Monday, May 17, 2010

Meanderings

* One of my weaknesses a general baseball fan is the difficulty I have in divorcing my outlook towards a player or team from the coverage they get. The most common manifestation is when a player is significantly "overrated" by mainstream media and fans.

I put the scare quotes around overrated because it can be a dangerous word--in order to know whether someone is overrated, you first have to agree on a rating scheme and then procure two credible sets of ratings to compare. There are few opportunities to do so, as it's rare for there to be any formal compilation of opinions on players. The BBWAA awards and the Hall of Fame vote are two exceptions, but they deal only with a select group of players and solely represent the opinions of writers, not the public at large.

So there is a great deal of imprecision inherent in labeling a player or team as overrated, even aside from the uncertainly present in one's own ratings. Thus, the determination that a player is overrated usually takes the form of a gut reaction.

In any event, I'd suggest that Ryan Howard is an overrated player. Ryan Howard is clearly a good player, but he also happens to be one who has had the fortune of playing on a good team and excelling in categories that mainstream folks still value disproportionately to sabermetricians. Of course, this is not Ryan Howard's fault. Ryan Howard is not responsible for the RBI fetish, Ryan Howard is not responsible for the tendency to lionize players as winners, and of course he has no control over what anyone writes about him. He's not responsible for the fact that his propensity to strike out is ignored while it becomes a major point of discussion for others.

As such, it is irrational to hold the media and public perception of Ryan Howard against him. But this is where I struggle. I find it hard to read Ryan Howard described as "the Babe Ruth of his generation at the plate" and not resent him for it.

Another example is Derek Jeter. I don't feel bad about disliking Jeter; I'd dislike him anyway due to his college sports sympathies. He's clearly a great player, but he's been built up into something more in certain quarters--the living embodiment of everything that a baseball player is supposed to be, as Pete Rose and Cal Ripken have been in the past.

Intellectually, I should be able to get over it, and not let silly hyperbole and shoddy analysis influence who I root for and my feeling towards players. It's a struggle.

* I have never played baseball on a competitive level, let alone professionally, so I am not really qualified to talk about unwritten rules or anything else that takes place between the lines. That's never stopped anyone, before, though, and I have some thoughts on the A-Rod/Braden incident that aren't particularly well-articulated (or novel or interesting or...) but that I feel compelled to write up anyway.

Baseball, like many other institutions, has built up layers of custom and tradition over time. Some of it made sense when it was established; some of it still makes sense today. However, much of it is bizarre, contradictory, and silly. I have always applauded people who flaunt the silly stuff, who don't allow themselves to become slaves to a code of conduct that doesn't even exist.

Rodriguez has consistently demonstrated that he has no regard for the imaginary rules. He has broken them at least three times that I can recall off the top of my head. The common thread between the two previous instances is that they both demonstrated a desire to win, method be damned. Yelling as a Blue Jay waited to catch the popup speaks for itself, but more interesting was his playoff glove slap.

The play was hopeless, so why not take a slap at the glove and see if you can get away with it? This kind of behavior is tolerated, even celebrated in other sports. You're an offensive tackle about to have Reggie White blow past? Take him down. A cornerback beaten deep? Same thing. Someone is driving for an easy layup or dunk? Give them a hard foul, make them earn it at the line. Not doing these things, giving up and allowing the inevitable to occur, is the course of action that is considered deviant.

Some people taking the anti-ARod side have pointed out that because he is one of the greats of the game, he has the ability to push things further than lesser players. This is undoubtedly true. I contend that it is also true that since A-Rod is one of the most despised players by the media, he gets a lot more criticism for anything he does than a player who acts similarly but is a certified red-ass. When Pete Rose flattened Ray Fosse in an All-Star game, he had scores of defenders. "That's the right way to play the game, exhibition or not." Presumably there's some sort of unwritten rule against that sort of thing, but Pete Rose just wanted to win at all costs. That's admirable, don't you see?

Added later: Of course, Braden then had the sense of timing to go off and join Charlie Robertson, Len Barker, and Mike Witt as the most mediocre spinners of perfect games, and thus cement is status as the most insufferable player in baseball. Braden's perfect game offered an opportunity for the world's Red-Ass Admiration Society to come together as one and declare vindication. The silliness of connecting the two situations is self-evident, but that didn't stop the less logical members of the RAAS.

* Baseball writers must be getting a little bored with their usual obsessions, like steroids and contraction. Early this season, the premise that three true outcome baseball is boring has come to the forefront.

I will admit my bias upfront: I quite enjoy three true outcome baseball. I do not agree with the notion that strikeouts, walks, and home runs are boring. Certainly, they can be, and I don't think that the extreme home run levels of, say, 1996 are particularly enjoyable, but in general I think a home run is just about the most exciting play you can imagine. The threat of being able to score at any time, regardless of base/out state, spices up the game in my opinion (I am going to stop prefacing everything with IMO henceforth because obviously it's my opinion). Some people bemoan the fact that middle infielders are now home run threats, but I think the possibility of an instant score up and down the lineup is a good thing.

With regard to strikeouts and walks, I also maintain that these are among the most interesting outcomes. Are four-pitch walks that result more from failing control than the batter/pitcher duel boring? Sure. But I think that a walk drawn in a deep count, with pitches fouled off and/or close pitches taken is actually quite exciting.

That's not to say that balls in play are uninteresting, but I think that the large percentage of them that are routine outs are in fact less interesting than a strikeout. I don't think a routine grounder to short or a fly to medium right is anything to get particularly excited about.

Of course, I don't expect that every baseball fan will share my opinion, and that's fine. These types of discussions get obnoxious when fans start deriding what they don't like as not being "real baseball" (whatever the hell that means), or glorifying the good old days not because they liked the style of play better but because the players were better and the world has gone to hell in a handbasket. This type of rhetoric is employed by a minority, certainly, but it's out there

The other obnoxious thing is when people try to ascribe motives to other's opinions on how the game should be played, like saying that everyone wants baseball to be the way it was when they were ten. There's a lot of truth in that kind of statement, but it's silly to assume that one couldn't come to the same preference through genuine open-mindedness.

All of this is but a skirmish compared to the rhetorical war that erupts over the DH rule. To defuse any idea that I am presenting myself as above the fray here, I have to admit that I do like to throw "Neanderthal League" references around.

* I am not ashamed to admit that I am something of a LOST fanboy, and as such I've been very excited by some people referring to Justin Smoak the "Smoak Monster". So of course I had to go and try to think up some more LOST-inspired nicknames in honor of the series finale this Sunday.

Unfortunately, I am not creative, particularly terrible at puns, and generally unable to come up with anything not cringe-worthy. The only one that I like is calling Lou Piniella "Dr. Arzt". Piniella is certainly a much more self-confident and accomplished person than Leslie, so the parallel is largely based on Arzt's demise.

In the Season One finale, "Exodus", Arzt tagged along with several of the heroes and Rousseau, the crazy French long-time Island resident, on a trip to Black Rock to get dynamite so that they could hide from the Others. The Black Rock is an old slaving ship that happens to be parked several miles inland, because in 1867 it was caught up in a massive storm and brought in on a massive wave that took out the statue of four-toed statue of Taweret, in which Island protector Jacob lived and...yeah, if you don't watch the show, you're probably wondering what I'm smoking.

Arzt insisted on handling the dynamite due to its instability after sitting out in the jungle for over a century. He lectured the other survivors about the history of dynamite and began gesturing with his arms and promptly detonated himself.

And that is why I connect him with Lou Piniella. He loves (used to love?) to go out and put on a show when arguing a call, waving his arms, kicking his hat, throwing bases, etc. He also has a newfound tendency to self-destruct by putting his best starting pitcher in a set up role. Lou Piniella--Dr. Arzt.

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