Friday, April 29, 2011


Not much of a post, because my brain still feels like it's coming out of a bad acid trip, but how the fuck were the Rangers not expecting the squeeze in the ninth today? Tie game, one out, reasonably fast runner on third and a guy whose only redeeming major league skill is speed/bunting, and the Rangers seemed completely stunned. It just boggles the mind - isn't everyone in the park anticipating the safety squeeze there?

As far as the other news of the day - Snider down, Cooper up - I don't hate it THAT much. Nothing wrong with giving Cooper some innings at first, sliding Lind back to DH and Rivera to LF to see if the forgotten first rounder can show a little something. Just because Snider has been the Face of the Franchise since he was 20 doesn't mean he should get unlimited opportunities if someone else is knocking on the door. Snider was drafted 14th overall in his draft; Cooper was drafted 17th overall in his. Does one measly year (Feb '87 birthdate vs Snider's Feb '88) really make it inconceivable that Cooper could still develop into at least as good a player as Snider might? Yes, Snider shot up the ladder - but then so did Brandon Wood.

Not saying it's likely...but why not try it out? In the playing time battle of Corey vs Travis, it's no contest. But Cooper vs Snider? Well, it's at least debatable...
Of course, you could have both, and nail the vets to the bench. And IF Coop succeeds, maybe that's what we do see in a couple of months: Snider LF, Lind DH, Cooper 1B. But I don't have any huge problem with sending Snider down for two-three weeks while the Blue Jays braintrust tinkers with their young left-handed power-hitting toys.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Awkward Analogies and Nonsense

I'm going to try to write a coherent post, even though I slammed the back of my head against a stainless steel wall on Thursday night and so conjuring words and similes may be a little more difficult than usual. The one thing I've noticed about this haze is that it's made me feel like me, only moreso; the streamlined absentmindedness and chaotic randomness that is my brain has only been accentuated by the direct hit. Maybe that means I was dropped on the head as a kid or something.

----On a side note, try deciphering Nausea with limited brain functionality. I mean, I'm an existential misanthrope myself, but seems good old JP was very much more interested in the permutations of his own mind than in disseminating his ideas to the masses----

One thing that slamming my head into a wall (The Wall?..I don't know) has done has made me appreciative of all the concussive discourse surrounding Major League Baseball this past offseason. If I'm having trouble keeping up with my 16-year-old coworkers at my menial-labour minimum-wage job, I suppose I can understand how a concussion could make execution of the game of baseball at its highest level a more difficult task. Take today's game: had Felipe Lopez's instincts been delayed by a fraction of a second, this ball could well have killed him rather than merely ending Bautista's consecutive-plate-appearances-reached streak (fast forward to the 15 second mark of the vid).

That shot snapped eleven straight times-on-base for Jose, but it also seemed to sap the life out of the Jays on the afternoon as they went quickly and quietly to James Shields and his revamped delivery for the rest of the day. This weekend series with the Rays should have been a sobering one for Blue Jays fans, as likewise the previous week should have been. Against three superior AL East teams, the Jays went 3-6. If a good team should expect to win 2/3 in every series, then the Jays managed to lose 2/3. It's not a great thing, but it's not really a terrible thing, either - it's just a thing, and probably a fair indication of talent level. Anyone who expected a team that in a single day could field a lineup featuring (Donald?) Corey Patterson batting leadoff, Juan Rivera in the five-hole and John McDonald anywhere but the nine-spot could compete with the Beasts of the Easts was sorely mistaken. This is a punch-and-Judy offense, folks, with one lonely monster.
After the Jays' game concluded I clicked through my seedy pirated internet connection to another seedy pirated internet feed, to the Padres channel to watch the Doc slice and dice his way through that cream-cheese lineup, and it gave me pause. Sans Adrian Gonzalez, the Padres lineup makes the Jays' look like Murderer's Row. Before Will Venable's bounding single past Halladay's ankle with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, the Padres were in line to receive their seventh shutout of 2011. Their seventh. For comparison's sake, this afternoon's blanking was the first shutout the Jays have been involved with, period.

(There have been several losses where the team has only scored one run, but until tonight, no shutouts. For all their offensive woes, the Jays have been an average scoring team this year, with 78 runs in 21 games; the Pads have been the worst in baseball at just 62 runs in 21 games. Part of that is Petco, but most of it is Jose Bautista.)

Man, where am I going with this post? I'm veering around like a stupefied infielder tracking a popup only to dive valiantly at the last minute and have it snowcone out of his glove. Oh yes: mediocrity. The Blue Jays, this year, have it in spades.

Apparently, there were a couple of fairly exciting walkoff victories this weekend. I say apparently because last Tuesday night I was busy making my own 2011 baseball debut (as a weak-hitting corner infielder on the local junior team, if you must know) and on Good Friday I was busy working and/or regaining my bearings after my encounter with said wall. Whichever you prefer. And maybe not seeing these examples of the most exciting event that can happen on a baseball field has coloured my perceptions, but it occurs to me that usually a dramatic walkoff victory indicates, if nothing else, that the home team shouldn't have won the game in question. I'm not going to do serious research into it, because it's after midnight and I'm somewhat lazy and somewhat mentally incapacitated, but I do hark back to a game which happened almost two years ago, during the Last Days of (Saving Private?) Ryan. It was another Halladay start (there's unity in this post somewhere, I swear) - this one in May, 2009, in a game that the Jays somehow managed to drop to the Baltimore Orioles:

In that game, Halladay carried an 8-3 lead through seven and handed it over to Jesse Carlson, who promptly blew it or, you know, shat the bed, or whatever other expletives befit a pitcher who manages a 12.00 WHIP over the course of an appearance. The Jays then took an 11th-inning lead, only to blow it again in the bottom half, thanks to Ryan and the immortal Brian Wolfe. Must have been an interesting WPA graph, eh?
To summarize: the Orioles won a game that was in upper-quadrant Jays territory for all or parts of six innings, and was only in upper-quadrant Orioles territory for one pitch. That is your definition of a pilfered game. Let's take a look at Monday's game:
Not so drastic, but similar. It was solidly the Yankees' game pretty much from the top of the sixth to the bottom of the ninth, when the Rivera meltdown led to a relatively quick gimme win.

