By In Stuff

America The Beautiful

My buddy Tommy Tomlinson asks an eternal question — what’s more quintessentially American, Ray Charles singing America the Beautiful or John Wayne reciting the Pledge of Allegiance?

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Halladay and Lincecum

Game Score is a Bill James invention, a little statistic that gives you a quick and easy, single-number look at how well a pitcher pitched. My sense is that it has always supposed to be little more than a bit of shorthand fun … but I think it has turned out to be one of Bill’s more delightful inventions. The numbers just FEEL right.

In Game Score, a 50 is just about an average game.

In Game Score, a 100 is pretty much perfection. It’s a crazy hard thing to get a 100 Game Score. No pitcher in the history of the baseball postseason has thrown a 100 Game Score. There have only been 63 Game Scores of GREATER than 100 in all of baseball history, and only three of those happened in nine-inning games:

1. Kerry Wood’s 20-strikeout, 0-walk game (105 Game Score).

2. Nolan Ryan’s 16-strikeout, no hitter in 1991 (101 Game Score).

3. Sandy Koufax’s perfect game in 1965 (101 Game Score).

All the other greater-than-100 Game Scores were extra inning performances — Joe Oeschinger’s 26-inning, 1-run game in 1920 has the highest Game Score ever at 153. Well, the man pitched 26 innings … give him his due. Carl Hubbell’s 18-inning shutout against the Cardinals scored a 132. Gaylord Perry’s 16-inning shutout against Cincinnati scored a 112. Juan Marichal’s 16-inning shutout against Milwaukee scored a 112. Those Giants have had some long shutouts.

Harvey Haddix’s 12 2/3 inning, one-hitter — which began with 12 perfect innings — scored a 107.

So, 100 is just about perfect. In fact, Randy Johnson’s perfect game in 2004 scored precisely 100. So did Nolan Ryan’s no-hitters in 1972 and 1973.

A 90 or better is pretty close to legendary. Roger Clemens’ 20-strikeout game scored 97. Tom Seaver’s 19-strikeout game scored 96. Clay Buchholz’s no-hitter scored 93.

An 85 or better is sensationally good. Edwin Jackson’s 8-walk no-hitter was an 85. Complete game shutouts usually score in the 80s, though there are exceptions. Milt Gaston’s rather remarkable shutout in 1928 — when he allowed 14 hits and struck out only two — only scored a 59. In the last five years, there have been 275 complete-game, 9-inning shutouts thrown. Of those, 233 scored at least in the 80s. The lowest Game Score was Pat Misch’s shutout against Florida in 2009. He allowed eight hits, walked three, struck out only two and scored a 70 Game Score, which is still very good.

The best Game Score of 2010 was Brandon Morrow’s complete-game one hitter where he struck out 17. That scored exactly 100 on the scale. Roy Halladay’s perfect game scored 98. Dallas Braden’s perfect game scored score 93. Armando Galarraga’s imperfect game scored 88.

Again, I don’t think Game Scores are supposed to be considered gospel; but they are fun ways to compare some of the great pitched games (and, frankly, a fun way to compare some of the lousy ones — Scott Kazmir’s 5-inning, 11-hit, 13-run game this year scored a minus-8 for instance). And figuring them is pretty easy.

— Start with 50 points.

— Add a point for each out, and two more for each inning completed after Inning 4.

— Add one point for each strikeout.

— Take away two points for each hit, 4 points for each earned run, 2 points for each unearned run and 1 point for each walk.

That’s it. That’s the whole thing. It really is an elegant little formula.

OK, so all of this is just another way to put into perspective the two remarkable pitching performances we saw the last two days. In the long history of postseason baseball there had only been had only been 11 Game Scores of better than 90. Remarkably two of those performances were by Randy Johnson in the 2001 postseason. He had a pair of 91s, one of them against Atlanta in the NLCS (9 innings, 3 hits, 11 Ks, 1 walk) and one of them against the Yankees in the World Series (9 innings, 3 hits, 11 Ks, 1 walk — eerie).

The best ever postseason Game Score was recorded by Roger Clemens against Seattle in 2000 — he threw a 9-inning one-hitter with 15 strikeouts. That scored a 98. After that you had Dave McNally’s 11-inning shutout against Minnesota in the 1969 ALCS and Babe Ruth’s 14-inning, one run performance against Brooklyn in the 1916 World Series. Both of those scored 97.

Then there was Don Larsen’s perfect game (a 94) and Ed Walsh’s 9-inning, 2-hit, 12-strikeout game against the Cubs in the 1906 World Series (also a 94).

Which brings us to 2010. On Wednesday, Roy Halladay threw that no-hitter against the Reds. What was most remarkable to me about the no-hitter was the same thing that was so remarkable about Halladay’s perfect game early in the year — his overwhelming brilliance choked the life out of the baseball drama. That is to say: Once he got going, as a baseball fan I never had any doubt that he would throw the no-hitter. No doubt at all. I wasn’t on the edge of my seat wondering if the Reds would get a hit. I knew they wouldn’t.

Halladay’s no-hitter was so dominating that when he walked Jay Bruce, my only thought was: “Oh, that’s too bad. Now he will only throw a no-hitter instead of a perfect game.” And that was in the fifth inning. And that was two or three innings AFTER I felt sure that the Reds would not get a hit.

In my lifetime, only Halladay has given me that sense of certainty. Pedro Martinez at his peak is the best pitcher I ever saw. Greg Maddux at his peak was my favorite pitcher, the closest thing to an artist I ever expect to see on a baseball diamond. Roger Clemens’ dominance, Randy Johnson’s dominance, Dwight Gooden’s dominance in 1984 and ’85, Johan Santana’s dominance in the middle part of this decade, Steve Carlton’s dominance, Tom Seaver’s dominance, Ron Guidry’s dominance … they all had their own special character.

