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The Mysteries of Novak

Saturday evening in Rome, Novak Djokovic utterly dismantled a wonderful young player named Dominic Thiem. In case you don’t follow tennis too closely, this was kind of a big deal. Djokovic has been something of a mess the last year or so. Well, it was almost exactly a year ago that Djokovic beat Andy Murray in the final of the French Open to do the near impossible — win four Grand Slam titles in a row.

At that precise moment, Djokovic was playing at a level that, as over-the-top as it sounds, might have been unmatched in tennis history. There seemed no way to beat him. He moved the best. He missed the least. He returned serve better than any man ever had. He did the scariest thing of all, he turned an opponent’s power inside out. The better the opponent played, it seemed, the greater Novak Djokovic became.

(more…)

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Flippin’ Bats

So you might remember a couple of years ago, when Jose Bautista launched the bat flip heard around the world during a playoff game against the Texas Rangers. “The Good Place” executive producer Michael Schur and I co-wrote a piece after that game, and here’s what we said about it (Michael’s words are in bold):

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I understand there are traditionalists and purists and whatever-ists who think that flipping a bat after you hit a home run is bad form, or disrespectful, or something. I disagree. I think it’s awesome, frankly, and if you can’t enjoy Joey Bats, who had that crazy itinerant baseball life and then found a home in Toronto, and who is the soul and beating heart of this team — a team which hasn’t been in the postseason in 22 years and which has brought sports life and sports relevance back to one of the world’s great cities — and whose team went down 0-2 at home to a clearly inferior team and then stormed back on the road and gutted out two big wins and then went back to Toronto, fell behind early, scratched their way back to even, then went down by a run on one of the weirdest plays in postseason history, then loaded the bases on three errors and had a guy forced at home and then only scored one run and had a guy thrown out at second on a single to the outfield … if you can’t enjoy Joey Bats flipping his bat towards his own dugout in a badass and life-affirming and glorious and barbaric yawp of baseball excellence after hitting a home run in that situation, then I feel bad for you.  Or you’re a Rangers fan, in which case, well, I still feel bad for you, because your team lost.

When Blake Griffin jumps 30 feet in the air and dunks, you want to watch him howl at the moon and strut up the court. When Serena Williams lunges and rips a cross-court winner you want to see her pump her fist and scream.  Same for Tiger draining a 30-footer, Brandi Chastain drilling a World Cup penalty, Tom Brady diving for a 1-yard TD. We’re fine with outward displays in every other sport. Why do we ask baseball players to bury their emotions like students in a seminary?

Yep. I mean, the Tom Brady part I disagree with, but the rest is dead on. Baseball is so quirky about this stuff. It is on the one hand a brutally tough sport, Ty Cobb’s sport, Cool Papa Bell’s sport, Pete Rose’s sport, 162 games, played every day, from spring to autumn, through preposterous heat and air soaked with humidity. You’re supposed to run out every ball, even fly balls you know are outs. You’re supposed to shake off getting hit by a pitch and take your walk. Bob Gibson throws inside. Cal Ripken plays thousands of games in a row. Adam Wainwright comes back from like 44 Tommy John surgeries. Tough as nails. There’s no crying in baseball.

And then, on the other hand, it’s like a dinner party in Downton Abbey — pinky out, silverware in order, keep the subjects light, don’t flip your bat, don’t look at your home run, don’t pump your fist when you get a strikeout, don’t do anything that might offend. I get that the Rangers and fans aren’t too thrilled seeing Bautista hammer-throw his bat after hitting a moon-shot homer that broke their spirit. I get that. But man if you can’t bat flip after THAT home run, seriously, why even play baseball.

If Neil Armstrong had played by baseball’s stupid unwritten rules of decorum, he would have whispered, “Yeah, I’m on the moon.”

“Act like you’ve been there before, Neil,” he said to himself, quietly, as he slowly descended onto the surface of an alien planet.

Wednedsay in Atlanta, Bautista bat-flipped again. This was a little bit different situation. This time the home run meant exactly nothing — or just about as little as a long home run can mean. The Braves were leading by five runs, and there was nobody on base. Bautista hit the homer, then gave Braves pitcher Eric O’Flaherty a “Oh, I dislike you so much right now” look, then sent his bat into orbit, not in a celebratory way but more like, “I have now employed the power of this slab of wood it is of no more use to me.”

