22 October 2014

World Series Notes That No One Is Noting

Repose or Oxidation
The question in my newspaper on the eve of the World Series was: are five days off rest or rust? It's an apt question. The research suggests it's more rust than rest, particularly for batters and fielders. Add in uncooperative nighttime weather and you may want to shield your eyes while you watch.

Dynasty
Another question making the rounds: If the Giants win their third World Series in five years are they a dynasty? Are you kidding? How can a team that wasn't among the eight best in baseball one year or among the 10 best two years later (in fact, they were 10 games under .500 in 2013) be a dynasty in those years? The Giants couldn't make a credible case that they were the best team in baseball any of the three seasons in which fate smiled upon them and they emerged from the playoff scrum.

In the years when the league champ over the season's marathon earned a World Series berth, or even in the nascent years of playoffs, World Series appearances were marks of a dynasty. 

Today, the standard for the post-season has been demoted from excellence to goodness, with lucky breaks and a timely performances paving the way to the Series. It's nearly impossible to cobble a dynasty out of that.

I'd cast my ballot for the Yankees' run of playoff appearances long before I'd consider what San Fransisco has done the last five years.

Some Royal Pain
Sure, Kansas City swept away their foes en route to the title series, but seven of those eight games -- including four extra inning affairs -- could have turned the other way on one play here or there. It just wasn't that surprising that they lost Game One of the Series.

A Giant Pain
That said, it's just a game. Anyone quoting the statistic that the Game One winner has taken 15 of the last 17 Series needs their lobotomy reversed. It's just one game. KC wins Game Two and we're back to square one.

Relax
I like how calm Joe Panick is.




19 October 2014

Official World Series Preview

Here is the most honest World Series preview you're going to read.

I have no idea who is going to win the World Series or in how many games, and neither does anyone else, even The Amazing Kreskin. The two teams are equally unexceptional in terms of their demonstrated abilities over 162 games, but even that is of little value in a seven-game series. The home field "advantage" is not worth dignifying with a mention. It hasn't worked for Ukraine.

One thing I know for sure is that the Royals' eight-game winning streak and the Giants' 2010 and 2012 world championships will play utterly no role in the next seven contests. Past performance does not guarantee future results.

Newspapers like to run position-by-position comparisons, assigning an edge to the corresponding team at each position, then adding it up and predicting a winner. It's a fun exercise the same way that hanging upside down from the monkey bars is a fun exercise. Neither tells us anything useful.

Kansas City clearly has the superior bullpen. It could blow up like a grenade in the Series. San Francisco has more power. The lights could go out for them starting Tuesday. The Royals' formula is six solid innings from the starter, three shutdown frames of relief, good defense and a few well-timed hits further leveraged with speed. The formula produced 73 losses this season and could go awry at any moment.

The Giants rely on big arms from the rotation and above-average hitting from every starter in the lineup. They've ridden that to four more losses than wins since June 1.

The Royals' are paced by outfielder Alex Gordon, starter James Shields and relievers Greg Holland, Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera. The Giants' feature catcher Buster Posey, outfielder Hunter Pence, and starters Madison Bumgarner and Tim Hudson. Yet they are playing for the championship because of star turns by the likes of Lorenzo Cain, Travis Ishikawa and Mike Moustakas.

The MVP of the World Series will be someone on the winning team's roster. Probably a regular. Beyond that, you, Gumby and Winnie the Pooh are equally likely to guess correctly.

Whatever justifications you hear analysts provide for assigning one team or another an edge is transparent hokum. KC's youth and enthusiasm; SF's experience on the big stage; speed and defense; power pitching and the long ball -- they are all futile attempts to make sense of the unpredictable.

It's a fun match-up with a clear fan favorite, which will certainly not reveal baseball's best team in 2014. Let's skip the worthless prognostications and enjoy it for what it is.

17 October 2014

Why Playoffs Narratives Are Steaming Piles of Pooh

"All good writing is storytelling."

The challenge for TV networks introducing playoff baseball to America is how to leverage six months of games into a compelling backstory and then pivot to a new narrative as the postseason games play out.

For television is all about story-telling. The baseball playoffs -- indeed any tournament -- is just a collection of games absent the organizing narrative. It's those stories, in fact, that drive interest in Olympic sports like the javelin throw, biathlon, bobseld and other competitions that we never watch otherwise. The stories tell us why we should care, whom we should root for and how it all fits together.

Without narratives, the broadcasts are not possible. And therein lies the rub.

