Sunday, December 15, 2013

On the issue of home plate collisions being banned


MLB said that the idea first arose during the General Managers Meetings in November.

Actually... the idea was in an annual Baseball Abstract by Bill James in the 1980s.  He pointed out that the rules are the same on any base, yet only enforced on three of them-- that being that the fielder can't block the runner if he doesn't already have the ball.  The tradition of the catcher positioning himself in front of the plate while awaiting the throw has ALWAYS been illegal.  It just hasn't been enforced by umpires for some reason.

Matt and I saw a game this year between the Bucs and the Fish, where a catcher received the throw, then took the collision and held onto the ball.  It was actually awesome because his technique was perfect.  Instead of trying to stand his ground against the hit, he initiated the roll backwards himself and flipped the runner over him.  It was much like the Judo principle of transferring your opponents momentum instead of absorbing it.  Looked beautiful and fairly safe.  However, I don't trust that enough guys would learn that technique or execute it, and instead you'd have plays that just don't need to happen. 

BUT FRANCO!!!  The plays at the plate are so exciting!!

Shut up, yes they are.  But they'll still be pretty good, even if they aren't violent.  The thing about baseball is that it's like 98% not violent.  So changing this little thing doesn't really undermine the fundamental appeal of the sport. 

Good work, Baseball.  You have managed to do something pretty sensible!

Friday, December 13, 2013

Winter Meetings notes

1. Charlie Morton sticking around
I love this. At $7 million a year for three years, you're getting a reliable, middle-of-the-rotation ground-ball pitcher who we know still has swing-and-miss stuff. Guys who pitch like Charlie did this year tend to go for way more on the open market, so I'd even be tempted to say the Pirates are getting something of a bargain here. I'll take everyone's word for it when they say it couldn't happen to a better guy, but what really excites me about this is that it should put to rest all of the lingering bullshit animosity toward the 2009 trade of Nate McLouth. Nathan Adcock is bouncing around people's bullpens and Gorkys Hernandez has established himself as certifiable baseball garbage. Charlie Morton is a big-league starting pitcher whose abilities play right into the Pirates' philosophy of getting ground balls and playing solid defense. Charlie will no doubt celebrate his new contract by road-tripping with his wife and dog to wherever in the Western hemisphere Jason Mraz is playing between now and February.

2. One more year of Barmes
At $2 million for one year, he's worth it to this team for his defense. The Pirates would love to have a regular shortstop, but Jordy Mercer's defense doesn't touch Clint's, and infield defense was one of the things that made the 2013 Bucs so good. It's one year, it's a pay cut, and he'll be playing part-time all next season, barring injuries. Sure, he's as hopeless at the plate as Francisco Liriano, but this dude saved 14.2 runs over 804.1 innings at shortstop last year. If you're using him in the right situations and compensating with increased offense at other positions ::coughRIGHTFIELDcough:: he's worth keeping around. Yes, once in a while he's going to end up popping up the first pitch he sees to end a one-run ballgame, but don't lose sight of the fact that this guy plays a role and does it extremely well.

3. Edinson Volquez
One year at $5 million? Looks like another reclamation project, and nowhere near the level of the gambit we thought Liriano was going to be. Volquez has always had the ability and the repertoire, but his control just isn't there, and he leaves pitches out over the plate. But for having an okay fastball that runs around 93-94, Volquez relies a lot on his curveball. Over his last three seasons, the curve has accounted for more than 20 percent of his pitches thrown, including over 24 percent each of the last two years. In his best seasons, 2008 and 2009, he was using it between 9 and 10 percent. He also has a pretty good changeup, but seldom has a chance to use it as an out-pitch because he struggles so much to throw strikes. Look for the curveball to more or less disappear from Volquez's arsenal this year. If he buys into the Huntington-Searage method, you're going to see a lot of fastballs, two-seamers and changeups. This is a low-risk, medium-reward deal that could buy the Pirates a season's worth of good starts. If he pitches well under the Pirates' model, he's probably excellent trade bait come July. If he doesn't buy into the system at all and insists on continuing to lob curveballs at guys, he'll be DL'd or DFA'd by June.

4. What's next? 
Get Eric Chavez and platoon him with Gaby Sanchez at first. If you can't do that, go try to get Ike Davis. See if you can lure Burnett back -- the longer this goes on, the more skeptical I am that it's going to happen. Apparently, the Marlins are interested in Josh Harrison. Give him to them for free. Bring in Mark Mulder on a minor-league, tryout contract. There's talk of teams being interested in Justin Wilson, who isn't arbitration eligible for two more years. I'd hold onto him for another year before spinning him off in the winter. He's got a lot of years of control left, but I still don't think he's at peak value. If he can do next year what he did last year, he could effectively double his value. Sign Mark Melancon to a deal that negates all three of his arbitration years and possibly his first year of free agency. This is the kind of guy you can keep in your bullpen longer than most. He can pitch in any situation, and even when he's bad, he' still pretty good because he just doesn't walk guys. He's not quite as efficient as a guy like Edward Mujica, but he's not far off.

5. What the D'Backs did to get Mark Trumbo?
That's totally insane. Don't do that.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Eulogy for Garrett Jones

Pittsburgh, PA-- A completely replaceable platoon player was designated for assignment the other day.  There is no further information at this time.

**Editorial Note**
Some people, including the eminently revered Rocco DeMaro, have offered warmer memories of "GFJ."  Apparently he was really nice to reporters or something?  Our stance has mostly always been: who cares?  The dude offered no defense, and was AT BEST a platoon player at one of the weaker first bases in the league.  Let's look at it another way: if you aren't cutting a 33 year old platoon first baseman with a .233/.289, you're either a supremely shitty team (which we were during a lot of Jonesy's tenure) or the dude is slugging 4.00 (which he's not).  

I'm nominating this as the Why-Do-You-Care-That-Much-If-We-Bring-Back-Jeff-Karstens-Or-Not?? personnel move of the young 2013/2014 off-season.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Never forget

A Harvard graduate and Massachusetts native, grew up a Patriots fan, but said he always respected the Steelers' ability to run the ball and stop the run. He was assassinated 50 years ago today.

