Crash Bag, Vol. 99: Baby’s First Democratic System

Gregg Easterbrook once wrote (and I’m paraphrasing, because if I have to sift through a billion TMQ columns to find the exact wording, I will end my life, so help me God): “Writing a book is like hitting yourself in the head with a hammer: it feels so good when you stop.”

I’m writing a book, set to come out in November, ranking the 20 greatest athletes in Philadelphia sports history, and for the next month or so, I’ll be concentrating on finishing that, to the peril of any sort of writing I do for fun, including Crashburn. After 99 weeks of uninterrupted service, I toyed with the idea of just lining up five or six guest columns to fill the space, but what comes back in May will be more purposeful than what you’re reading now, which has largely been the product of inertia. So for the last time, at least for a while, I’ll take your questions.

@Hegelbon: “if the Phillies had to be run like a social political system, which would you choose? I’d pick oligarchy.”

That’s kind of how they’re run right now, isn’t it? One person, or group of people, has all the power and delegates it to a bureaucracy that includes the baseball ops people, the PR people, event planners…it’s not a terrible way to run an organization, and a big reason I’m such a fan of career civil service in actual government: we elect the politicians, who (in theory) reflect our goals as an electorate and translate those goals (national security, economic prosperity, and so on) into achievable policy objectives, then turn to the army of wonks they employ to actually carry out those objectives. Because politicians don’t know dick about how things actually work–wonks do, because they do this for a living.

The same goes for sports. There are a few different kinds of bad owners: you’ve got the Carl Pohlads who just refuse to invest in the team, you’ve got the Mike Ilitches and Jeffrey Lorias who view sports as an excuse to enrich themselves at taxpayer expense and you’ve got the Marge Schotts and Dan Snyders who just seem to be entirely abhorrent people in every way.

But there’s a different kind of bad owner, one who invests heavily, both emotionally and financially, in the team, cultivates a community to surround it and wants to win just as much as, if not more than, he wants to turn a profit. This class of owner includes George Steinbrenner, Ed Snider, Jerry Jones, Arte Moreno: the megalomaniac fidgeter. These guys want to win so badly they won’t trust the wonks and bureaucrats to run the team. That’s how you got the Ilya Bryzgalov contract, the Angels paying $50 million a year to Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols while Jerry Dipoto (who I think would be a good GM if he didn’t work for a crazy person) wastes away like a sad snowman, and whatever Jason Garrett is doing in Dallas.

But we’re getting a little far afield of the original question, which, if we take it to mean the team itself rather than the company, has only one answer: direct democracy. A truly just society would involve everyone getting together and incorporating the needs and preference intensity of every member appropriately into every decision through deliberation and voting to reach the best decision for the whole. Voting, not only in the single member plurality system (or as I like to call it: “Baby’s First Democratic System”) we have now, but in more sophisticated forms of voting, is an attempt to replicate direct democracy among populations that are too big to have a town meeting at the old church down on Main Street on Wednesday night to see if Hickory High should fire Norman Dale. But even counting the coaching staff, the Phillies have maybe 40 guys in uniform if some injured players are traveling with the team? Direct democracy.

@TyLau27: “Which Phillie should I be least excited to have on my fantasy team? Burnett, Howard, or Papelbon?”

I’d say Howard, but assuming this is a 5×5 league, even he probably wouldn’t be a disaster. He’ll probably hit somewhere in the mid-20s for home runs if he stays healthy, which isn’t terrible in this run environment, and if he hits behind Chase Utley and Ben Revere, there will be guys on base for him to drive in. But he will likely not steal even one base, probably won’t score a lot of runs and he will kill your batting average.

Burnett, on the other hand, is going to pitch 200 innings, win double-digit games and strike out at least 150 guys with an ERA somewhere around league average. He’s low-ceiling, but also low-floor. And as far as closers go, well, ideally, you want an awesome pitcher with a guaranteed closer’s job on a good, but low-scoring team. Which is why I reached like crazy for Craig Kimbrel in at least one of my leagues. Failing that, you just want a guy with job security, because saves are entirely about opportunity. Papelbon could go out to the mound and build sandcastles and still get 30 saves this season. Saves are dumb.

@HPJoker: “What’s the best breakfast cereal?”

