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The Pirates, Intangibles, And Style Points For Losing

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I'd like to describe a couple things from PirateFest that stuck with me, and that concern the intangible in baseball. I'm not at all sure where this post will end up, but maybe it will be a good starting point for discussion.

-P- At the beginning of the Q+A on Friday with management, a fan told Clint Hurdle he noticed that Hurdle often wrote in a book after certain plays, and asked him what he wrote in there. What Hurdle said was, essentially, that he wrote about things that didn't turn up in the box score, and this is the example he gave: Charlie Morton was on the mound and in some sort of situation that required him to make a tough pitch in an important situation. Morton made his pitch in the right location, but the batter hit it anyway. But that wasn't what Hurdle wrote in his book. Instead, what he wrote was that Morton's catcher, Michael McKenry, noticed that Morton had made his pitch and made some demonstrative gesture that conveyed frustration while also letting Morton know, 'Hey, we'll get 'em next time.' I may not have all the details exactly right on that story, but that's pretty close.

-P- From our Q+A with Chris Resop:

It was as if we were trying to beat each other to the park that day. Who could get here first ... Everybody's laughing and joking, and you weren't thinking. It was just, we're here to play, we're gonna do our job today, let's go. Let's go get 'em tonight. Winning is contagious, and losing is contagious, as we've all seen.

These two items are about slightly different topics, but they're both related to a divide among baseball fans about whether baseball players are human beings or just robots with stat lines. Or, to frame it another way, whether players' performance is dictated mostly by their level of talent, and whether fans like to ascribe value judgments to things like McKenry's gesture to Morton, when in fact those things don't usually make much of a difference in terms of wins and losses.

Baseball bloggers, as a group, probably aren't too keen on things that don't turn up in the stat sheet in general, and I think it's easy to see why. Fussing too much about the way in which a team is playing badly is much less important than the fact that the team is playing badly. I wonder whether Pittsburgh fans do this more or less than fans from other cities. A lot of Steelers fans, in particular, seem hung up on the style in which the Steelers win rather than the fact that they actually do win. Many (although certainly not all) debates about Bruce Arians seem to have more to do with allegiance to an old style of Steelers football rather than whether Arians has done the best possible job with what he has. Which is to say that while I don't have any problem with Hurdle noting McKenry's gesture (that's part of Hurdle's job, actually), it's probably not the best thing that so many of fans' ideas about players like McKenry and Ronny Cedeno have to do with stuff like this.

It's easy to understand, obviously. I mean, I do it. If you watch the games, you can't help it. When Ronny Paulino was the Bucs' catcher, I was tearing my hair out. I'd much rather watch McKenry, even though there isn't much statistical evidence that McKenry is a better player than Paulino. Watching your team lose while it looks engaged and impassioned really isn't that hard; watching it lose while it looks indifferent or clueless is almost impossible.

So my general view is that, although I get annoyed with players like Cedeno and Paulino on a day-to-day basis, I do think players' value to their teams essentially amounts to what shows up on the stat sheet. Style points for losing really don't matter much.

With that in mind, though, what do you all make of Resop's comment? It's a different point, but it's related in that it's hard to deny that this "contagion" exists, and the players aren't stat-producing robots who are immune to what's going on around them. There was no doubt that the Pirates were playing out of their minds for the first few months of last season, but it's impossible to completely chalk up their late-season collapse - or some of their other recent late-season collapses - to regression to the mean. I wanted to ask Resop what "losing is contagious" meant to him, and exactly what forms it took, but there wasn't time.

By late August, to me, there was a creeping sense that the outcome of each game had already been decided, that the Pirates would keep blowing it and find new ways of doing so. I don't think an outright lack of concern was the reason, since the players are professionals who, if nothing else, have plenty of incentives to produce on an individual level. But Resop's idea that losing somehow perpetuates more losing is, I think, very consistent with my experience as a fan.

-P- By the way, here's Neal Huntington on "the value of intangibles and the non-quantifiable," from the bloggers' Q+A last week.

I don't think I gave that enough respect in terms of my years as an evaluator [and] early on in this job ... There is an element of, they're in that clubhouse 162 games a year, they're in that clubhouse in Spring Training. There is an element of reliability, of dependability, of cohesion. There is an element of 'team-first' that plays a role - I don't want to say it plays the role, but it plays a role, and I probably undervalued that. Ironically enough, you can't value it, but I probably undervalued it ...

We tried to [bring in good character players] in the past, [but] I maybe overvalued the impact of a role player in a leadership element within your clubhouse. It's tough for a guy that's not playing every day, it's tough for a guy that's not playing well to have the impact you've brought him on board to have. Matt Diaz, Lyle Overbay made an impact in Spring Training last year. There's no question they made an impact in Spring Training, well beyond whatever their batting averages were, well beyond however their WAR came out, they made an impact in our clubhouse. As they struggled, it became tougher for them to make an impact ... It's tough to tell guys, 'This is what you need to do,' when you're not doing it on the field ... There was a method to the madness in terms of [Clint] Barmes, in terms of [Rod] Barajas, in terms of Nate McLouth, in terms of Casey McGehee.