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At Long Last, A Baseball Game

Last night I went to a baseball game in person for the first time in several years. Honestly my baseball fandom has flagged in recent years, but I followed it closely for almost 20 years so I don’t feel too badly about it.

Ticket

I’d actually been invited as part of a group to a luxury box at AT&T Park. I’d been to a Giants luxury box once before, and it’s very nice, but when I got there it wasn’t what I expected: Rather than one of the paneled boxes in the second deck, the “Corona Beach Club” appears to be where the news photographers used to set, so it’s in front of the first row along the first base line, about 3 feet below field level. The view from the box looked like this:

(click for larger image)

(click for larger image)

The folks hosting the box sprung for a fair amount of catered food, for instance this:

The food spread

It was all quite yummy. Well, the sausages were standard ballpark sausages with moist buns, so that wasn’t great, but I mostly stuck to the soft tacos.

It was a pretty exciting game. Admittedly, with only 4 games left the Giants weren’t playing for much, as all that was left to decide was whether they’d be hosting their wild card game or not, and they’d clinched their wild card spot earlier that day when the Brewers lost. Still, the Giants jumped out to a 6-0 lead, then watched it collapse in the 7th inning, backed by a grand slam, and then they retook the lead in the bottom of the 7th, helped in part by a successful suicide squeeze (I don’t think I’ve ever seen one in person before), and eventually won the game 9-8. It took three and a half hours – I think a third of it making up that seventh inning.

Looking towards home plate

The team was also celebrating the 60th anniversary of “The Catch” by Willie Mays (which actually happened on September 29, but there are no games scheduled for that day this year), and Mays (who is 83 years old) came out in a very spiffy car, and was driven around the field occasionally throwing baseballs into the crowd. I snapped a couple of good pictures of him, the second one being just as he tossed a ball into our box (no, I didn’t catch it):

Willie Mays in his car

Willie Mays tossing a baseball

Occasionally Major League Baseball is a little too wrapped up in celebrating itself, but it’s hard not to appreciate when a team does something like this for one of its greats.

The weather was great, the game was fun, I got some good pictures, and even enjoyed riding CalTrain to and from the park (and the walk home from the station at a little after midnight was kind of pleasant, too). I’m gonna have to go see another game or two next year.

Celebration of winning a playoff berth

Fantasy Baseball 2012

2011 was a pretty frustrating fantasy baseball season for me: I drafted what I thought was a terrific team, and then got slammed by injuries and slumps (such as Albert Pujols’ ineffective-then-injured first half, Rafael Furcal having nothing left, and Chad Billingsley turning into a pumpkin) and struggled to cover for the pieces, ultimately finishing 8th out of 16 teams. On the bright side, finishing 8th gave me the first overall pick for 2012, so I decided to come back for my 20th year of fantasy baseball.

My keeper roster was tough to figure out, since Albert Pujols and Cliff Lee seemed clearly better than anyone else I had to keep, but they also used 3/4 of my keeper years. I considered not keeping Pujols and drafting him with the first pick, but I had trouble figuring out how to turn James Shields (or Ryan Zimmerman) + 5 more years into something equivalent to the guy I was planning to take, Roy Halladay. So ultimately I traded Lucas Duda and Jamile Weeks for a 3rd and a 7th round pick, and kept Pujols. I tried mightily to acquire enough years to keep Shields, but couldn’t do it, alas.

I went into the draft with two solid starters – Lee and Jordan Zimmermann – and with Halladay I figured I’d start working on hitters. A good strategy, since the pitching pool felt quite deep this year. But the hitting pool seemed so shallow that this year really tested my maxim that you can always draft hitting.

Here’s the team I drafted:

Pos Player Team Round/
Pick
Age Comments
C Miguel Montero ARI 2/17 28 I took him in the 4th round last year, and he had a breakout season. I sure hope he can do it again.
1B Albert Pujols LAA Kept 32 Let’s see whether moving to the American League perks up his bat this year.
1B Ryan Howard PHI 14/209 32 Taking a gamble that he’ll play this year and hit a bit.
1B James Loney LAN 16/241 27
2B Neil Walker PIT Kept 26 Another guy I’m hoping will repeat his 2011.
3B Ian Stewart CHN 12/177 26 Whether he’s really my third baseman remains to be seen. I have other options as backups.
SS Jimmy Rollins PHI 4/64 33
OF Nick Markakis BAL 3/43 28 Another year, another weak outfield.
OF Josh Willingham MIN 7/97 33
OF Alfonso Soriano CHN 8/113 36 Drafted purely for his power.
C Tyler Flowers CHA 24/373 26 Marginal backup catcher, maybe Pierzynski will get hurt and he’ll break out.
C Gorman Erickson LAN 25/400 24 Might get called up if the Dodgers can’t stand their current options.
1B/3B Mat Gamel MIL 10/145 26 At least, I hope he plays enough – and plays well – to qualify at 1B this year.
2B/OF Howie Kendrick LAA 4/49 28
3B/OF Martin Prado ATL 7/107 28
SS Clint Barmes PIT 23/361 33 Another guy I just hope plays and hits some dingers.
SS Jonathan Villar HOU 22/348 21
SS/OF Grant Green OAK 25/393 24
OF Peter Bourjos LAA 18/273 25
OF Brett Jackson CHN Kept 23
OF Domingo Santana HOU 21/335 19
OF Michael Choice OAK 24/383 22
SP Roy Halladay PHI 1/1 34 I don’t think there was anyone else available who was clearly a better choice for the first overall pick this year.
SP Cliff Lee PHI Kept 32 I was surprised he fell to me with the 8th pick. Taking him was a no-brainer, as Halladay and Sabathia had already been picked.
SP Jordan Zimmermann WAS Kept 25
SP Matt Garza CHN 3/33 28
SP John Danks CHA 6/81 26
SP Ryan Dempster CHN 9/129 24 How did I end up drafting so many Cubs?
SP Brett Cecil TOR 19/289 25
SP Josh Tomlin CLE 20/305 27 There wasn’t much left in starting pitchers at this point.
SP Julio Teheran ATL Kept 21
SP Wily Peralta MIL 21/321 23
RP Addison Reed CHA 13/193 23
RP Grant Balfour OAK 15/225 34
RP Sergio Romo SFN 17/257 29

I’m definitely gambling on a few players coming through rather than washing out (Mat Gamel, for instance), and as often happens I hate my outfield. But it could be much worse, and I do have quality starting pitching. It’s not a world-beating team, but it has potential.

Farewell to Tim Wakefield

Tim Wakefield is my all-time favorite Red Sox, for several reasons, but here are two:

1) I picked him up for my fantasy team when he came to the Red Sox in 1995, and he promptly had the season of his life (despite fading down the stretch). We might never see a knuckleballer have a season that great ever again (considering we only see a really good knuckleballer about once per generation).

2) He helped save the staff in Game 3 of the 2004 ALCS when the Yankees were pounding all comers (including Tim) into the dirt en route to one of the most lopsided playoff victories ever. Wakefield threw over 3 innings and saved other good pitchers for Game 4 and the Sox’ historic and unique comeback.

Plus of course he’s one of the longest-tenured Sox (17 years!), pitched longer than most (he’s 45, one of the few players last season older than me), and seemed as dedicated to the team as anyone. While David Ortiz has been the face of the franchise this past decade, Wakefield has always been right there, usually an average starting pitcher, but never as flashy as some of the other players.

Wakefield retired from playing baseball today, which is the end of an era for the team as far as I’m concerned.

I saw him pitch in person a few times, but none more memorable than one game at Fenway in his magical 1995 season, against the Twins. As I recall, he somehow loaded the bases in the top of the first inning, and then got the next two hitters. Chuck Knoblauch was the Twins’ leadoff hitter (before he went to the Yankees he was a great player), and he spent much of the inning dancing around third base. From my vantage point in the bleachers it looked like Wakefield finally got frustrated with Knoblauch, looked at him, and waggled his head as if to say, “If you’re gonna go, then go.”

On the next pitch, Knoblauch broke for home plate, and he was tagged out at home. Side retired with no runs.

Kirby Puckett – still a great hitter, but in his last season, though no one (including him) knew it at the time – didn’t start, but he came in to pitch-hit with 2 outs in the ninth and the Red Sox leading. On – I think – the first pitch, Puckett hit a rocket to left field which was snagged by the shortstop to end the game.

Wakefield was a really fun player (“how the heck did he get that pitch anywhere near over the plate, never mind getting a called strike?”) and a class act. I’ll miss him a lot.

