Crash Bag, Vol. 46: Radioactive Porcine Hemoglobin

Last week, Paul did the Crash Bag, to near-universal acclaim. One commenter remarked that he preferred Paul’s more level-headed tone to my “sour” and “bitter” outlook, and while I appreciate lemons as much as the next guy, that remark got me thinking: I do find myself in a default state of bitter, florid, impotent rage. It’s not that surprising, considering my hobbies:

  1. Watching/thinking about/reading about/writing about the Phillies.
  2. Watching/thinking about/reading about/writing about the Sixers.
  3. Watching/thinking about/reading about other teams I follow: Arsenal, the Flyers, the Eagles, the South Carolina Gamecocks.
  4. Consuming narrative fiction that’s heavy, dark and extremely cynical, like House of Cards and the novels of Richard Ford.
  5. Consuming music that is heavy and wallows in human weakness and suffering.
  6. Contemplating the pitiable futility and smallness of the existence of mankind in general and myself in particular.

Not a lot to get excited about there, particularly when you’re as pessimistic a person as I am anyway.

So I had a conversation with myself that would mirror the famous exchange between Powers Boothe and C. Thomas Howell in Red Dawn and decided that this week’s Crash Bag will be a positive, happy experience. If I can pull it off. We shall see.

@mdubz11: “predict ryan howard’s season.”

Ah, they test my optimism right off the bat. Very well (dons turban and places crystal ball on the table) mmmmmmm….ooogly moogly….

Actually, before we get to Ryan Howard, I’d like to say something about the Phillie Phanatic. I’m not somebody who goes to a ton of games, because it’s expensive and being around lots of people for long periods of time makes me wonder if I’m an introvert or an agoraphobe. But seeing the Phanatic stand on the dugout and wiggle his fingers at the opposing pitcher, trying to hex him, is far and away the best thing about going to Phillies games. I can barely look at that furry green bastard, as a friend of mine likes to call him, without drifting into hysterical peals of laughter. So good on ya, Phanatic.

Anyway, I went and looked at the ZiPS projections for Ryan Howard, and Dan Szymborski’s giant floating brain-in-a-jar has Howard going for .242/.328/.463 in 112 games, which is roughly what I’d have predicted off the top of my head. Maybe a little lower average and a little more power, but somewhere in that neighborhood for sure.

Here’s the thing with Howard–he’s 33 years old, and big sluggers tend not to age all that well. It’s not a bulletproof thing, but Howard peaking at age 26, turning in his last star-level season at 29 and going downhill from there is pretty much in line with what you’d expect. Howard still has big-time power and good enough plate discipline (which are counteracted by an oppressive pull tendency and so-so pitch recognition, respectively), but the weaknesses in his game–speed, defense and slowing bat speed–aren’t going to get better with time. I don’t mean to sound like a downer, but that’s just how it is, though I suspect I’m not saying anything y’all don’t know already.

But since I’m being optimistic, I will say that Howard will be better than he was last year. I don’t know that someone as big and old as he is, with his recent history of lower-body injuries, will play 155 games, but another season removed from Achilles tendon surgery will do him good, and he stands to be better than he was last year. If only because it’s very difficult indeed to be as bad as he was last year. I’d call an OPS in the high .700s likely and an OPS over .800 very possible.

@Fantusta: “How is Robinson Cano, a Yankee, one of the most underrated players in baseball still?”

He’s got Chase Utley‘s Disease. He’s the best player on a team that gets an inordinate amount of media attention and still doesn’t get no respect.

By the way, I don’t know that I entirely buy the “most underrated” premise, but Cano is certainly a much better player than he gets credit for. I have a couple theories:

  1. He’s the best infielder on the Yankees, but he’s somewhere between the third-most and fifth-most famous infielder on the Yankees, depending on how you feel about Kevin Youkilis and Mark Teixeira. There’s only so much limelight to go around with Jeter and A-Rod hogging it all.
  2. We don’t think of second basemen as superstars, for whatever reason. I mean, that reason might be that it’s not often that you get a second baseman who actually is a superstar, but for all the credit Utley, Cano and Dustin Pedroia get, it’s been since, like, Ryne Sandberg that a team’s really built a contender around a second baseman. Maybe Roberto Alomar. I dunno, this theory could be complete bunk, but it seems that way.
  3. Much of Cano’s value is tied up in his durability. Sure, it’s great to have a second baseman who hits .300/.350/.500 every year, but it’s even better when he’s missed 12 games in the past six seasons. That’s not an average of 12 games a year, that’s 12 games total. And durability is an underrated trait.
  4. Cano’s career has really taken off in the past couple seasons, in his late 20s, after his public image had already ossified into that of a good, but not MVP-caliber infielder. With such a clear image of what Cano was, it’s hard to envision him as anything other than Derek Jeter‘s sidekick.

