Archive for the 'Conventional Wisdom' Category

The Problem of the Pick-off Throw

The first time I really thought about the pickoff move was in 1995.  My beloved and beleaguered Seattle Mariners had finally reached the postseason, and in the second game they faced a young, unspellable left-hander by the name of Andy Pettitte.  I was used to seeing lefties lob the ball to first, almost as a warning shot; Pettitte snapped the ball to first like a rubber band in a motion that looked like a cross between a balk and a dance move.  It struck me, an unbiased observer, as unfair and possibly inhuman.  Pettitte picked off two runners that game, and I found myself in unconscious awe.  What was he doing that made him so incredible?  Why wasn’t anyone else doing it?

The next day’s newspaper article made no mention of the two pickoff throws.  It’s hardly surprising, because there was plenty to talk about, especially Jim Leyritz’s game-winning, fifteenth-inning home run.  But it’s also not surprising because the pickoff only sort of exists.

Nobody likes the pickoff throw.  The fans detest it; I don’t know what the level of tolerance used to be, but at the game I attended last weekend, the crowd booed with every single toss to first.  The statisticians hardly bother to track it.  The analysts don’t care for it either, because of the way it hampers the rhythm of the ballgame and inserts dead air into the proceedings.  Opposing coaches gnash their teeth as weary hurlers cast the ball back and forth to the first baseman, buying time for a reliever to limber up.  The runners themselves can’t be too thrilled about having to dive back all the time, either.

From an aesthetic standpoint, however, I enjoy the pickoff.  I find the deception in the windup and the suddenness of the motion thrilling.  Added to this is the appeal of a battle of wills between baserunner and pitcher, who is already locked in combat with the batter at the plate.  It’s a combination of threats, the physical appearance of a pitcher slowly surrounded like a go piece thrust in atari, flailing back at his tormentors.

But beneath these surface considerations, something bothered me.  There is something fundamentally wrong with the pickoff throw, beyond its effect on the pace of the game.

One of the most beautiful aspects of baseball is its reliance on mixed strategy.  Mariano Rivera throws a decent cut fastball, but if he throws it for every single pitch, the batter will expect it and hit it more often.  If he throws too few, he’ll be sacrificing some opportunities to use his best pitch to get the batter out.  What results is a careful equilibrium that seeks to optimize the output of a player’s performance by adding enough variety to prevent the hitter from getting comfortable.  When the pitcher can’t do this, because his breaking ball isn’t working or he falls behind in the count, the hitter gains the advantage and his chance of success increases proportionately.

Not only must the pitcher (and the batter, guessing which pitches he is likely to see) optimize his arsenal, but he must randomize it.  Mariners fans of 2011 are well aware of Felix Hernandez’s past penchant for relying too heavily on the fastball early, leading to many first-inning struggles.  Randomization is not an easy thing; the human brain tends to work in patterns.  Unpredictability is necessary for gaining the upper hand.

The running game itself provides excitement in execution and its own mixed strategies, not just in the evaluation of a single game element, but in the overall strategy by which a general manager builds his team and searches for skills in his players.  For teams that lack firepower, the stolen base becomes a viable alternative for scoring runs.  Based on run-scoring environment of each era, the running game waxes and wanes in popularity.   Players with certain skill sets become under or overvalued, creating market inefficiencies and fostering creative ways to develop championship teams.  As a self-regulating system, it’s pretty amazing.

And that’s where the tragedy of the pickoff lies: it’s a dominant strategy.  From the perspective of winning ballgames, there is simply no reason why the pitcher shouldn’t continue to throw to first base ad infinitum whenever a runner steps off the bag.

Dan Malkiel at Baseball Reference undertook some painstaking and invaluable research regarding pickoffs, and the evidence is somewhat surprising.  To summarize his findings: The pickoff throw does not distract the pitcher and make it harder to throw strikes.  In fact, there is slightly more evidence that it is the hitter, not the pitcher, who loses concentration during multiple pickoff throws.  Nor does the pickoff actually deter the runner from running: because of the heavy correlation between multiple pickoff attempts and faster baserunners, we see higher steal rates after a runner is sent back to the bag a couple of times.

