baseball, reviews

Game 5: Chaos, as a force for good

I was sitting in temple with my cell phone burning a (metaphorical) hole in my left pant pocket. It was the most solemn day of the year. I was an hour into a set of concluding services. I freely admit that I already have at least one thing to atone for in 5780, because my mind was wandering away from thoughtful reflective prayer; I was into territory like, “how is Strasburg doing, how is Trea doing, has anyone gotten Max Muncy out yet.” Not profane thoughts by any means, but hardly “sacred” by any conventionally accepted definition.

To my great credit, I did not actually check the GameDay app in the sanctuary, nor did I make up a bathroom excuse. I actually waited for the evening service to end and only then did I make a beeline for the social halls, the nearest available areas in which I could politely congregate myself around a little blue screen to either live streaming video or little animated dots.

So, I get outside, I look down, it’s 3-0 Dodgers.

My father is an outstanding poker player and my father-in-law is a savvy investor and trader, so I blame them for the fact that the first question in my mind was not so much emotional, but rather, “down three-to-nothing, in the third inning, what’s our win probability?”

Fangraphs informed me, the Dodgers had an 81 percent chance of winning.

At this point, I had two contradictory reactions.

Analytics Alex said, “there’s just no way.” And the truth is, a 20 percent win probability is terrible. one-in-five, two-in-ten, however you want to spin it–those odds are awful.

Eye-test Alex said, “down three, third inning–ok, that’s 18 outs to work with, a ton of weird stuff can happen in 18 outs, I dunno, why not?”

Weird stuff did happen.

What I am going to put forth is my best analysis as to why what happened last night, happened, from the perspective of a quasi-learned Nats fan.

Individual skill sets have their role. Deployment of those skill sets has a role. Ultimately, as with everything in life, luck has something to do with it, too.

Step 1a. Controlling the deficit. I came up with this phrase late last night as I was trying to piece together for myself why the Nats ultimately won. It sounds fancier and more academic than “damage control,” or “stop the bleeding.” I feel smarter when I say “control the deficit.” It seems Joe Maddony. So I’m going with it.

What I mean is this. Stephen Strasburg got off to a rough start. Three runs in two innings via a double and two homers. Mathematically speaking, this all-but buried the Nats.

The first, most valuable thing Strasburg did, was that he didn’t give up another run after the first three. Even an additional tack-on run from Los Angeles would have made tying the game that much harder (and we all know what happened after the tie.)

Strasburg went into shut-down mode after that initial burst of Dodger activity. As the Nats lineup turned over, the top hitters got more at-bats, more exposure to an elite-premium pitcher in Walker Buehler, and were able to claw together a single run. Which made tying the game easier–and also contributed to exhausting Buehler.

Had the Strasburg dam totally collapsed, no rally would have mattered. Stras bent, but he never broke. This, to me, is the single biggest element that saved the game. It gave us the foundation for having a shot.

Step 1b. An acknowledgment of the extraordinary effort of Walker Buehler. He’s so good. He sits there spinning high-90s heat, he mixes a variety of evaporating breaking balls–it’s ridiculous. L.A. let him throw 117 pitches. This is not a condemnation of Dodger strategy. Just the opposite; I firmly believe, in the playoffs, you ride the hell out of the horses that got you there. I think the 117-pitch number just shows how much of a “max,” or “empty-the-tank” performance it took from Buehler, how brilliant he was and had to be, against an obviously premium opponent.

Did he come away with defeat? Yes.

Does that suck? Yes. It obviously sucks.

Was he amazing? Yes. I am so impressed with his both stuff and his disposition.

Step 2a. The lineup, line-up’d. The Nats didn’t plate runs but that’s not to say the team didn’t move the ball around. Every inning, you could feel the Nats getting closer and closer to an actual rally. You could feel the bats getting a feel for Buehler’s offerings, and eventually, an Anthony Rendon double and Juan Soto single got the Nats on board.

