Wednesday, July 31, 2013

I can't feel my face

I don't know that I'd be able to name all the others immediately, but were I to go back and make a list of the greatest nights I've spent in ballparks, this one would be in the top two or three. 

The first game was maybe the finest this club has played all year. 

They were tight defensively. They still didn't hit, but they drew six walks. Pedro Alvarez, Russel Martin and Gaby Sanchez strung together some marvelous plate appearances. 

And though the guy who got the big hit was a someone I'm still eager to see relegated permanently to bench duty -- preferably on another club -- Alex Presley wasn't the real hero. 

There were two guys on base when Presley got that hit, and they got there by being incredibly patient, level-headed and mentally tough in the most tense situation baseball has to offer. Faced with the pressure of one-swing-can-end-it situations, Russel Martin and Gaby Sanchez couldn't have been cooler.

Martin hacked at and fouled off the first pitch he saw. Then, he watched four straight pitches go by outside the zone. One on, one out. 

Sanchez stepped in and looked at five straight pitches. He never took the bat off his shoulder. Two on, one out.

Presley, much to his credit, wisely took a first-pitch strike. You don't swing at the first pitch when the guy on the mound has walked back-to-back hitters on nine pitches -- that's just good common sense. And then he took another. He fouled one off down the third-base line that nearly took out Nick Leyva's ankles, then ran the count full by taking two more pitches out of the zone. Sitting dead red, he got the fastball he was looking for. 

This is what we've been waiting for. Yes, this team needs to hit better than it has. But in a lineup that's been so heavily loaded for years with free-swingers, all too eager to try and kill every ball, the patience Pirates hitters are displaying is indicative of something greater: these guys are ready.

I wrote a long missive last night on the elegant rage of A.J. Burnett, but I'm going to save it, tinker with it a little and maybe send it off somewhere. When it runs, I'll put it here. But for now...


The Pirates will finish above .500, guaranteed. 
The Pirates will make the playoffs. 
The Pirates will make a trade today.
I am surprised and confused by the emotions I feel today, with said surprise and confusion merely entering the picture as reactions to the other emotions I believe to be a combination of joy, fear and sleep depravation. I only expect that to deepen throughout August.

Take on all the salary you have to. Get a starter. Get a reliever. Get a goddamn right fielder. Get better. 

Notes from last night:
I saw Mayor Dudeface on the first-level concourse with his young son. It took every last ounce of restraint I had not to ask him a trolling question about his Facebook account.

Two innings later, I saw Matt Cooke and his son in nearly the exact same place. It took a minute to process. If I'd instantly made the connection, I wouldn't have hesitated to approach him, thank him for five incredible years and wish him the best.

Josh Harrison made two terrible base running errors last night. Not just the rundown at third, but being so far off the bag on the slicing line drive that Walker hit that he never had a prayer tagging up and taking third when John Jay dove to catch the ball. Josh Harrison is a net zero player and belongs in the minor leagues.

Bryan Morris and Vin Mazzaro terrify me. Mark Melancon, meanwhile, is just this good. Justin Wilson is the closer of the future.

Brandon Cumpton was remarkably efficient last night. With Morton, Karstens, McDonald and a host of other perpetually injured, walk-prone assholes likely gone, Cumpton should get every shot at cracking the rotation out of spring training.

That said, Jeff Locke walks way too many guys. He's been more lucky than good, and his continued presence in the rotation frightens me.

Has anyone ever won comeback player of the year in both leagues? Francisco Liriano should be that guy. For a pitcher I was convinced was going to have a K/BB ratio around 1:1, he's been absolutely superb.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The whole wide world is watching

The next two months will be the dog days of the season.  Come Friday morning, we could be looking up at the Cardinals in the standings.  Tonight means nothing in terms of locking down our destiny.

But that said, let us enter into the record, that tonight was glorious.

Nicer weather, the Allegheny has never known.  That beautiful stadium was as singularly focused on baseball as I've ever experienced it.  The pierogie race couldn't have possibly upstaged the brilliant rage of A.J. Burnett.  The wave didn't dare make an appearance until well into the second game, and only after 6 hours of patiently waiting through high leverage tension.

But it wasn't just the fans or the stadium or the skyline.  It was the players.  Those guys played smart.  They weren't stupid assholes, they didn't give away PAs.  The pitchers used their defense.  Clint made mostly all the right moves with personnel.  It was watching a team firing on all pistons.  Playing mentally tough in all the places where raw talent wasn't in abundance.

Again, this means nothing.  We have a long, long way to go before we're talking playoffs.  But there is no doubt that this is the team that will break .500 for the first time in two decades.  There is no doubt that they give a damn.  I give a damn watching them.

I think about all these years of getting pushed around by Cardinals' teams.  I think about my Yankee-fan college roommate, taunting me after we got A.J., saying that we're getting pinstriped table scraps.  I think about the "can't miss" guys, the soft-tossing lefties, Operation Shutdown, the years when we'd sell at the deadline, the blue glove of Jose Mesa.  And here's the comeback:

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Know Your Buccos is back!

Know Your Buccos asks, "What's your favorite TV show?"

