In a previous career, I was a real journalist. I don’t talk about it much because of the several careers I’ve had before turning 26, it was one of the more boring ones. But I worked at a technology magazine, writing features and editing the industry news section, the latter task consisting mostly of turning press releases into something that resembles English. Anyway, I was writing up a couple sentences on some company whose name escapes me when I realized that they were referring to themselves by the initialism for the company’s three-word name: ODB.
I laughed for what had to be several minutes at the idea of a company that produced (if memory serves) library software referring to itself, without a trace of irony, as ODB, but when I tried to explain to my co-workers (who were mostly white women in their 40s) why that was so funny, I got nothing but a miasma of bemused awkwardness rivaled only by the time when I showed up with a horseshoe mustache and declared it to be Fu Manchu February.
ODB is the most unfortunate acronym I’ve ever had to encounter as a writer. The second-most unfortunate is WAR. Mostly because it invites wordplay from people who (wrongly) mock the rationale behind advanced stats and (rightly) take the opportunity to mock a stupid acronym. The problem is that if you’re not smart enough to realize that sports aren’t only a test of willpower and you’re not smart enough to realize opening day starts aren’t the best way to quantify a player’s value, you’re probably also not smart enough to be good at wordplay. Which is how we’ve preserved the public memory of a certain Edwin Starr song that’s so facile and glibly idiotic it makes “MacArthur Park” look like “Gimme Shelter.”
When I’m dictator of the world, anyone who makes a WAR pun will have his (it’s invariably “his”) BBWAA membership revoked, irrevocably, on the spot. And I’ll also have the Ministry of Education’s Secret Police burst into his home in the middle of the night, throw a bag over his head and cast him down into Xibalba.
This intro is already way too long for what it adds to the point I’m trying to make, but I’m already pot-committed so I’m going for broke. Here’s why that’s relevant.
I let a recent issue of ESPN: The Magazine sit on my coffee table for a couple weeks because I was so pissed off at the WAR pun on the cover that I failed to notice that the story to which that human rights atrocity of a WAR pun referred was written by Sam Miller of Baseball Prospectus, who, if he’s not my favorite baseball writer currently working, is certainly in the top five.
Miller’s article couches the debate (If you can call it that anymore. The evolving mainstream acceptance of analytics in all sports put Sir Isaac Newton in the driver’s seat years ago) in what I think are the correct terms: as the battle between knowledge and hokum.
Advanced stats are simply an attempt to determine what makes a sport work by incorporating methods of information-gathering and information processing that are common in social science. We’re getting smarter about sports the way we’ve gotten smarter about politics, economics, psychology and linguistics. Just to name a few. As a result, because baseball’s enlightenment period has coincided with a recent rapid and astounding democratization of mass communication, it’s getting harder and harder for the forces of conservatism to maintain a monopoly over the way the public thinks about the game.
In short, the barriers to entry to the conversation have never been lower, but the barrier to entry to intelligent conversation is getting higher.
I get why that’s troubling for some people who want to casually enjoy the occasional ballgame, because it’s a lot of work to understand DiPS if you’ve only got a passing interest in baseball. And if that’s you, then vaya con dios, because I feel your pain. Let’s take another issue that’s a subject of heated public debate despite scientific evidence being tilted to one side like a teeter-totter with the fattest kid in fifth grade on one end: how the world came to be.
I have no interest whatsoever in how, when or why the universe was created, and how we got from nothing to putting a man on the moon, a feat described as the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked. Whether it happened in hours by divine intervention or over trillions of years by happenstance or some combination of the two makes no difference to me–we’re here now. I don’t care to learn about astrophysics or evolutionary biology or comparative theology in any depth worth talking about. But I’m happy to live in the moment and enjoy the fruits of that evolution.
