An Explanation for the Phillies’ Recent Bullpen Silliness

Perhaps no publication has had an editorial stance of being more distraught and mystified by Charlie Manuel’s bullpen usage than this one. However, a source inside the Phillies’ front office has told us that the Phillies’ manager, a keen student of history, is in fact adapting a tactical doctrine from the late 12th Century to baseball.

It’s not unusual for coaches to adapt tenets of military strategy to sports as motivational or organizational guideposts–Patriots coach Bill Belichick is fond of Sun Tzu, though Clausewitz is also said to be popular–but Manuel, the source says, is fond of a doctrine first conceived of in the Third Crusade.

The story centers on a man named Louis Phillippe, a barber from Anjou, France. When Pope Gregory VIII called for a crusade to retake Jerusalem–which had been lost in a siege in 1187, the events of which were stylized and loosely retold in Ridley Scott’s 2005 film Kingdom of Heaven–Louis Phillippe, a deeply religious man, responded to the call and volunteered to serve as a man-at-arms in the army of King Richard I of England. Barbers of the time often doubled as makeshift doctors and surgeons, so when Louis Phillippe’s unit was separated from the army and ambushed by a Byzantine battalion six months into the campaign. Louis Phillippe tended expertly to the wounded, and when the survivors retreated to safety, he fought bravely at the rearguard, allowing dozens of his fellow soldiers to escape.

When Louis Phillippe and his companions were reunited with the Crusader army, news of his heroism reached King Richard himself, and he was granted an audience before the Holy See himself. Pope Celestine III, who succeeded Gregory and Clement III, both of whom had died in the intervening years, took a liking to the young man and insisted that he be released from the Crusader army and serve as the Pope’s personal valet and barber.

Louis Phillippe served happily in Rome until 1196, when the pontiff had a dream that he took to be a vision from God Himself. Celestine called for Louis Phillippe and asked him to crop his hair short and remove his trademark beard. Louis Phillippe did so, and the newly-shorn pope commanded his barber to return to his home in Anjou with a lock of the pope’s hair, seek an audience with the count, and declare that it was God’s will for all of Europe to be united under a single flag to conquer not only Jerusalem–which Richard the Lionheart would ultimately fail to do–but the Moorish caliphate in Iberia as well. It is said that Celestine sent out dozens of such messengers around this time.

Louis Phillippe, the pope’s friend and servant, took a letter of introduction from Pope Celestine and a bag of his hair, and set off for Anjou. When he arrived at the castle, he was stopped at the gate and denied entry, arrested, and brought before the count in chains. Louis Phillippe’s letter had been confiscated in the meantime, and when he preached the Pope’s vision of the united Christian Europe, he was laughed out of the room, arrested and sentenced to be burned at the stake as a heretic.

Louis Phillippe protested, citing his bond of friendship with the pope, but the count was unimpressed. He had no reason to believe Louis Phillippe was who he said he was–an emissary from the pontiff–and demanded the sentence be carried out immediately.

Louis Phillippe of Anjou was executed on December 1, 1195. His ashes were scattered in a field somewhere in northwestern France.

If you’re wondering what possible application this story has to baseball, here’s what Charlie Manuel got out of it:

A papal bond is worthless if you’re in a situation where you can’t get credit for the shave.

 

General Isaac Trimble and Kyle Kendrick

While watching Kyle Kendrick come in with a two-run lead and go walk-double-double-hit-by-pitch against a Mets lineup reminiscent of….you know what, I’m not even going to bother.

But we witnessed Kyle Kendrick, the Michael Bay of Phillies pitchers (keeps getting work without really ever having done anything substantively good, his appearance attended by explosions and disaster, and makes a lot of money), hitting Lucas Duda with a pitch to force in a run in a situation with a 4.30 leverage index (he posted a -0.66 WPA tonight, btw, the worst mark by a Phillies reliever since Ryan Madson blew a four-run lead in the ninth inning against the Nationals on August 19 of last year). Kendrick stood on the mound with the comportment of a man who’d like nothing more than to dig a hole in the infield and escape through the catacombs.

And yet Charlie Manuel sent him out for a second inning. Then replaced him with Jose Contreras, who hasn’t been effective in two years, and the runs continued to pour in.

I was reminded of this iconic scene from the 1993 movie Gettysburg, where a commander’s inaction eventually costs his side the battle.

Now, Charlie Manuel probably had a good reason to leave Kendrick in, but nevertheless, I’ve rewritten that scene in honor of tonight’s events.

Gen. Ruben Amaro, Jr.: General Lee.
Maj. Gen. Cliff Lee: Sir, I most respectfully request another assignment.
Amaro: Do please go on, General.
Lee: The man is a disgrace! Sir, have you been listening at all to… to what the aides have been telling you? Ask General Halladay or General Blanton. Ask them. We could’ve taken that game! God in His wisdom knows we *should’ve* taken it! There was no one there, no there at all, and it commanded the series.
[he sighs] Lee: General Manuel saw it. I mean, he was with us! Me and Halladay and Blanton, all standing there in the dark like fat, great idiots with that bloody damned bullpen empty!
[he stops] Lee: I beg your pardon, General.
[Amaro nods] Lee: That bloody damned bullpen was empty as his bloody damned head! We all saw it, as God is my witness! We were all there. I said to him, “General Manuel, we have *got* to take that game.” General Bowa would not have stopped like this, with the Mets on the run and there was plenty of light left on a game like that! Well, God help us, I… I don’t know wh… I don’t know why I…
[he stops] Amaro: Do please continue, General.
Lee: Yes, sir. Sir… I said to him, General Manuel, these words. I said to him, “Sir, give me one Papelbon and I will take that game.” And he said nothing. He just stood there, he stared at me. I said, “General Manuel, give me one Qualls and I will take that hill.” I was becoming disturbed, sir. And General Manuel put his arms behind him and blinked. So I said, General, give me one *Bastardo* and I will take that hill.” And he said *nothing*! He just stood there! I threw down my glove, down on the ground in front of him!
[he stops and regains his composure] Lee: We… we could’ve done it, sir. A blind man should’ve seen it. Now they’re working up there. You can hear the axes of the Met troops. And so in the morning… many a good boy will die… taking that game.

 

Post Title Redacted

We asked for Jonathan Papelbon in a non-save situation, and we got him. And instead of his usual excellence, we get a loss, courtesy of the first major league home run of the heroically named Jordany Valdespin. In light of our collective recent griping about how Charlie Manuel’s refusal to use his best reliever in the biggest situations, I think some comment on the issue is appropriate. I toyed with writing a serious response, some sort of reassurance that having Papelbon pitch was the right move, regardless of the result. But that would just come off as overly defensive.

I also thought about writing a sarcastic, OH YOU GUYS WERE RIGHT ALL ALONG response, dealing with a gut punch loss in best Crashburn tradition: with imperious sarcasm.

In the end, I’m just going to post the FanGraphs win probability chart (-.468 WPA for Sentimental Johnny, by the way):

And this GIF, which accurately captures the effect of that Valdespin homer on our collective psyche:

Strength through unity, unity through faith. And, as always, England prevails.

An Economic Theory of Sports Fandom

As sports fans, we really need to find out ways to have fun. Occasionally, it’s useful to feel anger or heartbreak at the results of a sporting event. The catharsis from watching, say, Game 5 of the 2011 NLDS can be momentarily agonizing but ultimately cleansing and rewarding, like getting out of bed to work out on a rainy day or taking a huge dump after a 12-hour car ride. But in general, if following sports makes you unhappy more than it makes you happy, you probably ought to stop.

I mean, being a sports fan is a completely optional undertaking that serves no purpose other than providing enjoyment and entertainment. Hundreds of millions of Americans opt out of fandom, and no one thinks any less of them, because deep down we understand that getting worked up (for better or for worse) over men you don’t know playing a game with a great deal of inherent randomness, the outcome of which is entirely outside your control. It’s only worth doing if, on balance, it does you good.

***

We haven’t had to think about that a whole lot, because the past few years have been really good for Phillies fans. When your team wins, it’s hard not to enjoy sports. But now we’re facing the possibility that the good times may not continue to roll for much longer. Of course, the Phillies are 7-7, four games out of first place , with more than 90 percent of the season to play. I’d hesitate to draw any conclusions about two weeks and change of baseball, other than the direction in which one is supposed to run the bases. So it’ s possible, even likely, that the Phillies will pick it up and make the playoffs again this season. In that case, this discussion can be tabled for a while longer.

