Box scores and baseball broadcasts are often misleading artifacts. Check out Cliff Lee’s line from last night’s game:
6.1 IP, 8H, 4 ER, 11 K, 0 BB, 0 HR, 106 pitches (76 strikes).
It was Lee’s shortest outing since his start against the San Diego Padres back on May 21, and at least by the box score, his worst outing with Texas since his July 10 debut against the Orioles.
Folks who glance at that box score this morning after not having watched the game may wonder if Lee wilted in the Texas heat, or caved under the pressure of the vaunted Yankees lineup. There might be something to the former, but the answer to the latter is a definitive “no.”
Lee has been a hero to the Rangers faithful since Texas acquired him, but as Eric Nadel noted last night, the management needs to understand that Lee’s not Superman. After nine straight starts of at least eight innings, Lee definitely looked gassed by the time Ron Washington pulled him from the game in the seventh. The hot and steamy weather almost certainly had something to do with that.
But as dead-on as Nadel was, his partner, Dave Barnett, was equally off base. Barnett repeatedly credited the Yankees (and faulted Lee) for the big plays that led to the Yankees four runs. Derek Jeter’s pop fly to the right-field corner than Nelson Cruz played into a leadoff triple? That was, according to Barnett, Lee’s fault, because he left his pitch up. And so, consequently, was the run that Jeter scored to cut the Rangers’ lead to 6-2 — despite the fact that Jeter crossed the plate after Bengie Molina failed to block an inside slider, and that Lee went on to strike out the side. Barnett also blamed Lee’s pitch location for Lance Berkman’s run-scoring double in the seventh, which made it 6-3. It was left to Nadel to insist that Nelson Cruz bailed on what was an eminently catchable fly ball that landed on the warning track, just as Nadel was the one who pointed out that Cruz over-slid on the Jeter triple.
(Barnett’s calls continued to baffle. After Darren O’Day struck out Jeter for the second out of the seventh, for example, Barnett proclaimed that O’Day had surrendered Brett Gardner’s RBI single earlier in the inning. In fact, Gardner registered that hit off Lee. No correction was forthcoming. Barnett seems like a great guy, but he’s well past the point at which he can be cut slack for being new to the game. The Rangers must consider finding a new partner for Nadel.)
In fact, Cruz was perhaps the only guy who had a worse game than Barnett. Cruz picked a bad night to have a bad night: in addition to misplaying the two crucial flies, leading to two Yankees runs, he also had two bad at-bats in key situations; and ran into a dumb third out at third.
Francisco almost gave Cruz a run for his money. After giving up the monster round-tripper to Thames, he followed a strikeout of Alex Rodriguez with two walks, and only escaped further damage by coaxing a double-play grounder from Austin Kearns to end the inning.
And that leads to the heart of this piece: dumb luck.
In the face of a collapse that saw the Yankees score six unanswered runs to claim a 7-6 victory, it will be easy to tear Texas apart.
It will be easy to echo Barnett and decry Lee’s performance. (Isn’t beating the Yankees in big games what the reason the Rangers acquired him?)
It will be easy to shred Nelson Cruz. (His woeful Wednesday was more or less the polar opposite of Murphy’s triumphant Tuesday; no doubt Cruz’s critics are questioning his grit and Good Face.)
It will be easy to overlook the fact that Neftali Feliz was on the hook for the loss due to a walk, a pop-up that David Murphy couldn’t run down, a slow roller that eluded the gloves of both Feliz and Guzman, and a sharper grounder off Alexi Ogando that evaded Young’s reach to his right. (I’m tired of writing about Young’s defense. That Guzman is a complete disappointment, however, I will keep mentioning. Time for Andrés Blanco to draw some starts.)
It will be easy to rip Young, Hamilton, and Guerrero for failing to bring Andrus home after his leadoff triple in the bottom of the ninth. (Will anyone remember that Young’s bloop to shallow right field was literally an inch from tying the game?)
And, no doubt, it will be easy to trash Ron Washington for his bullpen management the last two nights. (The fact that Mike Maddux has significant say in relief moves will likely go largely unremarked upon. So will the fact that every one of the moves was defensible.)
Those are all understandable reactions. But they will all emerge from the same place: a relative lack of appreciation for the randomness inherent in a game like last night’s — or even any night’s.
Tom Tango recently wrote a fascinating piece about this at the Inside the Book blog. In it, he notes, "when you look at the won-lost records of baseball teams, 60% of that is the talent and other vagaries of the participants, and 40% of that is luck."
It’s worth reading the comments on Tango’s work, since they suggest 60/40 may not be quite the right split, and provide some possible orrections. But Tango’s conclusion is indisputable. It’s worth repeating here: "Sports, life actually, is played by unique persons. But luck, timing, good/bad breaks plays a huge role in the outcomes. Not everything is luck. But not everything is talent either."
It’s often hard for us to recognize just how much luck plays into major-league baseball. We see how freakishly talented the players are — especially on teams like the Rangers and Yankees — and we forget that there’s an amazing amount of randomness in even the highest level of play.
Cold comfort after a killer loss? Sure. Will any of this make you feel better this morning? Probably not. And maybe it shouldn’t. There was a lot of bad Rangers baseball last night. But there was also a lot of bad luck.
So maybe this will help: as Texas continues to move inexorably toward its first AL West crown in over a decade, it’s worth remembering that even the occasional crushing defeat has a silver lining. For 19 innings of baseball, the Rangers went toe-to-toe with the most talented team in baseball — and they were a couple strokes of luck from not just one, but two amazing wins. (Yes, that could be framed another way. This is the happy helpful bit, savvy?)
The playoffs are going to be truly outstanding. Grab your popcorn.