The very act of turning a lineup over is known to correlate with more winning, because it correlates with scoring. So, every single positive act against Buehler, while Strasburg kept the game close, meant not only that the Nats were never out of “striking distance,” and were actually getting closer to it.

The lineup didn’t produce a lot, but it was never totally dead, either, and that paid off.

Step 2b. Having Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto in the middle of your lineup is helpful. Their technique, their strike zone knowledge, their discipline, their ability to foul off and extend at-bats–they do everything up there. (Also, in the field, Anthony’s defense is known to be elite, and Juan’s defense is underrated.)

Step 2c. Trea Turner remains one of the five most underrated players in baseball.

Step 2d. How is that Michael Taylor can scuffle so badly in the regular season, and then show up and hit a few key singles here and there, and play premium outfield defense? Amazing!

Step 3a. Relief pitching eats sanity, part 1. By the numbers, the 2019 Nationals are known to have among the worst bullpens in modern baseball history. It’s incredible this team is in the playoffs at all, given some of the late lead-blowing performances I had the “fortune” to witness this year.

Everyone has a bad bullpen, it seems like, but the Nats bullpen mostly lived on the saddest end of badness.

Pat Corbin is a textbook example of why relief pitching is where thinking goes to die. Normally, Pat starts and throws six or seven innings of highly effective baseball.

In Game 5, he and Tanner Rainey tag-teamed one-and-a-third innings of brilliant baseball out of the bullpen, picking up where Stras left off. Rainey and Corbin continued holding the Dodgers scoreless, which, in turn, helped retain our ability to get back into the game.

Rainey eliminated some righties, and then Corbin came in.

Now, Corbin had pitched out of the bullpen in Game 4, too, and the results had been a catastrophic implosion. Six earned runs, four hits, two walks–as I said, it was a sad night for him.

So, here he comes, Game 5–I’m sitting there laughing like the fucking Joker, because why not? What else is there to do? Pat Corbin had an amazing year as a starter. He, Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg are, by WAR, three of our top five most valuable players. So, okay, Pat Corbin, once more out of the bullpen, fuck it.

He gets three strikeouts.

Whee!! Relief pitching is great!!!!

Then comes The Rally. Then comes The Win.

Step 3b. Relief pitching eats sanity, part 2, the Kershaw edition. There’s really no getting around this subject and I hate it. I hate it because I have so much respect for Clayton Kershaw, and so little respect for people who use terms like “Ker-choke” or other lazy-ass, garbage, thinking-replacement memes. He’s not the first guy to struggle in the playoffs and he certainly won’t be the last. But I have a lot more issue with how he was deployed, than what he did.

Dave Roberts piggy-backing Kershaw was an awful, stupid idea, for a host of reasons.

First, the Nationals had accomplished almost nothing against Kenta Maeda, from either side of the plate. There was no reason not to just throw Maeda.

Kersh had gotten one out already, the lefty, Adam Eaton. Fine! Use him as the “LOOGY,” and move on. There was absolutely no reason at all to try and squeeze another inning out of Kershaw in that situation, other than to say you’re doing it.

The Dodgers bullpen isn’t “good,” but it’s certainly better than the Nationals bullpen, at least on paper. If you can’t trust Kenley Jansen to get a 5-out save, or something like that, in that moment, why is he on the team? Plus there was that guy Adam Kolarek, who had wiped out Juan Soto.

Clayton Kershaw 2019 is not Clayton Kershaw 2016, who was essentially unhittable, who did come in from the bullpen and wipe out my Nationals, and that’s what Kershaw used to do. But he’s not that guy anymore. He’s very good; he can wipe out guys with finesse stuff, but he won’t overpower anyone, and he certainly won’t “overpower” either Rendon or Soto.

Even if this strategy had worked, it would have been a terrible one.