What we’re left with, then, are the two outcomes that change the state of the game: a successful pickoff, and an error.  Because an out is almost always worth more than a single base, it would take several times as many errors to create a risk worthy of deterring hopes of a pickoff, but the numbers lean the opposite way: a pickoff throw is three times as likely to result in an out as an error.  The pickoff is simply too dangerous a weapon.  You rarely see it succeed, but you see it succeed too often.

There is nothing in the rulebook that constrains a hypothetical continuous pickoff strategy, save for 9.01(d), which allows umpires to eject players for unsportsmanlike conduct.  Instead, the play is handled by baseball’s unwritten rules, which serve repercussions for such behavior in the secret underground bunker each Sunday evening.  Different proposals have been made: Bill James recommended reducing the number of “free” pickoff throws to two an inning, and charging a ball to the pitcher for each unsuccessful attempt thereafter.  The trouble with this lies in three-ball counts, where the mixed strategy will crumple to pieces.

There are two primary ways to alter the pickoff situation: to restrict them, or to make them less appealing as a strategy.  Most of the discussion centers on the first, but I find myself drawn to the latter: by balancing the strategy into a mixed one, with potential benefits and costs, the game not only speeds up, it becomes more interesting at the same time.  The way to do this is to alter the ratio of successful pickoffs to errors, either by lowering the first statistic or raising the latter.  On top of this, it would be helpful to do it in such a way that the runner’s leadoff isn’t allowed to expand, which might play with stolen base numbers.

The only ways to reduce pickoff success, without altering the length of a runner’s lead-off, would be to somehow make the pitcher’s throwing action more difficult, potentially by requiring an extra step.  This is troublesome, however.  The other option is to increase error rate.  This can be done by leaving the pitcher alone and instead making the play more difficult for the first baseman, by preventing him from camping at the bag.  Force him to run in from his regular position to perform a pickoff, and not only does the play become more exciting and demanding, but more errors are likely to occur.

Would it be enough?  We couldn’t know until we try.  But as a proposal it has a few virtues, not least of which being its subtlety.  A rule that proposes the first baseman move fifteen feet is more likely to find traction with the conservative baseball folk than one that creates new statistics, or creates a new type of walk.  I’d like to see it in action.  Not only would we get to keep the pickoff, but it might be a little more exciting.

Celebrate Different

Last night I was talking with Eric Freeman about No Hitters. By talking I mean agreeing that it’s pointless and purposefully joyless to whine during and immediately after a no-hitter that the game isn’t as “well-pitched” as other games that aren’t no-hitters. There is inherent value in the sheer improbability of a game like the one Francisco Liriano pitched yesterday. It was a messy, unbecoming, a nerve-wracking, defense-driven spectacle of the highest order.

No-hitters are news because they are rare and dramatic, not merely because they are impressive. As far as I know, there isn’t a contingent of people out there screaming and tweeting that Francisco Liriano pitched the best game of the season last night. There isn’t a contingent yelling about how he’s the league’s best pitcher. That’s besides the point. The point is that there is joy in the string of lucky plays and defense and building tension that defined his performance.

I went to the Mariner game last night. Erik Bedard tossed five of the ugliest no-hit innings in baseball history to open the game. He even allowed a run. Anybody in the park could have told you that it wasn’t a great performance. They would have also told you that they were disappointed — and yet not surprised — when Ian Kinsler broke it up with a double. It has to do with the streak. It has to do with the fact that the baseball fan experience is defined by narrative as much as it is by statistical understanding.

That might be the whole point of this blog. I don’t think we’re working against the grain here. I don’t think we’re anti-sabermetrics. We love and embrace them. They are useful. They make us smarter. But from my angle, a central element of that world is this ill-defined quest to seek out the ‘objective best’ of everything. I think that comes at the expense of the ‘subjective best’ — the most interesting, the most dynamic, the most grok.

