A Visceral Love of the Game; and a Word on the Baseball MacGuffin

In an earlier post, I briefly discussed how paying attention to advanced metrics can help you better evaluate player performance in baseball. I contrasted looking at a player’s numbers — including advanced statistics — with relying on the “eye test,” noting that the eye test can be deceptive.

In this post, I will attempt to show, using a specific example, just how the eye test can be deceptive.


The video above is of an extraordinary catch that Phillies’ centerfielder Ben Revere made in mid-April 2013. As you watch the video, it is difficult not to share the excitement plainly evident in the voice of Phillies play-by-play broadcaster Tom McCarthy. Revere’s running, leaping grab is spectacular; he seems to defy numerous laws of physics in making this play, not the least of which being the law of gravity itself.

As a Phillies fan, I have watched this video and enjoyed it at that visceral excitement level numerous times. Now, over a year later, I still have not tired of it, and probably never will.

In this version of the video, you can hear the Phillies’ then-color broadcaster, Chris Wheeler, note during the replay that it “looked like he [Revere] misjudged [the ball’s path] at first” – which is true. Yet remarking that takes nothing away from Revere’s achievement in running the ball down, catching it and turning what seemed destined to be a run-scoring extra-base hit for Cincinnati’s Todd Frazier into a double play.

Wheeler’s comment, however, serves as a good transition from a gut-level fan’s admiration of a great play into a bit of analysis of the overall quality of the play itself. (You need not lose the former, however, to engage in the latter.)

If you watch the video more closely, you will notice that Revere’s route to the ball is not a particularly efficient one. Rather than running a more direct diagonal route back and to his left, Revere breaks left for a bit and then heads back and eventually, amazingly, catches up with the ball, seemingly against all odds. The play was made more difficult than it had to be due to Revere’s taking a bad – or, to be more charitable, sub-optimal – route. (You can read a fuller critical analysis of Revere’s play at this Phillies fan blog.) Revere, obviously, still got to the ball, but only because of his incredible speed – which he needed because of his original mistaken read on the ball’s trajectory.

It may seem churlish to point this out about such an amazing catch. After all, the fans at the game, the players on both teams, and the radio and television play-by-play broadcasters were, one and all, in awe of the play – and rightly so. Even the pitcher, Cliff Lee, pretty renowned for his stoic cool during games, can be seen to utter a “Wow!” and give a headshake of disbelief in the video at around the 19 second mark. (When you manage to impress Cliff Lee, you have surely accomplished something of note.)

Revere, in fact, has a habit of taking bad routes to fly balls. (In his defense: He had roughly a tenth of a second to make up his mind about which way to break. This play develops so quickly that, by the time the camera switches from Frazier batting to Revere reacting, Revere’s decision has already been made and you can see his attempted correction less than a second later.) The Phillies organization recognizes this weakness in Revere’s game and it is their hope that he can be taught to judge balls better and take more efficient routes because, once he can, there will indeed be few balls hit anywhere in his general vicinity that he will not be able to make a play on.



The video above is of Ben Revere almost one year later making another great catch. There is little to criticize, in this case, about the jump he gets or his route to the ball. He still has occasional problems judging balls, but not here, not on this play. (The only cringe-worthy aspect of this catch is the no doubt painful face-plant at the end.) I had the good fortune to be on hand at Citizens Bank Park for the game against the Brewers in which Revere made this catch and it was even more thrilling in real time. I did not need to crunch any numbers to appreciate the magnitude of Revere’s great catch. Sadly, in both cases – the catch against Cincinnati last year and the one against Milwaukee this year – his effort came in games the Phillies eventually went on to lose.

But that is baseball – specifically, Phillies baseball, circa 2014.

Baseball numbers are interesting and informative, but nobody watches baseball for the numbers. After the fact, certain fans – myself included – will pore over certain plays and certain players’ performances in an attempt to understand them, and the game of baseball itself, better; but in the moment, when, e.g., Ben Revere is making catches like those above, just about every fan watches the game the same way: on seat’s edge, wide-eyed, breath bated. Poring over statistics after the game does not change that. If you do not enjoy the game at this basic gut level, you probably do not enjoy it period.

Below is my idiosyncratic selected and annotated list of resources that the Mercer County Library System owns that celebrate baseball as a game rather than as a collection of statistics. But first, a word on the MacGuffin, a term Hitchcock popularized and defined thus: "It is the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories it is almost always the necklace and in spy stories it is most always the papers." In other words, it is the thing in the story that the characters are all worked up about, but that it is not strictly necessary for the viewer to be particularly interested in … except insofar as to recognize that the MacGuffin, whatever it might be, is of interest to the characters. Baseball, in many of the DVDs I list below, is little more than the MacGuffin. You do not really need to know much about baseball to enjoy these movies.

DVDs 

Bull Durham. 1988. I list Bull Durham first because of the scene in which the movie’s protagonist, Crash Davis, lecturing on “respect[ing] the steak,” says, among other things: “If you believe you're playing well because … you wear women's underwear, then you are!” [At one point in the movie, “Nuke” LaLoosh, a pitcher, wears women’s underwear under his uniform because he superstitiously believes it is helping him pitch better.] Crash’s argument is the very embodiment of the type of thinking that drives numbers-focused students of the game to distraction.

Baseball. 1994. The multi-volume Ken Burns documentary.

Eight Men Out. 1988. Baseball is the MacGuffin. The real issue in this movie is worker abuse and exploitation. Baseball players were underpaid and exploited in baseball’s early years. In fact, the “Black Sox” earned their name, not because of the 1919 fixing of the World Series, but because their uniforms were dirty because White Sox owner, Charlie Comiskey, was so parsimonious that he refused to pay to have their uniforms laundered. He expected the players to pay for laundering out of their own pockets. The players responded by not having their uniforms cleaned at all.

Field of Dreams. 1989. Baseball is the MacGuffin. The real story is of a grown son’s attempt to re-connect with his long-dead father.

Trouble with the Curve. 2012. A father reconnects with his daughter. The baseball MacGuffin is poorly thought-out, however, because it hinges on expecting the viewer to accept that recognizing a player’s inability to hit a curveball is a rare and esoteric skill. (It is not.) The protagonist, Gus, is an old-school scout who relies on what he can hear and see (despite failing eyesight) to judge players. The main antagonist is a stats/numbers guy who, naturally, gets his comeuppance.

Moneyball. 2011. Unlike Trouble with the Curve, Moneyball is indeed about characters who are able, using a stats-based approach, to recognize more esoteric baseball skills and thereby assemble a winning major league team at a relatively low cost.

Bad News Bears. 1976. The original version starring Walter Matthau and Tatum O’Neal. Just a fun movie

Bang the Drum Slowly. 1973. Baseball is the MacGuffin in a story that is really more about the relationship between two very different men, one of whom is dying.

The Philadelphia Phillies 2008 World Series. 2008. “Every complete game from the 2008 World Series … Each 2008 World Series game is presented uncut in this action-packed set. The complete NLCS, games 4 and 5 vs. the Los Angeles Dodgers and all five World Series games against the Tampa Bay Rays.”

Books

Baer, Bill. 100 Things Phillies Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die. 2012.

Kepner, Tyler. The Phillies Experience: A Year-by-Year Chronicle of the Philadelphia Phillies. 2013.

Westcot, Rich. The Phillies Encyclopedia. 3rd edition. 2004.

Websites

MLB Videos Page

The Good Phight – Phillies fan blog.

Crashburn Alley – Phillies fan blog.

- Tom G.

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