Anyhow, Kershaw is getting nuked as a choke artist, and that makes me sick. I won’t have it. He’s a total “mensch,” an absolute stand-up guy and an obvious Hall of Famer. He was not well-served by being deployed as a piggy-back starter.

Just because it can be done doesn’t mean it’s necessary. In the Nats case, it was much more necessary to use Corbin this way, because there’s only one other lefty in the bullpen–Sean Doolittle, who is essentially the No. 1b closer.

Breaking Corbin out as a reliever was a necessity for us.

Not so for Los Angeles.

Step 4. Stay in the fight. I am certain that, by WAR and by statcast analysis, the Dodgers were the superior team. I am also certain that baseball has yet to find a metric for teams that “stay in the fight.” I am not saying the Dodgers are not “mentally tough,” I am merely saying that I have never ever rooted for a team as mentally tough, as absolutely determined to yield no quarter, as this Nats club.

I don’t think it’s a talent. I don’t think anyone is naturally equipped to love sucking at stuff. I think “staying in the fight” can be taught, though. And how? By enduring the uphill hardship.

Watching this team survive a 19-31 cataclysm and become THIS THING has been one of the most amazing storyline “arcs” of my recent lifetime.

Stay in the fight, folks.

baseball, music, reviews

Your 2017 Nationals–if they were guitars

In the lead-up to the All-Star Game, Major League baseball launched a social media experiment: one last push to get some all-universe baseball players into the game, guys who hadn’t made it on popular vote alone, by tallying how many times a specific hashtag was hashed. It does blow my mind that an all-universe player like Anthony Rendon can be so criminally overlooked but that’s all-star games for ya, and it’s also what happens when you’re humble and refuse to self-promote, characteristics that are not exactly sought after (“actively rejected”) in today’s media marketplace, it’s making us all worse people living worse lives, but that’s another point entirely.

#VoteRendon was the hashtag of the day, and I tweeted it a few times, but just tweeting #VoteRendon in bulk was so boring and banal I sort of refused to do it unless I could come up with actual decent tweets. I tried this one:

 

 

That got some traction. As it should: penguin chicks are click-fodder. All animals are click-fodder, but penguins are fuzzy and round, which make them even more click-foddery than others.

I freely admit this was a cynical and planned manipulation of people’s clicking habits. But I like to also congratulate myself on having properly read the audience and formulated a social-media strategy of sorts, that “seemed” to work in the sense that I did actually gain a few followers from it.

And then I tweeted this one, a far more obscure, let’s say “elevated,” take:

 

This tweet didn’t get as much engagement but I failed to hashtag #Telecaster, a fairly major tactical shortcoming on my part, because I could have drawn in more clicks by bringing together two basically unrelated subjects and audiences.

This tweet, however, inspired further thinking, and is directly responsible for how I arrived at this abomination of an idea: If Tony is a Telecaster, what is Max? What is Harper? This is a bad bar-type discussion but if I’ve learned nothing else, it’s that bad bar-type discussions are the apotheosis of online discourse.

All you need to know about me is that I love reading more than I love guitars and music; I love guitars and music more than baseball; and then there’s other stuff.

Proceed at your own risk.

Max Scherzer: ’62 Les Paul

7264194c6df0854da0f3facd7187ef9b--gary-rossington-custom-guitars

This is the classic of the classic of the classics. This is the guitar’s guitar. It’s less “raw sex appeal” and more like a rare artifact of human greatness. When I think of Max, I think that this is sort of why we have pitchers and pitching in the first place. I think that he pushes himself in a way that cause nearly all other bodies to implode and he does not. I think of a guy who has the mental toughness–learned, for sure–that few pitchers have. The ’62 Les Paul is so worshipped it’s almost a cliché but the fact is that there is just nothing on Earth that sounds as full, rich and powerful as this slab of mahogany. It’s a visceral guitar. It’s a guitar for a guy with high 90s velocity and command of four pitches including a “power slider” that goes off the grid as it enters the strike zone.