As we have established with painful repetition, baseball's playoffs are largely random at either the game or the series level. The better starting pitcher confers a shockingly microscopic advantage and the better team over 162 games, even with an ostensible home field edge, doesn't seem to win with any regularity.  Mike Trout resembles Mario Mendoza's little brother. Lorenzo Cain channels Willie Mays. And so on.

So the narratives, for the most part, have to be invented. The Royals are a team of destiny. The great Clayton Kershaw "can't win the big one." The Giants are "clutch." Adam Wainwright is a "big game pitcher."

How else to explain why all the best teams are at home while the hitless wonders from KC play their fellow Wild Card rep from San Fran in the Series? How else to make sense of two 88-win teams squaring off for the title, particularly when the Giants played below .500 after the first month of the season. How else to rationalize eight straight high-wire wins for the Royals over superior teams?

But they explanations are all hooey. Both teams have simply gotten hot -- and lucky. Mike Moustakas hit .212 for the Royals and spent time in the Minors before his playoff hero turn. Travis Ishikawa was left on the trash heap by Pittsburgh this season before he smacked the walk-off pennant clincher for the Giants. It's just the way baseball is.

And despite the announcer bleatings, baseball is amoral. Winners aren't morally superior to losers, nor are those who struggle and persevere morally superior to the mega-talented. Underdogs have no claims over favorites; defense and relief pitching are not greater in God's eyes than three-run homers, if I may speak for God. Who, by the way, did not suddenly become a Kansas City Royals fan.

And now one of these teams, which have combined for 16 playoff victories in 18 tries, will suddenly lose its invincibility. The playoff slugger will lose his stroke, the base thief will met his catching match and the big game pitcher will gack one up. And just like that, the narrative carefully cultivated for two weeks will have to change to accommodate the World Series. Moral supremacy will suddenly be seen to switch allegiances, as if it were momentum's cousin.

But no, it is, sadly, much more banal. One guy tries to hurl a sphere at high velocity with yaw and roll. Another guy tries to mash it with a wooden stick. A third guy tries to snatch it in his over-sized leather pouch and zing it to his friends. One gaggle of talented fellas will do it just a tad better than the opposing gaggle over the next seven games, though they might not have in some previous or subsequent seven. And that, at very last, is its entire significance.



11 October 2014

Looking Forward To A Retirement

During a recent meaningless end-of-season game between long-eliminated teams, the announcers embarked on a discussion of their choices for the big awards. It was the usual stuff -- should Clayton Kershaw be considered for the MVP, should Mike Stanton be dinged for his team's performance, does Robinson Cano get credit for Seattle's giant leap forward, that kind of thing.

And then came the manager of the year award. This is the hole into which baseball people pour all of their ignorance.

What ensued, as usual, was not a disposition on managers, but on the most surprising teams. The assumption is that when a team appears to outperform its talent, the manager must have been working some magic. It's the same logic by which we credit or blame the President of the United States for the state of the economy.

That dynamic led to some hysterical assertions. The in-the-stands reporter touted Buck Showalter for manager of the year because of how 31-year-old Steve Pearce contributed 10 times more wins against replacement than in his previous seven-year career, leading the O's to lay waste to the AL East. The same reporter noted how Showalter's team overcame the decline of Chris Davis, who misplaced 90 points of batting average and 27 home runs from his breakout 2013. By this logic, the skipper earns points for employing over-achievers but is not responsible for under-achievers.

The color analyst touted Ned Yost for AL manager of the year, citing the surprising rise of the Royals. Yost is generally considered one of the more daft field generals who required the intervention of George Brett and the front office to construct productive lineups. Once learned, his expertise extended to filling out the same lineup much of the season and relying on a trio of shutdown relievers to shorten each game to six innings.

I suspect that if the award were being bestowed at the end of July, the A's Bob Melvin would have run away with it, much as his Oakland squad was unexpectedly running away with the league's best record. Evidently Melvin contracted a major case of stupid, because the A's hardly won a game in August and September.

The manager of the year award is a joke and should either be retired or entrusted to managers and GMs to vote on. Sportswriters and broadcasters have little basis for choosing the best manager and have proved that time and again.

09 October 2014

Just As We Called Them...

...so after one round of the MLB playoffs, if you still don't think they're a lottery, it's time to send for the men in white coats.

Teams with three of the four best records, including the top team in each circuit, are gone, winning two games among them. The fourth team was an underdog. They swept.

Both Wild Cards moved forward, dropping one game between them.

The clubs that executed brilliant trade-deadline deals to score several of the best pitchers in baseball, stacking their starting rotations and inducing favorite status come post-season, won a grand total of zero playoff games.

The pair of AL squads with the worst records since 2000 will square off for the pennant. Neither has been to the World Series since Barak Obama was in law school.