But in the absence of continued and inexorable success, how do we derive enjoyment from sports? In my mind, it’s a communal thing–I have a lot of fun talking to my friends about baseball, and the Phillies in particular, and always have. And that’s a bigger draw than ever. I’ve always enjoyed discussing baseball with my dad, and a group of about half a dozen friends who gather religiously for major sporting events, but now, I’m involved in an ongoing, two-way conversation primarily about the Phillies with probably about 90 to 100 people on Twitter. These are relative strangers, for the most part–of my internet baseball friends, I’d say I’ve met ten percent in person more than once. Sports fandom creates and strengthens friendships–we trade ideas, jokes, and analysis, and generally everyone has a good time.

For me, at least, blogging is another check in the positive utility column–I get to combine the thing I like doing most (writing) with the thing I like thinking about most (baseball).

But those aren’t really specific to baseball. We can have friends outside of sports. What intrinsic value does baseball have if your team isn’t winning?

***

Remember the days of $7 upper-deck tickets at the Vet going unsold? You think people are flocking to Citizens Bank Park because the building is nicer? They’re turning out in droves because they’re more willing to plunk down $150 to take the family out to the ballpark when the Phillies are likely to win.

I went to all three games of a weekend series in Pittsburgh last June. When we arrived, the Pirates fans were sort of subdued and docile, good-naturedly tickled by the sight of a full PNC Park. But after the Pirates took the first two games of the series, the friendly, welcoming Pittsburghers disappeared, only to be replaced by a horde of rowdy, screaming, confrontational men and women, every inch as unaccommodating to interlopers as the national media thinks Philly fans are. Essentially, two wins in two days turned Pirates fans from extremely pleasant folk into Penguins and Steelers fans–arrogant, loud, pushy, and completely unconcerned with their image outside the city, as long as everyone knows how morally superior their teams are.

Not to single out Pittsburgh fans–every fan base has its jackasses, and just as I’d rather not be judged by those morons who beat up a Rangers fan after the Winter Classic, I don’t really believe all Pittsburghers are capable of hurling racist abuse at Wayne Simmonds over the internet. I only tell that story to illustrate what a profound effect winning can have on a fan’s psyche. Winning isn’t really everything, but it counts for a lot.

***

The key to understanding rational action is understanding an individual’s utility function. In any theory of behavior based on rational choice, we have to assume that an individual is going to do what he believes is best for him. Rational choice theories assume people act to maximize what is called utility, a catch-all measure of overall happiness or well-being, and figuring out what goes into that basket allows us to predict and evaluate behavior.

So a fan’s utility, we’ve established, is determined by the following:

  • W: How much the team wins (positive)
  • S: The strength of social bonds formed as a result of being part of a fan community (positive)
  • C: Cost of following the team in time and money (negative)
  • D: Disappointment over the team not living up to expectations (negative)

Therefore, if (W+S) > (C+D), it’s rational to be a sports fan. If not, you’re better off getting into decoupage or something. Overwhelmingly, the S function is so much bigger than the others that even fans of losing teams will still watch. This is borne out by the tendency of losing teams with huge fan bases and longstanding communal traditions (the Toronto Maple Leafs, Chicago Cubs, and Cleveland Browns, for instance) having large and ardent fan bases while teams with shallower roots (the Charlotte Bobcats and Columbus Blue Jackets) struggle to draw without being particularly less successful than their counterparts.

There’s got to be more than that, though. There’s a longstanding tradition in political science–and particularly in international relations, the discipline I come from–of explaining away irrational behavior by tinkering with the utility function until behavior becomes rational. We could stand to add a term or two.

***

If the Phillies got 86-76 and miss the playoffs this season, it won’t be as enjoyable as if they had done so in 2005 or so, because the team was perceived to be on the rise then, and such is not the case now, no matter how optimistic you might be about the 2012 vintage of the Phillies.

Hope for the future has to factor into the rationality of sports fandom somewhere. Fans of the Galactus of No. 1 overall picks, the Edmonton Oilers, are feeling this in hockey, as Penguins fans did coming out of the lockout. With the Kansas City Royals and Washington Nationals on the rise, their fans are in a good spot, perhaps with the hope of the division title promised in 2014 or 2015 might come a couple years early.

The good news for Phillies fans is that this trend of aging can’t go on forever. Even assuming the worst-case scenario for 2012–missing the playoffs, Utley and Howard irreparably damaged, and Cole Hamels leaving via free agency, by 2014, we’re going to see the end of some of those long-term, big-money contracts to aging veterans. That bottoming out may only take one or two years, and the Phillies will once again, by 2015 or so, be a team with a huge fan base, a top-5 media market, a nice stadium, more money than it knows what to do with, and a recent history of success–those sound like the building blocks of a contender to me. And even assuming the worst, that should happen in less time from now than has passed since the Phillies won the World Series.

Maybe the H term works for Phillies fans, because those of us who are panicking over the long view could probably stand to extend our view a little longer still. But is that enough to keep us from despairing if the Phillies have a real banana peel of a 2012?

***

I realized something during what will probably just be known as the Cain-Lee game. I should be beside myself that the Phillies got 10 shutout innings from their starter and still managed to lose. I should be killing hostages after the Phillies went out of their way to put a man at the top of the lineup who not only goes weeks bewteen walks and extra-base hits, but can’t even keep his feet in the batter’s box on a bunt. But I’m not. I’m finding all of this strangely enjoyable.

I alluded here to the idea that we watch sports not only because of an emotional attachment to the fortunes of a particular team, or to see a story play out, but something else.

When I was a freshman in college, I was walking with a friend from our dorm to the parking garage to get his car. On our way across the center of campus, we passed by three people: one wearing a panda costume playing soccer with a person in a mouse costume, with a third individual taking photographs. My friend turned to me and said, “I know this is a cliche, but I mean it this time: there’s something you don’t see every day.” From this we get the A term: aesthetics, and the final form of the economic theory of sports fandom:

It is rational to be a sports fan if: (W+S+H+A) > (C+D)

This is where the 2012 Phillies come good. Even if they completely hump the bunk, the Phillies are made up almost entirely of players with the potential to do something extraordinary. For Cole Hamels, Jonathan Papelbon, Roy Halladay, and Cliff Lee, the potential is to be extraordinary, leading to games like Lee’s 10 shutout innings, or either one of Halladay’s no-hitters. The Phillies also have several players with the ability to turn outstanding plays on defense, most notably Placido Polanco and Freddy Galvis, who have been a delight to watch thus far this season.

But we’re used to watching great things. This team is unique in its ability to produce weirdness. We get Juan Pierre playing lawn darts with his throws from left field. We have the second iteration of the Cole Hamels vs. Cliff Lee home run derby, and Freddy Galvis trying to systematically solve his on-base crisis the way most of us would try to solve a Rubik’s Cube–systematically and over a very long period of time. We get this new, creative bit of strategy from Charlie Manuel, what with the bunting and reliever usage. Though in this case, Manuel is creative in the same way the Children’s Crusade was creative. Think about it–the worst team in the history of modern baseball was the 1962 Mets, and they’ve gone down in history as distinct and strangely compelling.

It’s only been 14 games, but so far, the Phillies have in most cases either 1) won the game or 2) lost in dramatic, entertaining, often absurd fashion. I’m not sure there’s much more we can ask, and that’s what I’m going to tell myself from now on when the Phillies lose.

To sum up, there’s no way 2012 isn’t going to be unbelievably entertaining. Either the Phillies are going to overcome their offensive impotence and stage another playoff run, or they’re going to fall short in hilarious and absurd fashion. We’re all rooting for the first scenario, but if the second comes to pass, there may come a time when maximizing the A term in the utility function is the best thing. Sit back and enjoy the absurdity, boys and girls, because if you do, there’s no possible way not to enjoy the Phillies.

