Have Faith in RNGesus

The League of Legends World Championship Final was held October 19th in Seoul, South Korea, in a stadium once used for the World Cup. It was a multimillion-dollar production, with an opening ceremony, live performances, corporate sponsors, and more. Tens of thousands of screaming League fans were in attendance to watch Samsung White of Korea take on StarHorn Royal Club of China, and tens of millions more watched around the world, in what was likely the most-watched esports event of all time.

And it was really fucking boring.

In the biggest foregone conclusion since last year, when the same thing happened, the Koreans won in dominant fashion. They dropped just two games all tournament, likely due to boredom, and at all times looked to be playing an entirely different game from their opponents. This outcome was expected by everyone, the whole tournament just being about How the Koreans would win, rather than If. Part of this is due to the Koreans being years ahead of other regions in organization and infrastructure, as well as having a culture that sees professional video game playing as a legitimate career choice. An even larger part of why the Finals were so terrible is the fans. Though they may not realize it, the lack of suspense was partly the fault of the thousands of people who filled that stadium.

There’s one thing competitive gamers hate more than low framerates and high ping: RNG. RNG stands for Random Number Generator, and it has its roots in the dice-rolling of Dungeons and Dragons. In most games, your character will have attributes, like a chance to dodge an attack, or a chance to critically strike your opponent, and when you perform an action, the game will “roll” a number to determine the outcome. Sometimes your opponent will dodge, sometimes you’ll crit, and the point is that it adds a bit of randomness, which is to say suspense and flavor, because strict determinism is boring. Without that element of randomness, every battle comes down to basic arithmetic: if my character is—for simplicity’s sake—power level 5 and yours is a 4, I win every time. Yet determinism is what players have been clamoring for from League of Legend’s developer, Riot Games, for years, and today the lack of randomness in the game is part of why its international tournaments are so boring.

Randomness is the great equalizer. The Biblical parable of David and Goliath isn’t an allegory for a holy defeat of Paganism, or a tale of how David is the true King of Israel; the story of David and Goliath is a lesson about the role chance plays in determining outcomes. If that fight were to play out again and again, say a thousand times, the most common outcome would be David’s crushing defeat at the hands of a clearly superior opponent. But once in awhile, the odds will come up in David’s favor and create the stuff of legend.

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The World Series culminated on Wednesday in a thrilling Game 7, with the San Francisco Giants defeating the Kansas City Royals. At the start of this year’s postseason, both of these teams could’ve been fairly categorized as Davids, as they both squeaked into the playoffs and, on paper, had the weakest rosters. In the first round, each faced their respective league’s Goliaths, and each dispatched them in convincing fashion. This is the inherent beauty of baseball: because it’s such a chance-based game, maybe the most random in all of sports, you have very little idea how any given contest will play out.

Absent algorithmically-generated randomness, baseball has a round ball contacting a round bat and being propelled into a field of play that has a lot more space than can be covered by the defense. It’s a game where, because the result of any action is so little influenced by the players, one learns to focus entirely on process. Process is the only thing you can control; the results are mostly out of your hands. In baseball a pitcher will throw precisely the pitch he wants in the location he wants it, and a much-inferior batter will be fooled into taking a bad swing, but sometimes the ball will fall in anyway. The batter will trot to first base with the bittersweet feeling of succeeding despite himself, and the pitcher will prepare for the next hitter, pleased with his process and accepting of, if not rejoicing in, the vagaries of luck. A person’s attitude toward luck, fortune, chance–whatever you want to call it–says a lot about them, and the League of Legends community’s attitude toward RNG says plenty. None of it is positive.

The dogged opposition to randomness in the League of Legends community is borne out of a childish sense of entitlement. This entitlement masquerades as a righteous commitment to ensuring game outcomes are “pure”, as in purely determined by skill, but is really an inability to come to terms with the role chance plays in everything. Practicing harder than your opponent, making better in-game decisions than them, and having superior skill are things that should merely increase your odds of succeeding, not completely guarantee it. Yet to the mind of most League of Legends players, if they make fewer mistakes in battle with an inferior opponent and still lose, the game is “broken” and they whine.

The immaturity of the community’s position is understandable when you consider the average player is a teenager, but what’s frustrating is Riot’s design philosophy hewing ever closer to their demands. They understand that for League of Legends to be a truly great spectator sport more randomness needs to be injected into the game, lest each tournament continue to be a rote procession to crowning the most talented team. And still their decisions continually undermine the quality of the spectator side of the game in favor of maximizing satisfaction among the player base. It’s obviously all about profit, since the competitive side of the game is a loss leader and justifiable only as a marketing tool. To hell with a quality spectator important to Riot is that those millions of teenagers continue to log in, spend their money, and have their entitlement fulfilled each day.

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I accept that I may be in the minority as someone who doesn’t look at tournaments of any kind as exercises in determining who is The Best. There has been much hand-wringing about this in baseball lately, as both participants in the World Series this year were sub-90-win Wild Card teams, which to plenty of people makes a mockery of the postseason. To them, a better version of baseball wouldn’t have allowed these two disgraces to even make the playoffs; it’s this embrace of mediocrity that is making America weak. It’s basically Communism.

It’s bullshit. The randomness of baseball’s playoffs is a feature and not a bug. Tournaments are about entertainment and they’re about drama; they aren’t about determining who the best player or team is because they can’t be. It’s too big a question to ask and expect to be answered in a few rounds or a few games, especially in a game like baseball. And if only the two best teams made the World Series and only the best team ever won it, it’d be like the League of Legends World Championship, and it’d be boring as fuck. Grow up, and learn to embrace the RNG in life. It’s a lot more exciting, win or lose.

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Game Seven Gratitude

Since the Giants started their incredible run of success in 2010, I’ve held a small and shameful secret, one my family knew about but I was always loathe to admit: I only really started watching baseball intensely in 2009.

Yep. Everyone who knows me considers me a baseball obsessive, and I’d cop to that description, but it began very recently, and with absolutely impeccable timing. Of course, I’ve been a baseball “fan” my whole life; I collected baseball cards and I played Little League and I probably watched games with my dad, though I can’t recall any particular ones. Being a Giants fan was my birthright, with our family support going back generations; I remember my grandfather sitting in his armchair and listening to the Giants game on a small transistor radio. But once I hit my teenage years I completely abandoned the game in favor of partying and playing video games. When the Giants lost the 2002 World Series in crushing fashion, I had just started nominally attending college, and if anyone mentioned to me the Giants’ defeat I was probably too stoned to remember.

Imagine my luck when, in the first season in which I followed the Giants from the first pitch of spring training, they won the goddamn World Series for the first time since 1954. It obviously galvanized my already intense, but still nascent fandom, but it also struck me with a pang of guilt. I could tell that the win exorcised some powerful demons from long-time fans, and I simply didn’t feel that catharsis like they did. I felt somewhat counterfeit, though not quite that most execrable of fan, the bandwagon jumper.

I haven’t really felt that way since 2010, reasoning that by the remarkable 2012 season (in the conversation for the best Giants season of all time, what with Buster Posey’s MVP and Matt Cain’s perfect game and the World Series win) I had earned my place. Yet here I sit, on the day of Game 7 of the 2014 World Series, the Giants one win from their third title in five years, the only five I’ve really been paying attention, feeling like maybe I deserve to be disappointed. The players and the coaches and the lifelong die-hard fans certainly don’t, but I do. Sure, 2009 and 2011 and especially 2013 were disappointing seasons, but having to swallow the bitter pill of irrelevance in late August is different than losing a Game 7.

I think it’s likely. Tim Hudson starts for the Giants tonight, and while he was decent in Game 3, I don’t really have any faith in the old man. This Royals lineup is kryptonite to a pitcher like him; they put the ball in play and run like hell, and it hasn’t been a particularly sharp defensive series for the Giants. Especially not compared to the absurd display the Royals have put on.

I also don’t think the Giants offense will make much noise against Jeremy Guthrie, a bad pitcher on a very short leash who will be backed up by the game’s best bullpen. Buster Posey is so worn down from the long season that he’s been virtually an automatic out this series. I almost feel bad that he has to play an extra game. Brandon Belt has completely lost his ability to hit a fastball, or for power, and unless he can work a walk will have a hard time getting on-base. There are bright spots in Panik, Pence, and Pablo, and Morse can always run into one, but Blanco’s only skill is drawing walks and Ishikawa is still every bit the oft-released journeyman he was a month ago. Crawford is getting on-base a lot this series but is really only playing for his glove.

That’s what I want Juan Perez to do tonight. Bochy should be ashamed for forcing Ishikawa into left field to embarrass himself on a national stage. I haven’t been making fun of Ishikawa’s “defense”, because his manager has put him in a position to fail. Each time Ishikawa misplays a single into a double or lets a runner advance on an errant throw is an indictment of Bruce Bochy only. His bat is not worth the defensive downgrade, especially when 5 of 7 games this Series the Giants have rolled out a starting pitcher who allows tons of balls in play and needs all the help he can get. Start Juan Perez and use Ishikawa the only way he’s valuable, as a lefty bat off the bench. Bochy won’t do it.

