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A Chase Utley story shows us how the sausage of baseball history gets made

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The Dodgers brought Chase Utley back because, in addition to still having at least some baseball left in him, he’s a good clubhouse guy and a good leader. No one has ever questioned that. It’s a reputation he’s had for most of his career. Now, in the twilight of it, his leadership and the example he sets with his hard work and preparation may be his primary calling card.

But even if he is unusually valuable in these respects, it’s possible to go overboard when talking about the guy. Like some unnamed Dodgers coaches apparently did to Peter Gammons recently:

Coaches tell the story of a game in which the Dodgers had a big lead in the top of the eighth inning when one younger, enthusiastic teammate stole second base, which ticked off the opposition. When Utley got to the plate in the ninth, he told the opposing catcher to have the pitcher drill him. Then his teammate would understand there are consequences for showing up the opposition.

This was brought to my attention by our own Matthew Pouliot, who added that he did not believe it ever happened, as no Chase Utley HBP in a Dodgers uniform fit this pattern. In the interest of double-checking, I looked at his Dodgers game logs at Baseball-Reference and that seems to be accurate. He’s been hit 17 times in the past two seasons. Most of them came in close games and games the Dodgers lost. In the games where the Dodgers had leads of more than three runs they came with no men on base or without anyone having stolen a base earlier in the inning and I could find none that came late in a game with the Dodgers winning big.

That doesn’t mean the story is bunk, of course. As Matthew allowed, it’s possible Utley requested this once but the opposing pitcher chose not to drill him because opposing pitchers aren’t usually in the habit of allowing more base runners. But it sure does smell like one of those stories people tell in order to make a valid, general point — Utley is a principled leader who plays the game the right way — sound more convincing by virtue of supporting data, whether it exists or whether it doesn’t.

Does it do any harm? Nah. It’s a fun story that tells us something, even if it’s not literally true. Here it tells us that Dodgers coaches think super highly of Utley. So highly, in fact, that it’s possible that they’re either misremembering something that happened — or inventing it — in order to illustrate a point. And the point, as I noted above, is valid, even if Utley never martyred himself with a plunking like they said he did.

Anyone who studies baseball history knows that this pattern is a common one and that apocryphal tales have a habit of becoming accepted as fact over time. We tend to think of it occurring back in the Golden Age, with tales told by old timers. But it’s worth noting that it is still occurring, even with modern players, and that the pattern will continue to color baseball history in a particular way. A lot of the joy of baseball comes from this sort of thing. So too does a lot of the bunk that causes traditions and particular aspects of baseball culture to become entrenched and ingrained.

Regardless, it’s worth examining them. Either for pleasure or, when necessary, as a corrective.

Pete Mackanin doesn’t know if he’ll be back as Phillies manager next year

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Back in May the Phillies gave Pete Mackanin a contract extension covering the remainder of 2017, all of 2018 and created a team option for 2019. Yesterday, however, Mackanin said he had no idea if the Phillies were going to bring him back as manager next season:

“I assume I’ll be here, but you never know. You never know what they’re going to do. So you just keep moving on. I just take it a day at a time and manage the way I think I should manage and handle players the way I think I should handle them. That’s all I can do. If it’s not good enough then … fine. I hope it’s good enough. I hope he thinks it’s good enough.”

Maybe that’s just cautious talk, though, as there doesn’t seem to be any signals coming from the Phillies front office that Mackanin is in trouble. If anything things have looked up in the second half of the season with the callups of Rhys Hoskins and Nick Williams each of whom have shown that they belong in the bigs. The team is 33-37 since the All-Star break and is certainly a better team now than the one Mackanin started with in April. And it’s not his fault that they don’t have any pitching.

I suspect Mackanin will be back next year, but Mackanin has been around the block enough times to know that nothing is guaranteed for a big league manager. Even one under contract.

How not to enjoy what Aaron Judge is doing

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Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge has been one of the biggest and best stories in all of baseball this year. While he held promise entering his rookie season, most experts figured he’d provide some low-average, low-OBP power. That he’d be a guy who, based on his size, could send a pitcher’s mistake 500 feet in the wrong direction, but who would probably be shown to have big holes in his swing once he’d been around the league a little bit.

Judge defied expectations, however, and has put together an amazing rookie season. He broke the rookie home run record yesterday with his 50th blast. He still strikes out a lot but so does everyone. He nonetheless has hit for a great average and has gotten on base at a fantastic clip. He has also showed some uncommon resilience, overcoming a lengthy slump in July and August and returning to the dominant form he showed in the first half while helping a Yankees team not many figured to be a strong contender into the playoffs. Such a great story!

Sadly, however, this sentiment, which appeared from a commenter on my Facebook page yesterday, has become increasingly common:

I’ve seen it in a lot of comments sections and message boards around the Internet too, including our own comment section. From yesterday:

This is not exactly the same thing we’ve seen in the past with other breakout home run hitters such as Jose Bautista a few years back. This is not an accusation that Judge is taking drugs or anything. It’s more of a preemptive and defensive diminishment of excitement. And I find it rather sad.

Yes, I understand that past PED users have made fans wonder whether the players they watch are using something to get an extra edge, but it really does not need to be this way. We’ve had drug testing in baseball for over a decade and, while no drug testing regime is perfect, it just seems bizarre, several years after Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa did their thing — and a few years after Alex Rodriguez and others were caught and disciplined for trying to do more — to assume, out of hand, that great baseball performances are the product of undetected cheating. Yes, it’s possible, but such assumptions should not be the default stance, only to be disproved (somehow) at a later date.

The same goes for the juiced baseball, right? Yes, there is strong evidence that the baseball was changed a couple of years back leading to a home run spike, but aren’t all players using the same baseball? It’s also worth remembering that the season Mark McGwire hit 49 homers — 1987 — is strongly suspected of being a juiced ball year as well. It’s a concern that may be based in fact, but it’s a large concern over a fact thrown out with little regard for context to sketch out a threat that is either remote or without consequence.

The point here is not to argue that Aaron Judge is undeniably clean or that the baseball isn’t different. The former is unknown and the latter is likely false. The point is that it’s super sad and self-defeating to qualify every amazing feat you see with preemptive concern about such things. Years and years of sports writers writing McCarthy-esque “Yes, but is he clean?” articles does not require you, as a fan, to do the same. You can enjoy a cool thing in the moment. If it’s found out later to have been tainted, fine, we have a lot of practice in contextualizing such things and we’ll do so pretty quickly, but what’s the harm in going with it in real time?

I suspect the answer to that is rooted in some desire not to look like a sucker or something. Not to find oneself like many did, in the mid-2000s, being told by sportswriters and politicians that they were dupes for enjoying Sosa and McGwire in 1998. But that’s idiotic, in my view. I enjoyed 1998 and all of the baseball I saw on either side of it, as did most baseball fans. When the PEDs stuff exploded in the 2000s I reassessed it somewhat as far as the magnitude of the accomplishments compared to other eras in history, but it didn’t mean I enjoyed what I had seen any less.

Likewise, I’ve enjoyed the hell out of watching Aaron Judge this year. Why can’t everyone? Why is it so hard? Why have we been conditioned to be skeptical of something that is supposed to be entertaining? When your personal stakes are low like they are with respect to any sporting event or form of entertainment, it’s OK to enjoy things while they’re enjoyable and worry about them being problematic if and when they ever become so. And hey, they may not!

I promise you: if Aaron Judge walks into the postseason awards banquet this winter carrying a briefcase that unexpectedly opens and 200 syringes full of nandrolone fall out, no one is going to say you were dumb for cheering for him yesterday. It will really be OK.