Saturday five, 3/7/15.

I’ve had two draft blog posts in the last week, one on Kyler Murray and one on UF shortstop Richie Martin, with some other players included in each piece. I also held a Klawchat on Thursday, my last before heading off to spring training, which will make chat times irregular for the rest of the month.

The University of Chicago Press has published a new edition of the essential baseball book The Hidden Game of Baseball: A Revolutionary Approach to Baseball and Its Statistics, with a foreword by … oh, hey, that’s me. The original came out in 1984, which I know is before many of you were born, but it remains one of the great gateways into understanding the sport on a rational level. I own a copy of the original, but I’m thrilled to get and to be part of this update.

And now, this week’s links…saturdayfive

  • Dr. Paul Offit, who invented the rotavirus vaccine and is one of the most ardent and erudite advocates for universal vaccination, on how the modern vaccine-denial movement is putting our children at risk.
  • Meanwhile, Representative Barry Loudermilk of Georgia, who chairs a House science subcommittee, didn’t get his kids vaccinated. There’s no justification for having him anywhere near a science policy-making body, and he just feeds right into the whole children-as-property fallacy with his comments.
  • From the New York Times: Is most of our DNA just junk? It turns out the question of whether noncoding DNA serves any useful purposes is tied up in debates over genetics research and has even drawn in the cranks who push creation “science.”
  • Speaking of creationism, the irreducible complexity fallacy gets a good slap upside the head at the National Center for Science Education’s blog in a post tearing up that misconception. Evolution doesn’t favor increasing complexity, and, as the post asks, what exactly do you mean by “complexity” in the first place?
  • Radley Balko, who keeps churning out great investigative pieces, on as bad a case of police and DA corruption as you’ll see. A process server who served papers to a police officer ended up arrested and charged with assaulting the officer, with seven corroborating witnesses, most or all cops, backing it up … but the alleged assault never happened. And as far as I can tell, none of those cops has been charged or suspended in the case.
  • The man credited with bringing farm-to-table to Dallas long before that was even a term passed away last week at 58. Tom Spicer supplied produce to many of the Metroplex’s finest restaurants.
  • What purpose is served by a law that prevents a woman whose baby is almost certainly nonviable from terminating the pregnancy? That’s the very real case of a North Carolina woman, Whitney, who had to head two states away to have an abortion because North Carolina has banned all abortions past twenty weeks. This seems to me to be a medical issue, not a right-to-life vs. reproductive rights question, and therefore one best determined by the patient and her doctor.

Think Twice

Michael Mauboussin’s short book on the psychology of bad decisions, Think Twice, features an endorsement on its cover from Billy Beane, saying he hopes his competitors don’t read the book. While it doesn’t go into anywhere near the depth on the psychology (and neurology) of decision-making as Daniel Kahnemann’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, Mauboussin’s book covers much of the same ground and does so in a quick, superficial way that might reach more people than Kahnemann’s more thorough but often dense treatise could.

Mauboussin’s book carries the subtitle “Harnessing the Power of Counterintuition,” but I would describe it more as a guide to avoiding decisions based on easily avoidable mental traps. Think Twice has eight chapters dealing with specific traps, most of which will be familiar to readers of Kahnemann’s book: base-rate neglect, tunnel vision, irrational optimism, overreliance on experts, ignoring context, phase transitions (black and grey swans), and conflating skill and luck. Where Kahnemann went into great depth with useful examples and sometimes less-useful descriptions of fMRI test results, Mauboussin writes like he can’t get to the point fast enough – an often desirable trait in the popular business non-fiction section of the bookstore, since the assumption is that business executives don’t have time to read (even if the book might save millions of dollars).

That lightweight approach still gives Mauboussin plenty of space to hammer home the critical lessons of the book. Some of his examples don’t need a lot of explanation, such as pointing out that playing French music or German music in a wine store aisle with wines from both countries skewed consumer choices – even though those consumers explicitly denied that the music affected their choices. (Context matters.) He targets sportswriters directly when discussing their (our) difficulty (or inability) in distinguishing skill from luck – and, in my experience, fans often don’t want to hear that something is luck, even when the sample size is so small that you couldn’t prove it was skill no matter how broad the confidence test. He mentions The Boss going off in the papers when the Yankees started 4-12 in 2005, and writers buying right into the narrative (or just enjoying the free content Steinbrenner was providing). But we see it every October, and during every season; are the Giants really the best team in baseball, or is there an element of luck (or, to use the more accurate term, randomness) in their three championship runs in five seasons? Yet we see articles that proclaim players to be clutch or “big game” every year; my colleague Skip Bayless loves to talk about the “clutch gene,” yet I see no evidence to support its existence. I think Mauboussin would take my side in the debate, and he’d argue that an executive making a decision on a player needs to set aside emotional characterizations like that and focus on the hard data where the sample sizes are sufficiently large.

