Thursday, June 19, 2014

Tony Gwynn was the consummate fans' player

Though I grew up watching baseball, I don’t recall living long under the impression that the players I most admired were admirable people. That notion was dispensed with in the early ‘90s, when certain Pirates who shall remain nameless (Carlos Garcia, Bobby Bonilla, Barry Bonds) completely blew off a young fan hoping to get their names on a ball.

After that, it didn’t take long to figure out which guys were straight up assholes. It was as visible through their body language during batting practice and games as it was when they’d walk by a crowd of fewer than five kids who’d waited outside Three Rivers Stadium for more than an hour after a game on a school night, just hoping to get a little attention from someone whose livelihood was to play the game those kids loved so unconditionally.

It’s what led me to love players like Jay Bell and Jack Wilson, who on top of being exciting shortstops, brought a sense of humility, enthusiasm, and gratitude for the improbable status they’d achieved as professional ballplayers.

While those two were the guys I went to watch — they played for my team — nobody exemplified those qualities more than Tony Gwynn. Gwynn died this week at 54 following a lengthy battle with cancer.

Around the time I discovered that ESPN was a thing, and that athletes who played on teams in cities all across North America were accessible via Channel 72, nothing made me happier than seeing an interview with Tony Gwynn.

As fifth- and sixth-grader who, in successive years, dressed up as Mickey Cochrane and Lefty Grove for Halloween, Tony Gwynn was someone to whom I could relate. Here was someone who loved the game as much as I did — as much as anyone possibly could — and whose appreciation for that game shone through with everything he said and did. Tony Gwynn didn’t wear his love for baseball on his sleeve; he draped himself in it. If he’d ever tried to hide that love, he’d have been the world’s worst liar.

In 1997, someone at ESPN had a great idea: to sit Gwynn down with Ted Williams and turn it into a SportsCenter segment. The two already had something of a casual friendship, and the ensuing conversation, which I watched at least a dozen times the week it aired, was pure gold.
The audio is still out there on the Internet — I’ve listened to it a few times over the course of the last week — but the video was priceless. Gwynn, with his round face, wide smile and perfect teeth, answering a question Williams asked about his playing weight still rings in my ears fresh as the first time I heard it.

“You weigh 227?” said an incredulous Williams, whose playing weight was nearly 50 pounds lighter. “Holy shit!”

When Gwynn’s Padres played the New York Yankees in the 1998 World Series, I vividly remember watching the fourth and final game in my grandparents’ living room. My grandmother, a Brooklyn native who probably didn’t give much of a shit, was rooting for the Yankees. Everyone in the room was, and as an uncomfortable 15-year-old, I kept my mouth shut. But I felt terrible for the Padres, Gwynn in particular. Not only did I want a more competitive series, I wanted Gwynn to prevail.

As a player, Tony Gwynn was a complete anomaly, a throwback to the turn of the 20th century, when high averages were more common among great players and home runs less so. A casual review of his career numbers shows a .338 batting average, a .388 on-base percentage, and a .459 slugging percentage. What makes those numbers truly amazing are his strikeout and walk numbers. Tony Gwynn didn’t walk much — he took free passes in just 7.7 percent of his plate appearances. But he only struck out 4.2 percent of the time he approached the plate. The other 88.1 percent of the time Tony Gwynn went to bat, he put the ball in play.

Batting average on balls in play (BABIP) should normally sit around .300 for all players. Anything outside of five points in either direction is considered luck. But thanks to a hand-eye coordination that was nearly super-human, Gwynn had an inexplicable ability to place batted balls outside the defense’s reach. Through 20 Major League seasons, he never finished with a BABIP lower than .303, and his career mark rounded out to .341.

To those who embrace the new wave of sabermetric statistics, that’s unbelievable — most hitters should wind up around .300. But Tony Gwynn wasn’t most hitters. He took advantage of his superb coordination by using a bat that was shorter and lighter than the bats of what’s now become known as baseball’s Steroid Era. He slapped pitches to all fields, content to take singles and doubles at a time when more popular players injected themselves with all manner of substances to maximize their home run totals.