I’m hesitant to answer this question, because Deadspin’s Tim Marchman took a crack a few weeks ago and the goddamn world about ended. To be fair, Marchman ranked normal Cheerios second, which leads me to believe he’s actually the lawn mower guy from True Detective and not a normal human being. Nevertheless:

  1. Honey Bunches of Oats
  2. Multi-grain Cheerios
  3. Frosted Mini-Wheats
  4. Cinnamon Toast Crunch
  5. Apple Cinnamon Cheerios
  6. Raisin Bran
  7. Chex
  8. Life
  9. Rice Krispies
  10. Reese’s Puffs

Froot Loops, Apple Jacks and Lucky Charms are unsuitable for consumption by humans, animals or even children.

@TheGoodPhight: “Is Joe Flacco the best cross-sports comparison for Ryan Howard? If not, who is?”

I’ve been trying to make cross-sport comps happen for ages now (there’s a Grantland post in the works somewhere that attempts to inaugurate the genre, that I’m told will run one day). For Howard, I think we’re looking for a player who was legitimately great immediately, but looked better than he was because statistics that don’t actually mean anything made him look even better, which caused him to become wildly overpaid on a contract that coincided with a precipitous decline in quality of play.

Joe Flacco is not a bad comp–playoff wins are to Flacco as RBIs are to Howard, and the contract situation lines up, but we need to see Flacco decline. And for all the “Is Flacco Elite?” nonsense we had to deal with as the insatiable NFL forced debate machine turned around and ate itself, I don’t think Peak Flacco was as good as Peak Howard, though I’ll admit I don’t have as good a handle on evaluating quarterbacks as I do baseball players. Frankly, I’d almost rather drop this comp on Matt Ryan, who’s cut from a similar cloth as Flacco, and I think pundits actually believed in Ryan’s ability to will the team to victory for a while.

One I like better is Scott Gomez. Gomez was also probably not as good as Howard at his peak, but he was at his best in his first three or four seasons, won a title early and then went on to sign a ridiculous contract that became an albatross for the Rangers almost immediately. The only difference is that there was no MLB team dumb enough to trade the equivalent of Ryan McDonagh for Howard. But like Howard, Gomez is now defined not by the titles he won as a young player, but how outrageously he was overpaid as an older one.

@jlwoj: “please discuss Kyle Killen’s oeuvre”

Well, apart from the pilot of Awake, I haven’t watched any of it. Which, if my personal experience is at all generalizable, might be part of the problem. I will say this, the pilot for Awake was outstanding, but I always forget to watch network dramas even if they interest me initially–I stopped following Nashville and Last Resort after about six weeks, too, even though I was definitely still interested in both. Awake is a story about a man, played by Jason Isaacs (whom I adore), who was in a car crash and immediately afterward, experiences two distinct realities, one where his wife died in the crash and one where his son died  and his wife survived. So he’ll live a day in one reality, go to sleep and wake up in the other. Director David Slade (last seen on Hannibal and in one episode of Breaking Bad) did amazing things with color to make the two realities distinct–it might have been my favorite TV show to look at, including True Detective. Cool premise, great cast, very visually striking–but it wasn’t the kind of network drama that gets made anymore.

I used to think networks are only interested in cops, lawyers and doctors, but I think that’s less true than saying they’re more interested in episodic dramas than heavily serialized ones, which lends itself more toward procedurals and genre fiction than literary fiction (Nashville notwithstanding). A few years earlier, NBC spiked Kings, another clever, visually appealing fantasy-ish show I enjoyed. I think the nature of network TV is that you have to be able to drop in and out without feeling lost, and to be fair, for whatever reason I usually watch the AMC/HBO-type shows (Mad Men, True Detective, Game of Thrones) live, but the network shows I follow (almost all comedies nowadays) all go to Hulu or the DVR and get watched three or four at a time. I don’t know why that is, but I do know I’m a completist, so while I’d watch every episode of Last Resort, I could easily see a less anal-retentive person with my schedule just watching every third show and getting lost. It’s a shame, because I think the more time you have to play with, the better story you can tell.

@nyunole: “Do any Phils do their own taxes?”

I would bet…well, not any amount of money, because there’s a chance, like, Darin Ruf secretly loves math and does his own taxes…but I’m almost certain the answer to this is no. Not only do they have less time and more money than normal people, having more money means that there’s more to lose by just clicking all the defaults on Turbo Tax than hiring an accountant. In fact, it’s probably irresponsible if you’re making $10 million a year not to hire an accountant, not only because you stand to pay more in taxes if you don’t, but because more money means more property and more diversified investments, and you’re better off making sure you don’t miss something and wind up paying fines or going to jail as a result.

@PhilaBCoulter: “Will deals like the one for Cabrera, and the future one for Trout, be the straw that breaks the back of labor peace in baseball?”