The Francisco Liriano no-hitter was an anomaly. Jeff Sullivan from Lookout Landing tweeted that “Since the beginning of the 2010 season, 86 starts have a higher game score than Liriano’s yesterday.” If anything that makes the performance all the more compelling. Sullivan later tweeted that the start was “impressive in a different way than usual.” Damn right it was different. Let’s celebrate different. Francisco Liriano is a pitcher on the verge of total collapse. He — with the help of his team and yes, precarious luck — held it together for something magnificent. Let’s sing about it.

Bill James, Sigh

Bill James writes an interesting but extremely flawed article about why we’re so good at developing baseball players, but so lousy at developing writers in Slate. Since the piece is called “Shakespeare and Verlander,” and our site is called Pitchers & Poets, I feel obligated to respond. I’ll focus on this quotation:

The average city the size of Topeka produces a major league player every 10 or 15 years. If we did the same things for young writers, every city would produce a Shakespeare or a Dickens or at least a Graham Greene every 10 or 15 years. Instead, we tell the young writers that they should work on their craft for 20 or 25 years, get to be really, really good—among the best in the world—and then we’ll give them a little bit of recognition.

1. It takes exactly one writer to create a great novel, poem, story, play, essay. It takes at least 18 baseball players to play a single baseball game. The demand is different because it requires more baseball players to be entertained than it requires writers.

2. It takes about three hours to watch a baseball game. It takes a dozen to read a novel.

3. Bill James says that if we did the same things to develop and appreciate writers and baseball players, a Shakespeare or Dickens or at least a Graham Greene would emerge from every mid-sized to small American city every decade or two. I think he fails to realize that a fair amount of people consider Graham Greene the greatest novelist of the 20th century. I’m about to finish “The Heart of the Matter.” If the entire world produced a Graham Greene every ten or fifteen years, I think we’d be in good shape. This is a guess, but as it stands now, Topeka probably does produce a crappy but published novelist or two — think the Alex Cora of novelists — every ten or fifteen years.

I think James also fails to realize — or at least fails to note — that there’s a massive inherent difference between writing novels and playing professional baseball. He’s right that they both require a great deal of natural ability and an even greater amount of practice. An old poetry professor of mine would always say that writing is both an art and a craft. Baseball is at best a craft with stunning aesthetic appeal. As much as we like to expound on this blog and assign literary meaning to ballplayers and ballgames, pitching is not art in the same sense that writing a novel is art. It’s more like chess. Pitchers don’t create new universes when they step out on the mound.

I’ll use Philip Roth. When his autobiographical character Alexander Portnoy dreams of being a centerfielder: “oh to be a centerfielder, a center fielder and nothing more,” he’s dreaming about the simplicity of playing center field — the physicality, the freedom, the distance from all of the insecurities and emotional machinations of the novelist. This isn’t to say that playing center fielder is a less worthy activity, it’s just not the same as writing literature.

4. His argument that Topeka is the size of Shakespeare’s London and therefore should be producing the same quality and quantity of literary output is absurd because a.) writers don’t flock to Topeka as a cultural capital. b.) Topeka has to compete with New York and LA and even Wichita when it comes to producing writers while London was the largest, most important city around. c.) There’s a very good poet named Eric McHenry from Topeka. He writes about it a fair amount. Also, as my friend Steve just pointed out, Gwendolyn Brooks was from Topeka

I’ll stop here. I’ve come to really appreciate Bill James more in the last year. He’s a brilliant thinker and brilliant writer. But this is the kind of pop-science crap that Malcom Gladwell would be reamed for if it appeared under his name. The arguments aren’t fleshed out. If you want to say that we should be valuing our writers more as a society, that’s one thing. (And James does make some good points about the dwindling demand for modern classics because the cannon isn’t really getting smaller.) But to say that Topeka should be producing a Dickens every decade because it produces a major league ballplayer? That’s just lazy.

(Also: Long Live Unofficial Royals Week!)

