Introducing the Official DL Transportation Company of the Oakland Athletics

Hi, I’m Billy Beane, General Manager of the Oakland Athletics.  Last year, I sent a record 22 players to the disabled list.  After shipping off Frank Thomas to the DL yesterday, we’re already halfway toward beating last year’s record.  And whenever I need to ship off another group of players to the disabled list, I rely on Busted Wheels Trucking Company.  Busted Wheels is the Official DL Transportation Company of the Oakland A’s. Tell ’em Billy sent you!

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Catfish Stew took this exclusive photo yesterday at the Oakland A’s secret DL dumping ground. I can’t tell you where it is, as my sources prefer to remain anonymous. Perhaps you can figure it out, but our lips are sealed.

Duchscherer 1-Hits Boston

If you don’t know anything about Justin Duchscherer, you might think tonight’s 1-hit shutout of Boston is just one of those fluky things that happens in baseball: any bum can have a good day. Heck, Mike Warren threw a no-hitter once.

There was nothing fluky about Justin Duchscherer’s performance tonight. Justin Duchscherer is flat out a great pitcher. This is exactly the sort of thing he’s been doing for years. He should have been a starter years ago, but he got stuck in the setup role (a) because the A’s have had a lot of good starting pitchers, and (b) he’s been so damn good in the setup role.

This year, he’s finally getting his shot at starting. Take a look at what he’s done so far this year:

5.0 IP, 1 ER.
5.0 IP, 2 ER.
5.0 IP, 1 ER.
7.0 IP, 2 ER.
6.2 IP, 1 ER.
5.0 IP, 3 ER.
8.0 IP. 0 ER.

Now look at his career ERAs since he came to Oakland:
2003: 3.31
2004: 3.27
2005: 2.21
2006: 2.91
2007: 4.96 (*injured hip)
2008: 2.16

There’s a lot of trade speculation about Rich Harden and Joe Blanton, and those two guys are good pitchers, but if you judge by actual career performance, Justin Duchscherer has been a better pitcher than both of them:

Duchscherer: 3.36 ERA, 1.19 WHIP
Harden: 3.56 ERA, 1.27 WHIP
Blanton: 4.08 ERA, 1.31 WHIP

Duchscherer doesn’t get his due, because he doesn’t throw 99 MPH like Harden or even 93 like Blanton, and he’s been stuck in an unglamorous role for too many years. But mixing those precision mid-80 mph cutters with his 12-to-6 curveball, he keeps getting hitters off balance, and generating out after out after out. If the Angels keep racking up wins, and the A’s can’t keep up and decide to become sellers in July, the smart teams will be asking about Duchscherer just as much as Harden and Blanton.

Personalities

I got the flu a few weeks ago, which caused me to fall behind in my work projects, which cause me to fall behind in my home projects, which caused me to fall behind in my blogging. Meanwhile, my 10-month-old daughter, who I used to be able to entertain by simply sitting her down in the middle of a room with a bunch toys, recently figured out how to stand up from that seated position, and is now walking all over house. Which means even less time for blogging, as she must be watched every second of the day, lest she try to eat every little pebble she finds left on the floor.

No time: that’s the downside. The upside is getting to watch her personality emerge with every new skill she acquires. Once she learned to reach out and grab things, we soon discovered she is fashion conscious, with an unusual preference for floral patterns. When she learned to say "Hi", and we discovered that she’s a very outgoing and friendly kid. Then last week, when she stood up by herself for the first time, she looked me straight in the eye and gave one of those villainous laughs you hear in the movies when the bad guy realizes (mistakenly) that his big plans are indeed going to succeed. Oh, Daddy, watch out! I am now officially mobile! Nothing can stop me! I had to laugh back. "Oh, dear," I thought. "I think this girl is going to be high-maintenance."

This is also one of the joys of baseball for me: watching a team’s personality unveil itself over the course of a season. This 2008 A’s team, I find, has been particularly difficult to peg. There’s no one guy, no star, no Giambi or Tejada or Swisher, who has emerged as the team’s dominant personality. The pitching has been consistently good, but the rest of the team seems rather schizophrenic to me. One day they’re scoring 9, 11, or 15 runs; and then they go get shut out in three out of the next five games. They steal more bases than I can remember any A’s team stealing since Rickey was around, but at the same time, they make some simply godawful baserunning mistakes. The defense seems to be fairly efficient, but then they’ll go and drop easy fly balls for no apparent reason. I would rack up their inconsistency to their youth, if not for the fact that a couple of the older players on the team, Jack Cust and Emil Brown, have been just as much a source of that inconsistency as any of the players who are fresh out of Little League.

I seem to be living a Little League existence lately. The last A’s game I went to, I experienced the Little League-style cheering of Jeremy Guthrie’s kindly aunt. Yesterday, I experienced Little League-style cheering of a very different nature. It was Field Trip Day at the Coliseum, and I chaperoned a bunch of fifth-graders in my oldest daughter’s class to the A’s-Rays game. The good news is that there was lots of good news: after losing two consecutive games to Tampa Bay in exasperating fashion, Dana Eveland was masterful, the game went along quickly, and the A’s scored a bunch of runs, winning 9-1. The bad news is that these 10- and 11-year-olds used any good news as an excuse to scream piercingly at the top of their lungs. I went to the Coliseum expecting a baseball game, and a Beatles concert broke out. My ears are still ringing.

This where I think Pat Jordan’s remarks about how celebrity culture is preventing fans from getting to know modern athletes may be a bit beside the point. I will remember these two games as “the kindly aunt game” and “the screaming kids game”. The games had distinct personalities, but the actual personalities of the players didn’t really have anything to do with it. Our social brains are hardwired to assign personalities to not only people, but things, even things as abstract as a ballgame. So does knowing the personalities of the players lead us to understand the results on the field, or is it more the other way around: we ascribe to the players the personalities we experience when watching them, whether we know the players or not?

I’ve been attending quite a few actual Little League games lately. My wife’s nephew, who was a very good player at age 10 in the 12-year-old Little League division, is now age 12, and completely dominating his league. So far this year, he’s batting .500/.630/1.029, and his left-handed pitching arm is doing even better: 64 strikeouts in 45 IP, with a 0.20 ERA. In one game a couple weeks ago, he gave up one hit and struck out 17 in 7 IP (they won 1-0 in extras). Having used up his pitch count for the week, he played first base the next day. He came up with bases loaded and two outs in the 6th and final inning, with his team trailing by a run, and hit a rocket straight over the center-field fence for a game-winning grand slam.

When I watch my nephew play, he seems to have an aura like Tiger Woods or Kobe Bryant out there on that Little League diamond: the whole personality of the game revolves around him; he’s the dominant player who can pull a magical shot out of his bag anytime his team needs one. And yet I’ve known this kid since he was born; I’ve changed his diapers, I’ve fed him, I’ve watched him grow from a toddler to a goofy 12-year-old kid who’s pretty normal in every way except that he’s really, really good at baseball. Nothing I know of his off-the-field personality would lead me to assign that "star player" personality to him on the field. And yet, when I watch him play, I do it, anyway. It seems to me that the on-the-field personality that I perceive in him is more an emergent property of the game, than of the person.

What does the future hold for him? Is that "big star" aura a persistent part of his personality, a trait that predestines him to a career in pro baseball? Or are these last few months of Little League the glory days of his life? Will he one day read Jordan’s A False Spring, and think, hey, that was me–I could throw that speedball by you, too, before that flaw of mine was revealed, and it all just fell apart?

I could make some prophecies. I feel their lives, their destinies spilling out before me. The denial of the one true path, played out on a world not their own, will end soon enough. Soon there will be four, glorious in awakening, struggling with the knowledge of their true selves. But the idea of "one true path" is a fiction created by human psychology. In real life, there’s a 10-month-old girl, taking her first steps towards her destination, a place unknowable until she gets there.

 

Game Show Time!

Hi, everybody! Welcome to the show! Are you ready for another exciting round of "What’s Wrong With Him?" Ok, let’s play!

 

Kurt Suzuki. What’s wrong with him?
Suzuki hit a homer on Wednesday, but hasn’t had a hit since. The homer is looking like a fluke. His hitting has actually been plummeting like a stone since Bob Geren moved him into the leadoff spot when Travis Buck got hurt a few weeks ago. Suzuki is hitting .209/.277/.256 from the #1 slot in the batting order; it’s clearly time to call that experiment a failure. Suzuki is a catcher in his first full MLB season. He’s still got a lot to learn and absorb. It’s time to take some pressure off the young man by placing him back at the bottom the batting order.
Oh, no, I’m sorry. The correct answer is:
If you play a catcher as often as Jason Kendall, he’ll eventually end up hitting like Jason Kendall. He needs some days off.

 

Rich Harden. What’s wrong with him?
Harden’s first start off the DL Sunday against Texas was pretty weird. He got the first two outs fairly easily in each of his first three innings, and also the leadoff batter in the fourth, but thereafter got smacked around before he could finish off each inning. Will Carroll remarked on BP that "Harden didn’t have his control, but he did have his mid-90’s velocity." I’m not so sure I agree with that. Harden’s control is not really his strength, anyway. Gameday kinda confirmed my suspicions–he hit 96 and 97 mph a couple of times, but most of the time, his fastball sat at 93. While watching the game, I thought Harden’s fastball was lacking its usual little extra oomph–batters were making more contact on it than they usually do. He admitted afterwards that he felt tired out there. He was also not throwing his splitter or his slider, to help avoid injury. The Texas hitters knew he was only a two-pitch pitcher that day, so without a blow-away fastball, Harden had to use the changeup more often than normal to try and fool the hitters with. A few of those got left up and over the plate, and got appropriately whacked. But the core problem is that with a few exceptions, Harden was just throwing fastballs, not Fastballs.
Oh, no, I’m sorry. The correct answer is:
Rich Harden was sporting goofy beard-like thing he had growing on his chin. Just because he took Chad Gaudin’s spot in the rotation doesn’t mean he had to try to grow an ugly beard like Gaudin’s. Gaudin’s beard-like thing kinda suits his mug in a strange sort of way, but it just looked totally out of place on Harden’s baby face.

 

Barry Zito. What’s wrong with him?
People have been asking me that question for several weeks now, but I hadn’t actually seen him pitch this year until last night. As always, the whole key to Zito’s existence is his unusual ability to reduce the BABIP of right-handed batters. Without that skill, he’s nothing. Nearly every non-knuckleballing MLB pitcher who ever pitched yields a BABIP of about .300, but Zito in over 5,500 PA has yielded a BABIP against RHB of only .261. (He’s a more conventional .290 against LHB.) This year, his BABIP against RHB is .339. Why the huge difference this year? People have been harping on his loss of velocity, but I don’t think that’s really the source of his struggles this year. His unusual skill comes from an unique pitch sequence that is set up by his curveball, as I explained here. The problem I saw last night was not all that different from his mediocre nights that he had in Oakland when his curveball wasn’t working. The curve wasn’t that nasty pitch he used to throw that starts out looking like it was clearly a ball, and then sharply snaps over the plate. Instead, the ball just kinda rolled up there. He was throwing curveballs, not Curveballs. He didn’t seem confident in throwing his primary weapon, afraid he’d hang it or something, and without it, he’s a two pitch pitcher, just like Harden, but without about 10mph of speed. He had good control of his fastball last night, and a decent changeup, and that was good enough to get him through the order twice. But just like in Oakland, the third time through the order was a problem without the Curveball.
Oh, no, I’m sorry. The correct answer is:
Barry Zito is a head case. The guy thinks too much. He would be a lot better pitcher if he was an idiot, and just stubbornly stuck with what works. He tinkers with his motion to try to increase velocity, and ends up losing velocity, control, and, most importantly, deception. Every time he tries something new, it screws him up, and he eventually ends up going back to the old stuff. Rick Peterson is the only pitching coach who had success with him, because he recognized that Barry Zito is too smart for his own good, and wouldn’t let him change anything. No, you can’t throw a slider. No, you can’t change your stride length. No, you can’t change your stretch motion. Curt Young and Dave Righetti have been too much like nice, spoiling uncles than stern fathers, too willing to let him try new stuff. Barry Zito should not vote for Barack Obama. Zito needs a pitching coach who will tell him, "No, you can’t!"

Three strikes, you’re out!
We have some lovely parting gifts for you, as reward for your effort. Thanks for playing!

All These Boys Try Their Best

Had an interesting experience at the ballpark today–it felt more like watching a game in Little League instead of Major League Baseball. Not because the play was bad, but because I happened to sit next to the aunt of Orioles’ starting pitcher Jeremy Guthrie. That’s her boy right here:

Guthrie’s aunt was one of those kindly old ladies who loves you no matter what, and everything you do is great, because you’re trying your best. Her cheering, complete with anachronistic shouts of "Yay!" and "Yahoo!" and "Hooray!", was so charmingly optimistic–"C’mon Jer, you can do it, I know you can!", I began to fall under her spell. After about three or four innings, I had somehow come to believe that the worst possible outcome of this game would not be a loss for either team, but that Jeremy Guthrie might somehow end up with his feelings hurt.

So when Kurt Suzuki blasted this two-run homer, I didn’t really have the heart to cheer very much:

Poor Jer. He must have felt so bad. Guthrie was on the hook for the loss until Andrew Brown entered the game in the eighth inning, and proceeded to give up twenty-nine consecutive grounders in the hole between Daric Barton and Mark Ellis. I’m sure Andrew Brown felt bad about turning a two-run lead into a 5-4 deficit, and perhaps even worse when walking off the mound to a round of boos. Aunt Guthrie was appalled. "That’s just terrible, booing a player like that. I’m sure he was doing his best."

Brown got off the hook for the loss in the bottom of the eighth, when the A’s tied the score, thanks to a brilliant takeout slide by Jack Hannahan. Frank Thomas was pinch-hitting with the bases loaded and one out, and hit a slow grounder to short. Most batters would beat out the relay throw, but Thomas is so slow, there was a high risk of an inning-ending double play. But Hannahan just obliterated Brian Roberts, who had no chance at making a throw to first to double up Thomas. It reminded me of the collision between Randy Johnson’s fastball and the dove. Roberts simply disappeared, so much so that I don’t even have a photo of it. One of the best slides I’ve ever seen, and the game-tying run scored.

So the game went into extra innings, which is a happy result, because nobody can feel too bad about losing in extra innings, right? You both tried your best, and played well, and somebody had to get lucky and win. In this case, it was Mark Ellis who got lucky and won, with a home run that just barely glanced off the foul pole.

Yay! And now, the A’s are once again tied for the best record in the American League. The fellows on this A’s team are really good boys, they really are. Hooray for them! Yippee!

Charming the Contortionists

If you were to ask me why I dwell among green mountains,
I should laugh silently; my soul is serene.
The peach blossom follows the moving water;
There is another heaven and earth beyond the world of men.

–Li Po (translated by Robert Payne)

I live in the suburbs in a mild climate. The average low in winter is only 13 degrees cooler than in summer. I drive on fully paved roads. I walk on fully paved sidewalks. The water I drink comes from faucets. The food I eat comes from supermarkets, wrapped in plastic and cardboard. Every tree I see has been deliberately planted there. The only wild animals I ever see, aside from ants and birds and squirrels, appear to me only on TV screens and computer monitors. If people around me get sick, they simply disappear into hospitals. I don’t have to deal with it.

When I leave my suburban environment to visit my cousins who live in the Swedish countryside, I am also struck how antiseptic my life seems in comparison.

Over there, we drive on dirt roads carved out of dense forests. We drink unprocessed milk, and eat potatoes freshly dug out of the ground. Summer bursts forth in June and vanishes in August, and while it lasts, the greens are more green, the reds are more red, the blues are more blue. We breathe a fresh summer air that is palpably different from the air of California. This air is not a year-round air; it smells of the intensity of life that knows its time is brief. The smell of a Swedish summer–I cannot capture it, or pass it on to anyone else who has not been there and smelled it themselves. It exists only in its own place, in its own moment. All this beauty is fleeting, and its temporary status makes it even more beautiful.

 

* * *

 

Is taking a photo or video of an event for later viewing worth it, even if it means more or less missing the event in realtime? What’s better, a lifetime of mediated viewing of my son’s first steps or a one-time in-person viewing?

Jason Kottke, via Marginal Revolution

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