As part of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's ongoing coverage the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, we asked Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward, who majored in history at Ohio State University, to recount his top five presidential assassinations.

1. Abraham Lincoln
I know this is supposed to be JFK's week, but Abraham Lincoln is by far the best president whose term was cut short by an assassin's bullet. Not only did he save the union and end slavery in America, but he gave some of the best speeches in the history of the United States and also the world. Not a lot of people know this, but John Wilkes Booth and his conspirators originally planned to kidnap President Lincoln. It wasn't until Lincoln gave a speech the week before his assassination about enfranchising African-Americans to help former slaves quicker adjust in American society that Booth decided to kill Lincoln instead of kidnap him.
President Lincoln hosted the Steelers at the White House in August of 1864, after the defense came up big in stopping the run at the Battles of Atlanta and Fort Stevens, holding the Confederate army to -18 yards of total offense.

2. William McKinley
He's an oft-forgotten man, but President McKinley's support of protective tariffs, refusal to take any side the gold versus silver currency debate and latent anti-populist streak make him kind of a frustrating case. But he was assassinated in Buffalo and we really executed great against those guys last week. You get it? Executed? Too soon?
Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward greets President William McKinley before the Steelers' game against the Miami Dolphins last year. McKinley, who grew up near Youngstown, Ohio, played both defensive end and outside linebacker while attending Allegheny College.
3. Nicolae Ceausescu
Ceausescu was the President of Romania from 1967 to 1989, but...well, he murdered a lot of his own people, and they weren't wild about that. On Christmas Day of 1989, after he'd already been deposed, his country's army captured him and his wife, held a speedy, two-hour trial, then executed them by firing squad right outside. The crazy part is that the whole thing was broadcast on national TV! I'm serious! You can watch it on YouTube! One year, I really wanted the He-Man Power Sword for Christmas and I didn't get it. My parents thought it was too violent and I wound up getting new football pads instead. I thought that was the worst Christmas ever until I found out about this guy. Worst Christmas ever is no longer up for debate.
Before entering politics, former  Romanian President Nicolae Ceausescu earned a PhD from Pittsburgh's Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon University) in physics.  
4. John F. Kennedy
The assassination of John Kennedy remains one of the most discussed and controversial events in American history, but what really sets it apart from the other assassinations is that nobody is entirely sure why it happened. The logistical questions surrounding the number of gunmen and their identities remain in question, but in a larger sense, the relevance of those questions pales in comparison to the ongoing quest to find out why they were there and who organized the entire plot. The research I've done places Lyndon Johnson at the head of the conspiracy, but we could go round and round all day with this, just as we have the last 50 years.
Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward greets President John F. Kennedy before the Steelers' game against the Miami Dolphins last year.

5. James A. Garfield
After Lincoln's speech about wanting to give freed slaves the right to vote got him killed, our next assassinated president was done in on a railroad platform by a disgruntled office seeker. Seriously, go read up on Charles Guiteau -- that guy was nuts. After he shot the Garfield, Guiteau yelled, "I am a Stalwart of the Stalwarts! I did it and I want to be arrested! Arthur is President now!" Some historians contend that the gunshot Garfield sustained was non-threatening to the point where he'd have survived under more modern medical care. Can you imagine being the president and waiting for a train? Can you imagine being anyone and waiting for a train? That whole idea is just crazy to me.
President James A. Garfield, who served as a general in the Union Army during the Civil War, grew up a Cleveland Browns fan in Moreland Hills, Ohio. So really, you could argue he had it coming.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: shamelessly pandering since 2003

Everything is about the Steelers. If you don't see that, you're clearly lying to yourself. That's the only reason something like this is in any way okay.

For what it's worth, Gene Collier did the exact same thing in a column last week.

Among the common endings for the common occurrences that furnish any totally common Friday isn’t where you typically find the darkest hours of American history, so maybe it was the contrast that made it so indelible.

Sometimes lunch ends when the bell rings or the whistle blows. Sometimes lunch ends when you write down a tip and autograph a credit-card receipt, and sometimes it ends with the caloric blitzkrieg of pumpkin-spiced cheesecake.

And then, other times, lunch ends when the President of the United States gets shot.

I don't need to play editor to someone who's clearly an authority figure on all writing matters as Gene is, but that's not going to stop me in this particular instance.

The first paragraph of this column is, as Orson Welles would say, "unpleasant to read." Also, if that's the lede and I'm a reader 
— which it is and I am  I'm fucking out of there and onto something else before I even finish that 36-word sentence. Everything preceding it is inner monologue which serves only to slap the reader in the face with your dick.

Open with "Sometimes lunch ends..." That's your lede 
— or, as we say in the business, "kill your lede and make the nut graf the lede graf." See how graph is spelled with an "f" instead of a "ph?" Newspaper people are quirky like that!
“I was having lunch at the Roosevelt Hotel,” Steelers chairman Dan Rooney was remembering yesterday. “Someone came in and said that Kennedy was just shot, and that was the end of the lunch.”
Great story. 
Dan’s isn’t one of the better where-were-you-when-Kennedy-was-shot stories, not by a mile, but his next 48 hours were some of the most interesting in the history of both sports and the way sports impacts our national consciousness.

This is what's known in journalism as a "justification graf." In newsroom-speak, a justification graf is something you write in a column when you're about to make a completely preposterous argument. It's also something that I just made up. The king of justification grafs was former Pittsburgh Press columnist Phil Musick, who used to just take large swaths of text from other people's columns and reprint them verbatim as his own. But I digress.
Just as the Kennedy assassination is perhaps the most-told story every told, often along its most far-flung tangents, the looming 50th anniversary again compels the NFL to recount and perhaps regret the decision to play its full schedule two days after the kill shots crackled through Dealey Plaza in Dallas.

The NFL mishandles matters of decorum, propriety, etiquette, good taste, human decency and public relations on a near-daily basis. The most anyone has ever gotten out of the NFL is a Monday-morning apology along the lines of "Yes, that was a blown call, and yes, you lost the game because of it, but we're not going to do anything about it. We apologize for your misfortune and consider the matter closed."

