Crash Bag, Vol. 10: I Will Sign Cody Ross

One of my favorite lines ever written about baseball came from Yahoo!’s Jeff Passan, who several years ago wrote a quick-hit spring training preview with one question for each of the 30 teams heading into the preseason. This was the year Andruw Jones and Juan Pierre were teammates on the Dodgers, Pierre as he was starting his career as the scrappy journeyman out machine, and Jones coming off a three-year stretch where he parlayed a three-year span of hitting 118 home runs and a reputation as the greatest defensive center fielder ever into a two-year contract with Los Angeles that would see him nearly eat his way out of baseball.

Anyway, Passan wanted to know something along the lines of “Can Juan Pierre throw a baseball farther than Andruw Jones can throw Juan Pierre?”

That got me thinking–how bad is Juan Pierre’s arm really? Like, can a normal person throw a baseball harder than he can? My brother is a college senior who pitched in high school but hasn’t played organized baseball in years. When he was 14 or 15, he hit 70 on a radar gun, and it’s fair to assume that he got stronger since then. He was never even “he’s going to play in college” good, but let’s say he topped out in the mid-to-high 70s by the time he was a junior or a senior.

Now, when you see a position player pitch, usually he gets up around 90, and these are guys with good throwing arms, like Wilson Valdez. Pierre is famous for his lack of arm strength. Can we say that he throws 15 miles an hour slower than Exxon? I think that’s plausible. I know it’s just one tool, and Pierre is faster than and makes more contact than the vast majority of the American population. But he’s in his 13th major league season, and I’d bet that if you took 100 varsity high school baseball players from around the country, about half would be able to beat him on the radar gun.

Like most of what I write, I’m not sure what the larger point is. But if someone can track Pierre with a radar gun and get me the number, I’d be curious to see how he stacks up against your average high school pitcher.

@SkirkMcGuirk: “Is this year like the ’79 Phils (bad season in an otherwise great era) or the ’96 Phils (first of many disappointments)?”

This is an excellent question, Skirk, and it depends on what kind of moves are made in the offseason. I don’t know that either is the perfect comparison, because the Phillies weren’t anywhere near this bad in 1979, and they weren’t coming off this good a run in 1996. Plus, 1979 was sort of fluky. They on 84 games that year and won 92 games and the World Series the next year with almost exactly the same lineup and pitching staff. I like 1996 a little bit better because it carried a similar realization that the players that won the Phillies the pennant a couple years earlier were older and not all that good anymore.

But I’d liken this season to 1984 more than anything else. Coming off a season in which they added another No. 1 starter and did quite well with an extremely old roster (Cliff Lee is John Denny in this metaphor), the Phillies paid the price for their lack of youth the following season, as the Wheeze Kids dropped to .500. Like this team, those Phillies were built on a philosophy of getting guys who were good five or ten years ago, or at least I assume they were, because I can’t think of another good reason to go into the mid-1980s with two key pitchers also having been key pitchers on the 1969 Miracle Mets.

Anyway, after that season, they stumbled around .500 for a couple years, then went into a swoon that, save for the aberrant 1993 season, continued until they finished second in 2001, starting their current run of success.

But I realize that that’s not what you’re asking. Is this bad season a one-off, or is it the beginning of the end? I think 2013 is going to be a rough year, but it really depends on how the Phillies handle some really tough decisions about Cole Hamels and Domonic Brown now, and Chase Utley, Carlos Ruiz and Roy Halladay in a couple of years. Beyond that, it’s up to things that not even Ruben Amaro can control.

@TonyMcIV: “Who gave Bill his Twitter skills? & If The Phils sign Coal Hammels what hope is there for bullpen help?”

I wasn’t aware Bill had Twitter skills.

And if the Phillies pass on Cole Hamels as a free agent and spend $20 million shoring up the middle relief, I’m going to sell all my worldly possessions, move to Croatia and start a farm, where I’ll raise something ridiculous, like peanuts or reindeer. And I’ll never think about baseball again. I hear Dubrovnik is lovely this time of year. A quick stop off on Wikipedia says Croatian olive oil is a major export. That sounds wonderful. I think I might become a Croatian olive farmer even if the Phillies do get better.

@PhreshPhillies: “If you had to take a random guess right now, who are the starting outfielders in 2013?”

Tom Waits, Jens Voigt and Robinson Cano. First three names that popped into my head.

Though I don’t think you meant random like that, so I’ll give you a couple different answers.

