By In Stuff

Live Thanksgiving Blog

2:00 p.m.

New England quarterback Tom Brady is obviously not underrated. He’s not overrated either … everybody realizes just how good Tom Brady is and how good he has been.

That said: You hear SO MUCH about Tom Brady’s intangibles, his leadership skills, his team building talents, that it’s easy to forget something — the guy has a bazooka for an arm. I don’t know how many quarterbacks can make ALL the throws — five quarterbacks maybe? Brady is one of them. He can throw the deep ball, of course. He has the touch for the swing passes and screens. He has the strength of arm to throw those deep down-and-outs.

And just now he made a couple of powerful throws over the middle that had enough juice on them that the safety had absolutely no chance to get over in time. Tom Brady’s greatness as a quarterback is a complex thing made up of decision-making and quick thinking and versatility and toughness and a good sense for how to deal with teammates and many other things. But the guy also has some kind of arm, and I think sometimes people miss it.

* * *

12:44 p.m.

Another thing I’m thankful for: The yellow first down line on television. Technological gimmicks like that usually doesn’t work. The glowing puck in hockey was an obvious failure. I’m not crazy about the strike zone box they show during baseball games. But the yellow first down line in football is one of the great television innovations that seamlessly becomes part of the viewing experience. It’s so great that whenever I see games WITHOUT the yellow line, it feels a bit empty.

You know what it’s like? I do probably 75% of my book reading now on my iPad. Well, with iPad readers like iBooks or the Kindle, you can press down on a word and instantly get its definition. That’s a great thing, and now when I read a real book I found myself tempted to press down on a single word in the hopes that it will magically pull out a dictionary and define the word for me.

* * *

12:00 p.m.

So, you may have noticed that this year — for the first time in a few years — the league leaders in Fangraphs Wins Above Replacement won the Most Valuable Player award. Josh Hamilton led all of baseball with an 8.0 WAR. Joey Votto led the National League with a 7.4 WAR. The last time it happened was 2003, when F-WAR leaders lAlex Rodriguez and Barry Bonds won the MVP. Over the last 20 years, it’s happened three times — it also happened in 1994 and 1990.

American League F-WAR Leaders (and MVPs):
2010: Josh Hamilton 8.0 (Josh Hamilton)
2009: Ben Zobrist 8.4 (Joe Mauer 8.0)
2008: Grady Sizemore 7.1 (Dustin Pedroia 6.6)
2007: Alex Rodriguez 9.2 (Alex Rodriguez)
2006: Grady Sizemore 7.3 (Justin Morneau 4.3)
2005: Alex Rodriguez 9.4 (Alex Rodriguez)
2004: Ichiro Suzuki 7.2 (Vladimir Guerrero 6.2)
2003: Alex Rodriguez 10.7 (Alex Rodriguez)
2002: Alex Rodriguez 9.8 (Miguel Tejada 4.5)
2001: Jason Giambi 9.3 (Ichiro Suzuki 6.1)
2000: Alex Rodriguez 9.6 (Jason Giambi 7.8)
1999: Manny Ramirez 7.5 (Ivan Rodriguez 6.9)
1998: Alex Rodriguez 8.4 (Juan Gonzalez 5.3)
1997: Ken Griffey 9.4 (Ken Griffey)
1996: Ken Griffey 10.2 (Juan Gonzalez 3.7)
1995: John Valentin 8.4 (Mo Vaughn 5.2)
1994: Frank Thomas 7.8 (Frank Thomas)
1993: Ken Griffey 9.0 (Frank Thomas 6.7)
1992: Frank Thomas 7.7 (Dennis Eckersley 3.0)
1991: Cal Ripken 11.1 (Cal Ripken)
1990: Rickey Henderson 10.5 (Rickey Henderson)

National League F-War Leaders and MVPs)
2010: Joey Votto 7.4 (Joey Votto)
2009: Albert Pujols 8.7 (Albert Pujols)
2008: Albert Pujols 9.3 (Albert Pujols)
2007: David Wright 8.6 (Jimmy Rollins 6.3)
2006: Albert Pujols 8.3 (Ryan Howard 6.5)
2005: Andruw Jones 8.3 (Albert Pujols 7.9)
2004: Barry Bonds 12.2 (Barry Bonds)
2003: Barry Bonds 10.7 (Barry Bonds)
2002: Barry Bonds 13.0 (Barry Bonds)
2001: Barry Bonds 12.9 (Barry Bonds)
2000: Todd Helton 8.6 (Jeff Kent 7.6)
1999: Jeff Bagwell 8.2 (Chipper Jones 7.7)
1998: Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire 8.8 (Sammy Sosa 7.4)
1997: Craig Biggio 9.7 (Larry Walker 9.4)
1996: Barry Bonds 9.1 (Ken Caminiti 7.6)
1995: Barry Bonds 7.7 (Barry Larkin 5.3)
1994: Jeff Bagwell 7.8 (Jeff Bagwell)
1993: Barry Bonds 10.6 (Barry Bonds)
1992: Barry Bonds 9.8 (Barry Bonds)
1991: Barry Bonds 7.9 (Terry Pendleton 6.4)
1990: Barry Bonds 10.1 (Barry Bonds)

Of course, F-WAR is just one statistic, and it too sometimes spits out interesting choices like Ben Zobrist last year or John Valentin in 1995. But I think the point I take from this is that while an advanced stat like F-WAR isn’t often EXACTLY the same as the subjective view, they are usually pretty similar. And I think it’s easy to miss that point. Again and again, we hear about the conflict between advanced stats and observation, between what these numbers tell us and what we believe about baseball. It’s supposed to be a war (lower case).

