Thursday, May 31, 2012

Quick Takes - Sociopaths at the wheel

My friend Hickey, whom you all surely know from Bathroom Science fame (search in the right-hand navigation if you're new here), and I were discussing a fascinating article from Internet juggernaut The Last Psychiatrist about narcissism and the idolization of ego in the modern world, titled "Why We Love Sociopaths." Hickey and I are, for the sake of this article at least, normally-cisstic and minimally-egotistical folks (no comments, please), so in the context of the article, we are the non-Sociopaths (again, no comments). There's a lot of great stuff discussed in the article, but there's one paragraph about the proverbial "line cutter" that really struck home with me:
He's a different kind of person than you.  He can do things you can't, do women you can't, he sees the world's rules differently, which specifically means he understands that there are no "world's rules," that rules are decided by those with power for their own benefit.  After he cuts in line, he pockets a Milky Way bar because, well, because he got away with it.  My grammar is correct: he can do it since he got away with it.
I have met many people like this, we all have, and I've certainly encountered them throughout the stages of my life (other than larval), but I happened to (nearly) run into one today on the commute to work, and there's no outlet for the rage it induces other than here. So prepare yourself. It's a simple tale, told a thousand times on a thousand drives across our fair land: The long, inchworm line of cars all waiting patiently for their chance to turn, for their number to be called. The single, rogue asshole who decides to forgo the line and drive up to the front, passing 100 cars in the process and darting in at the last moment before the turn to go forward on his merry way.

Having read the aforementioned article recently, I saw him try to dart in front of my car and just wasn't feeling it. I didn't want to reinforce the sociopath, I didn't want to reward the chaos. So, I laid on the horn and sped up to the car in front of me, shutting off the way like Gandalf in the mines of Moria. The car behind me followed suit and closed any gaps that might've opened when I sped up. I continued to sound my horn -- the vocalized threat of a modern primate under duress -- and hugged the bumper of the person in front of me. The asshole continued to turn, despite turning into a lane of opposing traffic, and finally swung in three cars behind me at the last gasp when someone sadly let him in. I was incensed, not because he won, but because everyone let him win. There are no rules. It didn't matter that I stood my ground. He cut off 100 cars to get in, and only had to mildly-tussle with three staunch drivers who weren't willing to let him in. BFD. It was a depressing morning, and a depressing realization that we really do love Sociopaths, and we are powerless against their lawless approach.

Maybe I should start riding a bike to work.