I don’t think so, at least not immediately. I think the players know how good they have it, being the only one of the four major sports without a salary cap, and if the NHL’s past few lockouts is any indication, labor strife means ownership rolls back player salaries. And while baseball’s closed books make it hard to tell for sure, I don’t think player salaries are expanding anywhere near as quickly as owners’ revenues are. If I had to bet, I’d say the next work stoppage in baseball is a lockout after something happens (collapse of the TV bubble, radical change in public policy toward stadium funding) that checks the expansion in revenue.

@Moerms: “let’s say Asche & Franco are both totally awesome, & Phils are middling,3 games out of dreary NL East on 7/20. What’s the play?”

Well, the play is that we’re all still in mourning after the plane crash that killed Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg, Jason Heyward and Justin Upton, because I’m having a hard time imagining that scenario. But let’s play, just for fun.

I submitted team-by-team win total predictions for an ESPN poll last week, but I only put enough thought to make sure they didn’t contradict the forthcoming Crashburn predictions and to make sure MLB goes 2430-2430 as a whole. But I believe I picked the Nationals to win something on the order of 93 or 94 games, with the Braves about three or four games back. I picked the Phillies to win somewhere in the high 70s, a prediction that strikes me as more and more ludicrous with each passing day.

Whether through injuries or just general malaise, it wouldn’t shock me to see the Braves and Nats on pace to win 88 or so games instead of 90 or 95. And if the Phillies are going to be within shouting distance at the deadline, that means Cole Hamels comes back relatively soon, and that he and Cliff Lee are unstoppable when he does. It also means that age and not playing in front of Pittsburgh’s defense haven’t slowed down A.J. Burnett, Ben Revere stays healthy and plays closer to how he was playing last year when he got hurt, rather than at the beginning of the season. It means Marlon Byrd‘s 2013 wasn’t an illusion, Chase Utley is healthy and Domonic Brown takes the next step forward, becoming a legit power/OBP guy instead of a two-win player who hit more than a third of his home runs in a two-week stretch in late spring.

And let’s tone down the rhetoric about Asche being “awesome,” because I don’t think “awesome” is in Asche’s reasonable realm of possibilities. Let’s say he’s a league-average third baseman, which is, I think, a realistic best-case scenario. And let’s say Maikel Franco sorts out his issues with breaking balls, continues to hit at AAA and comes up to play first base full-time after a midseason Ryan Howard injury.

Notice how many things I just listed that have to go right, because I care enough about accuracy not to say that anything is impossible, and that gets interpreted the wrong way a lot of the time. All of those things happening, plus the Braves and Nats struggling, is possible, but prohibitively unlikely. And I think that gets the Phillies to an 86-win pace.

Now, another thing that I think gets understated is that three games out on July 20, behind at least one team that’s better on paper, is a non-trivial gap to overhaul. Last July 20, the Orioles, who I think were better last year than the team I just described, were 3 1/2 games out of the division and Cool Standings made them about an 8-to-1 underdog to win the division.

So I don’t want to make a big show about telling you you’re delusional if you think this is a possibility, but I realize I’ve already done that, and I find it easier to talk to people if I don’t have to disabuse them of the notion that the Phillies are going to be anything but Really Bad this season. But we’re here. Let’s say the Phillies are within breathing distance of the Nationals and Braves at the deadline. What do they do?

I think being one game back versus three games back, even two months out, is a big distinction, because if it’s the latter, I’d do what Neal Huntington did in 2011: get a couple veterans on the extreme cheap to give the appearance of making an effort to win, but above all, don’t give up anything of value. Maybe you get lucky and the guy gets hot, but mostly this is about shutting up the kind of people who thought that with Gerrit Cole, Starling Marte and Jameson Taillon in the pipeline, the Pirates’ best chance to win a World Series was in 2011 and not 2015, and if you were ignorant enough to believe that, you’re probably also ignorant enough to believe that Derrek Lee was still an MVP-caliber first baseman.

On the other hand, and I’ve said this before, I’d be more inclined to push some chips in after a fluky start with this team than another team I’d expect to win 70-odd games because Hamels and Lee at the top of the rotation means you’ve got a puncher’s chance to win any playoff series you’re in. That’s seven innings of one or two-run ball four times in a seven-game series, and if you only need two or three runs to win a game, well, NLCS MVP Mike Devereaux happened once.

The problem with putting that team over the top is that the Phillies aren’t awesome in some places and total crap in others. Like the Pirates took a flyer on Byrd and Justin Morneau last year because, shit, man, anything would be better than what they were trotting out to right field and first base, and it cost them one decent relief pitcher. The Phillies, who are just kind of uniformly below average, don’t have it that easy. Let’s say the deadline comes and the Mariners are in a selling mood–the Phillies could get Corey Hart on the cheap, probably, but where would the play him?

