Ernie Banks (1931-2014)

The smile says it all. Even in the twilight of his baseball career — as on this 1969 Topps card, just before heading into his final season as a regular — Ernie Banks was overjoyed to be playing baseball. I’m too young to have seen Banks play, but when I came into possession of that card, one of about two thousand from the 1965-1975 period handed down by my cousin Allan, along with plenty of Hank Aarons and a few of Willie Mays, I’d like to think my own smile was that wide upon discovering the lone entry from “Mr. Cub.”

Alas, that smile has been extinguished, as Banks passed away on Friday at the age of 83. Over at Sports Illustrated, we’ve got the full salute, with Tom Verducci on why Banks will be missed, Cliff Corcoran on the outline of his stellar career, Rich Cohen from the past summer’s “Where Are They Now?” issue whose cover he graced. My own entry focuses on Banks’ home run prowess, the likes of which had barely been seen from a shortstop prior to his mid-Fifties breakout, and his standing with regards to advanced metrics, including JAWS. For all the number-crunching, though, nothing can quantify the power of that smile, which lit the baseball world for so long.

Nomination Accepted: The SABR Analytics Conference Awards

On Thursday night I was pleasantly surprised to receive an email from Jacob Pomrenke of the Society for American Baseball Research, informing me that one of my articles — “The Case of the Disappearing Slugger: Where Did MLB’s Power Go?”, published last September 3 — has been selected as a finalist in the Contemporary Analysis category of the 2015 SABR Analytics Conference Research Awards. The full slate of nominees, five articles apiece in the categories of Contemporary Analysis, Contemporary Commentary, and Historical Analysis/Commentary, was announced on Friday.

Written on the occasion of Giancarlo Stanton’s 35th home run, my piece examined the possibility that the majors would fail to produce a single 40-homer slugger for the first time since 1982, situating the declining numbers of such players — Nelson Cruz wound up being the only one to make it there, with Stanton stopped at 37 due to a horrific beaning — against the larger backdrop of falling home run and scoring rates as well as the reasons they’re on the wane. Like so:

It truly is just an honor to join the rest of the slate:

Contemporary Analysis

Contemporary Commentary

Historical Analysis/Commentary

The winner in each category will be determined by online voting at SABR.org, BaseballProspectus.com, FanGraphs.com, HardballTimes.com, and BeyondtheBoxScore.com, starting next week, with the results at each site weighted equally at 20, and the announcement of the winner during the conference in Phoenix, from March 12-14 (alas, I’m unlikely to be attending this year). As the only writer within my category not currently affiliated with one of the last four sites — and one of the few from a mainstream site, where the whir of the propeller hats can’t overwhelm the conversation, and where there’s no resident voting bloc — I don’t expect to win. Nor should I, at least as far as I can see. Pavlidas and Brooks’ pitch-framing piece laid the groundwork for numbers that I use every week, and the others were no less impressive or sophisticated. Not that I’d turn my nose up at anyone who wants to vote for me, but it’s a gas to be in the aforementioned company, regardless of the outcome, and I’m grateful to those who consider my work on that level.

Surprise appearance on Olbermann

Out of the blue on Tuesday afternoon, a producer from Keith Olbermann’s show reached out and asked if I wanted to come in to tape a spot for the night’s show, discussing the absurdity of new MLB commissioner Rob Manfred naming Mets owner Fred Wilpon to chair the MLB finance committee. Now, when news of the Madoff-tainted owner‘s appointment — actually a downgrade from his position on Bud Selig’s executive council — reached the baseball world this weekend, I didn’t think my Twitter-based snark was particularly noteworthy, but it caught said producer’s attention, and with Monday’s holiday, Olbermann still had a good rant to unleash regarding a man who lost $700 million in a Ponzi scheme. Who was I to pass up the chance to ride shotgun?

Due to the short notice, some difficulty clearing my plate, and a distinct lack of cooperation from the MTA subway system (the closest Q train was apparently in the Bermuda Triangle), I ran late and had to sprint through Times Square, never a good plan at any time, let alone 5 PM on a weekday. I was barely able to get my pulse rate down to an acceptable level and still sweating like Patrick Ewing in the fourth quarter — seriously, they powdered me three times — when I went on for my five-minute segment, but I managed to get it together and have a few laughs with the host:

Kids, there’s never a bad time for an Earl Weaver reference. Thanks to Howard Megdal — my go-to for the details the Mets’ ongoing financial morass — for background preparation and Ben Kabak for the A-Rod/Wilpon comparison, which was too good not to steal. Their next round is on me.