Clint Barmes: My wife and I watch “The Bachelorette,” so I guess that? I have lost control of my life.  

Gaby Sanchez: ESPN's “First Take.” It was better when it was “Cold Pizza,” but I still like watching Skip Bayless try to keep himself from shouting the n-word at whoever's across the table. 

Garrett Jones: Oh, my wife loves “The Bachelorette.” We never miss it. Some of those guys are so lame! 

Jeanmar Gomez: I don’t have a TV. I just feel like it’s not bringing anything to the cultural table anymore, and I’m okay with that. When I’m not pitching, I sit in the bullpen and read The New Yorker or stream TED Talks on my iPad. 

Jason Grilli: Oh, “Game of Thrones.” I wanted to get my wife a dire wolf for her birthday, but it turns out they’ve been extinct for, like, two million years. I was shocked to learn they were real in the first place. 

Josh Harrison: TV? Haha! Oh, man. Um...TV…I don't know, man. Haha! 

Russell Martin: Game of Thrones. I didn’t sleep after the Red Wedding. I just watched it on a loop until I had to be at the ballpark the next day. Shit blew my mind. 

Starling Marte: Juego de Tronos. Me encanta el pequeño hombre.

Justin Wilson: “Game of Thrones.” I’ve read ahead, so I don’t want to spoil it for you, but you should really read the books. 

Jeff Karstens: As I’ve found myself with so much free time of late, I have found myself re-examining the Showtime original series “The Tudors.” I find it rife with inaccuracies, though, which vexes me terribly. The last few days, though, I’ve been utterly consumed with the attention being paid to Cousin Wills and the advent of his male heir. This, of course, means that I move from 31st in the line of succession to 35th, not that anyone is actually keeping track, mind you. 

Jeff Locke: “Modern Family.” Al Bundy’s on it, and those two gays are hilarious. 

Francisco Liriano: “Two and a Half Men!” 

Andrew McCutchen: Definitely “Game of Thrones.” I’m not giving up on House Stark. That Arya’s a spitfire. I'm rooting for that girl.  

A.J. Burnett: "Sons of Anarchy." You ever watch that? Shit is so boss.

Mark Melancon: “Morning Drive.” You know, on the Golf Channel. 

Pedro Alvarez: “Two and a Half Men.” 

Michael McKenry: Do you mean current or all-time? Because if it’s all-time, it’s “Cheers.” I watch four episodes of “Cheers” every night before I go to bed. And I make sure I watch them in order. You can’t jump around or you’re just not doing justice to what is undoubtedly the greatest series-long story arc ever. The shifts in cast dynamic — from Diane to Rebecca, representing a more traditional female gender role to that of an empowered, modern woman; from Coach to Woody, which represents the steady decay of American masculinity between the Greatest Generation and the Baby Boomers — are so emblematic of that period of time. “Cheers” offers us a perfect microcosm of American society in the ‘80s, which was one of the most fascinating and pivotal periods in American history. Current, though? I don’t know. I really only watch “Cheers.” 

Charlie Morton: “New Girl.” I have kind of a thing for Zooey Deschanel. Have you heard her new album?

James McDonald: The fuck, man? You called me in here to ask me that? I don’t even travel with the team! Let’s not pretend me or my opinion matter anymore. 

Travis Snider: “Two and a Half Men.”

Jose Tabata: "Dos Hombres y Medio." 

Neil Walker: Oh, man! I’d have to say it’s a tie between “Mr. Belvedere” and “Queer as Folk,” just because both were set here in Pittsburgh. I also love all those Rick Sebak documentaries on QED about the sandwiches and cemeteries and hot dogs. Gosh, I love hot dogs, especially from The O. You guys know I’m from here, right?

Vic Black: Hi. I’m Vic Black. Today’s my first day with the club. I’m 6’4’’, 215 pounds, I throw 96 miles per hour and I’m here to pitch out of the bullpen in high-leverage situations. I’m sorry, what was your question?

Vin Mazzaro: Oh, what’s that one show that used to have Charlie Sheen, but then he went all nuts with, like, “Winning! Duh? Winning!” so they killed him off and replaced him with Kathy Bates, and there’s that kid who’s on there and that guy who I think is from “Will and Grace” or something? What’s that show? I love that show.

Tony Watson: “Two and a Half Men.”  

Gerrit Cole: You want to play baseball or you want to fuck around? Cause I'll fuck around, but I'd much rather play baseball.

Clint Hurdle: I'll tell you, television is like stock car racing. It's a young man's game. The stuff they're doing now? It's like those people who climb mountains without any ropes or anything. These guys'll sit in the clubhouse before games or during rain delays and they'll watch TV, and I've gotta tell you, I don't know what the heck's going on most of the time. It really is like trying to herd cats. When you get these guys some downtime -- and I don't mean violent video games or anything; I'm not about to take up a cause. That's not what we're talking about here. But certainly, you know, when you play as hard as these guys play, you need to blow off some steam. That's not my thing, though. I'm an old school guy and I don't always do it by the book. My friends, in the off-season, we go on a fishing trip and trade tapes of old Eagles concerts. Talk about herding cats! I'll tell ya.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

I totally agree...

