Stick to baseball, 3/26/17.

My annual column of breakout player picks went up on Thursday for Insiders, and I held a Klawchat that same day. I had one other Insider post since the last roundup, on four prospects I saw in Arizona, one Cub, one Royal, and two Padres.

You can preorder my upcoming book, Smart Baseball, on amazon, or from other sites via the Harper-Collins page for the book. The book now has two positive reviews out, one from Kirkus Reviews and one from Publishers Weekly.

Also, please sign up for my more-or-less weekly email newsletter.

And now, the links…

In Search of Israeli Cuisine.

Michael Solomonov is an Israeli-born chef who was raised in Pittsburgh and now owns Philadelphia’s Zahav, consistently rated among the best restaurants in the United States, as well as the hummus-focused spinoff Dizengoff, which I can vouch makes some of the best hummus I have ever had. Solomonov only switched his culinary focus to Israeli cuisine around 2008, and in a new documentary, In Search of Israeli Cuisine, he goes back to his motherland to explore the roots and evolution of a cuisine that, by definition, only goes back about 70 years. The film, directed by Roger Sherman, opens this weekend in New York, in Philadelphia and several California cities on the 31st, and rolls out nationwide over the month of April.

In Search of Israeli Cuisine is less documentary than travelogue; Solomonov is an explorer, and the film doesn’t try to give the viewer an encyclopedic look at the cuisine of his home country, in part because simply defining the cuisine of Israel is itself a thorny question. Solomonov bounces around the country, from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem to the fishing town of Acre in the north, to the Golan region near the border with Lebanon, and to the desert south, visiting Israeli and Arab chefs who are pushing the boundaries of local cuisine as well as farmers, vintners, and other vendors contributing to the country’s vibrant culinary scene.

The film runs past the debate of the definition of Israeli cuisine somewhat quickly, with authors and chefs offering widely divergent opinions, some saying it’s ridiculous to say a country so young has its own cuisine, others pointing out that the cuisine exists because it’s in front of you. Based on what we see in the film, I’d argue with the latter group: This mélange of dishes, ingredients, and traditions comes from such a broad range of countries and cultures that it clearly forms its own cuisine. The film opens with Solomonov going into a small counter-service restaurant and asking for something small from the grill. He gets eighteen small plates, and proceeds to list their countries of origin, getting through about a dozen (not including the one where he just says “no idea”) before he’s even had anything we might call a main dish. Yogurts, salads, breads, and pickles dominate the counter in an array of colors, and it’s the combination of influences that makes this a unique cuisine.

Color is huge in In Search of Israeli Cuisine; since we can’t taste or smell the food, we’re relying on our eyes and Solomonov’s reactions (spoiler: he loves everything) to get a sense of what it’s like. The colors of the produce are eye-popping, as are the various sauces and purees smeared on every fine-dining plate we see in the film. The home-cooking Solomonov experiences is just as appealing, albeit sometimes less colorful because the dishes are slow-cooked and heavier on spices and meats; the scene where one of the chefs Solomonovs interviews (in the man’s apartment) picks up the Dutch oven full of maqluba, a Levantine stew with rice, and inverts it on to a giant metal dish, is mesmerizing and slightly terrifying to watch.

Within Solomonov’s travels, he gets at some of the questions of where Israeli cuisine came from. One controversial topic is how much of it was borrowed – or “stolen” – from Palestinian cuisine, one of many places here where food and politics intersect. Another is the influence of Sephardic Jews on the new cuisine, which some of the chefs in the film fear will mean the end of the cuisine of Ashkenazi Jews, who primarily come from Germany, Eastern Europe, and Russia. (Sephardic Jews come from around the Mediterranean, including Spain and North Africa.) I found the premise a little tough to swallow, pun intended, because cuisines don’t disappear if they have followers. If people like this food, then someone will find it profitable to keep making it. Cuisines only disappear if no one wants to eat them, or if the ingredients required for the cuisine themselves disappear or become too expensive. It doesn’t seem like either is the case here.

One of the chefs in the film says that the tomato doesn’t care if the person cutting it is Jew or Arab. The Palestinian chef Solomonov ends up hugging (because the food is so good) says that most of the time his clientele is largely Jewish, dipping in the wake of an attack. Several chefs here see food as a way to build bridges between communities, especially between Jews and Palestinians living together in Israel. (Broader issues like Jewish settlements or the occupations of the Golan Heights and West Bank are not mentioned, nor should they be given the focus on food, but it’s hard to forget them while you watch and see the map of places Solomonov visits.)

The star of the show is truly the food, though. The thoughts of the various chefs, farmers, authors, and grandmothers whom Solomonov meets are interesting, certainly, but the food grabs your attention and usually doesn’t let go. There’s something a little primal about the way the chefs eat so much of the food on the screen – just grabbing with their fingers, or picking them up with a hunk of bread. (note: I love bread.) If anything, I wanted more details on what we were seeing on the various plates – those purees, for example, often dashes on the plate before five other ingredients were added. What were they made of? Solomonov tastes one lamb dish by picking up a slice with his fingers and dredging it in at least two of the sauces on the plate – what were they? Other than the noodle kugel he tries in one Ashkenazi man’s house, what did he learn on the trip that might influence the menu at Zahav? And how soon can I eat them?

The film ends with clips of many of the chefs and writers who’ve appeared giving their geographical backgrounds, a parallel to the opening scene of the film where we hear how many different countries contributed to the array of meze (small plates) in front of Solomonov. If the film provides any answer to the question of what “Israeli cuisine” is, that’s it: Israeli cuisine is the sum of everything the people of Israel have brought to it.

Klawchat 3/23/17.

My annual breakout player picks column is up for Insiders.

You can preorder my upcoming book, Smart Baseball, on amazon, or from other sites via the Harper-Collins page for the book. The book now has two positive reviews out, one from Kirkus Reviews and one from Publishers Weekly.

Also, please sign up for my more-or-less weekly email newsletter.

Keith Law: Bring on the new Messiah. Klawchat.

ssimo02: Is a September call-up (by necessity, on the 40-man at the time) who starts the subsequent season on the disabled list assigned to the MLB or the MiLB disabled list?
Keith Law: It depends on when he got hurt, and whether he was still in big-league camp. After a certain date (March 15th?) such a player hurt in big league camp would have to start on the major league DL. I think. It’s been a while since I ran into this.

Niklas: We don’t have a lot of baseball talent from Sweden so I’m kind of grasping at straws here. Is there a greater than 0% chance that half-Swede Antoine Duplantis (whose younger brother Armand competes for Sweden and just broke the world junior record in pole vault) of LSU gets drafted and makes it to the majors in the future?
Keith Law: I don’t know anything about him, but I found the question fascinating so I’m posting it anyway.

Josh: Is the White Sox’s Charlotte affiliate the most interesting team in AAA?
Keith Law: That’s a low bar to clear. Triple-A rosters are usually awful.

Clay: Been disappointed for the last couple years that the Twins drafted Jay over Benintendi, even if he becomes the next Andrew Miller, this is bad. Why was the plugged pulled so early?
Keith Law: I think the new Twins brass had already decided Jay was a reliever, or was unlikely enough to work out as a starter, so they moved him. I don’t agree with it, although there was clearly reliever risk with him going forward.

Chris: You and I finished The Underground Railroad at around the same time, and based on your review had similar feelings about it. It was terrifying and relevant and worthy of its accolades. But I’ve since read at least two reviews, the one most prominent from The New Republic, taking it to task for its fantastical elements, calling it escapist and trivial and minimalizing its relevance to today’s social and political scene. This is garbage right? How can this take be anything but a gross misreading of the text? I have an MFA in fiction and teach writing at a university. Normally I’d discuss this with colleagues, but we’re on spring break. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.
Keith Law: I haven’t seen that review, but that sounds rather contrarian to me, and if anything misunderstands the value in its fantastical elements (e.g., the titular Railroad is an actual, physical railroad, operating in subterranean tunnels). It gives new interest to a setting and story that’s been covered quite heavily in American fiction. It allows Whitehead to move the main character quickly to new states. It avoids the need for long passages about the hardships of flight, which, while historically accurate, don’t tell the story Whitehead wanted to tell. It’s not like this is some Paul Theroux travelogue of an escaped slave enjoying a leisurely train ride through the antebellum south.

Ben (MN): Top Chef announced the next season will be in Denver. Any potential challenge or restaurant visit you’d be excited to see in Colorado?
Keith Law: If this season doesn’t have a “cooking with weed” challenge I’ll be very disappointed, especially because Stoned Padma would be epic.

Exexposfan: Yesterday you said you knew codeified racism from working in baseball for many years from the Kinsler tweet. Assuming that comes from witnessing several events can you elaborate on an example? Not that I doubt you but I am curious and want to know such an event that goes on behind closed doors. If you can’t name names that’s fine.
Keith Law: I won’t give specifics that might affect people working or playing in the game, but I can point to two examples at a general level. One was the use of the phrase “winning player” or “not a winning player,” applied along almost exact racial lines. I think I only heard a white player called “not a winning player” once, because he was on the DL, as opposed to at least ten players of color called that. The other is one you’ve all heard before: “Athletic.” Black players are presumed to be athletic, and, in my opinion, are unfairly dinged when they aren’t. White players who are athletic are given excessive credit for it, because the presumption is that they’re less so – and that they’re smarter or more instinctive. Sorry I can’t be more specific.

WarEagle: Thoughts on Alex Faedo, Brady singer and Schwartz at Florida? Has Faedo’s stock been down due to the rough start? I also took your recommendation a couple weeks ago and saw that Keegan Thompson is someone. Also saw the other two talented pitchers Davis Daniel and Casey mize who sat at 95 according to the stadium last weekend at the Florida series so also wanted to know about them too
Keith Law: I think Faedo’s stock is down just slightly, in part because people are concerned his knees are still affecting him. Schwarz appears to have no position and hasn’t hit the same since his freshman year. Singer is a future reliever for me with a great arm. Thompson is a back-end starter prospect. Daniel was on my top 100 last June but declined to sign; he, Mize, and Singer are all underclassmen and not draft eligible this year.

Garrett: Daniel Norris’ fastball jumped 1.2 MPH last year and his slider velocity increased from 83 MPH to 88 MPH. Those velocities have continued this spring. You’ve discussed in the past the importance of velocity in relation to Norris’ ceiling. As of today, what do you think his ceiling is?
Keith Law: Potential #1 starter for me. You asked on Twitter if he was “close” to my breakouts list; there’s no close or not close on a binary list like that, but I will say Norris was too good in the majors last year for me to project a breakout. I would expect him to just continue to do as well over a full season – 150-160 innings, ERA in the low 3s. That would probably make him a good buy for fantasy players.

CB: I’m no Rangers fan, but I can’t help but note that Adrian Beltre has 90.2 bWAR, and has not had a less than 5 bWAR season since 2009. When he retires, don’t you think he’ll have overtaken Mike Schmidt as the best 3B of all time?
Keith Law: He will probably do so in fact, but not in reputation. First ballot HoFer, though.

Paul: Keith – great list today; lots of guys I’d like to see do well. Curious if you considered Mike Foltynewicz? I know you’ve been a fan. He’s trended the right way in K-rate, BB-rate, and GB% every year; lots of HRs though. What sort of expectations do you have for him this season? Thanks!
Keith Law: Command remains the big question mark and I had no real basis for saying his command will be much better this year. I do still believe he’s best suited to starting.

Joe: Jonathan Schoop didn’t clear a 300 OBP last year. Did he really break out?
Keith Law: I’m not going to argue the semantics of who ‘broke out.’ It’s a nebulous term to begin with.

Paul: I have been intrigued by the demise of the Oakland’s As, and nobody is really writing about it. They use to be the darlings of the sabermetrician community, but all the moves they have made in the last few years don’t make much sense and the roster really sucks. What is going on over there? Is the front office to be blamed? thanks
Keith Law: I think they’re chasing different inefficiencies, but ones that are less obvious to us on the outside. And they’ve made some moves I don’t understand.

TC: Is Brendan McKay a guy who can go top 3 in the draft? If so, as a hitter or pitcher?
Keith Law: Yes. I think if the draft were held today, which fortunately it isn’t because I’m not ready, the top 3 would be McKay, Greene, and Wright in some order. I know one team up top that likes McKay more as a hitter, but the consensus is still very much that he’s a LH starter. The 15 K outing didn’t hurt.

Derek: Thoughts on Koda Glover? Spring results have been impressive but have come against middling competition. Does he have top 10 reliever potential?
Keith Law: I think he does and I think he’ll end up leading the team in saves.

Mac: Keston Hiura is clearly the best hitter in college baseball but does his elbow injury make him too risky to pick in the top half of the 1st round?
Keith Law: Clearly? I’ll dispute that. I think he’s a back of the first round guy. And I know more than one scout who’ll argue that McKay is a better hitter than Hiura.

Evan (Canada): Hello, can you tell us what you’ve seen/heard about Tim Mayza from Toronto organization? Thank you.
Keith Law: Seen him. Big stuff, below average command, reliever ceiling.

JR: Just wanted to say you’re the only reason I pay for my insider sub. If you go, I go (and I still may), but thank you for your content.
Keith Law: You’re welcome. I’m flattered you find my work worth the cost.

Andy: We have a USA baseball player saying that he hopes kids watch the US players because of the way they play the game, unlike those kids from the DR or PR. We have a GM saying he wants gritty, working class players.
In a couple weeks we’ll get hand wringing about how minorities aren’t choosing baseball, instead liking a sport in which a guy nicknamed Swaggy P, who dated a “rapper”, makes crotch gyrations after a game winning shot.
Keith Law: I had to look up who Swaggy P was, which shouldn’t surprise anyone here since you all know I don’t watch basketball. But yeah, Kinsler’s comments were out of line. Another player celebrating isn’t affecting your life or your game, and regardless of his intent, it came off as blatant dog-whistling.

Andy: Any word on Brady Aiken’s velo?
Keith Law: Upper 80s. Not good.

David: Does Yankees P Jordan Montgomery have a chance to be an effective starter?
Keith Law: I do not think he’s a ML starter.

Michael: Why is there so much talk about how Tebow can’t hit? Shouldn’t we be talking more about how he can’t throw?
Keith Law: Or we could talk about how he can’t field, which means he’s going to hurt someone if he plays too much leftfield this spring.

Darren: The AL seems to be loaded with candidates for the ROY, but I’m not seeing much competition for D. Swanson. Who are some of the top candidates you expect to get enough at bats to qualify for the NL ROY?
Keith Law: I had it as Swanson, Reyes, Bell coming into the spring, and now with Reyes out I think those two are the leaders.

Philip : At this moment how would you rank McKay, Bukauskas, Wright, Faedo, Romero
Keith Law: McKay, Wright, and Faedo all project as sure starters if healthy. Bukauskas might have the best 3-pitch mix of all of them, but he’s a 6′ RHP with no plane and no use of his lower half in his delivery. I would have to rate him lowest because I think he’s probably a reliever.

Ted: Thoughts on the Tim Anderson extension?
Keith Law: Seems fine to me.

Eddy: Percent chance that Mitch White is a top 100 prospect at this time next year?
Keith Law: Pretty high if he stays healthy and pitches all year like what I saw last week. Whoa boy.

JQP: If a reader sees you at a ballgame, do you get annoyed if they approach you because you are working and they are interrupting? When would be the best time to approach you during a game?
Keith Law: Between innings, before the game, after (if you catch me … sometimes I leave skid marks), all fine. While the game is in progress is just less than ideal, because I need to focus on what’s on the field. But overall I’m very happy to meet any of you at the park.

Josh: Finally getting to try Terraforming Mars this weekend. Do you know of any new games you’ll be reviewing soon? Or once the season starts is your time too full?
Keith Law: I have at least six here that I need to play and review, but spring travel has wiped out my free time for this.

John: You made the point in your last klawchat that “‘you’re in america, speak english’ people should go jump off a tall building”. I’m wondering how consistent you are with that belief. Do you think that no matter where one lives, it is the responsibility of the locals to adapt to the foreigner’s language? I’m an American living in Peru. The vast majority of people here don’t speak any English. Should I insist they learn English to suit my needs? Or in an attempt to better integrate myself into their culture, should I continue learning Spanish so that I can better understand them and make them more comfortable?
Keith Law: Congratulations on completely missing the point.

Miz: Do you see Adolis Garcia playing at the big league level this year? What should we expect out of him as a prospect?
Keith Law: I’m hoping to see him this upcoming week. I’d rather not offer an opinion now that I have to revise in a few days.

Chuck C: I know Spring Training doesn’t matter and SSS, but have you seen or heard anything that has changed your opinion on a particular prospect or two since your rankings?
Keith Law: Only what I’ve written about so far, like Mitch White.

Tony: The Dodgers have reportedly focused on “rebuilding” Willie Calhoun’s defense, including a diet/exercise regime losing him 16 pounds a “crash course” on defensive fundamentals. Does that investment by the Dodgers give you any optimism that Calhoun could stick at 2B? And, more generally, are defensive skills/talents more easy to improve than offensive skills/talents? Off-hand, it seems to me that I hear of more minor league guys who blossom at the major league level with the glove rather than the bat. Just anecdotal or something to that?
Keith Law: Zero. You can’t just give a guy new feet. Or make a non-athlete an athlete.

John Wick: As a fan, how should I approach reports of prospects with increased velocity in spring training? Take Max Povse. Word is he’s up a few ticks? Should I trust a beat writer’s take or the spring training gun? And, if I should, what’s the likelihod that the velo bump sticks?
Keith Law: I’m very skeptical of media reports on velocity, because I don’t know where they’re coming from. Stadium gun? One scout? Front office? Someone trying to juice a guy? Players do show up with more velocity, sometimes, and other times they’re just throwing harder because they’re working 1-2 innings at a time, or are airing it out because they’re in big league camp and trying to make an impression.

Adam: If teams are already pitching around Seth Beer, could that effect his development in terms of being able to make adjustments?
Keith Law: I guess the counterargument is that the pitching he’s facing might not be good enough to force those adjustments. I think the 3-year rule is hurting him; he’d probably go 1-1 if he came out right now into this good draft class that’s muddled at the very top.

Adam: What are the chances Jordon Adell leaps to the top of position player draft boards by June?
Keith Law: Under 5%. More likely that he’s drafted on the mound.

Josh: Not sure you know the answer to this, but do you know why The Netherlands team featured players from Curacao but Puerto Rico had a separate team from the US? I guess the obvious answer has to do with the talent available, but was not sure if there was another reason.
Keith Law: Puerto Rico has its own IOC entry – separate committee, separate teams, etc. – and they can easily fill a WBC roster. The Netherlands team is almost exclusively players from Aruba and Curacao, and if you split them, you wouldn’t have a Dutch team at all.

Jason: One of your ESPN colleagues suggested a trade of Longoria for a package led by Ozzie Albies. Does even a straight-up deal for those two make sense for Atlanta?
Keith Law: No, that’s ridiculous.

Chris: With more teams moving to crazy 13 person pitching rotations, do you think a positive benefit could be that teams may work to develop players who can handle multiple defensive positions? I am thinking about players like Austin Barnes or Josh Morgan, guys who don’t quite profile as starters at premium positions or perhaps have demonstrable platoon splits, but could fill a backup role at two premium positions. Or, is it just too difficult of a developmental process?
Keith Law: I think the 13-man staff is an abomination. I agree with you on positional flexibility, although I think Morgan has a chance to be a good everyday guy as a catcher.

Tom: Any thoughts on Bill Simmons tweet calling out Jonah Keri for stealing his idea of ranking players by trade value?
Keith Law: I 100% believe that was in jest. It certainly brought Jonah’s column a lot of attention, all positive.

Jay: Keith, If pressed to build around 1 of these players to build a franchise, who would you select and why? (Maitan, Vladdy Jr, Leody Taveras, Moniak)
Keith Law: Just go back to my top 100, which included all four players. I wouldn’t give a different answer here.

Minty: Whether you agree with it or not, do you think that the Sox are positioning to call Moncada up in May after they save a year of service time?
Keith Law: No, I don’t think so.

Roman : Keith, always love your take on well, everything. Anyhow, what do you think the Cubs will do with Ian Happ?
Keith Law: I think he may end up trade bait, but that depends on how Baez looks as the regular 2b. Happ can play 2b well enough for me to be an everyday guy there for somebody.

JJ: Is Yadi Molina a future HOFer, of is he the catching equivalent of Omar Vizquel?
Keith Law: Probably not a HoFer for me, will certainly get the same media/fan treatment as Vizquel, but has a better subjective case (game-calling, pitcher handling) than Vizquel does.

Mark: What would you major in if you were to go to college all over again?
Keith Law: Applied math. And then I’d take language courses for all my electives. I had access to such amazing educational resources in college and feel like I didn’t take enough advantage of them.

Chip : Was hoping to see Jose Ramirez on the breakout list. Was he under consideration? Would he have been as an everyday 2B as opposed to playing somewhat out of position at 3b?
Keith Law: He wasn’t “under consideration.” He hit .312/.363/.462 last year; what’s the argument that he’s going to get better this year? If anything I’d say he broke out in 2016.

Rob: I saw video of Luis Castillo pitching. You had him rated #99 on your prospect list. Nasty, nasty stuff with what appears to be good control/command. Looks like a great find for the Reds. Oddly, his name does not appear on many other prospect lists. What do you think his ceiling/floor is? Thank you.
Keith Law: Ceiling mid-rotation starter. Most likely dominant two-pitch reliever. Floor good setup guy. All depends on health, and in his case the lack of a breaking ball.

Chip : Francona continues to mention Yandy Diaz’s shortcomings at 3B. Back in 2015, EL Managers voted him as the league’s best defensive 3B. Has he grown out of the position? The Indians rolled with chisenhall at 3b for several years so the bar can’t be that high.
Keith Law: I don’t think he’s that bad at 3b and neither do opposing scouts.

Rob: Kendall still ranked #1 on your draft board??? What do you think of this Austin Beck climbing up boards? Top five guy?
Keith Law: Beck is a very toolsy prep OF, not a top five guy, more than enough questions about feel to hit and about his makeup (I have no idea what, but three scouts from different teams all independently mentioned that to me). He’s probably ahead of Adell at this point. As for #1, it’s not Kendall, but I won’t do a formal ranking until mid-April, I think.

Marshall MN: Should Twins fans expect a bounce back season from Sano, or was 2016 an accurate representation of his reality? I had hopes of him being a better hitter than what he showed last year, not a guy who hits .230 with an OBP of .319.
Keith Law: Yes, I think there’s more in that bat, in average and in OBP.

David: Thoughts on Greg Bird?
Keith Law: 30 HR potential, but a DH.

joe: Did you get a chance to se Shed Long? I always like prospects with unique profiles. I wonder if he can hit enough to be a regular 2B.
Keith Law: I did not, but I don’t think anyone views him as a potential regular.

Jon: Do you think Daulton Jefferies has the stuff to move quickly and become a #3 starter if his health holds up?
Keith Law: The health question is enormous with him. He’s a slight guy who’s had real arm trouble. He’s healthy this spring and throwing well, but I would have a hard time projecting him as a mid-rotation starter right now given the last 12 months.

Drew: When will you be doing your column on breakout players? Thanks.
Keith Law: It went up this morning.

chauncey: This is much better and easier to read?
Keith Law: That’s my hope too. And the folks at Jotcast have been great about working with me on formatting.

Denis: Any thoughts on Bellinger this spring? It looks like he has been struggling.
Keith Law: Ignore. Spring training stats are useless.

Jeff: Braves fans are pushing the idea that Christian Pache is the next Acuno type player to breakout for the Braves. What kind of ceiling do you think he has?
Keith Law: That’s not crazy. Could end up a lot like Inciarte.

Mike: How far may Jeren Kendall fall in June’s draft after his slow start to his season ?
Keith Law: He’s hitting .297/.363/.560, leading Vandy in HR with 5, and while his strikeout rate is a little high it’s down from last year at 23.3%. That’s not a slow start.

Pete: So Trump/Russia……biggest political scandal or overblown?
Keith Law: I think it’s the former, but my knowledge of American political scandals is pretty limited.

Monkie_J: Probably asked and answered countless times, but what’s the best way to buy the book? As in, does one way get you an extra nickle over another?
Keith Law: Just buy it however you want. Yes, there are slight differences in what I get and I appreciate you asking – I think at least at the start I get more for an e-book than a hardcover – but really, it’s all good. If you buy it in any format, I’m happy.

Brian Snitker: What is the eta on Ronald Acuna? He looked awfully impressive in the Braves camp. Could he be ready by 2018?
Keith Law: That’s aggressive; he’s a stud but has about a half a year of AB above short-season.

Cam: Why could the whitesox not win with the core they had? Lack of depth?
Keith Law: Lack of OBP, lack of depth.

Marshall MN: Have you started to gear up for college baseball scouting, or still a bit too early to do so?
Keith Law: I’m going to see some HS/JC kids while in Florida, then see some premium college guys in April. My schedule just worked out differently this year, and I do have a little bit smaller travel budget too.

TK: You’ve probably already touched on this in the past and I missed it, but on a scale of 1-10, how dumb would it be for the 11th-inning extra-baserunner rules in the WBC to transfer to MLB? 15? 20? Infinity? I get not wanting to overexert pitchers in spring exhibitions, but I hate it for regular season games.
Keith Law: I despise these rules. It makes the games look like Little League. Just let the WBC teams carry more pitchers. I’d rather see a WBC game decided by the last man on a staff, someone who’s just there to be the long guy in the event of extras, than by that silly rule.

Archie: I read an article on how guys like Martinez and Donaldson are focusing on swinging up on the ball to get it in the air more, rather than the traditional “swinging down on the ball” and hitting it on the ground. Isn’t the ideal swing one where the hands and bat travel slightly downward from load to the hitting zone, then swing up through the same plane as the ball from contact to follow through? Doesn’t everyone who puts a good swing on the ball already “swing up”?
Keith Law: Yes, I agree with you, that’s the ideal swing, and most guys already swing that way. Hitters who swing down at the ball rarely if ever succeed. Matt Antonelli always did that. Lou Marson did that. There are few if any good big leaguers who swing down.

Drew: Your take on Kinsler’s comments were entirely off-base and over the top. I don’t doubt that racism still exists in the game; I also know that Kinsler wasn’t being racist. If you looked at the context, it was pretty clear that he was commenting on the differences, not criticizing an entire race or ethnicity. Normally I appreciate your insight–informed, considered–but in your effort to eradicate an opinion you don’t agree with, you can be extremely unfair and judgmental.
Keith Law: Allow to be more judgmental, then. Kinsler’s comments may not have come from a racist intent, but they drew a clear line between one race or ethnicity and another. It’s a case of differential impact; whether Kinsler actually thought about that is irrelevant. He should just shut up and worry about his own behavior, not about whether another team celebrates too much.

Marshall MN: Klaw, the same sort of racial based generalities are used in almost all sports. In soccer, teams from Africa are almost always described in specifically athletic terms (raw speed, agility, jumpers, etc) while teams from Europe are technical, skilled, etc. I cannot believe how frequently seemingly intelligent people fall back to the same stereotypes. Look at how African American QBs are still talked about even today.
Keith Law: I remember the days when the NFL conventional wisdom was that you couldn’t win with a black QB. Those beliefs tend to be self-reinforcing.

Ian: In relation to your note on how guys who see a massive spike in velo over a short period of time (i.e. Strasburg and Zumaya) are prone to blowing out their elbows….what usually leads to that spike? Is it better training, natural physical development, mechanical changes? All of the above?
Keith Law: I don’t know if there’s any common thread. My hypothesis, again totally untested and unverifiable, is that the newfound velocity puts more stress on the elbow ligaments than they are able to handle.

Rob: Have you seen Sal Romano this spring? Do you still think he’s a reliever going forward or can he be more? Obviously a small sample size but he is having a great spring.
Keith Law: Still think that’s a reliever’s delivery. High slot, tough to repeat, tough on the shoulder, not conducive to a good CH.

Philip : If Brendan McKay has a number 3 ceiling wouldn’t you rather try the upside of Bukauskas and Faedo
Keith Law: If McKay is only a #3 starter in the big leagues, but gets there fast and holds that value for six years, what is that worth in the free agent market? $90 million? I’m okay with it, especially since the other two guys you mentioned have real risks of their own.

Jay: Do you buy Eric Thames as a “fantasy sleeper” this year? He seems to be a popular late-round guy, according to the fantasy gurus.
Keith Law: Late round, sure, I guess. I’m not particularly sanguine about him, but isn’t there a point in your draft where he’s worth the flier?

Jackson: Paul Dejong of the cards a potential regular or utility?
Keith Law: If he can really play short, regular. But maybe that makes him a 500 AB multi-position guy, too.

Scott: Thanks for motivating me to finally pick up my copy of Yiddish Policeman’s Union that’s been sitting on the shelf for a year. My question is about the volatility in velocity of young pitchers and how it is shaping baseball. As an elevator of talent, how do you know when the decrease in velocity with top prospects like Jon Gray, Lucas Giolito and Archie Bradley is permanent? When a team sells low like the Nats did on Giolito is it because they don’t think it’s coming back?
Keith Law: I think when teams sell low it’s more that they have lost faith in their evaluations. They thought the player was X, now he looks like he’s less than that – because his stuff is down, his body hasn’t developed, his makeup is worse than they knew, or something else – so let’s move him now before his value is totally gone.

Ben: I know you don’t care much for the WBC, but did last night’s game move the meter at all for you? (i.e., Stroman’s dominance)
Keith Law: Nope. I was in bed around 11. I have a daughter in school, so I’m up at 7 am. I’m not staying up till 1 am to watch an exhibition game.

JJ: I don’t mind if Tebow wants to play minor league ball. It doesn’t bother me if the Mets want to play a non-prospect ahead of another no-chance guy on their single A team. But the media coverage, led by your employer, of this non-story drives me up a wall.
Keith Law: I agree with you, including ESPN’s coverage of his spring. It was unwarranted. And, by the way, we don’t know that he’s blocking a no-chance guy yet, do we?

Alex : Do you think Luis Robert will be cleared for the current intl signing period? Who do you think gets him?
Keith Law: No idea. I don’t even ask MLB about these guys until they’re cleared.

Ben: I know it’s early, but will you be at either the PG or UA games this summer?
Keith Law: UA for sure – maybe doing some kind of signing in Chicago? – PG unknown. Just a tough trip for me from the east coast for one day.

Another Michael: Would you vote for Gorsuch if you were a senator? Would you filibuster?
Keith Law: I would filibuster, in large part because he’s not Merrick Garland.

Eric : Jose Peraza lost some prospect shine the past two years, but it looks like it’s coming back. Do you think he’ll be able to hold his own in the 1-2 spots of the Reds lineup?
Keith Law: I’d rather see him hit 8th. Has never shown any propensity to walk, and doesn’t have the power to hit 2nd.

JJ: “Baseball Tonight” question. How does it work for the panelists on a nightly basis? Do you guys just sit in a room together with ten TVs airing all the games at once? Or are you assigned a couple of games to watch, and another panelists gets assigned another pair of games, etc.?
Keith Law: We’re all in the clubhouse with a bunch of games on the TVs and we just kind of talk about whatever we see.

John: Good job of avoiding the point then and instead just being evasive and rude.
Keith Law: I have no use for people who try to play “gotcha” games with questions like that. You want a serious discussion, then ask a serious question. Don’t compare a solitary expat trying to integrate into a monolingual country with entire communities establishing themselves in a country that has for its entire history been one of successive waves of immigrant communities, typically bringing their own languages, cultures, cuisines, and religions with them.

Mike : You still listening to Bell Biv Devoe?
Keith Law: Now you know.

Keith Law: That’s all for this week. Thank you as always for all of your questions, and for the feedback on the new software. It looks like it’s a keeper. I will almost certainly not chat next week unless I’m rained out somewhere, but chats will resume in April. Thanks again.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.

My last post from Arizona went up yesterday for Insiders, with notes on four prospects: Dylan Cease, Anderson Espinoza, Luis Almanzar, and Scott Blewett. My annual breakout players column goes up Thursday – but if you subscribe to my newsletter, you already knew that.

Also, some great boardgame apps from Asmodee are on sale till March 26th. Here are the ones I recommend, each of which is $2:
* Ticket to Ride (iOSandroid)
* Splendor (iOSandroid)
* Pandemic (iOSandroid)
* Small World (iOSandroid)

Just 34 more days till Smart Baseball is released. You can still preorder it now via Harper-Collins’ site.

Michael Chabon won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2001 with his sprawling novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, a story about comic books, magicians, Jewish mysticism, homophobia, fascism, and a few other themes, one that garnered universal praise but that I thought could have used some serious editing. That experience steered me away from Chabon, figuring if I couldn’t love his acknowledged masterwork then I probably just wasn’t a fan, until I picked up his Hugo Award winner The Yiddish Policemen’s Union earlier this year in a used bookstore. It’s still very much Chabon’s voice, but the story here is so much more focused and the side characters more developed, which spurred my “hot take” tweet the other day that I preferred this novel to his magnum opus.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is set in an alternate timeline where the real-life proposal to create a homeland in Alaska for displaced Jews went through, and where the state of Israel was overrun by Arab attackers, so that the city of Sitka – population in our timeline: about 9000 – is a bustling metropolis of over two million people, mostly Jewish refugees and their descendants. (For comparison’s sake, the entire state of Alaska has fewer than 750,000 people right now.) This protectorate comes with an expiration date, like the United Kingdom’s agreement in Hong Kong or our agreement in Panama, where the autonomy of the local Jewish population over their municipal affairs will end two months after the time in which the story takes place, with the fate of all of these Jews unknown. They may lose their citizenship, and will certainly lose their socioeconomic status, with federal agents lurking, ready to come in and throw the Jews out.

Set against this backdrop is an old-fashioned noir detective novel, one that begins with a dead junkie in the flophouse where alcoholic cop Meyer Landsman lives (and drinks). The junkie has been shot in the head, execution-style, but left behind some very strange clues, including a miniature chessboard left in the middle of a difficult problem and Jewish prayer strings (tzitzit) that the victim appears to have used to tie off when shooting heroin. The victim turns out to be someone fairly significant in the local underworld, which spins Landsman and his partner, the half-Jewish/half-Tlingit Berko Shemets, into a traditional hard-boiled detective storyline where they bounce in a sort of circle around the same handful of suspects and sources to try to unravel the core mystery. Of course, Landsman gets knocked out, kidnapped, nearly killled, and drunk over the course of the novel, because Chabon is at least true to the form to which he’s paying homage.

Chabon creates a fun cast of eccentrics to populate this novel – which was also true of Kavalier and Clay – even though he has to cut them all from the same basic cloth. They’re all exiles facing the potential end of their safe haven, all brought up in the same semi-closed community, all coping with the same existential doubts. Even those who’ve spent time outside of the enclave, such as Meyer’s ex-wife and now boss Bina, share the same core experiences and are facing the same sort of countdown-to-extinction questions. Chabon gives them surprising depth given the limitations he’s placed on himself with this setting.

He also wrote a cracking good plot; at the end of the day, detective fiction lives and dies by two things, the main character and the story, so while Chabon’s prose can be spectacular, it’s lipstick on a pig if the story isn’t good. I was drawn into the story fairly quickly, and he manages to peel back the layers in a way that feels realistic, while also infusing just enough of a conspiracy to keep the reader guessing – and to give some meaning to the general sense of the Sitka population that the world is really out to get the city’s Jews.

The characters in the book are all supposed to be speaking Yiddish, with a glossary at the end of the book for Yiddish terms that Chabon chose to keep or that lack an easy translation, a detail that makes sense for the setting but that gave the book the only real distraction, especially when Chabon would tell us that a certain character had switched to English or, on one or two occasions, Hebrew. It fits the setting – a refugee population moving en masse like that wouldn’t just adopt a new tongue – but detracted slightly from the flow of the story.

As for the ending … I don’t think Chabon intended to satisfy the reader here, because this isn’t a traditional hard-boiled detective novel, but an updated one that respects the tradition, and because the conclusion here has to mimic the fate of the Sitka population. They’re not getting the resolution they deserve, so the readers should at least be left with some ambiguity to reflect it. With the rest of the story as tightly woven and written as it is, that’s a compromise I can easily accept as a reader.

Next up: Lois McMaster Bujold’s Hugo winner Mirror Dance, part of the Vorkosigan series; I read and enjoyed The Vor Game in November but skipped the review because I was on vacation.

Mister Monkey.

I was unfamiliar with American author Francine Prose’s work before stumbling on some glowing reviews in the fall for Mister Monkey, her 22nd book of fiction, a brilliant and funny book about the participants in and around the staging of a really terrible musical for children. Prose, whose work outside of writing has created some significant controversy, manages to touch on so many ideas and develop many fascinating characters in under 300 pages of high and low comedy, from the 12-year-old actor in the monkey suit who is growing up too fast to the Yale-educated actress at the end of her rope who has the worst part in the play.

The play is called Mister Monkey, and is based on a not-very-good children’s book by the character Ray Ortiz, whom we’ll meet over the course of Prose’s novel. Ortiz is a Vietnam War veteran who tried to write a book about his experiences there, but it ended up, through the wringer of publishing, a weird children’s book that was subsequently adapted into a bad musical that has become a perennial production, in the way so many mediocre works aimed at children do. This off-off-Broadway staging has more than its share of tragicomic characters and elements, and Prose manages to spin them off into a circle of stories that touch on everything from existential doubt to the fear of romantic rejection. It’s like Pulitzer winner A Visit from the Good Squad, except that it’s good.

The musical itself is all background – we get hints of why it’s so bad, of course, but that’s about all we get, which is probably a small mercy from Prose, who definitely enjoyed making up this artistic monstrosity. Instead it’s the spark that gives us Adam, the child actor who is twelve but looks eight, already knows his stage-mom is not well, and is struggling with the onset of puberty and, among other things, the fact that he has a crush on one of his adult co-stars. And gives us Mario, the server at a Rao’s-like restaurant who always waits on Ray, who goes there every time there’s a new production of Mister Monkey and gives Mario a couple of tickets to the play, because it turns out Mario just loves the theater … and he too develops a crush on the same actress who is the literal and figurative target of Adam’s affections. Everyone’s flawed, but they’re all flawed in entirely credible ways – shy, confused, frustrated, manic, resigned. Only Lakshmi, the costume designer who also plays the police officer in the musical, comes off as less than fully-realized, in part because her story has a bizarre twist that is a forced laugh and doesn’t fit with the rest of who she is.

That laugh stands out because it’s one of the only attempts at humor here that doesn’t land. Mister Monkey is very funny due to Prose’s wry, observational style that lampoons life but usually doesn’t mock its characters. Shifting focus with each long chapter means we get one character’s thoughts on everyone else, only to learn later on that we only had a fraction of the story, and often someone’s difficult or hostile behavior was merely a symptom of a deeper problem. It’s Gibby Haynes’ line, “you never know just how you look through other people’s eyes,” in prose form. (No pun intended, but how can you avoid it with an author named Prose?)

Prose also gives us an unconventional “here’s what happened to all the characters” section at the end that I thought elevated that gambit over the standard epilogue format without becoming excessively sentimental; such sections are always a little bit sappy, because the author obviously cares about her creations and knows the readers will too. In this case, however, she leaves a few of their fates open-ended, hinting at new beginnings as much as she does at new opportunities for disappointment.

And if there’s an overarching theme to all of the interwoven stories of Mister Monkey, that’s it. Everyone in the book is dealing with some sort of disappointment. The realization that the acting career isn’t coming. The loneliness of a lifetime of bachelorhood. The sadness of a widower whose family doesn’t have much time for him. The pathetic acceptance of the unloving boyfriend. They’re all disappointed in life by different things, but their disappointment is what ties them all together – that and a very stupid children’s musical about a monkey who is falsely accused of stealing someone’s wallet.

Next up: I just finished Michael Chabon’s Hugo Award-winning novel The Yiddish Policemen’s Union on the flight home from Arizona last night.

Stick to baseball, 3/18/17.

Two Insider posts this week from Arizona, one on Padres and Dodgers prospects and one on Dodgers, Reds, and Rangers prospects. I’ll have one more post coming from this trip. I did not chat this week because I was out at games every day. The trip also meant I didn’t get to review a boardgame this week either.

You can preorder my upcoming book, Smart Baseball, on amazon, or from other sites via the Harper-Collins page for the book. The book now has two positive reviews out, one from Kirkus Reviews and one from Publishers Weekly.

Also, please sign up for my more-or-less weekly email newsletter.

And now, the links…

The Underground Railroad.

Colson Whitehead’s 2016 novel The Underground Railroad won the National Book Award for that year and the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, the first book to win both awards. The last three Carnegie Medal for Fiction winners have gone on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction as well, making Whitehead’s book the current favorite for that honor as well, and it would certainly fit both in the quality of the work itself and the kind of American themes the Pulitzer committee is charged with identifying.

Whitehead’s alternative history has an actual railroad operating underground, in secret, ferrying slaves to freedom in the north with the help of abolitionist whites, with southern plantation owners and slave-hunters trying to ferret out its locations and operators. This becomes the route for Cora, a slave on a brutal plantation in Georgia who has been abandoned by her mother (who fled the plantation without a word) and finds the farm’s ownership going from bad to worse, as she attempts to find freedom in the north despite impossible odds and the threat of torture and death if she’s caught and returned to her owner.

Cora herself is one of the great strengths of the novel, as Whitehead has created one of the most memorable and compelling female protagonists in American fiction. It’s easy for a writer to craft a fictional slave who captures the sympathy of readers; Whitehead’s success is in crafting one who captures our empathy. Cora is strength in futility, a tightly wound ball of fear, rage, and grief who makes her dash out of a desire for freedom and a quest for a connection to the family she’s lost. She’s neither broken by the dehumanizing experiences she had as a slave, nor unbroken as we might expect of a fictional heroine. There’s enough reason in Cora’s character to doubt that she’ll succeed in reaching her goal.

The other strength of The Underground Railroad is the setting, which goes beyond the mere reimagining of the titular escape route as a physical entity. Cora lands in South Carolina and then North Carolina, each of which has come up with its own “solution” to the slave question rather than continuing to employ slaves as in the true antebellum south – but, of course, South Carolina’s superficial paradise has a sinister plan beneath the surface, while North Carolina chose to end slavery in vile fashion that has some unfortunate parallels in our modern climate. She eventually ends up in Indiana, where a house of free blacks simply proves too successful to stand even in the face of whites who oppose slavery and would likely feign horror if anyone called them racists. None of these places after Georgia is based in historical reality; each is the product of an imagination that can take a metaphor and create a realistic setting that puts ideas into buildings, people, and actions. It’s fictional but not fanciful, and each location is a world unto itself that could easily have hosted an entire novel and would generate hours of discussion about the meanings beneath the details.

Cora is hunted throughout the book by the amoral, mercenary slave-hunter Ridgeway, who refers to any slave as “it” and travels with the most motley crew of associates imaginable. But Ridgeway himself is utterly two-dimensional, maybe one-dimensional, and instead seemed to me to be a clear attempt by Whitehead to make Cora’s fear of recapture and memories of oppression incarnate. She cannot escape her past until and unless she escapes Ridgeway for good. That doesn’t make him an interesting character, but in a book that seems to urge us to fight the national tendency to forget the sins of our fathers, it makes him an invaluable one.

The nature of the rest of the book makes the other characters, most of whom are white, less than two-dimensional as well, although again it seems that Whitehead is using these people as stand-ins for ideas. The well-meaning whites in South Carolina are particularly striking because they are so opaque, and because they tell themselves they’re doing the Right Things, even when what they’re doing is ultimately both wrong and springs from a sentiment that is itself thoroughly wrong. The couple who harbor Cora in North Carolina present different sides of the white person who knows slavery is wrong, but chooses to look the other way, to decline to get involved, or to just generally protect his/her own well-being rather than helping others in more desperate straits. Creating so many underdeveloped side characters is generally a major flaw in a novel, but the genius here is in creating characters from ideas without them becoming totally one-note.

I have no idea if The Underground Railroad should or will win the Pulitzer, since I haven’t read any other 2016 books yet aside from the one I’m reading now, Francine Prose’s Mister Monkey. I can say that few books of recent vintage have disturbed me the way Whitehead’s book has; the world he’s created manages to be abhorrent and magnetic at once, a world you’d never want to live in but that you can’t help but want to see. And it’s so full of ideas without ever devolving into sermon, imploring us to remember our past and accept that we will never fully escape it. The book’s final chapter is less conclusion than peroration, showing us the difficulty of becoming free of our history and depicting just one narrow path to get there.

Jackie.

Here are my abbreviated thoughts on Jackie, one of two movies released in 2016 from Chilean director Pablo Larraín:

1. Jackie isn’t that good of a film.
2. Natalie Portman deserved the Best Actress Oscar more than Emma Stone did.
3. And if Portman had won, the Best Picture screw-up would never have happened.

I might also add a 2a, that if this were a better movie she would have won, although I’m not entirely sure of the politics that go into who wins what award. But I do feel pretty strongly about her deserving the nod, even though I sort of argued against her winning when she did win (for Black Swan, beating out Jennifer Lawrence for Winter’s Bone). This movie sinks or swims with Portman’s performance, and she commits to it in every possible way, including mimicking Jackie Kennedy’s unique accent and intonation, taking us through the range of emotions that the widow of JFK faced in the immediate aftermath of her husband’s shocking death right next to her. (It’s on amazon and iTunes.)

Loosely based on an interview the former First Lady did with LIFE magazine a week after the murder, Jackie follows her in non-chronological fashion from the motorcade to the funeral, with very occasional flashbacks to prior events. It is a portrait of a woman in totally unexpected grief who also finds herself in front of the nation and yet about to be cast out of the White House with two young children in tow. JFK only appears briefly. No other character gets a fraction of the screen time Portman does. This script is trying to explore the nature of the response one of the most famous women in the world had to having her husband assassinated beside her, especially the public face she gave in the days that followed and in that interview.

That made it all the more shocking to me that the movie is so bland. Portman is superb, but the script itself feels incredibly cold toward its subject. This is a movie about a personal tragedy that was simultaneously a national one, but the script seems to treat it, and Jackie Kennedy’s response to it, as some sort of public policy question. I don’t think Jackie Kennedy comes off well or poorly in the film, but I also think we could have learned a lot more about her character than we did from this script. For example, there are hints of a divide between her and her husband’s family, but those lines are thrown in and never explored any futher. And if the goal was to present her as scheming for trying to ensure that the only major press coverage of her in her widowhood was positive, well, that’s hardly a character flaw.

Portman owns, though. Jackie Kennedy’s weird patrician Long Island accent is tough to listen to, and other than overdoing the breathiness, Portman nails it. She’s also effective at everything she needs to convey through tone, words, and gestures – the grief, the shock, the denial, the attention to trivial details, all come across as incredibly real, and the only emotion anyone shows in this film comes from Portman herself, not from her words but from how she grips and delivers them.

Some of the supporting performances are fine, although they exist in the shadow of the lead. John Hurt, in one of his last filmed performances, is typically wonderful as the Kennedy family priest Jackie consults on the day of the funeral. Peter Sarsgaard is excellent as Robert F. Kennedy, looking quite a bit like a young Kenneth Branagh, infusing some humanity into the character who is at once grieving for his own loss and providing the only measure of stability for the main character. Billy Beane … er, Crudup is playing an entirely fictional, unnamed reporter, giving some restraint and a little humor to a role that was written a bit too much like a giant blank. I also loved seeing Jack Valenti, who later headed the MPAA for three decades and fought to extend copyright law way beyond what such laws are supposed to protect and encourage, come off as an ambitious, smarmy jackass.

I’m looking forward to seeing Larraín’s other film from 2016, the Spanish-language Neruda, which was Chile’s submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar but didn’t even make the nine-title shortlist. It will be released in digital format later this month.

Stick to baseball, 3/11/17.

I had one piece for Insiders this week, covering four players who look different in the early going this spring – Jason Heyward, Tyler Glasnow, Taijuan Walker, and Tim Anderson – although it’s not all positive news. I also held a Klawchat on Thursday.

You can preorder my upcoming book, Smart Baseball, on amazon, or from other sites via the Harper-Collins page for the book. The book now has two positive reviews out, one from Kirkus Reviews and one from Publishers Weekly.

Also, please sign up for my more-or-less weekly email newsletter.

And now, the links…

My Life as a Zucchini.

My Life as a Zucchini (original title: Ma Vie de Courgette) was one of the five nominees for this year’s Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, and the shortest of the nominated movies at just 66 minutes. It’s a stop-motion animation film with exaggerated, absurd-looking characters, boasting a wonderful story that strikes a perfect balance between sweetness and the sad reality beneath. (I saw the film in French, with English subtitles, but there is now an English version in theaters too, with Ron Swanson providing the voice of Raymond.)

Zucchini is the nickname of the main character, the orphan Icare, whom we meet at the beginning of the film in awful circumstances: He’s the neglected child of an alcoholic mother, apparently friendless, with only a kite and his collection of his mother’s discarded beer cans to keep him company. She sits in her living room all day, drinking and yelling at the television, but dies a few minutes into the film in an accident that Zucchini caused, which sends him to the orphanage by way of the cop Raymond’s office. At the orphanage, he meets the other kids who’ll soon become his friends, including Simon, the bully with a good heart beneath his exterior, and eventually Camille, the new girl with whom Zucchini falls in love.

Every one of these kids is there for some awful reason. Alice is there because her father molested her and is in jail. Bea is there because her mother was deported to Africa while Bea was in school. (Sound familiar?) Simon’s parents are drug addicts. There’s so much sadness underneath this story that it’s remarkable the film feels so light, but the script gives us everything through the eyes of the children, and it’s a world in which I wanted to spend so much more time. And how could you not care about these kids? The characters are all realistic – not in appearance, with their gigantic heads and arms that nearly reach the floor, but in conception and in their reactions to their circumstances. Even the rough stuff is played for laughs without diminishing the harsh reality beneath; for example, Simon is the only one who knows anything about sex (referred to just as “the thing”), but it’s because he saw pornographic films his parents would watch. It’s awful on its face, but his child’s understanding of what happened on screen is written so perfectly.

Squad goals
Zucchini’s motley crew.

While My Life as a Zucchini is an animated film, it’s not for kids. My daughter is ten, and I’m glad she passed on going with me, because I think the reasons the kids are in the orphanage would have upset her. (The sex talk would have just embarrassed her.) And while I smiled and laughed through most of the film, I was always aware of the sadness beneath the surface. Even the ending, which I won’t spoil except to say that it’s a happy one, still reminds you of the bleak situation these kids – who are in what I can only assume is the greatest orphan home in the world – face. They will always feel, as Simon said, that there was no one left to love them. Mining heart and humor from such fearsome material, based on a French-language book by Gilles Paris, is an impressive reminder of the power of a great work of fiction, whether book or movie, live-action or animated. My Life as a Zucchini can’t match the technical mastery of Oscar winner Zootopia, but its story is far more powerful.

Quick endnotes: If you see the movie, look for an homage to Spirited Away in the graffiti on the wall around the Les Fontaines orphanage very early in the film. Also, be sure to stay through the end credits (at least in the French version) for an absolutely precious vignette from the audition of the child who voiced Zucchini.