And yes, every now and again the MVP voting spits out a weird winner like the Dennis Eckersley in 1992 choice. Yes, every now and again RBIs seem to play a disproportionate role and Justin Morneau or Miguel Tejada or Juan Gonzalez or wins. But more often than not, I think F-WAR and what we see are not very different. This year, the NL MVP could have been Joey Votto or it could have been Albert Pujols, and they were separated by .1 F-WAR which, really, means absolutely nothing. The AL MVP could have been Josh Hamilton or Miguel Cabrera or Robinson Cano, and all three had at least 6.0 F-WAR, which means they all had very good years.

The best baseball stats do a couple of things, I think. One, they reflect what we believe about the game. And two, they tell us something that we may not have noticed. I think F-WAR (and Baseball Reference WAR, just as a starting point) does that. I don’t always agree with what F-WAR suggests, or what Baseball Reference WAR suggests, or what xFIP suggests, or what any one number or one angle or one philosophy suggests. But I really don’t think the gap is nearly as wide as we so often say. Stats tell us things, and our eyes and sense of the game tell us things, and they probably agree 90% of the time. There may be some people who think Miguel Cabrera should have won the MVP over Josh Hamilton. But I don’t think anyone would deny Hamilton was pretty great.

* * *

8:40 a.m.

I love Thanksgiving. I mean, seriously, I love everything about it. I love turkey. I love cranberry sauce. I love how the house smells on Thanksgiving day. I love falling asleep in my recliner. I love that one a day a year I’m allowed, no, encouraged, no, commanded by American law and the powers of tradition to sit in front of the television and watch the Detroit Lions play football. I love hearing the kids ask what time dinner will begin.

I love the blitz of “wake up at 4 a.m. so you can get stand in line and get the most cheaply made DVD player on the market for 19 bucks” commercials.

I love going to the airport like I will today and seeing the last remnants of families coming together for the holiday — not many people travel on Thanksgiving, I guess, but the ones who do are committed. They are often military families. They are often sons and daughters who could not get off work before today. It’s a good scene.

I love that the Christmas lights are glowing already, and people complaining because it seems too early to have them out — “pretty soon people are going to start putting them out on the fourth of July,” someone will mutter grumpily* — complaining like they do every year and yet it changes the way everything looks in a happy and familiar way.

*With the same inflections as the summer “hot enough for you” voices.

I love that we all just agreed that one day, at least, we should feel thankful. I’m a thank you addict anyway. Always thank you. It’s like a nervous tic. I say thank you to airport security. I say thank you to the police officers who give me tickets. I say thank you to annoying sales call to the house. At big sporting events, reporters will get dozens and dozens of pages of notes and quotes and various other press releases, and they always come one at a time so that it feels like you are constantly bombarded by a parade of interns and junior public relations people stuffing these mostly-meaningless pages at you — and yet I always say thank you, every single time, not because I’m exceedingly polite, not because I’m an especially thankful person, but because those are the words that come out. It’s pure habit at this point. I couldn’t quit if I tried.

And so I love that there’s a day when I can think about all the stuff I’m really thankful for … for quite a few years I wrote a Thanksgiving column in The Kansas City Star where I wrote about those thankful things. People came to realize that mostly I was thankful for food — Arthur Bryant’s burnt ends in Kansas City, Skyline Chili in Cincinnati, Basso56 in New York, Dreamland in Tuscaloosa, the Slanted Door in San Francisco and, oh a hundred other places. But I was always thankful for other things too. It was never a particularly hard column to write.

This year, for the first time in a long time, I didn’t write the column for The Star. I love my 13 years there, treasure them, am more thankful for them than anything I’ve ever done professionally. But the Star has a terrific young columnist now, my friend Sam Mellinger, and they just hired a new sports editor who I hear great things about, and they don’t need an old ghost haunting the place.

Instead, I’m writing this Live Thanksgiving Blog — updating it throughout the day with thoughts, ideas, a little football commentary, some of the half-written blog posts I’m not going to finish and, of course, a few thank yous, starting with the corniest one: Thank you for reading.

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Jeter and Comfortable Movies

The Derek Jeter thing is fascinating to me for a couple of reasons. One, it’s Derek Jeter and everything about Derek Jeter is pretty interesting.

Two, there’s a CMQ — Comfortable Movie Quality — to this Yankees-Jeter negotiation. I have spent too much of my time thinking about this: How many movies would you say you KNEW the ending before it happened? I’m not talking about you figuring out the ending of Sixth Sense or Usual Suspects or Memento or whatever (good for you, Nostradamus). No, I’m talking about movies that are essentially made with the premise that you will know the ending. You know the killer will die. You know the guy and girl will get together. You know the planet will be saved. You know the home team will win. You know George Clooney will end up in a tuxedo. You know the castaways will not get off the island.

You know because you are supposed to know, the director expects you to know, the producer expects you to know, the actors essentially act like you know … KNOWING is part of the experience. This is why sometimes you will hear people, when asked about a movie, say something like: “Oh, well, it was predictable, but it was still pretty good.” There is in some of us a capacity to not only like a predictable movie, but like it BECAUSE of it’s predictable. There are a lot of not-quite-A-level movies – The Family Man, Doc Hollywood, The Sure Thing, Invincible, Major League, Splash, The Fabulous Baker Boys and a hundred others I’m not thinking of now — where, once the premise was laid out, I doubt I felt even the tiniest tinge of surprise at any point. And yet, I liked the movies anyway.

