Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The complicated nature of such a "basic" game...

It’s surprising, but there’s a perception that baseball isn’t as interesting as it was during the steroid era. Like the inevitable end met by the old wild west, the no-rules ‘anything goes’ characteristic that was a steroid era staple is drawing to a close. (And no I’m not quite ready to land on the aircraft carrier and have a “Mission Accomplished” banner in the background, but we are making progress.) Truly, given the horrendous (and some would say conscious) ignorance of MLB officials to the massive steroid culture for nearly two decades, the progress that the league has made in the last couple years is encouraging.

From a hazy, indefinable start date of sometime in the mid-80’s (when steroids began to directly affect league-wide numbers) to around 2003 (when the BALCO thing exploded), the MLB looked the other way in a morally deplorable way. This completely unjustifiable strategy screamed of the idea that record breaking home run totals get fans interested and brings money back to a game that was almost crushed by labor strike in 1994 (when they actually cancelled the fucking World Series over a money dispute…try explaining that to a 10 year old.)

Since 2003, the MLB officials have slowly turned the heat up on steroid users. Many could definitely make a case that commissioner Bud Selig only acted when independent investigations and the bizarre involvement of congress made it plainly clear that an exceedingly large number of ballplayers were shamelessly cheating their asses off. Nonetheless, Selig and his office of monkeys-with-typewriters finally appear to be producing a model to pin back the hitherto unchecked cheaters.

The reemergence of the balanced team

So now that the previously full reservoir of steroid abuse is evaporating faster than the Aral Sea, it leaves a void that is being curiously filled. In the place of meatheads like Jason Giambi and Jose Canseco are players who compensate for their power drop-off by being a combination of speed, versatility, defensive prowess and plate discipline. The inability to use steroids, coupled with the emergence of front offices utilizing sabermetrics has rekindled the diversity of skill-sets in baseball. Gone are the days when even the Red Sox number nine hitter will win the American League batting title.

Out of the gigantic shadow cast by steroids are an entirely new generation of players who are not predicated around crushing homeruns, but instead contribute in more subtle ways. In back to back years, Dustin Pedroia and Joe Mauer have won the A.L. MVP. (Whether you think they should have won is another debate but it’s impossible to say that they didn’t belong in the discussion.) Neither hit even 30 homeruns in that year, yet were absolutely indispensible to their team’s causes because of their defense as well as their bats (and in Mauer’s case his innate ability to call a good game).

What’s even more interesting is that no matter how impressive some of the steroid era lineups were, none of them ever won a world series. While every World Series winner in that time carried several users, no team ever won a World Series that had any player who hit more than 50 homeruns during the 1990’s and right through 2003 (save Luis Gonzalez and the 2001 Diamondbacks). And this is a fact that has less to with the will of the baseball god’s (who some would say were bound and determined to deny Barry Bonds a ring), but more to do with the universally true fact that a good team is one that carries balance.

The ‘David Eckstein’ role

It’s true that in any sport the entire team needs to play well to win a championship, but this is probably truer in baseball than in almost any other sport. Whereas Peyton Manning can lift the Indianapolis Colts from a surefire sub .500 team into the Super Bowl, even Albert Pujols is unable to lift the Cardinals from mediocrity if they’re pitching sucks, or if they can’t find a guy to ensure that Pujols isn’t walked every time.
Thus there has been a perfect storm of sorts in the circumstances around player development in the past several years. The diminished steroid effect, coupled with front offices gaining confidence, has led to a reevaluation of talent.

A perfect example of this would be David Eckstein. The diminutive shortstop is the antithesis of everything Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa represented. Unlike those two, Eckstein remained a scrawny little guy, completely unable to hit for power. However, Eckstein has two more World Series rings then both of those two colossal stars. Is it more to do with the fact that he played on better teams? Certainly there is truth to that. Yet he symbolizes baseball from a different age (and one that is returning with greater frequency to the current setup of the league.)

I’m not saying having a team of David Ecksteins will win a World Series (since a lack of power is crippling), but what I am saying is that a team composed of only juiced-up power hitters will definitely not win in October. You need guys like Eckstein, who hustle constantly, play solid defense, show mental toughness (because they’ve always had to deal with adversity) and fill out the intangibles. Only the Yankees remain a team composed mostly of power hitters (but they’re constructed well enough to the point where they cover every category including power). Nearly every other team in the majors has evolved. And the direction of MLB teams seems more to be in the direction of the Grady Sizemores and David Wrights of the world; a far cry from ten years ago.

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