But only Halladay — for me, anyway — pitches with what I call “retroactivity.” When Halliday is on, like he was against the Reds, it honestly feels like I’m watching him on replay, in a Ken Burns documentary, like the thing has already happened and it’s already famous like the Thrilla in Manilla or the Texas-USC game. I feel like I’m watching it for the fifth or sixth time. It’s a bit like a new song that sounds like you have already heard it a hundred times before.*

*In case you were wondering, the new Ben Folds-Nick Hornby album is out. I have been waiting for it for months and months — I’m a huge fan of both Folds as musician and Hornby as writer — and I have been DYING to see how this collaboration would work. I bought the thing on release day. And, well, I’m not going to lie to you: It’s not as good as I hoped … maybe it will work better for me after a couple more spins. Maybe I’ll give it a full review then.

But I can tell you there’s one great song on there — a song called “Belinda” about a one-hit wonder singer who is asked nightly to sing the popular love song he wrote for someone he left many years ago.There’s a song within the song which Ben Folds tried to make sound like an old song that would sound unnaturally familiar. I think he did a pretty remarkable job of that. The song within the song sounds like something you heard years ago even though, of course, you did not. Somehow, some way, that connects to Halladay for me.

Halladay’s genius against Cincinnati drew a 94 Game Score … same as Larsen’s perfecto. Halladay struck out eight, walked one, broke bats, broke Cincinnati hearts, left them all in helpless heap and scored the second-highest postseason Game Score of the last 40 years.

And one day later … Tim Lincecum outscored him. Watching Lincecum for me sparks very different emotions from watching Halladay. Everything about Lincecum is fresh, new, unpredictable, alive. Halladay’s greatness (and I love this about him) feels like it is in grainy black and white, like we are watching Christy Mathewson or Three Finger Brown or Pete Alexander. Lincecum’s greatness is in 3D, it pops off the screen, it drops your jaw.

At one point in Thursday’s mind-blowing game, Lincecum struck out on Brooks Conrad on some sort of ridiculous super pitch — Conrad seemed to literally swing through the ball (he foul tipped it). Bob Brenly called it a change-up. I shouted, “Come on Bob, that wasn’t a change-up. That was a curveball.” And so I rewound the thing and watched it. And I said, “Oh wait, maybe he was right. Maybe it was a change-up.” I rewound again and watched and said, “No, that wasn’t a change-up. That was a slider.” I rewound again and watched and said, “No, wait, I think that WAS a curveball.” I rewound again and finally settled on it being a slider. But really it was some sort of shape-shifting pitch. It could be whatever you wanted it to be.

That’s the sort of pitch Lincecum throws several times a game — the sort of pitch that made Satchel Paige say: “I never threw an illegal pitch. The trouble is, once in a while I toss one that ain’t been seen by this generation.” Lincecum threw 10 or 15 generation pitches on Thursday, sliders that burned out and disappeared like they were entering the earth’s atmosphere, change-ups that sputtered and coughed on the way to the plate like old Buicks, fastballs that seem to skip double-dutch just as they arrive at the plate. Maybe the skateboard-dude persona adds a little to the act. Maybe the crazy motion that convinced too many scouts to pass on him in the draft adds a little to the act.

Whatever … watching Lincecum pitch is like watching Magic Johnson in his prime, like watching Gale Sayers when he was healthy, like watching John McEnroe when he was in shape and at the top of his game. There’s the greatness part, and then there’s something a little extra, this buzz of hope that you will see something that you have never seen before. Lincecum struck out 14, walked 1, allowed two hits and so electrified the San Francisco crowd I could feel AT&T Park shaking from 1,500 miles away. I have never seen that before. Not quite that.

Lincecum’s 96 Game Score ranks fourth all-time in postseason play. It also scores higher than Halladay’s no-hitter. There will be some people who don’t like the way Game Score weighs strikeouts and walks, who think no-hitters and perfect games should ALWAYS score higher than non-no-hitters and non-perfect-games and I get that. But there is another side to the issue. There are people who believe that these are the only things a pitcher has any real control over: Strikeouts, walks and home runs allowed. There is a lot of fascinating statistical evidence on the subject.

Not that it matters. I don’t know which was the better-pitched game. It’s hard to pick against a no-hitter. But it’s also hard to pick against a 14-strikeout shutout. It’s hard to pick against searing, inevitable dominance. It’s also hard to pick against buoyant, overpowering pitching joy.

In the end, they were two of the greatest postseason performances ever in the postseason. There has been a lot of Year of the Pitcher chirping all year, and I’m not sure I ever really bought in. There have been dozens and dozens of better years for pitchers in baseball history. Put it this way, pitchers had a lower ERA every single year between 1954 and 1986 than they did this year.

Still, unquestionably, there was a shift this year. Pitchers did record their lowest ERA since 1992. We did have two perfect games. We did have a whole bunch of no-hitters and near no-hitters. We did have a serious drop in batting — hitters hit only .257 and slugged only .403, and you have to go back to before the strike to find hitting numbers that low. There are countless off-the-cuff explanations for this which you can find all over the Internet.

But it’s fun when you can move beyond the explanations and just enjoy the moment. We are in an era of some pretty remarkable pitchers — Felix Hernandez, Justin Verlander, Ubaldo Jiminez, Josh Johnson, Adam Wainwright, C.C. Sabathia, Cliff Lee, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, Matt Cain, David Price, Cole Hamels, Roy Oswalt, Jered Weaver, Zack Greinke, Francisco Liriano and so on, I’m not going to name them all.

And in this remarkable era, we got to see perhaps the two best, Halladay and Lincecum, on back-to-back days throw playoff games for the ages. Not bad. Not bad at all.

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Bad Calls In Baseball

The replay discussion in baseball has grown so ubiquitous, so overbearing, so boring that — like the revenue/payroll disparity in baseball — it’s simply no fun to talk about anymore. Everybody knows about the problem. The problem never seems to get fixed. After a while, the talk feels as pointless as complaining about the humidity in St. Louis in July.

But, as boring as it is, Thursday was a banner day in baseball’s grand losing battle to umpiring legitimacy. In the Tampa Bay-Texas game, the umpires seemed to miss a checked-swing third strike call against Michael Young. Given a reprieve, Young homered, and soon after Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon was tossed, and the Rays lost.

In the Minnesota-New York game, the home plate umpire seemed to miss a strike three call against Lance Berkman.* The next pitch, Berkman crushed a double that gave the Yankees the lead they would never relinquish. Soon after, Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire was tossed.