Older and Better

Earlier this evening, Bradley Ankrom and I were talking about how well Barry Bonds would hit if he came back now, at age 47. I said he’d be better than Juan Pierre. And Bradley brought up a truly fascinating question:

Challenge accepted! I’ve decided to answer that question. Obviously, this is not a question that has a definitive answer, so here’s what I’ve done: I’ve taken seven starting position players (Ruiz, Wigginton, Rollins, Polanco, Pierre, Victorino, and Pence) and looked up players who are 1) older than the incumbent starter at the same position and 2) put up more WAR in 2011 than the Phillies’ starter is likely to put up in 2012, subtracting half a win as a penalty for aging. I omitted Utley and Howard because it’s more fun if you get more answers, and I’ve omitted Galvis because he is neither very old, nor very good right now, so pretty much every second baseman in the league would be both older and better. And I reserve the right to make some subjective adjustments to meet Bradley’s requirement of “legitimate starting players.”

The baseline numbers for WAR are completely arbitrary, because this is just for fun. So here they are, based on last year’s numbers, with some adjustment for aging and regression:

  • Chooch: 3 WAR (3.0 WAR in 2011)
  • Ty Fighter: -1 WAR (-1.1 WAR in 2011)
  • J-Roll: 3 WAR (3.7 WAR in 2011)
  • Polly: 1 WAR (1.8 WAR in 2011)
  • John Stone: 0 WAR (0.0 WAR in 2011)
  • Pineapple Express: 3.5 WAR (5.1 WAR in 2011, 3.8 WAR career average)
  • Thunderpants: 3 WAR (5.2 WAR in 2011, 2.5 WAR career average)

Here are our results:

Catcher: Carlos Ruiz, Age 33, 3 WAR

  • None

Today, from the Department of Things Everyone Already Knew: Chooch is really good. No one doubts this. If there’s a surprise here, it’s that Chooch is 33. Though he has been up since 2006, and the Phillies have this habit of not calling up position players until age 26 or so unless they absolutely have to (for instance: Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Domonic Brown). You know what? Chooch isn’t getting old. I am. Moving on.

First Base: Ty Wigginton, Age 34, -1 WAR

Helton and Konerko are no surprises. Konerko, even in his dotage, is still putting up fantastic numbers. Helton’s power has dropped off some since time let him play and be golden in the mercy of his means–and Helton ripped off five straight 1.000 OPS seasons from 2000-2004. But he’s maintained his ability to hit for average and get on base, and a .385 OBP plays, no matter where you play your home games, if the alternative is Ty Wigginton.

The Lees of Old Virginia, on the other hand…Carlos put up 4.6 WAR last year thanks to a fluky defensive season where common wisdom is that he somehow gamed both UZR and Total Zone. He hit okay, but I’d bet…well, not my immortal soul, but certainly someone else’s immortal soul that he never approaches those numbers again. Derrek was barely better than replacement level in 2011, but he’s still better than Wigginton.

Shortstop: Jimmy Rollins, Age 33, 3 WAR

  • None

Rollins is still good. Next.

Third Base: Placido Polanco, Age 36, 1 WAR

Here we have two of the five best third basemen ever to play the game, just sort of playing out the injury-plagued string. Either Jones or Rodriguez would do far better than Polanco at the plate, but Baby Beluga is good enough with the glove, even at his advanced age, to provide some value no matter how poorly he hits. In the 2007 offseason, when it looked like A-Rod was going to opt out of his contract, I was of the opinion that the Phillies should make some sort of Godfather offer to him and get him to fill in at third and hit between Utley and Howard. Looking at that contract now, I can safely say I was a moron when I was younger.

Left Field: Juan Pierre, Age 34, 0 WAR

To be fair, this includes all outfielders, because anyone who can play center or right can play left…but Lord Child, Juan Pierre blows. I don’t want to talk about that anymore.

Center Field: Shane Victorino, Age 31, 3.5 WAR

  • None

The only center fielder who comes close to Victorino in age and quality is Curtis Granderson, who is a few months younger. But if this exercise tells us anything, it’s that good thirtysomething center fielders are very rare, as evidenced by Carlos Beltran and Torii Hunter, who have both been forced by age (and, in one case, Bourjos and Trout) to move to a corner. The Phillies would be wise to take note. Of course, it also tells us that Victorino is still pretty good.

Right Field: Hunter Pence, Age 29, 2.5 WAR

Pence is a little younger than most of the Phillies’ regulars, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that his list is a little longer than most, even though he’s one of the better hitters on the team. Omitted from this list are Lance Berkman who 1) had a flukily good 2011 and 2) is only a right fielder by the same logic that he’d be a bookshelf if you made him stand in a corner and hold a few paperbacks and Shane Victorino, who already plays for the Phillies. Also, Jose Bautista is really good. You should check him out if you haven’t already.

Anyway, leaving out second base and the pitching staff, and not accounting for Chase Utley and Ryan Howard coming back, I have your answer, Bradley. There are seventeen discrete active players at four positions who can make the Phillies get older and legitimately better. Just thought you might like to know.

 

A Suggestion for Mr. Papelbon

Dear Johnno–

It’s come to my attention that your search for a new entrance song isn’t going as well as you thought. I can appreciate that. The choice of entrance music is supremely important for a player’s image. Choose it well and it becomes part of your identity. Choose poorly and you look like a jackass, or a wimp, or worse. For a closer, picking the right song is even more important. A position player can just pick whatever’s on his mind, or a song that relaxes him before the most intense part of the game. But closers don’t have it so easy. Ideally, a closer’s song is intimidating and energizing. Trevor Hoffman had that nasty changeup, but he also had AC/DC. Or how about Mariano Rivera–a quiet, polite, reserved, religious man by all accounts–augmenting his cutter with one of Metallica’s most ominous hits. You need to pick an entrance song on that level, and I’m here to help you.

A good closer intro needs to be aggressive and foreboding, and failing that, needs to incite a capacity crowd into a mob mentality. By the time the closer is on the mound, if he chooses his music well, violence will ensue. You had it kind of easy in Boston. Red Sox fans love their city, and they get on board with anything remotely Irish. But you even though Dropkick Murphys frontman Ken Casey came off like kind of a dick when he announced you couldn’t use “Shipping Up to Boston,” you had to know that a song with Boston in the title wouldn’t play in Philly. And neither Bruce Springsteen’s “Streets of Philadelphia” nor Elton John’s “Philadelphia Freedom” really cuts the mustard as a harbinger of bad things. Though to Casey’s credit, the offer to write you a new song was quite generous, but any bespoke entrance music comes off as kind of gimmicky.

And “Man in the Box” was a nice try–it’s got the aggressive, repetitive, foreboding electric guitar, and it was clever of you to work in the “Won’t you come and save me” angle. But the anger in “Man in the Box” is more suicidal than homicidal, and we want you to be more directly menacing than full of indiscriminate anger. The best available song on the shelf is Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir,” which absolutely conjures up images of a man in a black leather jacket and aviators, face covered in soot, a sawed-off shotgun in his hand, walking toward the camera in slow-motion as the landscape behind him goes up in a napalm explosion and burns until there’s nothing left. If that’s not the ideal projection for a closer’s song, I don’t know what is. Unfortunately, Chase Utley‘s already called shotgun on that song, and he uses it well. Time to look for something original.

My first inclination was John Murphy’s “Adagio in D Minor.” It’s a beautiful bit of composition, very storm-on-the-horizon, and while it lacks the in-your-face aggressiveness of “Hell’s Bells,” it’s every bit as capable of inspiring dread. It’s got one of the most intense and beautiful crescendos I can recall, a crescendo that doesn’t beat you to death with a lead pipe the way Metallica does, but instead toys with you for a while, then vaporizes you. It leaves you there to think about the terrible thing that’s going to happen. It’s no accident that Hans Zimmer wrote something eerily similar to close out Inception. In Sunshine, the movie where “Adagio in D Minor” made its debut, the theme symbolizes the inexorable destructive power of the Sun. Badass. Just what a closer wants.

The problem is that “Adagio in D Minor” starts out quietly and lasts more than four minutes. And because of the crescendo, it’s not like you can cut it up like a rock song. But lucky for us–Murphy’s theme was remixed and truncated for the strobe light fight scene in Kick-Ass. This version gets to the point in about a minute and a half. And I love it, but the problem is you can’t sing along. If you’re getting 45,000 people up and at ‘em, you need the song to be faster (and even the remix with its driving guitars doesn’t quite cut it) and have an identifiable melody and/or lyrics.