I won't deny for a second the possibility that Pete Rozelle might have had second thoughts about playing games two days after the President of the United States was assassinated, but if you think the current NFL is going to use this or any time to think or reflect on anything, let alone something that happened 50 years ago, you're just not paying attention
The NFL "righted this wrong" by postponing its games immediately following the September 11th attacks, but there's no evidence that the decision not to play in that instance had anything do with basic human decency. Playing that weekend would have done irreparable damage to the league and its credibility. I'm sure Paul Tagliabue knew that, just as he knew that making the necessary security adjustments for football games in an immediate post-9/11 world couldn't be done inside of a week. Football couldn't happen that weekend for reasons pertaining to logistics — but decorum and decency provided a satisfactory excuse. After all, this is the league that plays games mere days after its players kill themselves on team property, in front of other players and coaches. This is a league that goes about business as usual, even when its up-and-coming stars are murdered at night in their homes. 
Nobody's bigger than the game, and the game is about one thing and only one thing.
“When we first talked, a couple of hours afterward, I told him, ‘I think we’ve gotta cancel the games,’ ” Rooney said after receiving that call from then commissioner Pete Rozelle. “He said he was going to call [Kennedy’s press secretary] Pierre Salinger, and Pete knew him very well; he went to school with him. He called me back, like an hour later, not long, and he said Pierre said that Jack would have liked for us to play, and that he felt this would be good for the nation and for the people, to get a diversion.

The two most important things one can glean from this paragraph are:
1. The Rooney response was the correct response.
2. Who the hell does football think it is calling Kennedy's press secretary within hours of the assassination and asking his opinion on whether or not the NFL should play. That's the most self-important bullshit in the history of self-important bullshit.

Think about that: the President of the United States 
— the same one who just the previous year had, by the skin of his teeth, prevented all-out, worldwide nuclear war  had his head blown off in clear light of day. I'm thinking that maybe, just maybe, this creates a rather substantial list of concerns pertaining but not limited to national security, the rule of law, succession, international relations — a lot of items, each of which impacts millions and millions of people, foreign and domestic, born and unborn. And while we're sorting through all that chaos, everyone in the country is hysterical, authorities are trying to track down the assassin(s) and nobody knows what's going on, one of the late president's top aides gets a call. 
It's from the NFL. They want to know if they should play this weekend. 
Never mind that this guy's boss was just murdered, that the entire country is panicking, that he's going to have to be the one to go on TV at some point and brief the press, and that there's absolutely no guarantee he's going to still have his job in a few weeks, given his new boss's well-known dislike of his old boss. 
The NFL wants to know if it should play its football games. What does the White House think? 
That's all anyone needs to know about the NFL. Were a similar situation to occur today and Roger Goodell were faced with the same decision, you think he's going to call and ask for someone's opinion? What evidence exists showing that Roger Goodell gives a fuck what anyone thinks?
“I said I thought this was too big a story. That what happened was just too big. Too big of an historical fact. I just felt we shouldn’t do it. We talked more, and he said he was leaning toward playing and finally I said, ‘OK, look, I disagree with you, but I’ll back you, whatever you do.’ ”
Dan was right, and Rozelle would acknowledge as much when he retired more than a quarter century later, citing that weekend in 1963 as the worst mistake in a career that saw very few. But Rooney’s better where-were-you narrative would came soon enough, within an hour, in fact, of the 1 o’clock Sunday kickoffs, all in numb stadiums, including Cleveland’s hulking Municipal, where Browns owner Art Modell had instructed his public-address announcer to refer to the visitors only as “the Cowboys” and to not under any circumstances say the word “Dallas.”
“I was on the roof of Forbes Field, I used to go there before the games, and I had this little radio I was listening to, and that’s where I heard about Oswald getting shot,” Rooney said. “And I thought, ‘What in the world is this? This is the craziest thing in the world. What kind of a country do we have?’ ”
From here, the column devolves into drivel about how the Rooneys helped the Kennedys out garnering votes Pennsylvania, then Rooney recalls how all of the other Kennedys died, and how weird that was for him. 
Point is, Dan Rooney was right then. If Gene Collier had contacted him prior to writing this column and said, "I'd like to write a column about the Kennedy assassination, but I'd like it to be about the Steelers," surely the old man would have at least tried to dissuade him.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Monday, October 14, 2013

Hatesterpiece Theater: College Football edition

When I'm busy not blogging, I do all kinds of interesting things. Sometimes, I eat eggs for breakfast. Something else I occasionally do when not blogging is write book reviews.

A few months ago, an editor for whose section I've written for gave me Fourth and Long: The Fight for the Soul of College Football by John U. Bacon, and asked me to review it. Ultimately, I told him I just couldn't do it fairly. I felt terrible about that, not only because it meant admitting defeat in this particular instance, but because I struggled so hard to get through the damn thing in the first place without wanting to light the book on fire, one page at a time.

What I ultimately wrote up reads more like an op-ed piece than a book review, and it's not destined for mainstream publication. But as a mainly Pittsburgh, mainly sports blog, that's why we're here: we pass the factory surplus of haterade on to you. Special bonus: I've left all the courtesy titles in so that you may repeatedly chuckle at the use of the words, "Mr. Bacon."

You might have noticed that we don't write a lot about college football in this space. Read on to find out why:

Kids growing up in America today generally aren’t encouraged to spend time on bouncing on trampolines or learning to skateboard. Nobody necessarily makes them learn to ride bikes or take swimming lessons.
Football, on the other hand, is an American tradition. Rare is American city, town or hamlet in which the Friday night high school game, the Saturday college game or the Sunday professional game not the most popular distraction in a given week.
In Fourth and Long: The Fight for the Soul of College Football, author John U. Bacon profiles goings on within four Big Ten football programs — Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan and Northwestern. College football, he argues, is football’s oldest and most important denizen.
Mr. Bacon does this under the guise of examining how college football has changed, contrasting its historic traditions with its current realities by examining some of the game’s more admirable characters. The trouble is that he doesn’t seem to be able to separate his love of those traditions from those realities.
In this sloppily written, borderline-unreadable 350-page love letter to the way things used to be, Mr. Bacon posits that the game is being ruined by greed — that regional rivalries, school pride and the idea of passion are all suffering. In a sense, he’s right. College football isn’t what it used to be, and greed is the reason. But he also isn’t willing to embrace the kind of change the game needs, not just to fix it but to bring it closer to something less resembling organized crime.
College football isn’t just a multi-billion dollar industry, it’s the third-most profitable sport in America. Yet Mr. Bacon advances the naïvely altruistic and absurd notion that college football is above the business of business and should operate on some romanticized and antiquated idea of amateurism.
In an attempt to establish college football as something important and special, Mr. Bacon runs out a series of patently ridiculous claims.
“College football fans actually care about college football.”
Unlike hockey fans, who readily admit they’re just killing time.
“College football is one of those few passions we have in common with our great-grandparents.”
Unlike these newfangled inventions of baseball, reading and being outdoors.
Jerry Sandusky’s arrest and the scandal that followed, “surely accelerated Paterno’s decline and death.”
Sure, because the prognosis on an 85-year-old man with lung cancer is normally outstanding.
“College teams play on college campuses, where student actually go to school.”
Unless they don’t, as is the case with the Universities of Miami, Hawaii, Washington, Baylor, South Carolina, Oregon, Northwestern and Pittsburgh, just to name a few.
“College football is selling romance, not prowess,” Bacon writes. “…it is not supposed to be a business.”
I hate to break it to Mr. Bacon, but college football is a business. Just like the NFL, it’s run by an abhorrently hypocritical governing body.  And the nearly 68,000 kids who play college football every year are America’s most exploited workforce. By merely playing the game, they’re subjecting themselves to a myriad of long-term health issues — including self-destructive neurological disorders and shortened lifespans — and receiving nothing in return but the opportunity to earn a farcical education.
Every college with a football program is more than fine with this arrangement because the last thing administrators want is a challenge to an unchecked system which affords them a license to print money off the backs of young kids, many of whom are black and from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.
In leaning heavily on college football’s many traditions, Mr. Bacon shows he’s more interested in longing for the sport’s bygone era than he is in fixing its numerous ailments, and he offers little in the way of proposed solutions. At one point, he writes that the now widely adopted corporate approach to college athletics administration is akin to selling the Gettysburg battlefield to Disney “so they can ‘maximize the brand’ and give visitors a ‘wow’ experience.”
It’s true that tradition can be valuable. But when treated with the kind of blind reverence that brings someone to compare the sanctity of amateurism to that of blood-soaked hallowed ground on which was fought a war to end slavery, tradition becomes a sad excuse to maintain the status quo, regardless of any inconvenient necessary evils or immorality inherent in the system.
As literary candy for die-hard college football fans, Fourth and Long delivers well-reported information on of players and coaches who continue to forge ahead, both out of respect for and in the name of tradition. Mr. Bacon’s exposition on the Penn State football players who found themselves caught up in a scandal they had nothing to do with makes for an interesting story.
But anyone looking for thoughtful analysis, insightful perspective or new ideas on the abjectly broken game is better off looking elsewhere, as Fourth and Long spends most of its time preaching to college football’s stubbornly unflappable fans. 

Monday, October 7, 2013

If you were never down, how would you know when you were up?

I'm a nervous person. I always have been. I'm on medication for it. But the last week's worth of baseball has taken it to heights I didn't think possible.

Extract all the butterflies and nagging self-doubt you felt during all of both middle and high school, combine it with the tenuousness of your first date, first big job interview and everything you went through while reluctantly learning to swim. Pour that into a small saucepan, then add Game 6 of the 2008 Stanley Cup Finals, Game 7 of the 2009 Stanley Cup Finals and five ounces of red wine vinegar.

Then place it uncovered on low heat for a few minutes to reduce it into a concentrate, let it cool and drink it over the course of about five hours.

That's what it felt like on Tuesday night while sitting at Kelly's Korner Bar in Lawrenceville and watching the Pirates and the Reds throw down for a trip to baseball's real post-season.

I've loved baseball as far back as my memory takes me, and I'm told that I had a predisposition for it even prior to that. My feelings toward this game are so strong and so inexorably linked with my identity that I'm sure their intensity rivals the way other people feel about their faith or their kids or Ultimate Frisbee.
But for as passionate as I am about baseball, I've never hung on every single pitch of a game with the anticipation and focus I did on Tuesday night. And though I couldn't get a ticket, the crowd was so intense that felt it through the TV for all nine innings.

All these years, I always wondered what it would be like when these guys finally got over the hump. I imagined being there. I imagined not being able to get a ticket and watching at a bar. I imagine watching with friends. I imagined watching alone, presumably for some kind of Zen catharsis. I imagined it would be tense.

I never imagined it would be as tense as it was, or that I'd be so overcome with raw emotion at a Lawrenceville dive bar that I'd completely lose my composure. I've never been a crier. When it was over, I felt lightheaded. Then I wept like a child for about 30 minutes. Right there at the bar.

Once it became clear that this was the team that would end the futility, I set what I felt was a completely reasonable expectation: either win the division or win the Wild Card Game. Either way, play in a real playoff series. Just make it to that stupid five-game divisional series and that's enough. Dayenu.

Now, these guys have taken home-field advantage away from the Cardinals and are one win away from going back to the series where this whole ignominious odyssey started.

And I'll be there tomorrow. I couldn't be there on Tuesday or today. But tomorrow, I'll get to go down to my ballpark to watch the Pirates play in a game which for years, I wasn't sure I'd ever live to see them play.

Win or lose, that's invaluable to me and I plan to savor every minute of it. Always appreciate the winning and never forget the losing. If we're lucky, some day that will be the only thing separating us from Yankees fans.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Fridays with FRANCO: Playoff Edition!

