Pitcher and Poet

pitchers & poets

You Cannot Live in the Air

At this point    I don't know
At this point

                      I don't know
    how there is meaning in everything
and this is everything
and so there must be a meaning in this

but meaning doesn't
     live in a knee
   it doesn't hold a knee together
         meaning isn't in the sinews
       or the marrow
                     so what does it hold?

between the grass
                  and the dirt
between the left foot and the right
    there is a moment
          where something is wrong
                   but it has not yet happened

and that moment is like two moments
and the two like sixteen
        and you wait
                        for the moments to all pass
                                   so you can know
and for the right foot come down
and it does, because it has to        

and then you wait some more
    for your words         are severed
               and the meaning has vanished
and you try to think of a way
                      to go back to when
                                          you were in the air

          but you cannot live in the air

The Argument for the Fair-Foul Bunt

Every afternoon, my Twitter feed is inevitably punctuated with lamentations over a mislaid bunt. It’s an act equated with cowardice, bearing the mark of gray-haired managers conducting mindless and archaic rituals. As a strategy, it’s pointless. As an action, it’s nothing more than surrender, impotent and futile. As a game mechanic, the bunt is broken. Something has to be done.

For most people, especially those of the statistical bent, that something is simple: stop bunting. In our current offensive era, the price of the bunt is too great. For all but pitchers and the most tepid of hitters, the sacrifice of a potential multi-base hit is too great a cost for the chance at legging out an infield single. And the sacrifice bunt is even worse; as Tango, Lichtman and Dolphin note early in The Book, game states simply don’t often [-ed.] justify the strategy. The most intuitive example is the bottom of the ninth inning, runner on first, no outs. The average manager would call for the sacrifice and be thrilled with having a runner in scoring position with one out. And yet in doing so, the team’s odds of winning have dropped from 35.3% to 29.6%. An out is too valuable to be sacrificed, no matter how nobly.

However, there’s an aesthetic power within the bunt. Part of it lies in the sacrifice itself, the unselfishness it shows and willingness to put team before self. Another part rests in deception. We admire the physical feats of strength in our athletes, but we’re doubly impressed by their cunning, their ability to defeat their opponents spiritually as well as physically. The flashing neon green of Rickey’s batting gloves, the brazenness of the shift, Drysdale’s fastball up and in: these are all moments of psychological warfare, a combination of style and strategy, an imposition of the will.

Every sport has its feints, its moments of clever misdirection: football has the draw play, hockey the stick deke, tennis its drop shot. In each case the offensive player uses deception to manipulate the odds in his or her favor. The bunt seems ideal for this purpose. It’s provides the batter with alternatives, an opportunity for hitters to create their own style. The more individuality that can be imbued into the pitcher-hitter matchup, the more interesting that matchup is. The bunt is exciting; it provides us with quick action, snap decisions, bare-handed grabs and throws across the body to first. It seems a shame to throw these things away just because they don’t help one’s team win.

We shouldn’t hate the bunt. We should hate the game for killing it.

Ross Barnes, Dapper GentlemanThere was a time when the bunt was not only acceptable; it was noble. In the 1870s, the National League had just organized, and people were still trying to sort out this what this “base ball” game was all about. A viable strategy in this era was the fair-foul bunt: if a ball landed in fair play and then rolled foul, even in front of the bag, it was considered in play. Enterprising batters would chop at the pitch in an attempt to put English on the ball, spinning it away from fielders. Rather than being shameful, however, baseball culture of the 1870s treated the fair foul bunt as a legitimate and even honorable practice. Henry Chadwick, baseball’s first chronicler and robber baron, defended the play against its critics, countering arguments that the fair foul being easy or cheap as “absurd”.

Few people were able to master the skill; none was better than Ross Barnes, who used it to hit over .400 four out of six years. Numerous steps were taken to restrict the fair foul, including the creation of the batter’s box, moving the plate into foul territory, then further scooting the batter’s box a foot farther back from the plate. None of these change hurt Barnes, who hit .406 in 1876. The following year it was eliminated entirely, not because it was deemed unfair, but because umpires, who at that point lined up off to the side of the plate, had difficulty determining fair and foul balls in front of the plate. The fair foul bunt was soon forgotten, and the bunt itself has been dying slowly ever since.

The umpire stands where he belongs now, and the reasons for banning the fair-foul bunt are gone. There isn't much chance that it will break or even significantly alter the game. It’s unlikely that hitters would be able to consistently put the kind of English on a 95 mile per hour fastball that Ross Barnes could against the junk of his own era. Scott Podsednik’s major league career is probably still over.