Which brings us to a song you need to try at least once this season, a song to warm the hearts of nations.

That’s right: “Ebolarama” by Every Time I Die. I really don’t like hardcore or screamo, and I don’t know enough about them to tell you which one this is, but “Ebolarama” checks all the boxes. First of all, having a different song for each outing is obnoxious. And this song is nothing if not obnoxious.

But in all seriousness, you want to rile up the crowd? Child, please. You know what people do to this song? They jump around and flail their limbs like imbeciles and scream at the top of their lungs. They run into each other on purpose. Two minutes into “Ebolarama,” Citizens Bank Park would be the scariest place in Pennsylvania. Try to hit in the clutch now, Jose Reyes. We’re going to eat your brains and gain your knowledge.

And perhaps more importantly, I want to direct you to the breakdown and final verse. In the span of four lines, you get these lyrics:

Run like hell
Run like hell
Run like hell
This is a rock and roll takeover

What image do you want to project to the crowd, and more importantly, to the batter, Jonathan Papelbon? I think the image of a rock and roll takeover is as good as any. Just thinking about those lyrics makes me want to beat a stranger to a bloody pulp with a golf club–I’d be shocked if using “Ebolarama” as your entrance song didn’t add at least four miles an hour to your fastball. This song is airborne adrenaline.

Mariano Rivera, by using “Enter Sandman” is saying to the hitter: “You know, I’m probably going to get you out.” You, Mr. Papelbon, by entering to “Ebolarama” say to the hitter: “HIT THIS, I DARE YOU! I DOUBLE DARE YOU!” Every Time I Die makes Metallica look like Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. Don’t bring that weak stuff, Johnno. Bring the truth, the unrefined, 195-proof filth. Be R-rated. Be in-your-face. Expose Rivera and Hoffman for the poseurs they are. Save 55 games. And thank me when all is said and done.

This has been a rock and roll takeover.

Love always,

-Michael Baumann
Crashburn Alley

 

 

I <3 Papelbees

As the self-proclaimed id of this site, a lot of what I like to write about involves the emotional experience of sports fandom, particularly Phillies fandom. But the tricky thing about writing for a team-specific site is that writing about what it’s like to be a Phillies fan is often pointless. I figure most of you folks are Phillies fans anyway, so there’s not a whole lot to say about the general fan experience that y’all don’t know anyway.

But individual players, however–that’s another story. I’ve always been troubled by the idea that we don’t get to choose the individual players we root for. I mean, we do, to a certain extent. But we root for laundry, and when we’re relieved of a beloved player, it hurts.

Or, more confusingly, when we have a pariah thrust into our midst. I was never that big a Jonathan Papelbon fan. Well, I guess I respected him all along–apart from a little blip in 2010 he’s never been anything other than a great relief pitcher. But I hated his stupid gassy stare that broadcasters seemed to be convinced was intimidating. I hated the almost Trachselian delay between pitches. I hated him for being one of the New Wave Red Sox, that latest group, with Lester, Beckett, Pedroia, and a whining, screaming, legion of folks with obnoxious accents and pink hats.

Around 2006 or so, the Red Sox went from being the lovable, long-suffering Anti-Yankees to being something almost worse–a team with the arrogance and success of the Yankees but lacking the self-awareness that makes the Bronx Bombers what they are. When people hate the Yankees, the Yankees and their fans seem to be aware that they are successful, pretentious, and smug in the extreme, and there’s a tacit acknowledgement among the Pinstriped Army that such qualities come with the danger of being resented by the Great Unwashed. Now bring the car ’round, Jeeves.

But with the Red Sox, it’s different. After 80 years of being the hard-luck underdog, the Martin Freeman character as it were, they suddenly became just as successful and just as obnoxious as the Yankees. Then Hollywood collectively decided to blacklist any director who dared set his movie outside of South Boston. Theo Epstein, the role model for a generation of teenaged nerds who suddenly saw the fruits of intelligence and unconventional thinking in baseball (including me) started getting weird. Now there’s panic fit for Chicken Little when the Sox miss the playoffs. We rend our garments at the degradation of the moral fiber of the clubhouse with (gasp) beer and fried chicken. (Which, to be honest, sounds like every meal I ate in four years of college, but whatever.)

And for some reason, with the oppressive success, the resources of a middling petrostate and the fawning, sycophantic adoration of the national media, the Red Sox and their fans tried to cling to that conception of the self that made them more of America’s team than the Yankees ever were. And when they were no longer the second-favorite team of the majority of baseball fans, they seemed not to get it. Rather than adopt the Yankees’ admirable, if somewhat punchable, mantra of “Yeah, we think we’re better than you, come prove us wrong,” the Red Sox acted like the friend who borrowed money from you, slept with your wife, and then pretended nothing was wrong.

And apart from Dustin Pedroia, no one embodied that mentality, at least for me, more than Jonathan Papelbon.

Sorry for getting ranty there. Feel free to disagree with all that–I don’t care. I just wanted to impress on you how much I came to hate Jonathan Papelbon. And now I have to root for him.

It’s not that often that I experience the tension between name-on-front and name-on-back. Of course, there are players who I hate watching because they’re bad. But carrying cross-team emotional baggage is a different animal.

It can be good, at times. The Flyers, over the past two or three years, have acquired several players I’ve admired from afar–Chris Pronger, Kris Versteeg, Jakub Voracek, and so on. But it can work the other way, too. I’ve just now reconciled the complicated emotions surrounding Max Talbot. And while we’re at it, I find it hilarious that the Flyers have an aversion to using a player’s full name if it’s 1) of French origin and 2) vaguely effeminate. Max Talbot was “Maxime” for years, and Danny Briere was “Daniel” (pronounced Dan-YELL), but both names were truncated upon their arrival in Philadelphia. They’re French-Canadian, folks. Get over it.

I’ve gone through this emotional transformation before. In the 2010 Olympics, Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik made the American hockey team, and I had trouble rooting for the USA in those Olympics because Orpik had made a career of being chippy, whiny, and dirty. He was like the girl in your second grade class who would pinch herself until she cried, then tell the teacher you did it. I almost couldn’t cheer on the Americans with Orpik on the team. In short, I hate Brooks Orpik more than I love my country.

Anyway, the way it’s worked for me most of the time is that a player I loved in college goes to a team I hate in the pros, but mostly in football. I despised Eagles receiver Riley Cooper in college. His Florida Gators beat the tar out of my South Carolina Gamecocks year after year. I wanted to dump all that hate on Tim Tebow, but he seemed so earnest that it was tough to work up a solid lather. I also don’t find his showy religiosity as off-putting as others seem to, so screaming the foulest and most graphic obscenities I could think of from the student section at Williams-Brice Stadium (which I did the night he scored seven touchdowns to ice the Heisman) just seemed phony to me.

Riley Cooper, on the other hand, acted the way I wanted Tebow to act. He was cocky, and brash, and flung his long hair around when he took his helmet off. He comported himself on the field and on the sidelines like nothing more than the world’s biggest asshole, and I hated him. He was despicable in the way I wanted Tebow to be, and when the Eagles drafted him to be a role player, I was despondent.

But in baseball, that’s not so common, if only because my college baseball fandom isn’t old enough for it to bother me that Joe Blanton went to Kentucky, or Cliff Lee went to Arkansas, or even that Papelbon went to Mississippi State. But seeing Papelbon wrapped up in that obnoxious Red Sox flag for so long has made it tough to get used to him. It’s almost as if Papelbon’s arrival is another indicator that we Phillies fans are becoming like the Boston and New York fans we’ve so long reviled–whiny, self-entitled, and talking funny.

While the addition of Roy Halladay to the Phillies’ roster was really weird but primarily really awesome, Papelbon’s arrival just seems strange. It’s not the contract, which is bad, but it’s no reason to hate Papelbon himself. It’s the feeling that he doesn’t belong to us that I either never got or didn’t get as strongly about Halladay and Toronto. Halladay’s Blue Jays were just sort of vanilla–a largely unspectacular team of unspectacular players who went 81-81 every year and stayed out of the news unless the Yankees were in town. But the Red Sox, 2005-2011, were nothing if not spectacular. When they won, it was fascinating, and when they lost, it was even more so. Love them or hate them, everyone had an opinion. And Papelbon is those Red Sox teams.