The best-case scenario is, well, if I’m honest, probably something like Mike Trout, Andrew McCutchen and Jason Heyward, though I don’t think I see that one coming off. So the outfield I’d like to see the most is Domonic Brown, Tyson Gillies and Nick Swisher. Nick the Swish is a free agent this offseason and, while expensive, will get on base and hit for some power from both sides of the plate. Gillies is a reach, but this is my best-case scenario, so he rakes for the rest of the season and in spring training, then is not completely abysmal as a rookie center fielder. And frankly, if not for a run of bad fortune and personal oppression by the fates the likes of which we haven’t seen since the book of Job, Domonic Brown would have been starting in an outfield corner two years ago. Here’s hoping Brown’s story ends as happily as Job’s did. Note: this scenario involves trading Victorino and Pence, so if one of them nets a decent young center fielder, you could plug him in instead of Gillies.

The worst-case scenario is probably John Mayberry, Josh Hamilton and Hunter Pence. That would mean that 1) the Phillies spent as much on Hamilton as they would have on Hamels and didn’t get Hamels. Hamilton’s great now, but if you believe he’s suddenly going to start not being hurt all the time at age 32, and you believe that strongly enough to give him, say, the Matt Kemp contract, I really don’t know what to say to you. Retaining Mayberry means that the Phillies have not only continued to bury Brown but that they’ve failed to come up with a better option than a 29-year-old corner outfielder with a career .306 OBP. And finally, retaining Pence means that the Phillies feel strongly that he’s their best right field option going forward, enough to give him $14 or $15 million a year.

A more likely scenario probably involves Brown and Pence in the corners with either some scrub free agent in center if they re-sign Cole Hamels, or a massively overpaid average to above-average center fielder if they don’t. I’m thinking Michael Bourn, Melky Cabrera or B.J. Upton. I’m fairly confident the Phillies are going to screw this up expensively, if not massively.

@uublog: “You go back in time and add or eliminate one transaction. What do you do and how does it change the team now and in the future?”

I’m not taking the bait and drafting Jackie Bradley Jr. over Larry Greene.

I know this is the easy answer, but I’d can the Howard contract. With that money, the Phillies could have been major players for either Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder last offseason, both of whom are signed to expensive deals that will extend far past their usefulness, but both are as good at the plate as Howard is being paid to be right now. Or they could have taken that money and extended Cole Hamels. Depending on when that extension gets done, they’d have had enough money left over to go get another useful free agent. When it was signed, I didn’t grasp how awful the deal was, and on how many levels. I curse myself for my shortsightedness.

Or. I could go back to 2008 and hire a different GM when Pat Gillick retired. That’s a much better idea.

@bxe1234: “If you were a GM, what’s the first thing you’d do to make us hate you? Cause we will eventually. Just curious about your opener”

Am I just going about my business, or am I specifically out to troll you? Because if I were out to troll you, I’d sign Cody Ross and start him in center field next season.

But if I were being serious…actually, you know what, I am serious. Cody Ross isn’t a bad one-year option of the Phillies trade Pence and Victorino and Tyson Gillies isn’t ready in center. I’d be totally okay rolling him out for 500 plate appearances in center, and I’d want to punch him in the noggin every time he came to the plate.

So it’d either be that or building that time machine to go back and draft Jackie Bradley.

@CitizensBankers: “Higgs Boson: go.”

Apparently it’s a big deal. I gotta admit, my knowledge of anything smaller than an electron is almost nothing. And frankly, I don’t care one bit how the universe was created and how it’s held together. Not that it’s not important, but I’m a writer, not a theoretical physicist. But it’s cool that someone let scientists build something as big as the LHC for no purpose other than to advance knowledge. I think we could use another national science and engineering project on the level of the Apollo missions–where we set out to do and learn something just because we can. Put a man on Mars, maybe, or explore the bottom of the ocean. I think what they’ve done at CERN is important, even if I’m not particularly interested in the details. If Europe’s top scientific minds say they’ve found the God particle, I’m willing to take them at their word.

Now if the Higgs Boson can play third base, then you’ve got my attention.

@MitchGoldich: “Am I crazy for thinking the #Phillies should move Utley to LF next year to prolong his career? Puts Galvis at 2B in non-premium offensive position. Do it in 13 to determine proper value of Utley’s next contract.”

I hate to say this, but yes. You are crazy for thinking that.

Galvis is a great defensive second baseman, by all indications. Considering that, maybe the Phillies should move Utley to a less-demanding position in order to save his ailing joints. Seems reasonable off the bat. However, five considerations make that a bad idea.