Loved this photo from former SI.com managing editor and current Entertainment Weekly editor-in-chief Matt Bean (taken at the Top Hops specialty beer shop, which I correctly ID’d and which rates as one of the city’s best):

 

Today in Stupid Bullshit

Three things, apparently unrelated except for the fact that when I reactivated the blog, I explicitly promised you cursing and beer as well as baseball:

• Publisher wants to ban cursing in the newsroom

At the York (PA) Daily Record, somebody is out of her fucking mind, namely publisher Sara Glines, who on Monday sent a memo reminding all employees “that cursing is not appropriate in the work environment.” Do go on, crazy lady:

I know that newspapers have had a salty history and culture. And I know that we all will slip from time to time. Still, I believe we can express ourselves adequately without the use of profanity.

Yeah, about that history and culture… as ESPN’s Don Van Natta Jr. put it via Twitter, “Banning cursing in a newsroom is as foolish as banning wagering at a racetrack. You can’t have one without the other.”

And about the specific paper in question, Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal — one of baseball’s top reporters on the Internet and the airwaves — is an alumnus who got his start there. Said he, “Forgive me for cursing non-stop during my days working for the York Daily Record newsroom. And yes, I would do it again!”

As somebody who’s obviously got an affinity for profanity, I can only laugh at this while noting that if Glines’ efforts to clean up what doesn’t need cleaning up don’t lower morale in the newsroom, her removal of Mountain Dew and Snickers from the vending machines (as noted in a subsequent memo) will. I shit you not.

• Lagunitas sues Sierra Nevada over “trademark infringement”

Two of the top craft brewers in the country in terms of sales volume — and two who consistently deliver quality offerings that find their way into the Jaffe-Span residence — are fighting. Lagunitas Brewing Co., which ranked fifth in volume in 2013 according to the Brewers Association, is suing Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., which ranked second, because they believe that Sierra’s use of the acronym IPA on their new Hop Hunter packaging has crossed the line:

Mind you, Lagunitas didn’t invent India Pale Ale, nor are they the only ones who produce it — so many breweries do so that it’s both the most popular and the fastest-growing variety of craft beer. Sierra is clearly using a different font and different design than Lagunitas, despite the suit’s claim to the contrary: “The unique ‘IPA’ lettering used in the Lagunitas ‘IPA’ Family of Trademarks has a distinctive serif font, distinctive kerning (or letter spacing), between the ‘P’ and the ‘A,’ slightly aged or weathered look, with uneven areas on each of the letters, and the eliminatio of any periods between the letters.”

As a former graphic designer, I can tell you — if your eye isn’t keen enough to see for yourself, or if you’ve simply been blinded by this idiocy — that Sierra clearly used a different font than Lagunitas, one that doesn’t look like a stencil or have any aging/weathering. And while my law degree may have come from a box of Cracker Jacks and a repository of Lionel Hutz quotations, I’m pretty sure that you can’t copyright kerning, the removal of periods or the color black. I’m also pretty sure that Lagunitas doesn’t have enough money to go after all of the breweries selling IPAs and labeling them as such.

So good luck with that frivolous lawsuit, guys, and know that for the next 30 days, I’m not buying a single damn one of your beers. Maybe you should call your next one A Little Sumpin’ Stupid.

• Diamondbacks GM Dave Stewart Proud of Being Behind the Times

Former ace and new D-Backs GM Dave Stewart has every reason to be interested in James Shields given the state of his team’s rotation, but given that he’s in the market for a contract upwards of $100 million, affording him could be a stretch. But Stewart must have rocks in his head if he thinks he’s found the right selling point. Via the Arizona Republic‘s Nick Piecoro:

“I think James is a throwback guy by the way he goes about his business and the innings he pitches,” Stewart said. “I think the fact that Tony (La Russa) is here and that we have more baseball people – he probably sees us as a true baseball team vs. some of the other teams out here that are geared more toward analytics and those type of things.

You hear that? In increasing numbers, teams have followed in the footsteps of the Moneyball-era A’s to incorporate analytics into their front-office decision making. The Red Sox have won three World Series since hiring Bill James, the A’s and Rays have made repeated playoff appearances despite their shoestring budgets, the Pirates ended a 20-year losing skid by putting their faith in big data with regards to infield shifts and pitch framing (the subject of a forthcoming book from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review‘s beat writer, Travis Sawchick, Big Data), and now virtually every front office has some kind of input on that front, even the AL champion Royals. Hell, La Russa’s old team, the Cardinals, have become the game’s model organization through their combination of scouting and stats, and D-backs general managing partner Ken Kendrick expressed his dissatisfaction with Stewart’s predecessor, Kevin Towers, over his lack of analytical efforts.

