Examining the streakiness of the CCBL

As originally published on gatemen.org, here.

From my vantage point in the broadcast booth, the immediate always takes precedent over the contextual.

Trends and backstories routinely get pushed aside and are never revisited because the action of the individual game demands full attention.

In a sense, this is both a blessing and a shame.

Broadcasting turns into the art of being simple, to the point and minimalist. It also leaves little room for in-depth analysis.

It’s with that in mind that I turn to the medium of print to revisit a point that was discussed on multiple broadcasts, but never actually covered comprehensively.

It’s the point of streakiness, and why it’s so engrained in the fabric of Cape Cod baseball.

Cooper Farris, head coach of the Wareham Gatemen, has stated on various occasions that he’ll never be concerned with a losing streak—say, for instance, the four-game skid in which the Gatemen were recently muddled—because he knows a winning streak is soon to follow.

Fifteen years of head coaching experience in the Cape can allow you to make statements like that, and sure enough, his team rattled off three wins in a row before falling to Chatham on Monday.

But for those of us who haven’t witnessed more than a decade’s worth of baseball on the Cape that’s not an answer that will temper curiosity.

Let’s draw upon what we know.

So far in the 2015 season, there have been three teams that have lost six or more decisions in a row (Bourne, Brewster and Cotuit) and one team to win six games in a row (Orleans). Three- and four-game winning and losing streaks are so commonplace it would take too much time to list them all.

Baseball is also the most random sport ever conceived. It’s why stats like BABIP, essentially a how-lucky-are-you-getting measurement, exist in the first place. It’s the only sport in which bad teams beat good teams with such frequency and no one bats an eye. Ever wonder why professionals play such an arduous 162-game schedule? Because small sample sizes are hollow and it takes that long to filter out the mediocre from the good.

This randomness is also why long winning streaks and losing streaks are so rare—hence why the 27-game winning streak Illinois rattled off during the college baseball regular season garnered national attention. Past success, especially when “past” means only days or weeks, isn’t very predictive for a single, isolated baseball game.

So, in a sport in which parity and same-ness are the very definitions of the sport, why is it that both individual and team streakiness is so commonplace in the Cape Cod Baseball League?

Well, it’s because Cape Cod baseball isn’t your typical style of baseball.

Most notably, the attitude is different.

“I preach to them all the time, sometimes a ground ball to second base is all it takes,” Farris said. “You’ve seen it happen. (LSU second baseman) Kramer (Robertson) leads off, singles, steals second and you got 2, 3, 4 hitters up. Two-hole hits a ground ball to second, three-hole hits a ground ball to second we’re up one (to) nothing. But then all three of them strike out and we don’t score.”

Of course there are the selfless exceptions, but the primary goal for players in the Cape League is to showcase their talents and gain exposure to the plethora of scouts on hand. Winning games and championships is secondary.

“I think it is for some people,” Farris said. “Here’s what I tell them. These guys (the scouts) want to see you play baseball and play it the right way. If you can’t hit a ground ball to second base you pretty much won’t be able to survive in pro ball.”

“I can’t get inside them and make them do that,” Farris continued. “That’s what I try and stress for them. We have to be able to play the game and not let the game play us.”

I’ll be the first to say there’s nothing wrong with this style of play. After a toiling college baseball season, in which making sacrifices for the good of the team is the name of the game, summer ball should very well be the time shed the chains of sacrifice and promote yourself.

But with this starkly different approach comes a starkly different game.

“For the most part, I’d say people are more aggressive because the pitchers are consistently better up here,” catcher and third baseman Andrew Knizner (North Carolina State) said. “In college if you get into a bullpen, pitchers might not be that good or they might be freshman. I definitely feel like people get more aggressive especially early in the count because everybody has a putaway pitch later on and you don’t want to see that.”

Games are shorter (18 games into the season and the Gatemen have played only one game which lasted over three hours) because hitters reason that their best chances of showcasing “light tower” power is to swing at the first fastball they see. Failure to hack at a fastball may spell doom for the rest of the at-bat as the top pitchers in the country open up their entire arsenal later in the at-bat.

“We kind of get taught to ‘don’t miss your fastball,’” shortstop Preston Grand Pre (Cal) said. “These guys have three pitches they can throw for strikes… If you miss your fastball you’re going to see a changeup, a slider and that may be the only fastball you see the rest of the at-bat.”

Applying this to streakiness at the individual level, it’s easy to see why some hitters have skyrocketing success in the Cape League—guess right on a first pitch fastball and your odds of finding a gap become exponentially higher. On the flip side, guessing wrong can either put you in a quick 0-1 hole, or worse, induce a weakly hit ball.

This sort of approach pigeonholes hitters into one of two extremes (hard contact or weak contact) and promotes streaky hitters. If an entire team abides by this approach, streaky hitters morph into streaky teams.

Parity may be evident in each team’s record (teams that are close to .500) because long winning streaks and long losing streaks cancel each other out, but the season-long scatterplot of wins and losses will look more like an up-and-down rollercoaster than at any other level of baseball.

One would suppose that inconsistent lineup composition would water down at least some of this streakiness. Common sense says that if a different lineup is shown each night it would be tough to establish a rhythm and results wouldn’t be one-sided enough to see a trend of long winning or losing streaks.

After all, Farris’s mantra (and one that presumably many other Cape League coaches use) is to evenly distribute playing time.

Yet the full season’s worth of games bunched into an eight-week time period likely cancels the parity that inconsistent lineups promote.

“Then they start pressing,” Farris said of the bundle of games in a short period of time. “There’s no work time to do anything to stop it.

So, if streakiness is inevitable in the CCBL, what’s the protocol to ensure the team is on the right, winning side of the streakiness?

The answer is two-fold in detail, but simple in message—establish a heavy dose of consistency internally in the face of inconsistency externally.

A set-in-stone routine highlights the list.

“Having a routine really keeps us focused on the process of winning and not the actual end result. You can’t always control the end result, but you can control the process and the routine of how you go about playing the game hard and playing to win,” Knizner said.

Knizner reiterated, of course, that being consistent is incredibly difficult, given the talent with which opposing are stocked.

But when the consistent routine develops into selfless team-wide camaraderie, the toil of the Cape League starts to get easier.

No, the streakiness doesn’t ever completely go away. Doing so just ensures the team is on the right side of that streakiness.

“I think the big thing is, you get all these guys from different places and they’re not really sure how to play with each other yet,” Grand Pre said. “As soon as the team starts getting some camaraderie together, I think that’s how you get the streakiness and the wins that come along. In the early parts of the season, you may just win off raw talent, but I think later in the season you join together and start doing things like hitting the ball to second base with a man on second base and getting the sac bunt down. You’re trying to win for the team and selling out for the team rather than just selling out for yourself.”

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