Ryan Howard, Ryan Hanigan, Bruce Dreckman

Ryan Howard’s ability to hit lefties is not a matter of opinion

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I was just reading this profile on Ryan Howard over at Philly.com. It’s your standard spring optimism piece. Howard feels way better now than last year and is ready to return to form. Nothing all that notable in the story.

But midway down the story, a poll appears:

source:

Internet polls are all pretty meaningless, especially the actual results. But this one is particularly astounding to me inasmuch as it treats something which is wholly empirical — whether or not Ryan Howard can hit lefties — as though it were a matter of opinion or belief. Which may not seem like a big deal, but when you think about it this is the exact reason why so much sports conversation is stupid.

For better or worse, people have been conditioned to think that their opinions and beliefs, no matter how loony they are, are just as valid as anyone’s else’s. So when one challenges a given opinion or belief, one understandably gets an extreme amount of pushback and intransigence. That’s well and good when we’re talking about a lot of opinions or beliefs. I believe that “Tonight’s the Night” is the best Neil Young album. I don’t care how many of you ninnies think “After the Gold Rush” is better, I’m simply not going to buy it and if you insist on it I’m ultimately gonna think poor things of you and ignore you. For your part, I hope you feel the same way about me in this respect.

But when someone treats something that is purely empirical as thought it were belief, that’s the road to lunacy and ignorance.  No matter how big a Phillies fan you are and no matter how badly you want to see Ryan Howard take Clayton Kershaw downtown the next time they meet, it is inescapable — it is a matter of pure, immutable fact — that Ryan Howard has struggled mightily against lefties for his career and that he has gotten worse, not better, at hitting them as time has gone on. This is true whether he has been healthy or injured. With few, long ago exceptions, he has always been a liability against lefthanders.

Sports fans — and even a lot of sports writers — treat empirical things as though they were matters of belief. They believe Howard can hit lefties. They believe Jack Morris was the best pitcher of the 1980s. They believe that Michael Young’s leadership and professionalism make him an MVP-caliber player. They believe that Derek Jeter is a good defensive shortstop.  And if someone says “he can’t,” “he wasn’t,” “it doesn’t” and “he isn’t,” you’re not just wrong, you’re assailing one’s belief system, and that makes you an awful person.

Empiricism vs. Belief. It’s the core of a lot of political arguments. It’s also the core of a lot of baseball arguments. If only we could all agree which things are matters of which, imagine how much better everyone would get along.

Yordano Ventura represented the best and worst of baseball’s culture

BOSTON, MA - AUGUST 28:  Yordano Ventura #30 of the Kansas City Royals delivers in the first inning during a game against the Boston Red Sox on August 28, 2016 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)
Adam Glanzman/Getty Images
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It was reported this morning that Royals pitcher Yordano Ventura was killed in a car accident in the Dominican Republic. Former prospect Andy Marte was also killed in a separate car accident. Along with Jose Fernandez and Oscar Taveras, the baseball world has lost a lot of young, exciting talent in a very short amount of time.

Ventura was, like all of us, a complex human being. At his best, he was an exciting, talented, emotive pitcher who featured an electric fastball which sat in the mid-90’s and occasionally touched 100 MPH. At his worst, he was an immature, impressionable kid trying to fit in by exacting revenge against batters he felt had wronged him by slinging those electric fastballs at vulnerable areas of their bodies.

Baseball needed Ventura when he was at his best. It is players like him and Fernandez, not Mike Trout, that bring in new fans to the sport. To baseball die-hards, Angels outfielder Mike Trout is the pinnacle of entertainment because we know he’s an otherworldly talent. But to the average fan, Trout is just another player who hits a couple of homers and doesn’t do anything particularly interesting otherwise. Trout is milquetoast. Ventura was never an All-Star, but fans knew who he was because he made his presence felt every time he made a start. He was fun, if sometimes vengeful.

Ventura’s baseball rap sheet is rather lengthy for someone who only pitched parts of four seasons in the big leagues. Early in the 2015 season, Ventura found himself in a handful of benches-clearing incidents in quick succession. On April 12, he jawed with Trout, apparently misunderstanding the motivation behind Trout yelling, “Let’s go!” Though catcher Salvador Perez intervened, Trout’s teammate Albert Pujols ran in from second base and the benches cleared shortly thereafter. On the 18th, some drama between the Athletics and Royals continued. Ventura fired a 99 MPH fastball at Brett Lawrie, resulting in his immediate ejection from the game. More beanball wars ensued in the series finale the following day. Finally, on the 23rd, Ventura hit White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu with a 99 MPH fastball in the fourth inning. Ventura was not ejected… until after the completion of the seventh inning. Walking back to the dugout, Ventura barked at White Sox outfielder Adam Eaton and — you guessed it — the benches cleared. All told, Ventura was fined for his behavior with the Athletics and suspended seven games for the White Sox incident.

In August 2015, Ventura called Blue Jays outfielder Jose Bautista a “nobody” and accused him of stealing signs. He apologized shortly thereafter. Two months later, during his start in Game 6 of the ALCS against the Blue Jays, Ventura got into it with Jays first base coach Tim Leiper. Nothing happened beyond that, but apparently it was part of the Jays’ plan to try to put Ventura “on tilt.”

Most recently, in June this past season, Ventura hit Orioles third baseman Manny Machado with a pitch. Machado charged the mound and got in at least one punch before the players spilled out onto the field in a blob of royal blue and orange. Ventura was suspended for eight games.

Ventura was by no means a model of civility, but he was a product of baseball’s intransigent culture forcing players to assimilate or be ostracized. The old culture taught players to never show emotion. Hit a home run? Put your head down and circle the bases in a timely fashion or risk taking a fastball to the ribs. Players like Fernandez and Bautista — typically players from Latin countries — challenged those old cultural norms and are, as a result, the vanguard of the new culture. Ventura displayed aspects of each, the worst of the old culture and the best of the new. He was not a one-dimensional person; he was strikingly complex. At one moment willing to use a fastball as a weapon, the next stopping by some kids’ lemonade stand and giving out fist bumps. Baseball is made more entertaining and more interesting by its personalities and Ventura’s was a behemoth, for better or worse. His absence from the sport will be felt.

MLB remembers Yordano Ventura and Andy Marte

BOSTON, MA - AUGUST 28:  Yordano Ventura #30 of the Kansas City Royals delivers in the first inning during a game against the Boston Red Sox on August 28, 2016 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)
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Following the tragic passing of 25-year-old Yordano Ventura and 33-year-old Andy Marte, both of whom were killed in separate car crashes on Sunday morning, players and executives from around Major League Baseball expressed an outpouring of grief and support for the players’ families and former teams.

Fans have gathered at Kauffman Stadium in memory of the former pitcher.