Fantasy Baseball 2011

I was able to make it up to Wondercon only for Saturday last weekend because my fantasy baseball league decided to hold our annual draft on Sunday. 5 of our local owners gathered in a conference room at Apple and spent close to 10 hours drafting our teams. I probably put less effort into this draft than any one I’d ever done before.

My strategy, such as it was, mainly involved drafting younger. Last year’s team was awful, though not so much due to age as due to a lot of marginal players with low upside. I think I did well drafting for youth and guys with upside (but I did draft a few old players; I think some old guys are worth picking in the right spots). Secondarily I wanted to avoid drafting hitters in pitchers’ parks and pitchers in hitters’ parks. I didn’t do a great job at that, although I think any choices were fairly defensible.

Here’s the team I ended up with:

Pos Player Team Round/
Pick
Age Comments
C Miguel Montero ARI 4/56 28 I’ve been a big fan of Montero for years now, and I’m happy to have him now that he’s got the starting job in Arizona.
1B Albert Pujols SLN Kept 31
2B Neil Walker PIT 5/65 25 I’m not so comfortable relying on a young second baseman for the second year in a row (last year’s guy, Scott Sizemore, was a bust). But many people seem to think he’ll be fine, and a few think he’ll be very good. He’s off to a hot start.
3B Ryan Zimmerman WAS Kept 26
SS Rafael Furcal LAN 7/112 33 Old hitter in a pitchers’ park. Not really what I wanted, but shortstops has really dried up by now.
OF Nick Swisher NYA 3/40 30
OF Carlos Quentin CHA 6/88 28 Pretty happy with this pick. He has breakout potential, but of course he also has bust potential.
OF Adam Jones BAL 7/104 25 This guy was a top prospect just a few years ago. And he’s only 25! He still has a chance to be a star, I think.
C Miguel Olivo SEA 12/184 32 The perfect backup catcher: Gets a lot of playing time and has impressive power. But, an old guy in a pitchers’ park.
C Ryan Lavarnway BOS 11/342 23 Top catching prospect in the Red Sox’ system – and they need a catcher.
1B Daric Barton OAK 10/152 25 Another “was a top prospect just a few years ago”, and maybe this year he’ll add some power. Another hitter in a pitchers’ park.
3B/SS Jhonny Peralta DET 8/120 29 The perfect infield backup: Qualifies at two positions, doesn’t kill you on average, and has power.
SS Zach Cozart CIN 23/368 25 Cozart has a weird performance history, alternating average with power. If either one shows up, he could make the Majors this year and be a quality shortstop.
OF Pat Burrell SFN 14/216 34 Old guy in a pitchers’ park. But also a guy guaranteed playing time and who has power. In the 14th round, this is the kind of guy you want.
OF Kosuke Fukudome CHN 18/280 34 Probably the first guy I’ll cut when someone better comes along. But he has some hitting skills which ain’t bad for a 5th outfielder.
OF Domonic Brown PHI Kept 25 Top hitting prospect starting the season on the DL due to a broken bone in his hand. I’m not sure I entirely believe in his ability, but certainly the potential for stardom is there; it seems like he has to put a lot of things together to achieve it, though.
OF Brett Jackson CHN 19/296 22
OF Eric Thames TOR 21/328 24
OF Matt Dominguez FLO 24/380 21 20-year-olds who hit well at AA are worth taking a flyer on. Unfortunately he got hurt before the season.
SP Cliff Lee PHI 1/8 32 I was surprised he fell to me with the 8th pick. Taking him was a no-brainer, as Halladay and Sabathia had already been picked.
SP James Shields TBA Kept 28 I agonized over keeping Shields or Zack Greinke. Shields has great peripherals but a serious problem with home runs. Greinke is a little more expensive, has moved to the NL, but is on a team (Milwaukee) with brutal defense, and will miss the first 4-6 weeks of the season with a broken rib. And who knows how long it will take him to be back to his normal self after that. Ultimately, Shields’ peripherals made me decide to go with him.
SP Chad Billingsley LAN 2/24 26
SP Jordan Zimmermann WAS Kept 25
SP Derek Lowe ATL 5/72 38 Probably an overdraft. And he’s the oldest guy on my team. But, he’s been reliable for a long time and doesn’t seem to be slowing down.
SP Ricky Nolasco FLO 6/83 28 Nolasco is a lot like Shields, and plays for the other Florida team. Again, I was sold on his peripherals.
SP Jorge de la Rosa COL 11/168 30 Pitcher in a hitters’ park!
SP A.J. Burnett NYA 11/76 34 If he stays healthy and is anywhere near his usual numbers, then this could be a steal.
SP Homer Bailey CIN 17/264 25 Frustrating prospect who’s struggled for a few years and is starting the season on the DL. But he’s only 25! Seemed worth taking a flyer.
SP Julio Teheran ATL Kept 20 Best pitching prospect in baseball.
SP Jacob Turner DET Kept 20 Second-best pitching prospect in baseball? That may be overstating things, but the difference between him and whoever’s above him is not huge.
SP Kyle Gibson MIN 15/232 23
RP Luke Gregerson SDN 9/136 27
RP Mike Adams SDN 16/248 32
RP Huston Street COL 13/200 27