First, Galvis might be a great defensive second baseman, but he’s a terrible, terrible hitter. Granted, these numbers come from a portion of a rookie season, but a .266 wOBA is not exactly a ringing endorsement of his ability to produce even the scintilla of offense needed to justify putting his glove in the field. The Marlins went through this recently with a third base prospect named Matt Dominguez, whose glove, it is said, is every bit as good as Ryan Zimmerman‘s or Evan Longoria‘s, but whose bat never developed. Before they signed Jose Reyes and moved Hanley Ramirez to third base, the Marlins planned to slot Dominguez in at that position, but Dominguez couldn’t even hit AAA pitching, and so he was shipped off to Houston for Carlos Lee. I don’t think Galvis is that bad, but Dominguez provides a cautionary tale.

Second, we don’t know if Galvis’s back is going to take anything off his game going forward. If he can’t move as well as he could before the injury, he goes from being unbelievably good with the glove to being merely good, and there’s no excuse to put him in the lineup at all, much less move Utley.

Third, Galvis might be a great defensive second baseman, but so is Utley. He’s been the best defensive second baseman in the game for ages, and even as his joints fail him and he slips, his glove will never be bad enough to make up the gap in hitting ability between him and Galvis.

Fourth, I’m not convinced a move to left field does a whole lot for Utley. Maybe it’s a little less demanding physically, but his bat doesn’t look nearly as good in a corner outfield spot as it does at second base. Instead of playing at a position where the best offensive players are Dan Uggla and Ian Kinsler, Utley would have to keep up with Ryan Braun, Josh Hamilton, Justin Upton and average corner outfielders like Nick Swisher. Utley can play second, so let’s keep his bat there if we can. It’s easier to find a left fielder who can hit better than Galvis than it is to find a second baseman who can hit better than Utley.

Fifth, are we totally giving up on Domonic Brown now? I hope not.

@SpikeEskin: “could you come up with a similar baseball situation to Spencer Hawes playing power foward for the Sixers instead of center?”

Playing Juan Pierre in left field over Domonic Brown. Though worse than that is signing Kwame Brown to a multi-year deal to do anything.

@ETDWN: “Along the lines of Crashburn writers as House characters, what about Crashburn writers as characters from The Wire?”

I can’t do that for three reasons. Apparently talking about The Wire is a Bill Simmons staple, and some of the readers get their panties in a bunch whenever something I write resembles something Simmons could have written. Second, describing the five of us seems a little grandiose and needlessly self-referential. And third, I’m only up to Season 4, so I don’t have the whole series’ worth of perspective on these characters. Sorry.

(But since you asked, Bill: Avon; Bradley: Sydnor; Paul: Daniels; Ryan: McNulty; and me as Stringer. I’ll let you try to figure out why on your own.)

One last note on The Wire. All due respect to President Obama, anyone who thinks Omar is a better character than Stringer had better let me take a hit of whatever you’re smoking, because that must be some powerful stuff. I marvel at the creativity it took to create a character like Omar, but he’s a cartoon. Just because he carries a sawed-off shotgun and delivers pithy lines doesn’t make him a good character. Stringer’s actually human, and exhibits a depth of feeling and a totally believable and fascinating set of conflicting motivations the likes of which you rarely see in fiction of any kind, much less television. Omar’s more fun, but Stringer’s the better character.

@gvntofly1021: “Current Phillies as beer.”

Heineken. Everyone thinks it’s really good, but it’s nothing more than really expensive pisswater.

@DashTreyhorn: “Phillies players as Game of Thrones characters. Go.”

Getting awfully pushy there, buddy.

A couple people responded to Dash with pretty good answers, so I’ll just repeat those here:

@TurtleZoot: “Hunter Pence is Hodor…:P” and “Halladay is Ned Stark. That MIGHT not be a good thing though…;)”

Emoticons alike, I like both of those: Hunter Pence is really big, doesn’t seem particularly bright and has done a lot of heavy lifting. Halladay is trying in vain to save the kingdom, but is taken out of commission early. Plus he’s the biggest star on the show.

@FanSince09: “Hammels is Renley”

I know why he said this, but I like Hamels as the ambitious but largely benign contender for the throne. When it was clear that Westeros was going to descend into civil war, I was rooting for Renley to win and for Robb to continue as King in the North. Let’s do a few others, quickly.

  • Carlos Ruiz: Arya Stark. Just sort of generally small, entertaining and a bigger player than anyone around realizes.
  • Ryan Howard: Robb Stark. Immensely likable, might be tasked with taking on a bigger role than he’s capable of.
  • Placido Polanco: Littlefinger (in this case, his fingers are only little compared to his head)
  • Michael Martinez: Sansa Stark. I turn on every Phillies game hoping that Joffrey has finally lost his tenuous grasp on his sanity and beheaded Mini-Mart.
  • Jonathan Papelbon: Daenerys Targaryen. Please. Just go away and shut up about your goddamn dragons.
  • Jayson Werth as Khal Drogo. Come back to us, enormous bearded awesome man.
  • Jimmy Rollins: Jamie Lannister. The smooth talker. No word on J-Roll’s sister, however.
  • Chase Utley: Tyrion Lannister. Things just seem better when he’s around.

