Saturday five, 4/19/14.

My ESPN content from the past week:

* Scouting reports on prep RHP Tyler Kolek and JC righty Heath Fillmyer.
* My report on this week’s Sally League matchup between Hunter Harvey (Baltimore) and Lucas Giolito (Washington).
* Scouting notes from my Georgia trip last week, including a rant on NC State overusing Carlos Rodon.

There was no Klawchat this week because my flight to Houston didn’t have wifi, and the “Top 25 under 25″ ranking has been pushed back to April 24th. Also, as I mentioned here last week, if you want new Behind the Dish episodes any time soon, let ESPN know.

* If you missed my review of Thinking, Fast and Slow, it’s worth checking it out – the book is popular among the more analytically-minded front offices in MLB.

* The wonderful Agricola iOS app is on sale right now, $4 (down from $7), and the two IAPs are on sale as well. I own the whole set, and it’s the best complex boardgame app available.

And now, to the Saturday links….

Thinking, Fast and Slow.

Daniel Kahneman won the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences (yes, the ‘fake’ Nobel) for his groundbreaking work in behavioral economics, the branch of the dismal science that shows we are even bigger idiots than we previously believed. Kahnemann’s work, and his best-selling book Thinking, Fast and Slow, identify and detail the various cognitive biases and illusions that affect our judgment and decision-making, often leading to suboptimal or undesirable outcomes that might be avoided if we stop and think more critically and less intuitively. (It’s just $2.99 for the Kindle right now, through that link.)

Kahnemann breaks the part of our brain that responds to questions, challenges, or other problems into two separate systems, which he calls System 1 and System 2. System 1 is the fast-reaction system: When you hear or read a question, or face a specific stimulus, your brain brings back an answer, an image, or a memory without you having to consciously search the hard drive and call up the file. System 2 does what we would normally think of as “thinking:” slow calculations, considering variables, weighing options, and so on. The problem, as Kahnemann defines it, is that System 2 is lazy and often takes cues from System 1 without sufficiently questioning them. System 1 can be helpful, but it isn’t always your friend, and System 2 is passed out drunk half the time you need it.

Thing 1 and Thing 2
Systems 1 and 2 in a rare moment of concordance.

The good news here is that Kahneman’s work, much of which with his late colleage Amos Tversky (who died before he could share the Nobel Prize with Kahneman), offers specific guidance on the breakdowns in our critical thinking engines, much of which can be circumvented through different processes or detoured by slowing down our thinking. One of the biggest pitfalls is what Kahneman calls WYSIATI – What You See Is All There Is, the process by which the brain jumps to a conclusion on the basis of insufficient evidence, because that evidence is all the brain has, and the human brain has evolved to seek causes for events or patterns. This leads to a number of biases or errors, including:

  • The halo effect: You like someone or something, and thus you judge that person or object or story more favorably. This is why good-looking politicians fare better than ugly ones in polls.
  • The framing effect: How you ask the question alters the answer you receive. Kahnemann cites differing reactions to the same number presented two ways, such as 90% lean vs 10% fat, or a 0.01% mortality rate versus 100 deaths for every 1 million people.
  • Base-rate neglect: A bit of mental substitution, where the brain latches on to a detail about a specific example without adequately considering the characteristics of that example’s larger group or type.
  • Overconfidence: This combines the WYSIATI problem with what I’ll call the “it can’t happen to me” syndrome, which Kahneman correctly identifies as a core explanation for why so many people open restaurants, even though the industry has one of the highest failure rates around.

Although Kahneman has crafted enough of a flow to keep the book coherent from chapter to chapter, Thinking, Fast and Slow is primarily a list of significant biases or flawed heuristics our brains employ and explanations of how they work and how to try to avoid them. This includes the availability heuristic, where we answer a question about probability or prevalence by substituting the easier question of how easy it is to remember examples or instances of the topic in question. If I give you a few seconds to tell me how many countries there are in Africa, you might name a few in your head, and the faster those names come to you, the larger your guess will be for the total.

Thinking, Fast and Slow also offers an unsettling section for anyone whose career is built on obtaining and delivering knowledge, such as subject-matter experts paid for their opinions, a category that includes me: We aren’t that good at our jobs, and we probably can’t be. One major reason is the representativeness fallacy, which leads to the base-rate neglect I mentioned earlier. The representativeness fallacy leads the subject – let’s say an area scout here, watching a college position player – to overvalue the variables he sees that are specific to this one player, without adequately weighting variables common to the entire class of college position players. It may be that college position players from that particular conference don’t fare as well in pro ball as those from the SEC or ACC; it may be that college position players who have or lack a specific skill have higher/lower rates of success. The area scout’s report, taken by itself, won’t consider those “base rates” enough, if at all, and to a large degree teams do not expect or ask the area scouts to do so. However, teams that don’t employ any kind of system to bring those base rates into their overall decision-making, from historical research on player archetypes to analysis of individual player statistics adjusted for context, will confuse a plethora of scouting opinions for a variety of viewpoints, and will end up making flawed or biased decisions as a result.

