Maybe Mayday

A few years ago, Liam Neeson starred in an absurd action thriller called The Grey, where among other things he fought a pack of wolves with shards of glass taped to his knuckles. It was just another silly installment in Neeson’s late-career tough guy renaissance, but I’ll never forget The Grey, and not because of its lupine melee. It will stay with me because it contains one of the most harrowing plane-crash scenes of all time. Outside of my own dreams, that is.

God, I fuckin’ hate flying. Not because of the time spent in those non-places called airports, or the rigmarole of the security theater, or the food. Those are quotidian inconveniences, like waiting in line at the grocery store, or diarrhea. No, I hate flying because every time I step onto an airplane I’m convinced I’m going to die. Every creak in the fuselage, every whine of the engines or groan of the hydraulics sounds to me like Death’s scythe rapping the door. The flight attendants smiling during turbulence are no salve; they’re all part of a suicide cult and are expert in soothing their doomed charges.

Before each flight, I look up the model of plane I’ll be on and study its notable hull-loss accidents. I check the number of fatalities, cause of accident, and what changes regulators or manufacturers made in response. My favorite accidents are ones like Air France Flight 447, brought down by baffling pilot error, whose cockpit recordings provide a gripping transcript to hundreds of souls’ final moments. Or flights like United 232, a crash that claimed 111 lives, but still had 185 people live to tell their tale; its nightmarish crash footage is just a bonus for my morbid fascination.

God, I fuckin’ love planes. They are just the coolest thing. Seeing them and reading about them makes me feel like a little boy again. It’s the sheer scale of the things, you know? The size and speed, the principles at work, the thrust and lift and drag. I know about Bernoulli, and angle of attack, and different types of wings, and glide ratio. I know about the little cushion of air that forms between the plane and the ground during landing. I know about the flight envelope, and how routine flights never put the aircraft anywhere near exceeding it. I know of the multiple redundancies in every system. My good friend David is a pilot for British Airways and flies a Boeing 737 and every time I see him I have to swallow a thousand questions about planes. He was my pilot once, for a flight from Glasgow to London, and he let me sit in the cockpit during boarding. It was the thrill of a lifetime. Then I went back to my seat and for an hour imagined David impacting the ground in the Midlands slightly before me.

I know I’m unlikely to ever make up some fraction of a victim count, but I know a lot of things intellectually that I can never convince myself of emotionally. It’s the consequence of our highfalutin’ primate brains being built upon an edifice of raw, reptilian instinct and terror, of neurology recapitulating phylogeny. I know the dull ache in my testicles likely isn’t cancer, but I better have an ultrasound anyway. I know my train stopping in the middle of the Chunnel doesn’t mean it’s about to turn into my briny grave, and still my palms sweat. I know I’m more likely to die driving to or from the airport than on the plane in between (especially when, during a recent trip, my Czech taxi driver did 115mph on the freeway.) Knowing all of this doesn’t help one bit.

It’s crazy, but more than that it’s acute egomania. It’s the necessary and poisonous self-centeredness of all of us taken to an extreme. It’s a fear that says yes, I know the odds of dying in a plane crash are one in millions, but I am certainly that one. Plane crashes are rare and special, just like me. No, my fellow passengers aren’t special, they’re merely party to my exceptionality. If anything, their mundane and forgettable deaths tarnish the grand tragedy of my own. This egomania is similar to the irrational conviction of religious fundamentalists that The End is Nigh, who think that of all the people who have ever lived, surely we’ll be the ones to receive God’s wrath.

Another reason fear of flying is so common, and why I can’t shake mine, is because it’s really several fears packaged into one, like a phobia variety pack. You get, for the low price of a ticket: fear of falling, claustrophobia, fear of asphyxiation, fear of burning, even fear of drowning. Add in terrorism and you have the fear of being murdered; for the hypochondriacs, the fear of a medical emergency far from a hospital. Flying is the best phobic bargain on the market. And there’s the understanding that if any of these fears were to become realized, it wouldn’t be a quick affair. You don’t have to be a physicist to calculate how long it takes for an airliner to plummet from 30,000 feet: too fuckin’ long. You may get lucky, like TWA 800 passengers, and die instantly to an explosion, or be oblivious to your fate like passengers on Air France 447. More likely, you’ll have some time to comprehend what is coming, though hopefully not as much as the 509 passengers aboard Japan Airlines Flight 123, who had thirty minutes to write farewell notes to loved ones on napkins before impacting a mountainside (four survived.)

In some ways I wish my fear were more severe. After all, I’ve chosen to live my life straddling the Atlantic, so I have plenty more flights in my future. If I were more afraid, maybe I’d move back to America and pull a John Madden, driving everywhere I ever wanted to go and resigning myself to never seeing far-off locales. Suppressing a healthy wanderlust is probably easier than suppressing all-consuming thoughts of oblivion. Alas, I’m stuck having a few days of constant, low-grade panic attack each year, waiting for the moment when this center of the universe’s plane inevitably succumbs to gravity, against all odds.

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The Test of Your Life

After two years spent living in a new country, an immigrant probably has a pretty good grasp of things. They can feed and clothe themselves, know where to go if they’re sick, and they probably aren’t keeping their money in a mayonnaise jar. I know this to be true not only from personal experience, but because if they hadn’t done most or all of these things, they wouldn’t have lasted two years in their new home. See, becoming an immigrant is a kind of test, one where the prior answers you had to life’s questions no longer apply and new ones must be sought. How well you adapt to your new surroundings and get on with day-to-day life will determine whether you pass or fail.

Which is why I resent so strongly that the UK government requires immigrants to take a useless “Life in the UK” test as a condition of settling permanently.

Adjusting to a new culture is a process of delicate personal alchemy, mixing the new with the old to hopefully create something better. Deciding what of your new home to let in, and what to keep out, is how you take a sense of self firmly rooted elsewhere and update it for a new way of life. It is far more challenging, and has much higher stakes, than learning whitewashed versions of events in British history. Furthermore, the test concept is insulting because it’s the kind of thing you’d hear a racist taxi driver suggest after a tirade about his Pakistani neighbors. It’s a policy that sounds reasonable enough on its face to disguise its truly aggressive, punitive spirit.


