A Flea in the Fur of the Beast

“Death, fire, and burglary make all men equals.” —Dickens

Category: Baseball

Game Team Barely Won Is Turning Point in Imaginary Narrative

by evanmcmurry

Is there any contrivance more abused in sportswriting than “the turning point“?

Screen Shot 2014-04-18 at 12.37.45 PM

The Red Sox managed more walks than hits and runs combined over the last two games against the White Sox, neither of which they particularly deserved to win. Lester’s pitching was more coincidental with their poor hitting than it was a causal interaction with it.

But that’s all beside the point. The season is sixteen games old; that’s like asking for the turning point of a novel in the first chapter. There’s no narrative yet.

(This rhetorical crutch is even worse with broadcasters, who view every good pitch or outfield single as a potential turning point for player/game/team/season.)

The Wolf of Wall Street and the Alex Rodriguez Problem

by evanmcmurry

I didn’t really care for The Wolf of Wall Street, but twelve hours on I’m figuring out I wasn’t really supposed to. Via Andrew O’Herir:

If the movie seems unsatisfying, that’s because we yearn for some kind of grandiose and dramatic revenge against the Jordan Belforts of the world, against the corrupt and criminal plutocrat class who humiliated and bankrupted us, who took advantage of our “base drives and puerile fantasies” and who do so still…We don’t get it in symbolic form within “The Wolf of Wall Street,” and we certainly don’t get it in reality, at least under the current dispensation of capitalism. How does Scorsese feel about Jordan Belfort? Pretty much the way the rest of us do: We claim to hate him, but our actions suggest otherwise.

You could easily rephrase this as the Alex Rodriguez Problem. Rodriguez is by even generous accounts a megalomaniacal asshat (a-hem) who cheated his way into a contract that paid him more per year than the entire rosters of other teams, and as a result lives a monstrously lavish lifestyle unrecognizable to 99.999999% of humanity (and, like Jordan Belfort, appears to lack the capacity for introspection). Rodriguez seems genuinely agonized right now over his suspension—the largest the MLB could think up because it’s the only possible leverage they have over a man worth the annual GDP of American Samoa—but when the tabloid coverage settles, Rodriguez will be sleeping atop a pile of money surrounded by many beautiful ladies.

His version of cheating is more of a victimless crime than Belfort’s, but the risk/reward ratio is proportional. Belfort, if the film is in any way an accurate reflection of his memoir, has no regrets about the bacchanal of illegality for which he served a few years in a minimum security prison. The only thing he’d change about his behavior is the getting caught part, and even if he couldn’t change that, he’d still do it all over again. The money was worth it.

I bet Rodriguez will feel the same. The MLB could bar him for life, and A-Rod’s wealth would still dwarf the punishment. He’s the most hated man in baseball right now, but does anybody believe that in three, five, ten years’ time, any up-and-coming ballplayers will weigh his eventual infamy against the $300 million contract and find it a bum deal? No fewer than the number of bankers who weighed previous SEC punishments against the bonuses and ruled emphatically in favor of getting paid. Rodriguez and Belfort proved that cheating pays, a lot.

In this context, Scorsese’s dramatic and moral choices make more sense. Scorsese couldn’t portray Jordan Belfort’s story as a morality tale, because it’s not one. Instead, he situated the viewers where we likely already were, fantasizing after Belfort’s largesse no matter how fervently we objected to the means of its attainment; Scorsese then rubbed our noses in the excess, repetitively—repetitively—until we were exhausted by it. He let the audience live Belfort’s life vicariously until we were sick from it, not because it was ultimately unrewarding but because the longer you snort the rewards, the more grotesque they become.

In short, if Scorsese ever makes a movie about Rodriguez—an entirely possible event—it will likely feature a neurotic number of florid scenes of A-Rod staring up at a centaur rendering of himself during sex. You can’t ever suspend Rodriguez enough games to make his malfeasance seem undesirable to the rookies. All you can do is show him rutting to a portrait of himself, over and over, until people begin to wonder if that’s really what they want.

Red Sox Operation Continues to Have Brain, Money

by evanmcmurry

urlGood:

This could spell the end to any speculation that Boston may be in on the Shin-Soo Choo sweepstakes, although those rumors have dampened lately.

Cherington and John Farrell both stated they would be happy with having Jackie Bradley Jr. as the starting center fielder come Opening Day and given the deal that Choo is seeking, reportedly between Jayson Werth‘s $126 million and Ellsbury’s massive 7-year and $153 MM, the Sox may decide to pass on him as well.

