Friday, July 10, 2009

The Faster Times dot com: "Baseball and Philosophy"

Feel like you just haven't read enough philosophical baseball analysis lately? or maybe an insufficient quantity of baseballical philosophy analysis? well then, have i got news for you.

thursday at 3pm, a brand new online newspaper "launched." (i'm not quite comfortable with the industry-speak yet; hence the scarequotes.)

it's called "The Faster Times"

it is being run and staffed and written for by a very impressive and credentialed group of people- see here.

i am far less credentialed, but here i am anyway. for as it turns out, i am the "baseball and philosophy" columnist for The Faster Times.

here i am!

so i hope you'll check out the newspaper, and my column.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Bearly Stirring

First, thanks so much to all y'all who have inquired as to when I will resume posting here at Soxlosophy; bloggers get paid in caring, as best I can tell. In a recession, even.

Second, not posting does not entail not being angry at events/processes such as getting closed out by BBrdsma in Seattle.

Third, this is not a proper post, but a programmatic one. Or, perhaps, a warning that a programmatic post is forthcoming; I'll be posting an update soon.

Thanks for checking in. Go team.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Peace in the A.L. East

When the Soviet Union fell, the United States was left without a rival; it stood alone as the world's sole superpower. With alternative forms of government seemingly vanquished, some even proclaimed the end of history. But history has a way of returning. China, Iran and a reemergent Russia strut on the world stage. Now, some will have us prepare for a post-american world.

The Red Sox ended history too, vanquishing the Yankees in '04, and then finally finishing ahead of the Evil Empire in the A.L. East in '07. In '08, with a Bronx regime in transition, an aging ballclub and a pre-industrial crop of rookies, the sagging Yankees fell off the postseason map, off the edge of the globe, even. And with young stars the Sox seemed poised to enjoy the fruits of the end of history as the sole remaining A.L. East superpower.

That didn't last long. The Rays, all of a sudden, have the bomb. The balance of power has shifted. (And just as America owes a trillion to China, the Sox' luxury tax revenues help fund the emergent Rays; our profligacy has aided our enemies.) No one can be elected anything in America without asserting America's perpetual supremacy, and no Sox fan can concede too much to any opponent's acumen. But dominance is never guaranteed, it is not a given. The Sox were beaten, their title defense penetrated by a guerrilla Tampa club.

Tampa may have landed a blow, but the Sox are set up to continue their run of dominance. After 2 world series titles, 4 ALCS appearances, and 5 postseasons in 6 years, the Sox' current rotation has a 24 year old ace in Lester, and two 28 year olds in Beckett and Matsuzaka. A 23 year old Masterson, 26 year old Delcarmen, and a 27 year old Papelbon fill out the staff. On the field, Pedroia is 25, Lowrie 24, Ellsbury 25. Crisp, Youkilis, and Bay are between 28 and 30. This team has a foundation for years to come. They are hypermodernizing, taking the new scientific approach to scouting and development, investing in the raw talent of rookies that is green technology.

But the Rays are even younger. James Shields is their oldest starting pitcher, and he's 26. Garza and Kazmir are 24, Sonnanstine and Edwin Jackson 25. David Price is 23. They are not going anywhere.

The Sox, of course, can win any arms race with their superior financial resources. Their diversified wealth and geographical advantage dwarfs the banana republic that is the orange groves of St. Pete. But the Rays have locked up their talent, and will compete for years. There is a new world order.

It is the Yankees, the Europe of the A.L. east, that will lag behind. Stuck in their old world ways, slow to adapting to the changing demographic reality, shamed over past atrocities (or they should be), they will lose out to the modernizing forces and superior organization of their playoff-contending neighbors.


Of course, it was foolish to think history could end, that some stasis other than complete destruction could be achieved. Victory is always short lived; there are always further battles. I often object to McCain's calls for "victory" in Iraq because war is not a sport, and the game never ends. Winning settles nothing. America won world war 1 and established the conditions that fomented world war 2. To win we all must hang up the spikes and go home. War has no rules, no final buzzer, no bottom of the 9th. Winning is not clearly defined.

But perhaps baseball isn't so different after all. We won in '04, and I distinctly recalling thinking baseball should just stop. The narrative was complete, now I can die in peace. But it doesn't stop. There are always new battles, new struggles. There is victory, but there is never total victory.

Today I watched the movie Babe, about the sheepherding pig. Spoiler: the farmer says 'that'll do, pig, that'll do,' after a job well done. It is reassuring, a job well done. Now it can end. The world is safe, finally, at long last, peace. But the Sox must battle on. '08 was just the prologue, the beginning of this next chapter of the rivalry with the Tampa Bay Rays. An ALCS just won't do. Sadly, though, even a championship won't do. They even made a sequel of Babe.

But of course each victory is an end in itself, and there are moments when time does stop, when victory is now and now is all there is. But losses get stretched out in time, and losing is always a hard blow, no matter the consolations or other joys in which we might now indulge. I, for one, can now actually return to writing my dissertation, which has been patiently waiting. And watch more G-rated animal fable movies.

Or at least I won't have any more excuses for not doing either.

Though I started this blog in midseason, I think I posted enough for this to qualify as my official rookie year. I enjoyed it, and I want to thank you all so much for reading. I'm not sure how much I'll write this off-season; I guess it will depend on how philosophical the Sox' free agent signings are. But don't hesitate to check back in. I hope everyone has a nice offseason, be well, and spring training is just 4 months away.

And as Socrates once said: "I like baseball."

Monday, October 20, 2008

No Hollywood Ending

If Mystique and Aura are just dancers at a nightclub, as Curt Schilling once quipped, then perhaps History and Inevitability are just spoken word poets.

History doesn't repeat itself all by itself, and victory is never inevitable. It is not a given that once down 3-1, then 3-2, and then tied 3-3, the Sox will prevail. A Game 7 isn't decisive if it is already determined.

But it was an easy mistake to make, and many of us were eager to make it. The Rays were sloppy and spiritless in Game 6. Game 7 might have seemed like a coda, an epilogue. With a 1-0 lead in the 4th, I was guilty of the faulty induction; the future will resemble the past, and this will be enough. History and Inevitability take over, and carry the day.