He finished his career with a paltry 135 home runs. But he also 3,141 hits in 10,232 plate appearances, walking 790 times and striking out just 434 times. This man approached the plate more than 10,000 times between 1982 and 2001, but only managed to strike out 434 times. That’s an uncanny statistic. He never struck out more than 40 times in a full season of play. Pedro Alvarez does that in any given three-game series against Milwaukee. Gwynn’s career average against Greg Maddux, a Hall of Famer who’s widely considered the best National League pitcher of their mutual generation, was .411. Tony Gwynn could hit anyone.

Players like this don’t exist in baseball today. Hell, they didn’t even exist when Gwynn was playing. And with the advent of batted-ball tracking and defensive shifts, the odds are decidedly against a player like this ever existing again, but that’s not even really the point.

Our grandparents grew up watching players like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Paul Waner, and Stan Musial. Our parents grew up watching the likes of Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, and Roberto Clemente.

The generation of baseball fans now in their late 20s to 30s has had no shortage of incredible players to watch, but none quite like Tony Gwynn. When you grow up a baseball fan in Pittsburgh, which until last season was as painful as an appendectomy sans anesthesia, you have to really love baseball to stick with it. You have to really love baseball.

Tony Gwynn loved baseball the same way that people who stuck it out for 21 years of Pirates ignominy love baseball. Not only did he appreciate every minute of it, he made sure that those around him felt every last bit of the joy he did.

I never had the opportunity to meet Tony Gwynn, but in a lot of ways, I feel like that doesn’t really matter. His talent was exceptional, his enthusiasm infectious, his love for the game unimpeachable, and his character, by all accounts, every bit as genuine as even the most innocent, naïve fans would picture.

When someone like this dies, they never really leave — they remain omnipresent in the best of ways. You still hear their laugh, you know what they’d say if confronted with a particular dilemma, and while you miss them, you’ll never feel as if they’re truly gone, like that aunt or grandmother or cousin who departed this world too soon. It’s almost as if their attitude ingrains itself in your psyche. That’s not the mark of a great player, but a great person. And that’s the kind of thing that stays with you forever.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

If it ain't broke...

The Pirates announced on Wednesday that they’d retained the services of a sports architecture firm to study the long-term future of PNC Park.
Per the Post-Gazette’s incomparable Michael Sanserino:
The goal, Mr. Coonelly said, is to make sure PNC Park lasts as long as Forbes Field, which housed the Pirates for 62 years, and that it doesn’t grow obsolete like Three Rivers Stadium, which was abandoned after 30 years in operation. PNC Park opened in 2001.
Though Coonelly’s point is paraphrased, the action speaks for itself. The Pirates are entertaining the notion that PNC Park could become outdated. Think about that for a second.
Sanserino’s article posted at 10:01 a.m. Seventeen minutes later, the Pirates (specifically Drew Cloud, executive vice president, chief sales and marketing officer), acutely aware of whose opinion really matters, sent me an e-mail.
PNC Park is in its 14th season! We are proud to play in what many believe to be the best ballpark in America. To that end, we are committed to enhancing and improving not only the ballpark but the overall fan experience. We are currently in the early stages of developing a Master Plan for the next generation of PNC Park.
How does this worry me? Let’s count the ways.
First, let’s be real about something: the American professional level of baseball is the highest in the world, and demands the nicest facilities. You’re not going to go to Japan or Central America and see a nicer ballpark, and they don’t play baseball in London, Paris or Dubai. The facility in question isn’t the nicest ballpark in the country, it’s the nicest ballpark on the planet. It has been since it opened 14 years ago, and not a single new park constructed since can touch it. San Francisco’s is the only one to even make it into the conversation, but it still makes for a short and unexciting debate.
PNC Park is architectural bottled lightening. It was designed and built so efficiently that it came in under budget, allowing its builders to use a higher quality of limestone on the exterior than they’d originally planned for. It’s a gem.
If your chief sales and marketing officer is only willing to tiptoe around that notion to the tune of “in what many believe to be the best ballpark,” you need to find a new chief sales and marketing officer — or at least hire someone to start writing his material for him (I’m available!).
Second, the entire point of building this ballpark in the first place was to give the baseball team a home as timeless as it is permanent. Now we’re not even two decades into its existence, mere months removed from a period of unrivaled futility, and these assholes are already looking to fix what’s not broken.
It continues:
We have engaged Populous
I have no idea what that is.
Oh, HOK! Still have no idea who that is. Did the put the HOK in hoka hey?
There will be six (6) sessions taking place at PNC Park on Tuesday, June 17 and Wednesday, June 18. If you are interested in participating (unfortunately this invitation is nontransferable), please complete the very brief survey to determine when the session will take place and if there is still space available. For those that do participate in the sessions, as a "thank you" we will provide four tickets to one of a selection of Pirates games.
They want me to come to PNC Park and tell them what I think? I’ve been waiting years for this. I always thought it would come in the form of a desperate phone call, but this will do just fine.
I took the survey, telling the Pirates my name (Matthew), age (29-36) and the number of games I go to each year (5+, the highest available option). I was then redirected to a screen which informed me that there were no sessions open for someone meeting these criteria, but that I should feel free to fill out the comment box in the space provided with any feedback I might have.
Well that’s just fucking insulting.
On a hunch, I hit the back button and changed my answers to the latter two questions. Sure enough, if you’re younger and go to fewer than five games a year, they’d love to have you over for tea. I filled it out again with still different answers and found the same holds true if you’re older. I tried to definitively isolate the variable that was keeping me from participating in this exchange, though the website ultimately figured out after five or six tries that I had already taken the survey. That said, I have every reason to believe that the Pirates only want to hear from people who go to fewer than five games a year.
Since the Pirates aren’t interested in having me over for coffee and a hot dog, I’m going to use my special powers of editorial publication to drop a 10-ton truth bomb here and just assume someone will pass it along to them:
I know what you’re doing. I know where you guys are going with this. You don’t need to add more seats to the ballpark. You don’t need to put in a pool. You don’t need to find a way to add more luxury suites. You don’t need more dining options, racing pierogies or assholes shooting hot dog vouchers shaped like hot dogs into the stands.
You have a good thing going here. Don’t fuck it up.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