Bumgarner hadn’t even iced his arm after his shutout in Game 5 before the speculation of him pitching in a potential Game 7 started. Now that we’re here the cries for Bumgarner to come out of the bullpen, or even start, two days after throwing 117 pitches, have reached deafening levels. This is indicative not of Bumgarner’s ability, or people’s confidence in him, but the recognition that the Giants aren’t a very good team and will be unlikely to win the game solely with contributions from the other 24 players on the roster. This clamoring also ignores the reality that pitchers, even very good ones, suffer an extreme performance penalty when performing on short rest. We’ve all seen Bumgarner be vulnerable even on full rest, what can we realistically expect from his tired arm, against a team seeing him for the third time in a week?

If the Giants are going to win this game it will be with offense. They won’t be able to beat the Royals 2-1, because that’s the Royals’ game and they’re much better equipped for playing it. The Giants need to torch Guthrie early, add on against the Royals’ middle relief like Frasor and Finnegan, and hope to hell their mediocre pitching can cling to the lead.

Whether or not the Giants win tonight, what a ride it has been. One of the most remarkable things, something I haven’t heard the national media mention, is that as the final pitch was thrown by Madison Bumgarner in the 9th inning of Game 5, 7 of the 9 players on the field for the Giants were drafted and developed by them. Only Gregor Blanco, a minor league free agent, and Hunter Pence, a free agent signed after being traded for, came up with a team other than the Giants. It cannot be understated how impressive the recent draft and development track record for the Giants has been. If they win tonight it will be as a result of that success.

I’ve already resigned myself to a loss, though, and not in my usual way where I use faux pessimism as a bulwark against crushing disappointment. I really think the Giants will lose tonight, and I’m mostly OK with it. And no matter what narratives develop from a loss—that they aren’t “really” a dynasty because they couldn’t win a third title; that maybe Bruce Bochy isn’t a surefire Hall of Fame manager after all; that Buster Posey doesn’t show up in October—this has been an incredible run I feel incredibly fortunate to have seen. Even with a loss tonight, I’ve forged memories with my family and friends that will last us a lifetime. And I’ll have a taste of the bitter defeat that many people think is the true stuff of fandom.

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Hockey’s Edge

I suppose it started, as so many things did, with Wayne Gretzky. By the time I was old enough to strap a pair of rollerblades to my feet, around 1990 or so, Edmonton’s darling Gretzky had served two years of his exile with the LA Kings and was in the process of transforming hockey in California. In 1991 San Jose received its franchise, the Sharks. The following year The Mighty Ducks was released in cinemas and its eponymous franchise landed in Anaheim shortly after. I loved the movie despite knowing virtually nothing about hockey. It was a hopelessly exotic sport to 8-year-old me, from the bizarre puck to the eccentric hubris of playing on ice. Hockey fever swept over us, and for a time we played our own suburban Californian version of the game, with rollerblades and an ingenious “street puck”, a hockey puck embedded with ball bearings which were supposed to allow it to glide along my poor town’s bad streets. Ultimately, ours was a crude facsimile of hockey and we never took it seriously. With no institutional backing in the form of local rec leagues or school teams, and no family connection to the game, I couldn’t fall in love with it.

Yet here I am, two decades on, convinced that hockey is, by some margin, the world’s best sport. I don’t mean it’s my favorite—in fact it isn’t even close. I certainly enjoy it, especially in person, but I’ve never made a habit of watching it, and I don’t have a favorite team. But this isn’t about my preferences—I’m saying hockey is objectively the best sport. It may not be the best in any one category, but it combines all of our favorite things about sports, adds a healthy dash of the weird, and at the final tally stands apart.

People watch and play sports for various reasons, but a huge component is a desire to see humans perform extraordinary feats of athleticism and skill in the context of mostly arbitrary rules and restrictions. The latter part is crucial—otherwise the world’s most popular sports would be “pure” athletic endeavors like running and weightlifting—and it’s hockey’s restrictions that help make it the world’s best sport.

Let’s start with the ice, since it’s the most obvious difference between hockey and other major sports. We take it for granted, but even a moment’s thought must end with the conclusion that choosing to perform feats of strength and skill on a smooth, low-friction surface was the idea of some chilly lunatic. Where other sports have their participants donning footwear designed to increase traction with all manner of studs and spikes, the better to get the power down, hockey uses a skate. And thanks to the ice skate, hockey players are able to move at staggering speeds and with unparalleled grace.

Grace is everything in sports. It’s in a wide receiver breaking coverage and leaping into the air to catch a touchdown pass; it’s in a forward threading past three defenders and correctly identifying the millisecond-wide window to strike; it’s in a shortstop’s precise footwork and perfect throw. And it’s in a hockey player charging into the offensive zone, delicately zooming past a defender, deking the goalie and scoring, his tremendous momentum carrying him behind the net and back around to his ecstatic teammates. By taking place on ice, hockey has an unassailable advantage in grace relative to other sports; its speed and fluidity cause it to sometimes resemble a combative, powerful form of figure skating, probably the most graceful sport in the world.

If power is what you’re after, hockey delivers. While other sports are plainly more powerful, like football or rugby, the way hockey melds its power with speed is unrivaled in major sports. Whether it’s a brutal check into the boards or a 100 mph slapshot from the blue line, hockey offers players no shortage of opportunities to demonstrate their strength. Here I must acknowledge that, sadly, one of the sport’s most popular ways for players to demonstrate strength is through fighting. Like most things beloved by the old guard and done because of tradition, fighting in hockey is an embarrassing, stupid act that diminishes what it claims to exalt. Fortunately, thanks to increasing concern over concussions, fighting in hockey is under assault, and it’s conceivable that it will one day be outlawed. Supporters of fighting argue it’s a major strategic tool that clever teams can use to their advantage, either by swinging the momentum of a game back in their favor, or by further demoralizing a losing opponent. This doesn’t make any sense; both teams receive whatever burst of adrenaline a fight provides, and besides, hockey is not hurting for strategic intrigue.

I’m no hockey tactician, but the game is clearly rich in potential for strategic play, combining the five-on-five nature of basketball with something vaguely like the line-play of football. Teams can use zone defensive schemes or go man-on-man, and like basketball or soccer, puck movement and efficient passing are paramount. The penalty box and power play regularly create tense, highly strategic opportunities that are fascinating to witness. Matchups can be extremely important, and the rule that a team can pull its goalie for an extra attacker makes for some very interesting late-game moments.

The goalie is another unique aspect of hockey. There is no position in sports which requires such a constellation of skills; hand-eye coordination and reaction time, footwork and stickwork, vision and anticipation. You look at the hulking goalie in his massive pads, standing in front of the 6’x4’ goal, and he seems to fill up most of the available real estate. But when you consider the size of the puck relative to the gaps, and remember the surgical precision with which these players can direct their shots, the goalie’s task seems virtually impossible. The incomprehensible fact that every atom in the universe is mostly empty space also applies to a goalie standing in net.

Speaking of the net–due to the game’s pace, it doesn’t abut the end of the playing surface as in most (all?) sports, but is moved out from it so speeding players have room to skate behind it. This naturally creates many bizarre offensive and defensive situations, and necessitates the goalie having to defend an attack from behind, as if he didn’t already have enough to worry about.

Hockey is not only the best sport because it alone combines power, speed, technique, grace, and strategy in such a potent way. It’s the best because it’s so weird. Most sports feature aspects of human behavior and physiology that have obvious roots in our evolutionary past–like running or throwing or clubbing things–which were all essential tools to survival. But hockey has no natural basis. Ice skating wasn’t imperative for our ancestors to acquire sufficient calories, and no one has ever hunted by slapping a tuna can-shaped piece of rubber at a prey animal. Hockey does share aspects of ritualized warfare that other territorial games, like football or rugby, also possess, but with an element of absurdity that blunts any comparison. 

Consider the Zamboni. Hockey is so ridiculous that it spurred the invention of a single-purpose machine which shaves the ice, melts it, and applies a layer of water to refresh the playing surface. What other sport can lay claim to something like that? Half the fun of going to a hockey game is seeing the Zamboni come out between periods and envying the person who gets to drive it. And you don’t know joy until you’ve witnessed the referees come out of the locker room before the players and skate around on that virgin surface; their movements bring to mind that suspicion we have about birds, that sometimes they seem to be flying just to revel in the pleasure of it.

Even with the severe demerits hockey receives for codified fighting and for being unbearably white–both of which have the potential to be rectified in the future–the verdict is clear. Playing on ice, the puck, the unique spectacle of the goalie, the hilarious sit-and-think-about-what-you’ve-done box, the Zamboni, players wearing sweaters and not jerseys, the real danger of having viagra cost per pill in india (warning: graphic), the speed and the skill—all of these things, and more, combine to make hockey the best sport on offer.