Maybe it’s the James Bond creed: You KNOW he will win. You just don’t know how.

We KNOW Derek Jeter will play for the New York Yankees in 2011. There is no chance for a surprise there. This is not 90% likely or 95% likely or even 99% likely. It is Hurricane Insurance In Kansas likely. There is simply no even remotely plausible scenario I can imagine where Derek Jeter goes. The Yankees have already offered him three years, $45 million which, you know, unless Dan Snyder buys a baseball, well, that’s probably 50-100% more than any other team would offer. And that offer is ALREADY on the table.

Now, it appears from reports that Jeter and his people are unhappy with the offer, perhaps even insulted by the offer. Jeter’s agent Casey Close has even invoked the name of Babe Ruth which I must say — to reference another CMQ movie — is a bit like the agent Jerry Maguire when he’s trying to negotiate for his receiver (before the receivers has the great catch on Monday Night Football):

GM: “I want a prototypical wide receiver, not some shrimp who bitches.”
Jerry: “Dennis, I’m asking you for a favor. I introduced you to your wife. We’ve spent Christmas together. How about some holiday cheer?”
GM: “Jerry. You’re reaching.”

Casey, yes, you’re reaching. Derek Jeter means a lot to the New York Yankees and their fans and baseball, no question about any of it. But he has been paid ONE HUNDRED EIGHTY NINE MILLION DOLLARS the last ten years. That is, even now ten years later, the third-highest gross contract ever given to one baseball player, and the first two are Alex Rodriguez and Alex Rodriguez. Even the Joe Mauer contract, even the Mark Teixeira contact, even the C.C. Sabathia contract did not come out to $189 million.

Has Jeter been worth it? Absolutely. But it seems a bit bold to say that the Yankees have not already pay Jeter plenty for being an icon and a role model and a true Yankee and everything else. According to Baseball Reference’s WAR, Derek Jeter was the 10th most valuable player over the last 10 years:

1. Albert Pujols, 83.8 WAR
2. Alex Rodriguez, 64.8
3. Barry Bonds, 55.7 (despite only playing about six seasons)
4. Ichiro Suzuki, 55.2
5. Carlos Beltran, 51.1
6. Chipper Jones, 47.5
7. Scott Rolen, 46.6
8. Todd Helton, 44.7
9. Lance Berkman, 43.8
10. Derek Jeter, 43.1

That’s really good. That might even be $189 million good. But I don’t think I’d be sticking an “amount still due” bill under the Steinbrenners’ door. I’d say Jeter has been paid quite well for his efforts, tangible and intangible. And anyway, Babe Ruth is probably not the best example for Casey Close to use since Ruth was released by the Yankees when he overplayed his hand (he wanted to be manager) and he ended his career in misery, playing 28 games for the Boston Braves.

In any case, the air between Jeter and the Yankees seems to be getting chillier and chillier, and at this point it’s hard to see exactly how things will break. There is absolutely no reason I can see for the Yankees to raise their offer to Jeter. They know they have already put on the table the best offer Derek Jeter will get. They know Jeter wants to play quite a bit longer and he doesn’t want to play for any other team. They know that while some fans think they look ungrateful (by merely offering to pay him by far more than any other shortstop in baseball), these are millions of dollars we are talking about, and it’s tempting to forget just how much a million dollars is. I don’t believe even the Yankees, with more money than Jobs, are willing to pay $15 or $20 million extra dollars so they can look appreciative.

On the other hand, Derek Jeter has good reason to believe he should get more. The Yankees ARE offering him a substantial pay cut — this would be more than 20%. They are offering to pay him less than they pay A.J. Burnett. Jeter did finish third in the MVP balloting in 2009, which was just last year. And Jeter does take on responsibilities — on the field, in the clubhouse, in the city — that are of great value to the Yankees. Finally, Jeter is a proud athlete who undoubtedly feels like he will have a huge bounce-back year in 2010, age and history and an off-year be damned.

So this thing could go on a while longer. I do wonder how much longer the two will beat on each other when they both know exactly how this thing will end, how it HAS to end. Will Jeter keep fighting a public fight when he knows that he will be the starting shortstop on Opening Day? Will the Yankees keep making public sport of Jeter’s decline, when they also know he will be the starting shortstop on Opening Day.

I suspect before it’s all done, the Yankees offer Jeter something like 3 years, $51 million, Jeter holds a typically classy press conference where he says that he knows he’s getting older but he still thinks he has a lot to offer the Yankees, and everything is forgotten by Game 2, when Cliff Lee allows three hits in a breezy seven innings, and Jeter gets the 2,928th and 2,929th hits of his career. The ending here is as sure as the final scene of Richard Gere carrying off Debra Winger, or Richard Gere carrying off Julia Roberts, or Richard Gere … well, you know. Everything that happens between now and the inevitable ending is probably pointless. But it should be fun to watch anyway.

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The Future Of Sports

Working on about five blog posts at once, so we should be adding something or other before the end of the day.

But in the meantime, an announcement: f you happen to live in or near the St. Louis area* I am going to be part (a small part, I would hope) of a remarkable panel at Washington University next Monday. The panel will feature Bob Costas, Gerald Early, Bill James and, yeah, me as we talk about a rather broad topic called “The Future of Sports.” My friend Michael MacCambridge — author of “America’s Game,” the best book on the history of the NFL — put the panel together and will be the moderator.

*Or have access to air travel, I guess … it’s a small world, after all.

I don’t think I need to tell anyone here about the coolness factor of Costas, Early and James. We are talking about three of the great sports thinkers of the last 50 years. Three of the great thinkers, period. I’m still holding out hope that at the last minute they will realize that I have nothing to add and let me sit in the crowd and watch.

