Outraged at A-Rod? Take a look in the mirror, friend

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Every time something like the A-Rod mess goes down there is a parade of outrage. From fans, from columnists, from talk radio hosts. You know what I’m talking about. Here’s a great, nearly-incoherent example from Scott Miller of CBS Sports.com. You’re going to have to bring your A-game if you want to out-outrage Miller. He calls A-Rod sub-human. For starters. Unless he’s merely putting on faux outrage for the page views, Miller is truly upset here and that anger is coming from someplace deep down inside. For what it’s worth, he has never struck me as someone who fakes things for page views.

I used to sit back for hours and mock this kind of sentiment but I’m not all that inclined to do that as much as I used to. Instead I’m more interested in trying to understand it. Because really, I have a tremendously difficult time understanding where such ire and vitriol at some nearly total stranger of an athlete comes from.

Here’s where I am right now: It’s not a matter of new school vs. old school. It’s not a matter of smart vs. not-so-smart. It’s simply a matter of there being two kinds of sports fans: those who hold players to a higher moral standard than people in general, and those who don’t. That’s it.

If you think of ballplayers as heroes or examples or believe that they are somehow obligated to be better than every other schlub on the planet — or if you were taught to think that as a child and still hold on to some of that whether you realize it or not — you’re outraged. If, on the other hand, you didn’t — if you saw them from even the youngest age as just people who are good at something weird and interesting and immensely entertaining — you can’t be outraged. Outrage makes no sense.

I certainly fall in that latter camp. I liked sports just as much as the next kid growing up and certainly love baseball now, but never in my life did I think of athletes as heroes or role models. Maybe that’s because I wasn’t handed baseball by my father or some other person I did look up to. It was introduced to me in a couple of places and I grabbed hold, but sports were not and are not any part of the lingua franca of my relationship with my parents or elders. At least not in such a way where anyone whose opinion I valued ever said to me, in effect, “look at that star athlete, my what a fine example he is.” In turn, to the extent my kids have gotten into sports I’ve never said such things to them, either literally or implicitly via the way I talk about or interact with athletes.

I realize I may be in the minority in this respect. Very recently I had a fairly spirited dispute with another baseball writer about these issues and — after we threw barbs at each other for a bit — we dug into the matter more. It seems he comes at things from a slightly different place. He has children who are really getting into baseball now. They have thrown themselves into it with abandon, to the point where they do get legitimately upset  when things go bad for players they like and uplifted when things go well. It’s probably a fantastic ride for them and I would guess that my counterpart’s bonding over sports with his children is on a totally different level than mine is. But, at the same time, it does require some veneration of the athlete to make it work, doesn’t it? And, in turn, if the athlete does not live up to the ideal, it almost necessitates some negative emotional response. The sort of which we see in these outraged sentiments from fans, the media, whoever. I’ve seen if from my counterpart recently, and it almost certainly has to come from some sense that these ballplayers are disappointing him or his children or both.

For my part, I can’t muster any of that. I don’t think A-Rod is subhuman simply because he lied and cheated. Indeed, that makes me think of him as quite human indeed, as human beings tend to act like that an awful lot. He’s only subhuman if you thought of him as something greater before.  Likewise, I can’t muster what is, in effect, “think of the children” rhetoric because neither me as a child nor my children now see these athletes as anyone special that need give us special consideration.  We love what they do when they are performing, but we don’t think of them as anyone who owes us special moral or ethical duties. That’s what parents and teachers and honest-to-goodness role models are for. Athletes are no different than actors or astronauts in this regard. People who do amazing things but whom we shouldn’t expect to be better people merely because of their station.

Does that mean that I don’t have opinions when an athlete falls short of some ideal? Of course not. It’s simply a matter of proportion. I can say, quite comfortably, when one of them does something bad that they have behaved poorly. Lied. Cheated. Broken the law. What have you. But I’m no more likely to get sent into an emotional tizzy over it than I am if I learned that some actor got busted for drugs or some singer slept around. I don’t approve, but I also let it go pretty quickly. I have my own moral and ethical life to worry about and that’s hard enough. Please just act/sing/play for my enjoyment, entertainer. I may critique your performance if you do it poorly, but the act is all I require of you personally. It’s different if one’s directly affected by the poor behavior in question — other players and teammates have a right to be truly angry if their personal trust or their livelihood was jeopardized by the A-Rods of the world — but I’ve not been harmed by them unless I let them harm me by giving them too much trust to begin with.