 

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2014 Season Preview Review

In foolhardy defiance of the prudent maxim http://www.narrowcast.co.uk, I tried to do that very thing earlier this year with my buy viagra india online. I started off joking that because it’s an even year, the Giants will win the World Series, and indeed they still may. They pounded the Pirates in the Wild Card game and tonight face off with the best team in the NL, the Nationals. That’s a tough assignment. At any rate, since the regular season is over, and that’s what I was really trying to predict, I’m going to revisit those predictions player-by-player and see how smart or lucky (mostly lucky) I was.

C: Buster Posey

America’s Sweetheart and unofficial Face of Baseball had a somewhat down year in 2013, and I predicted that he would bounce back somewhat, though still not approach the titanic production of his MVP campaign in 2012. It was hardly a bold prediction, since his terrible second-half of 2013 clearly indicated some sort of nagging injury or fatigue, and so bounce back this year he did. I suggested he’d finish with a .315/.403/.495 line, and he ended up at .311/.364/.490. Not bad. Buster showed more power this year, as expected, thanks in part to a baseball-leading 181 wRC+ in the second half.

What I didn’t expect was the large decline in his walk rate, from 10.1% in 2013 to 7.8% this year, causing me to miss his actual OBP by nearly 40 points. Even considering 2014’s historically low level of offense, that’s a large drop, and it looks to be because Buster was being much more aggressive at the plate. His overall swing rate was the highest since his rookie year, as was his rate of chasing pitches outside of the zone. Whether this was a conscious effort on his part, an artifact of the run environment, or a sign that he’s losing discipline (not something one would expect of a 27-year-old) isn’t clear. He saw the same number of pitches in the strike zone this year than others, he just chose to swing at more of them.

As usual, Buster’s defense at catcher graded out as positive, and he’s one of the game’s better pitch framers. He also looked very capable at first base, something the Giants are keenly aware of. The issue of where Pablo, Belt, and Buster will be playing next season will dominate much of the Giants’ offseason discussions. Overall, Buster had a great season, was the Giants’ best player, and I think my prediction of a top-5 MVP finish will come true.

1B: Brandon Belt

Aside from being a millionaire baseball player who’s won a World Series, Brandon Belt must be the unluckiest guy on Earth. In what I predicted would be his best season yet, one that would see him snag some down-ballot MVP votes and be one of the best first basemen in baseball, he managed to play only 61 games in a lost, injury-plagued campaign. First, after a solid April, and what was becoming a monstrous May, he was hit in the hand by Paul Maholm and broke his thumb, knocking him out until July. He returned July 4th, played 11 games, and hit nothing. Then, before the game on July 19th, Marco Scutaro, during his year-long attempt to rehab (more on that later), threw a ball to Belt and hit him in the face, giving him a concussion. Belt returned for five moribund games in August, hit the DL again and finally came back for good September 17th, where he hit mostly like the Belt of old to close out the season. In the end he tallied three trips to the DL, 235 PAs, and a .243/.306/.449 line, a far cry from my .280/.380/.495 prediction.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that none of these injuries are the fault of Belt himself, or rather, his body. He isn’t deserving of the label “injury-prone”, unless we take that phrase to mean someone who is a magnet for baseballs breaking parts of his body, in which case he is. Here’s hoping Brandon has better luck next year and provides us many more opportunities to use #belted on Twitter.

2B: Marco Scutaro, Brandon Hicks, Ehire Adrianza, Joaquin Arias, Dan Uggla (seriously), Joe Panik

When the Giants first acquired Marco Scutaro, I joked that he’s the kind of player Bruce Bochy and Brian Sabean fantasize about while making love to their wives: a gritty, veteran second baseman with incredible bat control and workmanlike defense. This year Scutaro was less fantasy than phantasm as he unsuccessfully tried to rehab a lower back injury. The Giants managed to reanimate his corpse for 5 games in July where he dribbled one hit in 13 plate appearances and generally moved like Lisa Kudrow in a back brace. Before he returned to the spirit realm he managed to derail Brandon Belt’s season, making Scutaro responsible for more disabled list days than he actually served.

In March I wrote, “If he manages to play 100 games this year I’d be pleasantly surprised, with a likely outcome being a year spent endlessly rehabbing, a la Freddy Sanchez in 2012.” Pretty spot-on, and not difficult to see coming.

Unfortunately, the rules of baseball dictated that the Giants had to have someone wear a uniform and stand at the second base position, so they started this year with a mashed-up wad of (f)utility players and quad-A types like Brandon Hicks, Ehire Adrianza, and Joaquin Arias. This started out better than it had any right to, with Brandon Hicks doing a decent impression of a major league baseball player for the first six weeks of the season. He had a shocking 129 wRC+ as late as May 14th, and then the league realized it never had to throw him a fastball. He was back in the minors by July 10th.

Joaquin Arias survived the entire year on the roster by being able to play several infield positions poorly, yet better than Ehire Adrianza, whose only redeeming feature as a ballplayer is an excellent name. All year, Arias looked as though he was swinging his bat through oatmeal and produced accordingly. Speaking of slow bats, in a desperate cry for help the Giants signed the desiccated husk of Dan Uggla, but after only four games he stubbed his toe on the dugout steps, broke apart, and drifted away on the wind.

And thus the last man standing was Giants 2011 1st-round draft pick Joe Panik. Panik had been kicking around the roster for awhile, getting 25 PAs in June and 53 in July, but it wasn’t until midnight struck for Hicks, Uggla died, and Adrianza hit the disabled list that Panik was handed the second base job full time. All he did with it was produce a crazy, BABIP-fueled August and a more reasonable—but still probably unsustainable—September, rescuing the Giants’ keystone and being a lot of fun to watch. Panik probably (definitely) isn’t this good, but more on that can wait until next year. As for my prediction, that Scutaro would probably miss the season and his replacements would suck, yeah, it was mostly true. Funnily enough, my predicted line for a hypothetically-healthy Scutaro was .295/.345/.395 and Panik ended the season with .305/.343/.368, so pretty close.

3B: Pablo Sandoval

Pablo came into this year determined to be the prettiest debutante at the cotillion and to go home with a big commitment from an eligible billionaire. It didn’t start off well. Pablo looked nothing like his old self in April, and that isn’t a fat joke—I mean that he was…patient. He would hardly swing at anything. Pitchers threw fastballs at eye level, they bounced curveballs on home plate, but he never swung, merely strained like a dog against its leash. It was as though someone told him that if he walked more this year and could get his OBP up he’d receive a bigger contract. It was very ugly and not at all who Pablo should be.

He eventually wised up and said fuck this, I’m going to swing at everything. It was glorious. Suddenly he was old Pablo again, except slimmer and playing great defense. While he cratered in September, he managed to salvage a decent overall wRC+ of 111, though it’s definitely not what he or his agent were hoping for. My prediction of .308/.355/.500 and more right-handed power was laughably wrong, as he hit .279/.324/.415 overall, with an absolutely disastrous .199/.244/.319 from the right-side. I’m no scout, but his right-handed swing did look terrible all year, as it has for a few seasons now. I am starting to accept that this is just who Pablo is. He isn’t the MVP candidate of 2009 or 2011, he’s a slightly above-average hitter who has no power from the right-side, and if he isn’t too fat has playable defense at third base.

I don’t know if the Giants will sign him. During his horrendous April I had an awful taste in my mouth about Pablo and I just felt tired of him; tired of the weight discussion, tired of the hacking (when it doesn’t work), just tired. The Giants may feel the same way.

SS: Brandon Crawford

Brandon Crawford, the Giants’ reliable, full-time shortstop since 2012 came into this season as the platoon partner for Joaquin Arias. I predicted that even though Arias is terrible, this plan would shelter Crawford from his biggest weakness at the plate, which is left-handed pitching. It didn’t work out that way. Arias was quickly relieved of his bat and handed a broom to sweep up sunflower seed husks from the dugout floor, and Crawford was given the full-time job that was rightfully his. It was an interesting season for handsome young Brandon. He started wonderfully, cooled off in May, hit like an MVP candidate in June, then went into a deep hibernation through July and August. He emerged in September to hit better than he had all year. The whiplash production resulted in a final line of .246/.324/.389 which was pretty close to my .255/.320/.375 prediction. Add to that his characteristically above-average defense and he was one of the Giants’ most valuable players this year. Not bad for a guy who was supposed be part of a platoon.

If only it were that simple. Crawford showed an absurd and bizarre reverse platoon split this year, mashing lefties and being hapless against righties. Virtually every time this happens it’s the result of some small-sample shenanigans, and indeed, in only 178 PAs against lefties this year, Crawford’s production was simply luck-driven. Anything can happen in 178 PAs, and did; Crawford hit lefties as well as Buster Posey this year (152 wRC+!), thanks to a completely unsustainable .404 BABIP. Don’t look for that to happen in 2015.