Fine, so the test has a few reasonable questions about democracy and tolerance, and they’re intended to teach people about bedrock British principles. I certainly want my neighbor to, at minimum, understand that they live in a liberal democracy, and to leave me alone no matter who I fuck or who I worship. And I’ll even allow, though it’s a stretch, that before they’re granted a visa, a person should know the maximum amount they can claim in Scottish small claims court (it’s £3000), or how they can contact their local MP, or other mundane arcana of modern life. But what possible utility to “life in the UK”, practical or emotional or spiritual, is the knowledge that when King Charles II was escaping Cromwell’s Parliamentary army, he hid up an oak tree? In what way will an immigrant’s chances for prosperity be increased by knowing that, unlike her successor James I, Queen Elizabeth I was deft in her dealings with Parliament? If it’s meant to make the immigrant feel more British, it fails miserably, since the vast majority of British people don’t know and don’t need to know shit like this. If it’s meant to aid “integration”, as so many of the most exclusionary parts of the immigration process are cynically claimed to, it’s a farce. The fact is that there is no utility. It’s pure trivia. And it’s trivia designed to do a very specific thing: aggressively signal to the immigrant that this is not their history and it is not their country. It’s a message with an especially severe sting since the immigrant already knows that, and is reminded of it every day in large and small ways.

My test was administered in a drab room in the basement of a college, on old business PCs, the type you imagine an overweight 40-something office drone shutting down one last time before going home and finally putting a gun in his mouth. I was among about twenty test-takers that day, and was the only white person, which tells you all you need to know about Britain’s anxiety over immigration. After thirty minutes of rigorous document verification and “processing”, during which three people were kicked out because their documents didn’t match to the letter what they had inputted on the website, we were seated and allowed to begin. (To the credit of the man tasked with rejecting people, he seemed genuinely remorseful, but as in any case of institutional indecency, the perpetrators sleep well at night with the knowledge that they’re merely following the rules.) Two seats down from me a fellow test-taker, an Indian housewife, couldn’t start her test because she didn’t know how to use a computer mouse. This is obviously fine, not everyone does, and she likely had never needed to before that day. But as is customary with bureaucracies, the Vogons in attendance weren’t allowed to help anyone with anything, so they just stood over her as she clicked the wrong buttons. I don’t know if she was ultimately able to take the test, but I do know the process didn’t make her feel more British.

I finished with a passing score and was out of the building in less time than it took for the damn thing to start. I was relieved, yes, but mostly I was angry. Angry because there is no way that a nerve-wracking test, in a language the test taker may not be proficient in, on a machine they may not have ever used, is the best way to teach someone these apparently indispensable lessons. Angry that the test-takers, and their gathered friends and family in the lobby, are presumed deficient to live among us until they solve some perverse Riddle of the Sphinx. Angry that the real purpose of the test, and of the whole visa process, is to remind the immigrant that they aren’t wanted here, that the UK government would rather not admit them and will look for reasons not to. It’s one long process of seeking begrudging acceptance. I felt all of this acutely, and I’m American, and white. Imagine how it feels for everyone else.

If the Life in the UK test must be administered, make it more accommodating. Have a pencil-and-paper option for those less technologically inclined. Print it in the most common native languages of test-takers. The US government offers immigrants resources in multiple languages. The UK government can certainly afford to do the same. I know part of the purpose of the test is to force immigrants to demonstrate a working knowledge of the English language, but that’s a bullshit requirement anyway. Learning English is a boon to every immigrant, but they shouldn’t be forced to do so as a condition of residence. There are plenty of people living in the UK who can’t read this essay and are still valuable members of society. If people who support the English language requirement really want immigrants to learn English then the government ought to provide them with information outlining the positive effects, mental and material, of doing so. If it’s truly a good faith gesture and you think it’s for their own good, prove it. If you aren’t interested in doing so, and only want to force your language upon them, you’re just a xenophobe and a chauvinist. We shouldn’t create policy to keep you from having to hear Arabic spoken on the bus.

As for the insulting, irrelevant British history lesson requirement: can it. It reflects neither a person’s ability nor desire to be a contributing member of society and it does nothing to create or deepen an affinity for the UK. I don’t care what horror of statistical manipulation some Tory backbencher created to justify the policy, it’s garbage. If immigrants were made to feel less like criminals and more like welcomed members of society, they may decide to learn about British history themselves. The real history, not sanitized tidbits of the national mythos. Maybe that’s the fear.

If they could stomach my bleeding heart this long, now is when some ultra-pragmatic scold would start explaining to me the necessity of these policies. He’d say that they safeguard British culture, protect the economy from ruin, et fuckin’ cetera. Whatever. I’m not advocating some anarchic open border state where anyone can come and go freely. I understand the necessity of cataloging who is living here. And I don’t want the Home Secretary, the Right Honourable Theresa May herself, to pat people on the back and offer them a beer when they’re granted a visa. I want immigrants to be treated with good faith and dignity, and to be given more support at the conclusion of their visa process (I received no information, no pamphlets; just my resident card. This is when all the minor details of civil life and maybe some history should be presented to people, to use or not at their own discretion.) I just want the process to be injected with a little humanity.

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A life lived in a car is a life of distance–not just traveled, but felt. It’s a life of streets, highways, parking lots, signage; these are the things that create the texture of your world. Buildings are mostly inconsequential and people simply cease to exist, transformed instead into the inhuman abstraction of traffic. There’s a superficiality to an automotive life, because you don’t really live in car cities, you live on them. If you aren’t soaring above them on a highway, you’re gliding on “surface” streets, a name that unintentionally reveals a truth about life in these places. In contrast, being a pedestrian is a more intimate relationship with the place you live. Unburdened by the serious responsibility of piloting a mobile bomb, you’re free to look around, to see. It’s living micro instead of macro; things your tires wouldn’t notice, your feet trip over. Things you would never see at 30mph capture your attention at 3mph.

One such thing has become an almost daily fixture for me: a dashboard ornament in a neighbor’s car. Sitting proudly atop the dash, a gilded tchotchke amid a sea of drab plastic, it seems to be a small shrine with some Eastern religious aesthetic, shiny gold and cylindrical, slightly larger than a D-cell battery, with embossed symbols all around it. I don’t know what the ornament represents, if it actually has religious or cultural value, or if asking that kind of question is as nonsensical as asking about the significance of a pine tree-shaped air freshener dangling from a rearview mirror. Still, I walk by it every day and can never resist a glance. But the best thing? It spins, seemingly day and night, a flurry of motion in a stationary car. Well, it used to.

A few months ago, on an immiserating November day in Scotland, I was walking by, anticipating the mood boost this twirling totem grants me, desperate for any amount of color and life I could find. Shoulders hunched, squinting from the freezing rain, I looked into the car, but my spinning shrine was still; another joyful light snuffed out by the wet blanket that is a Scottish winter.

A dead battery, what a shame. I quickly dreamt up some Good Neighbor fantasy where I would leave a battery and a note in an envelope under the windshield wiper, telling my neighbor how much I enjoyed their trinket and that I’d be happy to subsidise its power needs. My neighbor would love this. It would make their day–no, their week, this small gesture of humanity, this pleasant reminder that real people are living real lives all around them. It would be the kind of sincere, anonymous connection with another human being that is all too rare in our atomized world.

My fantasy had obvious issues. For one, I had no idea what type of batteries the shrine used, or how well my neighbor reads English, if at all, in this predominantly Chinese immigrant neighborhood. And you can see the folly in leaving paper and ink outdoors in Scotland. I thought about leaving a few pounds in coins in an envelope in the hope my neighbor would intuit their purpose, or perhaps I would garnish the coins with a crude drawing of the shrine, just to make sure. But that raised the worry that they’d laugh at my earnest stupidity, pocket the money, even remove the shrine just to spite whichever rube believed their pathetic plan could work. Or the money would simply be stolen by a passer-by.

I eventually abandoned any idea of resurrecting the shrine and added this saga to the list of minor cruelties and petty disappointments that life flings at you. It could be worse, I thought; I still get to see it every day, and even stationary it’s pretty and nice. Maybe it’s better this way. Maybe so much movement inside of a parked car created an uneasy incongruence after all. Or hey, maybe the neighbor would eventually take time out of their busy, stressful life and replace the batteries.

I missed the spinning shrine.

A few days ago the winter broke like a fever and the sun shone weakly but satisfyingly. I was walking to fetch whatever unhealthy convenience I’d decided upon for lunch that day and turned onto the street where the car is parked, now facing directly into the sun. Squinting, I caught an old, familiar glint: the shrine, in all its kitschy splendor, spinning like it hadn’t spun in months, maybe ever, like it was about to break free from its mount and fly through the windshield. My heart leapt, but then I realized.

For months I’d walked by lamenting the dead batteries inside of a solar-powered shrine. For months I’d softly cursed my negligent neighbor for failing to provide the simple maintenance that wasn’t needed. For months I’d failed to understand that, like the human spirit, the shrine just died during the sunless winter.

Until my move to Glasgow two years ago, I had driven to any place that was further away than I could spit. Now, as a full-time pedestrian, I’m grateful to be able to walk everywhere, to enjoy the rhythms of the city, to rejoice in the small things, and to notice what an idiot I am.

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Giants World Series 2014 Preview

It’s an even-numbered year, Giants fans, so you know what that means: the Giants will win the World Series. How can I be sure? Simple. Imagine this were on a math test:

 2009, miss the playoffs; 2010, win the World Series; 2011, miss the playoffs; 2012, win the World Series; 2013, miss the playoffs; 2014, ________

Baseball is about statistics and this statistic is irrefutable. Since the start of the Posey Era (peace be upon him), the Giants win the World Series in every even year. So before we get to the formality that is the 2014 regular season, let’s take a look at the hitters that will be parading down Market Street in 7 months.

 C: Buster Posey

Buster isn’t merely first in the position numbering system, he’s first in our hearts. In the recent sham election for which player represents the Face of MLB, Buster lost, demonstrating that the moral arc of the universe still has quite a ways to bend. Buster is the face of the Giants, the face of MLB, maybe the face of all humanity. They don’t even play the national anthem at Giants games, they just show Buster on the jumbotron and everyone hears the song in their heads. What I’m saying is you just don’t get this kind of production from a catcher.

That Buster’s 2013 could be considered a down year, despite a .294/.371/.450 line and 4.8 fWAR, says it all. And yet compared to his 2012 MVP campaign, one of the all-time great catcher seasons, it was. His power was way down as he slugged 9 fewer home runs, a difference composed entirely of home runs off left-handed pitchers (he hit 11 homers against righties in both 2012 and 2013). This is bizarre in light of the Bondsian numbers he posted against southpaws in 2012, and seems attributable almost entirely to some wild variance in home runs per fly ball vs lefties, from an absurd 30.2% in 2012 to an equally absurd 7.1% in 2013. Obviously, Posey’s true talent lies somewhere between these two extremes, and I’m certain it’s closer to what he showed us in 2012. The real lesson here is that some wacky stuff can happen in only 180 PAs.

That’s the how of Buster’s power loss last year, but what’s unknown is the why. His second half of the season was completely miserable, with only 2 home runs and 9 extra-base hits in 228 PAs. It’s possible that fatigue was an issue, as he played deep into the postseason in 2012 after recovering from a catastrophic leg injury. But the guy is only 26 years old and was #MVPosey for much of last season, which makes me feel like his sudden inability to drive the ball was the result of some power-sapping injury the public was never made aware of. It isn’t uncharacteristic of the Giants to force a player to play through an injury, especially in a title defense season. Let’s hope they don’t do it in 2015.

The recipe for enjoying Buster Posey this year is the same as always: hope for health, sit back and enjoy one of the game’s best players. I’ll predict a .315/.403/.495 line, stellar defense, and a top-5 finish in MVP voting.

1B: Brandon Belt

Imagine trying to live up to your parents’ expectations when one of your brothers became President, one cured cancer, and another landed on the moon. Tough, right? It certainly was for Brandon Belt, who debuted in the majors for a fanbase utterly spoiled by the recent performances of their top prospects. When Belt only appeared in 63 lackluster games for the disappointing 2011 team, many were ready to call him a bust.

This continued into 2012, even though he finished the year with a 118 wRC+; solid, but not remarkable for the position. The power he flashed in the minors had yet to come, but his walk rate ticked up and strikeout rate fell. This wasn’t good enough for some. Through no fault of Belt’s own he became a kind of lightning rod in baseball’s culture war. See, the nerds loved him. He had that wonderful strike zone control and walk rate, and stats folk generally don’t care about strikeouts. And because the nerds loved Belt, the traditionalists couldn’t. They complained that he struck out too much, and that when he did, he petulantly slumped his shoulders. This wasn’t their grandfather’s kind of ballplayer, this was a modern, sissified Moneyball type. Belt didn’t care, he just went out and helped win a World Series.

In 2013 the nerds were vindicated, and after a slight mechanical tweak Belt made fairly early in the season, he finished with a tidy .289/.360/.481 line, which was good for a stellar 139 wRC+. Belt was quietly the team’s best hitter last year.

I don’t expect that to be the case in 2014, but only because Posey is going to be a monster and Belt will only be a monsterette. I appreciate projection systems and the work their creators put into them, but I think Belt is going to have a bigger year than his .264/.349/.441 ZiPS projection. He’s finally arrived and is going to showcase that in a big way this year, with a .280/.380/.495 line.

2B: Marco Scutaro

Remember when Freddy Sanchez dove for a grounder and fell into a sinkhole, never to be seen again, and the Giants were forced to roll out the likes of Mini Mike Fontenot, Jeff “Human Statue” Keppinger, and Emmanuel fucking Burriss? It was an ugly 2011 at the keystone for the Giants after their aging second baseman suffered a career-ending injury. Bad news for 2014: Marco Scutaro is 38 years old and, due to a bad back, managed only 2 ABs this spring, and will start the season on the DL with no clear timetable for his return. What a couple months ago looked like a solid 2-win position for the Giants now has serious black hole potential. Expect to see a revolving door of Joaquin Arias, Ehire Adrianza, and Brandon Hicks until Scutaro returns, if he even can. Best-case scenario is replacement-level play from that unholy utility triumvirate, with Scutaro able to start a rehab assignment as soon as his DL stint ends.

I’m pessimistic. With Scutaro’s age and the nature of his injury, there’s a real possibility this could be the end of the road for him. If he manages to play 100 games this year I’d be pleasantly surprised, with a likely outcome being a year spent endlessly rehabbing, a la Freddy Sanchez in 2012. If he can get on the field, he’ll be the same ol’ Marco, hitting .295/.345/.395.

3B: Pablo Sandoval

Before a sports fan makes fun of their significant other for reading a gossip magazine, they should remember that Pablo Sandoval’s weight is more widely reported and obsessed over than anyone on the cover of Us Weekly. The latest from the year-round Panda Fat Watch has his condition being downgraded from “Too Fat” to “Not That Fat (For Now)”. Barring a midseason extension, Sandoval will be a free agent this year, and so has millions of incentives to keep the pounds off.

There isn’t a clear correlation between his weight and offensive performance, because whatever his bust size, Sandoval can hit. He might have the best raw bat-to-ball skill of any player in the game, with plate coverage he leverages to often hilarious effect. Each year you’ll see Pablo get hits on pitches most other players wouldn’t even swing at, like 55-foot curves he’ll hit on the bounce, or doubles he’ll yank off his shoe tops. Part of you wishes he’d stop swinging at so many bad balls, but the other part enjoys it too much when it works out.

What’s up for debate regarding Sandoval is how well he mans third base. The consensus seems to be “average at best”, but he did put up some truly great defensive numbers in his famous slim year of 2011. Maybe it was single-season defense statistic anomaly or Panda simply being a better fielder with less mass to shift. Probably it’s both. I think Pablo is going to have a big walk year, hitting .308/.355/.500, showing some of the power he’s been missing the last few years, especially from the right-side, and playing average defense. His agent certainly hopes so.

SS: Brandon Crawford

Brandon Crawford is the kind of player all pitchers are happy to see. If your job is to get hitters out, Crawford can help, no matter which jersey you wear. He does it with the stick by being a pretty terrible hitter and he does it with the glove by being a pretty terrific fielder, and the latter is why the Giants are trotting him out there on Opening Day.

Nope, Crawford cannot hit. More specifically, he can kinda not hit against righties but he can really not hit against lefties, which is why the Giants have already announced that he’ll be platooning with Joaquin Arias this season. Being a lefty, Crawford will get most of the playing time, so he’ll have more opportunity to add value the only way he’s capable, with his glove. Arias is a statue at short and will give back most of the few runs he’s capable of producing at the plate. The two combined will hopefully prove average at hitting, with Crawford’s defense making the position something less than a complete disaster.

Protecting him from lefties will allow Crawford to put up the best slash line of his career, .255/.320/.375, with +10 runs on defense.

LF: Michael Morse/Gregor Blanco

Michael Morse will be standing in left field on Opening Day, but I list Gregor Blanco here as well since my limited capacity for optimism still has me wishing for an eventual platoon. In 2011, Morse was the kind of player all pitchers hated to see, slugging homers and booting grounders, an offensive powerhouse and a defensive outhouse. He hit .303/.360/.550 with 31 homers but twenty runs given back in the field. It was his first full season and he was 29 years old. Since then, he’s played in 190 games over two injury-plagued seasons and been completely terrible, batting .258/.299/.432, with a 5:1 K/BB ratio and defense that should’ve made him unplayable.

The Giants gave Morse six million dollars this year and a starting job in the hopes that he can get healthy and do what he did in 2011: pound the ball enough to make up for the fact he sometimes has to wear a glove. They’ll do what they did with Pat Burrell in 2010, which is give Morse three at-bats a game to run into one and then yank him for a defensive replacement, probably Gregor Blanco. But I’d like to see Blanco start against righties and only see Morse against lefties. Blanco has no power, but he can draw a walk and his defense is elite. He’s been the most valuable minor league free agent signing of the last two years because of that glove. Morse’s upside is something like .280/.330/.490 and a magical talisman to ward off fly balls; his downside is a huge, stinking crater where left field once was.

CF: Angel Pagan

I’m incredibly excited about the upcoming Field Tracking System for many reasons, but seeing Angel Pagan’s defense analyzed is a big one. See, I think it’s terrible, and the numbers mostly bear that out. He has pretty bad instincts, a terrible first step, and comical routes, but can survive out there on speed alone.

Luckily, when Pagan is healthy, he can hit. Last year a hamstring injury caused him to miss nearly half the season, but when he was on the field he was most of that stellar player from 2012, actually putting up an identical 114 wRC+ in both years. If his surgically-repaired hamstring allows him to rack up 600 PAs of similar production this year then the Giants will be in good shape. I’d be happy with a .280/.330/.415 line, solid baserunning, and merely below-average defense.

RF: Hunter Pence

Hunter Pence looks funny playing baseball but still does it well enough to have earned himself a 5-year, $90m contract. That contract begins this year, Pence’s age 31 season, and boy could it turn out ugly. I’m talkin’ Aaron Rowand ugly, which should scare and disgust anyone who wants to watch and enjoy Giants baseball.

It probably won’t end up that way, only because geez, how often can someone be as terrible as Aaron Rowand?

Pence keeps himself on the field, swings for the fences, and hustles like hell. He’s fun to watch when his herky-jerky style produces, which I expect it to this year. I was wrong about Pence last year, seeing his miserable 2012 as the start of a precipitous decline. It looks more like an odd blip, as Pence was terrific in 2013. He’s going to hit .285/.350/.490 this year, even better than last year, with not-terrible defense and good baserunning.

*    *    *

No one’s ever accused me of being overly optimistic, but I feel like the Giants offense is going to be pretty damn good this year. Good enough to win the World Series, I mean. Since I provided raw batting line predictions and not park- and league-adjusted stats, it’s important to remember that in AT&T Park, in 2014, a slugging percentage near .500 is tremendous, and a .330 on-base percentage for an up-the-middle defender is extremely solid. The season will hinge, like last year, on the pitching staff, which right now is looking like Bumgarner and Cain and pray for rain. But since it’s an even year, expect big things from Hudson and Lincecum, and Vogelsong to be a serviceable fifth starter. Can’t wait to see who will win World Series MVP.


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Mouse Jockeys

In the realm of benignly contentious conversation topics, “The Definition of Sport” is a personal favorite. People have strong opinions about it, as they do about most things categorical, and the discussion can be fairly revealing. It isn’t a stretch to say that you can plumb the depths of a person’s tolerance, even magnanimity, by asking them if some marginal competitive pursuit counts as a sport.

To sports fans, the designation of “sport” is an honorific. It’s a word that immediately brings to mind things like discipline, grace, and fairness. “Sportsmanship” is a quality anyone would be proud to be told they embody. It’s this lofty status of the word “sport” which means its use is fiercely guarded; like any descriptor, if it’s used too liberally its meaning will be diluted. The result is that people withhold the title “sport” in order to denigrate things they don’t like or don’t understand, often dismissing them as mere games, the crucial logic being that all sports are games, but not all games are sports. Games are a hell of a thing to be; they’re considered frivolous or silly, something for children. Taking a game too seriously is as shameful as not taking a sport seriously enough. In contrast to sportsmanship, “gamesmanship” is a hissed epithet.

I use a very broad definition of sport, and it’s probably down to my wanting to legitimize a lifelong passion for competitive video games. If it’s competitive and requires some physical prowess, I’m comfortable calling it a sport*, which encompasses video games nicely since competitive gaming at the highest levels requires unbelievable hand-eye coordination and reaction time, along with all the strategic thinking other sports require. In those two ways hitting a baseball and besting an opponent in my current favorite game, League of Legends, are more similar than most people think. For some the litmus test for a sport seems to involve a certain level of muscle mass or average heart rate, and things insufficiently athletic are discredited. But fine-tuned fast-twitch muscles surely count as much as bulging biceps, don’t they? And what if your heart rate is spiked from focus and pressure and not out of some aerobic necessity?

*I realized writing this that my definition must include something I find morally repugnant: competitive eating. It displays feats of human ability that beggar belief, and requires intense training, and if the capacity to ingest 70 hot dogs is a genetic gift, it’s no more one than being able to throw a baseball 95mph. Having to acknowledge professional gluttony as a sport in the name of epistemic consistency gives me heartburn.

Many of the arguments I hear against certain things being considered sports, from golf to auto racing to video games, stem from a failure to imagine the physical basis of the amazing performances on display. The level of fitness necessary for F1 drivers to endure a race would tax the leader of the peloton, and the reaction time and vision required of League of Legends pros would humble Peyton Manning.

As I’ve already argued, sheer physical difficulty isn’t the ultimate criterion for calling something a sport, but I think it can still be instructive, and one of the best ways to determine physical difficulty is by looking at a sport’s aging curve. It’s widely accepted that the human body peaks athletically in a person’s early-to-mid 20s, but for some sports the effects can be ameliorated or even negated by superior experience or knowledge. A 30-year-old pitcher may not have the raw stuff he had at 24, but he knows better how to attack a hitter and exploit their weaknesses. Likewise, a 40-year-old NASCAR driver isn’t likely to outpace their younger opponent, but experience will give them an edge in car management and see that it lasts the race.

There are sports, however, that have such severe physical demands that no amount of experience will help an older participant remain competitive against young up-and-comers. Gymnastics comes to mind, with athletes peaking in their teens, as well as sport stacking, which is essentially dominated by children. League of Legends and other competitive video games may have a similarly steep aging curve, with geriatric 24-year-olds outgunned at every turn by lightning-quick teenagers. And while it’s possible the drinking-age retirement ceremonies are the result of a sport that draws its players from an adolescent base, having played the game and seen what pros can do, I think it’s more likely a function of the incredible physical demands. I have to accept that no matter how much I practice, my advanced age of 29 leaves me with no potential for greatness.

Not that League of Legends is hurting for greatness. Four nights a week the best talent in North America and Europe is on display in a professional league, the LCS (League Championship Series) run by the game’s developer, Riot. Hundreds of thousands tune in to watch the matches, played in front of live audiences full of fans wearing their favorite team’s merchandise. Players are signed by teams, receive salaries, coaching, and live together in team houses where they practice every day. There are sponsors, ads, referees and broadcasters, player meet-and-greets with souvenir photos and autographs, and all the other trappings of professional sports. Foreign players are even granted the same US athlete visas as competitors in “real” sports.

Despite everything in professional League of Legends (and other games, like Starcraft II) that is reminiscent of mainstream sports, if you were to poll the large League of Legends fanbase on Reddit, for example, plenty of people would still insist on a distinction being made. Fans, and Riot, are comfortable with the designation “eSport”, and maybe that will always be the case. But as viewership numbers and production budgets rise, it all starts to feel like special pleading to keep competitive gaming in its own unique category. All I can say is that when I have an LCS match on one screen and an MLB game on the other, the differences to me are of degree and not type.

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Relax, Kid

When I was 12 years old I went on a school trip to Philadelphia, New York City, and Washington D.C., one of those ostensibly educational jobs that are really less about seeing the Liberty Bell and more about parents shelling out a grand and getting to ditch a kid for a week. I wasn’t the ideal candidate for the “learning” part of this trip anyway; as the top of the class, straight-A student, I actually remembered the American history shit they had already taught us. I didn’t need visual aids, but my mom needed a week with 33% fewer children.

None of my friends were going, with most unable to afford it, and others the unfortunate spawn of overprotective parents who hated not having a visual of their target for longer than a school day. I was roomed with someone I only vaguely knew, from another elementary school, Cal.

Cal was like no kid I had ever met. He was wild and free, almost feral, with long black hair he kept tied in a ponytail. A ponytail! To 12-year-old me, he may as well have had a face tattoo and a gun. He lacked what I thought to be proper deference for authority, mouthing off with no concern for the consequences. Hell, back then, my mom wouldn’t let me watch The Simpsons because she was afraid I’d be influenced by Bart. Cal basically was Bart.

But he wasn’t just some mindless fuckup. That was obvious not only by talking to him, but by seeing how teachers and other authority figures responded to him. When kids considered dumb and hopeless act out, they engender anger and are merely punished. Kids like Cal, seen as having “potential”, cause adults to despair at their misbehavior. Cal seemed to know this, and relished pushing the buttons of those in charge. It secretly thrilled me.

One night we were in our hotel room when suddenly Cal produced a High Times magazine. I was scandalized. Marijuana wasn’t only illegal, it was used solely by burnouts and losers, never-was’s and never-will’s. To me, squarest of the squares, credulous Disciple of D.A.R.E., it was the quickest way to get nowhere. I demanded he put it away, afraid that when his inevitable (and justified) punishment hit him that I’d be caught in the blast.

Instead, he upped the ante: in the middle of the magazine was a centerfold calendar with twelve pictures of hairy, glistening buds, which he pulled out and hung on the wall. This was suicide. I pleaded with him to take it down, but he merely laughed. Defeated, I gave an impotent admonishment and an unconvincing promise that I wouldn’t be the one getting in trouble for this. Deep down, even if I didn’t realize it at the time, something changed in me. Cal was causing trouble and disappointing adults, and he was having fun doing it, a lot more fun than I was having. He seemed to think they were all full of shit, that they were hypocrites, that they weren’t being honest with us. I didn’t want to believe him. It took me a few more years, but I eventually saw for myself the basic human frailty present in all so-called “authority” figures and the facade cracked fully. He must’ve got a glimpse of it very early on.

Anyway, Cal, who since then has been a lifelong friend, was right: fuck these squares. I wouldn’t find out for a few more years, but marijuana is great and the adults were full of shit. It’s used by all types of people, D.A.R.E. was propagandistic garbage, and weed’s continued illegality is an outrage. The forces of good are winning the war, though. Slowly, and not in all places, but the trend is clear. The sky won’t come crashing down in Colorado or Washington now that both states have legalized marijuana, because it’s ultimately a phenomenally benign substance. Once a few more olds politely die off it won’t even be an issue.

While it is an issue, though, it must be framed in proper terms. I find the economic arguments pointless, since the people for whom they may be persuasive are likely inhumane technocratic types whose impartiality is often feigned. And I don’t go in for those easy comparisons of marijuana’s effects and consequences relative to alcohol. I understand the temptation, since plenty of marijuana’s loudest detractors shout about its ills from one side of their mouth and sip booze with the other, and few things have as powerful a corrective effect as pointing out someone’s hypocrisy. And while it can be marginally useful to compare the two when speaking to an audience whose only frame of reference for altered states of consciousness is drunkenness, if your advocacy starts from such a lowly position as that occupied by alcohol, you sacrifice the high ground. Pigs, mud, and all that.

I think marijuana is self-evidently a positive thing, and I’m not only referring to its manifold medicinal properties, which were not just exaggerated as an end-around in order to legalize it. Marijuana’s recreational benefits are just as compelling. I’ll concede it isn’t as plainly a social drug as alcohol, and weed bars are a lot less raucous than regular bars. But it could be argued that bud’s social boons are of a more real nature than the sodden illusions that cause drunk strangers to have bartop heart-to-hearts.

Marijuana is a disinhibitor, but not in the way you would think. It won’t make you take your clothes off or fight someone, but instead will make you think in new and interesting ways. You’ll see normal, even mundane aspects of your life from a whole new perspective. This is frightening to certain people, which is why so many dumb stoner stereotypes rely on mocking the questions people who get high begin to ask. To me, getting stoned is like lifting a veil from my eyes and allowing me to see the world in an unusual way, in some ways what feels like a more truthful way. This veil is necessary to operate on a day-to-day basis, but I think it’s healthy to sometimes see things without it. Even doing this once can be transformative. I heartily recommend it.

The creative benefits of this radical change in perspective are obvious, seeing as how creativity is nothing if not an attempt at seeing things differently. I never learned to properly harness marijuana to this end, though I was never in a position to really try, being more concerned with shutting down and tuning out, using marijuana as a psychic analgesic. I hope to someday wield it for more productive ends, but that day is not today, because I live in Scotland, where I won’t smoke weed for a few reasons. First, weed culture is much different here from what I can gather. There seems to be a real stigma attached to it, though I’m willing to admit it could just be the different types of people I mix with here relative to back home. Still, the UK did reclassify marijuana into a more severe tier in 2009, suggesting the country is somehow regressing on the issue. It’s also common here to smoke weed mixed with tobacco, and I don’t mean in the fun way like a blunt, but actually mixed up inside of a joint. When in Rome, I still ain’t smoking like that. Second, from what little I have seen of marijuana here, it’s expensive and shitty, and besides, I wouldn’t even know where to find expensive shitty weed if I wanted to. Third, and most importantly, I’m an immigrant on a visa and the last thing I want is to catch a case. For all its joys, marijuana sadly doesn’t fit into my life right now.

I look forward to the day when it will again, because it’s a wonderful thing. That uptight little kid I once was became a much more mellow adult, and I have Cal and his magazine to thank.

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The Overrated Ol’ Days

I bet you old baseball players sucked. I bet you their swings were bad, their pitches slow, their arms weak. I bet you the 25th guy on any big league roster today, transported back in time, would have a shot at being a Hall of Famer. He’d feast on tumbling curveballs thrown by part-time farm hands, or would blow mediocre 90mph heat past a team’s best hitter. I bet you Babe Ruth would have a hard time finding a big league job today. Here is a so-called legend who never had to face a 21-year-old Dominican coming out of the bullpen with a triple-digit heater and a wipeout slider. He built that legend by whacking 9th-inning bombs off the exhausted starter over a right-field wall only 260-feet away.

I bet you if Barry Bonds were sent back to 1925 he’d have an .800 OBP and hit 100 homers a year. I bet you he might even be able to win 20 games as a pitcher, too, because why not. I bet if you sent Clayton Kershaw or Justin Verlander back they’d strikeout 50% of batters, walk virtually no one, and throw complete games in all their starts. Old ballplayers sucked.

This isn’t some statement about the unceasing march of human progress, I’m just saying that old athletes were smaller and weaker and slower and worse than modern ones, had less time to train and less of an idea how, and that whoever is the best player of the latest era is the best player of all time. Ty Cobb don’t impress me much, Honus Wagner don’t impress me much, Walter Johnson don’t impress me much. I appreciate their place in history and their utter domination of their peers, and love looking at their pages on Baseball Reference, but calling any of them the best of all time is laughable.

My point is fuck the good ol’ days, they were never that good anyway. I understand your grandpa told you all about these players and how great they were, but your grandpa also didn’t trust the Japanese neighbors. Your grandpa was an asshole.

There’s an upper limit to the human body’s capabilities, which Stephen Jay Gould referred to in Full House as the “right wall”, and players today are resting right up against that natural limitation. Players back in the day simply weren’t. Babe Ruth was closer to that wall than his contemporaries—a lot closer—but still nowhere near as close as Barry Bonds.

I think baseball’s link with its past is one of the game’s best features, and the way that any current event can be instantly contextualized within a historical framework adds profound depth. Still, I’d like a little less veneration of the past in lieu of more appreciation for the present. Mike Trout isn’t the new Mickey Mantle because he’s so much better than Mantle ever was.

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Guilty Rider

To hell with Wittgenstein. I don’t know why we’re here either, but I’m confident at least one of the reasons is to enjoy ourselves. That’s why the notion of a guilty pleasure always bothered me. Why feel bad about feeling good? As long as you aren’t hurting anyone, soak up as much pleasure as you can get. Some admit guilty pleasure in certain types of music or film or TV shows, and while I understand the impulse, that always struck me as a peer pressure thing. If you like a cheesy pop song, or a corny movie, or a silly show, own it, and to hell with anyone who gives you shit about it. Feeling like you aren’t the “type” of person who would do [x] or like [y] is something imposed on you by others.

I need to confess something, though: I do have a guilty pleasure, and I only recently realized it. My pleasure is unfashionable in the circles I run in. It causes unquestioned environmental harm. It has profound political implications. And yet, if I had the means to indulge it fully I would, even though I wouldn’t be able to live with the strutting hypocrite I would become. I just can’t help it. I love my pleasure and I have since I was a kid, and while the guilt keeps me from being loud and proud, I have no plans to change.

I love cars.

Dirty, dangerous, sexy, fascinating cars. They were once seen as tools of empowerment or freedom, and for some that’s still true, but I’m not talking about the a-to-b appliances most people own. I’m talking about sports cars, supercars, tuned cars, race cars—any car that is at best unnecessary and at worst offensive. The kind of cars that compel people to make jokes about the owner’s dick. Cars that are the playthings of the rich, that are emblematic of the staggering environmental and economic violence being afflicted on the planet. I love the car being driven by the investment banker or the union-busting captain of industry. I love something that is enjoyed principally by people I hate.

I try to justify it. I tell myself that I love cars in an abstract way, as neutral triumphs of design or engineering. And while that’s true and they are both of those things, the justification feels hollow, because they are many other things too. In similar fashion, I love fighter jets, aircraft carriers, and other terrible implements of murderous empire. It’s the sheer scale of the things: the speed, the size, the capacity. As signs of human technological progress, they’re potent. We went from stone tools to Mach 2 in a geologic instant, and never mind the why.

Except you can’t divorce the why from the how when it comes to these machines. If you’re at least making an attempt at being a conscientious citizen, you can’t fully compartmentalize anything like this. Forget the fiction of ethical consumption; you oughta have misgivings about the sweatshop-made clothes you buy, the factory-farmed food you eat, the corporate-controlled media you consume, the gadgets made by slave labor with which you consume it. Even love is fraught with issues like patriarchy and gender roles, co-dependence and equitable division of labor. You can’t even jerk off with a clear conscience these days. How ethical is the porn I’m watching? Are the workers being treated well? Are they being coerced? Are they addicts or victims of human trafficking? In the face of all that, what’s a relatively harmless hobby like cars?

It’s a lot to think about, if you think at all. I kind of envy those who can’t or won’t, or who are better at justifying things to themselves than I am. Some people know and just don’t give a shit, which outside of my hollow hand-wringing, is what my real actions amount to. Either the guilt is feigned to save a sliver of face, or just a self-defense mechanism to allow you to live with yourself while changing nothing. Probably it’s both.

There’s a deep irony to life these days, where you find yourself taking a long, hot shower and thinking about drought; where you chew on a piece of sushi while contemplating the tragedy of the commons; where you think about your carbon footprint on a long-haul flight. If only I could go for a long, guilty drive right now and mull this over.

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A Monitor Is A Type Of SAD Light

There’s a skill—an instinct, really—that I’m slowly developing by living in Scotland. I never thought I would need it, but as things worked out it’s something I’m glad to possess, even in its nascent form. I’m not talking about the ability to avoid certain types of people, that I may keep my bodily envelope unpunctured, though in Glasgow that’s apparently handy. Nor is it a tolerance for fried meats and heavy beer. No, I’m talking about the quotidian talent for knowing whether the rain is coming down heavily enough to merit carrying an umbrella.

This may seem like a boring, even useless, skill to have. I mean, it’s either raining or it isn’t, right? In some places, sure, precipitation is a binary proposition, but not in Scotland. In Scotland there is a spectrum of wetness, and at some point along it a quick pop down to the shops requires at minimum a portable canopy. You can calculate your expected sogginess by multiplying just two variables, rain strength (R) and time of trip (T), and accurately estimating how the former will interact with the latter is an invaluable adaptation for life here.

The other day I got it wrong. I went to fetch lunch and was about two blocks from my flat when I realized I’d miscalculated. It wasn’t the worst error I’ve made in my days living here—and happily they are becoming fewer in frequency and lesser in severity—but it was a mistake. Not that I can complain about the weather, because in my visa application I waived the right. I signed up for this.

I also signed up for winters up here, of which the most difficult part isn’t the cold or the rain, but the length of day. It’s real fuckin’ short, like dark-by-5pm short. I want to say that humans weren’t designed to live at the 55th parallel, and anatomically that may be true, but if humans were slaves to their anatomy we’d still be a marginal group of hairless apes in the Great Rift Valley, if we were around at all. It’s our remarkable adaptability that allows us to survive and thrive in environments so far from where we evolved, and that adaptability is largely a product of our minds—minds that can build shelters, start fires, invent umbrellas. Minds that can create the concept of hygge.

Hygge is a Danish word without a direct English analog, though it’s most often described as “a warm, cozy feeling”. It’s pronounced, like all words in the Scandinavian language family, as if your face is too cold to move and your mouth is full of pickled herring. (Also kinda like “HER-guh”.) When Danes talk about hygge they mention coffee and cake with family, drinks with friends, or in our modern context, lying in bed with a loved one and watching Netflix on a laptop. Whatever hygge is, it must work. Denmark consistently rates highest on various global “happiness” indices, baffling unimaginative foreigners who overrate the immiserating effects of cold weather and little sunshine, and hygge must be part of the reason why. I suspect broad economic prosperity, robust social safety nets, and health care for all might also contribute.

Finding myself staring into the dark, wet face of another Scottish winter, I’ve decided to incorporate the spirit, and the practices, of hygge into my life. So far this has mostly meant playfully scolding Nicola with an exaggerated, guttural “HYGGE” when she (justifiably) whines about the sun setting in the afternoon, but the actual plan is to spend a large chunk of time doing things that improve our moods. For us that means ordering a pizza and watching Jeopardy!, like last night, or even doing things individually that bring us comfort. Having a few beers and writing or playing video games is mega hygge for me, and laying on the couch with a good book is for Nicola. This winter will contain plenty of that.

I’m sure every extreme latitude population, from Finland to Tierra Del Fuego, has a concept like hygge. It’s pretty obvious. And I know repeating a newly-learned Danish word like some kind of mantra won’t be a panacea. Seasonal Affective Disorder is a real thing and can’t be cured with a cup of tea. But the point is that weather’s effect on mood is wildly overstated. There are completely miserable people in California and people in Scotland who couldn’t be more content. This year, with the help of hygge, I’ll have a shot at being one of the latter.

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Maybe Lincecum

If my Twitter feed were any guide, you’d think Joe Buck is the most-hated announcer in sports. People think he’s boring, or that he doesn’t like baseball, or that he’s a shameless beneficiary of nepotism. All of that may be true, but I’ve never really understood the hate. Sure, he isn’t my favorite, but I think a lot of the grief he takes is just splash damage from the (justified) animosity thrown at his partner Tim McCarver. If Buck were paired up with a coherent color commentator, his play-by-play calling would be perfectly adequate. There’s also the inescapable reality for a national sports announcer, which is that when you call a game, half the audience will associate your voice with a losing effort, and the other half will resent not being able to hear their hometown guy. You can’t win.

Why I love baseball, in one image.

I admit a bias here, because Joe Buck is an integral part of one of the best baseball memories of my life, Game 5 of the 2010 World Series. Tim Lincecum threw 8 innings of one-run ball, striking out 10, and helped seal the first Giants World Series championship since 1954. I don’t need to tell you that the entire game was thrilling, but there was one moment in particular that stood out to me. In the bottom of the 4th inning, having already blown through the lineup once, Lincecum was facing Nelson Cruz. He got him in a 2-2 count and then fired a perfectly-placed, unhittable splitter, causing Cruz to flail helplessly. All Joe Buck could do was exclaim “So good.” (At 0:50 in this clip.) I’ll never forget it. My reaction was informed, in part, by the (absurd) received wisdom that Joe Buck doesn’t even like baseball, yet not even he could resist being awed by Lincecum’s brilliance. It was a validation of sorts, as if our desire to convince a skeptic was fulfilled by this transcendent display.

Anyway, Buck was right: Lincecum was so good. We all have dozens of great memories, watching that lean, lithe body use every bit of kinetic energy it could generate to baffle hitters. We’d never seen anything like it and we never will again. And that’s why the Giants should re-sign Lincecum.

I’ll admit that a big part of why I want to see the Giants give Lincecum a multi-year deal for millions is because of an emotional attachment. He probably did more to reawaken my dormant love for the game than anyone. Not even Barry Bonds’ heroics got my dad to insist I start watching baseball again years ago. It was Lincecum.

If the Giants do choose to re-sign him, it’ll need to be for these kind of subjective reasons; the history, the memories, the face-of-the-franchise stuff. There would need to be hope of a chance he’ll return to form, gain some velocity and command, or that the very brief look we saw of him in the postseason, as a relief ace, was hinting at the next stage of his career.

The objective case is difficult to make because Lincecum just isn’t good anymore. In fact, you’d struggle to even call him average. Depending on your preferred flavor of all-in-one value stat, for the last two seasons he’s been either replacement level (BP’s VORP), slightly above it (fWAR) or far below (rWAR). No version can agree except on one point: this pitcher hasn’t been any good.

If more traditional stats are your bag, fine: 383.2 innings of 4.76 ERA ball in one of the game’s most extreme pitcher’s parks. The strikeouts are down, the walks are up. He’s allowing more homers and more hits and appears to have completely lost the ability to pitch from the stretch, with sub-70% strand rates each of the last two years. Strand rate is considered a high-variance statistic, something largely out of a pitcher’s control and with weak correlation year-to-year, but after consecutive seasons of getting torched in traffic it’s possible Lincecum just can’t manage it anymore. Maybe the stretch takes away what modicum of command he still possesses and further weakens his diminished stuff.

It helps to focus on the “maybe” with Lincecum, since what we do know isn’t comforting. Maybe his decline is just a blip, the product of high workloads and deep postseason runs. Maybe it’s slack conditioning; the functional strength required to pitch with that delivery, and to repeat it for command, is staggering. Maybe he hasn’t yet realized that he’ll need to work harder the older he gets. Maybe a big contract will spur him to do that. The velocity will likely never return, but maybe he can learn to command his still-impressive arsenal. It isn’t unheard of for pitchers to gain improved command as they age, though as with everything Lincecum, comparing him to other pitchers is tough.

I haven’t been completely forthcoming, because there are in fact some numbers that may suggest Lincecum isn’t completely cooked. I’ve been staring at them for years and they still baffle me. They’re his plate discipline numbers. Things like swinging strike %, zone contact %, out-of-zone contact %, etc. I’ve never read a sabermetric study evaluating their worth and I don’t know what constitutes a statistically significant change one year to the next. I don’t know if they even mean anything. What I do know is that from his Cy Young seasons, through his still-good 2010 and 2011, to the disastrous last two seasons, they’ve hardly changed at all. And a lot of them are still in a league with the game’s elite starters.

Let’s start with something Lincecum has always been able to do: get hitters to swing and miss. His swinging strike rate in 2013 of 11.1% was good for 7th in baseball among qualified starters, between Clayton Kershaw and Madison Bumgarner, and is identical to his career rate. Even considering baseball’s recent rise in strikeouts, Lincecum’s ability to miss bats remains elite.

So do plenty of other things. His overall rate of contact was 4th best in 2013, between Max Scherzer and Matt Harvey. The percentage of swings he coaxed on pitches out of the zone ranked 21st, between Chris Sale and Cliff Lee, and slightly higher than his career rate. And when hitters chased, they missed: his contact rate on pitches out of the zone was 52%, 3rd-best in baseball and slightly higher than in his Cy Young seasons.

All of this detailed data tells us what we already know about Lincecum, which is that he can still get guys to swing and miss. All that’s seemed to change is that when they do manage to make contact, they hit it harder. And the fly balls he’s allowed since 2012 are leaving the park more often than they once did. Finally, as I already mentioned, the pitching in traffic issues.

It feels like after all these years Lincecum should end up where a lot of scouts projected him to be pre-draft: the bullpen. I’m not saying this because of his lights-out relief work in the 2012 postseason, though that was extremely exciting, but because his current profile suggests he could really thrive there. The ability to air it out in short stints will make his diminished fastball play up, and his four-pitch arsenal will keep hitters guessing. With a good curveball and excellent changeup he’ll have no platoon issues. And most of all, a guy with no command but the ability to miss bats is basically the definition of the modern reliever.

I don’t actually think that will happen. The potential for Timmy to throw 200 good innings again is too great. Some team’s going to take a chance on him returning to form and sign him to a big multi-year deal. Maybe it’ll be the Giants. Their farm system is barren at the upper levels, and they have some money to spend.

Timmy’s been baffling people his entire career. Scouts, GMs, hitters, and now analysts. As a Giants fan, I hope they re-sign him. I rather he baffle us.

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