Seeing Things New

Is it a cliche that every time you watch a baseball game you will see something that you’ve never seen before? I am putting this old rhubarb to the test, in any event, as I have already watched more baseball more closely this year than any I can remember (playoff games excluded).

This is because I started a personal project called Every Day Ichiro, chronicling my year in being a new Mariner’s fan. A tad specific for Pitchers and Poets, it involves watching a lot of Ms games, with specific focus on Ichiro’s at bats and overall presence.

More importantly for PnP concerns, I see things. It turns out that when you watch just about every inning of a baseball game, strange things will happen. Rare things, things that will legitimately surprise you. I thought I’d run through a few of those, as well as some other notable moments from the young season:

  • During yesterday’s Mariners-A’s game, Adam Moore scooped up a bunt with his mask. It was a most unremarkable gesture. He didn’t catch a ball over the fence with his mask, or throw the mask up in the air to deflect an errant ball the way every Little Leaguer has done, only to have his catch buddy tell him that’s illegal. He simply bumped an already stopped ball towards himself. Despite the insignificance of the mask-tip, the umpires after a quick meeting granted the baserunners a base apiece. Chad Pennington, who reached base on the bunt, ended the play with the rare infield double.
  • Matt Tuiasosopo battled through a 13-pitch at bat in the same A’s game. During that at bat, he popped two balls into Oakland’s acreage of foul territory. Two different players muffed a foul ball apiece, each taking one off of the heel of the glove and granting Tui TWO free lives at the plate. He struck out swinging.
  • Milton Bradley tipped his hat in a show of gentlemanly good cheer when Rajai Davis stole a home run from him.
  • Moving away from the Mariners: Jason Heyward. I mean. Are there any superlatives left? I had the good fortune of catching Heyward’s Homer live on TV on Opening Day, and felt that perhaps unjustified sense of the beginning of Something. It was chilling; I jumped up and did a lap around the living room, swelling with the urge to talk to somebody. I called my friend Seth in Atlanta, who had luckily taken a day off from work. I think I woke him up from a midday nap.
  • In a game between the Dodgers and the Pirates, outfielder Reed Johnson came barreling home and executed a near-perfect hook slide as catcher Ryan Doumit caught the incoming ball and tried to apply the tag. Johnson looked safe. As he got up in a cloud of dust, though, he and Doumit both were looking to the umpire, who had yet to make a call. The ump was just standing there, without doing a thing. The Nation looked to him for guidance, and all he offered was your basic man-waiting-for-a-train stance. Suddenly, Doumit got it, and jumped at Johnson to tag him out. Johnson had never touched the plate, so the play was still live, and there had been no call for the umpire to make.
  • Mark Buehrle Superstar.

On Sabermetric Transparency

Over at Walkoff Walk, 310toJoba (somebody get this guy a first name), writes about the mega-awesome-super news that Bill Simmons, the internet voice of the Sports Media Industrial Complex has officially embraced sabermetrics. This is a major (if inevitable coup) for the stats-y baseball blogosphere. If no longer the Voice of the American Sports Fan, Simmons remains influential. He is also useful as a bell weather.  As Simmons goes, so goes the sports fan.

Anyway, 310toJoba asks many great questions of the article, and hits Simmons for his navel-gazing and the back-handedness of his compliments. It seems futile to point out that a Simmons column without navel-gazing has yet to be written. And as to the back-handedness, I didn’t really read the article as pejorative. But perhaps that’s because I’m not a numbers guy myself and this is not a numbers blog.

But once again, that’s not what I’m here to write about. 310toJoba says the following of The Sports Guy’s desire to understand what goes into making these statistics:

On the one hand, I appreciate his efforts to attain a better grasp on the stats as a whole; he consistently tries to find out how they’re calculated. Good on him. On the other hand, perhaps Simmons is getting a little too overzealous and missing the point.

And later:

Again, it’s admirable that he wants to go all the way with his newfound obsession, but he comes off as being condescending and too in depth when there’s no need to be.