The Braves didn’t like that. Benches cleared. Jaws flapped. At  some point, it does look like Bautista is pointing to himself as if to say, “Hey, look, I might have overdone that.” But maybe he isn’t saying that. Body language is hard to read. O’Flaherty said some unhappy words about Bautista after the game. Bautista talked about baseball being emotional.

Look: I don’t think it’s especially cool to show up other players in sports. I am enrolled at the the Barry Sanders School of Flipping the Ball to a Referere After You Score — I think that sort of understated grace has its own kind of power.

And I’m definitely not for celebrating individual achievements when your team is losing. The Kansas City Chiefs used to have this player named Mark McMillian — “Mighty Mouse,” everyone called him — and he would celebrate every play he made or almost made or didn’t quite make, no matter the situation. If he knocked a ball down, he flexed. If the receiver dropped the ball and he happened to be nearby, he flexed. If he made a tackle after the receiver made a long gain — and with the Chiefs down three touchdowns — Mark McMillian flexed.

It seemed so goofy, so annoying, but as the years have gone on I’ve looked at it a little bit differently. No, flexing after making a meaningless play is not a great visual. But Mark was 5-foot-7, he weighed 154 pounds, he didn’t even try football until he was a senior in high school. He played for a junior college and then transferred to Alabama. He was drafted in the 10th round. They don’t even have a 10th round anymore.

For Mark McMillian at that size to become an NFL player — for him to play in 127 NFL games, to make 23 interceptions and return three of them, for him to start in playoff games — required a sort of maniacal will, a sort of energy, a sort of crazy ambition that is almost unimaginable. If he needed to celebrate himself to push through the pain and the odds, to reach the crazy high level of engagement he needed, well, maybe we can appreciate that. Maybe we can even say, “Hey man, flex if that’s what you need to do, we’re all just in awe of what you’re doing.”

Jose Bautista was a 29 year old journeyman with a .238 batting average and 59 homers in 575 big league games when he found the swing and the fury that would make him a star. He plays baseball right on the edge. Now he’s in his late 30s, and his numbers decline, and many people think he’s through. So he hit a home run in the midst of what has so far been a frustrating and soul-crushing season. He flipped his bat.

Maybe that isn’t the crime of the century.


Tebow to the prom

It’s easy to be cynical about the world. It’s easy to be cynical about sports. It’s very easy to be cynical about Tim Tebow. His college football greatness did not transfer to the pros. His baseball dream is likely nothing more than that.

But, really, how can you be cynical about this?


The Impossible Zero

Well, Jose Altuve did the impossible on Wednesday. Altuve often does amazing things — he might just be the most fun player in baseball to watch. But this was weird. And impossible.

On Wednesday in Miami, Jose Altuve hit two doubles and two triples — a rare feat that has only been done 14 times in the last 100 years. The last guy to hit multiple doubles and triples in the same game was Carl Crawford in 2005. Before that you have to go to Travis Fryman in 1994. And BEFFORE THAT you have to travel all the way back to 1968 when Ed Stroud did it for the Washington Senators against the Yankees.

So that’s hard enough.

Here’s what made it impossible: He scored zero runs.

That’s never happened before — two doubles, two triples and no runs scored.  And, you know what? It will probably never happen again. Only three times in baseball history has a player had four extra base hits in the same game and not scored a run. Matt Murton did it for the Cubs in 2006 against the Astros. And Willie Jones did it for Philadelphia back in 1949.

But those were different — Murton and Jones each had four doubles and zero triples.

The closest thing to Altuve’s feat seems to be Stan Musial in 1943 hitting a single, a double and two triples and not scoring a run. His Cardinals lost 2-1. But, you know, there was a war going on.


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Kyle Schwarber keeps doing legendary things. He apparently hit a home run during batting practice that took out the “Bu” in the “Budweiser” sign on top of the scoreboard.

“It had some wind behind it,” he told our own Carrie Muskat. “You could see some wires fall. I apologize in advance. I’m sure they’ll make that quick fix.”

And then he said this: “It would be better if it was in the game.”