But the agents in this drama are those not yet free agents, the players themselves, and their actions and their fates are coordinated not by forces named with capital letters, but by themselves and a manager too much concerned with the past.

Terry Francona made two terrible decisions in the decisive Game 7. First, down 2-1 with one out in the 6th, Tito sent Pedroia from first on a full count to Ortiz. Garza blew Ortiz away on a heater, and Pedroia was out by a yard. Instead of Youkilis batting with a runner on, inning over. Second, with the tying runs on base and 2 outs in the 7th, Francona let Varitek hit. He whiffed.

I imagine I am not alone in noticing the snafu, but as I am indignant, I will belabor the points. Firstly, Pedroia didn't wrack up 20 stolen bases in 21 attempts during the regular season by running in predictable counts. Secondly, I think the send-the-runner-on-the-full-count-with-fewer-than-2-outs is the single worst common strategic maneuver in the sport. I assure you, this is not simply hyperbole in the face of crushing, agonizing defeat, though that would be a reasonable assumption. Because second base is acquired on ball 4 regardless of whether the runner is off, the runner acquiring second on the 'steal' does not count as the play working. With nothing to gain, Ball 4 doesn't protect the runner, so there's no reason to go on that count as opposed to any other. But if there's a whiff, he risks being out- risk but zero gain. And if that base is so important, why not send him earlier in the count, when its less predictably fastball; because its better to run in non-fastball counts, but 3-2 is a fastball count, its a lower percentage steal to begin with. The play only 'works' if the ball is hit into the gap and the runner scores from first but wouldn't have scored without the head start, but this happens very infrequently, or if a double play ball is hit but the runner makes it to second. But in this matchup, Ortiz isn't likely to hit into a DP with the shift on, and Garza isn't a groundball pitcher. Instead, he predictably challenged Ortiz with a pitch he hasn't hit all year- the high heat. Huge risk, virtually no gain. The inning was over, instead of Youkilis batting with a man on. But Francona had to 'go by the book', you know, the one with many factual errors and unjustified opinions.

And for the 74th time, Francona didn't pinch hit for Varitek in the 7th inning of a postseason game. I speculated the other day that it was Theo's decision to carry 3 catchers so they could pinch hit for Tek as early as the 6th or 7th, and that way they could also PH for Cash in the 8th or 9th, but that Tito didn't like this move, and so continued to let Tek hit in the 7th. So naturally he came up with runners on the corners and 2 outs in the 7th, tying run on base, and whiffed badly. Casey may be the Mayor of the bench, but that's a small jurisdiction. As a further consequence, instead of a righty with power on the bench, there's an extra no-hit catcher; where's Willy mo Pena when you need him? Tek hit again in the 9th, and Lowrie had the honor of being the only usable right handed bat. His reward? Ending the season, matching Nomar in LA.

And don't forget that history and inevitability are no match for injustice; two atrocious calls contributed to the Sox' demise. Down 3-1 in the 8th, 2 outs, and the bases loaded, game on the line, Price threw a fastball about a foot outside. Drew checked his swing, but the home plate ump called him out! That's not even his call- there should have been an appeal to third. And in the 9th, Kotsay was called out looking on a pitch 4-6 inches outside. Its a shame to have the umps contribute so severely in the 8th and 9th innings of a game 7. Its infuriating, and may anger me more than losing 10-0. Of course, one may argue that the Sox had other chances, and should have rendered such umpirings irrelevant. But if it were a valid argument that one should have won by then to prevent umps tilting the outcome, baseball should just be 7 and 2/3 innings long.

Injustice is frustrating. A failure of ideals to manifest. The Sox pitcher met a similar problem; Lester was all too human. Giving up a hit to Baldelli in the 5th on an 0-2 count with a runner in scoring position is inexcusable. Terrible pitch selection; they went with the cutter in, and caught the plate, instead of dropping the curve in the dirt, which is how they whiffed him the next time around. No reason to throw a strike in that situation. Instead, Baldelli knocked in the eventual winning run. A similarly weak cutter was slammed by Aybar for the homer to make it 3-1.

Lester didn't catch the breaks. Longoria's RBI double in the 4th was an off-balance swing on a ball out of the zone, and Aybar's lead-off double in the 5th leading to the second run was similarly struck.

When the season has ended, its hard not to nit pick, to wonder what could have gone differently. But these are the breaks that emerge when History and analogies with the past aren't operative forces in the universe, when the simple narrative collapses into incoherent detail.

Ortiz was dreadful, and the Sox got virtually nothing out of their catcher and shortstop. Injury, old age and youth the culprits there. This is what can happen when it all comes down to game 7; the Game 2 loss looms ever larger. It's depressing and oppressive, the force of contingency and randomness. Its never an unimpeded march to glory, and the past cannot carry anything beyond the present. Loyalty to past efforts, the reliance on the habitual, all hindered the war effort. A history of comebacks can't do it for you; everything is in the hands of the players. And that, of course, is the fans' paradox: The universe of sport, and baseball in particular, is defined and governed by rules, creating the the feeling of control and the illusion of isolation from larger forces. Yet spectators, of course, can only watch, as heroes age, thoughtlessness is enacted, bad hops hop badly, and an expansion team with one slogan that's a false mathematical formula and another pilfered from a lame saturday night live skit triumphs.

Its quite humiliating, really.

- - -
I'll be back tomorrow with something with more perspective, my 'springer's final thought', if you will, and even if you won't. More preachy, less detail, more grand narrative. More big sweeping generalizations. I think I only had 1 or 2 in this post. Its the end of the year. That's not enough, by my count.

Friday, October 17, 2008

!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!; ALCS Game 5

An agnostic doesn't believe in God due to lack of evidence. I don't believe what the Boston Red Sox did Thursday night, despite all the evidence that could possibly be. A greater leap of faith is required than I am capable of.

The Sox dropped a heartbreaker in game 2, were demolished in games 3 and 4, and down 3 games to one in the series, the Sox were down 7-0 with 2 outs in the bottom of the 7th inning. And they won 8-7. They won. Astounding. Astounding.

