Nothing To Remember In November

25 11 2008

Every now and then, someone else writes a piece here at With Malice… – and it’s not always basketball here (just most of the time).  Today it’s a baseball piece.  Bryan from over at All American Home Run Derby

November truly is the slowest month in baseball.
Sure, some people want a “break”. Others are bored because there is no free agency, games, or trades to talk about.
By November, the World Series is completely old news. Due to the abrupt way the season ended in a three-inning continuation game that upset a good portion of the country in this years small-market World Series, even fewer people are interested currently. In fact, only nine million people watched game three on TV, one of the all-time lows.
In November, there are no winter GM meetings that conclude with an exciting blockbuster trade that we could see in December. Thus, November is almost a “pubescent-ly” awkward month for the sport of baseball. This is why I spend most of my November’s watching football, eating lots turkey, celebrating no-shave November by not shaving, awaiting the joys, breaks and holidays December has to offer, and every four years watching a lot of CNN (speaking of which, did anyone see those holograms?? PS We have a new president).

One exception to the “not much going on November” rule is the announcement of MVP (this year Albert Pujols and Dustin Pedroia) and Cy Young (Tim Linecum and Cliff Lee) Awards. However, there were no real surprises to get people talking; no extraordinarily close races. To add to that, this was a new generation of winners that we haven’t seen a major award from before (with the exception of Pujols), and the average older baseball fan is much too lazy to pay attention to the younger names. Even more, three of the four winners were from small market teams that don’t have a huge fan base. And oh the awfulness, for the AL MVP did not go to a long ball hitter. So the one thing that can happen in November kind of came and went without much of a bam.

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How the A.D.D. generation led to the best trade deadline ever

5 08 2008

Anyone who was following the blogosphere at around 4:30 Thursday afternoon was overwhelmed with information, snap judgments, and arguments over winners and losers. Andrew Johnson at FanHouse put it best:

Take a deep breath, baseball fans. The dust has settled after another trading deadline, and what a deadline it was. Three future Hall of Famers were moved. So was a reigning Cy Young winner and two former All-Stars. And we haven’t talked about Rich Harden yet. Undoubtedly, 2008 was the most entertaining trading season in recent memory for baseball fans.

Baseball trade deadlines are notorious buzzkills. While hockey usually sees dozens of moves at this time of year, and basketball is not immune to some major names switching hand both at the deadline and in the offseason. But baseball is always more conservative. Just two years ago the Nationals couldn’t even trade Alfonso Soriano while he was having his career year in a pitcher’s park. So why did this year nearly give Peter Gammons another aneurysm?

As weird as it may sound, the same forces may be in play that explained why this past year was the the worst year for quarterbacks in recent memory in the NFL. When a sport gets parity, as baseball has of late, the pressure is on to compete as soon as possible. Combine that with a cultural that has undeniably developed a shorter attention span, and you’ve got players being traded from losing teams even when they have multiple years left on their contract.

To understand how topsy-turvey this year’s trade deadline was, consider this: the Pirates may have had the best deadline of anyone. They certainly acquired the greatest quantity of talent, and with top prospects like Jose Tabata and Andy LaRoche, they may have gotten quality as well. Or consider how the Red Sox, in making without a doubt the biggest headlines by trading the second greatest right-handed hitter of a generation, may have just broken even at the deadline. It seems that losing is not an option for anyone anymore, even for the Pirates, who haven’t had a winning season since Barry Bonds had a mustache.

It used to be that when a quarterback was drafted, he had a good 3-4 years to prove himself. The team was built around him and pieces were brought in to make the quarterback better. But considering that Alex Smith has had four offensive coordinators in four years, or that the Texans refused to improve their offensive line after drafting David Carr, and suddenly the quarterbacks to blame, and they’re out of a job. Could similar forces be behind why just about every quality player on a losing team became available, from Matt Holliday to Joe Blanton? Is there any way Mark Teixeira has helped anyone by being on 3 teams in 1 year?

This argument is a dangerous one to make on a blog. It sounds like its dangerously close to Ted Stevens or—dare I say it—Buzz Bissinger territory. But it’s possible to make an argument that we’re more distractable and less patient without calling it the downfall of Western Civilization. Yes, we’re less likely to focus on a single subject, and that has effects on how we watch sports. That can just be a description—no judgment call judgment call necessary.