  • The Seattle Mariners have scored 31 runs in their last two games against the Texas Rangers, which is beyond exciting/amazing/unbelievable, but Mariners manager Eric Wedge keeps saying in interviews (paraphrasing), "See, this is what we've been telling these guys to do all year long!" And I keep thinking to myself, well no shit ... It'd be great to score 15 runs a game, and I'm sure you've said something to them about hitting and baseball and such. But to point to recent success and say, "Yup, this is what we told them to do, this is a result of something we did," is the baseball equivalent of Mitt Romney telling reporters that he's going to take credit for the auto industry's revitalization, because he just ... saw it happen from nearby.
  • Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Jason Babin plans to run with the bulls in Pamplona this summer, despite the risk of having his contract voided and potentially losing his career/life. "It's kind of a rite of passage," Babin said after his first OTA on Wednesday to the Philadelphia Enquirer. "It's a stamp. I guess in my brain I have a figurative man card that's got certain punches that need to be punched out. Everyone thinks it's dangerous and hazardous, but it's not if done correctly and soberly. Bulls can't turn the corner on cobblestone, so as long as you're on the inside you're going to be alright. I broke the tape down like game film." In lieu of a single joke, I will present to you the following series of jokes, because this paragraph is so ridiculous I don't know where to start:
    • Goddammit, is Hillary Clinton distributing man cards again?
    • Any time you start a sentence with "everyone thinks it's dangerous and hazardous, but it's not if ..." you're gonna have a bad time.
    • Up next on Mythbusters, can a bull turn a corner on cobblestone?!?
    • I'm pretty sure Jason Babin just wrote his own eulogy.
    • After "Run with the bulls" gets punched on his man card, does he get a free sandwich?
    • I know where Babin's coming from on this. I feel the same way when I down that big ass fish-oil pill. Exhilarating.
    • The thing that really jumped out to me was "if done correctly and soberly." Those two words are really incongruous, and, to my brain, the real sticking point in Babin's plan. See, just because you are sober, doesn't mean everyone around you is. If I'm driving a car at 20 mph through a school zone or something, there's a good chance I'm going to drive it correctly. But put a bunch of drunk people in the car with me, and stick my Nissan Pathfinder in the middle of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with race cars whizzing past at 200 mph (and all the racecars are now animate and angry and specifically want to run into me), my driving success is surely going to be influenced, right? I might still drive well -- hell, I might even survive -- but the odds are against me.
  • In the NBA, you are now apparently allowed to ninja-kick a defender in the knee who has jumped to block your shot, and the defender will receive a foul and you get to shoot free throws. Good to know.
  • The lead headline on BBC Sport is: "Injured Frank Lampard out of Euro 2012." They spelled "old" wrong.
  • Norwich manager Paul Lambert had his resignation request denied by his current club after rumors swirled linking him to the vacant post at Aston Villa. I smell a sitcom! Some guy tries desperately to get fired (a la George Costanza with the Yankees), but no matter what he does (within reason), no one will accept his resignation. He dresses casual on a Monday (the horror!); he wears ladies clothes but ends up getting featured in a company marketing campaign for LGTB awareness; he cooks fish in the communal kitchen (who does that?!). But despite his frustration, he's too guilty to stay at home and get paid (he's Catholic, hence guilt), so he keeps showing up to work to attempt to resign again. Rinse and Repeat (that's the name of the show). And he's played by Ricky Gervais (Stephen Merchant plays his best friend in a huge stretch role for the lanky Brit). You know, I probably could've just said "played by Ricky Gervais" up front and not bothered to write that horrible, cliche plot (and these unnecessary parentheticals that prompt my friend Steve to send threatening e-mails).
  • (Seinfeld voice) What's the deal with those five-toed running shoes?
  • Chelsea striker Romelu Lukaku didn't celebrate the team's puke-inducing Champions League win over frustrations with his own playing time. Lukaku was transferred to Chelsea this past offseason for £20m, but made just four starts all year for the Blues. Lukaku said, "Chelsea really wanted me last summer and paid a lot for me, but after a while I thought, are you just throwing money around?" ... Aw, I don't have the heart to tell him.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Leave Chone Figgins alone (on the bench)

Geoff Baker of the Seattle Times Mariners Blog wrote an article today condemning the Mariners' decision to send Casper Wells to AAA in lieu of designating struggling infielder Chone Figgins for assignment. Baker makes the argument that Figgins is holding back the rebuilding plan the Mariners organization has; that he's single-handedly retarding the progress of the organization and the talented youth we have in the minor leagues. But Figgins is, well, he's nothing. He's a null value. He's an expensive null, sure, but he's still a null value, and doing anything with him at this point would actually be more of a detraction to the organization than letting him sit on the bench through the rest of his contract.

Face it, Figgins isn't a tradeable asset anymore. And while you might be able to pull off some ludicrous lopsided deal for Jack Squat (I think he's a catcher), where you eat the bulk of Figgins' contract and get some bullshit player in return, it'll never be a trade that benefits you in any way other than freeing yourself from Figgins. And unless he goes after manager Eric Wedge like he did Don Wakamatsu two years ago, what's the point? Every roster needs bench players. Every roster needs utility players and veterans to help guide youngsters through the day-to-day life of Major League Baseball. You need pinch-runners and defensive substitutions and late-scratch fill-ins. 162 games is a lot of freaking games, and depth is something every single team in the majors needs. And while Figgins' contract isn't that of a utility player, that's what he is now. Stop trying to make Figgins something that he isn't. He's a utility player. That's it. It's that simple. So, Geoff Baker and everyone else who's clamoring for a Figgins pink slip, forget the contract, forget the money owed -- the Mariners aren't going to get anything of value in return -- and embrace Figgins for his new multi-purpose role.