Equally bizarre but for a different reason was Crawford’s performance against righties, a career-low 79 wRC+, caused largely by an unlucky .262 BABIP. Obviously neither of these extremes represent Crawford’s true talent; PA numbers of 178 and 386 are simply too small of a sample size to tell us much. Crawford is still a better hitter against righties than lefties, he just had some strange fortune this year that ended up making my prediction look just fine.

LF: Michael Morse

Here’s where the Giants have ranked in team home runs, from 2010 through 2013: 10th, 22nd, 30th, 29th. A large part of that is the ballpark, which is consistently the least homer-friendly in baseball. Still, even considering AT&T Park, the Giants have experienced a major power outage these last few seasons. Enter Michael Morse.

Morse, coming off two terrible seasons, was signed for an essentially risk-free 1-year and $6m contract, with the hope that he could get healthy and provide some pop from a corner outfield position. The Giants knew he would be a massive defensive liability, but were gambling on him hitting enough to make up for it. Early on it looked to be paying off massively, as Morse started the season hitting like the monster he was in 2011. His tremendous production was a huge reason the Giants were the best team in baseball through May.

Then came June. Morse went into an extended slump, along with the rest of the team, and through the end of July produced a .256/.303/.381 line, which, thanks to his as-advertized abysmal defense, saw him surrender nearly all of the value he had accrued early in the year. He recovered somewhat with a very solid August, including a weekend where he reached base 9 consecutive times over two winning games (incidentally, the only two games I’ve attended since 2012. Thanks Mike!) Then, in early September he suffered an oblique injury that ended his regular season.

The final tally: a .279/.336/.475 line (I had predicted a best-case scenario of .280/.330/.490), 16 home runs that the Giants were desperately looking for, and nearly 20 runs given back on defense. He ended up being worth a tidy 1 WAR, and the Giants finished 17th in home runs as a team.

It’s worth noting that while clutch isn’t a skill that players have, it is a thing that can happen, and this year Morse was clutch. With the opportunities he was given to produce runs, he performed at an above-average level, which means he was worth more than the context-neutral stats would suggest. Signing Morse this year was an unqualified success.

CF: Angel Pagan

One of the most commonly-cited stats this year surrounding the Giants, and this will continue during the playoffs, is their winning percentage when Angel Pagan is in the lineup compared to when he isn’t. It’s staggering, and beyond what you would expect even considering the quality of player Pagan is.

The stat is also cited a ton because, for the second year in a row, Pagan has managed to play fewer than 100 games. Two years into his 4-year, $40m contract, he’s managed 167 games and between 2 and 3 WAR. At this point you’d have to call the contract a bust, and with Pagan’s 2014 season ending with back surgery, it may only get worse next year.

Like 2013, when he was healthy Pagan was a valuable player, basically the same one he has been since 2012. His power was slightly down, but he was still getting on-base at a great clip and running well once there. I said at the start of the year that I’d be happy with a .280/.330/.415 line, and in his 96 games he hit a respectable .300/.342/.389, but it just wasn’t enough. I truly hope he can stay on the field more next year, as unlikely as that looks to be.

RF: Hunter Pence

Hunter Pence, as every baseball fan knows, is very weird. He looks weird, runs weird, swings weird, and throws weird. It’s safe to assume he does plenty of non-baseball things weird, too. But what’s weird to me is how his weirdness seems to distract people from his actual ability.

Pence is a good player. He just finished his 8th big league season and in all but one he’s been an above average hitter, usually well above. He’s a good baserunner. He’s incredibly durable. The weakest part of his game is his defense, but it isn’t so bad that he’s killing his team out there. It isn’t weird at all that he’s received down-ballot MVP votes in each of the last five seasons, and will this year as well.

Prior to his disaster—and somewhat worrying—September, Pence had an argument for being the Giants’ most valuable player. I predicted he’d have an even better year than 2013, hitting .285/.350/.490, and through August it looked like I’d be right: to that point he was batting .295/.347/.479. Then he started to look not only weird, but bad. At the time he was the owner of baseball’s active consecutive games started streak, and it’s possible he just wore down. Over his final 70 ABs he managed just 8 hits. His final line was .277/.332/.445—still solid, just not what it could’ve been. Let’s hope his lost final month was a combination of fatigue and bad luck, not the start of a severe decline.

LF/CF: Gregor Blanco

I want to single out Gregor Blanco because, for the third consecutive year, he’s played much more than the Giants wanted him to, and for the third consecutive year he’s performed much better than anyone expected him to. Going back to his signing in 2012, he’s ably filled in during Pagan’s injuries, and after Melky Cabrera’s suspension, and as a defensive replacement for whichever lummox the Giants have trotted out to left field. He has a good eye and will draw a walk, plays solid defense at every outfield position, and has just enough power to hit for extra bases once in awhile. I said earlier this year that since 2012 he’s been the most valuable minor league free agent signing in baseball, and after this season that’s probably still true.

He isn’t a perfect 4th outfielder since he is a truly terrible baserunner, despite his speed, but the Giants have been better over the last few years thanks to Blanco, and I just want to acknowledge that.

*    *    *

I was surprised how well I did overall this year. Hitters are pretty easy to predict (and notice I didn’t even bother with the pitching staff), but I was still off by enough to be able to draw some conclusions and hopefully improve next year.

One thing I consistently did was overestimate a player’s slugging percentage. Whether I’m not fully taking into account their home park, or the increasingly punitive run environment, I only underestimated one player’s power this year, and that was Brandon Crawford. His season was so bizarre, though, that I can’t feel too bad about that.

I didn’t write about Andrew Susac, though he was a wonderful surprise this year and it’ll be very interesting to see what happens with him in the offseason. Scouts believe he’s a starter for someone, and if the Giants aren’t looking to move Posey from behind home plate, they may look to capitalize on Susac’s value. It isn’t absurd to imagine a scenario where they let Pablo walk, move Posey to third base and start Susac every day, though that may be a bit premature. But what isn’t premature is to ask your boss for time off at the start of November so you can attend the Giants’ inevitable World Series parade.

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Rich and Peaty Single Malt Democracy

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A conspicuous sight all over Glasgow for the last year

You never want a front-row seat to history. While the view is nice, those seats always get hit by shit that comes flying off the stage, like bullets and bombs and breadlines. No, where you want to be is the balcony, tucked up out of the way, safe and sound. That’s where I find myself, with balcony seats to history, a non-Scottish resident in Scotland as it prepares to vote on the matter of its independence. It’s been exciting to witness an entire nation engaged in a vigorous conversation with itself, especially over an issue that historically has involved a whole lot of fighting and very little talking. Tomorrow’s vote now seems too close to call, with the Yes (to independence) side having gained substantial ground in the last few months. No matter the outcome Scotland has reinvigorated democracy at home and inspired the same abroad.

When I first started visiting Scotland years ago I found it a natural cultural fit. I’m a left-wing Californian, I like to bitch about the Republicans; Scots are fairly reliably left-wing and they love to bitch about the Tories. In this narrow respect, I showed up speaking the language. My wife is Scottish, I’ve been visiting for years and have chosen to live here. All this is to say I feel I have a decent understanding of Scotland, at least for an American. Yeah, low bar.

I understand the impulse behind voting yes to independence, even as I despise the disease of nationalism in all its manifestations. As nauseated as I get when someone wraps themselves in a flag and emphasizes our differences, it is equally sickening for Scots to feel as though their lives are being controlled by far-off English politicians who, at best, express indifference toward them; more often it’s thinly-veiled contempt. It’s maddening to listen to that featureless lump of toff putty David Cameron talk about anything, nevermind your home, and Ed Miliband, who is actually two precocious nine year-olds stacked in a trenchcoat, is no better. Their attitude toward Scotland is like their attitude toward everything in the UK, in the world, in the solar system: they care for it in direct proportion to how much it will benefit the political and economic elite in London, their only true constituents and the only people whom government policy is intended to benefit. Even as a resident alien in Scotland, the way in which UK politics operates is frustrating, with the entire country treated as a vestigial limb of London. The possibility of that changing is appealing.

Yet its worth asking if it really would change in an independent Scotland. The political center of gravity would ostensibly shift to Holyrood, but theres nothing to suggest that the economic center would move northward at all, especially with the current plan to continue using the pound sterling. Without control of its own monetary policy, without the ability to act as lender of last resort in a crisis, Scotland will have no protection from the vicissitudes of the global market. Yet Alex Salmond and his ilk know that a new currency may be technically impossible, and selling the idea to voters certainly is, so we have the current half-measure. Further maintaining the status quo in a nominally independent Scotland, the financial culture of Edinburgh would differ in no way from that of London, and would continue to be populated by the same type of international capitalists who exert undue influence in Westminster.