Overall I think I executed fairly well. I’d really like to have a better shortstop, and to have found someone less risky than Lowe and de la Rosa to rely on. The outfield has a lot of potential but might not realize it. Otherwise I don’t have many complaints.

Last year’s team was a disaster – I finished next-to-last in the league – and I think this is clearly a better team. But our league is intensely competitive, so finishing in the money (among the top 7 of 16 teams) is not guaranteed.

I’ve been getting burned out on fantasy baseball, so this might be my last season in the league. Then again, I’m more excited about this team than I have been for a couple of years, so maybe I’ll be back. Especially if my prospects start developing.

Baseball and Me 2010

2010 marked the first year since I moved to California in 1999 that I didn’t attend a single baseball game – and it’s probably been longer than that, since I was going to Brewers games regularly in Wisconsin, so my run may have stretched back to 1993.

I just wasn’t in a baseball frame of mind this year. I couldn’t work up any enthusiasm for fantasy baseball (and had a terrible draft, eventually finishing 15th out of 16 teams, the first time I’d missed the money since before the Red Sox broke the Curse). While I watched games on television and listened on the radio, I just wasn’t as interested as in past years. It didn’t help that the Red Sox were plagued by an amazing array of injuries and were basically out of it in August. (And despite that they still had the second-best offense in the AL, and the fifth-best record, and were probably even better than their record since they play in the toughest division in baseball. They were only out of it so early because the Yankees and Rays were both excellent themselves this year.)

And it’s not like it wasn’t an interesting baseball year, especially around here where the San Francisco Giants won their first championship since 1954, when they were still in New York. The Giants were a strange champion, with no true star on offense (though Buster Posey may develop into one over the next few years, and he had a fine rookie season), so they did it mostly with pitching, led by Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain, two bona-fide aces (Lincecum reaches the Majors, wins 2 Cy Young awards, and then the World Series; what a life this kid has had and he’s still got most of his career ahead of him). But they struggled down to the last day of the season to win their division (which helps explain why Joe Posnanski ranked them as one of the weakest champions since World War II), and then won a string of 1-run games in the playoffs before finally dominating the Rangers in the World Series. But they always seemed to have just enough to win through when it really counted, and the team was generally a likable group of players, which made for fun and often exciting baseball.

As a capstone to my own baseball season, my friend Syd bought the two of us tickets to Game 6 of the series – and the Giants won in 5. Disappointing, especially since we would have had good seats and it would have been awesome to be at a World Series clinching game (or even any game). And it was weird to be rooting halfheartedly (and entirely self-interestedly) for the Rangers in Game 5, even though I knew I was really rooting for the Giants. (Leaving work that day, I said to a Giants-fan cow-orker of mine, “Go Rangers!” He snorted and responded, “Go home!”)

Then this week I learned that ESPN is dropping Jon Miller and Joe Morgan as the hosts of Sunday Night Baseball. While Morgan doesn’t quite drive me as crazy as he does some fans, I love Miller’s broadcasting, and I’m quite sad to see him go. Fortunately I’ll still be able to hear him broadcasting Giants games on TV and radio. Still, it’s the end of an era. (I’d suspected Morgan was planning to retire when they brought in Orel Hershiser this year as a second analyst; Hershiser has potential in the role, so I’m curious whether he’ll be brought back.)

Anyway, other than being happy for Giants fans, it’s been a glum baseball season for me. I’m not sure why my enthusiasm chose this year to crater, although part of it is having fewer friends to enjoy the game with. While I still talk baseball with local friends Subrata and Chris, my two most-enthusiastic baseball friends over the last decade have been Syd (who moved to Texas a few years ago) and Ceej (who seems to have dropped off the grid in recent years). And then other hobbies (e.g., Magic) have risen to take up a lot of time I might once have spent on baseball.

So I’ve gone from attending 15 baseball games a year to zero, and whether my enthusiasm will bounce back, I don’t know.

Fantasy Baseball 2010

Yesterday we performed our annual ritual of picking real baseball players to join fake teams. Last year was a disappointing year for me as I had a really good team, traded my 3rd-round pick in 2010 for Jason Bay, and then my whole team decided to take June and half of July off. I struggled my way back and finished in 4th place, which ain’t bad (the top 7 spots out of 16 teams pay), but I failed yet again to beat my 1999 performance, when I finished 3rd. Frustrating.

I headed into the draft with the best hitter in baseball, one of the 5 best pitchers, a top third baseman, and another good pitcher. But also down one pick, and with no true prospects in development. So here’s how the draft shook out for me:

`

Pos Player Team Round/
Pick
Age Comments
C Kurt Suzuki OAK 6/93 26 Victor Martinez was the first pick in the league. Suzuki has a little upside and is sure to play every day.
1B Albert Pujols SLN Kept 30
2B Scott Sizemore DET 7/109 25 A bit of a risky pick, as it’s by no means clear the Tigers will stick with him, even though he should be a decent hitter. And unfortunately I have no backup plan at second base.
3B Ryan Zimmerman WAS Kept 25
SS Yunel Escobar ATL 1/13 27
OF Josh Willingham WAS 5/77 31
OF Mike Cameron BOS 8/125 37
OF Conor Jackson ARI 10/157 27
OF Juan Rivera LAA 13/205 31
C Nick Hundley SDN 19/301 26
C Jonathan LuCroy MIL 20/317 24 LuCroy and Exposito are both catching prospects. LuCroy is probably close, Exposito is at least a year away – assuming he keeps hitting.
C Luis Exposito BOS 26/405 23
3B Casey Blake LAN 16/253 36
SS Cliff Pennington OAK 23/363 25
2B/SS/3B Craig Counsell MIL 25/397 39 My one multiposition backup – such as he is, at age 39.
OF Luke Scott BAL 12/189 21
OF Rick Ankiel KCA 28/418 20
OF Domonic Brown PHI 15/237 22 A perhaps-slightly-overrated prospect for the Phillies.
SP Zack Greinke KCA Kept 26
SP James Shields TBA Kept 27
SP John Lackey BOS 2/29 31
SP Scott Baker MIN 4/61 28
SP Justin Masterson CLE Kept 25
SP Charlie Morton PIT 14/221 26
SP Ross Ohlendorf PIT 18/281 27
SP Tom Gorzelanny CHN 22/349 27
SP Daniel McCutchen PIT 24/376 27 Having 3/5ths of the Pirates rotation could be my key to victory!
RP Jose Valverde DET 11/173 30
RP Chris Perez CLE 17/267 24
RP Sergio Romo SFN 21/333 27
RP Hideki Okajima BOS 27/412 34
SP Jacob Turner DET 9/141 19 This year’s “out on a limb” prospect pick, he was the Tigers’ first-round pick in 2009 and has yet to pitch in the minors, but is very highly regarded.
SP Julio Teheran ATL 29/422 19 Another very young, highly-regarded pitcher, but he hasn’t yet shown his potential yet.
SP Cory Luebke SDN 30/425 25 And another prospect, but this one may well be up this year.

I hoped to go back to taking a big bopper with my first-round pick, but there weren’t many left when my 13th-overall pick came around, thanks to our deep keeper rules, so instead I took Yunel Escobar, who is a strong-hitting shortstop who has additional upside. I used my 4th round pick to take Josh Willingham, who can rake when he’s healthy. And I beefed up my rotation with John Lackey and Scott Baker, which should make it quite good.

The first ten rounds of my draft went pretty well, I thought. As I said, my main regret was not having a better plan in case Scott Sizemore doesn’t work out, and not having a quality multiposition backup. Otherwise I have a pretty balanced team, albeit with my usual less-than-dominating bullpen. And I’ve restocked with some high-upside prospects.

Our league continues to get more competitive, as once again I was scrounging for guys to pick with my last few picks. But my list of prospects was very deep this year.

And as always I have no idea whether I’ll truly compete. I have some injury risks here and there (Lackey, Willingham, a couple of old guys), but I’m by no means relying on everyone being completely healthy. I’m just hoping I can come out of the gate strong, since struggling to get back in the hunt after a slow start always sucks.

Regarding the Yankees’ Payroll

A couple of sharply contrasting articles about the New York Yankees and their payroll coming in the wake of their World Series victory: Sportswriter Joe Posnanski believes it’s an unfair advantage, somewhat obscured by baseball’s 3-tier playoff structure (some follow-up comments here), while Apple blogger Jon Gruber thinks the Yankees are just trying to win, which is more than can be said for some teams. My own opinion is closer to Posnanski’s than Gruber’s, although Gruber has a few good points.

(It’s very hard for baseball fans to objectively discuss this issue. Anti-Yankee bias is extremely strong throughout baseball – as a Red Sox fan, I admit to chortling gleefully whenever their season comes to a premature end. I suspect Posnanski has some of this bias, and that Gruber is colored by bias as a Yankee fan; indeed, his gloating at their championship and his past comments on sports makes me think he can’t really assess his team rationally. Then again, it’s sports; rationality isn’t required.)

I think the Yankees’ market and payroll do represent an unfair advantage, but they don’t give the Yankees a “pat hand” as Posnanski puts it. You also have to try to win, as Gruber says (and I do think there are teams that don’t try seriously to win), and you have to be skilled in your trying. The Yankees’ days in the wilderness in the 1980s were because they had fallen behind other teams in collecting talent and assembling their roster. Their approach changed in the early 1990s, which laid the foundation for their run of success since then. But once you have all three elements – a huge payroll, a desire to win, and the skills to assemble winning talent – you’re going to be a winning team most years.

There are teams which have two components, but who lack the large payroll, and they are simply and clearly at a significant disadvantage compared to the Yankees (and to a lesser extent the Red Sox). The Athletics are a popular example. The Angels are a well-run team which have been regularly run over by the Yankees and Red Sox since they won their 2002 championship. And the Rays are one of the best-run teams in baseball (a few years ago if I’d said that you would have asked me what I’ve been smoking), but not only are they at a payroll disadvantage, but they’re in the same division as the two richest teams in baseball and so were on the outside looking in coming the 2009 playoffs. (The Blue Jays are in some ways the Rays writ small.)

To look at it another way, you could be the best-run team in baseball, but given their financial resources, if the Yankees and Red Sox are among the top five best-run teams, then their payrolls give them a huge ability to cover for their mistakes and outbid other teams for the top free agent talent, that they’ve just got a huge built-in advantage over you.

Revenue and payroll are not the whole story, but they’re a significant factor.

There have been some interesting articles about market size written over the years. The seminal work, by Mike Jones, seems to no longer be available. Nate Silver wrote some articles in 2007 keying off of that work, but you have to be a Baseball Prospectus subscriber to read them. (If you are, you can find them here: One, two, three, four.) One point I recall from Jones’ original article was that the New York City area is a large enough market to support four teams, maybe as many as five or six, teams, each with a revenue stream competitive with other Major League teams. NYC is a really big market, folks.

And that’s kind of Posnanski’s point: You can’t really underestimate how big the New York market is, and how much that plays into the success of the Yankees. The Yankees have been a well-run franchise for nearly 20 years, and that counts for a lot, but their market counts for an awful lot as well.

I agree with Gruber that the Steinbrenners’ drive for success and excellence is admirable (is it, though, any more admirable than Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis’ stated desire to win?). Also admirable is the fact that they put their revenue back into the team, creating a feedback cycle of economic and on-the-field success. Not every team does this. (Gruber seems to imply by omission that the Yankees are special in this way, which I think understates what many other teams have done with much less.) And I’m certainly in favor of putting the earnings of baseball back into the game, and ultimately funneling much of it to the players who are, after all, where the true value in the game is created.

It’s not that I blame the Steinbrenners or the Yankees for this state of affairs. I do believe there are some structural problems in the business of baseball, for which the Yankees are somewhat culpable as co-owners of Major League Baseball (how much they specifically are culpable I can’t tell). But having purchased the most lucrative property in baseball and owned it for nearly 40 years now, I can’t fault them for exploiting what they’ve got for the greatest gain and success possible.

But I don’t think we can or should paper over the fact that the Yankees do have a large built-in advantage over every other team in baseball. (And I readily admit that the Red Sox have the second-largest built-in advantage, although the margin between #2 and #3 is much smaller than that between #1 and #2.) I think this is unfair, and it does make the Yankees’ successes less impressive by comparison with those of other teams. (I wonder who the team of the decade would be if you somehow adjusted for market and/or revenue stream? The Cardinals?)

I don’t know of a solution to this problem. Revenue sharing will never be big enough to have an impact. MLB isn’t going to put 2-3 more teams in New York City. (Look at how difficult it’s been just for the Athletics to move to a county which doesn’t even have another Major League team, since the Giants ostensibly claim the San Jose area as their market.) A salary cap would punish the players unfairly. What else is there?

In any event, complaining about the Yankees’ built-in competitive advantage will never go away, and that’s because it really exists.

Just Sick

I’m home sick today – with a cold, not the flu, thank goodness. (At least, it feels like just a cold!) Slept in, read comic books, noodled about on the Internet, blew my nose a zillion times (but that’s better than the sore throat I had last night). Grabbed In-n-Out Burger for dinner while Debbi went shopping with her friend Lisa.

Some other year this would have been a great day to curl up in the evening and watch the World Series. But I just can’t watch playoff games with the Hated Yankees (not even Red Sox/Yankees series), so no World Series for me. Someday maybe MLB will put a couple more teams in New York City and level the playing field a bit. But I won’t hold my breath.

I read a tweet tonight that said “Yankees:Apple::Red Sox:???”. Given the Yankees’ cash flow, free agent signings and aging roster that looks like it had a very healthy dose of luck this year, it’s clearly the Red Sox who more closely resemble Apple, with their more blended line-up, and cutting-edge analytic approach to team management. Just the notion of comparing the Yankees to Apple makes my head hurt. Probably another reason why using sports as a metaphor for real life is a bad idea.

(Besides, if you’re honest about it, it’s the Devil Rays who look the most like Apple.)

Anyway, yeah yeah yeah, as with all things sports, wins by New York teams make the world a little blacker. But I guess it wouldn’t be dramatic without some black hats to root against.

Hopefully things will look brighter tomorrow assuming I can shake the rest of this cold!

On Perfect Games

Yesterday, Chicago White Sox pitcher Mark Buehrle threw the 18th perfect game in Major League history, winning 5-0 against the Tampa Bay Rays. Thus sending baseball geeks everywhere scurrying to learn about the history of perfect games, and I’m no different.

One interesting thing is how unevenly distributed the perfect games are through baseball’s history. Even if we exclude the 2 19th-century perfectos (since I’ve never been very confident that baseball’s record-keeping from that century was all that great), there have been 16 in the so-called modern era, of which:

  • 2 were thrown in the deadball era (1904 and 1908)
  • 1 was thrown in 1922
  • Then you have to go all the way to 1956 for the next one (Don Larsen’s famous World Series game)
  • There were 3 in the 1960s
  • And the other 9 have been thrown since 1980, all during an era of relatively high offense, free agency, and the most intense competition in the history of the game

Is it a fluke that over half of the modern-era perfect games have been thrown in a little over a quarter of the modern era? Or is it indicative of something about today’s pitchers?

(And consider that just two weeks ago, San Francisco Giants pitcher Jonathan Sanchez threw a no-hitter which would have been a perfect game if not for an error by one of the fielders. Now how much would you pay?)

The other remarkable thing is that Buehrle threw his perfect game against a good offense, the Rays, who through yesterday’s games are third in the American League in runs scored, and third in on-base percentage. Only two Rays hitters who played yesterday have an OBP which is significantly below league average (Gabe Kapler’s is 333; the AL average is 334), so it’s not like the Rays were sitting their good players. Buehrle beat a squad of the better hitters in baseball.

Consider the opposing teams in the other perfect games since 1980:

  • Randy Johnson, 2004, vs. Atlanta Braves: 6th of 16 teams in runs, 5th in OBP
  • David Cone, 1999, vs. Montreal Expos: 14th of 16 teams in runs, last in OBP
  • David Wells, 1998, vs. Minnesota Twins: 11th of 14 teams in runs, 11th in OBP
  • Kenny Rogers, 1994, vs. California Angels: last of 14 teams in runs, 12th in OBP
  • Dennis Martinez, 1991, vs. Los Angeles Dodgers: 5th of 12 teams in runs, 3rd in OBP
  • Tom Browning, 1988, vs. Los Angeles Dodgers: 7th of 12 teams in runs, 11th in OBP (the Dodgers won the World Series two months later)
  • Mike Witt, 1984, vs. Texas Rangers: 13th of 14 teams in runs, last in OBP
  • Len Barker, 1981, vs. Toronto Blue Jays: last of 14 teams in runs, last in OBP

Historically notable pitching performances often come against bad offenses, and this list seems to validate that. On the other hand, it takes two to tango, and a great pitching performance backed up by outstanding defense can overcome even good hitting. (Of course, any perfect game is a remarkable achievement, no matter who it was pitched against; every hitter who makes it to the Majors is by definition a tough out.)

It’s also interesting to see that almost every pitcher who’s thrown a perfect game should be familiar to a serious baseball fan. (Lee Richmond, Charlie Robertson and Len Barker are the only three I’m not really familiar with.)

It seems like every couple of years we have a baseball player performing another nigh-unthinkable feat, be it a perfect game, an unassisted triple play, or what-have-you. Truly this is the golden age of professional baseball.

What’s Wrong With The A’s?

I can’t really improve on the title of Rob Neyer’s article on the Oakland Athletics’ downward spiral. Neyer rebuts Columnist Monte Poole’s contention that Oakland GM Billy Beane’s decision to let shortstop Miguel Tejada walk after 2003 and sign third baseman Eric Chavez to a 6-year deal after 2004 is a big part of the reason.

Neyer fails to mention a point which bolsters his case: In 2003, the A’s had Jermaine Dye signed to a big deal which didn’t expire until after 2004. Tejada was a free agent after 2003, but the A’s cash flow – never noted for its voluminous flow – didn’t have space to sign a big free agent until after 2004, when Dye’s deal was up. Chavez’ contract status dovetailed nicely with Dye’s departure, but Tejada’s did not.

Nonetheless, I myself can’t shake the feeling that there’s something awry with Billy Beane’s strategy of running the A’s. The great A’s teams of the turn of the millennium were primarily driven by some great players drafted by the previous administration (Giambi, Tejada, Chavez, Hudson, Mulder). Beane did a fine job filling in the gaps around those players, but as they departed, Beane has largely replaced them with more good gap-fillers, rather than franchise players. While he’s had some bad luck in this regard, the A’s draft record under Beane does not look particularly strong.

Beane’s strategy in a broad sense has been described as looking to exploit inefficiencies in the “market” for baseball players. To be fair to Beane, the market has gotten a lot more efficient over the last decade (a point I believe he’s made himself) as the rest of the league as adopted and adapted his strengths. However, I think the inefficiencies he’s tried to exploit have gone from major facets (on-base percentage), to secondary skills (team defense), to relatively minor factors (signing Jason Giambi cheaply in the hopes that he’s not quite done). In the meantime, the A’s lineup features a number of fairly pedestrian hitters who are markedly devoid of power – a skill which is arguably overvalued, but which is still quite important. Guys like Jack Cust and Kurt Suzuki are nice complementary players, but they’re not guys to center your team around.

While the A’s have had plenty of bad fortune, I think Neyer goes a little wrong in pointing out that the Red Sox and Dodgers have made plenty of mistakes and they’re doing okay. One thing that a high payroll buys a team is more flexibility to cover for their mistakes (not infinite flexibility, but more). The Red Sox and Dodgers have that, the A’s have less such flexibility than almost any team in the Majors.

“What about the Rays? They traded Edwin Jackson for Matt Joyce!” says Neyer. Yeah, but the Rays look a lot like the team that Beane was piloting back in 1999-2000. Can they keep it up without one of the larger payrolls in baseball? It’s too soon to tell.

As for the A’s, given their financial situation it’s hard to say what they should be doing differently other than having a little good luck for a change. But somehow they’re on a downhill slide, while the Minnesota Twins – who have been a comparable team in many ways throughout the decade – continue to remain contenders, in a genrally stronger division. So the task shouldn’t be insurmountable.

Maybe it is just a matter of luck.