Selective sampling doesn't prove shit, I know, but I find it curious that in an extremely weak stretch the Jays have managed to muster much of their offense in ninth-inning surges, and I think it has to do, bluntly, with being consistently outclassed by superior opponents. Jacob Ruppert once famously said that his ideal game was "When the Yankees score eight runs in the first and slowly pull away." In short, the Yankees don't need your damn walkoff homers - they'd rather just consistently grind you into the dirt, and live with the occasional eleventh-inning jack by a Nolan Reimold or John McDonald.

Long story short, it's going to be a long season.

---Oh, and on a completely unrelated note: this running business has got to get under control. I will defend running to the death - it's a valuable weapon (probably even more valuable than some metrics give it credit for, in my uneducated opinion), but when you are trailing in the late innings by more than a single run, SHUT IT DOWN. Jose Bautista had no business getting picked off today, just like Corey had no business stealing third last weekend. Time and place, time and place---

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Goodbye Brett.

Well, the stunning news trending across MLB and the Blue Jays twitterverse is the demotion of Brett Cecil for the unforgettable Chris Woodward. Unforgettable, of course, in the sense that I can't forget the many months that JP Ricciardi spent trying to fashion a starting shortstop out of a guy who was lucky to even be in the big leagues in the first place. On the strength of a solid 2002 season which saw him hit 13 jacks (3 of them in one game), Blue Jay management thought that a starter had been born. Although I must admit I got a little caught up in the excitement that surrounded this game, the excitement had long since worn off by the time the 2004 season expired.

It's funny. In 2004, Blue Jays Nation was ready for the Russ Adams era to begin, and starting a rangeless utility infielder with little power and a sub-.300 OBP no longer seemed like such a great idea. Little did we know at the time that Russ Adams (drafted with the 14th overall pick in his draft) would, by age 30, have similar career rate stats to Woody (drafted in the 54th round in his), in even fewer plate appearances. For Adams, a marginal AAA career can only be termed an unmitigated failure, while for Woody a career as a AAAA player and $5M in career earnings must be far better than he ever bargained for.

Anyway - back to Cecil. What happened to his arm strength? Injury? Illness? Too much time spent attacking fans on twitter? Not to be judgmental, but this kind of immature defensiveness is EXACTLY the kind of thing that must drive cliche-coaches and management personnel nuts. First rule of the internet: don't feed the trolls. The remarkable thing about having athletes on twitter is that it transforms their godlike feats into something human, but humans are weak and fickle creatures. Some people want to worship their athletes - think of the children! - and having a young pitcher lash out at a fan is exactly the kind of thing that destroys that illusion.

I'm not saying that Cecil's demotion directly reflects the fact that he cussed out a 20-year-old budding journalist ("journalist," a la Dan Shaughnessy, no doubt) on twitter. More likely it's the diminished velo and the 6.86 ERA. But the immaturity can't help matters, and as Joanna points out, to the naked eye it appears as if, for all his denials, he is trying to hump up and throw harder on the mound. I imagine it's that internal conflict - that indecision - that is in some small part leading to his worrisome results. Cecil needs to "get it together," sure, but I don't think it's a foregone conclusion that he will come back and be a great pitcher. Remember, he struggled quite a bit in 2009 and early in 2010 as well; it was only in July, in a series in the Bronx, that he began to put it together. The more I think about Cecil's career arc, the more I think Nuke Laloosh; not because he's crazy wild but just because he seems to rely on his catcher and his pitching coach to get him through jams more than a Ricky Romero or a Roy Halladay.

I'm using a lot of wiggle words and a lot of unfair comparisons here, but that's because we can't possibly know what's going on inside Cecil's mind or the Blue Jays clubhouse, so this will all be conjecture, and in certain cases stats don't tell the whole story. The truth is, I haven't seen Cecil pitch on TV much at all this year - I've missed two of his games for work and was sitting in the right field stands for a third, not an ideal place from which to evaluate a pitcher. All I've noticed is the general wildness which seems infectious on the majors' most walk-friendly staff.
So who will get the start in his absence? Lot of names being thrown out there, but let me vouch for two. Carlos Villaneuva, of the 2 hits in 10 2/3 innings so far this year, and Brad Mills, of the 0.82 ERA in AAA. I had thought Villaneuva had a full season as a starter under his belt, but apparently I hadn't been paying attention - his career high is nine. But he has 400 major league innings under his belt, is stretched out in the pen, and profiles very well as a one-time spot start, presuming Litsch is brought up. On the other hand, if the Jays are looking for a longer-term rotation candidate, it's difficult to ignore Mills' terrific early numbers in Vegas.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Roster Management and Fantasy Baseball Nerditry

The second-best thing I can say about this morning's Patriot Day shellacking, for which I dragged myself from a lying position to a sitting position on my bed at the ungodly hour of eight in the morning, is that at least Yunel Escobar's ninth-inning Monster-scraper prevented the 9-0 forfeit final which would have inevitably led to hundreds of Wilnerisms (on twitter and elsewhere) about how the Jays might as well not have shown up. The best thing I can say about the game is that it made me look like a genius for picking up Jed Lowrie in my fantasy pool last night.