The SNP is anything but a socialists dream, with pro-business policies more aggressive in some respects than the current coalitions. Their plan to further lower the corporate income tax threatens to make Scotland merely the latest country to serve as a temporary plaything for multinational corporations, who are waiting to descend on a resource-rich nation that has a government eager to cut deals. The SNP wont be in power forever, and a vote for independence is not a vote for the SNP, or for Salmond, but their rule during the transition will leave lasting imprints on whatever new shape Scotland takes. Taking that shape won’t be easy, no matter how optimistic the Yes campaign sounds, and a person of left-wing sensibilities must be cognizant of the danger that were an independent Scotland’s growing pains severe enough, it could cause a hard political lurch to the right, especially with a nationalist party in power. When people’s prosperity is threatened they become less egalitarian, not more.

Many times Ive overheard conversations where people express the desire to become something like Norway; small, ethnically and culturally homogenous, oil-rich, and with a robust social welfare system. Its a powerful desire but theres little evidence that it would come to pass. Norway has spent a quarter-century building a fund using oil revenues, and Scotland couldn’t do the same while keeping its public sector spending at current levels, which is 15% higher than the UK average. Those hoping for independence can forget about Norway.

One thing that induces me to support independence is the London elites increasing desperation to hold the union together. Their motives are unclear; is it out of some fear for how history will judge them as the ones who let the union dissolve under their watch? Is it because theres something in Scotland that they wish to getor keeptheir hands on? Is it really all about oil? Cameron must know that when someones adversaryand make no mistake, he is Scotlands adversaryasks them to do something, theyll be strongly motivated to do the opposite. His latest move, running the Saltire up the pole atop 10 Downing Street like a pair of underpants, seems to shout “How do you jock cunts like this?” I’d never underestimate the degree to which a politician like Cameron is out of touch, but an “emergency visit” by him, the guileless Miliband and the loathesome Clegg is only explicable if it’s some three-dimensional chess game designed to reverse psychology Scotland out of the union. I find his sudden and inexplicable desire to see Scotland stay a powerful incentive to see that it leaves, because fuck him and the rest of those Bullingdon Club scumbags.

The rallying cry of humanity for centuries

The rallying cry of humanity for centuries

I know that attitude is prevalent among Yes voters, and it’s justified, but you’d never know it by listening to the Yes campaign. Despite a righteous anger with the status quo, the campaign has been marked by something I never would’ve associated with the Scottish national mood: hope. I’ve seen the most cynical, bitter Glaswegian bastards turn into overflowing fonts of positivity. It’s almost touching. Maybe gallows humor, the wry fatalism that is such an indelible and attractive part of the Scottish psyche, paradoxically only makes sense when things aren’t really that bad. Maybe it’s gotten so dire, maybe people are so exhausted, that hope is all that is left. Hope is a nice thing to have, but I’ve seen Americans burned many times by a similarly boundless, dumb optimism, and I worry about the same thing happening after September 18th.

The economics of the thing, especially when it comes to monetary policy, make me lean No. And no matter what Yes supporters say, that doesn’t mean I’m in favor of Westminster, or David Cameron, or the continuing neoliberal onslaught that is undermining democracy and destroying the planet. I’m just not convinced a Scotland that is “independent”, yet still yoked to the Bank of England or the ECB, would have a better chance of defeating these bastards and achieving the crucial economic and social justice goals we all want. If I were more optimistic that post-independence a broad left coalition—and I don’t mean Labour—could seize power and turn Scotland into a more equal, caring society, and would have the money to do it, I’d be a hard Yes.

That’s the head, though. The heart screams FUCKIN’ YAAAASSSS!!! To defeat these pricks, to devastate Cameron and the Tories, and to do it all without one ounce of backing from the establishment media, would feel better than taking that first bite of a haggis supper after a long night of drinking. It’s been delightful seeing their panicked flailing in the last few weeks as, for the first time in a long time, reality has burst their gilded bubble. Driving the point home would be deeply satisfying. And yet I think, no matter the outcome on Thursday, it already has been. Either vote will usher in change; radical, uncertain, risky change, or more measured, safer change. I don’t fault anyone for not buying the Tories’ sudden promises for more devolved powers, but I think they’re coming one way or the other, and not only for Scotland.

I can’t vote since I’m not a citizen, but I wouldn’t even if I could. I’d feel like a dickhead, rocking up and tossing in my two cents regarding a historic decision after having spent a few years here. And besides, if things were to get really bad, I’m up here in the balcony with my eye on the exit. I can flee to my home country, where people in different regions, with different cultural values, have greater powers of self-determination. I wish my beloved Scottish friends and family the best in attaining those same powers, however they may.

 

 

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Maybe Mayday

A few years ago, Liam Neeson starred in an absurd action thriller called The Grey, where among other things he fought a pack of wolves with shards of glass taped to his knuckles. It was just another silly installment in Neeson’s late-career tough guy renaissance, but I’ll never forget The Grey, and not because of its lupine melee. It will stay with me because it contains one of the most harrowing plane-crash scenes of all time. Outside of my own dreams, that is.

God, I fuckin’ hate flying. Not because of the time spent in those non-places called airports, or the rigmarole of the security theater, or the food. Those are quotidian inconveniences, like waiting in line at the grocery store, or diarrhea. No, I hate flying because every time I step onto an airplane I’m convinced I’m going to die. Every creak in the fuselage, every whine of the engines or groan of the hydraulics sounds to me like Death’s scythe rapping the door. The flight attendants smiling during turbulence are no salve; they’re all part of a suicide cult and are expert in soothing their doomed charges.

Before each flight, I look up the model of plane I’ll be on and study its notable hull-loss accidents. I check the number of fatalities, cause of accident, and what changes regulators or manufacturers made in response. My favorite accidents are ones like Air France Flight 447, brought down by baffling pilot error, whose cockpit recordings provide a gripping transcript to hundreds of souls’ final moments. Or flights like United 232, a crash that claimed 111 lives, but still had 185 people live to tell their tale; its nightmarish crash footage is just a bonus for my morbid fascination.

God, I fuckin’ love planes. They are just the coolest thing. Seeing them and reading about them makes me feel like a little boy again. It’s the sheer scale of the things, you know? The size and speed, the principles at work, the thrust and lift and drag. I know about Bernoulli, and angle of attack, and different types of wings, and glide ratio. I know about the little cushion of air that forms between the plane and the ground during landing. I know about the flight envelope, and how routine flights never put the aircraft anywhere near exceeding it. I know of the multiple redundancies in every system. My good friend David is a pilot for British Airways and flies a Boeing 737 and every time I see him I have to swallow a thousand questions about planes. He was my pilot once, for a flight from Glasgow to London, and he let me sit in the cockpit during boarding. It was the thrill of a lifetime. Then I went back to my seat and for an hour imagined David impacting the ground in the Midlands slightly before me.

I know I’m unlikely to ever make up some fraction of a victim count, but I know a lot of things intellectually that I can never convince myself of emotionally. It’s the consequence of our highfalutin’ primate brains being built upon an edifice of raw, reptilian instinct and terror, of neurology recapitulating phylogeny. I know the dull ache in my testicles likely isn’t cancer, but I better have an ultrasound anyway. I know my train stopping in the middle of the Chunnel doesn’t mean it’s about to turn into my briny grave, and still my palms sweat. I know I’m more likely to die driving to or from the airport than on the plane in between (especially when, during a recent trip, my Czech taxi driver did 115mph on the freeway.) Knowing all of this doesn’t help one bit.

It’s crazy, but more than that it’s acute egomania. It’s the necessary and poisonous self-centeredness of all of us taken to an extreme. It’s a fear that says yes, I know the odds of dying in a plane crash are one in millions, but I am certainly that one. Plane crashes are rare and special, just like me. No, my fellow passengers aren’t special, they’re merely party to my exceptionality. If anything, their mundane and forgettable deaths tarnish the grand tragedy of my own. This egomania is similar to the irrational conviction of religious fundamentalists that The End is Nigh, who think that of all the people who have ever lived, surely we’ll be the ones to receive God’s wrath.

Another reason fear of flying is so common, and why I can’t shake mine, is because it’s really several fears packaged into one, like a phobia variety pack. You get, for the low price of a ticket: fear of falling, claustrophobia, fear of asphyxiation, fear of burning, even fear of drowning. Add in terrorism and you have the fear of being murdered; for the hypochondriacs, the fear of a medical emergency far from a hospital. Flying is the best phobic bargain on the market. And there’s the understanding that if any of these fears were to become realized, it wouldn’t be a quick affair. You don’t have to be a physicist to calculate how long it takes for an airliner to plummet from 30,000 feet: too fuckin’ long. You may get lucky, like TWA 800 passengers, and die instantly to an explosion, or be oblivious to your fate like passengers on Air France 447. More likely, you’ll have some time to comprehend what is coming, though hopefully not as much as the 509 passengers aboard Japan Airlines Flight 123, who had thirty minutes to write farewell notes to loved ones on napkins before impacting a mountainside (four survived.)