If someone pulls a gun on me, I'm not going to stretch before I start running. In fact, I don't even like my chances if I just start running, even I'd been stretching prior to that event just by chance. I mean, that guy has a gun.

That said, I don't think chasing your players around with a gun is a wise or effective coaching strategy, nor is it analogous to the types of situations which occur during football games in the National Football League. Off the field? We can talk. But strictly from a football standpoint...

The Cardinals are going to be so hilariously bad for at least three years. Like, bad in a way that makes you want to tune in whenever they're on in your area. Like, Jim Zorn bad.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Ready yourself for the Pirates media bombardment

Now, the real test begins. Can these guys keep this up under the pressure of July trades, bullpen regression and injury, a bevy of questionable base running and a manager with a penchant for bunting?
We’ll soon find out. But in the meantime, brace yourself for what’s becoming an annual trend that, for whatever reason, seems to coincide with Ramadan: the litany of national media interest in the Pirates.
It started with the SI cover:

Sometimes, I wish that jinxes and curses were real. Were that the case, Sports Illustrated could purposely fuck over so many teams now that they have different covers for different regions of the country. As it stands, the fact that as of last night, the inside of Jason Grilli's elbow probably looks like a 75-car pileup inside the Squirrel Hill Tunnel is another in a series of sad coincidences.
Playoff-bound? The season’s barely half-over! The Pirates still have 13 games against the Cardinals and Cincinnati is still in the division. Jason Grilli’s arm may have fallen off last night.
The Pirates are a top-five team in wins, but they’re eighth in run differential in baseball and third in that category in their own division. The Pirates will finish with a winning record this year, but if ever there was reason to concoct a jinx and assign it to SI’s cover, it’s for things exactly like this.
Then, you’ve got what’s becoming an annual “hey guys, look out for the Pirates!” piece from ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick, who’s actually way too good at his job to be working for ESPN.
It’s even got a photo of McCutchen looking like Jesus:

He willed it, and thus it became so. And Cutch smiled. And it was good.

And the Lord said unto Cutch, toss thy bat into the air and I shall suspend it there. And it shall mistify thine enemies and delight thine brethren, and the opposing pitchers will quiver with fear and yet refuse to walk you every single time steppeth you to the plate.
Not to mention one instance of Cutch sounding kinda like Jesus:
“But every year since I was drafted, we've gotten better.”
Then, there’s this slightly overwrought little gem from the Washington Post’s Dave Scheinen, whom I actually like a great deal.
Here they came, strolling across the Roberto Clemente Bridge that spans the Allegheny River downtown, under the late afternoon sun, in sporadic twos and threes, a trickle of early-arrivers, on their way to sip happy-hour beers or watch batting practice. And here they came still, in the early evening shadows just before first pitch, a teeming flood now of yellow-and-black-clad humanity, funneling in and filling every square inch of their waterfront baseball palace.
Ah, the elegiac symmetry of the emerald chessboard.
“It’s a great baseball town,” said Bob Walk, the Pirates’ longtime radio broadcaster. 
In April, Bob Walk also spent the better part of an inning openly pondering the difference between “mostly sunny” and “partly cloudy.”
Earlier this week, he expressed something just short of rage that hitters aren’t credited for at-bats on sacrifice fly balls, but are on sacrifice groundouts — a perfectly legitimate point that he sought to validate by postulating that back when the rule was invented, nobody tried to hit the ball in the air. If a batter hit the ball in the air, he reasoned, it would likely be caught.
I hasten to point out to Bob that such is still the case — perhaps even more now that players wear gloves.
But back to Scheinen.
On October 14, 1992, Walk, a right-handed pitcher, was warming up in the Pirates’ bullpen in the ninth inning of Game 7 of the National League Championship Series when teammate Stan Belinda threw the fateful 2-1 pitch that Atlanta Braves backup catcher Francisco Cab
Of course, what’s the annual “hey, look at the Pirates!” story without rehashing this?
You know what, though? This doesn’t bother me anymore.
For a long time, Sid Bream — who works in the Pirates organization and still makes his home near Pittsburgh — was persona non grata. Francisco Cabrera was He Who Shall Not Be Named. Time was, you could give a Pittsburgher of a certain age a heart attack just by bringing this up.
But after 20 years, two ownership changes, four general managers, six field manager and god only knows how many terrible, useless players, that Game 7 moment seems kind of trivial.
The writing was on the wall. We knew that was going to be the end of those Pirates, probably even if they’d gone on to win the World Series.
What transpired has certainly sucked, and though painful by correlation, the end of that Game 7 has never had any causal relationship with what we’ve had to deal with the past 20 years.
Let’s collectively acknowledge this.
Say it with me now.
Francisco Cabrera.
Francisco. Cabrera.
It’s not Francisco Cabrera’s fault the Pirates have been awful for 20 years. It’s not Sid Bream’s fault. It’s not Barry Bonds’s fault, and it’s not Stan Belinda’s fault.
Stop what you’re doing, go outside right now and just shout it.
Hey, look. You’re still here, and you’re okay.
And so, as August approaches — with its promise, across this land, of a thrilling stretch run toward October — take a pause in the noble cause of rooting home your own team, no matter how starved for a winner you may be, and send some warm thoughts toward your Pittsburgh brethren, that they may know, for the first time in two decades, what it feels like to love a winner.
The bandwagon potential here is just scary, but it’s nice to know that, at least for now, fans around baseball want to see the Pirates do well.
Man, can you imagine the response if Neil Walker came out as gay? This team would be the feel-good story of the decade.
He’s from here, you know.

