Bill Parker

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Read in the normal Western way of reading things, the above logo says “2012 Royals All-Star Game.” Yet, while it’ll be held at Kauffman Stadium, and while I’m sure we’ll have plenty of shots of George Brett in the crowd, the actual game and surrounding festivities seem likely to have as little to do with the 2012 Royals as the rules make it possible to.

Every team is required to be represented by at least one player in the game, and the Royals will be represented by exactly one, Billy Butler. Butler isn’t starting the game or contending in the Home Run Derby (and he’s not much of a HR hitter, frankly, but Larry Granillo doesn’t think it should matter). He’s listed as a DH, so it’s far from a guarantee that when he does play, you’ll see him in the field (though Konerko is the only reserve 1B, so it’s certainly possible), and Adam Dunn is also on the reserve roster as a DH, both backing up David Ortiz, so it’s not a guarantee that he’ll get more than one plate appearance (or even that, technically, except it seems safe to assume that Ron Washington will find a way to get the one hometown guy in there). There are close to seventy-five All-Stars; only one of them plays for the Royals. In fact, only one other of them used to play in Kansas City: Carlos Beltran, who was last a Royal in mid-2004 and had his two best seasons (by rWAR) in a Mets uniform.

It’s a great city with what I’m told is a great, recently-remade stadium, and it should be a terrific showcase for the city and the organization. But if you’re a lifelong Kansas Citian and Royals fan who has the opportunity to head down the street and check out the game, there’s not much to keep you interested. Part of every All-Star Game in living memory (and probably not an essential or even necessarily a good part, but unmistakably a part of the experience) is the mostly-hometown crowd going nuts over their own hometown players, and there will be very little opportunity for that tomorrow night.

Does this actually have a chance to be the least involved a host team has ever been in an All-Star Game? Here are what I see as the fifteen current contenders: Read the rest of this entry »

As you probably know, when Bill James was looking for a name for the new pseudo-discipline he was helping to create, he decided to pay homage to and help publicize the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR). It was a very nice gesture. Unfortunately, as the term “sabermetrics” has become increasingly popular and/or notorious, it seems to have colored most people’s view of SABR itself in an understandable, but almost entirely incorrect, way. The assumption seems to be that SABR itself is heavily stat-centered, all Moneyball and WAR and xFIP and suspenders and pocket protectors. But really, “sabermetrics” shares nothing with “SABR” save those two syllables. While there certainly are new-agey, BPro-BRef-and-FanGraphs types among its membership (hi!), SABR’s focus has always been, and remains, historical baseball research; we statheads are a very small, though growing, part of the whole. I’d say 80% or so of the organization consists of people, mostly men and mostly in their sixties or later,  who may well think RBI and pitcher wins are just great, but who are interested in the history of the sport (or any number of specific pieces thereof), with the remaining 20% consisting mostly of the analytical crowd, almost all 35 and under. No overlap, and with very little falling in between. It’s a bit weird.

But they’re all baseball geeks (in the non-disparaging, “person with an intense, out-of-the-mainstream devotion to something” sense), and if you’re a baseball geek, too, they’re pretty much all good people to be around, talk to, and learn from. Last week — as they do every year at about this time — some 500-600 of them gathered for the annual SABR convention. This year’s convention, the 42nd annual, was in Minneapolis, and was the first opportunity I’d ever had to attend.

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Catchers, as a group, are not good hitters. We all know this. And I don’t have the research to back this up, but it seems to me that the way in which they’re not good is that they tend to be poor at getting on base; it’s not that hard to find a catcher that has a little home run power, but they run slow and hit a lot of fly balls and/or strike out a ton, so they hit for poor averages, and they don’t draw walks. As a group. You Toronto folks have kind of an extreme example of the type of player profile I’ve got in mind.

A lot was made of the fact that Joe Mauer became the first (then the second and the third) catcher to lead the American League in batting average, but between the two leagues, that’s been done eight total times now; only three catchers have ever led their league in OBP, and only one of those (Mauer, in 2009) came in 1934 or later.

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Relative to its its own established standards for adapting to, well, everything else, Major League Baseball has been pretty quick to latch on the Twitter phenomenon. Sure, it’s been around for years, but Twitter is still growing, and fast, having (according to itself in March 2012) picked up 40% of its user base over the preceding six months alone. Baseball teams haven’t missed that; all thirty of them have official Twitter accounts (some have more than one), most of them particularly active.

But it’s a very recent thing that teams have started directly trying to turn Twitter followers into real-life stadium visits, hosting “social media nights.” There were a handful last year, and something more like a plethora this year.

From what I can tell, most of these involve the team’s Twitter followers buying a ticket that gets them both a ballgame and extra goodies: the Cubs sold 300 special bleacher seats; the Astros hold multiple social media nights, each requiring the guest to purchase a patio ticket for $45; the Mets have a two-tiered package that set you back $35 (for access to batting practice) or $55 (for a player Q&A); the Pirates offered $10 off the regular price of a ticket to their Twitter followers for social media night, which also included a pre-game reception; the Brewers had you buy tickets to a special club area for $59 apiece, but included a buffet, two free drinks and “a special pregame panel discussion about social media and sports featuring a visit by Brewers players who participate in social media.” (The Blue Jays don’t seem to have anything like this yet, as far as I can tell from perusing their “Social Media Clubhouse.”)

The Twins seem to have taken a different view from the other Twitter-savvy clubs, forgoing the quick cash grab (and actually losing rather a lot of cash in the very short term, it seemed to me) in the hopes of enlarging their social media presence, and ultimately selling more tickets, in a more roundabout way. I was one of the lucky 15 or so (each with a guest) who was invited to attend the Twins’ “Social Media Deckstravaganza” last Friday — utterly free of charge — and take in the game in a suite stuffed with free food and beer, among other things. Did it “work”? Well, it seems to me they won’t really know for months, if ever. But it was a hell of a lot of fun. Read the rest of this entry »

For the longest time (well, 2005 to at least 2009), Chase Utley was indisputably the most underrated player in baseball. In that five-year period, he never finished outside of third in rWAR among NL position players, yet never finished higher than eighth in the MVP voting. He led Phillies position players in rWAR in each of those years (and even in an injury-shortened 2010), and finished behind at least one such Phillies position player in the MVP voting each time; in 2005, before Ryan Howard was around full time to grab all the attention somehow, it was Pat Burrell. Pat Burrell!

Now, of course, Utley has missed 168 games since 2010, including all 62 of them so far this year. So today, the day when Utley finally starts his class-A rehab stint, seemed like a good day to revisit the question of who is the current holder of Utley’s former title. Who is the new most underrated player in baseball?

Most of the other contenders have become casualties, too. Before the start of 2011, strong cases were made for Ryan Zimmerman and Shin-Soo Choo; in the 1.4 seasons since, the first of those has missed around 70 games and hit just .275/.344/.416 (108 OPS+) while putting up 2.3 WAR when he has played, and the second has missed even more games, played only a little bit better, and been arrested on a DUI charge. I think you could’ve made a case for Evan Longoria (everyone knows he’s good, but few realize he has/had a strong case for best player in the AL), but he’s now missed 66 games since the start of ’11 himself. Ian Kinsler had a case, but his usually stellar defensive numbers are way down according to all the metrics so far…which may not mean much, but then, it’s pretty much all his case rests on. And now that he’s been to the Series twice in a row, I think most people know he’s pretty good by now anyway. Ben Zobrist seems to make his case approximately every other year, and it doesn’t look like this is one of those years.

So we need a whole new list, I think. A list of guys who (for the most part) are so underrated, people aren’t really talking about them as underrated yet. I’m sure ten different people could come up with ten equally valid lists, but here’s my attempt at naming the top five candidates, in no particular order:

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I’ve never been a huge fan myself, so I kind of hate to admit this, but Jerry Seinfeld has basically become this generation’s Shakespeare. He’s said a lot of things, and a lot of them are brilliant, but they’re heard and interpreted by so many people that eventually, someone thinks of ways to make them even better. So at the end of the day, like Shakespeare, Seinfeld gets credited with saying a lot of things he almost said. One of those things is the concept that, as North American sports fans, what we’re really doing is “rooting for laundry” — a really perfect phrase the origin of which I can’t pin down. Here’s what Seinfeld actually said:

Loyalty to any one sports team is pretty hard to justify. Because the players are always changing, the team could move to another city. You’re actually rooting for the clothes, when you get right down to it. You know what I mean? You are standing and cheering and yelling for your clothes…to beat the clothes from another city. Fans will be so in love with a player, but if he goes to another team, they boo him! This is the same human being in a different shirt [and] they hate him now! Boo! Different shirt? Boooooo.

Seinfeld wasn’t the first to notice the phenomenon, either. Here (courtesy of John Thorn in his excellent book Baseball in the Garden of Eden, which I’m currently reading) is Pliny the Younger, writing about chariot races more than 1900 years ago:

If indeed it were the swiftness of the horses, or the skill of the men that attracted them, there might be some pretense for [the passion of the crowd]. But it is the dress they like; it is the dress that takes their fancy. And if, in the midst of the course and the contest, the different parties were to change colors their different partisans would change sides and instantly desert the very same men and horses whom just before they were eagerly following. . . . Such mighty charms, such wondrous power reside in the color of a paltry tunic!

It was a good observation in 109 C.E. and a funny joke ca. 1995 because it encapsulates an almost universally true, and really bizarre, aspect of spectator sports. As a Minnesota sports fan, it’s not as though Torii Hunter or A.J. Pierzynski were ever my favorite players (very far from it), but it sure became a lot easier to take note of their less desirable qualities once they were wearing different uniforms. It was incredibly easy to hate Brett Favre, until he put on a purple jersey and started winning a bunch of football games. And so on. In almost every instance, we root for “our team” to win, above (and generally to the exclusion of) everything else: the only things that identify “our team” are the city it plays in and the colors of the clothes they wear.

So it doesn’t happen often, but when you find yourself rooting for something other than laundry, it’s worth taking a second and thinking about why. And that happened to me on Friday night, when the Mets’ Johan Santana threw a no-hitter.

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TPA Dispatches: Bautista 2.0?

Entering 2010, Jose Bautista was a 29 year old journeyman. He’d spent most of his career as a third baseman, but had more or less aged out of that position, and didn’t really hit well enough to justify making him an everyday player in the corner outfield positions he could still handle. But then he changed his swing and plate approach, and immediately became one of baseball’s best hitters.

After 59 homers in 2038 plate appearances across his first six big-league seasons, Bautista very nearly doubled his career output in 2010 alone, with 54 in 683 PA, and followed that up with an even more brilliant 2011. From the first day of 2010 through this weekend, Bautista had hit .273/.401/.591 (164 OPS+), with a HR every 14.2 PA, compared to his 2004-2009 standard of one every 34.5.

Entering 2012, Edwin Encarnacion was 29 years old, and something of a journeyman himself. He’d spent most of his career as a third baseman, but was dizzyingly poor at it, and he didn’t hit well enough to justify making him an everyday player at the only position he can play (designated hitter). But then he worked to shorten and use both hands in his swing, and so far in 2012, he’s been one of baseball’s best hitters. He hit his 16th home run on Monday night, and comes into this morning hitting .274/.335/.579, which I’m guessing will be good for approximately a 146 OPS+. On a per-game basis, he enters today on pace for about 53 home runs, almost exactly Bautista’s 2010 total, and has hit one for roughly every 13 PA.

Can this really happen again? Has lightning struck twice for the Blue Jays? Read the rest of this entry »