310toJoba then honorably admits that he has no idea how many of these stats are calculated and questions whether actually understanding the formula would make him a better or better-informed baseball fan. All this amounts to the typical argument “there are smarter, better suited people to do this, I’ll just trust them.” (Not an actual quote).

And here is where I find myself disagreeing with Mr. 310. I think Simmons’ desire to understand the formulas is entirely reasonable. And I don’t see how it is in any way condescending. Here he is admitting to the great wide world that sabermetrics are better than traditional numbers at measuring baseball performance. That’s still a pretty big deal, and for people to embrace that notion, they have to understand why these numbers are better.

There is a tendency among people at the forefront of change and new ideas to assume that the masses will somehow intuit why their proposed changes and new ideas are better. This assumption is why Americans were so vehemently opposed to Health Care Reform – they just saw it as an amorphous blob set forth by people unwilling to explain it in a palatable manner. So when guys like Joe Morgan (or Lindsey Graham), say that these ideas are wrong, or un-American, or will have horrible consequences, the urge is to recoil from them. The remedy to all this is spelling out exactly what these new ideas amount to, and doing so in simple and tangible terms. Just saying “trust us, it will be better,” is not enough.

The baseball stats we grew up with are very easy to calculate. If they aren’t counting stats like runs or runs batted in, they are equations with few inputs requiring basic arithmetic. Walks Plus Hits Divided By Innings Pitched. Okay Simple. We trust those stats because we have a good grasp on what exactly they are telling us. And we know that although not perfect, they are not necessarily bad. Baseball was just fine without sabermetrics. So who are you to tell me that this newfangled stuff can make it better?

I’m not sure it’s enough to just have some smart person tell you “OPS+ is a great metric for offensive performance!” and just believe them on blind faith. I’ve grappled with this myself. I am a pretty sabermetrically literate guy. But I hate relying on statistics I do not fully understand. It often feels like I am arguing on a foundation of quicksand; like somebody could open the curtain and reveal that Bill James is as phony as the Wizard of Oz, and because I don’t fully understand how to calculate UZR, I too will be revealed as a phony.

Obviously, I know this is not the case. I know that smart and well-intentioned people are doing this research to help our understanding of the game. But I know this because I write a baseball blog, and because I’m a curious guy who has tried to learn the formulas. I am not inclined to take it on blind faith that new stats are better stats, and neither are most other baseball fans. It might take, as Simmons says, only ten minutes to be a better informed fan. But it takes more than ten minutes to figure out how VORP is calculated. Does being able to rattle off advanced stats really make one a better informed fan? Or is there some obligation to learn how the gears grind beneath the sheen of the number itself?

PnP Fantasy Baseball: Now with Actual Strategy!

On Eric’s recommendation, I just read Sam Walker’s book Fantasyland, about his madcap pursuit of victory in a league of fantasy baseball experts. On his heroic journey, Walker works to find a balance between the cold, hard numbers and the soft, gooey lives of the individual players. He is a sports journalist with clubhouse access, and he uses that to what advantage he can, against most of the objections of his sabermetrically gifted NASA-analyst employee, as they build a team.

It’s a drama for the times, and even if it’s from 2006 and the names have changed, the debate remains the same. I left feeling as conflicted as ever — also being so into fantasy baseball right now that I’m afraid my head will explode. (Note: I am extending Eric’s recommendation on to you, and I’m sure this won’t be the last you hear of this awesome book.)

Sam Walker, author of Fantasyland

One personalty- framing device of the book is strategy. Who uses it, who doesn’t, how one strategy can foil another, what market inefficiencies hidden talents are out there. The fantasy experts are renowned for their acronymical strategery, from drafting only cheap pitchers (this particular league was auction-based, but the same idea can extend to the draft position) to sticking with established, consistent stars, to chasing in on  the underrated young guns. With every goofy personality, there is a corresponding strategy. As I read and became fascinated with the acrobatics, I realized something: I employ very little significant strategy when I play fantasy baseball, and what little I have has been extremely successful.

