Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Reason To Believe (or, A Zimmer Of Hope)(whichever is less cheesy)

I'm making my latest ESPN 'beat the streak' pick this afternoon, and I noticed something of interest. I actually had a winning streak going --- one game correct. Burnley beat Reading earlier today in Championship League soccer. My luck in the Streak game has been abominable over the last couple of months. I first started playing last winter and routinely rang up four or five-game streaks, but as of late, I've barely been able to get even one prediction correct, no matter what sport or event I shoot for. I've even taken crapshoots trying to guess cricket results, for god's sake. This is officially rock-bottom, or at least as rock-bottom as one can get when betting without actually betting any actual money. Go Burnley! And if my pick for tonight (Tampa Bay over Baltimore) is correct, then in the words of Cleveland manager Lou Brown, they call that a winning streak. I'm going for two like I'm coaching Boise State or something.

But the second thing I noticed, and the point of this post, concerned another sort of streak. One of today's options was "Will Ryan Zimmerman's hitting streak reach 30 games?" Over 96 percent of predictors said that yes it would --- that Zimmerman would get a hit tonight against SF's Matt Cain, and thus stretch his hitting streak to the mythical 30-game mark.

Thirty games seems to be the tipping point for when the average sports fan really starts to pay attention to a hitting streak. It has that nice round number quality to it, plus it's just past the halfway point to Joe DiMaggio's record 56-game hit streak, so the 30-mark seems like a reasonable enough point for fans to take a streak seriously. There have only been 46 hitting streaks to reach 30 games in the history of baseball, so with just one knock tonight, the Zim can join some pretty exclusive company.

But enough about the history of hit streaks --- I already spent an afternoon on no-hitters and I'm not ready to delve back into stats quite yet. What I was most interested in was the overwhelming 96 percent of ESPN.com voters who thought Zimmerman was going to keep it going tonight. It's hard to get 96 percent of people to agree on anything, but yet here was this huge majority believing that this third baseman for the worst team in the league was all but a sure thing to rack up #30 tonight.

Looking at the nuts and bolts of it, Zimmerman should perhaps be a slight favourite to keep his streak alive. He's a career 3-for-13 (.231) against Giants starter Matt Cain, but two of those hits are home runs. Both Zimmerman and Cain are right-handers, so the matchup theoretically favours the pitcher, though Zim's OPS against righties this year is a ridiculous 1.106 (his career OPS against RHP is .783). Cain, meanwhile, has actually been worse against righties than he has against lefties this year (.270 vs. .211 OBA), and for his career is a mere 13 thirteen average points better against righties than lefties (.225 vs. .238), albeit with a 1.18-to-1.38 jump in WHIP.

So if I had to make my pick for anything other the Rays over the awful Mark Hendrickson tonight, I'd say that Zimmerman would likely get his hit. But it's not a foregone conclusion by any means against Cain, and even less so when you consider that if you just had to make any random pick on any major leaguer to get a hit in any given game, your odds would be roughly better than one-in-four even with the best hitters in the game.

So why the 96 percent? People love hitting streaks in general, but if there was ever something that would provide some romance to a sport tainted by steroid scandal after steroid scandal, it would be a nice, long hitting streak that would throw a mild scare into Joe D's record. Let's face it, any hitter that goes on a home run binge or challenges Barry Bonds' record of 73 is going to face the whispers of performance-enhancement. That's just an unfortunate by-product of the age in which we live as baseball fans. Hell, even a hitting streak should fall under the same suspicion --- if a guy builds muscle, he's theoretically hitting the ball harder, and thus even if it doesn't go over the fence, that's still a bit of extra force that could turn a grounder into a liner and get it out of the infield for a base hit. But in the eyes of the layman, steroids just equal home runs. Zimmerman stringing together hits doesn't raise as many eyebrows as it would if he suddenly started cranking out dingers at a 50-jacks-per-year pace a la Brady Anderson. A hitting streak captures the imagination of a baseball fan in a way that few other things in the sport can. Zimmerman being able to keep it going over the next three weeks and actually approach the untouchable DiMaggio record wouldn't just evoke history and spark some life in what already seems like a joke of a Washington franchise, but it would get some focus away from A-Rod, Clemens and Ramirez and get it back on the game.

And of course, after Zimmerman goes 0-for-4 tonight, please feel free to post any angry comments blaming me for laying down the jinx. My only defense is that I have Matt Cain on a fantasy team. History, schmistory, I have a head-to-head matchup to win.

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