The price I pay for that is that I don’t get to engage people who think it’s fun to pit Genesis against Richard Dawkins and go bouncing off the walls for ten minutes about it, only to end up back here with the same problems. Be as ignorant as you want as long as you accept that that makes you a passenger. Obviously, I have no problem with people doing the same with other topics. Even important ones like whether or not “clutch” exists.
What you don’t get to do (and no, I don’t know who made me the boss of anyone) is wade into an intelligent conversation and start spewing ad hominem invective against someone who’s actually done his homework (like many Phillies fans seem to have done to Grantland’s Jonah Keri this week) just because you don’t like the results. Are the Phillies for sure going to miss the playoffs? I have no idea. But if you spend any time at all trying to take an objective accounting of the situation, it doesn’t look good. They were 17 games out of the division lead last year, which is a huge gap to make up. And yeah, a lot of it was because Chase Utley, Roy Halladay and Ryan Howard were hurt or ineffective for most of the year, but at least players tend to get better and stay healthier as they enter their mid-30s…oh, no, it’s the total opposite of that. And sure, Charlie Manuel‘s mismanagement of the bullpen probably cost the Phillies the odd game or two, but what makes you think that’s going to change this year? And replacing Hunter Pence with Delmon Young isn’t going to help matters either.
This isn’t a debate anymore: we can’t predict anything in baseball with certainty, but we can speak intelligently in terms of probability. And the probability is that the Phillies won’t even know which way they’re pointed this season. That’s a bad way to fly.
So if you’ve got a beef with Jonah Keri because he thinks it’s time to blow up the Phillies, and your reason is a list of “what-ifs” that’s as long as the Treaty of Lisbon, you need to either get educated or get a genie, because it’s not looking good.
@hdrubin: “If it all falls apart by June, what does RAJ do? What would you do?”
Blow it up. I’d have done that two years ago, but that’s the rational thing to do. The key question in any rebuild is: “Will this person be around the next time this team is good?” And if the answer is no, trade him. Which means free agents-to-be Chase Utley, Roy Halladay and Carlos Ruiz would all most likely be on their way out the door, because it’s better to get some return on three players in their mid-30s, two of them already in obvious decline, than to pay them a total of at least $45 million next year to go 84-78 instead of 74-88. Now, I don’t know that I’d be emotionally capable of trading Chase Utley, but that’s why I’m not a general manager. Anyway, that’d be the smart thing to do, but what are the odds of that happening–five to one against? Three to one? I don’t think they’re that good.
Where this question gets interesting for me is when I start to imagine some of these players–Utley and Rollins in particular–in another uniform. I was getting to an emotional place last year (before he signed his extension) where I was starting to be okay with the idea of Cole Hamels in a Yankees or Dodgers uniform, but imagining Utley playing anywhere else is making me sweat under my eyes. I fear the karmic ramifications–dumping Utley months before free agency has to have roughly the same karmic benefit as having a black cat walk over a broken mirror.
It looks like everyone’s rationality has limits.
@devil_fingers: “is Darin Ruf a 26-year old who looks 13 or a 13-year old who looks 26?”
Darin Ruf, at least in the face, looks a lot like a kid I knew growing up. Except this kid, even in his teens, which is the last time I heard from him, was nowhere near Ruf’s listed dimensions of 6-foot-3, 220 pounds–which, let me say this: I’m going to buy whatever scale says he weighs 220 pounds and use it every day. Ain’t no 13-year-old that big.
@pivnert: “so, no way the dominicans lose the WBC this time? right?”
I was going to snark around about how tough their group is–Pool C, with the DR, Puerto Rico and Venezuela (the popular pre-tournament favorite) is the toughest in the tournament–but as I write this, the Dominicans are up 3-0 on Venezuela after beating the piss out of Anibal Sanchez. Jose Reyes is doing ten laps around the bases with one hand on the wheel.