So it’s a bit rich to see a first-time GM for a team coming off a 98-loss season telling others what works and what doesn’t, and trying to pretend that Shields — who did spend most of his career with the Rays and was prized by them before being dealt to the Royals — is somehow out of favor among analysts.

But here’s a question for Stewart: do true baseball teams have swimming pools in centerfield?

• Speaking of stupid bullshit, pardon the “new look”

I unwittingly pressed “Update WordPress” and in doing so overwrote all of the customized design for the blog, some of which was ready to be junked anyway. Gonna have to figure out how to change the scheme’s default colors, at least…

Pitch Talks: This Wednesday, January 14

Just a reminder: this coming Wednesday I’ll be part of an all-star lineup of baseball writers talking about the Yankees, the Mets and the game in general for a series called Pitch Talks that got its start in Toronto. The event takes place on Wednesday at 7:30 at B.B. King’s Blues Club and Grill in Manhattan. Tickets cost $25 in advance via Ticketmaster. They’re $30 at the door.  The place has a full menu with food as well as beer, wine and booze.

The evening will be moderated by Peter Abraham, now of the Boston Globe. As I understand it, I’ll be on the Yankees panel with the New York Times‘ Tyler Kepner and WFAN’s Sweeny Murti. The Mets panel will feature ESPN New York’s Adam Rubin and Mets Blog’s Matthew Cerrone, while ESPN’s Buster Olney and Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal will cover the national angle.

At the end, we’ll probably all take part in a Battle Royale, but I’m still unsure whether I have to bring my own folding chair or whether one will be supplied for me. If you’re a reader who braves the cold to come out for this, don’t be a stranger — come find me and say hello.

Please Allow Me to Reintroduce Myself

Hola, amigos. It’s been awhile since I rapped at ya. I’ve been busy at Sports Illustrated, particularly so during Hall of Fame season, and the platform there has elevated me to the point that not only do I get to appear on MLB Network’s MLB Now occasionally, I get to rub elbows with none other than Bob Costas, which is pretty damn cool. Who the hell would have thought that could happen when I began this thing some 13 1/2 years ago?

Some visual proof, direct from the MLB.com video archive:

Anyway, even with me churning out one or two articles per day for SI.com — here’s the whole archive — this blog has lain fallow for far too long, and I’ve decided to return to using it as a place to loosen my tie, and a clearinghouse for stuff that doesn’t fit on SI or social media, or quickly gets lost there. Yes, there will be beer; you can keep up with the best of what I’m drinking at Untappd (more on the topic below). There may also be bad words, so buy the kids a fucking dictionary already so they can follow along.

This space will become particularly important as I move forward in working on my book, The Cooperstown Casebook, which I’m aiming to get out in spring 2016 via Thomas Dunne (here’s the Publisher’s Weekly announcement, from August 18 — the same day, in fact, that Emma Span and I announced our engagement to the world). As you might ascertain via the title, The Cooperstown Casebook is about the Hall of Fame, and particularly about my JAWS-driven take on who’s enshrined and who should be. In addition to a trip around the diamond to identify several intriguing cases among recent, current and upcoming candidates, the book will contain some longer essays about the institution’s history, my research into some of its electoral trends, and some ideas for reform.

Some of that research and energy towards reform has already been put to use by the BBWAA; while I’m still six years away from the 10-year service requirement to get a ballot of my own, I was part of an eight-person committee charged with researching and recommending changes to the process (thanks to then-BBWAA president La Velle Neale III and past president/committee chair/former Clubhouse Confidential sparring partner Susan Slusser). We kicked around various ideas, from lowering the threshold for election from 75 percent to another number, from expanding beyond 10 slots to 12, 15 or even an unlimited number (Derrick Goold’s “Binary Ballot” idea), from doing away with the 5 percent minimum eligibility requirement — which has screwed over some great and deserving players in the past — or changing the threshold based upon the number of years a candidate has been on the ballot, and so on. Meanwhile, the Hall of Fame unilaterally enacted its own change last summer, curtailing the window of eligibility for each candidate on the writers’ ballot from 15 years to 10 — a move that in time could break up the ballot’s bottleneck, albeit without helping to increase the pace of players elected, particularly when one considers that the various Veterans Committees charged with picking over the BBWAA’s leftovers haven’t elected a living former player since the 2001 cycle.