In some ways I wish my fear were more severe. After all, I’ve chosen to live my life straddling the Atlantic, so I have plenty more flights in my future. If I were more afraid, maybe I’d move back to America and pull a John Madden, driving everywhere I ever wanted to go and resigning myself to never seeing far-off locales. Suppressing a healthy wanderlust is probably easier than suppressing all-consuming thoughts of oblivion. Alas, I’m stuck having a few days of constant, low-grade panic attack each year, waiting for the moment when this center of the universe’s plane inevitably succumbs to gravity, against all odds.

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The Test of Your Life

After two years spent living in a new country, an immigrant probably has a pretty good grasp of things. They can feed and clothe themselves, know where to go if they’re sick, and they probably aren’t keeping their money in a mayonnaise jar. I know this to be true not only from personal experience, but because if they hadn’t done most or all of these things, they wouldn’t have lasted two years in their new home. See, becoming an immigrant is a kind of test, one where the prior answers you had to life’s questions no longer apply and new ones must be sought. How well you adapt to your new surroundings and get on with day-to-day life will determine whether you pass or fail.

Which is why I resent so strongly that the UK government requires immigrants to take a useless “Life in the UK” test as a condition of settling permanently.

Adjusting to a new culture is a process of delicate personal alchemy, mixing the new with the old to hopefully create something better. Deciding what of your new home to let in, and what to keep out, is how you take a sense of self firmly rooted elsewhere and update it for a new way of life. It is far more challenging, and has much higher stakes, than learning whitewashed versions of events in British history. Furthermore, the test concept is insulting because it’s the kind of thing you’d hear a racist taxi driver suggest after a tirade about his Pakistani neighbors. It’s a policy that sounds reasonable enough on its face to disguise its truly aggressive, punitive spirit.

charlesii

Fine, so the test has a few reasonable questions about democracy and tolerance, and they’re intended to teach people about bedrock British principles. I certainly want my neighbor to, at minimum, understand that they live in a liberal democracy, and to leave me alone no matter who I fuck or who I worship. And I’ll even allow, though it’s a stretch, that before they’re granted a visa, a person should know the maximum amount they can claim in Scottish small claims court (it’s £3000), or how they can contact their local MP, or other mundane arcana of modern life. But what possible utility to “life in the UK”, practical or emotional or spiritual, is the knowledge that when King Charles II was escaping Cromwell’s Parliamentary army, he hid up an oak tree? In what way will an immigrant’s chances for prosperity be increased by knowing that, unlike her successor James I, Queen Elizabeth I was deft in her dealings with Parliament? If it’s meant to make the immigrant feel more British, it fails miserably, since the vast majority of British people don’t know and don’t need to know shit like this. If it’s meant to aid “integration”, as so many of the most exclusionary parts of the immigration process are cynically claimed to, it’s a farce. The fact is that there is no utility. It’s pure trivia. And it’s trivia designed to do a very specific thing: aggressively signal to the immigrant that this is not their history and it is not their country. It’s a message with an especially severe sting since the immigrant already knows that, and is reminded of it every day in large and small ways.

My test was administered in a drab room in the basement of a college, on old business PCs, the type you imagine an overweight 40-something office drone shutting down one last time before going home and finally putting a gun in his mouth. I was among about twenty test-takers that day, and was the only white person, which tells you all you need to know about Britain’s anxiety over immigration. After thirty minutes of rigorous document verification and “processing”, during which three people were kicked out because their documents didn’t match to the letter what they had inputted on the website, we were seated and allowed to begin. (To the credit of the man tasked with rejecting people, he seemed genuinely remorseful, but as in any case of institutional indecency, the perpetrators sleep well at night with the knowledge that they’re merely following the rules.) Two seats down from me a fellow test-taker, an Indian housewife, couldn’t start her test because she didn’t know how to use a computer mouse. This is obviously fine, not everyone does, and she likely had never needed to before that day. But as is customary with bureaucracies, the Vogons in attendance weren’t allowed to help anyone with anything, so they just stood over her as she clicked the wrong buttons. I don’t know if she was ultimately able to take the test, but I do know the process didn’t make her feel more British.

I finished with a passing score and was out of the building in less time than it took for the damn thing to start. I was relieved, yes, but mostly I was angry. Angry because there is no way that a nerve-wracking test, in a language the test taker may not be proficient in, on a machine they may not have ever used, is the best way to teach someone these apparently indispensable lessons. Angry that the test-takers, and their gathered friends and family in the lobby, are presumed deficient to live among us until they solve some perverse Riddle of the Sphinx. Angry that the real purpose of the test, and of the whole visa process, is to remind the immigrant that they aren’t wanted here, that the UK government would rather not admit them and will look for reasons not to. It’s one long process of seeking begrudging acceptance. I felt all of this acutely, and I’m American, and white. Imagine how it feels for everyone else.

If the Life in the UK test must be administered, make it more accommodating. Have a pencil-and-paper option for those less technologically inclined. Print it in the most common native languages of test-takers. The US government offers immigrants resources in multiple languages. The UK government can certainly afford to do the same. I know part of the purpose of the test is to force immigrants to demonstrate a working knowledge of the English language, but that’s a bullshit requirement anyway. Learning English is a boon to every immigrant, but they shouldn’t be forced to do so as a condition of residence. There are plenty of people living in the UK who can’t read this essay and are still valuable members of society. If people who support the English language requirement really want immigrants to learn English then the government ought to provide them with information outlining the positive effects, mental and material, of doing so. If it’s truly a good faith gesture and you think it’s for their own good, prove it. If you aren’t interested in doing so, and only want to force your language upon them, you’re just a xenophobe and a chauvinist. We shouldn’t create policy to keep you from having to hear Arabic spoken on the bus.

As for the insulting, irrelevant British history lesson requirement: can it. It reflects neither a person’s ability nor desire to be a contributing member of society and it does nothing to create or deepen an affinity for the UK. I don’t care what horror of statistical manipulation some Tory backbencher created to justify the policy, it’s garbage. If immigrants were made to feel less like criminals and more like welcomed members of society, they may decide to learn about British history themselves. The real history, not sanitized tidbits of the national mythos. Maybe that’s the fear.

If they could stomach my bleeding heart this long, now is when some ultra-pragmatic scold would start explaining to me the necessity of these policies. He’d say that they safeguard British culture, protect the economy from ruin, et fuckin’ cetera. Whatever. I’m not advocating some anarchic open border state where anyone can come and go freely. I understand the necessity of cataloging who is living here. And I don’t want the Home Secretary, the Right Honourable Theresa May herself, to pat people on the back and offer them a beer when they’re granted a visa. I want immigrants to be treated with good faith and dignity, and to be given more support at the conclusion of their visa process (I received no information, no pamphlets; just my resident card. This is when all the minor details of civil life and maybe some history should be presented to people, to use or not at their own discretion.) I just want the process to be injected with a little humanity.

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Illuminating

A life lived in a car is a life of distance–not just traveled, but felt. It’s a life of streets, highways, parking lots, signage; these are the things that create the texture of your world. Buildings are mostly inconsequential and people simply cease to exist, transformed instead into the inhuman abstraction of traffic. There’s a superficiality to an automotive life, because you don’t really live in car cities, you live on them. If you aren’t soaring above them on a highway, you’re gliding on “surface” streets, a name that unintentionally reveals a truth about life in these places. In contrast, being a pedestrian is a more intimate relationship with the place you live. Unburdened by the serious responsibility of piloting a mobile bomb, you’re free to look around, to see. It’s living micro instead of macro; things your tires wouldn’t notice, your feet trip over. Things you would never see at 30mph capture your attention at 3mph.

One such thing has become an almost daily fixture for me: a dashboard ornament in a neighbor’s car. Sitting proudly atop the dash, a gilded tchotchke amid a sea of drab plastic, it seems to be a small shrine with some Eastern religious aesthetic, shiny gold and cylindrical, slightly larger than a D-cell battery, with embossed symbols all around it. I don’t know what the ornament represents, if it actually has religious or cultural value, or if asking that kind of question is as nonsensical as asking about the significance of a pine tree-shaped air freshener dangling from a rearview mirror. Still, I walk by it every day and can never resist a glance. But the best thing? It spins, seemingly day and night, a flurry of motion in a stationary car. Well, it used to.

A few months ago, on an immiserating November day in Scotland, I was walking by, anticipating the mood boost this twirling totem grants me, desperate for any amount of color and life I could find. Shoulders hunched, squinting from the freezing rain, I looked into the car, but my spinning shrine was still; another joyful light snuffed out by the wet blanket that is a Scottish winter.

A dead battery, what a shame. I quickly dreamt up some Good Neighbor fantasy where I would leave a battery and a note in an envelope under the windshield wiper, telling my neighbor how much I enjoyed their trinket and that I’d be happy to subsidise its power needs. My neighbor would love this. It would make their day–no, their week, this small gesture of humanity, this pleasant reminder that real people are living real lives all around them. It would be the kind of sincere, anonymous connection with another human being that is all too rare in our atomized world.