I should preface by saying that mine isn’t a very strategic brain. While viewing the big picture looking for revealing trends, I’m often side-tracked by the proverbial passing butterfly, and an hour later I’ve forgotten what it was I was looking for in the first place. This just happened when my brother-in-law asked me to evaluate the overall worth of his old baseball card collection. I opened the trunk, caught of a whiff of old cardboard, and Wilkered away the next few hours poring over the right side of the top layer of cards.

My point being, I don’t surprise myself with my lack of proper fantasy planning. However, a few hours reading Walker’s book and a five hour plane ride across the country proved sufficient ingredients in the crucible to produce some real-life strategic thinking. This will be the year when I approach fantasy drafting with a sense of purpose, with a team point-of-view. I will exploit the prejudices of others; I will Beane them, and I will claim victory.

As Up in the Air and then The Blind Side played on the crappy little screen on the airplane, a mere day after the Oscars no less, I said to myself, “What is a real fantasy baseball strategy?” After I awoke from the hour-long nap that caused, I determined that strategy is finding value in something that others will overlook or ignore, thereby devaluing what they are pursuing (I got a C+ in the only economics course I ever took, FYI). The most valued stat, I figured, was home runs. The opposite of home runs are steals, and the opposite of slugging percentage is batting average. I would employ a strategy that valued steals and singles, and that treated home runs like Nate Silver at a Veterans Committee meeting.

I thumbed through a copy of SportsWeekly’s Fantasy Baseball addition, starring Chone Figgins and X-ing Evan Longoria; starring Brian Roberts and X-ing Adrian Gonzalez.

It was exhilarating.

For years I’ve drafted fantasy teams with that “best available” approach that I’m guessing a lot of amateurs like myself use. I had a sense of who I liked, who I thought would do well and who I had no interest in, but there wasn’t a unified theory. I wasn’t looking for a type of player, just good players. The hope was that this intuitive gathering of talent would result, obviously, in the best team. Sometimes it did, sometimes it didn’t, but ultimately I came out of the draft feeling like I’d just dreamed it and ended up with a list of dudes.

Not so with The Iron Kirtons. That’s the team I just drafted (Kirton is my middle name). They are swift, and small. I drafted them with a special knowledge of particular goals. I was focused in a way that I’d never been before in a fantasy baseball draft. I had particular targets, overlooked by many but with the kind of secret skills that would enable me to dominate the categories where others would lag: runs, batting average, steals. (I went with the old school categories in this league, as they feel kind of classic, and they allow room for a more diverse approach to Rotisserie strategy, which is important when you don’t know what you’re doing).

Because I know that you’re interested, here’s the starting lineup (with pitchers, I went with the usual selection of middle of the road starters in the middle of the draft, not much interesting there):

They won't be saying "Going, Going Chone" anytime soon, and that's fine with me.

C – Yadier Molina, 1B – Joey Votto, 2B – Brian Roberts, 3B – Chone Figgins, SS – Ryan Theriot, OF – Ryan Braun, OF – Carl Crawford, OF – Denard Span, Util – Hunter Pence, Util – Nyjer Morgan, Bench – Placido Polance, Bench – Adrian Beltre, Bench – Felipe Lopez

Yes, I know, it makes me slightly queasy too, this team of slap hitters and burners who are lucky to punch a homer out four or five times a year. But that’s the BEAUTY of it. I figure, if it makes me uncomfortable, that must mean that there’s a vision behind it. And that’s why I enjoyed drafting The Iron Kirton: there was a sense of purpose. I battled sweating palms as I let traditional sluggers pass by (except for 4th overall pick and pretty speedy slugger Braun, and irresistible high average slugger Joey Votto) because I trusted my plan. Whether or not the plan pays off this year, I will have learned something. I will have planned.

Fear us, Yahoo Public League #430362, for we are The Iron Kirton. We will steal. We have a plan.

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?