Why do we need it? In short, my research shows that voters have failed to keep pace in terms of electing modern players — not just those who played in the 1990s but in the 1970s and 1980s as well. Limiting the field to those elected by the BBWAA, he average number of active Hall of Fame players per team per season from 1923 through 1941 is 1.5. From 1946 through 1988, that level falls to 1.34; it’s been below 1.0 since 1988, and below 0.5 since 1993. And beyond the split in the electorate over how to handle candidates linked to performance-enhancing drugs, the backlog is being caused by the rule allowing voters to include only 10 candidates on their ballots. The 10-slot rule dates all the way back to 1936, when the Hall of Fame first empowered the writers to vote, and at 10 it’s remained despite the major leagues nearly doubling in size from 16 to 30 teams.

At the recent winter meetings in San Diego, the BBWAA voted to accept our recommendation to increase the number of slots on the ballot to 12. It’s a modest increase, and less than what many would have preferred (myself included), but the final decision rests with an inherently conservative institution that is clearly unwilling to undertake a radical change. A formal proposal to the Hall of Fame is in the works, but once it’s submitted, the final decision on that move rests with the institution.

In any event, at SI.com I wrote about all 34 candidates on this year’s ballot, including 24 individual profiles — seven newcomers and 17 holdovers, the latter of which had their profiles revised (some of them significantly) from last year. Links to each of them are here, while links to my agonizing final 10 for my hypothetical ballot are here. My election day preview is here, my immediate thoughts on the election of Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Craig Biggio and John Smoltz are here, my candidate-by-candidate breakdown of the results is here, and my forecast for the next five elections is here. Even the great Ray Ratto, who hates everything about what this Hall of Fame process has become, liked that one, which tells me that at least one of us has a screw loose.

(Speaking of the future, the more mathematically-inclined may be interested in the attempts by the community at Tom Tango’s blog to quantify what happens when so many big names come off the ballot at once. I’ll have to look at this more closely.)

One of the frustrating things about the election results is how far some of the candidates fell from the exit polls — the ballots published prior to election, collected by Ryan Thibs into a great Hall of Fame ballot tracker — to the actual results, with Mike Piazza slipping from above 75 down to 69.9 percent, Tim Raines from around 65 percent to 55 percent, Curt Schilling from above 50 percent to 39.2 percent and so on, to say nothing of the minimal traction that the JAWS-approved Edgar Martinez (26.7 percent), Alan Trammell (25.1 percent), Mike Mussina (24.6 percent) and Larry Walker (11.8 percent) get. If it seems like the victims of that were the ones most favored by JAWS and other advanced metrics, you’re not imagining things. At Baseball Prospectus, Lewie Pollis found a sizable correlation (R = .59) between my metric and the differential, underscoring the fact that the segment of the electorate willing to go public prior to the results isn’t representative. It skews younger, more technologically savvy, more open to advanced statistical analysis and more inclusive (“large Hall”) than the average voter (in my preview, the average published ballot used 8.99 names, well above the final mark of 8.42, which was still a record).

(Which isn’t to say that those who made their ballots public prior to the election had a monopoly on reason. Dear God no. Pal Jesse Spector does the Lord’s work on the worst ballots here).

Speaking of BP, I was on Episode 595 of the Effectively Wild podcast with Ben Lindbergh and Russell Carleton prior to the election. Here’s a post-election spot of me talking to ESPN St. Louis’ Kevin Wheeler, and another talking to KNBR San Francisco’s Ted Ramey. They’re two of the JAWS-friendliest radio hosts I’ve come across, so those are worth a listen even if I was a bit punch-drunk by Wednesday.

Moving along… I have two upcoming public appearances to promote, and as promised, there will be beer. First, I’m one of eight writers who will be part of Pitch Talks NYC, a panel discussion of local and national baseball topics moderated by the Boston Globe’s Pete Abraham (who’s come a long way himself since profiling the nascent baseball blog movement), and also featuring the New York Times’ Tyler Kepner, ESPN’s Buster Olney and Adam Rubin, WFAN’s Sweeney Murti, Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal and Mets Blog’s Matthew Cerrone. It’s on January 14, 7:30 at B.B. King’s Blues Club and Grill. Tickets are $25, and the event should be a whole lot of fun.