Don’t panic–I’m learning to love Jonathan Papelbon. It’s just taking a while. It probably doesn’t help that because of the vagaries of the schedule so far, I haven’t been able to actually watch Papelbon pitch in a regular-season game for the Phillies. Maybe that will help. But he doesn’t feel like he belongs to us, and like all major changes, that takes time.

As much as I hated Papelbon last fall, I know that in time I’ll come to accept him as one of our own, and cheer his accomplishments without having to stop and think about it first. Sometime in July, he’ll strike out the side to close out a 3-2 win, and I’ll have forgotten all about the awkward transition and historical revision that went on this spring. War is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength. And I love Jonathan Papelbon.

Intellectual Integrity and Good Glove, No Hit

I’m not sure I’d ever hated a Phillies player before Wilson Valdez. I’d been frustrated with Mitch Williams, and with Mike Williams, David West, and others over my nearly 20 years as a Phillies fan, but Wilson Valdez was an emotional stimulus unlike any I’d ever experienced. I guess I didn’t hate him, per se. I have a friend who talks about loving an athlete’s “game.” I never really understood what he meant until I started to experience that feeling for myself. There are athletes whose “games” I love–the physical bearing, the individual skills, the style of play. I love Robin van Persie’s game. And Mike Richards’ game. And Jimmy Rollins‘ game.

I hate Wilson Valdez’s game. Exxon is a double play machine, a hitter whose batted ball profile looks like a flight plan for a stealth bomber–low, fast, and leaving nuclear annihilation in its wake. With men on base, the Phillies would have almost literally been better off sending him to the plate without a bat. Maybe a fish wrapped in newspaper. Or a frying pan. Maybe they’d have been better off sending a fish wrapped in newspaper to the plate with the bat, thus taking Exxon out of the equation entirely.

As if being a total offensive zero wasn’t enough, Exxon was a useful, but average defender. You can get away with being a bad offensive player by playing great defense. Omar Vizquel, for instance, is and was a bad offensive player, but his fantastic defense has some (misguided) people arguing for his enshrinement in the Hall of Fame. Exxon is not Omar Vizquel. It’s not as if his glove was any excuse for his complete lack of offensive production. But no, Valdez is flashy. He has a strong arm, which was awesome once, but otherwise caused him to be overrated by Phillies fans to the point where he made J.A. Happ  look like Donovan McNabb.

And that, I think, is where the Valdez hatred comes from. It’s not so much that he was bad, I was just sick of hearing people telling me that he wasn’t. All major league teams, even good ones, have players who just stink on ice, but when everyone thinks he’s good, it’s frustrating. Forgive me for telling this story again, but when someone tells you he’d rather have a player with a career .290 OBP and an unbreakable habit of grounding into double plays at the plate with men on and the game on the line, rather than Jayson Werth, who was in the midst of the best offensive season by a Phillies outfielder since Lenny Dykstra finished second in the MVP race in 1993…well, you’d slam your glass on the table and unleash a string of obscenities at the top of your lungs too.

I’m happy beyond belief that the Phillies cashiered Wilson Valdez, even though they’ve replaced him with a player, in Freddy Galvis, who will likely be worse offensively. And I’m probably more excited about Galvis than any other Phillies player this season. A group of smart, well-meaning people have tried, unsuccessfully, to train me as a social scientist, but one thing I have learned is not to fudge findings to support a predetermined narrative or set of beliefs.

Which is why I’m trying to refrain from drawing conclusions of any kind about four games. But that’s neither here nor there. But Exxon was a replacement-level player, and I’d have cursed him and his stupid goatee with my dying breath, even if he’d cured cancer and my parents adopted him. Freddy Galvis, this season, will probably be a replacement-level player and I’d let him marry my hypothetical daughter. Where’s the consistency? Where’s my intellectual integrity?

Part of it is that Galvis is as good defensively as everyone seemed to think Valdez was. His glove has always graded out as top-notch, even at shortstop. I think we overuse the adjective “catlike” to describe athletes. Anyone who’s even moderately quick and agile is described as catlike, when perhaps another word would avoid overselling the quick-twitch explosiveness and body control that many athletes are said to possess but do not.

Freddy Galvis actually does move like a cat. He’s always in the right spot, moves with alacrity and grace in spite of having an extremely oddly-proportioned body, and fields the ball with confidence. Watching him on the same infield as Jimmy Rollins and Placido Polanco, even after only a couple of games, has been spectacular.

With the bat, he’s not so solid. He’s probably going to ground into a ton of double plays, and he’s displayed neither patience nor power. He seems to be aware of his limitations as a player, which is encouraging, and with time, he could become merely bad, his RBI double this afternoon notwithstanding. If Galvis were even an average hitter, we’d be talking about him the way Rangers fans talk about Jurickson Profar. But the glove is so good, I’m inclined, perhaps irrationally, to be very patient with his offense.

Drew Fairservice offered another explanation on the Getting Blanked podcast on Opening Day. (Here’s the link. Fast-forward to around the 7-minute mark). I apologize for the language–he’s Canadian.

“I think in a lot of ways, we’re kind of getting what we’ve been asking for for years, in terms of: no one likes seeing shitbags and retreads, and guys who have been bouncing around on the fringes of the league…Now we’re getting kids in a lot of ways. So does that make us feel better, because we don’t know if they suck…is it more about that–is it just that we don’t know how crappy they are? Or is it that there’s that much more potential for them not to be crappy?”

Fairservice, I think, gets it exactly right. Though he was talking about the rejuvenated Toronto Blue Jays, most fans must feel similarly about “shitbags and retreads,” as he so artfully puts it. The Phillies, from 2000 to 2005 or so called on one of the best crops of young players assembled in a generation, but after the World Series title, most of the team’s holes have been filled by shitbags and retreads rather than youngsters. Contreras, Baez, and Qualls over De Fratus, Aumont, and Schwimer. Nix, Pierre and Podsednik over Brown.

The best of the Phillies’ farm system remains in Lehigh Valley–or Toronto or Houston, though I’m not sure how many of those trades I’d undo–while the major league roster and starting lineup are peopled by players who have never been good, are not good now, and will almost certainly never become good in the future.

Except for Galvis.

He could, in time, become less crappy. This 22-year-old middle infielder who can’t hit a lick is the new blue blood and the great white hope. Particularly since the Phillies have spent the offseason building an oubliette for Domonic Brown to live in for the rest of his natural life.

So it’s one of two things: either Galvis is leaps and bounds better than Exxon with the glove, or his youth is exciting to the point where I’m willing to overlook his flaws. If it’s neither of those things, then you can have my intellectual integrity. I’m driving the train to Galviston. And this train is bound for glory.

Victory or Death

Writer’s note: This post is kind of backwards. If you want the point, skip to the last break and start there. If you want to know how I got to that point, read the whole thing.

This has been a rough offseason for Phillies fans. We’ve been put through another year of crushing playoff disappointment, for starters. And considering the astronomical expectations going into the playoffs, the smug, cheeky punchability of the St. Louis Cardinals, and the most crushing final visual of any season I can remember (Ryan Howard on the ground, in the fetal position a few feet up the first base line), I’d say that the playoff disappointment of 2011 was more crushing than any in recent memory.

Where spring brings hope for most baseball teams, spring brings to Philadelphia a new (and excellent) closer, whose lunatic contract may cost the Phillies Cole Hamels or a free-agent bat (David Wright?) in the offseason. And speaking of lunatic contracts, Ryan Howard starts his fielding ground balls from a stool.

Whatever, though, Howard (when healthy) and Papelbon are both pretty good, even if they’re both being paid way too much.

But 12 months have offered no comfort of any kind on two of the most important storylines for the Phillies this season: Chase Utley‘s rapidly degenerating joints and the never-ending purgatory that is Domonic Brown‘s ascent from the top prospect in the minor leagues to…well, whatever he is now.

I truly believe this is the last year of the Phillies’ “window,” such as it is, unless there is a major institutional change on the horizon. By this time next year, the Braves, Marlins, and (perhaps) Nationals will have reeled in the Phillies, and the overwhelming advantage in the division that we’ve taken for granted for the past four years will be gone. This makes me sad, because, to paraphrase Orson Scott Card, I don’t like competitive imbalance in baseball, unless it means my team wins all the time.