Here are some things I'm thinking, presented in a numbered list:

1. Pedro Alvarez, Garrett Jones, Justin Morneau, and Daryle Ward should all be in the lineup today.  Lance Lynn's splits:
vs. RHB = .291 wOBA
vs. LHB = .340 wOBA

Those guys should also go up there taking pitches.  It's not that Lynn is necessarily more hittable for hefty lefties; it's that he has trouble throwing quality strikes to them.  His primary pitch is the fastball, both the four-seam and two-seam variety.  Unless a fastball is cut, it will move in a bit towards batters of the same side as the pitcher's arm (i.e. tailing in on righties when thrown by a righty, in on lefties when thrown by a lefty).  Lynn gets his outs by using that natural trajectory to sneak up on the bat handles of righties, but when lefties come up, the pitch either fades out of the zone, or gets grooved right down the middle.  In short: he doesn't have an effective way to power pitch these guys on their inner half of the plate, and because of that, he's historically been prone to walking them.

2.  Gerrit Cole has never faced St. Louis.  Interesting if true.

3.  Clint Hurdle is a big dummy for leaving A.J. Burnett in there for so long yesterday.  Moreso, he's a big dummy for not having his bullpen mobilized earlier.  Same can be said for Dusty Baker in Tuesday night's game.  It's like these guys are afraid there's a charge for calling the bullpen and telling some dudes to start stretching.

Yes, the argument can be made that there was no beating Wainwright yesterday.  But if that's how you want to play it, if you just want to concede the game in the 3rd inning, then you should pull McCutchen and Martin and some other guys off the field so they don't get injured.  If you've given up on a game, then let the world know and don't take chances with your prized commodities.

What do I do differently?  I warm up Melancon and a lefty when AJ walks the pitcher.  I go out to the mound and tell him he's an asshole.  Then I pull him after he gives up the HR to Beltran.  I am not concerned with the possibility that it'll shatter his confidence; giving up 7 runs and only recording 6 outs is pretty confidence shattering, too.  So yeah, I'd bring in one of my best arms to try to limit the damage to 3 runs.  Maybe we lose the game 5-1 or 4-0 or something like that.  And the Cardinals are still up one game to none.  But we don't know that for certain in the 3rd inning.  All we know is that we have three to five games, in which we need to maintain the best probability of winning at all times.  If that means a 5% WPE vs. a 1.8% WPE, fine.  We're all gambling men at this time of the year; why handcuff ourselves to worse odds when it doesn't cost us anything to do the alternative?

4. I haven't come across a strong devil's advocate piece, yet, on The Drop Heard 'Round The World.  I was there, it was magical, the crowd was rocking and it doesn't hurt anything or anyone to believe we got inside Cueto's head.  But put everything on mute for a minute.  Johnny Cueto was up in the zone from the beginning.  He got one ground ball out, and that was Starling Marte trying to bunt for a hit.  All of his misses were up out of the zone; all of his strikes were in the upper third of the zone.  All of his outs were stingers hit to his outfielders.  Nils and I both noticed this and said that it was a good omen for home run hitting.  Sure enough, that's the kind of offense we got.  Did the chanting help?  Probably didn't hurt.  Were those moonshots completely predictable within the pattern of his prior location?  Yes.  Sometimes a dude drops a ball.  Sometimes the national sports media loves a narrative.  Sometimes the narrative is completely unassailable because of what the game means to that particular city and crowd.  This was our bloody sock, and I think it's a story worth telling. So there's my very, very conditional devil's advocate.


5. St. Louis has some really bad pizza!  A couple buddies and I stopped in for a pie when we were passing through a few summers ago, and it was terrible. 

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

This is why we lifted all those weights

So it's October 1st and there's a Pirates game in just under two hours. How the hell did that happen?
Dave Cameron did a fantastic analysis of this last week on Fangraphs, which is well worth a read, but four out of the five items he touches on can be traced back to one thing: they finally started paying attention to the right numbers.
It wasn't just the front office, either. The coaches and players did, too. About two weeks ago, the Trib's Travis Sawchik wrote what I think might go down as the most revealing piece of sports journalism anyone has done in this city for a while when he did a feature on the Pirates' use of defensive shifts.
Shifting is one of the items Cameron touches on in his breakdown, but from that piece came this nugget:

“We had a buy-in that we were going to do it starting in spring training,” Hurdle said. “We brought Dan (Fox) in, and I brought in all my coaching staff.
“I know this game is built upon tradition, and players are territorial. They have comfort zones in the infield. You lay out the factual information … and with facts, there's no argument.”
The signings of Francisco Liriano and Russell Martin proved great moves. So too, for that matter did bringing back Charlie Morton on a one-year deal. But that Neal Huntington was able to get Clint Hurdle and his staff into a place where they were open to the idea of managing with a sabermetric bend to the game goes beyond just employing defensive shifts -- it's an absolute game-changer.
Last October, Charlie Wilmoth of Bucs Dugout hosted a bloggers' round table with the Trib's Dejan Kovacevic. This was in the wake of the reporting on what appeared to be the militaristic, non-baseball culture the Pirates had established in their minor league system. During the hour-plus chat Dejan did with the bloggers, I brought up the question of numbers, and what if any role Dan Fox was playing in the team's decision-making.
FTC: What’s Dan Fox doing? Do they just not listen to anything he says? Clint Hurdle definitely doesn't listen to Dan Fox.Dejan: This is true, actually. Not sure if you’re being hypothetical there, but you’re right either way.

This was the last information anyone outside the organization reported until Sawchik told the story of Huntington meeting with Hurdle and selling him on the idea of maybe hearing what Fox had to say.
From Sawchik's piece:

“Nothing gets implemented from where I sit. I have no power to make it happen, so Clint's willingness and openness to information is key,” Fox said. “They committed to it.”

It's impossible to emphasize how huge this has been for the Pirates, but it also fundamentally changes our understanding of the organization. It's evidence of a method to the madness after a pair of seasons during which we had significant reason to question the existence of or adherence to any method. 

2011 and 2012 were all smoke and mirrors, and the peripheral stats all said so. That wasn't the case this year. So while I approached July with trepidation, numbers like xFIP and BABIP, combined with the pitching staff's eminently reasonable walk rates, all said that this was more likely real than not. Then, they brought up Gerrit Cole and shit became incredibly real.

Before the season started, FTC completely panned the signing of Francisco Liriano. What evidence did we have that the Pirates knew something everyone else didn't? After two straight epic collapses, what credibility did they have to make such a claim?