But at the same time, there’s no reason to put up extra barriers against a tactic that’s already disadvantageous enough. It’s time to restore some incentive to the bunt, and perhaps provide an opportunity for style and excitement in the process. Anything that gives hitters more choices and gives audiences something to watch beyond strikeouts and dingers can only be a good thing.

A Baseball Hall of Fame for the Soul

Baseball equipment from Homerun Monkey

If I have one cause as a baseball blogger, it's to advance a kind of fandom defined by idiosyncratic love as opposed to institutionalized expectations. That being: More Roger Maris Museum in a strip mall in  North Dakota Dakota, and less apocalyptic columnist types freaking out about how buff Jeff Bagwell was or wasn't in 1999.

Because simply railing from the sidelines about various bullshit is not sufficient for me, I have also recently become a member of The Baseball Reliquary, an L.A.-based organization dedicated to fostering the notion of baseball as culture. The main draw of the Reliquary, for me, was the Shrine of the Eternals -- a sort of punk rock alternative to the Hall of Fame. I've been reading Jon Weisman discuss the Shrine for years (Jon calls it a "Baseball Hall of Fame for the soul"), and finally joined after a friend sent the most imploring group email I've ever received. Here's a bit of the official description:

Similar to Cooperstown's National Baseball Hall of Fame, the Shrine of the Eternals differs philosophically in that statistical accomplishment is not the principal criterion for election. It is believed that the election of individuals on merits other than statistics and playing ability will offer the opportunity for a deeper understanding and appreciation of baseball than has heretofore been provided by "Halls of Fame" in the more traditional and conservative institutions.

Right on. This morning I stuck my completed ballot in the mail -- and did so joyously. The rules allowed me to vote for up to nine nominees, and as somebody who has argued only semi-facetiously that Jeff Blauser should be inducted in Cooperstown, I obviously used up all nine votes. Just reading about the candidates in the totally fascinating, well-researched pamphlet that accompanied my ballot, was  worth the price of admission. Among those nominated? Curtis Pride, David Wells, J.R. Richard, and Charlie Brown. How can you not love a Hall of Fame that elects fictional characters?

Below is a photo I snapped of my ballot:

For those of you confounded by my handwriting, those names are: Bert Campaneris, Steve Blass, Hideo Nomo, Manny Mota, Lisa Fernandez, Dr. Frank Jobe, Annabelle Lee, Dan Quisenberry, and Luis Tiant.

Predictably, I leaned toward Dodger-associated figures and pitchers who ooze weird style. I also thought it was important to take advantage of this more democratic induction process to get women their rightful respect and appreciation in the baseball world. (Cooperstown's version of induction pretty much automatically disqualified women from anything but second-class recognition.)

The results should be announced on Friday.

P.S.: I couldn't find it written anywhere that these ballots were supposed to be secret. If I have breached any kind of Stonecutters-esque ethical code, I apologize.

Found Poetry: Jose Canseco

 Found poetry is a specific type of poem, particularly common in high school language arts classes, where you take words or phrases from a text and rearrange them to create original poetry. In this case, the following poem is constructed purely out of tweets from Jose Canseco's twitter account.

Maybe I Am The Phantom of Baseball

Maybe I am the phantom of baseball

I will do anything for one more at bat
I know I can still hit MLB pitching
I can still hit a golf ball 380 yards
I have the hips of a 20 year old
I can
I have

I have a medical condition:
I love the game so much
Even in exhibition

Invite me for an old timers game
I will play

Anything for a look

Still dreaming of that one last
Trip of imagination
Back to the big leagues

I miss everything where did it go

The Power Ranking Power Rankings

Note: It's one of the long-held traditions of Power Rankings that they begin with some sort of preamble. This is not that preamble; that's why it's in italics. But if you're here for the ordinal analysis and want to skip past the metacognition, you can jump ahead by clicking here.

Yesterday, FanGraphs raised the vuvuzela that is Sports Illustrated to broadcast a set of Power Rankings that found the 3-13 Kansas City Royals at #7. Reactions to this decision ranged from indignation and derision to grim mirth. Dave Cameron, naturally, responded in straight-faced kind, having been through this sort of civilized discourse before. The conversation tumbled into a familiar jumble of complaints about timely hitting and defensive statistics. What the debate had in velocity it lacked in command. In this case, it begged the question: what's the “power” in a power ranking? There's at least four different ways to look at it.