The Sox wisely pivoted away from the bloated Gonzalez/Crawford/Dice K contracts after the 2011/2012 fiascos, and focused on a swath mid-range players who put up significantly more consistent performances (which is to say, consistent at all). It’s heartening to see them letting the Yankees pay Ellsbury too much money and not feeling the need to compete in the cold war of ballplayer salaries.

The Market Works, Cano Edition

by evanmcmurry

If I were better at The Maths, I’d work out a ratio between the amount a team pays a player in a massively inflated superstar contract and how much they later demand in taxpayer contributions for a new stadium to house that aging, underperforming superstar. I’m seeing a 2:3 ratio.

ADDENDUM: In response to the Colonel Drew Nilsen’s request for an example of a massive contract for a 30+ hitter ever working out, I think the closest example would be after the Sox unloaded Gonzalez and Crawford to the Dodgers. The Dodgers turned their 2013 season around *in part* due to those two and their massively inflated contracts. But this a) masks Gonzalez’s declining numbers; he wasn’t nearly as good in 2013 as seasons past, he just happened to be a decent player on a team that went on a run, and certainly didn’t contribute $25 mil worth; and b) ignores the fact that the Sox actually won the series after substantially lessening their payload.

See also and this too and also this.

John Lackey and the Problem With Redemption Narratives

by evanmcmurry

Last night, John Lackey became the only pitcher in history to clinch two different World Series Championships. The previous victory had occurred with the Angels in 2002. This fact, combined with a summary examination of Lackey’s stats and $84 million salary, could easily lead you to believe that Lackey is a dominant pitcher who has spent the last eleven years perfecting his craft.

This is, of course, nonsense. Lackey recently suffered one of the most embarrassing public meltdowns in contemporary sports history. He imploded on the field, to the point that Red Sox fans watched his starts—rarely more than five innings, usually involving seven or eight earned runs—through their fingers. He imploded on the mound, screaming profanities when fly balls dropped for singles, openly berating infielders for letting a ground ball go into the outfield, visibly arguing with managers who tried to take him out of the game and then stalking off the field when he lost. And he imploded off the field, as his wife’s battle with cancer led to divorce discussions.

A notable side effect of Lackey’s implosion: innumerable redemption pieces written by well-intentioned sportswriters trying to make sense of the complete collapse of Boston’s high-level acquisition. Something about John Lackey did strange things to sports commentators, who are already prone to see every hit as Changing the Momentum and every strikeout as a narrative pivot. So for a while in 2011, it seemed as if all sportswriters had been conscripted into reading John Lackey’s every twitch as a sign that he was Turning It Around.

An otherwise insightful piece by Grantland‘s Chris Jones captures this wistful aesthetic perfectly:

“I feel like I’m still building,” he said, “but for the first time in a while, I feel like I’m going in the right direction.”

Most important, John Lackey was smiling.

And the reader was puking. More to the point, Jones was wrong: his profile came only a couple of months before the Red Sox’s historically epic season-end collapse, in which the pitcher played a primary role. The rumors of beer swilling and fried chicken eating centered on Lackey and removed any notion of moral alchemy from his tale: he wasn’t a once-great athlete struggling desperately with decline. He was getting drunk and fat, and then acting like a petulant child when he lost games. Lackey ended the year by undergoing Tommy John surgery, removing him for the whole 2012 season. Many speculated he wouldn’t return, and nobody, including yours truly, wanted him to. The redemption narrative had been irreversibly poisoned.

But there’s another and more abstract element that I think motivated sportswriters into insisting on Lackey’s salvation, besides the obvious professional and structural incentives. “Narratives” in sports are often presented as counterpoised to the drier sabermetric analysis that disregards motive, ethic, and character and focuses single-mindedly on the naked facts of performance. Under the stat-wonk view of things, if you’re a .370 pitcher who averages a certain number of strikeouts and walks per season, you may go on streaks, you may suffer droughts, but ultimately you’re going to wind up pitching about .370. If wonks have a First Commandment, it’s regression to the mean.