As far as what's "best for the organization," Figgins sitting on the bench is infinitely better for the organization than calling up a talented youngster from the minors to sit on the bench and stop getting regular plate appearances. The Mariners have far too many young players still working their way up and down the depth chart as it is; adding another to the mix would be pointless, which is obviously why they sent Casper Wells down to the minors. Wells is a talented player, jury's still out on how talented, but having him sit on the bench watching games didn't help him or the organization in any way. Sending him to the minors to get regular at bats did. So bravo to the Mariners for handling both Wells and Figgins the right way.

Who cares if Chone Figgins doesn't get more at bats this season? Who cares if he's "wasting away" on the bench? Who cares if he doesn't have the opportunities to boost his (non-existent) trade value to move him for another utility player who maybe costs less (but you still end up paying out on Figgins' contract anyway). The Mariners need guys like Chone Figgins, guys like Munenori Kawasaki (Mune should be playing more often, but that's another story), who fill a role and don't need 600 plate appearances to be an asset to the team. Yes, Chone Figgins is an asset to the Mariners (it's weird to type that), and as long as he's not a distraction or a disruption, he will continue to have a role and a purpose on this team.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Ichiro and the dreaded leadoff spot

It was all Mariner fans heard about this offseason: Manager Eric Wedge was finally putting Ichiro in his place. One of the most famous Seattle Mariners in franchise history, one of the most prolific hitters the sport of baseball has ever seen, was being relegated from his legendary leadoff spot to the three hole, because the manager wanted to prove a point. It was his clubhouse, not Ichiro's, and he was going to change the tone of things in Seattle. Ichiro wasn't a "prototypical leadoff hitter," whatever the hell that meant, and it was time to move him out of his notorious slot and put someone else, someone more "traditional" (see: OBP), in his place. It started out well, with Chone Figgins battling pitchers and Ichiro "driving the ball more," another phrase the manager was tossing around that doesn't actually mean anything. But anytime you start a point with Chone Figgins, you know it's headed for trouble.

Ichiro now has 36 games under his belt in the 2012 season. The Mariners are obviously hitting the ball better as a unit, although their team on-base-percentage is horrific and they're striking out at near-historic rates, but what has the impact been on the future Hall of Fame right fielder? After leading the team in most meaningful offensive categories last year, in what was a painfully down year for Ichiro, the manager pointed the finger at him and said he needed to produce. Ichiro has responded this year, leading the team in batting average, on-base-percentage, hits, triples, BB/K ratio, etc etc., but the manager continues to constipate himself with the numbers that don't matter: Ichiro's lack of RBI production, something that's essentially out of his hands and dependent on the runners in front of him getting on base (which they aren't).

Wedge called Ichiro out to the media yesterday, along with the rest of his veterans, and has once-again called Ichiro's role into question, the very one that Wedge put him in, mind you. Instead of being an atypical-but-insanely-productive leadoff hitter, Wedge moved him to third in the lineup and is now bitching to the media about his "atypicalilty" in that role, too. But Wedge made that bed. He put a player who has, historically, collected more infield hits than anyone else on the team each year, and moved him to a spot where his infield singles would suddenly turn into fielder's choice outs and double plays. It's no surprise that Ichiro is tied for the team lead in GIDP (with a measly four, so let's not go overboard here). Ichiro is on pace to have more than double his previous career worst in GIDP. It's not rocket science. He hits a lot of ground balls and turns a lot of those ground balls into hits with his approach and foot speed. Now? Those are outs. And outs are bad, mmkay?

It's also no surprise that Ichiro's baserunning prowess has been reduced to practically nothing this season (we can debate the importance of stolen bases another day). Ichiro is on pace to pull in 13-14 stolen bases this year, ~50% lower than his previous career low. By putting him in the third position, Wedge is limiting one of Ichiro's greatest skills, his speed, as the power hitters immediately behind him swing away early in the count (Jesus Montero is second-lowest on the team in pitches seen/PA, behind Ichiro, of course). Wedge is limiting Ichiro's potential to get hits, he's reducing the number of plate appearances that his best hitter gets, he's reducing the number of available baserunning chances for his best baserunner ... the list goes on and on.