It turns out the Pirates knew the same things about Liriano as everyone else; the only difference is that the Pirates decided they'd get more out of Liriano if they politely asked that he never rear back and try to throw 97, and instead focus on making his two-seamer -- which was already a fantastic pitch -- the center of his repertoire. And while they were at it, they had all their other starters do that, too.

In the season preview, FTC said the ceiling on Russell Martin was "not a colossal waste of money." Another gross miscalculation. Not only was Martin not a waste of money, he wound up being one of the 20 best players in the National League, having the second-highest WAR among catchers, and turning out the best defensive season that any catcher has had in at least the last 11 years. Certainly, part of this is pitch-framing. But Martin has also been outstanding at throwing out runners and blocking balls in the dirt, the latter of which, it turns out, is exactly a skill you want your catcher to have when you're fielding a rotation of guys who rely so heavily on sinkers. 
Once we know more about defensive metrics for catchers, it's going to be fascinating to look back at Martin's 2013 campaign to see where it fits with regard to his career.

What looked like a pair of last-ditch moves to make a run at .500 turned out to be well-considered attempts at implementing a coherent and logical organizational philosophy: groundballs, strikeouts, defense. So yes, I was wrong about those guys and I'm completely happy to admit it. This has been the most fun season of baseball I've ever experienced, and no amount of being right is worth the reality that we're going to be playing ball today (I add, parenthetically, that FTC was dead-on with its preseason lauding of Mark Melancon and Justin Wilson, and its straight-up dismissal of Jonathan Sanchez, Brandon Inge and James McDonald).

It absolutely kills me that I'm not wearing black down on the North Shore right now. I am, however, about to make my way over to a certain undisclosed location in Lawrenceville to watch the game and hopefully live-tweet. If they win tonight, I'm really hoping I'll find a way to get to the divisional series -- in fact, I'd give multiple years off the end of my life to be there. If they don't, I probably won't get out of bed tomorrow, and I'll be holding Nils and Franco personally responsible for going to the game without me.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Figuring out the postseason roster

I don't know what to say after last night. I really don't. This entire season has been a combination of amazement, disbelief, astonishment and hope.

Pat Lackey, who writes the outstanding Pirates blog Where Have You Gone, Andy Van Slyke, put it about as well as anyone who's waited for this possibly could have, so I'll recommend his post on the Pirates making the playoffs. 

At some point, I anticipate I'll do a season wrap-up, during which I'll let it all fly. But being one of America's chronically underemployed, I spend a lot of time writing for other people these days and much less for myself. 

Okay, so everyone gets a fresh 25 for the start of the play-in round. It's conceivable that the Pirates could leave someone off of their postseason roster, but only do it for one game. Whatever. I don't care what James Santelli says, they're not going to bring in Chase d'Arnaud for one game. The way I see it, there are 20 guys who have postseason roster spots locked up (10 pitchers and 10 position players). They are:

Francisco Liriano
A.J. Burnett
Charlie Morton
Gerrit Cole
Jeanmar Gomez
Vin Mazzaro
Tony Watson
Justin Wilson
Mark Melancon
Jason Grilli

Russell Martin
Pedro Alvarez
Clint Barmes
Jordy Mercer
Justin Morneau
Gaby Sanchez
Neil Walker
Marlon Byrd
Andrew McCutchen
Jose Tabata

That leaves five spots open, so let's break down who's left.

Kyle Farnsworth: I just don't see it.
Kris Johnson: Not a chance.
Jeff Locke: We already know it's not happening because the Pirates are skipping his final start and going with a four-man rotation in the playoffs. Locke is a completely unnecessary pitcher, which is fine because he's also a completely terrible pitcher who walks 19 guys an inning.
Jared Hughes: The Pirates are going to need to keep a righty out of this group, but I'd be shocked if it was Hughes. He's been nothing but a mop-up guy when healthy this year, and hasn't particularly excelled at that.
Bryan Morris: Sweet christ on a stick is this guy awful. But he's in the same category as Hughes. He's been with the club nearly all year, and for some unknown reason, Hurdle keeps going to him in high-leverage situations.
Stolmy Pimentel: I would love it if the Pirates kept Stolmy, but I have a hard time seeing it happening. It's not inconceivable, but it just doesn't seem likely. Pimentel has better stuff than Hughes or Morris, and the potential to be a pretty good starter looking toward next year. He's deserving of consideration which normally, I'd say he wouldn't get. On one hand, the Pirates have been especially smart this season. On the other hand, Hurdle keeps using Bryan Morris in close games.
Brandon Cumpton: Save injury, I think the only way Cumpton makes the postseason roster is if Jeanmar Gomez doesn't, and Gomez has the advantage of having been in the long relief role for a bulk of the season. This is stupid. Cumpton has more of place on the postseason roster than Morris or Hughes. He throws a sinker and he gets ground balls. With the way the Pirates play defense, that's the most important thing. 

It would make a lot of sense if the Pirates only opted to carry 11 pitchers on the postseason roster, given that they're going with a four-man rotation. If they're going to take just one out of this group to round out the pen, it's probably going to be Morris. It should be Pimentel or Cumpton. The thought of it being Morris makes me physically ill, and when referring to him from now on, I'm going to call him Pitcher X because I'm so goddamn sick of typing his name.

John Buck and Tony Sanchez: The Pirates have three guys who play only this position. I'd never given John Buck a second thought before he came here. He's your run-of-the-mill backup catcher. But now that I've seen him, I can say with certainty that he's legitimately awful. Tony Sanchez is the better catcher of the two, and should be Martin's backup on the postseason roster. That said, would it shock anyone if the Pirates kept Buck for the mere notion of power he has which Sanchez doesn't? Not really. But they shouldn't.
Josh Harrison: Jay Hay should probably be on the roster. His versatility in the field, combined with the fact that neither Walker nor Alvarez can hit lefties particularly well, almost necessitates it. Man, that was a weird couple of sentences.
Andrew Lambo: He might be the minor league player of the year, but he's done nothing in the majors and the Pirates aren't hurting for lefty bats. Lambo won't make it.
Starling Marte: Marte has a torn tendon in his finger. The only way it's going to heal is with rest and time. And it will heal. But until then, he's going to play in pain, probably with the aid of cortisone shots. It's incredibly risky to carry a guy who might be nothing more than a defensive replacement and pinch runner, but between his upside and how he's hit the last two nights, I can't see him being left behind. He'll be on the roster.
Felix Pie: Remember that thing I just said about how a team shouldn't carry a guy who's nothing more than a defensive replacement and pinch runner? That applies here. Baleeted.
Garrett Jones and Travis Snider: These two guys do ostensibly the same thing from the same side of the plate, and they're both terrible. Snider has been better in pinch-hitting situations, but Jones...has been here longer? There's very little redeeming about Garrett Jones at this point in his career. If they keep one of these two, it's going to be Snider. But they could easily keep both, if only because I can't see any team going into the playoffs with Felix Pie on its roster.