*Though Yankees fans and others will point out that the umpire probably missed a call on the second pitch of that same at-bat, calling a strike on a pitch that was probably at least a couple of inches outside.

And in the Atlanta-San Francisco game, the second-base umpire seemed to miss a clear tag on Buster Posey on a stolen base attempt. The umpire wasn’t the only one to miss it … the television announcers did not mention it even though they showed several replays (they seemed more interested in the quirks of Posey’s awkward slide — they picked up on it a few innings later) and Bobby Cox, who has never been shy about coming out of the dugout, stayed put. There wasn’t even an argument on this one, though Posey was clearly out. Soon after, Posey scored the only run of the game.

A banner day, yes. Of course, this came a day after the umpires clearly missed a catch/trap call that should have ended the Twins-Yankees game, and the umpires missed a hit-by-pitch against Carlos Pena in the Rays-Rangers game. There were probably other misses, but those were the lowlights.

I don’t want to sound like Chicken Little here, but I think baseball has a real problem on its hands … a very serious problem. And it goes beyond all the replay talk. I don’t want this to sound too monumental or anything, but, what the heck, you can read this next sentence in your John Facenda voice: Baseball is facing a serious legitimacy issue. Anyway, I think so.

It’s a different kind of legitimacy issue from the gambling problems of the 1910s or the shameful color barrier before Jackie Robinson or even the steroid issue. It’s different … but it’s still dangerous for the game.

Legitimacy for a sports league simply means this: People have to believe in the fairness and authenticity of the sport. This is why the BCS is so unpopular — nobody believes in its legitimacy. The NHL and NBA regular seasons have legitimacy issues because so many teams make the playoffs. The Tour de France has legitimacy issues because, as we have only recently learned, contaminated meat is causing positive drug tests. Golf tournaments without Tiger Woods over the last few years have had legitimacy issues because Woods was so much better than anyone else. NASCAR had legitimacy issues when nobody really understood their scoring system. And so on.

I have no idea if baseball umpires are worse these days than they used to be … I suspect they’re probably not worse. I suspect they’re probably better. But that doesn’t matter. Times have changed. Technology has changed. Every game is on television somewhere. Every television game has multiple angles. You could be a brutal umpire in the days of Casey, and all people could really do was yell “Kill the umpire!” They had no replays to use as proof. Now, these days, there are so many hours to fill on sports channels, and there is infinite space on the Internet, and people are killing the umpires on Twitter night after night after night. And they have pictures to back them up.

And this is the point — it doesn’t matter how good umpires were before all these new technologies, just like it doesn’t matter anymore if you have the fastest horse and buggy in the county. We SEE the missed calls now. And those missed calls are embarrassing the game. More, they are making the results of these games questionable. Why was gambling an issue? Because it made the results questionable. Why were steroids an issue? Because they made the results questionable. And here we are in 2010, and umpires are missing hugely important calls, loads of them, and games are being influenced by these blown calls, and baseball folks are just standing by and saying that the human element is part of the game? No, that’s can’t last.

See, sooner or later, people aren’t going to stand for it. I suspect some people already are just shaking their heads in frustration. The more bad calls, the more people are going to turn off to baseball. The more times a fan’s team gets cheated, the more likely he or she is to simply stop caring. “Bad calls are a part of baseball,” might be a good enough answer for some traditionalists, but there aren’t enough traditionalists to keep ANY game popular and vibrant. You really can’t have playoff games, World Series games, perfect games sullied, ruined, altered by terrible umpire calls while baseball gurus just sit back like the wrestling referee who doesn’t happen to notice that one guy brought a metal chair into the ring.*

*Even as I write this now, they are showing the blown stolen base call over and over and over on TBS — five or six times in a row. Baseball can’t have this.

What can be done? Well, yeah, we probably have to delve back for a moment into that tiresome talk about replay. There are numerous problems with replay in baseball. Nobody wants the pace of the game slowed even more. Nobody wants more of those life-draining delays while umpires gather together to talk. Nobody wants baseball to turn into a conditional sport, where you have to wait for the appeal before unleashing your cheer. And frankly there are some calls — like ball and strike calls — that probably do not fit replay as we have it now. The Berkman call, frustrating as it may have been for Twins fans, is probably not reversible yet, not until ball-strike technology gets better.

But to me it’s a simple reality: You just can’t have these missed calls and maintain your authenticity. You just can’t. Not over time. And replay seems the most viable answer.* So if baseball has to give up some time and a bit of tradition to get the calls right, then I think sooner or later — sooner — they will have to do that.

*It may not be the only answer, though. I was talking to a baseball insider who says that baseball could fix a lot of these problems by rethinking how umpires do their job. He thinks umpires could work together better as a team (could the third base umpire have helped out on that Buster Posey stolen base), he thinks they could be positioned better, he thinks they could be trained better. I’m skeptical … but I’m also for any answer that will get us the right calls much more often.

Here’s what I do know: While some people talked about Tim Lincecum’s remarkable pitching performance after the Giants game, I kept thinking that Posey was out. While some people were talking about the shocking Rangers upset of the Rays, I kept wondering if the Rays might have come back in that game had the umpire called Michael Young out on that check swing. While people talked about the Yankees dominance and the Twins having lost 11 playoff games in a row, I kept wondering if the game might have been a little different had the umpire rung up Berkman.

What-ifs are great for sports. They’re not great when the umpires are the ones sparking the what-ifs. Twenty-five years later people in St. Louis STILL blame umpire Don Denkinger for the Cardinals loss to Kansas City in the 1985 World Series. That’s a part of baseball history. Now, because of better technology, more replay angles, we’re getting multiple-Denkinger moments ever single day. Sooner or later, people will have enough. There were a couple of managers and a lot of fans on Thursday who decided they already had enough.

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The Seven Tools (And Other Stuff)

Baseball Thoughts, Day 2 begins with a WAY too long discussion of the five tools of baseball. And, of course, we’ll update throughout the day.
Again, if you have questions, comments, post them here. I didn’t get to many yesterday, I’ll try to do better today.

Joe Posnanski � Posts Baseball Thoughts, Day 2 �

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Baseball Musings

Going to do a semi-live blog over at SI today. Here is the link if you would like to come along. And if you have any specific ideas or questions, you can post them here in the comments and I’ll come by throughout the day and check.