But it also makes me unspeakably angry, because the current front office management in Philadelphia has built, barring the Bobby Cox Braves, one of the most consistently excellent National League teams in recent memory. They did so by building a core of homegrown talent in the early-to-mid 2000s (Utley, Howard, Madson, Hamels, Rollins, Burrell, Myers) with which it’s difficult not to contend, then aggressively pursuing top-level parts to complement the homegrown core (Halladay, Lee, Blanton, Oswalt, Lidge, Pence) and hitting the jackpot with a couple of scrap heap pickups (Moyer, Werth, Victorino).

But yeah, you all know that. But we’re teetering on the edge of collapse. The Phillies are a gerontocracy, one more Laynce Nix or Ty Wigginton in the lineup from ruin on a Roman scale. How a team could build an empire on the basis of shrewd scouting and bold pursuit of the best talent in the game, then abandon that strategy when it would pay off most confounds me. I feel betrayed. Incensed. There’s a constant low boil of anger at Ruben Amaro in the pit of my stomach. And we haven’t even played a meaningful game this season.

***

I spent seven weeks on a study abroad program in May, June, and July 2008, and as a side effect of not having Comcast in Brussels, Belgium, I didn’t watch a minute of baseball while I was there. I immersed myself in soccer, watching (this is not an exaggeration) 23 of the 31 matches of Euro 2008 with Dutch commentary from my apartment and various pubs, bars, and restaurants across Western Europe.

So when I came back home, baseball was weird to me. I knew the Phillies were pretty decent in 2008, and that they’d bet relatively big on Brad Lidge‘s return to full physical and mental health. But having missed most of the season, I sat down to watch the 2008 All-Star Game knowing relatively little about what had transpired when I was in Europe.

I kept up my tradition that summer of keeping score at home while watching on TV, perhaps the nerdiest thing I’ve ever done. Scoring the All-Star Game presents an interesting set of challenges–while it’s unusual for a regular-season game to see more than five or six substitutions (unless it’s being managed by Tony La Russa), both All-Star teams carry about 30 players and try to use all of them. Your score sheet fills up really quickly, particularly if the game goes 15 innings. But we’ll get to that later.

On the night of the game, Phillies second baseman Chase Utley was the subject of quite a bit of buzz after he’d had the defining moment of his career in the Home Run Derby. But that changed after Utley singled in the top of the sixth, moving Hanley Ramirez to third. A sacrifice fly by Lance Berkman plated Ramirez, giving the National League a 2-0 lead going into the bottom of the sixth. Utley, after being stranded on second, was lifted for then-Florida Marlins second baseman Dan Uggla.

Uggla was playing in his second All-Star game, and fulfilling his father’s lifelong dream by playing in Yankee Stadium. In the bottom of the sixth, he fielded a pop fly cleanly and wasn’t heard from again until he struck out against Jonathan Papelbon in the eighth. In the meantime, J.D. Drew had tied the game with a home run off Edinson Volquez. The first batter after Uggla, Adrian Gonzalez, watched Miguel Tejada steal second and advance to third on a throwing error. Gonzalez then put the National League back on top with a sacrifice fly. Billy Wagner gave the run back in the bottom of the inning.

If you remember the game, you know where this is going.

In the top of the 10th, Russell Martin and Tejada knocked back-to-back singles off Yankees closer Mariano Rivera to bring Uggla to the plate with one out and the go-ahead run on third. Uggla grounded into an inning-ending double play.

Colorado’s Aaron Cook, a ground ball pitcher by reputation, started the 10th for the National League. Michael Young grounded Cook’s first pitch to Uggla. Uggla booted it, putting Young on third. Carlos Quentin grounded Cook’s second pitch to Uggla. He got crossed up on that, too.

As ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick wrote, “In a span of three pitches, he had a GIDP and two errors to his credit.” In those three pitches, the American League’s win expectancy had shot up from 32 percent to 94 percent. And Uggla looked like he’d rather be anywhere else in the world than manning second base at Yankee Stadium.

Of course, the next ball put in play went to Uggla, too. Cook intentionally walked Carlos Guillen, then Grady Sizemore, like Young and Quentin, grounded to Uggla. This time, he made the pickup and got the out at home. After two more groundouts, Cook had danced through Uggla’s mess.

The next inning was no easier. The first five batters Cook faced in the bottom of the 11th reached, but two of them were put out on the bases. Again, no score.

In the 12th, with his dad and a national television audience watching, Uggla came to the plate with the bases loaded, one out, and the look on his face of a man in dire need of the restroom. Uggla struck out on three pitches. Then committed another error–an All-Star Game record third–in the bottom of the 13th. Then struck out again to lead off the 15th. The National League, winless since 1996 in the All-Star Game, remained so when Lidge finally capitulated in the bottom of that inning.

Uggla, that night: 0-for-4, 3 strikeouts, one GIDP, three errors, and a WPA of -0.637, more than enough, in a vacuum, to lose the game by himself.

***

The reason I’m recounting this lengthy, sad, and not-particularly relevant story to you now is because it was a fascinating experience. I had the opportunity to watch a man unravel before my very eyes, on live television, in front of millions. I don’t particularly like Dan Uggla as a player. He’s slow, he’s terrible in the field, he strikes out a lot, and his home run totals tend to inflate his value even if he doesn’t do anything else particularly well.

But Fox kept cutting to his face, and I’ll never forget the look. He looked like he was about to cry, or at least he would have looked that way if not for the stoic expression of shock. It would not have surprised me if, at any point during the extra innings of that game, Uggla had started weeping, run away, walked over to Adrian Gonzalez and asked for a hug, swapped uniforms with Utley and run for Canada, or broken his bat over his knee.

It’s unlikely that the 2008 All-Star Game had some sort of scarring emotional effect on Uggla. He’s certainly been just fine since then, and besides, he’s a professional. Professional baseball players don’t go to pieces because they play poorly in an exhibition game. Not good ones, at any rate. But in the moment, watching Dan Uggla was compelling human drama. I can’t say watching him sleepwalk through about as bad a game as one could imagine was fun, but it was compelling. I empathized with him. I felt sorry for him. I wanted to hug him, pat him on the back, and tell him it would be okay.

***

Maybe it’s been too long since I’ve seen meaningful baseball. I’ve had too much time to think and not enough to enjoy. There’s nothing to get excited about with this Phillies team, from where I’m sitting. Sure, they’re going to be very good, and the pitching is going to be great, but there’s no reason to expect them to be better than (or even as good as) they were last year. And it’s not because the team couldn’t have been constructed better. I’m not optimistic. And you shouldn’t be either.

I’ll be honest, I’ve watched maybe two hours of spring training baseball, of which maybe 20 minutes involved the Phillies. If there’s news, if a player looks good or bad, or gets hurt, I’ll hear about it on Twitter or on Baseball Today. I’ve spent far more time this spring watching college baseball than spring training, because it’s more fun to get hyped about Joey Pankake and Michael Roth than it is to worry about Chase Utley and Antonio Bastardo.

I put far too much energy and emotional investment into watching and writing about baseball for this to be an acceptable state of affairs. I’m tired of being unable to think about the Phillies without being overcome with rage. It’s exhausting. I want to feel other things, like joy or empathy or excitement. Baseball used to make me feel that way. But now the Phillies are in decline, and I get the feeling there isn’t going to be anything quick, easy, painless, or unexpected about it.

I’d just as soon get it over with.

 

An Emotional Diatribe Against the Designated Hitter in the National League

I sort of knew it was coming. The increase in number of interleague games after the Astros move to the American League next year all but assured it. It’s at times like this when I’m reminded of Abraham Lincoln’s famous utterance, during his legendary debates with Stephen A. Douglas during the 1858 Illinois Senate campaign:

“A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.”

I have a very good friend who believes strongly in the ethic of Jefferson’s yeoman farmer, and that the true sovereignty of government rests with the municipalities and the states. I’ve long derided his view as outdated and naive, and when he pressed me for a reason why, intrinsically, his 18th-Century states’ rights ethic was inferior to the centralized and (ultimately, but coincidentally) communitarian politics I favor, I was only able to offer the following: “Because you lost the war.”