It makes for a fun October, but it gives credence to the complaint that April through September doesn't matter.

21 September 2014

The Truth About Playoff Truths

The A's/Tigers will be dangerous in the playoffs because of their three top starters.

No, the Tigers can't win. They have no relief pitching. 

The A's have stumbled into the post-season. They're done.

The Angels are well rested. I don't see anyone beating them.

The Orioles are going to struggle because they live by the long ball. You need to manufacture runs to win against the best teams.

Washington and Anaheim are on fire going into the playoffs. I wouldn't want to play them.

The Dodgers are the favorite because they have the best pitcher, period. Great pitching beats great hitting in the post-season.

Look out for St. Louis. They've had to fight nearly to the end. They will be battle tested going into the playoffs. The same for Kansas City, Pittsburgh and San Fransisco.

No one wants to play the Giants. They have a lot of veterans with playoff experience.

You will hear these aphorisms -- and more -- as the playoffs wind into view next week. They're all commonly understood and accepted. And all but one of them sink in a sea of facts.

In one sense, the idea that any team in the tournament can win the World Series is, by definition, true. Seven game series among roughly equally-matched teams in unusual circumstances (sellout crowds, national TV audiences, extreme micro-managing, increasingly cold weather) are essentially lotteries. A good bounce here and missed call there can alter any series.

At the same time, every team is a long shot in the sense that they must win three series (and in some cases, a single elimination game) to emerge as champions. No team is so dominant that the odds favor them over everyone else. (Indeed, there has never been such a team, at least not in the playoff era.)

Beyond that, the calculations that you hear from the "analysts" are so much hoo-hah. Behold:

There is not a scintilla of evidence; not a jot; not an atom, a particle or a speck, suggesting that teams particularly imbalanced towards the top of their starting rotations perform better in the post-season than those with broader but shallower rotations. Possessing one great starter, or three, without quality behind them has not in the history of baseball delivered superior results versus those with five good but not lights-out starters, all else being equal.

Relievers actually do matter a little, says the research, but the closer and set-up man are a vastly over-rated element in the equation. Good pitching is important in every inning, and because managers manage for an edge on nearly every pitch, the bullpen takes on added importance generally. In any case, this actually does bode poorly for the Tigers.

In the great history of baseball, teams have won with small ball and large ball and welterweight ball and every combination and permutation allowed by the laws of mathematics. Winning with three-run homers has not proven to be any less dependable, nor any more, than winning with station-to-station offense.

In the 125 years our pastime has been played, the recent records of the teams entering the playoffs has not correlated in any way, shape, form or function with their performance in the playoffs. Not an iota, a smidgen or a crumb, as recent Series participants can attest. Teams' overall records do correlate, suggesting that 100-win teams are superior to 85-win teams, even "hot" ones.

An Oakland-San Francisco rematch is as plausible as a Nationals-Angels pairing, not withstanding that the former have a 50% chance of being eliminated in the play-in before the tournament begins in earnest.

Furthermore, rosters thick with wily veterans make no nevermind, according the the research. Doe-eyed youngsters perform with equal manliness to grizzled old-timers, talent being equal. Don't expect Mike Trout to stumble quivering with nerves or Raul Ibanez to suddenly bat, well, I'd say .250 is out of his range at this point.

There actually is one old wives tale that does carry some weight. Teams that have to play hard to the end actually do enjoy a small advantage over the early clinchers. Evidently, being in playoff mode for the incoming week or two keeps everyone sharp. Or anyway, that's the ex post facto explanation. Based on that, smart managers around the Beltway and SoCal should be exhorting their charges to earn the best record, or home field, or some other illusory advantage, because just battling for it confers an advantage of its own.

Keep all this in mind as the sports soothsayers justify their "predictions" with nonsense that was, once-upon-a-time, beyond disproof. But disproof has drunk its Gatorade, stolen signs and turned it on since the All-Star break. And it tells us what we should have always known: you can't predict who will win. That's why it's fun.


18 September 2014

They Thought It Was the Demented Award

News Item: Milwaukee Brewers nominate Ryan Braun for Roberto Clemente Citizenship Award.

Possible explanations:

1. The Brewers are a collection of axe murderers and baby rapists. Lyin' Ryan's the best they can do.
2. Psych!
3. Clemente used to hammer the Braves when they played in Wisconsin and this is payback.
4. Whoops, they mean Eva Braun.
5. Management in Milwaukee has a deep, abiding sense of irony.
6. They noted that "contributions to the game" had to be "positive" and applied it to urine samples.
7. They are mentally retarded.