It should be great. The discussion will be Monday, Nov. 29 at 7 p.m. on the Washington University campus — the Lab Sciences Building if you want to be specific. And as if just putting together a panel with Costas, Early and James isn’t cool enough, admission is free (Free! Ridiculous!) and open to the public. All you have to do is RSVP here.

— While I’m making announcements about ridiculously cool things I should not be allowed to do, it now looks like I will be in New York and a guest on E-Street Radio on Friday, Dec. 3. More details as they become available.

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The Win Is Dead, Long Live The Win

So, at first, in honor of Felix Hernandez’s Cy Young win on Thursday I was going to do something kitschy you know, make this thing read like an obituary for the pitcher’s win, or write it as a eulogy for pitcher’s win, or, you know, make some other sort of contrived reference to the day the win died.

But in the end, you know what? The win did not die on Thursday. In fact, Thursday was not even an especially bad day for the win. The real win revolution began a long time ago — more than 30 years ago. I’ll get to that in minute.

Yes, Seattle’s Felix Hernandez won the Cy Young despite a 13-12 record. Yes, he won it even though C.C. Sabathia won 21 games — only the second American League pitcher the last five years to win more than 20 games.* Yes Hernandez won it handily even though there was a lot of hand-wringing — a couple of those hands being my own — over the question: Can a pitcher win a Cy Young with 13 wins and 12 losses?

*Sabathia has now led the league in victories in back-to-back years and not won a Cy Young award. The last guy to lead the league in wins in back-to-back years was Roger Clemens in 1997-98 — and he won the Cy Young both years.The last guy to lead the league in wins in back-to-back years and NOT win at least one Cy Young wasWilbur Wood in the early 1970s.

A quick look:

Leading the league in wins in back-to-back years:

C.C. Sabathia (2009-10): No Cy Youngs
Roger Clemens (1997-98): 2 Cy Youngs
Greg Maddux (1994-95): 2 Cy Youngs
Tom Glavine (1991-92-93): 1 Cy Young
Roger Clemens (1986-87): 2 Cy Youngs
LaMarr Hoyt (1982-83): 1 Cy Young
Jim Palmer (1975-76-77): 2 Cy Youngs
Catfish Hunter (1974-75): 1 Cy Young
Wilbur Wood (1972-73): No Cy Youngs

All of this King Felix love suggests that the era of wins being the dominant pitching statistic has come to an end — anyway, that was my first reaction. But as I thought about it more, I kind of changed my mind. The win isn’t dead, nothing close to dead. People are just looking at it differently. The truth is that King Felix’s 13 wins are not CLOSE to the record for fewest wins for a Cy Young pitcher. The truth is that a 13-12 record is not even CLOSE to the least impressive record in Cy Young history.

And in the end, I’m not sure that Hernandez’s Cy Young award really has anything at all to do with the devaluing of the win. I think Felix Hernandez was just an unusual pitcher in an unusual year. Look: It’s not often that a pitcher as great as King Felix — someone who was already ACKNOWLEDGED as great even before the year began — plays for an offensive team as pitiful as the 2010 Seattle Mariners. Well, first of all, it’s not often that there even IS an offensive team as pitiful as the 2010 Seattle Mariners. This really was a stunningly bad team.

How bad? Well, for fun, I punched in Steve Carlton’s amazing 1972 season into the Mariners season. Repeat: I did this for fun. The 1972 and 2010 seasons are not especially similar. Teams scored about 14% more runs in 2010 than in 1972. And Carlton made 41 starts and completed 30 games in 1972, which obviously would not happen now. But I was curious — Carlton went 27-10 in low-scoring 1972 for an abominable Philadelphia team that lost 97 games. What if you mirror his season — Game 1 for Game 1, Game 37 for Game 37, Game 104 for Game 104 — and give him Seattle’s run support. What would the record look like then?

Well, I’ll tell you: He would have gone 20-10 with Mariners run support. That’s making 41 starts and with little bullpen use. Does that give you an idea how bad the Mariners offense was? If you adjust for era, put Carlton on a five-man rotation, give him the Mariners bullpen — yep, he probably would have gone something like 13-12.

See, this was just a strange year. The guy who most people would consider the best pitcher in the league played for a team so odious offensively that the won-loss record was simply pointless. And people were paying attention. That’s a good thing. For years, writers and analysts have talked about “hard luck” pitchers. Well, Hernandez had such hard luck, that finally people realized it wasn’t luck at all. It was absurdity. Anyone who reads this knows I don’t like won-loss records anyway, but more often than not the record gives you at least SOME reflection of how well a pitcher pitched. But in King Felix’s case, it did not and everyone understood it. Plus Hernandez’s other basic stats were so good — he led the league in starts, in ERA and was just one behind in strikeouts — that he was more or less the obvious choice no matter his record.*

*A few other people seem to have made this point but it’s worth making again: Felix Hernandez DID NOT win the Cy Young because of new-fangled advanced stats. I realize that this has been written by a couple of people, but it just isn’t true. He did not lead the league in Fangraphs WAR — in fact he finished third behind Cliff Lee and Justin Verlander. He was also third in xFIP — that ERA that attempts to cut out defensive contributions — behind Francisco Liriano and Lee. The Baseball Reference numbers were better for him — he did lead in Baseball Reference WAR and Win Probability Added — but even there he was second in ERA+ to Clay Buchholz. The advanced numbers made plain that Felix had a great year, but other pitchers were very similar. It wasn’t odd-looking acronyms that won Felix the Cy Young but things like ERA and strikeouts, you know, the stuff about as old as baseball.

