Monday, November 10, 2014

Have You Accepted Billy Beane As Your Lord and Savior?

In early November of last year I wrote a somewhat over the top article arguing that Billy Beane should take decisive and potentially destructive action to improve the Oakland A’s.

Beane did eventually consummate two of his patented “fuckin A trades,” but he did so midway through the season, and focused on acquiring star caliber pitching, while I had guessed he would attempt to shore up the weak A’s offense.

I have been patting myself on the back for predicting the Rangers would ship out Ian Kinsler for a flawed power-hitting first-baseman, and I am sure that in retrospect the Rangers would have preferred my proposed Brandon Moss and Alberto Callaspo package, despite its flaws, over the less than princely haul they received from the Tigers.

In the wake of what essentially amounted to a self-immolation in the half of the season and an unnecessarily painful collapse in the AL Wild Card Game to the suddenly unbeatable Kansas City Royals, Beane’s A’s suddenly have a great deal of soul searching to do, and have had about a month longer than expected in which to do it.

So, with your indulgence, I will begin the age old practice of the fan whose beloved team has bowed to the cold winds of winter (or rather the foot speed of Jarrod Dyson) and speculate wildly about the BIG things Beane can do to rebuild the club this offseason. Here I present the first installment in my infinity part series: “Have You Accepted Billy Beane As Your Lord and Savior?”

As wild as this speculation may eventually become, I do intend to maintain a semblance of rationality. Despite the emotional damage inflicted on my A’s fan psyche, I am strangely and calmly enthusiastic about this coming year. 2014 was a year of uncomfortably sky-high expectations. The Oakland A’s… of Oakland, CA… were actually talked about throughout the year as World Series favorites. I know that such chatter goosed my enthusiasm in the first half of the season, and exacerbated my melancholia throughout the late-summer collapse. I can only imagine the impact it might have had on the A’s players. By which I mean that literally my imagination is the only tool I can bring to bear on any discussion of the mental state of the players.

My imagination is the kind of thing that is suited to parsing whether the Democratic Party convention in 1896 would have swung away from William Jennings Bryan if Ben Tillman had been a better public speaker, but it has no experience to call upon regarding how professional athletes think. As I hope I have capably demonstrated, I carry both the non-athletic and supremely nerdy stereotypes of Sabermetrics geeks to their logical extremes.

So let’s start with what the A’s have on the books:
SP: Jeff Samardjza
SP: Sonny Gray
SP: Scott Kazmir
SP: Drew Pomeranz
SP: Jesse Chavez/Jarrod Parker/AJ Griffin

RP: Sean Doolittle
RP: Ryan Cook
RP: Dan Otero
RP: Fernando Abad
RP: Eric O’Flaherty
RP: Evan Scribner
RP: Live Arm Number 42B

C: Derek Norris/Steven Vogt
1B: Brandon Moss
2B: “Eric Sogard- Nedpower!”
SS: “Nick Punto”
3B: Josh Donaldson
LF: “Sam Fuld”
CF: Coco Crisp/Craig Gentry
RF: Josh Reddick
DH: John Jaso

The players in quotations are presumably placeholders, because a playoff contending team would never give someone like Eric Sogard 300+ at bats!... right guys?

Well, to start with, that is a wonderful pitching staff! Even without Jon Lester the A’s are shaping up to be one of the better pitching teams in the league. However, that doesn’t mean they will necessarily be the best at preventing runs, which brings us to the first potential strategy Beane could pursue.

If Defense is 50% of Pitching,* Does That Mean About 47% of American Baseball Pitchers Are Dependent On Handouts From Defensive Players Who Work Hard For their Millions?

*it isn’t, btw.

Wow, Mitt Romney jokes just never get old! Unlike John McCain! 

Ok... I promise I'm done.

In 2014 the A’s were 3rd in ERA, but just 14th in FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching). In short, their solid defense 8th in the majors in Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), combined with stellar pitching and a pitcher friendly ballpark to prevent runs at a championship rate. But their pitching needed lots of defensive help, and the love of the BABIP Luck Dragon to rate 3rd.