Bryce Harper; ’59 Les Paul, the “Black Beauty”

LPB7TVEBGH1_FINISHES_FAMILY

The ’62 LP has one rival when it comes to being the guitar, and that’s the ’59 Black Beauty. I personally prefer ’em Neil Young-style, with single-coil “p-90” style pickups, but it should be noted that I would happily take one with any pickup arrangement. I have had the extraordinary opportunity to play one of these and the neck, which I believe was original, was the greatest neck I’ve ever put my hands on. The ’59 Black Beauty has got tremendous power: it’s a solid slab of mahogany and two beefy-ass pickups. Bryce can swing it, we all know this. But it’s easy to overlook that he’s a hitter first, power-hitter second. His command of the strike zone is like he went into edit-player mode and gave himself a 99. His eye-hand coordination is alienesque. He’s a very good defensive player too, with a laser for a throwing arm. There is a lot more to his game than moon shot homers and there’s a lot more to the Black Beauty than chugging riffs.

Ryan Zimmerman: ’57 Stratocaster

qekociyocxizafec3cuf.jpg

You find me a team without a power-hitting first-baseman and I’ll show you an incomplete team. You show me a guitarist without a classic, black-and-white Strat, and I’ll you show you an incomplete guitar arsenal. It really is that straightforward. Forget about the sentimental beauty of seeing Ryan slug again. His hot start fueled the hot start of the team, and that hot start translated to a critical margin later in the spring-summer as the team found injury and pitching problems cropping up. His scorched “oppo” line drives are a thing of beauty.

Daniel Murphy: ’59 Les Paul Jr.

29c4fe42a937b83c304d2bdc436d22b7

The TV-yellow Les Paul Junior was brought to life as a stripped-down, student-type budget instrument. And it has become, over time, a classic instrument. I see Murphy in this guitar. I see a guy who hits everything at all times. Likewise, the ’59 LPJ is as much a punk and rock guitar as it is a jazz guitar; the p-90 pickups add a layer of complexity to the solid-body heft. Unlike the really swampy and intestinal classic Les Paul, the LPJ has a pronounced bite in the mid-range frequencies, a bark, almost a howl–it’s not a slugger but it has the kind of line-drive power that scores run upon run upon run. While not a superstar guitar like the LP, the Junior is suitable for every genre, and the fact that it really found its following many years after its initial introduction just speaks to me about the arc of Murphy’s career. Murphy has a plan for every at-bat and any musician with a plan should not be without a Les Paul Junior, or at least guitars with p-90 pickups.

Trea Turner: the J. Mascis custom Jazzmaster

a353f081b730fedf5d2e02faca60beb1

Speed and power and just pure sex appeal come together in one instrument. Few play louder than J, but it’s not just slamming amps at maximum volume; his use of suspended chords and jangly open-string chord voicings are as much a part of “the sound” as anything. He’s Peter Buck wallowing in a well of sludge. Trea can small-ball you to death. Trea’s got the line-drive power to rip mistake pitches into doubles and home runs. He’s got the speed and the power and the aggression to take triples. His defense–range, the throwing arm, the glove work–is also outstanding. Trea’s all-around game is both overtly “sexy” and also subtle and quiet and that reminds me of the extreme contours of the Jazzmaster, a guitar that is flashy as hell, but not obscene or vulgar; it’s stylish and sleek, and it’s also a pure tone machine.

Anthony Rendon: pick a Telecaster

CM7wSvoUAAAEAvo

The Tele doesn’t talk about itself. The Tele doesn’t try to destroy your eyes with neon paint jobs or nearly pornographic angles. It’s just there, and it does what it does, all day, every day. It hits. It plays outstanding defense. It rocks. It’s bluesy. It’s jazz. It’s metal. (If you think you can’t play metal on a Tele, well, nobody bothered to inform Chris Cornell as such. He rocked ’em all the time. So does Mascis for that matter.) The Tele is Anthony Rendon because it is seems so humble and simple (“only” two pickups! “only” two knobs! “only” one switch!) but it covers an enormous spectrum of tone and it does everything as well as it can be. You pick it up and plug it in and 98% of your work is done. You give Tony a bat and a glove and you will have run production, defense, base-running and  steady, quiet, reliable greatness.