I have mentioned a couple of time that the anti-win revolution began a long time ago. Yes, of course, wins have played a huge role in Cy Young voting. In 1983, LaMarr Hoyt probably wasn’t one of the 10 best pitchers in the American League — he wasn’t in the Top 10 in ERA, just as a starting point — but he got an inordinate amount of run support (an astonishing 19 games where the White Sox scored five or more runs for him) and he won 24 games. Bob Welch won 27 games in 1990 and won the Cy Young though Roger Clemens ERA was a full run lower and he was inarguably the more dominant pitcher.Jack McDowell won 22 games and won the Cy Young in 1993 when Kevin Appier only won 18 and pretty clearly pitched a lot better. And there are other examples.

But, still, the significance of the win in my mind began dwindling way back in 1974, when a pitcher won the Cy Young with (gasp) a 15-12 record. Are you kidding me? A 15-12 record? And that was way back in 1974? How did that happen? And that was nothing. Five years later, a pitcher won the Cy Young with a 6-6 record. SIX AND SIX. And in the years since then, pitchers have won Cy Youngs with nine wins, with seven wins, with six wins, five wins (FIVE STINKING WINS?) and, it’s almost impossible to believe, with four wins (no way, four wins? No way. That didn’t happen).

If you know your Cy Young history, you could probably put names by those records. Mike Marshall won with that 15-12 record. Then Bruce Sutter won with the 6-6 record. After that it was Willie Hernandez who won with nine wins, Dennis Eckersley with seven, Rollie Fingers with six wins, Steve Bedrosian with five and the ever-popular Mark Davis who won with a 4-3 record. Of course, these are all firemen/relievers/closers, and it has been obvious for more than 35 years that these pitchers absolutely were not to be judged by wins. No, they were to be judged by a new statistic called “saves.” The Baseball Writers embraced saves pretty quickly. Of course it was one of the legendary baseball writers, Jerome Holtzman, who invented it.

The point, I think, is that the all-mighty win really started to lose its mojo then. Baseball observers began to realize that the game was changing, and that pitchers who only threw the late innings could be as valuable, could even be MORE valuable, than starters with lots of wins.

Yes, plenty of people continue to love the win as a statistic. Just this week, National League Cy Young winner Roy Halladay threw his support behind the win. So did a few writers. They came hard at us with that old logic: “A pitcher’s job to win games.” Of course, it really isn’t. It’s a TEAM’S job to win games. Anyway, the game isn’t the same. As starters complete fewer and fewer games, as they pitch fewer and fewer innings, as relievers play a bigger and bigger role, well, it’s plain silly to look at pitcher wins the way we did even a few years ago. I think Felix Hernandez’s Cy Young award just punctuates the point.

But this is not an obituary. And this is not a eulogy. The win ain’t dead, and I don’t think the win should be dead either. Seems to me the won-loss record is a perfectly fine thing to look at, a fun thing to talk about, a connection to the past, and it’s simple to understand. You can use it to teach math to kids. Plus it often tells us something very interesting. For instance, I think Hernandez’s won-loss record was quite revealing. It told us that the Mariners were ghastly at hitting baseballs. Fortunately, the voters* realized that this wasn’t Felix Hernandez’s fault.

*I should point out here — or somewhere, I guess — that I was one of the American League Cy Young voters. My ballot looked like this:

1. Felix Hernandez, Seattle
2. C.C. Sabathia, New York
3. David Price, Tampa Bay
4. Jered Weaver, Los Angeles
5. Cliff Lee, Texas

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Paterno In Autumn

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Someone asks Joe Paterno a question about missed tackles. Think about that for a minute. Think about how many times someone, over 45 years as a head coach at Penn State, over 61 years in coaching, think about how many times someone has asked Joe Paterno about missed tackles. A thousand at least, right? A thousand times would be fewer than two times per game coached. It has to be a thousand, minimum. What in the world could Joe Paterno have left to say about players missing tackles?

And yet, still, he considers the question. He doesn’t exactly love these weekly media sessions, but hey, he’s here, and the question is asked, and this is how Joe Paterno’s mind works. He breaks down questions. That’s his life’s work. He breaks thing down and breaks that down and breaks that down more. That’s coaching. That’s life. It is about obliterating the vague, it is about cutting through the shadows and fog, it is about figuring out what you stand for. Missed tackles, you say? Well, let’s think about that for a moment. What do you mean when you say missed tackles? What exactly causes missed tackles?

“When you miss tackles, obviously, it’s one of two things,” he begins. “Either you did a lousy job in your technique tackling. Or the other guy is that good, he’s that quick, he sets you up well, he gets you a little bit off-balance, he sets you up well enough that he can beat you.”

And I have to tell you, simple as that sounds — and it sounds ludicrously simple — I never thought about it exactly that way. MIssed tackles had always seemed to me a concrete thing, a stationary and motionless thing, the player is there, you tackle him, and if you don’t, it’s a missed tackle. But of course it isn’t like that at all. Sometimes a missed tackle is a missed tackle. Sometimes it’s a great move. Sometimes it’s a runner with power. Nothing in football is static. Everything in football is motion and interaction and violence and deception, each piece of the game is a tiny duel, and sometimes you win the duel, and sometimes you lose the duel.

“I think it’s a combination,” Paterno continues, “Most games we have tackled pretty well. … We have had a little problem on the corners and on the edges with our linebacking, at times we have missed tackles. But you’ve got to give the other guy credit. I think we have played against some people that have blocked solid, made it tough for us to penetrate, and the backs have had a little running room, and when they have had some running room, they have been good enough to make us miss at times.”