17 September 2014

When Cheering Seems Disrespectful

Watching video of Giancarlo Stanton getting carried into an ambulance on a stretcher after suffering a fastball to the face got me thinking. Not about Milwaukee hurler Mike Fiers, who clearly wasn't trying to hurt anyone, but about the tradition of applauding when an injured player is removed from the field.

It makes sense that we cheer a player of either team who gets up and walks off after sustaining an injury. We're relieved that he will recover.

stanton-down.jpg

But Stanton did not get up. He did not walk off the field. He was bleeding and immobilized on the stretcher and the nature of his injuries were not at all clear. After all, a hardball crashed into his face at 88 mph -- where, exactly, no one in the ballpark could be sure.

As paramedics wheeled Stanton off the field with what appeared to be devastating injuries, the crowd began to clap. And it felt wrong.

It felt disrespectful, just the opposite of its intent.

Suppose the trauma had caused a clot in Stanton's brain and killed him. Brewer fans would have looked pretty insensitive.

So why do we do it? Are we gratified that the player has been removed, so the game -- and our entertainment -- can continue? 

Is it simply a tradition that we uphold without examination?

I don't like either of those answers. I'd like  to suggest that we distinguish between performers who have sustained superficial injuries and will be fine, from those whose careers, at the very least, are in jeopardy. Let's cheer respectfully for the first group and hold our breath respectfully for the second.

Whatta ya say, baseball fans?

15 September 2014

Let's Hear It for the Sister Kisser


It's difficult to talk NL pitching without meandering back to the subject of Clayton Kershaw, the most fearsome pitcher since Pedro Martinez. His 18-3, 1.67 performance this year is cartoonish, as is his 7.78 K/BB ratio, his .82 WHIP and his 7.4 wins against replacement despite missing the first month of the season because of injury and the last month of the season because of time travel restrictions. (That last item should be solved soon, notwithstanding Armageddon.)

Sporting his patented* knee-buckling hook, a paralyzing slider and a fastball with bite, Kershaw is 95-49, 2.48 for his career, producing more value in seven campaigns (about 40 wins) than Catfish Hunter in 15 Hall of Fame seasons. Kershaw will almost certainly win his third Cy Young in four years, a second-place finish in 2012 marring the record.

*It may not actually be patented. I'm not his lawyer. Patent may be pending.

But enough about the likely league MVP. Let's turn our gaze to the largely-forgotten sister-kisser who should finish second. 

At home in Great American Smallpark, Johnny Cueto's 18-8, 2.15 this season is noteworthy. In a hefty 222 innings he's shouldered four complete games and fanned four times as many as he's walked. His six-and-a-half wins against replacement would make Cy Young proud, had the stars not aligned to create Kershaw.
It's not like Cueto is a flash-in-the-pan. He's averaged 4.5 wins against replacement over those four years -- about the same as Max Scherzer -- despite missing most of 2012. He throws strikes, clamps down the running game, keeps the ball in the park and goes deep into games. And he's just 28.

Cueto and Adam Wainwright (18-9, 2.54) have been lost in Kershaw's shadow in 2014 but they deserve some recognition. They're both dominant hurlers in the full bloom of their talent whose careers, unfortunately for them, have coincided with the dominant mound force of their generation.

13 September 2014

Try To Remember: No Games In November


In 1965, Sandy Koufax declined to pitch the Opening game of the World Series because it was a Jewish high holiday. That was October 6th.

Next year, the World Series will still be a month away on October 6th.

This is a travesty. And it's killing baseball.

Baseball teams slog through a season of 162 games contested in the hopeful days of spring and the dog days of summer. The best clubs tame the tiger through the heat to compete for the championship as the leaves begin to turn. 

And then, with all the chips on the table, the game changes dramatically. Night games amid frost and flurries in Cleveland and Boston and Chicago* and Denver leave fans shivering in parkas and ski hats. 

*Hypothetically

It ceases to be about the best teams, but about the best foul weather teams. Who's got the hot hands when their hands are cold.

It's football weather, is what it is. Which might explain why America slumbers through the World Series. They're heavy into the pigskin season and by November that's what it feels like. For many Americans, baseball season ends when the kids return to school.

Ski areas know that business booms, not when it snows on the mountain, but when it snows in people's backyards.

For baseball, that formula is death.

12 September 2014

Winning!

In the Yankees' game one tilt with the Orioles today, five Baltimore pitchers held the Bronx Bombers to a run in 11 innings. The O's won in dramatic fashion with a walkoff two run double in the bottom of the 11th.