Schwarber continues to be an odd case — a baseball legend who hasn’t yet proven to be a viable every day Major Leaguer. That’s so weird. There haven’t been too many players in any sport who were who great before they were good, but that’s Schwarber’s lot in life. He’s broken Budweiser signs. He’s made miracles in the World Series. He’s hit home runs that stagger the mind. And he’s batting .188 so far this year. He’s young, and he’s so talented, and you have to believe he will indeed be a star. But for now he’s not wrong. It would be better if it was in the game.

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Ranking the Stadiums

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My pal Jon Hock, director of great sports documentaries like the 30 for 30 “The Best There Never Was” on Marcus Dupree and “Of Miracles and Men,” on the 1980 Soviet hockey team, took the above photo of gorgeous PNC Park in Pittsburgh.

And it reminded me that I have not ranked the stadiums in a while. I’ve been to 29 of the 30 — planning to see Atlanta soon. I don’t want to rank them 1-29 because the difference between some of them is so slight that it’s not worth mentioning. Instead, let’s put them in different categories.

The Historic Parks: Dodger Stadium (Los Angeles); Fenway Park (Boston); Wrigley Field (Chicago).

The historic parks are their own category; it’s not particularly useful to compare Fenway, for instance, with, say, AT&T Park in San Francisco. Fenway is cramped, difficult to get around, the bowels of the park are kind of scary, sort of a baseball version of Gotham City. But there’s nothing quite like being inside Fenway for a game because of the history, because of the Green Monster, because it’s the closest thing baseball has to a Cathedral.

Wrigley Field is similarly awesome only replace cathedral with Chicago bar where John Belushi serves Pepsi.

Dodger Stadium is decades newer than the other two, and I think it is the best park in baseball for combining the wonderful history of an old ballpark with a startlingly modern vibe. Plus: Dodger Dogs.

The Best Places to Watch a Game: AT&T Park (San Francisco); Kauffman Stadium (Kansas City); Oriole Park at Camden Yards (Baltimore); PNC Park (Pittsburgh); Petco Park (San Diego); Safeco Park (Seattle).

Four of these — San Francisco and Pittsburgh, San Diego and Seattle — are just georgeous in every conceivable way. Honestly, you don’t have to like baseball at all to enjoy just going to the parks and taking it all in. The beauty is particularly compelling in Pittsburgh, maybe because people don’t always appreciate how beautiful a city Pittsburgh is. My old friend, the late Skip Prosser, used to say that coming through the Fort Pitt tunnel and dumping into downtown Pittsburgh was the most beautiful site in the world.

“More beautiful than Paris?” I would ask him.

“Paris?” he said. “Give me a break.

Camden Yards remains a sort of magical place. From the day it opened — can you believe it was 25 years ago? — it has felt both ancient and new.

And I’m putting Kansas City on my list. The stadium is in the middle of nowhere. The background is a highway. It does not have the wonder of San Francisco by the bay, or San Diego squarely in downtown. But for watching baseball, purely watching baseball, you can’t beat it. You’ll notice it’s called a stadium, not a park. It is named after Kansas City’s beloved owner Ewing Kauffman and not a corporate sponsor. The fountains are perfect, the sightlines are perfect, this is all about baseball.

The Near Camden Experiences: Citizen’s Bank Park (Philadelphia); Coors Field (Colorado); Globe Life Park (Texas); Progressive Field (Cleveland), Target Field (Minnesota).

After Camden Yards was built, there was a rush to replicate it — or at least replicate the aforementioned magic — in many cities. Some did it better than others. I’m not exactly sure why it feels more right in Cleveland and Denver than it does in Milwaukee and Cincinnati, but for me it just does.

Underrated ballparks: Citi Field (Mets); Comerica Park (Detroit);  Angel Stadium of Anaheim (Angels).

I actually dont’ know if Citi Field is underrated — I suspect most people who have been there think it’s a pretty great place. But there’s something about the whole Mets persona that screams UNDERRATED … Citi Field is a fun place to watch a baseball game; it is easily the best ballpark in New York.

On most of these “Best Stadium” lists, you will see Comerica and Angel Stadium on the bottom of the pile. I think Comerica is particularly underrated; I have been there many times through the years and it constantly grows on me. During day games, there’s something marvelously bright and sunny about the place. And at night, with a Great City behind it, you feel like you are at the center of things.

Angel Stadium is quirky, a mishmash of a lot of things including a semi-bizarre reconfiguring, but I don’t know: I just kind of like it.