People keep wondering how long Joe Paterno will continue to coach. That is the question that seems to override everything at Penn State University, especially in a season like this when the Nittany Lions are young, and building, and taking a few thumpings in the Big 10. Well, sure, it’s understandable. The man is 83 years old, will turn 84 the day after Christmas. When Joe Paterno showed up at Big 10 Media day looking sickly — he was in the midst of fighting off a nasty reaction to medication given in a dental procedure — there were some not-so-quiet whispers that he might not finish the year. When he showed up at his weekly press conference a week ago Tuesday, just two days after he was carried off the field for his 400th victory, the buzz was about how he seemed disoriented and several times needed questions repeated. There were some who began charting how many times Joe Paterno needed questions repeated. The Internet has been ablaze all year with rumors about Paterno’s departure and theories about when it will happen.

But the man sitting behind the microphone now, with that familiar blue Penn State banner behind him, the one talking about missed tackles, well, this man isn’t going anywhere. Not yet. His mind still turns over those football questions. Missed tackles still interest him after all these years. Blocking techniques still interest him after all these years. Building young teams — 59 players on Penn State this year are freshmen or sophomores — still interests him. Someone asks him about that: How does he feel about this team in the future? Well, yes, that’s interesting — no, not the question itself (he’s been asked this question MORE than a thousand times) but what it makes Paterno’s mind think about. He breaks the question down. How does he feel about the team in the future? Well, what does the future look like? What are the challenges of the future? The game is tougher now, isn’t it? It takes longer to develop a young players in today’s world, doesn’t it?

“It’s not the way it used to be,” he says. “The defenses are much more sophisticated. The coverages are more sophisticated. The blitzes are all a little bit tougher to handle than they used to be. So there are some people that have to really be exposed. … There are a lot of things that go on now that takes a little longer to develop into a real steady, consistent football team.”

These are the things that still occupy his mind. Joe Paterno isn’t going anywhere yet because he feels good, he feels sharp, and the challenge of building a team in this tougher new world excites him the same way it always excited him.

What’s that: You say some people think the game has passed him by? Hell, there have ALWAYS been people who have thought that about Joe Paterno, going back to 1966 when his first team went 5-5. Anyway, didn’t Penn State beat LSU in a New Year’s Day bowl game this year? Didn’t Penn State go to the Rose Bowl last year? This team, young as it is, as tough as its losses to Iowa and Ohio State and and Illinois have been, can still win its seventh game against Indiana Saturday, can win its eighth against Michigan State. This team had Ohio State down at halftime, this team can still play in another New Year’s Day bowl. What do people want? What do people expect?

Familiarity breeds boredom — that’s a reality of life. Joe Paterno has been around for so long, his success has been so numbingly consistent (75% win percentage, 75% graduation rate, the Joe and Sue Paterno library at the center of campus), that eyes glaze over. What sounds to an outsider like thoughtful and interesting football talk undoubtedly sounds to insiders like he’s avoiding the question. Maybe he IS avoiding the question. “Joe has always had his answers,” a longtime observer of the program says. “If the questions happen to match up, so much the better.”

But he is also talking about football. And if you love football, isn’t this the ultimate privilege — listening to Joe Paterno talk? That’s how I always felt when talking basketball with John Wooden. That’s how I felt traveling the country and talking baseball with Buck O’Neil. That’s how I feel when talking with Bob Knight (once you got past the expletives). That’s how I always feel when talking with Earl Weaver or Whitey Herzog or Vin Scully.

And that’s how it is with Joe Paterno. He’s the legend. And he’s still sharp, still engaged, still determined. No, it isn’t like every word he says is a nugget of gold. But there are lessons to be learned, lessons he is constantly teaching, lessons about how you last, lessons about how you overcome, lessons about not making stuff too complicated. And there are stories. Someone asks Paterno what he expects this weekend since the Penn State-Indiana game won’t be at Indiana but instead at a “neutral” site in Landover, Md. — neutral in quotes since the crowd should be pretty heavy Penn State.

Well, Paterno says he doesn’t have any expectations since he never had his team play a neutral site game in Maryland before, and there’s no point in expecting anything. But in saying that he remembers that many years ago, when he was still an assistant coach at Penn State, the Lions played Illinois at a neutral-site game in Cleveland, in the old stadium. That was 1959. He said there wasn’t much of a crowd (he’s right, there were only 15,000 or so there at Municipal Stadium). He said that Penn State beat a good Illinois team (he’s right, Penn State won 20-9). And he remembered that Illinois had this middle linebacker that was pretty good and was about to become pretty well known across America.

He said it so matter-of-factly, weaved it so easily into the answer, that there was no follow-up … I suspect nobody really cared. But I cared. This was history. I thought he was talking about Dick Butkus — and how cool is that that Joe Paterno remembered coaching against Dick Butkus in college. So I went back and looked and found that Butkus didn’t play for Illinois until 1962 — Joe Paterno had his years mixed up. I was disappointed. Ah well, it’s understandable after all these years, right?

Then I looked more closely. And I realized that Illinois DID have a terrific middle-linebacker (and nose guard) in 1959 named Bill Burrell. He is one of the great jewels in college football history, a consensus All-American in 1959 and he finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting. Joe Paterno still remembers coaching against Bill Burrell at a nearly empty Cleveland Municipal Stadium more than 50 years ago.