Minor League Prospects in Person: Perception, Reality, or Dizzy Bat Races?

dizzy bat race

I’m headed to a minor league game tonight between the Everett Aquasox and the Vancouver Canadians, a Northwest League short season A-ball match-up. A ritual that I like to go through before hitting a minor league park–aside from donning my raggedy Astros cap–is to research who the supposed “top prospects” in the game are. It’s a tough thing to keep up with, the prospects game, beyond the top 20 or so, but I’ve found that it can be a great way to engage with a randomly attended minor league game.

The guys who show up as top prospects do seem to have an air about them that sets them apart: a little stronger, a little more relaxed in the batter’s box. Just…something. I watch them a little more closely, noting the quickness of their hands or the snap of their fastball, and their hands seem a little quicker, their fastballs a little snappier than everyone else’s.

It is likely that these are tricks of the mind, and that I perceive these chosen players as superior because their status has been planted into my brain by the bloggerati. This is a notable 180 from the usual baseball blogging/SABRmetric goal of pointing out who is actually better than he appears to be to the naked eye.

The real trick would be to take my amateur scout’s eye to a game and make the determination myself about who looks the sharpest. Then I could check that against the prospect lists and see what happens. Granted, one game is nothing on lengthy scouting trips and reports, but I have to think that most scouting–by anybody, at any level except the highest–is firmly rooted in the second hand to begin with.

It’s too late to try this experiment tonight, as I’ve already got the names of the chosen ones bouncing around in my head, but perhaps soon I will trek to minor league parks unknown and challenge myself to a Scout-Off. It’s me VS. the Internet. I’d better wear my glasses.

How do you watch a minor league game? Is it all beers, conversation and promo night hi jinks, or do you try and get into the prospect-watching yourself?

(For the record, my favorite prospect site is John Sickel’s Minor League Ball.)

When Life Throws You Curveballs, You Take Them The Other Way

In a literary sense, I sort of like clichés. Before they become hackneyed and mundane, they are tight exceptional metaphors and similes. The first time somebody compared his lover’s eyes to a glowing moon, or her beauty to a red rose it was brilliant. The meaning of those words has worn over time, but not the initial spark of genius from which they were born. Like any writer, I avoid clichés as much as I can, but their initial spark remains bright in my mind.

The same can be true for most conventional wisdom: at one point, it was not conventional. It was just an idea that explained something fairly well, or a strategy that was effective most of the time. The sacrifice bunt, for example, is a conventional strategy in baseball. It’s often employed without second thought, lauded if effective, criticized if ineffective (or used too frequently). But the first time some manager trotted a weak-hitter out to move a runner over with a bunt, it probably blew minds.

In the tendency to assign grand meaning to Sports, I see both the cliché and the conventional wisdom. I see the initial reasoning for doing so and dig the value of this pretense, but I also see the worn out catchphrases and the strained logic and wonder why it happens. There are so many sayings about Sports – and I mean to refer to Sports as a proper noun here – that it gets hard to remember which ones came from Vince Lombardi and which ones originated with some orthopedic surgeon coaching his son’s Little League Team.

Football is War. Baseball is a microcosm for life. Casey Stengel and John Wooden and so on and so forth and I think I’ll grab myself a drink. The task of a coach is to mold young men, men who prove their mettle, prove their value as humans on the field of play. By this world view, people don’t dive in front of slap shots, or lean into inside fastballs, or take a hard charges in the lane merely because they want to win the game, but because winning the game has everything to do with winning at life. And damn it to hell if life is not about winning.

The point to all this crotchety, self-righteous, rambling is pretty much to bemoan the overwrought (ironic that I’m calling somebody that) way we think about sports. I’m thinking we should back up a smidge. Instead of seeking wisdom in the broad existence of Competition and Running and Playing and Winning and Losing maybe we can find wisdom elsewhere. Maybe the real wisdom can be found in the tiny situations, the intricacies of each game, the times that a particular sporting event lines up with a particular moment in our lives. Baseball is the National Pastime, not the National University or the National Church. Things are better this way.