So, if the A’s did so well, why am I talking about the defense and pitching? Why not improve on that mediocre offense? Well the answer is that the A’s offense actually wasn’t that bad (9th in the majors in Offensive WAR), and that regression to the mean suggests Beane should act to shore up what was a strength last year to keep it that way.

So, if we are going to do this, let’s go all out. Start by trading for Cincinnati shortstop Zack Cozart, since someone needs to play between Donaldson and whichever blow-up doll we install at secondbase. Cozart is a resolutely terrible batter, “hitting” 26% worse than league average for his career, and improving, if that’s the word, that mark to 44% worse than the league in 2014. But this is the remarkable thing about baseball, Cozart is such a superb fielder that even in his flaming wreck of 2014, he was still worth 1.2 WAR.

Jed Lowrie, who will almost certainly depart the A’s this offseason for a multi-year deal, only produced 1.9 WAR. And though Cozart may take the concept to an extreme, he does illustrate nicely that it doesn’t matter what side of the ball you contribute on!

Then snag Kris Davis from Milwaukee. They have a glut of outfielders and seemed to have soured on Davis after his half-season 2013 breakout. Davis has some serious power, and if his walk rate regresses closer to his minor league stats he has the makings of a solidly above average hitter, but it is his defense that is most interesting to me. This might seem strange considering he was barely above average in UZR this last year, but it is the breakdown of that rating that presents what I think may be an opportunity.

UZR has multiple inputs- Range, Errors, and for outfielders, Arm scores. Davis’ Range rating was, at 7.3 runs, the 7th best among outfielders in 2014, however, his Arm score was a subpar -4.7 runs (12th worst in the majors), dragging down his overall defensive rating. Here’s the thing though, the Arm score section of UZR is notoriously volatile, and is not nearly as important a defensive skill as Range. While Davis’ arm might be quite the disappointment for A’s fans after enjoying the heroics of Yoenis Cespedes and his league leading 12 Arm runs, he presents a potentially interesting addition to an A’s super outfield of Craig Gentry/Coco Crisp/Sam Fuld and the rocket armed Josh Reddick. Plus he can really hit!

At second base, let’s buy low on San Diego’s Jed Gyorko. After an excellent if somewhat hack-tastic freshman season, and with a $35.5 million contract newly in hand, Gyorko pancaked. But aside from a spike in groundball percentage, there is little to suggest why he fell apart so thoroughly. With just about average defense and a small offensive bounceback, Gyorko could be a superb building block at secondbase. Bonus- I would be able to like Eric Sogard if he were a seldom used backup as opposed to a depressing regular.

So, Cozart, Davis, and Gyorko. Fix the defense, add a little pop, and just hope last August and September can be excised from our collective memories!

Monday, November 4, 2013

What Will Billy Beane Do? (WWBBD)

The Oakland A’s had a truly remarkable year in 2013, following up their Bernie-lean inspired miracle run in 2012 with 96 wins and a division title. Unfortunately they were eventually ousted in five games… again… by the Tigers… again… in a shutout… again… by Justin Verlander… again… causing me to weep openly- uh, for the first time ever.

If the A’s were to completely eschew trades and free agent signings this offseason, they would enter 2013 with a starting lineup looking something like this:

Catcher- Derek Norris/Stephen Vogt
First Base- Brandon Moss/Nate Freiman
Second Base- Eric Sogard/Alberto Callaspo
Shortstop- Jed Lowrie
Third Base- Josh “Bringer of Rain” Donaldson
Left Field- Yoenis Cespedes
Center Field- Coco Crisp
Right Field- Josh Reddick/Michael Choice
Designated Hitter- Jon Jaso/Seth Smith

And a rotation combining some of the following:
Sonny Gray
Jarrod Parker
Dan Straily
AJ Griffin
Tommy Milone
Brett Anderson

With Ryan Cook, Sean Doolittle, Jerry Blevins, and Dan Otero in the bullpen, the A’s are basically set, and seem ready to commence a boring offseason. So why do I have the uncomfortable feeling that Billy Beane* and Company are about to blow us all away with something big?

*Have you accepted Billy Beane as your lord and savior yet?

I, as a fan, don’t want there to be any changes. I want the team that gave joy to my summer to remain intact in perpetuity, just as I did after last year’s exhilarating ride. It’s an understandable emotional reaction, but one that has no place in the front office of a baseball team. Thankfully, in Moneyball (the book), Beane makes clear that a small market team that is not turning over its roster constantly is falling behind. "Don't mess with a good thing" should never be the mantra of a sabermetrically inclined baseball team. If you trust your techniques for player analysis then change can only be good

So, if change we must, these are the three BIG THINGS I would be happiest with the A’s doing this offseason.

1. The Uggly Heyl Mary (I know… I just had to)

Dan Uggla, 10 million dollars, and Jason Heyward
Josh Reddick, Alberto Callaspo, and John Jaso

So here’s the reasoning: the Braves are a very good team, and plan to compete for the next several years with a core of excellent pitching and good defense up the middle. However, their two highest paid players were also their worst players this past year, and while B.J. Upton will almost certainly bounce back to respectability, Dan Uggla has probably lost it for good, and will absolutely not be worth the 13 million dollars he will be paid in both this year and the next.

Jason Heyward is 24, has two more years of team control, and is set to make about 4.5 million dollars via arbitration this next year. Though Heyward is undoubtedly a star, he has been plagued by injuries and inconsistency and will probably make a boatload of money in free agency two years from now. The Braves most certainly do not want to trade him, but they might do so if it meant getting out from under most of the Uggla contract and solving their catching situation for the year.

The truly interesting possibility from my perspective is if the A’s don’t give the Braves Jaso, and instead take on Uggla’s whole contract:

Uggla and Heyward
Reddick and Callaspo

Having disposed of $4.5 million in the form of Heyward, and $13 million in the far less athletic form of Uggla, the Braves would be able to put that savings towards the retention of catcher Brian McCann, who is widely expected to garner a deal worth upwards of $15 million for four or five years on the open market. With McCann back in the fold, Reddick (a superb defender with questionable power) taking over in right field, and the serviceable Callaspo at second, the Braves would still have around 20 million dollars left in their $95-100 million dollar budget to make upgrades.

That’s why I think the Braves might be open to such a deal. Why it may be a good idea for the A’s might not be clear at first glance. Reddick’s value is not so far off from Heyward’s, and $13 million dollars is a lot to eat for the privilege of what seems like a marginal upgrade. Personally, I think that Uggla would do pretty well as a three-true-outcomes (walks, strikeouts, homers) DH against lefties with occasional starts at second base. For his career Uggla has been 13% better against lefties than righties, and I can see a scenario in which he accrues some value for the A’s in that role. However, the reason I think this would be a great deal for the A’s is that Reddick is two years older than Heyward. He is at his peak, and while his power will rebound from this injury marred year, and his defense is superb, Heyward still has room to grow on offense, boasts a far better plate approach, and is just as good defensively.

If the A’s could sign Heyward to an extension as part of the trade, it would make even Uggla’s contract worth swallowing. As is, the A’s payroll next year is projected to be around $55 million. With Heyward and Uggla it would be around $73 million… less than the recent peak of $79 million in2007. Heyward would probably cost $15-20 million per year to extend, but of all the players in MLB, he is the one I would be most comfortable giving the money to.

2) Belt out your Choice! (I think I need to seek professional assistance… the puns… the puns)

Brandon Belt, Santiago Casilla, and two C+ prospects
Dan Straily, Michael Choice, and Seth Smith

Ok, this one might piss off some Giants fans who have spent three years furiously rosterbating over Brandon Belt (ok I know it’s supposed to sound just a tad dirty, but when paired with furiously, the word rosterbating is just making me uncomfortable… it’s staring creepily at me right now).

After a great deal of sabermetric analysis, I have determined that the A’s success on the field is directly correlated to the number of players named Brandon who wear the Green and Gold. Do not question this analysis, just allow the memories of Brandon Hicks, Brandon Inge, Brandon McCarthy, and Brandon Moss from 2012 to slowly overwhelm you with nostalgia. If the A’s had been able to trot Brandon Belt out there too, maybe they wouldn’t have been shut out by the Tigers… in Game 5…

Painful musings aside, Belt is an excellent first baseman, and is growing into power to match his superb plate discipline. He is also cheap and will remain so for several years, Casilla is a decent enough reliever, but his $10 million dollar two-year contract would basically be the cost of doing business from the A’s perspective. With Belt at first base, Moss could spend most of his time at DH, improving the A’s offense and defense while trading from the team’s strength- pitching.

On the Giants’ side of things, Straily gives them a solid fourth starter with upside to slot in after Bumgarner, Cain, and Lincecum, Posey and Sandoval can split time at first base, while Choice and Smith give them offense in left field. This is especially exciting for Giants General Manager Brian Sabean, who was laboring under the impression the past six seasons that no one who played the position of left field was allowed to actually make contact with the baseball. This hilarious misunderstanding occurred when Sabean took comments from some members of the press about the unfairness of his left fielder’s hitting a bit too literally.

3) A trade involving Ian Kinsler (See! A subheading with nary a pun, therapy is working!)

Ian Kinsler and $40 million
Brandon Moss, Alberto Callaspo, and a bag of Kettle Corn

Ok, so this one is never going to happen. The Rangers and A’s are in the same division, and aside from the A’s seeking an upgrade at second and the Rangers looking for power at first base, the two teams don’t match up especially well for a trade. So I am not going to worry about the details all that much. Suffice it to say that the Rangers really really don’t want Ian Kinsler to be on the team any more. He is owed $72 million dollars over the next four years, he is on the wrong side of 30, his offense has declined to the point where he is about league average with the stick and with ever diminishing power, and his defense, while good, has never been spectacular enough to alone make him worth tens of millions of dollars.

All that aside, the Rangers don’t want Kinsler on the team mainly because he is blocking their (and until recently all of baseball’s) top prospect, Jurickson Profar. Having given Elvis Andrus a lifetime deal to play shortstop, the Rangers need to slot Profar in at second, and would probably be willing to give up a decent amount of money to make that happen.

If the Rangers take on $40 million of Kinsler’s contract (a big if), then he would absolutely be a worthwhile upgrade over the Sogard/Callaspo platoon for about $8 million more per year. Jaso could then slide over to first base, and the A’s would have upgraded their primary weak spot on the diamond for a reasonable price.


None of these trades are likely to happen. But Billy Beane is likely to do SOMETHING this offseason, and probably something big. As the phrase: “what would Billy Beane do” is the running track on my internal monologue a shockingly high plurality of the time, I thought I would take a few moments to consider what I would do for a BIG THING this offseason.

Even for those of you who will not be buying the requisite wristbands and bumper stickers, what would you do if you had to go big this offseason?

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Much More Than a Scuffle: Unacceptable Bias in Jose Fernandez's Slow Trot

Watch this video all the way through if you would. If you are reading this at work or in the library, don't worry, I have excerpted the key phrases, but first, watch the video, form a conclusion about what happened, then I will present mine.

Jose Fernandez, a 21-year old pitcher, who a year before was pitching in single-A ball and is currently the odds-on favorite for the National League Rookie of the Year, hits the first home run of his career.

Fernandez flips his bat, admires his shot as he strides down the baseline, and then simultaneously breaks into a grin and a not-terribly brisk trot.

As he rounds third, Fernandez spits on the ground... about 15 feet away from Chris Johnson, who apparently caused some indefinable tension in the previous inning. The entire incident is barely even visible on TV, and certainly does not seem out of character on a field in which the only activity engaged in more regularly than spitting is surreptitious scratching.

The Braves' veteran catcher, Brian McCann, then holds up Fernandez at home, talking rapidly and from far too close to Fernandez for comfort. So naturally Johnson sprints in from third, looking to every viewer as if he is about to cold-cock the young hotdogging pitcher. The benches clear, and the baseball equivalent of a fight breaks out for the better part of 2 minutes.

I've described the events to you, but I will leave it to the overly exuberant Marlins announcers to attempt to reconstruct the motives behind this strange series of events.

First, as Fernandez leisurely rounded the bases, one of the announcers, screeching somewhat, declared: "And I don't care if he took a peek at it, it's his first one!"

But, as the Braves began to take issue with his actions, the other Marlins on-air personality slowly proclaimed: "They're on him for taking a peek. He stood at the plate and watched, I understand that." Jose set it off by standing at the plate and admiring the home run, Johnson is still going nuts right now."