His chapter on the world’s overreliance on experts also directly applies to the baseball industry, both within teams and within the media. It is simply impossible for any one person to be good enough at predictions or forecasting to beat a well-designed projection system. I could spend every night from February 10th until Thanksgiving scouting players, see every prospect every year, and still wouldn’t be better on a macro level at predicting, say, team won-lost records or individual player performances than ZiPS or Steamer or any other well-tested system. The same goes for every scout in the business, and it’s why the role of scouting has already started to change. Once data trackers (like Tracman) can provide accurate data on batted ball speeds/locations or spin rate on curveballs for most levels of the minors and even some major college programs, how much value will individual scouts’ opinions on player tools matter in the context of team-level decisions on draft picks or trades? The most analytically-inclined front offices already meld scouting reports with such data, using them all as inputs to build better expert systems that can provide more accurate forecasts – which is the goal, because whether you like projection systems or not, you want your team to make the best possible decisions, and you can’t make better decisions without better data and better analysis of those data. (Mauboussin does describe situations where experts can typically beat computer models, but those are typically more static situations where feedback is clear and cause/effect relationships are simple. That’s not baseball.)

Mauboussin’s first chapter describes the three central illusions that lead to irrational optimism, one we see all the time in baseball when teams are asked to evaluate or potentially trade their own prospects: the illusions of superiority, optimism, and control. Our prospects are better than everyone else’s because we scout better, we develop better, and we control their development paths. When you hear that teams are overrating prospects, sometimes that’s just another GM griping that he can’t get what he wants for his veteran starter, but it can also be this irrational optimism that leads many teams to overrate their own kids. There’s a strong element of base-rate neglect in all of these illusions; if you have a deep farm system with a dozen future grade-50 prospects, you know, based on all of the great, deep systems we’ve seen in the last few years (the Royals, Rangers, Padres, Red Sox, Astros) that some of those players simply won’t work out, due to injuries, undiscovered weaknesses, or just youneverknows. A general manager has to be willing to take the “outside view” of his own players, viewing them through objective lenses, rather than the biased “inside view,” which also requires that he be able to take that view because he has the tools available to him and the advisers who are willing to tell him “no.”

The passage on unintended consequences is short and buried within a chapter on complex adaptive systems, but if I could send just two pages of the book to new MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, I’d send these. Mauboussin gives two examples, one of incompetent wildlife management in Yellowstone Park, one of the feds’ decision to let Lehman Brothers fail and thus start the 2008 credit crisis, both of which involve single actions to a complex system that the actors didn’t fully understand (or try to). So when MLB tries to tinker with the draft, or fold in the July 2nd international free agents into the rule 4 draft or a new one, or changes free agent compensation rules … whatever they do, this is a complex system with hundreds of actors who will react to any such rules changes in ways that can’t be foreseen without a look at the entire system.

The seven-page concluding chapter is a great checklist for anyone trying to bring this kind of “counterintuitive” thinking into an organization or just into his/her own decision-making. It’s preventative: here’s how you avoid rushing into major decisions with insufficient data or while under a destructive bias. I can see why Beane doesn’t want other GMs or executives reading this; competing against people who suffer from these illusions and prejudices is a lot easier than competing against people who think twice.

Saturday five, 2/21/15.

My only new baseball post in the last week was last Saturday’s post on draft prospects Kyle Funkhouser, Kyle Tucker, and Jake Woodford; my trip this weekend didn’t happen because USAirways cancelled my outbound flight and couldn’t get me to Santa Barbara in time. I did hold a Klawchat on Thursday.

saturdayfiveMy latest boardgame review for Paste was on Evolution, one of the bigger Kickstarter boardgame success stories (non-Exploding Kittens division). I’ll have another piece for them next week, summarizing my afternoon at Toyfair NYC earlier this week.

I’ve also been thrilled by all of your reactions and responses to my essay on my peculiar, obsessive reading habits. I’m still wading through them all, but please know that I’ve at least seen your comments even if I haven’t replied directly.