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Happy 61st

A happy 61st birthday to my friend Bill James … the best baseball writer who ever lived.

For fun, I was wading through the thousands — yes, thousands — of emails I have exchanged with Bill over the years and I came across this one I got … I must have asked Bill to tell me his greatest day in baseball. I don’t know if I ever used this or if, like many of my projects, it died on the vine. But I don’t think Bill will mind me reprinting it now:

This email is from May 22, 2007:

“I don’t know that this was absolutely the greatest day I ever had in baseball, but June 6, 1991, was certainly one of the most memorable days I ever had at a ballpark.   It was a Thursday afternoon, I think … anyway it was an afternoon game in mid-week with an unusual starting time. It was put on the schedule as a kind of experiment, and then it became apparent several days in advance that the pitching matchup was going to be Nolan Ryan against Bret Saberhagen … Hall of Famer against two-time Cy Young Award winner.

Susie and I made a decision to go late, got stuck in traffic near the park and didn’t arrive until the 3rd inning.  I wound up parking in some parking lot that, having been to Royals Stadium hundreds of times, I literally had no idea existed … it was way out behind the barn, over the hill … parking lot XX or EE or something.  

Ryan and Saberhagen were both very good, and the game was just a riot of fantastic events … people being thrown out on the bases or out of the game in bizarre ways. The Riyals lost the winning run in extra innings one time on a force out at the plate going 6-5-2 … a forceout.  

We had kids aged 3 and 5 at that time, left them with a baby sitter … every two or three innings we would call the baby sitter to see if she could stay late. This was before cell phones … we’d have to find a pay phone at Royals Stadium. Do they still have pay phones?

Anyway, the game went 18 innings, Royals finally won it in the 18th when Kenny Rogers, he of the Gold Gloves, threw away a bunt.  The Royals had FOUR successful sacrifice bunts in extra innings … I always wonder if that isn’t a record. Ruben Sierra came in with an 18-game hitting streak, went 0-for-7 with a couple of walks. I always wonder if he was the only player ever to lose a long hitting streak going hitless in 9 tries.  

Hal McRae was thrown out of the game arguing a call at third. The Royals had the winning run in scoring position in the 10th, 11th, 13th, 14th, 15th, 16th and 17th innings before finally cashing in in the 18th (in the 12th they had a runner on base but not in scoring position). The Rangers had the winning run in scoring position in the 12th, 14th, 15th and 16th.

I think Rogers and Julio Franco are the only guys left in the majors who played in that game … Juan Gone. . .don’t know if he made a team this year … and Sierra, who was in spring training but I think maybe didn’t make a team, not sure.  Those kids are in college now.

The game had an epic feel to it … it started in the middle of the afternoon and went on until well past nightfall, huge crowd really into the game. There were probably 25, 30,000 people there when the game ended. We just had the feeling that we had lived our lives at that ballgame. I don’t know that it was the greatest day I ever had, but it was a fun day, and I appreciate the opportunity to relive it.

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Bring Back Sports Arguments

Leo: “Sorry to tell you this but King threw out the monologue.”

Alice: “Leo, that monologue was good.”

Sy Benson: “Check that. Perfect. I wrote it! This is where Sy Benson draws the line. … First came the word and the word was funny. The monologue stays or I go.”

Benjy: “Sy, maybe we can compromise.”

Sy: “No compromise! Sy Benson has his integrity, his pride. King does that monologue word for word or I walk. I walk!”

Seconds later:

Sy: “King! About the monologue!”

King Kaiser: “Wait a minute! Sy! Do you smell something? (Sniff) It’s coming from the script. … (Holds script up to nose and sniffs) Ew, it’s your monologue. Ugh, what a stinkburger. … KC, pull!”

(His assistant KC throws the crumpled-up script in the air. King shoots it down. “BOOM!” Sy clutches his heart.)

King: “I hate it. It’s not funny. It’s out.”

Sy: “Hey, babe, we’re not married to it.”

— From “My Favorite Year.”

* * *

It seems to me that few people enjoy confrontation. Oh there are some who love it, thrive on it, make a nice living by sparking confrontation. But I certainly don’t. I was on a plane not too long ago — yes, this will be the story about me getting yelled at on a plane, though the concept sounds better than it is — and it was an early morning flight. I ended up sitting one row behind my actual seat by mistake. The guy who was sitting in my seat said, “Um, I think I’m in 14A” (or whatever it was) and I was thoroughly embarrassed and said, “Oh, I’m sorry.” And I moved up one row. This wasn’t the yelling part.

About three minutes later, a flight attendant came back to tell me that I had been upgraded to first class … a perk that comes with flying a lot. Well, I thanked her and moved up to first class. And I was sitting there when all of a sudden a man walked up to first class — not the man whose seat I had mistakenly taken but a different man, an Army man, dressed in full camouflage — and he tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Excuse me, there’s something I wanted to tell you.”

I turned around. And the guy screamed, “I just wanted to tell you that you are a selfish human being. You are an extremely selfish person. I would not have forgiven myself if I didn’t tell you that before you got off the plane. You are a very, very selfish person.”

And then, before I could say a word, he walked back to his seat.

Well … now what? The flight attendant came over to ask what that was all about, and I had to tell her that I had absolutely no idea. And I didn’t. And just about then, the plane took off, and I had to sit there and try to figure out what I was supposed to do. At first I thought maybe I should go back and ask the guy what that was all about, confront him there, but I decided against it. I didn’t want to create some sort of scene on the plane. I had no idea why the guy was yelling at me. Maybe I had hit him in the head with my backpack without realizing it or apologizing. Maybe he had tried to talk to me and I had ignored him. Maybe he was a big Yuni Betancourt fan. I didn’t know. I went over about 500 possibilities in my head because this is the ridiculous kind of person I am. And I hate confrontation.

I knew in the end the right way for me to handle it was to get off the plane, wait for him to come out, and directly confront him. I didn’t WANT to do this, not at all. But I had to do it. I have friends, many of them, who would have instinctively handled this in a better way. But you have to play your own cards. And so, for the rest of the flight I thought about what I must have done and dreaded the landing.

