Sunday, March 26, 2000

BASEBALL INSIDER


Bowden sees much more than stats in players

BY CHRIS HAFT
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Used properly, statistics illuminate a player's skills by measuring his strengths and deficiencies.

        But in baseball, where decimal points come cascading from press boxes and broadcast booths, statistics are too frequently cited to define a player instead of merely providing insight into him.

        Reds General Manager Jim Bowden understands the difference. So while many of his counterparts have embraced the trendy stat known as “OPS” — on-base percentage plus slugging percentage — Bowden remains more interested in watching a player throw, run and interact with teammates.

        OPS reflects consistency as well as power, explaining why many executives embrace it. It should come as no surprise that the all-time OPS leader is Babe Ruth (1.164).

        “It's an important statistic, because it ties in a lot of statistics in one,” Bowden said. “But I'll still bet on tools, makeup, character and those kinds of issues. That's how you know what a (Ken) Griffey or (Barry) Bonds or those kind of guys are going to do. It's not what their OPS number is.”

        As a rule, Bowden avoids placing undue emphasis on stats.

        “It is a tool you can use, but it won't give you vision on what a player's going to do,” he said. “In our business, we get paid to tell what players are going to do before the fan knows what they're going to do.”

        Bowden always remembers that he's evaluating people. This doesn't mean that he holds hands with them to get in touch with their feelings. It does mean that he sees the vast gray areas between the black and white of statistics.

        Maybe Bowden could have acquired more proficient bench players than Hal Morris or Mark Lewis. Perhaps he could have signed a better No.5 starting candidate than Mark Portugal. Maybe it would make more sense to cast aside Barry Larkin instead of signing him to a contract extension. But Bowden realizes that the value of such individuals transcends their batting averages and ERAs.

        “We're not talking about computer players. We're talking about human beings,” Bowden said.

        STOCKINGED FEAT: Sports Illustrated went out on a limb. The respected magazine picked the Boston Red Sox, who haven't won a World Series since 1918, to capture this year's title.

        Naturally, this prompted plenty of reaction in Red Sox camp, where players have heard all they can stand about the Curse of the Bambino and other legends. After all, many subscribe to the notion that those who appear on Sports Illustrated's cover — as Boston ace Pedro Martinez did for this issue — are doomed to fail.

        “That's a jinx,” broadcaster and former Red Sox second baseman Jerry Remy said. “Now it'll be another 100 years before they win the World Series.”

        “The people in Boston who believe in the Bambino curse are also going to believe in the Sports Illustrated curse,” right-hander Bret Saberhagen said. “So if we don't win it, that's probably going to be why. But we still have Nomar (Garciaparra) tapping his shoes and pulling on his batting gloves. We'll try to counteract all those curses with our own superstitions.”

        Said first baseman Mike Stanley, “Do we still have to play, or can we just get fitted for our rings now?”

        Though Stanley was kidding, Sports Illustrated didn't pick the Red Sox as a joke.

        “It's a pretty strong statement by Sports Illustrated, especially with the talented teams that are out there,” Saberhagen said. “We expect to get there. We have the nucleus we've had for the last two years. We've got a good rotation and a good bullpen. The one thing we've got to watch out for is injuries. We've got the guys to play and compete.”

        STRING THING: Milwaukee's Mark Loretta always has extended his talent beyond where others thought it should take him. Dismissed as a utility infielder throughout much of his career, Loretta parlayed his skills into a three-year, $11 million contract and the Brewers' starting shortstop's job.

        “When I was (coaching) in San Diego, we always regarded him very highly,” Brewers manager Davey Lopes said of Loretta. “He's a very heady player, a very intelligent player. Heck, he's just very intelligent.”

        This is clearly the kind of person who wants a challenge. So Loretta has begun taking violin lessons.

        “I've always liked the sound a violin makes,” Loretta said. “I've been telling my wife that I'd like to learn to play an instrument, and she called my bluff. She gave me violin lessons for Christmas.”

        ETERNAL REGGIE: Reggie Jackson hasn't played for nearly two decades. He's a mostly anonymous special assistant with the New York Yankees. Yet when he visited the Anaheim Angels' camp recently, he commanded genuine awe.

        “He was my idol,” Angels first baseman Mo Vaughn said.

        An Angels coach asked Jackson to autograph a ball for a player who was too shy to make his own request. “I like it,” Jackson said. “I've still got some Reggie in me.”

        TYPICAL TOMMY: Though a formal list of candidates to coach the U.S. Olympic baseball team has yet to be composed, former Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda has started advertising himself for the job.

        “I love America and I want to do something for this country and do everything in my power to bring the gold medal back to my country,” said Lasorda, who's now a Dodgers senior vice president. “I want to see America win. I want the opportunity to work with young players and I want to win the gold medal.”

        Dodgers General Manager Kevin Malone already has given Lasorda his blessing to leave the team if the job becomes his.

        QUICK PITCHES: The Reds might have two of the best pitching coaches around — not just Don Gullett, but also Grant Jackson of Triple-A Louisville. Lefty Jesus Sanchez made Florida's starting rotation and credited Jackson, who taught him a change-up in winter ball, for saving his career. Pete Schourek, who won 18 games for the Reds in 1995, was among others who praised Jackson.

        • Former slugger Ruben Sierra, who received an invitation to Cleveland's camp, insisted on March 16, “I'm close to being the superstar I used to be.” Somebody must have disagreed. The Indians released Sierra three days later.

        • Yankees manager Joe Torre, on inexperienced home-plate umpires who compensate for a poor ball-strike call by “giving” a decision to the previously wronged team: “It's like going through a red light, then stopping at the next green one.”

       



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