17 Days Till Opening Day: Spring Training Sucks

You sit there all damn winter. Miserable, cold, drinking and eating too much, depressed from the lack of light. Once in awhile you’ll idly watch a few highlights from last season, but the grass is so green it makes your stomach hurt, and the sky is so blue it feels like a personal insult. No, the best way to endure the lack of baseball is privation.

You start thinking crazy thoughts. As you stare out your office window, watching sheets of freezing rain cascade down the street, you think hey, maybe the next big free-agent signing will sustain me for awhile, give me something to think about. But then Scherzer signs for 7-years and $210m and the minor blip of interest only lasts long enough for you to neglect the cup of coffee sitting on your desk. You bitterly choke it down and the tedium continues.

It’s against this backdrop of ennui that the craziest thought of all enters your mind: spring training will fix this. Watching a no-hope minor leaguer take an ugly hack at a fringe slider, through a camera seemingly placed in the left field bleachers, will stir the soul and engage the mind. That desperate, washed-up veteran clinging to his uniform, bankrupt from a divorce and from allowing his dipshit brother to be his “business manager”, he’s the one whose bat crack will cause leaves to spontaneously form on barren trees. Watching your team’s ace throw 35 changeups in a 40-pitch outing and get shelled for 6 runs is just the thing to defrost your heart.

No chance. Spring training fucking sucks. It’s meaningless, boring, almost always ugly baseball, played in nondescript ballparks by players no one has ever heard of or will again. The most interesting things about it are the inevitable injuries that derail team’s seasons before they even begin, or terrible stunts by old comedians.

Spring training is like drinking your own urine: you’ll only do it to keep yourself alive a little bit longer, and if you had literally any other option, you’d take that instead.

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18 Days Till Opening Day: Buster-Help

The 2015 Giants commercials have been released, and if this self-help tape of Buster’s encouraging words were available, I’d buy it to help me get through this blogging project.

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19 Days Till Opening Day: More Typical Crawford Clips

This is so, so cool. Alex Pavlovic, the Giants Insider for CSN Bay Area, sat down with Brandon Crawford and showed him some of his best highlights from the 2014 season, with Crawford adding commentary on each. I’m planning on a big Crawford appreciation post before the end of this project, but for now, this work by Pavlovic is an absolute blast to watch and read.

Here’s my favorite:

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20 Days Till Opening Day: Gratuitous Grand Slam

Here’s Brandon Crawford silencing the entirety of PNC Park with his grand slam in the 2014 NL Wild Card game, because why not.

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21 Days Till Opening Day: Mercenary Pandas

Take your own advice, pal

Take your own advice, pal

In the 2011 offseason the Edinburgh Zoo made a splash in the free agent market, signing the two best pandas available, Tian Tian and Yang Guang, to solidify the heart of the zoo’s exhibit. The hope was that the two would combine to make Edinburgh’s breeding program the most productive in the league. The pandas’ prior zoo, the Woolong National Nature Reserve in Sichuan Province, were in on the pandas until the final minutes, and were said to have made a substantial offer to the pandas’ agent. In the end, Tian Tian and Yang Guang were looking to move on, and despite their immense success with the Woolong Reserve—3 cubs in 5 years—they stated that they were looking forward to a “new challenge” in Edinburgh.

That would’ve been the end of things under usual circumstances. Pandas are always highly coveted in free agency, and their original zoos are often unable to compete for their services in a very competitive market. Fans understand that this is just the nature of these beasts. The pandas never chose their original zoo, anyway, they were just captured at a young age and brought there. It was dumb luck, or good fortune, or a cosmic draft, whatever you wanna call it. Once they’re old enough to make their own choices about where to go, it isn’t fair to begrudge them their decision.

Old timers will tut and talk about how in their day, pandas bred for the love of it, and that pandas now are all about money. They think something pure has gone missing. They say pandas these days are just mercenaries. Well, even though they conveniently forget (or actually forget—sometimes it’s hard to tell with these old coots) to mention the reserve clause back in the day, where a panda could only gain free agency if the zoo granted it, these codgers are right about one thing: pandas are mercenaries. Mercenaries go where the money is, and no one sheds a tear.

But what mercenaries don’t do—the good ones, anyway, the pros—is sign a new contract and then badmouth their former zoo in the press. They don’t mention how they only ever liked two of their keepers, anyway, out of the dozens they ever came to know. What good mercenary pandas do is remember all the smiling faces ringing their enclosure, in their souvenir panda hats, supporting you whether the breeding was going well or not.

Good mercenary pandas consider that Edinburgh, unlike Woolong, has the most toxic media environment of any zoo in the world, and that if the breeding doesn’t go gangbusters from the start, the patrons will turn on you in an instant. They won’t want to hear about your diet, or the stress; they want results and they want them now, because life in Edinburgh is miserable and the zoo is all they have. Woolong was a laid back zoo, with understanding and enthusiastic patrons, that a bad mercenary panda will miss like hell soon enough.

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22 Days Till Spring Training: McCovey Chronicles

Here I sit, attempting to write about baseball in an interesting and sometimes funny way, when that schtick is being done much better and more frequently by someone else: Grant Brisbee of McCovey Chronicles. He’s the only Giants writer who’s a must-read, and is one of our finest baseball writers in general. He knows more about baseball and is a more talented writer than me, so just, like, stop reading and click here.

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23 Days Till Spring Training: Lincecum’s Postseason Debut

Here’s some more recent Giants postseason glory because hey, it’s the offseason, what else am I thinking about? I think this is still one of the, like, top 3 most dominant games I’ve ever seen pitched. 2010-vintage Lincecum, still one of the best pitchers in baseball, if slightly diminished from Cy Young form:

A few things I noted, having seen this for the first time in quite some time:

  • Lincecum’s velocity. There are only 3 fastballs in this clip, at 91, 92, and 92, which was his average velocity in 2010. With his past three seasons of being terrible, we tend to forget that he was a great pitcher even after he stopped throwing in the mid-90s.
  • Momentum. One of the things scouts grade a pitcher’s delivery on is momentum, or how quickly and effectively he transfers the kinetic energy in his delivery toward the plate. Lincecum always had 80-grade momentum, the highest in the game, and that’s one of the ways he generated so much velocity from his small frame. Seeing his delivery’s momentum in this clip and comparing it to what it’s looked like the last few years is striking. I’m not a scout, but man, old (young) Timmy’s body looked like a taut, coiled spring, bursting with energy. He explodes towards the plate with every pitch. Things are much more relaxed, more slack, today, and the fact is he will never get that back. When Lincecum’s struggles first began in 2012, it was clear to me that his body just doesn’t have the energy it once had. That’s true of everyone at 30 compared to when they were 26, but it’s particularly rough for Lincecum, who really needs that energy to be effective. I’ve asked this before, and I will again: can anyone picture a 35-year-old Lincecum pitching? Can you imagine him being able to contort a 35-year-old body in such a way? The notion seems laughable.
  • Sharpness. His velocity isn’t much higher than it is today, but the sharpness and crispness of his off-speed stuff was immense in this game.
  • Swagger. Man, the fierceness he displayed in this game is something I’ll never forget. These days Lincecum pitches scared, he pitches from behind, he pitches while standing in the middle of a surging river of shit. Even in the few good outings he’s had in the past few years, there’s a meekness, a tenuousness to it all, like it could fall apart at any moment. Recent Lincecum reminds you of Giants-era Barry Zito in that vague resigned fear they both exhibited. Now that’s a depressing thought. It was nice to see that old Lincecum confidence again.

There had never been anyone like Tim Lincecum before, and there likely won’t be again. I’m thankful there ever was.

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24 Days Till Opening Day: Will Ferrell

will-ferrell-cubs

Will Ferrell played all nine positions, and coached third base, in Cactus League games on Thursday, partly to film a sketch for his site Funny or Die, and partly as an effort to raise money for charity. The almost $1m raised for cancer research marks the stunt as a success no matter how the sketch turns out. I watched much of it live and despite a general sense of being peeved, it mostly won me over in the end.

The zenith of the afternoon came when he was playing centerfield for the Angels, in place of Mike Trout, and a sharp single was hit up the middle, right at him. He charged the ball, fielded it cleanly, and executed a perfect crow-hop throw to the cutoff man to hold the runner to a single. Almost every misgiving I had about the affair melted away and I was in stitches.

And yet, entertaining though it was, I couldn’t shake a few disapproving feelings. John Madden, of all people, very publicly stated how opposed he was to Ferrell’s antics, saying it was disrespectful of the game and of the players. I think he’s mostly being a crotchety old bastard about it, but when I first heard about the plan, my first thought went to the players, as well.

Yes, he had all of two plate appearances, and he played on average less than an inning at each position. It can’t be reasonably argued that he deprived any player of an opportunity to prove his ability in the fight for a big league job. Yet, there were players in all of those games who are fighting for a job. Fighting for their lives, in a sense. Not the marquee prospects who are guaranteed to be called up soon, like Kris Bryant, but the marginal player whose life will be forever altered if he can nab a spot on the 25-man roster. A fourth outfielder, or long reliever, or utility infielder; likely from the Dominican or somewhere similar, worrying about their family and themselves, praying every day that they can break camp and earn a big league salary, even for a little while.

Ferrell’s stunt didn’t imperil the outlook for those players, but his highly entertaining shenanigans took place amongst their struggles, and was backdropped by their desperation. I just think that’s worth remembering, needlessly sentimental though it may be.

I also don’t see what benefit this could have for MLB beyond some kind of vague, any-news-is-good-news principle. Coaches and players kept saying how nice it was, getting such great publicity for the game by having a big star like Ferrell share some of his spotlight with it. It’s horseshit. It doesn’t serve baseball one bit to have a comedian come and fuck around on the field, turning mostly meaningless spring training games into a farce. Baseball doesn’t need publicity, it needs young people to fall in love with the game. Ferrell fucking around won’t do that, because to young people Ferrell isn’t cool. The 18-year-old whose interest baseball needs to capture sees Will Ferrell and thinks of her dad. Ferrell is an old guy; but, crucially, not to the old guys who run and watch baseball.

In the end, we spent a day watching an old, uncool comedian make unwatchable spring training games slightly more fun, and some money was raised for charity. Nearby, a desperate kid fretted about his future, and zero new young fans were made. That’s fine. Let’s just not pretend it was anything more than that.

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25 Days Till Opening Day: R.A. Dickey’s Absurd 2012

I was on Twitter yesterday, like all days, and saw a picture of Toronto Blue Jays knuckleballer R.A. Dickey driving his teammate Daniel Norris’ VW Bus.

Much has been written about the offbeat Norris, who despite having millions lives in that VW Bus and is all outdoorsy and shit. He’s a hippie, which is cool, but in baseball is weird. Whatever.

R.A. Dickey is himself a baseball eccentric. He’s a reader and a writer, who famously doesn’t have the ulnar collateral ligament in the elbow of his throwing arm, and most importantly, he’s a knuckleballer. All of those things are notable enough, but what really made R.A. Dickey a household name was his ridiculous 2012 season.

Dickey was the 18th overall pick in 1996 by the Texas Rangers, as a “normal” pitcher. He would kick around in the minors and majors, being generally terrible, until 2006, when he decided to attempt the transformation into a knuckleball pitcher. He would continue floating around the league, with the Mariners and Twins, before finally being signed by the Mets in 2010. That year, 14 years after being drafted, he put up his first quality big league season, throwing 174.1 innings of 2.84 ERA ball. He didn’t strike many hitters out, but walked even fewer, and with a 55% groundball rate and a solid defense behind him put up a 138 ERA+. I can’t imagine how it must’ve felt.

His 2011 was a very small step backwards in per-inning effectiveness, but still a triumph, with Dickey setting career highs in strikeouts (134) and innings pitched (208.2.)  Solid though it was, it provided no hint as to what was coming.

Knuckleballers often talk about the pitch as though it’s this independent force in the world, that it exists on its own, and that they’re merely the practitioners of some arcane art that attempts to harness its power. In 2012, Dickey managed to conjure the most powerful knuckleball the game has ever seen. He threw it harder than anyone ever had, harder than he has since: it averaged 77.2 MPH, a full 1.2 MPH faster than in 2011.

Batters swung at it more than they ever had, and when they swung, they missed. Dickey’s swinging strike percentage was 12.2%; up until that year, Clayton Kershaw, he of the mid-90s fastball and devastating curve, never mustered higher than an 11.1% rate. They missed it in the zone, and when they chased it out of the zone—which was 34% of the time, a career high for Dickey—they missed. When they put the knuckleball in play, it was usually on the ground. Of the flyballs he surrendered, a very high 12.4% were harmless infield flyballs, so he served up very few home runs. And on top of all that he allowed the fewest walks of his career.

Those are all the elements of success right there: strikeouts, no walks, groundballs, no homers. It was a season for the ages, and may stand as the greatest knuckleball season of all time. All from a guy who doesn’t have a crucial elbow ligament and shouldn’t even be able to throw.

The absolute peak of his 2012 season and his career—hell, maybe of the knuckleball as a pitch, an entity, a philosophy—came in the days between June 13th and 18th, when he threw back-to-back one-hit complete games, one a shutout, the other a 9-1 affair where the 1 run was unearned. He faced 59 batters, struck out 25, walked 2, and allowed 22 groundballs to only 10 flyballs. It was the picture of dominance.

And it wasn’t against the bottom of the barrel, either: the shutout was against the Orioles, who would go on to win 93 games, and the other game was against the 90-win Rays. (June 13th, 2012 is notable not only for Dickey’s achievement but also because later that evening, over in San Francisco, Matt Cain would throw a 14-strikeout perfect game against a Houston Astros squad that was effectively a Triple-A team.)

Dickey became the first knuckleballer to win the Cy Young, and it was well-deserved. For a guy who spent so much time wandering in the wilderness, trying to harness the black magic of balle papillon (French for knuckleball, literally “butterfly ball”), Dickey’s performance in 2012 was vindication, entertainment, and inspiration.

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26 Days Till Opening Day: Don’t Forget Juan Perez

Bumgarner will go down in history as one of the greatest World Series pitchers of all time, and rightfully so. But the story would have been very different if not for Juan Perez, the Giants left fielder in Game 7, and the coaches, scouts, and analysts who all contributed to his positioning before Bumgarner’s elevated 2-1 cutter to Nori Aoki. The Giants have won 3 World Series through a combination of talent and luck, and just as importantly, with brains.

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