So I’m not handicapping anything–with Chinese Taipei (he says, silently fuming at having to kowtow to the wicked Communist hegemony of the PRC) advancing over South Korea and Italy, or, more accurately, the Italian-American diaspora, knocking off Mexico, I feel a little gunshy about trying to handicap anything at this point. I’m loving the WBC so far–it’s been absolutely wild.
@jonbernhardt: “Sarge, in the throes of senility, argued ST stats should count on Tuesday. How do you feel about that?”
No, seriously, I gave up paying attention to what Sarge said years ago. Ex-players and ex-coaches are at their most useful in the broadcast booth when they’re giving some sort of insight into the mindset or life of a professional athlete that even most informed laymen wouldn’t know. And to his credit, Tom McCarthy serves up softball question after softball question to Sarge, trying to get him to bite and give some insight, and time and time again, Sarge gives some platitude and goes back to talking about food. Sarge’s discussion of food is conspicuous even considering that he’s sitting in the chair of a man (Richie Ashburn) who used to order pizzas to the booth while on the air.
So my only surprise is that Sarge said spring training stats should count, and not that they should be eaten with some Carolina-style barbecue sauce.
SPEAKING OF WHICH.
I live down the road from a Super Target, which is where I do most of my grocery shopping, and it’s great–they’ve got just about everything I need: frozen pizza, frozen chicken, limeade and ginger ale. Except their selection of barbecue sauce is tilted regrettably toward Kansas City-style barbecue sauce. You know the stuff–the tomato-and-vinegar sauce that we think of as generic barbecue sauce. Brown ketchup, if you will. They’ve got a wall of Kansas City-style sauces. Without exaggerating, about a quarter of an aisle. You can get any number of brands, styles, quantities and price points.
You wanna know how many kinds of Carolina-style sauces they offer? I’m talking about the (superior, by the way) mustard-based barbecue sauce, the tangy, almost flirtatiously flavorful yellow goo that does to your taste buds what a pretty girl does to your heart. The good stuff, in short. How many varieties does my local Super Target carry?
And it’s Target’s in-house Archer Farms brand, where you spend $7 for a jar with enough sauce to last me about one helping of chicken. I haven’t tried it, because when I think of paying a premium for barbecue sauce, the first place I want to go is a department store from Minnesota. What would Didier Drogba say about this state of affairs?
It is that, Didier.
@elkensky: “do you think that the WBC not being held entirely in one country is a pro or con?”
Excellent question. Last week, Dave Cameron of FanGraphs suggested that the WBC be held as a single-elimination tournament in one city, which is an interesting proposition. I don’t agree with everything in his proposal, but it does solve a lot of problems, wear and tear on pitchers tops among them.
I’d prefer a double-elimination tournament, just because you can play baseball on a more condensed schedule than any other major team sport, which would generate a larger showcase while still preserving the possibility for, say, Brazil to advance a couple rounds. The world’s foremost DE baseball tournament, the College World Series, did see Kent State beat No. 1 overall seed Florida last year. DE is also the default playoff mode for amateur baseball tournaments from Little League to NCAA Division I, which isn’t really a justification in and of itself, but it’s worth noting.
The world championship tournaments for soccer, hockey and basketball (the three team sports played at a major-league level in the U.S. and on the international level) are usually held in one country, and doing the same with the WBC might make it into a worldwide tourist destination for baseball fans. There are two problems I see with a single-country WBC:
- For as few countries play baseball, they sure are scattered across the globe. There’s no way to schedule a game where it’s convenient for TV in the USA and Latin America, and the Pacific Rim and Europe.
- Right now, the only countries capable of hosting a WBC are the United States and Japan, particularly if you schedule it across multiple venues in multiple cities as is the case with the FIFA World Cup. The WBC isn’t going to work if it’s always in the U.S. and Japan–you have to bring the world’s best players to Europe and Australia and Brazil if you’re going to generate excitements in new countries. Just because one of the emerging baseball nations can’t host now doesn’t mean that won’t change in the future, but it’d be really easy for MLB (or a future worldwide governing body) to fall into the habit of putting the WBC in Los Angeles every four years and never moving it.