Jayson Werth: ES-335

gibson-1963-es-335-block-reissue-cherry-2013-edition-625534.jpg

Before going down with a foul-ball-induced foot injury, J-Dub was posting an OPS in the mid-800s while playing far-better-than-anyone-expected defense in the outfield. Everything about J-Dub says, “aging like a fine wine or scotch,” and nothing says that better to me than a wine-red semi-hollowbody where you can see the woodgrain and you can hear the depth of the notes, there’s a maturity and fullness to these guitars that are just inexplicable short of hearing and playing them. The shape is a classic guitar style but  they can bring the heat–see, Eric Clapton and Cream–these guitars surely can scream as J-Dub can still punish pitches. Maybe it’s not as “sexy” as a Jazzmaster, but it’s a full-throated rock machine that will always have a place in a guitar arsenal. J-Dub might be 38 but he looks like he could keep hitting in perpetuity.

Matt Wieters: Precision bass

0143412300_gtr_frt_001_rr

The catcher has to do everything: defend the position, wrangle pitchers, call pitches for every individual opposing batter, create detailed plans-of-attack, oh, and also hit. Every great rock band has a great bassist. The bass is both a melodic “lead” instrument and a critical part of the keeping the “rhythm” section on track. Wieters has come up with some big, big hits for the club. He’s learned an entirely new pitching army essentially on the fly. He’s made some big plays defending the plate. He’s just been involved, and positively, in every aspect of the team. His OPS has tailed off and he’s had issues with passed balls. I don’t think anyone can deny that. But he’s also played through a few exhausting stretches and he’s done so at the kind of glue-level that I think of when I think of the essentiality of the Fender precision bass.

Stephen Strasburg: Rickenbacker 330

Rickenbacker_330_Fireglo_2016_1.gif

The Rick is neither a Tele, nor a Strat, nor a Les Paul–it’s completely its own thing. It’s most famous for its jangly, reedy twang. But, when pumped through, say, a 100-watt Orange or Marshall stack–watch out. The Rick 330 can be a real fire-breather. When I think of Stras, I think of the brilliant “stuff”–the evaporating curveball, the tumbling sliders, the barrage of high-90s fastballs. He’s really his own man. He’s not Max. He’s not Bryce. He’s profoundly gifted and also profoundly quiet about it. The Rick is not an obvious guitar. It’s not one that shows up in pop clichés. But those who know guitars, know the Rick 330. Fans who know pitching, know how good Stras really is.

Stephen Drew, Adam Lind, Michael Taylor, Brian Goodwin, Wilmer Difo, Jose Lobaton, Tanner Roark: beat-up Telecasters

John_T_body_45

This guitar has been through some shit. It’s been dropped. It’s been discarded. It’s been told, “you’re scrap.” It’s heard “your career is over unless you do x y or z.” It’s been written off. And yet here it is, continuing to just crank out fantastic tone, session after session after session, song after song after song. Where would the Nats be without any of these guys? Yes, Tanner’s having a tough year, but so what–he will be critical for us at some point this year, and we need him, just like we need a Tele that’s had it’s neck broken and has scratchy pots and has it’s intonation all shot-to-shit–all of these guys have grinded to create fantastic professional sport careers for themselves, and not only is it an honor to watch them play, and play well, and continue evolving on a daily basis, they’re incredibly important component parts to this club. And, as I’ve already said, you should never leave home without a Tele.

