I got to thinking about the narrow view taken by both stat zombies and the dogmatic old-school types who don't take numbers into account at all. The zombies don't listen because they're so immersed in the inhuman aspects of numbers crunching that they can't comprehend that they're dealing with human beings; the crusty old-school types who don't ever want to see a statistic because they're too lazy to try and understand them or don't have the mental capacity to get them to start with.
Both camps move the goalposts when it's convenient for them to bolster their arguments.
If one chooses to focus on small ancillary aspects of a larger issue when justifying their beliefs and don't listen to anything that doesn't come with a numerical value attached to it, what can you say to them? If they refuse to accept anyone else's viewpoint and choose to run away or make hit-and-run comments without confrontation, it's a waste of energy to pay them any mind. This goes for both divergent camps.
The fault in the pure computer projections comes from the complete absence of accounting for variables like injuries, managerial stupidity or the career year from a player who'd never before and will never again reach such heights. If you examine the 2010 predicted standings from entities such as PECOTA, after you take note that----judging from the alterations that keep happening on a daily basis (there's a great pre-season pennant race going on)----you'll also note that it's little more than an assessment of a team's roster and their prior production all added together to come to bottom-line calculations for runs scored and runs allowed. Then they get a prediction.
This is not analysis.
Even those systems that use history, comparable players and calculate variables don't take into account any subjective analysis which does have value. Such subjective analysis could only be deduced by someone who's played the game and understands how hard it is; has taken the time to watch a game; can examine a player and have the ability to judge that the way he moves, hits, throws or something that gives reason to think he's going to be more than the sum of his statistical parts.
It's a telling statement when the exalted Billy Beane (whose kingdom is crumbling around him) says such nonsense as (I'm paraphrasing) that he'd "be a better GM if he never watched a game". Given the number of stupid things he's done in recent years, he may be right because he couldn't have done much worse if he'd holed himself up in a basement surrounded by machines (and I'm not talking about Paul DePodesta); and Beane was a player!! You'd think he'd know better.
So what is it that tips a season one way or the other?
Is it the off-season building of a club into an on-paper powerhouse?
Is it finding players whom other clubs don't appreciate or add the fractional skill that makes the difference between 83 wins and also-ran status or 90 wins and a Wild Card berth?
Is it the acquisition of players from whom you know exactly what you're getting to come as close as possible to fulfilling calculations?
Or is it that one small tweak that makes the difference? A difference that no one saw coming and neither scouting nor statistical formulas could've expected?
Is it blind luck?
It happens all the time. One player alters the course of a season for a team. The Cubs of 1998 were lit up by the fireballing emergence of Kerry Wood and made it all the way to the playoffs when not much was expected from them before the season started. They'd lost 94 games the previous year. Wood created a buzz; the team's confidence on the whole rose as they started to think they had something special happening and they made the playoffs.
Another example was the 1985 Cardinals. Having slumped in 1983-1984 after winning the World Series in 1982, they were a team in transition without a closer and still clinging to the foundation from that championship club...until Vince Coleman was recalled for what was supposed to be a brief big league stay in the absence of regular left fielder Lonnie Smith. Coleman stole every base in sight; sent the opposition into disarray every time he got on base; and a Cardinals team that was questionable as to whether they were going to have the run scoring ability to keep up with the Mets, suddenly had Willie McGee as an MVP; and Tommy Herr----Tommy Herr----driving in 110 runs. All of this was because of Coleman and how he arrived and lit a fire every time he set foot on the field.
These things happen sometimes and they can't be quantified by statistics except in retrospect; and that retrospect isn't done to analyze, explain or understand, it's done to self-justify an argument that was pockmarked to begin with.
With all that in mind, let's take a look at the key players to the 2010 season for the American League. (I'll work on the NL tomorrow.)
The phrase "key player" is relative. For some teams, the goal is World Series or bust; for others, they need these players to either develop or provide leadership and contribute to what they're trying to build.
- New York Yankees----A.J. Burnett:
Of course a team like the Yankees would be able to withstand an injury/poor year from Burnett, but the Yankees are a "World Seres or bust" club and if they lose Burnett, that would move everyone behind ace C.C. Sabathia up a notch on the depth chart; and that would mean more expectations for Javier Vazquez, and we've seen what happens to Vazquez in pressure situations or when the spotlight is shining on him directly, and it ain't good.
After a career filled with injuries to just about every part of his arm, Burnett has had two straight fully healthy seasons. If he's hurt, the Yankees are going to have major concerns heading into the playoffs. He has to stay healthy.
- Boston Red Sox----David Ortiz:
A productive Ortiz will make the difference between the "pitching and defense" Red Sox from having to (again) abandon a stat zombie-oriented plan of focusing on market inefficiencies or move forward with what they're currently doing.