A lot of links this week…

  • First, an actual baseball piece: My friend Alex Speier has an outstanding article on Boston’s use of “neuroscouting” tools, like a computer program to measure a player’s hand-eye coordination. I’ve heard about this tool before, and I know a few other teams that use it or tools in the same vein, and while their competitive advantage is temporary (soon everyone except the Phillies will adopt it), it’s quite significant.
  • A fantastic BBC interview with actress Jamie Brewer, now the first woman with Down Syndrome to walk the catwalk at Fashion Week. Termination rates for fetuses diagnosed with Down Syndrome range from an estimated 67% in the US to over 90% in Europe, and of course that issue came up in the news recently with the story of the Armenian woman who divorced her New Zealand-born husband rather than keep their baby, born with Down Syndrome, although the precise details of that are unclear.
  • A longread from the New Yorker on the Apple industrial designer who might be the most important person in the company.
  • How Parks and Recreation got Bill Murray to play Mayor Gunderson. The final season has had its misses (the Johnny Karate episode), but the way they’ve circled back to every significant side character and still added more amazing guest appearances like this one has made it more than just a cursory victory lap, but a season worth remembering. If you’re a fan of the show, or just enjoyed the #humblebrag phenomenon, you should also read Aziz Ansari’s tribute to writer/comedian Harris Wittels, who died of an apparent drug overdose this week. Wittels, who also played Animal Control Brett on P&R, was just 30 years old.
  • This week in vaccination: Jeb Lund (aka @Mobute) has a superb piece in Rolling Stone on how vaccine deniers’ bad decisions hurt others, not themselves. Meanwhile, here in Delaware, my representative in our lower house is introducing a bill to tighten the “religious exemption” loophole in vaccination requirements. I think we should repeal that exemption entirely, but this is at least a good first step. Also, Forbes ran a great three-part piece debunking myths about vaccine deniers. I disagree with one thing – these people are pretty much all delusional idiots – but her points are crucial in the fight against such ignorance. One thing we can’t forget, though: Those of us who understand the facts that vaccines are safe and effective must keep speaking up, telling our representatives in government, our school boards, our principals, everyone in a position of authority that we want our children protected.
  • Oliver Sacks wrote a difficult-to-read (and probably more so to write) piece on learning his cancer has returned and metastasized.
  • Also from the NY Times, an op ed on how added vitamins paper over the low quality of our food supply.
  • Settlers of Catan: The Film! This is going to be terrible.
  • Two good pieces from the Washington Post. The first, from earlier this month, on how it’s never too early to teach children about boundaries, which I think might help not just with preventing abuse and molestation but might also reduce the pervasiveness of rape culture among young men. On a related note, the second piece, from this Thursday, discusses the abuse that’s driving some feminist writers offline. You know who’s a major culprit in this? Twitter. Their lack of enforcement of their own harassment policies is by far the worst thing about the site. You can quite literally threaten to rape or kill someone, directly @ their account, and face no consequences even just within the confines of the site itself. Come on, Twitter. Be better.
  • I agree wholeheartedly with this message, which refers to the movie The DUFF (Designated Ugly Fat Friend):

Saturday five, 2/7/15.

The last bit of my top 100 prospects package, ranking the top ten prospects by position, went up on Wednesday. I didn’t chat this week, as I was in Bristol for ESPN’s annual baseball summit; the guest speaker was Rob Manfred, better known as the new Commissioner of Major League Baseball, and I was extremely impressed by his candor, his enthusiasm, and the intelligence evident in how quickly and thoughtfully he answered a broad number of questions posed to him by our writers, some on the record and some off. I won’t agree with all of his policies – at the end of the day, he’s still paid by the owners and has an obligation to them – but I do think the sport is great hands under him.

My Top Chef recap was a bit late for this week for the same reason, but I posted it on Friday evening. I should be on time, or closer to it, with my recap of the finale on Thursday morning.

saturdayfiveAnd now, this week’s links…

  • Let’s hit the vaccination stuff first. I agree with this Gizmodo piece that we should ridicule and shame the anti-vaccination movement, although I’m fine with a little humiliation thrown in, because the ends (wiping out diseases that kill infants, the elderly, and the immune-compromised) justify a lot of means here. Also, a British blog dedicated to autism science points out, via a CNN piece, that a huge chunk of vaccine denialism is paid for by the Dwoskin Family Foundation. In anti-science, as in politics, just follow the money – and, if you see where it’s going, try to stop it. If you know of sources taking ad money from the Dwoskins or their puppet groups like the NVIC (the most prominent vaccine denier organization in the U.S.), contact them and ask them to stop. I’ve done so with one company that has been running an ad from the NVIC, and am hopeful based on our early conversations that they’ll pull the ad now that their corporate headquarters is aware of it. All that is needed for the triumph of selfish, ignorant science deniers is for the rest of us sane people to do nothing. (Side note: The Dwoskin foundation’s offices are around the corner from my house. I’m not sure what, if anything, I can do based on that knowledge, though.)
  • If you’re here, you probably like baseball, so this Baseball Prospectus article on their new mixed-model approach to estimating catcher framing values is a must-read. I think most of us hate that catcher framing exists, but as long as it exists, we need to understand it, and BP continues to lead the way in showing us how to do so.
  • This half-hour audio program from the BBC is worth the time investment: An extensive interview with Vietnamese writer Le Ly Hayslip, who fought for the Viet Cong as a teenager, was captured three times, married an American man, moved to California, and has since started a foundation to help rebuild the village where she grew up. Her story was the basis for Oliver Stone’s 1993 film Heaven and Earth; he’s interviewed as well.
  • Meanwhile, in Oregon, a judge ruled that a man who took upskirt photos of a 13-year-old girl in a Target didn’t commit a crime. Not that we’d want to consider evidence that he’s a potential sexual predator or anything.
  • I went to Narcissa in Manhattan with a friend on Wednesday night, and we had their famous slow-roasted, crisped beets, which was easily the best beet dish I’ve ever had, one of the best vegetable dishes I’ve ever had, period. That link describes how the dish is made, with twenty photos, although I don’t think the picture of the interior of the beets does their texture justice.
  • NPR’s The Salt blog, normally about food, delves into the science of nitrate runoffs in Iowa agriculture, and why it’s not so simple as blaming too much nitrogen-rich fertilizer.