Here's how the pitching line looked:
Kevin Gausman pitched seven shuout innings. He got no decision.
Andrew Miller fanned the three batters he faced in the eighth. He got no decision.
Darren O'Day whiffed two while blanking the Yankees in the ninth. He got no decision.
Zach Britton shut out New York in the tenth. He got no decision.
Brad Brach allowed the go-ahead run in the eleventh. He earned the victory.

Fun with pitching wins!





11 September 2014

A Verdict That's Just Pistorious

There are 52 million people in South Africa and 51,999,999 know that Olympian Oscar Pistorious murdered his girlfriend. The only person who doesn't know is the judge in the case.

In case you forgot, Pistorious is the double-amputee known as "Blade Runner" whose inspirational story and good looks had the world's heart aflutter in the 2012 Olympics when he competed in the 400-meter track event. Then he went home and shot his model girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp to death on Valentine's Day through the door of his bathroom.

Oscar Pistorius of South Africa competes at the London Olympics - August 2014The judge ruled yesterday that prosecutors had not proved intentional murder. She was unconvinced by some of the testimony suggesting Pistorious was a hothead, a gun fanatic and a serial domestic abuser. Unfortunately for her honor, the facts are persistent without those testimonies and they are these: he shot and killed her, by his own admission, with bullets designed to explode upon impact. An expert testified that the four shots, one of which missed, shattered her skull and blew up inside her body.

Pistorious claims that he thought he heard an intruder run into the bathroom. He grabbed his gun and began firing.

This is eminently plausible if you are willing to suspend disbelief that he would rise out of bed and fail to check to see if his beloved was asleep next to him.

It is eminently plausible if you are willing to suspend disbelief that he thought an intruder would run into the bathroom, and then after doing so, continue to pose a threat to the couple's security.

It is eminently plausible if you are willing to suspend disbelief that the next logical action was to fire a pistol indiscriminately rather than call police.

It is eminently plausible if you are willing to suspend disbelief that Pistorious would fire what would almost certainly be fatal shots without ever making sure that his girlfriend was safe.

And after all that, you must further ignore or disbelieve all the evidence presented by ear-witnesses about shouting before the shots were fired.

In other words, his alibi is preposterous. It's ridiculous. It is Pistorious.

This is the dumbest judicial decision I can think of since Dred Scott in 1857. Oscar Pistorious is so guilty that even the best lawyers couldn't help him concoct a marginally credible pretext for the killing. And the jurist, who rules without the aid of a jury in South Africa, is so thick she fell for it.

The judge has yet to rule on a lesser charge of manslaughter; indeed, she all but announced a conviction on that count. That certainly ameliorates the injustice and recoups a shred of her tattered credibility. But it doesn't change the facts. And they all say Oscar Pistorious is a cold-blooded murderer.

09 September 2014

The Question Not Being Asked In the Ray Rice Case

The critical question in the fiasco surrounding Baltimore Ravens' running back Ray Rice is not one of the 46 you've been hearing and reading.

The critical question is: If you were shocked by the video of Rice delivering a knockout punch to his fiancee in the elevator, what the hell is wrong with you?

After all, we already knew that Rice had knocked his fiancee unconscious. That had been established prior to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell's laughably tone-deaf two-game suspension.

So what did you think happened in that elevator? That Rice kissed his wife too exuberantly? 

What's shocking is not that Rice's vicious punch was unusual but that it was so utterly mundane. That is what domestic abuse looks like. Did people really not know that?

In fact, Rice's abuse was relatively benign in the world of domestic abuse. After all, it consisted of a single blow, not a sustained attack.

Moreover, the release of video that vividly portrays Rice's violence primarily diminished the reputation of others, not of the football player himself. We knew what we had there -- or should have -- even without visual evidence.

The reactionary responses of Roger Goodell and the Baltimore Ravens have swathed them both in ignominy. What is eminently clear is that the league and the team are not concerned about the rampant domestic violence perpetrated by their employees but are hypocritically reacting (or pre-acting) to the ignorant public outrage they correctly expected the video would incite. (Ignorant not because outrage is unwarranted but because it was warranted absent the video.)

Remember, this is video that the league and the team either did or should have had possession of and could have obtained with little effort. Which means they either ignored it when it was known only to a handful of people or willfully avoided its acquisition knowing full well how poorly it would reflect on the game.

These are the same Ravens who welcomed back their star with open arms during the exhibition season. This is the same commissioner who imposed the same sanction on a violent criminal that he imposes on gentlemen who smoke a joint during their off-hours -- but only if it's their first offense.

And this is the same public, at least in Baltimore, that gave Rice a standing ovation when he returned to the field. A standing ovation. Nothing has changed since, except that those fans can no longer rationalize to themselves that it was just a family squabble.