In this case, it has actually led to an awesome story. For the first time in years, the MLB trade deadline transcended the sports world, as the slew of moves and the trade of Manny Ramirez made international headlines in addition to just the sports section. Baseball has gotten as crazed and fast-moving as everything else in the media world. Don’t think of it as something special.

Why is the MLB encouraging ballot box-stuffing?

14 07 2008

Don’t blame Yankees and Red Sox fans for those two teams’ ridiculous over-representation in the All-Star game. I’ll be the first to admit there’s no way in hell Derek Jeter should be an All-Star, just as there’s no way in hell Dustin Pedroia should be a starter or Jason Varitek should be even within 200 miles of the game.
This is a problem that lies squarely with Bud Selig and the MLB brass itself. If you’ve signed up for updates from your favorite team’s website, sites that are run by the MLB, over the past 2 months you’ve been bombarded with emails saying “Vote for your favorite Yankees/Phillies/Padres/whoever.” Since there are more Yankees/Red Sox fans than everyone else, of course there’s going to be a selection bias.
The most egregious thing here, however, is that the MLB is actively encouraging these biases to continue.

Stuffing the ballot box has been a complaint for nearly as long as there’s been an All-Star game.
In 1957, after 7 Reds made the All-Star team when the Cincinatti Enquirer published pre-marked ballots, Ford Frick stripped the fans of their voting rights. Players, coaches, and executives determined the All-Stars until 1969, when fans’ frustration with the move caused Bowie Kuhn to reinstate the fan vote. That was before free agency, when players had hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars riding on an All-Star game appearance.
This year, Jeter and Varitek have effectively stolen millions of dollars from other players, whether they wanted to or not.

But those are just individual complaints. The larger effect on the game has been even more damaging. It’s one thing to not have the best players in a meaningless game; it’s another thing entirely to have it affect freaking home-field advantage of World Series.
I maxed out my 25 All-Star ballots (more on that later), and not one of them had Derek Jeter on the ballot. I was doing this as a responsible Yankees fan. Should the Yankees turn their season around and make the World Series, I would not want home field advantage determined by a shot up the middle that would force the starting shortstop to move left. If that happens, the Cubs are winning the World Series this year.

The biggest knock on Bud Selig’s tenure as commissioner has been his tendency to drastically overreact to major complaints.
In some cases, his overreaction is understandable and helpful, in other cases, it just makes things worse. I’d argue that the All-Star game is his worst folly in this regard, and also his most ineffective. After the infamous All-Star game tie in 2002, even more embarrassing to Bud in that it happened in his native Milwaukee, the “this time it counts” mantra started. More than anything else, it was a TV ratings ploy, worrying fans would turn away from the game.
What Bud didn’t understand was that the All-Star game came at the most parched time for American sports of the calendar year. Unless he was worried about losing fans to MLS or WNBA games, he has a virtual monopoly on the sports scene for both the All-Star game and the Home Run Derby. Despite this, ratings have still consistently fallen every year except for 2006 since 2001, before the tie, and after the game mattered.

Ratings have gone down across the boardm for every network broadcoast, but it still shows that the MLB’s decision to make the game matter has been insignifcant in terms of the bottom line. From a baseball standpoint, however, the change has been enormous, as well as a disaster.
But as annoyed as certain players must be to see their potential income reduced for fans’ whim, imagine what they must think when the MLB actively encourages it. MLB’s hypocrisy here is startling. They want the game to matter, but their promotional material still advocates stuffing the ballot box. They’ve mandated fans giving their name to counter ballot-box stuffing, but they allow fans to vote up to 25 times, encouraging the more dedicated and therefore biased fans. They want to game to have significance for October, but they require players to be represented from teams whose seasons are already over.
Where’s the logic in this?

There are two ways to solve the problem: either get rid of the fan vote and the one player per team minimum, which will anger most fans in June, or get rid of the home-field advantage policy, which will anger no one except fo one team’s dumbass fans looking for an undeserved advantage in the World Series every other year. In only one year since the policy was put in place (2004) has the team with home field advantage not had the better regular season record anyway. The game has only “counted” once, in a year the National League team was swept. It’s time to leave it that way.