Saturday five, 7/26/14.

My content at ESPN.com over the last seven days…

* My analysis of the Huston Street trade
* My analysis of the Chase Headley trade
* My (very brief) analysis of the Kendrys Morales trade
* This week’s Klawchat

I reviewed the outstanding new boardgame Splendor for Paste, giving the Spiel des Jahres nominee a grade of 9/10. It’s also back in stock at amazon for $35, after some insane pricing earlier in the week when the award was announced. My daughter loves this game and grasped the basic strategy very quickly.

And now, this week’s links – a few more than five, as I came across too many things worth passing along…

  • Nobody had a better take this week on the joke of a punishment wife-beater Ray Rice received from the NFL than Keith Olbermann did.
  • The little girl who may hold the secret to aging. She’s five years old with the body of an infant, but is her whole life just to be a test subject for scientists?
  • On the nascent baseball culture in Iran. I love the idea of sport as diplomacy, although I fear it makes for better headlines than understanding.
  • Nestlé is bottling huge quantities of water from the California desert. Not that anyone’s inclined to stop them.
  • John McPhee on writing, part of The New Yorker‘s now-free archives. Warning: There’s a fair amount of rambling here for a piece on writing.
  • How to spend the first ten minutes of your day, from Harvard Business Review. I use several of these tips, from a morning to-do list to tackling some more daunting tasks earlier in the day – but I also try to knock off a few quick items in the first hour, because there’s a quick psychological payoff from crossing off a few things on the list.
  • R.J. Anderson with a good piece on Big Data coming to baseball. His piece is ostensibly about defense, but the real message here is how critical data management, from building and maintaining a data warehouse to developing tools to access and query it quickly, has become to baseball operations – which supports David Murphy’s excellent column for philly.com on how the Phillies need to revamp their organization.
  • And finally, an audio clip from the BBC: This week’s World Have Your Say discusses balance and media bias in the coverage of the Israel/Gaza conflict, which is great until they invite three guests who claim the media are biased, all three of whom sound like tin-foil hat lunatics and/or teenagers who just read Howard Zinn for the first time and think they have the world figured out. The one guest who claimed there’s an anti-Israel bias was the worst, however, with frequent invocations of the guilt by association fallacy when discussing al-Jazeera.

Saturday five, 7/19/14.

Busy week here between travel and a few major events. Here’s my ESPN content from the last seven days:

* My ranking of the top 50 prospects in the minor leagues.
* On the Astros failing to come to terms with Brady Aiken or Jacob Nix.
* My recap/analysis of the players in the Futures Game, part one and part two.
* This week’s Klawchat.

This week’s links…

And a bonus link: one of the chefs I follow on Twitter (probably Tom Colicchio but I’m not sure) posted a link to exo, a company that makes nutrition bars using cricket flour – yes, cleaned, dried, ground-up bugs. While my immediate reaction was to be very weirded-out, that’s probably not rational, no more so than people who eat common cuts of meat (as I do) but refuse to eat offal (much of which I do eat and enjoy). So, would you eat a protein bar made of finely milled crickets?

Top Chef, S11E16.

Almost all of the the 2014 top 100 prospects package is now posted for Insiders – the post on the ten guys who just missed the 100 goes up on Monday – so here’s the full set of links in case you missed any of it:

Back to the Top Chef finale…

* Louis was the Last Chance Kitchen winner, taking eight straight challenges to re-enter the competition.

* Sam Choy, who made the infamous clam flan on Iron Chef America, is in the house. We have a quickfire … involving spam. That’s disgusting. I don’t care if it’s popular in Hawai’i; it’s anti-food. I can’t believe Colicchio would tolerate this. It contradicts everything he seems to stand for.

* Padma is wearing her 1970s royal blue jumpsuit. I assume Charley is on the speakerphone.

* Louis: “spam and eggs is awesome, nothing better than that.” Are you insane? That’s better than eggs and BACON?

* Seriously, look at that stuff. Cylindrical meat? What part of the animal does that come from? Do you think it was organic? Grass-fed? How much of the contents are fillers, chemicals, things you’d really rather not ask your liver to break down for you? I’m done now.

* The chefs all seem to be using santokus for their mise en place. I do own one and probably should use it even more – it is tremendous for vegetable prep, at least for “gross” cuts. Mincing with one feels trickier because of the straight blade.

