Thursday, September 13, 2012

Leading by Example, and in Other Ways

What makes an athlete a leader? Is it being a veteran presence on a team of youngsters, an individual charged with making decisions that affect others, or is it simply a person followed by others? All of these definitions are possibilities, but in sports leadership comes in many forms. On high school and college teams, coaches usually designate certain players, generally the more talented or more veteran ones, as captains. When a coach designates a player the captain, it means that athlete is an extension of the coach. In football, quarterbacks are often dubbed captains because they lead the offense like a general leads his troops. He shouts out commands, keeps his soldiers safe, and attempts to make the right decisions to lead them to victory.

Interestingly, the idea of choosing a captain does not pertain to every professional sport. In Football and Hockey, captains prove important. As noted above, the quarterback leads the offense, and thus earns the title captain. In Hockey, the team elects a captain, and two assistant captains to serve as the team's representatives to speak to the referees when necessary. This responsibility usually extends to off-ice activities as well, such as giving motivational speeches and keeping a copacetic atmosphere amongst teammates.

While Hockey and Football embrace the idea of one player as the captain, Baseball and Basketball do not. Basketball, which constitutes more of a team sport than does Baseball, does everything but name a captain.  No one would disagree that Michael Jordan was the leader of the Chicago Bulls, doing so through his play on the court as well as his leadership off of it. Stars make up the NBA, with players like LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, and Derek Rose leading there team's by being the best players on the court. This leads to players such as these taking the "big" shots, and guarding the toughest offensive player on the opposing team in key situations.  As fans, we understand who are the leaders of NBA teams. When in doubt though, the general assumption is that the player who sets things in motion is the leader, and in Basketball that player is the point guard.

In Baseball, rarely does a team, which is made up of 25 players, name a captain. The leader of a Major League Baseball team is most often considered the manager. The manager is, in today's game, never a player. Baseball, although undeniably a team sport, does not compare in it's individualism to the other three major American sports.  Pitchers pitch, catchers catch, outfielders roam specifically designated  zones, and every batter has his own goal and his own discrete actions. In Basketball and Hockey, the ball or puck moves from player to player in order to attain a common goal. Football constitutes the ultimate team sport because on any given play the players on the field must work together to achieve their goals.

So, can one player truly change the game in Baseball? That is generally the case in the three other major sports. I took a look at two players in Major League Baseball who I think disproportionately mean more to their team than can be quantified in a statistic. The only way to describe this value is leadership. The two players are Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins and Rays third baseman Evan Longoria.

I'm not sure every baseball fan has noticed this, but Jimmy Rollins has quietly turned in an impressive career while occupying the space between second and third base for the Phillies the last 12 years. Rollins' career fWAR places him with the likes of fellow shortstops, Tony Fernendez, Omar Vizquel, Dave Concepcion, and Maury Wills.  Rollins recently became the 5th Phillie all time to reach 2,000 hits, and he has never played for a team other than the Phillies. While most Philadelphia fans will tell you they consider Rollins to be the leader of the Phillies, especially since he won the National League's Most Valuable Player in 2007, not many Baseball fans, those from Philadelphia included, understand just how important Rollins is to the Phillies success.

Here is some perspective for you.  As of September 12th, the Phillies have played 143 games this season compiling a 72-71 record.  Rollins' mere presence in the Phillies lineup does not give the Phillies a better chance to win, but when the Phils leadoff hitter scores a run, that changes.  Rollins has played in 140 of the Phillies 143 games this season, and has scored at least one run in 68 of those 140 games.  The Phillies have a record of 43-25 in games in which Jimmy Rollins scores at least one run. That record leads to a winning percentage of 0.632, which is higher than any team's current winning percentage this season. Ready to have your mind blown away completely? In the 72 games this season in which Rollins has failed to cross home plate the Phillies have lost 44 of them. That's a .389 winning percentage, which is worse than every MLB team this season except for the woeful Houston Astros. What is more interesting, is that in the 15 games that which Rollins has scored more than 1 run, the Phillies are 14-1. Another interesting fact is that while Rollins has gotten on base in 112 our of his 140 games played this year, the team doesn't win a disproportionate amount of those game in which Rollins reaches 1st base safely.

Let's take a look at this from a different angle. The Phillies have recently gone on a winning spree. From August 23rd to September 12th, the Phillies have played 19 games and won 15 of them. Rollins has scored a run in 11 games and failed to do so in 8 of them.  In those games during this winning streak in which Rollins has scored a run, the Phillies are 10-1, while the team has a record of 5-3 in games in which Rollins hasn't scored. During the winning streak, whether Rollins scored a run or not, Jimmy is leading the Phillies with his all-around play. As a comparison, I looked at one of the Phillies losing streaks this season. Between the dates of June 27th and July 20th, the Phillies played 18 games, compiling a dismal record of 5-13. Rollins scored a run in 10 of the 18 games played during this losing streak. In the 10 games in which he scored a run, the Phillies played .500 baseball, winning 5 games and losing 5. On the other hand, when Rollins failed to score, the Phillies went 0-8.