As the scrum dies down and a series of replays begin, the announcers begin to break down the drama point by point:

"Well Fernandez finally hits a home run, so he watched it."

(Fernandez spits as he rounds third)

"and that may have set Johnson off there even more."

"yeah I think he did. Now Jose did some 21 year old things during that sequence. Chris Johnson's from a baseball background, he understands that whole thing. And Jose, yeah he acted like a kid in that situation. He paused, he watched the home run, he shouldn't have done that. And when he ran around third, little look at the ground, looked like he spit, didn't spit toward Johnson, and that set off Johnson. And I think McCann is just trying to say: 'hey kid, you just don't do that up here.'"

"I don't understand Johnson running in from third base."

I've maintained a semblance of professionalism thus far while describing this incident, but I fear I can do so no longer, because, unlike Chris Johnson, I DON'T UNDERSTAND THIS WHOLE THING! 

Saturday, September 7, 2013

A Good Day For Cuba

(Having not written about baseball for some time, I thought that my return to the land of baseball blogging should encompass as many of my favorite things as possible, and here I believe I have managed to successfully combine three of my favorite pursuits: baseball, alternate history, and Communist overthrows of repressive fascist governments that result in equally dictatorial Communist regimes. This story was inspired by my brother, who hates baseball, but enjoys the other two enough to make up for it.)

The pitcher was tall and lanky, but with strong hindquarters of the type that typically prompted crinkle-eyed scouts to declare with clinical detachment that he was well built where it counted. Baseball scouts have their own language for discussing prospects, and when they believe they are speaking only to their own kind they invent words and phrases with sufficient frequency to send a prescriptivist linguist to the showers with, as the scouts would say, an “Indian Sign” (a bad game) hung about his shoulders.

When discussing this particular pitcher, the last semi-prospect they were observing that day, their praise was reserved solely for his curveball, which the oldest scout amongst the half dozen sitting behind home plate described as a great “out-curve hook.” The rest of the scouts nodded and harrumphed their approval with this diagnosis, though one younger fellow wearing a Washington Senators cap dared to venture that it could be considered a “dropball” instead. The scouts paused their discussion for a moment to scrutinize the windmill motion of the young man on the mound. As the ball cracked into the catcher’s glove they let out a universal grunt of disagreement: it was certainly not a dropball, the old scout had it right from the beginning, it was an out-curve hook.

The younger scout felt suitably chastened, but his discomfort was nothing as compared to that of the young law student on the mound, who had taken the day off from his normal daily activities: studying and general rabblerousing, to throw for these strange men. The pitcher knew his curveball was his great strength, but the indeterminate murmurs from the bench did not sound agreeable, and in his nervous state he was incapable of assuming that their displeasure was directed at anything other than his performance. Brushing sweat from his elegantly pointed chin beard, which was now wilting in the heat, the pitcher flashed a signal to his catcher: fastballs from now on.

In scouting parlance, the hopeful young pitcher would be referred to as throwing a “smoke ball” or a “hot rock.” Either term a solemn compliment if offered by the stingy scouting chorus. Yet, despite his ability to “put over a fast one,” the young man had failed to attract the attention of the coach of his college’s varsity baseball team. This failure perhaps had something to do with, as the scouts would say, his “inability to put anything over the plate aside from a knife and fork.” Yet the young man, unsurprisingly, had never considered his wildness to be the reason for his lack of success at garnering professional attention. On the contrary, he believed his propensity for forcing batters to give up their “toe-holds” in the batter’s box with a creatively located “duster” to be a commendable skill.

The true reason he had garnered little scouting attention seemed clear to him: the old men with their big bonus checks had blackballed him because of his activism against the tyranny of the local government. He was wrong of course, coaches and scouts had avoided the young Fidel Castro because of what they would have called his “scatter arm,” and not his scatter brained politics.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Hall Of Fame Cannot Erase History

            The Baseball Hall of Fame shapes the narrative of baseball history.

            Crucially, while the Hall shapes baseball’s history, its decisions of induction and rejection do not create it. A significant portion of the reaction from the sabermetric and thoughtful corners of the baseball world against the lack of admissions in the Hall’s most recent vote seems to be concerned that the Baseball Writers Association of America is denying the existence of 20 years of baseball history.