Also next week, the good folks at ESPN El Paso, where I’ve done radio hits with Steve Kaplowitz for at least the last five years – hits that began including a couple minutes of beer talk at the end, with my “Beer of the Week” pick — are bringing me down to their fair city for Sun City on Tap, a craft beer fest held on January 17. Direct from their web page:

Sun City On Tap Craft Beer Festival takes place Saturday, January 17th at Southwest University Event Center. Choose from two sessions, 1PM to 4PM or 5PM to 8PM. Sun City on Tap will showcase over 100 releases from some of America’s best craft breweries. Attendees will receive 8 initial samples with their souvenir sampling glass and the opportunity to purchase more samples! Plus hang out in an atmosphere filled with live music, delicious food available for purchase and great vendors.

Jeebus Cripes, that’s enough out of my yap for now. In closing, a big and heartfelt thanks to the readers who followed along with all of my Hall of Fame stuff, the writers who said nice things about it in print, in person, or over the airwaives, and the gatekeepers of said airwives who invited me to air my spiel. As the great Yogi Berra might have said, thank you for making this day necessary.

Don Zimmer (1931-2014) and the secret of futility infielders

zimlogo

Don Zimmer was the ultimate futility infielder, though it wasn’t supposed to happen that way. He was a star in the making until a 1953 beaning put him in a coma for nearly two weeks — he was even administered last rites – and left him with four holes in his head, later filled by the rare metal tantalum. Coming through a well-stocked Dodger system, he was blocked by future Hall of Famer Pee Wee Reese anyway, so he was forced to bounce around the infield to find playing time, and while he remained fearless at the plate, his offensive game never flourished.

As a player, Zimmer became a disposable commodity, a replacement-level scrub long before the words “replacement level” had ever been uttered. He bounced around the majors for 12 years with the Dodgers, Cubs, Mets (he was their inaugural third baseman but went 4-for-52 before being mercifully traded), Reds, Dodgers (again) and Senators, hitting a grand .235/290/.372 in the Show, winning a pair of World Series rings, making one All-Star team, and suffering yet another beaning that broke his cheekbone. About that, from a 1999 Sports Illustrated bit:

“After Jeffcoat hit me in the face,” he says, “doctors examined my skull and said, ‘What have you got in there?’” I told them, but somehow reports came out about a steel plate.” Why not correct the tale, which made his head the butt of countless jokes? “Aw, it’s like when people say they saw me play in Montreal,” says the Yankees’ interim manager. “I say, ‘Thanks, I enjoyed it,’ but I never played there. When somebody brought up the steel plate, I just said, ‘Yeah, sure.’ ” Steel or no steel, he’s one of the game’s magnetic personalities.

After a year in Japan, Zimmer went back to the minors to manage in the Reds’ chain, and he spent he better part of the next half-century imparting his baseball wisdom and his stories. In the minors, he oversaw Hall of Famer Johnny Bench. In the majors, at the tail end of his first managerial job wearing a shit-brown Padres uniform, he greeted a rookie Dave Winfield. He skippered four major league teams and coached a total of eight, not counting his multiple stints with the Yankees. He presided over one of the worst collapses in Red Sox history, took the Cubs to a rare playoff appearance, and was Joe Torre’s sidekick through a pinstriped dynasty that included four world championships and six pennants, not to mention a few times of telling George Steinbrenner how far to shove it.

Disposable perhaps, but also indispensable. That’s the true secret of the tribe of futility infielders. While limited in talent relative to the stars at the highest levels, they find ways to carve out full lives in the game, passing on both the fundamentals and the lore. They’re nothing less than the laces that hold the ol’ leather together, the very soul of baseball. Zimmer clocked an amazing 66 years in the game, never drawing a paycheck outside of it.

Zimmer’s tenure as the Yankees’ bench coach came during the time that I turned from a modestly successful career in graphic design to starting a humble blog that sent me down the road to becoming a professional baseball writer and occasional TV talking head. With his bulging jowls and near-spherical shape, he cut an odd but memorable figure in pinstripes; you could put his silhouette in the MLB logo and it would be instantly recognizable. Thanks to a history that included meeting Babe Ruth, playing with Jackie Robinson and under Casey Stengel, managing against Bucky Fucking Dent and coaching Derek Jeter — who used to rub his head for good luck — he become a common reference point for baseball discussion among friends. The army helmet he donned during the 1999 postseason after getting drilled by a Chuck Knoblauch foul ball — could a fucking baseball avoid that poor, battered noggin just once? — turned him into an icon. He may have been loathed in Boston for presiding over the 1978 collapse, but he became beloved in New York.