My fantasy had obvious issues. For one, I had no idea what type of batteries the shrine used, or how well my neighbor reads English, if at all, in this predominantly Chinese immigrant neighborhood. And you can see the folly in leaving paper and ink outdoors in Scotland. I thought about leaving a few pounds in coins in an envelope in the hope my neighbor would intuit their purpose, or perhaps I would garnish the coins with a crude drawing of the shrine, just to make sure. But that raised the worry that they’d laugh at my earnest stupidity, pocket the money, even remove the shrine just to spite whichever rube believed their pathetic plan could work. Or the money would simply be stolen by a passer-by.

I eventually abandoned any idea of resurrecting the shrine and added this saga to the list of minor cruelties and petty disappointments that life flings at you. It could be worse, I thought; I still get to see it every day, and even stationary it’s pretty and nice. Maybe it’s better this way. Maybe so much movement inside of a parked car created an uneasy incongruence after all. Or hey, maybe the neighbor would eventually take time out of their busy, stressful life and replace the batteries.

I missed the spinning shrine.

A few days ago the winter broke like a fever and the sun shone weakly but satisfyingly. I was walking to fetch whatever unhealthy convenience I’d decided upon for lunch that day and turned onto the street where the car is parked, now facing directly into the sun. Squinting, I caught an old, familiar glint: the shrine, in all its kitschy splendor, spinning like it hadn’t spun in months, maybe ever, like it was about to break free from its mount and fly through the windshield. My heart leapt, but then I realized.

For months I’d walked by lamenting the dead batteries inside of a solar-powered shrine. For months I’d softly cursed my negligent neighbor for failing to provide the simple maintenance that wasn’t needed. For months I’d failed to understand that, like the human spirit, the shrine just died during the sunless winter.

Until my move to Glasgow two years ago, I had driven to any place that was further away than I could spit. Now, as a full-time pedestrian, I’m grateful to be able to walk everywhere, to enjoy the rhythms of the city, to rejoice in the small things, and to notice what an idiot I am.

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Giants World Series 2014 Preview

It’s an even-numbered year, Giants fans, so you know what that means: the Giants will win the World Series. How can I be sure? Simple. Imagine this were on a math test:

 2009, miss the playoffs; 2010, win the World Series; 2011, miss the playoffs; 2012, win the World Series; 2013, miss the playoffs; 2014, ________

Baseball is about statistics and this statistic is irrefutable. Since the start of the Posey Era (peace be upon him), the Giants win the World Series in every even year. So before we get to the formality that is the 2014 regular season, let’s take a look at the hitters that will be parading down Market Street in 7 months.

 C: Buster Posey

Buster isn’t merely first in the position numbering system, he’s first in our hearts. In the recent sham election for which player represents the Face of MLB, Buster lost, demonstrating that the moral arc of the universe still has quite a ways to bend. Buster is the face of the Giants, the face of MLB, maybe the face of all humanity. They don’t even play the national anthem at Giants games, they just show Buster on the jumbotron and everyone hears the song in their heads. What I’m saying is you just don’t get this kind of production from a catcher.

That Buster’s 2013 could be considered a down year, despite a .294/.371/.450 line and 4.8 fWAR, says it all. And yet compared to his 2012 MVP campaign, one of the all-time great catcher seasons, it was. His power was way down as he slugged 9 fewer home runs, a difference composed entirely of home runs off left-handed pitchers (he hit 11 homers against righties in both 2012 and 2013). This is bizarre in light of the Bondsian numbers he posted against southpaws in 2012, and seems attributable almost entirely to some wild variance in home runs per fly ball vs lefties, from an absurd 30.2% in 2012 to an equally absurd 7.1% in 2013. Obviously, Posey’s true talent lies somewhere between these two extremes, and I’m certain it’s closer to what he showed us in 2012. The real lesson here is that some wacky stuff can happen in only 180 PAs.

That’s the how of Buster’s power loss last year, but what’s unknown is the why. His second half of the season was completely miserable, with only 2 home runs and 9 extra-base hits in 228 PAs. It’s possible that fatigue was an issue, as he played deep into the postseason in 2012 after recovering from a catastrophic leg injury. But the guy is only 26 years old and was #MVPosey for much of last season, which makes me feel like his sudden inability to drive the ball was the result of some power-sapping injury the public was never made aware of. It isn’t uncharacteristic of the Giants to force a player to play through an injury, especially in a title defense season. Let’s hope they don’t do it in 2015.

The recipe for enjoying Buster Posey this year is the same as always: hope for health, sit back and enjoy one of the game’s best players. I’ll predict a .315/.403/.495 line, stellar defense, and a top-5 finish in MVP voting.

1B: Brandon Belt

Imagine trying to live up to your parents’ expectations when one of your brothers became President, one cured cancer, and another landed on the moon. Tough, right? It certainly was for Brandon Belt, who debuted in the majors for a fanbase utterly spoiled by the recent performances of their top prospects. When Belt only appeared in 63 lackluster games for the disappointing 2011 team, many were ready to call him a bust.

This continued into 2012, even though he finished the year with a 118 wRC+; solid, but not remarkable for the position. The power he flashed in the minors had yet to come, but his walk rate ticked up and strikeout rate fell. This wasn’t good enough for some. Through no fault of Belt’s own he became a kind of lightning rod in baseball’s culture war. See, the nerds loved him. He had that wonderful strike zone control and walk rate, and stats folk generally don’t care about strikeouts. And because the nerds loved Belt, the traditionalists couldn’t. They complained that he struck out too much, and that when he did, he petulantly slumped his shoulders. This wasn’t their grandfather’s kind of ballplayer, this was a modern, sissified Moneyball type. Belt didn’t care, he just went out and helped win a World Series.

In 2013 the nerds were vindicated, and after a slight mechanical tweak Belt made fairly early in the season, he finished with a tidy .289/.360/.481 line, which was good for a stellar 139 wRC+. Belt was quietly the team’s best hitter last year.

I don’t expect that to be the case in 2014, but only because Posey is going to be a monster and Belt will only be a monsterette. I appreciate projection systems and the work their creators put into them, but I think Belt is going to have a bigger year than his .264/.349/.441 ZiPS projection. He’s finally arrived and is going to showcase that in a big way this year, with a .280/.380/.495 line.

2B: Marco Scutaro

Remember when Freddy Sanchez dove for a grounder and fell into a sinkhole, never to be seen again, and the Giants were forced to roll out the likes of Mini Mike Fontenot, Jeff “Human Statue” Keppinger, and Emmanuel fucking Burriss? It was an ugly 2011 at the keystone for the Giants after their aging second baseman suffered a career-ending injury. Bad news for 2014: Marco Scutaro is 38 years old and, due to a bad back, managed only 2 ABs this spring, and will start the season on the DL with no clear timetable for his return. What a couple months ago looked like a solid 2-win position for the Giants now has serious black hole potential. Expect to see a revolving door of Joaquin Arias, Ehire Adrianza, and Brandon Hicks until Scutaro returns, if he even can. Best-case scenario is replacement-level play from that unholy utility triumvirate, with Scutaro able to start a rehab assignment as soon as his DL stint ends.

I’m pessimistic. With Scutaro’s age and the nature of his injury, there’s a real possibility this could be the end of the road for him. If he manages to play 100 games this year I’d be pleasantly surprised, with a likely outcome being a year spent endlessly rehabbing, a la Freddy Sanchez in 2012. If he can get on the field, he’ll be the same ol’ Marco, hitting .295/.345/.395.

3B: Pablo Sandoval

Before a sports fan makes fun of their significant other for reading a gossip magazine, they should remember that Pablo Sandoval’s weight is more widely reported and obsessed over than anyone on the cover of Us Weekly. The latest from the year-round Panda Fat Watch has his condition being downgraded from “Too Fat” to “Not That Fat (For Now)”. Barring a midseason extension, Sandoval will be a free agent this year, and so has millions of incentives to keep the pounds off.

There isn’t a clear correlation between his weight and offensive performance, because whatever his bust size, Sandoval can hit. He might have the best raw bat-to-ball skill of any player in the game, with plate coverage he leverages to often hilarious effect. Each year you’ll see Pablo get hits on pitches most other players wouldn’t even swing at, like 55-foot curves he’ll hit on the bounce, or doubles he’ll yank off his shoe tops. Part of you wishes he’d stop swinging at so many bad balls, but the other part enjoys it too much when it works out.

What’s up for debate regarding Sandoval is how well he mans third base. The consensus seems to be “average at best”, but he did put up some truly great defensive numbers in his famous slim year of 2011. Maybe it was single-season defense statistic anomaly or Panda simply being a better fielder with less mass to shift. Probably it’s both. I think Pablo is going to have a big walk year, hitting .308/.355/.500, showing some of the power he’s been missing the last few years, especially from the right-side, and playing average defense. His agent certainly hopes so.

SS: Brandon Crawford

Brandon Crawford is the kind of player all pitchers are happy to see. If your job is to get hitters out, Crawford can help, no matter which jersey you wear. He does it with the stick by being a pretty terrible hitter and he does it with the glove by being a pretty terrific fielder, and the latter is why the Giants are trotting him out there on Opening Day.