And people are worried about how many questions he needs repeated?*

*I should point out here that Joe’s hearing probably isn’t great, but half the questions at these press conferences are asked over a speaker system and I didn’t understand half of them either.

Ah, but those missed tackles. Coaches can’t go on forever. We all know that. But break it down: Why do coaches fade? I think it’s because over time coaches can lose energy, they can lose focus, they can lose touch with the times, and perhaps more than anything they can lose their coaching values. Yes, that’s the big thing. The temptation as you grow older, I think, is to take a few more shortcuts, let a few more things go, rest a little more on what you’ve already accomplished.

But I don’t think any of that is happening with Joe Paterno. Yes, he cuts some things out of his schedule. Yes, he has to deal with some of the physical tolls of age. Yes, he will sometimes ask for questions to be repeated and sometimes think reporters mumble. But the rest of it, the important stuff — he seems as energetic about football, as focused on winning, as curious about the questions as ever before. And the team still responds. No, he’s not going anywhere.

The morning after Paterno won his 400th game, there was still a buzz in the Penn State football offices, still a sense of excitement, and when Paterno arrived he gathered people together and said: “That was wonderful. But now that’s over.” He may not do everything he once did — but he stands for all the same things.

At one point, someone asks Joe Paterno at the press conference if he can find any value in studying Indiana’s crushing loss to Wisconsin last week. Paterno breaks down this question too, and offers up an answer that can probably be used for most questions.

“You watch it, and you look at it,” Paterno says, and then he sort of smiles, just a little bit. “Whether we come to the same conclusion of some of you experts is debatable.”

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The Single Wing And A Prayer

Per request, I’m going to try and do a bit more linking here at the ol’ blog.

We’ll start with this one: Here’s a great story about a legendary coach named Keith Piper. It’s written by my good friend Todd Jones.

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Banny Log Once More

Long time readers of this blog in all of its various forms know that Brian Bannister is one of my all-time favorite people in sports. For a good while, I would do a Banny Log every time he pitched, reviewing his performance, discussing his theories about pitching and so on. It was fun. After a while, though, I stopped doing it. It was a conscious decision. I started to think I was putting too much pressure on the guy.

See, Banny’s quest to become a good big league pitcher speaks to my sentimental sports heart. Banny comes at hitters with a high-80s, low-90s fastball that has some cutting action on it. That’s his base pitch and like many league average pitches, it has its ups and downs depending on his command and where his fielders are positioned and how well the hitters are seeing the ball come out of his hand. Banny has tried to compliment that pitch with dozens of others, the most prominent of them being a four-seam fastball that he sometimes could ride up in the strike zone, a change-up that was intended to make hitters pound the ball into the ground (and often did have that effect), a curveball that Banny will tell you has never had great definition but could change the hitter’s perspective, a slider that had its up and downs and he finally gave up on, a cutter that was really like his fastball only slower, and so on and so on. Banny has been the great tinkerer, moving the numbers around on his own personal toy number slide, hoping to make them all go in order while working around that ever-present missing space.

There has always seemed to me something literary about Banny’s quest, some huge overriding theme — man trying to overcome his own limitations, man reaching for something beyond his grasp, you know, that sort of thing. It’s like Moby Dick with a seventh-inning stretch. I appreciate that not everybody feels this way. There were those, for instance, who thought the Banny Log was (in the memorable words of one emailer) “a lot of words written about a kinda crappy pitcher.” But I never saw it that way. Well, yeah, it was often a lot of words. But Banny’s quest was, and is, endlessly fascinating to me. He tinkers and analyzes and studies and plots and creates and destroys and invents and experiments — a mad scientist in the lab — all because he desperately wants to pitch in the big leagues. It’s impossible for me to watch him pitch without thinking that he is what I would be if I had any baseball talent at all.

Well, sadly, the Banny story ends in Kansas City. Last week, the Royals outrighted Banny, and Banny refused to accept the Class AAA assignment, and you really couldn’t blame either side. The Royals are loaded with bottom of the rotation guys. They picked up two more potential fourth or fifth starters last week when they dealt David DeJesus to Oakland for Vin Mazzaro and minor-leaguer Justin Marks. They go along with Luke Hochevar and Kyle Davies and Sean O’Sullivan and possibly Bruce Chen, and the Royals are loaded with pitching prospects in the minor leagues, and it’s fair to say the bottom of the rotation is filled. It’s possible that one or two of these guys will emerge and become a No. 2 to compliment Zack Greinke at top of the rotation, but that’s a different question, and in the meanwhile the Royals really didn’t have room for Banny, an arbitration-eligible pitcher who made more than $2 million last year and who has been 23-40 with a 5.58 ERA the last three years.

On the other side, Banny is turning 30 and has to believe (HAS to believe) that if he can just stay healthy, if he can find the right situation, well, he can still help a big league club. The National League, where the lineups aren’t as stacked, where the pitcher hits (Banny is a good hitter), where there are some great pitcher’s parks, yes, the National League has to look like an oasis. So he will become a free agent and try to find that oasis (San Diego, you listening?). Like I say, you can’t blame either side.

The biggest knock inside baseball circles on Banny — other than the obvious knock that he doesn’t have a dominant pitch — has been his tinkering. There are quite a few players out there who understand and consider the advanced stats, but nobody did it as publicly or as intensely as Brian. He took a lot of bleep for it. Banny has a mathematical mind. He just thinks that way. So when he had a very good rookie season in 2007 — 12-9, 3.87 ERA, third in the rookie of the year voting — he came to believe that he had simply been dealt aces all year long. He believed he had been lucky. His strikeout total was very low (77 in 165 innings), he was a fly ball pitcher who somehow didn’t give up many home runs, and hitters had an unnatural .262 average on balls hit in play. Most pitchers would not have thought much about it. Banny thought about little else. His xFIP — what is basically his estimated ERA once you take fielding and luck out of the equation — was 5.04. He wondered if (hoped?) maybe his cutting fastball, which has a different action on it from most pitches, would allow him to keep his pitching luck and keep that batting average low. He thought about numerous changes he could make to his game. He worked on many, many adjustments.