There’s no exciting finish to this non-exciting story. I waited for him to get off the plane, he tried to ignore me at first, and then I said: “Excuse me but what was that all about?” It turned out to be some ridiculous misunderstanding … he thought I was trying to steal that guy’s seat and then had tricked my way up to first class, or something like that. I never fully understood. Whatever the case was, I told him that none of that was true, and that I may be a lot of things but I don’t think selfish really applies. After we talked for a while, he thanked me for straightening it out and we went on our ways. Like I said: The story isn’t as good as the headline.

In any case, I dislike confrontation. I would go out of my way to avoid it. I think a lot of people feel the same way. I put the classic bit from My Favorite Year (one of my all-time favorite movies) on top because, well, Sy could be me. Maybe Sy could be you too … I don’t know you.

And I think confrontation has taken on big role in sports — not in PLAYING sports (where confrontation has always been a big part of the action) but in watching sports, in analyzing sports, in talking about sports, in THINKING about sports. Take the postseason baseball awards. I noticed Monday that one of my e-migos, Will Carroll, was taking a beating on Twitter because he said that if he had an American League Cy Young vote (he does not) he would vote for C.C. Sabathia. And I noticed that on the same day, my co-worker and friend Tom Verducci put out his awards choices, and said he thinks Felix Hernandez will win, not only because people have a better feel for how little pitcher wins really mean but also because of “how fast and wide groupthink travels these days.”

I actually DO have an American League Cy Young vote and out-of-respect for the process I will not reveal my vote … though if you are a regular reader here, I suspect you already know my vote. I have not exactly hidden my feelings on the subject. My point here is that it seems there is a black-and-white, up-and-down, Democrat-and-Republican, yes-and-no, right-and-wrong feel to baseball arguments these days. And it seems to me that sports used to BE like that … and I really don’t want to go back to those days.

I remember thinking about this hard in 2008 when Alex Rodriguez easily won the MVP award. I thought A-Rod deserved the MVP Award; in my mind, he was pretty clearly the best player in the league that year. But you might recall that year that Detroit outfielder Magglio Ordonez got two first place votes, the only two A-Rod did not get, and both from Detroit writers. Well, there was quite a bit of screaming about it, about the Detroit guys being homers, about A-Rod being jobbed from a unanimous MVP choice and all that. But more to the point, there was quite a bit of screaming about how the Detroit writers WERE WRONG … like A-Rod was the ONLY viable MVP choice.

I thought Bill James hit the subject hard and well in the 2008 Gold Mine: “I see absolutely nothing wrong or remarkable in the two MVP votes for Magglio Ordonez … Yes, A-Rod had a fantastic season, but Ordonez’ season is … well, Al Kaline was the same kind of hitter, and Kaline never came close to those numbers: 139 RBI, .363 average, 54 doubles, 28 homers. It was well above the standard of your average MVP season.

“Yes, A-Rod created more runs than Ordonez, but not that many more (159-146). Since when did a 13-run separation in offensive performance become a prohibitive barrier to sportswriters taking a broader view of the issue?”

A broader view of the issue. Exactly. I feel sure I would have voted for A-Rod … in fact, I might have voted for A-Rod, I don’t remember if I had a vote that year. But these things in sports are not crystal clear, aren’t without ambiguity, aren’t without nooks and crannies and subtleties and difference of opinion. There was a viable argument to be made for Ordonez (A-Rod’s one offensive advantage — and it was a big one — was in home runs. But Ordonez led A-Rod in some other stuff — including on-base percentage, doubles and RBI minus homers (they scored the same number of runs minus homers). And whether I AGREE or not with Magglio for MVP argument, I would very much like to HEAR the argument. I wouldn’t want that argument shouted down before it was ever made.

But I think that’s where we are going again. I do think we are getting back to the point in sports where arguments are being shouted down before they are made, that in this stats vs. scouts world of baseball that people are simply not even listening to the other side, that baseball is being turned into a game show like Do You Want To Be A Millionaire, where only one answer can be accepted as correct.

And it bugs me. Let me take this in a different direction for one second: You know why I love baseball statistics? Because they help me look at the game in a way I never had before. That’s all. I don’t love NUMBERS (though, I’ve always had a crush on the number 573 — but who hasn’t?), I love the way those numbers can spark in the imagination. It is true that for years and years in baseball we were hammered with the same empty platitudes — pitching is 75% of baseball, some hitters are better in the clutch than they are the rest of the time, a great shortstop can save you 100 runs a year with his defense, players are in their primes from 27 to 32 or so, you don’t want a guy in the middle of your lineup who walks a lot, bases are stolen off the pitcher, the best fielders were the ones who made the fewest errors, the most important thing is to have players on your team who are gamers … and so on. For a long time, you were told to believe those things, and disagreeing meant confrontation. Few people like confrontation. And so we kept getting fed the same baseball meals.

But you know what? Bill James liked confrontation. He and a few others started testing some of those platitudes by the numbers, by logic, and they began to suspect that some of these platitudes … most of these platitudes … really about all these platitudes were overstated at best, pure nonsense at worst. How could baseball really be 75% pitching? We were supposed to stuff hitting and fielding into the remaining 25%?

And by studying that pitching is 75% of baseball thing (and mocking it, yes), people came up with some pretty fascinating and new thoughts about pitching, some of them cutting hard against what the mind had been led to believe.

Wait a minute, Bill and others said: Pitchers don’t win games, not by themselves. We know that … why do we keep denying that point?

Wait a minute, Bill and others said: You can’t judge a pitcher without considering the ballpark where he pitches.

Wait a minute, Bill and others said: Strikeout generally pitchers DO NOT burn out faster than finesse pitchers … quite the opposite.

Bill and others weren’t always right. But the point wasn’t being right. The point was making the argument, questioning everything, refusing to accept something because it SEEMED so. One of the most fascinating baseball topics of the last few years has built around this question: How much control does a pitcher have over hits allowed? It’s easy to tell from the stats that some pitchers strike out more batters than others, some pitchers walk fewer batters than others, some pitchers give up fewer home runs than others. These are repeatable skills.

But how much control does a pitcher have if the plate appearance is not a strikeout, walk or homer.