There are two things that WBC critics need to remember. First, it takes a long time for a new sports competition to generate enough momentum to become tradition. It took twenty years for the FIFA World Cup to turn into a worldwide brouhaha, and that’s with a much more globalized game to start and in a much less crowded sporting landscape. Also, it’s not about us. Which is unfortunate, considering how much of the WBC takes place in the U.S. This is a long-term investment in the global growth of baseball, and to give up after three our four cycles would be foolish. Imagine if Christopher Columbus had come back from the New World and no one had returned in his footsteps.
@kfk5025: “somehow convince me that charlie won’t start dom so i can stop getting excited about him”
Just remember that we’re dealing with a man who chose to give John Bowker at-bats during a pennant race rather than play Brown. You’ll be fine.
@jay_jaffe: “Is Michael Young a Hall of Famer?”
Well, JAWS says no, but he’s got 2,230 career hits. Which means that he has a non-trivial chance at reaching 3,000. Now, I know what you’re saying–he’s 36 years old and trying to win while putting him in the lineup 150 times is already like trying to drive a toaster through a car wash. But he’s one of those guys, like Juan Pierre, who was good once (though not nearly as good as everyone thought at the time) and has most of his value as a player tied up in his batting average.
If you have a name and a high batting average, someone will always give you a shot, and Michael Young seems to me like precisely the kind of person who would consider himself a pivotal part of any baseball team well past his expiration date. He had 169 hits last year–do that five more times and he’s over 3,000 with room to spare. And since he’s not all tied up in steroids like Craig Biggio was (or something) the BBWAA has to vote him in, because those are the rules. Except for Johnny Damon.
Yeah. I don’t think he’s going to make it.
@jferrie23: “if you had to draft a beer Olympics team of current and former phillies, who would be on the team? 5 member limit.”
I can’t clone Dave Hollins four times, can I? No? Fine, then. He’s one.
And I’m going to try to stay away from choosing players who actually struggled with alcohol abuse. Though my knowledge of the drinking habits of former Phillies is far from encyclopedic, so if Dale Murphy‘s been drinking a fifth of Pinnacle with breakfast every morning for the past 30 years and no one’s told me, I’m sorry.
Anyway, you’ve got Hollins, who was, by many accounts, the scariest mulleted guy on perhaps the scariest mulleted team of all time. I’d wager that just about any member of the 1993 Phillies would know his way around a little liquid propulsion, but I betcha Hollins could beat anyone in a shotgun duel.
I’d have to think that Jeff Juden, who is not only one of the largest Phillies pitchers I’ve ever seen, but one of the largest human beings I’ve ever seen, would also be an asset to this team. He’s listed at 6-foot-8 and 270 pounds, which, on Darin Ruf’s scale, puts him around three metric tons if you use Earth’s gravity. That’s a lot of space for beer to go. Though if Beiruit is an event in these Beer Olympics, I’d consider picking a pitcher with a career walk rate under 10 percent.
But the Beer Olympics aren’t just about brute-force high-volume ingestion. Any self-respecting Beer Olympiad has at least one game that tests the drinker’s ability to maintain cognitive function in the throes of drunkenness. Now, I know most of y’all don’t like him for some reason, but I’m going to call another 6-foot-8 pitcher into the fold: Michael Schwimer.
Here’s why: Schwimer went to the University of Virginia. From what I can tell, UVA is a place where a bunch of really smart kids with really rich parents get together, put on khaki pants and boat shoes, and party like last call is coming up on five-dollar pitcher night in Sodom and Gomorrah. As someone who grew up a Virginia Tech fan, it pains me to think of a UVA background as an athletic asset, but I can’t help but think that it is..