Two Nights in Section 39: The Good, The Bad, and The Fascist

4 07 2008

On Monday and Tuesday, I sat in Section 39 of the right field bleachers for the first two games of the Yankees-Rangers series. For the past 6 years or so, my attendance of Yankees games has almost exclusively been in the bleachers. My reasons for this has varied over time. When I was in high school, it was the sheer love of zaniness at the ridiculous and sophomoric chants of the Bleacher Creatures (most involving calling someone gay). Early in my years in college, it was sheer economics. After A-Rod signed with the Yankees, the bleachers were the only place I could afford on a college student’s summer budget. For the last few years, however, I have had other reasons: It’s the only place I can fully take in the opinion of the vicious, October-minded New York sports fan where I’m far too physically intimidated to want to punch that person.

This is the kind of fan who prefers Paul O’Neill and Bernie Williams to Alex Rodriguez and a good year version of Jason Giambi. The kind who opposes the new Yankee Stadium because they still believe the current Yankee stadium is the best place, and possibly cleanest place to watch the game (I mean, it is cleaner than Shea). Two summers ago, I was in the bleachers at the lowpoint of A-Rod’s status with Yankees fans, when he was in his worst slump as a Yankee and the bleachers were giving it to him in full force. After striking out a few times and failing to get a hit in a loss, the image that stuck in my mind was of a single fan walking to the 4 train after the game, not saying a word, but with one hand holding up a sign saying “Trade A-Rod.”

You’d think that after carrying the team last season the fans opinions of A-Rod would change, but they haven’t. There were the usual complaints in 2008, not hitting with runners in scoring position, piling on his stats in non-pressure situations, and how nothing matters until October. But there were some new ones this time around. Surprisingly, the major talk was not about the Madonna rumors (though there were some insults directed towards Cynthia), but his decision not to appear in the home run derby. Many bleacher creatures saw this as a disrespect to Yankee Stadium, and by extension, the Yankees, and all the history that goes with it. A symbolic but completely meaningless event, one that may have negative implications on games that actually mean something, is where the Bleacher Creatures direct their fury if they can’t find a reason to knock what looks to be another 40 home run season.

What’s so frustrating is the way the A-Rod ridiculousness mixes with some actually keen baseball insights. Discussion of Posada’s ability to block the plate, how nervous they get thinking about how it will look when Mariano Rivera begins to decline, and Torre’s tendency to burn bullpen arms were all suprisingly honest and insightful. Fans were divided about Brett Gardner’s first impression, as well as whether Melky Cabrera should still be in the everday lineup. It seems that once one of the two qualifications for New York sports fandom are met— championship with the team or homegrown product—fans are allowed to talk reasonably about a player. If you’re a highly touted trade acquisition or free agent signing, especially one who makes a significant amount of money, irrationality trumps all.

It was a bad two games to attend, however, with the Yankees failing to make clutch hits off the worst pitching staff in baseball. Overall, though, it’s still an excellent place to enjoy the game. As someone with an unhealthy love of particularly cruel humor, I appreciated jokes about Josh Hamilton snorting the foul line. The right field bleachers also shut down the Wave on two consecutive nights, with the second night’s Wave being the most egregious: coming in a tie ball game with a runner on in the 7th inning.

The main moment that always makes me nervous, however, is the seventh inning stretch. Yankee Stadium is the only place where “God Bless America” is still played, and it’s here that the dark side of the Yankees fanbase comes out. Brandishing American flags is one thing, as the mostly ethnic white or Hispanic bleacher creatures usually have a friend or family member in the military service. It’s another thing when fans who so much as utter a word during the song, or god forbid, don’t sing along, are branded terrorists, communists, or unpatriotic, in a way that would even make a first term Bush Republican blush.

This is not a place to make an argument for freedom of speech or expression. I don’t even want to delve deeper into the politics of the bleacher creatures, a group that prides itself on trading ethnic slurs with each other. I don’t usually like to think about the fascist complex inherent in sports fanhood. In this ceremony, however, it’s in full force like few other phenomenon in the particularly blue sections of America. It certainly didn’t help that one nearby fan who didn’t take his hat off was wearing a Mets hat. The first game around, I went to the bathroom for the seventh inning stretch, only to find it was locked during “God Bless America.” I’m sure the Steinbrenners, a family that once made illegal contributions to the Nixon campaign, is happy to know that its fans are honoring their country by crapping their pants.

I wouldn’t be true to myself if I rooted for a team other than the Yankees, despite the problems with the team, the fans, and the culture. Whenever I doubt myself, I always think of a moment a few years ago when I sat next to a man from Dallas at the U.S. Open. We started talking about A-Rod and Alfonso Soriano, and I suggested he should see a Yankees game. He hadn’t thought about it, and starting to consider it more, wanting to see what a “real team” looked like. By “real team,” he meant one with proven track record, one that actually focused on success over profit. What I will say, however, if that if the new Yankee Stadium cleans up the experience of going to a Yankees game in all aspects of the term clean, it can’t come soon enough.

Beat on the brat with a maple bat

30 06 2008

While I certainly am glad Brian O’Nora is alright after making a baseball game looking like a scene from Macbeth, I’m going to have to call bullshit on the anti-maple bat parade. It may not seem like it at first, but this is a disguised attack from the same baseball purists who don’t want instant replay and somehow believe the D.H. is the bubonic plague.

While maple bats had been around since the 90s, when Joe Carter was the first to use one, the traditional ash bats were by far the most dominant at the major league level. The trend towards maple bats started to begin in 2001, which may or may not have had to do with Barry Bonds hitting 73 home runs using maple bats that year. This combines two of sports columnists’ biggest punching bags: Barry Bonds, and developments in Major League Baseball since Mickey Mantle retired.

Maple bats had traditionally been deemed too heavy to make a bat, until new technologies allowed enough moisture for a bat to be made. While there are no recorded numbers to back up the rise in broken bats (more on that later), it’s obvious to anyone who watches the game that the number of broken bats have increased in recent years.

For many baseball purists, broken bats, and particularly shattered bats, are a new virus in baseball, risking tragedies that everyone knows could occur but have so far yet to happen. There’s certainly a correlation between the rise of maple bats and the rise of broken bats. But most purists have been confusing correlation with causality, when in fact most physicists will attribute the problem to another cause.

Once upon a time, the baseball bat’s diameter would decrease proportionally until you got to the handle. Now, you’re seeing bat handles that are extremely thin and completely out of whack with the thickness of the bat. A baseball bat is more likely to break the further away you go from the sweet spot. In The Physics of Baseball, Yale physics professor Robert Adair noted that bats with thicker handles have larger sweet spots and tend to break less. The thinner handles, increasingly preferred by Major Leaguers who want higher bat speed, results in bats breaking more. Combine the lighter bat craze with batters who have much stronger hands and put more tension in their grips, and you’re going to see more broken bats (and more shattered bats too). The material used to make the bat has little to do with it, and the difference between two types of wooden bats are even less.

So once again, baseball columnists’ purist bias combines with circumstantial evidence to make a case to eliminate a new trend in baseball, a case that has the luxury of a conveniently timed bloody umpire. But if safety was the main concern, why did some columnists slam the MLB for overreacting with the base coach helmet mandate? Someone did actually die from that, after all. If it’s a matter of ecological friendliness, how do you justify the very notion of a baseball game, which is inherently wasteful in ways much worse than what a few bats will change? It’s the hitters, not their tools, that are causing bats to break, and the chances from someone dying or becoming seriously injured from a shattered bat are already a statistical anomaly. The odds become essential zero when you account for the difference in that chance between maple and ash bats.

More players breaking their tools [USA Today]

Shaved Melons

20 06 2008

More and more Japanese schools are insisting that their baseball players get buzz-cuts.
Surveys done with Japan indicate that 69.2% of high schools make a shaved head a pre-requisite of playing for the school baseball team.
A further 15.1% of schools in the Japan High School Baseball Federation ‘allow’ their players to wear their hair closely cropped. Only 15.2% stated that they had no particular rules at all regarding hair styles.

This is a huge swing from the 90s, when it was regarded to be an infraction on a student’s basic human rights to declare what kind of haircut he had to have.

Japanese high school baseball teams have long been a bastion of almost feudal systems of control. Looks like nothing’s changed.

2 Innings + 66 Runs = 1 Capitulation

18 04 2008

Japanese high school baseball isn’t always even-keeled, and many inequities exist between some of the top schools, and their opponents who are sometimes bereft of the benefits the elite ‘yakyu gakko’ possess… but this is bordering on ridiculous.

The coach of Kawamoto Technical High School waved the white flag after his starting pitcher had given up 66 runs in the first 2 innings of a game against Shunshukan High School. The bedeviled pitcher had thrown over 250 pitches by that point, and his coach was worried about possible injury to his hammered hurler.

Luckily for the record books, the loss will only be counted as a 0-9… the default score for a game in a Japanese High School baseball forfeit.