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Nature Vs. Nurture

While the Cubs have the day off today, let's both have some fun -- check out BCB reader gary varsho's FanPost about great performances you have personally witnessed -- and also discuss something that I've been thinking about writing for some time, this post regarding the ongoing debate between those who are more of a statistical bent regarding baseball analysis, and those who, well, aren't.

Before you get all bristly and defensive, no matter which "side" you prefer, please read this entire post.

Most of you know I'm not a statistical analyst. That doesn't mean I don't know what the advanced metrics are or what they mean. I am well acquainted with them and I am glad that the Cubs seem, at the very least, to be paying more attention to more than just what we might call the "TV stats" -- BA, HR, RBI. We can see the results already on the field with the Cubs' more patient approach. They are this morning leading the major leagues in walks, and not coincidentally, leading the major leagues in runs scored. Granted, a fair portion of that lead in runs is due to the nineteen runs scored against the Brewers (10% of the season total of 195) -- but I believe this represents something real, not illusory, and as long as Cub hitters continue to take more pitches and draw walks, they'll score lots of runs, and, the recent road trip notwithstanding, win more games. The Cubs had a recent streak, stopped yesterday, in which they had had the bases loaded at least once in sixteen consecutive games -- a streak that equalled the longest in the major leagues since 1974, by the 2002 Mariners, and is likely the longest by the Cubs since at least 1956.

Six Cubs have drawn sixteen or more walks -- that's about 0.5 per game or more, or 80+ for a season -- and that includes Ryan Theriot, and Mr. Theriot is, at least in part, going to be the focus of this post.

Ryan Theriot has been, for better or worse, the focus of the wrath of statistically-oriented people for most of the last year and a half. I am not here to argue that the "scrappy" Theriot is a great player or that he doesn't need to be replaced as a starter. At this moment, Theriot's "triple-slash stats" are .331/.406/.425, which likely represent about as good as he is ever going to get. Can he sustain this over a full season? Maybe, but I doubt it. I also have observed this about Theriot: he doesn't really have the range to be a starting shortstop in the major leagues, nor does he have the arm.

The statistical analysts will say, "Hey! We can measure that!", and they'd be right. I don't have all the advanced metrics handy, but using a basic measure of range, his range factor is below major league average and has been since he started playing SS on a regular basis.

This is one place where we the observers and those who look strictly at numbers agree: Ryan Theriot is probably best suited, at the major league level, to be a utility infielder. Last year, the Cubs didn't have a suitable player to start in his place, so he played every day. In 2008, they do have such a suitable player -- Ronny Cedeno, whose triple-slash stats are even better than Theriot's (.345/.429/.509), and who seems to have "turned it around" this season, thus earning the blogosphere nickname "ONEDEC". I would argue that ONEDEC has earned at the very least more playing time, and probably should supplant Theriot as the starting SS.

What I've taken issue with here at times is this: statistical analysts simply quoting rafts of numbers and saying "such-and-such is a bad baseball player" and claiming that if you simply plug in a player with better numbers, the team will improve. In many cases, this is true. However, let's take the example of another baseball player. Let's call him Barry Bonds, who has put up amazing on-base and power numbers over the last few seasons.

This has caused some people to suggest that this player would be a good addition to the Cubs, or to other teams, and they wonder why this player is sitting home rather than playing.

But now come the other factors: first, Bonds is nearly 44 years old and really can't play the outfield on a regular basis any more. He's under clouds of suspicion and an actual federal indictment. By all accounts the teams on which he played were fractured, because there was one set of rules for him and one set for the other 24 players.

Now, as a major league manager managing human beings, not reams of statistics, would you want that player on your team, knowing the upheaval he could cause? I wouldn't.

Do I want a team comprised of 25 "scrappy" Theriots, either? No, I don't, because obviously "scrappiness" in and of itself doesn't win games. Hustling and playing hard and having the right attitude are important factors in playing any sport. But in the end, you have to have consistent ability. What a Theriot can bring to your team can be exemplified by this real-life example involving a player Theriot is often compared to (in playing style, at least), David Eckstein. A little over a year ago, on April 20, 2007, in a game the Cubs were losing 2-1 to the Cardinals at Wrigley Field in the last of the ninth, Mark DeRosa singled with one out. The aforementioned Ronny Cedeno (not yet ONEDEC) was sent in to run for him. With a 3-2 count on the next hitter, Jacque Jones, Cedeno took off for second base. The pitch was ball four, and Cedeno slid into second and then off second as the throw came to Eckstein.

99% of major league shortstops would have taken the ball and thrown it back to the pitcher, and the runner would have dusted himself off and stood on second base, the tying run in scoring position with one out. But Eckstein thought fast and tagged Cedeno, knowing he had overrun the base. Cedeno was out, and with two out, the Cubs' rally had just about died. Matt Murton popped up to end the game.

You can indeed measure this play. It is recorded as a putout. But what cannot be measured is the heads-up play, a split-second thought, that helped his team win. Is this a reason to play a Theriot every day? No, because obviously, plays like this happen once a year, if that. But it is a reason to have a guy like this on your team and play him in important situations.

I guess what I'm trying to say here is that neither statistics nor "scrappiness" is the be-all and end-all of winning baseball. Should major league managers pay more attention to modern statistics? Of course they should, and in fact, I believe that more and more managers are doing so, and so are some players, like the Royals' Brian Bannister. All I'd like to see is an acknowledgement from both "sides" (if there are even "sides" in this discussion, because the bottom line is, everyone here wants the same result -- for the Cubs to win) that there is, for lack of a better term, room for both "nature and nurture" in winning baseball, and that there are external factors not measurable on a stat sheet that can win -- or lose -- games for you.

For example, in 2006 Ryan Dempster had a miserable year closing games, after doing well in that role in 2005. Why did this happen? Did Dempster suddenly forget how to pitch? Was his velocity down (observations of this said "no")? What I heard was that he was having some personal troubles. Now, it's generally important for anyone -- not just major league ballplayers -- to not let their personal problems affect their work. But that's not an easy thing to do, and sometimes it happens. You can measure the bad performance on a stat sheet. But you can't necessarily measure the cause of the bad performance unless it's related to physical troubles such as an arm injury, for example, for a pitcher.

If this is starting to sound like a "Can't we all just get along?" plea, that's exactly what it is. There is room for all kinds of opinion and analysis on this site, and in fact, one regular poster here -- cwyers -- does excellent statistical analysis. All I'd ask is that everyone respect each other's opinions -- for that is what we express here, our opinions -- and know that we're all rooting for the same goal, a Cubs World Championship.

And somewhere along the line, both a Kosuke Fukudome -- who is fundamentally sound and also an on-base machine -- and a Ryan Theriot, who might win a game with a heads-up play -- will contribute.

Enjoy the rest of this off-day. Go Cubs.