But in case you hadn’t checked Robbie Cano’s stats recently, he’s pretty darned good.

@fotodave: “[Earlier this week] Darin Ruf got an assist on a Freddy Freeman HR. Whats your top 5 worst or boneheaded plays in the outfield?”

In no particular order: 

  • Aaron Rowand decides a first-inning fly ball in May is worth taking his bat out of the lineup for 2 1/2 weeks. Though Shane Victorino replaced him, setting the stage for this, some five years later:
  • Shane Victorino’s bout with…well, I’m not sure what this was:
    SHANF Falldowngoboom
  • Jose Canseco takes a fly ball off the noggin for a home run.
  • Nyjer Morgan loses his damn mind, part 5,153. Which reminds me. The other day, I found myself driving behind a vehicle with a Milwaukee Brewers special Wisconsin plate, with the license number: TPLU5H. I very seriously considered following that guy home and making him my best friend.
  • This is just a general vote for anytime a fielder loses a ball in the lights. It’s such a great moment to see a dude settle under a ball, then start to do the potty dance, then throw his hands up and shrug as the ball lands 30 feet behind him. We’ve all been there, dude.

@pivnert: “why isn’t yuni betancourt a St. Louis cardinal yet?”

I do not know, though I would not object to such a development. Smart money is on the Cardinals having talked themselves into Pete Kozma as an everyday shortstop, which is quite a funny thing to consider.

@joperasinger: “has Kyle Kendrick become… good?”

I tell you what (since we’re being optimistic today), it’s not out of the realm of possibility. I remember the moment I started to dislike Kyle Kendrick. I watched maybe five regular-season Phillies games in 2007, because I spent the entire season in South Carolina, without the channel that carried the Braves, and for a couple months, without television of any kind. So all I knew about Kendrick the rookie was that he had come up from AA and pitched competently for a team that was reeling from losing Brett Myers to injury and Adam Eaton to being an incompetent nincompoop.

So the first time I saw Kendrick pitch was actually Game 2 of the NLDS that year. I remember this moment vividly–I got home and called Paul while the game was about to start, and they flashed Kendrick’s numbers on the screen: 49 strikeouts in 121 innings. Thinking back to a Bill James article I’d read that linked pitcher longevity to strikeout rate, I immediately said to Paul: “If Kendrick doesn’t start striking more guys out, he’s going to be out of baseball in five years.” He probably doesn’t remember this conversation, but I promise you it actually happened.

And yet here we are.

I’ve never bought any of the various Kyle Kendrick resurrection myths that have been bandied about since he came crashing back to Earth in 2008 like command deck of the NSEA Protector at the end of GalaxyQuest. But last year, with the caveat that he pitched out of the bullpen 12 times and could reach back for a little extra gas in those outings, he struck out 17.2 percent of the batters he faced, up from 12.3 percent in 2011 and 10.9 percent in 2010. That’s not Verlander territory, but 17.2 percent will get the job done. Kendrick has always seemed to outperform his peripherals, so if that trend holds in 2013, he could be a decent No. 4 starter, and even if he gets his comeuppance, he could put in an ERA in the low 4’s in 160 innings.

We’ve got a long way to go before I’ll believe in “Good” for Kyle Kendrick, but all cheekiness aside, the second half of Kendrick’s 2012 is at least encouraging.

@tholzerman: “What USC baseball player do you most want to see on the Phils with the rider that they can draft no other Gamecocks?”

Current USC player? Honestly, there’s probably not a major-league regular on the Gamecocks right now. I met Carson Cistulli of FanGraphs in person a couple weeks ago, and when the conversation turned to college baseball, he said USC was the only good SEC team he didn’t know anything about because they never produce any prospects.

That’s not strictly true, but it’s generally true. Since I arrived at USC, the Gamecocks have produced three first-round picks: Justin Smoak and Reese Havens in 2008 and Jackie Bradley in 2011. But they haven’t made the College World Series finals each of the past three years and won twice by having a team full of top prospects–they’re not Florida or Arizona State. They won all those games by having a bunch of good players whose skills won’t translate to major-league success. Because while Bradley is the only member of those back-to-back title teams to reach “prospect” status, most of the other starters were good enough to get drafted, but just under the “major-league regular” threshold.

And that’s not an exaggeration. Since 2010, USC has sent Sam Dyson, Whit Merrifield, Scott Wingo, Christian Walker, Matt Price, Evan Marzilli and Michael Roth to rounds three through 11 of the draft. Dyson’s the only one who’s made the majors, and as of right now he’s in Miami Marlins purgatory with a career ERA of 40.50 and an arm that’s already suffered a torn labrum and Tommy John surgery. I doubt any of the others, except maybe Walker, players a major-league game.