Friends, I come to you today in a moment of great historical import, because, if Sports Illustrated‘s Tom Verducci is to be believed, baseball has reached its “house divided” moment: the designated hitter is coming to the National League, and soon. And in the face of overwhelming evidence not only of its inevitability but of its potential benefit to the game, I find myself clinging to an antiquated and childish ideal, having lost the war.

Conservatism, Change as Progress, and Replacing Your Dead Cat

“Prejudice is of ready application in the emergency; it previously engages the mind in a steady course of wisdom and virtue, and does not leave the man hesitating in the moment of decision, sceptical, puzzled, and unresolved. Prejudice renders a man’s virtue his habit; and not a series of unconnected acts. Through just prejudice, his duty becomes a part of his nature.” 

–Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, 1790

Using the word “prejudice” the way Burke does, to mean “tradition” or “established practice,” we confront another change in the way we conceive of baseball. Up to a point, we can think of change as progress. Integrating the game, for instance, flies in the face of prejudice in both the common and Burkean conception of the word, and yet it was undoubtedly the single most positive step taken in the history of the sport. Similar positive judgments can be made about the internationalization of the sport, the statistical revolution, the democratization of baseball writing through the internet, medical and physical fitness advancements, expansion to new markets, the evolution over time of stadium design, and countless other innovations that have changed the game of baseball from the child’s game it was 200 years ago to the intellectually stimulating, all-engrossing, multi-billion-dollar enterprise it is today.

But even granting that change is usually synonymous with progress, can we say that change is always or even (to avoid creating a straw man) almost always beneficial? Does new almost always equal better? I would say no, at least, not often enough to accept any change as an improvement over the status quo without questioning it.

The designated hitter has been an important factor in increasing offense over the past few decades. Considering the offensive advantages it grants the American League compared to its rival, it is possible (though having no empirical evidence to support this theory, I’m inclined to say it’s unlikely) that the designated hitter is responsible in part for the dominance of the American League over the National League in interleague play. So are these the embittered ramblings of a fan of the National League’s best team, upset that an imbalance in the rules has prevented his team from getting the respect it deserves? Hardly.

What bothers me about the designated hitter is that it was a gimmick. The DH was instituted for the first time in MLB in 1973, as a gimmick. It was a response, by the American League, to ramp up offense in what was, at the time, the weaker league. Remember, this was around the time that the Oakland A’s were subjecting the world to Herb Washington, to say nothing of uniforms and facial hair that made Carnival look like a production of The Crucible. This was the age of Disco Demolition Night, and artificial turf, innovations that seem as antiquated to us now as Saturday Night Fever and Logan’s Run.

What sets the designated hitter apart? It’s a gimmick, as Verducci notes, that’s become tradition. There are practically no players who remember life before the DH. As the DH enters its 40th season, there are precious few writers, coaches, and managers who remember what life was like before baseball existed, to paraphrase Lincoln, half DH and half free. The designated hitter, a clumsy solution to a phantom problem, has become the subject of Burkean prejudice, as not only the American League but almost literally every inferior league in North America, from high school to the organized minors, adopted the rule as gospel.

Baseball changed fundamentally, with surprisingly little thought given to more than a century of established practice, in response to a set of circumstances brought about through its own propensity to overreact. After the offensive explosion of 1961, highlighted by Roger Maris’ 61 home run season, baseball expanded the strike zone, and thanks to a bumper crop of star pitchers, the next 10 years became the Dark Ages for scoring runs. We all know the stats: Bob Gibson’s 1.12 ERA, Don Drysdale’s 58 2/3 inning scoreless streak, Denny McLain’s 31 wins, and Carl Yastrzemski winning the batting title with a .301 average, all in 1968. Even if you accept that higher-scoring baseball is better baseball (which I don’t), or even more entertaining baseball (which I also don’t), the prudent thing to do would have been to return the strike zone to its previous state and police the height of the pitchers’ mound, which, to their credit, MLB did, starting in 1969.

I’m a cat owner. I love my cat, even if she doesn’t love me back, but such is life. If, God forbid, something were to happen to her, I’d be very upset. I’d probably be sad for quite some time, but I’d try to adjust. If, after a sufficient mourning period, I still felt lonely or lost without a cat, I’d get another. Now imagine that, upon the improvement of my mood, I decided that more pets would make me feel even better.

And imagine that I went out and bought a Neapolitan Mastiff.

I’ve never owned a dog. Now, I can believe that, over time, I might grow to love a 150-pound slobber machine. Maybe give him an ironic name, like “Tinkerbell,” and enjoy his jowly company. But I’m not sure my life would be better off. I do know that, over time, I’d forget what life was like when it was just me and a cat that ignored me.

The designated hitter is Tinkerbell, the Neapolitan Mastiff who eats four cubic feet of Kibbles ‘n Bits each week, thinks he owns the couch, and likes to sit on your head when you sleep. The designated hitter is a gimmick designed to fix a problem that 1) was caused by an overreaction by organized baseball in the first place and 2) probably would have cycled itself out over time. The only difference is, it’s been around long enough for us to learn to love it.

Debunking the Strategy Argument

“It’s the American League! They have the DH! How hard can it be?”

Little Big League, 1994

Verducci, like me, doesn’t like the DH. But I don’t think I’d go as far as he does when he says: “There is no question that the style of NL baseball is more interesting and nuanced than AL baseball. Yes, it’s a better game, the way chess is a better game than checkers.” In the end, baseball with the DH isn’t all that different from baseball without the DH. It’s not like the American League is playing with a square ball or anything. In fact, in 2011, the AL posted a collective OPS only 20 points higher than the NL.

So failing the complete dissolution of pitching and defense in the American League, how does strategy differ? Well, there’s almost no double switch with the designated hitter, which eliminates a fun, if sometimes chaotic, arrow from the quiver of the manager when it’s late and close. With that said, I’m not sure that I could live with myself if I were the kind of person who wanted to reverse 40 years of baseball evolution to increase the number of double-switches. Eliminating the need to pinch hit in late innings makes it easier for an AL manager to manage his bench. And perhaps one might alter one’s strategy during a rally knowing that the pitcher’s spot is coming up. But you also eliminate a big ol’ mess of sacrifice bunts with the DH, the positive effects of which can hardly be overstated. The sacrifice bunt is to baseball as hitting your point guard’s toe with a ball-peen hammer is to basketball.

Objectively, and taking the DH as a thing that is, and not as a band-aid that overstayed its welcome, I think the strategy argument is the strongest argument in favor of scrubbing the DH. With that said, it’s not that strong an argument. We still see strategic decisions in the American League, and given the propensity of field managers to meddle until they can meddle no more, more managing doesn’t necessarily mean better managing.

Ultimately, I’d compare National League baseball to Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book The Right Stuff, and American League baseball to Philip Kaufman’s excellent 1983 film adaptation. In the book, you get more detail, more nuance, but sometimes it drags. You lose some of that detail in the film, but no so much that you miss it a ton, though sometimes having a story visualized for you takes the fun out of it. And let’s say that eliminating the sacrifice bunt is like the movie adding one of the greatest soundtracks in film history (and yes, I know Bill Conti ripped off Holst).

That’s quite enough of that. Moving on.

Why the DH is Good

“I believe there ought to be a constitutional amendment outlawing Astroturf and the designated hitter.”

–Crash Davis, Bull Durham, 1988 

The most common argument against the designated hitter (apart from the cranky old man argument I’ve been making: I just don’t like it and I want things to stay the way they are) is that not requiring pitchers to hit somehow diminishes their wholeness as ballplayers. This is total nonsense. Not requiring pitchers to hit diminishes their wholeness as ballplayers just as much as not requiring infielders to pitch diminishes their wholeness as ballplayers. On Monday’s Hang Up and Listen podcast, NPR’s Mike Pesca argued that pitchers are like placekickers in football: specialists whose skills in one area excuse them from being required to participate in other aspects of the game. All this makes perfect sense. I certainly don’t want to watch Matt Prater try to play boundary corner for the Broncos.

Others trumpet the DH as an injury prevention method for pitchers. After A.J. Burnett broke his face while trying to bunt last week, and after Chien-Ming Wang suffered a career-altering foot injury while running the bases in 2008, advocates for universal adoption of the designated hitter came out in droves, saying that for the sake of player safety, we should take pitchers off the basepaths and out of the batter’s box forever. I’m not sympathetic to this line of reasoning at all. Baseball is intrinsically dangerous. Batting is dangerous, even for experts. Ask Tony Conigliaro, or David Wright, or even Chase Utley. Baserunning is dangerous. Just ask Justin Morneau.