To add stupid to liar, Goodell violated his own newly established penalty matrix for domestic violence, established just a week prior. Goodell had prescribed a six-game suspension for ordinary domestic violence not involving a child or a pregnant woman. This is the definition of ordinary abuse, yet Goodell suspended Rice indefinitely, with the strong suggestion that the punishment will last all year.

This is one of those cases where everyone even tangentially involved has rolled in the mud. Rice is a thug, Goodell a liar and a hypocrite, the Ravens the same, the fans boorish and self-centered, Ravens' coach John Harbaugh a mendacious, self-indulgent creep, and so on. I'm pretty sure Geraldo Rivera looks bad in all of this, though who would notice.

There's another domestic violence case on Goodell's docket, because NFL players can't go two weeks without beating the women in their thrall. There's no video on this one, at least as far as we know, so let's see how the league handles it. Nothing Goodell does will mollify anyone paying attention. He's already made such a hash of his own system that there is no longer any possibility of fairness or consistency.

04 September 2014

They're Not Races; They're Roller Coasters

For all those who have written off the .500 teams or declared victory for the division leaders, along comes the NL Central to remind us all that baseball just doesn't work that way.

On August 19, the Milwaukee Brewers led the division by two games with a 71-55 ledger, the best in the senior circuit. At 68-57, the Cardinals stood two-and-a-half games back, with Pittsburgh another four-and-a-half behind, having completed a seven-game losing skid.

Two weeks later, the top of the division has flipped, with St. Louis enjoying leads of three and five on their rivals and the Brewers clinging to a Wild Card berth. Pundits are writing off the chase, in part because Milwaukee always felt like a pretender and in part because the Cards have been here before and before and before.

A quick look at the etiology of the Central race demonstrates vividly how unsettled things really are. Consider:

The Cards are setting the pace on the strength of a five-game victory streak. But that followed losses in six of eight, which succeeded seven wins in eight games, which came on the heels of a 10-game stretch of seven defeats.

The Brewers have lost hold of the division by falling eight straight times, but they secured their grip with seven wins in 10 games, following three defeats in four tries.

And Pittsburgh, now with their MVP back, has dropped four in a row, three to the hated Redbirds. Prior to that, seven of eight up, seven straight down, five of seven up.

Which is to say, St. Louis is fully capable of entering a six-of-eight slide while Milwaukee and Pittsburgh run out strings of seven wins in eight games. Then, voila, the Brewers lead the Central by two and the Pirates slip into second. It's not the way to bet, but it's happened before. Ask fans in Boston, Atlanta, Dallas and Anaheim, to consider just the last four or five years.

It's the beauty and the curse of baseball: your team can struggle or flourish for 140 games. But if they revive or falter at the end, the first six months turn out to be just preliminaries.

So hang on to your hat.

31 August 2014

Did Trading Cespedes Ruin The A's?

A month ago, the Oakland A's celebrated the best record in baseball and a comfortable AL West lead with a trade that injected Jon Lester into a rotation already bolstered by Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel in previous deals. 

Billy Beane was rightly lauded, including here, for packing the rotation for a deep playoff run. And if the price of those deals was a bevy of prospects and Yoenis Cespedes, that seemed like a a good deal.

With the benefit of hindsight, we're now hearing the bleating, as if an outfielder with a .303 on base percentage is indispensable. The A's are 12-16 since jettisoning Cespedes, falling four games out of first. Offense has been the culprit: Oakland has hit .224 and scored just 3.6 runs/game in August. And that has led many to bemoan the trades.

Let's all say it together: correlation is not causation. 

The A's aren't scuffling because Yoenis Cespedes moved his 1,300-pound leg press and his out-sized reputation to Beantown. By slipping Stephen Vogt into the lineup at first and sliding Brandon Moss to the outfield, manager Bob Melvin positioned his team to maintain its punch at the plate. At the time of the trade, Vogt was out-hitting Cespedes by batting average, on base and slugging.

But since the moves, the entire A's roster has hit a wall -- and not much else. Moss is batting .178 with no home runs and 35 strikeouts in August. Derek Norris is batting .188; Coco Crisp, .191; Vogt, .222 and John Jaso, .149. Unless Cespedes is sticking pins in a John Jaso voodoo doll, he's unlikely the cause.

The odds say the A's will right the ship before the playoffs start, because they have too much talent to play this badly for long. Then, to kick off the postseason, they'll put the ball in Jon Lester's left hand. At which point, A's fans will forget about Yoenis Cespedes.

30 August 2014

What Happened To Baseball This Year?