* Shirley makes spam fried rice at home. What the fuck is wrong with these people. I guess I’m not done after all.

* Louis is quick-chilling his mousse in a bowl of ice. I thought you were supposed to just dump the ice into the mousse…

* Shirley makes a spam musubi (like nigiri but with grilled spam in lieu of raw fish), but deconstructed, with spam oil-infused rice, nori, cuke slaw, crispy spam, and basil.

* Louis wraps his spam mousse into a torchon, with garlic, chives, scallions, snap peas, beech mushrooms, and togarashi. Padma says, “It’s very silky in my mouth.” I swear she says these things on purpose.

* Nick makes a spam broth with pancetta, seaweed, dried shrimp, fish stock, clam juice, and quail egg. I’d love to be a judge on Top Chef someday, but I am glad it didn’t happen for this episode. I’d be running over to the ocean to purge after each dish.

* Nina makes a breadfruit and teriyaki Spam croquette with a sour orange and mango slaw on top.

* Nick wins, the quail egg smoothing out the somewhat oversalty dish. Sam says it was “Spam like I’ve never seen it before.” And like I’d never want to see it again? Anyway, Nick wins $10K, but not immunity, of course.

* Elimination challenge: Cooking with canoe crops, plants brought to Hawai’i by Polynesian explorers about 1700 years ago. The chefs are limited to those ingredients, pork shoulder, a few kinds of native fish, and some basics like onions and garlic. It’s a double elimination challenge, so only two chefs will go on to the finals. The winner also gets an advantage going into the finale, although we don’t find out what that is even after the winner is named.

* Tom is wearing seahorse shorts, which I guess is the new business casual. The guys rowing in the giant boat with the canoe crops are only wearing loincloths, which Nina calls “thongs” – not without reason.

* Shirley points out all may taste very similar because of same pantry. Sweet potato/turmeric puree. She and Nick doing pork shoulder

* We finally get to see Gail’s baby bump. I approve of this. Hiding her behind furniture would have been kind of insulting.

* To the food … Louis serves grilled opah with sweet potato and a coconut, turmeric, and onion sauce. The judges credit Sam with promoting opah as a food item. Tom’s is a little undercooked, but others’ dishes are perfect. Gail hadn’t had purple sweet potato before – neither had I before going to Hawai’i in 2012, and it’s a revelation, the best sweet potatoes I’ve ever eaten. I imagine they either don’t travel well or farms there don’t produce enough to ship them to the lower 48.

* Nina’s dish is also grilled opah, here with a taro root and coconut puree along with a turmeric, sugar cane, and habanero sauce, and a breadfruit chip somewhere on the plate as well. It’s perfectly cooked, of course, but the sauce was spicy and Tom feels like it threatened to overpower the fish.

* The rhizome in question here is pronounced TUR-meric. Not TOO-meric. A TOO-meric is what Arnold claimed he didn’t have in Kindergarten Cop.

* Nick serves opakapaka (also called Hawai’ian pink snapper) with jalapeño and crispy chicken skin, along with a pork jus sauce. He gets praise for incorporating texture contrast between the skin and the fish. The regular judges are joking that Hawai’i relaxed Nick. Maybe a month away from you guys relaxed him too…

* Shirley made a Maui honey-glazed pork with sweet potato-turmeric puree. Everyone loves the pork – braised, browned, and glazed perfectly. But the whole dish is sweet other than some pickled onions. I’m assuming that was meant to be her acidic component, but no one is talking about that. It reads as sweet (honey) with sweet (sweet potatoes).

* No one hit it out of the park, based on what we heard from the judges. At this point Nina feels like the only lock to advance.

* Sam sharing some Hawai’ian wisdom: breadfruit makes you “really gassy” with “blue flame action.” All righty then.

* We’re back to the chefs watching the judges’ discussion on the big screen. Tom says there were “little mistakes here and there” in all chefs’ food. Louis’ fish wasn’t cooked evenly from dish to dish. Nick’s fish was nicely cooked, but the jalapeño may have been too strong. (Give him a break, you’ve been killing him for underseasoning all season!) Nina did a great job layering flavors, but had a similar issue with too much capsaicin. Shirley’s pork was really flavorful; Emeril loved how it was cooked, but Tom says the plate was a little too sweet and needed a sour/acid note. The judges didn’t telegraph anything here that I could tell.

* When they bring the judges in, we mostly hear more of the same. One thing that stuck out was the praise for Louis in having the confidence to do a simple dish – I just finished The Supper of the Lamb, and the author, Robert Farrar Capon, has a passage about just that point: It’s harder to do simple well than it is to to complicated well.
* Padma looks like she’s going to be sick and they haven’t even sent anyone home yet.

* Winner: Nicholas. He gets the advantage in the finals, but we don’t know what it is. I will say he was like a different person in this episode – less touchy, not whiny, more upbeat. I’m sure he saw or heard feedback during the time off (based on previous seasons, at least) and realized he had to take it down a notch.