Well here are some assorted pitchers’ career batting average on balls hit in play:

Andy Messersmith: .243

Mike Norris: .249

Jim Palmer: .251

Mario Soto: .257

Sandy Koufax: .259

Mariano Rivera: .263

Larry Gura: .265

Bud Black: .266

Eric Show: .267

Steve McCatty: .268

Nolan Ryan: .269

Orlando Hernandez: .270

Woody Williams: .280

Tim Belcher: .283

Mark Portugal: .283

Eric Milton: .285

Greg Maddux: .286

Steve Trachsel: .288

Kirk Rueter: .289

Brett Tomko: .291

Randy Johnson: .295

Tim Lincecum: .301

Zack Greinke: .310

Even now, I have a hard time believing a pitcher has NO control (beyond Ks, walks and HRs) over a hitters’ ability to get hits — I know instinctively that batting-practice fastballs will yield more singles than Tim Lincecum sliders — but the stats have certainly convinced me that a pitcher has FAR LESS CONTROL over hits than I ever would have suspected on my own. I mean Brett Tomko has a lower career BABIP than Lincecum. Mark Portugal has a much better BABIP than Randy Johnson. That’s what baseball stats can do for me as a fan … they can expand my scope, give me new things to think about, pull back curtains, create beautiful arguments.

And I worry that we are beginning to lose those arguments again — ironically, at least in part, BECAUSE of the proliferation of baseball stats. I cannot tell you how many people have sent me emails quoting one of my favorite statistics, Wins Above Replacement, as if that’s an argument ender. No! To me WAR is an argument STARTER. That’s what’s beautiful about it. The fact that (according to Baseball Reference) Felix Hernandez has a 6.0 WAR and C.C. Sabathia has a 5.4 WAR doesn’t end the Cy Young debate for me. It starts it.

As it turns out, while I hate confrontation in my personal life, I don’t mind it when it comes to baseball. I don’t mind people thinking I’m an idiot … I think that about myself anyway. But I do think there are some people out there (and I cannot blame them) who would rather just conform to stuff they don’t think or believe rather than get blitzed on the Internet or barraged on Twitter. I do worry about what Tom calls group think.

Yes, absolutely, I do believe that if Felix Hernandez wins the Cy Young, it will be a breakthrough — even more than Greinke or Lincecum last year — and proof that the voters didn’t just fall back on wins the way they often did in the past.

But I really hope anyone who believed C.C. Sabathia had the better year voted for him and will make the argument for him. Sabathia had one hell of a season. He pitched for a Yankees team that, for much of the season, did not have a viable second starter. New York won 23 of the 34 starts he made. He pitched under some intense pennant pressure. There’s an argument to be made. I’ve always thought that was one of the best things about sports. There’s always an argument to be made.

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Padres Don’t Stop Believin’

SAN FRANCISCO — So, a few San Diego players sat in a circle in a happy-but-not-too-happy Padres clubhouse and they went over the possibilities. “No, no, no,” Scott Hairston was saying. “If the Braves win tomorrow …”

“No, I’m saying if the Braves LOSE tomorrow,” Oscar Salazar said.

“Wait,” Luke Gregerson said. “Are we talking about if they win or if they lose?’

“You know what?” Hairston said. “Let’s just win, all right?”

This is the best plan at this point. The National League playoff picture is calculus at the moment, and the only thing that really matters for the Padres is winning. They came into Friday night cold, lost, on the brink of elimination. But they won an emotional game Friday night, with a crazed San Francisco crowd ready to celebrate. And they won an emotional game Saturday afternoon with Journey lead singer (and Giants fan) Steve Perry singing “Don’t Stop Believin'” in the crowd.

And now, the Padres go into Sunday with three different playoff scenarios, a couple of them baffling enough to confuse Copernicus. Let’s go over all the scenarios first and then we can talk about these amazing Padres.

Scenario 1: The Giants beat the Padres, and Atlanta beats Philadelphia.

— This is one of two easy ones. Right now, Atlanta and San Diego are tied for the wildcard, and San Francisco is one game up on both. In this Giants win/Braves win scenario, the Giants will win the National League West and the Braves will be the wildcard. No extra games necessary.

Scenario 2: The Padres beat the Giants, and Philadelphia beats Atlanta.

— This is the second easy one. In this case, the Padres would win the National League West (thanks to their head-to-head record against San Francisco), and the Giants will be the wildcard. The Braves are eliminated. I actually don’t like scenario this much — it seems to me that the division title should not be determined by head-to-head record. But this is the way things set up in baseball. Since both the Giants and Padres would qualify for the playoffs in this scenario, the baseball gurus have determined that it’s not worth having a one-game playoff just to see which team is division champ and which team is wildcard. So, again, Padres would be champ; Giants would be wildcard.

Scenario 3: The Giants beat the Padres, and Philadelphia beats Atlanta.

— OK, now we are dealing with an extra game. In this scenario, the Giants would be NL West division champs. And the Padres and Braves would play each other in a one-game wildcard playoff in Atlanta on Monday.

Scenario 4: The Padres beat the Giants, and Atlanta beats Philadelphia.

— And finally the world-is-exploding scenario. If this happens (and it certainly could happen), then we have a three-way tie between San Francisco, San Diego, Atlanta. And that would mean the first three-team, two-game playoff in baseball history. In this scenario, the Giants and Padres would play a one-game playoff Monday evening in San Diego, with the winner claiming the National League West. The loser would then have to hop on a plane and play ANOTHER one-game playoff, this one against the Braves for the wildcard. The winner of THAT game, should it be San Diego or San Francisco, would then go to Philadelphia on Wednesday for the first game of the National League Division Series. This means it is not impossible that the Padres or Giants could play:

Sunday in San Francisco.

Monday in San Diego

Tuesday in Atlanta

Wednesday in Philadelphia.

Four cities in four days. I’d say that hasn’t happened since Satchel Paige’s barnstorming days.*

*This leads to a fascinating point — it probably would be to the Phillies advantage to lose to the Braves Sunday. If they lose, there’s a chance for this three-team, two-game playoff, which could utterly wreck the rotation of the team facing the Phillies in the playoffs. Baseball should not have a system where LOSING is better for a team than WINNING. But we’re in uncharted territory here.