  • Past accomplishments. Some power rankings start off with the previous year’s champions #1 because “it’s there until someone knocks them off.” Easy alternative: buy an Athlon magazine at the grocery store.
  • Momentum. Some prefer the barometric method, examining the game from the scope of the media cycle. There's nothing wrong with this, except that momentum doesn't mean much in baseball, and the teams fly up and down the list like a teeter-totter, killing the ranking's reputation.
  • True talent. This angle seems to most closely align with FanGraphs’ philosophy at SI, using fWAR to calculate which teams are powerful. This is fine, but the trouble with ignoring the results is that, predictive quality or no, they do count; the Royals are already 7 games back in the division, a significant hole.
  • Championship odds. Nothing wrong with this either, although CoolStandings.com already does this admirably and teams in weak divisions are treated as being more "powerful" than they really are.

Confusing the picture further is the obligatory flavor text that accompanies each team’s ranking, which varies in direction with whatever the author finds interesting to say about the team in question. Teams who languish at the bottom are treated as hopeless, in spite of the state of their farm team or the process behind their management. Snark is prevalent.

Of course, the primary problem with power rankings is the knowledge that you are arguing about power rankings. They have all the subjectivity of a Hall of Fame argument with none of the permanence or significance. They don’t get your team into a tournament, or give you home field advantage. They’re essentially just words from pundits, which is fine because reading words from pundits is fun. Rob Neyer, as usual, summarizes adeptly: “Really, the only way to make Power Rankings interesting is to throw some crazy shit in there.” It’s all part of the nationwide narrative woven through the season, the glittery veneer that imbues expectations and “respect”.

The concept of respect amongst the media is its own psychological quagmire, deserving of several thousand words. What we have now has spawned from the national media, as the power to write the story of our teams has been wrested from our local beat writers and eleven o’clock sports anchors. But the fact remains: just as much as it’s ridiculous that people care how others see their team, it’s also equally true. The feral popular lust for the power ranking is undeniable. And the numerical ranking isn't enough; Hollinger's statistical rankings for the NBA are excellent, but they're not as satisfying as the traditional rank-and-comment that has proliferated the web.

Why we want power rankings goes, in part, with why we want analysis in general: it's sports when there are no sports, something to chew on in the morning over a cup of coffee. It's just another element that sports holds in common with politics, where there's a second "contest" taking place beyond the primary one, the battle of words. And if this is true, the best power rankings are not the ones that are the most accurate or the most scientific, they're the ones that give us the most to think or laugh about. They're power rankings, after all; even though we take them too seriously, we know they shouldn't be taken so seriously.

With that said, here are the Official Pitchers & Poets Power Ranking Power Rankings for April 25, 2012:

1. Baseball Prospectus: These are the cream of the crop, so elite that they don’t even call them power rankings. Arcane, unexplained statistics to lend credence? Check. Daily updates? Check. Short, two sentence pithy comments? Check. And it’s not even behind the paywall!

2. Grantland: It’s Grantland, so it’s nowhere near succinct. Instead, Jonah Keri devotes quality analysis to each team. Ordinarily, you wouldn’t expect a ranking that takes fifteen minutes to read would rank so high, but it’s not as if people read the parts for other teams.

3. SI/FanGraphs: What it lacks in flavor it makes up for in substance. Their willingness to lean on their statistics in the face of intuition is a plus: if nothing else, it creates conversation, and that’s exactly what rankings are supposed to do.

4. ESPN: The choice to let the SweetSpot writers add their own insight leads to authenticity and inconsistency. As much as a festering pit as the ESPN comment section is, it’s good from a theoretical standpoint that there is one. Probably.

5. CBS: Your baseline, no-nonsense rankings: easy to read and follow. The comments are occasionally thoughtful, sometimes unnecessary, but Matt Snyder’s voice comes through without being overbearing.

6. FOX: Similar to CBS, except without the same vitality in the analysis.

7. MLB.com: It just seems strange for the official website of MLB to have unofficial power rankings; it seems as though if you were going to have a major ranking based solely on popular vote, this would be the place to do it. The fact that the rankings lack an author only adds to the discomfort.

8. Pitchers & Poets: Recursion!

9. Yahoo!: Hasn’t updated since April 5, as far as I can tell. Feels rushed. Aesthetically, the layout could use some polish; it looks like something you'd make using GeoCities.

10. Bleacher Report: Somehow manages to capture the length of Grantland, the informality of Baseball Prospectus, the humor of SI/FanGraphs and the expertise of Tim McCarver. It’s like the Pirates offense of writing.

This completes your inaugural Pitchers & Poets Power Ranking Power Rankings.