The Great Water Glass

added 10/18/2005 by Scott Barzilla

You've heard it before: 'is the glass half full or half empty?' That one question can say more about the way we look at life than any other. Fans in Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia can talk about misery and they have had more than their fair share, but I think most Astros fans would say the glass was not only half empty, but it was half empty only until fate or karma poured the remaining half on the ground and laughed. At least, that was until this year.

As I write this, the Astros are up 3 games to 1, so you will excuse me if I say nothing about any eventual outcomes. As many of you have probably figured, I'm one of those glasses half empty kind of guys. I've looked at our clutch hitting numbers throughout the playoffs and wondered where the clutch is. It's hard to get excited about an offense that has produced 13 runs in four games. For the math challenged, that totals up to 3.25 runs a game in the NLCS. However, a funny thing happened on the way to me running another column on how much the Astros offense blows: Fox showed a graphic of the Cardinals hitting with runners in scoring position.

I don't have to tell any of you that both teams have done next to nothing with runners on second and third. I thought about that when I saw a posts on the boards about how we've struggled. It seemed that in the same breath on another thread that someone was talking about how clutch our pitching has been. In alternative universe, someone in Missouri is thinking the same thing in reverse. So, has the lack of hitting been bad hitting or clutch pitching? This is where we get back to the half full or half empty question.

For me the rosetta stone is Reggie Jackson. I know that seems like a curious place to start, but I thought about it and remembered a column by Larry Dierker in the Chronicle. He suggested that players usually approach their career averages over a long enough period in the playoffs and he used Reggie Jackson as proof. I hate to differ with the namesake of my SABR chapter, but Jackson is proof of something completely different. He is proof that if you produce your regular season percentages in the playoffs then you have actually performed better.

Fans have dogged Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio for their lack of performance, but the premise is basic and grounded in logic. If you've made the playoffs then you have one of the better pitching staffs in the league. You also don't throw your fifth starter or the end of your bullpen. So, unlike the regular season, you are facing the very best baseball has to offer. Yes, the same could be said of the pitchers, but those same hitters made their numbers fat off the Pittsburghs and Colorados of the world. The pundits say that good pitching beats good hitting and this is one of the instances where they are right.

So, Bagwell and Biggio's numbers are as much if not more about their competition as their clutch hitting acumen. Both have turned it around the last couple of years and we can't help but think it has something to do with a different outlook on the playoffs and other teams focusing on different Astro hitters. Most players don't do what Albert Pujols is doing. You cannot look at Albert Pujols and ask, 'why can't our guys do that?' If you do then you have to expect other managers to ask their closer and why they can't do what Lidge or Mariano Rivera does.

This gets back to one of the great debates among those of us in the statistical world. Does clutch performance really exist? As Tyler Durden said in Fight Club, 'over a long enough timeline, the survival rate drops to zero.' Well, over a long enough timeline, random variance drops to zero. In a seven game series we can see examples of 'clutch' performance, but over a long time period we really don't.

This means that success and failure is not so much about 'choking' or 'thriving under pressure' as it as about talent and random luck. Of course, that's the negative point of view on clutch performance. Personally, I think it is overblown most of the time, but occasionally there is something to it. However, before we jump to that conclusion we have to ask ourselves the $64,000 question: was the player's performance really different from the norm?

The Astros have struggled with men on base all season. Most teams are better with men in scoring position because they see better pitches to hit. The Astros are actually worse throughout the entire season. So, watching them struggle is frustrating, but their struggles have little to do with choking. It has more to do with that being the way they are.

If you want me to return to the positive I can say the same thing about our bullpen's performance. Their dominance is more about that being who they are then them performing well in the clutch. Playoff baseball is better simply because most teams don't have to use the worst three or four pitchers on their pitching staff. When you can limit your bullpen to three guys it's amazing how much better they look.

I could spend an entire year's worth of columns analyzing the differences between regular season success and post-season success. Simply put, depth wins in the regular season and star power wins in the playoffs. Getting there and winning the whole shebang is one of the delicate balanced every team must consider. Serendipity certainly plays a role, but it isn't the role we think of.

The karma isn't about specific plays going a team's way, but whether certain players have career seasons. Dan Wheeler and Chad Qualls could be selling insurance three years from now for all we know, but for this one season they are about as good as any setup duo in the league. Roy Oswalt may or may not go on to have a Hall of Fame career, but for right now he is as good as any pitcher in baseball. I could go on and on. The key is in recognizing the good fortune.

All of us hopes the off-season is delayed for at least another week, but when we get there I will start looking at the 2006 roster. Of course, that means I will start looking with a critical eye again. That has nothing to do with a lack of appreciation for what the players have done, but everything to do with the knowledge that serendipity rarely ever lasts. It has already lasted two seasons and that is far beyond any life expectancy. The Astros run has little to do with luck in the sense that the players have produced like this all season. Yet, everyone will admit that some players have been lucky to produce at this level.

Scott Barzilla is the author of Checks and Imbalances and The State of Baseball Management.