FTC's Stanley Cup Final Preview

Welcome, dear reader, to the final installment of our playoff previews and predictions! Just to recap, I developed a statistical model a couple of months ago in an attempt to predict how the playoffs will unfold. Please check out the first round preview, second round review, and conference finals preview.

There were no surprises in the conference finals, with the favored Rangers and Kings both winning their series. Before the first round, our model gave the Kings the best chance of winning the West and the Rangers the 2nd best chance of winning the East, so the model did its job pretty well. I'll do a full review and evaluation of the model after the Kings-Rangers series. Ok, on to the Cup prediction. Remember that even the Cup prediction is based on regular season numbers, and doesn't take into account how the teams have played to get here.

Los Angeles Kings vs. New York Rangers
Again, This Stanley Cup Final match-up shouldn't surprise anyone. Both teams were favorites in all of their series. Outside of guys like Tyler Dellow and Eric Tulsky, I don't think many people considered the Rangers as Cup contenders back in April. The Kings were the best possession team all year, in terms of score-adjusted Fenwick. The Rangers were the 6th best. Johnathan Quick was pretty average this season, and has really not played well in these playoffs. Meanwhile Henrik Lundqvist has been brilliant. I've been reading a lot of stuff about how the Western Conference Final was the REAL Cup Final, and that the winner of that series should have just been handed the Cup after Game 7. That's ludicrous. The Rangers are a good team. Hockey is a funny game with a lot of inherent randomness. Our model shows the Kings as favorites, but not overwhelming favorites. This is the first time all playoffs that the Rangers are underdogs. Enjoy the series!
61% chance of a Kings victory.
39% chance of a Rangers victory. 

Monday, June 2, 2014

Chase-ing Pete Rose: UPDATE

Remember when Chase d'Arnaud famously told Pete Rose he'd out-hit him someday? You may not remember this, dear reader, but a couple years ago, we here at FTC, in one of our boldest predictions ever, said that there's no way this will happen. Just for fun, I wanted to see how Chase is doing so far in his quest. Take a look.

Yep. After his age 26 season, Rose had accumulated 899 hits. d'Arnaud has racked up an impressive 31 hits though his age 26 season. Chase needs to get to work. Of course, he has to play his way onto the major league roster first.