Nope, Crawford cannot hit. More specifically, he can kinda not hit against righties but he can really not hit against lefties, which is why the Giants have already announced that he’ll be platooning with Joaquin Arias this season. Being a lefty, Crawford will get most of the playing time, so he’ll have more opportunity to add value the only way he’s capable, with his glove. Arias is a statue at short and will give back most of the few runs he’s capable of producing at the plate. The two combined will hopefully prove average at hitting, with Crawford’s defense making the position something less than a complete disaster.

Protecting him from lefties will allow Crawford to put up the best slash line of his career, .255/.320/.375, with +10 runs on defense.

LF: Michael Morse/Gregor Blanco

Michael Morse will be standing in left field on Opening Day, but I list Gregor Blanco here as well since my limited capacity for optimism still has me wishing for an eventual platoon. In 2011, Morse was the kind of player all pitchers hated to see, slugging homers and booting grounders, an offensive powerhouse and a defensive outhouse. He hit .303/.360/.550 with 31 homers but twenty runs given back in the field. It was his first full season and he was 29 years old. Since then, he’s played in 190 games over two injury-plagued seasons and been completely terrible, batting .258/.299/.432, with a 5:1 K/BB ratio and defense that should’ve made him unplayable.

The Giants gave Morse six million dollars this year and a starting job in the hopes that he can get healthy and do what he did in 2011: pound the ball enough to make up for the fact he sometimes has to wear a glove. They’ll do what they did with Pat Burrell in 2010, which is give Morse three at-bats a game to run into one and then yank him for a defensive replacement, probably Gregor Blanco. But I’d like to see Blanco start against righties and only see Morse against lefties. Blanco has no power, but he can draw a walk and his defense is elite. He’s been the most valuable minor league free agent signing of the last two years because of that glove. Morse’s upside is something like .280/.330/.490 and a magical talisman to ward off fly balls; his downside is a huge, stinking crater where left field once was.

CF: Angel Pagan

I’m incredibly excited about the upcoming Field Tracking System for many reasons, but seeing Angel Pagan’s defense analyzed is a big one. See, I think it’s terrible, and the numbers mostly bear that out. He has pretty bad instincts, a terrible first step, and comical routes, but can survive out there on speed alone.

Luckily, when Pagan is healthy, he can hit. Last year a hamstring injury caused him to miss nearly half the season, but when he was on the field he was most of that stellar player from 2012, actually putting up an identical 114 wRC+ in both years. If his surgically-repaired hamstring allows him to rack up 600 PAs of similar production this year then the Giants will be in good shape. I’d be happy with a .280/.330/.415 line, solid baserunning, and merely below-average defense.

RF: Hunter Pence

Hunter Pence looks funny playing baseball but still does it well enough to have earned himself a 5-year, $90m contract. That contract begins this year, Pence’s age 31 season, and boy could it turn out ugly. I’m talkin’ Aaron Rowand ugly, which should scare and disgust anyone who wants to watch and enjoy Giants baseball.

It probably won’t end up that way, only because geez, how often can someone be as terrible as Aaron Rowand?

Pence keeps himself on the field, swings for the fences, and hustles like hell. He’s fun to watch when his herky-jerky style produces, which I expect it to this year. I was wrong about Pence last year, seeing his miserable 2012 as the start of a precipitous decline. It looks more like an odd blip, as Pence was terrific in 2013. He’s going to hit .285/.350/.490 this year, even better than last year, with not-terrible defense and good baserunning.

*    *    *

No one’s ever accused me of being overly optimistic, but I feel like the Giants offense is going to be pretty damn good this year. Good enough to win the World Series, I mean. Since I provided raw batting line predictions and not park- and league-adjusted stats, it’s important to remember that in AT&T Park, in 2014, a slugging percentage near .500 is tremendous, and a .330 on-base percentage for an up-the-middle defender is extremely solid. The season will hinge, like last year, on the pitching staff, which right now is looking like Bumgarner and Cain and pray for rain. But since it’s an even year, expect big things from Hudson and Lincecum, and Vogelsong to be a serviceable fifth starter. Can’t wait to see who will win World Series MVP.

 

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Mouse Jockeys

In the realm of benignly contentious conversation topics, “The Definition of Sport” is a personal favorite. People have strong opinions about it, as they do about most things categorical, and the discussion can be fairly revealing. It isn’t a stretch to say that you can plumb the depths of a person’s tolerance, even magnanimity, by asking them if some marginal competitive pursuit counts as a sport.

To sports fans, the designation of “sport” is an honorific. It’s a word that immediately brings to mind things like discipline, grace, and fairness. “Sportsmanship” is a quality anyone would be proud to be told they embody. It’s this lofty status of the word “sport” which means its use is fiercely guarded; like any descriptor, if it’s used too liberally its meaning will be diluted. The result is that people withhold the title “sport” in order to denigrate things they don’t like or don’t understand, often dismissing them as mere games, the crucial logic being that all sports are games, but not all games are sports. Games are a hell of a thing to be; they’re considered frivolous or silly, something for children. Taking a game too seriously is as shameful as not taking a sport seriously enough. In contrast to sportsmanship, “gamesmanship” is a hissed epithet.

I use a very broad definition of sport, and it’s probably down to my wanting to legitimize a lifelong passion for competitive video games. If it’s competitive and requires some physical prowess, I’m comfortable calling it a sport*, which encompasses video games nicely since competitive gaming at the highest levels requires unbelievable hand-eye coordination and reaction time, along with all the strategic thinking other sports require. In those two ways hitting a baseball and besting an opponent in my current favorite game, League of Legends, are more similar than most people think. For some the litmus test for a sport seems to involve a certain level of muscle mass or average heart rate, and things insufficiently athletic are discredited. But fine-tuned fast-twitch muscles surely count as much as bulging biceps, don’t they? And what if your heart rate is spiked from focus and pressure and not out of some aerobic necessity?

*I realized writing this that my definition must include something I find morally repugnant: competitive eating. It displays feats of human ability that beggar belief, and requires intense training, and if the capacity to ingest 70 hot dogs is a genetic gift, it’s no more one than being able to throw a baseball 95mph. Having to acknowledge professional gluttony as a sport in the name of epistemic consistency gives me heartburn.

Many of the arguments I hear against certain things being considered sports, from golf to auto racing to video games, stem from a failure to imagine the physical basis of the amazing performances on display. The level of fitness necessary for F1 drivers to endure a race would tax the leader of the peloton, and the reaction time and vision required of League of Legends pros would humble Peyton Manning.

As I’ve already argued, sheer physical difficulty isn’t the ultimate criterion for calling something a sport, but I think it can still be instructive, and one of the best ways to determine physical difficulty is by looking at a sport’s aging curve. It’s widely accepted that the human body peaks athletically in a person’s early-to-mid 20s, but for some sports the effects can be ameliorated or even negated by superior experience or knowledge. A 30-year-old pitcher may not have the raw stuff he had at 24, but he knows better how to attack a hitter and exploit their weaknesses. Likewise, a 40-year-old NASCAR driver isn’t likely to outpace their younger opponent, but experience will give them an edge in car management and see that it lasts the race.

There are sports, however, that have such severe physical demands that no amount of experience will help an older participant remain competitive against young up-and-comers. Gymnastics comes to mind, with athletes peaking in their teens, as well as sport stacking, which is essentially dominated by children. League of Legends and other competitive video games may have a similarly steep aging curve, with geriatric 24-year-olds outgunned at every turn by lightning-quick teenagers. And while it’s possible the drinking-age retirement ceremonies are the result of a sport that draws its players from an adolescent base, having played the game and seen what pros can do, I think it’s more likely a function of the incredible physical demands. I have to accept that no matter how much I practice, my advanced age of 29 leaves me with no potential for greatness.

Not that League of Legends is hurting for greatness. Four nights a week the best talent in North America and Europe is on display in a professional league, the LCS (League Championship Series) run by the game’s developer, Riot. Hundreds of thousands tune in to watch the matches, played in front of live audiences full of fans wearing their favorite team’s merchandise. Players are signed by teams, receive salaries, coaching, and live together in team houses where they practice every day. There are sponsors, ads, referees and broadcasters, player meet-and-greets with souvenir photos and autographs, and all the other trappings of professional sports. Foreign players are even granted the same US athlete visas as competitors in “real” sports.

Despite everything in professional League of Legends (and other games, like Starcraft II) that is reminiscent of mainstream sports, if you were to poll the large League of Legends fanbase on Reddit, for example, plenty of people would still insist on a distinction being made. Fans, and Riot, are comfortable with the designation “eSport”, and maybe that will always be the case. But as viewership numbers and production budgets rise, it all starts to feel like special pleading to keep competitive gaming in its own unique category. All I can say is that when I have an LCS match on one screen and an MLB game on the other, the differences to me are of degree and not type.

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