Kahneman’s explanation of regression to the mean, and how that should impact our forecasting, is the best and clearest I’ve come across yet – and it’s a topic of real interest to anyone who follows baseball, even if you’re not actually running your own projections software or building an internal decision-sciences system. Humans are especially bad at making predictions where randomness (“luck”) is a major variable, and we tend to overweight recent, usually small samples and ignore the base rates from larger histories. Kahneman lays out the failure to account for regression in a simple fashion, pointing out that if results = skill + luck, then the change in results (from one game to the next, for example) = skill + change in luck. At some point, skill does change, but it’s hard or impossible to pinpoint when that transpires. Many respected baseball analysts working online and for teams argue for the need to regress certain metrics back to the mean to try to account for the interference of randomness; one of my main concerns with this approach is that while it’s rational, it may make teams slower to recognize actual changes in skill level (or health, which affects skill) as a result. Then again, that’s where scouts can come in, noticing a decline in bat speed, a change in arm slot, or a new pitch that might explain why the noise has more signal than a regression algorithm would indicate.

One more chapter relevant to sports analytics covers the planning fallacy, or what Christina Kahrl always referred to as “wishcasting:” Forecasting results too close to best-case scenarios that don’t adequately consider the results of other, similar cases. The response, promulgated by Danish planning expert Bert Flyvbjerg (I just wanted to type that name), is called reference class forecasting, and is just what you’d expect the treatment for the planning fallacy to include. If you want to build a bridge, you find as many bridge construction projects as you can, and obtain all their statistics, such as cost, time to build, distance to be covered, and so on. You build your baseline predictions off of the inputs and results of the reference class, and you adjust it accordingly for your specific case – but only slightly. If all 30 MLB teams did this, no free-agent reliever would ever get a four-year deal again.

Thinking explains many other biases and heuristics that lead to inferior decision-making, including loss aversion, the endowment effect, and the one Ned Colletti just screwed up, the sunk cost fallacy, where money that is already spent (whether you continue to employ the player or not) affects decisions on whether or not to continue spending on that investment (or to keep Brandon League on the 40-man roster). He doesn’t specifically name recency bias, but discusses its effects at length in the final section, where he points out that if you ask someone how happy s/he is with his/her life, the answer will depend on what’s happened most recently (or is happening right now) to the respondent. This also invokes the substitution effect: It’s hard for me to tell you exactly how happy or satisfied I am with my life as a whole, so my brain will substitute an easier question, namely how happy I feel at this specific moment.

That last third of the book shifts its focus more to the psychological side of behavioral economics, with subjects like what determines our happiness or satisfaction with life or events within, and the difficulty we have in making rational – that is, internally consistent – choices. (Kahneman uses the word “rational” in its economic and I think traditional sense, describing thinking that is reasonable, coherent, and not self-contradictory, rather than the current sense of “rational” as skeptical or atheist.) He presents these arguments with the same rigor he employs throughout the book, and the fact that he can be so rigorous without slowing down his prose is Thinking‘s greatest strength. While Malcolm Gladwell can craft brilliant narratives, Kahneman builds his story up from scientific, controlled research, and lets the narrative be what it may. (Cf. “narrative fallacy,” pp. 199-200.) If there’s a weak spot in the book, in fact, it comes when Kahneman cites Moneyball as an example of a response (Oakland’s use of statistical analysis) to the representativeness fallacy of scouting – but never mentions the part about Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, and Barry Zito helping lead to those “excellent results at low cost.” That aside – and hey, maybe he only saw the movie – Thinking, Fast and Slow is one of the most important books for my professional life that I have ever read, and if you don’t mind prose that can be a little dense when Kahneman details his experiments, it is an essential read.

Atlanta eats, 2014 edition.

I’m starting with the least famous of the three restaurants where I had dinner, The Lawrence, where the kitchen is run by former Richard Blais protege Chef Mark Nanna. The Lawrence’s menu focuses on local produce in southern-influenced dishes, many straightforward, a few with clever twists, but all easily recognizable to diners who aren’t familiar with (or, God forbid, fans of) Blais’ more experimental style.

I went with small plates at the Lawrence, rather than the very reasonably priced entrees (none over $26), so I could sample more items, which turned out to be a great call because I ended up with a pair of superb salads along with one meat course and one fish. The first salad was the kale “seasar,” using fried smelt as the croutons rather than mixing anchovies into the dressing (which isn’t authentic anyway), so the dish had that umami component but without the stale croutons you’re probably used to finding in most Caesars. The mixed radish salad was a small portion of thinly shaved radishes, including daikon and Cherry Belle, with a light lemon/celery seed dressing, slighty bitter but balanced by the acidity of the lemon juice, and generally a good representation of early spring produce on the plate.

For proteins, I couldn’t pass on the tuna tartare, the Lawrence’s twist on the familiar “spicy tuna” abomination found at most sushi places, where you get the scrapings left over after the tuna fillets are sliced for nigiri, all tossed in spicy mayonnaise so you no longer taste the fish. The Lawrence’s version has diced tuna mixed with a scallion mayonnaise and a spicy sambal sauce, but the fish’s flavor and texture remains at the front of the dish, with the heat from the chili coming afterwards, balanced out from the fat in the mayonnaise. It’s served under a hilariously large rice cracker that doubles as your serving spoon when broken into bits. My server said the baby back ribs starter was their most popular dish (of the small plates, I assume): served with a sriracha glaze, pickled chili peppers, and cilantro leaves, they are fiery, but I was most impressed by how the meat tore right off the bone without falling apart itself, retaining sufficient tooth to give that primal satisfaction that only meat can provide.