The bullpen: Um

smash_19660730.jpg

Look I’m not here to trash the bullpen. That’s been done and it’s old and it’s boring. Let’s find something new to say. Let’s focus on what, for me, was a major first-half highlight: Enny Romero and his 101-mph heat as it K’d Freddie Freeman, Destroyer of The Nationals. I had the privilege of seeing him pitch in person here in L.A. and he was absolutely outstanding then, too. Matt Grace has had several moments of outstanding play, particularly (again) those two Ks of Freeman. Let’s focus on Ollie Perez coming in and throwing 95-mph heat after the Strickland-Harper brawl and locking down the win in San Francisco.

Let’s focus not on the brokenness of the bullpen; let’s focus on the fact that the raw parts remain so profoundly talented. Let us root for them to be used in ways that maximize their success; let us root for their health and well-being (KODA GLOVER, goddammit); and let’s root for them to get the most out of their ability, and yes, let us root for Mike Rizzo to make not just additions but the right additions.

Our bullpen is very much like a smashed Rickenbacker and a destroyed Marshall stack; artful, messy, and ultra-volatile–like The Who.

 

baseball

Baseball

Baseball is not life. It is, however, an outstanding primer for how “life” works. Economics, probability, the nature of chance and trying to understand why any given event ever happens–it’s all philosophy, in the end, wrapped up inside a simple ball-and-stick game.

This game will frustrate you. It will break your heart early and often. And then right when you’re about to throw in the towel, Max Scherzer will throw a complete game gem, or Bryce Harper will hit a walk-off grand slam, or Daniel Murphy will hit another run-scoring double, or Tony Rendon will save two runs with his slick glove, or Trea Turner will steal two bases in a row–right when you think this game has crushed the last drop of idealism out of your soul, something will happen to bring you back; to say, yes, fan, your faith will be rewarded.

Here is a collection of my work from Baseball Essential and the Read Optional: MLB Edition web sites. Any works in bold with a blurb are pieces that I particularly enjoyed writing, or that I found especially challenging and rewarding. Dig in!

From TalkNats.com, 2017:

Excellence is a process was a reflection on an incredible season from the Nats and how ultimately, great results are the end result of a system that nurtures and creates personal and organizational growth.

From Read Optional, 2016:

Fans from both sides discuss the Adam Eaton trade and their team’s futures was an outstanding format for a discussion with my editor over there, and not only did I learn a great deal about the White Sox, but I really had to focus and hone my own thinking in response to solid questioning. This was a lot of fun to do.

2016 Season in Review: Washington Nationals

and my podcasting debut!

From Baseball Essential, 2016:

Three trade targets in the Rockies outfield

Five questions for the 2016 Nationals

Re-tooled Nats having productive spring

Five things we learned in opening week

The importance of Wilson Ramos

Five takeaways from the Nationals/Cardinals series

Five takeaways from the Nationals/Royals series

Reflections on Stephen Strasburg

Five takeaways from the Nationals/Mets series

Sammy Solis: Closer candidate?

The makings of a Nationals die-hard is a favorite of mine. Developing a non-ironic emotional connection to a team is a good thing. With healthy perspective, obviously. But there’s nothing wrong with full-throated fandom.

What the Nationals taught me about gratitude

From Baseball Essential, 2015:

An ode to Clint Robinson is one of my best pieces, in which I dissect how a player generally overlooked had a terrific year for a club that had very few terrific years.

The multiple values of Daniel Murphy is a dive into Murphy’s evolving approach as a hitter and trying to explain his explosive 2015 post-season tear. (Fortunately for the Nats, his 2015 post-season carried over into 2016 and he turned in a MVP-worthy season for the ages.)

Brandon Phillips, and building a better infield

Nationals making subtle, meaningful bullpen moves

What is Stephen Strasburg’s value?

What are the Tigers getting in Jordan Zimmermann?

Who will lead off for the 2016 Nationals?

What’s next for Ian Desmond?

Nationals need to repair bullpen, but how?