On Wednesday night, I was in the Yankee Stadium press box trying to find an angle on Yanks-A’s as part of my night duty for the Sports Illustrated Strike Zone blog, where I’ve spent the past two years at the expense of this old space. When the news of Zimmer’s passing at age 83 came across Twitter, I got choked up, remembering all the laughs from that pinstriped era when my friends and I had so much time to drink beer, shoot the shit, and soak up baseball together at the ballpark while the Yankees kicked ass. Instinctively, I knew that the job of summarizing Zimmer’s career for SI.com would fall to me, and I began typing: “Baseball lost one of its lifers on Wednesday…” I capped my 2,000-word piece with quotes from a teary Joe Girardi, who played under him in Chicago, Colorado and New York, as well as Jeter, who did the press contingent the rare service of quickly showing up to his locker after a loss to deliver his brief soundbites on the thoughts of Zimmer’s passing.

I’m too much of a latecomer to have dealt with the Zim in a professional capacity, so I’ll have to fall back on the great 2001 Scott Raab profile from Esquire, the must-read words from Boston’s Leigh Montville, the on-air tribute by the incomparable Vin Scully, and SI colleague Tom Verducci‘s story of one time when Zimmer stood up to the Boss:

In the 1990s, when the New York Yankees won more than anybody else but not enough for owner George Steinbrenner, after one particular loss the owner ordered every member of the coaching and training staffs and manager Joe Torre upstairs to his office at Yankee Stadium. As many as two dozen people sat and stood around the room, their heads drooped, knowing the lashing that was about to come. Steinbrenner didn’t disappoint them with his fury.

“We have to do better,” Steinbrenner said. “All of us. If there is anybody in this room who thinks they are doing everything they can to help the Yankees win, you can leave right now.”

Don Zimmer got up out of his chair and walked out on Steinbrenner. The rest of the room managed to suppress both gasps and laughter.

Zimmer’s wife, Soot, who had been waiting in the lobby and was expecting the usual lengthy Steinbrenner summit, knew it meant only one thing to see her husband get off the elevator so soon after the meeting began.

“You’ve been fired!”

Scully:

A great Sports Illlustrated photo archive of Zimmer is here. Number 6, with Jim Leyland, is a personal favorite, and number 7, of him with the army helmet, the most iconic.

He was The Zim, exemplar of the Futility Infielder species, and he will be greatly missed.

Adventures in Chattering, Part II

As Opening Day nears, a young man’s fancy turns to baseball previews, and I’ve had no shortage of opportunities lately. On Sunday night, I was a guest on WNYW’s Fox Sports Extra, discussing the Mets and Yankees — Johan Santana, David Wright, Jason Bay, Michael Pineda, Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter in particular — with host Duke Castiglione, who gave the latest BP products some prime placement:

On Tuesday, I had the honor of participating in the last full Clubhouse Confidential of the preseason. The first-of-its-kind show offering a sabermetric take will spend the season subsumed by the MLB Network’s more straight-ahead coverage, with Clubhouse segments appearing two or three times a week within their MLB Tonight program, and yours truly hopefully in the rotation for the occasional segment. While we had planned for the show to be a more preseason-oriented take on the game, the news of the massive contract extensions of the Giants’ Matt Cain and the Reds’ Joey Votto prompted host Brian Kenny to shift the show’s first half to a macroeconomic picture of the game. His “High Heat” segment on the state of the game’s TV-driven finances was one of his best, and from there, we — Kenny, SABR president Vince Gennaro, FanGraphs writer Bill Petti and I — undertook a roundtable discussion of the ramifications of the new wave of nine-figure contracts:

In the second segment, we offered some predictions for awards, surprise teams, and breakout performers:

The third segment was one of Kenny’s “Rogue Commissioner” spots, in which he dons a judge’s robe (à la first commissioner, Judge Landis, but without the racism) for a special comment on the game. Kenny wanted to weigh in on the slight punishment handed down to Indians hurler Ubaldo Jimenez, who two days earlier had begun a game by drilling former teammate Troy Tulowitzki — the game’s most valuable player, according to CHC’s recockoning — on the elbow, with chests thumped and benches cleared. The umpires didn’t see fit to eject Jimenez, but the ongoing war of words hinted at the bad blood. In any event, our panel went rogue on the Rogue Commish, largely disagreeing with him:

As always, the show — my 10th appearance of the season — was a ton of fun, and I thank the producers for having me on. Travel limited my opportunities for appearances over its final month; the last time I was on was on March 5, for a spot previewing the NL West with Kenny’s understudy, Paul Severino. Due to live baseball, that spot didn’t run until the wee hours the following morning, so the guess here is that you’ve never seen it:

I was also on the show on March 15, for the long-lost spot “Cooperstown Justice” on under-the-radar Hall of Fame candidates (building from a two-part series, “The Keltner All-Stars,” that I had run at BP); the show was taped on February 16, but was shelved temporarily due to the MLB Network’s coverage of Hall of Famer Gary Carter’s passing. Based upon JAWS, I talked up the cases of four players snubbed by voters, namely Dick Allen, Ted Simmons, Bobby Grich, and Bobby Bonds:

Moving away from the television set and into the realms of podcasts, I also previewed the AL East for the Baseball Prospectus “Up and In” podcast, talked up the Yankees for the Over the Monster AL East preview series, yakked about spring training storylines with Yahoo! Sports Radio and New Zealand’s LiveSport Radio and St. Louis’ venerable KMOX. Nobody ever said I was shy with a microphone in front of my face and baseball on the agenda.

Adventures in Chattering, Part I

It’s been a busy five weeks since I checked in here due to travel on the Baseball Prospectus 2012 book tour and the SABR Analytics Conference, immersion in the annual spring update series for the venerable Fantasy Baseball Index, and my willingness to answer just about every media request that comes my way, particularly from anyone who wants to call me a “Stats Wiz.” I’ve got a handful of video clips to post dating back to my last ride through here, but as I’m still cooking those up, I’ll stick to some proactive notes.

First, I’ll be appearing on Clubhouse Confidential on Tuesday, April 3, for a preseason roundtable. I’m told that Vince Gennaro and Bill Petti will be on board as well with host Brian Kenny. That airs at 5:30 Eastern on MLB Network. Due to the crowd of spring training games, I don’t think it repeats, so set your recorders!

Also this week, I’ll also be reading at the Gelf Magazine Varsity Letters series along with Steve Goldman in conjunction with the release of Extra Innings on Thursday, April 5. Details on the appearance are here, and there will be an interview of me posted at the Varsity Letters site shortly.

Edited by Steve, Extra Innings: More Baseball Between the Numbers from the Team at Baseball Prospectus — as it is formally titled — officially hits the streets this week. I’m particularly proud of this one, as I’ve got three chapters which all told cover about 20 percent of its 460 pages. The first two — the first two chapters of the book, even — cover the most controversial topic in the game’s recent history and take up well over 60 pages: “What Really Happened in the Juiced Era?” and “How Should the Hall of Fame Respond to the Steroid Era?” The third hits a fairly controversial topic as well: “Is Jack Morris a Hall of Famer?” I’m excited and nervous about the reception the steroids stuff will receive; a couple weeks back, I was at the SABR conference in Arizona, where Gary Gillette told me, “You wouldn’t be the first person to wander into the pasture of steroids and step into a cow patty,” which didn’t exactly put my stomach at ease, but did make me laugh. Here’s hoping my attempts at bringing rational thought to some arguments that tend to fall into emotional territory stirs things up.

You can see the book’s Table of Contents here, and read excerpts from Christina Kahrl and Colin Wyers about strikeouts and reliever usage, respectively.

I was a panelist at the inaugural SABR Analytics Conference, held in Mesa, Arizona from March 15-17, and designed to bring statheads and the baseball industry together; I padded my trip by a couple of days on either side and got to see a bit of baseball (Clayton Kershaw versus the Cincinnati Reds) and hang out with some great people — from BP colleagues to Twitter correspondents — in and around the event to boot. I was invited to appear on the Clubhouse Confidential panel with SB Nation’s Rob Neyer, FanGraphs’ David Cameron, and SABR president Vince Gennaro; the audio for that is here. I had even more fun bending elbows with some of the pioneers in sabermetrics, including MLB official historian John Thorn, STATS Inc. founder Richard Cramer, and Baseball Info Solutions owner John Dewan. I tried to capture my experience in Arizona in a two-part series at Baseball Prospectus containing photos, notes and links to audio for some of the other panels and presentations. If I could recommend one to check out, it would be the Thorn/Gillette/Cramer “Retrospective Look at Baseball Analysis” panel, which you can hear here; here is what I wrote at BP:

Thorn discussed working on The Hidden Game of Baseball and the encyclopedic Total Baseball with co-author Pete Palmer, not in attendance but certainly worthy of a seat alongside this trio. “OPS is the Masonic handshake,” said Thorn of the gateway to moving beyond the old-guard stats such as batting average and RBI; the stat was first introduced in Hidden Game (on his blog, Thorn republished Palmer’s landmark 1973 Baseball Research Journal article, “On Base Average for Players”). He shone a light on Cramer, whose 1980 Journal article, “Average Batting Skill Through Major League History,” represented a milestone in terms of an attempt to measure league strength, and how it improved over time. He posted that article as well, along with David Shoebotham’s 1976 Journal article “Relative Batting Average,” a pioneering effort to normalize batting statistics. Cramer discussed his EDGE 1.000 software, the first baseball analytics program to be used inside front offices (future GMs Doug Melvin and Dan Evans were among those on the cutting, um, edge). Gillette spoke of Thorn’s efforts to debunk the myth of baseball’s origins: “Abner Doubleday is the father of baseball like Santa Claus is the father of Christmas,” and of importance of bringing the spirit of sabermetrics—honest intellectual inquiry—to pursuits beyond the numbers. I could have listened to this trio talk about this stuff for another hour, easily.

Thanks to everyone who made my trip so special. Back later with some vids for you kids.

Straight Out of Left Field

The Clubhouse Confidential producers have been calling my number again. Last Thursday, I taped a “Cooperstown Justice” spot, a recurring feature that’s right in my wheelhouse. Drawing from my recent two-part Keltner All-Stars series — which highlights the best players at each position not in the Hall according to JAWS — I talked up the cases of four players snubbed by voters, namely Dick Allen, Ted Simmons, Bobby Grich, and Bobby Bonds.

Alas, news of Hall of Famer Gary Carter’s passing broke in the short window of time between taping and airing, and MLB Network chose to pre-empt the show and cover that instead, so who knows when it will air. Ironically, I had mentioned Carter in the context of Simmons’ case; the Seventies and Eighties produced three Hall of Fame catchers in Johnny Bench, Carlton Fisk, and Carter, but Simmons would be a worthy fourth to add to that bunch. I penned my own Carter tribute for Friday’s lead at BP. He was never my favorite player — I rooted against him pretty vehemently, at times — but when the time came to review his Hall of Fame case, I gave him a full endorsement in this space:

I was never a fan of Gary Carter. For some reason, I always found him annoying, though I can’t really put my finger on why. It probably had something to do with his earnest, gung-ho attitude combined with the fact that I rooted against the ‘86 and ‘88 Mets as hard as any teams I ever rooted against. That said, I am absolutely convinced that Gary Carter is a Hall of Famer. I had an unshakeable feeling of watching a Hall of Famer in the prime of his career when I watched him, and I’ll wager that was a consensus perception among those of you reading this right now. If you thought about the question of who was the best catcher in the National League after Johnny Bench declined, there simply wasn’t any other credible answer besides Gary Carter.

I was invited back to Tuesday’s Clubhouse show and got to record two segments, both of which are up at MLB.com. The first, which builds upon Monday’s column at BP, discusses the wave of declining production among left fielders, a position that should rank among the game’s offensive heavyweights based upon Bill James’ defensive spectrum. My working theory was that the White Sox winning the 2005 World Series with light-hitting Scott Podsednik in left field set an example that other teams followed, but in fact, left field production was already on the wane. Also contributing to the trend, in my theory, is the fact that once Moneyball exposed the market inefficiency in on-base percentage, A’s general manager Billy Beane turned towards defense and others followed in his wake. Here’s that segment:

For the other segment, a Mr. Inside/Mr. Outside spot in which we kicked around the issues of the day, I debated Al Leiter, who spent parts of 19 seasons in the majors, including seven full ones with the Mets and four partial ones with the Yankees that bookended his career. Off camera, after I introduced myself to Leiter, he joked, “Don’t take this the wrong way but you look like a ’70s porn star!” referring to my infamous mustache. Cracked everybody up.

Once the laughter had died down and we were on set with host/moderator Brian Kenny, we discussed which team had the best offseason and why, whether it was a good idea for the Rays to put rookie phenom Matt Moore on an innings limit, whether the A’s signing of twice-suspended slugger Manny Ramirez was a good move, what A.J. Burnett’s season stats with the Pirates would look like, and whether the Nationals should start the year with Bryce Harper on the major league roster. The spot was somewhat less rousing than my previous tête-à-tête with Larry Bowa. I struggled to get a word in edgewise against Leiter — who can talk and talk and talk — and Kenny; there was one point where I was flailing as I tried to make my point. Still, good times: