Eli Whiteside hitting fifth?

This isn’t really a stat-driven site. This doesn’t have to do with some sort of ideology on my part; I’m just not good with statistics and math. I’m an English major. I’m much more comfortable drawing parallels between Eugenio Velez and Grendel. Numbers hurt my head, so you’re not going to see posts on xFIP or WAR, and you’re not going to get fancy graphs. If you want that sort of junk, you can take it to the abacus-twiddling hacks at ESPN.

Stats are crucial to the understanding of the game, though. Crucial. And before the curmudgeons start inking up the pterotype to send me a nasty letter through the mail, please note that everyone uses stats. Old-timers reference batting average and RBI, which are numeric representations of actual events. Stats. They’re used because there’s no way to keep track of the precise performance of 25 or so players over 162 games in your head. There’s no way that aggregated anecdotal evidence is going to improve on the existing recordkeeping, whether you fancy batting average or OPS+.

So when Bruce Bochy says something like this…

Sabean and Bochy seem to be like-minded in their philosophy regarding minor league statistics. They have their place in the evaluation process, but it isn’t an overriding one.

Otherwise, how could Bochy have rationalized putting backup catcher Eli Whiteside, a hitter with a career .389 slugging percentage in nine minor league seasons, in the No.5 spot in Sunday’s lineup?

We all know Whiteside is swinging a hot bat lately. So do you discount the minor league track record?

"Yeah, you do," Bochy said. "Some guys figure it out later and improve and make adjustments. Whitey started making adjustments in Fresno last year and he really started swinging the bat with authority and driving the ball. … He looks very comfortable at the plate, he uses the whole field and he’s got nice balance up there."

Bengie Molina is another example of a late bloomer, actually. He was an organizational catcher and non-prospect in the Angels system who didn’t make his big league debut until his sixth pro season.

…it hurts. It’s not a big deal if Whiteside bats fifth – it’s probably not the difference between making the playoffs or not. It’s just an example of an organizational philosophy that’s completely bizarre. And I know that the lineup was more based on Whiteside "seeing the ball well", or something, rather than "Whiteside’s a great hitter now!", but bear with me….

Does anyone really think that 30 scattered at-bats can possibly be more meaningful than 2,324 at-bats in the minors, in which Whiteside hit .244/.288/.393 for his career? When Mike Benjamin had fourteen hits in three games, he was certainly hitting the ball well. He was lining the ball all over the field, and he looked great doing it. But he was still Mike Benjamin. Everything he had done to that point hinted at a Mike Benjamin-like player, and when the hot streak subsided, he was still Mike Benjamin.

If the Giants don’t see that Whiteside’s 30 at-bats to start the year are much more likely to be a Benjamin-style fluke, even if they’re only looking at stats like batting average or RBI, they’re being obtuse. And if they don’t see the difference between Whiteside’s .244/.288/.393 career minor league numbers and Bengie Molina’s career minor league numbers of .299/.350/.447 -- if they think, hey, catchers improve late all the time, look at Bengie -- well, they’re being worse than obtuse.

But that’s not the only explanation: they might be arrogant instead. They might think that they can see through the scouting matrix, that they can tell in just a handful of at-bats whether a player can sustain his improvement. They can tell who is driving the ball because of a mechanical adjustment, and who is getting lucky by looking for the right pitch at the right time in a small sample. Even though baseball scouting is such an inexact science that first-round picks bust often, and 12th-round picks can grow up to be once-in-a-generation hitters, the Giants have figured it out.

Maybe Whiteside has improved. That’d be great. Players improve all the time. But you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between an improved Whiteside and a Whiteside who is performing unusually well in a small sample. I wouldn’t be able to tell. Bruce Bochy and Brian Sabean wouldn’t be able to tell. The difference is that some people think they can tell the difference, and they’re managing the team.

Right now, it’s not a big deal because the team is hitting well. But it’s these kinds of decisions that lead to Fred Lewis getting traded for a subscription to Grit Magazine, Eugenio Velez starting for most of the end of 2009, or John Bowker getting buried after a week’s worth of awful at-bats after he wins a job because of spring training. It’s why Mark Lewis is brought in to platoon with Bill Mueller, and why Nate Schierholtz could only get a couple hundred at-bats last season on a team with the worst-hitting right fielder in baseball. Minor league stats mean nothing. Personal observation means everything. Win a job in the spring, lose a job in a week. Step right up. That’s the Giants way.

There are mountains of evidence to suggest that Eli Whiteside is the worst hitter on the Giants, which puts him high up the list for worst hitter in baseball. I like the guy, I really do, and it’s not a big deal if a backup catcher isn’t a good hitter. But there’s a scrap of evidence that Eli Whiteside is a good hitter, and he should hit anywhere but in the eighth slot when he plays. The Giants pay more attention to the latter piece of evidence, and not just in this instance are they looking at a tiny sample that probably means nothing to make decisions.

It hurts. It just hurts.

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