FTC's Last five in:
Josh Harrison
Starling Marte
Travis SniderGarrett Jones
Tony Sanchez
Brandon Cumpton

The likely last five in:
Josh Harrison
Starling Marte
Garrett Jones
John Buck
Pitcher X

EDIT: Nils brings up an excellent point. If the final game of the season is meaningful, Cole will be scheduled to start it. Since he'd be unavailable to pitch during the Wild Card game, the Pirates could leave him off the initial roster in favor of either Cumpton or Pimentel, and then add him back were they to win that game.

A quick note on payroll, which I only bring up because I'm still hearing assholes complain that it will never be real because baseball is so economically unfair and broken:

I wouldn't argue for a second that baseball isn't economically unfair or broken. But it's not about how much money you spend. It's about how you spend it

Ask Philly and their $160 million payroll. Or the White Sox and their $123 million tab. Or maybe the Angels, who spent nearly $142 million this year, or the Blue Jays, who spent $118.5 million. $105 million got the Cubs between 65 and 68 wins this year, and the Brewers dropped $91 million for no more than 73 wins.

Conversely, Tampa Bay spent $59 million. The A's spent a little over $65 million. Cleveland spent $82 million, and the Pirates spent $66 million.

Of the 15 highest payrolls in baseball, 10 of those teams won't make the playoffs. Three of the five teams who've spent the least this year have already locked up postseason spots.

The Yankees and their $230 million payroll are mathematically eliminated. But you're right. I'm sure the Pirates can't contend with them -- they just have too much money.

Best moment so far this season: The Pirates get their 90th win in the same fashion that sent them packing 21 years ago. 

Close second: Listening to Vin Scully explain the ethos of Brian Wilson over a span of three batters. If you don't have, get it for next year because he's coming back for his 64th year calling Dodgers games. Being able to listen to Scully, the last one-man booth in all of sports, call games is worth the price by itself. We don't get to hear him so much out here, but if you're a real fan of baseball or even just great announcing, turns of phrase or the English language, the smooth hum of this guy's voice is like nothing else. He puts everyone else in broadcasting to shame.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The elegiac symmetry of the emerald chess board

"While science has nothing of value to say on the great and aching questions of life, death, love, and meaning, what the religious traditions of mankind have said forms a coherent body of thought. 
"The yearnings of the human soul are not in vain. There is a system of belief adequate to the complexity of experience.
"There is recompense for suffering. A principle beyond selfishness is at work in the cosmos.
"All will be well." 

- David Berlinski (who is wrong about everything else)

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Joy cometh in the morning

The Flying Nanners (official kickball team of Free Tank Carter) played and split a doubleheader tonight. When we got to Hough's (official bar of the Flying Nanners) after the second game, muddied and exhausted, it was just in time to see Marlon Byrd's seventh-inning double, followed by an incredibly fancy, opposite-field double from Pedro Alvarez.

Terror struck when Tony Watson was on the hill with two down in the eighth, as Root Sports showed Bryan Morris warming up in the bullpen, but a fly ball to center ended all speculation that we'd see anyone but Mark Melancon come the ninth.

I said last week when I started organizing a series of ballgame watching parties a Pittsburgh bars that I just wanted to experience the streak-breaking game in the presence of people who'd genuinely appreciate it. After three failed attempts and one Jeff Locke start -- for which I didn't bother to organize anything, knowing that Jeff Locke was starting -- I gave up. That win would come when it would come, and I couldn't keep trying to get scads of people out to bars on weeknights to watch terrible baseball. Even in success, leave it to the Pirates to make everything as difficult as possible.

So after two stupidly messy kickball games, to get to the bar and find not only that the Pirates weren't losing, but that they and Gerrit Cole were matching Yu Darvish and the Rangers blow-for-blow was about as wonderful a surprise as we could have hoped for. I didn't get to see it at on my terms, but I did get to see it with a crowd of people who recognized its significance.

Melancon came on and did his thing. My friend Melanie captured me standing next to Nilesh as Neil Walker scooped up the ground ball which ended it.

The entire bar -- everyone who'd come to watch Monday Night Football, the Pirates, or just have a beer following their league games -- erupted. And chants of "shots! shots! shots!" rang out, and we happily complied.

In that instant, everything was perfect, clean, right.

In a few hours, I will, for the first time since I was nine years old, wake up a fan of a winning baseball team.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