Oh, and if you haven’t listened to The National’s version of “The Rains of Castamere,” do that at your earliest convenience. It’s really good.

@Estebomb: “Is there any way to trap Joe Blanton and Kyle Kendrick in the secret government warehouse from Indiana Jones?”

Yes. I like this idea. In fact, I’ve found that watching a Kyle Kendrick start is much like opening the ark of the covenant–it’s about as unpleasant as being in a room full of Nazis and then having your face melted off. Which, coincidentally, is nowhere near as unpleasant as Temple of Doom.

I’ve found that the only solution is to close your eyes, and when you open them again you’ll be wearing an awesome hat and live happily ever after with the young Karen Allen. Which isn’t a bad way to go out at all.

Speaking of going out, I’ve got to dial up that time machine we were talking about and set up an appointment with 1981-vintage Karen Allen. The Crash Bag will return next week, assuming I’ve made it back to the present by then.

The Mysterious Appearing Utley

Somewhere around December of last year, the Phillies changed the name of the franchise for the first time in nearly 130 years of existence. Since the New Year, they’ve been officially known in the future tense as “The Phillies, Once Utley and Howard are Healthy.”

Literature is littered with stories whose action is driven by a character who either never shows up or is only introduced at the very end. Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, for instance, or Gogol’s The Inspector General. I was beginning to have that feeling about the 2012 Phillies, that their story would be written in large part about the absence of Chase Utley. In the shroud of secrecy that characterizes the Phillies’ media department, it was beginning to look like Utley was not the character we’d wait all year to have introduced, but rather the one who, while absent from the storytelling itself, would drive many of the events of the story, like Emmanuel Goldstein in 1984. Every action, it seemed, was driven to compensate for Utley’s absence.

We’ve lived in a virtual purgatory all season, watching a revolving door of second basemen. Mike Fontenot, who can hit but can’t field. Freddy Galvis, who could field but couldn’t hit. Pete Orr, who couldn’t do either. And most recently, Michael Martinez, who not only can neither hit nor field, but fails to do so with a lack of self-awareness matched only by the douchebag who brings his acoustic guitar to a party, then plays Oasis’s “Wonderwall” until the only people left in the room are waiting for him to stop bogarting the guitar so they can play something not included in the “Teenager’s first open mic night” book of sheet music.

Billy Graham once said: “Have you ever seen God? I’ve never seen God… I’ve never seen the wind. I’ve seen the effects of the wind… but I’ve never seen the wind.” We could say the same about Utley. He wasn’t up to his usual standards last season, but he was still worth 3.9 fWAR in only 2/3 of a season. And with Utley back in the lineup, Hunter Pence moves back down to fourth or fifth, and maybe there’ll finally be someone on base for Carlos Ruiz to drive in. Suddenly, the pieces start to fit back together as bench players are taken out of the starting lineup and returned to their original and appropriate uses.

A friend of mine once explained how he eats at Five Guys every six months or so. Every time he eats there, he marvels at how tasty their burgers and fries are, and then spends the rest of the evening on the toilet as a pound and change of greasy, beefy glory result in crippling gastrointestinal distress. But a few months later, you forget about the aftereffects and begin to crave Five Guys again. Six months is just enough time to forget about the full Five Guys experience and go back again, more out of curiosity than anything else.

So too with Utley. It’s been so long since we’ve seen a truly great position player in a Phillies uniform that I’m starting to forget what one looks like. Utley says he’s in better physical condition now than he’s been in a while, but even so, we shouldn’t expect too much from him too quickly. If Utley comes back and is even a shadow of his 2007 self, I’ll be thrilled. If he’s anything more, I’ll be so happy you won’t hear from me again until the state troopers are chasing a man playing an accordion and riding a unicycle the wrong way down I-295. Because that’ll be me.

But with Utley back in the lineup, it feels like we’re at least a little closer to being whole, that things are at least a little closer to being okay again. And, most importantly, it means that Charlie Manuel can nail Michael Martinez’s ass to the bench and never think about him again.

We’ve missed you, Chase. It’s good to have you back.