As the first strains of Commissioner Bud's swan song begin to play, ESPN, FOX and other media outlets have been wondering aloud what happened to baseball. Why, they've asked, has the game receded from our consciousness this year?

There's some truth to the question. The pennant races are heating up and all the chatter is about NFL exhibition games, NFL fantasy leagues, the upcoming NFL season, colege football, the college football playoffs, football, football and football. LeBron and the World Cup dominated the middle part of the baseball season and the NBA playoffs and NFL draft stole the early season's thunder.

So what happened to baseball?

What's happened to baseball is ESPN, Fox and other media outlets. Four networks broadcast every NFL game played. But baseball games are broadcast almost exclusively by local networks. ESPN, the 800-pound gorilla of sports, has a big stake in the NFL and nearly none in baseball. Consequently, they spend more time talking NFL exhibition games than they spend talking baseball. 

They've probably mentioned the name of a quarterback who has yet to play a minute of professional football more times than they've mentioned all baseball players combined.

And when it's not the NFL it's college football. ESPN carries hundreds of college football games. Because, as Marshall McLuhan observed 50 years ago, baseball is best enjoyed at the park; football on the tube.

Well, ESPN doesn't care about the park. They're on the tube. They make their money from TV ratings, not from full ballparks. And they set the sports agenda, along with Fox, CBS Sports and their ilk, so the agenda is all football all the time.

Meantime, baseball fans have enjoyed an overflow of drama. Clayton Kershaw is making his Hall of Fame case while Derek Jeter tops off his. Yasiel Puig and Mike Trout have continued their antics while rookies Jose Abreu and Billy Hamilton are banging them out and tearing them up, respectively. Kansas City has ambushed Detroit while Seattle and Baltimore are elbowing the Yankees out of the playoffs. Milwaukee and Pittsburgh -- two of the smallest markets in baseball -- are challenging St. Louis for Central supremacy. And much of it is coming down to the wire.

And the national sports media are all missing it.

So nothing's happened to baseball. Something's happened to your television.

28 August 2014

I Want My MVP

Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire must be spinning in their, um, sofas.

Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig have got to be smacking their foreheads.

Where have all the steroids gone?

Consider this: Josh Donaldson is Baseball-Reference's leading AL MVP candidate. He's hitting .253 and his .802 OPS is 94 points lower than Gehrig's worst -- his rookie season.

Sure, Donaldson would snag an MVP with his glove. A third of his value is in the webbing. Mike Trout, though, owes all his value to offense this year. By Trout standards, he's scuffling in almost every way. He is batting under .300, stealing half as many bases and striking out more than ever. His OBP has cratered. His SLG had dived. (He is hitting a few more home runs.) And the award might be his to lose.

In the NL, once you get past Giancarlo and Tulo, you get Juan Lagares. The Mets' centerfielder has four homers, 15 walks and 38 runs scored. B-Ref says his fielding places him fifth in the league in value. Wha? Bring back the hitting! Chicks dig the long ball.

If ever there was a year when pitchers were positioned to win an MVP this is it. Clayton Kershaw and Felix Hernandez are historically great hurlers bolstered by an historically weak-hitting season. If you're like me and don't consider pitchers for MVP (they have their own award and require apples-to-oranges comparisons) then you're almost forced to pick a player batting below .300, hitting fewer than 40 home runs and stealing fewer than 30 bases.

If you gave me a ballot, and I had to cast it right now, I'd pick Stanton in the NL. He leads the league in homers, RBI, walks, on base and slugging, and he plays manly defense. McCutcheon and Tulowitzki have been studs but for abbreviated stretches due to injuries. Backstop Jonathan Lucroy earns a mention for batting .300 and leading the league in doubles while squatting half the game.

In the AL there'd be some real nose-holding. Trout's the leader in the clubhouse, with Robinson Cano (.325 BA at a defensive position in a tough hitting park) on his tail. Chicago's Jose Abreu (lots of pop), Cleveland's Michael Brantley (a little of everything) and Toronto's Jose Bautista (25 homers and a league-leading OBP) would contend.

But a late-season surge sure would be appreciated so we could vote for someone who looks like an MVP.

21 August 2014

Your Favorite Team Is -- You

What do Ryan Braun, Ray Lewis, Barry Bonds and Ray Rice have in common?

Their hometown fans cheered all of them. 

That's after Braun wriggled out of accountability following a year of self-righteous lying. That's after Lewis escaped punishment for his involvement in a double murder. That's after Bonds, generally despised by media and teammates, admitted to a years of cheating and lying about it. That's after Rice beat his wife unconscious.