Here is how Rollins played during the recent winning streak as well as the mid-season skid:

2012 Season
Winning Streak (Aug 23rd-Sept 12th)
Losing Streak (June 27th-July 20th)
Batting Avg
On Base %
Slugging %

Next, I found a player whose mere presence in the lineup changes the way his team plays.  His name is Evan Longoria, and he plays third base for the Tampa Bay Rays. In only his 5th season in the big leagues, Longoria has already accumulated 28.1 fWAR, which is comprable to the first 5 seasons of fellow third basemen George Brett and Chipper Jones. Due to a hamstring injury, Longoria has only played in 55 of the Rays 142 games this season. As of September 12th the Rays had compiled a record of 77-65. The Rays have played 87 games without their star third baseman this season, going 43-44 during that time.  That's one game under .500 for a team that, going into Thursday's game, was 12 games above .500. Without Longoria even in the lineup, the Rays managed a meager .223 batting average, .304 on base percentage, and a weak .351 slugging percentage.  

Next, let's look at how the Rays played with Longoria in the lineup. This time is represented in two bunches.  From the beginning of the season until Longoria landed on the disabled list just before the beginning of May, and from his return to the lineup on August 7th to the present day.  In April, the team batted .254 with a .334 on base percentage, and a .429 slugging percentage. So, just having Longoria in the lineup, added 31 percentage points to the team's batting average, 30 points to their on-base percentage, and a whopping 78 percentage points to the team's slugging percentage. More importantly, the Rays went 15-8 in April, which is a 0.652 winning percentage.  

You're probably telling yourself, that the Rays wining ways of April might not be caused by Longoria's presence. Well let me put this argument in the end zone. When Longoria returned from the disabled list, the Rays immediately began winning. The Rays record since Longoria's return is 19-13, which is a .593 winning percentage.  Not only that, but the Rays instantly improved in batting average, on base percentage, and slugging percentage. From August 7th to September 12th, the Rays have had a .265 batting average, .326 on base percentage, and a .447 slugging percentage.  Longoria's mere presence in the lineup causes the entire team to play better and thus win more games. I agree that the reason the Rays have won recently hasn't been the play of Evan Longoria, but instead it is attributed to the great starting pitching and recent power streak of B.J. Upton. Consequently, one cannot merely look at the difference in the Ray's play with and without their stud third baseman and not think that the team wins more with his name on the starting lineup card than when he resides on the pine.   

Jimmy Rollins makes a big difference to the Phillies when his productivity rises, and even more impressive, Evan Longoria's presence in the lineup improves his team's chances of winning. Explaining the correlation between Rollins and the Phillies winning ways proves a much easier task than explaining the relationship between Longoria and the Rays. Rollins, the Phillies leadoff hitter, has a responsibility to set the table for the rest of the Phillies lineup. While Rollins' on base percentage has never been incredible good in comparison to the rest of the National League, let alone in comparison to other leadoff hitters, if Rollins isn't on base he can't score runs, and as we proved before, when Jimmy scores the Phils have a better chance of winning.

Jimmy Rollins' OBP Over the Years in Comparison to the League Average

Here is an interesting thought. If Rollins got a hit in every game of the season, his batting average would be somewhere between .200 and .250, which we can all agree is not very good for an everyday player.  His on-base percentage would probably be somewhere between .280 and .320, which only at the upper end is passable. Let's say that on he scores a run in every game he plays. So, with a .250 batting average and .310 on base percentage he still scores once-a-game, and the Phillies end up with a great record. His statistics don't look like those of a great, let alone good, leadoff hitter, but he's doing what it takes to help his team win. That, more than anything, is the sign of a true team leader.

Leadership comes in many forms. The Jimmy Rollins example, is an illustration of a leader through production, but Evan Longoria helps his team win just by being healthy enough to play. No matter how he plays, the Rays seem to play better baseball when he plays with them. That is, without a doubt, the definition of an unquantifiable value that I am dubbing as leadership added. Longoria's presence in the lineup changes the way that pitchers pitch to the hitters around him, and his consistent hard-nosed play both in the field and at the dish set an example for the rest of the Rays act accordingly. In addition, the Rays' roster feels more comfortable and optimistic about their chances of winning, no matter the opponent, when Evan Longoria is penciled in the lineup. Few other players in the Majors have as much influence in this manner as Longoria. Longoria steps up at the biggest moments, a quality most people would atribute to true leaders. Last season, in the final game of the year, with the Red Sox having already lost, and the Rays needing a win to complete an historic comeback to make the playoffs, it was Longoria hitting the walk-off game-winning home run. While Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter is the only player given the title captain in all of baseball, I think that no one deserves it more than the Rays' third baseman. 

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