And that led me to dessert, my favorite dish of the meal, a chocolate tart with spiced nuts, cinnamon/sugar ice cream, and honey. The tart itself reminded me of one of my favorite packaged cookies from when I was a kid, even though I’m sure I’d despise them now: Stella d’Oro Swiss Fudge cookies, a shortbread thumbprint cookie with a creamy milk chocolate filling. (Fellow New York natives may remember their “no cookies?” commercials, as well as the “breakfast treats” commercial parodied by Patton Oswalt.) Anyway, the Lawrence’s version is a trillion times better – a perfect shortcrust tart with a dark chocolate filling, curried crushed peanuts, and a quenelle of vanilla ice cream with a faint cinnamon flavor. The crust was the revelation, crumbly but not brittle, easy to break into pieces without shattering all over the plate, and the chocolate was dark enough for my tastes but I don’t think it would turn off people who prefer milk chocolate to bittersweet. The entire meal, all five plates, was about $44 before tip.

The first meal I had in Atlanta was dinner at Hugh Acheson’s Empire State South, where Kiley McDaniel and I opted for the six-course tasting menu rather than trying to pick and choose from all the appealing menu items. It was too much food overall for me, but I didn’t care for the dessert option (personal tastes, nothing wrong with it) so I stopped there. The meal started with an oyster shooter as an amuse-bouche, then led into the one vegetarian course, a salad of beets and strawberries, with house-made ricotta, candied pecans, rhubarb, burnt honey, and bee pollen – a lot going on, but the dish was primarily about the beets and strawberries, with the rhubarb (pickled, if I remember correctly) providing some acidic to balance the sweetness of the two central ingredients. That was followed by the catfish sausage, which was … well, exactly what you’d expect, served over a smoked catfish crème fraiche. Fish sausage is peculiar, I think because lifelong carnivores have programmed their brains to expect a different set of flavors and textures when presented with something that looks like sausage, but this version had that mild, freshly-caught catfish flavor – not “fishy” in the pejorative sense, but I do find even very fresh catfish to have that sort of creek flavor that marks it as fish. It benefited from the searing that’s visible in the photo below.

Jumping forward a little bit, after a seared flounder dish and a “stuffed” quail with andouille sausage (not really astuffed so much as served-with, still very good), we got to the star of the meal: Medium-rare New York strip steak served over braised short ribs. I don’t often eat cow, but when I do, this is what I want, the best-quality beef cooked two ways, both superbly, and in ways that complemented each other, particularly the slightly tannic note from the short ribs (which may have been cooked in red wine, although I don’t think the menu or server said).

Oh, and I can’t forget the cocktail of choice, the Circuit Hymn: Bourbon, Rainwater Madeira (a lighter, drier variation of regular Madeira), vanilla liqueur, and orange & chocolate bitters, served in an old-fashioned glass with one enormous ice cube. I’m not a straight bourbon drinker, but the combination here amplified bourbon’s better qualities and tempered the smoke note that has always dominated aged whiskeys to my palate.

The third dinner was back to Blais’ place, the Spence, where I’ve spent enough time that my server recognized me from last April. The Spence is conveniently located within walking distance of Georgia Tech’s baseball field, so I was able to sneak in there for a dinner of a few small plates and still make it into the stadium in time for Luke Weaver’s first pitch. I think my favorite plate this time – the menu changes every few days, although there are a few standbys – was the one I didn’t order, a gift from the kitchen since Alex (my server) recognized me: salt-cured sunchokes, quickly fried, served with a romesco sauce, a traditional Catalunian sauce made from pureed nuts, red peppers, and often roasted or smoked tomatoes. The Spence’s version was creamier than others I’ve had, more like an aioli than a pesto, and was the ideal sauce for the sunchokes, like an upscale variation on the popular hand-cut French fries with spicy mayo combination you’ll find at upscale burger joints.

I always try to order one of the two fresh pastas on the menu at the Spence, taking Alex’s suggestion this time of the tarragon bucatini with pulled chicken and grapes – a chicken salad sandwich reimagined as a piping hot pasta dish. A bite with every element in it did indeed evoke the sandwich, but in a much more enjoyable way – I tend to think of chicken salad as a combination of dried-out meat and too much mayonnaise, but this, of course, had neither of those problems. I also loved the white anchovy tartine, with avocado, thinly sliced black radish, and candied kumquats, although I’ve never met a white anchovy dish I didn’t like. They’re natural brothers to avocados, and whatever bread the Spence uses for its tartines and terrines, it is absolutely inhalable when grilled.

Moving on from dinner, I had one lunch of note, meeting a friend for sushi at Tomo in Buckhead, what I’d call solid-average for its nigiri offerings, getting bonus points because the snapper came with lemon juice already on it and the server said not to dip it in the soy sauce – usually a good sign of authenticity. The fish was fresh but not California-fresh, more noticeable in the texture than the flavor. The rolls tended toward the American palate, with lots of inauthentic ingredients, and the spicy tuna roll my friend ordered was, as usual, oversauced with mayonnaise. I’ve definitely become more spartan in my sushi tastes over the years – a seaweed salad and some simple nigiri options are a perfect meal for me – so those of you who enjoy American-style rolls and combinations may enjoy Tomo more than I did.