And none of it seems to be working in the Mariners' favor. Is that Ichiro's fault? Should he be adjusting his approach, the way the manager said he needed to this winter? Of course not. Ichiro, just like every other Mariner on the roster, should be put into a position by his manager to be as successful as possible based on his skillset. I read a book called Strengths Finder 2.0, one of those "take this arbitrary survey and we'll tell you what you're good at" books they latch onto in the business world. While the methodology wasn't perfect, Strengths Finder brought up a really interesting point: Too often we spend our lives worried about correcting our flaws, about neutralizing our negatives and trying to become a part of the common denominator, but in the process of doing that, we reduce the power and importance of our strengths, of the tools that we have that make us uniquely effective.

By moving Ichiro out of the leadoff role (which doesn't mean anything but it reduces his PAs over the season, hopefully puts runners on base ahead of him, and puts quick-swinging power hitters behind him), he's not only limiting Ichiro's success, but the success of the rest of the lineup. He's not highlighting Ichiro's strengths, but trying to minimize his flaws, and in turn, it's negatively effecting the potential of the Mariners lineup.

Meanwhile, Ichiro has been accused by the manager of not being "productive" from the third position. In the traditional sense, Ichiro hasn't been a "slugger." He's on pace for 5 HR and 59 RBI. Not the most awe-inspiring numbers for a spot in the batting order once owned by Ken Griffey, Jr. But Ichiro is second on the team in OPS (on-base-percentage plus slugging percentage), leads the team in total bases and hits, has limited his strikeouts and is on pace for a career low in Ks by ~33%, and he's second on the team in doubles and is on pace for a career high in that category. So what, exactly, is he not doing from a productivity standpoint that would prompt the manager to call him out to the media?

Ichiro has been excellent this year and should be applauded for the professional way he's handled the change and his hitting approach this season (not to mention his return to above-average defense in right field). He's been the best hitter on the team, despite being put in a position to fail and unnecessarily called out as a faux-scapegoat for his "lack of production" by the manager. It's time for Wedge to stop trying to send messages and puff his chest and put Ichiro back in a position where he, and the rest of the lineup, can be most-successful: The leadoff spot.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Grading the NFL Draft grades

Looks like somebody just talked to an expert!

Oh, where to begin! I give ESPN a B+ for their overall broadcast, mostly because Jon Gruden looks pissed whenever he's on TV and for some reason I enjoy that. And NFL Commish/Radio City Music Hall MC Roger Goodell will be given an A- for his quiet comfort in hugging large, weeping men during the first round. And I give that lady who stood with a bank of lights on a stick in the background of every shot a D for her red, ill-fitting polo shirt. And I give Mel Kiper Jr. a D- for never changing his greasy hairstyle for over 30 years. I give David Stern an F for not attending, because he should be booed during every draft, even ones that aren't related to his league. And I give former Florida defensive back Janoris Jenkins an A+ for having four kids while in college (what an over-achiever!).

Blah. Blah. Blah.

See, I was trying to establish the tone for this piece by showing the outlandish and completely arbitrary nature of how draft "experts" grade NFL teams for their rookie selections, but even as I was typing it, I found myself drawn into the satisfying world of grading shit. It's fun! And super easy, too! Any writer could do it, which is exactly what the NFL Draft post-apocalypse has become: Grade things based on whatever you want to grade them on. It's a ball pit of confirmation bias, where media members weight their own evaluations higher than the evaluations of, you know, people who work for professional sports teams. It's a common miscue for media members. We all think we know more than the people who play, coach, work for, etc. sports teams, because we have the opportunity to draw in grandiose outside perspective (even if it's our own biased, and therefore useless, perspective) and to slow-motion analyze every thought and action in any given game. I like to say "grandiose outside perspective" in a big, booming voice. It adds to the drama.

