Monday, May 30, 2011

Clowning around with the White Sox

(skip to the 5:00 mark)
As has been much reported, yesterday afternoon, while in the midst of the worst pounding of his career, John Danks took exception to Jose Bautista's competitiveness. At the time, I thought it was a little funny and sad that a guy who'd just given up 9 earnies had the nads to bark at the best hitter in baseball. And after the game, when Danks' comments were quoted out of context, they made for comedy gold. A White Sox player called a Blue Jay a "clown"? Wait, you guys still have AJ Pierzynski behind the plate, right? Ozzie Guillen is still making ridiculous quotes to the media? Joe Cowley?

And the "Babe" money quote? Well, in almost any other context would be a suitable comedown, but in this case it's hilariously apt. Danks reached deep into his repertoire for the most ridiculous comparison he could come up with, the classic baseball dis - "who the fuck do you think you are, Babe Ruth?" - and he still came up short. Because Jose Bautista is, indeed, Babe Ruth.

Jose Bautista, circa 2011 (so far):
.350/.498/.788/1.285/252 OPS+

Babe Ruth, circa 1920 (i.e. the best year of his career):
.376/.530/.847/1.377/255 OPS+

Now that the game is 24 hours old and I've heard the Danks quote in its entirety, though, I can see his side of the story. By the fourth, he's out there to absorb the beating only because the Sox are short an entire pen. The game's over. For a hitter to slam his bat indicates not only that they think is he's a worthless pitcher, but that even his out pitches should be ending up in the second deck. And that's an insult.

Thing is, I don't think Bautista really gives a shit who's on the mound. He gets to the plate, he sees a pitch and he takes a pass at it. If he hits it out, he's happy. If he pops it up, he's not. Announcers are always saying that hitters ought to take the same quality of at-bat in a 19-1 ballgame as a 5-5 ballgame, though few do, and I can't begrudge Jose one iota for keeping his foot on the gas. Those 9-2 at-bats will count just as much as any other when we recount his historic 2011 for posterity, and every out he makes pushes that magical OBP back towards (and ultimately under) the .500 mark - back from the stratosphere into the realm of a major league baseball player.

So, whatever. as much fun as it'd be to get some bad blood going between the White Sox and Jays, they don't see each other until September. And right now, it's hard to feel much more for the Chicagos than pity. At the plate, Adam Dunn looks like the football player he probably should have been. Juan Pierre has a .633 OPS and a 50% SB rate. Alex Rios is Alex Rios. Ozzie still hates the media, still struggles with the spelling of the word "interview," and is already ranting about his legacy. They're seven games under .500, were supposed to win their division, and haven't even really been slammed by major injury problems like the Twins. They're spinning out, and there's still four more months to rubberneck from a safe distance.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Intentional Balls

A few minutes before Marc Rzepcynski was charged with one of the most dominant reliever losses I think I've ever seen (of his first six batters faced, three struck out ugly, two hit weak infield bounders and one took a curve off the toe), the Jays were faced with a conundrum: Corey Patterson on first, Jose Bautista at the plate, tie game late. To run or not to run?

I've always thought the notion that you shouldn't run with a certain type of hitter at the plate was a fallacy. If (as was the case Thursday night) the defensive team is willing to put the hitter on, then they should - generally speaking - put him on whether or not the runner is on first or second base. I think that's what happened last night: A pitch-around with CPatt on 1st turned into an IBB with Patterson on second. As an offensive team, you should be happy that you have more baserunners, and baserunners closer to scoring that vital go-ahead run.

If the defensive team is not willing to walk the batter with a man on first, then they probably shouldn't be willing to walk the batter with a man on second - with the notable exception of some very specific splits. (If Ichiro is up in a walkoff situation, tie game, with a runner on first, and that runner advances to second, then maybe you walk Ichiro, because the chances of Ichiro hitting a game-winning single - versus the double he needed previously, and the chances of the next hitter hitting the same single - are relatively high.)