My coffee quest brought me to Octane Coffee in the Midtown West area, almost by mistake – I’d read they served coffee from Counter Culture, one of the best roasters in the country, but it now appears Octane roasts its own, with single origins for pourovers as well as a blend for espresso that changes regularly. The espresso the day I visited was mostly Brazilian and Peruvian (I think), with a little Yirgacheffe (Ethiopian) to add some citrus notes. I like a little more character in an espresso but the shot was perfectly pulled and had good body to it. Octane also has a few food items, including a very fun “PB&J granola parfait,” with yogurt, peanut butter, fresh strawberry preserves, and granola in it, as well as locally made pastries like the oversized croissant I ordered but couldn’t finish after the parfait. This Octane location, one of five (three in Atlanta, two in Birmingham), serves beer and lunch as well, and the whole vibe is somewhere between hipster hangout and European cafe. They get bonus points for the cashier taking an extra minute to answer my question about the espresso blend with the actual ratio of beans – even though it held up the line for another minute or two, I appreciate the effort.

Sip the Experience was the one disappointment of the trip; they do serve Counter Culture Coffee, but my espresso was watery and bland, and the egg scramble was overcooked to the point of rubberiness. I also found the service unfriendly, not that I’d care that much if the coffee was solid.

One last Atlanta food note: My #sources tell me Top Chef alumnus Eli Kirshtein is opening his new restaurant, the Luminary, possibly in May, in the Krog Street Market development in Inman Park, just east of downtown. It’ll be one of my next stops whenever I get back to Georgia.

Kaiser Chiefs and Cloud Nothings.

My latest post at ESPN is on the draft blog, discussing Carlos Rodon’s pitch counts and scouting some draft prospects, including Luke Weaver and Max Pentecost.

Kaiser Chiefs’ second-ever single, 2004′s “I Predict a Riot,” was a global hit and one of my favorite songs of the first decade of the 2000s. Their second album had one solid single, “Ruby,” but since that point the bad seemed to hit new lows with each release; their 2012 album Start the Revolution Without Me was so bad I never bothered to review it.

That devolution makes this year’s Education, Education, Education & War (also on iTunes) all the more fantastic: It’s the best album of the band’s career, packed with blue-collar anthems, still melodic but with a new lyrical maturity and more consistent hooks from start to finish. No track stands out quite like “Riot,” but there are a half-dozen songs on here that would hold up well as singles, and fewer filler tracks than any of their previous full-lengths. The album even gets bonus points for a cameo by the wonderful actor Bill Nighy, narrating a brief poem at the end of the disc’s best song, “Cannons.”

Education opens with a statement of purpose, “The Factory Gates,” a morbidly witty elegy to the dead-end job of the factory worker – ineffective as any kind of protest song, but more profound as a statement of despair at a career that no longer offers any kind of upward mobility: “I’m a shopworn sales campaign/Trapped behind yellow cellophane… ” That leads into the first single, the downtempo “Coming Home,” before the album’s first stumble in “Misery Company,” where a hackneyed bit of wordplay and overplayed cackling line after the chorus sound like someone’s trying too hard to get airplay.

The Chiefs’ strongest moments have always come when they infuse their songs with high-energy riffs, and other than the slower “Coming Home,” the same applies on Education, including “Factory Gates,” the stomping “Ruffians on Parade,” and the quartet of songs that starts with “One More Last Song” and concludes with the anti-war song “Cannons.” I don’t think there’s anything new to be said on the whole “war is bad” theme, but the Chiefs work in some clever imagery – “they treat us like we’re extras in an epic” – without resorting to cheap humor, all above the album’s best earworm, the “we’re gonna need a lot more cannons/if you want to be home by Christmas” couplet that opens the chorus. That song dissolves into the two-minute poem read by Nighy, penned by Chiefs songwriter Ricky Wilson, about “the occupation of Damnation Eternal” by an unnamed superpower, a strange interlude for the middle of a rock album, although I could probably listen to Nighy narrate the unabridged War and Peace without losing interest.

Lyrical cleverness is great but hardly sells me on an album; where Education, Education, Education & War succeeds and its predecessors failed is in the music. Something clicked back into place for the Chiefs, perhaps related to the departure of lead songwriter and drummer Nick Hodgson, so this album is packed with more memorable riffs than their last three discs combined, many of which are just begging to be played live. It’s a choppy experience, with tracks like “Meanwhile Up in Heaven” and “Roses” depleting the energy the band has built up through preceding songs, and “Misery Company” inducing some cringes with the same bad puns that Soul Asylum used 15 years ago. The album’s title comes from a famous (in the UK) 1997 speech by Tony Blair, where he may not have used the “and war” part of the quote, and there’s a clear nod back to the Blur camp of the mid-1990s Britpop divide. That melodic sensibility breathes new life into the Chiefs, a band that appeared to have wound itself down as recently as two years ago.

* Part of why I’ve dithered on posting any album reviews is that I kept listening to Here and Nowhere Else (also on iTunes), the latest release from Cloud Nothings, and found myself failing to draw anything resembling a conclusion about it. After two more listens during my trip to Atlanta, I’m ready to say it: It’s not that great.