If Ortiz is hitting and producing from the DH spot, the Red Sox offense will be strong enough for their pitching and defense plan to work. If not, they're going to have to make a big trade for a bat (Adrian Gonzalez?) at mid-season to save themselves. It's interesting how the plan of pitching and defense will come down to the aging and declining DH, but that's where the Red Sox have stationed themselves.
- Tampa Bay Rays----James Shields:
The Rays are going to score; their bullpen is serviceable; but they must have the "Big Game" James Shields from 2008 and not the up-and-down pitcher he was in 2009. Shields's ERA jumped by a half run and he got rocked far too many times for a pitcher of his ability. With the absence of Scott Kazmir, Shields is the veteran in the Rays rotation from whom the rest of the staff is going to feed. He has to pitch well for the Rays to contend.
- Toronto Blue Jays----Brandon Morrow:
The Blue Jays are retooling; they've made some very good moves this winter in doing the best they could cleaning up from the wreckage left behind by former GM J.P. Ricciardi; and while the Roy Halladay trade was the most high profile deal, the acquisition of Brandon Morrow could lead the Blue Jays back into contention if they straighten out the damaged (mentally more than anything) former first round pick; and they got him for Brandon League and a low-level minor leaguer which wasn't much at all.
- Baltimore Orioles----Kevin Millwood:
The veteran Millwood will be the anchor to the Orioles young starting rotation and if he teaches them how to pitch and handle adversity just as Millwood learned from his time with the Braves and Tom Glavine/Greg Maddux/John Smoltz, the Orioles could advance faster than anyone imagined. There's a load of young pitching talent that needs to be nurtured and taught how to win. Millwood can show them the way.
- Minnesota Twins----Joe Mauer:
For all their flashy acquisitions on the cheap, the Twins are Mauer's team. He's the best hitter in baseball this side of Albert Pujols; and he's a Gold Glove catcher. Without him, the entire lineup comes apart and with their average starting pitching, they need Mauer at the plate and behind it to guide them through.
- Detroit Tigers----Austin Jackson:
The trade of Curtis Granderson will only make sense if the designated replacement, Austin Jackson, fulfills his potential. Jackson will receive every chance to play this year and the Tigers need him to perform. That's a lot of pressure on a 23-year-old.
- Chicago White Sox----Jake Peavy:
With Peavy, you can never be sure if he's going to be the dominating NL Cy Young Award winner he was in 2007; or if he's going to see his arm go flying to the backstop as he fires one of his all-out, mechanically horrific fastballs. He hasn't been fully healthy since that 2007 season, but he looked fantastic in three September starts for the White Sox. If he's back in form, the White Sox are legitimate contenders; if not...
- Cleveland Indians----Grady Sizemore:
With the Indians in their current financial and practical position, they may have to think seriously about trading Sizemore. A couple of years ago, it would've been unthinkable to deal a five-tool talent and off-field solid citizen; but what better way to rebuild as quickly as possible than to deal the best asset? GM Mark Shapiro has shown the guts to make such moves pre-emptively before; it's not something to dismiss out-of-hand.
- Kansas City Royals----Luke Hochevar:
There's no denying Hochevar's ability, but the big righty has only shown flashes of the stuff that made him the number one pick in the draft. His command is all over the place and he doesn't appear to trust his stuff. Body-wise and in mannerisms, he reminds me of Roy Halladay----not in results though. Reality didn't kick in for Halladay until he was 25 and he reinvented his pitching style; Hochevar has to do the same thing. He's 26 now. If he can develop, he and Zack Greinke are a tough 1-2 punch. If....
- Los Angeles Angels----Brandon Wood:
2010 could be Wood's last chance to make it in the big leagues as a regular player, with the Angels at least. He's put up massive power numbers in the minors, but struggled horribly in the majors. He's 25 and the third base job is his to lose. He has to hit.
- Texas Rangers----Rich Harden:
Replacing the leader and innings-eater Millwood with Harden is a large gamble. The Rangers have so much young pitching that they needed a veteran to function as a solid 1A with Scott Feldman. If he's healthy, Harden is unhittable; but he's never healthy and it's always a different part of his body that's hurt. A healthy season from Harden and the Rangers are contenders.
- Seattle Mariners----Milton Bradley:
One never knows----literally----whether Bradley is going to hit .300 and put up great across-the-board numbers or walk into the stands with a bat and attack someone. The Mariners are offensively challenged and need Bradley to produce at the plate. More importantly, they need him to behave and not do anything psychotic to a teammate; an umpire; a coach; a manager; a media member; or a fan. He's also injury-prone.
- Oakland Athletics----Ben Sheets: