Reviewing The Twins-Yankees Series

October 12, 2009

I missed college a great deal yesterday. I don’t miss it often; the South and I had a doomed relationship, I never found a subject that fired me up, and wearing a jacket and tie to a football game will never, ever make sense to me. Two out of those three could easily be classified as self-inflicted, but that doesn’t change the fact that I’m at peace with my dispassion towards much of my college experience. But if there were ever a day to make me long for a time machine, yesterday would be it.

The magnitude of the day revealed itself slowly. I woke up eminently cognizant of the Yankees game at seven o’clock. I also knew the Giants were playing the Raiders at one. Then, as if the sports schedule were a coloring book and these games were the thick black lines, I slowly filled in the vacant spaces. The Angels were playing the Red Sox at noon. The Broncos and Rockies were playing at four and ten, respectively. I realized there would be twelve consecutive hours of meaningful sports, and that’s precisely when I started to miss my closest friends from college. If the year were 2007 instead of 2009, the five of us would have procured our adult beverages of choice, secured some terribly unhealthy provisions, and embedded ourselves in front of our too-large television for a day of witty banter, obnoxious proclamations, and the rare enlightening debate. That’s what I missed and will continue to miss the most about college: those endless, sports-filled Saturdays and Sundays that gave us a great excuse to do nothing but enjoy each other’s company.

On a less nostalgic note, yesterday also provided the faint but exhilarating possibility of the elusive fivefecta (I couldn’t find anything higher than a superfecta, so I made this up.) The fivefecta is the unassisted triple play of sports fandom, albeit less sudden in its occurence. If the Red Sox lost, the Giants won, the Broncos won (at the Patriots’ expense), the Yankees won, and the Rockies won, October 11th, 2009 would have to be considered one of the all-time great days in personal fan history. Naturally, I decided to monitor this situation very closely, only to see it fall short because of the uncharacteristically effective Brad Lidge. And so it goes.

As you can probably guess, the most important game of the day for me was the Yankees-Twins contest. Because it’s October and my doctor says it’s bad for me to be a statistically-inclined curmudgeon all the game, I decided to watch it the way most fans do: with youthful exuberance, relentless optimism, and with the belief in the unlikely. Valiantly, that approach lasted until the bottom of the eighth inning, when a perpetual pet peeve and occasional blog topic reared its ugly head. I simply could not resist the temptation. I regressed into curmudgeonhood, which I why I’m writing this right now. Read the rest of this entry »

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The National Sports Media Can Feel Free To Recognize That Jonathan Papelbon Is Kind Of A Jerk

May 25, 2009

 

jonathan_papelbon

My suspicions of national anti-Yankees media bias have mellowed with age, but with the reporting of this small but telling story, I do wonder why we never hear the talking heads blast Jonathan Papelbon for this sort of stuff. Perhaps it’s because the Red Sox were anointed the label of “playing the game the right way” several years ago, and as we know, these perceptions die hard. Still, it took but one fist pump for the national media to come down on Joba Chamberlain’s histrionics. Papelbon acts like a five-year-old each and every time he “saves” a game, yet he escapes consternation. 

I think I’ve generally been pretty clear about my total indifference towards celebrations. As long as they’re in good taste, I don’t care. But I really like consistency, and it would be wonderful if someone outside the New York City area would get on Papelbon’s case for regularly behaving like a total dope.


Problems Arise When Perceptions Become Axioms

May 22, 2009

One of the most fascinating and frustrating aspects about professional sports is the degree to which perception rules all else. Reporters, analysts, fans, and virtually anyone who contributes to the institution of professional sports often find their opinions governed not by the realities chronicled in hard data, but by the perceptions that emerge organically or through sports media inculcation. 

Examples of this phenomenon are both endless and complicated. One fan might see a laziness in a player’s fielding, while another sees grace. A broadcaster might see fire and passion in a player’s on-field temperament, while a beat writer could see insolence and immaturity. Post-game stoic leadership? Try divisive aloofness. In this way, perceptions of players, teams, organizations, backgrounds, and countless other variables provide abundant material for discussion and often make their way into the fabric of the culture surrounding professional sports. I’m sure there’s a huge and interesting sociological discussion to be had about the factors contributing to the propagation and cementation of perceptions in professional sports. I’m just not sure I could give it the attention it deserves right now.

For the purposes of this post, I’m interested in the indelible perceptions and labels that are attached to certain teams, regardless of their accuracy. There are many examples of this. The Pittsburgh Steelers are assumed to be good at running the ball. The Chicago Bears play strong defense. The Dallas Mavericks run and gun. The New York Yankees rely on the home run for offense. Some of these are founded, and some aren’t. But these perceptions persist for extended periods of time with very little mainstream questioning.

I bring this up because of the Minnesota Twins. Like the teams above, the Twins are assumed to play fundamentally sound, hard-nosed baseball. The accompanying and perplexing assessment for such teams is that they “play the game the right way.” Teams that are labeled in this way are assumed to be good at bunting, hitting-and-running, stealing bases, and fielding the ball. Because this is the persisting perception of the Twins, broadcasters waste little time in mentioning the smart and tough nature of the team. During the recent Twins-Yankees series, it took Michael Kay, Paul O’Neill, and David Cone all of one inning before they began to extol the virtues of “Twins Baseball.” They regurgitated the perceptions with which the Twins have been branded, which got me thinking about the accuracy of such proclamations. So, I looked up the Twins’ performance over the last six years in the three most “playing the game the right way”-ish categories: stolen bases, defense, and baserunning.

The Twins’ stolen base percentage from 2004-2009 has ranked 12th, 16th, 15th, 5th, 19th, and 17th. During the same timeframe, their defensive efficiency has ranked 22nd, 7th, 17th, 16th, 19th, and 12th. Lastly, their baserunning has ranked 7th, 23rd, 6th, 7th, 3rd, and 14th. These numbers tell us that the Twins have been average at stealing, average on defense, and good at running the bases in recent history. They are not, however, significant enough to justify the continual portrayal of the Twins as an organization that sets the bar in these categories. For at least the last five and a quarter seasons, “Twins Baseball” has been an unfounded perception. 

I suppose it’s unrealistic to expect broadcasters to go suddenly against everything that they’ve believed and said about the Twins over the last several years. But a couple of in-game events that directly opposed the perception of the Twins’ went completely without mention in one contest against the Yankees. The Yankees’ Brett Gardner blooped a ball down the left field line. Twins’ left fielder Denard Span misplayed it woefully, leading to an inside-the-park home run for the speedy Gardner. This defensive lapse went without mentioning. Standing on second and with one out, the Twins’ Brendan Harris took off for third base on a ball hit in front of him (something even my fifth graders know not to do). He was promptly thrown out at third. Both plays would qualify as gaffes for any team, so I expected the broadcasters to be all over these failures to live up to the Twins’ purported standards. Both plays passed with no discussion. 

The coup de grace came from color commentator Paul O’Neill. Late in the same game, Twins’ first baseman Justin Morneau made a nice play to rob Nick Swisher of a hit. O’Neill:

This is how they win. Defensively and offensively, they do everything right. When you show up to the ballpark to play them, you know you’re going to have to beat them. They’re not going to give you anything.

How quickly we forget that, in the very same game, the Twins made two critical errors – one on defense, and one on offense. 

My point is that rigorous adherence to perceptions, while easy and fun, does nothing to raise the level of analysis or discussion about sports. With all the incredible and accessible information available to just about anyone these days, there is no reason why anyone should resort to the lazy recollection of useless labels in an attempt to provide insight. It just doesn’t work. We would all be better off if we simply examined the objects of our curiosity with an open mind and a receptiveness to any realities the information uncovers.


“Playing The Game The Right Way” Usually Just Means “Good”

February 28, 2009

The phrase “playing the game the right way” has always bothered me. A favorite of commentators across a variety of sports, this phrase’s only purpose is to irritate me. The literalist in me flails angrily when it is told that “Player X plays the game the right way,” because really, no one runs around the bases clockwise or carries the basketball around with them like a rugby player. Everyone plays the game the right way. The analyst in me seethes when it is told that “Team Y play the game the right way,” because this brings absolutely nothing to the table in the way of greater scrutiny or understanding. If anything, this utterance detracts from the discussion. Unfortunately, this expression reared its ugly head three separate times in the last 24 hours, necessitating this post.

Before going to bed last night, I perused Tim Kurkjian’s piece on the Minnesota Twins. Its thesis, much to my dismay, is that the Twins have prospered under manager Ron Gardenhire largely because of the organization’s “doing things/playing the game the right way” mantra. I sighed wistfully, brushed my teeth, and crawled into bed.

I turned on the MLB Network this afternoon. A four-man panel, including Harold Reynolds and former general manager John Hart, were discussing the Baltimore Orioles. In a feeble attempt to diagnose the team’s recent woes, Reynolds said:

“One thing that has been passed down from generation to generation in Baltimore that the Orioles have kind of gotten away from is the idea of ‘Orioles baseball,’ or ‘the Oriole way.’ It hasn’t really been around since Cal Ripken left, the idea of doing things the right way, and that’s been hurting this ball club.”

My jaw stiffened. I bit my lower lip, exhaled deeply, and then ate a slice of pizza.

During the Twins-Yankees Spring Training game later in the afternoon, a discussion of the Twins’ success in spite of their low payroll began. The camera cut to Gardenhire. Play-by-play man Michael Kay admiringly offered “boy, the Twins really do play the game the right way.” I implode.

I have come to the conclusion that “doing things/playing the game the right way” is synonymous with “good.” I believe this for the same reason that I believe a “professional hitter” is synonymous with “white bench player in his mid-30s with no power but some contact”; because whenever I hear someone described as a “professional hitter,” that player is usually a white bench player in his mid-30s with no power but some contact ability. But Fan Interference seeks validate suspicions through research, so it would be negligent for me to draw the “doing things/playing the game the right way” : “good” comparison without backing it up statistically. 

baltimore20oriolesLet’s compare the post-Ripken Orioles (not doing things the right way) to the Gardenhire-led Twins (doing things the right way). Conveniently, both eras began in 2002. Since 2002, the Orioles have ranked:

  • 29th, 23rd, 7th, 17th, 11th, 17th, and 13th in OBP
  • 23rd, 22nd, 15th, 8th, 20th, 19th, and 10th in SLG
  • 20th, 22nd, 20th, 23rd, 29th, 29th, and 29th in ERA
  • 9th, 25th, 23rd, 20th, 25th, 14th, and 18th in Defensive Efficiency

minIn that same span, the Twins have ranked:

  • 16th, 9th, 16th, 21st, 7th, 19th, and 9th in OBP
  • 6th, 9th, 16th, 29th, 17th, 27th, and 20th in SLG
  • 14th, 16th, 6th, 7th, 3rd, 8th, and 13th in ERA
  • 8th, 11th, 22nd, 7th, 17th, 16th, and 19th in Defensive Efficiency

The culmination of these statistics is seasons of 67, 71, 78, 74, 70, 69, and 68 wins for the Orioles; 94, 90, 92, 83, 96, 79, and 88 for the Twins. The Orioles haven’t been bad because they’ve gotten away from whatever the heck “Oriole baseball” is. They’ve been bad because they can’t really hit, they certainly can’t pitch, their defense is lacking, and they play in a division with the Yankees and Red Sox. The Twins haven’t been good because, by golly, they do things the right way. They’ve been good because they hit well enough, pitch their butts off in front of an average defense, and play in a division with no superpowers. That’s it.

I’m convinced, small sample be damned, that this unhelpful phrase is simply a lazy way of describing a good team. Interestingly, all good teams are not described as “doing things the right way.” I’ve never heard the Yankees, Athletics, or Mets described in this way. On the other hand, the Twins, Red Sox, Braves, and Angels are often given this label. And you most certainly never, ever hear of bad teams that “do things the right way” but just can’t compete because of the talent gap. It’s a meaningless and arbitrarily-applied statement, and it does nothing to inform the audience.


Okay, Fine. I’ll Bite.

May 13, 2008

I’ve tried to stay out of this whole debate about Joba Chamberlain’s celebrations. This is primarily because it is a stupid discussion and I don’t care. I wish he’d calm down a little, but ultimately this is not that big of a deal. But because the sports media seems intent on shoving this down our throats, and crotchety old curmudgeons keep saying essentially “this never would have happened back in my day!”, I am going to issue a friendly reminder to these curmudgeons who probably don’t even know what the internet is so why am I even doing this. Reminder starts…now:

In conclusion, get off Chamberlain’s back or start getting on others’.


Josh Beckett Continues to Play The Game The Right Way

April 16, 2007

Josh Beckett, the Red Sox starting pitcher who is “kind of about respecting the game“, is defending the game’s honor for us all again today.

In the 1st inning of today’s (4/16) game against the Angels, Orlando Cabrera hit a home run off Beckett. Beckett then plunked Vladimir Guerrero, who was then taken out of the game due to an injury caused by said plunking.

So, to summarize, here are the things opposing batters are not allowed to do when Josh Beckett is pitching/respecting the game/playing the game the right way:

  1. Bunt
  2. Hit home runs

Josh “Kind of About Respecting The Game” Beckett, ladies and gentlemen.

EDIT: I explained this whole Josh Beckett thing to my girlfriend this afternoon, because I was riled up and needed to rant to someone. And she astutely asked “Isn’t bunting, like, one of the oldest things in baseball? Like one of the most traditional?”. Yes, yes it is. So Josh Beckett, in an effort to be “kind of about respecting the game”, likes to throw at people who attempt to utilize the most super duper traditional old-timey offensive play in baseball.


All Hail Sir Josh Beckett, Arbiter of Morality & Righteousness

March 26, 2007

We all know that Josh Beckett plays the game the right way. Last year, Beckett yelled at a player who thought he had hit a home run off Beckett, struck a little pose, but fell just short. Here, I’ll just let Beckett speak for himself:

“I wanted to make a point. You look like a jackass whenever you hit the ball like that and you’re pimping it, and you’re out. I’m kind of about respecting the game, and I’m not the type of guy to not say anything. . . I’m playing the game right. I didn’t appreciate that.”

Josh Beckett seems to have selectively forgotten all the times he’s struck someone out and run around the mound maniacally pumping his fist and screaming. I saw this with great frequency when he annihilated the Yankees in the 2002 World Series.

Now

Red Sox first baseman Kevin Youkilis was clipped in the lower leg by base runner Alejandro De Aza on the final out of the fourth inning. Youkilis stayed in the game, but the Sox already were peeved at De Aza, who was repeatedly trying to bunt his way on.

In the seventh, Beckett hit De Aza in the ribs with a pitch, and there was a little tension when De Aza stared out to the mound and Beckett started walking toward the Marlins outfielder.

Julio Lugo later had to dodge a pitch, and then Sox outfielder Matt Van Der Bosch was hit by Florida’s Roy Corcoran, which prompted a warning from the umpires.

The nerve! Some scrub in Spring Training was trying to bunt! Bunting! In the game of baseball! Alejandro De Aza, you are a rascal. What ever would we do without Josh Beckett, who continues to strike down those who disrespect the game of baseball by doing something completely legal and harmless? All hail Josh Beckett, who is definitely not a hypocritical mouthbreather with an ERA over 5.00 in the AL and a home run problem!