Craig Calcaterra

Blogger at NBC Sport.com's HardballTalk. Recovering litigator. Rake. Scoundrel. Notorious Man-About-Town.
Getty Images

Never meet your heroes

32 Comments

OK, I’ll grant that absolutely no one considers Steve Clevenger to be their “hero.” At least I hope not, and would have hoped so even before last night (dream bigger, kids!). But his racist comments on social media last night, followed up by his non-apology apology, do provide a good opportunity to remind us that, for the most part, we’re better off not getting to know sports figures, entertainers and anyone else who is famous all that well. At least not beyond the reasons for which we pay attention to them in the first place.

Jeff Passan of Yahoo gave us a reminder of why that is this morning, at least with respect to ballplayers:

Passan has talked to more ballplayers in the last couple of weeks than I ever have in my life, but based on my modest amount of interaction with players, and based on what other ballwriters and people who work in baseball have told me, this is dead-on. Baseball draws from rural areas and white burbs way, way more than the other major sports do. When you combine that with the cloistered world in which professional athletes often find themselves — traveling with and spending time in clubhouses with the likeminded — it’s not at all surprising that you’re not only going to get opinions like these but that the holder of the opinions will think there’s nothing wrong with broadcasting them. Most don’t, of course, because, as Passan notes, they have a modicum of sense when it comes to public relations and public perception. Clevenger must have called in sick on media training day.

What Clevenger thinks about race relations in the United States isn’t all that important, of course. He’s just a dude with his opinions and he’s got a right to hold them. It does remind us, though, that just because someone is good at something — and Clevenger is good at baseball compared to most other mortals on Earth — doesn’t necessarily make them wise about anything else. We forget that when what an athlete is saying is inoffensive or comports with our own views of the world, but the situation remains the same regardless.

Which isn’t to say we should ignore or totally discount what an athlete says. They have a right to say whatever they want and we have a right and, sometimes, an interest, in reacting to it positively, negatively or otherwise. It’s simply to say that just because they’re famous or notable doesn’t mean they’ve got any kind of special insight into anything than that for which they are famous or notable. This goes for Steve Clevenger just as much as it goes for Bono or Scott Baio or anyone else.

Why are so many homers being hit this year?

Getty Images
42 Comments

Way back in June we were talking about how home runs were on pace to match that of the record-setting year for dingers: 2000. Since then the homers have kept flying and the record pace has continued: at the moment, teams are hitting 1.17 home runs per team, per game.

Benjamin Hoffman of the New York Times takes a look at that and tries to figure out why. The ultimate conclusion of the article is “well, who knows?” but given the column inches and primacy devoted to the possible causes, it seems like he’s favoring PEDs as the most likely culprit:

One possibility is that players have continued to skirt antidoping protocols, despite the league’s efforts to strengthen them in recent years. (None of the current players cited above, except for Ortiz, has been linked to performance-enhancing drugs.)

As demonstrated in many Olympic sports, which generally have the most stringent antidoping programs, athletes are often undeterred by drug-testing programs. They adapt to new protocols and find ways around them, like computer hackers evading antivirus programs.

He also talks about speculation, unconfirmed at this point, that the ball is juiced. He likewise talks to players who tend to believe that it’s the swing-for-the-fences approach taken by hitters these days, paired with hard-throwing pitchers who have come to believe that they can throw their heat by anyone.

I’m skeptical of the PED-as-culprit explanation. The home run “spike” is not a spike as much as it is a broad-based rise. As Hoffman notes, there are no real individual outliers — no 50-homer dudes — but, rather, just a ton of guys who are hitting a few more homers than they did before. Even at the height of the PED-era it was not thought that everyone was juicing. Indeed, the most pessimistic assumptions said that maybe half of the hitters were. Baseball’s drug testing regime in place now is certainly not perfect, but if there was a new PED epidemic now, as opposed to just the usual handful of cheaters, I feel like we’d notice it and I feel like we’d see at least some freakish outlier individual home run totals.

I think the juiced ball explanation has more going for it than the PED thing. Not everything going for it, obviously — no one has been able to verify that the ball is juiced via testing or observation — but the homer surge in 2016 sure looks a lot like it did in 1987, which many suspect was due to a juiced ball. While no one has determined that the balls are made with different materials, it doesn’t take radical, easily observable changes to change a ball’s flight characteristics. Even subtle changes in the manner in which balls are stored can make a ball fly a few extra feet and a few extra feet are the difference between an F-7 and a homer.

Ultimately, though, I think about this the same way I viewed the offensive surge of the 1990s-2000s and, for that matter, almost any notable change in a given phenomenon: the product of a combination of factors.

Everyone wanted to blame Jose Canseco and a bunch of needles for offensive levels going crazy from 1993-on, but few wanted to acknowledge that smaller ballparks with shorter porches and radically decreased foul territory came online then too. People didn’t want to note how the strike zone had shrunk, at least for guys not named Glavine and Maddux. People talked a lot about “Moneyball” and take-and-rake approaches and a preference for all-offense, no-defense players in their own right, but they rarely paired those observations up with the offensive surge. Rather, it was “the offense is all about steroids!” in one conversation and “Moneyball is ruining baseball!” in a separate conversation. In reality, though, it was all of a piece.

Just watching baseball today it’s clear that guys are sitting dead red more and swinging for the fences. A lot of this likely has to do with the surge in pitchers’ velocity over the years. If guys are routinely throwing 97, you can either (a) try to guess when he’s going to back off to a changeup; or (b) assume 97 is coming and do everything you can to mash it. I suspect (b) is a bit easier to do and that results in more homers and more strikeouts. When you add that to some possible minor changes in PED use or the composition of the ball and then acknowledge that, well, sometimes stuff just happens, 2016’s home run rates likely have many contributors, even if we can’t do an accurate accounting.

It’s always tempting to look for a single explanation for a given event. Most of the time there are multiple factors at play.

And That Happened: Thursday’s scores and highlights

Getty Images
11 Comments

Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Tigers 9, Twins 2; Tigers 4, Twins 2: The Tigers rode late offense in game 1 of the doubleheader, with homers from Justin Upton and Victor Martinez and a six-run ninth inning and rode pitching in game 2 with Justin Verlander mowing down Twins like it’s his job. Which it is, but never mind that. The highlight of the twinbill however was, without question, Twins pitcher Pat Light throwing a wild pitch during an intentional walk, allowing a run to score. We should probably end the Twins season now because there’s really nowhere else to go from there.

Red Sox 5, Orioles 3: Eight straight wins for Boston, and 13 of 16. The Sox are gettin’ that team-of-destiny feel to them. David Price won his eighth decision. With this loss, the O’s have fallen a half game out of Wild Card position, as the Tigers pass them up.

Indians 5, Royals 2: It was tied at two in the sixth inning when Carlos Santana hit a three-run homer. Smooth. The Indians have beaten the heck out of the Royals this year. Their magic number is now four.

Mets 9, Phillies 8: Jose Reyes hit a two-run homer to tie it in the ninth and then, after the Mets gave up two runs in the top of the 11th, Asdrubal Cabrera played the hero with a three-run walkoff homer in the bottom half to give the Mets the win. Before this game the Mets were 0-63 when trailing after eight innings, so comebacks have not been their thing. Two comebacks in this one put them a half game up in the Wild Card race, however.

Braves 6, Marlins 3: Two home runs for Matt Kemp who has been on fire lately. A quote from after the game:

“He’s a really good player. He’s a big, strong man and when he swings that bat it goes.”

That was Braves manager Brian Snitker, by the way, not 8-year-old me explaining why, say, Cecil Cooper is good.

Rays 2, Yankees 0Blake Snell and the Rays’ bullpen combined on an eight-hit shutout. The Yankees had a good number of base runners but couldn’t make anything happen. Brad Miller had an RBI single in the first and Corey Dickerson hit a solo homer in the sixth. After the game, Brett Gardner, acknowledging that the Yankees are all but toast now, said “we need to win 11 games.” He was then told that the Yankees only have ten games left. He said  “We need to win 11 out of 10.” Laugh all you want, but ballplayers have been giving 110% for years, so they can totally do that now.

Brewers 3, Pirates 1Chris Carter and Scooter Gennett both homered. That was Carter’s 37th home run. One more and he cracks the all-time top-1o list for Brewers homers in a season. Which, in light of the comment in the Braves blurb, I was sad to see did not contain Cecil Cooper:

screen-shot-2016-09-23-at-6-57-03-am

Angels 2, Astros 0: A two-run Albert Pujols homer in the first was all the scoring in this game. Ricky Nolasco tossed seven shutout innings. Given how frequently losing teams unload the bullpen in late September games, those seven innings are the equivalent of a CG shutout April through August, so we should just credit Nolasco for that.

Dodgers 7, Rockies 4: Down by two in the seventh, the Dodgers put up a fiver via a bases loaded walk and then a Yasmani Grandal grand slam. The highlight of the game, though, had to be Chase Utley’s no-look pass to Gonzalez down at first.

Giants 2, Padres 1: The Giants finally beat the Padres and in doing so kept pace with the Mets in the Wild Card. Jeff Samardzija‘s seven shutout innings and a two-run rally led by Angel Pagan and Hunter Pence put ’em over.