I need all the reassurance I can get that this actually happened. Sometimes its thought the difference between a scientific and religious temperament is displayed in the reaction to the same set of facts- a scientist looks at existence and sees something explainable, a religious persons sees that same world as mystery. I'm trying to understand how this one really happened, but I'm not sure I can, so I'm just going to go over it again, and stare ga-ga at the facts.

Lowrie lead off the 7th with a long double to right. After Varitek and Kotsay failed to deliver, Coco slapped a 2 out single to left, keeping the inning alive. Dustin Pedroia toughed out yet another 8 pitch AB, fouling off pitches long enough for TBS to run out of ways of anointing Tampa and actually get to some relevant statistics, mentioning that Pedey was far and away the league-leader in BA with 2 strikes this year, at just under .300, until Pedey shot one to right in front of Gross. Lowrie scored, breaking up the shutout, and Crisp advanced, putting 2 runners on.

And up strode the man once awarded with the greatest Red Sox clutch hitter plaque, Big Papi, but who had really come up small in this years postseason. Now, you can always watch a baseball game hoping for a homerun, but they rarely happen. The very best home run hitters only do it every 15 plate appearances or so. And Ortiz had zero homers in his last 61 postseason ABs, and was 1 for 14 with runners on in this postseason. Down 6 runs, with the season on the line, with the defense of the world championship on the line, I cannot imagine a single person watching or playing in this ballgame that was thinking about anything other than Big Papi crushing one. Had he woefully continued, a 7-1 game goes to the 8th. But he got a fastball down and in- his sweet spot- from Balfour, and he absolutely hammered it. In a rare moment, Papi looked almost surprised at himself; he did not characteristically flip the bat in a signification of dominance, and only tentatively left the box. But Fenway erupted, as did my studio apartment. A blowout had just turned into a ball game, the Sox were only down 7-4.

In that moment when Ortiz connected, fantasy became reality, wishes were fulfilled. Baseball really does do that sometimes; it makes the trite tremendous. TBS appropriately showed the guy with the 'i like baseball' sign. Three simple words, and all was right with the universe.

With the metaphorical wind at his back, Papelbon went back out there for the top of the 8th, buried some splitters, elevated some fastballs, and took 2 K's with him back to the dugout, getting those Boston bats back out there to batter the bullpen some more.

Wheeler walked Bay to start the 8th, missing badly low and away on the 3-0 pitch. Clearly rattled, he fell behind J.D. Drew, who righteously rifled one into the right field seats. It was now just a 1 run game, with the Sox only trailing 7-6. Wheeler then feel behind Lowrie, but Lowrie helped him out on the 1-0, swinging at a pitcher's pitch and popping to left. Outs are precious, and that one was squandered. And when Casey, pinch hitting for the captain in what might have been his final fenway plate appearance had he appeared, chased a splitter outside for the whiff, the realization hit that scoring 6 runs is great, but when the other guys have 7...

But Mark Kotsay delivered with 2 outs in the 8th, driving yet another liner to leftcenter field. B.J. Upton, who plays the laziest center field this side of Andruw Jones, yet again nonchalantly glided after the ball, but this time coming up empty, and deservedly so, as Kotsay's double clanged off his glove. Miraculously, the Sox had put the tying run in scoring position just 3 outs after having been down 7-0.

The lineup turned over. And even though Crisp had lined a single his previous attempt, no Boston fan hopes that the man who strides to the plate in the season's most important at bat is Coco Crisp. But whatever Coco hasn't done in his time here in Boston, and whatever he does or doesn't do from here on out, that at bat with the tying run on second with 2 down in the 8th inning of what had rapidly become a one run game was legendary. He fouled off pitch after pitch after pitch, 4 after the count had run full, even some that may have been out of the zone, as Coco was determined not to let the ump make the call; this was in Coco's hands, and he put up a noble fight. Finally Wheeler gave up, conceded, threw the 10th pitch of the at bat down the middle and Coco earned that clean, pure, single to right, that beautiful soft line drive, that sent in Kotsay and tied the ballgame at 7 apiece.

The old Red Sox would have squandered it in the 9th, of course. Carlos Pena, who has been death to Sox pitching, came up with 2 on and 1 out. But the kid Masterson buckled down and got the 4-6-3, sending a tie game to the bottom of the 9th.

But Pedroia and Ortiz went down, the former on a great play by Bartlett in the hole on a sharp grounder that had deflected off Longoria. Longoria then made an amazing stab on the short hop off a Youkilis chopper, but he threw off balance in the dirt, Pena couldn't make the stop, and the Sox had the winning run on second base. Bay was intentionally walked, and J.P. Howell faced J.D. Drew, the man who had hit the 2 run bomb to bring the Sox to within a run just one inning ago. Drew, nearly motionless, poised and ready to strike, walloped a 3-1 delivery, a screaming sinking liner over the wild leap of rightfielder Gross, and Tampa walked off in defeat, acquiescing to a Game 6.

Watching this one, logic and law goes out the window (I should get better insulation.) My girlfriend Rebecca was sitting at the kitchen table when Drew hit the homer to make it 7-6, but then moved over to the couch. Lowrie promptly popped up, and I yelled for her to go back to the table. Later, she had to go get ready for bed, but I wouldn't let her. She must sit at the table and not move. She had already made Lowrie pop up. I blamed her. She stayed put, and we won.

I imagine millions of other people refused to move from their spots too. To think logically where it clearly doesn't apply, we might reason that our not moving cancelled out the Tampa fans' not moving, that the sit in your spot jinx is a zero-sum interaction, and the players took it from there. Or one might think, as I clearly did, that my actions and mine alone were responsible for sending out anti-rays metaphysical rays from Brooklyn to Boston. When the transpiring are just so fantastic, so utterly unbelievable and absurd, doing anything to disturb that precious, teetering balance the universe has so fleetingly achieved seems like a sin.

I'm still out on the idea of retroactive meaning, both enhanced and diminished. If we lose Game 6 or 7, does that take away from game 5? I don't know. I'll cross that bridge after I pay the toll. For now, even after 2 rings in 4 years, and considering all the differences between now and '04, baseball, out of all the things in the world, still has this unique ability to perform the alchemy of turning despair into nervous hope into sheer delight, of creating a little universe where things can go right.