In order to get a serious upgrade, they’d have to trade a real piece: Franco, Jesse Biddle, J.P. Crawford, and considering how few of those they actually have, and considering that losing one of them would set back the franchise in the future more than it would help in the present, I’d be hesitant to get rid of any of them. But everyone else would be on the table for me. I’d want another infielder–someone like Omar Infante or Marco Scutaro, but from five years ago, plus the odd reliever (which wouldn’t be that expensive). All of this depends, of course, who’s available in this alternate timeline. Could be another outfielder, moving one of the existing three to the bench or in trade. I have a hard time picking out a specific player, but nothing would make me happier than seeing this play out in real life.

@RobBanter: “what’s the bigger gap MLB to AAA or Premier League to Championship.”

MLB to AAA–the yo-yo clubs blur the line between divisions, even considering that the financial difference between the two leagues causes teams to jettison players when they go down and strengthen when they get promoted. But the feudal nature of the American farm system means there’s never really going to be a AAA team that could pull off the equivalent of, say, Wigan knocking Manchester City out of the FA Cup.

@BerenstainGer: “why would UCLA wear black unis when their baby blues were sent down from heaven?”

No clue. I think it was Zach Lowe last week who said the NBA should fine the Lakers every time they wear their black or white uniforms, and I’m on board with this. The same with UCLA–you have this iconic, bright getup and you go with black, like it’s 1998. Maybe for a December nonconference game, but for a tournament game? Come on. And basketball jerseys with sleeves suck. Always. Sleeved basketball jerseys are for Communists.

@Soconnor76: “What’s the proper reaction to a team losing 26 games? Should I be happy, sad, resigned, or something else?”

I’m kind of resigned. I certainly don’t enjoy watching this, nor do I relish the avalanche of concern trolling that came with it. But I tell myself that nothing they did this season was going to matter anyway, and it’s in service of a higher purpose.

@travismount: “If you were a baseball bat, what type of wood would you be made of and why? Answer in haiku form.”

If I were a bat
I’d probably be white ash
Haiku are stupid

Anyway, that’s it for the Crash Bag. I’ll see you…out there…

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  1. Greg

    March 28, 2014 01:03 PM

    Please tell me your book of the 20 greatest athletes doesn’t include Rocky Balboa. I was watching Rocky II with a friend recently, and had to lament that, 30 years after that statue was unveiled, a fictional character is still probably in the top 5 most famous Philly sports icons.

  2. Greg

    March 28, 2014 01:11 PM

    Also, disagree mostly with your cereal list. Though agree that Raisin Bran is a top 10. Unspectacular, but a little undervalued given. It’s just a reliable cereal you can always depend on, and it has longevity. I’d say it, what, the Edgar Martinez of cereals?

    And Frosted mini wheats as well deserve the top 5 spot you gave it.

  3. SJHaack

    March 28, 2014 03:01 PM

    3 of Marchman’s Top 5 are also in my Top 5, so maybe I am a secret Cereal Dad or something. Chex and rice krispies are in the mix as well. I also think I MAY like regular shredded wheat more than frosted mini wheats, although they would likely be right next to each other in any ranking and not at the top.

    His list is actually really good, damn. And Kix rule. I can’t believe one of the deadspin editors doesn’t know what Kix are (they are For Kids).

  4. Sean O'Connor

    March 28, 2014 11:32 PM

    Awake had some bad moments (ex: the baby thing) but overall was a great one-season series. It might be on Netflix, too.

  5. Major Malfunction

    March 29, 2014 08:50 AM

    According to sales statistics, Fruit Loops are #9 and Lucky Charms #8. Honey nut cheerios and Frosted Flakes are #1 and #2, respectively.

    Great article, as always. Good luck with the new book!

  6. Tim

    March 29, 2014 11:28 AM

    I hope you’re right about labor peace. Nothing diminishes the luster of a sport like a nasty labor battle (unless you’re the stupid NFL). But someone pointed out the other day (maybe on deadspin?) that with the twin trends of crazy tv revenue and locking up young talent prior to free agency, player salaries as a percentage of baseball revenue are actually falling to the lowest levels since collusion. That could lead to a lot of unrest if it keeps going on.

  7. Oliver

    March 30, 2014 01:33 AM

    Muesli > cereal

    Also, do you adore Jason Isaacs because of his The West Wing appearances? I know I do…

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