Many of the writers who cast blank ballots, left off unindicted but muscle-bound stars, and allowed subjective moral codes to rule their vote are undoubtedly trying to erase the so-called “Steroid Era” from the game’s history. But what they have failed to realize is that by intentionally failing to admit these accomplished men they are not erasing them from history, they are merely making their own poorly reasoned arguments the next chapter in each player’s narrative.

The Hall of Fame vote does not merely serve as a stamp of approval on a player’s career, mainly because the Hall, like all mediums of sorting and recording history, is part of the history that it attempts to document. How historical events are discussed in museum exhibits, scholarly papers, and university courses reflects not just the importance of the events or people at issue, but also the biases and concerns of the society discussing them.

Discussions of slavery in textbooks written in the early 20th century by southern authors tell modern historians a great deal not only about how certain people at that time felt about a polarizing issue, but also offer insight into the society that produced those thought processes. I believe that the argument over Performance Enhancing Drug (PED) use by the baseball intelligentsia falls within the same framework. (Yes I just compared slavery to steroids). As much as votes against Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Jeff Bagwell, and Mike Piazza attempt to minimize their statistical accomplishments and gloss over their historical impact on the game, they simultaneously provide a great deal of insight into the moral structure of the majority of baseball writers, and by extension, baseball itself.

The travesty of a vote this afternoon has not erased the history of the steroid era, it has added to it: the moralizing, apologizing, and finger-pointing of our present generation will become part of the narrative of baseball. If Bonds and Clemens are denied entry to the Hall after fifteen years on the ballot, as McGwire and Sosa almost certainly will, their accomplishments will no more be lost to history as those of Shoeless Joe Jackson, Pete Rose, Dick Allen, Lou Whitacker, Keith Hernandez and the countless other players who for one reason or another failed the Hall’s standards.

The Hall’s decision on each player adds to his history and shapes the narrative of each man’s career. Even the (arguably) worst of these decisions- Jackson’s ban, has only made the story of the Black Sox of 1919 all the more memorable.

The anti-PED votes cast today will not erase the last two decades of history, but they will add to it, and I sincerely believe that forty years from now the votes of the Baseball Writers Association of America today will seem precisely as inexplicable as the decision of dozens of voters forty years ago to leave Jackie Robinson off their ballots.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Three Strikes'll Send You to the Dugout, or San Quentin

In 1994 my home state of California passed an initiative measure that was officially titled “Three Strikes and You’re Out.” The Three Strikes Law, known in other states by the more technical sounding name of the Habitual Offender Act, ostensibly has nothing to do with baseball. It establishes increased penalties, (25 years to life imprisonment in California’s case) for a criminal who commits three felony crimes. I began thinking about this law recently because two days ago, amidst all the Presidential hoopla, California voters passed Proposition 36, which altered the existing Three Strikes Law to emphasize punishment of violent offenses, and to shorten prison terms for those who did not commit violent crimes.

Intrigued by talk of the ever-controversial Three Strikes Law, and in clear baseball withdrawal with the World Series over, I began to consider the apparent baseball connection to this law. I did a bit of research and was slightly surprised to note that not only was “Three Strikes and You’re Out” the wording that actually appeared on the ballot, such laws, no matter their official title, are referred to in legal jargon by the acronym TSAYO. Even stranger to me was the fact that the connection of a law that shapes lives, deaths, and demographics is so explicitly based on an arbitrary rule in baseball.

One scholarly paper I found referred to this connection offhand, as if it were entirely incidental, mentioning that, “President Bill Clinton received lengthy applause during his State of the Union address when he touted the law with the catchy baseball name.” Or labeling a chilling graph about convictions like this: “California ‘Strikes Out’ 4 Times as Many Persons As All Other 3-Strikes States Combined”

A less scholarly but still extensively detailed article described how baseball players are allowed three strikes in an at bat before they are out as a preamble to explaining how “the same concept is invoked in the language of habitual offender laws, as three strikes laws are more properly known, as in ‘three strikes and the offender is out of society.’”

So, this strongly enforced and significantly impactful law is based on the logic of the baseball plate appearance. It was at about the time I realized this that I began to ask an absurd number of rhetorical questions about the history of the traditional inputs to the baseball plate appearance and its influence on the Three Strikes Laws.