When I saw the NFL Draft grades come pouring out (or is it in?) from writers and pundits, I laughed. Not because they were wrong. No, how could they be wrong? These draft grades are nothing but pure opinion and guesswork. What was funny was how they arrived at their grades. I heard multiple pundits on the radio and TV who graded down teams who picked players they thought should've been drafted later. Just think about that for a second. They are grading down teams for drafting players that they, and only they individually, perceived to be in a certain slot in the draft order. And yet, the sort of beautiful economic principle of the NFL Draft, is that a player is worth wherever he was drafted. You can come up with your own values and assign them to players based on whatever bullshit you see and believe and hear, but, at the end of the day, a player is drafted precisely where he was meant to be drafted (I sound like Gandalf). These draft "experts" are utilizing their massive media platforms to criticize teams that drafted a guy they needed, but they ... maybe ... it's possible, I guess ... could've drafted at a later time. When it comes to the NFL Draft, it's not who you pick, according to the experts, it's when you pick them (according to their own vague valuations of a player's perceived worth ... fucking exhausting, if you ask me).

When it comes down to it, the draft grades are meaningless. Which could be the end of the conversation, really. The teams obviously don't give a shit about what grades their given, nor does it have any impact on anything, so why discuss them? I think they're worthwhile to discuss because they're a) revered by most NFL fans and used as a tool to manipulate public perception, and b) are a crutch that enforces and enhances the careers and credibility of the people who fans are supposed to look to for insider guidance, news, and perspective on the day-to-day sprawl of the league. The problem with this type of self-enhacement is that no one's ever actually held accountable. And, no, I don't think Mel Kiper Jr. should be booted off the air for having a "pick percentage" lower than 40% (or whatever), but the point is that the NFL Draft has become more about the draftniks and their super-conglomerates than it is about the kids getting drafted.

These are college athletes, who are being drafted into the NFL. They are the tiniest percentile of success that pro sports has, and yet, even before they play a single snap in the NFL, the media has already judged them and the teams who pick them. But the grades are false. They're factoring in the wrong variables, and they'll never be able to factor in the right variables because there are no variables to even measure! Every NFL player is only as good as his talent + commitment + (and this is the big one) CIRCUMSTANCE (see how big it is? I caps-locked that shit). A player has very little control over circumstance. A player can't control who is ahead of him on the depth chart. A player doesn't control the playbook, or even what plays are called. A player doesn't control whether or not his strengths are maximized. A player doesn't control the decisions of the coaching staff, or the front office, or who plays next to him. It's just ... insane how much money and admiration is poured into the pockets of draft experts who are measuring absolutely nothing. Isn't that insane? Is it just me that thinks that's insane? Hello? Am I the only one writing in this column?

This whole draft value and grading nonsense sort of segues into a deeper philosophical discussion. There's been a huge swing in professional sports lately (not just in America, but all over the world) in defining a team's success not by its on-field accomplishments, but in how much success a team achieves based on the financial and talent/skill value of the individual players. Every year, payrolls are released, writers dissect stats and compare them to the respective payrolls, and then GMs and front office execs are given shiny awards based on how much they were able to extract from the overall coinpurse. Shouldn't the best GM in any given league be the one who, I don't know,  put together a team that won the championship? How is "best GM" even a thing? We're rewarding people who aren't achieving the highest level of success because they achieved more than their arbitrarily-determined value? I agree that there's something to be said for putting together a successful team cheaper than your competitors. And in the world of economics, those people might win a medal or something. But this is sports, not economics. And while there's always going to be some overlap, these franchises are worth billions of dollars, which means those owners are worth a decent amount of cash themselves. The fact that we now celebrate mid-level financial commitment by rewarding GMs and players who are able to do more than the money says they should is a virus. It's a virus. It's spreading across the leagues and reinforcing lazy, careless, profit-based ownership. And NFL Draft grades are just another symptom of this shift.

These networks pay their experts millions of dollars to spout bullshit about players they hardly know. And yet we trust them more than we trust the teams. The teams, you know, the ones who have watched thousands of hours of video on players, who have full scouting teams assigned the singular task of identifying talent that fits into the offensive and defensive systems, the ones who build relationships with these players from the time they're in high school and continue to track their progress for half a decade before the draft. No, we trust the guys who cycle through college players like Tyrion Lannister at a brothel. It will take years for most of these draft picks to even be relevant, and if they are (or aren't), it's all a product of that talent/dedication/circumstance formula. So let's just enjoy the draft, enjoy whatever players our teams selected, and wait and see what that formula produces. And please, for the love of whatever, let's stop allowing these so-called experts to control the collective response of a team's fanbase. It's frightening.