Does that make me a bad Blue Jay fan? I'm not sure. There was a time, about seven or eight years ago, when I would be down at the Dome and find myself subtly pulling for some scrub in the other guy's lineup to get a bunch of two-out singles and stolen bases, and it would lead to internal conflict and angst. I was never sure when it became fair to actively root for my fantasy team over my chosen team. With a 3-0 lead in the ninth did I want my fantasy guy to hit a solo homer or was that too risky? Blowouts were easy, but the close, the close games were torture.

Since that time, I've lost most of my interest in traditional fantasy baseball. I've played in some form of league almost every year since 2002, but I've gradually come to the realization that I suck. And now that I'm no longer fifteen, I've discovered various other games and preoccupations which are far more enjoyable than fantasy baseball. Poker and pool...simulation baseball, which involves managing an entire roster. Fantasy baseball was real players, sure, but somehow it never felt as real as a sim league team. Simulation baseball has a narrative in a way that a statistical mishmash of all-stars and middling regulars can never really possess. When one starter on your fantasy team pitches a complete game shutout while another gets knocked out in the second inning, what happened to your "team"? At the end of the day you might get 11 innings pitched with a 3.00 ERA, but those numbers don't say anything about what happened on the day. I love baseball for the tension, the drama, the storyline, and bottom-line fantasy boxscores never carried that tension. There's tension in that you don't know if you're going to win, and there can be comebacks in terms of a team having a great Sunday to win a Head-to-Head matchup, but I don't know - I just never felt the magic.

Anyway, I've not felt that magic all the way to the tune of a 4-17-3 record through the first two weeks of the season. Yes, you read that right - my winning percentage is, after the Red Sox' awakening, worse than the worst team in major league baseball. So, much as I was prepared to play out the string with half an eyeball on the team en route to a sixth-place finish, I decided that my record was an insult to my baseball intelligence. With one MVP (Hamilton) and one Cy Young Award winner (Greinke) on the DL and one Ramirez (Manny) in retirement, drastic changes were needed.

So I thought back to my fantasy days of yore. Way back in 2005, which was about a dozen changes of addictions and lifestyles ago, I managed to win a single measly fantasy league. Incidentally, I dominated it, and just so coincidentally, it was against many of the same guys who are dominating me in my current league. Back in 2005, I was a dyed-in-the-wool baseball geek scouring forums for "Rate-My-Team" threads, while these guys were the casual high school ball fans who had a beer or two at the game, showed up on draft day and ignored their teams for the rest of the season. (Still, in most of my leagues against hardcore players, I finished somewhere in the 10th-12th range - I wasn't that good.)

Nowadays, it's almost too easy to be good at fantasy. (Ironic coming from me? Okay. But regardless.) This year, Yahoo offers so many tools to help the fantasy initiate that I don't know where to start. Watch Lists? Performance Analysis? What is this junk? What happened to trolling because they were the only website which listed probable pitchers? I'm only 24, but I feel like cranky old Fast Eddie grumbling in The Color of Money:
This ain't pool. This is for bangers. Straight pool is pool. This is like hand-ball, or cribbage, or something. Straight pool, you gotta be a real surgeon to get 'em, you know? It's all finesse. Now, every thing is nine-ball, 'cause it's fast, good for T.V., good for a lot of break shots... Oh, well. What the hell. Checkers sells more than chess.
Fuck, I'm too young to be a grumpy old man. I wasn't very good back in 2005, but back in 2005 I worked hard to be mediocre. I didn't have the game itself suggesting who I should pick up. So I had to rely on advice from better players: Never take a three-for-two deal, because roster spots are money. Flash-in-the-pan pitchers come around more often than flash-in-the-pan hitters. Draft a stud in the middle infield/catcher spot or don't bother; the fourth-best catcher is barely a step above the twentieth-best. Keep a roster spot or two open for spot starters who can be dumped as fast as they're picked up. Etc, etc. I didn't always make good choices, and I never really learned the National League, but at least I was making some strategic moves to keep me in the middle of the pack.
Now back to the Blue Jays (yes, getting there): today, AA7 and his crack investigative team sent David Purcey to Oakland for, essentially, Rajai Davis. Yes, the same Rajai Davis who is currently on the Jays' disabled list. The obvious guess here is that during the negotiations over the winter, Beane asked for Purcey and Anthopoulos countered with Danny Farquhar, but now that the Jays have essentially given up on Purcey they're giving the A's their man.

At first blush, it's an odd move, given that at the time of the trade, the Blue Jays were pitching Luis Perez - amateur free agent Luis Perez of the poor minor league stats and peripherals - in a blowout loss to the Red Sox. What does Luis Perez offer that Purcey can't? Couldn't they use Purcey as a long-man, and save him for the late innings of a 9-1 game instead of calling up some AAA scrub?

But one of the first pieces of advice I ever got about fantasy baseball was: don't clutter your roster. It's always nice to have one or two sleepers in your back pocket, but don't hang onto aging superstars like Juan Gonzalez (then) or Magglio Ordonez (now) well past their best-before date. If a guy has limited positional flexibility and declining numbers, there's likely something better to be found on the waiver wire, something that may provide you greater flexibility down the road. If you pick up an up-and-coming shortstop for the corpse of Vladimir Guerrero, then you can trade your Starlin Castro for a Brett Gardner and, because Gardner will play everyday, maybe then dump your fourth or fifth outfielder and pick up some young starter with a 2.50 ERA (Jordan Zimmerman, anyone?).

Anyway, all I'm really trying to say is that a guy without an option is an anchor. If you can't throw strikes at the big league level and you can't be demoted - hello JoJo Reyes - then sooner or later, it'll come to crunch-time. Better to wave good-bye now and let the roster breathe.

(And in the process, as a fantasy owner with a .190 winning percentage, I've managed to lecture you about fantasy baseball. Sorry.)