Which is how it’s always been. USC has a pretty good baseball tradition, but its biggest major-league contribution came via Brian Roberts, and you don’t get too far down the list of career WAR leaders from South Carolina before you get to Jonathan Coutlangus. Sure, the Gamecocks have had a Golden Spikes winner, but he was drafted in the 13th round and never threw a pitch in the majors.

So when I tell you that the best prospect on USC’s roster right now might actually be Joey Pankake, I don’t want you to take that as a ringing endorsement of Pankake’s potential major-league quality. He’s a good hitter who’s going through something of a power explosion as a sophomore, but he is, despite being possessed of a cannon for an arm, one of the worst defensive shortstops I’ve ever seen.

Now, I remember going to a game my freshman year and watching James Darnell boot almost literally every ball that came to him, and he’s currently playing major-league ball, so Pankake could move to another position and thrive, but he’s nowhere near the prospect Bradley is and Smoak was. Sophomore catcher Grayson Greiner has serious power, but he might not stick at catcher because of his size (6-foot-5) and his…well, there’s no easy way to put this, but he gets the yips about throwing the ball back to the pitcher. Yes, like Rube Baker in Major League 2.

I’d probably go with sophomore pitcher Evan Beal, who went in the eighth round of the 2011 draft to the Royals, and is pitching very well with Friday night starter Jordan Montgomery out with an injury. Again, Beal isn’t a great prospect at the moment, but Taylor Guerrieri and Corey Seager both took pro contracts instead of going to college, so the cupboard is somewhat bare.

LB Dantzler’s still slugging over .700, by the way. Hold me closer.

@ETDWN: “Do you prefer to answer baseball questions or weird questions on the Crashbag?”

Well, I like getting enough baseball questions to maintain the tenuous relationship with the Phillies necessary for Bill to let me post this. I will say that there’s a sweet spot–too baseball and it gets boring, but too weird and I just bash my forehead against the keyboard and move on.

@traderyanhoward: “If you could hire the spies from Archer’s ISIS to improve the Phils chance of winning the division, what hilarity would ensue?”

See, this is what I’m talking about. I’ve stared at this question for several days, wishing I could do it justice. I’m pretty sure Krieger’s the only doctor who could keep Chase Utley on the field all season, which would be great until Major League Baseball threw a 50-game suspension at Utley for having one of the Boys from Brazil give him daily doses of radioactive porcine hemoglobin.

And that’s as far as I got. There’s a joke in there about Pam having sex with Charlie Manuel to keep him from starting John Lannan in a must-win game in September, but I’m having trouble getting it out.

@petzrawr: “Of all of the popular conspiracy theories out there, which is the most likely? Was the mob involved in Kennedy’s death? Area 51?”

This is an appropriately weird question.

I’m the wrong person to ask about conspiracy theories, because, well, I tend not to believe in them. I’m a big fan of Occam’s Razor, so if you go on about false flag operations and 9/11 being an inside job, I’m either going to stop listening and leave you to yelling at the walls or fold you up in a cardboard box with a pair of sneakers and a toucan and UPS you to Bujumbura so you won’t bother me anymore.

So I think Oswald acted alone, insofar as it matters anymore, and according to Wikipedia, at least, Area 51 does officially exist, even if nobody will talk about what goes on there. But that’s not a conspiracy as much as it’s just your garden variety military secrecy.

I was trying to think of a conspiracy theory I buy, but I literally couldn’t think of any. So I went, again, to Wikipedia. And I found two that I like:

  • That Big Oil sandbagged the electric car. It would surprise me not in the least if it came to light that we could have had cheap, reliable, clean energy all along, but we don’t because it would force a bunch of multimillionaires to diversify their investment portfolios. I don’t know if causing the lower and middle classes to suffer so the oligarchy can benefit counts as a conspiracy theory, though. I just kind of consider it to be business as usual.
  • There’s a part of me that finds the circumstances of Elliott Smith’s and Kurt Cobain’s suicides fishy. Smith because he supposedly misspelled his own name on his suicide note and Cobain because…well, because nobody likes Courtney Love.

@JakePavorsky: “I know it’ll never happen, but could a relegation system ever work in baseball? And wouldn’t it make it more entertaining?”

No and no. All promotion and relegation does is concentrate money and players among very few teams. The English Premier League has played 20 full seasons and been contested by 45 teams, of which only five have won a title. Of those 20 titles, 18 have been won by Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea, and of those, 12 (soon to be 13) have gone to Man U.

When a team gets relegated, revenue goes into the toilet, so it has to sell off all its good players to keep from going under. And the teams that take its place are usually poorer in terms of fans and resources, so they usually struggle to stay up, much less contend for titles. Only Manchester City has been relegated from the Premier League, then gone on to win it later, and that took an investment of billions of dollars by outside investors. Relegation is not the kind of thing from which a club recovers within a generation, if ever. And that’s not even taking into account that instituting promotion and relegation would kill the farm system as a baseball institution, necessitating the abolition of the draft and putting the best young players in the hands of the teams with the most money.