Monday, July 22, 2013

All Star Jeff Locke isn't very good

For one thing, he's walking 4.0 batters per 9 innings. 1.55 K/BB rate. The two things he has going for him are his 6.0 H/9 and his 0.5 HR/9, both of which will regress.

 Just for shits and giggles, here's Locke's 2013, followed by All Star Zach Duke's rookie season:

ERA: 2.11, 1.81
WHIP: 1.113, 1.205
IP: 115, 84.2
H/9: 6.0, 8.4
HR/9: 0.5, 0.3
K/9: 6.2, 6.2
BB/9: 4.0, 2.4
K/BB: 1.55, 2.52
BAbip: .226, .302
GB/FB: 1.13, 0.95

I admit to being vocally in favor of Locke making this team and getting innings. I stand by that. I think he's a serviceable 5th starter. But he has been hella lucky thus far, and it's very likely to be regression from this point out.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Limited time offer

For just $25, FTC's art department will photoshop your face in the place of the random white guy.

And for only $50, you can take on the legend of being both Brothers Pouncey at once.

Ask Matt to whom you should make the checks payable.  I don't handle the money.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013


Bud Selig has been waiting for the right occasion to brag about how clean MLB is of steroids.  Naturally, he chose the day after the goddamn home run derby.

Meanwhile, I've been waiting for the right occasion to use this gif in an FTC post:

Baseball began drug testing for the 2003 season, added penalties the following year, banned amphetamines in 2006 and started HGH blood testing last year. Critics said baseball didn't move quickly enough.

 Let's flesh that out a bit further for the AP:

1992- Selig becomes commissioner; MLB average is 0.72 HR per game.
1994- Average HR per game goes above 1.0 for only the second time in baseball's history.  This trend would continue on for the next SIXTEEN years.
1998- Big Mac and Sammy Sosa rejuvenate everyone's love of baseball, fireworks, subprime mortgages, and cut-off tee shirts.  The stage is set for the SUV boom.
2001- By his own retrospective admission, Alex Rodriguez begins using steroids.  He hits 156 HRs over the next three seasons.
2003- MLB conducts random testing of several players; no punishments attached.
2004- George W. comes out swinging in the last SotU of his first term, demanding that we all do more to combat steroids in our home lives.  At this point, the MLB 'punishment' for a first time offense is that the player remains unnamed and undergoes "treatment."
2005- Jose Canseco publishes his tell-all; there's also this page turner, detailing the BALCO mess, turning the screws on MLB to publish their own.  By now, the punishment for a first time offense is a 10 game suspension. 
2006- MLB commissions George Mitchell to find out what the fuck is going on.  Amphetamines are banned; ADHD runs rampant.
2007- Well after the season is over, the Mitchell Report is released, telling us exactly what the fuck is going on, and telling us that just some common sense shit is all we really need for fixing all of it.
2012- HGH is finally tested for, even though it was possible to test for this shit years earlier.

'People say, 'Well, you were slow to react.' We were not slow to react,'' Selig said Monday. ''In fact, I heard that this morning, and it aggravated me all over again.''



There were eight violations of the major league drug program last year, and All-Star game MVP Melky Cabrera was among those who served a 50-game suspension following a positive PEDs test. There have been no suspensions in the big leagues this year.

Way to overlook the failed prosecution of Ryan Braun, AP.  

During a question-and-answer session arranged by Politico, a question was sent by Will, identified as an 8-year-old in Los Angeles. He asked: ''How old will I be when ... you can say that there are no more cheaters in baseball, not one?''

 Bud Selig answer process:
=Was the question about Pete Rose -> No.
=Can I casually mention how excited we all are to finally bring the All Star Game back to New York? -> Maybe.  But let's make sure no one is accusing us of being racist first.
=Is someone accusing MLB of being racist? -> Not sure.
=Did they mention the black guy who played baseball (if so, use his name in response, and point out that MLB couldn't be racist if we let him play)? -> No.
=Is this question about steroids? -> Yes.
=Find it offensive and point out that this whole line of questioning misses the point.
=Return to top in time for next question.

''Will, this is what I would say to you,'' Selig responded.

You can practically hear the old adding machine cocking back its hinges, ready to roll into action on this one.

 ''I used to object way back when, when people would talk about steroids. They're not a baseball problem or a football problem or a basketball problem. They're a societal problem.''

Here that Will?  Bud is telling you that you're never too young for a good "fuck off!"

''Some people say now that I'm over-vigilant because I'm worried about my legacy,'' he said. 