You may say that this is a sad viewpoint. That I’m a cynic. Some sort of disappointed, disaffected or jilted former idealist. I assure you I’m not. The thought of treating athletes as special people worthy and deserving of my trust and thus capable of breaking it has simply never been part of my life and never will be. Others, like Scott Miller and my correspondent of a couple of days ago come at it differently. Good for them, good for me.

With this framework in mind you can probably divide up all of the people who offer opinions on this stuff into those two camps pretty easily, actually. I can’t think of any other differences in understanding that better account for it.

A second study confirms that home runs are up due to a change in the baseball

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Two weeks ago Ben Lindbergh and Mitchel Lichtman released their study at The Ringer which convincingly argues that changes in the composition and construction of the baseball is responsible for the dramatic spike in home runs we’ve seen since the middle of the 2015 season. Yesterday their work was corroborated.

Rob Arthur of FiveThirtyEight, who had last year conducted a study with Lindbergh which proved inconclusive on the matter, has revisited the baseballs as well. Specifically, he used baseball’s data with respect the speed of the ball when it is released from a pitcher’s hand and when it crosses the plate and, based on the loss in velocity in that short period, calculated the ball’s drag coefficient. From that he could compare the drag on the ball from before mid-2015 and the drag since mid-2015.

His conclusion: there has been a significant decrease in the drag on baseballs over the past two years and that decreased drag can account for about five feet of carry on a given fly ball. That, in turn, would account for a 10-15% spike in home runs on average, and a bigger spike in any given month depending on other factors. Arthur:

It’s highly unlikely that we’d see that kind of difference by chance without a real change to the ball: The monthly variation in estimated drag coefficients in the past five seasons varied from around 0.34 to 0.355, a far wider range than we’d expect from random variance alone. In total, the practical effect of shifting from a high-drag month to a low-drag month could be around a 30 percent difference in home run rates.

Arthur cautions us not to become conspiracy theorists here. The change in the ball need not be nefarious as even small alterations in the manufacturing process could lead to these changes. At the same time, he reminds us, that we should ignore MLB’s statements that the balls still fall under the league’s manufacturing requirements and performance parameters, because those parameters are quite broad and allow for these significant variations in ball flight. Even if no one is intentionally doing this and even if the balls are officially up to snuff, they can nonetheless have changed significantly and are the likely culprit for the dramatic home run spike.

Stepping back from the research, this makes a lot of sense. As we’ve noted in the past, there is a long and rich history of changes — even slight changes — to baseball composition leading to dramatic increases and decreases in offensive levels. The dead ball era ended, in large part, because different wool was used beginning in 1919. The National League changed balls in order to intentionally boost offense in 1930 and it worked almost too well. There was a change of baseball manufacturers in the late 1970s which led to a mini spike. 1987 was the year of the so-called “rabbit ball.” That was never fully explained, but there are strong suspicions that Major League Baseball messed with the ball that year.

Other factors matter — new parks with shorter porches, batters making a point to swing with an uppercut, diluted pitching, PEDs, etc. — but none are as significant as changes to the ball itself and none account for the almost immediate spike in homers in the middle of the 2015 season.

Anyway, enjoy the dingers. They’re here to stay. Or at least until the baseballs change again.

 

And That Happened: Wednesday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Nationals 8, Cubs 4: Stephen Strasburg struck out 13 Cubs in seven innings on a day when they had to cut Miguel Montero to head off clubhouse strife and had to meet Donald Trump. Opinions may vary as to which of those — the Ks, the strife or the Trump — was the worst part. Washington built a 5-0 lead after two innings and a 6-0 lead after three. Anthony Rendon, Matt Wieters and Daniel Murphy all homered for Washington. Trea Turner stole a base. Willson Contreras managed not to slam his teammates for it afterward, so I guess that’s progress. The Cubs have lost four of six and are back down to .500. Oh, and they lost Kris Bryant to an ankle sprain. That may actually be the worst thing about the day.

Pirates 6, Rays 2: Josh Bell homered, Jose Osuna doubled twice and drove in two runs and Elias Diaz added two hits and drove in two of his own. Bell’s homer tied a rookie record for the Pirates: he’s only the second Buccos rookie, after Ralph Kiner, to have 15 homers before the All-Star break. After the game he said this:

“It’s cool to be mentioned in the same sentence as a great like that,” Bell said. “So hopefully more to come. Just going to keep trucking along.”

It’s cool that he knows who Ralph Kiner is. But does he know who Jerry Seinfeld is?

Phillies 5, Mariners 4: Down 4-3 in the ninth, the Phillies rallied for two, coming via a home run from Tommy Joseph and an RBI single from Tyler Knapp. The M’s lose both games of the short, two-game series and have now lost four in a row. Every time they look like they’re about to right the ship, they seem to get blown off course.