This is the day

When I used to think about The Streak ending, I always had a hard time picturing what it looked like. I saw myself at the ballpark in late September. I saw my arms in the air. I saw tears in my eyes. And then, I thought about about how tremendously unfulfilled it would feel to just win 82 games. 
Maybe the only thing I didn't count on was the clinching game happening on the road -- kind of a head-scratcher when you think about half the games being played on the road, but in a way, that I never counted on it being on the road makes sense, as that's just how far from reality the moment has seemed for so long.
The way in which this is going down is actually ideal. That the Pirates are on the road means there's no fight or failure to get a ticket to The game. We're all going to be watching it at home, at a bar, whatever. 
And it shifts the focus to what suddenly matters more to this team: they're chasing a division title. They finished fourth in a five-team division last year, and this year, extrapolated standings based on performance have them finishing with 94 wins.
How quickly priorities change.
At this point, a winning season is a fait accompli. The Streak will end and these stupid assholes are going to make the playoffs. And we'll get to that. But whether it happens tonight or Friday or Saturday, it's important that we acknowledge the 82nd win. 
No, it's not the goal. No, it doesn't, in the grand scheme of things, mean nearly as much as the season does, or the state of the minor league system, or the depth of the Major League roster, or the way Neal Huntington's unbelievable patience and sack at the deadline and into August are indicative of a encouraging gestalt shift in the fans' view of the organization's front office. It doesn't mean much at this point. It's just a minor landmark en route to something much bigger.
But nonetheless, it's important that we acknowledge it. It's a weight off our shoulders. It's a deeper breath than we've been able to take in a long time. And it's an opportunity to experience a prolonged form of the actual joy that, for the last 20 years, we've known only in fleeting moments
This ignominy has lasted for two-thirds of my life. The idea of it being gone -- mathematically impossible to continue -- by the time I wake up tomorrow, delights me.
When you watch or listen to the game tonight, reflect the last 20 years. Think about the people who aren't around to see it. And most of all, notice and enjoy how happy you are. 
Kurt Vonnegut said and wrote a lot of great stuff, but nothing more precious or valuable than relaying advice his Uncle Alex once gave him:
"I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, 'If this isn't nice, I don't know what is.'"
We've waited a long time for this. No sense in not enjoying it.
Now that we've had this talk, watch Francisco Liriano go out and give up 10 runs in three innings and walk six, and the offense stubbornly refuse to hit anything off of Wily Peralta. That'd be just like them, wouldn't it?

Friday, August 30, 2013

Wow. So, that happened.

One of the things I mentioned during my talk with WESA's Larkin Page-Jacobs in the segment which aired on Wednesday (give it a listen!) was that for the last 20 years, Pirates fans have lived for a series of fleeting moments.

They're not about hope. They're not about next year being our year. They're just quick moments over the course of lost, abysmal seasons that make you glad you went out to the ballpark that night, or that you were paying attention to the game on TV or listening on the radio.

I went on to list a bunch of these:
Rob Mackowiak's walk-off grand slam in game one of a twi-night doubleheader against the Cubs, just hours after the birth of his first child, is always one of the first to come to mind. In the second game, Mack hit the game-tying home run and Brian Giles came up with the winner. This is one of those moments.

Jason Michaels's home run capped an unbelievable comeback against the Cardinals in July of 2008. The Pirates were down 9-3 in the 7th and 10-4 in the 8th. The Bucs went on to win the game 12-11.

I wasn't at the ballpark for this one. But I was there, sitting right on the first-base line, when this happened:
Lloyd got his money's worth, then just pulled the base out of the ground and walked stoically off the field with it. That's one of the all-time great managerial tantrums, and it was incredible to watch.

This one stands out, too.

Man, that guy was a dickhead. Wonderful ballplayer. All-time dickhead.

On April 25th, 2003, Kip Wells hit an Odalis Perez offering off of the batter's eye and into the shrubbery in dead-center field. It was the least kipwellian moment of his career, but man.

And of course, everything Jack Wilson ever did with a glove goes on this list. I'd be shocked if the full highlight reel lasted anything less than a full two hours. This one's always been my favorite:

Just a few more examples of things falling into this category:

On the last day of the waiver trade deadline in 1997, the "Freak Show" Pirates acquired Shawon Dunston from the Cubs. In hist first game with the team, Dunston hit two home runs. That was the last time the Pirates were in a tight divisional race so late in the season.

So of course, when this happened on Wednesday, there wasn't a die-hard Pirates fan alive who didn't instantly think of Shawon Dunston.

It's fitting that the segment aired on Wednesday, and that of the hour I spent talking to Jacobs, she chose to use that clip about the essence of being a Pirates fan existing in those moments.

I really like the trade. Marlon Byrd is at least twice as good as anyone the Pirates have played in right field this year, and the depth he and John Buck add to the roster was exactly what the team needed -- added offensive stability.

The home run was great. It was one of those moments. Refreshingly, this is the first time in a while in which the context outweighs the moment. Here's to more of those.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

A few odds and ends

Well, I guess it was only a matter of time before we saw one of these:

It comes to us from 28 North, an L.A.-based rock band of Pittsburgh kids. I grew up around the corner from lead singer Mike Lindner, who at some point in high school, sold my little brother a bag of tarragon for $25. No, it hasn't ever stopped being funny.

Needless to say, they're good guys. I ran into Mike a few months ago during a show at Mr. Small's, and despite the band's tremendous recent success -- they'd just signed their first recording contract with Sony -- all he wanted to talk about was the Pirates. So give these guys a look and a listen -- they're a straight-up, honest-to-god rock band, they're starting to make waves out on the west coast and they've got a heavy Pittsburgh flavor.

I'm not here to make a record, you dumb cracker. They're broadcasting me out on the radio!
Speaking of speaking about the Pirates, WESA-FM's Larkin Page-Jacobs, a friend of FTC, interviewed me for an hour last week for a piece she's doing about the impending demise of The Streak.

I'm told it's going to air on Wednesday morning, that I'm sharing air with Gene Collier, and that I come off as "passionate," which is mediaspeak for crazy. It'll be fun to see how this turns out.

As is the case with most conversations I have about the Pirates, I don't remember a lot of what I said, as talking about the Pirates from the fan perspective has become a lot like repeatedly banging my head against a wall, so I'm eager to tune in and find out how nuts I sound on a scale of 1-14. And because it'll be on Wednesday morning, it's timed to capitalize on the optimism you feel the morning after Jeff Locke walks the opposing pitcher twice in three innings.

That's what makes National League ball so great -- you're eligible for an entirely different level of suck.

On football
If you haven't yet, give Franco's Final Word on football a read. While I've been openly dealing with the moral questions he's answering for over a year, he's been steadfast in his convictions the entire time, and he deserves a great deal of credit for that.

I don't know if I'm ready to completely walk away from football, but it's something I think about constantly. I do know that I care substantially less about it than I did a year ago, and I'm completely furious with the NFL for the disingenuous approach it's taken toward all of these issues since they've come to light.

A longer reaction piece is forthcoming.