Moreover, pitching is dangerous. In addition to the innumerable soft tissue injuries to arms, shoulders, backs, and every other muscle, ligament, and tendon that goes into the incredibly violent motion of throwing an overhand pitch, there’s the danger of the line drive back through the box. Such an incident ended Dizzy Dean’s career. A Roberto Clemente line drive broke Bob Gibson’s leg in 1967. In 1998, a Sandy Alomar line drive nailed Orioles pitcher Mike Mussina in the nose. In 2000, Red Sox pitcher Bryce Florie, in one of the most graphic baseball injuries of all time, was defenseless when Ryan Thompson lined a ball back through the box, leaving him sitting on the mound with multiple facial fractures and bleeding that looked less the product of a baseball play than a scene from Hobo with a Shotgun. Then there’s the 2005 line drive that caromed off of Matt Clement‘s head and nearly into the seats by the left field foul line.

The point is, I have a hard time believing that implementing the designated hitter in the National League is really about player safety first and foremost. Preventing injuries to guys like Wang or Burnett by adopting the DH is no more of a solution than putting a screen in front of the mound to prevent injuries to guys like Mussina or Florie. From a player safety argument, it’s just not worth the hassle to prevent a major injury once every three years. There are dozens of innovations, from mandating the Great Gazoo-style batting helmet to padding all outfield walls to biometric analysis of pitcher mechanics that will make the game safer without significantly impacting the way the game is played.

The real argument, which I heard for the first time from ESPN’s Keith Law on the Baseball Today podcast last year, is that it’s just no fun to watch pitchers bat. To combine his argument with Pesca’s, would you find an NFL game more exciting if placekickers had to play offense or defense? Why not restrict the competition to those who specialize in a certain field, be it hitting, pitching, or punting?

I’m probably in the minority here, but I actually do find it fun to watch pitchers bat. And for the record, I think it would be very interesting to see how NFL strategy changed if placekickers were required to play on offense or defense. I imagine a generation of soccer players becoming combination placekickers/slot receivers. But that’s not the point.

While I concede the point that watching someone come up to the plate almost guaranteed to make an out can be disappointing sometimes (or when you’re watching Michael Martinez, all the time) I can’t follow that logic all the way to being convinced that universal adoption of the designated hitter is a good thing. Again, I’m something of a traditionalist on such issues, so your mileage may vary.

Caveats aside, the fish-out-of-water element actually appeals to me a great deal. It’s the same reason that seeing Wilson Valdez pitch in person last year was the greatest live fan experience of my life. When a pitcher hits a home run, or even reaches base, the rarity of the even makes the payoff all the greater when it happens. When a pitcher, particularly a good one, happens to be anything other than a catastrophic incompetent at the plate, every plate appearance is cause for excitement and anticipation. The Phillies, in Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee, happen to have two such players. What Phillies fan doesn’t remember Joe Blanton‘s home run in the 2008 World Series with fondness? Letting the pitcher bat adds an element of chaos to a game that can, from time to time, be a little too orderly.

Why Good Baseball is Bad Baseball

“[B]aseball is supposed to be played by young guys who can run, rather than old fat guys who can hit home runs.”

–Bill James, The New Historical Baseball Abstract, 2001

We all know the stereotypical Moneyball player by now: a guy who gets on base, and ideally can hit for power, batting average be damned. All things being equal, it’s better to have the .250/.400/.500 guy than the .300/.340/.430 guy. This is not, of course, the be-all and end-all of sabermetrics, because, like all baseball analysts, stats guys would rather have the guy who does everything well, including speed and batting average. The Phillies, who won a World Series in large part because of the contributions of Ryan Howard and Pat Burrell, two men whose mobility is measured on a geological scale, know this well.

Burrell and Howard are two men who played the field because they had to. Given the opportunity to remove one or both of their gloves from the field, it’s likely that the Phillies would have done so (I’m ignoring Chris Coste and Greg Dobbs DHing during the 2008 World Series). One of the most attractive aspects of expanding the DH to both leagues, from a player union perspective, is that it extends the careers of, as James put it, “old fat guys who hit home runs.” That’s 15 more full-time jobs for the likes of Jason Giambi and Jim Thome, both relegated to spot duty and pinch-hitting on National League teams. And with big power numbers and big RBI totals come big money.

From a team’s perspective, Verducci mentions in his article, it takes some of the risk out of giving long-term, big-money deals to guys who either have only patience and power as virtues (Prince Fielder) or guys who will have only patience and power as virtues (Albert Pujols). If you can provide nothing but walks and home runs, and you don’t have to play the field, you can still be quite valuable, provided you produce lots of walks and home runs, as I’m sure Fielder will, well into his lunar phase.

If you’re manning a DH spot with someone who walks and hits home runs, and you’re judicious about your basestealing as a team, that’s smart. And while the DH makes it easier for fan favorites like Manny Ramirez and Thome to stick around, which is nice, allowing such players to extend their careers is the most underrated negative impact of the designated hitter.

Saying this borders on sabermetric apostasy, but from a spectator’s perspective, walks and home runs are spectacularly overrated. I’d much rather see close plays on the bases, singles, doubles, triples, stolen bases, spectacular defensive plays, all the things that slap-and-run speed merchants can do but full-time DH types can’t. I like a tape measure blast as much as the next guy, and the ability to turn a game on its ear on a single pitch with a three-run bomb is…well…titillating.

But what’s the cost? Last season, Jim Thome came to the plate 324 times. He produced no triples and no stolen base attempts, and he hit 15 home runs, drew 46 walks, and struck out 92 times. That’s 324 times to the plate, and 153 of those (47.2 percent of his plate appearances) resulted in one of the three true outcomes. The defense might as well go pee and get some popcorn when Thome comes up. Put another way: it takes at least 10 men on the field at one time to play baseball, more if you’ve got baserunners. But in nearly half of Thome’s plate appearances, at least 70 percent of the men on the field were doing bugger-all. That’s an unacceptable amount of inactivity, even for baseball.

Consider Thome’s Twins teammate Ben Revere. Revere came to the plate 481 times in 2011, and posted an OPS more than 200 points lower than Thome’s, though as a center fielder, Revere was worth about the same as Thome above replacement, at least on a per-plate-appearance basis. Revere was hit by two pitches, drew 26 walks, struck out 41 times and did not hit a home run. By contrast, he hit five triples and attempted to steal 43 times. The defense was inactive when Revere batted only 14.3 percent of the time. When Revere hits, everyone plays. When Thome hits, everyone watches.

Considering Revere’s defensive ability, I’d rather watch him play than Thome, regardless of how much Jim Thome makes me wish I had a genial Uncle Gus who took me trap shooting on weekends and made his own hot sauce for fun. For my money, the most exciting (and only truly electrifying) baseball player of the past 20 years has been Ichiro, a guy who never walked, but was tons of fun to watch on defense and slapped and ran his way to a Hall of Fame career. Not only are strikeouts boring and fascist, but so are walks and, to a lesser extent, home runs. Baseball is at its most fun (if not at its optimal strategy) when stolen bases are attempted often and with reckless abandon, when fly balls and line drives are dived for, and when the extra base is taken. With every team that adopts the DH, another lead-footed retread takes a job away from a potentially exciting (and usually new and young) player.

Divided We Fall

Forgive me for being reactionary, traditionalist, and anti-intellectual, but if baseball is once again to be united under a common flag, it should be a flag under which pitchers bat. The DH represents everything that’s wrong with baseball: the sedentary, the path-dependent, the risk-averse.

I accept that the designated hitter is coming to the National League, and I’m resigned to that, because, considering how old the Phillies are getting, it might benefit them. But that doesn’t mean I have to like it. The designated hitter is, and always will be, a gimmick solution that no one had the presence of mind to reject as short-sighted and ham-fisted. And it’s the only form of baseball our children and grandchildren will ever know.

I don’t expect anyone to be persuaded by this little outburst, and I don’t really care. I just really hate the designated hitter, and everything it represents. And I thought y’all might like to know.