Thursday, July 17, 2008

Why have the Rays gotten so good?

When I see that a baseball team has improved dramatically, I enjoy watching the popular narratives of the success develop. Usually, some combination of these four reasons comes up:

1. Charismatic leadership
2. General team chemistry (perhaps resulting from the departure of one or more bad apples)
3. Better players
4. Chance
5. Avoidance of major injuries

My sense is that dominant media narratives generally emphasize the first two factors, whereas statheads emphasize numbers three and four. Both sides are just beginning to catch up to the importance of injuries, an area that seems to capture everyone's interest these days. (Tom Verducci's recent article on Tim Lincecum captures the drama of biomechanical analysis beautifully.)

Incidentally, I see one of the most interesting questions in contemporary sports to be whether statheaded skepticism about charisma and chemistry in baseball should apply equally to sports such as basketball and football, where sustained concentration and teamwork matter so much more.

Anyway, to the Rays: listening to Chicago sports radio on a recent travel day, I heard four analysts in two forums describe the success of this year's Tampa Bay Rays almost entirely in terms of charisma and chemistry, with only an occasional mention of whether the team simply got better at playing baseball this year.

Given the fact that Nate Silver predicted in February that the Rays would experience precisely this kind of improvement (to the tune of 22 more wins, said Silver) and correctly pegged the key factor to be team defense, I have wondered whether any mainstream outlet would pick up the fact that Silver's model, which cares not a whit for chemistry, got this prediction so right. Granted, Silver wrote his article for an obscure regional rag called Sports Illustrated, but still, you'd think someone would pick up this story and run with it, right?

I lost all hope last week, when Silver's own organ, Baseball Prospectus, put out a podcast in which host Brad Wochomurka referred to the Rays' season that nobody saw coming. If the success of Silver's model hasn't convinced his own colleagues, I'll wager we have a long way to go before other outlets engage it.