Do fans not care about smarmy, cynical liars? Do they not care about murder? About inveterate cheating? About domestic abuse?

Sure they do, in theory. But they care much more about something practical and immediate. They care about their own enjoyment.

They care about the success of the teams they care about.

And if disgust over homicide or assault and battery or a malign personality interferes with the hometown nine (or eleven) winning, well, suddenly it's in conflict with something more important. Because our mood is elevated when our team wins. Our happiness is marginally diminished when they lose. And we don't like our happiness diminished, no matter how slightly. Someone else's murder or beating or lying, cheating and stealing are of little consequence compared to a sliver more contentment. So we support the sociopath who helps our team win and rationalize his actions.

Some examples
Consider this: whom did you root for in this past year's NCAA basketball tournament? Unless you have a connection to a contending team, the answer is probably whoever you wagered would win. (And if you have a natural preference, you probably picked that team anyway.) You didn't really care about the teams, schools or fan bases. Your favorite team was -- you.

Jameis Winston was accused of rape and caught red-handed stealing food from a supermarket. If he were an ordinary student he would have been expelled from college. Yet he will start every game at quarterback for first-ranked Florida State this football season because virtually the entire population of Tallahassee cares more about Seminole victories than about moral issues. That's for people in Gainesville and Coral Gables to concern themselves with, at least until their key guy commits some felony.

We're All Guilty
In fact, the college football universe generally supports Winston. They want to see him play. Watching him brings us pleasure even if we're not Florida State fans. Consequently there's been almost no backlash at all, even in places like Eugene, Oregon and Madison, Wisconsin and Oxford, Mississippi and most certainly in Bristol, Connecticut. 

It's also why sports fans are generally self-deluded about the college-sports industrial complex that makes billions of dollars for schools, media companies and apparel sellers, at the expense of athletes who are not and never could be college students but are compensated for their profit-creating services with scholarships of utterly no value to them.

So next time you see some thug welcomed back by the hometown fans despite actions that should have landed him in the state penitentiary, don't be surprised. The fans are just honoring the desires of the most important person in the world. Themselves.

19 August 2014

Miguel Cabrera's Worst Season

You've probably noticed that Miguel Cabrera's name hasn't been on anyone's tongue this season. The double-reigning MVP is having an off-year.

It's our first opportunity to gauge what an off-year is for a prodigious talent like Miguel Cabrera. In his brilliant 11-year career, his previous worst full season -- that excludes his rookie campaign, at age 19, in which he played only 87 games -- was his first with Detroit in 2008. Cabrera batted just .292, posted an OPS just 30% above league average, tallied 75 extra-base hits, paced the league in home runs and total bases and hauled his glove and his heft to first base.

Six years later, it's another downer. After leading the AL in batting the last three seasons, Cabrera stands just fifth so far at a mere .309. His .370 on-base percentage and .512 slugging average are the worst since reaching voting age. (Technically, he can't vote at any age, not in the U.S. Presumably he retains his franchise in Venezuela.) The 23 home run pace is the lowest of his career. 

Overall, Cabrera is the 35th best offensive force in the majors, and only the second-best Cabrera (17 slots behind Melky). Add his defensive woes and he's the 50th most valuable player in the game.

That's a long way from the first or second most valuable, but there are more than 400 position players in the Majors each year. Being 50th in a disappointing year is like being the coldest spot in the Bahamas.

It's easy to forget that Miggy tore his groin at the end of the 2013 season and began this Spring recovering from the surgery. It's also easy to ignore his league-leading 40 doubles. Even in his worst season, Miguel Cabrera leads the league in doubles.

18 August 2014

Has the Baseball World Shifted Or Is It Just A Crazy Year?

Am I dreaming or has the god of competition awoken from a long slumber and begun to smite the wicked?

Is my prescription ripe for an update or are those the Red Sox and Rangers at the bottom of the pile?

Is that a typo or do the Pirates have a better record than the Yankees, 120 games in?

Did Milwaukee and Kansas City just grow into big media markets? Because I notice they're both atop the standings.

Wait, was that Oakland taking on mega-payroll for a playoff run? Oakland?

The media markets of KC, Milwaukee, Baltimore and Pittsburgh combined are smaller (by two million TV sets) than N.Y. And all four teams have assembled better rosters than either the Yankees or Mets. Did I just write that?

Sure, the big market Dodgers and Angels are World Series contenders, and first place Washington is no cow pasture (although it has more than its share of male cow excretions and methane gas being expelled.) But we're on track for a post-season without representatives from New York, Chicago, New England or the state of Texas. Aren't we?

Thank you, God, for this season. And thank you, Mr. Selig, for more competitive balance.