The history of the three-strike strikeout has remained remarkably stable throughout baseball history, with only one real blip, as Joe Posnanski noted in his profile of deadball hurler Old Hoss Radbourn: "in 1887, for one year and one year only in the National League, they changed the rules so that it took FOUR strikes to get a strikeout. Could you imagine, say, Justin Verlander having to deal with that? Hey Justin, we changed the rules. It’s four strikes for a strikeout now. Yeah. But it’s also five balls for a walk. Go on, have some fun out there."

The number of balls that equals a walk, however, has not remained static throughout baseball history. It was not until 1889 that the various baseball associations and leagues agreed that four balls would equal a walk. In the preceding decades as many as nine balls had been required for a batter to get a free pass, with the number gradually decreasing starting in 1880 before settling in at the “natural” number of four.

So here begins the long chain of rhetorical questions:

What if, like balls, the number of strikes had varied a lot in the late 1800s? What if that magical year of 1887 had become the norm, and five balls and four strikes remained the rule. Such a change would not have inherently altered the structure of the game. After all, the only reason four and three seem “natural” is because they are what we have grown accustomed to.

How would the game have changed?

But perhaps even more meaningfully, how would our modern approach to crime legislation through Three Strikes Laws be different?

If batters and pitchers lived in a four-strike world, would cops and criminals battle in one as well?

How would it affect our perception of crime and criminals?

Would we have Four Strikes Laws instead of Three, or would we have none at all?

The almost certainly rhetorical question I have struggled with the most however, is whether the only reason we have Three Strikes Laws at all, and the debate, misery, and debatable justice they imply, is because of an arbitrary rule in what was once a children’s game. If so, what does that tell us about the role of baseball in shaping America’s cultural and political mindset, and what does that tell us about our democratic, legislative, and judicial systems?

As I said, these are rhetorical questions, I truly do not have answers to them, and to me at least this is somewhat troubling. Chime in with comments if you think you have answers, or even if you just have more questions.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Now Batting, Michael Jordan

The logical thing for me to write about at this stage would of course be the actual baseball season that just concluded, specifically the New York Mets’ performance therein…but I’m in a fairly good mood right now and I don’t want to spoil it by thinking about that. Instead, with the NBA season upon us, I’d prefer to retell one of the stranger stories in the history of basketball or baseball.

By the start of the 1993-94 season, 30-year-old Michael Jordan had played in the NBA for nine years and was well on his way to earning the status of legend. Jordan had been an All-Star in all but his first year, a three-time MVP and a seven-time NBA scoring champion, and he had just led his Chicago Bulls to an unprecedented third straight NBA title as well as leading the league in more categories than I can count. So it’s hard to overstate the shock he caused by first retiring from the NBA the day before the start of training camp and later announcing that he had signed a minor league contract with the Chicago White Sox. A possible equivalent might be if Barack Obama left the presidential race to pursue his dream of becoming a movie star.

Affected by the recent murder of his father, who had always dreamed of his son playing professional baseball, Jordan set out to prove that his talent transcended basketball, beginning the story of perhaps the most famous career minor league ballplayer of all time as he reported for training camp in March of 1994. (The Bulls and White Sox, then as now, were both owned by Jerry Reinsdorf, who continued to honor Jordan’s Bulls contract during his time in baseball.) After starting at right field for the White Sox in the Windy City Classic exhibition game against the Cubs (Jordan, batting sixth, went 2 for 5 with 2 RBIs), Jordan joined the Birmingham Barons of the AA Southern League.

Jordan (play) fights with a teammate.
Jordan’s presence focused the sports world’s attention on Birmingham as the Barons consistently played to sold-out crowds. Despite lacking any other notable players (probably the best-known Baron that year besides Jordan was manager Terry Francona, who would go on to manage at the major league level), the Barons were frequently featured on shows like “SportsCenter” and were the center of attention in Birmingham as well as other Southern League towns like Greenville and Huntsville, the latter the eventual champion of the division in which Birmingham finished last. The Barons may have been the most talked-about minor league team in history. Francona and his players, none of whom became particularly successful in the majors (with the sole exception of Steve Sax, who at 34 was winding down a lengthy and mildly impressive major league career), seem to have mostly been bemused by the whole spectacle. “We couldn't just go somewhere with him because it would be a mob scene,” shortstop Glenn DiSarcinia (who never made it higher than AAA Nashville) later recalled. "The whole place would just be staring at him, like he was a rare zoo animal."