Oh, it’s a cavalcade of fun in baseball these days, and the main reason is that these San Diego Padres simply refuse to accept the general consensus that they’re simply not good enough to keep winning. The Padres, you will recall, lost 10 games in a row when they were leading the National League West by 6 1/2 games — and I’d say more people were surprised by the 6 1/2 game lead than the 10-game losing streak. These Padres — the great Adrian Gonzalez excepted — have an anemic offense. They have pitched very well, but the rotation and bullpen are not exactly loaded with big names. Coming into this series, they lost three out of four to a playing-for-nothing-but-pride Cubs team. The expectation is that the Giants playing at home in front of hungry fans would put them out of their misery quickly.

But … no. Friday night’s game was about a great matchup between two great players, San Francisco pitcher Matt Cain and Adrian Gonzalez — Gonzalez won, he turned on a fastball, set it soaring for a three-run homer, and the Padres won.

Saturday’s game was sketchier. The Padres made a serious base-running blunder. The Giants manager got tossed. It wasn’t exactly ballet. The Giants started Barry Zito who — after pitching pretty well much of the season and winning a little bit of hard-earned and grudging respect from San Francisco fans who had written him and his $126 million contract off — has in the last six weeks or so regressed again. He came into the game with the team having lost eight of his previous 10 starts, and his ERA over that stretch was 6.50.

Zito did not have it Saturday either. San Diego’s Chris Denorfia and David Eckstein led off the game with back-to-back singles. At that point both managers decided it was time for a little battle of chess. First up was Padres manager Bud Black, who had his No. 3 hitter Miguel Tejada sacrifice bunt. Tejada IS a double-play machine — he has led the league in double plays five of the last seven years — but sacrifice bunting in the first inning with your No. 3 hitter? Ugh.

At that point, San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy topped him by intentionally walking Adrian Gonzalez to load the bases. Yes, Gonzalez IS the Padres best hitter by far and there is a feeling among baseball managers that, if you can help it, you don’t want to let the other team’s best player beat you. But, an intentional walk in the first inning of a crucial game? Ugh.

Bochy’s “Ugh” turned out worse than Black’s. After Ryan Ludwick hit an infield pop-up, Zito walked Yorvit Torrealba and Scott Hairston to give the Padres two runs. I would like to think that was the Baseball Gods rewarding the Padres for a first-inning intentional walk, but more likely it was Zito simply being unable to control his stuff, a common theme since he signed the big money deal. He gave up an unearned run in the third when Pablo Sandoval made a poor throw to second base. And then in the fourth he led off the inning by walking opposing pitcher Tim Stauffer, which ended his game.

“I thought (Zito’s) stuff was fine,” Bruce Bochy said mysteriously after the game before saying, “He just had trouble getting the ball where he wanted.” Yes, well, there was that. Stauffer came around to score to give the Padres a 4-0 lead. And Stauffer pitched well, allowing one run in 6 1/3 innings. The Giants did get the winning run to the plate in the ninth but could not finish off the comeback*. “We’re going to win tomorrow!” Steve Perry yelled from a radio booth.

*If you want details, the Giants were down 4-2 in the bottom of the ninth, and they had runners on first and third with only one out. Jose Guillen was at the plate. I have seen a lot of Jose Guillen in Kansas City, a whole lot of Jose Guillen, the good and the not-so-good, and I turned to the reporter next to me and said that it might be a good idea for the Giants to send pinch runner Darren Ford, who was at first base. I felt sure the Giants would do that. Ford has appeared in seven games this year, all as a pinch runner, he is apparently quite swift (he has stolen two out of three bases). But the Giants DID NOT send Ford on the first pitch.

“Uh-oh,” I said. Guillen promptly hit into the easy 6-3 double play that ended the game. The writer looked at me like I was Nostradamus, but really I have just seen Jose Guillen hit a lot.

And now it’s down to today, which could be one of the wilder days in National League history. The Padres have their best starter, Mat Latos, going against San Francisco’s exciting and frustrating Jonathan Sanchez, who is striking out more than a batter per inning and also leading the National League in walks. There are those four crazy scenarios I listed above — in Scenario 2 we could actually have champagne baths in BOTH clubhouses. I don’t know that has ever happened in baseball history. But hey, in this crazy division, as the poet Steve Perry once sad: Any way you want it, that’s the way you need it, anyway you want it. I think that says it all.

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The Wild NL West

SAN FRANCISCO — There is no way to prove it, of course, but I think that San Diego’s Adrian Gonzalez is the most underrated player in baseball. He is, in my mind, the only guy in the game that Fire Joe Morgan’s Ken Tremendous could have written this about on Deadspin:

“You know who’s overlooked? Adrian F—– Gonzalez. Nobody in the world outside of Adrian Gonzalez’s immediate family has any idea he even exists, much less that he is one of the very best hitters in the world. A reporter recently asked Yorvit Torrealba to talk about how good Adrian Gonzalez has been for the Pads this year, and Torrealba said, ‘There is no one on our team by that name. You are mistaken. Perhaps you mean to ask about David Eckstein?'”

I think Gonzalez has the underrated award all to himself — has had it for a couple of years. But, you know, you could also make an argument for San Francisco’s Aubrey Huff. Have you seen the year this guy’s having? He plays three position, appears to be playing them all well, he is slugging .500, he is in the top 10 in the league in walks, he has scored 100 runs. In a season when the Giants seemingly unshakeable Tim Lincecum ran into a late summer rough patch and last year’s breakout star Pablo Sandoval has lost his Kung Fu Panda mojo, Huff has been a driving force and as big a reason as any player, I suspect, for the Giants being on the brink of the playoffs.

Now, you may disagree, you may rank other players as more underrated — it’s all a make-believe argument anyway. But I would say there’s at least a pretty good shot that the players you might call most underrated will be in the National League West.