The game serves a wonderful purpose: not as a metaphor, but as an entity that merits discussion on its own terms. There is insight to be had and wisdom to be found in baseball. The sport has its own language and its own issues and its own ongoing dialogue. Sometimes baseball mirrors greater society and sometimes it exists on a completely separate plane. Baseball and Sports in general, contribute to language and culture and dialogue the way anything else do. There are things a man’s curveball can tell us, but there also things his marriage or his job performance or his fashion sense can tell us.

I love the way Free Darko can extrapolate on-court behavior and performance into stunningly accurate and refreshing takes on an athlete’s broader position in our society, his own personal struggles, and the general mythology of sport. But I also appreciate that while Greg Maddux’s repertoire and approach and legend seem an accurate reflection of his entire existence, he probably wouldn’t put it that way. Sports is just another activity in our lives which means sometimes it’s an effective way to make the nuanced, the deeply personal, the incomprehensible events and emotions that we deal with every day a little easier to understand. But sometimes those events and emotions are better explained in the context of a road trip, or a meal, or a six pack of beer.

The Free Darko guys understand this. They like basketball and have a keen sense for what basketball can tell us about both itself and the broader world, but they realize that the game is not a perfect representation of society. Unlike the speeches of Vince Lombardi, or the pained reminiscing of nostalgia-crazed “those were the days” baseball fans, there is no dogma to be found here. There is only the transitory wisdom and pleasure of a pastime.

We must realize that while Sports can tell us unique and vibrant and refreshing things, it cannot tell us everything. A life is a life, a war is a war, and baseball, to end with a surprisingly fitting cliché, is only a game.

An Open Letter to Jim Tracy

Dear Spaghetti Arms,

I try not to engage in criticism. That is, I try to avoid using this blog as a platform to shout about why a certain player should bat in a certain place, or why Joe Scouting Director should be Fired Immediately. There are plenty of blogs for that, but we at Pitchers & Poets pride ourselves on a different kind of thinking. We try to examine the game from both a greater distance and a much more intimate, immediate angle.

We’re much inclined to gently criticize a point of view, or go off for a thousand words on some inane theory on fandom than make actual concrete predictions. Most of this is because Ted and I don’t see baseball as just a collection of results. But another part of it, at least for me, is that I hate being proven wrong by insurmountable piles of data and cold hard facts.

flying spaghetti monster

So it’s with a heavy heart that I apologize to you Jim Tracy. I not only questioned your hiring as manager of the Colorado Rockies, but berated the team’s management for it. Here are some of the silly things I wrote:

In both Pittsburgh and Los Angeles, Jim Tracy was epically dull, notably un-dynamic, and completely void of compelling traits.

Okay that’s still true.

Even on an interim level this might be the least inspired managerial hiring in the history of baseball.

Here are some statistics:

70-54 as of today

19-28 on May 29 when Clint Hurdle was fired.

51-26 since you, Jim Tracy, took over the club.

You can’t see it, but I’m actually looking away from the screen as I type this, so shamed I am by the numbers above.

It’s not Jim Tracy’s fault he’s dull and ineffective and keeps getting hired. I’m sure old Spaghetti-Arms is a nice enough guy and he certainly won’t screw things up too badly.

If you discard my sarcastic, mocking tone, then this statement is actually accurate too.

Anyway, the point is I was wrong about you Jim Tracy. Your arms remain discomfortingly long and your gaze remains eerily unaffected, but you certainly have the capacity to manage a baseball team. As much as I’d like to hold on with contemptuous pride to the words with which I described you (words like unsurprising, conventional, representative of a managerial stases in the MLB bloodstream, and retread), I must let them go. They were inaccurate and unjust and I have learned my lesson.

In the future, more esoteric, off-kilter, semi-obsessive posts on fandom, less pretending I actually know something about the inner workings of the Colorado Rockies. Alright, Jim. May you win the Wild Card, but fall comfortably short of the Dodgers in the NL West Race.

Warmest Regards,