Besides becoming involved in a real, live media circus, DiSarcinia and the rest of the Barons also had the opportunity to see a sporting legend brought down to the level of mere mortals. As it turned out, despite his powerful height and build and his tremendous athletic ability, Jordan was a fairly awful baseball player. In 436 at-bats for the Barons, Jordan hit a mere .202 with an OBP of .289 and a slugging percentage of .266. While committing 11 errors in the field and striking out 114 times, Jordan hit just three home runs. His impressive total of 30 stolen bases was more than balanced out by the 18 times he was caught stealing. All told he boasted the lowest OPS (on-base + slugging) of any player on the Barons with more than 15 at bats and in the league as a whole, Jordan's .556 mark did not even breach the top 100. Even on a team lacking all distinction Jordan stood out as a man lacking more distinction than all the rest, and people who showed up to watch him were always impressed by how unimpressive he was (props to Joseph Heller). “Michael Jordan has no more business patrolling right field in Comiskey Park than Minnie Minoso has bringing the ball upcourt for the Chicago Bulls,” concluded Sports Illustrated (albeit before the Barons’ season officially began).

Jordan’s year with the Barons wasn’t all bad. His teammates, who were initially shocked by how bad he was, noted his steady improvement over the course of the year and marveled at the work ethic and competitive drive that had fueled his rise to the top of the NBA. For the Barons, the most impressive part of Jordan’s time with the team was how well he integrated himself into the clubhouse. While the trappings of fame followed him wherever he went, Jordan seems to have genuinely wanted to become a big league ballplayer on his own merits and took great pains to avoid letting his celebrity affect his role on the team. Jordan befriended several of the players, showing particular interest in those from the Chicago area, and participated in team bonding activities including the occasional pick-up basketball game (one can only imagine how that must have gone).

“Even though he wasn’t a great baseball player, he was a great role model,” DiSarcinia concluded. "If he came out as an 18-year-old I didn't have any question that he would make the big leagues -- the work ethic, the hand-eye coordination. It was just a little too late for him."

Perhaps recognizing this, Jordan eventually concluded that continuing in the minors was the wrong move for him. After a stint with the Scottsdale Scorpions of the Arizona Fall League, where he batted .252, Jordan announced his return to the NBA on March 18, 1995 with a two-word press release: “I’m back.” He took the court the next day for the Bulls (wearing jersey number 45, his number with the Barons—the iconic number 23 had been retired in his absence), and the rest is history. (Of course, this being Jordan, said history includes two more retirements.) It should be noted that Jordan’s baseball career did form the background to the plot of Space Jam, so at least it wasn’t a total loss.

Michael Jordan is far from the only athlete to show interest in multiple sports. For example, in 1995 the Montreal Expos picked a high-school catcher from California, Tom Brady, in the 18th round of the draft. However, Brady wisely chose to become a star quarterback instead, first with the Michigan Wolverines and later with the New England Patriots. There are athletes who have played multiple sports at the highest level, but most of these tend to be historical footnotes (much like the USFL or the California Golden Seals). Two exceptions stand out in baseball. Jackie Robinson’s stellar and historic baseball career has tended to overshadow his tremendous athletic achievements; at UCLA, he lettered in four sports (baseball, basketball, football and track), a feat unparalleled in UCLA history before or since. And Jim Thorpe, who played six seasons in the 1910s for the Giants, Reds and Braves, has become known as one of the greatest athletes in the history of American sports. In addition to baseball, he received two gold medals in track and field at the 1912 Olympics, enjoyed a long and successful career in collegiate and professional football and even briefly dabbled in basketball. However, rather than opening a chain of steakhouses and watching the money roll in from his Air Thorpe sneakers, Thorpe had his medals revoked (for playing baseball for money at a time when all Olympians were amateurs) and died in poverty. Sometimes life isn’t fair.