Cloud Nothings are primarily the brainchild of Dylan Baldi, a Cleveland-born singer-songwriter who wrote and recorded their entire first album in 2011, since which point the solo project has morphed into an actual band. Baldi et al tend to write their songs quickly, and it shows on Here and Nowhere Else, an eight-song, 30-minute album where each track sounds like nothing so much as the ones before and after it. There are a few more melodic songs, notably lead single “I’m Not Part of Me” and opener “Now Hear In,” but there seems to be an almost deliberate desire to recreate the kind of simple bang-on-a-can ethos of teenaged garage bands that, recorded professionally by seasoned musicians, can come off as repetitive. When Baldi stretches out on the album’s one long track, “Pattern Walks,” he starts screaming the lyrics as if to recapture the listener’s attention, which has wandered after the previous six tracks of pleasant sameness. There’s nothing inherently bad about the album, but I keep waiting for something truly new from Baldi, while instead, Here and Nowhere Else sounds like a good band in stasis.

Saturday five, 4/12/14.

Just two posts from me this week, although there’s more coming up next week:

* A long post on Wilmington (Kansas City) and Myrtle Beach (Texas) prospects.
* This week’s Klawchat transcript.

Many of you are asking about Behind the Dish. I don’t have an answer for you yet. I’m sorry. Feel free to let ESPN know you want the show back soon.

And now, for this week’s five links of interest:

The Comedians.

What use to anyone was the body of an ex-Minister? A corpse couldn’t even suffer. But unreason can be more terrifying than reason.

I’ve made my adoration for the novels of Graham Greene, particularly his political novels, clear on this site many times; I’ve read more novels by Greene than those of any other author but Wodehouse and Christie. The Comedians (Penguin Classics) isn’t often listed among his greatest works, perhaps because it’s seen as less serious than his Catholic novels, but it remains a serious work in theme and tone. As an indictment of Third-World despotism in general and of Jean-Claude Duvalier in particular, it is searing and angry, yet Greene also manages to populate his novel with rich, flawed characters in whose struggles against the irreversible tide we find mirrors to ourselves.

The novel begins, with the wry humor that Greene always manages to slip into his works, with three men in a boat: Brown, Smith, and Jones, all “comedians” on the stage of life, each playing a part. Jones is the English confidence man, Brown the American hotelier in Haiti who has played his share of marks, and Smith the do-gooder American hoping to open a “vegetarian center” in Haiti with government funding. Brown returns from a lengthy stay overseas to find a government minister dead in his hotel pool; Jones is arrested as he tries to enter the country, triggering another long con for him; Smith and his wife find themselves unable to reconcile their good intentions with the corruption of the Duvalier regime. When Jones’ game turns around his fortunes, Brown becomes involved, putting himself at risk and that of his relationship with his unhappily-married mistress, Martha.

The tensions that result from Jones’ alternating hero/villain status with the State push the other central characters, including Martha, into situations that expose their rawest nerve endings. Every action they take bears multiple levels of meaning, for the regime is always presumed to be watching or listening, and punishment for its enemies is brutal, but not always swift. While the Smiths are innocents unable to adjust their worldview to fit a country ruled by a dictator with a secret police force, Brown and Jones are forced into the uncomfortable situation of having to confront their own histories of failure that they fled to Haiti to try to escape.

Brown narrates, but as with most Greene narrators, he’s adept at historical evaluations of his own emotions as well as those of others – but he’s also inept at anticipating the reactions of others. Brown knows he’s creating additional barriers between himself and Martha, beyond those of her husband, her needy son, and her social status, yet seems unable to stop himself from issuing the cutting remark or asking the wrong question. In the process, Brown manages to con himself, while also showing Martha a side of his personality she’d probably have preferred not to see. No one was better able to explore the nature of an affair of the heart in a novel that ostensibly dealt only with affairs of state than Greene, whether here, in The Quiet American, or even in a weaker novel like The Human Factor.

Failure looms as the other overarching theme of The Comedians, from the failure of Haiti itself to establish a functioning, democratic government to the failure of U.S. policy in Haiti, supporting a borderline fascist autocracy because it stands as a bulwark against communism; from the failures of Brown, a moderately successful confidence man now running a de facto bankrupt hotel in the world’s least desirable location, to those of Jones, whose invented history may contain some or no kernels of truth whatsoever. Brown can’t run a business, manage an affair with a woman who is more than willing to maintain the status quo, or even help a political refugee escape. He is the greatest comedian of them all, an actor on a stage speaking someone else’s lines.

Nothing new from me on ESPN since the last update, but Chris Crawford has weekend draft update and his first weekly top ten prospects ranking for fantasy players.

Also, for Top Chef fans among you, Hugh Acheson tweeted a link earlier today where you can vote for the West Athens, GA, community garden to get a large grant from Seeds of Change. You can vote once a day while the contest is open.

Saturday five, 4/5/14.

My content from this week:

And the links … by the way, feel free to post or otherwise send (Twitter, FB, etc) links you think might be candidates for this section in a future week. I’m always looking for good reading material.

* From the BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal), a study on how certain anti-anxiety drugs, including benzodiazepines, increase the risk of patient death, uncovered when researchers examined those patients over long periods.

* Cornmeal waffles with bourbon-banana syrup. Haven’t tried these yet, but, I mean, waffles and bananas and booze? I’m in.

* From the LA Times, Michael Hiltzik on why Brendan Eich’s ouster from Mozilla was justified – or, at least, why his First Amendment rights are irrelevant to this discussion.

* “Libertarian” is probably the best one-word description of my political beliefs, but the satirical piece Libertarian Police Department hits the mark square-on.

* And one you may already have seen, but if not, and you have the stomach for it, read Sports on Earth’s profile of Chad Curtis, convicted sexual predator. Is he a sociopath? A narcissist? I found his victim-blaming, right on through his attempts to manipulate the jury and then the writer here, terrifying.

I’ll be at Wilmington’s home opener on Tuesday, and probably the 10:30 am game (full of screaming kids) on Wednesday as well, so I hope to see many of you there.

Raleigh eats.

Two new ESPN posts from Saturday – my report on Carlos Rodon and some more prep bats, and my 2014 MLB predictions.

I decided to make this trip to the Triangle into a tour of Ashley Christensen’s Raleigh restaurants, after receiving several recommendations from scout friends and (I think) hearing of her via Hugh Acheson. Christensen has four outposts in downtown Raleigh, three of them on the same block of Wilmington Street, which served for all three of my dinners plus a breakfast/coffee stop.

Poole’s Diner is her high-end shop, with a menu that changes weekly or daily and focuses on local products, meaning it’s very heavy on vegetables even in the mains – which was a positive since I took my cousin, a vegetarian, for dinner. The best item was actually a side dish, sauteed Brussels sprouts with oyster mushrooms and a sherry cream sauce. Mushrooms and fortified wines like sherry or madeira are great friends, and mounting the resulting sauce with cream (saute the mushrooms, deglaze with the wine, finish with just enough cream to thicken) adds flavor and mouthfeel that goes with almost everything … but I’ve never had it with Brussels sprouts or any other brassica before. The combination was unexpected but provided great balance to the slight bitterness of the sprouts, with the cream limiting that bitter note and allowing the umami of the mushrooms to move to the front.

My entree was a seared halibut over farro with a roasted tomato relish, everything perfectly cooked, with the farro actually the best part of the dish. Farro, an “ancient grain” in the wheat family that can refer to spelt, emmer, or einkorn; the hulled berries are cooked until al dente and can substitute in many recipes for rice or barley, but with more flavor than plain rice and less of that good-for-you taste of barley. We shared a dark chocolate/mocha pot de crème with coffee shortbread, served in a wide-mouth mason jar, my kind of dessert – bittersweet, not cloying, with the consistency of a thick mousse so that even a half portion was very satisfying.

Poole’s also has its own house cocktail menu; I couldn’t pass on a drink based on Mount Gay XO rum (especially after I heard rumors, unfounded as it turns out, that Mount Gay was shutting down). The cocktail included Mount Gay, sweet vermouth, and orange bitters, served with a strip of orange peel, and for a drink that had no non-alcoholic components it was surprisingly smooth, and the dark rum provides a hint of sweetness without any added sugar in the drink. The entree, the side, my cousin’s salad (an entree portion size), dessert, and the cocktail came to about $75 before tip.

Couple of important notes on Poole’s: They don’t take reservations, but there’s a large bar where you can get happy while you wait; there’s a large parking lot across the street that’s free after 5 pm; and their website discourages diners from bringing children.

Beasley’s Chicken + Honey, Christensen’s fried chicken restaurant – I know most of you are already sold at this point – actually shares a space with Chuck, her burger place, separated by a wall but with staffers going back and forth between the two. Beasley’s was the better place by far; the chicken was excellent, among the best fried chicken I’ve ever had, served with a very slight drizzle of honey over the top – just enough for the taste, not enough to make it sticky. But the sides are absolutely incredible; one friend of mine who lives in the Triangle says he only gets the $9 plate of three sides and skips the chicken altogether. I went with the roasted beets with pickled onions and an orange & white balsamic vinaigrette, and the green cabbage slaw with malt vinegar, roasted tomatoes, and what I think was a celery seed mayo dressing that may have had dried mustard as well. The beets came cold, both red and golden, with the vinaigrette thicker than a typical dressing, somewhere between the consistency of a regular vinaigrette and that of pure maple syrup, with the onions on top, giving two elements of acidity to brighten and balance the sweetness of the beets. (Disclaimer: I love roasted beets in pretty much any form as long as they never saw the inside of a can.)

The cabbage slaw was also strong, maybe a little overdressed, but the celery seeds in the dressing were a surprising and effective touch; I might have though of crushed caraway seeds or mustard seeds, both of which work extremely well with cabbages, but the celery seeds were a note I kept coming back to after eating. Also, they have bourbon chocolate pecan pie for dessert and that was hands-down the best pecan pie I’ve ever tasted, maybe the first time I’ve had one where I never thought for a second, “this is a little too sweet.” The predominant flavors were the dark chocolate and the bourbon – the booze wasn’t there for nomenclature, but you actually get that smoky/sweet flavor in the finished product.

Chuck was a little disappointing after my meals at the other two spots, mostly because the burger itself was underseasoned. Although the good folks on the Beasley’s twitter feed advised me to get the Dirty South – a burger with smoked pork shoulder and chili on top of the patty itself – I couldn’t bring myself to order it, not with an avocado and bacon-onion jam option staring me in the face. (Besides, I wanted to taste the beef, and though the Dirty South would overwhelm it with the pork flavor.) Also, the bun was kind of nondescript. The hand-cut fries were good, and seemed to have all the salt that was missing from the burger; you get your choices of two dipping sauces from a list of seven or eight, and I recommend the espelette mayo, although if you like garlic mayo theirs is potent as well. They offer unusual milkshake flavors and will spike them with alcohol, but I didn’t partake. A five-ounce burger (they offer a half-pound, but really, no one needs that) and a quarter pound of fries was more than enough for me.

Joule’s Coffee is the Christensen coffee/breakfast joint, a few doors down from Beasley’s and Chuck, using beans from Durham’s Counter Culture, one of the best roasters on the east coast. They offer drip, cold brew, pour-overs, and various espresso drinks, with your choice of two different single-origin beans for the last option. The breakfast menu includes egg dishes, croissant French toast, sausage and biscuits, and, my choice, house-made yogurt (thick, like Greek yogurt or labneh) with granola and fresh blueberries. The coffee, a Rwandan varietal, was good enough that I contemplated getting up a half-hour earlier the next morning to drive over there before my flight home – I didn’t, because I like sleep too, but I was tempted – and the yogurt was a good reminder that homemade can beat even the best packaged, authentic Greek yogurts*.

* Authentic Greek yogurt means it’s strained yogurt, without any added thickeners. The FDA has no guidelines on Greek yogurt or the use of the word “authentic” here, so you get major yogurt brands creating fake Greek yogurt by adding vegetable gums, pectin, or corn starch. Read the labels and buy the real stuff – Chobani, Fage, and Whole Foods all do it right.

My one non-Christensen meal spot was La Farm Bakery in Cary, not too far from the USA Baseball complex where I was attending the NHSI tournament. La Farm was founded by a baker of traditional European breads, including sourdoughs, dark ryes, and pain de campagne – the French bread style that can be formed into decorative shapes. They also sell a variety of traditional French pastries and do salads and sandwiches for the lunch crowd. The bread is the star, a solid 70 on the 20-80 scale, especially the Italian bread with sesame seeds and the focaccia, with the ciabatta closer to average for me. The sandwiches were a mixed bag; I loved the Mediterraneo, with fresh mozzarella, roasted tomatoes, basil, and balsamic vinaigrette, but the “award-winning” albacore tuna salad sandwich was very ordinary. The BLT was very good, better with the added avocado option, but there was about twice as much chipotle mayo as the sandwich needed. On one of those days, one MLB team’s contingent walked in right as I was finishing, so I hung out for a bit and saw what they ate, with the kale salad with eggless Caesar dressing the most appealing. If I lived near Cary, I’d be buying bread from them twice a week, at least.

Saturday five, 3/29/14.

My ESPN content from this past week:

There will be a Carlos Rodon blog post at some point on Saturday as well. EDIT: Here’s the Rodon post, plus notes on Trea Turner and more prep bats from the NHSI.

This week’s five links of note…

* Intestinal flora are why dark chocolate is good for you. Not why it’s delicious, though.

* Big Brother is watching you eat. I don’t want the government in my kitchen any more than I want it in my bedroom.

* There’s a polio outbreak in Syria, and it might spread. By the way, you know who else hates vaccines, along with the ignorati here who think they cause autism? The Taliban and and Boko Haram. I’m sure they’d welcome Jay Cutler with open arms.

* Italy angered by foreigners’ mafia-themed food. It sounds funny, but it’s not, really. It’s a lot like my arguments about Native American-themed team nicknames – you’re playing on negative stereotypes that offend the people in question.

* From last July, how Detroit’s bankruptcy might impact its housing market, which I came across while writing the Cabrera reaction piece.

Arizona eats, March 2014 edition.

My last spring training dispatch went up Monday morning, and I’m reposting the link to my review of the awful Downton Abbey boardgame in case folks missed it.

I tried a handful of new (to me) restaurants on my two-week trip to Arizona, but was a little limited in choices because I had the family with me and we chose to stay further out of town to be closer to friends near where we used to live (and to save the company a little money too). I did get to a few spots I’d been dying to try, and have a few new recommendations for those of you still out there.

Isabel’s Amor is a brand-new authentic Mexican restaurant in western Gilbert, on the northeast corner of Williams Field and Val Vista, and it’s spectacular, offering what I interpreted as Mexican comfort food with very fresh ingredients. We went with two starters, starting with their salsa trio, featuring a fresh vegetable salsa, a tomatillo-avocado pureed salsa, and a chunkier mango-jalapeño salsa; all three were good, none as spicy as the thin red salsa that came gratis, with the mango salsa my personal favorite for the perfect sweet-sour-spice balance and brightness of the mango flavor. Their Mexican street corn (elotes) was outstanding, roasted corn kernels served with cotija cheese, chili powder, cilantro, and a dollop of mayonnaise on top; you’re supposed to stir it all together to form the sauce, which I found produced a better result than the standard version where it’s mixed in the kitchen and can end up very watery by the time it reaches the table. For the entrees, my wife ordered the chili verde, made with beef braised in a dark green chile sauce, mildly spicy, a dish my wife compared favorably (and accurately) to pot roast, Mexican-style. I ordered the pescado de la parrilla, a fillet of corvina drum (fish) heavily marinated in lime juice and tequila and then grilled, served with that same mango-jalapeño salsa, along with sides of rice and your choice of beans. The fish tasted of lime and tequila more than anything, and had the slightly translucent look of fish that has been marinated for a long time before cooking, so the flavors were amazing but the texture wasn’t quite up to the same level. I was very impressed by the black beans, which were al dente rather than the mush I’m used to getting even at decent Mexican restaurants, and the fresh flour tortillas are incredible – someone’s grandmother is clearly making these by hand every morning, probably with lard given how good they taste. I was shocked to find out that the family behind Isabel’s is also reponsible for Someburros, one of the many chains of mediocre Mexican food that pollute the valley, but it appears that someone grew a culinary conscience and decided to offer the public a higher-quality product.

The Welcome Diner is a hipster spot – there’s no other way to describe it, that’s not even an insult, it just is. There are a couple of seats inside at a counter but most of the seating is outside at picnic tables, and the menu is short, mostly burgers and fried-chicken-and-biscuit options. The fried chicken on a biscuit is a bit over the top, really, even the fairly simple option I got – local honey, mustard, and bread and butter pickles, piled on a huge chunk of fried chicken breast, served on a very rich biscuit that couldn’t hold together when I tried to cut the whole thing like a sandwich. The components were all good, but eaten together were too rich and very heavy. My wife ordered a burger well-done – I’ve told her that this is a cardinal sin, but she won’t listen – and received something short of medium. The fries were excellent, though, clearly just cut and fried to order. Remember to wear your vintage clothes, though.

Republica Empanada in downtown Mesa was the other great new find of the trip, serving a number of perfectly-fried hot pockets pastries filled with a variety of meats, traditional and otherwise. I stuck with the traditional options, one with pernil (slow-roasted pork shoulder) and one with chicken and vegetables. Both came with a green dipping sauce that I believe contained tomatillos, cilantro, and a little chili pepper. They also make wonderful maduros, the fried sweet plantains that are among my favorite foods on the planet, serving eight large pieces for just $5. The mere fact that the empanadas are fried and not greasy makes them above-average, and the fact that they had a chicken offering that wasn’t dry or bland pushes them even higher. Two of them and the maduros was a small lunch; three might have been a little too much for me.

I didn’t get to try noca, one of the best-reviewed restaurants in Phoenix proper, but did swing by to grab lunch at nocawich, where they offer a handful of artisan sandwiches every day, including the Dolly, a giant fried-chicken sandwich (thicker than a cutlet but still on the thin side) with house-made pickles and a very flavorful, tangy/creamy cabbage slaw. I shouldn’t have eaten the whole thing – it was at least a portion and a half for me – but I did anyway because it was way too good to let one bite go to waste. I’d really like to get to noca for dinner to try the house-made pastas, but it’s the location that gets me – we didn’t live close, we never stay close when we’re visiting, and it’s not really near any ballparks.

Defalco’s was one of two Italian markets I wanted to try in Scottsdale – the other, Andreoli’s, was a little more out of my way but I understand is very good – and it’s very convenient to Old Town, further south on Scottsdale Road, near Los Sombreros. Defalco’s offers a pretty long list of sandwiches, mostly traditional New York-Italian options. I’ll pretty much always choose a sandwich with fresh mozzarella, prosciutto, and roasted red peppers on it; Defalco’s has something like a half a dozen bread choices, and while the focaccia was really good (not too greasy on top), it couldn’t exactly contain what was in the sandwich. Service is a little strange, like they’re doing you a favor, although I wouldn’t anyone was rude, just not the norm for Arizona where, if anything, you get people who seem a little too happy to help.

Taco Haus, the new spinoff of Scottsdale’s Brat Haus, is a little more remote from Salt River Fields than I’d realized, all the way up at Scottsdale Road and Shea Blvd, worth a visit if you want to eat and drink, but not a destination if you just want good tacos – I’d send you to Otro or Gallo Blanco for that. Taco Haus’ tacos are small, street-style, and the various fillings are all high-quality but overdone, too many elements on the plate so that the meat, which should in theory be the star ingredient, gets overwhelmed by acidity or mayonnaise.

Among return visits, the most notable meal was one at crudo, one of the two best restaurants I’ve tried in Arizona (Virtu in Scottsdale is the other). I branched out a bit this time, and would specifically cite the squid-ink risotto with tuna as an absolute standout dish, one that transcends the gimmicky nature of squid-ink dishes (“oooh! black food!”) with the perfect combination of texture, flavor, and presentation. I also love their cocktail menu’s inclusion of many local products, including spirits from the AZ Distilling Company in Tempe.

We split our breakfasts between the Hillside Spot and Crepe Bar. The Hillside Spot has switched from using Cartel Coffee to another vendor, espressions, whose beans I don’t like as much, and we actually had one kind of disappointing meal of about seven breakfasts we had there – a busy Sunday morning when nothing was quite up to par – but every other time it was consistently excellent. Crepe Bar’s menu is more limited but they use heart coffee from Portland, Oregon, which is among my favorite roasters in the country. The regular staff at both places were great, especially once they saw us a few times and got to know my daughter.

I didn’t make it to several spots I wanted to hit, including Atlas Bistro (tried to go without a reservation but they were booked up past our daughter’s bedtime), Bink’s, El Chullo, Beaver Choice, and Draft House in Peoria. There’s always Fall League…