range left.

I’m sure that the Giants’ success this year will get Sabean’s contract renewed, but let’s be realistic. He’s still the guy who overpaid for Edgardo Alfonzo, Ray Durham (twice!), Dave Roberts and, let us never forget, Barry Zito.

WARRIORS FOR SALE: A report that Chris Cohan was trying to sell the Warriors swept through the media last week. One reason I believed it: Tim Kawakami was the first to mention it, on his blog, and he has very good sources. Another reason to believe it: Team president Bobby Rowell denied it.

Rowell is an example of why Cohan’s managerial style has failed: He puts incompetents in charge. When he does get somebody who knows what he’s doing, Cohan almost immediately alienates him. Andy Dolich was hardly there before he left. (Dolich is now with the 49ers.)

The East Bay is cursed with three of the worst owners in sports: Cohan, Lew Wolff of the A’s and Al Davis of the Raiders. Davis will never sell. Wolff may give up fairly soon, now that commissioner Bud Selig has re-affirmed the Giants’ territorial rights in San Jose. But, Cohan seems likely to be the first to go, and it can’t happen a minute too soon.

GALLAGHER HONORED: At a Monday night event at AT&T Park honoring Pat Gallagher for his 33 years with the Giants, team CEO Larry Baer told an amusing – in retrospect – story about the “Croix de Candlestick”.

At the time, Baer was a junior member of the marketing department, headed up by Gallagher, who had decided to kid Candlestick’s well-deserved reputation as a windy, miserable place by putting out these self-deprecating pins, reading, VENI, VIDI, VIXI – I came, I saw, I survived.” The pins were to be given out to fans who stayed for the whole game of the first night game to go into extra innings.

Baer was in charge of the project and he ordered 50,000 pins, but only 9000 of them had arrived by the time of a Giants-Dodgers series. Those series at Candlestick were notorious for fights in the stands or parking lots because fans were imbibing heavily to ward off the cold.

“We had 35,000 there on a Friday night,” remembered Baer. “When Jack Clark struck out with the bases loaded and two outs in
the bottom of the ninth, fans cheered. They all thought that they were going to get the pins, and nobody left. When the game was over and so many fans didn’t get pins, it got very ugly.”

True to his managing style, Gallagher refused to blame Baer for the screwup, taking it on himself. That theme was repeated throughout the evening as many who worked for or with Gallagher praised him for his imagination and even-handed approach. Several speakers talked of specific instances where he had helped them.

I was also happy to see that Bob Lurie got a standing ovation when he was introduced. Lurie was unfairly criticized when he made a deal to move to Tampa Bay. One Chronicle columnist even wrote that Lurie should move to St. Petersburg, Russia, but an editor with more sense than the writer killed it before publication. But Lurie saved the Giants from moving to Toronto in 1976 when he and Bud Herseth bought the team and he was quite happy when the group headed up by Walter Shorenstein bought the team to keep it in San Francisco.

The Giants spared no expense for the evening, with excellent food and drink, including champagne, which was especially appreciated by my wife, Nancy, and I. It wasn’t surprising because the Giants are a classy organization. If the A’s had a 30-year employee retiring, they’d probably just call out for pizza. The difference between these organizations is night and day.

RECORDS: Roger Federer, who many tennis writers proclaimed as the best of all time because he’s won 15 majors, the highest total ever, is my latest example of why I don’t believe records are the best measure of a player.

I have two reservations about Federer, the first being the fact that he hasn’t been able to beat a healthy Rafael Nadal lately. How can you be the best of all time if you can’t beat the other top player in your era? Nadal was sidelined this spring by injuries, clearing the path for Federer to win both the French Open and Wimbledoon.

The other reason I doubt Federer is the best: Rod Laver. In 1962, Laver won the Grand Slam – Wimbledon, and the French, Australian and U. S. Opens, in the same year. Then, he turned pro and was banned from playing in these tournaments in the “shamateur” era. Seven years later, in 1969, these tournaments were opened up to all players and Laver won another Grand Slam, the last player to do it. Altogether, he won 11 majors, despite being unable to play in them for six years in his prime. How many more would he have won if he had played in those tournaments? It seems likely he’d have several more than Federer’s 15 titles.

Judging players from different eras by statistical information is almost impossible because there are so many changes in the games.

Jerry Rice is statistically the best of all time, but he played in an era when rules changes seriously opened up the passing game. As just one example, the slant route on which Rice and John Taylor caught a pass in stride and ran for additional yardage couldn’t have been used in previous eras because linebackers like Dick Butkus, Jack Lambert and Willie Lanier would have hammered Rice and Taylor to the ground when they came across the middle. But that kind of defensive maneuver was outlawed in late ‘70s rules changes.

Measured against the players of his era, Don Hutson was more dominating then any receiver of any time, but his overall statistics pale alongside Rice’s – and those of many receivers of the past 30 years.

Even in baseball, which fans and writers like to think of as an unchanging game, there have been wide variations in playing conditions from era to era. In the ‘30-s, the owners wanted more offense to attract crowds during the Depression, so the ball was juiced. In 1930, Bill Terry had the last .400 year (.401) in the National League and the last place Philadelphia Phillies averaged .315 as a team. There are too many players in the baseball Hall of Fame from the ‘30s because of those inflated offensive stats.

In 1946, Ted Williams, who had hit .406 in 1941, noted that the baseball wasn’t as lively as it had been before the war. Offensive statistics weren’t so gaudy for years and came plummeting down in 1968, when Carl Yastrzemski, at .301, was the only American League hitter to hit over .300. That prompted a lowering of the pitcher’s mound and the addition of the Designated Hitter in the ‘70s by the American League.

Now, we have the socalled Steroids Era when offensive statistics have again risen. As former Baltimore manager Earl Weaver noted in an interview in Sports Illustrated with Tom Verducci that “it just shatters the records.”

I know that bothers fans who think records are sacred, but they’re all relative. For years, Babe Ruth’s 60 home runs was the record but that was nowhere near as significant as the 54 home runs he hit in 1920, when George Sisler was second in the American League with 19. In 1927, when Ruth hit his 60, Lou Gehrig had 47.

The realistic way is to measure players against those in their era, not by using statistical standards that can vary so much from era o era. If you simply measure players against others in their era, you can adjust for the statistical aberrations, whether they’re caused by steroids, overexpansion, juiced baseballs or small parks.

Not incidentally, when Verducci asked Weaver if steroids use by players embarrassed him, he said, Not really. You’re always looking for an edge. And guys, that’s their living. And if a growth hormone helps you be better physically and able to do more things physically….

I’m betting that wasn’t the answer expected by Verducci, an anti-steroids zealot.

\OOPS: As sharp-eyed readerss noted, I had the wrong first name for an A’s prospect in yesterday’s Examiner column. It’s Cliff Pennington; Chad is the quarterback for the Dolphins..



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