And his next season was absolutely miserable. That happened to be the season I started writing Banny Log, and I wonder if him being on a stage — even a small stage like this blog — magnified his troubles and made things worse. Banny tried all sorts of things. He tried to strike out more batters (and did — his strikeout rate jumped from 4.2 to 5.6). He tried to get more people to hit the ball on the ground — to little effect. He got off to a good start, and even by mid-June he was a league average pitcher, maybe even a touch above. He was 7-6 with a 4.47 ERA. And then the roof caved in. He made 16 more starts the rest of the year, and the Royals won only five of them. His ERA was 7.29. One game against the Yankees, he lasted one inning and allowed 10 runs. He couldn’t get out of the fourth at Minnesota. He gave up home run after home run. It was hard to watch.

He looked at each problem analytically, which is his style, but to a lot of baseball insiders his study of xFIP and PitchFX and so on did not seem quite as charming when he was struggling (to be fair, many of them did not find it charming even when he was pitching well). “Thinks too much,” became his scouting report. And, I don’t know, maybe Brian does think too much. Maybe Crash Davis was right, maybe fear and arrogance really are the secret to the game, maybe Banny would have been better off sticking with the pitches that got him his good rookie year and not worrying about those advanced numbers. Of course, I don’t think so. I think his luck just turned. When you pitch without a dominant pitch, you are pitching on the edge. Banny’s xFIP in his miserable 2008 season was actually BETTER than his xFIP in his terrific rookie season.

Anyway, I felt bad for my friend … and I started to think that maybe I was making things worse for Brian by writing about his exploits game after game. And so I stopped writing Banny Log. Brian pitched very well his first 20 starts in 2009 — he was 10-10 with a 3.59 ERA for a lousy team, which I consider pitching very well — and then wore down and got hurt and struggled the rest of the way. He did not pitch as well in 2010, though like usual he was better in the first half (7-5, 4.50 ERA through his first 12 starts) then the second half (2-10, 8.73 ERA through his last 12 games). There was an injury or three in there too. It was time for a break-up, and the Royals and Brian Bannister broke up.

There’s no telling what happens next. In addition to everything else, Brian is the son of Floyd Bannister who in many ways as a pitcher was everything his son is not. Floyd was left-handed and ludicrously gifted. He was the first pick in the draft. He led the league in strikeouts in 1987, and led the league in strikeouts per nine innings two other seasons. He threw absurdly hard and won 134 big league games over a 2,388-inning career. I’ve always been fascinated by sons and daughters who go into their famous father’s business — Mike Brown running a football team like his father Paul, Frank Sinatra Jr. going on torch-song tours, Bruce Allen trying to put together an old football team like his father George once did.

Brian has wide interests — he loves photography, movie-making, statistics, he has the makings of being a fabulous television color commentator. But I know he wants a much longer baseball career. He will go to camp for somebody, and he will face the same challenges he has been facing his whole career. His stuff is still only so-so. His body and arm tend to wear down over a long season. And when he misses by just a little bit he tends to get hit hard — there’s not even the tiniest margin there. But he’s also beaten the odds time and again. When it comes to Brian Bannister, it’s probably not best to analyze. It’s probably just best to root for the guy.

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It Had To Be Done (Simpsons Follow)

Nerdy stat guy 1: As a pitcher Cliff Lee is CLEARLY superior to Zack Greinke.
Nerdy stat guy 2: Yes I completely agree with the following colossal exception: Before the fourth inning, after a road loss, in a domed stadium. Then it’s great to be Greinke!

— Moneybart episode, The Simpsons

If you saw this Simpsons episode, you probably remember the scene — Lisa went to the back of Moe’s Tavern to find a little SABR convention going on. They were having this talk, where one was saying that Lee was better, and the other said it was true except, well, you see it above — before the fourth, after a road loss, in a dome.

Well, you knew that at some point I was going to look it up, right? I mean … it had to be done. Cliff Lee? Zack Greinke? A nerdy stat like that? OF COURSE I’m going to look it up. The only surprise is that it took this long.

I went back to 2008. I did not have to go back any more. It turns out that Zack Greinke pitched six games in domes after road losses (I counted retractable roof stadiums like Toronto and Seattle). And, by pure coincidence, Cliff Lee ALSO pitched six games after road losses.

I was praying for The Simpsons’ statistic to be right. I figured they had 50-50 shot at it, and I figured that maybe, just maybe, some geek on the staff looked it up just to be sure.

Unfortunately …

Zack Greinke in domes before the fourth inning after road losses: 18 innings, 12 earned runs, 6.00 ERA.

Cliff Lee in domes before the fourth inning after road losses: 18 innings 0 earned runs, 0.00 ERA.

Sigh.

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Friday Inspiration

Here’s the photographic story of how my brother, Tony, lost 220 pounds (and counting).

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The Promise

Johnny works in a factory. Billy works downtown.
Terry works in a rock and roll band looking for that million dollar sound.
Got a job down in Darlington. Some nights I don’t go.
Some nights I go to the drive in. Some night I stay home.

— Bruce Springsteen. The Promise.

(more…)

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