Thursday, June 19, 2008

Jayson Stark - 'The Stark Truth'

Stark's writing is solid and smooth throughout, and his love of baseball is evident on every page. In a few of the examples, he does an excellent job of showing why certain players are overrated (Dave Winfield, Phil Rizzuto) while others receive less than the praise they deserve (Frank Robinson, Barry Larkin).

For Dave Winfield, he manages to tastefully break down his career numbers to show that despite the stats he accumulated throughout his career, he never had a monster season in which he dominated the league in major offensive categories the way players like Jim Rice or Joe Medwick, despite having lesser career numbers, were able to do.

Unfortunately, taking the title into consideration, he is too often given to stating his opinion rather than offering objective analysis. If you're going to use numbers, for crying out loud, use all the numbers available, not just the ones you deem important (read: prove his case). Less an examination of the factors that over and under rate the players, he cherry picks numbers and offers them as proof positive of their status for far too many of the other players, and in some glorious instances, assigns the overrated and underrated labels to players who are overpaid, had disappointing careers, or who had intangibles that helped their teams win, or not.If you want his opinion, and much of these ratings are that, you'll be happy with this book. For those looking for a more consistent, statistical breakdown of players, you'll have to look elsewhere.

I'll use two examples that, I think, illustrate what's wrong with his analysis.

Stark's logic when talking about every purple prosemen's favorite object of affection, Derek Jeter, is simple: he doesn't use any.Jeter is listed as the second most underrated shortstop in history, behind only Barry Larkin. An insult when you consider how truly underrated Larkin is. But let's get to Stark's arguments:His basic declaration is that "There are elements of greatness that numbers can't quantify." (138) While the rest of the book contains Stark using those "numbers" to do just that, Jeter, it seems, is a special case. He dismisses the Doe-Eyed Short Stop’s critics for pointing out things like zone rating and OPS to explain why Jeter isn't say, worth 20 million a year or deserving of his own cologne, gold gloves, and his own personal announcer on Fox to fawn over his intangibles. Those aren't important, declares Stark, because he lives for the Big Moment, and he has proof: Jeter has hit over .400 in eight postseason series!

Hmmm, does Derek show a sense of clutchness by hitting .455 in the 1999 ALDS, where the Yankees swept a Rangers team that scored exactly one run over the course of three games? OK, then what to make of the 2001 World Series, in which Cap'n Intangibles went 4 for 27 (that's a .148 average, which, if my math is right, is not over .400). Though in Mr. Stark's defense, I'm sure he will argue those were all clutch outs, because they forced his team to try all the harder.

But it gets even odder when one reads Stark's dismantling of the career of Steve Garvey. Garvey certainly was an overrated player in his day, but now? Who is calling for his admission into Cooperstown?

What has this to do with Derek Jeter? Well, after insisting that only Red Sox fans and computers don't appreciate Derek Jeter, he then, computer-like, breaks down Garvey's career to show he wasn't as great as people thought he was. Why, well, aside from not having a great OPS (like Jeter) in relation to the praise heaped on him, Garvey won gold gloves he didn't deserve (like, say, Derek Jeter?) and is overrated for his postseason accomplishments. Of course, Garvey, in a time before the Wild Card, played on five pennant winners, won two LCS MVPs, and has a better OPS in the postseason than Jeter (0.911 to 0.846).

While Garvey and Jeter have a lot in common, both as players and are well known for their tawdry personal lives, it should be noted Garvey’s teams never blew a three game lead in the postseason. Sad to say, Jeter cannot make the same claim.

Stark also claims that Craig Nettles is overrated. Why? Well, there appears to be group of Yankee fans that think he belongs in Cooperstown. Some Yankee fans will insist that Ron Guidry, Jim Lerytz, and even Don Larsen belong in the Hall, though they aren't on the list. Why is Nettles overrated? Well, he wasn't as good a fielder as Brooks Robinson, which we know because Brooksie had a better zone rating, though I remember Stark previously mentioning how sometimes "numbers" like zone rating can't quantify greatness. But that's not important. No, Nettles wasn't as good a fielder as Robinson, but he does lead the position in HRs by an American Leaguer (390). But, that number loses luster with examination.

His BA is a rather mediocre .248, and during his tenure with the Yankees, his BA/SLG/OPS were 30/90/100 points higher at home than on the road. So, Yankee Stadium inflated his numbers and made him appear to be a better hitter than he was. Fair enough.But then, in the underrated section on 3B, he proclaims Ron Santo as the most underrated third sacker of all time. Now, let's ignore the fact that I can't think of a major baseball writer who hasn't written an article on how much a travesty it is that "underrated" Ron Santo is still paying his way into Cooperstown and look at the numbers. Ron didn't play in Yankee Stadium, with its short, inviting right field porch. He did play in the cozy confines of Wrigley, and let's see how his home/away numbers stack up.

Believe it or not, they're actually worse than Nettle's. At Wrigley, Santo's BA/SLG/OPS was 39/116/157 points higher, respectively, than when he was on the road. Stark gives four reasons why he thinks Santo isn't in the Hall of Fame. Those huge splits and relative brevity of his career are not among them. In fact, he never even mentions the Santo's short career (just 12 full seasons) nor the HUGE gaps in numbers when he wasn't playing in the North End of the Windy City.For the record, I think Santo belongs in Cooperstown, though I think him a borderline-at-best case. Still, this selective application of stats brings the read down as Stark presents a view that completely ignores genuine arguments for the way they’re currently rated.

Stark, in his defense, does comment on the difficultly of defining the titular terms, but there has to be some consistency or the books becomes just a collection of player data, strung together haphazardly wi

Why are J.D. Drew and Barry Zito overrated because of their salaries if Jason Giambi or Chan Ho Park don’t warrant a similar spot? Why does Darryl Strawberry’s disappointing career make him the third most overrated right fielder in history, but Raul Mondesi or Jim Lefebvre (who won the ROY over Joe Morgan) don’t appear anywhere in the book? And since the title infers history, why are so many of the players from the last fifty years?

Stark’s book hinges on an undeniably intriguing idea, but it reads as if he didn’t put the effort into making the content live up to the title’s billing.

Caveat empor.

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