There is something dreamlike about the NL West … and not only because so many of their games are played while two-thirds of America is asleep. No, this is one crazy division. Here’s a little fact for you: If the Giants go to the playoffs — they’re one win away — that will mean that in the last five seasons all five NL West teams have reached the playoffs. All five in five years — no other division can claim anything even close to this. Here’s how many seasons back you have to go to say that every team in a division has made the postseason:

AL East: 18 seasons (Toronto last made it in 1993)

AL Central: 26 seasons (Kansas City last made it in 1985)

AL West: 10 seasons (Seattle last made it in 2001 — and remember there are only four teams in the AL West)

NL East: Infinity (Washington has never made the postseason; if you want to go back to their days in Montreal you have to go back to 1981).

NL Central: 19 seasons (PIttsburgh last made it in 1992 — have not had a winning season since).

NL West: 5 seasons (The Padres last made it in 2006)

That’s absurd, right? The only team to not actually win the division the last five seasons is the Colorado Rockies (they made it twice as a wildcard), and they are also the only team from the division the last five seasons to go the World Series. This division is just a late-night roulette wheel — so late that the results don’t make it into the morning paper.

Take this year. In our SI “experts” preseason predictions this year — there were 13 of us — we picked the West as follows:

Six of us picked the Rockies.

Five of us picked the Dodgers.

One of us picked the Diamondbacks.

One of us picked the Giants.

The point isn’t that only one of us (Ted Keith, congrats!) probably got it right by picking the Giants. The point is that we clearly had no idea. We picked four of the five teams, and the one team we DID NOT pick, the San Diego Padres, was leading the division almost the entire season and still has a shot, by sweeping San Francisco, to win the thing. We have no idea how to pick the NL West because there isn’t a way to pick the NL West.

Here’s what you have in the NL West:

1. You have the most extreme pitchers park in baseball (San Diego.

2. You have the most extreme hitters park in baseball (Colorado).

3. You have the team that, most years, leads the National League in attendance (Los Angeles).

4. You have a team that has struck out more than any in baseball history (the Arizona Diamondbacks).

5. You have three teams that have never won the World Series (Colorado, San Diego and San Francisco — the Giants did win the World Series in New York).

6. More people pack into NL West Stadiums as a group by far than any other division in baseball.*

*Here’s the average attendance in 2010 by division:

1. NL West: 2.68 million

2. NL Central (shocker, eh?): 2.47 million.

3. AL East: 2.37 million

4. NL East: 2.35 million

5. AL West: 2.27 million

6. AL Central (no shocker): 2.12 million.

All this stuff thrown together seems to give the NL West a wild quality. You might get an absurd pitchers game (San Diego this year has been involved in TEN 1-0 games, the most in baseball … right after them is the Dodgers with 9 and the Giants with 8). You might get an absurd hitters game (The Rockies and Diamondbacks have both played seven games where 15 or more runs were scored — only the Mets have played in more). You will get a lot of home runs (Arizona, Colorado and San Francisco are third, fourth and sixth in the league in homers) and a lot of Ks (the Giants’ and Padres’ staffs are first and second in all of baseball in Ks, the Dodgers are fourth — strikeout pitchers like facing the Diamondbacks). It really is a free for all.

And this year that has led to a typically exciting, excruciating, thrilling and baffling pennant race. For the first five months or so, the Padres rather shockingly stayed on top of the division. Yes, we knew how they were winning — they pitched great, especially out of the bullpen, and won the majority of their close games — but we really had no idea HOW they were winning. Other than Kevin Correja — who has struggled much of the year — the entire starting rotation was new. The bullpen was pinched together with some a bunch of unfamiliar names who kept getting people out. And the Padres, except for the titanic Adrian Gonzalez, could not really hit. The Padres won 1-0 six times. They were up 6 1/2 games in late August.

Then … they lost 10 in a row. They are only 12-12 since the losing streak, which puts them one loss away from elimination. This is where people usually write “the Padres had their inevitable collapse,” and maybe it was inevitable. The Padres’ overpowering quality is that they cannot hit. They are 12th in the league in runs scored and it’s hard to win a division when you are 12th in the league in runs scored. But crazy stuff happens in the NL West. In 2008, the Dodgers finished 13th in runs scored and won the division. In 2007, the Rockies won 14 of their last 15 to race into the playoffs and, eventually, the World Series*. In 2001, the Arizona Diamondback essentially rode two dominant pitchers and one bizarre 57-homer season to the championship. The Padres story was no stranger than those.

*You can probably stump your baseball friends with this trivia question: Name the NL West team that has gone the longest period of time since appearing in the World Series. If they know baseball and think about it, they might get it. But if they go off instinct, NOBODY would think it’s the Los Angeles Dodgers.

And anyway, the team they are battling — the Giants — are hardly a paragon of consistency. They won seven of their first nine to start the season and then played lousy for a while then played great, then played lousy again. Starting May 7 they:

— Lost four out of five.

— Won four out of five.

— Lost five in a row

— Won five out of six.

And so on. A four-game winning streak. A seven-game losing streak. On Independence Day, the Giants were one game over .500. And then, some things began happening. Buster Posey hit .450 his next 20 games. The aforementioned Huff hit .400. Matt Cain became was his old workhorse self — the Giants have won 12 of the last 15 times he has pitched. And so on. The Giants immediately won nine out of 10, and seven of the following 10. Yes, they were 6 1/2 games back on August 25, but thanks to the Padres’ losing streak and their own good play, they were tied for the division lead 16 days later. They moved into a tie, fittingly, with a 1-0 win over San Diego.

The Rockies made an exciting (if brief) run at the top which promised an exciting finish to the race … which is why I’m here in San Francisco. But the excitement has drained the last few days. The Rockies collapsed. The Padres have faded. The Giants have pulled three games ahead … as mentioned it will take a Padres sweep just to force a playoff*. And with the Giants at home that sweep seems unlikely.

*If necessary … if they both qualified for the playoffs, there would be no playoff. The division title would be decided by a tiebreaker.

Then again, EVERYTHING about the NL West is unlikely. It looks like this time it might finish quietly, but you can never bet on that in this division. Like always, if you want to know, you really will have to stay up late and see what happens.

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My story on Vin Scully and Los Angeles over at Sports Illustrated.

This is part of an NL West week. Tomorrow, a story on the general awesomeness of the NL West. And then, some live coverage of the Giants-Padres series, though it looks like the Padres will need the sweep. And there’s some other stuff in the works as well.

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