Almost parks: Busch Stadium III (St. Louis); Great American Ballpark (Cincinnati); Miller Park (Milwaukee); Nationals Park (Washington); Yankee Stadium III (Yankees)

Let me be clear: All five are good ballparks. But there is just something missing in them, something that just doesn’t quite spark. It’s hard to say what it is. Busch Stadium has all the qualities of a great ballpark — awesome downtown location, rabid fans, great baseball history. But somehow, it all feels kind of antiseptic. Weirdly, Busch Stadium II, which was one of those oval baseball/football artificial turf atrocities that they built in the 1970s, kind of felt more alive, especially after they spruced it up toward the end.

The Great American Ballpark and Miller Park are similar — they should be fantastic. And they’re just not quite fantastic.

Nationals Park should probably be in a different category — make it an Almost Almost Park. It’s is entirely unclear how they could have built a ballpark in the Nation’s Capitol, with monuments and some of the most famous buildings on earth nearby, and with a whole lot of money, and made it as bland as they did.

And Yankee Stadium III is what it is — a billion dollar Taj Mahal meant to evoke the grittiness of Yankee Stadium II. That’s a tough double. I don’t think it quite pulls off either end.

Weird Parks: Chase Field (Arizona); Marlins Park (Florida); Minute Maid Park (Houston).

I’m not exactly sure how to categorize any of these — they’re all just kind of offbeat. Chase Field is probably the most conventional of the three, but it never quite feels like baseball in there, more like a reasonable facsimile of the game.

Marlins Park is a circus. A lot of people like circuses.

And Minute Maid Park, well, I really like the place, a lot, but could they have just a few more things going on? You got those windows in the outfield and the train and the hill in center field and the roof and it’s like, whoa, my the fuses in my brain are popping. I suppose that is a Houston tradition of over-the-topness going back to the Astrodome, so maybe that’s why I like it so much. I like the authenticity of it all. If Minute Maid Park was in, say, Minneapolis, I’d probably really dislike it.

The Not-So Great: Guaranteed Rate Field (White Sox); Oakland-Alameda County Stadium (Oakland); Rogers Centre (Toronto); Tropicana Field (Tampa Bay),

So here’s the punchline: I LOVE not-so-great ballparks. I love them because I grew up in a not-so-great ballpark, in Cleveland Municipal Stadium, where your shoes stuck to the floor and steal girders blocked your view and a cold wind howled in off the lake and the infield looked like a place where they buried old cars a few hours before gametime.

I loved it … loved that sort of harsh and grim baseball, where the separation between the fans and players was almost non-existent. Of course, it was a different time, tickets were cheap, crowds were much smaller, we expected less from the game. The baseball experience has gotten so much better and deeper, and this is good.

But I still get a kick out of ballgames in Tampa Bay, which always feels dark and a little bit dangerous.

I get a kick out of Guaranteed Rate Field, that poor, unfortunate white elephant built about five minutes before mankind figured out how to build beautiful baseball stadiums.

I get a kick out of the Rogers Centre; I once got a room at that Marriott that is attached and watched a baseball game from the room. It was, like the Rogers Centre itself, one of those experiences that was at first reallky exciting and became less and less interesting the longer the game went on.

And I even get a kick out of Oakland-Alameda, a crumbling place that — as PosCast partner Mike Schur says — you feel might collapse on you at any time. Oakland-Alameda is probably the only thing left that really reminds of the Cleveland Stadium of my childhood. That’s probably a good thing.


Look at those salaries

Speaking of old-school stuff, Super 70s Sports — your must follow Twitter account of the day — tweeted out this old Sports Illustrated:

So much joy to look at there — see the young Terry Francona (making an outrageous $225,000 a year!). See the bearded Rick Sutcliffe (oh my gosh, he’s making a MILLION dollars!). See poor B.J. Surhoff ($62 grand plus meal money).


Fun with Win Probability

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Yes, that was one crazy game between the White Sox and Angels on Tuesday night. You can follow along with the Fangraphs Win Probability chart. As you can see on top, when the Angels’ Martin Maldonado grounded out to third to end the eighth inning, the Angels led 5-2 and their win probability was 97.1%.

Melky Cabrera singled to lead off the ninth, improving the White Sox chances by about three percent.

Jose Abreu singled too — that added about sevent percentage points ot the White Sox chances.