Friday, April 15, 2011

West Coast guest host

On Wednesday the Blue Jays wrapped up their customary West Coast trip with a salvage win; after four straight close losses the tide seemed bound to turn, and in the 8th inning on Wednesday it did.
What did I think about the trip? Go away. Get out of my district, boys; you have a home and it's called the Rogers Centre. Much as I enjoyed the opportunity to go and actually see some ballgames, after 5 years I'm used to my 4 PM start times. Through the direness of university days, afternoon baseball gave me an excuse to put off things until after dark, allowing me to then pull an all-nighter with good conscience. Even though I don't do the no-sleep thing anymore - I burned out - I still like my routines. You're fucking with the game plan, man! If I wanted 7 PM baseball games I'd have dropped out and moved back to Toronto four years ago.

Way back in 2009, Aaron Hill said, "Whenever we come on this West Coast trip, we've had some interesting games, and not always good games." He might as well have been talking about the just-concluded tour; due to jet lag or whatever else, unkindnesses seem to befall the team whenever they head to my time zone. Last Saturday's game was quintessentially West Coast - laid back, messy, drawn out, and ultimately futile for the team caught in the ratrace. It's probably subjective colouring - historically, the Jays actually have a winning record against both Anaheim and Seattle - but it's a feeling I have, and it's nice to know it's shared even by the players.

The Jays have lost a lot of close games so far. People can wring their hands and shout obscenities at everyone on their twitter feeds when a 7-0 lead turns into an 8-7 loss, but I don't think you can do much other than shrug. It's happened before, it'll happen again. You can ascribe it to to random luck, you can ascribe it to a dicey pen, you can ascribe to inexperience or a lack of winning! Whatever you prefer. In the end, we've just got to endure, enjoy the game itself, and prepare to warm ourselves by the Pythagorean fire come October.
The Jays lost games where they were dominated by an opposing pitcher and they lost games where their offense dominated the other guy. After the chips fall, they're 6-6 on the season, which sounds about right. Good homestand, bad roadtrip - the breaks even out. If this team plays .500 baseball over the rest of the season, we should probably be happy, despite what 12 games' worth of run differential might suggest to the contrary. Small samples!

Now they head to Fenway to face the dead-horse Red Sox. Many will hope the Jays stomp the last gasp of life out of a downtrodden team, and those numerous will, in all likelihood, be wrong. We all know the Sox will eventually get off the mat, and a sweep for the home side would hardly shock me. The balance between the good teams and the bad tends to find its equilibrium eventually, and the correction can be devastating and brutal.

The Jays are simply not a great team. This season is a coming out party for Romero, Drabek, Yunel, and hopefully Snider and Arencibia. It's also an opportunity to see if any one of Hill, Lind, Encarnacion, Litsch or Reyes can regain some of their dissipated value. But that's all it is - the wins will eventually fade. Just smoke a California doobie, sit back and enjoy the ride. It doesn't matter, man.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Curtain: Success, Failure, and the Human Condition

In response to some of my stranger moments on the page in my university writing workshops, I’ve occasionally been called a “modern beatnik.” Much as I hate to come off as the hollow, selfless echo of fifty-year-old “influences,” I do appreciate the compliment. After all, behind the convoluted similes and Nietzsche references that coalesce On the Road, Kerouac’s writing teems with life. We both write nonconformists, but while he writes about freedom, I write about losers. Even though I’m an unpublished hack and Kerouac lived his writing through to its natural conclusion – cirrhosis and a premature death – what ties them together, I guess (and makes the comparison even conceivable), is the shared fascination with how fuckups define the human condition.

Many a lazy sportswriter has written about how baseball embodies failure. How a .300 hitter fails 70% of the time, how a perfect season is impossible – the list goes on. But I think it’s worth revisiting how fascinating we, as a species, find failure. While my father and I were in Southern California to watch the Angels play the Blue Jays, we stumbled upon a tour of Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles.
(The Bradbury building, better known as the place where Blade Runner was shot)
Tours generally offend me on a philosophical level – for their very lack of life; their premeditated facade of carefully plotted re-enactments – but this tour was different. Our tour guides were a retired couple from Minnesota, who knew less about their subject matter than the resident Raymond Chandler fan or several of the employees of the various heritage buildings. As they felt the tour slipping away, our hapless guides resorted to reading various passages from Chandler stories which may or may not have related to the sites we were visiting. In a way, their clumsiness was charming – it made the tour a universal, organic experience as opposed to an oiled machine. And it’s that lack of oil that makes life real.

Within the passages the nervous older woman stammered through, I found myself noticing the same hunger for destitution that drives me (and, I suppose, my Kerouac-shadow-writer). Along with the slick hustlers and femme fatales immortalized in Hawks’ version of The Big Sleep, Chandler writes the city’s derelict. More than Marlowe himself, it is his “elevator people” that makes his city breathe – that make for the kind of created world that inspires a retired Midwestern couple to conduct a slightly socially awkward book-tour.
(Image by Vivien Maier -
To visit LA is inevitably to notice its underside: the middle-aged black woman scratching her face at a street corner, the greybeard holding out a palm on the front steps of a major bank. But then it’s that dynamic that defines, and unites, the urban experience in general. Be it Toronto, where in high school I smoked joints in abandoned playgrounds blocks from Regent Park; be it Los Angeles, a foreign city in a foreign country; be it even small-townish Victoria, British Columbia, my new home, where the homeless flock in winter to escape the snow: bottle people are the grease of society. Or maybe its oil leak, or something; human, real, they are ostracized for the very humanity they reflect back at us. People live lifetimes avoiding the reality of failure, and it’s this fear – far more than distaste or stinginess – that drives them past that extended palm without so much as a cursory glance. The urban poor intrigue me precisely because they don’t succeed in our society’s drive for homogeneity. I think the balance between interesting failure and boring success can also be found in the experience of a baseball game.