Baseball’s more volatile than soccer, but if you want to guarantee that the Yankees win two out of every three World Series, institute promotion and relegation.

@liamporter_: “what is your opinion on carrot cake?”

I’m a big supporter of carrot cake, particularly if it comes with good cream cheese frosting. I like almost all cakes, but bad frosting or too much frosting can ruin an otherwise good dessert. Don’t be a nimrod and overdo the frosting.

@fotodave: “Why aren’t there more American ballplayers that seem to care about international tournaments?”

I think that’s a little harsh. The simple truth is that the World Baseball Classic may (and I think probably will) become something that baseball players and fans hold in the same esteem that basketball and hockey players and fans hold the Olympics. I’d hope for the level of the FIFA World Cup, but that might be a bit much. But it’s not there yet, nor will it be there for a while.

The most frustrating vein of WBC “analysis” for me is that because it’s not a blockbuster event in the United States right the hell now, we should start screwing around with it or scrap it altogether. It took the World Cup at least 20 years to be more than a provincial affair (the inaugural event was so primitive the United States placed third). So let’s be patient, and every four years a few more people will catch on that there’s fun baseball being played for two weeks in the spring, we’ll draw a few more viewers in Europe, Brazil and Australia, and maybe by the time 2023 or 2027 comes around, the Honkbal Hoofdklasse, ABL and IBL will be full-time major leagues and the WBC will draw every fan across the globe. But we’ve got to be patient and let it grow on its own.

@Doc_Ruiz2012: “What podcasts do you listen to?”

I griped that nobody had ever asked that question of me, yet each of the two guest Crash Bags had featured a podcast question. Apparently @Framed_Ace did ask me a couple weeks back and I just didn’t see it, so I apologize.

I listen to about a billion podcasts. Essentially, whenever I’m not doing something that requires me to be 1) actively listening to something or 2) actively forming words myself, I’ve got a podcast on. So here’s my list:

Podcasts that I subscribe to and listen to every episode religiously:

  • Marek vs. Wyshynski: If you’re a hockey fan and you’re not listening to this, you’re cheating yourself. Probably the best sports podcast going.
  • Slate’s Hang Up and Listen: Discusses sports in a cultural/historical context that goes beyond what you’ll get in basic sports coverage. That it’s Slate and NPR positions it for people who like to tell other people how smart they are, which is why I like it so much.
  • Effectively Wild: Sam Miller and Ben Lindbergh of Baseball Prospectus. It’s 20 minutes long and comes out every day, so it’s a good fit for a commute.
  • Behind the Dish with Keith Law: So far only two episodes in, but I used to listen to Baseball Today religiously before it got canceled.
  • Getting Blanked: Three mostly-angry Canadian guys talk about baseball. Probably the funniest baseball podcast I listen to.
  • Gleeman and the Geek: I have no idea why I listen to an hour-and-a-half Minnesota Twins-centered podcast every week, but that I do should say something about its worth.
  • The Solid Verbal: College football with SB Nation’s Dan Rubenstein and former Crash Bag guest Ty Hildenbrandt. The source of “Nick Foles in a Losing Effort.” Always informative, usually funny, often uncomfortable.
  • The Football Ramble: Four boozy English guys talking soccer. It’s tough to listen to this in public if you don’t like people staring at you for laughing like a moron.
  • How Did This Get Made?: Paul Scheer, June Diane Raphael and Jason Mantzoukas watch a terrible movie and talk about it with somebody from the comedy world. Also tends to make me laugh like a moron.

Podcasts that I subscribe to listen to most episodes of, depending on the guest and topic:

  • The B.S. Report: I know it’s not cool to like Bill Simmons anymore, but I still listen. Sue me.
  • The Grantland Network: Mostly the Hollywood Prospectus episodes, because I appear to have the exact same taste in movies as Chris Ryan.
  • FanGraphs Audio: I don’t know that there’s a baseball podcast like it. That’s all I’ll say.
  • Baseball America: I just started subscribing to this, because I don’t know of any better place to find college baseball talk.

Wow, that’s a lot of podcasts.

@DashTreyhorn: “What is your favorite pun of all time?”

When I was in high school, a friend of mine claimed to have called the customer service number on a Gatorade bottle and informed the representative that while he enjoyed the drink, he was a Florida State fan and was kind of uneasy about drinking a beverage named after the University of Florida. So in the future, would they mind producing another line of sports drinks called “Seminole Fluid”?

Maybe not my favorite pun of all time, but that’s probably the one that got me to look at every situation as an opportunity to tell a long story for a questionable payoff. I hope one day to perfect this art form.

That’ll be all for this week. Thank you for your continued patronage, and enjoy whatever sports you choose to consume this weekend.

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