I mean, that'd be fair if you were, Bud.  Like I would almost respect an old white republican asshole who makes $14,500,000 a year to do basically nothing, if he were like "Yo, I really dropped the ball on this steroid thing, but I'm going to own that, and I hope that by the time I leave office, I will have kicked this thing in the ass."

''That's nonsense. That's the silliest thing I've ever heard."

Okay, then never mind.

"This is in the best interests of baseball. I was brought up to understand that you are to do what's in the best interest of this sport no matter what, even if it's painful, and we're going to do that.''

 According to Selig, Major League Baseball's decision to hire former U.S. Secret Service director Mark Sullivan to assist in its Biogenesis probe was evidence of baseball's effort to ensure there are ''no stones unturned.''

Yeah, you'd hate to see a guy get called out for 'roids in 2007, admit to it in 2009, get caught doing it in 2010, and then caught again in 2013 and not nail him.  Good look this time.

''We have many groups, consulting groups that are working on this whole investigation,'' he said.

I haven't read the entire AP copy.  I'm going through it as I write.  I'm going to try projecting what comes next, and then copy and paste what actually happens.  Let's see how I do...

On other subjects, Selig:

-stands in solidarity with Paula Dean.  He's also not concerned with the declining number of African Americans playing in the majors.

-said he's never sent an email. ''And I never will. ... I'm illiterate when it comes to that, and proud of it. ... I did get an iPhone, so I've made some slight progress.''

-thinks instant replay still needs fine tuning, but that "we're getting closer every day to making sure the game is as good an experience for fans as ever before." 

-is concerned about spending on players, whose average salary rose 6 percent to $3.65 million on opening day, the steepest rise since 2008. Baseball's revenue is projected to reach $8 billion this year, and Selig wants clubs to spend less than half on players. ''We've made some new television deals and our clubs got a little excited, and so we may go over 50 percent, and that's dangerous. I think we have to work on more mechanisms.''

-does not support Hillary in 2016.

-is deferring action on the Oakland Athletics' preference to build a ballpark in San Jose until the city of San Jose's antitrust suit against MLB moves forward. San Jose is in the territory of San Francisco Giants. ''We are defending ourselves. So before I make any decisions, we'll see what happens to that. I feel pretty good.''

-tried pomegranate juice for the first time last week.  Absolutely hated it.  Given a choice, the commissioner will opt for constipation every time.

-is concerned with Tampa Bay and Miami, which have the lowest attendance averages in the major leagues. ''I certainly haven't given up on Florida. The demographics are too good,'' he said. As for Tampa, ''We have a stadium problem there. There's no question about it.'' And for Miami, ''We've had some things happen that need to be corrected.''

First of all, I think I can pretty accurately speak for everyone in America when I say: we have ALL given up on Florida.  Hyperlinks not needed.

Secondly, this stadium problem shit is scandalous.  Here's what happens: the tax payers build a giant piece of multi-purpose concrete, some republican buys the team and determines that the concrete isn't valuable enough.  So he bilks the city and state out of hundreds of millions of dollars, saying it's the only way to boost fan interest.  Once the stadium is built, the value of the team increases regardless of performance.  Therefore, the owner has no incentive to actually fill the seats of the new stadium or keep expensive players on the payroll.  Thus, the city residents are left on the hook paying for a stadium they didn't need, while not attending the baseball games in which their gutted team is failing to compete.

This is exactly how Jeffrey Loria fucked over the people of Miami.  This is exactly what will happen if the Rays get their new stadium.  

I'm not defending the shitty dome they play in currently, but I do not believe it's what's keeping the fans away from the games.  Know what is keeping fans away from the games?  The beach.

-Asked what song he would use to for his introduction while walking to home plate for an at-bat: ''Bridge over Troubled Water.''


(Big reveal: that's a gif of a pressed-for-cash Art Garfunkel.)

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Maurkice Pouncey: Still a huge punk

So maybe you have this friend. Maybe it's a guy you went to college with. Maybe you played football with this friend in college. You're close with this friend. 

But then say that this friend of yours gets into some trouble. Like, say he's accused of executing someone who may have had knowledge of your role in a double murder a year ago, and he goes and gets this guy and executes him in the most haphazard and careless way possible, then goes to great lengths to cover his tracks in a way that makes it look like he's a dumbass trying to cover his tracks after murdering someone, then admits to another person that he personally committed the murder. 

Say this dude is ridiculously, outrageously guilty and, in certain states, would face the death penalty if convicted.

Oh man. Your friend just killed between one and three people. How do you react to that?

If you're a Pouncey, you do it in the most tasteless way possible.


In January of last year, after the Steelers lost an opening-round playoff game to Tim Tebow on the first play of overtime, Maurkice Pouncey, who didn't play in the game, decided it'd be a good time to get on Twitter and start plugging his buddy's album.

Steelers fans who followed Pouncey on Twitter were understandably upset that Pouncey himself wasn't upset at his team completely failing to show up in a playoff game, and...well, things got heated.

For calling him out, our Twitter account was among those Pouncey blocked that evening.

Friday, July 12, 2013

On Pedro, the Home Run Derby, and why you need to sit down and shut up

You know what’s a great movie? Napoleon Dynamite. Great movie. Non-stop laughs.
Except, no. It’s not. When you’re watching it, Napoleon Dynamite feels like it’s five hours long, and not once is it laugh-out-loud funny. When you look back on it and stew on it and think about it, maybe it strikes you as clever. But generally, it’s way more enjoyable when you’re not actually watching it.
The home run derby is no different.
Once every five to seven years, someone goes on an absolute tear in the derby. Mark McGwire did it in ’99 at Fenway. Josh Hamilton did it a few years ago. But apart from those few memorable performances, the derby isn’t just unmemorable, it’s numbingly dull television.
Most golf tournaments are better produced for TV than is the home run derby. In fact, golf on TV can be riveting. The derby seldom is.
On top of that, it’s a completely meaningless exhibition activity that has no bearing on anything at all. It’s not even the biggest, most entertaining or important exhibition that takes place during the All-Star festivities. The game itself still takes center stage, even more now since baseball stupidly decided to assign added meaning to it following that debacle in Milwaukee.
Winning the home run derby doesn't go on a player’s resume. It’s not mentioned as pertinent criteria in MVP discussions or Hall of Fame voting. Hell, it doesn’t even have any bearing on who finishes the season with the most home runs. It’s a cheese-filled game show that simply encourages Chris Berman to become an even more cartoonish, obnoxious version himself, past the point anyone believes it realistically possible.
It’s the most meaningless — or least meaningful — part of the baseball season, and while it can provide the occasional fun moments, its entertainment value often doesn’t measure up to the Legends & Celebrities softball game which takes place earlier in the day.
(Rollie Fingers’s 2-2 pitch to Kate Upton is grounded to shortstop, where it’s scooped up by Dean Cain who flips the ball to Maya Rudolph covering second to get Kid Rock out on a fielder’s choice, ending the inning. That, ladies and gents, is entertainment.)
But just like the NBA clings to the Slam Dunk Contest despite not being able to draw any of its premiere players, baseball rolls out the home run derby year after year, occasionally tinkering with the format, but never really doing anything to make the event more interesting.
So when Pittsburgh’s sporting public — media included — spends the better part of a week slamming Mets third baseman David Wright for not selecting Pedro Alvarez to the National League’s team for the derby — an injustice Pirates’ broadcasters speak of like some might the execution of an innocent man — it comes off as both shortsighted and petty.
I got into a discussion about this on Twitter earlier today, and someone made the argument that Alvarez being selected for the derby would be a “point of civic pride.
For anyone who’s followed a team that’s been nothing short of a punchline the last two decades to think getting a player into the home run derby is something on which to hang one’s hat is utterly ridiculous.
Neither Pittsburgh nor the Pirates need such trivial exposure. Baseball fans, no matter how casual, don’t need to be made aware that the Pirates have a guy who is capable of hitting a lot of home runs.
If it’s a matter of recognition or civic pride, look at the team Alvarez plays for. The Pirates are 54-36, and just a game out of first place in the NL Central. They’re sending more representatives to the All-Star game than they have in any season among at least the last 30.
This is a team that, while not without its faults, has after 20 years finally forced its way back into a pennant race. That’s an important table to be at. To complain with the vitriol over Alvarez’s initial omission from the derby squad with which Pittsburgh has is to spend 20 years aching to get back to that table, then throw a tantrum over the seating arrangement.
You’re in the game. You’re relevant. Everyone’s talking about it. You’ve been invited to the party!
Oh, but they’re not serving the kind of olives you like? Well then, you might as well just go home.
Dejan Kovacevic’s Friday column quite correctly slaps these people across the face for vilifying NL derby captain David Wright for not initially selecting Pedro to the team, and it’s worth a read.
But where DK cites how unbelievably stupid it is to burn David Wright in effigy when the Mets come to town this weekend, as so many people seemed willing if not eager to do, I’m approaching this from an entirely different direction.
David Wright is a nice guy who gives all kinds of money to charity and visits sick kids in the hospital so much that they’re begging him to just go home?
Yeah, I don’t care. It’s great that he does so much nice community work, and that he’s such a well-liked guy. Good for him. It doesn't matter and I don’t care.
The home run derby is stupid. The process by which its participants are chosen is stupid. And the notion that anyone — least of all a player and most of all any fan — should take it personally to the point where they feel cheated is the kind of short-sighted, selfish behavior that makes fans of teams like Boston, New York and Philadelphia so easy to abhor.
We’ve been back at the party for a whole three months. Let’s not wear out our welcome so soon, shall we?

Thursday, July 11, 2013

I see hope

When I got home tonight, I noticed that the Pirates and Athletics were still in a rain delay. It was nearly 10 p.m., the rain had let up, the tarp was off the field. ROOT had finished running its rain delay programming, and it was clear the game was going to start shortly. 

That's when I had a thought. Why not go to this game?

I hadn't been to a game in a couple of weeks, the Bucs had lost four straight, and I kinda wanted to see the A's anyway.

Late start? Week night? Fuck it. How often do you have the chance to do something that's both incredibly fun and innocuously irresponsible?

I texted Nils with the idea, and minutes later, as the Pirates were taking the field, we were on the Parkway, headed toward the North Shore. The parking lot attendants had all gone home, and all the lot gates were up. Free, stadium-side parking? Validation number one.

The home plate ticket windows were all closed, and the ticket vending machines they usually keep outside of the main gate had already been moved inside, so we walked toward the left field gate where, bingo, there were open ticket windows.

Before we could even step up to purchase two of the cheapest seats available, a guy walked by offering free tickets to whomever wanted them. We jumped on it.

He handed me seven tickets for section 112, row Q. Good seats. There were still other people around looking for tickets, so Nils and I took two of the seven and gave away the remaining five. Things are going well.

Within a span of 20 minutes -- less than it took for the Pirates and A's to play a full inning of baseball -- we'd made the decision to go to the game, driven from the East End down to the ballpark, parked, gotten tickets and found our seats.

The great thing about being at a weeknight ballgame that's been delayed for three hours is that by the time it starts, there's no question that everyone who's stuck around genuinely wants to be there. They want to see baseball. There aren't large groups, significant others dragged along or people who don't give two shits about the game. Everyone who's there wants to be there.

The paid attendance was 23,474. And after a nearly three-hour rain delay, there were still at least 10,000 people in the ballpark when we got there, which is an incredible rate of retention.

By the end of the fourth inning, the Pirates were up 5-0, having driven Oakland starter Tommy Milone and his two immediate replacements from the game with nothing but a pair of doubles, a walk and eight fortuitously placed singles.

Nils and I each had a beer. It was nearing midnight and the Pirates had a convincing lead. People began to shuffle out. With the damage done, the A's unable to do much off of Francisco Liriano and the Pirates more or less content to sit on a five-run lead, the pace of the game picked up a bit.

We had another beer.

Five innings later, when Jeanmar Gomez ended the game by striking out Nate Freiman around 12:45 a.m. Thursday morning, there were still at least 7,000 people there, and they were loud. 

I've been attending Pirates games my whole life. I know what a crowd of 7,000 people looks like. And until tonight, I thought I knew what a crowd of that size sounded like.

You'd never mistake the noise from the stands for that of a sellout crowd, but the fervor was nothing short of remarkable. 

We write a lot about numbers on this site. We write about the unsustainably high BABIP of Starling Marte and the unsustainably low BABIP and K/BB ratios Jeff Locke has put up. We write about how superhuman the bullpen has been, and how it's going to be impossible for them to sustain this performance in the second half. We write about how abysmal the bench is, and how at least five of the guys on the current big-league roster probably need to be DFA'd. And it's not that any of this is less true now than it was 24 hours ago. 

But to sit there in PNC Park tonight and watch the Pirates effectively dominate a team that's close to their American League equivalent in front of a crowd that waited three hours to see any baseball played left no doubt in my mind: this is a baseball town.

Despite the historically terrible collapses of the previous two seasons, people have continued to turn out in more than respectable numbers to watch the Pirates play. Even after 20 years of ignominy, it doesn't take much to rally the base. They want it. They're hungry for it.

And even if this team misses the playoffs this year (still very much a possibility) or collapses even more spectacularly than it has in either of the last two years (highly unlikely, but still possible), make no mistake -- people here care. And they care with more intense passion and in greater numbers than anyone would have thought possible four or five years ago.

As a fan who's shown up regardless all these years, that's refreshing to see.

For a lot of people, it's easy to walk away from a shitty team, and it's just as easy to come back to a successful one. It is not, however, a trait of bandwagon fans to stick out a three-hour rain delay on a week night and be as loud and involved in a game as tonight's crowd was.

Keep in mind, this team still hasn't won anything. Not for 20 years.

Pittsburgh is dying to see good baseball again. Numbers aside, I hope that these Pirates are finally able to deliver it over the course of a full season.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Well, wouldn't you know it?

No sooner do I call for the Pirates to go after Josh Willingham than the sumbitch has surgery to repair a torn meniscus. 

"I know how the rehab process goes," he said. "I'm just going to take it day by day, do the rehab, try to get back in there and then hope to play well."


Willingham should be ready to play again by the beginning of August, so even if the Twin were to trade him, the acquiring team wouldn't miss him for too long. That said, seeing as how Willingham's age and the condition of his knee are likely to drive the market price down, it'd genuinely surprise me if the Twins decided to move him. He's under contract for next year, too, so if the Twins do move Willingham, it won't be until at least the coming offseason.

FOX's John Paul Morosi reported that the Pirates were one of six teams scouting Matt Garza's outing last night. Garza is also reportedly discussing a contract extension with the Cubs, and given the near-barren market for starting pitching against the trading deadline, I wouldn't read too much into this. If the Pirates traded for Matt Garza, even Michael Wilbon would be surprised. He wouldn't admit to it, but he would be.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Winter* is coming

The Pirates have become nearly too strange for serious commentary or scholarly analysis.
On one hand, I want to believe. We all do.