A “great” baseball game is repetitive. The game that Jared Weaver pitched on Sunday against the Blue Jays is illustrative; in 7 2/3 innings he struck out 15 men, issued four walks, and gave up four weak hits. In judging pitching talent, there is something called the “Three True Outcomes” – the three outcomes of an at-bat that are entirely controlled by the pitcher: walks, strikeouts, and homers. Weaver’s command of the game led to a profusion of True Outcome atbats – of 30 batters faced, 19 either walked or struck out. 

When a guy has no-hit stuff, it makes a game compelling in its own way. But while that dominance is appreciable – it’s an appreciation of success. Watching a sniper mow down an overmatched army is not entertaining in the same way as watching someone overcome the odds can be. Consider the WPA (win probability added) graph for Sunday’s game. The Blue Jays had a 50% chance of winning before the first pitch was thrown, and as the game progressed, it gradually shrank to 0% when Travis Snider struck out to end the top of the 9th. From my seat high above the third base foul line, this approximates my ballpark experience; as soon as Weaver was announced as the Angels starting pitcher, I became sceptical of the Jays’ chances – and only moreso as he struck out 2 in the first, then 6 of the first 9 batters. By the time Snider beat out a slow hopper in the fifth for the Blue Jays’ first hit of the game, I had all but given up hope of anything but avoiding the no-hitter.

The better baseball games, at least viscerally, are the worse baseball games. Take Saturday’s game. It was a game of failure – glorious, spectacular, epic, eye-popping failure. But it was also a game full of tension – and, as any writer learns early on, tension is the lifeblood of strong writing. The WPA graph generally favours the Angels slightly, but it reads like a heart-rate monitor. Every half-inning, more or less, the line would buzz in an opposing direction.
 (Brett Cecil throws a first-inning pitch.)
I could add more adjectives to “failure,” but they would never suffice. It was the best game I ever saw – but then I can’t rightly say I saw it at all. Can you say you watched a baseball game if you didn’t see who won? This is an essential question about baseball, about games, about life. For all its talk of beauty and glory – and for every moment that I breathed that in on Sunday – baseball is still a game, and games define themselves by winners and losers.
I was forced to walk out after the 11th inning – a waste of a front row seat and almost two hundred bucks, some might say. And yet, my walking out at the exact moment I did changed my perception of the entire game. The Blue Jays lost the game, but by leaving the game at the absolute pinnacle of their success, it felt like a win. Octavio Dotel had just struck out Jeff Mathis on what can rightly be described the most dramatic pitch I’ve ever seen in person. It’s what I call the ultimate payoff pitch – the moment when one pitch, barring a foul ball, must determine the outcome of the game. It only comes up in the exact situation that Mathis faced in that inning: bases loaded, two out, 3-2 count, home team at the plate, game tied in the bottom of the last inning. “Everyone in the park,” as the sportscasters must say, “knows what pitch is coming.” Dotel blew his best fastball past Mathis, the roaring crowd groaned, I clapped vigorously all the way to my Amtrak, deliriously happy just to be alive – in the game, I mean, though on some level perhaps literally.
In the larger scheme of things, of course, it doesn’t matter that Dotel got out of the jam, because the Jays lost, but to stress that point is to complete undermine the roller-coaster experience of fanhood. This is what a game of failure can offer: excitement. And this was an exciting game. The Angels should have won it in the 11th. The Jays could have won it in either of the 12th and the 13th. The Angels came very close to winning it in the bottom of the 13th. And when the Angels finally won it in the 14th, it was a misjudged fly ball that put the winning run on base.

And it was exhilarating. In about the sixth inning, after the fifth or sixth runner had been thrown out on the bases, I realized what the game reminded me of – a house little league game. You know how when kids play, everyone kicks the ball around, so the baserunners start running wild? Eventually, emboldened by their success, they start getting greedy – some kid tries to steal two bases on one pitch. Well, even clumsy eleven year olds can sometimes make a single short throw-and-catch throw in the time it takes a guy to run 180 feet, and the kid gets nabbed. On Saturday, it was as if each baserunning mistake on the Jays part that went unpunished led to an even more egregious mistake, until eventually someone would make a decent relay throw and kill the rally. All told, there were six baserunner kills in the game, five errors and multiples misplays on both sides of the ball.

Chandler once said that “The private detective of fiction is a fantastic creation who acts and speaks like a real man.” A real man, he implies, would choose a higher calling in the real world. When you look into the eyes of a major league baseball player who’s almost as young as you – I actually have a year-and-a-half on Travis Snider, though I haven’t accomplished a tenth of what he has in his life – you realize that somewhere behind that stern, focused gaze, is a fallible human being.

The dynamic between an individual baseball fan and an individual baseball player is inevitably a beta-alpha relationship. The very fact that I cheer on a given player prevents that player from ever respecting me. He sees me living vicariously through his successes on the baseball field, and he disrespects me.

My seat for Saturday’s game was a few paces behind the first-base line, directly level with the spot where the players practice their windsprints in the minutes leading up to first pitch. Nursing his injured ankle just spitting distance away from me, Rajai Davis practiced his leads, and after I shouted a word of encouragement, he looked over at me. Coldly. Expressionlessly.
I’m a notable character, even without any Blue Jay gear to represent – long hair, caveman beard – so I think Davis saw me. But I have no idea what passed through his mind (or, for that matter, Bautista or Snider’s when they noticed me too). I don’t know if he was sizing me up or merely looking through me, if he was aware that I was a Jays fan or presuming I was a heckler. Maybe he detested me – hated my idolatry, even as he knew intimately his own failings, the tenderness in his knee...or some more private demon.

