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Give Them Credit

Marlins got this far by throwing out the book, and they're not aboutto stop against the mighty Yankees

October 18, 2003|Bill Shaikin | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — In your local bookstore, and by now probably in the bargain bin, you can find a copy of "Moneyball." The book was the talk of the major leagues this season, a terrific account of how the Oakland Athletics assembled a low-budget winner.

In the World Series, which opens tonight at Yankee Stadium, the revolutionary approach chronicled in "Moneyball" will be repudiated, again. The Angels didn't take enough pitches last year, but they won the World Series. The Florida Marlins ran themselves out of too many innings this year, but they won the National League championship.

For the 100th anniversary of the World Series, the teal-clad Marlins face the 26-time champion New York Yankees, a match aptly billed by Yankee slugger Jason Giambi as "David versus Goliath."

Yankee Manager Joe Torre acknowledged that "the romantic matchup" would have involved the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs, but those teams have gone home for the winter, saddled with their alleged curses. In their place are the mighty Yankees -- "We're the team everybody loves, or the team everybody loves to hate," Giambi said -- and the carefree Marlins.

"If this was all about mystique, they would have already won," Florida pitcher Josh Beckett said. "Maybe we're just stupid enough to pull this off."

On the eve of his first World Series, Giambi was giddy. He lost in the first round of the playoffs with the Yankees last year and with the A's in the previous two years.

In October, when pitching is at its finest and every run is at a premium, waiting for a home run can be fatal.

"When you start facing great pitching, you can score runs without hitting home runs, without even getting a base hit -- a guy walks, steals second, gets bunted to third and gets in on a sacrifice fly," Giambi said.

"In the postseason, you're not going to have any blowout games. You're going to win a lot of games 4-2, 3-1, 3-2. Speed can play a part in the series."

The "Moneyball" approach, as developed by Oakland General Manager Billy Beane, builds from statistical analysis revealing that stolen bases and sacrifice bunts tend to cost more in outs than they pay off in runs. The A's disdain steals and sacrifices, structuring their offense around walks, on-base percentage and home runs.

"The counterargument to 'Moneyball' is the '85 Cardinals," Angel Manager Mike Scioscia said. "If they don't push the envelope by running, they don't get out of their division, let alone go to the World Series."

Those Cardinals won the National League championship with 314 stolen bases. Second baseman Tom Herr drove in 110 runs, on eight home runs.

"I think there's a lot of merit in the philosophy of looking at on-base percentage and not wanting to give away outs," Scioscia said. "It's just one part of a whole package you need to be successful. I don't think you can discount the pressure the bunt and stolen base put on the other club and the other pitcher.

"The way [the Angels] ran the bases -- not just stolen bases but going first to third -- you're going to give up some outs, but the return was much greater for us than what we gave away. That was critical to our success in 2002."

The Marlins led the majors with 150 stolen bases this season. Juan Pierre and Luis Castillo, the batters atop the Florida lineup, combined for 86 steals, more than 12 NL clubs. Torre, who watched the Angels run circles around the bases -- and around the Yankees -- last October, said the Marlins might be even more imposing on the bases.

"The Angels had a little speed, but they were more aggressive than fast," Torre said. "These guys have both."

Florida General Manager Larry Beinfest, who joined the Marlins last year, said he'd assembled a team to fit a spacious home stadium and a roster already oriented toward speed rather than power.

The statistical analysts make valid points about on-base percentage and the risks of stolen bases, he said, but they cannot account for errors -- forced or unforced -- when another team must worry about whether a runner will steal or take the extra base, whether the hit-and-run is on again, whether a bunt is coming.

"It's not so much about the stolen base," Beinfest said. "It's about putting pressure on the opponent."

The object of the game is to score runs, and in that the Yankees were more successful this season than the Marlins. The Yankees play a bit of the "Moneyball" offense, with a high on-base percentage and a lineup in which everyone hit double figures in home runs, but also with 35 steals from leadoff man Alfonso Soriano.

The Marlins would not kick Alex Rodriguez or Richie Sexson out of their lineup, but those high-walk, high-homer, high-strikeout guys will be watching the World Series on television, along with you and the A's.

The A's lost in the fifth and decisive game of the division series this year, for the fourth consecutive year, a run of poor luck more than anything. But old-school ball lives on tonight, in those new-school Florida uniforms.

If the Marlins win the World Series, the unlikeliest of outcomes for a team major league owners considered killing two years ago, someone ought to write a book about it.

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