In the situation presented last night, the White Sox essentially ceded second base to a very fast runner in Corey Patterson - no doubt because they liked their chances to get past Bautista with two outs in the eighth rather than leading off in a potential walkoff situation. But for a runner as fast as Corey Patterson to completely shut down his game in a vain effort to force the other team to give Bautista a pitch is ridiculous. They're giving you the base, take it, and let what happens happen. If you make up your mind not to run, then how far do you take it? If a pitch goes to the backstop, do you stand on first? Adamantly stating, "We want you to pitch to this guy, because we're terrified of bringing the on-deck guy up in a crucial situation"?

The twitterers who pointed out last night that a runner on first is in scoring position for Jose Bautista aren't entirely wrong. Bautista has 27 XBH and 24 singles. Last year he had 92 XBH and 56 singles. At the end of the day, though, I think you have to be willing to pass the baton. You can't play to avoid the offensive walk: first, because a walk is a positive offensive contribution; and second, because Jose is going to get his walks either way. 100 non-intentional BB to 2 intentional in 2010 should indicate that much.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Redundancies, Platitudes and Bombshells

That Halladay guy, man? That Halladay guy was nothing. Every five days for a decade? More CGs than most of the teams in the American League? Blah. Whatever. He was nothing, man. He was boring. Yeah, a good pitcher. Yeah, a Hall of Famer. But he wasn't that historic. I mean, he's never led the league in ERA, and that means he's never been the best pitcher in his league, right?

Jose Bautista, on the other hand?

This is what historic looks like. Best offensive season in major league history? Leading the world in homers and walks? I mean, don't get me wrong - complete games are cool. But 65 homers? That's a whole nother level, dude!

The other night, while I was getting miserably and illegally shitfaced on a beach with some friends (as I do), I met a beautiful girl. And I use the word "beautiful" here very intentionally - an empty, overwrought adjective, entirely stripped of meaning, can in its purest, most honest application, mean something sensational. I mean, this girl wasn't cute. She was Charlize-Therion-in-her-prime stunning, with just enough of a hint of personality to make it seem real. Now, I'm normally very salty when it comes to evaluating physical appearance; I try to avoid falling into the trap of sickening sycophantry that occurs whenever a particularly attractive member of one sex finds themselves surrounded by members of the opposing gender. But in this particular instance I couldn't help but bask in this girl's presence. There was sexual attraction, sure, but what I was really feeding off of was that movie-star charisma, that radiance - that total self-assurance, the possession of which makes us mere mortals all too aware of our own fallibility.

Now before I make it seem as though I have a personal obsession with this girl, I should clarify that there is a comparison to be made here. (And I should point out that, perhaps unsurprisingly, she tilted toward the ditzy stoner end of the spectrum in actual conversation. Very poor at picking up on irony.) Before the bombshell appeared, I had been flirting with a girl I considered reasonably attractive, someone who had interesting stories to tell about crazy Quebeckers and life in other countries, and a face not riddled with boils or acid burns - really, just your average human female. And normally, I'm okay with that. I've grown past the high school urge to seek out the best-looking girl in school, is what I guess I'm saying. And the French girl was...fine...sparks weren't exactly flying, but she was friendly and interesting and I could have seen myself spending more time with her given that she seemed interested in getting to know me.

Enter valley-girl-superstar - my jaw hits the floor, and Quebecois-hippie stops looking so hot. And not just her - every girl I've met over the past six months, whether I thought them gorgeous or cute at the time, pales next to this being in front of me. She's hot in a way I just haven't seen before, not up this close, not this personal. The closest thing I can think of that pits the absurdity of a beautiful woman against the flawed nature of humanity in general is this classic Between the Ferns interview, but even that doesn't do it justice - it's filtered through a video camera, and Charlize circa 2008 is not quite Charlize circa 1999.

Anyway, I go to excesses because this girl was to other girls what Jose Bautista is to other baseball players. He's simply unbelievable in a way I didn't think was possible. He makes Barry Bonds look human. Barry Bonds. The roid monster that transformed himself into the best player on the face of the planet is being challenged by some 195-lb hacker? A guy that got traded, rule 5ed, or waived SIX times? It's ridiculous - unpossible - mind-bending, absolutely stunning. Jose Bautista walks into a room and other players bow down before him, because he knows something they don't. That they can't. As Alan Ashby said after one of the Target Field jacks, he's a big leaguer playing out of his league. He looks down at the Aaron Hills and Edwin Encarnacions of the world the same way Jon Rauch looks down on Jason Frasor.
I keep telling myself that the slump is coming. No one just gets better and better and better. Baseball is a game played between humans; humans have anxieties and weaknesses, and pitchers the league round have just as much video on Bautista as he does on them, if not more, and still none of them - none of the three hundred humans on the planet who are the very best of the best at throwing a leather-covered object past a man wielding a maple splinter - have figured out a way to beat him. It's not possible. Everything I've ever seen in my baseball-watching life tells me that something will crop up - that susceptibility to breaking balls in the dirt, fastballs at the eyes, or knee-bending sliders. And the more I watch Jose Bautista throttle major league pitching, the more I wonder what I really know of baseball at all.

A couple of weeks ago SBNation recounted how, in the summer of 2011, Jose Bautista broke the game of baseball. It hasn't happened yet but it will - oh, it will. I still wonder when the day will come that we will discover that The Beast is really just a furry retriever named Hercules and all our portensions were overblown, but until then - well, thank God we can finally forget about that Roy guy.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Sentiment and Statistic

I watched Bull Durham last night. Check that: I watched a handful of clips of Bull Durham last night, because I found large swathes of it just totally insufferable. If Bull Durham really is the "best baseball movie of all time," then that's far more an indictment of the truly awful baseball movies that have been produced throughout modern history than it is a testament to Bull Durham's greatness. Bull Durham gave us a couple of iconic characters and a little bit of insight into the "other side" of professional baseball...set against a backdrop of softcore porn, bad 80s music and horrendously unrealistic action sequences. As a movie, it embodies the sentimental 80s-90s Hollywood bullshit I pretty much despise, the kind of writing and storytelling that has forever been put to rest, I'd like to think, by the rise of indie filmmakers around the same time. (I'd even go so far as to say that as far as Ron Shelton sports movies featuring two jocks and a girl, White Men Can't Jump is the better flick. But maybe that's just me.)
Coincidentally, last night was also when I finally got my ass over to FanGraphs to look up wOBA. Until then, I had been aware only that it was an offensive stat that looked a little like OBP. What it is, of course, is essentially OPS, but scaled properly for the value of each outcome. That explanation makes perfect sense to me, and I can easily believe simply from that single-sentence summary that wOBA is a very useful comparative stat.

But even understanding that - even knowing that this stat had perfect utility - I still found the number staring off the page at me foreign in some Luddite way, a disembodied decimal that carried no inherent meaning. I think that's a big reason why throughout my life my submission to newer, and no doubt superior, statistics has been so gradual. I know I'm hardly the first to make this point, but it remains true that numbers like wOBA and FIP exist outside of the game itself. The reason that batting average was the predominant statistic in the first hundred years of baseball was that it involved such a simple calculation: it's easy enough to go back to the dugout after a 2-for-5 day and say, "Hey, I'm batting .400!" On the other hand, could I ever sit in the dugout without pen or calculator and figure out my wOBA?

It's an obstacle of understanding: selfish ignorant pricks like me want to feel like they understand the stat they're quoting - I want to make it my stat, not Tom Tango or Bill James'. For years after I figured out OPS, that was my go-to stat - because, rightly or wrongly, I felt like I understand everything that went into its calculation. Even making the transition to OPS+ was irritating in that it involved deflecting that burden onto someone else's calculator - I understood that a 119 OPS+ was 19% above league average, but that calculation was something that I couldn't discern from the raw numbers, at least not without investing hours of my life into it. And for every inch that I am stuck in my ways, I'm a long way from the forty-year-old ex-ballplayer who's spent his whole life evaluating his career in a certain way.
Like Crash Davis. Who - let's be honest - is pretty much Sal Fasano. (Gotta tie this into the Jays somehow, right?) Kevin Costner may not have grown the Fu Manchu, but somehow you just know Annie would have loved it. And Sally-boy did hit 156 minor league HRs (and 47 major league ones), which doesn't quite add up to the made-up number of 246 in the film but, all things considered, is pretty damn close.

Anyway, I don't really know where this is going. Sal Fasano has his place, I guess, and so does Fangraphs. Or something...

Monday, May 16, 2011

Highs and Lows

On Monday, May 9 the Blue Jays played the Detroit Tigers. On Monday, May 16, the Blue Jays will play the Detroit Tigers once again. What a difference a week makes.

Last week, Jays fans were still reeling the emotional beatdown of a no-hitter, from an injury-riddled offense and from the learning curve of a babyfaced rotation. Watching a mediocre team drop to a whole five games under .500, hands wrung everywhere as jaded fans called for the heads of the stopgaps and begged for the summoning of the vaunted prospects. Batters Box especially was a hotbed of the kind of disgust that would have put SOSH to shame.

Since the shitshow that was the final game against the Tigers, we've seen two straight series sweeps, we've seen Jose Bautista catapult his way to the forefront of the baseball consciousness (as Keith Law said today, "he could fall off considerably and still run away with the AL MVP award"), and we've seen up close and personal what a franchise in disrepair looks like. It's not a team that trades away its two best pitchers in consecutive offseasons only to sit at .500 at the quarter-pole; it's a team that was supposed to win its division playing with the injured corpses of two superstars, without the injured corpse of another, and relegating one of their only decent starters to a long relief role. If I had to use one word to describe the Twins' season, it might be: fucked.

Does a five-game win streak mean anything in the larger scheme? Does a no-hitter, really? At the end of the day, they're just individual games, marks on the tree-bark to pass the days. Tonight the Jays send Kyle Drabek and his stratospheric walk rate to the hill and anything could happen. No-no redux? Maybe. Can't make it through the second? Possibly. (Maybe slightly more likely.)
It's not playoffs (or: PLAYOFFS!), but in its own way the unpredictability of a bad team is more interesting than the slow, professional grind of a Red Sox-Yankee game, isn't it? Just as Jays fans were losing patience with the overblown running game, it was pair of tenth-inning stolen bases that sparked victory over the Red Sox and reminded us what the utility of a stolen base is. Dave Roberts in the 2004 ALCS was a gamechanger, and that's what the Rajai-created run on Tuesday reminded me of. That's not to say Juan Rivera should try stealing third (maybe ever again). But it certainly was refreshing.

Likewise, when you're throwing Brandon Morrow, Jojo Reyes and Kyle Drabek in a do-nothing season, one would do well to live vicariously through their highs and lows rather than the team's. If, in a couple of years, a more-confident Drabek can bring his control back to its minor league level (which was significantly less alarming than what he's done this year), then we can one day look fondly back on his tentative rookie stylings. If Jose Bautista continues to put up the best offensive season in baseball history, we can sit back and admire it for what it is, and not get caught up in the fact that his tablesetter is Corey (30-30) Patterson, bane of the stathead's existence.

This team is bound to struggle along the way, but if people weren't drawn to the struggle, then Johnny Mac wouldn't have his fan base. When Morrow and Drabek grow grizzled, weathered and impersonal like a certain machine, we can remember how we saw them when they were still...just kids.

Friday, May 13, 2011

All by Myself

So I had been working on a rather convoluted post about Jose Bautista's awesomeness and how Corey Patterson is my personal Britney Spears (don't ask) but then Blogger stopped working for a couple of days and upon stopping for a moment to reconsider the nonsensical drivel I had written I decided it simply wasn't worth my time. The gist of the post can be summed up as follows:
Corey Patterson Splits:
Batting #1401100000100.250.250.500.750
Batting #294112471216302243.255.278.415.693

Jose Bautista Splits:

None On608203188140900.333.459.8171.276
Runners On402115303121911040.375.583.6751.258

Jose Bautista has 11 HRs and 20 RBIs. Put another way, he has driven himself in a total of 11 times, and the other 8 players in the lineup on any given day a total of 9 times. That's an HR/RBI ratio of 1.82, or slightly less production per homer than Barry Bonds' 2001 season (73 HR & 137 RBI, a ratio of 1.88). And as much as these ever-more-frequent Bondsian comparisons make my skin quiver, does this not make a compelling case that Corey Patterson's .293 career OBP should be buried somewhere far, far behind Bautista? (Even if, sadly, based on 2011 numbers alone, there are no obviously superior candidates.)