I like baseball.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Palling Around with Zobrist

During his discussion of the presidential debate Wednesday night, Charlie Rose asked historian and Sox fan Doris Kearns Goodwin whether McCain or the Red Sox had a better chance of coming back from their respective deficits. Goodwin laughed, saying she should have expected that. Goodwin, a frequent commentator on Rose's PBS show, continued, saying that she had breathed a sigh of relief when she saw that Sox playoff schedule wouldn't interfere with the debate, but that her willingness to miss the debate meant she wasn't a real historian.

A good laugh was had by all.

The Sox' 3 games to 1 deficit is no laughing matter, of course. Naturally, however, we are all now hoping history will repeat itself, as the saying goes, and as history hopefully will as well.

I suppose not unsurprisingly, the Sox find themselves on the brink of elimination in the ALCS yet again. But history won't repeat itself without some help; only a Marxist or Hegelian might reify history sufficiently for it to be the sort of thing that can go about repeating itself all by itself. I fear it must be the Sox, and not history, that must make it happen. Besides, history, that higher and lower force, wasn't much help before 2004, when we had a whole lot more of it, and I'm not looking to it now. The cosmic patterns, the analogy of being down 3-0 or 3-1, doesn't help, as best I can tell, analogy is not an operative principle in the universe. Ortiz' wrist is. (or isn't.) Dice-K's erraticness is, and a shaky Beckett and Lester may be in the if necessaries.

Hegel and Marx would tell us its all necessary, of course, the inevitable unfolding of what was always to be. For all that, I'd like a specific prediction. Sox over Phillies in 5? Will that happen before capitalism implodes? (Or are we too late?)

I like to end with a joke.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Easier Done Than Said

In Moneyball, a big deal is made of the ineffectiveness of traditional small ball strategies, and the hypothesis is floated that managers bunt, hit and run and steal because the familiarity of these strategies will save the manager from public humiliation.

Well, Terry Francona is a post-Moneyball manager, and so I suspect he has a different fear. Private humiliation. Tito seems too embarrassed to tell his players that they can't do what the player thinks they can do. Apparently, for Francona, underperforming is like performing in underwear. Decline is awkward.

This is obvious with Varitek, whose nonexistent bat baited the boobirds in Game 3. Supposedly, the Sox are carrying three catchers on the playoff roster so that Varitek can be pinch hit for early enough in the game so that Kevin Cash can be pinch hit for too. Yet Tek has continually hit in crucial spots during the 7th innings of this series. So I can only imagine that the 3 catchers idea was Theo's, and the keeping Tek in there was Francona's. Keeping Tek in is not the safe move for Francona publicly- fans are fickle and feel no loyalty at the expense of postseason results (color me that kind of fickle as well), given that a Tek AB is bound to fail, but it avoids the private confrontation. Loyalty, and dignity for Tek, rather than a confrontation with the inevitable, even in the apparent safety of the clubhouse.

Game 2 was not a highlight for Francona. He left Beckett over and over again, to see the former ace squander three separate leads, embarrassing himself and his postseason record with a 9 hit, 8 run, 3 HR performance in just 4 and a third. This wasn't a matter of simply missing spots- Beckett induced only 4 swings and misses all night. The stuff wasn't there. In a tie game threatening extras, he removed former starter Masterson after only 2/3 of an inning, depleting the bullpen. Javier Lopez threw as many pitches as he made appearances. Francona brought in Timlin, rather than Byrd, to pitch the 11th. This on a day when Maddon had burned his two best relievers- Balfour and Howell- by the 6th inning, and was vulnerable. And Ellsbury continues to bat leadoff.

All these moves simply reinforce the preestablished roles for these players. Beckett is the ace, he should stay in. Varitek is the captain, he should stay in. Papelbon is the closer, he should pitch the 9th. Lopez is the lefty specialist, he should throw one pitch. Timlin is the veteran reliever, he should pitch before a starting is thrust into the unfamiliar role of reliever. Ellsbury is fast, he should hit leadoff.

Confronting the players would create the dissonance of casted role and performance, of expectation and fact. It would require distinguishing the pre-programmed from the pragmatic, what should be from what is. Facing reality can be uncomfortable, and downright embarrassing. But its Francona's job to not be complacent, to do whatever it takes to win. Even something unconventional, risky, or even humbling or humiliating to his favorite players. Tito can't hide out in the open, he can't lose himself in the crowd to avoid that intimate conversation. A players' manager yes, but a team's manager too. A team that's down 2 games to win and needs to win.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Outs Don't Grow On Trees Young Man; ALDS Game 4

One of the knocks against small ball is that it doesn't appreciate the value of an out; sac bunts are frowned upon not because they advance a runner, of course, but because that out is more valuable than that base. Mike Scioscia is pretty liberal with his outs, generously sharing and throwing them around, not realizing their value. Maybe he needs a summer job, or more appropriately, a winter one, to learn the value of the out.

Sure, a 2-0 count isn't likely to see a pitchout, and plenty of suicide squeezes have their desired kamikaze effect, but the suicide is aptly named nonetheless. Not that the warning signs weren't there; not only did the angels make that second out at third base in the 9th inning, but they gave up the first out on the bunt moving Willits from second to third. That's 2 outs in that 9th inning not due to the pitcher's or defense's proficiency (Tek's mad dash not withstanding,) but to negligence and profligacy, and with the runner already in scoring position, of all things. Instead of 3 whacks at a go-ahead rbi hit, Scioscia frittered away 2 outs with his out guzzling offense, squandering what few remaining natural resources he had left.

Bunt, baby, bunt!

On Bay's blooper to right in the bottom of the 9th, Willits, in a desperate but futile ploy to get one of those precious outs back, dove and came up empty, transforming a bloop single into a ground-rule double. In not realizing the value of the base, in this case, he put the series winning run in scoring position. Lowrie then ellsburied one into the shallow right field grass, sending the Sox to Tampa.

Scioscia now has no outs left. You just don't miss them till they're gone.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Lesterranean particle collidor; ALDS Game 1

If Jon Lester were any more of a force physicists would try to unify him.

Lester decided all those lopsided anaheim regular season wins were irrelevant. Ellsbury decided only the guy who hit .360 in last year's postseason would show up, adding 3 hits, 2 steals, an RBI, and one amazing clutch 8th inning catch.