* Louis is eliminated first. He tears up, saying he wanted to win for his son. I get that, but your son will love you no less for coming in 4th.

* Shirley is eliminated too. Damn. I thought she had the best season to date, although I can see, based on the judges’ comments, why she went home. She says it’ll be “hard to face (her) family.” I sincerely hope that’s all in her head and that she won’t be berated by her husband or mom for finishing third.

* So we have Nick vs. Nina in the finals. Nina makes fewer mistakes. Nick cooks more ambitious dishes. I’m picking Nick, which is like going for upside rather than probability. He’s more likely to screw it up, but the history of the show favors chefs who are creative and bold.

* All I remember of the preview of next week’s episode is Padma in a tiny string bikini. Not that I’m complaining, but I really was just here for the food.

Thanks to everyone who’s subscribed and powered through the top 100 prospects stuff this week. It was a grind to write it – over 38,000 words, all written in the last 15 days – but I’m happy with the results, and I hope all of you are too.

Tuesday links.

  • This year’s ranking of the top 50 free agents is now online for Insiders. We’ve flagged players who received Qualifying Offers, and in most comments I try to give a rough idea of what I’d be willing to pay each player. There’s a full explanation in the intro.
  • I also held a Tuesday Klawchat today. There will not be a Thursday chat, but Behind the Dish will come out that day.
  • I’ll be doing some freelance game reviews for Paste magazine, and my first piece, a column on the market shift toward tablet boardgame apps, went up today.
  • I know several of you were looking for my review of Arcade Fire’s Reflektor today – it went up here on the dish yesterday.
  • Two singles that hit my playlist in October but didn’t make yesterday’s piece: “Let Go” by RAC featuring Kele (of Bloc Party) and MNDR, the best dance song I’ve heard in 2013; and “Stay Young” by Okkervil River, a fun jangle-pop track from the indie-rock stalwarts who just had their first top-ten album in the U.S.




  • Finally, this Sesame Street parody of “Homeland” is just brilliant. It first aired on the Thursday episode that subtly paid tribute to Jerry Nelson, the original Muppeteer behind (or under) Fat Blue, Herry Monster, Sherlock Hemlock, Mumford … and Count von Count. Nelson passed away in August of 2012, and the opening tribute was sweet, but it was “Homelamb” that ended up stealing the show.

Glossary of inside jokes.

When we start in with inside jokes on Twitter or in chats, I’m often asked by newer readers what some of the hashtags and terms mean, but it’s hard to stop everything else to explain myself – especially in 140 characters. So with that in mind, here’s a far-from-complete list of those various jokes

#andrelted: When Andrelton Simmons does something amazing in the field, which is pretty much every night. See also #belted.

#arbitraryendpoints: Also known as cherry-picking, this means choosing one or both endpoints on a series of games to try to analyze a player. I’ve argued that it’s not arbitrary if the endpoint is tied to something specific, like a change in mechanics, an injury, or a recall from the minors, but even so, it’s always dangerous to throw out any data when you want to draw a conclusion.

#belted: When Brandon Belt homers. Actually originated with #poseyed the year before, but Posey hit too many homers and it got old fast. Even the #belted thing is probably nearing the end of its useful life.

#bowlofjello: That would be Clint Hurdle, who is probably the worst thing going for the Pirates right now, and whom I referred to by this moniker in a July 2012 tweet.

#classy (with or without the #): Refers to Michael Young, and the seeming blindness of some local writers in Dallas to the erosion of his on-field value, after which they would defend him by referring to him as “classy.” Classy is great but it doesn’t turn all those outs into hits. I should point out that use of the term isn’t actually a shot at Young, but how members of the media treat him.

#GUY: From my April 2013 podcast with Chris Sprow, where he brought up the difference between calling a player a “guy” (as in, “he’s just a guy”) and calling him a “GUY” (e.g., Byron Buxton). It turns out that football and baseball people both use the word in the same way.

#heathbellexperience: Possibly invented by Steve Berthiaume, now used to describe Heath Bell doing Heath Bell things, mostly giving up massive home runs. Antecedent of the less-common #jimjohnsonexperience.

#holtzmansfolly: The save rule, which has done more damage to the game on the field and to roster construction than any other statistic in the history of the game. Of course, the BBWAA gave the nitwit who invented this stat the Spink Award, because if that organization is good at one thing, it’s self-congratulation.

#idito: From an angry and not very bright Cardinals fan in 2009 who was mad that I didn’t include Chris Carpenter on my NL Cy Young ballot that year. Related to the now obsolete term #obsurd, from another equally angry and equally not very bright Cardinals fan that same day.

#meow: Every time a reader accuses me of bias, God kills a kitten. From the defunct Baseball Today podcast. RIP Bias Cat.