At field level, I felt myself tapping into the psychological aspects of the game on the field. Impactful or not, there’s no question that gamesmanship still occurs on a baseball field – and observing it up close injects a life back into the game experience, a lifeliness which can be lost over months of channelling a baseball experience through choppy streams on illicit internet websites. Conferences between the first-base coach and the runner, Jose Bautista’s jumpy, daring leadoff and subsequent pickoff: these are frozen, human moments in my memory. The in-game tension takes on a new meaning when you can see John McDonald’s nervous eyes flickering as he discusses strategy with first base coach Torey Lovullo, mouth obscured by a pair of batting gloves.

I play games. It’s what I do. Poker, fantasy baseball, junior baseball, pool, card games – you name it, I’ll play it. Major league baseball, which was once my only real game – the game that defined my childhood – is now just another pastime. Fantasy baseball isn’t so much different than poker, in its way – drafting an Albert Pujols isn’t so much different than picking up pocket Aces on the button, is it? They both greatly improve your chances of winning. Pujols could blow out an ACL and the Aces could run into a straight, but when you’re gambling they’re all the same. But pocket aces can’t get Steve Sax syndrome. They’re inanimate, definite. You could run a computer program and simulate every poker game ever played. You could input every possible type of chip and player distribution. The possibilities are huge, but they’re finite. Baseball isn’t like that – it’s a game played between human beings, and human beings fail – because we’re alive.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Welcome to the Hotel California

In early 2004 I went through a phase of "B" punk bands. Not second-rate - literally, bands with names that started with "B". Finally putting aside my extensive Blink-182 collection, in short order I discovered Boys Night Out, Boysetsfire, Blindside, and eventually even Bad Religion (though I never quite made it to Black Flag). I'm not sure how I found out about Blindside, but I remember sitting on an RT transit car blasting my brand-new copy of "About a Burning Fire" in my crappy Discman, and thinking I'd just discovered the greatest band in the world.

As these things go, I've grown older and come to prefer music a little more layered than stuff that abides by a furious catchy riff with screaming vocals. It's not that I don't love screaming - I just find that the music tends to be a little shallow. Bad Religion, especially (and punk fans can insert some kind of terrible sacrilege joke here), I find extremely repetitive. While Boysetsfire remain an old fave, Blindside is another one of the many artists from my youth who have all but disappeared from my radar. They put out a record after AABF which cut back on the screaming I loved so much, and after awhile even that came to feel extremely one-note.

Anyway, this track is from that definitive album - definitive in that it was the first one I discovered, at least. And it has Billy Corgan in it! While I'm not a huge Pumpkins fan, he did do the soundtrack for Spun, which is pretty much the best drug movie in history aside from Requiem for a Dream. So even though I don't think I could listen to the record three times on repeat like I did that cold clammy spring afternoon in March 2004, I still remember somewhere deep inside the exhilaration I once felt, and get chills when I queue up the odd Blindside track. They're

All that was a very long segue into mentioning that in about 14 hours I'll be boarding a flight to Los Angeles on my way, eventually, to Angel Stadium of Anahiem. There, barring injury, I'll get my first glimpse of Vernon Wells in a red uniform. My father and I have been doing this for a decade this year, and we're up to almost half of the big league parks - 15 for me, 14 for him, since he hasn't been to Safeco yet. Last year we sat through this debacle in sweltering $200 bleacher seats at Yankee Stadium in July, so I'm hoping this year's game will prove a little more worthwhile. I should be posting a few photographs and a summary of my game experience sometime this weekend, provided we don't get rained out. 
(And, hey, the Eagles/the Angels...same thing, more or less, no?)

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Of Bunts and Walkoff Homers...

Is it terrible that after hearing all the talk of Yunel Escobar predicting his home run the first thing that came to mind was the racist chicken-torture scene from Major League? Just seems like right up there with "never hustles" is the stereotype of the superstitious Spanish player who can't communicate with his teammates except to make outlandish predictions. Other than the camera showing the ball flying a little more center than opposite-field, the homer is a carbon copy of Yunel's last night, isn't it? Fastball up-and-away, drilled.

(Also, love that the reference in the video description is Delgado, even though Pedro Cerrano is a right handed hitter.)

I've gone on record defending the bunt over the past week (on twitter and elsewhere). In a one-run game, I am looking for a tie before I'm concerned with winning the game, because tying the game gives you a potentially infinite number of outs to work with, while going for the win is an all-or-nothing prospect with a finite timeframe - 3 outs. And bunting can contribute to that one run, even if it reduces run probability overall. In an extreme circumstance - one run deficit in the ninth, leadoff double by a fast runner, bad hitters who are good bunters coming up - I'd even defend back-to-back sac bunts. Assuming that the possibility of an error or a bunt single is roughly equivalent to the possibility that the bunter fails, I'll take what is a more or less assured tie game over the possibility that the bottom of my lineup can hit .333 over the rest of the inning.

But anyway, in the tenth, given Balfour/Suzuki's poor holding ability and Davis's presumably intimate knowledge of that, I was looking for the steal or hit-and-run more than the bunt. When Yuni smacked a fastball, I was pleasantly surprised. But the fact that Yunel got a pitch he could do that to is somewhat attributable, I think, to the situation.

I know it's very difficult to quantify how these possibilities may have affected Balfour (you can throw 17 years of sheer averages at me, which seem suggest a barely relevant point - namely that runners affect the pitcher whether or not they are fast), but I definitely think pitch selection can be affected by game circumstances, and that unpredictability is a weapon.

In the comments section of Getting Blanked during Sunday's postgame fistfight over the merits of Yunel's bunt in that game, someone linked this fangraphs article; in it, the author essentially explains how game theory should affect bunting strategy. In general, it is often in a manager's best interest to bunt slightly more than the bare statistics would suggest, because by using the bunt as a weapon he is affecting the opponent's defensive alignment. If a team goes an entire season without a sac bunt, the infielders will always play back, cutting into the offensive team's batting average on balls in play, while if a team bunts constantly, the infield will draw in, increasing the hit potential when a bunter does swing away.