Papelbon in a Non-Save Situation

For the second time this season, Jonathan Papelbon came into a tie game at home in the ninth inning, and for the second time, he allowed the go-ahead run to score after giving up an extra-base hit to a guy not exactly known for his power. I know y’all thought that, even on the heels of Papelbon’s five-out save on Friday, that this might be the end of Charlie Manuel’s more liberal usage of his best relief pitcher in high-leverage situations, but I actually managed to have a word with the Phillies skipper after the game and I think everything is going to be okay. Here’s how the conversation went:

Mike Baumann: Reach for the sky!
Charlie Manuel: Huh?
Baumann: This town ain’t big enough for the two of us!
Manuel: What?
Baumann: Somebody’s poisoned the waterhole!
Manuel: Papelbon’s busted.
Baumann: Who are you calling busted, Buster?
Manuel: Huh?
Baumann: That’s right! I’m talking to you, Charlie Manuel! We don’t like the bullpen having games blown up, Cholly. Or smashed, or ripped apart.
Manuel: [hyperventilating] W-we?
Baumann: That’s right, your fans!
[Fans get up and surround the terrified Manuel] Baumann: From now on, you must continue to have Jonathan Papelbon pitch in high-leverage situations whether or not there’s a save on the line, because if you don’t, we’ll find out, Charlie!
Baumann: [while turning head around slowly] We toys can see EVERYTHING!
Baumann: [speaking and moving] So play nice!
[Manuel screams and runs inside]

Declaration of the Rights of Fan and of the Citizen

Phillies fans have become a very well-celebrated traveling circus in recent years, particularly in Washington, and our behavior, and the behavior of our hosts, has become, at times, a national news story. I really can’t figure out why anyone gives a crap about this, but in this part of the world, there seems to be the conception that entering a sporting arena entitles an individual not only to abdicate his sense of decorum and propriety, but to hurl verbal and sometimes physical abuse on strangers.

I don’t really like watching live sports all the time. I’d rather watch from home, where I don’t have to block out the entire night and pay exorbitant amounts for admission and transportation to sit out in the elements. If I want a communal experience, I’ll go on Twitter, and if I really want a communal experience, I’ll head around the corner to the bar. Don’t get me wrong, I do like going to games from time to time, but I don’t need to be there all the time–if I get to half a dozen Phillies games a year, I’m generally happy.

But anyway, when I do catch a live event, I almost would rather be a visiting fan than go see my team at home. I like going out in a different city, seeing a different ballpark, and taking in new ballpark traditions, and, as often as not, meeting local fans. There are some exceptions–after winning two straight against the Phillies last June, Pirates fans got a little nasty, and a little kid at a Flyers-Thrashers game once flipped me off and called me an asshole–but otherwise, my interactions with others as a visiting fan have been absolutely positive in all cases.

I bring this up because I’m heading to Baltimore this weekend to catch the series between the Phillies and Orioles–I suspect at least a couple other Phillies fans have had this idea–and I want the run of good feelings to continue.

One of the pivotal moments of the French Revolution–and the only moment in French history pre-Napoleon that I’m particularly familiar with that didn’t involve tennis equipment or messy executions–was the publication of “The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen,” a philosophical and legal document that’s exactly what it sounds line. I was inspired by this declaration to write, considering that Camden Yards will most likely be overrun by Phillies fans this weekend, a similar document is in order: “The Declaration of the Rights of Fan, and of the Citizen,” inspired by the Marcliff du Leefayette, and Juan Robespierre…yeah, never mind.

Anyway, I don’t want to Rovell y’all and give out a bunch of rules undemocratically–which would be quite ironic, given the source material–so consider this as a suggestion, rather than a set of laws that everyone should follow because I said so. Though if everyone follows these just because I said so, that’d be totally cool.

RIGHTS OF THE VISITING FAN

  • To be free from physical oppression or intimidation. No one wants a Brian Stow incident, or that nastiness outside Geno’s after the Winter Classic.
  • To be given free access to the stadium and surrounding amenities or entertainment venues. None of this “we’re only selling tickets to Virginians and Marylanders” malarkey. Anyone who can afford a ticket should be welcome.
  • To be free from excessive verbal abuse or ad hominem attacks. You probably shouldn’t get your panties in a twist if you wear a Scott Hartnell jersey to Madison Square Garden and someone makes a Jeff Carter joke. But on the other hand, I was in the student section for a South Carolina-LSU football game once, when people spotted a kid in a purple sweatshirt a few rows down from me. Within minutes, almost literally the entire 12,000-person student section was chanting “Get the fuck out!” at this poor kid, who had done nothing wrong except wear the wrong colors in the wrong spot. Stadia should not resemble gang turf wars, or the lynch mob scene from To Kill a Mockingbird.
  • To wear your team’s colors and cheer when something good happens to them. That said, don’t act like a jackass. Stand up and cheer and clap at a big base hit, or yell the occasional “CHOOOOCH!” but if you’re a total boor, The Committee for Public Safety takes no responsibility for what happens to you.

