Klawchat, 1/20/17.

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Klaw: The situation may not be rectified. Klawchat.

Gene Mullett: Will you be doing any book signings? Is there any way to get a signed copy of your tome via mail?
Klaw: I will do some book signings, but as of right now nothing specific is planned, and it’s more up to Harper Collins than me. I will figure out some way to sign books if I’m not doing many appearances for that.

Ryan: Thoughts on the Bautista deal?
Klaw: I’ve said there’s no such thing as a bad one year deal. That’s pretty much how I feel here. The Jays get to roll the dice on having Bautista get healthy and produce more than he did last year; if he does 2015 again, it’s a steal.

Ryan: Would you rather Bautista at 1 year, $18m, or Trumbo at 3 years, $37m?
Klaw: Bautista, easily.

Adam: Is Seth Beer the early favorite for the first pick in the 2018 Draft?
Klaw: I don’t think so. I think he’s just the name you know.

Kramer: I have asked you about Carson Kelly before and you said you think he is an everyday catcher. Why do you think the upside is? I know he was originally drafted for the bat and has taken to Catcher well defensively. Is there more to the bat that could come out as it develops.
Klaw: Yes, I think there is – and I think we’ve even seen a little more of that this past year. There’s an old baseball maxim about catchers developing later offensively because of the physical and mental toll of the position. I don’t know how true that is, or how you’d really measure that given the various ways catchers become catchers, but we’ve seen a lot of examples of late-blooming hitters behind the plate, like Lucroy and Mesoraco, enough that I try to keep an open mind on guys like Kelly.

Greg: Hey Keith, I didn’t see a write up from you on the Gohara trade. What are your thoughts on him? Did you like the move for Atlanta?
Klaw: He was going to be #2 on my Seattle list, and is on the top 100. No-brainer for Atlanta, even with the very high risk Gohara brings. Huge LHP with ++ fastball and the chance for a plus breaking ball.

Anonymous: Of all your farm system rankings, name a couple of systems that have the best group of reliever prospects.
Klaw: Twins come to mind immediately. Chargois, Reed, Melotakis, Burdi if healthy, etc.

Frank: You have been less positive about Aaron Sanchez than some in the past. How has last season (and reports from this winter) changed your perspective on his career, if at all?
Klaw: Not true. I ranked Sanchez as a top 20 prospect in baseball one year.

Ryan C.: Could the Phillies trade cesar to the dodgers for buehler and another prospects? Now that they signed saunders they could move Kendrick to 2nd and play one of their younger outfielders in left.
Klaw: There is no way you’re getting Buehler for Cesar Hernandez. That’s wishful thinking to the extreme.

guren: Hi Keith. Would you be in favor of removing undeserving players from the Hall of Fame in order to reset the baseline for induction?
Klaw: Not really. I’d just prefer to see us remedy past mistakes by declining to repeat them.

addoeh: Is Omar Vizquel going to be today’s Jack Morris for HOF voting? Those that use phrases like “eye test” will vote him in. Those that use advanced stats won’t.
Klaw: Yes, it’s already starting. The objective data are clear that he’s not deserving. The illusion of memory – or the simple desire for something false to be true – can’t trump that. And oh, by the way, Vizquel got exactly one MVP vote, 8th on someone’s ballot in 1999, in his entire career. So the guy was never considered by any voter as a top ten player in his league except that one time, but he’s a Hall of Famer? These are essentially the same voters, and they’re just changing their minds on a whim, because he was a nice guy or some shit like that.

ron: what are your thoughts on the phrase “not my president?”
Klaw: He’s the President of the country where I live, of which I am a proud citizen. Therefore, he is ‘my’ President, even though I do not support him, his actions, or his proposed policies. I don’t get to pretend there’s some shadow government in exile and that that’s my president instead.

Nick: If Swanson had two more PAs during last season and was ineligible, is the Atlanta system still #1?
Klaw: I get a bunch of these questions every year, and the answer is always the same. One prospect just doesn’t make that kind of difference. This week’s trade of Dan Straily wasn’t factored into the org rankings because it happened too late, but I wouldn’t move any teams for it either.

Hobbes: Any chance Hunter Greene is a SS instead of a pitcher?
Klaw: Definitely a chance, but he does have to answer real questions about his hit tool. There’s power, but I don’t know if he will actually hit.

Colored Marbles: How do you assses Quintana’s value vs Sale’s value in the market? Quintana has an additional year of control. Should Quintana net more in return than Sale?
Klaw: Sale’s the slightly better pitcher, Quintana has the extra year of control, so I think it’s fair to say you expect as much for Q as for Sale. I don’t see a case for saying more or less.

JC: Keith…do you see StL as a potential top 5/top 10 farm next year if some of their low minors players have a good 2017?
Klaw: That’s true of almost every team in the 11-20 range. Plus we’ll have another draft, another July 2 period, another trade deadline…

Phillip: It seems pretty set in stone that Alex Jackson is moving back to catcher for the Braves, what does this do for his value, and where do you anticipate he will be assigned this spring?
Klaw: Helps his value right off the bat, but the bat is the question, isn’t it? He hasn’t hit enough to be an everyday catcher yet.

Denis: If you are the Dodgers, do you hold onto Bellinger at all costs knowing he’s A-Gon’s replacement next year or do you flip him in a trade for Dozier?
Klaw: Hold him. No way I deal him for Dozier. Or anyone, practically speaking.

Pete: Keith, I think a lot of Phillies fans are mad about being outside the top 10. Can you explain why you don’t see this as a top 10 system?
Klaw: Because there are ten better? Saying your team should be in the top 5 or 10 is meaningless unless you can make a specific case that they’re better than, say, Cincinnati or Milwaukee. And really, the Phillies’ system as a whole did not have a good 2016. Crawford struggled. Appel got hurt. Quinn got hurt, which he does a lot. Kilome struggled way more than he should have. Williams regressed badly. They had a nice draft, but not a great one; Moniak wasn’t #1 on my board then and he’s below a few other 2016 draftees on the top 100. Now, I’m just listing negatives here – there are many, many positives – but that gives you some sense of why they might not be as high as you, thinking only of their system and not others, expected.

Nick: When calling my (LA) senators’ offices about the cabinet appointees, where do I even start? I feel like I wouldn’t know where to begin and would end up rambling unintelligibly.
Klaw: Keep it short (and polite – God only knows what kind of vile calls they’re getting). Are you planning to vote to confirm Person X? If so, I wish you’d reconsider; if not, thank you. And that’s it. You’re probably talking to some poor staffer who’s getting deluged with calls on both sides. Imagine being him/her, and how you’d like the callers to treat you, and do THAT.

Craig: Neftali Feliz — a good buy low/sell high option for closer for Milwaukee?
Klaw: Hasn’t had a healthy, effective season for 2011. I would not bet on him working out. Maybe a ten percent chance. Not saying it’s a bad signing, but it’s more like throwing a dart with the lights dimmed.

Kay: With Gsellman looking like a legit starter, with a better build to handle innings (presumably) and Wheeler limited in his innings, does it make sense to use Wheeler as a high leverage reliever? His stuff looks like it would play there, less stress on the arm, and makes the bullpen much stronger. Plus I’m very high on evil DeGrom
Klaw: Yep, makes sense to me. I’m all in on Gsellman. Definite starter, right now.

Tim: What are your thoughts on the Dan Straily trade?
Klaw: Love it for the Reds. Top 100 guy in Castillo, decent RHR in Brice, lottery ticket in White (probably doesn’t work out, but a guy worth having in the system to try to develop). Makes no sense for the Marlins.

Frank: You have been consistently down on Rowdy Tellez. By all reports, he has worked very hard (and effectively) on his defence. I remember you having issues more with the bat (not sure what) than the fielding, but is he a viable short term solution to an injury problem this year, or is that something you would not even try?
Klaw: Nope, guy can’t play first at all, and he’s a mediocre hitter with brute strength power. Asked a lot of scouts about him this year; outside of the Jays themselves, I can’t find anyone who buys him as a regular.

Berman86: Have we achieved peak Belanger of SS’s w/ all of the recently promoted talent & all of the shiny SS prospects flooding the minors?
Klaw: It’s pretty incredible – I remember the Jeter, A-Rod, Nomar, Tejada years and how people talked of that as a historical moment, but the current belanger of shortstops in the big leagues is even better, and similarly young.

Michael: Love your rankings-thanks for the hard work in doing them! I’m curious about one component which is often just spoken of in general terms but seems ignored…ability of an organization to develop the players to max potential. Does that factor into your projections of the players likelihood to reach their ceilings? Or even the utility in them having a good system?
Klaw: I can’t do that, because any player could be traded at any time. (Look at Kopech, Moncada, and Giolito, all top 25 guys, all traded last month.) The rankings are always team-agnostic.

Pam: Which Atlanta pitching prospect are you most confident in reaching his ceiling?
Klaw: Wiegel, because I think he’s pretty close to it, and his ceiling is lower than some of the others’.

Biscuit: Hey Keith do you think Alfaro breaks camp with the Phils? If not, when do you think he comes up and what sort of impact does he make?
Klaw: Definitely not. Think he goes to AAA and works on receiving, game calling, and taking a pitch every week or so.

Biscuit: What are your thoughts on safe injection sites for drug users? Seems to be a lot of evidence that this approach works better to rehabilitate (and just generally make streets safer) than to just try to incarcerate everyone.
Klaw: Support, strongly. European countries that have decriminalized drug use have had much better results and lower cost than we have with the War on Drugs. And I say that despite having never tried any illegal drugs (not even weed), and having lost an uncle to suicide after years of addiction.

Gerry, scranton: What’s your opinion on Saunders to Philly? Good, bad, or ehhh?
Klaw: Ehhh, eh? Eh.

Big Hen: In the Mets write up you mentioned 2 potential stars in their system — I assume Rosario is 1, but is the other Dom Smith ?? surprised to hear potential star upside with him and not very solid regular.
Klaw: It’s been very weird how even Mets fans have tended to believe the worst on Smith, even though he was the 11th pick in his draft, highly rated as an amateur, and has been young for everywhere he’s played. Dude can hit.

Nick from Somerville: Cameron Planck? what’s his upside? Seems like a lot of cash for a 11th rounder
Klaw: They’re expecting a pretty constant output from him, hoping he’ll add some length to their rotation, and that he doesn’t end up a max effort guy.

John: Which of the current crop of young superstar shortstops (Correa, Lindor, Bogaerts, Seager…) is the first to move to a different position? Which of them stick at SS throughout?
Klaw: Lindor and Bogaerts are 100% shortstops to me. Correa is most likely to move of the four, given his size and defensive metrics that say he’s been below average. Seager is already defying the odds; he’s the biggest SS in MLB history, but he’s playing well there and I doubt they move him until he either plays worse or they have a better option in the system (which I don’t think they do anyway).

Daniel: Keith, Thank you for this chat. It’s pretty remarkable the workload that you are willing to embrace. When you compile these system rankings, what is your impression of talent acquisition vs. player development? Are the best systems finding the best prospects or making the most of what they find? Thank you.
Klaw: You’re welcome. Two different competencies for organizations, and there are absolutely teams that excel in one and fail in the other. Under Doug Melvin, the Brewers acquired a lot of talent in two separate waves, but they couldn’t develop a pitcher to save their lives, and in fact ruined some pretty good prospects along the way. The White Sox had trouble getting and keeping talent in their system for some time, but their development guys worked wonders with castoffs like Quintana. Different staffs with different people, and if the two departments (really more like three, with amateur separate from international) don’t communicate, you’re probably going to have trouble.

Junior: Will your book be available at Barnes & Noble? I like going into book stores to make purchases.
Klaw: Yes, and lots of independent book stores too. I have a soft spot for buying books in person too.

Trent Steele: How long will it take before an MLB team has a female GM? Do you think it is mostly sexism that is keeping women out of these jobs?
Klaw: No, I think it’s the lack of women in the pipeline. If there’s sexism, which there might be, it’s all the way at the start of the process. But I suspect there’s some self-selection going on – women see few women rising in the orgs, so they don’t apply for entry-level jobs because they believe the opportunities aren’t there.

Joe: What is your opinion on Jorge Posada not reaching 5%? He seemed like a borderline at best candidate to me, but I was really surprised he’s one and done. Do you think the logjam of PED players hurt him or am I off on my impression of his candidacy?
Klaw: I would not have voted for him, so I can’t say “well, he should still be on the ballot,” but I agree with the sentiment that one and done makes him seem like less of a player than he was.

Seymour: You mentioned in your rankings that you would bet on Gleyber and Kapielien being the next Jeter and Pettitte – are you really that high on both?
Klaw: Yes, in the sense that Gleyber could be the cornerstone shortstop for a decade, and Kaprelian has ace stuff and size if he stays healthy. They haven’t had prospects like this in some time.

Jesse: Not advocating or panning either but I find it strange that Tim Raines made the hall of fame and Kenny Lofton fell off the ballot unceremoniously. Am I off base?
Klaw: Nope, Lofton was a borderline candidate who got no support whatsoever. The electorate as a whole does a poor job. They get the obvious ones right, but it takes a few years in some cases. They really struggle with a lot of guys who are comfortably above the historical standards but don’t “feel” like HoFers. And then they support clearly unqualified guys like Hoffman or, soon enough, Vizquel. But remember, I’m the bad guy here for trying to hold people accountable for their votes.

RB: Would white Sox jump in rankings from 10 to top 5 after a Quintana trade say for a Glasnow meadows package or martes tucker package
Klaw: Nope. See earlier answer. These rankings aren’t just about a guy or two. Atlanta’s system might run 30 deep in players who project to some sort of real major-league value. EDIT: My answer here was too quick. Yes, a Quintana trade commensurate with the Sale trade would move them up a few spots. I don’t think it would take them to top 5, but my answer here implied they wouldn’t move at all and that’s not accurate, nor is it consistent with how they moved up from the Sale and Eaton trades.

Todd from sydney: Just a thanks for all your content. You’re my favourite sports writer and really help me bridge the gap for someone that has never played. So no question, just thanks.
Klaw: You’re welcome. And if that’s Sydney, Australia, can I hang out with you for the next four to eight years?

John: Day to day, what method do you most frequently use to prepare your coffee?
Klaw: I alternate. Pour-over one day, espresso the next. If I had to choose just one, espresso. But sometimes I get single-origin beans while traveling or from friends with roasters, and those often are too potent for espresso.

Seymour: What kind of year do you expect from Gary Sanchez? Is he going to be a franchise player, or have we seen the best of him?
Klaw: If those are the choices, I’d go 70% franchise player, 30% seen the best.

J: Why would a person who is fabulously wealthy want a job/position where they have to make actual decisions when they have no grasp or passion for the job/position they are seeking?
Klaw: Fame, ego, more money. Never underestimate the desire of rich people to get richer.

Morris: I was on the basketball team at a major D1 college, and we absolutely had hazing rituals. They were great. At every airport, the freshmen (scholarship and walk-on) had to pull the entire team’s luggage off the carousel while the rest of us relaxed. I have no idea what purpose sexual assault, public humiliation, etc. plays in any of this.
Klaw: That stuff does not bother me at all. I know some people would say any hazing amounts to bullying, but if it’s not violent, doesn’t involve public humiliation, and the coaches are playing the responsible adults (making sure the trivial doesn’t become more than that), I think they can have positive effects.

Jake: Anything positive at all from the new admin? It seems like a worse dumpster fire than we could have imagined.
Klaw: I would agree. All these anti-science people overseeing departments where science matters? The Holy See is more friendly to modern science right now than our federal government.

Seymour: Pick one of these for their entire career – Gary Sanchez or Andrew Benintendi.
Klaw: That’s Benintendi. I think he’s the better prospect/player anyway, but catchers wear down faster, are more prone to injury, and play 20-25 fewer games per year.

Tom: I’ve noticed whenever you tweet anything about Trump, a standard response is “you lost, get over it.” This response amazes me. It’s like his followers think the election itself was the Super Bowl and we’re all just sitting around waiting for baseball season to start so we can move on to something new. Like his “presidenting” is not going to affect them too.
Klaw: Or like it’s a rooting interest. I care about our country – about me and my family, about all the people I know across the country, about my readers, about people who are economically or socially marginalized or at risk. I truly believe this administration will pursue policies that will hurt many of those people, far too many, without helping enough. This isn’t rah-rah stuff. And if you want to disagree with me on policy questions, by all means, let’s talk about them. But “get over it” tells me you don’t want to have that conversation. You think you won something.

JWP: Do any of the top 3 pitchers (Blair, Bradley, Shipley) that came through the AZ system have any real upside anymore?
Klaw: Yes, although it bugs me that all three lost velocity at AAA/majors. What the heck was happening in Arizona to cause that?

John: You do not seem to be a big fan of Trumbo. Who do you think was the best fit for him, what should that team have paid for him and was the deal with Baltimore good or bad?
Klaw: I’m not a big fan of his OBPs. He may be a nice guy. I just like hitters who get on base and/or play a position. I didn’t like the Baltimore deal – he’s being paid to be a fringy regular, but if he’s back to a .300 OBP he’s closer to replacement-level.

Chris: KLaw…Quick! Say something nice about Trevor Hoffman! In all seriousness, as a huge Padres fan, I get an respect your thoughts on why he’s not a Hall of Famer. Sorry, some of my fellow San Diego fans didn’t keep it civil. It’s been a tough week for us. Love and respect the job you do.
Klaw: Thanks. Very disappointing how offering an opinion based entirely on objective information – Hoffman threw only 1089 innings, didn’t reach 30 WAR, etc. – brought about such vitriol. Such is Twitter. Imagine what the trolls would have said if I were a woman of color.

Joe: Anyone from the 2016 Draft Class Round 2 or later that you would say has leaped up in rankings?
Klaw: Alec Hansen. Could have been a top 10 pick if he’d pitched in the spring the way he pitched after he signed.

Mike: Looking to learn how to make tomato sauce….Ruhlman’s recipe a good place to start, or do you have any other recommendations?
Klaw: Yes, that’s a good place to start. I rarely eat it, and so I rarely make it, but I do believe in keeping it very simple. Onion, garlic, basil, maybe thyme. No sugar, ever. A splash of red or even white wine, because there are some aromatic compounds in tomatoes that are alcohol-soluble but not water-soluble. And no cheese in the sauce.

Chris K: What do you think of Matt Snyder’s take that Yadier Molina is a no doubt Hall of Famer?
Klaw: I haven’t read it, so I can’t comment. I don’t think he’s going to have a good statistical case. It’ll involve a lot of what-ifs and assumptions about the stuff we can’t or couldn’t measure. That said, peak Molina was way better than peak Vizquel.

Todd: If Andruw Jones’ career had ended after 2007, would he already be in the HOF? Or did the late career phase of him as a decent but fat guy knock him out of contention, despite the extra counting stats?
Klaw: I don’t think so, unless he’d had a tragic end like Puckett getting glaucoma. (I always thought there was a sympathy vote going on there. Puckett was not a HoFer at any point. Nice guy, who turned out to be a creep, whose career ended too early.)

Jason Reynolds: Should the Reds be worried they have a lot of solid talent on the way but no projected stars?
Klaw: That’s a fair question. You might only peg Senzel as a projected star, although Trammell bears watching because every report I got this summer said he had a more advanced approach than most kids that age, especially the stereotypical Georgia ath-a-lete. I don’t think any of the pitchers is a 1, unless Stephenson gets his head out and starts pitching like a power guy again.

Patrick: “And oh, by the way, Vizquel got exactly one MVP vote, 8th on someone’s ballot in 1999, in his entire career. So the guy was never considered by any voter as a top ten player in his league except that one time, but he’s a Hall of Famer?” I don’t think Omar Vizquel is a Hall of Famer, but someone could say nearly the exact same thing about Lou Whitaker, who is incredibly deserving. He received MVP votes in just one year (although he received more support that year than Vizquel. But still, Whitaker’s MVP finishes consist of one 8th place finish). You’re right about Vizquel of course, but that’s not really a great argument.
Klaw: In Whitaker’s case, the voters were consistent, though. Here, we have specific people claiming Vizquel is clearly a Hall of Famer who never said Vizquel was a top ten player in the league. That is the most blatant sort of revisionism and it nauseates me.

Ted: Does Daniel Gossett profile as a 4/5 starter?
Klaw: I think he could be more.

Garrett: Is Peter Alonso ever a factor for the Mets at the MLB level?
Klaw: I think so, unless he’s blocked by Smith. Alonso can hit.

Larry: Any chance Addison Russell makes it into the conversation with the other young stud SS, or is he a notch below?
Klaw: I’ve always been a fan, but as of this moment, he’s not with the quartet someone mentioned earlier.

CB: Ballpark figure, how many years did Dave Stewart set the Diamondbacks back in his two years on the job?
Klaw: It’ll take three years for Hazen & Co. to undo the damage.

Vladimir G: Will I get voted in next year?
Klaw: I believe so. You, Hoffman, and Chipper get in next January. That’s my prediction, not my ballot, of course.

Klentak: what are the differences between a guy like Gallo vs. Cozens? both have ridiculously high K%s & immense power potential but Cozens seems more athletic. Am I missing something?
Klaw: Gallo is way more athletic. That’s not even close. Gallo might be able to play third, although not in Texas. Cozens is bad in RF.

addoeh: Know your schedule for going to spring training, specifically AZ?
Klaw: I don’t, other than general plans. I may attend two of the three WBC games at Dodger Stadium, which breaks the month right in half.

Boe: Last 3 energy secretaries: a nuclear physicist, a Nobel prize winning physicist and…….Rick Perry. WTF?
Klaw: I mean, Joe Perry was at least as qualified.

Dusty: Do you think Fernando Romero of the Twins has a good chance of becoming a frontline pitching prospect this year?
Klaw: Might already be one.

Francis: Do you think Christian Arroyo’s step backward was due to an injury, trying to make adjustments to his mechanics/approach, being overwhelmed by the competition, or a some or all of the above?
Klaw: Call it a step sideways, maybe? Disappointing year, for sure, but he’s still pretty young.

Joe: You said three first rounders for the Yankees are among their top six prospects. When did you come around so much on Cito Culver?
Klaw: I remember getting yelled at by Yankee fans for disliking the Culver and Bichette picks – neither was on my predraft top 100s in their respective years – but that seems to have stopped now. And they’ve been on an absolute roll in the draft, too.

Barry: You don’t think Thome will make it next year on his first try?
Klaw: No. Hasn’t every big power guy failed to get in on his first year recently? Griffey got in, but he was also a good centerfielder throughout his 20s. Thome is Hall-worthy, but he was all bat.

Brad: What did you think of the Smyly trade? I’ve been very concerned about the moves made by the Rays since Silverman took over.
Klaw: I don’t know what the market was for Smyly given his injuries the last few years, but I thought the return was just OK. Smith is an extra OF for me. Yarbrough might be a fifth starter but I think he’s a tick below that – low 3/4 guy, average stuff, really pitches & competes. It might be that the Rays’ international guys loved Vargas, who’s still a baby but projects to plus power.

Keith Law Disciple: From the 2015 Draft, who has the best chance for a rebound (Whitley, Clark, etc.)?
Klaw: Clark was hurt much of 2016. I’d bet on him. Whitley was totally overmatched, though. His year was the most concerning of that whole class. Tate, Bickford, Stewart, Plummer all had awful first years. Russell couldn’t find the plate and was trying to paint at 86-87. Martin surprised me with how little he hit. I’d add Tyler Stephenson to Clark – Stephenson had a concussion and then hurt his wrist. He might have given the John Oliver “fuck you” to 2016 even more than everyone else did.

Klaw: And that’s all for this week’s chat – I have more capsules to write – but I will do this again next Friday, once the entire top 100 is posted, so that we can discuss the whole list at once. Thank you as always for reading!

Sherlock, season four.

New pieces elsewhere: Two-thirds of my annual farm systems rankings are up now, the middle tier 20-11 and the bottom tier, 30-21, both Insider-only, with the top ten to come on Friday. My latest boardgame review for Paste covers Kodama: The Tree Spirits, which is both clever and – I mean this in a good way – adorable.

I miss the version of Sherlock who used his head and solved crimes. It’s a shame that we didn’t get that guy much, if at all, in season four of the BBC series, because even when these three episodes were entertaining, which they frequently were, they felt like I was watching not just a different show but a different main character entirely.

I’ll still argue that a bad season of Sherlock would beat an average season of most other shows; it’s written on a higher plane than almost anything else I’ve seen, making big assumptions about the audience’s ability to follow both dialogue and plot, and if that means the writers, Mark Gattis and Stephen Moffat, go astray at times, it’s a risk I’ll gladly take as a viewer.

And in the second episode of season four – which comes out on DVD/Blu-Ray on the 24th – it all worked pretty well. Toby Jones plays Donald Trump – okay, they called him Culverton Smith – as a billionaire entrepreneur, philanthropist, and celebrity whom Holmes believes is a secret serial killer, concocting an incredibly elaborate scheme to catch him that’s worthy of the detective character’s rich history. It was over the top at a few points, but the resolution was vintage, including the way it tied in minor bits of earlier dialogue and action (e.g., the nurse who thought Holmes wrote the blog) and flipped in a bit of dark humor (about people stopping at three), which manages to infuse some life into the ending we know we have to get – viz., that Holmes isn’t going to die.

That same problem, however, is part of what wrecked the bombastic season (and possibly series) finale of season four, where we meet Holmes’ missing sister Eurus, who has been kept in a secret, secure, offshore prison for years, maybe decades, and discover that she is the distillation of the rational part of Sherlock’s personality. There’s so much absurdity in this episode that I could never suspend my disbelief sufficiently to get sucked into the plot, from her preternatural ability to ‘reprogram’ others to practical questions of how she got on and off the island so frequently to the drone scene early in the episode, which is incongruent with everything Eurus does afterwards. (One fun Easter egg in the episode, though – the island fortress is named Sherrinford, which was one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s potential names for Sherlock and later showed up in his notes as a name for a possible third Holmes brother.) It may all have been worth it to see Andrew Scott get off that helicopter in a flashback scene, playing Moriarty to the absolute hilt, but the solution to the ongoing problem Eurus presents to Holmes over the course of the entire episode was such a muddled mess I’m not even sure of the payoff.

If I take the long view, I think I can see where Gatiss and Moffatt were going with the arc over the three episodes, even if I didn’t fully agree with the decisions or plot details they chose. They needed to write Mary out of the series somehow, as she dies offscreen in the original stories, and her presence was a complication of the Holmes-Watson relationship at the heart of Conan Doyle’s work and this series. (And while the character here was quite well-written, her superspy background was so much stuff and nonsense.) The Eurus episode accomplished two other ends for Sherlock’s character: It reset the balance between him and Mycroft, whose superiority to his brother has now been undermined, while also giving Sherlock himself insight into his own severe rationalism as a defense mechanism to childhood trauma. The result, should the series continue, would at least allow them to write Sherlock with some more emotional complexity – no longer the “high-functioning sociopath” of the first and second series, but an evolved character who has been affected by the death and suffering around him, including one death he believes he caused, and who has come to recognize his dependence on the small number of people who have at least tried to be his friends.

That’s not strictly loyal to the original character, and in some sense – you can’t cure sociopathy, if that’s what Holmes really had – perhaps not realistic, but it is almost certainly essential to continuing to tell these stories. Another character derived from Sherlock Holmes, Dr. House, descended into caricature over the last four seasons of his namesake series because the writers refused to have him evolve in any fashion (arguing, not without justification, that it would be unrealistic). This Holmes’ connections to the surrounding characters, including the surprisingly badass Mrs. Hudson, would have to break had he failed to develop emotionally, and seeing him treat his ‘friends’ with cruel indifference would have become unpleasant, if not outright unwatchable.

However, if the show does continue, can we put the gunplay and action sequences away now? Not only does it look silly – Holmes and Watson jumping out of the Baker Street window was the worst effects sequence in the series – but it’s wholly out of character, even if we are only considering the character Gatiss and Moffatt have created here. Where did Holmes learn to fight or shoot? His whole history is one of using his brain to avoid such things, to set traps for the culprits to out themselves as such, and that is the pleasure not just of the original stories but of all of the great novels and stories around classic detectives – Holmes, Poirot, Marple, Wimsey, Wolfe, and so on. I want a season five, but I want it to revolve around Holmes and Watson, with more of Lestrade and Molly (there’s a hell of a cliffhanger there) and Mrs. Hudson around. The interplay among those characters was part of the charm of the first two seasons, along with Holmes devising plots and connecting dots we couldn’t see till the end of each episode. I’d be quite happy with a return to that sort of story, but with the characters now changed by everything that’s happened to them from the death of Moriarty through the end of series four.

Last Train to Zona Verde.

Paul Theroux is a famous travel writer – meaning a writer who travels, and writes about what he discovers, not a writer who tells you to visit this city and eat at these restaurants – whose work never really crossed my awareness until last year, when a stranger I chatted with at an LA-area Starbucks recommended I check out his books, and I found right then that his 2013 book Last Train to Zona Verde: My Ultimate African Safari was on sale for the Kindle. It’s not an easy read, and a huge change of pace from any other “western writer goes to non-white country” book or essay I’ve ever read, but the last third or so on the book, where Theroux goes to one of the most closed-off countries in the world, Angola, is edifying and unforgettable.

Theroux writes of Angola, “a country that is so hard to enter makes me curious to discover what is on the other side of the fence,” a sentiment I can certainly understand, but what he finds after a difficult border crossing from Namibia is as dysfunctional a state as you could imagine this side of Somalia, and perhaps worse. Whereas Somalia and Libya are simply failed states, outlines on the map that lack functioning central governments, Angola is an extreme kleptocracy. Despite $130 billion in annual GDP ($6500 per capita) and rapid growth due to oil revenues, there’s widespread poverty and malnutrition, lack of education or basic services, and minimal infrastructure. Seventy percent of Angolans live on $2 a day or less, and one in six children die before the age of five, the worst such rate in the world. But due to corruption – it’s ranked the fifth-most corrupt in the world, according to that link – the massive oil revenues don’t flow to the people; the President’s daughter is worth over $3 billion, and last year became head of the state-owned energy firm after the company’s board was sacked. Her father has been in power for 38 years, looting a country with oil reserves to match Mexico, and while it’s not a police state, it’s a repressive country where the fortunate few live in a world apart from the 25 million poor residents.

Theroux actually starts his journey in Cape Town, South Africa, and works his way up the west coast of Africa, stopping in Angola for practical reasons (crossing the Congo River would have required a long trip inland) and emotional (his conclusion that seeing more countries would not illuminate anything beyond what he learned in Angola). Each of the three countries he does visit provides its own education, or a sort of lesson, but at least the first two have some glimmers of hope. South Africa’s cities have grown to absorb some of the impoverished shantytowns that surround them, as services expand towards the slums and provide at least some level of mobility – not what we expect here, by any means, but at least a possibility out of extreme poverty, yet one always held back by the increasing numbers of squatters arriving to expand the slums that surround all South African cities.

Namibia is often considered one of the few African success stories, as it has followed a century of oppression (first by Germans, then by the Afrikaner government of South Africa) with 25 years of a stable, multi-party democracy. It’s sparsely populated, with a significant mining industry, but an increasing reliance on European tourists who come to visit certain beaches or indulge in safari and wildlife tourism of a sort Theroux experiences and disdains. He detours inland to speak at a small conference at an isolated town in northeastern Namibia, seeing how the colonial governments and now the Namibian federal government have both ignored the Ju/’hoansi people of the interior, and then crosses into Botswana’s Okavango Delta region to visit a luxury resort and elephant preserve, eating five-star meals and riding an elephant along with the tourists paying thousands of dollars a day to be there.

In the Namibian section of the book, Theroux comes off as a bit of a crosspatch, because while he’s identifying clear socioeconomic problems, Namibia is far from a hopeless case. There’s misused foreign aid here, as in all of Africa – he cites some of the research showing that foreign aid to developing countries often does little or no good for those populations – and certainly poverty beyond what we see here, but there is a functioning government and some economic activity that could provide the foundation for growth. There are not enough jobs, and there’s not enough education, but the raw materials are here.

Angola, however, is an absolute basket case, and this is where Theroux seems to lose his faith in Africa. The government’s elites are looting the country in as venal a way possible – most of the country’s oil actually comes from the exclave of Cabinda, which is the small section of Angola located on the north side of the Congo delta and thus separated from the rest of the country by the Democratic Republic of the Congo (ex-Zaire), itself a failed state looted by a series of dictators (including my friend Mobute Sese Seko) and essentially ungoverned in the way Angola is. The former Portuguese colony is flush with cash, but roads are unpaved, schools lack books, public servants might be paid once a year, and the people are starving. It is a country completely without hope, and Theroux talks to one local who believes it’s simmering towards a revolution – a population of desperate young people with nothing to lose, aware of the money made by the tiny elites and the handful of foreign nationals, including a growing number of Chinese expats. Angola was wrecked by a war for independence and then a quarter-century civil war that has still left the land full of mines, and could quickly devolve into Somalia-like anarchy if Theroux’s friend is correct. (That friend, however, was one of three men Theroux spent time with on his trip who died soon afterwards – one was killed by an elephant at the preserve, one was murdered in his home, and one died of a heart attack. The moral of this story is that if Paul Theroux visits your country and wants to hang out, don’t.)

It’s a depressing end to the story and, in Theroux’s case, to his lifetime of travel to and time spent in Africa. You can hear him washing his hands of the continent, not as a lost cause per se, but as a problem the West helped create but can’t solve. No one is stepping in to fix Angola now, because Angola is a stable country that sells oil. China is investing in the country, but sending its own undesirables (including criminals) to work there, not employing locals, and thus props up the kleptocracy the way we do in the Middle East. It’s a warning of sorts – this could be the African powder keg – but Theroux brings no hope that anyone, the Angolans or the West, is about to fix anything.

Next up: My favorite food writer, Michael Ruhlman, published a book of three novellas called In Short Measures a little over a year ago, and I’ve had it on my Kindle since February but never read it until now.

Stick to baseball, 1/14/17.

I’ve been writing Top 100 stuff (and making related phone calls) all week, so the only content I wrote that didn’t appear here on the dish was my review of the boardgame DOOM, an adaptation of the 1990s first-person shooter video game and an update of an earlier attempt to make a boardgame of it.

You can preorder my upcoming book, Smart Baseball, on amazon, or from other sites via the Harper-Collins page for the book. Also, please sign up for my more-or-less weekly email newsletter.

And now, the links…

Top Chef, S14E07.

Just when you thought Top Chef Some-Stars couldn’t go any farther off the rails, we get this week’s episode, which ranged from the ridiculous to the inane. But it was the top trending topic on Twitter when I went to bed last night, so there’s that!

* The stew room scene from after last week’s elimination shows Katsuji being uncharacteristically gracious, saying of Amanda, “I don’t think she realized how good she was.” Whether he’s always been like this and we’re seeing more of it, or he’s just mellowing out, I don’t know, but we’ll see it again later this episode.

* Quickfire: The guest judge is Michael Cimarusti, chef/owner of Providence restaurant in LA, who is actually hiding a whole family of squirrels in his beard. This is a horoscope challengem and a few chefs admit to reading their horoscopes. They’re morons. Astrology is absolute bullshit. Throw it in the same dumpster as homeopathy, vaccine denial, and creationism. It’s just utter fucking nonsense. Why the fuck is anyone on this show talking about astrology like it’s real? What’s next, a phrenology challenge? The chefs can only use water they find with divining rods?

* The chefs are asked to take “inspiration” from their zodiac signs and use ingredients and tools grouped beneath that element (earth, fire, water, air) on the table. This idea of working to your personality’s strengths and weaknesses is fine, but the date of your birth has nothing to do with that. Oh, and it’s a sudden-death quickfire, based on complete twaddle.

* Whatever Emily’s element is, her section has a pressure cooker and an iSi canister, and she says she doesn’t know how to use them. How do you get to this point without knowing how to use either? An iSi canister isn’t even complicated, and it’s the fastest way to whip cream or create certain foams. And we’ve already been over the pressure cooker thing. This isn’t like asking someone to use an immersion circulator for the first time.

* Ugh. Let’s just get to the food: Neck-Tat made a lamb chop with fire roasted pepper salad and lemon yogurt … Sylva made fire-roasted poblano couscous, lamb, cherry smoke, and sage butter … Tesar made a snapper and branzino tartare with coconut milk and chili; it looks delicious but the only thing more cliched on Top Chef than raw fish is truffles … Brooke made an oyster with cucumber pepper broth, roasted poblanos, and ancho chili salsa … Emily made a pan-roasted chicken with spaetzle and herb salad … Katsuji made a charred onion with cauliflower puree plus roasted habanero and shishito peppers … Shirley made a crispy fried cauliflower with brown butter and soy … Sheldon made a kinilaw (Filipino ceviche) with shrimp, coconut milk, orange and lime juice, and radish … Jim made a charred bison with watermelon dashi and charred chiles … Casey made a deboned chicken wing stuffed with ‘nduja sausage (a spicy cured sausage from Calabri) and “pickled egg cream” sauce with the flavors of a deviled egg.

* The most original dish was Katsuji’s. Sheldon’s was “very thoughtful,” and keeping the coconut on ice made the seafood taste so much fresher. Neck-Tat’s had a good balance of heat from the spice and cool from the yogurt. The winner is Neck-Tat again, his second straight Quickfire win and second elimination challenge with immunity.

* Bottom three: Jim’s dish didn’t represent his element, fire. Sylva’s was underseasoned and the chiles didn’t come through. Emily’s risk in making spaetzle worked out, but the wing’s skin was neither crispy nor well-seasoned.

* Sudden-death QF: They’re making a dish based on the “earth” ingredients (which none of them had) and they all have to agree on the same dish to make. Sylva and Emily insist on a steak tartare over Jim’s suggestion of steak and potatoes. Jim says he’s incredibly familiar with the dish but rarely serves it at the Governor’s Mansion.

* Emily using is the mandolin with no glove or guard. Having sent myself to urgent care once by doing the same … you know, investing in some $10 cut-resistant gloves is a great idea.

* Sylva is making beet juice to brighten the color in the beef. He’s cooking it “tataki-style,” so the exterior is seared for ten seconds, but the interior should still be raw.

* Jim paired his tartare with arugula with egg yolk purees, EVOO, lemon, and chive, thickening the egg yolks with agar agar … Sylva’s tataki had beet juice, raw mushrooms, and brussels sprouts, and didn’t look like any kind of beef dish … Emily’s had fish sauce, egg yolk, rice wine vinegar, radish and beet salad, and potato and beet chips; Padma thinks the chips are seasoned “forcefully.”

* Jim is eliminated, with the judges saying it was too “simplistic” and perhaps not inventive enough. That’s brutal; he’d outperformed Emily by leaps and bounds so far during the season, and I thought he (like Silvia) had a real shot to get to the final group.

* So there’s some blah blah Blackbeard story going on, around the elimination challenge, but Casey then retells it in a much more interesting way in the confessional. If nothing else she’s a pretty entertaining personality.

* They’re split into three teams of three. One is Tesar, Emily, and Neck-Tat who has immunity, so you can probably guess right now they’ll be the team on the bottom.

* Neck Tat is a recovering heroin addict. This might have been an interesting little side story, but instead we need to watch the chefs run around downtown Charleston in a tropical storm. (Really? They couldn’t have postponed the challenge by a day?)

* They’re getting directions from some doofus in a bad pirate costume. Brooke says, “I feel like I’m at my eight-year-old’s birthday party.” OK, now imagine being in an audience watching someone else’s eight-year-old’s birthday party. Also, Brooke feels as I do about raisins (they’re just dead grapes, so throw them in the trash).

* Katsuji may complain a bit, but when he says the place is “heuricane (sic) infested” I’m with him 100%. I would want no part of running around a deserted town in those conditions.

* How about Tesar throwing Philip from last season under the bus – out of nowhere – for “just making stuff up” while he was on the show? I was no Philip fan, in any way, but that was totally out of left field.

* Sylva is prepping his eggs sous vide, at 145 F. I need to try this; Serious Eats has a guide to sous-vide egg cookery.

* I’m skipping the boring part, where the chefs were on a scavenger hunt for ingredients, because I kind of tuned out until they were back in the kitchen. Or, to be more accurate, I completely tuned out and made myself some popcorn.

* Neck-Tat is grilling chicken satay and says “someone turned the grill off” … how does this happen? Are people just running around turning appliances off at random? Now he’s cooking it in a toaster oven, which will go horribly.

* If this is a pirate-themed party, someone should have worn a puffy shirt.

* The food: Sylva made an asparagus soup with a 63 C degree egg and a tarragon and macadamia nut pesto .. Sheldon made a filet mignon with a charred pinapple nuoc cham and candied macadamias … Shirley made mussels with roasted red peppers, farro, and bacon. Tom likes Sylva’s but seems lukewarm on it. Padma likes Sheldon’s dish, while Tom says it was a little too sweet. Shirley’s they love.

* Casey made a salt-brined scallop with preserved lemon puree, toasted Brazil nuts, and radishes … Brooke serves fried cauliflower with lemon aioli and a mustard seed/raisin/Brazil nut relish … Katsuji made a very thick caluflower soup with spicy sausage and some other stuff. Katsuji’s dish is too thick to be called soup, but the judges all agree it’s delicious. Brooke’s is way too acidic. Casey’s scallop had a weird texture; Tom says they clearly weren’t fresh and she should have cooked them.

* Emily made a lobster and fennel chowder with crisp chicken skin, makrut lime leaves, and orange zest. (She uses the common name for the fruit, kaffir lime, but kaffir is a racial slur and I really wish Top Chef would just stop using it, even if it means asking chefs to restate something.) … Tesar made lobster with truffle butter and gnocchi made from canned peas … Neck-Tat made chicken satay with pickled fennel and orange salad. Emily’s flavors were so muddy and the dish so rich and heavy that Padma calls it “mud chowder.” Tesar’s is fine. Neck-Tat’s satay is terrible; I think Tom called it “new-age cafeteria” food. Graham says it’s the combination of predictable and bad that really sinks it – but Neck-Tat had immunity.

* Judges’ table: Yellow team on top. Shirley’s didn’t look like much, but it overdelivered. Sheldon’s was boosted by the charred pineapple introducing a smoky element. Sylva’s soup may have been a little too hearty? Shirley wins.

* They bring the other two teams up to air them out, although the team with Emily, Tesar, and Neck-Tat is actually the losing team. Brooke concedes she overdid the acidity because she wanted to mute the raisins. Casey’s dish looked better than it tasted and the judges all agree the scallops were fishy. Casey insists they were fine to cook – I assume it’s rather insulting to be accused of serving fish that wasn’t fresh. Michael says scallops aren’t considered fresh “unless you can still see them moving.” That’s a little more freshness than I can stand.

* As the judges tear up the red team’s dishes, Emily ambushes Tesar, saying Tesar wanted to throw crappy ingredients at Neck-Tat because of the latter’s immunity, and then blaming Tesar for having her waste so much time breaking down lobster. Although I have no particular love for Tesar or how he treats people, this is a bit much – Emily’s dish was bad and she can’t just blame the team for that.

* Jamie – I’ll call him that, since things are getting serious now – offers up his immunity to be judged with his team. I don’t think that’s ever happened before, and I think Tom was taken aback by it. It’s a boss move and Katsuji offers his respect.

* Tom and Michael think Jamie’s satay was the worst dish; Padma and Graham think Emily’s chowder was. If the immunity stands, Emily’s clearly going home, and who could argue given her season to date?

* Padma asks Jamie once again if he’s willing to cede his immunity, and he is, so he’s eliminated. He lost because he showed some integrity, saying, “Gotta live with yourself at the end of the day.” Emily’s in tears, and makes a halfhearted statement about not wanting him to be eliminated, but that’s how it ends.

* Two more rookies were eliminated this week, so only two remain, Sylva and Emily, and she should have been gone weeks ago. With Restaurant Wars next week, she could easily sneak through again if someone goes home for being team lead or front of house.

* Rankings: Brooke, Sheldon, Sylva, Shirley, Katsuji, Tesar, Casey, Emily. There’s a lot of mediocrity in four through seven – not that they’re bad chefs, but none of those four is doing anything so exciting that I feel strongly about wanting them to get to the finals or semis. The first three have at least shown flashes of upside.

Midnight Special.

Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special came to my attention primarily via the Grierson & Leitch podcast, with Will Leitch naming it one of his ten best movies of the year (of which I’ve now seen six). It’s Nichols’ fourth movie, although it’s been overshadowed this year by the release of his fifth film, Loving, a fact-based dramatization of the couple behind the Loving v. Virginia court case, foreshadowing the upcoming effort in Texas to end interracial marriage.

I’ve never seen a full Jeff Nichols film other than this one; I started Take Shelter, which also starred Michael Shannon, but as a father of a young daughter (as his character was in that movie) found the conceit too upsetting and never finished it. Nichols does mine some similar psychological territory here, with Shannon again playing a father trying to protect a young child from unknown threats, but Midnight Special‘s demons are real, and the story doesn’t remind you that it’s terrifying to be a parent, instead wrapping the viewer up in the mystery of what exactly young Alton can do that has both the U.S. government and a Branch Davidian-like cult trying to capture him.

When the movie opens, we see Roy (Shannon) and Lucas (Joel Edgerton, who also plays the male lead in Loving) on the run with young Alton, who wears blue goggles, reads comic books, and is apparently extremely important to the cult from which he and Roy have fled. FBI officials raid the cult compound shortly after they’ve left, also in search of Alton, who we learn has apparently been revealing codes critical to national security when he speaks in tongues, and the church’s leader incorporates them into sermons. NSA analyst Paul (Adam Driver) is one of the lead investigators looking for Alton, believing the boy may be some sort of weapon, the one fleshed-out character among the multi-agency force behind the manhunt, while the church appears desperate to get the boy back because they believe he’s their savior.

Alton brown (cropped).jpg
This is not the boy you’re looking for. (photo by Lawrence Lansing)

Most of this works well, better than the vague description might imply, because the nature of Alton’s powers is not actually relevant to the final story, and the climax only partially explains what’s going on (although what the viewer sees is what Roy and the other characters would also see). This is light science fiction, and like better works of that genre it’s focused on character and story rather than goofy sci-fi tricks. Roy and Alton’s mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) are all grappling with their breaks with the church, their duties to protect Alton, and their utter confusion over what he actually is and why he insists on going to a specific location at a specific date and time. Lucas faces a similar inner conflict, the nature of which isn’t revealed until the second half of the film. Even Paul has to choose between the government that employs him (and to which, we might assume, he’s loyal beyond the paycheck) and his intellectual curiosity once he meets Alton and sees some of the boy’s abilities himself.

Midnight Special is thus driven by the strength of its performances, and fortunately for the film, the two leads are very strong. Shannon’s always a presence in any film – he has a commanding look, and he broods as well as anyone – while Edgerton, an Australian actor who was one of the highlights of Animal Kingdom, delivers a more nuanced performance here, wearing his discomfort a little less on his face and putting it more in the tone of his speech. Dunst has less to do, and there’s more handwringing to her performance as the worried mother who has little more than one moment of significance in the plot – when she tells Roy what she fears will happen when Alton reaches his destination.

Where I thought Midnight Special fell apart, at least a little, was in how it merely dispensed with plot points that it no longer needed. The cult stuff just disappears with little explanation and felt to me like a red herring within the larger story. Once we pass the climax, Sarah is similarly gone from the story, and it seems like she was there primarily because Nichols had to show us Alton’s mom. Even the nature of her last scene with Alton rang a little false to me, although explaining why would spoil the ending.

And that ending, at least, deserves some praise, because Nichols avoids excessive explanation – or, God help us, monologuing – in favor of just showing us what happens. We get the merest glimpse of an answer to the mystery of Alton’s nature, and even that probably leaves you with more questions, or at least opens the door to a whole separate exposition on what exactly that other space is, than you had before. But if you were there, part of the story as Roy or Sarah or Lucas are, then this would be all you’d get. That’s admirable restraint in a film that relies a bit too heavily on chase scenes, gunfire, and off-screen threats.

Right now Midnight Special is on my top ten list for 2016, but that’s primarily because I’ve only seen ten movies from last year so far and I think this would be tenth. (I’d put it behind Hail, Caesar!.) I am assuming it’ll drop out given the films I still need/want to see.


I’m a bit surprised that Philip Tetlock’s 2015 book Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction hasn’t been a bigger phenomenon along the lines of Thinking Fast and Slow and its offshoots, because Tetlock’s research, from the decades-long Good Judgment Project, goes hand in hand with Daniel Kahneman’s book and research into cognitive biases and illusions. Where Kahneman’s views tend to be macro, Tetlock is focused on the micro: His research looks at people who are better at predicting specific, short-term answers to questions like “Will the Syrian government fall in the next six months?” Tetlock’s main thesis is that such people do exist – people who can consistently produce better forecasts than others, even soi-disant “experts,” can produce – and that we can learn to do the same thing by following their best practices.

Tetlock’s superforecasters have a handful of personality traits in common, but they’re not terribly unusual and if you’re here there’s a good chance you have them. These folks are intellectually curious and comfortable with math. They’re willing to admit mistakes, driven to avoid repeating them, and rigorous in their process. But they’re not necessarily more or better educated and typically lack subject-matter expertise in most of the areas in the forecasting project. What Tetlock and co-author Dan Gardner truly want to get across is that any of us, whether for ourselves or for our businesses, can achieve marginal but tangible gains in our ability to predict future events.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from Superforecasting is the need to get away from binary forecasting – that is, blanket statements like “Syria’s government will fall within the year” or “Chris Sale will not be a major-league starting pitcher.” Every forecast needs a probability and a timeframe, for accountability – you can’t evaluate a forecaster’s performance if he avoids specifics or deals in terms like “might” or “somewhat” – and for the forecaster him/herself to improve the process.

Within that mandate for clearer predictions that allow for post hoc evaluation comes the need to learn to ask the right questions. Tetlock reaches two conclusions from his research, one for the forecasters, one for the people who might employ them. Forecasters have to walk a fine line between asking the right questions and the wrong ones: One typical cognitive bias of humans is to substitute a question that is too difficult to answer with a similar question that is easier but doesn’t get at the issue at hand. (Within this is the human reluctance to provide the answer that Tetlock calls the hardest three words for anyone to say: “I don’t know.”) Managers of forecasters or analytics departments, on the other hand, must learn the difference between subjects for which analysts can provide forecasts and those for which they can’t. Many questions are simply too big or vague to answer with probabilistic predictions, so either the manager(s) must provide more specific questions, or the forecaster(s) must be able to manage upwards by operationalizing those questions, turning them into questions that can be answered with a forecast of when, how much, and at what odds.

Tetlock only mentions baseball in passing a few times, but you can see how these precepts would apply to the work that should come out of a baseball analytics department. I think by now every team is generating quantitative player forecasts beyond the generalities of traditional scouting reports. Nate Silver was the first analyst I know of to publicize the idea of attaching probabilities to these forecasts – here’s the 50th percentile forecast, the 10th, the 90th, and so on. More useful to the GM trying to decide whether to acquire player A or player B would be the probability that a player’s performance over the specified period will meet a specific threshold: There is a 63% chance that Joey Bagodonuts will produce at least 6 WAR of value over the next two years. You can work with a forecast like that – it has a specific value and timeframe with specific odds, so the GM can price a contract offer to Mr. Bagodonuts’ agent accordingly.

Could you bring this into the traditional scouting realm? I think you could, carefully. I do try to put some probabilities around my statements on player futures, more than I did in the past, certainly, but I also recognize I could never forecast player stat lines as well as a well-built model could. (Many teams fold scouting reports into their forecasting models anyway.) I can say, however, I think there’s a 40% chance of a pitcher remaining a starter, or a 25% chance that, if player X gets 500 at bats this season, he’ll hit at least 25 home runs. I wouldn’t go out and pay someone $15 million on the comments I make, but I hope it will accomplish two things: force me to think harder before making any extreme statements on potential player outcomes, and furnish those of you who do use this information (such as in fantasy baseball) with value beyond a mere ranking or a statement of a player’s potential ceiling (which might really be his 90th or 95th percentile outcome).

I also want to mention another book in this vein that I enjoyed but never wrote up – Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions, another entertaining look at cognitive illusions and biases, especially those that affect the way we value transactions that involve money – including those that involve no money because we’re getting or giving something for free. As in Kahneman’s book, Ariely’s explains that by and large you can’t avoid these brain flaws; you learn they exist and then learn to compensate for them, but if you’re human, they’re not going away.

Next up: Paul Theroux’s travelogue The Last Train to Zona Verde.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.

Ben Fountain’s 2012 novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction for that year and has since been adapted into a widely-panned film by Ang Lee, although part of the critical response is because Lee used a super-high frame rate that apparently is quite distracting. That’s a real shame given how strong the story and dialogue are in Fountain’s novel, which all takes place on one day and deftly blends elements of satire, indignation, and hope.

Billy Lynn is part of an Iraqi platoon, Bravo company, involved in a firefight that was caught on video and has turned the group into American heroes, feted across the country, attached to a Hollywood agent trying to strike them a lucrative movie deal, and, on this day, an appearance at the halftime show on Thanksgiving at a Dallas Cowboys game. There are flashbacks to events from before the day on which the book takes place, but the bulk of it follows the boys around the stadium, into luxury suites, meetings with the team’s owner (not Jerry Jones … but okay, that’s pretty much Jerry Jones), a fortuitous meeting with the cheerleaders, odd encounters with fans, and a tussle or two with overzealous security guards. There really isn’t any football to speak of in the book – the Cowboys get destroyed, and fans get drunk – and the halftime show is just one scene in the entire story, which is far more about the kind of reception Bravo gets, especially in the heart of rah-rah ‘Merica, compared to the nature of their experiences and the signs of PTSD throughout the unit.

Fountain accomplishes a ton in this relatively short, quick-moving book. He crafts a number of interesting, clearly distinct characters among the soldiers, most of whom appear to be damaged to some degree from the ordeal – one dead, one severely injured, with numerous insurgents killed – and coping or not coping in different ways. Billy Lynn, just 19 and forced to grow up in a big hurry after joining the army to avoid jail after he destroyed his sister’s ex-boyfriend’s car, gets the most thorough treatment, since we get to spend time in his head and face his confusion over various moral questions, not least among them whether to finish his tour of duty or desert and become a symbol for the war’s opposition. But despite the relative lack of page time for most of Billy’s platoon-mates, Fountain manages to infuse each of them with enough unique attributes to make them distinct and memorable on their own, notably Sergeant Dime, Bravo Company’s leader.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk also creates a stark contrast between the reality of warfare and the perception of it back home – especially when the war is half a world away, against not a nation-state but groups of terrorists who don’t look, sound, or worship like us. Bravo Company’s actions are celebrated, and Fountain makes most of the Texans the soldiers meet come off as jingoistic and wholly naive about the state of the soldiers. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have taken a toll even beyond the deaths and physical injuries; multiple government agencies have said at least 20% of Iraqi war veterans have come back with post-traumatic stress disorder. Some of Bravo Company are worse off than others, reflected in their actions and levels of substance abuse, but Billy Lynn in particular finds a real disconnect between their mental states and the way the locals, right up to the Cowboys’ (possibly sociopathic) owner, treat them as conquering heroes who did what they did because they just love their country so damned much.

If there’s a weak spot here, it’s the cheerleader subplot, although I suspect Fountain included it to provide a single thread of light in what is ultimately a dark comedy – funny, yes, but a very unflattering look at how we wage war today and treat returning veterans. Fountain brings up masturbation way too often, and then works it into Billy’s lust-at-first-sight dalliance with a cheerleader named Faison, a relationship that starts crude but ends up feeling like a desperate teenage love story. The contrast helps lighten the book, but there’s also a sentimental aspect to this thread that doesn’t fit the novel’s overall tone … but it did allow Fountain to introduce the only female character of any substance at all in the book, which probably didn’t hurt when it came to selling the film rights either.

The movie version was filmed at 120 frames per second, five times the normal frame rate for a movie, which even positive reviews have criticized for distracting from the plot and dialogue; that’s enough reason for me to skip it, as I’d say 90% of the time I see a book and associated film, I prefer the book anyway. In this case, I wonder if a film version could really capture the characterization Fountain has created in the novel, given how movies tend to eliminate or merge characters, and filmed versions of dialogue-heavy novels have to cut substantial amounts of the chatter to fit everything into two hours. But I can’t imagine choosing to make a movie about an important idea – that contrast between the reality of war for those in it, and the way those of us over here tend to sanitize or glamorize it – in an experimental way that detracts from the story’s core message. And none of the reviewers I trust has given me any reason to go see it.

Next up: I’ve been reading at a torrid pace since Christmas, finishing four books in the last seven days, including John Banville’s chilling novel (and Booker Prize finalist) The Book of Evidence, written as the confession of a sociopathic murderer, and Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner’s Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction. I’ve just started Dorothy Sayers’ Strong Poison, the sixth Lord Peter Wimsey mystery and the fourth I’ve read.

Stick to baseball, 1/7/17.

I’ve been working on the top 100 prospects package, which begins a three-week rollout on January 18th, since New Year’s, so I didn’t write anything for Insider this week. My boardgame reviews continue, with a review of the Celtic-themed game Inis for Paste and a review of the boardgame and new iOS app for Colt Express here on the dish. I did hold my regular 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. Also, please sign up for my more-or-less weekly email newsletter.

And now, the links…

  • Several former Justice Department lawyers penned an op ed claiming that Jeff Sessions is lying about his involvement in civil rights cases. They say, “Sessions knows that his real record on race and civil rights is harmful to his chances for confirmation. So he has made up a fake one.” In a rational world, that would end his nomination for Attorney General.
  • Venezuela’s ongoing political and economic meltdown may lead to a recall of president/dictator Nicolas Maduro, but he appointed a successor this week in new Vice President Tarek el Aissami, who is (or was) under investigating by U.S. authorities for drug trafficking.
  • Author Ryan Holiday wrote an insightful, somewhat angry piece on the ‘online diversity police’, folks who immediately decry the lack of diversity on any list or grouping (often inaccurately, as it turns out).
  • Lindy West wrote one of the week’s best, most important essays, on why she left Twitter after six years on the service, citing the endless abuse and the rise of neo-Naziism.
  • The Daily Beast exposed the long con of 55-year-old “millennial” comedian Dan Nainan, who tries to pass himself off as 35 and has fooled several media outlets as such.
  • Esquire has a longread on former Deadspin and Gawker EIC A.J. Daulerio, whose career was derailed by the Hulk Hogan sex tape lawsuit.
  • Grierson & Leitch each posted their top ten films of 2016, along with a 100-minute podcast where they reveal their lists to each other and discuss them. As usual, Leitch’s list comprises fairly well-known films, while Grierson’s has several films I’ve heard of and three that may not actually exist.
  • The eight-year-old transgender boy kicked out of a New Jersey Cub Scouts group after other parents complained talked to the Jersey Journal, as did his mother, about what happened, in a piece that also explores the psychiatric community’s evolving understanding of “gender dysphoria.”
  • Jill Saward’s death didn’t garner much coverage here either, but she was an important figure in the movement for sexual assault victims’ rights, as the first British rape victim to waive her right to anonymity and publicly discuss her case.
  • Will Trump’s election mark the return of civil disobedience? So far it has, but can the various movements opposed to the Republicans’ reactionary agenda keep it up for four or more years?
  • Let’s talk about the Russian hacking operation, which a US intelligence report says Putin ‘ordered’ to get Trump elected. David Remnick weighed in as well.
  • The Seattle Times called out Trump’s “reckless linkage” of vaccines to autism, desperate overwhelming evidence that there is no link.
  • Lauren Duca of Teen Vogue has quickly become one of the most important voices in political journalism, thanks to pieces like this one about the family selling access to the President-Elect at a party at Trumo’s Mar-a-Lago resort that made over $420K.
  • Republican Christine Todd Whitman headed up the Environmental Protection Agency under President George W. Bush, but she said she fears for the planet under a Trump regime for many reasons, including his denial of climate change.
  • The Washington Post‘s Dave Weigel outlines the Republican Party’s plan for a “sweeping conservative agenda” now that they control the White House and both houses of Congress. I’d dispute the word “conservative” here, though; this is very much an agenda written by and for white Americans, especially Christians, but doesn’t bear much resemblance to the traditional economic and libertarian-minded conservatism of Reagan or Buckley.
  • The political crisis in the Democratic Republic of the Congo hasn’t gotten much attention here amidst our own, but President Kabila hasn’t signed the agreement to end his rule, which has been marked primarily by his looting of the country’s coffers of millions of dollars.
  • Finally, the Huffington Post made news of nothing with a piece on Mark Zuckerberg apparently becoming an ex-atheist. I’m linking this for one major reason – my disdain for the need to classify people by their religious beliefs, something I first encountered on Wikipedia maybe a decade ago, where articles on people can be categorized by the subject’s religion. You can change your religious beliefs on a dime; you can lie about them (in many countries, you may have to); you can fail to fit in any neat bucket of beliefs. As a general rule, I don’t think your religion is any of my business unless you wish to make it so, so I particularly dislike the idea that you need to know what someone believes or, as in this case, that a possible change in the beliefs of a famous person are somehow newsworthy. I’ll be happier when Zuckerberg’s beliefs include extirpating fake news sites from Facebook.

Top Chef, S14E06.

Welcome back to this season of Top Chef Some-Stars! Let’s see if any of the rookies can survive another challenge.

* Quickfire: Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy is there, talking about getting people to eat more healthful foods. The challenge is to make a more healthful version of fatty, carb-heavy comfort foods – chicken pot pie, meatloaf, beef stroganoff, and more. All dishes must be made vegetarian, which is good, and chefs can only grab tools and ingredients one at a time, which is stupid, and yet another way the show consistently discriminates against chefs who are older or heavier or just less athletic.

* Sheldon has no clue what tuna casserole is, which is to his credit, I think. (I’ve never eaten it, and couldn’t tell you how to make it.) Also, he’s coming off an injury in the previous episode, so running back and forth seems like a great idea!

* Neck-Tat is making his dish “almost vegan,” with crumbled tofu as the protein. He says his son has been vegetarian since age 3, but I’d love to know why – did his son ask where meat comes from and then ask to stop eating it?

* Jim is using eggplant for its meatiness in his vegetarian version of chicken-fried steak, and that’s why I don’t love eggplant – it does have a meaty texture, but not the good kind. Unless it’s really handled well, like salting it ahead of time to draw out moisture, eggplant slices develop a texture like wet meat.

* Tesar says he’s never seen seitan before. Is that possible? He’s correct that vegetarian protein substitutes often aren’t very flavorful; you have to infuse them with flavor through marinades, seasoning, cooking methods, and so on. He calls them all “tofu derivatives,” but seitan is actually wheat gluten.

* The food: Amanda made a vegetable stroganoff with charred eggplant, tomato, and yogurt … Katsuji made spaghetti (zucchini noodles) and zucchini meatballs, cut with a melon baller, so he really made a big plate of zucchini … Brooke made vegetarian lasagna with grilled zucchini, bechamel, and tomato sauce, using tofu in the base to add creaminess … Tesar made a veggie burger with mushrooms, curry powder, and cranberries … Sylva made seitan and masa dumplings (a riff on chicken and dumplings) … Casey made a vegetable pot pie with silken tofu and crumbled farro crust … Neck-Tat made a crumbled tofu sloppy joe with bell peppers, onion, and tomato paste, along with a side salad … Jim made his baked eggplant steak with a pistachio, mint, lemon zest, and parsley topping plus a mushroom gravy … Emily made a vegetarian “meatloaf” with almonds and charred tomato.

* Dr. Murthy is kind of a big nerd, right? That’s not an insult, not when I say it at least. He didn’t like Sylva’s (hard to chew), Casey’s (topping was grainy), or Katsuji (noodles were soggy and oversauced – look at the doctor dropping some cooking knowledge). Favorites: Emily’s was tasty and looked right; Neck-Tat’s; and Brooke’s lasagna, which looked great and had a creamy texture. Winner is … Neck-Tat. Thought Brooke should have had this one, based on comments and Dr. Murthy’s emphasis on visual appeal.

* Elimination challenge: Honoring southern chef Edna Lewis, the first African-American celebrity chef and a pioneer in spreading the gospel of southern cooking as a cuisine. Toni Tipton Martin and Alexander Smalls are there, with Smalls, a restaurateur and a Grammy and Tony-Award winning opera singer, serving as guest judge. Padma compares Lewis’ influence to Julia Child’s influence on French cooking in the US. The challenge is to create a dish that pays homage to her legacy, and the chefs will be cooking at the same restaurant kitchen Lewis used to cook in. Her cookbooks made her a celebrity, especially The Taste of Country Cooking, first published in 1976 (when Lewis was 60 years old) and still in print.

* This is the kind of challenge I would love if this entire season hadn’t been only southern cuisine challenges. Now it’s just more of the same kind of food.

* Katsuji is doing fried chicken and watermelon. Sylva implies that’ll be an insult to the table of southern chefs. Lewis’ frying medium for her fried chicken was oil flavored with bacon or ham and then butter. I get that that sounds awful, but it probably made for very crispy skin, and I assume some of this was the old ethic of saving and reusing everything you could. If you cook and eat bacon, save that fat. It’s good for a lot of things, including greasing the pancake griddle and making flour tortillas.

* Sylva’s father blocked him from going to the Culinary Institute of America because he said “no son of mine is going to be a domestic.” Oof. Also now I have that awful Genesis song in my head.

* Jim is making a dish with a consomme and discusses the need to thoroughly clarify it. Michael Ruhlman wrote in The Making of a Chef about how at the CIA the instructor wanted to be able to see the lettering on a dime sitting at the bottom of the pot. That’s a fantastic read, by the way, even if you don’t cook.

* The food: Jim made seared shrimp with a smoked turkey wing and smoked pork consomme, plus spring peas and squash; Hugh (Hugh!) says it was very clean & seasonal, says it’s really working, but Tom says the peas were undercooked … Katsuji made fried chicken with pickled rind watermelon salad, and it turns out everyone likes the use of the watermelon, especially that he pickled the rind to pair with the fried chicken; he seems to have been aware of the stereotype and wanted to make it “go away” … Brooke made a warm salad with braised chicken and bread crumbs, grilled Swiss chard, sunchokes, blackberry vinaigrette, and lemon curd; Hugh says it’s either a dessert that wants to be savory or savory course that wants to be sweet. I’ll say this is a big pet peeve of mine at fine restaurants – I don’t like much if any sugar in savory courses. It’s such an overpowering flavor that it can ruin the complexity and texture of a lot of dishes. And there is a special level of hell for people who put sugar in their tomato sauce.

* OK, back to the food … Emily made deep-fried semolina-crusted chicken livers (she wanted to pan-fry but ran out of time) with corn puree, dandelion green salad, blackberry sauce; Gail says the livers were totally underseasoned and no one seems to approve of the deep-frying … Shirley made chicken and rice, confit chicken wings with collard greens and rice, and a watercress salad; Smalls loves the collard greens and rice, but come on, watercress salad is so 1996 … Tesar made “pan-broiled” chicken thigh (which is what Lewis called frying it in butter until the skin crisped) with roasted sunchokes and watercress; Art Smith says he “channeled” Lewis in that dish … Sylva made a flour- and cornmeal-crusted skillet-fried snapper that looked absolutely gorgeous with garden vegetables and vegetable broth; clearly hit the mark, Art loves how crispy the fish is, so does Biggie Smalls, and did I mention it looked amazing? … Sheldon made pork belly and cabbage with cabbage jus and potato; Tom loves the idea, but I’m not sure he liked the dish … Amanda did a roast duck breast with sweet potatoes, spiced pecans, balsamic onions, dandelion greens; Padma dislikes the chunky nature of the dish, Hugh says duck is chewy, and the dish isn’t southern enough … Casey made chicken and dumplings stuffed with chicken, and ham (maybe tasso?) … Neck-Tat fails to plate one of his dishes, which of course goes to Padma; he made roasted strip steak with sunchokes, spring onions, corn soubise; the meat is a little rare – I saw one of the steaks moo and head for a Chik-Fil-A billboard – while the corn soubise is the best part for Tom.

* Brooke’s dish was “a mess,” per Hugh. Emily’s chicken livers lacked complexity and were overwhelmed by the sweetness. Hugh says Amanda’s “pulled at no heartstrings.” And the components weren’t done so well either. Really, I was happy to get Hugh’s opinions on everything since he wasn’t at Judges’ Table.

* Favorites: Jim, Sylva, and Sheldon. Gail loved Jim’s flavors and the simplicity of the dish. Biggie Smalls praises Sylva’s, says “it’s an Edna Lewis piece,” that Sylva handled the fish brilliantly and paid respect to the vegetables; Gail can’t get over how the breading was thick and still crunchy. Biggie says Sheldon “brought the ancestors with you today.” Smalls is like Morgan Freeman here with that heavy, slow delivery; I would pay to hear him narrate an audiobook. The winner is Sylva. That fish looked stunning – I love fried fish, but it’s so often disappointing, and his looked as good as any fried fish I’ve ever eaten myself. He says afterwards it’s his favorite dish that he’s ever cooked. I can see why.

* Least favorites: Amanda, Emily, and Brooke. Amanda’s dish had no “soul,” the duck was dry and a little boring. Emily’s bad mix of sweet and savory didn’t work; she’s teary in front of the judges, but she’s had a bad run on the show and there’s no sign of progress here. Smalls says to Brooke that with her clash of tastes, he “didn’t get the blackberry, didn’t get the lemon;” Tom thinks she tried to get too modern. Brooke says she got inspired by too many things in the book, and regrets introducing the sauce to the dish. Without that, she’s probably not on the bottom, since no one is questioning her execution of any element.
* Amanda is eliminated, and she knew it as soon as Tom said “we didn’t get that feeling” from the losing dish. That leaves us with six veterans, four rookies. Did Emily survive so we didn’t end up at seven to three?

* Quick rankings: Brooke, Jim, Sylva, Sheldon, Shirley, Tesar, Casey, Katsuji, Neck-Tat, Emily. I truly can’t see any of the last four winning, and even Tesar seems to lack the kind of ingenuity that usually wins (but not last season). This is still Brooke’s to lose, even with the slight stumble this week.