Then Avisail Garcia doubled, scoring one run, and putting runners on second and third with nobody out. Suddenly, the White Sox chances of stealing this game were up to 35%.

And that’s when Todd Frazier hit the weakest two run single you will ever see in your entire life. That tied the game and made the White Sox 67% likely to win the game.

And so it went, back and forth.. When Chicago’s Tim Anderson homered in the 11th, the White Sox had a win probability of 83%.

And then, bottom of the inning. Cameron Maybin hit a pop-fly double to score the tying run, Albert Pujols singled for the 1,847th RBI of his career (he has now passed Carl Yastzemski on the all-time list) and that was the ballgame.

Win percentage isn’t much fun in real time. But looking back on a game, it’s a cool way to capture the emotions of the moment.

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The Wonder of Trout

Mike Trout is 25 years old and with his latest barrage — homering in four straight games — he just went over 50 wins above replacement for his career. You might not be a fan of WAR, but it’s still a meaningful moment because 50 WAR is just about where the Hall of Fame conversation begins.

By Fangraphs numbers, there have been 187 players in baseball history who finished their careers with 50-plus WAR. Most of them are in the Hall of Fame. Nine are on active rosters. They are:

  1. Albert Pujols, 91 WAR
  2. Miguel Cabrera, 68 WAR
  3. Carlos Beltrán, 68 WAR
  4. Chase Utley, 63 WAR
  5. Ichiro, 58 WAR
  6. David Wright, 53 WAR
  7. Matt Holliday, 51 WAR
  8. Mike Trout, 50 WAR
  9. Robinson Cano, 50 WAR

Now, obviously, all nine of them will not go to the Hall of Fame. Pujols, Cabrera and Ichiro have their tickets stamped, Beltrán I think will make it after some squabbling. Utley will be a divisive Hall of Fame candidate. Cano, I think, will go.

Wright and Holliday are both terrific players who are probably not quite Hall of Famers,  though Wright could get back in the picture if he could get healthy and have just a handful of good years.

But the point is not to prematurely talk Hall of Fame but instead to point out that 50 WAR is sort of a watershed moment, that invisible line where people begin thinking about legacy. Fifty WAR is a fantastic career. Hall of Famers Tony Lazzeri and Orlando Cepeda had 50 WAR. Hall of Famer Jim Rice had 51. Larry Doby, Enos Slaughter, George Sisler, these are all Hall of Famers in the range of 50 WAR.

And there are other superb players — Will Clark, Minnie Minoso, Jack Clark, Jimmy Wynn — who also compiled around 50 WAR but fell short of the Hall of Fame. I would say 50 WAR is just about where the discussion begins.

And Mike Trout is there at age 25.

By season’s end, he will probably have the highest WAR ever for a 25-year-old — only Mickey Mantle and Ty Cobb are ahead of him now. This is the craziest part about Trout; he has already had a Hall of Fame career and, if we are lucky, it has only just begun. We have never seen anything quite like him in the long history of baseball. He’s like Willie Mays but he walks more. He’s like Mickey Mantle but he steals bases. He’s like Ken Griffey Jr. but he hits for a higher average. He’s like Albert Pujols but fast enough to play centerfield.

There’s that expression you hear sometimes — a baseball player is so good that someday you will tell your grandchildren about him. Well, Trout is so good and so young that there’s no reason to wait. If you have grandchildren, go ahead, tell them about Mike Trout right now. Or find someone else’s grandchildren.


Win Talk

Over at Sports On Earth there is an interesting story where pitchers talk about what they think about the pitcher win. Some, like Kyle Hendrick, think it might go away. Others, like Clayton Kershaw, echo the thinking I’ve had about it lately which is that it’s not the most telling stat in the world but it has too much history and psychological power to disappear.

But the most fascinating comments came from Cubs manager Joe Maddon.

“I would say getting the win is always the end-all for a pitcher,” he said. “I would say 17 [wins] with a 4.00 [ERA] over 12 with a 2.00, they’ll take the 17 with a 4.00.”

Now, Joe Maddon is a interesting guy, a funny guy, a thoughtful guy. He’s also a bit of a jokester, which could play into the quote too. But, when all is said and done, he can’t possibly mean that a pitcher, even in theory, would take a 17-win season with a 4.00 ERA over a 12-win season with a 2.00 ERA. He can’t possibly believe that the 17-win pitcher helped his team win more even by allowing two runs more per nine innings. Something has to be lost in translation.

The thing the pitcher win has always had going for it, the thing that I believe gives the win so much power, is the name: “Win.” The idea of Major League Baseball, of course, is to win. The singular goal when starting the game is, of course, winning that game. And so somehow the pitcher win has become muddled up with an actual win even though the two are not at all the same thing.

A pitcher cannot “win” a game. A pitcher can use his talents and the defense behind him to prevent runs from being scored. That’s it. If a pitcher ever strikes out 27 batters and hits a home run for the only run of the game, yes, that pitcher actually “won” the game. Hasn’t happened yet. Never will happen. So the pitcher win is a very different thing from actually winning.

Here’s the easiest way to look at it:

In 1990, Bob Welch won 27 games with a 2.95 ERA.

That same year, Roger Clemens won only 21 games despite a 1.93 ERA.

Welch won the Cy Young Award. He finished ninth in the MVP voting. Welch won the oohs and ahhs of baseball fans across American — I mean, seriously, 27 wins!

Clemens was so much better than Welch that season, it’s hard to know where to even begin. By WAR he was between three and four times as good, depending on which version you prefer. He had 80 more strikeouts, 23 fewer walks, allowed 20 fewer hits, threw twice as many shutouts, and gave up 19 fewer home runs. He did this even though he pitched half his games at Fenway Park, which was a crazy hitting park that season, while Welch pitched his home games at Oakland Coliseum which was then, and remains today, a hitter’s tomb.

Welch got the credit because his team averaged 5.21 runs per game for him in a generally low-scoring year  — he won five games where he allowed four runs in seven innings or less, and he won another and another four games where he gave up three runs and did not pitch a complete game.

Clemens won one game where he allowed four runs and two more where he allowed three runs. So there’s your win difference. But in addition, Clemens had two no decisions where he did not allow any earned runs, and he lost a game when he pitched seven innings and allowed one run.

I don’t mean to relitigate the 1990 Cy Young voting but to just make the Maddon counterpoint. Pitchers unquestionably want the TEAM to win. In theory, a pitcher might say that for any single game they would rather give up four runs and win than two runs and lose, that makes sense. But the pitcher will win many, many, many fewer games giving up four runs than giving up two.

See, the win stat doesn’t work that way. ERA isn’t the perfect stat either but it’s WAY more important and telling than the pitcher win.


Updated PANCON

Time for our regular check on the Panic Condition or PANCON of some teams around baseball. We base PANCON on DEFCON, and here are the conditions:

PANCON 5: All is normal, the team is playing as expected.

PANCON 4: There is a little edginess, a few players talk about how everybody needs to “pick it up,” trade rumors float around, etc.

PANCON 3: There is palpable concern. Players-only meetings are called. The manager starts shifting lineups. Bullpens are shuffled around.

PANCON 2: Trouble — manager is on the hot seat, fans start a FireTheGM.com website, players start anonymously talking about how teammates must play harder, the clubhouse becomes an unhappy place.

PANCON 1: Full-scale panic. Manager gets fired. Players get traded. Fans give up hope.

And our update:

PANCON 1: Nobody.

PANCON 2: Nobody quite yet.

PANCON 3: Pittsburgh, Miami, San Diego.

The Pirates are the team to watch here. They are playing pretty terrible baseball — they’re last in the National League in runs scored, and that’s a pretty old lineup out there. Of course, everyone is watching Andrew McCutchen, who is hitting an atrocious .212/.288/.401.

Now, if you want a reason to hope with McCutchen — he has been a notoriously bad starter his whole career. He is a .252 lifetime hitter in April, some 50 points worse than he hits the other five months of the season. Even in his MVP season, he hit just .247/308/.423 in April. So there’s hope that he will warm up.

But coming off a tough 2016 season, it’s kind of scary with Cutch at the moment.

DEFCON 4: Kansas City, Toronto, Oakland, Mets, Philadelphia, Seattle, Atlanta, San Francisco and Washington.

The Royals and Blue Jays have played a bit better lately, moving them out of PANCON 3. But we’d like to welcome … the Washington Nationals! They have the best record in the National League and they’re STILL at PANCON 4 because of that staggeringly bad bullpen and because, well, these are bad times in Washington.

The Washington Wizards just lost Game 7 to Boston on Monday, the Capitals lost a Game 7 to Pittsburgh (again), and the Nationals have never won a single postseason playoff series. This Tweet from Dan Steinberg kind of saying it all:

So, yes, you kind of getting the feeling that the Nationals will be in PANCON 4 for the rest of the season. And that’s if things go well.

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Inside the Mind of Bill

A couple of weeks ago, I saw my great friend Bill James. Well, I can tell you the exact day — May 1. I know this because it was the day after Anthony Rendon had 10 RBIs in a game against the Mets.

Bill and I LOVE when stuff like that happens. You probably do too. Even people who say that they are overwhelmed by baseball’s advanced numbers and the maze of information out there and just want to get back to the basis of the game will get a real kick out of a game where a guy gets 10 RBIs.

“You know,” Bill said at one point, “I’ll bet George Brett probably didn’t have 10 RBIs in a WHOLE SERIES more than a couple of times.”

It was an interesting point, and we talked about it for a few seconds, and then we moved on to other things. To be honest, I kind of forgot we even had that conversation.

But today — exactly two weeks later — I got an email from Bill. It turns out, purely by coincidence, that today is also George Brett’s 64th birthday. But, really, that is a coincidence, just as it was a coincidence that Bill used George Brett in his original comparison. He could have just easily said Mike Schmidt or Joe Morgan or Al Kaline or anyone else. He probably used Brett because we both love the guy.

In any case, he looked it up. Because … Bill James.

I finally got around to checking,” he said, as if he was apologizing for taking so long to do something I had no earthly idea he was going to do. “It was actually only once. Brett had only one time in his career when he drove in 10 runs in three consecutive games, whether against one team or different teams, but it did happen to happen in a 3-game series against Toronto when he was on that incredible hot streak in August 1980.”

Yep. It happened from August 15-17, 1980. Those of you who are Brett-aholics probably sense something familiar about those dates. The’re kind of famous.

Brett was in the midst of a crazy, almost unprecedented hot streak. There was a record-setting heat wave hitting the Midwest then, and Brett LOVED hitting in that crazy hot weather. From May 25 to August 13 — 49 games while Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan campaigned for President — Brett hit .462 with 34 extra hits in 49 games. He was absolutely ridiculous.

It was during that crazy stretch that Brett was playing golf with his lifelong buddy, Baltimore’s Scott McGregor. At one point, Brett had driven the golf  cart ahead when McGregor hit his shot. McGregor realized, with horror, that the ball was headed right for his pal.

“FOUR!” McGregor yelled.

At which point, Brett stepped out of his cart, pulled out a club, waited for the ball, swung — and hit it right back to McGregor, who would call it the greatest athletic feat he’d ever seen.

In any case, Brett went into that weekend series with Toronto hitting .391. He went just 1-4 on Friday night, dropping his average to .389, but his one hit was memorable — a three-run inside-the-park home run off Jesse Jefferson. So those are the first three RBIs.

On Saturday, Brett went three for four with two more RBIs. That moved his average up to .394.

And the Sunday, well, that’s one of the most famous baseball days in Kansas City history. Brett went four for four with two doubles, the second one a three-run double off Mike Barlow. That pushed his average to .401.

That shot of George Brett standing at second base — arms in the air, batting helmet in one hand, .401 showing on the scoreboard behind — is probably the most famous snapshot of Brett’s awesome career (either that or him kissing home plate in his late game).

Well, in addition to going over .400, Brett had five RBIs in the Sunday game. So, three RBIs on Friday, two more on Saturday, five on Sunday — there it is, the only series in George Brett’s career where he had as many RBIs as Anthony Rendon had on April 30 against the Mets.

“To me,” Bill writes, “that is just incredible. . .that Anthony Rendon drove in as many runs in ONE game as George Brett ever drove in in a three-game set.”

People often call Bill a numbers guy, a statistician, a baseball geek or whatever. And it has long seemed to me that they miss the point. Bill doesn’t care about numbers. He is uninterested in statistics as a concept or the numbers of other things. He cares about what baseball statistics can open up about the game. He longs to search the numbers to get beyond the platitudes and BS that people say just because it sort of sounds sort of right to them.

And, yeah, sometimes after Anthony Rendon has 10 RBIs in a game, he is just curious if George Brett ever did that in a series. Bill doesn’t like the RBI stat particularly. He isn’t trying to prove any point about Rendon or Brett. It’s just fun. That’s the point. Fun.

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Missing Dexter

From Medium

Baseball, like life, moves pretty fast. Nobody should know this better than Ferris Bueller’s favorite team, the Chicago Cubs. Six weeks ago, the Cubs were considered all-but unbeatable, Las Vegas’ darling for another World Series victory, a brash young team on the brink of a dynasty. Every other day, it seemed, they were celebrating themselves, raising banners, flashing rings, enjoying the king’s life.

And now, let’s be honest, they’re kind of a mess.

You expect it to turn, of course. We’re not even a quarter of the way into the season. You expect Kyle Schwarber to hit better than .179, and Anthony Rizzo to slug higher than .380. You expect Jake Arrieta to start getting people out again, and that the Cubs defense will start making a difference like it did last year. Baseball’s long season, more often than not, does the trick of smoothing out small bumps and potholes.

BUT … you have to say that the Cubs are showing surprising but very real weaknesses at the moment. And if you had to pick one specific reason why, yep, it sure looks like it comes down to the loss of Dexter Fowler.

The Cubs were sad to see Fowler go, of course, but not sad enough to shell out $83 million. You couldn’t blame them. Fowler is 31 with skills that probably will not age especially well. The Chicago brain trust — not without reason — felt pretty confident that they could replace Fowler’s skills. They had young Albert Almora Jr. to play centerfield and replace Fowler’s defense. And they had Kyle Schwarber to be an unconventional but awesome leadoff hitter, replacing Fowler’s presence at the top of the lineup.

We’re only 37 games in but so far … not too good. Almora’s defense has been uninspiring so far. By Statcast™ numbers, he has only made one three-star catch so far this year (and no four- or five-star catches). He’s solid and the Cubs defense is solid. But the defense last year wasn’t just solid, it was spectacular. They took hits away. They saved a bunch of runs. Fowler was not the team’s best defender or even the team’s best outfielder. But he was good, he anchored the best defensive outfield in baseball. Almora is a gifted player but he’s not changing games just yet.

And the Schwarber thing has been kind of a fiasco so far. Schwarber is an interesting case study. He has done amazing things in the big leagues — like just showing up for the World Series after missing the whole year and hitting .412 — but you wonder if that has confused people into thinking that Schwarber is an amazing player. You hear people, when talking about the Cubs, just mash Schwarber in there with Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo and such.

Well, he’s not there yet, not even close to there. Kyle Schwarber has only played in 106 big league games, and he has a lifetime .219 batting average. He’s a below average runner. He’s a borderline unplayable outfielder. Yes, you fully expect him to be a force with the bat, but he isn’t yet. The Cubs insist on continuing to lead him off but right now he’s an out. He’s zero for his last 16, and he hasn’t had a three-hit game since August of 2015.

Nothing that Schwarber, Almora or the Cubs in general have done so far this year is necessarily predictive of the rest of the season. Let’s just point out that the 1975 Cincinnati Reds, one or the greatest teams in baseball history, started the year 18–19, the precise record of the Cubs right now. The only real point is that last year, for the most part, things went right for the Cubs. They led the division more or less from start to finish. They had dominant pitching, and otherworldly defense, and plenty of offense. It was, by baseball standards, a pretty easy run.

But live moves pretty fast. And this year, it’s trickier.

(more…)

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Katie the Perfect

Editor’s note: I admit to being a touch too clever with the headline — I was obviously referencing one of my favorite ever stories Katie the Prefect, but in truth the two titles are so close that I’ve heard many people looked at this and thought it WAS Katie the Prefect. It’s a whole different story. But if you want to click on the link, you can certainly find the first story.

* * *

Katie sent me a text today. I have tried for years now to try and explain Katie to people, but I don’t think that I’ve explained very well. There are a couple of problems. One is that any effort to explain Katie inevitably sounds like absurd parent boasting, which is both not the point AND something I would never want to do for about 500 reasons.

Two is I’m not sure I really understand Katie myself.

(more…)

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Everybody has a Vin story

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Driving Cadillacs in our Dreams

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The Life of Ryan

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