I think the same can be applied to pitch sequences, loosely. If a team never bunts, the pitcher can work the bottom of the zone without any concern, while with the threat of the bunt, the pitcher may consider throwing something up in the zone.
In the long run, we'll never know for sure if Balfour was just throwing that pitch to get ahead of Escobar, or whether he threw it where he did because a high fastball is a difficult pitch to bunt and makes for an easier glove-mitt transfer for the catcher. But at the very least I think it's worth considering that the circumstances may have affected it - it's not something that can be dismissed by sarcastic twitter scoffing. To get preachy: just like the scouting crowd was once dogmatic when it came to the introduction of statistics into certain facets of the game, I think people can become entrenched in their thinking the other way. Always consider that, whatever information you have, there may be more out there to learn.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011


For the Blue Jays to throw a crafty lefty at the Oakland A's in an early-season home series feels like comeuppance, or maybe just good old irony. It was 3 years ago almost to the day that the A's waltzed into the RC and rode the likes of Dana Eveland, Greg Smith and Chad Guadin (okay, crafty righty, that one) to a three-game sweep. Three thoroughly mediocre pitchers - one now the mopup man for the Washington Nationals, one now in AAA, and one who was released from his most recent organization just 5 hours ago - managed to flummox that Jays team's high-octane offense.

In some ways, Reyes reminds me the most of Smith. Both are young lefties who have struggled at the major league level because they allow far too many baserunners. They're hittable and wild, which is a dangerous combination. At age 26 this year, Reyes is getting what could be an extended audition (or not, depending what happens when Morrow comes off the DL); at age 26 last year, Smith got 8 starts for the Rockies and put up a 6.23 ERA. Both had about a season of big league experience going in - Smith that 2008 season, which looked superficially good, while Reyes has been called on to make 37 mostly awful starts for the Braves over the past 4 years.
It's not that I think Reyes can't be a good pitcher. He's lefthanded, after all, and anyone who's ever listened to Bill Lee talk for 15 minutes understand that left-handed pitchers operate on a different time-space continuum from the rest of the baseball world. (Whither Jamie Moyer?) Plenty of lefties sneak through a season or two on pure deception - Smith's 2008 being a prime example. But most of the time, the ones who don't control the strike zone die. Cradling that 92-mph fastball, David Purcey (control) or Jeremy Sowers (contact) drift from the rotation to the bullpen to the waiver wire, leaving mid-5 ERAs in their wake.
Sometimes, like new-age housewives, lefties find their success later in life; much has been made of guys like Randy Johnson or Jamie Moyer "finding themselves" at 30, after drifting through a decade filling out major league bullpens and minor league rotations.

I think Reyes' upside is Ted Lilly, an inconsistent starter who only really got the walks under control after switching to the National League at age 31, but has managed to stick around for 25+ starts every year since 2003 and wriggle his way to a better-than-average ERA in all but one of those seasons. Ted Lilly isn't a Hall-of-Famer, but he's a decent pitcher. He had his first solid season at age 26, but expecting Reyes to put it all together this year seems to me like hoping on a prayer - or, more specifically, a disappearing option. For the Jays, putting Reyes in the rotation is a do-or-die proposition, a high-risk, low-reward move that can be justified in a punt season. I'd take the under bet on odds he's in a Blue Jay uniform one year from today - though if I'm wrong, that can only mean good things.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Modus Operandi

I've been told before that my writing is too dense. I'm not sure when it happened. I seem to remember writing these thin, hacky little stories in high school completely lacking any sort of plot or characterization - in short, any positive qualities at all except for their readability. But somewhere, I shipped off to university and started writing seriously, or tapped into the stream-of-consciousness my 9th-grade English teacher tried to hammer into me, and became inaccessible.

I thought I had moved beyond it, but I've had the complaint crop up again a few times in recent weeks - here, in class, wherever. After a month online and an admittedly very puny number of pageviews, my first-ever commentator in the post below says that I need to "edit" my posts better. Unless I'm really losing my eye for proofing (and MSWord has made me lazy, admittedly) I'm going to assume that by editing he means clarity. I could go into a rant about how people should be more attentive readers (it would have gone over well in my just-concluded novel-writing class) and shouldn't need everything explained to them, but this is the internet, after all. The place where long diatribes go to die. As evidenced, I guess, by the lack of traffic so far.

This site is still fetal, even in internet time. When I thought to myself, "shit, man, I gotta start a Jays blog one of these days," I had my eye on this past Opening Day weekend as the target, if not later. I figured once the 2011 season started, I'd be finished with school forever, so why not see if there were some people out there who gave a crap about this little baseball obsession of mine? (I only went online earlier because I don't want to forget the awesome name - which isn't awesome at all, I know.)

So, in my mind at least, this site hasn't even started yet. And even though it might seem like my antagonistic vocab-jerking is intended as a Fuck You to anyone who might wander over here, I do want pageviews at some point. I want to get to the point where I'm writing worthwhile posts multiple times a week and more than 2 or 3 people are reading them. If all I wanted to do was keep a baseball diary, I could save it in an MSWord document and then send it to some publisher when I'm a  rich asshole on my deathbed instead of a poor, hungry student asshole still trying to cut it in the real world.

Believe it or not, these crazy, clusterfucked diatribes with asides and subordinate clauses which zoom haphazardly in a million different directions aren't simply a function of me flaunting the useless BFA that'll be lining my back pocket come sometime in June. I am trying to do something here (keyword: trying). I'm trying to write something Jays-centric that isn't the same thing as everything else that's out there.