On the other hand, 20 years of crap — including epic late-season collapses in each of the last two seasons — give us the unchallengeable right to be skeptical.

There are a few ways of looking at this, but let’s start with some numbers. Dave Cameron over at Fangraphs has a fascinating look at the Pirates, mainly addressing the question of whether or not their success is sustainable.

By pretty much any objective measure you want to use, it is now likely that the Pirates are going to make the postseason this year. At this point, wondering whether or not they’ll stay in contention is something of an outdated question; now, the real query now is just how good is this Pirates team?

Dave Cameron is on board. I dig that. But at the same time, he’s ruling out the possibility that this team will go 29-51 in the second half of the season and finish 80-82. Do I think that will happen? No. But we can’t simply dismiss this as a possibility. Again, we’ve earned the right not to dismiss it as a possibility. But let’s throw that on the back burner for a second.
Cameron points to the Pirates’ run prevention being the best in baseball, which helps make up for the fact that they’re 19th in wOBA, and he attributes this to how absurdly good the Pirates’ bullpen has been.

Sequencing is mostly randomness, but it’s not entirely random. A team with an excellent and deep bullpen is more likely to outperform their expected win-loss record than a team with inferior relievers. There’s a reason the Chicago Cubs record doesn’t match their wOBA differential, and his name is Carlos Marmol. The Pirates bullpen, led by Jason Grilli and Mark Melancon, has been absurdly good this year.

In high-leverage situations, the Pirates top three relievers — Grilli, Melancon and Justin Wilson — have faced 144 batters, and held those batters to .135/.206/.194. In other words, the Pirates bullpen, specifically these three guys, have been historically great through the first half.

After all, did anyone look at Jason Grilli, Mark Melancon, and Justin Wilson before the season started and say “hey, that’s an all-time great bullpen in the making”? 

All-time? No. But I said in this space at the beginning of the season that the bullpen was going to be this team’s saving grace. Grilli’s outperformed expectations, Melancon has had the bounce-back season I predicted and Justin Wilson is blowing people away.

The Pirates bullpen is going to perform worse in the second half, if only because there’s no possible way for them to be any better. Regression is coming. But can the Pirates offset those losses by making up ground elsewhere?

There’s the rub. It’s not that these guys won’t continue to be awesome, but there’s just no way they can continue to be this awesome. So how do the Pirates compensate for that?
Cameron points to last year’s Orioles as being in a similar situation to this year’s Pirates — carried by unsustainably great bullpen performances with an offense that ultimately needed a shot in the arm to make up the difference. But the Pirates don’t have an offensive prospect anywhere near major-league ready. There’s no Manny Machado, no Chris Davis. There’s no help on the way.

Here’s what we have right now:

All of the Pirates who are contributing offensively are doing so at sustainable levels with the lone exception of Starling Marte. Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez, Gaby Sanchez and Russell Martin have all been fine, and there’s nothing to suggest that any of them are going to nosedive into the abyss.

But Marte’s .356 BABIP raises concerns, as does the complete lack of production from the rotating cast of dead ponies Clint Hurdle keeps sticking in right field.

The Pirates need a right fielder in a bad way. Travis Snider is not that guy. Jose Tabata is not that guy. Alex Presley is not that guy. That guy is not currently in the organization.

Giancarlo Stanton is probably not that guy. The Marlins seem hell-bent on not trading him this month, and even if they were going to, the cost of acquiring him is completely prohibitive.

Alex Rios is garbage. Not that guy.

The Pirates should aggressively pursue the Twins’ Josh Willingham or the Brewers’ Norichika Aoki.

Aoki may be a long-shot, given that the Brewers probably wouldn’t want to trade him within the division, and they’re likely to want to retain him for next year — that is, if they think they can contend next year. He doesn’t bring much power, but he’s great at getting on base and plays solid defense.

Willingham would be an absolute coup for the Pirates. The Twins refused to deal him last year, which was the first of a three-year, $21 million deal. With just a season-and-a-half remaining on his contract and the Twins seven games under .500 in a division that isn’t likely to produce two wild-card teams, Willingham could and should be available. He’s a career .259/.361/.477 hitter who can play either corner outfield spot, and at $7 million a year, he’s completely affordable and brings exactly the kind of bat the Pirates need.

While this year's club isn't all smoke and mirrors, Jeff Locke and Jeanmar Gomez are. 

What they've gotten out of those two guys is nearly as incredible as how the team has continued to win in the absence of A.J. Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez. Gerrit Cole, who will get his own post soon, is the absolute truth. And it's incredible to look at the Pirates' starting rotation now versus where it was on Opening Day and see that the only constant is Jeff Locke, but that's not necessarily a good thing. The broadcasters doing the FOX game the other night talked about how it spoke to the organization's pitching depth -- it's true, the Pirates have had a lot of pitchers start games, but I don't think that necessarily means the starting pitching is deep. Again, see Cameron's numbers on how good the bullpen has been in high-leverage situations. 

The Pirates need Burnett and Rodriguez back, but just as importantly, they need to acquire a starting pitcher -- that's going to be a tall order ind this trade market.