For that matter, I think all of those things are contingent on the manners and good behavior of the visiting fan. If you show up in another team’s stadium and are obnoxious, confrontational, or disruptive, they have every right to be rude to you back. But there’s no reason why adults of different allegiances can’t enjoy a baseball game (or really any sport that isn’t soccer or college football) in relative harmony. I look forward to exploring an unfamiliar city this weekend and meeting new fans with a different take on the game than the insular Phillies-based community in which I find myself, as well as making about a billion references to The Wire. And even to exchange a bit of good-natured ribbing and banter. I’d like to think that if an Orioles fan (or any fan, for that matter) came to take in a series in Philadelphia, he’d be able to do so without encountering open hostility.

Additions to this list? Deletions? Or should the Committee for Public Safety just go on with the beheadings?

Freddy is Fun

Freddy Galvis has a .279 wOBA, the third-worst mark on the team and among the 20-worst in all of baseball. Yet he has been the most exciting player to watch in baseball in the first two months, at least in this writer’s humble opinion. He has been making Ozzie Smith-style plays routinely throughout the season, filling in for Chase Utley, who had been the best defensive second baseman in baseball going back to 2005. And Galvis was brought up as a shortstop!

Yesterday afternoon, Galvis made two plays that stuck out in my mind. The first was on a Justin Turner line drive single to center.  You can see what  unfolded afterwards in the .gifs below. Note the simultaneous defensive wizardry and field awareness of Galvis.

The second great play came in the fourth inning when Galvis turned a 4-3 double play. It is not a particularly difficult play, as most second basemen would turn a 4-3 double play here. What struck me was how nonchalantly Galvis makes a strong, off-balance throw to first base, and how accurately he does so. Note the subtle footwork as well.

I have not bothered to look up the defensive stats he has compiled thus far, as the sample size is so small as to be completely irrelevant. (UZR takes 2-3 seasons to stabilize.) Simply from a fan’s perspective, I have not enjoyed watching another player more than Galvis, and this is coming from Chase Utley’s biggest fan.

On Umpires and “The Human Element”

The big news from from the commissioner’s office came yesterday evening when Brett Lawrie was handed a four-game suspension for his temper tantrum on May 15 against the Tampa Bay Rays. Closer Fernando Rodney fell behind in the count 3-1, but came back to strike out Lawrie thanks to some questionable strike-calling from home plate umpire Bill Miller. Rodney’s 3-1 pitch was clearly a ball pulled back in by catcher Jose Molina (baseball’s best pitch-framer). Lawrie had preemptively started his stroll down the first base line after what he thought was ball four, but was called back to the batter’s box with a full count instead. Rodney’s next pitch, although much closer to the strike zone, looked like it was pulled back in by about a foot and Miller called out Lawrie on strikes, prompting the rookie’s fit of anger.

Courtesy Brooks Baseball, here’s the strike zone plot with each pitch labeled:

Lawrie’s response was 100% wrong and he should have been suspended more than four games, in this writer’s humble opinion. However, as a baseball fan, I’m growing tired of umpires wrongfully impacting the game. Unlike players, umpires rarely get punished for being terrible at their job or instigating conflict on the baseball field. Joe West, for example, has not only become known for being an instigator, but he has worn the reputation with pride and used it to further his career both on and off the field. It’s an imbalance that lowers the quality of each and every baseball game.

We have a situation right now where, if you know the name of an umpire, it is almost always because of something negative; rarely is it for something positive. Try it yourself, right now: name as many umpires as you can off of the top of your head, then go back and write down why each umpire sticks out in your memory. Umpires’ nicknames even mock their very presence on the field, just ask “Balkin'” Bob Davidson:

Davidson, who has been nicknamed “Balkin’ Bob” or “Balk-a-day-Bob” due to his frequent and usually incorrect balk calls […]

How is this good for the game of baseball? This imbalance sullies the veracity of many games throughout the history of baseball, much more so than performance-enhancing drugs ever supposedly did. For a striking reminder, re-watch when Ryan Howard was tossed out of a game back in August 2010:

The third base umpire who mocked Howard before ejecting him in the 14th inning was Scott Barry. By needlessly instigating and therefore needlessly ejecting Howard, he forced the Phillies to use starting pitcher Roy Oswalt in left field. Although Oswalt did not drop the one fly ball hit to him, he did have to hit in the bottom of the 16th with runners on first and second with two outs and his team down 4-2. Howard could have been at the plate with a chance to hit a walk-off three-run home run, but instead, Oswalt — a career .152 hitter — weakly grounded out to third base to end the game. That’s the Phillies’ most recent example; you could ask each member of ESPN’s Sweet Spot network for his or her team’s game-losing umpire judgment without going further back than 2010.

Baseball needs to do one of two things:

  • Embrace “the human element” but implement a system where umpires are publicly held accountable for their performance and for their actions with other players and coaches
  • Scrap “the human element” altogether, relying on instant replay and automated verification

When a player hits .150, he gets benched or even sent down to the Minor Leagues. When an umpire performs equivalently poorly, nothing happens. As a result, we have a system where it behooves umpires to move further up the proverbial bell curve — to set themselves apart from their peers. They have nothing to lose! Why not call balks with reckless abandon or take advantage of emotionally-invested players by making obviously incorrect calls to goad them into an argument or tantrum? The upside is that you become better-recognized and you might get a nickname. That translates to money and job security, eventually.

Now, imagine a world where umpires are rigorously graded for the accuracy of their ball/strike, safe/out, and fair/foul rulings, and publicly held accountable for getting out of line with a player or coach. The validity of some games would no longer be in question, the average game time would go down due to fewer (or zero) arguments, and teams wouldn’t unnecessarily be losing key players for games at a time. Sure, you’d lose the “theater” of the vs.-umpire conflict, but the sport would be all the better for it. In that world, I couldn’t sympathize with a player whose temper tantrum would make a seven-year-old shake his head in disappointment.

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.

Phillies Fans PSA: Stop It

The Nats’ efforts to bolster fan attendance in the run up to this weekend’s first home series against the Phillies have been well-documented. It began in February, when the presale for individual game tickets was restricted to D.C., Maryland, and Virginia addresses only, and when COO Andy Feffer, along with other team officials, urged Nationals fans to “take back the park.” The notion has become a bit of a rallying cry for a team that could be entering a new era of competitiveness, one which may even have arrived earlier than anyone expected. Feffer and the team have offered further enticements, such as free tickets to future games with the purchase of tickets to this series. Mayor Vincent Gray gave the whole thing an official sheen by declaring this weekend “Natitude Weekend” and encouraging the locals to “show support of their hometown team.” It will likely not succeed to the extent that the organization is hoping, although they do claim some improvement in the proportion of in-area ticket sales so far.

Depressingly, and predictably, the reaction from Phillies fans and media has been equal parts bitter and condescending. By and large, the Twittersphere has been issuing a collective snort at the whole thing since it first arose. Noted perverted half-wit and habitual plagiarist Kyle Scott of the e-rag Crossing Broad has tweeted and posted endless whining on the topic, and has devoted whole posts to “The Takeover,” a 200 person bus trip (for a mere $120!) that will instantly become the most obnoxious thing happening on the planet for every second of its sweaty, Bud-Light-Lime-soaked existence.

twitter.com/#!/CrossingBroad/status/197684664532606976

What a shock.

Ed Rendell, trying to cling to relevance, also got in on the act. Various Philadelphia media members, including baseball writers and radio personalities (mostly on the Angelo Cataldi tier of the Insufferability Spectrum) have otherwise mocked or chided the Nats’ efforts. Superficially, the tone is haughty amusement, but there is a discernible undercurrent of surprise and indignation — how dare they. Universally, these responses lack any measure of self-awareness and pay no mind to present or historical context.

I’ve lived full-time in the Washington, D.C. area since 2005, and have attended a great many Nationals games. Both in the RFK days and since the new stadium was built, I’ve made a point of going to every Nationals/Phillies game that my schedule could feasibly accomodate, and many other Nationals home contests when the weather was fair and I hankered for live baseball. I had the pleasure of watching Ryan Zimmerman come into his own, Elijah Dukes doing . . . Elijah Dukes stuff, and Adam Dunn hitting the longest of long flies. I vividly remember, on a humid September night at RFK stadium in 2007, watching the Phillies beat the Nationals 7-6 on the strength of a Jimmy Rollins double, and then huddling around a friend’s blackberry as the crowd dispersed, tracking the Marlins’ 4 run comeback against the Mets in the 9th and 10th innings in Miami. The Phillies pulled within 1.5 games of the Mets that night, in a pennant race that inaugurated a new era of Phillies baseball.

