The C Word

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On Friday’s “Baseball Tonight” podcast, Buster Olney observed that Jesse Crain might be the most talked about player in the majors right now, at least as far as trade targets go. As we creep up on the halfway point of the baseball season, it’s now time for teams to declare themselves “buyers” or “sellers”—to decide whether to mortgage the farm to “go for it” this year, or to dump appealing short term assets in an attempt to get better in the long (or at least medium) term. The addition of the second wild card team added some difficulty to that decision last year, and as MLB inches towards the miserable situation in the NBA and NHL (where more than half the teams make the playoffs), teams that have no good reason to believe they can perform anywhere near playoff level baseball can still justify being buyers based on the Wild Card standings.

Anyhow, this may be the only time in his solid but quiet career that Jesse Crain has been the center of attention for any reason. However, it is with good reason that Crain is the center of trade talks. He plays for the Chicago White Sox, who are finally living down to the preseason projection of mediocrity that they’ve far exceeded in the previous few years. The Sox are going nowhere fast, and with a depleted farm system and a bunch of aging veterans, they would be well advised to trade whomever they can in order to infuse some new talent into the organization. Moreover, at 32, Crain is having a career year. His strikeout rate is up somewhat from last year (which was already a career high), while his walk rate is significantly lower. Even more encouraging, his ERA (0.53), FIP (1.41) and xFIP (2.84) are all easily the best marks of his career. He through less than half a season, he has accumulated 1.9 WAR.

Think about that for a minute: Crain, a set-up man, has piled up almost 2 wins above replacement in 35 appearances. That’s already the highest mark of his career, and by a good  margin. (He reached his previous high, 1.0, in both 2006 and 2011.) He leads all relievers in WAR, with Pirates closer Jason Grilli the only close contender. On the one hand, this indicates that there is room for regression in the second half of the season as Crain’s performance and statistics ease back towards his “true talent” level. But even so, Crain figures to be a valuable piece of some contender’s bullpen down the stretch this year. 

There’s a catch, though. Crain has never been a Closer at the major league level. His career high in saves? One (which he’s notched in four different seasons). There are a number of potential playoff teams who figure to be in the market for a Closer before the trade deadline next month: the Red Sox, whose 9th inning revolving door has most recently featured the disastrous Andrew Bailey; the Tigers, who recently DFAed Jose “Papa Grande” Valverde; the Diamondbacks, who are struggling through Heath Bell while J.J. Putz is on the shelf; and the Indians, who are awaiting the return of Chris Perez from a shoulder injury. (Perez is doubly intriguing, as he and his wife are also facing marijuana charges in Ohio.) There are also some teams who don’t need a Closer but who still need some bullpen help: the Braves, who have a bit of an arm shortage leading up to Craig Kimbrel; the Giants; and the Yankees, who collect players like a 10-year old collects icky bugs.

So the market for Jesse Crain’s services would seem to be large. As Dave Cameron wrote recently, Crain is certainly a better bargain than Jonathan Papelbon (the other reliever whose name has shown up frequently in trade rumors), and he’s likely to also be the more effective pitcher for the rest of the season. But one still wonders to what extent interest in Crain will be hindered by his lack of experience as a Closer.

The problem, of course, is the unbelievable overvaluation of the “Closer” role. The conventional wisdom of baseball holds that there’s something intangible about pitching in a close game in the ninth inning. The numbers, unfortunately, consistently and thoroughly tell a different story. If pitching in the 9th inning with a lead of 3 runs or fewer were truly a skill, then it should show up in the numbers, right? Well, they don’t. I’m not going to rehash this whole argument here, but go to Fangraphs and search for “Closer.” You’ll find some interesting reading. 

The evidence for the Closer idea? Mostly anecdotal, and based on an incredibly small sample. Remember those three blown saves David Robertson had for the Yankees last year? Clearly he’s not Closer material. That handful of blown saves by Matt Thornton to start the 2011 season? He just can’t mentally handle the 9th inning. End of story.

Anyhow, it’s not my business if managers and teams want to consistently misuse their relief pitchers. What do I care if Dusty Baker (one of the most stubbornly ignorant managers in the game today) wants to use his best reliever in the 9th inning, even if his opponent’s best hitters come to bat in the 8th? But this is not simply a matter of teams failing to maximize their chances of winning; these questions also show up in the hefty contracts awarded to “proven Closers,” particularly as compared with the minuscule and short-term deals given to non-closing relievers. Teams pay exorbitant and disproportional salaries to players who have a “proven track record” as a Closer, even though these contracts almost always turn out to be a financial albatross on the team’s books, and even though the idea of the “proven Closer” seems to be defined tautologically with reference to players who have already been awarded these contracts. Again, I don’t terribly care if teams want to fritter away their money in obviously stupid ways. But this frittering dramatically distorts the finances of the game and creates (or at least exacerbates) inequalities between players irrespective of talent.

What will be interesting is to see when Jesse Crain gets dealt, to whom, and (most importantly) what the White Sox get in return. If teams are unwilling to pay premium money for non-closing relievers on the free agent market, it stands to reason that teams will also be reluctant to part with top talent for a reliever with no track record as a Closer—even if that reliever happens to be the best reliever in baseball this season. I hope the White Sox can get a decent return for Crain’s services—not out of any love for the White Sox, but because it might just help to correct the irrationally skewed market for players who have a “skill” that doesn’t actually exist.

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Weekend Listening: Rachel Podger

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I was doing some work tonight, finally transcribing an interview I conducted several years ago with a classical music record producer. And he repeatedly mentioned his work on Rachel Podger’s records as some of the best sessions he’s been a part of—particularly the famous Chaconne from the Partita No. 2 for solo violin by J.S. Bach. I was skeptical. One of my dark secrets is that I’ve always thought that Bach’s violin sonatas and partitas are far better on the guitar, where the verticalities and the multiple lines can be distinguished more clearly. I realize that I’m in the minority here, but even some of the standard recordings of these pieces have failed to move me in quite the same way as Paul Galbraith’s transcription for his own eight-string guitar. But I decided to give Podger’s version a chance, and it is stunning. (I have not posted a link here because I could not find one that didn’t seem like copyright infringement; but I highly recommend you find this recording!) The lines are clean, the vertical chords are well balanced, and most importantly, Podger’s performance conveys the linear sense of the Chaconne without violently cramming the multiple registers together. It’s airy, almost delicate. I’m not giving up my general preference for the guitar, but Podger has convinced me that these violin works can actually succeed on the violin.

 

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Belonging

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I was recently thinking about an experience I had a number of years ago, attending a symphony concert. Orchestral music has always been a love of mine, particularly some of the more bombastic German music of the 19th and 20th centuries. (I play trombone, and if nothing else, we low brassers like to make a lot of noise.) So I go to the symphony fairly regularly, particularly when there are inexpensive student tickets available.

At this particular concert, my partner and I were sitting in seats that would normally have been well out of our price range—one of the occasional perks of student tickets. Our row seemed to be filled with other students (at least, judging by their apparent ages), and we were boxed in at the end of the row. When the concert concluded, there were (as is customary) length applause and several curtain calls for the conductor, during which the other individuals in our row got up and left. After a couple curtain calls, we also decided to leave, for a number of reasons—not least of which is that the concert was not so super, frankly. As we were leaving, an older woman sitting in the row behind us taps me on the shoulder. I stopped to listen, and she said to me, “I think it’s very rude for you to leave while people are still applauding.” Taken aback, I replied rather rudely (probably using some words that can’t be printed on the internet), and I continued on my way.

This happened many years ago, but it’s an encounter that’s stuck with me ever since. Thinking about it now, I’m still not totally sure how to interpret that interaction. My response was (admittedly, deliberately) more confrontational than was really necessary, but nonetheless I can’t escape the idea that this woman was entirely out of line in scolding me for what she considered inappropriate behavior at a concert. I’m not sure why she singled me out for reprimand—several others in our row filed past her before I did. Perhaps it was my (again, admittedly, deliberately) shoddy attire that I always wear to the symphony. (I have never understood the point of “dressing up” to go to a concert. The music doesn’t sound any different if I’m wearing slacks or ripped jeans, and I’m much more comfortable, physically and psychologically, in the jeans.) Perhaps the woman had simply had enough of what she saw as inappropriately reverent young people, and I just happened to be the one in her reach at that moment (I imagine I could still be seen as “young” at that point). 

Regardless, what offended me about her remark to me was the implication that her idea of what is “rude” should be universally understood and applied by all members of the concert audience. And this is a much larger problem afflicting classical music institutions today. Symphony concerts, opera performances, and so forth—these are places where the old-fashioned ideas of “high” culture and society still hold sway. Many of these institutions have done a lot to make performances accessible to students and people without large incomes, yet the implication remains: “When you are here, you should act like you have money (read: culture) even if you are actually poor.” I’ve always found this implication easy enough to ignore—as long as you respect the tacit agreement that one doesn’t disturb the performance, people tent to leave you alone (as they should). But on this occasion, the woman behind me in the hall felt that it was her place to police the “proper” etiquette of concert attendance. This was her space, it belonged to her; I was only a visitor, admitted by the noblesse oblige of the “owners” of the symphony, and I would do well to remember that. 

I don’t want to exaggerate this interaction, though, or the implications I see behind it. Not all performance groups and institutions are equally stodgy, and not all of them convey the same sense of upper class reverence. I have seen string quartets perform in bars; I’ve seen some very challenging and progressive interpretations of 18th and 19th century operas. By far, some of my most rewarding classical concert experiences have been those that are intended to speak to and challenge a wide range of audience members. Such performances can be done without pandering to the “lowest common denominator.” As conductors like Esa Pekka Salonen and Michael Tilson Thomas have realized, audiences can be very receptive to even the most complex and arcane music, when given the chance to honestly listen to it. 

But these are still the exception rather than the rule, at least in my experience. If symphonies and operas are going to survive in a meaningful way—as a form of mass culture, rather than a niche product that speaks to only the cultural elite and privileged—these groups need to build more diverse (and often younger) audiences. And they need to realize that this can only happen if they are intellectually honest about their mission as performers of classical music. 

I might have been too abrasive to the woman at the symphony that night many years ago; but she has no more right to be there than I did.

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Baseball and the Free Market (Some Random Thoughts)

I began thinking about the ideas for this post a few days ago when I read a piece by Andres Alvarez of the excellent Wages of Wins blog explaining why the NBA will never be profitable. (Even the headline premise of that post boggles the mind. How can a corporation that clears billions of dollars annually not be profitable?) Amidst several very valuable observations, Alvarez made some claims that seem quite dubious. For instance, he claims that bad teams should be allowed to fail—or at least relocated from sub-optimal markets (Denver, Utah) to underutilized ones (New York, Los Angeles). He also suggests that the draft is about the most unfair innovation ever in professional sports.

The observation about the draft was particularly intriguing as it pertains to baseball. MLB has been successfully promoting its draft in recent years, increasing web and television coverage and making the draft more of a capital-E Event like the NBA and the NFL. Along with this increased prominence has been a rise in criticism of the draft’s central tenet: that amateur talent should be distributed according to which teams are most in need of it. The idea that the draft can provide competitive balance is comically ironic in a league that refuses to effectively eliminate PEDs, protect pitchers from head injuries, etc. But nonetheless, the notion that all teams should have a fair shot at the best amateur talent seems essential to the league.

But there are all sorts of problems with the version of “competitive balance” that MLB uses to distribute draft picks. First and foremost is the way that draft order is pegged to teams’ short term performance at the major league level. The team that has the worst record in a season drafts first the next year; second worst drafts second; and so on. This makes zero sense in baseball, where even the most elite and advanced prospects will not have an impact on the major league team for at least a year, and likely even longer. Drafting with the “worst first” order may not make sense in football or basketball either; but at least in those sports, the top players are expected to help a team relatively quickly. But in baseball, a team that has been a mediocre performer for most of the season (say, the 2012 Red Sox) can tank the end of the year (say, by trading several players) and receive handsome compensation in the draft for doing so.

The Red Sox picked seventh in the Rule 4 draft a few weeks ago. The Red Sox are currently leading the AL East. Are these two facts related? Not in the slightest. There’s no logical reason why the Red Sox should be rewarded for playing a few bad months of baseball. Their poor record last season was the result of injuries, underperformance, and random fluctuations in outcomes—it was definitively not the result of a competitive imbalance that needed to be redressed in the draft. (I’m using the Red Sox only as a recent poster child for this problem; my general dislike of that particular organization is beside the point.)

There’s an equal and inverse side to the Red Sox draft profiteering (thank you Isaac Newton). As Dave Cameron wrote at Fangraphs, successful small market teams like the Rays and Athletics “are being penalized for successfully building winning teams despite their [financial] disadvantages.” He is absolutely correct, and this is precisely the problem with tying draft order (and now bonus pool value) to the short-term performance of players who likely will not even be around when the drafted prospects make it to the majors.

But does this mean that we want to eliminate the draft all together and enter a wild west of amateur players getting whatever they can for their services? Rany Jazayerli, writing at Grantland, says yes; I disagree.

My fundamental difference with Jazayerli (and others who propose the complete abolishment of the draft) relates to the sort of business that we think baseball is. Baseball does not have the most pristine history of labor relations (see “Flood, Curt”). But there’s no logical reason why the only alternative to the draft as currently constituted should be no draft at all. Jazayerli suggests that players should be able to get whatever money the market will bear for their services, and that this is not possible when a player is obligated to either sign with a single team or sit out a year. First of all, it’s categorically false that players have no leverage in post-draft negotiations; Mark Appel’s recent experience should make that clear. Second, there’s no reason to believe that, left to their own devices, teams will self-regulate the money that they spend on prospects. Failure is simply not a deterrent to teams with money. (Have you seen what the Dodgers have spent on major league “talent” in the last year?) Jazayerli argues that the spending cap could be retained in a system without the draft—but remarkably, he sees no problem with determining teams’ spending caps based on the previous season’s records.

This line of thinking embraces Libertarian ideals of the unregulated free market. Players own their bodies and they should be entitled to negotiate whatever compensation for those bodies that the free market will bear. But this argument ignores the fact that baseball cannot operate as an unregulated free market. The problems with the “free market” ideal in baseball are several:

First, baseball (like all professional sports) is a relatively unique situation, where companies that are nominally independent (i.e., teams) have a vested interest in the success of their competitors. (Dave Cameron nicely sums this up in the link above.) Relatedly, Alvarez’s assertion—that teams in small markets should be allowed to fail—is utterly laughable. Who’s going to watch a professional sports league where the teams are all in L.A., New York, and Texas?

Second, and more importantly, the players need to succeed as a group for the league to survive. The existence of the MLBPA and their collective bargaining with the league have been crucial to the gains made by players, both as a group and individually, in the previous four decades. In exchange for various protections for more experienced players—the “ten and five” rule, pensions, health insurance—players have surrendered some of their rights early in their careers. This means that players can’t get paid as much right from the start—they have to wait until they reach free agency or negotiate a separate deal with their team—but it also means that young players are given fair opportunities to move through the system and reach the major league. This system is clearly not driving down players’ salaries (Pujols?), although it might be encouraging both players and teams to reach more mutually acceptable agreements before players reach the “open market.” In short, without the draft (in some form) and the protection of the union, the league would end up with a highly stratified hierarchy between players; some would win big, but most would have even less chance of making a decent living. (Look into the average salary for a player at Class-A; it ain’t much.)

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On Taking the Field

A few days ago, ESPN posted a poll on its website in anticipation of the US Open. The poll asked who was going to win, and respondent were given two choices: Tiger Woods and The Field. A similar poll had been posted before the Memorial Tournament a few weeks earlier. In the earlier poll, about 55% of readers picked Woods; that number was inverted before the Open. (I don’t recall the exact figures; these are just ballpark numbers.)

Now, first of all, from a probability perspective, there is never any justification for taking a single player over the field. It doesn’t matter if the player is Tiger Woods, Serena Williams, or Jesus returned to Earth to play doubles at Wimbledon. In a multi-round individual tournament, there are simply too many any-given-Sunday sort of events that can transpire to keep even a unanimous pre-tournament favorite from emerging a champion. Sure, Woods may be the top-ranked golfer in the world and a once-in-a-generation talent. He was also the odds-on favorite to win the Open; but still not favored over the entire rest of the field.

If someone ever wants to bet on a tournament, and offers to give you the field while he takes a single player, you should take that bet in a heartbeat. (Well, actually, if a professional gambler offers to give you “the field” in such a bet, you should probably run very quickly in the other direction, because the thing is probably fixed. But you get the point.)

But watching the second round of the Open this morning, I wondered if there was also another reason why such a disproportionate portion of ESPN’s readership would pick Woods over the entire rest of the PGA: you simply don’t get to see any other golfers. Watching ESPN, you would think that Woods was playing the best golf of his life and the outcome of a tournament was already in the bag. Why else devote so much screen time to a single player in a tournament that features over 150 golfers in the field?

It turns out that Woods had a thoroughly mediocre first two rounds, shooting a +3 73 on day 1, and a marginally better even par on day 2. But if you just paid attention to the screen time given to each player, you’d never know that there were several players playing much more interesting, exciting, and skillful rounds that Woods. ESPN showed us Tiger mulling over every shot, walking around the ball on the greens, taking practice swings in the fairways and the rough (where he found himself frequently late in his second round). They cut quickly to other players just long enough to show someone strike the ball and to wait until it stopped rolling; then right back to Woods. It’s skillful television editing, true, but not particularly compelling tournament coverage.

Does Woods really need or deserve such dedicated coverage? He’s a master of maintaining his brand as a golfer and a public figure—he even recovered nicely from the scandal that engulfed him a few years ago—but to watch the Open coverage, you’d think that ESPN had invested in Woods. Maybe Chris Berman has money on the tournament, but I can’t really think of any other reason why we should stick so closely to a player who has played so consistently mediocre golf in this tournament. Why not show us more of Justin Rose’s round, or Ian Poulter, or Billy Horschel? All three had some of the handful of under par rounds today—far better than Woods—and who is going to be invested in someone like Horschel (hardly a household name) if we can’t see him play?

Yes, Woods is a remarkably talented golfer, and certainly we can expect to see coverage of him at the major tournaments. But should this idolatrous devotion to Woods really trump all other stories and players in the tournament? Is there any reason why we need to watch Woods take 45 seconds to think over a 15-foot putt while other players are hitting terrific chips and drives? ESPN can take Tiger Woods, if they want; I’m taking the field.

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