Lackey destroyed this. He had never had the lowest ERA around, but it was enough to encourage the (admittedly profligate) Red Sox to dump money on his driveway. He won games, even with some lackluster Angels teams, and had strikeouts to boot. The veer his pitching took when he came to Boston was inexplicable by statistical measures. With each game, Lackey drifted further and further from his own statistical form. If numbers couldn’t explain this, it’s possible something non-measurable was the cause. This was the opening for the redemption narrative, not only as a means of explaining Lackey, but as a response to the cold certainty of sabermetrics. He was a one-man experiment, a question stats couldn’t answer: What happens when a player simply goes off the deep end?

It’s possible to read Lackey’s underrated 2013 season—during Lester’s slump and Buchholz’s stint on the DL, Lackey was, amazingly, the Sox’s ace—as a vindication of either view. A healthy Lackey pitched much closer to the arm the Sox signed several years ago, suggesting his meltdown really was a physical ailment expressing itself emotionally. You could also read his comeback as a moral reformation of a man who had hit rock bottom when publicly exposed as a lout eating and drinking on an $84 million wage.

I don’t buy either. Lackey seemed thrilled to clinch last night, but his anger simmered below the surface for the entire postseason, visible on his aggrieved face during the rain delay against the Tigers two weeks ago, and unmistakeable last night when he argued, quite vociferously, to stay on the mound despite letting two runners on-base. Lackey’s three-year trip through his own personal valley seems to have been hellish, and I’m not sure that he wouldn’t trade last night’s victory to have made those years go away; they don’t appear to have been worth it, not even to him. That, at least, is how I view the player I now find to be most fascinating member of the Boston Red Sox: a guy stats can’t explain, and who doesn’t buy his own narrative.

The Houston Astros Are So Bad They Poison Whatever Division They’re In

by evanmcmurry

I began the 2013 season with the pet theory that the NL Central would suffer as a result of losing the Houston Astros, while the AL West would gain. The Astros are historically terrible, and getting to play them often as part of your division meant you got a handful of gimme games per season.

So of course the exact opposite happened. The NL Central is sending three of its five teams to the playoffs, while the AL West is a sewer that fingers-crossed may be represented in the second wild card if the Texas Rangers do every single thing right in the final week.

Here are the stats, controlling for absolutely no other variables*:

Winning percentage/wins, NL Central

2012 w/o Astros: .503 / 395 wins (w/ Astros: .475)

2013: .520 / 416 wins

Winning percentage/wins, AL West:

AL West 2012: .543 / 341 wins

AL West 2013 w/o Astros: .519 / 332 wins (w/Astros: .479)

The five non-Astros teams in the NL Central won 21 more games in 2013 than 2012; the four non-Astros teams in the AL West won 19 fewer. We can thus describe the effect the Astros have on your division as a suck of 20 wins.** At least they have an nice stadium.

* Blow me.

** Yes, a small sample size, but one would figure the teams are as similar as possible over two sequential seasons, thus setting up the closest thing we’ll ever have to a controlled experiment.

You Should Probably Not Drink The 2011 Red Sox Cabernet

by evanmcmurry

No:

1004526_10151546914221766_930662151_n

“Announcing the release of the limited edition Red Sox Club Series Reserve, a 2011 Alexander Valley Cabernet and a 2012 Sonoma Coast Chardonnay. Celebrate the history, tradition and triumphs of the Boston Red Sox with your new favorite wine!”

Tasting notes on that 2011 Cab:  “It starts off weak, has a really good mid-palate that seems to earn its price point, but then takes a complete nose dive at the end, at which point you’ll detect strong hints of fried chicken and beer. Still preferable to the 2012 batch, which ends with Bobby Valentine riding his bike into a tree.”

Josh Hamilton, Found Poet

by evanmcmurry

“From These Lips”

It’s one of those things

where if I give you guys any kind of story,

your story’s going to be different from his story,

your story’s going to be different from his story.

And then

other people who aren’t

in this clubhouse,

with you guys,

are going to take your story

and it’s going to be

an absolute mess.

No, nothing is coming

from these lips. (via)

Working the Count

by evanmcmurry

Winning:

Boston batters lead the Majors with 4.08 pitches seen per plate appearance.

And that’s without Kevin Youkilis!

Now Boston’s Season Begins

by evanmcmurry

The Red Sox own the best record in the Majors, have the hottest pitcher (Buchholz) and the leader in RBIs and extra base hits (Napoli).

But they’ve also been playing terrible teams. Almost all of the Sox’s opponents have either been woeful in general (Rays, Blue Jays, Astros) or in a slump when the Sox met them (Yankees, As). Tomorrow Boston starts a series against the Rangers, a first place team well above .500. It will be their first true test of 2013.