I wondered yesterday about which out of all the past patterns that could possibly project would make that holiest of transitions from possible to actual. And frankly, I couldn't be much happier with the selection.

Ah, winning in the playoffs. It provokes heartfelt interjections, the 'take thats!' and 'eff yeahs' of my lexicon. So much fun. The air is crisp, the pitches are subtle, and the Sox are winning. Good times.

But I'll be nit picky anyway. Lowell looked awful; he's hurt. He had no drive from his back leg, and he swung it around on each full-hearted but half-assed (more literally than figuratively meant) cut in an attempt to ease the pressure. Drew was late on fastballs all night. Pedroia came up 4 times with runners in scoring position, and only managed a walk. Ortiz missed a couple hittable pitches, and didn't hit anything hard. Francona didn't sub Cora for defense after Lowell batted in the 7th, though he did acknowledge Tek can't hit, twice calling for the sac bunt (once successfully.)

Bay, though, pulled another bomb on an outside fastball; he just loves to hook those. Youkilis' recovery on the bloop in the 8th was heads-up; rather than field the ball and look up to see if Guerrero was running, he came up firing first and asked questions... subsequently. And Papelbon buried two nasty splitters to Aybar.

The Angels hit only 1 or two balls hard all night, and only mustered one unearned run. They've squandered home field advantage, and with Beckett and then Lester due to pitch in Fenway if necessary, that should be sufficient to send the Angels on another October vacation.

Yes, one win performs the alchemy of changing pessimism to... something else.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Between Heads and Tails There's Guts...

It's not easy to determine how much of the universe is relevant to a given event, a pitch, an at bat. The event appears local; a pitcher on a hill of dirt, a batter 60 feet away. But every hitter and pitcher brings with them the mark of every hit and pitch from everywhere they've been, the stuff of prediction and maneuver.

Many psychological states are metaphorically described as physically concrete and tangible; a hitter may carry a burden, or the weight of the world into the batters box. These days, with adjusted and normalized stats, every pitch carries with it the entire league, the entire history of baseball even. Its only 4 feet by 6 in the batters box, but a whole lot can fit. If these stats are more predictive the more of the universe they encompass, are not these numbers carried with a hitter into the box, somehow making it- physically or otherwise- more or less likely that a particular something occurs? Or is the at bat isolated,a self-contained box of novelty and uniqueness? Are matters local, but statistics global?

I dunno, I just work here.

Its hard to predict playoff series, of course. Small sample size yes, flicks of contingencies and mood and clutchiness, sure, but there is also the question of relevance; which stats, if any, are most predictive in a short series? Throw out everything but that particular hitter/pitcher matchup? Or drag in the whole universe? Ignore Ortiz' stats vs. righties when Saunders is pitching? Is Ortiz the feared slugger temporarily non-existent in that scenario, or at least relegated to an irrelevant part of the universe? Or is he in there too, dormant or potent? Why am I using the rhetorical device of rhetorical questions today?

The recent head to head stats don't look good; the circumscribed universe looks confining. Beckett in two starts this year vs. LAAoA: 13.1 IP, 20 H- .345 opponents BA- 11 ER, 2 HR, 2 BB, 14 Ks. In a July 30 start at Fenway: 5.1 IP, 7 ER, 11 H, 8 K, 1 BB. And this start was sandwiched between 1 run in 7 IP vs the yankees, and 2 runs in 6.2 IP vs KC, not amidst a poor streak.

But of course Beckett is the postseason ace, the man who harnesses powers not implied by past performance, who spontaneously delivers something new and amazing, the man who finally lowers the axe after feeding the chicken every day hence (to borrow Bertrand Russell's illustration of the fowl's faulty induction; just because the farmer's always brought food, that doesn't mean tomorrow he won't bring the axe.)

New ace Jon Lester faced LA once this year, back in April: 5 IP, 9 H, 4 R, 2 HR, 2 BB 1 K. DiceK, he of the most unwatchable 18-3 record of all time, had one start, too: 5 IP, 7 H, 6 R, 2 HR, 2 BB, 3 K

But is that all that's relevant? Facing anaheim is similar, so that's one category to project, but postseason performance is another- does Lester's start against Colorado last year count for something now? Is it projectible? Does this baggage travel with each pitch?

From 2005-2007, John Lackey had a 5.53 ERA in 5 starts vs. Boston, and an underwhelming .344 opponents BA. But this year, Lackey was 2-0, allowing 7 H in 16 IP, 5 ER, and 10 K, stifling the Sox for a .132 BA. Which manifestation will show up? And Saunders was also 2-0, 3.38 ERA (though he did walk 9 and only whiff 6.)

Is that all they carry? Of course not; there are plenty of burdens and weights of the world to go around; we all know the Angels have lost 9 straight postseason games to the Sox going back to '86 (the relevance of which greatly decreases as we move backward in time, as we are wont to do), whereas anaheim has won 8 of 9 this year, including two recent sweeps.

So what projects, what predicts? Can we cherry pick; are they in season?

The Angels won 100, best in the league, but were 10th in runs scored, 9th in homers, and not even best in pitching; 5th in starting, 4th in relieving. These runs scored and against are the two legs that make the hypotenuse of their Pythagorean expected record a more humble 89-73, good for 6th in the league in +/-, just barely ahead of the Yankees, and well behind Toronto, who actually finished a run better than Tampa (+104 to +103, giving the bluebirds something to really be sad about; 94 shoulda wins.)

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the Sox were 2nd in runs and 3rd in starting pitching (though 7th in bullpen,) but good for the leagues best +/-, and an expected record of 97 wins; that's 8 ahead of the the angels in the separate Platonic realm of ideal mathematical records. So does that project, or is it the bumbling too too real team that can't win one run games on the road that takes center stage on TBS, where, contrary to popular opinion, there's only one october?

It's tempting to predict one team or another in 5, but that means saying that it will be tied after 4, which amounts to the specific prediction that one particular team will win one specific game; a hazardous guess indeed. Statistical tendencies to understand the transpirings seem not applicable to single perspirings. At the level of sweat, as the joe morgan's of the world know, the players, not the numbers, play the game.

The playoffs are fun because worlds hang in the balance, teetering on the edge of uncertainty and contingency, with no time for regressing to the mean.

Shit happens, crazy shit.

Nonetheless, 95 wins down, 11 to go.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Sometimes 95 Wins Can Be a Real Cool Hand

I refused to watch these last 3 games. Once we clinched the WC, the Yankees were eliminated. That means, as far as I'm concerned, that they're irrelevant, and I was not about to let the moot york yankees get me all riled up. I can't watch a sox/yanks game and not get riled up, so I didn't watch. That's right, I'm endorsing the ostrich's ontological argument; if I can't see it, it doesn't exist.

Instead, I watched the presidential debate on Friday, and Cool Hand Luke (yet again) on Sunday. I scored the first round of the debate (on the economy) 10-8 for Obama, and the second round (on foreign policy) 10-9 for McCain. I also came up with a Hegelian reading of the Paul Newman classic. But, as neither is about the Red Sox, I shan't be posting my explanations here.

But what we do have here is a failure to see Josh Beckett pitch game 1, as he has been bumped to game 3 with an oblique injury, which is obviously disconcerting (and never straightforward. sorry.) But I remain blithely optimistic, confident that the Sox' superior run differential and scientific approach to the game will win out over the messy randomness of the angels, 100 wins be damned. (For the Angels as crapshooting foosball spinners, see here.) Less blithe and more detailed playoffosophy to come.

So the Sox end up with 95 regular season wins. Is that satisfying, or is nothing less than a championship disappointing? It's ok to admit it, I won't tell any Yankees fans...

Friday, September 26, 2008

Modal's Sporting Goods; The Best Value For Your Alternate Universe Dollar

'If Buckner had fielder that grounder, then he would have beaten Wilson to the bag.' Maybe, maybe not. Usually, statements are true when they tell it like it is, false otherwise. But how is it with something that never happened?

Answering such counterfactual questions- so called because the first clause is counter to fact- is difficult not just because we don't know how it is, or could have been, but because, being counter to reality, there may not be anything at all to know.

One of the neat things about philosophy is how a little problem like this has cosmic implications. The philosopher David Lewis argued that any possible state of affairs actually exists, but at another possible universe, different from ours in just such ways. For Lewis, there exists a world where Buckner makes the play to retire the side, forcing another extra inning (remember, the tying run scored on the wild pitch), and there's a world where Buckner makes the play but Wilson beats the throw, and on the next play a grounder goes through Boggs' legs, and so forth. (There's also a world where Tampa wins the division and the Yankees finish third. Crazy, I know.)

The reason for this infinite explosion of universes is to provide grounds for the truth of counterfactual statements. Without such universes, there simply is nothing- nothing exists- that makes counterfactuals true or false; there'd be nothing to know. So according to Lewis, 'if Buckner had made the play, Wilson would have been out' is true if the existent possible world where that happens is closer to this one than a world where he makes the play and he's safe.

Don't worry, I'm not going to explain what makes one world closer than another. (Though it is pretty crucial for the plausibility of all this craziness. For more, here's the wikipedia on "modal realism.")

The point of all this, as I so often have to say to my class, is the Most Valuable Player award.

For some reason, the MVP has to play for a contending team. Now, there might be many different definitions of 'valuable', or, 'most' or 'player', I imagine, but its best to be on the same page with these things. If I say "yankees suck," and some yankees fan says "sure, if by 'suck' you mean 'awesome'", besides from forgetting to conjugate properly, this would be a pretty superficial, if short lived, agreement.

I think the definition of the sort of V that one finds in MVP is best put in counterfactual terms- I think the MVP is the player who answers this question: The hypothetical absence of which player would cause that player's team the greatest loss? Or, in other words and letters, if a player x was absent, then which team y would suffer the most? Player X is your MVP. That is, the most valuable thing is the thing which, if taken away, would harm whatever it was taken away from the most.

So if you can live without your hair, as some of us must, but not without your liver, then your liver is more valuable than your hair. And if your team can win without Manny Ramirez, then Manny ain't that valuable.

Now, what does this have to do with contending? As the Manny example indicates, the better a team is, the more able that team is to withstand the loss of any one player, even if that player is great; I'd say there's an inverse relationship between a players' value and the competence of his team. It's the worst teams, not the best, that can least withstand the hypothetical absence of their best player. The closest possible worlds are those where a bad team loses its best player and plays even worser...

'Well now,' one might say, especially if that one is you, 'take away a great player from a last place team, and they're still last.' Well, yes. But take Manny away from a wild card leading team, and they're still a wild card leading team, even though he's put up monster numbers. And standings are relative to the other teams- you can win close to 95 games and not win a division (stupid tampa), so I think its the number of wins that counts. A last place team may win 65 games with a star player, but, who knows, 50 without him. A first place team may win 96 games with a star player, 94 without him, as they are better able to absorb the blow.

Pedroia is getting a lot of MVP attention, and there's no doubt that he's a kick ass ballplayer, and the heart of this team. But if players on noncontending teams or the Twins are counted, as they should be, he doesn't really stand out. Only on the assumption that only a contending non-Minnesota team is worthy of MVP consideration puts him at the top (even though, of course, Mourneau won in '06.)

Pedroia does well in some traditional and count stats, and not in others. The top 3 in BA: Mauer .327, Pedroia .325, and Bradley .324. But Bradley is far and away ahead on OBP: .439, Mauer second at .413, and Pedey's 17th, at .375. Bradley is 3rd in slugging (behind Arod and Quentin), Youkilis 4th, Pedroia 18th at .493. Bradley leads in OPS, Youkilis is 4th, Pedroia's 18th at .868

Bradley has only played in 124 games, which hurts, whereas Pedroia is tied for third in games (and is 3rd in plate appearances, which helps his count stats.) Pedey leads in runs with 118, with the other contenders not in the top 5. He leads in hits with 210 and doubles with 54, but Aubrey Huff, of all people, leads with 329 total bases (Dustin is 4th), and Huff is 3rd in doubles with 48. Huff also leads in extra base hits with 82, Youkilis and Mourneau tied for 4th with 74. Pedroia's 6th with 73. And Youkilis has played plenty of games.

But it's not clear how much these tell us about the counterfactual situation. Some fancier stats aren't decisive, either. Bradley is way ahead in adjusted OPS+ with 165, Youkilis is 4th with 143, Pedroia's not in the top 10. Grady Sizemore leads in Runs Created with 132, Josh Hamilton is next with 125, and Pedroia 3rd with 122, Morneau 7th, Mauer 19th.

It seems to me that stats like 'value over replacement player' (VORP) are in effect counterfactual- if player x were absent and was replaced by an average player, how many 'value points' would the team lose?- in which case such a stat would be the best indicator for MVP. In this category, Pedroia is 3rd, behind Sizemore and ARod. Huff is 4th, Bradley 5th. Youk 8, Mauer 9, Mourneau 12.

But VORP is relative to a position- its easier to have a high VORP at 2nd than at 1st, and also it doesn't count defense. And particularly relevant to my conception of MVP is that it doesn't take into account the idea that a player's value is inversely proportional to his teams awesomeness, as discussed above. (The Indians would probably be more worse without Sizemore than the Sox without Pedey. And of course, as everyone knows, the Yankees would be even better without ARod and with a 42 year old Scott Brosius instead.)

But it's right about here where the fancy numbers exceed my present state of knowledge, so I have nowhere else to go. And there being another me in another possible world who knows this stuff doesn't help. As a philosopher, I'll simply say I think this is the right direction, and let the guys in the lab coats make the call...

That, and far be it for me to argue against the man. Pedey's 20/21 in stolen bases are remarkable, his f yeah attitude is f'in awesome, he curses and gets dirty, and he hits line drives like they were giving him lip.

I'm sure Pedroia is saving no-hitters in other possible worlds, and that if he were gone, and the Sox had to play Cora or Mark Bellhorn at second, they'd be a lot worse. Because they have a 7 game lead on the Yankees. (Ha), they'd probably would be the wild card without him, though of course it would have been a lot less fun. But just Pedey's swing, let alone the defense, speed, and attitude, for now, at least, make me glad I live in this world.... to the extent that I do, of course.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Bogarting the Wild Card

Hippies. Among other things, hippies are about sharing, and open possibilities.

Clinching a postseason berth is very anti-hippy. It's not sharing, its grabbing and holding, clinching tight. It's staking a claim, planting a flag, putting up a fence and asserting 'its mine.' Clinching closes off possibilities, stomps on all the different ways the future might be, confines them to the path must taken. No sunny optimism this, the future is determined, its been staked out in advance, the bidding is over. We claim this space, and this time, for ourselves, for our conquest.

This time of year, sharing is for losers; the yankees can share 4th place and golf clubs if they want. And 'wait till next year' too, the refrain of open possibilities; that's the wedge between the determined, excluding territory of the here and soon, what's clinched and held tight as ours, and an open ended vague hopeful tomorrow to share with anyone who can dream.

It's hippie stuff for the Yankees.

Mattingly, shave those sideburns.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

(Once More) Unto the Breach

Ok, so I'll grant that Yankee Stadium at least deserves another blog post before its demolished, especially considering that two dyed-in-the-wool Sox fans have spoken eloquently in its defense.

Here's an excerpt of what my friend Maggie wrote:

"am i the only person who is angry and dumbfounded with the closing of yankee stadium? WHY ARE THEY CLOSING THEIR DOORS???? last night i felt a lump in my throat watching the festivities, listening to yogi and whitey ford, watching the clips -- even seeing bernie williams made me teary. that is sacred ground, and the yankees should play there forever. no one should have wanted to close its doors, but since some people are truly evil and actually wanted to for eventual financial gain, they shouldn't have had the chance -- it should be a historical site, protected by the national government.

when i am forced to have a conversation with a yankee fan, the way i get beyond my knee jerk distaste for them is by talking about not what makes us different (NYY vs BOS) but what makes us the same. what on earth could that be, you ask? our LOVE OF BASEBALL. and one of the most beautiful parts of baseball is its long and rich history...a history packed full of memories and moments that have been passed down for more than a century.

i hate the yankees more than anyone, and yet i am so so so sad they are leaving such a precious place. there aren't that many physical locations in the world where so much history has taken place...

and why didn't yankee fans protest this like they would in boston if they tried to tear down fenway park? didn't they all freak out when they renovated it in the '70s? you'd think this would bring even more criticism. us new yorkers are paying $70M of our tax dollars for this project. i feel so dirty to be involved.

i just think this is a crime. last night felt like a televised execution to me.

on the plus side, how cool would it be if the yankees never won another world series again after the move? long live The Curse Of The New Stadium!"

And my friend Marc wrote (in comments to yesterday's post)

"I have to's a real shame for the place to go. Damn the infinite Sinatra loop, but that's a Yankee fan thing, not a Yankee Stadium thing. Same for the beer tosses; same for the asshole fans. You'll see: all that crap will follow the team across the street, but the stadium and its history will not. The history, the ghosts, the center of baseball's true capitol...that stuff is that stadium; it is in itself the closest connection to its past. Without all of that mystique, there would be no significance to that place; and if you can appreciate what has transpired there, the great well of baseball drama and lore that has sprung from that field, then you should mourn its demise at least somewhat. It's a symbol of baseball's great past, the site of the great blossoming in baseball's history, and it's an American landmark. That stadium served to represent so much about The Game, and that city, and none of it will be quite the same without it."

And that's two Sox fans.

Which makes Maggie's question- "why didn't yankee fans protest this like they would in boston if they tried to tear down fenway park?"- all the more salient.

Exactly. These are yankees fans we're talking about. i just googled 'save yankee stadium', and there's very little evidence of any public support. remember all those 'save fenway park' bumper stickers in the early'00s, and the public outcry? i've never noticed anything at all like that here. i don't remember anyone here saying the yankees shouldn't move. i've never seen one t shirt or bumper sticker or anything that indicates there's any public sentiment against moving.

this is entirely fitting with the yankees character; they know that they'll make more money in a new stadium, so the fans are in favor of it- that's what they care about. For the Yankees, 'meaning' is just 'money' spelled wrong.

Now, whether the park itself should be protected as a landmark, as Maggie suggests, upon the team moving out is a distinct question from whether the team should move out at all. Apparently, the building itself doesn't get protected landmark status due to the consensus that the renovations in the 70's so dramatically altered the recognizable features that it's virtually not the same park anymore. City agencies aren't even giving the issue a public hearing; if the public was clamoring that this was outrageous, I'm sure they would.

But this prompts the question as to what extent the stadium is 'owned' by the public, specifically Yankees fans, such that the fate of the park should be determined by such dubious entities as public sentiment or rancor, or whether the right thing to do would have to be independently discerned and executed independently of their desires. Perhaps Yankees fans, in their insatiable quest for escalating payrolls and third place finishes, are happy to molt their old stadium as befitting the snakes they are. (zing.) Or perhaps they should be saved from themselves; Marc is certainly right that they'll take their jerkiness with them to the new stadium, and aren't likely to change of their own accord. Perhaps History belongs not just to Yankee fans but to everyone, in which case the Yankees are being particularly selfish in hording it for themselves. Perhaps its not 'their' park at all. Why should they be exclusively proprietary over history? Why shouldn't Sox fans get to complain; it's our history, too, even it's lousy history.

The points about a common baseball history are well taken; even Joe Dimaggio counts as 'our' history, as Baseball, aka The Game, is a higher unity that transcends even sox/yankees division. And so the provincial history of the Bronx borough is lower in the hierarchy of Forms than is History, which in turn must defer to Baseball, aka The Game, as the ultimate in meaningful ideals which subsumes them all. And it would be just like the Yankees to think they're bigger than The Game, and to abandon History for the sake of a $250 million payroll and a 4th place finish (as naturally payroll and standings are inversely related, I induce.) So I can admit to feeling the twinge in the demolishing of even the hated Yankee Stadium, insofar as it is subsumed by its place in the Game, and I can even happily continue to hate the Yankees for thinking its theirs to destroy, and for Yankees fans for failing to stick up for the larger issues at stake, and place party, or team, over country, or sport.

On the other hand, its just so in character; the evil empire needs a new Death Star. How can we take that away from them? They wouldn't 'be' the Yankees if they couldn't do whatever they possibly could to be as corporate and tramply as possible.

Imagine: It would be funny if they were penalized for their success; suppose that because so much history took place there, they became prohibited from ever moving out, and in another 100 years when every other stadium figures out how to compress seats like microchips and have 1 million capacity stadiums, and the yankees have a fraction of that and become the lowest payroll team as they'd still be restricted to a 20th century analog stadium, and then they'd become the scrappy low payroll underdogs who'd we be forced to cheer for because of their pluck and gritty hard nosed play...

What a strange future that'd be. Maybe this is for the best.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Unto the Breach

I have attended three games at Yankee Stadium; I shan't be attending any more. The Sox' record in those games? 0-3. The Sox' record in October in those games? 0-3.

Below are the box scores for those 3 losses- Game 2 of the 2003 ALCS, Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS, and Game 1 of the 2004 ALCS. (click to enlarge.)

Next, the Aaron Boone Game; I had seats in the top tier, and exiting after the trauma involved descending spiraling ramps and hearing 'new york, new york' on an endless loop; a circle of hell indeed. I got hit in the head with beer.

Next year, out for revenge, Schilling gets bombed and injured, and Mussina took a perfect game into the 7th, the Sox explode for 5, comeback falls short, I got hit in the head with beer.

I did not have many happy moments there. I can't say I'm sad to see it go.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Sobyrd Up; The Goggles are Off

Plato contrasted Ideals, known through the pure intellect, with the imperfect world we see. I've been idealizing finesse pitchers lately, Paul Byrd being the salient instance, but what I saw Friday was certainly imperfect.

(Does Byrd just slightly resemble Socrates, by the way?)

Byrd was serviceable, technically delivering a quality start- 3 runs in 6 innings, though that amounts to an entirely common ERA of 4.50 (and being common, 'quantity' rather than 'quality' seems appropriate.) More important to me than the many hard hit balls that went for outs, though, disguising the weak showing, was the real lack of artistry on the mound. There was no one pitch sequence that wowed me; the art critics' epithets of 'pedestrian' and 'derivative' sprung to mind during this underwhelming performance. I never oohed nor ahhed. Pitches tailed back over the middle of the plate, Tek had to cross over, curveballs hung, suspended in mid air.

Worse, I felt critical of his approach to lefthanded hitters, rather than delighted; there was no magic, no suspension of disbelief, just a guy with his hand up a puppet's butt (as they say.) Byrd doesn't go inside enough on lefties, which amounts to pitching with one hand tied behind his back. After the Rolen double in the second, he got a called strike on a rare inside fastball to the lefthanded Zaun, which straighted him up. He then accidentally threw a changeup in, which also surprised Zaun, called for strike 2. Then he threw a backdoor curve that didn't even make it back to the outside corner, but Zaun drilled an RBI double to left anyway, obviously looking for the pitch away; Zaun saw through the smoke and mirrors, and even after two in, didn't think lightning would strike thrice.

Byrd has terrible splits this year; he pitches well against righties, .249 BA/.277 OBP/.418 SLG, but .313/.355/.528 against lefties (that's an .883 OPS). Of his 32 walks all year, 24 are to lefties, the asymmetry of which suggests trepidation, and 5 of his 7 hbp's are against righties, suggesting he goes in only to them. Remy called Byrd's "purpose pitch" up and in to Vernon Wells; finesse pitchers must pull off the illusion of looking like power guys sometimes. But to lefties too; they're not just righties in a mirror.

I think a large part of Mussina's renaissance this year has been his improvement throwing the front-door fastball to lefthanded hitters; it looks like its coming inside off the plate from the righthanded pitcher, but moves back over the inside corner. Byrd would benefit greatly from that pitch. (Mussina in 2008: .858 OPS vs. righties, .592 vs. lefties. In 2007, .822 OPS vs. righties, .799 vs. lefties.)

That pitch is magic, after all; it bends backwards, going against the grain, back from whence it came. It hypnotizes; lefties freeze in their tracks.

And as Derek Lowe showed both Terrence Long and Adam Melhuse in the '03 ALDS, that pitch comes about as close to approaching a Platonic Ideal as any one pitch can.