Saturday, August 25, 2007

Martin in Dire Need of High School Science Course Refresher

Russell Martin is our All-Star catcher and some have argued "the face of the Dodger Franchise" (I would vote for Vin Scully, but that's another story). So we don't mean to bag on him even when his overuse, at the non-nimble hands of Grady Little when filling out lineup cards exactly the same every single frickin' game, has caused Martin's numbers to decline down the stretch.

But today's LA Times article not only reflects poorly on Martin (in the wake of the Dodgers' impotent loss last night to the Mets, 5-2), it also impugns the entire educational system of his home country, Canada:

The Dodgers got runners on in every inning except the fifth, but couldn't get any of them home until there were two outs in the eighth. They left the bases loaded in the first, stranded two runners in scoring position in the eighth and had the tying run at the plate in the ninth when Andre Ethier struck out looking to end the game.

All told, the Dodgers left 12 men on base and went one for nine with runners in scoring position while being held to fewer than four runs for the first time in 10 games. If they had built any offensive momentum during a recent streak that saw them score 54 runs in winning six of nine games, Mets starter Oliver Perez robbed them of it Friday.

Or maybe it never existed in the first place.

"I don't believe in momentum," catcher Russell Martin said. "What's momentum? It's one game at a time. In baseball, you can win or lose any given day no matter who's on the mound."

Ah, Russell? You should probably start believing in momentum, seeing how it's a fundamental part of classic Newtonian mechanics. I don't know if they taught this up in Canada, but momentum (p) is the product of mass (m) and velocity (v) such that p = mv. It's pretty elementary to any high-school physics class.

To be fair, though, it is understandable that Martin is a little fuzzy on this equation given that Dodger third-base coach Rich Donnelly also lacks an understanding of this fundamental construct. It was here, in the Dodgers' own house of horrors known as Shea Stadium, where Donnelly sent home Jeff Kent (6' 2", 210 lbs) and J.D. Drew (6' 1", 200 lbs) to home on the same play. Both Kent and Drew were coming home to meet their opponent, Paul Lo Duca (5' 10", 205 lbs). Yet despite both Kent and Drew having velocity (albeit less velocity, in Kent's case), and Lo Duca basically motionless (v = 0) at the plate, Donnelly had neither Kent nor Drew pound into Lo Duca to dislodge the ball and/or railroad the catcher. Everyone knows the result of this disaster--yet only now is it becoming clear that a lack of physics knowledge on the Dodgers is at the root of the problem.

Donnelly, for the record, had better learn this equation soon now that we've got Matt Kemp in the lineup more often. Kemp is 6' 2", 230 lbs, and runs like a freight train. If he ever wimps his way into home during a play at the plate, I will probably throw something at my television set.

Getting back to the Dodgers, though--momentum is real, and it's important, and if we are going to have any chance at making the playoffs, it means keeping momentum when you've got it. It means crashing into the catcher at home plate. It means knocking runners in when you've got them on base. It means winning strings of consecutive games to buoy the spirits of your team as well as deflate the spirits of our competitors being chased in the standings. I know that you're tired, Russell, and I don't expect you to be Albert Einstein with the physics. But the Dodgers need momentum in the worst way, and everyone had better be on the same page (of the physics textbook).


Jon Weisman said...

I don't know how seriously I'm supposed to take this post, since it's half-joking and half-serious, but it shouldn't be lost on anyone that Martin is right.

Momentum as baseball fans and writers usually use it is a fictional construct - a team retroactively establishes momentum after it has done a few things right in a row, but it's basically random whether good things will follow good things. The Kent/Drew play you describe and the loss that it led to, for example, happened in the first game after a seven-game Dodger winning streak.

Yes, in order to make the playoffs, the Dodgers need to keep winning. Martin obviously isn't disagreeing with that. Nor is he saying you shouldn't try to knock over catchers at the plate or drive runners in. What he's saying is that after every victory or defeat, you start over with a new game, which is basically true. The ball that's rolling downhill with increasing speed on Thursday gets brought back to rest at the start of Friday, and you have to start pushing all over again.

There are minor details where good can help lead to good (a good pitching performance one day saves the bullpen for the next day, for example), but for the most part, momentum as baseball people use it is a phony concept, having nothing to do with physics, and Martin is right to point this out.

Steve Sax said...

Thanks for the post Jon. To be fair, even I can't tell how take this post (whether joking or serious), and I wrote the damn piece. But I did want to respond as I don't entirely agree with your comment.

On momentum with regards to moving objects, I think we both agree with the Kent/Drew Debacle and how either should have plowed into LoDuca.

On momentum with regards to team streaks, I do not believe that it's basically random whether god things follow good things. Streaks matter because the psychological impacts of key events do impact the minds, and the subsequent actions, of the human players on the field. You could see the impact of momentum swings during volleyball matches (at least, using the old scoring method). And you could definitely see the impact of key events like the K/DD and the Bartman play carry over into the next game.

On the positive side for the Dodgers, momentum is cited by many as a key aftereffect of the Gibson HR in the 1988 World Series, leading to a series win after the dramatic Game 1. Betrodden teams start getting down, with shreds of doubt raised in the back of the team members' minds. Teams on a winning streak start gaining confidence, which affects performance in later games. There is something to momentum as a construct (even if small) that carries over from game to game.

I agree with Martin that every day is a new day, and each game clearly starts over at 0-0. But I'll bet when the Dodgers get on their next winning streak (and at least one will come before the end of the year), Martin will be quoted saying something like "we're playing so hot right now, we're enter each game on a roll" or something to that regard--which will again bring up the question of whether that ball is truly at rest at the start of the game.

To be fair, though, I didn't get a 5 on my Physics AP test, either. (And I never even attempted the E&M part.)