Giants 5, Rockies 3: Jae-Gyun Hwang got called up just before he would’ve been able to opt out of his deal with San Francisco and head back to Korea where he could make some serious bank. But he debuted yesterday and wouldn’t you know it he hit a tie-breaking homer in the sixth inning. Welcome to the majors. After the game his teammates gave him a beer shower. He said “I was actually more surprised about how cold the beer was.” Welcome to America.

Yankees 12, White Sox 3: A good day for rookies making their big league debut, as Miguel Andujar — an infielder, playing DH last night — had three hits and drove in four. Aaron Judge, a grizzled old man by comparison, hit his 27th homer. Masahiro Tanaka allowed two runs over six as the Yankees romped.

Mets 8, Marlins 0: Steven Matz — an uninjured Mets starter — tossed seven shutout innings and Asdrubal Cabrera and Curtis Granderson each hit two-run homers. The Mets have 50 homers in June, the most in a calendar month by any team since 2006. They’re also 12-14 in June, so it takes more than homers I suppose.

Astros 11, Athletics 8: Josh Reddick and George Springer had three hits each and combined for five RBI. The A’s hit five homers with two from Khris Davis — who hits two homers all the dang time, it seems –and one each from Ryon Healy, Matt Olson and Jed Lowrie. The A’s also struck out 17 times so it takes more than homers I suppose.

Blue Jays 4, Orioles 0: Marcus Stroman pitched five-hit ball into the eighth inning and Jose Bautista and Justin Smoak homered. Bautista later knocked in a run on a fielder’s choice. Bautista has been hitting leadoff for a little over a week. He’s 11-for-29 with a couple of homers, six RBI and four walks. Not too shabby.

Twins 4, Red Sox 1: Rookie lefty Adalberto Mejia shut out the Sox for five and two-thirds innings and the Twins bullpen was steady. Max Kepler singled in a run and hit a two-run shot. That’s Mejia’s second scoreless start, having blanked the Indians for five innings a in his last outing. Those are two good offenses to be shutting out.

Indians 5, Rangers 3: Trevor Bauer outdueled Yu Darvish, allowing one run over six and a third to Darvish’s three runs — two earned — over six. All of the Indians runs came on RBI singles, two from Michael Brantley. Texas mounted a mini rally in the ninth off of Cody Allen via an Elvis Andrus homer and a Rougned Odor RBI single, but it was little, too late.

Royals 8, Tigers 2: Sal Perez and Alex Gordon each drove in three, Perez with a two-run homer and an RBI double, Gordon with a single, a double and a run scoring groundout. Mike Moustakas went deep as well, as part of a four-run fourth inning. Ian Kennedy allowed two runs over seven steady innings. Kansas City is only two and a half back in the Central.

Reds 4, Brewers 3: Down 2-1 in the third, Scooter Gennett hit a two-run homer to put the Reds ahead, but Travis Shaw tied it at three late in the game with a homer. Billy Hamilton helped manufacture the go-ahead run, however, leading off the bottom of the eighth with a walk, stealing second, stealing third and that scoring on Adam Duvall‘s infield single. That’s what speed do. Bad news for the Brewers, as they lost starter Chase Anderson to a strained oblique in the second inning.

Cardinals 4, Diamondbacks 3Adam Wainwright pitched into the seventh inning, allowing two runs, and Yadier Molina and Jedd Gyorko each drove in two. Trevor Rosenthal got the save, but it was rocky as he uncorked a couple of wild pitches and allowed a run. This a game after he allowed two runs and the Cards bullpen blew a late lead and the game. There’s always something to worry about in baseball, even if you win.

Angels 3, Dodgers 2: Down 2-0 in the eighth, Trayce Thompson homered and down 2-1 in the ninth Yasmani Grandal homered to tie things up for the Dodgers. Then, in the ninth, the dang wheels came off. Ben Revere reached on an error and then reached second base on a wild pitch by Pedro Baez. Baez bore down to strike out Cameron Maybin for the inning’s second out, but the ball got away from Grandal, Maybin sprinted for first and then Grandal threw the ball away, allowing Revere to score all the way from second. What a way to lose a game.

Padres 7, Braves 4: Luis Perdomo pitched five scoreless innings and Hunter Renfroe and Cory Spangenberg each knocked in two. Bartolo Colon came back off the DL and allowed six runs over four innings to lose it. Guys: his injury was not an oblique or whatever the Braves said it was. He was suffering from acute puncture wounds due to the giant fork stuck in his back and severe burns because the man is toast.