Moran: If you’re going to insult someone, especially by calling them stupid, you probably should look in the mirror first. Not my joke.

More-singles defense: The no-doubles defense.

#preeminent: I appeared on ESPN’s Philadelphia affiliate right after Ryan Howard signed his five-year extension, only to be ambushed by the host of the show in question, who kept referring to Howard as the “preeminent” power hitter in the game. So, whenever it pays to point out that the contract is as awful today as it appeared to be when the Phillies gave it to him, we trot out this tag.

#robotumpsnow: Creation obscure – seemed like a bunch of us started using it around the same time so I won’t take any credit. Refers mostly to awful ball/strike calls by home plate umps, and the fact that replacing that with currently available technology would be an immediate improvement.

SHANF: I think Crashburn Alley started this one – at least, that’s how I first saw it – which originally referred to Shane Victorino doing something a little dim on the field. Given his 2013 season, and how much I ragged on that contract last offseason, if I drop a “SHANF” now, I’m making fun of myself and my very wrong analysis about him.

#smrtbaseball: A little bit of The Simpsons applied to baseball, this refers to tactical moves that are anything but smart, especially ill-advised bunts or intentional walks, as well as batting a low-OBP guy in the two hole. It appears to have started here:

#shrimp/#shrimpalert: Refers to a walk-off walk (walking in the winning run because the bases were loaded). Not mine – originated on the walkoffwalk blog here.

should of: That’s all Fan Since 09, a brilliant parody of a Phillies fan who hopped on the bandwagon right after they won the World Series.

#SSS: Small Sample Size. In other words, I’m saying the performance in question is more a function of the randomness inherent in small samples of plate appearances or innings pitched than a change in skill or outlook. Fangraphs has a few pieces on when samples aren’t small any more. It’s worth bearing in mind, however, that if we look at 100 players who’ve reached that threshold, we’re still likely to see one or two players whose stats haven’t stabilized or regressed – it would be more surprising if we didn’t see any outliers at all.

#tehfear: As in, The Fear, the thing that Boston Globe writer Dan Shaughnessy said Jim Rice provoked in opposing pitchers, and that thus made Rice worthy of Hall of Fame induction. It’s just the kind of unverifiable, unfalsifiable nonsense that people use when defeated by rational arguments.

TOOTBLAN: Thrown Out On the Bases Like a Nincompoop. Invented by Cubs blogger Tony Jewell for Ryan Theriot. I’m blocked from the original site due to Google saying it’s infected with malware, but you can see the relevant part of the initial post here.

#umpshow: Any time an umpire decides that he wants to make himself the center of attention, especially by attempting to provoke a conflict with a player or coach, it’s an umpshow. Fans don’t watch games to see the umpires ump. We watch to see the players. It would be great if the minority of umpires who think all eyes should be on them could understand that. Not to be confused with basic incompetence, where #robotumpsnow or #thehumanelement might be more accurate.

#veteranpresents: Started in this chat, regarding Garret Anderson, when the Dodgers signed him to provide veteran presence in their lineup. I decided it was more likely he was a veteran who handed out presents to other players and coaches in the locker room, since that seemed like the only way he’d provide any value. It is a mortal lock that any time I drop this hashtag, at least three people will claim I misspelled “presence,” because they were both without a sense of humor.

#weirdbaseball: Refers to any game that goes past midnight local time (that is, where the game is being played), at which point, everyone is supposed to eat ice cream. Invented by my former colleague Kevin Goldstein (RIP).

#YCPB: You Can’t Predict Baseball, so you should follow this Twitter account.

#your: I don’t play grammar police very often, but it is amazing how often people who send me insults on Twitter can’t get “your” and “you’re” straight. I believe it was @ceeangi who first pointed out this phenomenon.

Omissions? Corrections? Fire ‘em in the comments. This list really isn’t mine, but ours as a community, so I’ll update accordingly.

42.

This week’s episode of Behind the Dish includes my conversation with John C. McGinley, who plays broadcaster Red Barber in 42 and was a fantastic guest. I also have a new column up discussing recent outings from three young NL starters – Jose Fernandez, Matt Harvey, and Julio Teheran.

The Jackie Robinson biopic 42, opening nationwide on Friday, is a superficial, Hollywood-ized version of the part of Robinson’s life from the Dodgers’ decision to add a black player to their organization until the end of his first season in the majors. A complicated person going through an emotional trial largely unthinkable to viewers today, Robinson is reduced in this film to an intense, brooding, slightly reluctant hero, on screen to be worshiped rather than admired for his strengths and his flaws.

The movie limits itself mostly to two years, 1946 and 1947, and simplifies the story to one where the Dodgers quickly identify Robinson as the player to help them break the color bar, let him dominate the International League for a year (taking just moderate abuse from white players and fans), and bring him up to the majors for a perfunctory tour of the racists of the National League. At nearly every step, Robinson responds to the abuse, mostly verbal with a few attempts to injure him, on the field, always providing the well-timed homer or the easy stolen base to shut up, even for a moment, his antagonists.

Only once do we see Robinson truly respond to the torrent of hate from whites, combined with the weight of expectations from blacks, in the way we’d expect any human being to respond, giving the film its pivotal scene and the one point where Robinson felt like a real person, rather than a two-dimensional character descended from Mt. Olympus. The movie needed that scene, as a catharsis for any empathetic viewers who could only imagine the pressure building up inside Robinson, as he isn’t allowed to respond to taunts or humiliations except with his abilities on the field. What 42 also needed, but didn’t get, was smaller instances of Robinson facing the frustrations – days when he might have gone 0-for-4, failed to come up big in a critical situation, and merely empowered the bigots who said he didn’t belong on the field with white players. Instead, we get trivial scenes of domestic bliss, powered by the beautiful Nicole Behairie in a wasted role as Robinson’s wife Rachel.

Even the process of getting Robinson to the big leagues is far too easy. Branch Rickey’s decision is shown as impetuous, and the internal debate within the Dodgers’ front office (which never seems to include the actual owner of the team) is minimal. The trio of executives select Robinson from a stack of folders on players with scouting reports and biographical information, but we never see the Dodgers actually scout anyone – eventually one of the executives tracks down Robinson’s Negro League team, coincidentally right after he has emerged from a whites-only bathroom at a gas station, and summons him to Brooklyn. The year in Montreal is barely shown, and the decision to promote Robinson to the majors is a formality. While 42 doesn’t make it look easy for Robinson, it does make the journey look a lot smoother than it actually was, an emphasis on Robinson himself that detracts from the magnitude of what he accomplished in reality.

Two aspects of the movie stood out as reasons to see it despite its weaknesses. One was the array of strong performances in leading and secondary roles. Chadwick Boseman (Robinson) does his best with limited material, as he can’t display more than two or three emotions over the course of the entire film, but has a strong enough on-screen presence to command scenes where he sits at the center – except, of course, when Harrison Ford, playing Branch Rickey, is in the room. Ford shocked me with his portrayal of Rickey, one because the script itself did a strong job of depicting Rickey as less than perfect, but also because Ford, even when blustering as Rickey blustered, didn’t chew up entire scenes – he dialed back enough for everyone else, even Boseman, to maintain a presence on the sceen. (We also didn’t get quite enough of Rickey’s motivations for breaking baseball’s unofficial but fifty-year-old color bar; the anecdote he tells Robinson near the end of the film was likely true, appearing in every Rickey biography I’ve read, but the movie doesn’t give the detail that makes the story even more compelling.) Alan Tudyk (Wash from Firefly) is frighteningly effective as the racial-epithet-spewing manager Ben Chapman, whose treatment of Robinson on the field may have led to the early end of his managing career, while McGinley hits his accented, staccato Red Barber impersonation to the point where I wouldn’t have recognized McGinley’s voice if I hadn’t seen him on screen. I wish Leo Durocher had stuck around in the story longer (in reality, that is) so we could have seen more of Christopher Meloni in that role, and thought Andre Holland was largely wasted in a one-note role as sportswriter Wendell Smith, where they made him look less like a writer of the ’40s than like he was about to break into the chorus of “Jerk Out.”

I also thought the baseball within the film was depicted reasonably well, particularly the visuals – creating fields and crowd scenes that looked somewhat appropriate for the time (although, like the entire film, everything is far too bright and clean). The movie relies heavily on apocryphal incidents, like the time Pee Wee Reese may or may not have put his arm around Robinson on the field in Cincinnati and practically read his teammate his eulogy while everyone else waits around for them to finish. The actual movements of players passed the eye test, however, perhaps in part because the extras included a number of former pro players, including one name in particular that jumped out at me during the closing credits. Even the stolen base sequences, which had to be the hardest to film, were good enough for the big screen – not perfect, but I doubt most viewers will be bothered by the catchers’ arm actions or the timing of Robinson’s jumps.

I could see 42 becoming a popular film because of the appeal of Robinson as an American hero – a veteran who destroyed one of the most visible examples of segregation in America, an achievement with tremendous symbolic value that presaged the civil rights movement of the two decades that followed it. But canonizing Robinson was unnecessary; a film that depicted Robinson as angry, frustrated, and flawed would not reduce his myth in the least. It is easier to believe in heroes who are human. The script of 42 tells us twice that Robinson may have been superhuman, and that lionization diminishes his legacy, and us in the process.

* I haven’t read Blackout: The Untold Story of Jackie Robinson’s First Spring Training, but came across it when researching the epilogue’s claim about Ed Charles (which this book apparently confirms). If any of you have read it, I’d like to hear whether it’s worthwhile, as the description on amazon implies that it has more of the ugly details of Robinson’s trials in that first year.