Monthly Archive for October, 2009

PnP Conversations: Playoff Talk Pt. II

The ambling dialogue continues between Ted and I. This time, with reflections on the sloppy first day of action, the nature of fanhood, Cliff Lee’s divine assistance, and Ted’s fascinating hatred of the Cardinals.


Eric: Ted, we like to think of postseason play as existing on an elevated plane. These are the best teams, the best players, the brightest lights. But from the clips I saw, and the one full game I watched, the first day of postseason baseball was hardly exceptional. The Dodgers and Cardinals left a postseason record of 30 (30!) runners on base. Mark De Rosa launched a ball from third base to right field. Matt Kemp (praise be him) looked positively 2007 on a pair of short fly balls. Carlos Gonzalez had a painfully awkward looking encounter with the left field wall in Philly. Sure, Jeter was Jeter and Cliff Lee pitched like a Cy Young winner. But overall the quality of play left me flatter than the brim of Brendan Ryan’s cap. So the question is this: Am I still hung over from that Twins-Tigers masterpiece on Tuesday, or were today’s games just a sputtering start to this postseason?

Ted: There did certainly to be a surfeit of ugliness around the playoffs. In Philly, the forty-plus replays of the stadium flags I saw on the other TV while watching the Dodgers-Cards matchup at the bar taught me that greater forces worked against any efforts towards fine glovework and sound paths to the ball. This only furthers my theory of Cliff Lee’s divine support. My first prediction of the postseason came true: Lee reprimanded the Rockies like little Salem schoolchildren, with some help from the great schoolmaster in the sky.

In LA, there weren’t such simple answers. Despite his putrid play in the field, Matt Kemp slugged a home run early. It’s my belief that sluggish bats are the worst curse that can befall a playoff team. Furcal and Kemp took care of that early, as did America’s Most Watched playoffer, Alex Rodriguez, who rapped a couple of slump busters. I will commit a little sacrilege here: I think the Yankees are an interesting postseason team. Yes, I am not repulsed by them. It’s been almost a decade since they dominated the scene, and this year I want to see what happens, whether Jeter and Posada and Rivera can recapture their former invincibility, whether A-Rod can shake his rep and carry the mantle of the greatest player of his generation(*) for real. If there is a storyline in there, it’s the reclamation of heroism after the hero’s been cast out of the kingdom.

So what do you think? Does the mere suggestion of not hating the Yankees throw your humors all to hell? Was last night’s victory a little too easy, or are we ready for a playoffs in which the Yankees are underdogs, or at the very least a compelling and enjoyable part of the equation?

Eric: Alright, I’m going to ignore what you said about Cliff Lee, because I can’t find a compelling argument to disprove your point. Cliff Lee is probably a direct descendant of Mayflower settlers.

Onto your broader point: The Yankees. I not only tolerate your sentiment, but completely echo it. In the years since Boston won its curse-breaking World Series, I’ve slowly found myself shifting my hatred from one over-exposed AL East franchise to the other. I’ve also got an inexplicable personal affection for Alex Rodriguez (I tried to work through it on the early days of the blog through the A-Rod as Tragic Hero series). So I think the Yankees are extremely compelling, yes. How do guys like Sabathia and Burnett perform under real pressure? Why isn’t Jorge Posada catching every freaking game? There’s a great deal of reclamation, but there’s also a lot on the table for the guys who have yet to achieve anything — and that’s most of the Yankees. Whither Hideki Matsui? Nick Swisher? Robinson Cano?

The thing about the Yankees is that they aren’t underdogs. Their lineup is stupid good. They have Mariano Rivera. I still want the Twins to win. But this time the idea of a Yankee World Series does not repulse me like it once did. It doesn’t even bother me really. An Angels or a Red Sox title bothers me way more. Perhaps it’s the general silence from the Steinbrenners this season. Perhaps it’s the whole A-Rod thing. Perhaps it’s just the intellectual understanding that yes, they are an excellent team, and no it won’t be the end of the world if they win a World Series. After all, my emotional investment in the playoffs is entirely wrapped up in the Dodgers. I don’t have the spirit energy to get all carried away about the other games going on.

That brings me to my next question. How differently do we watch a postseason when our favorite teams are involved? What do we do when they aren’t? I’ve definitely got experience picking random teams or players I want to see win, and just rooting for them for the hell of it, for the sake of having some investment. As an Astros fan, how do you view the playoffs? Do your NL Central biases get involved, or do you just try and appreciate the baseball for baseball, the games for games, the story lines for however they play out?

Ted: How differently do we watch a postseason when our favorite teams are involved? What do we do when they aren’t?

I am so glad that you asked this question, as it was one that I was thinking on just last night, as I watched the Cards-Dodgers. I don’t have a dog in this fight, clearly, and so for me this year the nature of the game-watching is based more on a sense of what’s around me and broader context. First off, I was rooting for the Dodgers because you like the Dodgers, and I’m always a sucker to root for whatever team those around me, especially good friends. The year the Angels won the WS, I dug in for victory with and on behalf of my buddy Prescott, a massive Halos fan. I’d like to see the Cubs win a WS because it would make my buddy Paul a gentler person. Et cetera.

Then there is the broader context of teams and players that populate the games. I don’t want to say that I “hate” any particular team–I try too hard to watch the game as a whole to use such extremes. But if there is a team that rankles me to the point that I can’t help it, it is the Cardinals. There’s really only one specific incident I can refer to, it is the one in which “Death Star” Pujols destroyed the confidence of Brad Lidge, which led to his decline with the team and then his trading away and then his total domination with Philly (his return to fragility this season has perhaps confirmed that the Pujols incident was but one fissure in his unstable mental architecture). Beyond that, there is just this general sense that they are just really competent, studious and logical, the kid in lit class that you can’t quite catch up to, whose comment on Emerson’s insight into the nature of the soul is just too fucking smart to be real. It’s a helluva a time battling a team like that every year, as they seem fueled by motherboards rather than beating hearts (we’re pushing this Pujols-as-machine conceit as far as it will go, eh?). Point being, I am watching this series hoping more than anything that I don’t have to watch the Cards play anymore. That’s old news, and teams like the Dodgers and the Rockies are fresh meat, with stories that I haven’t heard yet.

I also wanted to touch on the biggest difference between watching your team in the playoffs and watching any team in the playoffs, and for this I draw from my experience watching the Astros go to the WS in 2005. That year, in the playoffs and especially in the later rounds, with every single pitch it felt like the walls of the stadium would either a) burst forth with plumes of daisies and firecrackers and vestal virgins or b) darken and spiral into oblivion. Every, single, damn, pitch. Not since Call of Duty 4 have I narrowed in so intensely on each and every sliver of the game. That’s also the most welcomed offseason I’ve had. I was just totally drained, and physically exhausted. A dynasty would be too much on the ticker.

It’s a long journey, and right now we can be glad to watch the first few strides. For some–the Twins, the Rockies–a stumble, for others–Dodgers–a stumbling walk. My mantra is that waking up the bats is the hardest thing about playing in the playoffs. When you can’t hit, the game quickly skips away. The Dodgers unstuck the bats quick last night.

With your eyes intensely focused on the Dodgers, how do you watch the rest of the field? Constantly tabulating possible opponents? Couldn’t care less?

Eric: That’s a good question. As much as I wish I was that confident, I think it would be forward to constantly tabulate possible opponents at this point. The future is so fragile in these tense times, is it not? I suppose in the NL I’d rather play the Rockies, but I’m too focused on the Dodgers to invest in something so distant. As far as the AL goes, it’s not a case of not caring, just a case of less caring. I’m a baseball fan before a Dodger fan (I think that’s a necessary condition right?), so the games still interest me a great deal, just not with a rooting interest. I’m more invested in the quality of the play, in the story lines. Dodgers-Yankees would be cool right? Dodgers-Angels too.

I admire your graciousness as a baseball fan — the desire to see your friends’ teams win big — but I wonder if I share it completely. Sometimes I’m just drawn to the aesthetic of a team, the names, the narratives, the players,te scene surrounding their performance good or bad. I think the playoffs allow you to really embrace those other factors in ways you can’t during the regular season, especially if the team you are tied to for sentimental/geographic reasons is no longer involved. I read an interview with Bethlehem Shoals the other day where he said the following:

You shouldn’t just root for your team because it’s in your city. You should root for a team because something that they are doing is resonating with you, and when they stop doing that, you have no reason to keep rooting for them if you don’t want to.

For many intangible reasons, that’s impossible to do for me to do fulltime. Ignoring any constitutional differences between baseball and basketball teams, I think the playoffs allow us an opportunity to reassess a little, and maybe embrace those ideas. Why not jump on the bandwagon that speaks to you when your team is out of it?

PnP Conversations: Playoff Talk Pt. I

Fall is in the air, and it’s playoff time in baseball land. In this tet-a-tet, Eric and I will force our tendency to wax on and on into a conversational format, trading our takes the way kids used to trade baseball cards before the Internet stole their souls.

via flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/keithallison/

via flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/keithallison/

Ted: Eric, we’ve just witnessed a thrilling win in a one game playoff by the Twins. Should Minnesota have tried harder to feature Joe Mauer in the hero’s role? Should Alexi Casilla be allowed to enjoy himself, knowing the heroic glory that he stole from Joe?

Eric: Was it stolen necessarily? Captain America went 2-4 with a double and a pair of walks. Dude reached base 4 times! I’ve listened to enough Prairie Home Companion to know that Minnesota is not a state to overdo things, and that includes its heroes. Favre Monday and Mauer Tuesday would have been too much. Better to let the redemption story play out. Let the Mendoza Line-treading Casilla make up for his hideous piece of base-running a couple innings prior. Let the Twin Cities celebrate this stage-setting victory. And leave Joe Mauer to do something heroic when the lights are shining even brighter. Because with Mariano Rivera on the mound, it’s going to take a lot more than seeing-eye astroturf groundballs to win baseball games. Do you see the Twins’ momentum as viable…are they a real threat to the Yankees in the Rockies ’07 sense? What about this year’s Rockies?

Ted: How right you are. A simple regular season game, even one as fancy as that, is no stage for the man-shaped comet, Joe Mauer. Sorry, I got caught up in the moment.

I do not see the Twins momentum as viable. I don’t see any momentum as viable. The Yanks are formidable. A-Rod’s pecs and Mark Teixeira’s winning smile are well-rested. That said, the news just hit that Joe Girardi will squeeze lovable lump Jose Molina behind home plate in place of of Jorge Posada when A.J. Burnett pitches. This kind of decision-making does not bode well for the Yankees. Granted, pitchers are weird and sensitive, but if I’m out there on the mound I’d be more distraught about the worm hole in the lineup that is Jose Molina than enthused about his powder-soft receiver’s touch. Posada might be one of the most underrated catchers of all-time. He’s just great, and he has a beautiful web site, with lots of great breaking news, including the Pulitzer-level story “HOW POSADA GOT HIS GROOVE.” Girardi needs to get his head on straight.

via flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/keithallison/

via flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/keithallison/

Despite the massive success of the Marlins and the Dbacks and the Rockies over the past decade-and-a-half, I still have trouble investing any confidence in the 90s expansion teams. When they make a playoff run, I give them the stink-eye like an old man in an F150 at the SmartCar cheerfully idling next to him at the red. I don’t even know how the Rockies got into the playoffs. I feel like I’m at the supermarket, and the pimply kid bagging groceries just tore open his apron to reveal a Superman emblem on his chest. In any event, when you’re talking Rockies v. Phillies, I think that Cliff Lee will shut down the pups. He has a stern, sort of Puritan presence on the mound with the long face and the devil’s left-handedness. The upstarts will quake under his pious glare.

What about your Dodgers? Will an extremely successful regular season campaign translate into LDS success against Pujols and Dave Duncan’s merry band of really really good starting pitchers?

Eric: You mention man-shaped comets and lovable lumps. These are terms that encapsulate my fears regarding the Dodgers in this series. Albert Pujols is less man-shaped comet than man-shaped Death Star. Can Clayton “Skywalker” Kershaw fly blind into the depths of evil and redeem humanity? I sure as hell hope so. Second, and more importantly, the lovable lumps. Joe Torre has opted to start Ronnie Belliard at second base and Vicente Padilla in game 3. Indeed those two lumps have been nothing but lovable in their supporting turns on the middling second-half version of the Dodgers. But the moves reek of a manager playing his gut. I really want to see Hudson and Billingsley out there. Even with Belliard red-hot, I think Hudson is a safer bet at second base. And even with a fairly abysmal second-half (combined with notable postseason collapse last year), Billingsley has the stuff to shut teams down. His last two starts have been encouraging, if not all that successful. Let’s not treat the guy like Oliver Perez.

All that said, is it just me or are the Cardinals only 4 players deep? 4 great players certainly (maybe 4.5 with Pineiro), but not that scary. I’m a little bit confounded by their near unanimous anointment as LDS winners by pundits far and wide. Side note: There are some crazy religious overtones going on today as we keep using the acronym LDS. So my question is this: If Cliff Lee represents the stern, Puritan presence of a Nathaniel Hawthorne character, who is Chris Carpenter? With a name like Carpenter, fairly unassuming stuff at first glance, and now two rises from baseball’s (near) dead, he appears to be some kind of redemptive construction of the baseball gods. Never mind the fact that his WHIP of 1.01 this year aligns perfectly with the 101st Psalm. A Pledge To Live Righteously…

Are players who live righteously rewarded for such in the postseason? Are the failures of Alex Rodriguez merely the restoration of karmic balance to the universe? Miguel Cabrera and the Tigers might think so right about now. And what of the Angels, and their inherent spirituality. Is baseball’s ultimate lovable lump, the somehow 30-base stealing Bobby Abreu, just riding on the wings of Christopher Lloyd? Will the gilded men of Anaheim make quick work of Boston? Has there ever been a Red Sox club to enter the playoffs so unassumingly? I find lack of Boston hum strange…something amiss in the Sports Media Industrial Complex?

via flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/shgmom56/

via flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/shgmom56/

Ted: Isn’t it always a matter of Good versus Evil? The Evil Empire, after all, is a term regularly used to describe the most hallowed and admirable team in baseball history. Yogi Berra, Dimaggio, Gehrig, Ruth? Hardly a Pantheon of ghouls, but so swings the taste of the baseball fans, and this schizophrenic dichotomy of wills is what makes life interesting: the eternal Versus; one force pressing against another. That, and Christopher Lloyd.

We could very well see such spiritual concerns steer the course of events in these playoffs, for the reasons you’ve outlined. I’m usually as secular as it gets, but it is hard to explain Abreu’s stolen base totals in any other way but some kind of divine intervention. Such prognostication can be problematic when looking forward, however. Some say that you can read the future in one of Manny’s game-used chaw-balls. Others claim that Josh Beckett’s Abercrombie Rosary carries great mystical powers. Those forces are beyond us, unfortunately, and the most we can hope for is to find some pattern after it’s all over and the dust has settled.

I’m afraid I can’t agree with you re: the Cardinals and their lineup. I have learned over a number of years never to doubt the Cardinals, even when they appear mediocre. Yadier Molina’s got mojo, and the rest of white dudes hitting around him and Pujols might appear to lack character and distinction, but the moment you forget about them is when you get Ludwicked. That said, the Dodgers stink with talent and skill and youth, which is a fine formula for success in the short format. Think Andruw Jones back in the day, think Steve Avery back in the day, Josh Beckett as a Marlin, Cole Hamels, Ryan Howard, Papelbon, Pedroia, etc. The postseason brings with it great surprises, every time. Some old timers reemerge, yes, but more often (anecdotally speaking, this ain’t FanGraphs) one or two youngsters make their names. That said, there aren’t many youngsters on the Cardinals who seem ready to burst. You never know. It could be a triumph of the young, or it could be one of those Randy Johnson-Curt Schilling years. But in the name of Chris Carpenter, let’s hope not.

PS: If you have any concerns you’d like us to address in tomorrow’s little dialogue, feel free to drop them in the comments.

Rally Caps Ain’t The Way…Or Are They?

Today’s Situational Essay comes from Kenneth Morgan, a Mariner fan, and (at least compared to Ted and I) mathematical genius. His essay, in a lot of ways, gets at the essence of Pitchers and Poets. How do we reconcile what we believe to be true and what we know to be true? The superstition and the super-advanced statistical analysis?

“When you believe in things that you dont understand
Then you suffer
Superstition aint the way”
– Stevie Wonder

It wasn’t this particular verse per se, but rather the smooth transition between my invaluable Stevie Wonder’s Greatest Hits CD and the Mariners game. After listening to Dave Niehaus stumble through another half-inning, I started to fuse those last two things I had listened to. I began to realize that I am a much more superstitious fan while following a baseball game than any other sport. What makes baseball so special?

Caps turned inside out, fingers crossed, hands in the praying formation, and watching with one eye closed. Why do we resort to such archaic rituals? I’d argue that our behavior can be largely attributed to mirroring the very players we root for on the field. All hitters have some form of superstitious ritual they practice while hitting, with varying degrees of sanity. We recognize some of the usual suspects: Nomar’s toe tapping and constant re-adjustments of his uniform, Tony Batista preferring to be parallel to the catcher before the pitcher winds up, and Craig Counsell stretching his bat so high in the air you’d think he was trying to touch the moon. These routines are a main reason why we display these same superstitious traits; to help establish familiarity and in turn a level of internal comfort.

During a large percentage of pitches of a ball game, I’ve found following baseball to be a very passive and relaxing activity. This isn’t to say that I am indifferent to what is transpiring, but rather I find it very difficult to be fully invested in every one of the hundreds of pitches in each game. When more important situations arise I become much more invested, and occasionally will use one of my own superstitious techniques to try and help my boys out. I usually save my empirically sound “good luck” techniques for high leverage situations. There’s no need to waste them on less important at-bats right?

During my earliest years of following the Mariners I adopted a superstitious activity that I’ve caught myself practicing occasionally even up until this day. My toe-crossing spawned from what I’d imagine was a very tense situation at the end of a Mariners game in the early-mid 90’s. At the time of its conception it was as if I truly believed that my toe-crossing would somehow transmit some positive vibes to the M’s pitcher or hitter in his time of need.

My background is in Statistics and Math and over the past year I’ve tried to really immerse myself in the world of Sabermetrics. The more I have learned about topics like UZR, Dewan’s +/-, tRA, wOBA, WPA+, and BABIP fluctuations, the more my superstitious practices have dwindled. Now when I catch myself in the midst of one of my rituals, the condescending voice of “Applied Math/Statistics” always seems to chime in with some variation of, “Even after all we’ve learned, this is how you still behave?!” Well Math, I hate to break this to you, but you’ll never completely extinguish my superstitious flame.

To set the scene: Ichiro is up in the bottom of the 9th, down by five, two outs, with runners on 2nd and 3rd. It would be extremely easy for me to be cynical, detach myself from the moment, and cross my arms while informing those near me what the minute probability of the Mariners winning the game, under these circumstances. But I still enjoy staring the pitcher down and trying to persuade him to throw a hanging curve or a ball in dirt with my robust game-altering psychic powers. Does the great Ichiro even need my help here? Nah. I should probably save my heavy artillery for a crucial Jack Wilson at-bat in the ALCS.

–How superstitious are you while following your favorite team?
–Is baseball the sport where you find you’re the most superstitious?
–What are some of your favorite superstitious rituals?

The Losers Dividend

“The best that people hope for now is that a baseball game be played….And so we find ourselves at the major league equivalent of Little League, where it’s a celebration when someone doesn’t fall on his head and it’s considered poor form to rain criticism or curb hope. Call it the Losers Dividend.” – Jon Weisman, Dodger Thoughts

Many teams are out of the race by now–those both real and fantastical–the twilight of the regular season falls quietly for most of us. The focus shifts from the local and the regional to the national. Those left behind read the away scoreboard more closely, checking the lineups of contenders for holes, for short-format weaknesses, even as they lament the home team’s long-format shortcomings. The micro expands out to the macro; baseball’s google map zooms out, up from the roof of your house and the creepy neighbor’s Grand Am, up to bird’s eye view and the wide swaths of geography between landmarks, exposing the relationships that are too broad and abstract for day-to-day contemplation. In the broad view, you might learn that Colorado isn’t as far north as you thought it was, and that the Mets were far worse than you’d even considered possible.

bruno's sculpture park

image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/andersondotcom/

But even as our gaze widens, most of us still head out to these inconsequential late-season games, or watch them on TV. Like a trip to the beach in September, the expectation at these games shifts, from watching a winning team to enjoying what you’ve got ’til it’s gone. There might be a chill in the air, but it’s nothing compared with the dead gray days of winter swinging three bats in the on deck circle.

As related in the Weisman quotation above, game time for the out-of-contention is in a sense baseball in its purer form: for it’s own sake. The pleasures are sensorial, immediate, and free associative. The mind, freed from concern for the score, flits about, jumping from memory and biography, to history, to novelty and around again.

For example, I watched an inconsequential game on TV the other day, between the Mariners and the Athletics. Both of these teams are solidly out of it. I was struck, first off, at how puny the A’s lineup was, having traded away Matt Holliday to the dominant Cardinals. This led my friend to note the power that the A’s once harnessed: the Bash Bros. in particular, who’ve since been sent to the back pasture. Instead of Canseco and Mcgwire, it’s Rajai Davis, Travis Buck, Ryan Sweeney and whoever else: a slap-hitting reminder that despite the Moneyball phenomenon, the A’s have got no scratch, and no scratch means no players.

My thoughts rambled on–I didn’t even know the score or the inning. Mark Mulder, I thought? Eric Chavez? Bobby Crosby? Was Jason Giambi here this year? And Nomar?. Perhaps it’s true of any team if considered too closely, but the A’s, in this diminished form, painted a melancholy picture of the arc of a man’s baseball life: the dark side of late-season, out-of-contention baseball; evidence that winning and competition distracts us from the sorry truth.

image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/sludgeulper/

image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/sludgeulper/

Ken Griffey, Jr., did plenty to rattle me out of the doldrums. Somewhere around the middle of the game, he lassoed a home run to right field. The swing was the same, the same as it was when he first came up. He knew it would leave when he connected, the only player you could never get on for hot-rodding in the batter’s box. He smacked it and paused, akimbo, for a tick. It could’ve been his 50th of the year for all it mattered, instead of his 17th. “It’s always majestic,” Don Wakamatsu said. “It doesn’t show age, that swing.”

That moment, watching Griffey hit a home run, is the epitome of the inconsequential game experience. Not because the homer had no value. In fact it was pivotal in the momentum of the game. But in a lost season, with the scope broadened, the swing looked like the whole of Griffey’s career, this home run just one more satellite circling the central gravitational pull of Griffey the figure, all of his cultural cachet, every ad and smile and backwards cap and home run and flying catch, jumped off the bat and rounded the bases. It was both a culmination and a condemnation of the game, the season, time: time exists and it doesn’t exist, matters and doesn’t matter. Winning matters and doesn’t matter: the Losers Dividend.

Ichiro rapped a single (a double?) to drive in a run. Felix Hernandez pitched 7 2/3 and tipped his cap to a standing ovation. Griffey struck out badly on three pitches. The game ended. It was drizzling outside.

“When do the playoffs start?” my friend asked. I didn’t know.