Going into this, I don't think I realized how ridiculous the competition was just for the odd pageview. My interpretation that the Jays were still underrepresented was clearly coloured by Jays-content-starved memories left over from adolescence. Nowadays, there are literally dozens, probably hundreds, of websites that devote themselves entirely to the Jays. Some of them are great, some of them are spectacularly shitty, and a lot of them are mediocre. (I've noticed that even the fairly serious ones which feature player interviews and guest bloggers are often riddled with amateurish spelling mistakes.) And forget the big names over on my blogroll. I'm just talking about fan sites:

Jays Blogs:
First of all, there's
Then there's:
And finally, there's (too truly) Yet another Jays Blog:

I'd be lying if I said I've read all, or even most, of those sites, though I will eventually make my way through the list. But to one degree or another, most of those sites serve the same purpose: a little bit of gooing here, a little bit of baseball analysis there, some prospecting, and sometimes some pictures or live videos of game action.

They're fan sites first and foremost - speaking only from the ones I've read, mind you - and the content tends to be a bit ubiquitous. Come late March, as I'm scanning the blogosphere: "Oh great, another AL East preview? Why don't I just head over to Fox and read one that's written by a professional?" Or for Jays-specific content, I wonder: what do these sites offer me that Batter's Box or DJF can't?

My goal is to not simply be another voice in that wilderness (wilnerness? sorry). It seems the way to set yourself apart these days is with hard-hitting analysis, but that's not my thing, at least not to the extent that fangraphs/hardball times/baseballreference do it. I couldn't possibly win even a twitter-war about WAR with DrewGROF, let alone focus my entire online existence on my understanding of advanced stats. I simply don't have the mathematical wherewithal to understand percentages and graphs like an engineering undergrad.

So I thought that since I've wasted the past five years of my life watching films that no one has ever seen and reading the odd short story, I'd try out something a little more literary with this thing. Even that idea isn't unprecedented - Pitchers and Poets has been around forever, and I discovered Molly Lambert's weird life-writing/literary criticism hybrid about two weeks before I found out she was moving to Bill Simmons' new site - but it's something different from just another Joe Blow's fifteen minute lineup analysis. I am a writer, and I'd like to go somewhere with it eventually, whether or not I can twin it with this irritating baseball addiction.

Anyway, to get creepy on your ass:
So, yeah. Go Jays! (/weak) By the way, the bottom of the ninth today was absolutely terrific to watch via my choppy internet feed - loved the 30,000 standing for Bautista's AB, especially after everyone got behind Cecil in the fifth. I can't remember a loss ever feeling so exhilarating. Now - if only the fans can keep it up through the doldrums of mid-April...

...Oh - and expect a little more connective tissue to my posts from here on out.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Opening Weekend Reactions

Recently I read a short story about an inner-city high school English teacher who challenges his truant 11th-grader to a one-on-one basketball game. (For story context, think Half-Nelson.) The kid's a flashy up-and-coming star, while the teacher is a slow middle-aged white guy with a good shot. It's kind of a cheesy morality tale (and it's not by anyone you've ever heard of, so don't ask), but the reason I bring it up is because there's a moment on the court where the teacher is panting, worrying about an impending heart attack, when he realizes that the kid isn't so much concerned with winning, at least not literally. At his age, winning is about dominance, about doling out or receiving humiliation, about feeling glory - it's not simply a question of putting an extra point on the board.

And Teach uses this knowledge to his advantage, like a cagey pool shark taking down a sharpshooter by playing slow and using psychological tricks. The sharpshooter needs to runs to table, while the old guy merely concerns himself with the 8 (or the 9, whatever the game happens to be). Of course, the sharpshooter is the one who has the better chance of developing beyond the level of his opponent - you generally can't win by playing a safety on your last shot. Sure, the teacher wins the race to 10, but the sixteen-year-old is the one on the fast-track to the NBA.
The one thing that has come out of the past two games is that the Jays haven't simply beat the Twins, they've pounded them to the felt like Mike Tyson in his prime. Forget the cumulative score of the first two games (19-4 Jays, for reference). In Game One, the Jays outwalked the Twins 5-nil. In Game Two, the Jays outhit the Twins 11-1. In the two games, they've outhomered the Twins 6-nil. They've even stolen more bases and played better defense. Basically, it's been a question of obliteration. The crowds have certainly played their part - raucous, big, excited, perhaps even intimidating - but the cumulative effect is that the first two games have played out like some kind of public shaming.

The Jays are young and dynamic, and that's what makes this season such an exciting prospect for even the bleakest of prognosticators. Seventy-two wins? Doesn't matter, we're going to see Snider and JPA get a full season of at-bats, and that's what counts. And what I think we've seen this weekend - if you'll pardon both my extrapolation from a measly two games, small sample sizes be damned, and my risky sojourn into the land of intangibles - is a team, with that young energy, who is eager to dominate. If I can make a comparison between the personnel and and the personality of the team (uh oh, I used the word personality), consider this: the current roster includes no less than nine first-round picks. Of those nine, Jayson Nix is the oldest at thirty. I'm not entirely sure that nine is an obscenely high number, because a good number of guys who actually make it to the majors are the ones who go at the top of the class each year, but regardless: this is a team constituted of young men who have for their entire lives been the absolute best baseball players at their levels of competition. A team full of unencumbered talent. A team full of individuals who expect themselves to be the best, no questions asked - like that fictitious sixteen-year-old baller.

The fun of the past two games may have set up unrealistic expectations, but I think those games have shown us something. The Jays aren't going to 162-0 this year. Not even close. They likely won't even go 81-81, as their upside runs up against those cagey Beasts of the East. But with that edge, with that hunger, and with that talent, I think we can really begin to get excited for 2012.

(Note: I know this post reads like hackneyed, intangible hyperbole. I can't help it - while I agree that if your aim is objectivity there are much better ways rate a team than by relying on tags like "winner" and "personality," I don't think they can entirely be discounted. My theory might be out of left field - how do I know how long Travis Snider's seen himself as Golden Boy? - but calling a bunch of young first round picks talented and hungry should have some basis in reality, I hope.)