If you’re participating in games and drinking, the last thing you want is to put together a team of hypercompetitive muscleheads. When they’re winning, they get loud and no one likes them. And when they lose, they get loud and no one likes them. So we need a guy who, when the beer starts flowing, can chill out and convince his comrades to do the same. This is why I don’t want Delmon Young within 50 feet of this team.
I’d pick Ben Revere as the glue guy, but the amount of beer it’d take to get Jeff Juden drunk would probably cause Revere to swell up like Violet Beauregarde and die. So, again, another question about putting Phillies players in social situations and another Ryan Howard appearance.
So now that we have the antidote to hypercompetitive douchebaggery, it’s safe to add Chase Utley to the team. Not only does he bring some quickness and coordination (key for beer hockey, for instance) to what is so far a pretty plodding team, but he and Howard would make an awesome doubles team in any game. They’ve been playing side-by-side for almost a decade now–they can anticipate each other’s moves and read the tone of each other’s voices.
I think that team could do some serious damage in anyone’s drinking game competition.
@cwyers: “Could Delmon Young hit an outfield fly so poorly that even Delmon Young could field it easily?”
@LonettoMB: “corollary to this question: could Delmon Young throw a ball so slowly and poorly that even Delmon Young could outrun it?”
You hear he got 10 days’ community service for that little brush with violent anti-Semitism? He could serve the Philadelphia sports community for 10 days by just not coming in to work, I think.
@Living4Laughs: “5 coolest Philly athletes all time?”
Well, for me, “All Time” only goes back as far as I can remember, so, about mid-90s. I’m not going to speculate on the coolness of Hal Greer and piss off the people who can actually remember past 1995, like I did when I called Willie Montanez an “obscure former Phillie.”
- Allen Iverson. Not even close. When he was at his peak, he was popular enough to get Reebok to dump Shaq as its top sneaker mule. That’s an inconceivable amount of cool.
- Cliff Lee.
Along with Sebastien Le Toux and Brian Dawkins, Lee is one of very few universally beloved Philadelphia athletes I can think of. Maybe you can add Chase Utley and Simon Gagne to this list if you’re feeling generous. I’m not adding Claude Giroux because I can’t shake the suspicion that he’s living out the first half of “You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”
- Jimmy Rollins. Though when you play next to David Bell it’s easy to look cool.
- Nick Young. I think we all know why.
- Chase Utley. I have two younger brothers. When I was in high school, I was well-known and well-liked without really being all that popular. That’s because I tended to get into positions like “National Merit Scholar” and “Drum Major” where my name got said on the announcements a lot, and I tried to be nice to everyone. My youngest brother, who is still in high school, is much more popular than I was because he covers up what I can only assume is his massive insecurity by adopting a class clown persona. My middle brother, however, is a disturbingly intelligent person whose default mode is one of taciturn pensiveness. And girls were all over him in high school. They adored him, doted on him, chased him around and around like Delmon Young trying to retrieve a ground ball. And it had nothing to do with the dark and brooding thing he had going on, or the fact that he was good at sports.
I remember one Sunday morning, where my youngest brother and I were standing around after church–I was home from college, I think–and we were chatting, waiting for our dad to take us home, when my middle brother walked by, attended by at least two girls his age.
My youngest brother turned to me and asked, “Why do girls like him so much?”
“You see,” I said, “girls from around here crave attention. He denies it to them. He goes about his business and talks to who he wants to, and genuinely doesn’t care about keeping the popular girls happy. And when he doesn’t pay attention to them, they think there’s something wrong with them and they try all the harder to chase him.”
I have no idea if this was actually the case, because I was probably about 21 when I came up with that theory and I was wrong about just about everything at that point in my life. But that’s the dynamic between Chase Utley and us fans. He’s so utterly desirable, and yet so aloof. We crave validation and he denies it to us, and in turn we crave it all the more.
At least that’s my theory.
Enjoy the weekend, enjoy the WBC, and may the United States, the greatest nation that ever was and ever will be, prevail!