After the new stadium was built, the atmosphere at Phillies/Nats games grew more adversarial, as Phillies fans realized that, in the numbers in which they traveled, and the numbers they already had in the DC area, they could create a home away from home — “CBP South,” as it came to be called by many. I can’t say that I didn’t get swept up in it, at least a little bit. It’s gratifying to see your team’s fans showing substantial support away from home, especially after many years of the Phillies being irrelevant to the NL East and to the league as a whole. But I had grown to like the Nationals as a team, along with their new, easily-accessible and cheap-to-attend stadium, and I found that, as the “CBP South” culture took hold, the atmosphere got uglier. It all came to an embarrassing head at the Nationals’ home opener in 2010, a Phillies game, where Phils fans again packed the stadium, bolstered by a few bus trips not unlike the one mentioned above. The Nationals’ Opening Day ceremony had all of the usual rituals. Except, as the Nationals’ roster was announced, and the players ran from the dugout to the first base line, Phillies fans chanted “SUCKS” after each name, and drowned out the music and announcements with booing in between.

They behaved similarly for the rest of the game. It was the most humiliated I ever remember feeling as a Phillies fan. Sitting next to me was a man in a weathered Nationals cap who had to be in his mid-70s, who regarded the whole thing with disbelief. I don’t know if he was a converted Orioles fan, a Senators fan from way back, or even an Expos fan, and it didn’t seem as if he wanted to talk about it to me, covered in Phillies gear from head to toe. I tried to make a show of how disgusted I was by the whole thing, but I don’t think I could’ve possibly done enough given what was happening. No future Phillies game at the park was quite as bad as that, but they weren’t that much better either.

This is the root of the “Our Park” movement by Nationals fans, and it’s disappointing that Phillies fans do not, or at least pretend not to, understand why it needs to happen. Fans of a team that have had as rough a go as the Nationals have since their inception need to pull as much enjoyment out of the little things as possible — individual player skills, fanfare, early-season hopes, and the simple joy of a ballpark atmosphere. To have the superior team’s fans flood the ballpark and make a big show of it — just because they can — momentarily ruins that experience. Nationals fans are no less fans of the game of baseball than Phillies fans (probably moreso, if we’re talking about the kind of people that make asses of themselves at Nationals Park), and they know — really, they know — that the Phillies have been the better team these last 7 years, that Citizens Bank is stuffed to the gills all of the time, and that Phillies fans are capable of operating a motor vehicle for two and a half hours on I-95 South. They know these things without a great red horde undertaking every effort to mock them in their own ballpark.

The natural rebuttal to this has been, roughly, “if they don’t like it, they should fill their own stadium.” And it’s true, the Nationals have struggled with attendance, finishing either 13th or 14th in the NL in each season since Nationals Park was built. But it’s easy for a Phillies fan to forget, nowadays, just how difficult it is to fill the stadium for a bad or even mediocre team. The Phillies had a similar run of attendance woes from 1997 to 2003, finishing 14th in attendance 4 times, 13th once, 12th once, and 10th once. True, these figures improved significantly when the Phillies got their new ballpark in 2004, but the team was getting better too; the Phillies averaged 77 wins per season from 1997-2003, and 86 wins per season from 2004-2006. I will happily watch a 100 loss Phillies team every day of the week, but it’s tough to blame fans for not filling the park to see some of the recent Nationals teams.

They did, of course, pack 40,315 people into the park for the June 8, 2010 debut of Stephen Strasburg, a preview of the future of their organization. I had the pleasure of attending, and the atmosphere rivaled any playoff game at Citizens’ Bank Park (particularly the most recent one I attended, game 5 of the 2011 NLDS, in which the crowd was conspicuously subdued). The crowd’s steady roar built with each strike, compounded by each time the radar gun showed triple digits, and the place exploded for each of Strasburg’s 14 strikeouts. Yes, Bryce Harper’s debut was not well-attended, but there is much less of a sense among Nationals fans and baseball fans as a whole that this was his true debut — he was placed on the roster with Ryan Zimmerman heading to the DL, and the consensus is that he’s not quite ready for the big leagues. If this 2012 Nationals team finishes on as high a level of competitiveness as they’re exhibiting now, I don’t think they’ll have any problem bringing people out in 2013.

I’m sure that this weekend, despite the Nationals’ efforts, is still going to be characterized by a dominant Phillies fan presence, and that ignoble bus trip will leave some kind of embarrassing mark on the whole thing. Nationals fandom and media may grow angrier, and that might escalate matters. But any Phillies fan who takes the smallest moment for some introspection should not be surprised or bothered by the Our Park movement. Because it is their park, and because Phillies fans remember what it’s like to see a nine guys who are probably going to lose take the field every day. The “Takeover” and all similar fan and media responses will only validate the rest of the country’s low opinion of the Philadelphia fandom. And, in case you haven’t checked the trendlines recently, the time to show grace in victory may be running out.

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.